Sunday, November 28, 2010

Two Thoughts on Failure

"In fact you are incredibly similar to all the people sitting around you right now. The vast majority of them are doomed to a life of disappointing mediocrity just like yours. And everyone sees how you yearn fruitlessly for glory when it is clearly already too late, and they pity you. They pity you as a grasping failure who pants for degrading miserable straws that are out of your reach. And for those of you who achieved some measure of success, you look like fools! People laugh at you behind your back for the self-important way you speak, your pretensions, the way you ingratiate yourselves with the powerful. You are a buffoon who pretends that you don't care what anyone thinks of you, when in fact you writhe in ecstasy like a fondled dog each time a sycophantic halfwit praises your name... And let me not forget the most vainglorious among you: the quitters—who expected success without struggle and so quit to avoid disappointment."

—Young Jean Lee, Church

"When your brain loses its spare capacity, and along with it some agility, some joy in winging it, and the ambition to do things that don't suit it, then you finally have to settle down to do well the few things that your brain really can do well—the rest no longer seems pressing and distracting, because it is now permanently out of reach. The feeling that you are stupider than you were is what finally interests you in the really complex subjects of life: in change, in experience, in the ways other people have adjusted to disappointment and narrowed ability. You realize that you are no prodigy, your shoulders relax, and you begin to look around you, seeing local color unrivaled by blue glows of algebra and abstraction."

—Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tempest, at the Cutting Ball

(Caitlyn Louchard as Trinculo, David Sinaiko as Stephano, and Donell Hill as Caliban)

When you set out to stage The Tempest with only three actors, as director Rob Melrose has done at the Cutting Ball Theater, you add to an already difficult play inordinate confusion -- particularly in scenes with more than three characters. Before this production's intermission, however, when Prospero (David Sinaiko) uses his magical powers to simultaneously set in motion a love story and a revenge plot - all on a deserted island - Melrose almost pulls it off. He uses small but definitive changes (a dramatic shift in lighting and sound, an actress's switching her enormous spectacles for aviator sunglasses) to demarcate character and locale, to interesting effect: Shakespeare often intertwines multiple plots, all of which mirror each other, and seeing the same actors in different but parallel situations can heighten those scenes' impact.

Among the three performers, Caitlyn Louchard - as Miranda, Ariel and Trinculo, among others - thrives most under this directorial choice. She seizes it as an opportunity to demonstrate her range and skill: Her all-powerful spirit-figure is as convincing as her drunken clown and her sheltered ingenue. With her versatility and stamina, she finishes the job of character development that Melrose began with only a few small adjustments in mise-en-scene.

But after the intermission, Melrose inexplicably dispenses with the boundaries he had previously established. Costume, light and sound changes no longer signify what they had previously. It's difficult just to decipher which actor is playing which character, let alone what it's all supposed to mean. Even a recent reading of the text proves scant help. Amidst this chaos, the larger themes of Shakespeare's last great text - revenge and forgiveness, control and its renouncement, colonialism and its discontents - grow murky and, to the frustrated viewer, not worth the trouble to ponder.

The Tempest continues for one more week at the Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. For tickets, visit

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bay Area Performing Arts Spaces

This site, created by the magazine Theatre Bay Area, advertises itself as "a comprehensive, state-of-the-art, searchable database of performing arts venues and facilities in the greater Bay Area for classes, workshops, auditions, rehearsals and even performances." It's about time!

I tried a few different queries and was impressed with the ease of the search process, as well as the amount of useful data the creators have compiled. Hopefully, gaps in data (especially in pricing), will be filled in by the venues themselves as the database gains popularity.

My only question: If TBA can create this valuable resource, which covers spaces in 11 different counties, why is it that Yale undergraduates who seek a performance space in a single zip code, on a single campus, are limited to this hunk o' junk (which, if I recall correctly, was considered a major innovation)?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Plug

Penelope’s Odyssey after Homer

by Gary Graves, in collaboration with the ensemble

at Central Works

Jan Zvaifler as Penelope

(Photo by Jay Yamada)

Another member of the Critics Circle recommended this production, about the Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view (a popular theatrical topic this season), and I can see why. Central Works operates in an intimate, elongated thrust (my favorite type of space), situating its audience members so close to the action that they could trip the actors. This orientation obviates the need for presentation. Actors are afforded more interesting (and realistic) angles of interaction, and they need not amplify their physicalities for the back of a house. Each subtle gesture (or deliberate non-gesture) registers. You hold your breath, that you might hear the actors’ breathing.

The play itself, what’s more, moves along at a steady clip and constantly throws its players into impossible situations: Should Penelope (elegantly played by Jan Zvaifler) take a new husband, now that Odysseus has been missing ten years? How can Antinus (Matt Lai), her leading suitor, win her heart? Is he even worthy? Can Telemakos, (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) Penelope’s son/daughter, trust Penelope to do the right thing for their family? Is the man who later comes forward as Odysseus (Terry Lamb) really he? More importantly, who gets to make that decision, and who will benefit from the verdict?

Graves' writing constantly challenges the audience’s trust; we are never aligned with a single character for long. The title, and much of the action, suggests that Penelope is the protagonist, but by the play’s end even she has ulterior motives that complicate her reliability.

With only a few (but gorgeous) light and sound cues, by director John Patrick Moore, to guide the audience, these actors are truly on their own in this tiny space, their every breath and blink on full display. Under this pressure, some performers bring clearer and more honest performances than others, but the company on the whole is to be commended for producing an engaging evening on a shoestring budget.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Shared by friend-of-the-blog Ben Miller:

Is this the future of theatre criticism?