Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Holidays from THE DESK SET

The rumors are true: I'm going to be appearing in a play next summer for the first time in years. I'll be playing the supporting role of Elsa and serving as Dance Captain in a production of the classic 1950s office comedy The Desk Set, by William Marchant. The production will be directed by Stuart Bousel, produced by No Nude Men, and presented at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

Above is a photo of the full cast (I'm standing, second from the right). The Desk Set takes place around Christmastime and though our production happens in July, we decided to start our promotional campaign early by doing a holiday-themed photo!

We also took photos of smaller groups of characters. Below are the four main women: Jeunee Simon as Sadel, Kitty Torres as Ruthie, Megan Briggs as Peg, Allison Page as Bunny.

Here I am with my fellow supporting women: Carina Lastimosa Salazar as Miss Warriner and Lisa Drostova as the Mysterious Lady. I am wearing one of my grandma's cocktail dresses from the '50s. It always amazes me that she had such a va-va-voom dress (there is a nude-colored fabric lining underneath the black lace, and the illusion is quite realistic in person) but Elsa is the office sexpot, so it's character-appropriate! Though also a little strange -- I have never played a sexpot or had to do a stage kiss before.
And here are our handsome gentlemen: Abhi Kris as Mr. Bennett, Andrew Calabrese as "Shirtsleeves," Nick Trengove as Abe, Alejandro Emmanuel Torres as Kenny, and Alan Coyne as Richard.

Randomly and bizarrely, we discovered that a teenage Barbra Streisand played my role, Elsa, in a summer stock production of The Desk Set just a few years after the original Broadway production. Here's a picture from the office-party scene of that production; Barbra is dancing, second from right.

And if you want to know the plot of Desk Set or what I think of it as a play, here's the review I wrote on Goodreads.

The Desk Set: A Comedy In Three Acts by William Marchant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a mid-century, middlebrow comedy, The Desk Set is kind of a bizarre play. On the one hand, it's loaded with 1950s kitsch: female employees running out of the office midday to buy party dresses at Bonwit's; jokes about philandering executives and sexpot secretaries; a rather un-PC joke about Mexicans. The main character is a super-smart, capable, acerbic woman named Bunny (something that really puzzled me when I saw the film version as a child -- how could the no-nonsense Katharine Hepburn play a woman with such a silly name?) who spends a bit too much time hoping that her boss/boyfriend, who's clearly not as awesome as she is, will put a ring on it.

On the other hand, The Desk Set is a play about four intelligent working women who fear that they are going to be replaced by a computer, which is a surprisingly modern problem. The depiction of Richard, the character who wants to install computers in the office, also feels perceptive about how "techies" behave: he's not a bad guy, but he's kind of single-minded and socially awkward. While the play has a happy ending that suggests that people and technology can coexist, 21st-century audiences may find it a little more poignant than originally intended. After all, the women in the play work for the research department of a broadcasting company, where their job is to do fact-checking and answer queries like "What are the names of Santa's reindeer?" (The play takes place around Christmas.) But these days, you can just pull out your iPhone and ask Siri.

All photos (except for the Streisand one) by Cody Rishell.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy 80th Birthday, Joan Didion -- On "The White Album"

It's Joan Didion's 80th birthday today and, as it happens, I've spent the last few weeks reading and rereading her essays. My Didion phase came about thanks to that controversial Theater Pub column I wrote, in which I combined analytical criticism and more personal confessions -- and then, in the comments section, was criticized for my "heightened emotional state and hypersensitivity." (The implication being that I was crazy or hysterical. It was even suggested that "the full moon" was to blame for my emotional response!) Not to sound like an egomaniac, but it struck me that this whole experience was somewhat Didion-esque. After all, she's the model for young female writers who want to blend cool analysis with descriptions of their obsessive thoughts, feelings of doom, and moments when they've burst out crying; and she has received both praise and criticism for it. As I craved some reassurance that this style of writing is both valuable and powerful, I picked up a copy of The White Album.

The White Album: EssaysThe White Album: Essays by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Joan Didion's first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but I think in The White Album she comes even more fully into her unique voice and style. And, while these essays are products of the '60s and '70s, their insights frequently had me nodding my 21st-century head in recognition. Whenever I see one of the beautiful old Victorian houses in my city gutted and re-built with an "open floor plan" and "luxury finishes," I'll be tempted to quote Didion's deliciously snarky words about the ranch-style house that Ronald Reagan built to serve as the new California governor's mansion: "It is a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently 'democratic,' flattened out, mediocre and 'open' and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn." But just when you think that Didion is composed entirely of acid, she displays a more vulnerable side, praising Victorian houses where you can imagine "writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner."

There is great vehemence, great passion in Didion, and you get the sense that her writing is the way she lets it out. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she describes herself as "so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." In life, Didion may be a quiet, petite woman, but on the page, she can indulge in power-tripping fantasies of building shopping malls or controlling California's water system or mastering a difficult exit on the Santa Monica Freeway. Those aren't things that I've ever thought about doing, but Didion's passion is infectious, and she makes me want to do them, too.

Be it freeways, waterworks, shopping malls, Hollywood, or the women's movement, Didion is always trying to figure out and explain how the system works. Or how new systems replace the old ones but often replicate their same failures and blind spots (this, in a nutshell, is her rather damning indictment of second-wave feminism). She's skeptical of trends and received ideas, and rather aloof toward humanity as a whole; she admires the Getty Villa's antiquities collection for demonstrating that "not much changes. We were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were."

Speaking of systems, the famous opening line of the famous opening essay, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," basically acknowledges that an essay is itself a system, a way of deriving meaning and order from a series of images or events. Didion's blessing, and her curse, was to be a writer of probing intelligence in a place and time (the late '60s in Los Angeles) when all the systems seemed to be collapsing. Always frank, sometimes frightening, occasionally fragmented, The White Album is the result.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 30, 2014

November Spawned a Monster

I didn't write a Theater Pub column this Thursday, because of Thanksgiving. And also because the editor needed to run the VERY VERY SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT that after a hiatus of a year and a half, Theater Pub will return to presenting free live theater in San Francisco bars as of January 2015! (HUZZAH!)

And four weeks before that, I wrote a column that I didn't link to at the time, because I realized I was kind of phoning it in. ("Horror Vacui," from October 30. Read it if you want to read my thoughts on some memoir I've read recently, or what I did the night the Giants won the World Series. Gosh, doesn't that feel like ages ago?)

But two Thursdays ago... ah, two Thursdays ago, I wrote what is now the most-read (and I believe most-commented) piece in the history of the Theater Pub blog. I took blogger George Heymont to task for failing to perceive the clearly feminist message of Megan Cohen's "Centaurs, or the Horse's Ass," which had greatly affected me when I saw the script in its Olympians Festival staged reading. Heymont responded in the comments section and the back-and-forth got pretty heated. And if you wonder why my Twitter bio currently states "Sometimes I cry in alleys when the moon is full," read the post and the comments, and you will understand...

I attended all of the readings of the 2014 Olympians Festival and it seemed like one of the key themes this year was female anger. Maybe that's appropriate: Stuart Bousel likes to point out that the Greeks had a lot of female monsters, more than most other cultures. The entire final week of the festival was devoted to female monsters, and other plays re-imagined the centaurs, Geryon, and the Minotaur as female. The spontaneous applause that broke out after a feminist rant in Veronica Tjioe's Minotaur play was one of the most satisfying moments I've had in a theater in 2014.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Autumn is for Gothic Fiction: "The Woman in White"

I often try to read some classic Gothic or horror fiction during the autumn months -- it seems like the right time of year for it. This year, my decision to start reading The Woman in White in late September also had something to do with the fact that I'd just gotten dumped by a fellow who loves to read but hates nineteenth-century novels. (I'd always tell him that he didn't know what he was missing.) What better way to start the healing process than to read a book that my ex wouldn't like?

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Woman in White could easily have been a run-of-the-mill Gothic potboiler about a scheming baronet out to steal the fortune of an innocent young lady, but it rises above the mundane thanks to Wilkie Collins' gifts for atmosphere, humor, and characterization. As in Collins' The Moonstone, the story is related in a series of first-person narratives; some of the narrators are sympathetic and relatively "normal" (upstanding Walter Hartright, courageous Marian Halcombe), while others are wildly eccentric and unreliable (selfish hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie; jolly megalomaniac Count Fosco).

The notes to the Penguin Classics edition say that when the novel was published, several gentlemen wrote to Collins and asked if he'd based the character of Marian on a real-life woman, because they wanted to marry her -- which gives me a much better opinion of Victorian gentlemen than I had possessed hitherto. Marian is intelligent, passionate, brave and hard-working -- but she is ugly, and she constantly reproaches herself for being too headstrong. To learn that some Victorian readers preferred stubborn Marian to her conventionally sweet and docile half-sister Laura is very heartening. And perhaps it's what Collins wanted, too; after all, the novel suggests that Laura could have avoided many of her tribulations if only she'd stood up for herself.

Sir Percival Glyde, the fortune-hunting baronet who marries Laura, isn't much of a villain -- he comes across as a whiny brat. But his crony, Count Fosco, is a magnificent creation. Singing opera, eating bonbons, petting his white mice, and cooking up dastardly schemes the whole time, he's truly a villain you love to hate. Wisely, Collins has Fosco narrate one of the later sections of the novel, and makes his downfall (rather than Sir Percival's) the book's climax.

Collins wrote in his preface to The Woman in White that he thought a novel would succeed only if it presented interesting characters. This long, twisty, absorbing mystery story admirably bears out his theory.

Previous marissabidilla posts about reading Gothic fiction in the fall:

Vampire City by Paul Féval, October 2013
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, October 2010

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everything's Coming Up Rosie: Overthinking My Halloween Costume

For Halloween this year, I dressed up as Rosie the Riveter. So did a lot of other young women in San Francisco. There were two other Rosies at the Halloween party I attended on the Potrero Hill edge of the Mission; two other Rosies on the subway platform as I was coming home from work. (This embarrassed me so much that I quickly scooted down the platform so we wouldn't all wind up in the same subway car.) I was filled with a mix of pride at having successfully embodied the Zeitgeist and shame at realizing I was less clever and distinctive than I thought I was. And, naturally, I began to over-think the larger sociological forces that might have led to this spate of Rosies in San Francisco this Halloween. My conclusions:
  • Ease of putting the costume together. The day before Halloween, I wasn't even sure that I would dress up -- and then I realized that I had all of the components of the "Rosie" costume already in my closet.
  • Applicability to women of all ages, races, and sizes. Unlike many costumes, you don't have to have a certain body type or hair color to be recognizable as Rosie the Riveter -- all you need is the red bandana and blue work shirt.
  • It's an explicitly feminist costume that enables you to demonstrate how you're not into the whole "Halloween as an excuse to wear lingerie in public" thing, but it still allows you to look attractive -- wear red lipstick, show off your muscle.
  • Millennial-generation nostalgia for the "Greatest Generation" 1940s. Think about it: we fetishize handicrafts and the artisanal; we name our Etsy stores after our grandparents; we put up "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters. I also saw a lot of A League of Their Own "Rockford Peaches" this Halloween -- a costume that occupies a comparable place in our cultural iconography to Rosie the Riveter.
  • Amy Poehler's character on Parks and Recreation dressed up as Rosie the Riveter in 2012. I don't watch Parks and Rec, but you can't underestimate the influence of pop culture.
I also thought about how, when I moved to San Francisco six years ago, it seemed like every young woman dressed up like Frida Kahlo for Halloween, but I didn't see any Fridas this year. Could there also be a cultural significance in the shift from Frida to Rosie over these six years?
  • Dressing up as Frida Kahlo does require you to possess certain physical characteristics: you've pretty much got to have long, dark hair. And, if you are brunette but not Hispanic, you may also worry that dressing up as this iconic Mexican artist constitutes cultural appropriation. At least when you live in a city that is so consumed with debates over gentrification.
  • There was a big Frida Kahlo exhibit at SFMOMA in 2008, which might have contributed to all of the Fridas I saw that Halloween.
  • Frida and Rosie are both feminist icons, but they represent two different kinds of feminism. Kahlo's art often depicts the female experience as one of pain and suffering. (My most-read post of all time is called "Must a Female Artist Suffer?", written in response to the 2008 Kahlo exhibition.) Rosie the Riveter is about rolling up your sleeves and getting shit done. Which seems in tune with the forcefulness that feminism has attained in the last half-decade.
  • Six years ago, fashion was much more in tune with Frida's boho style than with Rosie's utilitarian workwear. But now, the tide has shifted. Clothes have gotten more minimalist, more tomboy. Call it a shift from Anthropologie to J. Crew. I didn't own a "Rosie the Riveter" blue button-down six years ago, but now it's one of my favorite shirts.
Mostly, though, I'm amazed at how a pop-culture character, intended to boost home-front morale in a war that happened 70 years ago, can resurface in 2014 and embody current cultural trends. This autumn has been marked by intense, Internet-fueled anxiety over various aspects of feminism and an even more fraught anxiety over the sociological category of the "basic bitch." If feminism (a radical ideology) is the thesis and basic-bitchness (the unthinking acceptance of feminine tropes) is the antithesis, a Rosie the Riveter Halloween costume is the synthesis. She's the feminist icon that everyone can embrace. A basic costume for basic, feminist girls like me.

Photo of me as Rosie at my office Halloween party taken by my colleague, Abdul Bassa.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

"Les Belles-Soeurs" -- Fifteen Squabbling Quebecoises

After reading and enjoying Michel Tremblay's play Albertine, in Five Times, I decided I should read his most famous work for the stage, Les Belles-Soeurs. Les Belles-Soeurs

Les Belles-Soeurs by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Michel Tremblay’s play Les Belles-Soeurs is raucous, energetic, and boisterous -- and, because women so rarely get to be boisterous onstage, it’s revolutionary. The play plunks you down in the kitchen of Germaine, a middle-aged housewife in 1960s Montreal. She’s just won a million department-store coupons in a contest, and she’s invited fourteen of her neighbors to help her paste the coupons into booklets. Gossip, squabbling, scandal, and even a brawl ensue.

John Van Burek and Bill Glassco have translated Tremblay’s working-class Quebecois French into working-class North American English. Generally, it’s effective, but sometimes it makes the characters sound like refugees from a 1930s B-movie: “Sure, he promised me the moon. We were gonna be happy. He was raking it in, I thought everything was roses.”

There aren’t a lot of admirable characters in Les Belles-Soeurs. At times, Tremblay seems to mock these women and encourage the audience to feel superior to them. Yet the play ultimately blames the women’s faults -- their small-mindedness, their hypocrisy, their catty jealousy -- on the society they live in. Poverty, Catholicism, provincialism and patriarchy have conspired to make these women what they are. The high point of the play is the monologue where Rose, a self-described “class clown,” drops her façade and reveals her underlying rage and despair: “Goddamn sex! It’s never that way in the movies, is it? Oh no, in the movies it’s always fun! Besides, who cares about a woman who’s gotta spend her life with a pig ‘cause she said yes to him once? Well, I’m telling you, no fucking movie was ever this sad. Because movies don’t last a lifetime!”

I don’t think I’d like to spend a lifetime with Germaine and her friends, either, but I didn’t mind spending two hours with them.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"The Dryad of Suburbia" - staged reading Nov. 5

2014 is my fourth year participating in the San Francisco Olympians Festival as a writer. My contribution this year is a 10-minute play, The Dryad of Suburbia, which is part of the festival's "Nymphs! Nymphs! Nymphs!" night on Wednesday, November 5.

(At least two people have already inquired whether there will be nudity on this evening. Highly unlikely, as it's a staged reading. But I'm pleased that the evening's title has done its job and grabbed people's attention.)

You can find out more about The Dryad of Suburbia on the festival's website. Yes, that page has changed since the last time I linked to it, back in January. Back then, I thought I was going to write a play about a Dryad encountering a Druid. I clung to that idea for months without writing a word -- because I was unable to hear my characters' voices. At the eleventh hour, I scrapped that idea and banged out The Dryad of Suburbia in a mad rush. I wrote about this experience in more detail for my Theater Pub column this week.

My new play is about a contemporary, suburban couple whose young daughter has become convinced that she is a "tree spirit." When I was writing it, I had no idea that Cody Rishell, the poster artist for Nymph Night, was designing a suite of posters that show little girls playing with their nymph friends! It's like we were tuned into the same wavelength. The Dryads poster (above) is astoundingly perfect -- I am a very happy playwright! You can check out all of the Nymph posters on Cody's website.

The reading of The Dryad of Suburbia will be directed by Valerie Fachman and feature actors Colleen Egan and Nick Trengove. The other "Nymphs!" playwrights are Sam Bertken, Leah Halper, Sam Hurwitt, Carol Lashof, Bridgette Dutta Portman, Jennifer Lynne Roberts, and Siyu Song.

It's all happening at 8 PM on November 5 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco's scenic Tenderloin. RSVP to the Facebook event here. Tickets $10 at the door.