Ferla, a 1985 Prix de Lausanne winner and Swiss import from Bejart's company, made a dynamic impression as he knifed through the rapid jumps and attitude turns of "Faith," and the audience broke into wild applause as his solo morphed into a powerhouse virtuoso display by all of King's men (despite lagging behind the company's men at times, Ferla obviously possesses the kind of muscularity and speed that King's choreography demands). Later, Taylor and Ferla barreled across downstage center, windmilling their arms, and reappeared as Taylor tossed off rippling shimmies and Ferla nailed Hussain's barrage of fast syncopated counts. Foreigner ended with an abrupt change in tempo in "Mother" as a mother and child arranged in a traditional pieta pose slid into a push-pull duet, but the piece was rescued from the realm of the ordinary by Hotchkiss' fluttering, nervous gestures and the ending, a quietly divine tableau under falling snow.

-- Heather Wisner

Concentrated Camp
The Lady in Question. By Charles Busch. Directed by Danny Scheie. Starring Doug Holsclaw, Deena Davenport, Paul Tena, and Stephanie Taylor. At Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), through Oct. 10. Call 861-5079.

Describing The Lady in Question as a play about an actress hoping to escape certain death in a Nazi camp is like saying The Rocky Horror Picture Show is about a honeymoon. True, but hardly the point. Charles Busch wrote the script as a mock tribute to '40s American war movies, and the result is what you'd expect from a group of drag queens who have organized themselves long enough to write and produce a play. Only two cast members actually cross-dress, but the show's hormonal hysteria and pretensions to glamour are worthy of an evening at the Mother Lode.

Gertrude Garnet (pronounced gar-NAY) is a tall, masculine-looking piano player touring Europe in 1940. She and her violinist, Kitty, are invited by an eminent Nazi, the Baron von Elsner, to stay at his Ludwigshafen manor, where they happen to find a famous actress in the basement. Raina Aldric is wheelchair-bound and doomed to execution -- as a belle of the European stage she represents everything hatefully liberal to the Nazis. She begs for help, but Gertrude resists, still vain enough not to have realized that the Nazis are anything but hospitable and charming. When Kitty points out that Hitler is a tyrant, and accuses Gertie of being selfish, and then gets hanged by the Heidi-braided Aryan monster of a little girl named Lotte, Gertie wises up and heroically tries to secure safe passage to England for Raina. The betterment of the lady in question is the broad, throbbing heart of the show.

It also has gunshots, trench coats, a mad German scientist, a combination safe hidden behind a portrait of Hitler, an affair between Gertie and the softhearted Baron, an affair between Gertie and a square-jawed American, romantic poses, poisoned strudel, and a steam-shrouded arrival by train. The play works best when the camp element gets pushed -- or, in fact, only works at all when the camp element gets pushed -- and for most of the second act, happily, it does. Stephanie Taylor plays the Baron's mother as well as an elegantly washed-up Raina, despairing in her wheelchair the way Dorothy Parker despaired in bars; and Flynn De Marco is a wonderfully vicious Lotte, the dirndl-wearing daughter of Baron von Elsner. He finds a high register for Lotte's voice but descends to masculine tones for lines such as, "Yes, I am growing up fast. I'm bleeding regularly." Doug Holsclaw does a good job as Gertie, but she still looks a lot like a man, and you sense from press photographs that when Charles Busch originated his own lead role in New York 10 years ago, he set a standard that was hard to beat.

The two actors who have no sense of camp at all are James Wheeler, as Karel the Nazi foot soldier, and Robert Mackey, as Erik the square-jawed American. They're both wooden where they should be ridiculously iron or Hemingway-earnest. In the first scene they're both onstage, and the lines are so intolerable -- not just stupid but seriously delivered -- you may be tempted to walk out. Don't. The Lady in Question only improves.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Staged Bird Doesn't Sing
Oakland Ballet. At Holy Names College, 3500 Mountain Blvd. in Oakland, Sept. 18-20. The fall season continues with Romeo and Juliet (Oct. 16-18) and a mixed program of new and repertory work (Nov. 13-14). Call (510) 452-9288.

Oakland Ballet's Emperor and the Nightingale posits two kinds of art. One is purely mechanical, represented in the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale by a windup songbird and in the ballet by an elastic ballerina who knocks off high-flying steps with dull precision. The other sort of art, expressed in the natural and heartfelt song of the homely little nightingale, is unpretentious and full of quirky spirit. The dances in the first program of Oakland Ballet's fall season can't tell the difference.

The evening opens with founding Artistic Director Ronn Guidi's Dv™rak Dances. Guidi has created a nice, flowy piece from waltzes that are about as lilting as marching band music. First as a full ensemble, then in trios and duets, the dancers repeat variations on simple themes -- partnered pirouettes resolving into arabesques or jubilant traveling pas de chat mixed with jetes. When, early and late in the work, all 14 dancers form a large circle, with the women arcing their petticoated legs through the air while the men partner them gallantly, the effect is as pretty as a heavy-petaled flower. It's never more than pretty, though. While their feet are kept busy with bunches of steps, the dancers' eyes grow glassy, chins lifted toward some distant treacly land where you always have to smile.

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