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Wednesday, Feb 19 1997
20/20 Blake. Created and directed by George Coates. Based on the work of William Blake. At George Coates Performance Works, 110 McAllister, through March 30. Call 863-8520.

William Blake vilified the Industrial Revolution mounting in his lifetime with curses like "dark satanic mills," and retreated from the world into poetic visions of spirits that made him famous, after he died, as an anti-technology Romantic. So the big question in George Coates' multimedia experience 20/20 Blake is, what happens to passionate spiritual material when it's presented with cutting-edge technology? "Our work at the theater," Coates says in a press release, "derives its focus from this contradiction" -- a creed that also explains Twisted Pairs, his show last year about an Amish girl discovering e-mail.

Coates looks at Blake the way most people do, as a fiery man full of demonic inspiration, and his show apes this image with a combination of choral singing, dance, light tricks, and rock 'n' roll that may yet move some critic from Wired to declare Coates a genius. But Blake has survived this long only because he worked with an unpretentious hand -- any hint of bombast would make his angels and spirits unbearable. Coates doesn't see this, and in missing the poet's quietness he's also missed the point. It's a shame, because most of the singing and all the graphics in this show are excellent. The dramatic line cobbled from Blake's poetry just can't keep it together.

20/20 Blake is a rock opera about the poet's death. The story is threadbare -- someone commissions a china design from Blake, there's a mystical interlude with some spirits, then the artist dies and rises again -- and unless you want to follow the symbolism, it's totally uninteresting. Lack of dramatic direction lets it all lapse into symbol-heavy pose and gesture. Lines from Blake as well as (awful) lines by Coates are recited pompously or sung over tepid rock 'n' roll, creating an effect not too different from Hair; only Katy Stephan, a soprano with beautiful range, injects a fluid emotional life into her songs as the goddess Thel. She's a talented member of the San Francisco Chamber Singers; but since her songs come whole from Blake she may also just have better lines.

The Chamber as a group, singing "Gloria," "O Magnum Mysterium," and a few other choir pieces, is excellent. I sat next to the director of the San Francisco Symphony's chorus, Vance George, who told me that "O Magnum Mysterium" is a tough song to do right. As far as I could tell it was flawless, and Mr. George said he was terribly moved. But the show as a whole reminded me of the New Main Library, where the technology would be more impressive if there were room for all the books. Coates' flickering light shows, as well as the idea of exploding Blake's paintings with 3-D glasses to create ghostly sets, are well-done and original; but the title of the opera is still 20/20 Blake, and under the dense layer of technical polish the poet's spirit gets blurred.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Ghost and the Machine
Machinal. By Sophie Treadwell. Directed by Laird Williamson. Starring Michelle Morain, Mark Harelik, and Matt DeCaro. Presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary, through March 9. Call 749-2228.

You may have the idea from other newspapers that Machinal is a tear-jerking victim-play about the dooming influence of modern life on a murderess. The Examiner ran the line "tragedy of a woman destroyed by a depersonalized social system" without irony, as if a play like that could be honestly tragic, as if any story about a killer with no moral freedom and no real oppressor could be more than a cynical piece of trash. Machinal is better than that, I'm happy to say, and the heroine, Helen Jones, in spite of a few hints to the contrary near the start of the show, is not just a poor quiet victim.

The play is Sophie Treadwell's most famous work, based on the Ruth Snyder murder case of 1927. It tells a tragic story the way Picasso painted a portrait, with harsh, angular distortions. A scaffoldlike set, spare lighting, and suited men posing with flappers in the background give the play an urban 1920s feel, and Michelle Morain plays a sensitive Young Woman (as Helen Jones is called) who catches the eye of her fat boss, George H. Jones. These first scenes showing her dehumanized modern office and the pressure she feels to marry Jones are the weakest part of the play, because they rely on a cliched caricature of modern life, and because her decision to marry feels like a needless cave-in to her mother. Morain's early performance also isn't as strong as it becomes when Helen has an affair: She hasn't mastered the knack of being appealingly distasteful, the way her co-performers have (Matt DeCaro as the noxious Mr. Jones, Roberta Callahan as Helen's impossible mother). Young Helen just seems weak, and two chopped monologues meant to show her hassled state of mind are tediously dated flaws in the script.

But Helen comes alive when a rugged man seduces her in a speak-easy. They spend time in his dismal New York apartment and he romances her with stories about the West. The affair drives Helen to kill Jones, who never seems to notice that she doesn't like him, and at this point Treadwell has retreated far enough from her thesis of social conditioning to give Helen room to breathe. Machinal was written as an antidote to the public notion in 1927 that Snyder, the real murderess, was a cold and calculating she-demon who deserved the electric chair; Treadwell wanted to suggest that the new century's mechanized habitat had formed Snyder, and she draws her portrait just boldly enough to make her point. But she doesn't push it; she doesn't excuse her heroine, and Helen's confession in the courtroom is the monologue of a truly divided woman. When a lawyer asks why she didn't just divorce her husband, Helen says, "I couldn't do that. I couldn't hurt him like that," a wicked slice of humor that does a lot to humanize the play.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Child's Play
Tomorrowland. By Neena Beber. Directed by Reid Davis. Starring ƒowyn Mader, Carolyn Doyle, and Janna Sobel. Presented by the Signal Theater Company at the 450 Geary Studio Theater, 450 Geary, through March 8. Call (510) 273-9277.

On a black stage covered with stars and whirling planets, bad '80s disco plays as the lights rise on a woman in a dapper suit speaking in an earnest yet rambling run-on. "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm driving really fast ... I'm nearly blind ... dissolve to yesterday ...." As the soliloquy of trailing images and vague innuendo drones on, we learn that this woman is plagued by a peculiarly postmodern angst: She's "deep" but lost in a superficial world! Though we know little about this woman's past and less about her present, we already understand the parameters of Neena Beber's play Tomorrowland: the confessional post-therapeutic journey.

After arriving at her new job as a screenwriter for a children's sitcom filmed in Orlando, Anna spends much of her time brooding about the meaning of life in the most tendentious, convoluted terms. She rants about the use of parentheses in George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. She drops clunky hints about the recent death of a drug-addicted college boyfriend. We listen; we wince; we long for the next scene on the sitcom set.

This is ironic, because Beber -- via Anna's long-winded commentary -- spends a lot of time trying to convince us of the psychological and spiritual emptiness of that set. While this may be an extrinsic truth, it is oddly untrue of the world she creates. She fixes characters breast-fed on Hollywood cliches with a wickedly satirical yet empathetic eye. Vicki, the sycophantic assistant, recounts a peak experience playing Snow White at a corporate event in Japan. Del and her teen-age son, Rodger -- who has been corresponding with Emily, the star of the kids show -- are devoted enough to have traveled across the country out of concern for her. And Emily herself, an intelligent, budding 14-year-old, wants to escape the television bedroom that keeps her 12, flat-chested, and inane.

Only the well-meaning but self-obsessed heroine wrestles with cliches and loses. Perhaps Beber created a character too close to her own image. (Beber spent time as a writer in children's TV.) A victim of too much literary criticism and psychoanalysis, Anna reveals her desires in muddled, self-pitying verbosity. Moments of revelation spring from the excruciating, unending process of self-analysis. In the end, her revelations don't involve us; the problems are just too myopic. We hope Anna will get over herself, but we'd rather not witness the whole gruesome spectacle.

Director Reid Davis paces the production with panache and lyricism, wringing the best from his buoyant, talented cast. Carolyn Doyle is riveting with her chillingly committed Vicki. Janna Sobel poignantly nails the bursting angst of an overgrown child star. Unfortunately, in her rather straight-ahead interpretation of Anna, Eowyn Mader compounds rather than dispels the problems inherent in her character. (Though how many actresses can pull off monologue after monologue or the meaning of parentheses?) Like the solar-system stage with its central spinning orb, plays revolving around a single character need that character to provide momentum, heat, and an organizing principle. Despite all the bright elements spinning in its orbit, Tomorrowland has a black hole where the sun should be.

-- Carol Lloyd


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