“I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.
The phoney one, the one you know,
Was cooked up years and years ago,
And made to sound all soft and sappy
just to keep the children happy.
– Roald Dahl, “Cinderella”, Revolting Rhymes (1982)
Really, it makes all the sense in the world to have Christina Aguello as a matronly figure sharing stories on a San Francisco stage. Truth be told, I can’t think of a better description of her career. For more than 30 years, she’s served as artistic director of both the EXIT Theatre – the unofficial heart of SF’s indie theatre scene – and has spent more than 20 spearheading the annual SF Fringe Festival, both of which she founded.
For those of us who have either worked in one of the EXIT’s four stages or been involved in SF Fringe (Full disclosure: I’ve done both), Christina’s support has been invaluable. Four years ago, I directed a show for which calling the audiences “small” would be an understatement. I went to one performance to find that I was one of only – if I recall correctly – four or five people seated, meaning that there were more people on stage than in the audience. One of those people was Christina. She knows how important it is for performers to have an audience, so she gave us one. For that, I’ll always be grateful.
Incidentally, that show was staged on the EXIT’s Stage Left. Wouldn’t you know it, that’s also where I found myself again. This time as part of a much larger audience for the opening night of Christina’s latest solo show, which sees her take on the personae of three eccentric raconteurs with no shortage of tall tales to share.
The show’s official program doesn’t credit anyone for set, prop, or costume design, but I’ve come to find out that the former two were done by director Amanda Ortmayer (another EXIT luminary) and the latter by Christina herself. I won’t name names here, but the crowded bohemian set – full of potted plants, silk drapes, tarot cards, a chair with a corduroy throw pillow, and even a crystal ball on a shelf – reminded me of the home of another talented local performer, one whose family originates in that country just east of Russia. Even the lights – soft gels of cyan, violet, and yellow – fit perfectly. What I’m saying is that the set is “very San Francisco native”, a distinction I happen to love (what with it also applying to me).
To the stories: the first piece, “The Garden”, introduces us to a kindly old woman sitting in her garden, spinning a tale for a young girl who’s wandered into the garden uninvited. The story the woman shares just so happens to be about an old woman telling a story to a little girl who’s wandered into the woman’s garden uninvited. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it’s a much more… interesting way of saying “Get off my lawn, you damn kids!”
The second piece, “Mme. Blavatsky”, finds us in the home of our eponymous host as she relays tales of her extra-sensory gifts, her extensive world travels, her many lovers and husbands, and advice as to why telling an interesting story is better than telling the truth. The final piece, “A Discoverie of Witchcraft”, is a classic Brothers Grimm-like tale of becoming a witch by choice and folly of men who seek to “find [their] heart’s desire”.
Of playwright Don Nigro’s triptych, the middle segment is the weakest. It isn’t really bad, but it goes on far too long. It’s as if Nigro knew that to make the show an hour long he had to pad out the middle, when he really should have either written a fourth piece or presented the show as three incredibly short pieces. Mind you, “Mme. Blavatsky” contains a lot of the show’s most interesting bon mots (“Life should be a work of art – like a play. If you don’t like it, do rewrites.”), but after a while, the good Madame is simply repeating herself over and over.
Fortunately for us in the audience, Arguello’s performance and Ortmayer’s direction are able to hold our attention for the long haul. Amanda’s touch as both director and set designer blend seamlessly in the way specific props are hidden in plain sight from the very beginning. You don’t really know why there’s a bucking with gardening shears next to the bench, you can’t quite make out the pattern of the silk robe hanging upstage, nor can wrap your mind around why a table with tarot cards also has a jar of pickles and… a jar with not-pickles. But those questions subtly become clear as each tale unravels.
And through it all, Aguello is charming, terrifying, and oh, so loquacious. She and Ortmayer make best the best use of limited space by making each third of the stage seem a world unto itself. Mme. Blavatsky moves around the most, but she has a long section in which she just sits. Though this the big lull in the middle, a different bit of staging might have better distracted from this flaw in the text. Still, good work on the part of both actor and director.
Though Don Nigro’s triptych stretches itself further than necessary, he has crafted an interesting collection of stories based on the joy (and necessity) of telling stories. Even when his words don’t fully deliver, Christina Aguello’s performance and Amanda Ortmayer’s direction make the evening worthwhile.
At just one hour long, it’s a fine opportunity for those who haven’t to visit the home that has nourished many of Bay Area theatre’s greatest talents.
Some Enchanted Evenings is scheduled to run until the 23rd of March on the Stage Left at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly one hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.