Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Books

previous years: 2009, 2008, 2007

The annual list -- with links to blog posts I've written about these books (fewer this year than in years past) and/or brief commentary.

1. The Play That Changed My Life, by various American playwrights (essays). Recommended, but it's a lightweight read. As I said at the time, "Very pleasant and inspirational, but also working overtime to give the impression that everything is fine with the American theater, and that American playwrights are like one big happy family. It tries to stanch the bleeding, whereas Outrageous Fortune does the opposite--it tears away the bandages and the blindfolds."

2. Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, by Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss (hard data and shrewd analysis about being a playwright today). Highly recommended. I seriously think that this book has changed my life -- made me less likely to play into the "system" or go to grad school in playwriting, more likely to focus on making good theater with people I respect. Written about here and here.

3. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt (two novellas). I recommend the first novella and have mixed feelings about the second.

4. Plays of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt (plays). Oh how I love Chekhov. Why did I wait so long to experience Three Sisters?

5. Quills and Other Plays, by Doug Wright (plays). Wright has such a vivid theatrical imagination! Anyone know what he's up to these days? It seems like we haven't heard from him since Grey Gardens, and that's a shame.

6. Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, by Chuck Palahniuk (offbeat travel guide). Keep Portland Weird! A portrait of my hometown before the hipsters discovered it. I gave my copy to my parents after I was done and tried to persuade them to put it in our guest bedroom -- though it might upset guests of more delicate sensibilities.

7. Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard (play). Reading it, my opinion is the same as when I saw it on Broadway: it doesn't work as a play. The first act is particularly undramatic.

8. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (novel). Highly recommended.

9. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (novel). Recommended: it really has everything you want from a "classic" novel, with its mood of rueful nostalgia and loss, moving from schoolboy high jinks to hard-won wisdom.

10. The Garden Party and Other Plays, by Vaclav Havel and various translators (plays). I first read this when I was in high school, full of admiration for this playwright-turned-president, but at the time I didn't really get Havel's absurdist writing style. Now, I do. I found the "Vanek" plays (Audience, Unveiling, and Protest) particularly rewarding this time around.

11. The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West (novel). Mixed feelings: it's charming, but unstructured and not particularly deep. I'd have loved this book if I read it at the age of 12 or 14, but as an adult, it's not my favorite.

12. The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt (novel). Written about here (in 2007). The perfect example of a book that I will love unto death, even if no one else does. Frederica Potter reminds me so uncomfortably of myself at age 17 or so...

13. Five Plays, by Jean Cocteau and various translators (plays). Recommended: a good overview of the many different styles of plays that Cocteau wrote at different points in his career. I also prefer the translation of Orphée in this volume to the one that's in Book #16 on this list. (But I still want to do my own translation of Orphée in 2011).

14. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster (novel). Recommended: there are many contemporary novels written from a postcolonial perspective about the evils of imperialism, but it is amazing to have a novel from the height of the imperialist epoch, written by an Englishman, about this topic. Also, Forster has written two of my favorite concluding paragraphs of all time (here and in A Room with a View).

15. R.U.R., by Karel Capek, translated by Claudia Novack (play). The play that invented the word "robot" (in 1920) and bears an amazing resemblance to a modern alien-invasion or zombie movie -- a small group of humans hide out and hope that the robots (aliens, zombies) won't kill them.

16. The Infernal Machine and Other Plays, by Jean Cocteau and various translators (plays). Mixed feelings: I like the selection of Cocteau plays in Five Plays better as an introduction to his work, but was still happy to read all of these.

17. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (novel). Mixed feelings: as someone who was obsessed with fantasy novels in my youth, I really wanted to love this deconstruction of the Narnia/Harry Potter books. The plot was gripping enough, but somehow the writing felt skimpy; it didn't suck me into the worlds of Brakebills and Fillory, the way I got sucked into Hogwarts or Narnia. I wanted more detail, more enchantment. Nonetheless, when the sequel comes out, I'll probably read it.

18. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (novel). Recommended: The Age of Innocence is still my favorite, but this comes close. Poor, doomed Lily Bart! Wharton writes so well about what it feels like to be intelligent, beautiful, moneyed, and still be powerless to make anything happen the way you want it to.

19. Collected Shorter Plays, by Samuel Beckett (plays). Recommended: I appreciate Beckett more and more, the older I get.

20. Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, by Michael Chabon (essays). Recommended: I bought it because I really wanted to read Chabon's essay on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (one of my favorite authors writing about another), and some of the other pieces in this collection are really valuable as well, though others are lightweight.

21. Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco (memoir). Oh, Paris in the twenties! Somehow, Glassco (a 19-year-old Canadian kid) got to meet just about all the important figures of this era, and have sex with half of them. Gossipy, dishy, and a great deal of fun.

22. Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik (essays). Recommended. Gopnik can occasionally get a bit cutesy or sentimental, because he loves his subjects (his family, Paris, art) so much. But hey, I'm prone to nostalgia for Paris too, and at least this book is a portrait of the city that I know, with its contemporary flaws and quirks, not the mythologized Paris of the twenties.

23. Cariboo Magi, by Lucia Frangione (play). Recommended.

24. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn (theater history). Recommended.

25. The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (novel). Very mixed feelings. You know, sometimes I use the phrase "mixed feelings" to indicate "I felt pretty 'meh' about it, but maybe other people will like it." Here, my feelings are truly mixed, from highs to lows. There were parts of this book I found very dry, and then I cried three times in the last fifty pages.

26. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Geoffrey Wall (novel). Highly recommended. This is one of my favorite books, for its pointed observations that make me laugh out loud or else pierce me through the heart (sometimes both at the same time, in their dark and cynical truths).

27. Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Robert Baldick and Geoffrey Wall (novel). Mixed feelings: while Madame Bovary is so tight and pointed and snarky, I felt like this was a whole lot of blather about nothing. I know the point is that Flaubert considered the men of his generation a bunch of aimless wafflers, but it is not very fun to read about for 400 pages. The characters of Madame Bovary are just as flawed as those of Sentimental Education, but they come alive in a way that the others don't.

28. The Clean House & Other Plays, by Sarah Ruhl (plays). Recommended: I go back and forth on what I think of Sarah Ruhl, but if you're involved in theater this decade, you've got to know her work and form opinions about it... and this volume, containing two of Ruhl's most acclaimed plays (Eurydice, The Clean House) and two lesser-known ones (Melancholy Play, Late: a cowboy song) is an excellent introduction to her voice as a writer.

29. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (novella). Highly recommended.

30. Kissing in Manhattan, by David Schickler (short stories). To be avoided.

31. No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, by Brooke Berman (memoir). Mixed feelings.

32. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, by H. P. Lovecraft (stories). This dense volume may be a little too much Lovecraft for one time, but, thanks to the Theater Pubbers, I enjoyed the encouragement to check out his work. While his tales didn't really curdle my blood (the language is too verbose and hysterical for that), I've developed a taste for this true American weirdo. Also, if my experience is any indication, men love women who read Lovecraft on public transit. Two different guys struck up conversations with me when they saw what I was reading -- that doesn't usually happen to me.

33. Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre, by John Lahr (theater criticism and profiles). Recommended: New Yorker criticism of productions of the 1990s of plays from a variety of eras (including some that I have never heard of before and would love to see or read). Very interesting to read at the same time I was reading Book #35 on this list, because Lahr thinks Sondheim ruined musical theater.

34. Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner (play). Mixed feelings: the Homebody's monologue is amazing, and taught me at least a dozen new vocabulary words, but I don't know how well the rest of the play will come off as drama. I'd like to see this one, though, to make up my own mind.

35. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim (Exactly what it says on the tin). Highly, highly, highly recommended. I can't even describe how fortunate I feel that this book even exists -- when was the last time a bona fide artistic genius decided to write a book on his craft, and produced one that was this honest and engaging? Absolutely studded with items of interest from a great man of the theater. Can't wait for Volume Two -- I predict it might be the best thing I will read in 2011.

Of these books, about five of them were rereads (The Virgin in the Garden, Madame Bovary, and the majority of Chekhov's, Havel's, and Ruhl's plays) -- the rest were new to me. 35 books (plus innumerable issues of The New Yorker) is about par for the course for me -- last year I read 42, but I wasn't going to the theater nearly so often in 2009!

Most of the books (18) were by Americans, though the British (7 books) and French (4 books) made a respectable showing, and the Russians, Czechs, Irish, and Canadians also showed up. Eleven of the books were by women and 22 by men (two had multiple authors). There was a pretty even split of 10 non-fiction, 14 fiction, and 11 drama. (I count Sondheim's book as "non-fiction" even though it also could fall in the "drama" category. Also, many of these non-fiction books are books about the theater, so my reading tastes do have a certain narrowness to them.)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Theatergoing 2010

This was the first year in which I kept a list of the plays I saw, in addition to my traditional list of the books I read. (2010 book list coming tomorrow!) It was also my busiest year of theatergoing ever, as I plunged head first into the marvels of the San Francisco theater scene.

Unlike with my book list, I will not offer comments on everything that I saw, but I will link to blog entries I may have written about these shows.

The list is in chronological order and divided into a few categories.

  1. Aurélia’s Oratorio, by Victoria Thierrée Chaplin, at Berkeley Rep
  2. Phèdre, by Jean Racine, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker, at ACT
  3. Coming Home, by Athol Fugard, at Berkeley Rep
  4. Oedipus El Rey, by Luis Alfaro, at Magic Theater
  5. Bay One-Acts Program 1, by various local writers, produced by Three Wise Monkeys
  6. Bay One-Acts Program 2, by various local writers, produced by Three Wise Monkeys
  7. Valentine's Day Pageant, by various local writers, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  8. Mirrors in Every Corner, by Chinaka Hodge, at Intersection for the Arts
  9. The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Dominique Lozano, at ACT
  10. Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, by Naomi Iizuka, at Berkeley Rep
  11. O Lovely Glowworm, by Glen Berger, performed by ACT's MFA students
  12. How to Ride a Bus in San Francisco, by various local writers, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  13. …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, by Marcus Gardley, at Cutting Ball
  14. Audience, by Vaclav Havel, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  15. An Accident, by Lydia Stryk, at Magic Theatre
  16. ShortLived 2, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  17. Girlfriend, music and lyrics by Matthew Sweet, book by Todd Almond, at Berkeley Rep
  18. ShortLived 3, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  19. Terroristka, by Rebecca Bella, produced by Threshold Theater
  20. SF Stories, by various local writers, produced by Wily West Productions
  21. Giant Bones, by Stuart Bousel, adapted from stories by Peter S. Beagle, produced by No Nude Men
  22. ShortLived 5, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  23. Best of PlayGround, by various local writers, produced by PlayGround
  24. 1001, by Jason Grote, produced by Just Theater
  25. Forever Never Comes by Enrique Urueta, produced by Crowded Fire
  26. ShortLived Championship, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  27. The Tosca Project, by Carey Perloff and Val Caniparoli, at ACT
  28. Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett, at Cutting Ball
  29. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, by George Bernard Shaw, at California Shakespeare Theater
  30. Agnes the Barbarian, by Jason Harding, produced by Thunderbird Theater
  31. Vanguardia, short experimental plays by Latino playwrights, at Cutting Ball
  32. Pint-Sized Plays, by various local writers (including me), at San Francisco Theater Pub
  33. This World is Good by J. C. Lee, produced by Sleepwalkers Theater
  34. In the Wound, by Jon Tracy, produced by Shotgun Players
  35. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, at Marin Shakespeare
  36. Alice in Wonderland, adapted by Brian Markley, at AtmosTheatre/Theater in the Woods
  37. Wilde Card, short plays by Oscar Wilde, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  38. Trouble in Mind, by Alice Childress, at Aurora Theater
  39. The Brothers Size, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, at Magic Theater
  40. In the Red and Brown Water, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, at Marin Theater Co.
  41. Scapin, by Molière, adapted by Bill Irwin, at ACT
  42. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, music and lyrics by David Yazbek, book by Jeffrey Lane, produced by Lincoln Center Theater on Broadway
  43. Habibi, by Sharif Abu-Hamdeh, at Intersection for the Arts
  44. Or, by Liz Duffy Adams, at Magic Theater
  45. The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Rob Melrose, at Cutting Ball
  46. Menage à Plot: A Surf ‘n’ Turf Adventure, by Kelly Anneken, Megan Cohen and Evan Winchester, produced by PianoFight
  47. Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, at ACT
  48. Boys Together Clinging, adapted by Ryan Hayes from Walt Whitman's poetry, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  49. Ruth and the Sea, by Morgan Ludlow, produced by Wily West Productions
  50. Of the Earth, by Jon Tracy, produced by Shotgun Players
  51. Coraline, book by David Greenspan, music and lyrics by Stephin Merritt, at SF Playhouse
  52. Code Red, by various local writers (including myself), at San Francisco Theater Pub
  53. The Arabian Nights, adapted by Mary Zimmerman, at Berkeley Rep
  1. Cyclops by Euripides, translated by Bennett Fisher, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  2. Medea, by Euripides, at Cutting Ball
  3. Medea, by Seneca, at Cutting Ball
  4. Women Beware Women, by Thomas Middleton, at Cutting Ball
  5. Storm, by August Strindberg, translated by Paul Walsh, at Cutting Ball
  6. The Phoenician Women, by Euripides, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  7. The Antiquarian’s Family, by Carlo Goldoni, translated by Beatrice Basso, at Cutting Ball
  8. Oedipus at Colonus, by Sophocles, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  9. Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  10. Antigone, by Sophocles, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  11. Dionysus Bromios, by Nathan Tucker, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  12. Apollo’s Gift, by Garrett Groeneveld, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  13. The Life Poseidon, by Dana Constance, Bryce Alleman, and Kathy Hicks, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  14. Hermes (The Many Shifts), by Bennett Fisher, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  15. Artemis, by M. R. Fall, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  16. Zeus Story, by Helen Noakes, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  17. Ubu Roi, by Alfred Jarry, translated by Bennett Fisher, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  18. Demeter’s Daughter, by Claire Rice, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  19. Aphrodite: A Romance in Infomercials, by Nirmala Nataraj, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  20. Ares, by Sean Kelly, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  21. Athena, by Ashley Cowan, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  22. Hera: Juno en Victoria, by Stuart Bousel, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  23. Hephaestus, by Evelyn Jean Pine, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  24. Andromache, by Euripides, at Cutting Ball
  25. The Shunned House, adapted by Kai Morrison from H. P. Lovecraft, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  26. Lovecraft Shorts, adapted by Ignacio Zulueta, Nathan Tucker, and Nirmala Nataraj from H. P. Lovecraft, at San Francisco Theater Pub
  27. Epicoene, by Ben Jonson, at Cutting Ball

  1. Becket, by Jean Anouilh
  2. Pericles, by William Shakespeare
  3. The Dunwich Horror, adapted by Stuart Bousel from H. P. Lovecraft, and Lovecraft’s Follies, by James Schevill
  4. Metamorphoses, by Mary Zimmerman
  5. Sweeney Todd, by George Dibden Pitt
  6. Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand (event hosted by moi)
That's 86 events -- and that's not even counting the occasional benefit evening, rehearsal, night of drinking with playwrights, impromptu bullshit session about the state of the American theater, or the time I spent working on my own writing. 86 plays in 365 days -- that means that on 23.5% of the days of the year, I was doing something theatrical. MY GOD. I have never before been confronted with such overwhelming evidence of my insanity. It's amazing that I got anything else accomplished.

And some awards/highlights/opinions:

Top 3 Full Productions, Unranked (listed chronologically)
Mirrors in Every Corner
The Brothers Size

The Tempest
The Next Five:
Oedipus El Rey
Giant Bones
Mrs. Warren's Profession
In the Wound
Trouble in Mind
Excellent in 2009, Excellent Again in 2010 (or, Rounding out the Top 10):
Krapp's Last Tape
The Arabian Nights

Favorite Musical:
I Enjoyed It, Despite the Critics
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
The Tempest
Favorite Short Plays:
Inner Dialogue, by Kirk Shimano (part of PianoFight's ShortLived)
The Philadelphian
, by Sam Leichter (part of the Bay One-Acts)

Three Little Words
, by Tim Bauer (part of the Bay One-Acts)
Favorite Olympians Festival Plays:
I Enjoyed Being Introduced to the Work of These Playwrights:
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Chinaka Hodge
Alice Childress
Marcus Gardley
Luis Alfaro
Sharif Abu-Hamdeh
and all of the Olympians writers
I could go on and on (I haven't even mentioned my favorite performers, or directors, or indelible little MOMENTS that I will cherish forever)... but maybe, instead, I should put 2010 behind me and take a bit of a breather! Indeed, I have a feeling that in 2011 I will be a slightly more judicious theatergoer. I'm not jaded or anything -- I enjoyed a lot of what I saw in 2010, and only saw a few real duds. However, I know that I can't keep this up forever. 2010 was my year to binge on San Francisco theater. 2011 just might be my year to retrench, see a bit less theater, work a bit more on my own stuff (so that my own plays can start appearing on these kinds of lists in 2012 or 2013...)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pagan Christmas, or Magic is Everywhere

My parents came to visit me over the holiday weekend. It was the first time I hosted them for Christmas, rather than going to my childhood home -- which led to some "Wow! I'm an adult!" moments.

Religion-wise, the three of us range from "Catholic-raised agnostic who wants to be more spiritual" (me) to "Attends Catholic church but is cagey whether she actually believes it" (Mom) to "Liberal, believing Catholic who also enjoys Eastern spiritual traditions" (Dad). So we didn't mind having what my mother called a "pagan Christmas." On Christmas Eve, we went to see The Arabian Nights at Berkeley Rep -- i.e., we journeyed to the People's Republic of Berkeley to see a play rife with ribaldry, based on folklore from the Muslim world. How un-American of us!

The Arabian Nights was just as good this time as it was nearly two years ago, and I was so happy to be able to share it with my parents. (That's one of the negatives of theater: as such an ephemeral art form, it is rare to be able to share your favorite theater pieces with everyone you love.) Even the prologue -- the transformation of the theater from a bare stage to a rich panoply of Oriental carpets and hanging lamps -- moved me to tears. And I cried again at the ending, a parable about the importance of telling stories and sharing one's wisdom. The moral of this tale is that stories "come from God." (And how moving, how ineffably moving, that this is the first time the word "God" is used in the play. In the other scenes, the characters consistently say "Allah" to mean "God" -- and Westerners are apt to forget that the two words are synonyms, because "Allah" sounds so exotic. Then, in the last scene, they say "God," and it socks you in the gut.)

So, maybe I'm not a pagan after all. Because theater -- intensely felt, humanistic theater -- is my religion. Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights is a religious experience and the perfect show on which to end my busiest-ever year of theatergoing.

Last week I participated in the holiday Theater Pub show, a collection of monologues and scenes about "How I Learned the Truth about Santa Claus." And that got me thinking about how Santa Claus himself is a form of theater -- a costume we put on, a lie we tell, a charade we keep up, a character we portray, because it makes the world a more interesting and entertaining and happy place. We talk about "the magic of theater," but we also talk about "the magic of Christmas," and in both cases we are referring to a similar kind of emotion. The red velvet curtain of the theater bespeaks the same promise of wonder and delight as the red velvet suit of Santa Claus.

When I was a high school freshman (ten years ago!) I was in a community theater show called Holiday Magic Breakfast Theatre. We were a bunch of teenagers dressing up and singing Christmas carols and Disney songs for an audience of children ten-and-under, serving them breakfast, and concluding with a visit from Santa. At the time, I thought that the title (indeed, the whole show) was pretty cheesy. I wore a tacky calico Christmas dress and pranced around the room belting out "Winter Wonderland" while little kiddies and their parents ate soggy pancakes. But now that I'm older, I can appreciate it more, what we did -- it may not have been Great Theater, but it got such a warm response every time. And "Holiday Magic Breakfast Theater" -- are there four lovelier words in the English language?

Santa Claus is magic.
Theater is magic, and magic is theater, as Shakespeare teaches us in The Tempest. (And, theater is therapy is magic, as Cutting Ball's The Tempest taught me earlier this year.)
Theater is storytelling.
Stories come from God.
God is love.
Love is magic.
God is omnipresent.
Theater is Santa Claus is magic is love is God is omnipresent.

Happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"The New Yorker" and I Have the Same Ideas

In the skit/performance-art piece/year-end Theater Pub silliness that I performed on Monday night, I wrote a joke involving Santa Claus and Wikileaks. The premise of my skit was that I had only recently learned that Santa wasn't real, and the proof came from checking out Wikileaks:
I thought, there must be some diplomatic cables leaked from the North Pole, from Santa’s workshop! I thought he must have a highly trained staff of diplomatic elves, in little business suits—he is on friendly terms with just about every government in the world, and that is not easy to do! I was sure I’d find some communiqué where he pleaded with Kim Jong Il to be allowed to visit North Korea this year… or maybe once some of Rudolph’s reindeer shit accidentally got into Vladimir Putin’s stocking and nearly provoked an international incident! But there weren’t any cables. Just a message from that Julian Assange saying “Seriously, it doesn’t even count as a leak to tell you that Santa isn’t real.” So that’s it! There’s no Santa! No reindeer! No cute little diplomatic elves! None of it is real…
And then, two days before the performance, I received my holiday issue of The New Yorker in the mail, and discovered a humor column about Santa and Wikileaks--this time purporting to publish cables leaked by "a disgruntled elf" that revealed the inner workings of Santa's regime. Subsequently, I have also seen "Santa and Wikileaks" jokes pop up in a viral video and on Huffington Post, which means that this trope is officially played out.

But anyway, I was not happy when I saw the New Yorker humor piece. I thought I would either have to cut one of my best jokes, or have everyone think that I stole it from The New Yorker. In the end, the joke stayed, and nobody accused me of plagiarism. (After all, I had given the joke the twist of "I thought there'd be Santa documents on Wikileaks, but there weren't," whereas most iterations of this joke are the straightforward "Santa's Naughty List gets published on Wikileaks! Oh noes!") But for a few days there, it felt like a playwright's worst nightmare: someone "scoops" you on an idea, or a premise, or a joke, that you'd worked hard on!

Meanwhile, I've been working through the New Yorker holiday double issue, and on my commute home today I read the short story, "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders. It is a terrific story -- one of my favorites of the year. It concerns a facility where imprisoned criminals are used as guinea pigs to test powerful, mind-altering pharmaceuticals -- including a drug that can alter your brain chemistry to make you fall madly in love with whoever you're sitting next to. So it's sci-fi, but the kind that uses sci-fi tropes to explore what it means to be human. It is very powerful.

Now, without revealing too much of what I'm working on, I recently began writing a play based on the idea that, in the near future, scientists will develop a "love potion" drug that will alter your brain chemistry to make you fall in love with a specific person. It will use a vaguely sci-fi premise to explore what it means to be human, what it means to love, et cetera.

So, naturally, I was a bit annoyed that Saunders had written such a great story, using a similar premise! (And twice in one issue, the New Yorker publishes something similar to something I'm working on... what are the odds of that?) However, I don't see it as a reason to give up on my own play. For one thing, Saunders' story goes in a very different direction than I intend my play to go. I've gained a reputation this year for being cruel to my characters, but the ending of "Escape from Spiderhead" is far darker and crueler and more brilliantly twisted than my own play will be.

For another, I think the Santa/Wikileaks thing annoyed me because I didn't find the humor column in The New Yorker particularly funny. So, I thought, not only would people assume that I had stolen a joke from The New Yorker, they would assume I had stolen a lame joke from The New Yorker. Whereas, because George Saunders is so awesome, I wouldn't mind it if people thought I stole my premise from him, as long as I developed it differently. I could call it a homage, and people would respect that!

There's an excellent interview with George Saunders on the New Yorker Book Bench blog. I really liked what he had to say about the ending of his story, in response to a question about whether his protagonist makes the "right" decision:
I don’t know that it was the right one. But I think it was the most interesting one. That’s a funny thing about writing stories. We have that illusion that we are “deciding” what to make a character do, in order to “convey our message” or something like that. But, at least in my experience, you are often more like a river-rafting guide who’s been paid a bonus to purposely steer your clients into the roughest possible water. It’s as if the writer has to keep asking, What choice is going to give off the maximum bumpage? And if you go that way—in the direction of the biggest bump—then the thematics of the story will change; but it’s not really your decision to make. The energy of the story dictates it.
That's how I often feel as a writer -- it's why I have this tendency to be cruel to my characters, to put them in agonizing situations and keep raising the stakes. Cruelty causes maximum bumpage.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

See Me Do Performance Art on Monday

On Monday, I'll participate in my second Theater Pub show of 2010, and this time, I won't just be a writer -- I'll be a performer! It'll be my first time onstage in 2.5 years, and I'm (intentionally) going to make a complete fool of myself. All in the service of comedy.

The show is Code Red, an exploration of "the moment Kris Kringle lost his jingle and how the mystery of Santa was spoiled forever," conceived and directed by my friend Leigh Shaw. Leigh and I perform a scene together (written by me with input from her), and there are also hilarious monologues, scenes, and poetry from Kai Morrison, Dan Kurtz, Charles Lewis III, Maura McGowan, John Paul Poritz, Sunil Patel, and Xanadu Bruggers -- and comedy Christmas songs by McPuzo and Trotsky, who are quickly becoming the bards of Theater Pub.

Theater Pub has been a big part of my life in 2010, and I can't think of a better way to celebrate the holidays than to behave like a complete idiot in front of all my new theater friends!

Oh, and just 'cause I like to be really pretentious, I'm not calling my piece in Code Red a "play," I'm calling it "performance art." That's because I'm not playing a separate, fictitious character, I'm playing a version of myself (and so is Leigh), and the whole thing gets very meta. We expose one lie only to tell a whole new set of lies. Fourth walls will be broken. Minds will be blown.

Theater Pub: Code Red is a one-night-only event, 8 PM on Monday December 20. As always, it's at Cafe Royale, at Post & Leavenworth Streets, San Francisco.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Notes on Two Theatrical Sequels

There's been a lot of talk about how 2010-2011 is the year of multi-part plays in Bay Area theater. Three theaters teaming up to present The Brother/Sister Plays, Shotgun producing both The Salt Plays and The Norman Conquests, Sleepwalkers producing the This World and After trilogy... there's a lot of theater to see and, as you can tell, I haven't always been good about writing up what I see. It's even worse when I've written an enthusiastic blog post about the first play in a duology or trilogy, and then neglect to share my thoughts after I see the second play. Herewith, some catching up...

Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet (at ACT, closed in November) -- I basically enjoyed this play, and after the harrowing drama of In the Red & Brown Water and The Brothers Size, it is nice to know that Tarell Alvin McCraney can write a coming-of-age comedy. As I recall, there were some hilarious lines in this play. True to its title, one of the best words to describe this play is "sweet." However, the ending of it was incredibly anticlimactic. It would have been anticlimactic if Marcus were just a stand-alone play (the characters spend all of Act II worrying that a Katrina-like hurricane is going to hit their bayou town, but the hurricane never shows up) and it's even worse considering that Marcus is not a stand-alone play, but the conclusion of an ambitious trilogy. We know from Red and Brown Water and Brothers Size that McCraney can write unflinching, emotionally gripping finales... why did he falter when writing the ending of Marcus?

Also, part of me wonders whether ACT shouldn't have produced In the Red and Brown Water and Marin produced Marcus, instead of the other way around. Red & Brown Water is the biggest play of the trilogy -- the most characters, the most overtly mythological themes, the most stylized. So mightn't it be better in ACT, the biggest theater; and mightn't Marcus, a gentle comedy, be better in the medium-sized Marin Theater? Then again, ACT has the most tickets to sell and the most subscribers to please. Under those circumstances, Marcus is probably the most crowd-pleasing show of the trilogy, and the safest bet.

I really need to buy and read the whole trilogy of plays now; despite my occasional caveats, this is exciting writing, and I am sure I can learn from it.

The Salt Plays, Part II: Of the Earth (at Shotgun Players through January 16) -- After producing writer-director Jon Tracy's innovative Iliad adaptation In the Wound at John Hinkel Park this summer, Shotgun presents the sequel, an adaptation of The Odyssey, in their indoor space. One of the most thrilling aspects of In the Wound was its huge cast and innovatively staged fight scenes; I feared that Of the Earth, an indoor play with just eight actors, would be more sedate and conventional. I shouldn't have worried, though: the staging is imaginative, very physical (the taiko drums return!) and makes good use of the space. For instance, video is incorporated into the production, something that obviously could not happen at John Hinkel Park. A five-woman ensemble plays all of the roles besides Odysseus, Telemachus, and Penelope: they transform themselves into Greek gods and goddesses, Odysseus' crew, Circe, the suitors. You haven't lived till you've seen five women, using nothing but their bodies, some ladders, and a lighting instrument, come together and characterize the Cyclops. It is an amazing theatrical moment.

The Salt Plays are a very unconventional take on Greek mythology. For instance, the gods are given different motivations than they have in Homer: the driving force of the play is Zeus' insistence that Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena must atone for having caused the Trojan War, and must punish Odysseus for killing Iphigenia. It is exciting to watch such a fresh take on such old myths, but some plot points in both In the Wound and Of the Earth were unclear. At times, Jon Tracy seems to pack too much into each of these plays -- the text is dense, and on top of that the staging is complex and physical.

I love what Tracy does with most of the mythological figures, but I don't like the way he's characterized Penelope. Usually, Penelope is one of my favorite characters -- seriously, read The Odyssey and be amazed at how such a strong, well-rounded female character appears in a poem that was written in the eighth century B.C. But in the Salt Plays, she seems kind of one-dimensional and weak. The play captures the part of her that is a loving mother and faithful wife, but not the intelligence and cunning that draws Odysseus to her (and she to him). Tracy presents Odysseus as an antihero, full of flaws, and Penelope as the perfect woman -- whereas the The Odyssey makes the point that Odysseus and Penelope are an evenly matched pair. (A very radical point, for such an ancient work.) I love how The Salt Plays treat the other female characters, and in particular how Of the Earth has actresses portray Zeus and Poseidon -- it's just a shame that, in this telling, Penelope becomes a more conventional ingenue.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Pleiades" and Other Olympians Festival News

My lack of blogging over the past week can be attributed to a busy work schedule, the approaching holiday season, and my taking time to work on other theater/writing projects.

But maybe you'd like to hear about these other projects?

I told you a couple of months ago that I am associate-producing the 2011 San Francisco Olympians Festival, and that we were seeking submissions. But I forgot to give you an update: we've announced our 2011 lineup and performance dates! Unlike the 2010 Festival, which featured 12 full-length plays, the 2011 festival is a mix of full-lengths, one-acts, and shorts, all based on Greek mythology that deals with the planets and constellations.

The reading of my full-length play, Pleiades, will take place October 22 of next year. Full schedule here.

I've started work on Pleiades -- I love the first part of writing a play, when you can feel the characters taking on a life of their own, and the play taking on a distinctive tone/style/vocabulary. The play is defining itself, and not yet giving me grief and causing me frustration... we'll see how long this lasts!

We have our first writers' meeting tomorrow evening and I'm very excited to meet everyone and see what they're bringing to the table.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Believe it or Not, I Enjoyed the "Women on the Verge" Musical

Yes, even though Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown got awful reviews, when I saw a preview performance of it toward the end of October, I had a good time. And lest you think that I was merely dazzled because I hadn't seen a Broadway musical in four years, the friend who I was with also liked it... and she lives in New York and sees practically every Broadway show.

Women on the Verge is not going on my list of "favorite" or "greatest" musicals, but I enjoyed myself, and without feeling like I was enjoying something that was "beneath me." As I read through the collected reviews on StageGrade, my opinions probably align best with John Lahr's or Jesse Oxenfeld's (both in the "B" range). I liked how the show is a genuine musical comedy that didn't feel the need to poke fun at the fact that it's a musical comedy. It felt old-fashioned, in the sense that it's a musical that mostly just aimed to please, but it wasn't hokey, or a nostalgia trip. I enjoyed the farce plot and the crazy complications and the emphasis on female characters.

My friend and I agreed that the Women on the Verge creative team must have had Nine on the brain. Just like Nine, Women on the Verge is based on a well-known foreign film that came out about 20 years before the musical did. These shows offer Americans the chance to see a show with "exotic, passionate" Mediterranean flavor, eavesdropping on the messed-up love lives of a big ensemble of characters. And both have lots of great roles for women.

(Mightn't it be fun to produce Nine and Women on the Verge in rep?) (This is why I am not a producer.) (Oops, except that I am.)

Probably my favorite part of the show was the cast that Lincoln Center Theatre assembled to bring the outsize characters to life. Patti LuPone plays Lucia, who is at least as crazy and as vengeful as that other famous Lucia (I mean the one from Lammermoor). She kicks up her heels to a '60s-style pop number in Act One, gives the full diva treatment to a ballad of lament called "Invisible" in Act Two, and makes all of her one-liners more funny than they have any right to be. LuPone has pointed out that this is her first time creating a role in a new musical in 35 years, and she's obviously having the time of her life.

Even better is Laura Benanti, who, as everyone will tell you, steals the show in the role of Candela, a ditzy fashion model. She is gorgeous and hilarious, and her patter song "Model Behavior" is the highlight of the night. There aren't enough patter songs -- particularly patter songs for women -- in the modern musical theater! Indeed, David Yazbek's score could have used a few more of them, especially if he wants to convey the sense of being "on the verge of a nervous breakdown." The main character, Pepa, played by Sherie Rene Scott, mostly has bland ballads to sing--and Scott, la pobrecita, is unfortunately upstaged by special effects (a burning bed) during her big solo.

The Broadway staging featured elaborate projections that have been the source of much criticism. However, because my seat was high up in the balcony, I didn't really notice the projections upstage, because I was mostly focused on the actors downstage. Perhaps this is one show where it's better to sit in the balcony than in the orchestra?

I won't comment too much more on Women on the Verge, because it was still a work in progress the night I saw it (October 24). I gather that the opening number of the show is now a lively salute to Madrid, but when I saw it, the "Madrid" song was at the start of Act II, and Act I opened with all the women singing a yearning song called "My Crazy Heart." I also hope that the production team had a chance to work up a better set for the scenes that take place at the courthouse. As I mentioned, the show is full of colorful, shifting projections. But, during the courthouse scenes, the stage was bare and white, save two drops painted with sketchy Ionic columns, like something from a high-school play. Hideous and very cheap-looking, especially compared with the color and motion that otherwise filled the stage.

As I said, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is not a great musical--the score just doesn't contain enough first-rate songs. But it was a perfectly entertaining evening of theater, and I wouldn't dissuade anyone from going to see it, particularly if they want to see some excellent musical-comedy performances from LuPone and Benanti.