San Francisco

Snake Theater

145 Leavenworth

Four white dinner plates rest against a window in the stairwell. It could be a coincidence, until one encounters, on the second landing, a maroon succulent with silver Deco prongs. The theatre itself is encircled with scrim, tinted a dingy, desert reddish brown. On stage sit six more squat succulents and a checkerboard floor delineating a truck stop. The performance begins with cricket chirpings and a man, in total darkness, moving across stage with a glowing hot-plate. Forty-five minutes of frenetic activity, describing the saga of a waitress trapped in the banal existence of a desert cafe, and the two truck drivers who vie for her attentions, ensues.

Snake Theater’s 24th Hour Cafe is the retelling of the eternal triangle melodrama in the dialect of the American Southwest. The locale, both in real life and fiction, is one of the last places where the macho American myths of morality, violence and desolation are played out. It is evocative subject matter, an integral element in films like Petrified Forest, Five Easy Pieces and Three Women. Snake Theater draws on audience understanding of this tradition, creating a kind of live animation in which visual effects (costume and props) as well as movement translate Southwest ambience into cultural idiom.

The actors wear oversized masks that suggest brute dumbness. The waitress’s stylized hair and vacant facial expression are counterpointed with the reptilian features of the truck drivers. The waitress moves in cartoonlike gestures, pausing to ponder several plates that come careening out of the wings in Chaplinesque fashion. The truck drivers move abruptly on their hands, standing on occasion to do symbolic battle with acetylene torches or tire wrenches. The cardboard diners feature retractable tape mouths that the waitress attaches to plates of food, while she pours cups of dirt coffee. Cast metal trucks, carried onstage by their drivers, are parked in front of the diner facade. Lovemaking, like everything else, is two-dimensional, a sequence of pictographic placards.

Musical accompaniment and dialogue are managed by two pit musicians with some incidental utterances issued by onstage actors. Twenty-four subtitles flashed on a screen near the top of the proscenium provide additional narration. The truck drivers’ dialogue, in the form of sexual double entendre, offers the waitress both physical and sexual escape. Dialogue is, nevertheless, a minor aspect of this performance, secondary to the dazzling array of visual motifs. Similarly, the scenario, in its structural simplicity, reminds one of a 1930s Hollywood musical. Plot is primarily a device linking a continuous string of visual effects with an innovative staging technique.

Snake Theater’s strength lies in its ability to fabricate symbol and gesture into a compelling visual idiom. Implicit in this rendition is an enticing grotesqueness reminiscent of Red Grooms or Jim Nutt. 24th Hour Cafe is a melange of Southwest metavisions that successfully transposes visual art motifs into theatrical form. It is equally successful for its presentation, albeit through caricature and exaggeration, of some enduring aspects of the American myth.

Hal Fischer