Trouble at the Brady Street Dance Center
A bitter dispute among the principals of the Brady Street Dance Center threatens to destroy what in just three years has become the city's most inviting venue for dance.

In 1996, the center, then just a dance studio, added a performance space. Drawn by cheap rental rates, choreographers came running; a sizable audience followed quickly behind. Located just off Market and Van Ness, the theater is easy to get to, has a cozy cafe next door, and great sightlines. Dynamic and gregarious dance veteran Krissy Keefer provided the women-oriented programming, bringing together mature and fledgling artists of ballet and modern dance and providing them with pristine lighting and sound. Her reputation and the center's inviting atmosphere also attracted a wide span of adventurous dance groups to fill out the calendar.

So local dancers and choreographers were dismayed when word got out about the center's current crisis. Keefer, sound technician Matthew DeGumbia, and lighting designer Joe Williams have left, taking their sound and lighting equipment with them. Questions about why they left, whether they'll return, and under what conditions were enough to prompt Executive Director Keli Fine -- who holds the center's lease -- to call a meeting. On Saturday, March 7, a few dozen people showed up, including Fine, Keefer, several of those who had worked most closely with the latter, and interested choreographers and dancers.

Fine had hired Keefer in 1996 to run the space as she took a leave of absence. There was no job description, nor a contract. When Fine returned, Keefer felt increasingly hassled by her supervision; Fine found "there wasn't really a place for me anymore." Without a formal agreement in place, they were forced to fall back on getting along. And they didn't.

At the meeting, Fine gave a short introduction, but didn't in fact answer many questions. Keefer's main point was that, given the work she and the technicians had put into the center, they deserved a fair compensation if they were no longer going to be working there. And many participants praised the center and the essential work Keefer, DeGumbia, and Williams had done to create it; many made vague pleas that they and Fine "heal their differences." But the call for peaceful resolution was drowned out by the rancor directed at Fine by Keefer's closest allies: They engaged in threats ("I will do whatever I can to make your life miserable"); hyperbolic charges ("There are four of the seven deadly sins at work here, and I will mention two of them ..."); rueful prophecies ("All of you have been fucked over by Keli and her inability to reach a negotiation. You'll see that in short time"); misplaced political polemic ("You are the landlord"); extortive bullying ("If the space doesn't make it as a dance space, are you, Keli, willing to commit in public to handing the first option to own the lease over to Krissy?"); and, when this unremitting barrage finally rendered Fine unable to speak, insults ("You have portrayed yourself as a victim all fucking day").

While Brady Street's reigning anarchy was partially responsible for the present debacle, it also enabled Keefer, DeGumbia, and Williams to make the center a jewel of Bay Area dance. Without checks and balances to hinder them, their considerable vision and energy operated at full throttle. Local dancers trusted that if Keefer, in particular, were involved, then Brady Street was a good place for them to perform. The center's tiny board is now assembling an impartial, or at least non-abusive, advisory committee to help them decide how to proceed. A formal structure that both ignites its directors' energies and passions and minimizes the effect of their lapses in judgment ought to be on the agenda.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Two by Pinter
The Dumb Waiter and Victoria Station. By Harold Pinter. Directed by John Warren. Starring John Schumacher and Lawrence Motta. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Turk), through April 7. Call 673-3847.

The Dumb Waiter, one of Harold Pinter's first plays, leans so heavily on Waiting for Godot it's fun to count the references. 1) The characters -- Cockney-speaking British prole Gus and Windsor-knotted snob Ben -- are a simpleton and a sophisticate; 2) At the beginning, Gus has an absurd amount of trouble getting into his footwear; and 3) A man who never shows his face but seems to have some control over the two characters' lives keeps them waiting and sometimes just sends a message. "Throughout the play," critic John Simon once wrote, "one is acutely conscious of Pinter waiting for Beckett to write him some better lines."

It's true that most of the writers (Pinter, Shepard, Albee, Stoppard) who made their midcentury reputations by walking in the footsteps of Beckett and Pirandello seem a little thin compared to their masters; but Pinter, when he's well played, is still a good night out. The Dumb Waiter shows two hit men waiting for instructions on a vague assignment in what looks like a flophouse but turns out to be the kitchen basement of a cafe. They have outrageous arguments with social-class overtones ("How can you light a kettle?" "It's a figure of speech! Light the kettle." "I've never heard it") until a dumbwaiter squeaks down from the upper floor with orders for food. They realize, slowly, that something isn't right upstairs, and the final order reveals that Ben is supposed to shoot Gus. It's like a Beckett play with all the despair taken out and replaced by proselytizing on the class war; but the dialogue is sharp and funny, and the two actors in this production, Lawrence Motta and John Schumacher, do an especially good job of rendering (respectively) Ben's high-bred standoffishness and Gus' potbellied insouciance.

The Dumb Waiter is only an hour long; the Exit fills out the evening with Victoria Station, a Pinter skit about a cab driver in London who seems lost not only in space but in time. The dispatcher wants him to pick up a well-paying fare at Victoria Station, but the driver stays parked near Crystal Palace Park, where he says he can see the actual palace, which burned in the Great Fire of London in 1936. He also has a woman in the back seat, sleeping, and claims he's fallen in love. Schumacher and Motta are just as good here -- accents and all -- in two English roles very different from Gus and Ben; the skit is tightly paced and all its funny lines land. But the core of the play feels just as insubstantial as The Dumb Waiter's, as if Pinter's mind and wit were engaged but his soul had gone on vacation.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Fowl Play
The Birds. By Aristophanes, adapted by John Glore and Culture Clash. Directed by Mark Rucker. Starring Culture Clash (Herbert Siguenza, Richard Montoya, and Ric Salinas) and Victor Mack. Presented by the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through April 25. Call (510) 845-4700.

It's too bad that everything in The Birds doesn't work as well as the costumes. Shigeru Yaji, costume designer to this adaptation of Aristophanes' fifth-century B.C. comedy, feathers his birds in a potluck of found objects. Athletic cups form beaks, toilet-seat covers flush out a flash of red breast, baseball pennants fill a wingspan, turkey basters and badminton shuttlecocks shape the plumes of birds in the chorus. This cultural bric-a-brac mirrors the slew of contemporary references that put the play in a modern context. One-liners about Princess Diana, Taco Bell, and Jenny Jones abound, but the wit is rarely as original as Yaji's costumes. A shower curtain is clever given new purpose as a messenger bird's wings, but a joke about El Nino is still just a joke about the weather.

So much of the play's original humor is of its time that the punch lines require footnotes, so the Willie Brown quips are necessary and justified. But the Berkeley Rep version stays faithful to the original script with its stock characters, the chorus (a rock band), and bad puns. The dystopia is moved from Athens to the East Bay. Dissatisfied buddies Foxx and Gato (neither of whom you'd want to guard your chicken coop) are certain there must be someplace better. Clever Foxx convinces the birds of the Earth to build a wall across the sky, separating the co-dependent humans and gods and allowing the birds to get rich as middlemen. The plan is to create a perfect republic, but as soon as the wall is finished, Foxx turns dictatorial and the humans start arriving. Foxx and Gato can't escape their social context of racial stereotypes, nasty government institutions, and Big Brother corporations. Indian grocers, Japanese tourists, real estate agents, and Starbucks cafes follow them to their new land.

Unfortunately, the adaptation waffles getting to this comic climax, plugging in useless character development and choral songs as filler. The history of Hoopoe, the human king cursed into birdness by the gods after he raped his sister-in-law and cut out her tongue, is missing in Aristophanes. Author John Glore writes the tale back in; it's a considerate nod to the rich history of the play, but too weighty for the comic mood. Hoopoe's costume says enough, with its sagging black and white balloons hung from his jumpsuit like sickly scrotum. The musical overture, playing as the audience enters, sounds like Bruce Willis' Return of Bruno textured with chick chirping. Several more marginal numbers are performed in an attempt to give the chorus of birds presence when all they need to be is part of the scenery. Again, the costumes have accomplished that.

After a half-hour of Sesame Street jingles, The Birds shifts into vaudevillian shtick and finally takes off. A Mexican border runner, Chunky, tries to pimp audience members off as cheap immigrant labor. John Lennon, Emilio Zapata, and Mother Teresa, members of a delegation sent by the gods, turn in a creditable Marx Brothers routine. The Birds is the latest project from the three-man Hispanic performance group that calls itself Culture Clash, and when the cultural stereotypes collide the show is funny and fast. Culture Clash tries hard to make light of racism, immigration, and the strip-malling of America as much as make a point about the issues. But The Birds isn't always clever enough to succeed. It's a good effort, but if the Berkeley Rep production was entered in competition, as Greek festival comedies were, it wouldn't do better than the rank given to the debut production of The Birds -- second place.

-- Julie Chase

The Green-Eyed Monster
Duty Free. Written and performed by David Mills. Directed by Danny Scheie. Video by Please Louise Productions. At Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), March 5-15. Call 626-3311.

David Mills has a problem with our appetite for sensationalism. From the histrionics of the national TV news to the "underwear plays" of his fellow gay-theater artists, no one is left unscathed in his latest show, Duty Free. Mills builds the work around two dueling narratives: one, the realistic monologue about a bad love affair in San Francisco, the other, a Pynchon-esque tale about Helvetica Bold, a woman who becomes a national media idol when her dog dies of secondhand smoke.

In the opening scene, Mills tosses his wiry frame into a patio chair and vividly describes an all-American family of nicotine addicts posing for a Flag Day picnic photo. Accompanied by pianist David Buuck's cleverly allusive score, and Please Louise Productions' motley video imagery, Mills narrates Helvetica Bold's rise to stardom after her hair catches on fire that sunny summer day. From Connie Chung's insomnia to Loretta Swift's prescient call to her agent, Mills embodies a host of media personalities with quick voguing gestures and machine-gun-fire delivery. Throughout the show, director Danny Scheie's impeccable comic timing shines through Mills' movements.

From this surreal media fantasia, Mills shifts to a seemingly autobiographical mode. When Jesse, his boyfriend, tells David that he just "doesn't feel the attraction anymore," David shoots back, "Fuck you. How would you like to be in traction?" Gay life in San Francisco comes to life as a series of vapid club scenes, porno-driven theater pieces, and a prevailing sense of loneliness: Summing it up, Mills says, "I'm in a city full of gay men who all want to be in a relationship." Though insider critiques of gay culture aren't hard to find, Mills sometimes distinguishes himself by his willingness to be viciously specific and specifically vicious. In describing an "urban primitive" performer who recounts his sexual experiences with men from different cultures, Mills quips: "It was supposed to be about race. All I learned was that everybody's the same with Keith Hennessy's dick up their butt." (Hennessy is a local dancer, performer, political activist, and longtime fixture of the anarchist queer scene.)

The 90-minute show is united by this theme: Mills thinks we use lurid tales to cover up our isolation. He's pissed about it. Mixing energetic bravado with adolescent vitriol, his words spray like battery acid over the audience -- eliciting as many winces as laughs. But such clear invective comes with a strange price. His high-flown cultural critiques are in one important sense a thin disguise for a surprisingly petty personal plight. After "the show" ends and Mills takes his bow, he launches into an exquisite rant about how his performances have never gotten a review; local critics, he says, are too busy covering shows by "ex-porn stars." Midtirade, he breaks into an abstruse lounge act, singing "how hard it is to be green." Is the whole show actually about envy? I suddenly wondered. Does Mills despise tabloid culture because it debases us -- or because he's losing press to the chiseled hunks at New Conservatory Theater? It's an unsavory moment of truth.

Anyone who has been close to a struggling actor has witnessed thespian-envy's leechlike drain on the artist's pure heart, but rarely do audiences get a glimpse of it onstage doing its ugly thing on the performer in real time. But here's the weird thing: This display of self-pity was the most riveting moment of the show. It actually worked. Complaining about reviews is a funnel-minded reason to make art, and I wouldn't want to see it again soon, but Mills was refreshing in his willingness to reveal the tainted underside of his scorn for fame.

-- Carol Lloyd

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