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Cristóbal McKinney

Doing the Right Thing: ‘Body Awareness’ at the Aurora Theatre

Howard Swain (left), Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick, and Patrick Russell in "Body Awareness"

As befits the first play by a young, promising playwright, Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, performing at the Aurora Theatre, is ambitious, spry, inquisitive, and restless. Before launching Baker’s award-studded career, Body Awareness appeared in the 2007 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, which showcased two playwrights who would go on to win Obies: Baker and Samuel D. Hunter. Five years later, the play returns under the direction of Joy Carlin, who balances the script’s constant intellectual and physical dynamism by keeping it zipping about, like a juggler circling on a unicycle.

The play, set on the campus of a Vermont small college, has two plots. The first deals with a lesbian couple—Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a feminist professor, and her partner, Joyce (Jeri Lynn Cohen)—struggling with their marriage and Jared (Patrick Russell), Joyce’s adult son who has Asperger’s Syndrome. And the second stems from the couple’s hosting a male photographer (Howard Swain) who specializes in nude photos of women. Out of this situation, great philosophical questions clash: feminism versus patriarchal ownership, rationalism versus semi-mystic spiritualist hedonism, and the body versus the mind.

Baker’s characters tend to fall neatly along a spectrum, spending most scenes conscripting grand ideas into their personal quarrels. They all seem obsessed with who is “right” or what is “the right thing to do.” But the play’s purpose seems to be in humorously displaying the curious juxtapositions of contemporary life, and not trying to fix them. At one point, a character exclaims in disbelief, “A goy teaching a Jew how to Shabbas. On a Tuesday.” The audience laughs.

The performance and design of the play is solid. Cohen, Resnick, Russell, and Swain deserve praise for eschewing caricature while flirting with strong and comic physical characterizations. Kent Dorsey’s set successfully distinguishes, within a small stage and without moving much furniture, the plays’ five different settings. (But why does the bedroom have no pillows?)

Carlin puts the play’s script at the fore. She keeps the tempo high, conscripting all other production elements to maintaining a clip. The play’s classical wordiness (major actions are described, occurring offstage; characters frequently explain ambiguous stage activities instead of letting them stand for themselves) encourages this directorial choice, but that doesn’t ameliorate the chaos and the restlessness sparked by the script’s numerous philosophical contests. Carlin makes no choice to highlight one thought or through-line over another, leaving them all to compete with each other, creating an aura of both breathlessness and immobility, and deflating the ultimate resolution.

Despite this, the play is clever, nuanced, and intriguing. Body Awareness swims along, bringing plenty of comedy (and entertainment) to each scene. Though Baker excels at constructing humorous pairings of people and philosophy, her point isn’t the comedy of those arrangements. Instead, she is about the unity of opposites, the OK-ness in their existing together. Baker, in her typically neat way, sums up these thoughts in the play’s final scene, when one character reads from a book about how the body and mind are one, how we must expand our sense of the mind to include the body. Baker’s graceful implication is that such awareness creates true unity.

Body Awareness runs through March 11 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

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Blurring and Obscuring: ‘Allegories of the Human Figure’ at the Sandra Lee Gallery


"Waiting #102" by Brett Amory, oil on panel, 24 inches by 48 inches

Allegories of the Human Figure, on exhibit at the Sandra Lee Gallery until Nov. 27, showcases a medley of attractive styles and a wide variety of ontological concerns by several artists.

Brett Amory and David Maxim investigate relationships between figure and environment. (Maxim, along with Randy Brennan, was added to the show just before its opening.) In Amory’s “Waiting #102,” part of his ongoing study titled Waiting, he interrogates the human form’s connections with artificial spaces. He blurs a solitary figure amid a murky urban environment, transporting us to a shadow world, a nowhere and everywhere place. Anonymous, box-like buildings drip and smear over each other, dominated by swaths of white or black. It is unclear if the painting’s elements emerge from or consume each other. Amory’s paintings offer an energy betraying neither joie de vive nor pessimism, but rather one of awe.

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The Ritual of Storytelling: ‘How to Write a New Book for the Bible’ at the Berkeley Rep

Linda Gehringer in "How to Write a New Book for the Bible" (photo by Kevin Berne)

Bill Cain’s humorous and emotionally devastating How to Write a New Book for the Bible, an autobiographical tragicomedy having its world premiere at the Berkeley Rep until Nov. 20, dramatizes the death of the playwright’s mother. The production, directed by Kent Nichols, exudes the energy of a spectacle. It juggles a bricolage of post-modern and traditional performance styles: non-linear narration, actors playing multiple roles, contemporary dialect, and pseudo-bible-speak (“and he sayeth unto Him”). Nichols and the production team mostly succeed in this difficult feat, presenting a show that reflects on mortality, family, and the act of story itself.

Cain’s insightful, witty, but sometime overripe text dominates the stage. His moralizing and ruminating asides occasionally clutter the play, but these lapses are eclipsed by a procession of crowd-hushing poignant moments (as when Cain’s dying father asks his son to read to him, claiming, “I just want to look at you, Billy”) and of riotously funny comedic ones (like Cain’s mother leaping from her rocking chair when her football team wins).

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A Quiet Kind of L.A. Confidential: Ry Cooder’s ‘Los Angeles Stories’

Going by musician Ry Cooder’s new book of short fiction, Los Angeles Stories (City Lights Publishers; 230 pages), L.A. in the ‘50s was a place where what you didn’t know could ruin your life, or kill you. “Everyone out there is a mad dog from Hell until proven otherwise,” claims the owner of a beauty salon in the book’s opening story, and Cooder seems intent on proving her right. Each of Cooder’s eight stories contains at least one murder, usually more. They center on ordinary people—tailors, mechanics, dentists, train conductors—whose lives are warped, derailed, or ended by the schemes of gangsters, grifters, extortionists, murderers, policemen and fanatics. These extreme characters seem to outnumber honest members of the working class by three to one, constituting a world where “behind every door, a strange world [lays].” But the tone of these stories is not as sensational as the plots might suggest. Cooder’s narrators, who speak in an entertaining smorgasbord of mid-century idioms, dialects, and Spanglish, maintain an almost humorously detached, and sometimes whimsical posture in the face these vicissitudes, giving the book a hardboiled tone.

The fun in watching a transvestite jazz singer dodge the rap on a double murder is hardly Cooder’s point. He wants to depict the small lives of people participating in major cultural shifts. One story deals with the life of a streetcar conductor after he is laid off, a casualty of L.A.’s disappearing public transportation system. And another one deals with a crooked used car salesman and the rise of car culture. Cooder inserts music, lyrics, instruments and musicians in every story, indirectly chronicling the evolution of the blues, jazz, trio, banda, and rhythm and blues. Advertisements and radio programs are given a healthy amount of space within the narratives, articulating the post-war boom in consumerism. Los Angeles Stories focuses on the negative space around the pivotal changes occurring in Los Angeles at mid-century, evoking the texture of an era that spawned ‘La La Land.’

Both Cooder’s plots and narrative structures are riddled with interesting surprises. Each story is presented as a mystery, but Cooder doesn’t offer obvious clues and an explanation at the denouement. The stories all have an unpredictably reflexive quality, dovetailing seemingly inconsequential details, making a story ripple with unexpected meaning. In one, a U.S.-born Mexican trio singer unwittingly witnesses the murder of an infamous movie critic at a screening, only to later find himself at a ritzy party populated by the stars of the same movie the critic was watching. The actors reveal to him they are implicated in the murder plot. Cooder briefly touches on their political motives, explaining that the critic was an informant for an anti-labor effort by the FBI, and wrapping it up with, “You may say it’s the cause of poor people who will never ride in a Cadillac or eat crab tacos in glass houses.”

Where other mysteries might foreground class struggles and moralizations, Stories treats them almost as throwaway themes, relegating big-picture issues to the periphery. The thematic quality of the text becomes a delightful surprise. Cooder doesn’t skirt social awareness in Stories to play them down, but to illustrate the relatable helplessness of people caught in implacable, hegemonic forces.

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God Is in the Gutter: Ben Ehrenreich’s ‘Ether’

Ben Ehrenreich’s new novel, Ether (City Lights; 164 pages), follows an insomniac author living in a crumbling dystopia. He’s writing a novel about The Stranger, a man in a crusty white suit, an earthly manifestation of God. The premise of the novel-in-progress within Ether is that The Stranger has fallen to Earth and endeavors to return to heaven, intending to rectify some mistake for which his similarly fallen angels will not forgive him. Ehrenreich’s “broken hero” is consummately obstructed from his return by both misfortune and—here is the meat of it—kindnesses. By the end of the book, The Stranger has attempted murder several times, including upon the deaf mute who nurses him back to health.

The curiously self-destructive behavior of God’s earthly manifestation is just one of Ether’s many surprising, if bleak, scenarios. The story bounds through doom-laden scenes, involving a whole cast of atypical, unpredictable people. A trio of skinheads does needlework while shaving each other’s heads, then brutalize The Stranger and rob him. A malicious grandson puts a beetle in his blind grandmother’s tea then pulls it out at the last minute, only to later on find the brutalized Stranger and gag him with a dead mouse. Though uncommon in their form, depictions of cruelty and inhumanity are abundant in Ether. This omnipresent gloom breaks occasionally, allowing a homeless child to pass the afternoon giggling on an abandoned trampoline, or a lonely teenager to fall in love. But Ehrenreich crushes these moments of cheer, as if determined to sink his characters in a hopeless mire.

On its surface, Ether might seem a bit of a self-indulgent diatribe, condemning creation as brutal and unjust. Digging a little deeper, Ehrenreich’s craft and intelligence become apparent. What first appears to be pessimistic fatalism is actually a series of parables about godhood, justice, love, war. Ether presents a world that may be darker than our own—depending on who you ask—but is brimming with the same mysteries. Ehrenreich is not indicting God or dismissing life as brutal and unjust, but rather desperately searching for meaning and beauty within brutality and injustice, concluding one component is inextricable from the other.

This Catch 22 is nowhere more evident and gut wrenching than the novel’s final moments, where the narrator finds himself just beyond a gate dividing thim from a happier, more cheerful version of his tale. As much as he fights with the gate to get through, he cannot; the latch is stuck. In his fine prose, Ehrenreich seems to be telling us he wishes he could give us a happier world to dwell in, but can’t.

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Embedding the Reader in Places He May Not Want to Be: Q&A with Joshua Mohr

Joshua Mohr, author of "Damascus"

Critics have compared the writing of Joshua Mohr to that of Dostoevsky and Bukowski’s for the imagination with which he depicts grimy people clawing through a downward spiral. Following suit, Joshua Mohr’s third and most recent book, Damascus (Two Dollar Radio, 208 pages), rolls out a sooty cast of compelling characters including a Santa suit-wearing bartender, a memory haunted ex-Marine, a controversial performance artist looking to hit it big, and Shambles, “the patron saint of hand jobs.” They all struggle with emotional scars, addictions, and a litany of pathological neurosis. As in all three of Mohr’s books, what elevates Damascus from the mire of fatalism is its immense compassion. Readers can relate to Mohr’s characters, finding more than a sample of themselves in these seemingly broken people.

Meeting Mohr can be, like reading his books, a bit intimidating. (This is a man, after all, who wrote a scene in which an alcoholic tap dances barefoot on broken glass to keep from having a drink.) He’s six feet, his arms are tattooed; he has dark hair, stubble and penetrating eyes. Then he offers a warm hand and the ebullient conversation that follows dispels any discomfort. Mohr is quick to laugh, and though he mirrors his book’s dark humor and dry sarcasm, he’s sometimes goofy; for this interview with ZYZZYVA, he wore a Pepsi T-shirt in which “Jesus” replaced the brand name. We met in San Francisco’s Mission District at Ritual Coffee Roasters, a setting alluded to in Damascus, to talk about his work.

ZYZZYVA: In interviews, Robert Altman has partly defined his style as making the audience feel like a voyeur. You’ve mentioned that you wanted your third novel to read like an old Altman script from the seventies.  For Damascus, were you consciously trying to reproduce the feeling of being a voyeur?

Joshua Mohr: The thing that all my books have in common is this really suffocating take on point of view. One of my goals is to really embed you into minds, really embed you into scenes you may not want to be a participant in. So from that standpoint, the voyeur only works up to a certain point, because one of the things that fiction has over filmmaking is that we are privy to what’s going on in people’s minds and what’s going on in people’s hearts, so we can actually take it a step further. Suddenly, we have not only the voyeuristic experience going on, but at the same time we also have our reader peering through the heart and peering through the brain of our players. So hopefully they’re able to experience it on this incredibly intimate and incredibly visceral level. When they become Shambles [a character in Damascus] jerking off a cancer patient in a bathroom, they probably don’t want to be that person. But if I’ve done my job right, they leave that scene, you know, probably needing to take some sort of literary shower.

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A Family Besieged: Justin Torres’ ‘We the Animals’

Justin Torres’ first novel, We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pages), carries all the balm and hazard of strong waves at high tide. Told through the eyes of the youngest of three brothers, the novel evokes the experience of youth and the struggles of a poor family from Brooklyn living in upstate New York. Through his enveloping and fast-paced prose, Torres bestows his story with a rare generosity and honesty, portraying the family’s jagged love – with all its cruelty, beauty, tenderness, and loyalty – and chronicling the events leading to the family’s calamitous fragmentation.

Torres, who lives in San Francisco, constructs his larger story by focusing on how the narrator collides with and detours around the harsh realities besieging the family. At first, the boy’s evasions appear to be some form of coping mechanism, in which he uses fantasy to deal with hardship and abuse. For example, when his parents fight, he and one of his brothers retreat to a crawl space where they “sharpened popsicle sticks into points, preparing for war.” But as the novel’s title would suggest, these fantasies are more than a coping mechanism; the boy sees his family as a pack of animals whose savage instincts are thinly veiled. This nascent belief lingers into his teen years where it mingles with an emerging sexuality no less alloyed with violence and fantasy. In the book’s climax, when the narrator reveals himself as much the animal he has claimed to be, his family’s concerned response suggests the narrator might be alone in harboring such ferocity. We the Animals then is not a story about “we” the family of animals, but about the “we” who internalize brutality, who bond with it, who thereafter “dream of standing upright, of uncurled knuckles, … strolling gaily, with an upright air.”

Among the many traits that singularize Torres’s novel from other coming-of-age stories are its structure and its efficient, powerful prose. The language is both tactile and abstract, like music (“we were safe as seed wrapped up in the fist of God.”). Most chapters in the book span only a few pages, yet within those pages Torres navigates the tumultuous terrain of whole emotional continents. This combination of breadth and brevity lends the book a poetic air, ameliorating its unvarying tone or weight.

And each of the chapters is self-contained, frequently beginning and ending without reference to events from other parts of the story. Yet Torres crafts a deliciously covert escalation of tension, never muddying the plot, using this method to create an ultimately haunting and beautiful atmosphere, one like hearing in the distance the moan of a train whistle at midnight.

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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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A Beautiful Excuse for Rumination: César Aira’s ‘The Seamstress and the Wind’

César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind (New Directions; 144 pages), translated by Rosalie Knecht, is simultaneously minimalist and epic. Aira’s voice is clear, his characters are palpable, and his ideas — elucidations on literary theory, existential ruminations, and thought experiments — are evocative and infectious. The story, which concerns a seamstress and her husband who travel the Patagonia desert in pursuit of their accidentally kidnapped son, careens with each chapter at dizzying speed. Seamstress might be thought confusing and possibly incomplete, because the story’s inciting incident — the kidnapped child — goes completely unresolved, even forgotten by the seamstress and her husband. But that is the point: It’s part of Aira’s style; he is mysterious without obfuscating.

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