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Revisiting the Fillmore Auditorium, which reopened this past spring under the auspices of Bill Graham Presents, is a little like returning to the house where you grew up. It looks smaller now. But not, interestingly, vulnerable. Once you hit the first floor with its pail of free apples, friendly, gentle Graham employees and the photograph of Janis beaming down, you feel the still powerful--dare I say it?--vibes, as if the walls had stored all the souped-up, tripped-out guitar ions ever played there.

I went to the Fillmore to see Twister, a multimedia play, with music, by Ken Kesey and some of the original Merry Pranksters. Twister catches us up with our old friends from the land of Oz--who, like many of us, have changed with the times. The Scarecrow (Phil Dietz) is schized out, the Tinman (George Walker) terminally rusted and the Cowardly Lion, who doesn't appear, is off commanding a paramilitary operation in Idaho. Dorothy herself (Karen McCormick) is tougher and harder, and like everyone else--at least according to Kesey, who plays the Wizard in leprechaunish top hat--she is asleep while the world hurtles toward disaster.

Kesey recognizes that, like other films of the late thirties--Gone With the Wind, Disney's The Old Mill, Wuthering Heights (where love lives on through death itself)--the Garland movie, however unconsciously, anticipated the storm to come. Kesey now sees another hard rain on the horizon; its certain portent, he told the San Francisco Chronicle, is America's hatred of its children (read: unwillingness to commit resources to the future in schools, etc.). The harbingers in the play are a precipitate rise in disease, the increasing frequency of earthquakes and the altered weather. All these are of course physical and biological, not political, phenomena, although lurking behind them and our inability to deal with them is the real problem always and ever for Kesey: Germanic, stiff-necked stupidity, represented onstage by Frankenstein (Ken Babbs).

Some of Kesey's solutions, like "opening a dialogue" with viruses rather than trying to eradicate them--which would only send them underground to perfect their deadliness--hold out the possibility of ecological wisdom. But Kesey's overall answer is to embrace mind over brain, the existential "motion with emotion" exemplified in rock and roll and embodied in the play by Elvis (Simon Babbs). It's as though nobody's told him the King's mind/body died the victim of its own success, a vat of addicted lard. Or, to paraphrase Wade Raney, at this juncture we could use a whole lot more penetrating analysis and a lot less rock and roll.

Kesey quotes Joseph Campbell to the effect that hard times require strong rituals and distinguishes an audience from a tribe, who are active participants in the ritual. The mostly young crowd at the Fill-more, who treat Kesey like a piece of the true cross, participate when permitted, and some dance to the show's Seattle band Jambay and their sweet-sounding CSN&Y harmonies after the play is done. But they're a far cry from the Berkeley Community Theater audience who, on the eve of Reagan's calling out of the National Guard to People's Park, responded to the Living Theatre's "I can't take my clothes off, I can't smoke marijuana" by taking their clothes off and smoking en masse, leaving a stunned Le Living in their dust.

The problem, though, is not audience. The Wizard of Oz was anti-authoritarian. The Wizard was revealed to be a fraud and the sources of strength were shown to be within us. Kesey's Wizard, on the other hand, is a guru whose image is projected onto the clouds like a sky god and emits a Norman Mailerish glow. I suppose you could say Kesey's simply alerting the tribe and letting them take it from there, but for Kesey to present these forebodings as revelatory is to say he doesn't think much of the potential tribal material. What leads me to mistrust Kesey most is the show's very lack of mindfulness. The writing is repetitious and tedious, really wretched stuff, packed with cynical, terminally hip little in-jokes about dope and sex ("The only thing I learned from those studio tutors is how to keep from catching anything from Mickey Rooney"). Along with the renewed call for tribalization, Kesey raises a nostalgic chorus of "If you're going to San Francisco/be sure to wear a flower in your hair," suggesting that the sign on the bus needs changing from "Further" to "Same."

Twister does very little with the actors physically or visually. It's frontal and anti-illusionistic and all very loose, apparently taking its cue from fifties TV skits, where a performer's hippest achievement was to blow his lines and break up over it. McCormick, almost alone in the cast, has an actor's energy; the others mostly look as though they're ready to melt into the floor with Margaret Hamilton. I suppose Pranksters regard this as a purposeful amateurism, asserting the performer and audience's community, but the sense of the constantly provoking invention of the sixties is sadly missing, and you'd think, given their fascination with technology, they could get the same intensity of light on two people standing next to each other.

A videotape of Twister will be available before the end of the year from Key-Z Productions at (503) 484-4315.
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Title Annotation:Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, California
Author:Gelb, Hal
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Nov 21, 1994
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