Odds are in favor of SF Playhouse’s 77%

The cast of Rinne Groff’s 77%, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development: (from left) Arwen Anderson, Karen Grassle, Patrick Russell. Below: Russell’s Eric shares a drink and some bonding with his mother-in-law, Frankie (Grassle). Photos by Fei Cai

The title of Rinne Groff’s new play 77% may seem cold and statistical, but it’s actually wonderfully charming. You have to see the play to get it, but here’s something to know: if you can achieve that percentage with a romantic partner of some kind, you’re doing a really good job.

A play about marriage, among other things, 77% receives its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new plays. It’s a remarkable play, in part, because it seems so unremarkable. The set-up smacks of sitcom fodder: he’s a stay-at-home dad/children’s book illustrator, she’s a high-powered businesswoman who travels a lot for work and her mom is currently living with them and helping with the kids. She’s always dreamed of having three children, but to add one more kid to their brood will require the assistance of medical science and the wonders of in-vitro fertilization.

On an extremely simple set – a few chairs, a table on wheels and an abstract backdrop that looks like a sailboat’s sail – this fast-paced comedy/drama plays out in 80 minutes but still manages to feel substantial.

Credit Groff’s sharp script, which cuts through a whole lot of layers to get to the good stuff in a hurry, and director Marissa Wolf’s stellar work with a crack trio of actors for managing a tricky blend of speed and naturalism. The rhythms are from real life, but there’s a theatrical push to the short scenes that infuses them with an irresistible electrical charge.


This is apparent in the first scene, as Eric (Patrick Russell) and Melissa (Arwen Anderson) are taking a drive in their new minivan. Melissa has returned from a work trip, and the following day, they resume their IVF treatments in hopes of a third child. Melissa is driving, and it’s clear that though these spouses are thoroughly and deeply connected, there’s all kinds of tension. Part of that is from her being the breadwinner. Eric is sensitive about the way Melissa talks about his work or about his daily life with the kids. In Groff’s deft hands, this scene is less about a challenged macho ego and much more about how people – especially those in what would be considered non-traditional roles – connect to their self-worth.

Anderson and Russell are so natural in their roles, it’s easy to go on this ride with them. They scuffle, they laugh, they sext (hilariously and not without a frisson of super sexiness). Life is difficult for them, but tension and conflict is part of the landscape and not the deal breaker it tends to be in less sophisticated work.

Adding to the mix of complication is Karen Grassle as Frankie, Melissa’s mom. She’s staying with her daughter’s family while her husband is on a solo sailing trip (he’s delivering a sloop, and much is made of the word “sloop”). There’s a fair percentage (not 77%) of the play that is about a strained mother-daughter relationship without that ever seeming to be at the fore. Both mother and daughter sit in heavy judgement of each other, but on a slightly drunken evening when Eric and Frankie bond, we find out a whole lot more about who Frankie is (and, by the way, who Eric is), and it’s fantastic. We sense a through line from mother to daughter and even to father, who is only ever acknowledged as a faint image on a FaceTime call.

SF Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, as it did last year with Aaron Loeb’s, Ideation, which made its way to the company’s main stage this season (read my review here) takes a simple approach to new work. Hand the work to skilled directors and actors and let the script shine through a straightforward, no-frills production. Sometimes that’s the best possible way to experience a play. With a play as smart, funny and incisive as 77%, it’s not hard to imagine many more productions of the play in the near future. Odds are 100 percent hit.

Rinne Groff’s 77% continues through Nov. 22 at the Tides Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco, a presentation of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series. Tickets are $20. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

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.

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.

Crowded Fire’s Bereaved hawks drugs! nudity! absurdity!

The Bereaved
A “family meeting” is convened in order to solve their current financial crisis in Crowded Fire Theater’s The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw. The cast includes (from left) Lawrence Radecker as Michael, Josh Schell as Teddy, Olivia Rosaldo as Melissa and Denmo Ibrahim as Katy. Below: Schell and Rosaldo take a trip to Harlem for a visit with Reggie D. White as Jamal. Photos by Pak Han.

You know you’ve got your audience right where you want them when they’re laughing at the rape fantasy being played out – rather graphically and violently – on stage. It’s easy to imagine an audience sitting in wide-eyed horror as the scene, which also involves black face, goes to some surprising places.

But by this point in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Bereaved, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House on Potrero Hill, we’ve come to expect the outrageous, the politically incorrect, the shocking.

This is the first fully staged Bradshaw play in the Bay Area, and by some accounts, it’s his tamest. Clearly a provocateur with an affection for farce and parody, Bradshaw is like Molière writing for HBO. Or Skinemax, er, Cinemax. He mashes up the foreboding darkness and twisty surprises of a Pinter or an Albee with the shiny, happy pace of a 30-minute sitcom. The results are wildly amusing and, yes, even a little shocking.

But to what end the shocks? That’s a question you don’t really have time to think about until the 65-minute play begins careening toward its abrupt conclusion.

Until then, director Marissa Wolf keeps a steady hand as she makes outrageousness seem somehow every day. Like the dad (Lawrence Radecker) doing lines of coke off the dining room table and then talking to his 15-year-old son (Josh Schell) about the excessive amount of semen the parents are finding in the young man’s underwear when they go to do the laundry. Or the worldly-wise 15-year-old girlfriend (Olivia Rosaldo) who instructs the son, while she’s trying to take his virginity, that cocaine’s hard edge can be smoothed with alcohol or Valium – if he has any.

The Bereaved

It all seems so practical when people are as unfiltered as Bradshaw’s characters seem to be. When mom (Michele Leavy) is in the hospital and may not survive, she does two things: she reads the Tao Te Ching and, in the event of her demise, she arranges for her husband to marry her best friend (Denmo Ibrahim). That’s good news for the dad and the friend, who immediately embark on an intense and explicit voyage of sexual discovery.

The play’s funniest and ultimately most incisive character turns out to be drug dealer Jamal (Reggie D. White), who’s got an exaggerated pimp roll because he knows that’s what his customers, mostly rich white kids, expect. He’s a savvy businessman and does what he needs to do to play the role of the Harlem drug dealer in support of a sophisticated life that is the opposite of the mean streets.

Playwright Bradshaw’s plot heads into Breaking Bad territory, with the practical family dealing with a financial crisis and planning for the future. Their choices are, of course, outrageous but within the context of the play, perfectly reasonable. It’s just the ending that doesn’t satisfy.

We get the strong impression that everyone left alive – oh, yes, there’s death and mayhem – is more than capable of taking care of herself or himself. They’ll keep making bold choices, and the consequences will continue to be minimal. Or they won’t. (shrug) Life goes on. Or it doesn’t.

As fun and startling as The Bereaved can be, it doesn’t land with much weight. The satire’s got zip but little sting. There’s no emotional connection with the characters or their actions, but there is an interest in what crazy thing they’ll get up to or whose butt we’ll see in the next scene. There’s no final shock or twist or joke. Just drug-happy, highly sexed characters moving on in life, having sex and enjoying their drugs. Maybe that’s really it – the 21st-century American dream in all its underwhelming glory.

Crowded Fire Theater’s The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw continues through April 27 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or www.crowdedfire.org.

Crowded Fire delivers the goods with Good Goods

Good Goods

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (left) is Stacey and Armando McClain is Wire in the West Coast premiere of Christina Anderson’s Good Goods, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Boxcar Playhouse. Below: Mollena Williams is Patricia and Lauren Spencer is Sunny. Photos by Pak Han

A little bit weird (in the most wonderful way) and a whole lot good, Christina Anderson’s Good Goods is a captivating drama that becomes a highly satisfying love story – or love stories to be exact. Crowded Fire Theater is producing the West Coast premiere, with artistic director Marissa Wolf firmly at the helm.

What’s so appealing about this two-act play is that it’s old-fashioned and fresh at the same time, mysterious and yet straightforward enough to be almost instantly engaging. You get a sense of community and real human connection intermingled with the supernatural as in an August Wilson play and abundant romance, betrayal and pining, as in a Tennessee Williams play. But this is not to say that Anderson is being derivative. It’s more like she’s using the best parts of drama to tell an interesting story and keep her audience involved and wondering what the heck is going to happen next.

It’s best not to know too much about the plot (of which there’s no shortage), but it’s OK to know that it all spins out in a small town that is rather out of place and time. There has been a major event – an “invasion” of some kind – in the not-too-distant past that has had a dramatic effect on the area, which is presumably an all-black town in the American south.

The major industry in town is a pencil factory, and that keeps the mercantile of Good Goods – owned by a man whose last name is Good – in operation. The business is ostensibly owned by Mr. Good’s son, Stacey, but he’s been gone for a decade, having hit it big on the comedy circuit with another hometown girl, Patricia. The one actually running the story, or at least keeping it from going under is Truth (“It’s a name you have to earn, that’s for sure”).

Good Goods

As with any good drama, the status quo is disrupted. Stacey returns home to deal not with the disappearance of his father but to revisit a lost love – his childhood friend (and Patricia’s twin brother), Wire. It’s a recognizable world but slightly askew. The set, by Emily Greene, makes the store look like something out of the 1800s, yet one character wears Nike shoes and another listens to a comedian on a cassette player. The time is now (or 1994 to be specific), yet it seems a world away from the modern world. Perhaps that’s why the spirit world is so alive and well here.

There’s talk of a cursed family going back for generations that might be the key to Armageddon, and there’s most definitely visitation from another world, yet somehow these fanciful flights seem just as part of the fabric of this town and these people as the love stories or family dramas.

Wolf’s cast is superb at underplaying the more sensational aspects of the story and imbuing the whole thing with real heart. Yahya Abdul Mateen II is Stacey the prodigal son returned to see if he can reconnect with Wire, played by the vibrant Armando McClain. Their love story is especially touching because it’s clearly meant to be in spite of Stacey’s inability to express himself fully.

Stacey has an easier time fighting with Truth (David E. Moore), a sort of brother figure who is bitter that he’ll likely be forced into work at the pencil factory if Stacey refuses to take over the store. A ray of hope comes into his life with the return of Patricia, played by the luminous Mollena Williams, and her new friend, Sunny, played by Lauren Spencer, an actor who shows extraordinary range in this surprisingly demanding role.

Before this quintet can figure out how their relationships will sever or evolve, the spirit world intervenes, which demands the presence of Anthony Rollins Mullens as a neighbor with talents that extend into various realms. Mullens is, to say the least, a commanding figure, and it’s no wonder the play ends on such a calm note after his hurricane of a scene.

The play zips by at only two hours, and though there are underdeveloped elements – I wanted more from Patricia and her transition into love – it satisfies like few new plays I’ve seen recently. It also feels like it could be the first chapter in an ongoing saga. Here’s hoping.


Christina Anderson’s Good Goods continues through June 23 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets prices are on a sliding scale. Visit www.crowdedfire.org.

The Magic’s Lily blooms!

Taylor Mac 1b
Taylor Mac as Lily. Photo by Jose A. Guzman Colon

There’s a lot of excitement burbling through the Bay Area theater community this spring. One of the reasons is the Magic Theatre’s The Lily’s Revenge, a ballsy five-hour play by Stockton native Taylor Mac.

With five acts performed in five different styles – musical theater, dance, puppets, Elizabethan-style drama – the show has a cast of nearly 40 (all local, by the way) musicians, actors, dancers, acrobats, drag queens, etc. There are actually six directors – one for each act plus one to direct the intermission events between each act. This is definitely the biggest, boldest theatrical event of the spring.

Check out this extraordinary roster of directors:

Meredith McDonough, director of New Works at TheatreWorks
Marissa Wolf, artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater
Erika Chong Shuch, choreographer and director of Erika Chong Shuch Project
Erin Gilley, founding artistic director of Elastic Future
Jessica Holt, director at Berkeley Playhouse, Magic Theatre, Shotgun Players and more
Jessica Heidt, artistic director of Climate Theater

Among the enormous cast are Julia Brothers, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Carlos Aguirre and Tobie Windham.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mac and Magic Theatre Artistic Director Loretta Greco for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

As usual, I couldn’t fit all the good stuff into the story. Here’s more with Taylor Mac.

Asking audience members to commit to a five-hour experience is a lot. Mac understands this and asks you to consider the following: “You go to the office for eight hours a day, sit at a desk and do things. Here you have an opportunity to hang out for five hours at what is essentially a party. You get to think about themes that are essential to the way we’re living our lives. You’ll see adults dressed up like flowers in the most amazing costumes you’ll ever see. You’ll experience a theatrical play you’ll never forget. Or you can go to the office for five hours and forget almost everything about your day.”

Mac says five hours is really nothing in our lives, “especially if it’s an experience you’ll remember the rest of your life. Five hours is nothing.”

After having done The Lily’s Revenge to much acclaim at New York’s HERE Art Center, Mac says he’s in love with the long form because long shows are events, not the usual thing.

“The audience makes an investment and comes with different expectations,” he says. “When you give people what they think they want, you end up with High School Musical, which they don’t actually want. They may think they do, but they don’t actually want what they already know. I get that. I see them at these shows getting what they said they want. They’re bored out of their minds, but they stand up at the end. They don’t look bored at my shows because they’re constantly trying to figure it out.”

Mac’s drag persona is, as some drag personae tend to be, larger than life and outrageously wonderful. Still, people ask Mac, who happens to be adorable in his civilian get-up, why he has to channel his talents through the exaggerated makeup and wild costumes.

“In some ways, when people say that, it’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t have to do drag. You don’t have to be gay.’ Ugh. I feel like my ddrag is what I look like on the inside,” Mac says. “I’m not hiding in drag, not hiding behind the costume. I’m exposing something. When I dress in jeans and a T-shirt, that’s when I’m hiding because I blend in with everybody else. When I’m on stage, my responsibility is to expose something about myself I wouldn’t normally. Even with the Lily costume, it’s may saying what I look like on the inside: ugly, beautiful, chaotic, specific, polished, rough, feminine, masculine. All at the same time. This is the full range of who I am. When I try to find an aesthetc or look that expresses what I feel like on the inside, it turns out to be a kind of freak drag.”

Having grown up in Stockton, Mac rebels against homogeneity, the surburan code of things having to be a certain way.

“I keep going back to that: how can I not be just one thing?” he says. “I want to show the range of who I am. It’s this anti-relativism that is so prevalent in so much of our culture that says there is only good and only evil. That couldn’t possibly be true. If it were, the pope would have to be wholly evil, and he’s not wholly evil. He’s not wholly good either. We know that. Obviously there is some gray there.”

Mac’s work comes from a queer perspective, but for him, the word “queer” isn’t a gay/straight issue. “My friend Penny Arcade says queer means you were ostracized by society as a young person to such a degree that you could now never ostracize anyone else,” Mac explains. “I agree wholeheartedly. The kind of work I’m doing is actually traditional. Theater used to be theatrical. The Greeks wore platform heels and did cross-gender characters. Realism has only been here for 100 years or so, which makes realism the real avant garde. A David Mamet play – that’s some serious avant garde. That’s the weird stuff. Theatrical stuff like I’m doing is traditional. I’m doing it from a queer person’s perspective, a counter-culture person’s perspective, but it’s still definitely traditional.

[bonus video: The Lily’s Revenge trailer]


Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge runs April 21 through May 22 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for info.

Young Jean Lee’s fire-breathing Dragons


Korean American (Cindy Im, right) makes fun of Korean 3 (Katie Chan) in Young Jean Lee’s mind-bending Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a co-production of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company. Below: the cast of Dragons, including (from left) White people (Josh Schell and Alexis Papedo) and the Koreans (Katie Chan, Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal) and Korean American (Cindy Im). Photos by Dave Nowakowski


Race shmace. Let’s do plays about explosions – exploding race, exploding narrative, exploding audience brains.

That’s sort of what Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is like. This co-production of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company is filled with intelligence, talent and 70 minutes of utterly compelling theater. But the whole effect is somewhat like being too near an explosion. Afterward, you ears ring, your head pounds and your equilibrium’s a little off.

But that’s a good thing, right?

Playwright Lee, who dropped out of UC Berkeley’s English PhD program after six years, said something really interesting in an interview with American Theatre magazine last fall. “It’s a destructive impulse – I want to destroy the show: make it so bad that it just eats itself, eating away at its own clichés until it becomes complicated and fraught enough to resemble truth.”

By the end of Dragons, I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about or even what it was I had just seen. But I would say it was original, outrageous and absolutely honest in its intention to entertain and eviscerate.

From the beginning, I sat there trying to identify metaphors from what I assumed was a satiric piece about Asian-American identity politics. But then I quickly gave up trying to assign formulas and just let it happen. I adopted this strategy in the first 10 minutes of the show, when we’re subjected to scenes of Lee being slapped in the face over and over again. First we hear the audio from the filming session when Lee was being pummeled. We hear a director guiding the slapper and telling Lee to fix her hair. Then we see some of the video results from that session – just the sounds of the slap and Lee’s immediate reaction (never the hand making contact). Essentially we’re watching a woman crying as she’s beaten for – what? – for her art?

It’s an unsettling start, and rather than try to figure out how it made sense, I took the emotion of it and let that be the entrance to the show, which is less a show and more of a collage. It’s like performance art – with extended bits in Korean – but with more self-awareness than usual. During a more conventional scene between a dying Korean grandmother (Lily Tung Crystal) and her Korean-American granddaughter (Cindy Im), the grandmother berates the granddaughter for making such a video.


I’d say that this scene, in which the grandmother breaks the granddaughter down emotionally and then tries to guide her into the arms of Jesus, is Lee making fun of conventional drama, but Im connects so powerfully to the emotions of the deeply unhappy granddaughter, that it’s actually quite effective.

Credit director Marissa Wolf, Crowded Fire’s artistic director, for somehow finding pockets of emotion amid the flying performance shrapnel, which includes an extraordinary pantomime among the Asian women – Im, Crystal, Mimu Tsujimura and Katie Chan – about gory, violent suicides (the one involving the newborn baby and the umbilical cord is extraordinary) that is set to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” We also get dance routines to Korean pop songs, angry racist monologues (that are actually quite hilarious), amazingly effective “reverse Bible study” and an intriguing recipe involving mud fish.

In between there’s a lot of pretend violence, destruction and craziness (with choreography by Dohee Lee) executed with manic aggression by a superlative cast. Oh, and there are white people.

Yes indeed, one of the major components of Dragons is a heterosexual couple (played by Alexis Papedo and Josh Schell) who are working out some major issues in their relationship. In their first scene, the woman tells the man that he’s “right on the borderline of being smart enough” for her and that his face is “inevitably inadequate.” You’d think this might signal the end of their relationship, but it’s only the beginning.

Somewhat amazingly, the white people take over the play. After a breathtaking quintet delivered by Korean American and Koreans 1, 2 and 3 (their official names) that calls into question everything we’ve seen in the show, the white people turn the rest of the play into their therapy session. A play that was so consciously about race and not about race suddenly becomes about a relationship that has nothing to do with culture or skin color or nationality and everything to do with narcissism, self-worth and the mysterious illness known as love.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is one of those theater experiences that wakes you up and makes you feel excited to be watching it minute after surprising minute, then makes you feel like you’ve completely missed it. There’s something important and ridiculous about it in equal measure. It’s a theatrical explosion that stuns as much as it delights and discombobulates.

[bonus video]
Watch the trailer for Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.


Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven continues through April 16 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.songs.eventbee.com for information.

Truce is out of sight


Marilee Talkington, the writer and performer of Truce at the Noh Space. Photo by Andrew Lu.

You could describe Marilee Talkington in a number of ways, starting with the fact that she is going blind. She is partially sighted, visually impaired, visually handicapped, sensorily challenged; she has low vision or no vision. She has been called Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Helen Keller. And those are only a few of the descriptions that come up in Talkington’s compelling 90-minute solo show Truce at San Francisco’s Noh Space.

After seeing the show, other descriptions that come to mind: dynamic actor, intriguing writer and astonishingly deft performer.

Developed with Justin Quinn Pelegano (who directed it in New York), Truce is about Talkington’s view of the world, which began physically to deteriorate when she was a child, the result of rod-cone dystrophy, a degenerative disorder passed on to her from her mother, who is also legally blind. The center of Talkington’s vision is completely blind, and her peripheral vision is growing ever more blind. With corrective lenses (which she doesn’t wear until the curtain call), Talkington has some vision, but to watch her on the stage (with set and lights by Andrew Lu), the way she navigates a rolling stool and dances around, you wouldn’t know she had any difficulties at all.

As she says, on stage is where she feels most in control, and it shows. This American Conservatory Theater-trained actor seizes the stage—and her audience.

Director Marissa Wolf (artistic director of Crowded Fire) and Talkington create a fluid production that melds dance (choreography by Sonya Smith), projections and autobiography to particularly potent effect. As we get to know Talkington, we discover a vivacious woman whose enthusiasm and anger have been tempered by shifting attitudes about what it means to be blind, how to embrace (or shun) the blind community and how to blame (or not) the mother that handed down this blind sentence. The issues surrounding her mother and her mother’s stern attitude toward handling a disability in the world (and how the world handles your disability) are especially complex and fascinating.

Just when Talkington is on the verge of becoming too strident, or if self-pity starts creeping in, Talkington and Wolf shift the tone. Dreadful high school years are enlivened by a passion for basketball. “I was a force of nature, probably because I had a little bit of an anger problem,” she says. Or when she describes visiting her classical music-loving grandparents, she erupts into a passionate dance to “Carmina Burana” that is a definite highlight of the evening.

What makes this more than just another autobiographical solo show is Talkington’s effort to help us see the world through her eyes – literally. The entire show is performed behind a scrim, so our view of her is blurred. At the center of the scrim is a video projection meant to blur and block whatever’s behind it. The center of our viewpoint, like Talkington’s, grows more and more obscured, forcing focus onto the powerful honesty of her voice, which has so much to say, so much to offer in the ways of seeing the world in an entirely different way.

Watch a video about Truce here.


Marilee Talkington’s Truce continues an extended run through April 10 at the Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco. Tickets are $12-$25. Visit www.vanguardianproductions.com or www.brownpapertickets.com.

Theater review: `Thom Pain (based on nothing)’

Thom Pain 1


Cutting Ball’s `Pain’ hurts so good

What begins in darkness ends about an hour later on a bleak shiver of hope.

Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) is many things: a solo show starring one man and an entire audience; a bleak comedy that thrives on paradox; an existential nightmare; a great piece of theater that makes you simultaneously thrilled to be alive and filled with despair.

San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, the go-to company for absurdist, thoughtful, brain-expanding theater, is just about the perfect place for Eno’s 2004 show to land in the Bay Area. In director Marissa Wolf (who also happens to be the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre), Cutting Ball has found a sure-handed guide through Eno’s winding pathos.

Wolf assistant directed Les Waters on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s brilliant production of Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy last year, and she gets just how funny, how theatrical and how gut wrenching Eno can (and should) be. This is a writer, after all, who would probably like to scream down the world’s rampant inanity, slaughter all the fools and describe every atom of pain as a means of exorcism. But he keeps getting tripped up by certain human things, most notably humor and emotion.

Just why this man, Thom Pain, played brilliantly by Jonathan Bock (pictured, photos by Rob Melrose), has arrived at the theater in his somewhat rumpled black suit, skinny tie and terrible shoes is never explained. It’s a theatrical convention that we, the audience, are in his thrall, and it’s his job to be “the show” and give us, in his words a little “turn on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice-versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.”

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Thankfully, Thom does put on a show, of sorts. He comes out in the dark and reads to us. In the dark. He attempts, without success, to light a cigarette. The lights finally come on (Stephanie Buchner is a lighting designer with a keen sense of humor). He’s highly aware of his audience to the point that he taunts us, manipulates us, scares us and even punishes us in a clever twist on the old audience-participation trick.

It’s all about contrast: Thom wants to be there sharing the story of how his childhood ended in pain, ugly death and bee stings. But you also sense he’d rather be anywhere else licking his considerable wounds. He’s a showman, a misanthrope and a marvelous poet.

Consider his definition of America’s favorite word, “whatever”: “…the popular phrase we use today to express our brainless and simpering tolerance of everything, the breakdown of distinction, our fading national soul.”

Bock’s performance as Pain can be electrifying. He makes fierce eye contact with the majority of his audience members, and he tends to deliver most of his performance mere inches from the people in the front row. He’s a little scary and a lot funny: “I made serious inroads into a woman, once, doing card tricks with a deck that only had one card left in it. `Pick a card,’ I’d say.”

Or, on the topic of his (naturally) painful love life, he recalls a date: “`You’ve changed,’ she said, the night we met.” He goes on to describe that same woman: “Sometimes you meet someone who you know right away is made up of trillions of different cells, and, she was one of these.”

Director Wolf’s production builds beautifully, and it’s impossible to resist Bock, especially at his most droll. This brief evening of theater feels much more substantial than its hour-plus running time, but you don’t really want it to be any longer. After all, you can only laugh and feel grim around the edges for so long.

Theater, in many respects, fulfills the deep-seated human need for storytelling as means to feel less alone in a giant world. The genius of Eno’s Thom Pain is that we experience the feeling of connection and isolation at the same time. Paradox, it turns out, is highly entertaining.

It’s hard to leave the theater without thinking about old/young Thom talking about the notion of a happy life: “Who can stand the most, the most life, and still smile, still grin into the coming night saying, more, more, encore, encore, you fuckers, you fates, just give me more of the bloody bloody same.”


Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues an extended run through Ma 9 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com for information.