Monday, October 3, 2011

Living in Parallel Universes

On October 17, 2004, The New York Times published a controversial article by Ron Suskind in which he quoted an aide to President George W. Bush (who was later identified as Karl Rove) as follows:
"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' ... 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
A continuing stream of nonsensical embarrassments from the faith-based community has proven that, just like explosive diarrhea, reality can be pretty messy. Or, at the very least, inconvenient. Bill Maher sums it up nicely in the following video clip:

Two small San Francisco theatre companies recently staged new works whose characters struggle to cope with parallel universes that defy reality. Though set nearly 100 years apart, each production delivers a healthy dose of shock, awe, and plain old stupefaction.

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In her program notes for the world premiere of Patience Worth, Symmetry Theatre Company's artistic director, Chloe Bronzan, writes:
"The phenomenon of Pearl Curran/ Patience Worth was first brought to my attention by an August 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine in an article by Gioia Diliberto titled 'Ghost Writer.' The story instantly stirred my curiosity as I pondered the circumstances by which (or through which) a woman of limited education sometimes -- either by magic, miracle, conscious deception, unconscious deception, or some sort of unexplained physiological condition -- managed to earn the literary respect of such credible publications as The New York Times and convince many of her times' more scrutinizing debunkers of psychics that her powers were legitimate.
To this day, Pearl's story remains a mystery. Of the many possible explanations provided, none were entirely satisfying to me, which fueled my curiosity and inspired me to further explore Pearl's life in the form of a commissioned play.  Not only did the idea of turning this story into a play pose an element of inevitable theatricality, it also promised a prismatic relevance."
Poster art for Patience Worth
"At one point in this play's development process we discussed the possibility of having a separate actress portray the character of the 'spirit,' Patience Worth. But eventually Michelle Carter decided that this choice would too easily provide you with the explanation that Patience is indeed a being separate from the woman known as Pearl Curran. We chose instead to let you experience Pearl's 'possession' by Patience as others of her time may have witnessed it.
We do not provide you with a definitive answer, but rather let you decide for yourself how you feel about the phenomenon of Pearl Curran and Patience Worth. The questions that continue to come up in my own mind are these: Must ability always be connected to education? Who are the people in our present society that are unable to be heard? Whom in my life have I underestimated?"

Pearl Curran (Megan Trout), Patience Wee (Aloma Bach),
Mrs. Pollard (Jessica Powell) and  Emily Hutchings (Elena Wright)
gather around a ouija board in Patience Worth (Photo by: Pak Han)

I wasn't able to catch a performance of Patience Worth until its final weekend at Thick House, but was quite impressed with what I saw. First and foremost was a superbly evocative, simple unit set that was beautifully designed and lit by Allen Wilner. In many moments, Wilner's set evoked memories of some of the glorious window displays at IXIA, a popular florist on Market Street.

Aided by the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, Erika Chong Shuch directed this world premiere with the theatrical power of a ghost story and the literary bent of the most mystifying literary process imaginable. Michelle Carter's script is intelligent, strong, and meticulously crafted for the stage (although the finale could use some rethinking and clarification).

The small ensemble worked very well, transitioning easily between roles as necessary.
  • Warren David Keith appeared as all the men in the story (John Curran, Casper Yost, William Marion Reedy, and Henry Holt). 
  • Elena Wright portraying Emily Hutchings (the woman who introduced Pearl Curran to the ouija board and subsequently tried to imitate Curran's success with Patience Worth by claiming to have channeled the creation of a novel written by Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain after his death).
  • Aloma Bach appeared as Patience Wee, the child adopted by Pearl Curran and John Curran.
  • Veteran actress Jessica Powell was a powerful presence as Pearl Curran's mother and the Boston-based writer, Agnes Repplier
However, the bulk of the evening's theatricality rests on the shoulders of the actress portraying Pearl Curran/Patience. Megan Trout did herself proud with an intense performance whose "transitional movements" had obviously been coached by Erika Chong Shuch (who is also a noted Bay area choreographer).

Pearl Curran (Megan Trout) channels the spirit of Patience Worth
(Photo by: Pak Han)

Patience Worth was Symmetry Theatre's second production. As with the previous Show and Tell, it marks Symmetry as a company with a keenly intelligent artistic vision.  In June of 2012, the company will present the Bay area premiere of Lauren Gunderson's Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends Her Life Tonight at the Berkeley City Club.

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Written by Stefanie Zadravec, Honey Brown Eyes is set in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. The action takes places in two kitchens: one in Visegrad (Act I), the other in Sarajevo (Act II).

What these kitchens share is a pathetic lack of food and a tenuous connection through two men who once performed together in a New Wave rock band. In one kitchen, a Serbian paramilitary must brutalize Muslim women in order to avoid being killed by his fellow soldiers. In the other, a Bosnian resistance fighter on the run seeks refuge in the kitchen of an elderly woman.

As directed by Susi Damilano, the two kitchens share one of SFPlayhouse's major assets: a fascinating unit set designed by Bill English that can quickly transport audiences from one war-torn kitchen to the other. Act I of Honey Brown Eyes takes place in the barren home of Alma (Jennifer Stuckert), a young Bosnian woman whose husband has already been killed during the ethnic cleansing of the local Muslim population.

Dragan (Nic Grelli) is a young musician who was forced to join the military. But as he tries to convince Alma that she must leave, they soon come to the realization that Dragan used to play in the same band as Alma's idealistic brother, Denis. Alma's reluctance to abandon her home leaves Dragan with no choice but to take action in order to prevent himself from being murdered by his superiors.

Alma (Jennifer Stuckert) finds herself at the mercy of
Dragan (Nic Grelli) in Honey Brown Eyes
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Meanwhile, in Sarajevo, an old widow named Jovanka (Wanda McCaddon) is trying to turn two onions and some rice into a meal when a young man bursts into her home and begs her to hide him. The audience soon learns that not only is Denis (Chad Deverman) Alma's long-lost brother, his future is every bit as doubtful as that of Alma's husband.

Denis (Chad Deverman) lifts the elderly Jovanka (Wanda McCaddon)
in his arms in Honey Brown Eyes (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Jovanka's grandson has recorded rock music over her beloved tape of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand but, having survived several wars, she is willing to share what little food she has with Denis. Soon after she offers the young man shelter and a ray of temporary hope, he disappears into the bullet-ridden night. In his artistic director's note, Bill English writes:
"When I was very young, I was taught by a well-meaning Sunday school teacher that only little Christian boys and girls could get into heaven.  I was devastated.  'But...what about the little Chinese boys and girls who've never heard of Jesus?' I asked.  'Well, they just can't get in,' my teacher replied.
Much of what I believe in was born that moment, including my attitude towards theatre.  One of the most important principles behind SFPlayhouse is that our theatre is for all people. We do not wish to appeal to any splinter of humanity.  We want to gather everyone into a giant stew and prove through the power of empathy that we are all the same. This means avoiding a political agenda and focusing on the universal struggles of mankind."  
Two members of the Serbian paramilitary (Cooper Carson and Nic Grelli)
loot Alma's home before it gets burned to the Honey Brown Eyes
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
"When I read Honey Brown Eyes I knew at once that we would present it. Like many of us, I have struggled much of my life to understand the Holocaust of World War II and the horrific ethnic cleansings of the past few decades: Rwanda, Palestine, and Bosnia. Honey Brown Eyes serves this purpose magnificently. 
Dragan is a Serb conscripted by force into the paramilitary; Alma is a Muslim.  Denis is a Muslim; Jovanka a Serb. Thrown together in the events of the play, they form bonds that transcend their ethnic differences and remind us all that we can transcend our differences. It matters not on which side of the war Dragan, Denis, Alma, and Jovanka fall.  They are all struggling triumphantly to find courage and hope in the climate of despair. They all rise above their ethnicity."

There's no doubt that Honey Brown Eyes brings to life some of the tragic events that happened in Bosnia-Herzogovina. Although I was impressed by the performances given by Nic Grelli, Chad Deverman, and Wanda McCadden, Stephanie Zadravec's drama did not deliver the same punch in the gut to me that others in the audience obviously felt.

What I was very happy to see in the audience, however, was the presence of several high school students (the beneficiaries of the company's new educational outreach program entitled Rising Stars). As part of this program:
  • Subscribers who are willing to pay an extra $100 above their annual subscription rate get to endow a student with tickets to four productions at SFPlayhouse during the school year.  
  • Not only do teachers receive a detailed lesson plan to help prepare their students for each show, post-performance talkbacks are scheduled with the director and members of the cast. 
  • Within a week of attending each production, the students write letters to their donors, thanking them for their sponsorship and telling them about their experience.
What strikes me as very refreshing about the structure of the Rising Stars program is that an older generation of theatregoers gets to share their love of theatre by "paying it forward" in the form of a donated youth subscription. The students who make contact with their donors develop an understanding that a love of theatre is a gift that members of one generation can bestow on another. Not only does this help to build the audience of the future, everyone benefits as part of the process.

If you're interested in participating in the Rising Stars program, contact SFPlayhouse's Education Director, Lindsay Krumbein, at

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