Normally, I like to see any play that features Sean San Jose and Scheherazade Stone; San Jose is a good actor and Stone, whenever she's onstage, tends to sing, which is lovely. For the third consecutive year the Alma Delfina Group is performing new short plays about AIDS by various writers as part of its Pieces of the Quilt Project, an ongoing benefit to fight the disease. Last year San Jose was gritty, well-paced, and funny playing solo in several high-energy pieces by people like Octavio Solis and Danny Hoch. But this year the Quilt material isn't so strong. Most of the plays (performed by Stone, San Jose, drummer Josh Jones, and DJ Fuze) descend into propagandizing about the millions of people who have died of AIDS and the lack of a cure. We know this already. (Why else would we be in the audience?) Anger about AIDS is hard to avoid -- anger is cousin to grief -- but the activist tone it sometimes takes on is also hard to stomach.
Erin Cressida Wilson's The Changing Face takes an inordinate amount of time to open the show; it splices onstage narration -- storytelling, not drama -- with details of the pre-AIDS era ("Remember pukka shells? Remember Pop Rocks? Remember rotary phones?") and grim statistics ("This was before 100 million dead"). But the defiant tone leaves you nowhere. Yes, the epidemic has lasted more than 15 years; no, we haven't found a cure -- but is the virus supposed to get scared? Are researchers supposed to work faster because of angry posters and plays? Are audience members supposed to give money? (Well, yes.) "Protesting" AIDS seems as ridiculous as protesting breast cancer, or death itself; and to me The Changing Face felt like a propagandistic pose, earnest but not at all real.
The same faux-earnest feeling infects most of the other pieces. In Illness, The Wild, A Town on the Pakistani Border, Danger, and even On the Last Day of His Life, there's altogether too much narrating, and not enough honest drama. Greg Sarris' What's Love Got to Do With It is a funny piece about Latina Turner, a drag queen played by San Jose who (yes) is dying of AIDS. The dialogue is dull, but the drag shtick is funny. Herbert Siguenza's The Wild is good at first -- its charged obscene language nicely evokes a pair of heated lovers -- but still it's just narrating, and after the lovers move in together it gets boring. Illness, by Maria Irene Fornes, is a funny metaplay with one character describing what theater might be like after a few more decades of the AIDS epidemic. "One day, everyone will be ill." Characters will be defined by their illnesses; plot development will follow the development of illnesses. San Jose makes it funny, and a rude interruption by the DJ, who bums a cigarette from Scheherazade, is a believably awkward moment; but the piece can't escape the haunting notion that this day of illness-obsessed theater has already arrived.
The best piece is Rhodessa Jones' On the Last Day of His Life, which features fine singing by Stone. Along with the music comes more narration, but this time in character, with San Jose playing Big Mama, who eloquently describes a biblical promised land in black dialect to her kids. The piece is somewhere between a spiritual and a play; it's felt and well-rehearsed, and the audience is stirred enough to clap along.
-- Michael Scott Moore
It's Show Time, Folks
Chicago. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, music by John Kander, lyrics by Ebb. Based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreography by Ann Reinking. Starring Charlotte d'Amboise, Donna Marie Asbury, Brent Barrett, and Ron Orbach. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Market), through Nov. 7. Call 776-1999.
When Chicago premiered in 1975, on the eve of the country's bicentennial and its attendant patriotic fervor, many viewers were turned off by the musical's cynical view of justice and the American way. No such problem these days. The Kander/Ebb/Fosse adaptation of a true crime story from the Jazz Age -- rife with murder, sex, spin, and celebrities -- hit big on Broadway at its 1996 revival, winning six Tony Awards the following year. The revival's timing, in a flurry of scandal-laden and highly public trials, only sharpened lyrics like "Why is it now everybody is a pain in the ass?/ Whatever happened to class?"
The revival owes part of its success to its original casting: Bebe Neuwirth and Fosse acolyte Ann Reinking took the leads as Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart, the homicidal chorines who try to parlay their notoriety into successful vaudeville careers. Folks who never liked Fosse won't be any happier with Reinking's choreography, faithfully executed "in the style of Bob Fosse." The good news about the revival's touring production, though, is that the cast more than holds its own, while Donna Marie Asbury (as Velma) and Charlotte d'Amboise (as Roxie) make a strong case for Fosse's style in a couple of stellar numbers.
Fosse has been much emulated and much abused in the process, so that now his hip-swiveling, pelvic-thrusting, wrist-cocking, high-kicking choruses have the potential to look not only dated, but in this era of cerebral postmodern dance, downright crude. His dancers are meant to seduce, particularly his women, and they get right down to it with the smoldering, spread-eagled display of "Cell Block Tango." But because this is a musical about wretched excesses of sex and booze and corny entertainment ushered in by the Roaring '20s, Fosse's slinky over-the-top showmanship works, just as it did in Cabaret. More specifically, it works in numbers like "We Both Reached for the Gun," in which d'Amboise morphs suddenly into a rubbery, loose-limbed ventriloquist's dummy, dangling on her lawyer's knee while he coaches her confession. In the show-stopping "Me and My Baby," d'Amboise doesn't just dance the role of a dingy celebrity hopeful, she inhabits it as easily as if it were her own skin. Asbury, meanwhile, invests every tired bump-and-grind in the book with cartoon sass in "I Can't Do It Alone."