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Wednesday, Oct 1 1997
Crossing the Bard (I)
R&J. By Art Street Theater; based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Directed by Mark Jackson. Starring Jackson, Beth Wilmurt, Jake Rodriguez, Bricine Mitchell, and Gillian Brecker. At the 450 Geary Studio Theater, 450 Geary (at Mason), through Oct. 11. Call 673-1172.

Knowing R&J is a foreshortened version of Romeo and Juliet may give you the impression that it's been somehow refurbished for yuppies. (As in, "R. -- Didn't really kill self. Just spritz my face with seltzer. -- J.") That impression would be wrong. Ever since the group unveiled the prototype at last year's Fringe Festival, Art Street Theater has been refining their funny, fast-forward, dream-montage deconstruction of the World's Most Famous Love Story. It's both quirky and dense, arty and absurd, stylized and entertaining. Time slips randomly; actors trade roles. It starts at the end, with Juliet's death, then recapitulates the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues that brought Romeo and Juliet to their sorry fates. The moment-of-death flashback strategy may have been lifted from Faulkner, who popped Quentin Compson out of the constraints of time to let him remember all the necessary details of his life in the moment before his suicide; and if so, that would be nicely circular, because Faulkner's Compson novel, The Sound and the Fury, steals its title from Shakespeare.

Beth Wilmurt plays Juliet most of the time. She starts the play with a passionate reading of Juliet's final speech in the dark; then the lights come on and she looks around. A chorus of four slowly striding narrators quoting Shakespeare's opening lines begins to summarize the Capulet-Montague feud. Juliet tries to stab herself again, but she can't: She's a ghost. Wilmurt's version of Juliet always seems bewildered, which makes her sympathetic to the audience, because the sharply choreographed movement, the cut-up style recitation, and the fast-paced replays of famous scenes can be confusing. They're also, happily, entertaining. In one scene Mark Jackson plays a braying, flatulent scholar giving a lecture on Shakespeare's play and discussing alternative story lines. "If romantic little Juliet" wants intrigue and drama, he says, she also has to expect a tragic end; while Juliet (this time played by Gillian Brecker) sits in an inquisition chair and looks indignant.

I'm far from being an expert on Viewpoints, Anne Bogart's discipline for movement theater, which asks actors to concentrate on different aspects of the stage environment while they're performing. But I've seen it strand actors in stagey dogma often enough to say that Art Street uses it well. The movement is expressive and disciplined: Mark Jackson is especially good as Tybalt, dying in slow motion. The music ranges from classical to jazz to earnest pop, and it never works against the scenes; in fact sometimes it's so powerful I think the show relies on it for certain effects. There are also flashes of fine Shakespearean feeling, especially from Bricine Mitchell, who plays the most ardent Juliet.

R&J's strength is that it never forgets to be funny. No spinoff of Shakespeare that I've seen has ever matched the Bard; but R&J is at least aware of itself enough to realize that it's halfway ridiculous, and gets on, briskly, with what it has to say.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Song and Dance
America Songbook. Stephen Pelton Dance Theater. Music by Robert Maggio with the Rova Saxophone Quartet. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Sept. 17-21. Call 621-7797.

"The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer." That's Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage, reducing the origin of light and life to the scantest of things and saving all the heat for his words. Like the globbier impressionists, Crane's painterly Civil War novel foregrounds its creator's effort. It keeps a cold distance from its characters and their world, but its language is sticky with fevered insight. With Crane as one of its sources, Stephen Pelton's America Songbook keeps a similar distance from its subject -- snatches of an earlier America -- and for a similar reason: It's less concerned with depicting the past than illuminating it through revision. But until its elegiac final act, what the dance is revising -- and for what purpose -- remains obscure.

America Songbook is divided into three acts, each with a distinct setting and year. It begins with two silent vaudeville performers (Private Freeman and Kevin Ware) moving in slow motion through semidarkness. Accompanied by composer Robert Maggio's score --- a distillation of Scott Joplin tunes wrung of whimsy -- the dancers' measured movements clue us in to the fact that in this work, somber reflection overlays historical depiction.

When, moments later, the scene shifts to a small-town bar in 1909, we're heavy with expectation. The full ensemble flirts and brawls, becoming more blurry and jagged as they drink and drink, break into song ("Someone, someone bring more beer/ Get some beer/ And bring it here"), and line up for a head-to-butt conga. But it's hard to enjoy the fun. What does it all signify?

Of course, it's possible for a dance to be simultaneously dramatic and "unprompted by references other than to its own life," in the words of dance-for-its-own-sake pioneer Merce Cunningham. And, in its congealing and diffusing chaos when dancers fold in like a fan, then scatter, Songbook comes close to Cunningham's moments of beauty spilled out of sudden encounters. It's also possible for a dance's movement to touch its audience even when whatever "larger" purpose it claims is unfathomable.

So, it's not just Songbook's unintelligible intimations that shrink the work but, more so, its movement. Caught in hands and feet, it's too accessorized. Even beyond those sections where mechanistic two-dimensionality fits the setting, like the second act's saxophone-blaring '20s, the movement is gestural, suggesting social niceties more than interiority. The torso's curve and roil, its warmth, is largely absent; uninvolved, so are we.

America Songbook's final act is set on a battlefield late in the Civil War, where limbs are blown off and, with them, social constraints. Here, movement takes over the torso and the dance achieves a terrible, abandoned beauty. Bodies flail on the ground and fly and turn in the air, caught as they fall. In an odd twist, the extremity of the concluding tableau frees the dance from its stultifying gravity -- and makes sense of it.

Finally, Pelton has entered Crane terrain; his language absorbs its subject, transforming the past into a palpable presence. The two vaudeville performers we started with are the focal point of the last act. Mixing aggression and affection in homoerotic play, they have provided a cogent dramatic thread throughout the piece. In Songbook's final moments they reach a climax of mutual dependence. Wounded, they support each other across the stage and then away from us, up a "hill," the paper backdrop, now crumpled and fallen. As the two soldiers ascend it, it crunches beneath their feet, reminding us that the elements we depend on are our creations -- and they're as fragile as a wafer of sun.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Crossing the Bard (II)
Henry V. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Patrick Dooley. Starring Dylan Kussman, Reid Davis, Beth Donohue, and Marin Van Young. Presented by the Shotgun Players at La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, through Oct. 25. Call (510) 655-0813.

It's pretty easy to pull off mediocre Shakespeare; witness the Much Ado About Nothing touring local parks. The dialogue is snappy, the settings exotic, and there's usually war. But staging great Shakespeare, the kind of theater that thunders with legendary language and character, is a much rarer thing. And what an unlikely place to find it: in the basement of a fast-food pizzeria-taqueria; in a minuscule space where the industrial dishwasher above rumbles like the English army moving toward Agincourt. It's the last place you'd expect to see the epic Henry V. With 40 speaking characters plus assorted lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, citizens, messengers, and attendants, and at least 12 different settings -- not scene changes, but locations -- Henry V is not the poor man's Shakespeare. The Branagh film reflects the way we usually see the play staged: with stylish medieval velvet and leather, thigh-high boots, and chain mail forged by the local Society for Creative Anachronism.

Patrick Dooley and his Shotgun Players have a different vision of Henry V, one that feeds on the appeal of Henry's accessible greatness but is free of the costumed romanticism. All decorative ornaments have been stripped away. The set is black. The one set piece is two joined black boxes, and the actors wear black jeans with matching cotton shirts. One at a time the performers enter, humming the kind of atonal buzz that actors use as vocal warm-ups, before erupting into the opening lines. As understated as the production is, the first moments make absolutely clear the primacy of language and voice in Shotgun's version of the show. Hand props are sparse, used only when they contribute something to the understanding of the play, or to punctuate a visual image in the verse.

As often as Henry V has been performed decked out in velour and brocade, there are several lines in the text that seem to beg for minimalist interpretation. Consider the opening chorus, which asks the audience to fill in what cheap backdrops can't accomplish: "For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings/ Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times." Who needs castles and tapestries? Why not imitate the metonymy of the poetry in the playing of it?

The occasional splash of color in this monochromatic England comes from strips of blue and red cloth used as scrolls, hoods, and fire. Collars of red differentiate King Henry's upper-level advisers from the pub swine. These same swatches of fabric become the hoods of the conniving clergy who goad Henry into declaring war on France. Such small alterations are both economical and elegant in the way they illustrate how class conflict underlies the paradox of the populist Henry. We like Shakespeare's character because he fraternized with the little people as crown prince in the Henry IVs. But as Henry the King, our hero can't be chummy with the minions who still lovingly follow him around -- he approves the hanging of old friend Bardolph to prove he has matured. Dylan Kussman is excellent as a remorseful but still slightly despotic young king intoxicated with his new power. Kussman looks green enough to remember the days when he was carried home from the bar; he's uncomfortable with the formalities of the throne, but charming when wooing the princess of France.

The rest of the cast supports him ably. With everyone but Kussman playing three or more roles there are both weak links and pleasant surprises. As the French prince, the Dauphin, Reid Davis is giddy, slightly campy, and every bit as capricious as he accuses his rival Henry of being. And when Beth Donohue launches into a Scottish accent as Capt. Fluellen, at first she seems like a wild caricature out of proportion with the cool minimalism elsewhere in the show. But like the rest of this remarkable production, she wins the audience over with her simple and dedicated performance.

-- Julie Chase


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