Utopian Terrain
Scratch. Created and performed by Harriet Dodge, Shannon McGuire, Miranda Mellis, and Alessandra Ogren. Live music by Carolyn Cooley, Stormy Knight, Alicia McCarthy, and Caroline Shanti. At Somar Gallery, 943 Brannan (at Eighth Street), May 29-31. Call 550-6928.

"What could we imagine possible, faced with re-creating society from scratch?" is the grandiose premise of Scratch, the latest performance art piece at Somar Gallery. But Scratch turns out differently: no pretentious diatribe on Society-with-an-abstract-S, but an intimate story and a huge work. A deep, dense "dent in the karmic fender" (to steal a phrase from the show), the piece starts with details from the pit of its characters' experiences and travels toward a small, sober hope.

Scratch interweaves floor-bound dance patterns; simple partnering; sensual, slow acrobatics on high, netless trapezes; and the questing monologues of four distinct characters. A band made up of accordions, banjo, bass, and trumpet calls up the sad twang of a Gypsy circus wandering in a wheat field. The performers' reflections swerve away from cliche. "It's liberating to remember my death," explains an old Jewish lady. "I think, 'I'm gonna die -- why not write a book?' " At another point, an adulteress admits, "I want to be a prayer. Maybe guilt is a prayer too."

Most radiant with pathos is Richie, played by Harriet Dodge -- co-owner of the Bearded Lady Women's Cafe. Confiding in his companion Bobby, played by a hefty sack of flour sitting attentively in a chair next to him, Richie ruminates about "the boatman," a figure rich in mythic significance whom he depicts in exact, mundane, and wrenching detail: "There he is. Look at him -- he looks so tired, Bobby. Look at his chin -- y'ever see a chin look so goddamn sad? And look at his big fingers, all red and yellow. I never noticed that before. They're kinda indoor fires."

Dodge is deep and lonely and warm. Her pacing and sadness call to mind Harvey Keitel or Otis Redding at their aching best, except her interior is larger. She performs what many of us want -- to stay inside the lair of our hearts and come out when we feel like it -- but haven't found the courage for. Dodge carries the work into utopian terrain. Trapeze artists Mellis and Ogren -- languidly tangling their bodies in knots high off the warehouse floor -- illustrate what grace in living would mean, the band gives the work the glow of memory, the other characters use probing words to reconfigure taken-for-granted pain, but the beautiful bearded lady kneads our crusty hearts as if she were starting us over from scratch.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Big Ben
Ben Franklin: Unplugged. Written and performed by Josh Kornbluth. Directed by David Dower. At UCSF's Gershwin Theater, 2350 Turk (at Masonic), through June 28. Call 392-4400.

Josh Kornbluth has been developing Ben Franklin: Unplugged in front of paying audiences since late last autumn, rambling with a microphone about his resemblance to the old bourgeois rebel, about Franklin's testy relationship with his son, about his own (Kornbluth's) communist parents, and about anything else that came into his head -- until he found a nice coda or until audiences got visibly impatient. Now the show has shape and something resembling a point. He does look like Franklin, at least with his glasses on, but he makes it clear from the beginning that the show will not be a Chatauqua-style reimagining of Ben Franklin's voice and manner, like Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain. In fact, he isn't very good at mimicking voice and manner. The best reason to see Kornbluth at any stage in the evolution of his monologues is that he can be so funny, and in that respect Unplugged is not a letdown.

Franklin was a mild-mannered inventor and citizen with cruel and fanatical feelings toward both the British empire and his son. William Franklin, it seems, was royal governor of New Jersey, something that didn't offend his father until around 1771, when Ben decided that London dignitaries weren't treating the colonies (and specifically him) with respect. William refused to give up his governorship to support his father's revolution because he thought the people weren't "mature enough" to govern themselves, and for his intransigence he served a jail term. The elder Franklin even refused to let William out to attend the funeral of his wife. "He's my enemy now," he wrote. Kornbluth recounts not just this interesting history but also the story of how he came across the details -- down to an Internet search, which is not as interesting -- and a few parallels with his own father, who was more revolutionary than Kornbluth. This last part would be interesting if it were more complete, but possibly because all of Kornbluth's previous monologues have dealt with his father, he's resisted revisiting the old material. He ends with what might almost be a father-son reconciliation, but, without the details of his family saga, the last words feel like a punch line rather than the resonating conclusion the show deserves.

Still, Kornbluth's damn funny. His riffs on kite-flying and a series of spots he taped for MSNBC as Ben-Franklin-the-cheerful-icon are very good. Last November, when Kornbluth was still improvising his material, if anything he was funnier, because he felt free to ramble and draw out his riffs to ridiculous lengths. This show is easier on the audience, but no more profound; the pleasure is still in the process of watching Kornbluth work.

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