Dario Fo is still an obscure name in San Francisco despite the Nobel Prize in literature he won last winter and the FoFest put on by a group of left-leaning theater types in the spring. I still run into people who don't know who he is. This is depressing, not only because Fo is so funny, but also because San Francisco has produced his work more often than any other American city. (In Nebraska they must think he's a phonics lesson, or part of a song in The Sound of Music.) So, briefly: Fo is the manic Italian satirist who's been writing anti-authoritarian comedies like The Devil With Boobs and Trumpets and Raspberries with his wife, Franca Rame, for decades. When he accepted his Nobel in December, he apparently had the Swedish Academy crowd helpless with laughter, displaying "the qualities shown in some 70 plays," according to the Associated Press, "a torrent of words, burlesque gestures and noises, and the sense that madness is overtaking the stage, followed by the realisation that Fo is a craftsman with icy control."
This is a good description of the final piece in the Fo quartet playing now at the Marsh. "We All Have the Same Story" starts with a woman lying on her back, legs in the air, chiding her lover to be gentle. It moves through an abortionist's exam (woman in the same position) and childbirth (legs up one more time) to suggest where and when and why women get taken advantage of. Then it moves into a fairy tale about a rotten-mouthed doll that crawls up a male computer programmer's ass and needs to be extracted by a midwife. After a digression through the woods with a dwarf who kills a red tomcat with his poisonous pee, the story lands, feet-first, on an elegant coda to the show. Francesca Fanti colors all the characters with passion and fine comic timing. The four pieces are monologues, but in her hands all the characters -- women, dolls, computer programmers -- have their own energetic lives.
The other pieces are "A Woman Alone," about a housewife locked in her flat, "Waking Up," about a flustered factory mother going to work, and "Monologue of a Whore in a Lunatic Asylum," a self-descriptive short that isn't funny at all but gives the show a grim street-toughness and weight. Fo is like Brecht, dead-on and hilarious when he sticks to lacerating power and privilege in the West, as opposed to shilling for a remedy. My only problem is with Fanti's own chatter between scenes, while she changes costume. Trying to explain the show's title (which I still don't really understand), she makes fun of our Latin words for sex organs, and puts male and female names in warring camps by trying to claim "prepuce" and "glans" are pompous, and "vulva" and "vagina" ugly, as if the sound of those words had something to do with a cabal of patriarchs and not with how she pronounces them to make her point. The rest of Orgasmo Adulto, happily, is more graceful with its politics.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Miss Saigon. Directed by Nicholas Hytner. Starring Kristine Remigio, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Bonafacio Deoso Jr., and Steve Pasquale. At the Orpheum Theater, Market & Hyde, through Nov. 29. Call 776-1999.
Vietnam might be deeply etched in the historical archives as the United States' biggest imperialist, muscle-flexing screw-up, but it still works to get the masses to pull out their credit cards. This is exactly what Hungarian-French composer Claude-Michel Shsnberg and Tunisian emigre librettist Alain Boublil bet on when -- high on the success of their Les Miz -- they teamed up with wet-behind-the-ears British director Nicholas Hytner to retool Puccini's Madame Butterfly into Miss Saigon. The dynamic trio hit the jackpot. A dozen or so million people have seen it, and it's grossed close to a billion greenbacks. And no wonder: This is a real techno-pop tour de force -- a supercomputer variously controls life-size 'copter blades, a cruising pink Coupe de Ville, superwattage lighting, and a glacier's worth of dry ice -- that tells the tragic love story (well, more lust than love) of an American GI who falls for a beautiful Vietnamese bumpkin-cum-bargirl right before the U.S. turns tail in 1973.
The story is basic. As in the Puccini version, this is a white-boy-meets-exotic-Asian-babe story. But unlike Butterfly's hard-assed, abusive naval officer, Saigon's white boy, Chris (Steve Pasquale), has a heart. In the girlie bar where the action begins, he refuses to pay for and thus exploit a downtrodden whore. He wants something better, something "real," and he finds it in Kim (played by crystal-voiced Filipina Kristine Remigio), a fresh-faced near-virgin from the country. Kim is a little more emancipated than Puccini's Butterfly; she has decided her own fate, jilting her betrothed (Bonafacio Deoso Jr.) and turning to Saigon's only female moneymaking enterprise. This is her first night on the job, and her pimp, called "The Engineer" (Joseph Anthony Foronda, also Filipino), knows just how to tout her: "She's so tight, she squeaks." How can Chris resist? He and Kim share a night of soul-soaring, song-spouting love, and decide to marry.
When the U.S. takes flight and Ho Chi Minh's soldiers slam their iron scrim down on Saigon, Chris and Kim are separated. She pines while he romps it up (sort of) with his new hometown squeeze, the pallid Ellen (Andrea Rivette). But Kim doesn't pine alone: Not only is she a new mother, but her cousin-fiance, now a sharp-elbowed military man, has enlisted the Engineer to search for her. It is operatically inevitable that destinies will cross again, and that the end will be Tragic -- but then, you knew that.
The story has broad appeal in the West, not so much because of Vietnam -- any war could serve as backdrop -- but, I venture to guess, because of the Asian fetish thing. Of course, what I say is nothing new. While the play has brought in the bucks, it has also received deserved criticism from the Asian-American community. To be sure, this particular production has made strides in representational politics -- it's musical theater's most Asian-inclusive production, and the Engineer (originally written as Eurasian) is no longer played by white-boy Jonathan Pryce. But Asians don't all look alike, and consistently casting Filipinos to play Vietnamese is as wrong as, say, asking Brando to play Zapata. And, if the Vietnamese geisha has more backbone than Puccini's, she still has only two moods: docile and angry. Her tempestuous temper and iron-butterfly will suddenly melt like butter when Chris reaches out to her. At its best the musical leaves us with that age-old image of Asia as the mysterious land populated with pole-dancing, ra-ra mini-short-wearing brown bodies just dying to get out.
But there is something irresistible about this Miss. In spite of my politically correct cavils, and as much as I resent Broadway-styled tactical manipulations, I felt swept up in the costumes (beautiful masks and flowing ao dais), the pyrotechnics, and the swooning arias. This is one of the lavish American artifacts that the story's own starry-eyed whores, pimps, and boat people lust after.
-- Frederick Luis Aldama
More Mashed Potatoes, Please
Kielbasia, Queen of Poland: Back on the Lunch Line. Written and performed by Matthew Worsyzlo. At Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room, 579 Hayes (at Laguna), through Sept. 30. Call 864-7654.
"Back on the Lunch Line" is not only the title of Part 3 in Matthew Worsyzlo's Kielbasia saga -- about a Polish woman who walks off her job in a high school cafeteria to claim her rightful role as Queen of Poland -- it's also the name of a song. Kielbasia can play accordion, sort of, and occasionally during her show she'll use it to butcher some innocent pop tune. "Back on the Lunch Line" steals its melody from the Pretenders' "Back on the Chain Gang," and to see a half-Polish man in drag (wearing large glasses, earrings, a babushka, and a polyester blouse) trilling the riff to a Pretenders song and singing about lunch lines in a heavy accent is to redefine your notion of "queen." But that's the point of Kielbasia, and as a concept I think she's excellent. After last year's show I said she stood at a weird and contradictory intersection between Polish history and gay culture, with what you might think would be a tantalizing potential to make fun of both.
Unfortunately, Kielbasia has gone into merchandising. Back on the Lunch Line spends most of its time rehashing her history, including her claim to the crown and last year's trip to Poland. What there is of a new story tells about her return to the U.S. and her tour of Polish-American communities from New York to Milwaukee to evangelize for "the old recipes." But this part lasts about 20 minutes before Kielbasia lapses into peddling her new line of unhealthy, fat-added, Polish food-to-go. Old World borscht and cabbage soup come in squeeze-bottle, instant-soup-cup, or votive-candle form -- and the last item, plastered with a funny printed label, really is for sale.
Maybe seeing her twice dulls Kielbasia's novelty. Her new songs aren't as funny as the old ones, though "The Edge of Seventy" (from Heart's "Edge of Seventeen") comes close. And this time she manages only one great scene, involving mashed potatoes at a Boston Market in Milwau-kee: The chain has stolen an age-old recipe for mashed potatoes from the Kowalskis, who ran a Polish cafeteria from the same site for three generations, so Kielbasia attacks the offending side dish with her ladle, flinging bits of mashed potato into the audience. It's frightening at first, unexpected, and since Kielbasia's status as a novelty act gives her the freedom to be just this strange, you walk away from her votive candle line wishing she'd been even stranger.
-- Michael Scott Moore