Stepping Up

The power -- and limitations -- of good acting over bad writing

If, as the late British actor Sir Ralph Richardson once famously put it, "acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing," then the performances in Stairway to Heaven coat the throat as keenly as a double dose of Robitussin. So convincing are the collective talents of the cast in Jessica Hagedorn's new drama -- which revolves around the lives of a bunch of drifters and grifters living in San Francisco's Tenderloin District -- that they manage to lift what essentially amounts to a gaping miasma of a play out of the gutter and into the stars.

It's not every day that actors transcend their material. In the same way that inept performances can ruin a great movie or play, shaky writing tends to drag the acting down with it. To put it another way, Johnny Depp might be one of the best screen performers around, but even he isn't capable of making movies like From Hell and The Ninth Gate worth watching. (Well, OK, he was glorious in the otherwise pointless Pirates of the Caribbean, but in general, if the writing's not up to snuff, Johnny isn't either.) The problem is often more acute in theater than in film. While movie scripts are usually the work of many hands, onstage greater deference is paid to the playwright. So while multiple people involved in theater cut scenes or adapt entire works from the classical repertoire, any changes to contemporary plays are usually made either directly by -- or with the blessings of -- the writer. This setup puts the cast of a new work in a challenging position. On one hand, working in close collaboration with the author can build stronger relationships between the actors and their roles, often translating into more believable, fully realized performances than might otherwise be the case. On the other hand, such intimacy between production and playwright can make maintaining a level of objectivity about the material difficult; the Magic Theatre's thoroughly painful world-premiere production of David Mamet's Faust last year is a case in point.

Stairway to Heaven is the product of several years of development between the National Book Award- nominated poet, novelist, playwright, and performer Hagedorn and Campo Santo, the resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts. As part of a campaign to entice the writer back to the Bay Area -- where Hagedorn spent many of her formative years and produced her early writings and performances, after arriving from the Philippines at 13 -- the company has done readings of and workshops on many of Hagedorn's texts, from the short play Silent Movie to her novel Gangster of Love. Stairwayrepresents their first full-scale theater collaboration.

Drifters and Grifters: Tina Huang (as a pole 
dancer) and Sean San José (as a homeless 
man) avoid cliché.
Jeff Fohl
Drifters and Grifters: Tina Huang (as a pole dancer) and Sean San José (as a homeless man) avoid cliché.

The new piece, written especially for the company, tells the story of Nena, a worldly, middle-aged island woman and raving insomniac with a passion for cooking exotic dishes from her homeland. On a sleepless night spent wandering around the Tenderloin, she befriends a young homeless man, Mickey, whom she spots foraging for food in a dumpster outside a strip club. Mickey moves in with Nena and helps her write a book, a combination cookbook and memoir. Nena's already-hazy memories are thrown into further disorder when her twin sister, Fe, turns up unannounced following divorce No. 3.

In one way, Hagedorn's play is an actor's dream: a canvas of lightly sketched ideas and vague insinuations upon which to paint detailed, multilayered characters and situations. With her generous, warm presence, Catherine Castellanos (as Nena) creates an engrossing portrait of a woman struggling to reconcile a troubled past with present feelings of displacement and frustration. As the central character in Hagedorn's drama and also its most mysterious, Castellanos makes Nena's actions seem logical and natural, even with many questions left unanswered in the script. Margo Hall, playing Fe, provides a powerful contrast to Castellanos. Vivacious and noisy, Fe expresses an edge to her elation that belies a dark side. The ever-resourceful Sean San José brings a gentleness and eagerness to Mickey, steering the character well away from the brooding, angry-young-man cliché so often delivered by actors playing such vet-turned-panhandler types. San José even eats leftovers from the floor and slices of pizza from a dumpster with measured serenity. Luis Saguar creates a thrilling disparity between his amicable portrayal of strip club owner Blauvelt and the character's menacing reputation. Meanwhile, Tina Huang, faced with the unenviable task of playing that most tired of all dramatic tropes, the fucked-up pole dancer (Minnie), does so with equal amounts of venom and sweetness.

The strong sense of ensemble -- a natural product of long-term collaboration (three of the actors are founding members of Campo Santo) -- helps create a feeling of seamlessness. The scenes seem to glide by, somnambulant, as the actors riff off one another with casual ease, coaxing the audience into complicity. All of this smoothness makes for an absorbing experience. The only trouble is, once the house lights go up one is left with a discombobulating impression of "What the hell was that all about?"

It's not that I expect everything to be explained to me at the theater. On the contrary, I welcome mystery. The unsaid is one of drama's most powerful tools. But when actions are left as unmotivated and themes as underdeveloped as those in Hagedorn's slippery text, it's difficult for the viewer to get any sense of where the play is heading or what it's really about. The central problem in Stairway to Heaven seems to stem from the play's inherent "nothingness." In many respects, the work is about an immigrant's struggle to retain her identity before it gets swept away into oblivion through the ravages of time, memory loss, and cultural displacement. As such, a vacuumlike atmosphere permeates the text. Nena -- whose name, we are told, means "nothing" -- is trying to set down her memories on paper; conversely, Mickey and Minnie have their own ways of forgetting their pasts.

Facts are few and far between. We never find out, for instance, where Nena comes from; the most specific description we get of her homeland is "a remote archipelago of tiny islands floating like jewels in the water." We can never be sure if her interpretation of past events is true or false. While all of this undoubtedly serves to make Nena more interesting, the mist that veils the entire play can be counterproductive. For one thing, Hagedorn hints at a number of potentially interesting themes -- including displacement, the effects of war, and troubled or broken family bonds -- but never really goes anywhere with them. For another, the prevailing mood of indistinctness is rudely shattered on at least two occasions when Hagedorn rather clumsily reveals deep, dark secrets about Nena only to forget about them (again) and let them slip back into the fog.

Rather than a stairway to heaven, the effect is more like one of Dutch artist M.C. Escher's pictures of a staircase going nowhere. With so little to back up the seemingly random actions of the characters, it's hard to believe in them. The cast does a beautiful job of giving form to the indistinct, but not even their highly intelligent performances can fully repair the missing steps.

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