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Wednesday, Jul 8 1998
Balm in Gilead. Directed by Ashley Gates. Starring Johanna Mattox, Damon Seawell, Benton Greene, Gabriel Carter, and others. Presented by the Encore Theater Company at the Magic Theater, Northside, Building D, at Fort Mason, through July 13. Call 441-3687.

"You ever read the Bible?" one of the night-cat characters in Lanford Wilson's greasy-spoon play shouts across the diner. "They had embalming fluid back then." There's no answer to this, any more than there is balm (as in remedy or salvation) in Gilead in the biblical passage that lends the show its name: All of Wilson's characters are fallen urban types drawn from the streets of New York during the '60s, and most of them, at least in the first act, deal out scraps of noisy, unanswerable conversation. Pimps, drug dealers, drag queens, lesbian hookers, hit men, bums, and street kids with names like Dopey, Fick, and Rake -- Wilson has self-consciously put a class of people onstage and tried to make them bristle with life. And they do, sort of. The chaotic scenes in this production are lively, but they never quite find their groove, not in the way the photo-realistic scenes in Mike Leigh's Ecstasy did, for example, last March in Berkeley. Both shows are meant to be vivid snapshots of a time and place, but where Ecstasy managed some beautifully molten, meaningless intervals of dumb human noise, Balm in Gilead never stops feeling jerky and strained.

The story focuses on Darlene, an innocent girl from the Midwest who hangs out in the diner without quite fitting in, and Joe, a small-time drug dealer. Darlene is new enough in New York to be optimistic; Joe and almost everyone else relies on controlled substances. The romance between them is the still point in the first act's swirl of chatter. A few other characters have monologues -- Dopey, who works as a narrator; Ann, a burly prostitute; and Rake, who gives what would be a funny speech about umbrellas if it weren't so rotely delivered -- but Darlene's sad affair with Joe forms the backbone of the play. Darlene is portrayed unevenly at first by Johanna Mattox, but in Act 2, during a long and airheaded story about trying to get married in Chicago, Mattox overcomes some of the show's stiffness and turns in a warm and funny performance. There are other moments, too -- Benton Greene as Dopey, Gabriel Carter as Fick, and John Robb as a rather useless character named Al manage to find voices or gestures that seem honest.

The overall limpidness in the acting may be a problem with the directing, partly because it's so general and partly because of some other distracting touches. The play is set -- pinned, really, by the costumes and the price of food -- in the mid-'60s, but for music we get Led Zeppelin (late '60s), Tom Waits (early '70s), and U2 (!). The songs work with the show's atmosphere but jerk around with its time frame, giving the impression that someone just wasn't paying attention. Unless, of course, it was director Ashley Gates' effort to make the show seem timeless: In that case the music stands as an example of why broad universalizing strokes don't work nearly as well as sticking to the particular.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Scapin, the Cheat! By Moliere. Directed by Lillian Garret-Groag. Starring Joe Vincent, Peter J. Macon, David Ellenstein, Deanne Lorette, and Tanya Shaffer. Presented by the California Shakespeare Festival at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Exit off Highway 24 in Orinda, June 13-27 and July 21-26. Call (510) 548-9666.

"There are productions that the French do where you couldn't find the comedy with a flashlight," Scapin director Lillian Garret-Groag reported in the California Shakespeare Festival's newsletter. Too true. French, Greek, or Polish, comedies are the most difficult plays to revive -- dated with references or steeped in cultural tics, comedy often defies translation. Garret-Groag accomplishes a minor miracle in staging a successful Scapin. The 17th-century Moliere comedy has enough rogue goofiness to get by, but it wouldn't be worth the price of admission if not for the improvisation and comic license planted by Garret-Groag.

In this unique Scapin developed out of a buoyant cast, an 18th-century translation, and the original French script, Garret-Groag lets the performers -- not the flimsy plot -- drive the show. The story is textbook romance. While their wealthy fathers are off at sea, two Neapolitan pals fall in love with the wrong girls and hire the rapscallion Scapin to get them out of their looming arranged marriages. Mayhem ensues, the fathers are duped, Scapin is caught, but in the end it turns out the ditsy dames are really long-lost daughters and the true intended of the boys. Banquets, happy endings, Scapin is absolved of his various crimes.

Costumed like a pirate of the Caribbean, Joe Vincent plays a restrained Scapin; he's the least exaggerated persona, content to prey on the absurdity of others. His first challenge is Silvestro, an academic fop. The whiny trust-funder fancies himself an educated boy but can't get his vocabulary straight. He's in armoire -- uh, amour -- with Swiss Miss maid Giacinta, and contracts Scapin to free him from his betrothed. Decked in powder blue and lace, Giacinta's lispy declarations of "twue wuv" make it extremely satisfying when Gypsy bad-girl Zerbinetta starts knocking her around.

CSF shows, traditional summer stock, are generally perfect for sipping wine and snacking on wraps. Scapin is no exception. The show doesn't alienate with antiquated language or use too much modern slang. To keep things moving, there's a gang of commedia dell'arte masqued clowns -- a troupe of eager-to-please CSF interns playing the hookers, servants, and merchants of Naples -- to bombard the stage and audience. Music is cleverly worked into the scenes through a roving trio; they back Scapin's monologue with an accordion, flute, and lute version of "My Way."

-- Julie Chase

Into the Music
Robert Moses' Kin. Choreography by Moses. At Brady Street Dance Center, 60 Brady (at Market), June 26-28. Call 621-3142.

In Robert Moses' Spellbound, one of the pieces his company, Robert Moses' Kin, presented recently in a shared concert with Donna Sternberg & Dancers, the performers abandon groups for forays into solitude, startling their torsos and faces with the rattling and shaking of limbs. The intimate duet This State of Annihilation, on the other hand, is as smooth and illusory as light, with Tristan Ching and Moses gathering the space around them into their arcing arms, then dispersing it as their movement grows looser. Robert Moses' work has its identifying mark, but it's not the movement, which varies widely from one piece to the next.

His signature is attentiveness to music. He has an uncanny ear for the deep notes of suggestion at the heart of his chosen tunes. Moses is not taken by the sepia veneer, on Cesar Franck's soft ragtime score for This State of Annihilation, of old-timey, social dance; instead, he responds to the music's underlying classicism and the melancholy and pleasure it willingly limits itself to. He fashions a whirring, gentle duet where balletic penches and arabesques are part of the dance's fluttery progress toward lighter and lighter gesture. Spellbound finds the happy contradictions between lyric and song in John Lee Hooker's deep-voiced rolling blues and the raspy tunes of Howlin' Wolf. Dramatizing the counterpoint between the lyrics' expression of longing and the seductive (and, in the case of Howlin' Wolf, goofy) charm in the singers' voices, Moses fills the stage with excited, jumpy encounters and solo cameos that rattle 'n' roll; Spellbound squirms happily in love-anxiety.

In the '50s, Merce Cunningham set new terms for music, set design, and choreography in modern dance by severing all deliberate connection between them. Cunningham and his composers work independently of one another, often right up to opening night, when they finally perform "together." Nearly 50 years after this revolution, most modern dance choreographers have relaxed the Cunningham stricture against dancing to music, but by now many are a little deaf. They practice a kind of benign neglect toward their music, allowing it to crash around in the background while they get on with the business of dancing.

Like the famous score-in-hand choreographer Mark Morris, Moses understands that music and dance work in a similar register. They're both highly suggestive -- elusive and allusive. Working together, they intensify each other's effects. In Moses' dances, the two together discover a textured depth that extends beyond and behind what you see and hear.

-- Apollinaire Scherr

Exit Rex
Exit the King. By Eugene Ionesco. Directed by Ugo Baldassari. Starring C. Paul Canaday, Gene Thompson, Kathryn Wood, Carrie Chantler, Mollie Peters, and John Girot. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through July 28. Call 673-3847.

Exit the King presents Ionesco's favorite hero, Berenger, as the fumbling king of a deteriorating country. It's one of his most optimistic plays. As the finale of the Exit's Absurdist Season, it has not just an apt name but also a vividly absurd set -- the huge colorful throne could be an upholstered lifeguard tower, flanked by mushroom-stools out of Alice in Wonderland. The royal guard wears bicycle-safety gear, a red codpiece, and a breastplate mounted with a barbecue grill. Juliet the chambermaid clanks around the stage with towels and kitchen utensils tied around her waist, and the king wears duck slippers, a plastic cape, and fools' motley on his legs. All this threatens good things for the play, but the colors blare with false promise. They show the king's country as a candied place where people in ridiculous disguises connive and flatter and lie; and any hopes for the show, at least at first, are just as false.

Berenger seems to think his nation and power are intact, but his courtiers tell him otherwise. The doctor and his first wife, Queen Marguerite, seem to be staging a takeover. His second wife, Queen Marie, is on Berenger's side. She's the voice of optimism, wearing pink tights and a wedding cake on her head. When the doctor says something negative, she urges Berenger to "Sweep him off his feet in a whirlwind of willpower!" But of course it's the royal willpower that's failing. Most of this first act feels listless: The players, except for C. Paul Canaday as the guard, speak with an uninhabited stiltedness that doesn't quite scare up comic effect. Dropping the stiltedness and just speaking clearly, as John Girot does now and then as the doctor, works just fine; but during the first act there's still a sense that the cast hasn't felt its way into Ionesco's comedy.

By Act 2, the king has gone completely potty and slumps under a blanket in a wheelchair. Everyone lists the accomplishments of his 400-year reign while they wait for him to die. Then, unexpectedly, his heart speeds up; he stands and gives a strange speech -- "There's a mirror in my entrails where everything's reflected" -- and goes blind. This is where both the production and the king improve. Most of Berenger's court exits, and the king is left, fading and blind, at the mercy of his former wife. Queen Marguerite looks like the evil queen from Snow White, only with bubble pack on her collar. Gene Thompson plays the bent and helpless king with real humility, eyes rolled to the ceiling, and Kathryn Wood's cold voice as the queen is spellbinding. The last lines of Exit the King have an astonishing optimism that this production teases out nicely, as the queen coaxes Berenger out of his narcissistic dream.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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