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Wednesday, Apr 9 1997
Old Berlin
Face the Music. Book by Moss Hart; music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Directed by Greg MacKellan. Starring Jon DiSavino, Susan Himes Powers, Jesse Caldwell, Carla Befera, and Noah Haydon. Produced by 42nd Street Moon at the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through April 13. Call 861-8972.

The only reason our local curators of the American musical, 42nd Street Moon, are reviving Moss Hart and Irving Berlin's Face the Music is that it's gone unproduced for so long. The show is a satire on corruption in New York City politics, a timely production for 1932 that was revived early in '33 and then retired, as far as anybody knows, until now. Relevance doesn't seem to be the issue: 1932 was a different world from 1997, with Prohibition still in force and the Great Depression only 3 years old.

The show opens with a number about the Rockefellers and other rich families being forced to eat in a Manhattan automat, an unstaffed sort of cafeteria with coin-operated doors that would dispense, for example, rice pudding and soup. That's historical touch No. 1. Historical touch No. 2 is the song "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," which survived the show's Broadway run to become a cabaret standard. It's a perfect example of the blinding optimism people like me hate in musicals. "Trouble's just a bubble/ And the clouds will soon roll by," sung in the context of the Depression -- to a tune reminiscent of "Frosty the Snowman" -- is insipid, even 65 years later.

But Face the Music also has the rare advantage of a sense of irony. The story, a precursor to Mel Brooks' The Producers, follows a Broadway producer, too broke to put on a show, who gets funded by a rich cabal of society men looking to get rid of their money. They launch an atrocious musical that becomes, after a series of problems, a city-government production. Here we have an early example of a musical making fun of itself, with deliberately bad and campy numbers like "My Rhinestone Girl." Face the Music is given a "concert production" by 42nd Street Moon, meaning the performers have their songs rehearsed but not their lines, and during the unmusical scenes everyone carries a script. The stage is also naked, except for a piano and some chairs. The story turns to mulch by the end, but excellent songs and hammy performances -- Susan Himes Powers as the bad musical's lead, Carla Befera as the ditzy Myrtle Meshbesher, Patricia Meade and Jenny Lord in various roles -- are entertaining enough to convert a skeptical critic.

And thanks to the eerie cycles of American history, the show has its own shades of relevance. Historical touch No. 3 is "Drinking Song," a satire on Prohibition. It's set in a speak-easy, with a male chorus chanting, "Things are going very well/ For the gentlemen who sell/ To the gentlemen who buy." Move the number to a crack house and you'd almost be modern.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Nothing's Shocking
Co-Ed Prison Sluts. Created by Mick Napier. Directed by Jim Fitzgerald. Starring Fitzgerald, Christie Ward, Michael Pulliam, and Dominik Overstreet. Presented by Pipedream Productions at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through June 14. Call 255-6772.

Rocky Horror Superstar. By Ruby Toosday. Directed by Ruby Toosday and Paul Sardi. Starring Simone 3rd Arm, Andy Bydalek, Ted Curtis, and Federico Edwards. Presented by the Klubstitute Kollective at the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (at Valencia), through May 3. Call 339-8113.

Penetration isn't what makes porn intellectual dry rot, it's the lack of personality. As hard as Mr. Winkie works, he just isn't a leading man. Character is what distinguishes two deviant musical comedies running in San Francisco. Co-Ed Prison Sluts, an import from the Annoyance Theater of Chicago, spins a penitentiary vocabulary into A Charlie Brown Christmas and gets away with it because the characters (Hamster Man, Alice, and the Dame among them) are remarkable and the group is funny. In the deconstruction nightmare Rocky Horror Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "rock" opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the unkillable Rocky Horror wither, as if stricken with Dutch elm disease. Whatever the merits of the source plays, they're lost in poke-the-hole jokes by the Klubstitute Kollective.

Co-Ed Prison Sluts, created out of improv exercises, has the force of stray winds that gather into a tornado. The excuse for a story revolves around hypnotic therapy sessions with a cross-dressing prison shrink (he masturbates with pantyhose during therapy sessions with inmates) and the arrival of a demonic clown. A Casio keyboard orchestra backs the musical numbers, which are a hoot. "Hey! We're in Prison," the opening number, has the cast bouncing around like orphans in Annie. After a knife fight, juvenile sex-target Skeeter (Michael Pulliam) salutes the prison library system in "The Book Song": "A book can take you anywhere," he sings. And Dr. Carl Bellow (Dominik Overstreet) woos a beagle with a love song, "Oh, Fluffy." (The pup licks himself onstage.) There's spunk-swilling vulgarity galore, and Sluts has enough masochistic spanking to satisfy the most repressed banker, but the team knows comedy and doesn't depend on blow-job jokes for laughs. Director and actor Jim Fitzgerald knows his classics well enough to tweak them. The Dame, a crazed Christie Ward with an oral fixation, calls all women Cecily and all men Jaques (the character from As You Like It who delivers the "All the world's a stage" speech). Her lines fuse Shakespearean quotables with cheerful libidinousness: "Alas, poor Horatio, I blew him well!"

Klubstitute Kollective's massive Rocky Horror Superstar cast relies on exhibitionism, not talent, to carry the show. Like the Miss America pageant, the event showcases stunts without skill. No one actually sings or acts; but there're plenty of nipple shots and peekaboo costumes if you care to bring your raincoat. Sound clips from one show are spliced into songs of the other and the cast lip-syncs along. Scene changes are indicated by three jumbo screens flashing grainy Jerusalem postcards and movie stills. If you're familiar with the two grafted-together productions, you'll see where things are going, but for the uninitiated, the story is an illogical mess. It would like to be offensive, with a spliff-smoking John C. Baptist and a fellatio-starved Judas Riffscariot, but the cast is too lethargic to be perverted. The aim of melding Dr. Frank N. Furter with Jesus Christ is apparently to celebrate the titillation of guilt and forbidden fruit, but author Ruby Toosday forgot to include the clothed Christians who make sexual indulgences forbidden. Immersed in its own transgendered culture, Rocky Horror Superstar has no conservative context against which to make itself shocking. Superstar is fine as a costume party, but it shouldn't call itself theater. The play isn't even appropriately cast. If there's going to be full-frontal nudity onstage, the men should be well-hung.

-- Julie Chase

Double Take
Take Me to the Tenderloin, Now! Pearl Ubungen Dancers and Musicians. Continuing at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, April 10-13. Call 621-7797. An accompanying photo exhibit by Ken Miller is up at S.F. Camerawork, 115 Natoma, through May 3. Call 764-1001.

Assumption messes with perception, say dancers Dong Nguyen and Ra Sek midway through Take Me to the Tenderloin, Now! "Just because you're wearing sneakers doesn't mean you're going to sneak up on someone," Nguyen says in an onstage exchange with Sek in this multimedia performance piece. "Just because you're wearing tennis shoes doesn't mean you're going to play tennis." True. And just because the subject of a theatrical piece seems clear doesn't mean you won't come out with more questions than you came in with.

That specific subject is life in the Tenderloin, where choreographer Pearl Ubungen runs a company of dancers and musicians and teaches free dance classes and workshops for at-risk kids. Where most people see drugs and crime, Ubungen said in a recent phone interview, she sees a vibrant immigrant community; to the kids who live there, the Tenderloin isn't the end of the world: It's home. Ubungen and photographer Ken Miller, her collaborator on the previous Bamboo Women, spent the last three years interviewing and photographing locals for an exhibit, now showing at S.F. Camerawork, and the performance, where the photos are projected behind the dancers.

If Ubungen is to make good on her artistic mission, creating work that's relevant to the people in the community, and then getting those people into the theater ("I'm comping in as many people from the Tenderloin as possible," she said), the first question is: How much relevance are people willing to see? An early preview performance produced protests from community activists about photos of kids imitating gang signs; the pair eventually withdrew 150 pictures and reshot new ones.

Still, the piece gets what punch it has from Miller's stark, eloquent black-and-white photo montage and the choreographic moments that crackle with kinetic energy: "Refugee Song," the opening tug of war for three dancers set against a dizzying video projection of waves; Nguyen and Sek's deft break-dancing; Ubungen's own vigorous solo; the closing line of dancers who advance downstage in a confident, hip-swaying shuffle stomp, and frame their faces with their hands as they corkscrew into the floor.

These moments are unfortunately infrequent. Francis Wong's original jazz-based score -- company musicians parked in an onstage corner weave it around Hmong, African, and Cambodian songs and rap samples -- is jarring, and the piece has a ragged feeling overall. Ubungen's use of very young dancers in addition to her company is nice for the kids, if not for audience members, who may feel at times like they're watching a recital. The opening night crowd was enthusiastic nonetheless, and at its best, Take Me is a moving, breathing excerpt of neighborhood life. But uneven pacing and some heavy-handed metaphors prevent it from taking off. Which leaves the viewers with another hard question: How much do good intentions count for?

-- Heather Wisner

The Bare-Assed Truth
Carnal Garage. By Tim Miller. Starring Miller and Alistair McCartney. Presented by the Dancers' Group as part of the Edge Festival at ODC Performance Gallery, 3153 17th St., March 28.

Two men, buck naked, do bicep-curls at the edge of the stage as the audience streams in. In the background film footage of naked men swimming in blue water pulses to a vocal disco dirge. The stage is awash in male flesh -- an evocation of male sexuality that is at once spiritual and sweetly mundane. After having audience members rub suntan lotion onto their backs, the two naked men hold up cardboard signs detailing their identities. Alistair McCartney is an Australian, 25-year-old, 158-pound, working-class, Catholic, homesick nomad. Tim Miller is an American, 38-year-old, 180-pound, middle-class, Protestant, neo-existential queen. Both are HIV-negative; both are alternately bottoms and tops.

Already this may be more than you want to know.
Indeed, this show is not for the faint of asshole, so to speak. As in past shows, Los Angeles performance artist Miller gives a, um, blow-by-blow account of his life via monologue, dance, film, and music; it's a genre that might be called "interdisciplinary auto-erotography." In early work, Miller took truth-telling to hilarious extremes -- announcing the real names, addresses, and phone numbers of his ex-lovers as they appeared in his stories -- and in 1990, he earned notoriety as one of "the NEA four" de-funded by Congress. Since then the performance scene has become glutted with confessional monologues detailing transgressive sexuality. The problem is that the form is inherently limited, almost always hinging on solipsistic self-revelation. But in Carnal Garage, Miller has unearthed a new, potentially richer form: the confessional duologue.

The men begin to trade snatches of poetry, coming together in a kiss so elaborate as to be acrobatic. Purring rhythms of electric guitar build as the two men narrate the story of their love affair. With their nimble bodies and the creative use of hot candle wax, a pair of jumper cables, and sand, the two men create an elegant S/M frisson. The older, more experienced Miller relies on simple, direct storytelling and self-deprecatory humor, where McCartney exhibits a youthful enthusiasm for poetic concepts like "memory" and "the body."

Under Miller's visceral, unpredictable direction, this slice of gay love often eclipses the need for story and approaches pure ritual. When the two men describe seeing each other for the first time, they clap their hands over their eyes and recount the moment in almost pathological detail. "I smell traveling on his body." "His hair is so curly. Curlier than I remembered. I worry I'm not as good-looking as him."

For a time the plot focuses on whether they should fuck each other without a condom (they do and it's hot), but from there the delicate narrative structure begins to collapse into pastiche. They wander round the city horny; they each remember formative childhood events that now affect their sexuality. Miller pours hot wax on McCartney's chest and plants a candle on it; then he squats over it, burning his arms, balls, and hair. Miller's powerful tale of burning down his garage at the age of 11 only to have his father beat him with jumper cables (which McCartney blithely re-enacts on Miller's pink behind), offers a moment of thematic cohesion to Carnal Garage, but by the time McCartney links his desire to be wrapped in plastic with his mother's affair with the local butcher, the variations on transgression feel redundant.

The final image of the two men simply sharing a bottle of water implies a journey coming to an end, but we're still waiting for the departure. Despite the lucid tapestry of movement, props, and language, two charming personalities, and the brave new form of confessional duologue, the piece failed to transcend the pair's private love affair, and create a moving narrative arc. Sometimes the bare-assed truth isn't enough.

-- Carol Lloyd


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