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Wednesday, Jul 2 1997

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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

"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.


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