The Kingdom of Not
THE GOOD, THE MAD AND THE MARVELOUS
A review by Christopher Bernard
Occupy Fringe Theatre 2012
San Francisco Fringe Festival at EXIT Theatre
September 5 – 16
In what must be the most varied, if not richest, theatrical feast this year in the Bay
Area, the 21st San Francisco Fringe Festival, under the tireless direction of Christine Augello,
presented 46 shows from some of the most adventurous, small, hungry and fearless theatrical
companies from geographies local, material, and crazily virtual, when not virtually crazy.
What theater fanatic could resist a list of performance titles that included “The Apeman
Cometh,” “Cheesecake and Demerol,” “Crazytown: My First Psychopath,” “The Revolution
Will Not Be Circumcised,” “You Killed Hamlet, or Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play,” or “The
Wounded Stag and Other Cloven Tales of Enchantment”?
Alas, out of nearly four dozen shows, I could catch only a handful over the festival’s two
weekends, but those never failed to stimulate, entertain, provoke, irritate, inspire, elevate, enrage,
engage, in part or in whole, at once or alternating, in one degree or another, like a slap in the
face, a caress at a party or a cocktail of gin, gasoline and ecstasy, as unexpected as a hand
grenade in a urinal and winning as a romantic dance in the dark – and they always hooked me for
more. And what better can one sincerely ask for?
“Legacy of the Tiger Mother” is a sturdy, highly polished musical by Angela Chan and
Michael Manly (Chan did the music, Chan and Manly the book and lyrics) about the demands
an immigrant Chinese mother makes on her daughter to win a piano competition, the resulting
resentments and incomprehension between the two women, and the eventual, somewhat too tidy
results – including the curious case of repetition syndrome, when the daughter grows up to inflict
the same demands, with similar though not always clearly stated goals, and with similar results,
on her own daughter.
For anyone who secretly applauds tiger mothers everywhere (what today’s kids need is
more discipline and less iPhone, iPod, iPad – less “I,” period), this is both a cautionary tale and
an object lesson: discipline yes, but it needs to have a clear reason and a desirable aim, otherwise
it merely prepares for a rebellion that will be as gratuitous, irrational and destructive as the
insensate, compulsive whip. Though the musical ends before telling us what the granddaughter
will grow up to be, I suspect she’ll belong to the generation to finally throw off the piano scales,
the legacy and the past, and learn the some of the darker lessons of freedom. And why discipline
actually might be a good idea after all.
The story, clichéd as it is, is sometimes cloying, a pitfall in any portrayal of mother-
daughter conflicts and reconciliations – and one wonders what happened to the fathers, uncles,
sons, brothers – the male of the species, who is too conveniently dispatched for plausibility.
The musical is nevertheless saved by a clever book, witty lyrics and charming music, to say
nothing of the performances. Satomi Hoffman and Lynn Craig create the sense of a far larger
cast, a thronging and fascinating presence. Composer/author Angela Chan was the wonderful
“Weird Romance,” which I caught on the same afternoon, presented two interesting one-
acts written by Nick and Lisa Gentile. The first, “Russian Roulette for Lovers,” tells the tale of a
series of bets made by a couple who are about to be married, that lead, through a contrived plot,
to a financial choke-hold between them that is likely to either poison or guarantee their marriage
to a degree that mere love couldn’t hope to match. The cleverness of the writing can’t quite
hide the implausibility of the story, but it was gamely performed by Cassie Powell and William
The second one-act was “Metamorphosize, Mon Amour,” an absurd if not quite
absurdist meeting in a Starbucks for lepidoptera where three maggots in transition between their
larval and butterfly stages gather to discuss the philosophy of biological determinism and free
will in a Darwinian universe. This is another game attempt at being clever and intellectual that
does not quite come off, partly because the philosophy is sometimes annoyingly wrong: the
discussion of Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch was inaccurate – there is no relationship
between it and Darwinian’s theory of natural selection, and Nietzsche was at pains to say so; and
yes, he did have an explicit description of what constitutes the Übermensch, though Chuck, the
sophomoric half-literate maggot, claims he did not: according to Nietzsche, the Übermensch is
able to accept the concept of the Eternal Recurrence of all of life, indeed of all of existence
(including all of human, and animal, suffering from the beginning to the end of history) and
affirm it with a smile on his face and joy in his heart – a difficult thing to do, unless one is either
a sociopath or a moral monster, in our post-Auschwitz world. Nietzsche believed that no human
being could make such an affirmation honestly – we are too “compassionate,” we are
too “sensitive” to the suffering of others and therefore, according to Nietzsche, human beings
end up denigrating the value of life: we can never really accept the world as it is, with all its
enormous, endless and pointless suffering and cruelty and our inevitable mortality. Only a
superhuman might. One may disagree with these ideas, and vigorously so, but one should at least
get them right before submitting them to debate.
I next caught the wonderfully titled but partly disappointing “The Wounded Stag and
Other Cloven Tales of Enchantment,” presented by the Kingdom of Not, which comprises Buddd
[sic] Underwood and The Slow Poisoner. This was a combination live music acts and video
projections with dancing, a kind of nightclub butoh spazzed with satirical relish and a craziness
that dares you to look away – which, given the smallness of the space, I couldn’t easily do.
About midway through the show, there is an extraordinarily powerful sequence in which Buddd
dons a seemingly innocuous mask that, through simple but ingenious lighting, combined with
a darkly demented text and a maze of slow, wild contortions, becomes the very face of evil, a
voodoo of death dancing with obsessive, joyless glee across the world. It was unforgettable and a
sign of a formidable talent. Unfortunately, the numbers flanking the central, grimly entertaining
dance of death felt like fillers and were more abrasive than inspired.
The best is almost always saved for last: the final show I was able to catch before the
crocodile deadline caught me in its jaws was the awkwardly titled “The Good, the Bad and
the Stupid” by the physical comedy troupe Pi. Unfettered by either intellectual or political
pretensions, these highly talented comic acrobats put on a show that was a little mad marvel from
beginning to end. Based loosely on the spaghetti westerns of the 60s (as the title warned), the
troupe found its mojo in one bit of happy lunacy after another. I won’t try to describe what they
did (half the rewards are in their surprises), but you must drop whatever you’re doing when you
hear they’re performing near you, and go. Happiness is more than just a right, after all; it’s a gift
– and they could make you happy for an afternoon, if not Eternally. Really.
Christopher Bernard is a novelist (A Spy in the Ruins) and the founder and coeditor of the
webzine Caveat Lector. Examples of his poetry can be found on the internet at “The Bog of St.