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.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


(Rami Margron and Nancy Carlin in Precious Little. Photo by Pak Han.)

This week I reviewed two shows in a single article: The Fisherman's Wife at the Impact and Precious Little at Shotgun. Finding a way to connect the two was very fun, as my editor suggested it would be. (My second choice for the article's title was "Aminals!") But the space constraints were very real. I barely had time to describe the opening image of each show (which turned out to be an arbitrary, knee-jerk approach anyway, unfortunately) before I'd reached my maximum word count. I left undiscussed more interesting thoughts: Rami Margron's virtuoso performance, Nancy Carlin's touching one, and Zehra Berkman's more rote one, all in Precious; why exactly the The Fisherman's Wife takes perfect advantage of Impact's unique strengths; how the flaws in both plays only make them more interesting to talk about and not at all less enjoyable. 

(Actress Eliza Leoni doesn't actually perform this moment in The Fisherman's Wife, but her character probably wishes she could. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.)

So while I enjoyed the challenge of smoothing out an awkward segue and the respite from the pressures of length and depth, I don't think I'll be writing in this form too often. And next time I do, hopefully I'll be more prepared!

Also: here's the 1814 woodcut from which The Fisherman's Wife gets its name:

Profile pic?

Precious Little continues through Sept. 16; info here.

The Fisherman's Wife continues through Sept. 29; info here.