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Wednesday, May 28 1997
My Life as a Freak
Freak. Written and performed by John Leguizamo. Directed by David Bar Katz. At the Theater on the Square, 450 Post, through June 15. Call 433-9500.

The specter of movie stars returning to the stage to regale fans with tales of their youth is another sign that too much theater has become a hollow showcase for Hollywood talent. Even if the actor has theatrical roots chances are that the show will favor preening over acting, wisecracking over writing. But after five minutes of John Leguizamo's Freak, such fears evaporate. Leguizamo, creator of the one-man shows Spic-O-Rama and Mambo Mouth and more recently the star of the movie The Pest, begins with "Latinos for Dummies," a historical slide show from Montezuma all the way up to the "worst thing that ever happened to Latin culture": Tony Orlando and Dawn. He introduces himself into the history in the form of a "Latino sperm." From there through the end of his nonstop 120-minute "semi-demi-quasi-pseudo autobiography," Leguizamo -- a raw bundle of burning kindling -- transforms the empty stage into a bonfire of colorful memory and wicked insight.

Leguizamo and his director, David Bar Katz, created a show that uses the techniques of machine-gun stand-up to ignite a tale of unsentimental self-revelation. Just when the piece begins to feel like merely a string of goofy gags and ethnic shtick -- the Irish neighbor, the stuffy gentile, the sassy black girlfriend -- Leguizamo punctures the stereotypes with an unflinching flick of his tongue. There's his Seventh-day Adventist grandmother, a pious woman ("She thought The Exorcist was a documentary") who high-tails her walker to a local bar for happy hour. When a tough Italian neighbor says: "I read about all you Mexican aliens buying up all the Cabbage Patch dolls to get the birth certificates," Leguizamo excuses his angry retorts by explaining he has Tourette's syndrome.

With razor-edged equanimity, he satirizes everyone: blacks, Jews, WASPs, strangers; Latino friends, family, and lovers; and most of all himself. Somehow the more ruthless his wit the more humane his vision becomes. "Kiss me or I'll kick the shit out of you," his dad tells him in one especially edgy scene. After some stalling the 10-year-old Leguizamo complies and his father roars, "Not on the mouth, you faggot!"

In the end, after a final encounter with his callous father, the historical slide show returns and Leguizamo understands that, parental support notwithstanding, he won't contribute to Hollywood's history of Latino abasement by playing junkies and peasants. It is a familiar theme in recent Latino and black culture but one that feels especially poignant after such an intensely unself-righteous evening. Having careened through adolescent masturbation, broken love affairs, and hapless auditions ("I survived the Holocaust," one director murmurs, "but I don't know if I can survive this"), Leguizamo brings his story into laser-sharp focus. All the disparate voices in his past and the struggles of his present crest into a realization that he doesn't have to be the world's freak show.

-- Carol Lloyd

This Is Not a Headline
The Chairs. By Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Kent Nicholson. Starring Joshua Marchesi, Justine Turner, and Khari Jones. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through June 3. Call 673-3847.

Endgame. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by John Warren. Starring Chris Kucken-baker, Emily Lambert, Blaine Souza, and Larry Spenler. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through June 3. Call 673-3847.

"It seems to me," Samuel Beckett once wrote about his character Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, "that it is only out of a great inner dereliction that the part can be played satisfactorily." Beckett could have said the same thing about any of his characters -- and about most of Ionesco's, too -- because the black, straight-faced routines in their plays don't survive ordinary earnestness or optimism. It takes an almost European decadence and a deep sense of hopelessness to do them well. This is tough for Americans. Most native-born actors are too optimistic; the spirit of Beckett doesn't mix well with the handed-down spirit of the frontier. Alvin Epstein, one of the original Yale Repertory group, is an old East Coast actor who does Beckett with a beautiful sense of hopelessness and dereliction. He starred in the U.S. premiere of Godot in the '50s; now he also has the advantage of age, which can lead (sometimes) to a studied relationship with death.

Death is the background for both shows playing at the Exit Theater now as part of its "Absurdist Series." They run at the same time, absurdly enough, so you have to choose: The Chairs, by Ionesco, is in the large room with the bistro; Beckett's Endgame is in the small, hot Exit Stage Left room. Both performances have too much American earnestness for the weary humor in their lines, but the cast of Endgame solves that problem in a way the Chairs cast doesn't. Beckett's play is about a blind, chair-bound, vaguely kinglike man called Hamm, waited on by his drag-footed manservant, Clov, who also tends two people who spend the whole play in trash cans, Nagg and Nell (Hamm's parents). They live in a black room with two windows. Their predicaments are boredom and dependence on Clov, who seems ready to abandon them. Hamm accuses Clov, "You don't love me."

"No," says Clov.
"You loved me once."
"Once," Clov shoots back, and that word becomes a stark motif, reminiscent of some lost time when life must have flourished outside, when Nagg and Nell loved each other, and when there was sawdust at the bottom of their pails (instead of sand). These decrepit people are at the end of something, and the question is how to go on.

Language is the best reason to see any Beckett play. When Hamm gets sick of his parents he asks Clov to "bottle" them -- put the lids on their pails. ("Are they bottled yet?") Blaine Souza's coarse, low voice is ideal for Hamm, and even if he doesn't always seem fatalistic enough for a blind man trapped in a chair, he diminishes that problem by getting his pacing right. Larry Spenler does a similar job with Clov, who should sound mordant but sometimes just seems exhausted: He stays in character by keeping his lines and ragged steps in rhythm. Part of the credit for this show's pacing has to go to the director, John Warren, who senses that silences in Beckett are as important as the words. Nagg and Nell are also excellent; Christopher Kuckenbaker takes the risk of affecting a slight British accent, but he has a talented voice and his bitchy, demanding, bald-headed Nagg is maybe the most entertaining character in the show. The story he tells Nell about a tailor, in three voices, is hilarious; the woeful way Nell stares when he's finished only makes it better. Almost nothing pleases Nell. She's sour, pettish, and bald -- Emily Lambert had to shave her head for the part -- and she eventually dies, meaning she stays in the trash can. Lambert is nicely in character with this strange shadow of a woman, and I suspect that being "bottled" for hours at a time might be the best training for any actor who wants to do Beckett well.


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