Friday, March 21, 2008

I Got Them Old Convention Center Blues

This past week I spent some time in the San Jose Convention Center, giving me a refreshed appreciation of our hometown's facilities. The occasion was the VON -- voice on the 'Net -- conference.

Unlike the Santa Clara Convention Center, San Jose's operation has all the convivial charm of, well, the set of a low-budget slasher flick. It's big, barn-like, frigidly cold -- literally -- and eerily empty.

But the piece de resistance is that parking costs you $1 every 20 minutes. So if you spend an afternoon at a trade show, the tab is $20 or more. Adding insult to injury, half the time the clever little machines that take your money (don't expect to find a human being on the premises) spit out your credit card with a cheery message that your credit card is unreadable. Ditto for the $20 bill you try as an alternative.

By the end of the day -- and this may sound corny, I know -- I was homesick for Santa Clara's Convention Center with its bright, sunlit spaces and ample free parking. The irony is that the VON show started in Santa Clara but outgrew our exhibition space.

I can't wait for the expansion to be completed.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Practiced Deceits

First, link love to James Rowan at Mission City Lantern for a nice mention of my last post about the old Kaiser hospital site.

Practiced Deceits

Sometimes you go to the theater and simply enjoy the show. Other times the performance sucker punches you, lays you out flat and sends you home feeling transformed. The Greeks, who invented theater, called it catharsis.

It doesn't happen often -- at least not for me -- but when it does, I wallow in it. Like last Friday night at the opening of Santa Clara University's current show, Dangerous Liaisons, Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel.

Staged by San Francisco director Tracy Ward, this visually sumptuous production hit the ground running the minute the house lights dropped and didn't let up until they went up.

Liaisons tells the story of aristocratic French libertines, Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont. Members of a social class with no legitimate occupation – today's Hilton sisters -- society is their playing field and other people their chess pieces.

The pair devotes considerable talent, wit, dissembling skill, and all their waking hours to this game. (It's something with lots of resonance today, when most of us have forayed at some point into cyberspace's fluid identities, alternative realities or e-romances.)

As the story opens, we see the two betting whether Valmont can seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel. The Marquise, meanwhile, sets Valmont on young Cecile de Volanges, recently graduated from a convent school to marry one of Merteuil's former lovers.

When Cecile falls in love with her music teacher, Chevalier Danceny, Merteuil and Valmont step in, ostensibly to help -- setting up the young couple as pawns in their ongoing game.

As diabolical as it sounds, the story is more Moliere than Marquis de Sade.

Hilary Tarver (the Marquise) and Alexander Tavera (Valmont) glitter as the "virtuosos of deceit," delivering the rapier-sharp dialog with panache.

Tarver bewitches as the predatory Marquise. This young woman has something better than Bette Davis eyes -- she has Bette Davis stage presence. She is dead-on in her rendering of a woman who, brought up to be society's victim, becomes a master predator among the predatory. Tarver puts every movement, every gesture and every inflection to work, putting spectators as helplessly under her spell as her onstage victims.

As Valmont's valet and accomplice in seduction, Chad Eschman hit exactly the right balance of slapstick and satire. The company ably brought the play's comedy to life, with the sex jokes -- and there are plenty, like Valmont's "Latin lessons" for Cecile -- drawing plenty of belly laughs.

But while sex is the story's language, it's not the subject, and Ward's staging and direction deftly unravels the subtext prowling below.

The erotic power struggle between Merteuil and Valmont smolders continuously at the edges of the action. But because the first to yield loses the game, so neither can ever drop the mask. In the ensuing tragedy, the winner loses by winning and it turns out that the greatest lie isn't professing love you don't feel, but denying love you do.

Written on the French Revolution's brink, Liaisons is often probed for social commentary. I'll leave aside the very obvious one about women's education and social position.

What interested me more was the way Ward gave us another drama in the intervals between scenes -- which also keeps the action going during a multiplicity of scene changes. As the servants move the props between scenes, they show us their hidden lives. Ward's staging makes us "see" the people who exist for the privileged classes only insofar as they're needed for life's dirty work. Until, of course, they turn murderous.

While Hampton's script ends with a guillotine's shadow falling across the stage, Ward wisely declines this particular lily-gilding device. Instead she chooses a more ambiguous ending -- a more ambiguous one than Laclos' own, which always seemed to me like an afterthought. Instead, Ward leaves it open. Does the Marquise continue her villainous career? Repent and join a convent? Lose her lovely head in the Revolution? Or escape the mob and fetch up on the shores of the New World, ready to reinvent herself yet again?

Ward lets us consider all the possibilities.

Dangerous Liaisons is playing at SCU's Mayer Theatre, Wed. through Sat. at 8pm through March 8. Admission is $5-$16. Call (408) 554-4015 for tickets. This show isn't appropriate for children. For more information, visit