In 1996, the center, then just a dance studio, added a performance space. Drawn by cheap rental rates, choreographers came running; a sizable audience followed quickly behind. Located just off Market and Van Ness, the theater is easy to get to, has a cozy cafe next door, and great sightlines. Dynamic and gregarious dance veteran Krissy Keefer provided the women-oriented programming, bringing together mature and fledgling artists of ballet and modern dance and providing them with pristine lighting and sound. Her reputation and the center's inviting atmosphere also attracted a wide span of adventurous dance groups to fill out the calendar.
So local dancers and choreographers were dismayed when word got out about the center's current crisis. Keefer, sound technician Matthew DeGumbia, and lighting designer Joe Williams have left, taking their sound and lighting equipment with them. Questions about why they left, whether they'll return, and under what conditions were enough to prompt Executive Director Keli Fine -- who holds the center's lease -- to call a meeting. On Saturday, March 7, a few dozen people showed up, including Fine, Keefer, several of those who had worked most closely with the latter, and interested choreographers and dancers.
Fine had hired Keefer in 1996 to run the space as she took a leave of absence. There was no job description, nor a contract. When Fine returned, Keefer felt increasingly hassled by her supervision; Fine found "there wasn't really a place for me anymore." Without a formal agreement in place, they were forced to fall back on getting along. And they didn't.
At the meeting, Fine gave a short introduction, but didn't in fact answer many questions. Keefer's main point was that, given the work she and the technicians had put into the center, they deserved a fair compensation if they were no longer going to be working there. And many participants praised the center and the essential work Keefer, DeGumbia, and Williams had done to create it; many made vague pleas that they and Fine "heal their differences." But the call for peaceful resolution was drowned out by the rancor directed at Fine by Keefer's closest allies: They engaged in threats ("I will do whatever I can to make your life miserable"); hyperbolic charges ("There are four of the seven deadly sins at work here, and I will mention two of them ..."); rueful prophecies ("All of you have been fucked over by Keli and her inability to reach a negotiation. You'll see that in short time"); misplaced political polemic ("You are the landlord"); extortive bullying ("If the space doesn't make it as a dance space, are you, Keli, willing to commit in public to handing the first option to own the lease over to Krissy?"); and, when this unremitting barrage finally rendered Fine unable to speak, insults ("You have portrayed yourself as a victim all fucking day").
While Brady Street's reigning anarchy was partially responsible for the present debacle, it also enabled Keefer, DeGumbia, and Williams to make the center a jewel of Bay Area dance. Without checks and balances to hinder them, their considerable vision and energy operated at full throttle. Local dancers trusted that if Keefer, in particular, were involved, then Brady Street was a good place for them to perform. The center's tiny board is now assembling an impartial, or at least non-abusive, advisory committee to help them decide how to proceed. A formal structure that both ignites its directors' energies and passions and minimizes the effect of their lapses in judgment ought to be on the agenda.
-- Apollinaire Scherr
Two by Pinter
The Dumb Waiter and Victoria Station. By Harold Pinter. Directed by John Warren. Starring John Schumacher and Lawrence Motta. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Turk), through April 7. Call 673-3847.
The Dumb Waiter, one of Harold Pinter's first plays, leans so heavily on Waiting for Godot it's fun to count the references. 1) The characters -- Cockney-speaking British prole Gus and Windsor-knotted snob Ben -- are a simpleton and a sophisticate; 2) At the beginning, Gus has an absurd amount of trouble getting into his footwear; and 3) A man who never shows his face but seems to have some control over the two characters' lives keeps them waiting and sometimes just sends a message. "Throughout the play," critic John Simon once wrote, "one is acutely conscious of Pinter waiting for Beckett to write him some better lines."
It's true that most of the writers (Pinter, Shepard, Albee, Stoppard) who made their midcentury reputations by walking in the footsteps of Beckett and Pirandello seem a little thin compared to their masters; but Pinter, when he's well played, is still a good night out. The Dumb Waiter shows two hit men waiting for instructions on a vague assignment in what looks like a flophouse but turns out to be the kitchen basement of a cafe. They have outrageous arguments with social-class overtones ("How can you light a kettle?" "It's a figure of speech! Light the kettle." "I've never heard it") until a dumbwaiter squeaks down from the upper floor with orders for food. They realize, slowly, that something isn't right upstairs, and the final order reveals that Ben is supposed to shoot Gus. It's like a Beckett play with all the despair taken out and replaced by proselytizing on the class war; but the dialogue is sharp and funny, and the two actors in this production, Lawrence Motta and John Schumacher, do an especially good job of rendering (respectively) Ben's high-bred standoffishness and Gus' potbellied insouciance.
The Dumb Waiter is only an hour long; the Exit fills out the evening with Victoria Station, a Pinter skit about a cab driver in London who seems lost not only in space but in time. The dispatcher wants him to pick up a well-paying fare at Victoria Station, but the driver stays parked near Crystal Palace Park, where he says he can see the actual palace, which burned in the Great Fire of London in 1936. He also has a woman in the back seat, sleeping, and claims he's fallen in love. Schumacher and Motta are just as good here -- accents and all -- in two English roles very different from Gus and Ben; the skit is tightly paced and all its funny lines land. But the core of the play feels just as insubstantial as The Dumb Waiter's, as if Pinter's mind and wit were engaged but his soul had gone on vacation.