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Wednesday, Apr 22 1998
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Beverly's Party
Abigail's Party. By Mike Leigh. Directed by Tom Ross. Starring Susan Marie Brecht, Don Weingust, Lura Dolas, Philip Stockton, and Jessica Powell. Presented by the Aurora Theater at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth) in Berkeley, through May 3. Call 843-4822.

So far this season the Aurora Theater's plays have all been set in the 1800s, so the furniture has been sumptuous, musty, polished, and dark. But Abigail's Party leaps into the 1970s living room of an Englishwoman called Beverly Moss, who lives with her whipped husband Laurence among orange-toned wall hangings and chrome (or plastic?) shelves. An audience member last week was overheard saying, "This is nothing like their other shows," and cosmetically, no, it isn't. But the glaring set makes the play's black satire of its time and place all the blacker.

The show's really about two parties. Abigail, in the title, is a teen-ager who has compelled her mother to leave their apartment long enough to throw a raucous party. The mother, Sue, is the last guest to arrive at the other party, Beverly's adult booze-and-hors d'oeuvres affair, where things are not raucous at all but rather awkward, caught as they are between that dismal nether world of the baby-boomer late '70s and Mike Leigh's harsh fictional eye (Secrets & Lies, Naked).

Abigail never steps onstage: Her party works as a subtext to Beverly's. Sometimes we hear music and shouting, since Abigail's party is in the same apartment block, and Sue's long, divorce-weathered, unhip face looks harried all the way through. Beverly is younger-seeming, fashionable, with a bright dress that matches her wall hangings. The Generation Gap was a big '70s theme, and that particular fault line runs through Beverly's living room. Her husband is a square, suited eviction attorney with a taste for books and Beethoven; Beverly is a social butterfly. She says, "Great," in a nasal voice and keeps the guests well-supplied with drinks, fluttering here and there as the self-conscious center of a group that doesn't seem able or willing to deal with pain.

Most of Mike Leigh's scripts are cuttingly realistic, but this show seems more cartoonish than his movies or even the version of Ecstasy that played recently at the Speakeasy Theater. Maybe Susan Marie Brecht has too much fun playing Beverly to the hilt or maybe Leigh had too much fun writing her; in any case the show is artificial and heightened compared to the rest of Leigh's work. But still fun. Brecht does a fine, breezy job as Beverly; Philip Stockton is also good as the large and sullen guest Tony, who flirts with Beverly and infuriates Laurence. The talk in Abigail's Party keeps circling back to marriage -- as the talk has in every Aurora show this season -- and it's interesting to see hints of a master plan behind the outrageous shift in furniture.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Impermanent Art
Merce Cunningham Dance Company. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, on the UC Berkeley campus, April 3-4. Call (510) 642-9988.

In the early '50s, Merce Cunningham wrote a few essays with simple and definitive titles ("The Impermanent Art," "Space, Time and Dance," etc.) that made claims at once modest and grand for dance: Dancing, he said, "is a spiritual exercise in physical form. ... [W]hat is seen is what it is ... a visible action of life." In two of the six works the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed at Zellerbach Hall earlier this month, he showed us what he meant.

Cunningham's revived masterpiece Sounddance (1974) begins when the Christo-like curtain spanning the stage parts and Robert Swinston hurtles into view. He's the first of 10 dancers to suddenly materialize; the dance is a process of arrival. The dancers enter at intervals and fall directly into asymmetrical clusters of activity. All over the stage at different tempos, but mainly fast, they dance circles, seaweed-armed love piles, cartwheels, seesaw hops from one extended leg to the other, and loopy lifts where one dancer is swung through the air by five. A David Tudor score unattached to the choreography pings, chirps, swishes, whirs, and chugs. As dancers continue to arrive, we become acutely aware of the present, as if we were arriving. "In the beginning was the sounddance," James Joyce writes in Finnegans Wake. Cunningham has shown it to us.

Its warm, liquid tone invoked by the earth-colored sea-forest vines that hang in the background, Ground Level Overlay (1995) luxuriates in the complex patterning of Cunningham's later work: the latticework of bodies on bodies; one dancer delicately shadowing another's clear, planar, hyperextended motion; and the constant exits and entrances -- in threes, twos, fours, fives, or solo -- that are the heart of Cunningham's gorgeously impermanent art.

The dancers perform Overlay with unusual feeling. Stuart Dempster's underwater trombone music -- like moaning sea lions and Gregorian chants -- must have gotten the better of them. Cunningham has said that dancers' bodies should be "flexible steel," yet also have that "abandon ... that allows you to be human." Most of his technically stunning dancers stick to a blandified version of steel: well-pointed toes, dead torsos, and lonely-making blankness. Perhaps the Cunningham proscription against projecting any kind of sentiment onto movement has restrained the dancers from expressing what resides inside it. Or maybe the problem rests with the choreography. With the quietest of Eno and Eno-esque scores as ambience, Windows, Pond Way, Scenario, and Rondo employ awkward shuffles, long frozen poses, mannequin arms that counter the direction of the torso (unlike former Cunningham arms, which lay so flat on the back they floated upward), and rhythms that reject human time. Cunningham's pure art refuses anything but the dancing itself as the source of its weight or power; the dancer in the dance has to be alive for his art to survive.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Stage Tests
PlayGround. An "emerging playwright's festival" of seven works presented at A Traveling Jewish Theater, 2800 Mariposa (at Florida), April 13-19. Call 399-1809.

Words are an affordable medium -- unless you're a playwright. The cost of actors and performance spaces makes it difficult to test a script. PlayGround, now in its third year at A Traveling Jewish Theater, allows a few authors to try out new work. There was no scenery, but writers got to see their words articulated accompanied by the little variables that make theater unique: actors, lighting, costumes, and the response of the audience.

Half the skits on PlayGround's 1998 program were comic, two of these thriving on the tension created by silence, a serious investment when the writer has only 15 minutes. In Pishpurt a character (Ned Peterman) trying to get into heaven is stalled by three bureaucratic agents. They sleep, slurp noodles, and count forms, ignoring the anxious dead man. Author Alex Moggridge makes Peterman's trial before the tellers as long as an eternal 15 minutes in line at the bank, and unexpectedly funny. The superb absurdist short Reading in Bed was wordless until the final minutes as three well-mannered characters in prim smoking jackets all attempt to read the same book, Power Without Pain. They silently manipulate and connive, trying to get access to the tome. John Warren's direction of Reading in Bed was so airtight as to almost overshadow his own comedy, Parade Charade, a light skit in which holiday parade workers take their job too seriously. It showcased Warren's ability to write brisk dialogue about even the most frivolous topic.

Although most of the pieces were complete in their short form, Garret Jon Groenveld's The Voyage of Saint Brandaen tantalized with the story of a monk who drifts out to sea, alone in a boat, at the command of an angel. The hypnotic vignette related only the first phase of Brandaen's seven-year odyssey, and it was the sole piece that really left me wanting more.

The religious drama also featured the strongest performance of the evening, with Hansford Prince as the monk. He was part of a stable of six versatile actors who filled all the parts in the scripts, no easy job given the playwrights' admirable avoidance of stock characters and easy setups for conflict. With this not-so-small accomplishment, PlayGround fulfilled its purpose: allowing a place for works in progress to grow, without lowering expectations for quality theater.

-- Julie Chase

The Music Man
Lines Contemporary Ballet. Directed by Alonzo King. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), April 10-19. Call 978-ARTS.

In seasons past, choreographer Alonzo King has given viewers wailing sax and buzzing jazz bass lines in Pharoah Sanders' original compositions, along with clanging and tribal whoops in composer Miguel Frasconi's scores. With two new works -- set to another Frasconi piece and a suite of Arabic music by Nubian composer Hamza El Din -- King, whose ballets are unfettered by plot, has again shown viewers how seeing dance and hearing music can give way to "seeing" music.

Frasconi's music alone doesn't lend itself to casual listening. Like the work of other composers who've created experimental music for dance, including Philip Glass and John Cage (with whom Frasconi has worked), Frasconi's pastiche of environmental noise and discordant electronic music for King's world premiere Long Straight Line plumbs greater emotional and visual depths with moving bodies to propel it. Long Straight Line isn't; King molds his dancers into angles and squiggles and curves. They curl into fetal positions and carve their legs into sculptural stillness, or walk flopped over with their knuckles and heels pulling against the floor to the continual looping and shifting of Frasconi's soundscape.

King also plays with lighting to emphasize the lines of anatomy, putting one dancer under a spotlight and another in total darkness against the glow of white scrim, where her muscular curves emerge in silhouette. The recorded voices of Tibetan children and street sounds, navigated with aplomb by Summer Lee Rhatigan, nonetheless looked pieced together and proved an exception to King's generally seamless integration of music and dance.

But it wasn't enough to overshadow some memorable intersections where the music and movement suffused one another with soulful dimension: King's women, clad in pale green, unfurling their legs skyward like tender young shoots; or his men advancing in a line against a solo Ryan Brooke Taylor, who crossed through their human barrier in tantalizing slow motion, eying them warily. (Taylor, of Dance Theater of Harlem, and Eric Hoisington, of S.F. Ballet, are strong additions to the company.)

Tarab began with Hamza El Din himself seated to the left of the stage, where he prepared Western ears with the overture "Amen" ("Believe"), a meditative ebb and flow of song and music played on the oud. Chiharu Shibata and Gregory Dawson brought tension and longing to "Haelisa" ("Love Song"), the first of four divertissements. The music's pace and style shifted rather abruptly in "Ollin Alageed" ("Wedding Dance") as Din switched to percussion, but this section proved one of the evening's best illustrations of the seemingly limitless ways to match movement and sound. Against exact counts, dancers hop-stepped and swiveled their hips, curling their arms up, over, and around their heads with almost comic syncopation. Meanwhile, Rhatigan, whose musicality seems so boundless that it practically surges up through the top of her head, stirred her working leg around Taylor as if he were a pot of soup. King balanced the strict counts with phrases that floated over the top of the rhythm, giving a single piece of music multiple refractions. The program concluded with Suite Etta, King's winsome collection of dances embodying Etta James' bluesy laments and joyful exclamations.

-- Heather Wisner

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