The End of Journalism

Monologuist Mike Daisey premieres two new works for Shotgun Player’s Blast Theater Festival through February 26. He sits at a table, with a glass of water and notes on yellow paper, then launches into a two hour polemic on the history of journalism, intertwined with personal stories and observations. The piece is pure meta. It’s storytelling about storytelling.  He critiques the larger scandal of the rise of a reality show president, and mentions his own media scandals in passing. He refers to the title of his own show as “clickbait” and structures his verbal tirade around the metaphor of a dying friend. The trajectory of thought is so nuanced and acute, we find ourselves inside the mirror looking out, astonished, as he peels apart the onion of America’s journalistic traditions.

Daisey, a theater artist, understands how theater works. He scrutinizes how journalism perpetuates itself through various theatrical devices, and how it constructs what he deems “the myth of objectivity”.  The myth began after the invention of the printing press, he says, and persisted and reinforced itself through the developments of radio and TV. It obeyed strict, unspoken codes for which voices carried news and how, and consolidated power along the way.

However, because of journalism’s fundamentally unquestioned status for most of the 20th century, it became vulnerable to the invasive rot of Fox News, a network that deliberately told untruths and mixed up opinion and fact. Because mainstream media failed to question its own mythic underpinnings, journalism lost credibility and its hold on a certain audience. Daisey traces its fall, blow by blow.  He asks, has it burned down yet or are we still burning? When do we reach base level?  I am eager to see part two: This is Not Normal, and perhaps find out.

Tickets to The End of Journalism (February 15-19) and This is Not Normal (February 22-26) here.

Grand Concourse at Shotgun Players

On the surface, Grand Concourse tells the story of four individuals at an urban soup kitchen, and their struggles with God, love, and mental stability. Cathleen Riddley plays Shelly, a nun who runs a tight ship providing meals for the homeless, but who struggles to pray even five minutes a day. Enter nineteen year old Emma (Megan Trout), a new volunteer who brings complication to the lives of Shelly, hired help Oscar (Caleb Cabrera), and Frog, one of the regulars, an insightful man on the edge of mental illness. Kevin Clarke portrays Frog with a charming sensitivity, offering a full-rounded treatment of this vulnerable and likeable character.

Grand Concourse

Heidi Schreck‘s play is anything but feel-good, though the dialogue is playful and enjoyably real. In one of my favorite scenes, Emma relishes the features of her makeup kit, then refreshes her eyes and lips to shake off the unsavory feeling of her first night serving soup to the poor. It’s a delicate, yet telling moment. As we move further in, her actions signal a gentrifying, invasive force where forgiveness is simply not an appropriate response, even for a nun.

As such, at its core, Grand Concourse represents a deeply political play, but not in a conspicuous way. Its wider lessons seep in slowly as we witness the emotional wreckage left when privilege meddles with the underclass, unconsciously exploiting the needy, and the sincere. Without giving too much away, let’s just say, some of the best plays are about liars.

Show ends on August 21. Get tickets here.


Clown School

Clown School of San Francisco led by instructor Christina Lewis presented The Game of Life on Sunday afternoon at Theatre of Yugen, a tiny theatre space in the Mission. A better title would have been “A Bag of Laughs”, as almost every act introduced various objects going in or out of a large bag or suitcase. A delightful showcase of clown trainees, it knitted together short autobiographical scenes, each one centered on a solitary struggle:  love, identity, poverty, marriage, neurosis. The best acts were simple, with minimal props, one or two characters, and almost no words.

Clowning requires delicacy and vulnerability, and playing the fool for all to see. Each mini-tale felt deeply revealing, often sad. Michele Salami’s impoverished bag lady uncloaked exquisite pathos as she explored the contents of a grocery bag, sobbing with joy upon discovery of an empty cornflakes box. When she attempted to embrace another clown, her armful of bags and garbage cans made it an impossible gesture. I identified with the excess metaphorical ‘baggage’.

Bob Reis’ character had him dancing with a rubber band, while being watched by an anonymous shifting telescope. Using the simplest of devices, he expressed a desire to play, to be oneself, under the intimidating gaze of a disembodied Other. Society? The feeling was familiar. Only one act, however, evoked outright belly laughs. Performed by Shuly Goldman and Jeroen Van Acker, this sharing-a-bed-too-small gag deftly built on itself, an apt commentary on the difficulties of relationship.

I would love to see these student clowns push further to the heights of giddiness. They are well on their way with their refreshing, authentic material.

Cutting Ball Open Rehearsal

Above:  From the 2011 production of Pelleas & Melisande.  Melisande (Caitlyn Louchard) lets her long hair fall out of the tower down to Pelleas (Joshua Schell).  Photo by Annie Paladino

Cutting Ball Theater opened a rehearsal to the public last week for its upcoming A Dreamplay by August Strindberg. I was fortunate enough to attend this event and be a fly on the wall in a miniature, but spellbound audience. Cutting Ball’s 2011 shimmering production of Pelleas and Melisande, also directed by Rob Melrose, made me fall in love with this tiny theater and its free-associative avant garde style. A Dreamplay unfolds in a similar vein where movements speak more than words, dream imagery prevails, and soulful acting anchors non sequiturs.

The cast and crew have been rehearsing only a couple weeks, and still “on book” (holding scripts). Paul Walsh, a lifelong Strindberg scholar and translator, along with the director, made their introductions. It was a rare opportunity to observe director, cast, and sound designer work their way through raw material in the early stages of development. We glimpsed the fine fabric of choices considered and made, such as: What motivates this stage crossing? Who holds the bucket?

We observed actors gradually engaging more deeply with their environment with poetic prompts by Melrose:  “Put your hand on the window when you look out it.”  “Hold the bucket lovingly and rock it in your arms back and forth.”  “Trace the clover design on the door before knocking on it.”  Thank you, Cutting Ball, for inviting us in! A Dreamplay runs May 20-June 19. Don’t miss it!

MacBeth featuring Frances McDormand

Shakespeare’s MacBeth plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre through April 10, with limited tickets still available. A supernatural horror play, populated by witches, ghosts and a King’s conscience that seesaws between treachery and guilt, this production deliciously delivers, steeped in haunted atmospherics. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design keeps the audience on edge as Alex V. Nichols’ eerie video projections fall upon tall, textured sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt.  Most of the play takes place at night, where adversaries gallop through old growth forest and Lady MacBeth sleepwalks her torment. The plot chronicles the unraveling of a kingdom, whose corrupt underpinnings and accursed chase for power reflect our own society’s political struggles in odd and discomforting ways.

This MacBeth offers a traditional interpretation, yet Berkeley flavored, with a bearded witch and a diverse cast. Daniel Sullivan directs it with a well-paced, deliberate hand and stages stunning large cast tableaus straight out of a 17th century painting. Frances McDormand brings an earthiness to Lady MacBeth but never quite rises to the fiendishness of the character. My personal favorite performances were the drunken porter, and the doctor who puzzles over Lady MacBeth’s “Out, out, damn spot!” trance, both small bits played by James Carpenter.

Photo by Kevin Berne

Ex Nihilo at Octopus Literary Salon

Above:  Genevieve Perdue as Decima, Colleen Egan as Nona, Alexaendrai Bond as Morta.  

The Octopus Literary Salon offers a colorful space in uptown Oakland for “living room” gatherings of poets, playwrights, musicians and more.  Last night featured the third episode of Terra Incognita, a live serial audio drama, created by Ex Nihilo, a playwright collective that stages its own grass roots productions.  In the story, three bickering sisters find themselves on a spooky road trip whose trajectory gets determined by a cursed dartboard.  An evocative script, magically real, psychologically familiar, though rough around the edges, kept the audience chortling, and included live foley effects and musical interludes.  Brian Vouglas as the “unreliable narrator” added some polish with his perfectly projected vocals.  The next episode takes place on April 21 at 7pm.   IMG_0914.JPG

Photos by Kristin Cato

Miwa Matreyek at New Strands Festival

The first annual New Strands Festival took place this weekend over four days at A.C.T.’s renovated Strand Theater near Civic Center.  The festival brings in works-in-progress and invites innovative media work that crosses disciplines. I saw only one hour-long program:  The World Made Itself and Myth and Infrastructure, by Miwa Matreyek. The event was free and the audience small, but it stunned me enough to affirm this space offers Bay Area theater an exciting new platform for experimental artists.

Matreyek performs her animations by literally stepping into them, behind a film screen.  Her silhouette interacts with a flow of outrageously gorgeous imagery.  This graceful shadow dance depends on precision and timing, as it must match the movements on screen.  She uses a unique technique combining rear screen and frontal projection so her form passes between planes of the image.  She appears to stumble between buildings, or to reach an arm into a forest of trees.  The animations become three dimensional, popping out around her shadow.  At one moment, the shadow wraps its arms around a baby,  amid ruins of the World Trade Center, a scene that reasserts the theme of perpetual creation, yet a remembrance of the motherless children who survived.

At other times, her meandering form represents the Creatrix exploring all corners of Her world, who then swims bewilderedly through it.  She coaxes exquisite ferns into existence, liberates the amphibians, and measures millennia with a yardstick.  Cities sparkle with electric twinkling.  Yet both films question the future, and humanity’s out-of-proportion tendency to raze all that came before it, a victim of its own escalation and machinery.

The experience was a true find, exceeding expectations.  Check out her work here which includes glimpses of her performing behind the screen.

Peet’s Theatre

Helen Meyer of Meyer Sound and Susie Medak, Managing Director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, ceremoniously demonstrated a lightning storm to an invited audience today in their newly renovated thrust theatre.  This beloved 35-year-old stage, renamed Peet’s Theatre to honor an almost 50 year relationship with Peet’s Coffee, doesn’t look so different as much as it sounds different.  It now features the first North American installation of Meyer Sound’s Constellation Acoustic System for live, unamplified theatre.  Made up of 84 speakers, the new system creates a genius map of sound that can literally change the acoustics of the space instantaneously.

I look forward to their upcoming production of Aubergine, a Berkeley Rep commission, and how future sound designers use a system that can pan sounds through the room in intricate ways, as well as simulate the acoustics of the Grace Cathedral, as we heard today.  Other renovations include a skylight in the lobby, a larger box office, and a courtyard cafe with a mini-stage for after-show musical acts.

Peet’s Theatre Grand Opening is free and open to the public on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at noon-3pm.


Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

The Barber of Seville

My second San Francisco Opera in a week and I find myself grappling with the art form –  complex gorgeous music couched in thin narrative, mediated through a foreign language (with subtitles), combined with acting, sets and costumes galore.  How to absorb it all?  Operas demand aerobic attention different from a symphony concert, the latter giving more room to simply listen, feel and find musical structure.   At the opera, when in doubt, follow the voice, for therein lies the glory.  The storyline provides, after all, a mere ruse for its ample play.  As such, tenor René Barbera (Count Almaviva)’s liquid ribbons of vibrato unfurled into the hall with such exquisite beauty, I found myself enthralled by their rippling power.

Yet the traditional plotlines irk:  men using their influence to imprison and trade women.  The ever-present heteronormative assumption.  The escapist romantic fantasies.  All these things a critical viewer must withstand.  But this Barber of Seville subverted these age-old shortcomings in subtle ways.  Rosina (Daniela Mack), the female lead and love object, plays the part sassy and rebellious, potentially capable of violence.  Berta (Catherine Cook), the heavyset house matron, smokes cigarettes like a man, flexes her muscles for the crowd during intermission, and comments on love with an earthy skepticism.  Overall Roy Rallo’s direction struck a lighthearted, irreverent tone to be embraced by modern audiences in one of the most beloved operas ever.

Photo by Cory Weaver