Only human

Humansville may leave you hopeful -- or disappointed
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Great art has a moral force that ennobles anyone it touches. Not that Joe Goode's new Humansville, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is that great. But the work nudges at so many raw spots in a lovingly healing way that you end up believing there may yet be hope for human nature, at least until you leave the theater. Still, Goode's latest essay on acceptance and the embracing of frailty left me with conflicting emotions.

To longtime Goode watchers — and the night I attended, the YBCA's Forum seemed packed with them — Humansville's inhabitants may have looked vaguely familiar: the wistful, lonely guy (Melecio Estrella) stretched out poolside; the poodle-skirted, Doris Day–ish country inhabitant (Jessica Swanson); the preternaturally mismatched couple (Marit Brook-Kothlow and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello); and the two tough-luck buddies (Estrella and Alexander Zendzian). We know them; we have met them before. But Goode never seems to tire of making us look at them again. Yet because he does it with such clear-sighted wit and compassion, we will probably continue to cherish them and recognize ourselves in these hapless strugglers for sanity.

Humansville is divided into two parts. At first the audience walks around dioramas devised by designer Erik Flatmo and video artist Austin Forbord. One rains words, another is all furry softness, a third is composed of chintz and flowers. In each, dancers present episodes of disconnectedness. As you return to them, the sections begin to blend. You shudder as you hear Patricia West bitching about a missed dinner reservation while Zendzian and Estrella crash their bodies against their cell walls. Swanson's relationship hysterics bleed into Brook-Kothlow's and Barrueto-Cabello's stony silences. This roundabout of foolishness, pain, and absurdity works well despite being a vaguely voyeuristic experience. Swanson's TV news–inspired echo of a mourning mother on the video screen below her is particularly chilling.

The more conventionally choreographed second half elaborates on what went before. Estrella laments the death of his fellow prisoner; Brook-Kothlow endlessly nuzzles up to a tormented Barrueto-Cabello; Swanson wails about a nest being a launching pad. But the choreography falls short — it is bland and stiff. The lifts, reaches, and stretches of shifting connections look too unmotivated to suggest the fragile community proposed by Brook-Kothlow's hymn about an empathy that enables you to step out of yourself. Not even Joan Jeanrenaud's delicate cello, weaving in and out of the hour-long show, made me buy it.

HUMANSVILLE

Thurs/7–Sat/9, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., $19–$25

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

www.ybca.org

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