Facial Hair

Salvador Dali Talks to the Animals & The Beard

Steve Winn's amusingly ill-informed article last month on fringe theater in the city suggested that the '60s, '70s, and even the '80s were more adventurous times for playgoing here than the '90s. That might well be true. But how would he know? The Chronicle critic makes a point of missing most local experimental stuff. (He held up Teatro ZinZanni as a "deconstruction," but he doesn't seem to have heard of Art Street, Unconditional Theater, or Kaliyuga Arts.) Fortunately -- and by accident -- the Exit Theater is testing Winn's proposition this month with a pair of plays, one old and one new, in its Absurdist Season.

Michael McClure's beat classic The Beard was one of San Francisco's cultural scandals when it premiered in 1965. Cops shut down its fifth performance and arrested the cast on obscenity charges. Almost two weeks later it opened again in Berkeley; again the police turned up; this time a noisy audience drove them away. The ACLU got involved in the subsequent trial, and after five months the obscenity charges went away, too.

Was the play worth the trouble? The Beard imagines what might happen if Jean Harlow met Billy the Kid in heaven. It's short, repetitive, pseudo-religious, and obscene. Norman Mailer's assessment that it "serves almost as subway stops on that electric trip a man and a woman make if they move from the mind to the flesh" now seems, like so much of Mailer, flatulent. The Beard is about flesh from beginning to end. The Kid puts the moves on Harlow, and she resists, for a while. The lush unreal setting -- "a blue velvet eternity" -- and Harlow's un-profound refrain ("Before you can pry any secrets from me, you have to find the real me") are less interesting than Harlow's vulnerable sass. With obvious pleasure she calls Billy dumb, "a floozy," "a cunt," and "fulla shit." Then she gives him her panties. "They're warm," he says. "Whadja expect," she shoots back, "ice?"

The Oddest Fish in Our Pond of Experimental Theater: Dan Carbone (center) with Erica Blue and John Baumann in Dali.
John Sowle
The Oddest Fish in Our Pond of Experimental Theater: Dan Carbone (center) with Erica Blue and John Baumann in Dali.

The only reason this production works is Jen Fitch's performance as Harlow; she flickers between boredom, half-interest, playfulness, and cruelty. In spite of peroxided hair, black eyebrows, and legs stretching from her peignoir, Fitch doesn't look like the screen goddess so much as invent her own mystique. Adam Chipkin's Billy the Kid lacks a sense of danger; he needs to be immature and brooding where he's just knowing and wry. And the play as a whole is an unimportant riddle. (Who cares, for example, why these two American icons are wearing paper beards?) It's worth reviving only as a measure of how much has changed since 1965, because any cop attempting to close the show now would be laughed all the way down Eddy Street.

Salvador Dali Talks to the Animals also concerns a cultural icon with eccentric facial hair. It's Dan Carbone's first full-length play, as far as I know -- developed especially for the Absurdist Series -- and Carbone has got to be the oddest fish in our pond of experimental theater. Shaped like a turnip, with a greedy boyish smile and a furze of gray hair, he looks nothing at all like Salvador Dali, but that doesn't restrain him. The play's first half shows the ghost of the old Spaniard in heaven, fielding talk-show questions from a cultured cow. Carbone plays Dali in a white robe, with towering mustaches. The illusion is barely convincing until the second act, though, when scenes from Dali's lifelong affair with Gala Eduard play out in semirealistic fast-forward.

Carbone made a local name for himself at the '98 Fringe Festival with Up From the Ground, an elegant short piece about a Southern family perplexed by a giant, beautiful flower growing in its cornfield. The story itself had a bizarre sad beauty, and the snatches of comic surrealism Carbone performed as companion skits were among the funniest things I've ever seen onstage. In one scene he compared a reverent but tacky portrait of Christ with a photo of a smiling horrible monkey wearing a pretty bow. ("Jungle Belle.") Jesus and Jungle Belle both reappear in Dali. Their portraits are oddly similar, and remembering them from Up From the Ground nearly made me fall out of my seat.

By itself, though, Dali isn't as funny. The homage to a great surrealist runs on the idea of surrealism rather than surrealism itself. In Act 1, after the talk show, Dali's ghost does a sitcom (I Love Dali), goes on a tiger hunt, and appears as the Easter Bunny in the scatological dream of a cow as scripted by the writers of a children's program. My God, is it weird. Some parts are even funny. But the work as a whole feels like a vaguely self-conscious jumble of goofy ideas; the show has no coherence -- logical or otherwise -- until the second half, when Dali rejects his TV family for Earthly memories of Gala.

The discipline of realism is good for Carbone, and his impressions of Dali at various stages of life -- young and in love, middle-aged and successful, decrepit and cuckolded -- improve with John Sowle's costumes. Unreal scenes still erupt into the story (Dali's art-crit slide show, for example), but the events of his life need no embellishment by the end. The best scenes show Gala cruising for boys in the back of her limousine, and flirting with the lead of Jesus Christ Superstar, Jeff Fenholt. (True story.) Of course Fenholt looks like Jesus. And when they join the king and queen of Spain -- the queen with a brace for her arm, so she can wave -- who out-foul-mouth a couple of hip '60s art types, it's clear that Carbone has found his way into a new kind of strangeness.

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