Ferocious Lotus unfolds a lovely Crane

Crane 1
Monica Ho is Sadako in JC Lee’s world-premiere Crane, a Ferocius Lotus Theatre Company production at NOHspace. Below: Greg Ayers as Bradley falls for the enigmatic Ho as Sadako. Photos by Adam Tolbert

The Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company world premiere of JC Lee’s Crane is the kind of theater that makes me happy. Here’s a small company taking a step up with its first solo production. They’re tackling a notable playwright (Lee’s work has been seen locally at Impact Theatre and Sleepwalkers Theater and he’s a writer for ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” and HBO’s “Looking”), and with a small budget in a small theater (NOHspace), they’re making something beautiful.

There’s poetry and pizzazz in Lee’s writing, which can burst with lovely imagery and depth one minute and sharp, tossed-off jokes the next. He’s telling a story of grief and romance and creativity and imbues it with the ancient and the contemporary. His is a fusion of styles that allows for straightforward storytelling and excursions into the more obtuse.

Director Mina Morita matches Lee’s style with a vibrant production that blends artful with practical as she unfurls the story of a young woman leaving her grieving mother’s house and seeking her own life (and flight!) in the wider world and contrasts that with the story of a tapestry maker and his big city art dealer. The two storylines coalesce in a way that is never fully explained – is it reality and fairy tale? All reality? All fairy tale? It doesn’t really matter if, for instance, the young woman isn’t really a young woman at all but a crane (represented on stage by a lightbulb with feathers that looks a little like Tinker Bell). Perhaps she’s both. The lyricism of her story doesn’t really require such distinctions.

Crane 2

Monica Ho grounds the play and gives it wings as Sadako, the young woman with a poet’s soul and a sailor’s mouth. Her chance encounter with the artist, Bradley (an empathetic Greg Ayers), invigorates his life and saves him from destitution. Having just sold his refrigerator to pay the rent on his forest home, Bradley has hit a creative dead end is making tapestries featuring vegetables with cartoon names. When Sadako wanders in on a cold night, he doesn’t know what to make of her. “Kill a motherfucker and eat the bones until they’re your bones,” Sadako tells him. Bewildered, he answers, “I’m not into that.” And she replies. “I know. You be you.”

The real world, or perhaps the outside world, is represented by a wry Leon Goertzen as Bradley’s fickle, opinionated art dealer for whom creativity is but a means to a check with lots of zeroes. We also meet Sadako’s world-weary mother and a doctor, both played by Lily Tung Crystal, and that’s really all we need to focus in on this intimate tale that turns into an unlikely love story and explosions of creativity that come at a tremendous cost.

Even at about 100 minutes, Crane feels a trifle too long. There are some dramatic lulls here and there that could be tightened up, and an ongoing story about a survivor of the atomic bomb attacks on Japan trying to make 1,000 cranes so she can make a wish to overcome her radiation sickness, while central to the play, doesn’t feel as well integrated as other aspects of the storytelling. It’s there, but not quite all the way.

On a set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo and lit by Kevin Landesman, director Morita and her actors craft some striking images, with the most memorable being Ho on a ladder in front of a giant moon with a spiral of lights into its center. Costumer Keiko Shimosato Carreiro gives Sadako wings – literal wings – and the image against the backdrop is, like so much of Crane, stunning.

JC Lee’s Crane continues through Oct. 11 in a Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company production at NOHspace, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-322-0859 or visit www.ferociouslotus.org.

Blood, gore, giggles galore at Impact Theatre

Bread Circuses 1
Dana Featherby (left), Sarah Coykendall (center) and Maria Giere Marquis are three young women arming themselves for the world outside their door in Lauren Gunderson’s Damsel and Distress Go to a Party, one of the nine violent short plays in Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses. Below: Eric Kerr is a man with memory issues in Declan Greene’s Marimba, one of the more serious entries in Bread and Circuses. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Blood is fun – at least it is within the confines of Impact Theatre’s omnibus presentation Bread and Circuses, a collection of nine short plays fairly dripping with the thick red stuff.

As you’d expect with such an assortment, there’s a wide variety in style and substance here. There’s also one easy-to-draw conclusion: endings are hard.

The most satisfying entries in this two-hour experience at LaVal’s Subterranean include:

  • Heteronesia by Prince Gomolvilas about a dude so traumatized during masturbation (by a severed horse head falling through the window) that he’s unable to perform sexually in any way and must, under doctor’s orders, be gang banged by a football team. Hilarious. You don’t want to know where the blood comes from in this one.
  • Damsel and Distress Go to a Party by Lauren Gunderson is set in a dystopian future where three women are “putting on their faces” as they get ready to go to a party. They use the word “face” an awful lot in their slangy descriptions of themselves and their friends, and what emerges is a violent picture of women suffering abuse but choosing a warrior path (complete with painted warrior faces). (Now that I think about it, I don’t remember any blood in this short play – perhaps the war paint/makeup can be considered a stand-in for blood.)
  • Marimba by Declan Greene is the evening’s only solo outing and involves the actor Eric Kerr in an unsettling performance as a man for whom thought and memory has gone very wrong. The “marimba” of the title is the name of the ring tone on his iPhone that goes off at regular intervals and creates the jagged trajectory of this alarming tale. There’s blood here, but its appearance should remain a surprise.
  • The Play About the Aswang by Lauren Yee has a great set-up: a single mom is dating a flesh-eating Filipino monster. She can’t quite see the problem with that (even with the bones protruding from the bloody wound where her hand used to be), but her son and his best friend are quite alarmed and ready to do something about it. What’s really interesting about this short play is the way it blends horror, adult sexuality and adolescent sexuality in surprising ways.

Bread Circuses 2

Those were my favorites, but that said, there isn’t one play here that doesn’t have something interesting about it. Steve Yockey has fun subverting horror movie tropes in Bedtime by having the traditional victim victimizing someone else to gain the upper hand. Dave Holstein’s Alone Together gives us a nightmarish mother-daughter scenario wherein the scariest thing (even more than the babysitter scalping) might be the fact that the mother participates in a social event called “jam night” that involves jars of actual jam.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Insect Love is a low-key 1950s love story among entomologists that is kind of sweet until the shadow of violence looms. Ross Maxwell’s Don’t Turn Around starts off as pure monster-driven horror but turns quickly into relationship hell as a young couple fleeing zombie-like creatures in a mall are sidetracked by their surprise break-up. And the evening comes to a satisfying end with JC Lee’s very funny The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich, which is exactly what it purports to be. How the story’s teenagers came to find Dietrich’s body to reanimate remains a mystery, but who cares when Lee gives us a flesh-eating Marlene pauses to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Director Desdemona Chiang and her game cast are clearly having fun here. In addition to Kerr’s turn in Marimba, MVP honors are shared by Maria Giere Marquis, who is a terror of a little girl, a woman warrior, a quiet secretary and, perhaps most memorably, the reanimated corpse of Marlene Dietrich. The rest of the cast – Sarah Coykendall, Mike Delaney, Dana Featherby and Maro Guevara – all have excellent moments and add to the show’s fun, raggedy energy. But as is often the case at Impact, there are some serious smarts under the blood and irreverence.

Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses continues through April 6 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid, Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Tell ’em that it’s human Nature

Nature Line 1a
Soraya Gillis (left) is Delphie and Charisse Loriaux is Aya in the Sleepwalkers Theatre production of The Nature Line, the third part of a trilogy by JC Lee. Below: Lissa Keigwin as Dora and Janna Kefalas as Narcy (at left) watch their stud farm perform a talent show. The studs are, from left, Jeff Moran as Go-Go, Roy Landaverde as Pencil, Jomar Tagatac as Benji and Joshua Schell as Jason. Photos by Clay Robeson

If only the actual apocalypse could be so enjoyable.

Hand it to playwright JC Lee for making the end of the world – and after – so lyrical, so funny and so, well, human. That’s one of the things I loved about Into the Clear Blue Sky, Part Two of the This World and After trilogy, which kicked off almost exactly a year ago with This World Is Good. There may be monstrous things happening in the world, things that would require millions of dollars worth of CGI to represent on a screen, but Lee’s focus is essentially human and relatable.

And that’s only appropriate when the topic at hand is the very survival of the human race. In each of his three plays, Lee creates a stage full of seekers, and for his final chapter, they are seeking the future, which is in clear jeopardy.

After the worldwide havoc of the last play, when beasts roamed the planet and peaches became extinct (among other horrors), and attempts to find salvation in an outpost on the moon have apparently failed, there’s not a lot of hope in the future of mankind. Or what’s left of it.

In The Nature Line, Part Three of the trilogy, neither sex nor any human contact of any kind is allowed anymore. Women’s wombs have become unable to handle the stress of pregnancy, so that duty now belongs to scientists who help the process along. “Aren’t you relieved to see a corporate model can survive the apocalypse?” asks a crisply dressed fertility nurse.

Lee doesn’t spend a lot of time in this two-hour, two-act play explaining exactly what is going on, which is probably one of the reasons he’s able to make science fiction work on stage (a tremendously difficult thing to do). He trusts that we’ll fill in blanks and, even better, use our imaginations (to hell with CGI!).

The nature line of the title has much to do with childbirth and natural instincts, so it’s no surprise that the play is so focused on women and mothers. We meet our heroine, Aya (Charisse Loriaux), as she’s conjuring memories of a grandmother she never knew and burying yet another body of yet another dead baby.

This is a grim world, but Aya is not quite giving up on her maternal impulse. Her body may be betraying her, but she is going to submit to the ministrations of the medical professionals one more time because she knows she needs to be a mother.

The quartet of men in the play (Joshua Schell, Jomar Tagatac, Jeff Moran and Roy Landaverde) are fine specimens all. And they really are specimens. They’re kept under quarantine and forced, like prize stallions, to “fertilize” on command, which is to say, make constant sperm donations.

Lee first uses his men as comic relief as we see them performing a testosterone-raising talent show involving all kinds of hip-hoppy-happy dance moves that seem to have survived the end of the world just fine. But as the play progresses, the men become more interesting, even if they are revealed to be grown-up comic book geeks. We even get a sweet, if too-brief love story for a couple of the guys.

Nature Line 2a

But this is Aya’s quest, and as she seeks answers, she finds herself leaving the remnants of civilization and heading into nature – a scary prospect when we’re given to believe that nature could be as damaged and/or as damaging as anything else on the uncertain planet.

All roads, as they say, lead to the sea, and that’s where Aya ends up, although her journey takes her, rather enigmatically, into a reverie (or is it real?) with a Spanish-speaking grandmother (Carla Pantoja) and a little girl who could be one of Aya’s lost children or a young version of Aya herself (played beautifully by fifth-grader Soraya Gillis).

All of these disparate parts – the lyricism, the science fiction, the comedy, the human drama, the romance – hold together because Lee is an audacious, ambitious and uncommonly talented writer.

It also works because, like the previous chapters of the trilogy, it’s produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre, a company that likely has more courage than cash but has the chutzpah to take on a world-premiere apocalypse trilogy and let the plays speak for themselves.

Mina Morita, the director of The Nature Line, emphasizes the human scale here, which is exactly what the play demands. Relationships are key – like between Aya and her closest friend, Arty (Ariane Owens) or between head nurse Narcy (Janna Kefalas) and her assistant, Dora (Lissa Keigwin) or between the sperm studs. The detail to performances is admirable and so important to this production’s success and keeps characters from being just types.

The end of the world, Lee tells us, was quiet, “like a fairy tale” – a far cry from the destruction porn Hollywood churns out with such computer-generated regularity. We don’t know what happened, really, but from the evidence presented by Lee’s trilogy, we know that in art, that most human of expressions, there can be salvation.

JCLee’s The Nature Line continues through Aug. 27 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$17. Call 415-913-7272 or visit www.sleepwalkerstheatre.com.

Apocalypse wow! Clear Blue Sky captivates

Clear Blue 1
The cast of Sleepwalkers Theatre’s Into the Clear Blue Sky includes, from left, Pamela Smith as Margaret, Adrian Anchondo as Cody, Dina Percia as Mika, Christopher Nelson as The Scientist and Eric Kerr as Kale. Below: Anchondo and Smith connect in a disconnected world. Photos by Claire Rice

There are cannibals in Hackensack. A tsunami swallowed South America live on TV. And there are dogs the size of Chevys ransacking libraries.

Welcome to, as the producers put it, “your friendly neighborhood apocalypse.” Playwright JC Lee is in the midst of unfurling his world-premiere trilogy This World and After, and he’s getting some big-time help from Sleepwalkers Theatre, the company that produced Part One, The World Is Good, last summer and is now unveiling Part Two, Into the Clear Blue Sky.

If this is what post-apocalyptic life looks like, I don’t think I’ll mind so much when everything goes to hell. Not that life isn’t wretched. In addition to the horrors mentioned above, there are sea beasts to contend with, not to mention the fact that, due to acceleration of global warming, the very shape of the earth is changing and you can now, for reasons more poetic than scientific, find your way through the ocean to the moon.

But in Lee’s ravaged world, human beings are, mercifully, still human beings. His play, directed with flair by Ben Randle, is full of horror and wonder, but it’s all on a human scale. Lee has a graphic novelist’s flair imaginative drama and a playwright’s love of the poetic. He can be comic-geek funny one moment and Gabriel Garcia Marquez beautiful the next. As I said, human scale.

Our front-row seat to the mayhem is — where else? — right smack in New Jersey, described by one of the characters as “the worst of the 50 states.” It’s hard to image in any state being anything but horrific at this grim moment in history. We don’t know exactly what happened, or if there was even a defining event, but it seems the trajectory of world destruction and evolutionary mutation has picked up quite a bit of speed.

Lee’s focus is a family: brother and sister Kale (Eric Kerr) and Mika (Dina Percia), respectively, and their poetry-loving mother, Margaret (Pamela Smith) and cowardly scientific father (Christopher Nelson).

Clear Blue 2

The father is cowardly because he has escaped into the clear blue sky. Something terrible has happened between Kale and Mika — so terrible that it turned Mika’s hands black and left permanent black handprints on Kale’s back. The family has ruptured as a result, and the father has fled in a silver pod of his own creation.

Mika embarks on a quest to somehow get the black off her hands, and Kale, joined by his childhood friend Cody (Adrian Anchondo) begins a parallel quest to find his sister, even though she now wants nothing to do with him.

Along the way, Mika — given the compassionate soul of warrior poet in Percia’s appealing performance — corresponds with her mother via letters delivered by angry seabirds. The letters are heartbreaking in their succinctly but perfectly expressed emotion.

Mika’s journey ends on the moon, where, among other lost souls, she may find the opportunity for a fresh start.

Kale’s journey is more complicated. A somewhat emotionally twisted young man, he doesn’t really know what he wants. His mother has essentially cast him out of the family home. His father has abandoned him, and his sister is running from him. The only person fully on his side is Cody (a funny, expressive and mostly bare-chested Anchondo).

Cody is fully in love with Kale, but Kale toys with his friend’s overflowing heart. It’s mainly due to Kerr’s compassionate portrayal of Kale that the character remains somewhat sympathetic, even though he treats Cody badly and has presumably done something terrible to his sister. How can Kale not love Cody, a man who says he has been compared to “a transgender Chita Rivera“?

In only about 70 minutes, Lee and director Randle fashion an epic quest full of family drama and end-of-the-world nightmares with help from Randle and scenic artist Maya Linke’s paper-strewn black-and-white set.

Horrible things happen and yet Lee never lets his characters journey too far from hope. As more than one character repeats, “Things will be good again.”

Into the Clear Blue Sky is good right now.


JC Lee’s Into the Clear Blue Sky continues through April 30 at the Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason St., sixth floor, San Francisco. Tickets are $15 online and $17 at the door. Call 415-913-7272 or visit www.sleepwalkerstheatre.com for information.