I do? Crowded Fire finds fractured bliss in Late Wedding

The Late Wedding
Kathryn Zdan is a playwright searching for her long lost wife, and Michael Anthony Torres is a captain charged with manning a spaceship on a voyage to the mythical Calaman Islands in the world premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Late Wedding, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House. Below: Amid the many flights of fancy including in The Late Wedding is a play within a play with actors Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta as space voyagers performing the imagined fate of a crew member and his wife. Photos by Pak Han

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen doesn’t mind narrating his audience members’ experience of his play while they’re watching his play. That’s part of the fun. It’s also a tip of the fabulist’s hat to Italian novelist Italo Calvino the inspiration for Chen’s experiment with theatrical form and function in the world premiere of his The Late Wedding.

We’ve been here before, more or less. Chen is once again working with Crowded Fire Theater, the company behind his award-winning 2012 hit The Hundred Flowers Project (read my review here). Crowded Fire Artistic Director Marissa Wolf is at the helm of this intentionally bumpy ride, attempting to guide her audience through another Chen work that is as smart as it is funny and as challenging as it is intriguing.

Comparisons to Hundred Flowers are inevitable (the new play was actually written during tech rehearsals of that play), and the two works definitely seem of a piece. Chen establishes a pattern early on that involves sly humor and unconventional storytelling, and just when the audience is settling into that pattern, he upends it and takes the play someplace entirely different and more serious.

Late Wedding actually begins before it begins. Actor Kathryn Zdan comes out to welcome the audience at the Thick House, and while she’s making cell phone and emergency exit reminders, she’s actually commencing the instructions to the audience. She tells us – in the second person, no less, which she says should set off a full red alert – that if we trust this unconventional theatrical experience, and if we’re really rooting for it to seduce us, we should surrender to her anthropological tour of fictional tribes and their wedding customs. Now, if you’re going to play fast and loose with theatrical expectations, you can do no better than having Zdan be the initial guide. She’s warm, she’s funny and she oozes intelligence.

The Late Wedding

It turns out that each of the six cast members will take over as the tweed-coated anthropologist/playwright during the nearly 90-minute show, though how and when they do it becomes (predictably) hard to predict. At first, the tour is pretty straightforward. For example, we look in on the Bakaan Tribe as two married men (married to each other) practice their tribal duty of remembrance because, as we’re told, they “forever live in memory.” Michael Anthony Torres and Lawrence Radecker are setting memories and get caught up in the fuzziness of the great nectarine/peach debate.

The whitewashed set, comprising boxes filled with whitewashed artifacts (elegant set design by Melpomene Katakalos)Next stop is the Glynn Tribe, where two women, Zdan and Lauren Spencer, are celebrating their wedding, as custom dictates, with separate honeymoons. This idea of separation and prolonging the ecstasy of love’s first blush is taken to wild extremes, and it’s in this beautifully acted scene, that the sketch nature of the play deepens into something honest and emotional.

Another tribal couple, part of something known as the “tribe of death,” believes that we are all actually dead, so their marriages have no limits. This is a pretty dubious belief, and even the couple (Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta) seem to be having a hard time getting their stories straight.

The anthropological tour goes off the rails and onto the rails of a train station when our guide informs us that the playwright was actually working on many other things (including lists of chores involving Netflix and Trader Joe’s), so everything is up for grabs. A spy play bumps into a space epic, which includes a play within the play that, for the space travelers (and mercifully not for us), goes on for several years.

Motifs return and dangling threads are somewhat woven into the narrative, but I have to say the last third of The Late Wedding lost me, and the cumulative impact of the experimentation didn’t result in anything more than enjoyment (which is certainly a worthy accomplishment). The play, for all its fragmentation and narrative jolts, still feels like it’s heading somewhere, and that the underlying emotional narrative about marriage and connection and loss will come through all the exposed and splintered theatricality in an even more powerful way. Though there are hints of that power, this Wedding remains elusive.

Christopher Chen’s The Late Wedding continues through Oct. 11 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

MTC’s Failure blends death, music and whimsy

Failure 2
Gertrude Fail (Megan Smith, left) and her clocks (Liz Sklar on ukelele, Patrick Kelly Jones on bass and Kathryn Zdan on kalimba) are surprised by the entrance of the debonair Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon) in the West Coast premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Time marches on for the Fail Sisters – Jenny June (Sklar, left), Gertrude (Smith, center) and Nelly (Zdan) – with musical accompaniment from Mortimer Mortimer (Herndon on trombone) and John N. Fail (Jones on snare). Photos by Kevin Bern

Philip Dawkins writes about the inevitable ending of all our stories in Failure: A Love Story, but his version of death is pretty darn upbeat. His beguiling play, now having its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company

, is technically a “play with music,” but there’s a LOT of music, and it’s charmingly played and sung by the five-person cast. I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Dawkins’ premise seems to be that there’s no such thing as a truly happy ending. We can all live happily ever after – until we die. So what matters is how we live. Why not sing “In the Good Old Summertime” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” while we wait?

That’s certainly what the Fail family does. It’s the early part of the 20th century, and Ma and Pa Fail have already succumbed to a terrible accident involving a new DeSoto and the Chicago River, leaving their four children to fend for themselves.

Some 13 years later, it’s 1928, the year we’re told in the show’s crisp narrative style that all three Fail sisters will die. Sounds dark and depressing – it’s anything but.

Read the full review here.

Failure 1

Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story continues through June 29 at Marin Theatre Company, 391 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37 to $58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Shrew you, shutdown! The Taming gets it right

The Taming
In the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming, the future of America is in the hands of three slightly insane women – a liberal political activist (Marilet Martinez, left), a beauty queen (Kathryn Zdan, center), and a conservative senatorial aid (Marilee Talkington) – who might just be revolutionary geniuses. Below: The Crowded Fire Theater production (with, from left, Martinez, Zdan and Talkington) takes us into a 21st-century hotel room and into late 18th-century America. Photos by Pak Han.

The word “factions” is uttered in a way that makes it sound like the filthiest word you can imagine. And, in these tense government shutdown days, it actually is. But when James Madison says the word, you feel it whistling through the centuries like an airborne bomb that explodes afresh every time political idiocy allows factions (it’s such an easy word to say with loathing) to hijack democracy.

The world premiere of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming couldn’t come at a more volatile time. Our government just happens to be in the middle of a crisis that was anticipated, according to Gunderson’s play, by our founding fathers. The wise Mr. Madison did his best to avert the power of the special interests, but he compromised to keep our fledgling country steady and strong, at least to start.

Now we have a clusterfuck of right and left and red and blue and hardline, ego-dominated politics that is actually bad for the people of this country – all the people of this country. And that is exactly what Gunderson’s The Taming is addressing in a way that is smart, incisive and incredibly funny.

This vivacious world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater (part of a rolling world premiere with Seattle’s Arts West) couldn’t be more timely. Gunderson, who is pretty much writing every play on Bay Area stages these days (see Shotgun Players, see Marin Theatre Company, see TheatreWorks, see San Francisco Playhouse), has created a satirical comedy that works on its own terms, but she has also crafted a rather ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, that problematic play that asks a beaten-down, starved woman to say she’s “ashamed women are so foolish.”

The Taming

Gunderson will have none of that, so in her version, she spins Shakespeare’s characters – Katherine, the titular shrew, is now Miss Georgia, a contestant in the Miss America pageant; Bianca, the bratty younger sister of the shrew, is now a lefty-liberal blogger; and Petruchio, the “tamer,” is now a right-wing conservative Republican politico who also happens to be a lesbian – and sets them on a worthwhile task of taming. These ladies, who couldn’t be more different from one another, are asked to combine their passion, their intelligence and their love of country in an effort to tame the U.S. Congress, and while they’re at it, fix the Constitution and the country itself.

The Shrew connection is mostly played for laughs (actual shrews are mentioned often, but it’s in context of the liberal blogger’s quest to keep a species of panda shrews from extinction), with a few sly references here and there until the end, when Gunderson smacks down Shakespeare by kicking a formerly repellent speech (and nearly always repellent Congress) squarely in the ass.

The really nifty trick here is that Gunderson sets up three women we think we know – stereotypes of the beauty queen, the bleeding-heart liberal, the heartless conservative – and lets them surprise us (in good ways and otherwise). It feels great to laugh at smart comedy that cares about the Constitution, about the Founding Fathers’ best intentions, about making long overdue and necessary changes to a country that still has a lot of evolving to do and still has time for broad physical comedy involving a lack of pants.

Director Marissa Wolf drives an almost manic pace as Gunderson sets up her plot: a locked hotel room contains one genius mastermind (the beauty queen, naturally, played with delicious comic flair by Kathryn Zdan) and two seeming enemies, the social media-obsessed crusader (a loose canon Marilet Martinez) and the old-school Republican serving a powerhouse conservative senator (an increasingly hilarious and surprisingly sweet Marilee Talkington).

There are things about this hugely entertaining production that could be sharpened – too many lines get lost in rushed delivery and in the wake of big laughs – but the messiness is part of the appeal. Drugs, sparkly evening wear, sexual tension, kidnapping and scandal are all part of the mix.

And then Gunderson does something wonderful. She takes us to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and lets the 21st-century women play George Washington, James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (who voices the powerful opinion of the slavery-loving South and represents one of those factions who threatens to leave the discussion at every hint of not getting exactly what they want). Dolly Madison and Martha Washington make guest appearances, and once we’re back in the hotel room (set by Mikiko Uesugi), we get more zaniness, a satisfying glimpse into a better future and a “dance break for America.”

The happy ending, borne of actual conversation filled with actual dialogue, seems like pure fantasy at this point (alas), but it’s a giddy delight none the less. The Taming has much to offer that is pointed, thought provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, but I cannot get the image of Talkington’s pantyhose out of my head, nor the image of Zdan, all in sparkling blue, shouting, “I am an ambitious American woman in evening wear, and I will not be fucked with!” I’m ready to vote for either woman to do anything.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Lauren Gunderson (and local actor Jennifer Le Blanc) for a story in American Theater magazine. Read the story here.

Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming continues through Oct. 26 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.