REVIEW: After All

Erika Chong Shuch's 'After All, Part 1'

Rachel Howard | Chronicle Dance Correspondent | San Francisco Chronicle | September 14,2008

Unbridled generosity is rare in art, which is why a growing local following finds Erika Chong Shuch's unclassifiable dance/theater/music melanges so refreshing.

In "After All, Part 1," which premiered over the weekend as part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Bay Area Now series, an adolescent girl sings a piercingly innocent lullaby and a middle-aged man rocks out alone to Boston's "More Than a Feeling." These images could have been sickeningly sweet or cloyingly silly. But though Shuch speaks from the heart, it is a heart all her own: tender but not treacly, sincere but seldom sentimental.

With her Bay Area Now commission, Shuch - who usually stages her work at the tiny Intersection for the Arts, where her Erika Shuch Performance Project is a resident company - found herself with a bigger canvas in the YBCA's wide-open forum. Her imagination must have adapted to the spaciousness. Her ideas seemed to find more room to breathe in "After All," a meditation on apocalypse. "After All" is big and messy and beautiful - and it is less enslaved, as her past work could sometimes be, to a single constricting metaphor.

In the main story line (written by playwright Michelle Carter), Beth Wilmurt played a goldfish tormented by a chiming clock, since goldfish have no capacity to retain memories longer than three hours. We first meet the goldfish's owner - Shuch's theatrical mentor Joe Goode, in an inimitably charismatic Joe Goode performance - in an opening scene scripted by Shuch herself, in which Goode recounts being haunted by a homeless man's words: "I'm ready." The homeless man, who dresses as a scary, black-bearded Santa Claus, is played by longtime Shuch collaborator Dwayne Calizo, a singer with a fabulous operatic voice.

Shuch has a knack for attracting gifted collaborators, and "After All" boasts a spirited roster. Allen Willner and Daveen DiGiacomo wrote "After All's" catchy songs, reminiscent of the 1950s, memorably delivered with Calizo and Goode shoop-shooping like Motown backups. Another acclaimed local playwright, Philip Kan Gotanda, also contributed to the script. A quartet of terrific dancers threads through, with co-choreography credited to Melanie Elms.

But most important among "After All's" great mass of humanity is a crowd of 30 ordinary people, tall and short, young and old, prepubescent and pregnant.

Dressed in white upon a stage of white oblivion, they drag each other's bodies and clutch at childish objects like a rocking horse, terrorized by the inevitability of death. Dancing in formation like some Busby Berkeley extravaganza, they chase a sequin-bedecked preacher, Matthias Bossi, to the forefront of their spectacle; but as everyone stares in desperate hope for salvation, he has nothing to say.

When the preacher finally does speak, delivering a sermon by Octavio Solis titled "The Last Psalm," it's a tour de force, a parody of fundamentalist hellfire that slides into a chilling damnation of human destruction. "Let us pray, let us pray, let us pray," Bossi repeats, and we're no longer snickering at him, we're about to get on our knees.

My one disappointment with "After All, Part 1" - and this is perhaps not a small one - is that it didn't let that chill linger, didn't make us squirm longer after all that had led to that devastating moment. But this is testament to the greater depth of emotional impact "After All" earns. The next installment of "After All" will premiere next year at Intersection for the Arts. I doubt many who caught Part 1 will miss it.

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