The Sweet Sell of Success
Thinking, LTD. By Malachy Walsh. Directed by John Warren. Starring Cameron Galloway, Joseph Rocha, James Cutts, and Eric Schniewind. Presented by Firehead Productions at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), through Nov. 22. Call 273-1890.

“Advertising, the poetry of America!” booms a broadcaster's smarmy voice from the darkness. A gaseous explosion seems to spit a well-dressed, bespectacled woman into a spotlight. She tells us she's an advertising writer whose copy is so riveting, her commercials keep viewers from going to the bathroom.

“They call me Queen of the Bowels!” she declares proudly.
The monologue is a perplexing piece of theatrical writing: rife with witticisms, succinct in its parts, and yet unmoored emotionally. Nowadays, young playwrights rarely exhibit such a flair for cleverness; most venture into a quieter linguistic territory, concentrating on thematic mapping and the subtle contours of character. But Malachy Walsh's first play, Thinking, LTD., bears all marks of his 10 years spent in the advertising trenches. He understands how to craft an image, whip out a reversal, and deliver a punch line. But he's still grappling with the ephemeral building blocks of playwriting: plots that shift invisibly, themes that resist summation, and characters that unfold rather than pop out like candy bars from a machine.

Thinking, LTD. begins promisingly enough. A froggy-voiced, impish Cameron Galloway plays a writer whose company is bought out by the title conglomerate, an evil marketing organization that buys and closes advertising firms in a global plan to make advertising extinct. To keep the firm alive, her boss presents her with the ultimate challenge: write an ad to sell the very idea of advertising. She has 24 hours to do it.

To this point, Walsh's treatment of advertising marries enthusiasm and cynicism to good effect. Walsh revels in the single-minded amorality of his industry. “Do you remember the Nazis?” asks the Thinking, Ltd. CEO. “Now there were a people with confidence!”

Gradually, however, the story slips into a more earnest, less incisive style. The lively satire about advertising turns into a tired tale of creative frustration. When the writer faints from overexertion, the “Idea Fairy” appears to teach her how to silence the inner critic and play.

Line by line, Thinking, LTD. fizzes with ironic panache, but the story lacks an emotional logic rich enough to give the actors subtext to build on as well as text to speak. One ad writer's creative block can't give emotional fuel to an entire play. Suddenly, Walsh's wicked ambivalence disappears behind the theatrical equivalent of a self-help guide to unblocking your creativity.

The actors tend to overplay their roles, too often lapsing into grotesque stereotyping and unnecessary shouting. Despite her many witty lines, Galloway is particularly caricaturish, perpetually whining with her glasses awkwardly halfway down her nose. Most of the other actors are just loud, hammering us with the words rather than allowing us to discover the humor ourselves. (Exceptions: Idea Fairy Eric Schniewind, and Kurt Bodden as Galloway's boyfriend.) Walsh told me over the phone that he was inspired to write the play after watching the actors in an improvisation workshop. To take advantage of their background, he made the unusual decision to build several audience-directed improvisations into the climax of the play.

Once the actors fall into their natural habitat, the self-conscious stereotypes vanish, to reveal hitherto unseen talents. Joan Carter — previously shrill and ham-fisted as Galloway's mother — suddenly emerges as a cool-eyed chameleon of comedy. Perhaps with a less vaudevillian approach, director John Warren could have elicited similar intelligence from all his actors; instead Thinking, LTD. only offers an uneasy pastiche — part social satire, part 12-step program for creative constipation.

— Carol Lloyd

(Im)moral Victories
Civil Sex. Written and directed by Brian Freeman. Starring Freeman, Duane Boutte, and Michael Stebbins. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), through Nov. 30. Call 826-5750.

Civil Sex was first called Looking for Bayard, apparently with the idea that the show would try to nail down the multitalented and mercurial Bayard Rustin in about the same way Al Pacino's movie Looking for Richard tried to pin down Shakespeare's Richard III. The comparison is good: In fact, I like the early title better, because Rustin's afterimage is as complicated as a Shakespeare character. He was an organizer of the March on Washington; a friend and mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.; an anti-nuclear pacifist; and a homosexual, whose memory has been greased by now with so much scandal, political will, and plain anonymity that the actual man leaps out of your hand like a wriggling fish.

Civil Sex is framed loosely by a speech by Strom Thurmond to Congress in 1963 condemning Rustin for being not just radical but “immoral” — he'd been arrested on a morals charge 10 years earlier for having sex with two men late one night in a Pasadena parking lot. This puts more focus on Rustin's sex life than I think Rustin himself would have liked. Spending the rest of the show proving that Rustin was really a very moral guy in spite of what a bonehead like Thurmond called him doesn't make a very insightful hook. But, happily, Rustin was also a fascinating man, and as long as Civil Sex focuses on the details of his career the show feels like the most interesting documentary Ken Burns will never make.

The Burns-ish touch in Civil Sex is a series of acted-out transcriptions from interviews that playwright Brian Freeman conducted last summer with some of Rustin's living friends. Freeman plays a few of these people — like Jonathan Brice, a retired piano player, and Ralph DiGhia, an old member of the War Resisters League — with so much warmth and humor you get the impression that political activism was a far more colorful thing in the '50s and '60s than it is now.

The play's most engaging scene shows Rustin debating Malcolm X on a 1961 radio show. Rustin argues against Malcolm's separatism by sarcastically asking which 10 or 12 of the 50 states he expects the government to hand over to black America, and Malcolm counters — both in the radio show and, you might say, in the long selective gaze of history — with the unanswerable charge that Rustin's head has been “colonized” by the white man. Something about this scene unearths Rustin's essence, making a lot of the sexual history, never mind Strom Thurmond, seem gratuitous. Rustin thought his own blackness and queerness were just aspects of a large and complex personality, and the sharpest impression left by Civil Sex is the distance the American left has retreated from this ideal. [page]

— Michael Scott Moore

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. By Gertrude Stein. Starring Richard Ciccarone, Nina Gold, Liam Vincent, and Sommer Ulrickson. At Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Nov. 30. Call 626-3311.

Maybe it was inevitable for local experimental theater to get around to Gertrude Stein. Some eminent writer, I think Henry James, once said Stein “doesn't really know the meanings of words,” and a few minutes with her writing should convince the most casual reader that sound was more important to her than sense. This folds perfectly into the current obsession with Anne Bogart, who gets credited or mentioned in close to 50 percent of the theater programs I collect. Bogart has been working on acting techniques that say more with movement than they do with words. So why not fit them together? Why not do a Stein play in the Bogart style, full of careful movement, nonsense rhymes, and a near-total lack of concern for story? It seems amazing this hasn't been done before.

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights is Stein's cubist retelling of the Faust legend from 1938 that tweaks the desperate doctor, the poodle, the heroine Gretchen, and Mephistopheles into a pastiche of infectious rhyme and stilted action. It splits Mephistopheles into two characters — Mephisto and Mephista — and shows Faust agonizing over a very modern deal he's made with the devil: the exchange of his soul for electric light. Director Kenn Watt and his Fifth Floor Productions have added elements of Japanese trash culture (like a pink-jelly backpack on Mephista, and footage of Japanese action flicks on background TV screens) to make things multicultural; other modern touches include a punk song that Gretchen — here she's called Marguerite-Ida-and-Helena-Anabel — sings after getting bitten by a viper. All these elements add up to a hilariously anarchic hour and a half of theater if you have a stomach for this kind of thing.

Watt refers to the famous Gustav GrYndgens film version of Faust by painting the two Mephistopheles characters' faces white with a dark band across the eyes, and by giving them trapdoors in the stage to emerge from. (GrYndgens played the most notorious Faust in German history; the movie was performed on a dark, trapdoored stage.) The Dog, played by John Flanagan, looks less like a poodle than like Lou Reed in his Rock 'n' Roll Animal phase, with a painted face, bare chest, and black leather collar. The cultural references are everywhere; they're also the show's most ineradicable weakness, because Dr. Faustus is too derivative to stand on its own. Underneath all the trash-culture fun, Stein's script is so oblique you really have to know the Faust legend to see how clever she's being. This is both avant-garde and thoroughly elitist. But then so was Stein; and Fifth Floor can't be faulted for doing her fable of the 20th century with a gleefully fin-de-siecle twist.

— Michael Scott Moore

Mayan Ruins
Xibalba. By Mobius Operandi. Directed by Jim Cave. Instrumental sculpture by Oliver DiCicco. Costumes by Laura Hazlett. Paintings by Carlos Loarca. Book and lyrics by Pamela Winfrey. At Somar, 934 Brannan (at Eighth Street), through Nov. 22. Call 552-2131.

You've probably heard it before: Art can be about anything. If the execution measures up, no subject matter is too vast, too small, too private, or too political. But the crushingly self-referential subject matter of Xibalba, a new multimedia spectacle by Mobius Operandi, proves that notion wrong. The show is half walk-through installation, half staged spectacle, carrying the audience through a series of theatrical environments in the 30,000-square-foot Somar space for the first 20 minutes and then unfolding another hour-plus of proscenium presentation. Based on the Mayan scripture called Popul Vuh, Xibalba takes its name from a mythical nether world where the gods make decisions about the future. The play employs Xibalba as a metaphor for the creative process — specifically, the work of the show's visual artist, Guatemalan-born painter Carlos S. Loarca. Yes, you guessed it: The show is about one of its own collaborators' artistic process.

With a humble real-life context, perhaps such self-referentiality could be tolerable, though hardly scintillating. But Mobius instead casts the theme in grand universal terms. It's about everyone's creative process: the Xibalba in all of us. The problem is, the show is so chaotically inchoate that we can't follow the proceedings, much less recognize ourselves in the allegorical brouhaha.

It isn't for want of effort or talent. Each element of Xibalba — from the high-tech sculptural instruments by Oliver DiCicco to the astounding dada-esque costumes of Laura Hazlett — exhibits flair and daring. They conjure a striking panoply of images and sounds: 10 dancers cavorting in dog masks, enormous gymnastic balls, a pregnant woman on stilts, a band of space-age musicians in sequined Nefertiti headdresses, a corn-husk installation, a mechanical pendulum of swinging eight-foot knives, and dozens of wall-sized paintings. There's also a cast of competent actors, and a cockney narrator named White Sparkstriker dressed like a Vegas lounge singer on fire.

But taken as a whole, the performance is just the sort of self-important nonsense that confirms normal people's worst suspicions about artistic narcissism. Scattered throughout the dance and music, actors make self-congratulatory allusions to the difficulty of the creative journey. With every incantation of the word “imagination” or philosophical morsel like “Creation is like that; you just keep trying to get it right,” the staging seems a little less spectacular. In the final hour (a long one), all the giddy exertions of the energetic cast fail to lighten the portentous subtext. [page]

Mobius Operandi's last show, Exit Vacaville, employed the troupe's voracious resourcefulness to better effect. Exit told a rather prosaic tale about a woman who dies in a car crash. But unlike Xibalba's recourse to the proscenium stage, Exit maintained the walk-through format, which better supported its non-linear approach to the story. Xibalba, by contrast, suffers from a rhythmic and emotional monotony. Once you have a static, seated audience, the performance needs to be more forceful about focusing the eye and the mind. Xibalba instead skirts all narrative elements and fixates on a theme at once too abstract and too ponderous for sustained interest.

Xibalba embodies all that is wonderful and frustrating about the San Francisco experimental theater scene. Amid a treasure trove of talent, sacrifice, and vision, a myopia reigns — as if the primary job of an artist is to contemplate one's navel, imagining it as large and limitless as the globe.

— Carol Lloyd

What Becomes a Legend Most?
“A Terpsichorean Celebration, Week One.” Presented by the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing, 245 Fifth St. (at Folsom), through Nov. 23. Call 357-1817.

“We had vague notions that mankind, liberated from want and drudgery, would spend its energies writing poetry, painting pictures, exploring the stellar spaces, singing folk songs, dancing … in the public square.” The embittered recollections of a former hippie? No — journalist Walter Lippmann, circa 1920, reflecting on the era of Isadora Duncan. Not only does history repeat itself, it often ages gracelessly. In this respect, modern dance is the modern art most like history. Originally renowned for its powerful beauty — and fiercely proud of it — modern dance as it ages seems so marred by affectation that it reminds you of some difficult, elderly relative you're tempted to disown.

Duncan, who entranced huge audiences for decades and is credited with pioneering modern dance, embodies modern dance's trouble by surviving beyond its era. The dozens of books and several schools of dance dedicated to studying her art and life attest to Duncan's genius. But as passed down by her disciples, the dancing itself, with all its high-flown gushiness and soulful pretension, hasn't done so well. On the occasion of the grand opening of the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing — at Fifth Street and Folsom, the desolate solar plexus of San Francisco — I found myself wondering why, among the many forms of modern art, modern dance ages the least well and why, among all the forms of dance, modern dance is the one with the liver spots.

With film or literature, we're often moved despite the work's age, not because of it. Chaplin, Keaton, and the early modernists Conrad and James detail their eras even as they stretch past them; the layered effect a viewer or reader feels — the depicted world breathing beneath our present one — is part of the pleasure. On the other hand, early modern painting and music — Debussy, Matisse, Van Gogh — are insistently vague in their relation to the world; they offer their audience a purely subjective experience. But early modern dance is neither/nor. It doesn't depict the details of its age, but it does retain distracting mannerisms; we can neither enjoy it objectively, as a portrait of its day, nor use it to burrow inside ourselves.

In the first week of the new Duncan studio's three-week “Terpsichorean Celebration,” I found Mary Sano's contemporary incarnation of Duncanism, Syzygy, very lovely. But I also felt distant from it. “An autobiographical work inspired by Duncan,” Syzygy loosely suggested incremental stages in a woman's dramatic life. Sano has Duncan's technique down. She moved in a steady flow, from arms and gaze stretched in yearning to Bacchic skips to a pained knot on the floor. Always motivated from her center, Sano's movement never felt arbitrary. But despite her compelling performance and a hauntingly alive original score — Japanese flute (Hideo Sekino) and Taiko drums (Meri Mitsuyoshi) — the movement was too tangled in history to wake the feelings it suggested. Whatever experience I might have had kept getting interrupted by soft-limbed leaps and skips and exalted poses in Greeky, flowy tunics that just shouted, “Isadorable!”

In 1936, dance writer John Martin pointed out what has become a truism: Originating with Duncan, modern dance “objectifies, in terms of movement, inner life. In modern dance, the dancer is essentially a nude figure.” Just this month, one of the original deviant's descendents, DV8 Physical Theater Artistic Director Lloyd Newson, described performance in similar terms: as a process of spilling your guts and then “sewing yourself back up again.” What creates modern dance's vibrant immediacy — internal and spiritual leanings and concerted lack of pretense, all of which Duncan initiated — also leaves it vulnerable to time. Ballet, blatantly artificial and anachronistic, springs eternal because its culture is static and therefore remains legible. Modern dance's culture, like the culture around it, constantly changes. And it's wrapped so close to the body that we think we're getting nakedness: a heart bared before us. Later, however, we realize this heart is speaking only the particular patois of the culture of its invention. We can't understand it; whatever truths and beauties the body meant to convey, in that elusive way dance has, have become unintelligible. We stand outside without a way in, and the surface yields little. Only modern dance, John Martin proclaimed, responds to the “unformulated will of its epoch.” So only modern dance will disappear into history.

— Apollinaire Scherr

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