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Wednesday, Feb 25 1998
Shooting at the Converted
Combat! An American Melodrama. Written and directed by John Fisher. Starring Fisher, Christopher Herold, Gary Cannon, Jeffrey Fierson, Jana Chavez, and Brian Yates. At the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (at Capp), through March 14. Call 621-7797.

Gore Vidal's first novel, Williwaw, struck the critics at the New York Times as a pretty good story about sailors in World War II. But when Vidal published The City and the Pillar, a book that showed the same class of all-American boys having sex with each other, in 1948, he was excommunicated from its pages, and the Times deliberately failed to review his next six novels. Sex among American soldiers was even more unacceptable then than it is now; so John Fisher's new stage extravaganza, Combat!, is doing a kind of public service. It's reminding (generally gay-friendly) San Francisco that some of the most heroic members of the American armed forces during World War II were probably queer. It doesn't do much else, unfortunately, so in light of all the shit Vidal took for his novel I can't give Fisher points for serving the common good. The day for surprising audiences with this material has passed.

If Combat! could stand on its own, it wouldn't matter. If it had a memorable and moving story, vivid characters, chemistry between the lovers, even an ounce of humanity to balance the relentless and didactic dialogue about the situation of gay and black kids Back Then, I wouldn't even mention that this ground has already been covered. But supporting the cause of gays in the military seems to be the raison d'étre of the show.

Fisher has set out to write an anti-South Pacific, by giving a central story about a catastrophic island invasion (based on true events in the Tarawa atoll) a stagy, political twist, in the style of Angels in America or Robert O'Hara's Insurrection (recently at the ACT). This makes it trendy. Combat! does have its own pleasures -- especially Fisher's distractingly funny performance as the Marine CO; the stately and plump Jeffrey Fierson in almost all his roles, from the pettish librarian to a drag queen named Gory Gloria Hallelujah; and most of the scenes of war. But not one character has real depth. What happens to the Marine heroes caught kissing while they're on leave in San Francisco has no personal resonance for the Marines themselves -- it's all public, political. This failure of character explains why the last half of the show is so thin. The script finishes with slogans like "Only when they're able to call themselves gay will they be able to demand their rights," and musings about a more tolerant world to come. It all sounds suspiciously like self-pity.

The show admits to being a melodrama, and its contents aren't wrong; the home-front story of Dr. Harry Stack Sullivan, who inadvertently pushed the government to consider homosexuality a psychiatric "disease" among the troops, is even interesting. The sum total just isn't good art. Plays that walk a politically correct line are guaranteed a standing ovation if they step neatly enough, and Combat! walks it in choicest black and white. Eisenhower's 1950s were a gray oppressive time; the U.S. as a nation is bigoted -- these media-ready ideas are never questioned or tested for meaning, because they're part of an orthodoxy, and the people applauding on their feet don't seem to care how you express yourself as long as they hear the right words.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Around the Block
Joy Ride. Written by Greg Sarris. Directed by Margo Hall. Starring Luis Saguar, Sean San Jose, Cristina Frias, Tony Abou-Ganim, Michelle Groves, and Michael Torres. Presented by Campo Santo and Word for Word at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through March 1. Call 626-3311.

Form-busting theater is as ubiquitous as biscotti these days. From ACT's opulent Insurrection (a multiethnic postmodern fantasia) to the Red Rocket's squalid Monkey Holiday (a dada puppet show with slides, film, and music) -- smashing and unconventional collaboration is thriving at all levels of the thespian caste system. Although the solo show is one of the most fertile strains of contemporary theater as a whole, individual pieces rarely cope well with mixed media. When an artist seeks uniqueness in multiplicity and juxtaposition alone, chaos is too often the result. It's like TV static -- fractured, inchoate, and finally boring.

Joy Ride, Word for Word and Campo Santo's collaborative production of a story out of Greg Sarris' novel Grand Avenue, might have suffered many of the pitfalls of hybrid theater. This three-way collaboration among two theater companies and a novelist was done Word for Word style, as a verbatim theatrical interpretation of an unadapted short story -- in this production, actors spoke their characters' dialogue and traded off narration. The story's multicultural setting -- a Portuguese/Indian/black neighborhood in Santa Rosa -- could have easily fallen prey to identity politicking. But this was an experiment that worked, one that wove its many elements into a dense, narrative rope that yanked us past the play's unusual formal surface, deep into the story itself.

In the opening scene, middle-aged Albert -- played with rugged elegance by Luis Saguar -- picks up a seductive 16-year-old Native American girl on the street. As he drives round and round the block, she calls him "Uncky," a familial nickname that unsettles him more than her behavior. Torn between going home to his wife and whisking the girl off to a shabby hotel, he spends the evening circumnavigating the block while remembering his youth.

It sounds a little static -- particularly given the limitations Word for Word puts on itself -- but it's not. Sarris' unsentimental, well-crafted writing can support even the heavy-handed flashback structure. As the youngest of three brothers in a family of Portuguese-American farm laborers, the young Albert grows up working with his brothers in the fields, having sex in a tent with a Native American girl, and learning the hard way about his family secrets. With his innocent bluster and emphatic cadences, Sean San Jose perfectly captures Albert's slow blundering toward self-knowledge. The rest of the cast shines, especially Michelle Groves and Cristina Frias in their medley of female roles.

But first-time director Margo Hall's ebullient use of subtext makes the show notable. More so than most playwrights would ever dare, Hall breaks the text into tiny dynamic chunks that shoot between characters like pinballs. As in most productions with Word for Word, Hall's job as director is more complicated than in a traditional play, where the stage vision and the story originate in the mind of the playwright. Here, the director has the obligation to create the production's theatricality: deciding who delivers what part of the narration, who is present in which scenes, what is enacted, and what is simply narrated. By laying her vivid musical and emotional score over the simple first-person story, Hall manages to create a vigorous theatrical vehicle for story and style. Albert may only be going around the block, but in the off-kilter collision of words and emotions, we get transported beyond ordinary theater.

-- Carol Lloyd

Infamous Last Words
"So I Killed a Few People ..." Written by Gary Ruderman and David Summers. Directed by Ruderman. Starring Summers. Presented by Annoyance Theater at the Cable Car Theater, 430 Mason (at Geary), through March 21. Call 956-8497.

It is a premise that any red-blooded media consumer should find irresistible. A serial murderer named Archie Nunn invokes a little-known clause of the civil rights act -- the "right to perform" -- and a week prior to his execution, opens a limited run of his one-man show "So, I Killed a Few People ..." It might sound like another funny-boned Gothic, but director Gary Ruderman and actor David Summers have more serious bones to pick. Through the eyes of their unrepentant murderer, they have crafted a scathing and sly indictment of American hypocrisy: squeamish puritanism coupled with an insatiable appetite for violence.

"Just what are you people doing here, anyway?" Nunn asks at the top of the show. Intermittently interrupting his discussions of politics, feelings, and favorite TV characters, he offers savage imitations of his imagined audience: " 'But, honey, when is he going to get to the blood, the killing, and the gore?' " Dressed in orange prison coveralls with a table, a chair, an easel, and an enormous pink ceramic pig as his only props, Summers wields his psychotic charisma well -- a serial killer turned performance artist. His teeth are broken, his head shorn, and his eyes show too much white when he gets excited, but he is also articulate and self-conscious, and tempers his madness with generous doses of irony.

Speaking with a deliberate Floridian drawl, Summers covers enormous territory during his 70-minute rant. Underscoring the hypocrisy inherent in the rituals of the criminal justice system, Nunn marvels at the hours state-appointed psychologists have spent striving for intimacy with him. "It seems before the state kills me," he says, "they want to know me real well." A tape recorder plays excerpts of his interrogation by a zealous detective: "They're going to fry your ass like bacon," growls the voice. "You hear me? Like bacon!" But though such commentary can be both funny and pointed, the play's emotional core -- Nunn's recollection of growing up in the shadow of Disney World where his father was an electrical engineer and his mother an alcoholic social climber -- makes it an unassuming tour de force. In the end, his father visits him to say goodbye and the men bond heartbreakingly over the innovations Westinghouse has integrated into the new electric chair. In these passages, Ruderman and Summers transcend the madcap, stand-up format and probe the story of how a normal American boy spoon-fed on Maude and Daffy Duck turned out so wrong and yet so very familiar.

-- Carol Lloyd


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