Friday, April 06, 2007

Another "Why Theatre" - from the SF Chronicle

I've been a vocal critic of Steven Winn's reviewing in SF since he trashed every show in the SF Fringe one year without ever seeing one of them, but a friend brought my attention to this article, which despite the lukewarm words towards some of the plays he's reviewing (surprise), has some value when it comes to WHY THEATRE.

As my friend said, it echoes thoughts I - and many others - have shared elsewhere.

Forget computers, videos, HDTV -- the play's still the thing

Steven Winn
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

There's a scene in "After the War," the Philip Kan Gotanda play in its world-premiere run at the American Conservatory Theater, that made me settle back contentedly in my seat on opening night. One of the characters, the Japanese landlord of a San Francisco boardinghouse in 1948, has just acquired a new Philco TV. He and several tenants (one white, one black) gather to hoist an aerial onto the roof. As they do, a Russian tenant, Olga, charges back and forth from the parlor to the back steps to report on the reception.

"How's it looking?" the men call from the top of the house.

"How's it cooking?" Olga breathlessly asks of a Japanese woman peering hopefully at the 10-inch screen.

As it turns out, the play itself never comes clearly into focus; "After the War" remains diffuse and dramatically unrealized. But I relished that moment -- and there were a few others -- when a new play, in its first public test, seems poised to capture an audience and carry it along as one on a route never traveled just this way before. Here, in a few invigorating, economical strokes, is the world "After the War" sets out to create -- a world transformed by progress, by the compression and mingling of races and the challenges of cross-cultural understanding.

Nothing else quite matches the charge that can run through a theater when something new is first revealed onstage. The audience transcends its role as receiver of culturally certified goods and becomes a collective participant, completing the work that the playwright, actors, director and designers can take only so far.

New plays -- more so than new works of music or dance, which carry the conventions of silent attention followed by applause; and more so than the finished products of new movies or novels -- reconnect us directly to our communal natures, to the urge for experience that both stretches and unites us. Laughter, hushed apprehension, a chorus of tiny startled gasps or those arctic spells when an audience chills -- all those things aren't merely responses. They are integral parts of the social enterprise that any play premiere undertakes. New theater is participatory democracy in action.

It's a singular and salutary feature of the region's cultural life that the production of new plays remains so vigorous here. Even in uneasy times, when safe bets are tempting and screens of all kinds (computer, video game, movie, high-definition TV) exert a mesmerizing hold, local theaters continue to bet heavily against the odds and venture into the unknown. More than 130 new plays premiered in the Bay Area last year.

Without trying very hard, I caught six world premieres over the past several weeks. One of them, Dan Hoyle's dazzling monologue set in Nigeria, "Tings Dey Happen," at the Marsh, was pure exhilaration. Another, Mark Jackson's "American " at the Thick House, rode its antic momentum to a terrific party scene. "To the Lighthouse," a Virginia Woolf adaptation at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, weirdly turned into a musical after intermission. A play about sexual fantasies at the Magic Theatre, Chantal Bilodeau's "Pleasure & Pain," was like a numbing shot of novocaine.

So how'd you like it? Was it any good? Should I take my son? That's how we package, process and exchange our responses. We crave a currency, a known rate of exchange to fix the value on something unfamiliar. But such measures may finally matter less, when it comes to new plays, than what happens in those moments when something suddenly takes hold, when a door you didn't notice flies open and the light shines in on the audience all at once.

It's been a few weeks since I saw "American," and I couldn't begin to detail the plot or recall the characters' names. But I can still see and feel the throbbing pulse of the final scene, when one power-glazed manipulator after another urges the hero on toward a fatal celebrity. And then at the dinner party in "To the Lighthouse," where the guests all speak their thoughts aloud and silently mouth their spoken dialogue, the hostess (a sublime Monique Fowler as Mrs. Ramsay) delivers this exquisite, enfolding irony: "There is a profound stillness holding us together." A shivers runs softly up my back now as I remember it.

In a night of feverishly drawn characters, Hoyle hits his devastating peak in "Tings Dey Happen" at the end of the first act. Bathed in a sickly green light and speaking in a thick, strangely lucid pidgin English, the actor becomes a Nigerian mercenary describing a 2003 oil war with a blend of rage and eerie detachment. A few minutes later, in the lobby of the Marsh, an old friend introduced me to a friend of hers. This woman must have seen in my face what I saw in hers -- the shaken-to-the-bones astonishment of that last scene. "Can you believe what just happened?" she said. "No," I said. "Can you?"

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