'51802' players trapped by the prison
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.
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 -
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
he is guilty.
We learn all of this through Shuch's
trademark juxtaposition of short scenes and ensemble song-and-dance
by Allen Willner, along with adaptations of a few '50s tunes)
that turn all
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
abounds in the ensemble sections: mildly comic interludes of prisoners
talking to themselves (and visiting mice), boisterous Danny Wolohan playing,
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,
yet his operatic voice doesn't dominate the other performers,
ceding ample spotlight to Wolohan's ringing falsetto. Jennifer
most of the
dancing, some of which, along with a song or two, could be
There is a notable absence in this
production - that of Sean Riley, Shuch's former set designer
and longtime collaborator,
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
real as his ID number is anonymous.
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