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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Dangerous Games’ Sizzles With Violence and Sexual Politics

Times Theater Writer

No one will need a glossary of terms, a knowledge of the history of the tango or of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to follow “Dangerous Games” at the La Jolla Playhouse. Just eyes, ears and a healthy set of genes.

There is no way to mis understand this smoldering, savagely sensual dance theatre piece. There can only be understanding it less--adding fewer layers of political meaning to action already highly charged with sexual politics.

Conceived, choreographed and directed by the Argentine-born Graciela Daniele as her own statement about the desaparecidos or “disappeareds” in her native country (and, for that matter, the world), “Games” sizzles with eroticism, violence, lyricism and ineffable tenderness--particularly when it shows rather than tells.

Originally, Daniele had called these “Dangerous Games” “Tango/Orfeo,” a more graphic way to describe the two parts of this show now more generically subtitled “Two Tango Pieces.”

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Part one, “Tango,” is set in a brothel in the ‘30s, at the height of that dance’s popularity. Part two, “Orfeo,” more directly addresses the issue of modern torture and the rape of nations with an effective twist of the Orpheus/Eurydice legend. Echoes of the first part reverberate in the second. And yet they must be seen as separate artistic entities, the one preoccupied with all aspects of the male/female ethos, the second with more direct political concerns.

In “Tango,” we’re invited into a murky hall where a few chairs and a few glittering prostitutes incite their clients to tangle with them and with each other. It offers a smoky set of encounters between the “girls” and their “men” and clashes among the clientele that deliver every permutation of female submission and preening male hubris--savagery, dominance, rivalry, contempt and solidarity.

A new prostitute, Cristina (Elizabeth Mozer), is introduced to be loved and defiled by a pair of devoted brothers. One offers contempt (Tony Mineo), the other tenderness (Gregory Mitchell). The loss of virginity, in a complex pas de trois , is an act of love.

But the mood darkens. The brothers (the brotherhood of all males?) demand to be fed. “It’ll cost you,” says the madam, providing wine and bread, but guess who pays? They share the wine and bread--and tease the woman. Love degenerates to jealousy and rape and near fratricide. Only the woman loses. She--like Argentina?--has been abused and suddenly made old.

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The piece is aimed at attitudinal stances: Bad behavior conditioned by hardened social orders and transmitted here through an arresting semaphore of stylized, postured dance. Its political terms are simplistic: Watch the powerless people wooed and violated by brutes in power.

“Orfeo” is more fascinating in its physical geography, also more adventurous and politically ambitious. A child Aurora (Danyelle Weaver) is robbed of her parents, “disappeared” by a tall stranger named Pluton (an impressive Ken Ard). She is befriended by Orfeo (Mitchell), a gaucho or caudillo in charge of the daily raising of the sun over the Pampas. But Orfeo becomes indebted to Pluton and has the misfortune of falling in love with Dicha (Rene Ceballos) who is stolen by Pluton.

Taken to the depths of Hades, Dicha (Eury-dicha?) is raped and beaten. When Orfeo comes to win her back in a spectacular series of dances with booms and knives and whips, he’s warned not to turn his back on her if she’s to escape. When he commits his fatal error, Aurora raises the sun for him.

Again, the alphabet of the dance is more expert than its political vocabulary. The metaphor is obvious: freedom raped by forces of darkness while the hope for a new dawn lies in the children.

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The haunting tango nuevo score by Astor Piazzolla matches Daniele’s arresting if sometimes repetitive choreography, but the slight book by Daniele and Jim Lewis is severely undermined by William Finn’s resoundingly banal lyrics.

What is one to make of lines such as (in “Tango”) “I wish him dead or worser, fat./Or maybe vice-versa that”? And in “Orfeo”: “She came, she fell,/It’s just as well./All love does fade./Don’t feel betrayed”? Ard, a splendid dancer with enormous presence and a booming voice, is the one who’s stuck with most of them, though his “The Joys of Torture” offers a few redeeming moments.

Certainly “Dangerous Games is primarily a movement and music piece. The use of the bandoneon (button accordion) and the solo violin in Piazzolla’s unusual music complements the stunning visuals created by lithe, muscular, extremely skilled and agile dancers.

Already, the social reference here is less prepossessing than the physicality of the piece, but “Dangerous Games” loses most of its edge when it opens its mouth. Silence, in this case, would have been, if not golden, ever so much more eloquent.

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At the Mandell Weiss Center for the Performing Arts, Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m., until Aug. 6. Tickets: $18-$25; (619) 534-3960. Special Pay-What-You-Can matinee this Saturday only, 2 p.m.


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