Monday, September 14, 2009

A Weekend of Effrontery

Ever since the rise of the counter culture, artists have been pushing the envelope in new, weird, and often threatening directions. Whether one thinks of performance artists like Karen Finley or Tim Miller (who will be appearing at the Yerba Buena Center on November 21 and 22) -- or photographers like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano (whose Piss Christ enraged the religious right) -- one way for an artist to get noticed is to do something controversial.

Made at San Jose State University by an ambitious group of students -- and soon to be released on DVD -- Bye-Bye Bin Laden is an animated musical satire that claims to be "the first feature-length animation ever to be made at any university on planet Earth (a planet hilariously destroyed at the beginning of the movie)." As you can see from the trailer, it obviously would not fit in with the more traditional Disney style of full-length animated features.

I spent most of the past weekend attending the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival, where artists who are not performing during any given time slot can frequently be seen in the audience, checking out the competition or passing out flyers for their shows. Although some attractions may be attended by more volunteers and Fringe performers than members of the general public, there is always an ambiance of collegiality, professional support, and curiosity about what other people are doing with their art.

Like many attractions at fringe festivals around the world, some shows sizzle while others fizzle. Some performers soar, while others crash and burn on the stage floor. Publicity blurbs can only give a hint at what awaits the audience. It's all a crap shoot, with frequent surprises in store.

* * * * * * * * * *
Billed as "an eclectic mix of sketch and provocative cultural commentary presented as a backdrop to the most amazing, and yet forgotten story of the Revolutionary War," Chad McComber and Reymundo Zegri's Ticonderoga boasted a lot more energy than piss and vinegar. Often sounding like the product of some stoned and rowdy college frat boys who had just finished cramming all night for an exam on the American Revolution, one of the actors advised the audience that the show would be "a combination of history and comedy -- you know, like a hysterectomy, but kinda funny!"

Photo by: Jessica Toth

The inspiration for this piece (other than a chance to dress up in a three-cornered hat) came from the exploits of former book seller Henry Knox, newly appointed by George Washington as the Colonel in charge of the Continental Regiment of Artillery, who came up with the idea of transporting the cannons and mortar captured at upstate New York's Fort Ticonderoga down the Hudson River and across the Berkshires to Cambridge to help the colonists win the Siege of Boston against the British army's lobster backs. A segment with Thomas Jefferson demonstrated how he might have really been inspired to write some key parts of American history, including references to a very drunk Benjamin Franklin stuffing his face and muttering "We hold these cheeses to be self evident." The following video gives a sample of the show's humor:

* * * * * * * * *
If you prefer humor that is sharp, timely, and cuts to the quick, you'd be much better off attending a performance of Fists of Funny, the latest collection of skits from OPM (Opening Peoples' Minds) Comedy. Based in Los Angeles, this talented group of fiercely inventive comics specializes in examining a particular brand of American craziness through an Asian-American perspective. Thanks, in large part, to Esther K. Chae's direction, their rapid-fire delivery is hilarious, their timing incredible. These people know their material, know their audience, and best of all, know how to deliver the goods. Their marketing slogan? "Making you laugh long time."

In Charles Kim's Be Like Bruce, Danny (Lanny Joon) is a professional Asian-American actor auditioning for a Bruce Lee-like role in an upcoming movie. Skilled in the use of nunchucks, and boasting a lean, taut torso, he would seem to be an ideal candidate for the role. The problem is that the Caucasian casting director is not only a blithering idiot, but would much prefer to cast a flabby Asian slob (Charles Kim) who, in addition to being a total klutz, claims to have memorized every sound from Bruce Lee's movies -- including the grunts made by Lee's victims.

Lanny Joon

Written by John Lopez, Jesusphone featured Ewan Chung and Julia Cho as two snotty geeks tied to their iPhones doing their best to distance themselves from a low-tech acquaintance from school (Dave Wilder). As they condescendingly snarl at his limited electronic bandwidth, tragedy suddenly strikes when one of them drops and breaks an iPhone. "I've killed my iPhone," Larry wails, fearing swift and personal retribution from Steve Jobs. Faster than you can say "reboot," his friend Pat downloads the iPhone's handy assisted suicide application.

Problem solved!

Rodney To's Daly City Spelling Bee (in which To appeared as a moderator with a thick Filipino accent) was so brilliantly written and performed that I thought I would fall out of my chair laughing. A dynamic addition to the troupe, Mr. To -- who had a featured role in MTV's The American Mall -- resurfaced in a skit he wrote with John Lopez entitled Weekly Financial Newsss. Here, two mainstream newscasters automatically assume that the handsome Asian financial analyst they are interviewing about the financial meltdown must be gay.

In Da-Me Kunoichi (written by Julia Cho and Ewan Chung), a young woman from a family of modern-day Ninjas, tries to date a Caucasian man (Dave Wilder) while killing a variety of thug-like pests and battling her father's innate prejudices toward anyone who isn't Korean.

Julia Cho (Photo by: Taili Song-Roth)

Ewan Chung was achingly funny in a skit he wrote with Charles Kim entitled Ask Chin.Com. As the web-based host of a question and answer session, he delivered rapid-fire put-downs to Americans asking stupid questions. A short video entitled Fight! (written by Randall Park) offered a great spoof of Asian warrior films.

Finally, a skit in which Kim Jong-Il (Charles Kim) tried to get his son (Rodney To) to be more interested in ruling North Korea than becoming a professional dancer was a truly inspired piece of lunacy. Mr. To is a new, exceptionally talented cast member of OPM who is definitely someone to watch as his career progresses.

Poster Design by Ewan Chung

* * * * * * * * *
The promotional material for Show No Show: We Are Nudes seemed enticing enough: a weird, offbeat kind of comedy devised by a former circus clown from Cirque du Soleil. It boasted that "John Gilkey and his fellow Nudes -- Donny Divanian and Alec Jones-Trujillo -- team up to deliver a show that ought never to be allowed on stage. These guys are dangerous, absurd, subversive and complete f***ing idiots."

Upon arriving at the Climate Theater just as the previous show was letting out, I was encouraged by the smiling faces and seemingly satisfied audience members who lingered to chat with the performers before leaving the South of Market performance venue. I'm not really sure what happened that caused the second show to fall flat on its face but, since the Climate Theater barely seats 50 people, I'm willing to guess that most of the early show's audience had been friends of the actors who had come to show their support.

Facing a much smaller audience, the three performers onstage were confronted with a stiff challenge. The bulk of their show rests on Gilkey's intensely animated efforts to provoke audience reactions to two deadpan actors who seem to have wandered in from either the Theater of the Absurd or the cemetery where ineffective pieces of shtick go to die.

Later in the show, a woman in the audience started screaming at the three actors onstage, telling them how awful and pathetic they are. Her abusive tirade, however, turned out to be part of a planned ruse that would allow her to humiliate and dump the boyfriend seated next to her.

John Gilkey, Donny Divanian and Alec Jones-Trujillo
Photo by: John Gilkey

Without a larger, more involved audience, Show No Show: We Are Nudes has the levity of a souffle that cannot and never will rise. Its failure to entertain could clog an audience's capacity to respond in much the same way too much Passover matzoh could lead to a bout of severe and painful constipation.

* * * * * * * *
The husband and wife team responsible for Carnival of Chaos have more than a few tricks up their sleeves. Although Andrea Terry and Mark Bunnell (who describe themselves as "professional goofballs") may seem like relatively laid-back folks, five years ago the spry, athletic Mark was diagnosed with throat and mouth cancer that required intensive chemotherapy and drug treatment from the oncologists at UCSF.

Mark Bunnell

In their "day jobs" as corporate motivators (School of Laughs Educational Comedy Programs), they bring humor, juggling, and music into offices and perform at private parties. The slyly clumsy brand of "extreme vaudeville" cheekily demonstrated by Andrea and Mark at the Fringe Festival would hardly lead a person to believe that Mark is a family therapist who holds a master's degree in psychology. Having determined that psychotherapy is not all that different from dealing with hecklers, he has performed throughout the United States and Europe in venues ranging from Fisherman's Wharf to music festivals and comedy clubs -- demonstrating a wiry, quirky appeal riding on a foundation of geeky masculinity that one might expect to find at a conference of Microsoft network engineers attempting to perform handstands atop a series of plastic buckets.

Photo by: Liz Payne

In addition to her talents as a juggler, stilt walker, dancer, and comedian, Andrea is also a talented musician and songwriter. The couple's new show, entitled Survival Tips For The Reckless, offers audiences handy hints about how to deal with the kind of life-shattering news that can knock the wind out of anyone's sails. The result is a juggling act with an unusual quotient of personal charm -- and some very brave volunteers from the audience. Imagine two talented prop comics with the kind of insights shared by other cancer survivors and you have an act that is far more interesting than any standard variety show shtick.

Highly recommended!

* * * * * * * * * *
At several Fringe performances I attended over the past week, I noticed a lanky, bearded man who seemed to be chatting with a lot of volunteers and artists. At first, I thought he might be one of the tech people helping with lighting or sound. But, upon entering the theater to catch a performance of The Surprise, I discovered that it was actually Martin Dockery, a very talented storyteller from Brooklyn.

Dockery's monologue describes the kind of difficulties members of his family have had communicating with each other (which he refers to as "games of emotional chicken"), a trip to Cambodia's famed temple at Angkor Wat that goes irretrievably wrong while he and his girlfriend are tripping on acid, and the challenges of dealing with his father's second family in Vietnam -- a family whose very existence Martin's father had never gotten around to telling his son about.

Beautifully directed by Jean-Michele Gregory (Mike Daisey's wife and frequent collaborator), what sets Dockery's performance apart from so many others is the electricity coursing through his veins as he shares an incredibly dark and personal story in one of the funniest narrations you're ever likely to hear. Wired with more energy than Starbucks could provide to the entire Bay area, Dockery prowls the stage while rapidly shifting between rage and incredulousness --between awe and hurt confusion -- as he tries to comprehend the mysterious motivations of his noncommunicative father (a retired attorney), the wavering affections of his girlfriend, the coded messages he thinks he might be receiving from Cambodian beggars and his newly-discovered Vietnamese relatives (as well as the wondrous beauty of a mysterious palm tree seen through the brilliant colors of a Cambodian sunrise that has been enhanced by LSD).

The Surprise offers audiences a double whammy: an exuberant storyteller with an epic story to share. This is easily one of the best attractions at this year's Fringe Festival. Whenever you have a chance to catch Dockery weaving his magic onstage, make it your business to run (not walk) to the theatre and grab yourself a seat. Here's a promotional clip for The Surprise:

As an added treat, watch Dockery's energetic performance (and notice the dramatic impact he achieves with his magnificently expressive hands) at a storytelling competition:

No comments: