Nicole Gluckstern

Bee true


FILM It’s January, and our premiere German language film festival, Berlin and Beyond, is back to its rightful place on the cinematic calendar after a year off for regrouping, kicking off the neues Jahr with films from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland — as well as Turkey and France.

It’s not a bad way to begin 2014, unless your resolutions happen to be cutting back on bier and weltschmertz. Even though the B&B selections feel a bit dated — thanks, perhaps, to that one-year hiatus — there are still a few solid picks, including the Oscar-shortlisted Two Lives (2012). The documentary slate also holds plenty of appeal, with films that explore the globally human instincts to interfere, to intervene, and to seek atonement.

Swiss-German-Austrian documentary More Than Honey (2012) offers an alarmingly frank exposé of the ongoing demise of the domesticated honeybee from California to China, and the implications that this population implosion holds for the future of food production. Honey bumbles onscreen like a bee in flight, seemingly directionless yet always with purpose. Director Markus Imhoof weaves his family’s own history of beekeeping with that of modern-day bee husbandry, comparing the techniques of his ancestors with the equally old-school methods employed by elderly Swiss beekeep Fred Jaggi; the industrial-scale beekeeping of “nomadic” John Miller, who transports his bees cross-country each year to pollinate crops from Northern California to North Dakota; and the renegade experimentation with fearsome “killer bees” employed by Arizona-based Fred Terry, who equates Americans’ fear of Africanized bees to our more generalized fear of invasion.

Squeamish masses beware, you will be subjected to extreme close-ups of larval chambers, mid-air bee sex, and ruthless varroa mite infestations, while getting more information about queening, foulbrood, hand pollination, and bee-whispering than you probably realized existed. Like raw honey, the film is both sweet and murky, and the prospects for peaceful cohabitation with a creature driven to possible extinction thanks to our careless treatment of its preferred habitats, which also happen to be where all of our food is grown, don’t appear to be weighted on the side of good news.

One documentary with no less a fascinating premise, albeit a less polished presentation, is Miles and War (2013), which highlights the working life of professional conflict mediators. A side project filmed and directed by Anna Thoma — who has worked as a videographer for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, and therefore had privileged access to three of the Centre’s top mediators — Miles dives into conflict regions, where mediators arrange meetings between warlords or rebel factions and hammer out agreements between them in painstakingly slow increments. Or, as Centre co-founder and former Executive Director Martin Griffiths observes halfway through a negotiation so secret even Anna is not allowed to be in the room, “You need to be a lot more patient than you want to be, because everything is going to take so much longer than it needs to.”

In truth, because mediation is a confidential process, Thoma’s film winds up on the sidelines more often than not, a so-close-yet-so-far teaser of the tense, often solitary downtime between mediations, seemingly composed of endless one-sided phone calls, plane flights, and scheduling blips.

“It’s a life controlled by others,” Griffiths tells Thoma almost ruefully, before slipping away to his secret meeting. “[Waiting] for someone to say yes.”

Another love letter to an institution is Redemption Impossible, aka Unter Menschen (2012), a layered portrait of a group of “retired” lab chimps at Gut Aiderbichl, an Austrian animal sanctuary. After being infected with HIV and hepatitis, the chimps were isolated and experimented on by pharmaceutical company Immuno-AG, for several years, in a bid to discover an AIDS vaccine. When Immuno was taken over by Baxter in 2002, the vaccination trials ended, but the issue of where to send the infected, unsocialized lab chimps became an open controversy. After the chimps were shuffled around in various states of limbo, championed by their self-effacing caretaker Renate Foidl and her small staff of bright-eyed, ponytailed assistants, their care was taken on by GA in 2009, and their conditions increasingly improved upon.

Though the first half-hour of the film is a bit slow going — with real-time footage of the laborious, day-to-day care of the chimps, some of whom still live in isolation, too traumatized to be in the same room with their peers — the tale of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue surrounding their illegal importation into Europe adds a crime thriller dimension to the primates’ unfortunate plight. Money and influence, of course, is the root of this evil, and the implicated players represent a broad spectrum of political figures, big pharma, game poachers, and even wildlife conservation organizations.

But ultimately it’s the gradual rehabilitation of the chimps themselves that provides the documentary’s real human interest, and watching them step into the sunlight for the first time in 30 years is a triumphal catharsis.

“To me this does not really ‘make up for things’,” Foidl explains emotionally as she watches the outdoor play space being built after years in the planning stages. “It’s awful what was done to them. It can’t be undone … I don’t think there can be any talk of ‘redemption’.” Perhaps not, but compassion, it would appear, can still command a central role. *


Wed/15-Sun/19, $7-$20

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

Mon/20-Tue/21, $10


530 Bush, SF


Divining the entrails


LIT On the cover of Incurable Disorder (Last Gasp, 2013), an adolescent deer covered in a thick pelt of diamond-bright Swarovski crystals gazes calmly outward, as ruby-red rhinestone blood drips from the points where golden arrows sprout cruelly from its graceful frame. Upon opening the book we see the piece — The Folly of St. Hubertus, 2010 in its entirety. It’s a delicate, eight-legged anomaly, weeping, bleeding, and glittering all at the same time, housed within an austere glass-paneled case like a hunting trophy bagged in an enchanted forest, which many of Elizabeth McGrath’s strange creations resemble.

A bestiary of improbable wonders awaits within the pages of this confidently-designed coffee-table book: the mounted heads of tattooed rabbits and stags whose majestic horns are tangled with sails or telephone wires; bucktoothed rodents and circus bears with windows to alternate, dystopian landscapes planted in their chubby tummies; a cross-sectioned, gilt-edged pig with a pair of tiny, Victorian-style dollhouses firmly ensconced in its oozy-looking pink innards. Juxtaposition is the key word to many of these modernist mash-ups, and indeed, the LA-based “Bloodbath” McGrath is a favorite artist of famously outsider Juxtapoz magazine.

Inhabiting a territory too grisly to be labeled whimsical and too cartoonish to be labeled truly morbid, McGrath’s relentlessly askew dioramas and sculptures subvert the pop-goth ghetto of icky-cute by cutting just a little too close to the bone. Looking in the eyes of her mutilated menagerie inspires the same sense of fascination and bemused regret that accompanies the contemplation of roadkill or fetal pigs floating in formaldehyde. Her darkly incandescent aesthetic is reminiscent of Christiane Cegavske’s stop-motion tour de force Blood Tea and Red String (2006), wistful and powerful, playful and primal all at the same time

If twisting the familiar tropes of pop art appears to be a guiding principle behind McGrath’s dark menagerie, you can see the mechanics of a more classical approach in the equally haunting art of Laurie Lipton. Prosaically entitled The Drawings of Laurie Lipton (Last Gasp, 2013), the front piece of her book, a work entitled Round and Round (2012), demonstrates a folly of a non-sainted kind, a clutter of grinning skeletons driving in an endless circle around a lonely pair of old-fashioned gas pumps perched atop a wasteland of bones and pipes.

Lipton’s photorealistic, black-and-white line drawings bring to mind the highly-detailed engravings of Albrecht Dürer, an artist Lipton confesses an affinity for. But unlike Dürer, who favored woodcuts and watercolors, Lipton’s tools are charcoal and pencils, and her self-devised method of creating depth and texture with layer upon layer of incredibly fine lines and crosshatching gives her work a distinctive allure. Each white line is the result of the negative space being painstakingly filled in around each, rather than the judicious application of a white pencil (or, for that matter, an eraser), and this obsessive penchant for detail manifests itself further in the amount of same stuffed into each dystopian landscape: mountains of bones, webs spun from hundreds of threads, bushes covered in thousands of tiny leaves, each unique.

It’s precisely the intricacy of such details that makes Lipton’s work a challenge to fit into book format. The book itself is a handsome volume indeed, a compact 10 and a half inches by nine and a half inches, with a black, leather-look cover, and embossed silver lettering which subtly complements the many shades of gray employed by Lipton in her drawings. Many of the collected works are displayed with one page devoted to the full work, and another page with zoomed-in views of some of the most meticulous details. A drawing of a cobwebbed skeleton in royal court attire (Queen of Bones, 2009) gets a close-up of the knuckle bones that line her sumptuous brocade cloak, while The Three Fates (1997) gets one of a hundred tiny bodies crammed onto one small portion of an impossibly long conveyor belt passing in front of the gnarled figures of the titular Fates. But while these close-ups are helpful in decoding some of Lipton’s more ingenious inventions, the full impact of her larger works eludes the reader somewhat.

At a book signing at Varnish Gallery, one could get a slightly better idea of scale and composition via a slideshow, during which Lipton pointed out details we might have missed otherwise: flocked wallpaper decorated with hundreds of unsentimental clocks behind a baby carriage containing an elderly man in Second Childhood (1989); or a weathered, Maria Bello blonde peering frankly at her descending reflection in Mirror Mirror (2002) — the final figure of which is, Lipton assured us, an elderly woman, not quite visible in the book, but clearly delineated on the original.

Lipton herself is a gamine 50-something with a friendly, casual air. By her own account, she grew up in a supportive, suburban environment, but was drawn early to the shadowy themes and macabre images that typify her rigorous art. She described this apparent dissonance with the help of a visual aid: Pandora’s Box (2011), in which a delicate-looking porcelain doll clutches a wooden music box, from which a screaming horde of tortured and demonic faces issues, screaming, into the atmosphere. It’s unsubtle, perhaps, but artfully concise. For artists especially, external appearance means little. It’s what seethes inside that personifies them best.

“I can’t drive, I can’t cook, I can’t put up shelves,” Lipton confessed, flashing a disarmingly bright smile. “All I can do is draw.” That much, at least, is unambiguous. *


The Performant: Epochalypse Now


Embracing the great unknown
While it could be argued that every day represents a new year, with each date falling exactly one year after the last, like unconscious clockwork, there’s something comforting in the ritual of observing the change in calendar year en masse. A time to take accounts, and make new goals. A time of psychic housekeeping: ridding oneself of the spiritual and mental detritus of the past, in order to make space for a future as yet undefined.

All of which is on my mind as I prepare to bang out my last Performant, at least for the time being. During the last three-and-a-half years I’ve witnessed hundreds of performances, featuring thousands of performers, in venues large and small, each one a brief, incandescent flame feeding into a bonfire of epic creativity. House concerts, punk shows, spoken word, street festivals, performance art meditations, live comedy, high drag camp, amateur wrestling competitions, robot soccer, battle rap, obscure cinema, alternative dance, home theater, and circus arts have all found a place in the Performant, proving, I hope, that just as borders geographical and psychological can be transcended, so too can artistic ones.

But, point proven, the Performant is going to take a bit of a break to focus on some other projects I’ve been neglecting. Avoiding, really. But I’ll still be out there, an ever-appreciative oddience of one, reveling in our infinity of scenes, influences, disciplines. As a parting gift, here’re a few recommendations I can make for our collective new beginning. It’s been an honor to Performant for you.
1) Godwaffle Noise Pancakes: Do you like Noise? Do you like vegan pancakes? Do you like The Lab? Duh, yes, of course you do. Usually Sundays, usually from noon-2pm, usually at The Lab, except when it’s not. By far the best-sounding brunch spot in the Mission, and no line!
2) Saturday Write Fever: It’s like a playwriting bootcamp for the broke-ass camp, this monthly event held in the café of the EXIT Theatre brings together budding monologists — writers and actors both — for an evening of spontaneous writing and seat-of-your-pants performance. Writers have 30 minutes to prepare a new piece, riffing off a common theme, and then each mini-script gets a quicky performance treatment by members of the oddience. It’s free, it’s fresh, it’s fearless, and frankly, it sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.
3) The Cynic Cave: Actually, it would hardly matter what “the Cynic Cave” was, I’d have to go for its name alone. But the fact that it’s a literally underground comedy club ensconced in the basement of my fave local video store, Lost Weekend, makes it a total win. Hosted by George Chen and Kevin O’Shea, the Cave has quietly hosted some of the Bay Area’s funniest humans for just $10 a pop since 2012.
4) Boxcar Theatre’s Speakeasy: Boxcar Theatre has always had a knack for thinking outside of the (black) box, and this totally immersive, three-and-a-half hour-long performance sounds like their most enterprising yet. Like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, the interactive show promises to be different for each individual participant, a self-directed foray into the seedy underbelly of a 1920’s Speakeasy, populated by showgirls, war veterans, blackjack dealers, and bootleggers, each of whom has a story arc which can be followed to its end, or abandoned halfway through in favor of another. In short, prepare to go a couple of times to get a real sense of what’s going on, and don’t be shy about eavesdropping. Or playing a round of roulette.
Honorable mentions: Katabatik, Ask Dr. Hal, Undercover Presents, DJ Purple Dance Karaoke, Playland Not-at-the-Beach, Shaping San Francisco Public Talks

Bully pulpit


YEAR IN FILM While teen bullying might be quite topical, it’s far from being a new issue, as evidenced by Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie. Set in the hormone-jittery corridors of a suburban high school, the 1974 tome details an outsider’s humiliating entrance into womanhood, as well as the ruthless revenge she enacts on her cruel classmates after she discovers she has the power to move objects with her mind.

Dubbed “The Black Prom” by the book, the disastrous dance at which Carrie White is humiliated for the last time takes on the ominous tenor of a terrorist attack or a wholesale massacre — a fictional foreshadowing of Columbine-scale carnage. While the fact that Carrie has been bullied is positioned as the motive for her rampage, her actions suggest far more than just a wounded lashing-out or a classic revenge fantasy. Although the phrase wasn’t yet common, what Carrie most resembles is a weapon of mass destruction, not a misunderstood misfit. What makes Carrie a horror story is the inhuman scale of her murderous frenzy.

The year 2013 marked a revival for the enigma that is Carrie White, with a remake of the 1976 Brian De Palma movie (as well as, incidentally, the 1988 musical). Director Kimberly Peirce had the harder struggle for relevance, as the original film is considered one of the best horror films ever made, garnering Oscar nominations, American Film Institute nods, and a generation of moviegoers who will never forget jumping in their seats at its oft-imitated, last-act “gotcha” scare.

In Peirce’s fitful homage, the dreamy haze of De Palma’s slo-mo sequences is replaced by a glut of clunky CGI shots that shred the screen. Stepping into the role made iconic by Sissy Spacek, the decidedly non-frumpy Chloë Grace Moretz unleashes her telekinetic talent as a sort of wizardry — striking Merlin the Magician poses with outstretched hands. It borders on irritating. And the mean-girl posse’s reliance on their camera phones and YouTube channels stands to date Peirce’s movie for future generations, just as surely as the hairstyles in De Palma’s date his.

Speaking of which, the De Palma movie admittedly has a few eye-rolling moments of its own. It’s so comfortably bound to the conventions of the seventies that trigger-tempered gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) both chain smokes and wears raccoon-thick eyeliner to class, and teen heartthrob Tommy Ross (William Katt) sports a mane of ringlets so angelic you’d swear they were spun from pure disco gold. Whenever Carrie uses her burgeoning powers, a Psycho-esque violin riff screeches in the background, and John Travolta’s doltish bad boy barely appears capable of tying his own shoelaces, let alone engineering his patented blood-bucket humiliation device.

But what makes the story of Carrie so horrifying is precisely that which places her beyond reconstruction. What neither De Palma nor Peirce can quite manage is turning Carrie into a righteous anti-hero. The more they try to create empathy for their tortured protagonist, the more cartoonish and exaggerated her destructive frenzy appears — a gratuitous tsunami of blood, blaze, and blade. Ultimately what works against turning Carrie into a victim is simply that the force of her firepower is too great. She might not have plotted her vengeance, but she’s fully aware that she’s packing her own kind of heat. From the first moment she deliberately uses it to kill, she is damned.

Carrie‘s overkill also stunts its potential as a darkly comedic revenge fantasy à la Heathers (1988), since Carrie, like so many real-life teen shooters, winds up dead herself. Only one of her repentant classmates tries to reach out before the inevitable happens. It’s this scene that most stymies both De Palma and Peirce, since King’s quiet dénouement is decidedly uncinematic — yet it’s a powerful one, an exchange of final words and psychic impressions as Carrie’s life ebbs out of her beside the wrecked remains of the roadhouse she was presumably conceived in. Here, at last, is the moment of self-awareness — and yes, regret — that we need in order to recognize Carrie White as another casualty of her own paranormal capabilities. And until someone figures out a way to film it, we’ll never quite be able to believe it on the big screen. *




Art world confidential Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (2010) and Pina (2011)

Feeling a little peckish Grizzly Man (2005) and Ravenous (1999)

Finding love in all the wrong places Lolita (1962) and The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai (2003)

Traveling blues Schultze Gets the Blues (2003) and Genghis Blues (1999)

Streets of San Francisco The Laughing Policeman (1973) and The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Outsider music The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) and American Hardcore (2006)

Entering the zone Stalker (1979) and Sans Soleil (1983)

Morbid fascinations Colma: The Musical (2006) and The Bridge (2006)

Never mind the remakes Let the Right One In (2008) and Oldboy (2003)

My favorite movie mash-up ever Freaks (1932) and Wisconsin Death Trip (1999)

The Performant: To Boldly Go


Resurrecting the Exquisite Corpse
Welcome to the Starship Dental Prize. A vessel so intrepid it dares to probe the darkest, dankest folds of outer space, not to mention the incandescent snarls of surrealistic whimsy. Fish. Squonk. Celine Dion. Her stalwart crew includes a sassy computer powered by illogic (Becky Hirschfeld), a vodka-swilling ensign Anton Anton (Bryce Byerley), psychic science officer Mentoo Fractosa (Chandler White), and a pelvic-thrust obsessed captain Oliver Clozoffe (Jody Frandle). Her mission, undetermined. Her story, as yet unwritten.

The third in an ongoing series of “Exquisite Corpse” theatrical events spearheaded by members of Foul Play Productions and Stage Werx, the evening’s production, entitled Defenders of Intergalactic Donuts: They Dared to Conquer Infinity, admittedly doesn’t have much to do with donuts in the end. Scripted on the spot by oddience members who are given a choice of random props and three minutes to pen a few crucial lines of dialogue without seeing the lines that come before (except the very last), the resultant play dwells at the crossroads of blind chance and organized chaos. Or as host and “Voice of Stage Directions” Mikl-em points out in his welcome speech, it’s a “piece of art … that no one would make on purpose.”  Purpose be damned, let’s play.

The Exquisite Corpse writing game was popularized by the surrealists in the early part of the 1900s, in which a word or series of words would be written on a blank page by the first player then passed on to the next, whose own contribution would follow a previously agreed upon sequence (i.e. noun adverb verb) or spring off of whatever the last line of the previous contribution was. Adapted into a theatrical format by the San Francisco Cacophony Society in the 1980s, the corpse has been recently revived down at Stage Werx as an occasional occurrence, taking on film noir and sci-fi tropes with equal verve. I’m still holding out for a musical (hint to organizers).
The first hour of the evening is one part cocktail party, one part scriptwriting boot camp, as attendees are first encouraged to mingle with the cast in order to get a bead on their personalities in order to write lines of dialogue for them. From the outrageous, androgynous intergalactic rock star Lord Lady Chameleon (Gerri Lawlor) to her estranged sister and chanteuse Camilla Chameleon (Christina Shonkwiler), to the television-obsessed Queen Vixxnord! (Dawn Corine) and her evil sidekick Professor Fritzdoctorsteinberg (Brendan Hill), each character has just enough backstory (not to mention improv training) to keep the party patter flowing along with a few choice libations and some groovy, space lounge tunage. After some chit-chat, each oddience member gets a crack at the script, and the results are predictably unpredictable.
As the actual play unfolds, part of the fun becomes trying to guess which person is responsible for penning the mort disturbed set of lines which include such gems as “I’ve got glitter in my ass-crack,” “I liked them better when they were dead,” “No tickling for you, I fear,” and “I’m feeling festive, we’re heading to planet Get-down-get-down.” Plot twists are as varied and muddled as the frantic search for the correct props becomes, but some universal truths do still manage to shine through. Rock stardom may have little to do with actual talent but much to do with seduction. Desire is a universal drive. Always look on the bright side of life (whistle, whistle). If you’ve got it, flaunt it … and if you flaunt it, make sure people are wearing sunglasses. Hiccup. Weevil. Splat.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Performant: Sleep No More


Upon reaching the fifth floor of the California Institute of Integral Studies, a wall of makeshift web diagrams asks arriving oddience members to detail what the longest amount of time they went without sleep was, and what do they tell themselves to get through stress. The average appears to be around 36 hours — which is about as long as I can boast — but no responders quite match the Guinness Book record of 449 hours held by Maureen Weston, nor even to the 60 hours that Mugwumpin, creators of performative “occurrences,” intend to stay awake in this, its last presentation of the year, Asomnia.

More of an experiment in endurance than a traditional performance marathon, Asomnia ushers in what artistic director Christopher W. White promises to be a season focused on the theme of exhaustion. A rigorous schedule of private confessionals, cognitive testing, hygiene and wellness breaks, group check-ins, and meals are interspersed with performances staged for those in attendance, as well as the time necessary to create them. Every two hours a new piece is ready to be performed for whoever has dropped by at that time, whether it’s 4pm or 4am.
The room feels especially conducive to this kind of experiment. Book shelves of philosophical, political, and artistic content line one wall; mirrors, another. A mural of jagged, abstract lines adorns the “stage” area, while a bank of windows offer a spectacular view of the skyline from dusk to dawn to dusk again. Wooden drafting tables, brightly-colored metal stools, and comfy chairs appear scattered almost randomly, and a low table laden with munchies and a fortifying tea kettle invites judicious snacking.

“We’ve been eating a lot,” performer Michelle Talgarow tells me as she gives me a tour of the space around the 30-hour mark. She’s surprisingly alert despite having just performed a medley of musical numbers under the direction of guest artist Erika Chong Shuch, one of four non-asomniancs to direct the “process-oriented performance showings,” or “POPS.” The highlight of Shuch’s piece is almost certainly the moment she places her eight-month-old son Wakes on the ground with the performers and has him “choreograph” a segment to the music of Peter Cetera. The performers seem to appreciate both its whimsy as well as the opportunity to get off their feet for a few minutes, and Wakes basks in his spotlight with the casual aplomb of a pro.

I return around the 35-hour mark and again at the 59-hour mark, when the six core performers (Talgarow, White, Ashley Rogers, El Beh, Stephanie DeMott, and Natalie Greene) present the final POPS: a “best-of” compilation of their favorite performative moments from the weekend. How they even remember what they are is impressive to me, and they range from purely playful (a segment involving sunglasses and the music of Esquivel) to an esoteric game of “Blind Man’s Bluff,” from an impromptu group dance party set to “Drinking in Spanish,” by Diego’s Umbrella, to an equally participatory mirroring exercise involving everyone in the room.

The line between spectators and spectatees, already blurred under the extreme circumstances dissolves completely at this point, the only thing continuing to separate us is amount of sleep we’ve had over the past three days. I can think of no other performance I’ve been to in recent memory where oddience members brought cookies and kittens to fortify the performers, and performers offered gracious cups of tea, hugs, and unfiltered access to their completely vulnerable, sleep-deprived psyches. Sure, ultimately the event comes off as more of a congenial scientific experiment than a cohesive work of theater, but for White, that’s precisely the point.

“Primarily we’re doing this piece as research,” he explains prior to the marathon via email. “And as part of (our) ongoing interest in integrating the audience into the process of making a show, we decided to conduct this research publically.” No word yet on how many hours of sleep each performer got to indulge in that night, but perhaps we’ll discover the results in a future piece.

The Performant: Home is where the art is


Valencia Street art space struggles to retain its physical and spiritual existence
Sometimes you stumble across places that just feel like home the instant you step across the threshold. Maybe not the kind of home where you lounge around in sweatpants binging on Dynamo Donuts and Netflix, but a home that offers comfort for the spirit, where creativity and intention reign. Curiosity shop, design showcase, and artist enclave, Viracocha at 998 Valencia Street has been one such home for many, from the poets who helped build its pallet-wood walls, to the neighborhood literati who donated to and borrowed from Ourshelves, the private lending library that until very recently occupied the back of the building, to the acoustic musicians and spoken-word artists who gathered in the basement to perform and to connect, to the visual artists whose work was treated as décor first and merchandise almost as an afterthought.

One part art installation, one part community outlet, and one part ostensible retail venture, the four year-old Viracocha feels far older, thanks perhaps in part to its proximity to the venerable Artists’ Television Access, or a lingering resonance from santería supply store Botanica Yoruba, which occupied the same space for many years. Stepping inside always feels like stepping through a cool, jazz-infused looking-glass into a parallel world where life is art and art is life, and all that other stuff doesn’t matter quite as much as you thought it did. Plus, typewriters.
But it’s a brave new Valencia Street, and in matters of merchantry (some of that “other stuff” we wish didn’t matter) it’s an increasingly challenging atmosphere in which to be experimenting with idiosyncratic business models. And as many creatives-turned-commercialists have discovered, sinking all of your energies into commerce can sap those same energies from creation, and balancing the two can be a constant struggle. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when Viracocha announced that it was raising funds in order to reorganize in the new year, a reorganization that includes proprietor Jonathan Siegel passing the baton to an as-yet unnamed group of successors, and applications for permits to legalize the heretofore “secret” performance venue below the floorboards of the retail space. Not a surprise, but still a sad shock. We like our quirky empires to remain unchanged and unperturbed by the pressures of the outside world, even when clinging onto the “old ways” can mean driving them out of existence. It’s an often unspoken conundrum, but retaining loyalty is a delicate balance too.
It began as much an experiment as anything else. The idea of a space that put the art before the consumption of it had come to Siegel years before while he lived in New York working as an actor and in the construction industry. After moving to San Francisco in 2005 he became a known denominator on the poetry scene, including as the organizer for the Poetry Mission reading series at Dalva, and as a member of the erstwhile Collaborative Arts Insurgency. And when he signed a lease on the space in 2009, it was to members of the latter that he turned for assistance in building the space up from scratch, a modern-day barnraising where a vision of community was constructed along with each new wall. A community Siegel refers to as “an orphanage for the lost creative spirit inside all of us,” where practitioners of many mediums might find a place to commune, and where patrons of same might come to discover new artists and new-to-them treasures in a non-pressured, almost anti-commercial environment.
While the future of Viracocha is still uncertain and dependent in large part on what repairs and modifications are deemed necessary by the city (ADA-compliant elevator and restroom for starters, an expense Siegel claims is manageable) and what kind of entertainment venue permits the space is able to secure in the new year. But from Siegel’s POV, he’s leaving Viracocha’s future in capable hands (“the (people) coming onboard don’t want to see the energy of the space shift into something radically different”). As for his own future, he alludes to completion of not one but four books in the works, and a reconnection with his own creativity.

“It’s time for me to let go of many things in my world and rebuild from within,” he muses via email, a sentiment which seems to apply also to Viracocha, and its current state of rebirth, and pretty apropos both for a space named for the Incan god of creation, and for the modern-day visionary who named it.

 (Full disclosure: the author’s collaborative literary bike map is currently for sale at Viracocha.)

The Performant: Dead man’s party


Despite the supposed onset of winter, it’s another sunny day as I pedal up to the San Francisco Columbarium, a stately domed edifice perched at the end of a discreet cul de sac off Geary and Arguello. Currently operated by the secular Neptune Society, the Columbarium is one of the last remaining repositories for the dead within San Francisco city limits, the majority of San Francisco’s deceased having been relocated to Colma from the turn of the 20th century on. A group of about 30 curiosity seekers have gathered at the gates. We’ve all come for an Obscura Society “field trip,” in this instance a tour of the iconic structure, led by the man who has been credited with almost single-handedly presiding over the Columbarium’s resurrection from decades of neglect, Emmitt Watson.

The Obscura Society is an offshoot of four year-old online encyclopedia of wonder, Atlas Obscura, and other local excursions have included ones to Suisun Bay, the Albany Bulb, the San Francisco Motorcycle Club clubhouse, an abandoned train station in Oakland, the Zymoglyphic Museum of San Mateo, and an after-dark tour of the Woodlawn cemetery in Colma. Like a darker, more relentless version of Nerd Nite with stronger drinks and more historians, its Tuesday night salons at the DNA Lounge are equally expansive, covering a whole gamut of hidden histories on topics such as vigilantes, rum-runners, the Donner Party, rail transportation, and absinthe.

Atlas Obscura senior editor Annetta Black eagerly explains the society’s zeal for local exploration. “Originally we [Atlas Obscura] were focused on the idea of far away exotic places, but then we realized that we were falling prey to the idea that the world is only interesting if it’s far away. Once I discovered that I could travel in my hometown with the same sense of curiosity I would apply to Angkor or Paris, it opened up a world of infinite possibilities.”
But back to the Columbarium. Once part of the Odd Fellows cemetery that was relocated in 1929, the Columbarium spent the next few decades rotting from neglect — preserved on paper as a historic landmark, but lacking a caretaker. The loquacious Watson lists its former defects including “cobwebs, fungus, slime, pigeons, and raccoons,” in such quantities that it took him awhile to realize the building wasn’t an empty shell, but a mausoleum for hundreds of cremains, each interred in the walls in a honeycomb series of niches, which he playfully refers to as “apartments.”

Now the Columbarium gleams in the late morning sun, the glass-paneled niches catching the mellow light streaming in the intricate stained glass windows. The baroque trim has been painstakingly hand-painted rose and sky-blue by Watson, who calls them colors of life. Small mementos decorate the later niches, like a series of found-object still lifes: martini shakers, whiskey bottles, baseballs, teddy bears, glass slippers, lottery tickets, love letters, mardi gras beads, hundreds of photographs. 

It’s impossible at times to not get separated from the main group, so if Watson mentions one of what I consider to be the most striking characteristic of the Columbarium’s more recent dead I don’t hear him. But as a secular sanctuary, the Columbarium is perhaps the only place I’ve visited where gay couples are buried together in the manner of heterosexual husbands and wives in conventional cemeteries. That there are so many casualties of the AIDS crisis or, as with a memorial built for Harvey Milk (whose ashes were scattered elsewhere), by acts of violence, is an unhappy reality, but at least they have been laid to rest in a place where their equality is never questioned, and the full sum of their lives and loves cause for celebration. Better yet, with a new wing, the Columbarium is open to newcomers and, in death at least, all are welcome.

The Performant: Louder, faster, more!


When a friend of a friend held his 33 1/3rd birthday party, he filled the rooms of his apartment with turntables and stacks of LPs for his guests to play themselves. It was basically the best party ever, and a good argument for propagating the tradition of celebrating that particular milestone. And of course what better milestone to celebrate if you’re in the music business, like long-time independent label Alternative Tentacles? Particularly in a business climate unkind to independent anything, to be able to celebrate three-plus decades of sticking it to the establishment at all is some cause for jubilee.

Of course there are pitfalls to growing older, which I only discovered when I got to the Alternative Tentacles blowout anniversary show at Slims at the perfectly respectable club-going hour of 11pm, to discover that I had missed most of the show. Well, I never! Not only had a missed out the rare opportunity to see one of my personal musical heroes, Mojo Nixon, tear it up in his indomitable, breakneck way, but I didn’t really get a chance to soak in the atmosphere building up to the main event: headliners Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine.

Fortunately even if my flow was off, the band’s was not, and the fast and furious set punctuated by politicized bon-mots and observations was classic JB. Jello Biafra, of course, is the founder and overlord of Alternative Tentacles, former frontman of the Dead Kennedys, spoken-word raconteur extraordinaire, and occasional political candidate, and while he was sporting the unlikely trimmed beard and mustache combo of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” his voice was still the strident, yodel of days of yore, and his stage persona full of ham.

Humor and politics have always been the hallmarks of Jello’s work, which songs like “Burgers of Wrath,” “Pets Eat Their Master,” and “Kill the Poor,” perfectly encapsulate, and except for an awkward stagedive that didn’t quite go anywhere, Biafra’s stage performance was as energetic as ever, thankfully proving that aging doesn’t have to be about being graceful, and a punk show that ends at midnight can still rock.

Meanwhile on the other side of the city, an unexpected Alternative Tentacles connection represented at the Emerald Tablet, where Philadelphian Joseph Gervasi held a screening of his Philly punk-scene archive project, Loud! Fast! Philly!, and his co-host/co-organizer turned out to be Jesse “Luscious” Townley, formerly of the Philly scene, and general manager of Alternative Tentacles, who DJ’d an eclectic set before the show.

Originally compiled in the earlier part of the year, Loud! Fast! Philly! was originally shown at the Cinedelphia Film Festival as an “interactive” audio-visual presentation combining old home movie-style footage of various Philly punk bands with live commentary from members in attendance. But in compiling the project, Gervasi realized it was the stories behind the videos he really wanted people to have access to. Thus began the second arm of the project: an audio archive of interviews with a variety of old school Philly punks, which lives in perpetuity online.

Truthfully the archive is probably the most fascinating part of the project. The video clips, while offering a fascinating peek at a particular time and place (and substandard quality of recording devices), don’t offer nearly the same breadth and depth of history as do the interviews. That said, rare footage of bands like More Fiends, Flag of Democracy, Dead Milkmen, and R.A.M.B.O. were unique and frankly humorous enough to transcend their shaky amateur quality and insider appeal, and provided a weirdly cohesive portrait of an ever-morphing scene, from the 80s to the present.

The Performant: Games people play


Ask any gamer, or specialist in pedagogy, and they’ll say the same thing: games are as important to human development as any the rest of our skill-building activities. There’s evidence of game-playing in almost every culture dating all the way back to ancient Sumeria and Egypt. They also offer an entrance point into other cultures, whether by playing a familiar game like chess and seeing how it translates in an unfamiliar environment, or by learning a game representative of a particular place — Xiangqi (Chinese chess), say, or Ghanaian Oware.
But while some games have been around for literally thousands of years, other games seem to drop off the radar almost as quickly as they appear. What essential component gives games like Go, hide-and-go-seek, poker, Monopoly, and Super Mario Brothers such staying power over some of their, perhaps best forgotten peers? This is a question the game designers of San Francisco’s annual Come Out and Play Festival must ask themselves each year, as they present their latest inventions in the hopes of capturing the imaginations, and just maybe the funds, to bring their games to the public at large.

Since the festival itself is free, it’s always fun to drop by for a few hours to see what’s being played. Attending Saturday, myself and my buddy in game, P., stopped to peek at the Mime Boxing tournament, a rowdy free-for-all of imaginary walls and temporary alliances, and play a round of the tabletop Thrown Into Chaos, before assuming our roles as Prohibition-era booze smugglers in Rumrunners, a two hour-long treasure hunt and commodities exchange scenario.

Sent out into the world with a packet of money and a series of orders, we purchase “booze” from a pair of nattily dressed mobsters standing on the street corner, and then hurry to our first drop off point, in order to make more money, in order to buy more booze. We split up in order to make it more confusing for the “agents” who pop out of the shadows occasionally, clipboards in hand, and try to shake us down for the booze we fortunately never have on us when they ask, though one tries to run off with a $500 bill at one point which we protest vigorously.

We come in fifth out of 10 teams, thanks to a pair of particularly persistent agents who stake out one of the drop-off points for at least 20 minutes, forcing us to circle the same block again and again until they leave.
Transitioning into the hide-and-chase game Witness Protection Plan, we draw cards with our characters printed on them: Witness, Detective, Suicide Bomber, Assassin, Handler, Civilian, etc. The “Witness” hurries off to hide, and then the rest of the players spread out through the neighborhood to find them. One-third of the players have to find the witness and hide with them before any assassins or traitors find them first, and each round lasts just 10 minutes, which makes for a tenser, more physically demanding game than Rumrunners.

As far as involved and demanding goes, the centerpiece game of the festival, the annual Journey to the End of the Night can be both, an epic, miles-long scavenger hunt replete with checkpoints, chasers, safe zones, and an outdoor after-party in a unique setting (this year, Corona Heights Park). P. is “game” for it, but I’ve neglected to pre-register so I head off, but before I do we play a few rounds of Stranger Danger, an ice-breaker game clearly aimed for the teen-to-20-something demographic (sample question: “What color describes how horny you are right now?” Answer from stranger: “That’s an awkward question to ask me in front of my 13-year-old brother”).

Whoops, well, still a few bugs in that system, but keep it up friends. Someday you might come up with the next Twister! Now there’s a game with staying power.

The Performant: This is Halloween


Nothing quite says “Happy Halloween” like an evening full of splatter gore and general mayhem, and this year there were several options to choose from, including an interactive zombie apocalypse battle royale at Chez Poulet and a multi-level haunted house extravaganza at the Old Mint which promised similarly to let patrons “live the horror movie,” hopefully sans actual evisceration of ticket-holders, but these are dangerous times we’re living in. On the theatrical front we had the Thrillpeddlers strutting their creepy stuff onstage at the Hypnodrome (through Nov. 23), buckets of blood and teen angst at Ray of Light’s Carrie: The Musical, and a brief, yet enGROSSing run of the thematically-appropriate Grand Guignol, co-produced by Pianofight.

Not the straightforward revivalism practiced by the Thrillpeddlers, this Grand Guignol is both a play about, as well as a direct descendent of, the form. Penned by Kneehigh Theatre’s Carl Grose, the play centers mainly on one of the most prolific playwrights of the Théâtre du Grand Guinol’s heyday, André de Lorde (Christopher Sugarman) and his sometime collaborator, psychologist Alfred Binet (Thaddeus Bing). Plot points and diversions from several of de Lorde’s best known plays, including The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, Crime in a Madhouse, and The Laboratory of Hallucinations are woven throughout the piece, and the rogue’s gallery of characters are mostly pulled from the actual pages of history — such as Max Maurey (Brian Trybom), the theater’s tireless proprietor and promoter, inventive propsmaster Paul Ratineau (Raymond Hobbs), and actress Paula Maxa (Christy Crowley) “the most-assassinated woman in the world” and original “Queen of Scream”.

Opening with a scene set in a mental institution, the play pulls the oddience quickly into the exaggerated aesthetic of the Grand Guignol, as it becomes quickly apparent that the inmates are running the asylum, and blood-drenched violence ensues until an excitable patron runs up onto the stage and faints with shock, an act that heartens the small company as they think he is a critic who will give their play a rave (perhaps raving) review. Instead it turns out he is Binet, and the seeds for his future artistic collaboration with de Lorde are thus sown.

Bing as Binet bubbles over with nervous tension, while Sugerman’s de Lorde is so pale and withdrawn he appears a specter haunting the corners of his own life, though in truth it is the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe (Cooper Carlson) who comes to haunt him more frequently, a pushy creative partner offering his own work up for adaptation (such as the aforementioned Doctor Tarr). Pianofight regular Christy Crowley inhabits the body and reputation of Maxa with devilish relish, dying dramatically on demand, while Andy Strong rounds out the capable cast as actor George Paulais, whose ego is only exceeded by his extreme self-interest. A side-plot involving the identity of a real-life serial killer who stalks Montmartre results in the play’s most gleefully gross-out moment, and Binet’s unlikely collaboration with de Lorde results in perhaps the messiest artistic divorce since, well, ever.

Messy is a byword of the Grand Guignol, and a segregated splatter zone surrounds the stage, crammed with patrons who have paid extra for the privilege of being randomly drenched by stage blood. It’s a bit of an awkward set-up, the gap between the zone and the rest of the seating is so large it’s almost as if one were perched in the balcony, or in the back of an art-house movie theater, a little too far removed from the up-close and too-personal proximity that really amplifies the Grand Guignol experience. Thankfully Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting, Hannah Birch Carl’s sound design, and Pandora FX helped amp up the bawdy, bloody atmosphere, and as far as All Hallows’ Eve experiences go, an evening at Grand Guignol was a worthy treat.

The Performant: Alley up!


Clarion Alley Block Party still standing strong

It’s an age-old paradox of urban living that no matter how much there is to do and see it’s a) impossible to experience it all and b) so easy to take it all for granted. And it’s really not such a stretch to figure out that the more we take for granted the more chance there is that one day those things we love will disappear.

Of course a certain amount of flux is healthy, and part of what makes a city vibrant is that it’s a place where new ideas and new energies take root and flourish far more readily than in more insular, more homogenous spaces. And for every street corner band that’s moved indoors, every homey café long gone, every poetry brawl, punk rock peepshow, robot sex symposium, marching band parade, and nomadic dance party that have dropped off the radar, there’s bound to be a new crew of upstart art-agonists rising up to fill the empty spaces, it’s just finding the will or time to seek them out that can be daunting. They’re worth the effort. But sometimes we don’t want to have to put in so much effort.

Like comfort food for the underground, some perennial events are still staking out the remnants of, if not the long-distant past, at least the 90s, where the foundations for much of what is now taken for granted were formed. The Clarion Alley Block Party is one such remnant, and still going strong, as Saturday’s event proved.

Blessed by mild weather and a musically diverse lineup of beloved local bands, attending the annual celebration and fundraiser for CAMP (Clarion Alley Mural Project) was a bit like attending the reunion party that more reunion parties should aspire to be like, full of familiar faces and a distinct lack of hubris.

 A couple of new murals glowed from the colorful walls which have been evolving since 1992, a who’s-who of notable works including Chuy Campusano’s homage to Picasso’s Guernica; Jet Martinez’ fantastical, Tomi De Paola-esque landscape Lo Llevas por Dentro; and a venerable, twitchy elephant by Andrew Schoultz, crowded into a much too confined space. Of the newer works, a comic strip detailing the adventures of modern-day, anti-overdose superheroine, Narcania, by Erin Amelia Ruch and Mike Reger (of Mission Mini-Comix infame); an image of busy cartoon ants working over the pale blue corpse of a gadget-toting, tech-type by Mats Stromberg; and Megan Wilson’s playfully anti-capitalist Tax the Rich (with its bed of smiling flowers that carpet the sidewalk) are perhaps the most eye-catching, and provocatively relevant to some of the abiding concerns of the neighborhood.
Of course it wouldn’t be a proper block party without bands, and Clarion Alley always manages to put together a creative and raucous all-day show on its twin stages. Highlights for me this year included a bombastically sludgy set from three-piece doom metal outfit HORNSS; a noisy, drone-y, industrial meets hardcore set from masked musical marauders Death Cheetah; and a sweaty, climactic apotheosis of sound from the last band of the evening, old school rabble-rousers, Apogee Sound Club.

The smell of cigarettes, dope, cheap beer, and tamales mingled in the still evening air, revelers in their Halloween costumes bobbed their heads in time to the tunes, and the only real sign of the times was the occasional ipad lifted aloft for photo-taking, which, given the casual nature of the event, didn’t even seem that intrusive. Proving, at least in the moment, that art and innovation can coexist if we let them.

The Performant: Cheers for fears


If you consume the news at all you’ll find a lot to be afraid of that seems endemic to the modern age: swine flu, restless leg syndrome, Ellis Act evictions, terrorist sleeper cells, compromised data privacy, zombie attacks. But despite its almost constant presence in our lives, this kind of fear merely creates a continuous low-grade malaise, an emotional state which appears to benefit only the evolution of pharmaceutical companies and the self-help book publishing trade.

So it’s no wonder that in our search for “real” sensation, we often turn towards a more primal state of fear. The sort of fear that compels us to skydive out of airplanes, ride roller coasters, and surf giant waves, activities designed to trigger that survivalist fight or flight instinct that we then harness for our own adrenaline-generating, sensation-seeking purposes. The kind of fear that compels us to visit that most seasonal of attractions: the haunted house.

There are haunted houses designed to make you laugh and haunted houses designed to make you scream, and ideally a bit of each, a giddy state of being which San Leandro’s Fear Overload makes a considered effort to provide.

Conveniently located just steps away from the Bayfair BART, in an innocuously suburban shopping center, the R-rated Fear Overload contains two separate labyrinths for its patrons to struggle through: “Ward 9” (a supposed asylum for the criminally insane), and the macabre Abusement Park. Both are equally blood-drenched and disorienting, and are welcome throwbacks to the glory days of haunted houses where the highest-tech prop on display was a guillotine, and the real scares came from the all-too human element lurking in the shadows ready to pounce. Let’s just say ironic detachment won’t get you very far in Fear Overload, and thank goodness for that.

At the door to Ward 9, my companion T and I are handed an almost completely useless flashlight and bid a hearty farewell, the door slamming behind us like a butcher’s cleaver. To navigate the dark and claustrophobically narrow corridors with a pencil-thin beam of intermittent light proves both unnerving and hilarious, and as each twist of the path leads to room after room of blood-splattered furniture, swinging doors and rattling cupboards, rotting corpses with dramatically gory headwounds and severed limbs, dungeon walls lined with bodies in straitjackets, oh, and living monsters who delight in leaping out of random corners our anticipation grows into a kind of delightful dread.

I’ve chosen the right partner for this foray into fear. T’s suspension of disbelief is willing and open, her cool quotient, like mine, hovers close to zero, and she is more than happy to let me hold the flashlight, which I figure could at least serve as a makeshift bludgeon should it come to that. In the FAQ comes the promise that the actors won’t touch you, at least not intentionally, but there’s no promise that won’t get in your face, and we wind up getting pretty close and personal with a lot of great makeup jobs and mask designs. Their timing, I have to say, is mostly impeccable. We scream every time.

From a theatrical standpoint, both haunted “houses” are a scenic designer’s wet dream, full of intricately-conceptualized nooks and crannies filled with scenes of extreme splatter gore. In Ward 9 we find the disturbingly shambolic nursery and the “morgue” inhabited by a double-jointed creature that slithers as much as crawls into our path to be especially evocative, and in the Abusement Park, our theatre-geek hearts are filled with admiration for the atmospheric boiler room and the horrifyingly stark and bloody women’s room, which also proves the hardest room to find our way out of (tip: ask a monster for help).

Sure, there’s not a lot of character development per se, or at least not enough to compel us to stick around and hunt for backstory, but as the protagonists of our own survival story, we make it through to the final xit relatively intact, which is really the only storyline that matters when confronting fear as a means of accessing fun.

Through Nov. 2, $19.50-35

Fear Overload Scream Park

Bayfair Center

15555 East 14th St., San Leandro

(510) 730-2221

The Performant: There will be blood


It’s Halloween season at last, a time of year when San Francisco really shines, despite the encroaching autumnal shortening of days. In fact, during the day, it’s almost hard to remember that it’s October at all, what with all of those music and street festivals soaking up the rays, but once night falls, it belongs very definitely to darker entertainments, a realm in which San Francisco excels. One of the season’s most reliable harbingers are the Thrillpeddlers and their patented evenings of Grand Guignol spectacle, Shocktoberfest!

Since 1999, Shocktoberfest has become part of the definition of Halloween in San Francisco, a ritual gathering ground for freaks, geeks, and ghouls. And although Thrillpeddlers have become synonymous with their glittery Theatre of the Ridiculous remounts in recent years, it’s their epic Grand Guignol revivals that first defined the tenebrous thrills being peddled, albeit combined with a playful wink. Shocktoberfest fare has always included bloody murder ballads and bawdy Victorian sex farces on one bill, usually four to five in an evening, and in addition to remounting classic Grand Guignol plays translated from the original French, they also recruit local playwrights to pen more contemporary pieces in the same throbbing vein.

Opening this year’s Shocktoberfest with a fleshy wallop, A Visit to Mrs. Birch and the Young Ladies of the Academy (Scene One), features not Mrs. Birch so much as her namesake discipline, meted out with great relish to a peeping maid (Julia McArthur) by a troupe of naughty schoolgirls. “That sheds some light on the Victorian psyche,” comments director Russell Blackwood drolly as he introduces the centerpiece play, Jack the Ripper.

Originally written in 1934 by André de Lorde and Pierre Chaine, the play manages to do in 45 minutes what 125 years worth of speculation has failed to do — solve the mysterious 1888 serial killing spree in London’s Whitechapel district. Norman Macleod as the overwhelmed Scotland Yard inspector, Smithson, cuts a jaded world-weary figure, desperate at all costs to capture the elusive killer, and Bruna Palmeiro plays the tough and terrified bait for his Ripper trap, Jenny Wickers, with trembling conviction and unfortunate consequences.

De Lorde’s London is a shadowy world of amoral men and monsters, with very little separating them, shrouded by the fog that obscures their most violent actions from the watchful eyes of the streets. Embodying aspects of each, John Flaw’s misunderstood yet unrepentant Jekyll and Hyde persona wears menace like an overcoat even when stripped to his long johns and trussed up in a straitjacket, insisting to the end that it’s not his fault, a touch of humanizing vulnerability.

After a sexy, slapstick song-and-dance routine Salome, penned by Scrumbly Koldewyn and directed by Noah Haydon (who also plays sinuous Salome), the evening ends with frequent Thrillpeddlers collaborator Rob Keefe’s The Wrong Ripper. Set in San Francisco during the headline-grabbing trials of alleged killer Theodore Durrant (who was eventually convicted and hanged despite his assertions of innocence), the story is as much a comment on sensation-seeking journalism as on serial murder, and how each shape our particular world view.

Side plots involving hot girls (Noah Haydon, Tina Sogliuzzo, Bruna Palmiero) pining for Durrant (Kai Brothers), an adorably schlubby cat burglar (John Flaw) and his haunted girlfriend (Julia McArthur), and an earnest young beat cop (TJ Buswell) afraid of the dark, tug the play in multiple directions, some more fully realized than others, but a signature blood-soaked plot device hearkens back to the Grand Guignol’s brutally naturalistic roots, and as always, the lights-out finale provides the oddience with a chance to scream out loud, a reviving release.

Through Nov. 23, Thu-Sat, 8pm, $30-35
575 10th Street, SF

The Performant: Up, up and away


It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman flies again.
It’s been 75 years since Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster began developing their most enduring creation, Superman, a character who would go on to change the shape of pop culture forever. The first bona-fide comic book superhero, the spandex-clad refugee from outer space inspired whole universes of imitators, each more improbable and yet strangely influential than the next, and our collective fascination for the modern pantheons of nigh-invincible beings remains virtually unabated, as one glance at a list of blockbuster movies starring caped crusaders and misunderstood mutants can attest.

While superheroes might mean big business in the movies, aside from the infamous (albeit income-generating) debacle that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, they’ve only rarely ventured to Broadway, and here again, was Superman the pioneer. A (very) minor Broadway hit in its day, the goofy 60s-era It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman channels the campy vibe of Adam West’s Batman and the relentless cheeriness of an Archie comic. Newly revived by 42nd Street Moon in honor of Superman’s 75th anniversary on earth, the musical is as clean-scrubbed as the titular role, whom mere mortals sometimes exasperatedly refer to as an overgrown “Boy Scout,” recalling times of more innocent entertainment if not actual innocence.

42nd Street Moon embraces this innocence with playful flair. The costume palette (designed by Felicia Lilienthal) appears to have been lifted straight from Warren Beatty’s 1990 Dick Tracy film, and the cartoon-panel backdrop (courtesy of Alvin Shiu) from a book of Lichtenstein prints. At strategic moments, giant word balloons and cardboard computers crowd the stage, and our hero frequently demonstrates his flying “prowess” by leaping clumsily into the wings. Even the villains turn out to be, if not exactly sympathetic, good comic relief, and their sinister goal is not so much to take over the planet so much as to take Superman, representative of perfection, down a notch, the preferred pastime of the small-minded.

Probably best not to dwell on the outdated gender roles that punctuate much of the action, a regrettable by-product of those “innocent” times, but at least the primary criminal mastermind of the show is not only female but also a mad scientist, Dr. Agnes Sedgwick (Darlene Popovic), proving, however thinly, that there is more to the double-chromosomed life than pining for the unattainable as does Lois Lane (Jen Brooks) or soothing the inflated egos of megalomaniacal employers as does glamorous office flirt, Sydney (Safiya Fredericks).

Lucas Coleman as Clark Kent/Superman plays his dual characters with an eager beaver likability, and a humanizing streak of self-doubt that ties both of his identities together just as surely as the single spit curl that dangles across his brow. His arch-nemesis Max Mencken (Brent Schindele) practically steals the show on the strength of his bright yellow loafers and hoofing technique alone, but his last moment of would-be glory is appropriately deflated (kids, crime doesn’t pay, and neither does petty spite!) and it’s all’s-well-that-ends-well for our underrooed protagonist, his best girl, and even for the second-tier criminal element, the hilariously inept Grimaldi family, who make tracks back to the Mamma-land before you can say arrivederci. Sure you could tap into a similar zeitgeist with a stack of Silver-age comics, but comics won’t sing to you. That’s a unique angle that 42nd Street Moon has totally got covered.

It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman

Through Oct. 20, $25-$75
Eureka Theatre
215 Jackson, SF

The Performant: I’m With the Banned


Since practically every single calendar day of the year has been appropriated by some cause or another (in this month alone we celebrated Labor Day, Patriot Day, National IPA Day, National Seat Check Day, World Rabies Day, and National Grandparents Day, to say nothing of Suicide Prevention Week, Constitution Week, and National Emergency Preparedness Week), it can be hard to keep them all straight. But one week that stands out, at least for myself is Banned Books Week (Sept 22-28), a 30 year-old tradition spearheaded by the American Library Association.

A celebration of free speech and the free exchange of ideas, especially in regards to minors and schoolchildren, Banned Books Week events range from readings to panel discussions to virtual “hangouts” across the nation. And lest you think that banned books are an anachronism of unenlightened school boards past, consider this list of the most challenged books of 2012, which includes such well-known works of obscenity such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and the gleefully irreverent Captain Underpants series. Lists like these are practically an invitation to read, and the persistence of certain books such as Brave New World, The Chocolate War, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings on the list over the past 10 years only speak to their enduring ability to provoke, to embolden, and to inform.

Since the single best way to celebrate Banned Books Week is solitary in nature, I opted for the second-best way, which was to head over to the Emerald Tablet for their flagship reading series: “Under the Influence.” Not a celebration of Banned Books per se, what “Under the Influence” offers is a mash-up of influential works alongside works written that were somehow inspired by them. In last Friday’s edition, excerpts of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Paula Vogel, William S. Burroughs, and Maggie Nelson were presented side by side with essays, poems, and plays about deserts, identity, pending apocalypse, and fibromyalgia, speaking less perhaps to the manufactured exile created by banning books, but instead to literature’s overarching resilience and penchant for freedom.

Colleen Hubbard was first, and immediately won me over by reading an excerpt from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939), and then an excerpt of her own writing about Denmark’s Råbjerg Mile, the largest Wanderdüne in Northern Europe. The next reader, Abe Becker, read an excerpt from Paula Vogel’s Desdemona (Dramatists Play Service, 1994) with a friend filling in the role of Desdemona while he took on Emilia, her maid. His work that was inspired by Vogel was also a play: a retelling of the play-outside-the-play in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, in which local drunk Christopher Sly is taken in by an aristocrat to be made sport of, performed by a cast of three volunteer readers.

Clint Flippen read excerpts from notable banned book Naked Lunch (Grove Press, 1962), by William S. Burroughs, then proceeded to read poems of his own that flirted with that enduring obsession we have with the apocalypse while likening the destruction of ant farms to that of destroying whole civilizations — certainly an accurate observation from the POV of the ants. Wrapping it up was Amy Berkowitz, who channeled Maggie Nelson, first in a few excerpts from her short prose meditations on a color, “Bluets” (Wave Books, 2009), and then delved into a piece of her own entitled “Tender Points,” about living with fibromyalgia.

Co-created-and-curated by local literary wrangler Evan Karp, the event’s comfy living room vibe was that of anything goes, and past readings have included influential works such as films, songs, and Shakespeare (see Becker) along with the usual prose. Last Friday of the month at 7:30, if you’d like to check it out. Snacks are provided, and donations cheerfully accepted.

“Under the Influence”
The Emerald Tablet
80 Fresno St, SF
(415) 500-2323

The Performant: For Those Who Have Rocked, We Salute You


Theater artists reflect on life on the road in this final dispatch from the 2013 fringe festival circuit.

One of the most interesting aspects of the North American fringe festival circuit is the way it makes touring with a piece of theater an accessible proposition to even typically penniless performers. It hearkens back to an era when dozens of theater companies sent themselves on cross-country tours in much the same manner as punk bands or circuses (the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Independent Eye among them), a rite of literal passage that seems quite out of reach for most theater-makers today. This means that despite its traditional, lottery-based programming, a penchant for kingmaking still pervades the Fringe, and certain prolific artists can become as rock stars, circumventing the lottery odds by booking themselves into unofficial venues as in Edinburgh, capturing oddience attention from year to year.

One of the biggest “rock stars” of the Fringe is Canadian solo artist TJ Dawe, whose shows are both personal and cerebral, exploring themes such as bodily functions, the war of the genders, figures of influence, and more recently, the spiritual and medicinal implications of ayahuasca. He also directs and dramaturges for other artists, most notably perhaps for Charles Ross in his highly physical, fanboy homages One Man Star Wars Trilogy and the One Man Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

For a draw like Dawe, touring the circuit has its clear benefits. “I quit my day job in May 2001,” he explains in a recent email exchange. Still, success doesn’t come without hard work. Dawe estimates that he’s performed over 700 shows throughout the years, and due to his many collaborations with other Fringe artists, is often attached to multiple shows in one season, including a record six in 2008. But even with a modicum of off-season success (including a recent movie made of a play he co-wrote in 2003: The “F” Word), Dawe admits that Fringe stardom rarely translates to mainstream success.

“Life after the Fringe more often consists of people hanging up their Fringe capes and playing the game as actors, writers, and directors generally do: audition, submit scripts, network in the theater community, apply for grants, hope for the best.”

Artistically speaking, the circuit offers an attractive alternative. “Instead of waiting to get cast, you cast yourself. Instead of waiting to be programmed into a theater’s season, you program yourself into a tour. The tour kicks you into shape in terms of getting you coming back with something new. Pretty soon you’ve built up a body of work and developed your own voice as a writer and performer.”

For less-established artists, a way to maximize opportunity is to apply for a long-shot spot in the official CAFF touring lottery, the winners of which can build their tours around the host cities of their choice. Two of this year’s winners had San Francisco connections: clown conservatory alumnus, juggler Aji Slater and puppeteer Zeb L. West, a graduate of SF State. Both have generally positive things to say about the experience, though neither walked away with much in the way of profit (“We merely didn’t lose as much money as we could’ve,” quips Slater). But it was the artistic rewards of the Fringe that each prefers to speak to.

“One of the best things about the Fringe is being around so many creative, incredibly talented people,” Slater asserts. “I dare anyone in the arts to do a Fringe tour and not come back energized to create. Even if zero people had come to see our show, it would be incredibly successful for this jolt of excitement and passion for our craft.”

Via email, West succinctly echoes both Dawe’s passion for the independence afforded the Fringe artist as well as Slater’s enthusiasm for the energizing effects of the more communal aspects of the circuit.

“The Fringe is a great way to get your own weird and wonderful original work out to a broad audience,” he writes. “And if you have a good show, you can fund a tour doing your own stuff. That’s a unique thing at the do-it-yourself scale. The most rewarding part is easily the camaraderie that forms with other touring artists. It makes what might be a lonely job feel like a community of gypsy dream-chasing theater people!”

The Performant: Vancouver Fringe-mania


Well, it’s been another fringe-ferrific whirlwind here at the Vancouver Fringe, but like all good things, it too has come to an end. The Boulder Fringe is still poised to begin this afternoon despite the flooding, but the East to West Coast circuit is now complete, and many career-fringe artists headed home, wherever that may be, to count their successes and tally their losses (often both).

For Naked Empire Bouffon Company the rewards of its five-week tour appear to be both tangible (a Critic’s Choice nomination and a “Talk of the Fringe” award in Vancouver, quotable reviews, and some modest profit), and ephemeral (connecting with other Fringe artists, experiencing new frontiers of audience reaction, generating excitement and controversy). But it’s been a lot of work to get that: months of rehearsal time, many long days of flyering in costume, hustling for audience and some small portion of recognition. But it’s the shows themselves that Fringe artists and audiences come together to experience, and it’s the shows that will hopefully stay with us long after the bone-wearying nature of the hustle fades from memory. Here’s a shortlist of some of the stand-outs from my second week at the Vancouver Fringe. Catch them elsewhere if you can.

Preacher Man Jesse LaVercombe’s solo show only lasts 25 minutes, and he’s confined to a chair the entire time, but there’s nothing static about his character Marcus, a convicted killer awaiting execution. “Do you know what it’s like to live a fulfilled life?” he taunts the oddience knowingly. “Probably not, because if you were living a fulfilled life you probably wouldn’t be attending funerals.” As his story unfolds, it’s a sad one of abuse and befuddlement, but Marcus still manages somehow to convince us he’s the happiest man in the room. LaVercombe also played an equally intense though much less “fulfilled” killer in the full-length Model Wanted, by Step Taylor, but it’s the charismatic Marcus who will haunt me for longer.

Eyes of the Enemy Speaking of haunting, this unsettling show gives its viewers what basically amounts to a crash course in “enhanced interrogation techniques” including stress positions, sleep deprivation, fingernail-removal, psychological manipulation, and finally waterboarding, as Chris W. Cook relentlessly torments Evan Hall, attempting, he claims, to stop a terrorist attack. Cook and Hall literally don’t pull punches in this harrowing reenactment of the grim realities of modern-day “information gathering,” and the message that this sort of treatment is not atypical is one that can’t be ignored.

6 Guitars Florida-native Chase Padgett looks like any ordinary guy with a guitar until he begins to seamlessly switch between six different musical styles — and the musicians who play them. There’s Tyrone, the bluesman who once tried to follow the Blind Lemon Jefferson formula by renaming himself Syphilis Mango Taft, and Wes the effete jazz player who states we probably don’t understand his music before grudgingly admitting that the best listeners of jazz can be those who don’t speak its language. Some of his characters are better developed than others, but it’s Padgett’s guitar playing that really stands out, connecting each disparate character and genre into a cohesive musical experience.

Threads Portland, Ore.’s Tonya Jone Miller reenacts the fall of Saigon with just a pair of suitcases and the power of her performance to convince us. She primarily portrays her mother, who traveled to Vietnam as an English teacher during a period of time when most Americans were trying to stay away far from it, as well as a slew of supporting characters who are part of her story — her students, her love interest, the doctors at the orphanage she volunteers at. Like all the best solo performers, Miller has a powerful charisma that keeps one riveted despite the bare stage and minimal tech, and her vivid story is lush with detail and energy.

Bikes to books


San Francisco has been home to some of the true giants of American literature and poetry, from Jack London and Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. To honor that past, 12 streets were renamed for these and other writers on Oct. 2, 1988, and there will be a 25th anniversary celebration of that dedication coming up on Oct. 6. So the Guardian worked with writer Nicole Gluckstern, Burrito Justice, and City Lights Bookstore to create this Literary Bike Tour map that attendees will follow that day, starting at 11am at Jack London Street and concluding with a reading at 2pm in Jack Kerouac Alley. So join the festivities or just take the tour on your own. 

The Performant: Mean Streets and Matchsticks at the Vancouver Fringe


Here in Vancouver, the Fringe Festival has been in full swing since Sept. 5, and its early bustle has come as something of a welcome surprise. Shows have been selling out right and left, including those by the five-woman sketch comedy team Strapless, and the manic SNAFU Dance Theatre‘s survivalist romp Kitt & Jane. The buzz hangs as heavy in the air as the morning humidity. It’s interesting to compare the rowdy carnival atmosphere of the Edmonton Fringe, complete with sideshow attractions, tireless street performers, and mountains of cheap fried food and the people who eat it, with Vancouver’s more refined approach and oddience. The Vancouver Fringe is the biggest theater festival in town, I’m told, and therefore attracts a fairly large percentage of mainstream theater-goers.

But despite the fact that each show begins with an overly complicated spiel about sponsorship opportunities, the shows themselves have run the usual fringe-y gamut of content from heartfelt to hilarious, edgy to educational. Here are some of the standouts I’ve seen so far.

One of the bravest shows of the 2012 San Francisco Fringe was not actually a theatre piece at all, but an educational talk entitled The Revolution Will Not Be Circumcised, complete with video footage of infant (male) circumcisions that was decidedly not for the faint of heart. I see a lot of similarity in Tasha Diamant’s equally brave The Human Body Project, because when she takes the stage, naked and unscripted, the audience is immediately forced to examine their own reactions and assumptions around the act, the artist, and the body in general, leading to a tangibly cathartic yet thought-provoking collective experience.

Speaking of San Francisco Fringe, homegrown clown Summer Shapiro, whose Legs and All charmed at the festival in 2009, is here in Vancouver with a fun, interactive work, In the Boudoir; it’s a mostly silent comedy of a first date gone terribly awkward. In the same venue, the wry magic of Travis Barnhardt astounds in his mentalist routine Unpossible, during which he confesses several times that he hasn’t quite mastered the art before revealing that he clearly has.

Canadian storyteller Andrew Bailey, whose show Limbo I enjoyed in Edmonton, knocks one out of the metaphorical ballpark with his smart, compelling The Adversary. Matchstick, a two-person musical centered around a troubled, International love affair with political implications, impresses with its quick wit, inventive staging, and dynamic duo, despite some silly lyrics. Solo clown show Butt Kapinski follows a diminutive, speech-challenged “Pwivate Eye” down the mean streets and aisles of the small theater space, filled with cruel tenements, corrupt cops, and a bevy of working girls and murder victims (all unsuspecting oddience members), while the aforementioned Kitt & Jane wows with its energetic portrayals of a pair of angsty high school misfits who have one hour to save the world from itself.

Still looking forward to so much more, including Little Pussy, Model Wanted, Preacher Man, Kuwaiti Moonshine, Radio:30, The Cruelest Phone Book in the World, Against Gravity, Fools for Love, and 6 Guitars so I’d better get cracking. So little time. So many shows.

The Performant: Fringe 101, an essential lexicon revisited.


With the frenzy of the Edmonton Fringe Festival finally subsided, and Vancouver’s about to begin, myself and the Naked Empire Bouffons are ready for action. We have posters to plaster, our venue to scope out, and fellow artists to schmooze before the festival opens on the fifth, but in the interim I have time to let my attentions wander back momentarily to San Francisco, whose Fringe Festival also opens this week.

Did you know that we boast the second oldest Fringe Festival in the United States (the first being Orlando’s)? And that, along with Vancouver, we represent the final leg of the CAFF (Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals) circuit for touring Fringe artists, despite the small complication of not actually being Canadian? Admittedly our festival is smaller than the Vancouver event (36 shows, as compared to 91 and counting), but it’s still a veritable bacchanal of drama, dance, and comedic derring-do packed into 14 days.

For the frequent fringer and the newcomer to the fold alike, the biggest challenge can be narrowing down the field of options to a manageable handful, and while I always advocate the time-honored tradition of asking other people who have already seen a particular show their opinion of it, I’ve also become rather adept at translating some of the more commonly-used descriptors in program blurbs, which does help with the initial elimination process (note: you should always be willing to change your mind about something you’ve eliminated if the buzz it’s generating is suitably favorable). Since it never hurts to be prepared, here is my personal Fringe Festival program guide glossary, reprinted from its 2011 debut, to help you locate the Fringe experience you’re looking for, whether it be a farce, a fantasy, or a free-for-all.

Bare Bones: We’ve never heard of Kickstarter
Cheese: Neo-surrealists in the house
Classic: We don’t need the rights to present this work
Dark: At least one of the characters dies
Disturbing: If you don’t like fart jokes
Dynamic: Theater Arts undergrads
Edgy: Guaranteed to offend at least one minority group
Erotic: For inexplicable reasons, won’t include nudity
Existential: At least half of the characters die
Experiential: Audience participation required
Experimental: We decided not to bother writing a script
Fresh Take: You’ve seen this play 100 times before
Hilarious: If you like fart jokes
Inspirational: Overcoming the effects of an upper middle-class upbringing
Interactive: Don’t sit in the front row
Internationally-acclaimed: Also performed at the Winnipeg Fringe
Multi-media: If our projector breaks we’re screwed
New Translation: We worked way harder on this show than you can imagine
Noir: Will be wearing great hats
Noirish: Couldn’t afford great hats
Poignant: There will be at least one monologue about innocence lost
Provocative: Will include violence and nudity
Quotes from famous people: Assistant Director used to walk their dogs
Quotes from previous runs: We have had a chance to rehearse this
Reimagined: We don’t actually have the rights to present this work
Sensitive: Over-wrought
Site-Specific: Wear layers
Riveting: The stage manager’s mother-in-law said so
Thought-provoking: Will include either violence or nudity
Uncompromising: Guaranteed to offend pretty much everyone
Unforgettable: No matter how hard you try
Universal: Fart jokes
Visceral: Don’t sit in the front row
Wacky: A kazoo will definitely make an appearance at some point
With a twist: You can see it coming
World Premiere: We haven’t had a chance to rehearse this

Wanna Fringe vicariously through us? Follow @enkohl and @NakdEmprBouffon on the twit-thing for updates and gossip.

Choose your own adventure


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

EXIT Theatreplex

156 Eddy, SF


The Performant: Fringe Dwellers


It’s hard to believe, but the 32nd annual Edmonton Fringe is already over and touring companies like Naked Empire Bouffon are packing their bags to move on to the next festival, while artists who have finished their runs head for home — whether that’s Australia, the UK, or just North of the High Level Bridge. As at every Fringe, my goal has been to see just as many shows as I can, and in between stage-managing Naked Empire’s run and feverishly making deadlines, I saw 35, which ranged in content and execution from the merely mundane to the inarguably sublime. Here’s a roundup of my personal favorites and companies I recommend watching out for should they make over to San Francisco.

1) Best Interpretation of “…the rest is silence:” Grim and Fischer, by the Wonderheads. Haunting, heartfelt, and humorous, Grim and Fischer unfolds on the stage like beautiful French animation, with nary a spoken word passing between the three meticulously-masked characters: the sepulchral Grim, the feisty Mrs. Fischer, and the frustrated Nurse Doug. A classic struggle against the inevitability of death told in movement, allusion, and fart jokes, to a soundtrack of Mozart and Survivor, the impact of the imagery lingers long after the show is over.

2) Best Surrealist Ensemble: The Tenant Haimowitz, by Zygota Theatre. Penned by Israeli playwright Ariel Bronz, this abstract journey through the purgatory of one poet’s worldview is both complex and confounding, but absolutely mesmerizing. Bullied into renting a cheap flat only to discover five unexpected roommates after he signs on the dotted line, Daniel Haimovitz is sucked into a whirlpool of situational farce, at one moment being literally wrapped in bureaucratic red tape, at another forced to play a word association game the rules of which seem not to apply equally to all the participants as the tight-knit, highly-kinetic ensemble alternately defies gravity and gravitas.

3) Best Lo-Budget, Hi-Voltage Costume Concept: Moby Alpha, by Charles Comedy. The staging of this quirky mashup between science-fiction serial drama and Herman Melville is pure fringe, with the two actors (Charlie Stockman and Chuck Armstrong) illuminated only by their inventive space helmets, with switches that allow them to change colors for each character and transporter sequence, while they float through the vastness of space, represented by the otherwise dark stage.

4) Best Canada-centric History Lesson: Jake’s Gift, by Juno Productions. Unless you travel to Canada, chances are you won’t get a chance to see this show about a Canadian WWII vet returning to Juno Beach for the first time in 60 years. While somewhat predictably staged, in a manner most likely to inspire unabashed sniffling from the audience, the script reveals an interesting chapter in Canadian military history, one completely subsumed in the states by our own.

5) Best Whimsical Literary Reimaginings: Poe and Mathews, by Grumble Productions, Innocent When You Dream, by Zeb L. West. What if Edgar Allan Poe was washed up on a deserted island with the now-forgotten author Cornelius Mathews with only a rock to keep them company and a sandwich to stave off the hunger? What if the bulk of the action of Moby Dick took place inside the whale including a long diversion in the guise of Don Quixote? Physical comedy, puppetry, and ukulele tunes take us down those quirky rabbit holes.

6) Best Unscripted Fringe Experiences: Late Night Cabaret, Truth or Dare With Strangers, “The Zackie Awards.” Sorry improv groups, the best unscripted performances are almost always those tackled by the unsuspecting in moments of nervous anticipation and heightened awareness. I loved the randomness of the Late Night Cabaret once the “Wheel of Desire” was spun and whoever the night’s special guests were had to perform the action dictated by random chance; the sweet-natured experiment of Tasha Hickie’s “Truth or Dare With Strangers” where, for two Canadian dollars, you could huddle in a tent with people you’d never met and reveal yourself without inhibition; and the slap-happy hilarity of the performer-centric Zackies after a long hard Fringe.

Next stop, Vanvouver. Stay tuned.

Wanna Fringe vicariously through us? Follow @enkohl and @NakdEmprBouffon on the twit-thing for updates and gossip.