Shooting at the Converted
Combat! An American Melodrama. Written and directed by John Fisher. Starring Fisher, Christopher Herold, Gary Cannon, Jeffrey Fierson, Jana Chavez, and Brian Yates. At the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (at Capp), through March 14. Call 621-7797.

Gore Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, struck the critics at the New York Times as a pretty good story about sailors in World War II. But when Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a book that showed the same class of all-American boys having sex with each other, in 1948, he was excommunicated from its pages, and the Times deliberately failed to review his next six novels. Sex among American soldiers was even more unacceptable then than it is now; so John Fisher's new stage extravaganza, Combat!, is doing a kind of public service. It's reminding (generally gay-friendly) San Francisco that some of the most heroic members of the American armed forces during World War II were probably queer. It doesn't do much else, unfortunately, so in light of all the shit Vidal took for his novel I can't give Fisher points for serving the common good. The day for surprising audiences with this material has passed.

If Combat! could stand on its own, it wouldn't matter. If it had a memorable and moving story, vivid characters, chemistry between the lovers, even an ounce of humanity to balance the relentless and didactic dialogue about the situation of gay and black kids Back Then, I wouldn't even mention that this ground has already been covered. But supporting the cause of gays in the military seems to be the raison d'étre of the show.

Fisher has set out to write an anti-South Pacific, by giving a central story about a catastrophic island invasion (based on true events in the Tarawa atoll) a stagy, political twist, in the style of Angels in America or Robert O'Hara's Insurrection (recently at the ACT). This makes it trendy. Combat! does have its own pleasures -- especially Fisher's distractingly funny performance as the Marine CO; the stately and plump Jeffrey Fierson in almost all his roles, from the pettish librarian to a drag queen named Gory Gloria Hallelujah; and most of the scenes of war. But not one character has real depth. What happens to the Marine heroes caught kissing while they're on leave in San Francisco has no personal resonance for the Marines themselves -- it's all public, political. This failure of character explains why the last half of the show is so thin. The script finishes with slogans like "Only when they're able to call themselves gay will they be able to demand their rights," and musings about a more tolerant world to come. It all sounds suspiciously like self-pity.

The show admits to being a melodrama, and its contents aren't wrong; the home-front story of Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan, who inadvertently pushed the government to consider homosexuality a psychiatric "disease" among the troops, is even interesting. The sum total just isn't good art. Plays that walk a politically correct line are guaranteed a standing ovation if they step neatly enough, and Combat! walks it in choicest black and white. Eisenhower's 1950s were a gray oppressive time; the U.S. as a nation is bigoted -- these media-ready ideas are never questioned or tested for meaning, because they're part of an orthodoxy, and the people applauding on their feet don't seem to care how you express yourself as long as they hear the right words.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Around the Block
Joy Ride. Written by Greg Sarris. Directed by Margo Hall. Starring Luis Saguar, Sean San Jose, Cristina Frias, Tony Abou-Ganim, Michelle Groves, and Michael Torres. Presented by Campo Santo and Word for Word at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through March 1. Call 626-3311.

Form-busting theater is as ubiquitous as biscotti these days. From ACT's opulent Insurrection (a multiethnic postmodern fantasia) to the Red Rocket's squalid Monkey Holiday (a dada puppet show with slides, film, and music) -- smashing and unconventional collaboration is thriving at all levels of the thespian caste system. Although the solo show is one of the most fertile strains of contemporary theater as a whole, individual pieces rarely cope well with mixed media. When an artist seeks uniqueness in multiplicity and juxtaposition alone, chaos is too often the result. It's like TV static -- fractured, inchoate, and finally boring.

Joy Ride, Word for Word and Campo Santo's collaborative production of a story out of Greg Sarris' novel Grand Avenue, might have suffered many of the pitfalls of hybrid theater. This three-way collaboration among two theater companies and a novelist was done Word for Word style, as a verbatim theatrical interpretation of an unadapted short story -- in this production, actors spoke their characters' dialogue and traded off narration. The story's multicultural setting -- a Portuguese/Indian/black neighborhood in Santa Rosa -- could have easily fallen prey to identity politicking. But this was an experiment that worked, one that wove its many elements into a dense, narrative rope that yanked us past the play's unusual formal surface, deep into the story itself.

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