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Our critics weigh in on local theater

"365 Days/365 Plays." One morning in 2002, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks decided to write a play every day for the next year. Covering everything from the war in Iraq to the death of Johnny Cash to a lost sweater, Parks' cycle is a remarkable, audacious achievement. Even though the ideas didn't always flow (as titles like Going Through the Motions and This Is Shit suggest), the pieces (at least on paper) are constantly playful, occasionally dark, and frequently challenging. At their best, they are all three at once. Now, Parks' 365 days are coming 'round again thanks to theater companies all over the U.S., which are staging the works in an enormous, logistically terrifying festival. By Nov. 12, 2007, more than 700 groups will have performed each piece in the cycle. Given the Bay Area's affinity for the lunatic fringe, it's no surprise to see local artists treating Parks' plays like the madcap circus acts they are. Tactics so far have been radically different from company to company. During opening week last November, for example, the Z Space Studio mounted the first seven dramas at Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. Despite being underscored by clanking, didgeridoo-laced sound art and quasi-spiritual dance interludes, the performance exploited Parks' acerbic sense of humor to the fullest. Ten Red Hen took a more improvisatory approach in week 4, performing the plays in a variety of private residences, with audience members drafted on the fly. It's easy to denounce such an apparently lawless undertaking as being gimmicky and under-rehearsed. But no matter how haphazardly the plays are staged, the combination of Parks' imprimatur and the careening imaginations of the groups involved inspires confidence and hope that transcends skepticism. Through Nov. 12 at locations throughout the Bay Area. All shows are free to the public; call 437-6775 or visit www.zspace.org. (C.V.) Reviewed Jan. 3.

Legends.The first run of Legends in the mid-1980s led playwright James Kirkwood to write the book Diary of a Mad Playwright about the experience. The original production starred Carol Channing and Mary Martin as Sylvia Glenn and Leatrice Monsee as a duo of past-their-prime rival divas, and was fraught with trouble from the dueling egos of the stars to the bad press the show received. Critics panned Kirkwood's choice to make the two African-American characters the maid and the stripper, respectively. Sylvia Glenn at one point in the first act tells her maid, Aretha, "Why don't you go pick some cotton." While NCTC's production does ameliorate the racial offensiveness of the original production by casting two African-American actresses in the lead roles, it doesn't fix the script, which is full of campy dialogue that no amount of slapstick can make funny. The casting is the best part of this show: Dorsey Dyer is wonderful playing Boom Boom as a Bambi-esque Chippendale's dancer, and Gloria Belle does what she can with Aretha. P.A. Cooley is a bit over the top as the scheming producer, Martin Klemmer, trying to trick the two divas into co-starring in a stage version of Star Wars that will hopefully save all three from financial ruin. The biggest problem with this production is the play itself, which really should have died after its perilous 1986 run. Through July 14 at the New Conservatory Theatre Centre, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $22-$40 ($15 for students); call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (N.D.) Reviewed June 13.

The Pandora Experiment. For Christian Cagigal's newest magic show, the audience is not so much a subject of clinical study, but an object of affection. Cagigal stands on a living room rug counting audience members with his stage manager before stepping off and moments later re-emerges transformed to guide us through "the experiment." Cagigal uses antique objects that are well worn, simple and accessible: two music boxes with haunting chimes, small chests with the treasures of a child inside. A doll of porcelain and papier-mâché gazes soulfully throughout and feels as real as any of us. His performance takes the audience beyond just the willing suspension of disbelief and into another place in time where magic is not the work of an illusionist or performer but exists in creaky wooden boxes found in a grandparent's attic. The set and lighting underscore Cagigal's creation to create an ethereal beauty. His staging and sensitivity as he plays with his audience conveys a level of safety and trust so as to not feel duped, but included in the magic. What does The Pandora Experiment reveal? Above all else: Imagination. Through July 28 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (between Mason & Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $12-$20; call 673-3847 or visit www.theexit.org. (N.D.) Reviewed June 20.

"Song of Myself."It's easy to lump Walt Whitman in with all those other 19th-century writers who mistook themselves for invisible eyeballs and meandered aimlessly through the woods reciting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. But if anyone can talk us into reclaiming the American bard, it's John O'Keefe. The playwright/performer's abbreviated version of "Song of Myself" — Whitman's fecund ode to the pleasures of loafing — is an art song in spoken form. Poised halfway between being a straight recitation and an imaginative interpretation of Whitman's poem, the performance plays with our intellect and emotions like an intoxicating piece of music. From the euphoric whoop of the opening line to the melting breath of the final thought as it dissolves into darkness, O'Keefe takes us through many keys, both major and minor, as he explores Whitman's universe. At times, the poem races hectically forward, the performer lurching after the words like someone fielding simultaneous calls on a cellphone. Elsewhere during the performance, the mood is more reflective. O'Keefe cozies up to individual audience members, creating a bond of intimacy with us through Whitman's words. The poet's erratic, stream-of-consciousness style may be easier to digest while reading privately than listening to someone recite his lines out loud. But thanks to the vitality and variety of O'Keefe's approach, it doesn't take much for us to feel a sense of affinity with Whitman's celebration of himself. Extended through July 28 at the Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St. (between 21st and 22nd sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 1-800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (C.V.) Reviewed June 13.

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