Friday, November 23, 2012

Phaedra's Love, by Do It Live!

(Not your grandmother's Greek myth. Michael Zavala and Whitney Thomas. Photo by Gabby Battista.)

This review, of Phaedra's Love by Do It Live!, was a pleasure to write. First, I was excited to be able to support this company, which is composed of current SFSU students and recent alums. Discovering and promoting promising young companies are among a critic's most joyous duties.

I was also delighted to rediscover the playwright Sarah Kane, whose work I hadn't seen or read since college. Much in her dramatic universe felt similar to the work of playwright Young Jean Lee (the subject of my master's thesis). They both scoff at taboos, revel in the grotesque, and pay no attention to the way a story is "supposed" to go. 

I hope this is only the beginning of a Kane revisit!

Phaedra's Love has closed, but you can find out more about the company here.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Grimaldis Are Dead, by Dane Ballard Productions and Circus Center San Francisco

(Dane Ballard and Theresa Christine as ghosts of the family of the title. Photo by Rachel Golden.)

Benjamin Wachs and my latest podcast review, of The Grimaldis Are Dead, a coproduction by Dane Ballard Productions and Circus Center San Francisco, wasn't pleasant for anybody. Except maybe for you listeners? But we tried our darndest to be honest, and I think it's one of our most polished pieces. I think we're starting to hit our groove as copodcasters.

The Grimaldis Are Dead just closed tonight, but you can find out more about the show here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Epic Poetry and Epic Theater Critic Requirements

(The great Mr. Clurman. You can tell he's the real deal because he's an old white guy in a black-and-white photo.)

In my Writing About Theatre course, we've just started our unit on theater criticism, which, it should come as no surprise, is my favorite unit. It wasn't long into our discussion before a student asked this important question:

What makes a theater critic credible?

And (for once!) I was extremely prepared to answer it.

I had brought with me to class The Collected Works of Harold Clurman, a backbreaking anthology of six decades' worth of cultural criticism from the renowned theater critic. At the front of book is this list, which Clurman published in Encore in 1964 and which I had my students read aloud:

The Complete Critic’s Qualifications 
Besides having cultivated taste, feeling and a talent for clear observation of people: 
I. The critic should know the greater part of classic and contemporary drama as written and played. Added to this, he must be conversant with general literature: novels, poetry, essays of wide scope.
II. He should know the history of the theatre from its origins to the present.
III.  He should have a long and broad playgoing experience – of native and foreign productions.
IV. He should possess an interest in and a familiarity with the arts: painting, music, architecture and the dance.
V. He should have worked in the theatre in some capacity (apart from criticism).
VI. He should know the history of his country and world history: the social thinking of past and present.
VII. He should have something like a philosophy, an attitude toward life.
VIII. He should write lucidly, and, if possible, gracefully.
IX. He should respect his readers by upholding high standards and encourage his readers to cultivate the same.
X. He should be aware of his prejudices and blind spots.
XI. He should err on the side of generosity rather than an opposite zeal.
XII. He should seek to enlighten rather than carp or puff. 
The best theatre critic in the English language since 1895 was George Bernard Shaw.
It's a tall order -- the kind of order it takes a lifetime to fill. But it was this list that I had in mind when I was reviewing An Iliad, at Berkeley Rep.

(Henry Woronicz in the one-man show at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

I am so ashamed to admit this that I struggle to type it, but this was my first experience of Homer's epic. In college I stubbornly -- with zeal, even -- avoided the classics. I was interested in understanding only my immediate experience, that which was tangible, accessible, verifiable. To dig into the past was frightening; understanding history seemed to be as much an exercise in imagination as in analysis. It seemed to require empathy and perspicacity and wisdom -- qualities I felt I did not have.

There are major gaps in my theater knowledge, as there probably are in most people's, and the classics is one of my biggest and most egregious educational lacunae. I wonder if this hole would disqualify me in Clurman's eyes. I wonder if it makes me less credible a critic of Berkeley Rep's production. I wonder if it makes my review less informed and informative.

I think the answer to all these questions is yes. 

But it's a qualified yes. I don't know if society today would support, in many senses of the word, Clurman's vision of a theater critic. And even if there are a few critics who might qualify as a "Complete Critic," I think it's important to have more than a few voices who are allowed to publish opinions about theater. I also imagine that, particularly when he was my age, Clurman was not yet an expert in... all the liberal arts. Would he ever recuse himself? Would he ever not write about a production because he had not yet acquired scholar-worthy knowledge of every field a play touched upon? I don't know, but I imagine not. I imagine he saw those shows as opportunities to learn. 

I try to use shows like An Iliad as chances to grow as a theater critic, to expand my knowledge and become more "Complete." But for reasons I've mentioned in this blog before, it's hard for me to take full advantage of those opportunities. I work two demanding jobs, and being a theater critic pays less than half of my monthly living expenses. So I don't know if it's fair to ask me to become as well informed for each show I write about as Harold Clurman demands.

But I try to make up for my failings with one item on his list -- being a clear and sharp observer -- and one item that's not, at least not explicitly -- being honest. 

After my class read aloud Harold Clurman's list, I told my students that his requirements, while laughably difficult, are at least achievable if, you know, you have decades to devote to the task of meeting them. Being honest, I think, is much harder. It's a matter of courage and integrity. It's a matter of self-knowledge. You can't get critical honesty from reading a certain number of books. You get it, I think, from a love of theater that's so deep it's religious, from an unshakeable belief that theater has power, from feeling, each time you walk into a theater, that this show matters.

I struggle to have this quality just as I struggle to be sufficiently erudite. But I think that, even if I'm an ignoramus about a production, if I bring to my criticism the genuine desire to be honest, then I can still have something valuable to say.

Or not! Because every other An Iliad review I've read (almost) says the exact opposite of what I wrote. Despite all my attempts at "honesty," it might be better to go with some of the more educated guys on this one.

An Iliad has been extended through Nov. 18; info here.

Putting the "Uh" in America

(Bowman Wright in Topdog/Underdog, which recently closed at Marin Theatre Company. Photo by David Allen.)

When I was a grad student at S.F. State, I took a class on American drama, and one of the central questions of the course was what makes American drama American. What are its perennial concerns? Some, as proposed by our professor, might be

  • The American Dream
  • American exceptionalism
  • Finding and coming home
  • The Melting Pot

(I think there were others, but this is all I can glean from my notes.)

Now that it's election time and theaters are offering the accompanying goods, some of the shows I've been reviewing lately -- Assassins at Shotgun, Topdog/Underdog at Marin Theatre Company, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at SF Playhouse -- make me think American drama might have another (if not mutually exclusive) evergreen theme: the compulsion to tell our story, to capture who we are and what we believe in.

(Much of the ensemble of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, at SF Playhosue. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)

I'm sure, of course, that this is far from a uniquely American phenomenon and for that matter one that's not at all confined to theater. And, as Chloe Veltman has amusingly suggested, election season does seem to seem force artificial topicality out of theaters (when they might not otherwise be so inclined to attempt to define our national identity, that teensy little subject).

Still, I wonder if because of the fracturing (and the polarization) of our country, so many groups feel marginalized, so left out of the American Dream, that we, more than other nations, feel compelled to tell our story over and over again, to reimagine it, to hear hitherto neglected groups contest it or lay claim to it -- on the stage. Just in these three plays, we get versions of America from three groups of outsiders: presidential assassins, poor young black men, and frontier populists.

(The nine would-be and actual presidential assassins chronicled in the Shotgun Players production. Photo by Pak Han.)

It's exciting to think of this election as a time that might in retrospect mark a change in our theater. 9/11 was a watershed moment in American drama; is it possible we're ready for another seismic shift? Is it possible that 2012 will be the year we were finally pushed too far by extremists? What would it look like to have a theater and a politics that's not so defined by caricature or motivated by a sense of unbridgeable divide?

These are probably hopelessly naive questions. But as voters and political commentators profess a longing for a discussion of the real issues, I find (or grope for?) a parallel in my theatergoing to a wish for an art of more nuance.

Assassins continues through Nov. 11; info here.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24; info here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Dramaturging

(Tricia Brooks and Neal Honda in Terry Boero's play. Set design by John Wilson. Photo by Rachel Golden.)

These days I write to educate. Twice a week, I sit down to write lectures for my “Writing About Theatre” students. But I also have a new editor at the Weekly who, when we recently met to talk about the purpose of theater criticism, told me that he especially values reviews that teach the reader something. Additionally, for the past two months, I’ve been dramaturging a play called The M Documents, written by Terry Boero and directed by Nara Dahlbaka, which recently finished its run at the SFSU Fringe Festival.

This was my first official dramaturgy credit, though I’ve had dramaturgical moments before. As dramaturge Alicia Coombes recently said in a guest lecture to my class, every theater person is a dramaturge. If you’ve ever thought a script’s second act needed work, she said, you’ve been a dramaturge. If you’ve ever looked up a term or a historical context to better understand a play, you’ve been a dramaturge. Even if a production has no designated dramaturge — and many, many don’t — that doesn’t mean nobody does dramaturgy; dramaturgical duties can (and must) be performed by actors and directors, designers and publicists.

But what is dramaturgy, this scary, distinctly German-sounding word that makes you want to say “drama-turd”? First of all, I’ve been told it actually comes from Greek words that, when compared to other words with similar structures, signify a “conjurer of drama.” Dramaturges are advocates for plays. They work with directors and playwrights to make the play be as true to itself as possible. They are experts in the world of a play. They look at what a script suggests about its world and, through research, flesh it out so that artists and audiences alike have a better contextual understanding of the play.

Dramaturges also have many other functions; there are probably as many different job descriptions as there are dramaturges. For M Docs, I was primarily a researcher. The play examines interstitial moments in a Macbeth that has traces of medieval Scotland but also exists in 1950s America. Its only characters are Lord and Lady Macbeth, and the playwright explored the characters’ marital relationship as well as their childhoods. She believes we can see much of Macbeth’s gender relations — too much — in our own society.

My main task was to provide the actors with information that might help them broaden their interpretations of their roles. I focused on two research aims: finding out how Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had been interpreted throughout history, and providing an overview of gender roles in medieval Scotland, Shakespeare’s England, and postwar America. Here are a few of my favorite findings:

Ellen Terry (1847-1928), a famous Lady Macbeth, once said, “Everyone seems to think [L.M.] is a Monstrousness and I can only see she’s a woman — a mistaken woman — and weak — not a Dove — of course not — but first of all a wife.”

I also took another look at Shakespeare scholar Jan Kott's groundbreaking book in search of this quote, which paints Macbeth as a kind of idealist in a world in which the only dream is a self-defeating one: "In a world upon which murder is being imposed as fate, compulsion and inner necessity, there is only one dream: of a murder that will break the murder cycle, will be the way out of nightmare, and will mean liberation.”

It was so great to be involved with a production again, even though my role was small. It’s been three years since I’ve worked on a show in any capacity, and I thought it was high time that as a critic, I remember what it’s like to be on “the other side.” Critics see only finished products; it’s easy to forget how many choices go into what’s presented on opening night. I didn’t attend many rehearsals of M Docs, but in one of the first read-throughs, I especially loved seeing how, even in a cold read, our actors, Neal Honda and Tricia Brooks, brought a special intelligence, a magic, to the words they read aloud that non-actors just don’t have.

I even got to see my production reviewed, so I truly did get a taste of my own medicine, but only because I forced my students to review the show (no conflict of interest for them at all! BWAHAHA). Hearing and reading their criticisms, I felt myself both understanding what they were saying and feeling defensive, wanting to argue with them. Ah, so maybe this is what it’s like, I thought. Except not at all, I’m sure!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Shocktoberfest 13, by the Thrillpeddlers

(Bonni Suval, Bruna Palmiero, Flynn DeMarco, and Nancy French at someone's very special day. Photo by David Allen.)

Don't get me wrong. I love the Thrillpeddlers. I always look forward to their shows -- I've seen all but one in the past two years, which I can only say about one other company -- and I meant everything I said in my review of their Shocktoberfest 13: The Bride of Death.

But I had a hard time writing this review because I felt like I'd already said everything I have to say about the company. They always do excellent work, but it's always the same kind of work: grotesque and erotic. It's uninhibitedly showy but unpretentious, what some might call smut and others might just call a welcome relief from high art. Yes, their sources change: sometimes they draw from Theatre du Grand Guignol; sometimes it's noir; sometimes it's from the 1970s gender-bending troupe the Cockettes; sometimes it's a contemporary work. But the aesthetic is always the same: over-the-top mugging, preposterous costumes, lakes of fake blood or some other body fluid, silly song-and-dance numbers. And on the few occasions when a Thrillpeddlers production is not in a variety show format, then the plot is so nonsensical it might as well be.

The one exception to this rule was this summer's Marat/Sade -- the Peter Weiss play that's one of theater history's finest dramatizations of the revolutionary spirit. It's heady, it's complex, and the Thrillpeddlers brought just the right touch to make the production accessible.

On the whole, though, if you've seen one Thrillpeddlers show, you've seen 'em all. The company, under the direction of Russell Blackwood, will always find a way to kill someone that you never would have thought of. But from production to production, it's only those small choices that vary.

From an average audience member's standpoint, this isn't a bad quality at all. In fact, it's all too rare. At which other theaters do you always know what you'll be paying for and that you'll get your money's worth? The Thrillpeddlers have one of the clearest missions in town; they don't change who they are or artificially push themselves in a new direction just to grasp for grant money.

Yet from a critic's standpoint, it can be tough to find new things to say about them. As I was writing this review, I kept wondering if I'd used certain words and phrases to describe the company too many times before. I had all my other articles at the ready and liberally used my thesaurus, but the review still betrays dispassion. Maybe I simply didn't watch the show closely enough. Maybe I need a break from the company. Either way, for a critic, it's not enough to love a company; you have to make your writing radiate your love.

Shocktoberfest 13: The Bride of Death continues through Nov. 17; info here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A name is a name is a name


Recently I was talking with a student about this site, and she said she understood the name "The Split End": that I'm often "split" about how I feel about a show or a review and feel compelled to write more -- if not to resolve a contradiction, then at least to explore it further.

But the name is also pretty dang girly and silly. 

I've been thinking for a while about changing it to reflect how I feel my writing and my ambitions have evolved -- in other words, to make it a little more professional. But the best I've come up with is... "Criticulous." Thankfully, my partner vetoed that one. So I'm going with... Critonkulous! Just kidding. 

But this is why I need your help. 

Readers, do you have any ideas as to what I should call this site? I'm looking for something that would suggest theater and criticism, of course, but more importantly questioning, second-guessing, doubting -- what I'm really all about.

I hope this will be part of a broader effort to reconceptualize my web presence. Yes, I just said that. Stay tuned. Until then, please comment below!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Normal Heart, at A.C.T.

(Most of the cast of the Tony Award-winning revival. Photo by Kevin Berne.

This review is missing a transition in the first paragraph. I never justify why I begin with the idea of screaming. But stick with the article -- this show is worth your attention.

Early in September I thought the Bay Area was having an unusually long run of good theater. Now I'm convinced we're in a golden age -- or at least a golden six weeks. Since mid-August, I've only seen one professional show that I didn't think was downright excellent. It's enough to make me doubt my critical faculties. But like I care; keep it up, Bay Area!

The Normal Heart continues through Oct. 7; info here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Invasion! by Crowded Fire

(Lawrence Radecker in the West Coast premiere by Crowded Fire. Photo by Pak Han.)

This show was the thirteenth I saw in eight days, and what a great conclusion it was to some intense theatergoing. Now it's time to see if I can remember how to do anything else!

Invasion! continues through Sept. 29; info here.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Port Out, Starboard Home, by foolsFURY at Z Space

(Angela Santillo, Zac Jaffee -- who isn't actually in the cast --, Jessica Unker, and Benjamin Stuber in the foolsFURY production. Photo by Richard Horatio Nelson.)

My review of Port Out, Starboard Home, or POSH, by foolsFURY, was critical, and in hindsight I wonder if I held the show to too lofty a standard. I had two main criticisms: 1.) that the show took potshots at an easy subject (cruise passengers) and 2.) that the plot's central event wasn't as interesting as the initial development and the denouement. While I don't question my second criticism, I wonder if my first was unfair. I've seen many shows that mocked other sitting ducks -- film noir, 1940s football musicals, Lindsay Lohan -- and I didn't level the same criticism. But I think what let those other shows off the hook was that they were campy. In other words, they ridiculed and loved their subjects; with their exaggerated style, they let me know to not take them completely seriously, which opened them to criticism even as they criticized. POSH takes itself much more seriously. It puts itself in a superior position to what it criticizes -- mai tai-swilling vacationers -- which made me think, "What's next? A satire of Republicans?"

I also wonder if I was more critical because of the venue. Every time I see a show at Z Space, the artistic toast of the town is there, too -- folks whose work I admire and to the best of my ability seek out. That I respect many members of the audience might have made me hold the work to a higher standard.

Followers in New York, the show is coming to your neck of the woods in a couple of weeks; if you see it, let me know what you think!

In San Francisco, POSH continues through Sept. 22; info here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, at the Aurora

(Tony Sancho and Beethovan Oden in the Bay Area premiere. Photo by David Allen.)

Copodcaster Benjamin Wachs and I meandered a bit in this audio review, but it's worth listening to just for the sound effects in the first two minutes.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Sept. 30; info here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Occupy Fringe Theatre 2012, at the Exit

(Design by Cody Rishell.)

I'm not sure quite what happened with my review of this year's Fringe festival, but I loved writing it and I'm proud of it. 

I guess I'd been thinking about some comments I've received about this blog lately; a couple of readers have told me they appreciate how personal it is, one going so far as to suggest I write my reviews for the Weekly in a similar voice. In that spirit, I sat down late at night and free wrote -- the approach I usually take on this site -- and out came sentences like this:

Asking these questions is what seeing the Fringe is really about: probing the dark underbelly of theater, understanding its mysterious digestive processes, and predicting which of its numerous lumps will sprout into plump, pulpy growths.

I decided to see and review nine Fringe shows this year. In previous years I've only gone to one or two, and I thought it was high time the Weekly expanded its coverage of the most democratic indie theater event in town. 

If I didn't love all the theater, I consistently loved the theatergoing. The Fringe has at least three time slots per day, with three to four shows to choose from in each, and in between each hour-long show there's a 30-minute break, which gives you time to talk to other audience members, asking them what they'd recommend you see (or stay away from). I'm pathologically shy, so I love being in a situation that encourages strangers to talk to each other, whether through the spirit of the event or because there's so much down time or because you see the same faces over and over again.

I spent so much time in the theater that it began to feel like a ritual, much more intensely than my usual theatergoing does. The small, half-filled black box theaters became very familiar and comfortable. I looked forward to going not because shows were special events to me but because I felt like I belonged inside; it was a relief to be there, doing what I was somehow "supposed" to be doing.

I hope I can cover just as much of the Fringe next year. Who knows, maybe someday I'll try to see every show in the festival! -- if that's even possible? This year there were 42 shows. Seeing all of them wouldn't just be ritualistic; that would be downright religious.

Occupy Fringe Theatre 2012 continues through Sept. 16; info here.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Pinoy Midsummer, at Bindlestiff

(Joe Cascasan and Melanie Espinueva in the Bindlestiff and SF State coproduction. Photos by Paciano Triunfo.)

Bindlestiff's A Pinoy Midsummer features shadow puppetry, live puppetry, live music, and dance. Some characters wear sandals and togas, others barongs, others t-shirts and overalls, and still others little more than a top hat made of hundreds of tiny sticks. 

(Dennis Rodis as Puck.)

It's a kaleidoscopic approach to one of Shakespeare's silliest comedies, and one that perfectly suits a production in which 17 Filipino-Americans play English and Tagalog-speaking Greeks who enter into a forested fairyland -- all seen through the eyes of director Lorna Velasco (this production is her SF State master's thesis project) and a certain dead white English guy.

A Pinoy Midsummer is the first Shakespeare production for Bindlestiff, "an epicenter of Filipino American performing arts in San Francisco." It's also the first Shakespeare production for most members of the cast. In her promotional video, Velasco says that part of the impetus for the project was to give her artistic community a chance to perform roles they'd never get to perform elsewhere. "Being an artist of color, an actor of color, we don't get to do this," she says. "We don't get to do classical roles. We don't get cast." 

Along those lines, one of the great joys of this production was the curtain call. Seeing not just the 17 actors but also all the musicians, designers and crew members flood -- or try to squeeze onto -- the stage  was very moving; it was as if to say, here we are together, having taken on a play that once intimidated us but that we have since, in Velasco's words, "made our own." One of my former professors described Velasco's project as part community activism; it's funny that an act as simple as putting if not an entire community than a big ol' chunk of it onstage can feel like community activism, but that moment gave me chills.

There is much to appreciate in Velasco's production before it's over, too. The shadow puppetry (designed by Melissa Diaz Infante) defies easy understanding by the untrained eye. You can't tell what shapes the cut-outs or figures are or how the puppeteer is holding them because the angle from which the light hits them keeps changing. Delightful mysteries aside, one particular shadow puppet even solves a notorious Shakespeare problem: the super-long monologue in which someone describes a memory, tells a story, recounts a dream. It takes a phenomenal actor to make something that's not present feel present, and many directors deal with the issue by having other actors mime what the speaker is describing. That's what Velasco does, only with puppets instead of people. Shadow puppets evoke the world of memory perhaps better than any performance art I've ever seen; they transport you into the consciousness of the rememberer. Precisely because they're shadowy, you can only "see" a part, a shell of what you'd like to see: you have to imagine, to project onto the puppet, but the whole time you're trying to do that, a puppeteer's step forward or back in the light can shrink or balloon the puppet to nightmarish proportions -- just as a memory can so easily escape or mutate.

(The Rude Mechanicals.)

Velasco also drew lively performances out of her cast, some seasoned performers, others neophytes. Julie Kuwabara-Lacson used her chirpy voice to great comedic effect as Helena, the spurned but unsinkable lover, and Michael Dorado as Oberon, the fairy king, brought such focus and gravitas to his part that I really believed in the magical flower and its potent "love juice." But the Rude Mechanicals (Melgign Badiola, Roczane Enriquez, Chuck Lacson, Ed Mabasa, and Patrick Silvestre), led by Joe Cascasan as Bottom, were definitely the highlight. They spoke almost entirely in Tagalog (adapted by Velasco). I can't remember the last time I saw a performance in a language I don't speak, but this animated ensemble made me remember that words are only one (sometimes small) part of a performance. Their energy was so contagious, each member's relationship to everyone else so clearly delineated, that I felt I got some of the humor. (And it never hurts to speak the universal language of pelvic thrusts.)

The kaleidoscope approach -- using so many different forms of art -- was central to Velasco's work. Without it, she wouldn't have been able to bring in such a huge group with so many different talents; the community aspect might have been lost. In the future, I'd be curious to see her build a production around one central artistic concept. For instance, in case you couldn't tell, this production has made me into a shadow puppetry nut, so I wonder what it would be like to focus a production of Shakespeare (or anyone else!) on shadow puppetry, as opposed to incorporating it into just a few scenes. 

I mentioned that this production was a first for a lot of people: the first Shakespeare for Bindlestiff as a whole, as well as for many of the individual artists involved. But it was also a first for me: It was the first time I saw a production with Tagalog, and my first time visiting Bindlestiff. I'm so glad I got to check out the company's hip, ultra-modern space (after they emerged from one of the darkest chapters in Bay Area theater history), and I'm sure this won't be my last time there.

Kudos to Lorna. Not only is she now done with her master's program; she's also achieved every theater's dream: selling out her entire run.

A Pinoy Midsummer continues through Sept. 15; info here.