REVIEW: 51802

'51802' players trapped by the prison system

Rachel Howard | Chronicle Dance Correspondent | San Francisco Chronicle | September 15, 2007

"Sometimes we need to create little worlds for ourselves," Erika Shuch states toward the start of her new show, "51802," which opened Thursday at Intersection for the Arts. "We need to create little worlds for ourselves to make the whole big world make sense."

This could be an artistic credo for the Erika Shuch Performance Project's signature style of theater, an assemblage of little worlds in which everyman characters pour their souls into monologues teeming with unlikely metaphors, then burst into angelic songs and winking dances. But more than any of Shuch's previous four shows, "51802" - part of the Intersection's yearlong Prison Project - isn't a world we want to enter. Or rather, it's two worlds, because "51802" is as much about life for those left outside the prison system as it is for those trapped in it.

This could have proved ill-advised erritory for Shuch; who wants to see her usual wide-eyed explorations of life's big questions bogged down in pleas for social justice? Instead it has proved a breakthrough. "51802" is bleak, but it is also heartbreaking. Whereas earlier Shuch works gave us strings of ideas, "51802" gives us a fully fleshed-out story. It's deeply personal in the best of ways, the way that makes particularity profound.

The title's number, of course, is a person - the incarcerated boyfriend of Shuch's main character. We never learn what he was convicted of, and we never learn his name, yet we come to know him - and this relationship - intimately. We know he is artistic, sensitive and violent. We know he once pasted posters of his eyeballs up and down Shuch's character's street - and that he promised to kill himself on his 30th birthday and forbid his girlfriend to stop him. We know that he did not carry out that suicide - and, in a way we can empathize with, that Shuch's character was more angry than relieved when she got the call that he was still alive. We know that whatever crime landed him in prison, he is guilty.

We learn all of this through Shuch's trademark juxtaposition of short scenes and ensemble song-and-dance numbers (original songs and recorded score by Allen Willner, along with adaptations of a few '50s tunes) that turn all those pop cliches about being "prisoner to your love" into cruel truths. Shuch's formula here has finally crossed the line into clear theater territory - the mock Busby Berkeley choreography, though well done (and co-credited to Melanie Elms) is incidental. But there's no cause for complaint; rather I hate to think that had Shuch started her career more squarely in theater, I might never have had the pleasure of following her work.

Because it is the writing, pure and simple, that makes "51802" affecting, the way the purges build so unexpectedly into ever-more-complex examinations of the grief, and most fascinatingly the mutual guilt, of this separation. And it is the way that Shuch avoids "blaming the system" in favor of novelistic emotional detail that makes it powerful. True, Shuch's cleverness abounds in the ensemble sections: mildly comic interludes of prisoners talking to themselves (and visiting mice), boisterous Danny Wolohan playing, of all things, a car salesman-esque bat exterminator. But the impact is all in Shuch's monologues.

That's not to say her multidisciplinary cast hasn't coalesced beautifully. Tommy Shepherd's beat-boxing now feels like an integral ingredient rather than a novelty act. Dwayne Calizo, the group's vocal coach, is now onstage, and yet his operatic voice doesn't dominate the other performers, ceding ample spotlight to Wolohan's ringing falsetto. Jennifer Chien does most of the dancing, some of which, along with a song or two, could be cut.

There is a notable absence in this production - that of Sean Riley, Shuch's former set designer and longtime collaborator, whose ingenious ways with Intersection's tight confines are missed. Does Shuch's writing draw on elements of their relationship, perhaps amalgamating it with details of an unnamed "loved one" who, she recently said, she watched go to prison three years ago?

I don't know and I don't want to. The brilliance of "51802" is how convincingly it makes Shuch's fictional prisoner as intimately and painfully real as his ID number is anonymous.

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