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The economies of desire


THEATER Since 2010, This Is What I Want has hitched its program to the National Queer Arts Festival to explore the artistic and social ground between intimacy and performance. Privileging the immediate, even confused elaborations of desire over the canny or slickly theorized, TIWIW (produced by THEOFFCENTER in association with SOMArts, the Center for Sex and Culture, and the Queer Cultural Center) challenges adept, professional performance makers to risk forgoing the usual control or cohesion in the hope of finding new avenues for creation and participation.

TIWIW’s free-ranging curatorial approach, which includes artists operating outside queer or identity-based practices, gets a further boost this year with the inclusion of several Los Angeles–based artists and a symposium at the Center for Sex and Culture moderated by Carol Queen.

San Francisco–based performance artist and choreographer Tessa Wills took over as artistic director this year at the invitation of TIWIW’s founder, choreographer Jesse Hewit. Wills’s own piece caps the five-day program with a “participatory experience” at the Center for Sex and Culture, and in general she brings a particular stamp to this year’s festival, even as TIWIW stretches out within and beyond the Bay Area via a curatorial team that includes Hewit, Rachael Dichter, and Los Angeles–based artists Anna Martine Whitehead and Doran George.

Wills, a thirtysomething whose relaxed mien belies a probing stare, is an internationally produced performance maker who grew up studying music, ballet, and contemporary dance in England before relocating to the Bay Area. She’s one of those artists always worth going out of your way for. In fact, she was behind one of the more memorable contributions to last year’s TIWIW program (more on that below). Wearing a sleeveless T-shirt that nonchalantly compliments the shorn sides of her sandy brown bob, Wills sat down at a Mission café last week to discuss her directorial vision for TIWIW and the economies of desire.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Can you describe briefly the curatorial process this year?

Tessa Wills We asked people to apply, either people whose work we like or with a specific piece in mind, like Sara Kraft’s — Rachael [Dichter] knew exactly what the piece was. [Multimedia artist Sara Kraft’s The Truth employs a pair of dueling narratives in what the artist describes as a desperate search for objectivity, “fueled by the deeply subjective madness of desire, loss and the chaos of experience.” It premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in 2007.]

I had the curatorial statement underway, and the other curators added to it, enriched it or changed parts, and we invited people from there. About half of them are new commissions from people we are just excited by, like Dia [Dear] and Mica [Sigourney], and half of them are pieces that already exist. There are loads of people coming up from LA this time because two of the curators are down there.

SFBG One of those is British artist Doran George. How did he become involved?

TW I followed his work in England but never met him. Then he came to San Francisco, and we made very fast, intense connections around work and politics, and also a friendship. So we were looking for a way to work with each other.

When Jesse asked me to direct TIWIW and invite in curators, it seemed like that was really where Doran was at. A lot of his work is about somatics as it relates to gender. Because he was [in Los Angeles], it seemed sensible to think about other people that could support him and his choices down there. Anna Martine [Whitehead] is also down there working, and obviously she has this strong history with the festival, and her voice is clear, rich and powerful.

SFBG Can you explain the emphasis on desire and economy in your work and in your directorial approach overall?

TW Broadly, people in this festival [in the last two years] have looked at desire through the lens of sexuality — but they also have not. My artistic direction has put it very specifically; I really wanted to bring in that question of how money and desire weave together, and where the places of empowerment and disempowerment are around that. I’ve brought sex work to the fore in that. Doran also is interested in that. But we were very careful in the curating to broaden that out a lot. The pieces are not all about sex; but the pieces are all about desire. So there is breadth, but also that very specific thing that I’ve brought in.

In my piece, at Center for Sex and Culture on Saturday, there are nine people who are “charging,” they’re doing one-on-one performances with audiences. Basically, they’re facilitating you talking about your desire. But it’s not like straight sex work. It’s not like they’re going to meet your desire. They’re going to interrogate it with you and charge it up.

SFBG So “charge up” has a double entendre.

TW It’s got a double entendre, exactly. All of the chargers are sex workers. I identify as a sex-worker ally, and I identify in the space between performance and sex work. Those are my two communities. So this theme, the value of desire, somehow has those two together.

SFBG Where do you see subversive or radical points of departure in the intersections of desire and economy? 

TW People will take money and then use it for their subversive practices. So there’s that. Then there’s the fact that everybody is working for free to put this festival on. I think that adds a really interesting perspective to the conversation about how desire and money relate. Because the thing that’s really driven this festival is this passionate desire to put it on for its own sake. It defies any economic logic that any of us are working this hard. I mean, it’s ridiculous. I feel stupid how hard I’m working on this.

SFBG That’s the position of a lot of art-making in this society. But then, ridiculousness is a tried-and-true strategy of subversion too. I’m reminded of the argument in Judith Halberstam’s book, The Queer Art of Failure, where a willingness to “fail” — in the terms set by the dominant social and economic order — may offer a way out from under that order, and suggest alternatives beyond its reach or ken.

TW There are all these other economies that come to light when you look at that disconnect or failure [vis-à-vis the dominant economic model]—then it’s like, ok, that’s obviously not working, so what else can be motivating? There are just so many diverse economies at work. Like DavEnds piece, for example. She was really motivated by wanting to have close, intimate exchanges and make more friends. The people she’s brought into her piece, she’s very clear about it, are people that she wants to be friends with.

SFBG There’s a social impulse mixed in there. I also like the idea that desire could be tied to giving away or losing, as opposed to taking, receiving, gaining or possessing. Does that resonate with some of the pieces this year? 

TW Yes, I think that’s right. Mica Sigourney’s piece is one that I was very keen to curate. He’s the only one who’s been in all the iterations of the festival, and I think each time he’s done [TIWIW], it’s gotten a little closer to actually managing to stage desire, in motion, on the stage. His piece is kind of a secret, but there’s a way in which he is working directly with money. He’s trying to figure out his erotic value in the moment, with the audience. There’s a way in which his work always gets right to the heart of the theme for me.

SFBG Back to your piece: Does it build on previous work?

TW Yes. Last year, when I was at the festival, I did this piece with electric butt plugs. [Note: In this piece, Wills and co-performer Harold Burns were naked inside (what looked like) giant pink bath scrunchies (designed by Honey McMoney), wearing electric butt-plugs attached to a microphone set low before a pillow at the front of the stage. Individual audience members could come kneel and whisper their fantasies, their words registering solely in the physical responses and expressions of the performers.]

When they asked me to be in the festival, I identified that what I’m really excited about is the process of saying what you want, the somatic experience of saying what you want — especially if it feels transgressive inside of you. I don’t really care what the content of the thing is. And I don’t care whether society thinks it’s ok or not. I’m not really interested in any of that. I’m just interested in the physical, somatic experience of saying what you want. That seems like the most valuable thing for me.

So what I did in the butt-plug piece was to get the audience to come up and say things, to say what they wanted, and they couldn’t really be heard, and then we would just get the sensation — we would get the quality of how they were talking but we wouldn’t get the content. And we’d experience that in a very intimate, deep way. That’s what I wanted to try and develop a bit further this year. So after this week of people watching other people struggle and interrogate and stage their desire, [in this piece] they get to have all of that research land in their own body. They have their own process of saying what they desire, and they have their own somatic experience.

SFBG So it’s very individual and private, there’s no larger audience, there’s no documentation of the whole thing.

TW Exactly. It’s kind of rough for me as an artist, because I’ve put so much work into it, and it’s a very generous piece in terms of the amount — like we talked about the economic worth and the amount of one-on-one time with the audience. So it’s very sad for me to never get an audience response, actually.

SFBG No payoff?

TW Yeah, I’ll never get that.



Performances Wed/27-Fri/29, 8pm, $20

SOMArts Cultural Center

934 Brannan, SF

“Slow Sex Symposium” Sat/30, noon-4pm, free

“This Is What You Want — Experiential” Sat/30, 5-11pm, $15-$25

Center for Sex and Culture

1349 Mission, SF


Two for the road



THEATER On a warm evening last week in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe were milling around the sidewalk outside the Collapsable Hole, a small warehouse performance venue one subway stop from Manhattan, dressed in dark blue one-piece suits, skull caps, heavy-rimmed glasses, and long beards.

“You wanna see a show?” asks Jelliffe, looking a little like a Hassid at the public pool. It’s a physical fact that passersby can’t always pass by fast enough to escape the sideshow gravity of a woman in a beard, and sure enough one or two wanderers fall in with the rest of the crowd arriving already determined to see Space//Space, the much anticipated new show from the bicoastal company that most recently brought Bay Area audiences (with co-producers the Shotgun Players) Beardo and Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage.

The audience comes through the front door and slips passed a silvery space ship set snuggly inside the painted brick garage, a combination that carries the vague threat of an aluminum container shoved in the microwave, only you’re inside with it. Some airy, oxygenated house music thrumming the room like a zither adds nicely to this anticipatory pre-show mood. Soon the lights go down leaving only a clip lamp on a sidewall illuminating the figure of some rambling madman-scientist-grease monkey (Peter Blomquist) who introduces a half-comprehensible “experiment.”

And with that, the stunning space pod — a self-contained octagon with milky translucent glass walls, an old-school turntable for a control console, and a series of small bare speakers clinging magnetically to its aluminum framework — comes to life, rumbling and flickering like a miniature nightclub, a plush DJ booth, or an industrial-sized hi-fi egg chair. Its passengers, wearing furry suits with ear hoodies, are the bearded pair of brothers seen outside a few minutes earlier. Penryn (Jelliffee) is waking up confused from a deep sleep. Lumus (Craig) cautiously explains to his addled brother that he’s been asleep for the better part of three years. In that time their mission has been going forward: they’re still bound for some unknown destination as representatives of earth civilization, a madcap message in a half-corked bottle recording their words and deeds for some future audience.

But like a latter-day Gregor Samsa, Penryn has awakened to find himself metamorphosed, still hairy as a Harry but sporting the “girl bits” of a Henrietta. This change will propel the mission in an unanticipated direction. Penryn reborn is full of questions and challenges for his/her brother and their gender blender of a mission inside this increasingly stuffy intergalactic studio apartment.

Meanwhile, it seems Lumus, when not studying his brother’s transmogrifying bod, has spent the last few years working out a comedy routine, bits of which wend their way through the narrative as an alternately hilarious and eerie metanarrative of sorts, inviting a Henny Youngman–grade hermeneutics of the patriarchal social construct left back on earth. “I’m dying up here,” Lumus likes to say in an increasingly ominous showbiz metaphor, hitting a button for canned laughter as his inept struggle with off-color bar jokes and Rat Pack–era machismo gives way to a darker prophesy of his own demise.

Too much more plot will spoil the surprises in store for venturers to Brooklyn or those awaiting the production’s hoped-for (but not yet scheduled) future landing in the Bay Area. But let’s just say this oeuvre Lumus is making — a summation of a life, the echo of a civilization now reduced to two — is up for grabs, and Penryn may be the person to grab it. The outcome of their space//space odyssey contains the seed of a new world and an old one, both slouching toward Alpha Centauri to be born.

Composer and BB&B regular Dave Malloy’s wonderfully vital music-sound scape brings a deep, dark, low creep under this or that moment, as the exquisitely Dada-esque space program and its thornier implications come to light in playwright Craig’s inimitably arch dialogue, and Craig and Jelliffe’s masterfully subtle performances. Directed with cool precision by Mallory Catlett, Space//Space features another incredible BB&B low-or-no–budget set (conceived by Craig and Jelliffe with choice video, lighting, and sound designs by Zbigniew Bzymek, Miranda k Hardy, and Brandon Wolcott, respectively). While less epic than recent shows past, this cosmic two-hander is also more romantic, thematically complex and moodily resonant in its half-haunted, half-blissful reflection on the intimate universe between one human being and another.



Female trouble



THEATER We’ve come a long way, baby, but why does it feel like women’s equality is a legal concept that still troubles the status quo? This past year has proven that the erosion of women’s rights remains a powerful political agenda across the country, with state bans on certain forms of abortion, the redefinition of rape, and the blocking of the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Two very different shows opening this week in Berkeley (previews began last week for both) are poised to provide timely additions to the ever-evolving discourse on female power and its reverberations on society at large. Mark Jackson’s Salomania, at the Aurora Theatre, and Eve Ensler’s Emotional Creature, at the Berkeley Rep, take on themes of gender parity and its embattled vanguard with a historical drama set in the early 1900s based on the life of one notorious woman, and an ensemble work exploring the challenges of girlhood in the present day.

Salomania, commissioned by Aurora, has been percolating on Jackson’s burner since 2006, when he directed Oscar Wilde’s Salome, also at the Aurora. While researching the production history of the play, he discovered a mostly forgotten scandal involving Maud Allan, a San Francisco dancer who achieved stardom with a provocative interpretation of “The Dance of the Seven Veils.” But it wasn’t her dancing that cemented her notoriety, but rather a high-profile media controversy in which she sued British M.P. Noel Pemberton Billing for libel after he accused her of being a lesbian (she was), a sadist (she wasn’t), and a German sympathizer (she wasn’t that either) after starring in a private performance of Wilde’s then-banned play.

Like all the best media scandals, her 1918 trial had all the necessary elements for a juicy celebrity circus — the personal vs. the political, beauty vs. bigotry, a titillating flush of sexual impropriety — and temporarily displaced the more austere wartime headlines of the era.

There are several themes at work in Jackson’s biographical drama, gleaned in part from courtroom transcripts and letters from Allan to her family, but the one that seems to best tie Allan together with her biblical muse is the emergence of the “independent” woman in popular culture, and the fearfulness they’ve inspired in their detractors throughout history. And just as New Testament figure Salome has been almost unanimously vilified by both church and secular society for her coerced display of her physical sensuality (almost more so than for her adolescent act of brutal vengeance), so was Allan maligned for her empathic recreation of same.

Both Jackson and Allan’s attitudes towards Salome accentuate the positive lurking within her oft-maligned reputation. Jackson posits that she’s “the only honest person in the room,” the one with the greatest potential for breaking free of the venal, decadent atmosphere of Herod’s palace. Allan found in her a kindred beauty-seeker, whose attraction to John the Baptist was formed partially from a sense of wonder at his purity and capacity for selflessness.

“She was not an uncouth child,” she protested at her libel trial. “She was a woman who valued beauty.” Their mutual reverence for beauty aside, another tie that binds Salome and Allan is a shared reputation for willfulness.

“She was kind of a force of nature in her personality,” Jackson says of Allan. “[And] without apology said, ‘This is what I do, and this is who I am’.” This unyielding attitude contributed to Allan’s reputation as “difficult,” even “arrogant,” a complexity of character that attracted Jackson’s interest as a playwright as much as it repelled her critics.

“Any woman with a forward personality who has pushed her boundaries is going to be characterized that way by her culture,” he muses, a sentiment that could be applied equally to Salome as well as to Allan, as well as to almost any controversial female celebrity today: our Madonnas and our Hillary Clintons.




“Part of why I wanted to write this is to say there’s this amazing resilience here, and power, and resistance, and energy and vitality in girls that we haven’t even begun to unleash,” says Eve Ensler, who has also been compared to a force of nature (by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone). Best-known for The Vagina Monologues, Ensler’s latest play, Emotional Creature, is having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

Global girlhood is its focus. Based on her book I Am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World, the subject matter includes stories from Congolese rape victims, Eastern European sex workers, young factory workers, and Western anorexics, all struggling to move forward from their circumstances. Despite the often violent circumstances Ensler’s protagonists find themselves in, it’s their vitality that she hopes will come across, onstage and off.

Quick to emphasize that Creature is fictional, Ensler’s encounters with young women around the world — Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, Sarajevo, Haiti, Afghanistan — have nonetheless heavily informed the characters of her piece. And of course, she has her own experiences in girlhood to draw from. “When I was younger, I was constantly told I was being too alive or too intense or too dramatic, and I chose to learn how to mute myself,” she says. An outspoken and prolific anti-violence advocate, Ensler does seem to have overcome that mute button in adulthood, but she’s quick to point out that its existence can make girlhood a bewildering, disempowering time in life.

The creation of the piece began in Johannesburg, with a staged workshop at the Market Theatre in July 2011, and another in Paris in September. Director Jo Bonney likens the shape of the play to that of an event being put on by the girls themselves: a variety show of monologues, ensemble pieces, even song and dance numbers, with music written by South African composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder. Navigating the stormy seas of modern-day adolescence and young adulthood, Ensler’s “girls” may still be facing a whole spectrum of obstacles while tapping into their personal power. But thanks to precedents set by strong women such as Maud Allan, and even Salome, the fact that they should want to at all no longer seems unusual or unfortunate — no matter how often American right-wingers might have us otherwise believe. *



Through July 15, $14.50-$73

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berk.



Through July 22, $30-$55

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk. www.auroratheatre.org

Possessions and concessions



THEATER A general store in a factory town is the deceptively concrete setting for playwright Christina Anderson’s purposefully nebulous drama, which conflates a range of 20th century African American experiences in a supernatural tale of characters and a town variously “possessed.”

Crowded Fire (which produced the world premiere of Anderson’s DRIP in 2009) takes the premise and runs with it, artistic director Marissa Wolf helming the production with a sure grasp of Anderson’s fluid structure, where time (“between 1961 and 1994”), place (“the side pocket of America”), and position (social, sexual or otherwise) are all on the move and yet passingly specific, as in some Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of history and identity.

As the story opens, Good Goods proprietor Stacey Good (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) has recently retuned to town to take over from his father — the original Good — who we learn fled under vague circumstances seemingly connected to a recent “invasion” that has left this exclusively African American community in some sense (again purposely vague) occupied.

Meanwhile, the store itself is contested terrain. Longtime employee Truth (David E. Moore) holds a grudge against Stacey, who was supposed to be born a girl — promised to Truth by Good-the-father along with the keys to the store. But as a male heir, Stacey is instead Truth’s boss (although, as we learn in some of the clunky exposition at the top of the play, he’s obligated to keep Truth on the payroll no matter how ill tempered he may get).

The allegorical air of this premise grows apace with the arrival of Patrick, nicknamed Wire (Armando McClain), and Patricia (an assured and persuasive Mollena Williams), his twin sister with a stalled career as a nightclub comedian. Patricia has just returned this day — Wire’s birthday but not yet hers, since she was born after midnight — with a runaway bride named Sunny (a fittingly bright and captivating Lauren Spencer), who she met on the bus ride to town. Sunny’s innocent, childlike radiance captures Truth’s ardor but it’s soon clear she’s already smitten with Patricia.

As it further becomes obvious there’s some lingering romantic history between Patricia and Stacey, as well as between Stacey and childhood best friend Wire, a horrible accident at the local factory intrudes. The outcome of this tragedy is the supernatural arrival of another member of the community, whose family has earned some resentment for having gone AWOL during the recent invasion. As a local medicine man named Waymon (Anthony Rollins-Mullens), channeling the spirit of the Hunter Priestess, arrives to sort the matter out, history and solidarity, ownership and desire, masculinity and femininity, tyrannical convention, and casual nonconformity are all mixed ever more thoroughly together.

Without giving away too many details of the plot’s central twist, it’s fair to say that who gets to possess whom and under what circumstances (that is, with or without the consent of the other party) is a question that rises and sinks amid the play’s convoluted action like a stone skipping across a roiling pond. If Anderson sacrifices some dramatic coherence along the way, there are productive questions thrown up merely by flouting a more realistic time/place continuum, since not making an issue of the characters’ fluid sexuality, for example, is already to draw attention to the usual regime while toppling its violent logic.

Crowded Fire’s production at Boxcar Playhouse is somewhat erratically paced and has sightline challenges, but it offers scope for some nicely tailored performances (with the most consistent work coming from Williams and Spencer, who anchor the proceedings with fine, vital turns). Emily Greene’s half-open half-realistic scenic design, buttressed by Rebecca Longworth’s mix of still and video backdrops, meanwhile strives with limited success to capture the play’s particular mix of naturalism and supernaturalism.

That mixture is ultimately both a weakness and strength. The action can feel too mysterious, contradictory and diffuse to be as hard-hitting as it wants to be. But the boldness of Anderson’s formal strategy and its deliberately spongy sense of history also invite an invigorating play between necessity and possibility. 


Through June 23

Wed.-Sat., 8pm, $15-$35

Boxcar Playhouse

505 Natoma, SF



Theater of the observed



THEATER Unmanned spy drones, electronic snooping, cyber warfare — why should the government have all the fun? In FWD: Life Gone Viral — the world premiere comedy by Jeri Lynn Cohen, David Ford, and Charlie Varon currently enjoying a sharply-performed, comfortably low-tech production at the Marsh — today’s social media and some of Big Brother’s latest gadgetry inspire two pairs of ex-spouses to high-falutin’ excess over the more banal of security issues. The outcome is a surprisingly thoughtful and consistently amusing collision between perennial complaints, whether mortal or marital, and the current runaway state of online exhibitionism.

The nexus of issues are staked out early and with droll precision, beginning in the direct address by an entrepreneurial Russian (Varon) with a heavy accent and a former career in the security state, who explains a little device he has on offer to the abjectly curious. It’s a mini-drone in the shape of a housefly, operable through your cell phone, ready to beam into the palm of your hand pictures and audio from, say, your upstairs neighbors — answering those nagging questions you’ve always had about them: “How do they live? With whom do they have the sexual?”

It’s not as far-fetched as the accent. This kind of technology is already around, more or less. So it’s all the easier to accept middle-aged, terminally ill Donald Saperstein (Varon) getting to be the proverbial fly on the wall of his ex-wife’s medical practice. It’s a cozy arrangement for the rather megalomaniacal Saperstein, who seems to prefer one-way communication. He’s recently caught fire on YouTube, intoning his thoughts on dying to other cancer sufferers spread over the infinite expanse of cyberspace, while his ex-wife, oncologist Dr. Lillian Steinberg (a considerate, somewhat prim Cohen), toils away in a bland office. And offices are where director David Ford sets most of the action, sandwiched between parallel planes of dull carpet and off-white ceiling panels.

But Saperstein ends up having to share the wall with another fly, and another customer, named Ellen Green (a suddenly brash Cohen sporting a New York accent), who’s purchased the same gizmo to spy on her ex-husband, patient Adam Roth (Varon, bowed and anxious but with a pent-up exuberance). (As spy-flies Ellen and Donald, Cohen and Varon tuck their elbows in, jut their arms out and shake their jazz hands to indicate their droning drones’ airborne path through physical space.) Ellen is there to get her schadenfreude firsthand. Their unexpected encounter in cyberspace plays like a scene out of William Gibson, if Gibson wrote for 30 Rock. Meanwhile, their targets confer with what remains of patient confidentiality. It seems Roth is not dying after all, a matter of a mix-up in the records department: it’s another Adam Roth who has cancer.

The new lease on life gives Roth the hots for his doctor, who responds with cautious enthusiasm to his advances. But she’s deeply chagrined to learn he finds so much value in a certain YouTube video purporting to offer insight and aid to her patients while casting a veiled accusation in her own direction. Even the Mayo Clinic has seen fit to recommend her ex’s “Cancer of Blame” video. Roth, an amateur filmmaker with a taste for the classics and the ancient Athenian marketplace of ideas reborn in the internet, gallantly rises to her defense with a modest proposal: “Have you thought about reposting his video with your own subtitles?”

From this point, things get ugly, amid a rich vein of comical discourse and defensiveness around issues of privacy, revenge and pathological degrees of attention-seeking. The Russian spymaster, from his vantage, sees it all: “Soon we will have diseases of overexposure, diseases for which we still have no name.” It may be strange to say, but there’s something refreshing and affirming about a group of characters who, even in the face of their own mortality, can prove petty, vindictive assholes to each other. Our cyborg-selves end up pretty human after all.


Through June 10

Thu, 8pm; Sat, 8:30pm; Sun, 7pm, $20-$50

Marsh San Francisco

1062 Valencia, SF

(415) 282-3055



C’est si bon



THEATER You could call them a pair of crazy kids with a dream. But two years after Playwrights Foundation executive director Amy Mueller was introduced to Ivan Bertoux, Deputy Cultural Attaché of the French Consulate by Rob Melrose, artistic director of Cutting Ball Theater, their vision of cross-pollinating their respective communities with newly translated theater pieces from either side of the Atlantic has become a reality.

Originating from a desire shared by Bertoux and co-attaché Denis Bisson to expose American theater-goers to hitherto untranslated works by young, contemporary French playwrights, a unique festival called “Des Voix … Found in Translation” has emerged. It involves an elaborate synthesis of dozens of playwrights, readers, translators, and theater-makers whose primary common ground has been the desire to forge something new.

For Bertoux, the opportunity to help facilitate the presentation of French drama to the American stage is more than just his job description — it’s a project that speaks deeply to his background. A former translator of British drama to French at the Maison Antoine Vitez (a center for theater translation in Paris), Bertoux’s personal passion for theater has found new expression with Des Voix. And Mueller, a veteran and mainstay of the new-play development scene in San Francisco, is excited by the prospect of helping to introduce fresh theatrical voices from abroad, voices all too absent from the American stage.

“Americans are still very interested in their own stories,” she points out. “We want to immerse ourselves in stories about ourselves.” But taking a page from New York’s Lark Play Development Center’s Playwright Exchange Program, she and Bertoux began reaching out to playwrights and translators, French and American both, in order to facilitate an even exchange. The resultant three-pronged festival includes a first-ever San Francisco version of a “Bal Littéraire,” a weekend of staged readings of the newly translated French plays at Z Space — and a similar staging scheduled for Paris in 2013, for the three American playwrights.

The selected Americans — Rajiv Joseph, Marcus Gardley, and Liz Duffy Adams — are all familiar names to Bay Area audiences, and all share a connection to the Playwrights Foundation in their past artistic development. But it’s the names Samuel Gallet, Marion Aubert, and Nathalie Fillion that the Des Voix festival founders hope to propel into the collective theatrical consciousness of the English-speaking world. What the three French playwrights have in common, besides having been nominated for consideration by the Maison Antoine Vitez, is membership in La Coopérative d’Ecriture, a loose confederation of French playwrights whose ranks also include Fabrice Melquiot (who was introduced to the American stage by SF’s foolsFURY).

Creators of the Bal Littéraire, a “pop-up” style of theater performance that uses the participating playwrights’ favorite songs as a jumping off point and culminates in an off-the-cuff, one-night-only experiment in collaborative playmaking (the San Francisco version of which will debut Fri/25), one of La Coopérative d’Ecriture’s goals is dissolving barriers between theater-makers and their audiences, including the barrier of language.

“We would transform our words into many foreign languages, so that they would come back like boomerangs,” promises their official manifesto, as translated by Bertoux.

Parrying with these boomerangs was the job of the translators, whose task was preserving the essential “Frenchness” of each piece while rendering them accessible to American audiences. Stylistically and thematically each play encompasses a singular vision and voice, but all are characterized by their particularly expressive uses of language. Bertoux and Mueller both cite festival participant Aubert as an exemplar of a playwright for whom the language itself is the primary dramatic element.

“The characters and the story are consequences of the language,” opines Bertoux. Kimberley Jannarone, who co-translated (with Erik Butler) Aubert’s Orgueil, Poursuite et Décapitation (Pride, Pursuit, and Decapitation) for Des Voix, concurs with this assessment. During a visit to the exhaustive, month-long, Festival d’Avignon, Jannarone became aware of the current emphasis on language-driven drama in modern-day France.

“Words were driving the theatrical action — they were the action,” she reflects via email. “The saying of words, the savoring of words, the relish in words, even the reflection on the delivery of words and the inability to stop them.” A chance encounter with another Aubert play at the Théâtre du peuple, in Bussang, cemented her desire to translate Pride.

“There were those words, flying all over the stage, accompanied by an exuberant theatricality impossible to put into stage directions,” Jannarone recalls. “Toy horses’ heads, leaping taxidermied animals, childishly scrawled backdrops, goofy set pieces, flying actors, barn doors swinging open into the countryside — it was nonstop action, all propelled by Aubert’s long columns of words.”

For Melrose, the challenge of translating the “heightened poetic, artfully unnatural” language of Gallet’s Communiqué N°10 lay in accurately decoding its raucous slang while preserving the air of non-naturalism encountered throughout. He was also struck by its disquieting parallels to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, a theme bound to resonate with American audiences.

One of the most interesting results of this still-untested festival is the response it’s already received from the international community. A second Des Voix festival is already in the planning stages, and Playwrights Foundation has been approached by the consulates of several other countries for consideration of similar translation projects. If all goes well, it’s heady to envision the Des Voix festival as a catalyst for a future in which San Francisco holds a reputation for being a flourishing center of contemporary theater translation, a vision that Mueller shares.

“This is just the beginning,” she promises.


Fri/25-Sun/27, $20-$75

Z Space

450 Florida, SF


I’m not there


THEATER Political borders have their way with the bodies of ordinary people, but ideas are harder to stop at an airport or checkpoint. So when Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour found himself unable to leave Iran (having demurred from mandatory military service, the state demurred in providing him a passport), he decided to send on a play that would stand in for him, and maybe stand for something more.

A group of local theater and performance artists have gamely joined in the endeavor, as yet unsure of exactly what they’re taking on. Such is the design of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit — which premieres this week as one of several tantalizing international theater productions at this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival — that a different artist will deliver a completely unrehearsed performance of the play each night over the course of the run.

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit is a humorously sly piece of meta-theater, half allegory and half action, meant to incite a spontaneous collaboration between performer and audience without need of a director or a set, let alone rehearsals. Audiences wary of so cavalier a lack of structure, however, will be reassured by a lineup that includes many astute local artists of a decidedly political bent, among them San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Velina Brown and Michael Gene Sullivan, self-titled Red Diaper Baby Josh Kornbluth, performer-choreographer Keith Hennessy, and Campo Santo’s Sean San José.

Soleimanpour, who comes from a literary family, originally studied theater in school and now teaches scenic design at Tehran University. Born in 1981, he is part of a generation that has grown up since the 1978–79 revolution that put clerical authority in power. Soleimanpour expressed to me his delight with the Bay Area premiere and gave some insight into the genesis and purpose of his unusual play in a recent email exchange.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Where did the play first premiere outside Iran and how was it received? How did you receive news of its reception?

Nassim Soleimanpour A very early version of Rabbit was performed in New York. In March 2011, the Brick Theater [in Brooklyn] sponsored an Iranian Theater Festival that included it. The new version of the play premiered simultaneously at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Toronto SummerWorks Theatre Festival on August 5, 2011. Winning awards in both festivals was a good start in marketing the show. Our spreadsheet for next year shows productions in more than 20 cities and 15 counties in more than seven languages. We are getting used to performing simultaneously in different countries and languages.

I was lucky to receive thousands of touching emails from my audiences, actors, and producers. People send me photos of the show or report to me what has happened in my absence. I also read reviews.

SFBG What makes theater compelling to you as an artist?

NS To me theater is/was never a way to represent my understanding of things. Instead, it is/was the best way to understand. I guess I will continue making theater as long as I have questions, or as long as I don’t find a better way to look for answers in my life.

SFBG Audiences here are more likely to be familiar with Iranian cinema, which travels widely. Is there much connection between the stage and film in Iran/Tehran today?

NS Sort of, but we have to remember that cinema can easily travel to different worlds. Even ordinary people know most cinema actors and directors in Iran. Theater cannot travel that easily. We rarely see well-made domestic or international theater productions in Iran. We don’t have nonprofit theater companies in Iran. We don’t have national theater in Iran.

SFBG Do you know any of the people involved with the San Francisco production?

NS I never contact my performers before their performance. That’s a rule. The play asks them not even to see the show or read about the play beforehand. Local producers who have been in contact with play rights holders invite actors to read the play. It’s always fun for me to check the list of actors who are going to perform the show. Sometimes actors write me emails. It’s the same story in SF. I have just seen the names and read about them. I wish them all success. And I hope they enjoy their performance. *


May 2-20, free-$70

Various venues, SF



A dog’s life



THEATER There’s a clipped Spanish twang in the roughhewn but lucid English of George Milton (Jos Viramontes) and Lennie Small (A.J. Meijer), the iconic bindlestiff protagonists in Of Mice and Men. It’s the only obvious bit of updating in TheatreWorks’ and artistic director Robert Kelley’s generally faithful rendering of the 1937 John Steinbeck classic (a stage adaptation penned by the author himself for a Broadway premiere the same year).

Shoehorning two Latin ranch hands (whose ethnic identity is not remarked upon) into so casually racist an environment naturally demands a little lenience in terms of verisimilitude. But it’s a worthy nod to the overwhelmingly Latino population of migrant farm laborers otherwise crowded out of this tragic if colorful drama of working lives set in the Depression-era Salinas Valley. And it also sets a subtle present-minded tone for a play that, for all its unfashionably heavy dramatic underscoring, probably resonates more strongly with the general plight of working people than at any time since the 1930s.

George and Lennie, social realist cousins of Vladimir and Estragon, are on a migrants’ trail that leads nowhere, while pining for salvation just out of reach: a plot of land to call their own. Their dream is the only respite they’ll get from a desperate system of labor that chews up the bodies it needs and in most cases leaves nothing behind.

An appealing Viramontes plays George, the brains of the pair, as a man a bit too intelligent and proud to stomach this lot easily, but whose world-weariness is kept in check by a compassionate regard for his charge, the overgrown man-child Lennie, imbued by Meijer with the proper balance of childish timidity and wild enthusiasm. Playing ego to Lennie’s id, George uses the tenderly embellished dream of a proper home (with, famously, a rabbit hutch for Lennie to tend) to temper his volatile sidekick, whose innocent propensity to let his sensual appetites run away with him already has them on the run from trouble at their last job in Weed.

Scenic designer Tom Langguth’s silhouette of low rolling hills against a fuchsia sky, fronted by a field of tall grass burned a golden brown by the California sun, provides an initial atmosphere of possibility and, just vaguely, of desolation (the later gently heightened by Jeff Mockus’s spare and spacious sound design). The stage evokes a near Eden, such that we can easily imagine the stream George and Lennie scoop their palms into, just off the lip of the stage, as they prepare to camp for the night in the warm open air. That scene transitions a moment later to the rugged timber construction of the sleeping quarters on a working ranch near Soledad, where George and Lennie join up with a crew of characters lovingly drawn and expertly realized by a fine ensemble cast.

This dip back into society from the trail vexes George and Lennie almost immediately, as the owner’s pugnacious son Curley (Harold Pierce) vies for dominance over the newcomers and everyone else, while chasing endlessly after his desperately lonely new bride (Lena Hart). Even without the threat posed by the local bully — or his wife’s dangerously familiar manner and unstoppable need to find someone to talk to — the men living and working here too readily submit to an everyday pettiness, racism, and sexism that divides natural allies in an exploitative system.

Steinbeck the onetime migrant and journalist informs Steinbeck the artist as a brutish reality becomes a knowing drama — still affecting in its details, if finally watery in its contrived, loudly broadcasted tragedy. Significantly, George and Lennie’s partnership immediately arouses suspicion among the other hired hands. Even for Slim (a sure and compelling Chad Deverman), the ranch’s gracious cowboy hero, two men traveling together is at the very least a source of wonder, so unexpected is the show of mutual support along the otherwise solitary, competitive labor circuit.

But when aging and maimed worker Candy (an excellent Gary Martinez) accepts the mercy killing of his beloved old dog, he and we know the operative social compact isn’t much better: those who have only their usefulness to sell have no foothold when its gone. Candy accordingly latches onto George and Lennie’s scheme, followed soon by another desperate outsider, African American worker Crooks (a wonderfully measured Charles Branklyn). It may prove a pipe dream, but the lure of escape from hopeless drudgery produces a powerful impetus to solidarity that is the play’s enduring hope. 



Wed/25, 7:30pm; Thu/26-Sat/28, 8pm (also Sat/28, 2pm); Sun/29, 2pm, $19-$69

Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

500 Castro, Mtn. View

(650) 463-1960


Bon voyage


THEATER Bay Area audiences set off for The Coast of Utopia with Shotgun Players’ production of Voyage, the first play in Tom Stoppard’s celebrated 2002 trilogy based on the lives and careers of certain radical Russian émigrés in 19th century Europe. With artistic director Patrick Dooley at the helm of a large cast, the local launch of Stoppard’s sweeping, pageant-like history play proves a smooth and articulate one, although so much is being set up in Voyage — which takes place inside Russia ahead of a departure to revolutionary Europe by one of its principal characters, future anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (an exuberantly confident Joe Salazar) — that the dramatic ball feels like it’s just getting rolling. (Unfortunately, audiences will have to wait until 2014 before Shotgun has all three plays, including Shipwreck and Salvage, up and running in repertory).

Stoppard’s play is both consistently witty and a bit glossy — in the sense of being both too sleek and too superficial to feel very deep. But it is not without a political point of its own. Here, the heady ideas and exchanges of real historical actors like Bakunin or literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Nick Medina) mingle with family tensions, romantic entanglements, careerism, and political intrigues, all amid some seismic shifting of history. That the ideas in play are often fodder for comedy underscores the discrepancy here between high ideals and lived experience — and the emphasis on a compromised but happy present over long-term struggle for a new society. The trilogy will make the deeply interesting figure of Alexander Herzen (played in Voyage by an able Patrick Jones) the charmingly sympathetic carrier of this not very satisfying liberal through line.

Funny the work comedy can do. A few days and two pretty long plane rides after seeing Voyage, I arrived in Moscow in time to see some real Russians pretending to be from Belarus, in a theater production that also leveraged comedy to explore urgent political themes. Two in Your House, which is among the 15 productions making up the Russia Case program of the 2012 Golden Mask theater festival, is smart, dead-pan absurdist theater based on actual events and documents stemming from the 2010 house arrest of Belarusian poet, activist, and presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyaev.


The action unfolds on a small stage in front of an audience crammed into a house with maybe 60 seats in all. Five actors recreate a situation in which Neklyaev (played with a gentle, almost serene philosophical air by a Russian actor who is himself a writer in real life) and his wife must share their small apartment with two KGB officers. The set is minimal, though a backdrop giving the diagram and dimensions of the actual flat neatly underscores both the fidelity to details and the suffocating invasion of intimate space suffered by the couple. Their vulnerability before two male strangers (and a third who rotates in during shift changes) comes across viscerally at the outset, but the tables are soon turned as Mrs. Neklyaev begins a fearless (and frankly hilarious) campaign of harassment to retake her home from the invaders — thus dissolving once and for all the illusory line between public and private spheres in the face of an invasive authoritarian regime.

Even without benefit of the simultaneous translation offered English speakers in the audience, the deft physical comedy and its Mrozek-like humor in the face of an outrageous as well as preposterous situation speaks volumes about political realities, the web of systemic violence that ultimately snares everyone, including the KGB agents (here played not unsympathetically as reluctant and increasingly miserable lackeys of the state). The comedy in this way comes as illuminating, subversive gloss on the hard facts of the case.

The company responsible for this unexpectedly wry bit of documentary theater is named Teatr.doc (pronounced “Theater Doc”). Led and financed by Elena Gremina, it’s one of Moscow’s scrappy independent theaters (as opposed to the state-subsidized repertory theaters employing full ensembles of actors and theater artists).

There are still several days of plays ahead at the time of this writing, but it’s clear already that the independent theater has an important presence in this festival. Of the 15 productions selected for the 2012 Russia Case by curator and critic Elena Kovalskaya, the majority tends toward the experimental and more politically outspoken fare of the small independents. Three come from Teatr.doc; two more come from Moscow’s Praktika Theatre, devoted exclusively to new drama. Other noteworthy names in the lineup include St. Petersburg’s AKHE Engineering Theatre (two-time guests of the San Francisco International Arts Festival, who are currently collaborating with SF’s own Nanos Operetta on a new work to premiere at SFIAF next year).

That evening after Two in Your House came an off-program production of famed director Dmitry Krymov’s Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Boom. Krymov (whose In Paris, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov, opens at the Berkeley Rep this month) offered up a spectacular, carnivalesque processional employing 80 actors in resplendent, sometimes wild costumes and a very long conveyor-belt stage to meditate on Chekhov and the impossible century since his death, as well as a kind of relentless attempt to grapple with or transcend both.

Moscow alone has something like 115 theaters, and the variety of work on display is predictably large. Only a handful of independent theaters take on overtly political subject matter, but these have a disproportionate influence today. The premiere of Two in Your House, for example, coincided with the recent massive street protests against Putin in the wake of elections overwhelmingly perceived as rigged. Its Belarusian subject matter thus chimed effortlessly with this political moment in Russia, especially for the younger 20-something Muscovites who are the bulk of the audiences for independent theater as well as the vast majority making up the recent street demonstrations.


Through April 29

Wed-Thu, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 5pm, $20-$30

Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby, Berk.



Alive and kicking


THEATER Art is a life and death matter at the Garage this weekend, with the premieres of Dead/Alive and No Exit, two new contemporary dance-performance works from Minna Harri Experience Set and Christine Bonansea, respectively.

These intriguing pieces — instigated as part of an eight-month co-mentorship program between the Garage and ODC — have been developing separately for months. But in their flirtations with the sublime, they stand to be as complimentary as they will doubtlessly be distinct and strange. (Both works transfer to ODC this summer as part of the co-mentoring arrangement, a bridge-building initiative dreamed up by the Garage’s Joe Landini.)

Bonansea, who relocated to the Bay Area from her native France four years ago, is probably better known locally as a dancer — most recently for her wry, nimble performance in Catherine Galasso’s Bring on the Lumiere at ODC. A quick and spirited personality, Bonansea had just returned from Lumiere‘s New York premiere when I met with her to talk about No Exit. Bonansea studied modern literature at the Sorbonne; she took her title from Sartre, whose No Exit she revisited early on in the process.

She is careful not to equate her work with the famous play, however, stressing that it is only a starting point or one element in a larger mix of perspectives around a central idea — in this case, the illusory nature of self measured against certain physical and temporal absolutes. Moreover, she tends to think in terms of visuals and sound as much as in terms of movement.

“I like working with different media,” she explains. “There is a conversation; the perspectives are different. It’s totally a part of the process. It’s not that I do mixed media, but if I talk about something, I see that there are so many different ways to talk about it. When you work with different artists you just bounce off each other. It can be insane!” she says, explaining that for her, “insane” is a very positive word.

Sure enough, Bonansea has gathered an insanely impressive group of collaborators. Dancers Marina Fukushima, Jorge Rodolfo de Hoyos, and Rosemary Hannon will perform the piece. Graphic artist Olivia Ting provides visuals. Costumes (including an 18-yard wig) come courtesy of noted hair designer-sculpture Lauren Klein. The result is an absorbing anti-narrative inhabited by anti-characters, exploring transience and stasis while confronting irresolvable tensions in the human condition.

Similarly for Minna Harri, a Finnish-born dancer-choreographer now based in San Francisco, work often begins with a philosophical question or idea. Her last outing at the Garage was the eerily exquisite A Silent Fairground (3 Things). The delicately macabre beauty and darkly coiled humor of the piece suffused the black box with the sense of haunted memories and dreamlike intimations from the unconscious. But just whose memory, or whose unconscious, is hard to say.

“I don’t usually make work out of my own life,” Harri says. “Maybe it’s more things that bother me or won’t let me go.”

She admits that Dead/Alive, a multivalent rumination on mortality and dying that features three performers and some voluntary audience interaction, is a little different. “I bring my own thoughts and experiments, vulnerabilities and fears about that. Death as a subject in this culture is very weird, and it maybe should be talked about more,” she suggests.

Joining Harri onstage, and in her process, are performance artist and provocateur Philip Huang and, via video, dancer Ronja Ver (who figured stunningly in Silent Fairground). Harri also brought on two colleagues as dramaturges — Tessa Wills and Jesse Hewit — at distinct points in the process. “I enjoy very much a deep and thorough and informed discussion in the process of making a piece,” she explains.

Dead/Alive‘s origins reach back to an idea she first had three or four years ago.

“Maybe it’s more an aesthetic nostalgia that has been the thing for me,” says Harri, considering the matter. “I think an important part of what has influenced me is nature, the Finnish seasons. There, all four seasons are very stark. You live for the summer, which is a few months, and every fall is like dying. The birds fly away, and you know it’s going to be eight, nine months before they come back. The winter is dark. And when the spring comes, it’s wonderful because the sun comes out — but then the light is so harsh that you see every dog shit that comes out of the melting snow, and every speck of dust inside. The most suicides happen in April.”



Fri/24-Sat/25, 8 p.m., $15


975 Howard, SF


Right about now


THEATER It’s a rare thing, really too rare, to find an audience eagerly erupting into political discussions between acts of a play. But that’s what Little Brother inspires, and in an unaffected way, without pretension or unwelcome goading. It’s too cool, confident, and contemporary for that. After all, the night I saw the play — adapted by director Josh Costello from the 2008 teen novel by Canadian sci-fi author and activist (and co-editor of Boing Boing) Cory Doctorow — was just one night after Occupy Oakland tried to convert a vacant building into a much-needed community center for the needier of the 99 percent. That didn’t go too well. The street clashes with shock-trooping Oakland police forces led to something like 400 arrests before the night was over.

That latest incident, in an ongoing resistance to systemic and overweening injustice, resonated effortlessly with the proceedings onstage at Custom Made Theatre. There, on an intimate thrust stage, three sharp young actors (Daniel Petzold, Marissa Keltie, and Cory Censoprano) smoothly embodied a fleet series of characters in a story pitting a group of Mission District high school teens against the Department of Homeland Security. The battle takes place in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that levels the Bay Bridge and unleashes an all-out totalitarian crackdown by the federal government. It’s a dramatic, humorous, irreverent, and urgent story all at once. While far from a perfect play (dramatic consistency and verisimilitude are stretched a bit thin by the end), Little Brother is probably the most exciting thing on stage just now, alive like few other productions in its response to the present moment.

Behind the dynamic trio onstage stands a patchwork wall-projection screen (courtesy of set designer Sarah Phykitt, video designer Pauline Luppert, and video engineer Darl Andrew Packard) papered over with pages seemingly torn from radical histories and revolutionary tracts (it was easy enough to make out Emma Goldman’s visage among the repeated black-and-white pages), and periodically set aglow with live video feed, scene-setting photo montage, text messages, and hacker scrawl across computer and videogame screens.

While DHS is synonymous with Big Brother throughout, and for good reason — the agency is at the forefront of a total invasion of American private life and the Gitmo’ing of American teens — it can also be understood at times as a synonym for the state at large, from high school vice principals on up. As main character Marcus Yallow (a bright, engaging Petzold) explains in an early address to the audience, he’s a senior at a San Francisco public high school. Even before the Bay Bridge attack, “that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.”

Before being transformed into an all-out revolutionary by his violent, extra-constitutional encounter with DHS, Marcus and buddy Darryl (a sharp and versatile Censoprano) are fun-loving rebel hackers and gamers often on the receiving end of unwanted attention by the usual authorities. In an early scene, an inept school administrator interrogates Marcus, believing him, correctly, to be the hacker menace “w1n5t0n” (though, hilariously, pronouncing the handle literally instead of the intended “Winston”). Marcus outwits him, and the administrator loses his grip on the free-roaming online hooligan who, among other things, has handily derailed the “snitch tags” the school plants in library books to track the students.

At this point, Little Brother bears a striking similarity to The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph’s psychological two-hander set in a vice principal’s office after school, which had its premiere last year at Palo Alto’s TheatreWorks. But Joseph’s battle, while resonating with a larger political and historical context, ultimately remains more personal than political. Little Brother moves via the next terrorist attack into the realm of all-out political crisis, as short a distance from here as that may seem, and in this way resists reducing its themes to merely personal terms, highlights a tension with the personal throughout — even as it cleaves to a familiar coming-of-age narrative involving Marcus and girlfriend-coconspirator Ange (played compellingly by Keltie).

Costello shrewdly emphasizes this tension in his staging, which begins with the three principal characters recreating the story for a video cam so that it can be posted online. As Marcus begins a first-person account, his cohorts interrupt him almost immediately. “Dude, you can’t make it all about you,” says Darryl, with good-humored conviction. “It’s too big.”



Through Feb. 25

Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., $25-$32

Gough Street Playhouse

1620 Gough, SF


Too much in the son



THEATER The Berkeley Rep’s thrust stage sinks to floor-level down front where a simply furnished living room freely communicates with the audience seated nearby, while to the back rises the imposing façade of San Francisco City Hall. The impressive jumble of a set (by Todd Rosenthal) ensures the jarring conflation of private and public life strikes us palpably before a single line is uttered in Ghost Light. As it happens, the first words are those famous ones spoken by Dianne Feinstein from City Hall on November 27, 1978, announcing the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former supervisor Dan White. They come over the television to a 14-year-old boy (Tyler James Myers) home sick from school the day his father died.

The dream play that follows is not realistic, but it is also more than fiction. A unique collaboration between Bay Area–based director and California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jon Moscone (real-life youngest son of the slain mayor) and Berkeley Rep’s Tony Taccone, Ghost Light is an at times promising but otherwise laden attempt to explore the stifled grief of a man haunted by the death of a murdered father — a father who was also a public figure, a political leader whose legacy is in some sense embattled (or at least seriously overshadowed by the subsequent apotheosis of Harvey Milk).

The complex feelings this entails for the son of such a man — whose career in the state senate and as mayor was arguably more important than Milk’s to the legal and social battle for gay rights — are only heightened by the fact that the son is also gay, with a public profile of his own and the mixed blessing of a prominent family name.

If the son in this situation-turned-scenario sounds a little like Hamlet, the comparison was not lost on Taccone either, who penned the script while drawing on hours of freewheeling conversations with Jon Moscone, initiator of the project and the play’s director. (Ghost Light had its world premiere last year in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it was commissioned as part of its “American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle.”) Director-turned-playwright Taccone has the character “Jon” (played with manic energy and sudden introspection by a sympathetic Christopher Liam Moore) stuck midway through the preparations for a production of Hamlet, unable to decide what to do with the Ghost — indeed, haunted by the whole idea. This unusual block has his best friend and collaborator Louise (a lively if slightly affected Robynn Rodriguez) frustrated and worried.

Jon’s block also feeds a dream life populated by several characters — a Loverboy (Danforth Comins) spun from an online flirtation; his perennially 14-year-old self (Myers) locked in a battle of wills with some cosmic undertaker cum grief councilor named Mister (a sure, larger-than-life Peter Macon); the silent image of his black-veiled widow mother (Sarita Ocón); and a menacing prison guard in a soiled shirt (a sharp Bill Geisslinger), who turns out to be the grandfather he never knew.

It’s suggested more than once in the dialogue that all of these characters stalking his sleep (and often arriving onstage through the portal of Jon’s bed, pitch atop the shiny black granite steps of City Hall) are merely the dreamer himself in various disguises and aspects. This much, of course, we are already primed to assume. In fact, the fundamental problem facing the main character — namely, his inability to properly let go of his own grief and suffering around the death of his father, which appears here as an inability to let his own father’s “perturbed spirit” rest at last — is equally a condition readily recognizable to a modern audience in a therapeutic age. It may be grounds to build on in terms of character development, but the lack of mystery here also undercuts any suspense in the plot, as the increasingly blurred line between Jon’s dreaming and waking lives points toward nervous collapse and the threat of some self-inflicted disaster (personified by the foul-mouthed, homophobic, and gun-toting prison guard stalking his unconscious).

Taccone makes a valiant attempt to draw together a complicated and wrenchingly personal yet all-too-public story with a set of interrelated subplots and quick-moving dialogue (filled with as much quippy humor and menace as pathos). But the results are uneven. Although Geisslinger makes a serviceable villain, the danger he represents never feels palpable. Likewise, the underworld subplot involving boyhood Jon (played a little too typically “boyishly” by Myers to be readily believed) comes across as vague and treacly.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the more realistic, down-to-earth scenes that play best and are most evocative. The intricacy of a life divided painfully between public and private personas, public and private pain and loyalties too, comes across best when the character of Jon is operating in the “real” world. To this end, Moscone the director shrewdly brings the audience in at key points as well, raising the houselights for an acting master class led by his onstage character. Meta-theater, town hall meeting, group therapy — the lines begin to blur here in a lively, resonant discussion of “acting” as social action.

Another interesting scene takes place in a bar, where Jon finally meets Basil (Ted Deasy), the man with whom he’s been having an online fling for weeks (and the inspiration for the Loverboy of his increasingly intrusive dream world). The awkwardness, defensiveness, and barely contained rage revealed here — as Jon discovers that Basil’s own fantasy projection incorporates his public familial tragedy — speak more eloquently to the messy particulars of the main character’s dilemma then perhaps any other scene in the play.

In the end, the thematic aptness of the mise-en-scène — which forces Jon, for instance, to open the front doors of City Hall just to retrieve a beer from the fridge — speaks also to the monumental task this play has set itself. If the results prove very mixed, they are all the more discomfiting because the root story is so fascinating, the dramatic project itself audacious and strange, and the insight to be potentially gleaned so tantalizing — speaking to our collective intersections with history in the deepest recesses of the psyche.



Through Feb. 19

Tues., Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat. and Feb. 16, 2 p.m.); Wed. and Sun., 7 p.m. (also Sun., 2 p.m.), $14.50-$73

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison, Berk.

(510) 647-2949


Way out East


THEATER The shows have been as varied and changeable as the weather this January in New York City, where the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) acts as catalyst for, by now, no less than four new-work festivals in the realms of theater, dance, and contemporary performance.

Near the beginning of the month, it got cold enough at night to make your nose hairs chime like little Christmas tree bells. “Every time you sneeze,” a friend explained to me, “a whole shitload of angels get their wings.”

This cheerful seasonal exchange took place in the Lower East Side during a frigid tromp to American Realness, a three-year-old festival offering a vital focus on contemporary dance and performance. Spread across three stages at the Abrons Art Center, American Realness is the brainchild of Ben Pryor, the festival’s 29-year-old curator and producing director, and once again features an eye-catching list of leading and emerging artists.

Indeed, 2012’s 11-day program (Jan. 5-15) is really pulling out the stops. Performances I’ve seen thus far have run a wide gamut, in every way, but have consistently attracted capacity houses to American Realness’s intriguing blend of the known, infamous, and brand new.

In addition to full-blown productions, the festival has added a new free series this year, “Show and Tell,” offering an opportunity to hear artists discuss their work or to glimpse work-in-progress. One recent afternoon was given over to a three-way discussion among songwriter and performance-maker Holcombe Waller, Cynthia Hopkins (at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts recently with The Success of Failure (Or, the Failure of Success)), and Miguel Gutierrez (last seen locally in July at the Garage with his solo, Heavens What Have I Done) about contemporary song-based performance. The Bay Area’s Keith Hennessy was on hand a couple of days earlier to discuss his collaborative project, Turbulence: A Dance About the Economy, which just had a two-night showing in December at CounterPulse. (Hennessy also premiered Almost, a “spontaneous performance action,” during the last week of the festival.)

American Realness opened with an evening lineup that included other San Francisco favorites, namely Laura Arrington Dance and New York–based Big Art Group. Arrington offered the New York premiere of Hot Wings (a piece born of her 2010 CounterPulse residency) to a sold-out house in the Abrons Art Center’s 100-seat Experimental Theater; while Caden Manson/Big Art Group debuted Broke House, a purposefully chaotic, multimedia camp meltdown loosely based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which sprawled across the proscenium stage in the 300-seat Playhouse Theater. The 99-seat Underground Theater, meanwhile, a cozy, brutalist semi-circle carved into the concrete basement, saw a U.S. premiere from Eleanor Bauer and Heather Lang (The Heather Lang Show by Eleanor Bauer and Vice Versa).

Those three initial shows together sounded an eclectic key that has been sustained throughout. The cold weather not so much. A few days later it was unseasonably warm. People tried to act concerned about it. Surely this was another sign of impending climactic collapse. But it was just too nice to care very hard about why it might be wrong.

The relaxed mood encouraged by the sudden warming trend was further augmented by an intimate little walking tour called Elastic City. Artists Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith conduct small groups of people around the grounds of the Abrons Art Center, training everyone’s attention, with a gentle and inviting playfulness, on the smallest and most quotidian details imaginable — with low-key but delighting results. A passage down one maintenance hallway, for instance, was an invitation to notice any little detail that caught the eye and stimulated the imagination and to share it with anyone around you, turning the seemingly bare walls into a topography that might have given a 16th-century explorer the chills, or … a woody. At one point, our guides led us outside barefoot onto the wide concrete steps in front of the building, for what was no doubt originally conceived of as a brief but striking encounter with the winter elements. Everyone stood there comfortably, however, thankful for the temperate bath of fresh air. “Yeah, it’s not very cold,” agreed Shalom. “Actually, it’s not cold at all.”

A couple more memorable moments as of this writing: Daniel Linehan spinning in a circle for a very long time, declaiming, “This is not about anything” — and variations on that theme. The young choreographer-performer (who’s worked with Big Art as well as Miguel Gutierrez, among others) delivered these poetically schematic lines at intricate length, in a voice precisely doubled by an offstage “doppelganger” piped through a nearby speaker, demonstrating a fairly wowing memory and focus, while alternating both the speed and shape of his whirling form to create a kinetic sculpture of transfixing beauty.

The stunning solo Not About Everything faltered only momentarily for me, when Linehan, pulling out and “reading” a self-conscious letter about his own art and practice from his pocket, shifted from mathematical-geometric abstraction to the all-too-specific. It was an almost rude awakening from a kind of syntactic ecstasy — the motive, unmooring meaninglessness of the mantra — back into the semantics of worldly and solipsistic concerns. It was saved ultimately by a combination of Linehan’s acuity and alacrity as a thinker and performer, however, and it was as fine, moving, and memorable a solo as any seen thus far.

Ann Liv Young presented a desultory piece called Sleeping Beauty Part I that held few surprises for anyone remotely familiar with her work. But the audience was caught off guard at one point at least, as Sleeping Beauty, having completed a Showgirls-style dance of seduction, pleads for understanding from her Prince Charming (a blowup doll sitting in the first row of the packed Experimental Theater). At that moment a soap machine above the stage suddenly erupted with a noisy rush of air and fluff, casting a snow-like arc of fine goo down onto the heads of maybe a third of the house, producing amusement and irritation in more or less equal measure. Only one patron actually got up and left. The rest sat stoically, trying to stifle coughs and sneezes for the next 20 minutes as the finer, mistier particles of whatever is in that stuff began lining breathing passages.

The remainder of the show was given over to an invitation to have your Polaroid portrait taken with the Sleeping Beauty (two bucks a pop). There were enough takers to drag this process out about half an hour. Then the performers left the stage. More ALY concessions were on sale as you exited.


Curtain calls



YEAR IN THEATER With a grateful nod to former colleague Brad Rosenstein, we re-inaugurate a system of accolades and nah-ccolades celebrating some memorable highs and lows of the rapidly closing year in theater and performance.


Most Memorable Food Fight

A Three Little Dumplings Adventure

Within seconds of the appearance of the three titular protagonists of Megan Cohen’s A Three Little Dumplings Adventure — a hot pink and powder blue hurricane wreaking havoc on the subdued prison of a suburban living room — it was impossible not to get sucked into their chaotic orbit. Alternating between being patently obnoxious, emotionally unanchored, and frankly homicidal, the “three little dumplings” played by Sarah Moser, Molly Holcomb, and Megan Trout teased, baited, jabbed, and wrestled each other across the stage, culminating in Moser pinning Trout to the floor threatening to eat her (“dumpling” being no tidy euphemism here, but a physiological condition). Presented at the Bay One Acts Festival, it was definitely the year’s best meta-cannibalistic food frenzy, and it whetted our appetite for more. (Nicole Gluckstern)


Best Drug Story

Greg Proops at “Previously Secret Information”

Admittedly the best highs are often hard to remember. Kudos to the seemingly rock-hard memory of otherwise mellow-ab’d comedian Greg Proops, who recalled prodigious intake and takeout as a Chicken Delite delivery boy in 1970s San Carlos for an edition of Joe Klocek’s storytelling series, “Previously Secret Information.” (Robert Avila)


Best Political-Historical Thesis Disguised as a Wildly Funny and Louche “Songplay”


Their own prior hit, 2008’s Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, was going to be a hard act to follow. But Banana Bag & Bodice and producers Shotgun Players made playwright Jason Craig and composer Dave Malloy’s take on Rasputin look like child’s play — very precocious child’s play — where performances, music, costumes, mise-en-scène, themes, and dialogue all contributed to another hirsute masterpiece. (Avila)


Most Inscrutable Triumvirate

Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal, and Katie Chan in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven

Speaking of frankly homicidal, the otherwise nameless characters “Korean 1, 2, and 3” in the joint Crowded Fire/Asian American Theater Company production of Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven were as outrageously bloodthirsty a collection of countertypical characters as ever graced the Thick House stage. By turns violent, ecstatic, girlish, and demented, the eclectic trio played by Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal, and Katie Chan skewered every tradition-bound Asian stereotype in the book. Clad in the dazzle camouflage of their flowing silk dresses, rendering their monologues in their respective “mother” tongues, not spoken by this or many other audience members, the fiercely energetic characters expertly revealed themselves by not revealing a thing. (Gluckstern)


Best Lighting Design

Allen Willner for inkBoat’s The Line Between

Willner’s worked wonders before, not least with longtime collaborators inkBoat (Heaven’s Radio), but he outdoes himself in this wild and excellent production, making the lighting design a full member of the ensemble with a world of shifting moods and ideas. (Avila)


Best Tentative Revival of a Theatrical Artform


Where have all the puppets gone? It seemed like for a few years there they all went into hiding, perhaps barricading themselves in little puppet bunkers, awaiting the end times. But a modest slew of puppet-driven performances resurfaced over the course of 2011, reigniting our hopes for a full-blown revival in the future. A shortlist of memorable puppets encountered this year include Lone Wolf Tribe’s dark circus of clowns and war veterans in Hobo Grunt Cycle; a beleaguered Orson Welles puppet manipulated by Nathanial Justiniano’s sociopathic Naked Empire Bouffon Company alter ego Cousin Cruelty; Thomas John’s “hard-boiled” egg puppets who populated his Humpty Dumpty noir thriller The Lady on the Wall; the over-the-top awesomeness of a trio of Audrey Jrs. in Boxcar Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors, and the silently suffering soldier of Aurora Theatre’s A Soldier’s Tale. Here’s hoping this miscellany foreshadows the triumphal return of the missing puppets, to as opposed to their last hurrah. (Gluckstern)


Nicest timing

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Just before public figures across the spectrum wailed their approval of a fallen business idol, Seattle-based monologist Mike Daisey, at Berkeley Rep, not-so-quietly reminded people of what a corporation is. Then Occupy Wall Street happened. (Avila)


Most Polarizing Descent Into the Reptilian Complex

Chekhov Lizardbrain

Whether you loved it or loathed it, Pig Iron’s touring production of Chekhov Lizardbrain was certainly one of the year’s most striking. Performing as part of foolsFURY’s Fury Factory, the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron spearheaded an expedition into the inner workings of one man’s brain beset by shifting vagaries of memory and truth. Combining a series of pompously-referenced “rules” of drama, stock Chekhovian alter-egos, and the dual personalities — internal and external — of an undersocialized protagonist (James Sugg) struggling to shape his memories into a recognizable narrative, Chekhov Lizardbrain elicited the most polarized reaction from its sold-out houses I saw all year. From a standing ovation to a fair number of disgruntled walk-outs, this dark-edged exploration inspired a panorama of strong responses in its audience, a solid sign of success in my book. (Gluckstern)


Best Labor of Love

The Companion Piece

Inspired by a concept by Beth Wilmurt, who was inspired by a book about the biological roots of human emotions (A General Theory of Love), Mark Jackson directed Wilmurt and fellow “vaudevillians” Christopher Kuckenbaker and Jake Rodriguez at Z Space in one of the most inspired pieces of devised theater all year (with a close second going to Jackson’s own SF State production of the blissful Wallflower). (Avila)


Best Conversation Starter

The closure of a “remixed” Little Shop of Horrors

Another polarizing moment in Bay Area theater occurred this summer when Boxcar Theatre’s ambitious remix of the cultish Alan Menken and Howard Ashman musical Little Shop of Horrors was shut down by Music Theatre International due to admitted violations of its licensing agreement. The debate inspired by both the violations and the show’s subsequent closure was as passionate and considered as the production that inspired it, from both perspectives of the situation. Without taking sides, I found the conversation about artistic freedom vs. artists’ rights to their own works to be as stimulating and thought-provoking as any night in the theater could strive to be. It seems unlikely that Boxcar Theatre knowingly set out to become the vanguard for open-source theater-making, but here’s hoping it’s a banner they are willing to carry a little longer. (Gluckstern)


Best Part of Getting Old

Geezer at the Marsh

I’m glad I lived long enough to see Geoff Hoyle live long enough to produce this solo piece extraordinaire. (Avila)


Best Couch-Surfing Opportunity

“Home Theater Festival”

Sometimes it’s hard to leave the comfort of one’s home to gamble on the capricious vicissitudes of a theater outing. Gambling in the comfort of someone else’s home was, on the other hand, really easy. (Avila)


Best Ostentatious Design Overload

The Lily’s Revenge

Watching the four-and-a-half-hour epic performance mash-up that was Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge at the Magic Theatre was in parts harrowing, exhausting, and transcendentally fabulous, but what stuck with me long after the vague twists of plot and character had mostly faded from my memory were indelible images of the seriously overwhelming design. From dazzling, sequined flower costumes by Lindsay W. Davis, to four complete sets built to accommodate five acts designed by Andrew Boyce, to the extravagant lighting by Sarah Sidman, The Lily’s Revenge could have been subtitled The Tech Crew’s Revenge, which would have been a fitting description of the glorious fantasia created by the uniformly top-notch production team. (Gluckstern)


Best Jump on George Clooney

Farragut North

North is better known to multiplex crowds as The Ides of March. But Bay Area theatergoers were first to get a former Howard Dean speechwriter’s fictionalized story of real-deal electoral politics in a so called democracy — and in a nimble low-budge production from OpenTab Productions at Noh Space that made it all the sweeter for not being Hollywooden. (Avila)


Best Planned Revitalization of a Theater District Linchpin

PianoFight at Original Joe’s

When the venerable, family-run Original Joe’s at 144 Taylor burned down in 2007 it was a catastrophic blow to the neighborhood — especially to all the theaters in the area who had adopted it over the years as a go-to post-show hang-out. It even served as a San Francisco Fringe Festival off-site venue for several years, hosting the likes of RIPE Theatre and Dan Carbone. So it was wonderful news on many levels when the turbo-charged PianoFight theater company signed a ten-year lease with the Duggan family to turn the old Original Joe’s into the new home of PianoFight. In addition to rebuilding the restaurant and bar, PianoFight plans to house two theaters, offices, and rehearsal spaces under the same roof — a huge boost to the neighborhood and greater theatrical community both. (Gluckstern)


Worst-Attended Theatrical Gem

Hobo Grunt Cycle at the Exit Theater

I’m not sure why there were so few people in the audience for this stunning cri de coeur against warfare by Kevin Augustine’s rightly acclaimed New York–based puppet theater ensemble, Lone Wolf Tribe. As hard as it can be to look at the real face of war, this piece brilliantly insisted on the need to do just that: manipulated with consummate grace by one or more black-clad puppeteers, Augustine’s life-sized puppets remained strikingly sentient, heartbreakingly damaged beings you absolutely could not take your eyes off. (Avila)


Classiest Beginning to a Final Bow

In the Maze of Our Own Lives

Playwright-director Corey Fischer’s sleekly staged, prescient take on the radically influential Group Theatre ensemble of the thoroughly agitated 1930s, In the Maze of Our Own Lives, which lead off the Jewish Theatre’s 34th and last season. (Avila)

Best Reason to Cross the Bridge: SQUART at Headlands Center for the Arts This 24-hour, all-stops-pulled-out version of choreographer Laura Arrington’s shrewd experimental series in collaborative performance-making capped a residency at the Headlands with a well-attended set of four sneaky, astonishing pieces by a multi-talented ensemble of harried sleep-deprived creator-conspirators. Why isn’t art always made this way? (Avila)

Worst Gas-to-Show Ratio Lolita Roadtrip at San Jose Stage A surprisingly unmoving outing from otherwise quick playwright Trevor Allen, who indeed quickly bounced back with a remounting of his popular solo, Working for the Mouse. (Avila)  

Strangest Encounter Between “Performer” and “Audience” Robert Steijn Steijn questioned everything, including what the hell he was doing onstage in front of the people assembled to see the famed Dutch performer at Joe Goode’s new annex in the Mission. They were all good questions, and the micro-choreography of physical and psychic states to which they pointed charged the room with a delicate intensity that encouraged many thoughtful beers afterward. (Avila)

Short takes: Biggest Dick: Kevin Spacey as Richard III. With balls and chops to match.  

Best Beefcake Ham and Cheese on Wry for under $100: Hugh Jackman at the Curran.

Best use of salvia: Philip Huang at “Too Much!”  

Best medicine for complacency: Cancer Cells, selections from late works and words by Harold Pinter by Performers Under Stress.  

Biggest site-specific punch (with gloves on or off): Peter Griggs’ one-man show, Killer Queen: The Story of Paco the Pink Pounder, at Michael the Boxer Gym and Barbershop.

Most intellectually stimulating drag lecture: David Greenspan reading Gertrude Stein’s Plays at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. (Avila)

Astral projections



THEATER A savage and seductive performer with a potent skill set, Erin Markey has been busy these last several years conquering New York’s downtown performance scene. But she’s no stranger to San Francisco. The rising 30-year-old performance artist, actor, and playwright credits visits to the Bay Area with some formative experiences, including her introduction to pole dancing — subject of her acclaimed one-woman play, Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail — and the invention of her drag persona, Hardy Dardy, the Michigan patriarch of her new multimedia, multi-character musical solo show, The Dardy Family Home Movies by Stephen Sondheim by Erin Markey. So it’s fitting as well as plain badass that the new piece receives its world premiere here, this week, under the auspices of the San Francisco Film Society’s KinoTek program.

Why SFFS? Markey was last out in San Francisco in 2009, on a bill with Beth Lisick and Tara Jepsen, when Film Society programmer Sean Uyehara saw her and was floored. “I thought, ‘This woman is going to be famous,'” remembers Uyehara, who describes Markey’s ferocious ability to woo and alarm and audience at almost the same moment. He stayed in touch. Later, Markey’s proposed Dardy Family piece, which avails itself of several screens for live camera feeds and pre-recorded video projections, made it a candidate for KinoTek, Uyehara’s bailiwick — though he admits it’s the most theater-like piece SFFS has taken onboard since initiating the cross-platform programming stream in the mid-aughts.

“We’re presenting a play, essentially,” says Uyehara, adding, “It’s based around this idea of home movies and how these home movies interact with a ‘normal’ Midwestern family. So I could see the potential for a hybrid program developed out of that.”

Markey, reared in the South and Midwest, studied theater and gender studies at the University of Michigan, where renowned NEA Four performance artist and faculty member Holly Hughes became a critical influence. Today she enjoys a growing reputation as an intensely charismatic shape-shifter in the queer performance and cabaret scenes, and a sharp and daring actor at large (her turn in an intimate, site-specific production of Green Eyes, a violent and erotic Tennessee Williams one-act, won her raves at last January’s Under the Radar Festival, in a production now headed to Boston.) I spoke with Markey by phone from New York about the background to The Dardy Family Home Movies.

San Francisco Bay Guardian You’ve said you became a stripper to save money to move to New York, but were inspired by the pole dancers you’d first seen in SF. It almost sounds like a post-graduate program for you in performance. Was it a big adjustment?  

Erin Markey It was a big adjustment. The dynamics between the girls that work there are really complicated. I knew I was leaving, so I had a different relationship to it than most. But it was hugely influential. It’s such an isolated, specific, weird context, with arbitrary sets of rules that you can only figure out by doing it wrong. It was almost the perfect thing to do for somebody who was studying queer studies and theater practice as well. It was constantly surprising me, and defying everything that I was reading about, in terms of feminism. Because there are camps — people being pro-porn or anti-porn, for example.

But it’s just so complicated. There’s almost nothing else to do but make creative work around it, just to reflect and acknowledge how complicated it is. I think it does that work much more service than being just “for” or “against.” The experience really changed my relationship to storytelling. Performing there feels really similar to performing for any crowd. But in that context you never know what exploitation means, if you’re being exploited or if you’re exploiting them because you’re affecting this interest. It feels similar to acting and doing cabaret and stuff like that. So I tried to tease out what felt the most sincere, even if it was really absurdist and ridiculous — that feels most sincere sometimes. Those just go in and out: being really absurd and being hard and real.

SFBG Can you explain who the Dardys are?

EM Actually, maybe 10 years ago, I don’t remember when, but in San Francisco I went to a drag king competition. There was a workshop, and I took it. We were all making drag king characters. I used to sing a little song in my head all the time, like a gibberish song: “hardee, dardee, hardee, har …” So I just decided to name my guy Hardy Dardy. He ended up being my go-to drag persona. He’s actually been in almost every show I’ve ever made on some level, even if he wasn’t named as Hardy Dardy. He was in Puppy Love, and he was in a show that I made about being my sister’s maid of honor.

He had his own show called The Curse, which was talk-show style. During that show, I ended up having to flesh out more of his life. His wife was first introduced in Puppy Love, actually. He mentions briefly that he went to the strip club when he got upset one day. So Molly became his wife, and I became very interested in her. She’s definitely not my mom, but she could be very good friends with her. I started making the Dardy Family Home Movies based on Molly’s experience mostly — her dealing with her kids leaving home, and having to re-understand her entire identity. I watched my mom go through that. All she wanted to do was be a good stay-at-home mom. It’s not like other professions where the older you get supposedly the higher up you get in the ranks, and the more you become what you wanted to be in the first place. You prepare these children to leave and be good people, and then they leave.

SFBG It’s sort of built-in obsolescence.

EM I thought about that a lot when I thought about the women at the strip club — how they depreciate in value over time, because youth is a really important part of making money in that context. It seems like this dark cloud hanging over these women’s heads. As an actor, I know what the value of being young is in this industry. It hangs over our heads as well. This show [includes] the conversation between Molly and her daughter, Kelly — who’s “a lot like me,” heh, heh — and who’s ultimately talking about being a performer. These things I’m talking about aren’t crazy explicit [in the show] necessarily. It’s a family of characters that I’ve been developing over years. But in the subtext of everything, this stuff is definitely there. 


Through Dec. 11

Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m., $15

SFFS New People Cinema

1746 Post, SF


Homeland insecurity



THEATER The immigrant experience has some familiar familial dynamics across the board. Parents, for instance, can easily discover their Americanized children becoming embarrassed by the older generation’s “foreign” ways. Un-hip parents are the bane of any child’s existence, but dad walking around the mall in a gallibaya doesn’t make it any easier (as hip as that may sound to you or me). Allegiances potentially strain much further, however, when the immigrant story gets entwined with a little narrative called the “war on terror.”

That’s the volatile mixture at the center of Yussef El Guindi’s Language Rooms, a somewhat uneven but ultimately worthwhile new play that leverages absurdist comedy to interrogate the perversion of basic human sympathies post-9/11. Seattle-based playwright El Guindi (whose other Bay Area productions include Back of the Throat and the hilarious Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes) well knows that the transformation of nightmare into bureaucratic routine is a reality sometimes best broached in a comic vein, since comedy has such a ready taste for the contortions of Orwellian doublethink.

Set in 2005 (when Guantanamo and CIA “black sites” were still a Bush thing, not an enduring bipartisan shame), the play, directed by Evren Odcikin for co-producers Golden Thread and Asian American Theater Company, takes inspiration from the 2003 case of James J. Yee, the Muslim Chinese American and US Army chaplain accused (but never convicted) of espionage while ministering to Guantanamo detainees.

El Guindi centers the action on a bad day in the otherwise workaday life of Ahmed (James Asher), a second-generation Arab American working as a translator and interrogator for an unnamed department in the vast multi-agency American security state. It’s not a glamorous job. The workplace is comprised of bland rooms (courtesy of scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi): white panel walls and mismatched furniture dingy under fluorescent tubes, a metal filing cabinet in the corner, some hulking box cloaked by a sheet, and a metal rolling tray piled with the ordinarily harmless contents of your average utility drawer. The only relief to the eye comes from a plastic container of honey shaped like a bear, which sits merrily beside the other clutter atop a small wooden desk.

In a rude awakening from his somnambulant occupation, Ahmed has learned from colleague Nasser (William Dao) — the only other Muslim working in their unit — that he’s under suspicion for his failure to adequately meld with his American fellows. This suspicion apparently rests on Ahmed’s noted reluctance toward public showering as well as his failure to show up at a recent Super Bowl party. Ahmed, playing ingenuously to the cameras he knows are fixed in every corner of every room, is taken aback and increasingly worried. When he’s called into a meeting with his boss, Kevin (a winningly subtle Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), the older African American man seems to be both interrogating Ahmed and trying to relate to his nervous subordinate with a paternal regard — assuring him he’s experienced divided loyalties himself during his teeth-cutting days as a COINTELPRO provocateur among black nationalists.

Ahmed, desperate to prove himself red-white-and-blue, finally gets his chance when he’s handed a new prisoner to interrogate — a man who turns out to be his estranged father (played with agile charm by Terry Lamb). If the set-up initially feels a little neat, it’s at this stage that the play gets really interesting and the dialogue most subtle, as father and son act as mutual confessors amid the distorting input from surrogate father (and stand-in for the nation state) Kevin. As the play’s title suggests, the freighted specificity of language is at the center of it all — a theme never more poignantly conveyed than when Ahmed’s father recounts the first English words he taught Ahmed years earlier, when America was still a hopeful dream a father was instilling in his son.

Ahmed has made good on that dream, while also perverting it out of recognition. “Better to ride the lion than be eaten by it,” offers his father encouragingly. But a moment later his father is turning over in his hands the tools of Ahmed’s trade with wonder and disgust. “It is not for you to get me out of here,” his father decides. “It is for me to get you out.” *


Through Dec. 11

Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. (no show Thurs/24); Sun, 7 p.m., $20-$28

Thick House

1695 18th St., SF



GOLDIES 2011: Philip Huang


GOLDIES An air of perspiration-inducing mystery attends an appearance by Philip Huang. Something in the playfully relaxed mien of this queer performance artist just whispers loose cannon. A notable short story writer who reinvented himself a few years ago with help from artist friend Khalil Sullivan, Huang now crops up in a variety of contexts — including a steadily expanding parade of YouTube high jinks — but is inclined to épater le bourgeois whatever the occasion. And when fired up he’s got an edge like a rotary saw.

Since college in the 1990s, Huang has lived in a rent-controlled apartment a few blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus, a modest residence also known as the Dana Street Theater. Shortly after christening his bedroom a neighborhood playhouse, Huang founded a DIY delicacy known as the Home Theater Festival. Accomplished with little more than a website and the willing participation of friends and strangers around the world, 2011’s second annual HTF included 30 shows across the Bay Area, New York, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Australia.

Huang’s own work, wildly ludicrous and rigorously un-PC, is that of a conceptual comedian. Context is often key (arriving at an anti-gay demonstration, for instance, with a rice cooker pot on his head, a homemade sign reading “No Fags on the Moon,” and a bounding enthusiasm that flummoxes demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, and cops alike). He travels somewhat incongruously in contemporary dance and performance circles, including recent appearances at Too Much! and the National Queer Arts Festival. “There are a lot of shows that will be like, modern dance, modern dance, modern dance — me — modern dance, lesbian poetry,” he allows.

Many times audiences don’t know how to react to his performances. Huang says he likes that confusion.

“A lot of shows are like, this is a serious moment; this is a funny moment,” explains the lanky, Taiwanese-born 30-something over tea at his Dana Street abode. “But it’s very tricky, those moments when you pull the rug out. That’s a precious moment for me. The room — you’re in it. You’re aliiiive!”

Hailed in his early 20s as the “next big thing” in Asian American fiction, early success drove Huang along a roller coaster track of highs and lows ending in career paralysis. Then the thought struck him he didn’t need a publisher or much of anything else to put on a show in his bedroom. That ultimately necessitated founding a theater festival to showcase the work, and an ethic of self-sufficiency Huang now shares with other artists he sees in need of a similar epiphany.

“I just got sick of this mentality artists had,” explains Huang. “They were always only receiving resources, and institutions were always only giving resources. The Home Theater Festival is about putting an idea into practice, but also it’s to change people’s mindset. No, we’re self-generative. We create opportunities. We can do it ourselves. We can make a name for ourselves. We can do everything we want right now with nothing extra added.”

It came from Spacey



THEATER A single black armchair center stage and one big fat “Now” projected on the back wall signal our anticipation pretty neatly — of a famous opening line, of the famous actor about to utter it, and in the feeling that it is something more than a history play unfolding here, at this moment, in a city and country thoroughly and unprecedentedly “occupied” with political matters. A big, pungent production of Richard III? Yes, now sounds about right.

The production running through this week at the Curran Theatre (courtesy of SHN) originated in June at London’s Old Vic, where its star, Oscar-winning American film actor Kevin Spacey, has served as artistic director since 2003. Its trans-Atlantic tour is part of the Bridge Project (co-produced by the Old Vic, New York’s BAM, and Neal Street Productions), which brings together onstage a mix of American and British theater talent. Director Sam Mendes, also a well-known name in Hollywood since he and Spacey both won Oscars for 1999’s American Beauty, offers (despite some unevenness in tone and persuasiveness across the cast) a generally fleet and sure modern-dress staging of one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, helpfully subdivided with dramatically underscored chapter headings projected during transitions, and building to a rousing climax over the live rumble and pounding of multiple tenor and bass drums.

Tom Piper’s set, meanwhile, presents a cold-looking and always nearly empty room, covered in dull white paint turning to dishwater gray over its weathered surfaces, and lined with doors in a suggestion of multiplying intrigue as well as history’s endless entrances and exits. The subdued lighting (in Paul Pyant’s design) accents the tarnished look of a world beset by obscure plots and creeping doom, while from time to time casting characters’ shadows onto the walls like ulterior selves.

In the title role, Spacey delivers a crowd-spoiling yet seriously potent performance as the quintessence of power-mad ambition at the highest levels of the social hierarchy. Appearing in that center armchair as the play begins, in disheveled modern black-tie evening dress and a paper crown, Spacey’s Richard is a reluctant celebrant in a “weak, piping time of peace,” who not only aspires to reach the throne by ruthlessly doing in all family and familiars in his way, but who takes exquisite pleasure in sharing with the audience the graphic details of the journey. His own party is just beginning, and won’t stop until combined forces wipe King Richard out on Bosworth Field, ending a bloody two-year reign and an English imperial dynasty.

Spacey’s Richard is vocally and physically powerful, well shaped in every detail of its unshapely protagonist-villain. His wooing of Anne (a sharp, sultry Annabel Scholey), for example, in a famous early scene, or his impatient proxy wooing later on of a second wife via the young girl’s mother (the Duchess of York, played commandingly by Haydn Gwynne), are as comically subtle and rich as they are virile and startlingly explosive. A rare moment of self-doubt in Richard, wrestling with a late-blooming attack of conscience, is also beautifully handled.

Spacey’s enjoyably vivid interpretation lies in a compelling blend of sociopathically cool, intellectual charm and an underlying animal drive manifest in the Z-shaped posture of Shakespeare’s physically “unfinished” hunchback. When standing still, Spacey’s Richard balances on a twisted leg bound up in a metal brace and perched on the ball of the foot, his head twisting and jutting, with one arm wrapped in a black leather glove and the other tucked up high like a fledgling wing. But when this incarnate of political malevolence moves, he flies around the stage with the quick and decisive energy of a once-wounded creature long-adapted to its deformity, an angry raptor on a metal cane. It’s that two-sided quality that makes good sense of the play’s moral vision too, which draws so forceful and timely a distinction between citizen-duping outward show and the inner appetites driving a ruling class of cannibals. *



Wed/26-Fri/28, 7:30 p.m.; Sat/29, 2 and 8 p.m., $35–$150

Curran Theatre

445 Geary, SF



Awake and singing



THEATER The company members onstage had started out just a couple of hours ago in literal harmony, joined in song. Now everyone appears spent, heated, and confused. They wonder what has happened to them. They wonder if they’ve lost their way; if their extraordinary effort and success over recent years has been worth anything. It’s a moment of truth, fraught with personal and collective drama, overshadowed by desperate and tumultuous times. The Group Theatre, arguably the most influential theater in American history, is about to disband.

At this point Harold Clurman, played by actor Michael Navarra, steps forward. In 1930, Clurman (with his Group co-founders Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg) had led a year’s worth of Friday-night talks in which he laid out, in passionate ramblings, a vision for an American theater that didn’t yet exist. A decade later, much as the venture began, it ends with a Clurman speech. The few succinct lines shaped by Navarra seem to cradle for a moment the strife and disorder onstage, ringing out an eloquent justification of theater as a deep and enduring social enterprise.

Soon after this scene, the first run-through of In the Maze of Our Own Lives concludes on a rehearsal day in late September, but not without a subtle sense of histories converging. If playwright and director Corey Fischer drew on Clurman’s own language in fashioning this bit of rousing dialogue, its spirit no doubt draws too from three fervent decades with the Jewish Theatre (formerly A Traveling Jewish Theatre), his own well-known ensemble company founded with Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg in 1978. In a chance conflation of theatrical destinies, the premiere of this ambitious, intelligent, soulful new play opens what TJT has announced will be its final season.

Sitting in roughly the middle of the house at the Jewish Theatre’s Florida Street home, Fischer thanks his cast and asks the production’s stage manager for the run time. After already massive cutting and reshaping, it seems the play could probably still stand to lose a few minutes from each act. But Fischer seems pleased with the results so far. The cast’s eight actors, meanwhile, are quietly taking in their own sense of the play as a whole, now that it’s fully up on its feet. Naomi Newman (who will debut a new play of her own about Grace Paley later in the season) has been getting her first glimpse of Maze from a seat in the third row. Not far away, outgoing artistic director Aaron Davidman has sheets of fresh notes to deliver to Fischer. It was Davidman who, five years ago, first discussed and developed with Fischer the idea of a play about the Group Theatre, after both had read John Lahr’s profile of Clifford Odets (the Group’s famous actor-turned-playwright) in the New Yorker.

It struck them both immediately, reading about Odets, that the Group was a natural, necessary subject for TJT to explore. “I don’t think the Group Theatre was ever self-consciously trying to do anything Jewish,” explains Fischer. “It just happened that a lot of them — Strasberg, Clurman, Odets, Stella Adler — they were coming directly from the only tradition of Jewish theater that ever existed: [the Yiddish theater]. It was more that in their focus on their America, that had to include the immigrant experience. That’s what they knew.

Of course, the breakthrough for Odets was writing about the people he knew. That’s what opened it up for a generation of writers, and not just theater writers. Morris Dickstein talks about Odets influencing Bernard Malamud and Grace Paley — which was fascinating because they happen to be the two non-theater writers whose work we have done the most through our Word for Word collaborations.”

A subject as grand and complex as the Group Theatre — which spawned many famous productions, plays, and artistic careers for stage and screen, influencing theater and filmmaking, theater training, and American literature at large — would present any playwright with a supreme challenge. This first run-through was proof Fischer and his colleagues had captured a coherent narrative with several key, interlocking strands in two well-shaped acts together totaling not much more than two hours. Although Fischer would eventually cut another 25 pages from the script before rehearsals were over, the play and the staging — which uses an appealing mix of media, original music, and ensemble movement to create a delicate dialogue between one company and its historical subject — was coming across persuasively.

In five years of researching the history of the Group, Fischer says he grew to appreciate a connection to these forebears he had not recognized at all when he, Newman, and Greenberg founded their company in Los Angeles (TJT relocated to the Bay Area in 1982). Fischer relates to the commitment, social and artistic, that drew the members of the Group together.

“Cheryl [Crawford] has this line, ‘We never used to fight like this when we were starving.’ Of course it’s not the whole story but, in other words, they came together because they needed each other to simply do the work they were called to do. They were a remarkable group, whatever their individual failings,” he continues. “What they had in common was they didn’t want to do commercial mainstream theater as it existed then. Clurman says of Chekhov’s characters: ‘I like them, they’re full of life, they’re not depressed, but they have no outlets in their society, so nothing means anything.’ Clurman gave Friday night talks for a year so people could just come and listen to this guy, this crazy rant, but that was the impulse.

I can’t remember who was just saying this about the current situation — I don’t know if it was about Wall Street, but this whole notion of talking crazy until enough people are listening — these world-changing movements start with one person and then grow to a few people in a small room. That’s how it starts.”


Through Nov. 13

Previews Wed/19, 8 p.m.; opens Thurs/20, 8 p.m.; runs Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (also Oct. 30, Nov. 6, and 13, 7 p.m.), $15-$35

The Jewish Theatre

470 Florida, SF




Not new, but renewing



THEATER New plays are usually big selling points for theaters, and they have a certain pizzazz for audiences too, but their power to renew interest in theater is a different matter. The best play seen on a local stage so far this season is not a new play, as it happens, but an old one, with a big name attached and a Pulitzer in tow. But Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966) reminds you why people go to the theater in the first place.

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre opens its 20th anniversary season with a terrific revival of this invigorating play, set amid the deceptive comfort of an upper-class drawing room (realized in unfussy but suitably expansive detail by scenic designer Richard Olmsted) and never far from its well-appointed and well-loved liquor cabinet. Here, aging richies Agnes (a serenely superior Kimberly King) and Tobias (a gently affable, subtly perplexed Ken Grantham) have settled into a tentative bargain called marriage, the chop on the otherwise placid surface coming only from Agnes’s tippling live-in sister, Claire (a strong, almost swaggeringly tough Jamie Jones), and the couple’s spoiled serial divorcée of a daughter, Julia (a vital, nicely wound-up Carrie Paff).

Into their collective, quotidian sniping and maneuvering comes, unexpectedly, a touch of the paranormal in the form of old friends Harry (a quietly overwhelmed Charles Dean) and Edna (Anne Darragh, projecting an eerie combination of panic and power), who arrive on their doorstep as supplicants fleeing an unknown terror. Suddenly, hard on the heels of peacemaker Tobias’ anecdote about a cat he once had put down after it stopped liking him, the patriarch confronts a supreme moral challenge: what to do with Harry and Edna? What to do, for that matter, with the whole family?

Enduringly interesting and moving, A Delicate Balance (and its dream cast of veteran actors shrewdly helmed by artistic director Tom Ross) revels in the niceties and byways of language even as it limns the ineffable breach between individual and other, madness and sanity, unforgiving fact and accommodating memory — the whole teetering “balancing act” that plays out across a pair of long evenings into a flat, hazy dawn.

Albee’s mode here is a sort of torn naturalism: a naturalism into which something incomprehensible intrudes, making the artificiality of received reality suddenly, disturbingly apparent. For the terror that descends on scared, and vaguely scary, Harry and Edna — driving them and their “plague” into the midst of Tobias and Agnes’ home — that terror emerges from the same waters Tobias and Agnes inhabit. It swarms the land and then, just as unexpectedly, it recedes, like a tsunami that leaves things more or less as before, at least on the surface.

You could call this word-drunk, witty, and boldly imaginative drama an endlessly engaging exploration of the phrase “domestic harmony” — in all its fear-bound resignation, calculation, and codependency. You could also call it a philosophical musing on the problem of community and the obligations we social animals owe one another. But definitions are almost beside the point with a great play because it’s too alive for any label, always sliding out from under it.

What is certain is that a play like this leaves you awake and wandering around the world you share with it. It also, less happily, makes a regular theatergoer realize how these days many new plays (those being produced locally, that is) have been forgettably thin, however clever or amusing. Even Aurora, which does an admirable job with the Albee play, last season premiered one called Collapse full of the typical vices: a play whose bid for social relevance, lacking any significant insight or imagination, remains only superficially meaningful. Comfortable platitudes and conventional tricks substitute too often for intellectual and aesthetic daring. Who could say that about A Delicate Balance



Through Oct. 23

Tues. and Sun., 7 p.m. (also Sun., 2 p.m.); Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., $10-48

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk.

(510) 843-4822


Still weird after all these years


THEATER Here’s a preliminary accounting from the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which remarkably turns the big two-oh this year. (There’s a nifty 2012 wall calendar to mark the occasion available somewhere in the Exit Theatre complex, traditional nerve center for the lottery-based festival started by Exit stalwarts Christina Augello and Richard Livingston.)

Opening night’s grab bag was another of those half-arbitrary groupings that ends up feeling so thematically right you can’t help getting a little creeped out. It started with Angela Neff’s sharp and poignant family tale, Another Picnic at the Asylum, the autobiographical story of her childhood (spent partly in the Bay Area) with seven siblings, a much put-upon young mother, and a wild, reckless, manic depressive cowboy crooner of a dad. Life with Father this ain’t, but the story’s gathering darkness is winningly offset by good-natured humor and an offbeat, almost zany embrace of eccentricity. Neff, a local writer-performer, works with only one prop — a simple wooden box — but you have no trouble imagining an entire landscape and cast of characters, including her intense, unpredictable father and his moth-to-flame charm. This is a well-honed show (developed with director David Ford), featuring vivid acting, nicely tailored prose, and a precise gestural vocabulary. A daughter’s complex fascination and frustration with a parent’s madness ultimately becomes not only the basis for a tribute, but a kind of afflatus too, as Neff reclaims a touch of her father’s larger-then-life scope as her own artistic inspiration.

There’s a similar alchemy underway in director Jeremy Aluma’s fantastic 4 Clowns. Rowdy, irreverent, totally inappropriate, slightly dangerous, and very funny, the titular madcaps — wonderfully individual performances unleashed with fine ensemble precision by Alexis Jones, Turner Munch, Raymond Lee, and Amir Levi — take their unsuspecting audience through the phases of life, dwelling on all its hideous temporal suffering with a macabre glee, accompanied by the fancy piano work of Mario Granville. Morbid curiosity, however, proves an invigorating tonic, beating back despair with fierce gallows humor as only a crazed ejaculating demon clown can.

Evan Kennedy’s Quatre-Vingt-Quatre, while the weakest of the three shows caught before print deadline, fits in pretty well with the fine line between terror and transcendence gracefully negotiated in the two shows above. Five actors in messy but iconic garb (a miner, a hunter, a strongman, a farmer, and a soldier) mince and mewl about the stage, counting off in French until they hit the magic number in the title with the aid of assorted instruments including an abacas. The play between order and chaos here extends subtly to various social norms and categories of existence, a clever calculus that offsets the otherwise wearying numbers game reminiscent of the pedagogical Dada of Sesame Street


Through Sun/18, $7-$10

Exit Theatre

156 Eddy, SF

(415) 673-3847


It’s people!



THEATER Last Thursday afternoon, the floor before the stage at Z Space was strewn with dollar-store paraphernalia, neon-colored wigs, and the odd piece of kitchenware. On the stage itself, near the front, ran a long makeshift video screen about four-and-a-half feet high. Immediately behind that, at regular intervals, four small video cameras on thin stands faced the back of the stage. Caden Manson, New York–based Big Art Group’s artistic director, had been leading a workshop all week in performance media techniques for about 15 locals (most of them active in the dance-performance scene) but today they were crafting something that would actually be a part of this week’s much anticipated Big Art Group premiere, The People: San Francisco.

To that end, performers picked through the detritus on the floor and fashioned neo-classical costumes for themselves: a broom brush for a centurion’s plume, pot lids for shields, a colander for a battle helmet, a table cloth for a toga, an incongruous toy gun, a festive pair of streamers on sticks, a black cap with beaded veil, swords, plastic flowers, and other pop neo-classical accoutrement. “If anybody wants a Molotov cocktail, there’s four of them right there,” offers one of the group’s members helpfully.

By the time they had assembled themselves on stage they had become a strikingly photogenic band of miscreants and martyrs, like the crew of the Bad Ship Lollipop. Manson, a 40ish blond with an equanimous mien and contrastingly subdued in black coat and blue sneakers, announces they have ten minutes to produce a narrative tableau in an epic vein. Maybe because most of these folks — among them Evan Johnson, Ben Randle, Honey McMoney, Maryam Rostami, Laura Arrington, Rachael Dichter, and Sara Kraft — have worked together before, this all happens surprisingly on schedule.

Manson — who with a few directorial adjustments soon has them all grandly and neatly materializing on the video screen at the front of the stage — explains to me that the pop-up tableau of civil strife the performers have just concocted will act as one of several backdrops to passages from the Oresteia, the ancient trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, which itself acts as counterpoint to the series of contemporary interviews of random Bay Area citizens that forms a key component of The People.

The results you can see for yourself this weekend, as Florida Street outside Z Space (formerly Theater Artaud) becomes a re-imagined public square where a localized discussion of democracy gets played out in a big way, through massive video projections, personal perspectives, and live performance in a dazzlingly intricate and thought-provoking merger of bodies and images, the epic and the mundane, the spectacular and the quotidian.

Big Art Group’s last appearance in the Bay Area was 2009’s deft and rowdy “action media performance,” SOS, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Founded and led by Manson and executive director and writer Jemma Nelson, Big Art’s distinctive, highly integrated blend of theater and media into something it calls “real-time film” was the basis then for a rousing camp send-up and critique of this culture’s media-immersive materialism and its social ramifications.

The People: San Francisco takes Big Art’s fundamental approach to performance and democratizes it. The fourth installment of a serial project begun in 2007 in Polverigi, Italy (before moving onto Halle, Germany and Salzburg, Austria), The People was designed with two goals in mind, according to Manson. One was to craft a collaborative project that might allow Manson and Nelson greater contact with the communities they’ve been regularly traveling through on Big Art’s annual performance tours. The tradeoff would be some of the precision and expertise on display in shows like SOS for an immediate and interactive bead on a specific locale. In the Bay Area, this contact was managed through three host organizations: Marin’s Headlands Center for the Arts (where Manson and Nelson were in residency a few months ago), YBCA, and Z Space. Through this relationship, the project gathered some 40 hours of taped interviews with 42 subjects (including this writer) who were asked an identical set of questions about terrorism, justice, democracy, and war. (Manson was last week still carefully whittling down those 40 hours to a manageable 16 minutes, but notes the remainder will be archived online).

The other goal was related but more specific and immediate: “At the time we started this, in 2007, Bush was in office and he was always talking about promoting democracy,” explains Manson. “We were touring all over Europe at this time, and we’re wondering: What exactly does that mean, democracy? So we started asking. It’s the first time we’ve asked here, in the United States.”

The timing, coming just after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is auspicious (if coincidental). As a localized act of public discussion of words like terrorism, justice, democracy, and war, The People reclaims from the centers of power and their diffuse mouthpieces the shibboleths and catchwords that normally act as so many parade floats leading us all down blind alleys, if not over cliffs. Wasn’t this the real discussion we should have had ten years ago? Some did; some tried and were shouted down. This weekend, at least, the conversation continues. 


Fri/16-Sat/17, 8 p.m., $10

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

(415) 978-2787



Grinning and bearing it


THEATER A sweet, normally placid Southern working-class wifey named Nan Carter (Erin Gilley) — no relation to Jimmy, but oh how for some reason she wishes! — takes revenge on her abusive husband Kyle (Patrick Jones) with the help of two close friends, a roll of duct tape, a fresh deer carcass, and a working knowledge of the dramatic arts in Crowded Fire’s world premiere of playwright Lauren Gunderson’s light but witty comedy.

Taped to a ratty living room chair as the play opens, Kyle (a scruffy, gruff, gritty charmer in Jones’s skillful rendering) is getting his comeuppance in the form of a theatrical performance. Center stage is aggrieved wife Nan as herself, with admirable supporting work from new pal Sweetheart (Andrea Snow), a.k.a. Peaches, a stripper and amateur thesp who plays “Kyle” in a series of scenes meant to detail the real Kyle’s wicked ways, and make manifest Nan’s heretofore disregarded perspective. Out of the wings and through the front door also comes Simon Beaufort (Reggie D. White), Nan’s longtime best friend and champion as well as somewhat bitchy cheerleader (complete with pompoms).

Meanwhile, Kyle is prepped with hunks of venison and plastic bottles of honey for the bears that apparently still roam the mountains of North Georgia. His instinct, under the circumstances, is to pitch some overdue woo to his wavering wife, as fast as possible. Hence, more or less, the title of Gunderson’s play, which repeats a famously evocative stage direction in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. The play has less to do with Shakespeare per se, however, than the role of imagination and theater as a vehicle for personal and communal transcendence.

Not to put too fine a point on it. Exit is a spirited comedy, able and clever, with likeable performances under Desdemona Chiang’s sure direction. There’s a trickle of treacle running through it, but Gunderson has a fine way with comic dialogue and demonstrates restraint in the sentiment department, while pivoting respectfully around the subject of domestic violence. At the same time, the invention and exploration feel tame for all the wild life running around the text — which also includes more arbitrary flights, like Nan’s emphasis on the words and quote-unquote wisdom of former president Carter, which flavor her dialogue like a sweet but vague slathering of peanut sauce. Moreover, the plot never holds much in way of suspense, the moral coming way out front. In fact, this easy pleasures here bring to mind another new play running on a local stage just now (and not just for its animal-imagery magnetism), Kim Rosenstock’s adept but ultimately glancing dramedy Tigers Be Still at SF Playhouse.



Through Sept. 17

Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., $10–$35

Boxcar Playhouse

505 Natoma, SF www.crowdedfire.org

For the fall of it



FALL ARTS Puppets, fanciful forms of democracy, and disfigured villains are leitmotifs beyond the Beltway this season, as the following theater and performance highlights suggest.

Stuffed and Unstrung Bad puppets, puppets misbehaving, puppets you won’t see on Sesame Street, puppets you don’t want to meet on a darkened street. Eighty of them. And six improvising comedians too: Henson puppeteers gone wild. (Brian Henson, that is, son of puppeteering parents Jim and Jane). Co-presented by SF Sketchfest. (Through Sat/27, Curran Theatre; shnsf.com.)

Roughin’ It: Theater. Oysters. Campfire. Booze. Is one of these things not like the others? No, they are all just like the others. Now you can yell oyster in a crowded campfire and drink like an actor. It seems this unique opportunity (one night only, this weekend) arises because PianoFight is couch surfing right now, very near the actual surf in Tomales Bay. The show-show part of this show consists of new material by local playwrights writing plays for this very moment in time at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company in Point Reyes Station, just in case you were wondering about it. Round-trip shuttle ride from SF available for a few extra clams, and dollar oysters for a dollar. (Sat/27, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, Point Reyes Station; pianofight.com.)

A Delicate Balance Aurora Theatre turns 20 this season too. It has chosen to celebrate by kicking things off with a production of Edward Albee’s great and so great play, A Delicate Balance. And to include in the cast local luminaries Anne Darragh, Charles Dean, and Carrie Paff. This is all just an excellent idea. (Sept. 2-Oct. 9, Aurora Theatre; auroratheatre.org.)

San Francisco Fringe Festival, the 20th annual for god’s sake. Forty-four shows from all over, all over 12 days, all over the lovely Tenderloin. Good theater very cheap, and bad theater, also very cheap. The lottery-based, snob-resistant Fringe: this is what democracy looks like. (Sept. 7–18, Exit Theatre; www.sffringe.org.)

The People: San Francisco Corporations are people too, my friend. So was Hitler. Even I am people apparently. There’s a lesson there somewhere in this Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and Z Space co-production, as the New York–based performance team of Caden Manson and Jemma Nelson (makers of 2009’s wowing S.O.S. at YBCA) bring to the street outside Z Space the local installment of their globetrotting site-specific democracy-curious spectacle, featuring live performance and real-time gi-normous video projections. I’m told there will also be taco trucks. But really: no way you want to miss Big Art Group. (Sept. 16–17, Z Space; bigartgroup.com)

3 For All Maybe the SF Improv Festival has whetted your appetite. Or maybe you already know that this longstanding, outstanding long-form improv trio comprised of Rafe Chase, Stephen Kearin, and Tim Orr are always varied and strange and wonderful. (Sept. 16–17, Bayfront Theatre; www.improv.org.)

Frankenstein Independent Eye’s Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller present their take on Mary Shelley’s gothic (and profoundly modern) tale, using a trio of actors, a moody mix of sound and image, and their exquisitely crafted puppets. (Oct. 7–30, 6th Street Playhouse; 6thstreetplayhouse.com.)

Richard III Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious with this fall theater-season spectacular starring Kevin Spacey. M’lord. What hump? (Oct. 19–29, Curran Theatre; shnsf.com.)

Desdemona Responding to internationally acclaimed director Peter Sellars’s 2009 staging of Othello, author Toni Morrison and African singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré, together with Sellars himself, channel a conversation between Shakespeare’s unlucky heroine and her African nurse, Barbary, in this intimate and intriguing U.S. premiere. (Oct. 26–29, Zellerbach Playhouse; calperfs.berkeley.edu.)

Endgame and Watt Samuel Beckett is not the Gloomy Gus everybody likes to think. All right, sure, he kind of is. But he’s also very funny. And I’m told tidy. He’s also a genius, damn it, and when it comes to interpretations of Beckett nobody has the cred that these Irish cats do, in Gate Theatre of Dublin’s rare visit to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse. Starring Barry McGovern, who can’t go on but will go on, in the great play Endgame, as well as his own selections from the novel Watt. (Nov. 17–20, Zellerbach Playhouse; calperfs.berkeley.edu.)