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Wednesday, Feb 26 1997
Hot for Teacher
Park Your Car in Harvard Yard. By Israel Horovitz. Directed by John Higgins. Starring Dean Goodman and Rebecca Dines. Presented by Network Theater at the Jewel Theater, 655 Geary, through March 9. Call (510) 562-4647.

Park Your Car in Harvard Yard is an unfinished play about a "Yankee Jew" named Jacob Brackish and the Irish Catholic housekeeper he hires to care for him while he dies. Brackish is a retired, Harvard-educated schoolteacher who's given most of Gloucester, Mass., including his nurse, bad grades in English and music appreciation. Kathleen Hogan has taken the housekeeping job to get revenge, for the bad grades as well as a few other things. The play proposes to examine class elements of their relationship -- and the title, with its hackneyed Brahmin echo, suggests a spin on Pygmalion -- but playwright Israel Horovitz only manages to squint at his subject, without finding a focus for the script.

Kathleen, played by Rebecca Dines, is part of a large Irish-descended family raised in Gloucester. Her parents and most of her siblings have been kept from college, she says, by Brackish's low grades. Dines plays her pettish and downtrodden character unevenly -- a suburban Boston accent and an Irish brogue compete for control of her voice -- but her movement and facial expressions are on target. Dean Goodman, playing Brackish, has one airtight scene with a long monologue unraveling his lifelong rivalry with Nobby Ellis, Gloucester's other intellectual. But most of the play is a mess of unconvincing action and unearned feeling. In the second half, we learn that Brackish once had an affair with Kathleen's mother. But Brackish doesn't recognize Kathleen when she first shows up for the job. He's taught most of the family and had sex with the mother but still isn't aware enough of Kathleen to recognize her when she enters his house? Gloucester's not that big a town.

The most impressive part of this production is the set, a cluttered gray interior of a New England home designed by James Brightwolf. Its centerpiece is a staircase that sticks out like the prow of a ship. On this staircase Dines pulls off a long, important monologue in which Kathleen raves about her frustrated life until she breaks down sobbing. Brackish is moved to say, "Oh, Kathleen, tell me what I can do to make your time with me worthwhile?" and then the playwright steps in to undermine one of his only effective and believable scenes with what amounts to a punch line. "Give me a makeup test," Kathleen says, "in music appreciation." Last Sunday's audience was moved by Kathleen's monologue, but after that answer they stirred in their seats uncomfortably.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Maninyas Redux
San Francisco Ballet, Program 1 of the 1997 Repertory Season. At Center for the Arts in Yerba Buena Gardens, Mission & Third Street, through March 2. Call 865-2000.

In last year's Maninyas, the San Francisco Ballet dancers strutted onto the stage, overwrought and phony as could be. The men had bare torsos, the women had long skirts, and the choreography had visions of exotic passion (concocted from tribal fantasy via Gilligan's Island). Well, the irrepressible Maninyas is back for a 1997 run at Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens.

It's fascinating to watch a dance, even a disappointing one, twice. It explodes the illusion that a live performance is an object -- a solid, repeatable thing. Dance is never the same, and there's something rousing about being forced to confront this. Stanton Welch's choreography, a mix of earthy undulations and lovelorn partnering, fit uncomfortably on the dancers' bodies in the production last year. They danced as if dunked in ice water. Jerky transitions between classical arabesques and wild thrusts made Welch's attempts at ethnic imagination unbelievable. But this time, the dancers' spines rippled; energy descended equally into stamping feet and floating balances, making the movements all of a piece.

The lighting changed also; there was more of it. In the '96 version, the stage often disappeared into darkness, creating an ambience of forced primitivism. Huge bolts of hanging material made a forest for the dancers to glide and disappear inside. With more light, the play of the cloth, shimmering and waving, repeated the charged lyricism of the dancers as they magnetically became entranced with each other. Overall, the relationships unfolded with less melodramatic shadow and more convincing subtlety.

A set of hanging cloth also enlivened the theatrical mood for Four Last Songs. To Richard Strauss songs, the dancers skittered in close-knit groups, near naked in flesh-colored unitards, lost on some strange planet. Pale, transparent cloth, hanging in bunches, segmented like a caterpillar, drooped overhead. The billowing overhang enclosed the dance. Like gathering storm clouds, the set created a mood of exciting claustrophobia.

Western Symphony closed the program, a Wild-Wild-Western Balanchine crowd-pleaser. The gals were cheerful floozies; the guys bowlegged cowboys. Before long, the cowboys confused their partners with horses and kicked, harnessed, and tugged make-believe reins around smiling, prancing women. In retrospect, I'd like to see this dance a second time too, this time with Balanchine himself, risen from the dead, stepping in for a lash of his own gender-impaired choreography.

-- Katia Noyes

Kid Stuff
Young California Writers Project. At the Magic Theater, Fort Mason, Jan. 28 & 29.

Men never stop to ask for directions, the Antichrist might be the Visa corporation or Louis Farrakhan, and good Italian sausage is hard to find. When the students of Oakland's Castlemont High School took the stage for the Young California Writers Project, the work ranged from histrionic episodes of Oprah to funny and original theater. The five-minute snapshots of teen life toyed with language like infants with food. The plots and dramatic dialogue for most of the pieces seemed inspired by soap operas and after-school specials and fixated on that perennial adolescent interest, sexual tension. But the material included millennial conspiracy theories, Stephen Hawking's pop physics, and two men nail-biting over their afterlife in Limbo.

The Magic Theater program started like an auditorium assembly, with a hip-hop hit on endless remix, pagers going off, and a playwright snacking cookies in the front row. Onstage the theater's artistic director, Mame Hunt, acknowledged corporate sponsors in pledge-drive fashion and then begged silence: "Come on! I'm going to thank somebody you know." This turned out to be the true creators of the event: Linda Halpern, an English teacher at Castlemont, and playwright Gary Leon Hill. The pair guided a senior class though a 3-1/2-month process, distilling the group down to eight featured writers. The process started with a field trip to the Magic for a matinee performance and culminated in this staged reading of select pieces by professional directors and actors.

While no student emerged as a prodigy of dramatic form, the night was a collage of successful techniques. Who Told That Dam Lie (Kiani Goodwin) had tone poem lyricism, Italian Sausage (Terrance Grismore) was saturated with Monty Python absurdity, and Yancey Scoche Richardson's Limbo at the Gates generated more laughs than the flailing Saturday Night Live. Other students employed indeterminate endings, Christian rap, and Shakespearean soliloquies. Grismore penned a trilogy incorporating workshop conversations with Hill, an unexpected leap into metatheater.

The YCWP educational outreach program will be expanding to San Francisco high schools in the spring. While the next generation will share the same pitfalls and short cuts of inexperienced writers, the work is deserving of an audience beyond teachers and proud parents. There is a refreshing irreverence and energy in playwrights who still get picked up from school at 3:10 p.m.

-- Julie Chase


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