The Cutting Ball Theater

Pub date November 5, 2008
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

If you were at the latest Cutting Ball show, avantgardARAMA!, you entered a theater that looked like an art installation, already buzzing and flickering with video images on a screen suspended in front of a shimmering mirror-box set, accompanied by a soundtrack of voices and droning tones. It was like some serenely wicked room in a purgatorial funhouse, where all you’ve been and all you might become could be reflected at you, from every possible angle, ad infinitum. As it turned out, it was an environment perfectly suited to the material sharply staged that evening: three short experimental plays on war, power, and betrayal by three women writers — Gertrude Stein, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Eugenie Chan — whose bold narrative loops and lacunae literally rebounded off the walls.

The stylish, jarring, exhilarating effect: our sleepwalking world was dramatically distilled into fractal-like figures that somehow made it real again. This is the oblique strategy of the Cutting Ball Theater, a passionately intelligent and skillful company with a declared commitment to poetic truths over superficial naturalism.

As it approaches its 10-year milestone, Cutting Ball transitions from dogged itinerancy into luxurious residency at Exit on Taylor, a satellite stage of the Exit Theater complex in the Tenderloin. Much as a ball rolls forward by turning full circle, the move marks something of a return for the company, which launched its career in a production of Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer at the Exit-sponsored San Francisco Fringe Festival in 1999.

"That was the last time you had to stand outside at 3 in the morning and camp out," associate artistic director and actor Paige Rogers recalls of that time, before the Fringe established its lottery system. Rogers, and husband and artistic director Rob Melrose, established both the company and a family that year, more or less simultaneously. Melrose did the camping out and rehearsed the play by night at an Alameda Catholic school where Rogers was teaching music.

(As with many a start-up theater, overlapping accommodations was the name of the tune: when the school’s principal expressed surprise at happening upon a late-night rehearsal of Foreman’s madcap dream-world in the kindergarten, Rogers deflected further inquiry by joyfully announcing, "Marilyn! I’m pregnant!")

Cutting Ball has mixed new plays and "re-visioned" classics ever since. The visual metaphor is apt since Cutting Ball productions are nothing if not strikingly designed. For years, the company has had a talented core of collaborators that includes designers Heather Basarab (lights), Cliff Caruthers (sound and electronic music), and Michael Locher (sets). Together in close collaboration with the astute, Yale-trained Melrose, they regularly produce some of the best designs to be found on any Bay Area stage, large or small. Add artistic associates like playwrights Kevin Oakes (2003’s The Vomit Talk of Ghosts) and Eugenie Chan (whose A Bone to Pick was a highlight of this theater season), as well as dependably strong acting from Rogers, Felicia Benefield, Chad Deverman, David Sinaiko, and David Westley Skillman, among others, and you have the makings of some great small theater.

The new residency marks another return. Its ninth season will be inaugurated by a rarely staged early play by Eugène Ionesco, Victims of Duty, a work Melrose says he’s waited 15 years to direct. Centering on the abrupt crisis-ridden invasion of a bourgeois couple’s placid bubble-world and their equally staid conceptions of theatrical art, Victims is a fever-dream of a play that not only sounds strikingly contemporary but echoes the company’s own MO. When theater "holds the mirror up to the world," it’s often the warped glass that furnishes the truest picture.