A Bang and a Whimper

I Was Looking packs a theatrical jolt; Remains is merely jolting

Graffiti murals (commissioned from a pool of street artists) hang like colorful laundry above the Zellerbach Playhouse stage, the front of which is curtained by an oversize rendering of Los Angeles. The Paul Dresher Ensemble, led by conductor Grant Gershon, is discreetly seated stage right. The talented seven-member cast enters, faces the audience and sings the title song, “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.” Composed by the Bay Area's John Adams with lyrics by poet/essayist/

playwright June Jordan and directed by Peter Sellars, Ceiling/Sky is nothing short of a miraculous piece of theater.

Based on a quote from a survivor of the 1993 Northridge quake, the show — more of a musical revue, really — introduces seven people whose stories reflect the anxious electric tension that seems to presage cataclysmic events. They are: Consuelo (Sophia Salguero), an undocumented Salvadoran single mother; Dewain (Harold Perrineau Jr.), a reformed gang leader and Consuelo's boyfriend; Rick (Welly Yang), a Vietnamese-American public defender; Leila (Kennya Ramsey), a black studies student who works in a family planning clinic; David (Jesse Means II), a Baptist preacher and Leila's sometime lover; Tiffany (Kaitlin Hopkins), a TV crime reporter; and Mike (Michael Ness), the cop whom Tiffany accompanies on patrol. Everyone hovers on the brink of crisis, ready for a seismic change in their lives.

If this sounds like a Movie of the Week, it's not. The songs — which are unabashedly pop in character — give us kaleidoscopic impressions of each character's concerns. Then, quickly and imperceptibly, these images lose their fragmentary nature and coalesce into discernible lives, so that between the consistently excellent performances, Adams' music and Jordan's libretto — clean, unadorned lyrics perfectly tuned to the show's you-are-there sensibility — we find ourselves in the company of fully formed and affecting human beings.

Sellars' direction, while not intrusive, leaves the unmistakable traces of a master everywhere. Performers are relaxed and confident, their solo turns carefully timed, deeply felt and dazzlingly effective. There is no showing off, no “acting” here. That they are also attractive people with splendid singing voices who are equally at home with solos and choral settings (such as the title number) is no small asset. Neither is the Dresher Ensemble, founded in 1985 to create and perform experimental music for the stage, recently expanded to perform the works of composers other than Dresher.

The show is shaped toward the inevitable climactic disaster. Tensions build and fade, only to build again. When the earthquake happens — it's done with sound and percussion and causes bodily vibrations without blasting one's ears — it's both a catastrophe and a relief. If the characters seem to scramble toward resolution, it feels right; people in crisis make quick decisions. The show's message, sung by the newly-out-of-jail black man, is the kind of revelation that can follow great calamity. As though glimpsing a heavenly apparition, Dewain sings, “I am the way I will be free.” It's a glorious anthem to human resiliency.

It's hard to know what to make of some accolades. I long ago gave up on the Oscars, but, like a lot of Americans, I catch myself still thinking British awards for “Best Play” mean something. Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love (written by Brad Fraser), for instance, has won “numerous [unnamed] prizes, including the London Evening Standard Award for Best Play,” according to the program notes.

Of course, anyone who has spent any time in London knows The Standard is a closer kin to, say, the New York Post than the Times (New York or London). Still: Best Play! Then there's the cast of the current production now in residence at the Magic Theatre, many of whom I've seen and admired in other productions. So it was a nasty jolt to encounter them in Remains, which begins as a TV sitcom wannabe and turns, Jekyll-and-Hyde-like, into a fraught melodrama about a serial killer who is — gasp! horror! — the best friend of one of the main characters.

Ostensibly about a group of alienated singles in Edmonton, Alberta, Remains is more of a teen-age horror movie. The set (Jeff Rowlings) is expressionistic in mood and design, with the action taking place in various minimally indicated apartments, while the members of the cast not participating in the scene languish in upstage shadows. Very Grimms fairy tale-esque.

David (David Arrow) is a gay man rooming with Candy (Delia MacDougal). His best friend, Bernie (Joel Mullinnix), who is married, hangs around constantly, getting drunk, picking up women and getting into fights. There's considerable ambiguity about their relationship, but it comes as no real surprise to learn that Bernie has been secretly in love with David all along. His way of dealing with this is to pick up young women and murder them, something it takes the folks onstage a lot longer to figure out than it does the audience.

There's a lot of angst about the singles scene and about their apparent predisposition to use sex as a panacea. Any human connection is either short-lived or instantaneously perverted. For instance, Candy is unaccountably the object of passion for both Robert (Jon Disavino), a bartender who turns out to be married, and Jerri (Lisa Ramirez), a lesbian whom she meets at the gym. (MacDougal is an attractive enough actor but can't come close to being the heartbreaker Jerri sees.) David, who once had a part on a television series, is now a waiter and the love object of Kane (Paul Colley), a confused 17-year-old who may or may not be gay.

Presiding over everything as the ghoulishly Elvira-like hostess is Benita (Nancy Shelby), a call girl/psychic friend of David's, who entertains the audience with apocryphal tales of slasher dates.

The whole thing has an adolescent feel to it, as though the intention were to shock. It's more like straying into some neighborhood kid's fun house on Halloween than an evening of theater. Which brings me back to the matter of all these awards. Perhaps I should keep in mind that London has given us such notable shows as Cats and Starlight Express. The former has a cat ascending to heaven on a tire, and the latter features a group of roller-skating cars from a choo-choo train. Enough said.

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky continues through May 21 at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley; call (510) 642-9988. Unidentified Human Remains … continues through June 4 at Magic Theatre in S.F.; call 441-8822.

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