Stage

Gummed Up
Gum. By Karen Hartman. Directed by Jean Randich. Produced by the Magic Theater. Starring Laura Flanagan, Esperanza Catubig, Aldo Billingslea, and Helen Shumaker. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, Building D, through May 23. Call 441-8001.

Good theater is always political, but why is so much "Political Theater" so bad? An individual doesn't really exist apart from a society, and society is nothing if not a collection of individuals who react with or against it. Yet so many playwrights insist on starting with a thesis and creating characters to serve it, when, instead, their ideas should support the people they've invented.

The Magic Theater's newest production, Gum, uses songs, poems, quotations from the Koran, and a setting in a nameless, far-off country in which women are veiled, in the service of proving one point: Clitoridectomies -- "female circumcisions" -- are bad. This earth-shattering thesis may have struck someone at the Magic as revelatory, but without artistry or talent, it's just banal.

Playwright Karen Hartman's inspiration was a news story of a peculiar hysteria in a small town in Egypt: Gum imported from Israel was shunned there after rumors spread that it acted as an aphrodisiac, leading young single women to lose their virginity and even to have sex with multiple partners. Seen as an Israeli plot to sully Egyptian womanhood, the gum was banned and dealers were arrested.

At the beginning of her play, Hartman does recognize the comic possibilities of this report. Two sisters, Rahmi (Laura Flanagan) and Lina (Esperanza Catubig), set aside their veils to chew Western gum (Juicy Fruit, pun surely intended) rapturously, reverently. The younger, Lina, begs the older to tell her how the love potion of the forbidden gum caused her to participate in illicit acts with two college boys in the back seat of a car. Rahmi delights in relating the dirty details of her encounter, but Lina will never feel such pleasure, since her clitoris was removed when she was a baby.

Of course, Society will punish Rahmi for her transgression. Her fiance, Inayat (Aldo Billingslea), is supposed to be attracted to her wild spirit, though we have to take its existence on faith since it's only talked about, never demonstrated. Inayat learns about the back seat of the car. With Rahmi's (unseen) father's and aunt's blessings, he hopes to make his fiancee more properly uxorial by forcing her to undergo circumcision. Belaboring the point for those still not clued in (anyone?), Rahmi dies from the operation.

Hartman provides a copy of the original gum news article in the program as well as six other quotes, including this winner from Alice Walker's writing on female circumcision: "Over centuries, women begin to think that these things [what women do or wear to attract men] are beautiful, because the mind needs to rationalize what is happening when in fact it is about enslavement." The playwright might as well have put Roman numerals next to each quote, since she uses most of them in her dialogue, and they form an outline of her treatise (which she believes to be a play -- she's wrong).

Walker's quote muddies things up a bit: If it's wrong to curtail or obliterate female sexual desire, why is it wrong for women to desire being seen as attractive? Hartman wants it both ways, or more likely, she isn't sure what she wants, apart from an end to clitoridectomies.

A bigger problem for the play is that Catubig, as Lina, is a lighter, livelier, more frankly sensual presence than Flanagan as Rahmi. Catubig's lilting, musical voice is also more at ease with the stylized, poetical dialogue. She comes close to inhabiting Hartman's "fictitious faraway country," effectively portraying a girl literally cut off from pleasure, but hungering for it just the same. Flanagan's accent, however, is often flat and distinctly American. The actress and her role are never more than pawns of Hartman's Outrage.

Director Jean Randich moves the actors around the simple set effectively, but to little avail saddled with this ideological script.

Female circumcision was actually handled much more complexly and effectively in a 1997 episode of TV's Law & Order. In that compelling treatment of the issue, an Egyptian woman's fear of her American-born granddaughter's burgeoning sexuality was evident and deeply felt. Far from decreasing the horror of the practice, the segment elevated it, creating empathy for the grandmother even as her actions were condemned. Hartman doesn't bother to provide any emotional background in her play for the procedure, and thus doesn't even achieve empathy for its victims.

A writer's biggest challenge is to create a living, breathing individual or individuals; this effort can lead him or her to resort to cant, dogma, or the easy shortcuts possible in a genre like Political Theater, where he or she may try to substitute message for characterization.

Gum is a scant piece of agitprop that irritates instead of agitates.
-- Joe Mader

Bring in the B-Boys
Rennie Harris PureMovement. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), April 29-May 2.

This Philadelphia-based hip-hop crew opened and closed their show with a bang, in pyrotechnic displays of head spins and handsprings, but there were suggestions of actual gunshots scattered through the program, too. In an unorthodox pre-show talk, Harris, the company's choreographer and de facto elder statesman, explained why: His childhood experiences in a tough neighborhood and later, at the heart of a burgeoning hip-hop movement, inform repertory works like March of the Antmen. At the Million Man March, Harris found himself formulating an escape plan in case violence broke out, the way he'd seen it happen at so many hip-hop gatherings. "The first cat that comes up to me, I'm just gonna take him out," he jokingly recalled.

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