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THE PUBLIC EYE
By Peter Shaffer
Off the Cuff

When Peter Shaffer writes a comedy like The Public Eye, he's sometimes precious but rarely pretentious. When he writes serious plays like Amadeus, Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, he's often pretentious. I prefer Shaffer's comedies. I wince less at the precious than at the pretentious.

Shaffer sets up the same dramatic conflict in both the serious and the comic plays. It's the young, fresh, emotional, intuitive and spontaneous vs. the old, tired, over-intellectualizing, conventional and anal-compulsive. In the comedy, the pompous ass is more to be ridiculed than pitied. And he just might be redeemed.

The man is classic comic fodder, an accountant who has reduced himself to the one-dimensional, tight-ass stereotype of his profession. In the current Off the Cuff production staged in the theater at St. Louis University, Tim Snay squeezes every delicious drop out of the character, from impatient snap through dismissive sneer to baffled bewilderment. And he's veddy British, complete with three-piece suit, bowler hat and rolled umbrella.

Life-affirming spontaneity in The Public Eye takes the form of the accountant's wife. She's 20 years younger than he, and she happily gratifies her impulses, wherever they may lead. They have led her, among other places, to a fascination with the intellect of the man who became her husband and with his self-deprecating humor, humor that apparently evaporated between the time they met and the time we meet them, a couple of years later. I suppose because the play was written in the '60s, Off the Cuff presents the wife as a representative of the youth of that era, complete with blue eye shadow, miniskirted dress and white go-go boots. I hope I don't sound unchivalrous when I say that this is no favor to Charlotte Dougherty, who plays her and who is a lovely woman -- but a woman, not a flower child. Still, Dougherty breathes life into the concept, and Shaffer hands her some of his best writing to describe the way her character loves.

To mediate between this mismatched pair, Shaffer introduces another exhibit from the museum of British stereotypes. Cristoforou works as a private detective who possesses the public eye of the play's title. He describes this condition in a convoluted explanation that, like much of what he says, combines cuteness and acuteness. But when he isn't overly arch, Cristoforou speaks in paradoxes of almost Shavian brilliance. He is, after all, Greek, and therefore still in touch with ancient wisdom lost to the modern English, cut off from their roots by urban, industrialized society. Cristoforou can be fun, and Scott Sears plays him with great glee and an edgy whiff of the demonic.

Jim Burwinkel sets The Public Eye in the book-lined, leather-upholstered anteroom of the accountant's office. Edie Avioli directs with crisp clarity. The piece is slight -- barely an hour-and-a-quarter long -- but it's fun, sometimes intelligent fun, which makes it even more fun.

-- Bob Wilcox

JAZZDANCE
By Danny Buraczeski
Edison Theatre's OVATIONS! Series and Dance St. Louis

Both the Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series and Dance St. Louis concluded their 1998-99 seasons last weekend with a presentation of Jazzdance, featuring choreography by Danny Buraczeski to a variety of jazz types. Buraczeski and his nine-member company certainly provided a full evening of dance -- the performance (with a 10-minute late start and two intermissions) lasted two-and-a-half hours. It began with a relatively tedious piece, the 1996 "Points on a Curve," set to music by Ornette Coleman and two Coleman wannabes. The next, Buraczeski's 1997-98 "Scene Unseen," danced to some obscure Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn ballads, had a good deal more substance, as well as a pleasant Fred-and-Ginger aura. The love that dares not speak its name also figured prominently in "Scene Unseen," tempting one to start looking for a story of sorts. Things heated up considerably, however, with the evening's two other big pieces. Buraczeski's 1998 "Ezekiel's Wheel," set to some interesting jazz by Philip Hamilton and the spoken words of James Baldwin, proved that the choreographer could use jazz dance for serious themes. His 1993 "Swing Concerto," set to klezmer music by Brave Old World and heavily klezmer-influenced jazz by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, gave Buraczeski and his dancers license to celebrate with fast-moving choreography based on the jitterbug, the lindy and other social dance of the '30s and '40s.

Buraczeski's choreography is firmly rooted in the music he is using: Each dance piece belongs to its particular music, not just to the music's rhythm and beat. Such composition has its good points, especially in dance like "Ezekiel's Wheel," which is collaboration between choreographer and composer. Dancing to recorded music, however, unless the music is arranged and recorded specifically for the dance piece, takes control of length away from the choreographer. "Scene Unseen" seemed to have this problem. The piece began with a spirited, fast-stepping quartet of women, led by a little stick of dynamite named Maria Vigone Slutiak. Unfortunately the spirit, the steps and Buraczeski's invention ran out as the music ran on. "Scene Unseen" had the men in (or almost in) white tie and tails and the women with ostrich plume fans and glittery gowns (except for Dana Holstad, who wore loose trousers and a sort of tailcoat). Buraczeski himself took part in the dance as an older man (which he is, and looks it) with a younger man (Les Johnson) as companion. Johnson's amorous passion, however, was directed toward a man his own age (Brad Garner), as a ballroomy pas ending with a kiss (semiconcealed by Dana Holstad's fan) indicated. I wish this particular portion of the piece had not been set to the insipid tune of a Billy Strayhorn ballad, "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," whose words should cause any English-speaker to wince.

Hamilton's music for "Ezekiel's Wheel," on the other hand, is most exciting. It combines instruments with Hamilton's own vocalizing, in many ways reminiscent of Meredith Monk's stuff but much richer. The dance begins with the whole troupe (except for Buraczeski), in light-colored clothes, weaving complex, celebratory patterns. The mood shifts and the music stops, to be replaced by Baldwin reading a funeral eulogy from his Go Tell It on the Mountain. As his voice rings out, Janet Wolverton, in dark clothing, moves torturously through the sentiments, and the rest of the cast, now in dark clothing, too, return to move slowly and sadly. Then the pace picks up, both costumes and stage lighten, and an even more complex celebration completes the dance.

"Swing Concerto" really swung, and Buraczeski was particularly animated. The contrast between his late-middle-aged body (heavy upper torso and some obvious stiffness) and the bodies of the rest of his troupe, however, was consistently obtrusive. May he continue to make such joyful dance, of course, but perhaps it's time for him to stop performing with much younger dancers.

-- Harry Weber

BROWN SUGAR!
Compiled and directed by Ralph E. Greene
Unity Theatre Ensemble

Unity Theatre Ensemble's most recent work, Brown Sugar!, celebrated the African-American woman through a selection of prose, poetry, music and dance. Ralph E. Greene's arrangement of the material followed a roughly chronological pattern at first, tracing the horrors of slavery and racism, then fanned out into a sampling of individual lives. Curiously, white people in general and black men in particular loomed almost as large as black women in this celebration of black women. I recognized a few of the selections. Most were new to me, though they covered material so well worn that, without more reshaping, some of it veered toward the comic. I do wish the program had identified the sources clearly, beyond a simple list of authors.

Bill Murphy's templelike set gave a religious cast to the proceedings, which began with an invocation to the strikingly carved earth-mother figure that dominated the stage. The goddess took an Egyptian shape, and I wondered whether a West African figure would not be both more appropriate for the material and more likely to represent a matriarchal society. Bonnie Harmon's flowing, full-skirted, earth-toned costumes and Mark Schilling's carefully modulated lights added to the ceremonial quality.

With Andrea Smythe's deeply felt choreography, John Selders' enveloping musical arrangements and Greene's careful and thorough direction, the cast of eight women radiated energy, confidence, a sense of style and a sense of self.

-- Bob Wilcox

WAITING FOR GODOT
By Samuel Beckett
St. Louis Black Repertory Company

The Black Rep had a considerable success last season with a production of I'm Not Rappaport featuring Ron Himes and Wayne Salomon in the lead roles and Joneal Joplin as director. So why not a Godot with the same personnel?

For a couple of reasons. First, though Waiting for Godot is an influential play, it isn't particularly interesting. People say it's funny, and it can be -- sort of -- with enough clowning. But even great clowning could not dispel the heaviness of theme, the lengthiness of the dialogue, and the instantaneous dej`a vu engendered by the second act's being almost a carbon copy of the first. Godot and other Beckett I've read have made me wonder whether he wasn't both a put-on and a bully -- a put-on in the sense that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a put-on, a bully in the sense that he's seeing how much dullness we can stand before we get up and leave. A whole bunch of people did, right in the midst of the action, the night I was there.

The Black Rep's production is pretty good. Dunsi Dai's set is beautiful in itself, and Joseph W. Clapper has lit it, and the action, with tact and elan. Himes and Salomon are both fine actors, too, and I've seen both of them be wonderfully funny, given the right play. The trouble is, they're actors, not clowns: Despite their own and Joplin's inventiveness, their repertory of mugging, slapstick and so on is limited and overused. A.C. Smith, the production's Pozzo, on the other hand, can clown and can mug. I've never seen anyone bug out his eyes like Smith does -- they seem to get out past his cheekbones. His bellowing and posturing are exactly broad enough for the cardboard of his character, and his physique, especially stretched out on his back, is just right for a comic bully. Robert Mitchell handles the relatively thankless role of Lucky with his usual competence, and Cameron Roberson is handsome and winning as Godot's messenger.

-- Harry Weber

A SALUTE TO BROADWAY
Conceived and arranged by Chris Petersen
Goldenrod Showboat

After a near-death experience, the Goldenrod Showboat has come back to life with a fresh coat of paint and an uneven production. The material itself -- some of the best theater songs of Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Kander and Ebb, and Cole Porter -- sparkles. Chris Petersen, who leads the onstage combo, does bright, attractive things with some of his Kern arrangements. But by the time he gets to Porter, he degenerates to elevator music and a painful (to these ears) kidding of one of Porter's loveliest pieces, "So in Love." Janet Strzelec's staging ranges from the amusing to the banal.

The members of the cast vary too, I'm told, from night to night. When I was there, Paul Bailey flashed the brightest style, singing or dancing, and Sarah Hund held the stage with a winning presence. Stephanie Tennill sang with beauty and assurance, and Marian Holtz sparkled in her comic bits. A Salute to Broadway will at least keep the lights on while the Goldenrod pulls itself back together.

-- Bob Wilcox

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