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Wednesday, Jun 24 1998
Wet and Wild
Platee. Performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group, Philharmonia Baroque, and the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus. Composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Staged by Mark Morris. Conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus, June 10-13. Call (510) 642-9988.

The woman two rows back was miffed. "I might go into the Castro sometimes," she complained audibly during the prologue, "but I don't expect to see that here." By "that" she meant the g-string-and-leather-jacket ensemble worn by one of Platee's principals. For her, the rest of the production just got worse, but from any other angle, it was witty and gloriously inventive, a very gay affair in both the classic and modern senses of the word.

Philharmonia Baroque brought Rameau's score to life on the instruments of his day, and collaborators Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi gave this Baroque comic opera-ballet a modern reading perfectly attuned to its racy history and fanciful narrative thread. French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, commissioned to create a work celebrating the marriage of Louis XV's son to a homely Spanish princess in 1745, concocted this operatic tale, about an ugly marsh nymph whose delusion of wedding a Greek god makes her a laughingstock. Apparently neither the plain princess nor the court of Versailles -- which might have seen itself in Rameau's idle Olympian pranksters -- was offended.

Platee's prologue, "The Birth of Comedy," is a rousing ode to Bacchus and the intoxicating power of laughter. Set designer Adrianne Lobel places the action in an urban bar, complete with neon Miller beer signs and a motley cast of patrons, including a lesbian in a pinstriped suit and the leather guy, whose costume foreshadows the appearance of the satyrs in Act 3. Morris quotes Jerome Robbins and decades of social dance in the variations, and Mizrahi pays sly tribute to American pop culture as L'Amour materializes in a white suit and matching quiver, an arrow through the head a la Steve Martin.

The action shifts from the Manhattan watering hole to a wooded marsh, where Mercure and Citheron conspire to cure Jupiter's wife, Junon, of her chronic jealousy. They decide to trick the vain, froggy Platee into thinking that Jupiter wants to marry her, and then tell Junon, who will be outraged until she sees Platee and realizes that she isn't a serious rival. Modern audiences might find the premise offensive, but the admirable tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, in Mizrahi's ludicrous frog drag (with huge flapping extremities and a potbelly), retains an air of dignity despite the scripted off-key notes.

The score, meant to spoof melodramatic Italian opera, is marked by clever passages like the lovely chorus of "How beautiful she is" and the woodland creatures who echo Platee's "Quoi?" as if it were the cawing of a crow. Morris and Mizrahi's shared vision of the swamp is a riot of color and motion; the deities descend in a seat-belted chariot lowered from the ceiling, and the birds, turtles, and lizards frolic with slippery glee around a fountain with real water jets.

The collaborators have staged this ballet bouffon like a bawdy and deliriously vivid children's book, and Morris really lets loose in the last act with the chaconne, a series of stately divertissements that he drags out to ridiculous lengths. The Graces include a man in drag prone to theatrical pratfalls and the satyrs, who clomp around lustily on platform hooves. When Platee realizes she's been duped, there is a terrible silence, filled by the smacking of her giant webbed feet against the floor and a huge splash as she dives into the swamp. The shiver of violins echoing Platee's pain gives way to a swell of music and the voices of the chorus, and order is eventually restored in this sparkling realm. The Early Music Festival in Berkeley, one of the few venues in the world where Plateee has been shown, should count itself lucky to have had it.

-- Heather Wisner

Love in the Ruins
Bent. By Martin Sherman. Directed by Reid Davis. Starring Thomas Nieto, Jeff Crockett, George Maguire, and Andy Alabran. Presented by the Shotgun Players at the Adeline Street Theater, 3280 Adeline in Berkeley, through July 12. Call (510) 655-0813.

Nearly two decades after Martin Sherman blasted Broadway theatergoers' minds and viscera with his play about queers in the Holocaust, director Reid Davis brings Bent to the stage once again. As in the original Sherman production, Davis' message rings loud: While we're far removed from the time of the horrors of the Nazis' sexual and ethnic cleansing campaigns, tactics for controlling -- even erasing -- people that the heterosexual norm identifies as abnormal still exist today.

The central character, Max (interestingly played by a racially ambiguous, handsome Thomas Nieto), masquerades as a baron and bags pretty Aryan boys. But he soon finds himself in Dachau sporting prison stripes, tattoo No. 71835, and a star -- first yellow (for Jew), later pink (for queer). Max's skill at masquerading at first gets him that less stigmatized yellow star; he tells his love-interest Horst (Jeff Crockett) that the Nazis proclaimed him but a Jew only after they watched him penetrate a dead 12-year-old girl. Horst reminds him, "You're not a Jew -- you're a fucking queer"; but we get a glimmer of how Max has internalized the regime's controlling gaze, until his very soul and self have been mutilated.

Ultimately, Max comes into a powerful sense of self that extends beyond his confines as he embraces and celebrates his queer self. And while the play can only end tragically, Max and Horst's intimacy, against all odds, breathes a certain hope into the air. On one occasion, they break out of the "never know, never watch" prison-camp modus operandi and make love -- separated from each other -- through a rhythmic syncopation and verbal exchange of vividly described details ("I feel your mouth ... your cock") that transgress their oppressive environs.

Director Davis, helped by some excellent acting and clever lighting (which illustrates the Nazis' penetrating gaze), portrays a world where those persecuting are the actual misfits and perverts. The second half needs some slimming down, and Nieto's performance is sometimes too hard and staccato for us to believe in his transformations, but this production's overall polish eclipses its faults. It's worth mentioning, too, George Maguire's small but hugely moving performance as Max's queer Uncle Fredie, who at the flick of an eyebrow and turn of a hand shows deep conflicts between his fear of coming out and being caught.

As the play reached its tragic denouement, the audience in this South Berkeley theater could hear a police siren buzz just outside the hall. Of course the PD's red-n-white whirls aren't needed to drive home this smartly orchestrated production's message, that concentration-camp towers still loom, and that today's sexual and ethnic outlaws share more with Bent's heroes than we might like to imagine.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Palpitations. Written and performed by Keith Hennessy. At New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), June 5-13. Call 861-8972.

In a prescient early '70s essay in The New Yorker, art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, "Art has enmeshed itself in public relations." He argued that in Warhol's wake, art had given way to artful self-promotion, and that the art world as a consequence had turned its adulatory attention away from art and toward the artist. Solo theater, a well-nourished form in this town, is susceptible to the weaknesses of post-object art. There's something about one performer alone on a stage that lends itself to indigestible narcissism and glorified laundry lists.

With one man's experiences of sex and love as its subject -- replete with diary confessions to about-to-be ex-lovers -- Keith Hennessy's song-dance-word solo show Palpitations: a tender cabaret of the heart is at risk from the get-go. But Hennessy has cleverly devised a persona named Jake, who introduces himself as "a fictional character that Keith invented. ... He gave me this text to read and I'll mostly stick to it, except for a couple places where the writing's not so good." Polite, fey, decidedly un-San Franciscan in his cheerful diffidence, Jake is somewhat baffled by the "sacred sex" advocate and multidisciplinary performer he channels. His unwitting muddling of Hennessy's enthusiasms and beliefs is hilarious and endearing. It also shows that Hennessy doesn't mind our skepticism, that he has his own. Invited to be disbelievers, we no longer need to be. We can follow Jake as he disappears into Keith: By the middle of the show, the language and tone are mainly Hennessy's.

Hennessy does occasionally resort to jargon and sanctimony, promoting the agenda of his tribe of anarcho-feminist-pagan-ritualist-queer activists. We get things like, "I want to stay alive and present in this body ... and I want to name this sex action prayer-healing-language-art-love." At this point, what I want is Jake back.

More often, though, the reflections on past and present love affairs, and the loneliness, anxiety, and wonder they incite, are provocative and illuminating: "I feel lost in a couple, like it's too big to handle and too small to survive in," Hennessy admits at one point. And in a moment of self-parody, he asks, "Which force of spirit, greater than I, has me scanning the discount porn magazines?" Most of the time, Palpitations is self-disclosing in the best sense, drawing us to inner dramas that make the idiosyncratic familiar.

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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