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Marianne Moore

An Evolution Beyond Gender in the Wild West: Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Sidewinder’

Sara Moore (left), DavEnd and Donald Currie in Cutting Ball Theater's "Sidewinders" (photo by Laura Mason)

Sara Moore (left), DavEnd and Donald Currie in Cutting Ball Theater’s “Sidewinders” (photo by Laura Mason)

For the world premiere of Basil Kreimendahl’s hilarious and tenderhearted play Sidewinders (directed by M. Graham Smith), the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco has flipped its performance space, arranging the stands of chairs so the stage is deeper than it is wide. Papier mache clouds hang from the ceiling, casting shadows on the clouds painted on the walls, creating an illusion of depth (lighting design by Heather Basarab). The stage seems to open up in front of us on three sides. The set, designed by Michael Locher, is dotted with sandy colored, flat-topped stumps, like desert mesas in miniature.

It seems right, in this setting, to encounter two fools: Dakota, a swaggering gunslinger (played by Sara Moore), and Bailey, an elegant soldier (played by DavEnd). Their train has run out of track, and they are stranded, as Dakota says, “on the Edge of Everything.” Profoundly disoriented, they do not know where they are, where they were before, nor who they were before. Their dilemma is both existential and venereal. Bailey does not know what Bailey is, what parts Bailey has, or whom Bailey should fool around with, and if Dakota knows, the gunslinger isn’t sharing. Bailey’s parts are so mysterious that they can only be named by singing nonsense phrases. Whether it is the vastness around them that spurs Bailey’s self-examination, or whether Bailey has always been questing to make sense of gender and sexuality, we can’t know. But the mystery of identity seems to be drawing Bailey further into the unknown borderlands. “We could go…that way,” says the soldier, wide-eyed, with an emphatic hair-toss in the direction of the frontier.

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The Mind Is a Dangerous Country: ‘The Chairs’ at the Cutting Ball Theater

Tamar Cohn and David Sinaiko in the Cutting Ball Theater’s "The Chairs" (photo by Sarah Roland).

Tamar Cohn and David Sinaiko in the Cutting Ball Theater’s “The Chairs”
(photo by Sarah Roland).

I heard somewhere that it’s easier to dream lucidly as a couple. If, before going to sleep, you turn to your lover and say, “Darling, tonight let’s dream of boats,” and then you both go to sleep, the odds are much greater that you will both dream of boats.

The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs (a new translation by Rob Melrose, directed by Annie Elias) is the story of a superannuated couple who create a new reality together as they fight off the tedium and irrelevance of old age. They live in a crumbling apartment building on an island, somewhere—according to The Old Man, Paris was destroyed years ago, if it ever existed at all. Their only contact with the outside world is the music (Edith Piaf or a clone) that crackles through the ancient radio (sound design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker). But since the two are alone onstage for most of the play, even the music might be a shared delusion.

At first, the atmosphere almost makes one sleepy—we slip into what feels like a long-settled routine. David Sinaiko as The Old Man sits onstage gazing out the window as the audience files in. You have the feeling he’s been sitting there for years. Michael Locher’s set is comfortably shabby, with its water-stained pink wallpaper and faded furniture. The Chairs begins slowly—in their first exchange, The Old Woman (Tamar Cohn) begs The Old Man to come away from the window and take a seat in a chair. Reluctantly, he agrees, and the couple edge carefully over to the two chairs in the center of the stage and sit down in the same one, with Sinaiko (kittenish and Keatonesque) on Cohn’s lap. Their clothes (costume design by Sarah Roland) add to the production’s dreaminess. Sinaiko wears absurd thigh-high rubber waders, which contribute to the sluggish physicality of his role, while Cohn flounces about in a fur coat and faded, flowered housedress.

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Reckoning With the Millennials: ‘Our Practical Heaven’ at the Aurora Theatre

Sasha (Anne Darragh, left), Willa (Julia Brothers), and Magz (Lauren Spencer) in "Our Practical Heaven" (photo by David Allen).

Sasha (Anne Darragh, left), Willa (Julia Brothers), and Magz (Lauren Spencer) in “Our Practical Heaven” (photo by David Allen).

Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven, a world premiere directed by Allen McKelvey at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, raises some interesting questions about how traditional media, such as plays and novels, can incorporate new media and new ways of communicating. Can you fictionalize Facebooking, tweeting, texting, and instant messaging without sounding phony and ridiculous? Fads, brand names, and recent technology can jar us out of a fiction, somehow betraying the text they’re embedded in. It’s hard to say why this should be, when there’s nothing weird about a character in a novel or play picking up the practically obsolete telephone. But there is something odd about reading about texting, or watching a play about it. In Zadie Smith’s most recent novel, NW, one chapter unfolds as an instant message conversation. It works mostly because of Smith’s uncanny ear for the way people talk (or in this case, chat). She puts to good use the misspellings and interruptions intrinsic to these exchanges.

Our Practical Heaven pivots on a generational divide—two middle-aged women, “honorary sisters” Willa (Julia Brothers) and Sasha (Anne Darragh), visit Sasha’s mother, Vera (Joy Carlin), at a tumbledown beach house, their wayward daughters in tow. The girls provide running commentary on the action of the play using their cellphones—as the actors twiddle their thumbs, the text of their conversations is projected on a winged wall at the back of the stage (set design by Mikiki Uesugi and video design by Micah J. Stieglitz).

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Death and Jealousy: Q&A with Strindberg Translator Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh

On the occasion of the centennial of Swedish writer August Strindberg’s death, San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater will be performing all five of Strindberg’s Chamber Plays (Storm, Burned House, The Pelican, The Ghost Sonata, The Black Glove) in repertory from October 12 to November 18. The production will feature new translations of the Chamber Plays by Paul Walsh, professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism at the Yale School of Drama. ZYZZYVA talks with Walsh, whose new translations are available from Exit Press, about the Strindberg Cycle and Strindberg’s significance to the arts.

ZYZZYVA: How did you become a scholar and translator of Strindberg?

Paul Walsh: When I was doing a master’s at the University of Minnesota, I studied with a Strindberg scholar in the Scandinavian Department. I became enamored of Strindberg and his peculiar views of the world.

Z: How do you mean, peculiar?

PW: He strikes me as maniacal in his pursuit of an image or a vision or an idea. And this can lead to wonderfully peculiar observations about life and the world. His imagination is as unpredictable as his behavior. Later in life he seems to have been happy to cultivate these peculiarities—perhaps to avoid connecting with people or, who knows. Psychologists love to try to figure him out. His plays are notoriously and intentionally autobiographical, which is why the first generation of Strindberg scholarship was also biographical—finding resonances and references to his life in his work. Strindberg took the modernist caveat to “write what you know” very seriously and maybe even arranged his life to feed his fiction. In my thesis, I was looking at the notion of realism and history—Strindberg’s fascination with history throughout his career, the location of the real. He was interested in manufacturing stories out of the traditions and documents of the past.

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The Scandal of Content: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Tontlawald’

From left, Madeline H.D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Liz Wand, Cindy Im, and Marilet Martinez in "Tontlawald" (photo by Annie Paladino)

In devised theater, rather than starting with an already written script and finished production design as you would in traditional theater, the company creates text, music, movement, and design elements together as they go through the rehearsal process. Though there’s no devised aesthetic that defines it like a genre, devised work tends to be more physical, to make more use of every skill each actor possesses (singing, dancing, playing musical instruments). There’s also a strong preference for adapted material among companies that make devised work—maybe because this kind of experimental collaboration is easier if you at least know the outlines of the story you’re trying to tell.

The inspiration for Cutting Ball’s first devised work, Tontlawald, is an Estonian fairy tale in which a girl runs away from her abusive stepmother to live in the Tontlawald, the forbidden ghost-forest. The inhabitants of the Tontlawald fashion a doll out of clay to take the girl’s place, and inside the doll they place a black snake. The doll goes back to the village and endures the stepmother’s cruel treatment, while the girl lives happily in the Tontlawald. One day when the stepmother goes too far, the black snake darts out of the doll’s mouth and bites her tongue, killing her instantly. The girl grows up, and in the course of things must leave the Tontlawald. She turns into a bird and flies away.

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Who’s Afraid of the Light?: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Pelleas and Melisande’

Caitlyn Louchard (Melisande) and Joshua Schell (Pelleas) in Cutting Ball Theater’s "Pelleas and Melisande" (photo by Annie Paladino)

The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande (translated by director Rob Melrose) exploits a long, narrow, catwalk-style stage (designed by Michael Locher) to set up intense relationships among the characters. In an early scene, Golaud (Derek Fisher), the prince of Allemonde, comes upon Melisande (Caitlyn Louchard) weeping by a spring. Melisande kneels over a small rectangular pool set into the stage floor while Golaud stands far away from her at the opposite end—this relationship, in different permutations, is revisited again and again. Charmed by her beauty and strangeness, Golaud marries Melisande and takes her to live with his family at their ancestral castle, where she falls in love with his younger brother, Pelleas (Joshua Schell).

In a wonderfully daring and silly piece of blocking, Melrose takes a “balcony” scene between Pelleas and Melisande and flips it 90 degrees, so that Pelleas climbing up the tower lies flat on his stomach, and Melisande leaning far out of the window sits with her legs stretched out in front of her. As Melisande hangs out of the window to speak with Pelleas, her hair falls out of the tower and covers his face; he clutches it and kisses it. The lovers are six feet apart, and it is the most sexual scene in the play. Louchard’s actual hair is pinned tightly to the back of her head, but the imaginary hair  tumbling from the tower is unchaste and unrestrained. It’s always falling into springs and out of windows—Pelleas cries, “All of your hair, Melisande, all of your hair has fallen from the tower!” It’s the words all of that carry such an erotic charge. It’s as if she’s naked, as if all of her clothes have fallen off.

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The American West, in Norway: Marius Amdam at Trondheim Kunstmuseum

Marius Amdam's "the great train robbery" (120 cm by 120 cm)

A dozen museums dot the city center in Trondheim, Norway. There’s the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Tramway Museum, and the Norwegian Resistance museum, which favors dioramas—plastic destroyers, cotton balls painted black. Downtown is a peninsula, tacked to the mainland with spidery bridges. Cranes swing out over the canals from the tops of boxy warehouses. The buildings, even the new ones, are all in the same style—wide and low painted clapboard boxes, in colors at once saturated and muted: poppy red, ocher, mustard, powder blue, and sage. It has a more vibrant art scene than you would expect in a city of about 175,000 souls: more galleries than you can shake a salted fish at. The current installation at Trondheim Kunstmuseum — “sacro e profano,” which in Italian means, of course, “sacred and profane” (in Norse it’d be hellig og profan) — comprises fifteen paintings and three sculptures by local artist Marius Amdam.

The first thing you notice as you begin to move about the installation is texture: Amdam’s not afraid of it. The second painting clockwise from the entrance, “stor våt hund i øyekroken” (“big wet dog in the corner of my eye,” according to Google Translate), depicts a skeleton dripping with gold jewelry. At the bottom of the panel is a crusted wad of black paint so thick it sticks out from the canvas like a shelf. The next panel, “just like honey,” is three-dimensional in a more subtle way. The canvas is three-quarters filled with a pale, feminine face, her expression vacant and almost moronic, like a still frame of Clara Bow or an anime princess. She wears an impressive, powdery-white, Marie Antoinette updo. Inky tears spill from her enormous eyes. At her throat, a chain of loops and whirls draws the eye downward and to the left. There’s something irresistible about the necklace—you can’t stop looking at it. From a distance it looks like old bronze; up close, you can see that the chain is made up of three-dimensional hoops of black, purple, orange, and mud-colored paint, washed with a thin coat of white that shows brightly against the turbulent colors beneath it, giving an overall look of burnished metal.

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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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Looking for Home: Miroslav Penkov’s ‘East of the West: A Country in Stories’

The title of Miroslav Penkov’s debut story collection, East of the West: A Country in Stories (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 240 pages) is ironic, or maybe wistful —for Penkov’s characters, there is never “a” country. They are Bulgarian immigrants in America, Bulgarian American immigrants returning to Bulgaria, Bulgarians in a village straddling the Serbian border, Muslims in Bulgaria.

In 2008, Salman Rushdie selected “Buying Lenin,” the third story in the collection, for his edition  of Best American Short Stories. The atmosphere in East might remind you of Rushdie, but this isn’t magical realism. There’s nothing truly fantastic in Penkov’s work — the stories are not supernatural but heroic. They take place in a heightened reality, one where high deeds and grand gestures (like buying Lenin’s frozen corpse on Ebay and mailing it to your diehard communist grandfather back in the old country) are not only possible but commonplace. Penkov’s prose is heightened, too — lucid, passionate, and harsh. Incandescent images and violent declarations alternate with bitter sarcasm. But he has a bad habit — like a teenager slamming a door — of ending a paragraph or an internal section with something devastatingly dramatic.

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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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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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