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Postcards from the Fringe: ‘Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Diver’ and ‘Swamp Juice’

From "Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, showing through August 28 at the Underbelly as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, takes place sometime in the near future. Global warming has caused sea levels to massively rise, and the remaining humans live in rickety stilt houses perched atop skyscrapers. The performance’s opening sequence shows our hero, Alvin Sputnik, at the bedside of his love, Elena. He sings her a simple song on his ukulele as her soul (a point of light) flies out the window and into the ocean. Alvin is despondent, until he sees an ad on television calling for volunteers to dive to the ocean floor on a dangerous mission, one with the potential to save humanity. With nothing to lose, he straps on a diving suit and heads down, hoping to find Elena.

Creator Tim Watts serves as narrator, puppeteer, actor and bard. Evoking the porthole of a submarine, a circular white screen at center stage is rendered alternately transparent or opaque, depending on where the light is coming from. At times animated sequences are projected onto the screen; sometimes we see Watts moving behind the screen, his face illuminated by a headlamp. By the same token, Alvin is portrayed in a variety of ways — sometimes as a cartoon, sometimes as a shadow behind the screen, sometimes as a puppet (or several different puppets), and sometimes by Watts himself.

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Postcards from the Fringe: Blind Summit Theatre’s ‘The Table’

From "The Table," Blind Summit Theatre's show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

At Blind Summit Theatre’s The Table, showing at Pleasance Dome through August 28 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a puppet explains the basic principles of Japanese tabletop puppetry.

Pacing back and forth on the white table serving as his stage — as his entire world—the nameless puppet demonstrates, and everyone can see,  how he is operated by three puppeteers—one for head and left hand (Mark Down, who also performs the voice), one for rump and right hand (Sean Garratt), and one for the feet (Nick Barnes). All three are on stage, fully visible, dressed in unassuming black. There are no strings in Bunraku puppetry; the puppeteers’ hands directly control the puppet, in this case a simple white cloth body and cardboard head fashioned to look like an old bearded man with tired eyes (at one point the puppet screams, “I have a backstory! I used to be a box!”). The face doesn’t move: the puppet’s eyes don’t roll back and forth in the manner of marionettes, the mouth doesn’t do that horrible nutcracker thing.

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At Odds with the Family: Aurora Theatre Company’s ‘The Metamorphosis’

Alexander Crowther as Gregor Samsa in 'The Metamorphosis' at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

The most heartbreaking moment in David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson’s theatrical adaptation of The Metamorphosis (at the Aurora Theater, in its first professional American production) is at the beginning, when Gregor’s sister Grete (Megan Trout) discovers that Gregor’s shoes are still on the carpet. It is past seven o’ clock; Gregor should be long gone to work. The family stops short; they had just finished setting three tidy places for breakfast. They stare at the shoes in shared astonishment, bordering on horror. Even before Gregor’s repulsive transformation, his family is accustomed to eating without him. They are happiest when he isn’t there.

Kafka’s novella is told from the perspective of its main character — of Gregor’s family, we only know what we can overhear through the bedroom door. This new adaptation inverts that perspective, focusing on Gregor’s family. Aurora’s intimate space (set by Nina Ball) creates a feeling of stifling familial claustrophobia. A crowded living and dining area on ground level connects to Gregor’s bedroom by a poky set of stairs. The bedroom, open to the audience, is pitched at an angle towards the stage floor. On that first morning, Gregor (Alexander Crowther) struggles to get out of bed (the eight o’ clock train has my name on it!), sliding down the length of the bed frame and ending up in a heap at the footboard, cleverly suggesting the plight of an insect on its back.

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Remixing Chekhov: Theatre Movement Bazaar’s ‘Anton’s Uncles’

From left to right, Mark Skeens, Jacxon L. Ryan, Derrick Oshana, and Ernesto Cayabyab in "Anton's Uncles"

Anton’s Uncles is what its director Tina Kronis calls a “movement score.” Distilling and adding new material to Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — a century-old play about the members of a country estate frustrated by their guests, a stuffy professor and his enthrallingly beautiful wife — Anton’s Uncles amplifies that play’s themes of hope and unsatisfied desires. Co-writers Kronis and Richard Alger strip Chekhov’s play of realism, retaining a skeletal plot and then, like decoupage, decorate it with a boisterous concoction of poetry, dance, music, and spectacle. As subtext and metaphor eclipse verisimilitude, Uncles skirts unintelligibility. But to an audience like that of the bi-annual FURY Factory Festival in San Francisco last week – an audience familiar with post-modern lexicons — Anton’s Uncles yields rich layers of exquisite wit, tragedy, and art.

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Family Moments: Hand2Mouth Theatre’s ‘Everyone Who Looks Like You’

Liz Hayden, Erin Leddy, Jerry Tischleder, Julie Hammond, and Faith Helma in Hand2Mouth Theatre's "Everyone Who Looks Like You"

The first thing to know about Everyone Who Looks Like You, a piece exploring family by the award-winning Hand2Mouth Theatre from Portland, Oregon, is that is has no plot. Written by Alex Huebsch, Marc Friedman, and Maesie Speer, with material provided by Hand2Mouth’s company members, the play is structured around a sequence of monologues, vignettes, music, and dance concerning each member of a fictional family, one composed from anecdotes, surveys, and improvisations – the result of more than a year’s worth of workshops. The resulting performance is a borderline cavalcade of nostalgia and chagrin. Though sometimes anemic from lack of plot, Everyone Who Looks Like You (which ran at the Jewish Theatre from June 17 to June 19 as part of the FURY Factory, a bi-annual festival curated by San Francisco’s foolsFURY) interrogates its particular brood, yielding a unique and affecting blend of comedy and epiphany.

Director Jonathan Walters focuses exclusively on the condition rather than the story of the family. In typical Hand2Mouth style, Walters takes a topic, a character, a moment, and explodes it into its extremes. A character will confess her vulnerabilities only to be interrupted by minutes of farting, followed by a shift to slashing insults hurled between siblings. Walters omits plot, scene, and emotional arc, instead presenting instances of reflections, some of them powerful, such as when the cast sings Faith Helma’s original song “Never Told You This.”  “When you to go sleep,” they sing, “I watch your face, just to see if I am there … but I can’t find you anywhere.” The song is an eerie and touching reminder of the gulf between parents and children, the longing to span it, and the self-projections employed toward achieving that. But without a clear structure, the performance can’t help its wandering tone. The reflections, though poignant, assume equal weight instead of escalating emotional investment.

Still, Everyone brims with entertaining theatricality. Characters dress and denude on stage.  The set transforms from a kitchen, to a living room, to a front lawn. The audience swings from being a receiver of intimate confessions to being voyeurs peering through venetian blinds. The acting is at times saccharine and flat, becoming pantomime, and the set and lighting design did not adapt well to a small venue, but the ensemble performs with endearing sincerity and high energy, holding our attention and driving the piece forward. If nothing else, Hand2Mouth’s style is fun and playful, a refreshing quality in theater.

The FURY Factory continues until June 26, and offers a variety of other performances from West Coast theater companies.

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What to Make of Memories? Pig Iron Theatre’s ‘Chekhov Lizardbrain’

James Sugg in "Chekhov Lizardbrain" at Z Space

It’s easy to see why Pig Iron’s Chekhov Lizardbrain, running for a very limited time this weekend in San Francisco at Z Space, was named one of the New York Times’ top theater events of 2008. The performance vivisects a human mind (no small feat) while drawing the audience into a strange and gripping voyage through the “menagerie of human possibility.” Successfully experimenting with style and substance while retaining heart, Lizardbrain leaves one wandering out of the theater feeling transformed.

The play, devised by Robert Quillen Camp and the entire Pig Iron production team, concerns Demitri, an autistic man who meditates on the scant events that led him to live alone in a cold, rural house. Each event is presented from two points of view: Demitri’s actual memory of the event and his attempted theatricalization of the memory, in which characters from his life deliver their lines to the audience in a neo-classical style. The effort to retell his life according to Chekhov’s “five rules of dramatization”  — every play should only be four acts, each play should have one central symbol, always articulate who owns the house, all tragedy should happen offstage, and keep it clean, keep it civil — fails. Demitri soon finds himself alone on stage trying to organize and understand his experiences. He eventually concludes that self-examination is precarious at best: “…how thin the wires of the circus…don’t look down.” Through its interrogation of memory, psyche, and performance, Lizardbrain addresses the questions of whether what we remember is actually what happened and whether our subconscious is in control.

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Strange Transformation: Shotgun Players’ ‘Care of Trees’

Liz Sklar and Patrick Russell in E. Hunter Spreen's "Care of Trees"

How do you tell the story of a woman’s transformation into a tree? What does that even look like, especially on stage? Does it happen by degrees — does she begin by becoming something more pliable, like a strand of ivy or a sapling, or an artichoke? Playwright E. Hunter Spreen, in Care of Trees (at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage through June 26), tells the story of budding arboriform Georgia Swift (Liz Sklar) by showing the distance Georgia must travel from her partner, Travis Dekalb (Patrick Russell), in order to fulfill her destiny. Illness becomes the metaphor (or the medium) through which Travis and Georgia, at first, understand what is happening, and the tension between them feels familiar and true — as they investigate first medical, then psychological, and finally spiritual causes for Georgia’s malaise, Georgia moves towards acceptance, and Travis feels abandoned.

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Tennessee Williams’ Bird-Girl of Glorious Hill: Theater Review

Beth Wilmurt, Marcia Pizzo, and Thomas Gorrebeeck in "The Eccentricities of a Nightingale"

The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a lesser-known work by Tennessee Williams being staged by the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, is the story of Alma Winemiller, the odd, intelligent daughter of the Episcopalian rector in the town of Glorious Hill, Mississippi. When the play opens, Alma’s attempts to fit in are driving her frantic, while even her most modest pleasures (organizing a cultural club, feeding the birds in the town square) make her an object of ridicule. Her father, Reverend Winemiller (played by Charles Dean), suffers continually under the burden of his mad wife and the scandal of her sister’s elopement with Otto Schwarzkopf and the Musee Mechanique. Alma (Beth Wilmurt) does her best to fulfill her mother’s duties and make “a life out of little accomplishments,” until thrown into crisis by her sudden attraction to the town’s most eligible bachelor, the young Dr. John Buchanan (Thomas Gorrebeeck), whose over-attentive mother (Marcia Pizzo) is determined Johnny should make a good marriage.

One of the most weirdly sexual moments in the play occurs when Alma tries to serve John a glass of eggnog; her fingers slip and the spoon is “completely submerged” in the liquid. She cannot abide the intimacy of dipping her fingers into the liquor to retrieve the spoon; the awkwardness of the moment nearly sends her into a panic attack before John offers to fish the spoon out with his “surgeon’s fingers.” In the end, Alma surprises us by understanding much more about her desires and her prospects than her artlessness and naivete would suggest.

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Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and Other Plays by Will Eno: Theater Review

Danielle O'Hare as Lady Grey

In Lady Grey (in ever lower light), one of three new short plays by Will Eno performed together by San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theatre, the title character never introduces herself.  The only person mentioned by name in the piece is a little girl named Jennifer — because according to Lady Grey (Danielle O’Hare)  “a story needs a girl, and a girl needs a name.” As the piece develops and we learn of Jennifer’s difficult day at show-and-tell, we come to think of Lady Grey as the name given to a collection of verbal tricks designed to protect and conceal Jennifer.

At the beginning, the Lady’s monologue wanders. Sometimes she talks about Jennifer, sometimes about a man in a blue shirt, and sometimes she gently interrogates the audience (“all you beautiful white people”). Her discourse constantly reverses itself — she says something and then suggests it’s too trite, she makes herself vulnerable and then attributes lewd thoughts to her audience. She’s both tragic and completely untrustworthy; even empathy might be a trap. Continue reading

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