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Past Perfect
Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne: An Epic Farce About Death and Primitive Capital Accumulation in Five Scenes. Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Starring Jonathan Hadary, Anika Noni Rose, Shelley Williams, Rod Gnapp, and Sharon Lockwood. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck) in Berkeley, through Nov. 1. Call (510) 845-4700.

Tony Kushner's newly resuscitated Hydriotaphia, or The Death of Dr. Browne (penned long before his Angels in America) opens the Berkeley Repertory Theater's new season -- and Artistic Director Tony Taccone couldn't have made a better pick. Directed by Ethan McSweeny and performed by a superb cast, this is terrific theater, blending sidesplitting bawdy humor with sober philosophical quest; it takes us into well-known Kushner territory, where we glimpse a moment in the human spirit's struggle to survive in a perpetually disease-ridden, selfish world.

This time that world is not America in the 1980s, but a 17th-century Norfolk, England, teeming with schemes and counterschemes. Hydriotaphia takes its title and intrigue in part from physician/poet Sir Thomas Browne's mid-1600s metaphysical essay exploring the relationship between faith and mortality in a time when understanding of the body and physical world was burgeoning. (For those addicted to specificity: The term "hydriotaphia" is a blend of the Greek words for urn and burial.)

As the curtain rises, Sir Thomas (Jonathan Hadary) moans from the pain of a hugely swollen belly. His exact disease is unknown -- it could be venereal or gastrointestinal in nature -- but it is clear he will die from it. Taking advantage of the situation, a panoply of characters, aptly identified by Browne's personal physician, Dr. Shadenfreude (Charles Dean), as laborers in "death's little cottage industries," are there, counting the hours until he dies. While the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Browne, Dorothy (Shelley Williams), plans to ease her guilty conscience by sheltering the homeless on Browne's lands, her gravedigging boyfriend, Leonard Pumpkin (Hamish Linklater), would rather develop the property for profit. Then there's Pastor Dogwater, ably played by Porky Pig look-alike J.R. Horne, who reveals more than might at first be apparent when he announces with characteristic stutter, "My fa-fa-faith doth have an industrial vi-vitality." He too has land-development interests and is willing to rewrite the will to get it. Browne's long-lost sister Alice and sundry others appear and scheme likewise.

Amid the moneymongering, a malapropism-spouting lab assistant, Maccabbee (Rod Gnapp), negotiates a deal with Dr. Browne's separately embodied Spirit (played by the pixie-shaped and delightful-voiced Anika Noni Rose), who is herself trying to get into paradise. The Spirit promises to give Maccabbee a new lease on life if, working under time constraints imposed by Above, he'll lend a helping hand to speed up Browne's death. Otherwise the Spirit will be made flesh -- which, in this play, is anything but a desirable fate.

But there's a lot more than plotting to Hydriotaphia. Much of the play's interest lies in Browne's own bickering with his Spirit over the importance of his body: Has he, as he claims, shaped himself through his own material labor -- writing, researching, procreating -- or was he simply cast in a mold, his body doomed to follow the motions already envisioned by his creator? According to the Spirit, physical being plays a very small role in the script of life; as the representative of the divine, the Spirit even claims credit for Browne's writing: "I sang, and your fat little sausage fingers twitched."

Unfortunately for those who were looking for a morality play with all the answers, Hydriotaphia's end comes too quickly to resolve such issues of identity and autonomy. The Spirit is made flesh and Browne is made Spirit -- and, as in "real life," answers to the big questions are forever forestalled.

The metaphysical and bawdy elements work off each other thanks to the finely orchestrated stage, set, and direction of this production. Jonathan Hadary plays a perfect Browne: His facial gestures and tone of voice can change in a heartbeat from expressions of consternation and pain -- the result of his disease -- to playful yet pointed humor. His combination of physical and oral nuance elevates even a statement like "Help me Alice, I can't shit" to esoterica. And unlike the many historical set productions that ape a haughty Queen's English, this production cleverly uses an elocution school's worth of dialects -- bumpkin Yorkshirean, nasal Jewish New Yorkese, stunted Creole Caribbean. But, oddly enough, such anachronistic variety doesn't smack of artifice here; after all, 17th-century English was much like California-ese in intonation, and the spectrum of accents obliquely makes reference to the massive religious and economic diasporas that were causing all sorts of Renaissance people to rub tongues.

My quibbles with this production are, for the most part, just that, quibbles. The attempt to do justice to the many revolutions (metaphysical, multicultural, sexual) of Browne's day in part explains the play's nearly four-hour running time. However, the apparently random entrance of gratuitous characters, such as the hotblooded Dona Estralita from Spain, and the inclusion of overly long nonsensical episodes take away some of the plot's impact. And some of the script's playful anachronisms go too far; for example, Alice karate-kicks and -chops to fend off Dogwater's wandering hand. And when the production invests the character Browne with an active Jewish self-identification, the creative rewriting of history leaves a gravely wrong impression: The real Browne considered Jews pure scum.

Mostly, however, Hydriotaphia works. The humor doesn't condescend to the lowest common denominator; issues that might otherwise be treated heavy-handedly are dealt with compellingly; and Browne's phobia about sexually transmitted diseases resonates with the negative perceptions of AIDS today. Finally but importantly, the acting is a real treat. Hydriotaphia might be as good a production as you'll come across in Bay Area stage.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

A Streetcar Named Desire. An opera adapted from Tennessee Williams by Andre Previn. Libretto by Philip Littell. Starring Renee Fleming, Elizabeth Futral, Rodney Gilfry, and Anthony Dean Griffey. At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness (at Grove), through Oct. 11. Call 864-3330.

The patent absurdity of Stanley Kowalski singing about beer and poker in a pure baritone was Andre Previn's biggest challenge when he decided to base his first opera on A Streetcar Named Desire. "I always thought Streetcar was an opera that was just missing the music," he's said, and in terms of melodramatic plot of course he's right. But pleasure in opera comes from high-flown artifice; pleasure in Streetcar comes from its raw and overpowering realism. They don't mix well. Opposites like that need a provocative blend, and since Previn decided against using much jazz in the score, the music isn't it. His composition puts emphasis on the artifice side -- on Blanche's character, with bland and formal melodies threatened only now and then by a burst of jazz -- so the opera comes off as a prettified, music-box dream of Streetcar rather than a powerful new vision of the play.

The story, briefly, has Blanche Dubois coming to live with her sister, Stella, who lives with her plant-worker husband Stanley in a deteriorating New Orleans flat. Blanche is the fading and fragile image of the Old South, full of airs and graces, but incapable of managing her dirty desires. Now, Previn's opera seems to identify with Blanche to the extent of suffering from exactly the same problem: It doesn't know what to do about Stanley. He has too much sweaty gutter-realism. Lines like "We've been drinkin' beer" are ridiculous when sung in an opera house, but in Streetcar it has to be done, and neither Previn's score nor Philip Littell's libretto finds a suitable way to handle them. The melodies are neither here nor there, and the fact that Stanley, of the four main characters, doesn't get to sing an aria suggests that Previn and Littell both tried to solve the Stanley problem by hoping it would go away.

The challenge shouldn't be above Previn. He knows his jazz, after all. Why couldn't he take cues from Kurt Weill on how to make an opera gritty? The Streetcar score thirsts for excellent jazz; in fact one of the show's best scenes has Blanche in a dark and broken-lighted funk just before she gives in to Stanley, singing about her moonlight swim over a slow wash of horns. And when she does give in, the orchestra finds a strong and muscular clashing of styles that succeeds brilliantly. Other good scenes include Stella's eloquent humming in the morning after makeup sex with Stanley -- the transported way she twirls into his arms brings something to the script that's never been seen before -- and Blanche's final aria is also nice: The music's brittle formality works well in a sad reverie about the sea. But the other three songs feel like filler, and Williams' lines of raw prose remain so intact you sometimes wonder why the players bother to sing them at all.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Live from Berkeley, It's the NYC Ballet
Square Dance, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Barber Violin Concerto, The Concert. Performed by the New York City Ballet. At Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus, Sept. 22-27.

Balletomanes came to be dazzled by the New York City Ballet, and most left laughing. If there was a complaint to be lodged, it's that the second night's program, which ended comically with Jerome Robbins' sly, delightful The Concert, didn't fully showcase the company's famously pyrotechnic virtuosity. What it did show, however, is how ballet master Peter Martins fits into the company's daunting history, now that dance-making giants George Balanchine and Robbins are no longer alive to create new work and oversee the old. The prognosis is good. Martins has endured grumbling about his stewardship of the company since he shifted gears from principal dancer to director 15 years ago, but NYCB's two-week stay offered Balanchine and Robbins works in good shape, as well as Martins work that held its own.

Like 1954's Western Symphony, the Russian-born Balanchine's valentine to the cowboy culture of his adopted country, Square Dance bends the folk idiom into classical dance. Created in 1957, Square Dance eschews the folk trappings in favor of a neoclassic approach. Balanchine set his square dance formations to Corelli and Vivaldi, and split-second directional changes and waltzy pairings are the only obvious folk concessions. Most of the fancy footwork -- a barrage of echappes, emboites, and entrechats, the small, quick crisscrossing jumps that evoke the beating of hummingbird wings when they're impeccably executed, as they were here -- looks less like a hoedown than patterns in a classroom exercise (albeit a hellishly tricky classroom exercise).

Damian Woetzel and Wendy Whelan delivered the most technically thrilling piece of the evening, Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, blending artistry and athleticism in ways that quickly exhaust a writer's store of superlatives. Alone, Woetzel powered through triple-jump and triple-turn combinations, and scoured the periphery of the stage with sweeping coupe-jete turns, snapping to perfect unwavering finishes each time. Against Woetzel's reserved partnering, Whelan projected a radiant lyricism, spiraling through fouette turns and diving dizzyingly into his arms.

Martins' Barber Violin Concerto is an engrossing enigma. Two couples -- barefoot modern dancers and a classical ballet duo -- dance separate variations, meet in the middle, then swap partners. What could be interpreted as modernism's influence on classicism and vice versa could more cynically be read (between rumbling tympanies and the Graham-like angularity of the modern couple) as the old world meets the natives. Wendy Whelan's ice princess melted sensually, though, and Samantha Allen's playful clamor for Charles Askegard's attention paid off in a rolling pas de deux.

The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody) is Robbins at his theatrical best. It's a cleverly designed, generously physical comedy about music lovers who continually disrupt a piano recital with their own interpretation of the music. As he did with the Jets/Sharks rumble in West Side Story, Robbins makes expansive use of the space, sending dancers with umbrellas swirling around the stage like cumulus clouds. It's hard not to miss Robbins after giggling over the buggy antics of his baseball bat-wielding concertgoers, but it's reassuring to know that his work's been left in capable hands.

--Heather Wisner

Natural Movement
Fault. Performed by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. Choreography by Jenkins and Ellie Klopp. Lighting and set design by Alex Nichols. Costumes by Beaver Bauer. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), Sept. 24-26.

Margaret Jenkins and Ellie Klopp's Fault moves like the Earth's constantly recycling surface. Unpredictable solos and intertwining duos are overwhelmed by a group of dancers stretching out, hand to hand, like a fault line or streaming together in a strong current of motion. The formation then re-fragments into smaller clusters. One performer draws us tight into her swooping torso, arms a craggy outcropping, while a whole cadre catapults in and out of view, limbs etched in the space left behind. Another slides to the floor from the wings, settling like a tumbled rock at the feet of bounding dancers.

Like the propulsive entrances in Merce Cunningham's 1974 masterpiece Sounddance, the movement in Fault feels pulled together and split apart by a physical principle stronger and more natural than the logic of a rectangular stage. The expansive dancers are made small by the movement they spin out, which rolls from moment to moment, reverberating beyond them.

The score, written by Alvin Curran and David Lang and performed by the Paul Dresher Ensemble (with percussion help from a taped William Winant), echoes the rising and bursting tension of the dancing. The music pings like a beeper, creaks like a melting glacier, knocks like billiard balls, plunk-plunks like rain, rolls like a Philip Glass refrain, and lets the dance begin and end in cocked silence.

The basic lesson of geological evolution -- that individuality exists within a grand structure; that the pockets of quartz, streaks of obsidian, and pools of water on a mountain come about in separate time -- doesn't often find its way into dance, which tends to sacrifice the group for the individual or vice versa. But in Fault, the lush, stunningly grounded dancers are completely distinct, even as they take part in some overarching scheme. Kathleen Hermesdorf hangs her soft, weighted body from her arms and looks straight at you, as if it's just you and she. Abby Crain swirls in and out of the floor with smooth, elastic strength, her legs acting as powerful levers. Paul Benney has the airy athleticism of a Calder mobile.

Through the dancers' particularities, Fault creates a precious paradox where the natural, the abstract, and the human come together. The fascinating unpredictability of what a body's force and direction will lead to saves the dance from the usual faults of postmodern abstraction, seen in the stupefying geometric designs of Laura Dean; the physics lessons of Elizabeth Streb; and the desiccated, computer-generated visions of some recent Cunningham.

But, if the dancers in Fault matter (notas personalities, of course, but as unique movers), they seem to move from an impulse deeper than instinct and even than will. They've become larger than their thoughts of themselves. In this dance, they are natural elements that have somehow condensed their evolution into a couple of cataclysmic hours.

-- Apollinaire Scherr


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