Stage

Beverly's Party
Abigail's Party. By Mike Leigh. Directed by Tom Ross. Starring Susan Marie Brecht, Don Weingust, Lura Dolas, Philip Stockton, and Jessica Powell. Presented by the Aurora Theater at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth) in Berkeley, through May 3. Call 843-4822.

So far this season the Aurora Theater's plays have all been set in the 1800s, so the furniture has been sumptuous, musty, polished, and dark. But Abigail's Party leaps into the 1970s living room of an Englishwoman called Beverly Moss, who lives with her whipped husband Laurence among orange-toned wall hangings and chrome (or plastic?) shelves. An audience member last week was overheard saying, "This is nothing like their other shows," and cosmetically, no, it isn't. But the glaring set makes the play's black satire of its time and place all the blacker.

The show's really about two parties. Abigail, in the title, is a teen-ager who has compelled her mother to leave their apartment long enough to throw a raucous party. The mother, Sue, is the last guest to arrive at the other party, Beverly's adult booze-and-hors d'oeuvres affair, where things are not raucous at all but rather awkward, caught as they are between that dismal nether world of the baby-boomer late '70s and Mike Leigh's harsh fictional eye (Secrets & Lies, Naked).

Abigail never steps onstage: Her party works as a subtext to Beverly's. Sometimes we hear music and shouting, since Abigail's party is in the same apartment block, and Sue's long, divorce-weathered, unhip face looks harried all the way through. Beverly is younger-seeming, fashionable, with a bright dress that matches her wall hangings. The Generation Gap was a big '70s theme, and that particular fault line runs through Beverly's living room. Her husband is a square, suited eviction attorney with a taste for books and Beethoven; Beverly is a social butterfly. She says, "Great," in a nasal voice and keeps the guests well-supplied with drinks, fluttering here and there as the self-conscious center of a group that doesn't seem able or willing to deal with pain.

Most of Mike Leigh's scripts are cuttingly realistic, but this show seems more cartoonish than his movies or even the version of Ecstasy that played recently at the Speakeasy Theater. Maybe Susan Marie Brecht has too much fun playing Beverly to the hilt or maybe Leigh had too much fun writing her; in any case the show is artificial and heightened compared to the rest of Leigh's work. But still fun. Brecht does a fine, breezy job as Beverly; Philip Stockton is also good as the large and sullen guest Tony, who flirts with Beverly and infuriates Laurence. The talk in Abigail's Party keeps circling back to marriage -- as the talk has in every Aurora show this season -- and it's interesting to see hints of a master plan behind the outrageous shift in furniture.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Impermanent Art
Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, on the UC Berkeley campus, April 3-4. Call (510) 642-9988.

In the early '50s, Merce Cunningham wrote a few essays with simple and definitive titles ("The Impermanent Art," "Space, Time and Dance," etc.) that made claims at once modest and grand for dance: Dancing, he said, "is a spiritual exercise in physical form. ... [W]hat is seen is what it is ... a visible action of life." In two of the six works the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed at Zellerbach Hall earlier this month, he showed us what he meant.

Cunningham's revived masterpiece Sounddance (1974) begins when the Christo-like curtain spanning the stage parts and Robert Swinston hurtles into view. He's the first of 10 dancers to suddenly materialize; the dance is a process of arrival. The dancers enter at intervals and fall directly into asymmetrical clusters of activity. All over the stage at different tempos, but mainly fast, they dance circles, seaweed-armed love piles, cartwheels, seesaw hops from one extended leg to the other, and loopy lifts where one dancer is swung through the air by five. A David Tudor score unattached to the choreography pings, chirps, swishes, whirs, and chugs. As dancers continue to arrive, we become acutely aware of the present, as if we were arriving. "In the beginning was the sounddance," James Joyce writes in Finnegans Wake. Cunningham has shown it to us.

Its warm, liquid tone invoked by the earth-colored sea-forest vines that hang in the background, Ground Level Overlay (1995) luxuriates in the complex patterning of Cunningham's later work: the latticework of bodies on bodies; one dancer delicately shadowing another's clear, planar, hyperextended motion; and the constant exits and entrances -- in threes, twos, fours, fives, or solo -- that are the heart of Cunningham's gorgeously impermanent art.

The dancers perform Overlay with unusual feeling. Stuart Dempster's underwater trombone music -- like moaning sea lions and Gregorian chants -- must have gotten the better of them. Cunningham has said that dancers' bodies should be "flexible steel," yet also have that "abandon ... that allows you to be human." Most of his technically stunning dancers stick to a blandified version of steel: well-pointed toes, dead torsos, and lonely-making blankness. Perhaps the Cunningham proscription against projecting any kind of sentiment onto movement has restrained the dancers from expressing what resides inside it. Or maybe the problem rests with the choreography. With the quietest of Eno and Eno-esque scores as ambience, Windows, Pond Way, Scenario, and Rondo employ awkward shuffles, long frozen poses, mannequin arms that counter the direction of the torso (unlike former Cunningham arms, which lay so flat on the back they floated upward), and rhythms that reject human time. Cunningham's pure art refuses anything but the dancing itself as the source of its weight or power; the dancer in the dance has to be alive for his art to survive.

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