I can’t even count how many times I held my breath or clutched on to my seat. Or put my palms over my eyes, peaking through my fingers.
But if I could, you would get a sense of the nonstop display of sparkle, suspense and physical prowess that is taking place under the big top in Cirque du Soleil’s latest show Amaluna(through January 2020 at Oracle Park).
I had never been to a Cirque du Soleil performance before, so I was easily charmed even before the performance began by the bejeweled musicians, stilt walkers, and dancers in the bay-front parking lot on a very chilly San Francisco night. Once the show started, I was grateful I was not the only one overwhelmed by the glittering razzle-dazzle—my seatmates also seemed to be alternatively gazing in awe and hiding their eyes as well. Did I mention that they were girls aged seven and four?
Amaluna, directed by Tony Award-winning Diane Paulus, takes place on a verdant enchanted island, governed by goddesses and the cycle of the moon. Scott Pask’s set features towering rainbow-colored bamboo-like branches arcing over the action.
Queen Prospera (Amanda Zidow) leads the coming-of-age ceremony of her daughter Miranda (Anna Ivaseva) in a rite honoring the strength of women, rebirth and balance. My seatmates and I were agape as one woman after another performed feats of astonishing agility and strength. We flinched as two unicyclists (Satomi Sakaino and Yuka Sakaino) stopped their cycles within millimeters of the edge of the stage. We held our breaths as the Moon Goddess (Sabrina Againer) twisted and turned through an aerial hoop high above the stage, holding on with only one ankle. And we silently begged Miranda, doing acrobatics under water in a giant glass bowl, to please, please come up for air.
When a group of young men are shipwrecked on the island, two parallel love stories unfold: one between Miranda and Romeo (Danny Vrijsen) and the other between two raucous clowns, Miranda’s nanny (Kelsey Custard—read our exclusive interview here) and Romeo’s manservant (Thiago Andreuccetti). The captive men exhibit their athleticism as they leap and tumble at high-speed off a perpetual-motion teeterboard, passing within inches of each other in mid-air.
This is director Paulus’s first collaboration with Cirque de Soleil. She says that she drew from a series of classical influences when creating the concept of Amaluna, including Greek and Norse mythology, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Mérédith Caron’s ingenious costume design reflects these magical sources. To facilitate swift movement by the cast, she created costumes with multiple configurations. Huge, showy wings and capes worn during the theatrical moments are instantly transformed into close-fitting leotards when the performers need to freely run, climb, swim or spin from a high wire. Caron also created fantastical outfits for the half-human, half-animal characters, most notably Cali (Vladimir Pestov), the mischievous lizard with an unruly tail.
The majority of the cast—including the entire band—is comprised of women. Director Paulus wrote in the program notes, “I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it, something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.”
The unimaginably talented Cirque women handle crossbows, trapezes, electric guitars, complex balancing sticks and men with grace and strength. I can only imagine how inspiring it was for the little girls beside me. They might just imagine that they can grow up to do anything—wearing sparkly costumes too!
Even as the audience files in, we are already part of the play, or rather, the exhibition. Atung (Will Dao) sits in front of an elaborate brocade curtain lit with dusty Chinese lanterns. He stares out at us, as if we are on display. At times he smiles, as if he has overheard something amusing. Are we to smile back? Ignore him? He knows what awaits us behind the cloth, and he seems to relish the moment that he pulls on a long rope to raise the curtain, revealing the story that lies hidden inside.
It is a true story, but one that most Americans have never heard.
The Magic Theatre has selected playwright Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady (through November 3) to open its 53rd season: Directed by Mina Morita, the drama focuses on Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to be brought to the United States in 1834 and exhibited for profit by the merchants Nathaniel and Frederick Carne.
The Carnes were banking on Americans’ fascination with the exoticism of China. And as the curtain goes up, Jacquelyn Scott’s set perfectly captures that illusion with painted screens of storks and lotuses, enamel tables, and Ming Dynasty vases—the trappings of Chinoiserie designed to mimic Westerners’ preconceptions.
Seated in an elegant pose in the middle of the stage is Afong Moy (Rinabeth Apostol), dressed in ornate embroidered silks of purple and gold, her hands folded demurely in her lap.
From the very start, Afong Moy tells the audience that the setting is deceptive: “My entire life is a performance. These words you hear are not my own. These clothes that I wear are not my own. This body that I occupy is not my own. The Room in which I am seated is intended to be representative of China, just as I am intended to be representative of the Chinese Lady: the first woman from the Orient ever to set foot in America, yet this Room is unlike any room in China, and I am unlike any lady to ever live.
“I shall assume that you have paid your 25 cents, 10 cents for children, because you are curious about China. I understand it is my duty to show you things that are exotic and foreign and unusual.”
Apostol’s range is astonishing. When we first meet her, she explains like a bubbly teenager that she is 14 years old and newly arrived in America. She seems to delight in her silken clothes, her elaborate hairdo, and center stage seat. She admonishes Atung, her translator and manager, as “irrelevant,” She eats her shrimp and rice with delicacy, explaining how graceful chopsticks are, and sips tea ”in a ritualistic way to demonstrate its importance in my culture.” She slowly circumambulates the Room, while placidly describing in excruciating detail how her feet were broken and bound when she was four years old.
Perhaps sensing the audience’s discomfort, she notes calmly that most Americans consider the practice barbaric. Then she pauses and says, “I have noticed that there are traditions in the American identity that are similarly entrenched, despite some controversy about them among the populace. Such as corsets. Or the Transatlantic Slave Trade.”
We watch this graceful, clever teenager grow up as the Carnes display her around the country. She is giddy about her adventurous dip in the Susquehanna River (a dip, Atung comments wryly, that led to pneumonia and two canceled performances), muses on the hidden meaning of the crack in the Liberty Bell, and is moved to introspection by a visit to the Cincinnati zoo. “If I am in a cage, what sort of animal am I? Times I feel I am a swan or a peacock, with adornments to be admired. Times I feel I am an ox or a donkey or some other beast of burden….But I am none of these things, am I? I am a human being.”
The highlight of her tour is a meeting with “Emperor Jackson” at the White House in 1837. Afong Moy has grand aspirations of being a link for friendship between the people of China and the people of the United States, even a beacon of hope for world peace. She speaks eloquently about her admiration for America and hopes for “a deeper more lasting intimacy.”
But Atung’s translation of her words into bland anodynes betrays her optimism and innocence. Here, the tables are turned and he is the relevant one.
Atung tells her “the act of translation is more like… interpretation than direct recreation.” She suspects Atung is not translating accurately but—perhaps because she hopes it is so—persists in thinking that she has really made a connection to Jackson. As they reenact the scene of the meeting, Atung’s portrayal of Jackson is both hilarious and chilling, clearly revealing the President’s arrogance, racism and obscene obsession with Afong Moy’s tiny bound feet.
As the years go by, she is still stuck her phony Chinese Room, not knowing how long she will be there and if she will ever see her family in China again. Her exhibit has been sold to P.T. Barnum. She has shed her elaborate dynastic brocades for a slinky red and black cheongsam, drinks whiskey instead of tea, and smokes. She explains that her English is improving “so what you are hearing me say is perhaps closer to what I truly sound like.”
Apostol slowly reveals Moy’s growing awareness of her isolation and how she is being used. Her relationship with Atung has grown more honest and warm. She has different ideas now, such as bringing a white girl to China and putting her on display there so the Chinese can see how Americans eat with a fork.
Apostol is believable at every age, from naïve 14-year-old to an increasingly savvy—and bitter—middle-aged woman. When some news from P.T. Barnum threatens her relationship with Atung, the only meaningful one she has, it shakes her to her core.
On opening night, Artistic Director Loretta Greco spoke of the Magic Theatre’s long creative relationship with playwright Suh. His earlier plays, American Hwangap and Jesus in India were performed at the Magic at Greco’s invitation, and the first pages of The Chinese Lady were written and read by two actors during Magic’s Virgin Play Festival in 2015. “One of the joys of being a part of Magic is to experience playwrights over time, as their singular lens on the world sharpens,” Greco said.
Putting “exotic” people on display in the West was not just the practice of the Carne Brothers or P.T. Barnum. Before Afong Moy, Sarah Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus” was transported from South Africa to Europe in 1810. After Moy, Igorot tribespeople from the northern Philippines were exhibited dancing in loincloths and eating dogs at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904. In The Chinese Lady, Suh brings this horrific colonialist practice to light, imagining the inner life of a human who was put on display in a strange country for the pleasure of curiosity-seeking onlookers.
Thanks to Suh’s “exhibition,” when Atung raises the brocade curtain on the Room, Apostol’s captivating performance reveals a chapter of our country’s hidden history that we cannot look away from.
The first act of The Daughters, a comedy by Patricia Cotter (at the San Francisco Playhouse through November 2), imagines the Daughters of Bilitis’ first meeting in 1955. The DOB was the first social lesbian civil rights movement in the country. It started in San Francisco, spreading with chapters in major cities around the country. In the second act of The Daughters, it’s 60 years later, 2015, at the closing night of San Francisco’s last lesbian bar, the Lexington Club.
Cotter wanted to write a play detailing some of San Francisco’s lesbian history, going from just wanting a safe place where women could meet other women and maybe learn about their rights, to, in the scene at the Lexington, some characters wondering what’s the point of even having lesbian bars.
Two of the characters in the first act are based on Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who started the DOB and were the first same sex couple to be married in San Francisco. Cotter also wrote a character based on writer Lorraine Hansberry—Cotter found she had subscribed to The Ladder, the DOB’s newsletter, and even wrote letters to Phyllis and Del.
For the second act, Cotter talked to people with people from the lesbian, gay, and trans communities to get different perspectives. One of the characters at the Lexington, Ani, is at a lesbian bar for the first time. She usually meets women online, and she thinks a lesbian bar is quaint: The word lesbian is “old timey.”When another woman quotes some Ani DiFranco lyrics to her, she says “I know who Ani DiFranco is—I went to Mills.”
Cotter wrote the play as a way to explore early lesbian history and how things have changed as well as for the opportunity to put a bunch of strong women characters on stage. She talked with 48 Hills about reading mimeographed copies of the DOB newsletter at an archive in Brooklyn, going to Lyon’s Castro home she shared with Martin, and what people risked in the 50s risked by going to these meetings.
48 HILLS: What made you decide to write this play?
PATRICIA COTTER: I hadn’t seen a play or a history of my people. I just hadn’t seen it. And the more research I did on it… I mean, it’s a comedy, and I don’t know what really happened in that room, but the imagining of it was so exciting to me. It was a time that changed the world, because women wanted to meet each other. Isn’t that wild? That was the bigger impulse more than anything. Wanting to be safe and to be themselves.
Also, I feel like Phyllis and Del haven’t gotten their due as civil rights leaders. And I wanted to see a bunch of women onstage having a blast. I like writing really strong roles for women, and I thought, “Oh, this is a great opportunity.”
48H: What research did you do?
PC: I started with the book Different Daughters[by Marcia Gallo]. It’s great, and it kind of goes through the history of Daughters of Biliitis through the 60s and 70. I also went to Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. It’s just a brownstone, and you knock on the door, and there was one woman there, kind of monitoring it, and you can stay all day. I was looking through old newsletters of the organization, the Ladder, just mimeographed, not even Xeroxed.So that was fun and a find.
I was doing interviews, especially for the second half, talking to men and women and trans women and trans men and gender-fluid people just trying to find different points of view, so it wasn’t just my point of view.
It’s a loaded topic. There’s a lot of stuff that pokes at people, which is interesting. The language is changing so quickly, and some people are put out at how things are changing. It’s like, change is change. Why not get on board with all of it? The reality is if me not being assumptive about pronouns means that I’m making other people comfortable, why is that a big deal?
48H:When you met with Phyllis Lyon, did you ask her about that first meeting?
PC: Phyllis will be 95 on November 10, so when I met her I came with my laptop. I was going to take notes, but when I met her, she was a delight, and I think she’s going to come to the show. But it felt inappropriate to grill her. I thought I’m just going to absorb this person and this energy and it was great. It was more just being in that space that she shared with Del and all that history. It was special. She was so gracious, and it was just the two of us.
48H:What was the most surprising thing you learned doing research?
PC: Learning about that time, 1955. It was right after a lot of states started raiding the bars. It was stuff I had known, but just seeing it again.. The idea you go to a gay bar, there’s a raid, and your name is in the paper. Your address is in the paper! You lose everything.There were a lot of teachers and nurses and a lot of government people who worked at the post office.
Also there was so much shame, people didn’t know they had any rights at all, and actually you do have rights. They would charge people with things like delinquency of a minor, so if somebody was underage, everybody was in trouble even if you didn’t meet that person. Another one was conspiracy to commit sodomy. It was nuts.
One story I heard was a bunch of people got arrested, I think it was in Long Beach California, and one person called Del and said what do I do, and she said don’t plead guilty. Everyone else pled guilty, not even knowing what they were pleading guilty to. There were a couple different charges of prostitution, and they all pled guilty to that except for the one person who didn’t, and that person went home. Part of the reason the meetings were so important was to get information out so at least you know your rights. So that really struck me.
48H:Was the first meeting pretty small like in the play?
PC: The very first one, I think there were three couples, but then I couldn’t do the intimate flirting or the dancing, which I was enjoying writing. So I changed it to just one couple. They actually got a lot of work done, but a couple people dropped off because they were like, “I just wanted to be social, I’m not interested in the political part.” The first one was couples who had kind of known each other, and then opened it up, and oh my god, you had to tell strangers where you lived. There was so much risk involved. In the play, we were having the actors remember that because we’re so removed from it now. Anytime there was a knock on the door, that’s a heart-racing moment.
Then for the second act, I was interviewing people, and it was fun to hear different points of view. A lot of the stuff Ani says is basically verbatim, and there’s just the idea of that that’s the past. Of course not every young, queer women thinks that, but that is a point of view. Then I spoke to a friend of mine who’s around 30, and she said, “I wish people would identify more as lesbian, so I could meet them.”
48H:Were you thinking about the importance of bars to gay history when you wrote this?
PC: Yes. Also I think a lot of women saw their history erased. Like if every gay guy bar closed, can you imagine? It would be bedlam. There is something about it. There’s something about going where you see your people. It feels good, and it’s fun. It’s very different to go to a straight bar even if you have a corner of it.
48H:Why is this an important story?
PC: I think it’s an important story because it’s not been told. It’s lesbian history, but it’s really civil rights history and women’s history. I’ve also seen a ton of theater where we hear about the gay male perspective, and I’m a huge fan of that, but I would like to be included, and not just one character with one point but a broader narrative, and just kind of show there’s a million different ways to be a queer women. There’s not just one way.
“Oh, beware, my lord of jealousy! It is the Green-eyed monster which will mock the meat it feeds on!” Iago’s chilling warning to Othello has come to epitomize this Shakespeare tragedy. “Green-eyed monster” is the metaphor for jealousy that has endured for centuries.
But there are other monsters lurking in this 400-year-old play. In the African American Shakespeare Company’s production (now playing at the Marines Memorial Theater through October 27), director Carl Jordan puts those other monsters—hatred based on race and religion, misogyny and violence against women—center stage.
And how they threaten, grasp and devour!
L. Peter Callender’s Othello is a force of nature, a brewing storm whose centrifugal force impacts all around him. As general of the Venetian Army, he strides authoritatively in business suits and crisp uniforms. But as he is undermined by his chief advisor Iago (Michael Ray Wisely), his identity as the Moor, as a Black Moor, looms large.
Even his trappings begin to change. While the soldiers he commands wear the sandy camouflage of the US military in the Middle East, Othello dons a pale blue Jalabiya. (The evocative costumes are by Keri Fitch.) In a pivotal scene, Othello puts his combat boots aside, rolls out a prayer rug and invokes Allah in a traditional Muslim plea.
The hateful racial insults cut deeply. As they are whispered or shouted, the response of the audience is almost palpable, perhaps because they are echoed by the anti-Muslim and racist language that spews from the mouths of white supremacists today. The soldiers, Iago chief among them, deride Othello, as “the Moor,” “an old black ram” and one with “the thick lips.”
Their crude racial slurs echo the catcalls of today’s street thugs. But the government officials join in this vitriol: Desdemona’s father Brabantio (Gene Thompson), a Senator, warns, “For if such actions [as inter-racial marriage] may have passage free, Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be.”
Likewise, misogyny is not just an undercurrent, but a dominant force in this production. And it is met with resistance by Desdemona (Isabel Siragusa) and Emilia (Champagne Hughes).
Callender (who is also the artistic director of the company) transforms from a besotted husband of the beautiful Desdemona and authoritative leader of a victorious army into a man torn apart by his own jealousy. Callender draws on every bone and sinew to portray his sorrow and anger upon learning that his beloved has betrayed him. His performance is both operatic and balletic, as if his body cannot contain his enormous grief.
The source of this knowledge, of course, is “the honest Iago,” who has revealed his own jealous motives from the very beginning, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him,” he tells the swaggering, callow Rodrigo (Gabriel Ross). Not only is he resentful that “the Moor” is his commander, but to add insult to injury, the black-skinned general has passed him over for promotion, giving the post of lieutenant to young Cassio (Ariel Sandino). Iago plots an elaborate scheme to fool his general into thinking that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him with the handsome Cassio.
Wisely’s Iago is calculating but understated, no moustache twisting here. Competing with the white-hot fury and despair of Callender’s Othello would have been impossible, so director Jordan effectively sets the pair up in a syncopated contrast that defines them both more sharply. Iago seems to be in perfect control as he schemes with Rodrigo, conceals his glee as he tricks his wife Emilia into giving him Desdemona’s telltale handkerchief, and manipulates Cassio into an elaborate set-up that leads to his murder.
But as he predicted for Othello, his jealousy is his own undoing.
Siragusa makes the delicate transformation from a flighty, infatuated young Desdemona, giddy with love, adventure, and daughterly defiance into a woman mystified, saddened, and eventually despondent at her husband’s jealous rage. Siragusa gains confidence and presence as she delves into the more difficult emotions of the later acts.
As Emilia, Hughes is the actor who took my breath away. Her slow realization of Iago’s trickery and its deadly consequences is paced exactly right as her awareness and her fury seethe to the surface. Hughes’ facial expressions reveal each painful step of her reckoning.
Her speech at the end of Act IV—lambasting male domination of women—is a showstopper. “Let husbands know, their wives have sense like them: they see, and smell, and have their palates for sweet and sour, as husbands have. What is it that they do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is:…And have we not Desires for sport as men have? Then let them use us well: else, let them know, the ills we do, their ills instruct us to.”
The words could have been written by a 21st century feminist, but they were from the pen of male playwright in 1603. The speech seemed so contemporary that I had to go back to my complete works of Shakespeare to look it up. There it was. Hughes’ delivery was so poignant and heartfelt that it transformed the scene into a into a fierce woman’s call to arms.
The high drama is punctuated with breathtaking, acrobatic fight scenes, choreographed by Durand Garcia (who also does a brief turn on stage as Gratiano, Desdemona’s uncle). Out of nowhere actors seem to pull out swords and knives and other weapons to do harm—sometimes to themselves.
The African American Shakespeare Company has brought to life Shakespeare’s monsters—green-eyed and otherwise—and recreated a drama that will leave contemporary audiences profoundly shaken.
Entitled Viva MOMIX!, the two-act performance includes highlights and segments from eight full-evening works from the prop/mixed-media-oriented modern dance group, including Botanica (about the seasons), Lunar Sea (the moon), and Opus Cactus (the landscape of the American Southwest), set to rock and classical music.
Nature, which permeates many of these works, has been a major interest of MOMIX Founder & Artistic Director Moses Pendleton, since growing up on a Northern Vermont dairy farm in the 1950s. His curiosity about the natural world peaked in the summer of ‘69 after the then Dartmouth college student spent the season in San Francisco putting flowers in his hair, dancing naked for local psych band Quicksilver Messenger Service in Golden Gate Park, and taking part in marathon encounter groups in Big Sur.
Since the multiple award-winning choreographer for ballet companies and special events (most recently, the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics) looks back on his years of shoveling manure and exhibiting his family’s dairy cows at the Caledonian County Fair with great fondness, it made sense to him to name his widely acclaimed Pilobolus Dance Theater, which he co-founded in 1971, after a barnyard fungus and his current dance company, MOMIX, after a milk supplement fed to veal calves.
I spoke to Pendleton—who creates his shows with his wife and MOMIX’s Associate Director Cynthia Quinn at their 22-room Victorian house and converted horse barn studio in rural Washington, Connecticut — about Viva MOMIX!, drawing inspiration from Mother Nature, and how his shows take on an added importance as the debate over global warming continues to heat up.
48 HILLSHow would you describe your current show?
MOSES PENDLETON It is a nice cross-section of the aesthetic of MOMIX over almost 40 years, so there are three to four fairly new pieces from the last couple years and some that go back before you were born. So it’s a fast-moving surreal vaudeville attack showing off MOMIX, which is very funny and visual and tells stories.
But each piece is a haiku or a little single on an album, if you think of it as a musical evening. There’s a side A and side B of these relatively short but intense pieces that have an overall musical curve to the evening without really telling a story. It’s not a full-evening work, but it is a full-evening experience of MOMIX.
48 HILLSYou’ve described each production as concentrating not only on “the beauty of the human form, but also the beauty of nature…” Where does your interest in nature come from?
MOSES PENDLETON I’m very influenced by nature. The plant, animal, and mineral and how the human relates to it all has always been an interest of mine. I find a lot of inspiration in growing tens of thousands of marigolds and sunflowers, and the company is based out in the country where we have access to that kind of energy, so the illusion, magic, mystery, and energy of nature from making those contacts will reflect itself in the show.
I’m a Naturmensch, or someone who found my soul in the soil, so I do a lot of exploring with photography and paying attention to very close workings of nature and that’s kind of what the essence of the show is.
48 HILLSYou also grew up on a Vermont farm and named your first dance company, Pilobolus, after an active fungus known for its ability to grow very rapidly.
MOSES PENDLETON Yes, I spent most of my time as a young boy shoveling manure, so I’m very familiar with the pilobolus, and I used to sprinkle MOMIX on it to grow even more energetically, so there’s an agra-organic theme to everything, even back into the Pilobolus days. MOMIX was something you also gave to veal calves as a milk supplement.
Being out and playing in the great outdoors is also how we entertained ourselves. But it’s something that’s always been very important to my well-being, so I’ve been fortunate enough to have a dance company and create where I live and make a living in urban environments. But we have a studio here that we call “The Barn” for obvious reasons, and we make and work out in the country, so I haven’t changed that much.
48 HILLSHow do your natural surroundings influence your productions?
MOSES PENDLETON I grow like Monet, who said that it gave him more inspiration to actually grow the flowers before he painted them. First you grow them and then you show them. We have one example in the show, which is an excerpt on our full-evening work on plants called Botanica. It’s a wonderful quintet with the MOMIX girls, packed in orange tutus made to look like marigolds, dancing. That was totally inspired by the garden that I’m looking at right now, which is 30 thousand bright orange puffball marigolds in 16 rays to shape a giant sun, if you can picture that.
So some of the ideas and visions come from outside of the dance studio. They might come from the marigold garden with its magnificent bioluminescent orange or the back oakwood or an ice storm or a morning sunrise — lots of things that stimulate the eye and the brain. So there’s plenty of information out here for me to stay creative and enthusiastic. I can’t really say why that excites me, but that’s what turns me on.
48 HILLSDoes the emphasis on the wonderment of nature in your shows take on an added importance as the world begins to wake up to the perils of climate change?
MOSES PENDLETON Yes, it’s kind of like a Native American principle where you make dances about the things that you venerate and celebrate—flowers, rock formations, and tree forms, for example.
Not that we literally go out and try to tell people about global warming, but I think in the material, itself, there’s a sense of the awareness of something beyond us that is important in any ecological idea — that if you don’t see the connection, then how are you going to maintain that connection and how are you going to even help global warming?
At Dartmouth, when I was getting my BA in English Literature, I brought my professor out into this sacred glade in Hanover, New Hampshire at six in the morning and did this little piece about bodies moving in and out of trees creating optical illusions. My thesis was an environmental idea that if people could come out and sense the contact with the natural world, then there might be some hope in protecting it. This was my thesis 50 years ago.
VIVA MOMIX! Sun/20, Mon/21 7:30 pm, $45-$60 Hammer Theatre Center, San Jose. More info here.
VIVA MOMIX! Sat/26 8pm, Sun/27 3 pm, $30-$76 Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. More info here.
While Megan Cohen was attending Stanford University, she considered a career in acting. But performing scenes from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, where Julie, an aristocrat has an affair with her father’s valet, made her reconsider.
“I thought, Do I want to dress up as this woman and pretend to have these feelings?” she said. “I thought, This is not what I want to do—and I turned to writing.”
Ariel Craft didn’t know that history when she asked Cohen for coffee to see if she wanted to work on writing a new version of Strindberg’s play, widely considered problematic and misogynistic.
“Here’s this woman and the play is about her, and she’s defined completely by her relationships with men —not with women or the world,” Cohen said. “It’s all about her father and which lover she might take.”
Cohen points to the essay that’s a sort of prologue to Miss Julie, in which Strindberg wrote that the title character is menstruating, which is what makes her wild and unpredictable.
“It’s sort of amazing people still do this play now,” Cohen said. “Strindberg thought there was this gender binary and women are a certain way and men are a certain way and that’s how you’re going to write women characters.”
Cohen got involved with the Cutting Ball years ago when she was a Dramaturgy and Literary Fellow at American Conservatory Theater. She decided it was her favorite theater in San Francisco, and volunteered there before becoming house manager.
“It’s rare,” she says. “I used to mop this floor, and now I’m here as an artist.”
At the beginning of Free For All, Julie is skiing down Nob Hill. Cohen decided on this because Miss Julie is set on Midsummer’s Eve. She wanted the weather to be a part of this play too.
“The heat is scorching and everyone is languid and adjusting their Victorian collars,” she said about the original play. “I had this impulse to make the outside tangible and present, and influence how the characters are—but find a different way, and that’s how we got to snow. And skiing was because we wanted something that can be a marker of privilege and class.”
Besides Julie and the valet, Jean, the original play includes Jean’s fiancée, Christine. Cohen decided not to include her in this play—or she’s there, but only referenced by the other characters, no actor plays her. Cohen says that’s because so much of her job in the play is just to be a witness to John (now a cook with an Americanized name) and Julie. For that reason, she also included two aristocrats at the Midsummer’s party at Julie’s house.
“We need to understand the world that John and Julie are in,” Cohen said. “We need some context.”
Asked what she’s liked best about deconstructing this classic play, Cohen lights up and talks about working with Craft as well as Stacy Ross and Phil Wong, who play Julie and John.
“The most exciting thing about most of my projects is, Did I create opportunities for other artists to do good work? Watching Ariel take this and do what she did with it and watching the performers do wonderful work was the most satisfying,” she said.
“Phil and Stacy have been there since the beginning and they had a lot of input on what shape it took because they can both do anything. They can be funny or serious, grounded or absurdist. To see them inhabiting these roles was really special.”
Among the many, many disasters of the Trump regime is its failure to give us a satisfying Lady Macbeth. Granted, Trump himself is no Macbeth—whose triumphs on the battlefields of Scotland’s endless wars give rise to the power and madness (PTSD?) that form the plot of Shakespeare’s play (through October 13 at Cal Shakes). Trump-Macbeth would have long fled the windswept, misty moors for Newcastle, limping on his convenient bone-spurs, hauling synthetic coal to sell.
Demanding that every powerful woman be a murderous diva ice queen is a tired and sexist trope, of course. But still, Melania has so much potential to play the classic evil villainess—a cold-hearted, former sex-pot model from a wartorn region suddenly thrust into the apex of wealth and power, tiny teeth gritted in a scheming rictus— that it’s shocking she’s turned out to be almost blander than Laura Bush. Throw us a bone and murder a servant with your bare, bloodied talons, Melania! Give us a little drama.
But I’m doing that contemporary thing of trying to make all art politically relevant, and, unlike the ill-starred staging of Julius Ceasar near the start of Trump’s reign, the splendid Cal Shakes Macbeth is free from deliberate and forced associations. That may be the reason I enjoyed it so much—that, and have you been to Orinda to see a Cal Shakes show? It’s gorgeous right now. Although the play has several lines that bring the outside world rushing in with nervous laughter (“Oh miserable nation, ruled by a usurping, murderous tyrant, when will you see peaceful days again?”), this Macbeth, weirdly, feels like a relief.
Shakespeare can be solace in turbulent times. Audiences flocked to productions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet during the Great Depression, and he got a popular hippie makeover in the ’60s. (Shakespeare also ruled the movie box office during the Clinton years, make of that what you Will.) With everything going on, and a nation still reeling from the horrible last season of “Game of Thrones,” the story of a man who with the help of his wife murders his way to the top, suffers spectral hallucinations, and stabs his way into the next life seems… quaint. You imagine Macbeth’s Twitter feed would be merely single-mindedly tiresome, retweets of Joe Rogan and Barstool Sports or sale codes for tartan tunics, rather than epically dangerous.
What comes through in this production is the music, the hushed internal language of homicidal plots and castle secrets that Shakespeare spun into addictive rhythms. The Cal Shakes actors—handsome Rey Lucas as Macbeth, Liz Sklar as Lady Macbeth, a jaunty Dane Troy as Macduff, and the rest of the diverse, energetic cast—roll with the frantic lilts and dodgy logic of the script. Adam Rigg’s clean, architectural set neatly references Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood with its Japanese paper walls, cleverly interspersed with plexiglass sheets. (Later, those blood-smeared panels will look more like something out of horror director Takashi Miike.) But otherwise, director Victor Malana Moag keeps things classic: The actors are in Middle Ages Scotland, wearing the appropriate clothing (designed by Melissa Torchia), and speaking a faithful version of the text.
That text flows from the actors like liquid gold (the vocal/text coach is Jessica Berman), after an always awkward start to the play, which packs three battles’ worth of exposition into one poor sergeant’s mouth. But in short order we get scrying witches (effectively played in rotation by cast members) and huffing thanes, followed by the true star of the play, Lady Macbeth. While Shakespeare often delves deep into the origins of trauma, he famously plays coy about the origins of evil—we still scratch our heads over Iago and that handkerchief in Othello—and, in her first speech, Sklar has about five minutes to go from lonely house-mistress to icon of powerlust, but she manages it as ably as anyone can. She really shines in later scenes, when she brings out how much she controls Macbeth with her sexual allure.
Once the play’s poetic genius caught fire—whether you can follow it all perfectly or not—I found myself pleasantly riveted, caught up in a dark tale that still manages to outdo most of what’s on cable. (Warren David Keith nearly steals the show as the oblivious King Duncan and the eerily hilarious Porter, one of Shakespeare’s clairvoyant jesters). Could director Moag have better teased out some deeper threads, like the drowning suck of conspiracy theories and the moral corruption of empire? This may be one of those times when viewers bring enough immediate knowledge of such things to a production. They don’t need to be bludgeoned to death.
When San Francisco artist Kevin Seaman walked into the Lone Star or other similar LGBTQ spaces dressed as his outspoken and cartoonishly hyperfeminine drag persona LOL McFiercen, the ordinarily confident performer would suddenly feel acutely uncomfortable.
“I felt so weird, because I was used to being seen as a sexual person in that space, having a brotherly relationship in that space, rather than as my drag queen self,” Seaman says. “I used to be ashamed when people called me by my drag name or by ‘she’ in a leather bar or bear bar.”
Now, he says, he doesn’t give a shit, but it took some therapy to reconcile his more sexual side—which is to say, his attraction to masculine men—with his feminist politics.
Or, as Seaman puts it, “I healed the rift between my gay side and my queer side.”
After having worked through this thorny dilemma for years, Seaman now presents the fruits of his artistic and emotional labor. #femMASCULINE (at Brava’s Cabaret at Brava Theater Center through October 12), examines the evolution of queer male sexuality from the perspective of someone born in the earliest phase of the millennial generation.
As a high school student during the days when asking “age/sex/loc” was how you met new people in AOL chatrooms, Seaman’s sexual maturation occurred in tandem with the evolution of online dating sites as places of pseudo-enlightened box-checking. Seaman’s gender identity is fluid, and fluidity is—by definition—opposed to fixed categories. Hence, the idea of being “femMasculine,” wherein gender expression isn’t a final destination but a point on a continuing line.
“I wanted people to have to question the process I went through as a young gay boy, having to adapt to what I was seeing around me to be sexually attractive,” he says.
Seaman doesn’t let his own complicity in this confining system go uninterrogated.
“Once I got deeper into it, I realized how many emotions, how much history, and how many blocks I had,” he says, noting that he was initially attracted to bear culture because it allowed him “to be chunky” in an environment otherwise dominated by images of thin or fit bodies.
“I am attracted to different aspects of toxic masculinity,” he adds. “Thinking about dating through media portals and thinking about gay porn—which is stripped of all feminism, of setting rules, of consent—what does it mean to set that up knowing it’s a fantasy, but we’re fantasizing about the idea of patriarchy?”
To help audiences along, femMasculine makes use of its own app (developed by Jolene Engo) as well as a section where Seaman makes the audience “do a dial-up internet orchestra with me” as well as log onto AOL chatrooms with closeted suburban dads who want him to mail them his underwear.
“When we’re filling out a profile, you can take a picture,” Seaman says of the app, adding that there are menus with options that “you have to conform to in order to gain access to gay male sexuality.”
As most sexual adults with a smartphone know, we can sometimes throw our pocket supercomputers to the side after becoming aware of just how much time we’ve spent scrolling through undesirable options, or feeling sudden stabs of loneliness amid an ocean of options. That powerful isolation is at the heart of femMasculine’s queries into gender and sexuality — but at the end, there’s a way out of the morass.
“At one point as an artist, I realized you can just make new culture — and I feel like that’s what I want to do in this show,” Seaman says. “Give permission for people to own whatever culture they want to make.”
Del Shores might not have cribbed the idea for This Side of Crazy (at New Conservatory Theater through October 20) from Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1981) but he sure does pay a sudsy, sideways tribute to it. Like Henley’s script, Shores’ Southern soap opera reunites three sisters after an extended separation. Whereas Henley kills off the mother before the play begins, Crazy‘s Blaylock sisters reunite because their famous mother Ditty (Christine Macomber) wills them all to come home. Shores doesn’t reduce each woman to a cliché—not exactly—but their character traits, and predictable fates, are as easily recognizable as the pastel colors he assigns to each one.
First, he introduces Rachel (Cheryl Smith) while she’s climaxing in bed on top of her comatose husband. She’s the dutiful, resentful daughter who’s stayed at home to tend to him and her formidable mother. Ditty’s based on the prolific and very expressive gospel songwriter Dottie Rambo (d. 2008). Shores provides a string of barbed one-liners for her that are meant to put her daughters in their place. Ditty is the born-again version of a Golden Girl who could match wits with Dorothy or Blanche. In real life though, Dottie had one daughter not three.
Shores invents a backstory for Rachel, Bethany (Amy Meyers) and Abigail (Alison Whismore). As adorable little girls, they formed a singing group like the Peasall Sisters. But their cutesy presentation belied the tensions that built up between them as they matured. Rachel ended up stealing Abigail’s fiancé. To retaliate for this betrayal, Abigail strangled him. For the past twenty-odd years, she’s been in a psychiatric hospital and he’s been in a coma. Bethany, the best singer in the group, left for a solo career in Nashville. Rachel, possibly out of guilt, never left her mother’s house. She absorbs Ditty’s putdowns and mourns for the marriage she never had.
This Side of Crazy also runs parallel to a movie like Beaches (1988). Shores excavates the fantasy of what it’s like to live in close proximity to a narcissistic star—even one whose spotlight is already set to fade out. The playwright wants the audience to feel a delicious sense of schadenfreude for this family’s fall from grace. He shows us the fragile façade of an entertainer’s public face and the private mess of emotions that confront them when they’re at home alone in front of a mirror. But by the end, he reverses course and also wants us to envy them. In Act I, stars are like us because they’re just as neurotic as we are. And, in Act II, they’re nothing like us because their wealth liberates them from worrying about how to survive. This mixed message is bothersome but not worth the effort of overthinking it.
It wasn’t just the pressures of show business that provoked Rachel’s betrayal, Abigail’s breakdown, or Bethany’s atheism. Ditty’s husband left her when the girls were young. Her determination to succeed stems from that fact and may also explain why, as a single mom, her faith endured. She could continue to depend on God when romantic love failed her. Shores may have borrowed Dottie’s grit for Ditty but he only hints at the depths of her religiosity. If you watch an example of Dottie singing “We Shall Behold Him,” you can see that her profound sense of joy isn’t that far removed from madness. His equivalent is to plant Ditty in front of the TV playing Russian roulette. Whatever joy she might have gotten from praising the Lord is long gone.
Black comedy like that keeps vanishing in the ongoing rush of rapid-fire sitcom quips. Ditty dismisses her responsibility for her daughters’ problems by joking about their troubled relationships. But she does want them together again. She’s about to receive a lifetime honor for her contributions to gospel music. The producers of the show want the Blaylock Sisters to perform again. Having her daughters sing for her would prove to the world that she’s been, to all appearances, a good mother. She makes a calculated effort to win over Rachel, who, understandably, has been unwilling to forgive Abigail’s violent overreaction. Ditty may also be motivated by one final, magnanimous impulse. Their reunion might actually prevent her from pulling the trigger of that loaded gun.
THIS SIDE OF CRAZY Through Oct. 20 New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF. More info here.
With Cloud Nine in 1979 and Top Girls (through October 13 at ACT) three years later, Caryl Churchill shot to the front ranks of living British playwrights—a great fraternity in the sense of both excellence and gender, in that before her, it had been pretty much an exclusively male club. These adventuresome plays, with their imaginative mix of history, humor, political critique and narrative experiment, would have made a splash under any circumstance. But that conceptual boldness being framed in an equally confident perspective of feminism (and gender-role inquiry in general) made them successes of a unique nature, so startling and original that they were produced all over the world.
Churchill has remained a leading dramatist, one whose works have regularly had local premieres at Berkeley Rep and more recently at ACT. The latter is starting its 52nd season with a new production of Top Girls, which provides an occasion to note how much-imitated this play’s innovations have been in the nearly four decades since its first staging, and how its perspectives on social injustice are now theatrical commonplaces, robbing them of some original potency. (Jabs that might have seemed envelope-pushing in the early 80s today get the kind of knowing, self-congratulatory laughter with which an audience assures itself it’s the choir being preached to.)
Still, its overall themes are as relevant as ever. So it’s a bit puzzling that this kickoff to Tony Award winner Pam McKinnon’s second season as artistic director (Carey Perloff retired from that post last year) should make so muffled an impression. Directed by Tamilla Woodard, who last fall here did another all-female-cast play very much indebted to Churchill—Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats—this Top Girls has its incisive moments. But it’s not presented as enough of a period piece to preserve the original cultural context (near the start of the Thatcher era), and Woodard’s rather broad, flat interpretation doesn’t make this play seem fully refreshed for the 21st century, either.
Top Girls is often described as if it consisted entirely of what’s really just its first (albeit longest) scene: An impossible dinner party at which modern career woman Marlene (Michelle Beck) is celebrating her promotion to management at a London employment agency. She’s invited five friends, all of whom happen to be famous women of history and/or art. Duly pontifical Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) is the woman who purportedly disguised herself as a man to rise through the 9th-century Church hierarchy, until pregnancy exposed her ruse. Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) was a 13th-century concubine to the Japanese emperor turned memoir-writing Buddhist nun. Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) was a pioneering British naturalist, author and world explorer of the 1800s. Dull Gret (Summer Brown) is the peasant who leads an army of women storming Hell itself in a famous 1563 painting by Bruegel the Elder. Late-arriving Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams) is a folkloric figure of endless, idealized self-sacrifice immortalized in one of Decameron author Boccaccio’s tales.
These are all extraordinary women, and like many high achievers of any gender, they mostly like to talk about themselves—often, obliviously, over one another. Yet despite so much achievement over the centuries, their stories reveal the high personal cost that exacted, even if none are able to see beyond the cultural norms of their era. Lady Nijo and Griselda take it for granted that their duty was to obey, no matter how cruel or demeaning the things asked of them. Joan seems untroubled by the fact that she was eventually stoned to death for the crime of being a woman. Even crude, monosyllabic Gret reveals a tale of abused woe when she finally opens her mouth for something other than stuffing food in. Often unknowingly, all reveal the anxiety and risk attendant with a woman daring to rise “above her rank”—and later scenes suggest that even supposedly liberated Marlene is not free from those hazards.
Seen at her sleek modern office, she’s both applauded and backbit for her promotion by female coworkers, while regarded as a usurping “ballbreaker” by the (unseen) male colleague mortified that a woman should be advanced above him. A series of brief staff interviews with job applicants provide different perspectives on gender in the working world, from the overqualified woman who’s found her reliability and deference mean she never gets promoted, to unqualified youths with unrealistic expectations.
Meanwhile, Marlene’s troubled young niece Angie (Gabriella Momah) lands on her doorstep, having run away from the working-class mother (Nafeesa Monroe as Joyce) whom Marlene is semi-estranged from. When the two adult sisters meet in a lengthy final scene, Top Girls abandons its more fantastical and comic sides for a bluntly realistic confrontation over the class issues that only worsened under poverty-shaming “Iron Lady” Thatcher.
It’s an unpredictable progress that somehow feels more awkward than ingenious in Woodard’s staging, with Nina Ball’s set designs and Jake Rodriguez’s sonic one not adding much cohesion of style or commentary. The Geary Theater, with its high balconies, often has a tendency to make performers sacrifice nuance for broad strokes. This production is no exception—at least parts of Top Girls require an intimacy and naturalism that prove elusive here.
Still, there are inevitable moments when Churchill’s text comes through with sharp impact, as when ambitious, self-centered if unfulfilled Marlene exults that “The 80s are going to be stupendous.” She further channels the Prime Minister’s pitilessness towards the less-fortunate with “This country needs to stop whining.” (A few years later, the playwright would deliver an inspired satirical tribute to go-go Thatcher economics and ladder-climbing with the semi-musical Serious Money.) A complex work whose analyses hardly withhold women from criticism, Top Girls isn’t simplistically “man-bashing.” Yet there’s a stinging truth revealed when one of Marlene’s coworkers tells an employment seeker “Men are awful bullshitters. They like to make out jobs are harder than they are”—to keep women from feeling they’re capable of those jobs, of course.
Thirty-seven years on, Top Girls holds few revelations, but the blowback from #MeToo, a reliably misogynist Trump administration, “incel” culture, and more has certainly helped maintain its pertinence. This uneven, too often uninspired production isn’t the best representation of that staying power, however.