Sunday, May 16, 2010

Through A Microcosm Darkly

The Bay area has lots of small theatres. Come September, the annual San Francisco Fringe Festival will be bringing even more small companies to town (where they get to perform in some of the city's smallest and most intimate venues).

There are many advantages to seeing plays performed in a black box theatre, a house with a small proscenium stage, or an alternative setting. It helps audiences break through the fourth wall and think about theatre as a more experimental, multidimensional, and experiential activity. Smaller venues also create unique challenges for actors, who have nowhere to hide (especially if the audience is seated all around them, arena style).

While performances in small theatres can offer a much more intense and intimate experience than one might get in a 1,300-seat auditorium, the closeness of the audience also means that fault lines can be magnified and compromises showcased with a near clinical cruelty. A play's weak spots -- that might seem inconsequential in a large scale production -- can often become painfully evident in a smaller venue.

Three new plays being performed in small theatres around the Bay area had varying degrees of success with their audiences. In some situations, they faced problems that were purely technical. In one case, the performance space's close quarters forced onlookers to question the strength of the playwright's dramatic skills.

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If, as they say, you can't libel the dead, this may be as good a time as any to tell a story about one of the men who got me started as a writer. Although a surprisingly philanthropic soul, the late Bob Ross (founder and publisher of Bay Area Reporter) was known to have a vicious mean streak backed by an acid tongue. As someone who loved to intimidate and humiliate people, I once overheard him tell a Jewish columnist "Oh, honey, you'd make a great lampshade."

On another occasion, Bob decided to share one of his treasured memories of working as the cook in a gay restaurant on Polk Street. One night, a customer sent his steak back to the kitchen, complaining that it wasn't cooked to his satisfaction. Not known for his ability to take criticism lightly, Bob threw the steak down on the floor, jumped up and down on it, put it back on the grill for a few minutes and then sent it back out to the customer.

The result? The clueless diner tasted the steak and promptly instructed the waiter to give his compliments to the chef.

Restaurants are a constant source of intrigue and drama. Whether one chooses to focus on an egomaniacal chef, a waiter who has developed new ways to exact revenge on abusive customers, or restaurant patrons who are never satisfied with the food they've been served, films ranging from Big Night to Today's Special -- and from Waitress to Waiting -- are filled with back stories that have introduced audiences to colorful characters and bizarre situations.

In Fishing, a new dramedy by David J. Duman, the playwright has used his own experiences working as a waiter for five years in an upscale Berkeley seafood restaurant to craft a sharp, insightful, and often witty script about the inner workings of the food industry. With Open Tab Productions presenting the San Francisco premiere of Fishing, Duman's program notes stress that:
"As urban affluence increases, food, cooking, and dining out demand an increasing percentage of our time, budget, energy, and even emotions. The restaurant industry is also demanding of its employees, luring them in with the promises of cash-in-hand and flexible hours and then locking them down forever with a modestly lucrative income, free alcohol, and copious sex. In every restaurant industry lifer there are dozens of unrealized dreams and failed relationships. But how else are you going to make $60K a year working 25 hours a week?"
Fishing's cast of characters is easily recognizable (especially for San Franciscans who dine out on a regular basis). As directed by Mark Drumm, they include:
  • Thomas (Matt Ingle), a talented but egomaniacal chef with limited social skills who is a stickler for using organic food in his restaurant.
  • Sandra (Laurie Burke), his bored manager who basically landed the job because Tom's financial backer sensed the need for a more rational presence in the restaurant.
  • Darren (Ben Euphrat), a gay waiter who knows everything there is to know about the menu and how to pair each dish with an appropriate wine. Although Darren can't wait to share the latest dirt on his customers and coworkers, he has little patience for pretentious foodies who don't know their arugula from their assholes.
  • Tamara (Carla Pauli), the slutty waitress with a mischievous -- and often subversive -- streak who doesn't understand why anyone takes restaurant work seriously.
  • Mark (Alex Plant) a neurotic, status-hungry foodie.
  • Katie (Molly Gazay) Mark's insecure and latently kinky girlfriend who can't understand why the haughty waiter won't bring her a glass of "Sauvignon blank."
In the following clip, Mark and Katie get a dose of wait staff attitude from Tamara:

Fishing starts off in a new, high-end restaurant where business is slow, the staff is bored, and there is seemingly little intrigue. But as sexual tension starts to build between Tom and Sandra (and customers like Mark and Katie become increasingly annoying to the wait staff), the restaurant's personnel must cope with the pressure that accompanies a three star review from a local newspaper's food critic.

The curious thing about Fishing is that one has to wonder if -- even in an age when celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay have had their own reality shows -- Duman's play will primarily appeal to audiences in large urban areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York (as opposed to smaller cities in "flyover country" such as Tulsa, Louisville, Akron, etc., where opportunities for food snobbery and culinary one-upmanship may be more limited).

Katie (Molly Gazay) and Mark (Alex Plant)

While there are plenty of laughs to be found in Duman's script, the performance I attended was plagued by an easily identifiable technical problem. Shotwell Studios is a tiny performing space with limited facilities for focused lighting. The length of time required to cut the lights at the end of one scene and wait for the actors to take their places before the lights can be brought up on the next scene caused the action to play out like a series of blackout sketches rather than an ongoing narrative. As a result, although the audience often responded enthusiastically, it was justifiably confused when the lights came up at the end of Act I.

If I could offer one piece of advice to the playwright and producers, it would be to have future productions of Fishing performed in one act using a performance space that can handle faster transitions between scenes. Doing so would prevent the dramatic momentum from constantly grinding to a halt and would probably shorten the play's running time by eliminating about eight critical minutes of unfortunate dead time.

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Many teenagers can't wait for the moment when they get to leave home and have a life of their own (especially when one or both of their parents is driving them crazy). In Allison Moore's new comedy (which recently received its regional premiere from SFPlayhouse), Sheena McKinney (Tonya Glanz) is counting the minutes until she can abandon her insane, pill-popping feminist mother and her dweeby do-gooder of a younger sister (Melissa Quine). As directed by Jon Tracy on a remarkably flexible set designed by Bill English, Slasher gives the folks at SFPlayhouse a wonderful chance to work with special effects makeup while keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.

While working as a waitress in a chain restaurant that didn't get its reputation for hiring girls for their intellectual strength, Sheena is approached by a seedy filmmaker who asks her to show him how well she can scream. It seems that Marc Hunter (Robert Parsons) is in town to make his latest slasher movie, Blood Bath. His ill-masked desperation allows Sheena to negotiate her steep fee from a position of power. The payoff? She gets to play the last girl in the film to live. As the company's artistic director, Bill English, notes:
"There is something truly unique about Allison's feminist take on the 'low-budget horror genre,' a field totally dominated by men and scandalously exploitative of women. By setting her protagonist's coming of age story in the milieu of 'schlock horror' she puts a great spin on the struggle of a woman to forge an identity against impossible odds while skewering the macho world at the same time. Trapped between her Mom's knee-jerk feminism and her director's lust for titillation, Sheena turns the tables on the power structure from within while being exploited by it. "
When news of Sheena's impending acting debut reaches her mother (Susi Damilano), all hell breaks loose at home. A veteran of the feminist movement, Frances McKinney is not about to let her little girl be exploited by some sleazy filmmaker.

Susi Damilano as Frances McKinney (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Frances may be a cripple who depends on a motorized cart to get around the house. She may be whacked out on painkillers. But she is determined to protect her daughter's integrity at any cost (even if that means killing the filmmaker).

Damilano gets a tough physical workout as she uses her elbows to drag her body back and forth across the stage floor. Melanie Sliwka and Cole Alexander Smith appear in a variety of supporting roles. Thanks to the special effects makeup by Daniel Hirsch and the aggressive stage direction by Jon Tracy (who did such a wonderful job last year with the Shotgun Players' production of The Farm), the cast, crew, and audience have themselves a bloody good time.

Slasher continues through June 5 at the SFPlayhouse. You can order tickets here.

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I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Terroristka, a new play by Rebecca Bella that was recently given its world premiere by Threshold: Theatre on the Verge. Directed by Jessica Holt (artistic director of Threshold as well as Three Wise Monkeys), Terroristka was performed in the tiny theatre at the Berkeley City Club.

Bella's play is based on the true story of a 22-year-old woman from Chechnya who was politically radicalized and trained to become a suicide bomber. After she chickened out at the last minute (and an FSB officer in Moscow was killed while trying to defuse the bomb), she was sentenced to 20 years in jail. The jury had demanded that the judge show no mercy. Upon hearing her sentence, the young woman was reported to have screamed:
"I trusted you. I thought you were good. I hate Russians. I did not want to blow up anyone, but now I will serve 20, 25 years. Then I will return and blow you all up!"
Threshold's artistic director, Jessica Holt, explains that:
"When I first heard Rebecca's haunting play read in a workshop we both took at the Playwrights Foundation two years ago, I was captivated by her rendering of a world I knew little about and yet found myself relating to so personally. Like Rebecca, I identified with the young Chechen (Zerma Muzhahoyeva), a woman forced into life and death decisions by social, political, and economic forces far greater than she could possibly comprehend at age 22. Her story was heartbreaking, tragic, and profoundly moving -- a story I became passionate to tell. As the cast and I have opened ourselves up to Zarema's story (and the stories of those her actions affected), we have felt ourselves in the presence of a conflict that is historical and far-reaching. We have sometimes felt very small in the face of something so vast.

Jailbird (Kate Jopson ) and Zarema (Sarah Rose Butler)
(Photo by: Clay Robeson)

One of the most incredible aspects of Terroristka is its innovative structure. Past and present collide, intersect, and overlap as Zarema's future self (Jailbird) is flooded with memories of the events that led her past self to the pivotal point of decision. Thus, the play stages past and present simultaneously -- the effect of which enables a metaphysical court to materialize where both Jailbird and the audience can witness the choices and the mistakes that have created her current reality. This expressionist form takes its cues from both Lorca and Brecht; it captures the inner consciousness of our central character while also contextualizing, commenting, and providing a social framework for us to understand Zarema's story on a broader scale."
Rebecca Bella first became interested in what motivates a woman to become a suicide bomber while translating Russian poetry in St. Petersburg on a Fulbright fellowship. According to the playwright:
"As I began to research her story, in the newspaper and online, I discovered a very rare narrative: the testimony of a suicide bomber. Zarema's story, on a factual level, was stunning and dramatic; the version you will see in the play is nearly unaltered from its original form. However, what it inspired was not a documentary account but rather an expressionistic, poetic form of writing.

From articles and interviews, I developed a series of poems in which the suicide bomber spoke in a lyrical voice. As the Russian judicial system and mass media processed the case itself, other voices came forward. I wrote poems from the point of view of the FSB bomb sapper, his wife, and Zarema (the convicted prisoner). Soon these poems began to talk to each other and I realized that I was writing a play."
Whether the play Bella crafted is a good play is highly debatable. Terroritska struck me as profoundly tedious, the kind of amateurish writing one might expect from an overly ardent academic who had bitten off more than she could chew.

Once put in the hands of actors, what must have seemed so vivid to Bella during her research and writing process emerged as a clumsily crafted and remarkably boring drama. Indeed, the best work of the evening was the sound design by Gregory Scharpen (who has created numerous soundscapes for performances by Central Works, which also performs at the Berkeley City Club).

Adrienne Krug as Fatima (Photo by: Clay Robeson)

Although the Threshold ensemble worked very hard to bring Bella's play to life, the cramped performance space made it impossible for a play filled with such raging passions and confused women to find its center. On opposite sides of the room, the Jailbird (Kate Jopson) and the dead FSB officer's wife, Lena (Molly Holcomb), tried to cope with their guilt, bitterness, and sense of impending doom.

The wide-ranging moods and intense gullibility of Zarema (Sarah Rose Butler) -- even after Fatima (Adrienne Krug) had instructed her in how to become a suicide bomber -- demonstrated how easily a confused 22-year-old can be manipulated if she believes that she will receive a mobile phone. As the "official shadow," Andy Strong came through with an appropriately ghostlike, macho figure.

Rustan (Alex Curtis) and Mohamed (Geof Libby)
(Photo by: Clay Robeson)

The two rebellious brothers -- Mohamed (Geof Libby) and Rustan (Alex Curtis) -- had trouble switching between moments of anger expressed in prose and patches of the script where the playwright's decidedly lame poetry made their characters less believable. The basic lesson to be learned is that one's ability to rhyme carries no guarantee that one can create compelling stretches of verse for a staged drama.

In much the same way that planning a suicide bombing becomes a labor of hate, it's easy to see how Terroristka could become a labor of love for its creative team. Unfortunately, loving something (or someone) too intensely -- and believing too fiercely in its power to tell an important story -- can easily blind one to its faults.

Bella's drama might very well be improved by dropping the playwright's annoying use of rhymed couplets and strained lullabies. Trimming the script by at least half an hour would also help. When the quality of a production's sound design can so easily dwarf such an explosive tale filled with compelling characters, a playwright must mercilessly question whether her well-intentioned use of gimmicks has, instead, become counterproductive. In the final analysis, Terroristka proved to be a major disappointment.

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