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Wednesday, May 12 1999
Red Noses
Birth Mark. By Jeff Raz and Jael Weisman. Directed by Weisman. Performed by Raz. At the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), through May 30. Call 826-5750.

Please Leave the Bronx. Sketch comedy troupe featuring Lindsey Brown, Melinda Whitehouse, Christian Lukkas, David Chambers, and Ben Burke. At the Mock Cafe, 1074 Valencia (at 22nd Street), May 14 only. Call 826-5750.

Razz the Clown is a pear-shaped, red-nosed member of the New Pickle Circus, played by a mild-mannered Jewish guy named Jeff Raz. Depending on whether or not you believe his disclaimer at the beginning of Birth Mark, his new solo show at the Marsh, Jeff Raz either is or isn't his own main character. He comes on in a sober shirt and belted khakis to tell us the play is "entirely fictional," but instead of disappearing backstage again to let the lights lower and maybe get into the clown costume he's wearing in all the press photos, he slips right into the story. This deliberate blurring of the line between fiction and its alternative is only the start of a skillful, funny show.

Raz weaves questions of identity into a story about Jewishness and adopting a kid. He starts with an anecdote about a one-man play featuring "King Oedipusco," an anti-Semite born with a red nose that marks him (in Raz's alternative world) as a Jew. Oedipusco's birth mark, along with a missed lighting cue, becomes a motif for the rest of the story. The point of the opening anecdote is that a woman named Sarah forgets to darken the stage at a crucial moment. Later she tells Jeff, "I really didn't forget your cue. I didn't think you needed it," and later still she becomes his wife.

After their wedding Sarah and Jeff begin slogging through the adoption process for an unborn, un-Jewish son. Raz calls up all the necessary characters with a minimum of props (a chair, a drink table, a pair of glasses, a scarf that becomes a seat belt as well as a baby) and crisp, efficient writing. His acting is also clean -- without being brilliantly vivid but also without strain he can slip from rabbi to Jewish aunt to nerdy college student to a whining, 12-year-old girl.

"In the old days, you never thought about meeting the birth mother," says the adoption agent who advises Sarah and Jeff. But those days, he continues, are gone. "Now she is the seller, you are the buyer -- and let me tell you, it's a seller's market." So Jeff and Sarah write a careful letter to the mother of the fetus they want to adopt, using the word "love" five times (on the agent's advice) and carefully not mentioning that Jeff is a clown. The birth mother turns out to be a coarse-mouthed woman with a pubescent daughter and no money for another kid. Her name is Randy, and this is where Raz's modest talent for voices falls apart, because at first it's not clear whether Randy is a man or a woman. But it is clear that she wants to give her baby to the first kind couple she meets, and before Jeff or Sarah can make up their minds -- a month before the baby is due -- Randy induces labor.

When it's over Randy gives a twisted smile of satisfaction at being finally done with the fetus, and Raz's impression of a woman behaving so cavalierly with her own flesh and blood has an effective eerie tinge. He ends with a comic bris, where the ordeal of circumcising the adopted son of a lapsed Jew and his converted-to-Judaism wife turns into a circus, a Northern California comedy of manners; and that weird red-nose motif comes around one last time.

The most impressive part of Birth Mark is Raz's control, his careful splicing of clown routines into a basically serious show. Some of his lines are cliches ("Oy vey, he's marrying a shiksa!" says one of the relatives when he marries Sarah) and Raz's sense of control is sometimes too tight (he makes one terse reference to Sarah being pregnant, then never explains or even suggests what went wrong). But overall it's a fine piece of solo theater -- that maligned genre -- from a clown who manages to deal with identity without seeming self-conscious.

Somewhere Gore Vidal bashes political-pundit TV shows by saying the debates could get lower only if the networks found a way to serve cocktails to viewers. This tactic isn't absolutely impossible live, and I've finally found a show that uses it. Please Leave the Bronx's comedy revue has a skit about the Bourbon Monkey, who lurches from backstage with a bottle of Jack to hand shots around to the cast before offering a few to the audience. Hefty bottles of liquor also sit near the door, along with some disgusting nosh (Chex and marshmallows), and on opening night it wasn't at all clear that these were just for the cast party afterward.

The hourlong show is pretty much what you would expect if a bunch of your friends put on a comedy revue -- shticky and bizarre. There's an "Excellent Man's Wild Kingdom" segment, featuring a kangaroo with big inflatable boxing gloves, an electric eel, and an animal called Gallagher, consisting of a man who looks vaguely like the comedian called Gallagher from 10 or 15 years ago dressed in a beret and women's tights and no underwear. (Did Gallagher really dress like that?) There's also a skit featuring "Mr. Heat Miser," from a stop-action Christmas special 20-odd years ago ("I'm Mr. Heat Miser/ I'm Mr. Hundred-and-One"), which I admit to not remembering very well.

A few of the skits are actually funny, including "Waitress Truth Serum," a mock Candid Camera sketch about what might happen if the cocaine normally snorted by the waitstaff were replaced with (powdered?) sodium pentothal, or truth serum. The result is the sort of surly and resentful treatment you'd expect at Cafe Mars on a regular night. And a "featured performer" skit, with Ben Burke playing an overalled hick named Lawrence and his flaming twin brother, is well-acted, with real comic timing, even if it's never clear why Lawrence has a Southern accent when he's from Weed, Calif. But most of the show has a liquored-up flavor, red-nosed but not very clever.

-- Michael Scott Moore

What Becomes a Legend Most?
The Legend Returns. By Helen Moulder. Directed by Michael Wilson. Starring Moulder and Rose Beauchamp. At Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), through May 16. Call 861-7933.

This enjoyable but thin show features two odd birds from New Zealand who've been developing and performing their material for nearly six years. The show's conceit is that Cynthia Fortitude (Helen Moulder) -- the Legend herself, classically trained at the Royal New Zealand Night School -- has deigned to take a break from her worldwide tour ("mostly the Third World") to make a stop in San Francisco for her admirers. With her mute accompanist, Gertrude "Gertie" Rallentando (Rose Beauchamp), she presents selections from the great arias and -- the highlight of the evening -- a workshop production of their work-in-progress original opera George. ("You may have seen it advertised as Stan. We changed it.") The audience, meanwhile, serves as the chorus. ("You are all trained opera singers, aren't you?")

Moulder's Fortitude is a sensitive soul whom spinsterhood has withered into eccentricity. "I'm a virgin," she declares, then, sensing disbelief, amends the statement: "Well, I am now." She's unable to bear the thought that her favorite composers have died, and when discussing their deaths is overcome with emotion and has to take a moment. Preparing herself for an aria that has an introduction of only one chord, she mimes serially all the feelings the character is supposed to undergo simultaneously -- "love, desire, fear, desperation, confusion" -- then signals Gertrude to play the chord. (In a humorous anticlimax, she only sings two notes of the aria.) Later, she announces, "Temptation is a terrible thing; not that it comes our way very often."

Gertie, on the other hand, has a sexual history: The tenor Jarvis Brown used to be the duo's traveling companion and Gertie's lover. The break must have been hard on Gertie, because whenever she hears his name, she makes great crashing discordant sounds on the piano, takes a stiff drink, or stomps off the stage. It's not clear if Jarvis' treatment made her vow never to speak again, but it's a fair bet.

There are many opera jokes. "Gertie, that's enough Rachmaninoff," Cynthia snaps. The camper they tour in has been christened the "Nissan Dorma" by Pavarotti himself. In Cynthia's rendition of a Puccini aria, she fakes the Italian, cautions she may not hit all the notes -- especially the high one, hits it, and then promptly faints.

Their magnum opus George (they've been working on it for "weeks") is a mishmash of vocal exercises, Sondheim, Madonna, Wagner, "Unchained Melody," and "Hail Brittania." The plot of the opera is what's unfinished: There isn't one. Gertie and Cynthia's effort features the myth of Cybele and Attis (transformed to a "prominent rap artist" in order to bring the kids in), some wolves, and an homage to the Pinus radiata, the Monterey pine, a transplanted bit of flora that grows well in New Zealand. ("Pinus" is of course pronounced like "penis.") There's not a George to be found in their oeuvre, a fact they recognize as a problem.

The evening takes a surreal turn when Cynthia and Gertie exchange gifts -- it just happens to be the 20th anniversary of their collaboration. Gertie's gift to Cynthia is a full-size skeleton that Cynthia determines to be male. She's at first taken aback and then entranced, waltzing with it as Gertie plays. It is, undoubtedly, the ideal man for her, as dry and musty as she is, and much less threatening. "He'll make a perfect traveling companion," she cries. Her gift to Gertie is a box set of the recordings of Jarvis Brown.

Moulder is undeniably talented. One stunt, laughing along to Beethoven's Fifth ("ha-ha-ha, haaaa"), is brought off well. Her comic timing is good, and her interactions with the audience are deft. Beauchamp is an able pianist, but it's not really her show; she's a foil for Cynthia.

The Legend Returns is meant to be a confection, an airy souffle, and it often succeeds as such. But it also tends toward preciousness. Getting the audience to make wolf cries and sing loudly about the beloved Pinus is pretty silly stuff. The erratic quirks of the show and the non sequitur gift exchange are meant to give the play some substance, to show the addlepatedness that develops when passion is only experienced through art, not directly. But the bit with the skeleton unfortunately just comes off as odd -- overly intellectual and not particularly entertaining. We're meant to be moved by the skeletal waltz, but it's an interruption, not an inspiration. Its inclusion demonstrates some of the dainty eccentricity that stifles Cynthia.

These same touches affect the finale, a pretty, vapid tune called "The Music of the Spheres." It's clearly intended to provide some sort of meaning, but doesn't. Ultimately, Moulder, like her creation, lacks fortitude.

-- Joe Mader


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