Images of wild creatures and a hard-luck wartime circus provide the loose framework around which Stephen Pelton and his collaborators build their evening-length show "Animal Acts," which relies more heavily on mood than on actual structure. This circus begins in a shadowy corner high above Mission Street as Pelton, done up like a ringmaster, enters the ring and cocks his head toward the crisp, efficient clacking of heels in the distance, and then, after a silence, the faint strains of an accordion. The lilting sound grows stronger as the performers, led by Baguette Quartette accordionist Odile Lavault and viola player Charlton Lee, file into the ring.
Within these modest confines, Pelton effectively suggests a bedraggled troupe of performers, aided by designer Matthew Antaky's dark, drapey tent setting and the costumes by Susanna Douthit, who outfits the musicians in dull tweeds and the performers in theatrical, if threadbare, finery. The idea of a traveling circus trying to make a living in post-World War II Europe is, in fact, the strongest element of the program and deserves further development. Pelton has already made affecting dances from historical narrative: His America Songbook of two seasons back painted vivid scenes from the industrial age and the Civil War, using ragtimes, cakewalks, and folk songs. This time, however, he has tried to do too much, using two themes to string together old and new dances that, though individually entertaining, don't make a seamless fit.
Working in his favor is Pelton's sense of humor, which company dancers Private Freeman and Katie Moremen translate beautifully. Beginning with the new work The Training of My Tigers, a word-for-word setting of a short story by New Zealand author Janet Frame, the threesome offer tongue-in-cheek comedy with showmanlike flourishes. Pelton doubles up as a tiger trainer and his dancers as orange-gloved big cats. He sing-speaks the tale of a tiger trainer who eventually loses his power, cracking his whip to punctuate the story. Moremen and Freeman skulk around the periphery like spoiled children, glowering when they don't feel like jumping through a hoop and commandeering Pelton's whip, which they snap lustily at him. It's a stretch, but one we enjoy making.
Moremen and Freeman reappear in various guises throughout the evening -- as workmen in coveralls and, amusingly, as a pair of acrobats who compensate for middling ability by hamming it up for the crowd. To simple lyric sweeps across the floor, Pelton adds a number of lackluster "showstoppers" and hopeless lifts that Moremen, in frilly pink panties, and Freeman, in a tres European striped shirt, count out loud, banging on the floor in frustration when they wind up tangled.
A pas de deux behind a brightly lit white screen is funny and fascinating: What we see is a kind of shadow play, but Pelton has experimented with the different sizes and shapes that shadows cast, depending on how close or how far they are from the screen. He's discovered some great effects: Freeman as Atlas, lifting a big rubber ball over his head, and a fish-dive with Moremen, who suddenly looms toward us.
By way of transition to his solo The Hurdy-Gurdy Man, a piece based on Hitler's physical language as drawn from the films of documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, Pelton interrupts the playful exchange between Moremen and Freeman with the shadow of his big boot stepping into the screen. Hurdy-Gurdy is an older work, but this is not an unreasonable context for it. On third viewing, Pelton still startles as an evil madman whose clipped movements and emphatic gestures are set, to powerful effect, against lovely Schubert melodies.
The Death of the Moth, a 4-year-old solo set to text by Virginia Woolf, doesn't fall into place as easily. Pelton created the dance as a tribute to a friend who died of AIDS at the age of 35; when he performed it at a Virginia Woolf conference, some scholars found echoes of World War I-era writing in it. Be that as it may, Moth still looks like a piece about AIDS. It's haunting precisely because Pelton saw in the dying creature Woolf describes ("Failure and awkwardness were the approach of death") the cruelty of a condition that modern audiences can't help but recognize. Wearing pajamas and wrapped in a blanket, this is a man fighting the indignities of the disease, sliding and falling, straining and failing to overcome. It's a beautiful dance, but while it works with the animal imagery, it still feels shoehorned into this program.
Better on both counts is the evening's final act, Pretty Horses, which Pelton dances in horse blinders, making the grabbing gestures of a child as the folk singer Odetta croons, "When you wake, you shall have all the pretty little horses." His troupe exits on that note and so do we, feeling a little bit closer to the idea of living like an animal but suffering the disappointments of man.
-- Heather Wisner
Chekhov's Old Shorts
The Sneeze. Plays and stories by Anton Chekhov. Translated and adapted by Michael Frayn. Directed by Daria Hepps and Jonathan Gonzalez. Produced by the People's Republic of Chekhov. Starring Hepps, Gonzalez, Jennifer Davis, Jeremy Koerner, Gene Mocsy, and Paul G. Smith. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), through May 1. Call (510) 339-7819.
Anton Chekhov's best stories and plays are famously well-chiseled portraits of landowners, artists, and Russian bourgeoisie, sculpted with keen pathos and insight. But as a young medical student he also wrote outrageously funny, easy-to-sell stories, and sometimes turned to farce in one-act plays. The eminent and sensitive Dr. Chekhov, not everyone realizes, has a farcical side as goofy as Mark Twain's.
The People's Republic of Chekhov is producing eight of these pieces (collected and adapted by Michael Frayn) in a very long evening at the Exit called The Sneeze. "Check out the action in Chekhov's shorts!" is the blurb on its program, and his shorts, as you might guess, teem with various forms of life. There's the anxious and undertalented lady writer who tries to read her five-act play out loud to a famous playwright; there's the minor government official who sneezes on a prominent government official; there's the burly Russian who subjects his delicate French visitor to rough country philosophy and gobs of hot mustard; there's the old actor on an empty stage; and there's the gentle man, scared of his wife, who fails to give a speech on the evils of tobacco. The characters are mostly hilarious and mostly well-acted, but 2 1/2 hours of slapstick Chekhov are a little like six hours of Monty Python (something I once tried to sit through, stoned, in college): overkill.