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Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
Shakespeare in the Suburbs
Othello. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Markus. Starring Bernard K. Addison, Deanne Lorette, Chad Fisk, Charles Shaw Robinson, and Molly Mayock. Presented by the California Shakespeare Festival at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Exit off Highway 24, Orinda, through Aug. 1. Call (510) 548-9666.

The interesting thing about watching a tragedy at the Bruns Amphitheater -- the open-air Orinda stage on which the California (ne Berkeley) Shakespeare Festival has presented its productions for the past seven years -- is that the daylight follows the arc of the play. The shows start in late sunlight and end in the dark. This isn't worth noticing during a comedy -- last month the festival put on Moliere's Scapin, the Cheat! -- but it works well with Othello, especially since Shakespeare toys with the notion of black and white. His black Moor, rational and strong, gets tricked by a jealous white underling into thinking his wife has cheated on him. He sinks into irrationality, then agony, then death: the simple, classical undoing of a strong man. At least in outline the story has the proportions of Oedipus Rex, but in some circles this play would seem hopelessly dated, since the notion of irrationality as a curse is passe. "Benightedness," as an idea, has lost a lot of its force.

Iago, the mean-spirited underling, is jealousy personified; in that sense he's as important to the show as Othello. Charles Shaw Robinson plays him here with a lot of personality but not enough evil. I saw Robinson play Krogstad last year in Nora, so I know he can be evil, but somehow here he's just enjoyable. His voice has a pinched drone that should work better than it does. With some lines it sounds like real dastardliness, with others just like strain. His best moments come when Iago lies through his teeth. Othello, played by Bernard Addison, is balanced, commanding, and strong; but his early lines seem uninhabited, as if he's still warming up, and his most emotional moments are forced. The scene with the most ease and grace for both players comes in Act 3, after Iago has weaseled a promotion out of his boss. Not far into the third scene they're the only characters onstage, doing clerical work, and the way they interact has a tone of relaxed friendship undercut by an edgy suggestion of evil. The sky by this time is in deepening dusk.

The show lasts about three hours, and keeping up the pace for that long is more than the production can manage, but Desdemona's death scene wakes up most of the wine-sleepy audience because Molly Mayock, playing Iago's wife, screams so desperately about the ugly thing Othello has done and the horrible way her husband has led him to it. The falling cadences of the tragedy are brightened by Mayock's tantrum; it's the strongest moment of feeling, and maybe the only moment of truth, in an otherwise measured show about passion. "She loved thee, cruel Moor," she cries out, dying of a knife wound from Iago. "So come my soul to bliss as I speak true." Honest, electric hysteria, under a blackened suburban sky.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Radical Retread
AWD. At the Lab, 2948 16th St. (at Capp), July 16. Call 864-8855.

First were the dancers, who dove at each other, seemingly unconcerned with injury or collision. There was a man rubbing himself against the floorboards and exclaiming "Mom!" in several different tones, his voice cracking with adolescent excitement and embarrassment. There was a dreadlocked guy who made music for the dancers by banging out infectious percussive rhythms on a refrigerator that rolled across the stage on coasters. There was a woman suspended from a harness who uttered a strident monologue as she went flying out over viewers, who hadn't seen anything like it before and were both baffled and thrilled. This was back in 1987. The piece was called Oracle and the company was called Contraband.

Over 10 years later, the 12-member performance band AWD has staged a site-specific piece at the Lab, plotting its movement to take advantage of the venue's flaws as a performance space -- two poles in the middle of the stage floor, which one dancer scaled, monkeylike, and others took running jumps at, pushing themselves back into the air with their feet. There is a lot that is familiar about this show: Musicians bang on whatever makes noise, including wind chimes and giant oil drums, and dancers launch themselves from every vertical and horizontal surface they can find. Barrel and butterfly turns dominate the choreography, along with acrobatics, swooping dives, jackknife holds, and the dynamic rolling partnering particular to contact improv.

AWD works collaboratively, and the lack of dictatorial control has mixed results. At its best, the dancing and the raw rock score emit a kind of gonzo organic energy that dazzles viewers. Richard Szpigiel, dressed in a yellow jumpsuit with black racing stripes, storms the stage, barking out commands to the other dancers and hurtling himself into space. Janine Fondiller and her fellow fire handlers create a real sense of wonder as they trace yellow-blue arcs of kerosene flames through the darkened theater, lighting the tips of Freddy Krueger-ish nails on fire and swallowing the flames. But at its worst, AWD, like other performance groups, lacks humor and a clear sense of purpose. A deadly seriousness pervades the show, and pretension creeps into the songs and improvisational monologues. Impromptu "groove" dances look awkward.

Contraband's Oracle was aptly named: It gave us a prophetic glimpse of San Francisco performance to come. The city's industrial, goth, punk, and club scenes -- all of which influenced Contraband -- have in turn manifested themselves in groups ranging from the pomo-styled club kids of Steamroller to the professionally outre musicians of the now-defunct Idiot Flesh. The AWD collective has all the hallmarks of radical performance. (Gothwear! Strobe lights! Requisite lesbian overtones!) But lacking the kind of bright, subversive humor that gave Contraband's work such an edge, AWD is entertaining only as another post-punk urban carnival, without the benefit of looking fresh.

-- Heather Wisner

Terpsichore in Sneakers
Down Softly and Suit and Skin. Choreography by Wayne Hazzard and Mercy Sidbury and by Kate Weare. Presented by Summerfest/Dance at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), July 9 (Summerfest continues through July 26). Call 646-0661.

Modern dance was essentially naked up until the '60s. Costume served as an extension of the body, and the body expressed what modern dance choreographers used to call the "soul." But since then, Terpsichore has just as often worn sneakers, dressing up to dress down social conventions. In Wayne Hazzard and Mercy Sidbury's Down Softly, commissioned last year by the Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival and reprised at Summerfest/Dance, the elaborate costumes expose and cover the dancers. Mimicking life, this electric duet of liberation runs animal desire together with social posturing.

Regal fanfare sounds and a royal-red carpet is unfurled as Hazzard and Sidbury, ensconced in Angelina DeAntonis' swirly colored hoop skirts-cum-beetle shells, wobble into view. Backs to us, heads buried inside gigantic flower collars, they scuttle about to the Charming Hostess' propulsive violins. Their poofy get-ups shade every "Egyptian" profile, vaguely disco shuffle, and Bob Fosse hip thrust toward comic absurdity.

Soon they erupt into wordless animal cackles and the occasional recognizable phrase: "Pretty boy, pretty boy" and later "Coming out! Coming out!" Like anyone copying a new self-image from what he's found around him, the pair resemble parrots. A strong inner impulse may have drawn them to "coming out," but they also mouth the phrase and embrace the idea because it's in the air.

In its tangle of inner desire and cultural borrowing, Down Softly resists the assumption that it's possible to distinguish the one from the other. Kate Weare's Suit and Skin fails to offer that challenge. In her physically nuanced and impeccably delivered duet, the clothes make the woman.

Suit and Skin begins with Weare alone onstage, dressed in a standard-issue gray suit. Her very precise gestures seem to mean something specific -- and you'd better figure out what. With her head cocked toward us confrontationally, she takes on a slippery and predatory intensity.

When Ada Shedlock enters, the two tumble together like wrestlers making love on the mat. Weare ends on top, a calm spreading over limbs and face as Shed-lock lies squashed beneath her. After Weare has rolled over and gone to sleep, Shedlock sheds her jacket and, now topless and a different person, dances longingly in the moonlight.

Suit and Skin returns to two ideas choreographers love too much: first, that we are nothing more than socially constructed ciphers -- scarecrows made out of assorted hats, shoes, bangles, stuffing, and postures to match. And, second, stripped naked, we return to our true selves, just like Rousseau and streaking hippies said we would. Individually these two notions are dubious; paired up, they undo each other completely.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Skits Happen
Bare-Breasted and Ready to Rumba. By various authors. Directed by Beth Doyle. Starring Sabrina Alonso, Cynthia Billops, Maria Breaux, and Rae Rea. Presented by Baby Snatching Dingoes at Theater Rhinoceros Studio, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), through July 25. Call 861-5079.

Watching the Baby Snatching Dingoes is a lot like going over to your friend's house to watch a bunch of neighborhood kids put on a show. It won't be very good, but since when is that the point? Bare-Breasted and Ready to Rumba is sketch comedy, written by members of the mostly lesbian group, and the title is pure attitude. Nobody here actually bares her breasts or rumbas. Two people do vogue. Others step-dance, sort of, and two more imitate the Spice Girls. Some sketches work, some don't, and you come away from the whole thing wishing it could have been funnier.

"Juxtapose," for example, is about a pair of young women who decide to go out in public doing old vogue moves. Sabrina Alonso plays straight man, so to speak, as the waitress at a restaurant where the women sit acting weird. Her facial expressions are funny, but the piece goes down like an ill-conceived Saturday Night Live skit. "GangstaRobics" is better, with Cynthia Billops playing a yuppie who shows up for her aerobics class and finds a gangster in charge of the moves, wearing sunglasses and a knit cap. "Y'neck, y'neck," he chants, working through a typical aerobics routine, then, "Slide, slide" -- a rapper moonlighting at 24-Hour Fitness. Maria Breaux does a good job with his voice. And maybe the funniest skit is "Blood Spice," which has both a transvestite (Rae Rea) and Vampyra (Breaux) auditioning to be Spice Girls. The talent scout (Alonso, again trying to keep a straight face) doesn't think it'll work. "I would just as soon make my grandmother a Spice Girl," she says. "We could call her Old Spice."

It's funny, sometimes, but it's all too unambitious and slight. DIY shows like this one proliferate in San Francisco, but I wish more of our home-grown stuff showed real purpose. The Dingoes could start by integrating their skits more tightly. Bare-Breasted has two running gags about a woman trying to find an apartment and a woman trying to go on a vaguely satisfying date; if either of those stories had developed into something pointed it would have been a more interesting show. Subversiveness and ambition don't belong in separate toolboxes, like some underground artists try to pretend, and I doubt a little discipline would kill a Dingo's spirit.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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