Monday, September 12, 2011

Asian American Artists At The SF Fringe Festival

One of the distinct characteristics of fringe festivals is that their entries are chosen by a lottery rather than a jury. What this means is that, for better or worse, all new entrants have an equal chance in securing a spot in the festival line-up.

What this means for the audience is that there is an increased element of surprise. A performer who seemingly came out of nowhere can deliver a monologue of stunning brilliance. At last year's festival, Rotimi Agbabiaka's one-man show, Homeless, marked the debut of a breathtakingly talented young man.

Other shows may be well crafted but fail to hit the mark. Some, in fact, may be downright awful ("You pays your money, you takes your chances"). Not many people expect to find a floating Lunatic Fringe Festival, but in August a group of patriots and "real Americans" sailing to Alaska aboard the Celebrity Cruise ship, Millenium, became part of "the most freedom-embracing and liberty-loving navy at sea: the WorldNetDaily Navy and the Tea Party at Sea!"

Perhaps, in the future, this performance by Saturday Night Live alumna, Victoria Jackson, and Alan Keyes can be restricted to international waters.  You be the judge:

In recent seasons, Bay area audiences have been roundly entertained by the OPM Comedy, a high energy multicultural sketch comedy troupe from Los Angeles. However, with OPM Comedy not participating in this year's San Francisco Fringe Festival, audiences have a chance to concentrate on the offerings from other Asian-American artists. 

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It took very little for the promotional material for Breaking the Cassia Bough to pique my interest. A project of The Visible Theater, this was designed to be a prequel to "Green Bamboo Heritage." My knowledge of Chinese opera is extremely limited. I'll be the first to admit that I lack any exposure to the plays written by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). But Chinese opera's instrumentation is so different from that of Western opera that I was curious to see what this show was doing at the Fringe Festival.

Occasionally, one attends a lecture about a new musical work in which the lecture proves to be vastly more interesting than the performance. Jon Wai-keung Lowe (who researched, wrote, and directed Breaking the Cassia Bough), spent approximately 15 minutes talking about Chinese opera, what makes the music from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) different from the sounds modern audiences associate with Chinese opera, and the artistic process which finally enabled him to overcome his resistance to Chinese opera.

Part of the text chosen by Lowe for Breaking the Cassia Bough was the following (sung to the tune of "Ji Kian Bin"):
"A bride should weep
on leaving her childhood home.
My eyes are dry --
No filial tears (no tears) to stain my joy.
No matchmaker sent between.
No betrothal gifts cross my threshold.
No proper rites observed, honors paid,
No glad cup of wine is pour'd.
Still, my heart (my heart) secretly races, races on
Until (until) I cross the terrace of the night.
See him, oh see where he stands!
Beckoning me,
Calling me to Yellow Springs.
Sighs cannot bear weight unlike magpie wings
I sway, breathlessly.
Until the bond of destiny
Brings him back to me."
Following Lowe's lecture, a brief musical performance (using an orchestration by Nathan Lively) took place with Amelia Bethel as the servant girl, Orchid; Paul Rodrigues as Liang Mengzhu; and Erica Kimble as Liu Chenxing. To be honest, having expected to see Chinese singers performing Chinese music, I was totally blindsided when a cast featuring a Caucasian mezzo, an African-American soprano, and a Hispanic tenor appeared before the audience (a salute to the Bay area's impressive diversity).

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It takes a lot for me to walk out of a show. I'm one of those people who will usually stay to the bitter end  (often, in small theatres, a person will remain in his seat in order to avoid interrupting the performance). But I saw absolutely no reason to stay put for the second half of JapJAP.

The promotional blurb for JapJAP reads "Tearing down borders and tearing off clothes, JapJAP's body is her only roadmap as she embarks on a journey through identity, culture, and history." Although, in 2009, I had enjoyed Una Aya Osato's one-woman show at the San Francisco Fringe Festival entitled Recess, JapJAP left me cold.

It did not help that I was tired, the theatre was oppressively warm, and the show started at 10:30 p.m. That being said, the 30 minutes of JapJAP that I squirmed through left me wondering whether the show was obnoxiously boring, boringly obnoxious, or whether Ms. Osato had simply fallen down the rabbit hole of multimedia temptations.

There was nothing particularly cringeworthy about her show. Simply stated: When, midway through a solo performance, you start thinking about whether or not you need to trim your toenails, it's time to go home.

Una Aya Osato in JapJAP
Why did I walk out midway through this 60-minute show?  From what I saw, Osato had divided the first half of her show into two alternating modes.
  • In one mode, she appears like a doll with a suitcase who can only say "JapJAP." While prancing around like a little girl, these two syllables are the only answer she can give to taped questions and commands. The gimmick quickly wears thin.
  • In the other mode, Osato stands behind a white screen on which film of her is projected. Raising her arms above the screen, she creates two puppet-like figures with her hands and proceeds to mime an argument as she recites a script that frequently turns into a political debate.  Osato occasionally opens up one of the rectangular flaps in the screen to reveal parts of her anatomy. An extended period of Osato babbling on while jiggling her breasts in order to simulate a conversation with her Jewish grandmother didn't make much of an impression on me. Neither did the use of her abdominal flesh.
The real problem, however, is that one of the key reasons to attend live theatre is to feel some kind of connection with the person(s) onstage. With each of the two performance modes I experienced in the first 30 minutes of JapJAP, there was absolutely no connection between the artist and her audience. Without any compelling reason to stay for the second half of Osato's show, I left the Exit Theatre and went home.

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There's an old saying that you have to kiss a few frogs to find a prince. The same applies to the programming at most fringe festivals. Some shows are forgettable while others show great promise. Sarah Lau's monologue, The Secret Adventures of Fat Woman and Remedial Girl, is the one you'll want to watch develop.

Lau has been telling stories for years. A rail thin, extremely energetic performer with a great, rubbery face, her protagonist, Louise, is an 11-year-old second grader sharing a bedroom with a demented, incontinent Chinese grandmother who is nearing death. Louise's best friend, Brenda Lolly, is the fattest girl in her school.

Lau's one-woman show evolved from a short story (code-named "Crazy Grandma") that simply would not rest. It now runs 85 minutes as Louise shares all kinds of horrible secrets with the audience about her highly dysfunctional Chinese-American family.

On the night I attended The Secret Adventures of Fat Woman and Remedial Girl, one of the BART protests almost prevented Lau from getting to the theatre in time for her own world premiere. As she recalls on her blog:
"My 2-1/2 hour nightmarish trek from San Jose culminated in a five-block sprint from Civic Center BART with my bag and bench all the way to Exit Theatre. I arrived at 7 p.m., right when my show was supposed to start -- a limp, quivering mess. I almost burst into tears when I saw Amanda (the production manager) outside the theatre. She explained in her soothing voice that my show could be delayed five minutes so that I could wring myself out and recover a bit. Joshua, my technician (the “+1” to my one-woman show), took my bag and chair and set everything up for me onstage.

For whatever reasons, I seem to be wired to work on long projects like novels and 90-minute solo shows; the process of evolving and layering the piece through endless repetition and re-envisioning never feels like work to me. It’s like a bouncy house for my imagination where I can play for hours on end (and sometimes forget to eat). A major theme in my show is 'breathing.' So I took a page from my script, closed my eyes and tried to take a breath and relax.

With the adrenaline rush of worrying that I wasn’t going to make it to the theatre in time -- and all the crazy running, stair-climbing, and parkour involved in actually getting there -- I didn’t have any energy left to stress out about my performance. I just had to go on stage and deliver. This had been the moment I’d been working towards for so long -- nine years with the book, two years with the script, and nine months with show development, rehearsals, and the Fringe prep. I stepped onto the darkened stage and curled up into my opening position for Scene 1. The lights came up and I began. My obsessive rehearsing paid off. Despite being winded, I dug in and kept going.

The wondrous feeling of performing carried me through the first few scenes of my show. But when I got to the beginning of the big party scene (at about 7:30 p.m.), I suddenly felt exhausted, like I’d hit a wall. Scene 5 (Grandma’s party) is over 20 minutes long with a lot of physical action and I hadn’t even gotten to the 'crazy' or 'super-crazy' parts yet! I had rehearsed almost daily in the two months leading up to this opening night (the official tally is 55). That might seem a bit crazy in and of itself, but I wanted to make the most of this opportunity at the Fringe and put something amazing on stage. Even in my final runthrough earlier that day, I’d come up with some new things to try."

Not only was this performance the official world premiere of Lau's show, it was the first time she had ever performed her entire monologue before an audience. While it needs some editing (I'd estimate that cutting 10-15 minutes of material would give the show greater power and momentum), this was an auspicious debut by a talented writer and performer.

There's no doubt that Lau's adrenaline was going strong during her opening night performance. However, there is one problem she needs to work on (which can be heard in some of her other videos). Some of Louise's friends and relatives speak in a dialect that is difficult for audiences to comprehend.

Curiously, this is not so much due to the accents Lau uses but the fact that she sounds like a child with a mouth full of orthodontic braces). If Lau can spend some time working on her diction, she'll soon have a dynamite show to take on the road.

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