Sampling San Francisco's drama, dance, and music. East meets visiting troupes in month-long festival

A salty wind from the West has blown into Kennedy Center, where a month-long San Francisco Festival of the Arts is now underway. Along with screeching seagulls and booming foghorns from the Bay Area, broadcast from the Kennedy Center terraces, theatergoers are finding surprises on the wilder shores of the performing arts. Take George Coates Performance Works, the indescribable San Francisco arts salad which opened the festival with its ``Actual Sho.'' Or the ``The Mozamgola Caper,'' a musical thriller about Southern African-US politics done by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Or sexual politics in Theatre Rhinoceros's ``Quisbies,'' a play about AIDs.

In addition to the provocative theater at the San Francisco Festival, which ends June 30, audiences have had a cultural smorgasbord which included: the Kronos Quartet; symphonic music of the West Coast; the Oberlin Dance Company, known as ODC/San Francisco; an Ethnic Dance Festival and World Drum Festival; screenings of Bay Area films; a science and art playground called ``The Exploratorium'' for adults and kids; and all the San Francisco dim sum they could eat.

George Coates Performance Works was the most electrifying theater event of the festival. It got off to a slow start with an interminable opening - harp and percussion strum-beating a repetitive non-melody - until suddenly in the darkened theater the spotlight zapped a man strapped to a tiltboard. He was virtually standing on his head, doing a brief monologue about going to a wedding where ``Peg o' My Heart'' was played. For those who believe the theater should include chunks of words, ``Actual Sho'' is a humbling experience. All the words you get for an hour an 20 minutes, aside from that tiltboard speech, are an occasional line like ``I don't want to go alone,'' and a funny mini-diatribe on eating chicken sparingly because it's drenched with growth hormones and estrogen pellets.

But once you let go of the word habit, and realize that, as Coates says, ``Visual language holds,'' you're off on a wonderful ride. ``Actual Sho'' is like some vivid Technicolor dream of an artsy roller coaster ride through music, video, dance, art, architecture. The reviewer is in the position of Mork trying to describe the planet of Ork to earthlings. The images are mercurial, melting into one another. An abstract set flooded with rose, blue and black dots may melt into what looks like silver maypoles and then change to a tapestried dream in the blink of an eye. Certain motifs are repeated: diminishing rectangular arches, a mysterious fence that spins and grows like a top; menacing puffball mushrooms, or are they satellite dishes; an appearing and disappearing cathedral.

Floating under, around, and above it all is composer Marc Ream's gorgeous and wordless oratorio, music which reaches its climax in a final soprano aria so beautiful you may want to run out and buy a tape. (They're working on one.)

One of the unlisted artistic forces in ``Actual Sho'' is a 3,000-pound parabola made of fiberglass and centered on a wooden deck. It operates with the weight of the performers, creating a magical floating tray that heightens the unearthly effect of the show.

Anniversary observed

As Coates explained in an audience discussion, ``We want to create evocative, compelling ways of making contact.'' ``Actual Sho,'' which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the group, has appeared at theater festivals in Wroclaw, Poland, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Next stop: the Pepsico Sumerfare Festival in Purchase, N.Y.

``Why do you call yourselves the San Francisco Mime Troupe? It isn't mime,'' said an exasperated member of the audience after seeing the troupe's ``The Mozamgola Caper.'' Actor Ed Holmes, who plays White House advisor G. Woodfin DeBarge, smiled tolerantly and said, ``It is mime. Exaggerated character is mime.''

The San Francisco Mime Troupe is many things, but Marcel Marceau it's not. It is guerrilla theater or guerrilla musical satire; it is agitprop theater; it is politics all dolled up as comedia dell'arte. ``The Mozamgola Caper,'' its newest production, is billed as ``An African Spy Thriller'' ... with music. More accurately, it is an entertaining political tract, sugar-coated with songs and satire, attacking US ``imperialism'' in Southern Africa.

In a biting rap number sung by the show's arrogant DeBarge, he warns, ``The whole third world better learn the rule/ If we don't dig it, it ain't cool.'' Perhaps for balance there are also lines like: ``Self-determination is just a pretty way of saying socialism.'' Passengers at a remote Southern African airport are booked on White Flight Airlines.

Shades of Punch and Judy

The show is exaggerated, a parody, a sort of Punch and Judy in the jungle. Its central character, Regretta Johnson (Audrey Smith), an American ``Mahogany Mata Hari,'' has been dispatched to the mythical African country of Mozamgola by the duplicitous DeBarge. Her mission is to replace a lethal pendant to be awarded to Bishop Desmond Tata by Mozamgola's revolutionary president Winston Luthulu (Barry ``Shabaka'' Henley). Regretta learns too late that the pendant DeBarge has given her is the real bomb, and loses her life saving Tata. As one of the characters asks, has DeBarge been plotting to drive all of Southern Africa into war? Apparently.

Along the way, Regretta has been pursued by Ulrike Smuts, ``the Boer Borgia,'' who wears a deadly silver dagger fingernail, by a ``Badeye Juju'' witch doctor, a smiling crocodile, a graceful snake, and a dubious Mozamgolan freedom fighter. Composer/lyricist Bruce Barthol and composer Muziki Roberson have come up with some diverting songs, the best of them ``The Incredible Love Song.''

Much of ``The Mozamgola Caper'' is amusing theater, with its talented cast, witty script by Joan Holden, John O'Neal and Robert Alexander, and its lively direction by Dan Chumley. So it's lulling fun until just before the final curtain, when it suddenly gets down to business with a propagandistic finale lobbying for a debt moratorium for 34 countries in debt to the US: ``After 400 years of economic exploitation, the debt has been paid.'' Some members of the audience felt gulled, and looked as shocked as if they'd been mugged by the Muppets, while others raced out to the lobby to sign up their support and buy troupe T-shirts on sale there.

Another kind of politics, sexual politics, came from the San Francisco gay troupe Theatre Rhinoceros, with its third in a series of AIDS plays, titled ``Quisbies.'' The potential is great for a deeply moving play which focuses compassionately on the people living under the shadow of that illness, and which offers comfort for the fearful or grieving, loving help for the ill, and hope in a reminder of those who have not succumbed to the predictions of fatalilty.

Empathy sacrificed

Unfortunately, ``Quisbies'' has not fulfilled this potential. Playwright Leland Moss, has chosen to treat the subject as a black comedy and, regrettably, sacrificed empathy for wit. It is a clever play, with some good one-liners and a fa,cade of self-mockery that might be amusing in another context but is inappropriate here. The place is San Francisco; the focus is on the survivors who have lost friends to AIDs, what choices they make, as Moss says, in the face of ``the spectre of early death.'' It is a play honed to make a political point but not directed toward a general or straight audience. Some of the scenes are unexpectedly raunchy, some so sexually explicit they are obscene.

``Quisbies,'' defined by one of the characters as ``a Sybaritic community,'' has a hard-working but uneven cast, which includes Michael Duden as the former gay-revolution writer who now calls for ``a revolution of caring and compassion,'' Michele Simon, Timothy Flanagan, Richard Patton, Timothy Holton, Gina Gaziano, and Cheryl Wilson. Sets, done in the California style of David Hockney, are by Edward Gottesman. The play was directed in a relentless style by Barbara Daoust.

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