By Heather Wisner, Michael Scott Moore
More Than Meets the Eye

Paul Taylor Dance Company. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), through April 18. Call 392-4400.

Wistful lovers, B-movie villains, religious fanatics, bare-chested strongmen, and a slithery green creature crowded onstage in two programs performed by the Paul Taylor dancers during the first week of their residency. While some of Taylor's dances might seem straightforward at first, though, his scenes and characters are so thoroughly layered with meaning (not to mention dance history) that the viewer is left to peel away at them like an onion. Given such utterly captivating work, we don't mind at all.

Take Esplanade, the finale to Program B. It's a pretty dance, the kind that choreographers use to send audiences away happy, but it's by no means slight. Taylor has taken ostensibly simple steps -- running, hopping, sliding baseball-like to the floor -- and arranged them in complex patterns that spill joyfully over Bach violin concertos. The mood of the piece shifts from sunny to meditative and back again as Taylor explores how much can be done within this basic choreographic framework.

A lot, as it turns out. Romantic pairings are languid, even poignant, as partners stroke a cheek here and gently pull themselves away there. Group sections, on the other hand, are buoyant, with loopy orbiting turns and sudden stops and directional changes. Lisa Viola, a force to be reckoned with throughout this program, dances one of the most memorable phrases, a slow circular jog that picks up speed with the music and ends as she flings herself fearlessly into her partner's waiting arms. Suddenly, the stage is full of couples running and flinging themselves into one another's arms. Their reckless enthusiasm makes you want to cheer, and many viewers did.

Arden Court is another piece that is outwardly charming and inwardly complicated. What begins as a men's show of athletic one-upmanship evolves into tricky pas de deux with the company's women, and ultimately, a rewiring of ballet technique. It's thrilling from the outset, when the men tumble onstage in a flurry of free-swinging arms, split dives, and curious cartwheel turns over each other's bare backs. These are the merry men of Shakespeare's As You Like It, and their pastoral antics are only partially subdued by the arrival of the women, who wrap their legs around the men's torsos and burrow under their working legs like little animals. The fireworks briefly resume in a men's pas de deux marked by great feats of agility. By Arden Court's conclusion, it looks like we're seeing ballet, and we are, but then again, we're not. Jutting hips knock positions off center and the diagonal angles of efface are stretched and pulled like so much taffy. It's a satisfying collusion of classical and modern technique that ends in a rich cascade of movement.

"For our God is a consuming fire," the biblical phrase from Hebrews 12.29, prefaces The Word, setting us up for religious subtext, although the piece could be read as a comment on corporate culture as well. The ominous thrum of cello in David Israel's commissioned score casts an eerie spell, and costumer Santo Loquasto dresses all the dancers theatrically in identical white shirts, ties, and dark-blue knickers -- all, that is, except for Viola, who materializes amid the crowd in a green unitard. There is plenty of chest-beating and self-flagellation within the group, broken by jerky, turned-in steps and a hypnotic running-jump sequence done in a circle. Jennifer Tipton's effective bare-bones lighting, a scrim lit up at the bottom by a single white neon tube, dwarfs the dancers with their own shadows, which loom over the proceedings in unnerving fashion. Some of the symbolism is overt, like the group of dancers who suddenly fall to the floor in the shape of a cross, and some of it is subtle. What are we to make of Viola? She whips herself feverishly through this faceless bunch like a fury, all hair and limbs, then slithers around them like a serpent. She might be keeping them in line; then again, she might be tempting them to break ranks.

Enigmatic, too, is Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), although a little background here helps: When the original Sacre premiered in Paris in 1935, viewers were scandalized by Nijinsky's vision of pagan fertility rites in which a girl is sacrificed. Taylor has remade the piece into a black-and-white cartoon, a Hollywood B-movie, and a ballet parody all at once. Even the music comes in rehearsal form: Rather than the full Stravinsky score, we get a two-piano adaptation, played live here by concert pianists Julie Steinberg and Betty Woo. The dance is full of archetypes from each genre -- a stern Russian ballet master with a high fur hat, a gangster and his moll, a gang of bad guys. Just when we think we have the routine down, Taylor alters our perception like a fun-house mirror, interrupting a Keystone Kops chase with a dance rehearsal, and sending a knife-wielding villain into the serenity of White Picket Fence Land, where a brawl gets out of hand and takes us by surprise.

-- Heather Wisner

The American Canon
Long Day's Journey Into Night. By Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Laird Williamson. Starring Pamela Payton-Wright, Josef Sommer, Marco Barricelli, and Ariel Shafir. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through May 2. Call 749-2228.

Suddenly Last Summer. By Tennessee Williams. Directed by Neal Shorstein. Starring Anna Van der Heide, Colman Domingo, and Shannon McGrann. At the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through April 25. Call 289-2260.

From Royall Tyler's historic first American play in 1787 until Eugene O'Neill started writing in the early 1900s, we literally had no native drama, just a sorry tradition of melodrama and farce that's as obscure to most of us now as Tyler's name.

O'Neill's father made a small fortune acting in a long-running potboiler called The Count of Monte Cristo, and when the young playwright grew up he tried his damndest to write against that tradition. Instead of light, easy, love-affirming heroic plays he wrote long, torturous tragedies filled with conflicted and love-wrecked agonists. Long Day's Journey Into Night is one of those works, as well as a portrait of O'Neill's family, that milieu of actors and no-'counts he lived to redeem; it's also one of the best shows in the current ACT season.

Oh, I know what Steve Winn wrote about it. He said it was cautious and flat. But I thought the show's modesty made it strong. When ACT productions get ambitious someone always winds up spending too much money, and things start to twirl and whistle and shoot steam onstage, and the music gets loopy, and opening-night audiences applaud at the sheer ostentatious display of their donated dollars at work. But on Journey's opening night nobody clapped for the muted brown interior of the Tyrones' summer house, or their shabby-genteel furniture, or the scrimmed-in corners that showed us whether it was day or night in the yard. Kate Edmunds' set, like the rest of the performance, tried to be quietly effective.

O'Neill tells the whole sad history of the Tyrone family in one afternoon and night of oddly engaging conversation. We watch two loafing, atheistic sons bicker with their imperious Catholic father while their mother, Mary, tries to ignore the worst of the family's misery. Suspense for the audience comes in the form of wondering what's wrong with the younger son, Edmund (he has tuberculosis), and what Mary does upstairs (she shoots morphine).

The script focuses on Mary's slide from a bright and hopeful piano-playing girl into the ghost of a housewife we see onstage. "One day, long ago," she says, "I could no longer call my soul my own." In that sense she's what Nora might have been if she'd never walked away from home in Ibsen's play; and in that sense Long Day's Journey is religious.

Pamela Payton-Wright plays Mary like a torn, delicate piece of paper. Not until Mary comes down at the end, stoned on morphine, does Payton-Wright start hitting false and mannered notes -- reaching to imitate a dilapidated state of mind instead of actually inhabiting one. Up to that point she does a nerve-racking portrait of an American mother-in-denial. Her chemistry with Josef Sommer, who plays James Sr., feels affectionate and sharp, full of both neurosis and humor, while her long scene with the tart-mouthed scullery girl moves like a trance, backgrounded with the thrum of a foghorn played on what must be the lowest notes of an organ. When Edmund and James Sr. return from the doctor in that scene, an argument with Edmund climaxes in a hollered "NO!" that's like a magnified foghorn, full of vastation and dread.

Sommer brings a nicely shaded likableness to the failed, skinflint father O'Neill tried so hard to draw without rancor. He's a drunkard, a Shakespeare-quoting blowhard, and an intolerant old fart who doesn't trust books by Ibsen or Baudelaire, but he's also clever and self-aware enough to admit that the long-running play with which he made his money also cost him his enthusiasm -- what the old Catholic dares to call his "soul." His whiskey-drenched, nighttime conversation with Edmund about these things makes him sympathetic, even if that scene is too long.

Jamie, the belligerent older brother who drinks too much and loafs around, trying to conduct a second-rate stage career in his father's shadow, is played without as much likable dimension by Marco Barricelli. He's supposed to be sullen and defeated, but before he warms up it looks as if Barricelli himself would rather not be in the room. Soon enough he takes on Jamie's cynical growliness, though, and only improves after Jamie gets drunk -- roaring, whining, and staggering around like a sentimental bully. On opening night he kicked a half-full whiskey bottle off the stage into the front row.

Edmund is the tubercular younger brother who takes O'Neill's position in the family. He's hard to play, and Ariel Shafir does an uneven job in the role, sometimes seeming maudlin and overearnest, sometimes acting a little milky for a man who's been away at sea, but sometimes squeezing real lyricism from Edmund's poetic lines. By the point at which he has his long conversation with his father, Edmund has become a clear figure onstage, and Shafir delivers speeches about James Sr.'s stinginess as well as his own consumption with a passion that strains at (without ruining) the production's stately pace.

Journey lasts just shy of four hours. It starts a half-hour earlier than ordinary ACT shows (7:30 weeknights, 1:30 matinees) and the house manager only seems to allow the actors one curtain call. The production could be less cautious; it doesn't keep up the tension all evening, and it doesn't bring anything new to a play most of us have seen. But it's a respectable take, and by resting quietly on the virtues of its old monument of a script it manages some trancelike effects.

Tennessee Williams learned a lot from O'Neill, though between them you would think all women in the U.S. have trouble facing up to reality. Suddenly Last Summer is a short Williams play about a rich matron who irrationally wants the girlfriend, or consort, of her dead poet son lobotomized. (It was turned into a 1959 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor.) Violet Venable lives on an expensive New Orleans estate with a flower-dripping garden planted and tended -- until last summer -- by her son Sebastian, a sensitive young homosexual who wrote exactly one poem per year. When the play opens Violet is giving a tour of the garden to Dr. Cukrowicz, who does pioneering work in lobotomies.

This is another show dealing in revelations from the past, and Violet, like Mary Tyrone, has something to hide. She tells the doctor that she and Sebastian were very close until Sebastian went to Mexico with a woman named Catharine Holly, whom she suspects of being a murderous witch. Soon thereafter, Catharine comes onstage attended by a nun -- because she's a ward of a local Catholic mental hospital -- and turns out to be the only sane character in the play. After an injection of truth serum she spills the whole story of Sebastian's death to a garden full of proper Americans, who are properly horrified.

It's a funny Gothic notion elaborated into a 90-minute one-act in Williams' flowery, audience-considerate style. The characters are wittily and carefully introduced; the story comes out in well-controlled fragments, and the cast of this production is devoted to doing it well. Anna Van der Heide does a queenly, brittle Violet, self-possessed even when she flubs a line; Colman Domingo is courtly and polite, if occasionally a little stiff, as Dr. Cukrowicz; Shannon McGrann plays Catharine with an urgency that collapses into perfect helplessness after she's injected. Since no one is a native Southerner the accents quaver in and out; but director Neal Shorstein's habit of focusing a spotlight during certain long speeches helps the actors give force to their lines. This production also has something modest about it, a simple desire to make a good script work, and it turns a smaller piece of the American canon into something elegiac and warm.

-- Michael Scott Moore
Published:In our review of A Long Day's Journey Into Night ("The American Canon," Stage, April 14), we misidentified the actor playing Edmund. His name is Jason Butler Harner. SF Weekly regrets the error.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.