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PERFORMANCE ART REVIEW : Five Uneven Pieces in ‘The 13th Hour’ at the Taper, Too

A fearless clash of cultures at night-owl hours, “The 13th Hour: A Celebration of Performance” at the Taper, Too (a.k.a. John Anson Ford Theatre) in Hollywood features five performance groups of varying sparkle and ability.

At its best, the event, which opened Thursday and continues through tonight offers polished ensemble work, dead-on commentary, wry humor and a tangy blend of poetry and percussion. At its worst, “The 13th Hour” is pretentious, long-winded and uninspired.

Weirdest and wildest of all is Karen Tei Yamashita’s “Tokyo Carmen vs. L.A. Carmen,” directed by Shizuko Hoshi. Splendidly deadly caricatures of a Japanese auto executive in the U.S. (Keone Young) and a brash American entrepreneur in Japan (Timothy Dang) fall under the spell of the two zanily bedecked Carmens (Sala Iwamatsu and Mimosa, who also play the men’s culturally stereotypical wives).

TV commercials, soft porn, landscape views and other imagery from the two countries flash over four monitors in this eye-popping, fast-moving piece, which also incorporates free-floating snatches of Kabuki. Layered on top of the bi-cultural symbolism are recorded snatches from Bizet’s “Carmen.” Occasionally accompanied by cast members, the opera lends the production a bizarrely appropriate mythic air of seduction and betrayal.

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“Instruments of Decision,” by Dan Kwong in collaboration with William Roper, tackles minority experience in America with wit and grace.

Kwong is a slim, uptight clarinet player who talks about his upbringing in a demanding Japanese-American household and his suspicions of a rotund black tuba player (Roper) who earns equal orchestra pay even though he plays only four notes. Roper is so passionate about his instrument that he anoints its interior with K-Y jelly and makes love to it.

The charm of the piece comes from its unabashedly geeky brand of show-and-tell: underlining phrases with snatches of music and manipulations of unlikely objects. But Kwong gesticulates too much, as if he didn’t quite trust that we were getting his message.

“An Army of Healers” by Kamau Daaood in collaboration with dancer Karen McDonald, martial artist Dadisi Sanyika, and percussionists Sonship Theus and Munyungo is a rapturous thing--a set of visionary poems shivered and rippled by drums, bells and rattles. Daaood is a master declaimer. His warm voice urges his words into the ear, and his unerring rhythmic pulse gives them a fierce glory.

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The movement aspects of the piece seemed rather superfluous. McDonald, whose shoulders and face looked distractingly tense, offered standard modern dance lunges and African-flavored upper-body undulations. Sanyika’s abrupt compass-point movements mirrored Daaood’s intensity but not the free-floating quality of his images.

“Downtown,” by Luis Alfaro in collaboration with Tom Dennison, is a series of vignettes about Chicano street life in Los Angeles, related by a part-truculent, part-kittenish Alfaro. Too often, the metaphors seem tired and the memories don’t penetrate beyond surface experience.

But “The Tower of Babel,” conceived, composed and directed by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, was simply a woolly disaster, a pretentious mixture of ensemble angst, dreary recitation, hackneyed movement and giant hologram images.

The only salvagable material is the eerily insinuating music, which Kaczmarek composed for two eccentric instruments of his own creation.

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