Archive for June, 2009

Gorky, Cherry, David, Julie and Alice

June 9, 2009

I haven’t posted to this blog recently because I’ve been pretty busy. But I have still managed to see at least one play a week during that time. I’m going to write some thoughts about a few of them to try and get caught up, and then I hope to begin posting again regularly. The best play I have seen so far this year was ACT’s production of Maxim Gorky’s “Philistines” at the ZEUM. The play was written in Russia right before the revolution, and as I watched it I could feel the tension and passion of that time and place. The whole story took place in one family’s living room, with a cast featuring veteran San Francisco actors and third year grad students from the ACT Conservatory. I was so excited that I went looking for a copy of the play to read it. The only one I could find was a 1906 translation that was called “The Smug Citizen,” and it was only available on Google Books. So I read the whole thing online, which was another new experience for me. 

On March 4th I went to The Marsh on Valencia. Cherry Zonkowski did a solo performance called “Reading My Dad’s Porn and French Kissing the Dog” for the “Marsh Rising” series. Her title was kind of misleading, because that was only what a small portion of the show was about. A more accurate title might have been something like “The Secret Life of a Freshman Comp Professor.” Cherry wrote and starred in the show. She is a talented storyteller and a natural actress – she successfully played many different characters while simultaneously narrating what was going on. I think this was her first time on stage and it was an impressive debut.

More recently I saw two plays that had similar structures: They both took place in one room in one night, featured drinking, deception, and (off-stage) sex, and had casts of three people. The first one was “Skylight,” written by David Hare, and it was at the Shotgun Player’s Ashby Stage. The acting in this was awesome. It took place in contemporary London, and started off slowly, with lots of details about what it’s like to be young and poor in a small apartment on a cold winter night. I liked the way the play was written, and how it gradually revealed the history between the characters. By the end of it I had gotten to know them and understood why they behaved the way they did. It had an ending that was unexpected but an appropriate conclusion to the story.

The next week I saw Aurora Theatre’s staging of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” This was the seasonal opposite of “Skylight,” taking place on a hot Summer Solstice somewhere in the country in Sweden in the 1800s. “Miss Julie” was a horror story, featuring miserable, manipulative, unlikable characters who seemed to have no redeeming qualities. But for some reason I enjoyed it – I’m not sure why. It was definitely a beautiful production, with a great cast, set and costumes. Perhaps I liked it because after Miss Julie slit her throat open onstage I was happy to return to the world I live in, and grateful that I didn’t have to stay in Strindberg’s. (Apparently he wrote this play while on an absinthe binge.)

And finally on the last Sunday in May I had the pleasure of seeing The Move-About Theatre Company presenting “Alice in Wonderland.” I really learned a lot about what makes theatre work by watching this. I realized that theatre is all about imagination. Because when watching a play it’s obvious we’re just watching people playing parts, and we’re in the same place they are. But if all the various elements of the production fall into place, we can imagine we’re somewhere else and even though we know it isn’t real on a certain level it seems like it is. This is why I like going to see plays more than movies these days, a reversal of a lifetime habit. Because even with the best of today’s digital visual and sound technology, a movie doesn’t stimulate the imagination like a live play does.

Which brings us back to “Alice.” It was staged in Golden Gate Park. The company were all high school students, and they found these various existing locations in the Park that worked perfectly as sets for scenes in Wonderland. We, the audience, followed Alice around as she fell down the rabbit hole and yes, it seemed like we were actually there. The cast was quite good, all of them somehow managing to change costumes and show up at the next scene in character. And the whole thing also worked (probably unintentionally) as a tribute to San Francisco’s psychedelic past. Because the Jefferson Airplane used to live right across the street from the Park, at 2400 Fulton. And there they were – the White Rabbit and Hookah smoking caterpillar!

The play started at 6:30 in the evening and when it was over I looked around at everyone in the audience. They were all bundled up in layers of coats, sweaters and scarves. And it was windy, and damp, and just freezing out. And we had all just had a great time watching a play. And I was so happy, because that could only mean one thing: It’s summer in San Francisco!