Cutting Ball pumps energy into vivid Dream

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Like father like son: King Basilio (David Sinaiko, left) and Prince Segismundo (Asher Sinaiko) square off as their armies face one another in the Cutting Ball Theater production of Life Is a Dream. Below: King Basilio (Sinaiko, center) is beloved by his nephew (Matthew Hannon, left) and niece (Grace Ng), who may be his heirs to the throne. Photos by Fiona McDougall

What a rare treat to have had two productions of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream on local stages this year. First there was California Shakespeare Theater’s production (read my review here), and now we have a brisk, streamlined version from Cutting Ball Theater and its resident playwright, Andrew Saito at the EXIT on Taylor.

Both productions feature extensively adapted versions of the original script, and each reflects the personalities of both the adaptors and the producing companies. Where Cal Shakes’ production benefited from the natural setting and the poetry of the stars overhead providing counterpoint to the poetry on stage, the Cutting Ball production uses Saito’s laser eye to whittle the bulky play down to its essence, and director Paige Rogers delivers a physically exuberant production that makes up in vitality what it might lack in emotional wallop.

From the very start, this 75-minute version of the Dream comes out swinging, or should I say clapping. The actors emerge in the their underwear and scale Michael Locher’s sturdy bleachers set. All the actors get dressed save Asher Sinaiko, who plays the imprisoned prince, Segismundo. He remains in his black T-shirt and boxer briefs for most of the show, until that defining moment when Segismundo, who has fulfilled the prophecies and revealed himself to the be the savage his father feared he’d be, learns from his mistakes and begins to act through wisdom rather than impulse.

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There’s a percussive rhythm to the show provided by the actors (there’s lots of clapping, stomping and patty-cake-meets-drill-team choreography for the ensemble) and by Barry Dispenza behind the drum kit. By the final battle, the beat turns downright (upright) funky, and it’s fresh.

In fact, the whole show feels fresh. Part of that has to do with Saito’s elemental adaptation, which keeps the major plot points and characters and infuses some welcome humor and a whole lot of Yiddish (kvetch, schmo, putz). In the story, many swords are drawn, but on stage, swords take the form of kazoos. And when said kazoos are not being brandished, they are being played to herald the entrance of the king (David Sinaiko), who has decided it’s time to take his potentially dangerous son out of prison and let him rule the country.

The efficiency of the bleacher set means that Segismundo can go from prison (aka under the bleachers) to power (atop the bleachers) in seconds, and with the addition of a spiffy plaid jacket to his black underwear ensemble, he’s almost even human (costumes are by Courtney Flores. Then he starts throwing people out of windows and the dream of civilization and power ends, and he wakes up back in the prison tower.

One of the nice things about Saito’s adaptation is that it feels evenly weighted among the stories. There’s Segismundo and his father (in a lovely touch, David is father to 16-year-old Asher, who is making a mighty strong professional theater debut), but there’s also Rosaura (Sango Tajima) and her father, Clotaldo (Peter Warden), though she doesn’t know he’s her father. Rosaura, with the help of the stalwart (and funny) Clarin (Michael Wayne Turner III) is fixated on exacting revenge from Astolfo (Matthew Hannon), the arrogant royal who besmirched her virtue, but he’s fixated on seizing the throne, even if it means marrying his cousin, Estrella (Grace Ng), who doesn’t have nearly enough to do in this plot.

All this unspools and resolves very quickly, but we get the gist of the plot and its theme of life as a dream and death as an awakening, with everything temporary and constantly in transition. Emotionally, the production doesn’t cut too deep, although there is a doozy of a knock-down, drag-out fight between King Basilio and Segismundo that says a whole lot about the neglected son/absent father relationship.

These adaptations of Life Is a Dream have been grandly entertaining and admirable in their attempt to focus in on the core of the play’s beauty and power. But I think I’m ready for a big, messy, unwieldy version of a Dream – big enough to get lost in and beautiful enough to want to remain lost.

Pedron Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Nov. 1 in a Cutting Ball Theater production at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

Music soars in Cutting Ball’s Tontlawald

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Ensemble members (top) Sam Gibbs and (bottom) Wiley Naman Strasser frolic in an energetic pas de deux in Cutting Ball’s world premiere of Tontlawald, a fairy tale told in music, dance and text. Below: A duplicate version of Lona (Marilet Martinez, bottom) is made (Rebecca Frank, top) while Lona’s cruel stepmother (Madeline H.D. Brown, rear) waits for the girl back in the village. Photos by Annie Paladino

Darkness. Voices. Chanting. Then drumming and clapping.

The opening of Cutting Ball Theater’s Tontlawald is electrifying. The sheer power of joined voices, unamplified, is undeniable and extraordinarily beautiful.

In John Bischoff’s stunning arrangements, the vocal music in this world-premiere production emerges as the star of the show. Performed by the seven-member ensemble, the music, which ranges from Sarah Hopkins’ “Aboriginal Song” to a delicious slice of Mozart’s The Magic Flute to doo-wop and barbershop quartet sounds, is reason enough to see this fitfully engaging, ultimately disappointing exercise in experimental storytelling.

The experiment is telling an Estonian fairy tale compiled by Andrew Lang in his 1901 The Violet Fairy Book about a ghost forest, where an abused girl named Lona goes to escape the torture of her stepmother and eventually seek vengeance against her. Co-directors Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino and choreographer Laura Arrington combine vocal music, dance and text fragments by Cutting Ball’s resident playwright, Eugenie Chan, to tell the story in bits and pieces.

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At only just over an hour, the piece is brief but still has too many moments that fail to engage. That’s a shame because there are so many interesting elements here, most notably the music. Production designer Silvie Deutsch, working with lighting designer David Sinaiko, creates an intriguing play space – a mostly empty black box surrounded by a papery web representing, I suppose, the ghost forest and its influence.

Visually and sonically, Tontlawald reaches some captivating heights, but Arrington’s choreography emerges as the most disappointing element in the mix. Except for an electrifying pas de deux performed by Sam Gibbs and Wiley Naman Strasser, two wild boys frolicking in the forest, the movement doesn’t have nearly the impact of the music, the visual design or the text. There’s a lack of detail to the work that clouds the intent of the performers, and any emotion generated by the music tends to dissipate in the dance.

At its best, Tontlawald feels mysterious and shot through with the sound of sadness and of joyful beauty – as when the music and the story pieces combine to create a sense of character and situation (especially whenever Cindy Im’s gorgeous voice takes the lead). But at its worst, the show feels like an artsy college project, as when, toward the end, the show practically dies when we’re asked to contemplate a tedious stage picture comprising an electric fan, a microphone in a boot and a male dancer. The show simply isn’t pushing far enough and meeting its own challenges.

I think if I could only listen to Tontlawald I think I’d like it a whole lot more than I did actually watching it.


The Cutting Ball Theater’s Tontlawald continues through March 11 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

Cutting Ball revives a Bone to gnaw on

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Paige Rogers is a young, hopeful Ariadne in Eugenie Chan’s Diadem, a Cutting Ball Theater world premiere. The play is a companion piece to Chan’s Bone to Pick (below), also starring Rogers, as an older, much less hopeful Aridadne. Photos by Rob Melrose.

In the summer of 2008, Cutting Ball Theater threw audiences an incredible Bone. The play, part of the evening known as Avant GardARAMA!, was Eugenie Chan’s Bone to Pick, a one-act that re-imagined the myth of Ariadne, a princess of Crete and a key player in the whole Theseus/Minotaur tussle.

Chan’s play fascinated because it took a dusty old myth and gave it a compelling spin. Ariadne, known as Ria here, is haggard waitress at the end of the world. She was left on the island of Naxos by her new groom (Theseus, here called Theo) at the moment of her greatest happiness. She had just helped her new husband slay the Minotaur (actually her half-brother), and they were heading off to a glorious future together.

But for whatever reason, Theo dumped her. And here it is 3,000-some years later, and she’s a waitress in what’s left of a diner near the end of time. In her craziness/loneliness, she cycles through her life and takes a journey – possibly real, possibly imagined – into a meat locker that leads to a labyrinth of sorts filled with memory and emotion.

Oh, and meat. There’s lots and lots of meat in this story – not actual meet on the stage – but meat that factors into Ria’s emotional and physical state of hunger. You leave the play craving a rib-eye (though not necessarily one cut from a Minotaur, even though it might be as lean as buffalo).

The charms of Chan’s play came to extraordinary life in the performance of Paige Rogers under the direction of Rob Melrose. Her Ria mesmerized us and made her world as real as it could possibly be.

Happily, Cutting Ball has revived Bone to Pick, with the impeccable Rogers back in the role that she so masterfully defined. The play – a Cutting Ball commission – has been so successful that Chan was commissioned to write a companion piece. The result is Diadem, the play that now occupies the first half of the evening.

bone 1Chan dives even deeper into the myth of Ariadne by illuminating that pivotal moment when she realizes, though she tries to deny it, that Theseus is probably not coming back. This is a young, hopeful Ariadne (not the grizzled waitress in the blood-spattered uniform) adorned in flowing blond locks and an equally flowing white gown (costumes by Joceyln Leiser Herndon).

This Ariadne (also played by Rogers) lets her mind wander to the strange events within her family. She’s a little baffled and no wonder. Her mother, Pasiphaë, fell in love with a white bull and had her buddy Daedalus create a gizmo – sort of a cow costume if you will – that allowed her to mate with the bull. The offspring of this awkward union (thank the gods there was no YouTube back then) was the Minotaur, a creature slain by Theseus with the help of Ariadne.

To be frank, Greek myths have never quite captured my imagination. The names and the stories get all jumbled up in my head, and they tend to make me feel like I’m back in school and about to fail a test.

What makes this re-telling so effective is the way Chan makes the story feel ultra-contemporary without sacrificing the scope and mythic size of this ancient story. And through Rogers, we connect with the emotion of hope about to crash and of old wounds that never stop aching. There’s also a whole lot of weirdness, and why not? We’re talking Minotaurs and Zeus here, apocalypse and possible insanity.

Michael Locher’s gorgeous set gives the plays an otherworldly feel – the quilt-like squares of his metallic backdrop are incredibly effective at capturing the flashes and shadows of Heather Basarab’s eloquent lighting design.

This is challenging, rewarding theater filled with power, humor and beauty.


The Cutting Ball Theater’s Bone to Pick and Diadem continue through Feb. 13 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Cutting Ball announces 10th anniversary season

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Husband-and-wife team Rob Melorse and Paige Rogers are the creative force behind San Francisco’s The Cutting Ball Theater. The company is heading into its 10th anniversary season. Photo courtesy Marin Independent Journal

One of the Bay Area’s most committed alternative theater companies, The Cutting Ball Theater has anounced its 10th Anniversary season.

The season opens in October with Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist comedy The Bald Soprano, in a new translation by Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose, who will also direct.

In March 2010 is … and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a new play by Marcus Gardley, directed by Amy Mueller.

In May, back by popular demand is Eugenie Chan’s retelling of the Ariadne myth, Bone to Pick, which received its world premiere in Cutting Ball’s 2007-2008 season as part of Avant GardARAMA!; Paige Rogers once again stars, and the one-act will be accompanied by a newly commissioned companion piece, Diadem. Both will be directed by Melrose.

“For 10 years now, The Cutting Ball Theater has brought experimental new plays and re-visioned classics to the Bay Area,” Melrose said in a statement. “Our 10th anniversary season will be a year-long celebration of this mission featuring productions of new plays and our most extensive offerings in the Hidden Classics Reading Series ever. We are so proud to be presenting some of the most exciting and challenging stage works in San Francisco, as well as preparing risk-taking work to potentially transfer to the national stage; this indeed will be a great season.”

The Cutting Ball Theater continues its Hidden Classics Reading Series with six new installments this season: Aristophanes’ The Knights in September; William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in November; Euripides and Seneca’s versions of Medea in January; Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton in February; August Strindberg’s Storm, in a new translation by Paul Walsh, in April; and Carlo Goldoni’s The Antiquarian’s Family, in a new translation by Beatrice Basso, in May. The entire season will be staged in San Francisco at the Cutting Ball Theater in residence at EXIT on Taylor.

Co-founded in 1999 by Melrose and Rogers, Cutting Ball Theater presents avant-garde works of the past, present and future by re-envisioning classics, exploring seminal avant-garde texts, and developing new experimental plays. Cutting Ball Theater has partnered with Playwrights Foundation, Magic Theatre and Z Space New Plays Initiative to commission new experimental works.

For information visit

Review: `avantGARDARAMA’

Felicia Benefield is Mare in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Betting on the Dust Commander, one of three avant garde plays in The Cutting Ball Theatre’s avantGARDARAMA at the EXIT on Taylor. Photos by Rob Melrose.

Chan’s `Bone’ trumps Parks, Stein in evening of experimental plays

I’ll come right out and say I’m not a fan of avant garde theater. It’s frequently pretentious, self-involved, inscrutable and not much fun.

Call me an unsophisticated hack – OK, you’re an unsophisticated hack! – but I like story. I like humanity. I like to see myself reflected on stage in some way, and I guess I’ve never remotely seen myself in an oddly theatrical, experimentally artistic, forward-thinking way. Poor me.

But let me say this: I don’t love aggressively avant garde theater, but I really like the work of The Cutting Ball Theatre, a group run by Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers. I don’t always love the plays they do, but I always like the way they do them.

Take, for example, Cutting Ball’s avantGARDARAMA! a collection of three short avant garde plays, which just happen to ascend from incomprehensible to wonderfully, imaginatively coherent.

The opening salvo, Accents in Alsace, comes from Gertrude Stein’s 1922 Geography and Plays and doesn’t really make much sense off the page. There’s a soldier (David Westley Skillman), a motherly/sisterly woman with a baby carriage (Felicia Benefield) and a narrator (Rogers).

I got that this had to do with World War I, but that’s about all I got. Rather than try and find a story, as is my wont, I enjoyed director Melrose’s staging, set designer Michael Locher’s metallic box of a set, Heather Basarab’s sharp lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ superb video projections and sound design.

The second piece, Suzan-Lori Parks’
Betting on the Dust Commander, is also strange, but it’s funny – and boy does that make a difference in my enjoyment level. Dust Commander won the 1970 Kentucky Derby, hence the title.

Benefield and Skillman play a married couple stuck in an endless loop of silliness. He bet 35 cents on Dust Commander way back when and won enough to buy them a house. He’s going back to the track to see the old horse run an anniversary race. But before he goes, he’s got to somehow uncross his wife’s eyes.

Parks has a whimsical way with language, and her use of repetition brings out the humor and music of her dialogue. It’s all beautifully executed by Benefield and Skillman, who manage to traffic in Parks’ rhythms while bringing out darker shades involving sex, dissatisfaction, boredom and outright craziness.

The real treat of the evening is the world-premiere of local writer Eugenie Chan’s
Bone to Pick. A commission by The Cutting Ball and Magic Theatre/Z Space New Works Initiative, this retelling of the Ariadne myth brings the heroine to the modern world and leaves her stranded in a diner at the end of the world.

In her once-pink, now filthy, blood-spattered uniform, Ria, impeccably played by Rogers (above), sips dirty water from her coffee pot and re-lives her life of passion, isolation and choice making. “Someone needs to treat me like a piece of meat. Know what I mean?” is Ria’s opening line.

The combination of Chan’s funny, often heartbreaking script with Rogers’ bravura performance is a potent one to say the least.

Rogers establishes such rapport with the audience – especially when she talks about food (this stranded woman is HUNGRY) – that she could take us to any dark corner of theatricality she chooses.

This particular journey goes deep into her relationship with Theo (Theseus), the soldier who used her then abandoned her at the end of the world. He comes back for food every once in a while, but he doesn’t stay (nor does he pay).

Ria, it seems, is doomed to keep repeating the betrayal of her half-brother, the Minotaur (“Oh, brother, oh, bull,” Ria keeps saying). In the current, desolate state of the war-torn world, the Minotaur is the last “rib-eye steak” on the planet, and Ria, despite herself, will lead Theo to him once again. Fire up the barbecue.

Rogers is so moving and Chan’s play so well constructed that the play hardly seems experimental. It just seems like an extraordinary play of depth and expansive feeling.

AvantGARDARAMA continues through Aug. 16 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit