"Monday Night Marsh" is a sometimes-cutting-edge forum for new work by local actors who have enough courage and imagination to stand alone and deliver maybe half an hour of material. Highlights from last week's installment were "Bent," by Nicole Brown, and "The Cellophane Prophecy," by Charlie McClelland; and one reason they stood out, strangely, was the shameless use by both performers of wild and gratuitous digressions.
Brown is a bright young actor with a lot of energy who threw herself into three different characters, starting with a poetry reading by the winner of the Fremont Middle School Poetry Contest. A nervous, wide-eyed girl -- ingenuous-looking, African-American, in sloppy pigtails -- sidled onstage and recited a poem called "Bent" that detailed recent incidents of racism (burning churches, graffiti in bathroom stalls), especially in Fremont. The piece was an unsettling little cameo; it lasted as long as the poem. Then Brown became a smart-mouthed beautician wearing a blue gel-pack across her eyes, accusing an invisible customer of being ugly. This was comic relief. Brown's third character was a young woman who failed to get the point of certain 12-step programs. Speaking to what she thought was a Celibates Anonymous group, she told about bringing a fifth of Jack Daniel's and some Dixie cups to an AA meeting ("I thought this was a drinking group"), and then rambled on about almost having sex, personal body space on BART, and a psychic in Berkeley. It was a pointless but fun digression that showed off Brown's range (she can be angry, mock-sad, cheerful, whimsical) and comic imagination.
Charlie McClelland's "The Cellophane Prophecy" was apparently a chapter from a longer autobiographical work in progress. It dealt with McClelland's first regular job in San Francisco during the '70s after two years of imitating Charlie Chaplin for tourists on the street. He'd been hired by a strip club to imitate Charlie Chaplin for women onstage. ("It gave a new meaning to 'The Little Tramp,' " McClelland quipped.) He built up to his first strip-show moment by describing the other strippers -- freaks, mostly -- and then avoided it completely with a manic digression about learning to ride an elephant as a clown in a Florida circus. It was more pointless fun, the only disappointment being that McClelland never clarified his snarky title.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Present at the Transition
The Ladies of the Camellias. By Lillian Garrett-Groag. Directed by Larry Biederman. Starring David Kudler, Elizabeth Benedict, and Wanda McCaddon. Presented by TheaterFirst at the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College (at Parker), Berkeley, through Oct. 5. Call (510) 436-5085.
TheaterFirst's production of Lillian Garrett-Groag's The Ladies of the Camellias isn't exactly ladylike or about the ladies. The play is a brief glimpse into the lives of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse -- two women who stomped their way into the 19th-century thespian hall of fame. But there's more to the play than reconstructing their eccentric lives.
The show is based on the play La Dame aux Camelias, by the younger Alexander Dumas. (The story has been the basis of everything from La Traviata to the Garbo vehicle Camille.) Bernhardt, of French courtesan stock, made it big and used to tour with a menagerie of wild animals and men; Duse acted her way out of Italy's playhouse gutters and became the darling of the international stage. Garrett-Groag's scenario puts Dumas in charge of both divas for an upcoming staging of his play in Paris. This conceit offers the writer a chance to give us a hint of the aches and pains theater was experiencing at the turn of the century. Indeed, at one point, stagehand Benoit (Dana Kelly) asks disgruntled bit-part player "The Girl" (Jennifer Davis), "Don't you want to be a part of theater history?"
Although Garrett-Groag doesn't say so explicitly, it's worth knowing that (diva) history was being made. Konstantin Stanislavsky had just proposed leveling the actor/actress playing field; Emile Augier was pushing to see fewer epic romances and more socially aware dramatics. When Dumas fils (David Kudler) arrives onstage and suggests to his divas that the coveted role of Marguerite Gautier can be played with more natural ease, we're witnessing his great breakaway from the tradition of heroic deeds established by the older guard, typified by his father, Dumas pere, he of the great historical romances like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
When, in the play, Dumas fils tells old-schooler Bernhardt (Elizabeth Benedict) that she brings to the role an inappropriate bohemian abandon, and when he tells Duse (Wanda McCaddon) to lose her overdetermined morbidity, they resist. Slinging her pink "vulture" feathered boa over one shoulder, Bernhardt responds, "Nobody goes to the theater to see the ordinary." Duse simply states: "You wrote her. I invented her."
The Russian anarchist Ivan (Ben Cleaveland) anticipates a time when the divas will no longer be marketable and theater directors will be born to mediate between writer and actor. Nonetheless he's a theater fan. He storms the stage, clutching a gun and bomb, and begins to reinterpret Dumas' play, offering constructive suggestions (recommending peasants be stood inside stage-set windows), even acting out parts to capture the "right" mood. The actors are less shocked by his gun than his cutting-edge suggestions. The divas sniff at his social critique -- until it becomes clear that the authorities have failed to come to rescue them. Garret-Groag's idea of presenting this moment of questioning and transition by means of an imagined encounter between the different extremes of the day -- artistic and social -- is effective and clever.
Under Larry Biederman's direction, the comical Worm (Clive Chafer) and Ando (Jon DiSavino) pull off just enough expressive posturing for some slapstick relief. (The anachronistic jokes work even better: "Imagine writing a play about a salesman," Dumas chortles to Benoit.) Unfortunately, the play falls flat just where it shouldn't. David Kudler's lack of command -- ill-timed pauses and faltering lines -- meant that he could not resuscitate Dumas' ur-Dandyism; Elizabeth Benedict's punctilious gestures aren't enough to convey that I-can-tame-a-cheetah Bernhardt charisma; and Wanda McCaddon's Italian-inflected "enhs" and stiff jaw movement convey little of Duse's elegant strength. Finally, the play lacks the artistic vision vibrant enough to capture this moment when the definition of genius was changing.
-- Frederick Luis Aldama
"Theater Artaud's Ninth Annual Performance Marathon." Various artists. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Sept. 6. Call 621-7797.
"How much can someone accomplish in 10 minutes?" a friend asked me before I went to the performance marathon at Theater Artaud. Well, a lot, especially if it's the best 10 minutes of a work in progress, or 10 minutes of a story you've never heard. Now in its ninth year, this smorgasbord of artistic expression featured a different performer every 10 minutes for 12 hours (actually, eleven hours with an hour warm-up of face painting, clowns, and toys on loan from the Exploratorium). And every quick fix succeeded on its own terms, whether it meant to amaze, emote, alienate, confuse, or simply entertain.
Theater Artaud takes its name from the French theorist Antonin Artaud, who in the 1930s preached the idea that theater should be more than brain candy. While Brecht was keen on transforming audiences' intellectual lives, Artaud envisioned performance that would "throw itself back into life" and awaken the inner spirit of the spectators. Not the sunny Christian spirit, but our shadowy subconscious. He wrote of theater using symbols and magic to charm spectators into awareness of their darker, and frequently violent, nature. But Artaud's own plays were muddled (partly by his heavy drug use), leading directors and critics to shy away from any practical application of his theories.
But if you can believe in spiritually transformative theater, Theater Artaud's annual fund-raising marathon delivers a kaleidoscope of beauty and art without borrowing too heavily from the gruesome overtones of Artaud's writings. What began with family-friendly entertainers and only a handful of nonperformers in the crowd spread out to cover almost everything that falls under the category "someone gets up onstage." The most popular medium was dance, and it's notable how many performers used the body and nonverbal expression when allocated a limited amount of time to communicate.
The emphasis on dance echoes Artaud's later writings, which described the body as a hieroglyphic system, movement as an invisible language, and dance an incantation. He wanted performers not to be enslaved by a text. Very few of the marathon's performers worked from a script, but everything was well-rehearsed and -choreographed. And the rapid turnover of jugglers, actors, and experimental performance artists gave the event an air of constant improvisation. With professional whistlers following noise artists following a talking nipple, the event was constantly compelling. It was a fast mental gear shift between the brilliant red ribbons in Lily Cai's dance company to a folk song about a Jewish wedding. Thrown into the mix were the antics of late-night MC Dee Dee Russell and a male member of the audience who ended up dancing onstage bottomless. Is it possible to describe the show without being harshly reductive? No:
Enter the traditional dancers of the Barangay Dance Company followed by: circus artist's pathos-rich acrobatic dance; roller-skating disco-funk troupe; children's storyteller; bouncy dancer in sweats; nerd swan lake; monologue on school integration in Kansas City; traditional beat poet with bongos; first bathroom break; dance of light and space with two bodies, a sheet, and video feedback; a cappella love song about morphine; cowgirl rope tricks; Sara Shelton Mann's physical yet elegant dance; erratic hero journey; whirlpool of women and ribbons; folk singer; telemarketing morons; multigenerational performance piece with more roller skates; second bathroom break; operatic whistler; mythology of rice with dancers dressed as grains; multiple-personality dance therapy with dream text; Phil Deal playing two horns at once; ballet on a suspended metal hoop; experimental noise on plastic toys; flamenco; legendary Guy Mosley's tap and hat tricks; aria about the Industrial Revolution and exploitation of the poor; dance of the prosthetic fairy (with goofy rubber mannequin hands); milkmaids in bright satin; driven almost to madness by variegated realities, I hit Moxie for dinner and, swear to god, David Helfgott was at the next table; acoustic guitar tunes; Polynesian courtship hula to traditional music and UB40; sexy hipsters in a love triangle; the ghost of Sarah Winchester lit up like the rhinestone cowboy; men's chorus singing delicate English devotional music instead of ABBA tunes; edgy humor about the Middle East conflict; Mummenschantz meets Houdini -- puppeteer Scott Serrano unlocked layers of imprisonment around his head; two women in brown seducing each other to industrial noise and the chirping of crickets; tales of cruel sibling rivalry and tons of loose paper; Loose Tooth -- tribal banging and cross-dressing; Keith Hennessy as the yuppie incubus; more storytelling; swirling navels of Fat Chance BellyDance; pause to treat my raging headache; one voice and a special-effects machine create a small orchestra; macho food fight; crazed rant inspired by La Toya, she of the Jacksons; coat hanger tricks and UFO skits; anguished butoh in socks and loafers; nipple -- alien on an understimulated chest; and Brazilian group Fogo Na Roupa, who had everyone dancing onstage at 12:30 a.m.
The effect was that of a crucible, burning every misanthropic impulse out of me. Maybe it was delirium induced by a day in the platonic cave, but I started thinking really rosy, romantic thoughts about strange things like "humanity" and "mankind." The 70 or so separate performances (which ultimately included some 400 people) wore down my sniveling critical resistance and reduced me to emotional pulp. This might not have been precisely what Artaud had in mind, but it was the most radical experience I've had in a folding seat.
-- Julie Chase