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Pleasant Confusion 

The Mission's stories come alive in this clever but distracting puzzle of a play

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
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Naomi Iizuka's 17 Reasons (Why) reminds me in a funny way of The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. Spoon River is a poem cycle, not a play, but it fleshes out an Illinois town using a fugue of wistful, rhyming epitaphs from the local graveyard. The judge, the druggist, the village poetess, Dr. Meyers, and Dr. Meyers' wife (among others) reveal their lives and fates in short vignettes, and the result is a sort of broken-mirror portrait of a town's dirty secrets. It's clever and multifaceted, but also a little precious.

Iizuka's play covers an urban neighborhood -- the Mission -- in the same fractured style. She wrote it for the Mission-based Campo Santo troupe, and took her title from the mysterious and much-lamented sign that towered over the corner of 17th and Mission streets until it was removed last spring. ("17 Reasons Why!" it said, in Depression-era steel. Why what? No one knows. It was apparently a slogan for a furniture store that closed in 1975.)

The play unfolds in a series of 17 loosely connected scenes, starting in the contemporary Latino Mission but flashing back to Italian hipsters in the early '60s, Irish families at the turn of the century, and highwaymen during the Gold Rush. A story emerges, and we piece together connections and relationships. Tomás Santiago is a loose-limbed homeboy who watches someone get killed at Whiz Burger (on the corner of Van Ness and 18th Street). His grandfather was Hernan Sandoval, mambo champion of 1957, who dances (in a later scene) with his co-champion, Gloria Kantor, at the old Roosevelt Theater (now the Brava Theater Center on 24th Street). Tomás' girlfriend, Mildred, is a nurse in a retirement home where Mary Holland Sparks lives; Mary is a 167-year-old Mormon who remembers almost every era in the play.

Iizuka has done a lot of research, and it shows. She works in references to the buried Mission Creek, Ohlone Indians, runaway punks jumping freight trains (as reported in this newspaper), and a story about Black Bart, the ruthless but legendary stagecoach robber who lived in the Mission. Some of these references are self-conscious and strained; they smack of overcompensation by someone who knows the neighborhood but never lived in the city long. (Iizuka was born in Tokyo and has lived all over the world; she now teaches playwriting at UC Santa Barbara.) Scene 7 shows Leyla Cosmos, "a painter of murals and a beautiful dyke," talking with Malcolm Xavier Keene, a poetry-spouting tattoo artist. In places like these the show feels like a hokier Mission mural, with lots of cloying color and an eager, public-spirited enthusiasm for showing us the district as it wants to be seen.

Still, Campo Santo's acting can also turn the scattered mosaic into lively theater. Joe Lopez is electric as Tomás and as the tattoo artist Keene. Sean San José does his usual fine work as an Italian projectionist and as a detective named Victor Olvidado. Catherine Castellanos is strong in the first scene as Mary Holland Sparks and later as a German laundress; Roxana Ortega is entertaining as Mildred, ranting about local Mission odors or waiting for a Muni bus (although she's less compelling as the muralist). The funniest scene has San José, Luis Saguar, and Margo Hall playing loudmouthed hustlers at the Hotel Sunrise on Valencia. Hall is especially good: In cycling pants, a torn aerobics sweat shirt, pumps, and a big Afro, she swills Budweiser and lectures her friend on what's "tacky" and what isn't. The whole scene plays like hilarious early Mamet.

Kevin Cunz's versatile set and Suzanne Castillo's vivid costumes help bring the show to life, and Delia MacDougall has directed it thoughtfully. The play is like a Rubik's Cube, colorful and confusing, so MacDougall gets credit for making sure the confusion is pleasant.

Everything I've ever seen by Iizuka has been fragmented into puzzle pieces. Polaroid Stories was a classical-analogy play about street kids, told in snapshots; 36 Views was a series of scenes about an ancient Japanese pillow book; The Language of Angels told a ghost story set in a Tennessee cave from several different points of view. The concepts are always clever but distracting, so the audience spends more time chasing clues than sympathizing with well-developed characters. Her latest, 17 Reasons, is no different, but at least the acting is strong. If the show lacks drama or suspense, it still works as an anthology of good human stories, from living Mission residents as well as the forgotten and the dead.

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