Howard Barker has more of a reputation in England than he does here; like his countryman Harold Pinter he's made a career out of writing scripts both for the stage and for the better-paying BBC. Also like Pinter, he can be smart-aleck funny, abstractly political, and emotionally as dry as Nevada. The Possibilities is a Chinese puzzle-box show in 10 short skits, each with a backdrop of political oppression or war. They have clever and distancing titles like "The Necessity for Prostitution in Advanced Societies," "She Sees the Argument But," and "The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act." Some are boring intellectual exercises; others are chilling and sharp.
FoolsFURY is making its debut with this show, by the way, and director Ben Yalom has knitted the sketches together with "buffoon" movement, which has the actors crowding together in wide-eyed, slow-moving bunches, while a percussionist named Todd Barker sits just offstage and makes popping noises on his fascinating instruments. I like the buffoonery; it lets the audience know that not everything onstage is meant to be clear.
First, the bits that don't work. "The Weavers' Ecstasy at the Discovery of New Color" shows weavers huddled in a shop during some kind of ancient Christian war -- maybe Constantinople, with the Muslims invading? The color they find is red, when a woman accidentally drags a bolt of cloth through a blood puddle. The skit is a stilted exercise, so the savagery of what comes next -- marauders kidnapping and raping the woman, stealing an elaborate rug from the floor, and killing the weavers' supervisor -- is not visceral or even shocking. A few other sketches, especially "Kiss My Hands," have the same stiff effect.
But when Barker writes cruel and long-winded characters, his sketches are intriguingly funny. "Only Some Can Take the Strain" shows a cranky bookseller who complains about customers failing to understand his merchandise. "Any day I might regret selling it and therefore track you down," he says to a man who wants to buy a rare volume he's found in the shop. "I've saved it from unscrupulous buyers at least five times." He asks an outrageous price, and while the customer goes searching somewhere else an agent of the government seals up the store. The ending is obscure, but it's maybe the funniest piece.
The strongest skit, "The Dumb Woman's Ecstasy," has a Polish torture artist arriving at a sleepy European hotel. He berates the mute proprietress with a savage but well-mannered speech before he remembers she can't even talk, then philosophizes about the pain he goes on to inflict on her and her flattering son. "The Philosophical Lieutenant and the Three Village Women" is more of the same -- cerebrally justified savagery, this time as a Brechtian parable. The Possibilities is about human perversity and violence in its various forms, and Barker's most articulate sketches, strangely, are the most interesting.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Tripping the Fantastic, Lightly
Rafael Nicolau's Tango. Performed by Argentine company of musicians and dancers. Produced by Steve Dobbins. At the Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary (at Jones), through Jan. 10. Call 441-2277.
Tango, that sexiest of social dances (it originated in the brothels of Buenos Aires), is quickly joining Tibetan Buddhism as the city's favorite ethnic import. But after the enormously popular, repeatedly extended local run of Forever Tango, as well as Sally Potter's modestly successful dance film The Tango Lesson and the Paul Taylor Dance Company's enthusiastically received Piazzolla Caldera (a lusty modern revision of the form), it's fair to ask whether San Francisco is willing to support yet another tango show. Especially this show, which, it must be said, doesn't look like the hit that its predecessors were.
Built around a narrative that emerges only marginally in the dancing, this Tango unfolds in a series of duets, trios, solos, and group numbers, punctuated by musical interludes from singers and the band, which is lined up against the back of the stage -- Nicolau himself plays acoustic guitar. The show opens with "Museo Reo/Firulete," as Gabriel Dominguez sings in Spanish of a museum that was once a brothel, and the tango dancers and sundry characters who used to congregate there. Aside from giving the dancers an opportunity for some play-acting that establishes Latin American machismo, though, this kind of story line is a fairly musty device to string dances together, dating as far back as ballets like La Boutique Fantasque. The rest of the show follows a pretty straightforward trajectory.
As is often the case, the 14 dancers (who go by their first names) are the strongest element in a periodically underwhelming show. Forever Tango fans may recognize Guillermo & Fernanda, who smolder through "Margarita de Agosto," capping lightning-fast directional changes with sizzling embraces in which their lips almost but never quite meet. Tango x 2 alumni Sergio & Gachi, she of the dramatic black bob and bee-stung kisser, are outstanding throughout, bringing real passion and zest to their dancing, particularly in "El Choclo," a smart display of virtuoso footwork for three couples. Juan Manuel, who performed in Madonna's version of Evita, offers a sure-footed, heel-stomping solo in "Malambo," moving with remarkable agility for such a brawny man.
Over the course of the evening, viewers absorb different tempos (from languid to staccato) and the staple movements (dips, switches, horselike kicks) of tango, learning to recognize that in this dance especially, partners must be exquisitely attuned to each other's timing or suffer the consequences -- the knifelike thrusts of the women's high-heeled feet between the men's legs, in fact, elicited audible distress from a smattering of male audience members. The dancers themselves choreographed their variations, and some are more successful than others in showing off tango's erotic, and alternately melancholy, nature.
The music is another story. The band provides a few memorable moments, particularly the rippling notes of Nicolau's finger-picking guitar solo "Intro Malanbo" and Rodolfo Montironi's solo work on bandoneon, the wistful-sounding Argentine equivalent of the accordion. But the songs vary too little musically to be really interesting, and singer Graciela Arselli's rendition of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," however capable, sounds even more melodramatic out of context. Rather than moving the show along, a great deal of the music seems to weight it down. By the end of the night, the seductive spell cast by much of the dancing has dissipated, and the performance feels simply overlong.
-- Heather Wisner