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Wednesday, Mar 12 1997
The Relic
The Mikado. By Gilbert and Sullivan. Directed by Barbara Heroux. Starring Michael Matson and Marla Kavanaugh. Presented by the Lamplighters at Lindland Theater, Archbishop Riordan High School, 175 Phelan, through March 23. Call 392-4400.

The Lamplighters Music Theater presentation of The Mikado could satisfy military standards for technical precision: Unionized musicians kept the overture tight and brisk, the costumes were neatly pressed, and the actors hit cues with the snap of gunshots. At a show by the Lamplighters, who only perform Gilbert and Sullivan works, the trains run on time. But their devotion to the heritage of British operetta can't carry this particular work, with its archaic ideologies. The romantic plight of geisha Yum-Yum and noble Nanki-Poo is too flat and frivolous to survive as theater outside its 19th-century context.

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are regarded as the progenitors of English musical theater, and the forefathers of American artisans like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Lowe as well. The Mikado premiered in 1885, at a time when the collaboration was suffering from personal differences. Gilbert was inspired by a Japanese executioner's sword hanging on his library wall. He wrote, "A Japanese piece would afford opportunities for picturesque scenery and costumes." In other words, the setting was little more than a new way to accessorize the stage.

The pair won fans with the sophistication of their multisyllabic lyrics. But The Mikado is all bombast, simplistic ideas inflated with 50-cent words, and rhymes never as clever as classic Cole Porter tunes. It takes Nanki-Poo 10 minutes to tell the town he's a musician in "A Wand'ring Minstrel, I"; the song doesn't elaborate much on his identity. And politically the work is worse than dated -- it's a Victorian relic that equates colonialization with better tea and attractive furniture. Defenders of The Mikado will argue that the show pokes fun at British conventions, but names like Nanki-Poo, Pooh-Bah, Yum-Yum, and Peep-Bo suggest its real targets lie to the east. In only one musical number, "Mi-Ya Sa-Ma," does Japanese music enter the score; the rest of the tunes frolic in the same monotonous time signature. Polka has more character and soul. Women in The Mikado are skilled at swooning and holding flowers and fans. In one of the toe-tapping numbers, "Three Little Maids," the chorus girls are giggly, shrill as tea kettles, and too vapid to count above their number.

For the final song, "As Some Day It May Happen," the Lamplighters rewrote and modernized the lyrics. The Lord High Executioner details a list of annoying people who would be good candidates for a state-ordered beheading: It includes not only O.J. Simpson but also men who shake hands with limp wrists and Ebonics instructors, suggesting that the Lamplighters' stance toward the play's politics is less critical than it might be.

-- Julie Chase

Building the Perfect Beast
True Fiction Magazine. At the Bayfront Theater, Feb. 22. Call 824-1559.

"Tennis!" shouts an audience member, and the show grinds into first gear with a scene involving upper-class ladies bickering after a tennis lesson. The actors seem seized by stage fright. The dialogue thuds. The conflict stinks of contrivance. Do the performers really think they can build an evening on a mockery of country-club snobbery?

Then something shifts. Suddenly it's revealed that one woman's father died on the 18th hole 20 years ago. Then we cut to a scene of her father, Pedro, and his mistress, Lucinda, arguing in a private bungalow. On a plane, a woman reads a novel, The Chronicles of Pedro and Lucinda -- just as the plane is crashing. Like an old jalopy warming up, the play suddenly gains momentum, running away with the company of actors as if they are merely passengers rather than drivers.

Such is the strange magic of watching True Fiction Magazine build a full-length improvised play. Over the last nine years they've constructed some 4,000 original works out of little but faith in the power of improvisation. From a word or phrase elicited from the loudmouth in the fourth row, they build a scene, a story line, another scene, more characters, until they have a massive tangled web of a plot that by the end, to the audience's amazement, unravels, coheres, and finally resolves.

At a recent show, the initial "tennis" scene ultimately spawned a story of family murders unearthed on the country-club golf course, black magic carried out by a "sheep demon," a terrorist campaign of airplane bombings, a lounge act in heaven, and a whiny Jesus who longs for Earth and plays compulsively with his stigmata holes.

Although the seven performers exhibit competent acting skills, their real strength lies in the narrative genius of their collective imagination. Even though they sometimes pander to easy laughter, inevitably the shows possess moments of sizzling, reckless perfection.

Stephen Kearin achieved a subtle tour de force portraying (in the same scene) identical twins -- gardener Escovardo and maintenance man Escovito -- one of whom had just buried a murder victim and the other of whom knew nothing about it. Reed Kirk Rahlmann -- suffering from laryngitis -- devised ways to make his croak further the story, playing a deaf lawyer, a raspy mob Godfather, an ancient magician, and best of all a tracheotomied victim of a shark attack.

With the exception of the psycho-permutations of Kearin, the actors too often depend upon language instead of physical expressivity. Yet this is a mild criticism for an otherwise rare theatrical treat: the opportunity to play in the fertile, bottomless marsh of collaborative alchemy. Brewing black humor, mystery, fantasy, and ironic musical interludes, True Fiction evokes the surreality of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective or Pennies From Heaven, but takes it one step further: Each performance is as live, unscripted, and ephemeral as a dream.

-- Carol Lloyd

Smell the Dance
The Stephen Petronio Company performs Wednesday through Saturday, March 12-15, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, March 16, at 2 p.m. at Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard. Call 392-4400.

Ten years ago, Stephen Petronio's dances were "a scream born from anger." Now, says the Manhattan-based choreographer, he's trying to transform that anger into objects of power and beauty. Witnesses to this sometimes difficult evolution have seen both extremes at once: a muscular man sporting a shaved head and a corset sending himself and his company of classically trained dancers hurtling through space; the activist who interrupted curtain calls to demand a better AIDS policy from his government; a dancer who came to his art at the advanced age of 18 without knowing how to count or read music, but whose exposure to the DIY ethic of punk rock gave him the confidence to figure it all out.

Petronio, who turns 41 during his company's San Francisco visit this week, says his work has always been driven by a balancing act over the void between life and death. Now, he says, he's looking for new ways to live there. He's slowed the pace of his physics- and anatomy-defying choreography: In Lareigne, a kind of meditation on angels that the company will perform this week, movement comes to a complete standstill; and in the new work #4 (set to Diamanda Galas' "Balm in Gilead") four people doing identical movement rotate in space without moving through space. Those who expect to see the aggressively athletic style of early Petronio will have to shift their thinking somewhat; the choreographer says that now his art is the dance of cognition, of engaging the brain along with the heart and the groin.

Part of that means making dance that creates tension between an obstacle and the release of that obstacle: In Lareigne, he says, it means nailing a virtuoso dancer's feet to the floor. "I'm setting up the conflict," he says, "and the release is delicious." And in all his work, it means moving in a completely opposite direction from most of his peers, making dance first and putting music on at the end. And the music he does use comes from such unlikely sources as Wire, or Suede, whose "Sleeping Pills" sets the mood for the third piece on this program, Drawn That Way. (He's since removed designer Manolo's giant plastic sleeping pills from the costumes for this dance; they were getting in the way of the dancing.) More than anything, Petronio likes work that confuses and excites, and his audiences don't necessarily have to understand where he's coming from or what they're seeing to enjoy it. "I want people to smell the dance," he says.

-- Heather Wisner


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