Campo Santo's 'Candlestick' and SF Playhouse's 'King of the Yees' Dream Of Missing San Francisco Fathers
There’s a touch of King Lear in all fathers. They begin in our lives as resplendent Gods and end their lives, at least before us, diminished, humbled, confused, and defiantly human. They are well suited to the needs of drama and two new plays, Campo Santo’s production of Bennett Fischer’s Candlestick at the Costume Shop and Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees at the SF Playhouse give us not just fallible fathers, but San Francisco ones as well.
And it is their daughters, not without their own troubles, who must contend with the humanity of these men and the ways their souls have seeped into their memories of a radically changing city. Look away and both the fathers and the San Francisco they knew might vanish.
Do You Know Frank Nunley’s Number?
If you don’t know, you probably aren’t the 49’er fan that Lyle is or I was. Every home game he and his fellow electricians—long time, non-union contract workers for a family-run business—tailgate at Candlestick. Paying to go to the actual games is out of the question and so the parking lot is Lyle’s domain. Fischer organizes his play around the 2013 season, the last one the 49’ers played at Candlestick before slipping down the peninsula to the 21st century’s notion of sports luxury. This brief moment in time allows us to become privy to one intense part of Lyle’s and his friends’ lives.
Very much in the role of the patriarch or king, Lyle presides over the tailgater, debating with and against his court: the sharp and quiet Karl, the effusive and forward-thinking ticket scalper Hugo, and probably the most important and fascinating supporting character, Martina, who has taken over the family electrical business from her father. She is the economic lifeline for almost everyone on stage. As an individual she is kind and loyal and worthy; as an owner of a business she is far from a vicious capitalist, but just as far from a trail-blazing socialist. Let’s say that she’s a human being and Fisher’s savviest, most complex creation in terms of illuminating the economic decisions that infiltrate and rule our lives.
In the limbo of fandom, Lyle is king, but it is a precarious rule. Not just the way his friends challenge his understanding of gridiron strategy, but also for what has happened and is happening outside his limited rule in the parking lot: his wife has died, his daughter Riley is going to cosmetology school in Florida to escape a sketchy past, and he has money, health, and landlord problems. Can the King survive or even ask for help? His hold over his throne is shaky as the world narrows in.
The psychological mania of the fan is both a joy to behold as well as a dangerous and disturbing phenomenon. If you think politically, and Bennet and the always-alert Campo Santo are making a go at it, the fan touches on a variety of political ideologies and dispositions—democratic and fascistic, collective and star driven, populist and personal. We are all helpless before our emotions and to live in the thrall of a team or political belief can be a great balm. We don’t need to mention the dangers that come from that: we’re living in them right now.
It’s hard to asses the limitations and successes of Fisher’s play. It has the jagged and sharp rhythms of a smart sitcom, the kind of work that Norman Lear produced in the seventies (All in the Family, Maude, Good Times) and Susan Harris achieved for one brief shining moment with Soap. And that’s all to the good and yet you feel that there is so much more to be had from both fandom and the transformation of San Francisco.
Fisher hints at dangers and we feel it in the fraught relationship between Lyle’s daughter and Martina—the scene between the two is the best in the play. Neither is innocent of seeing Lyle as an economic problem or solution, but the play struggles to go beyond garden-variety conflicts to get at what’s truly tearing these people apart. Perhaps the blame belongs to the city and its embrace of a high flying capitalism.
Come on, of course it does.
It’s a claim that Fisher made less convincingly in his previous play, Campo Maldito, and that is more fully realized here. But the fullest, most devastating version is still to come, in some other play in some other production that catches the nature of the San Francisco beast and its quiet eviscerations of the Lyles of the world.
Exit The King
Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees is part of a genre of mainstream plays that use the once radical techniques of experimental theater for mindless, mindful, mind-bending entertainment. Take your pick. What’s clear is that you are not going to be challenged or confused or angered. Yee means to please. Like Fischer she has her eye on a vanishing San Francisco. In this case the Chinatown of her youth, a place her father fervently loved, still loves, and one that she has always sought to distance herself from.
We can somewhat confidently talk about Yee’s beliefs because both she and her father are the main characters in King of the Yees. In fact, they are the main characters in two different King of the Yees before us. The first one is the play Yee supposedly wrote that her supposedly real father (in a wonderful performance by Francis Jue) interrupts, commanding the stage by mistake or guile—it’s hard to tell.
We then become privy to a second, supposedly more real King of the Yees, a kind of play-within-a-play, which is the actual drama that we actually see. The initial King of the Yees never finishes, though the meta-theatrical one does, leaving us with a real fiction overcoming a truthful one. That might seem ornate, but Yee handles it all with a professional’s aplomb, though not an artist’s sense of passion.
Much in the mode of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Yee demonstrates how we are always making our own reality, theatrical or otherwise, and how our fantasies often spring from our worst fears about ourselves. As in much of the contemporary therapeutic industry, Yee’s play attempts to come to terms with the minor league problems that plague successful people.
There’s never any doubt that she will come to realize the worth of her father and the error of her ways in order to become a fuller, truer Lauren Yee. Whatever Pirandello was after, you know it wasn’t this kind of infantile self-fulfillment.
In many ways that’s the problem with the play—its narrow, trite use of the experimental for nothing more than sketch comedy and dime store lessons in life. To be fair, the play has some charms, but they wear off as the evening progresses. With all that meta-theatrical armor, King of the Yees has the pretensions of a much more serious work. And I would say —in a half-hearted, damning critique kind of way— that it uses that pretension to deflect our attention from how thinly constructed and thought out it is.
It hurts to give a French Post-Structuralist his due, but François Lyotard was right: we are living in a culture of simulacrums where the fake has overtaken the real. King of the Yees is a zombie play. Not content to just be sketch comedy, the play slithers into the guise of something its audience might mistake for real art, something that demands engagement in thought and emotion. What’s fascinating about Yee’s play is that you can so thoroughly imagine a different piece, one more terrifying, and slowly paced, and painful, and even funnier.
It’s all there. The father who bursts on stage in the middle of his daughter’s play and refuses to leave. The daughter who implores him to be sensible, and yet misses how her rejection of everything he values is the real cause of his embarrassing behavior. And then the father who disappears into a dangerous world. Without him the daughter suddenly craves everything he stands for. In a reversal of her initial embarrassment, she brings him back on stage to bask in the applause that she had intended for herself.
Every aspect of that seems legitimate, but in King of the Yees the beast has fled and only the husk of the skin remains.
Both productions feature some excellent acting.
If I were to pick one detail that explains what’s wrong with King of the Yees, it would be Yee’s use of Raymond “Shrimp Boy” King, a notorious Chinatown gangster. She treats him as a joke figure, a plot device, but coming across the real Raymond King wouldn’t be a joke, it would be terrifying. Yee’s dramatic sense or inclination is to strip the world of reality and sense in order to get at some kind of emotional truth.
I remember hearing a story of Sam Shepard’s father storming the stage of a production of Buried Child in New Mexico. By all reports there was nothing charming about it.
Frank Nunley’s number was 57.
But truth without reality or sense just leads you to empty homilies.
‘Candlestick’ runs through February 3 at the Costume Shop in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.
‘King of the Yees’ runs through March 2 at the SF Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.