The white-knuckle moments came early on opening night of the Robert Moses' Kin Dance Company -- right before intermission, in fact, with the world premiere of Buffalo Avenue (The Patriots). The most athletic piece of the night was also the bumpiest, since the dancers' kamikaze dives and rough-and-tumble partnering didn't always connect (at one point, a sharp collective intake of breath made clear what everyone was thinking, which was, "That's gotta hurt").
Still, the dancers recovered quickly from their jittery first-night spills, and Buffalo holds promise once the rough patches have been smoothed over. The work's appeal lies in its fresh American modernity, from the costuming -- women in earth-toned tank tops and capri pants -- to the angular, rhythmic choreography, which references Graham in its deep second plies, contact improv in the push-pull partnerships, and flying somersault dives to the floor. Moses himself lights up the stage in a brief but eye-popping duo that finds him suddenly holding a dancer who launches himself backward into Moses' outstretched arms with lightning speed.
Company dancer Jose Comoda, whose stage presence grows more commanding with every season, also dances a striking phrase, which begins as he backs himself into a crowd like an uncertain child. Buffalo's pacing is uneven, though, due partly to the score, which opens well on Trilok Gurtu's loping rhythms but eventually grows monotonous. The work is loosely hung on ideas of patriotism in the black community, and its fearless athleticism suggests heroism to a point -- the tricky part now will be ironing out its timing and lifts without losing its invigorating energy.
There are kinks in the program's other full-company dances as well: Laugh to Keep From Cryin' (That Sh*t A*n't Funny) was influenced by the comedy of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, who managed to alienate as often as they inspired, by daring to mix sharp-tongued commentary with entertainment. Their influence on the dancing is marginal, unfortunately, although there are hints of Pryor's contentious material in Bliss Kohlmyer's series of agitated, argumentative gestures, which end repeatedly as she flings herself into her listener's arms. "Listen to me -- no, wait, love me," she seems to say. Dancers in vivid purples and greens stretch themselves into long, lean lines and spiral through attitude jump-turns, but aside from Tristan Ching's strong extensions and brave solo exit, the comedians' maverick spirit seems lacking.
Glass, a six-section 1998 work, is trademark Moses: small, quick opening gestures, swooping and swiveling travel sequences, and odd inverted angles. Yet there is a listless quality to it, despite some engaging solo work: Echoes of Graham resurface as Comoda, in a stretchy skirt, leans into a series of slow sculptural poses, and Crystal McCreary slips into a loose-limbed groove. After this, the company's knockout performance of The Sweet Dark Land at January's National Performance Network showcase makes one secretly wish to see them dance high-octane pieces like that one more often.
Most complicated of all are the solos set on Moses by outstanding local choreographers: Lines Contemporary Ballet director Alonzo King, Margaret Jenkins, ODC's K.T. Nelson, and Sara Shelton-Mann, formerly of Contraband. These are dance-makers who lean toward cerebral, stripped-down movement, an aesthetic that fits Moses' formidable strengths as a dancer. But the solos overlap so that it's not clear whether there was supposed to be a unifying element other than Moses. The action takes place in a churchlike setting, with wooden folding chairs to one side and a backdrop of clouds projected on a screen overhead.
King's untitled work suggests a man suffering from a crisis of faith, with a series of flying jumps and fleet-footed turns that segue into silence as Moses sighs heavily, reclines, falls to the floor, and appeals to some heavenly power, after which he begins running in circles, white shirttails flapping like wings. Shelton-Mann's ending is the most fascinating, and maddening, part. After an awkward transition in which Moses' dancers set ritual paraphernalia like candles and skulls out on the stage, an Ice Cube treatise on ghetto life booms out over the speakers and suddenly Moses, a Stanford professor, is striking gangster poses. Scenes from civil rights marches unspool on the screen, intercut with clips of Moses dancing on a traffic divider or in front of a mural. Meanwhile Moses mirrors his own movements on screen, springing into one airy barrel turn after another and hurling himself violently to the floor. It feels tacked on -- to other solos, to the program as a whole, and to Moses himself.
-- Heather Wisner
A Cabal of Hypocrites. By Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Allen McKelvey. Starring Thomas Redding, Kikelemo Adedeji, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, and Ian Bedford. At the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Dr. in Walnut Creek, through March 14. Call (925) 295-1900.
Good theater entertains. Better theater entertains with meaning. The best theater does both of these things, presented in a manner or context that threatens an established order. AmeRican CitiZeNs TheatRE's energetic production of Mikhail Bulgakov's A Cabal of Hypocrites may not threaten any current regime, political or theatrical. But with committed performances and bright staging, the production provides engaging insight into the dangerous power of sharp-edged comedy.
The play relates the final years of the brilliant French comedic playwright Moliere. With Tartuffe, he took on the conniving clergy of the late 18th century, while in Don Juan, he skewered the fatuous and indulgent aristocracy of his time. This pleased the king and Moliere's public greatly, but won him few friends among his humorless targets; they sought -- and achieved -- his ultimate downfall.
The money the production saved on its sparse (but flexible) set is wisely spent on exquisite makeup and costuming (by Amy Mordecai). This neatly creates the feel of the court of Louis XIV. Moliere presides over his own ragged court of actors and stagehands, driven not by power but by his own "unrestrained personality." Thomas Redding gives a superbly bipolar performance, swinging wildly between the extremes of genius and self-destruction, of rapture and terror. But we see very little of Moliere's actual work and caustic wit and, unfortunately, none of his supernatural ability with rhyming verse.
Still, the point of the play is not to celebrate Moliere's brilliance so much as to show the cost and danger of it. We see his bitter despair after losing the king's favor, the loss and betrayal of friends and lovers, and his cowardice in facing the powers he so courageously satirizes onstage. Most of all we see the differences between a person and a personage; the way small flaws or slights become tragic elements when magnified by public adoration, success, and proximity to power.
Allen McKelvey's exaggerated direction impels the actors to histrionic (and occasionally cartoonish) performances. Still, this is not inappropriate, as the company's stated purpose is to "stretch credulity." Good use of the actors' considerable abilities in movement and vocal control helps the cast overcome the limitations of the space, and achieves the transportive experience that theater must be if it is to compete with the effects available to television and film. The gender-blind casting of Kikelemo Adedeji as an indifferent Louis XIV is funny and effective. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb as Marquis D'Orsini and Ian Bedford as Archbishop Charron both have strong stage presence, simultaneously sinister and ridiculous, providing essential dramatic impetus to the play. Despite their stature, they manage to portray the small-mindedness that made them such easy targets for Moliere, as they overcome their mutual hatred -- cleverly expressed in a genuine spit-fight -- to squash the insect who dares to challenge their power.
Bulgakov must have seen his own circumstance in Moliere's plight: At one time the pre-eminent Russian playwright, his work was banned from the Moscow Art Theater by Stalin, who naturally took offense at the implications A Cabal of Hypocrites had for late 1920s Moscow. In America today almost nothing is taboo, despite works that try ever harder to shock and offend. But the power of theater to threaten power is something that ought not be forgotten, lest it be lost entirely. AmeRican CitiZeNs TheatRE does a commendable job of expressing a truth that may go unnoticed by modern audiences.
-- Eric Sandham