Nicole Gluckstern

The Performant: Life is but a dream…


Bouffonery and W. Kamau Bell’s stand-up at Stagewerx

Theater history is full of stories of legendary shows that caused riots at their opening night, difficult to imagine in these more apathetic times. We go to the theatre to be entertained, more rarely to be provoked, and more rarely yet, to be stirred to an action greater than the act of merely applauding at the end.

But the theater of Bouffon turns that theater-going complacency on its head. The entertainer in the room is not the curious creature onstage with exaggerated buttocks and an evil smile, but the squirming oddience stuck in the crosshairs of its merciless gaze.

When Eric Davis, a.k.a. the Red Bastard tumbles onto the stage, imitating the slightly baffled faces that gaze up at him in a brilliant, Tourettic flash, a slight tingle of danger vibrates around the room. A dawning awareness, there’s no place to hide. Even those of us who have cleverly ensconced ourselves in the back can tell we’re being scrutinized in the dim lighting of the anonymous warehouse space we’re crammed together in.

“As an audience, you have absolutely no presence,” the Bastard complains. Backs straighten. Chins raise. Challenge us will he? That wobbling, unitard-wearing freak stuffed suggestively with balloons and venom. Of course he will. That’s the whole point.

Red Bastard mocks us. He cajoles. He flirts. He leads the group in a series of physical exercises, dividing the room in two and forcing us to compete, exhorting us to GO BIG. He sticks his bulbous, balloon-stuffed bottom in the face of a pretty girl and makes her dig around for a five-dollar bill. What price dignity. He hocks a loogey onstage and calls it “art” — later he sits in it, “fucking art.” And just at the point where he could become just another one-trick provocateur, he softens the schtick and turns inward. Pressing the buttons of our emotional vulnerability as easily as he pushed our sense of outrage just moments before.

“The more you risk, the more you are rewarded,” he counsels. “If you can’t articulate your desires, you can’t achieve them.” Encouraging the crowd to shout out their deepest desires (“sail around the world,” “naked scuba,” “have a dog,” “fall in love”) he fills an invisible bag with them and pushes it up a “dream mountain” chanting “sissy fuss sissy fuss.”

“What’s difficult about falling in love?” he demands. What’s difficult, he insinuates, about achieving any of our dreams? What indeed.

The ultimate provocation comes when he urges a disgruntled worker bee to call her boss up and quit on the spot, which she gamely attempts but is foiled by the lack of cell phone reception in the room. “T-Mobile,” she explains, as we nod sympathetically. But the seed has been planted, and who knows what fruit it will bear later on.

Then, like the Buddha you kill on the road, Red Bastard sends us away, filled, if only for a moment, with the feeling we truly own our own destiny, a feeling worth every bit of humiliation it took for us to get there.


Speaking of owning our own destiny, and following our dreams, local comedian-making-good W. Kamau Bell performed a sold-out weekend at Stagewerx, his spiritual San Francisco home. The theme of much of the show spoke mainly to the heady weirdness of the nature of “celebrity”. Even the kind of ground-level celebrity of having a new television show (Chris Rock-produced Totally Biased on FX) comes with a set of unexpected side effects. Being forced onto The View, auditioning for a spot on The Howard Stern Show, moving to a non-gentrified part of Brooklyn from the Inner Sunset, it’s all fuel for the funny as life’s most awkward moments so frequently are. He’s still the same Kamau, and thank goodness. But the dream, and the comedy, has grown.

The Performant: Oakland, We’re For You


Oakland Nights….LIVE! makes a scene

Clear your calendars everybody, Oakland’s own untelevised late-night talk show has returned from a wintry hibernation and found itself some indoor digs, all the better to display their charmingly populist showcase.

The brainchild of art teacher and science nerd Julie Crossman, and sound artist Jeremy Dalmas, Oakland Nights…LIVE! is a giddy mashup of brief lectures/guest speakers, interviews, contests, music, and general goofing around, loosely adhering to a pre-determined theme. Newly located in the recently outfitted hackerspace, the Sudo Room (it used to play in Dalmas’ backyard, and once, memorably, on BART), ONL’s spartan “set” resembles a picked-over yard sale in the late afternoon: a few mis-matched chairs, a desktop crowded with knickknacks, a rotary telephone, a pile of seemingly random toys, including an old fashioned porcelain doll named Spooky Lucy, a basket of (vegan) cookies for participants. A video screen hovers behind the stage, primed for live-cam action, and a winningly upbeat house band, the Hats, stand at the ready.

After an opening monologue about hemorrhoids and hot doctors delivered by Channing Tatum (just kidding, it was Oakland comedian Channing Kennedy who also provides most of the onscreen visuals) the show begins in earnest. There were cue cards (applause, maniacal laughter, awkward cough), and the first oddience competition of the evening “Who’s New?” — the highlight of which was a video of baby goats at the Oakland Zoo, because the highlight of just about everything in this cruel world is a video of baby goats.

The theme of the evening was “The Human Body,” so the first guest lecturer was a dermatologist, Ingrid Roseborough. First thing I learned over the course of the evening from the opening monologue is that there are four kinds of hemorrhoids (lovely). The second, during Roseborough’s Q&A, was about the lines of Blaschko, invisible stripes on the human body that become visible only in conjunction with certain skin conditions. Education and entertainment. It doesn’t get much better.

Except that it does. Among the guests wrangled by the impossibly buoyant Crossman and her laid-back co-conspirator Dalmas are Exploratorium Explainer Raha Behman who dissects a cow eye on the live-cam to predictable gasps and giggles, a duo of intensely-focused dancers, Christine Bonansea and Justin Morrison, whose aggressively industrial soundtrack would fit right in on a Throbbing Gristle album, swallowing expert Lauren Scheiner, who leads the room in a series of tongue exercises, and comedian David Cohen whose stated goal is to uncover  what constitutes the perfect smooch.

He raises some hackles with his San Francisco-based safari video, the popular sentiment being that Oakland should be the representative demographic at ONL, a stance that comes off sounding somewhat defensive to my own San Francisco-dwelling perspective (relax, guys, we all know you’re awesome!), but is enthusiastically supported by the general majority.

Cohen promises an Oakland edition, and the crowd settles back down just in time for the grand finale sing-along “Oakland, We’re For You,” a perfect tongue-in-cheek ending to the evening’s many shenanigans. Best of all, ONL’s quirky good fun is scheduled to continue indefinitely on each first Saturday, so plan to tune in, turn it up, and drop by soon.


The Performant: Our selves


The body does not lie — Anne Sexton

So often in the arts it seems like we spend an inordinate amount of time focused on how art engages our minds as opposed to our bodies, as if body were a mere vessel whose primary function was to shelter and nourish the brain. In fairness, this is how we treat our bodies in a non-artistic settings too, at best a cumbersome weight which anchors us to the physical world, at worst, a burden we long someday to be free of.

This constant mental disavowal of the body is one of the reasons the art of dance can appear so bold and so transgressive—the encumbrances of the body transformed into its greatest triumphs. In Brontez Purnell Dance Company’s “The Episodes,” playing at the Garage through March 16, everyday routines become ritual, and Purnell, Anthony Lucas, and Sophia Wang explore the mundane with an evening of choreographed mayhem and experiential frolic.

The evening begins with Gary Fembot-Brontez Purnell collaborative dance film “Free Jazz,” a hodge-podge of footage from various dance improvisations and “happenings” organized by Purnell over the course of an unspecified amount of time. In one scene, Punell races shirtless through the city streets carrying an immense tree branch over his head which he lays at the feet of a waiting coterie of fellow dancers, who encircle it solemnly and bend low to the ground.

In another he jumps around, fully clothed, in the midst of a wriggling, ecstatic house party, where dewy youths in hip sunglasses gyrate to the rhythm-heavy soundtrack. Bodies of every shape and size become vehicles of the beat, and the beat becomes a framework to encompass the onslaught of bodies, who strut and leap and cringe and embrace in riotous abandon.

Onstage, seated in galvanized washtubs, the dancers immediately draw attention to their bodies by forcing our brains to imagine the clammy indignity of sitting around in wet jeans. Wordlessly they mimic the functions of cleansing, stripping down and wringing the water out of their sopping denim, before rushing across the stage to put on their dance attire. On the video screen, a hand without a body scrawls chalk circles on the pavement, while the dancers roll deliberately on the ground, contracting and expanding their circle on the floor like breaths. To a cacophony of bells and crashing gongs, they leap into the air and slam themselves back to the ground, embodying the everyday frustration of reaching up only to be dragged back down, the constant tension between the possible versus the probable.

This tension thus established, the piece develops it further in several directions — relationship ruts versus artistic creation, morning rituals versus dreaming, avoidance versus acceptance.

In one scene the stage becomes scattered in drifts of crumpled paper, discarded words, like fallen leaves that can never be completely cleared away. A wave of Sisyphean hopelessness washes over the scene as Lucas doggedly chases every last scrap and Wang continually adds to the disarray. In another, the three sit on a striped couch, stupefied, static playing on the video screen, studio applause ringing hollowly across the stage before they “melt” away from each other and into their own fantasies.

The final scene brings the focus back on human interrelationship, a disembodied voice muses on being “torn between two lovers” while the trio collides in a series of twos and threes on a messy mattress, ending with all of them together in a nurturing cuddle puddle that appears to simultaneously define a connection between the three, without shutting out the oddience which surrounds their stage like a empathetic embrace. A body of bodies in a communion of flesh.

The Performant: Whose story?


Sifting through the past at The SF History Expo

If history is a tale written by the victors, one wonders who San Francisco’s victors are. A chimeral concept as much as a destination, represented by a Phoenix rising from its own destruction, San Francisco has been lauded as a land of opportunity and “the city that knows how,” and detracted as “ingrown (and) self-obsessed,” a “golden handcuff,” and a “Babylon-by-the-Bay” ever since it surfaced in the national consciousness. A city where eccentrics are celebrated, “family values” extend beyond heteronormativity, and the very real threat of natural disaster colors the mundane with an idealized wash of importance.

This past weekend, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society’s SF History Expo offered a gateway to the various and colliding stories of San Francisco for people interested in delving into what lies below the surface of the present day, assembling around forty exhibitors and presenters in once spot, to confab, to network, to recruit, and to educate.

Held in San Francisco’s Old Mint, built in 1874 and a rare survivor of the 1906 earthquake, just wandering around the building is a rare treat. The lower level is a veritable warren of small rooms, former vaults with ominously heavy doors, slippery stone floors, old graffiti, and no ventilation, situated off a long brick corridor lined with gas lamps.

Upstairs the rooms are larger, airier, with high ceilings and plenty of light streaming in through large windows, encircling a rather bleak courtyard like a prison exercise yard with high sandstone walls. Crowded with exhibitors, the smallish rooms overflowed with maps, pamphlets, sepia-toned photographs, and glass cases of ephemera,

In a central room, folks from Actions Past in period dress gave demonstrations of Victorian parlor arts, while down the hall the volunteers from the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park encouraged people to hoist the mainsail on a scale model of historic scow schooner the Alma. At one end of the hall, four neighborhood historical societies from Portrero, Bernal, Visitacion Valley, and the “Western Neighborhoods” (including the faraway lands of the Sunset and the Outer Richmond) shared one room, while on the opposite end the “Guardians of the City,” a historical society dedicated to the Police and Fire departments, rubbed elbows with proponents of “alternative” histories, Shaping San Francisco/FoundSF and Thinkwalks.

Despite this welcome nod to the stories of the typically underrepresented, it did highlight the fact that of all the neighborhood and community historians in attendance, there was hardly a radical element to be found. To be fair, organizations such as the Chinese Historical Society and the GLBT Historical Society did have tables, so the event wasn’t completely devoid of more-than-geographic diversity, but it still could have used a few more nods to the Tenderloin, the Bayview, the Fillmore—or even just a single Sister of Perpetual Indulgence in Victorian drag.

Still, the value of assembling so many various stories under one roof shouldn’t be underestimated. If we consider history not as a static and one-sided document, but a constantly evolving perspective, then the opportunity to compare and contrast a variety of viewpoints has to start somewhere, and who better to spearhead the conversation than a roomful of enthusiasts each advocating the awareness and preservation of a different one?

Most important and interesting to the conversation was probably the attendance of so many amateur historians who gathered around each exhibit to share their personal perspectives on the overviews being offered. One hopes that their contributions to the collective chronicle will not go uncollected, so that future voices will not go unheard.

The Performant: An expedition report from the All Worlds Fair


A visitor to the inter-dimensional, pan-galactic celebration known as the All Worlds Fair has to be prepared to fulfill the bureaucratic requirements, which are, by Earth standards, unusually rigid. In order to enter this portal into a unique realm which contains all possible and alternate realities under one roof, travelers must fill out both a visa application and an immigration form and additionally agree to adhere to the more-or-less strictly enforced dress code (black-and-white) and no-digital device accord.

Ushered first into a tented holding area of the sort that will seem familiar to seasoned travelers waiting to embark on a voyage across international waters, travelers are urged to fill out an additional form, as a bevy of extraterrestrial functionaries in matching red-and-black dresses and pillbox hats topped with twitching antennae, scuttle to-and-fro, monitoring progress.

Travelers are then funneled through passport control and given that most essential of documents, embossed gold on red, with plenty of pages for exhaustive stamp collectors. Upon entering the portal to the Fair, aka the side entrance of San Francisco’s Old Mint, the route taken and wonders encountered by each explorer will be effectively unique, as a dozen different directions and dimensions become immediately possible in the cramped warren of small brick rooms that make up the first level of the historic “Granite Lady.”

I am whisked down to the far end of the hall by a brusque docent in a bellhop’s uniform who ushers me into a room full of giant plushy mustaches on rockers and urges me to take a ride. Just outside, a more titillating ride awaits—a trip on the “time-folding” massage chairs of Wrinkle Inc. The friendly proprietors offer me a handful of official AWF currency — “genuine” Emperor Norton banknotes — and wish me luck with me “upcoming appendectomy.” Clairvoyance, it seems, is a side effect of time travel, or maybe it’s actually appendicitis that is. A tentacled oracle further predicts my future, the Aixiodimensional Adventure company offers me brochures for the Planet Ckikyuu and Urataint, a destination recommended “only for hardy, experienced dimension-jumpers.”

I’m temporarily kidnapped by mermaids, challenged to a cardboard cutlass duel by a lusty wench, serve on the jury of the All World’s Court, and undergo the necessary formality of the Open Secret Cabaret, where all the esoteric and practical knowledge assembled by permanent Fair inhabitants is presented in lulling sing-song interspersed by manic outbursts of a caged studio musician. I’m told later of wonders such as a penny arcade, an endless tea party, and a Merkin Tile where Norton bucks can be exchanged for goods, but hustled up to the second level too soon, I can only hope to experience these in another point along the time-space continuum.

The Upper Floor contained, among other wonders, the splendid collection of “Wrongitudinal Flora” at the Botanarium, including the delicious-looking fried egg plant and a pair of comfy, deciduous sofas, an interactive “live sculpture garden” and solemn retelling of the horror story (and intergalactic bestseller!) that is the Book of Revelations, and the centerpiece of the event: a dance performance imported all the way from the Andromeda Galaxy, which combined familiar elements of earthly disciplines such as Butoh, polyrhythmic percussion, occasional throat-singing, and acrobatics in a strobe-lit, rooftop spectacle as well as a more intimate portion performed in rooms filled with clouds, enigmatic musicians, and writhing bodies dressed in their traditional garb of white-on-white layers (the Andromedans have no developed sense of color).

This energetic display regrettably marked the end of the All World’s Fair for another eternity (give or take a few millennium), and with hardly a moment to regroup, we were whisked out of the building and deposited back onto Fifth Street, where gravity and the Gregorian calendar conspired to anchor us firmly back to Earth. And thus concludes my expedition report, at least within this dimension.

*End Transmission*

I’m your fan


MUSIC Like most love affairs, there was little indication on our first encounter that it would turn into a lifelong infatuation. I was 17, methodically singing my way through a book of folk tunes, one of which was his first real hit, “Suzanne”. Though I admired it for its lyrical content, it weighed heavy on my range, and I soon moved on to other songs.

When I stumbled across him again, years later, it was as if we had never met. He was older, rougher, seemingly more jaded. His brutal ode “The Future” was dominating the indie-radio airwaves, hot on the heels of its appearance in Oliver Stone’s bombastic Natural Born Killers. When my then-roomie confessed a fondness for his music, it turned that single song on the radio into a sort of clarion call — the key, perhaps, to winning my flatmate’s frustratingly platonic heart. From that time, Leonard Cohen became a constant presence in my life, hovering at the periphery of countless triumphs, challenges, and betrayals, a companionship of almost 20 years that has spanned the globe, and almost every kind of circumstance.

There’s no one song or phase of Cohen’s music that seems to universally predicate the shift from uninitiated or fair-weather fan to true believer. For some it is the Cohen of the 1960s, whose laborious finger-picking and reedy, untrained voice lent equal gravitas to meticulously-plotted stories of resistance fighters and blowjobs, transcendence and squalor. For others it’s the synth-infused litanies to the naked body and the painful futility of the excess of the ’80s, or the flintier, world-weary renegade poised for flight of the early ’90s. Even the most contemporary of Cohen’s “masks,” the “lazy bastard in a suit,” currently rides a wave of almost unprecedented popularity, particularly in the US where he has mostly languished on the fringes of recognition until the last few years.

Underpinned by the spare minimalism of poetry written by a man for whom silence has played a pivotal role as much as language has (including a five-year long retreat at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center), his 2012 album Old Ideas brims over with themes that have appeared in almost every Cohen album over the last 40 years — bittersweet entanglement, elevation of the spirit, the struggles of the flesh — and marks a decided turning point in Cohen’s life, both personal and professional. An old Zen master of the music business arguably at the height of his powers: depression vanquished and horizons expanding exponentially.

Local author, rock journalist, and Leonard Cohen biographer (I’m Your Man, Ecco, 2012), Sylvie Simmons had her first encounter with Cohen in her adolescence as well, but for her the attraction was more immediate.

“The day I hit puberty was the day I heard my first Leonard Cohen record,” she confides over the phone when I call to get her side of her most famous subject. And though “it was outside my usual taste,” she found herself listening to his songs again and again, even today. Now deeply immersed in her own exhaustive world book tour, she’s even found a new thing to be impressed by: Cohen’s unflinching dedication to the road. “He’s got the kind of schedule that would kill an 18-year-old,” she says with a laugh. “He’s definitely a better man than I!”

Seeing Leonard Cohen perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival in ’08, after years of worshiping from afar, will always remain one of my most luminous memories. The prodigal son gone good, working the hometown crowd for an epic three-and-a-half hours, holding his hat over his heart as we applauded each song until our hands were sore, bowing his head humbly again and again, prophet as fellow supplicant. By a twist of good fortune, I managed to see him twice more on that tour — in Oakland and in Paris — and each time, though the controlled orchestration of the event revealed itself more and more, so did the sense of sheer joy emanating from both the stage and the audience, an orgy of admiration, and, a real rarity in the business, of gratitude.

Simmons has an explanation for this gracious humility as well. “He just loves life on the road,” Simmons explains. “He told me it was wonderful…’for a man my age to have a feeling of full employment’.” I rather suspect that this weekend’s events will be just as wonderful for us as they will be for him. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for being our man.


Fri/1, 6pm, free

Marsh Berkeley Cabaret

2120 Allston Way, Berk.

(415) 641-0235


Sat/2 and Sun/2, 8pm, $71.50–$253

Paramount Theatre

2025 Broadway, Oakl.

(510) 465-6400

Christmas in February: The Residents come home


Bimbo’s was packed to the rafters Sunday night for the triumphal homecoming show of music-and-neo-surrealism group the Residents, which was celebrating 40 years of relative obscurity with a blowout tour.

The stage was set with a whimsically unseasonal Christmas theme — huge inflatable candy canes, Santa, and Frosty the Snowman — draped with a hand-lettered banner emblazoned simply with the band name. 

The days of elaborate sets and 16-piece ensembles are over for the Residents, and their current incarnation — a stripped-down trio of masked musicians known simply as “Randy,” “Chuck,” and “Bob” — relies mostly on electronic sampling and assorted effects to create the unsettling soundscapes and dissonant jangles they’ve been (un)known for since their very first public release in 1972 — the “Santa Dog” single.

In keeping with the general décor and our armchair roadtrip down memory lane, “Santa Dog,” was the second song of the show, after the burst of the first song, an excellent, elongated version of “Kick a Picnic/Picnic in the Jungle,” written originally for now-deceased Residents’ collaborator, Philip Charles “Snakefinger” Lithman.

The almost chirpy “Give it to Someone Else” followed, from The Commercial Album of 1980 — a time period that lead singer “Randy” quipped was when the Residents “were headed straight for the top…we’d die before our day, and we still will.”

The tone of the show thus established, “Randy,” in a Santa suit of his own and old man rubber mask, continued his spoken confessional interludes throughout the evening, concocting more and more detailed tales of tours past, his 11 ex-wives, and his ailing feline companion, Maurice, as the hooded figures of “Chuck” and “Bob” communicated solely through their instruments: electronic keys and guitar, respectively.

There may be a sense of Zappa-esque whimsy about the Residents, particularly in terms of song titles (“The Confused Transsexual,” “Bad Day on the Midway”) but darkness is never far behind, and lyrics such as “if there was no desperation/would we still be alive?” coupled with dirge-worthy layers of electronica and aggressively distorted vocals that appeared at times to be lifted straight from Coil, and soaring power riffs that no ’80s rock band would be ashamed to claim, lent their music a deliberately disjointed flow — hard to sing along to, but impossible to forget.

Even songs with a salacious bent (“Touch Me”) or an hint of vulnerability (“Honey Bear”) contained an undercurrent of open-eyed mortality, exacerbated in no small part by “Randy’s” wrinkled visage. But in the end, whimsy ruled the evening after all, with the sudden “birth” of a towering inflatable Christmas tree topped with an eyeball, that dwarfed the stage as the Jimi Hendrix-worthy strains of “Happy Birthday” rang out from Bob’s guitar, a burst of “Auld Lang Syne,” and finally the last song in the set, “Mahogany Wood” which included the repeated croon: “I wish I was something/I wish I was good.”

No word on whether or not the Residents have found a buyer for their $100,000 boxed set yet, but at least it appears that they can still afford balloons.

Afterwards, it’s like a dream/You can’t remember but it seems/To stay alive inside your mind/And prey upon your leisure time…

The Performant: Love bites


Celebrating romance with power ballads, Spandex leggings, fancy panties

Although there are about 364 days of the year when I can do without it—one day of the year seems custom-made to celebrate the ignoble rise of hair metal and its greatest contribution to the musical landscape — the power ballad. From “Love Bites” to “Is This Love,” “(I Can’t Live Without) Your Love and Affection,” to “The Power of Love” — all the saccharine sentiment of brooding, pouty millionaires in ripped jeans, tight leather, and all those glorious manes — power ballads can and probably should form the soundtrack to Saint Valentine’s Day now and forever. They so perfectly tap into both the cynicism of the single person facing “the dread VD” alone, as well as offering a soaring guitar-solo boost to the cuddly nostalgia of the happily coupled.

While innamorati for hundreds of years have used February 14 as a date to shower their beloved in flowers and cards, Jeff Ross and the SF IndieFest team have used it as another excuse to party, with an annual Power Ballad Sing-along at the Roxie Theatre. Just three years after its San Francisco debut (a similar party tears it up each year in Brooklyn), PBS pours its sugar and motors through the packed house, screening subtitled MTV videos turned up to 11 of all the best bands you’d love to forget to a theatre full of eager inebriates, cutting loose in a veritable bacchanalia of communal song.

If you’re lucky enough to squeeze into the perpetually sold-out event, you’ll be handed a lighter at the door, the essential prop of the power ballad lover and although no extra credit points are handed out for costumes, this being San Francisco, plenty of people do show up in them. Spandex leggings, ripped stonewash denim, studded wristbands, and plenty of Aquanet. One enterprising soul even comes dressed as Slash — right down to the guitar — a handy prop during the obligatory screening of Guns ‘N Roses’ nine-minute orchestral dirge “November Rain”.

Unlike a karaoke night full of awkward people who have to be cajoled into singing at all, let alone bellowing REO Speedwagon songs at full volume, a sing-along allows everyone to a) hide in the dark and b) therefore sing with the full confidence that almost everyone around them sounds even worse than they do, especially after the effects of cheap whiskey and rampant silliness settles in. It’s about as egalitarian as it gets, and even though this year’s blowout was marred by technical difficulties, my sorrow at missing out on the ultimate elation of singing “You Give Love a Bad Name” en masse couldn’t spoil the gleeful satisfaction of mangling an otherwise extensive playbook of all the worst bands with the best hair: Def Leppard, Cinderella, Whitesnake, Journey.

Meantime, just up the block at the Little Roxie, Liz Worthy’s window display aka “Heist Boutique” offers a poignant love letter to the ever-changing landscape of the Mission district via a few carefully-curated *objets d’art* used to represent a psychogeographical survey of “old-school” Mission businesses taken over by others in recent years. There’s the Self Edge VHS tape (asking price $714, in honor of the address), commemorating previous tenant and nostalgic favorite Leather Tongue video store (represented cheekily by a pair of red jeans), a pair of Modern Times sunglasses ($888) named for the bookstore that until recently inhabited the space where Fine Arts Optical now resides, a Wang Fat Fish Market bikini in turquoise and red ($2199) honoring the fish store of yore, (now Zoe Bikini). The display will be up until at least the middle of March, so swing by soon to relive your own fond memories of a Mission gone by. It may be too late to hang out at the Café Macondo or Jivano’s Cutlery, but, like the power ballads of the past, it’s still not too late to reminisce about them awhile.

The Performant: Playing in the Sandbox


SF Playhouse’s Sandbox Series puts play back into playwriting

It’s getting harder each year to determine when exactly the “off-season” is in terms of things to do in the City, considering that this past, random weekend in February alone saw collisions of three major festivals — SF Sketchfest, SF Indie Fest, and SF Beer Week — on top of all the usual openings and closings and goings on. In fact, it’s been so hectic (albeit muy divertido) that the Performant is going to break protocol and look ahead to an event lingering just on the horizon, to ensure it doesn’t get lost in the onslaught of events to come.

Founded in 2010, SF Playhouse’s Sandbox Series is a play series (beginning Feb. 27) that inhabits a region somewhere between staged reading and full production — offering new plays a full run and technical support, without breaking the bank on design and promotion.

Past playwrights have included William Bivins (“The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry”), Daniel Heath (“Seven Days”), and Kenn Rabin (“Reunion”). This year, the ladies will take centerstage with Inevitable, penned by SF Playhouse’s own Literary Manager, Jordan Puckett, and the next play in the series a commissioned piece from Lauren Gunderson on the life of artist Rudolf Bauer.

I caught up with SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English and artistic associate Lauren English to get the scoop on playing in the “Sandbox.”

SFBG When you founded the Sandbox Series in 2010 did you anticipate it having this kind of staying power?

SF Playhouse (Initially) we were worried we were taking on too much by starting an alternate season of World Premieres, but this is our fourth year and the funding has miraculously kept up with our needs.

What’s the selection process for plays like?

SFP We started by soliciting scripts from the outside and three of our Sandbox plays were commissions of Playground—a new play incubator—that provided part of their funding. Now we are trying to feed our own commissions into the Sandbox, while still accepting scripts from outside SF Playhouse

SFBG It appears that these productions straddle a line between staged reading and full production, care to break down the dynamic a bit.

SFP The gulf between readings and full productions is an area where not many theatres dare to tread, but one where there is a great need. Sandbox offers a unique experience for both the playwright and the audience. It’s not a full production nor is it a staged reading, it’s in that gorgeous “in-between” phase of play development that is not often seen by the public. We look to create simple design gestures to support the story, while keeping the focus on the story itself. We try to stick with scripts that have five or less actors and fairly simple technical demands.

SFBG Have any of these plays gone on to fully staged productions at SF Playhouse or elsewhere? What is the future for a Sandbox series play?

SFP Not yet, but we are still working on some of them and our aim is to have Sandbox plays track to the mainstage or productions at other theatres. We always meet with the playwrights after run closes to do a post mortem and make recommendations.

SFBG Anything you’d like to add?

SFP If theater is to continue to be a part of our culture and thrive into the future, it is essential to develop new voices. Playwrights are the prophets of our culture, with sensitive antennae poised to see, hear, and feel the essentials of being alive in our time and to translate those insights into stories that give us much needed perspective on our lives. We need them and our Sandbox program is our commitment to nurture these voices.

SF Playhouse Sandbox Series
previews begin Feb 27, $20
Unscripted Theatre
533 Sutter, SF
(415) 677-9596

Beer Week rolls out the barrel


With much fanfare, the San Francisco Brewers Guild annual SF Beer Week popped its cork at the Concourse last Friday night, and the Bay Area has been awash in a tsunami of beer ever since.

Unable to attend the grand gala opening celebration, I got the lowdown from beer-tasting buddy Cee Jay, who took a few for the team in his quest for the perfect snifter of suds and got him to wax eloquent on Sierra Nevada’s new line of barrel-aged beers (“The barrel-aged Bigfoot is the tastiest brew I’ve had in a long time,” he gushed) and weigh in on the collaboratively-brewed Brewers Guild malt liquor Green Death — a brew apparently inspired by one of my secret nostalgic faves Rainer ale, a dubious beverage I have fond albeit very fuzzy memories of. One this subject Cee Jay vacillated between calling it “well-balanced” yet possessed of a “split personality,” code words for “he don’t like it” (decide for yourself at the “Meet the Brewers” event at Speakeasy on February 13).

As I peruse the schedule for the week ahead, all I can say is “thank goodness beer week lasts 10 days”. Because otherwise I don’t know how I’d fit in all the beers that sound too good to pass up.

With over 400 events to choose from all over the Bay, you’d be hard pressed to avoid Beer Week altogether, which makes my strategy of sticking to bars I’d probably be going to anyway but coinciding it with a tap takeover of a brewery I’m keen to further my familiarity with, either sheer genius or maybe just laziness. San Diego night at the Sycamore on Monday was a perfect example of this welcome synchronicity of will to explore and comfortable location. Breweries represented included Ballast Point (whose Sculpin IPA is a big favorite) and Green Flash (whose Black Saison “Friendship Ale” was particularly tempting), and since the Sycamore is within literal stumbling distance of my home, the fact that it was a “school night” did not matter much. Incidentally Sycamore is also hosting a promising-sounding Dogfish Head night on the 12th, which will be a great opportunity to taste some special rarities.

Toronado, naturally, will host two of my real must-do’s, the Russian River ‘Tion night (Tues/12), where some 20 Russian River beers (though ironically NOT the highly-anticipated seasonal release, Pliny the Younger) will be served from 6pm onward, and the not-technically-Beer-Week-but-still-imperative 20th annual Barleywine Festival from the 16th-18th during which over 50 Barleywines will be available on draft. Incidentally, Toronado is also your best bet for scoring the aforementioned Pliny the Younger — just show up on your lunch break through the 25th, they’ll be serving limited supplies of the scarce stuff until they won’t.

Other Tap Takeovers that look promising to me are a couple at Kennedy’s Irish Pub and Curry House in North Beach (Heretic on Wed/13, and Ommegang on Fri/15), Triple Voodoo and Ninkasi at Rosamunde Sausage Grill also on Wed/13 and Fri/15 respectively, Danish Mikkeller at Oakland’s The Trappist on Thurs/14, and the “Band of Gypsies” takeover of Rosamunde’s Oakland outpost on Wed/13. The “gypsies” — eight nomadic local brewers including Lucky Hand and Bison Organic — have collaborated on a Belgian-style Quad (“Belgian Tramp”) brewed with candy sugar, Mission Figs, raisins, and dates which clocks in at a respectable 10.5% abv and sounds like dinner, dessert, and drinks all in one tasty combination.

And speaking of dinner with drinks, I haven’t even touched on all the foodie-worthy events lined up on the Beer Week calendar, but buzzed-about bets include beer-infused Dynamo Donut and Humphrey Slocombe confections, Butchers and Beers on Fri/15 featuring meats from 4505 paired with tasty brews from local “farm-to-bottle” darlings, Almanac Beer Company, Almanac’s special beer-pairing dinner at Central Kitchen on Wed/13, the already sold-out Sau and Brau fest at Drake’s Barrel House in San Leandro, and a Valentine’s Day, four-course, prix fixe dinner and beer pairing at La Trappe Café. Oh la la! In short, life’s short, and beer week is passing by more quickly than you might think. Catch it now while you still can, your liver will forgive you eventually. I promise.

SF Beer Week

Through February 17

Various locations




The shape of stage to come, part two


Training with foolsFURY for the stage and for life

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a round-up of some of the theatre companies in the Bay Area who offer classes and actor trainings for professionals and non-professionals alike, but since there are far more companies than I had word count with which to cover them, I could only feature a representative few, and therefore focused mainly on smaller, more underground companies specializing in one or two specific disciplines or techniques.

One company I regretted not having space for was foolsFURY, whose devotion to training their own actors has given rise to an extensive schedule of workshops open to the public since 2006. I finally caught up with associate artistic director Debórah Eliezer to get the details.

SFBG: What is foolsFURY’s main goal in offering actor trainings?

Debórah Eliezer: Our trainings offer a window into the world of ensemble-theater creation, which is very process-oriented and specific to those in the room. It’s our hope that the general public and artists alike gain skills they can take away to create their own life as a work of art, back to their own profession to influence team building.

SFBG: How closely do the classes you offer resemble the rehearsal/creation process foosFURY uses in creating its own works?

DE: All the workshops we offer are a “way in” to our signature training process. That is to say that everything we teach we use as a platform for making work. Our Vital Act two-week intensive (June 2013) remains our signature program of foundation skills and includes a compositional element to give students a taste of what it’s like to create work as we do in ensemble.

In rehearsal for a play, foolsFURY will always use the Viewpoints to massage our understanding of character relationships, location, and text, or just plain blow off some steam and get together as a group. We’ve found the Suzuki method to be the single quickest way for actors to get present and focused. It’s also a constant reminder of the theatrical potency of rigorously challenging oneself. We always incorporate vocal training and improvisational circle singing even if there is no singing in the production.

Some by-products of our training reflected in our work would be characterized as very clear body awareness. To us, theater, voice, and dance are very closely connected. By the time we bring a show to production, we’ve made deliberate choreographic choices about our bodies in time and space — what the audience sees is a distilled “best of” our process spent weeks and sometimes years in rehearsal.

SFBG: You mentioned earlier that you felt that performing arts training was “training for life” not just for art. Care to expand on that?

DE: I teach and personally follow the belief that theater training informs how I live my life and, life informs my theater training. The same principles of space, time relationships, and creative strategy are applicable and translatable for both making compelling theatrical experiences and having a rich, satisfying life.

SFBG: Care to hazard a guess as to how many students in total have taken at least one foolsFURY training/workshop?

DE: Our adult programs serve 125-200 students per year, depending on if we’re also teaching workshops outside of SF and if we’re offering a festival that year. That number includes our internship program, which serves about 10-15 young artists per year. Swivel Arts, our youth spring and summer camp program, which ran from 1998-2010, offered two-to-six weeks of camp per year and served about 150 elementary and teen kids each year. In total, over the years? This would have to be well over 2000 students!


West Memphis blues


FILM At this point, it’s hard to imagine a present-day murder trial more painstakingly documented than that of the so-called West Memphis Three. The subject of four documentaries, with a feature film in the works (starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, no less), and inspiring at least as many books, websites, and countless articles, the story of the three teenagers convicted of the brutal killings of three small boys has never quite dropped from public attention.

Still, despite its relatively high profile, almost two decades have passed since the crime, and the defendants’ quest to have their convictions overturned has taken literally half their lives — a journey they’re still traveling, despite a surprise 2011 deal cut with the state of Arkansas that allowed them to walk out of prison, free men but convicted felons. According to the newest documentary in the canon, West of Memphis, that’s just too long to wait for justice.

West of Memphis can be considered both a crash course for those who somehow missed the Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger-directed Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries which preceded it, as well as a telling portrait of a deeply-flawed criminal justice system at work. It’s an evenly-paced montage of talking heads, archival trial footage, and interviews with investigators and legal experts, with additional focus on the personal life and relationship between death row inmate Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis, who met while he was incarcerated.

The doc traces the entire case, from the initial news reports of the disappearances of eight-year-olds Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch, to the supporter-funded, post-conviction investigation and appeals process still unfolding today. Produced by Echols, Davis, and power-duo filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, West of Memphis centers specifically on Echols’ case, in distinct contrast to the Paradise Lost films.

“There were a lot of different reasons for that,” director Amy Berg explains. “[One was] because Damien was on death row, he was taking a different journey through the legal system [than fellow defendants Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr., who were sentenced to life imprisonment instead].”

Another reason: access. Echols and Davis were not only central to the narrative of the film, they were also instrumental in getting Berg acclimated to West Memphis. Their contacts became her contacts, and their story became her focal point.

Over the years, Echols’ defense team had gradually amassed testimony from a slew of high-powered experts — profilers, forensic pathologists, and DNA testers — all of which pointed away from the West Memphis Three, and in some cases suggested new suspects. But despite this seemingly compelling material, Echols’ appeal hit a wall in 2008, when then-Circuit Court judge David Burnett, who had presided over the original trials, denied a new hearing, citing “inconclusive evidence.” It was then that Jackson and Walsh, who had privately bankrolled much of the investigation leading to the DNA appeal, began to think about making a documentary.

“We’d been shut down by the court system,” Davis says. “We didn’t know what else to do to get this information about the case out to the public.” That’s when Berg, whose 2006 doc Deliver Us from Evil was nominated for an Academy Award, was approached by Jackson about the possibility of filming the continuing saga of the West Memphis Three. A former investigative journalist, Berg’s experience in the field led to some very interesting interview footage of subjects hitherto undocumented, including two young men — friends of a nephew to victim Branch’s stepfather — whose rather late-in-the-game affidavits may turn out to be the impetus for the state to reopen the investigation that the West Memphis Three have been hoping for.

“Amy just has this amazing ability to wait it out,” Davis says. “People would just open up to her.”

But where were these witnesses before West of Memphis? There’s been a reward offered on new information for years, and it seems like there’s been plenty of opportunity for folks to come forward before now.

“There’s such a culture of fear in Arkansas, and in the South in general,” Berg considers. “I really think everyone was concerned for their own well-being.”

It remains to be seen if breaking the long silence of a cluster of perjurers and procrastinators will translate into a reopening of the case; word is there’s some movement in that direction. But for now, at least, the public finally has a chance to hear the testimonies that the West Memphis Three have waited so long to present.

WEST OF MEMPHIS opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.

The Performant: Sexcapades, no ice


“SPANK!” and “Sex and the City: Live!” heat things up a little

The Regency Ballroom is awash in estrogen and vodka martinis, overrun by neatly-coifed former sorority sisters sheathed in tasteful rayon suits and drop earrings. The few men in attendance fall into two distinct camps—balding bruisers wrestled into button-down shirts, and fidgety-looking younger men who know they have just been dragged into the theatrical equivalent of a chick flick. One only hopes that a reciprocal arrangement involving the Super Bowl or some racy bedroom activity was reached earlier on, the latter being the most appropriate to the occasion — an evening of E.L. James-inspired comedy, “SPANK! The Fifty Shades parody.”

Apparently not to be confused with “50 Shades! The Musical,” nor “Fifty Shades of Grey: a XXX Adaptation,” “Spank!” bills itself as a musical review, and features just three performers as writer E.B. Janet (Amanda Barker), “smoldering” anti-hero Hugh Hanson (Drew Moerlein) and the painfully two-dimensional ingénue Tasha Woode (Michelle Vezilj).

As Soft Cell blares from the Regency’s imposing bank of speakers stage fog begins to drift across the stage and Moerlein bursts through the giant red curtains, gyrating to the music with the practiced wink-and-nudge finesse of a Chippendale. Eventually the two others join him, Vezilj dancing, and Barker drinking Chardonnay from a giant wineglass, her constant companion. Barker is our narrator and guide into the world of grey we are about to descend into.

She’s also about the best thing in the play — with a flirty dirty attitude and brazen laugh, she controls the stage far better than the supposedly dominant Moerlein, whose “dark” character is likened multiple times to that of Batman, but whose goofy antics including a pitch-perfect Gilbert and Sullivan song, instead bring the Tick to mind. He does get a moment where he strips all the way down to his Wonderoos, by far the raciest vignette in the otherwise bare-bones, vanilla-beige show, which still appears to satisfy its target oddience, who laugh at all the appropriate moments and even inject their own humor into the event during the potentially-awkward participatory bits, ring-led by Vezilj. And isn’t it the potentially-awkward participatory bits what we remember most in life? In love?

Speaking of bits, fan favorite, live action glamour-com “Sex and the City: Live!” is staging a revival down at Rebel, with all-new episodes and plenty of costume changes for all you drag-fashionistas. Dragonistas.

Starring the redoubtable Heklina as Carrie, Lady Bear as Miranda, Trixie Carr as Charlotte, and D’Arcy Drollinger as the best-known cougar since Mrs. Robinson, Samantha, the “Sex” crew promises to be as racy and raucous (if not more so) as the televised version. “Airing” on hump day Wednesdays, at both 7 and 9 p.m. each performance features two episodes, highlighting themes of promiscuity, dirty talk, romantical quandaries, and expensive shoes, a campy cocktail of fun escapism to get you through the week. And for the risk-adverse, fear not, the only participation the “Sex” ladies demand of you is laughter. Now that’s hot!

Sex and the City: Live!, open-ended run
7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
1760 Market, SF

Live Shots: Wovenhand at Bottom of the Hill


Although the notoriously devout David Eugene Edwards would probably be appalled to hear it, attending his shows is about as close to a religious experience as I ever get.

The ferociously intense frontperson of Wovenhand (as well as the former 16 Horsepower), Edwards was instrumental in the foundation of the hyper-localized alt-Americana/gothic-folk genre known as the Denver Sound, a category filled with moody ballads of shaken faith and raucous, C&W-tinged fire-and-brimstone.

And there’s just something about the sheer unapologetic bombast of his live presence that makes me want to don sackcloth and ashes on the spot and follow the path of the righteous — a feeling which lasts at least until I manage to break away from his sermon on the mount (or any rate, the Bottom of the Hill) to stumble home, still a sinner.

Clearly I’m not the only heathen who feels this way, as evidenced by a cluster of audience members at Saturday’s show clad earnestly in t-shirts proclaiming pagan-esque affinities (“Keep Thor in Thursday” is my favorite) bobbing their heads solemnly like everyone else to Edwards’ unmistakably Christian lyrics; music our common sacrament.

Watching Edwards onstage is not unlike watching the charismatic theatre of a revival-meeting minister, from his unwavering focus, to his fearless exhortations for repentance and mercy. Himself the grandson of a traveling preacher man on one side of the family, and a nomadic Native American entertainer who traveled (it’s said) from town to town with a trained bear, Edwards always appears to be equally influenced by both.

At one point speaking in tongues, eyes rolled back, at another whooping into the mic as Ordy Garrison on drums pounds out a tribal rhythm seemingly pulled from the very bones of the continent. In various incarnations, Edwards has displayed facility with all kinds of instruments, but for Saturday’s show he limited himself to three — two guitars and his signature hybrid mandolin-banjo built in the late 1800s, which gives off an almost ethereal twang from four nylon strings.

A word about Garrison. A Wovenhand collaborator for every album since ‘03’s Blush Music, he may well be the unsung driving force behind the evolution of the music, which grows heavier and more deeply layered with every progressive album. His timing is impeccable and he clearly sits in a position of power, directing much of the ebb and flow from his upstage perch.

A much newer recruit, Sir Charles French, who played guitar on Wovenhand’s latest album The Laughing Stalk (Sounds Familyre, 2012), but bass for the show, gave off a less anchored aura, perhaps due to less familiarity with the instrument in his hands, perhaps for other reasons, but fortunately with Wovenhand there are few fancy bass lines to worry about — a throbbing pulse sufficed quite well, pairing neatly with an undercurrent of pre-recorded drone — another Edwards signature.

The set-list, comprised in large part with tracks from The Laughing Stalk included representatives from almost every album since Consider the Birds — including a melancholy old favorite, “Swedish Purse,” an introspective “Kingdom of Ice,” and a bone-shaking “Long Horn”. 

But ultimately with Wovenhand, it’s rarely the precise setlist that gets remembered, so much as the overall effect of spending a solid hour communing with the band. You could almost liken the experience to a midnight mass for lost souls in search of redemption in song — we the flock, and Wovenhand the guiding light.

The Performant: Manic pixies


‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ and ‘The Witch House’ roil with fantastickal energies

It was only a matter of time before the familiar genre of the comic book movie migrated to the stage. But don’t expect any muscle-bound jocks in colorful spandex roaming the aisles of A.C.T.’s intimate mid-Market venue, The Costume Shop. Not only is the titular “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” of their current production not a superhero with mutant powers bestowed upon her by a quirk of DNA or gamma rays, but in a twist, the comic book involved actually originates from the play — not the other way around.

The play centers mainly around a youthfully shiftless, struggling painter Tallman (Joshua Roberts), whose dire straits and afternoon drinking habits lead to a chance encounter with one of cinematic fiction’s most enduring tropes, the Nathan Rabin-dubbed MPDG Lilly (Lyndsy Kail), a woman who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventure.”

It’s a problematic relationship model on so many levels it’s hard to even know where to begin. Lilly is conveniently mute so she never has to share her feelings, or even her last name, but somehow, within an afternoon of their meeting, she’s moved into Tallman’s hovel, from which he is about to be evicted (by his ex-girlfriend’s new lover, smarmy real estate agent Rick [Lucas Hatton] no less). She never expresses a desire for anything beyond colorful scarves and starburst candy, and Tallman, in the middle of a painting frenzy, is so self-absorbed he can’t bring himself to question his “luck.” Even his sympathetic-to-a-point best friend Porter (Michael Barrett Austin) becomes disgusted with his lack of awareness. “Liking the way someone makes you feel is not the same as liking an actual person,” he observes astutely before abandoning Tallman to his fate.

The comic book, or rather, graphic novel, is represented as a series of projections which serve as backdrop and counterpoint to the live action unfolding onstage. Drawn by local actor and graphic artist Rob Dario, the panels form a silent but urgent backdrop to the narrative, adding visual heft to the bare bones set of stools, a humble futon, and primer-splotched countertop/bar. Or rather, presumably they do. Due to technical glitches, many of the images refused to project when cued, and the promise of a wholly symbiotic graphic-novel-play was under-realized the evening I went to see it.

But the images that did make it through, deceptively simple black-and-white line drawings somewhat reminiscent of the art of Brian Wood, gave Tallman’s inner struggles an external medium to be expressed through as his mysterious affair unfolded. Doubtlessly constrained by budget and time considerations, what the company failed to produce (but should have) was a companion comic as takeaway. I could have filed it next to my oft-referenced Transmetropolitan collection.

Meanwhile, up the road a ways at The Garage, Morgan Bassichis’ “The Witch House” involves a whole panoply of characters who are not quite pixies, but certainly manic. A pair of pre-adolescent boys dabbling in witchcraft set off for Salem in order to cast a spell for a third youth, and all three find themselves possessed by the restless spirits of witch trial accusers Abigail Williams, Ann Putnam Jr., and Mary Walcott.

A fairly oblique examination of gender roles and the justice system, what “The Witch House,” does offer is a wealth of intriguing visuals mainly provided by the largish cast of “bees” (also shades of the accused) who writhe and dance across the stage, simulating the emotional storms brewing thereon. Also, the company has designed a series of original “playing cards” to give away, with art by Lis Goldschmidt and a poetic speech penned by Bassichis, a savvy promotional tactic that even PlayGround (who coproduced “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”) can learn from.

The Performant: Books and beats


Starting the New Year off right with Clown Foolery and Los Rakas

It’s a Friday night and the Booksmith is full of clowns. Seriously, it’s like a clown convention in here. Fully half the oddience are off-duty clowns, and the rest of us just kind of look like we should be. We’ve gathered together for the monthly clown jam/variety show Literary Clown Foolery, the first of the year, appropriately themed New Year’s Resolutions.

True, the free beer and cheese puffs at the door seem to run slightly counter to the kinds of resolutions that get a lot of attention around this time of year. But they are the perfect accompaniment to loosening up any natural inhibitions one might otherwise feel when seated within spitting distance of a whole passel of unpredictable clowns, so no one’s complaining.

“I like your glasses” a poker-faced clown in polka dots announces from the “stage” as she scans our expectant faces with her own unsmiling, bespectacled eyes. This is Gretchen (known outside of clown makeup as Tristan Cunningham), assistant to Dr. Schmidtt (Polina Smith), and she has a list of resolutions that reads in part like this: “get lucky, do the horizontal boogie, ride the bologna pony, have a hot meat injection…” You get the gist. Dr. Schmidtt, an expert in all things, decides to assist Gretchen by putting her on a diet of cookies and inviting an actual life coach (a charming Elaine Margarita Williams) onstage to help her set her goal. As Gretchen embarks on her quest to seduce someone, anyone, appearances by musical guests Mustard (Masha Matin) and Carl and Beatrice and juggling/belly-dancing interludes from Jon Deline of Pi Clowns using a series of silly monikers, punctuate the performance.

Scheduled for every second Friday, Literary Clown Foolery may be set inside a bookstore, but it’s way more lively than your average literary event, kind of a combination of vaudeville, sketch, and conference lecture, with books mainly serving as incidental backdrop. But since it certainly does inspire pre-and-post-show browsing, it appears to be a win for all concerned (except for Gretchen unfortunately, who overdoes the cookies and fails to find the bologna pony, or bookworm, of her dreams).


Saturday at Slim’s was bouncing with that special off-the-wall energy that all-ages shows seem to inspire, an excitability that contrasts refreshingly to the too-cool for school vibe you might encounter elsewhere. Squeezing in just in time for the last of Mission-born rapper A-1’s set, I recognize a couple of tracks from his latest mixtape “Thurl” including the Lana Del Rey-sampling “Now You Do” while the intriguingly shrouded Davin Gruesome shambles around the stage in his signature facemask and 49’ers gear like a revenant of home-grown rap.

But it’s Oakland-based Los Rakas that blow the stage up with a full band featuring at least three percussionists, keyboards, and electronic beats, while the two vocalists, Raka Rich and Raka Dun (Ricardo Giliam  and Abdull Dominguez) hold forth in spirited tandem. As cold as it is outside, the warm infusion of infectious Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Spanish-language flow, and powerful stage presence of the two Panama-American cousins heat things right up.

Taking their name from a Panamanian phrase “rakataka” (used roughly in the same way “ghetto” might be used here), Los Rakas preach the gospel of self-acceptance and pride, though they’re certainly not shy about including less weighted topics like ladies and weed smoking to their mix. They’ve been fortunate enough to share the stage with some pretty big names in the past, (including DJ Questlove, Ozomatli, Cypress Hill, Erykah Badu, and Manu Chao) and as headliners at Slim’s they appear comfortable with their role, filling the stage easily with their sometimes raunchy humor and energetic rapport. From all appearances, Los Rakas’ New Year looks off to a good start, and judging from the crowd’s enthusiastic response, so is ours.

The Performant: Music men


Mark Growden’s solo show and variations on a theme with Hand to Mouth 

There’s something so charmingly unassuming about the Red Poppy Art House — a by-now venerable institution on the Mission District’s quirk-centric music scene — it makes you want to invite it home for a Hangtown Fry and mimosas. From the mismatched chairs to the frayed curtains, the whitewashed walls to the cramped toilet, the Red Poppy’s overall ambiance is that of a sort of ramshackle country parlor, right down to the upright piano.

Though you’d never mistake him for a church lady, Bay Area bard Mark Growden does exude a touch of the rustic — a down-home demeanor rooted in his rural Northern California upbringing. From the moment he opened his set on Friday night at the Red Poppy with a haunting, desert lament played ingeniously on his signature set of bicycle handlebars, it was as if he were unfolding a map of the hidden pockets of America and inviting us on an introspective journey through them.

Assisted ably by trumpeter Chris Grady, who employed a number of mutes throughout the show, probably to keep him from blowing the heads off the front row seated literally at his feet, Growden worked his way through a repertoire of old songs and new which hearkened to the barroom backrooms of the South, the windswept plains of the American West, and the lonesome riverbanks of the Truckee, and the Mississippi.

Though much of Growden’s music is tinged with a fragile darkness, the mood of the evening was light, jovial, the banter flying thick and fast between stage and oddience, and slyly humorous counterpoint provided by Grady. By the time it came around to the group sing-a-long, we were all good friends, a chummy crew, no doubt assisted in part by the closeness of our quarters, the conviviality of claustrophilia.

Music was also the theme at monthly comedy event Hand to Mouth at the Dark Room Theatre. Since 2011, Hand to Mouth has been hosting eclectic lineups of funny-persons who are encouraged to perform sets that relate to a pre-announced topic, and much of the fun comes from discovering how each comic will interpret the theme.

Sure, there were a few comics who merely riffed on the topic by dissing bands they didn’t like or making fun of raves, easy targets all, but co-host James Fluty broke the trend by coming out onstage with a guitar and playing a lewd ballad about Mormons (take that Trey Parker and Matt Stone) and Jesse Elias shattered what was left of it by giving a totally hilarious power-point presentation he called “A Lecture of Music History.” Ostensibly a comparison of the evolution of classical to contemporary music, Elias spent time comparing music from “Der Gloeckner von Notre Dame” and “Wicked,” introducing us to the “orchestra hit” sample, and comparing the “two distinct sounds referred to as ‘electric piano’” which involved a straight-faced comparison of various video games soundtracks versus Disney credits music.

Keeping it weird, DJ Real (a.k.a. Nick Stargu) contributed a retiree version of a NIN tune (“I Want to Play Some Canasta”), the Unwatchables sold their souls to the devil in order to be able to play the blues for Bruce Willis, and Drennon Davis ended the show on a literal high note by turning himself into a radio with the help of a loop station and station-appropriate DJ patter that ranged from the growling bro-down of hard rock station “Radio K-O-C-K” to the passive-aggressive mellow of “Free Jazz Radio” (“just want to clarify something about our name, we are not ‘free’. We are listener-supported.”)

It would appear allowing comedians to stretch their creativity to encompass yet redefine a specific theme is as good for them as it was for us—and makes it easy to look forward to their February installment at Lost Weekend Video, when the theme will be “Jobs”. Hell, I’ve got a few jokes about that myself….

The shape of stage to come


CAREERS AND ED Like most skills, acting can be honed and refined, and the number of disciplines and techniques an actor could familiarize themselves with are practically infinite. Fortunately for the professional and amateur actor alike, there’s a number of theater companies who offer the same actor trainings to the public that they utilize in the creation of their own work.

Ranging from techniques such as Suzuki Method or Viewpoints, skill sets such as improv or stage combat, or theatrical forms such as Bouffon or Kyogen, these classes help keep working actors in artistic shape, and offer a way for even rank beginners to acquire translatable performance skills. And since unlike acting schools or conservatories, there’s rarely an audition process or prerequisite for attendance, they’re accessible to a fairly broad demographic.

Ensemble theater-making is East Bay company Ragged Wing‘s focus, and therefore also the focus of the trainings it offers to the public. Utilizing techniques such as Viewpoints, mask performance, puppetry, music, and myth-based story creation, Ragged Wing introduces actors and theater-makers of all levels (including total newbies) to concepts such as devised theater, imagination play, and the psycho-physical exercises of Michael Chekhov. It even offers a workshop for teachers in applying ensemble theater techniques in the classroom. Visit its website for an overview of last year’s program, and this year’s upcoming dates, which will occur later this spring.

We like this next class so much we awarded it a Best of the Bay in 2011! Taught by Naked Empire Bouffon Company artistic director Nathaniel Justiniano, the Intro to Bouffon Workshop guides up to 20 participants on a journey to find their “personal bouffon” (or “inner psychopath,” as we termed it). Alternating between weekend intensives and four-week workshops of two-hour sessions (one of which just started on January 15), Intro to Bouffon includes instruction on creating within ecstatic play, movement-and-vocal-based improv, and blatantly violations of the usual boundaries drawn between audience and performer. In addition to teaching at the warehouse Main Street Theater, Justiniano has also recently joined the Circus Center faculty where he will teach a seven-week course on Bouffon beginning in April.

$60–$80, 20-hour intensives $200, Circus Center intensive $3200.

Another theater company offering training in the specialized theatrical format it also performs is Theatre of Yugen, which offers a series of art of performance workshops as well as an apprenticeship program on Kyogen and Noh techniques. This year’s public trainings begin on January 26 with a weekend intensive on “Physical Character” in the Kyogen style of performance. Private apprenticeships are granted by audition, and last for an entire calendar year during which apprentices train and eventually perform with the company, sometimes staying on as company members after their graduation.

$80–$100 (with discount for taking multiple classes.) Enrollment is limited.

Sure you can act if someone hands you a script. But how about when there isn’t one? At its best, improvisational theater makes use of a whole range of techniques, and requires a huge amount of focus and cooperation between players in order for a scene to work. It’s also one of the most accessible theatrical art forms for beginners to get involved with, particularly in the Bay Area. One of the newer kids on the block, EndGames Improv is nonetheless one of the most pedigreed. Offering instruction in “long form improvisation” à la Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City, EndGames Improv holds classes in four levels and stages weekly performances at Stagewerx, including its infamous “F!#&ing Free Fridays.” Seven-week classes are capped at 16 participants. January is sold out, but keep an eye on the website for future dates.

$199; $225 for upper levels.

They’re not a stand-alone theater company, but I can’t resist mentioning Dueling Arts San Francisco. Providing instruction to performing artists in a wide range of stage combat skills — including quarterstaff (what up Little John?), rapier, dagger, broadsword, and unarmed combat — the instructors of Dueling Arts are also accomplished fight directors and performers in their own right, for a diverse array of companies including IMPACT Theatre, Shotgun Players, Thrillpeddlers, ACT, Berkeley Rep, San Jose Rep, SF Playhouse, and California Shakespeare Theatre. Certification class sizes are generally between six to 12 students, and there are no prerequisites for the beginning levels.

Quarterstaff Level 1 Certification Class begins March 17, $200.


The Performant: One for the road


Baxtalo Drom’s happy trails — and the Performant’s faves of 2012

With 2012 finally behind us, apocalypse thwarted, we have to get back to the business of preparing for a future we were told not to expect. Stretched out before us, a ribbon of Alfred Noyes moonlight looping the landscape of possibility, the road of the future beckons us onward, final destination unknown. What lies ahead, nobody knows for sure. But at least we know that for the moment there *is* an ahead.

During both the best and worst of times, the heady mystique of the open road is always in fashion, imbued with an undeniable glamour that monthly “gypsy punk cabaret” Baxtalo Drom is all too happy to exploit. Baxtalo Drom translates to “Lucky Road” — happy trails, if you like — and it plays out very much like a quick-and-dirty variety show performed by a high-spirited caravan-load of traveling players. A showcase for pretty girls, hobo bands, and eclectic DJ’s, Baxtalo Drom’s shabby chic and Balkan streak make it a perfect fit for Amnesia’s convivial ramshackle allure, its dark corners and hardwood floors.

The weather was cold, but the action onstage was hot for Baxtalo Drom’s last show of the year. Saucily MCed by Mz. K., and featuring a sizzling playlist courtesy of guest DJ, Wolfgang von Cope, the show starred two very different dancers and one eclectic band, with a cameo by “The Human Cortex” — SF’s most cerebral sword swallower.

First up was Amberetta, billed as a second-generation belly dancer, who first performed to a blues version of “You Shook me All Night Long” and later in the evening to The Prodigy while balancing two curved swords on top of her regally poised head. Burlesque firecracker Bunny Pistol showed off her tasseled pasties and tattooed midriff, and Thee Hobo Gobbelins, armed with squeezebox, banjo, and guitarrón, rollicked their way through a setlist of junkyard anthems and phantasmagoric drinking songs. Swords being somewhat a theme, an appearance by “The Human Cortex” (Hernan Cortez) who gave an impromptu lesson on sword swallowing to an excitable oddience member, was a fitting complement to the evening’s entertainments, infusing the stage with a bit of dramatic vaudevillian bombast.

And as both the evening and the year drew to a close, a momentarily prophetic vision of the Lucky Road lurching forward into the future rose to mind, making said future seem less daunting, more familiar, even worth looking forward to — roadblocks, ruts, unexpected twists and all.


Five for the road: five awesome events the Performant checked out in 2012 that you can still catch in 2013:

1) The San Francisco Tape Music Festival, January:

2) Bay One Acts, TBD:

3) Robogames, April:

4) KC Turner House Concerts, monthly or more:

5) Popcorn Anti-Theater, monthly:

The Performant: How Grinches save Christmas


Jeff Garrett and Will Franken overcome holiday saccharine.

Is that a collective sigh of relief in the air as another frenzied holiday season winds down to its usual end and whatever apocalypse was scheduled to go down seems to have spared at least our physical reality?

As we drift back into the routines of our regularly scheduled lives, the brief illumination of whatever lessons we were meant to be learning on the eve of our potential destruction and the supposed birthday of our salvation, flickers out without so much as a whimper. It’s a bit of a stretch anyhow, to weight a single stretch of calendar with so much cosmic significance, yet we do it year after year, grasping superstitiously at the shimmering notion of redemption, the hidden catalyst underlying our frantic excess.

It’s no wonder that the literature of the season is so full of characters in need of said redemption. The curmudgeons of Christmas have populated the landscape since long before jolly old St. Nick appeared on the scene, all the way back to the mean-spirited innkeeper of biblical infamy, who forced history’s holiest matriarch to give birth to her saintly son in a stable. Next to his casual crime, our own feckless peccadilloes seem so tame in comparison. And almost no act of pernicious revenge we could practically carry out quite stacks up to the hilarious inventiveness of the Grinch’s Christmas-in-reverse plot, and the wisdom we can glean from such a tale is twofold. Firstly, that if redemption is possible for such miserable wretches, then it’s certainly within our own grasp, and secondly, we have a collective need for these bad boys of winter to balance out the more saccharine elements of the holidays and keep them palatable, even plausible.

Thus spending an evening with a misanthrope so iconic his moniker is also a descriptor, is as seasonally-appropriate as trimming a tree or eating Chinese food. That misanthrope, of course, is one Ebenezer Scrooge, and in Jeff Garrett’s solo rendition at Boxcar Studio (“Scrooge, the Haunting of Ebenezer”), he undergoes the preordained transformation with a fearsome intensity that spills over the modestly appointed black box stage that struggles to contain him and the multitudes (more than twenty characters worth) he portrays. Judiciously edited down into a lean hour, stripped of the sumptuous Victorian accoutrements of big budget/big cast renditions, Garrett’s version, directed by Peter Ruocco, clearly revels in its dark origin—that of a ghost story, predating the trend of scary movies at Christmastime by almost a hundred and fifty years. True, the compressed timeline makes the eventual reformation of the reprobate seem a little hasty, but not to the extent that one would begrudge him his exultant transformation.

A more modern Christmastide tradition for San Francisco’s orphans and miscreants, is Will Franken’s annual holiday foray, an evening which rarely has much to do overtly with the actual holidays, but much to do with the need to distract ourselves from their inevitability. At Saturday’s edition, Franken’s signature stream-of-(sub)consciousness vignettes featured a bevy of characters in patently absurdist situations: a 39 year-old man without health insurance attempting to rediscover penicillin in time to cure his own strep throat, an Irish construction crew foreman left shorthanded by a few actors (Liam Neeson, Colin Ferrell), authors (Oscar Wilde, James Joyce), and Bono, a murder trial defendant confessing to murder in order to be allowed to smoke a cigarette, an obnoxious professional eavedropper with a broad Scottish accent plying his trade on the train, a talkative Southerner cursed with the rare condition of “jelly feet”. Scant attention was paid by Franken, or his many manic onstage personalities, to the pending festivities (despite being flanked onstage by a plywood Christmas Tree and hearth), offering a welcome respite from the otherwise continuous onslaught of holi-mania, and a tradition well worth hanging on to.


This ain’t a wrap


YEAR IN FILM Perhaps the backlash was inevitable. Any film that so flawlessly wows its initial audience in turn begins to receive a lot more scrutiny down the line, and there are definitely things about This Ain’t California to scrutinize. Billed as a documentary, yet centered around a character who may not actually exist, This Ain’t California details the unlikely rise of a rebellious East German skateboarding scene hidden from view behind the Iron Curtain.

An exuberant mischung of archival and new video footage, a brash and punkish soundtrack, animated sequences, and compelling, little-explored subject matter, the film made irreverence its watchword, from storyline to storyboard. And although the sheer scale of this irreverent approach, including the filmmakers’ unorthodox methods of framing their story, raised serious questions about This Ain’t California‘s self-definition as documentary, what was undeniable was the movie’s greatest success — its flawless capture of a zeitgeist, not just of a specific place and time, but of the irrepressible vitality of youth cultures everywhere.

>>Read more from our Year in Film 2012 issue here.

Screened first at the 2012 Berlinale in February (and in San Francisco at the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in October), This Ain’t California won the coveted “Dialogue en Perspective” prize for young filmmakers, an award given with this statement that foreshadowed the controversy to come: “We’ve rarely been so splendidly manipulated.” While the jury in Berlin was referring to the dynamic editing job spearheaded by 23-year-old Maxine Gödecke, as the film won more awards around the festival circuit — including “Best Documentary” at the Cannes Independent Film Festival — details about its unconventional creation began to emerge in the press. That much of the so-called “archival” video footage was recreated by a slew of modern-day skaters disguised in touchingly hilarious GDR-era hairdos and aggressively mismatched stripes. That all of the footage of the central character Denis “Panik” Paraceck was actually that of Berlin-based skater-model, Kai Hillebrandt. That Denis Paraceck (who, according to the film, died in Afghanistan in 2011) might actually never have existed, let alone been the impetus behind the film’s modern-day reunion of the now-adult skaters (and at least a couple of hired actors, including David Nathan and Tina Bartel).

German news weekly Der Spiegel condemned it as a glorified advertisement for skate culture, bloggers such as Berlin-based Joseph Pearson of The Needle decried the dangerous folly of Germans rewriting their own history, and the filmmakers themselves have been cagey about admitting to the extent of their subterfuge.

“[It’s] so much more fun to keep that secret,” director Martin Persiel explains to me via email when asked to comment.

But lest the naysayers condemn the film as pure hoax, it should be noted that there most definitely was an underground skate scene in East Germany, in addition to other outlaw scenes, including break dancers, punk rockers, and heavy metal bands. Plenty of the film’s old-school skate rats are verifiable as such, and some of the most frankly unbelievable details of the film, such as a compatriot with a Finnish passport being tapped to smuggle boards in from the West, appear to be corroborated independently by academic Kai Reinhart, who has been researching sports history and GDR funsportart since 2005.

“As a filmmaker there is a huge responsibility to truthful depiction of your subject,” Persiel insists. “[And] as far as feedback from the skaters from the East goes, we did do justice to their story.”

On the controversy over allowing a partially fictitious film win awards in the documentary category (against presumably less colorful and more rigorously fact-based films), Persiel remains silent, though he does theorize that the definition of “documentary” is expanding and evolving all the time.

“I call This Ain’t California a ‘documentary tale’,” he explicates, adding his own micro-category. It’s an explanation that probably won’t placate his detractors, but whatever side of the definition of “documentary” the film winds up being relegated to, the definition of “best” will still apply. No matter what, it’s a movie well worth seeing, and controversies aside, a movie well worth having been made — for truly we have been splendidly manipulated. *





More in common than you’d expect Delicatessen (Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, France, 1991) and Deliverance (John Boorman, US, 1972)

William H. Macy is underrated Edmond (Stuart Gordon, US, 2005) and The Cooler (Wayne Kramer, US, 2003)

All about men A Single Man (Tom Ford, US, 2009) and A Serious Man (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, US/UK/France, 2009)

Post-Prometheus Ridley Scott-a-thon Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, US/Hong Kong/UK, 1982) and Alien (Ridley Scott, US/UK, 1979)

Noomi vs. Rooney The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher, US/Sweden/Norway, 2011) and The Girl with the

Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, Sweden/Denmark/Germany/Norway, 2009)

Please kill me Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, various, 2000) and Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, US, 2010)

Gay follies Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, US, 1990) and The Birdcage (Mike Nichols, US, 1996)

Dark days Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, US, 2003) and Deliver Us from Evil (Amy Berg, US, 2006)

The masochism tango The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, Austria/France/Germany, 2001) and Secretary (Steven Shainberg, US, 2002) Let’s get physical Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 1997) and Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh, US, 2012)

The Performant: Unsilent is the night


Ring the bells

Observant or not, there’s no escaping the Festivus Chrismakwanzakah season, and while you might be grinching it alone with the holiday spirit best known as Kentucky Bourbon, you can’t entirely avoid the pervasive influence that is holiday music. Music, after all, is one of our best tools for communicating intangibles such as emotion, faith, and belief in supernatural beings, and there’s hardly anyone sentient who could fail to be momentarily moved by a rendition of the haunting “Coventry Carol” or Handel’s “Messiah”.

Somewhat unfortunately, Chanukah’s contributions to the seasonal playlist are relatively sparse as compared to those of the big blockbuster holiday it shares the month with: mostly bland, grade school assembly-style songs about dreidels and goofily adolescent ones by Adam Sandler and the Maccabeats.

A pity the Jewish liturgical tradition has failed to produce a Johann Sebastian Bach or even a Benjamin Britten, but at least there’s latkes, which make up for a lot. And also, the material music world does not lack for gifted Jewish bards, so celebrating the sixth night of Chanukah at the Contemporary Jewish Museum with Leonard Cohen cover chorus The Conspiracy of Beards was actually about as perfectly Jewish as it gets.

The Beards have been performing a capella versions of the poetic works of the “High Priest of Solitude” for almost 10 years. Not Cohen impersonators so much as interpreters, the Beards’ approach to the music of Leonard Cohen has always been one of playful exploration — adding simple harmonies, basso profundo, and falsetto trills to Cohen’s weathered range, expanding his often solitary focus into one more piercingly universal. Ensconced in the CJM’s vaulted Goldman Hall, which has recently hosted appearances by Literary Death Match, the Porchlight storytelling series, Dischord Records founder Ian MacKaye, and a screening of The Big Lebowski, the Beards joyfully sang a treasured clutch of favorite Cohen tunes — mostly classics such as “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”. For their signature song, “Bird on a Wire” they all broke formation, and stood in a single line, arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders in a show of camaraderie, even as they sang of the freedom of the solitary rambler.

Building on the theme of camaraderie, San Francisco’s tenth annual edition of Phil Kline’s twenty year-old “Unsilent Night” went off without a hitch on Saturday, despite the incessant rain of the day and the small clusters of belligerent Santas that still dotted the chilly Mission District landscape. With the rain serendipitously vanished just before the scheduled go-time of 7pm, a relatively small but hardy group showed up to the corner of Dolores and 18th Street, boomboxes at the ready.

“Unsilent Night” is a four-part soundscape for multiple speakers, the more the merrier, and as the 45-minute piece plays, the four separate tracks weave together into a lustrous tapestry of ambient sound interspersed with golden threads of angel choirs and purposeful bells. Combining the conviviality of a caroling party with the secular appeal of experimental noisemaking, we strolled through the narrow corridors of the Mission’s more tranquil side streets, encouraging stares, smiles, and even spontaneous joiners (including a few Santas who played James Brown at a low volume in conceptual counterpoint). We spent the piece’s final phrases perched hillside in Dolores Park, contemplating the view of sparkling lights and wet pavement, as the music trailed off to whatever realm spent notes are relegated to—the sacred and profane alike.

For pictures and more info of San Francisco’s Unsilent Night check out Mission Loc@l’s slideshow


Stage might


YEAR IN THEATER In addition to Christmas lights, the seasonal landscape would not be the same without a thick, shiny coating of awards. We reflect on some highs (and a few lows) from the year in theater with a nod of appreciation here, a nod of respect there, or just a nod, short and involuntary, before the house lights jolt us awake again.

Best theme, or, the year of living nervously Every year it seems like an unplanned, unintentional theme emerges from the collective theatrical hive mind, and this year it was definitely our ever-uneasy relationship with technology. From Mugwumpin’s Future Motive Power, an electric ode to the oft-overlooked genius of inventor Nikola Tesla; to Josh Costello’s dynamic adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s tech-age YA novel Little Brother at Custom Made Theatre Co.; to a stunning revival of Philip Glass’ 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach — technology’s omnipresence seeped onto the stage.

An incomplete list of other plays that variously explored this theme in 2012: Machine at the Crucible, FWD: Life Gone Viral at the Marsh, The Hundred Flowers Project at Crowded Fire, Status Update at Center REP, She Was a Computer by Cara Rose DeFabio, Zombie Vixens From Hell by Virago Theatre Company, and a quintet of newly-translated August Strindberg chamber plays at Cutting Ball Theater. (Nicole Gluckstern)

Best ensemble Choreographer-performer Keith Hennessy’s experimental project Turbulence (a dance about the economy) was the most unusual and fascinating piece to appear this year, hands down, and it featured a deceptively chaotic eruption of performances by a highly skilled ensemble of artist-generators whose sheer present-mindedness made me toss out my zafu in frustration. (Robert Avila)

Best “The Peasants are Revolting!” Just like a case of herpes, you just can’t keep a good revolution down, and who better to tackle the over-the-top outrageousness and poke-to-the-establishment’s-eye of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade than the wild and wily Thrillpeddlers? Set in a dilapidated insane asylum spray-painted with “Occupy” slogans and bathroom humor, starring the Marquis de Sade (Jeff Garrett) and a fully engaged complement of rabble and aristocracy, and stuffed with show tunes and moments of questionable taste, Marat/Sade played out like it was written expressly for the notoriously ribald and exhibitionistic Thrillpeddlers, right down to the “copulation pantomime.” (Gluckstern)

Pithiest acronym for a musical: Actor-musician-playwright DavEnd’s rowdy and saucy and smart new musical F.A.G.G.O.T.S. the Musical, directed by D’Arcy Drollinger, had a very long title (Fabulously Artistic Guys Get Overtly Traumatized Sometimes: The Musical!) but all too short a run when it premiered this year at CounterPULSE — so it was great to learn it’s coming back in February 2013. (Avila)

Best armchair cultural revolution The experience of watching The Hundred Flowers Project at Crowded Fire was like being trapped in a distilled version of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, and all its ostentatious unpredictability. An unstable yet mesmerizing territory of shifting alliances and heightened paranoia, implicating even the colluding silent majority of the audience, Christopher Chen’s epic sprawl created a landscape of Big Brother totalitarianism with the deceptively innocuous building blocks of social media technology and theatricality. A recurring theme in the piece is that of zeitgeist, and Chen admirably captured the nervous implications of our own. (Gluckstern)

Best couple to give George and Martha a run for their money Megan Trout and Joe Estlack as Beth and Jake in Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind at Boxcar Theatre. Trout and Estlack were powerhouses, terrifying and devastating by turns, but director Susannah Martin’s production was a winner all around, fitting nicely into Boxcar’s generally outstanding four-play Sam Shepard festival. (Avila)

Most glam-infused baker’s dozen Another from Boxcar: its summertime take on beloved rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch was certainly the most vibrant live production of it I’ve ever seen. Filling the stage with 12 Hedwigs and one very kickass Yitzhak (Anna Ishida), director Nick A. Olivero enhanced the rock club vibe with his unique line-up of “fractured” Hedwigs in skintight gear dripping with sweat and glitter, a guest DJ, and plenty of interaction with the rowdy Hed-heads who packed the house. (Gluckstern)

Best supporting cast Rami Margron in Precious Little at Shotgun. A fine three-member ensemble (also featuring Zehra Berkman and Nancy Carlin) was made to seem much larger thanks especially to Margron’s nimble work as, alternately, a streetwise graduate student, the nebbishy daughter of an aging research subject, a chirpy medical counselor, a relentlessly talkative little girl, and an entire crowd of visitors to the zoo. (Avila)

Most pleasurable peeks behind the mask Although the subject matter of each play were completely different, what The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (at Aurora Theatre) and Truffaldino Says No (at Shotgun Players) had in common was their unmasking of traditionally disguised figures whose role in life is to entertain: professional wrestlers and commedia dell’arte stock characters. Masks off, a pair of truly memorable characters emerged — fall guy in the ring Macedonio “Mace” Guerra (Tony Sancho), and Truffaldino (William Thomas Hodgson), set to follow in the pratfalling footsteps of his father, the famous Arlecchino (Stephen Buescher). While neither play was entirely without flaw, these winsome protagonists bore their respective identity crises with wit, bravery, and heart. (Gluckstern)

Most prescient debut Mojo Theatre. It was in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many miles away from the storm’s path, in an obscure upstairs theater of the old Redstone Building on 16th Street, that Lost Love, a little jewel of an existentialist comedy from director-playwright Peter Papadopoulos, marked the San Francisco debut of impressive newcomers Mojo Theatre — and prefigured the day’s events with humane intelligence and uncanny meteorological instincts. (Avila)

Best example of “I might as well have slept in and just read the press release” The art of the interview is a delicate balance of research and serendipity, and just as important as knowing what questions to ask is knowing when to let the subject take the lead — which made interviewing the truly legendary playwright Eve Ensler on her newest piece, Emotional Creature (performed at Berkeley Rep), so frustrating. She never deviated from her well-worn script with any fresh insights, to the point where it didn’t seem to matter what my questions were. My only consolation is the fact that every other interview I’ve read with Ensler on the topic has unfolded almost word-for-word the same as my own — so at least I know I’m not alone. (Gluckstern)

Sexiest scene in which the actors don’t move (but the stage does) Alex Moggridge and Marilee Talkington at a slowly rotating pub table in Mark Jackson’s Salomania at Aurora. Eros and Thanatos seemed in a slow dance with each other in this striking flirtation between a jaded frontline soldier and a war widow recently liberated from stultifying domesticity. (Avila)

Most graceful bow Becoming Grace at the Jewish Theatre. Naomi Newman’s potent solo play, built from the words and writing of author Grace Paley, closed the 34th and final season of San Francisco’s esteemed Jewish Theatre (formerly Traveling Jewish Theatre). (Avila)

Best musical theater collaboration The Ratcatcher at the Imaginists. This Santa Rosa company is a must see for lovers of smart, intimate, community-based theater, and their latest, a re-telling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend, is a pitch-perfect dystopian fairytale featuring a memorable cast and an irresistible musical score by full-partners in the production, the Crux. It’s worth the drive, but here’s hoping they bring it down to SF sometime. (Avila)

Best death scene Michael Zavala in Phaedra’s Love at Bindlestiff Studio. Do It Live!’s worthy production of Sarah Kane’s reworking of the Hippolytus myth climaxes with Hippolytus (a hipster hedonist in Zavala’s capable rendering), castrated and disemboweled, but finally interested in life. (Avila) *


Short takes by Robert Avila:

Best impersonation of a pervy authority figure Sara Moore as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company at Finn’s Funhouse

Best argument for going color blind Red at Berkeley Rep

Best approximation of a teenager Ann Lawler as Theresa in 100 Saints You Should Know, at Theater Rhino

Worst approximation of teenagers Jesus in India, at the Magic Theatre

Best actual teenagers Director Nick A. Olivero’s excellent, age-appropriate cast in Dog Sees God at Boxcar

Most existentially satisfying use of a digital delay Sara Kraft’s TRUTH++ at the This Is What I Want festival at SOMArts

Best lounge act without a lounge Anne McGuire (and Anne McGuire) and Wobbly in Music Again at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Performant: Poetry in motion


“You Need to Read Poetry” and “Ragged Wing” take flight

Against the back curtain of the stage, empty save a couple of small platforms, a mysterious tree, represented by a rainbow of colored scarves, stretched its silken boughs. Cut to the “great before,” when humans were still a figment of the future, and Mol’-luk (Liz Wand), a brooding, powerful condor, sat perched on a rock, little suspecting that the “mountain” is pregnant with his peregrine falcon son, Wek Wek (Juliana Lustenader), whose dramatic birth by fire was further facilitated by a chorus of rattlesnakes (select members of the oddience armed with noisemakers).

Soon grown, Wek Wek set off on a quest to find the music tree (also the title of the play), a fanciful construction of hidden voices and those bright scarves, undulating over the bodies of Hannah Lennett and Liz Wand. Based on a Miwok legend, and told with an energetic blend of music, movement, and poetic narration, “The Music Tree” fit neatly in with the Oakland-based Ragged Wing Ensemble’s canon of mythology-centric explorations, and kicked off its single weekend run of their inaugural “Fierce Play” series. Three brand new works created and rehearsed in just fourteen days — an exhibition of “theatrical athleticism,” stretching the boundaries of the possible with a truncated yet intensified creation process.

The avian protagonists of “The Music Tree” were good precursors to the second play “Air:born” which opened with a humorous depiction of poor ungainly ostriches, the fastest birds on land but also the heaviest, incapable of flight. “The ostrich is tragic because it came so close.” Of course it isn’t just ostriches that long to be airborne as the following two vignettes demonstrated—with cleverly devised sequences of swooping flight and paper planes—the first featuring Daedalus (Wendi Gross) and Icarus (Marlene Yarosh), the second, the Wright Brothers (Michele Owen and Soren Santos).

The final play, “Fish Tank Piece” started out as a whimsical romance between a frustrated artist (Anna Schneiderman) filling fish tanks with yarn (and charging $475 for them) and her equally frustrated, non-artist boyfriend (Michael Correa), then opened up into a more complex meditation on the meaning of purpose—in work and in life as in love.  A second batch of “Fierce” will be served up in February with all new playwrights, and one hopes the promise shown by these raw flashes of inspiration can be nurtured further, perhaps with a follow-up festival in the coming year.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Performers Under Stress “You Need to Read Poetry!” took a more rehearsed approach to its subject matter: the performance of dozens of the company’s favorite poems, from Langston Hughes to Lucia Perillo. In the theatrical context, each poem became a concise script, as when Nazelah Jamison attempted to seduce Shaye Angelo Acevedo with lines by Nikki Giovanni, or when Valerie Fachman gathered Jamison, Gloria McDonald, and Carina Lastimosa Salazar to her side while reminiscing ala Marge Piercy.

A section on the beats turned the stage into a rowdy café scene, and a segment with guest readers Mellissa Stein and Pireeni Sundaralingam, quietly electrified. Presented as integrative works rather than isolated lines with limited appeal and an intimidating reputation, “You Need to Read Poetry!” takes its message seriously. ”Poetry gets us there,” director Scott Baker writes in his program notes, but where is that? Considering the scope and reach of the presentation, I’m guessing anywhere you want it to.

“You Need to Read Poetry!” runs through December 23

Bindlestiff Studio

185 6th Street, SF