Monday, June 21, 2010

Recommended: "Krapp's Last Tape" at Cutting Ball

Over the last two weekends, I have gone to see the final entries in this year's Hidden Classics Readings Series at Cutting Ball Theater. Both were new translations and featured the actors David Sinaiko and Paul Gerrior in leading roles.

In Paul Walsh's translation of Strindberg's Storm, Sinaiko and Gerrior played brothers who are faced with the return of the woman whom one or both of them once loved. In Beatrice Basso's translation of Goldoni's The Antiquarian's Family (which has never been translated into English before), Sinaiko played an aristocrat so obsessed with collecting antiquities that he is blind to everything else around him, and Gerrior played the middle-class merchant who tries to talk some sense into him.

I mention this because these two talented men are also starring in Cutting Ball's current mainstage production, a revival of last year's Krapp's Last Tape. Gerrior plays the elderly Krapp, and Sinaiko provides the younger Krapp's recorded voice.

As you might recall, I saw this production last year and loved it. I have a lot of other things going on at the moment, so I am not sure if I will make it back to Cutting Ball to see it a second time, but believe me, I'd love to. It is an incredibly moving play. As director Rob Melrose said yesterday, "Forty-five minutes long and you get to evaluate this man's entire life! The power of theater..."

Krapp's Last Tape plays at the Cutting Ball Theater (in residence at the Exit on Taylor) through July 3.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pint-Sized Plays Lineup is Announced!

Here is the lineup for the Pint-Sized Plays, the August offering at the San Francisco Theater Pub. See a familiar name about halfway down the list?

Yes, I will make my San Francisco debut on August 16 with a play I wrote called "Drinking for Two," which will be directed by Sara Staley. We're just beginning the process of putting it on, so expect me to write more about this throughout the summer.

More information on the Pint-Sized Plays--basically, a series of original short plays that all involve one or more characters drinking a beer--available here.

I've gotten to know several of the other writers and directors as I've become more involved in the theater community, and I can assure you that they are super-cool people and talented theater artists. Looking forward to seeing what they've all come up with!

Oh, and the irony of this? I am not a beer-drinker myself. I always joke that I was kicked out of Portland, Oregon, because I don't like beer. And here I am making my San Francisco debut with a play about beer...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Baghdad By the Bay, Part II: "1001" at Just Theater

It seems I'm making a habit of traveling to Berkeley to see intriguing theater based on The Arabian Nights. Last year, it was Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights at Berkeley Rep (one of the best theatergoing experiences I've had in the Bay Area), and a few weeks ago, it was Jason Grote's play 1001, produced by Just Theater at the Berkeley City Club.

I'd been curious to see 1001 for a while now--I met Grote a few summers ago at Portland Center Stage, and 1001 seems to be his "signature" and most frequently produced play.

What I was most struck by is how dense a play it is--and I mean that in a good way. It's an intermissionless 90 minutes, but feels longer (and again, I mean that as a compliment) because it is so full of characters and stories and stories-within-stories and whiplashes of mood and perspective. The two most important threads of the play are the traditional story of Scheharazade and King Shahryar, and a contemporary story about a Palestinian-American woman dating a Jewish-American man. But there are many, many flourishes and frills along the way. At one point, Scheharazade starts recounting a story that bears a suspicious resemblance to Hitchcock's Vertigo--I am still not sure why this is in the play, apart from the fact that it's hilarious, particularly for San Francisco audiences who know Vertigo by heart! (Though perhaps it also underlines themes of the play like doubling, duplicity, and the human need to live life according to a romantic narrative?)

Still, among all the crazy and somewhat postmodern touches (a king with a penchant for malapropisms, interludes with Flaubert and Borges, a dance party where the centuries seem to blur before your eyes), the contemporary story about Dahna and Alan manages to capture some things about the current geopolitical situation, and post-9/11 attitudes and fears, that I have rarely seen theater attempt to capture. If 1001 were only about a love story between a Palestinian and a Jew, it would run the risk of becoming an "issue play." But as one thread in the carpet that Grote is weaving--or one volume in the Library of Babel that he is assembling--it works wonderfully. It grounds the play in the real world, while allowing ample scope for fantasy and the seductions of storytelling to play out.

1001 plays four more performances at the Berkeley City Club; for info and tickets, go to

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Marvelling At Its Relevance To Her Life"

The cool people these days are pontificating about The New Yorker's list of "20 Under 40" fiction writers, but I'm a little behind on my New Yorker reading and haven't gotten around to cracking the Summer Fiction issue yet. So, I just wanted to say that I hope the story in the previous week's issue, "Extreme Solitude" by Jeffrey Eugenides, doesn't get lost in all the 20 Under 40 hoopla!

I really enjoyed this one--perhaps for the selfish reason of being able to relate to the main character, Madeleine, a student at Brown University who is trying to figure out love, sex, intimacy, and postmodern literary theory. But I do love it when male writers are able to create female characters that I can wholeheartedly relate to. And I laughed out loud at the following passage:
[Madeleine's] freshman roommate, Jennifer Boomgaard, had rushed off to Health Services the first week of school to be fitted for a diaphragm. Unaccustomed to sharing a room with anybody, much less a stranger, Madeleine felt that Jennifer was a little too quick with her intimacies. She didn't want to be shown Jennifer's diaphragm, which reminded her of an uncooked ravioli, and she certainly didn't want to feel the spermicidal jelly that Jennifer offered to squirt into her palm. Madeleine was frankly shocked when Jennifer started going to parties with the diaphragm already in place, when she wore it to the Harvard-Brown game, and when she left it one morning on top of their miniature fridge. That winter, when the Reverend Desmond Tutu came to campus for an anti-apartheid rally, Madeleine asked Jennifer on their way to see the great cleric, "Did you put your diaphragm in?" They lived the next four months in a twenty-by-fifteen room without speaking to each other.
Also, did the character of Leonard in this story (Madeleine's love interest) make anyone else think of David Foster Wallace? I mean, he's an overachieving, somewhat obsessive, double-majoring, tall guy who chews tobacco--sound familiar? And according to this interview, Eugenides is a Wallace fan...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"What kind of plays do you write?"

This is probably a familiar scenario for most playwrights, a conversation that repeats itself over and over in our lives the way that lines of dialogue repeat in Beckett: we meet someone and tell him we're a playwright, and our interlocutor immediately asks, "So, what kind of plays do you write?"

And despite the fact that we get this question all the time, it is rare that we enjoy replying to it or have a good answer prepared. (Well, the person who asked the question might find our answer satisfactory, but to us, it tends to feel woefully inadequate.) Being a young writer, I am fortunate that I can hedge and say "Well, I feel like I'm still learning, and finding my voice." But I don't have too many more years in which I can get away with this. And besides, it embarrasses me to act in this aw-shucks manner.

The problem with the "what kind of plays do you write?" question is the problem of having to label and pigeonhole yourself, as well as the problem of wondering if the person you're talking to understands what you mean. Let's face it, a lot of Americans don't know much about theater, and have never heard of many of the playwrights that contemporary writers revere the most. They know Shakespeare, or Arthur Miller, or Neil Simon... but most people these days don't write like Miller and Simon, they write like Caryl Churchill or Sarah Ruhl.

For instance, a lot of contemporary playwrights employ magical realism (influenced by Ruhl, Kushner, etc.), and if I were telling a group of fellow writers about my work, I might think it was noteworthy that I don't tend to write magical realism, and say as much. But if I were talking to an "average Joe" who doesn't see much theater, and I said "I don't write magical realism," the other person would be more confused than enlightened.

I get the impression that many people, when they think of "American plays," think of the classics they were taught in school--The Glass Menagerie or maybe A Raisin in the Sun. Dramas, revolving around a family, dealing with Big Themes, without a lot of laughs in them. So, I always feel compelled to explain that I don't write those kinds of plays, that I think I have a good sense of humor and it comes out in my work. I say "I could never write a tragedy" and "I think there is almost always some humor to be found in a situation--I mean life is like that, right?"

But more and more, I've come to realize that this gives the impression that I write comedy, which isn't exactly true, either. Indeed, a few weeks ago, I was talking with one of the people who had selected a play of mine to be produced in an evening of one-acts. He said, "You know, Marissa, your play is one of the only serious ones that made the cut--the rest are comedies."

I happen to know that this play of mine has a few laughs in it, but I also know what my friend meant--if it is a comedy, it is a very dark one, and most likely it's not even that. It's a character study, it's a drama.

(And yes, this is the big news that I alluded to in my last post... I am going to have a short play produced in August, my San Francisco playwriting debut! More information to follow as soon as there's a press release or something that I can link to.)

My parents said to me, "Maybe you could tell people that you write comedies in the same sense that Chekhov wrote comedies." Unfortunately, that doesn't really solve matters. Were I to say that to my fellow playwrights, it would sound like boasting to compare myself to the great Chekhov (seriously, if I could write with half as much honesty and truth as he did, I'd be a happy woman). And, were I to say that to a non-theater-person who asked me "What kind of plays do you write?", they'd just be bewildered. In order for "I write comedies in the sense that Chekhov wrote comedies" to make sense, you have to know who Chekhov was, and how much heartbreak is packed into his plays, and how he called them "comedies" despite this. And frankly, that's not something I expect the average person knows.

So, what should you do if you meet a playwright in the wild, and want to ask them about their work, but you've read this blog post and you know that "What kind of plays do you write?" is a question that writers hate? Well, do what we writers tend to do amongst ourselves, and ask "What are you working on right now?" You'll probably get an interesting answer, you'll get at least an incidental sense of the "kind of play" that we are compelled to write, and, in a small way, you'll encourage us. Because sometimes we need reminding that the work is the important thing, and that we should always keep writing no matter what. The more people ask us "What are you working on right now?", the more aware we are that we'd better have a good, fresh answer to that!