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Wednesday, Dec 24 1997
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Time's Trials
Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Written and directed by Moises Kaufman. Starring Michael Emerson, Joey Collins, Michael Santo, and Michael Fitzpatrick. At Theater on the Square, 450 Post (at Powell), through Feb. 15. Call 433-9500.

Gross Indecency, the wildly acclaimed play by Moises Kaufman, tells the fascinating story of Oscar Wilde's descent into ignominy. Tracing the three trials that ultimately destroyed his life, we watch as Wilde -- then at the peak of social and artistic success -- attempts to clear his name of a slur but ends up becoming the homosexual whipping boy of Victorian England. In turn, it investigates the image of Wilde as a contemporary gay icon -- after all, he was a man who not only publicly denied his sexuality but destroyed himself in the process.

The content of the story has the painful, momentous scope of Oedipus. But at the start, the play's form feels more like an old-style history lecture. Behind tables littered with books, nine male actors sit on an otherwise empty stage in austere black-and-white suits. I bristle upon hearing that the entire evening will consist of recounting the trials exclusively through primary sources. How didactic and untheatrical! Wilde reads solemnly: "Time and space are merely accidental conditions of thought. The imagination can transcend them."

Time, space, and God. Jeez, this from the man who practically invented irony? The part about transcending the past through imagination particularly rankles. This is just a piece of documentary theater in which the "playwright" graphs meaning and emotion entirely through the sly art of juxtaposition. Indeed, without Watergate, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Cops, and C-SPAN, it seems unlikely that a simple re-enactment of historical texts might become an off-Broadway hit. But in fact with its blend of high art, political activism, and postmodern theory's affection for multiplicity, documentary theater occupies an important if perplexing place in late-20th-century theater. After the kitchen-sink realism of the 1940s and '50s and the splashy experimentalism of the '60s and '70s, documentary theater -- like the autobiographical monologue -- arose out of the passion for the "real-life stories" now seen on talk shows and Court TV and the memoir-mania in the literary world. But unlike confessionary monologuists like Spalding Gray or Josh Kornbluth, who repackage their personal lives for public consumption, documentary theater writers invite audiences into a more political, less psychological vision of the world. It is, in fact, the most egoless, anti-authorial of forms. Through a painstaking process of interviewing and memorization, Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) depicts real individuals, but never ever plays herself.

In re-creating an event a century old, Kaufman has added a twist, using the source manuscripts and books as props; this self-conscious technique incessantly reminds us of the play's provenance and gives it a modern feel despite the 19th-century language. All "real drama" inevitably includes tedium; Kaufman shrewdly structures our experience to go from scholarly observation to emotional catharsis. For the first 20 minutes, the actors display their source materials and mouth their quotations with studious duty. Then Oscar Wilde takes the stand and everything changes.

In documentary theater, the actors' authenticity must cast a spell. The obsessional accuracy of Anna Deavere Smith's memorization of every pause, gesture, and fumble of her subjects makes it possible for us to believe we are witnessing history. Actor Michael Emerson -- like Deavere Smith -- possesses that same rare talent of being able to conjure up the palpable oddness of real life. In his elegant gesture and glassy-eyed gaze, his musical enunciation and hulking gait, he captures the unfolding complexity of a wounded aesthete whose wit and pride are working overtime in compensation. Buttressed by a versatile, vivid cast, the ensuing three hours of testimony, letters, and excerpts unwind effortlessly around his peculiar presence. Yet in the play's final passage, as the actors recite Wilde's sorrowful poem "The House of Judgment" with the wide-eyed earnestness of schoolchildren, I couldn't help wondering: Would Wilde -- the great proponent of irony and the imagination -- have accepted a portrait so bereft of fantasy?

-- Carol Lloyd

Xmas a Deux
Merry Tsismis. By Tongue in a Mood Productions. Directed by Allan Manalo. Starring Manalo, Kevin Camia, Patty Cachapero, and Rhoda Gravador. At Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), Dec. 11-20. The group plays again at Venue 9 on Jan. 27. Call 626-2169.

We Hate Christmas Shows. Starring Bill Bernat, Harmon Leon, and Mark Morey. At Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Howard), Dec. 14 & 21. Call 626-2169.

In the Philippines, the word tsismis (chiz-miz) has roughly the same meaning as the word quatschen in Germany, "talk story" in Hawaii, and "gossip" or "bullshit" in California. This makes the title Merry Tsismis especially merry. It's the name of a bullshit variety show, a collection of farce pieces turning on Filipino themes that first played at the Bindlestiff a few months ago and was recently rehashed for the holidays, apparently because the title made for such a fortunate pun.

The pieces were unrelated, and only a few were funny. The best one, easily, was "Klosit Komrades," a skit with actors anthropomorphizing kitsch items normally found in a Filipino-American home. These included Jesus Christ tchotchkes; a large wooden spoon and fork; a touristy-looking board mounted with knives that read, "The Weapons of Moroland"; and Barrel Guy, a grinning Filipino with nothing on under his barrel ("Lift up the barrel and there's my penis, what's the big deal?"). All of these items, except Jesus, had been rejected by the family upstairs. The items wanted to get out of storage but couldn't agree on a strategy. Their characterizations were the best part: Fork and Spoon were cowards; the Board of Knives was a militant Muslim revolutionary; Christ was a white man who promised to save them all. He didn't; but the skit found a certain resolution when a rejected plastic sofa cover crawled out of a trunk to tell about his ordeal.

The skits were full of Filipino in-jokes. "PCN Salute" made fun of "every Philippine cultural night you've ever seen in your life" by showing a circle of people waving little paper flags. Heavy cultural references made some of the skits feel like the old Yiddish vaudeville plays written for Jewish immigrants around the turn of the century. "The Amazing Guy Guy Fernando" was a magician who wasn't very amazing at all, though he was deadpan enough to be very funny; and "Bong Hit of Mr. C" was a traditional shadow play, showing a man made of cardboard with a woodcut-looking beard getting loopy. These were the clever skits. "Flirt," though, was a very, very long piece about a wedding, mimed to a voice-over of text from a horrible love-advice book called The Flirtatious Singles World. It was funny at first, because the book was so mindless, but the joke wore quickly. After five minutes the actors just spun their wheels, except for one blessedly unexpected moment when a tall wedding guest bowled over four bachelors by rolling a shorter wedding guest like a log. The other skits were dragged down by different loads of cliches; and all could have used editing. These writers in particular should have been anxious to cut: If poking fun at your own culture is a form of self-awareness, so is knowing when you've made your point.

Another local alternative Christmas variety revue was called the We Hate Christmas Shows. The stand-up comedy in the first half was so terrible I seem to have blocked out all memory of it. A longer piece called "The Meaning of Satan's Christmas" made up the second half: It was a wicked but rambling monologue by Satan about how pleased he is with what American industrialism has done with Christ's holiday. Mark Morey did a seething, wild-eyed, manic job with G. Beato's script. Beato also types up the cartoon Negative Creep for this newspaper.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Queen for a Day
The Last Hairdresser. By Doug Holsclaw. Directed by Danny Scheie. Starring Scheie, P.A. Cooley, Brian Yates, and Alexis Lezin. At Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), Nov. 8-Dec. 20. Call 861-5079.

"What it was like," a tidy, well-muscled man addressed the audience, "I despised. I despised things." He explained his "disdain," "contempt," and "vitriol" for the world in lavish, exacting prose. He described hating people for every inexplicable detail of their being, even because of "the way they pronounce a diphthong." We laughed at the explicit pedantry of the monologue. This was not just a musical play, but a sociological study on the making and unmaking of that tragic royal archetype of gay life: the vicious queen.

It was a testament to Doug Holsclaw's unflagging comic skill that he made his new play The Last Hairdresser work at all. On the surface it was the story of Guy, Foley, and Pere, three gay men growing up in homophobic America who meet in a run-down beauty school called Renata's Magic Mirror. But the play was so fixated on the meta-analysis of the social and psychological implications of vicious queendom that the plotted scenes often felt like interludes between Guy's speeches analyzing his feelings. Although these monologues slowed down the drama and often felt overly expository, they also provided the evening's wittiest and most substantial fare. There were also moments when the entire cast burst into a song and dance. From the poignant lament "Scarves and Fresh Cut Flowers" to the disco number "Why Does Everyone Call Me Miss?" the songs communicated a Brechtian aura: This was less a story of particular individuals than of collective experience writ small.

The play mostly focused on Guy (Danny Scheie), a snippy flight attendant, and the way his tortured childhood, "straight" boyfriends, and cultural alienation compelled him to develop a poisonous charm rooted in self-loathing. His exasperation with the world grew, until one day his impulsive behavior caused him to lose his job and get arrested. At Renata's Magic Mirror, a beauty school that functioned as a jail substitute, Guy met Foley (a buoyant P.A. Cooley), a former hairdresser for the stars who had fallen on hard times, and Pere (Brian Yates, in a nuanced performance) as a closeted slacker.

As plots go, it sounded better on paper than it played onstage. It combined the tired but true scenes of children chanting "How come you talk like a girl?" with improbable scenarios involving a man counseling Guy how to be a nice person. Pinned together with caricatures and stock scenes, the play's appeal depended entirely on Holsclaw's vivid, line-by-line intelligence and director Danny Scheie's deft sculptural sense of ensemble comedy. And no matter how absurd or baldfaced the setup, the cast attacked each moment with a perfect mix of silly abandon and shrewd technique. Alexis Lezin was especially delightful as the drunken, bighearted Renata, but it was Scheie's brilliantly sympathetic depiction of Guy that found the play's darker roots: where the petty bigotries of the world seep inside, tint our characters, and create monsters in the mirror.

-- Carol Lloyd

Ballsy Dance
New Works. Choreography by Scott Wells. Performed by Scott Wells & Dancers. At 848 Community Space, 848 Divisadero (at Fulton), Dec. 11-13. Call 922-2385 or 885-3340.

"I worry that these dances aren't about something," Scott Wells said a few weeks before his company performed at 848 Community Space. "There's no story this time around." With minimal costumes, simple wordless music, no set, and no definite plots, Scott Wells & Dancers' recent work does embrace one essential of drama: contact. A dancer catches another and then is caught by many; someone and someone else collide and melt into the floor together; a group somersaults from one wall to its opposite while others hopscotch over them on their way downstage; and two stick to the walls.

Wells' two pieces consist of a series of small dramas, all built around simple acts of sudden connection. Some of these scenes don't resonate beyond limited if electrifying fact: Bodies have met. Others -- a dancer slips down the vertical legs of her prone partner and settles on his belly for a moment longer than necessary before moving off -- carry a future or history in the moment.

While "Room" uses only the contact between dancers in a particular room to generate meaning, "On the Rebound" adds one more element -- balls. Dozens of them, from large to small, flood the compact space, radically changing the dancers' interactions. The piece opens with three men in shorts and striped polo shirts (Wells, Freider Mann, and Aaron Jessup) each waiting to begin a game of solitary handball. Wells signals "Start," and they bounce their balls slowly against the wall. When someone's ball strays, a small crack -- momentary suspense -- appears in their perfect unison, but the game quickly returns to its course, so calm it's eerie. Then Mann whips around and slams his ball against the wall behind him; it ricochets hard toward where the three of them were but aren't anymore: They've gone off like a starting gun, tumbled suddenly against walls and balls.

Unlike in "Room," there is little direct contact between dancers; the ball mediates. At one point, two men nearly slide chest against chest, but a ball intervenes; what might have been intimacy shifts to clinical experimentation: How can they keep the ball between them without using their hands? In another scene, an outsider (Jim Owen) in skirt and femmy top begins to drum delicate patterns on a basketball's surface. Eying this effete act with contempt, Jessup starts up a juggling frenzy, balls flying in a wild scatter over his head before he stomps off in unspoken defeat.

This final moment exposes a competitive violence that, until now, has been softened and obscured by the men's attention to their balls. Like the many things males devote themselves to -- bugs, cars, guns, record collections, all manner of sports paraphernalia, etc. -- the ball in "Rebound" fills a void in human intimacy and creates one. No moment in "Rebound" is as tender as any number of them in the women-filled "Room." But neither is "Rebound" as messy. The balls simplify and hone the action, revealing in the men the unbent concentration you see in a child at work. The men's innocence, however, is entangled with unquestioned power. As one man manifests strength through the balls he manipulates, he ignores the effect they have -- the effect he's creating -- on those in the line of fire. "On the Rebound" celebrates and condemns male play, its ebullient innocence and the complacency toward power it allows.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

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