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Twin Star
From the Hip. By Blair Fell. Directed by Stephen Rupsch. Starring Michelle Darby, Caitlin McClure, Otis Morgan, and Mary Jo Mrochinski. At the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through Jan. 16. Call 861-8972.

From the Hip is not very good, but that's the whole point. It's a camped-up version of a story told already in a biography and a musical, about the conjoined-twin sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton. Here they're rechristened Sissy and Sassy Sheraton and translocated a couple of decades forward into the surreal America of 1958. They start as freakish local singing stars in Pocatello, Idaho, and move up to a circus sideshow in New Jersey, posing in a tent next to the Bearded Lady and Lobster Boy. Soon they're discovered by a vaudeville agent and become singers on the Italian-restaurant circuit, and quickly enough someone else decides to put them -- or one of them -- in the movies.

The Hilton twins really did move from circus to Hollywood via vaudeville in the '30s; otherwise it's not clear how much of this story is based on fact. This farce is drastically different from the tame Broadway musical Sideshow, which played a few months ago in Mountain View, though both shows deal with the endlessly fascinating problem of romance with a Siamese twin.

At first, Sissy is the unambitious, cowardly sister interested mainly in love, and Sassy is the ambitious fork-tongued half. They both talk in goofy low-class American voices. "Oh, gosh, sis, you're right," says Sissy. "I got the stomach, you got the rectum." ("Wrecked 'em?" shouts their agent, bolting onstage. "You killed 'em!" It's that kind of show.) Sassy convinces her sister to ignore true love and sell out to bigger and bigger agents, until Sissy becomes the big national star, and no Hollywood director wants to show the public that they're conjoined twins. In one big movie Sissy plays Joan of Arc while Sassy plays the stake. Miserable Sassy turns to heroin. The twins are dogged for most of their career by a strange Byelorussian peasant fan called Carlotta Labotta, and the tasteless climax involves a murder plot by Carlotta, a gruesome surgery, and a surprise ingredient in some beef jerky that audibly offends the audience. By this point, I think, the show has made a clean break with history.

The cast is not bad, although a few of the songs are terrible, especially "I Can't Imagine Living Without You," a perfunctory piece of canned Casiotone trash with a forgettable tune. Mary Jo Mrochinski does a hilarious folk song as Carlotta, and she's good in all her other roles (including "Ruby Razorburn" and a Hollywood gossip reporter) except the twins' mother. Otis Morgan does a good job in none of his roles except Lobster Boy, and the twins are played with spunk and excellent singing voices by Michelle Darby and Caitlin McClure. Why it's called From the Hip and not At the Hip I'll never know, but it is a pistol-blast of cheesiness that will clear your arteries of any residue of earnest holiday cheer.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Circus That's Worth It
Step Right Up! Directed by Tandy Beal. Performed by the New Pickle Circus. At the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, Marina & Buchanan, through Jan. 3. Call 441-3687.

The New Pickle Circus isn't new, and it doesn't feature any pickles. It's a recent revival of the Pickle Family Circus, which formed in the '70s and went bankrupt in the early part of this decade. But insofar as it belongs to what you might call the cirque category -- kind of a low-rent Cirque du Soleil -- Pickle is certainly New Circus. It builds a clean and colorful fantasy onstage without creepy ringleaders, stale popcorn, sawdust, or (this is the main thing) trained animals. The New Pickle Circus has been performing at the Cowell Theater every year since 1994, and this year's show, Step Right Up!, has no special story line. It's just a cheerful melange of old and new acts, from spinning Russian acrobats to familiar clowns.

The show is framed by a huge, robed, Bread and Puppet-style figure that lurches onstage in the first scene and spawns acrobats. Afterward a tiny remote-controlled version of the same figure runs on- and offstage at odd moments. There is no other cohesive trick to this year's Pickle (not even the very loud late arrival of one of the show's mainstay clowns, Razz, who unwittingly drags another clown onstage in a suitcase). Pino the Clown is a small woman (Diane Wasnak) who dominates the circus with her voice and personality: In her mimed rendition of the Goldilocks story, she issues a range of noises from her throat that's as acrobatic as anything in the show.

But Chinese acrobats do jump through hoops, climb poles with their knees, and pretend to be lionlike dragons, flipping over sideways and playing with balls. (This scene is one of the best. The big dragons have gold masks, bright red manes, and fringed bodies; they consist of two acrobats each who create a seamless illusion of frolicking cats.) Russian acrobats balance and even spin on squat poles. Svetlana Gololobova can spin a flashy round thing on one finger while she herself spins at the top of a pole; and when balancing in place she can spin a two-ended torch with her feet.

It's all very impressive. Some of the clown routines pander to kids (like the Goldilocks story hour), and not all the acrobatics are flawless, but there's enough skilled circus mayhem to fascinate adults. The lack of a story line is a problem; and anyone who saw the show in '95 will remember Pino the Clown riding backward on her bike and tossing cereal bowls with one foot onto her head. This may not be the freshest Pickle in the barrel. But any circus is such a rare event these days that a strong annual show is nothing to wrinkle your nose at, and good circus acts keep well from year to year.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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