Devil times four

Pub date April 25, 2006
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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Campo Santo’s Haze slips comfortably into the 10th anniversary season of a company that’s built its rep (repertoire and reputation) on close collaborations with leading American fiction writers. This lean, shrewd, and forceful staging of stories by Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Denis Johnson, and Vendela Vida turns a literary buffet into a raw and atmospheric performance piece. Call it tragicomic episodes loitering at the brink on the vaporous edges of an otherwise solid sense of self or just a rambling confession addressed, "Dear Satan …"

In Vida’s What Happens When These Things Happen (the first chapter of her novel And Now You Can Go), the narrator (Catherine Castellanos) recounts the day her 21-year-old self was accosted by a man with a gun in New York’s Riverside Park. Eggers’s piece, Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance, takes a hilarious road trip to Bakersfield with the slightly unhinged Fish (Danny Wolohan), who is obligated to visit his pathetic cousin (Donald E. Lacy Jr.), a veritable suicide manqué, hospitalized after yet another bungled attempt on his own life. Then Lacy gets into the driver’s seat for Diaz’s high-spirited tale, The Sun, The Moon, The Stars, playing a guilty two-timer intent on salvaging his deteriorating relationship with the perfect girl, Magdalena (Luera), by taking her on a vacation to the Dominican Republic, his (and the author’s) home country, where he may have to settle for an uncomfortable moment of enlightenment in some sacred cave.

The carefully arranged stories flow smoothly into one another. Words are passed like batons between storyteller-protagonists, while a few mysterious lines from that letter to Lucifer wend their way through the evening in lonely and darkly comical reverie before finally roosting in the Starlight Recovery Center, temporary home to manic letter-writer Mark Cassandra (Wolohan) in Johnson’s Starlight on Idaho. Despite another devilishly sharp and boisterous performance by Wolohan, this thematic pulse actually loses some strength by the end, ironically, in Johnson’s funny and beautifully written but more episodic narrative, along with some of the focus and cohesion of the play as a whole.

Still, Haze‘s blend of text and mise-en-scène succeeds throughout in fresh and winning ways (perhaps nowhere as effectively as in Vida’s opening story). Director Sean San José, who concentrates more on tone than on the baroque inventiveness of a Word for Wordstyle approach to the verbatim staging of literature, garners bold and enjoyable performances from his four actors and skillfully manages the spaces, onstage and between the words, left open for the play of imagination. To this end, Joshua McDermott’s spare stage comes partially illuminated by shifting centers of light pitched onto the floor out of large four-sided shades overhead. When not actively participating in a scene, members of the ensemble often slump in half-shadow against the exposed brick at either side. Meanwhile, Victor Cartagena’s video installation loops a few select images on a screen at the back or projects them onto the walls left and right, and David Molina’s delicate soundscape adds still another moody dimension in which to roam.

Small Tragedy: Now and then

Tragedy seemed like such a simple, straightforward thing to the ancient Greeks. Why is it so hard for us to grasp? All that emphasis on hubris, pity, and terror, nobody seems to know exactly what they’re really talking about. So why bother? Aurora Theatre inaugurates its new Global Age Project an initiative centered on work exploring life in the 21st century and beyond with the West Coast premiere of Small Tragedy, by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul), a play that slyly approaches the horrors of the war-torn modern age through the seemingly incongruous fumblings of a comically amateur production of Oedipus Rex.

It’s a great beginning to a lively backstage comedy that steadily becomes an engrossing reflection on tragedy in a time of ethnic cleansing. But one gets the sense, somewhere after the second act’s startling turn of events, that the playwright may have been less certain how to end his work. Moreover, the second act raises the dramatic ante considerably, but its refocusing on two of the six characters also leaves it a bit thinner by comparison. If not a perfect play, however, Small Tragedy especially as fueled by director Kent Nicholson’s fine and thoroughly enjoyable cast is a sharp and intriguing one. SFBG


Through Sat/29

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.

Intersection for the Arts

446 Valencia, SF


(415) 626-3311


Through May 14

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk


(510) 843-4822