weekly theater guide
Starting in the 1960’s the wacky has held a special place in American avant-garde, non-mainstream theater, a native variant of European absurdist drama (think Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano). Over the years, what was once a political sensibility has ossified into a dead aesthetic. In Men on Boats and Women Laughing Alone With Salad we can see how tiring and empty the wacky has become. Salad is a much better play than Men on Boats, but both would be helped by playing to and abiding by a sense of the real world. Anything goes used to be a sign of anarchic freedom, but has now become the province of our crazed President and a retrograde theatrical aesthetic that needs to end.
For the week beginning November 5, 2018
Men in Boats is as an incredible failure of imagination even as it touts the imagination as a theatrical force in representing the past. The actual story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 trip down the Colorado River is stirring and complex, a wild adventure worthy of investigation, critique, celebration, whatever your game. Yet you can’t get to any of that without a real vision or philosophy of history. And a real vision would never reduce the complex Powell and his crew to stick figure goofballs, which is what happens here.
What we get from Men on Boats is an illusion of real engagement and experimentation. It’s selling radical critique, revisionist history, feminist ideals, and theatrical invention, but it’s all packaging without soul or sense or care, just idle gestures to make us feel that something has happened. And nothing has and that’s a shame. A free audience should revolt and demand more.
There are a lot of problems with Shelia Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad and, interestingly enough, many of them touch on what we might call the limits of representation. Or just simply, what can you get away with on stage. The talented but undisciplined Callaghan wants to get away with everything and director Susannah Martin, quite savvy at staging difficult texts, does her best to make that possible in a game but ungainly Shotgun Players production.
Sometimes you see a play and you just want to make up some rules. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview has certainly garnered a lot of controversy and audiences and critics have been fairly tight-lipped about what actually happens in the Berkley Rep over the course of Drury’s 100-minute dissection of, I guess the best way to put it is, race and perception.
Though what audiences think they’re perceiving and even more complex what the playwright, cast, and producers think audiences are perceiving can’t be kept secret for the simple reason that they’re clearly thinking many different things, acting from different motives, and coming to the theater with radically different experiences. Whether the creators of the “Fairview” situation believe any of that matters is an open question and leads to our first rule: never let the production control your experience; you are free.
And so you should test that out at the Berkeley Rep and see where you land in the divide. It’s an almost completely fascinating experience.
‘Fairview’ runs through November 4 at the Alfred Peet’s Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here. For the Full Review click here.
Girl is a kind of beautiful abstraction that takes the last girl trope of slasher films and subjects it to a philosophy of violence. We know the situation: after all the terror and killing is done, there’s always a girl with lovely brown hair struggling to escape, to claw her way back to something approaching a normal life, or any life at all. Her moment is always some combination of the smutty indifference of the snuff film and a survivor’s religious transcendence. Kate and Fauxnique choose transcendence (with snuff lurking at a distance) and the effect is, at times, stunning—a fragment of philosophy that somehow becomes a lovely bit of performance.
In many ways, the Ubuntu Theater Project’s Hamlet is a strict and traditional one, taking seriously all the play has to offer—its boundless energy, the way it repeatedly flirts with dramatic collapse and chaos, the biting humor, and the force of Hamlet’s mind and soul. And then that extra bit, the minds and souls of all the people of the world that surround him, too. That’s something an Ubuntu production would never overlook.
Ubuntu keeps on staking ground in a variety of material—the vicious melodrama of Hurt Village, the devastating, political violence of To the Bone, and this Hamlet, which burns with an intensity so ridiculous that parts of it will make you cry.
Explanation is the prime aesthetic concern of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer-prize winning Sweat. The playwright tells us, rather than trusting that we can intuit and feel our way through the material. Everything feels controlled, deliberate, and perfunctory. We know that Nottage has done a great deal of research, gone to Reading and talked to a lot of people—the program and countless articles tell us so with a kind of awe and reverence. But I would say to what end.
There’s no real philosophy here, there’s no real ideas, there isn’t even anger. People in the play get angry, but the play itself is curiously distant. Everything is meticulously explained, rather than alive with human imagination, and some of the lines, especially the speeches, seem culled from interviews rather than how people actually talk to lifelong friends.
I can’t help but think that there’s another play lurking inside Oslo, J.T. Rogers’ respectful account of how the Israelis and the PLO came to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords. This Oslo would be nastier, livelier, less fair-minded, and memorable enough to force the most jaded of us to care. Because right now, in Rogers’ Oslo, what we care about are negotiations. They could have been between East Timor and Australia, or a couple of boys trading baseball cards. There’s a way in which the Israelis and Palestinians at the center of the drama are incidental to the entire experience.
The problem cuts to the heart of what we consider serious playwriting in the American theater and serious art in general. Success comes down to the weight of the subject matter and nothing could be weightier and more intractable a problem than the Middle East. But it’s precisely the hushed tones of serious reflection that keep us away from, well, actual reflection. It’s a good production, though.
What I’m going to say about Cutting Ball’s Uncle Vanya is completely unrealistic and unfair, but the problem here is rehearsal time and how theaters produce work. The production feels like a very well-rehearsed first draft, where everything was attempted and nothing rejected. You wonder what might have happened if they had spent an equal amount of time with a scalpel, paring closer and closer to the bone until every effect was either excised or found its way into the blood of Chekhov’s stunning play. There are real pleasures here, but too many experiments for the sake of experimenting.
Everything begins provisionally. Perhaps in all our lives, but absolutely in death, choreographer Charles Slender-White’s sly, beautiful immersive dance receiving its world premiere at CounterPulse for his company FACT/SF. The piece begins off-handedly. A few friendly ushers lead us up some stairs to the top of the theater’s risers where a small picture box theater has been constructed—it’s as if the world before us has narrowed, focused in on one fragile moment. The eighty minutes that follow are both shocking and formally brilliant. You will want to see it again.
debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly is a nightmare about nightmares. The play oscillates between the dreamily poetic and lacerating realism. At 65-minutes it could be longer, but it’s always fascinating. Anton’s Well gives this difficult play a more than credible production with three strong performances. The play and the production are not perfect, but they’re alive and vibrant. And that’s what we should want.
Young Jean Lee’s Church begins in the dark, which is always a great place to start an evening at the theater or a religious service. Darkness creates a sense of equality. It disrupts our sense of the world—all the psychic muck that we bring to every occasion—and, best of all, calms us down. When the soothing voice of Reverend José (a brilliant and assured Lawrence Redecker) pierces the Potrero Playhouse, we’re ready. You might ask, “Ready for what?” And I would say for contemplating your soul, which is more or less what happens during the Reverend’s opening speech. His initial parable ends with the injunction to “open your eyes!” and the effect is so complete that Lee’s clever pun doesn’t feel smart or ironic.
Lucas Hnath turns Ibsen’s Nora into an anti-marriage feminist, whereas what disillusions Nora is Torvald’s lack of commitment to the most basic tenant of any marriage—the vow to be there for the worst. This gives Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a nasty kick. With only a vague notion of feminist zeal—as if Hnath hired a steering committee to make sure he was up to date on the latest trends—his drama never gains any traction, a pale imitation of the still more shocking original.
As a playwright Dominique Morriseau has happy feet, constantly shifting back and forth between contrary dramatic styles and ideas. The first act hovers uneasily between conceptual daring, sitcom antics dressed up as everyday life, and dabs of Brechtian commentary between the scenes. The second act is organized like an August Wilson play, a series of vignettes that delay the drama to deepen our sense of the world from which it eventually emerges. No one should ever say that some balance between these four couldn’t work; it’s that Morriseau hasn’t the skill, talent, or daring to pull it off.
The challenge Gotanda poses in Pool of Wonders: Undertow of the Soul is sharp and his ending beautiful, both the writing and the pared down lavishness of Michael Socrates Maron’s staging; nonetheless, the beginning of the play is uncertain both in tone and content. Despite those problems both play and production are fascinating attempts at a new, more mysterious American theater.
Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss isn’t a great play, but it’s a sharp one. In the Shotgun Players’ excellent production in association with Golden Thread Theater you’re going to feel the sting of its anger despite its shaky ending scenes. Go for the first long scene and stay to think about the last two.
Cal Shakes’ flawed, four-hour journey into political mayhem hints at and kind of achieves some of the nervy, assaultive flair of continental auteurs such as Thomas Ostermeier or Ivo van Hove. I can’t remember a production with so much go-for-broke acting on the Cal Shakes stage, or really any of the major Bay Area stages.
The problem with the San Francisco Mime Troupe is that they put on awful productions of awful plays in a style that we might call, passably professional. Professional, because everyone involved in the production knows what to do. Lines are memorized, cues are hit, the musicians play the right notes, the whole enterprise moves along with the precision of a Swiss watch, and yet every year, every summer, it’s a disaster in the park. A disaster of art, thought, time, civic engagement, progressive politics, an indictment of the spirit of the Bay Area that this is what passes for politically engaged, left-wing theater.
Their latest outing is Seeing Red, a time travel comedy bereft of energy and ideas. I suppose there are bits of labor history that some of their audience is unaware of, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. These free shows in the park seem more and more costly every year. We should demand more of fifty-year institutions or shut them down for the good of the republic.
‘Seeing Red’ runs until September 9 in various Bay Area Parks. For times and dates click here.
Many years ago over the course of five years or so, I saw a number of Anne Galjour’s plays. They had a real mystery to them and it felt as if she were discovering and shaping new worlds right before us, or at least ones we rarely see. One piece ended with a young girl imagining herself in the middle of a dance floor, enveloped in a sea of light. That moment had the quality of a dream storming into reality. I’ve never quite forgotten it and have always thought that Galjour was an artist with a special feeling for theatrical form.
#GetGandhi, her self-proclaimed “radical feminist comedy,” seems the work of an altogether different artist, say an alternate Anne Galjour whose only notion of drama is 1980’s television sitcoms, and bad ones at that. Instead of a play that is restless, searching, and alert to new possibilities, #GetGandhi is merely a concept drowning in cliches.
Info and tickets.
There are two important points to make about Anton’s Well’s production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. The first is that it’s a pleasure to see a young theater company stake out an aesthetic philosophy, to essentially say: This is what we do and this is how we’re going to do it. In the bland world of Bay Area Theater, that’s a cause for celebration.
The second point is a bit more damning. Though you can understand why Artistic Director and Founder Robert Estes would be attracted to the late, avant-garde shock master Sarah Kane, the best you can say of her work is that it doesn’t require much attention. Reaction, maybe, but for a writer so interested in brutality, it’s amazing how little Kane’s plays demand that we think, engage, and concentrate.
Info and tickets.
Vietgone possesses a kind of conceptual genius that makes you feel that Qui Nguyen has found a more fluid and expressive form of American playwriting. And then he blows all that brilliance with some truly dreadful writing — weak-minded parodies, sitcom tripe, and post-modern juvenilia.
Full Review. Info and tickets.
These days, when complicity has become such a potent, possibly criminal question (in our government, businesses, and private lives), TheatreFirst’s two-program collection of seven one-act monologues, Between Us, presents a group of men and women who got in the way. The problem is that none of the plays on display here.
Full review. Info and tickets.
Pinter was the revolution that mid-century audiences wanted — and for almost 60 years he, along with Samuel Beckett, has stood for an ongoing theatrical revolt against conventional meaning. ACT's by-the-numbers production of his first hit, The Birthday Party, shows how limited that revolution was. There are moments, but nothing can compensate for Pinter's lack of dramatic and philosophical force. The void is empty.