Juan Gelion faces the US's ever scary Christ complex
In playwright Dominic Orlando's Juan Gelion Dances for the Sun, Latin American peasant Juan Gelion (a charismatic Johnny Moreno) abandons a promising career in the church to found a new one — or is it the old one reborn? Even Juan doesn't seem sure. But he renounces material wealth, goes about healing the sick — beginning with beloved cousin Mariana (Juliet Tanner), who lies dying from a botched abortion — and collects a band of unlikely followers, including his cranky atheist brother (Hector Osorio) and a chipper but mentally unstable American (Alexandra Creighton).
Following a half-understood inner voice, Orlando's hesitant messiah takes his band to the United States. Once landed in Florida, they go toe to toe with America's military-industrial Christ complex, personified by a secretive rapture-hastening group of three Beltway fundamentalist power brokers and their golden boy, up-and-second-coming governor of Arizona Arn Darby (Nick Sholley). These four asses of the apocalypse, convinced their rich, war-making selves constitute God's chosen, latch onto Juan Gelion as the false messiah, or adversary, prophesied in Revelations. They arrest and interrogate him, leading to a showdown of supernatural proportions and a surprising denouement. Along the way, more mundane and metaphysical concerns get an airing, along with a smattering of songs from, or accompanied by, the story's narrator-chorus, a sardonic guitarrista played by composer Deborah Pardes.
Unlike the millennial millionaires it lambastes, Crowded Fire's world premiere has both style and soul. Artistic director Rebecca Novick's crisp pacing and appealing cast make it relatively easy to forgive the story's thinner patches and loose ends, and the production strikes a fine balance of humor and drama throughout. Moreover, its fanciful story line contains both a well-grounded critique and a sincere spiritual question at its core. James J. Fenton's lovely scenic design, meanwhile, with its graceful parabolic arches and delicate branches (combined with Heather Basarab's lambent arboreal lighting) makes compellingly manifest Juan Gelion's antiauthoritarian "church without walls." Delivering sass to the sanctimonious carries a bit of its own presumption, especially if your own thoughts on religion tend towards HL Mencken's. But bucking the budding American theocracy is a timely subject. These people really are the living end.
Last Planet Theatre, never a company to shrink from a challenge (or to foist one on its audience), has pulled off a startling production of Franz Xavier Kroetz's Farmyard, a difficult but quietly compelling exploration of love and suffering amid a bleak, isoutf8g landscape of rural poverty. The unflinching and idiosyncratic Kroetz, who not long ago was Germany's most performed living playwright, may be far less well-known here, but his work finds kindred spirits in artistic director John Wilkins and his cast.
The story unfolds with a kind of aggressively stylized naturalism on a humble American family farm, where Beppi (Heidi Wolff), the retarded teenage daughter of the farmer (Richard Aiello) and his wife (Emma Victoria Glauthier), falls in love with an aging, randy farmhand named Sepp (Garth Petal), who has seduced her with stories. When Beppi becomes pregnant, the farmer takes retribution on Sepp's beloved black shadow of a dog (Hilde Susan Jaegtnes, effectively swaddled in rags and shoe polish) before turning to his wife for help in solving the problem of their daughter.
The plot is bone simple, but its reverberations are subtle, strange, and unsettling — just as Kroetz's stunted characters prove remarkably present while rarely managing more than a few brusque words or phrases. Whole scenes come wrapped in silences, long pauses measuring the distance between characters while binding them together. In a way, silence is the play's principal subject: the silence of moral judgment, the absence (despite the swift trade here in the Commandments and the passing of sentences) of any voice or say beyond the inexorable force of life itself.
In that emptiness opened up so effectively in Farmyard — and echoed in the gentle bleakness of the surrounding country (beautifully evoked in James Flair and Paul Rasmussen's scenic design, as well as Alex Lopez's radiant lighting scheme) — it's life that finally defines and bridges the void. And life converges in Beppi, whose name seems to mark her perpetual child status even in the midst of sexual awakening and motherhood, with all the innocent and anarchic force any farmyard could hope to contain. Wolff's supple, perfectly assured performance is the natural standout in a cast composed of strong, focused portrayals all around.
Wilkins's sharp staging adds a unique contribution to the play's unsettling ambiguity by disrupting its heavy silences with a jarringly lush, sophisticated set of Shirley Horn torch songs. For all its in-your-face effect, the music makes a subtle point in the precise way it both works and doesn't work: We can't help aligning the words and ambience with the action, even while recognizing the absurdity of the match. But then what exactly is so absurd? In the end the songs perfectly measure, manipulate, and throw back our own programming, and still — it's impossible not to add — how fitting that out of absolute darkness comes this beautiful, seemingly otherworldly paean to life. *
JUAN GELION DANCES FOR THE SUN
Through April 8
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF
Through April 1
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.
Last Planet Theatre
351 Turk, SF