Philip Kan Gotanda's new play, The Wind Cries Mary, was originally supposed to be about well-heeled Silicon Valley CEOs, but when Gotanda failed to find his muse in their stories -- "Remarkable folk, boring lives," he explains in his online journal "floating weeds" -- he turned to an old theater standby: Henrik Ibsen's 1890 tragedy Hedda Gabler. The timeless tale of a female powerhouse hindered by the social conventions of her era, Gabler predicted the tragic consequences of gender politics taken to the extreme. But what would an author like Gotanda, who typically writes about Asian-American issues, find in a piece set in 19th-century Norway?
By switching the backdrop of Ibsen's classic to San Francisco in 1968 and transforming Gabler into Eiko Hanabi, a tempestuous Japanese woman, the Bay Area playwright updates the piece in line with his own interest in that age, during which Asian-Americans made their political voices heard for the first time. College campuses across the country brimmed with anti-war sentiments, and local universities like S.F. State (where Marytakes place) were particularly volatile because students were also fighting to create an ethnic studies department that would focus on Asian-American history.
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Raised with the mind-set of an independent American woman but expected to play the part of a dutiful Japanese wife, Eiko's dissatisfaction with her stunted potential and her stifling marriage manifests itself destructively when she plots revenge against a former lover. Her character is more comprehensible than Ibsen's mysterious Hedda, whose actions have bewildered critics and theatergoers over the years, but she remains something of an enigma. Like Gabler, Eiko embodies the complexity of being both a product of her time and ahead of it.