The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
Y’know, as much as I try to seek out works that aren’t by White cis-hetero dudes, it’s still pure serendipity when I wind up seeing two outside-the-box shows in a row. I intend to show them the same courtesy (and scrutiny) that I’d exercise for a revival of All My Sons. Having said that, I’m all-too-aware that a show that doesn’t fit the above description took a longer journey to reach me than one that did.
I like to keep that in mind when I’m gathering my thoughts after a show. No, that doesn’t mean I’m grading on curve. What it means is that I’m more likely to deconstruct the symbolism and messages of the work than if it were just another production of Our Town (which isn’t nearly as milquetoast as its reputation suggests). Just go through the Search bar above and look up my reviews for Grandeur and How to Be a White Man from last year – both were shows by and about people of color, but both were utter disappointments because the was all each had to offer. They were both shallow, condescending shows that thought they were deeper than they were (like a university student who’s one week through their first philosophy class, but thinks they’re fuckin’ Kierkegaard).
Last week, I saw not one, but two female-focused shows back-to-back; the first one on International Women’s Day, no less. As I continue hear straight White men kvetch about the still-minority status of female representation signaling “the end of male theatre” (yes, I still hear this shit), the following two shows were strikingly similar in their mutual representations of female-dominated worlds. If that means fewer Neil Labute plays, them I’m all for it.
“I’m a motherfucking woman, baby, alright
I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight
I’m a motherfucking woman, baby, that’s right
I’m just having fun with my ladies here tonight
I’m a motherfucker”
– Ke$ha, “Woman”
That song plays as part of the pre-show. Not being the biggest Ke$ha fan, I couldn’t place it as easily as I did MIA’s “Bad Girls,” which we also hear. Both of these rallying cries of unapolegtic girl power blare from the speakers as we look around the set, at this point consisting only of a brick wall, a chaise lounge, and Matisse’s Blue Nude II hanging stage-left. Having attended many-a-Crowded Fire show, I can’t recall another where Artistic Director Mina Morita informed us of the exits “in case of emergency or revolution,” but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Shit was meant to be shaken up this opening night.
And stirred up it was. Under the direction of Crowded Fire’s own founder, Rebecca Novick, Alice Birch’s feminist manifesto-by-way-of-theatre is a lot of things, but “subtle” is not one of them. As the tenets of said manifesto appear throughout the show (eg. “Revolutionize the Work – Engage with it,” “Revolutionize the Body – Don’t Reproduce”), pieces of Justin Law’s brick wall set fall, or are sometimes smashed and thrown – like a violent game of Tetris. There’s no doubt that the wall is symbolic of that which separates women from, well, everything.
And yet, the show doesn’t begin as a blatant rallying cry. Well, it does, but not so nakedly aggressive. Presented as a series of vignettes, the first is a comedic piece about a woman (Elissa Beth Stebbins) trying in vain to make her boyfriend (Soren Santos) understand that his endless compliments to her are actually dehumanizing. The following piece involves a woman (here played by a Black actress, Leigh Rondon-Davis) hilariously declaring her boyfriend’s (Santos again) proposal of marriage to a declaration of slavery. The piece following that involves a woman (Karla Acosta) in an office declaring to her boss (Gabriel Christian) that she doesn’t want to work on Mondays. All of these pieces are incredibly funny without sacrificing gravitas.
But as the fourth piece progresses, the tone of both the scene and the play take a sharp turn for the severe. What begins with two male grocery clerks (Gabriel Christian and Soren Santos) wringing their hands over a woman (Cat Leudtke) who stripped naked and began destroying produce suddenly turns tragic as she gives a sort of spoken-word poem recount of her body being used (and abused) like the produce she destroyed.
And down come the bricks in the wall, eventually bringing down the entire set in an apocalyptic cacophony that has to be witnessed first-hand. And yet, the greatest strength of Birch’s script – I won’t spoil the ending – is that it asks the question I always want to know when presented with a manifesto: if you were to actually get what you wanted, what next? Wish fulfillment isn’t the same as perfection.
For that matter, the show itself isn’t perfect: the mostly-American cast (I only know of Cat Luedtke being actually British) makes the frequent British terms stick out like sore thumbs. Also, Birch’s fifth vignette is an odd period piece (or post-apocalyptic?) that seems to revel in its gloom and shock value – as if Birch were attempting to channel the ghost fellow British playwright Sarah Kane. What’s more, the climactic cacophony is such it can be occasionally hard to tell what points are trying to be made. It’s probably a good idea that the show appears to have been cast color-blind, because that would raise an entirely new set of questions that wouldn’t be answered here.
Still, the production is skillfully pulled off in Novick’s hands. Well-acted and technically top-notch, it’s a testament to Novick’s skills as an artist as well as Mina Morita’s bold selection of works in the position Novick once held. When Morita announced that the evening’s raffle “prize” would be an anonymous donor giving to the women’s charity of the winner’s choice, it was clear that the play’s call to action was taken to heart.
Though relatively short in its running time, Birch’s script takes us on quite a journey before ending with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” leading us back out into the lobby. The show is messy, but it’s meant to be – when has revolution ever been tidy?
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is scheduled to run until the 24th of March at the Potrero Stage in San Francisco.
The show runs 70 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
“War is what happens when language fails.”
– Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride
Every now and then, I find myself walking through a ghost town of long-gone theatre companies. Venues that used to be home to such reliable local companies as The Travelling Jewish Theatre, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and Sleepwalkers Theatre are now – at best – shared spaces; more likely repurposed non-theatre spaces; at worst, closed for good. I mentioned last year how jarring it was to see a Lorraine Hansberry show (Samm-Art Williams’ Home) on the stage once exclusive to Af-Am Shakes (who may be going back there soon), but at least LHT is a good fit for that venue.
All kinds of nostalgia swept over me as I returned to La Val’s Subterranean, the quasi-stage basement beneath a Berkeley pizzeria, for the opening night of Theatre Lunatico’s production of Kursk. For years, we in the Bay Area theatre community knew this basement as the exclusive playground for Melissa Hillman’s Impact Theatre. I auditioned there, acted there, saw many shows there, and even attended the company’s final performance. In other words, I have a lot of memories connected with that place and its still-absurdly-filthy restrooms. Seeing another company in the space wasn’t just a surprise, it was akin to first seeing a Sonic the Hedgehog game on a Nintendo system: one has to fully recalibrate their brain to make sense of it.
Making sense of the senseless is a recurring theme in Bryony Lavery’s Kursk. Inspired by the real-life tragedy of the doomed Russian submarine, Kursk drops us into a nearby British sub in the midst of war games. The all-male crew beg for something – anything – to break the monotony of their below-sea-level tasks. When they aren’t cleaning their boots, watching Notting Hill, or sneaking off to masturbate, they’re usually thinking of the ladies they left behind – mothers and girlfriends alike.
Upon learning that the Kursk is sinking and they are in a position to help, the crew are forbidden to do so, as it may cause an international incident. As the clock runs down and Kursk sinks ever deeper, our crew realize that the only thing worse than having nothing to do is knowing they can do something, but don’t.
I’m not familiar with Theatre Lunatico, so I can’t be sure how indicative this show is of their work. Director Tina Taylor – also the company’s artistic director – clearly wanted to make a statement about the impact of the life of an enlisted man by swapping Lavery’s characters for an all-female cast. But whatever statement Taylor was trying to make, I don’t think it lands.
Like the Crowded Fire production above, this one is full of capable American actors (I’ve worked with Melissa Clason and Lauri Smith before, the latter in a show by Impact at La Val’s) who don’t quite pull off the British vernacular. More to the point, there’s a noticeable lack of the tension that comes with all-male gatherings. I’m reminded of David Mamet quoting writer Nancy Dowd: when asked by an interviewer why her screenplay for the film Slap Shot contained such “foul” locker room talk, she replied, “Have you ever been in a fucking locker room?” Lavery’s script occasionally has such language, but Taylor’s production cuts back on the unchecked aggression that would be there. Men are constantly challenging one another to the death, comrades or not. It’s part of the reason why they relieve tension through masturbation, drinking, and/or fighting – which these characters all do. By pulling back on that aggression, Taylor’s production is at odds with Lavery’s words.
To Taylor’s credit, she’s better at getting the more somber moments out of her cast. When a message comes in that a crew member’s family has suffered a tragedy, the captain (Eileen Fisher) decides to keep it secret, so as to keep the crew running at top efficiency. The internal struggle is palpable and the parallels with deciding whether or not to help the sinking Kursk are clear. These are the moments when the production shines. Not so much when it, too, gets bogged down in the monotony of sub’s daily routine. And an out-of-nowhere use of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” was just head-scratching.
What the show occasionally lacks in narrative coherence, it makes up for in creative set design by Gideon Jones. Once I adjusted my brain to being in La Val’s again, I admired the purposefully cramped submarine set. The captain’s office is sort of “behind” the audience in that La Val’s space just away from the basement entrance. Switches and equipment hang about all around. Every now and then, it was hard to tell how space was separated, but those moments were few and far between. Equally good were Kevin Droese’s immersive sounds (including sea life and some voices of read letters) and Shawn Driggers’ lights. It was great to see someone making such ample use of such a storied Bay Area performance space.
Unfortunately, the non-technical aspects of the show are wildly uneven. Gender-swapping can be a powerful way to reexamine a classic play (which is why it’s always done with Shakespeare), but there has to be a point to it. When the all-White figures of American history are swapped out for people of color in Hamilton, it’s to emphasize the way the latter are often erased from the narrative. But if you try to cast a White actor as MLK just because you think “a role is a role,” you’ll be rightfully mocked for it. There are some high points in Lunatico’s production, but it relies to much on its gimmicky casting rather than its talented cast and detailed text.
Kursk is scheduled to run until the 8th of April at La Val’s Subterranean in Berkeley.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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