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Long Live The Exit

April 9, 2007

One rarely has a bad time at the Exit Theatreplex, San Francisco's most venerable venue for small and experimental performance. The best thing about The Exit is the atmosphere. You scurry in from the Tenderloin madness outside and enter an oasis. The bar is always cozy and friendly. The wine, though bad, is cheap and the pretzels are free. You can even eat a whole dinner there -- they do a great fruit and cheese plate as well as quiches and pies and soups. And you can take food and drink into the performances, which is very enlightened.

I've seen countless productions at The Exit, which boasts four performance spaces if you include the small cabaret stage in the bar. Many of the productions are on the scrappy side, but even the most amateurish acts reveal something weird and wonderful about San Francisco alternative culture.

On Friday I was there with my friend Chantal, seeing Chemical Imbalance, playwright Lauren Wilson's take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. Even though I couldn't get a review of the production into SF Weekly (my editor has a new policy about avoiding productions that are just about to close and our schedule was full until the final week of the run,) its lead actor, Gabriel Diamond, is a mutual friend, and Chantal and I were therefore keen to see his turn as English literature's most famous schizophrenic.

Chemical Imbalance is one of the more well put together Exit shows. Wilson's play is a camp mixture of Oscar Wilde and Mary Poppins with a Grand Guignol aesthetic. The plot bubbles along intriguingly and with great comic panache, though there's nothing really remarkable about the language or characters. It's pretty entertaining on the whole. It comes across as being the sort of thing that a smart undergraduate might write.

What really impressed me was the directing. Matthew Graham Smith managed to turn the small Exit black box into a box of tricks. To stage a dinner scene, he had the two maids hold a white table cloth as if they were table legs. When the characters kept disappearing under the table, they would slightly pull up the outwards-facing edge so that we could see the clandestine action going on underneath. This was both brilliantly funny and inventively economical. During another inspired staging moment, Dr. Jekyll and his confidante walked around a curtain placed to the side of the stage, to get from the family's well-appointed lounge to Jekyll's lab. With a few steps and a light change we were suddenly in the lab. Again, a simple yet fluid solution to creating different spaces with minimum furniture and maximum imagination.

Some of the performances were on the amateurish side, but Gabe's was really great. I have to say I wasn't all that optimistic about watching him act. I've seen him on screen before in independent movies, and he's always come across as quite wooden. But as Jekyll and Hyde he was magnificent. His whole body and demeanor changed from one moment to the next. He seemed out of control. It was frightening and hilarious at the same time. I hope I get to see him perform on stage again soon. He seemed to be in his element on Friday night.

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