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Wednesday, Jul 2 1997
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Death the Jester
Memento Mori. By Chrystene Ells. Directed by Roberto G. Varea. Starring Ells, Lorna Aquino Chui, and Mark Hidzick. At Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St., through July 5. Call 974-1167.

"Memento mori" is Latin for "remember that you will die," which may seem a little heavy for a puppet show. But if you still think puppets are just a child's fetish you should wipe Sesame Street from your brain, because a whole world of serious folk tradition stands against you. Goethe first saw the story of Faust at a puppet show. And locally there's been a happy upsurge in serious puppeteering. Wise Fool Puppet Intervention, Monkey Thump, and Larry Reed's shadow-puppet group have all given short-lived shows over the past month, and now Chrystene Ells has a Gothic fantasy running at Bindlestiff Studio.

Memento Mori is about a hapless and suicidal clown, Pasqual, trying to pack up after a circus. She's played in person by Ells, in a black rubber nose and an old leather aviator's cap. She doesn't talk, but her history unfolds while she packs, narrated by a spoiled-looking ventriloquist's doll in a frilly bonnet. The doll is the Baby Pasqual; she bitches in a shrill voice about the "sorry-ass, dead-end, elephant-piss touring show" where all the promise of her early talent has landed her. Of course the baby's voice belongs to Ells; we know that because she's not a very good ventriloquist. But the baby is hilarious. Her parents are Punch and Judy, and while she talks about her past they make a cameo appearance as huge and horrifying glossy-faced puppets, treating their child and each other with well-mannered brutality. "Yes, I threw it out the window," Punch tells Judy, meaning the Baby Pasqual. "I thought you might be passing."

So her parents are horrible. That's one reason Pasqual feels suicidal. But the rest of her life hasn't gone much better. As a girl she gets her arm ripped off by a dog. This flashback is played out by a young-Pasqual puppet with a small accordion, wheezing a tune while a luminous green dog waltzes across the stage. What's excellent about the scene is the elegantly twisted imagination that graces the entire show: Without much ceremony, the animal bites off Pasqual's arm and leaves a gory mess of red-cloth tendons and blood. But the scene's weakness is also typical: At first it's not clear this is a flashback, since the adult Pasqual has two arms.

The whole story rests on crude symbols -- a rose that refuses to go into the trunk, a scruffy white bird seized by a figure of Death -- instead of drama; but for a puppet show this isn't necessarily a drawback. Near the end Pasqual dances with "Death the Jester," the show's most magnificent puppet, a skull-faced figure with frilled cuffs around its bony hands and a mantilla hanging from its jester's cap. For kids this might sound like the stuff of nightmare, but the black playfulness in Ells' imagination works like a tonic for adults.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Shtick, She Wrote
The Two-Bit Tango. By Mercilee Jenkins, from the novel by Elizabeth Pincus. Music and lyrics by Mark Kennedy. Directed by Paoli Lacy. Starring Diane Masnak, Audrey Smith, Ruth Cox, Joan Mankin, and Aidan O'Shea. Presented by the Miracle Theater Company at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. through June 29. Call 861-7933.

"Can this cockpit hold/ the vastly fields of France?" asks the prologue of Henry V. The chorus that opens the play is talking about the Elizabethan custom of plopping the huge battles of historical plays onto small stages. Acknowledging the practice's absurdity -- abridging great wars into a few costumes and swords -- the prologue begs the audience to trust the performers with their imagination: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them."

Unfortunately, in the intervening years, theater has backed away from action. When theater these days attempts spectacle, it's in the province of tourist-pleasing Andrew Lloyd Webber roadshows; able to compete with neither the cityscapes and special effects of film nor Webberian excess, quality theater has settled into naturalist, one-room kind of settings, filled with used furniture. You don't see car chases, big brawls, or pistol-whippings anymore, and that's a shame. Refusing to be so restrained, The Two-Bit Tango, from the Miracle Theater Company, packs full-scale action into the miniature stage of Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint. The dialogue owes more to Magnum, P.I. and Raymond Chandler than Shakespeare, but as five actors as 18 characters race through 20 scenes, The Two-Bit Tango keeps your imagination involved even when the plot is no more compelling than an episode of The Rockford Files.

The Two-Bit Tango is adapted from the novel by Elizabeth Pincus, one of three that feature Nell Fury, "dyke detective extraordinaire." Nell is a typical private eye to the extent that she drives a beat-up car, women clients cling to her like newborn kangaroos, and she plays the sax. As Nell, the petite Diane Wasnak really does play the baritone sax, forming half the "orchestra" on the musical numbers. (The other half's a guy on a piano.) Nell has a Girl Friday too, ex-lover Phoebe (Joan Mankin). Professionally Phoebe's a gruff cabbie, but she performs all the accessory-female duties: running errands, dodging bullets, and getting kidnapped in the third act. Our hero's assignment is to crack the case of the missing sexpot/heiress/stripper twins while buzzing around S.F. and making stops at the Mint, the G Spot, and the Cliff House, each of these scenes created with simple synecdoche: a fishbowl for an apartment, a glittering curtain for a topless dance club, a unicycle for rented wheels.

To fill the city with lowdown pimps and disaffected cops, the ensemble performers play multiple roles. With remarkable versatility Audrey Smith bounces through Gillian the stripper, a soul singer, Godfrey the nightclub manager, a thug, and a cop. Several of the actors list the New Pickle Circus on their bios, and the training shows, not just in the comic timing, but through their use of space. Their bodies are fluid, flying through everything from car chases (mimed in chairs) to acrobatic erotic dancing. This manic energy compensates for the Scooby-Doo plot twists and disposable characters. The plot summaries at regular intervals help, but are a dead weight in the rapid action. And there's inevitable letdown when the real crime kingpin is revealed -- The Two-Bit Tango is all about the chase.

At first glance the only subversive element is the orientation of its protagonist and a few suggestive puns, like the song "It's Not the Bullet That Kills, It's the Hole." But the play is sly in its parodies of macho detectives and huggy feminist theory. Take Darnelle, the S.F. State student studying "criminalistics" and women poets of the early 20th century; when tied up, she keeps her fellow captives distracted with recitations of Ella Higginson and Denise Levertov. (What, no H.D.?) But Darnelle is also a dippy dreamer who can't see the irreconcilable differences between lock-picking and sapphic verse. While never actually producing a historical battle, the Miracle Theater Company has tapped the Elizabethan formula for theatrical success -- teach and preach whatever you like, but make sure there's double-crossing, cross-dressing, and plenty of cute ass. In a final twist, the exotic dancers successfully take over Club Femmes and try a feminist dance piece about empowerment and non-exploitation. It's dull, whines Nell Fury. She just wants to see some booty.

-- Julie Chase

Crisp-Witted
"An Evening With Quentin Crisp." At the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness, June 14. Call 861-8972.

Quentin Crisp is in what he calls "the profession of being," and it's true that he earns a living mostly by presenting his dandified self to audiences across America. He came onstage dressed like an effeminate sheriff, in a dark suit, neck scarf, and wide-brimmed hat. He's a famous homosexual who rejected England 17 years ago as "a vast, rain-swept Alcatraz," and started a life over at age 71 in Manhattan, where he still lives, alone, on the Lower East Side. Sting has committed him to song ("Englishman in New York"), and at 88 Crisp conducts life in the manner of a young Oscar Wilde -- sharp-tongued, charming, and pointless.

Onstage he sat in a plush, rust-upholstered chair next to a table with flowers, like a well-treated zoo animal on tour. "Happiness is what we're all talking about, whether it's love or politics," he said, introducing his theme for the night; then he talked about charisma ("the ability to persuade without logic"), and happiness vs. self-knowledge: "The whole purpose of existence is the reconciliation of our glowing opinion of ourselves with the awful things everyone says about us." Crisp is more than just a basket of scattered witticisms, because he takes his "profession of being" seriously. He has a coherent worldview that starts with the very British principle of self-effacement. After less than an hour he stopped talking to let the audience write questions on cards, and without prepared material he was just as sharp. "When we say other people are boring we are really criticizing ourselves," he said, "because we haven't made ourselves into that wide-open shallow dish" -- a receptacle for other people.

These days Crisp is a contradiction, a man who was openly gay in Britain during the closeted '50s and who refuses, now, to represent homosexuals. He's even said he would support the hypothetical abortion of a fetus if it was guaranteed to grow up gay. Homosexual life is awful to Crisp: The only reason he was out so early, he said, is that he was too fey to act straight. "People ask me, 'Well, should I tell my mother [about being homosexual]?' " His eyes widened in astonishment. "Never tell your mother anything. What is she supposed to say? 'That's nice, dear'?" He doesn't believe in outing: "I think if there's freedom of speech there's also freedom of silence," he declared. "They outed Mr. Forbes after he was dead. What good did that do?" And he cut down the notion of specific gay rights with a single swift blade: "Nobody has any rights. If we all got what we deserved we would all starve."

Mordant as it sounds, this attitude is really just another side of his self-effacement, which was a theme, like happiness, that Crisp always came back to. In his mind they seem to be linked. He thought it was droll that Americans have "a right to pursue happiness," and he praised the United States for putting it into the Constitution. Of course, it's not in the Constitution. No one ever made it that legal, Mr. Crisp: The line about happiness appears in our Declaration of Independence, which is nothing but a letter to the king of your Alcatraz.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Street Theater
"In the Street 1997." Presented by Wise Fool Community Arts, the 509 Cultural Center/Luggage Store, and Clown Conspiracy. On Ellis Street between Leavenworth and Hyde, June 7 and 8. Call 905-5958.

"In the Street 1997" lasted only one weekend, organized by Wise Fool Community Arts and a few other groups as a loose public gallery of street performers from around the city. Wise Fool kicked off the festival with a procession through the Tenderloin. Giant puppets -- open-mouthed creatures with streaming costumes and enormous hands -- walked with two or three women who danced, on stilts, to a corps of African-dressed drummers (Loco Bloco, an impressive Mission-based ensemble), followed by clowns in every shape, a dragonfly on a fishing line, a woman dressed as a spider, a man attached to a gorilla, and a rolling cartoon of a politician shaped like the Transamerica Building, with a warped papier-máche head. It was glorious. The parade could have marched straight out of Bob Dylan's acid period, and it set a tone, if not a standard, for the entire weekend.

A mixture of idealism and pure spirit gave the festival a Dead-show atmosphere, a grooviness and forced enthusiasm for Right Thinking. "If I ruled the universe," one performer said to a cheering crowd at the end of her piece, "there would already be a cure for AIDS!" There were kid acrobats from the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, boys who could do handless somersaults through hoops and girls who could bend their spines backward to rest their butts on top of their heads. Adult acrobats, like the faux-French trio Le Pamplemousse, did entertaining comedy routines with silver hoops and a bullwhip while they worked up to the anticlimactic "Double-Decker, Flame-Throwing, Sphere-Spinning Whipping Post." And a group called Monkey Thump offered hand-puppet monkeys with drumsticks for feet -- "percussive puppetry" -- as well as a play involving monkey puppets in painted, human-actor trees, killed off by a horrible clashing aluminum humanoid that scared a dog in the audience and could have been the unnatural child of your mother's pot-and-pan drawer and a vacuum cleaner. The trees were reborn by music, predictably enough, a percolating rhythm of tribal drums and a farting didgeridoo.

It was all delightfully chaotic. There was spontaneous nudity -- a woman took off her shirt and danced in front of Ruben Castro's hotel-window mime performance -- as well as slam-style poetry from Sister Spit, pretentious and angry and loud. The funniest act wasn't an act at all, I don't think -- just a wandering clown in a rubber nose and a beanie, carrying two suitcases and laboring down Ellis Street with a heavy trunk attached by a rope to his waist. Kids would sit on the trunk to slow his progress. And the best act was the last one, by Project Bandaloop, four women and two men dancing on the side of the Hotel Senator, suspended by ropes, treating the enormous wall as their stage floor and flipping, slowly, into space, landing with near perfectly choreographed precision on their feet. It reminded me of Fred Astaire tap-dancing up the wall of a bedroom, although not even the white-bread Master of Footwork on Film could pull that off without a camera trick.

-- Michael Scott Moore

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