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Wednesday, Oct 14 1998
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Mission Modern
"Mixed Program." Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival at Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St. (at Mission), through Oct. 18. The final week features commissioned work by Jesselito Bie of Steamroller, Kim Epifano, Remy Charlip, and others. Call 522-8793.

Weekend defectors from Gold's Gym and jazz and ballet studios occasionally show up for the modern dance class I take on Saturday mornings. They can do the combinations -- the puddle-jumping and floor-groveling -- but they're bewildered. It doesn't seem like dance to them, and they can't imagine why you'd be practicing it.

In the Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival's "Mixed Program" this past weekend, the most interesting works depend on that bewilderment. Working in the seminarrative mode favored by S.F. modern dance, these pieces stretch recognizable situations and gestures to the breaking point, creating insight by turning the common strange, and the strange suddenly intelligible. (An exception is choreographer and Lines dancer Yannis Adoniou's Love Sonnet. This seaweed-sperm ode to love is the one successful dance that mines a different, more abstract vein.)

Choreographers Sally Clawson, Sue Roginski, and Samuael Topiary use an actual chair to represent the "seat" of Seat of Passion. To the beat of a relentlessly chipper square dance tune, the members of this threesome exchange perky kisses like steps in a predictable dance; they're mapping out the footwork beneath the enigmas of passion. Later, two smooch overtime, and when the third is up, she substitutes a jealous slap for a kiss. Trying to square this triangle of desire, the trio splinters off into happy duets and miserable solos -- the unstoppable music stopping for the occasion -- before they regroup for more "square" dancing.

In Debby Kajiyama's Dancing Underneath You, Blane Ashby and Kajiyama convey the inner experience of a girl aptly named "Obsessive" by shoulder-cartwheeling neatly around the rim of the stage and shaking an invisible conch shell at their ears, as if to find, in the world, the far-off ocean whisper murmuring in their heads.

Occasionally, the promising works on the program settle too close to, or too far from, a recognizable vernacular. Wayne Hazzard and Mercy Sidbury's sweet, funny romp through the last three decades of lesbian/gay history incisively portrays lesbian-gay friction when Hazzard, Sidbury, Kajiyama, and Ashley Hayes stretch a wide circle of cloth into a boxing ring and, fists clenched, switch places as if creating a huge cat's cradle. Unfortunately, the dance also resorts to tired musical cues to mark the passing decades ("Strawberry Fields" for the '60s; the disco Top 10 for the '70s), and its "happy ever after" is too predictably so.

Kevin Ware's The Man I Love, however, proves that even images you'd expect to grow faint through overwork can become newly freighted. Ware, an African-American, wields and yields to a rope coiled like a hangman's noose, while Cedric Brown sings "Be My Husband (and I'll Be Your Wife)." Tying together the legacy of slavery and terrorism with the abjectness of love, The Man I Love binds history to the moment.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Acts of Desperation
"Death Defying Acts." Directed by Tom Ross. Three one-acts by Woody Allen, David Mamet, and Elaine May. Starring Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, Sara Heckelman, Andrew Hurteau, and Paul Vincent O'Connor. Presented by the Aurora Theater Company at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave. in Berkeley, through Nov. 1. Call (510) 843-4822.

Bigger isn't always better -- as Berkeley's Aurora Theater Company proves once again. Artistic Director Barbara Oliver's knack for picking solid, character-intensive plays, together with the company's habitually excellent acting and inventive stage design, consistently transports theatergoers beyond the confines of this little theater-in-the-round, where 60 seats encircle a thimble-sized stage.

I've traveled many places at the Aurora: from a U.S. expatriate's home in late-19th-century Venice, to an incest-haunted home deep in the American South, to a wintry Norway. To open this season, director Tom Ross uses the off-Broadway omnibus hit "Death Defying Acts" to take us to a literal hell full of red tape in David Mamet's An Interview, to a suicide intervention office in Elaine May's Hotline, and to a Central Park West apartment (where the closets are stocked with plenty of skeletons) in Woody Allen's Central Park West.

In An Interview, hell's way station -- that place where sentences are doled out -- isn't so different from a police interrogation room: It's furnished with a gray steel table and chairs, an ashtray, and a pack of cigarettes. A spotlight suspended from above shines stark light on the faces of captive sinners. Played by the powerfully persuasive Paul Vincent O'Connor, the Attorney soon realizes during his Q&A session -- conducted by a pencil-twiddling "Attendant" (Warren Keith) -- that his verbal trickery and Latinate tongue-twisting will not fool this judge and jury. The Attendant responds to the Attorney's logorrhea with, "You lost me ... from the beginning." And the razzle-dazzle lawyer now loses his most important case; after the Attendant cross-examines him on the never-committed crime of burying his neighbor's lawn mower, the Attorney breaks down and admits to a laundry list of real crimes, from perjury to adultery.

The sentence is read: The Attorney will spend an eternity in rooms like this one.

Hell is full of fallen angels, some of whom started life as psychological counselors. In Elaine May's Hotline, Warren Keith reappears as Dr. Russel, the nervously twitching, Freud-babbling father figure who hovers over novice suicide counselor Ken Gardner (Andrew Hurteau). If the first of these one-acts portrays a character who realizes his own limitations, here we watch counselor Ken develop a serious God-complex: "Wait," he says, "I have another life to save." By the end of the act, we're wondering in fact who needs the real help, the callers or Ken; a potential suicide named Dorothy asks him, "Are you really this dumb?" It's clear, eventually, that hell isn't the only place where people are damned or saved.

Finally, in Woody Allen's comedy of manners Central Park West, we meet bored sinners stuck in earthly paradise. There's a cornucopia of hotline-worthy dysfunction at the home of loquacious Phyllis (Sara Heckelman), who has decorated her desirable address with trendy abstract art. As she throws back the gin and tonics, judgelike, she solicits confessions of deceit and adultery. Her mealy-mouthed and collagen-injected friend Carol (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) comes clean as the lover of Phyllis' husband, Sam; but Sam (Paul Vincent O'Connor) is no longer interested in Carol, having found a new, leggy twentysomething played by Johanna Mattox.

"I'm lost, I'm lost," Carol whines, and so might you be, in these eternal and infer-nal circles.

If these three playlets chart different social terrain, they share a common vision: a distaste for those who self-aggrandize at the expense of real human contact and communication. And in spite of the witty repartee common to these pieces, we certainly get a strong sense of deep desperation. The direction and the actors bring a rare expressivity to the short dramas (Paul Vincent O'Connor's Attorney is nearly perfect), walking that fine line between playful wit and serious solemnity, and strongly driving home a sense of the struggle not just to survive, but to feel a sense of place in the world.

The few sour notes come mostly from the writing, as with Woody Allen's strings of sexual humor. ("You're the all-American whore ... your diaphragm should be put in the Smithsonian," or, "You'd fuck a snake if someone held its head long enough.") Allen's neurotic characters have become so cliched that they are unable to carry the weight of their deeds, particularly when placed in the same production as Mamet's. And if Hotline begins to reverse the counselor/patient model, showing Ken to be more screwed up emotionally than his callers, this act's slapstick humor and amplified emotion often seem plain silly. Mostly, though, the character-driven acting, creative, small-space set design, and upbeat directing effectively transport us across times and spaces to show just how desperate we really are, and how far we're willing to go to survive.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

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