Monday, January 31, 2011

Clybourne Park

(Omozé Idehenre, Gregory Wallace and Richard Thieriot. Photo by Erik Tomasson.)

Last November, I wrote about whether it was a good idea to read other critics’ reviews of a show before writing my own. Friday night, as I walked out of Clybourne Park at ACT, I started to wonder if I should avoid press before seeing the show as well.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid the hype. ACT’s production came to me highly recommended: by other critics, by a professor, and by the fact that the theater had extended the show before it even opened.

The premise seemed great, too: Playwright Bruce Norris bases his work on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, one of the great American dramas of the twentieth century. In that play, the African-American Younger family seeks to move out of its South Side apartment into a nicer neighborhood of Chicago. In Clybourne Park, which gets its name from that very neighborhood, Norris chronicles the house the Youngers seek to own, at two crucial moments in its history. The first act follows the white family who sells it to the Youngers; the second jumps fifty years ahead, to the present day, when the neighborhood is predominantly black and white gentrifiers want to move in.

The conceit seemed an intelligent way to show the way race and neighborhood relations have changed—and stayed the same—in our country over the past half-century. But in the end, the show disappointed. The parallels between the acts were obvious and cute. The two expositions were long and confusing, full of irrelevant details. And worst of all, the playwright’s portrayal of race was simplified, hackneyed and cowardly. Almost every white character was imperceptive, rude and frankly downright idiotic, both in race relations and the management of his or her own life—and in the second act, without the excuse of 1950s mores. Black characters, by contrast, spoke and acted with common sense and dignity—the only people onstage you could imagine wanting to have a conversation with. But that was part of the trouble: you wanted to have conversations with them because you knew so little about them. As my wise companion put it, they were but shadows “around which the white characters freaked out.”

Clybourne Park makes for a tidy reversal of the way blackness and whiteness used to be performed. Norris trades in Mammy and Sambo stereotypes for caricatures of politically correct bleeding hearts and quietly racist yuppies. And maybe that’s his point: it’s time for white people to confront their parodied selves, as African-Americans have been forced to for so long. That could be, but Norris’ evident fondness for offensive jokes might just preclude any substantive conversation about performativity.

In its simplistic rendering of its central issue, Clybourne Park reminded me of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, which played at the Aurora last year. One of LaBute’s characters was a fat woman who had no discernible flaws aside from her weight. I emerged from the show no better at challenging my weight-based prejudices than I was before, as the character I'd spent the past two hours with felt so inhuman. Something similar could be said about Norris’ black characters, who seemed above flaw. Or about his white characters, who seemed mired in it. Either way, despite the production’s great acting, a balance needs to be struck—or I just need to stop having such high expectations.

Clybourne Park continues (Tuesday to Saturday, various times) until Feb. 20 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets ($10 and up), visit

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Companion Piece

(Chris Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt. Photo by Pak Han.)

When I walk out of a show feeling frustrated, I try to think that I’m supposed to react that way. “The creators were trying to challenge me,” I say to myself, “to upend my assumptions about how theater’s supposed to work. And the frustration I’m feeling is my inability to understand what I just saw. I don’t have an analytical framework with which to process it.”

But sometimes, the show is just a bad show. Challenge and frustration, after all, need not go hand in hand.

The Companion Piece, which I saw this evening at Z Space, was not a bad show by any means. Beth Wilmurt (who “conceived” the piece) and Chris Kuckenbaker, as a vaudeville duo in the midst of fashioning their act, paint a poignant, humorous and honest picture of the creative process: the way minds in collaboration sometimes need no words to communicate; just how much a performer desperately wants, and needs, an audience; the deeply personal disappointment that comes when artistic visions conflict; how delirious we can seem when trying to persuade our collaborators that, no, really, this idea will look fabulous if you just listen to what I’m saying.

And Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker, under the direction of famed Bay Area experimentalist Mark Jackson, do create some lovely images: utility ladders gliding on the floor like a pair of figure skaters; the actors’ feet illustrating a saloon encounter with the magic and subtlety of a professional puppet show.

But images in The Companion Piece are fleeting; it’s never long before one member of the duo grows dissatisfied with a scene and has to interrupt the whole thing with a different idea, or, worse, a discussion. Art, for everything it offers us, seems too fraught and futile by the performance’s end to be worth it. Maybe that’s where my frustration came from: I fundamentally disagree with that premise.

When bookended by Jake Rodriguez’s solo act—which, bizarrely, is performed in exactly the same way, in lines, expressions, gestures and audience interaction, both times—Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker’s piece loses much of its magic, its immediacy and urgency. Acts of theater, the performers suggest, are repetition, products to churn out on a factory assembly line.

It’s true that actors have to perform the same thing over and over again—vaudevillians even more so than others. And the few minutes I spent sitting through a replica of shtick I’d just seen might not have taken that much time out of my life: Maybe it was worth it to help me empathize with the actor’s plight.

But in almost any other show, five minutes of boredom and confusion would be five minutes too many. I’m not sure The Companion Piece deserves special treatment just because I was supposed to be “thinking” during theirs.

The Companion Piece continues (Thursday - Sunday, various times) through February 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. For tickets ($20 - $40), visit

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bone to Pick and Diadem

(Paige Rogers as Ria in Bone to Pick. Photo by Rob Melrose)

Seeing Bone to Pick and Diadem at the Cutting Ball Thursday night made me wish we could see Paige Rogers on stage more often. As the theater's co-founder and associate artistic director, Rogers more often directs than performs. But for these two retellings of the Ariadne myth, both one-woman shows, Rogers, a deft storyteller and a versatile mimic, could not have been better cast. Her easy command of the stage, under the direction of Rob Melrose, makes for an enchanting performance.

In the original Greek yarn, Princess Ariadne so falls in love with Theseus, a warrior, that she helps him defeat her half-brother, the Minotaur, by guiding him through the labyrinth where the half-man, half-bull lurks. In reimagining the myth, playwright-in-residence Eugenie Chan focuses her short plays on two distinct stages of Ariadne’s development. In Diadem, Ariadne is an idealistic and passionate teenager. In Bone to Pick, she is older and disillusioned. Diademis fairly consistent with, or at least suggests, the aesthetics of its ancient Greek source: Rogers is clad in a long white halter dress (by costume designer Jocelyn Herndon), her wavy blonde hair cascading down her back. The set, by Michael Locher, is unadorned but for a chair and a small altar, behind which sit five small female figurines on long, thin poles, staggered so as to suggest something of a maze. And save for a few comedic forays into contemporary vernacular – “Plunge thy rapier into the motherfucker!” – Chan’s language aspires to classical rhythms. Bone to Pick, by contrast, finds its home in the contemporary but alludes to the classical. Rogers, as “Ria,” comes onstage in a soiled pink waitress’s uniform. The skull of a Texas longhorn, coupled with Rogers’ impressive facility with the melodic rise and fall in a single Southern diphthong, places us firmly in the Southwest—which in this play is even more post-apocalyptic than it usually is.

The truths revealed by this sudden jump in place and time reminded me of those in Blue Valentine, the subject of my last post. The first blush of Ariadne’s love, when cruelly unrequited, quickly boils over into lust for revenge. Then, a more mature, self-aware and hardened Ria, drinking coffee directly from the pitcher, shows us what happens when strong emotions go long unresolved: self-abnegation reigns free, interrupted only by the occasional self-deprecating quip.

Often, however, especially in the second play, Chan’s writing obscures these interesting ideas. She gets too wrapped up in the cuteness of her own conceit, often to the complete exclusion of accessibility. At one point, Ria leading “Theo” through a safe to the last fresh beef in the world, starts shouting out disconnected numbers and commands. As my companion put it, “Why this random word and not some other?” Even Rogers’ indefatigable energy and rapt physicality—you can almost see the numbers on the dial of her mimed safe-combination lock—are no match for the muddle.

For a lesson in artistry and simplicity, Chan should look to the play’s designers. In its sets, the theater favors the symbolic over the representative, allowing light and sound to accomplish what many would leave to more concrete mise-en-scene elements—a philosophy I admire, though I should point out that this is the second Cutting Ball play in a row that’s overused echoing. This production’s most prominent visual was its rear wall, a checkerboard of metallic panels, each of the lines on its grid dotted with light bulbs. The various moods lighting designer Heather Basarab created on it, and the labyrinth it alluded to, were often more helpful storytellers than the text itself.

In Rogers’ next stage appearance, let’s hope she finds a more deserving vehicle.

Bone to Pick and Diadem continue through February 13 at the Cutting Ball Theater. For tickets ($15 - $50), visit

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blue Valentine

(Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Derek Cianfrance's film)

The stars aligned this week, and, in what's amounting to a biannual foray, I went to the cinema. "Blue Valentine" was the draw. I'd been sucked in by the hype - and not just from the critic-barons; I also got a recommendation from a real, live friend.

The film documents two discrete relationship-slices: when Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Gosling) first meet and fall in love, and four to five years later, when they are in the fog and rage of their marriage. Director Derek Cianfrance, in unceremoniously cutting between the two moments in time, suggests that the lust of discovery and the rut of familiarity are but two sides of the same coin.

I'll agree with what's been said about the film's very fine acting (Gosling, with his boyish ingenuousness, is particularly well-suited to his role) and its refreshingly complicated portrayal of love. But I was frustrated by its take on gender. Maybe one of the reasons that I don't go to the movies too often is that it's hard to find anything in which female characters have as much personality and depth as their male counterparts. (The same claim could obviously be leveled against the theatre, but maybe I just have more luck finding plays that are the exception to the rule.) All too often, even in independent films, female characters are defined exclusively by their ditziness, their aloofness, or their ambition. (Williams' role is unquestionably centered on the third.) It is the fuller, more nuanced male characters who say the lines we remember, who remind us of ourselves or of people we know.

Leaving the theater, I remembered that the director, two of the three screenwriters, and all three people who'd recommended "Blue Valentine" to me were male. I shared this thought with my male companion and asked him if he thought that the relative lack of women involved in our moviegoing might have accounted for the two hours we'd just spent with a well-made film about a boring lady. His response surprised me: He was feeling similarly disappointed by the male characters, every one of whom, he pointed out, uses violence to dominate the women in his life. Somehow, in my obsessive tabulation of which good lines went to which character, I'd missed this blatantly gendered pattern of abuse. Evidently, I'd assumed it natural, even unremarkable, that men in film should resort to violence.

But now I think my friend and I were just reacting to the same thing from different points of view: The imbalanced way with which "Blue Valentine" deals with gender felt dated, almost primitive - decidedly opposed to the way we prefer to see the world.

Monday, January 10, 2011

2011: A Belated Hello

(Rowena Richie, Peter Griggs, Natalie Greene, in A Hand in Desire. Photo by Jeff Crook.)

What are "picks" but reviews without hindsight or critical rigor? Clearly they allow critics an easy way to promote their friends (or, more pessimistically, their benefactors). Yet Theatre Bay Area and the Times both regularly practice the seedy art, so perhaps I should look on it more kindly. Writing about a production before it goes up is surely a useful exercise for critics, who elsewhere get to adopt such privileged, knowing tones. Maybe writing "picks" forces you to acknowledge your tastes and prejudices and share them with your readers. Most importantly: maybe it lets you take a risk. So here are mine, for the dawn of 2011:

  • A Hand In Desire, by Emspace - The company reinterprets Streetcar as a dance piece, the drawing of a card determining which of 52 scenes will be enacted each evening. I'm much less experienced as a critic of dance, but I feel that broader exposure to the form will help me better recognize and describe physical choices I appreciate in the theatre.
  • The Companion Piece, at ZSpace - A love letter to vaudevillian duos, starring Beth Wilmurt, whose artistic intelligence has consistently impressed me since I started seeing shows in the area.
  • The Seagull, at Marin Theatre Company - This production is one of two Chekhov "adaptations" to be mounted this season; I'm excited to read mere "translations" of the plays beforehand so as to figure out precisely what the more liberal term means.
  • What We're Up Against, at the Magic - The Magic's last production of Theresa Rebeck's work - Mauritius, in 2009 - remains my favorite Bay Area theatrical experience. I'll try not to have unreasonable expectations going into this next one.
  • The Dog and Pony Show, at the Marsh - Holly Hughes stars in this autobiographical solo show dubiously described as post-Lesbian. She featured prominently in a college course I took on early feminist theater, and I can't wait to see my old textbooks come to life.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

2010: The Last Goodbye

As I was writing my article this week, which lists my favorite shows from 2010, I could not resist the temptation to reread my reviews from the year. I was curious to see if hindsight would reveal some trends - did I favor certain kinds of shows over others? did my taste or my writing change over time? most importantly: how many words and phrases did I overuse? (For whatever it's worth, "pity," "unfortunate," and "shame" enjoy a distinct preponderance.)

(New Year's Resolutions: Write better, and have better hair.)

Most of my favorite reviews, unfortunately (!), were written before I'd started graduate school, which suggests the extra time I used to have for tinkering and nitpicking really did make a difference. In fact, I can pick a single favorite from the year: My review of California Shakespeare Theater's The Pastures of Heaven. I remember trying to select each word with unusual care, to force each bit of figurative language to help transition from one idea to the next, rather than just weigh down its own clunky sentence.

In the entire year of criticism, I upbraided most frequently a production's "lack of clarity," which, incidentally, comprises both many of the writing lessons I give for my day job and one of my own biggest flaws as a writer. When I met with one of the established, paid (!) SF theatre critics last year, he told me (unsolicitedly, but rightly) that, reading my reviews, he didn't always understand what I was talking about.

So in this new year, I resolve that each time I write that an actor should refine his movement, a writer should pare down her dialogue, or a director should make bolder choices, I will at least try to express that thought with a modicum of clarity.

Happy 2011!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

From "Why Criticism Matters"

"The age of evaluation... of the Olympian critic as cultural arbiter, is over...It's time to hear less of critics talking about themselves, spinning reviews out of their charming memories." - Stephen Burn

"The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing." - Katie Roiphe

"The specific historical circumstances that confine the critical reception of literatures in Europe and America to a few specialists do not exist anywhere else." - Pankaj Mishra

"What this displacement takes from the critic in terms of confidence and authority, it perhaps restores to him in terms of integrity and freedom." - Adam Kirsch

"In the grand game of intertextuality - which is, after all, the dominant and defining game of the Internet era - critics are not just referees: they're equal players." - Sam Anderson

"The role of the critic is then less to exhaustively explain any single work than to identify, in a group of works, a reflection of some conditioned aspect of reality." - Elif Batuman


Few new problems, or solutions, recounted here. I would only add a single theory: new critics won't rise to great influence precisely because our youth - myself included, if you're generous - doesn't expect them to. At least, not as we usually understand it. Critics of the future might still steer the crowds, but they will either do so in disguise (as snide talk show hosts or impassioned bloggers) or with their "crowds" defined less by general interest and more by niche.