Monday, June 27, 2011

The Pride Parade

I was expecting spectacle—casual nudity, decidedly not casual costumes—when I attended my first San Francisco Pride Parade yesterday, and I got it.

(These gentlemen have made me seriously reconsider my sartorial aesthetic. Photos by Audrey Whitmeyer-Weathers at the Chronicle; full slideshow available here.)

But I wasn’t expecting to be deeply moved—by national organizations whose members had traveled many miles to represent their hometowns, reminding us that outside the SF bubble there does exist a broad network of support for the LGBT community, by that community themselves, of course, and, most interestingly, by their family members. To watch people march down the street carrying signs that say, “I love my gay son” or “I’m proud of my bi mom,” as a crowd wildly cheers them on, is to be, for a moment, part of a spontaneous community that’s better, more neighborly, than the one we soon return to.

(Photo by Lacy Atkins.)

I’m not sure what made that last group, the family members, the most important for me. Maybe because I’d never really gotten the chance to show my support for them before. Maybe because, as my limited perception imagines, they don’t “have to take a stand” in the way that their outed family members “have to.” Or maybe because the LGBT identity politics of “I am” can sometimes obscure the simple fact of “I love,” in all its different varieties.

On a different note, in terms of its performance event implications, the Pride Parade accomplishes two feats that most theatre projects don’t even attempt: to be genuinely of the people in the way that centuries-gone processional theatre once was, and yet to be deeply subversive (on a national level, that is). Let us never forget that to walk in public is always to perform, or at least to make a statement. Sometimes you can’t say something any other way!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Shipment, at the Undermain

It was a treat last weekend to see Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment—my favorite play by possibly my favorite contemporary playwright—at the Undermain—a Dallas theater where I used to work.

Previously, I’d only read the play, and in the transition from page to stage, one of the biggest differences lay in how its most offensive lines registered. The first segment of the play is a burlesque of black stand-up comedy: Think of the most obscene comedian you’ve ever heard and the worst you’ve ever been called out on your racism, multiply that by about five, and mix in the wild imagination of an artist, and you’ll have a vague idea of what to expect. Just seeing Lee’s words written is shocking enough (I’ll mention only incest and pencils; let your mind wander), but it’s a different experience entirely to hear the words in the company of a bunch of affluent, white, middle-aged Texans. You are much more conscious of how your reaction might be received, by actors and performers alike, and thus less willing to react honestly.

(Akron Watson as the comedian.)

And I’m not sure what my reaction was. I went into the play wanting to like it, wanting my companion (my mother) to like it. And some lines really did work, as in when the comedian dispenses with parody and launches into the part of his monologue about how to manage your racism:


But other moments in Stan Wojewodski’s production fell flatter than I’d envisioned, a failing I’m honestly not sure I can attribute to the actors. I’m more inclined to believe that the audience, myself included, wasn’t ready for the show—which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see it so much as that it destabilizes to realize that you haven’t progressed as much as you'd thought.

The show proceeds from the stand-up comic to a parodied, nouveau-minstrelsy fable of a young black man’s attempt to become a rap star, then to a relatively representational scene of a house party hosted and attended by what appear to be well-educated, upper-middle-class young African-Americans. This last section contains the play’s most conventional, accessible humor; here, even my mother laughed out loud a few times. Afterward, she asked me what justified the first two sections, with the comedian and the aspiring rapper. For her they contained only gratuitous shock, offending only for the sake of offending.

(Adam A. Anderson, Christopher Piper, Akron Watson, Beverly Johnson and David Jeremiah at the house party from hell.)

Though I see her point, I oppose it. I feel that the exaggerated, profoundly discomfiting first scenes frame the way we approach the third, more realistic scene, making us aware of the totality, the pervasiveness of racial inequity and our own complicity in it, as well as highlighting all the different levels by which race is performance—all of which establishes the possibility for the play’s explosive final lines.

But I could not find these words at the time of our discussion, and I don’t know if they’d make much of a difference even now. She asked a good question: “What was the point of that?” And I couldn’t answer it. Perhaps all this is just to say that, should I continue with my plan to write about Lee for my thesis, I’m going to have to investigate her work much more deeply than I thought.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dare I open this Pandora's Box?

In reviewing Tiny Alice at Marin Theatre Company this week, I encountered a new critical quandary: how to discuss extremely intellectual plays—especially when I'm pretty sure I don't understand them.

(Andrew Hurteau and Carrie Paff as the leads. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

For this article, I decided to just mention some of the questions the play raises, rather than go into its labyrinthine non-answers, or even really explain my confusion. Befuddlement, the program notes assured me, is par for the course, so I decided to simply acknowledge mine and move on.

But I wonder if some plays might call for more committed grappling with philosophical issues on the part of the critic. If so, which plays? Or does the depth of an article depend more on how much space you are allotted?

In any case, if you're curious, the production continues through June 26. Info here.

Today I'm off to Texas, where I'll see a production of my favorite play by the writer who will probably be the subject of my master's thesis: The Shipment, by Young Jean Lee, at Dallas's Undermain Theatre. More soon!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Rambler, by the Joe Goode Performance Group

When I saw that the Joe Goode Performance Group was going to be using Yerba Buena’s Novellus Theater for its production of The Rambler—a dance-theater piece, conceived by Goode, about the archetype of the rambler, the wanderer, he who cannot be pinned down—I was a bit surprised. The only other work of Goode's I’ve seen, last year’s Traveling Light, was so much about keeping the audience in motion, about using a space (San Francisco’s Old Mint building) in unexpected ways that I couldn’t imagine his art confined by a traditional stage, his audience sitting complacently in the dark.

(Joe Goode's new production. Photo by RJ Muna.)

Goode, true to form, does play with the conventions of traditional theater experience in this new work: The pre-show speech about cell phones and fire exits flows seamlessly into the production itself, and his curtains—that hallmark of the proscenium space—move simultaneously from multiple vantage points, veritable dancers in their own right, to constantly adjust the proscenium's confines. His tableaus are reliably pretty, thanks to Jack Carpenter’s eerie lighting design, and his dancers move with such precision that watching them ease into the end of a motion is as pleasurable as seeing it at the height of its force.

But what makes Goode unique as a choreographer is his love of language. His dancers speak—oh my!—blending the rhythm, cadence and emotion of their words with their movements. Often, what they say, taken out of context, would sound unremarkable, prosaic: “I’m just passing through” or “It will be awesome!” But through dance, Goode finds the musical, the connotative and the evocative in the banal and even the trite.

The trouble with this production is how sparingly language is used. The Rambler is meant to be less a story than an exploration: What drives the impulse to go? What does it feel like to be left behind? Some moments are triumphant, as when one dancer sheds a puppet (made by Basil Twist) like a cocoon, or when another asks why it’s always men, white men, who get to ramble. But many episodes—often, those without text—fail to assert a clear point of view on, well, rambling. Emerging from The Rambler, one remembers only a few gorgeous images with too many longueurs in between.

The Rambler continues through June 18. Info here.

Not a Genuine Black Man, at the Marsh

There’s a good reason why Brian Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man (at the Marsh Berkeley, directed by David Ford) is the longest running solo show in Bay Area history, and there’s a good reason why it’s about to close. The first is that his story, about a life of discovering, internalizing and then combating racial prejudice, is richly imagined and compellingly performed. It’s also brave. Candid discussions about race polarize and politicize, even—or especially—in a supposedly enlightened place like Berkeley. When your audience consists mostly of educated, liberal white people, how do you tell it like it is without completely alienating them or without losing your status as a "genuine black man"?

(The man himself.)

Copeland’s answer is to just be honest. He shares his experiences in a voice that is distinctly his own, never resorting to truism but rather letting his memories speak for themselves. And they do, eloquently. What he reveals in his two-hour life story is not just a genuine black man, but also a genuine human being—which, his play suggests, are both the same thing and worlds apart. But after a seven-year run, the show is nearing its end—but only because his next play, The Waiting Period, is about to go into workshop. In the meantime, Not a Genuine Black Man continues through July 14. Info here.

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is pretty standard Woody Allen fare. If you’re a fan of his work (as I am), you’ll find it a charming, beautifully shot celebration of the artist’s imagination. If you’re not, you’ll find it an obvious, pedantic fairytale populated by “thinly drawn,” as a companion called them, stereotyped characters. You might even object to his extended opening montage, thinking it little more than a parade of Paris’s greatest hits: the Seine, the Champs Elysees, and even a certain tower. I loved that part, though: It was as though Woody Allen were trying to get his bearings in a city that’s not New York, one in which you can see the sky without craning your neck, one whose beige and grey buildings almost melt into the clouds. Through Allen’s expert eye, the almost trite images become beautiful anew, almost fresh and glowing, even as he acknowledges how clichĂ©d they are. The montage, then, aptly introduces the film’s main theme: the pleasures and pitfalls of nostalgia (an idea easily found in much of Allen’s work, though—thankfully—less explicitly).

The film only treads new ground—aside from, you know, Paris—in that Owen Wilson plays the character that, in a different decade, Allen himself would have played. As far as I know, Owen creates Allen’s first protagonist who credibly does not perceive his own arrogance and self-absorption. For me, he and his fiancĂ© (played with unsinkable irascibility by Rachel McAdams) were thus among the most real of Allen’s long line of woefully mismatched couples. This was the first time, in seeing one of Allen’s films, I thought not only, “of course they’re not right for each other,” but also, “of course they can’t see it themselves.”

Two Sisters and a Piano, at AlterTheater

Two Sisters and a Piano, by Nilo Cruz, which just closed at AlterTheater, wasn’t notable as a production. (The play, about two sisters—one a writer, one a pianist—under house arrest in Cuba, left unexplored some key questions about the sisters’ relationship—especially why the pianist so often defers to the writer when it was the writer, with her “subversive” stories, who got them imprisoned.) What is notable is AlterTheater’s space. The company describes it as a storefront in downtown San Rafael, and that’s not an exaggeration. From the outside, there’s little to distinguish the theater from the other shops along Fourth Street. With its tall windows, wall-to-wall carpeting and open floor plan, it could easily be mistaken for a shop under construction. But in actually seeing a show there, you realize that theatre, as my companion noted, “can happen anywhere.”

(Jeanette Harrison and Dawn Scott.)

What I especially liked was the way different sidewalk passersby related to the performance. Many didn’t notice a thing, which effectively created two shows: the play itself, and the people-watching outside. Others actually stopped and took the time to peer in, watching both the play and its paying audience, thus complicating the typical dynamics of the performance gaze. At AlterTheater, in short, the performance event does not transpire in a darkened, isolated space; rather, the surrounding community constantly asserts its presence, and the theater welcomes outsiders in an unusually direct way. My companion and I were curious as to whether a performance at night (we saw a matinee) or that incorporated the window more explicitly (in Two Sisters, the window was far stage left, often visible only peripherally) would have a different effect.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

In Today's NYT

Charles Isherwood, in his well-intentioned account of the lack of strong female roles on Broadway this year, makes a glaring omission. After lamenting the unequal playing field for actresses in Tony-nominated productions, he writes that

"behind the scenes, things were marginally better this season. Susan Stroman and Kathleen Marshall each earned double nominations for directing and choreographing: Ms. Stroman for The Scottsboro Boys and Ms. Marshall for Anything Goes. The play-direction category also has a respectable two female nominees, or at least one and a half…Women are reasonably well represented in the design categories, too."

Bizarrely, writers seem to have no place in Isherwood’s Tony ledger. No nominated writer, in any category, is female, yet he finds that stat unworthy of mention. But if no meanigful roles exist for women, ought we not examine the place where roles are born—i.e., the (lamentably, effectively male) writer’s imagination? Isherwood, it seems, would benefit from a gander at Theresa Rebeck’s 2010 speech on the plight of female playwrights.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hot Off the Presses

Two new reviews for your reading pleasure:
  • Tales of the City, a world premiere musical based on the original series by Armistead Maupin, at ACT
  • Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith's new solo show, at Berkeley Rep

(The ensemble of Tales. Photo by Kevin Berne. Click here for show info.)

(I spent upwards of a week on one of the reviews and only a couple of hours on the other, but interestingly, I think they're of about the same quality. So much for obsessive mulling and revising!)

Suffice it to say, both productions are very much worth your time.

(The redoubtable Anna Deavere Smith. Photo by Joan Marcus. Show info available here.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Alex Ross, on the state of the Opera

“Institutions that go on presenting the same old pieces for the same old audience in the same old way may not make it too far into the current century. The classical business needs to start thinking of itself not as a luxury item but as an essential part of the average thinking person’s life. Across the country, music-making is at a high level, but it lacks a sense of passion, spontaneity, intellectual risk. To cultivate such values would not betray the great composers of the repertory; it would do them justice.”

-- from the May 9 New Yorker

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Prodigal Return

Comprehensive exams and term papers now behind me, I am once again free to... write more about theater. But IN a BLOG!

For three weeks, as I was desperately trying to stretch a few decent thoughts into reams of double-spaced pages, I saw zero shows. The hiatus was restorative, and not just for my grades: It helped me remember that every show is a unique event, the product of hours of underpaid labor on the part of dedicated, creative minds -- not just a task on my personal to-do list.

My re-entry — with Care of Trees, a Shotgun Players production — was disappointing, but it did prompt an interesting question: I was concerned that the audience seemed to have a very different response to the show than I did (if the intensity of their applause is a reliable gauge). Should a critic ever take such discrepancy into account in her writing?

(Liz Sklar and Patrick Russell. Photo by Pak Han.)

My instinctual response is no. A review is inherently the opinion of one individual; no critic I know is so deluded as to think himself a voice of the masses.

Instead, perhaps a critic should seize such an occasion to (hooray! an excuse to mention my favorite talking point) deeply examine her reaction: "What, exactly, drives my contrary reaction? And can I empathize with others' seemingly opposite thoughts?"

In my case with Care of Trees, I think an age difference might explain part of the discrepancy -- I am often one of, if not the, youngest person seeing a show -- but perhaps what made Care of Trees different is that its only two characters are also young people, contemporary young people, perhaps making me more qualified to evaluate how realistic they are. Another explanation might be that I had previously seen both actors in other productions and admired their work, so maybe I had higher expectations and deeper disappointment when the writing didn't give them much of a chance to shine.

But I’m more optimistic about upcoming reviews of ACT’s Tales of the City and Berkeley Rep’s Let Me Down Easy.

In the meantime, I thought I’d close on a lighter note, with of my favorite gems from this semester's research. The following is from A General History of the Pyrates, written by Captain Charles Johnson in 1724, about Mary Read and Anne Bonny, the first known English female pirates (Read had disguised herself as a man to get the job, while Bonny was the mistress of the captain):

“[Mary Read’s] sex was not so much as suspected by any person on board, till Anne Bonny, who was not altogether so reserved in the point of chastity, took a particular liking to her; in short, Anne Bonny took her for a handsome young fellow, and for some reason best known to herself, first discovered her sex to Mary Read. Mary Read knowing what she would be at, and being very sensible for her own incapacity that way, was forced to come to a right understanding with her, and so to the great disappointment of Anne Bonny, she let her know she was a woman also.”

(Supposedly, "Mary Read revealing her true identity," though the source for this photo does not look credible, to say the least. Also, aren't those boots, like, totally in right now?)