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Wednesday, Jan 20 1999
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Playing Politics
Juno and the Paycock. By Sean O'Casey. Directed by Giles Havergal. Produced by the American Conservatory Theater. Starring Robin Pearson Rose, Charles Dean, Kathleen Kaefer, and Geoff Hoyle. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through Feb. 7. Call 749-2ACT.

Marie and Bruce. By Wallace Shawn. Directed by John Wilkins. Produced by the Last Planet Theater. Starring Tiffany Hoover, Richard Reinholdt, and Tori Hinkle. At the Adeline Street Theater, 3280 Adeline (at Alcatraz), Berkeley, through Feb. 7. Call (510) 841-7649.

Sean O'Casey was a red-blooded worker alive at the birth of the Irish Republic, and after striking for trade unionism and fighting for independence he wrote a trilogy of plays that ends with Juno and the Paycock. It's set in the Civil War -- Free-Staters shooting at Republican Die-Hards over the geography of Ireland -- which started in 1922 and hasn't really ended. No observer could look at Dublin in those days and not be political (especially not O'Casey), but his sense of scope is what made his stuff worthwhile. He knew that politics belongs in the theater as far as it affects people's lives, and by focusing on the lives themselves he turned Juno into that rare thing, a good political play.

Out of context, though, it's weird. Why show Juno now? The story is topical, maybe dated, and full of Irish cliches. There's drinking, singing, nagging, praying, pregnancy, accents, Catholicism. A director could easily ruin this show by overemphasizing its Irishness, and Giles Havergal's ACT production sometimes flirts with ruin. All told, though, except for some flat patches and blisters, it's a nicely balanced success.

Capt. Boyle is a shiftless old no-'count of an Irish drunk who comes into an inheritance, and his long-suffering wife, Juno, has to watch the hope this money brings to their family go down like a setting sun. Boyle is the title's "paycock," or peacock, because he's so frivolous and proud; the goddess-name Juno tells us where O'Casey's sympathies lie. (The Captain shows classical hubris, but otherwise no Olympian qualities.) Their son, John, has been shot to pieces in the recent war for independence from England, and their daughter, Mary, is involved with a lawyer named Bentham, a sensitive young snob who draws up the will that promises Capt. Boyle the inheritance.

Robin Pearson Rose plays Juno with a stern peasant sweetness, plain and cheerful, angry when she needs to be but also a little soft: The mean shrewishness of a tenement wife seems just beyond her range. She nags but never dares to lose the audience's sympathy by seeming overly cruel. "You know you're a bit hasty at times, Mary," Juno says to her daughter, after Mary's boyfriend has disappeared to England, "an' say things you shouldn't say." This is meant by O'Casey as a joke, but on opening night it didn't land.

Juno is utterly upstaged by Capt. Boyle, as she should be. Charles Dean plays him loud. Tall and blustery, white-haired, with a hooting bellow when he's mad, he runs around the tenement with his shirttails out. The show seems to rely on him for energy, or on him and Joxer (Geoff Hoyle), his drinking "butty." Hoyle has clown experience and uses it to play Joxer as a cartoon of an Irish drunk, in bowler hat and dirty suit. He's a perfect cross between Shane MacGowan and Charlie Chaplin, but sometimes he pushes the shtick too hard and it just seems goofy, especially when Joxer's putting one over on the Captain.

Less entertaining are Margaret Schenck as an overbearing neighbor named Maisie Madigan; Gregory Ivan Smith as Bentham; and Robert Ernst as the very loud tailor. Bentham doesn't need to be the one-dimensional snob that Smith presents; and Schenck and Ernst seem to be doing shaky impressions of Irish people rather than playing roles.

Havergal shifts around some of O'Casey's stage directions both for better and worse; a small edit in a line of dialogue may be the most unusual. Near the end, when Mary lets her other would-be husband, Jerry, know she's pregnant, he says, "My God, Mary, have you fallen as low as that?" This is harsh to sensitive ears, but Mary answers it well. In this production all we get is, "My God, Mary," and the nowhere reply: "Yes, Jerry, as you say, My God." Not quite the same effect. What's wrong with the original line? Why pull that particular tooth?

Other critics have noticed Havergal's double Madonna-with-child allusion in the final scene: Juno holding her shot-up son and Boyle holding Joxer, drunk. It's eloquent, and funny, and Rose and Dean play their central roles well to the very end. But I don't think the curtain is cathartic. Rose's delivery feels as plain and safe in grief as it does in anger, honest but unbarbed, and the politics that kill Juno's son may be too far removed from San Francisco for the show to end with the heavy emotion that must have chimed through the Abbey Theater on its premiere.

So why are we seeing it? What's Havergal trying to say? There's nothing wrong with staging shows on a whim, but it's never that simple with the ACT. I suspect Artistic Director Carey Perloff wanted Juno on this year's list because it has a tough heroine, like Hecuba. That was another performance with strong lead players but oatmealish undertones. Juno's certainly a heroine for the ages, a suffering Mother Courage of the Dublin streets; but I imagine in her own day she had a little more grit.

The production in Berkeley of Wallace Shawn's blistering play about marriage, Marie and Bruce, has an opposite problem: There's no lack of venom onstage, but you wish the acting were better. Marie and Bruce are a New York couple drifting in their self-invented hell from apartment to social engagement to restaurant, while feelings they should have known about much earlier in the marriage belch inconveniently to the surface. Tiffany Hoover can breathe fire as Marie, but she's not in command of her lines; Richard Reinholdt plays Bruce as a convincing simp except for his silly accent. Not just Reinholdt but Tori Hinkle, too, try to do pompous, Upper East Side characters with a shade of British in their voices, which just isn't necessary.

Wallace Shawn is the gnomelike unknown of American theater, unfairly obscure for his playwriting but famous for his roles in The Princess Bride and other movies. No matter what director John Wilkins says in his notes, Shawn's script comes off as a misanthropic cartoon, but I'm happy that at least somebody's performing his work. The best parts of the show may be the droning, a cappella version of "Ode to Joy" at the beginning, and the deliberate, melancholy release from all that cussing at the end, when the production is elevated, at last, into an eloquent silence.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Sole Salvation
New Shoes, Old Souls Dance Company. At the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, Marina & Buchanan, S.F., through Jan. 23. Call 441-3687.

In a profession that regularly puts its middle-aged workers out to pasture, finding employment after age 40 is an almost certain hazard for professional dancers. Once they've been elbowed out by the youngsters, reputable performers mostly hope for character roles of the wicked stepmother variety, or offstage work teaching and directing.

The lucky ones, the famous and uninjured, get to dodge early retirement. But that leaves everyone else, equipped with technical expertise, full of the life experiences from which artistry is drawn, and stuck in bodies that have turned against them. So when dancer Linda Rawlings created New Shoes, Old Souls, a company of locally based former pros over 40, she offered one of the few outlets internationally for untapped older talent.

This year's bill (New Shoes performs annually) makes some persuasive arguments for maturity, although that's about all the dancers have in common; the level of talent varies, as do the dancing styles. And as demonstrated by other local "theme" shows (all-male, all-female, gay and lesbian, etc.), lumping dancers together by personal identity rather than genre can lead to a technically uneven program, albeit one that appeals to a broad range of tastes. This outing's best works are the ensemble pieces using all the dancers in a strong, united front: Morris Dances, choreographed by the company and directed by internationally acclaimed dance-maker Mark Morris; and Priscilla Regalado's salsa-flavored Encuentros Entre el Aliento y el Sol.

Morris Dances, named for both the director and the old English celebratory folk dances, is stamped with Morris' best choreographic attributes: musicality, wit, and pure, exhilarating movement. Musicians play Gustav Holst's spirited arrangements live on traditional instruments like pipe and tabor, buoying the dancers who emerge in pairs and trios, then all together. Waves of continuous motion -- reels, maying patterns, meticulously syncopated line dances -- are dotted with period characters like a jester in a dunce cap and an agile stilt-walker. Amid the rhythmic action, the eye is drawn every so often to single figures like Michael Lowe, who dances terrific solo, spiraling from a quick skitter to a knuckle-dragging crawl.

Though Morris doesn't dance in this show, Regalado does, adding a crisp, articulate solo to her group work Encuentros. Translated as "Meeting Between Breath and the Sun," the piece actually evokes breath -- some of it heavy, in hip-to-hip salsa partnering. Sara Linnie Slocum's excellent lighting boosts the atmospherics, setting the sharp, clear silhouettes of moving bodies against a tequila-orange sunrise.

After Morris Dances, where movement rules, Michael Smuin's My First Time is especially disappointing. Based on a winsome premise -- three older women recall their first sexual encounters -- Smuin winds up masking stagnant choreography with props (a moving card table with wine glasses) and text. Lots of text, telling each woman's story all the way through the dancing. "Are the stories true?" Smuin asks in the program notes. "Does it matter?" Well, no. The stories are too tepid to dream up, too stereotypical to ring true. In last fall's Suenos Latinos, Smuin gave us happy peasants astride pasteboard horses -- First Time isn't much more original or lifelike, or even dancey, despite fine performances by Emily Keeler, Jo Ellen Arntz, and Sharonjean Leeds, and a game effort by Robert Sund, who plays all three men without looking anything like a strapping young cowboy or the captain of the football team. More successful are the strong, supple solo dancer Cecilia Marta; and the pleasant, if lightweight, program opener Between Two Worlds, a ballet in ball gowns a la Jerome Robbins' Dances at a Gathering, minus the dramatic tension.

-- Heather Wisner

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