Border Town

Crowded Fire brings a subversive world premiere to the Ashby Stage.

Watching my sole episode of Friends, a French-dubbed airing in Tamatave, Madagascar, all I could think as Phoebe and her pals cavorted around their coffeeshop was “Is this what the rest of the world thinks American life is like? Beautiful people who don’t have to work for a living and never wear the same clothes twice?” A trip to China apparently led playwright Sheila Callaghan to ask the same question, and some other ones about “the psychology of want.” The quirkily compelling answer is her new We Are Not These Hands, San Francisco company Crowded Fire’s first production at the Ashby Stage. Like other works of Callaghan’s we’ve seen at Impact, notably Scab and Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake), Hands centers on the relationship between two women and how it is affected by the presence (or absence) of a man. Unlike the others, she’s attacking much larger ideas about economics, politics, the discrepancy between global haves and have-nots, and the exoticization of the other. And once again she manages to get her jabs in while offering up weirdly engaging characters.

Belly and Moth have been at loose ends ever since their school-slash-fireworks-factory blew up. Teenaged girls roaming the debris-lashed streets of an unnamed country, they spend their time stealing food and dodging machete-wielding cops to stand outside an illegal Internet cafe, gawking at the inhabitants. Starving and impressionable, they’ve developed their ideas about the rich country across the river based on images from the glowing screens.

Video montages from the SF theater company Elastic Future give a taste of what a horror that could be, all porn and bright colors and exhortations to buy cheap, shoddy products. And when the girls enter the cafe to attract the attention of a wealthy foreigner, they take their cues from the same source, dressing in mismatched, garish “sex clothes” heavy on the duct tape and pantomiming the sort of fakey lesbian sex acts staged specifically to arouse straight men. Despite the first disastrous encounter, the three form a relationship that could change everything.

Callaghan toys with words more than usual here. There’s something Clockwork Orange about the language the girls speak, but without the Russian. Their tenses are all cattywampus, and they use kindergarten names for body parts: bippy, wonk, tooty, and freakies, although the insults are multisyllabic. To be an anus-eater or a coochie-flapper is almost as bad as the worst of all: capitalist. Cassie Beck and Juliet Tanner as Belly and Moth attack Callaghan’s patois with cheerful gusto, as well as the theme about the sexualization of young women that also figured in Crumble.

The foreigner Leather (Paul Lancour) has a different language problem. He speaks straight American English, but he can’t finish a thought to save his life. He also isn’t really clear on what he’s doing, except that he hopes to write a book about this nameless place and make a load of money. He’s the sort of guy who does very badly with women at home because he’s awkward and a little creepy, but across the river he becomes exotic and desirable, with his cigarettes and money and strange sexual practices. Lancour is a riot as Leather, taping long letters home to his disapproving mother and trying to deal with the local diet. “I bought something on a stick; it could have been anything,” he says about an attack of food poisoning. “Cow, goat, rabbit.” You see where this is going, right?

Crowded Fire is a very visual company, and it shows in the design of Hands. Callaghan’s nameless locale could be a country that was once a colony, which the colonizers then left without having built a self-sustaining infrastructure and everything collapsed, leaving a rubble of half-finished civic projects. Electronic music burbles over a multilevel set dressed with trash, old computers, and Leather’s neatly arranged consumer goods.

Between the silly talk and the rat brochettes and the truly bizarre seduction scene, profound questions surface, such as “Is the cost of the disruption worth the result?” Callaghan is getting more whimsical and more daring, and Crowded Fire is right there with her in this subversively smart world premiere.

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