Robert Avila

Sounds of silence


THEATER How we hear — or if we hear — is to some extent a matter of association. We’re inclined to listen to, take seriously, and treat as equal those people with whom we identify and can sympathize, people who seem to share basic things, including certain values, with us. Such is the implication (and provocation) in English playwright Nina Raine’s engaging drama, Tribes, which roots itself in an eccentric London family — one of whose members is deaf — in order to explore wider social questions of affiliation and communication, exclusion and indifference. The play in this way takes on literal and metaphorical deafness, exploring clan-like thinking and behavior in and through the politics of the deaf community.

The serious questions at the heart of the play, however, come agreeably packaged in a very loud and amusing family of cantankerous extraverts headed by a former scholar turned author named Christopher (a gruffly and charmingly expansive Paul Whitworth) and his wife, a novice novelist named Beth (a cheerful yet concerned Anita Carey, in an admirably supple performance). The household has recently expanded to former proportions with the return of grown 20-something children Sylvia (Nell Geisslinger) and Daniel (Dan Clegg), who rejoin their grown and deaf brother, Billy (a sympathetic, impressively complex James Caverly), around the family’s book-lined living room (in Todd Rosenthal’s detailed, naturalistic scenic design, which transforms when necessary into offsite locations or inner spaces via Christopher Akerlind’s mutable lighting and Jake Rodriguez’s evocative sound design).

We meet this dysfunctional, codependent set of oddball overachievers and outcasts around the long table to the left of center stage, where they engage in clearly quotidian bouts of whining and dining. “Why am I surrounded by my children again,” wonders Christopher rhetorically. “When are you going to fuck off?”

Playwright Raine has an ear for the kinds of cruel jabs, off-color remarks, and outrageous propositions that, it seems, only a family can indulge in (let along get away with) without so much as a tremor of trepidation or regret. In this smarty secular Jewish household, that sniping is especially vituperative, colorfully earthy (especially in Dad’s frequent bon mots), and colored over by an intellectual hue: Christopher’s pet theme is the rootedness of feeling and personality in language. Daniel, plagued by a damning superego that has produced condemnatory voices in his head, is writing a thesis more or less arguing the opposite — that language does not determine meaning. His socially awkward sister, meanwhile, has taken up the pursuit of music (where feeling transcends language), singing opera in pubs. Moreover, despite their constant assailing of one another, there’s a collective pride undergirding it all — a satisfied sense of the family’s own positive difference from the rest of the (alternatingly intimidating and pitiable) world.

But, notably, these animated discussions among the family tribe, with which the play begins, rarely include Billy. When he speaks — in the pronounced but muted tones of someone who does not completely hear his own voice — it’s usually to ask what everyone else is talking about. Treated as an equal (with a nonchalance bordering at times on indifference) and yet simultaneously eclipsed by his loudmouthed, self-involved relatives, Billy ironically stands out (to us) by virtue of his quiet remove.

He soon breaks free and into clearer view after meeting a woman named Ruth (a sharp and vital Elizabeth Morton) with whom he falls instantly in love. Ruth is losing her hearing, but coming from deaf parents, she is well acquainted with the community and culture of the deaf. This does not make her transition any easier, however. Indeed, it complicates it in subtle ways. More than any other character, she straddles both worlds: the hearing and the non-hearing. It makes her both threatening and attractive to Billy’s family, who fear Billy’s categorization and cooptation as part of a deaf minority.

Billy, unusually adept at lip reading and emboldened by his love for Ruth and the community she provides access to, takes a job with a law court providing crucial transcriptions from audio-less video for criminal trials. This allows him to move out of the family home for the first time. Ruth teaches him ASL, which he begins to use more and more exclusively. Both he and Ruth meanwhile confront a family that places a premium on the connection between language and feeling. From this constellation of voices and positions, a serious split emerges that throws the family into a tailspin while asking a series of stimulating questions about where, and how, we belong.

Raine’s 2010 play (originally produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre) gets a spirited, involving production from Berkeley Rep and director Jonathan Moscone. Moscone (the artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater who excelled at another contemporary family-social drama when he helmed Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park at ACT) stirs the hornet’s nest of mad, madcap family living with an expert hand, and his fine cast delivers Raine’s witty (albeit sometimes too thematically forceful) dialogue with precision and ease. If the play wraps up a little abruptly, it also leaves much in the ensuing silence to continue listening to. 2


Through May 18

Tue and Thu-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Wed and Sun, 7pm (also Sun, 2pm; no 2pm show May 18), $29-99

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2015 Addison, Berk


Moscow weather report


THEATER Moscow’s temperatures had been climbing up to 70 degrees just a week before my arrival, but by the first of April, it had slipped back into the 30s and 40s, collecting snow on the ground and clouds overhead in a gloomy replay of winter. In a novel this would have looked like a cheap literary device: nature manifesting a political climate that had also grown decidedly chillier. But with Russia’s recent reabsorption of Crimea, and talk everywhere of a new Cold War, it was pretty apt nonetheless.

At the same time, theatrical fires were burning brightly in the weeklong Russia Case, an annual mini-festival spotlighting (for an international audience of presenters, journalists, and others) exceptional theatrical work from the much larger national Golden Mask Festival, with some additional offerings thrown in for good measure.

Curated by Kristina Matvienko, theater critic and member of the Golden Mask board of experts, this year’s Russia Case included 20 productions, in addition to other public events, such as an absorbing tour of Moscow’s famed Taganka Theatre, the country’s center of theatrical innovation and radicalism in the 1960s–70s under founding director and actor Yuri Lyubimov. It’s now celebrating its 50th year with a special jubilee program of exhibitions, projects, and new work headed by a group of young theater artists, managers, and critics commissioned by the city’s Culture Committee and Cultural Minister Sergei Kapkov.

Things began auspiciously with a sparkling new piece by famed director Kama Ginkas at Moscow TYuZ (pronounced “tooz” and standing for Young Generation Theater), the theater led by his wife, Henrietta Yanovskaya, also an acclaimed director with a production in the festival. Lady Macbeth of Our District, based on a short story by 19th-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov that was also adapted into an opera by Shostakovich, concerns the ebullient young wife of a village merchant whose lust for life entangles her with a brash laborer with tragic results. Staged with muscular precision and effortless invention — including a shrewd use of winter coats as malleable second-skins and visceral bursts of song and energetic movement — this excellent ensemble piece, led by the vibrant Elizaveta Boyarskaya in the title role, cut right through the serious jetlag of the hour.

Among other highlights was a new work by internationally renowned director Dmitry Krymov (whose In Paris premiered locally at the Berkeley Rep in 2012). The captivating Honoré de Balzac: Notes About Berdichev derives its title from a line in Three Sisters, and this inspired riff on Chekhov’s characters sneaks in a fitting depth of thought and emotion beneath its macabre comical surface. With the consummate attention to design and ensemble playing that Krymov and his collaborators have rightly become known for, the production unfolds as a kind of Grand Guignol spectacle, holding up a funhouse mirror to the iconic figures of Chekhov’s oeuvre in order to see them afresh as the pitiful, horrifying, hilarious, and beautiful creations they are. The production then shifts into a prolonged denouement in which the actors remove their elaborate makeup and converse and play with one another in a wistful and teasing middle ground between art and life that speaks quietly of that communion that is the essence of theater.

Equally effective was a timely adaptation of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film at the vibrant Gogol-Centre, a new and leading venue with four resident companies and a popular youthful following. Fear, adapted by young playwright Lyubov Strizhak from Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, is one in a trilogy of works by Latvian director Vladislav Nastavshev that adapt famous films (the others being Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, each in some way dealing with the negotiation of borders and the plight of outsiders). The story concerns the socially unsanctioned love affair between a young Tajik migrant worker and an elderly Moscow widow. Unfolding with a bold, forceful grace on a spare arena-style stage that made dynamic use of a set of white plastic tables, this well acted and moving piece was also among the most overtly political, dealing head-on with the rising xenophobia that has plagued Russia in general and Moscow in particular in recent years. (The one other piece in the program with comparable political punch came from the tiny but intrepid Theater.doc, an independent documentary theater, run by Elena Gremina. Documentary theater is the mode of choice for much political work on Moscow stages, and perhaps not surprisingly Fear‘s playwright Strizhak is well associated with the form.)

In all, I took in half of the total program of the Russia Case, in a packed week of theater and discussion, as part of a group of Americans traveling under the auspices of the Center for International Theatre Development. Needless to say, politics were in the air throughout, and not only because of recent events in Ukraine. The theater in Russia is far more culturally important and influential than theater tends to be here. And while not overtly political in what it stages (except in some notable instances like those just mentioned), it remains a site of many progressive and antiauthoritarian voices as well as big personalities and vested interests. Even the Taganka jubilee was marked by internal turmoil and public scandal, stemming in part from Lyubimov’s contentious public departure from the theater in 2011 but sparked by a historical exhibition on the walls of the theater that provoked defacement from outraged members of the company.

More broadly and urgently, however, the Russians and their international guests mulled over the future of theater in a country drifting rapidly toward ultranationalist extremes. All seemed to agree that whatever happens, this year’s Russia Case will likely not look like next year’s, and that artists and audiences are in for a wild ride.


State of possession


THEATER In one of the more arresting moments in Aaron Davidman’s new solo play, Wrestling Jerusalem, the Bay Area actor-playwright and former Jewish Theatre artistic director recounts being in a West Bank café with his Palestinian host when four young Israeli IDF soldiers enter in full battle gear. It’s an estranging moment for Davidman, a liberal American Jew on a hunt for answers to his quandary over Israel and its relation to occupied Palestine. But the estrangement he feels is complex, slippery: His first response is to feel estrangement from the soldiers; then a look of recognition from one of the soldiers opens up the difference between Davidman and his new Arab friends; but then Davidman also feels himself very much an American, not an Israeli — just where does he belong?

A self divided among multiple, conflicting affiliations and ideals is a general condition in this complex and stressful world, but it achieves a concentrated poignancy here for the artist son of progressive parents who rooted their liberal values in Judaic tradition. As a young man visiting Israel for the first time in 1992, Davidman had finally to face the contradictions that this would entail in the context of Israel as a Jewish homeland but also as a nation state and, especially, as a colonial power occupying Palestinian land. At the same time, criticism of Israel on the left alienates him when he sees it slipping into a broader pit of anti-Semitism — as he did during an antiracism rally at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Many return trips to Israel only made matters worse, more complicated, as his excursions became more purposeful — geared to interviewing people on both sides of the conflict — and his vantage extended into the occupied territories themselves. Grim details of that occupation come out in the course of this sure 85-minute solo performance, but so do voices justifying or qualifying the excesses of the Israeli state in the name of security and historical or political circumstance. While cleaving to core values of equity and justice throughout, Davidman respectfully represents views that range to extreme points on either side of the messy debate.

At the same time, the act of doing so becomes its own trauma. As if in a state of possession, Davidman manifests the inner and outer turmoil in a physical performance marked by often-anguished gestural passages, stirring liturgical verses, unexpected humor, and a series of neatly etched characters. These come all the more forcefully across for being set in an intimate thrust stage arrangement, carved into the central space at Intersection for the Arts. There the play unfolds against scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis’s beautiful cloth backdrop, dyed in muted desert tones that come atmospherically alive in Allen Willner’s blood-and-earth–hued lighting design.

On one hand, Wrestling Jerusalem‘s airing of opposing views is as timely as ever. News of human rights abuses and more violence in and around the occupied territories comes almost daily, while the US State Department once again meanders down its long and winding road to nowhere with respect to jump-starting “peace talks.” Meanwhile the growing BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement across US campuses and around the world is meeting with increasing right-wing pushback (most recently at Northeastern University). And new books by prominent American Jews and gentiles — most recently the New Republic’s John B. Judis — dissent from the usual narratives around Israel-Palestine, stirring charges of apostasy (and anti-Semitism).

On the other hand, for these very reasons Davidman’s measured search for understanding and balance can seem slightly behind these urgent, increasingly polarized times. Directed by Michael John Garcés of Los Angeles’s Cornerstone Theater, the play rehearses mostly familiar, albeit still charged and important, arguments. Its most persuasive aspects instead lie in Davidman’s representation of his personal journey, the expansion of conscience and understanding it spurs. While its mingled voices intentionally unsettle the mind and emotions, they achieve a tentative truce in the play’s final affirmation.

That affirmation — a recommitment to core values that are both traditional and universal — in turn opens common ground in which all might enter. Far from over at this point, the conversation is just getting under way. Pairing performances with something he calls the Peace Café, an opportunity for direct dialogue among audiences members, as well as other post-show discussions moderated by professional mediator Rachel Eryn Kalish, Wrestling Jerusalem is less a political argument (though it contains several) than an invitation to dialogue. Maybe more importantly still, it’s an invitation to listen. *


Through April 6

Thu-Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm, $20-$30

Intersection for the Arts

925 Mission, SF


Shooting straight


FILM The last time Elaine Stritch was in San Francisco was in 2003, at the Curran Theatre, for the Tony Award–winning Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Then in her mid-70s, the legendary actress and singer appeared on a bare stage in her trademark suggestion of an outfit — black stockings and an oversized dress shirt — for a revealing, song-studded solo confessional about love, ambition, alcoholism, and the jumble of a career in a theatrical golden age. It was an irresistible look back at (and behind) a brilliant and rocky Broadway (as well as film and television) career that began in 1946, and continues.

Stritch advances and expands the conversation started in At Liberty with her latest appearance, onscreen in director and producer Chiemi Karasawa’s 80-minute portrait, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Arguably still more fascinating and frank in her mid-80s, Stritch proves once again an undeniable presence — uncensored, irascible, charming, and witty — but it’s all now balanced with a more pronounced vulnerability, captured in disarmingly honest moments of reflection, struggle, and even crisis.

Made over the course of two years of intimate observation, the film chronicles Stritch as she prepares for a number of returns. One is to the stage, to sing Stephen Sondheim again, the composer with whom she is indelibly identified thanks, in no small part, to her original interpretation of Joanne and “The Ladies Who Lunch” in 1970’s Broadway smash Company. Rehearsing with longtime musical director, accompanist, and friend Rob Bowman (a stalwart presence here), Stritch, then on the cusp of her 87th birthday, becomes a study in perseverance and hard-won skill in the face of an aging body menaced by diabetes.

“It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim’s lyrics when you don’t have diabetes,” notes Stritch. “But everybody’s got a sack of rocks, as my husband [John Bay] used to say.”

En route to a gig in East Hampton, Stritch shows she’s not above playing up the senior citizen at times: When a siren hoots at her limo (illegally parked in the fire zone outside a Starbucks), Stritch, a large blended beverage in her hand, doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh, it’s the cops. I’ll limp,” she decides, successfully deflecting the local fuzz.

But the next morning, Bowman breaks the news that the gig has been canceled owing to the threat of a hurricane off the coast of Long Island. Still in bed and feeling less than 100 percent, the star is elated. A short time later, she spirals into a diabetes-induced breakdown, plagued by mental confusion and fear, eventually losing her capacity to speak coherently as an ambulance arrives to rush her to the hospital. It’s a harrowing scene, but its unabashed honesty is part of what makes the documentary more than the usual star bio.

At the same time, the film records another return for Stritch, as she makes the momentous decision to leave her Upper East Side home to relocate back to Michigan, where she grew up in the 1930s, the youngest of three daughters in a well-to-do Irish-Welsh family of devout Catholics headed by an executive at B.F. Goodrich. It had been some 65 years since the bold but wholly innocent young Stritch, fleeing the safe but stultifying confines of her childhood home, arrived to conquer the Big Apple, cutting her teeth in Erwin Piscator’s Drama Workshop at the New School alongside such classmates as Marlon Brando (Stritch offered up details of the steamy relationship there in At Liberty).

The years spent shooting the life of a living legend, an elderly yet very active one with a well-earned reputation for being difficult, could not have been a walk in the park. Shoot Me (whose playful title might be thought to run in two directions at once) makes a virtue of that at times, no doubt, exasperating bargain. Stritch says she had to think about it before accepting the project.

“I wasn’t crazy about the idea,” she admitted in a recent phone conversation while she was on a promotional swing through New York. “I was a little skeptical, and afraid of being bored. But I wasn’t bored for a minute.”

And the camera, there every step of the way, seems for its part thoroughly mesmerized and intrepid. Stritch, after all, is not above directing the show herself. “I think you should be watching me unpack the muffins,” she insists at one point, turning a desultory scene of domestic routine into a just slightly uncomfortable confrontation with a conciliatory cameraman. At other times, the camera is her confessor, as when, from a hospital bed, she relates her mixed emotions and convictions about meeting the inevitable end of life.

“Your tendency might be, if you didn’t know her, to disregard how vulnerable she is, and how deep her insecurities are,” says Hal Prince, whose storied accomplishments on Broadway include producing and directing Company. One of several impressive interviews of Stritch friends and colleagues, Prince here sounds a note that echoes throughout an untidy but deeply personal, touching but rousing documentary profile: “She’s complicated and she’s an eccentric. But you’ve got to deal with Elaine’s eccentricities because, ultimately, they’re worth it.” *


ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.

Movers/Shakers: Two rare visits by European contemporary dance-makers this weekend


Here are two very special opportunities to see (and, in at least one case, join in on) the work of some leading European contemporary dance/performance makers passing through town this weekend…

My Own Bodies – a solo for many

Sweden-based Shake it Collaborations (SiC) is an internationally active company comprised of Tove Sahlin and Dag Andersson. A small crowd of friends and acquaintances was in attendance last Sunday, in the Tenderloin, for the couple’s highly social duet, Roses & Beans, which featured no roses (but a few flowers) and no beans (but one hell of a layer cake). Deploying exuberant as well as exasperated movement, popular song (sung a cappella and sometimes directly into each other’s mouths), and a shrewd sense of humor, the piece sparked and built upon spontaneous interactions with and among the audience — all the while exploring various frames for the conception, reception, transmission, rejection, and abeyance of love as an organizing principle.

It was a memorable encounter, and, fortunately, not the last: This Friday and Saturday at CounterPULSE, Tove Sahlin will perform her everybody-in-the-pool solo, My Own Bodies.

The piece, which premiered in Stockholm’s House of Dance in 2013, is a 40-minute shakeout in which the audience contributes to a “common shake action.” The piece explores shaking as movement, as metaphor, as empathetic medium, as emotional trigger and state, and whatever else ends up on the floor. Come ready to quake. It should be a Richter 9.

Fri/28–Sat/1, 8pm, free (RSVP at


1310 Mission, SF


An Evening of Contemporary Dance

Meanwhile, a few blocks away on Market, you can find ACT’s Costume Shop alive this Saturday night with two more contemporary dance pieces.

From Italy, well-known choreographer and dancer Caterina Basso presents Il Volume Com’era, her solo piece, which was selected for the Venice Biennale project Prima Danza in 2013.

“The project arises primarily from the desire to be alone in the room and to work on movement, movement that is not guided by the prompting of others,” reads Basso’s statement from the Biennale premiere. “The work takes shape on the basis of a body that moves invisible objects, in a kind of action composed of displacements and short paths through the spaces. A fragmented but natural pace that is transmitted by the activity of the hands to the entire body. A fragile body because it is blocked by clearly defined limits, it seeks a place but is an obstacle to itself, its parts do not collaborate, as if each of them were engaging in passive resistance. A body that cannot find a suitable place, the comfort of feeling welcomed in a detail of time and space, the relief of a relationship. A halting movement that becomes rhythm, which searches for the way out of paths and rules, without really finding them.”

Sharing the bill with Basso are San Francisco dancer-choreographers Liz Tenuto and Monique Jenkinson, who will reprise the excellent duet they premiered at last year’s West Wave festival: the witty, sensual, vital Am I Square?

Sat/1, 8pm, $10

ACT Costume Shop

1117 Market, SF 


Rocked worlds



There are two sides to every road. But ask a long-haul trucker, a traveling salesman, or a pair of wandering minstrels like the Bengsons, and they’ll remind you that those sides converge at the horizon line.

The Bengsons — married musician-songwriters Abigail and Shaun — met randomly through a gig in New York City back in the late aughts. A mutual attraction, immediate and fierce, led them to become engaged within weeks of their first conversation. Both then in their early 20s, with serious and eclectic musical backgrounds, they recall the courtship as a whirlwind of powerful new emotions, bright and dark. Fast on the heels of marriage came five years of traveling across the country as their own band — a sure blend of musical influences that slips across various genres, in a sort of indie folk, neo-vaudevillian, truck stop cabaret, and drive-by rock opera that more or less dovetails with their daily selves. Among much else, living and learning as peripatetic artists and lovers has given them the opportunity to explore the meaning of all those feelings that led to their highly creative, itinerant relationship.

The fruit of that exploration is in the world premiere this week of Hundred Days, a major musical-theatrical venture carefully nurtured by Z Space and three years in the making. Directed by Anne Kauffman and with a book by Bay Area–based playwright Kate E. Ryan — both fully collaborative partners in the project, the Bengsons readily acknowledge — Hundred Days is something like a real-life Once: a true love affair cast through a darkly playful fictional story about Sarah (Abigail Bengson) and Will (Shaun Bengson), two 20somethings who find their powerful new love comes with a serious expiration date.

The production is no mere concert (though it rocks, loudly and well), but every inch a theatrical experience. Ryan provides a complete and involving narrative spine to the at times raucous, at times haunting musical set pieces. Moreover, Hundred Days features a large and talented cast of actors and musicians (including El Beh, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, Geneva Harrison, Kate Kilbane, Jo Lampert, Amy Lizardo, Dalane Mason, Joshua Pollock, and Reggie D. White); a moody and mercurial set design by Kris Stone (aglow with a sort of post-industrial romanticism courtesy of lighting designer Allen Willner); and choreography by renowned San Francisco dance maker Joe Goode.

But at its heart are a body of songs of surprising force and subtlety, in dynamic arrangements that showcase both the Bengsons’ hard-won skills as musicians and composers, as well as their exhilarating ability to convey a rare sense of emotional honesty, of uncensored feeling, in their work. Before a recent rehearsal ahead of the show’s first previews, the couple sat down and shared musings on the journey that brought them here.

SF Bay Guardian You’ve described your courtship as being a kind of existential crisis, in that it suddenly put life in an unsettling new perspective.

Shaun Bengson It did start to feel incredibly short.

Abigail Bengson It’s life’s irony that in rushing to live life fully you do collide more quickly with the end of it. Rushing towards life is inevitably rushing towards death. That’s true of everybody. In the play, we put a timer on it, to help us talk about it in a more concrete way. But that’s just how we feel every day anyway [laughs] It’s just sort of the situation.

SB They’re such big feelings, it’s taken a really long time to sort them out and figure out what’s going on there — a lot of the wonder, and also the neurosis and the fear — all of that is where the show came from.

AB The more we’ve unpacked what was initially just an enormous feeling of life and dread in one package, the more we’ve discovered how ordinary that is. I’d say that’s been my primary comfort. In that moment I felt like, “I am struck by lighting. I am going to die.” My experience of life is no longer separate from my experience of death. I’m finding that that is true for so many people.

Any big love, not necessarily for a spouse, but for a child or for a parent, can have that same effect of making life an emergency and making death feel near. But also, in living with that breath in my throat for long enough, I’ve started to be able to soften into that and say, “OK, so now we make a sandwich.” I mean, how do we live in an ordinary way in the face of this thing that feels so enormous? Why is it all we’re thinking about all the time? I don’t know. I guess that’s why we ended up writing all those songs about it.

SFBG And that led you out on the road. How did five years of traveling, your day-to-day life on the road, actually come about?

SB We were living in an apartment in Brooklyn, and I had one year left on my teaching contract. We were playing in our band and working on the show. At the end of my school year, I still had the whole summer [paid]. At the same time, our very dear friend David was going back to South Africa, so he said, “You can stay in my house for the summer.” So we had these two months when we’d still have money from my teaching gig and we’d have a place to live. So we went and lived in the Berkshires for a couple of months, finished a show and set up tour dates, and left from there. We thought maybe we’d go back—maybe I could go back to teaching, if things didn’t work.

AB I never felt that. [Shaun laughs.]

SFBG It felt right to leave?

SB It felt really good. It felt like such a relief.

AB It felt honest. It felt right. True to the way I think and what I am. It meant our life became, you know, gas money and Taco Bell, but it also became playing a lot of shows, doing a lot of service work in different places and learning a lot through that. We got to be students again in that sense, by putting ourselves in situations that were intensely uncomfortable over and over again, and writing music about them. It was a little songwriting boot camp of our own design. And we were getting to know each other’s styles and how we would write. I also feel, like, thank god we were married. I don’t know how you could be a musician and not marry a musician.

SFBG You hit the road five years ago and haven’t turned back. Was there a point early on where you hesitated? Were there any gigs that made you think again?

AB The first crappy gig I remember being really educational — and making me want to do it more even, though it was painful — was when we were at this biker bar…

SB Oh, yeah, this was in the Valley outside of Los Angeles. What was it called? Something like—it’s not Topanga. Tujunga? Is that place?

AB Fact-check all of this, we’re totally full of crap. [Fact check: Sunland-Tujunga sits in northeastern Los Angeles.] But we were playing this bar. Everybody was angry looking, a lot of shaved heads. I was [looking around the room, thinking], “What is going on with you?” Scared. So we got up and we played all the songs that we had written to date that were the most ferocious and aggressive and loud — and then we were kind of running out of those. So at the very end of the night we played this one song. It’s actually about a woman we knew well, whose daughter had passed away, and her struggling with that. And we sang for her and about that, in the moment sort of ready to get booed.

Then, when the set ended, this pack of — now, I know, lovely gentlemen, but at the time, terrifying — figures came towards me, and were weeping. They just said, “That one. Wish you had played more like that.” And I was like, “Fuck, me too.” I mean, I love those aggressive songs, too, they’re a big part of what we do, but it was such a lesson in prejudice for me — that I had judged what they would like, and assumed that it wouldn’t be anything honest for me.

SB It’s the lesson I’m still constantly learning. It takes so much more courage to be actually genuine in a moment. If I’m not careful, my tendency can be to play towards what I perceive people’s expectations are for the event, versus when we try to play the songs we most want to play and are most “us.”

AB But I also think it’s incredible training to play in rooms that are not receptive at first. Because part of the task then is to create the space where people can lean forward. I feel it was one of the best trainings for me. Play somewhere where they wish you were just playing Lynyrd Skynyrd. Where they wish you were a DJ. That’s the best place to go.

SFBG Have you two every attempted anything on the scale of Hundred Days before?

SB and AB No.

AB That was part of why we called it an opera at first. Because opera, they say, is the most collaborative art form — that you need every possible kind of artist to come in and make it happen. And that’s what Z Space has done, is allow for that.

SB It’s been really amazing.

AB It’s been a dream. *


Through April 6, $10-$100

Previews Wed/26, 7pm; Thu/27-Fri/28, 8pm; opens Sat/1, 8pm

Runs Wed and Sun, 7pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm

Z Space

450 Florida, SF


Goldies 2014 Lifetime Achievement: Sara Shelton Mann


GOLDIES In 1979, Sara Shelton Mann — the farm girl from the wilds of Tennessee who ended up studying with such greats as Alwin Nikolais, Erick Hawkins, and Merce Cunningham — moved to San Francisco. Earthquake country. And did she ever shake up the place. With Contraband, the collective of performers she directed until 1996, she reconfigured what the dancing body can be. Their aim, she has said, was to “make bold live theater with an aggressive, lyric physicality.”

But why San Francisco? “I was lonely in those cold winters in Nova Scotia,” she recalls; she’d been working there with a support of a Canadian arts support program. So she jumped at the chance when Mangrove (the all-male troupe that grew into Mixed Bag Productions) invited her to join it. It was here where she translated concepts like “improv-based,” “collaborative,” “interdisciplinary,” and “dance theater” into vital, raucous, and highly effective performances that inspired a whole generation of artists to wander into unknown territory. The Bay Area would not be as welcoming and supportive of experimentation in dance were it not for the ongoing presence of Sara Shelton Mann.

With Contraband, she staged pieces in theaters, warehouses, the pit of a former apartment building, an abandoned public housing project, under bridges, and on the streets, both in this country and abroad. The troupe described itself as wanting to “manifest joyous creation — reclaiming the flight of the imagination, laughter, love, truth, and evolutionary impulse.”

The works were irresistible because of the daring, the force, and the integrity of the processes that made them possible. “We believed that art could change the world,” Shelton Mann says. At the height of the AIDS crisis, Evol turned the concept of love inside out. Religare honored the people who died or became homeless after the 1975 arson fire that gutted the Mission District’s Gartland Apartments. Oracle was a painful examination of the burdens of the past. The Mira Cycles and Monk at the Met dug deep into spirituality, both individual and communal.


Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

“I had only one rule,” she explains. “Everybody does personal inquiry, everybody does contact, everybody sings, everybody dances, everybody writes, everybody makes images, everybody works outdoors.”

This process encouraged individual voices to emerge, allowing members of the group to go on to substantial careers of their own. Besides designers and musicians, there were, among others, Rinde Eckert; Jess Curtis (“Contraband was an amazing laboratory of group process and collaboration, always with Sara at the center,” he says); Keith Hennessey (“Working with Sara revealed me to myself, and revealed me to the worlds around me”); Nina Haft (“I like to think my work is better for having been part of that wild soup of training in the ’80s. Sara still amazes me with what she does”); and Kim Epifano (“We learned from each other as we created with Sara’s thrust of topic and mastery of metaphor. It was a place where gender did not define the physicality but a common ground of athletic love”).

Indeed, in addition to her formidable reach as an artist, Shelton Mann’s role as a teacher has been immense. The latest wave of artists to find Shelton Mann and the rare degree of mutual inspiration she offers includes many of the most persuasive dance makers in the Bay Area.

“When you’ve trained with Sara, and you’ve worked with Sara, your idea of dance really explodes,” says Jesse Hewit. “You identify what your dance is in your body.” Hewit explains the difference as distinct from a focus on mere technical perfection. “The dancing is crazy virtuosic,” he notes, “but not virtuosic in the high-kick, pointed-toe sense; virtuosic in that it’s infused with an intense energetic focus.”

Shelton Mann celebrated her 70th birthday in December, and her work shows no signs of dimming. Even in the smaller, minimalist dances of recent months she proves riveting: a lovingly rowdy duet with Hewit at Z Space during the 2013 West Wave Dance Festival; a reading at Kunst-Stoff in January for Fresh Festival — delivering a slipstream rumination on time, decay, and memory in the body, the body social, the body politic. More recently still, she had a cameo during a comic-chaotic conversation about contemporary dance in Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Saul Garcia Lopez, and Esther Baker Tarpaga’s Part 1: Dancing with Fear at Galería de la Raza.

In the last two years, Shelton Mann has been at work on a set of extraordinary solos, a series she calls The Eye of Leo. Each has been made on a different dancer, and each one thus far has premiered in the plain white box of the Joe Goode Annex.

In October 2012, the first, featuring Jorge De Hoyos, was a revelation. The limpidness of these works, their spare quality — in contrast to the exuberant sumptuousness of Contraband or even recent Shelton Mann work like 2011’s Zeropoint, made with regular collaborator David Szlasa — combined with a quivering field of contact between dancer and choreographer, represents a powerful shift in focus.

The Leo series culminates outdoors and downtown this April, in a simultaneous unfolding she calls a “mandala of magic,” The Eye of Horus. The project is more proof that Shelton Mann is working at the height of her powers. One of the country’s supreme artists, she continues to evolve — moving more than the land she adopted back in 1979, and more sensitive to the tremors beneath our feet than a Richter scale.

“She’s a very strong conduit now. A very strong conduit. I mean, I think she’s a goddess,” says Kathleen Hermesdorf, another Contraband veteran who has gone onto a formidable career of her own. “I can’t help but deify her a bit. I can’t pigeonhole her. She’s still an iconoclast; she’s still part of the avant-garde. And it still comes from so deep inside her.”

Goldies 2014 Performance: SALTA


GOLDIES Creating a space for experimental contemporary dance and performance in Oakland, outside of the usual channels and roadblock$, has been an instigating, galvanizing mission for SALTA. The collective — a sharp and motivated group of seven women, all Oakland-based choreographers and dancers under 30 — has made a scene, built an audience, developed a network, enlarged an ethic, and opened up horizons in a beleaguered arts ecosystem.

They also know how to party.

SALTA was born at the same time as its monthly curated performance series, a spirited affair known during its first year as PPP (apropos of nothing), which rides high on a principle of serious experimentation in an utterly laid-back, strictly noncommercial setting.

A roving event that settles wherever the keys are handed over gratis (a surprising number of places), PPP and its progeny have showcased ragtag and newer pieces by a range of young, mid-career, and senior artists whose only brief is that they try something. While such a platform naturally embraces failure in the cause of exploration, the results have held many surprises and epiphanies.

A few dancer-choreographers spotted at past SALTA evenings: Mary Armentrout, Christine Bonansea, Abby Crain, Hana Erdman and Allison Lorenzen, Keith Hennessy, Kathleen Hermesdorf and Albert Mathias, Monique Jenkinson, and fellow Goldies 2014 honoree Brontez Purnell.

Meanwhile, an open-door policy and community-stocked bar and boutique contribute to the lighthearted, well-oiled mingling of a crowd that often goes beyond dance initiates to embrace artists, bohos, and travelers of many kinds. (The first installment, at poet Zach Houston’s space downtown back in June 2012, was already bringing together normally discrete artistic milieus. As much a social experiment as an artistic one, it’s set the tone for those that have followed.)


Guardian photo by Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover

SALTA has ambitions beyond the performance series. Back in June 2013, when the collective was celebrating its first birthday with the 11th installment of PPP, its members decided to take a summer hiatus from the performance series to concentrate on other projects. The plan was to reinstate it in the fall at a slower clip. But the momentum proved hard to deny, as the seven members of SALTA (who prefer to speak as a collective rather than use their individual names) recently explained.

“I think after we last talked to you in [June 2013] we were going to do our anniversary performance, and then we were going to do less. We were going to do one every three months or something. But we had people contact us. And people really followed through who wanted us in their spaces. So we couldn’t say no, in a way.”

“We got swept up.”

“Yeah, it was really great, because with some — like Transmission Gallery [last December] — there was that intent, an invitation to collaborate with the space. People were interested in what we were doing in this different way. And that just provides us with food for thought, as far as how we then invite artists to be in that space in a particular way.”

“It’s kept us interested and engaged doing these events.”

“We’ve been talking more about finding some permanent space as well.”

A permanent space?

“We aren’t going to go into details because it’s still in the works, but let’s just say we’re looking at a space in the Temescal area to do more curation, and hopefully be able to invite more people from out of town.”

“The other exciting thing for us about this opportunity is that it is a collective of collectives, here in Oakland. So it’s not just us who would be in the space but several other groups.”

“It still reflects our spirit, how we intend to be in spaces, engaging alternatively, without a big output of money. We found freedom in not doing that. It’s very specific to this opportunity, which is not set at all, but it’s a nice thing to think about.”

Among the advantages of such a move, they say, is the chance to become part of a touring network, while providing ongoing workshops and rehearsal room — “affordable open space for people to not just show work but develop.”

With or without a permanent space, SALTA’s second year is poised to expand. In April, the collective travels to the East Coast to co-curate an evening with New York’s AUNTS, another dance-performance collective (and an early inspiration), and to take part in an international symposium in Montreal on alternative models of curation in the performing arts. They’re already networking with other likeminded groups along the route, like Montreal’s Wants&Needs and the Centre for Feminist Pedagogy.

And, for the first time, they’re making a piece of their own together: an experience they call “pretty amazing and crazy.” As a process it’s also, needless to say, “as collaborative as possible.” SALTA moves in collaboration.

“Somehow we end up having this momentum. There’s this ease that just happens. We definitely work hard but with joy, I think. All of a sudden we’re rolling really fast.”

A feast for the nonsenses


THEATER Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is probably better known for its riotous Parisian opening (back in 1896) than for the play itself. The profanity it leveled against the city’s crème de la crème, beginning with its famous opening incantation, “Merdre!” — not exactly a word but dirty-sounding enough to precipitate a violent revolt long before the final curtain — broke open the doors of the WC on so-called polite society. As it turned out, no one was really keen or able to close them again.

Jarry, a papa of Dada, died desperately poor and unknown a decade later, but his work and life remained an inspiration and touchstone to the avant-garde. Indeed, his best known work, Ubu Roi, is an absurdist play avant la lettre, as the French say, anticipating the luminous assaults on convention by Beckett, Ionesco, Dürrenmatt, Albee, Havel, and others. Ultimately, it is surely Ubu‘s willful nonsense — a refusal to accept the strictures not just of traditional drama, or the mores of the time, but of the very sense of reality propagated and regimented by the dominant society — that made the play (and Jarry) so deeply offensive to most, and so deeply exciting to some.

Still, it isn’t clear what the merits of a play like Ubu might be for a contemporary audience, culturally steeped in merdre of all kinds and pretty blasé about it. The Cutting Ball Theater’s current production, based on a new translation by artistic director Rob Melrose, offers some tantalizing suggestions in its detailed take on Jarry’s comical excesses. Helmed by Moscow-born, Baltimore-based director Yury Urnov, the dream world of the play comes slyly refracted through a decidedly contemporary San Francisco lens, in the form of a sleekly stylish modern-day kitchen (designed by Cutting Ball associate Michael Locher), in and from which all the action arises.

Arranged in the semi-round, with the audience on three sides, the kitchen setting makes an immediate sense as the center of the gluttonous bourgeois world, and not least because the playful dialogue, alternately grand and obtuse, suggests it already with its saucy mixing of food and fecal language. Urnov and cast have great fun in exploring the place, manipulating the mobile islands and cabinets, searching out its nooks and corners, and reveling in the foodie possibilities it presents (to the occasional light splattering of those audience members seated nearest).

Played with a robust appetite, devil-may-care insouciance, and artful humor by Cutting Ball’s David Sinaiko, the titular Father Ubu is a scatological rogue, a loving husband, a pitiless plotter, and naturally enough an esteemed state official: high-ranking officer and right hand to Polish King Wenceslas (a duly puffed up William Boynton). In the role of Lady Macbeth to her too contented, weak-livered husband, Mother Ubu (played with a persuasive mix of impetuous greed and voluptuous innocence by Ponder Goddard) convinces him to set his sights a little higher than the refrigerator. Ubu soon obliges, drawing a small band of conspirators (ensemble members Boynton, Nathaniel Justiniano, Marilet Martinez, and Andrew P. Quick) into his gamesmanship — with help from Mother Ubu, who anoints each co-conspirator solemnly with a dash of water from the tip of a toilet brush.

The coup succeeds initially but things soon go awry, as the deposed Queen (a scrappy Martinez) and her intrepid son, the heretofore sulky Bougrelas (a bounding, amusingly campy Justiniano), fight back.

While the kitchen theme develops rather organically (if also in unexpected ways) from the text, it also stands as a kind of stylistic conceit — a small but deliberate dose of realism in a fantastical comedy of outrageous, yet also domestic, proportions. Its surfaces may shine with the absurdity of a geopolitical food fight, but the motivations and details of the plot are very much in sync with an everyday ruthlessness and regret.

Meanwhile, the plot itself fractures by the second half of the play, as things get truly surreal, abandoning all pretense to linear storytelling. This tonal and aesthetic shift comes nicely registered in the flexible playing style, as Father and Mother Ubu discover they have inherited a realm after all — one they would have thought unreal only a short time before. *


Through March 9

Thu, 7:30pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm (also Sat, 2pm); Sun, 5pm, $10-50

Exit on Taylor

277 Taylor, SF


Expose yourself to art


THEATER It takes a playwright of particular boldness to forgo text entirely in deference to movement and music. But in addition to the formal choices made in her Untitled Feminist Show, eminent New York downtown theater maker Young Jean Lee also pursues a theme (flagged by her “un-title”) that stubbornly remains as controversial as ever: the politics and pleasures of female empowerment. This theme plays out starkly, without clothes and without shame, over the course of an hour-long romp that will make its Bay Area premiere this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Conceived and directed by Lee, with choreography by Faye Driscoll (another prominent New York artist whose You’re Me ran at CounterPULSE last March), Untitled Feminist Show is just one of the latest of Lee’s willfully provocative, consistently witty pieces. She and her Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company have made a national reputation by reaching for the most uncomfortable subjects, producing a set of humorous, audacious, experimental plays about race, sex, family, religion — great taboo regions normally shrouded in prickly mythology, limited by official debate, or otherwise smothered by good intentions.

Her works include Straight White Men, an exploration of success in contemporary American society; The Shipment, her “black-identity politics show”; Church, investigating American-brand Christianity through the structure of a church service; and the fierce, zany, and dis-Orienting Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven (produced locally by Crowded Fire in 2011) in which, drawing on her own Korean American roots, the fractured perspectives and sacrosanct traditions of an American minority serve a master narrative about a young white couple’s banal relationship.

YBCA’s presentation of Untitled Feminist Show comes, not coincidentally, as the organization transitions under its new leadership. Deborah Cullinan, who succeeded Ken Foster as YBCA’s executive director in September, was the longtime executive director of Intersection for the Arts. She has a well-deserved reputation for turning that esteemed arts organization around from hard times after she took over in 1996. YBCA’s director of performing arts, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, was a successful Oakland-based artist and activist when he took over from Angela Mattox (now running PICA in Portland) in 2012.

As longtime associates in the local arts scene, both of whom have been exceptionally community-oriented advocates for the arts, Cullinan and Joseph together promise a bold redrawing of the lines at YBCA. They recently sat down to speak with me about the vision they share for a 21st century arts organization — including the development of something they call the creative ecosystem — and where the work of an artist like Young Jean Lee fits into it.


SF Bay Guardian How are you settling in, after a couple of months and a couple of years now, respectively? And what are these creative ecosystems?

Deborah Cullinan Where I’m at: I’m still listening, learning—frankly a little astonished. I was, what, three blocks away? And my predecessor Ken Foster was one of my closest work friends; Bamuthi another one. I had no idea how much goes on here. It’s just abundant. The creative ecosystem is something Marc dreamed up, and certainly wooed me with. It’s something the two of us, and everybody here, considers to be a way we can think about a contemporary arts center in this century.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph The day that this feature runs will be my second anniversary. My last work [red, black & GREEN: a blues] was commissioned here, and premiered here. I interviewed for this position three days after the premiere. That last work was built around an integrated, documentary process of asking public intellectuals, doers, activists of all stripes—and by activists I don’t mean by vocation but in the purest sense of the word—to contemplate a question and create a physical response. The result, in terms of making art but also in terms of my personal relationships (the way that community might interact with an artistic process), was something that I essentially adapted and created here.

Our community engagement program is a curatorial department. It doesn’t function as a traditional department in that it’s not supplementary. They are agitators; they are intentional. They make space, as opposed to supplementing work. Their gig is not to cue up the Q&A after a play. [It’s] ultimately about the cultivation of relationships.

So that’s what the creative ecosystem is. It’s an adjunct to my own artistic process; it’s a scheme and structure that works within the infrastructure that we have at Yerba Buena Center. What we do is we curate small groups, somewhere between 30 and 50, around key questions that artists are driving. We bring these folks together in salon spaces to watch work together. So, for Young Jean Lee, the questions are: “What is on the other side of your body’s joy?” and “What is on the other side of your body’s shame?” The group has been together for about a year. And when we present the work, they’ll create in our theater lobby physical responses — performative, immersive, antagonistic, and also very vulnerable responses to those questions of joy and shame in the body.

Having piloted a group already (which was contemplating futurity and soul), and now working with body politics, we’re going to add a layer of the onion every year, so that in the coming years we’ll have hundreds if not thousands of folks operating on our campus not just as audience members but as agents within artistic inquiry, so that while we’re here it’s a place of thinking and doing and not just watching.

SFBG Who makes up this group?

MBJ They come from all over the educational spectrum, and all over the vocational spectrum. That too is by design. We wanted at least 10 different practices in each of these groups. These groups aren’t made up of artists exclusively, and ideally artists are in the minority. What we’re creating is a platform by which an arts space might be a hub for diverse intellectual activity. It’s art-framed, but it’s not necessarily art-centered.

DC I’m excited to see us pursue not an either/or definition of what an arts center is — or what art is — but a both/and. What we’re trying to suggest here is that the more we consider what the art is doing, who’s gathering around it or who’s making it, the more valuable that art itself is. The community engagement structure Marc talked about suggests that if you don’t have an active curatorial arm asking, “Who’s not here still?” and “What don’t we know yet?” then the curatorial structure is static. I think putting things together in this way means it’s much more of a circle, and it’s much more inclusive.

SFBG Where does Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show come in?

MBJ There’s an arc around relationship to the body—in a way that’s not so much about identity; I think it’s more about empathy and vulnerability. These broad themes of joy and shame are more visceral than intellectual. The alchemy of transformation, the movement of molecules in a room, that’s currency to me. An artistic experience is more valuable if I feel my chemistry changing. So I look for art and artists that demonstrate a similar value system. Myra Melford’s work; Dohee Lee’s work; all of the artists in our New Frequencies music festival — these are artists who demonstrate that same sensibility: the attack of inquiry with brilliant intellectual design, but also a fierceness and unflinching-ness around personal transformation.

The work I subscribe to is work where I feel an artist being transformed, with a magic or sorcery around the ability to have personal transformation be a conduit for collective transformation. I think that’s at work [in Untitled Feminist Show]. And in terms of an intentional community design, this is what we foreground. *


Thu/30-Sat/1, 8pm, $30-$35

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Lam Research Theater

700 Howard, SF

In light and shadow


THEATER Last week’s performance of the shadow play Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu, at Fort Mason’s Southside Theater, began with a blessing in disguise.

As members of the cast and of the Aynu community gathered onstage ahead of the performance, four Aynu men in black shirts and traditional headbands and necklaces prepared to sing and dance. As the elder of the four explained, shadow master Larry Reed, founder and longtime artistic director of Shadowlight Productions, had asked if the Aynu folks in attendance could offer a short blessing to start things off.

“I didn’t have a chance to tell Larry, we don’t do blessings,” confessed the man. “But we welcome people. And this is one of our most sacred dance stories; it’s about family,” he explained, adding that, with it, “we welcome you to our part of the world.”

So began a rare, gently moving, and altogether charming encounter three years in the making. Co-produced by Shadowlight and Tokyo-based shadow theater company Urotsutenoyako Bayangans, Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu brought together traditional Aynu artists and musicians with masters of the shadow theater form in the US and Japan to share a mythological world at once distinctive and not so far from our own.

Adapted by OKI and Koyano Tetsuro, and directed by Larry Reed (the Bay Area’s master of a unique and potently cinematic style of modern shadow theater), the Aynu creation myth came to life on a stage and screen populated by a revolving and enrapturing set of images and figures. Some were drawn, some were embodied by actors in masks, some walked out before the screen onto the darkened lip of the stage, like living, breathing, three-dimensional shadows. And just as the imagery contained a surprising set of rich hues amid its black-and-white scheme, the English narration came generously colored with snatches of Japanese and Aynu.

Heavy in the mix was a transporting score created by a wonderful pairing of masterful musicians. Accomplished musician and recording artist OKI (who, in addition to adapting the story, also oversaw the art direction) provided live accompaniment on a pair of tonkori, the traditional plucked stringed instrument of the Aynu people, as well as offering the first springing, playful tones of the night on a mukkuri (a wooden mouth harp). Meanwhile, in entrancing, syncopated rhythms, the four members of the female vocal group Marewrew channeled the traditional Aynu musical form of upopo.

The Aynu (also spelled Ainu) are a small community of people living in Hokaiddo, Japan’s northern and second largest island. Indigenous to this area of morthern Japan as well as to nearby Russia, the Aynu have a culture that stretches back more than 3,000 years. Having faced centuries of oppression, including forced assimilation, their culture remains little known even inside Japan, and their language (which has no written form) is at risk of disappearing entirely, with fewer than 15 native speakers left alive.

A large proportion of these were on hand in the creation and delivery of Poro Oyna. The title, which means “the great story,” refers to the hero’s journey of Aynu Rakkur, the most powerful of all the gods. He is also a god who “smells like a human being,” born (as we see in the opening scene) from the incendiary coupling of his father, the god of thunder, and his mother, a great elm tree. Indeed, Aynu Rakkur is considered the progenitor of the human race.

In ensemble member Kawamura Koheisai’s impressive Balinese-inspired shadow designs, Aynu Rakkur’s shadow self is a black and white portrait of grace and resolve, a noble profile protruding from a finely drawn latticework of hair. He’s tough, goes his own way, and has a sly sense of humor. He lives beside Kaikaiunt, a sacred lake and the source of all life. One day a growling, cockeyed monster with a fearsome under bite and an unpronounceable name (rattled off in a long string of Aynu sibilants actually delighting to the ear) steals the Sun Goddess and plunges the world into darkness and a perpetual sleep from which many humans never awake.

As other lesser gods try and fail to wrest the sun from the clutches of the monster, Aynu Rakkur bides his time, doggedly carving away at something that turns out to be “a bear for a flat screen TV.” Finally taking umbrage at finding his front door pinned down with arrows and spears, he seeks out the monster and the two of them tumble deep down into the Underworld, where they battle for some six years.

The happy ending might have been expected, but it came, under the circumstances, with what felt too like an auspicious beginning.

“The people come back, the sun returns,” rejoices the narrator, “our sacred power is getting stronger every day.” *


Art-ic blast


THEATER New York early last week was as cold as Muazzez. True, I’ve never been to Muazzez, but a reputable source called that asteroid “so cold it is a frozen bull roar,” which sounds about right.

“They lied to me about the reality of things here on Muazzez,” began said source, a nondescript speaker seated at a bare wood desk. “About the foundations of these, their basis, their fundament, the profound bottom of things.”

There’s a glass of water on the desk, some loose paper.

“I am an Abandoned Cigar Factory (or ACF),” he goes on to explain, “groaning in the dunes near the settlement of Culpepper.”

The unexpected narrator at the bare wood desk sat in a bare white room, with the incongruous name of the Chocolate Factory (in fact, a terrific theater in Long Island City). The play, called Muazzez, originated as a collection of short stories (all set on asteroids) by Mac Wellman, a writer better known as a playwright and a leading light of the American experimental scene (and a prolific one too, despite receiving few productions in the Bay Area).

Performed with a forthright, faintly odd, wholly captivating precision by longtime collaborator Steve Mellor, Muazzez (directed by Wellman) is an intoxicating and deceptively subdued flight of language and weirdness whose cumulative power, over the course of its brisk 40 minutes, is hard to describe and harder to shake off. Its surface meanings can seem strange, obscure, dryly amusing, even piffling — still, there are things shifting down below in some grim molten core. It was a feeling similar to that produced by one of James Tate’s poems.

Muazzez set the tone well. Expecting the unexpected became second nature over the course of last week’s sampling of shows from PS 122’s COIL (which presented Muazzez), as well as from the Public Theater’s Under the Radar, and Ben Pryor’s American Realness — all together just three (!) of the lively and significant New York festivals that now swirl each January around the annual meeting of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (or “A-PAP,” as it’s usually pronounced).

Bees are in short supply these days, so better to say the presenting industry’s international confab is a kind of honey pot attracting bears in the performing arts world, by which we mean the artists wrapped in faux fur coats and puffy jackets against the bracing, angry wind and plummeting temperatures of last week’s “arctic blast” (itself just another signal from the larger natural order of things that humanity is wildly off course — or right on target, I guess, depending on your end goal.)

This context heightened the urgency folded into Muazzez‘s extraterrestrial transmission. And there were other, comparable transmissions, including one from the future, articulated in the person and voice of TV’s Captain Kirk. Co-presented by COIL and the New Ohio Theatre, An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk takes place on a stage inhabited by a central flat screen TV on wheels and two larger screens on either side. Onto the center screen comes the iconic image of TV’s starship commander and over-actor par excellence.

Suddenly he speaks — in a funny but vaguely disconcerting stagger of assembled speech bites, culled from the character’s entire lexicon, the actor’s “body” of work. The captain has been commandeered. Someone or something else from beyond (beyond this time and beyond language) is speaking to us through him. The transmission, spelled out on the far screens, comes in segments or “chapters,” and has a philosophical cast: a discussion of the differences between art and science. Its purpose, we are told, is to convey a message to us from the future, which alone knows where we are headed. The message itself (the beautifully written text is by Joe Diebes; the excellent audio-visual scheme by Rob Ramirez) is prefaced and forestalled, in a half-teasing fashion, by a discussion of some basic terms.

The performance’s sole human figure, meanwhile — other than two-dimensional James T. — is an expressionless Japanese woman (an imposingly restrained Mari Akita) who moves the wheeled screen slowly about the stage, illustrates a point or two with a few simple movements, and, in one deceptively incongruous moment, picks up a microphone to deliver (in subtitled Japanese) a monologue about coming to the United States and falling obsessively into the world of drag queens and female impersonation.

Hilarious yet eerie, playful yet purposeful, oblique yet precise, conceiver-director Phil Soltanoff’s An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk proved a dialectical delight; and in its teasing manner and final indirect plea for some small but profound transcendence, it was, pardon the expression, fascinating.

In another wonderfully estranging but altogether earthbound offering, COIL teamed up with American Realness and New York City Players (the latter seen at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last February with its co-production of Early Plays by Eugene O’Neill) to co-present writer-director Tina Satter’s offbeat, sharp-footed House of Dance (in association with Satter’s own company, Half Straddle, and the Abrons Art Center).

Set in a small New England tap studio among four fractious, serious, and seriously oddball tap dance competitors (played with a combination of understated delivery and irresistible flair by Jess Barbagallo, Elizabeth DeMent, Jim Fletcher, and Paul Pontrelli), the 60-minute House of Dance trumps the hackneyed pomp of reality television with the heightened banality of its obscure, ego-invested lives — who do in fact dance the hell out of their tap shoes.

These startling moments evoked a real joy too, a flight from obscurity into a greatness no championship trophy could hope to convey — at once so light, so personal, yet communal, it made one realize this piece could only make sense as a live performance. And feel sorry for those people who did not venture out this night, but stayed indoors against the howling cold. *


Hole Lotta Love: Saturday night at SOMArts!


A pit under the floor becomes a wellspring for 100 performances over six hours at SOMArts this Saturday night
There’s a hole under the gallery floor at SOMArts. And art abhors a vacuum.

This century-old sand casting pit rests under a trap door, a leftover of the 17,000-square-foot venue’s industrial past. But this weekend the hatch is lifted and the hole becomes a generative site of time-based art making. Six hours will see more than 150 local artists delivering two-minute performances “for the hole” in a mini-marathon like no other.

This fourth iteration of SOMArts’ 100 Performances for the Hole features a rowdy roster of artists working their inspiration from across a wide spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds: Guillermo Gómez-Peña with Anja Flower and Jacques LeFemme; Alec White and Baruch Porras-Hernandez; Paige Tighe; Annie Danger; Peter L. Stein; Trina Merry’s Art Alive Gallery; La Chica Boom, DavEnd and Craig Calderwood; Sara Kraft; Mitsu Okubo; the list goes on — and on.
It also includes a not-too-pricey VIP lounge featuring complimentary beer from the Ninkasi Brewing Company.

If you can’t be there in person, SOMArts will stream the event live on its website (at least those portions suitable for broadcast under BAVC standards), and public access station SF Commons (Comcast Channel 76, Astound Channel 30) will also broadcast.
100 Performances for the Hole

Sat/4, 5:58–midnight, $12-$25
934 Brannan, SF

One of us


THEATER Take away their unconventional looks and odd talents, and the eponymous carnival performers of Freaks — Tod Browning’s classic carnie horror movie — were not so unusual. Ordinary folks, for the most part, with ordinary problems and everyday virtues. The title secretly pointed to the monstrous souls of their “normal-looking” but heartless colleagues, corrupt to the point of betrayal and murder.

A similar logic is at work in British playwright Anthony Neilson’s droll sideshow, Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness — now enjoying a first-rate Bay Area premiere courtesy of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players — if only in the sense that here too looks can and do deceive; that the truth can prove an elusive, and illusive, thing.

Very funny and beautifully staged with a whimsical, vaguely mysterious mien by director Beth Wilmurt, Edward Gant trades on the gap between our expectations of real life and the fantasies plied by artist-tradesmen like the title character. He’s a strange showman in top hat and tails (played with a nice balance of the corporeal and ethereal by a vacant-eyed Brian Herndon) who heads up a traveling band of scrappy Victorian-era players: innocent Jack Dearlove (Ryan Drummond), restive Nicholas Ludd (Patrick Kelly Jones), and ennui-laden Madame Poulet (Sarah Moser, rounding out an exceptional ensemble).

The farfetched universe these working-class actors conjure from the back of their roving circus truck (in scenic designer Nina Ball’s handsomely evocative construction) might seem like the most preposterous fluff. Gant is worldly enough, however, to know “the truth of life lies least in the facts.” It’s the illusions that count. And in the hands of these showmen they are ribald, wacky, sometimes gruesome stuff.

Hence we come to take seriously, at least a little seriously, the story of a miserable young woman (Moser, done up in a gorgeously macabre, beaded beard) whose massive pimples divulge pearls. These end up appropriated by her evil, good-looking sister (Kelly Jones in a rich “Italian” accent and one of costume designer Christine Crook’s wonderful period getups). And although they also win her a husband (a diabolically dashing Drummond), he turns out to be wayward (not surprising in itself until you see whom he runs off with).

We also get treated to the sad yet hysterical tale of a bereaved fellow (Drummond) who travels to the peaks of Nepal in search of relief from the memory of his deceased fiancée — but the guru (Kelly Jones) he locates to do the job makes something of a botch of it.

These two stories comprising this sleek, uninterrupted 100-minute production come bridged by two songs, arranged in four-part harmony, and include unexpected encounters and asides with soiled teddy bears and other wildlife of the imagination. The “real” story, meanwhile, unfolds among the band of players, as the tensions and frustrations of their life on the road take their toll, leading to discord, dissension, and revelation.

Although a gentler offering than much in playwright Neilson’s generally disquieting oeuvre, Edward Gant continues a line of attack by the dramatist (and often director) on the complacencies of traditional stage realism and their corollaries in everyday life. (The titles of two of his plays, 2006’s Realism and 2013’s Narrative, highlight the terrain pretty neatly.)

Edward Gant also marks the impressive directorial debut of Shotgun company member and well-known Bay Area actor Wilmurt (co-creator, with Mark Jackson, and co-star of 2011’s memorable The Companion Piece at Z Space; and last seen at Shotgun in Jackson’s production of Woyzeck). The director title may be new, but for those familiar with Wilmurt’s admirable comedic and musical abilities — the way she melds influences from vaudeville to Viewpoints into an understated, balletic form of physical humor and wry between-the-lines commentary — her stamp is all over the strong ensemble playing and choice details of this pearl of a production. *



Through Jan 11

Wed-Thu, 7pm; Fri-Sat, 8pm; Sun, 5pm, $20-$35

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Band practice


THEATER We meet above the waterfall in Yerba Buena Gardens. It’s cold, getting dark. Everyone seems relieved to get inside the YBCA theater next door. We’ll talk here for the next hour, standing around a worktable with a gold lamé circle spread over it, before the band heads downstairs to a windowless rehearsal space in the deep well of the building.

Nicole Kidman Is Fucking Gorgeous is the band formerly known as the artists John Foster Cartwright, Maryam Rostami, and Mica Sigourney. In fact, NKIFG is more and less than a band — it’s a conceit, a project title, a series of performances, maybe a forthcoming album? (They don’t know yet.) None of its members actually plays an instrument, as far as I can tell. But they do compose songs, choreography, and objects that they employ in an unfolding series of situations they as readily call parties as performances. And they will have live music infusing their show this weekend at CounterPULSE, courtesy of ongoing collaborator and perennial inspiration Deep Teens.

Embracing a loopy goth spirit, the triumvirate, which has its origins in a performance two years ago at dancer-choreographer Liz Tenuto’s apartment during the Home Theater Festival, takes its send-ups of contemporary dance and performance art tropes seriously. And for all its insouciance and nonchalant humor, the project is at some level equally as much about the crisis of three artists (two of them well-known drag queens, the other a DJ and videographer) finding a way to live and work in today’s severely stratified San Francisco. It also draws eagerly, if obscurely, from their own private lives.

As for the name, its members like to say what they do is defined by both the presence and absence of someone or something called Nicole Kidman. To hear them talk about it, Kidman starts to sound like a key swallowed by a red herring.

“Who cares about Nicole Kidman?” notes Sigourney, with paradoxical delight. “But people do care about her! She’s the perfect vessel.”

What else should you know about Nicole Kidman Is Fucking Gorgeous? The answer to that question took a rambling, circuitous form. It was ultimately put to a Tarot deck set in the middle of the table.

Mica Sigourney So the frame of this reading is around getting at the truths and dispelling the illusions around this project for you. [The first card is] the Seven of Cups, which is about illusion [versus] reality, and picking out the truth. Right now, all of us are [experiencing] an abundance of emotions, an overwhelming amount.

Maryam Rostami Cups are heart energy, heart chakra, love, emotions.

[skipping ahead]

MS So what we need to manifest in our next step in this project — see, I don’t know if this is telling us what to tell Rob.

MR No, I think it is, I think this is great.

MS We are students of creativity…

MR And magic…

MS So we’re not masters of this yet. We’re still learning. Page of Wands is also about adventure and following bliss really. And our final outcome is the Ten of Swords. So it means we’re being stabbed in the back!

MR The Ten of Swords looks like this: It’s all of our fears pointing toward one single spot. The Ten is when the next step is coming. We’ve reached the end of something and it’s the next thing. The Moon, I feel, has to do with a difficult birthing process. The Moon is about traversing these murky emotional territories, which we have done together and we continue to do. I think this represents our fear.

MS Can I give it a reading too?

MR Yes.

MS Ten being the overabundance of the suit, and Tens being about communication and intellect: The outcome is an overabundance of ideas that sometimes feel like a burden, and are sometimes painful because there are just too many ideas happening. So we’re going to end up with too many ideas. Coupled with the Moon, I’m going to say our final outcome will actually be knowledge that is not measurable by the intellect and is much more intuitive and based in mystery, that is, not easily described by the mind.

MR We’re going to have to dig deeper from all of this. The Ten makes us need to take the next step.

MS And that next step is toward the dark. Well, toward intuition.

MR It is toward intuition. I think that moving toward the more Moon aspects will maybe then inform the next piece.

MS Oh, the moon…

MR Oh, the moon, duh! But this is perfect!

MS The moon is in our piece a lot.

MR Like the actual physical moon.

MS So basically, to clarify things for Rob: The Tarot reading says that we need to dispel some illusions for you. What we need to tell you is that we are about to have a moment of reckoning at this show at which we realize our values and our worth, and our sins. And what’s driving us as a collective is to reap the benefits of a good harvest, as well as learn from each other, and continue to be students of creativity, passion, and magic.

MR Ultimately, not to let our fears get us down and to know that we’re going in the right direction.

MS And this being our final outcome makes me think that maybe you should just know: “The moon.”

John Foster Cartwright The moon.

MS We need to shut up with all our ideas and just be like, the moon.

MR I’m with that. *


Thu/12-Sun/15, 8pm, $20


1310 Mission, SF


Eat your heart out


THEATER Crowd-pleasing can sometimes sound like a put-down — hey, sometimes it is — but it becomes a virtue in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult. The Cornwall-based company (already known locally for Brief Encounter at ACT in 2009 and The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep last winter) has returned to Berkeley Rep with a remounting of its 2003 hit. And it proves as accomplished and intelligent as it is shamelessly entertaining.

Adapted and directed by Kneehigh’s joint artistic director Emma Rice from the triangular love story of Tristan, Yseult, and Mark (a medieval courtly love tale that may well have been the inspiration for the fraught triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur as well as numerous works of art on down, including one of Wagner’s operas), this rousing and continually resourceful production (written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy) uses the multiple versions of the legend as an excuse for a music-fueled formal mélange of influences and references that plumb the wider seas of love in all its forms.

The basic storyline is as follows: Cornwall’s wise King Mark (Kneehigh’s founder and joint artistic director Mike Shepherd) defeats an invasion by Irish interloper Morholt (Craig Johnson) with the help of a mysterious French-speaking knight, Tristan (a dashing Andrew Durand). Charmed by the young man, Mark sends Tristan to find Morholt’s sister, Yseult (a smoldering, violin-wielding Patrycja Kujawska), so that the king might marry her and make amends with Ireland. But Tristan has sustained critical wounds in the battle that leave him fading away on a faraway shore, until he is nursed back to health by a smitten healer — the aforementioned Yseult, naturally. Their mutual attraction turns to discord when Yseult learns she’s just fallen for the man who murdered her beloved brother. But a little love potion, and equal parts sweet wine, solve that issue soon enough.

No longer a virgin, however, Yseult must substitute on the royal wedding night her hymen-ready servant Brangian (Craig Johnson again, hilarious and surprisingly sympathetic in drab drag and sparkling comic timing). The ruse works, and Mark remains happily ignorant of Tristan and Yseult’s liaison until the king’s obsequious servant, Frocin (Giles King), offers proof of the lovers’ deceit and Mark has them (and the nosey, needy Frocin) banished. Too in love with both of them to have them killed yet still too hurt to forgive them, Mark leaves his dagger near where he finds the lovers sleeping in the forest. They awake soon after and reflect on the hurt they’ve caused. They decide to part ways, Tristan taking to the sea and Yseult returning to Mark, whom she has grown to love (if in a mellower way). But the lovers promise to be there for each other when needed.

Years later, as Tristan lies dying from his old wound beside his unloved wife — significantly, also named Yseult but known to the chorus as Whitehands, our mysterious narrator (Carly Bawden) — he asks if the ship sailing into port has a white or black sail (the former means Yseult is aboard, the latter that she is not coming). Consumed with hurt and jealousy, the second Yseult answers negatively, with tragic consequences all around.

That may sound like too much information, but the joy of the production rests in the telling (and the deft performances doing the telling) more than in the tale itself. This is best left a surprise. Suffice to say that the production, set on Berkeley Rep’s large Roda stage with full use of the aisles and other parts of the house, takes supreme advantage of an open aesthetic in which the presence of the audience and the mechanics of the staging are both readily acknowledged and built upon.

Indeed, Rice’s direction is so skillful and subtle that objects, characters, and actions can seem to pop out of nowhere despite an aesthetic that largely does away with hidden stagecraft, preferring to revel in what it reveals — as when, for example, the two lovers down their love potion and sweet wine and drink themselves silly, literally feet-off-the-floor high, dangling from aerial bands hoisted by members of the chorus of the unloved. (The latter is a comical Python-esque troupe of “lovespotters” dressed as proverbial birdwatchers or trainspotters in matching rain ponchos and wool headgear). Meanwhile, a live band (under musical director Ian Ross) casts a deliciously forlorn nightclub atmosphere throughout, including pre-curtain and entr’acte.

That sad-sack chorus, and various supporting characters who get their due here, also flags the thematic breadth of the play: Tristan & Yseult is about love in all its elusiveness and inconstant variety; love that alternately supports and belies the romantic ideal represented by the title characters. At the same time, the serious charm offensive underway points to another, complimentary end: the successful wooing of an audience through the sheer bliss of theatrical virtuosity. *


Through Jan 6, $17.50-$81

Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre

2025 Addison, Berk

Family album


THEATER Forgetting can be a key to understanding, and to freedom. This is something any jazz musician knows. Learning theory, practicing scales, getting to know your instrument and your craft — it’s all prelude to forgetting, to letting go. What comes back to you in the moment, ideally, is deeper than any superficial knowledge. It’s everything behind the music — a life.

A memory play can function similarly, at least it seems to for Margo Hall. The well-known Bay Area actor and director found herself improvising over her own carefully crafted words in the creation of Be Bop Baby — a musical memoir of her remarkable Detroit upbringing under the guiding influence of her musician stepfather Teddy Harris Jr., that Hall says really marks her debut as a playwright (Hall was also one of several actor/co-writers for the 2005 verbatim treatment of the Jonestown tragedy, The People’s Temple).

A world premiere capping Z Space’s 20th anniversary season, Be Bop Baby is set in the busy basement of Hall’s childhood home, which doubled as a rehearsal space for her stepfather — a musical director, composer, arranger, and performer known and respected in both jazz and Motown circles (the latter as, most famously, musical director of the Supremes). There, as well as throughout Detroit’s exceptional musical scene, Hall and her two sisters grew up amid a panoply of musicians, artists, celebrities, and eccentrics.

The basement thus becomes the site of an excavation, filled with colorful characters and anecdotes and brimming with music. Indeed, helping to bring it all to life onstage is a 15-piece jazz orchestra under Marcus Shelby. The acclaimed Bay Area musician-composer — along with dramaturg Nakissa Etemad — collaborated closely on this return to 1960s-70s Detroit, developing arrangements around Hall’s own lyrics and the melody lines she imagined for them.

“Marcus reminds me a lot of my dad,” says Hall, speaking just before a rehearsal last week. “He has a big band; he knows what that means. He understands the discipline of the musicians. Marcus is a guy of tradition. He likes real instruments — I mean all of these things that my stepfather would promote. And he’s just a cool cat, just like my dad, just into the music fulltime; a real, honest, true musician. Growing up with that kind of person really taught me about authenticity and not faking it. I hate to say, ‘You don’t find those people anymore,’ but they sometimes can be a rare breed.”

But even memory, to remain true, can’t always stay fixed. Since the death of her mother in 2000, and Teddy several years later, Hall’s childhood home and its once-vibrant basement have come under a new tenant: Hall’s own, formerly estranged, biological father.

“It’s this crazy thing that happened that I never expected. My real father and my mom divorced 45 years ago. [My biological father is] a free spirit; he’s a totally different character than Teddy. And I found out he moved into Mom and Teddy’s house. Mom and Teddy, that was their house, that was their basement, my mom’s estate, you know, our little two-unit duplex.”

That development found its way into the emotional landscape of the play itself, giving it a more complex dramatic makeup, but also leaving Hall at a loss as to how to channel it all. Staging this kind of dynamic seemed to defy the manicured sentences she had set down on paper. Hall found herself unable to even recall them — something unusual for the experienced actor in her — as if Hall the playwright were someone she had yet to figure out.

“I had written all this text, and I couldn’t remember it. It was very strange. So I said, ‘Can I just improv a little it on top of this text so that it really feels authentic?’ I became the actor, and I felt, ‘I don’t like what that playwright wrote!'” she laughs. “Was I censoring myself? Was I trying to be perfect in the writing? I had to figure out how to take that text and make it my own — even though I wrote it. Now, the more we do it, I do say a lot from the text. But it’s a freedom that I have now, where I can be more authentic in the moment.”

As for her ongoing relationship with her biological father, Hall credits Be Bop Baby with strengthening her resolve to pursue an understanding there.

“It’s definitely made me realize that I do need to pursue my relationship with my real father more than I have,” concludes Hall. “And he’s a wonderful, fascinating man. I could write a whole play about him too,” she says with conviction, before an afterthought makes its way quietly to the surface. “Maybe I will?” *


Wed/20-Thu/21, 7pm; Fri/22-Sat/23, 8pm, $25-75

Z Space

450 Florida, SF


Cul de sac


Two mothers are coping with grief — and becoming friends — in a room at a Bakersfield community center. Ruth (Nora El Samahy) is still not at the point of speaking the depth of her burden, and instead chirps on about the horror visited on her murdered child with a kind of fierce, enforced casualness, fueled by too much coffee. Mary (Catherine Castellanos), meanwhile, her emotional turmoil welling just beneath the surface, has a stronger bearing — and a peculiar lilt indicative of someone who has only recently heard the sound of her own voice.

“My son is alive,” avers Mary. “I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s true,” she tells a skeptical Ruth. “But he’s spinning inside a very big tornado,” she explains, before catching herself. “Oh. That’s very dramatic…”

It is dramatic. But then her son, Isaac (Sean San José), a onetime child faith healer turned junkie drifter, is an extraordinary person, named with equally telling Biblical import. Sacrificed without his consent to the extravagant will of his parents — including a wily Pentecostal preacher of the Central Valley (Donald E. Lacy Jr.) who sports a red tail under his Western gear — the once gifted Isaac has an ambivalent relationship with the open road that set him free but left him rootless, lost, dogged by his past. Spurning pleas by his drug-addled girlfriend (Maria Candelaria) to be healed by him, he is now headed backward down that road, haunted by her death from a subsequent overdose, in search of his estranged brother (Brian Rivera) and some kind of redemption. It’s a road that leads him to the Golden Gate, as far west as you can get, and maybe a step too far.

Mary’s deflating note of modesty at the top of the play, amid the outsized proportions of her character’s almost classical stature, not only produces a gentle laugh. It marks something wise and alluring in the work of Luis Alfaro, which resurfaces with varied success throughout Campo Santo’s production of Alleluia, the Road, a world-premiere collaboration with the playwright now up at Intersection for the Arts. That amounts to a built-in, meta-theatrical commentary on the epic proportions of the vernacular, and the normally unsung lives that speak it. (Part of the Triangle Lab’s Califas project and festival, summoning and celebrating voices of the Central Valley, the play takes place amid the faces and recorded stories of an accompanying gallery exhibition.)

It’s a knowing style, mixing pop references and inflated prose, that lends itself naturally to fourth-wall breaks, asides, or magical realism; and it reflects throughout a certain ethnic “double consciousness” (to borrow W.E.B. DuBois’s famous term) alive and present in the “real” world. For the characters seem aware at times of the vastly different cultural terrain they occupy simultaneously and straddle almost surreally — including the narrative tropes of the dominant culture, as well as a set of more familial narratives rooted in some mélange of Latino, African American, and indigenous traditions.

This double consciousness in the writing is redolent of a similar tragi-comical tension in the plays of Octavio Solis, for example, a Campo Santo stalwart. Or those of Richard Montoya — whose American Night premiered in the summer at California Shakespeare Theater as part of the same Califas project of Intersection’s Triangle Lab (a community-expanding initiative of Intersection and Cal Shakes). But it does not necessarily make for a strong play, and neither American Night or Alleluia, the Road is very persuasive as reflections of real life, or even magical-real ones. (Montoya’s The River, which premiered last April, while uneven, was a more inspired outing penned specifically for Campo Santo, also as part of the Califas project.)

Among other problems, the narrative twists and turns in Road feel too well trod already, and too bumpy in terms of characterization or backstory. (These are characters who speak their complexes and motivations with too much ready articulation, leaving little for the audience to interpret or intuit.) At the same time, the use of a choir of voices, bursting now and then into some classic spirituals, tends to feel thematically heavy-handed rather than rousing and meaningful. Aesthetically, instead of genuinely forward leaning, the play ends up seeming derivative of stronger Campo Santo productions of the past.

Directed (like Night) by Cal Shakes’ Jonathan Moscone, the action unfurls along a runway playing area, two small stages on either end, and around the audience, but for all its structured intimacy is only sporadically effective. Castellanos and San José deliver the strongest, most intricately crafted performances — and indeed their characters are the more detailed ones. San José also offers a volcanic monologue that’s a highlight of the evening. There is a listless and forced feeling to the performances overall, however, which reinforces the sense that this road does not lead anywhere very new.

Who speaks, who is heard, and the power of the word — a major theme connecting not only the stories in Alleluia, the Road but those of the larger Califas project of which it is a part — is a perennially important, and potent, subject for drama. But our ability to connect with it in Road, at least, may require that it be pitched in a new key. *


Extended through Nov 23

Thu-Sun, 8pm, $30

Intersection for the Arts

925 Mission, SF


The horror


THEATER Just last night a cordial campfire conversation with a hobgoblin and a menorah tumbled precipitously from the obscenity of rents in the city to the cold hard facts of our existence on this planet. Halloween was not yet over, and the really scary stuff had already returned.

You don’t have to be a librarian to have gathered something of the unlikeness, the arbitrariness, the inconsequence of an individual life measured against the eons of time and the vastness of space — but let’s say you are a librarian. What would get under your skin more than this? Maybe one thing: the fact that in addition to the obvious indifference of the universe, existence comes with the seemingly unnecessary cruelty visited on us by our fellow human beings.

Maybe one more thing, too: a library book returned 113 years overdue.

Both of these unpalatable situations gnaw at the bookish protagonist in Glen Berger’s 2001 play, Underneath the Lintel, currently enjoying a revival courtesy of American Conservatory Theater. Our protagonist, the play’s sole character, is a garrulous but faintly troubled librarian from Holland (played by an endearingly geeky David Strathairn, in trim graying beard and neat but comfy wool suit). In a makeshift lecture in an old rented theater, the librarian-turned-sleuth presents his remarkable findings concerning the possible reality behind an ancient myth. Along the way, we discover a gradual dovetailing of his own increasingly unmoored career and that of his subject: the fabled Wandering Jew, condemned to bear silent witness to history after a show of callousness before a desperate stranger at his door (who turned out to be Christ on the march to Golgotha, wouldn’t you know it).

The play — whose title refers to the upper portion of a doorway, the regretful place from which an ancient cobbler turned his back on his fellow man and our modern-day librarian dismissed the only woman he ever loved — works a tension between competing frameworks. Bounded by our little lives with their precious but small concerns, the play suggests, we too easily miss the bigger picture and stumble accordingly. But even when confronted with the worst of fate, the baleful immensity of history, or our own actions, we also carry on despite all the universe may throw at us.

Of course, the Geary stage is almost as vast as the aforementioned universe. Director Carey Perloff and her actor work hard to see this pocket-sized piece expand as much as possible to fill it. Strathairn’s fastidious and childlike librarian moves nervously, enthusiastically around the stage, scaling a tall freestanding ladder one moment, rummaging around a set of files the next, or stalking the second-tier storage area at the back of scenic designer Nina Ball’s atmospherically dingy, drippy, haze-filled bric-a-brac set.

The only time this nervous energy seems to go too far is in the final moment, when the librarian exits the stage in an awkward physical underscoring of a key line, wandering out who-knows-where. But Berger’s charming mystery, while ultimately affirming, has a haunted, melancholy streak running through it — a creeping pessimism at the edge of the firelight that is its most provoking aspect, and saves it from being purely sentimental.



The father of Paris’s Théâtre du Grand Guignol, French playwright Oscar Méténier (1859–1913), rests in pieces — or at least the pieces he left for the stage; naturalistic horror plays that were themselves full of body parts strewn hither and thither. Thither, in this case, has been renamed “the splatter zone” for playwright Carl Grose and director Mitchell Altieri’s macabre comedy homage to the legendary Parisian theater and genre (a specialty of local company Thrillpeddlers, whose own “Shocktoberfest” is also up and running not far away).

But though audiences in the first rows sit dutifully in plastic rain ponchos, the gore and the titillation and the laughs are surprisingly spare. Grand Guignol‘s opening night, moreover, was a rocky horror show, to say the least, plagued by delays, poor acoustics, slippery pacing, slightly inept execution (of executions, and other bloody deeds), and a storyline almost as mangled as the bodies it left in its wake. It has a game cast, however, and while variously successful at projecting their voices above the atmospheric sound design, its members deliver some nicely tailored performances under the circumstances, which are messy in ways intended and otherwise. *


Extended through Nov 23

Tue-Sat, 8pm (check website for matinees); Sun, 2pm, $20-150

Geary Theater

415 Geary, SF

The art of dialogue


THEATER Maybe there’s no better way to grasp your own time and place than by leaving it — in this case, trading San Francisco for Wroclaw, Poland, and Pacific Standard Time for a whiplashing case of jet lag. Wroclaw was home base for a little more than a week during the recent Dialog Festival (Oct. 11–18;, which was in its seventh season as a major biennial international theater festival created and programmed by Krystyna Meissner, a force in Polish and European theater for decades.

Joining a cohort of Americans, including several from the Bay Area, most of whom had been invited to the festival by the Center for International Theatre Development (an organization with which I’ve recently become formally associated), we were treated to work by artists from Poland, Germany, Holland, South Africa, Rwanda, Estonia, Iran, Canada, Mexico, Spain, and Hungary. The topic this year, “Violence makes the world go ’round,” was a proposition answered variously and often ingeniously by the productions on offer. The best of these expertly delivered that consciousness-altering blow you want from theater or any art form, as well as much food for thought — not only about the reality of violence in the world today, but the place in it all of the artist, the individual, the public, the spectator, and the theater itself.

For now, one example will have to suffice: a staging of British playwright Sarah Kane’s 1998 play, Cleansed, by Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski. This was actually one of two separate stagings of the same play in the festival this year; the other was by renowned Dutch director Johan Simons, working with Germany’s Münchner Kammerspiele, who offered three Kane plays in a single evening. (It was also one of two pieces from Warlikowski at the festival, the other being his latest work, Warsaw Cabaret.)

Warlikowski is widely known as one of the masters of the Polish theater today, and his staging of the Kane play is still in demand 12 years after its controversial premiere in 2001. Seeing this legendary production was an extraordinary opportunity, and its impact was in no way diminished by the hype.

Cleansed comprises a discrete set of scenes in which a sadistic “doctor” named Tinker perpetrates vicious humiliations and atrocities on a group of inmates. Among the latter is a grieving woman who has entered the doctor’s wicked sanatorium to commune with the spirit of her dead brother, a heroin addict murdered gruesomely by Tinker in an early scene. There is also a gay couple whose commitment to each other is brutally tested by the awful interventions of Tinker.

Warlikowski’s production unfolds as a harrowing yet gorgeously languid fever dream. Set on a small stage, with an institutional bathroom wall at the back, the strikingly crisp and potent images throughout distort in the reflective surfaces bounding the space. Often drowned in a shifting sea of garish light, accentuated with piercingly beautiful music (the songs derived from the text are sung in the original English), the stage nevertheless leaves ample room for brilliant performances. These deftly created characters and relationships speak eloquently to the deep compassion and understanding there throughout Kane’s penetrating nightmare. (In a seductive and telling move, Warlikowski tacks on a monologue about desperate love, taken from Kane’s Crave, at the outset of the evening.)

Kane’s own productive extremes as a playwright — her cool formal intelligence and invention, as well as her anguished, aching, and uncompromising vision — were served perfectly by the precise and enveloping aesthetic of this exquisite production. But what was it that brought this play and this director together in the first place? And what was the nature of its early impact? In a talkback with the director the following day, a Polish journalist and critic helped set the scene.

“I saw Cleansed many years ago,” he remembered, “at a time when the LGBT movement in Poland was just coming out of the closet. At the time, it was truly a shocking piece. Now it’s a piece that I’m proud of. I’m proud to see how much has changed. Back in the day, the mayor of Warsaw tried to ban the Pride parade and there was only one politician who dared to show up. I remember there being several hundred of us, separated by a double line of police officers — mind you, the demonstration was legal — and above the heads of the police officers, stones were flying at us.”

Warlikowski recalled, “After the first reading we gave up on it. I decided we wouldn’t do Cleansed but do Hamlet instead. It’s a little difficult to imagine now, but I was really shattered by the stones flying at participants of the LGBT Pride Parade. We were working on Angels in America in some dingy little basement. I felt excluded. I felt like I was underground. Groups of women would roam the streets and tear down the posters for Cleansed. Director Krystyna Meissner would go around town to keep them from being torn down.

“I added the monologue from Crave because I thought that would be the only way to get Polish theatergoers to see the piece. The first response was horrible. Whereas people saw the dismemberment as theatrical and acceptable, they were more offended by two guys kissing, and people would get up and leave the room. That’s not something we can really understand today. So there had to be this ten-minute monologue, speaking of love, to trick you into staying for the rest.

“I remember watching the show sitting next to a couple, probably a yuppie couple, new middle-class, in their late 30s. During the first monologue, the woman never looked up. I felt I was embarrassing her. And for the Catholic nation that we still are, it was a lot to expect. Hence all the embellishments, everything that brings in a dimension that makes the dialogue possible — dialogue with the piece and dialogue with society.” *


For more on the Dialog festival, visit

Government smackdown


THEATER The premise of Bay Area playwright Lauren Gunderson’s latest, The Taming (not to be confused with her other latest, I and You, running more or less simultaneously at Marin Theatre Company), felt riotously germane on opening night, less than a week into the recent shutdown of the federal government. But only at first.

With a vague nod to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, this ultimately superficial but consistently witty and rapid-fire political farce takes place in a Washington, DC, hotel room, where a crazed but seriously intelligent, professionally charming Miss America contestant named Katherine, aka Miss Georgia (a superlative Kathryn Zdan), holds hostage two political animals, one liberal and one conservative, while she tries to talk them into helping her bring about a new constitutional convention.

This Southern Liberty Belle is incensed by the status quo and aims at serious reform, seeing nothing short of a new constitution as the way past the political intransigence keeping America from living up to the vision of its Founding Fathers — especially the Constitution’s principal author, James Madison — as she understands it. And she’s willing to go to extreme lengths to see it happen, including drugging her captives and, worse, hiding their cellphones.

Initially, of course, her hostages will have none of it. They immediately wage a rapid-fire quip-war in which the usual stereotypes become so many grenades lobbed at either side of the room and the political aisle.

Bianca (Marilet Martinez) is a liberal blogger in braids, leggings, and hipster hat whose hatred of Republicans is matched by her passionate commitment to the salvation of a tiny, endangered mammal known as the North American Great Pygmy Panda Shrew — a veritable dog pile of qualifiers half-burying the allusion there to Shakespeare’s “taming” play.

Her Republican counterpart, Patricia (Marilee Talkington), is aid and brain to a powerful far-right senator from the South, predictably dim-witted and obsessively predatory on his nubile young interns. Her problems are initially geared to managing her loose cannon of a boss. “What if he actually says what he means? What if CNN asks him to spell something?” But soon we discover that Patricia’s passion lies in the legislation she has devoted her professional life to seeing come to life. It’s actually a jobs bill, in her fashioning, thus pitting ordinary American workers against Bianca’s furry charges in the political melee. Interestingly, the Republican character comes across as the more reasonable of the two.

A dream sequence returns all three to the good old days, 1789, for a brush with Washington and Madison, played amusingly as just two dudes with power in early America, as well as Martha and Dolly, forces in their own right if not always in their right mind. The gender confusion and the erotic charge between the characters throughout (especially, per the Bard’s original, Katherine and Patricia) adds a subversive sexual politics to the proceedings that makes for some interesting dynamics and reflections, if nothing too radical finally.

In artistic director Marissa Wolf’s sharply choreographed production for Crowded Fire (which produced Gunderson’s other Shakespeare-sprinkled contemporary comedy, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, in 2011), the play’s giddy speed also serves it well. While all three performances are strong, Zdan’s tiara-wearing revolutionary, with a fine Southern drawl and a wonderfully composed, perfectly modulated delivery, holds center stage from the first moment we see her — during an exuberant sound check on the pageant stage. Meanwhile, Talkington succeeds best at humanizing her own zany character, infusing her conflicted Republican operative with the hint of melancholic depths that makes her more interesting than the comparatively one-note liberal played by Martinez with punch but less subtlety (which is maybe inevitable given the character’s heavier burden of strained stereotype).

If the play’s timeliness also adds to its enjoyment, the initial frisson of righteous laughter at the expense of politics as usual ends up short-lived. The spectrum of possibilities represented here, political and otherwise, is just too narrow to allow real distance on the hopeless, hideous spectacle of Washington corruption. So resolutely does The Taming stay in the world of red-state, blue-state clichés that the play unintentionally reproduces that sense of hopelessness, in which the world at large comes bounded solely by Democrats and Republicans — a narrow spectrum of humanity that makes one identify more readily with that doomed shrew. *


Wed/23-Sat/26, 8pm, $10-$35

Thick House

1695 18th St, SF


Hearts on fire


THEATER An actor rakes a thick piece of chalk across the floor with a few swift, violent strokes, transforming a bare stage into the layout of an apartment or the plan of a Polish street. Three more actors join him in filling out the scenes, uprooted from time and rearranged in a deliberate design of their own — scenes erased and redrawn with practically every shift in a fluid, snaking narrative that joins the present day with World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the career of a young Jewish woman named Izolda, who passes herself off as an Aryan in a heroic attempt to save herself and her husband from an apocalyptic night.

If the ghostly chalk outlines of the set morph with a brusqueness that suggests the ferocity of both war and time to remake the world, Izolda’s story of love and determination offers an agency of its own. Wrenched from the daunting numbers and general darkness of the Holocaust, they come into mesmerizing focus in The King of Hearts is Off Again, a barebones yet highly evocative piece of physical theater by Warsaw’s Studium Teatralne, which adapts Polish journalist-turned-author Hanna Krall’s internationally acclaimed 2006 novel, Chasing the King of Hearts (now available in an English translation from Peirene Press).

This week, in Studium Teatralne’s Bay Area debut, the San Francisco International Arts Festival presents The King of Hearts is Off Again in both San Francisco and the East Bay. Performed in Polish with English supertitles, the piece showcases the work of a company grounded in the influential career of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), world-renowned innovator and practical theoretician of “poor theater.”

Piotr Borowski, who directed the production, was an actor and musician with Poland’s famed experimental company Teatr Gardzienice in the 1970s and ’80s. After that he joined the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski in Pantedera, Italy, where he stayed until 1994, when he became artistic director of Studium Teatralne.

“Mainly what I’ve acquired from working with Grotowski is a constant, systematic work on the harmony of three things: body, feelings, and intellect,” relates Borowski in a recent email exchange. “Incidentally, this idea is few thousand years old. On the other hand, the topics for my dramatic work flow directly from the circumstances of our contemporary times.”

The details and lacunae of Izolda’s dramatized but true story emerge from the ghostly outlines of a past now barely visible in Poland, suspended somewhere between blissful ignorance and perturbing rumination.

“In Poland, before World War II, Jews were about 10 percent of the population,” continues Borowski, “about three million people. The ones that were left numbered 20,000. We have struggled to convey this emptiness through the empty stage, minimal props, a small number of actors, in order to focus on the main idea. One of the most important things in the set is the floor. It is an old Synagogue’s polychrome. We are stepping on it, symbolically ruining it. The world’s culture of sacral paintings is being destroyed. There are hardly any Jews in Poland anymore. Most of all, there are hardly any traces of their culture left. Our viewers in Poland can feel that, and we talk about it a lot, especially with the younger generation.”

Grotowski and the refined aesthetics of poor theater grew in the 1960s in part as a response to the lavish spectacle offered by cinema, but also in a politically repressive period in which metaphor was key to discussing the lived reality shared by artists and their audience. Today’s Polish stage has evolved in strikingly different directions since 1989 and the fall of communism. The avant-garde today — in the work of Krystian Lupa or Krzysztof Warlikowski, for example — tends toward work of monumental proportions, as Borowski readily admits.

“When it comes to the direction of the Polish theater today I am not the go-to expert. I am still representing the off-center of theater whose significance is marginal today. It used to have a clear role in times of a system where censorship existed. But now, when we have freedom and a fierce market economy, the big productions and money become more important to people.”

Borowski adds that it is not a question of one approach or another, but rather of making work that confronts contemporary reality.

“It is essential that we create performances that are relevant for today. That has always been hard to do, as far as I can remember. The main goal that I had set out for myself is the goal towards human development, and what I’m trying to show on stage is the [way] beyond simple acceptance and habitual perception of so many things. Not a rebellion but an alternate perception.” *


Wed/2-Fri/4, 8pm, $18-25

Joe Goode Performance Annex

401 Alabama, SF

Sat/5, 8pm

University Theatre

CSU East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee, Hayward


Grown up stuff: themes of rejection and reclamation at Portland’s TBA Festival


Now in its 11th year, Portland, Ore.’s Time-Based Art Festival is fall’s major performance festival to the north (almost simultaneous with REDCAT’s Radar LA, the major festival to the south). Mounted annually by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), TBA has become something of a pilgrimage site for Bay Area artists and audiences, judging by the number of familiar faces onstage and off both this year and last.

PICA’s artistic director, Angela Mattox, has something to do with this. As the former performing arts programmer at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Mattox (now in her second year at PICA) retains strong ties to Bay Area artists. Other likely factors include the relative proximity and general cultural appeal of Portland (an increasing refuge to artists and others pushed out of San Francisco by gentrification), not to mention the scandalous lack of any Bay Area performance festival of comparable scope.

The first week’s worth of work sampled at TBA this year (the festival ran from September 12 to 22) included a wide-ranging and astute blend of local, national, and international work. Among the higher-profile events was an evening of haute-cabaret, featuring Meow Meow and Thomas M. Lauderdale (the latter of Portland’s Pink Martini) backed by the Oregon Symphony. Set in the rococo Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, it offered a crowd-pleasing balance of the high-class and ribald, a tightrope walk that Meow Meow (stage name of celebrated Australian actress and cabaret star Melissa Madden Gray) pulled off with consummate skill and unflappable, zany charm.

But the most impressive work featured far more modest production values. There was Still Standing You, for example, by Campo (i.e., Belgian artist-dancer Pieter Ampe and Portuguese artist-dancer Guilherme Garrido), a visceral and physically punishing duet exploring the fantasies, phantasms, and limits of masculinity and their own male heterosexual relationship, which enthralled a large audience for over an hour with little more than the clothes on, and subsequently off, their backs.

Ampe and Garrido, naked for most of the piece, square off in boyish and frankly hilarious postures of potency and aggression, brazenly manipulating each other’s genitals or folding their bodies into intimately abstract geometries. The latter moments, quiet and sure, were the most beautiful and thematically promising. But while the piece charms (especially through its teasing familiarity with the audience and the strength of the artists’ palpable bond), it ultimately remains a bit too comfortably within the gendered field it proposes to explore.

Two other standout pieces of a packed week both tackled time in the broadest and most intimate of senses. Nearly simultaneous with the 40th anniversary of September 11, 1973 — the date of the US-backed military coup that overthrew the country’s elected government and ushered in 17 years of bloody dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet — TBA premiered Lola AriasThe Year I Was Born. Comprised of a motley cast of 11, mostly non-professional actors who were all children in the Pinochet era, this dynamic and rousing work of documentary theater (modeled on Arias’ earlier work with the children of the dictatorship in her native Argentina in the 1970s–80s) offers perspectives and opportunities that only time can bring — a generational assessment as family history and youthful rebellion.

On a protean set that makes choice use of the drab institutional furnishings of a public school class room, the performers conflate childhood memories (several of them as the children of families in exile) and the headlines of the day into an episodic narrative that frequently becomes a good-natured clash among peers of varying class and political backgrounds, half-invested and half-critical of their individual patrimonies and deeply skeptical of their collective one.

In its combination of distance and intimacy, and in its messy familial and social relationships, The Year I Was Born resists the grim binaries of the political crisis itself and its immediate aftermath, opening up a space for dialogue, humor, complexity, and conciliatory feeling, without the need for a simple moral or compromise. History rolls on, and the show — filled with laughter, surges of passion, and cool detachment — affirms both our agency and ambivalence about it all.

TBA also offered the world premiere of ADULT, a highly kinetic and wildly imaginative duet by well known San Francisco-based choreographers and performers Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit. This complex, at times willfully obscure piece deserves a longer treatment elsewhere, but it was without doubt one of the more original and productively difficult, divisive pieces caught all week. Setting the audience in a corner of the cavernous Con Way warehouse (the hub of the festival this year) and looking outward into a vast, dimly lit and unadorned expanse, the first half of the piece plunges us into a viscerally dynamic exploration of fears around death and dying, only to turn things around in the second half — literally so, coaxing the audience with a tray of whiskey and breakfast cereals into helping reorder the seating to face a makeshift stage against the far wall.

The piece then proceeds in a gorgeously erratic and precise play with entropy and order, in which Arrington and Hewit alternately share space and cede ground to one another amid garish lighting and costumes and blurring lines in every direction — not least in the gendered dynamics of their intense, compassionate, and multifarious relationship. Through it all, a sideways glance at history and mortality (flagged at one point by canny evocation of W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts) dissolves in halting, unexpected ways into a serene pause, a loving regard between two unstable bodies in ecstatic motion.