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Wednesday, Jun 18 1997
Rake's Progress
Don Giovanni. Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte; music by W.A. Mozart. Translated by Donald Pippin. Stage direction by Michael Taylor. Starring Shouvik Mondle, Ethan Smith, Ellyn Peabody, and Maris Vipulis. Presented by the Pocket Opera at Temple Emanu-El, June 1. Call 575-1100.

The finale of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni points straight at George Bernard Shaw: "The death of wicked men is always just like their life" is how the chorus' last line translates, and Shaw ran with that idea in his brilliant modernization of the Don Juan myth, Man and Superman, using a matter-of-fact image of heaven and hell to update the old-fashioned moralizing. Don Giovanni burns with Christian brimstone warnings; but when the rake dies in Man and Superman, he finds that hell is literally an eternal dose for the soul of what the body worked for in life. Vanity or sex can be indulged forever, but without a body it's really, really boring.

Donald Pippin's translation of Don Giovanni stresses the old Christian moralizing. There's nothing wrong with that: It is the way the libretto was written. But it does help to keep the opera stuck in 1787. Otherwise Pippin's Pocket Opera shows are tailored for modern audiences -- spare costumes and props, pared-down orchestras, snappy translations -- and Pippin (who does the translating) has a solid, deserved reputation as an opera populist. But the chorus in his finale sings, "Libertines, delay no longer/ Heed a warning and mend your ways!" -- which is even sterner than the original.

The Pocket Giovanni played only three times in the Bay Area; the final performance was at the Temple Emanu-El, in Presidio Terrace. Ten musicians sat on a smallish stage, and the singers acted on the floor. Even with its lean instrumentation the music sounded rich and tight. Don Giovanni (Shouvik Mondle) was a swarthy, cavalier nobleman, wearing a loose-sleeved white shirt and a foil on his silvery sash. Besides being excellent singers, Mondle and the other leads were also good actors, which made the story easy to follow. The tale goes something like this: Don Giovanni kills the rich old Commendatore after he tries to ravish his daughter, Donna Anna. Over her father's dead body Anna makes her suitor, Don Ottavio, swear revenge. Then Giovanni tries to take Zerlina, a peasant woman, away from her fiance, Masetto. Giovanni seems to enjoy the chaos he causes until he jokingly invites the Commendatore's graveside memorial statue to dinner -- and the statue nods. At what turns out to be Giovanni's last supper, the horrible white stone form sends the rake wailing into the arms of two white-masked demons from hell. Then the moralizing chorus comes on.

By modern standards the story is long and unwieldy, so it needs the Pocket Opera's brisk production style. Ethan Smith was maybe the most graceful actor as Leporello, using comfortable, well-paced movements that never seemed excessive. Eileen Morris also did an excellent job with Zerlina, pinching Masetto's ass with an earnest, round-eyed expression while she performed one song, and pointing, at the end, to specific audience members while she sang, "Mend your ways!" That was funny. Emily Breedlove and William Gorton played Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio, respectively, without bringing much more than their voices to the roles; but Michael Taylor played a compellingly proud Masetto, in addition to directing the show and hurrying, afterward, to sing a role in Phantom of the Opera. It's hard to criticize a translation for seeming old-fashioned because the whole idea behind opera -- like the idea behind being queen -- is to inhabit a formal role with verve but not ego, and Pippin's Don Giovanni managed that job well.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Stranger Than Paradise
Durang/Durang. By Christopher Durang. Directed by Finn Curtain and Keith Phillips. Starring Robert Corrick, Anne Macey, and Elizabeth Ann Ryan. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through June 28. Call 296-9179.

Durang/Durang, whose run at Actors Theater has been extended through June 28, dispenses laughs with a prescription for farce: Stick a few mishaps and absurdities into a stuffy social situation and hilarity will ensue. In Christopher Durang's six-piece evening of comic vignettes, high-strung characters apologize profusely for disturbing the social norm with herpes and incest even as they angle for giggles when a houseguest drops a dildo on the floor during a quaint, suburban dinner. Lacking a unifying theme, the collection doesn't rise to a satisfying denouement, but at least a couple of the scenes, notably Durang's scathing satires of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard, are reason enough to see the show. Unless, of course, you have no familiarity with The Glass Menagerie or Lie of the Mind, in which case the allusions to a "gentleman caller" and the "lamb in the kitchen" are absurdism on par with Dario Fo.

The first half of the evening is devoted to parodies. The show is introduced by the character of Durang's aunt, Mrs. Sorken, in the manner of a Greek chorus. Auntie lectures on the etymology of the word "drama," tracing its lineage from older times up to the present, culminating in the word "Dramamine." Strain and pain are missing from theater today, the bridge-club lady laments. She says that theater has been reduced to base identification: "Evita is a woman, I am a woman."

In the Glass Menagerie spoof, homely Laura is replaced with a sniveling son, Lawrence, who collects glass cocktail-swizzlers. Drawling rural accents and the framing characters of a bitter mother and feckless older brother are retained. Despairing that her lame offspring will ever be married, the mother tells her child, "I'm not bitter, dear; I just hate my life." Lawrence's brother brings home a female caller from the factory where he works. Durang morphs this romantic suitor into a deaf, heavyset lesbian. Mom wails, "We haven't had a lesbian in this house since your grandmother died!"

The Shepard parody takes similar shots. Trailer trash romance their siblings, beat them around, and use the word "symbol" every chance they get in reference to Shepard's theme-heavy work. When someone remarks about the absurdity of the plot, the mother cracks that it's no problem; just as Shepard does, you add jazz or a rock band to melodrama and call it art.

The second act, featuring a hellish houseguest, a vain heiress, and a rant against talent vultures in evil Hollywood, isn't as funny, but the cast keeps the energy rolling with the verve of Saturday-morning cartoons. These pieces are interesting in how they contrast with the heavy-handed darkness of the parodied plays. Durang's own work is decidedly nonsymbolic. If a character is gay, incestuous, insane, or miserable, the issue isn't disguised as a symbol or theme. The ambition of American theater is to be timeless and great; Durang's trademark jack-Catholicism relishes entertaining promiscuity and prison tattoos over sincere speech and deep human relationships. His most interesting work to date comes from insulting his playwriting superiors; in picking at the pretense of drama as high art, Durang's quirky energy is at its best.

-- Julie Chase

Gravity's Rainbow
Gravity Falls From Trees. By Sung J. Rno. Directed by Karen Amano. Starring Steve Park, Rania Ho, and Michael Lopez. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, Building D, through June 22. Call 441-8822.

Steve Park is already known as the Asian ex-boyfriend who loses his shit in Fargo; that and his Internet-posted "Mission Statement" about racism against Asians in the film industry have recently opened a new dimension to his career. Now he's positioned, careerwise, to be a pioneer for minority actors, which is probably a mixed blessing. But Gravity Falls From Trees is a sabbatical from all that. The few lines in the play dealing directly with racism sound, in Park's mouth, like a man poking fun at himself.

He plays the incompetent Dr. Francis Park, trying to learn why his hospitalized patient, Isabella, has a body temperature of 74.7. Dr. Park is relentlessly unprofessional. One scene has him hissing like a boy while he takes Isabella's blood pressure. He also snoops through the manuscript of a novel she's writing and X-rays it for no particular reason. When he senses insubordination from a churlish orderly named Ike, Park challenges the "clouds of prejudice" in his head: "Break through the fog, man! Underneath, we're all brothers," and the audience chuckles gingerly. But nothing about this hospital is what it seems. Ike's attitude stems from the fact that he's actually Sir Isaac Newton, wearing a period costume under his coat; and for that matter Dr. Park is really Capt. Park, the Korean airline pilot who let his 747 wander into Russian airspace in 1983, where it was blown apart by a Soviet fighter. After these revelations the show follows a not-very-compelling quest for Newton's Fourth Law of Motion (the "Law of Emotion"), which will hopefully explain why a mysterious apple can just levitate near the front of the stage, why planes get shot down, and why Isabella has the body temperature of a corpse.

So the play is about emotion. That's exactly where it fails. Because the feelings it tries to kindle are just not there. Capt. Park's guilt as a pilot gets developed only in the fanciful terms of his return to life as a doctor, of Isabella's X-rayed novel, and of Newton's unusual quest. Park gives a gripping speech about the plane breaking up, and Michael Lopez plays Newton with a beautiful arrogant energy, jotting notes like a maniac to work out his Fourth Law ("Inventing calculus didn't take this long!"). But the poetry at the core of Sung Rno's script feels forced, and Rania Ho's overurgent performance as Isabella can't inject feeling into a final monologue that's meant to unravel the play's mystery. "As the pages grew and filled it felt as if they were written in blood," she says, remembering the process of composing her novel, and the levitating apple starts to fall. "When you read your words and felt something -- that's the Fourth Law!" enthuses Park. Simple as that? Just communicating emotion? "But it's not an equation," Isabella points out. "It doesn't matter," declares Newton, which is a huge letdown, making you wonder why you had to watch him pretend for so long that it did.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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