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Wednesday, Mar 25 1998
Ecstasy. "Devised" by Mike Leigh. Directed by Helen James. Starring Sandie Armstrong, William Waghorn, and Beth Donohue. At the Speakeasy Theater, 2016 Seventh St. (at University), Berkeley, through April 4. Call (510) 798-1300.

The title of this play is easy to forget. Why Ecstasy? It's a realistic slice of London life in 1979, complete with a contemporary soundtrack -- Bowie, Lennon, Lou Reed, Squeeze -- and vaguely unsatisfied people who fuck and chatter and drink. Nothing about it is ecstatic. No one is even looking for ecstasy; although Jean, the heroine, could use some companionship. The title is ironic, probably, but the irony is so sarcastic and hollow it doesn't stick in the mind, as if Mike Leigh stepped back from his characters in disgust and decided to call the play what it was not. Agony would be more like it, since the end is so beautifully agonizing, but that title wouldn't sell so many tickets.

The story follows a lonely woman, Jean, in almost real time. She starts the play naked, with a sullen man who turns out to be the husband of a woman from the same neighborhood. When that woman discovers their affair she trashes Jean's apartment, and later that evening three old friends come over to help fix Jean's broken bed. It turns into a party, and the halting chemistry between Jean and a gentle, nerdish man called Len moves things forward. It sounds slight on paper, but the illusion in most of Mike Leigh's scripts is one of absolute realism: When it works you really believe you're watching a group of people doing what people naturally do in a room. And Ecstasy is so artfully constructed sometimes the dialogue is just meaningless chatter in the right British tone; but the portrait of Jean that emerges is vivid and emotionally raw. She's played with long, nicely felt silences here by Sandie Armstrong; and the rest of the cast supports her brilliantly -- especially Will Waghorn as the sullen lover, and Beth Donohue, who whirls through the play like a Tasmanian devil as Jean's loud, tasteless, insufferable friend.

They warn you at the beginning that the actors will smoke herbal cigarettes during the play. This is an understatement. The show is populated with chain-smokers who puff like oil refineries. The cigarettes are presumably herbal to keep from turning the actors' lungs black during the run; with a Berkeley-ish delicacy, the publicist announces that herbal cigarettes don't cause cancer. ("So please don't panic," he says.) I thought the theater was becoming a haven for liberated indoor smoking, because aside from this show there's been no lack of honest smoke being inhaled by actors since the first of the year. Are these herbal cigarettes somehow a product of California's anti-smoking mood? If so they're a distracting choice, because they smell like burning string.

-- Michael Scott Moore

From Sound to Silence
San Francisco Performances presents Wim Vandekeybus' Seven for a Secret Never to Be Told. Performed by Ultima Vez. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard (at Third Street), through March 29. Call 392-4400.

In 1987, at age 23, Wim Vandekeybus, unknown and untrained in dance, made a sudden mark on the New York downtown dance scene. That year, he won a Bessie Award for choreography and drew attention to experimental choreographers back in his native Belgium. "There are four of us," he said in recent phone conversation. "We meet each other everywhere."

Eleven years later, he remains in restless motion. Presently touring worldwide with his company, Ultima Vez, he's also putting together a theater piece, a feature film, and an exhibition of his photography. "When I'm at the airport and have to fill out a form," he said, "I always put a different occupation: dancer, choreographer, photographer. I don't know what identity I have."

His dance-theater is also a montage -- of film, pure theater, and movement unstoppably propelled toward fearless risk. "My work is not a house constructed with all the same stones," he said. "Like languages here in Belgium" -- Vandekeybus speaks six -- "the materials are much more mixed, open, schizophrenic. But they're telling one story."

This year's Seven for a Secret Never to Be Told cuts from blistering sound to silence, and from bodies heavily thrown to bodies suddenly still. The effect is surreal, bewildering, and fascinating. The work's story (if one can call it that) derives from an Irish counting rhyme about magpies: "1 for sorrow/ 2 for joy/ 3 for a girl/ 4 for a boy/ 5 for silver/ 6 for gold/ 7 for a secret never to be told." The dance consists of seven sections, each with a distinct score by a different contemporary composer and with featured performers, who manifest in elusive form sorrow, joy, girl, boy, and so forth in turn.

Vandekeybus, who often develops his ideas from text -- stories, nursery rhymes, or his own snatches of lyric -- came upon this ditty when an Irish dancer of his saw a magpie. "She spit on her hand and said, 'Good morning, sir. Good morning, madam. And wonderful sorrow.' 'What are you doing?' I asked. 'I have to spit to annihilate the power of the animal,' she answered. 'And then I have to greet the animal in masculine and feminine because you don't know if it's male or female.' And she told me about this rhyme." The choreographer is fascinated by the way superstitions reveal opposite desires. People want to resolve the unexplainable and have it remain undisclosed; this second wish is why mystical incantations and practices so often involve animals: "An animal keeps its secret."

His art attempts the same. "That the work fascinate, move, seduce the viewer is more important than that it explain," he said. "My work has a hidden story. The viewer gets a lot of ideas, but the circle is not closed. I don't explain the secret. I do the opposite in fact. I ask a question. I implode." Though he uses many media, Vandekeybus thinks movement is closest to the questioning and instinctual character he identifies with art. "Movement is on the way to something else. It's a kind of searching." He added, "One of the first things to interest me about it was the impulse, the reflex, the uncontrolled thing."

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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