Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"No Exit" and "The Three Sisters"

The two most publicized productions currently running in the Bay Area—No Exit at ACT and The Three Sisters at Berkeley Rep—share a strikingly similar conceit: a group of people who are trapped inside and torture each other as a result. In Sartre’s existentialist piece, it’s three strangers condemned to hell—a too-bright parlor with a locked door. In Chekhov’s realist drama, it’s a family of pre-Revolution Russian aristocrats, consigned to life in a countryside estate when they would infinitely prefer the culture, the hustle and bustle of Moscow.

(Natalia Payne, Heather Wood and Wendy Rich Stetson in Berkeley Rep's production. Photo courtesy of

Entrapment, both productions attest, reduces the individual to his or her worst qualities. But it also breeds codependence. In both plays, the characters get the opportunity to leave their confines. At one point in No Exit, the parlor door opens, giving the characters who were just banging on it the chance to look out and even wander about the “hotel” in which their parlor is just a room. But they are both too afraid to leave without one another and too intent on not letting anyone escape the torture each knows the others deserve.

Chekhov’s characters are both more and less free: their doors are not locked, and no one is physically preventing them from leaving the small, rural town they find so dreary and unrefined. But for the three sisters’ family, everybody has to move, or nobody can move—such were the social constraints imposed on women. Even more importantly, the family does not have a deadline for departure; moving to Moscow is just a dream—the big change they want to and could make to their lives, if only they could summon the initiative. But for them inertia prevails, brewing restlessness, boredom and animosity. In this sense, the production feels remarkably contemporary, and quite well-suited to the Bay Area: How many privileged young people do I know whose inflated sense of self makes them think, “Grandiose plans, or no plans at all!” (myself included)?

And yet, though most Chekhov plays—The Three Sisters included—are about bored aristocrats, the plays themselves cannot be boring. Even when characters are idly lying around—or, worse, un-ironically suggesting, “Let’s philosophize!”—performers must endow each action with specificity of purpose, always deep in their knowledge of who they are and what they want. In this production, actors in two crucial roles—Irina (Heather Wood), the idealistic, youngest sister, and Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie), a soldier new to town—sap an otherwise energetic ensemble in failing to put forth clear answers to those basic questions.

(Bruce McKenzie and Natalia Payne.)

On the other hand, in ACT’s No Exit, the actors are all strong; it’s director Kim Collier’s overwrought concept that bogs down the production. We only see the outside of the parlor in which the three damned torment each other. Inside it are video cameras that both secretly observe the proceedings and serve as video confessionals, almost in the mode of reality t.v. Above the stage that’s visible to the audience, three projectors show what the different cameras see.

(Photo by Barbara Zimoneck.)

On that stage is a valet (Jonathon Young, who also adapted the script), who appears only in the beginning of the original script, when he sardonically introduces the damned to their unlikely prison. In this adaptation, he’s around throughout the play, offering morbid commentary on the video proceedings, which gives the spectators cues as to how to respond while also making them choose whether to watch him or to watch the video. His interaction with the projection is occasionally interesting, as when characters in the doorway to the parlor are visible both onstage and onscreen, or when the valet creates a shadow puppet who dances with the onscreen characters or climbs up a ladder to poke fun, literally, at their facial tics. But the concept grows tiresome when Collier runs out of tricks. You don’t know whether you’re watching a movie or a play, and that disorientation exists for its own sake, rather than the play's.

(Andy Thompson as Cradeau, and Jonathon Young as The Valet. Photo by Michael Julian Berz)

"Hell is other people" is the most famous line from No Exit. I might joke that these productions offer audiences another kind of hell—but that's an overstatement: We can always leave when the show's over.


No Exit continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times) until May 1 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets ($10 and up) at

The Three Sisters continues (Tuesday to Sunday, various times) until May 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets ($10 and up) at

Friday, April 15, 2011

Two Recent Reviews

Both of shows I highly recommend:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gender and Theater

Last night I attended an informal forum on how gender affects theatre careers, sponsored by Woman's Will. When I walked in, I wasn't surprised to find that all the other attendees were women. But I was surprised that, except for one, they were, like me, in their 20s.

Of all the insightful comments from the evening, this one has stuck with me most: In terms of building a career, one participant said, "a greater obstacle than being a woman is being young."

There are obvious reasons why she - and the rest of us there - feel that way: Even if you have formidable experience, youth belies it. And for women, gender only exacerbates the problem, making you seem less worldly and experienced than your male counterparts of the same age.

But in the age of the interminable internship, what is it that helps some aspiring young artists establish themselves while others give up and leave the field? What can a young, female professional do to gain experience to get the job she wants--when she needs that job to get experience?

Part of the answer lies in what Kate Jopson of Woman's Will is doing: creating a forum in which our segment of the theater community can convene without, for once, other people telling us what to do. I'm hopeful that more will come from the group, but I also wonder how much how much it can achieve when everything, including the interests of all-too-recently established artists, conspires against it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Look At Your Own Risk

If you wish to momentarily retain your delusions about the state of the arts, avoid this collection of photos of 75 abandoned theaters from across the country. Even as the buildings' geography and architecture vary immensely, a consistent spirit prevails, as though they had all been felled by the same disease (which in fact they have). A few samples:

#55. East St. Louis, Missouri
(Notice the expansive sunlight. Walls and ceilings must have gaping holes)

#66. Hellertown, Pennsylvania

#52: New Bedford, Massachusetts

Bleak as these images are, they're also beautiful. Even in their dilapidated state, the theaters retain something of their majestic auras. O, how the ghosts of splendor linger!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"M. Butterfly" and "Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven"

Right now, San Franciscans have the opportunity to catch a fabulous, coincidental and, sadly, all-too-rare double bill: Two great productions of plays by two of the most talented Asian-American playwrights—David Henry Hwang and Young Jean Lee—are running simultaneously. Seen in tandem, as I experienced them, they offer a stunning look at the way, for Asian-American, issues of race and gender often intersect—and even get conflated.

Custom Made Theatre Company presents Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which uses the opera Madame Butterfly to make sense of the notorious Bernard Boursicot incident (1983), in which Boursicot, a French diplomat, was found to be “inadvertently” conducting Chinese espionage for decades through his lover, “a male Peking opera singer whom Boursicot believed to be female.”

(Rik Lopes and Sean Fenton in M. Butterfly. Photo by Jay Yamada)

Crowded Fire Theater Company and Asian-American Theatre Company are collaborating on Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, which defies easy summary, as Lee uses neither cohesive characters nor narrative plot. Her play is more a collage of jarring images (full review available here). But suffice it to say, her blunt and explosive writing about race exposes all that is insipid and insidious in plays like Clybourne Park (reviewed below).

(Katie Chan, Mimu Tsujimura, Cindy Im, Lily Tung Crystal, Josh Schell and Alexis Papedo in Songs. Photo by Dave Nowakowski)

Hwang and Lee typify generational differences in talking about race and gender: Hwang dismantles the male gaze by challenging it explicitly; Lee dismantles it by having her female characters appropriate it or ironically pander to it. Hwang, who wrote M. Butterfly in the early 80s, finds room for his ideas within existing dramatic structures (though he certainly makes them all his own), while the younger Lee flouts rules of form, believing that traditional narrative cannot escape the biases that historically governed it.

These two productions are done with elegance and artistry, and by small companies. It's so rare that I find performances, even in the Bay Area, that address Asian-American experiences. Let's hope that other companies start to follow these two's lead.

M. Butterfly continues (Thursday to Saturday 8pm, Sunday 7pm) until April 30 at the Custom Made Theatre Co., 1620 Gough St., San Francisco. Tickets ($20 - $28) at

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven continues (Wednesday to Saturday, 8pm) until April 16 at the Thick House Theater, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets ($15 - $35) at