Taking the Heat
Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen. Written and directed by Rodrigo Duarte Clark. Starring Luz de la Riva. At El Teatro de la Esperanza, 2940 16th St. (at Capp), Second Floor, through May 24. Call 255-2320.

The lead character in Rosita's Jalapeno Kitchen starts the show by trying to send everybody home. “Lo siento very much, but Rosita's Kitchen is closed,” she says, addressing the audience, adding that a strip-mall developer is buying the section of the Salsipuedes barrio where she runs her cafe. Then she starts to pack. Her kitchen is a warm space with bright pink walls and a flamy jalapeno pattern on the curtains, chairs, and barstools; against a rear window is a rusted gas stove. Unable to ignore a stranger, Rosita tells the audience that she's under pressure to sell out because everyone else on the street already has; she waves the contract papers but can't bring herself to sign; finally she hides them in the fridge.

This is a one-woman show, and Rosita tells her stories by imitating friends and family, meaning that a single performer not only plays more than one person but often plays more than one person at a time. The best example is a scene that has Tencho, an old chile gardener, recounting his dream of Rosita trying to hold off the developers' bulldozer with a frying pan. Luz de la Riva plays Rosita imitating Tencho imitating Rosita, and this tour de force is pulled off without a visible seam in either the acting or the script.

The only seam I noticed at all, in fact, was a faint lapse in conviction when Rosita spoke to imaginary characters, either on the phone or outside the cafe. But that's a quibble, because de la Riva's range of feeling is wider than most performers', and she turns a story of urban renewal into an emotional whirlwind. Anger is there, of course, but anger is easy; she's also strong with emotions like sadness and love. Rosita's back-story about romance and an arranged marriage in Mexico (which drove her to Salsipuedes, in the United States) might be the likeliest place for a comic show with a political charge to show evidence of dry rot; but it's one of de la Riva's most compelling scenes.

Another excellent scene is a long dream of Rosita's about the afterlife. Everything in heaven is white. The pale kitchen has an electric stove (bad for tortillas) and a fridge full of milk, mayonnaise, cauliflower, and tofu. The only place she can find a jalapeno is in hell, ruled by a reefer-smoking Satan who talks like a pachuco — but if she indulges, she has to stay. “Crowded neighborhood,” St. Peter warns, “poor air quality, unemployment. … No art.” Rosita indulges.

If it sounds like this show romanticizes Latino culture and pitches into easy targets like the strip mall — well, it does. But Rosita is excellent company. Her character keeps the play alive with pure spirit, and even though she tries to evict everyone from her kitchen at first and her neighborhood itself (Sal-si-puedes means “get out if you can”) no one in the audience really wants to leave.

— Michael Scott Moore

In the House
Singer's Boy. By Leslie Ayvazian. Directed by Carey Perloff. Starring Olympia Dukakis, Gerald Hiken, Anne Pitoniak, Stephen Caffrey, and Michele Shay. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Powell), through June 1. Call 749-2228.

Singer's Boy, premiering at the ACT, labels itself a “darkly comic fable for adults.” This is as opposed to those sunny, fluffy pieces like The Little Mermaid, where a sea nymph sacrifices her voice, fins, and life for a self-absorbed prince. Singer's Boy takes images and dark humor from the fable genre, but the perky narrative that molds iconography into a bedtime story is left for the kiddies. This is for adults; we're too sophisticated for stories. All we need is the gingerbread house, a trapped woman, and a virile young man. Fill in the gaps with skittles of Beckett-esque dialogue and you have Singer's Boy. If this sounds harshly reductive, it is. Leslie Ayvazian's play distills mythic ingredients into 200-proof meaning; it's like moonshine — you respect its strength, but it doesn't go down smoothly. The work is so self-consciously theatrical and metaphorical that it leaves the audience squirming for relief. Quirky humor and a solid cast, led by Olympia Dukakis, temper the potent potable, but not often enough.

Dukakis plays Grace, a sixtysomething hermit hiding from the world in a frame house overtaken by ivy. Distressed and disheveled, Grace is trapped in her role as her parents' caretaker. There's also a neighbor, a gadfly and sexpot called Singer. Grace's one retreat is dreaming about Cortez the conqueror and prattling on about the Aztec pyramids, all consumed with vegetation just like her own casa. (The conquering kudzu is revealed when the roof lifts off the interior set and the house spins around.) Grace's mother stumbles into the kitchen whispering to the audience that her daughter miscarried two children — if Grace is obsessed with blood sacrifice, lost souls, and powerful women like Cortez's companion, La Malinche, there's a motive. Safe in her emotional prison, Grace has no need to leave the house — until a young man (Singer's current boy toy) arrives and offers to cut the vines. But everyone stalls: Don't cut the roots, Grace screams; her father climbs on the roof; the Singer tries to tempt the boy away with fruit.

Grace's paralysis is communicated with frustrating repetition. “I've got to get out,” she wails repeatedly. (You can sense the Godotian stage directions: She stays.) “That sentence is without meaning,” her father observes astutely. Singer's Boy is afflicted with continuing gridlock, because the characters are motivated by what they represent, not who they are. Grace's father is the patriarchy; her mother, dependency; the Singer is the wild woman. We know these folks from the fairy-tale template, and, from the opening monologue, it's clear that Grace is gearing up to break her bonds. Grace needs out, freedom from her emotional cage. And in the end she scales her house to gaze up at a full-moon-and-bubbles night sky. “To ascend the steps of the pyramid is to embrace a cosmos sustained by sacrifice,” Paul Walsh writes in the notes to the play. Sacrifice is integral to a woman's nature, but if you've read The Little Mermaid you already knew that. [page]

— Julie Chase

Gin 'n' Juice
The Gin Game. By D.L. Coburn. Directed by Maria Mazer. Starring John Robb and Lee Brady. At the Phoenix Theater, 301 Eighth St. (at Folsom), through May 18. Call 621-4423.

A show about two people playing cards in a nursing home might sound about as fun to the uninitiated as staying home with your parents; but D.L. Coburn's 1976 play The Gin Game is actually a terrifying glimpse of an innocent relationship sliding into violence and misery. Even if you can still get that at home, the Phoenix Theater at least offers it in a potent but limited dose. The play is about Weller Martin, a cranky ex-businessman who likes to play cards, and Fonsia Dorsey, who meets him on the back porch of their dilapidated, low-rent retirement home and agrees to a quiet game of gin. Fonsia says she's never played gin before, but she keeps winning. She's a sweet-tempered woman, wearing a housedress and a cardigan; after a few winning hands she points out primly to Weller that she isn't used to foul language. “My father never smoked or cursed or ran around,” she says, but Weller chews on cigars and swears like a street kid. At first he comes off as gruff-yet-kind, but the more he loses to Fonsia, the higher his blood pressure creeps.

Their first day of cards is Visitors Day at the home, and they distract themselves with gin because no has come to visit. Weller has lost touch with his family; Fonsia says her son lives in another state. And they're both divorced: So the card game becomes a shadow play of their old relationships. When Fonsia won't stop winning, Weller growls, “What are you, some kind of witch?” and suggests that Fonsia has “divine intervention” on her side. She points out that what Weller has called “bad luck” for most of his life might just be an excuse for incompetence and ill temper. Weller starts to shout. “You know what the problem is with most people in the world today? They have a mother just like you!” And — twisting the knife — he wonders out loud why her son never comes to visit: “I'll bet you made him feel like the lowest piece of crap, didn't you?”

That's a brisk summary of a few of their card sessions, but the idea is that the gin game, like more than enough marriages, degrades into a grudge match of gender-resentment. When Fonsia tries to quit, Weller won't let her. When she tries to lose, he gets mad. Weller accuses her (bewilderingly) of “playing games.” John Robb and Lee Brady are both excellent in their roles, stoking the anger until it surges into something almost cathartic; Coburn won a Pulitzer Prize for the script in spite of its truncated ending. Brady seems a little more settled and comfortable as Fonsia than Robb does as Weller — all her gestures and inflections are honest — but Weller himself is a more uncomfortable person. He's a windbag, and if Robb acts a little more self-consciously like a windbag than necessary, it doesn't keep the card game from being an involving, unsparing show.

— Michael Scott Moore

Mr. Big Stuff
Making Porn. Written and directed by Ronnie Larsen. Starring Ryan Idol, Joanna Keylock, Paul Michael, Patrick O'Connor, Peter Macchia, and Mitch Ellis. At the Cable Car Theater, 430 Mason, through May 18. Call 956-8497.

Making Porn, by Ronnie Larsen, opens a peephole onto the seedy, grimly funny world of gay pornography in the early 1980s. Although the second act fails to live up to the seductions offered by the spicy first, and the physical direction at times feels limp, the play deftly chisels a tale of desire and power, and how love sometimes slips between the two.

With almost cinematic splicing, the story cuts through a series of short, mostly two-person scenes, framing the struggles within a small gay-porn production house. Two-bit porn impresario Arthur has alienated his longtime lover, Jamie, who thereupon falls in love with the bright-eyed, bushy-tooled Ricky. Their seduction scene is teased out in the tenderest of terms, given their world. Jamie: “You're adorable.” Ricky: (bashfully) “Really?” Jamie: (in explanation) “Do you want to see my hard-on?” Enter Jack, an untalented actor with a fabulous physique, played by real-life gay porn legend Ryan Idol. Jack has concealed his career from his wife, Linda, telling her that he's in “education videos.” When Linda discovers the truth, she insists on coming to the set to watch. Her initial disgust quickly turns to impatience at Jack's unwillingness to take financial advantage of his talents. “I wanted to be a ballerina,” she remarks. “Do you know why I didn't? I can't dance. Think about it.”

Making Porn avoids moral browbeating, yet it also fixes its gaze on the industry's ugliest edges. When the specter of AIDS appears in the second act, Larsen paints the prevailing attitudes of the time in dark, bitterly funny tones. Arthur complains about actors wanting to wear condoms, and then muses that a vaccine is just around the corner. “Even if the vaccine comes out in May, then it takes a few months for everyone to get it,” Arthur whines. “I can't make another film until August.”

Since there's been speculation whether Idol is himself gay or straight, his role as this ambiguous character does little to put the questions to rest. Though the star's well-hung notoriety may be essential to the play's successful marketing, Idol's wooden performance as the awkward, straight dude is one of the few false notes of the evening. While he is supposed to be uncomfortable with his status as porn hunk, he attacks the sex scenes with professional verve — pumping and preening with self-conscious, statuesque poise. The real star is Joanna Keylock as Linda, who pulls off a rather unlikely transformation from married legal secretary to porn maven with impassioned aplomb. Along with Paul Michael as the tyrannical Arthur, Mitch Ellis as his disillusioned partner, Jamie, and Peter Macchia as the irrepressible boy wonder Ricky, Making Porn provides more than a fun-house tour into a sexual underworld; it draws us under the sheets with a group of characters whose complexity defies even our most prurient expectations. [page]

— Carol Lloyd

The War at Home
Bold Girls. By Rona Munro. Directed by Naomi Gibson. Starring Frances Ferry, Janet Ward, Patricia Miller, and Gabrielle Breathnach. Presented by the Viaduct Theater Company at Kate O'Brien's, 579 Howard, through May 31. Call (510) 540-5554.

The Belfast kitchen setting of the first scene of Bold Girls has a working kettle for tea and a supply of potatoes and sandwich meat that gets chopped and eaten during the show. Plastic dinosaurs on the floor (evidence of kids) and real Irish programs on a black-and-white TV also spoil any pretensions to Irish nostalgia or romance you might have hoped for walking into the theater. Later the four women go to a pub and listen to Diana Ross.

Realism goes in and out of style on the stage, but I love this kind of thing. When it's done well it can evoke a feeling better than most expressionism or fantasy. The feeling here is futility, jadedness, sadness; the four women live not just in a domestic mire but also in a war zone. They gossip and smoke and peer out the window whenever something explodes. Marie's husband was killed by the British, and her fond memories of him become the play's dramatic focus. Nora is her nervous, sweater-wearing neighbor; and Cassie, Nora's daughter, is a brash 35-year-old who wears black heels, a camouflage tank top, and a skirt, with stacked dark hair and thick makeup. She has a history with Marie's husband that gradually — too gradually — gets revealed; and during a skirmish outside a mysterious girl named Deirdre knocks and asks for shelter. She turns out to be an illegitimate, um, relative of Marie's husband.

The story is long and involved, and the revelations in the second act drag; but watching the relationships unfold among the three main women is enthralling. Frances Ferry has a talent for bile that flourishes in Cassie's monologues — “I've had men tell me I was an angel come down from heaven to save 'em from a sea of whiskey,” she says, with an ironic twist in her mouth. “Hounds, every last one of 'em.” And Patricia Miller does a near-seamless job as a kind but sharp-tongued widow. But the script also drives each woman to some kind of emotional extreme, and each actor winds up overacting in her own direction. A military raid on the pub that involves a lot of yelling, body contortions, and flashing lights is a good example because it tries to evoke horror and confusion in a half-expressionistic way; it fails because the rest of the play's realism is so convincing. The show is funny and strong when the women are simply themselves.

Rona Munro wrote Bold Girls when a theater in Scotland asked her to come up with “a play about women's lives in the north of Ireland.” That assignment may account for both the realism and the strain in the script, because Munro apparently doesn't live in Belfast and had to do conscious research for the play. But she points out in the program that Belfast has already changed since the show was first put on in 1991; like all war zones it's a transient place, and transience may be the best reason to make and see realistic works of art.

— Michael Scott Moore

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