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Wednesday, Jan 14 1998
Let There Be Sleight
Bamboozles of the Barbary Coast. Written and performed by Tom Nixon. At the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), on an open run. Call 646-0984.

Bamboozles of the Barbary Coast begins the moment you call for tickets. "This is the best thing I've done," trumpets Tom Nixon, the creator of this quirky cocktail of history, magic, and humor. "I'm so excited about it, I wish I could see it myself!" At the door, the ticket-taker chimes in, "It's a great show. I know you'll enjoy it." Before the curtain, Nixon mingles in the lounge doing magic tricks, flaunting his bravura with game-show vigor. On the night I went, the young hipster audience seemed not to know how to react to this relentlessly boisterous, unflappably intimate performer; we're used to actors who remain unseen (in dignity or dread) until the lights go down and the fourth wall is raised.

Indeed, Tom Nixon hails from a breed rarely seen on Bay Area stages: He's a professional entertainer. As well-oiled as a Vegas showgirl and persuasive as a hustler, Nixon succeeds in getting in your face in a way so many avant-garde performance artists have failed. Tempering the craft of deception with a disarming, sweaty vulnerability, he is an unnerving performer to behold.

Sometimes it seems like his material is straightforward enough. He tells the stories of San Francisco's bad old days, and the legacy of his great-great-grandfather, an infamous San Francisco con man known as the Professor. He cites dates, places, and sources from the San Francisco Historical Society. He also reveals the secret kinship of con artistry and sleight-of-hand magic, an art he has been studying for 39 years. But after witnessing just how good a trickster he is, you start to wonder about the claims he's making. Did he really have a con artist for a great-great-grandfather? Has he really been offered $50,000 a month to deal high-stakes card games in Vegas? Is the baseball bat he wields really the same one that 19th-century proto-masochist Oofty Goofty offered citizens to beat him?

Although the two-hour show (whose $58 ticket is steep even taking into account the complimentary truffles and drinks) has little narrative, few characters, and a lot of card tricks, Nixon still manages to infuse the evening with dramatic tension. We learn in this most skeptical of times that we're hopelessly gullible, even eager to be deceived. Using participation, casual conversation, and relentless eye contact, he works his con-artistry on the audience -- gradually winning us over with his confidence. And by the end of the show, only one truth remains self-evident: Nixon loves what he's doing and expects you to love it too.

-- Carol Lloyd

Slip 'n' Slide
It's a Slippery Slope. Written and performed by Spalding Gray. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), Dec. 30-Jan. 4. Call 749-2228.

Spalding Gray is lucky. With a dose of talent and one or two subtle observations ("Memory, for all of us, is the first creative act"), he's managed to make a career out of dramatizing his own neuroses. His series of one-man shows all look the same -- just a childish man with grayed flamboyant hair, sitting behind a desk with a notebook and a microphone -- and they're increasingly about a single topic, Spalding Gray's Life. Maybe his best show was Swimming to Cambodia, which mixed biting politics with funny personal material, but lately he's lapsed back into the strictly personal monologues he started with, a tendency that unhinged his last show, Gray's Anatomy, which was about Spalding Gray's Manic Refusal to Accept the Fact That One of His Eyes Has Gone Blind. Going blind is surely traumatic, but not always interesting to the rest of us. So it was good to see him take on a heavier subject with It's a Slippery Slope, his current show, which the American Conservatory Theater hosted over New Year's.

Slippery Slope was about death. It covered Gray's 52nd birthday and the midlife crisis that came with it. ("Midlife is 36," he said, "not 52, but at 52 you realize that you have lived longer than you're going to live; you see the end of the plank.") Also, Gray's mother committed suicide at age 52, and this grim reflection set off a chain reaction of philosophy and bad behavior that made, along with a series of hilarious ski lessons, a weirdly involving story. It was weird because the audience wanted to laugh even when Gray pulled his punch lines and talked about his mother instead, or about his own death, or about the not-very-admirable way he left his ex-girlfriend, Renee, only after a lover of his named Kathy ignored his demands for an abortion and had a baby that belonged to him. It was funny that Gray suddenly found himself in the middle of a family, almost against his will, but the stirring point was that his own unexpected weakness in the face of death is what made him act like a jerk.

His riffs about learning to ski were polished and evocative: Using philosophical reflections to evoke the rhythm of riding up a ski lift, and undercutting them with a wild trip down the slope, is the kind of word-craft that Gray has been honing for years. Some of the philosophy was pretentious, and so were some of his one-liners ("I gave myself a high-five"), but his wild runs of language were expert and fun. When he talked about his relationships with Kathy and Renee, though, he seemed to grope for words; you felt that Gray had ventured into some thorny private place in full view of an audience, without rehearsing. For a man who knows how to make people laugh to retreat from that sometimes-defensive habit and work out a new part of his personal history while trying to stay halfway pertinent felt risky, tough, and to me this was the best part of the show.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Snow Business
The Hard Nut. By the Mark Morris Dance Group. At Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Dec. 13-21. Call (510) 642-9988.

"The Waltz of the Snowflakes" in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite rises like a flock of birds winging upward. The wind instruments' cooing flight is spontaneous but patterned enough to have a clear direction. When they meet an airy chorus of voices, we realize it's what we expected. Yet, finally, the waltz is powerful because it doesn't meet our expectation. While we accept from its opening notes that it will achieve an ideal harmony, we don't anticipate that the perfection we ride will go on for quite so long. There's a concluding climax of kettledrums and cymbals, followed by a long pause. But then the fluting pulse resumes -- faster this time. Tchaikovsky wants us to recognize our passive compliance with limits before he blows them to the sky.

Most versions of the Nutcracker ballet anesthetize you to the music. The San Francisco Ballet's, for example, had nothing to do with Tchaikovsky; the audience was abandoned to a listless appreciation of what it assumed was fine dancing. But Mark Morris' alternative Nutcracker -- The Hard Nut -- releases the score from its slippery veneer. His Snowflakes, in Sno-Kone hats and silver lame miniskirts, stream in from all sides, keeling, spinning, leaping into the air, and flinging overhead a delirium of snow. Running through evanescent raptures of falling flakes, they devour and bend a space made vertiginous and limitless by Charles Burns' and Adrianne Lobel's vortexlike framing and backdrop -- specks of white against the blackest of blacks. At the key point -- when the snowflake waltz begins again after its supposed ending -- the audience crests in waves of laughter. They laugh not because the dancing is goofy but for the same reason Sarah in Genesis does when God grants her a child in her old age: They have been released from a foregone conclusion.

Morris has done something as rare as it is natural. He's made a story ballet that emerges from and delineates its score's emotional resonances. He hears in Tchaikovsky exhilarating inconclusion within repeated patterns; he makes a love story between Nutcracker and Marie so full of swarms of characters' glorious interruptions and delays that we eventually realize they are enfolded in the budding love itself.

In his essay "On the Greatness of King Lear," Stephen Booth argues that what makes the play great, and nearly unendurably tragic, is that it doesn't accept the limits it establishes. Consider the ending, Booth instructs: After Gloucester's triumphant and righteous son Edgar has tied up the plot with all the necessary pronouncements and arrangements, Lear enters with Cordelia in his arms and blasts the play wide open again with his mad grief. Of course, Lear and Cordelia are the play even when the other characters seem to have forgotten it, but at this point they're more than we can take. We would have been happy to relinquish the messy progress of the play's substance for the reassurance of a clean ending. Morris' drama, its essence caught in the snowflake scene, inverts the tragedy of Lear. When we are willing, though not eager, to accept the ending we are promised, the dance gives us a reprieve.

The reprieves in The Hard Nut consist of group numbers that interrupt the drama's main action. The snowflake waltz, for example, follows a duet between Nutcracker and his Uncle Drosselmeier in which the elder man passes down to his nephew a legacy of passion. After their sincere and somber exchange, the quickening excesses of legions of Snowflakes may appear superfluous. They're not. Once Nutcracker takes on the burden of blossoming adulthood and love, the glories that follow illustrate love's purpose. When Marie and Nutcracker finally dance together in infectious, dizzy glee, they're repeatedly invaded but also borne up by what feels like a cast of thousands: rats, Chinese dancers, flowers, party guests, soldiers, a mother and a father. Their romance sails out beyond the two of them and captures the world.

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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