WHAT: The Screaming Divas, WHERE: Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St. WHEN: Through Sunday
By Dalt Wonk
WHAT: The Screaming Divas
When I was in Europe, contemplating an end to nearly a decade as an expatriate, the great looming question was where I would live when I returned.
Of course, the word "return" was inexact, since I had left from the lower East Side of Manhattan and I had no desire for a second taste of Big Apple Bohemia. The city that often was mentioned as an alternative was San Francisco. I ran into a fair number of San Franciscans. They had a unanimous enthusiasm for their hometown, which they variously described as "casual, tolerant, progressive and enlightened." Frankly, it all sounded like a bit of a strain.
On the other hand, I had never met a single person from New Orleans. And so, out of some kind of perverse curiosity, I came here instead.
Later on, however, I visited an old friend who has lived in San Francisco for many years. One day, some of her acquaintances paid a call. They were a lesbian couple who had acquired a child through the good offices of a male "sperm donor." One of the women fulfilled the mother/housewife role. The other was the breadwinner, thanks to her occupation as a "dominatrix". She had a business card, which she presented to me -- in case I was tempted.
I couldn't help thinking of that experience as I prepared to review a performance by a San Francisco group called the Screaming Divas, who currently are presenting Aberrant Acapella at the Contemporary Arts Center. And just in case the idea of a woman's group from San Francisco makes you brace involuntarily for a "casual, tolerant, progressive, enlightened" evening of political correctness (as I did), you are in for a pleasant surprise.
These women would have found the encounter with dominatrix domesticity as amusingly surreal as I did. In fact, it could easily be fodder for one of their skits.
The Divas are an ensemble of personable, talented young women who apply their disparate looks, personalities and vocal ranges (not to mention hair styles) to an inventive group effort that they seem to enjoy as much as the audience. In fact, the evening is set up as a sort of game between the Divas and the audience. And the singers maintain a low-key, amiable contact with the "silent majority" out front.
Off to one side of the stage, there is a set of paper signs with titles such as "Whippin' Dixie," "Ball Breaker," "V," "Olerobay" and "Venus." These are the names of the numbers the Divas will perform. The sequence is determined by members of the audience who are invited to call out the act they want to see next.
The main effect of this procedure is to break down the formality of the presentation. The shape the evening will take has been left to chance -- and this serves as a reminder that the primary purpose of the show is amusement (albeit of an artistically satisfying nature).
Some of the titles chosen turn out to be short skits. One of the funniest of these concerns a "damaged hair support group," in which the women "shared" their traumas. One, for instance, detailed her tortured descent from ultra-sheen to Rogaine.
But, as their name implies, the Screaming Divas are essentially about music, and many of the titles are nothing more than the disguised names of well-known pieces -- classical or pop. Some of these simple, straight-ahead musical numbers are the most satisfying. "Olerobay," for instance (which pig Latin scholars will easily decipher) features the group's trademark mixture of whimsy and vocal artistry. Using their voices to suggest a wide range of instruments, the women create the aural approximation of an orchestra -- while visually suggesting some complicated steam-driven apparatus of musical automatrons.
This instrumental use of the voice becomes, at times, truly inspired -- as in a very hot and lovingly detailed big band number.
The set for Aberrant Acappella consists of a half-dozen scrim panels on which slides are projected. My favorite was a Sesame Street-like variation on the number five that accompanied the famous Brubeck tune "Take Five."
With their engaging blend of naivete and chic, the Screaming Divas have created a diverting new category of musical theater that's well worth a visit.
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