The funniest piece of satire I've ever seen on TV was a documentary on Neiman-Marcus, I think called The Store. It involved nothing but a microphone and a camera. The narratorless film showed footage of training sessions and strategy meetings in the sales department, hoping the Neiman-Marcus people would eventually make fun of themselves, which is just what they proceeded to do. It's high praise to say that Kristina Robbins' original one-woman show about the culture of Mary Kay cosmetics, The Face by the Door, could be ranked with that documentary, because the Mary Kay sales director she's created is a work of satire almost subtle enough to pass for the real thing.
Claire Beaumont, a strident and insufferab-ly upbeat woman who rouses her Mary Kay rookies like a cheerleader mom ("Oh, give yourselves a hand," and, "Can I just say, 'Wow'?"), offers her spiel without a shred of irony. Mary Kay is not about makeup, she explains, but self-esteem. Her big sales idea is a "face" -- a box of cosmetics -- for customers to keep by their front door as an outpost against the bottomless horror of ever having to rush out in public with naked cheeks. She paces in front of her audience, full of perkiness and poise, turning the small Marsh theater into a seminar hall; she asks her rookies to repeat, "I have my face, and I'm ready to go for it!" and members of the audience at the Marsh last week unreluctantly did.
Robbins is hilarious. Her story follows a young woman, Kate, through a Claire seminar and the start of a cosmetics career; Kate also meets Claire's ex-sales partner, Mickey, a drunken, bitter, middle-aged woman who's largely responsible for Claire's success. Between imaginary cigarettes and drinks Mickey tells about her past with Claire until the story turns, imperceptibly, into a minidrama of lesbianism and denial. Mickey is just as funny as Claire, although since Robbins herself is too graceful and lithe to look like a swaying, middle-aged wreck, slipping into character takes a few seconds. This is not a big problem. It's noticeable when the women face each other, with Robbins easily switching to Claire but lagging a little with Mickey; but it doesn't keep the spectacle of two women arguing in the body of a single actor -- rendered with nothing but voice, gesture, and a fine sense of pacing -- from being enormous fun. "I am not that way!" Claire tells Mickey, meaning lesbian (although she is, she is). "You can keep your kumbaya to yourself!"
The weakest character is Kate; her pair of monologues -- they bookend the show -- feel like a throwaway device. She's the self-esteem-lacking young woman in the middle, overwhelmed by Mickey and Claire. Her friends say, "God, Kate, cosmetics? I thought you were a feminist," which may be the baldest reminder that The Face by the Door is political. But, happily, it's also art, because Robbins has the essential talent of keeping out of her own way, and the guile and intelligence to let her targets make fun of themselves.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Entertainment for the Apocalypse. Written and performed by Core. At the Brady Street Studio, Friday, April 18.
A dark cul-de-sac off Market Street. A siren's thin ribbon of sound winds through a drizzly city night as five dancers in ski masks and orange reflector vests stomp, fly, and collide in an odd amalgam of folk dance and cartoon battle. Car headlights glance off the wet asphalt where the dancers whoop and splat, creating a scene that is both unsettling and buoyant. One masked figure stands atop a chain-link fence to deliver an elliptical call to action: "Nature is not your friend; you must be a friend to nature. Play the role, be the artist, the activist, the teacher. Play the role!" Suddenly the group breaks through the crowd and we follow them down the alley to the theater. They enter singing, then burst into more raucous, airborne acrobatics.
We don't know what theatrical planet we have landed on, but it hardly matters. The aliens are fascinating and tireless, endearing and almost comprehensible. We gather something about fears of the future -- madness sweeping the population, power struggles, sexual deviance, endless self-reinvention -- but like all great performance, the form eclipses the themes and raises them to irrational soothsaying magic.
Welcome to Entertainment for the Apocalypse, an evening of wild movement, delicate dementia, and exquisite music by the interdisciplinary company that calls itself Core. Though Entertainment is its first full-length show, the performers are longtime denizens in the San Francisco underground performance scene. All work (and sometimes live) at 848 Community Space (at 848 Divisadero), where members teach classes, perform, publish books, and propagate their radical sex-positive tribalism. Such in-crowd collaborations often create art that is interesting anthropologically but too preachy to enjoy. But after a decade of watching Core's five performers in various solo and collaborative forms use art as a pulpit for their body-based spiritual and political agendas, I was heartened to see that they've realized that intelligent carnality needs no slogans.
Instead, they embody their beliefs, enthralling us with their sheer versatility. Each performer plays drums, sings, dances, and acts, and together the group exudes quirky collaborative genius. Whether it's Stanya Kahn's sultry singing voice, Stephanie Maher tearing up the stage with her animalistic physicality, Jess Curtis' channeling the poignantly paranoid character of "Tiny Man," Keith Hennessy's gender-bent clowning, or Jules Beckman's lush one-man band of guitar, drums, and vocals, the performance tribe transmit their anarchic spiritual message through the example of visceral interaction and uncompromising individuality.
The raw, multimedia nature of the work is reined in by the group's precise attention to smooth transitions, quiet moments, and clarity of focus. Throwing and catching two flying utility chairs, Beckman and Hennessy compete in a unisoned duet of stamina and grace. Kahn, dressed in a surreal costume of inner tubes and marshmallow Peeps, emancipates her rubber ducky from a tin bathtub home before descending into lonely madness. In the midst of a demonic percussive symphony on five chairs, the group breaks for a casual meal of canned sardines.