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Experimental Theatre That Doesn’t Suck
by Nirmala Nataraj on Jul 25, 2008
Since 1999, Cutting Ball Theater has been regaling Bay Area audiences with the sort of stage productions that tend to be so rare in modern theatre: intelligent, provocative, challenging, impossibly literary pieces that teem with playfulness and a throbbing vein of experimentalism. Artistic director Rob Melrose tends to deal in creating minor monuments to the exhilarating range of possibility that live theatre can offer (without the bombast or ginormous budget), from brief dramaturgical sketches by local playwrights to cheeky, audacious revisions of beloved Shakespeare plays.
Cutting Ball’s yearly tradition known as Avant GardARAMA! is one of the best ways to get intimately acquainted with Melrose’s vision of revealing poetic truths through the staging of both experimental plays and dramatically revised classics -- this time, in three bite-sized yet utterly delectable installments.
The month-long run features pieces by three American female playwrights: linguistic doyenne and Modernist heavyweight Gertrude Stein, Pulitzer-winning Suzan-Lori Parks, and Bay Area native Eugenie Chan. But don’t expect a sentimental or predictable evening of “women’s theatre”; Cutting Ball are all about dismantling narrow conceptions of theatre, and the featured performances will be no different. If anything, the three playwrights individually reveal the range and scope of the projects that Cutting Ball has taken on in the last decade.
Gertrude Stein’s “Accents in Alsace” (subtitled “A Reasonable Tragedy”) is a piquant, witty, and beautiful piece that was published in her 1922 Geography and Plays. Diminutive as it is, it’s also a deeply challenging play based on her 1918 visit to Alsace while doing postwar relief work. Elements of Cubism and Surrealism, poetry, nursery rhyme, dream sequences, and several loopy sojourns through language, thankfully, don’t serve to distract us from Stein’s poignant, humanistic message of compassion and resilience.
Pulitzer-winning Suzan-Lori Parks is also represented in “Betting on the Dust Commander” (Cutting Ball’s fourth production by the playwright). The play is almost reminiscent of a Caryl Churchill piece but without resorting to the pathos of kitchen-sink drama. Here, tiny, suggestive snatches of conversation work to form a panorama depicting the lives of a couple living in 1950s Kentucky. Through the repetition of word-for-word dialogue that moves from the story of the couple’s wedding night and, years later, to an account of the husband sneaking out to the racetrack, we get a revealing glimpse into domestic dissatisfaction. The repetition serves as an almost hypnotic reminder of the emotional suffocation and habitual patterns of married life, and Parks’ attention to all the minutiae that composes what and how we choose to remember is both haunting and harrowing.
Perhaps the major treat in this year’s installment is the world premiere of Bay Area playwright Eugenie Chan’s “Bone to Pick,” which was commissioned by the Cutting Ball Theater and Magic Theatre/Z Space New Works Initiative. Chan’s play is an inventive retelling of the tragic Greek myth of Ariadne (who is promised in marriage to Prince Theseus if she’ll help him kill her brother, the monstrous Minotaur, only to be dumped by her lover in the end). In this version, Ariadne is Ria, a waitress who’s been languishing in a post-apocalyptic diner for thousands of years. The play, which revolves around a single actress, deftly examines issues of foreign occupation, accountability (Ria is forced to confront her own complicity in slaying the Minotaur), and both the tangible and intangible casualties of war.
Given the predominance of linear narratives in contemporary theatre, Cutting Ball’s convention-breaking and willingness to push the envelope rather than cater to complacent audiences is refreshing. While Stein, Parks, and Chan might all be pigeonholed into the narrow rank of postmodern playwrights, Avant GardARAMA! is proof positive that no matter the format, these are pieces that are ultimately time-transcendent.
Avant GardARAMA! plays June 24 through August 18 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, S.F. Tickets are $15-30. Visit www.cuttingball.com or call (800) 838-3006 for more information.
by Nirmala Nataraj on Jul 25, 2008
Ryan Oden, John Russell, Felicia Benefield, Chad Deverman, and Cheryl Garcia in Woyzeck