Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review

In compiling his top ten of 2011 list, the Times’ Ben Brantley wrote, “This was a year for celebrating both the enduring power of traditional theater and the creative stealth bombs that can be planted within it, for putting new and explosive life into classic vessels.”  On the other hand, Terry Teachout, of the WSJ, called this “the year of the revival.”  For his own list, Charles Isherwood found a trend in “American playwriting that strives to tell subtler if less handily marketable truths.”  And Bay Area critic Chloe Veltman has called 2011 “the Year of the Puppeteer.”   
I’m not going to do a top ten list, and I’m not going to reveal my descriptor for 2011 (at least, not until my next review comes out Tuesday night).  But I will use this arbitrary marker of time as an occasion to reflect on my criticism.  Obviously, the big event of the year was switching papers.  But the smaller developments (and some are quite small) deserve contemplation, too.  I’ve now reread every published review of the year (no small undertaking), and here are some thoughts:
Most reviews I now remember so poorly that I can reread them in genuine suspense.  Sometimes they even seem like they were written by another person.  I made some mistakes I’ve mostly overcome (thanks largely to my new editor), like the information overload in this clunker:
These pre-show antics are far from the only contemporary allusions director Jon Tracy makes in Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the Joad family’s journey from the dustbowl to California during the Great Depression. 
But there were also some mistakes I still make: wordy transitions, excessive colons and dashes.  (Periods just feel so harsh!)  On the other hand, a few reviews still feel like well-written essays in their own right, and some descriptions were effective enough to conjure images I’d forgotten about.  Snark, as I’ve written elsewhere, looks harsher than deserved in retrospect.  And I like most of my conclusions that introduced a bigger idea or broader context, to give the show and the review more meaning, but once in a while that device ended up looking cheesy, probably when I tried to force it on the review instead of letting it emerge naturally.
One idea that came up again and again was “insistence on the stage,” a phrase which I should attribute to one of my professors, Larry Eilenberg.  (Just another plagiarizing grad student!)  It refers to a work of art that could only take place, or at least resonate fully, in live stage performance—not, like many plays, on the page, the television or the silver screen.  It’s been helpful to refer to when I’m trying to understand why I’m bored with or enchanted by a production.  More broadly, it also reminds me that I need to constantly ask myself what performance is, how it operates, and why it’s special.  When I keep those questions in mind, as I hope to more consistently in 2012, my reviewing becomes more informed, more engaging and more accessible.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo last night and was very entertained.  Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) has classic underdog appeal, the plot (a murder case decades in the making) is intricate enough to keep you intrigued but not so complex as to be inaccessible, and the underlying ethos, while plagued by a series of rapists and Nazis, as well as a garden variety leading man (Daniel Craig) who has sex with every female character, can get away with calling itself feminist.

As A. O. Scott recently wrote in the Times, however, there are some quaint devices, like the James Bond-esque bad guy who confesses everything right before he attempts to kill the hero in a Dr. Seussian way instead of by just shooting him.  But I enjoyed having my strings pulled by this film, largely because of the compelling character that is Lisbeth.  She’s diminutive—“emaciated”—in stature, with all kinds of earrings and tattoos and a fondness for what an ignoramus like me might dub death metal.  She’s been abused and victimized her entire life, and has all the social skills of an Asperger’s sufferer as a result, but she also wields a remarkable skill set: spying, hacking, researching.  She knows how to get revenge, but she also has her weaknesses (as all female characters must, obvi).  All the same, she represents a refreshing departure from the norm for action film protagonists.

Because I see a lot of theater, film, when I do see it, is a marvel.  Film directors can accomplish so much in so brief a time, suggesting an entire scene in just a few seconds.  The screenplay of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an excellent adaptation, thrifty in its storytelling, brisk in its pace.  (While A. O. Scott found the exposition ponderous, I thought it necessary to the narrative.)  (And my mother, an avid fan of the trilogy, said the film felt quite faithful to the book.)  The experience makes me wonder how many contemporary novels could be readily adapted into plays.  My uneducated guess is not many; current narratives seem to tend toward the cinematic in structure.  And how many novels could limit themselves to only a few scene changes?  Theater might continue to be on its own for a while.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Two-Bit Operation

Today I thought I'd look over my essays from this year's PhD program applications (fourth time's the charm?).  I turned in the last one a week ago and haven't looked at them since.  I was curious to see if they would look any different now that I've shed the yoke of deadlines (or accepted my defeat by it).

Unfortunately, they're not as different as I'd hoped they'd be.  But there are a few excerpts I thought I'd share because they help explain why I write this blog.  Enjoy!

As an undergrad, I was focused on inhabiting the present-tense-ness of performance through the creation of art—specifically, art that discomforts, that makes you painfully aware of the slowness of now, that seems to drift outside time, that insists on the body.  As a playwright, I found an expanse of time in a moment of expressing the need to touch.  As an actor, I let loose the aural and physical wail in a syllable.  As a director, I forced audiences to gaze at a female body and then to deal with their gazing. 

But I struggled with my urge to create.  I didn’t just want to discomfort others; that felt too easy.  I hungered to live with discomfort, to let it churn and evolve in my mind, to deal with it both as an expansive experience intractably bound by the present tense, and as a compartmentalized event to be captured, dissected, reconstructed.  That is for me the joyous contradiction in which I found the highest expression as a critic.  My answers to criticism's most basic questions—What is the project of criticism?  When does it succeed?  When does it fail?—are constantly in flux.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ladies in Waiting, by No Nude Men

My last review of 2011, of a trio of experimental feminist plays, was published yesterday.

The show continues through tonight only, but don't worry that the blog is taking a break for the rest of the year!  Though I'm off to Texas this week, there are still a few treats in store for this site.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Surprisingly wise words from an animated film

 (Note the scarf, pale complexion and nearby glass of wine.  So accurate.)

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends."

-- The Critic's Speech in "Ratatouille"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

God's Plot, at Shotgun

(Most of the ensemble.  Photo by Pak Han.)

In my latest review, of God’s Plot, at Shotgun, I allocate space in a way I’ve been criticized for in the past: discussing themes and context at the expense of design and performance.

Every critic brings a unique background and set of predilections to his or her writing.  Previous incarnations of Lily include a director and a playwright, but I’m not an actress, and I’ve never even tried to design.  It’s no wonder I so often find myself drawn to write about the categories in which I have some experience, where I’m not just better informed but also more imaginative: There, I can more easily envision alternatives to artists’ choices.

What that means is that I sometimes don’t talk as much about costume, lighting, set and sound designers or actors as I do directors and playwrights.  And in a play like God’s Plot, in which I thought all aspects of the production were very fine, I’m neglecting to praise artists of merit.

A critic has two conflicting imperatives: to review a play holistically, and to relate a predominant impression, i.e., to talk about what moved him or her.  It’s tough to do both, especially the holistic part.  There’s always another detail you could include, another shout-out you could throw in. 

And maybe even with a universally well-done show, I’m still entitled to write about the parts I found most intriguing.  Attempting to name everything, after all, can start to look like a laundry list.

Still, I wish I could have named more names in the article.  Info about the show, which continues through Jan. 14, is available here.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes, by Trannyshack

Last week, I saw my first drag show:

Let's just say that, should I ever catch a re-run of the sitcom on Lifetime, I won't be able to look at it quite the same way.

My review is available here.  The show continues for a couple more weeks; info here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Dardy Family Home Movies, at the San Francisco Film Society

In many ways, contemporary theater is trying to be more like film, and not always for the better.  Movie star names are practically a must for Broadway marquees, and, as one of my professors likes to note, video projection is now so common a stage device that the Yale School of Drama has started offering a design degree in the subject.

So when I heard about The Dardy Family Home Movies by Stephen Sondheim by Erin Markey, a "live performance with video projection" at the San Francisco Film Society, I imagined the tables turning:  Now it's film -- or at least a film society -- that's trying to be more like theater!  Bwahaha!

(Erin Markey, not Stephen Sondheim.  Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)

But as I discussed in my review of the autobiographical solo show, I found its filmic elements to be its least successful.  The piece is quite strong; the emphasis on multimedia only clutters it.

The show continues through this Sunday.  Info here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Two Tennessee Williams Reviews

I still remember the first time I read this opening stage direction:

The Wingfield apartment is in the rear of the building, one of those vast hive-like conglomerations of cellular living-units that flower as warty growths in overcrowded urban centres of lower-middle-class population and are symptomatic of the impulse of this largest and fundamentally enslaved section of American society to avoid fluidity and differentiation and to exist and function as one interfused mass of automatism. 
The apartment faces an alley and is entered by a fire-escape, a structure whose name is a touch of accidental poetic truth, for all of these huge buildings are always burning with the slow and implacable fires of human desperation.

That's The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, one of the plays that high-school Lily carried around like a mental talisman.  Words like this exist.

Last week, I saw a production of the play for the first time, at Marin Theatre Company.  Fire escapes did feature prominently in the industrial set (designed by Kat Conley):

(Photos by Alessandra Mello.)

But as I tried to convey in my review of the production, it was one character who had me enthralled, and it wasn't the character I was expecting to follow.  When I first read the play, I was enchanted by Lauraso sweet, but so withdrawn.  But MTC's production surprised me in how much it made feel for Tom, Laura's brother.  I'm going to keep my eye on Nicholas Pelczar, the actor who played him (above left), from now on.  

The Glass Menagerie continues through Dec. 18.  Info here.


The previous week, at SF Playhouse, I had another pleasant TW-related surprise when I saw his Period of Adjustment, a show I'd never heard of before.  It's a Christmas comedy, which sounds sufficiently out of character for Williams that I had rather low expectations.  I hope this review shows how wrong I was.

(SF Playhouse shows that TW can in fact do Christmas romcoms.  Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)
Period of Adjustment continues through Jan. 14.  Info here.


In retrospect, I've been wondering if I should have written these two reviews as one piece, to see if juxtaposition could reveal further interesting points.  But at the same time, the two plays might not have much more in common than their author and their general high quality.  Either way, I'm starting to look for pieces I could write for SF Weekly that would be more than just a review of a single production.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Criticism and Yogurt

A friend turned me on to Charles Isherwood's Yogurt Shop, a delightful little blog mocking Charles Isherwood's theatre criticism in the Times.  If you want to learn how the site got its name -- and why each post features an incongruous photo of yogurt -- the "about" section offers only this quote by way of explanation:

‘[T]he prospect of five more [plays] next year ... frankly leaves me contemplating abandoning my vocation to open a yogurt shop in Long Island City.’ (Isherwood, NYT, 10/7/11)

If Isherwood has such disdain for his work, why should we treat his opinions so reverentially?  Perhaps I have, I realize, and perhaps I need to dig more deeply into his writing and compare him to his peers before taking his reviews at face value.

Each Yogurt Shop posts contains a quote from a review that, when taken out of context, does look pretty silly, an alluring photo of yogurt (presumably to give Isherwood that final push he needs to change careers), and tags.  Of the latter, some favorites:

  • Classic Isherwood Metaphor
  • Isherwood Openly Not Being Good at His Job
  • Isherwood Celebrates Mediocrity
  • Isherwood Asking the Tough Questions

Of course, such close scrutiny of a critic is its own kind of reverence, and, more generally, no matter how you write a review, someone can always find fault with it.  But Yogurt Shop serves as a refreshing reminder that the stakes of these reviews aren't necessarily as high as we think they are, and that one critic's opinion -- no matter what publication s/he writes for -- needn't be worth much more than a single-serve processed dairy product.

Overheard at the Ashby Stage last night

"There's no gluten in a margarita."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On the Horrors of High School

Earlier this week, I wrote reviews of two shows that are both very much steeped in the hell that is high school.  First was Paul Zindel's The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, at the Custom Made Theatre Co.  This is the only real play I myself have ever directed (in college), so I felt like I could see the choices director Katja Rivera made much more clearly and specifically than I usually do.

(Michelle Jasso and Alona Bach in a moment of model parenting.  Photo by Jay Yamada.)

 The show continues through Dec. 11 at the Gough Street Playhouse.  Info here.

Next up was The Chalk Boy, at the Impact Theatre.  If both plays show girls finding ways to exist in hostile environments, this play's journey was less interesting to me, but it still had some worthwhile comedic moments.

(Just to create a controlled-substance theme in this post's photos.  Luisa Frasconi and Caitlyn Tella show how to maintain a high in between Whip-It runs to the grocery store.  Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.)

The Chalk Boy continues through Dec. 10 at La Val's Subterranean.  Info here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sticky Time, by Crowded Fire and Vanguardian Productions

(Rami Margron, Lawrence Radecker and Michele Leavy in the co-production.  Photo by Dave Nowakowsaki.)

There was one image I loved in Sticky Time, an experimental co-production by Crowded Fire and Vanguard Productions that just closed:  Two performers on opposite sides of the stage froze in dramatic poses.  Then a video projected onto the body of each performer showing that performer acting out the scene (i.e., they were two different videos, timed so that the actors could have been delivering the lines in real time).  The play of moving image and sound on top of static, silent, but live body—both of which were representations of the same performer—was fascinating.  At any time, I could only take in either the image or the live body; if I tried to see the whole picture at once, the live body appeared to be moving.

High-concept as the show was, that moment was the only one that really captivated my imagination.  And it didn’t even seem necessary to the story; my enjoyment of it was purely aesthetic.  By virtue of the show's being experimental, one might expect it would play with the idea of “story,” if it even had one at all.  But I felt no connection to what I was seeing: three workers in a “time recycling plant” and a god-figure all making fatuous rhymes and wordplay with time-related expressions with lots of vague assertions of pain.  (I describe the piece a little more thoroughly in this feature in SF Weekly’s Night + Day section.)  Perhaps I would have felt differently if the show’s real topic, coming to terms with death, had become apparent earlier; as it was, I felt like I was listening to lots of histrionic screaming without knowing why.

But one thing I appreciated—and I don’t mean this in a snarky way—was that the show only lasted an hour.  There’s a general assumption in theater that you have to entertain audiences for about two hours for them to feel like they’ve had their money’s worth, which leads to a lot of over-long dramas, not to mention a certain monotony in the theatergoing experience.  So an interesting decision about length, even in an unsuccessful play, is still refreshing.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Fela!, at the Curran: So Saxy

(The cast of the musical.  Photo by Monique Carboni.)

Seeing Fela!, the bio-musical about Fela Kuti, creator of Afrobeat, at the Curran Wednesday night reminded me of theater's capacity to expose and educate.

I'd never listened to Afrobeat before, but what a great route it is out of my British Invasion/Motown/jazz standards rut.  I can't get enough of the sax.  I attempt to describe the genre in my review of the musical, which appeared on the Exhibitionist this morning.

(Listen to this as you read this post/instead of reading.)

Of course, I shouldn't have to be reminded that theater has the capacity to teach; that should be par for the course.  Why and how did I come to feel this way?  In general, when I'm at a show, is my mind open?  Do I avoid shows that don't directly relate to my own life?  Is the theater scene at large complicit, reluctant to challenge its audiences and critics by putting hitherto underrepresented arenas of the human experience onstage?

From now on, I need to address all three of these questions more explicitly as I choose which shows to cover.

In the meantime, Fela! continues through Dec. 11.  Show info here.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pelleas and Melisande, at the Cutting Ball

(Caitlyn Louchard and Josh Schell in Maurice Maeterlinck's Symbolist masterpiece.  Photo by Annie Palladino.)

My review of Pelleas and Melisande, at the Cutting Ball, appeared on the Exhibitionist yesterday.

The show runs through Nov. 27.  Info here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Theater Salon

I went to my first “theater salon” Sunday night.  The group, a mix of theater artists, producers and critics, has been hosting infrequent and informal gatherings for about five years.  Each meeting has a general topic with a few suggested points of inquiry; this meeting’s was theater criticism—not just public criticism, what I do, but also the less formal criticism from a peer or friend.

The event was wonderful for me for a number of reasons.  First, perhaps more than any other type of theater person, critics work alone.  If we talk to anyone while making our art, it’s our editors, and, as I’ve said before, via email.  When we complete a work, often the only satisfaction we get is in clicking the “send” button; after that it becomes official property of the digital abyss, with only our loved ones, the rare publicist and the even rarer stranger ever inclined to have a conversation about it.  Putting a group of people who share a passion together in a “salon” naturally changes all that—especially since participants hail from a mix of professions.  One of the salon’s missions is to help critics and artists see each other less as adversaries and more as colleagues.  I left feeling enlivened, remembering that much as we let the curtain divide us, we do all have the same goal: to get San Franciscans to see great theater.

It was also great for me to feel taken seriously by, well, grown-ups.  Too often I feel like a little kid who’s just pretending to do this theater critic thing, and to be honest, I hid in the bathroom for a few minutes at the beginning.  But so open were the old hands at this that I quickly went from skulking around the bar to asking clarification questions to asking questions I really cared about: Is it going too far in a review to prescribe a way for a director to fix a show?  I also got to talk to some actors of my generation, which gave me yet another sense of community.

Finally, I got some great bits of food for thought about the role of a critic.  One person suggested that a critic be like a curator, providing artistic and historical context and suggesting a way to approach an art form that many find intimidating.  Theaters just don’t make their work accessible the way museums do, the thought went.  Because audiences are more likely to read a review than they are a program insert (a claim I found dubious), part of the educating should happen in the newspaper.  That herculean responsibility is part of why I’m (re)applying to PhD programs this year.  The idealist in me believes that a review ought to have the weight and insight of a full academic paper behind it; it’ll just (hopefully) be written in more concise and intelligible prose.

Another participant proposed that a critic be like any other newspaper reporter, with theater as his/her beat.  Bernie Weiner, the former Chronicle theater critic, was held up as an example of what this philosophy of reviewing can do.  Even when he wrote a negative piece, someone said, he still got you excited about the theater.  No matter how bad a show was, he took care to identify one part that transcended the rest and describe it a way that made you want, if not to see it, at least to talk about it or keep a sharper eye on the theater scene.  I experimented with this mode in a review that will soon be published; we’ll have to see if I succeeded.

There were so many more ideas shared than I can remember.  Much as I wanted to, I didn’t take notes at the event—because that would be frightfully uncool, of course, but also because I was supposed to be a contributor, not an observer.

I’m sure these salons are the kind of event that give you a high and raise your expectations the first time you go, but I’m definitely stoked for future gatherings.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Working for the Mouse, at the Exit

(Trevor Allen in the happiest place on earth.  Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.)

I saw Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen’s solo show about working at Disneyland, with +3, as opposed to my usual +1.  Different as we are—by age, political persuasion, etc.—all four of us walked out of the theater with extremely similar opinions.  My take on the show, which runs at the Exit Theatre through Dec. 17, is available here.  

Race, at A.C.T.

(Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Chris Butler and Kevin O'Rourke in David Mamet's latest. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

The reason that I wanted to review David Mamet’s Race at A.C.T., even though my editors usually prefer I cover shows with longer runs, is that I thought it would be easy to write about.

I already know what I think about Mamet, I had thought.  I love “Mametspeak”:  His ear for the rhythms of American speech, with all its fragments and profanities and ellipses, and his ability to weave multiple percussive voices into a kind of baroque sinfonia usually make for great musical entertainment.  But he’s such a jerk.  It’s not just that his worldview is bleak, even Hobbesian, his characters all expletive-spouting, tough-guy Machiavels.  It’s that his overblown sense of himself, which this recent Times interview succinctly conveys, comes through in his plays so forcefully that I’m distracted from his drama.

Passionate feelings often make for a better review, I’d observed, so while this play is likely to sink my spirits and rouse my anger, I’ll cover it anyway.

But what I didn’t realize was that I was letting my prejudice write the article.  Because I’d made so many assumptions about Mamet, the first draft of the review sounded like a confused collection of unsubstantiated assertions—knowing, even disdainful, in tone but devoid of the courtesy of drawing the reader into my reaction, making him feel what I felt.

My editor sent it back for major rewrites, and the second time around, I sought to spend the entire review systematically “proving” one feeling.  While the final product isn’t my best work, it’s certainly better than my first draft.

A lot of my weaker openings suffer from an abyss of generalizations.  So one point I want to focus on in the two reviews I’ll be writing this weekend—of Pelleas and Melisande at the Cutting Ball and The Chalk Boy at the Impact—is finding a way to incorporate images, details, evidence earlier, even in first paragraphs, but without sounding like a classic, high school-style “scene setting” hook (a technique I teach my poor little students).

But I suppose what makes an introduction feel fresh is less about technique (how many of those can there be, anyway?) than language. 

Roget’s, here I come. 

Race continues through Nov. 13 at A.C.T., 415 Geary St., SF.  Info here.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beach Blanket Babylon

(Curt Branom as Michele Bachmann in the nation's longest-running musical revue.  Photo by Rick Markovich.)

I went to BeachBlanket Babylon for the first time last weekend expecting to come away with lots of hoity-toity criticisms.  I wound up having a grand ol’ time in spite of myself.  The musical revue (a wisp of a story that offers as many excuses to break into song as possible) has been spoofing pop culture and politics since 1974 (the nation’s longest for a show of this kind), and it’s easy to see why it’s lasted so long.

The Chronicle describes BBB as “a constant cascade of showstoppers,” and the first one starts about thirty seconds in. They’re oldies and standards—everything from Elvis to Madonna to Les Mis—sung by voices that make you think, “How is this performer not a rock star?”  Though there’s not a dud in the ensemble, Renee Lubin, in particular, who’s been performing with the company for 26 years, so owns the stage that your nerves are already tingling before she’s finished making her entrance. 

But you only get a verse and a chorus—sometimes less—before a door opens, another soloist appears, and the music changes. With the focus changing every few seconds, I found myself giving up on taking notes.  “Theater for the twitter crowd” is not a phrase I like to use, but this show is more fickle than the most distractible audience member (which might be my mother, who was there, and rapt). 

What really makes it hard to look away, or unfreeze your pen, are the overwhelming costumes.  The performers’ clothes, wigs and hats often doubled their size, both in width and height.  Some headpieces arguably included enough props to qualify as an entire set.  So cumbersome are these cephalo-worlds that they mandate a particular posture and walk to keep them afloat, and there’s almost as much pleasure in watching the balancing act as in watching the event itself.

Equally crucial to show’s success is how accessible its parodies are.  You only have to have heard one thing about the subject to get the joke; they’re mostly jests we’ve already heard a million times already but still love to laugh at.  Sometimes what makes them funny is that they’re such apt distillations of the way we think about (or stereotype) a personality.  Sarah Palin’s costume, a red bathing suit and a gun, is so effective that she almost didn’t have to say anything.  (If only that worked in real life.)  The jokes also cross generational and political divides; only once or twice did I have to nudge a companion to ask for a cultural reference.  Some of the jokes—on Bill Clinton or Barbra Striesand—feel especially weathered, which got me thinking: What it is that makes some caricatures make it into permanent pop culture comedy repertoire, while others lose their humor within weeks or months?

My one major qualm with the production is the way it deploys race.  If you decide your show needs a witch doctor, why make the one black man in your large ensemble play him?  Ought you really make that same black actor “pass” as Hispanic in another character?  If you want a black woman to play Coco Chanel, how much mileage do you really get out of a “Cocoa Chanel” pun?

BBB is already so funny and entertaining that I felt like it could easily dispense with moronic jokes like these and focus on what it does best:  rousing pop renditions performed under a canopy of hats and wigs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mile-high Theater

If you’ve never flown Virgin America before—as I hadn’t before this weekend—you may not know that there’s an airline out there clever and coy enough to theatricalize the commercial air travel experience.

It all starts with the almost neon blue and purple cabin lights.  I walked in feeling like I was entering a concept bar in SOMA with $12 cocktails.

I wasn’t too far off.  The first thing the lead flight attendant said on the intercom was “let’s get this party started.”  He then told us that our airplane was his “second-favorite kind” of flying machine, the first being a spaceship.

But the real highlight was the safety instructional video, which simultaneously said all the things airlines are legally required to say—about how to pull tabs to tighten an oxygen mask, a warning to that guy who was thinking about tampering with the smoke detector in the bathroom—while simultaneously sending up those videos.  It’s not just the lines themselves, like, “for the .001% of you who have never seen a seatbelt before.”  There’s also the sarcastic tone of the narrator, whose every sentence drips with disdain, seemingly asking us, “Can you believe we have to tell you this again?  In fact, why are you even listening?”  Wild Brain’s artful illustrations, which look like New Yorker cartoons in motion, are also great in that they make the personality-less figures who usually populate these videos into real human beings with improbable flying-related foibles.  My favorite was the nun with the arsenal of sophisticated personal electronic devices she didn’t want to turn off.

The whole tone was very knowing, even a little presumptuous and smug in the way it assumed its audience consisted of experienced fliers, all insiders to the joke.  I wonder how many passengers on the average flight are flying for the first time, or at least pretty inexperienced.  I wonder if anyone has ever complained to Virgin about the snark.

Insensitive insider that I am, I like it.  Virgin clearly recognizes who its target audience is—I wasn’t the only one who was smiling—which is more than I can say for a lot of theaters.  It’s also a clever, original way of bringing artistic vision where it hitherto hadn’t existed.  But most of all, I like the suggestion that this whole traveling experience—the stuff the flight attendants say, the way we’re corralled like animals, and even, if you’ll permit a stretch, the security routine—is nothing but a charade.

You could say I’m reading too much into this (or that I’m four years late in writing this), but it’s probably no wonder that this concept came from an airline that’s also owned by a record company.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Richard III, at the Curran

(Photo by Alastair Muir.)

My review of Richard III, starring Kevin Spacey, hit the newsstands on Wednesday—my first review of a movie star in a stage performance. 

Before this show, I hadn’t known that Spacey had done at least as much work in theater as he has in film.  So it’s no wonder that he was natural—if not revelatory—in the role.

The production, which on the whole is not as strong as its lead, ended its San Francisco run yesterday.  Next stops include Athens, Hong Kong and Spain!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Rite of Passage

(Don Reed in his new solo show, The Kipling Hotel, at the Marsh.  Photo by Ric Omphroy.)

Someone posted a negative comment to the web copy of my review of Don Reed's The Kipling Hotel, at the Marsh -- a first for me.  I've been disagreed with before, of course, but this is the first time a stranger felt so strongly about what I wrote that s/he had to write a response.  

My editor gave me good advice about how to deal with this situation:  You don't have to respond at all, and if you do, wait an hour after writing before you click "submit."  And if the commenter responds to your response, let him/her have the last word unless you're arguing about facts.

Last year, the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, discussed a similar situation.  One member received a letter from a director of a show about which he'd written a negative review; the critic was wondering if and how he ought to respond.  The rest of the membership offered a range of possible actions.  Many suggested he simply ignore it; others said to respond only if the director's tone was civil; still others championed a simple response -- ask for clarification, or say, "Thank you for reading my review so carefully"; some even recommended meeting in person to hash things out.

A stranger on the internet and an artist who's discussed in a review are, of course, different situations and call for different responses.  As for my online commenter, I did decide to respond, for two main reasons: S/he put effort into it, and I thought the comment had some good points.  

I reject the flat-out "ignore it" philosophy because I think it's a little too easy.  And it's not just because of the age we live in, when an internet-fueled plurality of voices knocks would-be professional "arbitrators" off their high horses.  It's because, as I've said before, if critics want their own criticism taken seriously, they must take criticism of their criticism seriously.

But it's important to find a middle ground between refusing to "debase" yourself by acknowledging that the comment section exists and defending your writing in a petty back-and-forth.  For me, that middle ground will probably look something like standing by my writing much of the time, but ceding a point when the commenter makes a good one.  Conveying my honest reaction to a show is my chief aim in writing every review, but that's a lot harder than it sounds; some articles are less successful than others.  This comment about my Kipling review really made me question whether the article had the right balance, and for that I am indebted to the commenter.  

For now, I'm just glad I haven't received responses as nasty as those the Chronicle's theater critic, Rob Hurwitt, gets (the Chron's online comment section is a notorious free-for-all).  Such is the price of being as close to this town gets to a critical arbitrator!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Two One-Acts, at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

(Michael J. Asberry and Wilma Bonet in the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre production.)

My review of Day of Absence, by Douglas Turner Ward, and Almost Nothing, by Marcos Barbosa—two one-acts at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre—just appeared on The Exhibitionist.

The show continues through Nov. 20.  Info here.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Interview with the Cutting Ball's Rob Melrose

(Joshua Schell and Caitlyn Louchard in the title roles.  Photo by Annie Paladino.)

I recently interviewed Rob Melrose about his upcoming production of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande, at the Cutting Ball.  My article is now available here.

Previews begin tomorrow; this one should be exquisite.  Show info here.

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.