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Wednesday, Mar 4 1998
Skimming Over the Underground
Underground. Choreography by Deborah Vaughan. Presented by Dimensions Dance Theater at Alice Arts Theater, 1428 Alice (at 14th Street), Oakland, Feb. 14 & 15. Call (510) 465-3363.

Dimensions Dance Theater, Alice Arts Center's resident company, clearly has a regular following. The opening night of its newest work, Underground, drew a crowd that filled the 450-seat theater to capacity. Throughout the show's two hours, the audience never relinquished its cheerful expectation. People sat up straight all the way through. To be so tolerant, so patient, they must have been rewarded, as I have, by previous performances in Dimensions' 26-year history. Because this show doesn't work.

Artistic Director Deborah Vaughan's Underground takes up slavery and the Underground Railroad through dance, music, and theater. A live band and chorus of eight dancers mix in with a Harriet Tubman-like character (an actress who goes by the name Marijo) and a Nat Turner (Winston Williams), who tell us how they've been "beaten, burned, branded, choked" on the plantation and later, with the North Star as their guide, how they "slept in the cold woods, been stung by scorpions, bit by snakes, and hunted by dogs and those wanting a reward." Throughout their speeches, the two observe the wrenchingly obvious: "I hated the very thought of slavery," "Ours is not a war for robbery; ours is a struggle for freedom," and, after the trip north has been in loose progress for at least an hour, "We was moving through an underground railroad."

To awaken us, tragedies would seem to need only the plainest telling. But when we've been exposed to them again and again, we begin to grow numb to their terrible weight. Only a rendering that meets the largeness of its subject with its own enormity -- with defiance of expectation and easy understanding -- can still arrest us. So, for example, Schindler's List does justice to the Holocaust only when Schindler gets down on his knees and cries that human lives are cheap and he might have done much more to save them.

Underground gestures toward the familiar story of slavery and the Railroad without either embodying it or shaking it up. Instead of nuanced characters fleshing out a story, we're given a sketchy outline presented mainly through the didacticisms of Marijo and Williams, who compensate for the thinness of their characters by shouting every line. At least the dancing, when it's not illustrating the text, succeeds in relieving the work of its plodding literalism and preachiness. And near the end of the night, the two-part band -- an African drumming circle and Tarika Lewis' smooth jazz ensemble of harp, bass, guitar, keyboards, and violin -- combines forces to add vibrant clarity to the dancers' alternately expansive and explosive rounds of movement. Turns barrel through the air, leaps ride low with arms winging backward, and unfurling extensions form perfect V's. The warmth the dance and music finally generate is what people have been waiting for. If Vaughan didn't have the text to fall back on, she might have dovetailed these moments into her own vision of slavery and its underground.

Underground comes close to redeeming itself in its very last moments, when Margarette Robinson belts out a gospel tune in a deep warm voice: "I wish I could be free ... I wish I knew how it feels to be free." Her voice conveys what it would mean to wish for freedom -- and to have a wish be the closest you'll ever get.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Maybe Not
Why Maybe Is the Saddest Word I Know. Written and performed by Sara Seinberg. At Starcleaners, 18 Sycamore (at Mission), Feb. 13 & 14. Call 861-6386.

Encountering a new theatrical talent is like tasting a foreign fruit. The mind immediately tries to tamp down the new sensation with explanatory comparisons. (Is this a cross between a raspberry and a banana, or a Spalding Gray and a Doris Day?) Yet once in a while, the flavor resists such dissection and insists you savor the moment on its own singular terms. Such was my experience at a loft space called Starcleaners, on needle-strewn Sycamore Alley in the Mission.

I hadn't heard of Sara Seinberg except as a member of the lesbian spoken word collective Sister Spit. And judging from the audience -- 99 percent young females, armored in leather, long hair, and tattoos like an urban femme battalion -- it seemed safe to assume that Seinberg's show would have a decidedly lesbian edge. But Seinberg's Why Maybe Is the Saddest Word I Know unfurled in a host of surprising contradictions.

Although her first two characters made explicit references to lesbian sex, the show as a whole turned out to be -- of all things! -- about love for a no-good irresistible man named Jack. The honey-tongued, prodigiously sexed drug addict became the absent center of the play, as told through the voices of four women who loved him: Stella, a bisexual twentysomething Southern painter; Violet, a tough working-class chick; Jolene, a wholesome Midwestern nurse; and Rachel, a childlike asylum inmate. In each of their lives, Jack's love became the unresolved event in which the women contemplated power, desire, and losing their sense of "maybe," Seinberg's colloquial term for living with one's unmet possibilities.

Reconfiguring her long brown hair to suit her different accents, Seinberg tempered her unschooled charisma with bold, detailed character acting. This queer mixture of newfangled artlessness and old-fashioned craft made it difficult to figure out just what genre she was working in. Stella, the twentysomething bartending painter from Georgia, might have been the thinly disguised voice of Sara herself. But then again so might have Violet or Jolene. In many ways, Seinberg's characters functioned as panels of a symbolic fan. Each represented a kind of female archetype.

Fortunately, Seinberg didn't rely on such Jungian overtones; she also built a narrative where each character reflected on a new stage of Jack's gradual dissipation. As the play progressed we patched together the events of his life and got a taste of why he was so important to these women. But in the end, Jack remained a cipher -- only as interesting as the emotions and thoughts he inspired in his lovers. It was their inner lives that remained the source of drama -- not his delinquency.


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