Words, No Music

The Era of Time, Ernesto Ravetto's latest solo offering (written in collaboration with Cheyney Ryan and performed by Ravetto), attempts an ambitious exploration of belonging from the immigrant's point of view –in this case, the young Ravetto, who arrived in New York City from Argentina as a teen-ager in the '60s. When all the elements work together, the show has moments of authentic poignancy and drama. When its reach exceeds its grasp, as happens frequently, it's a clumsy mix of explicated text and oblique symbolism.

The show begins in the dark and remains there for much too long as Ravetto tries for different voices to indicate different characters who are apparently planning to spend the night on a beach. (This show, which closed Sunday, was at a disadvantage in the Solo Mio Festival in following James Lecesne, an unparalleled master of voice and character change. In comparison Ravetto sounds like a nice man pretending to be different characters.)

The first speaker is Pigeon Walter, a Noo Yawka with an accent to match. Walter (a former merchant seaman) begins a long version of the true story of Jemmy Buttons, a 19th-century aborigine from Tierra del Fuego who was taken to England to meet the king, but who didn't pass muster as an Englishman and was summarily sent home. Young Ernie is present on this beach for reasons we don't learn until the end. (It has to do with the rocky road of teen romance, betrayal, and — he hopes — forgiveness.)

From there we switch to the adult Ravetto narrating a story about another boy — himself as a newly arrived teen-age immigrant. His predicament of knowing no English is alleviated by an imaginative teacher who uses pop song lyrics to teach the language. Ernie gets himself some bell-bottom hip-huggers and a Nehru jacket and is subsequently invited to join a band. Everything evolves from here: Evolve is a big word for Ernie and his bandleading friend, Joey. It's the action of life, the way life flows onward.

Sound significant? It should. Everything has significance here: The show's title is also the name of their rock 'n' roll band inspired by the Byrds' (“Turn, Turn, Turn”) rendition of the famous biblical passage: “To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” As Joey's rather convoluted explanation puts it, “Everything up to now has been the Era of Space” in which things are fixed, static. “Now we're moving into the Era of Time, where everything's flowing.” This is a powerful theme in itself, but it's left undeveloped by Ravetto and Ryan in favor of Ernie's romantic fixation on Carol, a lovely blond classmate whom the sensitive Ernie will ultimately betray.

The problem with The Era of Time is too many themes too sketchily developed. Since the playwrights have not fully dealt with each of their ideas, the characters are stuck with trying to explain their actions. So instead of the desired catharsis, we get a series of forced conclusions. Ernie the outsider makes a shameful choice, but his process — which is the dramatic heart of the piece — is left unexplored.

Other themes bound past in breezy fashion as we shift back and forth from Ernie's memories to the beach where Walter goes on with the story of Jemmy Buttons — a transition that is nearly always a letdown. Ryan and Ravetto's attempt to make Walter memorable is restricted to giving him an amusing accent. His ceaseless talk — about his pigeons or where he grows his pot or whatever — seems without dramatic context and slows whatever momentum the piece has achieved.

However, it does reveal something about the creators' process: They are letting Walter find his voice, hoping he will say something dramatic. But quirky asides do not make character. Actions make character. Until they endow Walter with a more pressing dramatic need than to tell the story about Jemmy Buttons simply to fulfill the authors' needs, he's going to feel intrusive and redundant.

We are continually reminded of Ernie's need to belong, of his difficulties with language, of finding a costume with the power to transform him; and we understand that Jemmy and Ernie are metaphors for one another. But rather than lending depth, these thematic recurrences function as simple echoes: We just keep hearing the same story over and over.

Ravetto and Ryan want to give us Ernie's redemption, want us to be lifted up emotionally. They are very likely aware that they haven't made their case, and so they supply an additional bit of improbable mysticism by having Walter's pigeons drop in at Ernie's with the ponderous conclusion that “pigeons and maybe people never change.” Say what?

The Eureka Theatre Company is back with Autumn Canticle, a new play by John W. Lowell, directed by and starring David Ogden Stiers. This is a gentle meditation on the autumn (sorry) of two lives whose involvement has been both personal and professional for over 25 years.

Renowned composer Peter Billings (Daniel Caldwell) has just returned home after open-heart surgery, and his lover and premier interpreter, singer David Williams (Stiers), has not come to the hospital to pick him up. David has left this task to young Walker Dennison (Michael Oosterom), a worshipful Ph.D. candidate who has been functioning as the couple's chief cook and bottle washer for an indefinite period.

Various tensions circulate, but none of them flowers into a dramatically essential conflict: Peter is politically conservative, David is liberal. (For some undisclosed reason, the play is set in 1972, giving rise to references to Nixon and Lester Maddox, but the action remains unattached to any particular era and could as easily be unfolding today, making the historical references distracting and disorienting.) Peter supposedly longs for acceptance from his patrician family; David is a rebellious black sheep. Peter is frail and flies off the handle easily. David is irritable and flies off the handle easily. Walker is always around, always earnestly attentive.

Everyone's main focus is Peter and his health, so it does come as a surprise to learn that Walker and David have been indulging in hanky-panky. The disclosure of their involvement finally reveals the real drama at the heart of Autumn Canticle, that of the older lovers' lifetime of mutual secret-keeping, deception for the sake of art. The interchange between Peter and David in which David breezily admits to a perennial habit of convenient lies is riveting. The play is suddenly focused and, for the length of one stunning scene, holds the audience spellbound.

Lowell has paced his drama deliberately, hinting at conflict rather than delivering it. It is as though he has tossed a deck of “conflict” cards into the air and let them fall where they may. Even the big one — David and Walker's affair — lacks energy. There is no chemistry between these two men, and nothing much seems to be at stake, whatever they say, reducing it to mere contrivance of plot.

The company is severely hampered by its performance space, the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church (Post and Mason). While it's often used for concerts, its acoustics are death to the subtleties of the spoken word, making the nuances of the work of three fine actors virtually unintelligible. This is a defeating problem for a play as densely written as Autumn Canticle.

Stiers' direction is considerably less impressive than his performance. It consists largely of settling actors into chairs for long discussions that are repetitive, stagy, and a bit windy. But there is a play here somewhere. One of the gifts of using an extended musical metaphor is that the form can provide tempo and pacing. Here, the delicacy of design is overwhelmed by sheer wordiness, which in turn flattens the play and reduces its melody to a dull thud.

Autumn Canticle runs through Oct. 28 at First Congregational Church in S.F.; call 243-9895.

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