Monday, December 5, 2016

‘The Seagull and Other Birds’ by Pan Pan Theatre at SF International Arts Festival 2016

Audiences booed Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1896. Its head-on foray into the nature of art, creation, society, and relationships was not expected or understood. The characters in “The Seagull” churn in their own spheres of longing in a world that is not linear or tidy. Love is unrequited, failures ensues, dreams are dashed, and souls collide.

But, like islands born from lava in combat with the sea, new audiences emerged to embrace new forms.

This energy of creation sparks Pan Pan Theatre Company’s production of “The Seagull and Other Birds.” Like a seagull that patrols the coast to find unlikely sources of food, this award-winning Irish theater company uses Chekhov’s play as a point of departure to discover “other birds” — other forms of inspiration. Pan Pan Theatre Company scavenges from cultures across time and space — unexpected and fun images that reverberate in your memory, images that must be perceived but not over thought, as from a strange and compelling dream.

Upon entering the theater, we see all cast members on stage, warming up and stretching in pink and white ballet garb, tutus and all, creating an ironic image for what’s to come. We are given a sheet with the lyrics to “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats and are asked to sing along, dissuading one from accepting the kind of same-old, same-old feeling that Mondays bring. This is going to be a new ride, a kaleidoscope of movement, dance, erotic tableaus, rap, Luche Libre masks, and even a type of reality show where audience members are selected to interact with the cast on stage which becomes a dynamic canvas of innovation.

The seagull is not the only bird. “Other birds” loosely suggest points of divergence marked by hand drawn and hand held posters. There is “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s metaphor for failed love and aspiration. “The Shag” (Cormorant). The indomitable Arctic Tern. The huge and opportunistic Herring Gull. The “other birds” are facets or essence of characters: the dreamer Nina, literally running away from tethers, the despondent playwright Konstantin, the jaded author Trigorin, and the dark Masha —are present as suggestions of traits and dynamics.

Seeing “The Seagull and Other Birds” is a visceral, kinetic, and chaotic experience that seems oddly comfortable in this moving, hyperlinked, fragmented, yet oddly cohesive world.

‘Seagull and Other Birds’ can be seen for one more performance on May 28, at the Cowell Theatre. For further information click here.

‘Birdheart' at Z Space Below April 2016

“Birdheart” has the simplest of beginnings: a single egg lit warmly on a table covered with sand. Lovely, evocative, uncomplicated string music fills the room. We hear the sound of gentle waves lapping a shore. We watch intently, not knowing what to expect.

Soon, the egg begins to crack and move. Something is trying hard to get out. It is not a bird but a person, or rather, an animated sheet of brown wrapping paper that is shaped and manipulated to look and move like a person, much as a passing cloud might look like a horse.

The forces that do the shaping and moving are puppeteer-musicians Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane. Their presence is evident, not hidden in black like Noh theater koken, and the audience marvels and applauds at the things they do with this intriguing medium.

The paper person struggles to gain footing and soon realizes it is alone. It finds a small table and chair on the beach and arranges them to create an invitation to tea, complete with two small cups. We feel this creature’s loneliness, its sense of being earthbound and heavy. It seems stuck until it is enlightened (literally, a backlight throwing a shadow) to realize it has a tiny bird in its heart. The joy is palpable as the paper creature lifts up and is pulled down, lifts up and is pulled down until it finally transforms into a bird, from the same amazing piece of paper.

The bird gains wings which are fragile, skeletal paper. The design was inspired by Chris Jordan’s harrowing photos of baby albatrosses who starved to death with crops full of plastic detritus that their parents found and fed to their chicks.

The bird lays a single egg, tries to brood it but gives up. It flies away, abandoning the egg, and we are brought back to the beginning with single egg sitting in the spotlight. And I cried.

“Birdheart”reminds us of the profound simplicity of form, story, and emotion in classic Polish animation.

After the performance, Lane and Crouch met with the audience to answer questions about the source of inspiration (“we tried to be open to the accident of something, to be in chaotic collaboration with the world”), logistics, material (ordinary brown wrapping paper), music (by Saskia Lane, Julian Crouch and Mark Stewart) and meaning that shaped the piece, and even invited the curious to see the puppetry design up close. They plan to bring “Birdheart” to other countries, inviting local musicians to perform with that country’s instruments and music, making it a truly universal endeavor.

Prior to the performance, Lane and Crouch playfully turned each other into puppets, and performed a banjo bass duo. How they did this is a surprise worth waiting for.

Magical and intriguing, “Birdheart” helps us to believe that an ordinary brown paper bag can dance, fly, and have a soul that resonate with ours.

“Birdheart” played at Z Space in April 2016.

This review was initially published in

Monday, October 17, 2016

& such: Farewell, Sam

My neighbor Sam (Cipriano Montes) died October 9 at home.

I knew he was at home in hospice but I didn't know he had died.

He was 91 but spry and wily as a cat, full of energy and wit. He could have passed for 70:)

Sam and I would chat over the fence, discussing gardens or gossip and such. For the past few years he was home taking care of his wife Lucille who had developed Alzheimer's. They lived in the house on Mangels at least 60 60 years .

One day last year I asked him how he was doing, and he said that he was sad about his wife but was committed to help her. He'd monitor her medications, make her soup, and other simple but necessary acts of living.  He said, "This is what I do. For better for worse. Till death do us part."

I would know that Sam was in his yard by smelling cigarette smoke wafting into my yard.
He kept a beautiful garden and was very dedicated to it. He had a very wry, irrverent sense of humor which sometimes took me off guard but always made me laugh. One time I told him I would be planting native plants, and his answer was "so you're going to plant weeds!"

I am very sad that Sam is gone, but as he often said, "whaddya gonna do?" His grandson told me that he did not want a memorial service and had willed his body to UCSF.

I'm writing this because I think many people have such a relationship with their neighbors but never really get to talk about it.

Goodbye, Sam. I imagine you tending the flowers in heaven or wherever we are wont to go after we pass from earth.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

& such: Natural-Born Comics

CRASH BAM BOOM happens in ouir back yard almost every night.
Everyone usually says "It's RACCOONS" so I decided to see for myself with the help of a Trailcam with motion-activated, night vision features.

It's a sitcom our there at night, as the kids explore, get in trouble, knock things over like unsupervised brats at Walmart.

A lot of people hate these guys, but as lomg as I don't tussle with one I'll admit they're pretty cute.

Take a look at this video:

Friday, September 30, 2016

theater: Crowded Fire Brings in The Shipment

“The Shipment”
Sept 22-Oct 15 2016

Thick House
1695 18th St  San Francisco

Reviewed by Christine Okon

“Are you a racist?

We are hearing that question lot lately, as if the expected answer is a simple and absolute Ja or Nein. But how easy it is for us to dwell in ambiguity, no matter subtle and unconscious.

Crowded Fire Theater, always a step before the curve, is delivering playwright Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment,” a kinetic and dynamic mix of the stereotypes, nuances, and beliefs about culture and race that thread through our subconscious.

The play begins with a black man (Howard Johnson) alone on stage, a comic emcee who acts in a strange way that is not quite identifiable, and unnerving. Then two remarkable dancers (William Hartfield and Nican Robinson, who has the leap of a gazelle) move in a dark and frenetic parody of a minstrel show (or not), flying around, leaping, tapping, chest bumping, cakewalking in a crazy rush of stereotypical, and supposedly “intrinsic” rhythm. To choreograph such chaos, as did Rami Margron, is meeting a remarkable challenge.

We wait for a crescendo, a finale, something to tell us what’s going on, but it never comes. 
William Hartfield (l) and Nican Robinson fly in The Shipment (photo by Pak Han)
What follows is a montage of familiar tableaus: the aspiring kid with the brave single mom, the neighborhood kid bouncing the B-ball, the drug dealer, the rapper, the Uncle Remus old guy spewing ephemeral and unheard wisdom, the dialog of guns and the shocking routine of drive-by shootings. 

Each actor brings life to several different characters, and especially wonderful is Nkechi Emeruwa who switched from mama to whore to grandma to staid professional. Everyone moves predictably and precisely in a disturbing, animatronic way. 

No matter which channel you flip to, you catch a flash of “black culture” that is distorted and removed. There is no clean Law and Order solving of the crime, and no knowing what happens next.

Most compelling and remarkable is when the actors move calmly forward as if to greet us, stopped only by the end of the stage. They stand still and silent as they scan the audience up and down slowly, locking eyes with individuals, looking right into your eyes, and it is your decision to sustain the gaze or turn away, to react personally, if only slightly.

As the second part begins we watch two prop hands assemble the next set: a couch, a rug, some side tables, a lamp, a liquor cart. How familiar this looks, like every sitcom apartment living room. It’s boring and precise, as devoid of color and energy as the dried brown flower arrangement on the table. 

So too are the guests that come through the door to join what turns out to be a sad birthday party, the kind of party you want to leave as soon as they take your coat. These people talk at each other as they follow some script of how to act “as if” to mask the loneliness underneath.  To see these talented actors move from high energy to painfully careful behavior is a lesson in creative versatility. 

When someone suggests that they all play a game, we hope for some kind of interesting action. The guests participate mechanically in the parlor game that ends with a zinger that follows you out of the theater and into the next day. 

Co-directors Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins have explored Young’s open script and collaborated with the actors to give them as much freedom as possible to create a special energy to upend a complacency that can be oh so comfortable.

The Shipment

Nkechi Emeruwa, William Hartfield, Howard Johnson Jr., Nican Robinson, and Michael Wayne Turner III

Dramaturg: Sonia Fernandez
Scenic Design:  Deanna L. Zibello
Costume Design:  Keiko Shimosato Carreiro
Lighting Design: Heather Basarab
Sound Design: Hannah Birch Carl
Props Design: Devon LaBelle
Choreographer: Rami Margron
Fight Director: Carla Pantoja
Music Director: Sean Fenton
Stage Manager: M. Sohaa Smith
Assistant Stage Manager: Benjamin Shiu
Production Manager: Stephanie Alyson Henderson
★ Crowded Fire Resident Artist

& such:

Thick House is a tiny venue that can get hot and stuffy very quickly, so they offered to lend audience members silk fans.  They are trying  trying to raise funds via PlayGround ( for renovations.