San Francisco Fringe Festival Plays and Performances

fringe program cover 5.5x8.5

I went to a Fringe Festival play the first year that I lived here in San Francisco. I had met a potential date online, on Craigslist because it was used for it back then, and we met for a play. I recall that it was some kind of science fiction thing that also had to do with Elvis and that I didn’t like it at all. I recall even less about my date who I didn’t see again. But even though the date was a flop and the choice of play a miss, I loved living in a city with Fringe Fest. I remember that I took the cable car home from my date, because I lived in North Beach then, and I felt like there was nothing more romantic than wearing high heels, hanging off of the cable car, going back to the place where I lived with my best friend.

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2016, Fringe Fest

I hadn’t been back to Fringe Fest since, despite loving and attending many local theatre performances throughout the years. Sometimes I think Fringe Fest just passed without my noticing it. Other years there was just too much going on – school or petsitting or travel. Often, there were just other things on the calendar; San Francisco is filled with events through summer and fall and you can only do so many of them in a given year before your emotional and psychological well is too full and you need to rest your mind. So somehow ten years went by and I didn’t attend Fringe Festival again … until this year.

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A Mathematician at Play

The first day of the festival was last weekend, and we went and checked out a performance at Exit Theater called A Mathematician at Play, in which magician / mathematician Greg Tobo shared some inside secrets about how math can seem magical … while also performing magical feats like multiplying huge numbers in his head and filling in a  soduko style puzzle at an advanced level in front of our eyes.

fringe fest

It Came From Fukushima, from Fringe Fest on Flickr

Last night we went and saw two more performances, back-to-back, at PianoFight. The first was It Came From Fukushima, a play inspired by Godzilla-style movies. It has the feel of old detective films with some martial arts and socio-political statements worked in. The program includes the old style of red/blue paper 3d glasses, and although they turn out not to be so necessary, it is fun to put them on. The play begins and ends with intensely beautiful live saxophone music. And it includes a monster. :)

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Queer Heartache

Mathematician and Fukushima were both good enough performances. I didn’t think that they were outstanding but I didn’t dislike them either. I thought they were entertaining. I liked them. But I LOVED Queer Heartache, which was the third performance we saw. New York-based Kit Yan (formerly Laura from Hawaii) is a slam poet sharing his story through spoken word in one of those performances that touches on the political through being in touch with the personal.

queer heartache

Kit uses vignettes from different stages of his own life to reveal to the audience what it has been like to be moving along the gender spectrum, learning about self-identity, figuring out what that means in relationships from dating to family … particularly as a person of color. He shares snippets of life as a child growing up in poverty, as an older sibling trying to set an example for a young brother, as a straight man attending speed dating events, as a genderqueer man dealing with body hair and injury … as a human in various ages and stages approaching life with both seriousness and humor. Warning: this show has some graphic sexuality and even more graphic emotion oozing from between the lines. Raw and honest, sometimes funny, continually authentic, definitely a must-see in my book.

San Francisco Fringe Festival runs for another week. Queer Heartache has two more performances. There are also tons of other great things to see. The fabulous thing about Fringe Fest is that there is something for everyone. Each of the works are unique and different … and they are affordable enough that you can take a risk on a play that is out of your normal comfort zone. Support local theater.

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The Balcony at the Old Mint

the balcony

I worried that I’d be too tired to go see the play I’d committed to seeing last weekend. It was a school weekend for me, which meant that I’d be in classes for almost eleven hours, classes that are intense and emotional and engaging. And yet, I felt so drawn to the play that I decided to push past the wall of tiredness and see it anyway. I walked the short distance to see The Balcony at The Old Mint in a windstorm, which seemed to appropriately set the stage for the ominous, slightly surreal play.

I’d been to The Old Mint once before, to see a lecture with my sister on sustainable gardening when the building had first reopened to the public. I was mesmerized then by the unique architecture of this historic space, with its cavernous rooms and dungeon-like vaults and labyrinth of doors opening one space onto another onto another into a courtyard. There couldn’t have been a better space picked for this play that is immersive without being interactive (a key point, because I love to be right-up-in-the-thick-of-it but definitely wasn’t in the mood to interact as a part of the theater).

balcony

The play begins in the rooms in the basement where gold used to be stored in the days when this was a money vault. Four different scenes happen simultaneously and the viewers get to wander from room to room at their own whim. I was a little worried about this part because I had mixed reactions to a similar set-up at a Speakeasy-themed play last year. I loved that one in the end but it took awhile to adjust to moving about without direction. In this case, the vignettes stood on their own and I didn’t feel pressure to catch every scene of The Balcony’s four starting scenes. Additionally, the cast of characters that weren’t in the scenes were available in the hallway to quickly direct viewers to the spots they might want to check out next. The thirty minutes went quickly and I enjoyed stepping in and out of various scenes.

Truth be told, I might not have known exactly what those scenes were about if it weren’t for the handy program that provided me with that information. The combination of walking in and out of scenes with the old-fashioned language made catching the nuances of the plot difficult. But I think that would have been the case had the play taken place in a more linear fashion on a traditional stage as well and this setting worked better because it offered a close-up, intriguing look at the set and costumes and characters. It was a good experience.

the balcony 2

The group was then ushered upstairs and the following five longer scenes took place one after the other, allowing the story to unfold and become clearer as the time went on. Mind you, it’s a French play written more than 100 years ago, so it’s not clear in the way that a contemporary play is clear, but the story of a revolution, the play-within-a-play, the specific characters’ stories all do become clear. Each scene takes place in a different room so the whole group of viewers comes into the room, led by costumed ushers who generally fit well into the scene.

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I have to say that I loved the costumes of this play. Some of them (the dress of the Queen, for example) reminded me of couture wearable art that you might see at a DeYoung fabric / fashion exhibit. Others were more handcrafted and cheesy but in a way that worked. Streetwear was combined with unique artistic elements that were eye-catching and interesting.

The caliber of the actors is also notable. Not that I’ve ever questioned that here in San Francisco where we have amazing small theatre groups. Still, there were several characters in this play that really stood out as amazing actors. Irma, the Queen, was seductive and powerful. Carmen was glorious in tall heels and extravagant facial expressions. Sometimes the actors cast into specific roles were unpredictable, seeming to reflect the make-up of San Francisco’s diversity in a way that worked for this play. See the full cast here.

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The final scene plays out in a large room that looks out onto a courtyard and a portion of the scene is actually watched through the windows. It’s a unique experience. If you want to see a unique historic play in a unique historic building (a building that you really should visit even if for some reason you don’t make it to the play), The Balcony runs Th-Sat this weekend and next weekend. Tickets here.

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This Lingering Life Nominated for 8 Theatre Awards

this lingering life

This Lingering Life by Theatre of Yugen, a play I reviewed herehas been nominated in eight categories in the inaugural year of the Theatre Bay Area (TBA) Awards, which are to be held Monday, November 10th here in San Francisco.

 Individual Artist Award Category

Chiori-Miyagawa_by_Jennifer-May

  • Chiori Miyagawa* for Outstanding World Premiere Play
  • Michael Gardiner for Outstanding Original Underscore
  • Hideta Kitazawa for Outstanding Creative Specialty

Tier III Production Category

JubilthMoore-ThisLingeringLife

  • Jubilith Moore for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor
  • Lluis Valls for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor
  • Callie Floor for Outstanding Costume Design
  • Mikiko Uesugi for Outstanding Scenic Design
  • Allen Willner for Outstanding Lighting Design

Good luck wishes to everyone for their amazing creative efforts in putting together this piece.

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Upcoming: Patterns at The New Stage

Patterns-poster-AmyMunz

There’s an upcoming performance here in San Francisco that I’m keeping my eye on. It’s called Patterns is part of the emerging theatre called The New Stage. The performance will be held at The Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion at the French American International High School.

This is a one-woman show. I love solo performances, especially when there are multiple characters, which is the case here. I just think it takes immense talent as well as confidence to do this kind of performance.

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Modern Noh Theatre: This Lingering Life

this lingering life

Last night I went to see This Lingering Life, a Theatre Yugen production. It’s the third performance that I’ve seen from this amazing, unique local theatre. I don’t know a lot about traditional Japanese theatre performances but each time that I go, I’m able to learn a little bit more and gain so much appreciation for this niche art.

Interwoven Inspiration

Jubilith MooreSheila Berotti

The first Yugen performance that I saw and this new one were very different from each other but had one striking similarity that stood out as especially creative for me. They each weave in many different inspirations and elements to create one story that’s been influenced by many other stories.

In the case of This Lingering Life, there are nine acts and each of these acts has been inspired by a different traditional 15th century Noh play. The traditional plays are different types of Noh plays (warrior, diety, mad woman …), written by different authors and exploring different themes. In this play, each act is a modern Western interpretation of one of those plays, woven together to create a themed storyline.

I find this interweaving of stories so intriguing. It shows that a great deal of thought and research and preparation went into the making of the performance before anyone even hit the stage.

Noh Theatre Made New

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Circus Acts at Old Chinatown Theatre

tree of smoke circus

I went to a charming, inspiring, wonderful local theatre show over the weekend in a fascinating old theatre in Chinatown that I’d never even noticed before. It was lovely.

In the Tree of Smoke

In the Tree of Smoke from elndzvastieree on Vimeo.

The show is called In The Tree of Smoke. The performances offer a terrific combination of aerial dance, crazy contortionist displays, clowning and an almost-burlesque edge. It’s a two-hour show with a brief intermission and it consists of about a dozen independent little performances that all merge together to present the idea that beauty and art and creativity can thrive even when money is lacking.

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Theatre of Yugen Performance

One of my favorite things about San Francisco is that no matter how long you live here there is always something new to discover here. Theatre of Yugen isn’t new to the city but it is new to me and it is one of those gems that I was happy to discover. A friend invited me to see a performance there yesterday and it was a charming experience.

About Theatre of Yugen

Theatre of Yugen is a group of performers who are trained in Japanese theatre techniques, which they apply to a variety of different styles of plays.

From their website:

“Whether the subject matter of our shows is classical or contemporary, and whether our performance is primarily serious or comic, we strive to project the aesthetic quality of yugen, or mysterious elegance, which gives our work a distinctive style and provides a unique experience to our audience.”

This is a San Francisco based performing group made up of international members. Although they are based here, and have been for 30 years, they tour nationally and internationally. They perform at an intimate 50-seat theatre in Potrero Hill called NOHSpace.

About the Performance

To give you an idea of what this group does, let me tell you a little bit about the performance that I saw (which runs here through December 30th). It is called A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night. As the name suggests, it was a performance consisting of five short plays; they were actually tied together with a song performance that was done in parts between the plays.

Each of the plays in this performance had content that was inspired by an existing piece of writing and a style informed by the style of a certain type of Japanese performance art and represented one of the five categories of Noh performance (which I’ll explain momentarily).

So for example, the second play was called Steadfast Memory. The content was based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale called The Steadfast Tin Soldier. The style for the performance was inspired by Bunraku Japanese theatre. The main character represented the warrior, one of the five main characters in Noh.

Storytelling Styles

Without knowing anything at all about Japanese theatre and being mostly unfamiliar with a large number of the works that these plays were based on, I really came to this whole experience with wide eyes and an open mind. The first thing that struck me, and ultimately the thing that I ended up appreciating most about what Theatre of Yugen does, is the way these plays showcased the many different styles of telling a story.

Each of the five plays seemed to combine music and words to tell the story. With the music, sometimes it was singing in English and sometimes it was singing in another language and sometimes it was just music. In addition, stories were told through props, masks, pantomime and puppetry. The first play had almost zero props and the entire scene was magically set through the descriptions by the players whereas some of the others were rich in props and told more visually.

After reading the super-informative program that they gave us I learned more about the different influences of Japanese theatre types that informed each play. I could then see that there were specific styles that influenced the way that the story was told, but even before I knew that I appreciated this aspect of the performance.

A Short Look into Japanese Theatre Styles

I won’t pretend that I suddenly know a lot about Japanese Theatre but I did learn a few basics so I thought I’d pass them along.

As I said, each of the performances was influenced by a type of Japanese theatre, with the first each having a different influence and the final one being a combination of them all. The four types of theatre were:

  1. Kyogen. This is the dialogue-based style of theatre that informed the first play. It explores natural human emotions and celebrates humanity through distinct facial expressions, precise movements and speech. This one also incorporated some funny masks and I later learned from my program that the Kyogen style is based in comedy.
  2. Bunraku. This is a puppetry-based form of theatre. Historically there was a very precise way of manipulating the puppets. The puppeteer appears on stage in full view but is covered from head to toe so that the puppet is the focus of the piece.
  3. Kabuki. This style utilizes musical theatre including traditional instruments, dance and elaborate costumes to tell the story.
  4. Noh.  My program describes this better than me so I’ll excerpt, “Noh drama, Japan’s traditional, richly symbolic theatre of masks, music, stylized and abstract movement and lyric poetry is the world’s oldest and continuously performed masked performance tradition”. It dates back 600 years. It sounds like it typically explores spirituality and morality.

The 5 Themes of Noh

I mentioned above that each play was also based around a type of Noh theater. Noh plays are divided into five styles based on the theme of their main character: a god, a warrior, a beautiful woman, a miscellaneous character (sometimes a madwoman) and a demon). So, repeating the example I shared above, the second play in the series about the tin soldier represented the warrior play in Noh.

And Even More Detail

There was actually even more detail to the themes of the plays than the slice I’ve described here, including a seasonal element that tied all five plays together. Plus there was the song cycle (based on Peter Pan) that was performed in parts between each of the plays (and was actually one of my favorite aspects of the performance). I won’t delve into those details (go see the performance if you’re in San Francisco and see for yourself!) but I will say that it must have taken a lot of time, effort, creativity and detail to piece together all of these different traditions, styles, stories and elements into a cohesive play. Beautiful work.

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SmartChick’s Reflections on 3 Local Performances

Last weekend I went to three different live theater performances as part of the SF Fringe Festival. This is a festival of local independent theatre performances. Several low-cost plays happen daily as a part of this festival. It’s an opportunity to see a varied array of plays. Each of the performances that I saw was very different from the others and I wanted to take a few days to let the experience of them sink in before I wrote about them.

Performance One: Dance

The first play was a dance performance called Cafe Lorraine. I rarely go to dance performances and always seem to forget in between them how much I actually do enjoy going to them. I find the combination of movement, song and poetry to be very powerful. This performance had a few different themes going on with a major theme of the dependence that we fall into (good and bad) when we are in relationships. One easy-to-explain visual display of this was through the use of collars and leashes to signify the push and pull of dependence in a relationship. (The one holding the leash may seem in control but cannot always go where they want without dropping the leash.)

The performance introduced the subject of shadows and that was something that I wanted to ponder more. I didn’t think that the play itself really conveyed what was intended by this theme although it was visually interesting. I felt like something was lacking. Over the days, though, I’ve thought about this shadow idea. Several things occurred to me relating shadows to this thought of dependence on others:

  • The people we are in close relationships with often bring out our shadow selves, the darker parts of ourselves that we do not normally need to confront.
  • One person is usually the stronger or needier presence in the relationship at any given time. The other person becomes a shadow of that person.
  • In relationships where we begin to get too dependent on another person, we may become only a shadow of our own selves.

As I said, the performance wasn’t totally clear on what it intended for the shadows so I don’t know if any of these ideas of mine were meant to be inspired but it’s something that I found interesting and appealing and that stuck with me after the play was over.

Performance Two: Subliminal Messaging

The next performance that I went to was a one-man show about the power of subliminal messages and the way that we can read body language to gain information about what others are thinking. I have to confess that I was disappointed with this particular performance. I found something off putting about the performer. And I had expected to be given more insight into how he actually performed the reading of body language whereas instead I felt like he was showing us some “magic tricks” and not really giving us the secrets behind them.

That said, it did provoke some thoughts about body language and how we can use it to influence others. I do think that people pick up on the subtle cues that we send out (such as defensive posturing – crossing of arms, etc.) and I think that it’s possible to use that information to send out the message that we want to send instead. This isn’t an area of studied a lot about but it’s something that I’m curious to learn more about. Anyone know of any good reading material on this topic?

Performance Three: Solo Performance Theater

Finally, the third play that I saw was a one-woman solo performance about the feeling of being invisible. This performance intrigued me because it managed to keep me mildly entertained and yet didn’t really do a anything thought-provoking for me in terms of its content. That fact interested me because usually live theatre does manage to suck me in. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like the performer because I did find her engaging, cute and funny. So how could I find the actress appealing but the play rather boring?

Ultimately, I decided that this to me was very similar to a sitcom or to a show that I’ve seen too many times before on television. Although there were things I could relate to and agree with in the plot of the play, I didn’t find anything new or challenging within the content. Essentially, the play was about the idea that if you don’t have a major tragedy to build your life around then you end up feeling invisible in the world and not really knowing what your place is. I think that we all struggle with finding our place in the world and the feeling of being too normal or too average is as valid as any other struggle with that. However, I didn’t feel like the play went to the next level of posing a theory or something thought provoking around that idea.

What would that theory be? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps something about how the feeling of invisibility affects your ability to move forward in the world – something about the idea that being too average prevents you from achieving anything because of the fact that average is inherently mediocre. Or perhaps something about how to overcome the fear of mediocrity. I’m not quite sure. And I think that the actress was reaching for something along the lines but just didn’t quite get there.

Summary

So that was my experience at Fringe Fest so far this year. The different plays provoked different thoughts. I was left hanging a little bit because of each of them but maybe that’s a good thing. It spurs me on to think more and explore the topics of them more on my own after the entertainment is over. Perhaps that’s really what good theatre is all about.

What was the last play that you saw? What did it make you think about?
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