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Wednesday, Apr 28 1999
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Where the Wild Things Are
"Animal Acts." Directed by Stephen Pelton. Performed by the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, featuring Pelton, Private Freeman, and Katie Moremen. Music by Odile Lavault and Charlton Lee. At Z Space Studio, 1360 Mission (at 10th Street), through May 2. Call 437-6775.

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.

Some of the skits seem to "belong" to one or two actors in the group. For example, "The Evils of Tobacco" is a one-man piece performed by Gene Mocsy, who takes obvious pleasure in showing off his talents. He comes on looking uxorious and meek, in lightly graying hair and a brown twill coat, and announces that for the general improvement of the audience he's been asked by his wife to speak against the evils of tobacco. "I have no personal feelings in the matter, but my wife ... does," he says, openly snorting a greenish pinch of snuff. Then, except to notice that a fly once died in his snuffbox, "probably of a nervous disorder," he avoids his topic altogether. The poor henpecked man evolves from a shambling and mild-mannered character to a desperate maniac, revealing in the process that he's exploited by his proprietress wife and has a drinking problem. Mocsy does an excellent job of working both humor and pathos out of Chekhov's simple script, and although he doesn't preen, it's clearly his showcase piece of the night.

"Clearly" because his next role doesn't work so well. "Inspector General" is Chekhov's version of the old story about a king, or a god, who disguises himself as an average person to learn how his subjects act when they're not in the presence of a god or a king. The new, corrupt Inspector General -- who inspects for corruption in local institutions -- chats up the driver of a hired sleigh to find out what the people know about him. The driver tells everything: He's heard of the Inspector's drinking and carousing and even knows the names of his mistresses. This should be a funny skit, but the two actors have thrown their energies into other parts of the show. Mocsy puts on an unconvincing gruff voice as the driver; and Paul Smith, who changes his voice on purpose as the Inspector General, doesn't find one that works. "Inspector General" is an overlong dud.

Smith's best piece is "Swan Song," a monologue, or near-monologue, by an old actor in a darkened theater. This skit has more in common with Chekhov's later style than the rest of the show, because almost none of it is funny. The actor Svetlovidov grapples with his memories of triumph and misery, comparing the theater to "a bottomless pit, like a tomb with death inside." Smith does a virtuoso job -- wrapped in a shawl and carrying a candle, acting drunk and growly, revisiting King Lear in a booming voice as Nikita the prompter (Jonathan Gonzalez) plays the Fool. The trouble is that the sketch follows "Inspector General," near but not quite at the end of an already long evening, and Svetlovidov's self-indulgence is taxing.

Jonathan Gonzalez has his high moment in "The Bear," one of the show's strongest pieces. He shares it with Daria Hepps, who plays a grieving widow. She lives on an elegant estate but sees no one, weeping at the portrait of her dead husband, who wasn't always faithful. A rude, bearlike landlord named Smirnov bursts into the house over the protests of her servant, Luka, and demands payment on a debt her late husband left behind. She can't give him the money immediately, but if he doesn't get it he'll go bankrupt, so he makes himself at home in the living room and drinks her vodka until she pays up. This gives Chekhov a chance to let the landlord and widow argue about coarseness and gentility. She accuses him of not knowing how to behave in female company, and he makes fun of sensitive behavior, telling her all about his romantic and idealistic youth. His speech is like the doctor's pessimistic rant about idealism and hope in Uncle Vanya, and Gonzalez, looking Russian enough in a long coat and boots, without affecting an accent, delivers it with blustering force. Hepps is alternately delicate and hysterical as the widow, and Paul Smith makes Luka a good teeth-rattling, feather-dusting wimp of a servant, partly by borrowing mannerisms from Wallace Shawn in Vanya on 42nd Street.

The title piece is also excellent -- a wordless pantomime about a sneeze during a ballet and its consequences. Paul Smith and Jennifer Davis enter as an eminent Russian official and his wife, dressed respectively in epaulets and a burgundy gown. Behind them sit a brown-coated fop of a minor official (Jeremy Koerner) and his appalling, overdressed wife (Hepps). This piece doesn't "belong" to anybody; all the actors do a good job. It's like a Chaplin film, vaudeville timed to lulls and climaxes in music from The Nutcracker.

Koerner and Davis have their own spotlight moment in "The Proposal," in which Koerner plays a nervous hypochondriac trying to propose to Natalya, a plain neighbor girl -- the hypochondriac hops around like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers, without ever coming to the point, and Natalya gives two loud, floor-tramping tantrums -- but since it's a long skit, coming after the indulgent "Swan Song" to close out the show, their performances pale. It's too bad, because I like Davis; she shows real range and charm. The People's Republic should have shaved away the weaker pieces and maybe rearranged the order, because there isn't anything inspired about the way Michael Frayn has collected the skits. The show is like a museum exhibit passing through town -- old, historically interesting nuggets of a great Rhooshun's incidental work, sometimes hilarious but also a little wearing, and only for a limited time.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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