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Wednesday, Jul 29 1998
Hits and Myths
Polaroid Stories. By Naomi Iizuka. Directed by Delia MacDougall. Starring Margo Hall, Luis Saguar, Robert Hampton, Sean San Jose, and Andrea Thome. Presented by Campo Santo at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 16th Street), through Aug. 2. Call 626-2787.

Local critics have been falling all over each other to praise Polaroid Stories, the play about street kids that melds Jim Goldberg's photo essay Raised by Wolves with Ovid's Metamorphoses. The reason for this, apparently, is that it's a play about street kids. The set is a burnt-out urban landscape with a dumpster, a chain-link fence, and a round hole that might be the end of a sewer pipe. Somehow it manages to evoke a back alley in both the United States and ancient Rome; but the set promises more than the show can deliver. The script links modern street characters with classical counterparts -- a kind of West Side Story with Greek and Roman roots -- and the result is pure compromise. A blond girl trying to talk street-tough calls herself "Disappear," and soon we learn, through a few ham-fisted and functional lines, that she's supposed to be Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus who faded into hell. A lithe gay man played electrically by Robert Hampton puts on a heavy street attitude and keeps telling his speed-freak protege, "I ain't fucked up, I'm a god," but not even his attitude can get him out from under that line without tendentiousness, because the only reason he calls himself a "god," apparently, is to let us recognize that he's a lot like Dionysus.

There are subtler ways to do this. Playwright Naomi Iizuka proves it with a few of her better story lines. Narcissus is a vain hustler played by Sean San Jose who talks to his waifish, tag-along admirer about all the men he's been with. "And I'm so high, this chump's givin' me head, and I'm like yeah," he says. "Yeah," she says. She is, of course, Echo. Iizuka chooses lines for her to repeat with the idea of building up sexual tension, and it works, partly because Andrea Thome is so good at being lust-sodden and shy. San Jose is a great blustery hustler, too, and his character develops into a desperate kid who criticizes Echo for not wanting enough, for just getting along. Here Iizuka has shaped real people with traits that are enhanced by the throwback to myth, rather than squashed by it.

Luis Saguar and Margo Hall also give fiery performances as a pimp and his prostitute: They have a languidly explosive relationship that resolves into something like Zeus' relationship with the women he raped, or Hades' with Persephone. (The program gives both correspondences.) In fact Campo Santo is a strong company, and all that holds back most of the acting is the script, which doesn't spend nearly enough time bringing its characters to believable life. Writing close to classical stories has a long and noble lineage -- Joyce, Mann, Williams, Walcott -- but it takes a lightness of touch that Iizuka hasn't quite mastered.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Four on the Floor
"Night Shtick." Directed by Charlie Varon. Starring Carla Smith-Zilber, Fred Wickham, Kurt Bodden, and Mike Duvall. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), through Aug. 22. Call 826-5750.

Charlie Varon is a well-acknowledged local master of solo performance whose reputation rests on his talent for blasting through the usual problems in solo pieces of a) talking about yourself all the time, b) irrelevance, and c) assuming that you have and deserve the audience's attention simply because you're onstage. Last year's Ralph Nader Is Missing! had a gallery of characters that Varon played with brilliant satirical energy; it set a standard, at least for me, of good, pointed solo work. Varon also teaches a workshop, and four of his students are currently putting on short pieces of their own at the Marsh, in a blandly titled show called "Night Shtick."

Carla Smith-Zilber starts with a work that seems to be more or less about herself called License to Drive, about learning to drive as a young mother and the memories this brings up of her own strange mother behind the wheel. There is nothing wrong, on its own, with talking about your life onstage; you just have to be aware that not everything that happens to you is interesting. Smith-Zilber creates some excellent characters -- an ex-cop driving instructor in New York City; a Jamaican cabbie; her blithe and overbearing mother -- and she's funny. But her narrating is flat, sometimes unoriginal, and the quest for a license doesn't resolve into anything more universal than one adult woman's quest for a driver's license.

In Whitey Small Loves You, Fred Wickham has invented an infomercial by Small, a poker-faced man in combat fatigues. He runs the Whitey Small House of Democracy, a clearinghouse that peddles products like the Democracy Detention Center Advertising Booth -- a JC Decaux-style billboard booth with room for locking up protesters -- and Microsoft's "Oval Office," a software suite that insists on working out international moneymaking deals. ("If there's more than a million dollars at stake," the program won't let you shut down your computer.) Wickham has an impish, low-key style that can be very funny, but he needs a tighter rein on his material. The show rambles, making it feel a bit too much like a real infomercial.

Kurt Bodden does a brief and funny skit called Hello, This Is God, about God answering prayers on the phone while he tries to finish the Third Testament. He agonizes about the title, asks for help with a deleted file (apparently the whole typescript has been wiped from his hard drive); he tells a bad joke and schmoozes with John Grisham for publishing contacts. It's witty and well-controlled, but slight. Finally, Mike Duvall's Invisible is a hilarious trip through the life of a large, straggle-haired, white-bearded character who comes onstage suffering from the delusion that he's invisible. The gravelly voice is put on (I think), and the mock-naive character is brilliant -- his riff on a 26-step program for people "trying to get their lives back in chronological order" is high comedy -- but this piece sprawls worse than the infomercial. Duvall is like an overgrown kid shoved onstage, full of natural charm but no long vision. Vision, though -- luckily for all four players -- can be cultivated.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Broken Wings
Invisible Wings. Performed by Zaccho Dance Theater, with the Cultural Heritage Choir. Directed by Joanna Haigood. At Fort Point, the Presidio, at the terminus of Marine Drive, July 16-19. Call 441-3687.

As usual, Zaccho Dance Theater has chosen an evocative site for its current project, Invisible Wings. The work is performed inside Fort Point, beneath the girder-laced underside of the Golden Gate Bridge. As we stand at its black iron double doors with three floors of tightly packed brick rising before us, the Civil War-era fort looks as impenetrable as a prison.

We pass through a small, low-ceilinged entranceway to a huge open-air courtyard; its cavernous archways and dark crawl spaces reverberate with the sumptuous, faith-inspiring harmonies of the Cultural Heritage Choir. Impressive in its size and solidity, but riddled with dark passages where the destination isn't clear, the locale embodies the abysmal terror and huge faith slavery inspired in its captives.

The site brings us quickly into the spirit of the piece, but the performance itself gets off to a terrible start. Wings begins with storyteller Diane Ferlatte mounting a platform outside the fort and ordering ushers to "separate and brand" us. The conceit -- presuming a likeness between audience and slaves -- suggests that either the artists have no sense of the imagination-defying horror of their subject or they think that we don't, that we're ignorant enough to consider a little pushing and shoving an induction, however faint, into the experience of slavery.

Though never again so artless and mean, Wings' storytelling is consistently predictable and pedantic. It lacks the powerful minimalism of the movement and song, which, thankfully, soon absorb our attention: Joanna Haigood runs frantically in place, a glaring searchlight fixing her to the spot. Other "slaves" dart in and out of the fort's murky passageways to John Santos' hard drumming. In the Big House -- consecutive archways on the second-story balcony that give the impression of an enormous dollhouse -- women make cotton thread, fold linen, quilt, etc. Below, mistress Sheila Lopez snakes a whistling whip around her body in a frightening, erotic solo. Two minstrels overtake a platform at center stage, Robert Henry Johnson lightly tapping out a whimsical ditty with his feet while Jules Beckman, in blackface, makes deathly gestures to skeleton rhythms. And, in one of the few moments that explores the Underground Railroad itself, a dignified square dance enacts the kind of silent bonds the Railroad depended on.

As Invisible Wings concludes, the dancers climb like vines up two ladders that stretch to the top of the fort. As if ascending Jacob's ladder, confident of freedom, they move with luxurious slowness. Just as they're reaching the top, three women fly into view over our heads, the wind rippling their dresses and hair as they soar out on invisible wings.

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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