Monday, May 28, 2012

Endgame and Play, at ACT

One thing I didn't cover in my review of the Beckett double bill at ACT was the set design, which was by Daniel Ostling. I don't often write about set design because (and this is a fair criticism of many critics) I'm not a visual person, even as a writer in this quite visual of mediums. But I did have a strong reaction to this particular scenic design.

The room seems to be at the base of a tower that goes up forever; ACT's stage cannot begin to contain it, or even suggest where it ends. I thought it an apt design for Beckett's world, where the time is "the same as always" and even thinking about change feels pointless.

(The model of Ostling's set for Endgame, taken from the theater's Words on Plays. The photo doesn't convey the way the walls in the real thing seem to stretch into infinity.)

But ACT's production of The Homecoming, from the previous year, used an uncannily similar set design, also by Ostling. The walls did pretty much the exact same thing; it's just that instead of looking into a corner, the audience looks straight-on toward a rear wall: 

(Here you get a clearer idea of what Ostling did with the walls in both productions. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

There's definitely some justification for visualizing the worlds of the two plays in similar ways: They are both islands unto themselves, isolated from the rest of the world (if there is one); both sets of characters do little more than try to pass the time.

The parallel made me wonder about the difference between reappropriating/recycling a visual concept and copying it. The whole time I was watching Endgame I kept thinking, "This idea is so bold and dramatic, and I loved it when I saw it in The Homecoming." The resemblance distracted me; I had a hard time appreciating Endgame as an independent, new piece.

In the end, I guess I feel that even if a set design for a previous show is fabulous, a designer should push him or herself to design a new set that's fabulous in its own way; any reference to previous work should have a specific justification, such as a desire to allude to an entire past production.

Endgame and Play continues through June 3; info here.

The Understudy, at SJ Rep

(Craig Marker and Gabe Marin in the West Coast premiere of Theresa Rebeck's play. Photo by Kevin Berne.)

Criticism can be a battle against impossible numbers.

SF Weekly pays me to write five articles a month, six if I do a podcast. Beyond that, I can elect to write preview pieces for the paper's Night + Day section. But six per month is pretty much the max for reviews.

That probably sounds reasonable for a weekly paper with an online presence. But I get (I estimate) about 30-40 review requests per month, and it's getting increasingly difficult for me to pick which shows to cover. Increasingly, I opt to see those shows that contact me early -- as in, for a show that's premiering anytime in June, by May 1. What that means is that I disproportionately cover shows with well-organized publicity teams (i.e., those with money), not necessarily those with the most interesting artistic goals. For June, frustrated about all the shows I miss because I learn about them last-minute, I even asked my editor if I could hold out a while longer before I selected shows for the month, the better to include those that might only be able to send out a press release a week or two before. But even then, I only lasted a week longer than usual: All six June reviews were already scheduled more than a week before June even started.

Obviously, what this means is that I need to follow my own advice: learn to say no to publicists. Until I can do that, I might have to keep doing what I call pro bono reviews -- reviews I write without getting paid. When I was a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, I saw no problem with seeing a show for free without reviewing it because I could potentially vote to give it one of the group's annual awards, which was more than enough compensation for most theaters. But now that I've left the Circle (for reasons I might describe in a future blog post), I cannot offer even that meager justification for my free press seats. All I can say now is something like, "I can't do an article on you guys, but I think it's important for my ongoing coverage of your company to be exposed to this new work," which is pretty weak. Actually, many publicists would happily accept my mere presence with zero promise of an article, but all the take, take, take makes me feel slimy. (O Catholicism, how tightly you grip!) So instead I usually just decide to write an article, promising myself I'll make it short. 

Recently, I wrote such a pro bono review for San Jose Rep's production of The Understudy. I almost never cover shows in the South Bay because of the region's dismal public transit. But I was excited enough about the playwright -- Theresa Rebeck -- and the male leads -- Gabe Marin and Craig Marker --  to make an exception and find a +1 with wheels. 

I used to write reviews for free all the time, of course, back when I worked for the San Francisco Bay Times. But how quickly one adapts! Trying to write this one was like pulling teeth, and unfortunately, I think that's born out in the quality of the review. It lacks focus and depth. It sounds perfunctory. I'm not even sure the argument is convincing. And all this has nothing to do with the show itself, just the fact that I didn't have pay or deadlines to motivate me.

What this tells me is that I can't do an infinite amount of pro bono reviews, particularly when I'm feeling burnt out after scrambling to finish my master's thesis on time. Clearly, I have to find another way to deal with my impossible numbers: the huge number of shows I want to cover vs. the very few I'm permitted to. Some might say that I ought to refrain from pro bono reviewing anyway because it cheapens my work, allowing me to be taken advantage of. (But who in the arts doesn't feel taken advantage of?)

Part of the reason I'm feeling so angsty about this is that at least my May shows were mostly by smaller theaters:  The Bay One Acts Festival, The Dark Room, Sleepwalkers, the Cutting Ball -- and then A.C.T. for good measure. In other words, even though I decided what to cover early, at least I was still bringing attention to the up-and-comers. The June shows, by contrast, will mostly be by bigger theaters: Marin Theatre Company, the Magic Theatre, Berkeley Rep, the Aurora -- and then Crowded Fire is the token little guy. For this month, I feel like the imperative to settle on a schedule early has led me to make more obvious choices.

Of course, it's not as if my six reviews have to be divided in a particular way. If the shows that most interest me in a given month happen to come from big-budget companies, then so be it, right?

I guess what I'm writing about here is really many different issues: how to pick shows when I find out about them all at different times, especially since earliness of press releases generally corresponds to company size, and also what to do when I want to cover shows beyond what I'm paid to cover. I probably  should have written about them in separate posts, but they're all jumbled together in my mind. As ever, any thoughts or suggestions would be immensely appreciated.

The Understudy continues through June 3 at San Jose Rep; info here.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Odyssey on Angel Island, by the We Players, and Demanding Bellies

(The We Players' production, with Ross Travis, Nathaniel Justiniano and Julie Douglas, had some of the world's best scene design. Photo by Tracy Martin.)

It's a truism of criticism that you should never take a single unenthusiastic review too seriously because you never know how the critic feels when she walks into the theater. Maybe she just got bad news. Maybe she's having a crappy day. Even worse, maybe her last meal didn't agree with her!

The latter accounts for part of my review of the We Players' The Odyssey on Angel Island -- but not in the way that you think. Meals are a part of the all-day site-specific theater adventure. Or, at least they should be. For a couple of hours during our trek around the island, I found myself thinking, "Surely they're about to let us sit down and eat. They couldn't go much longer without giving us a few minutes' break." And then, when that longed-for lunch bell never rang, light-headed and already spitefully planning to note my hunger in my review (which I did), I realized I had no choice but to scarf down my sandwich while I scampered along, trying to keep up with the actors and make notes all at the same time. 

In one sense, my resentment is terrifically silly. Come on, you well-fed Californian! Do you really need to be pampered as if you were in a tourist group? WOULD ODYSSEUS HAVE TAKEN A LUNCH BREAK? Get in the spirit of the adventure a little! And even if you feel a little hot and bothered for being denied your preferred digestive conditions, do you really need to convey that feeling in a theater review? Get over it! Be a professional! Talk about the acting, the directing, and the costuming -- not your tummy's rumbling and roaring!

But in another sense, I don't think I'm entirely off-base. With any other show, if the logistics, the timing and organization of the performance event, went awry, I'd have no problem saying so in my review: "Scene change x went on so long that the spirit of the show dissolved," or, "Lighting cue y was so poorly timed that it only served to call attention to itself and take me out of the moment." If it's a meal, or lack thereof, that distracts me from the show, is saying so really so different from making similar observations about more "traditional" theatrical elements? What's more, I'm a relatively young and theoretically healthy theatergoer, so I was definitely not the only one who felt this way: Both my companions were clearly in the mood to eat, and some of the other audience members even made remarks to the performers. If hunger is a significant part of my and others' experiences, then surely the event could have been planned slightly differently, and it's a critic's job to call that out.

I did talk about other stuff in my article -- such as, you know, theater. And with each scene I didn't like, I of course asked myself, "Am I feeling this way solely because I'm hungry and distracted, or should the artistry of this moment really be refined?" In other words, there was definitely a solid stab at not letting my stomach write the entire thing. My brain and heart were in there, too! I like to think that what resulted was a review mostly defined by analysis but with a little more acknowledgment of my baser appetites than I would usually allow.

The Odyssey on Angel Island continues through July 1; info here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Tenderloin, at the Cutting Ball

(Tristan Cunningham as Filipino Health and Wellness Director Ester Aure in the Cutting Ball Theater production. Photo by Rob Melrose.)

There was a lot that I left out of my review of Tenderloin, a documentary play at the Cutting Ball. And much of what I omitted was personal.

The play is about the theater's eponymous neighborhood, perhaps the worst-off area of San Francisco. Not coincidentally, the Cutting Ball is not the only theater there; there are also the Exit and the Boxcar Studios, in addition to all the companies just across Market Street.

If I go to the Tenderloin, it's almost always to see theater. (My only non-theatrical destination there is Shalimar, purveyor of cheap and delicious Indian food.) I always ride my bike or walk with a companion so that I feel safer, and I usually don't talk to, or look at, the people I pass on the way. I then have a routine for when I arrive at the Cutting Ball or the Exit. I maintain "street Lily's" stony expression, find a parking meter that doesn't smell like urine, lock my bike and check the lock, then duck inside as quickly as I can. There, I see other theatergoers who don't much resemble the people outside, and together we try to forget what's happening back on the street. Usually, the theater is more than happy to help us out. 

Not so with Tenderloin. And simply for that, I admire the Cutting Ball. But I couldn't help thinking that doing only one show that "engages" (that tricky word) a theater's neighborhood is almost an act of tokenism. Even if Tenderloin's audiences look slightly different from the folks who usually fill the Cutting Ball's seats, won't things go back to normal for its next project? Obviously, it's not the Cutting Ball’s job to singlehandedly, and in the long term, make theater more accessible, bring new audiences to the medium, and improve its own neighborhood. But if not these, then what is the goal of the show? To create cool art? To make the Cutting Ball's usual audiences rethink their relationships to the Tenderloin? 

For me, the show did not succeed along those lines. I already know that the way I approach the neighborhood is reprehensible, despite what little I can justify on vague notions of "safety," and I felt Tenderloin only bludgeoned me with the fact of that reprehensibility over and over again. (My review goes into the reasons why, but here I'll just say that there are a lot of monologues from social workers.) 

I wish I could say that the next time I go to the Tenderloin my attitude will be different, that I'll look around more, notice more, make some eye contact. I probably won't, though. Again, it's not a play's job to change me; it's my job. But it is a play's job to move me. This one, except for a few, isolated moments, did not.

Tenderloin continues through June 3; info here.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Down to This, by Sleepwalkers, and Good Theater Critic/Bad Theater Critic

(Jomar Tagatac, Kendra Lee Oberhauser and Tonya Narvaez in the Sleepwalkers Theatre production. Photo by Sarah Roland.)

Benjamin Wachs and I just published our third theater review podcast for SF Weekly, of Sleepwalkers Theatre's world premiere of Down to This, by Adam Chanzit. After we finished recording, Benjamin said something that felt only too true: That we're settling into roles. He's the "mean" theater critic and I'm the "nice" one.

In this case, "nice" has two meanings: being forgiving of shows and also being deferential in debate. I was never very good at arguing or debating. Most of the time, other people's ideas just look so comfy that I want to try them on for a while. And speech never comes to me in flowing, inevitable-sounding reams. As this podcast conveys, when I talk, each individual word must force its way out. I seem much more convincing on the page, I think, where I can shrink spaces between words from              this to this.

Of course, even though it's my job to have strong opinions about shows, it's okay if not every single one inspires in me a burning passion that I am chomping at the bit to defend. But at the same time, it's a little bit silly to post various Kenneth Tynan quotes—"Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds"—above my computer if what I really do is placate tempers, hem and haw, tidy dust-ups. I hereby make it a goal, and this is so commonsense that it really shouldn't need to be goal, but what can you do, that the next time we do a podcast about a show I feel strongly about, I will be prepared to argue strongly for that feeling even if I change my mind. This will be a valuable exercise for me, but it will also make for a more interesting discussion.

Down to This continues through May 26 at the Exit Theatre; info here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Wrong Dick, at the Dark Room

(Damien Chacona in Ham Pants's production at the Dark Room. Photo by Carrina Schindler.)

It's pretty egregious that it's taken me so long to see a show at the Dark Room, as the venue is within spitting distance of my house. Hopefully I'll be covering this extremely "local" theater regularly from now on. Writing this review, of a noir spoof that was closer to long-form sketch than it was to theater, was a fun treat.

The Wrong Dick continues through May 26 at the Dark Room; info here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The 2012 Bay One Acts Festival, at the Boxcar

(Sarah Moser in Three Little Dumplings Go Bananas, written by Megan Cohen and produced by Threshold. Photo by Chris Alongi.)

Reviewing an entire festival of plays definitely posed some structural challenges:  Ought I write a detailed review of each of its ten plays? How could I do so without the article feeling list-y? Should I instead just discuss the event's mission and general vibe? If so, would the article still be a review?

Instead, I took an in-between route: beginning with some general observations and then discussing the most successful one-acts in detail. I worry, though, that this choice skews the review: If I don't analyze what I disliked about the other shows, does the article give the false impression that my experience was more uniformly positive than it was?

In the end, I felt that because these shows were all produced by relatively small companies, lauding those that really deserved it makes more of a difference than picking apart flawed shows. Readers ought to know about playwrights and indie theater companies whose work transcends; trumpeting their achievements is a critic's most exciting duty.

BOA 2012 continues through May 12; info here.