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Wednesday, Oct 28 1998
Ideas Masked as Drama
Mascara. By Rodrigo and Ariel Dorfman. Directed by Heather Cappiello. Starring Bobby Weinapple, Brian Keith Russell, Marin Van Young, Beth Donohue, and Patrick Dooley. At the Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave. in Berkeley, through Nov. 15. Call (510) 655-0813.

Mascara had its "North American premiere" on the same weekend Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London for outrages committed under his dictatorship in Chile. This is more of a coincidence than it seems. Ariel Dorfman wrote Death and the Maiden to protest the Pinochet regime, and that searingly violent play made him world-famous as a politically engaged playwright-in-exile. Now his son, Rodrigo -- who went to UC Berkeley -- has adapted Dorfman pere's novel Mascara for the stage, and handed its North American premiere to the Shotgun Players, which was a coup in itself for the company.

The play is a science-fiction voyage through the convolutions of human identity (mascara means "mask"), featuring a pompous plastic surgeon, a cowboy politician, a woman stuck at the mental age of 4, her adult conscience, and a man who can turn invisible at will but is sick of not being noticed. The overwrought story keeps things busy onstage, and the production has an elaborate '60s-futuristic set with a spinning fan and dry ice.

But the wispy thread of coincidental connection to Pinochet turns out to be the most interesting part of the show.

The woman with the 4-year-old mind is an amnesiac "memory thief": Oriana takes in, and promptly forgets, the memories of other people. She falls in love with Emme, the faceless man, who steals around invisibly snapping pictures of people that reveal their ugliest innermost selves. His pictures of the plastic surgeon, for example, show Dr. Mavirelli in bed with a dildo-wearing whore. Mavirelli is famous, overbearing, egotistical -- everything Emme isn't -- and when Emme tries to blackmail him with the photographs, Mavirelli tries to ruin Emme by corrupting his lawyer. In the meantime, two hapless angels of death chase Oriana because of the memory she's absorbed from a dead woman -- and if all this sounds complicated, it's made worse by the fact that the play's motivating forces derive from a weighty metaphysics, instead of believably human trouble. All the aspects of identity dealt with by the Dorfmans -- ego, memory, nonbeing, love -- whack you in the face like a heavy volume of Schopenhauer, with none of his lightness or charm.

Not that the play is badly acted. Sometimes performances sag under the pressure of trying to stoke emotion that isn't there, but Brian Keith Russell elegantly plays the Mavirelli as a blustery blowhard; Bobby Weinapple is a weirdly malevolent Emme; Marin Van Young and Beth Donohue counteract each other nicely as the child and adult halves of Oriana. It's just that the story can't help but sprawl, and instead of being whimsical, it feels crucified by its own ideas.

-- Michael Scott Moore

The Eyes Have It
Hecuba. By Euripides. Directed by Carey Perloff. Starring Olympia Dukakis, Michele Shay, L. Peter Callender, and Steven Anthony Jones. At the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), through Nov. 22. Call 749-2228.

Greek tragedy can go wrong in several different directions at once. It can seem pompous, boring, New Agey, artificial -- especially the choruses -- and if "New Agey" sounds weird, remember that a lot of New Age types rely on Greek paganism for their notions of worship. The ACT's version of Hecuba dips into all of these sand traps, but starts and ends with beautifully gut-felt grief: Thanks to Olympia Dukakis' dirgelike performance, the play is a rousing success.

It starts with a ghost-visitation from Hecuba's son, Polydoros, while the unfortunate mother crawls up from a pit, looking ravaged and drawn; wind whips a Greek sail on the beach, and we hear the erratic dry flapping of wings. A chorus of women lying in front of slave tents gives out a minor-toned chant; and Hecuba -- ex-queen of Troy, which has just been sacked by the Greeks -- learns that her last surviving son has been killed by his protector, the king of Thrace.

It's very effective. The chorus problem is ingeniously solved by use of a real chorus, an East Bay group of women called Kitka that specializes in singing descended from Slavic folk music. These singers add eerie Balkan melodies to Hecuba's grieving.

Because she's a slave to the Greeks, during the first part of the show all Hecuba can do is righteously complain when Odysseus arrives to claim her daughter for a sacrifice to the dead Greek hero Achilles. (Achilles' ghost, it seems, needs company.) Hecuba's children are dying left and right. "Tell them no woman was ever so miserable and cast down," she says.

But when Polydoros' unrecognizable body gets pulled from the sea and the king of Thrace arrives full of pompous flattery and makes the outrageous proclamation that the boy is still alive, Hecuba, who knows of her son's death, does more than grieve; with Agamemnon's help she plots revenge.

Dukakis is like a true bass note all the way through -- her voice and manner are stripped of fakery, profoundly human. But the show isn't perfect. Michele Shay strains as the Chorus Leader (a speaking role; she doesn't belong to Kitka), and can't seem to deliver a speech without overwrought flourishes. Kitka is the sometimes-New Agey element; the members' voices are pure, but the women mill about earnestly like a fussing sisterhood, and the lyrics to some of their songs are inexcusable oatmeal. Marco Barricelli looks not so much like a lean and wily Odysseus as Hercules -- he's enormous -- and Steven Anthony Jones seems awkward at first as the pompous King Polymestor, until Hecuba has her bloody revenge -- clawing out his eyes. After that he comes alive, and the final argument between him and Hecuba becomes the vividly cathartic pas de deux that Greek tragedy was meant to be. "Transformed to a dog!" he howls, as a curse on Hecuba. "A bitch with burning eyes!" Oh, mama. You have to see it for yourself.

-- Michael Scott Moore


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