Stage

Fantastic Voyage
The Odyssey. Adapted by Richard Silberg. Directed by Amy Sass. Starring Keith Davis, Beth Donohue, Sandie Armstrong, and Ali Dadgar. Set and puppets by Michael Frassinelli. At Ohlone Park, Martin Luther King & Hearst, Berkeley, Aug. 8. Continues at Mosswood Park, Webster & MacArthur, Oakland, through Aug. 23. Call (510) 655-0813.

Not even Aristophanes had the audacity to put all of Homer's Odyssey onstage, so any modern effort should either be admired for its temerity or carefully avoided. The story behind this performance is that Richard Silberg, a teacher at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, wrote a condensed version for his students to perform, and the Shotgun Players saw in his script the chance to put on an impossible-sounding outdoor show that included puppets (like last year's Midsummer Night's Dream). The result is pure entertainment. There are towering puppet gods, a Wise Fool-style Cyclops, waving blue tarps for the swaying sea, original a cappella musical numbers, and -- as a concession snack -- "cyclopsicles."

It was written for kids, and in the first half the Shotgun cast tends to play down to the audience, but the whimsicality at work makes this show more interesting than any of the overserious screen versions you can rent or catch on TV. And by the end, somehow, Silberg's script brings out a measure of pathos and profundity that you don't expect to find around midafternoon in a public park.

The weakest part of the play is that it's narrated by "Aleithia," a sort of matron-muse of memory, who was flat-out invented by Silberg to make his job easier. I saw an understudy named Carolyn Padilla do the part; she overintoned and seemed underprepared. And most of the other parts have a happy enthusiasm that grates at first, especially Michael Storm's fey rendition of Hermes. (Actually Hermes is annoying all the way through.) But Beth Donohue plays Penelope with an effectively melancholy tear in her voice that gives the show weight, and Keith Davis is an amusingly arrogant and heartfelt Odysseus. Their performances carry the show at the end, through Odysseus' speech about mortality and love -- which nicely unifies the script -- and all the way to the excellent final scene, when Odysseus proves his identity and Penelope her chastity through the riddle of the marriage bed.

Scylla and Charybdis are missing altogether, which is too bad. One reason I went to the show was to see the octopus-beaked sea monster and the abysmal whirlpool rendered onstage. But I guess glossing over them is excusable. Zeus is played by Antoinette Abbamonte, a deaf actress who signs her words and manipulates the papier-máche godhead while two other players intone the words for the listening audience. (Two ASL interpreters sign the rest of the show for the deaf.) The Lotus Eaters are evoked in a swaying lotuslike dance by Marin Van Young and Amy Sass (another understudy); and Polyphemus is a magnificent, wisecracking, papier-máche puppet that eats people whole and bleeds crimson streamers from his eye sockets. Details like this are what give the Shotgun Players their energy. They're not afraid to fail, so when they succeed it feels spontaneous, ragged, and fun.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Private Lives
Private Eyes. By Steven Dietz. Directed by Louis Parnell. Starring Finn Curtin, Linda Whalen, and Susi Damilano. Presented by the Dreamstackers and Genesius Theater Company at Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), through Sept. 5. Call 675-4796.

Steven Dietz's Private Eyes begins innocently enough, with an auditioning actress playing a waitress who flirts with a patron. After a few lines, the director cuts her off. She's not relating to the customer. Why? "Because right now he's a chair," she retorts. "Can't you play a love scene with a chair?" he demands. "[Isn't] the lover we imagine actually more real than the one before us?" No, she insists, he isn't, and what existed between them would be neither love nor acting, but vanity. "Acting is someone standing in front of you want[ing] something from you -- and you from them -- and through some combination of bloodshed and eloquence you find your place with each other. That is acting."

Private Eyes delights in mixing up his kind of acting with hers -- illusion and projection with intimate truths. Toppling the director from his superior perch, this woman has our full attention until the real director appears, shouting, "Great. Let's take five." We assume everything so far has been an act (which means, the waitress-actress would argue, it's been emotionally true). But we find out seconds later that this play-within-the-play is but a microcosm of a drama of seduction and betrayal transpiring between real director Adrian (Bill English), real actress Lisa (Linda Whalen), and real husband Matthew (Finn Curtin). Or at least, that's what we believe until Dietz peels off yet one more layer. We come to feel toward the play the way Lisa's poor befuddled actor-husband Matthew does toward his wife. Half the time he's positive she's cuckolded him and the other half he's positive he imagined it. Absolutely committed to the current truth even though the last one fell through, he's miserable and we're having fun.

At least until Act 2, when the play's manic illusion-making and -breaking slows. "The thing about loving someone over time," Matthew observes, "is that you've lost the ability to shock." As the last of its nesting dolls comes to light, Private Eyes needs to do what Matthew and Lisa haven't yet: transcend shock. Instead, the play founders. Only for Lisa does the experience resonate. In the middle of her affair, this shyly warm woman has a dream: Washing the dishes, she finds a Tupperware container with a heart in it. She wants to return the heart but isn't sure to whom it belongs. While the fatuous director and befuddled buffoon of a husband are busy exposing and fomenting lies, the adulteress sifts through the wreckage for some truth.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Brit Fop
Dress to Kill. Written and performed by Eddie Izzard. Directed by Cliff Mayotte. At the Cable Car Theater, 430 Mason (at Geary), through Aug. 30. Call 433-9500.

Eddie Izzard is a funny-looking transvestite Brit who's arrived in town in the wake of a New Yorker profile, nods of approval from comic statesmen like Robin Williams and John Cleese, an ad campaign linked to Joe Boxer ("So funny you'll need new underwear!") -- so much hype, in other words, that seeing him felt obligatory, and I hate feeling obliged to see a show. I also hate rave music, and since Izzard has cultivated a youthful rave-related image the auditorium was pounding with synthesized dance tracks before he came onstage. Flanking the stage were four colorful pop portraits of Izzard himself, hung upside down; so you expect ego, energy, blazing originality. But it's mostly hype. Not that Izzard isn't funny -- he is -- but the whole vicious-transvestite image seems to be so much packaging, as if an agent looked at the way he was dressed one day and said, "Well. I think I can do something with this."

Izzard is actually kind of sweet. He has a boyish grin, satirical eyes, a mess of blond hair; he comes onstage in a silk Chinese housecoat, makeup, nail polish, and heels. He starts with what any comic touring through San Francisco might start with: a cable car joke. Then he sets up with a jab at us-Yanks' ignorance of American history and launches into a long routine on world history: British imperialism, the Pilgrims, the two World Wars, tyranny, the moon landing, the foundation of the Anglican Church. Why the show is called Dress to Kill I have no idea. His 2 1/2 hours of comedy are only sprinkled with jokes about transvestitism; and of course the fact that Izzard doesn't dwell on his clothes can only recommend him.

He has the guts to ruin the mood of the house by comparing America's war dead in World War II with Russia's -- half a million vs. "500 million" -- then manages to be funny again, by impersonating countries and governments as if they were kids in school. He makes fun of the British "God Save the Queen" by pointing out that the queen lives in a palace surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. ("That's one safe fucking queen.") He convinces the audience that Engelbert Humperdinck has died in a car crash, then plays with the idea until no one's quite sure if he's living or dead. For an encore he comes on and does some jokes over again in French. Not everything works -- he rides a tired Italian-on-a-Vespa motif all evening -- and the noise surrounding his show makes Izzard's store of average routines all the more surprising; but then it's the grace with heavy material that sets him apart, not his image or even his pitchfork wit.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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