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State of possession



THEATER In one of the more arresting moments in Aaron Davidman’s new solo play, Wrestling Jerusalem, the Bay Area actor-playwright and former Jewish Theatre artistic director recounts being in a West Bank café with his Palestinian host when four young Israeli IDF soldiers enter in full battle gear. It’s an estranging moment for Davidman, a liberal American Jew on a hunt for answers to his quandary over Israel and its relation to occupied Palestine. But the estrangement he feels is complex, slippery: His first response is to feel estrangement from the soldiers; then a look of recognition from one of the soldiers opens up the difference between Davidman and his new Arab friends; but then Davidman also feels himself very much an American, not an Israeli — just where does he belong?

A self divided among multiple, conflicting affiliations and ideals is a general condition in this complex and stressful world, but it achieves a concentrated poignancy here for the artist son of progressive parents who rooted their liberal values in Judaic tradition. As a young man visiting Israel for the first time in 1992, Davidman had finally to face the contradictions that this would entail in the context of Israel as a Jewish homeland but also as a nation state and, especially, as a colonial power occupying Palestinian land. At the same time, criticism of Israel on the left alienates him when he sees it slipping into a broader pit of anti-Semitism — as he did during an antiracism rally at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Many return trips to Israel only made matters worse, more complicated, as his excursions became more purposeful — geared to interviewing people on both sides of the conflict — and his vantage extended into the occupied territories themselves. Grim details of that occupation come out in the course of this sure 85-minute solo performance, but so do voices justifying or qualifying the excesses of the Israeli state in the name of security and historical or political circumstance. While cleaving to core values of equity and justice throughout, Davidman respectfully represents views that range to extreme points on either side of the messy debate.

At the same time, the act of doing so becomes its own trauma. As if in a state of possession, Davidman manifests the inner and outer turmoil in a physical performance marked by often-anguished gestural passages, stirring liturgical verses, unexpected humor, and a series of neatly etched characters. These come all the more forcefully across for being set in an intimate thrust stage arrangement, carved into the central space at Intersection for the Arts. There the play unfolds against scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis’s beautiful cloth backdrop, dyed in muted desert tones that come atmospherically alive in Allen Willner’s blood-and-earth–hued lighting design.

On one hand, Wrestling Jerusalem‘s airing of opposing views is as timely as ever. News of human rights abuses and more violence in and around the occupied territories comes almost daily, while the US State Department once again meanders down its long and winding road to nowhere with respect to jump-starting “peace talks.” Meanwhile the growing BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement across US campuses and around the world is meeting with increasing right-wing pushback (most recently at Northeastern University). And new books by prominent American Jews and gentiles — most recently the New Republic’s John B. Judis — dissent from the usual narratives around Israel-Palestine, stirring charges of apostasy (and anti-Semitism).

On the other hand, for these very reasons Davidman’s measured search for understanding and balance can seem slightly behind these urgent, increasingly polarized times. Directed by Michael John Garcés of Los Angeles’s Cornerstone Theater, the play rehearses mostly familiar, albeit still charged and important, arguments. Its most persuasive aspects instead lie in Davidman’s representation of his personal journey, the expansion of conscience and understanding it spurs. While its mingled voices intentionally unsettle the mind and emotions, they achieve a tentative truce in the play’s final affirmation.

That affirmation — a recommitment to core values that are both traditional and universal — in turn opens common ground in which all might enter. Far from over at this point, the conversation is just getting under way. Pairing performances with something he calls the Peace Café, an opportunity for direct dialogue among audiences members, as well as other post-show discussions moderated by professional mediator Rachel Eryn Kalish, Wrestling Jerusalem is less a political argument (though it contains several) than an invitation to dialogue. Maybe more importantly still, it’s an invitation to listen. *


Through April 6

Thu-Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm, $20-$30

Intersection for the Arts

925 Mission, SF



Rocked worlds



There are two sides to every road. But ask a long-haul trucker, a traveling salesman, or a pair of wandering minstrels like the Bengsons, and they’ll remind you that those sides converge at the horizon line.

The Bengsons — married musician-songwriters Abigail and Shaun — met randomly through a gig in New York City back in the late aughts. A mutual attraction, immediate and fierce, led them to become engaged within weeks of their first conversation. Both then in their early 20s, with serious and eclectic musical backgrounds, they recall the courtship as a whirlwind of powerful new emotions, bright and dark. Fast on the heels of marriage came five years of traveling across the country as their own band — a sure blend of musical influences that slips across various genres, in a sort of indie folk, neo-vaudevillian, truck stop cabaret, and drive-by rock opera that more or less dovetails with their daily selves. Among much else, living and learning as peripatetic artists and lovers has given them the opportunity to explore the meaning of all those feelings that led to their highly creative, itinerant relationship.

The fruit of that exploration is in the world premiere this week of Hundred Days, a major musical-theatrical venture carefully nurtured by Z Space and three years in the making. Directed by Anne Kauffman and with a book by Bay Area–based playwright Kate E. Ryan — both fully collaborative partners in the project, the Bengsons readily acknowledge — Hundred Days is something like a real-life Once: a true love affair cast through a darkly playful fictional story about Sarah (Abigail Bengson) and Will (Shaun Bengson), two 20somethings who find their powerful new love comes with a serious expiration date.

The production is no mere concert (though it rocks, loudly and well), but every inch a theatrical experience. Ryan provides a complete and involving narrative spine to the at times raucous, at times haunting musical set pieces. Moreover, Hundred Days features a large and talented cast of actors and musicians (including El Beh, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, Geneva Harrison, Kate Kilbane, Jo Lampert, Amy Lizardo, Dalane Mason, Joshua Pollock, and Reggie D. White); a moody and mercurial set design by Kris Stone (aglow with a sort of post-industrial romanticism courtesy of lighting designer Allen Willner); and choreography by renowned San Francisco dance maker Joe Goode.

But at its heart are a body of songs of surprising force and subtlety, in dynamic arrangements that showcase both the Bengsons’ hard-won skills as musicians and composers, as well as their exhilarating ability to convey a rare sense of emotional honesty, of uncensored feeling, in their work. Before a recent rehearsal ahead of the show’s first previews, the couple sat down and shared musings on the journey that brought them here.

SF Bay Guardian You’ve described your courtship as being a kind of existential crisis, in that it suddenly put life in an unsettling new perspective.

Shaun Bengson It did start to feel incredibly short.

Abigail Bengson It’s life’s irony that in rushing to live life fully you do collide more quickly with the end of it. Rushing towards life is inevitably rushing towards death. That’s true of everybody. In the play, we put a timer on it, to help us talk about it in a more concrete way. But that’s just how we feel every day anyway [laughs] It’s just sort of the situation.

SB They’re such big feelings, it’s taken a really long time to sort them out and figure out what’s going on there — a lot of the wonder, and also the neurosis and the fear — all of that is where the show came from.

AB The more we’ve unpacked what was initially just an enormous feeling of life and dread in one package, the more we’ve discovered how ordinary that is. I’d say that’s been my primary comfort. In that moment I felt like, “I am struck by lighting. I am going to die.” My experience of life is no longer separate from my experience of death. I’m finding that that is true for so many people.

Any big love, not necessarily for a spouse, but for a child or for a parent, can have that same effect of making life an emergency and making death feel near. But also, in living with that breath in my throat for long enough, I’ve started to be able to soften into that and say, “OK, so now we make a sandwich.” I mean, how do we live in an ordinary way in the face of this thing that feels so enormous? Why is it all we’re thinking about all the time? I don’t know. I guess that’s why we ended up writing all those songs about it.

SFBG And that led you out on the road. How did five years of traveling, your day-to-day life on the road, actually come about?

SB We were living in an apartment in Brooklyn, and I had one year left on my teaching contract. We were playing in our band and working on the show. At the end of my school year, I still had the whole summer [paid]. At the same time, our very dear friend David was going back to South Africa, so he said, “You can stay in my house for the summer.” So we had these two months when we’d still have money from my teaching gig and we’d have a place to live. So we went and lived in the Berkshires for a couple of months, finished a show and set up tour dates, and left from there. We thought maybe we’d go back—maybe I could go back to teaching, if things didn’t work.

AB I never felt that. [Shaun laughs.]

SFBG It felt right to leave?

SB It felt really good. It felt like such a relief.

AB It felt honest. It felt right. True to the way I think and what I am. It meant our life became, you know, gas money and Taco Bell, but it also became playing a lot of shows, doing a lot of service work in different places and learning a lot through that. We got to be students again in that sense, by putting ourselves in situations that were intensely uncomfortable over and over again, and writing music about them. It was a little songwriting boot camp of our own design. And we were getting to know each other’s styles and how we would write. I also feel, like, thank god we were married. I don’t know how you could be a musician and not marry a musician.

SFBG You hit the road five years ago and haven’t turned back. Was there a point early on where you hesitated? Were there any gigs that made you think again?

AB The first crappy gig I remember being really educational — and making me want to do it more even, though it was painful — was when we were at this biker bar…

SB Oh, yeah, this was in the Valley outside of Los Angeles. What was it called? Something like—it’s not Topanga. Tujunga? Is that place?

AB Fact-check all of this, we’re totally full of crap. [Fact check: Sunland-Tujunga sits in northeastern Los Angeles.] But we were playing this bar. Everybody was angry looking, a lot of shaved heads. I was [looking around the room, thinking], “What is going on with you?” Scared. So we got up and we played all the songs that we had written to date that were the most ferocious and aggressive and loud — and then we were kind of running out of those. So at the very end of the night we played this one song. It’s actually about a woman we knew well, whose daughter had passed away, and her struggling with that. And we sang for her and about that, in the moment sort of ready to get booed.

Then, when the set ended, this pack of — now, I know, lovely gentlemen, but at the time, terrifying — figures came towards me, and were weeping. They just said, “That one. Wish you had played more like that.” And I was like, “Fuck, me too.” I mean, I love those aggressive songs, too, they’re a big part of what we do, but it was such a lesson in prejudice for me — that I had judged what they would like, and assumed that it wouldn’t be anything honest for me.

SB It’s the lesson I’m still constantly learning. It takes so much more courage to be actually genuine in a moment. If I’m not careful, my tendency can be to play towards what I perceive people’s expectations are for the event, versus when we try to play the songs we most want to play and are most “us.”

AB But I also think it’s incredible training to play in rooms that are not receptive at first. Because part of the task then is to create the space where people can lean forward. I feel it was one of the best trainings for me. Play somewhere where they wish you were just playing Lynyrd Skynyrd. Where they wish you were a DJ. That’s the best place to go.

SFBG Have you two every attempted anything on the scale of Hundred Days before?

SB and AB No.

AB That was part of why we called it an opera at first. Because opera, they say, is the most collaborative art form — that you need every possible kind of artist to come in and make it happen. And that’s what Z Space has done, is allow for that.

SB It’s been really amazing.

AB It’s been a dream. *


Through April 6, $10-$100

Previews Wed/26, 7pm; Thu/27-Fri/28, 8pm; opens Sat/1, 8pm

Runs Wed and Sun, 7pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm

Z Space

450 Florida, SF



A feast for the nonsenses



THEATER Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is probably better known for its riotous Parisian opening (back in 1896) than for the play itself. The profanity it leveled against the city’s crème de la crème, beginning with its famous opening incantation, “Merdre!” — not exactly a word but dirty-sounding enough to precipitate a violent revolt long before the final curtain — broke open the doors of the WC on so-called polite society. As it turned out, no one was really keen or able to close them again.

Jarry, a papa of Dada, died desperately poor and unknown a decade later, but his work and life remained an inspiration and touchstone to the avant-garde. Indeed, his best known work, Ubu Roi, is an absurdist play avant la lettre, as the French say, anticipating the luminous assaults on convention by Beckett, Ionesco, Dürrenmatt, Albee, Havel, and others. Ultimately, it is surely Ubu‘s willful nonsense — a refusal to accept the strictures not just of traditional drama, or the mores of the time, but of the very sense of reality propagated and regimented by the dominant society — that made the play (and Jarry) so deeply offensive to most, and so deeply exciting to some.

Still, it isn’t clear what the merits of a play like Ubu might be for a contemporary audience, culturally steeped in merdre of all kinds and pretty blasé about it. The Cutting Ball Theater’s current production, based on a new translation by artistic director Rob Melrose, offers some tantalizing suggestions in its detailed take on Jarry’s comical excesses. Helmed by Moscow-born, Baltimore-based director Yury Urnov, the dream world of the play comes slyly refracted through a decidedly contemporary San Francisco lens, in the form of a sleekly stylish modern-day kitchen (designed by Cutting Ball associate Michael Locher), in and from which all the action arises.

Arranged in the semi-round, with the audience on three sides, the kitchen setting makes an immediate sense as the center of the gluttonous bourgeois world, and not least because the playful dialogue, alternately grand and obtuse, suggests it already with its saucy mixing of food and fecal language. Urnov and cast have great fun in exploring the place, manipulating the mobile islands and cabinets, searching out its nooks and corners, and reveling in the foodie possibilities it presents (to the occasional light splattering of those audience members seated nearest).

Played with a robust appetite, devil-may-care insouciance, and artful humor by Cutting Ball’s David Sinaiko, the titular Father Ubu is a scatological rogue, a loving husband, a pitiless plotter, and naturally enough an esteemed state official: high-ranking officer and right hand to Polish King Wenceslas (a duly puffed up William Boynton). In the role of Lady Macbeth to her too contented, weak-livered husband, Mother Ubu (played with a persuasive mix of impetuous greed and voluptuous innocence by Ponder Goddard) convinces him to set his sights a little higher than the refrigerator. Ubu soon obliges, drawing a small band of conspirators (ensemble members Boynton, Nathaniel Justiniano, Marilet Martinez, and Andrew P. Quick) into his gamesmanship — with help from Mother Ubu, who anoints each co-conspirator solemnly with a dash of water from the tip of a toilet brush.

The coup succeeds initially but things soon go awry, as the deposed Queen (a scrappy Martinez) and her intrepid son, the heretofore sulky Bougrelas (a bounding, amusingly campy Justiniano), fight back.

While the kitchen theme develops rather organically (if also in unexpected ways) from the text, it also stands as a kind of stylistic conceit — a small but deliberate dose of realism in a fantastical comedy of outrageous, yet also domestic, proportions. Its surfaces may shine with the absurdity of a geopolitical food fight, but the motivations and details of the plot are very much in sync with an everyday ruthlessness and regret.

Meanwhile, the plot itself fractures by the second half of the play, as things get truly surreal, abandoning all pretense to linear storytelling. This tonal and aesthetic shift comes nicely registered in the flexible playing style, as Father and Mother Ubu discover they have inherited a realm after all — one they would have thought unreal only a short time before. *


Through March 9

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

Exit on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF



Expose yourself to art



THEATER It takes a playwright of particular boldness to forgo text entirely in deference to movement and music. But in addition to the formal choices made in her Untitled Feminist Show, eminent New York downtown theater maker Young Jean Lee also pursues a theme (flagged by her “un-title”) that stubbornly remains as controversial as ever: the politics and pleasures of female empowerment. This theme plays out starkly, without clothes and without shame, over the course of an hour-long romp that will make its Bay Area premiere this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Conceived and directed by Lee, with choreography by Faye Driscoll (another prominent New York artist whose You’re Me ran at CounterPULSE last March), Untitled Feminist Show is just one of the latest of Lee’s willfully provocative, consistently witty pieces. She and her Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company have made a national reputation by reaching for the most uncomfortable subjects, producing a set of humorous, audacious, experimental plays about race, sex, family, religion — great taboo regions normally shrouded in prickly mythology, limited by official debate, or otherwise smothered by good intentions.

Her works include Straight White Men, an exploration of success in contemporary American society; The Shipment, her “black-identity politics show”; Church, investigating American-brand Christianity through the structure of a church service; and the fierce, zany, and dis-Orienting Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (produced locally by Crowded Fire in 2011) in which, drawing on her own Korean American roots, the fractured perspectives and sacrosanct traditions of an American minority serve a master narrative about a young white couple’s banal relationship.

YBCA’s presentation of Untitled Feminist Show comes, not coincidentally, as the organization transitions under its new leadership. Deborah Cullinan, who succeeded Ken Foster as YBCA’s executive director in September, was the longtime executive director of Intersection for the Arts. She has a well-deserved reputation for turning that esteemed arts organization around from hard times after she took over in 1996. YBCA’s director of performing arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, was a successful Oakland-based artist and activist when he took over from Angela Mattox (now running PICA in Portland) in 2012.

As longtime associates in the local arts scene, both of whom have been exceptionally community-oriented advocates for the arts, Cullinan and Joseph together promise a bold redrawing of the lines at YBCA. They recently sat down to speak with me about the vision they share for a 21st century arts organization — including the development of something they call the creative ecosystem — and where the work of an artist like Young Jean Lee fits into it.


SF Bay Guardian How are you settling in, after a couple of months and a couple of years now, respectively? And what are these creative ecosystems?

Deborah Cullinan Where I’m at: I’m still listening, learning—frankly a little astonished. I was, what, three blocks away? And my predecessor Ken Foster was one of my closest work friends; Bamuthi another one. I had no idea how much goes on here. It’s just abundant. The creative ecosystem is something Marc dreamed up, and certainly wooed me with. It’s something the two of us, and everybody here, considers to be a way we can think about a contemporary arts center in this century.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph The day that this feature runs will be my second anniversary. My last work [red, black & GREEN: a blues] was commissioned here, and premiered here. I interviewed for this position three days after the premiere. That last work was built around an integrated, documentary process of asking public intellectuals, doers, activists of all stripes—and by activists I don’t mean by vocation but in the purest sense of the word—to contemplate a question and create a physical response. The result, in terms of making art but also in terms of my personal relationships (the way that community might interact with an artistic process), was something that I essentially adapted and created here.

Our community engagement program is a curatorial department. It doesn’t function as a traditional department in that it’s not supplementary. They are agitators; they are intentional. They make space, as opposed to supplementing work. Their gig is not to cue up the Q&A after a play. [It’s] ultimately about the cultivation of relationships.

So that’s what the creative ecosystem is. It’s an adjunct to my own artistic process; it’s a scheme and structure that works within the infrastructure that we have at Yerba Buena Center. What we do is we curate small groups, somewhere between 30 and 50, around key questions that artists are driving. We bring these folks together in salon spaces to watch work together. So, for Young Jean Lee, the questions are: “What is on the other side of your body’s joy?” and “What is on the other side of your body’s shame?” The group has been together for about a year. And when we present the work, they’ll create in our theater lobby physical responses — performative, immersive, antagonistic, and also very vulnerable responses to those questions of joy and shame in the body.

Having piloted a group already (which was contemplating futurity and soul), and now working with body politics, we’re going to add a layer of the onion every year, so that in the coming years we’ll have hundreds if not thousands of folks operating on our campus not just as audience members but as agents within artistic inquiry, so that while we’re here it’s a place of thinking and doing and not just watching.

SFBG Who makes up this group?

MBJ They come from all over the educational spectrum, and all over the vocational spectrum. That too is by design. We wanted at least 10 different practices in each of these groups. These groups aren’t made up of artists exclusively, and ideally artists are in the minority. What we’re creating is a platform by which an arts space might be a hub for diverse intellectual activity. It’s art-framed, but it’s not necessarily art-centered.

DC I’m excited to see us pursue not an either/or definition of what an arts center is — or what art is — but a both/and. What we’re trying to suggest here is that the more we consider what the art is doing, who’s gathering around it or who’s making it, the more valuable that art itself is. The community engagement structure Marc talked about suggests that if you don’t have an active curatorial arm asking, “Who’s not here still?” and “What don’t we know yet?” then the curatorial structure is static. I think putting things together in this way means it’s much more of a circle, and it’s much more inclusive.

SFBG Where does Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show come in?

MBJ There’s an arc around relationship to the body—in a way that’s not so much about identity; I think it’s more about empathy and vulnerability. These broad themes of joy and shame are more visceral than intellectual. The alchemy of transformation, the movement of molecules in a room, that’s currency to me. An artistic experience is more valuable if I feel my chemistry changing. So I look for art and artists that demonstrate a similar value system. Myra Melford’s work; Dohee Lee’s work; all of the artists in our New Frequencies music festival — these are artists who demonstrate that same sensibility: the attack of inquiry with brilliant intellectual design, but also a fierceness and unflinching-ness around personal transformation.

The work I subscribe to is work where I feel an artist being transformed, with a magic or sorcery around the ability to have personal transformation be a conduit for collective transformation. I think that’s at work [in Untitled Feminist Show]. And in terms of an intentional community design, this is what we foreground. *


Thu/30-Sat/1, 8pm, $30-$35

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Lam Research Theater

700 Howard, SF


In light and shadow



THEATER Last week’s performance of the shadow play Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu, at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater, began with a blessing in disguise.

As members of the cast and of the Aynu community gathered onstage ahead of the performance, four Aynu men in black shirts and traditional headbands and necklaces prepared to sing and dance. As the elder of the four explained, shadow master Larry Reed, founder and longtime artistic director of Shadowlight Productions, had asked if the Aynu folks in attendance could offer a short blessing to start things off.

“I didn’t have a chance to tell Larry, we don’t do blessings,” confessed the man. “But we welcome people. And this is one of our most sacred dance stories; it’s about family,” he explained, adding that, with it, “we welcome you to our part of the world.”

So began a rare, gently moving, and altogether charming encounter three years in the making. Co-produced by Shadowlight and Tokyo-based shadow theater company Urotsutenoyako Bayangans, Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu brought together traditional Aynu artists and musicians with masters of the shadow theater form in the US and Japan to share a mythological world at once distinctive and not so far from our own.

Adapted by OKI and Koyano Tetsuro, and directed by Larry Reed (the Bay Area’s master of a unique and potently cinematic style of modern shadow theater), the Aynu creation myth came to life on a stage and screen populated by a revolving and enrapturing set of images and figures. Some were drawn, some were embodied by actors in masks, some walked out before the screen onto the darkened lip of the stage, like living, breathing, three-dimensional shadows. And just as the imagery contained a surprising set of rich hues amid its black-and-white scheme, the English narration came generously colored with snatches of Japanese and Aynu.

Heavy in the mix was a transporting score created by a wonderful pairing of masterful musicians. Accomplished musician and recording artist OKI (who, in addition to adapting the story, also oversaw the art direction) provided live accompaniment on a pair of tonkori, the traditional plucked stringed instrument of the Aynu people, as well as offering the first springing, playful tones of the night on a mukkuri (a wooden mouth harp). Meanwhile, in entrancing, syncopated rhythms, the four members of the female vocal group Marewrew channeled the traditional Aynu musical form of upopo.

The Aynu (also spelled Ainu) are a small community of people living in Hokaiddo, Japan’s northern and second largest island. Indigenous to this area of morthern Japan as well as to nearby Russia, the Aynu have a culture that stretches back more than 3,000 years. Having faced centuries of oppression, including forced assimilation, their culture remains little known even inside Japan, and their language (which has no written form) is at risk of disappearing entirely, with fewer than 15 native speakers left alive.

A large proportion of these were on hand in the creation and delivery of Poro Oyna. The title, which means “the great story,” refers to the hero’s journey of Aynu Rakkur, the most powerful of all the gods. He is also a god who “smells like a human being,” born (as we see in the opening scene) from the incendiary coupling of his father, the god of thunder, and his mother, a great elm tree. Indeed, Aynu Rakkur is considered the progenitor of the human race.

In ensemble member Kawamura Koheisai’s impressive Balinese-inspired shadow designs, Aynu Rakkur’s shadow self is a black and white portrait of grace and resolve, a noble profile protruding from a finely drawn latticework of hair. He’s tough, goes his own way, and has a sly sense of humor. He lives beside Kaikaiunt, a sacred lake and the source of all life. One day a growling, cockeyed monster with a fearsome under bite and an unpronounceable name (rattled off in a long string of Aynu sibilants actually delighting to the ear) steals the Sun Goddess and plunges the world into darkness and a perpetual sleep from which many humans never awake.

As other lesser gods try and fail to wrest the sun from the clutches of the monster, Aynu Rakkur bides his time, doggedly carving away at something that turns out to be “a bear for a flat screen TV.” Finally taking umbrage at finding his front door pinned down with arrows and spears, he seeks out the monster and the two of them tumble deep down into the Underworld, where they battle for some six years.

The happy ending might have been expected, but it came, under the circumstances, with what felt too like an auspicious beginning.

“The people come back, the sun returns,” rejoices the narrator, “our sacred power is getting stronger every day.” *



Art-ic blast



THEATER New York early last week was as cold as Muazzez. True, I’ve never been to Muazzez, but a reputable source called that asteroid “so cold it is a frozen bull roar,” which sounds about right.

“They lied to me about the reality of things here on Muazzez,” began said source, a nondescript speaker seated at a bare wood desk. “About the foundations of these, their basis, their fundament, the profound bottom of things.”

There’s a glass of water on the desk, some loose paper.

“I am an Abandoned Cigar Factory (or ACF),” he goes on to explain, “groaning in the dunes near the settlement of Culpepper.”

The unexpected narrator at the bare wood desk sat in a bare white room, with the incongruous name of the Chocolate Factory (in fact, a terrific theater in Long Island City). The play, called Muazzez, originated as a collection of short stories (all set on asteroids) by Mac Wellman, a writer better known as a playwright and a leading light of the American experimental scene (and a prolific one too, despite receiving few productions in the Bay Area).

Performed with a forthright, faintly odd, wholly captivating precision by longtime collaborator Steve Mellor, Muazzez (directed by Wellman) is an intoxicating and deceptively subdued flight of language and weirdness whose cumulative power, over the course of its brisk 40 minutes, is hard to describe and harder to shake off. Its surface meanings can seem strange, obscure, dryly amusing, even piffling — still, there are things shifting down below in some grim molten core. It was a feeling similar to that produced by one of James Tate’s poems.

Muazzez set the tone well. Expecting the unexpected became second nature over the course of last week’s sampling of shows from PS 122’s COIL (which presented Muazzez), as well as from the Public Theater’s Under the Radar, and Ben Pryor’s American Realness — all together just three (!) of the lively and significant New York festivals that now swirl each January around the annual meeting of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (or “A-PAP,” as it’s usually pronounced).

Bees are in short supply these days, so better to say the presenting industry’s international confab is a kind of honey pot attracting bears in the performing arts world, by which we mean the artists wrapped in faux fur coats and puffy jackets against the bracing, angry wind and plummeting temperatures of last week’s “arctic blast” (itself just another signal from the larger natural order of things that humanity is wildly off course — or right on target, I guess, depending on your end goal.)

This context heightened the urgency folded into Muazzez‘s extraterrestrial transmission. And there were other, comparable transmissions, including one from the future, articulated in the person and voice of TV’s Captain Kirk. Co-presented by COIL and the New Ohio Theatre, An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk takes place on a stage inhabited by a central flat screen TV on wheels and two larger screens on either side. Onto the center screen comes the iconic image of TV’s starship commander and over-actor par excellence.

Suddenly he speaks — in a funny but vaguely disconcerting stagger of assembled speech bites, culled from the character’s entire lexicon, the actor’s “body” of work. The captain has been commandeered. Someone or something else from beyond (beyond this time and beyond language) is speaking to us through him. The transmission, spelled out on the far screens, comes in segments or “chapters,” and has a philosophical cast: a discussion of the differences between art and science. Its purpose, we are told, is to convey a message to us from the future, which alone knows where we are headed. The message itself (the beautifully written text is by Joe Diebes; the excellent audio-visual scheme by Rob Ramirez) is prefaced and forestalled, in a half-teasing fashion, by a discussion of some basic terms.

The performance’s sole human figure, meanwhile — other than two-dimensional James T. — is an expressionless Japanese woman (an imposingly restrained Mari Akita) who moves the wheeled screen slowly about the stage, illustrates a point or two with a few simple movements, and, in one deceptively incongruous moment, picks up a microphone to deliver (in subtitled Japanese) a monologue about coming to the United States and falling obsessively into the world of drag queens and female impersonation.

Hilarious yet eerie, playful yet purposeful, oblique yet precise, conceiver-director Phil Soltanoff’s An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk proved a dialectical delight; and in its teasing manner and final indirect plea for some small but profound transcendence, it was, pardon the expression, fascinating.

In another wonderfully estranging but altogether earthbound offering, COIL teamed up with American Realness and New York City Players (the latter seen at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last February with its co-production of Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill) to co-present writer-director Tina Satter’s offbeat, sharp-footed House of Dance (in association with Satter’s own company, Half Straddle, and the Abrons Art Center).

Set in a small New England tap studio among four fractious, serious, and seriously oddball tap dance competitors (played with a combination of understated delivery and irresistible flair by Jess Barbagallo, Elizabeth DeMent, Jim Fletcher, and Paul Pontrelli), the 60-minute House of Dance trumps the hackneyed pomp of reality television with the heightened banality of its obscure, ego-invested lives — who do in fact dance the hell out of their tap shoes.

These startling moments evoked a real joy too, a flight from obscurity into a greatness no championship trophy could hope to convey — at once so light, so personal, yet communal, it made one realize this piece could only make sense as a live performance. And feel sorry for those people who did not venture out this night, but stayed indoors against the howling cold. *


One of us



THEATER Take away their unconventional looks and odd talents, and the eponymous carnival performers of Freaks — Tod Browning’s classic carnie horror movie — were not so unusual. Ordinary folks, for the most part, with ordinary problems and everyday virtues. The title secretly pointed to the monstrous souls of their “normal-looking” but heartless colleagues, corrupt to the point of betrayal and murder.

A similar logic is at work in British playwright Anthony Neilson’s droll sideshow, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness — now enjoying a first-rate Bay Area premiere courtesy of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players — if only in the sense that here too looks can and do deceive; that the truth can prove an elusive, and illusive, thing.

Very funny and beautifully staged with a whimsical, vaguely mysterious mien by director Beth Wilmurt, Edward Gant trades on the gap between our expectations of real life and the fantasies plied by artist-tradesmen like the title character. He’s a strange showman in top hat and tails (played with a nice balance of the corporeal and ethereal by a vacant-eyed Brian Herndon) who heads up a traveling band of scrappy Victorian-era players: innocent Jack Dearlove (Ryan Drummond), restive Nicholas Ludd (Patrick Kelly Jones), and ennui-laden Madame Poulet (Sarah Moser, rounding out an exceptional ensemble).

The farfetched universe these working-class actors conjure from the back of their roving circus truck (in scenic designer Nina Ball’s handsomely evocative construction) might seem like the most preposterous fluff. Gant is worldly enough, however, to know “the truth of life lies least in the facts.” It’s the illusions that count. And in the hands of these showmen they are ribald, wacky, sometimes gruesome stuff.

Hence we come to take seriously, at least a little seriously, the story of a miserable young woman (Moser, done up in a gorgeously macabre, beaded beard) whose massive pimples divulge pearls. These end up appropriated by her evil, good-looking sister (Kelly Jones in a rich “Italian” accent and one of costume designer Christine Crook’s wonderful period getups). And although they also win her a husband (a diabolically dashing Drummond), he turns out to be wayward (not surprising in itself until you see whom he runs off with).

We also get treated to the sad yet hysterical tale of a bereaved fellow (Drummond) who travels to the peaks of Nepal in search of relief from the memory of his deceased fiancée — but the guru (Kelly Jones) he locates to do the job makes something of a botch of it.

These two stories comprising this sleek, uninterrupted 100-minute production come bridged by two songs, arranged in four-part harmony, and include unexpected encounters and asides with soiled teddy bears and other wildlife of the imagination. The “real” story, meanwhile, unfolds among the band of players, as the tensions and frustrations of their life on the road take their toll, leading to discord, dissension, and revelation.

Although a gentler offering than much in playwright Neilson’s generally disquieting oeuvre, Edward Gant continues a line of attack by the dramatist (and often director) on the complacencies of traditional stage realism and their corollaries in everyday life. (The titles of two of his plays, 2006’s Realism and 2013’s Narrative, highlight the terrain pretty neatly.)

Edward Gant also marks the impressive directorial debut of Shotgun company member and well-known Bay Area actor Wilmurt (co-creator, with Mark Jackson, and co-star of 2011’s memorable The Companion Piece at Z Space; and last seen at Shotgun in Jackson’s production of Woyzeck). The director title may be new, but for those familiar with Wilmurt’s admirable comedic and musical abilities — the way she melds influences from vaudeville to Viewpoints into an understated, balletic form of physical humor and wry between-the-lines commentary — her stamp is all over the strong ensemble playing and choice details of this pearl of a production. *



Through Jan 11

Wed-Thu, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 5pm, $20-$35

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk





YEAR IN THEATER Before the holiday season crushes us in its tinsel-glinted maw and poops us out into 2014, it’s time to cast a backward glance and ponder 2013’s best moments in theater and performance.

Most satisfyingly enigmatic flights Getting lost can be a good thing. It can concentrate the attention, heighten the senses, activate the imagination, leave room for reflection — and leave something to talk about afterward. This is as true for a visit to the theater as it is for a walk around town.

The great director Robert Wilson put it like this when, speaking in 2012 in Berkeley during the revival of Einstein on the Beach, he noted the difference between his brand of theater and the average: “It’s something that you can freely associate with. [In the usual theater piece] you’re constantly told what to think or how to respond. If you go to the theater tonight, if you go to Broadway, every 20 seconds, 10 seconds, no more than 30, you have to react. It’s always, ‘Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it?’ And after a while you don’t understand anything. So in this work it’s ok to get lost.”

Without detracting from the power that can attend even the most didactic of narratives, let’s hear it for the productions this year that did not shy away from abstraction and mystery, as in Shotgun Players’ staging of Linda McLean’s strangers, babies or (more radically, if in workshop form) Affinity Project’s Nocturne (the best part in foolsFURY’s inaugural Factory Parts, a works-in-progress festival). (Robert Avila)

Best Habitués of the Home Theater Circuit We’re big fans of the Home Theater Festival and the back-to-the-basics performance model it so ably demonstrates. But where the festival ends, at the threshold of one’s own doorstep, the notion that there could be a whole DIY living room tour circuit is gaining ground. Two recent exemplars of this lo-key, high-mileage approach are Sebastopol’s the Independent Eye, which just returned home from a month-long, cross-country sojourn during which it performed 17 shows — nine in living rooms — and San Francisco’s Right Brain Performancelab expanded its private-home Due West salon into a roving three-weekend run of its 10-year anniversary performance, What Stays?, from Half Moon Bay to Oakland. (Nicole Gluckstern)

Most “Twisted” take on the big screen Dogugaeshi at Zellerbach Playhouse. Combining his own brand of invention and humor with the titular ancient Japanese form — in which moving sets of painted screens coaxed the eye through a seemingly infinite recession of figurative and abstract environments — master puppeteer Basil Twist and his deft collaborators created an opulent, entrancing, even mystical journey that ranks as one of the purest theatrical experiences all year. (Avila)

Most Pervasive Unofficial Theme for 2013: “Losing my Religion” While our headlines were more concerned with political détente and economic implosion, our stages were full of struggles of a more personal nature: that of religious belief (or lack thereof). With works like Tanya Shaffer’s Siddhartha-inspired musical The Fourth Messenger; Mugwumpin’s mesmerizing fall from prophetic grace, The Great Big Also; the epistemological ponderings of a dead felid in SF Playhouse’s Bengal Tiger at the Bagdhad Zoo; and the wounded evangelicalism simmering in Aurora Theatre’s A Bright New Boise, both actors and audiences were forced to confront questions of faith in ways that pointed to unresolved unease on both sides of the pulpit. (Gluckstern)

Most overdue Bay Area debut The Wooster Group + New York City Players at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This production of three of Eugene O’Neill’s early seafaring one-acts seemed to flummox many, though the audience I sat with seemed as riveted as I was by the strange, challenging approach to these texts. Certainly it was a little misleading to describe this as a Wooster Group production — despite having two Wooster actors in the cast and a Wooster set, it was very much in debt to the idiosyncratic and deeply committed approach of director and playwright Richard Maxwell and his NYC Players, who made up the majority of the cast. A long overdue Bay Area visit by these acclaimed companies, it anyway made for one of the more distinctive and provoking encounters between actors and audience all year. (Avila)

Most Memorable Elementals In Aurora Theatre’s production of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, fire played an ominous role, a tool deployed to destroy the civilization it helped build, while in Ragged Wing Ensemble’s collaborative Time Sensitive, ice took the main stage, with a dripping block signifying both the passage of time and the impermanence of the material world. While at first glance the two plays were to each other as fire and ice — one a carefully modulated farce, the other a frenetic roller coaster of status seekers and secret keepers — both inventively explored common themes of moral decay and the follies of keeping up appearances in a society full of questionable values and diminishing spiritual rewards. (Gluckstern)

Best performance of herself Judith Butler at CounterPULSE. The famed philosopher and theorist of the performativity of gender appeared as part of the ongoing Dance Discourse series, in dialogue with CounterPULSE’s Julie Phelps and outstanding performances by artists DavEnd, and Xandra Ibarra and Hentyle Yapp. While confessing it was not always easy “performing Judith Butler,” the Berkeley prof proved game, contributing to an exceptionally lively cross-disciplinary encounter. (Avila)

Playwriting Series Most Likely to Win a Gold Medal: San Francisco Olympians Festival Here be giants. Plus gods, mortals, and mythological creatures brought to often hilarious life by dozens of local playwrights and theatre artists over the course of three weeks. The brainchild of No Nude Men’s Stuart Bousel, the festival features an array of thematically-connected staged readings featuring characters long forgotten by contemporary audiences: Teucer, Thersites, Laodike, Cruesa, and Neoptolemus, to name but a few. Not content to stick to the script, SF Olympians offers a corresponding gallery show of fine art, encourages wild experimentation such as the debut installment of Megan Cohen’s crowd-directed “Totally Epic Odyssey,” and has even generated a book of new plays (Songs of Hestia, EXIT Press 2011). (Gluckstern)

Most persuasive British accents Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. In fact, the pair, true British theater royalty, made it all look so easy. (Avila)

Theater Company Most Likely to Boldly Go… Whether a given production is a hit or miss, Cutting Ball’s commitment to staging new absurdist and experimental works has secured it a very important spot in the Bay Area’s theatrical firmament. And although very different in content, the world premieres of Andrew Saito’s boldly apocalyptic Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night and Basil Kreimendahl’s quixotic, gender-queer vaudeville Sidewinders provided an essential sounding board for two bright new talents who would have otherwise struggled long to find homes for their misfit children. (Gluckstern)

Best mess Anthony Rizzi’s An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith at Kunst-Stoff. The Frankfurt-based American performer and former William Forsythe dancer took over the Grove Street loft space for three glorious nights in February as a magnificently straight-shooting queer amalgam of Jack Smith, Penny Arcade, and Pina Bausch, flouncing, crawling, and climbing around the bric-a-brac properties strewn around the room, dancing with anyone who wanted to, dropping a laptop from a ladder (ostensibly by accident), and generally flailing with memorable brio and brilliance. (Avila)

A Few Luminous Performances That Reminded Us There Are No Small Actors, Only Small Stages Donald Currie as Sandy in Cutting Ball’s Sidewinders; Nick Medina as Belinsky in Shotgun Player’s Shipwreck; James Udom as Freddy in Performers Under Stress’ Scamoramaland; Tamar Cohn as the Old Woman in Cutting Ball’s The Chairs; Safiya Fredericks as Sydney in 42nd Street Moon’s It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman; and Amy Lizardo as Yitzhak in Boxcar Theatre’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (Gluckstern)

Most promising solo debut Safiya Martinez in So You Can Hear Me, at the Marsh. Writer-performer Martinez memorably recounted her shattering experience as a 23-year-old special ed teacher in the South Bronx, inhabiting lives and personalities still too rarely seen on any stage, and with a precision and verve equally uncommon. (Avila) *


Band practice



THEATER We meet above the waterfall in Yerba Buena Gardens. It’s cold, getting dark. Everyone seems relieved to get inside the YBCA theater next door. We’ll talk here for the next hour, standing around a worktable with a gold lamé circle spread over it, before the band heads downstairs to a windowless rehearsal space in the deep well of the building.

Nicole Kidman Is Fucking Gorgeous is the band formerly known as the artists John Foster Cartwright, Maryam Rostami, and Mica Sigourney. In fact, NKIFG is more and less than a band — it’s a conceit, a project title, a series of performances, maybe a forthcoming album? (They don’t know yet.) None of its members actually plays an instrument, as far as I can tell. But they do compose songs, choreography, and objects that they employ in an unfolding series of situations they as readily call parties as performances. And they will have live music infusing their show this weekend at CounterPULSE, courtesy of ongoing collaborator and perennial inspiration Deep Teens.

Embracing a loopy goth spirit, the triumvirate, which has its origins in a performance two years ago at dancer-choreographer Liz Tenuto’s apartment during the Home Theater Festival, takes its send-ups of contemporary dance and performance art tropes seriously. And for all its insouciance and nonchalant humor, the project is at some level equally as much about the crisis of three artists (two of them well-known drag queens, the other a DJ and videographer) finding a way to live and work in today’s severely stratified San Francisco. It also draws eagerly, if obscurely, from their own private lives.

As for the name, its members like to say what they do is defined by both the presence and absence of someone or something called Nicole Kidman. To hear them talk about it, Kidman starts to sound like a key swallowed by a red herring.

“Who cares about Nicole Kidman?” notes Sigourney, with paradoxical delight. “But people do care about her! She’s the perfect vessel.”

What else should you know about Nicole Kidman Is Fucking Gorgeous? The answer to that question took a rambling, circuitous form. It was ultimately put to a Tarot deck set in the middle of the table.

Mica Sigourney So the frame of this reading is around getting at the truths and dispelling the illusions around this project for you. [The first card is] the Seven of Cups, which is about illusion [versus] reality, and picking out the truth. Right now, all of us are [experiencing] an abundance of emotions, an overwhelming amount.

Maryam Rostami Cups are heart energy, heart chakra, love, emotions.

[skipping ahead]

MS So what we need to manifest in our next step in this project — see, I don’t know if this is telling us what to tell Rob.

MR No, I think it is, I think this is great.

MS We are students of creativity…

MR And magic…

MS So we’re not masters of this yet. We’re still learning. Page of Wands is also about adventure and following bliss really. And our final outcome is the Ten of Swords. So it means we’re being stabbed in the back!

MR The Ten of Swords looks like this: It’s all of our fears pointing toward one single spot. The Ten is when the next step is coming. We’ve reached the end of something and it’s the next thing. The Moon, I feel, has to do with a difficult birthing process. The Moon is about traversing these murky emotional territories, which we have done together and we continue to do. I think this represents our fear.

MS Can I give it a reading too?

MR Yes.

MS Ten being the overabundance of the suit, and Tens being about communication and intellect: The outcome is an overabundance of ideas that sometimes feel like a burden, and are sometimes painful because there are just too many ideas happening. So we’re going to end up with too many ideas. Coupled with the Moon, I’m going to say our final outcome will actually be knowledge that is not measurable by the intellect and is much more intuitive and based in mystery, that is, not easily described by the mind.

MR We’re going to have to dig deeper from all of this. The Ten makes us need to take the next step.

MS And that next step is toward the dark. Well, toward intuition.

MR It is toward intuition. I think that moving toward the more Moon aspects will maybe then inform the next piece.

MS Oh, the moon…

MR Oh, the moon, duh! But this is perfect!

MS The moon is in our piece a lot.

MR Like the actual physical moon.

MS So basically, to clarify things for Rob: The Tarot reading says that we need to dispel some illusions for you. What we need to tell you is that we are about to have a moment of reckoning at this show at which we realize our values and our worth, and our sins. And what’s driving us as a collective is to reap the benefits of a good harvest, as well as learn from each other, and continue to be students of creativity, passion, and magic.

MR Ultimately, not to let our fears get us down and to know that we’re going in the right direction.

MS And this being our final outcome makes me think that maybe you should just know: “The moon.”

John Foster Cartwright The moon.

MS We need to shut up with all our ideas and just be like, the moon.

MR I’m with that. *


Thu/12-Sun/15, 8pm, $20


1310 Mission, SF



Eat your heart out



THEATER Crowd-pleasing can sometimes sound like a put-down — hey, sometimes it is — but it becomes a virtue in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult. The Cornwall-based company (already known locally for Brief Encounter at ACT in 2009 and The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep last winter) has returned to Berkeley Rep with a remounting of its 2003 hit. And it proves as accomplished and intelligent as it is shamelessly entertaining.

Adapted and directed by Kneehigh’s joint artistic director Emma Rice from the triangular love story of Tristan, Yseult, and Mark (a medieval courtly love tale that may well have been the inspiration for the fraught triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur as well as numerous works of art on down, including one of Wagner’s operas), this rousing and continually resourceful production (written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy) uses the multiple versions of the legend as an excuse for a music-fueled formal mélange of influences and references that plumb the wider seas of love in all its forms.

The basic storyline is as follows: Cornwall’s wise King Mark (Kneehigh’s founder and joint artistic director Mike Shepherd) defeats an invasion by Irish interloper Morholt (Craig Johnson) with the help of a mysterious French-speaking knight, Tristan (a dashing Andrew Durand). Charmed by the young man, Mark sends Tristan to find Morholt’s sister, Yseult (a smoldering, violin-wielding Patrycja Kujawska), so that the king might marry her and make amends with Ireland. But Tristan has sustained critical wounds in the battle that leave him fading away on a faraway shore, until he is nursed back to health by a smitten healer — the aforementioned Yseult, naturally. Their mutual attraction turns to discord when Yseult learns she’s just fallen for the man who murdered her beloved brother. But a little love potion, and equal parts sweet wine, solve that issue soon enough.

No longer a virgin, however, Yseult must substitute on the royal wedding night her hymen-ready servant Brangian (Craig Johnson again, hilarious and surprisingly sympathetic in drab drag and sparkling comic timing). The ruse works, and Mark remains happily ignorant of Tristan and Yseult’s liaison until the king’s obsequious servant, Frocin (Giles King), offers proof of the lovers’ deceit and Mark has them (and the nosey, needy Frocin) banished. Too in love with both of them to have them killed yet still too hurt to forgive them, Mark leaves his dagger near where he finds the lovers sleeping in the forest. They awake soon after and reflect on the hurt they’ve caused. They decide to part ways, Tristan taking to the sea and Yseult returning to Mark, whom she has grown to love (if in a mellower way). But the lovers promise to be there for each other when needed.

Years later, as Tristan lies dying from his old wound beside his unloved wife — significantly, also named Yseult but known to the chorus as Whitehands, our mysterious narrator (Carly Bawden) — he asks if the ship sailing into port has a white or black sail (the former means Yseult is aboard, the latter that she is not coming). Consumed with hurt and jealousy, the second Yseult answers negatively, with tragic consequences all around.

That may sound like too much information, but the joy of the production rests in the telling (and the deft performances doing the telling) more than in the tale itself. This is best left a surprise. Suffice to say that the production, set on Berkeley Rep’s large Roda stage with full use of the aisles and other parts of the house, takes supreme advantage of an open aesthetic in which the presence of the audience and the mechanics of the staging are both readily acknowledged and built upon.

Indeed, Rice’s direction is so skillful and subtle that objects, characters, and actions can seem to pop out of nowhere despite an aesthetic that largely does away with hidden stagecraft, preferring to revel in what it reveals — as when, for example, the two lovers down their love potion and sweet wine and drink themselves silly, literally feet-off-the-floor high, dangling from aerial bands hoisted by members of the chorus of the unloved. (The latter is a comical Python-esque troupe of “lovespotters” dressed as proverbial birdwatchers or trainspotters in matching rain ponchos and wool headgear). Meanwhile, a live band (under musical director Ian Ross) casts a deliciously forlorn nightclub atmosphere throughout, including pre-curtain and entr’acte.

That sad-sack chorus, and various supporting characters who get their due here, also flags the thematic breadth of the play: Tristan & Yseult is about love in all its elusiveness and inconstant variety; love that alternately supports and belies the romantic ideal represented by the title characters. At the same time, the serious charm offensive underway points to another, complimentary end: the successful wooing of an audience through the sheer bliss of theatrical virtuosity. *


Through Jan 6, $17.50-$81

Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre

2025 Addison, Berk


Family album



THEATER Forgetting can be a key to understanding, and to freedom. This is something any jazz musician knows. Learning theory, practicing scales, getting to know your instrument and your craft — it’s all prelude to forgetting, to letting go. What comes back to you in the moment, ideally, is deeper than any superficial knowledge. It’s everything behind the music — a life.

A memory play can function similarly, at least it seems to for Margo Hall. The well-known Bay Area actor and director found herself improvising over her own carefully crafted words in the creation of Be Bop Baby — a musical memoir of her remarkable Detroit upbringing under the guiding influence of her musician stepfather Teddy Harris Jr., that Hall says really marks her debut as a playwright (Hall was also one of several actor/co-writers for the 2005 verbatim treatment of the Jonestown tragedy, The People’s Temple).

A world premiere capping Z Space’s 20th anniversary season, Be Bop Baby is set in the busy basement of Hall’s childhood home, which doubled as a rehearsal space for her stepfather — a musical director, composer, arranger, and performer known and respected in both jazz and Motown circles (the latter as, most famously, musical director of the Supremes). There, as well as throughout Detroit’s exceptional musical scene, Hall and her two sisters grew up amid a panoply of musicians, artists, celebrities, and eccentrics.

The basement thus becomes the site of an excavation, filled with colorful characters and anecdotes and brimming with music. Indeed, helping to bring it all to life onstage is a 15-piece jazz orchestra under Marcus Shelby. The acclaimed Bay Area musician-composer — along with dramaturg Nakissa Etemad — collaborated closely on this return to 1960s-70s Detroit, developing arrangements around Hall’s own lyrics and the melody lines she imagined for them.

“Marcus reminds me a lot of my dad,” says Hall, speaking just before a rehearsal last week. “He has a big band; he knows what that means. He understands the discipline of the musicians. Marcus is a guy of tradition. He likes real instruments — I mean all of these things that my stepfather would promote. And he’s just a cool cat, just like my dad, just into the music fulltime; a real, honest, true musician. Growing up with that kind of person really taught me about authenticity and not faking it. I hate to say, ‘You don’t find those people anymore,’ but they sometimes can be a rare breed.”

But even memory, to remain true, can’t always stay fixed. Since the death of her mother in 2000, and Teddy several years later, Hall’s childhood home and its once-vibrant basement have come under a new tenant: Hall’s own, formerly estranged, biological father.

“It’s this crazy thing that happened that I never expected. My real father and my mom divorced 45 years ago. [My biological father is] a free spirit; he’s a totally different character than Teddy. And I found out he moved into Mom and Teddy’s house. Mom and Teddy, that was their house, that was their basement, my mom’s estate, you know, our little two-unit duplex.”

That development found its way into the emotional landscape of the play itself, giving it a more complex dramatic makeup, but also leaving Hall at a loss as to how to channel it all. Staging this kind of dynamic seemed to defy the manicured sentences she had set down on paper. Hall found herself unable to even recall them — something unusual for the experienced actor in her — as if Hall the playwright were someone she had yet to figure out.

“I had written all this text, and I couldn’t remember it. It was very strange. So I said, ‘Can I just improv a little it on top of this text so that it really feels authentic?’ I became the actor, and I felt, ‘I don’t like what that playwright wrote!'” she laughs. “Was I censoring myself? Was I trying to be perfect in the writing? I had to figure out how to take that text and make it my own — even though I wrote it. Now, the more we do it, I do say a lot from the text. But it’s a freedom that I have now, where I can be more authentic in the moment.”

As for her ongoing relationship with her biological father, Hall credits Be Bop Baby with strengthening her resolve to pursue an understanding there.

“It’s definitely made me realize that I do need to pursue my relationship with my real father more than I have,” concludes Hall. “And he’s a wonderful, fascinating man. I could write a whole play about him too,” she says with conviction, before an afterthought makes its way quietly to the surface. “Maybe I will?” *


Wed/20-Thu/21, 7pm; Fri/22-Sat/23, 8pm, $25-75

Z Space

450 Florida, SF



Cul de sac



Two mothers are coping with grief — and becoming friends — in a room at a Bakersfield community center. Ruth (Nora El Samahy) is still not at the point of speaking the depth of her burden, and instead chirps on about the horror visited on her murdered child with a kind of fierce, enforced casualness, fueled by too much coffee. Mary (Catherine Castellanos), meanwhile, her emotional turmoil welling just beneath the surface, has a stronger bearing — and a peculiar lilt indicative of someone who has only recently heard the sound of her own voice.

“My son is alive,” avers Mary. “I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s true,” she tells a skeptical Ruth. “But he’s spinning inside a very big tornado,” she explains, before catching herself. “Oh. That’s very dramatic…”

It is dramatic. But then her son, Isaac (Sean San José), a onetime child faith healer turned junkie drifter, is an extraordinary person, named with equally telling Biblical import. Sacrificed without his consent to the extravagant will of his parents — including a wily Pentecostal preacher of the Central Valley (Donald E. Lacy Jr.) who sports a red tail under his Western gear — the once gifted Isaac has an ambivalent relationship with the open road that set him free but left him rootless, lost, dogged by his past. Spurning pleas by his drug-addled girlfriend (Maria Candelaria) to be healed by him, he is now headed backward down that road, haunted by her death from a subsequent overdose, in search of his estranged brother (Brian Rivera) and some kind of redemption. It’s a road that leads him to the Golden Gate, as far west as you can get, and maybe a step too far.

Mary’s deflating note of modesty at the top of the play, amid the outsized proportions of her character’s almost classical stature, not only produces a gentle laugh. It marks something wise and alluring in the work of Luis Alfaro, which resurfaces with varied success throughout Campo Santo’s production of Alleluia, the Road, a world-premiere collaboration with the playwright now up at Intersection for the Arts. That amounts to a built-in, meta-theatrical commentary on the epic proportions of the vernacular, and the normally unsung lives that speak it. (Part of the Triangle Lab’s Califas project and festival, summoning and celebrating voices of the Central Valley, the play takes place amid the faces and recorded stories of an accompanying gallery exhibition.)

It’s a knowing style, mixing pop references and inflated prose, that lends itself naturally to fourth-wall breaks, asides, or magical realism; and it reflects throughout a certain ethnic “double consciousness” (to borrow W.E.B. DuBois’s famous term) alive and present in the “real” world. For the characters seem aware at times of the vastly different cultural terrain they occupy simultaneously and straddle almost surreally — including the narrative tropes of the dominant culture, as well as a set of more familial narratives rooted in some mélange of Latino, African American, and indigenous traditions.

This double consciousness in the writing is redolent of a similar tragi-comical tension in the plays of Octavio Solis, for example, a Campo Santo stalwart. Or those of Richard Montoya — whose American Night premiered in the summer at California Shakespeare Theater as part of the same Califas project of Intersection’s Triangle Lab (a community-expanding initiative of Intersection and Cal Shakes). But it does not necessarily make for a strong play, and neither American Night or Alleluia, the Road is very persuasive as reflections of real life, or even magical-real ones. (Montoya’s The River, which premiered last April, while uneven, was a more inspired outing penned specifically for Campo Santo, also as part of the Califas project.)

Among other problems, the narrative twists and turns in Road feel too well trod already, and too bumpy in terms of characterization or backstory. (These are characters who speak their complexes and motivations with too much ready articulation, leaving little for the audience to interpret or intuit.) At the same time, the use of a choir of voices, bursting now and then into some classic spirituals, tends to feel thematically heavy-handed rather than rousing and meaningful. Aesthetically, instead of genuinely forward leaning, the play ends up seeming derivative of stronger Campo Santo productions of the past.

Directed (like Night) by Cal Shakes’ Jonathan Moscone, the action unfurls along a runway playing area, two small stages on either end, and around the audience, but for all its structured intimacy is only sporadically effective. Castellanos and San José deliver the strongest, most intricately crafted performances — and indeed their characters are the more detailed ones. San José also offers a volcanic monologue that’s a highlight of the evening. There is a listless and forced feeling to the performances overall, however, which reinforces the sense that this road does not lead anywhere very new.

Who speaks, who is heard, and the power of the word — a major theme connecting not only the stories in Alleluia, the Road but those of the larger Califas project of which it is a part — is a perennially important, and potent, subject for drama. But our ability to connect with it in Road, at least, may require that it be pitched in a new key. *


Extended through Nov 23

Thu-Sun, 8pm, $30

Intersection for the Arts

925 Mission, SF



The horror



THEATER Just last night a cordial campfire conversation with a hobgoblin and a menorah tumbled precipitously from the obscenity of rents in the city to the cold hard facts of our existence on this planet. Halloween was not yet over, and the really scary stuff had already returned.

You don’t have to be a librarian to have gathered something of the unlikeness, the arbitrariness, the inconsequence of an individual life measured against the eons of time and the vastness of space — but let’s say you are a librarian. What would get under your skin more than this? Maybe one thing: the fact that in addition to the obvious indifference of the universe, existence comes with the seemingly unnecessary cruelty visited on us by our fellow human beings.

Maybe one more thing, too: a library book returned 113 years overdue.

Both of these unpalatable situations gnaw at the bookish protagonist in Glen Berger’s 2001 play, Underneath the Lintel, currently enjoying a revival courtesy of American Conservatory Theater. Our protagonist, the play’s sole character, is a garrulous but faintly troubled librarian from Holland (played by an endearingly geeky David Strathairn, in trim graying beard and neat but comfy wool suit). In a makeshift lecture in an old rented theater, the librarian-turned-sleuth presents his remarkable findings concerning the possible reality behind an ancient myth. Along the way, we discover a gradual dovetailing of his own increasingly unmoored career and that of his subject: the fabled Wandering Jew, condemned to bear silent witness to history after a show of callousness before a desperate stranger at his door (who turned out to be Christ on the march to Golgotha, wouldn’t you know it).

The play — whose title refers to the upper portion of a doorway, the regretful place from which an ancient cobbler turned his back on his fellow man and our modern-day librarian dismissed the only woman he ever loved — works a tension between competing frameworks. Bounded by our little lives with their precious but small concerns, the play suggests, we too easily miss the bigger picture and stumble accordingly. But even when confronted with the worst of fate, the baleful immensity of history, or our own actions, we also carry on despite all the universe may throw at us.

Of course, the Geary stage is almost as vast as the aforementioned universe. Director Carey Perloff and her actor work hard to see this pocket-sized piece expand as much as possible to fill it. Strathairn’s fastidious and childlike librarian moves nervously, enthusiastically around the stage, scaling a tall freestanding ladder one moment, rummaging around a set of files the next, or stalking the second-tier storage area at the back of scenic designer Nina Ball’s atmospherically dingy, drippy, haze-filled bric-a-brac set.

The only time this nervous energy seems to go too far is in the final moment, when the librarian exits the stage in an awkward physical underscoring of a key line, wandering out who-knows-where. But Berger’s charming mystery, while ultimately affirming, has a haunted, melancholy streak running through it — a creeping pessimism at the edge of the firelight that is its most provoking aspect, and saves it from being purely sentimental.



The father of Paris’s Théâtre du Grand Guignol, French playwright Oscar Méténier (1859–1913), rests in pieces — or at least the pieces he left for the stage; naturalistic horror plays that were themselves full of body parts strewn hither and thither. Thither, in this case, has been renamed “the splatter zone” for playwright Carl Grose and director Mitchell Altieri’s macabre comedy homage to the legendary Parisian theater and genre (a specialty of local company Thrillpeddlers, whose own “Shocktoberfest” is also up and running not far away).

But though audiences in the first rows sit dutifully in plastic rain ponchos, the gore and the titillation and the laughs are surprisingly spare. Grand Guignol‘s opening night, moreover, was a rocky horror show, to say the least, plagued by delays, poor acoustics, slippery pacing, slightly inept execution (of executions, and other bloody deeds), and a storyline almost as mangled as the bodies it left in its wake. It has a game cast, however, and while variously successful at projecting their voices above the atmospheric sound design, its members deliver some nicely tailored performances under the circumstances, which are messy in ways intended and otherwise. *


Extended through Nov 23

Tue-Sat, 8pm (check website for matinees); Sun, 2pm, $20-150

Geary Theater

415 Geary, SF


The art of dialogue



THEATER Maybe there’s no better way to grasp your own time and place than by leaving it — in this case, trading San Francisco for Wroclaw, Poland, and Pacific Standard Time for a whiplashing case of jet lag. Wroclaw was home base for a little more than a week during the recent Dialog Festival (Oct. 11–18; dialogfestival.pl/en), which was in its seventh season as a major biennial international theater festival created and programmed by Krystyna Meissner, a force in Polish and European theater for decades.

Joining a cohort of Americans, including several from the Bay Area, most of whom had been invited to the festival by the Center for International Theatre Development (an organization with which I’ve recently become formally associated), we were treated to work by artists from Poland, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Rwanda, Estonia, Iran, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Hungary. The topic this year, “Violence makes the world go ’round,” was a proposition answered variously and often ingeniously by the productions on offer. The best of these expertly delivered that consciousness-altering blow you want from theater or any art form, as well as much food for thought — not only about the reality of violence in the world today, but the place in it all of the artist, the individual, the public, the spectator, and the theater itself.

For now, one example will have to suffice: a staging of British playwright Sarah Kane’s 1998 play, Cleansed, by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski. This was actually one of two separate stagings of the same play in the festival this year; the other was by renowned Dutch director Johan Simons, working with Germany’s Münchner Kammerspiele, who offered three Kane plays in a single evening. (It was also one of two pieces from Warlikowski at the festival, the other being his latest work, Warsaw Cabaret.)

Warlikowski is widely known as one of the masters of the Polish theater today, and his staging of the Kane play is still in demand 12 years after its controversial premiere in 2001. Seeing this legendary production was an extraordinary opportunity, and its impact was in no way diminished by the hype.

Cleansed comprises a discrete set of scenes in which a sadistic “doctor” named Tinker perpetrates vicious humiliations and atrocities on a group of inmates. Among the latter is a grieving woman who has entered the doctor’s wicked sanatorium to commune with the spirit of her dead brother, a heroin addict murdered gruesomely by Tinker in an early scene. There is also a gay couple whose commitment to each other is brutally tested by the awful interventions of Tinker.

Warlikowski’s production unfolds as a harrowing yet gorgeously languid fever dream. Set on a small stage, with an institutional bathroom wall at the back, the strikingly crisp and potent images throughout distort in the reflective surfaces bounding the space. Often drowned in a shifting sea of garish light, accentuated with piercingly beautiful music (the songs derived from the text are sung in the original English), the stage nevertheless leaves ample room for brilliant performances. These deftly created characters and relationships speak eloquently to the deep compassion and understanding there throughout Kane’s penetrating nightmare. (In a seductive and telling move, Warlikowski tacks on a monologue about desperate love, taken from Kane’s Crave, at the outset of the evening.)

Kane’s own productive extremes as a playwright — her cool formal intelligence and invention, as well as her anguished, aching, and uncompromising vision — were served perfectly by the precise and enveloping aesthetic of this exquisite production. But what was it that brought this play and this director together in the first place? And what was the nature of its early impact? In a talkback with the director the following day, a Polish journalist and critic helped set the scene.

“I saw Cleansed many years ago,” he remembered, “at a time when the LGBT movement in Poland was just coming out of the closet. At the time, it was truly a shocking piece. Now it’s a piece that I’m proud of. I’m proud to see how much has changed. Back in the day, the mayor of Warsaw tried to ban the Pride parade and there was only one politician who dared to show up. I remember there being several hundred of us, separated by a double line of police officers — mind you, the demonstration was legal — and above the heads of the police officers, stones were flying at us.”

Warlikowski recalled, “After the first reading we gave up on it. I decided we wouldn’t do Cleansed but do Hamlet instead. It’s a little difficult to imagine now, but I was really shattered by the stones flying at participants of the LGBT Pride Parade. We were working on Angels in America in some dingy little basement. I felt excluded. I felt like I was underground. Groups of women would roam the streets and tear down the posters for Cleansed. Director Krystyna Meissner would go around town to keep them from being torn down.

“I added the monologue from Crave because I thought that would be the only way to get Polish theatergoers to see the piece. The first response was horrible. Whereas people saw the dismemberment as theatrical and acceptable, they were more offended by two guys kissing, and people would get up and leave the room. That’s not something we can really understand today. So there had to be this ten-minute monologue, speaking of love, to trick you into staying for the rest.

“I remember watching the show sitting next to a couple, probably a yuppie couple, new middle-class, in their late 30s. During the first monologue, the woman never looked up. I felt I was embarrassing her. And for the Catholic nation that we still are, it was a lot to expect. Hence all the embellishments, everything that brings in a dimension that makes the dialogue possible — dialogue with the piece and dialogue with society.” *


For more on the Dialog festival, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.

Government smackdown



THEATER The premise of Bay Area playwright Lauren Gunderson’s latest, The Taming (not to be confused with her other latest, I and You, running more or less simultaneously at Marin Theatre Company), felt riotously germane on opening night, less than a week into the recent shutdown of the federal government. But only at first.

With a vague nod to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, this ultimately superficial but consistently witty and rapid-fire political farce takes place in a Washington, DC, hotel room, where a crazed but seriously intelligent, professionally charming Miss America contestant named Katherine, aka Miss Georgia (a superlative Kathryn Zdan), holds hostage two political animals, one liberal and one conservative, while she tries to talk them into helping her bring about a new constitutional convention.

This Southern Liberty Belle is incensed by the status quo and aims at serious reform, seeing nothing short of a new constitution as the way past the political intransigence keeping America from living up to the vision of its Founding Fathers — especially the Constitution’s principal author, James Madison — as she understands it. And she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to see it happen, including drugging her captives and, worse, hiding their cellphones.

Initially, of course, her hostages will have none of it. They immediately wage a rapid-fire quip-war in which the usual stereotypes become so many grenades lobbed at either side of the room and the political aisle.

Bianca (Marilet Martinez) is a liberal blogger in braids, leggings, and hipster hat whose hatred of Republicans is matched by her passionate commitment to the salvation of a tiny, endangered mammal known as the North American Great Pygmy Panda Shrew — a veritable dog pile of qualifiers half-burying the allusion there to Shakespeare’s “taming” play.

Her Republican counterpart, Patricia (Marilee Talkington), is aid and brain to a powerful far-right senator from the South, predictably dim-witted and obsessively predatory on his nubile young interns. Her problems are initially geared to managing her loose cannon of a boss. “What if he actually says what he means? What if CNN asks him to spell something?” But soon we discover that Patricia’s passion lies in the legislation she has devoted her professional life to seeing come to life. It’s actually a jobs bill, in her fashioning, thus pitting ordinary American workers against Bianca’s furry charges in the political melee. Interestingly, the Republican character comes across as the more reasonable of the two.

A dream sequence returns all three to the good old days, 1789, for a brush with Washington and Madison, played amusingly as just two dudes with power in early America, as well as Martha and Dolly, forces in their own right if not always in their right mind. The gender confusion and the erotic charge between the characters throughout (especially, per the Bard’s original, Katherine and Patricia) adds a subversive sexual politics to the proceedings that makes for some interesting dynamics and reflections, if nothing too radical finally.

In artistic director Marissa Wolf’s sharply choreographed production for Crowded Fire (which produced Gunderson’s other Shakespeare-sprinkled contemporary comedy, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, in 2011), the play’s giddy speed also serves it well. While all three performances are strong, Zdan’s tiara-wearing revolutionary, with a fine Southern drawl and a wonderfully composed, perfectly modulated delivery, holds center stage from the first moment we see her — during an exuberant sound check on the pageant stage. Meanwhile, Talkington succeeds best at humanizing her own zany character, infusing her conflicted Republican operative with the hint of melancholic depths that makes her more interesting than the comparatively one-note liberal played by Martinez with punch but less subtlety (which is maybe inevitable given the character’s heavier burden of strained stereotype).

If the play’s timeliness also adds to its enjoyment, the initial frisson of righteous laughter at the expense of politics as usual ends up short-lived. The spectrum of possibilities represented here, political and otherwise, is just too narrow to allow real distance on the hopeless, hideous spectacle of Washington corruption. So resolutely does The Taming stay in the world of red-state, blue-state clichés that the play unintentionally reproduces that sense of hopelessness, in which the world at large comes bounded solely by Democrats and Republicans — a narrow spectrum of humanity that makes one identify more readily with that doomed shrew. *


Wed/23-Sat/26, 8pm, $10-$35

Thick House

1695 18th St, SF





We’re declaring 2012-2013 the theatre season of Lauren Gunderson, y’all. Ever since this prolific Georgia native’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear debuted at Crowded Fire Theater in 2011, Gunderson’s scripts are smart, sassy, and fueled by revenge and science. “I think I write about scientists more than I write about science,” she told Creative Loafing Atlanta. “You could say that science is the landscape and ether of the plays, but the hearts and dreams of the scientists are what we’re really watching.” That empathetic approach to science may help explain why her plays have the taken tech-nerdy Bay Area by storm. This season alone saw the Bay Area-based productions of no fewer than five of her scripts: Emilie La Marquise du Chatalet Defends Her Life Tonight by the Symmetry Theatre Company in Berkeley, Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre, By and By with the Shotgun Players, The Taming with Crowded Fire Theater, plus I and You at the Marin Theatre Company. Love a rising star? There’s still time to bolster your “I saw her back when” cred when both TheatreWorks and SF Playhouse produce her works in early 2014.


Hearts on fire



THEATER An actor rakes a thick piece of chalk across the floor with a few swift, violent strokes, transforming a bare stage into the layout of an apartment or the plan of a Polish street. Three more actors join him in filling out the scenes, uprooted from time and rearranged in a deliberate design of their own — scenes erased and redrawn with practically every shift in a fluid, snaking narrative that joins the present day with World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the career of a young Jewish woman named Izolda, who passes herself off as an Aryan in a heroic attempt to save herself and her husband from an apocalyptic night.

If the ghostly chalk outlines of the set morph with a brusqueness that suggests the ferocity of both war and time to remake the world, Izolda’s story of love and determination offers an agency of its own. Wrenched from the daunting numbers and general darkness of the Holocaust, they come into mesmerizing focus in The King of Hearts is Off Again, a barebones yet highly evocative piece of physical theater by Warsaw’s Studium Teatralne, which adapts Polish journalist-turned-author Hanna Krall’s internationally acclaimed 2006 novel, Chasing the King of Hearts (now available in an English translation from Peirene Press).

This week, in Studium Teatralne’s Bay Area debut, the San Francisco International Arts Festival presents The King of Hearts is Off Again in both San Francisco and the East Bay. Performed in Polish with English supertitles, the piece showcases the work of a company grounded in the influential career of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), world-renowned innovator and practical theoretician of “poor theater.”

Piotr Borowski, who directed the production, was an actor and musician with Poland’s famed experimental company Teatr Gardzienice in the 1970s and ’80s. After that he joined the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pantedera, Italy, where he stayed until 1994, when he became artistic director of Studium Teatralne.

“Mainly what I’ve acquired from working with Grotowski is a constant, systematic work on the harmony of three things: body, feelings, and intellect,” relates Borowski in a recent email exchange. “Incidentally, this idea is few thousand years old. On the other hand, the topics for my dramatic work flow directly from the circumstances of our contemporary times.”

The details and lacunae of Izolda’s dramatized but true story emerge from the ghostly outlines of a past now barely visible in Poland, suspended somewhere between blissful ignorance and perturbing rumination.

“In Poland, before World War II, Jews were about 10 percent of the population,” continues Borowski, “about three million people. The ones that were left numbered 20,000. We have struggled to convey this emptiness through the empty stage, minimal props, a small number of actors, in order to focus on the main idea. One of the most important things in the set is the floor. It is an old Synagogue’s polychrome. We are stepping on it, symbolically ruining it. The world’s culture of sacral paintings is being destroyed. There are hardly any Jews in Poland anymore. Most of all, there are hardly any traces of their culture left. Our viewers in Poland can feel that, and we talk about it a lot, especially with the younger generation.”

Grotowski and the refined aesthetics of poor theater grew in the 1960s in part as a response to the lavish spectacle offered by cinema, but also in a politically repressive period in which metaphor was key to discussing the lived reality shared by artists and their audience. Today’s Polish stage has evolved in strikingly different directions since 1989 and the fall of communism. The avant-garde today — in the work of Krystian Lupa or Krzysztof Warlikowski, for example — tends toward work of monumental proportions, as Borowski readily admits.

“When it comes to the direction of the Polish theater today I am not the go-to expert. I am still representing the off-center of theater whose significance is marginal today. It used to have a clear role in times of a system where censorship existed. But now, when we have freedom and a fierce market economy, the big productions and money become more important to people.”

Borowski adds that it is not a question of one approach or another, but rather of making work that confronts contemporary reality.

“It is essential that we create performances that are relevant for today. That has always been hard to do, as far as I can remember. The main goal that I had set out for myself is the goal towards human development, and what I’m trying to show on stage is the [way] beyond simple acceptance and habitual perception of so many things. Not a rebellion but an alternate perception.” *


Wed/2-Fri/4, 8pm, $18-25

Joe Goode Performance Annex

401 Alabama, SF

Sat/5, 8pm

University Theatre

CSU East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee, Hayward



She has had it



STAGE Oh, the drama. Three weeks before Dolores Claiborne — the 1992 Stephen King thriller transformed by composer Tobias Picker and librettist JD McClatchy into a two-and-a-half-hour opera — was set to premiere, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zadjic bowed out, citing knee problems. She was singing Dolores. Whoever could learn this exhausting part (Dolores is onstage almost every scene, singing up a storm) in 21 days?

By divine luck, gifted and game soprano Patricia Racette was here to perform in another SF Opera production, Arrigo Boito’s 1867 Mefistofele. (Don’t miss it: the 30-minute witches’ sabbath/orgy scene featuring an entire writhing, nude-suited chorus is glorious.) Racette burst unannounced into the packed press conference addressing her acceptance of the part, a tornado of scarves, with a loud, “Speak of the devil!” She had sung Picker’s music before, in previous operas An American Tragedy and Emmeline. She was quick to pick things up. And how different was a mezzo-soprano from a soprano, anyway?

As it turns out, quite a bit. Right off the bat, I will say the Sept. 18 premiere of the opera was energetic, disturbing, visually stunning, and, at several moments, ethereally beautiful. All your favorite lines are there (“I get to say ‘bitch’ and ‘shit’!” Racette exclaimed with glee at the presser), although the cuss words don’t make it to the supertitles, so delicate are we. The fantastic cast members sang for their lives, and conductor George Manahan led the orchestra nimbly through the thicket of Picker’s score, which held several delightful surprises, including eerie whistles and shivery cinematic effects. The staging was brilliant — using video projections and multiple-tier trickery, a series of sets within sets opened up, playing off the story’s flashback-filled timeline.

And Racette nails it, although she’s more comfortable in high dudgeon as vengeful fury than as stone-faced martyr. As King wrote it, this tragedy of a feisty Maine woman burdened with misfortune and accident is an affecting character study set in an atmosphere of uncanny dread and dark humor. Yet Picker and McClatchy have decided to focus on plot, rather than psychological complexity. There really isn’t too much plot here, though, so we get a lot of repetition. And what plot there is sometimes twists and shocks, but it’s not particularly expansive or enlightening. Feminist attitudes are struck, but everyone’s a feminist when it comes to a woman being beaten by an icky husband (macho, well-voiced Wayne Tiggs) who’s sexually molesting her sweet daughter (the wonderful Susannah Biller, who kills it in an unhinged aria). That molestation is strikingly staged, Dolores’ revenge is exacted during an eclipse, and there’s a bit of mystery about some money and another death, which is tidily cleared up.

But the real action’s in the vertiginous moods of the tale, and Picker’s score can’t seem to find them. Picker’s part of a generation of American composers that traffics unselfconsciously in cinematic horror, high camp, tacky Americana, and other contemporary modes, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily good at all of them. I think Dolores’ imperious, ill-fated employer, Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral, giving her all, singing “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to”) is meant to be part Norma Desmond, part Nancy Reagan, but she ends up more kitsch than camp — mostly because she’s near-shrieking all the time.

Here’s the only real problem with a production that may have been colored by shaky nerves. Often there are three sopranos — Vera, Dolores, and the daughter, Selena — tearing up the stage. That could be awesome (who doesn’t love three anguished sopranos in an eclipse) but the vocal lines are so cartoonish at times that they seem more parody of opera-singing than a natural extension of the drama. Every exclamation is punctuated by high note after high note, like a DJ dropping all the builds and going directly for the breakdowns. Dolores Claiborne is juicy and in many ways a triumph. And it will surely draw new audiences to the opera (opening night was bursting with gothic youth). They’ll probably love it. But I’m afraid that their stereotypes about what opera sounds like might be confirmed.

DOLORES CLAIBORNE runs through Oct. 4. www.sfopera.com


Self service


THEATER Sitting in the Exit Café with a can of Guinness and the San Francisco Fringe Festival program is one of life’s modest but absorbing pleasures. For those without much inside knowledge on the lineup (currently encompassing 36 companies and 158 performances), it’s a little like taking a vacation by pitching darts at a wall map. There were several immediate sub-themes to choose from for 2013. I could have picked shows with bananas in the title, for instance. But for whatever reason, I dived into the service and servitude sector.

Of course, the Fringe, now in its 22nd year, is a lottery-based operation, so it is fate’s fingers that pluck these patterns from the cultural whirl. At the same time, you don’t need the I Ching to know that serving the rich is about all that’s left of the economy for most of us, making it hardly surprising to find so many stories of bartenders, wait staff, sex workers, and mermaids-who-are-also-sex-workers floating in the pool.

Things began on a high note with Jill Vice’s witty and deft solo, The Tipped & the Tipsy, which brings the querulous regulars of a skid-row bar to life vividly and with real (quasi-Depression era) charm. Without set or costume changes, Vice (who developed the piece with Dave Dennison and David Ford) proves a protean physical performer, seamlessly inhabiting the oddball outcasts lined up before bartender Candy every day at Happy’s — names as loaded as the clientele. With a love of the underdog and strong writing and acting at its core, Tipsy breezes by, leaving a superlative buzz.

O Best Beloved isn’t about service work, but the theme still crops up in the opening story — “How the Camel Got Her Hump” — an unburdened beast (played by Sam Jackson) whose relaxed work ethic draws negative attention. It’s one of three scheduled children’s tales by Rudyard Kipling (adapted by actor Joan Howard and director Rebecca Longworth), delivered by a rowdy six-person cast of storytellers. This playful piece is somewhat hectic and a bit garbled (in speech that can get lost in the reverberations of the Exit’s main stage). But it’s colorfully worked up (in costuming and properties as well as performances) and no doubt ideal for families or those happy to revel in light insouciance and unyielding silliness.

Sean Andries and Siouxsie Q’s Fish-Girl, meanwhile, has limited charm as a carny fable of doomed love between a nerdy young man (Andries, who also directed) and the freak-show beauty (Q, in sequined tail and half-shell bra) he’s hooked on. Co-creator Siouxsie Q hosts “The Whorecast” podcast showcasing the voices of American sex workers, and the mermaid’s plight takes on literal and metaphoric overtones of sex work. But the bland love story at the center keeps things bathtub shallow, albeit buoyed by a few decent songs belted out by poised songwriter Siouxsie Q to her own accompaniment on the ukulele — that spinet of the well-bred mermaid.

Hard on Fish-Girl‘s floppy heel came The Women of Tu-Na House, completing the evening’s sub-sub-theme of the aquatic erotic. (For cross-referencing purposes: Another bartender’s tale, with fish tails too, stood out in the program but was not seen in time for review: Alexa Fitzpatrick’s sushi-restaurant confessional, Serving Bait to Rich People.) Nancy Eng’s solo is a smart, sassy, and blushingly frank account of the workers at an Asian massage parlor. Although Eng’s characters are not always readily distinct, she marshals an unexpected angle and winning élan in bringing this worthwhile story to life.

Not every show in the Fringe need conform to a surface or sub theme. Dark Porch Theatre’s StormStressLenz brings its own thematic taxonomy with it, in director Martin Schwartz’s uneven but intriguing, vivacious remixing of the work of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz (1751–1792), the Baltic German author of the proto-Romantic, anti-rational Sturm und Drang school of literature.

Schwartz’s Lenz remix comes across as an alternately cool and hyperactive investigation of the essence of melodrama, employing a fast-changing four-person ensemble (Nathan Tucker, Margery Fairchild, Ryan Hayes, Meg Hurtado) in a series of scenes shorn of their immediate context and aggregated under various section headings (“Love,” “Tricks,” “Sorrow,” etc.) — subheads called out by Schwartz, seated at a table to the left of the stage calmly scrutinizing the action, asking the lighting booth for the odd musical interlude (MC5 one minute, Brahms the next), and bouncing his palm lightly on a desk bell to trigger the beginning and the end of each scene. These range widely and wildly, making for a raucous but tonally patchy hour. The broadest and subtlest range of characters comes from Tucker and Fairchild, who between them suggest some of the darker elements otherwise left out of a largely comic romp. But if the show leaves one wanting more complexity and shading, its eccentric enterprise is still worth a stab, as they say.

Finally, San Francisco dancer and performance maker Cara Rose DeFabio’s admirable solo strikes its own idiosyncratic tone, or rather many of them, in another intriguing investigation, this time of the online afterlife to which we are all increasingly subject — whether willingly or not. After the Tone is a smart and provoking exploration of the intersections of grief, technology, memory, ideology, and individuality that uses DeFabio’s sly narrative persona, movement, video, and audio pastiche, and interactive audience participation (via those celebrated and hated cellphones) to productively turn over a subject too close to most of us to be clearly grasped otherwise. *


Through Sept. 21, $12.99 or less

Exit Theatreplex

156 Eddy, SF


For a longer version of this review, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.


Mass. transit



THEATER Marin Theatre Company’s season opener, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, tackles issues of class and solidarity in the context of a small circle of South Boston peers. It’s an issue the play explores with some subtlety, if not always with the full weight of a historical moment as dire as any when it comes to the stratification of income, power, privilege, and status.

Margaret Walsh (Amy Resnick) is a scrappy, middle-aged single mom with a grown but severely impaired daughter. A quick but harried working-class woman (persuasively played with underdog vigor and a complex moral makeup by Resnick), Margaret is a high-school dropout confined to both menial jobs and her old Southie neighborhood — an Irish enclave ringed by creeping poverty and the cyclical violence and dysfunction that can cling to it.

Perennially late, Margie (as she’s usually called) is about to be sacked from yet another job, this one at the local dollar-store register, where her young manager, Stevie (Ben Euphrat), is the quietly striving, just-tolerant son of a deceased friend from the neighborhood.

Significantly, Stevie’s late mother lives on among her peers in the form of a beloved and oft-repeated anecdote, in which she attempts to cover up in the moment for a brazen act of grocery-store shoplifting. But the story, which Margie tries to leverage to advantage in her bid to keep her job, has a contested aspect: Was it Margie, working a register then too, who turned her in for it?

It turns out this question — with its suggestions of tenuous loyalty, honesty, and honor among Margie’s hard-bitten peer group — is just a warm-up for a larger moral contest looming ahead.

Soon Margie moves in with longtime friend Dottie (a comically boisterous and truculent Anne Darragh), but Dottie’s new position as fretful, bullying landlady is never far from their interactions. With encouragement from her pal Jean (a sure Jamie Jones), Margie — desperate to find work but too proud to return to the Gillette factory (perpetual employer of last resort) — seeks out an old classmate, Mike (an excellent, subtly shape-shifting Mark Anderson Phillips). He once briefly dated Margie in high school, before going off to college and medical school, ultimately escaping Southie for upper-middle-class Chestnut Hill.

It’s Margie and Mark’s reunion that provides the meat of the drama. Margie is a proud but desperate interloper in Mike’s now thoroughly bourgeois world, and needles him about his class pretensions as a method of maneuvering to some advantage in her quest for his help. She’s also haunted by an idea of what might have been her life if she had escaped Southie, like (or with) Mike. At the same time, in his new milieu, Mike draws heavily on a macho, street-smart, bootstraps image he has fashioned from his past — ostensibly to make up for a certain effete status vis-à-vis his wife, Kate (ZZ Moor in a bright, well-measured and quietly ferocious performance), the sophisticated, upper-middle-class African American daughter of Mike’s old boss and mentor.

Mike and Margie’s reunion, therefore, seesaws on a fulcrum of status, class advantage, street cred, and secrets. And if class tends to trump race in the play’s particular admixture of power, race remains a crucial part of the story — rushing back from Mike’s Southie past in a way that drives another wedge between the married couple’s already strained partnership.

Despite being initially top-heavy with self-conscious Boston accents, director Tracy Young’s admirable cast soon stretches out into some extended and nuanced scenes. Particularly impressive are Resnick, Phillips, and Moor who, in the second act’s opening sequence in Mike and Kate’s luxurious Chestnut Hill home, bring the play’s themes into full swing with slow-burning intensity.

Interestingly, opening night saw by far the biggest laugh go to a seemingly throwaway line. After Margie crashes an evening at Mike and Kate’s home, Mike idly asks his unwanted guest if she likes the wine his wife has offered her. “How the fuck should I know?” retorts Margie, not unkindly.

Wine, and especially the appreciation of wine, is of course heavily class-coded, and the whole scene is an understated class rumpus of sorts. But the rolling laughter this line provoked among the generally comfortable Marin County audience probably spoke to more than just knowingness on that score. It sounded like a genuine, joyful release — an acknowledgement, maybe, that class is a burdensome masquerade, and in its pretense and hidden anxieties it’s exhausting, including for those with passes and pretensions to a certain elevation on the ladder. Although that burden is incommensurate to the physically and psychically wrecking demands, degradations, and insecurities saddling those on the lower rungs, it’s in the “conceit” of class that the play opens common ground with the audience. *


Through Sept. 15

Tue and Thu-Sat, 8pm (also Thu/5, 1pm; Sept 14, 2pm); Wed, 7:30pm; Sun, 2 and 7pm, $37-$58

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller, Mill Valley



Choose your own adventure



THEATER For fans of experimental performance, there’s nothing quite like the San Francisco Fringe Festival. Now a venerable 22 years old, the Fringe still retains its freewheeling nature, where anything goes and expecting the unexpected is the best approach. It’s also served as a vital incubator for many now-established theater companies — including Cutting Ball, Crowded Fire, Mugwumpin, and Thrillpeddlers — and no other festival prepares theater artists for the business realities of self-producing quite like the Fringe. The fest makes them responsible for every detail of their show’s success, including play creation, technical design, transportation, and audience outreach.

Hosted at the EXIT Theatre, which holds down the edge of the downtown theater district, the SF Fringe is the final stop on the annual Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals circuit (which stretches east to west across the North American continent). Over the years, it has welcomed artists from as nearby as the Mission District and as far away as Mauritius, drawing their names (literally) out of a hat during a public lottery to ensure that all applicants get an equal shot at participating.

This commitment to non-curation is what sets the Fringe apart from other theater festivals, as even the organizers don’t know what to expect from a given show until the curtain goes up. With that caveat in mind, here’s a sampling of shows that look promising for one reason or another — though your best bet, as always, is to see as many shows as possible and discover what stands out for you.

Solo shows are a Fringe staple, since technical considerations are skewed in favor of minimalist productions. With Held offers a glimpse inside the mind and method of a local artist, John Held Jr.; playwright-performer Jeremy Greco (of The Thrilling Adventures of Elvis in Space infamy) spent over a year interviewing Held about his life, and another year creating a show out of the material. Rebecca M. Fisher (2007’s The Magnificence of the Disaster) takes her audiences down south with Memphis on My Mind, while local comedian and circus school alumna Jill Vice brings them to the bar to pour everyone a (metaphorical) round in The Tipped & the Tipsy. Triple threat musician, actor, and improv artist Jeff England promises to combine all of his talents in his solo offering Tale Me Another, while another triple threat (singer-dancer-actor) Movin’ Melvin Brown brings his well-traveled performance piece A Man, A Magic, A Music to SF for the first time.

Shows which topically involve sex are another time-honored Fringe tradition, and this year’s selection seems especially wide-ranging. There’s 52 Letters, by Regina Y. Evans, which delves into the tricky territory of sex-trafficking with a performance poetry format; and The Women of Tu-Na House, a solo show by Nancy Eng, who portrays eight women working the “massage parlor” circuit.

One sexy show that breaks into the territory of the fantastical is Fish-girl, co-created and performed by Siouxsie Q, creator of the popular sex worker podcast and blog the WhoreCast. A mermaid grapples with “the feeling of being half in one world and half in another,” a common sentiment among sex workers, many of whom also “identify strongly with the mermaid myth,” according to Q.

For lovers of the purely experimental there are always a few Fringe shows that are best categorized as impossible-to-categorize, and it’s often these shows that best encapsulate the spirit of what’s possible, theatrically, in and out of the Festival. This year these include the welcome return of Popcorn Anti-Theater’s traveling bus with a whole new lineup of performers (including clowns, comediennes, and shadow puppeteers) and new secret locations on their mysterious itinerary.

Fringe stalwarts Dark Porch Theatre return with what sounds like one of their most ambitious projects to date, StormStressLenz, a fractured remix of the works of J. M. R. Lenz, an 18th century German playwright of the little-referenced sturm und drang movement. Remounted in 30 small vignettes connected to one of six themes — love, tricks, conflict, sorrow, resolution, and reunion — the piece is said to be structured like a concert of chamber music, with director-translator Martin Schwartz as conductor. Davis Shakespeare Ensemble’s Nightingale is a work of devised theater combining medieval and modern text, movement, shadow puppetry, and beat boxing; while performance artist Cara Rose DeFabio brings a follow-up to her 2012 multimedia piece She Was a Computer with After the Tone, a reflection on death, immortality, and technology with an audience participation component (hint: keep your cellphone on).

“This is my first Fringe, and I couldn’t be more excited,” DeFabio confides enthusiastically. “While at times it feels overwhelming, that abundance of choice and excitement is exactly what buoys the whole festival.” *


Sept. 6-21, $12.99 or less (passes, $40-75)

EXIT Theatreplex

156 Eddy, SF



Fall forward



FALL ARTS Kings and queens, Brits and brats, music and mayhem, puppets and oppressors—the stage brims with them this fall. Talk about holding a mirror up to nature.

The King of Hearts is Off Again  Here’s a rare chance to experience the thrilling precision and stagecraft of a Polish ensemble theater working in the tradition of legendary master Jerzy Grotowski. San Francisco International Arts Festival and Los Angeles–based KulturePlus Productions present the Bay Area debut of Warsaw’s Studium Theatralne and its stage adaptation of Hanna Krall’s internationally acclaimed novel about a young Jewish woman (the real-life Izolda Regenberg) who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust by passing as an Aryan. Oct. 2–4, Joe Goode Annex, SF; Oct. 5, University Theater, CSU East Bay, Hayward; www.sfiaf.org.

Sidewinders Rising American playwright and Louisville, Ky. native Basil Kreimendahl queers the Western while exploring Western queerness in Cutting Ball and director M. Graham Smith’s world premiere. Oct. 18–Nov. 17, Cutting Ball Theater at Exit on Taylor, SF; www.cuttingball.com.

Forest Fringe SF On the heels of a galvanizing summer intensive with local and UK artists, the love affair between the south of England’s adventurous University of Chichester theater department and the Bay Area continues this fall with an international mini-festival of devised performance co-sponsored by CounterPULSE and featuring the likes of Action Hero and other UK artists, as well as more UK–Bay Area collaborations. Oct. 24–27, CounterPULSE, SF; www.counterpulse.org.

Dogugaeshi  Master puppeteer Basil Twist delves into the titular ancient Japanese theatrical technique in this play whose central staging conceit is an ever-shifting array of screens. Taking the audience on a journey through inner and outer landscapes, with Japanese composer-musician Yumiko Tanaka accompanying live on the three-stringed samisen, the hourlong Bessie Award–winning 2004 production becomes a meditation on the flux and fragility of tradition, life — the world — told with grace, subtlety, and humor. Nov. 6–10, Zellerbach Playhouse, Berk; calperfs.berkeley.edu.

Be Bop Baby: A Musical Memoir  The inimitable Margo Hall (prized Bay Area actor and co-founder of Campo Santo) teams up with formidable Bay Area musician-composer Marcus Shelby and his orchestra for this original, eclectic, song-filled autobiographical account of Hall’s upbringing in the Detroit household of her beloved stepfather, leading jazz musician and Motown composer-arranger Teddy Harris Jr. Nov. 19–23, Z Space, SF; www.zspace.org.

San Francisco Fringe Festival With 36 companies and 158 performances over 16 days — and a per-show ticket price of about 10 bucks or less — the SF Fringe is as cheap and plump and addictive as a ballpark frank, and far easier on your colon. Sept. 6–21, EXIT Theatreplex, SF; www.sffringe.org.

Caught The group show “Fuck Off 2,” under way at Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, updates and celebrates a notorious (and officially quashed) 2000 exhibition in Beijing, which heralded the arrival of an uncompromising generation of Chinese contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei (a contributing artist to the 2000 show and a co-curator of part two). Against the urgent and fascinating backdrop of art and political dissent in contemporary China comes 2by4 Theatre’s world premiere of Caught, a play on the art of subterfuge, or the subterfuge of art, by rising local playwright Christopher Chen (The Hundred Flowers Project) that centers on a major retrospective of work by “legendary” Chinese artist and dissident Lin Bo. Nov. 26–Dec. 21, ACT Costume Shop, SF; www.2by4theatre.com.

Mephistopheles Meph-heads: Your Faustian fix awaits in one of the biggest spectacles to “grace” the stage at the San Francisco Opera this season or any: Arrigo Boito’s 19th century adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, with bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov in the delightfully malign title role and SF Opera’s Nicola Luisotti on the podium. Sept. 6–Oct. 2, War Memorial Opera House, SF; www.sfopera.com.

The Episodes Brontez Purnell Dance Company delivers the next iteration of the intriguing and intelligent work that debuted last March at the Garage, which draws its physical and thematic inspiration from the ritual-like repetitions of the quotidian. Nov. 22–24, CounterPULSE, SF; www.counterpulse.org.

Keith Hennessy, Hana Lee Erdman, Jassem Hindi Among the many things one could say about the tantalizing lineup behind this three-act liquidizer of music, noise, improvisation, and performance, is that the evening reunites three impressive performer-agents from Hennessy’s monumental Turbulence (a dance about the economy). Dec. 6–7, CounterPULSE, SF; www.counterpulse.org. *


Sublime nonsense



THEATER The sets are gone, and the costumes, and that giant blue-and-yellow tent. Master clown and performance maker John Gilkey has ended his fourth stint with Cirque du Soleil since 1996. But if the wiry, often wild-haired Gilkey is no stranger to the big time, he moves just as ferociously through a bare stage in a small venue wearing not much more than, these days, a bushy beard.

It’s been three years since Gilkey last performed in San Francisco — flanked by comedians Alec Jones-Trujillo and Donny Divanian, the deadpan naïfs of his avant-comedy trio, We Are Nudes. Just as the very funny yet vaguely unnerving, off-center style of Nudes occupied some indeterminate territory between sketch comedy and Dadaist destruction, Gilkey’s latest venture — the Los Angeles–based eight-member improvisational ensemble known as Wet the Hippo — takes its audience beyond the usual endpoints of improv.

Born out of his Idiot Workshop classes in clown, Wet the Hippo is a big, brand-new baby of a beast, only four months old but charging forward with gusto — and an edgy, searching brilliance Gilkey is clearly thrilled with. He is frankly in love with his cast members, with whom he interacts as director, prodding them from onstage and off. Ahead of their first tentative tour (a three-stop zero-budget swing through Arcata, Placerville, and SF), Gilkey picked up the phone from his LA roost to talk Hippo-thetically.

SF Bay Guardian Wet the Hippo is quite a change from Cirque du Soleil, more low-to-the-ground, very much autonomous.

John Gilkey Yeah, what we’re doing now — there’s eight of us, there’s no budget. Low-to-the-ground is a good way to put it.

SFBG It’s a big contrast, but maybe there are similarities?

JG One way I describe the show: I’m taking everything I learned from Cirque about the creation process they have. (Although I should be clear about that: the creation process changed after Franco [Dragone] left.) But I was on Franco’s creative team for [his independent Las Vegas spectacular] Le Rêve —I’ve taken that process and I’ve applied that to this 10-dollar-a-ticket show with eight people. It’s an amazing contrast. And in some ways it’s quite similar.

When I’m working with the performers, I work with them similarly to Franco in that he’s trying really to get to the nut of the person. His number one question is, “Who are you?” He’s trying to figure out what is it about this person that’s interesting. Their strengths, their weaknesses, their physicality, their voice, all this stuff — how can we magnify this person into an interesting stage presence? I do that with my little cast here.

SFBG It’s an improvised show, but it’s clearly not the Harold, or other improv forms we’re familiar with.

JG It’s something new that we’re trying to do, so we’re learning about it, discovering it as we go forward, as we search. It’s an evolving process. But what I’m looking for as the director, both offstage and onstage — or the conductor-director when I’m onstage — is to try to get everybody buzzing, ringing, in tune, and then see how they harmonize. I think when we hit, it is music. It’s on a level you can’t quite put into words. This is when we succeed. We don’t always succeed. Part of the show is us searching for that, which is also fun. We play a lot with success and failure. When we’re failing we try to really make sure that we acknowledge it and somehow use it to our advantage.

SFBG How can failure work to your advantage?

JG One thing we’re discovering is that the highs aren’t as high if the lows aren’t as low. So that’s one reason to fail. And I tell people when we’re rehearsing or in the classes that I teach (all of this came out of these classes): This is the spirit of clown. You’re always looking to get yourself into danger. You want to be in danger. That’s where the drama really comes. Instead of pretending, we try to really get into danger.

SFBG This is an exploration that goes beyond the usual endpoints — something riskier, unknown?

JG In standard improv, in standard comedy, you’re going for the laugh, always. I believe there’s something that is greater than the laugh. Maybe the easiest way to say it is that it’s the sublime. And the way to get to the sublime is to ask an actor to play at their most genius level — either absolute smartest or absolute stupidest. It’s not a linear progression from stupid to genius; it’s circular. It’s where they meet. It’s where the genius in you meets the idiot in you that you become so beautiful that you hit sublime. It’s beyond laughter. It’s the moment where you get your mind blown. *


Mon/26-Tue/27, 7:30pm, $10 (advance tickets here)

Venue TBD (“Look for the skinny violinist at 22nd St and Valencia at 7:30pm; you will be escorted to the venue from there”), SF


For an extended version of this interview, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.


Labors of love



THEATER A white passenger van pulls to the curb in a Santa Rosa neighborhood, discharging a group of Latino men and women at the door of a converted warehouse. The visitors vary by age, class, and education. All hail from Mexico or Central America, but more recently Los Angeles, where they’re among the city’s thousands of jornaleros, or day laborers, making their way job by job, often without secure documentation or security of any kind.

Standing beside the warehouse on this quiet street, they could be mistaken for an ad hoc work crew. But the warehouse is a theater, and this sunny afternoon in June is the culmination of a precious week off. Not that these men and women aren’t here in Santa Rosa to work — just this time, it’s on a play.

Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto, artistic directors of the Imaginists, greet the visitors as they collect outside the theater and saunter in, joining other members and friends of the Santa Rosa company. It’s the final day of a weeklong artistic exchange between the Imaginists and Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Laborer Theater Without Borders), a Los Angeles–based Spanish-language ensemble theater created by and for the immigrant day laborer population. The ten-member troupe, founded in 2008 under the umbrella of LA’s Cornerstone Theater and led by co–artistic directors Juan José Mangandi and Lorena Moran, has created 15 short plays that they perform mostly at day laborer centers across Los Angeles — although last year saw TJSF tour both Northern California and El Salvador. The plays examine everything from the legal and human rights of immigrant workers to the transnational cultures migrant workers share and foster.

After a light breakfast of coffee and pan dulce, the two companies gather in a circle for warm up exercises led by both Lindsay and Moran. Then they all get back to work on a playlet they’ve been developing from improvisations. It begins with two workers who alternately pay off and slip by a snoozing guard (played by Imaginists company member Eliot Fintushel) to dump toxic waste into a nearby stream. When this causes an environmental disaster, a government spokesperson (Pinto) assures people in the audience that their organic produce is safe. Meanwhile, a cleanup crew of migrant workers is slowly poisoned to death. A news team rushes to the scene of the eco-disaster, but seems to take no notice of the brown bodies sprawled over it. Left alone onstage, the workers rise as ghosts — beginning with one who sings, “They’re carrying me off to the cemetery. Don’t anyone cry for me. Just sing my favorite song…” — and one by one exit the stage.

Throughout, Lindsay directs from a chair audience-side, giving advice or suggestions. All, however, are welcome to chime in with comments and do. An elderly woman named Adela Palacios, for instance, suggests that before departing the stage each ghost can simply state their name and what they did for a living, a suggestion readily embraced by all. Soon the form of the scene has a solid arc, and a tone that makes a virtue of the mix of amateur and professional actors. Combining slapstick, winking asides, an eerie sense of tragedy, and a moving use of direct address, it’s a surprisingly affecting bit of work.

“We come to the theater as older people,” explains Moran. “But we feel we’ve found a company [in the Imaginists] like us. We share the same path.” A native of Guatemala who worked in business administration before fleeing domestic abuse and the country, Moran (translated by Gustavo Servin of the Imaginists) speaks eloquently about the company she joined five years ago amid a dangerous working life both foreign and alienating to her. She acknowledges frankly, “Theater saved my life.”

TJSF is currently developing its first full-length play, Caminos al Paraíso (Paths to Paradise), written by Mangandi and directed by Moran. This exchange in Santa Rosa, made possible by a grant from the Network of Ensemble Theaters, has offered TJSF members the opportunity to learn important technical aspects of crafting a full evening’s production from their more experienced colleagues. At the same time, it’s offered the Imaginists, which has grown into a bilingual company since rooting itself in Santa Rosa, a chance to advance its own mission through contact with a deeply community-driven Latino theater. But neither motive really captures the personal ties and mutual respect that have been forming here, the subtle and profound reciprocity of influence, and the solidarity emerging from it all.

“TJSF is a brave, important theater company that is telling stories that we don’t usually hear,” reflected Pinto by email. “Coming together for a week, we were able to strengthen our own resolve to tell these stories, not to be afraid of being deemed ‘political.’ For the Latino members of the Imaginists, the exchange was a catalyst to be empowered by their histories and stories. This exchange reinforced how necessary it is to have comrades, to share experiences and methods, to have a network of support throughout the country for this work.”

The Imaginists plan to travel to Los Angeles for another face-to-face meeting with TJSF over next steps. Together they hope to develop something that can tour to labor centers across the country.

In the meantime, inspired by the exchange, the Imaginists are concocting a new play, based on a famous children’s story, which will address the plight of undocumented people. Working title: REAL. *

For an extended version of this story, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision.