Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, at Marin Theatre Company

(Beth Wilmurt and Joy Carlin in classic sitcom staging in Marin Theatre Company's production. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

At times The Beauty Queen of Leenane, now at Marin Theatre Company, felt so much like a domestic sitcom that I half-expected to see three tv cameras between the performers and the (studio) audience. Rural Irish mother and daughter Mag (Joy Carlin) and Maureen (Beth Wilmurt) would fit right in in George Costanza's family if they replaced their Gaelic brogue for a New York one. Nina Ball's set might isolate them from the rest of the world — their wall-less kitchen is surrounded by swaths of fabric that suggest a fog; they are floating in space, but the mist is closing in — but inside the setup is as familiar as that of the pre-prime time re-run lineup. One family member sits in her chair, the other at the table, as they trade barbs about how they wish one another were dead. Somewhere, Jason Alexander is yelling constipatedly.

The plot of Martin McDonagh’s comic drama seems television-simple as well. Maureen has been stuck taking care of her weaselly yet doltish mother for years, but as the play begins, Pato (Rod Gnapp), an old crush, returns to County Connemara, potentially giving her a ticket out. Melodramatic hairpin turns follow (the plot hinges on storytelling devices from another era: letters and messengers!), revealing Maureen as much more similar to her mother than the daughter would care to admit.

So far, this doesn’t resemble the kind of work I’ve lately seen from director Mark Jackson. Typically, his plays are anything but conventional, particularly in their staging; his blocking is kinetic, fluid, and evocative. Static movement suits this play’s setting and themes, of course. But in both style and content, this production struck me as much more generic, something any director could have done, rather than having the distinct Jackson imprint I usually so enjoy.

But I am leaving out the play’s saving grace. Maureen is more than a restless, put-upon forty-year-old. She is also deeply troubled, so much so that her vision of the world is skewed. This first manifests itself subtly, as when she interprets an offhand remark from Pato as a scathing criticism of her looks. But it slowly becomes apparent that Maureen’s acerbic jokes aren’t just jokes; something sinister infects her. McDonagh shows this side of her in a classically realistic manner: the delayed revelation of a dark family secret. But afterward, he does not make her the object of our pity or scorn. Rather, we see the world through her eyes, only we don’t know it. The quasi-realistic, quasi-melodramatic world that unfolds is her vision projected onto the stage. And when we find out that what we see is a lie, her lie, the one she tells herself, and that we’ve been believing it, too — it’s one of the most compelling stagings I’ve ever seen of the idea that for the troubled, what they see isn’t “crazy”; for them it’s real and normal – plain as day, observable by the senses. It makes me wonder how much of my reality is verifiable by outside sources and how much is something I’ve talked myself into.

(Joy Carlin's elastic face. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Jackson’s cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Carlin, who can do broad physical comedy with her face and voice alone. She seems to have the ability to bisect her face vertically, so that each half is making its own expression; it’s often a lopsided smile: one side is a slack-jawed, “Who, me?” half-grin; the other is alert and sharp, scheming to keep Maureen in her place.

With their talents, Beauty Queen always entertains, but its true payoff comes only toward the end. I only wish the direction had helped bring the script out of sitcomland a little earlier.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16; info here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Murky Boundaries

(Lily and her co-playwright letting their creative sides loose during December's San Francisco Olympians Festival. Photo by Charles Lewis III.)

I've been thinking lately about the uneasy relationship between theater critics and the rest of the theater community. The Bay Area has a notoriously lovey dovey theater scene. Everyone loves and supports everyone else's work -- everyone except for those mean critics.

To some extent, this suits me. I'm a loner, and I don't always trust that I'd be able to be honest were I reviewing a close pal's show.

Yet at the same time, I'm convinced that a critic only does better work the richer her relationship with theater is, the more that she talks with the artists she reviews, the more she participates in theater outside from being a critic.

And I haven't just been thinking about this idea -- For once, I've been putting my thoughts into practice, and in a few different ways as of late:

(On the other side of the footlights. Photo by Charles Lewis III.)

In December I did something artistic in public, by golly, for the first time in many years. I wrote a play called Die, oh! Nice, us!, and the San Francisco Olympians Festival produced a staged reading of it. I applied to write in the festival because -- surprise! -- I'm not just a critic; I also have a flaming artistic streak, though I usually share it with only a few. I write short scenes and silly poems and sillier songs. I sing and play the piano. And those of you who visit this site often know I think of my criticism as my art. So it was thrilling to me to hear my morbid, juvenile jokes performed by actors and (occasionally) laughed at by audiences. But another reason I was excited about this festival was that I wanted to remember what it was like to be a theater artist and how much bravery and passion it takes so that I'd be better able to connect to and understand subjects of future reviews.

(Mark Bedard and Mark Anderson Phillips wait for he who never comes. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got to work with Marin Theatre Company and review them at the same time. I've written before that I have a big ol' soft spot for the company -- I started assistant directing for them within twelve hours of first moving to California, and a connection I made there got me my first theater criticism gig. For years now, I've been reviewing their work. Then recently, I was asked to speak as a "critic and a scholar" at a talkback for their production of Waiting for Godot (which just closed). I'm no Beckett scholar, by any means -- my scholarly interests, if I can be said to have any, are in contemporary theater -- so I prepared (a little). But I was surprised at how easily the guest speaking came to me. I never had to lecture. The other guest, the audience, and I just responded to questions the moderator posed. Still, I was surprised to find how calm I felt, which I think comes from my teaching. It feels the most natural thing to me to address a crowd -- perhaps more natural than one-on-one conversations! I was also surprised that I didn't feel I had a conflict of interest in serving a show (albeit in a small way) and reviewing it. Some pieces of the review could have been copied and pasted from what I said in the talkback; other pieces might even seem opposed to what I said that afternoon. While that might suggest disingenuousness, I think it's important to be able to talk about a show in different registers. Just because I'm reviewing a show doesn't mean I need to launch into an unflinching critical diatribe every time I talk about it.

Finally, most recently of all, I reviewed a show created by and starring friends of mine -- people I want to keep being friends with, so I knew I wouldn't be going Bernard Shaw on them. Breach Once More Theatre was recently founded by folks I know from S.F. State, and they just produced their first show, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. In reviewing it, I thought about advice Mark Jackson gave me (in a comment on this site!): Never write something in a review that you couldn't say to an artist's face. I didn't write a word of this review without giving it the Mark Jackson test, and I think the review came out the better for it. I had to justify each one of my assertions as if I were a lawyer, and my discussion of the acting got pretty wonky, but in a good way. I sound much more reasoned and fair than I usually do. In fact, I think this and my Godot review are some of my best pieces in the last few months.

The longer I stay in the Bay Area, the more multidimensional my relationship with theater will be; less and less often will I be the isolated, shadowy figure scribbling away in an aisle seat, only to flee at curtain call without making eye contact with anyone (though I'm sure there will still be plenty of that). This is a good thing. Theater critics shouldn't be lovey-dovey; the theater scene needs us to put a check on that. But we are all better off when we see each other as human beings. That's what theater is about for so many of us: seeing the world from someone else's point of view.

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea continues through Feb. 23; info here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Interview with Gary Soto

(Poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright Gary Soto.)

Interviewing, dangerously, is starting to become my favorite part of my job. I don't have to sit around for hours waiting for creativity to strike; I just have to research and write a list of questions. In fact, writing a Q&A (my paper's preferred form of interviews) involves very little writing at all. It's mostly just editing -- cutting and rearranging a transcript.

One thing I love about interviewing is that we freelance writers don't always get a lot of opportunity to, well, be around other people. Or even talk to them. So it's refreshing to get to sit down with an artist and ask him or her probing questions.

I was proud of this interview of Gary Soto, whose In and Out of Shadows is now at the Marsh, because, in contrast to my last interview, I was alert enough in the moment to press my subject on a comment that needed pressing.

I always tell my students that interviewing does not come naturally to me, that I was surprised to discover that my paper seemed to think that, because I'm a critic, I must also be a journalist. That certainly wasn't true at first, but now I think I'm slowly becoming one.

In and Out of Shadows continues through Feb. 17; info here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Pre-Manifesto

(I was so happy to find, after writing my review of 4000 Miles, that this image exists. Read the article to see why. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I've been doubting the quality of my writing more than usual lately. This review, of A.C.T.'s 4000 Miles, feels too oblique, like it's always just winking at you, circling around its main point instead of coming out and saying it. In another review, of Af-Am Shakes's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I talk about the play itself for so long that my discussion of the production feels like an afterthought. And in still another review, of Manic Pixie Dream Girl at The Costume Shop and Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them by Custom Made, my thoughts look choppy when pared down to meet the daunting constraints of print journalism. (My online articles give me more freedom, but not much incentive; the pay, I like to joke, is milk money.) 

I think I'm chafing at the form of a theater review. The system under which I write is not conducive to thoughtfulness, complexity, or, heaven forbid, research. It does not encourage diligent but slow pursuits of the right word or exquisitely crafted phrases. It's geared toward "producing" a specific "amount of content" on a "quick turnaround." (William Zinsser just had a heart attack.)

Lately, I've been turning over and over in my head an idea for a new system. I've been talking about it with people who I think might be interested, both to mine them for ideas and to create social pressure so that I don't give up on the project. (I like to think of myself as a master in the art of manipulating myself.)

As I said to someone at a show last night, "nascent" would be a generous term for the state of this idea. All I have for now is desire and energy. 

I'm on the hunt for other alternative models of arts criticism, to expand my narrow horizons (and to further plunder others' ideas). Readers, have you any directions in which to point me?

4000 Miles continues through Feb. 10; info here.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through Feb. 17; info here.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl continues through Feb. 10; info here.

Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them continues through Feb. 17; info here.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lost Landscapes of Detroit, My Sometime Home

To remember is, in most cases, to access a small fraction of one's actual cache of memories, to cycle through the same small repertoire of mental images that are made to stand in for an infinitude, all of which you could not possibly keep on the front burner of consciousness. When I think of my grandma, I first remember one "shot" of her using a strange double-bladed instrument to chop cabbage in a wooden bowl that she held in the crook of her arm. That is my stock image of her, one that I remember so often that the act of remembering it has become part of the memory itself. The many "rememberings" make me doubt whether this memory ever actually happened. I feel like I conjured it, perhaps combining something real with something I saw on television. Thinking of that image now doesn't feel like remembering any more; it feels like iterating a mental ritual that I created long ago to serve some emotional need.

For me, a truthful, authentic act of remembering involves a memory that's on the back burner of consciousness -- when some word or smell or dream suddenly plucks something discrete out of the subconscious memory soup and I think, "Yes! I do remember that!" It feels at once new, because I never "remembered" it before, and old, because it could have been lost forever; I feel joyful, more whole to have this extra piece of my hazy past made suddenly clear, without the warping, muddying layers of many rememberings. But then it too becomes part of the memory repertoire (perhaps displacing something else!), and when I access it again, I want not just to see the image but to feel the same joy of discovery. Perhaps I do summon that feeling for a bit at first, but soon it becomes like the other memories -- well-worn, refracted, distorted.

I had such an experience earlier this week at the Internet Archive's screening of Lost Landscapes of Detroit, a compilation, edited by Rick Prelinger, of early to mid-twentieth century home movies made by Detroiters. The project eschews nostalgia; it is more a human, idiosyncratic, anthropological way of considering a people's history of Detroit. 

(A still from the film.)

The film itself has no sound, except for about a minute at the beginning. Instead, as Prelinger says, the audience creates the soundtrack, identifying, as they watch, the sites they see, commenting, asking questions, telling jokes, debating each other -- all facilitated by Prelinger, who is helpful, insightful, but never overbearing. Since so much of the evening is about preserving, archiving, I had the strange urge while I was there to also record everything the audience was saying.

I didn't expect to connect to the film. I was born right outside of Detroit, but I moved away just before I turned 11. I've been back only a few times since, though I annually visit relatives who live elsewhere in Michigan. When I think of memories of the city itself, I can summon only the most obvious places -- the Fisher Theatre, the Renaissance Center -- places that are far from being "lost landscapes."

So I was surprised to see what happened to me with footage and mention of a place called Bob-Lo Island. At first, I thought, "What a silly name." Then it was, "Wait, do I know that name?" Later it was, "Wait, have I been there?" I suddenly had an image of myself on a ferry on the Detroit River on a cloudy day en route to a place with this name. And I do remember telling people I'd been to Canada before, though, before this movie, I'd had no idea why I would say that. Bob-Lo island, I have since learned from the internet, is on the Canada side of the Detroit River; for decades it was an amusement park until it closed in 1993, making it feasible that I'd gone there as a child. 

(Bob-Lo, "the Coney Island of Detroit," in its heyday.)

I called my mother the day after the screening to ask her if I'd been there, but she said only that it was possible; she did know that she had gone there as a girl.

This might seem like a small thing to write a post about, especially since it doesn't relate to the mission of this site. But I believe that my generation has especially tenuous ties to the places and communities of our childhoods. I lived in three different regions of the country before I went to college. Then, between May of 2008 and May of 2010, I moved ten times. And this isn't just me, of couse: Since moving to San Francisco in 2009, over 10 of my friends have moved away. (I know, of course, that San Francisco is an especially expensive city, but that's not a negligble statistic!)

I have so many different and disconnected segments of my life that sometimes I feel like I've existed only since 2009. I have few things around me to remind me of the past -- few keepsakes, and few friends who knew me even as far back as college.

This encounter with Bob-Lo, a lost memory, a lost landscape, makes me feel like my twenty-seven years happened and counted after all, despite the lack of evidence, despite the fact that I've no one nearby to testify to their memory.

I feel I have lived many lives. 

Now, after many nomadic years, I'm working hard to make this most recent life a long-lasting one. I'm building a permanent home in San Francisco with the man I love. I remember that in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, she said that, no matter how many times  her family moved to a different faraway cabin, she always felt like it was home again once her mother's plate that said "Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread" was unpacked and displayed. After years of living like a refugee -- in one apartment, for many months, I had neither mattress nor furniture, instead spreading my possessions on the floor as if they were toys -- I too am now accruing tangible pieces of a home.

My favorite piece of my past in this home is this photo, which features the same grandma of cabbage-chopping fame, Grandma Day, as she basks in the adoration of three different species, one of which is proudly represented by baby Lily:

Another I recently received in the mail as a surprise gift. It's a cookbook from my Aunt Julie (who, she would want me to mention, is also my godmother): 

The book features an astonishing store of old-skool Midwestern recipes, which is of course one wonderful gateway to things past, but for me, even more important is this Christmas inscription, which my Aunt Julie wrote to Grandma Day:

Which calls to mind both the inscriptions my grandma wrote in books she gave to me:

And the many Christmases at my grandma's house in which a young Lily first staged theatrical events for the rest of her family:

(That little window in the staircase, above the Christmas tree, was my very first stage. Look at that perfect proscenium arch!)

In case you couldn't tell, I've been thinking a lot about my grandma a lot lately. She took care of me five days a week for the first ten years of my life and then died just before my sixteenth birthday. She had a special nickname for me: "Louie the Liller," or "Lou" for short. (I think there was a song that went along with that, but now I can't remember it!) When the phone rang, she would mutter, "Oh, shit!" and then answer it with a singsong "Hel-lo!" When we played Scrabble, she took no mercy on my youth, gleefully slaughtering me by a hundred-point margin. And night after night, when even at a young age I could never sleep, I would watch from my bed for the light to go out in the crack underneath her door, which meant I could tiptoe across the hall and crawl into bed with her.

I've been thinking about the ways I idealize her. Because of a burn accident in her youth, my grandma had big scars on her neck, which got her ridiculed mercilessly as a little girl. (I still remember the name of her girlhood nemesis: Jacqueline Spalding.) Because of that, she never, ever, ever criticized or even teased anyone and inculcated in her children and grandchildren the value in doing the same. 

I recently spent a week, as an experiment, trying to practice that value, but I realized that I'm just not like her in that way. I'm a professional critic, first of all, which means I don't just criticize; I make my living (or at least my milk money) from criticizing. More fundamentally, I have a restless compulsion to make jokes, many at others' expense, and I've inherited from my mother and her side of the family (who get shortchanged in this essay; sorry guys, you'll get your due another day) a desire to get at the unvarnished truth of people and ideas. The Lovings, of which I am a proud member, are fearless (some might call it tactless) in discussing those truths in the bluntest of terms.

My new task is to be at peace with my differences from Grandma Day, this woman who gave me so much of who I am and has now left me to build with it what I will.

Thank you, Internet Archive, Lost Landscapes of Detroit, Bob-Lo Island, and Aunt Julie, for serving me Proustian madeleines that sent me down this memory lane. Now that I've spent all this time with the past, it's time to recommence the job of living in the present -- but with a renewed, stronger sense of self.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Witch House, at the Garage

(Photo by Kelly Puleio.)

I was very pleased to be able to support this show, now playing at one of the most Fringey venues in SF, the Garage, which perhaps more than any other space in the Bay Area is dedicated to new artists and experimentation. I love the fact that artistic director Joe Landini gives artists a place to develop new work from scratch and to perform it -- a galling rarity. I also love the fact that the space shows something different every single weekend; unfortunately, that means that it's usually difficult for me to cover it. One of the peculiarities of working for a weekly newspaper is that our print schedule favors and often demands shows with longer runs. That has the problematic effect of making it look like shows with longer runs, which tend to come from wealthier companies, are the only shows I think are worth covering. That isn't so. So I'm redoubling my efforts to get work by those smaller companies in print, or, at the very least, online.

I saw The Witch House yesterday, and even after reading the script and interviewing the playwright and director, I found a lot of the show, about three boys who get possessed by Abigail Williams and other Salem Witch Trial accusers, difficult to follow. The show features abrupt shifts into the surreal that only get more surreal as time passes. But I was pleased to see that much of the comedy came to full, rich life in the transfer from page to stage, and that the performers tackled their challenging parts with total commitment. The women's chorus, even as their words confused, made abstraction bewitching.

The Witch House continues through Jan. 27 at The Garage; info here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hi, blog. Also, Troublemaker at Berkeley Rep. Also, on spoilers.

(Freakin-A! Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I don't think I said enough in my review of Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, at Berkeley Rep, about how much I appreciated the way this show deals with its main character's transformation. Playwright Dan LeFranc and director Lila Neugebauer shortchange nothing. A bildungsroman about problem child Bradley (Gabriel King), the play never "establishes" that Bradley is a troubled kid. It lets him stew in his trouble; it lets him get worse before he gets better, so much worse that I wondered whether he could get better. And when he does start to clear up his prideful adolescent myopia, the play does 't subject us to a bunch of well-made-play bullshit that ties up every little loose end. It takes a lovely, unexpected turn into the surreal that quickly gets us to the good stuff: a halting but by no means perfect new start.

I'm concerned that my review conveys my enthusiasm by giving too much away.

The other day, I read Alessandra Stanley's  NYT review of season 2 of Girls. Later, when I watched the first episode of the new season, I was dismayed to find that Stanley had given away all the episode's best jokes. I still enjoyed the episode, of course, but at each already revealed punch line, I found myself unfavorably comparing the actor's delivery with the way I'd imagined the line and then disappointed and frustrated that I hadn't experienced the moments as they were meant to be experienced.

This made me think about spoilers in my own reviews. I've typically thought that avoiding spoilers meant not giving away the "who" in the whodunit, or sharing a show's main reveal or surprise, or in general allowing my plot summary to cover the later scenes of a play. But I wonder now if "spoilers" can apply to many other and smaller aspects of a show. Should I not have mentioned the neon glove? I ruled in favor of it because the press photo (see above) shared it. But I didn't mention (spoiler alert!) the goons' matching outfits, even though that choice could be gleaned from photos as well, because I thought it was just too delightful a surprise, and I'd already written a ton (well, for me) about the costumes.

It's hard to discern what a "spoiler" is because giving away any part of a show could "spoil" that aspect of it. Is there always a huge difference between a spoiler and an evocative detail? I don't want to inspire delight in my reader by robbing those delights directly from a show; at the same time, it's my task as a critic to make my reader feel what I feel. So where's the line? I guess I'll stick with the above rule of thumb but also use a kind of strict scrutiny for jokes or moments of theater magic.

Or instead I could just write better.

Troublemaker continues through Feb. 3 at Berkeley Rep; info here.