Theater of the Beyond

The Bay Area is blessed with exciting theatre. Theatre of the Beyond features reviews, essays and interviews which focus on theatre and theatre artists whose work goes beyond what audiences may expect to occur within the hallowed walls of theatre. Black box, fully decked-out, or outdoor stages, these performances and performers make our imaginations soar and serve as laboratories for social experimentation and exploration. It’s not your grandmother’s theatre, but she may love it, so take her along! This is theatre that allows us a peak into the world that’s possible.

Symmetry Theatre’s Carnival Round the Central Figure Shows Us the (not so) Sunny Side of Death

Structurally very compelling, Carnival Round the Central Figure by playwright Diana Amsterdam whisks the audience away on a carousel ride, round and round, always round the Central Figure, of course.  In the manner in which, at turns, it exhilarates and invites trepidation and dizziness, it is much like an actual carnival ride, except this ride is the ride of your life—anyone’s and everyone’s which all end at the same simple and inevitable conclusion: death.  This Carnival then, examines the process of death and dying in the US and our society’s relationship to everyone’s final destination.

For this theatrical jaunt, we accompany Sheila (Lizzie Calogero) and Paul (Michael Patrick Gaffney), the eponymous Central Figure, caked in white face paint, already as ghastly as a ghost.  As theatre-goers file into the performance space, Paul is already on stage, supine in a hospital bed twitching and moaning inaudibly.  The only sounds are the familiar notes of carnival music, played on a loop.  From the start, Symmetry Theatre’s production excels at creating and sustaining a carnivalesque absurdist atmosphere for the play.  Not an easy work to stage, Carnival’s direction by Symmetry company member Chloe Bronzan and cast performances are strong. The audience is treated to some stand-out actors.

The play’s initial scene gives a resolute tip of the hat to Ionesco, the absurdist classic The Bald Soprano comes to mind in Shelia’s mired denial and her hyper-obsessive discussion of the quotidian.  The satire in these scenes really stings even as it elicits laughs.  As an aside, poor Sheila’s wardrobe is fantastic; she is shabby and silly in neon orange sneakers, jeans with elastic at the cuffs and a fuchsia and teal get-up on top. However, Calogero’s solid showing prevents this character from devolving to caricature.

Along with vibrant casting, the production also employs innovative techniques such as breaching the 4th wall, and non-linear/ not-quite-narrative storytelling— more circular and repetitive than Aristotelian, befitting a slightly madcap and macabre merry-go-round.  For some, the repetition as a device may be overmuch, but for me it plays as a metaphorical echo of the disorientating shock and trauma that death often brings.

The play features a cycle of scenes between the unsinkable Velina Brown—whose performance as Maryanne was so excellent I’m moved in the most complimentary way to call her a scene-stealer— and Marissa Keltie seated in the audience, transforming all of us theater-goers into fellow participants of a lecture-style class.  The actors had engaging rapport.  In fact, although the audience I was a part of  was relatively small (it was a matinee), we were a spirited bunch and in scenes like these some in attendance were moved to call out to the actors.  Given the gravity of the subject matter, I think this level of audience response was a considerable feat.

Perhaps the play is so evocative because it hits home in its scrutiny of US society’s death-phobia and how it inhibits our human capacity to connect with those we cherish most during their times of transition and our overall lack of deep connectedness to life in general.  One song from the play’s soundtrack advises the audience to  “live life as though you are going to die, because you are”.

Symmetry’s staging uses music throughout, with some live singing and some pre-recorded audio.  The live music is better and is mostly supplied by a sardonically amusing take on a Greek Choir featuring Calogero, Brown and the great El Beh as gospel choir singers who back up Michael Gene Sullivan’s Preacher.  Sullivan’s charismatic performance was also first-rate and Beh, who I initially saw in the ensemble of the San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson singing, dancing and playing a full size electric cello shined as a gospel gal and the creepy vein-draining and provocative Nurse.

Amsterdam’s text does contain some incisive satire.  Beh’s Nurse ritually milks the Central Figure’s vein while coyly cooing things like, “come on baby, just one more drop;” we live in a society with a medical system that does indeed bleed many of us dry.  However, I wish the work went further in exploring the socio-economic dynamics and inequalities of the this system, which I tend to refer to as the medical industrial complex— it is a profit driven enterprise after all.  More overtly embattled than ever due to the ensuing debate over Obamacare, medicine in this country is inextricably entangled with insurance companies, behemoth biotechs, and big phama whose CEO’s occupy prominent positions on hospital boards and whose board members hold influential staff positions at major hospitals.  Simultaneously, health outcomes in African American, Latino/a, Native American, LBGT and other marginalized communities lag disturbingly behind their white, straight counterparts.  Amsterdam’s critical gaze is not in this direction.  Instead, she chooses to make matters metaphysical and looks to Christian hegemony’s chokehold on death which to me is well worn territory.  However, the play often offers up this amusing commentary in three-part harmony, a crowd-pleasing nice touch.  Could Symmetry Theatre’s approach to the text more deeply explored these other dynamics? Perhaps.  I would have liked to have seen that.

Nonetheless, Carnival Round the Central Figure, is a solid and gutsy production (and when I say gutsy I mean it quite literally, as projectile vomit does fly—oh yes!).  Alas readers, with this review late to (cyber) press, you will not be able to see it for yourself.  The play’s run ended on December 1st.  But, your chances to see more great work from Symmetry Theatre are far from dead and gone, you have but to await their 2014 season.  Check their website for upcoming productions.



The Rita Hayworth of This Generation Hybridizes Historical Reclamation and Magical Realism to Hilarious Perfection

Featured as a 2012 Marsh Theater Rising Star, Tina D’Elia’s newest production of solo performance The Rita Hayworth of This Generation at San Francisco’s Garage Theater brings to life the fast-paced race for stardom of Carmelita Cristina Rivera in glittery Las Vegas.  With the endurance of a triathlete, D’Elia embodies not just the charming, sometimes discombobulated protagonista, but also her paramour, Jesus Antonio Gitano, the Transgender King of Blackjack hailing from Cali, Columbia; her butch producer, Angel Torres from New York via Puerto Rico; her idol Rita Hayworth; and Kelsey Morph Python, Aussie talk show host for the stars, living and dead.  Carmelita sets her sights on getting on Python’s show as a way of catapulting her career, but the host turns out to be her nemesis instead.  D’Elia embodies each character with charisma, vitality, quirkiness and credibility, they are not unlike people we may actually know (except for the ghosts!). Their worlds connect and collide, and their interactions weave a surprisingly intricate plot for a one-woman show.

One of the best things about The Rita Hayworth of This Generation is the way in which it reveals a hidden history of some of Hollywood’s best loved starlets.  Like everyone, I was well aware of the glamour, charm and talent of Rita Hayworth.  What I wasn’t aware of is that her given name was Margarita Carmen Cansino, and that she’s of Spanish decent.  Ms. Hayworth also began her career by performing in Mexico.  Her life apparently had its own nemesis, the notorious President of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn. In 1946, Hayworth fought with him vehemently over her publicity (which he controlled completely due to her contract) when an image of her as the ‘bombshell’ from the film Gilda (1946), was used without her consent as propaganda in association with the testing of the first nuclear bomb after World War II at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  Rita Hayworth continues to be an inspiration to the many female performers that came after her; and many Latina performers see her a path-forger.  This is the experience of D’Elia herself, who first started working as a theatre artist in the fourth grade.  According to D’Elia, her initial moment of inspiration came:

“When I was 5 years old and I snuck into the altar of a Catholic church, [while] at a cousin’s baptism next door in the chapel. I knew women/girls did not have roles such as priest at the altar.  I was compelled to walk to the stairs to the altar. I looked at the mic attached to the podium. It was very high. I badly wanted to perform [for] an audience I was imagining.  I was dramatic!  I then danced/faux tap danced on the altar to entertain my imaginary audience. I knew it then that I had something I was to express, share, give, . . . .and connect with people this way.”

While that’s a great debut, after many years of performance from Boston in the 1990’s to the Bay Area, from TV and film to the stage, D’Elia attracts full house audiences like one I had the pleasure of being in on Rita Hayworth’s closing night, no longer imaginary ones.

A favorite of the local LBGT/ Queer community, D’Elia’s work showcases some of the more hilarious aspects of queer culture while engagingly weaving into the narrative her characters’ perspective and experiences on race, gender and class.  The effect is organic and authentic.  In one particularly amusing moment, Jesus, a frequent guest on Kelsey’s program, goes to visit her at her posh office and admiring its cleanliness says, “Oh, my people do a good job cleaning here!”

The Rita Hayworth of this Generation delivers feisty raciness in equal measure to its laughs.  Before catching D’Elia’s show, it would have been difficult for me to imagine how a solo performer could pull off enticingly hot and hilarious sex scenes, but D’Elia finesses this with fun physicality and creativity.

Along with sex, intrigue, a race for stardom, and much thoughtful humor along the way, the piece also employs magical realism— the purgatory of the stars becomes a ritzy club called the Casino for Dead Stars.  In the world D’Elia and her characters create, impassioned prayer sometimes earns you a direct line of communication with your deceased idol and a glimpse into the next world as she strives to earn her wings—who wants to spend eternity in a casino?  It’s tender and bittersweet watching Carmelita chase down her dreams, offering the audience an opportunity to also catch a glimpse of the real hardships many performers face, especially women of color.

The Rita Hayworth of This Generation concluded its month-long run at the Garage Theater on November 21st.  If you missed this great show, don’t fret!  D’Elia is working on a Part II now and is planning to perform the original in the East Bay and in Los Angeles in 2014.  You can learn about the artist’s upcoming performances and projects here and on her Business Page on Facebook under Tina D’Elia Consulting.  Tina D’Elia is a Bay Area performer to watch and watch out for!

Tina D'Elia Shines as Rita Hayworth in her one-women show!

Help Halt Climate Change, Fund Ground-Breaking Eco-Drama Extreme Whether Now!

In the wake of the catastrophic Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a widely recognized human-made disaster in which the cost of the carbon-debt accumulated by the global North after generations of colonization and industrialization is being horrifically exacted from the global South (who else), there is no more fitting time for the a play like eco-drama Extreme Whether.  You can help bring it on a national tour and ensure its month long-run in at the Theater for the New City, New York City by supporting it on Indiegogo!

Author of the play and co-founder of Extreme Whether’s producing company, the Theater Three Collaborative (TTC), playwright Karen Malpede believes that culture alters consciousness and that to change our behavior, individually and as a species, we need to change the stories we tell.  In the market-driven context of US theatre in which truth-telling is constantly at odds with economic-censorship, Extreme Whether tells the raw, real tale of the fierce battle waged by climate scientists to urge global governments and corporations to heed the severity of climate change being wrought by human business as usual.  The play recalls both Brecht’s Galileo and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People.

The acclaimed Malpede had already staged five plays and started her own theater when she debuted her ground-breaking work, Us, in 1970.  It was directed by the great Judith Malina, of the Living Theatre.  Both Malina and Julian Beck were Malpede’s earliest mentors.  Throughout her career, Malpede has written and staged 19 plays, most of which she also directed.  In 1995, with the late Lee Nagrin and George Bartenieff, Malpede founded The Theater Three Collaborative.  TTC is dedicated to creating theater that fearlessly explores the most compelling and pressing issues of our times such as war, torture, and genetic engineering, and now, the climate crisis.

Extreme Whether has been praised by noted climate scientist and former Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen, who spoke at the play’s standing room only April 2013 public reading.  In a true homage to great playwrights like Ibsen, Extreme Whether isn’t just an eco-drama packed with stunning and sobering facts about science and the dynamics of corporate climate-change deniers, it’s also a family drama.  In the work twin brother and sister, one a climate scientist, one a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, negotiate the conflict of their beliefs amid a struggle which is shaping the world around them.  In the life-world of the play, as in our own, a young activist, an elder environmentalist, and two climate scientist must grapple with ensuring the truth they know is heard and heeded against overwhelming odds.  Further, they demonstrate how it is possible to deepen their bonds of connection, love and trust while increasing their resolve in the face of potential devastation—the truth they hold is the truth upon which the survival of our species depends.  This may seem overly dramatic-to some, but considering the *recent words of Typhoon Haiyan survivor Catherine Balila, from the hard-hit coastal Philippine city Tacloban, who comments on witnessing the sea swallow her home, “I thought it was the end of the world,” we are reminded that it is simply stark reality.

Don’t let the truth get washed away, support Extreme Whether however you are able today!


*The need to turn to international news sources to hear the words of survivors and learn the true costs of this ecological injustice.

For this article’s ecological and racial justice lens, I am indebted to the work of Aura Bogado, Colorlines blogger and Nation contributor, whose excellent article is linked above.

From the Sept. 2013 Cherry Lane Theatre Reading
From the Sept. 2013 Cherry Lane Theatre Reading

Cutting Ball’s Sidewinders Serves Up Gender-Bending Gun-Slinging Intrepid Explorers that Leave Audiences Feeling a Bit More Whole

From the wilds of Kentucky (with a stop over at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop) comes one of the brightest and freshest theatrical voices that US theatre has seen in some time; introducing the fantastic Basil Kreimendahl whose not-to-be-missed play Sidewinders world premières as Cutting Ball Theatre’s bold season opener.  As the Bay Area’s go-to-theatre for outstanding experimental and groundbreaking works, this production delivers the excellence that audiences have come to expect from this stand-out company.

Winner of the 2013 Rella Lossy Award for playwrighting, Kreimendahl’s play is truly a work of landmark political and artistic significance.  With hybrid dramatic stylings that tip their hat both to the best of absurdism and vaudevillian clowning, the work deftly explores the shifty terrain of liminal embodiment, or at least those people perceived as somehow being in-between worlds.  With fine performances and precision direction by M. Graham Smith, Sidewinders keeps you on the end of your seat with laughter, delight, and pathos made all the more profound by their unexpectedness amid all the hilarity, and hijinks.

The minute one walks into the theatrical space, you enter a different world of purple-hued softly clouded skyscape, or perhaps in this world, this ‘up’ is down.  Sidewinders has audience members wondering before the first word is uttered.  Once it is, the metaphors rush with meticulous pacing and multi-layered interconnectedness, demonstrating Basil’s verbal and philosophical virtuosity while showcasing the skill and talent of the excellent cast.

The play’s point of attack lands us at the end of the tracks, on the threshold of a world that “not a thing has tread on”.  To make matters more discombobulating, Bailey isn’t quite sure what they have, you know, ‘down there’.  As the gun-slinging, sharp shooting Dakota, Bailey’s travel companion in the wilds opines, “having a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ makes you right side up.”  Knowing what’s in our pants orients us in the world, or does it?  Sidewinders’ journey explores this question of boundaries, limits, selfhood, and what separates and connects us all.

Immediately, the audience is drawn in by the dynamic performances of DavEnd as Bailey, the sad clown, and Sara Moore as Dakota.  The two have great chemistry and comic timing that breathes stunning vitality and tenderness to the characters.

The work’s script combines Basil’s unique take on classic abusurdist theatrical technique, a skillful and refreshing departure from the usual social realism which tends to dominate US theatre, with a nuanced exploration of gender, sexuality and embodiment as it is defined in the binary economy of language and culture.  Bereft of academia and theory, the play instead uses image, sound, absorbing metaphorical narrative and physicality to expertly dramatize the experience of a spectrum of non-gender normative people or those born with a sex or gender presentation that is ‘indeterminate’ according to society’s cultural conventions.  Best of all, it reminds audiences members, that “we should all enjoy a good fuck”, according to the expertly performed parable of The Sandy, a traveler the lost duo Dakota and Bailey encounter in their Old West wanderings.  Donald Currie who plays this role quite possibly steals the show; his performance is flawlessly moving, funny, and appealingly racy.

Kreimendahl’s play employs an interesting interpolation between the Old West’s concept of manifest destiny and how an individual’s own destiny becomes ensnared in society’s grip on the terrain of our selfhood based on the contours of our biology and physical bodies.  It is its own kind of conquest and it is practiced and enacted on us from the moment we draw breath to the moment breath passes through our lips for the last time.  Sidewinders conveys the disorienting constriction of this without being pedantic and revels in the joy, wonder, and beautiful bizarreness of those that are outlaws in this world.  While all the characters are their own unique outlaws and outliers, Currie’s Sandy and Norman Munoz’s stirring ‘Sam in exile’, (Sandy’s travel companion and much more), are embodiments of this in ways the audience continues to discover.  It will surprise and subvert your expectations.

According to Kreimendahl, “the queering of gender has brought us into a new frontier.  I wanted to explore that ambiguity and that in-between.  It’s really important that we see ourselves on stage and hear our stories, and it’s as equally important that we be given the opportunity to feel for people and situations outside of ourselves.”

Despite its myriad themes, complexity, verbal acrobatics and amusing cartoonish clowning (the stellar Sara Moore, is part of Thrillride Mechanics, a group of human cartoons), at its heart, Sidewinders marvels at what it means to human, and the seeming impossibility and miracle of human connection, no matter what kind of body you are born into.

At one point Dakota asks, “where are we?” and Sandy replies, “no one has named it.”  Sidewinders certainly takes the audience where theatre has never gone before, reminding us, as we look into an expanse of the unknown or ourselves in the mirror we can find the freedom to see, “a blank canvas.”

Sidewinders runs until November 17th, so roundup a posse and mosey on over to Cutting Ball for one of this season’s must-see plays.  The theatre is in the heart of the Tenderloin, the historic epicenter of San Francisco’s gender-queer and trans activism.  The stage is just blocks away from where the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria uprising occurred—San Francisco’s pre-Stonewall Stonewall, the perfect location for the premiere of this historic play.

“We should walk, but we don’t know what we’ll find!” Moore (l) and DavEnd as Dakota and Bailey blazing new trails in Sidewinders.

Shotgun Players’ Strangers, Babies Sings Audiences a Lullaby of Longing and Raw Power

Shotgun Players  has long been the bastion of excellent and inspiring East Bay theater.  I’ll be honest, as a company, it ranks with Impact Theater as my longstanding favorite this side of the Bay.  Their current play, Strangers, Babies is a performance which stands out even among the company’s many successes.  A non-linear work, Linda McLean’s compelling play has at its center, May who is circumambulated by five men who haunt her past and people her present.  She weaves her world around them, and through five vignettes we learn her story, or hints of it, as she strives to be whole in the face of her history.  The work is absolutely mesmerizing from start to finish.  A 90 minute intermission-less performance, Strangers, Babies kept me and my play-going companion riveted and entranced.  At the play’s end, we found ourselves jointly surprised that an entire hour and a half had past.  I wished for more, yet I was satisfied, which says much about McLean’s and the performers capacity to hold contradiction and explore that vast space in between: victim, survivor or perpetrator – who are any of us really in our skins? Vessels of our histories, of everyone we know and have every known, and so much more.  This is what Shotgun Players delivers in this performance.

One defining aspect of McLean’s unique voice is her way of conveying meaning through silence and space.  Her approach in some ways approximates Pinter or is perhaps a re-imaging of his tremendous acuity with silence. Whereas his silences are often understood as the spaces in between people where violence slowly begins to roil and reflective of the macrocosm of society as a whole, McLean’s silence between characters and in her narrative structuring invites questioning and almost demands of the audience to strive harder to understand the characters. It was if when I left the theatre, I felt that I had not just witnessed a performance, but rather received a lesson in holding my own humanity and that of other’s more deeply yet more delicately.

Danielle Levin, who portrays the play’s protagonist May, has easily distinguished herself as one of the Bay Area’s best actors in her meticulous rendering of this role—please see anything she is in, you will thank me for the sound recommendation.  Maclean’s work exposes May layer by layer, like the tree-lined park where one of the scenes takes place, we see May’s most tender heartwood exposed: raw sexuality, anguish, rage and most bitter regret.  A beautiful person, Levin courageously allows herself to, when necessary, be ugly with grief and the humanity of overwhelming emotion, conveying an enthralling and moving realism.  The script is both textually and at times physically challenging, and Levin’s performance rises to every challenge and captures nuance of vulnerability and power that never ceases delivering during the whole duration of the play–and she is in every scene, on stage every moment.

The entire ensemble cast gives notably strong performances; Richard Louis James, who plays May’s father was particularly stand out with a gravely bellow that would put fear into anyone’s heart.  With regard to the satisfying performances, and the other finely orchestrated components the show brings off with hermetic concision, I am certain we have innovative Director Jon Tracy to thank.

Easily one of the Bay Area’s best directors, particularly for his signature use of space, sound and physicality, in Strangers, Babies, Tracy’s use of minimalist staging and spare barely tonal sounds to signal scene transitions is beautifully rendered.  In fact, rather than the distractions that they can be in most plays, the transitions in this work not only hold the audience captivated, they served to more deeply convey the meaning of the play and hold a hypnotic dramatic tension.  With the slow intentional movements of the performers and the affecting minimalist music, comprised of repetitive atonal notes the transitions approximated ritual.

At these moments, the performance space is used with a poignancy that belies the stage’s simplicity.  The actors, coalescing in the background of the stage within a stage created by the screen that rises and falls as part of the transitions, amble like ghosts, as in our own lives the people from our past and present cling to us.  In a way, the whole performance space becomes a spatial metonymy for the protagonist, May.

Having had the gift of seeing this play, I send my sincerest gratitude to the playwright for an amazing, complex, beautifully wrought female protagonist.  The script, exacting in its beauty, sings with multi-layered meaning line by line, even in its caesuras.  That which is spoken reveals as it obfuscates, drawing the audience more profoundly into the world of the play.  With Strangers, Babies, McLean has created a remarkably well crafted work that reminds us why we all go to the theater as opposed to watching Netflix: the awe of live performance coupled with the realizations that can come when all artistic components converge and a play hits its mark.

Strangers, Babies has an extended run until November 24th, at Shotgun’s home base, the Ashby Stage.  Don’t miss this play, please!

Levin as May having family time, with James as Duncan in hospital bed.