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Wednesday, Aug 20 1997
Three Faces of A
Three Tall Women. By Edward Albee. Directed by Lawrence Sacharow. Starring Michael Learned, Christina Rouner, and Marian Seldes. At the Herbst Theater, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), through Aug. 31. Call 776-1999.

Edward Albee has had a hard time living up to his prodigal debut as a playwright. His other two plays awarded Pulitzers (A Delicate Balance and Seascape) have never been as popular as the beloved Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and the recent Three Tall Women will probably live under the shadow of that great American play as well. The title is deceptive; Three Tall Women is about just one woman, a cantankerous heiress, identified only as "A" in the program. Albee admits the character was inspired by his adoptive mother, but don't start flinging hokey Freudian platitudes at it -- Three Tall Women isn't about those issues. The work is concerned with more ambitious themes: death, memory, and identity, through the dramatization of the life of a complex and frequently bitter woman. Albee accomplishes this, but the question remains: Are character and a fancy theme enough to make a great play?

The story leaks out slowly. Albee uses what David Mamet has called a "through line": There's no exposition, and you have to figure out what's happening from the dialogue. The curtain opens on a conservatively decorated bedroom, where an elderly lady (A) is attended by a middle-aged woman and a young, professional gal (B and C). One is A's caretaker, the other an emissary from a law firm managing her vast financial affairs. The old woman flings around pronouns without reference: "She" did this, "He" was an "architect of furniture." It takes several minutes to establish that it's Wednesday and the old woman is 91. While this free association is characteristic of senility, in Three Tall Women Albee isn't using it to be naturalistic; it's a device used to illustrate how nonlinear memory and identity are.

The selectivity of memory is the central issue in the second act. After collapsing from a heart attack at the conclusion of the first scene, the elderly woman lies motionless in her bed (through the deliberately clumsy guise of a puppet dressed in her clothes) when the play returns from intermission. The same women enter the stage, with two playing different roles, but this coup de theátre isn't signaled; you discover this only as the dialogue proceeds. The young litigator plays A at 26, the caretaker becomes A at 52, and Marian Seldes remains A at 91. The romantic younger woman becomes enraged at how coldly the older women use sex as a weapon, rather than for pleasure or fulfillment. The older incarnations of the woman are at first indifferent, and then hostile towards her youthful innocence. Some people think that the extremes of A's character, notably an intense hostility toward men, are a way for Albee to exact retribution on his mother. But he is careful to show how A is a woman hardened by a life as an accessory and nurse to men.

Walking out of the theater I couldn't help admiring the performances and the density of the script; but was it great theater? Three Tall Women has strong writing and acting, but probably not. Albee is so determined and cautious in his creation of this impossible woman that the final moments are static. The play doesn't teach, scare, or twist your gut. Even when A gets off a trenchant image -- in one monologue, she talks about lancing a puss-filled wound -- it sinks in the determined abstractions. It can't take the place of strategically placed meaning and metaphor. Three Tall Women is limited emotionally by its intellectual achievements.

-- Julie Chase

Shiver Me Timbers
Billy Budd. By Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman, based on the short novel by Herman Melville. Directed by Andrea Gordon. Starring Eric Flom, Simon Vance, and Lawrence Lee Jones. Presented by Venture Theater aboard the C.A. Thayer, Hyde Street Pier, Hyde Street and San Francisco Bay, through Sept. 7. Call 929-0202 ext. 58.

Either to save on set design costs or just because they can, the Venture Theater company keeps staging shows aboard the C.A. Thayer, a 1985 schooner tied to the Hyde Street Pier. Last year it was Eugene O'Neill's Tales of the Sea; now it's Billy Budd. The novelty reminds me of a ship in Boston Harbor that hosts daily re-enactments of the Boston Tea Party, with employees of a tour-guide company playing the part of revolutionaries (dressed as Indians) tossing tea crates over the gunwale and hollering nasty things about the British. It's cheesy; and actors in period costume threaten similar cheesiness before Billy Budd even starts, by lining up the audience like drafted sailors and marching them onto the Thayer. But once you've been drafted they leave you alone, and the show itself turns out to be pretty good. It's set roughly two decades after the Boston Tea Party and turns on the same theme -- English authority vs. the Rights of Man -- but the reason it works has more to do with the cast than the antique theater-ship.

Billy Budd is a blond, "welkin-eyed" boy, pressed into service with the British navy after 10 years of merchant sailing, most recently aboard The Rights of Man ("Goodbye to you, old Rights of Man!" he calls out in Herman Melville's short novel, totally ignorant of what he's saying). "Welkin-eyed" and blond describe Eric Flom perfectly: He looks bred for this role, and he plays Budd with a believable, measured innocence. Billy's nemesis on the warship, John Claggart, is a power-drunk master-at-arms played intelligently by Simon Vance. He's the embodiment of wartime discipline. The struggle between Billy's innocence and Claggart's corrupt experience is the story's main rigging, and it's dramatized intelligently by Flom and Vance. "Have you not got sense and spleen enough to be cowardly?" Claggart asks, when Billy won't bow to him. "No sir, I guess not."

When Claggart falsely accuses the boy of mutiny, Billy strikes him dead, and then the ship's captain has a real case of mutiny to settle. Lawrence Lee Jones is excellent as Capt. Vere, a burly, round sea commander with a belting, pugnacious voice; his manner has the right balance of authority and justice to set him apart from the master-at-arms. The Billy-vs.-Claggart struggle continues in Vere's own conscience during Billy's trial, and Jones really agonizes, almost whining with the strain of having to condemn the boy. The trouble is that Vere doesn't agonize enough. This may be a problem with the script. I thought that if I just stood up and shook Capt. Vere I could keep him from hanging Billy. The show also gets hobbled slightly by Pat McCulloch, who plays the old, oracular seaman known as the Dansker. He carries some of the story's philosophical weight, but McCulloch seems too nervous to give his character any life. In the end Billy's death doesn't sound any echoes or even seem inevitable, so the play feels like an elaborate reading of Billy Budd, a good rendition but not the depth-experience tragedy promised by the cold salt air and mildew smells inside the Thayer.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Someguy. Written and directed by Mark Routhier. Starring Matthew Rozen, Emilie Talbot, Richard Ciccarone, and P.A. Cooley. Presented by Mettle Theater at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), through Sept. 13. Call 648-0480.

Allegories or morality plays first originated in medieval Europe, when priests transposed biblical teachings for the masses who could not understand the Latin services. With its army of personified abstractions and ascending path of object lessons, the genre is well-suited to communists, Catholics, corporate CEOs, and other ideologues, but most contemporary theater can't support the weight of such an intrinsically pedantic form. All too often characters succumb to cliche rather than aspire to archetypes; and their spiritual transformations end up feeling both contrived and obscure.

In its first scenes, Mark Routhier's Someguy seems stuck in its genre's intellectual vulgarity. Some guy named Someguy loses all his money in a con game with a clown named God. God spouts some philosophical maxims and leaves him penniless. Someguy goes in search of Death and finds her, in the form of a pregnant bicycle messenger, flirting and drinking with God in a bar. The dialogue crashes about, heavy with cleverness and philosophy, but at this point we don't really care about abstractions like God or Death, and Someguy's particular situation still feels generic. Then God leaves and the suicidal Someguy begins flirting with Death, revealing to her all the reasons he has become disillusioned with life. "That's a bunch of Gen X malarkey," Death snaps. In that moment, brow-furrowing confusion lifts and Routhier's morality tale of disenfranchised youth takes flight.

The play borrows its title and structure from Everyman, the anonymously written 16th-century drama depicting a Christian man's journey to Death. In Everyman, Death summons Everyman, who approaches various anthropomorphized ideas (Goods, Beauty, etc.), only to find that he can't take them with him. Routhier inverts this plot -- depicting Someguy as the seducer of Death, someone who has turned away from a world of relationships and meaning. In the process, he subverts the form's usual Christian piety without pillaging its earnest core. "I want to be loving and understanding and nonjudgmental, but I'm filled with jealousy and pettiness and scorn," declares Someguy in his eloquent, if shamelessly sentimental, appeal to Death.

Instead of giving him a cursory kiss and ending his misery, Death leads him through a night crowded with sublime characters. Beauty (Melanie Sliwka) and Knowledge (P.A. Cooley), two effete courtiers, inculcate him into their respective temptations. Joy (Sliwka) and Comfort (Kate Sheehan), two street hookers, give him a double blow job. A bum named Sanity (a supernaturally vivid Richard Ciccarone) offers him a cigarette while a gangsta named Control (Robert Rothrock) nearly blows off his head.

With a mix of quixotic passion, wry humor, and a mastery of the extended metaphor, Routhier somehow renovates the allegorical fairy tale. In one scene, two Euro-trash club rats named Angst and Blame try to initiate Someguy into their ongoing romance with Death. As the dialogue unfolds, Routhier runs through the different ways people flirt with death, allowing him to skewer the romanticization of goth culture, drug use, private neuroses, and AIDS, all with a single metaphor.

With the droopy-eyed, slack-jawed earnestness of a puppy dog, Matthew Rozen perfectly embodies the Gen X refugee. Emilie Talbot manages to balance her supernatural arrogance with sympathy and a streak of regret about her role as universal serial murderer. Routhier choreographs the remaining five actors in multiple roles in performances that range from tepid to dazzling. Especially memorable are Ciccarone's manic Sanity and brusque Service, Cooley's dandified Knowledge and cockney-hard Blame, Rothrock's brutal Control, and Melanie Sliwka's languorous Beauty. Despite her inspired interpretation of the slinky, nervous Angst, Sheehan struggled with her mock-German accent, often rendering her speeches uncomprehensible over the blaring disco music.

-- Carol Lloyd


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