If hell were a musical

Faint praise isn't damnation enough for Damn Yankees

Playwrights from Brecht to Odets to Osborne have transformed the stage into a political podium, although each labored in a time of great social and cultural upheaval. People lined up to watch because their very livelihoods were being threatened by forces larger than themselves. It's easy to dismiss the compulsive craving for comfortable escapism in Dallas audiences as a Bible Belt thang, but really, it's a nationwide problem for any woman who takes her responsibility as a rabble-rouser seriously. Like the little kid who draws a line on the plate to keep the peas and mashed potatoes separate, people nowadays just don't like the taste of entertainment and politics mixed together.

Don't tell that to the ticket buyers who packed the house for the performance of Sappho's Symposium. The title of this program--"seven quick, sexy new plays by female playwrights"--drew a large lesbian and gay crowd, as might be expected. The audience by and large seemed to enjoy the plays' overt jabs at gender roles, especially the comic pieces that invited raucous laughter for their (unfortunately, rather obvious) inversion of longstanding sexual cliches. To this end, Swen and her troupe of five actors have fulfilled their Brechtian mission of addressing those who experience an urgent, deeply personal need for political change every day of their lives. When this results in theatergoers wanting to transform the status quo, it's called inspiring the troops. However, when easy laughs are pursued from broad targets, it's called preaching to the choir, and there's unfortunately too much of that in comic plays.

Carey Martin's Alternate Family Values is a stellar example. It's not a play so much as a Saturday Night Live-style skit in which Son (the versatile James Venhaus) comes home from college with a terrible confession to make to his Lesbian Parents (Emily Vail and Julie Plumettaz): He's straight! Vail and Plumettaz have the '50s nuclear-family shtick down cold (the former is June, the latter Ward). But there's a stale stench emanating from this heedless swapping of sexual cliches. Ditto with Charlotte Robinson's Bruce 'n Barbie, although Venhaus and Kalin Burke Piraro have a hell of a time as a baby brother and sister finally overcome by a burning fascination with each other's toys.

Still, nothing that comes before prepares us for the last and longest play in Sappho's Symposium, Linda Eisenstein's Names of the Beast. Ostensibly a kvetch-a-thon among four staunchly feminist writers, Names of the Beast evolves into something more disquieting--an epic struggle among disparate camps for ownership of one community's voice. Three friends (Piraro, Plumettaz, and the deliciously arch Evette Perry-Glass) have reluctantly gathered to participate in the ritual burning of the written works of Alicia (Gretchen Swen), a high-strung college professor for whom words like "feminist" and "writer" have become burdens to bear. Anyone who thinks contemporary American feminism is a faceless monolith should check out Names of the Beast and absorb the profound philosophical differences these women espouse toward creativity, leadership, and political responsibility. Playwright Eisenstein plants a witchy ritual at the center of the piece which is by turns supportive and sadistic.

You get the sense from Swen's work that she really is attempting something radical--the union of progressive politics and a classical aesthetic. Extra Virgin's last production, The Bargain, was a culmination of this project, the Faust legend rewritten as one woman artist's struggle with whether to "sell out" or follow her muse. A deadly earnestness dragged that one down to Neptune's lair.

The first six plays in Sappho's Symposium are free of that liability, and brief enough to make their periodic clumsiness a fleeting impression rather than an indelible mark on the evening. But Swen and company have really hit their stride with the remarkable Names of the Beast, so much so that you leave the theater fired up--although not, unfortunately, in the way Extra Virgin might have wanted. This play casts a shadow that reveals the crushing superficiality of the others. Let's hope next time around Swen shows the discipline to put out what she promises--a complete evening of mind-blowing political theater.

Sappho's Symposium runs through July 14. Call 941-3664.

Damn Yankees runs through July 7. Call 373-8000 or 647-5700.

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