Sunday, February 8, 2015

Moved to Tears @ San Francisco Theater Pub Blog

My latest Theater Pub column is about the works of art that make me cry -- something I don't think we talk about enough, in an era that is skeptical of raw emotion. Click over there and read my piece to learn why I made sure to bring a hankie to the performance of Candide I saw last week and how seeing The King and I at the age of 5 utterly ruined me.

(My friend/editor Stuart noted "I think you're the only non-Asian person I know who was traumatized by The King and I... and most of them were traumatized for very different reasons.")


I've also convinced myself that Howard Ashman and Alan Menken must've modeled elements of Beauty and the Beast, especially the ballroom dancing scene, after The King and I -- they were no dummies and, as we all know, "good artists borrow, great artists steal."


In my column, I also mention seeing Rabbit Hole at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college -- which happened to be the subject of one of my very first blog posts. Crazy to realize that that was almost 8 years ago (also crazy that I haven't been back to Ashland since then, but that's a topic for another day).

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Miss Fisher and Miss Crewe

In my most recent Theater Pub column, I wrote about some of the non-theater things that kept me sane/happy/entertained in January: the f.lux app, trying new hairdos, cleaning my room, and watching Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Netflix.

I saw some enjoyable theater, too: Indian Ink at ACT is a good play in a lovely production. Though Arcadia will always be my all-time favorite Stoppard, this one is still smart and entertaining and well worth your time.

Brenda Meaney as Flora Crewe, in ACT's production of Indian Ink. Photo by Kevin Berne.

And I got to thinking about how Flora Crewe, the heroine of Indian Ink, and Phryne Fisher, the title character of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, feel like variations on an archetype: confident, independent-minded, adventurous women of the between-the-wars period. They pursue careers that aren't quite "respectable" (Flora is a poet, Phryne a private detective), but which still allow them to dress glamorously and mingle with interesting people. Flora gets denigrated as an empty-headed "flapper poet" and Phryne gets patronized as a meddlesome amateur, but they do their best to shake off such criticisms and go on with being their awesome selves. They are single but have many lovers; they are not ashamed of their sexuality. They are very fond of stylish automobiles.

Their biographical details are similar too. Indian Ink gives Flora's birth year as 1895; she is 35 when the play takes place in 1930. The Miss Fisher show takes place in 1928 Melbourne, at which time Phryne seems to be in her mid-to-late 30s. (Per Wikipedia, Phryne's birth year is 1900, so she's 28 when we meet her, but maybe that's just for the novels the TV show is based on -- actress Essie Davis is great and looks younger than her real age, but I don't think she can pass for 28.) They both have a beloved younger sister, though Phryne's sister was murdered in childhood while Flora's sister is alive and well. After spending childhood and adolescence in an English-speaking country (England/Australia), they run off to France during World War I and join an ambulance unit. They both remain in France for a bit after the war ends, too, living the bohemian life in Paris and working as artists' models.

Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher.

Here's where the parallels get really crazy. In Paris, Flora poses nude for Modigliani and when the painting is later exhibited, it infuriates her fiancé so much that he buys it and burns it in a bathtub at the Ritz. Phryne poses nude for a fictitious artist, Pierre Sarcelle, which infuriates her lover so much that he resorts to murder to get his hands on the painting. Okay, I can understand how this is a trope (jealous sexist man commits violence when he learns his girlfriend has posed nude for someone else), but it was very odd to see Indian Ink and the Miss Fisher episode about the nude painting less than a week apart, and to note all of these similarities in terms of character, era, etc.

Are both Flora Crewe and Phryne Fisher based on a real-life woman that I should know about? Is there some well-known story about a young Anglo woman who drove an ambulance in France during World War I, then posed for a nude painting that was later at the center of some scandal?

And, to compound the hall-of-mirrors effect, I first became aware of the Miss Fisher actress Essie Davis when I saw her star in a different Tom Stoppard play, Jumpers, on Broadway in 2004. (Her character had a nude scene in that one, too. Stoppard has a reputation as a super-cerebral playwright but there's enough female nudity written into his scripts -- Jumpers, Indian Ink, Coast of Utopia -- that it seems he also has quite an eye for the ladies.)

At any rate, I have two new fictional heroines to inspire me with their independence, courage, and flair.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"The Great Night" by Chris Adrian: San Francisco as Faerieland

Five years ago, I got all excited when I heard that acclaimed novelist Chris Adrian was working on a book that imagined the faeries from A Midsummer Night's Dream under Buena Vista Park in contemporary San Francisco. The novel in question, The Great Night, came out in 2011, and I finally got around to reading it this month...

The Great NightThe Great Night by Chris Adrian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In order to love The Great Night, it probably helps to be a San Franciscan, to have pledged your heart to this hilly, foggy, colorful, magical city. It probably helps to be heartbroken, or at least trying to get over a painful loss. It helps to be the kind of person who bursts out giggling when introduced to three faerie characters named "Lyon," "Oak," and "Fell," realizing that while these are good names for faeries, they are also the names of streets near Buena Vista Park, where the story takes place. It helps to have ridden the N Judah downtown every weekday for the past six years, traveling through the tunnel under Buena Vista Park every morning and evening, and to experience this commuter-train journey with a new sense of wonder as you read about Oberon and Titania holding court in a fantastical palace under this hill. It probably helps, too, to be a theater-lover, whose first experience with Shakespeare was A Midsummer Night's Dream; to have recently written a short play yourself about dryads, oak-tree nymphs, and thus appreciate the novel's depiction of a faerie oak...

I can try to look at this novel more objectively, of course. I can recognize that it isn't perfect, though I may be close to a perfect reader for it, or have discovered it at the right time in my life. The main action takes place on Midsummer Night in 2008, but at least half of the book is taken up with flashbacks that fill in the backstories of its human and faerie characters. The three main human characters, Molly, Will, and Henry, are all about 30 years old and have suffered two major tragedies in their lives -- one during adolescence and one more recently. And the laying-out of their backstories can seem overly schematic, not to mention depressing; clearly, Chris Adrian wants to explore themes of grief and suffering and healing, but sometimes the characters seem like no more than the sum of their misfortunes. The faerie queen Titania, meanwhile, has suffered the greatest loss of all: her changeling son died of leukemia at UCSF hospital, and in her grief, she drove her husband Oberon away.

Though billed as a contemporary take on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night also seems to draw inspiration from other, later Shakespeare plays. While the rude mechanicals in Midsummer are preparing a play to entertain the king, the band of homeless theater-makers in Adrian's novel wish to "catch the conscience of the king," or rather, the Mayor, with their production of a musical version of Soylent Green. (They are convinced that the Mayor is killing homeless people and turning their bodies into the food served at homeless shelters. This is all the funnier if you pick up Adrian's clues that the mayor in question is Gavin Newsom, S.F.'s slick scion of privilege.) And the novel's focus on themes of grief and loss does not recall the lighthearted Midsummer so much as more "mature" Shakespeare plays like King Lear and The Tempest.

This is an ambitious novel, mixing realism and fantasy and humor and sorrow, shifting its point of view every few pages -- and I can acknowledge that it doesn't always work. But mostly, I'm just so happy to see my San Francisco, the 21st-century Mission and Haight and Sunset, captured in fiction so well and so lovingly. (I love Tales of the City, but it mostly takes place in Russian Hill and Pac Heights, neighborhoods where my friends and I rarely have cause to venture.) Descriptions of the faeries sprucing up a sterile hospital room, or Titania's bad blind date with a Marina bro, feel funny and painful and, in spite of everything, true. Because this feels like the kind of city where such things can happen.


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Monday, January 12, 2015

I'd Like to Thank the Stucademy

Stuart Bousel wrote 5000 words last Monday explaining why he wasn't going to post his Stuart Excellence in Bay Area Theater Awards, a.k.a. SEBATAs, a.k.a. "Stueys," this year. So it was a surprise when, round midnight last night (trust Stuart to post his awards at the witching hour), a post went up on the Theater Pub blog announcing the 14 Stuey winners—including me!

My "Best Breakthrough" Stuey recognizes my successfully self-producing Pleiades last August. "I was blown away by how organized and focused Marissa was, how determined she was to do it as best she could even the first time out," Stuart wrote. "Marissa strategized and planned, gathered information, raised funds, and was just in general super smart about it all. Was anyone surprised? Not really. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take one more moment to tell her she did an amazing job. Everyone looking to produce a show in 2015: call Marissa. She knows what she’s doing."

Inspired by last night's Golden Globes and by Stuart's own honesty in always speaking what's on his mind, I wrote an acceptance speech and posted it to Facebook this morning.

In my dreams, this is what I'm wearing to accept my Stuey Award.
Marchesa, Fall 2014.
"And the 2014 Stuey for Best Breakthrough goes to... Marissa Skudlarek, Pleiades."

(Applause. I get up from my seat, glide to the podium. At least I'd like to think I glide. The last time I wore high heels and a long gown, at the TBA Awards, I tripped and fell halfway down a flight of stairs and bruised my ankle. [Fortunately, no one witnessed it.] My friend Maura said this made me the Bay Area Jennifer Lawrence and that made me feel a little better, 'cause who doesn't want to be JLaw, but it's been two months and my ankle is still slightly tender. But this is all a daydream in which I'm wearing a gown that probably costs as much as my whole production of Pleiades so yeah, I glide, OK?)

"Gentlemen and la—wait, the Stuey Awards committee consists of only one gentleman—I gratefully accept the Stuey for Best Breakthrough. Of course, I think it’s kind of funny that in the citation for the award, I am praised for, basically, being a perfectionist and having my shit together—wait, can I say ‘shit’ here, or will I get bleeped?—when I often feel like my perfectionism is detrimental and that I don’t have my shit together at all. Like Stuart says, awards are kind of weird. And there’s a certain existential terror, too, in the idea of ‘Oh my God, if I’ve broken through, now I have to keep doing this.’ But honestly, all neurosis aside, I agree with our illustrious host and one-man awards committee that the Internet has gotten kind of awful recently, full of criticism and judgment and not the good kind of criticism and judgment, the place where you can always, always find someone who’ll tell you why you’re doing it wrong. And in a tough environment, in a tough year, I am genuinely touched that someone is willing to say in public that he thinks I’m basically headed in the right direction. That many of us in this room are headed in the right direction. And maybe this thought, and this award, will help me pick myself up faster in moments when I’m bogged down by neurosis and self-doubt. And in the meantime, yes, if you want to talk about best practices for self-producing, drop me a line and we’ll plan a coffee date. Awards have only as much power as we give them, but if this award can make me more personally hopeful or result in more knowledge about self-production being circulated in our community, then its power will be harnessed to a good cause. Thank you again."

(And I glide offstage.)

A couple of thoughts that I'd like to add tonight:

It's a little odd to get this award from Stuart, because his theater company, No Nude Men, was the nominal producer of Pleiades. It wasn't a financial arrangement. Instead, Stuart granted me the prestige of the NNM brand, with its 10+ years of history in the Bay Area; we had a few producer-y chats over coffee; and he let me text/email him with Silly Newbie Producer Questions as they came up. So I feel like a lot of my achievements as a producer simply involved asking good questions and listening to the advice of someone who's produced indie theater here for over a decade. Maybe that's rarer than it seems (Stuart would know), and maybe it's also a bit nepotistic. Fear of appearing nepotistic or biased, in fact, was one of the reasons that Stuart almost didn't post his awards this year. But hey, they are his awards, this is show business, and both he and I are people who overanalyze our actions, so who am I to quibble?

One thing I haven't overanalyzed, though, is the experience of producing Pleiades. Right after it closed, I became overwhelmed by a health crisis and a breakup, in quick succession. So I didn't really get a chance to take pride in my achievement, or to sort out my feelings about the show separately from everything else that was happening in my life. The wounds from my surgery and my breakup have now healed, and I've integrated those events into my self-narrative—but I haven't fully integrated Pleiades. (I haven't even been able to bring myself to open the script on my computer and incorporate the tiny changes that I made in rehearsals.) So winning a Stuey, having my efforts recognized, feels like an anchor, grounding me more firmly in sanity, reality, accomplishment. Yes. I wrote and produced a play. People noticed. And I shouldn't allow anything else to overshadow that.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Is Sex Necessary": Dated Advice on Dating

On New Year's Eve, for the first time ever, I posted a tweet that went viral -- a beautiful E.B. White quote about midnight on December 31, which I had originally copied out of an old New Yorker and posted on this blog in 2007. Partly because of this, I decided to make E.B. White's first book, Is Sex Necessary?, which he wrote in collaboration with James Thurber, the first book I read in 2015. Also because it had been sitting on my shelf for about five years and, at the age of 27, I have finally gotten over being embarrassed about reading a book called Is Sex Necessary? while on public transportation.

Is Sex Necessary? or Why You Feel the Way You Do by James Thurber and E.B. White
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

E. B. White's essays, children's books, and Elements of Style writing tips are justifiably classics, but I can't say the same for his first book, Is Sex Necessary?. Hastily written in collaboration with his friend and colleague James Thurber (they wrote alternating chapters), fitted out with Thurber's rough cartoons, and published around the time of the stock market crash in 1929, it's dated in the way that only a humor book from 85 years ago can be. Thurber and White were evidently parodying the pop-psychology and pop-sexuality books of the '20s, but because those books and ideas are no longer in vogue, the parody thereof mostly falls flat, too. (Samuel D. Schmalhausen, who seems to be White and Thurber's main target, doesn't even have a Wikipedia page.)

Is Sex Necessary? has some amusing passages, mostly relating to absurd "case histories" that the authors claim to have witnessed or carried out. Investigating the admonition to "look out for the Quiet Type," Thurber spots a quiet woman on a bus, approaches her with the line "Madam, I would greatly appreciate making a leisurely examination of you, at your convenience," and is rewarded with a slap. There is also a funny (if incredibly dated) story about a young bride whose husband must disabuse her of the notion that babies are brought by lilies and bluebirds. And the section about women who become neurotic due to society's conflicting messages about sex (is it a lyrical expression of romantic tenderness, or is it a casual animal instinct?) still rings true today. That's also one of the only passages in the book that views women with understanding and sympathy; most of the rest of it is written from the perspective of a commitment-phobic man.

But often, it's just too hard to cut through the straight-faced parodies of dry scientific writing, and the vast differences between courtship in the 1920s and nowadays, to reveal the underlying humor. A pun about women having Narcissism and men having Begonia-ism fails because it's difficult for a 21st-century reader to wrap their head around the idea of young bachelors staying home and cultivating begonias (which was evidently a thing in the '20s). In a historical sense, it's interesting to be reminded that the sexual revolution didn't begin in the 1960s; young people in the '20s thought that they were leading a sexual revolution too, rebelling against Victorian morality. But despite the illustrious reputations of the men who wrote it, I too often found Is Sex Necessary? a historical curio, rather than a timeless classic.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

2014 Ends, 2015 Begins @ SF Theater Pub Blog

In late December, we SF Theater Pub bloggers revived our tradition of doing some group posts to honor our favorite theater moments, posts on our blog, and posts on other blogs from the past year.

For our compilation of Top 5 lists celebrating highlights of Bay Area Theater, I contributed my Top 5 Design Elements from plays I saw in 2014. ("That's right, you're kind of like our style columnist, aren't you?" said my editor when I pitched this. I ended up covering way more than just fashion/costume design, though!)

Then, for our round-up of favorite posts from our blog and elsewhere, I wrote about Barbara Jwanouskos' busy year of breaking through barriers, physical and mental (she does kung fu); about Moss Hart's memoir Act One; and about Frank Rich's article on the backstory to Act One. Ashley Cowan, meanwhile, wrote about some of my Theater Pub blog entries, including the one from October where I decided to talk about my gallstone crisis publicly. It was one of the more emotionally vulnerable posts I wrote in the difficult year of 2014 and I am honored to be recognized for it.

Ashley praised me for "staying positive" and "searching for stars in seemingly dark skies," but honestly, that's not always easy. It's not like I can find a sense of positivity and peace and then hold onto it forever -- my equilibrium is fragile and I easily spiral into negativity. Indeed, my first Theater Pub post of 2015 has me wondering if I'm backsliding, wondering if I'm losing my mind, wondering if I have anything to say... wondering a hell of a lot of things, actually. Ever since I started this blog seven and a half years ago, it's borne the tagline "a girl with an answer for some things and a question for most things." But I don't think I've ever before publicly shown you the extent of my self-questioning the way I did in my Theater Pub post this week.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

"Let's Bring Back": The Fundamental Things That Apply From Times Gone By

The turning of the year feels like an excellent time to think about style, elegant living, and the best elements of bygone days.

Let's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone ByLet's Bring Back: An Encyclopedia of Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By
By Lesley M.M. Blume
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Considering that I am known among my friends for drinking GIMLETS, writing with a FOUNTAIN PEN, and carrying a PARASOL on sunny summer days, it's not surprising that I enjoyed Lesley M. M. Blume's Let's Bring Back. Based on her popular Huffington Post column, it's an eclectic compendium of items, foods, phrases, and even qualities (ELEGANCE) that she'd like to see more of in the modern world.

Many of Blume's Let's Bring Back choices would be both easy and fun to revive (PENNY LOAFERS, ROCKING CHAIRS); a few are included for sheer outlandishness ("CHARIOTS: the ultimate status vehicle, especially when drawn by lions or elephants"); some have vanished from the earth and will never be seen again (THE FOX THEATER in San Francisco... sob!). Some of the entries feature historical trivia and straightforward arguments for why we should bring these things back; others are wryly amusing one-liners ("BUTLERS: they provide the household with an air of refinement, so you don't have to").

The nostalgia on display here mostly centers around Victorian quaintness (THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS) and early-20th-century glamour (SATIN PAJAMAS). Bold and stylish women like BANKHEAD, TALLULAH and VREELAND, DIANA get plenty of shout-outs. While Blume frequently bemoans how casual and sloppy modern life can be, it's also clear that she's grateful to be a 21st-century woman who can drink cocktails, wear trousers (preferably WIDE-LEGGED ones), and indulge her VICES ("I'd rather be Scarlett O'Hara than Melanie Wilkes any day of the week"). It's about bringing some sophistication and thoughtfulness into your everyday life, not about turning the clock back wholesale.

Organized alphabetically, Let's Bring Back is the kind of book that it's easy to dip into and out of -- ideal for keeping on your bedside table and reading a bit of every night before you go to sleep. (Perhaps it will bring you glamorous dreams.) And because it's all about nostalgia and things that stand the test of time, it won't go out of style any time soon.

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