Ever since Laurie Anderson took to the stage with her amalgam of floating text, song, and technology, performance art has been struggling to redefine and transcend her. Some -- like Robert Wilson, Martha Clark, and George Coates -- have pursued the spectacle of large-scale high-tech performance; others -- like Karen Finley, Eric Bogosian, and Spalding Gray -- have molded their art exclusively from the unadulterated body and voice. But no one performer has monopolized the difficult territory that melds multimedia with the intimacy of solo performance. Why? Because it is an unsettlingly difficult task. It speaks to the very anxiety of our age: how to locate the individual within a number of media and create more and deeper meaning, not less. The interdisciplinary solo artist must tell stories through the refracted lens of many media in a way that makes each one essential yet never overwhelms the whole.
Deke Weaver's recent show Girlfriend wrestled with these challenges. Unlike most similar works, it emerged victorious. Weaver displays an uncommon knack for the arresting filmic image and the poetic plot twist, but his real talent lies in his explosive mastery as an actor. With a series of wildly distinct monologues, he explores the sinister side of intimacy and the trials of sacrifice and retribution that it offers our ritual-free secular age. A dimwitted loner peeps on his neighbors having sex, confessing: "I like curves. Once I got a hard-on sitting in the sand dunes and watching the light fall." A fawning young woman witnesses her "multimedia studies mentor" self-destruct when an Internet lover rejects her in the flesh. Between the monologues, computer-generated images flash across a screen while mellifluous but detached voice-overs recount tribal tales of lurid transformation. Hearts are carved out. Beautiful women turn into bison and slaughter their admirers. Men submit to castration, only to regret it for a lifetime.
The treacherous mix of delicate violence, unharnessed sexuality, and illusive abstraction makes Girlfriend difficult to watch, and more difficult still to come away with easy answers. In our self-growth-saturated, feel-good culture, the idea of dysfunction as not only a right but a spiritual rite of passage is as disturbing as it is provocative. Careless viewing might lead to the conclusion that Weaver is a seething misogynist. There are a lot of nightmarish depictions of women, as well as a mythology of men being sacrificed by various female deities. But Weaver never resorts to personal whine or political rant; instead he weaves a web that ensnares both sexes. During the films, Weaver enacts rituals of conventional wisdom. He gives a baby doll a bath, then throws her out with the water; he places all his eggs in one basket; he cries over spilt milk. These spare scenes convey the central theme like tiny, animate fables. No matter what we are taught, they seem to say, we will break the rules and insist on learning the hard way.
-- Carol Lloyd
Blood Wine/Blood Wedding. Adapted by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei from work by Frederico Garcia Lorca and Chikamatsu Monzaemon. Directed by Yuriko Doi. Starring La Tania, Kyozo Nakamura, Lluis Valls, and Mikio Hirata. Presented by the Theater of Yugen at the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason; closed March 16.
Blood Wine/Blood Wedding is the Theater of Yugen's multicultural "fusion play," blending a story line and a flamenco flavor from Frederico Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding with a complementary story line and kabuki stylization from an old Japanese play, Chikamatsu Monzaemon's Love Suicides of Sonezaki. The idea is intriguing. Kabuki and flamenco are poles apart, separated by the continent of Asia and also so different in emphasis -- kabuki stresses discipline, flamenco passion -- that a mingling of the two is bound to be interesting. In fact it was: The music and dancing as well as most of the puppetry in this show was first-rate. But the script, by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, was an example of everything that's wrong with the fashion of "multiculturalism."
In California's Central Valley, in 1936 (the play assumes), different groups of immigrants mingled on large farming estates. A Japanese family with Irish servants has decided to marry its daughter to the proper son of a Spanish family. The daughter is intensely servile, more traditional than her father; she bows and looks like a statue and rarely speaks. She's played, impressively, by a man named Kyozo Nakamura, a Japanese actor trained in the kabuki onnagata, or female-role, style. But the daughter doesn't want to marry her fiance because she's in love with a labor-agitating Gypsy, and the story ends the way these things usually do, with the woman being carried off by her lover on a horse. The Spaniard chases them and has a knife fight with the Gypsy until they bleed to death under the moon.
The story was synthesized from Lorca and Chikamatsu by Sorgenfrei, but what was alive in their hands became a cliche in hers. Instead of straight action she told the story through a pair of narrators -- Lorca and Chikamatsu, sitting on either side of the stage with musicians from their respective countries -- via overwrought monologues, kabuki puppetry, excellent flamenco dancing, and, at a low point, the mouths of three peasant laborers and an actor dressed as the moon. The story was simply not original enough to stand so much narrative. Lluis Valls, who played Lorca, was flamboyant in a way the pensive poet wouldn't have been, and the script had him espousing the most current attitudes toward Columbus, the New World, and race relations in California. Why was he onstage at all? Why couldn't we just watch the play? All the narrative weighed the show too heavily to be saved by the plaintive side-stage singing of Jesus Montoya, and the flamenco stomping of La Tania, a local Spanish-born woman who played the Gypsy.
Shamisen string music from the Japanese side was also fun to hear; it blended in a weirdly effective minor-toned way with the flamenco. But the two cultures in the play didn't mix nearly as well, and not for any special reason except that the situation Sorgenfrei presented was forced. I once heard Saul Bellow mention after a reading that he couldn't understand "multiculturalism," because his Chicago childhood was so infused with different cultures nobody had to think about it. The didactic and desperate way Blood Wine tries to push its ethnicities together says more disturbing things about race relations these days than any scene in the play.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Goldberg Street. A collection of scenes by David Mamet. Directed by Kent Nicholson. Starring Anne-Elise Hagen, Berwick Haynes, Angelique Lele, and James M. Saidy. At Exit Theater, 156 Eddy, through March 22. Call 673-7156.
The only playwright who can rival Shakespeare for sheer mass of production in our local theaters right now is David Mamet. Mamet is as hip as Shakespeare, or the other way around. American Buffalo, The Cryptogram, and Sexual Perversity in Chicago have come and gone this season, and recently the Exit Theater had two concurrent shows containing slices of Mamet plays. Still showing, in the smaller room, Exit Stage Left, is a medley of early Mamet scenes called Goldberg Street. Early stuff by Mamet is fun to watch after a string of his mature plays, partly because some of it is so pretentious.
Mamet has a famous flair for gritty American speech, but scenes like "Power Outage" and "Old Vermont" in Goldberg Street are reminders that he was once young. I don't know when they were written (or even if he went to college), but they have an undergraduate feel: "Old Vermont" is an opaque piece about snow and cold in New England that comes off like an overserious poem, and "Power Outage" is a conversation between two women in the dark about a lot of things, including security guards in a record store. "They are empowered to shoot you for the theft of diversionary items!" one of them says, using language no one would credit Mamet with today. The characters are decidedly not gritty, even stilted, and so is the acting; Anne-Elise Hagen and Angelique Lele never find a focus for the half-developed skit.
Power and the urge for love are two motifs holding the scenes together, and the show works best when the meaning is kept subtle. In "Deer Dogs" Berwick Haynes and James Saidy banter inarticulately about a law that allows hunters to shoot dogs who chase deer; but pretty soon it sounds like a social-justice issue. "The Hat" has a shopper and a saleslady in front of a store mirror, with Angelique Lele doing a charming job as a woman so worried about her appearance she wants to buy most of the store. These scenes, like a few others ("Cold," "Two Conversations"), show Mamet learning to serve his serious medicine with a comedy pill.
Goldberg Street ends with a longer piece called "All Men Are Whores: An Inquiry." It flirts with pretentiousness 1) by being a series of monologues, rather than a played-out story, and 2) by mixing metaphysics with sex; but the result is entertaining and even sultry, because James Saidy does a compelling job as a woman-haunted young man. It just runs a little long. Berwick Haynes recites some of the metaphysics, and he's closer to himself dealing with highbrow material than he is when he tries to be coarse. But Anne-Elise Hagen is strained in her role as a woman passing through phases of flattery and dominance in a relationship with some imaginary man. Like the young playwright through most of Goldberg Street, she still hasn't found her voice.
-- Michael Scott Moore