Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ecstasy: Fable or Poem?

Given the title of Golden Thread’s latest production, Ecstasy: a water fable, I expected talking animals acting out human dilemmas and imparting practical advise such as ‘slow but steady wins the race.’  Ecstasy offers nothing so neatly packaged.  Instead, it weaves three dream-like tales together in what I consider to be more a poem than a play.  I know this distinction is contentious and perhaps arbitrary, but to me Ecstasy seems to sacrifice plot and character for feeling, meaning, and expression.  The action is less a conduit for revelatory story, and more a skeleton for the meat of visually and sonically evocative moments.  Like poetry, the piece seems less concerned with building character arcs so much as creating feelings and lasting impressions.

This distinction between poem and play manifests most notably in the translation of the Sufi fable that inspired Ecstasy, ‘When the Waters Changed.’ It is the very brief story of someone who sees the world as mad, but chooses to join it in madness rather than live alone.  In Ecstasy, one of the three plots concerns a man held up in a basement, surrounded by water pipes, obsessively writing on walls and catching dripping water in buckets.  Though this man eventually joins the alien world outside his basement, thereby revealing himself to be the translation of the inspiring fable, we’re never given more than cryptic declarations of motive.  This tells me that Denmo Ibrahim is less interested in why that man gathers water in a basement, so much as she wants us to feel what it’s like to live there.

This hereby ends what is currently the shortest blog entry I’ve ever written for Bay Stage.  It’s not that I have nothing to say about Ecstasy, rather it’s that I have a great deal I could say.  However, just as Ecstasy weaves together disparate stories, tangentially connected themes and meanings, so are my thoughts only vaguely uniform.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Patriotic Theatre: Parties and Burning Flags

           To me, American culture is ruthless, beautiful, predatory, adaptive, and viral.  It inspires the best and worst in all strata of society.  It’s like napalm; it clings and burns.  It’s like free love; it gives and takes without permission.  Like all living things, it will, and must die, but before it does, I feel compelled to know it as something more than the aforementioned string of adjectives and similes.  Recently, two performances have contributed to my ongoing vivisection of the Spiritus Americana, and I would like to lay them out before you today in the contemplative afterglow of Independence Day jubilations.

            Hand2Mouth Theatre recently performed Repeat After Me, a piece the creators call ‘a manic tour through the other America’ [emphasis added].  Performing in the Bay Area as part of the bi-annual FURYFactory, Repeat After Me is structured around tableaus and musical numbers, alternating between firework scenes full of music, dance, and fabulous costumes (or the removal thereof, wink wink), and calm meditations provoking terror.  For example, one scene involves a man ecstatically drenching himself in beer to a stage rattling rendition of “Cowboy” by Kid Rock, mixed with a monologue about failing as a father.  But despite the omnipresent bi-polar dysfunction, Hand2Mouth seems to ultimately celebrate the United States.  They invite the audience to dance with them, to drink with them, to appreciate and affirm the beauty of red, white, and blue fireworks over the Boston River on July 4th.

But if this is ‘other America’ then what is ‘us America?’  I always thought cowboys, country music, eating pie, and picnics on the 4th were part of ‘white America,’ translation ‘dominant America.’  Is Repeat After Me saying that the ‘white’ cultural experience in the United States is now marginalized as ‘other?’  These are all subjective words, defined more by experience than precise terms, so who can really say what an ‘other America’ is?  In a contested culture, who can say what is authentic?

But the idea of the United States as an internally contested identity intrigues me.  And it’s this very idea that is explored in And So We Became American, a work in progress which also performed as part of the FURYFactory.

The creative team behind Became American, headed by Zac Jaffee, Christy Funsch, and Andrea Kuchlewska, commissioned numerous locals to report their feelings of American identity onstage in a sort of word choreography.  Performers interacted with recording devices and amplifying speakers, and their mode of expression ranged from direct communication to poetry, to dance, to overlapping spoken orchestras.  Similarly diverse were the expressions themselves, some declaring that ‘America is nothing,’ others describing their experience of alienation in foreign countries, some defiantly asserting that ‘you have the right to remain selfish,’ some furtively muttering ‘no more excuses,’ and some simply dancing.  In my opinion, Became American’s range of expression, both in medium and semantics, pales compared to the full spectrum of experience here in the U.S.A.  However, I also think that it’s open acknowledgement of our contested identity strikes to the core of contemporary dialogue about our culture.

After viewing these performances, I’m still left with many questions about culture in the United States.  What about appropriation of foreign cultures?  What about cultural economics, the Hollywood exports and the culinary imports?  What about our long history of trade in human capital, and how that fits into our self-image?  If our national identity is contested, what unites the United States beyond economic, governmental, or legal ties?  Can anyone actually answer these questions?

I’m fascinated by Repeat After Me and And So We Became American because any expression of our culture seems to instantly become a mirror through which we better understand ourselves.  The moment an identity is declared, we are tacitly invited to conform or diverge, to embrace or question the representation of us, and hopefully to empathize with the ‘other America.’  Given this effect of tacit dialogue, Patriotic Theatre, understood as any performance that explores our cultural mores, is a vital tool in the ongoing investigation—and perhaps also the creation—of our national identity.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stateless: Workshop Performances

Stateless: a performance by Dan Wolf and Tom Sheppard, two performers recently made popular by their successful production Angry Black White Boy. Stateless: a performance that has inspired this written reflection about workshop performances in new play development. Stateless: a word that aptly describes the performance’s effect on me: nonplussed, irresolute, as if swayed by a breeze.  Stateless didn't much move me, but saying so hardly criticizes this workshop performance because it’s a workshop performance.  All foibles forgiven under the ‘not-done-yet’ clause, and all constructive criticism welcomed.  So what constructive criticism can be offered?

Dan Wolf and Tommy Sheppard didn’t show us their planned ending, suggesting no interest in a comprehensive reaction to the play's gestalt. I assume they only desired access to our emotional responses and choices of attention. Where did we fixate? What did we feel?  After all, in the post show discussion, they only asked, ‘what stuck out to you?’  However, if such was their intention, I wonder why they presented the material at all.  How can our emotional and intellectual reactions comprehensively inform their dramaturgical choices if we aren’t reacting to the whole?

More over, I must ask the question: how valuable is the audience’s self reported reactions to the script’s construction?  Shortly after a workshop reading of his work, a playwright acquaintance of mine declared, “It doesn’t matter what the audience says, you already know what they’ll say.  The audience is not the point, getting in a room with actors and a director is the point.”  I’m not settled with this cavalier attitude towards the receptor of one’s work, but it illustrates something important.  If you don’t know how the audience will react, and that’s the goal of your workshop, then you’re squandering resources.

Because I have some inside info on the workshop, I know that Wolf, Sheppard, and their director Ellen Sebastian Chang did not squander resources.  The public performances of Stateless only partly comprised their dramaturgical efforts.  However, the question still remains, what valuable kernels came from the public’s reaction?

One audience member gave a comment that I find, upon reflection, to be the most enduringly valuable.  She essentially asked, “How does one tell parallel stories without focusing on equivalencies?” Don’t be fooled, it’s not rhetorical. Parallel stories are told all the time without focusing on equivalencies. To do so, authors divide the components of a story’s dramatic structure between the parallel sub-parts.  This differs from sharing the dramatic structure between parallel narratives, which builds in redundancy and focuses on equivalencies. Stateless favored the latter.  For example, Jack and Jill went up the hill and broke their heads.  We can tell the first half of this story from Jill’s perspective and the second from Jack’s without necessarily losing anything.  If we tell the whole story from both Jack and Jill’s perspectives, alternating between the two, we invite greater focus on comparison of perspective than on the story.

Like the audience member who asked the apt question, I’m not sure if Stateless wants to be about equivalencies. The show opens with a wonderful line, which I cannot recall verbatim, but asserts that we deconstruct the past to assemble the future. In the play, the vehicle of this deconstruction and re-assembly are letters, one that both Wolf and Sheppard receive from their grandparents and then write to their children. Letters bridge the divide between past, present, and future, and this theme surfaces at both the performance’s beginning and workshop ‘ending.’ Given this positioning within the performance’s structure, it seems critically important. Yet, I cannot marry the dramatic ballistics of this past-to-future theme with the story’s comparison inclined structure. The two work together like holding a gun squarely at one’s chest, and pulling the trigger with one’s thumb.  But this may be my limitation and not Wolf’s or Sheppard’s. After all, just because the Pope can’t marry two men, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

The workshop performance of Stateless therefore yielded a rather interesting kernel: a dramaturgical question that cuts directly to the play’s core.  However, I should note that this audience member’s comment about equivalencies is uncommon in my experience.  Therefore I’m still questioning the value of workshop performances and audience feedback.  I do not intend this blog to attack workshop performances, but rather to meditate on their uses.  Some producers do workshop performances, but not all, suggesting that their value is not universally recognized or that they are not universally feasible.  So stay tuned, this discussion isn’t over.  I’m certain future experiences will elicit additional blogs relating to this subject, and illuminate pertinent discussions not hosted here.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Realism Is A Luxury

           Christopher Herold once told me, “Realism is a luxury.”  We were in a directing class studying performance styles, and I didn’t completely understand what he was talking about.  After all, if realism is the status quo, then how can the status quo be luxury?  I realize that question could be shot down faster than a black guy pulling out his wallet for the cops, but that doesn’t bring me closer to an answer.  I can’t say I’ve finally figured it out, but several recent performances bring Herold’s statement to the forefront of my mind, and I’m determined to uncover even the smallest kernel of understanding.

            A couple performances that contributed to the present meditation were produced in this year’s Best of Playground Festival.  Net, by Geetha Reddy, Gymnoépdie #1 by Kenn Rabin, and John Jacob O’Reilly Smitherton’s Bid to Save the World by Erin Bregman all refreshingly depart from the verisimilitude we frequently see on TV and stage.  These pieces use words, instead of sets, to create the world of the story, a style similar to that employed by Word for Word, a Bay Area company that theatrically performs literary texts verbatim.  In this style, characters verbally express both the external and internal realities of the story as it unfolds, creating a tantalizing dynamic tension between the described and observed, the imagined and perceived.  Suicide penetrates deeper into our psyche when the dying describes the feeling of impending death, discovering it moment by moment and relaying it in real time to the audience.  This poignant style combines the expansive power of imagination with the visceral experience of live performance.  And it’s cheaper than building a set (depending on who wrote the words, of course).

            But there must be something more to the luxury of realism than it’s low costs.  After all, many non-realism plays cost plenty to produce.  Wreckage by Caridad Svich, currently performing in the Boxcar Theatre but produced by Crowded Fire Theatre Company, certainly departs from realism with its poetic language and repeating structure, but its set didn’t look cheap.  Three different platforms at different levels, suspended sheets of semi-transparent plastic, a real sand pit, a mini TV, and a projector displaying recorded film that was edited and digitally altered; none of that is cheap.  So what made Wreckage a non-luxury?  My answer: language.  Words may be cheap for replacing a set, but the price of understanding them is not always low.  Svich’s dialogue discards the convention of everyday speech in exchange for language that exposes the complicated matrices of human conflict within a seemingly simple plot.  She even goes so far as to largely discard the luxury of names.  If the audience did not liberally apply patience and attention, they would quickly have lost track of the story.  What makes Wreckage a non-luxury is that we cannot passively absorb the story, we must actively engage with it just to understand who is doing what, to say nothing of absorbing the play’s larger meaning.

            This understanding of realism as a luxury because it requires more attention might have sealed the deal for me, but then I saw What Men Want, the latest project from Scott Wells and Dancers, part of the SF International Arts Festival.  Dance is easily the performance style least associated with realism, for the unconventional and often difficult movement performed therein defines the genre.  But Modern Dance, I might contend, is frequently misunderstood because it sometimes utilizes realism as a style of dance.  It seems like a total contradiction.

For example, in What Men Want, the dancers circle up and engage in humorous, but apparently ubiquitous, dancer warm up exercises that involve pretending to be a samurai.  At the completion of the performance, my friend turned to me and said, “If I’m a pianist, it’s not art to perform scales onstage, why should I pay to see that?”  His question seems awfully similar to the one I presented in opening this essay.  It strikes directly at the underlying difference between the present incarnations of theatre and dance, and illuminates part of the answer I’m seeking.

It seems to me that maybe Theatre’s dominate performance style is realism, Dance’s dominant performance style is non-realism, and any departure from the dominant performance style is interpreted as a non-luxury.  Is this because it requires more attention?  Maybe the luxury of a performance style is defined by how easily we can interpret and absorb it, and the dominant styles are the easiest.

But if this is true, then we must acknowledge the social construction and circumstantial influences on both realism as a performance style and it’s categorization as a luxury.  It’s all about what we expect to see.  Is that what Christopher Herold was trying to say?  I’d like to think so, but I expect my preconceptions to be challenged, otherwise how am I supposed to grow?  Maybe that’s why I really liked watching dancers do their warm up exercises.  Or it could be because they were half naked with beautiful bodies.  What can I say?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


            As a writer, it is not always easy to determine the impact of one’s words.  The task becomes easier when writing editorial or critical work, where the explicit vector of one’s intentions defines the genre.  Though clear in regards to opinions, my reviews on this blog may not clearly communicate my intentions, which are collaborative even when my tone is condemning.  I imagined that my reviews might serve more than my ego’s need to share, that they might help create an environment where people write and speak about theatre with the complexity I believe it deserves.  But lately I’ve been reconsidering.

Critics and reviewers presently function mostly (though perhaps for not much longer) as an important catalyst to the commercial success of theatre and often as ambassador between artist and audience.  I find this relationship particularly odd considering that most theatre critics don’t make theatre, and are therefore limited when judging its quality or commenting on its art.  I’m not saying non-theatre professionals aught to be excluded from theatre review, or even that they intrinsically give bad critiques; I’m simply saying that they lack a perspective that I desire when trying to answer ‘Should I see this production?’

Of course the underlying issue is trust.  The public needs one of their own to tell them ‘see this’ or ‘don’t see this,’ someone without investment in the commercial or artistic success of a production.  Without personal investment, the critic is arguably an objective voice, and the public can therefore trust them.  If the critic or reviewer is artistically or commercially invested in the production they review, they loose the trust of not only the public, but fellow artists, and that’s why I’m ceasing my critical reviews of theatrical productions.

A creative and collaborative environment withers without trust, and if I’m ever going to forge relationships with the Bay Area artistic community, it probably doesn’t set the right tone to begin with, “Hi, I wrote that review about why I think your show sucked.”  It’s probably better to begin with, “Hi, I think you had some great moments in your last show, maybe we can work together and make something even better!”  After all, negative reinforcement is nowhere near as effective as positive reinforcement.

Now, I know what you’re going to say, “He is compromising his personal integrity to get in bed with people who can help his career.”  While there are many people in this business I would like to sleep with, I don’t think I’m compromising anything.  It’s simply a change in tactics.  Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  If I want better theatre in the Bay Area, then I need to go make it instead of heckling from the side-lines.  After all, what right do I have to judge artistic work?  And who said my reviews were even accurate?

So I bow out of that gladiatorial arena and embrace a less combative medium.  I’m not sure what form these blogs will take, but it will likely morph into less review and more commentary a la dramaturgy or contextualizing the production.  Without harsh punitive declarations, my blog will no doubt be less entertaining to some, but I hope to find ways to make it an interesting and valuable experience for you my readers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wrong X, Put It Back, Wildcat Is No Treasure

            I’m sure some people will love 42nd Street Moon’s production of Wildcat, but then some people will clap for a monkey in a suit, even when it throws shit at them.  I know I’m being harsh, but I have little regard for performance that attempts nothing more than to entertain with spectacle-less predictable vacuity.  I can find no compelling reason to see Wildcat at the Eureka Theatre other than to support a performing loved one, or to feed some abominable hunger for kitschy tunes and anyone-can-dance choreography.  My heart goes out to the energetic and committed performers who clearly did it for love of the stage, but nothing redeems this musical, which was never written to last beyond the endurance of its original star, Lucille Ball.  42nd Street Moon admirably combs the archives of theatre history for ‘unjustly “lost” treasure[s],’ but Wildcat is no treasure.  It shows its age and relevance in 2009 like a horse drawn carriage at NASCAR; interesting as a historical retrospective and entertaining only when the horse guts smear along the guardrail.

            It seems to me that the tired structure of some musicals, i.e. scene-song, scene-song, ad nauseum, only really works when the song that follows a scene contributes something new to the theme, plot, or entertainment value of the show.  If the song rehashes something we already know, then it better be pretty and the actors better summersault over a lava pit while singing it--and I better smell the sulfur.

Wildcat tries to do this, but it mostly can’t for one unfortunate reason:  the original production’s entertainment value rested on a seasoned comedic performance by Lucille Ball… and she’s dead.  No doubt the original production was saturated with Ball’s humor--it’s practically written into the script--and no doubt the show’s original success can be attributed to her.  Instead of acknowledging and commenting on Ball’s hit performance, this production tries to recreate it and understandably fails.  If the producers of Wildcat had cast a man in Lucy’s role and played up the camp of the production, thereby commenting on the show as a relic from forgotten pasts, I would probably have loved it.  Instead, they tried to resurrect one of America’s most loved stars, an act which puts them in the same boat as Elvis impersonators.

So now that I’ve explained why I don’t think this show should ever have been revived, I’ll explain why I think the show’s message is socially backward—and I don’t mean the racist ‘mexican’ number in the second act.  But before I explain, I’ll take a moment to respond to those voices that might cry out, “it’s just entertainment, if you’re looking for a message you’re reading too much into it.”  To these voices, I say this: nothing is just entertainment.  Entertainment is only entertainment because it is different from what we conceive to be normal life.  Even someone doing summersaults is entertaining only because most people can’t do that.  This relationship between what’s performed on stage and what’s lived on the sidewalk is always addressed by the performance, whether overtly or implicitly. 

This production of Wildcat chooses to entertain with a comedic story about an unscrupulous entrepreneur, and assumes it’s okay to bully and cheat people into profitable business models--or assumes we don’t care.  I’m sure one could argue that the comedic attack of this production is squarely targeted at ruthless capitalism, but I looked and couldn’t find any moment where the show acknowledged the questionable behavior of its protagonist.  Yes, the love interest constantly condemns her as a liar, but this doesn’t stop her from lying or him from inexplicably falling in love with her.  This lying, bullying, cheating protagonist ends up with both the riches and the man she wanted.  Even the movie Superbad, in which teenagers steal booze, chase tail, and shoot up cop cars, forces its characters to deal with the hilarious and sometimes dangerous consequences of their reckless behavior.  Wildcat’s cavalier attitude about corrupt capitalism is particularly brow rising when we’re facing an ongoing economic crisis caused by unregulated and unlawful business practices.  Either I missed something, or this show supports Enron.

I know this last argument is a bit of a stretch.  Like I said in my last blog, what’s funny and what’s offensive is hard to define.  But I can’t sit by while I think a blatant sign of ignorance or deliberate obtuseness parades on stage.  If you disagree with me, I invite your comments, so that I can try to learn what I can from you.

Despite my chilly feelings for the production, I’d like to impress my respect for the performers, who pulled out a few surprises, and made a musical on life support hobble around like a randy seventy-year-old at their first convalescent home.  Such a feat deserves a round of applause.

I’d also like to say that I have nothing against the elderly, or the fact that they probably constitute 90% of 42nd Street Moon’s audience.  People like that have supported theatre long enough to inspire ungrateful young squirts like me.  It’s just that sometimes I wish the shows they loved could resonate meaningfully with me about the issues I face in the world today.  As I feel about too many musicals, Wildcat avoids said issues, avoids the world and tries to be escapist entertainment, only to disappoint.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ha Ha BANG! - The Lieutenant of Inishmore

The Lieutenant of Inishmore bears the mark of Martin McDonagh, who might be more popularly recognized for his film “In Bruges.”  Like Lieutenant, “In Bruges” humanizes violent killers through comedy, but it avoids the political commentary that makes Lieutenant both a better story and more controversial.  Though hearty and nutritious, Berkeley Rep’s mounting of Lieutenant is bland and vaguely frustrating, like a baked potato without bacon bits, or sex without an orgasm.  If blandness is the crime, then my primary suspect is Les Waters, the director, who potentially mismanaged the play’s comedic possibilities.  This criticism, however, must be taken with all the spice not found in the production, for Lieutenant’s comedy is contested with the same frequency as my misspelling of the word ‘lieutenant’ in this blog (thank god for spell-check).

I spent most of Lieutenant entertained, but vaguely dissatisfied, due to the fact that I was watching a comedy but I wasn’t really laughing.  I registered the humor of each joke, and sometimes even chuckled.  But the jokes felt generic and they lacked the texture, specificity, and development needed to make them truly funny.  We recognize the irony and laugh when a female character sports short hair, wears army boots, and roots for terrorists while savaging the county with a bee-bee gun.  We laugh slightly harder when she tells us that she has shot out cow eyes as a protest against English rule.  But that’s where the laughter ends, not because she becomes too serious, but because the texture of her character then goes undeveloped.  What else is potentially funny about her?  The script takes it to another level when it has this woman don a dress to impress her heartthrob, but Waters spends almost no time focusing on this new ironic development.  She seems as comfortable in the dress as she did in the boots, and the rich ground for exploring the irony of a woman uncomfortable in woman’s clothing goes untilled.

This is just an example of several moments where McDonagh provides a set up, but the director makes uninteresting choices.  The long scene in which two morons disassemble bodies onstage was ripe for gags (pun intended), but again, the production barely lingers on the possibilities.  It’s as if Waters is relying on the script alone to be funny without anyone else having to give it life.

But before I continue to rag on Les Waters, we have to ask ourselves just how funny Martin McDonagh really is, and we must challenge any assertion that claims a comedy isn’t funny enough.  Comedy, it seems to me, is in no small part a social and personal construct.  Case and point is Dr. Hasan, who I had the pleasure of meeting last week while he visited the U.S. from Iraq.  Dr. Hasan doesn’t speak English very well, and while viewing Lieutenant, he was terrified to find himself surrounded by an audience laughing at torture, murder, and terrorism.  Dr. Hasan has experienced these things in Baghdad, where he is without the luxury of a proscenium.  We could argue that he didn’t find it funny because his experienced lacked an integral part, the script, but our experience similarly lacks an integral part, personal memories of ongoing terrorist violence. We laugh, he doesn’t, who’s right?

In the case of Lieutenant, I don’t think it matters, because the play is worth seeing even if you don’t laugh.  Robert McKee says that comedy is an attack, a subversive device by which the comedian exposes the subject, usually calling attention to a contradiction or paradox.  If nothing more, Lieutenant deftly exposes the impact of manipulated information on Northern Ireland politics, ridicules the unpatriotic activities of patriot groups, and challenges the fallacious logic of gender binaries.  Most of all, Lieutenant questions us about our arbitrary distinctions between who to treat ‘humanely’ and who deserves violence.

I also would like to give kudos to whoever composes the Berkeley Rep’s programs.  Their programs consistently offer well written articles full of dramaturgical and historical context for their productions.  Additionally, Tony Taccone’s Artistic Director’s Note refreshingly introduces the play with substantive information without defending his choice to present it.  I am tired of insecure directors or artistic director’s notes that defend the play, explain the meaning, or idolize the playwright as doing critically important work.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore deserves the awards it’s received.  Though this incarnation of it sooths like a pleasant Irish jig instead of electrifying like a Flogging Molly riff, it made me think and it made me feel, and that leaves me mostly satisfied.