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Flash Review 1, 2-8: Show Job
Mixed Results 'Below Zero' with Epifano & Co.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

SAN FRANCISCO -- Using the treacherous and ultimately triumphant story of Ernest Shackleton and crew's voyage across the Antarctic in 1914 as a jumping-off point, director/choreographer Kim Epifano enlisted eight multi-talented male actor-dancer-singers and two seasoned collaborators (for set design and music composition) to create "Below Zero." The result, presented by Epiphany Productions in association with Theater Artaud and Dancers' Group and showing through February 11 at Theater Artaud, is a little bit musical theater, a little bit contemporary dance, a little bit over-the-top, and a little bit interesting.

Playing in the lobby of Theater Artaud before the show is a large screen projection of a video featuring footage of the performers in physically and emotionally precarious situations: David Bentley and Gabriel Todd each rock, tumble, invert and move around on a small rowboat, tipping it violently in the water. Ron Estes (who we later find out plays Shackleton) appears on a 3 x 3 foot wood island floating alone and exposed, his naked body glistening with the water as he curls into and out of vulnerable fetal positions. These black and white surreal images are probably the most provocative of the evening. Beautiful, abstracted, gutsy and meaningful, they capture the essence of a story without overstating with it.

At around the show's starting time, Kim Epifano appears in a little space about thirty feet up donning something of a burlesque square-dancing frock, and singing and playing the accordion, with Elaine Buckholtz on banjo. The other performers appear on the ground below, hooting and hollering as the two above perform a foot-stomping, sing-songy, do-see-do romp welcoming the audience and introducing the work "Belooooow Zero..." This is the first hint that the production will take a slightly less than reverent tone. Epifano plunges from above (she is attached by a harness to a wire) and swings out over the crowd still singing and playing, giddy as a schoolgirl. She continues to hang upside down as the dancers invite the audience into the theater.

The set is remarkably designed by Lauren Elder, and the expansive space is beautifully lit by Buckholtz (also the composer). Glistening in the back are ersatz icebergs created with white fabric and lit with a tint of blue; there is a large platform and a wood ramp upstage; nautical props are strategically strewn about; and a web of rope runs from the ground up to where the musicians play above. All these elements are meant to simulate a ship's atmosphere, but they are also architecturally interesting and are functional as physical props. Eventually, the curtains stage right are pulled back by the performers as they set sail, exposing large windows onto which various colored light is bounced. The mostly wonderful live music vacillates between bone-chilling soundscapes and musical theater accompaniment. The high production values of the show (which also include a fog machine and a strobe light) suggest a Broadway-like atmosphere, which is why when the performers speak and break into song I am not shocked, only a little surprised and disappointed at the overly presentational effect.

After a character exposition where we meet Shackleton and his crew as seen through the lens of each performer and their own experience ("Hi I'm...I hail from.... My father... My mother...I'm here because..."), the performance retreats briefly from the presentational into the inner world of the characters, where I wish it would stay. The performers execute typical San Francisco dance-y phrases (some combination of release, Capoeira, Contact, and the kitchen sink), and lift and throw each other with athleticism and agility. Meaning is embedded in the structure of each physical interaction and in the quality of the movement, so it is jolting when the performers then turn to the audience and start singing and talking at us again. Perhaps if the characters remained more engaged with each other and in their world, the songs might be less irritating and more organic. The problem does not necessarily lie in the vocals themselves -- in fact they are commendably performed by the men, particularly Gabriel Todd, who has a hauntingly beautiful voice -- it is in the overly showy way of presenting them which undercuts their punch.

The story bumps along, following a straightforward narrative (which is spelled out for us): the crew embarks on the journey, the ship is encased in ice and Shackleton sets out alone on a rescue-seeking voyage while his crew must survive in a most unforgiving land.

There is a campy interlude that imagines how the men might have entertained themselves while on the ship (half the men slip into raggedy white dresses and flit around, then perform pas de deux with the other men). James Brenneman III performs the requisite 32 perfect fouettes center stage while chaos erupts and a strobe light flickers. Again, though, the action is directed more at the audience than contained within the world of the crew and the Antarctic. It is obviously Epifano's choice, but it did not work for me. I never really cared about or became invested in Shackleton and his crew because I did not see anything real and unpretentious from them as characters. This made it difficult to stay with them during their more serious and poignant moments.

There were a few times when the action and the narrative merged with an honest interaction and performance by the men. Brenton Cheng and Jared Kaplan's duet work reached this level, demonstrating a relationship between the two as well as exhibiting their partnering expertise. Tom Truss's handily-phrased solos also achieved an emotional depth coupled with a lush but unassuming physicality. Ron Estes's consistently commanding presence oozed leadership while his solo (when Shackleton leaves his crew for help) showed a vulnerable and exposed (emotional and otherwise) side. This scene, enchantingly lit by Buckholtz, was unfortunately not entirely visible from where I was seated (Todd was positioned directly in my sightlines and I found myself in the lap of the person next to me as I tried to watch Estes).

At another point, the men strap harnesses to their backs and pull a piano across the stage while Truss plays. Here, the effort is real and comes to represent something greater. Cheng becomes frustrated, throws his harness away and launches into a dynamic solo. This dramatic breach from the group is undermined when Cheng is absorbed back into the group for the next section without any conflict resolution.

"Below Zero" is mostly plagued by an inconsistent tone and agenda. Epifano's ambitious vision needs to be clarified. She needs to decide what this production is: Is it a surreal and imagistic theater piece, or is it a Broadway-esque musical? Is it a reverent look at the triumph of the human spirit, or is it tongue-in-cheek entertainment? Does Shackleton's odyssey serve as a metaphor for something in each performer/each of us or is it merely an interesting story to be taken at face value? Do the performers carry their characters for the entire performance or do they slip in and out of them depending on whether they are singing, dancing, or acting? I do not know if all these discrepancies need to be resolved, I just know that as it is, something feels off despite the things (performers, musicians, production elements, energy, content) this show has going for it.

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