Think you've got abandonment issues? Imagine that the Earth is in the final throes of a global-warming apocalypse, with entire continents inundated by rising oceans. Roving bands of cannibals hunt for dinner on the New Jersey Turnpike, and your friends brag about killing wild animals with their bare hands. Now imagine, in the midst of all this chaos, watching your father hop into a spaceship and ditch your dying planet for a mysterious colony on the moon. By that point, you can only hope that your therapist hasn't already drowned.
Large-scale apocalypse usually doesn't mesh well with small-scale theater. Global catastrophe is the enemy of intimacy. But that hasn't stopped Sleepwalkers Theatre from investing its entire 2010-2011 season in a new end-of-the-world trilogy by a young Juilliard-bound playwright named J.C. Lee. The first installment, unseen by me, premiered last summer; the second part, Into the Clear Blue Sky, plays through the end of April, and the finale will open in August.
Ambition is not the issue here. Sleepwalkers dared to stage three plays by a relatively unknown playwright, and for that alone I would love to declare the show a success. But successful it is not. The play manages to be both portentous and precious, full of declamatory speeches about Transformers and X-Men, as if the script had been co-written by a pop-culture randomizer. (In one of the play's many forced similes, a character describes himself as "hard like Optimus Prime, hard like adamantium.") Even in the post-apocalyptic Hollywood schlockfests 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, one or two characters occasionally talk and behave like recognizable human beings. But in the world of J.C. Lee, the only evidence of our shared humanity is that we've all read the same comic books.
The story is a bit threadbare. Young Mika (Dina Percia) has seen her father climb into a "silver pod" and fly away "into the clear blue sky." Now she wants to follow him. Mika's brother, Kale (Eric Kerr) ,hopes to protect her, but he's too wrapped up in a bizarre courtship with an obsessive childhood pal named Cody (Adrian Anchondo). Meanwhile, Cody's mother, Margaret (Pamela Smith), whiles away the hours by quoting Pablo Neruda in the original.
And that's about it. Lee is obviously enamored of Tolkien — as one character says to another, "I'm on you like a Nazgûl on the Ring" — but for all the playwright's fanboy enthusiasm, he might think about emulating his idol a little more. Tolkien wasn't satisfied with making a bunch of out-of-context references to his extensive personal library; instead, he took the raw materials of Teutonic folklore and crafted a fully realized world. His deep background in Norse mythology remained where it belonged — in the background, where it practically disappeared into the mists of Middle-Earth. Watching Into the Clear Blue Sky, I caught many of Lee's allusions, but I never became absorbed in his own creation. His vision, such as it is, remains hemmed in by a few dominant points of reference. He could use a little clear blue sky himself.
As the characters searched the post-apocalyptic landscape for their vanished father, I kept wishing that they would go home and grieve for the guy like normal kids. But nobody in Lee's world seems interested in relatable behavior — they're all too busy being epic, man, epic.
If you're looking for a little more humanity and a little less apocalypse, you'll need to hit the Marsh, where Geoff Hoyle just opened a very funny one-man show about aging, decline, and death.
At the beginning of Geezer, Hoyle tells us that his father died at 60. Hoyle himself is now 64. "I'm starting to feel old," he admits. Then, in a brilliant bit, he imagines the last few years of life as an elaborate videogame, the savvy player dodging a disease here, an operation there. Of course, even the best player can't avoid every threat, and he soon finds himself crippled, enfeebled, and at last defeated. Game over.
Hoyle is justifiably a legend among clowns, so I don't need to dwell on his long-established mastery of physical comedy. What I adored about Geezer is that it's wise and profound and true. After attending too many Marsh shows that feel solipsistic even by the standards of one-person plays, here's a performance that isn't just about the man performing it. Hoyle invites the audience to share the joy that he radiates.
He's not the only Hoyle making a mark at the Marsh. Geoff's son, Dan, is back with yet another extension of The Real Americans, an incisive one-man exploration of red-state anxieties (and my favorite local show of 2010). Both men possess a rubbery face and a sharp wit, and both understand that a solo performance doesn't need to be masturbatory. They also share an expansive, generous perspective on the world at large, far removed from the pieties that usually pass for political insight on the San Francisco stage.
You might even say that the Marsh is home to three generations of Hoyles: There's Geoff and Dan, of course, but then there's Geoff's father, who presides over Geezer with the skepticism of a practical man who wants his son to get a respectable job already. He can stop worrying. With these two virtuosic displays of talent running concurrently in the same space, it's clear that the kids are most definitely alright.