Sunday, February 26, 2012

Tiny Furniture

Last night I finally got around to seeing Lena Dunham's first feature film after having my interest piqued by this New Yorker profile over a year ago.

I was like, post-graduation, moving-back-in-with-the-parents blues?  Taking crappy jobs while still talking about your vague artistic aspirations?  Trying to not kill yourself at house parties?  All filmed by a privileged white girl?  Sign me up, baby.

I loved the music, which was composed by Teddy Banks, and the otherworldly quality of the loft where much of the film is set: it looked like a trendy, spacious submarine.   The overall aesthetic made me think of Wes Anderson:  artful compositions; white rodents; sans-serif fonts.

The idiom in which characters speak—youthful, hip, betraying a certain class and education—felt fresh and authentic.  You could tell it was the screenwriter's native tongue (Dunham writes and stars as well as directs), not the guesswork imitation of some hack.  Dunham also parodies that language, of course.  One character's affection for the word "special"—evidently an all-purpose compliment—was especially funny.

There's nary a likable soul in the film, which is clearly a deliberate choice.  Tiny Furniture puts our worst sides—selfish, cruel, hypocritical, and smellyon relentless display.  There's little hope for redemption or release; the only real variation in tone comes when characters decide to be charming, but then those efforts usually become false and ingratiating as well.  It's not often a pleasant 100 minutes, but Dunham's vision is unique—or, as she might put it, "special."  One of my favorite moments was toward the end of the film, when the 22-year-old main character crawls into bed with her mother.  It felt sweet and nostalgic—which by that point was a much-needed relief—but also tense and claustrophobic: simultaneously a pull toward and a push away from a childhood home.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Body Awareness, at the Aurora

(Jeri Lynn Cohen and Patrick Russell.  Photo by David Allen.)

Often, review writing is a very mechanical process.  Before I start writing, I know the evaluative points I want to cover, and I try to get the job done in a few short paragraphs.  But once in a while, a show so moves me that l put a piece of myself in the review.  The writing process is more automatic--urgent, even--and the review takes me surprising places.

Writing about Annie Baker's Body Awareness, a beautiful little play at the Aurora, was just such an experience for me.  I don't think the review really starts to cook until the end, but I'm proud enough of those last couple paragraphs to say the duds at the beginning are worth it.

Body Awareness has been extended through Mar. 11; info here.

Hold Me Closer, Tiny Dionysus, at CounterPULSE

(Trixxie Carr as Tiny Diny.  Photo by Stanley Frank.)

A friend and I saw this "Greek comedy rock epic" partly as research; we're writing (or rather, will at some point be writing) our own play about Dionysus, to be performed as part of the SF Olympians festival next winter.

Some aspects of this production, which was written by Trixxie Carr and directed by Ben Randle, were delicious enough to steal (if we were one notch less moral than we already are).  But as I hope my review imparts, my opinion of the show was very mixed.  For every laugh-out-loud moment, there was another in which I was looking at my watch.

This CounterPULSE production has already closed, but I believe that with rewrites it could have a lot more life.

As for my own script, I just wish I had been the first one to think of using butt-less men's briefs.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Buried Child, at the Boxcar

(Jeff Garret and Scott Phillips as son and father.)

Sam Shepard's Buried Child is my all-time favorite play, and before catching this production at the Boxcar, I'd never before seen it staged.  The play loomed large in my imagination: I had my own vision of Shepard's twisted family and its rural Illinois environs, and I knew exactly what blood-curdling emotions I wanted evoked in me practically at each line.

At the beginning of this production, directed by Rebecca Longworth, I was worried I was letting my fondness for the play dictate impossible standards.  The actors were fine, but they weren't inhabiting the roles in the way I (unfairly?) imagined.

But then, as I hope my review conveys, everything changed when Jeff Garret entered as Tilden.  I'd only seen Garret once before, that time in a role so comic I actually cried.  I've been keeping an eye out for him since, but no luck--I assumed he'd left the Bay Area.  

I describe his performance in Buried Child more fully in my review, but suffice it to say here that he went far, far beyond how I imagined the character.  I'd seen Tilden as quiet, fragile and stoic, and while Garret conveys the first two, he does so with a force that overwhelms the stage.  It's not a subtle performance, and occasionally Garret goes too far with the idea that Tilden might be mentally retarded.  But despite these flaws, Garret achieves the kind of riveting presence that reminds you why you love the theater.  I'd even go so far as to say that Garret makes Buried Child into Tilden's play.

Buried Child continues through Apr. 7; info here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Artist

It’s hard to keep track of all of the things I loved about The Artist, the mostly silent French film up for ten Oscars this year.  The lighting, for one, was so gorgeous that I wanted certain shots to last longer. It  evoked noir in some places:

And early Orson Welles in others.  

And it almost goes without saying that Ludovic Bource’s score, which covers almost the duration of the film's 100 minutes, was another highlight.  It pulled my heartstrings in all the right places and seemed to comment on the proceedings in others.  Chloe Veltman wrote a great piece on how the film deconstructs and makes you aware of sound in film in a way that ordinary listeners are perhaps not accustomed to.

But perhaps what I most appreciated was simply the way that the film seemed to simultaneously pay homage to, gently tease, and live fully in the long-lost world of movie magic.  I'd be smiling at the melodramatic conventions of silent movie acting one moment and then spellbound by a tap dance worthy of Fred and Ginger the next.  I'm not sure how exactly director Michel Hazanavicious accomplished thisperhaps it has something to do with the fullness and richness with which he imagined the world of the film, or simply its contagious high spiritsbut somehow The Artist earns the right to have its cake and eat it, too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Counter Attack! by Stagebridge at the Ashby Stage

(Marilyn Leavit, Charmaine Hitchcox and Joan Mankin.  Photo by Mitch Tobias.)

I'd heard about how hard it is for actors of color to find good roles.  And for women who can no longer pass for being in their 20s.  And for performers whose bodies don't conform to societal beauty standards.

But seeing Stagebridge's Counter Attack! was the first time I really thought about how hard it might be for much older and elderly actors to get cast as well.  Though I found fault with much of the production, I did appreciate how many roles it offered to older performers; I don't think I've ever seen so many gray heads onstage at once before.

So though I didn't applaud the show, I definitely applaud the company's mission.

Counter Attack! continues through Mar. 4; info here.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Becky Shaw, at SF Playhouse

(Most of the ensemble.  Photo by Jessica Palopoli.)

I knew seeing this show would be an interesting experience from the moment I walked into the theater.  There, filling most of the theater's seats, was a high school class, dressed in their Sunday best, on a field trip.

If my high school did field trips to live performances, they were abridged versions meant to accommodate school day constraints.  So I very much appreciated that this school was trying to give its students a full artistic experience.

I also appreciated being able to watch a show with a group who didn't adhere to traditional audience decorum: silence.  At the very mention of a word like "lover," this audience would hoot and holler in a way that suggested what theater audiences were surely like hundreds (and thousands) of years ago.  It was like two shows were going on at once:  Audience response was a complementary second stage to the performance of Becky Shaw.  The theater critic in front of me was laughing at the students just as much as she was at the production.

Also interesting was seeing the delivery of racist lines to a very racially mixed audience.  At these moments, the group abruptly fell silent.  I felt like the playwright was getting a long, hard stare—It's among the tensest I've ever felt in the theater.

For this reason, Becky Shaw did not seem an obvious theatrical choice for this group.  The cast is entirely white, and I would imagine that the privileged-white-girl concerns it spends most of its time articulating do not speak to the experiences of those students.  (Though how would I know?)  If one of the goals of these field trips is audience development, it might not hurt to show students (some of whom surely don't see plays regularly) that the world of the stage needn't be very different from their own.

Becky Shaw continues through March 10; info here.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Father Panic! at the Garage

(The Garage, the unique SOMA venue that hosted the performance I struggled to describe.)

Writing about Dan Carbone's new solo show (which has closed) made me think that multimedia theater is among the hardest to write about in a review.

Father Panic! has live actors interacting with all of the following: other live actors, live projections of those other actors, projected dioramas, and even the guy who's holding the camera that's doing the live recording.  Every time I try to describe this show, I have a hard time just getting across who's live on stage, who's recorded and who's both.  I almost have to resort to a kind of technical, instruction-manual writing to even get close to painting an accurate picture.

I experienced similar difficulty in trying to describe Sticky Time, Crowded Fire's multimedia piece from this past fall.

Shows like this aren't going to go away, though; for better or for worse, they're probably only going to get more popular.  And I won't be able to avoid describing these tricky mechanics, as they're often crucial to a show's essence, a vital component of the audience's experience of watching it.  

So it's time for me to be on the lookout for reviews that deal with this language obstacle particularly well.  Good writers borrow; great writers steal!