Destination unknown

Pub date April 15, 2008
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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Jeff Greenwald has done his show Strange Travel Suggestions dozens if not hundreds of times and still has no idea where it’s going. No wonder he and his audience keep coming back for more. The unknown, an aphrodisiac to the traveler, also makes great catnip for the storyteller.

Still, there are consistent elements. There is no need to reinvent the wheel — or the impressive Wheel of Fortune that sits just off center stage, painted with a map of the globe and ringed with symbols abstract and evocative enough to conjure up myriad adventures, peak experiences, and humbling encounters from the vivid grab-bag memory of an accomplished travel writer and inveterate globe-trotter. There’s also a real grab bag, just in case, and an oversize Tarot card, a sort of visual aid cum talisman sporting a classic image of the Fool, patron saint of the traveler’s heedless leaps of faith. In the end, Greenwald’s show, as reliable as it is unpredictable, mimics a genie-from-a-bottle experience: what you get is three spins, three stories, and a lot of unexpected truth.

Greenwald is the author of several travel books, including 1996’s Shopping for Buddhas (which began as a staged monologue), 1997’s Size of the World, and 2002’s Scratching the Surface. He’s also cofounder of Ethical Traveler, a human rights and environment-conscious grassroots alliance of travel lovers who act as "freelance ambassadors" worldwide. Strange Travel Suggestions takes its title from a key authorial and ethical influence, Kurt Vonnegut, whose 1963 book Cat’s Cradle declared that "strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god." The current revival of the show, which originated at the Marsh back in 2003, coincides with the recent demise of another important influence, science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, who was a close friend of Greenwald’s since Greenwald was 16 and first met the longtime Sri Lanka–based author during a stint in New York City.

Last weekend, the first spin of the wheel sent Greenwald reminiscing briefly about his late friend, including Clarke’s surprise at humankind’s recent slight retreat from space exploration, which Clarke viewed as a promising new and necessary growth in species consciousness. Greenwald invoked Clarke’s love of scuba diving as the best earthbound analogy for space travel. After landing on the glyph for Rites of Passage (by tradition, the wheel is given a whirl by an audience member), Greenwald recalled a trip he made after turning 40, a milestone he says made him want "to rediscover the size of the world" by avoiding the homogenizing and distance-compressing effects of airports and airplanes entirely. The trip, which began with passage on a freighter from Red Hook, Brooklyn, to Dakar, Senegal, included an incredible predawn dive off an island in the Philippines that perfectly captured the extraterrestrial venture Clarke had in mind.

From there, the strange grew stranger, climaxing with a tale about a road trip (inspired by a wheel spin that landed on an Outlaw symbol) that might have been out of a movie codirected by Quentin Tarantino and the late Spalding Gray. Greenwald’s stories possess more than a fine sense of humor and knack for shrewd detail and telling observation. They also contain a Zen-inflected homespun wisdom no doubt born of leaving home on a regular basis. If slightly self-conscious at times, these stories are always genuine and appealing.

Throughout Strange Travel Suggestions, Greenwald sits on a high stool or slowly paces the stage, wearing comfortable shoes and casual clothes with ready pockets that quietly suggest the seasoned voyager. But this is hardly a costume, and Greenwald the performer is not really an actor. He is instead a talented storyteller, with a mellow, easy, and sure delivery. Even if the stories he delivers on any given night have been told before (he selects from more than 50), spontaneity keeps them fresh and limber. The only time his delivery strained was when he recited from memory a passage from one of his books. The recall was perfect, but the prearranged words forced a histrionic note. Then again, the passage itself (a scene set at the rail of a ship, describing the character of the open sea) was eloquent and apt. Ultimately, anywhere Jeff Greenwald wants to take you is worth the detour. *


Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m., through April 26 (no show Sat/19); $15–$35

The Marsh

1062 Valencia, SF

(415) 826-5750 information; (800) 838-3006 tickets