Theatre

All that Glitters during the Cold: ‘Utopia’ World Premiere at Cutting Ball and ‘Holiday Sauce… PANDEMIC!’

The reason why cinema-owners are so afraid of their businesses dying from COVID-related streaming leading is because – technologically speaking – it seems less like a possibility and more like an inevitability; an evolution of where the medium was heading. Film is a technology first and foremost, not a storytelling medium. Its visual component is as pre-eminent as radio’s audio component. Film got sound and color, radio added multiple sound channels. Video came along, combined all the above, and now has become the primary form of distributing stories all over the world.

As I’ve said before: I don’t believe this will be “the end of the cinema” anymore than VHS was. Still, I get why cinema-owners (who have long been shafted by studios that refuse to profit-share) are feeling like Cro-Magnons afraid to die out and let homo-sapiens take over. It’s Clan of the Cave Bear, but they’re fighting over where to show Wonder Woman 1984.

Theatre reverses film’s equation: it’s a storytelling medium first, with technology thrown in to enhance aspects of the story. That’s great when you know you aren’t really limited by technology to get your story out, but it becomes a bit of a hindrance when the entire world has to stay away from your stage for their own safety (and yours). The pandemic forced theatre to finally take seriously the same innovations some of us have been suggesting for years.

But not every troupe has the budget to pull off the tricks of the ACT and SF Ballet. So, independent and black box venues have had to get even more creative. After a year of taking in more livestreamed staged readings than I can count, it was a relief to spend the last two months absorbing to refreshing online takes from two such indie productions.

“Someday soon we all will be together/
If the fates allow/
Until then, we’ll have muddle through somehow”

– “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis
Hugh Martin (music) and Ralph Blane (lyrics)

I’ll say this for Ariel Craft: her tenure as Artistic Director at Cutting Ball has proven less a poor attempt to replicate the vision of the company’s founders (Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers) and more a full realization of said vision. Like fellow Bay Area ADs Mina Morita and Allison Page (of Crowded Fire and Killing My Lobster, respectively), Craft took charge of a company that had been coasting on its reputation as those who continued to work their expressed greater dissatisfaction. Like her fellow ADs, she brought expertise with both the company and the medium that led to a level of clarity that had been missing of late. Craft’s work as the founder of the now-defunct Bigger than a Breadbox (where esoteric works by Garcia Lorca were commonplace) made her a fine fit to steer Cutting Ball’s ship.

At first glance, the newly-commissioned Utopia by Charles Mee seems. The award-winning playwright specializes in the sort of experimental work in the wheelhouse of both Craft and Cutting Ball. Indeed, the relatively plotless Utopia presents itself as a series of vignettes featuring an eclectic assembly of talented Bay Area actors (and a gifted, masked troupe of dancers) meditating on happiness and its intangible, non-lasting nature. It can take the form of sharing pleasant company or changing your life completely, but it’s not the same for everyone.

Mee’s script wavers when it becomes far too concerned with said contemplation over how it truly affects the characters experiencing these emotions – from two acquaintances sharing a meal in a fancy restaurant to a mother connecting with her daughter to a couple on a date. Mee’s script seems hope we expect the other shoe to drop. It certainly doesn’t navel-gaze to the misery-porn degree of a Branden Jacob-Jenkins script, but Mee’s script doesn’t seem content to let characters savor as much as they could.

Fortunately, director Craft emphasizes joy (and color) in a way that feels more visceral than the text. Not only has she the aforementioned cast (including strong veterans Michelle Talgarow and Regina Morones, always-reliables like Jasmine Williams and Sharon Shao, and relative newcomer Chloe Fong), but the seemlessness with which she connects all the interactions. (No video editor is credited in any of the press materials.) It isn’t just cutting out the delays we’ve all come to get used to over a year of Zoom-timing, but also the way one character can pass a dish or cup to another with their attitude selling it more than the editing. It’s easy to believe these characters – who, mercifully, do no all stare directly into the screen – are sharing space with on another when the performers are not.

Combine that with a collection of (masked) dance cutaways shot in SF’s lush hills and Utopia is a fine example of directorial style winning out over incomplete narrative substance.

GRADE:                                             B-

Utopia ran from the 16th of October – 15th of November 2020.
The show ran roughly 80 minutes with no intermission.
For further information, please visit the production’s official site here.

(Costume by Machine Dazzle. Photo by Little Fang Photography)

“Everybody is trying to seize Christmas for some political reason, so I think we should have a Christmas for everyone – even people who hate Christmas.”
– John Waters, promoting his Holier & Dirtier Christmas show (2013)

Taylor Mac is one of those creators whose work I should have seen before now, but somehow haven’t. I knew half the cast of The Lily’s Revenge when it world premiered at The Magic in 2011, but the high cost kept me from seeing the five-hour event. I know Mac’s Hir less from having seen the play (I haven’t) more from the playwright incessantly pestering a local playwright who wrote a review of it, so much so that Mac kept insisting said playwright rewatch the show and rewrite the review (she did not). I came close to seeing A 24-Decade History of Popular Music when it was here, but I just never got the money or time to do so.

That production was staged at The Curran, the legendary SF stage that had recently been resurrected as an indie theatre palace, but had come under scrutiny for signing a long-term contract to host the admittedly impressive Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. It makes sense then that the theatre would locally host (online) the performer’s annual Christmas drag/cabaret show, temporarily retitled Holiday Sauce… PANDEMIC!.

The tongue-in-cheek (don’t ask which cheeks) holiday show is essentially a funhouse-mirror version of the classic Bing Crosby Christmas specials – or perhaps an evolution from Crosby inviting Bowie to sing along? As to be expected, there’s no shortage of bawdy material and outlandish attire (courtesy of performer Machine Dazzle) – or, at a few key points, no attire at all – but what really brings down the house are the performers who do so with complete sincerity. This includes Mac’s razor-sharp live band (the performance appears to take place in some sort of warehouse) and the pipes of singers Thornetta Davis and Stephanie Christi’an, the latter of whom sings a killer rendition of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands”.

Even Mac livens things up with sincerity. Beginning the show in a Machine Dazzle get-up that makes them look like the vegetable-gremlin from Gremlins 2, regular attendees of this show will know it as Mac’s tribute to their late drag mentor Mother Flawless Sabrina, who is frequently brought up. For every irreverent moment of interrupting “O Holy Night” with a raunchy deconstruction of the lyrics, there’s a sincere tale about being the one queer in Christmas house full of hard-right conservatives. It almost saves the show from falling down its own rabbit hole of outrageousness. (I say “almost” because the “Christmas with Grandma” sequence, though adorably animated in a children’s book form, still relies to heavily on pedophilia as a punchline.)

As the show draws to a close and Mac begins the slideshow of this year’s “queens”, the host tells of being young and lost in New York before coming under the tutelage of Mother Flawless Sabrina. “You have to commit to yourself,” Mac quotes Sabrina, “before others can commit to you.” As someone who frequently escapes from his family during holidays, it’s easy to relate to the sentiment that “family” is less defined by biology and more by necessity. This horrid year has separated biological and chosen families for the sake of everyone’s well-being. If yours is the sort of family that seeks out raunchy, hour-long drag shows for Christmas, then Holiday Saunce… PANDEMIC! may be right up your alley.

GRADE:                                             B

Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce… PANDEMIC! is scheduled to stream until the 2nd of January 2021 via the SF Curran website.
The show runs roughly one hour no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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