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Wednesday, Nov 18 1998
Three Women
Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo. By Dario Fo and Franca Rame. Directed by Cris Cassell. Performed by Shelley Mitchell. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through Nov. 21. Call 673-3847.

Last year's Nobel Prize in literature started a flurry of local Dario Fo revivals that still hasn't blown over. Since March I've seen "A Woman Alone" three times. Two of those versions are still running. Orgasmo Adulto Escapes From the Zoo is a collection of Fo sketches written for a woman to perform, alone, in about five hours. Right now you can choose between two different chunks of it, either by Francesca Fanti or Shelley Mitchell -- different, of course, except for "A Woman Alone," which is too perfect a cartoon of an oppressed housewife not to be de rigueur. I won't say which is better. Fanti was reviewed well in this space in September, and she has the advantages of a native Roman accent and a young Italian temperament, but Shelley Mitchell is not to be disregarded.

The "Freak Mommy" sketch features a woman dressed as a Gypsy who comes to a Milan cathedral, apparently for confession, and tells her story to a priest. After spending time as a Marxist-Leninist, running from the cops in the student demonstrations of '68, and a long excursion away from her husband and son, she's returned to Milan to find herself wanted by the local police. Mitchell begins this sketch in an unnaturally low voice but finds a groove for the character that lets her slough off this affectation, and the woman's outrage starts to cook, making what would otherwise be undramatic narrating a lot of fun. Telling about her son getting beaten by a cop during the '68 demonstration, and about why she interfered, she describes how much work went into making her son a human being. "And that cop was going to break it all up in five minutes? No-o. 'Scuse me." Mitchell is best when she manages to work herself into a high Italian dudgeon.

"Dialogue for a Single Voice" is adapted from a centuries-old folk tale that "slipped through Boccaccio's fingers," according to an author's note. It's about a young woman inviting her boyfriend to her room with the warning that if her father wakes up he'll cut off the boy's balls with an ax. The boyfriend, forced to be quiet and slow, gives the woman an orgasm that would make Meg Ryan jealous. It's a sweet, simple, almost unpolitical tale, and Mitchell delivers it not just with convincingly ravished gasps but also a chiding, pettish voice. It works well.

"A Woman Alone" is about a housewife imprisoned by her husband in their apartment for cheating. She relates her story to the audience under the pretext of talking through her window to a woman across the street. Meanwhile the phone rings, her baby cries, and her lecherous brother-in-law -- who's missing an arm and a tongue because of an unfortunate accident -- keeps honking his horn. This is Mitchell's strongest piece; she seems most comfortable in the voice of the housewife, and even if she doesn't milk the monologue for laughs as energetically as she could, her attention to character never flags, and you come away from Orgasmo's comedy with a sense of three real Italian women, shaded and distinct.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Weirdness Fo Alice
Alice Under Water. Written and directed by Kish Song Bear. Starring Bricine Mitchell, Michael Blue, Jake Rodriguez, and Juliet Tanner. At Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through Nov. 21. Call 673-3847.

Another example of the ongoing local obsession with Dario Fo is on display at Exit Stage Left, where Kish Song Bear and a few members of ArtStreet Theater are staging an amalgam of the original Alice in Wonderland and Fo's Alice in Wonderless Land. Anyone familiar with ArtStreet's movement-and-cutup productions like R&J will not be surprised that Bricine Mitchell is playing Alice. She has the long hair, the delicate manner, and the strange sense of humor necessary for dealing with Cheshire cats; she also has the ability to contort herself in a controlled way and make you think she's suspended in water. ("I wish I hadn't cried so much," Alice says, famously. "I shall be punished for it now by drowning in my own tears.") In this version of the story, Alice sinks to the bottom and meets her maker, Lewis Carroll, who courts her and tortures her and in general joins the fun with the Dormouse, the Mad Hatter, and the Queen of Hearts.

The plot isn't easy to describe. Roughly, Alice plunges through her tears into Wonderland, where she meets Ophelia, who introduces her to the sleeping Author. "He's dreaming about you," says Ophelia. "If he were to wake up, you'd go out with a bang." The Author does wake up -- or else enters his own dream -- and gives Alice something blue to drink, which smells like cherry tarts. Instead of making her happy, as she expects, the drink makes her "blue," and in a blue light she twists in jerky, watery movements. This happens more than once. Soon she's transported to Wonderless Land, where she makes erotic movies, and a Monkey is an intellectual artist who wanks by scratching his head. The Author narrates Alice through some abjectly sexual episodes before the Queen of Hearts arrives and starts her pig-circus trial.

And so on. The show is willfully weird, full of non sequiturs and not-always-well-acted bouts of madness. Mitchell does a good job as Alice; so does Juliet Tanner as the Queen of Hearts -- she looks like a tough chick on the cover of an old pulp novel, and has an especially good scene near the end, chanting a Native American-style song with two other cast members and then undercutting their chant with filthy stories. But the show also feels yoked to its own formal symbolism. It ends more tragically than the Carroll story and leaves the impression of having dredged up the roots of insanity in romantic love; but all that dream material isn't always vivid, and Alice Under Water leaves you strangely dry.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Bring That Beat Back!
Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Choreographed by Savion Glover. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Market), through Dec. 6. Call 551-2020.

In this musical tap-dancing overview of the black experience in America, the beat is as necessary and constant as the pounding of a heart, echoing in the slow shuffle and speedy chattering of silver taps, the rat-a-tat-tat of drumsticks on plastic buckets and metal pans, the booming bass, a scat-style narrative, and the jazzy phrasing of songs. Director George C. Wolfe (The Colored Museum) and choreographer Savion Glover gave themselves a daunting task -- cramming over 100 years of history into a performance that runs just under two hours -- but save for a few minor details, it's an electrifying show that trades tap's smiley-faced reputation for something harder and fresher.

The loose chronology, suggested partly through big movable set pieces and projected images, begins with a dazzling rhythmic opening number ("In the beginning there was ... 'da beat!") and then bounds from slavery up through Northern industrialization, the Harlem Renaissance, Hollywood musicals and Broadway, and the unrest of modern urban living. "'Da Voice," Thomas Silcott, sets scenes with a kind of beat-poetry commentary created by spoken-word poet Reg. E Gaines, aided by "'Da Singer," the versatile Vickilyn Reynolds (Richard Cummings conducts the small but enthusiastic pit band). Drummers Martin Luther King and Dennis J. Dove punctuate sections with their infectious onstage percussion, which they hammer out with verve and lightning speed.

Foremost among 'Da Funk's virtues, though, is its dancing, which is inventively conceived and beautifully executed by an outstanding all-male cast. Glover, a prodigy who emerged in The Tap Kid and played the title roll in the Jelly Roll Morton musical biopic Jelly's Last Jam, has completely invigorated a form that too many people equate with kiddie talent shows and genteel musicals. It's not for nothing that Gregory Hines, another of tap's greatest innovators, considers Glover an unparalleled talent: In his care, tap becomes an eloquent and multifaceted rhythmic language. Dancers mournfully scrape their soles against the floor in the "Slave Ships" and "Somethin' From Nothin' " sections, which speak of lynchings and the banning of drums among slaves in an attempt to quash potential revolt. "Industrialization," danced on a steel factory construction, is what Tap Dogs wanted to be and wasn't, a polyrhythmic show-stopper with real backbone, while a night on the town has no tapping or noise at all, because these on-the-prowl fellows are smooth. Loose-limbed Sean Fielder (who alternates with Jimmy Tate in Glover's role on this touring production) evokes tap's elders in a three-way studio mirror in "Green, Chaney, Buster, Slyde," as a Glover voice-over describes each man's dancing style. "The Conversation," built successively on each dancer's solo rhythms, and "Hittin' " bring in the noise and leave viewers wanting more.

Like the dancing, a nervy combination of lyrical grace and showy hip-hop athleticism, the book and lyrics offer in-your-face moments, some more successful than others. "Uncle Huck-a-Buck," featuring a Shirley Temple look-alike doll manipulated by Fielder, stings Hollywood racism and the Uncle Tom criticism that dogged Bill "Bojangles" Robinson with lyrics like "Don't worry about me/ I'm a shiftless fella/ I got lots of money and fine high yella." Four different black men try unsuccessfully to hail a cab in "Taxi," a superbly danced number set to the cacophonous sounds of the city. Race riot sections feel unfocused at times, however, and the otherwise proud Harlem Renaissance period is interspersed with projections of Hitler in a bit of chronological remixing. This is some uncomfortable material for a Broadway musical, but Glover and Wolfe (whose professional motto is said to be "Get over it") see their gamble pay off in so many ways that they were right not to take the safe route.

-- Heather Wisner


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