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Back to School 

Wednesday, Dec 25 1996
U.C., a Farce
Written and directed by John Fisher. Starring Fisher and members of Sassymouth. At the Stage Door Theater, 420 Mason, Thursday, Jan. 2. Call 433-9500.

Early in U.C., a Farce, the prodigiously talented John Fisher's new "comedy of bad manners," while we're still waiting for the drama to take shape, a semblance of an agenda reveals itself. The character Fisher plays (he also directs) is, like the playwright, a gay, doctoral candidate-teacher of theater at Berkeley. He's talking with one of his students, a bright, outspoken African-American freshman (Darryl Stephens). Darryl -- all the characters take the names of their actors -- has filed a complaint with the university chancellor, accusing John of racism, citing a lecture John gave encouraging his acting students to embrace stereotypes, racial and cultural. "Acting is all about stereotypes," he had claimed in class. When John confronts Darryl and attempts to explain himself, the two are drawn irresistibly into a kiss. In the subsequent post-coital discussion -- they don't miss a beat -- John defends his premise by citing the films of Woody Allen, who uses stereotypical Jewish behavior as a starting point and then makes fun of it.

A light goes on as we realize that Fisher has written U.C. as a kind of homage to Allen, including Allen's habit of casting himself in the role of clueless romantic. The good news is that Fisher -- whose creative output so far includes the delightful Joy of Gay Sex, the innovative Medea, the Musical, and an uneven but largely brilliant work in progress on gays in the military called Combat -- shows every sign of following Allen's prolific example. The not-so-good news is that Fisher hasn't quite grasped the medium of farce, and so flings scenes at us willy-nilly, hoping they'll create the requisite comic momentum.

He hasn't found a comfortable comedic persona either, and borrowing Allen's romantic schlemiel is not a good fit for Fisher -- a handsome, self-assured, leading man-type if ever there was one. What works so brilliantly for Allen just makes Fisher look foolish. He's not a bad actor, but he's not a very good one either. He utterly fails to leave his directorial intelligence out of his performance, so his character persona blunders in ways that seem to irritate his director persona, and the entire enterprise is tinged with disapproval.

U.C., a Farce, whose second and final performance will be Jan. 2, wants to romp through the world of academia, but instead it stalls in its own identity crisis. It's the Woody Allen comedy vs. the John Fisher political satire, which here features the social stereotypes and attendant issues of racism, homophobia, and the fanaticism of the political activist. (This last via an AIDS demonstrator whose mantra is "Fuck you, what are you doing to fight AIDS?"). But the real target is the university, its pretentiousness and insular self-importance, centered in the burning eyes of the Graduate Student.

And, according to Fisher, the stereotypical truth of graduate students is that they are all obsessed with sex. This means that everyone who wanders onto the stage will eventually get it on with everyone else.

The cast, members of Fisher's Sassymouth company, are all familiar from other shows: Paul Tena, frequently cast as a militant gay rights activist, here plays a straight man who comes out as gay. His girlfriend is Kegan Stedwell, who hopes he will start sleeping around so she can do likewise with her randy students. Elsa Wolthausen, irresistible in Medea, plays the promiscuous sister of John's other boyfriend, Christian (Christian Milne).

But before we can sort out the various characters, they merge into an indistinct blur. This is Fisher's show, plain and simple. And what it says is that he's thoroughly fed up with the university and eager to put the whole experience behind him. The play spins out of control early, and finishes in what is meant as a flash of farcical brilliance, a free-form orgy that plays more like a dormitory food fight. It seems that he can't wait to graduate. Neither can

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Mari Coates


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