Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"God's Plot" at Shotgun Players: Backstage drama, back in the day


God's Plot, Mark Jackson's new play at Shotgun Players, features several elements that, in recalling some of my favorite plays, are guaranteed to appeal to me.  There's the backstage-drama storyline about the first English settlers of a vast continent, producing the first piece of theater ever performed there (shades of Our Country's Good). There's an intelligent and strong-willed teenage girl with a crush on her handsome tutor (shades of Arcadia). There's a Colonial American story that intentionally resonates with present-day concerns (shades of The Crucible).  There's a scene where several aspiring theater-makers persuade a tapster to let them perform rent-free in his tavern, because "you'll sell a lot of beer" (shades of San Francisco Theater Pub).

Add in a beautifully designed set, live banjo- and-bass music, and dynamic and inventive staging (also by Jackson), and you have a production that I enjoyed very much.

According to the historical record, the first play to be performed in America was an original satire, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, written by one William Darby, depicting England as a greedy mother bear refusing to share honey with America, her cub. The script has not survived, and it seems that the main reason we know of this play is due to court records: the playwright and actors were tried for sedition and blasphemy. This all took place in 1665, in a small, conservative village in Virginia.

God's Plot has fun imagining what Ye Bare and Ye Cubb might have looked like (complete with a funny/gruesome bear-baiting finale) and with making theater in-jokes.  But it also explores deeper themes that began in the colonial era and have continued to shape our country: our simultaneous desire for and fear of liberty; debates about the role of God and religion in public life; the contrast between the noble ideals we espouse in public and the petty self-interest that motivates us in private.

One can assume that, in the historical record, most of the people mentioned in connection with Ye Bare and Ye Cubb are men: the playwright, the actors, the tavern owner, the sheriff, the person who brought the suit to court, the local judge who presided over the trial, the Jamestown official who came to observe.  But Jackson has decided to tell this story from the perspective of a young woman: Tryal Pore, the judge's daughter.  "I have an eye on this town / Got my ear to the ground," Tryal sings (she narrates the show through song, the only character to address the audience in this way).  She observes the controversy aroused by the production of Darby's play and will do anything she can to be part of it.

I read one review that criticized the portrayal of Tryal for her anachronistically modern/feminist attitudes. Usually this sort of anachronism bothers me, too, but it didn't here.  I thought the play provided a convincing-enough explanation for where Tryal gets her freethinking ways: she's been influenced by Darby, her tutor. Moreover, she's not espousing women's liberation or any kind of organized political viewpoint, which I would find hard to believe.  Instead, she's criticizing her parents' hypocrisy and hoping for a roll in the hay (literally) with a hot guy -- in other words, she's acting like a hormonal teenager. And maybe it's anachronistic to claim that teenagers 350 years ago had the same drives as teenagers today. But I am inclined to believe that fundamentally, human nature remains the same from century to century. The religious leaders of the 1600s wouldn't have fretted so much about "sin" and "fornication" if they weren't deeply afraid that the young people of their community secretly wanted to sex each other up. (And of course, when you demonize fornication as much as the Puritans did, you only make it seem more alluring.)  Plus, America, especially colonial and frontier America, has often been thought of as an adolescent territory -- brash and restless and rebellious.  In that regard, it makes excellent sense that the central character of God's Plot possesses all those traits.

God's Plot continues at Shotgun Players through January 29. Tickets here.

Photo by Pak Han. L-R: Kevin Clarke (Judge Pore), Fontana Butterfield (Mrs. Pore), Juliana Lustenader (Tryal Pore), Josh Pollock (Banjo).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

One-Minute Play Festival Video

One more bit of housekeeping from 2011: I always meant to post the video of the San Francisco One-Minute Play Festival on New Play TV.  Here you go!
Watch live streaming video from newplay at livestream.com
My plays are "Forgiven," which starts at 1:06:30 on the video, and "Excuse Me," at 1:35:20.  "Excuse Me" was the third-from-last (or antepenultimate) play of the whole evening, followed by Lauren Gunderson's hilarious "One-Minute Musical" and Philip Kan Gotanda's capstone "Perfect Imperfect." I was honored to be in their company.

I really wish the show's program was available online so that you could follow along with it while watching, but if you have a question about who wrote or acted in some of the other plays, feel free to ask in my comments section and I will try to assist you.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Theatergoing 2011

Today, I went to the theater for the first time in 2012 (saw The Wild Bride at Berkeley Rep) so it is high time I post my 2011 theatergoing list and put the old year to rest!

(My 2010 list, for comparison)

FULL PRODUCTIONS
  1. Short Attention Span Shorts, by John Ashworth at San Francisco Theater Pub
  2. Bone to Pick & Diadem, by Eugenie Chan at Cutting Ball
  3. The Matter of Things by Christine Bonansea and Wake-up Call by Leigh Shaw at the Women on the Way Festival
  4. Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris at ACT
  5. What We're Up Against, by Theresa Rebeck at Magic Theatre
  6. Hermes by Bennett Fisher, produced by No Nude Men
  7. Bay One-Acts, Program Two, by various local writers
  8. Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays, by Will Eno, at Cutting Ball
  9. Bay One-Acts, Program One, by various local writers
  10. Ruined, by Lynn Nottage, at Berkeley Rep
  11. Beardo, by Jason Craig and Dave Malloy, at Shotgun Players
  12. M. Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, at Custom Made Theatre
  13. The Lily's Revenge, by Taylor Mac, at Magic Theatre (seen twice-- follow-up post here)
  14. The Cripple of Inishmaan, by Martin McDonagh, produced by the Druid Theater at Cal Performances
  15. The Boar's Head, adapted from Shakespeare, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  16. Edenites, by Stuart Bousel, produced by No Nude Men
  17. Juno en Victoria, by Stuart Bousel, produced by Wily West
  18. Tales of the City: A New Musical by Jeff Whitty and Jake Shears, at ACT
  19. Act One, Scene Two: Machine of Death, by Ryan North, David Malki! and Un-Scripted Theater
  20. Salty Towers, by Bryce Alleman, Dana Constance, and Kathy Hicks, produced by Thunderbird Theatre
  21. Act One, Scene Two: Kids and Dolls, by Diana Di Costanzo and Un-Scripted Theater
  22. Act One, Scene Two: Manifestation, by Marissa Skudlarek and Un-Scripted Theater
  23. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Lost My Virginity, by Aileen Clark with John Caldon, produced by Ann Marie Productions
  24. Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare, produced by AtmosTheatre
  25. Peaches en Regalia, by Steve Lyons, produced by Wily West
  26. Pint-Sized Plays 2011, by various local writers, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  27. The Nature Line, by J. C. Lee, produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre
  28. 2012: The Musical, by San Francisco Mime Troupe
  29. Exit Pursued by a Bear, by Lauren Gunderson, produced by Crowded Fire
  30. Why We Have a Body, by Claire Chafee, at Magic Theatre
  31. Phaedra, by Adam Bock, at Shotgun Players
  32. Devil of a Time, by Bennett Fisher, Kai Morrison and Sara Briendel, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  33. Annapurna, by Sharr White, at Magic Theatre
  34. Pelleas and Melisande, by Maurice Maeterlinck, at Cutting Ball
  35. How to Love, by Megan Cohen, produced by Performers Under Stress
  36. Ladies in Waiting, by Claire Rice, Alison Luterman and Hilde Susan Jaegtnes, produced by No Nude Men
  37. San Francisco One-Minute Plays Festival, by various local writers
  38. Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, by Tony Kushner, at Portland Playhouse
STAGED READINGS
  1. The Braggart Soldier, by Plautus, at Cutting Ball's Hidden Classics
  2. Personal Politics, readings of historical speeches, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  3. The Dragon, by Evgeny Shvarts, at Theater Pub
  4. The False Suitor, by Marivaux, at Cutting Ball's Hidden Classics
  5. Congresswomen, by Aristophanes, at Theater Pub
  6. Madame Ho, by Eugenie Chan, at Cutting Ball's Risk is This
  7. Ozma of Oz, by Rob Melrose and ZONK, at Cutting Ball's Risk is This 
  8. The Insect Play, by Karl and Josef Capek, at Cutting Ball's Hidden Classics
  9. Joyce's Voice, adapted from James Joyce by Megan Cohen, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  10. The Hanging Odes, adapted by Kate Jopson, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  11. Remaking Pussycat, by William Bivins, at SF Playhouse
  12. Ludlow Fair and Home Free, by Lanford Wilson, at Theater Pub
  13. Heracles and the Things He's Killed, by Bryce Alleman, Dana Constance, Kathy Hicks, Sang Kim and Kai Morrison, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  14. Joe Ryan by Megan Cohen, Dog Days by Claire Rice, and Scorpio by Seanan Palmero, at the Olympians Festival
  15. Perseus by Bryce Duzan, Pegasus by Daniel Heath, Andromeda Bound by Helen Noakes, Cassiopeia by Christian Simonson, and Cepheus by Kirk Shimano, at the Olympians Festival
  16. Walking the Starry Path, by Evelyn Jean Pine, at the Olympians Festival
  17. Chronus, by Bennett Fisher, at the Olympians Festival
  18. Hyperion to a Satyr by Stuart Bousel, Eos by Kendra Arimoto, and Nyx by David Duman, at the Olympians Festival
  19. October 2011 PlayGround (topic: "Icon"), by various local writers
  20. Gemini, or Jim and I, or the Comedy of Veras, by Tom Darter, at the Olympians Festival
  21. Hesperus is Phosphorus by Claire Rice, Eosphorus by Sean Kelly, Too Near the Sun by Jeremy Cole, Hard Pack by Lise Catherine Miller, Zephyrus by Neil Higgins, and Phaethon by Ashley Cowan, at the Olympians Festival
  22. Pleiades, by Marissa Skudlarek, at the Olympians Festival
  23. Selene, or Someone Like the Moon, by Nirmala Nataraj, at the Olympians Festival
  24. Elara and Himalia by Alison Luterman, Leda by Kirk Shimano, Io by Christian Simonson, Europa by Claire Rice, Callisto by Seanan Palmero, Ganymede by Neil Higgins, and Metis by Maria Leigh, at the Olympians Festival
  25. You're Going to Bleed, by M. R. Fall, at the Olympians Festival
  26. Customs, by Brian Markley, at Theater Pub
  27. A Super Special Theater Pub Christmas, at Theater Pub
In addition, I saw a few things that don't fit in these categories: L'etoile, a French opera performed by the Opera Academy of California; Roughin' It, a combination of picnic, oyster feast, and theater performances produced by PianoFight Productions; and Left Coast Leaning at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, a showcase for West Coast dance and theater artists.

My own name appeared on several of the above programs: I acted in Congresswomen; wrote Manifestation, Pleiades, and two One-Minute Plays; served as associate producer for the Olympians Festival; and provided some script assistance on Customs.

I'm not creating a top-ten list this year, but if I did, The Lily's Revenge would be at the top. Is it ungrateful of me to put that as my #1 theater experience of 2011, and not the Olympians Festival?  Well, my participation in Olympians taught me a lot, and in terms of the time and energy I devoted to it, it dominated my year.  But the lessons I learned from Olympians were practical lessons about being a better playwright and theater-maker.  The Festival kept me busy sometimes late into the night, but it did not haunt my dreams. The Lily's Revenge, though, hit me on a subconscious level, leaving me "humbled, confused, awed, moved, and inspired."  At odd moments, still, I will find myself recalling and contemplating it, so that the blossom does not wilt, so that the seeds it planted within me may have a chance to germinate and flower.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 in Books

I feel like I read less in 2011 than in other years. I certainly wrote fewer blog posts about books. And I've owned a copy of Sondheim's Look I Made a Hat for six weeks now but still haven't finished it, which is why it's not on this list. Oh, and  I seem to have read only books by white men during the latter part of 2011.

Enough guilt and self-flagellation. Moving on. I tried a new way of counting books this year, with one list for "Longer Works" (primarily novels and nonfiction) and a separate list for individual plays.  I averaged 2 "longer works" and 2 plays per month -- 23 Longer Works and 28 plays total.  Please also note that I counted only plays that have been published and that you could purchase and read for yourself if you wished.  I read several new/unpublished plays this year (either written by my playwriting friends, or submitted to a playwriting contest that I was helping to judge), but it's not fair to list them on my blog.

LONGER WORKS: 

1. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. Highly recommended. 

2. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis. Or should I count this as four books, as it is four volumes of short stories now being compiled into one? Seven hundred pages of minimalist short fiction is a lot, despite the critical acclaim, and perhaps one would be better served reading it as four separate volumes.

3. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. I don't feel like getting involved in the literary-aesthetic battle that Zadie Smith started after writing a critical piece on this novel, so is it OK just to say that I generally enjoyed this book but also am not hailing it as the second coming?

4. Prague, by Arthur Phillips (2nd read). I read this book when I was in high school, due to the good reviews and my fascination with Eastern European history, but I enjoy it even more now, when I, like the characters, am a confused twenty-something.  It is written with verve, has a lot of memorable set-piece passages, and inspired a game of Sincerity between me and some friends in a bar one night. Oh, and I just found a review that calls Prague "the literary equivalent of a Whit Stillman movie" -- so, naturally, I love it. Highly recommended.

5. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (3rd read). Highly recommended

6.  Just Kids, by Patti Smith. While I probably would not have gone so far as to award this the National Book Award, I enjoyed it. Recommended.

7. The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. Recommended. 

8. The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips. This is how I like my "light" reading to be: cleverly constructed, laugh-out-loud funny, full of unreliable narrators, and with an unexpected emotional kick at the end. Recommended.

9. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Recommended.

10. The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt. Recommended.

11. Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, by Lucy Moore. This was a good read. I had never read a detailed history of the French Revolution and Moore provides a clear explanation of all of its major events: the storming of the Bastille, the Terror, and beyond. At the same time, her decision to view the Revolution from the perspective of six women from various social classes made it interesting for a feminist like me.  Recommended.

12. Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, by Tad Friend. More research into the lives and times of the American upper-crust! Not as good as The Big House, because it's less focused and written less lyrically. You can probably give this one a pass.

13. Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong (3rd read). This was one of my guilty-pleasure reads in high school and because I was writing a play set in the 1970s, that was enough of an excuse to reread it. While very dated in some ways, it still feels radical in the way that it portrays a woman who is highly sexual and enjoys intellectual pursuits and maintains a wry sense of humor about the absurdities of life. When I was a teenager, Fear of Flying reassured me that women who crack jokes about Chaucer and Sylvia Plath can still be sexy and get laid. And because of that, it was invaluable.

14. The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer. Read as part of my Pleiades research, and only valuable as a historical curiosity -- I don't remember much about it now.

15. Machine of Death, by Various. I attended the "Machine of Death"-themed performance by the Un-Scripted Theater Company in July and got a signed copy of the bestselling anthology of stories about what might happen if a machine was invented that could tell you how you are going to die. (I also received my own Machine of Death prediction: "Under Collapsing Shelf." Considering that I live in an earthquake zone and have too many books, this is depressingly likely.) The anthology was a decent read, but I'd had enough of it by the end (I won't be buying Machine of Death II) and the stories haven't really stayed with me.

16. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, by David Ball (re-read). There comes a moment, when I'm writing a full-length play, that I have to spend an evening and re-read this little book. Recommended for all theater-makers -- it is brief but full of wisdom.

17. Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, by John Crowley. I quite enjoyed this novel -- no surprise, as it is in the vein of Arcadia and Possession and I'm a huge fan of both those works. The frame story about the modern-day researchers is a bit predictable, but the pastiche of Byron's writing style is deftly done and very amusing. Recommended.

18. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. This comic novel got great reviews but I didn't find it funny or interesting at all. Not recommended.

19. The Extra Man, by Jonathan Ames. Mixed feelings: I get what Ames was trying to do, in updating the "New York bildungsroman" to fit our seedy and sexually confused times, and smuggling uncomfortable moments into a book that initially seems like it will be innocuous. But the result is episodic and didn't make me laugh. Or maybe I'm just annoyed that Ames invents a major character who is a failed playwright (Henry Harrison, the protagonist's eccentric roommate) but then has nothing interesting to say about the theater.

20. The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler. Mixed feelings: this book was advertised as in the vein of The Secret History and Special Topics in Calamity Physics but I enjoyed it the least out of the three. The writing was flat in parts (there's a party scene that drags on way too long) and I wish the San Francisco setting had been better evoked.

21. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas père, translated by Richard Pevear. Fun! Recommended.

22. Papers for the Suppression of Reality, by Matt Werner. In one of those "only in San Francisco" moments, a few months ago I met one of the guys who was responsible for the Borges Google Doodle, and he gave me a copy of his self-published chapbook of Borges-inspired short fiction.  The book is filled out with lots of McSweeney's-inspired literary high jinks. Geeky good fun, and inspired me to go back and reread some of the Borges stories referenced.

23. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris. Recommended. Harris writes with wit and insight about the demise of the studio system and Production Code, the beginnings of "New Hollywood," and the effects of the upheavals of the 1960s on moviemaking (for instance, several passages deal with Sidney Poitier's sensitive position as the only famous black actor in America). The book also offers valuable insights to anyone involved in a creative field, as we see just how much hard work is required and how many setbacks may occur before the work of art is completed. Even talented artists don't always get to make the movies they wish to make.

PLAYS: 

1. Mirrors in Every Corner, by Chinaka Hodge. I loved this play when I saw it at Intersection for the Arts and was happy that Theatre Bay Area published it in their magazine. 

2. Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge. Related blog post here, about reading it aloud with theater friends. It is hilarious!

3. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirguis. I enjoyed reading this but it felt like quite a long play -- perhaps too long to be staged effectively.

4. Congresswomen, by Aristophanes. Read in preparation for acting in Theater Pub's staged reading of this play in April 2011.  We rocked the house in our togas and the audience had a great time laughing at jokes that are over 2000 years old.

5. Swanwhite, by August Strindberg. This lesser-known Strindberg play, with him in a gentle, symbolist, fairy-tale mode (probably influenced by Maeterlinck) was another play that we read aloud at the No Nude Men Salon.

6. Acharnians, by Aristophanes. I decided to work my way through my "Complete Plays of Aristophanes" volume and got about halfway through before determining that I had reached Aristophanes overload. I was reading the Paul Roche translations, and, while modern, they are kind of difficult to read. Roche has striven to reproduce the rhythms of Aristophanes' Greek and often needs to use odd vocabulary words in order to fit the rhythm. Thus, I feel like some punch-lines probably fall flat.

7. Knights, by Aristophanes 

8. Clouds, by Aristophanes 

9. Wasps, by Aristophanes 

10. Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov (re-read). Another play read out loud with theater friends. I played Irina and gave an unexpectedly impassioned rendition of her Act III monologue where she laments being "almost twenty-four, I've been working all this time, and my brain has shriveled up... time passes and you realize you'll never have the beautiful life you dreamed of." I quickly understood that it was a bad sign that I identified so deeply with Irina, and resolved to try to turn my life around. Oh Chekhov, you are the best.

11. Uncommon Women and Others, by Wendy Wasserstein (re-read). Wasserstein blog post here.

12. Isn't It Romantic, by Wendy Wasserstein (re-read) 

13. The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein (re-read) 

14. Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph 

15. The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett. I read this because I love W.H. Auden (a character in this play) and really enjoyed Bennett's The History Boys, but I'm not sure that the framing backstage-drama elements are that interesting or enjoyable. It all comes off as rather self-congratulatory ("Isn't the National Theatre great? We produce literate plays!"). Then again, The History Boys does not read very well as a script, but it works in performance.

16. Oedipus el Rey, by Luis Alfaro. Another excellent play that premiered in San Francisco in 2010 and was published by Theatre Bay Area. It won the Glickman Award -- this spring I volunteered to help out at the award ceremony. 

17. The Sisters Rosensweig, by Wendy Wasserstein 

18. A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams (re-read). This is one of those plays that haunts my memory and, because I wrote a parody of it earlier this year, I had to reread it.

19. 5th of July, by Lanford Wilson (re-read). While revising Pleiades to take place over Fourth of July weekend, 1971, I had to reread 5th of July -- which takes place over Fourth of July weekend, 1977! 

20. Over Martinis, Driving Somewhere, by Romulus Linney. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but while this was clearly a very personal play for Linney, I found it almost too personal to be really compelling.

21. True West, by Sam Shepard. This is such an archetypal play about brotherhood and masculinity that, after reading it, I'm amazed that I ever saw it in a gender-reversed version (oh, Vassar College student theater...)

22. Buried Child, by Sam Shepard 

23. Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard. Related blog post here. I think I enjoyed this one even more than Buried Child, though it seems to be less well regarded by critics.

24. Tongues, by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin 

25. Ring Round the Moon, by Jean Anouilh, translated by Christopher Fry. Related blog post here.

26. The Tooth of Crime, by Sam Shepard. What a strange play. The person who wrote the introduction to my book of Shepard plays considers this his masterpiece, but the 1970s rock-and-roll attitudes seem very dated, almost to the point of parody. I also feel like the second act (the duel between Hoss and Crow) is where the real meat of the play is, so much that the first act might be unnecessary. Could this work in the 21st century?

27. La Turista, by Sam Shepard

28. Savage/Love, by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin. With that, I finished Shepard's Seven Plays. I should note that I took a playwriting master class this fall and the teacher made a remark about "that Sam Shepard collection that we all have on our bookshelves" -- I knew just which one he meant!

Previous years' reading lists: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007