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Wednesday, Mar 17 1999
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Cult Awareness
Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother. Written and directed by Deborah Swisher; starring Swisher. At Brava Theater Center, 2789 24th St. (at York), through March 28. Call 647-2822.

The title of the play may be Hundreds of Sisters and One Big Brother, but Deborah Swisher's one-woman show at the Brava Theater is not your standard Big Brother, paranoid, angry piece about cults. In fact, it's a complex, compassionate, funny, and ultimately poignant play about her life growing up in the Synanon commune.

Synanon began in the late '60s/early '70s as a drug and alcohol rehab program and later grew into a "religion." It had all the earmarks of a classic cult society -- families were separated (children and parents lived in different areas of the commune), contact with the outside world was limited and discouraged, people who left the community were forbidden to have contact with those who remained, and so on.

Swisher's portrayal of her mother, Hannah, is particularly tender. Hannah's pain when Deborah and her sister, Delia, are sent to live with the other kids and she heads to the adult area -- known as the "Adultery" -- is written not only across her face, but across her entire body. And Hannah's advice when Deborah finally chooses to leave the group and go to college at 18 is portrayed simply and bravely: Though Deborah's leaving means Hannah will effectively lose all contact with her daughter, she still advises her to go, as long as she "doesn't talk to strangers." Hannah's hopes for her daughter and her willingness to give up her child for her child's sake are played completely devoid of all dripping sentimentality -- no easy feat.

There are many hard moments in the play: when Deborah is confronted as "evil," "selfish," and "ugly" in the weekly group-therapy session known as "The Game"; when she absorbs her peers' harsh criticisms and views herself as bad; when she is forced to disown the older sister she idolizes because she left the group. Each of these is painful -- and, in many ways, all too familiar to anyone who's made it past 16 -- but again Swisher plays the events with a frankness and an admirable lack of self-pity; the moments and the emotion are real, and very moving.

But the show's humor is also real -- like the boobs-forward walk of Deborah's friend Alyssa when the two get to go to the mall. The scene in which Swisher loses her virginity is hilarious -- she turns it into an outlandish sporting event, complete with outside commentary over the loudspeakers. And the humor has not so much an acerbic bite, as a softer cleverness and wonderful sense of irony. When Swisher cocks her head full to the side, widens her unusually large mouth into a toothpaste smile, and assumes the character of Mary, one of the many "mamas" in the play and a leader for the children, you can see how Mary views herself both as a sort of cruise director and also as someone who really believes she is doing the right thing. It's funny, all right, but there's no bitterness in it.

The stage is left predominantly bare; there's a chair, a few props, and seven papier-máche-like hangings that serve mostly as backdrops for projected titles to the various scenes, leaving plenty of room for Swisher's antics (she dances, cavorts, and even puts on a minor gymnastics show). Swisher is a very physical actress; her face is incredibly mobile and her body language is exaggerated, both because a child's world is an exaggeratedly big one and because she uses physicality as well as vocal intonation to distinguish each of her characters from the others.

Additionally, music clips are used to highlight the passage of years and set the mood, a mood periodically aided by various voices commenting over the PA system. Interestingly, the only major role Swisher never assumes is that of Synanon's founder, Charles Dederich; his voice is heard only over the loudspeaker, usually pronouncing new decrees (all married couples should divorce and extend their ability to love by marrying someone else, for example). As a result, he's the only nonsympathetic character in the show.

At the end, Swisher shows slides of other cults and communes and talks about the Branch Davidians, which puts her story into a larger framework, but also gives the play something of a preachy, political feel. She speaks with sympathy of the Branch Davidian who ran back into the flaming Waco compound; she identifies because, after all, her own mother walked her to the gate of the Synanon compound when she finally left, and then turned around and went back in. You almost wish Swisher had ended her story there; that moment alone said enough.

-- Moira Muldoon

Gay Here and There
The Untamed Stage, or Die Wilde BYhne, a musical revue. Musical direction by Scrumbly Koldewyn. Production and stage coordination by John Karr. Starring Helen Shumaker, David Bicha, Leigh Crow, Bob Ernst, Kim Fowler, Arturo Galster, Beni Ocker, and Erin-Kate Whitcomb. At the 7th Note Showclub, 915 Columbus (at Lombard), through March 25. Call 820-3217.

Traitor to the Cause. By Terri Kasch. Directed by Jason Ries. Produced by Mike Balsam for Grindstone Theater. Starring Jason Arquin, Carrie Chantler, Matt Dingess, Andrew Kelsey, and Lindsay Martell. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), through April 3. Call 421-8346.

For no apparent reason, Weimar-era cabaret is suddenly hot. Three separate events reviving the cynical and sultry music of 1920s Berlin happened around the city last week, and the one that's still running is in North Beach, where American music from about the same era -- big-band swing -- has been in a state of revival for the last five years. So why cabaret? Or rather, what's taken so long? The blend of swing and gay culture in this town makes the wait for a Kabarett renaissance kind of confusing. Maybe no one has discovered that you can dance to German jazz. Maybe there's a shortage of German-speaking drag queens. But maybe the general population of San Francisco just doesn't know what it's missing.

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