Stage

Shakespeare in the Suburbs II
Richard III. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Mark Booher. Starring David Ellenstein, Deanne Lorette, Lisa Paulsen, and Molly Mayock. At the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Boulevard in Orinda, through Oct. 4. Call (510) 548-9666.

Richard III has been this season's most-revisited villain: Not only did two East Bay companies decide, separately, to mount Richard III outdoors this summer, but Christopher Plummer's excellent Barrymore also showed the declining screen legend's failing attempt to play Richard one last time.

Michael Storm did a solid young Richard for the Shotgun Players' "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" tour -- he thundered in the important bits -- but David Ellenstein, in the California Shakespeare Company's version playing now in Orinda, doesn't thunder so much as snivel. His Richard is smirking, chirping, and smug. This is a chronic problem at CSC, where the lead actors are too happy, too safe, or too languidly directed to be evil. In the company's version of Othello earlier this season Charles Shaw Robinson played a charming Iago, which would have been fine if Iago were supposed to be charming.

A quick plot summary: It's near the end of the War of the Roses, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, kills and connives his way onto the English throne. His back is hunched, his arm is "like a blasted sapling, wither'd up," and morally he's in no better shape. He disposes of his brothers, Edward IV and George, who are respectively king and in line to be king, then marries his nephew's widow, Lady Anne, having killed her husband in an earlier play. He double-crosses Anne and his own loyalists after the court crowns him Richard III; he brings violence back to England after a few years' uneasy peace. He needs to be deposed, and is, finally, by the noble Earl of Richmond, who becomes Henry VII, grandfather to Elizabeth I.

For Shakespeare's audiences the play was both melodramatic recent history and Antigone-level tragedy, all in a single script. But most of the Orinda production is kitsch, from the canned electronic soundtrack to the phony fight scenes and even the strangely unaffecting ghost-visitation at the end. Ellenstein makes a watery Richard; Deanne Lorette is a bland Lady Anne; other players seem empty in voice and face. Molly Mayock as Queen Margaret gives the only really free performance -- upstaging everyone, as she did in Othello -- with her outraged grief. I wish she could have played Richard.

Charles Shaw Robinson makes the most of Buckingham's final scene -- full of darkness and falling cadences -- but otherwise he's merely in command of his lines. Ellenstein's Richard does change after he gets to be king; he becomes snappish and commanding, which is an improvement over smug -- but there's something weird about a production that makes the crippled king's bid to Queen Elizabeth for her young daughter (after he's murdered Lady Anne) funny, never mind sickeningly relevant, as if the girl were a 15th-century intern.

"Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?" Maybe, but do we need to be reminded?
-- Michael Scott Moore

Out of This World
Map, String Quartet, Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner? Performed by Lines Contemporary Ballet. Directed by Alonzo King. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), Sept. 11-20. Call 978-ARTS.

There were knockout moments in the world premiere of Alonzo King's Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?, most notably those generated by recent company additions Ryan Brooke Taylor and Xavier Ferla. And the dancing found a serious rival for attention in the score, which Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain created in collaboration with King and performed live from his dimly lit perch in the orchestra pit.

Structured like last season's Tarab, which King created with Nubian composer Hamza El Din, Foreigner is broken down into simply titled sections ("Duty," "Faith," etc.) in which solo and ensemble work overlaps. As with Din's piece, Foreigner opens with a prelude that prepares viewers for the complex soundscape that follows, a burbling score layered with the rhythmic slap of Hussain's tabla playing, hand-held instruments, and the elastic and often mournful tones of Hussain's own voice. King has crafted a kind of fleeting spiritual vision, a glimpse of temporarily Earthbound heavenly creatures, using Hussain's music (a program note speaks of this kind of Indian music as "an imitation of the music in heaven") and an excerpt from a Rabindranath Tagore poem that begins "There is a stranger going to and fro in this world of ours."

King's close collaboration with his composers is evident in his choreography: Here, dancers catch lilts and tones as easily as surfers catch waves, rising up and over crescendos. Taylor, dancing his first season with the company after his tenure at Dance Theater of Harlem, opened the second section of Foreigner ("Silence") with steely precision, landing a triple tour and traveling crisply downstage, while Marina Hotchkiss, Melanie Henderson, and former company apprentice Lauren Porter danced a languid variation behind him as if stirred by a warm breeze. Hussain's whooshing wind sounds and chimes, accompanying a low-level hum (a tuning fork?), heightened the ethereal effect, and King closed the variation with the indelible impression of the women forming a triptych around a single glowing spotlight in the dark.

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.

Even before the show got started, I was afraid we might end up here, where true rapture and perfumey affect get confused. Like most regional ballet companies, Oakland Ballet depends on wispy notions of grace and childhood. It trains the little girls who have turned out for this evening's performance to be delicate tulips who can do the splits. If they're good enough, they'll fill their bodies with light, extending into adulthood the fantasies their training has manufactured.

The dances' manic activity and glazed ebullience stem from these flowery notions. Method guru Lee Strasberg's advice to actors -- that you need to be stripped of your habitual illusions in order to "give yourself with belief to the object, event, or experience you're trying to create" -- applies with slight modification to all the arts, ballet included. The problem is that ballet as an institution, at least, lives off illusion, referred to as "enchantment."

The limits this dependency imposes on the choreography come through clearest in the most promising ballet of the evening, Assistant Artistic Director Michael Lowe's Emperor and the Nightingale. The work features all sorts of commendable things: an apt story for a ballet; Mark Attebery's shifting, nuanced score; the two-headed Death that comes to carry away the emperor; and Lara Deans Lowe's supple, limpid dancing. But its center is missing. The ballerina meant to depict the nightingale's inspirited song hardly moves at all. Lowe is fine at rendering the caged bird and the sparkling robot, but he has no language for a bird singing in full-throated ease -- no movement sufficiently plain, immediate, and free. At intermission, a young man in a business suit: "When I nab one of those girls, I'm going to stick her in a cage." I think she's already in one.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

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