All's AIDS That Ends AIDS
Pieces of the Quilt. By various authors. Directed by Colman Domingo. Starring Sean San Jose, Josh Jones, Scheherazade Stone, and DJ Fuze. Part of the Solo Mio Festival at the Magic Theater, Fort Mason, Sept. 24-26, and playing independently at La Pena Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck in Berkeley, Oct. 29 & 30. Call (510) 849-2568.

Normally, I like to see any play that features Sean San Jose and Scheherazade Stone; San Jose is a good actor and Stone, whenever she's onstage, tends to sing, which is lovely. For the third consecutive year the Alma Delfina Group is performing new short plays about AIDS by various writers as part of its Pieces of the Quilt Project, an ongoing benefit to fight the disease. Last year San Jose was gritty, well-paced, and funny playing solo in several high-energy pieces by people like Octavio Solis and Danny Hoch. But this year the Quilt material isn't so strong. Most of the plays (performed by Stone, San Jose, drummer Josh Jones, and DJ Fuze) descend into propagandizing about the millions of people who have died of AIDS and the lack of a cure. We know this already. (Why else would we be in the audience?) Anger about AIDS is hard to avoid -- anger is cousin to grief -- but the activist tone it sometimes takes on is also hard to stomach.

Erin Cressida Wilson's The Changing Face takes an inordinate amount of time to open the show; it splices onstage narration -- storytelling, not drama -- with details of the pre-AIDS era ("Remember pukka shells? Remember Pop Rocks? Remember rotary phones?") and grim statistics ("This was before 100 million dead"). But the defiant tone leaves you nowhere. Yes, the epidemic has lasted more than 15 years; no, we haven't found a cure -- but is the virus supposed to get scared? Are researchers supposed to work faster because of angry posters and plays? Are audience members supposed to give money? (Well, yes.) "Protesting" AIDS seems as ridiculous as protesting breast cancer, or death itself; and to me The Changing Face felt like a propagandistic pose, earnest but not at all real.

The same faux-earnest feeling infects most of the other pieces. In Illness, The Wild, A Town on the Pakistani Border, Danger, and even On the Last Day of His Life, there's altogether too much narrating, and not enough honest drama. Greg Sarris' What's Love Got to Do With It is a funny piece about Latina Turner, a drag queen played by San Jose who (yes) is dying of AIDS. The dialogue is dull, but the drag shtick is funny. Herbert Siguenza's The Wild is good at first -- its charged obscene language nicely evokes a pair of heated lovers -- but still it's just narrating, and after the lovers move in together it gets boring. Illness, by Maria Irene Fornes, is a funny metaplay with one character describing what theater might be like after a few more decades of the AIDS epidemic. "One day, everyone will be ill." Characters will be defined by their illnesses; plot development will follow the development of illnesses. San Jose makes it funny, and a rude interruption by the DJ, who bums a cigarette from Scheherazade, is a believably awkward moment; but the piece can't escape the haunting notion that this day of illness-obsessed theater has already arrived.

The best piece is Rhodessa Jones' On the Last Day of His Life, which features fine singing by Stone. Along with the music comes more narration, but this time in character, with San Jose playing Big Mama, who eloquently describes a biblical promised land in black dialect to her kids. The piece is somewhere between a spiritual and a play; it's felt and well-rehearsed, and the audience is stirred enough to clap along.

-- Michael Scott Moore

It's Show Time, Folks
Chicago. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, lyrics by Ebb. Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreography by Ann Reinking. Starring Charlotte d'Amboise, Donna Marie Asbury, Brent Barrett, and Ron Orbach. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Market), through Nov. 7. Call 776-1999.

When Chicago premiered in 1975, on the eve of the country's bicentennial and its attendant patriotic fervor, many viewers were turned off by the musical's cynical view of justice and the American way. No such problem these days. The Kander/Ebb/Fosse adaptation of a true crime story from the Jazz Age -- rife with murder, sex, spin, and celebrities -- hit big on Broadway at its 1996 revival, winning six Tony Awards the following year. The revival's timing, in a flurry of scandal-laden and highly public trials, only sharpened lyrics like "Why is it now everybody is a pain in the ass?/ Whatever happened to class?"

The revival owes part of its success to its original casting: Bebe Neuwirth and Fosse acolyte Ann Reinking took the leads as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, the homicidal chorines who try to parlay their notoriety into successful vaudeville careers. Folks who never liked Fosse won't be any happier with Reinking's choreography, faithfully executed "in the style of Bob Fosse." The good news about the revival's touring production, though, is that the cast more than holds its own, while Donna Marie Asbury (as Velma) and Charlotte d'Amboise (as Roxie) make a strong case for Fosse's style in a couple of stellar numbers.

Fosse has been much emulated and much abused in the process, so that now his hip-swiveling, pelvic-thrusting, wrist-cocking, high-kicking choruses have the potential to look not only dated, but in this era of cerebral postmodern dance, downright crude. His dancers are meant to seduce, particularly his women, and they get right down to it with the smoldering, spread-eagled display of "Cell Block Tango." But because this is a musical about wretched excesses of sex and booze and corny entertainment ushered in by the Roaring '20s, Fosse's slinky over-the-top showmanship works, just as it did in Cabaret. More specifically, it works in numbers like "We Both Reached for the Gun," in which d'Amboise morphs suddenly into a rubbery, loose-limbed ventriloquist's dummy, dangling on her lawyer's knee while he coaches her confession. In the show-stopping "Me and My Baby," d'Amboise doesn't just dance the role of a dingy celebrity hopeful, she inhabits it as easily as if it were her own skin. Asbury, meanwhile, invests every tired bump-and-grind in the book with cartoon sass in "I Can't Do It Alone."

There is little dramatic exposition between songs, but the simple staging (the band plays on risers at center stage, and the chorus sits on the sidelines when not performing) contributes to the claustrophobic feel of the jailhouse and courtroom. Ron Orbach earns our sympathy as Roxie's pitiable schmuck of a husband, and M.E. Spencer elicits guffaws as Mary Sunshine, a gullible reporter with chirpy operatic delivery. Prison matron "Mama" Morton (Avery Sommers) is an admirable blues belter, and soap star Brent Barrett, as lawyer Billy Flynn, oozes poisonous charm as he manipulates the press and public opinion. With its witty treatment of a strangely familiar scene, Chicago is hard to shake.

--Heather Wisner

Good Lucky
House of Lucky. By Frank Wortham. Directed by Josh Costello. Starring Wortham. Presented by Impact Theater at the North Berkeley Senior Center, Hearst & MLK Jr. in Berkeley, through Oct. 30. Call (510) 464-4468.

When it comes to theater, the teens-to-20s set usually seems stuck out in the cold. Even despite recent attempts to capture Gen-Xers' attention with a new theater of coitus -- the hugely profitable Rent by Jonathan Larson, and Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and ... -- the oft-stratospheric ticket prices ensure MTV has a perennially captive audience. Berkeley's Impact Theater aims to change all this. Since its inception two years ago, the company has been offering some stiff competition to nights in, with the TV. Impact's one-man show House of Lucky, staged ironically enough at Berkeley's Senior Center, gives its young target audience a good dose of sex, drugs, and some rap 'n' roll.

Written and performed by the handsome, charismatic Frank Wortham (previously of Impact's Inhaling and Love Song Later), House of Lucky follows Wortham as he nimbly shape-shifts into a variety of Gen-X San Francisco types: from a self-dramatizing, whiskey-imbibing, crank-smoking wannabe dramaturge to a Zen Buddhist "passive activist." Wortham's different personae cluster around and draw from his main character, hipster poet Harper Jones. Harper, a self-styled beat of the '90s (his lines carry the lilt and loll of a Ken Kesey rant), is at odds with the world. He wakes one morning to catch "the 71 Express," but his prediction that "it's going to be a good day" soon turns on him. He's fired from his low-rank job at Baby Travel, loses miserably at a poetry slam, and blows it (again) with his impossible-to-get-over ex. By the end of the day, Harper has met and embodied a variety of people. A pirouette marks every shift in character; he becomes, for example, his childhood friend Mark, who proclaims himself to be "burning with amphetamine brilliance" and who entertains ideas of staging a porn-as-art play in an imaginary theater called "House of Lucky." Mark alone offers the shape-shifting loser some solace; he prompts Harper to take a swig of whiskey, pop some tabs, and address one barbaric yawp to his ex: "Bitch."

There's more than Wortham's angsty performance to interest a Gen-X theatergoing crowd. His referencing of pop cultural icons such as Prince, Bruce Lee, and Kurt Cobain forms a convincing contextual backdrop for presenting a generation disaffected with middle-class suburbia and the portfolio-waving investment complex. Wortham also shows, most surprisingly, that like the erstwhile beats, these kids are smart. His characters are "hip" and "know the score," but Harper also reads Rimbaud and is historically educated enough to recognize the hypocrisy of baby boomers who wear (in one hilarious, stirring piece) Jerry Garcia ties.

When Wortham slips into Harper's skin, his performance is inspired. Words and images syncopate like a back-bristling jazz improv: "Politics of weakness ... breath down her spine ... battlefield of wine." But unfortunately (and he has this in common with the beats, too) the view Wortham presents of women is warped; in this performance they seem to exist only to weigh men down. When Wortham enters the persona of Mark and sputters that love and women are "just critter shit," House of Lucky is reduced to a diatribe against women, and there isn't quite enough distance from the character to show we're supposed to think otherwise. To Wortham's and director Josh Costello's credit, there is a certain nod toward (sometimes humorously so) the homosexual undercurrent that informs the performance's misogyny. On a technical level, Wortham's shifts from one character to the next often lack the changes in accent and gesture that would make real people out of scripted figures; after a while, the personae begin to look and sound not only like each other, but also like Kato Kaelin on crank. And, if toilet-mouth-speak can sometimes get laughs, the overuse of scatological and coital imagery can tire.

So maybe House of Lucky isn't Ginsberg reading at City Lights. But Wortham's poetic, heartfelt performance does give us an offbeat insight into a Gen-X brand of alienation. There can be a theater that speaks to today's disaffected youth; and, when Impact's shows sell for five bucks a ticket, there's no excuse to keep that Friday night reserved for MTV.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Violence at a Distance
Ballet Preljocaj. Choreography by Angelin Preljocaj. Presented by San Francisco Performances at Yerba Buena Center Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), Oct. 1-3.

Violence moves to center stage in the three works French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj's strong, versatile troupe performed at Yerba Buena Theater this weekend. The angel in his Annonciation is no fluffy, beatific presence, but a hard-edged woman who is cold and rough with Mary, taking devotion without asking. Pushing the 1923 Nijinska original to its limits, Preljocaj's Noces (Weddings) presents marriage as an inescapably brutal pact with the mob. And his radical revision of Fokine's 1911 Le Spectre de la Rose (The Rose's Ghost) transforms the gallant Rose into a petaled hoodlum and the girl's innocent dream into a fantasy of rape.

Although hardly likable, Preljocaj's violence is surprisingly beautiful. On their knees in Le Spectre de la Rose, the woman (Claudia De Smet) and the Rose (Stephane Loras) press chest to chest over and over again, splaying their arms wide like wings and exposing soft throats. When the Rose pushes her down and pummels his hips into hers, the woman will-lessly jerks up from the ground, then crumples back, a body stirring the dust with sharp and softening waves. By comparison, the ballroom dancing that carries on next to them -- in the frame of an enormous box, with puppet toreadors partnering marionette damsels in sprightly patterns -- is dutiful and dull.

The torrid relationships Preljocaj has exploding all over the stage may excite us, but they're not very illuminating -- either about the story they're set in, or about violence between people. What they do add to the dances, however, is a necessary heat, interrupting and acting as a counterpoint to Preljocaj's prevailing abstraction. When dancers are not throwing themselves together in terrifying abandon, they maintain a strict modernist agenda, retelling old stories not for the pleasures of narrative, but in order to provide additional commentary. The iconic character of much of the movement -- the etched clarity of limbs drawing figures in space -- distances the dance from the drama it describes, with the dancers functioning as omniscient narrators outside the story, as much as characters within it. In Preljocaj's most successful work, Annonciation, the woman playing the angel (De Smet) doesn't flap her wings or perch above Mary, but indicates her likeness to a celestial being by the hovering curves her arms assume, the mystical schema she marks in the air, and the imperious finger she points upward or hooks in the prone Mary's mouth, as if to fish out a jewel. She is a powerful idea of an angel.

A dance that interprets itself -- a metadrama -- is a brave and rigorous thing to attempt; getting us to want to watch it is another matter. It needs a hook. Some smart point about the subjects that the dances don't quite engage would do, but Preljocaj goes another way: He offers bursts of violence so lucid and free they nearly overcome his cold abstractions.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

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