Sunday, October 4, 2009


It's easy to take the amount of order in our lives for granted. Clocks keep ticking, streetlights keep changing with regularity, sometimes MUNI even shows up on time! While many of us depend on a vast array of electronic wizardry to microwave our food, keep our computers humming, and lift our planes off the ground, others are not so lucky.

This week brought earthquakes to Indonesia, tsunamis to the South Pacific, flooding and landslides to the Philippines. A dust storm turned Sydney's sky from blue to orange while wildfires continued to wreak havoc in areas of Southern California. All was not well in the world.

The hardest thing for control freaks to do is simply let go and let nature pry their cold, scared fingers from the machinery which rules their lives. The irony is that they do this all the time: when they're asleep. Dreaming is a process in which the brain scrambles all kinds of information in ways that defy logic, causing vivid pictures and dramatic events that could never happen in real life (just the other night I had a dream in which a spry, 83-year-old Angela Lansbury walked right up a wall to reach a toy that had landed atop a giant picture frame).

Choosing chaos over order can open up an amazing number of opportunities for any creative artist. Whether one takes the Jackson Pollock approach to creating a new canvas or plays a quick game of 52-pickup with a deck of cards, chaos demands spontaneity and unruliness. The results can range from a surprise success to a cacophonous catastrophe. Sometimes the result is a total mess.

Sometimes it can lead to a very pretty mess.

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It's a good thing that the Asian American Theatre Company's co-artistic director, Duy Nguyen, took a few minutes before the performance of #5 Angry Red Drum to caution the audience not to think too much during the show. Stressing that this new play is an experiential type of piece helped to accept Philip Kan Gotanda's latest effort as a series of short scenes that (if they share any relationship at all to each other) do not follow a linear path. According to the playwright:
"It's a play that has a kind of postmodern vaudeville where it is both serious and clownish at the same time. It plays with language, and there are ultimately very funny characters. The structure is based loosely on Waiting for Godot. The title of the play comes from a hamburger joint that was called Murder Burger. After there were complaints, they reversed the order of the letters in the word 'murder' to make it Redrum Burger. I liked that name.

In producing, if you have an abandoned garage space, car headlights, and a willing actor, you're good to go and everything after that, cream. In writing, it can mean:
  • Forcing yourself to get out of the way.
  • Stewarding the primary impulse to end times.
  • Letting the immediacy of the play's life tumble out.
  • Not over-handling the raw stuffiness of it.
  • Permitting the dots-connecting traditional narrative to have wider gaps than usual.
The hope is that, in this process, there is an alternative aesthetic that comes into play for the audience. Does it always work? I don't know. But I do know that the Garage Band Series process is creatively most invigorating, full of pitfall insights, and a great muse-antidote to my larger, multi-year projects. My GBS plays are works written with the overriding principle: Just get the work out. Out of the body. Out on the stage.

I like this play a lot. It’s a fun, disturbing, comedic romp. It’s what small theaters should and can best offer – an indie theatrical experience [as opposed] to the slick and expensively produced. Very talented artists whom you may not have seen before, but should and will, doing work that bends minds with a world of dirt, blood, bad jokes, guns, cross dressing, human sacrifice and great love, in no particular order. This is not your mainstream critic’s choice. This is the extreme people’s choice, the retro community organizer’s choice -- hip, slapstick, violent. And yet, with a heart."
AATC is promoting the world premiere of Gotanda's play as:
"The story of two amnesiacs determined to survive with style amidst a post-apocalyptic universe gone mad. When a mysterious drum appears, it awakens their lost memories and inspires them to create a new society. #5 Angry Red Drum is a tragicomic parable reminiscent of an early David Lynch film that features a live original sound score using traditional and found instruments, mis-remembered fragments of Bob Dylan lyrics, and post-post-post modern dance. This is where Beckett meets Burning Man."
Upon entering the theater, one can't help but notice Bruce Thierry Cheung's utterly craptastic unit set. What initially looks like a raked stage covered with dirt and debris also features several faux steel girders (perhaps inspired by the wreckage of the World Trade Center) sticking out of the ground at bizarre angles. As the play begins, a preoperative transgender cigarette girl named Tré (Thomas Pang) performs a monologue explaining what life is like for a person who is always functioning in one "almost" status or another.

Thomas Pang as the cigarette girl

The scene shifts as Goram (Anthony Julius Williams) enters a landscape strewn with rubble from which a straw hat suddenly rises to reveal the head of Pick (Will Dao). Are the two really the lost souls of Siamese twins who died in an apocalypse? Absurdist clowns? Illogical enemies? Co-dependent ghosts?

Pick (Will Dao) and Goram (Anthony Julius Williams)
Photo by: Conrad Corpus

Williams and Dao (who is a member of the sketch comedy group Kamikaze Theory) are intensely physical actors. AATC's production is also blessed to have composer/percussionist Daniel Bruno (a regular member of Berkeley's Shotgun Players) providing the musical foundation for Gotanda's absurdist exercise. You can get a feel for the kind of soundscape he has designed while watching this trailer for the production:

Others in the cast included Rich Bianco (doubling as Truman and a Dark Angel), and Micael Uy Kelly as a Backwards Soldier. In his director's note, Matthew Graham Smith confessed that:

"My reluctance to preface this exciting new play stems from my hesitation to rob the audience of their own experience with this impressionistic, primal howl. The play fuses the story of mankind's entire evolution in 90 minutes along with a Cain and Abel story imagined as the Siamese Twins and a meditation on the Bush/Cheney years, all while paying homage to Beckett's Waiting for Godot -- and yet you don't really need to know any of that. The piece does its real work on a deeper, subconscious level, the level of vibration that we respond to when we hear the beat of a drum.

Some of the best plays ever written respond immediately, though indirectly, to recent troubling times and what they portend for the future. Waiting for Godot contemplates the horrors of World War II by giving us the vaudeville routines of two homeless tramps. #5 Angry Red Drum responds to our contemporary culture of war, celebrity, and loneliness without bringing us any of the familiar narratives that accompany these themes. Philip Ken Gotanda gives us the opportunity to rediscover the issues we grapple with by making them unfamiliar, twisted."

I don't foresee a very big future for #5 Angry Red Drum but, as an exercise in writing, directing, and acting, AATC's production does have some very strong moments. As I watched the play unfold I kept thinking of a comment I've heard all too often in the theater: "I don't know what it is, but I'm loving it!" Sometimes a little bit of chaos can be a good thing.

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In 1933's I'm No Angel, Mae West famously boasted that "When I'm good, I'm very good. When I'm bad, I'm better." If chaos can be a source of potential drama, there are times when wretched excess can be absolutely glorious.

Last Tuesday, I had time to kill between a press screening of An Education and a performance of Mozart's chaotic singspiel, Abduction from the Seraglio, at the San Francisco Opera. What to do? What to do?

The answer, of course, was to duck into the Metreon where I took great delight in watching Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. Inspired by the 1978 children's book written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett, Sony Animation's wide-screen CGI food fight is hysterically funny and a luxurious treat for the eyes. A sumptuous feast of culinary comedy that will delight anorexics as well as those with an abundance of avoirdupois, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs spoofs many cherished moments from adventure and disaster blockbusters of the past while exuding a charm that is very much its own:
There are characters and caricatures aplenty, all moving at a lightning pace as food continues to fall from the sky. I particularly liked James Caan's portrayal of the protagonist's inarticulate, technologically-challenged father who can only speak in fishing metaphors and Andy Samberg's voicing of celebrity mascot, Baby Brent. Although I did not see the 3-D version of the film, I had a rollicking good time and so will you. Here's the trailer:

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