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.