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2,000 years in the waking



One night in 2009 I found myself climbing a stairwell to the second floor of the Grotowski Institute’s historic roost at Rynek-Ratusz 27 in downtown Wroclaw, Poland, with maybe 30 or 40 other people hailing from a variety of countries. We entered a modestly large room, plain and hushed like a Quaker meetinghouse, with several ascending rows of benches against opposite walls — the same room where Jerzy Grotowki’s Laboratory Theatre had performed Akropolis in 1965, someone whispered. I was jet-lagged and might have been the one whispering, for all I could make of this somnambulant excursion. But when the performance began, all sleepiness dropped away and one of the most memorable encounters, in a trip filled with impressive theatrical events, began to unfold.

The encounter was with Teatr ZAR, a Wroclaw-based ensemble company founded in 2002 by Jaroslaw Fret (also since 2007 director of the Grotowski Institute) whose unique work arises from years-long investigations into primordial music from the Orthodox Christian world — some of the oldest examples of polyphonic music, culled from a series of research trips to Eurasia and North Africa, including early Christian sites in Armenia, Bulgaria, Corsica, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, and Iran.

“Zar” is the name of the 2000-year-old funeral songs still sung by the Svaneti tribe in the remote reaches of the Caucasus Mountains in northwestern Georgia, which Fret and company visited between 1999 and 2003. Fret and Teatr ZAR rigorously absorb such ancient and distinct religious music (via cultural exchange with practitioners and the adoption or invention of various techniques of notation and transmission that would likely merit an advanced degree in musicology) and then thoughtfully rework it amid movement and themes (some text-derived if not exactly text-based) over a significant gestation period. This concerted ensemble practice, in line with Grotowski’s own “laboratory theatre” approach, has produced three startling theatrical pieces, each lasting roughly one hour, grouped as a triptych under the title Gospels of Childhood.

Many of us in the room that night had come to Wroclaw by special invitation of Philip Arnoult’s Baltimore-based Center for International Theater Development in conjunction with the Grotowski Institute, which was hosting the Grotowski Year 2009, on the 10th anniversary of the death of the internationally renowned Polish prophet of “poor theatre.” (Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Grotowski Year coincided with two major theater festivals, including one built around the EU’s prestigious European Theatre Prize, that year bestowed on the great Polish director Krystian Lupa.) We had all, therefore, been treated to the same buzz about an unusual company working with ancient songs. But it would have been difficult to anticipate the effect on the audience of the intoning voices and thrilling harmonies that filled the room, or for that matter the moody intensity, bounding athleticism, brooding and ecstatic movement, and the quasi-liturgical atmosphere of these exceptionally deft and well-crafted performances.

In a remarkable Bay Area debut this week, the entire Gospels of Childhood Triptych is being performed six times as a must-see showcase of the eighth annual San Francisco International Arts Festival.

The first piece, Overture, which was the original inspiration for the group, is a gorgeously subdued, candle-lit, almost ceremonial work, arising from a shimmering chorus of voices and invoking the cycle of life and death in its fleet and lithesome choreography. It developed from Fret’s interest in Gnostic thought and intertwines the story of Lazarus from the perspective of his two sisters with the testimony of Mary Magdalene, who holds a particular place in Gnostic traditions.

The second piece, Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide, is a physically and emotionally powerful work whose raw, wild energy animates prodigious feats of dance amid another intoxicating arrangement of music, now accompanied by live instrumentation. It amounts to an emotionally wide-ranging exploration of freedom and the human condition on the brink of self-annihilation.

Finally, the third piece, Anhelli: The Calling (which was still being developed when I saw it in 2009) is inspired in part by Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki and his journey from Naples to the Holy Land, in which the ensemble made use of a large white sheet in its evocation of an expanse as forbidding as it was liberating.

These pieces, which can be seen on separate nights or all in one go between two venues on Potrero Hill (the perfectly suited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church hosting parts one and three, and the nearby Potrero Hill Neighborhood House hosting the more volatile and frenetic Caesarean Section), stir up a range of feeling with their arresting amalgam of liturgical song (with a smattering of modern airs from the likes of Erik Satie) and the power and precision of ZAR’s accomplished ensemble. Use of natural light, live instrumental accompaniment, and simple stage properties (simple but strikingly arranged, as in a glowing shaft of broken glass that cuts across the floor in Caesarian Section) meanwhile train a low-tech, premodern set of theatrical elements toward addressing the fundamental facts of life and death. The deep relationship between theater and religion rarely feels this palpable.

But it starts with the music, which as Fret told me in Poland in 2009, gives the path to all that follows, both as a direction and foundation. “Every single action [in Gospels of Childhood] was put on a solid footing because the music was very solid; music is so precise, a structure of breathing. “

That structure, says Fret, is a tool applied to life, just as theater is a tool. “In the extraordinary vibratory qualities of the zar, we saw a column of breathing. It is 2,000 years old. Even the Svaneti people don’t understand it — in that there is no [semantic] meaning — but they have not forgot the ritual function of it, related to the funeral ceremony, to saying farewell, to fulfilling that moment when the coffin is lowered into the earth, sending the soul somewhere. For a moment a society breathes together. This is the most important and central function of singing, to breathe together. The main message of life and of art is a pattern of breathing. We can use emotion to direct our breathing. We can also use some tools, like song, to harmonize, not only in terms of technique but also with what’s inside. The performance is a huge ‘partitura,’ or score, of breathing.” 



Part of the SF International Arts Festival

Thurs/19–Sat/21 and Mon/23–May 25;

7 p.m.(part one); 8:15 p.m. (part two); and 9:30 p.m. (part three)

$12–$25 ($48 for all three parts)

St. Gregory of Nyssa Church (parts one and three)

500 De Haro, SF

Potrero Hill Neighborhood House

953 De Haro, SF

(800) 838-3006



Outta be in pictures



THEATER Taking ownership of their own image as Irish folk is not a thought that occurs to any character in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. The cranky rural inhabitants of the titular island — one of three hardscrabble Aran Islands off Ireland’s west coast — are more likely to assure themselves that Ireland “can’t be that bad” if others seem to think so. Nevertheless, image-making and self-image, both individual and collective, are important themes bandied about in the London-reared Irish playwright’s dark comedy, which is set in the early 1930s, just as American filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty and his Hollywood crew are shooting the 1934 pseudo-documentary feature, Man of Aran, on neighboring Inishmore.

The thematic shading as well as the humor, reluctant compassion, and musicality in McDonagh’s 1996 play are all shown off to fine effect in the current touring production by Ireland’s renowned Druid Theater Company, coproduced by New York’s Atlantic Theater and running through this weekend at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse. If neither the play or production achieve the surpassing power and beauty of Druid’s last offering in 2009, Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, this is still a worthwhile show, especially for people intrigued by relatively recent and fairly strong productions at the Berkeley Rep of McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore (another in the playwright’s Aran Islands trilogy) and The Pillowman.

Druid’s cofounder Garry Hynes, an early and enthusiastic champion of the playwright-turned-filmmaker (writer-director of 2008’s Academy Award–nominated In Bruges) who took home a Tony for Druid’s staging of McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, directs her fine cast with admirable assurance. Indeed, her Cripple of Inishmaan takes ownership of the material without sentimentality, but rather in perfect sync with the brutally honest humor that signals as it sidesteps an underlying sweetness and sorrow.

The story centers on titular hero “Cripple Billy” Claven (the supple, slyly charismatic Tadhg Murphy), a kind-hearted bookworm with a misshapen right foot and hand who desires to secure himself a part in the Hollywood production and escape his treeless island burg. It’s a plan that inspires much ribald laughter from his fellow villagers who can only see Billy — an orphan raised by the two spinsters (Ingrid Craigie and Dearbhla Molloy) who run a half-stocked general store, in which cans of peas are over-represented and eggs and sweets at a premium — as a hopeless, ugly simpleton. Included in this consensus is Slippy Helen (a vivacious Clare Dunne), a disheveled, foul-mouthed yet majestic beauty with a pronounced violent streak who is Billy’s secret love interest.

Billy is plagued by a sense of guilt over the deaths of his parents, who died on the sea in an apparent suicide (a story that has more than one permutation as the play progresses), leaving him as an infant on the shore to be scooped up by local gossip-monger Johnnypateenmike (Dermot Crowley). Billy nevertheless exudes a confidence that belies his background, his handicap, or the general self-deprecating opinion of Irish life by those living it around him.

In the mouths of Hynes’ actors, the coarseness and banality of that life becomes more than an occasion for much humor. In subtle contrast to the self-effacing language of insult and pettiness, it becomes a kind of brilliant naïve music. The opening dialogue between Billy’s aunties, for instance, recalls Beckett as the two women, waiting anxiously for Billy’s return, pass the time side-by-side behind a long freestanding counter, facing blankly out to the audience as they trade a volley of simple lines about a “bad arm” as if the subject were a ping-pong ball, setting up a rhythm that is its own message and meaning, an idle sport marking time in the cadence of a children’s nursery poem.

If looks and words are deceiving here, so too are the initial impressions we have of Billy in others’ eyes: there are layers of unacknowledged perception at work between these characters. We, of course, see right away that Billy, despite an inflated reputation for cow-staring, is anything but vacuous. Indeed, he is easily the island’s most decent, intelligent, and charming inhabitant. And Murphy plays him with a long-suffering cool in which a sweetness and determination will not be silenced, as well as an offbeat physical grace. His Billy shuffles across the floor with a habitual ease that has something like a joy in it, something between a sashay and a swagger, as if he were a jazz musician stroking a set of brushes over a snare top.

The Cripple of Inishmaan makes good sport of the notion of superiority, moral or otherwise, in rural life. Taking his cue from the historical moment flagged and deceptively packaged by Man of Aran (whose depictions of traditional Aran life were in many cases already antiquated by the 1930s), McDonagh wrests his subjects from the premodern caricatures in Flaherty’s stagy documentary. (A late scene has the characters, sans Billy, gathered to watch the completed Flaherty film, marveling with some frustration at a slow-to-unfold shark-hunting sequence as if it were from another world altogether.) McDonagh, however, a boyhood visitor to the region but otherwise a life-long Londoner, does so not exactly in the name of realism, since his comedy is hardly an effort at documentary and trades in caricatures of its own. At the same time, while taking a contagious delight in mocking certain ethnographic and nationalist pretenses, he lets us glimpse in his characters a compassion — heavily guarded beneath an otherwise hearty brutality — that does not lie. 


Wed/11–Fri/14, 8 p.m.; Sat, 2 and 8 p.m.; $68

Zellerbach Playhouse

UC Berkeley, Bancroft and Telegraph

(510) 642-9988



Inside job



THEATER A man lies in the woods, his arm in a hole. A mystic? A mushroom hunter? A mad monk maybe? He’s in tatters, grimy, seemingly unconscious, bearded.

Magnificently leafless tree trunks (courtesy of scenic designer Lisa Clark) rise ominously around the man, while nestled among them lurks a somewhat inconspicuous string quintet. Finally, the local peasant who owns the land (Josh Pollock) asks for some explanation. He brings the man home to his wife (Sarah Mitchell), who looks askance at the stranger as she shaves the evening’s fare with a sharp knife. She soon finds herself inexorably charmed by the magnetic outsider as he breaks into a self-promotional song, inspiring the peasant to pound the kitchen table with a soft mallet and his wife to take knife to potato in the manner of a Puerto Rican güiro.

Those who thought Rasputin just sold records on Telegraph Avenue are in for a musical and cunningly skewed history lesson, in addition to a wholly agreeable evening. In the opening salvo of its 20th anniversary season, Shotgun Players hits a raucous, ribald, and consistently clever bull’s eye with Beardo, the latest from Brooklyn-based Banana Bag & Bodice, creators of 2008’s Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage. Each detail of this exquisite production — from a pitch-perfect cast to the rich palette employed by composer Dave Malloy to Christine Crook’s gorgeously layered, vibrantly crimson-marked costuming — serves an inspired reappraisal of madness and revolution in and beyond the never-named Romanov household.

Concepts of inside and outside percolate productively throughout Jason Craig’s book and lyrics, as Beardo (Ashkon Davaran), guided by a resolute yet warped-sounding inner voice, penetrates the household of Imperial Russia’s grief-stricken Tsarista (Anna Ishida) and her affably effete tsar-husband (Kevin Clarke). His way with their sickly child (Juliet Heller) has them deeply in his debt and enthralled. Meanwhile, Beardo shakes and shimmies behind competing, maybe complimentary, countenances: that of the mystic healer, and that of the debauched cowboy on one hell of a bender. A transcultural mashup of outlaw whimsy, class war, and the banalities of upper-class decadence take flight in some inspired set pieces too fresh to give away here, and a wonderfully orchestrated score.

Composer and musical director Dave Malloy, whose gifts for composition and drama have been growing apace since relocating to New York City (where his beautiful and rollicking venture Three Pianos at the New York Theatre Workshop recently won a well-deserved Obie), conjures a very convincing Russian cabaret atmosphere. Doses of Rachmaninoff and other authentic samplings strategically arise amid his brisk Weimar-esque rhythms, lilting melodies, and one fantastic choral arrangement — a startling convergence of roughly 40 “peasants” who suddenly erupt into song.

Shotgun’s artistic director Patrick Dooley helms the production with a deft hand, his witty detailing and precise staging perfectly in sync with the loose and wild composure of writer Craig’s sure, literate, post-punk poetics. The cast is uniformly terrific. As the hirsute healer and unlikely royal heartthrob, Davaran delivers — in a Wild West drawl reminiscent of a young Tom Waits crossed with John Huston — a performance that accomplishes the seemingly impossible: making utterly magnetic and finally sympathetic a preposterously unkempt and ridiculous antihero.

From Rasputin to Putin, Russia’s political history has been one long cabaret act in much poorer taste than anything you’ll find here. But Beardo, virile and viral, is less about Russia (although it lends tacit support to the long-standing theory that the Russian Revolution was in part galvanized by Rasputin’s undermining of tsarist authority) than about a crazy social hierarchy so steep and brittle, so vast in its gulf between high and low, that a single does of mayhem can become a political force “where the outside meets the inside.” It’s then that a little disorder is what’s in order.


Through April 24; $17–$26

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk.

(510) 841-6500



Black tassels for Eddie



BURLY Q A pink bunny suit. The forbidding mustache of a Latin American militarist. A skulking spy, a washed-up punk rocker, a burly lumberjack. This was SF’s burgeoning neo-burlesque scene, but Eddie Dane’s outfits stayed firmly in place on stage. Shouldn’t the women shuffling off their lacy purple push-ups — not this giant carnival barker! — be the ones in grabbing the spotlight with their tongue-in-cheek costumes?

But it was always apparent that Dane, cofounder of SF’s notorious troupe Hubba Hubba Revue who died March 10 of heart problems and kidney failure, knew burlesque was about more than just the boobies.

“He offered burlesque in its true form: a variety show. With Dane’s Dames it wasn’t just about the strippers — we had skits, comedy, we had Gorilla X!” Nicollete Daly, a.k.a. Desire d’Amour, says it was Dane who inspired her burlesque career — indeed, his original group’s show at Bruno’s in the late 1990s was the first time her eyes were opened to that curvy road to glory that the art form offered.

Dane started the “bevy of beguiling ecdysiasts” (so-called by that aforementioned Hubba Hubba perennial, Gorilla X, a.k.a. performer Mig Ponce) dubbed Dane’s Dames in 1999, a mix of skin-baring sexiness and the baggy pants comedy of 1940s and ’50s. The group performed at the 2001 Tease-O-Rama convention in New Orleans that many credit with providing the meeting space-crucible that tipped the old vaudeville form into its current renaissance. Nowadays, your neighborhood dive bar gives Burly Q classes and the Pussycat Dolls have made a marabou-sequin-satin splash all over the faces of MTV and Cher — but back then it was up to the performers and troupe leaders to dictate the sentiment of the new movement.

“Eddie showed everyone that a male troupe leader could be respectful of the women and not just trying to make a buck off a woman’s body. He used to be like a mother hen, making sure we were all ready and set for the stage,” Daly says.

“Eddie was always looking for new and different acts to evolve the genre rather than give continual homage to what it was at its inception,” chimes in Fritz Striker, Dane’s closest compadre for 15 years who shared a flat with him for the last three before his untimely death. That hunt for the new and unusual led to the Hubba Hubba Revue, which Dane started with friend and dedicated heckler Jim “Kingfish” Sweeney in 2005. The two managed one of the city’s best burlesque teams and provided comedic relief while dresses and bra tops were swept off the stage.

“We were doing a show a couple years ago where I was dressed as a dictator of a tiny country and he was my military strongman,” recalls Sweeney. “We’re both in these fake mustaches. As we’re barreling along through the dialogue, Eddie’s mustache comes off little by little, until one whole side of it is flapping around every time he talks. We’re starting to laugh and forget our lines. Eddie stops in the middle of the scene in front of 500 people and says, in character, ‘I think my mustache is making a break for it!’ I laughed nonstop for about a minute.”

The community will be out in force April 14 for Hubba Hubba’s planned memorial show for Dane at the DNA Lounge. Just don’t expect it to be a stoic affair, especially considering what those close to him say Dane will be remembered for. Says Sweeney: “Mostly he’ll be remembered for the fact that nobody — absolutely nobody — loved a gross joke more than Eddie.”

Send in the clowns



STAGE/PUPPETRY It’s been more than 10 years since Brooklyn-based Kevin Augustine brought his life-sized puppets and existential worldview to the Bay Area, and during that time he’s not been idle. Augustine’s last full-length show, 2008’s Bride, a charged exploration of theism, garnered much critical acclaim as well as an UNIMA-USA Citation of Excellence in Puppetry — the profession’s highest honor.

Just one month after Bride‘s successful New York City run, Augustine was already nurturing the delicate sprouts of the show that has become Hobo Grunt Cycle. After briefly considering a Civil War theme, Augustine expanded his vision to encompass the broader topics of modern warfare: weapons technology, the psychological effects of war, the physical effects of violence. He began to direct his creative energies toward answering a question he felt central to the topic: What progress have we made?

“The whole idea of warfare, of training ourselves to kill other human beings, seems so archaic,” he explains over the phone.

Part of Augustine’s brainstorming process includes sketching possible characters. One of his images, a soldier in fatigues with the face of a world-weary clown, helped spark his conviction that the hierarchies between the world of the soldiers and the world of the clowns were very similar. “There are always the clowns who get hit in the face with the pie,” he points out. Drawing from the comparison between low-caste clowns getting knocked around by their “superiors” and low-ranking Dogfaces getting shafted on the battlefield by theirs, Augustine started to craft Hobo Grunt Cycle‘s narrative around a hobo clown (played by himself), while adding a parallel narrative that involves war veterans (played by puppets).

The use of tramps and clowns as protagonists is not exactly new territory for Augustine — his previous productions Big Top Machine and Once Vaudeville feature one or the other. Both can be likened to the classic archetype of the fool or trickster, which makes them perfect for illustrating uncomfortable human truths via puppetry. What’s different for Augustine as a playwright is that most of Hobo Grunt Cycle is performed in silence, a nod to the tradition of pantomiming tramp-clowns such as Emmett “Weary Willie” Kelly, as well as a symbolic comment on the blanket secrecy that shrouds many veterans of conflict during and after their tours of duty. When one soldier character is finally allowed some exposition, Augustine is representing vets such as the “Winter Soldiers,” who have been able to break this silence and speak out about their experiences.

More than just the rich, dark nuances of Augustine’s playwriting set Lone Wolf Tribe apart. The puppets themselves are incredibly distinctive. Trained in theatre and — briefly — sculpture, Augustine had no formal puppetry experience when he began working on his first puppet show in 1995.

“I started as a solo performer,” he jokes. “But it got lonely, so I added the puppets.”

Starting from scratch, without preconceived expectations of puppetry’s limits, Augustine began creating life-size puppets to his own singular specs: warped, clumsy, vulnerable bodies with grotesque features and complex emotions. The foam-rubber he carves his puppet heads from allows for an unsettling realism in terms of facial textures — sleepy half-lids, arched brows, curled lips, rutted terrains of wrinkles and lines. Most of his puppets are manipulated by whole teams of hired-gun puppeteers, who must perform heroic acrobatics as they make the puppets dance, shamble, and limp across the stage.

So does Hobo Grunt Cycle answer its central question? Augustine remains unconvinced that progress has been made.

“I believe we haven’t progressed in terms of violent conflict because we’re stuck in our adolescent stage of development,” he says ruefully. “We see things only from our point of view, and always in terms of right and wrong, mine and yours, us and them — which prevents us from seeing that all human beings [and all puppets?] have the same needs.” *


Thurs./17 through March 5; $15-$25

Exit Theatre

156 Eddy, SF

(415) 673-3847


Two’s a crowd?


The Companion Piece is a charmingly inventive new work of devised theater conceived by actor Beth Wilmurt and directed by Mark Jackson for Z Space. It unfolds as a series of arch “meta” vaudevillian routines by a frustrated long-time duo (played with uncommon chemistry and comedic finesse by Wilmurt and Christopher Kuckenbaker).

Companion is less a narrative-driven tale than a clever, frequently hilarious, and gently moving set of variations on certain themes. These include the need for companionship, the nature of artistic creation, and the fragile balance between egos desperate to assert themselves yet just as desperately bound to the support and sympathy of others. Wilmurt’s initial inspiration for the show was a scientific treatise on the nature of human connection, the 2000 bestseller A General Theory of Love, by psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. It’s appropriate that this world premiere runs to the very cusp of dreaded Valentine’s Day.

As often as not, Companion‘s themes develop through telling contrasts. The central one juxtaposes the two needy, half-bumbling performers — as they set about trying to forge their second-string act — with the deft, supremely self-confident solo headliner (played with a flawless, period-flavored, almost animatronic showbiz intensity by Jake Rodriguez). The headliner lives with a manic force exclusively for the few minutes he’s onstage — in a bizarre and well-honed routine delivered at the outset of the play and again at the end — shutting down into an enervated, shell-shocked state in between. The duo, whose high jinx account for the bulk of what we see, meanwhile remains most alive in the give-and-take of their zany, agonized creative process. That process may be forever incomplete, but it produces one captivating scene after another, often with the simplest of means: a sly sock-and-shoe puppet show inside a giant trunk is just one of many winning moments.

All this takes place on a cavernous, shadow-filled stage (courtesy of scenic designer Nina Ball), largely bare but for a grab bag of props — trampolines, musical instruments, toilet plungers, rubber chickens, and the like — and a large olio drop featuring a magnificent vintage-style portrait of the headliner, “the sensation of the stage.” There are also a set of doors in the far wall at the back of the stage, one conspicuously set about 10 feet off the ground, sort of Winchester Mystery House style, with a gold star painted on it. This door, it turns out, is accessible by one of two rolling metal staircases, which both become the inspiration for a gorgeously solemn, oddball waltz between the couple. The deceptively spare environment comes filled with other small surprises, as when Wilmurt’s character swings out from the wing on an industrial crane that slowly glides over the front rows of the audience.

There’s an eerie beauty to this theatrical undress, and the capacious sense of possibility mingling there in the shuffle and tussle of the performers. As they tirelessly ply their shtick and clamber for turf in the enveloping darkness (moodily broken up by Gabe Maxson’s lighting and poignantly underscored by Rodriguez’s evocative sound design), it comes to seem like their environment is no less than the muffling expanse of time and space itself.

In the end, the bracketing of the play’s action with a precise repetition of the headliner’s act does not diminish this impression of infinite negotiation. The headliner himself boasts, paradoxically, “I don’t open no shows, I don’t close no shows.” The lack of a strong narrative works to advantage here, as a way of further demystifying the theatrical conceit itself. As director Jackson suggests in his program note, the arc of a storyline is far too neat a device to contain all the indeterminacy and subtleties of this slipstream existence. The show goes on, as the headliner quips, “one night only — every night,” even if, as my companion that night suggested, we all ultimately “open” and “close” alone. 


Through Feb. 13; $20–$40

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

(800) 838-3006



‘Too Much’ — and more



THEATER/DANCE/PERFORMANCE Too much of a good thing can be a good thing. That became clear to artist/curators Julie Phelps and Keith Hennessy last year with the unexpected success of “Too Much!,” a no-holds-barred marathon of contemporary queer performance originally conceived as a cheeky 20th anniversary celebration of Hennessy’s lauded yet uncompromising career as performer, choreographer, and activist.

The idea of a “queer 20th anniversary” only got the conversation started, says Hennessy, whose company Zero Performance produced last year’s event. “I’m in a really different space than I was 20 years ago. I’m now 50. I made [my breakthrough] piece when I was in my late 20s. Who are those people now? And where is queer performance at? That sort of launched our thinking about putting on a festival, and [the idea] that the thing in itself should be excessive or ‘too much.’ So we crammed everything into 10 hours.”

This spirit of polymorphous plenitude launched a one-off “queer marathon” so momentous it turns into a second annual this Sunday, over the course of another 10 hours. Between 2 p.m. and midnight, three rooms at Dance Mission Theater are given over to the work of more than 50 artists — a mix of performance, installation, video, public discussion, workshops (in street art and queer games), and dinner. It promises to complicate all the usual expectations around identity-based art and politics. The only thing not overflowing is the price: 10 bucks.

This year’s “Too Much!” is more than a reprise, though. Co-curator Phelps — a young artist who recently cofounded queer performance incubator TheOffCenter, which comes on board as coproducer — explains that she and Hennessy have broadened the program. “Last year we only had performance, live installations, or full-length shows,” she says. “This year we were interested in adding this symposium element to it. While we’re all together, we might as well talk to each other, you know? So we’ve added a few workshops. Irina Contreras, for instance, is doing a stenciling workshop aimed at reminding people of the fully accessible tools they can use to express themselves as political beings, people of action.”

The symposia quotient includes a discussion of the controversial use of blackface as a subversive performance tool, a subject both Hennessy and Phelps see as particularly contentious in local identity-based art and academic discourse.

Among some notable returns from last year are Jesse Hewit, Laura Arrington, and Mica Sigourney, who as drag persona VyvvyAnne ForeverMore returns with another installment of her “Work MORE” series. Phelps describes the series, now in its third iteration, as “decentralizing drag out of nightlife bar culture and putting it into a contemporary art scene where it can be questioned and be challenged.” In this edition, Sigourney pairs drag queens with contemporary performance artists and challenges them to come up with a collaborative piece.

Of course, San Francisco has more than the average share of venues and platforms for queer art, so why is “Too Much!” not (despite the suggestion in the name) overkill?

“The Bay Area, obviously, is one of the gayest places on earth,” acknowledges Hennessy. “There are a number of different contexts for LGBT performers to work in. We looked at those and we tried to think of what doesn’t happen there? What if we did something, in a sense, more DIY? We don’t give a fuck what happens — we’re not going to pay anyone anyway. We’re just going to do this one day, organize it all ourselves, and if you want something different you can go somewhere else.”

Hennessy says they got a small grant this year that allows artists a modest remuneration. But the lack of institutional support or control, not to mention profit motive, combines neatly with a desire to include work that slips through the usual categories. “If we’re not beholden to anything, how much could we queer even the idea of an event?” he asks. “I think we’ve pulled [“Too Much!”] even further in the direction of messing with a simple theatrical structure. That means introducing people doing time-based work, or work that doesn’t fit into theatrical contexts for a variety of reasons.”


Sun./23, 2 p.m.–midnight; $10

Dance Mission Theater

3316 24th St., SF

(800) 838-3006


Free parking



THEATER/DANCE In the world of performing arts, it often feels like there is a dearth of resources. The race for funding, rehearsal space, performance space, and audience attention can easily create disillusion. Lucky for San Francisco, there is a light in all this resource madness: the Garage, a small theater run by Joe Landini.

“There is a danger in believing in limited resources,” Landini recently said. He believes in abundance, that there is actually plenty of room for everyone who wants to create work, and that perpetuating this kind of thinking is essential to the mission of the Garage.

An unassuming building, the Garage’s little red door at 975 Howard St. leads into a modest foyer and black box theater. The basement houses a green room, dressing room, and prop closet in one. A lighting board allowing for tech support and sound can be found directly off the stage to the right of the audience seating. A single bathroom and sink are behind the stage’s back curtain. Yet despite its meager facilities, the Garage is home to a surprisingly large number of artists. Approximately 120 performers from diverse disciplines enjoy residencies at the Garage every year, culminating in more than 200 shows annually.

The Garage offers two kinds of residencies for performing artists: AIRspace (artist in residence), which is geared toward queer artists, and RAW (Resident Artist Workshop), the general program. Both are 12-week residencies culminating in a two-night performance run. Artists receive four hours a week of rehearsal space, totaling 48 hours, plus publicity and technical support. Resident artists may also have the opportunity to present their works-in-progress at the informal Raw and Uncut performance series. But perhaps the pièce de résistance of all this is that it comes at no cost to the artist: the Garage provides free rehearsal space, performance space, tech support, and press.

The Garage’s humble facility might be a clue to how this generosity is achieved. Another clue lies in the number of theater personnel; a friend who recently attended a Garage show commented on Landini’s presence, asking who the guy was who ushered, bartended, ran tech, and was basically the Garage’s ringmaster. In other words, there’s no staff and no expensive facility to run either. The Garage is funded entirely by grants and ticket sales, which goes to supporting the artists.

Angela Mazziotta moved to San Francisco earlier this year after completing her BFA in dance at the University of South Florida. Although she had choreographed within her BFA program, she had little experience creating work outside the college environment. Interested in further exploring her choreographic voice, she took up a residency at the Garage in August and will be presenting her new work, SMACKdab — a piece dissecting themes of belonging — Dec. 1-2 as part of the RAW performance series. While researching the dance community before moving to San Francisco, she stumbled across the Garage’s webpage and recalls feeling like the Garage sounded like a place she could start establishing herself. Mazziotta is an example of a newcomer to the SF dance scene who has been able to pursue her choreographic interests through the Garage’s magnanimity.

“The Garage is a place for anyone who wants to get their dance out there,” Mazziotta mused. More likely, the Garage is a place for anyone who wants to put anything out there. From traditional to classical to contemporary to avant-garde to downright insane, the breadth of the work presented at the Garage is staggering. Sometimes the Garage is sold out; other times there’s a sympathetic handful — but the work goes on.

Although the majority of resident artists come from dance backgrounds — due in part to Landini’s strong ties within the dance community — the Garage is by no means limited to dance. Anything performance-related — thespians, circus groups, musicians, poets, and artists of all walks have enjoyed time on the Garage’s stage — can ostensibly find a home there. The basic screening process includes a short write-up of the proposed work and a YouTube video of prior work, and the majority of applicants are granted residencies. This egalitarian mentality manifests the Garage’s guiding principle that anyone who is willing to give their time and energy in the name of art should have a place to do so.

Thus, a new dancer to the city who needs a place to start choreographing can begin at the Garage. A more established artist with limited funds who wants a theater to present work in is welcome there as well. A multidisciplinary artist interested in combining poetry and film would fit in. An eccentric group of performers who stand on their heads and juggle eggs with their feet could probably be accommodated as well. Imagination is the limit. Whatever the inclination or area of interest, the black box theater at 975 Howard will continue to house and assist performing artists through its generous programming and services. Everyone has a voice, and everyone who wants to should have a forum in which to express that voice. The Garage is a perfect example of an institution that supports and promotes the expression of all voices.


An Iggy Pop Woody Allen


COMEDY Marc Maron is old school. He’s the kind of comic who will talk your ear off about the pitfalls of modern technology and the lost art of conversation while actually making a point. He doesn’t do characters or hide behind awkward self-consciousness. He criticizes YouTube and the oversaturation of stand-up comedy, hankering for a return to the “emotional thought” of comics he grew up admiring. And in what seems to be a symbolic “fuck you” to the modern world, the guy is still rocking his America Online e-mail account. “No numbers or any of that shit — nice and clean,” he says. “I’m trying to make it sound really cool and retro.”

Maron specializes in a type of stand-up comedy that seems to reject any kind of self-censoring, perhaps best comparable to the like-minded Louis C.K. He is brutally honest when discussing his own thoughts and opinions, and vehemently flustered while ranting about personal relationships, the state of the country’s mental health, or why the hell he felt the need to buy a Blackberry (he compares his text messaging ability to pounding out letters on a stone tablet). His success has led to the creation of “WTF with Marc Maron” (www.wtfpod.com), a podcast full of comedy bits, interviews with comics like David Cross, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, and Maria Bamford, and most recently, even a bit of Maron’s newfound love for performing music live.

SFBG I was at a comedy show last week and on the way out I heard this woman ranting to her friend about how offended she was by some of the comic’s material. I was kind of baffled that someone could take it so seriously. Do you deal with this very often at your shows?

MARC MARON Part of the tradition of stand-up comedy, and of the comics who I’ve enjoyed personally throughout my life, is challenging people and making them a bit uncomfortable. You want to make people think rather than just sit there passively. If you’re doing your job well, you should have two or three of those people a show.

SFBG You talk a lot about technology’s impact on communication and your struggles to constantly try to adapt to it. If you could go back in time and freeze technological advancement at a certain point, when would that be?

MM (Laughing) Shortly after the invention of the automobile.

SFBG Do you mean that personally or in the grand scheme of things?

MM I guess in the grand scheme of things.

SFBG It’s interesting listening to your comedy about technology, because you walk a line between hating having to constantly keep up and knowing you have to in order to survive and benefit from it. Like the podcast, for example — has that turned a lot of people onto your comedy who hadn’t heard you previously?

MM It’s a whole other world, man. I can be doing a show and get an e-mail from a guy in Chile who’s listening to the podcast while climbing a mountain, and that’s really cool. But too often, I think technology encourages cowardice. You can hide behind a computer, you can hide behind a screen name. Or if you have to talk to someone, you just think, “I’ll just text this guy.” It can be draining to deal with certain things, and that can make it easier. But at some point you need to just man up.

SFBG The podcast is a nice compliment to your stand-up in that you don’t always have to play things strictly for laughs and can often just pick the brains of your guests in a really open, honest way.

MM Yeah. The podcast is unique in that it’s often just two people sitting down, having a conversation. And it seems like sitting down with another person for an hour-and-a-half of interpersonal conversation is too rare or hard for some people these days.

SFBG You’ve talked before about your love for music and playing guitar, and you’ve recently started to perform live a bit. What do you find different about performing music on stage compared to comedy?

MM In terms of baring your soul, I think music is the ultimate form for that. It’s amazing how much you can lose yourself playing music. As for stand-up, I would say it’s definitely a more vulnerable and high-risk art form in that people might not laugh and it’s just you up there. You don’t have your bandmates to fall back on.

SFBG Do you find that it becomes more difficult to stay angry the older you get?

MM Sure. I’ve recently started to come to a place where I’ve learned to accept a lot of things for how they are. I haven’t been doing very much topical or political comedy over the past few years, which is something I used to do a lot of. To do that type of comedy, you really need to be up to date. I used to read everything and get pissed off, and at some point I think I got a little disillusioned with it all. So I don’t do that very often these days. But don’t worry, ’cause I’m just waiting for the shit to hit the fan. And it definitely will.


With Ryan Singer and Janine Brito

Thu/11, Fri/12 and Sat/13

Punch Line Comedy Club

444 Battery, SF

(415) 397-PLSF



GOLDIES 2010: Jesse Hewit/Strong Behavior


Most shows start with a request to turn off your cell phones. Tell Them That You Saw Me begins with an implicit request to leave your virtual mind outside. As the lights come up in this latest work from Jesse Hewit/Strong Behavior (which premiered after a residency at CounterPULSE in August), five utterly gobsmacked women, sprawled in enervated postures on floor and furniture, stare back at the audience for a very long time. The audience is still, but maybe still not seeing everything in front of them, as a micro-choreography of breath and saliva and eyelash unfolds amid a glacial volley of questions and answers. The real seeing takes time and patience and something like courage, things that feel in short supply these days — unless you attend this piece, which requires as well as rewards “attending.”

“It’s a study in focus,” says Hewit, “and it’s a study in what we’re looking at and why, and how we deal with each other for long periods of time.” The piece, he says, made him conscious of a concern he’s had with duration as a condition of social life and a strategy for art. Like an aikido master, Hewit uses the sheer weight of time to unsettle our usual, predictable, and tyrannical rhythms. In doing so he advances an invigorating and revelatory body of work exploring our myriad personal and social identities.

For his part, the 30-year-old choreographer and theater maker is both a unique artist and part of a tight-knit milieu making serious waves across the Bay Area’s performance scene. Much of this network of young, bold, savvy, and mostly queer artists gathers under the banner of The Off Center, an ongoing artist-run performance initiative originally formed around recently-shuttered queer performance incubator Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory. (The group includes close colleague Laura Arrington, the other CounterPULSE summer residency artist, whose Hot Wings shared the bill with Tell Them.)

From ages 8 to 13, Hewit studied ballet in Montreal. But dance went by the wayside as his family kept pulling up stakes and moving, since in most places “it wasn’t cool to be a boy who was a dancer.” He got back into dance while at New York University in Tisch’s Experimental Theater Wing. Then, unexpectedly, he headed to a psychology program in central Florida: “I don’t know what the deal was, but something didn’t agree with me in New York anymore.” After a year-and-a-half, Hewit found San Francisco State’s graduate program in sexuality studies. “I thought I was going to be a sociologist,” he admits. “[But] my mode of expression while in graduate school kept coming back to mounting performances or looking at bodies and posturings, so I realized, ‘Oh, okay, I have to go back and do dance stuff.'”

The theoretical rigor explicitly informs Hewit’s work, but he’s also inspired by an international discourse among dance/theater makers. He recently trained with choreographer Meg Stuart and names among other significant influences New York–based choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, Bulgarian-born physical theater artist Ivo Dimchev, North Carolina–raised feminist choreographer-provocateur Ann Liv Young, and New York’s Big Art Group. Locally Hewit cites people like Erika Chong Shuch, Jess Curtis/Gravity, and Sara Kraft.

Hewit particularly credits Keith Hennessy, a friend and mentor, with drawing his work into an international context. He brings up Hennessy’s balancing of two boards on his head in his Bessie Award–winning show Crotch. “It’s really relentless and impossible and it takes way too long,” he recounts with satisfaction. “It’s nice. It’s always these little sites of resistance — just how quickly do we think things are supposed to happen?” 



Different walls



Palestinian perspectives are in. You know it when a major filmmaker like Julian Schnabel makes a big-budget film like Miral, based on the book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal (which recently screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in advance of a general release next year).

In many ways, though, it’s the rest of the country that’s catching up to places like the Bay Area, where Palestinian voices have long been a part of the cultural landscape. The Arab Film Festival, for instance, which just closed its 14th season, once again featured several films from and about Palestine. And this year the San Francisco International Film Festival gave us a look at Port of Memory, the latest work from Kamal Aljafari, one of the most interesting and sophisticated filmmakers to come from Palestine since Elia Suleiman.

In theater, San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions just gave a staged reading of biographical work from youth in embattled Gaza called The Gaza Monologues. For years, Golden Thread has produced works incorporating the Palestinian perspective amid a mass culture overwhelmingly slanted toward the more powerful side in a basically colonial project. And currently Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts bring the diasporic repercussions of Palestinian dispossession center stage in Habibi, a new play from a new Palestinian American theatrical voice, Sharif Abu-Hambeh.

Habibi makes its debut as the second offering in a trio of world premieres at Intersection by first-time playwrights (the first having been Chinaka Hodge’sMirrors in Every Corner). Directed by Omar Matwally, Abu-Hambeh’s play weaves together two distinct storylines that attempt to capture the inter-generational confusion and displacement experienced by assimilating Palestinian immigrants in the Bay Area. That confusion can regrettably transfer to the play itself, whose intentional deployment of ambiguity ends up, at least to some extent, being merely fuzzy rather than thought-provoking. But the ideas here are at times intriguingly subtle and the effort a promising one. Moreover, Matwally and Campo Santo give the play a strong production with various charms along the way.

At the center of this double helix of a narrative is young Palestinian American Tariq (a coolly vital and engaging Aleph Ayin). Tariq shares a small Mission District apartment and even — talk about family overload — a single bed with his loving but paternalistic father, Mohammed (a stern, sympathetic Paul Santiago). The deliberate and routine-loving Mohammed — who unlike his Americanized son speaks in accented English — is a museum guard with a strong work ethic that he’s trying, unsuccessfully, to instill in his slacker offspring. Tariq, for his part, has just happily shed his menial job at a local café and is in no hurry to find a new one. His absent mother (Nora El Samahy) apparently left them some time before, though she reappears at one point in his imagination.

This father and son dynamic, familial and almost too familiar, comes intercut with a public talk by a high-class museum curator (a sharp and funny El Samahy, dressed by costume designer Courtney Flores in esteem-grabbing Manhattan chic and sporting a very respectable English accent), who leads us through a slide lecture on the great art heists of the last century. Her talk, avid but meandering, is interrupted by simultaneously exasperating and guilt-producing phone calls from her terminally ill father, and a consequent tendency to wander into ruminations farther afield — summoned for us in pictures of dispossession that float by on the screen behind her (in video projections designed by Aubrey Millen).

Maybe these wayward ruminations aren’t so far afield after all, we come to suspect, as her theme of cultural theft warms up to its own complexities and encourages us to consider the nature of cultural transmission, loss, and hybridization in the life-and-death circumstances of exiled populations. This idea deepens as Tariq’s raucous and rebellious spirit extends to breaking into the curator’s monologue, and even smashing the fourth wall to confront us, her audience. Tariq also has a unique tendency to narrate his own actions, a self-conscious conceit that can be productive at times, especially of humor, and works as an indirect aside to the audience.

By the end, the two narratives come even closer together through a rash act of Tariq’s father that trades disastrously on the concept of family heirlooms, or the physical symbols of patrimony and place. The climax arrives too hastily, and its potential impact is muted. At the same time, the play’s departure from the more universal, shopworn gestures of “melting pot” tales verges on something rare and coruscating.


Thurs.–Sun., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 7; $15–$25

Intersection for the Arts

446 Valencia, SF

(415) 626-2787 




It’s raining yuks



STAGE Ho there! You with the sad-face! Check out these whoop-whooping upcoming comedy events and turn that ;( onto a 🙂 right quick.



It’s no laughing matter. Twelve San Francisco improv teams will enter Kitchen Stadium — sorry, the Ninth Street Independent Film Center — but only one will rise to the top like clownin’ Mario Batalis. Not only does the winner score the honor of beating less funny peers in front of a crowd (and G-list celebrity judges — the author of this article included), but he or she also gets a four-week run at the venue. We hear the art of improv involves never saying “no” — how you gonna turn down the cutthroat crazy of The Endgames?

Thursdays through Nov. 11, 9 p.m., $10

Ninth Street Independent Film Center

145 Ninth St., SF




It ain’t easy being a woman in the stand-up biz. But you’ll never know it watching the four women who will be onstage for this long-running (11 years!) annual lineup from Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. Kung Pao began as a haven for Jews on Christmas and has expanded into a year-round lineup of multicultural, multi-hilarious events. This year’s Funny Girlz include Pakistani native Brit Shazia Mirza (“at least, that’s what it says on my pilot’s license,” she quips); San Franciscan Clara Clayy; Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, one of India’s rare female comedians; and Kung Pao founder Lisa Geduldig. Breaking boundaries, busting glass ceilings? Try being an intelligent, funny female stand-up. Unfortunately, that can be radical enough at times.

Weds/29, 8 p.m., $25

Brava Theater

2781 27th St., SF

(415) 522-3737




So your stash ran out, or you’re detoxing, or you’re done with the hallucinogenics, or whatever. Page back through your neatly stacked Guardian Best of the Bay issues and there it is: “Best Alternative to Psychedelic Drugs”: comedian Will Franken. Shall we listen in on one of his absurdist rants? “Every 60 seconds in America, 60 seconds go by. For every one minute, there are 59 others just waiting to form an hour. By the time this sentence is over, I will have finished saying it.” Franken is one of SF’s glorious bizarros, spackling his acts with TV commercials that fold into dual-voiced skits that segue to celebrations of diversity … for profit! Just don’t freak when does his Antichrist voice.

Fri/1 and Sat/2 8 p.m., $20

The Purple Onion

140 Columbus, SF

(415) 956-1653




Improv is a strange beast. Improv comedians find more thrill from throwing body and soul into the dark abyss of audience suggestion and happenstance genius than they do from conventional stand-up’s hours in front of the mirror perfecting that ever-so-crucial eyebrow raise or purposefully awkward arm movement. But from the abyss, great rewards they reap. No company in San Francisco has learned this lesson more effectively than BATS Improv, which has been entertaining Bay Area audiences since 1986. This week’s offering? “Warp Speed” is an all-improvised take on Star Trek – no Kirk, no Spock but a flurry of new characters made up on the spot, as well as, we’re sure, some seriously kooky props and alien situations.

Fri/1 8 p.m., $17–$20

BATS Improv

B350 Fort Mason Center, SF

(415) 474-6776




It’s a tricky line, but one Kristen Schaal walks well: that fissure between cute and psycho. She’s gone and perfected the odd balance on TV’s “Flight of the Conchords” as Mel, the persistent stalker of the eponymous New Zealand folk-humor duo. But standup comedy is where she got her start and laid the groundwork for her nerdy suave. Her sets vary between dark and light — she wants to tell you about her dream! Her sex dream. Featuring Winston Churchill. (The sex wasn’t great.)

Thurs/7–Sun/10 8 p.m., $17.50–$20.50

Cobb’s Comedy Club

915 Columbus, SF

(415) 928-4320




It may not be the first comedy mélange devoted to our hilarious homos — Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s Valencia Rose Cabaret flounced off with that title in the 1980s — but the four-day Out Loud fest may be the brightest and most focused yet. Shall we lead with the high-wattage names? Castro Theatre will be packed for “An Evening with Sandra Bernhard,” whose Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne was the first recurring lesbian character on American TV. Film snark Frank Decaro from The Daily Show will also be out and about, sassing up a corner of The Lookout interviewing his fellow festivators and performing with a swath of TV feys at the Swedish-American Music Hall for an evening called “Rooftops and Bottoms.” But you don’t gotta be on TV to kick it. Local drag cutup Sasha Soprano has rousted six of the finest becoiffed and becoming spotlight stars for Saturday’s “The Drag Queens of Comedy” at the Castro Theater. How exactly will their shtick be different from the rest of the shows on our fall highlights list? We asked one of the night’s main acts, Miss Coco Peru, a classy redhead who has kept New York City audiences enthralled since the early 1990s with monologues that switch between the weighty and the witty. “Well, it takes us all a lot longer to get ready,” she said. Oh, and you don’t heckle a drag queen — unless you think a stiletto to the sacrum will straighten out your kinks down there.

Oct. 7–10

See website for times, locations, and prices


Tender is the ‘Loin



STAGE The sexes — more or less all of them — were at the heart of much of my first 48 hours at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, Exit Theatre’s 19th annual uncurated gamut-gamble. There, too, were the power trips, the pity fests, the nonsense, the reverence, and the dark-carnival mayhem that trails in all of its wake. Men solo, women on women, persons of uncertain gender in ensemble dances, L.A. cabbies driving down mammary lane, men in lab coats burning women at the stake — all of them were sources of grim or delirious laughter, vividly etched characters, a legit existential truth or two, and the occasional horrible theatrical misstep. Just what we go to the Tenderloin for.

In VITCH Slapped, Starr Ahrens, Nancy Kissam, and Diana Yanez of Los Angeles–based troupe The Gay Mafia lob a volley of comic sketches on the subject of, for want of a better term, women’s issues. It’s about harmony (of voices, of visions, of menstrual cycles) and breakdown (of patriarchy, sexual orientation, nervous and social conditions). Hence songs to the goddess-moon-mother from three loving sisters in paganism — or two loving "life partners" and one disgruntled ex–life partner. Hence a jack-booted lesbian speaking impeccable German with an audible whip-crack to each (surprisingly) meaningful morsel. Hence a vlog by two determined liberators of the female bod on a nude road trip across America, always one step ahead of propriety and in stride with the best of bad taste. This and more, in a show that makes up for only fitfully inspired material with focused performances and contagious exuberance.

In the same venue — namely, the Exit’s brand new, nicely appointed Studio Theater — man gets his retort in L.A.-based writer-performer James Schneider’s Man on Sex. But this solo outing is not up to the task. The promise in its title of frank truth-telling from a male perspective leads instead to a disappointing meander down a rather passive-aggressive lane, taken by a man frustrated that his wife has stopped having sex with him. Shallowly assuming the air of an innocent victim of some unnatural disaster, Schneider presents a monologue that lacks honesty as well as cohesiveness. It’s punched up (if not quite elevated) by a pseudo-Elizabethan rap called the "PeniFesto" and about half-dozen original songs that the actor sings to his own keyboard accompaniment. These range from the maudlin ("If Only I Liked Strippers") to the boorishly jaunty ("Tranny in a Tree"). The music conveys some dexterity and imagination, but the schmaltzy pop style, like the show’s overarching theme, often feels strained and misplaced.

Meanwhile, just down the hall in the Exit’s cozy Stage Left, The Burnings smacks its female subjects and the audience around. Writer-director Lili Weckler’s macabre poetry spins a sinuous narrative about three exploited laborers (Rebecca Kanengiser, Carla Pauli, and Lauren Spencer, all wild-eyed and draped in sack cloth mended with duct tape). Their stories are coaxed from them on pain of death, then capitalized on by an opportunist doctor (Pete Frontiera), aided by his willful henchman, The Interpreter. There’s energy and attitude right out of the box, but the play takes a while to heat up and never quite scorches, despite committed performances and lively staging. Beginning like something staged in a neighbor’s haunted house, The Burnings gains depth in its mixing of medieval misogyny with the more subtly sadistic, flagrantly commercial gestures of the therapeutic age. The music along the way — each actor plucks or strikes or squeezes sound from some little something — is sparely composed but well done. This is especially true of the resonant vocal harmonies.

Accomplished actor Dominic Hoffman’s solo show Last Fare will likely rank among the best within the 12-day festival. Beginning at the funeral of a Hollywood man who was mysteriously murdered, the story follows a noir-like path through interviews with several people acquainted to one degree or another with the victim. Hoffman imbues the half-dozen or so characters in his beautifully written play with palpable life — life slightly larger-than, in fact, in keeping with one cab driver’s observation that in Hollywood everyone thinks he or she is a movie star. Suffused with alternately wry and raucous humor, affecting but understated emotion, and flashes of genuine insight and wisdom, Last Fare lures us to the fateful site of apartment 609, only to meet us with surfaces so crystalline in their appearance, and solid in their depth, that they become as much mirror as doorway.

One show not seen in time for review but worth flagging for consideration is San Francisco–based writer-actor David Jacobson’s Theme Park. A hysterically funny and sharp excerpt at the San Francisco Theater Festival had phrases like "powerhouse," "Best of Fringe," and "creatively disturbed" written all over it. Also promising is The Burroughs and Kookie Show: Late Night in the Interzone. The title alone appeals, but knowing this RIPE Theater coproduction is the brainchild of writer-performer Christopher Kuckenbaker (whose recent performance credits include Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage) seals the deal.


Through Sept 19, $10–$12.99 ($45 for 5 shows; $75 for 10)

Various locations, SF

(800) 838-3006

Queen Carol


Let me tell you what I think about when I think about Carol Channing: “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never, ever, ever jam today.” And then she turns herself into a sheep.

That’s not a fever dream: it’s one of the more absurd scenes from the 1985 TV movie Through the Looking Glass, featuring Channing as the batty White Queen. Channing’s 60-year career spans film, television, and theater — she’s probably best known for her iconic roles in Broadway shows Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And yet, in my mind, she’s waving her arms wildly and ranting nonsense at poor Alice.

In a way, that’s fair. It’s difficult to get a handle on Channing. I don’t think she could do it herself.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said when I asked about the longevity and diversity of her career. “We’re all surprised at everything that happens to us.”

At nearly 90, Channing continues to perform. She’ll be in San Francisco for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s 16th annual Help is On the Way benefit concert. AIDS relief is one of Channing’s longest-running causes, inspired by a longtime friendship with the queer community.

“Way back in 1950, I don’t know what, we opened in San Francisco with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she recalled. “They tell me there wasn’t a blonde wig left in San Francisco. They all came dressed as me.”

And because of her pioneering work, the gay community has continued to support her. Well, that and her status as Broadway legend: it kind of goes with the territory. Until talking to her, however, I had no idea about the politics of being a gay icon.

“They made me their queen, for life,” Channing explained. “The empress is only for three years — but they made me their queen.”

I didn’t have the nerve to ask where Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand fit into this hierarchy for fear I’d stir up tension and incite a coup. But Channing is more concerned with her current cause, the Carol Channing and Harry Kullijian Foundation for the Arts, which seeks to preserve arts education to keep kids in school.

“This is a crisis now in our country,” Channing lamented. “Not everybody gets it.”

Luckily, she laid it out for me: “Each of us sees the world differently. All the artist does is recreate what was already created, but as they see it. And once you start expressing how you see the world, it opens up the brain.”

And you were expecting “Raspberries!”  


Sun/15, 7:30 p.m., $75

Herbst Theatre

401 Van Ness, SF

(415) 392-4400



Public trance-portation



THEATER When caught riding Muni, one way to while away the time and ignore the lunatic seated next to you is to gaze out on the passing scene and its traffic, at the buildings and neighborhoods and detritus of the city, at all the lovers and loners, the shiny things people wear and drive and push and collect, as well as the tattered and forgotten stuff no one loves anymore.

It’s cheerier than remembering you’re stuck on a Muni bus, anyway. It’s a big ready-made rolling show and it’s only $2. True, Antenna Theater’s new ride, The Magic Bus, costs a little more, but then it comes with an added twist: time travel. I was stuck in traffic in 1968 last weekend. How many Muni riders can say that? Maybe only a dozen, tops.

Copresented with Teacher with the Bus (Jens-Peter Jungclaussen’s wheel-bound extracurricular excursion line), The Magic Bus is Antenna Theater’s latest experiential outing. Scooping up audience-passengers in Union Square, the bus — painted in somewhat low-key shades of psychedelia and hosted by a genial “hippie flight attendant” played by either Rana Kangas-Kent or Sarah David — goes tripping through the city and back in time to the 1960s, with all their hoary contradictions, antecedents, and legacies. These include but are by no means limited to monkeys in orbit; astronauts on the moon; wars overseas; civil rights struggles at home; communes off the grid; and sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll seemingly everywhere.

The interior video and sound collage — expertly composed by a collaborative team of artists and Antenna’s artistic director Chris Hardman, who supplies the concept, script, sound design, and onboard 3-D artwork — makes the real-life scene outside the bus something like a palimpsest, only the past, rather than bleeding through to the surface, is cast over the present by video screens that automatically descend over the windows.

If there’s something a bit pat and predictable about such a project from the get-go, it would still be hard to reduce the overall effect of the ride to the admittedly too-familiar narrative it rehearses. That’s partly because you actually are moving, through a real city in real time, and stuff is happening outside those windows. The conversation between past and present is immediate and captivating.

Screens rise momentarily on the Financial District, for instance, where the Transamerica Pyramid building fills out the windows on one side of the bus and the odd pedestrian strolls by in front. Here, the voice-over introduces the pyramid structure, and the pyramid scheme it represents, amid the other soaring money towers that “reach so high as to block out the sun for most of the day.” Deceptively straightforward, the video narrative goes on to satirize, mock, and dissect the corporate ethos and the ideology of success American-style, as we hear Allen Ginsberg howling, “Molloch, whose blood is running money … “

Tried-and-true tropes, of course, and rather easy ones at that. But there’s no denying a certain willingness to embrace them, here at the edge of capitalism’s ever-expanding desert. Moreover, Magic Bus‘s narrative is lively and thoughtful even while limning well-traveled terrain. If “hobbit hippie” consciousness is with us still, in subtler but more widespread patterns of sustainable living, it’s now driven less by “a beautiful vision of the future,” notes the narrator, “than necessity.”


Through August 8, $20–$25

Union Square, SF

(415) 332-8867


Let us entertain you



STAGE It’s not every day that I have a circus all to myself. And it’s making me exceedingly nervous. Mark Wessels, one of Circus Bella’s veteran clowns, is being installed by his coworkers on a unicycle whose dizzying height — which already recalls that of a vintage penny-farthing — is further exacerbated by its position on a five-foot platform. “I’ll be fine if I fall,” Wessels says. “I’ll try not to fall.”

It’s the professional-grade Circus Bella’s first full rehearsal of the year, one month before its July 3 performance in Yerba Buena Gardens, and I’m the lucky audience of one to its beautiful madness. Between superhuman feats, the affable Bellas come up to introduce themselves. Contortionist Ariana Ferber Carter rearranges her vertebrae in a lung-constricting backbend at my feet. “I can’t keep my back warm all the time,” the 18-year-old cheerfully deadpans after telling me she “only” stretches three hours a day, max.

“We try to run a tight ship here, but have fun. We use the word ‘delight’ a lot,” Abigail Munn tells me during a break. She’s the fetching aerialist and costume designer who cofounded the troupe in 2008 with slack-wire walker David Hunt. The two had noticed a dearth of traditional circus in the Bay Area. Everyone was all into the “Montreal thing,” as Hunt puts it — Cirque du Soleil-type concept theatrics. He recalls the moment when we said “What the hell is wrong with the ring?”

As veterans of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, Zoppé Family Circus, and New Pickle Family Circus, Munn and Hunt wanted to take the circus experience back to the days when women wore sequins and the juggling was done by people with big red noses — not faceless cerulean orbs. Bella performers each develop their own acts separately, taking a page from classic troupes. Band director Rob Reich composes original scores after viewing the performers practice. The whole show takes place in a single ring, demarcated by a big blue ground covering splashed with gold stars. Best of all, Bella keeps prices accessible; indeed, most shows are free.

But running a circus, unsurprisingly, is somewhat of a balancing act. The cost of costumes, three new troupe members, the full band … on closer inspection it seems as if Circus Bella’s most awe-inspiring feat is its very existence. Munn acknowledges that retaining the troupe can be challenging, but that the circus game is the same one all struggling artists play. “We try to maintain a medium level of starving,” she tells me, only half joking. The group is accepting charitable donations as we speak, and about half the troupe’s nine in-ring members have day jobs teaching kids’ classes at places like the Circus Center near Kezar Stadium or have their own solo act side hustles.

After meeting the gang, I realize that I caught the Bella show last fall at the Yerba Buena Gardens by happenstance one cloudy day, not long after I moved back to the city. I like to think it was a uniquely San Francisco moment — to be walking through downtown’s concrete megaliths and suddenly run across a trapeze aerialist. Munn flipped high above my head in a sparkling blue unitard. The clowns alternated physical comedy that tickled the little ones in the audience with balancing tricks of the oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit persuasion. I don’t know, maybe that happenstance magic arise elsewhere in the world. Vegas, maybe. Still …


Sat/3 12, 2:15 p.m., free

Yerba Buena Gardens

Mission between Third and Fourth streets, SF

(415) 205-8355


The facts of Cloris



STAGE With nearly 250 credits in film, television, and stage roles to her name, Cloris Leachman is a true entertainment icon. It’s hard to believe the ever-vivacious and lively actress got her start in show business competing in the Miss America pageant back in 1946, but the now 84-year-old star has generously filled a career spanning more than 60 years.

But age is irrelevant when talking to Leachman, who continues to work with a full schedule in film and television projects as her solo stage show comes to San Francisco this week at the Rrazz Room. Speaking by phone from Palm Springs, where her former husband, George Englund lives — or as she says, her “Once upon a time” husband — “I don’t like to say my ‘ex.’ I don’t think that’s appropriate. It doesn’t mean what happened,” she said.

“A couple of years ago my family got all concerned about me. I don’t really know what it was, but they felt I wasn’t my old self. My daughter talked to her father, and they decided I should write a book, have a one woman show, do talks — and we did it all,” Leachman said, laughing in a deeply infectious and endearing way.

Incorporating spoken passages along with a little piano, singing, and a healthy dose of humor, the show promises to touch on a broad spectrum of Leachman’s career, which includes notable performances as the bombshell beauty in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955); her Oscar-winning role as neglected wife Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show (1971); a long string of successful television appearances (which have garnered her nine Emmys) on programs including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Phyllis, and, of course, her portrayal of Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein (1974).

The normally forthcoming Leachman demurred when asked about particulars of the show, preferring that people see it for themselves. She did stress that one of her favorite parts of this show — which has been performed in several warm-up gigs leading up to her arrival here — has been interacting and meeting with her fans.

“That’s the fun part, that’s the other half of your show,” she said. “We laugh and hug and cry — having a live audience is thrilling.”

Reminiscing about some of her favorite memories of San Francisco, Leachman espoused her love of the city’s cuisine before commenting — with somewhat embarrassed but gleeful candor — on her fling in a local hotel with Gene Hackman in the 1970s, an assignation she revealed in her autobiography, Cloris, released last year.

“We met in the lobby and he asked if I wanted to have dinner, so we had dinner. I don’t know what happened, we just got on fire, we couldn’t run fast enough to the room,” she laughed heartily. “I remember the first 10 seconds after we got in the room, but I don’t remember anything after that — isn’t that terrible?”

After this week’s shows, Leachman has an array of projects on the horizon, including a new show on Fox from the creators of My Name Is Earl and a role in the film The Fields, a psychological thriller due out in the fall. She will also appear in a movie called You Again with her friend and former Mary Tyler Moore costar Betty White.

Asked about any possible secrets to her success, her openness and self-deprecating humor showed themselves. “I always went on the Johnny Carson show after I’d done a character so people would know I wasn’t that character,” she said seriously, before cracking herself up, and laughing hysterically. “I was even worse!” 


Through June 11

Wed-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m., $40–$45

Rrazz Room

222 Mason, SF



To thrill is divine



THEATER It’s been a different kind of thrill down at the Hypnodrome as Thrillpeddlers enters the 11th month of extensions for its runaway smash hit, The Cockettes’ musical Pearls Over Shanghai. One hundred performances strong (as of May 1) and with no end in sight, Thrillpeddlers has slyly redefined its brand of thrills to embrace a wholly different genre besides the Grand Guignol revivalism for which it is best known; setting aside its usual quotient of twisted naturalism and splattered gore for the rambunctious, over-the-top glitter and glam of Theatre of the Ridiculous.

But the two art forms are not entirely unrelated. After all, a staple of Grand Guignol was the steamy sex farce, a fitting description for the ecstatic nudity, cross-dressing, masturbation, and defloration running wild throughout Pearls. And just as the endangered-species quality of Grand Guignol first prompted Thrillpeddlers artistic director Russell Blackwood to begin mounting performances of it in 1991, so too did the precarious posterity of Theatre of the Ridiculous spark a similar interest.

“I didn’t want it to become a footnote in theatre history, or just something you read about,” Blackwood explains. “It turned me on — the fact that it was as marginalized and as conceivably to be forgotten in the way I was concerned Grand Guignol might be.” In 2008, Thrillpeddlers took the slapstick scripts of Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium by Charles Busch and Charles Ludlum’s Jack and the Beanstalk and mounted its first “Theatre of the Ridiculous” festival, eventually taking the whole show on the road — along with an hour-long rendition of Pearls Over Shanghai — to the HOWL festival in New York City’s East Village.

“It went really, really great,” Blackwood said. “We had two full separate bills that played in repertory with each other. And afterward, seeing a videotape of that made me realize just what to do with Pearls.”

Of course it wasn’t just Blackwood’s vision that made the Pearls revival possible; it was also the ongoing collaboration with musical director and original Cockette Scrumbly Koldewyn, who painstakingly brought together songs and scripting from multiple versions of the show despite having scarce archived material — save memories and a few recordings — to work from. Koldewyn also has been an instrumental force behind the upcoming revival of Hot Greeks, the only other “book” musical from the original Cockettes repertoire, (opening at the Hypnodrome May 2). He also accompanies the shows nightly on the piano.

One particularly interesting aspect about Pearls is the way it has brought together multiple generations worth of queer performance fixtures: the original founder of Theatre Rhinoceros, Lanny Baugniet, who performs an opium freakout clad in skintight silver lamé; Jef Valentine, whose Madame Gin Sling drips with Frank N. Furter juice and alternates with original Cockette Rumi Missabau; the eternally robust Steven Satyricon as a rosy-cheeked Naval Captain with a mysterious past; and the role of Russian VIP escort Petrushka, serially portrayed by no fewer than four drag Grand Dames.

But by no means is Theatre of the Ridiculous meant to be viewed solely through a queer lens. Blackwood estimates that slightly less 50 percent of the cast is queer-identified. And the myriad Thrillpeddlers core company members, who started off as ghoulish Grand Guignolians, mesh well with their gaily glittering counterparts.

“What struck me (about Theatre of the Ridiculous) was that it’s a decidedly queer art form, yet always seems to have involved men and women, gays and straights,” Blackwood said. “It’s also a wholly American movement, which you can almost look at as a triangle that goes from New York’s Playhouse of the Ridiculous, to John Waters in Baltimore, and the Cockettes out here.” From French horror-show to all-American glam, Thrillpeddlers has seamlessly expanded its niche: resurrection.


Through Aug. 1

Through June 26: Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; July 10.-Aug. 1: Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.


Hot Greeks

May 2– June 27 (Thurs., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.), $30–$69


575 10th St., SF


The odd couple



STAGE A man gets off work one hot summer day and stops at the supermarket for an air-conditioned diversion, buys a bag of cherries, and on the way out of the parking lot rolls over a woman with his Toyota Corolla. This is not a good way to meet people. But wham, crash, a relationship is born nevertheless. Not necessarily a romantic one, but then not so far away either. In Lydia Stryk’s An Accident, which closes the current season at the Magic Theater, guilt-ridden driver Anton (Tim Kniffin) and paralyzed patient Libby (Arwen Anderson) dance metaphorically and literally around one another like two lovers in a bad breakup. If only the complex collision between their respective pasts, personalities, and shared trauma angled off in our direction a little more. As drama, An Accident ranks disappointingly as a fender-bender.

This is surprising, not only because Stryk reportedly draws here in part on her own experience as the victim of a similar accident, but given the built-in intensity of the situation, which the playwright aims to heighten by keeping the rest of the world off stage. Her two protagonists have exclusive domain over the hospital room — where Libby remains rooted in bed, unable to move her body, her prognosis uncertain, and Anton slumps in a corner chair or moves frenetically about, trying to please, atone, heal (the both of them). The only other setting, until the very end, is a park bench just outside (set downstage in shadow) where Anton initially sits frozen in contemplation before addressing the audience about the day of the accident.

Moreover, Libby, who also addresses us at the outset, is suffering temporary amnesia, and is thus a "missing person" with no one else in the world as far as she knows. Anton, for his part, is a bit of a loner too, a divorced high school history teacher and Civil War buff, a bookworm and library stalker, with a grown daughter in medical school probably not much younger than Libby. In other words, he’s a guy in his head most of the time, confronted with the broken body of a young woman suddenly trapped in her own thoughts and glaring back angrily at his brazenly healthy physique.

The realism is heavily sculpted by this ideal, almost laboratory-like distillation. Director Rob Melrose and scenic designer Erik Flatmo even forgo the usual hospital equipment, sounds from the corridor, or any view beyond the large wall-size windows, which remain hidden by drawn blinds. Indeed, Flatmo’s set — one of the more impressive transformations of the Magic stage in recent memory — recedes enticingly with sloping ceiling and hard angles into the very idea of institutional isolation, rather than some real-world approximation.

Again, such an intense focus promises us something, namely intensity. But that is decidedly lacking. The actors are very expressive — Anderson’s vigorous, slightly zany performance being all the more impressive given the heavy restrictions on her movement — but the tone is oddly noncommittal, a lightness confounding even the ostensibly heaviest of scenes. The gruesome physicality of their encounter comes across in the dialogue, where the details of Libby’s injuries come to light, but the impact, so to speak, remains marginal. At times it seems as if too much realism were forgone: when Anton, desperately and slightly ridiculously pursuing a healing "life force" energy technique, obeys Libby’s command to remove her hospital gown to maximize his effectiveness, we see her body pristine rather than badly beaten, bruised, and surgically scarred.

One ruefully recalls, in way of contrast, Caryl Churchill’s A Number or David Harrower’s Blackbird. These are similarly distilled two-person dramas where the concentrated isolation of characters locked in deeply traumatic relation to one another comes off to much greater effect, laying both parties bare while digging deeply under our own skin. Unlike the characters in either of those plays, and in an intriguing twist, Libby and Anton have no mutual past predating the collision itself, so their individual pasts come to color and inform this backward relationship that begins in trauma and pain. It’s an opportunity that should have led further, but An Accident plays it all too safe.


Through May 9

Wed.–Sat., 8pm (also Sat., 2:30 p.m.);

Sun., 2:30 p.m., $25–$55

Magic Theatre, Bldg D,

Fort Mason Center, Marina at Laguna, SF

(415) 441-8822


I to eye



THEATER The white scrim separating the audience from the stage is an immediately impressive aspect of Marilee Talkington’s solo autobiographical play, Truce, in which the American Conservatory Theater–trained actor, director, and writer recounts growing up and coming to terms with a rare congenital disease — cone-rod dystrophy — that has gradually been taking her eyesight from her. The milky white gossamer screen creates a permanent distance, a soft distortion, through which the play attempts communication, understanding, and empathy.

There is also visible, at different times and to varying degrees, a vibrating, pixilated cloud projected onto the center of the scrim, mimicking the central vision that has by now irremediably disappeared (Talkington explains that she is now legally blind in her peripheral vision and without sight in the center of her vision). At the outset of the piece, we see Talkington slowly crossing at an angle downstage, set and lighting designer Andrew Lu’s solitary spot trained on her from behind, as she heads cautiously away from the light into the shadow cast by her own form. This initial movement is symbolically rich, full of an inner truth but at the same time misleading, since Talkington soon proves a boisterous, agile stage presence.

The disease, for which there is no current treatment or cure, was inherited from her mother, who also has it, and much of Talkington’s at times moving but dramatically uneven play is given over to working through the difficult relationship she has had to the feisty woman who gave her life as well as her powerfully alienating condition. But despite the seeming bleakness of the subject matter, Truce is full of vigor, humor, and, as the title suggests, gradual acceptance and, at the least, a preliminary form of reconciliation.

Talkington, moreover, is a charmer — a necessary survival trait, she suggests, of growing up with radical difference. That difference is at no time more apparent than in the eye contact Talkington describes maintaining with any seeing interlocutor, even though her only chance of taking them in visually is by approaching them from her periphery. This specific but central compromise remains a poignant summation of Talkington’s ongoing negotiation of the “I” and the “eye,” of the territory she stakes for herself in a sighted world.

On the largely bare stage, Talkington moves about in varying moods of determination, exuberance, tentativeness, and isolation (the spare but apt choreography is by Sonya Smith), at several points softly iterating the math of ocular deterioration, measuring the growing gulf between herself and the visible, “20/10, 20/60, 20/100, 20/400 …” In this West Coast premiere, directed by Crowded Fire’s Marissa Wolf, the action unfolds smoothly, often cleverly, with a minimum of fuss — like the way Talkington scoots around the stage on a wheeled stool, a collapsible white cane held out before her, crooked like handlebars, as she describes her legally blind mother’s bravado cruising on her electric three-wheel cart.

The negotiation with her mother, like her negotiation with the sighted world, takes a variety of forms in Talkington’s narrative, but the script (cowritten with playwright Justin Quinn Pelegano) proves rather too heavy with explication and underscored morals — as well as admittedly often charming vignettes from her past, including a deservedly starring role on her high school basketball team — and as a result forgoes, despite the evocative aesthetics of the scenic design, prolonged immersion into the profound existential meaning of her journey. Instead, its confessional quality can feel forced. Talkington is a capable mimic, but her mother does not quite sound like a fully-fledged character here, despite being at the thematic center of things. Talkington’s is a dramatic and challenging story, but we only just begin here to sense the implications it might have for us on the other side of the scrim, at the edge of the light.


Through April 3

Wed-Sat, 8 p.m., $10–$25

Noh Space

2840 Mariposa, SF

(415) 826-1958


Reality bites



THEATER Feb. 5 saw a varied but collectively incensed body of American conservatives unfurl itself all red-white-and-blue in Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel for the first Tea Party Nation convention. The delegates, dubbed “teabaggers” by media wags and hailing from all parts of the land, responded enthusiastically to a keynote speech bewailing the “Islamification” of a nation overrun by foreigners and subverted from within by the Obama administration, the green movement, and the “cult of multiculturalism.”

Many in the Bay Area might look upon such a grouping, and the groundswell it purports to represent, with a vaguely uneasy sense of amusement, not to say superiority. But the name itself begs the question: are these people really patriots, or just pudheads? Maybe the only thing to do is gas up and head out for some reconnaissance. After all, there’s a legitimate wave of anger across the downsized middle of this otherwise clinically obese country, and it behooves us smug coastal dwellers to know something about it.

Or better idea: let Dan Hoyle go and report back from the stage. Like many a 20-something seeker before him, the restlessly peripatetic San Francisco–based writer-performer set out last year in a custom van to, as he put it in one of his dispatches to the San Francisco Chronicle, “find out what makes America’s heartland tick.” What he discovered during the three-month, 27-state odyssey may not be all that surprising in the end — indeed, the liberal biases Hoyle looks to complicate come back more or less intact — but it makes for a deft, sharply funny, and entirely engaging night of theater.

In the episodes brought to theatrical life here — astutely and meticulously shaped in collaboration with director Charlie Varon (Rabbi Sam) and reminiscent of the humanist satire of Garry Trudeau — Hoyle heads out from his charmingly incongruous but insular circle of friends (and their “liberal bubble”) straight to Texas, where he joins hands in mealtime prayer with a born-again Vietnam vet and his family, including a grandson about to ship off to Iraq with the Marines.

The dinner conversation is largely devoted to a defense of creationist history: “Now,” his kindly host asks with rhetorical relish, “How did Noah fit all those dinosaurs in the ark?” Afterward, Hoyle deflects a postprandial pass from the man’s son, who’s clearly surprised a guy from San Francisco could ever be so straight. Retreating to his van, Dan is not above doing some praying of his own, including hoping for the safety of the young soldier about to do “what I could never do” in Iraq.

Then it’s off to Alabama, Hoyle toggling expertly between, on the one hand, the casual racism of a moonshine-sipping paraplegic ex-trucker and his apologetic wife, and, on the other, an African American casino worker and ex-con (“livin’ the mutherfuckin’ American dream”) who expounds with gritty eloquence upon the impact of Obama on white and black minds.

Reagan Democrats, gun-show vendors, and aging Midwestern hippies-turned-reactionaries, among others, all lie on the road ahead. Hoyle finds much to sympathize with and honor along the way — an all-American cross-cultural encounter related by Ramón, a Dominican from New York whom Hoyle meets in Michigan, is particularly supple and hopeful — but the going is rough. Frequently Hoyle gives vent to his frustration in song, picking up the guitar and letting go a melodic tirade of inspired lyricism. “Americans” is pervaded with a sense of the playwright’s own loneliness, a frustrated desire for connection in the face of a reactionary populism that will not meet an earnest liberal halfway.

Maybe there is no halfway? Or maybe a halfway line requires more rigorous interrogation of the play’s own political assumptions. That might have cast the ideological landscape in a somewhat different light. After all, the widespread conviction that Obama is a “Moozlum” is one thing; a more general distrust of the state and big business as dangerously encroaching powers is another.


Through April 18

Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.

Sun/21, Feb 28, and all Sundays starting March 14, 3 p.m.


1062 Valencia, SF

(415) 826-5750



Tragically hip



THEATER The Oedipus of Sophocles gets transposed to the California prison system and East L.A. in Luis Alfaro’s lively Oedipus el Rey, playing at the Magic Theatre in a world premiere slickly staged by artistic director Loretta Greco. Neither the classic nor contemporary terrain is new turf for Alfaro, whose Electricidad similarly reset the Electra myth. But San Francisco is another story, this being the acclaimed L.A.-based Latino playwright’s first professional Bay Area production.

Slipping into Alfaro’s lyrical mix of the sacred and vernacular, his intuitive sense of comic timing, and his larger dramatic purposes proves relatively easy. Despite many appeals to artistic license — including a sometimes cumbersome substitution of a Christian universe for fate-bound Greek pantheism and the more intriguing revisioning of Oedipus as a barrio gangster on the make — the story remains familiar in outline, not least the beloved plot points “kills father, marries mother.” And decades into the work of playwrights like Luis Valdez, José Rivera, and Octavio Solis, there’s something already familiar as well about the setting’s wry, poetical, classically bound barrio.

But Alfaro is a knowing and competent progenitor of the style. The use of a four-cholo chorus, or Coro, is particularly deft, with the actors in orange prison smocks occupying the extreme corners of a mystically bare stage and calling on us to consider “this man” — played with a jagged, bounding innocence by Joshua Torrez — in a tough, sardonic but elegant litany that pounds open the themes of the play from the outset like a piñata idol.

But the less abstract scenes are among the most effective, especially the riveting relationship between Oedipus and his lover and unrecognized mother Jocasta (a winningly strong yet vulnerable Romi Dias), which unfolds as an incestuous but tender and strangely compelling meeting of damaged souls. If the play doesn’t cohere with quite the authority or intensity it aims for, what remains is a set of images and moments that set the prophetic and profane in vital relation to one another.



Drag performance artist and dancer Monique Jenkinson, a.k.a. Fauxnique, recently saw the weekend run of her new solo show Luxury Items at ODC Theater sell out in the bat of an eyelash. (See SFBG photographer Ariel Soto’s shots of that perfomance here.) So the current remounting at CounterPULSE comes highly anticipated. It doesn’t disappoint, and given the charisma and talent of its writer-choreographer-performer, not to mention the love lavished on her by adoring audiences, it’s hard to imagine how an intimate evening like this could. And considering its general execution and not least its ambition and scope — at once surprising and altogether apt — it’s well worth seeing at any stage in its ongoing development. At the same time, in the uneven arc of its dramatic line and somewhat choppy melding of themes, it remains a work-in-progress.

But what a work! Beginning in glorious repose across a deluxe chaise longue, Luxury Items revels in haute couture fantasy. But it soon acknowledges essential truths about our obsession with opulence in general and haute couture in particular. One: it’s built around an ersatz encounter with luxury that comes courtesy of media and advertising (“obsession,” in other words, is first of all a perfume ad). And two: it’s tacitly premised on a political economy whose principal characteristic is the ruthless class-based exploitation of laboring bodies.

If this makes drag sound like a drag, all the more reason to laud what Jenkinson is crafting here. It retains all requisite insouciance and wit even while deconstructing, in compellingly personal and historical terms, the “real” material bargain being made in every rarified, Chanel-clouded embrace of precious materialism.


Through Feb. 28

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 2:30 p.m.);

Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Tues., 7 p.m., $20-$55

Magic Theatre

Bldg B, Fort Mason Center, SF

(415) 441-8822



Through Feb. 21

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m. (except Feb. 20, 10 p.m.), $20


1310 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2060