ELEVATORS TO HELL, GUARDS ON A WIRE, HONEYMOON PIE, AND OTHER FURIOUS TRIUMPHS
A review by Christopher Bernard
FURY Factory Festival of Ensemble and Devised Theater
Various performance spaces in San Francisco
June 14–26, 2016
This year’s FURY Factory Festival of Ensemble and Devised Theater shook up the stages in San Francisco’s SoMa recently. Some of the performances were thrilling, and all were worth a visit.
Not least was Seattle’s UMO Ensemble, at the Joe Goode Annex for three performances of “Fail Better: Beckett Moves UMO,” a mind-bending event of pure theater, funny and dark and sharp, based on the writings of the Irish writer. This was physical theater at its most intriguing, turning the dense existential tropes of the great, bleak modernist into brilliantly apropos circus acts – complete with rope-climbing, dancing, wrestling, acrobatics, plus a bit of chocolate tasting (not shared with the audience, unfairly) and prancing about on a teeter-totter – with a sprinkling of brilliant writing on top.
Actually, the brilliant writing was the foundation (which is, no doubt, what distinguishes theater from, say, dance or music or the circus, or, for that matter, a restaurant). What UMO has done here is included most of the elements of live performance (the only ones missing were live music and edibles for the audience), compacted, condensed, sorted and refined to mordant essences.
The show begins with an appropriately Beckettian tableau: a Godot-esque couple of tramps and a Happy Day-esque couple straddle a great, ungainly teeter-totter athwart a light-bathed stage, behind which a grand dame in a scruffy garden-party gown and hat, all of which have both seen better days, officiates from inside a small, chapel-like niche. A spare, almost fleshless gentleman in whites steps forward and, between shy smiles, offers a brief passage from Beckett’s seminal novel The Unnameable, then retreats to an Apple laptop at the back and starts tapping away, threading (apparently) out of his entrails (one of the characters complains at one point, “Are these our words – or his?”) the comedy of bittersweet nothings we are about to be entertained by.
What follows is a suite of riffs, comic routines, mock dramatic monologues, dances, seductions, séances and circus acts playing on typical Beckett themes: the questionableness of identity, the frustrations of desire and the inability not to, the compulsion to “go on” even when there is no point to it, the slipperiness of language and the impossibility of location (“Where is here when here is nowhere?”), the self-ingestions of time (“Time passes. Because that’s what time f**king does – it passes!”) and its illusion of progression (the teeter-totter goes up and down, but never gets anywhere), the regrets of existence (“I regret everything,” says a character at one point. “That’s a lot,” drily comments another), the vanity of human hopes, and the peculiarly soulful properties of shoes.
The writing team, Maria Glanz and Lyam White (both among the five adroit performers), succeed at the delicate task of miming Beckett’s style without falling into pastiche – or if, technically, it is pastiche, it is pastiche with panache. They have caught his humor, his ironic pathos, his dry-eyed shrug at the human condition, and a certain childlike quality in his writing that the physical theater brings out, and made something new – the stage becomes a playground of existential conundrums. One rarely ties Beckett’s visions to anything like sensuous delights, but UMO does; there’s an especially memorable riff on something they ought to patent: “Honeymoon Pie.”
Originally, as described in the program, UMO had wanted to cobble together a script from diverse Beckett texts, but Beckett’s estate would only let them use a couple of the ones they chose, which open and close the show. This actually did them a favor: the result is an exhilarating new play on the old themes.
The performance was seamed together into a tight whole by a supple cast, who included, aside from those named, Terry Crane, David Godney and Janet McAlpin. The handsome sound design, at times a discreet accompaniment, at others a robustly present sixth performer, was by James Bigbee Garver.
Green T Productions, from Minneapolis-St. Paul, brought to NOHSpace “Kaidan: Stories and Studies of the Strange,” based on a celebrated book of Japanese folk tales collected and translated by Lafcadio Hearn near the turn of the last century, and titled Kwaidan (also the title of a stunning Japanese film, based on the same book, which came out in the 1960s; a dangerous model, as I couldn’t help comparing the two).
“Kaidan” (corrected from the original, and meaning “ghost story,” according to the program notes) presented a theatrical mashup of three of the book’s stories: a wandering priest wanders into a village laboring under a curse; a hunter shoots a bird with her bow and arrow and is thereafter haunted by the forlorn mate; a demonness of the snow kills the father of a young woodcutter, exacting a pledge from him, then returns in another form and, when he inadvertently breaks the pledge, exacts a terrible revenge.
The production, despite such promising material, was only partly successful: it suffered from clunky, sometimes just plain silly stage-craft, inspired more in concept than execution (the ghosts were sometimes cartoonish in the bad sense), but above of all from trying to do too much, which sometimes stretched the company’s skills to the breaking point.
The stories, broken up and performed mostly as physical theater, with as little dialogue as possible, were often difficult to follow; the director tried to overcome the confusion through crowding the stage with extraneous bodies and movement: a mistake. The attempts at horror and the uncanny often just seemed desperate and were almost never credible. I sometimes felt the director couldn’t make up her mind whether to play the stories straight or as parody, though the only reason to play them is straight: as real, otherwise there seems no point to the exercise.
The physical skills on display were not always equal to the material. Physical theater needs both choreography and actor/dancers working at a high level, and these were only sparsely evident here (as an ensemble, the performers did not seem perfectly comfortable with each other; however, a lengthy scene enacting a wild wind storm in the woods was promising, though in need of pruning). The movement styles chosen were a not always completely digested combination of Noh and Kabuki, with more than a few bows to Warner Brothers cartoons (sometimes funny enough, though a chase scene between the hunter and a Bugs Bunny rabbit began with great charm enough but went on far too long).
The performers sometimes mixed genders – for example, a male priest was played by a female, a male hunter ditto – which is all very well (and trendy enough – one must, alas, be a slave to fashion, especially at the siren call of PC), but there should be an attempt to make theatrical and emotional sense when doing so; the effect here seemed arbitrary and contrived.
The most effective, and affecting, moments were the scenes between the young woodcutter (a convincing and sympathetic KiSeung Rhee) and a beautiful young woman (Joann Oudekerk – the one instance in this piece of perfect casting) who appears in his village one day – they fall in love, and have a child, then the woodcutter makes, unknowingly, a fatal mistake: these moments were the heart of the performance, and the stagecraft is everything it should be: discreet, well-judged and effective.
In short, the company, though clearly talented, energetic and full of good will, bit off more than it could chew. The live music – a combination of koto and shakuhachi flute, with an occasional snap of gagaku sticks – was nicely performed by Miriam Gerberg and KiSeung Rhee.
The Festival included a series of performances of works-in-progress, called Raw Materials. I saw the fifth series, “E,” curated by Emily DeDakis. It included three pieces, all of which showed serious promise and made me curious, in one case definitely eager, to see the finished productions.
The “ever-transforming ensemble” Bird on a Wire presented “For Those Who Cannot Fly,” a timely piece about “lines and walls: borders between countries and states, prison walls, racist redlining, train tracks and highways that isolate and divide” and the like. This sounds abstract, but the work I saw was a very concrete exploration, in words and motion, of national borders, border guards and fleeing immigrants, many of whom have died in the crossing (death crosses, their lines crossing in death, were powerfully symbolic props). Michella Milne and Heidi Carlsen were the inventive creators and performers. A highlight was a flesh-crawling faux lecture by border guards (played with eerie masculine punch by the two women) on their mission and methods. The only thing missing was a secure dramatic through-line that would connect the various scenes into a cohesive, emotionally binding whole; the danger is that concept will remain at the level of idea and editorial – always a danger in conceptual theater. That the ensemble has the ability to avoid this pitfall is not in doubt. The completed work is something worth watching for.
UpLift Physical Theater presented “The Many (Illustrious/Remarkable/Hungry/Lonely Children of Francis LeMoore”: a macabrely funny celebration of “Light. Shadow. Bare bellies. A wedding toast. And all the children” (embodied by the two talented performers) of the never identified Francis LeMoore, that was also the sketchiest of the three pieces. UpLift claims to be inspired by “the despicable narrators of Edgar Allan Poe, the sensuous worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Garbage Pail Kids”; certainly all of these were evident in the blackly comic skits of this piece, created and performed by Nicolette Routhier and Juliana Frick. Odd, weird, crazy, creepy, a bit quick and dirty and thrown together, but imaginative and strangely engaging, this was clearly an early draft, but a promising one.
The most fully developed piece of this series was “Next Time, I’ll Take the Stairs,” an elevator play, but with a difference, by 13th Floor, depicting a ride to hell in the belly of the Otis company’s most famous product. I say “to hell,” but that may be over-simplifying just a hair; as 13th Floor tell it, it’s a ride to “a multi-storied world, inhabited by the shades of previous riders. Down is up, up is nowhere, and the memories of who you were can be re-formed by the stranger standing next to you.” The show follows the adventures of brothers Arthur and Norris, their sister Rabbit, a lasciviously sadistic, compulsively inquisitive lady named Ivy and a disingenuous lug with a big wrench and the suspicious name of Otis, after all five crowd into an elevator that crashes into an alternative universe that is both unforgivingly absurd and weirdly sweet.
Brilliantly written and choreographed, often brain-achingly funny, this Alice in Wonderland journey is a whirlwind of mischievous nonsequiturs and trips and pratfalls to the nowhere elevators ever elevate the unwitting to. (Or is that “from”? Never mind! Their amiable craziness is infectious.) The performers also wrote and created this marvelous, memorable piece; special kudos must go to Jenny McAllister who wrote much of the material and created the hilariously adorable character of Rabbit. My only concern is that what I saw was supposedly only the first half of the piece, and I worry they may stretch it too thin if it goes on much longer. But they obviously have imaginative stamina, so probably I should just trust their stage chops. The completed work will be presented at the end of 2016 and early 2017 at the Joe Goode Annex and ODC Theater (and yes, there is as much inventive movement – dance, if you will – as there is what we usually mean by theater: engaging characters, involving stories, brilliant dialogue). Trust me: go.
In the end, all three ensembles are worth keeping on the theatrical radar. Many thanks go to FURY Factory Festival for providing us with these provocative teasers.
There was some wonderful work at this Festival. My only complaint is the phrase “ensemble and devised theater,” an awkward, prosy, hopelessly academic-sounding name for this wildly joyful genre – a circus-like combination of dance, acrobatics, character, story, music, and dialogue. It sounds like something a particularly unimaginative graduate student came up with on a bad day for a crushingly boring thesis – “academically correct” to a fault. This gray-brained critic is certain you can do better. And if you feel stuck – just ask Rabbit!
Christopher Bernard’s latest books include the novel Voyage to a Phantom City and Dangerous Stories for Boys. His next book, a collection of poems, Chien Lunatique, will appear this fall. He is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector.