Of course I wait until plays are closed or almost closing to do this, but here goes:
Love is a Dream House in Lorin, by Marcus Gardley, dir. Aaron Davidman, Shotgun Players (CLOSED)
This play was the culmination of a 2-year long process of creating a theater piece about the Lorin District of South Berkeley–deep research, story circles, and ulitmately a play (with a combination professional and local cast) that spanned the area’s history from the Ohlone Indians through the Japanese community who got carted off to internment camps in WWII, to the working class African American community who then moved in, through the unrest of the 60s, the crack epidemic of the 80s, to its current state of uneasy gentrification.
Community-based theater, as it has been in the past decade or two in America, is created on cross axes of two continuums: from very direct documentary to fictional conglomeration; from an entirely professional cast to entirely local people.
I’ve found that the further away you get from community people telling their own actual stories, the riskier the project–the more that the hired artist’s choices run contrary to the local community’s needs, the less ownership the community feels. And the attempt to summarize into fiction so often fails.
Shotgun took the risky approach, with interweaving, cross-cutting stories that each “stood in” for a particular historical arc of experience in the Lorin (using a loose verse rhyme scheme, which was alternately noticable or not, depending on the actor’s skills). I’m delighted to report that the play succeeded.
I do not have the stand-in of being a Lorin native to say whether the piece served local needs. The play certainly seemed like it accomplished Shotgun’s objective: a thank you, a peace offering, a gift from the theater company to their host neighborhood, and an invitation to the locals that says: this theater is yours, too.
Because, as theater, it was a riddled with Thing all the way through, an event. (Sure, it was too long–sure there were a few theatrical conventions that might have seemed–as they did to my friend, not to me–a little treacly.)
But the way they balanced the different historical narratives simultaneously (from mythic to small scale human dramas), and the way they were ultimately braided together and paid off–the painful truths of the tragedies they excavated from the land for all of us to see and how they landed it for us–was astoundingly smart and rewarding.
super:anti:reluctant, by mugwumpin, the Exit Theater (still running! see sidebar!)
I’m about to go onto a more philosophical tangent here, so let me say straight up, first off, and right away, super:anti:reluctant is fucking great and utterly engaging and ambitious and pleasurable and you should all see it immediately. It’s promoted as a meditation on heroes, but truly, super:anti:reluctant is about our increasingly hopeless need and desire to be heroes in the face of our fears of being failures.
Now, I’ve often found actor/performer created work to be a bit self indulgent.
(Though, of course, the caveat to that critique is one of my favorite quotations, from an interview with Dan Bejar of Destroyer and the New Pornographers, who is often labeled as making self-indulgent work:
This whole notion of self-indulgence baffles me, as if I’m supposed to be indulging someone else.
What I mean, however, about performer-created work is that it can lack intellectual depth. Some high technique craft-o-philes in current theater, those who think that Viewpoints or Suzuki or Laban or clown or Lecoq is the True Answer, or somehow creates more Innovative Theater or achieves some kind of Intellectual Authenticity to make a Big Statement About Something, misses the point. A lot of performer -based work searches for the surprising theatrical moment–but attaches a lot undue meaning to what the self-conscious stirs up, to what comes out of that subconscious choice. And forgets that by being subconscious, it is totally personal.
But that, contradictorily, ends up being way more attached to the “subconscious” and the “psychological” that even Stanislavski–without triangulating to the gifts and uses of the intellect and the process of artifice that pushes you outside what you already, even subconsciously, “know.” So even though it proclaims innovation and authenticity, it can actually lead to art that is as banal and boring and lacking in depth as anything worked up through the Method. This clearly, is a bigger beef I have and at some point, I’ll say it more articulately.
But super:anti:reluctant worked, I thought, because it had all the physical pyrotechnics of what the mugwumpin crew know how to stir up–was visually an innovative pleasure–but it was quite nakedly personal. That forced a kind of depth on the piece, made it one of the more honest things I’ve seen lately:
The fear of failure, the desire to be more than a failure, the ways in which the drudgery of daily life squelches the desire for the super-heroic at the same time that we need such large desire to keep going. The many layers of masks that we wear underneath, the large cultural moments embedded in our sense of self that we can’t reveal as such.
Oh, it was just great, and you really need to see it.
Passing Strange by Stew and Heidi Rosenwald, dir. Annie Dorsen, at Berkeley Rep (still playing! see sidebar!)
These brief reviews are getting too long.
All these reviews so far have been about the risky choice that somehow, magically, worked. It’s also risky to tell a coming of age story these days. Another one? Why? Haven’t we heard this story?
A song with actors running through it, Passing Strange traces the semi-autobiographical account of a young black kid from L.A. and his struggles to escape the stifling bourgeois shackles of home expectations to find himself as a musician and artist in LA, Amsterdam, Berlin and back home. In this attempt to locate “the real” and himself in it, he only discovers more masks, more diverse and complicated ways to “pass”–as a punk-rocker, as James Baldwin, as an expat, as an authentic black man, as an artist, as a human.
Stew’s dry, detailed, specific view of the world (and his youthful avatar) combines with a shameless musical romanticism to create an entirely pleasurable event. Great musicians, terrific set design (conceptually simple, expensive and beautiful). The actors were marvelous, the choreography neat and precise. But mostly, it succeeded as a coming-of-age piece because it didn’t land on a solution. You know, how most of those stories end our characters with some choice that they make, something they lose, something gained, and somehow it’s like they’re, I don’t know–finished? Like, that’s it?
At the end of Passing Strange, this character has barely begun–and is just beginning to see how unlikely he is to achieve the real (within and without himself)–he’s faced with his selfishness, his inability to love. There’s nowhere to run off and escape to. Complex as life, thank you.