Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wallflower, at SF State

(Cody Metzger and Stephen Frothingham in the university production. Photo by Clyde Sheets.)

Wayward graduate student that I am, it’s taken me over a year to get to my first SFSU theater production. But it’s no wonder that it was Wallflower, a movement-based exploration of being a wallflower at a high school dance held in a gym, that finally got me to head to campus on a weekend. Written and directed by Mark Jackson, who is an SFSU alum and often a professor, the play was sure to be interesting. Jackson is a rock star in the Bay Area theater scene right now; every month, it seems, another company commissions a piece from him. Thanks to his imaginative eye, his penchant for experimentation and his fondness for extremely physical staging, he consistently garners reviews that, while not always favorable, always show fascination with his work.

But my favorite part of the show actually had little to do with Jackson. Every other member of the cast and crew is a student, and it was fabulous to see professional-quality work by my classmates. Abe Lopez, who assistant-designed the lighting, not only lent a crucial modicum of structure to the proceedings with his clearly defined afternoon, evening, night and morning; he also established the possibility of the fantastical with his candy-bright colors. Ashley Rogers, who designed the costumes, created a look so consistent across the ensemble as to be just slightly unreal, further helping to ground us in Jackson’s fairytale world. (She also, incredibly, found a cut of dress that looked flattering on every single woman.) Both designers, I felt, could easily have been working with Jackson outside an academic context, such was the caliber of their work. I’m excited to see them complete the transition from school to practice.

As for the rest of the show, I was more ambivalent. I thought Jackson brilliantly captured the stupefying terror that these silly high school dances inspire—in the way his actors slid around the perimeter of the set, avoiding the dance floor as though it were made of lava, or the way they asked someone to dance in a manner that can only be described as violently retarded.

But it can be hard to know how to absorb a performance with little dialogue and even less story. I tried to just let feelings be evoked in me, but many of the more conventional dance interludes felt like filler, while some of the other ideas took too long to illustrate. (Yes, a line of people staggering a motion can create a wave; how many times do we need to see it undulate?) But I guess you can’t put a cast of thirteen pretty young people who are all decent dancers in a show about dancing without having them break out the sock hop moves at some point (nor, as contemporary mores dictate, without some gratuitous nudity).

Seeing this production and trying to write this post show me that I need to challenge myself to see more dance and movement-based performance. I need to get a sense of what I like and why, and develop the vocabulary to talk about it. It’s not in my background at all, but I can still have a strong response to it—I just need to work on explaining what that is.

Wallflower continues through October 23. Show info here.

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