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Wednesday, Feb 5 1997
Big Game
By Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Joshua Marchesi. Starring Frederick Bald and Ursula McClelland. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy, through Feb. 8. Call 673-3847.

Rhinoceros is Eugene Ionesco's fable of a Frenchman resisting an outbreak of "rhinoceritis," a fashionable disease that turns its victims into rhinos. The play became his banner work, since Ionesco himself was a holdout against political fashion in the fiercely political '50s. "I think that writers like Sartre ..., Osborne, Miller, Brecht, etc., are simply the new auteurs du boulevard, representatives of a left-wing conformism which is just as lamentable as the right-wing sort," he wrote in 1958, the year Rhinoceros debuted.

The Exit Theater is reviving the play in a small room on Eddy Street that opens as a bistro an hour before the show. ("Bistro" means they serve booze.) The actors roam the audience both before the play and during it, taking drink orders and causing trouble. Leaving time beforehand to eat or drink and mingle with the cast is not only pleasant but also the best way to find a seat; I didn't do this, and wound up on a barstool. The company has shifted the setting from Paris to San Francisco, and they work hard at breaking down the distance between the audience and 1950s France.

Frederick Bald plays Berenger, a drunkard who sees two rhinos rumble through North Beach, or one rhino rumble twice. A controversy flares over how many rhinos are loose and whether they even exist. Jean, Berenger's female friend, thinks the two-rhino idea is a product of Berenger's sozzled brain; but she turns into a rhino herself at the first opportunity. Jean is played outrageously by Ursula McClelland, who can project wild farce with her body but doesn't always sound convincing. These roles take a special cartoon talent that not everyone onstage has, in fact; but the actors energize each other, and the performance flies whenever the hysteria grows, especially when the two rhinos thunder invisibly through the room.

The masterstroke in Ionesco's play is the random idea of people becoming rhinos (why rhinos? well, why Nikes?), and Nina Barlow's excellent masks make the rhino-converted actors look both cute and surreal. Unfortunately, all the energy put out to make this play matter in present-day San Francisco gets curdled by the director's lack of vision. Joshua Marchesi can't resist a backdrop with references to Prop. 187 and Prop. 209 painted on an urban street wall, or a talk-radio host ranting between acts about the world "going to hell in a handbasket because of all the draft-dodging, pot-smoking" liberals, etc. -- as if right-wing conformism were sweeping the city, as if the battle over 209 weren't also smeared with left-wing rhinoceritis. These touches are gutless in San Francisco, where most of the audience is bound to be liberal; they smack of a local conformism that would rattle Ionesco's bones.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Black Snow
By Keith Reddin, based on the novel A Theatrical Romance by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Niki Hersh. Starring Finn Curtin. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter, through March 15. Call 296-9179.

Take an autobiographical novel about a writer (in which he adapts his novel into a play only to have it destroyed in production) and adapt it into a play, and you guarantee yourself a remarkable object lesson in self-referentiality, but not necessarily the most probing of theatrical events. Though Black Snow, Keith Reddin's adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's early 20th-century Russian novel A Theatrical Romance, explores the ever-popular topics of corruption, censorship, and the plight of the artist, it suffers from the stagnating effects of theatricalizing a novel driven by first-person interior monologues. In other words, just because it's about the theater doesn't mean it's inherently theatrical.

In the current production, Actors Theater of San Francisco never discovers the dramatic cattle prod that might shock this age-old tale of writer as victim into new life. Under the muddy direction of Niki Hersh, the 13 actors -- for all their bluster and vigor -- flail in the physically flattened space, rarely bringing moments into dramatic relief from the hopelessly expositional script. A competent but emotionally diluted Finn Curtin plays Maxudov, the impoverished author whose sanity is being slowly destroyed by lying administrators, egotistical actors, and competitive fellow writers in the alternately sinister and silly early Soviet world. In his trials to find a home for his writing, he encounters a director who insists that the actors practice cliched moves like "offering a bouquet" instead of rehearsing the script, publishers who promise to pay him and then vanish, and editors who excise words "archangel," "devil," and "apocalypse" to conciliate the censors.

Like The Master and Margarita, the novel for which Bulgakov is best known in the West, Black Snow hinges on a series of short, interlocking scenes in which an everyman character endures countless injustices by absurd archetypes of tyranny. But where in The Master and Margarita Bulgakov gradually layers evil, complicity, and innocence in even his most human characters, the message of Black Snow remains (as its title suggests) simplistically black-and-white.

The acting tends to veer toward caricature, but a few performers manage to squeeze out some juicy, idiosyncratic roles. Benedict Ives sparkles as the paranoid Ilchin; Jack Halton surprises with his lyrically pretentious Ivan Vasilievich; and Nancy Wold steals scenes with her hilariously affectless Toropetzkaya. But for a theatrical production of this play to lift from its heavy narrative, it would need to probe the darker, subtler sides of the script: working with the unsettlingly blunt rhythms of Bulgakov's/Reddin's dialogue, physicalizing the erratic shifts in power dynamics, and resisting the easy impulse to make it into an Eastern European sitcom.

-- Carol Lloyd

Crazy Rhythms
At UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Auditorium, Sunday, Jan 26.

Since the rise of the Japanese corporate Ubermensch, American social historians have been trying to isolate the national characteristics responsible for it: group cooperation, respect for authority, creativity without rebelliousness. Every few years they "discover" a new element -- the latest being "pride in exhaustion." Despite the spuriousness of such cultural stereotyping, I couldn't help flashing on the phrase while watching Kodo, the Japanese taiko drumming group known for its strict communal life, arduous athletic training, and performances of percussive fervor.

There is no denying Kodo has refined the art of pounding a drum to a seductive, Godlike science. The concussive, rhythmic melodies transcend the thrill of any rock band. The performers' laser-eyed concentration puts most chess masters to shame. And their solemn poise rivals that of a ceremonial priest. In other words, the music and the performance kick virtuosic ass. But sitting in an auditorium packed with swooning, combusting fans, I thought about how the music was secondary to the spectacle of pure self-sacrifice -- a trait we Americans have rigorously expunged from our own national psyche.

Unlike ballet (an equally punishing art form whose masochistic processes are hidden behind layers of tulle and pink blush), Kodo lays bare the terrible work of being perfect. Weaving drums, flute, dance, xylophone, and singing into an ever-shifting soundscape of avant-garde meditations, explosive world-beats, and multiroomed symphonies, the nine pieces gradually build to a crescendo of exertion. In the climactic song, two men in loincloths wallop on a single 800-pound drum (the o-daiko) standing high on a lantern-lit altar. One man -- unseen behind the drum -- beats out a basic beat, to which the other, standing in a deep lunge, his back and butt muscles rippling in the hot, white lights, improvises feverishly for what seems like an eternity. Will he faint? Will he vomit? Instead, he moves front and center for another battle of sound, this time as part of a trio with two much younger ensemble members. The beauty of the music was completely eclipsed by the specter of this dripping, wheezing man, his eyes flashed with dementia, his grunts of exhaustion giving an eerie undertone to the driving riffs of sound. It was like a car wreck in the making: horrible and irresistible.

To those who can afford the steep price of admission, Kodo provides the experience of atavistic ritual madness, all refined to a high art and served up in an opulent, value-neutral setting. In it, we can still vicariously experience the behavior we fear in society at large: fanatical discipline and self-sacrificing devotion.

But isn't that what virtuosity is? Obsession and mania boiled down to a jelly sweet enough for a timid audience? As the Western virtuoso forms like ballet and pointillism gave way to more individualistic, idea-driven forms like modern dance and abstract painting, some Western high-art lovers have gravitated toward the virtuosic manifestations of other cultures. And the Japanese, with their remarkable traditions of isolating simple human acts (folding paper, pouring tea, writing a few words, arranging flowers) and raising them to an aesthetic, spiritual wonder, have tapped into the prevailing Western demand for spectacles of intense devotional purity. Is there any difference, finally, between great art and well-crafted fanaticism? Or are our minds so dulled by mundane entertainments and secular, addiction-free lives that we need two men in loincloths killing themselves with rhythm to give us the taste of deliverance?

-- Carol Lloyd


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