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Unfinished business


THEATER About two years ago, a small band of Brits came on an exploratory mission from the South of England to the Bay Area. They wanted to discover what, if anything, they had in common with their American counterparts in the theater world. The trip ended with a party in the Mission, where UK performance duo Action Hero performed A Western for their new friends way out West.

And that might have been that. But a year later, in 2012, Action Hero (Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse) was back, this time leading a workshop-residency at CounterPULSE. This collaboration with local artists (six people drawn mostly from the experimental dance and performance world) produced a one-night smorgasbord of performance, complete with a dining area, a menu, and a wait staff to bring you to your performance when it was ready.

The evening was also a lively mixer, in which a friendly, jocular man named Ben Francombe — head of the pedagogically radical theater department at the small arts-focused University of Chichester in West Sussex — was an enthusiastic participant.

As Francombe explained at the time, the school of performing arts at his university was eager to maintain contact with places like CounterPULSE as a partner in creative exchanges. “We share a commitment to the idea of ‘exchange’ in creative processes,” he wrote, in an email correspondence shortly before arriving in San Francisco, “and how artists develop methods of working through sharing ideas that are ‘foreign’ and different from their established practice. As an arts-based university, we are very interested in exploring ways in which our international connections stimulate our cultural ideas.”

He added, “As a department we have a unique commitment to developing small-scale artists, and exploring radical ideas on the nature of theater and performance through facilitating interesting artists in interesting creative contexts.”

That sounds good on paper, but what would it really mean in practice? The Chichester folks were the first to admit they didn’t really know but were seriously interested in finding out, as long as their counterparts here were game to work on it together.

It turned out many were. The call for a joint programs of exchange geared to artist-centered new work found receptive ears among the experimental dance and performance makers gathered around CounterPULSE — whose working methods are already more or less akin to the devised approach facilitated at Chichester — but it also attracted people in the theater scene, where devised work (ensemble-driven theater built from the ground up) has its champions in companies like Mugwumpin and the work of artists like playwright-director Mark Jackson and actor Beth Wilmurt, co-creators of The Companion Piece at Z Space in 2011. Indeed, Z Space was soon onboard for more contact across the pond. Meanwhile, Jackson, Wilmurt, and CounterPULSE’s Julie Phelps all went over to Chichester in February of this year to see the university’s theater-performance MA program in action.

This year, Chichester’s open-ended and open-minded dialogue with San Francisco’s theater and performance scene ramped up considerably with a just completed summer intensive at Z Space. And there’s more just ahead, including a festival of devised performance in October (at CounterPULSE) and, if all goes well, the inauguration sometime in 2014 of an international MFA program in theater-performance making exclusively linked to San Francisco.

“We decided to come here a couple of years ago,” says Louie Jenkins, a solo artist and Chichester faculty member who led the summer intensive in partnership with Mark Jackson. (Jackson has detailed the evolution of his involvement with, and his firsthand experience at, Chichester in an editorial promoting the intensive in Theatre Bay Area magazine.) “[We were] trying to understand what was happening here and whether what we did fit in with the ethos here. So we met with these different people. And the sense we had was that this was a fertile place.”

The summer intensive involved 16 artists, including several Chichester masters students mixed in with the disparate group of local theater, dance, and performance practitioners. It also came with a public component, designed to further introduce this type of work to local audiences. This included a showing of MA student work and a shrewd little piece by Box Tracy Theatre Dance Company (Nixx Strapp-Freeman and Valerie Watkinson) at CounterPULSE.

It also included last Saturday’s completely sold-out showing at ZBelow of work generated during the intensive — four pieces by four groupings of British and local artists. No director, no playwright, no set designers — the artists did everything, being responsible for the whole experience. The title of the evening was “Unfinished Business,” and yet it felt startlingly complete as an evening of performance. Still, the title is both apt and promising. At the same time, it was arguably one of the more exciting things to happen in a local theater for a long time.

“We often talk about accidents,” says Jenkins, whose own history as an artist and resident of San Francisco in the 1990s inspired Chichester’s initial foray into the Bay Area. “Out of this process of trying to make work, an accident will happen, and that becomes what the piece is about. I know it’s a luxury to have time and space to be able to look at the processes, but in [the usual mode of theatrical production] there is very little flexibility for mistakes to happen, for accidents to happen. I think that is when the excitement comes into theater.” 

For information on the MFA program as it emerges and for details on the formal launch in October 2013: www.chi.ac.uk/theatremaking


Independence movement



THEATER/DANCE The crowd outside the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library in Oakland was hopping. Fidgeting, really — imperceptibly at first, but soon enough bodies were bouncing and flailing, until the scrum of dancers packed shoulder-to-front-to-back on the sidewalk morphed their collective way through the front door.

June 22 marked one year’s worth of PPP, the monthly performance series instigated by Oakland-based dance collective SALTA. As much a scene as a performance platform, PPP has been building an ethic of serious, unbridled experimentation in a low-key setting where failure is as valid as success, and no one ever encounters a price tag, a door charge, or a gate keeper.

In terms of curation, PPP is equally promiscuous and shrewd, emphasizing a cross-generational perspective. “We try to reach out to people who have paved pathways for us,” says one SALTA member. “And we’ve been a little brazen about cold-emailing, cold-calling people who are in town, like Jeremy Wade.” Meanwhile, PPP has been building a unique audience for contemporary dance-performance and inspiring dialogue about the ethics of art-making in the Bay Area.

As an attribute of its headlong dive into experimentation and openness, PPP never sits still but moves restlessly and freely from one donated space to another. With each space come new networks as well as many PPP diehards. As its members explain, the anniversary installment marked the beginning of a summer hiatus for PPP, so that the collective can better focus on advancing other projects — all geared to creating space, in the widest sense, for dance in Oakland.

SALTA is very much the restive and searching reflection of its monthly series. What began as necessity — a space for dance — has been embraced as ethic. Not that the two were entirely strangers to begin with. As suggested by the conversation below with the members of SALTA (currently seven young women who preferred to speak as members of the collective rather than use their individual names), the realities of dance today imply, more than ever, a confrontation with the values of the dominant culture.

SFBG Which came first, PPP or SALTA, and what’s the relationship?

SALTA It’s funny, we were just talking about this earlier — it’s so confusing!

SALTA I guess we, as a collective, came first.

SALTA And we named that SALTA.

SALTA But the name SALTA didn’t come until after we had the name PPP.

SALTA We all came together in the idea of making space for dance. We were talking a lot about having an actual space and, in the meantime, [we said] let’s do a performance series. So that came second, and then it eclipsed a lot of what we’d been doing. We’re actually going to take a break over the summer and focus on some other stuff.

SALTA We want to have classes, [and start] a dance publication. We want to work on networking. We’ve had some out of town people, but just because the West Coast can be very isolating.

SFBG How did it all start?

SALTA We’re all based in Oakland, and we wanted to have a space for dance to happen here — there are not a lot of venues that are really open for experimental work. That was the big thing: we’re sick of going to San Francisco all the time, and we want to figure out what the community is in Oakland and see what we can build. Something that’s been really cool from the beginning is that a lot of non-dancers come to PPP, a lot of Oakland people who hear about it from different arenas.

SALTA As well as there not being institutions interested in the kind of work we were doing, we were also not interested in institutionalizing art, in the way that it’s done. Also, financially, making it a free event was really important to us as artists and the way we want to make art. Not having to play this whole [“who do you know”] game. It was modeled, or got a lot of guidance from Jmy [Leary] in LA, who started [dance organizers/activists] AUNTS in New York. That’s been a model that we’ve been in dialogue with.

SALTA She’s a mentor of ours, and a benefactor actually, through the Yellow House fund. We originally wanted to create a space here in Oakland similar to Pieter Pasd in LA, but the realities of being who we are as artists and where we are in our lives, as transient people, we thought we’d keep the space moving. We figured out that that worked over the past year.

SFBG I like this ethic of moving around, of asking for a free space each time. It seems a good social ethic to encourage, and it really pushes back against the spirit of the times.

SALTA It’s interesting who said no to the proposal, and who has been really willing to donate space and time — and their art.

SALTA I feel as we continue to exist and assert ourselves into spaces, it opens up more. We have to find a space, ask for a free space, because as dancers we don’t have the resources to be renting all the time. So where there’s this huge scene of First Friday or whatever — “art’s happening all the time in Oakland” — we’re not a part of that. It would be interesting at some point. Well, we WILL be a part of that. [Laughter.] But what does that mean? And how much more legit, in a certain sense, do we have to become? *

For a longer version of this interview, visit www.sfbg.com/pixel_vision; for more information on SALTA, visit www.saltadance.info.

What’s hot in Siberia



THEATER Emerald green rooftops and gold domes enliven the skyline of Omsk, a provincial city and former Soviet industrial hub of roughly one million people, located at the intersection of two Siberian rivers: the wide, island-populated Irtysh and the smaller, swifter Om. The latter gave its name to the town, which grew from a fort established at the meeting point of the rivers in 1716, back when this was the disputed frontier of the expanding Russian empire.

But now it’s the last week of May 2013. The fort is long gone. In its place stands the Lighthouse, a large white hotel-cum–shopping mall festively crowned with neon Cyrillic lettering. Rounded at one end and peaked with towers, it drolly resembles a cruise ship in port. The sun is still out at 10 p.m., and a gusty wind rolling off the plains churns the warm air pleasantly.

Sleepy though this town seems by comparison with St. Petersburg, Moscow, or even Yekaterinburg — the three other stops on a four-city tour I joined last month, in conjunction with a US-Russia theater dialogue developed by the Center for International Theatre Development — Omsk turns out to be not so remote in many ways. For one thing, it’s a hotbed of theatrical activity at the moment, with the biennial Young Theaters of Russia Festival in full swing. Nor is the Russian empire entirely a thing of the past, as tonight’s provocation by a troupe from the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia makes plain enough.

Damned be the Traitor of His Homeland! — a production of Ljubljana’s internationally renowned experimental company, Mladinsko Theatre — is a no-holds-barred attack on jingoism, xenophobia, and the false allegiances they promote, as well as on complacency in the face of recent history, government corruption, and social decay. Taking its title from the last verse of the former Yugoslav national anthem, it gleefully lobs profanity, insult, accusation, nudity, a flurry of gunshots, and lots of local dirt (dug up for the occasion) at its unsuspecting audience — who frequently find themselves unnaturally exposed and singled out under merciless house lights.

It begins quietly enough: its ten cast members onstage, reclining on the floor and clutching musical instruments, looking like a freshly slaughtered marching band — until the sound of breathing through a tuba begins a general stirring that quickly escalates into an instrumental movement titled, “Won’t Go Against My Brother.” Next, the cast introduces itself with ribald, pointed, self-effacing humor through their own imagined obituaries — each of which makes explicit reference to an imaginary production of “Hey, Slavs!” (in fact, the title of the Yugoslav anthem) directed by acclaimed Bosnian Croatian bad-boy director Oliver Frljic (in fact, the production’s own director).

Cycling through various loosely related scenes, all built from improvisations, Damned delivers its pleas and gibes with a potent combination of muscular staging, lively wit, intrepid honesty, and moments of wrenching beauty. It produced some walkouts the night we saw it — many more the night before, reportedly — but its themes were undeniably urgent and its manner both raw and sure. This was all before Edward Snowden went public with details of the NSA’s PRISM program or had arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong en route to some hoped-for political asylum abroad. But there was no denying the implications for any Americans in the audience as well.

Omsk has nine large municipally funded or federally funded theaters, leaving far behind most American cities of a comparable or even much larger size. And in short it, and the Festival, had much more to offer beyond this one highlight, even if not as explicitly provocative or political in nature. (Those curious to learn more should know that Chris White, artistic director of Mugwumpin and the other San Franciscan on the tour, has written a series of reports on HowlRound with many further details).

Highlights in Moscow included an exquisite production from leading director Dimitry Kymov (whose collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov, In Paris, came to Berkeley Rep last year). Based (like In Paris) on the work of famed Russian short story writer Ivan Bunin, Katya, Sonya, Polya, Galya, Vera, Olya, Tanya … is an original production crafting a series of oddball, sometimes grim love stories into a kind of high art twist on Grand Guignol.

Also utterly memorable was the best production of Hamlet I’d ever seen —staged in a ramshackle venue whose lobby was stuffed with a vaguely foul-smelling array of garage sale toys, Soviet kitsch, and other odds and ends, and whose stage was a small, low-ceilinged black box packed into the aisles with what appeared to be mainly teens. The theater and the production belong to famed Russian director and playwright Nikolay Kolyada. Somewhat infamous after his endorsement of Putin in the last elections (which points to one way in which Russian theater, offstage, can be nothing if not political), Kolyada delivers a decisive reading of Shakespeare’s play as a bald, barbaric parable of power — in an incredibly meticulous, distinct, and forceful style whose macabre wit brought to mind some weird admixture of Richard Foreman, Tim Burton, and Terry Gilliam. Whatever else it demonstrated, it showed the Bard’s play as utterly, repulsively, and compellingly contemporary — something too rarely accomplished in any language. *

Power plays



THEATER With its storied 35-year history of politically charged and transgressive theater, Theatre Rhinoceros might seem the perfect San Francisco outfit to take on the great English playwright Caryl Churchill’s 2006 political allegory Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? — wherein the “special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain is metaphorically transformed into a sadomasochistic affair between George Bush and Tony Blair. Or rather, their more expansive stand-ins Sam (Rudy Guerrero), described as “a country,” and Jack (Sam Cohen), described as “a man.” (Jack became “Guy” in the Public Theater’s US premiere, suggesting possibly an American everyman as opposed to a specifically British one).

The premise translates into an opportunity to excavate the seductions and corruptions of power, the homoerotic relationship resonating in complex ways with a larger patriarchal order where sex and death are right on the surface and inextricably linked. Unfortunately, despite the harmonizing at the outset of this 45-minute one-act — in a double rendition of American the Beautiful and God Save the Queen — the production directed by the Rhino’s John Fisher rarely seems in tune with the material.

The staging can be amusing even when obvious, as when Sam rams home his points with robust pelvic thrusts to his partner. But it is unnecessarily busy, with multiple entrances and exits and use of a changing photographic backdrop illustrating various settings, iconic images, and bellicose themes. Of course, all of this might have been OK if the tension, sexual and otherwise, were palpably communicated. But the tension is slack, despite the mildly explicit blocking.

Instead, the actors seem to have their hands full with the challenging dialogue — which, in addition to being tightly intermingled, is non-realistic and poetically compact, deploying the argot of geopolitics as if it were the stuff of intimate cooing and romantic tussling. Sam demands “total commitment” from his lover, for instance, but Jack is a family man divided in his loyalties, and moreover has moral qualms about some of Sam’s more outré behavior, despite the carnal lust it can also arouse. It’s a rare moment when Guerrero and Cohen convincingly connect this heightened dialogue with their rambunctious interactions.

The dialogue also makes use of a litany of high crimes committed by the US government, and its ally Britain, since the Second World War — a verbal onslaught that carries its own force by virtue of its magnitude and extent, rescuing from banality the individual crimes (from Vietnam to El Salvador to Guantanamo) made too familiar by repetition. But the power that derives from the juxtaposition of a romantic affair and this index of world-rocking brutality somehow gets lost when the production attempts to act out too much of the relationship. Ironically, the more it tries to show, the less we register the true political pornography on display.

A similar disconnect attends the second half of the evening: a staging of the 10-minute play Churchill wrote in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s devastating 2008 attack on Gaza, Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which the Rhino balances with New York playwright Deborah Margolin’s dramatic response to Churchill, Seven Palestinian Children: A Play for the Other.

As in the first play, Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children combines moral outrage with a keen formal logic, and is capable of subtleties that belie its compact and deceptively simple structure. In a series of short, regular phrases, a set of parental voices discuss what to tell a young female child about the world she has been born into. The short scenes begin in Nazi Germany and end in 2008, covering seven decades of Jewish Israeli experience. Its coruscating and certainly provocative evocations seamlessly progress from the Holocaust to the colonizing of Palestine and the repression, in turn, of its indigenous Arab population.

The staging is again probably busier than it needs to be, since the force of the rhythmic dialogue (given histrionic emphasis by Cohen and Kim Stephenson as a married couple) is somewhat dissipated when haltingly delivered across multiple scene changes and the insertion of visual and chronological cues on the screen at the back of the stage. But the short work has raised dialogue and debate internationally, and it’s long overdue for a production by a major Bay Area company. (The Rhino audience is invited to stay and discuss both plays afterward.)

Balance may be the objective in following this piece with Margolin’s Seven Palestinian Children, but there is something lopsided about it just the same. Part of the problem is that Margolin’s tit-for-tat response dulls the force of the impression left by the first play by co-opting its form and yet deploying it in a less muscular way. Indeed, Seven Palestinian Children (performed by Guerrero as a hotheaded Palestinian father and Stephenson as a more compassionate Palestinian mother) not only trades in the kinds of gendered stereotypes eschewed by Churchill’s piece but, in substituting a male child for the female one, raises an uncomfortable gender dynamic in the very representation of Israel vis-à-vis Palestine. That may be latent in the Churchill play to some extent, but in making it explicit the pairing of plays risks being more obfuscating than clarifying of the relevant issues.


Wed/12-Sat/15, 8pm; Sun/16, 3pm, $15-$30

Costume Shop

1117 Market, SF



Addressing the unspeakable



DANCE Liz Tenuto and Justin Morrison — two dancer-choreographers who’ve made up for their limited time in the Bay Area by being highly, polymorphously productive — share a bill at CounterPULSE this weekend. Tenuto will show a work for three dancers in two parts, the first of which premiered at ODC Theater last December under the title The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn (featuring the trio of Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow, Elizabeth McSurdy, and Rebecca Siegel). Morrison performs in the debut of his new solo work, entitled Weapon.

As performers and performance makers, Tenuto and Morrison are very distinct, but each brings to their work substantial rigor and experience as well as strong connections to local dance-performance work at large, including collaborations with many leading figures in the Bay Area scene. As a dancer, Tenuto has brought her distinctive blend of physical skill, manic humor, and sinuous sensuality to several productions by Laura Arrington Dance, and worked too with Anne Bluethenthal Dance and Scott Wells & Dancers, among others.

Morrison, a graceful and intelligent force on stage, has been a member of Hope Mohr Dance Company, and continues to work with Sara Shelton Mann as well. In fact, it was his first work with Mann (in 2009) that introduced him to San Francisco, which he adopted the following year following three years in Amsterdam as part of Katie Duck’s improvisation-driven Magpie Music Dance Company. (That relationship continues too: Duck was at Kunst-Stoff in April with Crimes and Casualties, performed with Alfredo Genovesi and Morrison, as part of Arts Building Consortium’s Visiting Artist Series Exchange program.)

Tenuto and Morrison share important points of contact in the local scene —for example, in their mutual appreciation for and conversations with contemporary drag, especially as it continues to evolve in the Bay Area’s rich mixture of nightlife performance and contemporary dance. They have both performed as part of Oakland-based SALTA collective’s monthly performance program, PPP (a bright area of experimentation and conversation that celebrates its one-year anniversary in June).

But probably more interesting still is what separates them. Between the new work on display from each artist, Pageantry — as the CounterPULSE program is titled — promises to offer an intriguing contrast, reflecting something of the breadth of styles and formal concerns that make the contemporary dance scene here both dynamic and complex.

This diversity has been an empowering force, notes Tenuto, who comes to dance from a strict ballet context initially and credits her Bay Area contemporary dance peers with a radical development of her outlook and work.

“[In coming to the Bay Area] I was taking in a whole new set of values, and that was very eye-opening for me. It really freed me from this dance past that I’d inherited. As a dancer, you’re trained to be very obedient,” she says. “All of these people stirred me up in a lot of different ways; opened up a whole realm of possibility for me, all these other states of mind that I didn’t normally access when I dance — darker states than I had every been comfortable dancing with before — and feeling the power of the poison, being comfortable expressing that and not feeling shame for it or being afraid of it. I think prior to meeting all these people I was afraid of that. Now I’m able to not only access it but also decide how much I let in, to control it, fine tune it, which is very exciting.”

In her new piece, Tenuto aims at expressing the emotionally and psychologically volatile between-ness that comes with a powerful disruption to one’s everyday equilibrium.

“Both pieces are really about the moments right before you go through a big change,” says Tenuto, “it’s a close reading of such moments. It’s very detailed, [and performed] in a very rich way, a very vibrant and dense way —but also a little bit artificialized and over the top, which is definitely something that I’ve inherited from being a performer in San Francisco and commingling with drag and commingling with theater.”

According to Tenuto, her work plays with the suggestion of narrative rather than a specific storyline (she notes that whereas part one operated tonally as a kind of hyper-drama, on a par with a Mexican soap opera, part two will be more of a mystery-noir). Morrison, by contrast, eschews narrative altogether, in terms that imply a reluctance to imbue dance with the limiting horizon such narrative tropes can form.

“There seems to be a proliferation of works that are, or seek to be, ‘about’ something,” notes Morrison. “Perhaps [that’s] a byproduct of the grant writing process.”

Morrison says he finds this problematic, since “it forces artists to contrive a narrative, often steeped in cliché.” More often than not, this means for Morrison familiar platitudes around identity and politics.

“Work,” he contends, “becomes overtly a narrative about self, about the performers, about the economy, for example; at times, [this means] ignoring the phenomenological, the abstract, or that which cannot otherwise be described, only experienced.”


Fri/7-Sun/9, 8pm, $15


1310 Mission, SF



The action of bodies in heat



THEATER Tom Stoppard is not a playwright who shies away from topics of unusual size. While other writers might confine themselves more narrowly with plumbing the emotional depths of their protagonists, Stoppard further concerns himself with the very workings of the universe they live in, and the machinery of history and the evolution of thought that informs their relationship to it.

In Arcadia, Stoppard inserts his articulate, intellectually-curious characters into long-winded conversations about Euclidian geometry, determinism, and the second law of thermodynamics, while still giving plenty of stage time to more emotionally-fraught preoccupations such as “carnal knowledge,” public reputation, and even romantic love. Set in both the Romantic age and the modern era, the two storylines are rife with parallel plot points: the philosophical implications of chaos theory; the abrupt self-exile of that most tempestuous of poets, Lord Byron; the struggles of two brilliant female characters to be taken seriously in their respective times; and even a quiet affection for tortoises.

Set primarily in the gracious drawing room of an English estate (designed for this production by Douglas W. Schmidt), the play is nevertheless far from static, spanning, as it does, 200 years of Western thought and several generations of the wonky Coverly clan, who inhabit their Derbyshire home with the carefree insouciance of the very wealthy. However, with the exception of the formidable Lady Croom (Julia Coffey), the expected mannerisms of a stifled upper-class don’t really manifest themselves in either her gifted daughter Thomasina (Rebekah Brockman), or in the modern-day coterie of Coverly siblings, who wander through their stately mansion in hoodies and jeans, speaking frankly of mathematics and sex as if the two passions were one and the same. Indeed, by the end of the play, it’s hard to believe otherwise, testament to Stoppard’s ability to thoroughly contextualize both.

It’s the character of Thomasina, as luminously portrayed by Brockman, who first captures our attention. Armed with precocious directness, the 13-year-old quickly reveals herself to be both sharp-witted and intellectually hungry, tackling Fermat’s Last Theorem, the meaning of “carnal embrace,” and the scientific implications of a bowl of rice pudding with equal intensity. Although her advanced aptitude eventually commands the respect of her otherwise professionally-frustrated tutor, Septimus Hodge (a handsomely rakish Jack Cutmore-Scott), she is constantly and casually dismissed by every other adult in her life — from her forceful mother, to the foppish Captain Brice (Nick Gabriel), to her unpleasant, Eton-educated brother Augustus (Titus Tompkins). Truly a product of her time, even Thomasina’s name is telling — the name given to a girl child whom everyone would have preferred to have been a boy, then left to her own devices until she reaches the age of matrimony.

Shifting to the next scene and the present day, we encounter Hannah Jarvis (a pitch-perfect Gretchen Egolf), a brittle yet erudite academic whose own intelligence has recently come under attack thanks to her controversial book about Lord Byron’s erstwhile lover, Caroline Lamb. As she seeks clues to the identity of the mysterious “Hermit of Sidley Park,” her pragmatic Classicist outlook locks horns with the strident Romanticism of a fellow academic, Bernard Nightingale (a fabulously fatuous Andy Murray) who has come to Sidley Park in search of Lord Byron. The combative chemistry between the two professional and philosophical rivals is one of the production’s great pleasures, and although it’s hard to not delight in Nightingale’s eventual comeuppance, the occasional points he scores in the name of “gut instinct” can be equally cheered.

This is Perloff’s second go-round helming Arcadia, the first occurring in 1995 at the then-Stage Door Theatre (now Ruby Skye). Despite some lags in energy, her measured direction matches the elegance of both the decor and the lofty ideation without sacrificing the sly wit that simmers beneath almost every dialogue. Though the pragmatic, modern-day scientist Valentine (Adam O’Byrne) points out that thanks to the principles of thermodynamics, everything in the universe will eventually wind up “at room temperature,” the emotional heat trapped in the most coolly academic characters nonetheless gradually seeps to the surface. The play’s final scene, a wordless waltz between two unlikely pairs, trembles right at the verge of combustion. 


Through June 9

Tue-Sat, 8pm (also Wed and Sat, 2pm); Sun, 2pm, $20-$95

Geary Theater

415 Geary, SF



Tour of duty



THEATER Audience members entering the drill court of the Mission Armory and climbing the bleachers to their seats do so amid the buzzing drone of Highland music and an eager swarm of searchlights, all of it punctuated by booming pre-show announcements over the PA. When silence falls at last, a solitary man in jeans and leather jacket emerges a bit sheepishly from a doorway at the far end of the stage. Appearing small and inconsequential against the stadium-like surroundings and the preceding pomp and circumstance, he stutters a few opening lines before returning to his element — the local pub in Scotland’s Fife. There he assumes wholly different proportions, as he and his friends relay their own perspectives on the spectacle of war.

In Black Watch, the touring revival of a site-specific 2006 production by the National Theatre of Scotland (currently being presented by American Conservatory Theater), writer Gregory Burke and director John Tiffany set out to present a spectacle grounded in real lives. To that end, they blend fictionalized scenes with the accounts of young Fife veterans who served in Iraq as part of Scotland’s famed 300-year-old Black Watch regiment.

Meanwhile, the show employs a hybrid theatrical form that draws equally on the conventions of the music hall, the docudrama, and physical theater. The stage is a wide and busy corridor running between two tall banks of seats, with scaffolding on either end where actors also play, video monitors flicker, and large video projections are sometimes cast.

This is the production’s fourth international tour, remarkably. But despite its continued popularity abroad, little in it seems especially surprising or penetrating. There’s a lot of brash dialogue (hyper-macho, casually chauvinistic, expletive-laden soldierly banter in slightly toned-down Scottish brogues); some muscular dance routines (with the martial drills the most interesting); a sometimes affecting, sometimes overbearing musical score; and a few flashy staging ideas (including an eerily unexpected entrance in the barroom).

But whether the play is offering gritty realism or stylized interpretation, the message is generally and familiarly on-the-nose: war seems glamorous to the young man back home, and hell to the soldier in the field; soldiers are sold out by politicians; and soldiers don’t fight for their country or some high ideal, but for less abstract ties and especially for their fellow soldiers. The lies, illegality, and massive unpopularity surrounding the Iraq War is also hardly new ground in itself — though one line rings with unintended irony in the Armory setting (where Kink.com has been in residence since 2007) when a Scottish officer (Stephen McCole) jokingly admits the war is being waged for “petrol and porn.”

The narrative toggles between the aforementioned pub — where Cammy (Stuart Martin) and his fellow vets somewhat grudgingly and aggressively divulge their experiences to a timid middle-class Writer (Robert Jack) — and a flashback to the daily drudgery and danger of Iraq in 2004, where the company’s assignment in support of devastating American military assault on Fallujah leads to the death of three Scottish soldiers in a suicide car bombing. There’s also a segue into a somewhat silly if historically relevant recruitment scene at the outset of World War I, which further convolutes a narrative already burdened with details about political machinations at home and distress over “amalgamation” (the British government’s ill-timed decision to dissolve the Black Watch and fold it into a single, cheaper Royal Scottish Regiment).

The play never represents Iraqi lives or perspectives, nor is there more than passing sympathy for them among the characters; this is instead a work focused squarely on the Scottish soldier’s experience and, most significantly, the molding of that experience by a state reliant on a voluntary military. In a world of limited and dispiriting options, the military opportunistically and very successfully offers young men a seeming basis for pride in themselves and in an inflated (or degraded) masculine ideal. Black Watch is itself successful in those rare moments where sentimental spectacle gives way to images that register the profound, uneasy, and complex implications of this fact.


Through June 16

Tue-Sat, 8pm (also Wed and Sat, 2pm); Sun, 2pm, $100

Drill Court, Armory Community Center

333 14th St, SF



Take it all off



THEATER In the downstairs den of her Noe Valley home, director Vidhu Singh and her cast are rehearsing some of the opening scenes in a madcap and punchy satirical revue making its US premiere at the Brava Theater this week. In the center of the room, to the driving beat of some irresistible Eastern pop, an MC (played by veteran improv actor-teacher Mick Laugs) introduces the diverse ensemble in the manner of a runway fashion show, as each character parades to the front of the stage to strike a pose in her or his burqa — because, female or male, just about everyone wears a burqa in this play.

Especially in this domestic setting, the whole project seems a good-natured and relaxed affair. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the charge that comes with the satirical appropriation of this politically fraught piece of clothing, or miss the serious intention behind every comical line and gesture. For all its campy humor, Burqavaganza is a defiant piece of political theater — and, it turns out, a critique of much more than an embattled piece of female attire.

Written by award-winning Pakistani playwright, journalist, and human rights activist Shahid Nadeem, Burqavaganza sends up authoritarianism and extremism at large, the burqa becoming a byword for various public masks and ideological certainties thrown around by both sides in the tangled “war on terror.” The word itself is woven obsessively into the dialogue like a ubiquitous fabric, its constant iteration — including in names and titles — making for a comical punctuation that sounds more and more absurd as time goes on. By the end, “burqa” becomes a nonsense word, burbling on the surface of an irrational state of affairs churned by deeper interests and forces that otherwise go unnamed.

First produced in Lahore by the Ajoka Theatre Company — co-founded by Nadeem and wife Madeeha Gauhar (the play’s original director) — Burqavaganza was quickly banned by the Pakistani government after complaints from women members of a fundamentalist political party. That has not stopped it being mounted in various provinces of the country, however. As for its US debut, director Singh thinks it has something to offer local audiences beyond just entertainment.

“It seems to me that people want to talk about issues, but they don’t have a way of addressing the debate about the burqa; and the play does that using humor and satire. That makes it very accessible. It humanizes the characters while highlighting the debate,” Singh says. “I think the divide between the West and Islam is so sharp. The play tries to address both sides of the divide. On the one hand, it offends conservative Muslims, who think basically you’re making fun of the burqa. On the other hand, it’s also a critique of the West and the US’s attitude toward Islam, and parodies the war on terror. So it sort of offends people on both sides — and it’s funny, so it works.”

Positioning itself somewhere between Islamist extremism and Western imperialism, Burqavaganza critiques both from the ground of human dignity and respect for human rights. Such principled critique is more widespread throughout Muslim-majority countries than many here in the West might suspect, according to human rights lawyer and author Karima Bennoune, whose new book, Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism (forthcoming from W.W. Norton), is a far-flung firsthand survey of artists, intellectuals, and activists across the Muslim world combatting Islamist extremism in the cultural realm. Among the artists she profiles are Nadeem and Guahar. (In fact, she adapts her title from a line in another Ajoka Theatre play, Bulha). Bennoune says Ajoka has proved more outspoken in their critique of Muslim fundamentalism “than many liberal circles or diaspora populations in the West dare to be.”

“What is perhaps most remarkable is that the Ajoka Theatre Company debuted this play, complete with its satire of burqa-obsessed extremists, in Pakistan in 2007, as political violence was on the rise — and only about a month after the nearby killing of the 36-year-old Punjab minister for social welfare, the women’s rights advocate Zil-e Huma Usman,” says Bennoune in a recent email correspondence. “Her murderer said she was not sufficiently covered in her shalwar kameez [a traditional South Asian dress]. As I write in my book, the real ‘Burqavaganza’ was right there, just outside the theater door.”

For all its humor and high spirits, Burqavaganza has the potential to provoke questions as well as debate among the Bay Area audiences who come to see it. But that, enthuses Bennoune, is all to the good.

“The importance of a production of this kind in the US now after the Boston bombings — when there is still such a limited space to offer a sharply critical yet non-discriminatory response to the terrible mentality that accompanies jihadism — cannot be overstated. After all, as Nadeem reminds us, ‘We all live in a Burqavaganza.'”


Through June 2

Opens Thu/16, 8pm; runs Thu-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 3pm, $20

Brava Theater Center

2781 24th St, SF



River phoenix



THEATER Many who have followed the remarkable career of Campo Santo, the longtime resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts, will recognize the real-life figure inspiring the character of “Luis Jaguar” in Campo Santo’s new production, The River, penned for the company by Richard Montoya of famed Chicano theater trio Culture Clash. Luis Saguar (who died too young in 2009) was a unique and mighty presence on Bay Area stages for years, not least in the many exceptional productions with the company he helped found (with Margo Hall, Sean San José, and Michael Torres) in 1996.

The River is finally about more than Saguar. Montoya’s play — the first to be produced under the umbrella of a four-play initiative of Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theatre’s Triangle Lab called Califas, exploring California stories — embraces the nameless, heterogeneous, polyglot lives that make up this roiling culture. (Next up in the Califas series, incidentally, is another Montoya play, the local premiere in late May of American Night: The Ballad of Juan José, out at Cal Shakes’ Orinda amphitheater.)

Nevertheless, Saguar is the spirit, “the heart,” animating The River‘s central story of memory and the concessions exacted on life’s course. It’s the tale of a Mexican laborer named Luis (a warm, stoic Brian Rivera) who has died on the American side of the desert border, leaving behind his adored wife, Esme (Anna Maria Luera). His burial site, and corpse, affects the lives of two trespassing E-addled Mission District hipsters — the arty, loquacious, and oh-so-arch queer couple of Javier (Lakin Valdez) and Lance (Christopher Ward White) — like an act of possession, causing them to question many things about themselves and their worldview. Meanwhile, a circle of disparate characters gradually gathers around the couple, further blurring lines of identity: a self-consciously ineffectual Indian named Crow (Michael Torres), a fastidious and grudgingly sympathetic park ranger (an amusingly nerdy Nora el Samahy), and two life-scarred bar flies at a nearby tavern (Donald E. Lacy Jr. and Randall Nakano).

Between them all, a cacophonous bout of patter, argot, revelry, ethnocentric posturing, and micro-political mapping ensues, interrupted by gently romantic, wistful moments between Luis and Esme — who meet on an epistolary and imaginary common ground that describes a river that is part metaphor, part myth, and part real-world physical divide.

Tanya Orellana’s appealing scenic design, with its alluvial pattern-work on the floor and vertical cascade of shale steps, adds a choice set of elements to the intimate performance space at the A.C.T. Costume Shop. Live accompaniment by guitarist Steve Boss (channeling Charlie Gurke’s score in Day of the Dead face paint) and subtle video projections by Joan Osato (cast on the floor and depicting running buffalo and other scenes) add further moody, ghostly dimension to the room.

Montoya’s rapid-fire cultural dog-pile has a flow of its own that, while erratic, contains some wonderful rapids and poignant coves. Still, the story’s mystery never quite manifests the wonder or suspense it should, and the tensions present in the text are imperfectly realized across uneven performances in the production directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José. As fans of Culture Clash might expect, the play’s often-barbed humor comes well grounded in local culture, including its array of niche and broad stereotypes, and these provide much of the fuel for the show’s limited fire.

There’s a tendency to take the loopy humor in the play’s looping narrative a little too broadly at times, but there’s both laughs and a kind of half-bitter, half-defiant recognition in the satirical zigzags, as when Lance (played with spoiled but knowing charm by White) announces his desire to have a baby “and prenatal Bikram yoga classes,” — much to the horror of his partner, unemployed Salvadoran Cal Arts grad Javier (played with a cutting, randy intensity by Valdez) — only to be gripped a moment later by a bad trip that throws all his assumptions into turmoil: “Everything I learned is wrong!” he freaks incredulously. “I got my PhD in hip-hop culture?”

If the production proves inconsistent in its navigation of The River’s demanding dialogue and snaking emotional shifts, however, the top of the second act briefly turns it all around with the introduction of Donald Lacy’s character, Brother Ballard. Lacy, a veteran of some leading Campo Santo’s productions, beautifully delivers a monologue of days-gone-by with an inspired precision and verve that recall precisely the muscular theatrical vitality, the street-wise insouciant wit and effortless cool of so many Campo Santo shows past. The confluence of present and past are never more acutely felt, and the impact is bracing. 


Through May 4

Thu-Sun, 8pm, $30

A.C.T. Costume Shop

1117 Market, SF



Good grief



THEATER “Oh, this stupid war. I don’t know who to blame anymore, do you?”

So asks aging American divorcée Mary-Ellen (Marcia Pizzo), in 1975 Southern California, of Vietnamese war refugee Bao (Jomar Tagatac), who has lost his entire family back home. It’s a fraught question that, maybe fittingly, receives no answer. But it’s made all the more complicated and troubling in the Magic Theatre production of Julie Marie Myatt’s 2009 comedy-drama, The Happy Ones.

That’s because Bao and Mary-Ellen’s precarious perches, at the edges of the so-called American Dream, do not get pride of place. The narrative center goes to Walter Wells (a sure Liam Craig), cheerful business owner and middle-class patriarch who suffers an irreparable loss after his adored wife and two children die in a head-on collision with a car — driven by Bao.

Of course, the causes of suffering, and the consequences of violence, are very different when comparing a road accident with a war of genocidal proportions. But in The Happy Ones the emphasis on grief as universal, the overweening urge to see everybody just get along, obscures reality, substituting easy humor and sentimentality for a serious look at either systemic violence or, for that matter, the nature of happiness. No wonder Mary-Ellen doesn’t know who to blame.

Helmed by California Shakespeare Theater’s Jonathan Moscone, the production stresses the play’s emotional comedy about sorrow, forgiveness, shared pain, and the power of friendship, offering able performances and well-shaped scenes that smoothly unfold a palatable nostalgia trip whose sentiments are rooted in a claim to a certain class-based suburban memory.

Erik Flatmo’s set is a shabby period living room in a white Orange County suburb, complete with a blown-up studio portrait-photo of the happy family hanging over the fireplace with its untouched Duraflame logs. Martinis, audible splashing from a backyard pool, Sundays at the Unitarian Church, hickeys, tuna casseroles with crumpled potato chips on top — it’s the Kodachrome image of the American 1970s as advertising agencies would have us remember it.

Myatt has worked the terrain of war, home front trauma, uneasy solidarity, and vague spiritualism before to more profound effect. Her earlier play, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter (produced locally by TheatreFIRST in 2011) dealt head-on with the Iraq War and the plight of its American veterans with its titular character, a black female soldier deeply traumatized by her experience on the front lines who finds some respite among a community of misfits on the desert-edge outside Los Angeles. It’s a perhaps looser but also more acute investigation that wrestles with class, gender, and race in a more vigorous way. The distance offered by the nostalgic period setting in The Happy Ones, by contrast, seems to have made it too easy to hold all of that at arm’s length.

“Things change,” the grief-stricken Walter propounds to his concerned friend Gary (Gabriel Marin), a hapless and commitment-phobic Unitarian minister now dating Mary-Ellen who seems to have been in love with pal Walter’s wife and life. Yes and no, the play suggests — somewhat unwittingly — as we’re left at the launch of a buddy movie instead of on the brink of the world we’ve in fact inherited.

Bao turns out to be the only one who can help Walter navigate his grief. As Gary and Mary-Ellen make awkward attempts to cheer up their friend, it’s Bao who actually helps — taking the place of Walter’s late wife as the person who cleans, cooks, buys groceries, keeps house. Having tried to kill himself just after the accident, Bao now literally begs to serve Walter, in terms that imply a kind of living erasure that has a very gendered dimension to it in the patriarchal culture of the ’70s.

“I’m invisible! I promise!” shouts Bao. “Please! I have to help you.”

“You can’t repay me for killing my family,” objects Walter. “It doesn’t work like that.” Reparations, of whatever kind, seem to be running in the wrong direction here. Would this relationship remain as conceivable as it supposedly is here if Bao were an Iraqi refugee in 2013? If the playwright means for the lines to appall us, as they should, the production seems indifferent to this subtext.

So Mary-Ellen’s rhetorical question about the responsibility for the war lingers between two relative outsiders who, with a combination of pity and desire, orbit around a central character whose social position is the normative one — with real-world power and privilege that neither Bao nor Mary-Ellen can match, and the one most directly associated by reason of class, gender, and race with the interests promulgating war abroad.

This should be the basis of a painful awakening in the audience, a scathing critique of the solipsism of power. But it ends up seeming more like the re-inscribing of the same order. The racism, imperialism, and sexism shaping the lives of Bao and Mary-Ellen are gently broached at best, trivialized at worst. Walter’s grief and personal transformation remain paramount. And if Bao and Mary-Ellen seem to have gained some hopeful ground by the end too, it is only because each has, desperately but also willingly, hitched his or her future to a white man. *


Through April 21, $22-$62

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason Center, Bldg. D, Third Flr., SF



Fallacis and fallacies



THEATER Speaking of oneself in the third person is a thing few figures outside of fiction can really pull off. Tarzan and Yoda, fine. Oriana Fallaci — well, in journalist-playwright Lawrence Wright’s new two-hander, Fallaci, you could be forgiven for thinking the title character is not that real either.

But she was. And in a way the cartoonish aspects of this clunky bio-play do some unintentional justice to the sillier and more reckless and reprehensible qualities of the influential Italian journalist and war correspondent known for her confrontational interviews with powerful men like Henry Kissinger and the Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as for her post-9/11 book-length screeds against Islam.

Berkeley Rep’s production, directed by Oskar Eustis of New York’s Public Theater, opens on a sixtysomething Oriana Fallaci (Broadway veteran Concetta Tomei donning Italianate gestures) at home in her book-cluttered New York brownstone as a young New York Times reporter comes calling. Maryam (a somewhat anemic Marjan Neshat), a fictional creation of the playwright’s, is an Iranian American journalist tasked with preparing the obituary on the famous Italian now battling cancer (such an assignment being a standard practice at the paper for subjects of hefty historical stature). We soon learn that Maryam, who has idolized the older woman since the latter famously threw off her chador during her interview with Iran’s Khomeini, “fought like a tiger” for the assignment.

She gets past Fallaci’s initial brush-off a bit too easily to be believed, but secures a 25-minute interview with her cagey and self-aggrandizing heroine. Early on, Fallaci lets drop several casual racist dismissals of Iranians, Mexicans, and others as she recounts the highlights from her storied career and slowly opens up (or seems to) about her personal life, especially her father and the child she lost. Maryam, who seems to have all of Fallaci’s published writings memorized, is quick to recognize inconsistencies, however, and to call her out on them. “This is a lesson for you, huh?” prods Fallaci. “Find the lie.”

Fallaci’s master class in the art of the interview is baldly spelled out a little further on: the interviewer is out to violently expose her subjects, insists Fallaci, to lay them bare, but ultimately as an “act of love.” This, indeed, is the dynamic set up, in both directions, between Fallaci and her protégé-antagonist who defends a moderate version of Islam against the older woman’s insistence that “moderate Islam does not exist,” and so on. Several years pass and Maryam returns to confront Fallaci again. By now Maryam is a best-selling author herself (she seems to have written a book reminiscent of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran). She has also become a more devout Muslim and, moreover, has returned from an Iranian prison where nothing less than the intervention of Fallaci seems to have saved her from execution. However, now it’s Fallaci’s turn to dig into Maryam’s father complex —producing in no time a revelation as crassly dramatic as it is impossible to take seriously in so heavy-handed a form.

As if the mishmash of citation, exposition, and motivation that makes up the dialogue were not wearying enough, each time the dramatic tables turn in this play they creak so loudly you want to hide under your seat. Equally strained and unconvincing are the roughly managed philosophic debate about the relation between truth and drama and the half-hearted infusion of operatic overtones — naturally, and far too predictably, Fallaci’s story lends itself to the comparison, and it asserts itself like an afterthought in a dry-ice moment at the end.

But more disconcerting than the clichéd premise and the poor staging (which includes uneven, often leaden performances) is the way the relationship at the center of the play has a way of sweeping fundamental issues, and serious charges, under the carpet in the name of a shared admiration and soul-bearing. Those interested in a more serious investigation of such subject matter would be better off at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where the current gallery exhibition, “Without Reality There Is No Utopia” (through June 9; www.ybca.org), provides a lively critical engagement with the vast false narratives of the age, including the role of media and journalism in the ideologically laden construction of historical truth.


Through April 21

Tue, Thu-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Wed and Sun, 7pm (also Sun, 2pm), $29-89

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2015 Addison, Berk.





THEATER An average of 22 veterans a day committed suicide in the United States in 2010, according to a report last year by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Chris Kyle, however, was not likely to be one of them. The former Navy SEAL and author of a best-selling memoir had returned from military deployment in Iraq with a bounding enthusiasm for succeeding in civilian life, not least by helping other veterans with war-related trauma. Last month, on a shooting range in North Texas, a fellow vet apparently suffering from PTSD shot and killed Kyle, by then renowned as the U.S. military’s all-time deadliest sniper.

Irony like this defies fiction. But then that’s something George F. Walker understands. When the acclaimed Canadian playwright levels his pen at his primary target — he cruelly exploitative class system we inhabit back here on the “civilized” and oblivious home front —the result is dark and powerful comedy. A case in point is Dead Metaphor, his new play about a well-intentioned former army sniper facing a dismal job market and family pressures back home who goes to work for a right-wing candidate of the Michele Bachmann stripe. The world premiere comes to the Bay Area courtesy of an admirable production by American Conservatory Theater under the astute direction of Irene Lewis. As very serious as it is very funny, Dead Metaphor rings like the report from a not-so-distant battlefield.

Five months back from military duty, and despite hearing nothing good about the government’s job placement services, Dean Trusk (a winningly cheerful, subtly shaded George Hampe) finally puts himself before the local job counselor (a dryly comical, increasingly disconcerted Anthony Fusco). After all, Dean has to consider his pregnant ex-wife (a smart, scrappy Rebekah Brockman) now that he’s defied expectations by coming back home alive and she’s accordingly re-marrying him. He also has an increasingly erratic and absent-minded father (a charmingly earthy, alarmingly volcanic Tom Bloom) coming unhinged by an as yet undiagnosed disease, and his brave but reeling mother (a heartbreakingly genuine Sharon Lockwood) who is faced with the prospect of having to soon place him in an expensive managed care facility.

The job counselor is unsettled by Dean’s ingenuous highlighting of his “high-level kills” on the battlefield as testament to his employable “efficiency” but, finally disarmed by the young man’s honorable sincerity, gets him a position as a coffee-fetching assistant to his politician-wife—a coldly calculating true believer of the now-mainstream Far Right (played with just the right mixture of acumen, conviction and parodic excess by an excellent René Augesen). The job exposes a rather blasé Dean to some campaign shenanigans his wife quickly deciphers as illicit, leading to a crisis for the couple as his moral compass swings first away from such dirty work and then back toward a desperate deal that might save his family from destitution.

Cast on a rotating set that moves an assortment of indoor and outdoor furnishing into and out of focus (against scenic designer Christopher Barreca’s semi-circular panorama of cloud-flecked sky), the story is a merry-go-round of insiders and outsiders, wheeling and dealing, war and peace, loyalty and opportunity, and truth and appearances. Act one in particular carries real force in the shrewd balance it strikes between razor-sharp comic dialogue and all-too-believable situations. This force attenuates somewhat in act two’s increasingly far-fetched details and strident humor. Nevertheless, the story remains anchored to a clear-sighted purpose, manifested in an unnerving and thought-provoking ending. Moreover, every scene along the way is engaging and often a sheer delight, propelled by fine acting, consistently hilarious and caustic dialogue, unexpected pangs of heartache, and a devilishly intriguing plot.

There seems to be a new raft of war-related dramas on stages lately (Word for Word’s You Know When the Men Are Gone being among the more recent, as ACT itself gets ready to bring in the internationally acclaimed Scottish production, Black Watch), but few use humor so powerfully to indict the hypocrisy and self-destruction of a society committed to permanent war. When tragedy repeats itself this long, suggests Dead Metaphor, it can only be played as farce.


Wed/20-Sat/23, 8pm (also Sat/23, 2pm); Sun/24, 2 and 7pm, $20-$95

Geary Theater

415 Geary, SF



Angels in Budapest



THEATER On two old VHS tapes in the collection of San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design you can watch the Eureka Theater’s 1991 world premiere of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a response to the AIDS epidemic and the reactionary politics of the Reagan era. It’s a low-fi document, with poor sound quality, but it’s completely riveting. Something more than the play’s words and images, as striking as they are, cling to that worn magnetic tape: there’s the electric excitement of a work of art cracking open its historical moment.

A similar frisson passed through the main auditorium of the National Theatre of Budapest last week, where I joined a group of international guests and a local audience for Romanian-born American director Andrei Serban’s production of Angels in America, starring as Prior Walter the National’s celebrated yet politically embattled artistic director, Robert Alföldi, an award-winning international director in his own right and one of the country’s most famous actors.

The production was the capstone of an impressive weeklong festival featuring some of the best work in contemporary Hungarian independent and state-sponsored repertory theater. Presented by the Hungarian Critics Association, in international partnership with Philip Arnoult’s Center for International Theatre Development and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, the Hungarian Showcase (March 2–9) encompassed a revelatory range of styles and talents. It also highlighted a theater actively responding to a rising tide of reactionary politics — reminiscent (especially in its overt anti-Semitism, homophobia, and anti-Roma racism) of the ultra-nationalism of the 1930s — even as the arts in general and theater in particular reel under the economic strain of the conservative government’s neoliberal agenda and attempted curbs on free expression.

The National’s production of Angels is just one instance of theater’s critical role in public dialogue in Hungary today, but in many ways it was the most poignant instance encountered. That’s in large part owed to Alföldi’s powerhouse performance in the lead — a muscular, charismatic performance, extremely witty and wrenching by turns — and simultaneously to his history as artistic director over the last five years. Since Alföldi’s government appointment in 2008, something extraordinary has been underway at the country’s premier stage. Previously, Budapest’s National Theatre had been better known for its kitschy postmodern edifice (opened in 2002 and made to resemble a rather gaudy ship aimed vaguely at the nearby Danube) than for the unexceptional productions on display inside. Under Alföldi’s brilliant and maverick leadership, the theater has come to be widely regarded as one of the best — if not the best — in the country, and attendance has grown dramatically, including among younger audiences.

Alföldi’s attempts to make the theater a place of inclusion and dialogue, meanwhile, as well as his lively and provocative interpretations of classic Hungarian nationalist texts like The Tragedy of Man and John the Valliant, have earned the disfavor of rightwing politicians — including members of the ultra nationalist Jobbik party, who were not above demonstrating noisily outside the theater to demand his ouster, and slandering Alföldi on the floor of the Parliament. Alföldi, popular and unprecedentedly successful in the post, has managed to stay on for his five-year term, but the government denied his application for a second term in favor of a well-known director with conservative political opinions.

In Serban’s considerably pared down version, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika together come in at just under four hours, separated by a short intermission. There are naturally some sacrifices entailed. The subplot involving Roy Cohn (played by the National’s brilliant János Kulka), for example, takes a big hit in terms of stage time. But whatever the faults of the production, the exuberant, ironical tone feels aptly knowing, as does the rotating stage set up like a cross between a dance floor and a merry-go-round.

In just one example of the production’s winking conversation with the audience, an announcement over the PA system at the outset of Part II reminds patrons in this former Soviet bloc country that the play is set in a far off land bearing little resemblance to anything close by — only to be followed by the familiar twang of an electric guitar as the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” creates a musical bridge to a speech by the Oldest Living Bolshevik. Like Prior’s heavenly counselors, the Bolshevik urges a halt to history. The significance of the theme is unlikely to be lost on an audience facing the atavistic return to authoritarian models of the past.

While this isn’t the first time a Hungarian theater has essayed Kushner’s play, enough has changed politically in Hungary in the last few years to make this production, in which Alföldi assumes the role of the play’s cross-dressing openly gay hero, an act of brazen defiance as well as solidarity with all “outsiders” in the right wing’s narrow compass of nationhood.

“The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come,” says Alföldi as Prior. “The great work begins.” In its own call for “more life,” the National’s production captures something of the original life of the play all over again — defining the nation and its theater as a place of empathy and inclusion, of harmony in difference.

Meanwhile, tickets for Angels in America, widely seen as Alföldi’s farewell bow, are completely sold out.


Sort of and last



THEATER In a deceptively low-key but major theatrical event, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last weekend presented the local debuts of both the Wooster Group and the New York City Players, in their collaborative take on three of Eugene O’Neill’s seafaring “Glencairn plays.”

It’s striking and not a little frustrating that San Francisco has never before been a port of call for either of these two world-famous and globetrotting experimental theater companies. Moreover, because this was a first-time collaboration between the two influential groups, Early Plays (as the O’Neill program is titled) was not really representative of either one of them. Rather, it was an intriguing, at times euphoric, at times baffling exploration fusing actors from both companies with relatively bare-bones Wooster design elements — all under the signature directorial style of NYC Players’ playwright-director, Richard Maxwell. Even so, it was a stimulating evening in which the attentive, open curiosity of the audience was palpable.

The triplet of early O’Neill one-acts — all written between 1913 and 1916 and featuring polyglot crew members of the British tramp steamer Glencairn —included, in order of presentation, The Moon of the Caribbees, Bound East for Cardiff, and The Long Voyage Home. In these short and atmospheric plays, O’Neill explores the hard, often brutal lives of sailors and other working-class people swept along by the winds of trade. But in paying attention to their distinct cadences, relationships, and dreams, the playwright also points to the lyrical nature of their lonely yet social lives, as well as flickering moments of transcendent experience amid coarse routines and unruly bursts of energy.

In this sense, they are not all that different from (and nearly as contemporary as) Maxwell’s own plays (like House, Burger King, Boxing 2000, or People Without History), which often delve into the mundane musicality of ordinary, inconsequential lives sideswiped by half-understood forces, churned by bumptious pretentions and bumpy social interactions, bewildered by quiet epiphanies. Indeed, Maxwell’s work comes shaded by his own original songs in which the banal takes unexpected flight.

But whatever their resonances, their plays remain a fat century apart in theatrical worldviews. O’Neill, learning from Europe and especially Stindberg, was inventing an American theatrical vocabulary still not entirely free of a certain melodramatic tradition. Maxwell and the New York City Players, on the other hand, represent a distinct and sustained attack on the stifling affects of the theatrical artifice that has accrued since then. And the Wooster Group has maintained a visionary re-imagining of the stage, its strengths and capacities, for nearly four decades (a project whose power and scope was clearly visible even on video in the three-weekend series of Wooster Group work screened at YBCA in the lead-up to the Early Plays premiere).

And so, what audiences encountered last weekend was a purposively monotone rendering of O’Neill’s rather overwrought dialogue, laden with a variety of archaic-sounding dialects that the actors dutifully articulated as written but, for the most part, without further embellishment or affectation. The action, meanwhile, unfolded with a deliberately subdued, knowing amateurishness on a Wooster-like set (designed by Jim Clayburgh and Wooster leader Elizabeth LeCompte) whose exposed gray-planed design featured a floating stage floor, supported by thin vertical cables, on which a skeletal framework of piping, bulging light bulbs, ropes, and pulleys combined in vaguely nautical abstraction.

Not that theatricality per se was absent: three of Maxwell’s workmanlike yet stirring ditties, for example, stitch together the O’Neill plays with simple, poignant, uninflected harmonies and rhythms as the actors smoothly reconfigure the stage. During Bound East for Cardiff, moreover, the stage was plunged into semi-darkness, sculpted by the warm glow of a few lantern lamps and the looming, slowly dissipating clouds blasted at intervals from a smoke machine, as main characters Yank and Driscoll (played respectively by NYC Players’ Brian Mendes and Wooster veteran Ari Fliakos) conferred at the former’s deathbed in a recessed, beautifully haunted corner of the stage. And in The Long Voyage Home, NYC Players stalwart Jim Fletcher (a riveting presence who is perhaps the quintessence of Maxwell’s forthright aesthetic, deflating and commanding at once) donned a too-tight barman’s vest and a toupee that looked like an animal roosting rump-forward on his head; while beside him Wooster’s luminous Kate Valk burst into and out of tears with a kind of blank perfection.

But it was precisely the melding of the clumsy and the graceful — and the volatile tension that arose between the purposely anti-theatrical and the inescapable pull of the plays themselves — that marked the production’s dissonant, quasi-Brechtian approach. In eschewing the usual cohesion, the production gave itself over to an admittedly not entirely successful but fascinating pursuit of what is much more rare: a sense of raw immediacy and authenticity, and a poetic capacity for unexpected instants of reflection. It’s an approach that wrestled with itself as much as the material or the audience, but it led to a refreshing sense of possibility and inquiry, and in it too there were moments when the lyrical and transcendent were given new life.

Missing person



THEATER A filthy, forlorn world emerges in surreal half-light at the outset of Magic Theater’s premiere of Se Llama Cristina, the new play by celebrated San Francisco–based playwright Octavio Solis. But almost as quickly, its initially intriguing outlines begin to look artificial, becoming the bloated lines of caricature more than a poetical evocation of real life, as the sentiment at the heart of this sometimes forceful but finally thin and frustrating play steadily takes over.

It’s odd and somehow appropriate that the two wayward characters at the center of the story — an at first nameless Woman (a vital Sarah Nina Hayon) and Man (a sympathetic but inconsistent Sean San José) — so aimless and rootless in their own lives, find themselves confined to the same dingy drug- and trash-strewn apartment (nicely realized by set designer Andrew Boyce and lighting designer Burke Brown), with initially no conception of where they are, who they are, or how they are related — let alone the meaning of the baby crib in the corner with a piece of fried chicken in it.

In this shabby environment, time and memory and biography all collapse and rise again as if within the ether of sleep or a heavy nod. Checkered histories and nervous dispositions slowly present themselves in a compact but oversaturated 80 minutes of dialogue that, at its best, pivots bracingly between horror and hilarity, with a rough lyricism that is a trademark of Solis’s border-town noir aesthetic. Soon a jilted villain named Abel (a very able Rod Gnapp) appears, incarnating the menace in the air. Also in the room is the possibility that the Man and Woman are about to be parents — or are already — which throws further fuel on the fire of their desperate coupling.

When, near the end, a young woman (Karina Gutiérrez) blows into this increasingly claustrophobic and wearying ménage, it’s like a breath of fresh air — and that is almost literally so, since she enters through the window. We could take her monologue as the voice of their daughter, the Cristina of the title, from some not too distant future. But whether or not we do, her impact is transformative in a way more or less synonymous with parenthood: presenting the couple with the possibility of a salvation at once of their own making and a gift from beyond — a kind of daughter ex machina.

If the details of the couple’s situation are better left subject to dream-logic than to a realistic accounting of probabilities and physical possibilities, it’s nevertheless true that the play suffers from an erratic need to fill in gaps. Among other things, that can lead to dialogue overburdened by exposition and back story (as in the Man’s graceless retelling of his self-exile from romantic attachments). Less would have been more. In director Loretta Greco’s staging, the awkward tension between the violence and despair of circumstance and an almost impatient rush toward love and hope is sometimes apparent in performances that can betray an uncertain balance between comedy, violence, and dread. In a scene where the Woman appears about to birth her daughter into the wicked, greedy mitts of Abel, the visceral, sexual, messy heat of the dialogue feels at odds with the somewhat guarded blocking of the actors. That said, there are moments in which a potent balance of elements reigns, as when Abel appears as the Telephone Man, threatening a total domination of the couple’s fate. It’s spooky, funny, surreal, and convincing at once.

In the end, however, the stakes never feel high or real, despite an almost too-insistent ladling on of gory detail, foul language, and teeth bearing. Like the impetuous verse scrawled on the back of Cristina’s sonogram image by her wannabe-writer father, Se Llama Cristina is ultimately a passionate poem to the deliverance that a child can offer her parents. But it’s scribbled too hastily and self-consciously in the hand of a playwright whose best instincts balk at the maudlin habit it encourages. *


Wed/13-Sat/16, 8pm (also Wed/13, 2:30pm); Sun/17, 2:30pm, $22-60

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason Center, SF



Festival of festivals



THEATER The chill air had no snow in it. Instead, a particularly nasty outbreak of influenza whipped through the city, leaving a fine coating of mucus on the ground. Still, New York City looked beautiful as the various performing arts festivals that cluster around the annual meeting of APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Presenters) all revved up for a fat two weeks of shows this January.

These festivals, pitched to out-of-town-presenters and general audiences alike, include Under the Radar (an international but New York– and American-heavy program at the Public Theater), PS122’s Coil festival (specializing in theater but including some contemporary dance and performance), American Realness (a concentrated dose of leading contemporary dance/performance on the Lower East Side), Other Forces (a program of new independent theater presented by Incubator Arts Project, itself originally a program of Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater), and the brand new Prototype festival (whose niche is new, chamber-sized opera-theater).

Under the Radar is the daddy of them all. Founded by longtime new-work maven Mark Russell (formerly of PS122) and now in its ninth year, Under the Radar has become more concentrated of late, partly in reaction to the other specialized festivals that have cropped up alongside it.

Festival director Russell described the trajectory in a recent phone conversation. “It’s a very interesting time, because by the ninth year you’re a fact on the landscape. People are beginning to take you for granted,” he said with a laugh. “Yes, there are a lot of other festivals now; it’s sort of become festival central in these two weeks in January, which is a little crazy, and I don’t recommend it. But it has created its own scene, in a way. I think that’s great. We started out trying to be big and trying to encircle a lot of the work that was going on downtown and around the world. Now, I’ve actually shrunk the festival to be more surgical and specific. Two years ago we were doing 21 things, and this year we’re doing 12, which feels more comfortable and better. We’re trying to go deeper in each of these performances and support them better, and let other people curate their way with the other festivals as well.”

UTR’s program this year included premieres by some leading American new-work companies, including Philadelphia-based Pig Iron (whose Chekhov Lizardbrain came to San Francisco as part of the 2011 FURY Factory Theater Festival). Pig Iron’s Zero Cost House is a simply but shrewdly staged, intriguingly unexpected collaboration with Japanese novelist-playwright Toshiki Okada (founder of theater company Chelfitsch). It unfolds an autobiographical dialogue between the younger and the present-day Okada over Thoreau’s Walden across a shifting set of actors and related characters (including a downbeat and down-at-the-heel Thoreau). Its po-faced humor belies an ultimately serious exploration of enduring ideas about our relation to society, political commitment, and art’s function amid the insanity of a status quo represented by the overwhelming indifference to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. This was a stimulating call to thought and imagination as nothing less than action toward survival.

Questions about art’s social role and power, as well as the lines joining the mundane to the great political and narrative arcs of the age, ran through much more work besides. One of the fresher, quietly unsettling surprises in this respect was Australian company Back to Back’s brilliantly staged Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a deceptively low-key exploration of power and marginality by a five-member ensemble that includes actors with varying mental and physical disabilities. On a largely bare stage repeatedly transformed by large transparent curtains into a gorgeous shadowbox landscape of mythological proportions, the riveting cast plays out its own inner turmoil along an extremely subtle line separating the ridiculous and the profound, meanwhile complicating our perception of what is in fact real.

In a highly anticipated offering, New York’s Nature Theater of Oklahoma premiered eight hours worth of its Soho Rep–produced opus Life and Times (Episodes 1-4) — more episodes are apparently forthcoming — which channels the verbatim childhood reminiscences (replete with uhs, ums, likes, whatevers, and oh-my-gods) of a middle-class American 30-something (company member Kristen Worrall) through an evolving set of choreographed, highly stylized, mostly-musical ensemble performances. Again, as directed by founders Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska, the banal is elevated to the level of the epic, but in a precious and ironic way that, for all its precision and the seriousness of its core idea, leaves one feeling mostly empty, bored, and frayed by the text’s endless assault of half-articulate and overly familiar riffs on family, friends, awkwardness, first kisses, religion, and so on. With the dialogue divvied up among an entire ensemble in coordinated outfits, vocal harmonies, and group dance steps, we’re being made to hear again what we hear all the time, which invites certain revelations, but they seemed precious little compensation for the tedium of it all.

Further downtown at American Realness, where founder Ben Pryor’s astute gathering of contemporary dance-performance is now in its fourth year, there was much greater and subtler impact to be had from a slim hour spent in a largely unadorned room with performance maker Jeanine Durning. She also set forth a barrage of speech, a continuous stream of consciousness that touched on many subjects and her own self-consciousness, but in that simple score came a powerful emotional encounter and myriad questions about language, communication, reason, madness, art, and subversion that left the audience slightly stunned and reeling in their chairs.

American Realness had its much-hyped disappointments as well, in particular Trajal Harrell’s Antigone Sr., a self-conscious and dull three-hour riff on fashion and voguing that is part of his seven-part opus, Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, which sets out to explore a dialogue between the post-modern dance movement of 1960s Greenwich Village and the voguing scene taking place uptown in the same era. A provocative enough project, but this piece had little to recommend in terms of ideas or movement.

There were more modestly-scaled but far more engaging works to be found at American Realness this year, including Miguel Gutierrez’s collaboration with Mind Over Mirrors (musician Jaime Fennelly), Storing the Winter, a supple, sinewy and raucous solo dance-for-keeps; and Faye Driscoll’s dynamic, ecstatically unhinged duet, You’re Me, which comes to SF’s CounterPULSE in March. While BodyCartography Project’s Super Nature (co-presented with the Coil festival) was a mixed success, it nevertheless made me want to see them again when they bring Symptom (also to CounterPULSE) in February. Another AR offering not to be missed is Frankfurt-based American and former Forsythe dancer Anthony Rizzi’s hilarious, ridiculously reasonable, and super-shrewd An Attempt to Fail at Groundbreaking Theater with Pina Arcade Smith, which plays locally at Kunst-Stoff Arts Feb. 7–9. *


London diary



THEATER Tom Cruise, clad in military drag, descended last week by RAF helicopter into Trafalgar Square in what is best described as forced entertainment but was in fact a time-wasting scene from his upcoming blockbuster All You Need Is Kill. Not quite simultaneously but with considerably more stealth, I advanced into South London’s Battersea area, in a completely uncoordinated foray, to see the latest from famed Sheffield-based pomo theater artists Forced Entertainment.

Battersea Arts Centre, a bright red and white 1893 former town hall, is midway through a restoration process called “playgrounding” (putting artists and audiences at the center of the architectural redesign), and its many arches, rococo balustrades, and mosaic tile floors thrive amid an attractive combination of new paint and weathered surfaces. The place is an enviable model for an arts organization: a warm and bustling hub of community activity that is also a serious arts incubator and presenter, boasting 72 performance-tested spaces and a live-in residency program geared to the truly experimental and exceptional.

A nice place for Forced Entertainment to land, enthused artistic director Tim Etchells in a short interview before the evening’s program. He said FE was in fact lucky to find itself there, space in London being at a premium. This is apparently true for even so internationally successful and storied a group as Forced Entertainment.

And speaking of stories, audiences would be up to their ears and eyes in them that night — or rather the loose ends of stories, volleys, and nose-dives from a meta-narrative barrage that manifested itself across a series of readings, performances, and neon. The sign aglow in the Café Bar, where I spoke with Etchells, said simply, “end of story.” Another one said, “Shouting Your Demands from the Rooftop Should Be Considered a Last Resort.”

(All the variously colored neon phrases spread throughout the foyer and adjoining bar were by Etchells, whose many projects outside FE include visual art and writing. The evening kicked off with a book launch of his Vacuum Days, a large hospital-green compendium of daily headlines and announcements — the result of a 2011 internet-based project in which Etchells riffed on the news of the moment in dada-esque fashion. Flipping through the pages was an instant reminder of two things: it had been a hell of a year, and headlines are always loaded.)

The centerpiece of the evening was The Coming Storm. Forced Entertainment’s latest piece (in an unbroken line of group-devised work going back to the company’s founding in 1984) begins unassumingly, with the six performers in their street clothes lined up onstage facing the audience. One of them holds a microphone, and begins by slowly articulating the necessary ingredients of a “good story.” Soon the other performers grow visibly dubious and restless, until one snatches the microphone away and weighs in with a whopper of a tale, never completed, because also interrupted by another greedy storyteller.

And so on through aggressive, sly, and puerile mic-swipings and gradual, unexpected permutations — as those without the microphone do any manner of things to create their own counter-narratives or merely sabotage the one dominating at the moment. It’s a confluence of fractured accounts arranged like a 20-car pile-up, or a game of keep away, or a gentle dance of despair, with occasional live score, random costume changes, and a cluster of branches embraced (and debunked) as a soothing shelter of forest.

The Coming Storm ends up an exercise in failure and resilience at once, since even if no one completes a tale, the audience rushes to fill the void —our minds trained to shape every squiggle into a recognizable human form, however personal or outlandish the starting point. In that rowdy mutual tangle comes quiet reflection from the interstices of language and history.

It left one in just the right frame of mind to receive the last performance of the night, Sight Is the Sense that Dying People Tend to Lose First, Etchells’ monologue for New York actor Jim Fletcher (lately of the title role in Elevator Repair Service’s acclaimed production, Gatz).

Sight proved no return to narrative but rather a concatenation of eccentric observations and pronouncements, undertaken by a nameless po-faced character standing center stage and meeting the audience’s gaze in a free-associative unburdening of “meaning,” desultory definitions that went along the lines of “Socks are gloves for the feet. Snow is cold. Water is the same thing as ice. In America things are bigger. America is a country. Korea is also a country.” Then, some time later, “Cats are afraid of dogs. Dogs like to chase cats. Some dogs like to bite the tire of a passing car.” Throughout this eccentric cataloguing and its naïve reverie, the audience again acts to complete the work wordlessly. Subtle suggestions come, vistas briefly open, demurring exceptions and musings flicker by, as the audience is tossed one wry bone after another, and a slow vague pathos accumulates.

GOLDIES 2012: Anna Ishida


GOLDIES One of the very first things you’ll notice about Anna Ishida, onstage and off, is an aura of self-possession that simultaneously grounds her and yet sets her ever-so-subtly apart in a crowd. But she also has a chameleon-like quality, a way of blending seamlessly into her surroundings, whether it’s a 49-seat black box theater on Natoma Street, or the hip buzz of Farley’s East in Oakland, where we meet over coffee and sandwiches.

It’s this very quality that helps make her such a compelling actor to watch onstage. No matter what the role, Ishida appears born to it, whether appearing as an allegorical peasant in an imaginary land (in The Forest War at Shotgun Players), a horny Russian aristocrat with a mic (in Beardo, also at Shotgun), or a frustrated former drag queen forced to languish in the glitter-dusted shadow of her employer-lover (in Boxcar Theatre’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch).

Professionally, Ishida appeared first in The Color of Justice at Oakland’s TheatreFIRST in 2002, following up with roles with a miscellany of companies such as Woman’s Will and the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, plus a long association with Shotgun Players. But this year, after a powerful performance as Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Impact Theatre’s Titus Andronicus, Ishida’s been working to make herself even better-known as a triple threat: vocalist, actor, and independent film star. Her turn as Yitzhak in Boxcar’s summer production of Hedwig framed her trademark spiky hairdo in black leather and heartbreak, and matched her versatile vocals and formidable stage presence to the dozen glam-rock divas cast in the title role.

Her current show, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project with Crowded Fire Theater, casts her as an actor exploring the sprawling epic of China’s Cultural Revolution via the creative process. Earlier this year, she spent a week basically locked up in a room for 16 hours a day for her cinematic debut in HP Mendoza’s unsettling art house ode to the horror film genre, I Am a Ghost. The film — about a literal lost soul trapped in an unending routine — premiered at the 2012 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and has been getting raves elsewhere on the festival circuit.

Ishida was born in Tokyo; her family moved to the East Bay when she was four, where she first attended a mostly all-black kindergarten followed by an almost all-white Catholic school, which naturally meant she fit into neither. Gravitating towards music at a young age, she narrowly escaped becoming a business major in college and instead attended the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Southern California, where she connected on a deeper level to acting, and has mostly stuck with it ever since.

“The grass is always greener,” she confesses with a smile. “If I’m acting, I want to be singing; if I sing, I want to do Shakespeare; if I do Shakespeare, I want to dance. I’m fortunate I can do all three.”

Onstage, no matter what the role, Ishida never lets her focus flag, and her signature watchfulness gives her characters a feral, almost predatory depth. Perhaps most interestingly, in a climate of casting controversies particularly affecting Asian actors (such as a recent production of The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse, where a Caucasian actor played the Emperor of China), Ishida has successfully avoided being categorized by her racial makeup. With the exceptions of The Forest War and The Hundred Flowers Project, she’s been seen in roles she has successfully rendered colorblind.

“I’ve demanded that people see me as an actor, rather than as ‘Asian’ — and if I didn’t work, then so be it, but I was not going to be pigeonholed,” she emphasizes.

Then she laughs, considering some of her recent roles: a Russian tsaritsa, Poseidon (in Shotgun’s The Salt Plays, Part Two: Of the Earth), and Tamora. “I may have escaped being typecast as Asian,” she allows, “but now I’m typecast as the angry queen. The angry god-queen!”

Intimate company



THEATER With the exception of an occasional Miss Julie, the plays of August Strindberg (and there are more than 60 of them) rarely find productions anymore. Yet the iconoclastic and prolific Swedish writer’s influence on modern drama — including such American playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee — is considered a given. This year marks 100 years since Strindberg’s death, and San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater has gone all out in satisfying a yen for a centennial embrace of this monumental (and definitely temperamental) artist who helped define the terms and concerns of modernism.

Capping a year of readings and discussions of the work and the man, Cutting Ball last week began an audacious program of five late “chamber plays,” to run in repertory through November 18. The project includes five new translations by Yale professor (and former American Conservatory Theater dramaturg) Paul Walsh, and the simultaneous publication of all five in a single volume by Exit Press.

Last week, The Ghost Sonata (1908) began stalking the stage of the Exit on Taylor as the opening gambit in Cutting Ball’s Strindberg Cycle. Its original premiere took place on a stage not too unlike this one, as artistic director Rob Melrose explains in a program note, being written (along with the other plays in the Cycle: Storm, Burned House, The Pelican, and The Black Glove) especially for the opening of Strindberg’s new Intimate Theater in Stockholm. This makes the chamber plays an especially apt choice for Cutting Ball’s stage. A pioneer of the chamber play form, Strindberg meant to foster an immersive experience for his audience with these deeply strange, poetical, dreamlike little plays he modeled on chamber music. The emphasis was thus on coziness, small casts in small houses, without the need for elaborate mise-en-scène. Moreover, a level of invention would dominate in these plays in which form would follow theme, rather than the other way around.

The Ghost Sonata is perhaps the best-known example among the playwright’s chamber works. It concerns a heroic and ambitious young poet named Arkenholz (Carl Holvick-Thomas) who, after saving some people from a burning building, finds himself seduced into the good graces of a fancy upper-class household of an aristo Colonel (Robert Parsons) by the machinations of a mysterious wheelchair-bound old man, Director Hummel (the formidable James Carpenter).

Hummel’s real motives become clearer as the play progresses through three short acts (the entire play runs only about 80 minutes without intermission). But the unfolding of all is like a dream, wherein Arkenholz confers unwittingly with the ghost of a Milkmaid (Ponder Goddard) that Hummel can’t see; pines for the beautiful girl (Caitlyn Louchard) in the fancy apartment building, confined to a sweet-smelling Hyacinth Room; and eventually finds his way into the social circle of the girl’s family, stunned old richies who are variously mad, morose, and generally not what they seem.

There’s an almost hilarious amount of exposition packed into the plot and its several reversals and revelations. But the chamber plays are works of a new era, and for a new era, and The Ghost Sonata — not unlike the naturalistic drama Ghosts by Strindberg’s hated contemporary and countryman Henrik Ibsen — seeks to cast a coruscating light on an older generation and its world, to expose and ridicule its corruption, bemoan its stultifying influence on the young, and generally bleed it out like a pus-filled old sore. As darkly shadowed as The Ghost Sonata is, its formal invention is full of air and light to remake the stage and the age.

That doesn’t mean it’s triumphal, or terribly optimistic. The uncertainties, ambiguities, and pitfalls of patrimony, a deep theme for Strindberg, snake through the surreal story like fissures in a crumbling wall. The Ghost Sonata has a quiet anguish running throughout — even in its touch of sardonic humor, as exemplified by the haughty butler, Bengtsson (played a little too broadly by David Sinaiko) — and it rages under all the delicate and sinister weirdness of its setting and action.

This trembling, contorted energy becomes incarnate, and altogether palpable, in Carpenter’s finely hewn and sensitive performance as Hummel, who even as a central demonic force is ultimately pathetic and even pitiable when his own reversal of fortune finally lands.

Carpenter is the best thing about this uneven if worthwhile production. If the play’s historical influence is one thing, its life on the stage is another, at least here. It does look very striking in the meticulous and persuasive design work of Michael Locher (set), York Kennedy (lighting), and Anna Oliver (costumes). The production also features a pervasive, ethereal score and soundscape by longtime Cutting Ball artistic associate Cliff Caruthers. The stage may be small, for instance, but Locher expertly creates a sense of a marble-cool expanse in which the play’s public street and inner chambers are seamlessly, miraculously evoked. A set of mobile dark-wood closets form a central edifice, first the outside wall of the apartment and then its inner parlor, with graceful economy. Oliver’s fine period costuming adds luxuriously to the dreamy world of the play, as does the vaguely macabre makeup on several characters.

Melrose, moreover, who helms each of the plays in the cycle, has assembled a strong cast, several of whom must carry the play with little or no dialogue and only minute gestures. But while individual performances show flashes of depth and charm, his actors rarely connect forcefully or convincingly. The ensemble may cohere further as the production continues in repertory. But it was plain enough on opening night that this vital element of so intimate and intense a play as this hovers somewhere just out of reach. *


“Strindberg Cycle: The Chamber Plays in Rep”

Through Nov. 18, $10-50 (festival pass, $75)

Exit on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF


Dog eat dog



THEATER Audiences arriving at Marin Theatre Company for director Timothy Douglas’ current, beautifully staged revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2001 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Topdog/Underdog, take in a shabby, dilapidated low-rent studio apartment with its meager and seedy furnishings. But looming overhead the whole time are the red-white-and-blue bunting of some half-forgotten political rally, depending from the flies amid three long strips sheared from the stars and stripes, hung equidistantly across the stage. These thin flags have tightened their belts, and look a bit dingy too, almost sepia-toned, and floating above the impoverished scene below somehow bring to mind that flag behind Ella Watson, the African American cleaning woman in Gordon Parks’ iconic Depression-era photograph, American Gothic, Washington, D.C.

If there’s thus a certain election-year ring to Mikiko Uesugi’s careful scenic design — present before the action even starts — it’s a sonorous and dissonant one, echoing back across a political past with a strange and disorienting nostalgia, a contaminated euphoria. What could be more appropriate?


At a time when mainstream political reality seems feverishly bizarre, almost surreal, Parks’ drama endures as a shrewd poetical remix of American history, an elucidating fever dream in a realistic mode: two African American brothers respectively named Lincoln (Bowman Wright) and Booth (Biko Eisen-Martin) by a runaway father who apparently found it funny, share a precarious perch and a tainted patrimony in a poor part of a nameless city — where they act out an overlapping series of fated roles. These mix race, class, sex, family, and money as equal facets of a brutally antisocial system — a racket, in fact, high above (but qualitatively the same as) the Three-card Monte scheme at center of the story.

But in the brothers’ tragic and absurd destinies, half-grasped at best by the protagonists themselves, the play plumbs a deeper understanding too, a historical current churning and moving below everything — and in that understanding opens a sense of possibility.

The apartment is younger brother Booth’s roost, but Linc, as he’s called, is bringing home the bacon (or Chinese food) in exchange for crashing on the La-Z-Boy. Linc has been kicked out by now ex-wife Cookie (an offstage character symbolizing perhaps a kind of standard “fortune” for a married man without economic prospects, something akin to the ambiguous forecast Linc gets with his Chinese takeout: “Your luck will change”). Booth’s offstage love interest is named, with even more symbolic resonance, Grace. Early on, it’s clear she’s pretty much unattainable.

Booth wants knowledge from his brother, more than anything else. Linc was once famous on the streets as a master of the Three-card Monte hustle — which itself has nothing to do with luck — but has given up the cards in the wake of a guilt-ridden incident. Eager brother Booth (played by Eisen-Martin with a nicely coiled energy, dangerous and comically hapless at once) is dying to become a hustler himself, but his efforts to learn the ropes meet with resistance from his jaded, wary older brother (whom Wright imbues with a perfect combination of wistful compassion and alpha-male contempt).

For his part, Linc’s guilty conscience finds a kind of half-bitter contentment in his current job: impersonating his namesake at a carnival sideshow, where he daydreams as sitting duck in white-face Honest Abe drag, before a ready line of customer-assassins. Indeed, Linc’s first appearance onstage comes in the Lincoln get-up, an eerily comic site that already loads the naturalistic performances with dreamy intensity.

If Parks’ drama (which premiered off-Broadway in the summer of 2001) preceded everything from 9/11, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, Katrina, the financial crisis, worldwide protest movements against global capitalism and empire, and the advent of the country’s first African American president, MTC’s apt revival shows it more than keeps pace with the times as a gritty and gripping allegory of endemic, convoluted civil wars.


Through Oct. 21, $36-$57

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller, Mill Valley



Pi in the sky, fig leaf optional



THEATER Aficionados of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, now in its 21st year, know that sorting out the clowns, puppets, relationships, rock operas, and foreskin on display or under consideration across 12 days and roughly 40 shows can be a real crapshoot. But that’s the deal — and at least part of the appeal — with a curator-free, lottery-based program in which anybody with an act and the luck of the draw can set up shop for an hour on one of the handful of stages in operation at the Exit Theatre complex and participating venues.

Invariably ranging widely across (to borrow a title from this year’s lineup) "the good, the bad, and the stupid," the whole usually proves greater than the sum of the parts, private or otherwise. There’s just no event quite like the Fringe. And a really good show can make up for a lot of boredom and horrified silence.

Take, for instance, that title just borrowed above: the Pi Clowns’ latest show may not be perfect in every respect, but you can’t help respecting their perfect portrayal of our general fallibility. The Bay Area–based six-clown physical comedy troupe wowed in 2008 at their Fringe debut (After-Party), and they wow again in The Good, the Bad, and the Stupid, with expert chops, serious smarts, and an undiminished instinct for the ridiculous. Highlights of said lowlights include a horse race on broomstick stallions, a feast of acrobatic juggling, and another delicious slo-mo melee. (Meanwhile, on the significantly darker end of the clown spectrum, there’s Naked Empire Bouffon Company, raucous devotees of the grotesque, whose You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play was not caught in time for review but remains on the must-see list.)

Moving right down the alphabet from clowns, one will find several Christian-themed plays among this year’s offerings. Granted, most of these involve an ironic or satirical approach — like San Francisco–based David Caggiano’s deft and witty solo play, Jurassic Ark, which I caught in an earlier version elsewhere and which concerns an evangelical preacher Hollywood-bound with an idea for a major motion picture selling Creationism to the heathen evolution-swilling masses.

Then there’s Bible-Not: Stories for Grown Ups, which sounds like it sports a subversive edge to its advertised retellings of popular Bible stories, from Adam and Eve to Noah and the Flood. In fact, the play, written by retired journalist and clergyman Charley Lerrigo, is a lifeless resuscitation of ye old adages in a flatfooted comedic-dramatic vein, wherein, for instance, God appears to Noah as a beautiful woman in a silk gown — but still carries out the genocidal flood because she loves people. The last of the proselytizing play’s four dreary episodes (bridged by overtly thoughtful narration from a "showgirl" played by Karen Biscopink) is the second coming of Christ (Tristan Cunningham) to a San Francisco pastor named Bob (Charlie Shoemaker), who is naturally converted from disbelief to rapturous wonder in the face of the ingenuous, miracle-wielding stranger. Overall decently acted by a dutiful cast, the preachy play nevertheless reaches only the choir at best.

In the realm of puppetry, The Collector, by San Diego’s Animal Cracker Conspiracy, begins promisingly, with delicately designed maquette sets featuring a humble debt collector overseen by a tyrannical monkey-manager, simultaneous video projections and animations on a screen above, and a dreamy, clinking, wistful musical soundscape. But the wordless plot is sometimes challenging to decipher, the pace sluggish, and the action repetitive enough that, by the end, you realize it’s just a nifty installation that thought it was a play.

Meanwhile, Legacy of the Tiger Mother, by Las Vegas–based Angela Chan and Michael Manley, manages to pack a very clear, funny, and compellingly heartfelt storyline about intergenerational tensions between a Chinese American mother and daughter succinctly into a very agreeable hour — with music and witty lyrics for good measure. Chan’s semi-autobiographical musical may have formulaic elements, but they’re executed with winning skill and verve by a smart team fronted by the fine duo of Satomi Hofmann and Lynn Craig, accompanied by Chan on a piano that segues slyly between erratic keyboard exercises, controlled classical recitals, and expressive Broadway-style outbursts. (Meanwhile, on the darker and definitely weirder end of the cabaret spectrum, there’s SF’s Dan Carbone and Andrew Goldfarb in The Wounded Stag & Other Cloven-Footed Tales of Enchantment, whose archness is so arch as to be uncomfortably sincere.)

915 Cayuga’s SF Fringe Fest Extravaganza is a more promising title than show, but the radio-style variety piece, recorded as a podcast before its "live" Fringe audience, has a low-key charm despite often clunky or corny writing thanks to a fairly personable and adroit cast.

Among the more misleading titles is Aerial Allusions — at least if, like me, you picture some serious acrobatic work happening on and/or over the stage at some point. True, there’s a little able and lithesome wriggling around a ladder near the outset, but this meandering and semi-inept duet by a Canadian couple is lopsided in talent and altogether rambling. It took only a few seconds for one gentleman at the back to clear a path through some empty chairs and burst out of the theater. My date followed him a few minutes later. *


Through Sun/16, most shows $10 or less

Exit Theatreplex

156 Eddy, SF


More than ink



THEATER In 2009, Paul S. Flores was at work on his new play, Placas: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, in consultation with Alex Sanchez, founder of Homies Unidos, when a call came from Denver that brought everything to a standstill.

Federal agents were then cracking down nationwide on Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13), the notorious Salvadoran gang that arose in 1980s Los Angeles among refugees of El Salvador’s US-fueled civil war and later spread in a loose network across North and Central America. Locally, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had launched Operation Devil Horns on the Mission District’s 20th Street contingent. In Denver, flummoxed MS members called Sanchez (a staunch, internationally-respected Salvadoran-born peace activist whose former MS affiliation made him a natural confidant to some) with news of the raids.

Flores, whose play concerns a Salvadoran family impacted by gang life in the Mission, had already interviewed over 60 active and non-active MS members in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and El Salvador. No easy feat, it required a strict adherence to gang protocol, respecting the conditions set by the subjects for their cooperation.

“I had to hide all my video,” remembers Flores. “I had to give it to the reporter [who was helping us] so he could hold it under First Amendment rights — because I didn’t want anybody coming to my house looking for evidence on any of these guys. It’s not like they were telling me who they killed or who they robbed, but these were active and non-active gang members. If you wanted to find out who was who, you could have looked at my videos.”

The crisis passed, and Flores went back to work. But the moment speaks to the international context and complexity of the subject he had set out to dramatize.

In fact, the project, which did not originate with the playwright, was always rooted in the concerns of the local Latino community (particularly its Salvadoran population) as well as larger socio-economic and political realities. The idea for a play about Mission gangs came from Ana Pérez — executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), an organization devoted to immigrant family rights and well-being in the Bay Area — soon after the 2008 Bologna family killings in San Francisco’s Excelsior District, which were linked to MS-13 members. Pérez brought the idea to Andrew Wood, executive director of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, who agreed to help produce it (with Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts coming in as third co-producer). Together they recruited Flores to write it.

Flores isn’t Salvadoran, he’s of Cuban and Mexican extraction, but as a longtime community and youth violence prevention activist as well as prominent Latino artist (a writer-poet well known for, among other things, his work as co-founder of Youth Speaks), he was clearly the most knowledgeable and expert person around. A Mission denizen since 1995, his work in juvenile hall and counseling centers already connected him to the marginalized and at-risk youth of the neighborhood. And his artistic work specifically bridged youth culture and political theater. Placas — a title referring to barrio slang for tattoos, graffiti tags, or a nickname — would be his sixth full-length theatrical production. Still, Flores admits he had no idea what he was getting into.

“I never thought I’d get in this deep, to being in El Salvador in a prison talking to MS members and getting their permission to interview them. That was very cool,” he says respectfully. “Then realizing what was at stake. Having to meet in secret with these guys, having to pay them to interview them — people’s lives were at stake.”

But his research proved remarkably fruitful, despite initial suspicion from people who thought he was probably a cop pretending to be a playwright. “They didn’t tell me about their crimes,” he explains, describing heart-to-heart conversations with young men eager to dispel characterizations of themselves as monsters or thugs. “They were going to tell me about what makes them hurt and what makes them feel love. And that’s what I was looking for.”



Placas opens this week at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre — a venue chosen partly for its location in neutral territory outside the Mission, where the rivalry between Sureños and Norteños (Southern and Northern gangs) makes staging the play impossible.

In a crucial coup for the production, its main character, Fausto, is played by Ric Salinas, the Salvadoran-born co-founder of Culture Clash, the now LA-based but Mission-bred Latino theater trio and political-satirical juggernaut. Fausto is a middle-aged former gang member back after deportation and years in prison who hopes to reunite with wife Claudia (Cristina Frias) and teenage son Edgar (Ricky Saenz), who is himself just becoming involved with gang life and resists his father’s belated call to familia. As a condition of his parole, Fausto is also getting his old gang tattoos removed (a literal and serious issue that the play subtly expands into a metaphor for identity and renewal).

Salinas says he signed onto the project enthusiastically after reading Flores’s heavily researched script.

“I remember telling him, ‘Wow, I don’t think anyone has ever done this.'”

In a play that draws sometimes verbatim on the real lives of the gang members and former gang members, and the concerns and dynamics of the larger Salvadoran community, Fausto comes particularly indebted to the experiences of Alex Sanchez and another unnamed source the playwright has by necessity kept secret.

Salinas himself, however, shares a particularly violent but formative identification with Fausto, whose opening monologue describes surviving a near fatal shooting — and seeing it as a call to devote himself to his son. In 1989, at the height of the crack epidemic, Salinas was nearly killed in a gang-related shooting, as he attempted to prevent a fight at Harrison and 25th Streets. It had an impact not only on him personally, but on his then-budding career as an artist.

“A 17-year-old kid shot me with a sawed-off shotgun. I survived it; it was a miracle. It gave me a second outlook on life, and it also gave Culture Clash a new outlook: whenever we did something onstage [from then on], it was about something. We weren’t going to just be doing comedy for comedy’s sake.”

Salinas, whose gentle influence on the project has been another important source of the script’s vitality and verisimilitude, is confident the play will not only be involving but will begin conversations long overdue.

“If it starts with the gang, then it will continue with, ‘Ok, who are these people? Who are Salvadorans? What’s a pupusa?'” The actor then recalls with a laugh the song his mother thought should also be represented, a staple of every Salvadoran home.

“It’s ‘La Bala’ by Los Hermanos Flores. So it’s going to be in the play now. This is me educating Paul, and my mom reminding me. It’s really going to be rich in some authentic stuff that’s never seen, you know? But the thing is, it’s going to open up dialogue.”


Through Sept. 16

Opens Thu/6, 8pm; runs Thu-Sat, 8pm and Sun, 3pm, $13-$35

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

450 Post, SF


Howdy, strangers



FALL ARTS Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse were obsessed with Americana long before the two Bristol-based performance makers (known collectively as Action Hero) ever set their cowboy boots in the United States. In fact, they’d performed their site-specific first piece, a barroom exploration of the Western (called simply A Western) for years before lobbing it into the belly of the beast, where it appeared as part of Austin, Texas’ Fusebox Festival in 2010.

“We were shitting it,” remembers Paintin, in a British phrase meaning mighty fretful. But the crowd loved it; Paintin calls it their best audience ever. She and Stenhouse have worked together since 2005 on pieces that engage the audience as co-conspirators as well as subjects in their own right. A good example is their piece, Watch Me Fall, which had the audience cheering on a series of ridiculous, slightly risky stunts from either side of a long runway, a work that Paintin explains was inspired by the duo’s interest in motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel.


A diminutive woman with bright blond bangs, Paintin spoke last week at a sidewalk table outside BrainWash Café, fresh from a rehearsal at CounterPULSE, where she and James were in the fifth day of leading a collaborative performance workshop with a selected group of Bay Area–based American artists (Laura Arrington, Andrea Hart, Xandra Ibarra, Richie Israel, Elizabeth McSurdy, Mica Sigourney, and Ernesto Sopprani).

Stenhouse was not able to join the conversation — rehearsal had run long and he was following its willy-nilly course to a local karaoke bar, where he and the rest of the group were planning to take turns singing Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.” A couple of days earlier, the group had gone tailgating at a pre-season NFL game in Oakland. Such are the trails, happy or otherwise, down which the adventurer in Americana must travel. (You can follow some of the research results thus far — in a process McSurdy calls “aesthetically polyamorous” — in the group’s blog posts at www.counterpulse.org.)

The workshop sets out to investigate American cultural mythologies using the concept of the stranger or outsider as starting point. Hosted by CounterPULSE with leadership from program director Julie Phelps, the program is part of a major cultural exchange project by CounterPULSE’s collaborator on Stranger in a Strange land, the arts-based University of Chichester in the South of England.

“All the work of the Department of Performing Arts is about making radical new work, and we have a reputation for working with exciting and challenging artists, hence our connection to Action Hero,” explained Ben Francombe, head of the department, by email. “The University of Chichester has instigated this overall project as a way to explore different interdisciplinary working methods,” he continues, “which involve the idea of exchange.” Francombe adds that the University is keen to continue having a presence in the Bay Area.

“It’s been really fun actually,” enthuses Paintin, clearly pleased with how experienced and open-minded her American counterparts have proven with collaboration. “We’re trying to just be about the process.”


Mon/27, 8 p.m., $10-$20


1310 Mission, SF




The fall theater season includes several worthy returns (in addition to shiny new premieres) worth keeping in déjà view:

Chinglish The new comedy about East-West miscommunication from David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) has already been to Hong Kong but rebounds to the West Coast courtesy of Berkeley Rep. Aug. 24–Oct. 7; www.berkeleyrep.org

San Francisco Fringe Festival It’s a phoenix, really, rising each September like a sassy, gangling, 41–headed bird of play. Sept. 5–16; www.sffringe.org

Invasion! Crowded Fire delivers its own politically pointed comedy of miscommunication and cultural misconceptions in its West Coast premiere of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s 2011 Obie-winner. Sept. 6–29; crowdedfire.dreamhosters.com

Geezer and The Real Americans The Hoyle boys — veteran clown and physical actor Geoff Hoyle and bounding son Dan, a theater sensation in his own right — return to the Marsh for re-runs of their respective, wildly popular solo shows. The Real Americans: Sept. 7–29; Geezer: Oct. 6–Nov. 18; www.themarsh.org

The Normal Heart Larry Kramer’s 1985 play returns (in the new Broadway revival directed by George C. Wolfe) at a time when the history of the AIDS crisis has become endangered by a vague “normalizing” narrative of American progress, or what Sara Schulman aptly calls “the gentrification of the mind.” Here’s an opportunity to remember lots of things, not least those who died and fought, a great play, a vital movement, a continuing health emergency, and the importance of mass resistance. Sept. 13–Oct. 7, www.act-sf.org

Roughin’ It 2: Theater. Oysters. Campfire. Booze. Again. Fresh from sold-out success with Duck Lake, PianoFight heads back up to Point Reyes for a second season of woozy waddling, shucking and jiving along the shore of Tamales Bay, featuring everything in the subtitle including brand new short plays harvested from a bed of delicious local playwrights. Sept. 15 and 22; www.pianofight.com

Assassins Shotgun Players mount the Sondheim musical about presidential recalls made and attempted from John Wilkes Booth onward, an election-year favorite directed by Susannah Martin. Sept. 26–Oct. 28; www.shotgunplayers.org

Rhinoceros Paris-based Theatre de la Ville’s production of the Ionesco play — a modernist classic on individual resistance to tyrannical conformity — is a remounting of the company’s acclaimed 2004 production, making its first US tour. Sept. 27–28, www.calperformances.org

Acid Test: The Many Incarnations of Ram Dass “Be Here Now” all over again in Lynne Kaufman’s new play — not so much a theatrical return as a serious flashback — starring the exceptional Warren David Keith as the titular giant of 1960s counterculture, a Harvard prof turned LSD advocate and spiritual teacher. Oct. 4–Nov. 24, www.themarsh.org  

Einstein on the Beach Composer Philip Glass and director Robert Wilson reinvented the opera in 1976 as an enthrallingly weird-ass piece of avant-garde spectacle and the world has not been the same since. This remounting —overseen by the original team of Glass, Wilson, and choreographer Lucinda Childs — marks the first performances of the five-hour formalist extravaganza in 20 years. The international tour takes its highly anticipated Bay Area bow courtesy of co-commissioner Cal Performances. Oct. 26–28, www.calperformances.org

Celebrity rehab



THEATER Opening night of Project: Lohan arrived on the wobbly heels of its subject’s latest headline humiliation: another car accident for 26-year-old actress, singer, model, and tabloid treasure Lindsay Lohan. While a less serious one than the month before, the crash still served as a fitting epilogue to the cross-dressing mocudrama created by playwright-actor D’Arcy Drollinger (wielder of 2010’s riotous Scalpel!), a satirical but hardly uncompassionate trek into celebrity oblivion now making its West Coast premiere at the Costume Shop, American Conservatory Theater’s new performance venue on Market Street.

Actually, though it reads like one, Project: Lohan isn’t really mocking at all, since all of its crass and buffoonish dialogue comes directly from sources in the public record — trial transcripts, 911 calls, chat shows, magazine copy. Lohan is a pretty straightforward exercise in “Laramie”-style documentary theater executed in less-than-straight camp mode. The approach ends up being more than mere parody, offering some critical distance on both the docudrama genre itself and the media-born regime of beauty and success that sacrifices pampered lives like Lohan’s to the general distraction and degradation of the public imagination.

Not to put too fine a point on it. Under assured direction by Tracy Ward, the whole thing plays as high-octane comedy. A panoply of personalities crisscross the stage, if only for a hot second, including the likes of Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Britney Spears, and James Franco (in Franco’s case a headshot on a Popsicle stick serves nicely); and the piranha-like Lohan peer group of Paris Hilton, Scarlett Johansson, Hilary Duff, et al. With a sharp and vivacious Drollinger in the role of Lohan, flanked by a quick-change cast of cross-dressing comedic talents (Liz Anderson, Allegra Rose Edwards, Michael Patrick Gaffney, Cindy Goldfield, and Sara Moore), it’s a 90-minute feast of campy impersonations and shrewd comic timing.

But in sending up the freak show that is celebrity culture, Project: Lohan‘s despoiled subject unexpectedly gains back some of her humanity. Meanwhile, the focus shifts gradually from Lohan to our complicity with the celebrity mill as ready voyeurs-consumers of its pathetic winners and vaunted losers. At the nadir of scandal but the height of publicity, Lohan repeatedly moans about alternately safeguarding or recharging her “career.” But by now it’s clear that the debauched sideshow of her “personal life” really is her career already.

Even in Kent Taylor’s expertly doctored photographs — which replace Lohan with Drollinger (in Lohan drag) on tabloid pages, magazine covers, movie posters, and the like (all projected on a screen at the back of the stage)—the barrage of glitz suggests the sharp arc of a talented girl’s mean ride on the celebrity roller coaster. And Richard Neveu’s final video montage adds a mesmerizing and chilling coda to the whole romp, as we watch a smiling child model morph jarringly into a burnt-out “star.”

But the easy pickings of the public record are as much a problem as a boon to the script itself, at least at first. If the play owes its narrative shape to a balanced diet of National Enquirer, theater of the ridiculous, and the self-congratulatory documentary theater of the Tectonic variety (whose style has ripened into parody before, as in 2009’s Zombie Town), it’s the strict adherence to a chronological docudrama approach that girdles it in a relentless rhythm that, punctuated by datelines and pull-quotes, quickly becomes monotonous — and undercuts somewhat the natural hilarity in the rowdy stage show.

Nevertheless, there’s a thematic consistency to the repetition that slowly emerges as the real point of Project: Lohan‘s satirical spree: Even as the chameleon cast, in perennial transformation, riffles through half-concealed wardrobe racks, the increasingly lost starlet they’re tracking engages in an almost pathological obsession with changing her hair color and reprising her worst exploits.

We’re left wondering just whose “project” Lohan really is: her manager-mother’s? The media’s? The complex-inducing mass entertainment complex? Documentary theater’s? Could she ever be her own project in such a whirlpool of bad taste?

Maybe in the middle of all the babble, she actually says it all herself.

“And for everyone who thinks I’m crazy? I’m not,” announces Lohan to a world of greedy cameras and microphones. “I’m just trying to act.”


Through Aug. 19

Thu-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 7pm, $25

Costume Shop

1117 Market, SF