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Wednesday, Oct 15 1997
Caged Heart
Fur. By Migdalia Cruz. Directed by Roberto Gutierrez Varea. Starring Michael Torres, Denise Balthrop, and Greta Sanchez-Ramirez. Presented by Campo Santo at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Oct. 27. Call 626-3311.

The word "monster" derives from the Latin monstrare -- to show or display -- as well as from the Latin monere, to warn. Campo Santo's production of writer Migdalia Cruz's Fur is, I warn, all monster. If you think Frankenstein and Caliban suffered from angsty aches, you haven't seen anything yet. Try walking in the shoes of fur-fetishizing animal keeper Michael (Michael Torres), depraved Nena (Denise Balthrop), and sideshow freak Citrona (Greta Sanchez-Ramirez), all of whom desperately seek a sense of belonging in a literally and figuratively cold, steel-girded wasteland of a world.

Michael is a pervert type who grins demonically and stares uncomfortably as he throws out disconnected one-liners like "Beasts are awed by me" or "People who like animals don't have hair"; he wishes, he says, he could "pick up my lover's vomit and treat it like a jewel." Michael parades back and forth around his latest catch, Citrona, an animalistic figure who's naked rather than shaggy, and covered with an elaborate body tattoo. Meanwhile, Citrona paces her cage, eats raw flesh, craves bubble gum, and hits all-time depressive lows; she recalls how her mother "pierced me with a letter opener, then sold me."

In spite of her lows, Citrona entertains desires to get cage-cleaning, pink-hair-bow-wearing, safari-khaki-ed Nena into the sack. She announces, "I get so wet when you come inside [my cage]." Promising Michael she'll love him and that she'll eat his barbecue, which she hates, her wish to spend time alone with Nena is granted. Nena's down with the idea, hoping to make Michael jealous. Behind the cage door, candlelight flickers while Citrona takes advantage of a snoozing Nena.

There's a lot to untangle here. On the one hand the play speaks to the deep-felt loneliness of individuals lost in an uncaring, sand- and steel-ridden postmod landscape. On one occasion, Nena tentatively touches Michael's arm (daydreaming of Citrona) while masturbating herself into an anticlimax. The play also functions more narrowly as an allegory, highly stylized and abstract, of the violence of colonialism. Michael's oddity fetishism isn't just sexual perversion; he's a Latino who has internalized the brutal processes of colonial oppression. Thus he objectifies and codes the woman of color as a beast, then entraps, disempowers, and rapes.

There's also a level of comedy in all of this alienation and internalized violence and solitude. Director Roberto Gutierrez Varea makes room for playfulness by exaggerating the cliches; Nena is so white it's laughable, and Michael's psychopathic grins and deadpan delivery make you want to bust up. The play works best when Varea enters the surreal mode; for example, during Citrona's fantastical dream sequence, he juxtaposes the absurd verbal comedy we see in telenovela melodrama with booming Beatles songs, sand pouring from a plastic pipe, and lots of red light reflecting off the steel cage.

On the whole, however, the play is overwhelmed -- first by jumbled strings of non sequiturs and mouths dripping with gory entrails, then by the lack of a coherent story or a character constructed out of something besides cliche. Even the most avid surrealists will be left with too little to sink their gnashers into. The gaps are intentional, perhaps, but damaging; this play remains lost, unmoored somewhere out in the grotesquely intangible beyond. Don't say I didn't warn you.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

Caravan of Dreams
Caravan of Fools. Created and directed by Martha Enson and Umo Ensemble. Starring Esther Edelman, Martha Enson, David Godsey, Kevin Joyce, and Janet McAlpin. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Oct. 1-5. Call 621-7797.

A "stamenphone" hangs from the rafters and looks like a massive Arabian censer, with a metal flower growing straight up from a water-filled bulb at the bottom. It's laced with strings that can be plucked or bowed like the strings of a cello, and the music it makes is sonorous, moaning. Water in the bulb makes a sloshing background noise not so different from the echoey wash that comes from your practice amp's reverb springs when you kick the thing during rehearsal. Only one person in the world so far can play the stamenphone, and that's the man who designed and built it, Ela Lamblin.

He played all the music for Caravan of Dreams, by Seattle's Umo Ensemble, for the five dates of its short run in San Francisco at the beginning of this month. Caravan is subtitled "The Fools' Footsteps to Enlightenment," and it consists of a largely wordless series of clownish acrobatic pieces that evoke Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The "Djool" are vaguely Indian-looking (or -dressed) characters who are supposed to be spontaneous and fun, like the colorful spacemen in Intel's new processor ads. Caravan is about losing self-consciousness, as the subtitle suggests; but the Djool prove the critic's suspicion that there's nothing quite so self-conscious as a person who tries to be spontaneous. "A good traveler has no fixed plans/ And is not intent on arriving," one of them preaches; but the show seems to lose its dogmatism only when the Djool shut their mouths and apply their imaginations to the disciplines of choral singing and choreography. Water drop-like chanting and group swinging on rafter-slung hammocks are hypnotic; scenes that literally act out a few steps of Siddhartha's journey (The Ascetic, The Courtesan, The River) aren't. One radical exception is the female Djool lying sideways in one of the hammocks who scissors her body back and forth suddenly and for no clear reason while another Djool tries to convince herself that "I am not here ... I do not exist." That gesture, and a few others, have real spontaneity, and on opening night the effect was hilarious.

Another radical exception is the music. Lamblin builds sculptures that are also instruments, and some of his ugliest sculptures emit the most beautiful sounds. A peacock-fan of pipes is one example. They look like simple plumbing pipes, but when Lamblin strokes their mouths with his bow they sing like the pipes of a Pan flute. There are also mushroom-shaped bells, played with a hammer, and something called a "rumitone," which seems to be an exercycle geared to spin an aluminum spool-shaped churn that makes a streaming metallic noise. Lamblin draws no attention to himself. His ambient music is so edgeless and natural it's easy to forget it hasn't been taped, at least until you look in the corner, and see the music director plucking the metal flower or pedaling his rumitone.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Zen of "Fuck You"
Siamese Dream. Created and performed by Steamroller. At ODC Performance Gallery, 3153 17th St. (at South Van Ness), Sept. 26-28 and Oct. 3-5. Call 863-9834.

Early in Steamroller's evening-length Siamese Dream, Jesselito Bie and Ryan Galbreath make me want to turn a stranger's body familiar. Unlike many pas de deux, where the fact of dancers dancing together devolves into a merely formal arrangement, here every move suggests what the two hold between them: electric suspicion and need. The duet begins with Bie and Galbreath staring flatly ahead as their pistonlike steps trace a square on the floor. "This tightly bordered space is all we're going to share," their dull steps tell us. But slowly, the two circle in, then tangle together and lift each other in positions so risky they require gentleness. Bie's now-burning focus etches in the two of them a purpose; Galbreath gives it limitless grace.

I wasn't expecting a love duet -- not even the spiky kind -- in a dance that announces, first thing, it's working the art of "fuck you." In one of Siamese Dream's opening tableaux, Bie sits down carefully on the floor, crosses his legs, and bows his head as if preparing for meditation. We anticipate that he will complete the pose by joining each middle finger to thumb in that perfect symbol of inner-outer harmony. Instead, he quickly looks up, scrunches his face in a ghoulish expression of defiant rage, and gives us the double bird. The audience cackles: They've been converted.

Like its signature gesture, Siamese Dream flips off (or at least lets fly) all manner of notions, artifacts, media, and commentary impinging on Asian-American identity. Awash in the dance's swiftly shifting sound score, its slide projections, and the dancers' movement are such things as: Rodgers & Hammerstein's classically racist The King and I, where barbarian East meets sensible West; semiotic analysis of Asian boys on their backs in gay video porn; Chinatown Buddha-kitsch; the cool, plush tick of Cibo Matto; soundtracks from head-spinning Hong Kong action flicks; one child's erotic fantasia; gold-encrusted museum elephants; a potato queen's line of defense; Madame Butterfly's tragic wail; Margaret Cho's warm piss in a cold bed, etc., etc., etc.

Unlike many postmodern media mashes, though, Siamese Dream isn't about mixing it up or reflecting on how mixed up we already are. Steamroller's self-description -- "we offer a voice to a generation existing at the intersection of pop culture and identity" -- may suggest their affinity with the postmodern theory that we are a hapless bricolage of influences. But their dancing insists otherwise. (Bie and Galbreath are joined by Lena Gatchalian, Vong Phrommala, and Doe Yamashiro.) Siamese Dream's words and images set the context, give directives, protest, but it's the present-tense power of the dancing -- sensual, beautifully mapped-out solos, duets, and tightly bonded ensemble work -- that suggests it is possible to remain independent of the way one's represented. The work's dancing takes advantage of movement's gift for transmuting what it seems to be illustrating. Radically revising the images and words floating around it, the dancing acts as a liberating force.

During Bie and Galbreath's duet, a taped voice quietly informs us that the duet we are watching involves Bie "in an act of submission, not pleasure. His passivity is pronounced and he is never shown other than prone." But the duet itself is telling another story. What makes it so wired and sensual -- what's making me hungry -- is that the dancers' submission to each other is never passive. Bie's tough watchfulness of Galbreath throughout their grappling and the index fingers he raises in conclusion signal wariness ("I'm warning you -- watch it"), but it's a wariness compelled by the vibrant pull between them. Galbreath may threaten, but he can't do Bie without Bie's consent. At one point, Galbreath suspends himself over Bie in an ominous version of "airplane." Bie's on his back, but he's also the one keeping Galbreath up -- and letting him loose when he chooses.

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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