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THEATER At the outset of The Late Wedding, actor Kathryn Zdan explains that we are about to be taken on “an anthropological tour of imagined tribes and their marriage customs.” She also explains that the play we’re watching is a play that we’re watching, and that a playwright has written it, under the spell of another author, Italian postmodernist Italo Calvino, whose playfully imaginative style in books like Invisible Cities and If on a winter’s night a traveler… unravels the standard narrative regime in favor of open-ended possibility and self-conscious reflection on art and consciousness. This strategy brought Calvino international acclaim 40 or 50 years ago. But Bay Area playwright Christopher Chen’s latest is too beguiled by its literary inspiration to get very far as a work of its own.

At some level, The Late Wedding wants to explore the nature of human communication and communion through a fourth-wall-scaling ensemble of six actors — alternately playing characters from made-up civilizations and swapping the Narrator hat to address the audience about their experience in the theater — and an offstage “playwright” who can’t keep his banal musings about groceries and whatnot from intruding into his own narrative.

The first of these couples (played in an initially amusing, offhand manner by Lawrence Radecker and Michael Anthony Torres) lounges around remembering the party of the night before, relieved to find they feel the same way about it. They then become extremely agitated, struggling to confirm the details of more distant shared memories on the vacation islands of Calaman — as if this agreed on map of memory were the only bridge between them. The same islands, as some unattainable ideal or some real place or both, come back later as a destination in an intergalactic space hop for another character (played by Zdan) who may be reuniting with her estranged wife (Lauren Spencer). Their estrangement followed Zdan’s character’s strict adherence to the marital customs of her society — namely, maximizing the anticipation and desire of romance by forestalling the wedding night indefinitely, and raising a family with someone else meanwhile. A third couple (played by Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta) receives a visit from a scholar (Radecker) intrigued by their view of marriage as a kind of living death. Interlarded with the marriages are lots of direct address, a wayward plot or two, and the intrusive personal thoughts of an increasingly distracted playwright.

For this Crowded Fire premiere, scenic designer Melpomene Katakalos conjures onstage an imposing all-white (later transparent) wall of open cubicles with sundry objects inside. It’s a mash-up of the grand vertical cities of Louise Nevelson’s monochromatic wall pieces and the private, idiosyncratic worlds of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, and it promises some intricate architecture, spanning the subjective and the social realms of reality. But the play only faintly delivers on that promise. It wouldn’t have mattered as much if the dialogue was more compelling, but it tends to strain in pursuit of novelty and humor. Artistic director Marissa Wolf, meanwhile, has her actors deliver their lines in a presentational manner that is fitfully effective at best at striking a rapport with the audience, while the couples mingle flat humor with saccharine sincerity as they limn the contours of their relationships.

Even a leap from fantastical anthropologies to distant space travel can’t save The Late Wedding from a sense of inertia. This might be because it owes too much to its source of inspiration. We’re told about Calvino right away, and Chen’s own imagination seems hobbled from that point on, more concerned with transposition than with pursuing ideas for their own sake. To make matters worse, the play’s meta-narrative and postmodern confusion are already overly familiar as a theatrical strategy, rather pre-postmodern, like ersatz Pirandello. The feigned concern for the audience over the odd non sequitur therefore feels misplaced, quaint, and vaguely patronizing. There may be potential for real mystery and meaning to emerge from the play’s artful dodging, but a way has to be cleared for it through all the pseudo-novelty and rigamarole. 


Wed/8-Sat/11, 8pm, $15-35

Thick House

1695 18th St, SF



Dress with less



THEATER In the 1940s and ’50s, Sophiatown was a poor and rough but exceptionally vibrant black suburb of Johannesburg. Its destruction under apartheid, which entailed the forced removal of residents in 1955, remains a painful emblem of South Africa’s racist system. It also forms the suggestive backdrop to a small domestic tale of infidelity in Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord’s touring production of The Suit — directed and co-adapted from the famous Can Themba short story by legendary maestro Peter Brook, and now making its Bay Area debut at American Conservatory Theater — which turns the personal lives of its protagonists into an existential rumination and a subtle but resonant political allegory.

But in Brook’s hands — and those of his principal collaborators, translator and co-adaptor Marie-Hélène Estienne and composer Franck Krawczyk, working with the stage adaptation by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon — the story and its themes are inseparable from a pure theatrical experience. With a few choice properties, a fine trio of actors, a smattering of evocative songs, and three protean musicians (who add a rich soundscape to the proceedings as well as good-naturedly people scenes when necessary), The Suit unfolds as a deceptively simple, wistful, and whimsical communion with its audience, a shared space for dreaming the world as it really is and as it might be.

To this end, the stage comes dressed with little more than a handful of brightly colored wooden chairs and a couple of empty rolling coat racks, the latter serving variously as closet, wall, entry way, or bus shelter. Each of the three actors helps to narrate the story, which centers on Philomen (played by the impressive Ugandan-born London-based actor Ivanno Jeremiah) and his beautiful young wife, Matilda (radiant South African actor and singer Nonhlanhla Kheswa).

The third actor (charismatic New York actor Jordan Barbour) acts as principal narrator, describing early 1950s Sophiatown as the setting for the story, while also winningly playing Philomen’s best friend and other incidental parts. The three musicians (guitarist Arthur Astier, pianist Mark Christine, and trumpet player Mark Kavuma) meanwhile engage with the action in various ways, as accompanists, as fellow players, and silent witnesses.

Philomen, deeply in love with Matilda, is devastated when, en route to work one day, he learns from his friend that she may be having an affair. He heads home instead and discovers her in bed with a young man who promptly runs out of the house, leaving behind his suit. He decides the suit will be the basis of Matilda’s punishment. She will have to care for it as an honored guest in their house, to the point of feeding it meals and taking it along for the couple’s strolls around the neighborhood. This humiliation takes a heavy toll on Matilda, but she is powerless to change Philomen’s mind on the matter. For his part, he acknowledges that he has lost his former self, that some “mechanism” that was his life has broken down and now functions perversely. It is finally his best friend who, in a quietly poignant moment of contact, convinces him to forgive and forget, but by then it is too late.

The domestic world and its promise of bliss are thus distorted and starved, and come to resemble instead something more like a cage, while mirroring a larger system of oppression outside — especially as news comes of the forced relocation of Sophiatown’s residents and the resistance movement it sparks.

But in its deft, joyful staging and gorgeous musicality, the production never lets go of the sense of what is being denied, namely a profound harmony and a depth of feeling, making their loss in the story all the more affecting. Moreover, the music itself (mingling traditional African songs with one by Nina Simone, as well as a raw and stirring rendition of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”) reveals a consonance with histories, legacies, and unsung stories much closer to home. *



Through May 18, $20-$120

ACT’s Geary Theater

415 Geary, SF


Goldies 2014 Comedy: Sean Keane


GOLDIES At a recent edition of the Business — his weekly comedy showcase at the Dark Room Theater — Sean Keane is fulfilling one of stand-up’s most cherished rituals: skewering the absurdities that inconvenience our daily lives.

Like BART seats, for instance. “Who’s the person with the bright idea of making BART seats out of carpet?” Keane asks, before re-creating one possible scenario for an uproariously-laughing audience: “Sir, I think we should use carpet, as much carpet as possible, carpet on the floor, carpet on the seats, carpet that we scavenge from an elementary school in the ’70s. And it should be as absorbent as a sponge. Every spill, every odor, every terrible thing that happens on a BART train should be preserved for eternity. And for cleaning we’ll shut down the whole system for six hours a night and lightly sweep it with a broom.”

Keane’s specialty is the observation beat. The self-described “baby-faced man with the body of a dad” deftly riffs on the various mishaps and oddities he encounters. With his sports-announcer voice, he spins comedy gold from that time he ate at an Ethiopian-Irish food truck, or witnessed the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death on ESPN, or found himself having to react to a stranger’s curiosity about his “I’ve Got Beaver Fever!” T-shirt (true story: he used to coach a middle school swim team with a beaver mascot).

It’s no surprise that a unique city like San Francisco has produced such an effective observational comic. “It’s interesting how what’s unacceptable in SF is acceptable in other places,” Keane says. “The worst thing you can do is use a plastic bag. At the Folsom Street Fair, you can see guy in a full leather outfit just sitting on a street corner jacking off, but if he was jacking off into a single-use plastic bag, he’s a monster.”

Keane is also a sports fanatic. Stories from one of his blogs, sportscentr.tumblr.com, have been picked up by Deadspin and other mainstream outlets. Though he avoids incorporating wonky inside-baseball jokes into his comedy act, he’s able to combine his two passions by regaling crowds with hilarious sports-related happenings. (Like, say, his ejection from a bar after accosting someone clad in a 49ers pajama onesie.) His best sports-related gag is his hilariously accurate impression of a British commentator covering the NFL draft, and the inevitable culture clash that follows.

Keane comes from a humor-loving family that encouraged his performing ambitions. In high school, he was involved in musical theater, which he credits for helping him overcome a speech impediment and learning to properly enunciate. At UC Berkeley, he started doing stand-up, opening for touring acts like Dave Attell.


Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

Cal is also where he developed his material-generating process. “We had a big white board in our living room where I would write ideas down,” he recalls. “The key is to write things down everywhere. When I’m driving, I record voice memos. You kind of feel like a crazy person when you do that, and duck to the side of the street and just start dictating something into the phone. I write things out like they’re lecture notes, with a subject and heading. Jokes comes first and then wording gets fixed later.”

After doing a lot of writing and improv, Keane fully committed himself to stand-up in late 2005 and early 2006. In 2009, he co-founded the Business, which has become a popular fixture on the local comedy scene.

“The Business helped with developing our style and skills due to the regular 20-25 minute sets,” says Keane. Of his fellow Business comics — including Caitlin Gill, Nato Green, and Bucky Sinister — Keane says, “When you perform with people every week, you pick up on stuff from them and you get pushed by seeing someone go out and kill.”

“Sean is someone who makes stand up look easy,” Gill says. “He is impossibly likable, endlessly witty, and incredibly fun to watch, even more fun to be around.” One of Gill’s most memorable moments with Keane was the “Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction” show, in which Keane performed bits entitled “Riding Miss Daisy” and “Zero Dark 69.”

Sadly for San Francisco comedy fans, Keane is at that point in his career where a move may soon be necessary. “SF is a great place, but I need to get to the next level and there’s no comedy industry here,” he points out. “Your ceiling as a SF comic is two weekends a year at the Punchline, and two weekends a year at Cobb’s. To become a headliner, you have to be famous. To be famous you have to get on TV. And it’s hard to get on TV in a place that does not produce many TV shows.”

Until then, Keane’s Business is booming on Mission Street, delighting audiences every week — even those who have to ride those carpeted BART seats to get home. Catch him while you can.


Goldies 2014 Performance: SALTA


GOLDIES Creating a space for experimental contemporary dance and performance in Oakland, outside of the usual channels and roadblock$, has been an instigating, galvanizing mission for SALTA. The collective — a sharp and motivated group of seven women, all Oakland-based choreographers and dancers under 30 — has made a scene, built an audience, developed a network, enlarged an ethic, and opened up horizons in a beleaguered arts ecosystem.

They also know how to party.

SALTA was born at the same time as its monthly curated performance series, a spirited affair known during its first year as PPP (apropos of nothing), which rides high on a principle of serious experimentation in an utterly laid-back, strictly noncommercial setting.

A roving event that settles wherever the keys are handed over gratis (a surprising number of places), PPP and its progeny have showcased ragtag and newer pieces by a range of young, mid-career, and senior artists whose only brief is that they try something. While such a platform naturally embraces failure in the cause of exploration, the results have held many surprises and epiphanies.

A few dancer-choreographers spotted at past SALTA evenings: Mary Armentrout, Christine Bonansea, Abby Crain, Hana Erdman and Allison Lorenzen, Keith Hennessy, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Albert Mathias, Monique Jenkinson, and fellow Goldies 2014 honoree Brontez Purnell.

Meanwhile, an open-door policy and community-stocked bar and boutique contribute to the lighthearted, well-oiled mingling of a crowd that often goes beyond dance initiates to embrace artists, bohos, and travelers of many kinds. (The first installment, at poet Zach Houston’s space downtown back in June 2012, was already bringing together normally discrete artistic milieus. As much a social experiment as an artistic one, it’s set the tone for those that have followed.)


Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

SALTA has ambitions beyond the performance series. Back in June 2013, when the collective was celebrating its first birthday with the 11th installment of PPP, its members decided to take a summer hiatus from the performance series to concentrate on other projects. The plan was to reinstate it in the fall at a slower clip. But the momentum proved hard to deny, as the seven members of SALTA (who prefer to speak as a collective rather than use their individual names) recently explained.

“I think after we last talked to you in [June 2013] we were going to do our anniversary performance, and then we were going to do less. We were going to do one every three months or something. But we had people contact us. And people really followed through who wanted us in their spaces. So we couldn’t say no, in a way.”

“We got swept up.”

“Yeah, it was really great, because with some — like Transmission Gallery [last December] — there was that intent, an invitation to collaborate with the space. People were interested in what we were doing in this different way. And that just provides us with food for thought, as far as how we then invite artists to be in that space in a particular way.”

“It’s kept us interested and engaged doing these events.”

“We’ve been talking more about finding some permanent space as well.”

A permanent space?

“We aren’t going to go into details because it’s still in the works, but let’s just say we’re looking at a space in the Temescal area to do more curation, and hopefully be able to invite more people from out of town.”

“The other exciting thing for us about this opportunity is that it is a collective of collectives, here in Oakland. So it’s not just us who would be in the space but several other groups.”

“It still reflects our spirit, how we intend to be in spaces, engaging alternatively, without a big output of money. We found freedom in not doing that. It’s very specific to this opportunity, which is not set at all, but it’s a nice thing to think about.”

Among the advantages of such a move, they say, is the chance to become part of a touring network, while providing ongoing workshops and rehearsal room — “affordable open space for people to not just show work but develop.”

With or without a permanent space, SALTA’s second year is poised to expand. In April, the collective travels to the East Coast to co-curate an evening with New York’s AUNTS, another dance-performance collective (and an early inspiration), and to take part in an international symposium in Montreal on alternative models of curation in the performing arts. They’re already networking with other likeminded groups along the route, like Montreal’s Wants&Needs and the Centre for Feminist Pedagogy.

And, for the first time, they’re making a piece of their own together: an experience they call “pretty amazing and crazy.” As a process it’s also, needless to say, “as collaborative as possible.” SALTA moves in collaboration.

“Somehow we end up having this momentum. There’s this ease that just happens. We definitely work hard but with joy, I think. All of a sudden we’re rolling really fast.”

Goldies 2014 Performance/Music: Brontez Purnell


GOLDIES After being informed that Bay Guardian editors and a theater critic vetted his Goldie nomination, Brontez Purnell reacts. “I think it’s fuckin’ rad. I’m pretty into it. A theater critic? Was I criticized?”

Sitting in the backyard of his Mission District apartment, braced leg extended with crutches at his side, Purnell reflects on roughly 12 years of living in the Bay Area (his Mission digs are temporary; he’s about to move back to Oakland). A storyteller of many mediums, his injury prevents him from dancing until mid-March, which is no good since he’s the founder of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company. If you’ve lived here a minute, you might recognize him as a former Sparky’s Diner waiter, working the “drunk tank” every Saturday night.

“When I was 24, my entire dating pool had seen me dance naked or in my underwear — literally get fingered at a Gravy Train!!!! show. They’d see [me] there and think they could be mean to me like, ‘Gimmie my fries!'” He recalls this, along with other illicit memories from his time in the Oakland-based, exclamation point-loving electro clash band.

But like fans of that fad, he’s moved on. He’s 31 now and for the past 10 years the music he writes, records, and performs live is for his band Younger Lovers. Its newest record, Sugar In My Pocket, recently came out on Southpaw Records.

“I don’t think anyone knew I had this background of a punk that had been playing in bands since I was a teenager,” he says, explaining there was overlap between the two music projects with distinctly different flavors, though Younger Lovers’ first album initially received a “hateful response from a lot of the gay boys around.

Everyone thought it was this flash-in-the-pan thing, but it’s something I was actually working on for a long time. It was cool to smash a lot of assumptions with Younger Lovers. People would say, ‘Wow, we didn’t know you played an instrument. We thought you were just kind of drunk and danced around.'”

Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

People still ask him about those old shows, but he admits to not

remembering a lot of it and that some of that life bleeds over to now. “I would call myself an alcoholic.

I would never call myself a drug addict. I feel like the next set of Younger Lovers’ songs will probably be about addiction.”

Purnell is nothing if not self-aware; he points out his own patterns of over-consumption, whether it be food, men, drugs, or alcohol. But his ability to turn weakness into strength is artistry in itself. In his dance company’s The Episodes, universal themes of struggling with identity and finding oneself are apparent, but being black and gay only makes the search for acceptance that much harder.

“I romanticize the outsider. There’s always going to be this running theme of me versus the world, but it’s never so personal to me because I feel like I’m embodying the story of 100 of my friends in one voice.”

In one sequence, “Tub,” Purnell soaks a new pair of jeans while talking on the phone to a friend. The veil of humor is used to deal with heavier topics, as he segues from commentary on butch gays (or “bearded ladies,” as he likes to call them) with their trendy “Hitler Youth haircuts” and how he’s disappointed when they think he’s too effeminate for them, to his own T-cell count, to some suspiciously descriptive-drug scenarios that involve snorting heroin. Another segment recalls a “redneck teacher bitch” from his home state of Alabama, giving the class scientifically incorrect and insensitive, to say the least, explanations of where AIDS comes from.

“I never let humor interfere with what is definitely a message,” Purnell says. “Underneath it all, there is going to be that point where somebody is like, ‘Oh shit. He’s not joking. He’s joking, but he’s totally not joking.’ Humor is actually a really dangerous tool.”

His truth, he says doesn’t always set him free, but as the saying goes — sometimes it hurts. And that’s the beauty of what Purnell does: He looks at his reality, his disappointments, and his personal achievements, and he’s able to persist. He remains one of the more resilient creative forces on the scene he helped make, despite oftentimes receiving second-tier ranking to some of his contemporaries.

Does he play the victim? Well, he gets accused of it a lot, but that’s because of “people’s fucked-up views on what a victim is.” He recites a James Baldwin quote he loves: “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”

In short: Purnell is not a victim — he’s a fighter. And as a singer, songwriter, musician, choreographer, dancer, and performer, he proves himself by doing all these things … and then some.

One ringy-dingy



STAGE “Oh, Ernestine has plenty to say about the current phone-surveillance thing,” the irrepressible Lily Tomlin told me, referencing her famous “one ringy-dingy” phone operator character and the recent NSA spying revelations. (Tomlin was driving down an LA freeway on her way to do some errands, popping in and out of coverage on her hands-free.)

In fact, another classic phrase from Ernestine, who’s been snooping on calls since Tomlin’s 1970s days on Martin and Rowan’s Laugh-In, rather appropriately sums up the civilian surveillance clusterbuck: “Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?”


“Back during the whole Bush wiretapping time, Ernestine became an emblem for political cartoonists,” Tomlin continues. “But her association with government shenanigans goes back through Iran-Contra, all the way to Nixon and Watergate. In fact, during Iran-Contra in the ’80s, I was performing at the Emmys — I was up for one that year — and I called up G. Gordon Liddy to do a skit with Ernestine. He was going to play Oliver North! And I would be eavesdropping on him. He agreed, but then I backed off because I thought I was making too much light of the whole thing.”

The rogue’s gallery in the above paragraph gives some indication of Tomlin’s longevity in the biz, as well as her necessity. “I’ve been performing since I could basically walk,” she says. “When I was growing up in Detroit, I used to hang a blanket as a curtain on my back porch and put on shows for my family and neighbors. And then, because it started to get dangerous on the streets, I immersed myself in afterschool arts programs. I started incorporating film in to my performances, as well as comedy, drama, a little of this and a whole lot of that. I think I was the original performance artist!”   

Along with Ernestine, Tomlin’s essential characters like Edith Ann, Mrs. Beaszley, Sister Boogie Woman — maybe even her characters from 9 to 5 and Big Business, please? — will be in tow for “An Evening of Classic Lily Tomlin” worth trekking up to Napa to catch. The show, a version of which Tomlin performs 30-50 times a year, is a a kind of constantly evolving greatest hits extravaganza. “These characters never leave me; I’m constantly playing with them in my head, like some weird kind of checkerboard,” Tomlin said with a laugh. “But they have to say something, something relevant. Somehow, of course, it always seems like there’s something for them to say, especially lately.”

Now 73, Tomlin’s coming off a season on TV as the pot-happy hillbilly grandma from Reba McEntire’s sitcom Malibu Country and the Tina Fey movie Admission. She’s also a regular as Lisa Kudrow’s mother on web series Web Therapy, an avid social media user, and a crusader for several causes. “Darn good genes,” she says when I gasp at her energy, roughly 1000 times any other human’s. “I had an aunt just pass away at 91. Marke, she would have lived to 120 if the smoker’s emphysema hadn’t slowed her down.”

And her maverick feminist spirit still shines bright. “There’s more opportunity for women in this business now than when I started out. Working with Tina and Lisa was inspirational, and now with new media, the possibilities are really opening up. I mean, people used to think women did comedy only because they were too ugly to do anything else. When I first started getting better known, I can’t tell you how many people came up to me saying, ‘Oh, Lily, you’re so much prettier than you are on television!’ Ha. Can you believe that?”


Doors 7pm, show 8pm, $70-$85

The Uptown

1350 Third St., Napa

(707) 259-0123

Harmon’s way



THEATER Dan Harmon, performing at this year’s SF Sketchfest, is on the phone, talking about therapy. He’s explaining his belief that a person can find a mental illness for anything they can name, with some fetishistic examples. “There are people out there who like to be walked on,” the creator and former show runner of NBC’s Community says. “There’s people who like to eat human fecal matter. There’s people who want to have sex with kites.”

“Hold on, Dan. Are there really?” I ask, making a note to Google it later.

“I guarantee it. I promise you. There are six billion people in the world and there’s gotta be someone who wants to have sex with a kite. But I don’t know if you’d ever find someone that craves the feeling of being alone.”

We’re on the subject because of Harmontown, the comedy show-town hall meeting-podcast Harmon regularly holds in the back of an LA comic shop, based around “one day forming a colony of like-minded misfits.” Harmon’s about to take the show on a daunting cross-country tour, that will stop in SF for Sketchfest before returning to LA. It’s been eight months since Harmon was unceremoniously fired from the much-analyzed, but little-watched sitcom Community by Sony, and had a public feud with actor Chevy Chase that brought a TMZ level of public scrutiny. Subsequently, the Harmontown episodes have frequently taken on the air of a psychiatric session, with the audience filling an important role.

“The whole point of therapy is the therapist doesn’t particularly matter. You’re listening to yourself talk and I think some people are more comfortable talking to one guy holding a clipboard if they’re going to say ‘Hey, I put a Sharpie pen up my ass the other day, does that make me a pervert?’ I feel weirder saying that to one guy with a masters degree and a tiny office who doesn’t laugh than I do telling it to eight people in the back of a comic book store. It feels healthier to do the latter.”

Harmon doesn’t hold much back; after all, this is a guy that earlier in his career broke ground (and insert obvious pun here) with the self-explanatory “Laser Fart” web series for the no-budget, no restrictions, faux-TV network/film festival, Channel101.com (which he co-founded.) A performer only as a hobby, a “self-destructive writer” by trade, there’s no stand-up at Harmontown and ideally little planning. Instead, alcohol-enabled improv and tangents can lead to talking about being hit with a belt by his father, getting dangerously close to breaking up with frequent guest and girlfriend Erin McGathy on stage, or having Ricki Lake Show-styled heart-to-hearts with the audience.

It could be alienating, but Harmon’s uproarious logic, perspective, and self-awareness (an overabundance of which has caused his work to frequently be deemed “meta”) has gained him a following. “Where I tend to go,” says Harmon, “I tend to start asking the question ‘Am I a good person? Am I a good person?’ over and over again, and a kind of family forms around me. Or everyone else gets repelled.”

Channel101.com was at one time the focal point for this quasi-family. “It was like a barn raising, a church, something we did each month,” recalls Harmon. “We had a thing that we did and a belief system, and that was definitely something that I craved and wanted.” But as Community took over his life for three years, Harmon no longer could make the monthly films required, and moved into a fatherly rather than brotherly role.

Harmontown‘s filled that space, in a culty sort of way, with white-boy freestyle raps and live Dungeons and Dragons. The show tends to draw out bright millennials, eager Aspergians, and closeted creatives who find Harmon’s neuroses at least amusing but more often inspiring (also: nerds). It’s a mix that suit-wearing co-host Jeff B. Davis (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) best termed a “mutual anxiety association.” Harmontown isn’t meant for everybody. But that’s clearly by design. And as he hits the road with the show, Harmon’s looking for his people. 


Jan. 31, 8pm, sold out

Punch Line Comedy Club

444 Battery, SF



All kinds of work and one play



THEATER SF Sketchfest, running this year Jan. 24-Feb. 10, has changed the face of comedy in the Bay Area. It has done this by importing faces, many very funny faces, and mingling them with a complement of local ones. The precise composite changes yearly but, 12 years on, the juggernaut founded by David Owen, Cole Stratton, and Janet Varney has developed one of the largest comedy profiles in the country. My spellcheck may still not recognize improv as a word, but there’s no denying the influence this festival has had on the Bay Area’s exposure to the greater world of comedy.

Fans of drama may wish to know that this year’s comedy feast — which again unfolds across everything from standup to game shows to film-related events — also includes a little theatrical soufflé called SEX a.k.a. Wieners and Boobs, a 1998 work for the stage penned by State cofounders Joe Lo Truglio, Michael Showalter, and David Wain. The play, although hardly what you’d call regional fare, has since been published, and gleefully mounted by amateur companies here and there. But its creators — who famously went on to other things, including films such as Wet Hot American Summer (2001) — are only now revisiting the work themselves.

Lo Truglio explains that the genesis of the play was owed to Maria Striar, founder of New York’s Clubbed Thumb theater company, who in 1998 called up her old Brown University classmate Showalter with a last-minute invitation.

“They were doing a summer series, and one of the plays had dropped out,” recalls Lo Truglio by phone from Los Angeles. “So Maria called Michael Showalter and said, ‘Do you guys have anything you want to do?’ He said yes immediately. The catch was that we didn’t have anything ready. So we had to write the play in about three days.”

They started with the title, according to Lo Truglio, only because Striar needed to place an ad in the paper the next day. Coming out of theatrical left field, he acknowledges that a grabber was in order. “We just came up with that title to get people to come see it,” he explains. Taking no chances, the ad also promised a scene from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross — a claim the authors later make good on in one of the play’s brasher non-sequiturs.

The plot was borrowed from High Noon and set in a Teaneck, New Jersey menaced by a cranky desperado named Tad Theaterman. That narrative spine supports some wayward elephantine flesh, including a meta-theatrical opening scene involving a Q&A with the audience, and the aforementioned segue into Mamet (pronounced “mam-AY” in the play). Other moments were derived from previously untapped material, as Lo Truglio remembers.

“We had some bits that might have come from, probably not the State, but some stuff that David [Wain] and Showalter did at Stella, when they were doing live shows in Time Cafe on Lafayette in New York City. I also performed there and did some characters. I think a few characters and maybe a couple of the scenes in SEX were born out of that. But the majority was just this new-sheriff-in-town idea. We have a scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, because we just thought would be so cool to perform. [The process] went along those lines: what kind of thing would we like to see in a play? What bit do we have that we haven’t been able to use anywhere else?”

San Francisco audiences will be the first to see what this late 20th-century opus looks like in the garish light of a new millennium, with its creators in the roles they originated 15 years ago.

“I have no idea how it’s going to play after so many years,” admits Lo Truglio. “It’s very vignettey, which is a new word I’m coining. Looking back now, I think we would have cut out a lot of it. But it’s only about 55 pages anyway.”

A glance at the script suggests there’s still gold in them there pages, and anyway it’s hard to imagine the play’s triumvirate disappointing an audience reared on the State and all the subsequent work it has spawned. For his part, Lo Truglio looks forward to returning to a festival he recalls fondly and sees as essential.

“It’s fantastic that Janet Varney and the rest of those guys have created an annual event where really the best people in comedy go to perform,” he enthuses. “I think it’s important. It’s very similar to the way I feel about Marc Maron’s podcast, which I think is a terrific, really important record of some amazingly talented comics and actors. At Sketchfest there are so many people who are interested in comedy, different types of comedy, that it creates a terrific environment for it to thrive.” 


Feb. 8, 8pm, $30

Marines Memorial Theatre

609 Sutter, SF




Stage might



YEAR IN THEATER In addition to Christmas lights, the seasonal landscape would not be the same without a thick, shiny coating of awards. We reflect on some highs (and a few lows) from the year in theater with a nod of appreciation here, a nod of respect there, or just a nod, short and involuntary, before the house lights jolt us awake again.

Best theme, or, the year of living nervously Every year it seems like an unplanned, unintentional theme emerges from the collective theatrical hive mind, and this year it was definitely our ever-uneasy relationship with technology. From Mugwumpin’s Future Motive Power, an electric ode to the oft-overlooked genius of inventor Nikola Tesla; to Josh Costello’s dynamic adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s tech-age YA novel Little Brother at Custom Made Theatre Co.; to a stunning revival of Philip Glass’ 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach — technology’s omnipresence seeped onto the stage.

An incomplete list of other plays that variously explored this theme in 2012: Machine at the Crucible, FWD: Life Gone Viral at the Marsh, The Hundred Flowers Project at Crowded Fire, Status Update at Center REP, She Was a Computer by Cara Rose DeFabio, Zombie Vixens From Hell by Virago Theatre Company, and a quintet of newly-translated August Strindberg chamber plays at Cutting Ball Theater. (Nicole Gluckstern)

Best ensemble Choreographer-performer Keith Hennessy’s experimental project Turbulence (a dance about the economy) was the most unusual and fascinating piece to appear this year, hands down, and it featured a deceptively chaotic eruption of performances by a highly skilled ensemble of artist-generators whose sheer present-mindedness made me toss out my zafu in frustration. (Robert Avila)

Best “The Peasants are Revolting!” Just like a case of herpes, you just can’t keep a good revolution down, and who better to tackle the over-the-top outrageousness and poke-to-the-establishment’s-eye of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade than the wild and wily Thrillpeddlers? Set in a dilapidated insane asylum spray-painted with “Occupy” slogans and bathroom humor, starring the Marquis de Sade (Jeff Garrett) and a fully engaged complement of rabble and aristocracy, and stuffed with show tunes and moments of questionable taste, Marat/Sade played out like it was written expressly for the notoriously ribald and exhibitionistic Thrillpeddlers, right down to the “copulation pantomime.” (Gluckstern)

Pithiest acronym for a musical: Actor-musician-playwright DavEnd’s rowdy and saucy and smart new musical F.A.G.G.O.T.S. the Musical, directed by D’Arcy Drollinger, had a very long title (Fabulously Artistic Guys Get Overtly Traumatized Sometimes: The Musical!) but all too short a run when it premiered this year at CounterPULSE — so it was great to learn it’s coming back in February 2013. (Avila)

Best armchair cultural revolution The experience of watching The Hundred Flowers Project at Crowded Fire was like being trapped in a distilled version of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and all its ostentatious unpredictability. An unstable yet mesmerizing territory of shifting alliances and heightened paranoia, implicating even the colluding silent majority of the audience, Christopher Chen’s epic sprawl created a landscape of Big Brother totalitarianism with the deceptively innocuous building blocks of social media technology and theatricality. A recurring theme in the piece is that of zeitgeist, and Chen admirably captured the nervous implications of our own. (Gluckstern)

Best couple to give George and Martha a run for their money Megan Trout and Joe Estlack as Beth and Jake in Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind at Boxcar Theatre. Trout and Estlack were powerhouses, terrifying and devastating by turns, but director Susannah Martin’s production was a winner all around, fitting nicely into Boxcar’s generally outstanding four-play Sam Shepard festival. (Avila)

Most glam-infused baker’s dozen Another from Boxcar: its summertime take on beloved rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch was certainly the most vibrant live production of it I’ve ever seen. Filling the stage with 12 Hedwigs and one very kickass Yitzhak (Anna Ishida), director Nick A. Olivero enhanced the rock club vibe with his unique line-up of “fractured” Hedwigs in skintight gear dripping with sweat and glitter, a guest DJ, and plenty of interaction with the rowdy Hed-heads who packed the house. (Gluckstern)

Best supporting cast Rami Margron in Precious Little at Shotgun. A fine three-member ensemble (also featuring Zehra Berkman and Nancy Carlin) was made to seem much larger thanks especially to Margron’s nimble work as, alternately, a streetwise graduate student, the nebbishy daughter of an aging research subject, a chirpy medical counselor, a relentlessly talkative little girl, and an entire crowd of visitors to the zoo. (Avila)

Most pleasurable peeks behind the mask Although the subject matter of each play were completely different, what The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (at Aurora Theatre) and Truffaldino Says No (at Shotgun Players) had in common was their unmasking of traditionally disguised figures whose role in life is to entertain: professional wrestlers and commedia dell’arte stock characters. Masks off, a pair of truly memorable characters emerged — fall guy in the ring Macedonio “Mace” Guerra (Tony Sancho), and Truffaldino (William Thomas Hodgson), set to follow in the pratfalling footsteps of his father, the famous Arlecchino (Stephen Buescher). While neither play was entirely without flaw, these winsome protagonists bore their respective identity crises with wit, bravery, and heart. (Gluckstern)

Most prescient debut Mojo Theatre. It was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many miles away from the storm’s path, in an obscure upstairs theater of the old Redstone Building on 16th Street, that Lost Love, a little jewel of an existentialist comedy from director-playwright Peter Papadopoulos, marked the San Francisco debut of impressive newcomers Mojo Theatre — and prefigured the day’s events with humane intelligence and uncanny meteorological instincts. (Avila)

Best example of “I might as well have slept in and just read the press release” The art of the interview is a delicate balance of research and serendipity, and just as important as knowing what questions to ask is knowing when to let the subject take the lead — which made interviewing the truly legendary playwright Eve Ensler on her newest piece, Emotional Creature (performed at Berkeley Rep), so frustrating. She never deviated from her well-worn script with any fresh insights, to the point where it didn’t seem to matter what my questions were. My only consolation is the fact that every other interview I’ve read with Ensler on the topic has unfolded almost word-for-word the same as my own — so at least I know I’m not alone. (Gluckstern)

Sexiest scene in which the actors don’t move (but the stage does) Alex Moggridge and Marilee Talkington at a slowly rotating pub table in Mark Jackson’s Salomania at Aurora. Eros and Thanatos seemed in a slow dance with each other in this striking flirtation between a jaded frontline soldier and a war widow recently liberated from stultifying domesticity. (Avila)

Most graceful bow Becoming Grace at the Jewish Theatre. Naomi Newman’s potent solo play, built from the words and writing of author Grace Paley, closed the 34th and final season of San Francisco’s esteemed Jewish Theatre (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre). (Avila)

Best musical theater collaboration The Ratcatcher at the Imaginists. This Santa Rosa company is a must see for lovers of smart, intimate, community-based theater, and their latest, a re-telling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend, is a pitch-perfect dystopian fairytale featuring a memorable cast and an irresistible musical score by full-partners in the production, the Crux. It’s worth the drive, but here’s hoping they bring it down to SF sometime. (Avila)

Best death scene Michael Zavala in Phaedra’s Love at Bindlestiff Studio. Do It Live!’s worthy production of Sarah Kane’s reworking of the Hippolytus myth climaxes with Hippolytus (a hipster hedonist in Zavala’s capable rendering), castrated and disemboweled, but finally interested in life. (Avila) *


Short takes by Robert Avila:

Best impersonation of a pervy authority figure Sara Moore as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company at Finn’s Funhouse

Best argument for going color blind Red at Berkeley Rep

Best approximation of a teenager Ann Lawler as Theresa in 100 Saints You Should Know, at Theater Rhino

Worst approximation of teenagers Jesus in India, at the Magic Theatre

Best actual teenagers Director Nick A. Olivero’s excellent, age-appropriate cast in Dog Sees God at Boxcar

Most existentially satisfying use of a digital delay Sara Kraft’s TRUTH++ at the This Is What I Want festival at SOMArts

Best lounge act without a lounge Anne McGuire (and Anne McGuire) and Wobbly in Music Again at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Misery over mistletoe



THEATER Cabaret, The Threepenny Opera, Macbeth — Berkeley’s Shotgun Players has a record of bucking the feel-good trend in holiday shows. More often than not, this comes as a welcome reprieve from the exhausting regimen of glib seasonal cheer. This year marks a case in point, as director Mark Jackson and the company mount the Bay Area premiere of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s musical adaptation of 19th century German literary giant Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck. This version was originally conceived and staged in 2000, in Denmark, by American avant-garde director Robert Wilson (part of another creative triumvirate behind October’s revival of Einstein on the Beach at Cal Performances).

Although written in 1836, Woyzeck (inspired by an 1821 murder trial) feels utterly contemporary at its core. It’s the story of a poor, half-addled, half-haunted soldier who kills his faithless lover. Woyzeck (played by an aptly harried-looking, volatile yet achingly sympathetic Alex Crowther) just barely supports his girlfriend Marie (Madeline H.D. Brown) and their infant child by working as a servant to the local Captain (Anthony Nemirovsky) and by submitting to medical experiments at the hands of an avid Doctor (Kevin Clarke). Marie, though she seems to love him, is clearly troubled by Woyzeck’s erratic behavior: symptoms of what today would be labeled PTSD. In Woyzeck’s absence she succumbs to the seduction of a predatory Drum Major (Joe Estlack). Driven into a rage of jealousy and despair, Woyzeck stabs her to death. (Andy Alabran as dim-witted neighbor Karl; Kenny Toll as Woyzeck’s half-sympathetic pal Andres; and a mellifluous Beth Wilmurt as neighbor and prostitute Margaret round out the cast.)

Woyzeck is technically an incomplete work: Büchner died of typhus (at a mere 23 years of age) before he could complete the play, as the brilliant young writer, medical student, and devoted pupil of the French Revolution was trying to stay one step ahead of arrest for his social revolutionary activities. Nevertheless, the work he left behind has a definite shape and integrity to it that have made it an irresistible part of the modern canon since its first production in 1913 — a prescient year for a prescient play, whose jagged edges, violent laughter and harrowing visions anticipate our own time and the dehumanizing machine that gets underway in earnest with the mechanized slaughter of 1914–18.

Woyzeck, the worried lover, is also the lowly servant-slave-guinea pig of hubristic, ridiculous, hypocritical authority. Although stressed and bemused by the Captain (played as a bloated man-child in Nemirovsky’s spirited interpretation) and the Doctor (a maniacally cheerful deviant in Clarke’s finely sculpted performance), Woyzeck nevertheless manages moments of penetrating insight into the corruption of the “moral” order around him. Marie’s pure-hearted vitality, meanwhile, underscores its own impossibility in an inhuman regime of naked exploitation — one only made possible, it seems, by an ideological smokescreen of “enlightened” values, progress, and moral uplift (concentrated, of course, in the wealthy).

The tale of this hapless soldier becomes a deeply resonant murder ballad in the hands of Waits and Brennan, a poignantly tragic love story that encompasses a wider wicked world in every beat and snaking melody. From the resounding opening theme, “Misery Is the River of the World,” the music proves broodingly brilliant in its unfussy and crystalline poetry; alternately lilting, inebriating, and delicately forlorn in its inexorable pulse. An impressive five-member band (billed as Bob Starving and the Whalers) discharges its task with aplomb. Comprised of multi-instrumentalists Cory Wright, Josh Pollock, (musical director) David Möschler, Ami Nashimoto, and Travis Kindred, the band perches on the second tier of Nina Ball’s grimly urban split-level set behind the louche partition of a beaded curtain. The cast, meanwhile, renders respectable, if rarely exceptional, vocal treatments throughout. But the music is compelling enough that respectable works quite well.

Jackson (a Shotgun company member, and the principal conspirator behind last season’s worthy premiere, God’s Plot) takes a sure and playful approach to the staging, which pays off dramatically in several scenes (especially those involving the excellent performances by Estlack and Clarke). But the staging (including the costuming by Christine Crook) proves gratuitously naturalistic at times, drawing our attention in distracting directions through certain overloaded signifiers of status, like a fast food bag or, less intrusively, a candy bar that substitutes for a cigar (hey, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). The almost perfunctory attempt to ground the action in an immediate American context also flitters across some of the line delivery, albeit only slightly, as when Marie (a generally solid and enchanting Brown) sings, in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” of forgotten soldiers from forgotten wars. While it may make perfect sense at one level, the production’s self-conscious emphasis on the here and now can also muddy the waters of a work that otherwise peers deep into the abyss of a much wider sea. *


Through Jan. 27

Wed-Thu, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 5pm, $23-35

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk



GOLDIES 2012: PianoFight


GOLDIES A PianoFight show can be almost as striking for its audience as for what the company puts onstage, even if few audiences will upstage a machine that blows ducks out of people’s butts, per Duck Lake. PianoFight crowds are conspicuously not your typical theatergoers — they’re closer to the boisterous women in office attire I noticed at the now-defunct Off-Market Theater, PianoFight’s old haunt, who had smuggled in a bottle of Chardonnay and were picnicking in a back row like it was Baker Beach. Such eager insouciance is one sign of this young company’s burgeoning success.

“We’re aiming for those people,” says Rob Ready. “We’re aiming our stuff at Giants fans. That’s who we want in the door. Our generation didn’t grow up with theatergoing as a habit.”

“On the contrary,” says Ready’s colleague, Dan Williams. “You grew up with theater as a joke, as a byline for something boring and stuffy. There’s no reason it has to be that.”

Let it be known that PianoFight is doing its part to insure it isn’t. A PianoFight show takes many forms — sketch comedy, original drama, new play festivals, oyster-fuelled theater al fresco, a rotten vegetable barrage, or the fowl comedy-horror-ballet-musical mash-up of 2012’s aforementioned Duck Lake — but it always includes a rambunctious spirit of collusion with an audience who, very often, take some part in the proceedings.

Ready and Williams, two guys whose laid-back nature belies their seriousness and savvy as theatrical entrepreneurs, first met doing theater in their Santa Barbara high school. After Ready got his arts degree at NYU, he moved out to San Francisco specifically to start a theater company with Williams, who was then working a day job downtown. In Ready’s hands was his own script for a play based on NYU’s string of student suicides called Roommate Wanted. With the help of friends and family, they produced a successful two-weekend run in 2007.

From this humble beginning, PianoFight has mushroomed into a multi-faceted, multi-armed organization that includes sketch comedy troupe Mission Control and its female-driven counterpart, Monday Night ForePlays. It regularly sells out shows, boasts a semi-official “flexible” roster of 46 company members (with many more in unofficial orbit around the company), and is building its own bar-theater complex on the site of the old Original Joe’s on Taylor Street.

Along the way, it’s toured the West Coast (twice), scattered a set of new playlets across an oyster bed in Tomales Bay (two years in a row), opened productions simultaneously in SF and LA, taken four company retreats, and generally developed ambitious programs that balk at the usual small-cast, three-weekend production model, while adding fuel to the fire of local playwrights like Tim Bauer, William Bivins (Pulp Scripture, The Position), Jon Brooks, Megan Cohen, Bennett Fisher, Daniel Heath (FORKING!, A Merry FORKING! Christmas), and Lauren Yee, among others.

Ready and Williams credit Matthew Quinn with taking a chance on their inexperienced but fervent selves when the producing artistic director of Combined Art Form Entertainment, who had co-founded Off-Market Theater in 2004, handed them the keys in 2007. PianoFight eventually left Off-Market when the rent rose, but by then it was on a roll, having proved resourceful and inspired in its own venue. When tenants Point Break Live! moved onto a bigger venue, for instance, Ready and Williams filled the gap by inventing “the nation’s largest audience-judged playwriting competition,” the (now long-lived) ShortLived series.

“So glad Point Break Live! dropped out,” muses Williams, “because ShortLived turned out to be an amazing community builder. It really was one of the biggest drivers of our company initially, since we had to get a bunch of actors, a bunch of directors, and a bunch of writers.”

“The R&D wing of the theater business is [made up of] small, scrappy companies,” says Ready. “If it was just us I’d be, ‘All right, we’re just that more awesome,’ but it’s not. There are a lot of people saying theater can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”

As for the name PianoFight, apparently there’s no short answer to that question. I was invited to come back some time with a bottle of whiskey and ask again. “Have at least 24 hours,” cautions Williams. “You’ve got to set aside some time, some whiskey … and bring a credit card, too.”

GOLDIES 2012: Mica Sigourney


GOLDIES Regular appearances are not Mica Sigourney’s thing. True, most Friday nights you’ll find alt-persona VivvyAnne ForeverMORE! at the Stud hosting Some Thing, the boisterously resourceful drag cavalcade (formerly Tiara Sensation) started two years ago with drag mother Glamamore and dj down-E. Even there, though, you couldn’t call VivvyAnne’s appearance regular: one night it’s ersatz Dior, another it’s lipstick, hobo beard, and a jock strap.

Beyond that, you never know where or how you’ll see either VivvyAnne or Sigourney. This is an artist drawn not only to the spotlight (what drag queen isn’t?) but to the genuinely experimental and demanding, whose work runs the gamut from go-go to performance art to contemporary dance (the latter most notably as an all-out ensemble member of Laura Arrington’s Wag in 2011) and in the process bridges the nightlife and performance scenes with untiring ingenuity.

This crossover élan was on display at the 2009 National Queer Arts Festival with the unveiling of Martha Martha Martha, a drag piece co-created with Eli Magid (a.k.a. Elijah Minnelli) in which some maniacally looped dialogue from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gets refracted through a stage-full of renegade Liz Taylors. A year later, at the debut of Keith Hennessy and Julie Phelps’ “Too Much!” marathon of queer performance, VivvyAnne ForeverMORE! led an impressive roster of SF drag superstars into the proceedings (including Glamamore and Fauxnique, a.k.a. past Goldie winner Monique Jenkinson, another major influence).

That showcase brought the nightlife scene squarely into the realm of contemporary queer performance, and evolved into the sporadic Work MORE! series, based on crossover collaboration between highly distinct artists. Sigourney, who just produced its fourth installment in August, plans to tour it next year. Meanwhile, a 2012 CounterPULSE residency produced the winking hubris of MASTERWORK, marshaling a cast of po-mo drag queens under Sigourney’s control to question the egotism of the artist and the role of the audience. And in a highlight of 2012’s This Is What I Want festival, Sigourney re-purposed his performance fee to negotiate his sexual currency in real-time with his audience, while a chorus beside him voiced the testimonials of ex-lovers.

The brio and subtle play in these and other works keep Sigourney a vital presence on multiple stages, as well as an important catalyst for new work. But the more makeshift outings, without any stage at all, can be just as memorable: Sigourney in a crowded men’s room at SOMArts, for instance, seated at a table in a wife-beater beside a stack of his own poems, some pages from David Wojnarowicz, a fifth of bourbon, and a lot of shot glasses.

“It was the first time I’d brought my writing into a performance,” says Sigourney of the inebriated presentation in the john (mounted as part of SOMArts’ monthly new queer performance showcase, “The News”). “It was my writing and Wojnarowicz’s from two of his books, and the audience picked what I read.” Sigourney offered bourbon to anyone who wanted a shot with their request, and he committed himself to always drinking one with them. “I was trying to layer people on top of people. It was good for that,” recalls the artist, a little hazily. “Someone actually used the bathroom.”

Another sighting: a makeshift biergarten in Portland last September, during one of the nightly after-parties for that city’s Time-Based Art festival. Out of a small huddle by the fence rises VivvyAnne like a gibbous moon, flashlight held firmly to her face and balancing her leggy fishnets on a combination of high heels and patio furniture. After instructing the crowd in a few dance steps, she leads an impromptu off-program all her own, lip-syncing to a boom box that blasted Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.”

Surprisingly, the Long Island native, a longtime theater (and later, club) kid who moved to San Francisco in 2004 and birthed VivvyAnne ForeverMORE! in 2008, says drag was something he grew up admiring but never thought he could do. Maybe that’s why he can do so much with it.

“I’ll never be a ‘lady lady’ drag queen,” he says. “It just won’t happen for me. So I started out saying fuck the illusion, what illusion? I’d wear things where my chest was exposed or a see-through dress or just underwear. There’s no illusion here to ruin in the first place. Once we agree that it is an illusion [we’re after], then we can make it together.”




THEATER/DANCE A bobcat sat in the grass beside the main building at Headlands Center for the Arts one quiet morning last week. He (I say he because he’s “bob”) took no notice of me but instead nonchalantly lifted a hind leg over his shoulder and took a short tongue-bath. I was told he’d been seen hanging around a lot over the last few days, closer than usual, clearly trying to pass himself off as an ordinary housecat. Or looking for field mice. Whatever he was up to, he seemed relaxed and in no hurry.

Inside the building — one of the repurposed military barracks comprising the Headlands’ bucolic campus — the mood felt very much the same. Melinda Ring assured me this was an illusion, at least as far as she was concerned. As a small group of fellow resident artists drank coffee and chatted in an opposite corner of the otherwise deserted dining hall, the New York–based and Los Angeles–bred experimental choreographer explained, in a calm and good-natured tone, the amount of work still before her in further developing and preparing two back-to-back sessions of her Mouse Auditions.

This intriguing and thought-provoking meta-dance — in which local performers try out for a work based on Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis that will never actually be realized — makes its West Coast debut this weekend as part of Headlands’ annual Open House, featuring new works and works-in-progress from this season’s multidisciplinary array of artists-in-residence.

Ring’s Mouse Auditions had its premiere at the 2010 Whitney Biennial as a site-specific live performance built on artist (and Ring’s good friend) Martin Kersels’ 5 Songs sculpture. While she already had had the idea of a performance built out of an endless audition, the opportunity to choreograph around the five-piece sculpture inspired some specifics, including her title.

“It was my most immediate response to Martin Kersels’ sculpture,” she explains, “a rather cartoonish monstrous Playmobil thing. I thought, ‘I see this populated by disaffected mice.’ Then, I’m an experimental choreographer, so mice make sense in that they are often experimented on. Plus, the creature that [Kafka’s character Gregor Samsa] becomes is most directly translated as vermin, not beetle. So I thought that gives me a pass. The word is crossed-out in the title because I’m not certain that finally, in the never-to-be performed work, the performers will be cast as mice.”

Packed inside that set of associations are Mouse Auditions‘ questions and concerns about art and commerce, working bodies, and the pliable nature of social identities and relations. Ring’s project focuses her would-be (but also actual) performers on the moments just before and just after the novella’s opening line, as Gregor awakens “from unsettling dreams” to find himself transmogrified. The exploration undertaken in the room, among strangers, uses a script (posted on Ring’s website) that draws directly from her own longstanding reflections on the economic realities of art making — and specifically those confronting dancers as laboring bodies.

“The two things that I’ve been focusing on with Metamorphosis are this idea of Gregor as a worker, the stress of his being a worker, the relationship with his boss, the obligation he has to his family — somehow mixing that up with the relationship that I’m trying to make with these people who would supposedly be my workers. And the other thing is this confusion and chaos that he experiences; that his body isn’t recognizable to him. It connects very directly to the way I’m working in [my] other highly choreographed dances. That really interests me, that experience he’s having.”

The Headlands residency is part of Ring’s ongoing development of a piece whose potential she feels is still unfolding. Indeed, though it originated in a museum gallery, Ring sees Mouse Auditions as applicable to a wider set of spaces and social settings, since its themes and structure are rooted in a provocative examination of some basic material and social realities.

The Marin setting, with its distinct environment (and competing wildlife), will no doubt set up its own reverberations, not least because the participants (unlike in New York) will be almost entirely strangers to Ring. But wherever it lands next, there’s something in the piercing comedy, subtle negotiation and absurd, Sisyphean optimism of a potentially endless audition — in which every applicant is already a performer in a piece about a piece that will never be made — that sure sounds close to home. *


Sun/4, noon-5pm, free

Headlands Center for the Arts

Building 961

944 Simmonds, Sausalito


Asylum seekers



THEATER From Broadway blockbuster Les Misérables (at the Orpheum) to offbeat courtly lounge act Her Rebel Highness (at Harlot), 18th-century radical postures are enjoying an unexpected vogue at the moment — as anachronistic and bracing as a pinch of snuff. But let the truly adventurous eat Marat/Sade. In what may be the year’s most felicitous blend of company, producer, and material, Thrillpeddlers and Marc Huestis offer an exuberant, exquisitely trashy, and note-perfect revival of Peter Weiss’s radical 1963 play, permeating the enormous Brava Theatre with an infectious delirium perfectly in sync with restive times.

Helmed with operatic flourishes and insouciant humor by artistic director Russell Blackwood, Marat/Sade unfolds meticulously and vibrantly across an imposing pasteboard set (by James Blackwood) that aptly looks something like a sprawling lavatory with enormous glory holes, covered over in political graffiti (from “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” to “Ayn Rand fucks you”). Whatever debt it owes to the original legendary production (staged by Peter Brook for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and made into a film in 1967), this Marat/Sade is fully inhabited by the raucous libertine spirit and Grand Guignol aesthetic of Blackwood’s adventurous company and its artistic confreres — including former Cockettes Scrumbly Koldewyn (the show’s astute musical director and pianist) and Rumi Missabu (who excels as the straightjacketed and wild-eyed Jacques Roux, radical upstart priest of the French Revolution).

The play’s full title — The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade — pretty much says it all, plot-wise. The date is July 13, 1808, 15 years to the day after Girondist partisan Charlotte Corday stabbed Jacobin leader Marat to death as he soaked in his bath. The French Revolution, having since lost many more lives in a tidal wave of bloodshed, has succumbed to Napoleon and the return of the old guard, wrapping themselves in the mantle of 1789. A skeptical, revolution-weary but ever defiant Sade (rivetingly personified by a darkly charming Jeff Garrett) has been granted permission to perform his play in the institution’s bathhouse. There the asylum’s director, quintessential bourgeois twit Coulmier (a comically wound yet nicely restrained Brian Trybom), watches the performance with wife (Lisa Appleyard) and daughter (Carina Lastimosa Salazar), intervening now and then to protest feebly Sade’s reinsertion of some previously censored lines.

Sade (once a real-life inmate at Charenton) meanwhile leads his variously deranged cast in a reenactment of the death of the Jacobin leader. The “actors” (or “patients” to Director Coulmier and his regime of mental hygiene) are made up of political dissenters, social deviants, the desperately poor, the disempowered, the mentally ill — the lines blur pointedly here.

This play-within-the-play unfolds like a comically unhinged historical pageant, with bursts of anarchic energy, high political debate, and low provocation — all amid excellent renderings of composer Richard Peaslee’s wonderfully serrated songs (backed by Koldewyn, Victoria Fraser, Eden Neuendorf, and Birdie-Bob Watt on a mix of keyboard, percussion, brass and wind instruments). Marat (played with a biting intensity by a fine Aaron Malberg) argues with Sade while soaking continually in a bath to assuage the fever and itching from a debilitating skin disease, his wounds attended to by spouse Simonne Evrard (a sure Kära Emry).

Before he dies, Marat suffers three separate visits by Corday (played by a delicately incandescent Bonni Suval, as a narcoleptic and melancholic beauty with volcanic depths). But the real purpose of this thin plotline is the airing of competing viewpoints on the nature of revolution, freedom, power, individuality, social solidarity, authority, and (more implicitly) art’s role as a site of radical alternatives.

To this end, the large and able cast has its say in song and other outbursts, variously hysterical, macabre, louche, and chilling. But the preeminent voices are Sade, Marat, Corday, and Roux — all of whom attack, from competing angles, the problem of resistance in the modern age, where bureaucratic class-rule comes in the name of democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, and other terms appropriated by the modern state.

Effortlessly recalling recent popular uprisings across a shuddering planet, these archetypal voices of dissent sound as alive as ever in Weiss’s eloquent dialogue — an iridescent mix of the philosophical, poetical, and scatological. As the cast belts out for a final time the show’s blunt refrain, “We want our revolution now!”, the actors spill over the stage and the inmates take over the asylum, enveloping the audience in a coup d’état that is simultaneously a coup de theatre, and a thoroughly carnivalesque upending of norms. It’s enough to make you lose your head.


Through July 29

Wed-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 7pm (also Sun/22, 1:30pm), $20-$38

Brava Theatre

2781 24th St, SF

(415) 863-0611


Show trial



THEATER The set (by Beowulf Boritt) is almost unassuming in its simplicity: just a trio of receding frames arching over the stage, each progressively more askew, and beneath them a jumble of aluminum chairs piled to one side. Still, such simplicity also hints at, and soon delivers, rich complexity.

The chairs become many things over the course of the evening but first of all a bus stop, where an African American woman (C. Kelly Wright) in 1950s dress waits and remembers. This mute opening scene then gives way to a reverie and nightmare — a memory and history that take the form of a highly fraught “entertainment” — as a man in a white suit and a black string bow tie (Hal Linden), invariably recalling the Old South if only via the emblem of a certain fast-food chicken franchise, comes onto the stage and pronounces the start of the show.

That would be a minstrel show, a notorious artifact of 19th and 20th century American popular culture, which returns with subversive vengeance in The Scottsboro Boys — the iridescent 2010 Broadway musical by the famed song-making team of John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, in collaboration with equally-no-slouch associates David Thompson (book) and Susan Stroman (director and choreographer). Making an impressive Bay Area debut at American Conservatory Theater, The Scottsboro Boys revisits the trials and the international cause célèbre sparked by the false accusation of rape leveled by two white women at nine freight-train–hopping African American youths (all teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 19) in Depression-era Alabama.

If this seems a heavy subject for a musical, that hardly prevents The Scottsboro Boys from being exquisitely well wrought and enthralling, thanks to an excellent score (channeled wonderfully by Eric Ebbenga’s pit orchestra), Stroman’s devilishly potent staging and choreography, and a strikingly multifaceted, charismatic cast that includes a memorable Clifton Duncan as Haywood Patterson, upon whose memoir, Scottsboro Boy, the narrative partly draws (David Bazemore, Cornelius Bethea, Nile Bullock, Christopher James Culberson, Eric Jackson, Jared Joseph, James T. Lane, JC Montgomery, Clifton Oliver, and Clinton Roane make up the rest of the outstanding ensemble).

At the same time, it’s precisely the mesh-clash of form and content —recalling similar canny deployments of popular theatrical forms Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago — that makes Scottsboro a vigorous, if sometimes simplified excavation of the case, as well as this country’s ongoing convolutions over race, sex, ethnicity, and class. A productive tension arises between the show’s exquisite spectacle and the often uncomfortable, even macabre content of the storyline. In just one example, a winning tap number erupts in the young men’s shared jail cell, inspired by the terrifying proximity of the electric chair. So charged a number generates as much thought as emotion, as the audience shifts uneasily in a place where popular entertainment mingles pleasure and complicity, truth and artifice.

The subversive appropriation of minstrelsy is not unique to Scottsboro —there’s the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 1965 production of Minstrel Show, Or Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel, Suzan-Lori Parks’ use of minstrel tropes in Topdog/Underdog and The America Play, and Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, for instance — but the musical deploys it with its own intent, humanizing the young men whose lives were permanently altered by their arrest and the subsequent trials, which became international news when the Communist-led International Labor Defense got involved, sending in celebrated New York attorney Samuel Liebowitz as the new defense counsel. That the trials were themselves the lesser evil in a white Southern regime of lynching and mob justice (waiting, essentially, just outside the walls of the jailhouse) is never lost on the audience either.

Thompson’s admirable book, meanwhile, in the figure of the woman at the bus stop (an unnamed Rosa Parks) bearing witness to the events of the past, draws a line from the Scottsboro case to the later Civil Rights Movement. But, ironically, the use of Rosa Parks obscures as much as it reveals if we think of her as a lone actor who sparks a revolt against an unjust system. She too was a member of a movement culture, one that had built on the activism of the 1930s that first brought the Scottsboro case to light. *


Extended through July 22, $20-$95

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF


Teese and thank you


STAGE With a seductive and sexy nod to the past, modern pin-up and burlesque queen Dita Von Teese has been at the forefront of reviving a once nearly lost art form for two decades.

Bringing back the sense of classic style and glamour of the golden days of Hollywood and meshing it with the tantalizing teasing of the old-time burlesque circuit, Von Teese comes to the city this week with her new “Strip Strip Hooray!” show, a 90-minute revue featuring not only her own titillating talents, but a host of other performers as well, including Dirty Martini, Catherine D’Lish, Selene Luna, Lada, Monsieur Romeo, and Perle Noire.

Von Teese — born Heather Sweet, a naturally blond Midwestern girl — first developed an interest in vintage clothing, pin-up art, and classic burlesque after moving to Southern California, where she started working at a lingerie store as a teenager.

“I fell in love with the imagery of women in the 1940s and ’50s, and that [style of] lingerie, and started looking at the history of women’s underpinnings, and that kind of interested me in pin-up art. By the time I was 17 or 18, I started developing and refining my look, and dressing in vintage clothes,” Von Teese says over the phone from Orange County, where she’s preparing for the tour.

After getting involved in the LA’s underground dance music scene in the early ’90s, Von Teese was taken to a local strip club by a friend, where she was exposed to a slightly different style of performing.

“It actually wasn’t a real strip club — it was like a bikini club — so I went there, and thought, wow these girls are doing kind of the same thing I do, but they get paid a lot more money,” Von Teese laughs.

“So as an experiment I started working there with a fake ID, and I became really interested in the history of strip clubs. I started learning more about the art of striptease, and that led me to burlesque. Most of the pin-up models from the 1930s and ’40s were burlesque dancers; if you opened up a men’s magazine from that time, there were a lot of the famous burlesque dancers in them. I kind of just started putting all of these parallels together, and thinking about what I could do to bring this idea back.”

When she first started out, she received some criticisms from people she met that worked in the industry, most notably for her dyed hair and retro look.

“I knew a lot of people that were shooting for Playboy and Penthouse at the time, and they were like, ‘You can’t have white skin and black hair and wear all these clothes. Playboy and all these people want to see a beautiful California blond!’ But I believed there was a niche waiting to be filled, so that’s how I got my start.”

Fast forward past 20 years of hard work and determination, and Von Teese is the top artist at what she does — which is an incredibly diverse array of work, including not only her live burlesque shows, but also a huge portfolio of pin-up and fashion photo spreads, several books on beauty and the art of striptease, and multiple lines of lingerie and make-up.

Although Von Teese has performed all over the world, and is extremely well known in Europe, “Strip Strip Hooray!” is her first headlining tour of the United States — and something she has been wanting to do for some time.

“Sometimes in America I can feel the whisperings of ‘What does she do, anyways?’ Some people think I just dress up in vintage clothes and drive around vintage cars and watch old movies. Or they’ll say ‘Oh, she’s just a stripper.’ With these shows that I make, I’m the producer, director, financer, choreographer — everything.”

Von Teese wanted to make these shows accessible to most any fan that wants to come see her live — promises nothing short of an amazing show.

“I’ve re-invented it for this tour, with a whole new costume, new music, and a new martini glass prop that’s covered entirely in Swarovksi crystals,” says Von Teese. “I’m just doing what I think is the very best.”


Mon/21-Tue/22, 7pm, $35


1805 Geary, SF

(415) 371-5500


The tender line



THEATER A couple of days after the opening of the Cutting Ball’s documentary play, Tenderloin, I spotted independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson crossing the street at Taylor and Eddy, less than a block from the theater. Drawn to the neighborhood and its residents for decades, Nilsson is one of the more prominent artists who have found inspiration, collaboration and a kind of authenticity in the Tenderloin, long among San Francisco’s poorest and liveliest districts.

Director-writer Annie Elias and her Tenderloin team continue this tradition, with a clear concern to do right by their subjects (among whom happens to be Nilsson himself, played by actor Tristan Cunningham). The action emerges from an opening tableau of street life, featuring the colorful sights and harrying sounds of a rowdy inner-city intersection (nicely augmented by sound designer Matt Stines). Upstage rises scenic designer Michael Locher’s ceiling-high mound of furniture and bric-a-brac, which is fronted by two rows of hanging photographs, loving portraits of local people and places whose panels double as projection screens establishing context for each of the scenes that follow.

The play presents a spectrum of Tenderloin denizens whose stories reflect the dire straits normally associated with this congested low-income slice of downtown, but also the sense of freedom and community some have found there. We hear from the desperate and lonely but even more often from people who have grown to prefer the Tenderloin to more stifling environs.

That positive note lands too forcefully at times, especially when it comes from relatively privileged members of the commuting class (the plugging of the neighborhood by some middle-class patrons at the Nite Cap bar, for instance, begins to sound a little like an ad from the visitors bureau), or professional advocates like Reverend Karen Oliveto (played by Leigh Shaw) at Glide Memorial Church.

By contrast, the play excels when the voices are both genuinely local and agenda-free, as is the case with the story by a man from Sixth Street who haplessly agrees to accept responsibility for a newborn baby from an acquaintance on her way to jail (a story as charming and resonant as a well-crafted short story, and beautifully recreated by actor Michael Kelly).

A set of discrete interviews naturally runs the risk of becoming an aimless narrative, especially without a single dramatic episode or storyline at the center (as is the case with the better-known works in the docudrama genre, such as Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project). Elias sets out to mitigate this problem in several ways, first of all by casting well — in terms of both the selection of interview subjects and the delicate portrayals marshaled by her exceptional ensemble of actor-documentarians (aided by additional writing from David Westley Skillman).

In addition to Michael Kelly’s standout performance throughout, Rebecca Frank does particularly subtle work with a number of memorable personalities, including Leroy B. Looper, the (recently deceased) owner of the Cadillac Hotel, who appears here with wife and longtime business partner Kathy (played gracefully by David Sinaiko). (Siobhan Doherty rounds out the production’s admirable ensemble.)

Elias also relies on dynamic staging, often setting a couple of interviews in alternating tension with one another, a technique that generally serves the production well — as in a sly point-counterpoint between former Tenderloin police captain Gary Jimenez (Kelly) and a homeless person (Cunningham) — even if some scenes prove unnecessarily busy.

But the narrative that emerges, which lays a heavy emphasis on “stripping back the layers” and revealing the truth of the much-maligned district, suffers from the accumulation of a familiar liberal slant toward tolerance and understanding. To the extent it undercuts outrage at a larger system of extreme and degrading inequality, such a slant obscures as much as it reveals. *


Through May 27

Thu, 7:30pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Sun, 5pm, $10-$50

Exit on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF

(415) 525-1205






MUSIC There are so many extravagant things you could say about the late King of Pop, our holy father of stage theatrics and sequined gloves, Michael Jackson. The moon-walking man, the storied myth, the embattled legend.

If you want to get at the core of his power, the lifelong devotion of his millions of followers, try to envision a scenario that took place decades ago; look back at a then-12-year-old choreographer named Laurie Sposit, mimicking dance moves in her bedroom plastered with Michael Jackson posters. “I also wanted the red [Thriller] jacket but my dad wouldn’t get it for me, I was traumatized,” says Sposit from a brief stop in Phoenix, Ariz.

Now grown, Sposit has toured the world with the likes of Madonna, Beyonce, and Janet Jackson, but never had the chance to dance on stage with Michael. As of October, she’s been traveling as dance master for Cirque Du Soleil’s newest grand-scale production Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour. Says Sposit, “it feels like it came full-circle for me.”

A vibrant, eye-popping mixture of remixed videos, pyrotechnics, elaborate costumery, pulsating live music, breakdancers, high-flying acrobats, and a wealth of that classic Michael choreography (including one routine that appears to be performed in a pair of human-sized black loafers and white socks), The Immortal World Tour reflects, expands, and magnifies the classic Michael Jackson live show — with the expected Cirque flair.

Cirque produced something similarly spectacular with the Beatles catalogue (Love), but this one seems to lend itself even more to the format given the sheer drama of Michael-the-star. Written and directed by Jamie King, the production kicked off Oct. 2 in Montreal and is in the midst of a massive tour, with an eventual, inevitable home in Las Vegas. It incorporates the grand span of Michael’s career; there’s even an accompanying remix album which has been charting since its release in November. It’s all there in the production: Jackson 5 hits, “Billie Jean,” “Black or White,” “Dangerous,” “Thriller” — even “Scream,” the hit duet with Janet. The nearly three hour, approximately $60 million production includes more than 60 performers each night.

One of the production’s youngest performers is 20-year-old Holland-based breakdancer Pom Arnold. In the show, Arnold performs in 10 different numbers and after shows, he says, the dancers often keep moving. They go back to their hotels, order pizza, and dance in their rooms together. “Like breathing for you, is dancing for us,” he says.

A breakdancer since age 10, this is Arnold’s first international production — and by the far the biggest. “I think for many of the dancers this has been one of the biggest productions. It’s Michael. You can’t go bigger, I think, unless you’re working with the man himself.”

The intensity of that comes through in his performance. When Arnold was rehearsing the routine for “Smooth Criminal” with the backing band for the first time, surrounded by other dancers, he was unprepared for the sudden wave of emotion rushing through him. “I got goosebumps on the stage. And that never happened to me before, dancing and getting goosebumps,” he says in a phone call from tour.

Sposit too has felt the connection. As dance master, her responsibilities include overseeing the choreography to help maintain the integrity of the production. During the first two months of the tour, she cried every time the curtain went up, just as she did when she caught Michael’s tour as a tween. It’s a visceral response to seeing the music enlivened once more. “And I also watch the audience,” Sposit says of her nightly routine, “I’ve seen many people cry. It kind of takes them on an emotional journey.” *


Fri/13-Sat/14, 8 p.m.; Sun/15, 4 p.m., $50–<\d>$250

HP Pavilion

525 West Santa Clara, San Jose

Jan. 17-18, 8 p.m., $50–<\d>$250

Oracle Arena

7000 Coliseum Way, Oakl.


Current events



THEATER In early December, Christopher W. White, artistic director of Bay Area ensemble theater company Mugwumpin, showed me around the cool, slightly fusty basement rooms of San Francisco’s Old Mint. Used apparently for storage now, this large subterranean area beneath the Doric columns and Greco-Roman grandeur of “the Granite Lady” was where, beginning in the latter 19th century, the action really happened: the white-hot smelting of money, in one of the most active U.S. mints in its day. You wouldn’t know it now to look around at the gutted rooms with their odd detritus, dim walls, and sunken cement chambers, but in the 1930s one-third of the country’s gold was housed here. It’s a kind of catacomb of local and national history, and especially the history of money power.

Theater, by contrast, is not a moneymaking enterprise, generally speaking. For that matter, neither is free wireless energy from the air — one of the grandest ideas to motivate the stunningly brilliant and influential mind of Nikola Tesla, the little remembered Serbian-American inventor, Thomas Edison rival, and father of alternating current (AC). But the two come together quite naturally here, underground, where the spirits of industrial wealth and labor commingle so forcefully.

This weekend, which marks the anniversary of Nikola Tesla’s death in 1943, also marks the opening of Future Motive Power, an original ensemble-driven work that culminates a year of research and experimentation by one of the Bay Area’s foremost practitioners of devised theater. Mugwumpin’s production takes place in a section of this very basement, where audiences will alternately sit in and wander around a site-specific piece built from the ground up, with painstaking fidelity to historical details — and a commitment to reaching toward aesthetic and dramatic possibilities in concert with one of the most imaginative minds of the modern age.

His approach to science, like many a great innovator, had much in common with an artistic impulse. Exhibiting a transcendent creative ability, he worked with blueprints in his head, visualizing an idea for a new machine in unfathomable detail. He worked obsessively, often going with little or no sleep. His wide-ranging imagination was prodded by a consistent desire to serve humanity, but he had few close relationships and found everyday forms of physical contact unbearable. He’d probably merit a few psycho-clinical acronyms today, but let’s just say he was eccentric. Tesla’s brilliance, under-appreciated influence, idiosyncrasies, and sad fate have made him a compelling figure to artists and writers for years, even as his achievements remain historically obscured by, among other things, the legacy of savvy self-promoter Edison.

Alternately supported and bounded by the capitalist forces represented in these serious granite walls under the Old Mint, Tesla had a mind and heart remarkably free of the normal limits. His amazing career — balancing tenuously the forces of nature, social idealism, and the capitalist marketplace — speaks to some of the weightiest themes confronting the world today.

But those come later. Chris White — who plays the thin, fastidious inventor with a primly sympathetic mien, his eager certainty chastened by the half-lost alertness of the outsider — says the idea for the piece simply began with a song he couldn’t get out of his head: “Tesla’s Hotel Room,” by neo-country act the Handsome Family.


“In the last days of wonder

When spirits still flew

Where we sat holding hands

In half-darkened rooms

Nikola Tesla in the Hotel New Yorker

Nursing sick pigeons in the half-open window”


The song’s particular brilliance lies partly in connecting Tesla’s scientific genius with a spiritualist age, when science, philosophy, and religious mysticism commingled lustily in séances, theosophy, Swedenborgianism, and the like. It churns tragedy and prophesy in the tradition of the American ballad, channeling that “old weird America” Greil Marcus writes about. That deep stream of popular culture (as opposed to top-down manufactured mass culture) has inspired great things from Mugwumpin before (Frankie Done It 291 Ways, for instance, whose wildly disparate theatrical riffs on the “Frankie and Johnny” ballad was a highlight of the 2006 season.) This is Mugwumpin territory par excellence.

In keeping with Mugwumpin’s modus operandi, the yearlong process for Future Motive Power involved research and input from each member of the ensemble (Misti Boettiger, Joseph Estlack, Natalie Greene, Rami Margron, and White). By the time final rehearsals began inside the Mint, the piece contained a purposefully anti-linear, fragmented set of scenes very much in the vein of Mugwumpin’s past work — a kind of archeological approach to storytelling in which an intricately choreographed and physically dynamic set of vignettes and movement-designs extrapolate freely from certain evocative material fragments.

“At one point the J.P. Morgan character [I play] was just a table and tablecloth with my head sticking out of the top,” notes founding company member Estlack. “I’d move around everywhere with this table. I liked that a lot, but we can’t keep everything.”

The piece also has a director — something not every Mugwumpin production has used. Susannah Martin, an accomplished local director making her company debut, has come onboard to help guide the shaping of the piece, though she happily admits it’s not a typical gig working with such a highly collaborative, anti-hierarchical ensemble. Much initial time was spent, she says, “figuring out how I can be of best use to everybody. [Unlike productions with other companies,] it’s not my responsibility to hold the vision of this piece — it’s all our responsibility.”

It is rare to see so much discussion among all parties during a rehearsal, but it seems to contribute to the unusual dynamism of the results. To watch the actors rehearse, it’s as if the fluid staging aspired to Tesla’s own poetical, mercurial mind — represented here, aptly enough, not just by White but by three female characters (Boettiger, Greene, and Margron) personifying not muses so much as the willful, vaguely unhinged creative forces working with and through him.

Rehearsal continues with these three characters pulling a long electric cord into a square, as Tesla’s tussle with rival radio-technology pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (Estlack, who incarnates all Tesla’s principal antagonists including Edison) becomes a rumble inside a boxing ring. A moment later the boxing ring has morphed again into an image of Tesla raising Wardenclyffe, the wireless energy tower he partly erected on Long Island with Morgan’s money — that is, until Morgan discovered it was power to the people Tesla had in mind, and pulled the plug.


Through Jan. 29

Previews Fri/6-Sat/7, 8 p.m.; opens Sun/8, 8 p.m.

Runs Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., $15-$30 (previews, pay what you can)

Old Mint

88 Fifth St., SF www.mugwumpin.org

Homemade shaman



THEATER A rare event for rare times: Robert Steijn comes to San Francisco. The visit — which included a workshop Oct. 31-Nov. 2, and comes courtesy of THEOFFCENTER, Zero Performance, and Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos — marks the first Bay Area show by this somewhat unexpected but internationally acclaimed figure in contemporary dance-performance.

A onetime dance critic who made a mid-career leap into performance, Steijn is at 53 defiantly not young, nor especially sleek despite a close working relationship with his spirit animal, a deer. But a graceful, probing, witty, and intriguing artist he certainly is. Known to collaborate widely — most consistently with compatriot Frans Poelstra, with whom he forms United Sorry — he’s also the creator of a handful of idiosyncratic solo works, one of which he performs Thursday night at the new Joe Goode Performance Annex in the Mission.

“I am reborn a smoker/Allowing myself to get high in the clouds of imagination” is billed as “a performance in the form of a lecture/demonstration,” but that’s a misleadingly dry description for a euphoric foray into the “invisible” places Steijn — who counts among his influences Jack Smith, Korean shaman-performer Hi-Ah Park, and ayahuasca rituals — has long pursued with a playful earnestness.

“Every time I do it, it changes a little bit,” Steijn says of the piece. “In a way, it’s my introduction about what I can do onstage, but it’s also a kind of showcase of how we use imagination. It’s really about belief systems.”

It’s also a piece where he channels a deer to communicate with the dead. “I dance a lot with a deer, and also it comes into my mind sometimes.” Of the title’s reference to a reborn smoker, Steijn explains, “I was working on shamanistic power animals, and I manifested the deer, and the deer was smoking a cigar.”

Steijn, who divides much of his time between Vienna and Amsterdam, spoke by phone last week from New York City, where he was at work on a new collaboration with choreographer Maria Hassabi (with whom he made a splash last year in an eye-locking duet at New York’s Danspace). Genial, thoughtful, self-effacing, and prone to shy laughter, Steijn remembers that as a lonely child he fantasized a guardian angel. “And it really worked,” he chuckles. It led him to consider “how you can comfort yourself with imagination; how imagination can open up a certain structure for reality.”

“I found I was interested in how the mind works,” he continues, “how we can put our self in a certain mind state, or in a way of thinking, or in a way of perceiving reality, and how that could be very truthful for theater, to show what happens when you are in this state of mind. Because I feel sometimes we’re too rational — or not even rational, but we think too much in the patterns we are used to thinking in.

William Forsythe [showed how] we can change the center of movement in the body; it can be in every body part almost, and you can [put it] also outside the body sometimes. I like to think in that way about the mind: how can you perceive or analyze reality from another center than you are used to? I felt that in shamanism it was very playful to go there, to still a little bit your logical mind. What I found is that when I imagine [myself] into a state, I look at the world with much more compassion and love. It’s a strategy to relate differently to the audience and to movement in the body, to a different imagination.”

Steijn had been in New York only a few days, but said he’d already visited Occupy Wall Street several times. Waxing enthusiastic about what he found there, he spoke of the dialogue and imagination opened up in this re-appropriated public square, and it seemed to recall much of his own work with “intensifying” a space, setting it free of the usual constraints to imagination and experience.

“You know when Joseph Boeys said everybody has to be an artist? I think it would be nice if everyone has to be a poet,” he says. “Perhaps there’s not so much difference between the two. But I like to think you meet with a situation and then you have to create how you want to deal with it, how you want to change it. It’s not to adapt yourself to a situation but really to make it your own. I think this empowerment is important.”


Thurs/3, 8 p.m., $10-$20

Joe Goode Performance Annex

401 Alabama St., SF


Lesson plan



THEATER An elegant young woman in white gloves with a soothing voice (Meg Hurtado) breathes into a microphone some pre-flight instructions before beginning a narration of a journey “you” are taking. It’s accompanied by video footage (by Derek Phillips) of some European-looking city: a train station, a big electric clock, a rushing locomotive, the flow of strangers in a not-too-foreign land. No one cares you’re there, but you’re still uncomfortable, trying to stay calm and fit in. As she speaks, the small studio stage at the Exit Theatre flickers with a rush of bodies moving in near darkness.

Finally, from this mysterious disorientation, emerges a family of four: egomaniacal Major von Berg (a nicely volcanic Ryan Hayes), sly Mrs. Von Berg (a serenely confident Hurtado), morose teenage daughter Gussie (a withering but vulnerable Margery Fairchild in severe pigtails), and half-feral little Lippel (a wan puppet). They have a decidedly European mien about them, but from where or what century they hail exactly is hard to say. What is certain: you have arrived at your destination.

Dark Porch Theatre co–artistic director Martin Schwartz pens and directs this curious, half-elevated yet earthy, gently absurdist foray into the woods of East Prussia, a Twilight Zone of indeterminate time and place where a nervously deferential young man named Läuffer (Brandon Wiley) gains employment as a tutor for a deeply divided family headed by a hot-under-the-military-collar patriarch. Divided into a dozen discrete episodes over 90-minutes, Tutor: Enter the Exclave is fitfully inspired but at its best offers some excellent opportunities for the eight-year-old experimental theater company, now in residence at the Exit, which specializes in evoking the unsettling dream with humor, unusual staging, and a taste for the macabre.

Läuffer finds his two charges unimpressed and abusive. The puppet is particularly surly, slapping his tutor for fun and never saying anything more than “doo, doo, doo,” which has something fecal about it to be sure, but also harkens back to the German formal form of “you” (with maybe a little echo there of Sylvia Plath’s “Ach, du” in her papa-as-fascist poem, Daddy). Moreover, given the competing demands and threats thrust his way by the warring parents, his position in the household is hardly tenable. Still, he clings on for lack of anywhere else to go, until an unhealthy interest in 15-year-old Gussie culminates in general ruin and some grisly particulars.

Schwartz latches onto an intriguing aspect of this grim goodtime story — which he adapts from his own translation of Sturm und Drang–school writer J.M.R. Lenz’s 1774 play, Der Hofmeister — namely the theme flagged by the “exclave” in the title, which refers to an isolated region detached from the mainland but nevertheless a part of the same country. Attached yet apart proves an apt description of each character’s condition as well as of the family unit itself, which is seemingly lost in time. (The video mash-ups include modern-day footage of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, formerly East Prussia, the setting for the Lenz play.) Even the narrative is kept at arm’s length: Gussie, for instance, has a penchant for narrating out loud everything happening inside her head and around her as if it were a story. Moreover, at random intervals a light shift signals a break in the action, wherein the actors drop character and execute a short improvisational exercise. The quiet harmony on display in such Brechtian moments acts as a counterpoint to the hierarchical but inherently fractured world of the story.

The generational and authoritarian tension between the parents and the children, and the forbidden love it both produces and dooms, is a classic theme recalling Lenz’s contemporary Schiller’s Intrigue and Love or, a century later, Wedekind’s Spring Awakening. Gussie highlights it at the outset when she announces petulantly, “In all of our stories, discipline is the hero. In all of our stories discipline is broken and has its revenge.”

Damn if she isn’t right, too. Tutor‘s exploration of the exclave limns a mental landscape as much as anything else: an alienated chunk of real estate ruled by an authoritarian regime known variously as the Superego, or Daddy, or “doo.”


Tutor: Enter the Enclave

Through Oct. 22, $15-$25

Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.

Exit Studio

156 Eddy, SF

(415) 673-3847


Muslim and proud (and hilarious)


THEATER Onstage, a woman and her father battle over modern sensibilities versus religious tradition. The father leads with a left jab and the mantra “in the Koran, in the Koran, in the Koran,” which the daughter counters with a roundhouse punch and “third-wave feminism.” Both characters are being played by Zahra Noorbakhsh, a feisty, spirited, thoroughly modern woman — and a Muslim, an important part of her identity she’s not about to let anyone forget. But believing in God doesn’t mean your interpretation of “God’s law” is going to be the same as your parents’, and her notion that her long-distance, white, atheist boyfriend Duncan ought to move in with her, purely for reasons of economy of course, is not a prospect her devout Iranian parents can whole-heartedly embrace.

“It’s against the Koran, man,” her father states definitively. “What you want me to do?”

What he will do is the greatest draw of the show, provocatively entitled All Atheists Are Muslim, which made its New York International Fringe Festival debut to a sold-out house on August 12, weeks away from the tenth anniversary of 9/11 — a date most New Yorkers are all too aware of. Not that Iran has anything to do with that particular date (even George W. wouldn’t go that far), but the intricacies of Islam are nonetheless of enduring topical interest.

“Growing up Muslim-Iranian, I had to constantly, vehemently defend my faith, my culture, and my family everyday,” Noorbakhsh reminisces. Even today, people she is close with freely equate “Muslim” with “terrorist” in polite conversation — even people who have seen her show and know her personally.

Deciding to apply to the New York International Fringe Festival seemed like a logical way to bring her comedic message of tolerance and inter-cultural exchange to New York, especially after having accompanied her director W. Kamau Bell to the 2009 Fringe to run tech for his show The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in about an Hour. After several months of meeting deadlines for program blurbs, participant fees, and tech specs, Noorbakhsh and her “Authorized Company Representative” (also her atheist boyfriend) have been tirelessly navigating the Fringe from the clusters of black-box theaters that dot the brownstone landscape of the East Village.

Working the post-show crowds of her own and others’ shows, Noorbakhsh exudes big sisterly camaraderie and casual confidence rather than rehearsed marketing speak, and a good percentage of her audiences has been made up of fellow performers — a true sign of Fringe success. Of course the run hasn’t been without its surprises. One front-row audience member abruptly refused to be “converted” (“It says right on the postcard that the first three rows will be converted to Islam,” Noorbakhsh points out with amused exasperation). Along those lines, the emphasis placed on handing out postcards as marketing strategy was a surprise; “in San Francisco, it’s a faux pas,” she says of the practice in the local comedy club scene. Above all, her major sense of frustration has come from trying to attract fellow Persians to the show, a difficulty she has not experienced in California.

“In San Francisco I’m an active member of the Persian community,” she explains. “I’m vocal and participate in many organizations. [In New York], nobody knows me outside of this very bold, divisive, and controversial title.”

That many Iranian-Americans she knows identify as atheist rather than Muslim, distancing themselves as much as possible from Iran’s Islamic regime, is certainly part of the obstacle. It seems it’s not just misguided Caucasian theatre-goers who are guilty of confusing “Muslim” with “terrorist”

“This fear of the word Muslim has to stop,” Noorbakhsh opines. “We’ve got to point out how much people flinch at just the word and how horrifyingly racist and damaging that demonization is.”

At Noorbakhsh’s last show of her New York run, a record 20 people are turned away at the door (including, alas, the long-awaited Persians), and the packed house roars appreciatively at her lovingly-skewered portrayal of her foul-mouthed father (“What the shit hell is this, man?”) and her winsome mother, who offers to buy her a Persian rug if she’ll just get married already. Leading the audience through the terms of the compromise they all agree to in order to preserve the peace, Noorbakhsh makes it possible for the audience to fall in love with her tradition-bound family despite their initial resistance to Noorbakhsh’s American-born sensibilities.

And how do her parents feel about Noorbakhsh’s audiences? “They usually sell my tickets,” laughs Noorbakhsh. “They love it.”


Through Oct. 1, $20

Opens Thurs/1, 8 p.m.

Runs Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.

Stage Werx Theatre

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 517-3581