At the Fringe

Chloe Veltman's roundup of the notable in this year's wacky stage fest

Go Kibbitz

In an interview with the New York Times in October 1936, Albert Einstein said, "I do not play any games. There is no time for it. When I get through work I don't want anything which requires the working of the mind." In Claudia Barr's chamber play Go Kibbitz, we watch history's most mad-haired scientist being as good as his word: Hanging out with a couple of his cronies in an apartment in wartime Berlin, Einstein kvetches about money and noshes on pickles while his companions, Emanuel and Edward Lasker, play a round of the ancient Chinese board game Go.

It's a congenial scene. The Laskers -- both expert gamers (Emanuel was a long-reigning world chess champion and his cousin Edward, an engineer by profession, wrote definitive books about chess and Go) -- play on amiably. Einstein, who doesn't know the first thing about Go, observes (or "kibbitzes") from the touchline. Unlike chess, the strategic heart of Go lies not in the middle of the square board, but at the corners and along the edges. It is this strategic fact about the game that underpins Barr's play: While the three men, later joined by Einstein's wife, Elsa, prattle on about everything from bridge to Bing Crosby, conflict flickers at the margins of their cozy world.

The Chinese board game Go functions as 
an analogy for the world situation in Go 
Kibbitz.
Claudia Barr
The Chinese board game Go functions as an analogy for the world situation in Go Kibbitz.

Despite the fact that most drama is based on the clash of opposing viewpoints, Barr manages to hold our attention for almost an hour entirely through the affable banter of three middle-aged European gentlemen. The conflict in the piece operates at a much more subtle level. It's there in the game of Go itself, which at various stages during its 4,000-year history has been used as a tool for military strategy (Mao Zedong, for instance, required his generals to study it), and in director Andy Hamner's blocking: The Go rounds are played at the front of the acting area, with conversations about more sober matters, such as the fear of being captured by Nazis, relegated to the rear. It's also ingrained in the performances. For example, there's a tension nagging at the edges of Brian O'Connor's soft-spoken, smiley Einstein; and the frustration that Paul Gerrior brings to the role of Emanuel isn't just to do with being defeated at Go.

Interestingly, Barr's drama loses its focus when the conflict moves from the sidelines to the center. When a young Nazi police recruit and -- coincidentally -- former student of Einstein turns up, Einstein attempts to distract the young man with a conversation about theoretical physics. But the leisurely riffing that worked so well during the rest of the play feels stilted and unnatural here. Nicholas Marley's fresh-faced take on the police officer hardly strikes fear into our hearts. The game of Go is supposed to have turned into an urgent need to go, but it's impossible to believe that the adults in the room are scared off by the sweet kid in the uniform.

Speaking as a professional kibbitzer myself (theater critics, after all, spend much of their time waving their arms about at the touchline), I think Barr's play sparkles most at the margins: There's just something so compelling about watching this trio of brilliant individuals conversing about everyday things. And the lives of Einstein and the Laskers are gold mines for the mundane. Did you know, for example, that Emanuel Lasker was a fervent pigeon breeder? Or that an autographed copy of Edward Lasker's book Go and Gomoku that the author once gave to Einstein as a gift later showed up in a Baltimore used bookstore? Bring on the trivia, I say. It's where life is.
Through Sept. 18 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Sixth Floor, S.F. Tickets are $9; call 564-4054.

Sperm Warfare

In the Old Testament, Sarah allegedly gave birth to her son Isaac when she was 90. In more recent times, the likes of Madonna, Annette Bening, and Cherie Blair have turned pregnancy into a fashionable pursuit for women over 40. But as writer and co-director David Rouda so palpably illustrates in his comedy Sperm Warfare, becoming a parent when your ovaries are past their prime is not child's play: If the hormone drugs don't make you loopy, the hefty financial burden associated with undergoing in vitro fertilization will. Topping the pop charts, being nominated for an Oscar, or becoming first lady might very well be more attainable goals for an ambitious woman. It'll be quite some time before modern science manages to catch up with the Bible.

Ignorant of the odds of conceiving so late in the game, or (more likely) in denial about them, Deborah, a successful Sotheby's associate and passionate amateur artist, is pushing 40 and determined to get pregnant -- even if the process involves persuading her husband, Blake, to dispense his sperm into a small plastic cup. The start of Rouda's play sees Blake (Deborah's junior by five years) being shown into a room at a fertility clinic by an attractive young nurse. Gingerly, Blake paces around, unsure of what to do. He is resigned to his fate, a quasi-willing participant in his wife's grand scheme. "I feel like a science project," he laments with his pants down by his ankles amidst the chaos of sticky porno magazines and paper strewn haphazardly about the furniture and floor.

On one level, Sperm Warfare tells the story of a couple's struggle to produce a biological child. On another, the play is about the battle between science and nature, where science, from the very outset, is the loser. This message is most eloquently expressed through the contrast between the brute physicality of the performances versus the flimsy inadequacy of the clinical surroundings. Blake (Jon Gale) and Deborah (Anna Kristina) throw themselves about the set and on each other like a couple of cats in heat. Magazines, belt buckles, and tempers fly. The only thing that doesn't -- unfortunately for the couple -- is that all-important semen.

While the Band-Aids on Blake's knee are testimony to the forces of nature in this production, the set reveals something altogether less awe-inspiring about modern science. The very walls of the sterile, windowless clinic, with its ugly furniture and feeble fixtures, look like they're on the verge of collapse.

Blake and Deborah's timing might be off, but Sperm Warfare's is perfect. The temperature in that small, clinical space rises to the boiling point without once overboiling. The comedy is strictly Benny Hill and the characters larger than life. But Gale, Kristina, and Alexis Boozer (as the nurse) manage to keep things intimate, reaching below the slapstick surface of Rouda's slick dialogue to reveal the heartache and confusion beneath.

Sperm Warfare is so beguiling that it's easy to gloss over the play's one potential anomaly: Rouda doesn't discount the possibility that Blake's weak sperm count might be partially responsible for the couple's childlessness, yet the constant references to Deborah's grand old age of 40 serve to perpetuate the idea that the infertility problem lies almost exclusively with the ripening female. Mother Nature may not nurture the concept of motherhood past 35, but Rouda, if for no other reason than the sake of "scientific" accountability, might hold his male protagonist equally responsible for the couple's problem without deadening the essential message of his play. After all, the Guinness Book of World Records maintains a category for "World's Oldest Mother," but none, as yet, for "World's Oldest Father" -- despite the fact that it would be a widely contested competition. Perhaps it's time to address this inequality.
Through Sept. 18 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $9; call 296-9179.

Got Lucky

This new musical by Josh Bloch, with music and lyrics by Boaz Reisman, tackles an unusual subject: barrel-jumping over Niagara Falls. Following the untimely death of Jack (Sean Bart), a young man who comes to a watery end while attempting to navigate the falls in a leaky barrel, Jack's brother Adam (Ben Grant) returns to Niagara to deal with the deceased's ashes. When a self-publicizing local impresario plans his own daredevil barrel-jumping stunt, Adam, with the help of Jack's old girlfriend, Leesa (Tania Johnson), discovers the truth about his brother's demise. Despite the catchy melodies (slickly accompanied by a live piano, cello, and percussion trio) and some elegantly choreographed ensemble numbers, Got Lucky steers a rocky course: The unconventional topic is intriguing, but the uneven technical abilities of the performers and the convoluted script and plot cause the musical, in places, to sink.
Through Sept. 17 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $9; call 673-3847.

CornTato

Combining "the goodness of corn with the convenience of potato," CornTato is "a delicious, genetically engineered hybrid of cattle feed-grade corn and reconstituted potato remnants, crossed with a little human DNA for natural flavor." It is also the title of a new "genetically engineered comedy" created by the sketch group the People Who Do That. When the giant corporation Scamron unleashes its revolutionary new food product on an unsuspecting public, things do not go according to plan. Formerly powerful marketing executives suddenly find themselves stripped of their corporate credit cards, and the human DNA in CornTato produces some interesting side effects. Though highly contemporary in flavor, this rambunctious if overbearing satire about the relationship between what we eat and whom we vote for recalls Dr. Strangelove and -- even more explicitly -- the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup.
Through Sept. 18 at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (between Eddy and Ellis), S.F. Tickets are $8; call 673-3847.

When You Stand Alone

Wesley Connor and Sonia Norris' Talking Heads-style play explores the lives of three very different characters with one thing in common: They are all misfits. The three monologues, all performed by Connor, explore the nature of loneliness with varying degrees of humor, poignancy, and anger. In the first and most lighthearted section, Connor plays Samuel, a completely bonkers and quite possibly delusional Beatles fan preparing to go on a blind date. The second monologue -- the most well-written and eloquently performed of the three -- introduces us to Grace, a Canadian housewife who dreams of escaping to Paris. Connor's portrayal of the blue-chiffon-frock-wearing character is full of empathy. In the final monologue, Connor plays Alex, a nihilistic young goth trying to come to terms with the death of his mother. Connor demonstrates great range across the three pieces, though the volume settings are turned up rather high, especially in the first and third monologues. Plus, there's only so much of watching a guy changing his clothes with his back to you that audiences can take.
Through Sept. 18 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $9; call 673-3847.

Revolving Madness on the Fringe of Sanity

There are rules to the art of improvisation. The members of Revolving Madness, a new San Francisco-based group that specializes in long-form improvised storytelling, have obviously been reading up on their Keith Johnstone: They try hard to shut up when it's time to move on to a new scene, and do their damnedest to keep the story progressing by steering clear of "no" -- the most hated word in the improv universe. (Negativity tends to stifle exchanges between two improvisers because it undermines opportunities for action.) The performance I attended followed -- with varied degrees of coherence and inspiration -- the romance between a PR executive and a garbage collector, taking in a fish-worshipping cult and a trip to Atlantic City en route. There were some intuitive and funny moments, but the occasional lapses in pace betrayed the group's greenness. Sustaining an entire hour of improvised narrative requires more than a penchant for the scatological; it necessitates a synergy among all performers that can only come from years of collaboration. Practice makes perfect: I look forward to watching Revolving Madness evolve.
Through Sept. 16 at Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $9; call 673-3847.

Thersites

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is liberally sprinkled with shows that take on, either explicitly or implicitly, such contemporary issues as the War on Terror, the Bush administration, and corporate greed. But none of them, I'll wager, is quite like Thersites. Lucas McClure's quirky adaptation of an anonymous 1537 comedy (sometimes attributed to the Hampshire-born writer Nicholas Udall) intersperses the rhyming Olde Englishe cadences of the original with a modern sensibility. Telling the story of a boastful knight who returns from the Trojan War to take on his enemies, this 500-year-old dramatic interlude provides a wry look at our own time. McClure's gung-ho turn as Thersites -- made all the more bombastic by his extremely risqué get-up (think Society for Creative Anachronism meets Catwoman) -- and Jeffrey VanderPlate's video-projected snail drawings make for an entertaining, if rather surreal, experience.
Through Sept. 17 at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (between Eddy and Ellis), S.F. Tickets are $8; call 673-3847.

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