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Wednesday, Jul 1 1998
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Street Level
Monster Trucks. Choreographed and performed by Steamroller. Costumes by Donovan Thompson. Music by James Finnerty. At various parking lots in S.F. throughout the month of June. Call 775-4604.

"If you say, 'I'm going to a modern dance concert,' most people go, 'Yuck! Why?' " says local dancer Jules Beckman. "A bunch of barefoot people dancing in the middle of an empty stage -- it's sterile and alienating." Several boot-clad S.F. troupes who share Beckman's boredom with proscenium-bound modern dance have gravitated to clubs, alleyways, and parking lots in an attempt to bring avant-garde dance to street level. Among them is Steamroller. For the last month, the company has performed a quartet of dances titled Monster Trucks in parking lots around the city. Monster Trucks depicts rituals of desire practiced by urbanites -- TV-head urbanites.

Wearing mud flaps as butt flaps, inner-tube halter tops, and tire-tread codpieces, the dancers embody oversized trucks and, alternately, the strutting vixens whom advertisers match the trucks with. Posing as one of these dolls, Erin Stuart runs a fine finger along the special features of Ryan Galbreath's chassis, then sticks her tongue down his throat. It's a great moment -- a perfect parody of her role -- and there should be more like it. Too often, Monster Trucks adds only a thin punk veneer to basic Baywatch posturing; it commits the common pop art error of borrowing the predictable ploys of crass commercialism and leaving them intact, as if mere reproduction were sufficient commentary. It's not.

Near its conclusion, though, as the dancers form and re-form into couples, Monster Trucks slips out of TV land and drives toward the post-romantic grit of urban terrain. Here, the partnering isn't the usual free love, contact improv thing of sharing weight that San Francisco dance favors. Instead, we see ungainly, slow, leg-shaking entanglement -- couples getting caught up in one another.

In the first and best variation of Monster Trucks, at Somar Gallery, one dancer -- Galbreath -- moves from partner to partner, re-playing the same sequences, until he comes to Jesselito Bie. The pair's intimacy is an aphrodisiac: electric, weighted, and quiet. Galbreath's eyes nearly cross with concentration as Bie lifts him onto his back, where he squats like history hovering over the moment. As Bie shifts him to his belly, Galbreath presses his boots against Bie's chest, then maneuvers his legs straight out into the air where, through both men's extreme exertion, he remains for several long seconds. This weighted, tenuous, exhausting exchange is what remains of love in an age made desolate by chronic disillusionment. Monster Trucks ends in a feeling that the commercial lust it started with knows nothing about.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

The Doctor Is Out
Dr. Scheie's Traffic School. Written and performed by Danny Scheie. Directed by Mark Rucker. At Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), through June 21. Call 861-7933.

Dr. Scheie comes on in a candy-striped suit, a mortarboard, and a bow tie. He demands, shrilly, the name of the person who invented the wheel. Then he sings a fine version of Noel Coward's "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington," and reveals that the man who invented the wheel was obviously GAY. In high school I went to drivers training in the back room of a bowling alley, where a bleakly cynical and probably alcoholic man with a mustache explained California traffic law to a group of teen-agers and lost-looking adults who'd been ordered by some court to sit in on a refresher course. The highlight of those four weeks was the teacher's story of a student who shifted an automatic training car to "P" on the highway, thinking the letter stood for "pass." Dr. Scheie's Traffic School is the same strange and jolting experience spread out to 90 minutes, with a sinister, singing, homosexual scold (Danny Scheie) for an instructor and a rather quiet assistant (Don Seaver) at the piano.

Instead of traffic laws, Dr. Scheie gives you digressions on his foundered acting career, starting with a rant on "the white slavery of the summer Shakespeare racket." You also get the unembarrassed Nietzschean pro-posal that the 10 percent of the (world's? country's?) population reputed to be gay is the cream of humanity, a clique of Ybermenschen maintained by dull-thinking breeders. So far the show is a lot of fun, but after Scheie gets finished proving that gay men are really the center of the universe the class descends into a rant about who-should-have-played-what in a string of old musicals. His gist is that Audrey Hepburn's performance in My Fair Lady was a crime. Then he takes off his outer clothes and prances around like Peter Pan in a black, chest-revealing bodysuit, which really is a crime, and sings, "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." This is the low point.

So much of gay theater is about being gay you start to think it was healthier for the playgoing public when talking about your sex life was taboo, and all that lust could be sublimated into characters. Dr. Scheie is fun because it has no sublimation; but even its wild originality follows a pattern of gay cabaret shows where the actors are expected to sputter off in queenish directions. I'd like to see a gay theater piece that avoids dealing with the writer's own homosexuality as a matter of discipline. Scheie gives a taste of what theater like that might do in his last segment, "Truck Stop Etiquette," featuring a brilliant creation in cutoffs named Swap Meet Girl. His voice and manner make a mean-spirited caricature of a slut that only a gay man could get away with; but the routine keeps homosexuality in the background until the very end, when Swap Meet Girl insults a gay man for not looking at her breasts and then for some reason I can't remember runs out of the building to get hosed off. This was 100 percent better than hearing Dr. Scheie's opinion on musicals.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Audience Is the Thing
Offending the Audience. By Peter Handke. Directed by Jereme Anglin. Starring Amy Jennings, David Lear, Dawn Nott, and Brian Bonham. Presented by Theater Rhubarb at the Bannam Place Theater, 50A Bannam (an alley near Grant and Green), June 5-27. Call 751-0439.

Peter Handke's famous anti-play Offending the Audience needs an element of surprise. When it premiered in 1966 no one was quite prepared to have the structure of a play so totally reversed, to have the house lights come on and the actors address and criticize the guests as if they were the show. The ensuing uproar handed Handke his career. Now the actors' black clothes and the stilted explanations of exactly where and how the audience is sitting, of the play's total lack of plot and character, of the nature of real time, of illusion vs. reality, and so on, are cliches of rarefied Euro-art: Offending the Audience has dated. But the ideas themselves haven't, and it's still amusingly uncomfortable to watch, so if you're in the mood to be insulted Theater Rhubarb will take your money and oblige you.

The play takes Brecht's assault on the fourth wall to its logical end. The actors try to make the audience self-conscious. They claim not to be characters or symbols, not to stand for anything but themselves, then accuse the guests of conducting a "masquerade" of theatergoing, and criticize them in their capacity as a show. This must be very satisfying. The actors get to flatter the guests -- "You are radiant. ... You have been discovered" -- in a way actors are usually flattered, and then rip them to shreds. They make the guests aware of their ears, their saliva, their heartbeat, their breathing, their genitals, the position of their legs, and then shriek: "Don't breathe! Don't salivate! Don't shift in your seats! Don't listen to us!" It might be a polite form of S/M. My favorite part is an extended pause after a long discussion of real time (as opposed to stage time) -- a painful examination of the way your time is being spent, sitting there in the seat. The ensuing pause feels like a calculated waste of everyone's.

Where the show breaks down, though, is in the fact that it's scripted. None of this bile is real; in fact sometimes the actors falter, or seem to be line-reading, and you realize they'd be saying the same things whether you sat there or not. This, along with some of the stiff walking-around-the-stage, lets you off the hook. It turns Offending the Audience into exactly what it claims not to be, a spectacle. Handke was aware of this paradox, but he couldn't escape it. The element of surprise in 1966 was all that made his play momentous and vital. Because now, when the actors say, "You came prepared to watch," passively, as you might watch Chekhov or Shaw, it simply can't be true. We came to be offended.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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