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Wednesday, Feb 4 1998
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Beware the Holy Vampire
Blood on the Cat's Neck. By Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Directed by Mark Nishimura. Starring Katie Hemmeter, Carlo Mapa, Brian Bonham, Jereme Anglin, Howard Squires, Ray Rea, Nadine Defranoux, Dawn Nott, Sarah Green, and Janine Pibal. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Turk), through Feb. 14. Call 931-2699.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is widely considered a genius, even though a large fraction of his life's work is boring. He was an enormously prolific director who managed a few great films -- The Marriage of Maria Braun, and the 14-part epic Berlin Alexanderplatz -- plus the usual run of material that prolific artists churn out because they have no patience or inclination to judge their own work. Blood on the Cat's Neck is a Fassbinder play from 1971 that never made it to film. It is obscure, frustrating, and overlong. For no obvious reason it's subtitled "Marilyn Monroe vs. the Vampires," and it takes a pornographic cartoon character named Phoebe Zeitgeist as a heroine; Phoebe is a vampire from another solar system who drops in on contemporary German society without the faintest understanding of human language. She's supposed to write "an eyewitness account of human democracy," but what she sees instead is failed romance, vanity, grief, oppression, greed, and the generally stifled private lives of a confused group of people. Almost no democracy happens -- nobody even votes. I'm not sure if this is part of the play or just an inconsistency.

Phoebe recites scraps of dialogue as she watches vignettes from these people's lives; when everyone gathers at a cocktail party at the end, Phoebe repeats intimate and embarrassing lines to the strangers, who think she's either profound or insane. The point, apparently, is that most people can't face their private suffering, although why they should face it at a cocktail party isn't clear. What's kept from the audience at the beginning is that Phoebe has bitten a cat's neck with her vampire teeth and ingested a dose of cat nature; so when she bites the party guests at the end, to understand their behavior, it makes almost no sense unless you've read either the play or the extensive director's notes handed out to critics. At last Phoebe recites a passage from Immanuel Kant, which is pretentious, and the audience gets to go home.

Some of the tightly whittled vignettes are interesting. The acting is up and down, but good performances by Jereme Anglin, Howard Squires, Nadine Defranoux, and Janine Pibal -- and sometimes Brian Bonham -- make the intertwining lives fun to follow. And of course it takes guts to revive an obscure Fassbinder script. But the broad indictment of bourgeois society is too broad; it loses its point in this production, partly because director Mark Nishimura hasn't mastered the art of what to leave up to the audience's imagination. He leaves both too much and not enough; and he treats the material with more reverence than Fassbinder himself would have done.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Les Girls
The Maids. By Jean Genet. Directed by Josh Marchesi. Starring Janis DeLucia, Justine Turner, and Kathryn Wood. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Turk), through Feb. 14. Call 931-2699.

France's great poet-criminal Jean Genet based The Maids on a real 1933 murder involving two servant girls who felt so victimized by their bourgeoise mistress they decided to hack her to pieces. Genet's version ends a little differently; his maids play a psychological game of mistress-and-servant that leads to either murder or suicide, depending on how you look at the dream-bound ingestion of poisoned tea by the maid pretending to be Madame. The play is an hour and a half of heavy slogging through the minds of these women; it's been said that Genet's version of the story is "scholarship masquerading as theater," and I agree. Genet has a tendency to set a philosophical gridiron over the characters he writes, a lot like Sartre and Cocteau, the two men responsible for making Genet famous after they sprang him from jail.

The two maid characters, Claire and Solange, are overserious, terrified, and obsessed with their own status. The first half-hour of the play is devoted to relentless self-drama and hollering. Then the mistress comes home, interrupting their game, and the maids are eerily quiet. Justine Turner plays an over-the-top mistress who looks like something from Dangerous Liaisons, with heavy makeup, a piled wig, and a ridiculous sky-blue dress. She flits and chats with a cartoon breeziness that both saves the production and makes you sympathize with the maids' plot to kill her. I'm not sure this is the best effect. To me, Genet's script is interesting because he treats social status as a figment of the mind; the maids want to kill the woman because they feel oppressed, not because she oppresses them. But Turner's Madame is the most colorful part of this show, and it would be sad if she played it down.

After she leaves, Claire and Solange go back to their game. Their dialogue never rises above an opaque floor of panic and psychological dogma, of moving in and out of mistress-and-servant roles with a fury that has to, but doesn't, come from inside. "It would be a fine thing if masters could pierce the darkness where shadows live. But that, my dear, is our darkness," one of them says, and on and on in that vein, with poetry but no suspense. Genet wallows in density; that's part of the problem. But Kathryn Wood and Janis DeLucia also strain to give Claire and Solange a manic intensity they just don't feel. The rushed and hollered scenes aren't engaging. This show is about a half-hour shorter than it could be -- director Josh Marchesi has either wisely cut the script or else the actors are paced to finish in record time -- but it still feels long. After Madame cheerfully neglects to drink her poisoned tea, you wish the maids would just get on with it.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Dancing at the Sound of Light
Sonic Luminescence. Choreography by Kim Epifano. Music performed by Sally Davis, Jeannie McKenzie, Shannon McGuire, and Epifano. At Dancers' Group Studio Theater, 3221 22nd St. (at Mission), Jan. 23-Feb. 1. Call 824-5044.

Local modern-dance choreographers regularly invoke spirituality. Lately, we've seen a mishmash of faiths danced -- Tibetan Judaism in one instance, Hindu cabala and Goddess worship laced with est in others. These concoctions are usually too facile to illuminate. They reject the divided loyalties of modernism -- and modern dance. Like lapsed believers and chronic disbelievers, modern dance relinquishes spiritual and philosophical certitudes. It cherishes wanting over having, chaos over order, and chance over destiny, inhabiting the gulf that separates one from the other. Kim Epifano's Sonic Luminescence is inspired by the recently revived and faddishly worshipped writings and liturgical songs of the 12th-century common-law saint Hildegard von Bingen; it breaks with the trend of weak spiritualities and instead works from modern dance's tradition of urgent contrasts.

After walking through a lobby decorated like a naturalist's shrine -- balls of dried flowers, gathered branches, candles emitting a blue glow, and contemporary and medieval renditions of Hildegard -- we enter Dancers' Group Studio Theater to find the dancers casually, incongruously, warming up. Soon, a tape begins. It's one of those recordings that picks up every noise -- kids wailing behind women talking about bag ladies and their belief in pink sunglasses. You hear the contours of their lives. A world away from Hildegard's monastic austerity, this living room clutter is emblematic of the material Epifano will distill into her own miraculous vision. Sonic Luminescence delivers light out of clatter.

Confluences of disparate music form the heart of the evening-length work. Beginning with the taped conversation, the piece moves between fluty choral music (one of the few taped bits), the thrum of jaw harp and drum, a viola's large wide strokes, the wafting warmth of a bamboo saxophone, the dancers' hypnotic, unworded sung melodies, a cymbal's crash, and silence. The convergences and separations of these streams of music and silence are emotionally electrifying; we sense an inarticulable conviction uniting the parts.

Like the patterns of sound, the movement remains a single entity even as it switches dramatically from solo to small clusters to the full ensemble of 13 dancers who, together in the small space, have the density and vibrancy of a village. While only a few of the dancers mesmerize -- Shannon McGuire and Sri Louise embody the movement's liquid, elongated plenitude and Linda Carr the drama's profound clarity -- everyone moves with intention and necessity, and most lift and touch like they've traced many times the curves of these bodies and clothed them in some bit of the sacred.

Without the piece's occasional poetry and outbursts of story, we would understand that the women are questing but might not recognize it is a quest for the purity of intention offered by belief. When she was a child, one dancer tells us, she took a pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall: "I prayed that my cat Misty would live forever." Another woman says "I am blue" so many times and in so many ways, all while slithering and writhing about, that the words begin to divide into pulsing syllables -- a little life of sound smacking the air. Taken together, these two instances convey the dance's take on faith: Mundane or inadequate responses to the sublime, like praying for Misty, mark its parameters. But distilled into warm, human sensuality -- the work's many layers piling up and breaking apart like syllables on the lips -- the details become its core. It's a faith we can conceive being touched by.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Los Boys
Full Frontal Rudity. Written, directed, and performed by the Latin Hustlers (Al Lujan, Jaime Cortez, and Lito Sandoval). At Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), through Feb. 7. Call 861-5079.

When the Latin Hustlers -- Al Lujan, Jaime Cortez, and Lito Sandoval -- claim to be exploring the place where "the Mission meets the Castro," they don't mean they're surveying Dolores Park. They mean beating pig pinatas in S/M bars, Selena support groups, and late-night Spanish TV that demonizes AIDS. Latino queers who write, perform, and engage in other dangerous artistic practices, the Hustlers exploit their peculiar perspective as gays in a traditionally macho culture, and Latino exotica in the gay world. Raunchy, resourceful, and vaguely underrehearsed, the new trio launched its first fully produced show, Full Frontal Rudity, with an ambitious array of media: spoken word, skit comedy, puppets, slide shows, and drag cabaret.

It's similar to another all-male comic threesome, Culture Clash, which began in the Mission 10 years ago, moved to Los Angeles for a doomed sitcom, and will return this year -- prodigal homeboys -- for a show at the Berkeley Rep. Both groups play with stand-up, storytelling, and performance art, though Culture Clash usually blend it all into a single-plotted show. If the Latin Hustlers' reception at Rhinoceros' Studio Theater offers any indication, they too have tapped into a major satirical artery; at times the audience members were laughing so hard during the two-hour-plus show that they drowned out the performers.

Sometimes, however, the humor suffered when the group went for the in-joke. Punch lines are delivered in Spanish, or draw on such specific cultural references that audience members interrupt their cackling neighbors for translations. A wee glossary wouldn't hurt, but the problems are made worse by deficiencies in the direction and the acting. Instead of layering the material with detailed gesture or characters, the group tends toward broad caricatures, relying exclusively on the words for any nuance. One exception to this is Lujan's unadorned story about brotherly rivalry, in which his simple movements fuse with his poetic language to hypnotic effect. Other especially promising pieces include "Open Mic at the Brown Beret Cabaret," a subtle but sharp spoof of a poetry reading, and "Corrections Connections," a skit about a cable-access dating show for prison inmates.

-- Carol Lloyd

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