What do you get when you combine a pregnant tattooed woman, a bunch of art-damaged modern dancers, one deranged drummer, and a soprano with good hair? One Awd evening.
Of all the art forms, nothing promises so much as multimedia performance. It's dance, it's music, it's theater, all set against an ever-shifting art installation that combines paint, film, and the occasional objet trouve. Take the local performance group that calls itself Awd; its first full-length work, Commawdity, nearly capsized under the weight of the group's self-promotion. "Awd is insatiable stimulation," read the show's brochure. "Awd is ecstasy unchained. ... We transform fantasy into energy into production into the very juice that is life. And this is fundamentally what Awd performance is about. The limitlessness of possibility. The exultation of infinite novelty." You get the point. The problem is that when you're actually there, sitting in a drafty warehouse watching a 90-minute performance by passionate twentysomethings with varying levels of skill, it's just about impossible not to feel a little conned.
Awd is a group of strong young dancers and musicians with an urban aesthetic who fuse percussion, voice, and monologue into throttle-happy, punk-tinged choreography. Recently transplanted from Los Angeles, the troupe debuted Commawdity, its first full-length piece, at Brady Dance Studio last month. Despite what they would have us think, Awd is not really all that odd. The group associates itself with something the L.A. Times has called "hyperdance," but it also fits neatly into a tradition of anarchic interdisciplinary theater that has been flourishing in San Francisco for 20 years. Commawdity bore uncanny resemblances to Evol, Contraband's first show, which debuted at Theater Artaud 10 years ago. Awd even sang an almost identical song -- invoking what's become in contemporary performance an obligatory fast-equals-unenlightened metaphor. Contraband's was "I am only going nowhere/ I at least am going fast." Awd's was less witty but more honest: "I don't know where I am going/ I don't know where I've been." Like Contraband, Awd wants to impress us with its multitalented passions, but the members of the young group still have a ways to go before they can hold their own as actors, musicians, writers, and visual artists.
The group struggled with this mission -- most notably in the self-written monologues and incorporation of Lisa Reutter's syrupy chants ("Hey, hey/ Can you feel the oneness of the world beating?"). But they delivered as dancers. Dressed in polyester and neon '70s wear, as tattooed and sultry as 90210 brats in an acid-fever dream, the three men and three women stomped, strutted, flew, and crashed their way through some of the most punishing and exciting dance I have seen in years. It was riveting in a train-wreck kind of way.
But an urge to overwhelm us with their inventiveness also led the performers to some needless embarrassments. They borrowed shamelessly from forebears like Blue Man Group and Stomp. They also broke the fourth wall, ostensibly to ask us our opinion about the show but really to play out a short scene with a plant in the audience. "Is it dance?" the plant asked, as if any San Francisco audience member would be caught engaging in such an old-school question. "You guys are a bunch of neo-tribalistic wannabes. What does it mean?" Hey, this is the '90s. It doesn't matter what it means, as long as it doesn't piss on the publicity igloo.
-- Carol Lloyd
13 Dias/13 Days: How the New Zapatistas Shook the World. By Joan Holden, in collaboration with Paula Loera, Daniel Nugent, and Eva Tessler of the Borderlands Theater of Tucson. Directed by Dan Chumley. Multimedia design by Lourdes Portillo. Music by Eduardo Lopez Martinez and Bruce Barthol. Starring Alex Torres, Eduardo Robledo, Arturo Gomez, Jennifer Tafolla, Monica McMurtry, Keiko Shimosato, Michael Rabago, Liberty Ellman, and Scott Bowman. Presented by the San Francisco Mime Troupe at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, March 20-23.
Since the end of its political commedia dell'arte period in the '60s, the San Francisco Mime Troupe has done a lot of Brechtian musical theater, which may be the best way to describe its latest show, 13 Dias/13 Days: How the New Zapatistas Shook the World. It's an anti-NAFTA musical, dramatizing the Chiapas peasant uprising in 1994. Their rebellion was doomed from the beginning, partly because Mexico City gets American military aid; but what they managed to achieve against NAFTA's bulldozer effect on their way of life is impressive. They're still active, and they call themselves the "New Zapatistas," after the leader of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, who appears in the play as a ghost.
The play has five or six story lines. One follows the daughter of the Mexican colonel in charge of putting down the rebels: She goes to America and watches the revolt on TV, trading places with Bill, an American who abandons an $80,000 Microsoft salary and his obnoxious pregnant wife to go bird-watching in Chiapas. Bill gets caught and tortured by the colonel, who suspects he's a CIA operative in charge of the rebellion. There's more to the show, but that's the basic idea. The Mime Troupe does a good craftsmanlike job of threading its stories together into a long but forward-moving play. Songs by two ragtag guitar-playing peasants are funny, even if you don't get the Spanish, and an ironic speech by President Carlos Salinas, who wears a mask with huge ears and a Pinocchio nose, is accompanied by footage on a screen of the real Salinas presumably giving the same speech. This is a "multimedia" show, a technological experiment that's forced the Mime Troupe indoors from its usual habitat in San Francisco parks, and the sideshow footage of alligators, cows, and scenes from the rebellion makes a clever undercurrent.
This is also a shamelessly partisan show, in case that isn't already clear, with a sentimental feeling for the Chiapas rebels and an unqualified disgust for Salinas and the United States and NAFTA. Partisanship doesn't have to ruin a play; but it tends to. Here it wrecks the ending (ridiculously sentimental) and mars the actors' performances. Keiko Shimosato is better as a young Mayan rebel than she is as Bill's materialistic wife, for the simple reason that as Bill's wife she's a bloodless cliche. Why is this necessary? Americans are easy enough to make fun of without relying on stereotypes, and you would think a show carrying such a specific agenda would strengthen its case with sharp, original comedy. But when Bill explains why he's in Chiapas he says, "I crashed my hard drive, man! I'm gonna get a life! I'm gonna get interactive." I've seen better satire on television.
-- Michael Scott Moore