By Jonathan Ramos
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Mollie McWilliams
By Juan De Anda
By Jonathan Curiel
By Alexis Coe
Subterranean Homeless Blues
The Lower Depths. By Maxim Gorky. Directed by Dennis Moyer. Starring Robert Elross, John Nolan, Joan Mankin, Oonagh Kavanagh, Johnny McMorrough, Da'Mon Vann, and John Robb. At Dance Mission, 3316 24th St. (at Mission), through Dec. 20. Call 392-4400.
When Maxim Gorky's play about Moscow's urban underclass premiered in 1902, audiences accustomed to Chekhov's estate-living middle class were electrified. People this poor had never been shown on a Russian stage, and the story of an uprising against a heartless landlord became as emblematic for the revolutionary era around 1905 as Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin became afterward.
Now, of course, things are different. Putting street people onstage is hip, although I have yet to see a contemporary show that does it with any kind of insight into the people I see on San Francisco streets every day. The version of The Lower Depths at Mission Dance is a perfect example. Director Dennis Moyer has re-dressed Gorky's characters to look like modern American drifters in the hope that audiences will see parallels between late-capitalist America and pre-revolutionary Russia, but his vision is as limp and unfocused as Naomi Iizuka's recent Polaroid Stories at Intersection, which Moyer says inspired him -- and just as rotten with earnest sentiment and cliche.
The setting is a warehouse with bunk-sized compartments, rented by drifters who live in a picturesque splodge of broken furniture and liquor bottles. A man named Andre (Johnny McMorrough) is married to a woman dying in her bed; a card hustler in a cowboy hat (John Robb) and a gay black man (Da'Mon Vann) drink too much and make a lot of noise. The landlord's wife is having an affair with one of the tenants, Pepe, and near the middle of the play she asks him to kill her husband. He refuses, at first, because he'd rather not go to jail.
In the meantime, an old, white-goateed hepcat has checked in, wearing Ray-Bans and a hooded sweat shirt, talking in outdated jazz slang and trying to persuade everyone to just get along. He is, hands down, hilarious. Robert Elross plays him with so much gentle unhipness that he steals the show, especially with a story about "Grooveland," where every note the people strike is a true one.
But if Elross steals the show, he can't save it: Grooveland is not at Mission Dance. The central scene, between Pepe and the landlady, is an exercise in line-reading, and too much of the rest of the acting feels stiff, unincorporated, as if the members of the cast had never met. This isn't the actors' fault: Robb, McMorrough, Vann, and Oonagh Kavanagh (as the dying woman) are all good performers who do well enough on their own, but they haven't been directed into any cohesion. Their stories spin off from the central one like errant moons, and somehow Gorky's concept doesn't translate, either. Even if you know that poverty is built into modern capitalism, this reworking of The Lower Depths will not tell you why.
By marrying vividly theatrical, demurely feminine Chinese dance with sculptural American modernism, choreographer Lily Cai has created a form that's very nearly otherworldly. It mesmerizes, although in the case of Cai's newest work, Southern Girl, it can puzzle, too, like the unfamiliar idioms of a second language.
At her recent performance, Cai eased viewers into her style of East-West fusion with two repertory works: Begin From Here (1996), with a classically informed modern score by composer Gang Situ, and last season's Candelas. Before she came to the States and formed the eight-woman Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company, Cai was a principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera. Her professional training is beautifully apparent with Begin From Here, which opens with dancers sinuously unfurling from crouched positions, heads cocked and palms folded together in the prayerlike gestures of traditional court dance. Cai makes effective use of old props: Her dancers snap and ripple long, jewel-toned silk ribbons across the stage as a lone dancer spins low to the ground, whipping her long hair in circles with Duncan-like abandon. Dancers coyly hide their faces behind wide silk fans, but in Cai's geometric groupings, viewers will also catch a working leg curling up behind a half-hidden torso with modern angularity. Cai leaves us with a somewhat baffling final image of dancers straddling flexible poles, which they clasp from behind their backs as they slide-step across center stage.
Like Begin From Here, the lovely, meditative Candelas features dancers' serpentine arm movements and strong but supple sculptural poses. Set to the haunting fourth movement of Mahler's "Symphony No. 5," the piece is lit only by the warm glow of candles the dancers cup in each hand. There's a fleeting reference to Chinese acrobatics here, as dancers form themselves into pretzel shapes, resting candles on their backs, and a hint of Busby Berkeley when they back themselves into a circle and turn in a kaleidoscopic pattern of flickering light. Cai builds on the modern vocabulary with sinewy contractions and breathy releases, creating unusual angles with inverted arms. She has a talent for memorable visions, too, and by the work's end, the dancers hovering around the candles' pool of fire are luminous, as if lit from within.