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On the Verge, or The Geography of Yearning & Pygmalion

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
On the Verge, or The Geography of Yearning
Eric Overmeyer's tale of three Victorian-era American women travelers who find themselves advancing through time as well as terrain employs humorous anachronisms, clever wordplay, and some very funny dialogue. The women begin their journey in 1888, armored in petticoats, girdles, and bustles (Robyn Wise provides the terrific costumes), and end up in 1955. There, the conservative Fanny (Heidi Armbruster) feels oddly at home, the rebellious and restless Alexandra (Saba Homayoon) falls in love with rock 'n' roll, and the anthropological explorer Mary (Renee Penegor) leaves her traveling companions to go deeper into the future. Forcing an intersection of the Victorian with the burgeoning Mass Culture of the '50s is a smart means of looking at the American mind-set, and Overmeyer uses the conceit well. There's also Armbruster's stupendous performance to help things along. As the unflappable, imperious Fanny, she perfectly displays the posture and formality of a Victorian woman, intrepid and self-satisfied as she tucks away a wayward strand of hair or hikes up her skirts to forge ahead. As she ventures farther from her home and era, a tinge of regret overlays Fanny's pluck; Armbruster exhibits a distant sorrow when Fanny learns of her husband's demise, accepting the consequences of her choices even as she grieves them. Homayoon has a girlish excitedness as Alexandra, but reads too many of her lines in the same loudly ecstatic tone. And Penegor doesn't bring much to the role of Mary, occasionally stumbling over the text, blowing a great acting opportunity provided by a dadaist litany of premonitions from the future. In the several male roles, Chris Ferry effortlessly fills the various comic sketches. Edward Webster's direction lapses occasionally, but the creative mixture of theatrical styles and forms more often serves Overmeyer's script well, and Armbruster is a marvel. The young Class Forces Theater group shows real promise with this production.

-- Joe Mader

Through July 30 at the Yugen/Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Harrison), S.F. Admission is $8-15; call 339-8722.

The African-American Shakespeare Company's remake of Pygmalion shows how ripe the time is now for a whole new play about English dialect and class. Director Bonnee Stingily-Christian and company have transposed some of Shaw's satire about a coarse-mouthed flower girl named Eliza Doolittle from Victorian London to modern Oakland, but not all of it, and the parts that get stuck in time don't make sense. After one requisite joke about Ebonics, the show keeps remarkably true to the original script, which still has Eliza unable to find a job -- she is, after all, female -- even after she learns to walk and talk like a black woman of property. Times have changed more than even Shaw could have imagined. Strong performances by Sherri Young as Eliza (in the first act), Jan Hunter as Mrs. Higgins, and Vernon Medearis as the show-stealing Alfred Doolittle make this a decent version of the old play, with the funniest scenes charged by fresh dialect. ("Ah'm tellin' you. Look at dem kicks!" instead of, "I tell you, look at his boots.") But when Henry Higgins brags about teaching Eliza to speak English so immaculately that any "Silicon Valley CEO" would marry her, something jars. California's nouveau riche don't care about fine manners; much of the time, they don't even know how to spell. A modern Henry Higgins would teach Eliza to pad her résumé.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Through July 30 at the Alice Arts Center, 1428 Alice, Oakland. Admission is $15-20; call 333-1918.


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