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Love Bites
Vampire Dreams. By Suzy McKee Charnas. Starring Penny Benda, Nick Scoggin, Esther Feuerstein, and J.J. White. At Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), through Dec. 6. Call 974-1167.

As a kernel for a story, putting a vampire in a psychologist's office is not a bad idea. Once I saw a version of Dracula that incorporated a fat German psychologist trying and failing to cure the Count's black heart; the idea was that her Freudian education gave her no understanding of evil. But the show also seemed to realize that the idea of a psychologist treating a vampire is basically absurd, and taking itself too seriously would amount to sudden death; so the play came off as insightful and funny. Bindlestiff Studio's Vampire Dreams has neither of these virtues. The script is based on a short, Nebula Award-winning novel called The Unicorn Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas. The Nebula Award is given to science-fiction and fantasy books, and Vampire Dreams has all the romantic, blood-gorged overseriousness that makes the readership of those books drop off after puberty.

The story takes place in a sober psychologist's office with a detail from one of the medieval Unicorn Tapestries hanging in the background. (Rocky Heck's set, like most of the sets at Bindlestiff, is good-looking and darkly tasteful.) Dr. Floria Landauer (Penny Benda) is a blond New York psychologist with a cold, reasoning mind; Dr. Edward Lewis Weyland (Nick Scoggin) is her new client, an aging, tweed-coated university professor who looks not unlike Samuel Beckett and feels troubled by his uncontrollable animal tendency to hunt women and gay men he finds at cultural happenings. Both characters are stereotypes, suffering from the sort of TV-worthy problems an author who's never known either a psychologist or a professor would saddle them with. Floria wonders if being an analyst is "all there is"; Ed at one point moans about growing old in the academy, with nothing but staff meetings, trashy affairs with undergraduates, and "summer vacation jaunts" to look forward to. Breaking out of this academic monotony is supposed to be the reason he hunts, but there's a blithe ignorance working here that systematically ruins the show, because the characters don't seem real.

Some suspense is squeezed from the fact that Floria doesn't believe Ed is a vampire. She thinks he's a gay man in denial. Just when you start to think this possibility might redeem the story, though, the question is settled: Ed really is a vampire. Anticlimax. But Floria also thinks he's sexy, so suspense begins to leak from the question of whether she'll breach her professional code of ethics and try to screw him. But after they finally have sex -- a passionate disaster for Floria's career, but a humanizing novelty for Ed -- and you believe the show should end, the story muddles on for half an hour more.

There are glimmers of wit. When Ed graphically describes sucking the blood from a woman's neck, Floria asks, "How did you feel about your victim -- as a person?" He stares at her carefully. "She was food." But most of the play feels unfinished and limp, as if the author were still questing for what she really means, on the audience's precious time.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Lord of the Dance
The Mark Morris Dance Group presents The Hard Nut Dec. 13-14 and 19-21 at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Call (510) 642-9988.

He's been crowned "the bad boy of modern dance" by people who, apparently, haven't seen much. Critics have hailed him as "the greatest living American choreographer," come to save dance from the politics and minimalism and talk and mysticism and pedestrian everydayness that the '60s brought in. But even when his admirers sound like the dance world's Ralph Reeds, Mark Morris is easy to love. His dances do what great art always does, regardless of idiom. Through vital idiosyncrasy, they communicate something we've forgotten we wanted to know.

Almost every year for the past several, the Mark Morris Dance Group has frequented Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall; for the 1997-98 season, it's practically moved in. In late October, the company presented local premieres and repertory work; it returns in June for Morris' production of Rameau's comic opera Platee; and, with an exclusive two-week run of The Hard Nut, a Nutcracker-cum-Ice Storm, Morris and company will be joining us to celebrate a vision of the holidays that for once feels familiar.

Choreographed during the Morris Dance Group's three-year residency at Belgium's national opera house (1988-91), The Hard Nut is a deeply American work. While he remains true to Tchaikovsky's score -- every single note of it -- Morris sets his Christmas in a postwar America of homey, commercialist kitsch where an awakening, pre-AIDS naughtiness prevails. The traditional Nutcracker Christmas party is here transformed into a cocktail chaos: The adults are too busy getting it on with each other's husbands and wives to pay much attention to the kids, who pass the time watching TV and creating little havocs of their own. Dog Boy cartoonist Charles Burns -- comic art's David Lynch -- conceived the set. The scary blandness of Burns' black-and-white op art Christmas presents childhood as an opaque danger zone. What's terrifying is how tawdry and limited everything is.

Until you grow up, Morris suggests. The Hard Nut resurrects the original coming-of-age story that traditional ballet versions have subsumed under a sugar high. Growing up in Morris' take is about discovering the human glow and dimension within seeming flatness. The protagonists Marie and Nutcracker find a world that, like an enormous budding flower, opens and opens; the already grown-ups, on the other hand, shrink as often as they grow. All this reveals itself at Christmas. As Ira Glass, producer of the radio show This American Life, once pointed out, "Christmas is the time when everybody is who they normally are, but more so."

Meeting the choreographer in his Berkeley hotel room, I found him both more confrontational and more guarded than his stage persona, which is at once precise and magnanimous. Morris, famous for saying what he thinks, confided straight out what he thought of my kind: "Journalism -- it's kind of a parasite job." Now, though he still wants the public to be nettlesome -- "If you go to see something bad, it's your responsibility to boo or leave" -- he says he's learned to "hate things more silently."


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