Sunday, February 14, 2010

Curiouser and Queerer

Project Wonderland. Bootleg Theater. 2/14/10.

Bootleg Theater's Project Wonderland is a wild and wonderful live version of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland complete with excellent puppetry and delightfully strange musical numbers.

The production tells the Alice in Wonderland story as you know it, but also includes a depiction of Charles Dodgson (whose pen name was Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell as a framing story. Lon Haber plays Dodgson, but also steps into the role of Alice when she crosses into Wonderland (when Dodgson goes into an opium-induced dream), so that this production allows the modern assumption of Dodgson's attraction to Alice but also offers a more poignant (and less creepy) possibility of Dodgson identifying with Alice and wanting to be her rather than be with her. Haber makes a surprisingly engaging Alice leading a truly fabulous ensemble cast, including a chorus of five other Alices that sadly disappeared into other roles after a few scenes.

Everyone in the show gave skilled performances, but I was particularly impressed with Matthew Patrick Davis as the Mad Hatter among other roles. In addition to being a giant (6'8" according to his website) with excellent physical comedy skills, he's also adorable and managed to be astonishingly earnest even in clown makeup when he had a brief appearance as Duckworth, a friend of Dodgson's. He's prone to mugging and thereby looking almost exactly like a young Jim Carey, which I enjoy less than some of the other things he does, but he's definitely one to watch and I will gladly follow any future theater endeavors. The mad tea party scene went on a little long, but watching Davis cavort in crazy striped pants and a top hat helped prevent boredom even when the scene dragged.

I also very much enjoyed Jessica Hanna as the White Rabbit (with an excellent signing voice) and Jabez Zuniga as the Queen of Hearts (and as the March Hare, but the Queen of Hearts was way more fabulous). The entire ensemble did a highly entertaining job with music by Indira Stefanianna (and a few classic rock standards) and dance numbers choreographed by Ken Roht (the mad genius behind the 99-cent store extravaganzas that usually inhabit the evidence room/bootleg around Christmas).

A huge amount of credit must go to director Robert A. Prior who also adapted the show. It makes me wonder why Prior and his Fabulous Monsters Performance Group isn't on my radar. I definitely want to see and know about whatever Prior does in the future; I was seriously intrigued. It was a clever production, subtly suggesting issues of queer (gay and/or transgender) identity and identification, but also emphasizing how we raise and educate children and indoctrinate them into adult social forms. This production gave the distinct impression that the grown-up world of schools and tea parties and croquet and court rooms is the source of all nonsense, and that the process of growing up is memorizing absurd words and social forms that never come out quite right. I thought that this was a brilliant combination of themes and that the production emphasized this element of Carroll's book quite well, especially in the caterpillar (played by Michael Bonnabel) scene with its poetry recitation and discussion of transformation.

Most of all, though, the stand-out aspects of this production were the costumes by Teresa Shea and the puppets by Lynn Jeffries. Infinitely inventive, this show was a visual delight. Jeffries' shadow puppets were particularly clever and astonishing. They did an excellent job visualizing the crazy wonderland world of this production, from giant and miniature Alices to dancing starfish and lobsters. The Queen of Hearts' sequined cone bra totally stole the show.

Overall, it's a fun show though it does run a little long (1 hr 45 min with no intermission), and maybe one or two scenes were longer than they needed to be. It's a good homage to both Carroll's book and the film versions I recall fondly from my childhood. I'm sorry I went to the last performance, so recommending it doesn't achieve much, but I really did enjoy the show with all its visual spectacle. It inspired me to think differently about a familiar story, and that in itself is an impressive achievement.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Really cool event!

This shows just how nerdy I am, but I think this is a totally awesome sounding event and I seriously wish I were in the Bay Area to enjoy it. If you know anyone up there, please tell them about this. How cool is it that David Henry Hwang is going back to his alma mater to stage the play that started it all and to celebrate the student theater group he founded?!?

Please join the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club
in welcoming...

David Henry Hwang '79
Hope Nakamura '82
Nancy Takahashi Hatamiya '81
Lisa Pan '81

...back to campus for

the Asian American Theater Project's
30th anniversary re-staging of
David Henry Hwang's Obie Award-winning Play:


The play that started it all, "FOB" was written by David Henry Hwang while
he was an undergraduate at Stanford. He and his friends founded the Asian
American Theater Project in order to produce the play for the first time
at Stanford's Asian American theme dorm in 1979. Hwang's career-launching
play would go on to premier Off-Broadway and win an Obie Award.

Thursday, 2/18 @ 7pm ($5)
Friday, 2/19 @ 7pm ($5)
* Saturday, 2/20 @ 3pm ($10) *

at the Nitery Theater in Old Union

Special Events Following Saturday Show
featuring playwright David Henry Hwang '79 and original cast and crew
members Hope Nakamura '82, Nancy Takahashi Hatamiya '81, and Lisa Pan '81

FOB Alumni Panel @ 5pm, Nitery Theater
Immediately follows Saturday show, included in ticket price.

FOB Reception @ 6 pm, A3C Ballroom
FREE. Refreshments provided.

Reserve Your Play Tickets Now

SAPAAC members, contact Cynthia Liao '09
( for discount

David Henry Hwang is the author of M. Butterfly and Yellowface among many
others. He was born in Los Angeles, California and graduated from Stanford
University as well as Yale School of Drama. Hwang was twenty-one and had
just graduated from Stanford when his first play, FOB, was accepted for
production in at the National Playwrights Conference. The very next year,
FOB won an Obie Award as the best new play of the season. Hwang holds
honorary degrees from Columbia College in Chicago and The American
Conservatory Theatre. He lives in New York City with his wife, actress
Kathryn Layng, and their children, Noah David and Eva Veanne.
This is the Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club (SAPAAC) e-mail
list, hosted by the Stanford Alumni Association.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Military Intelligence and Sex Wars

North Atlantic. The Wooster Group. The REDCAT. 2/10/10.

North Atlantic is a Wooster Group deconstruction of military and gender politics, set more or less during the Cold War. South Pacific it ain't. It offers a wonderfully disturbing, problematic exploration of sex as war and sex in war, exploiting and exploding mid-century gender roles and the conventions of war movies. This piece differs from the Wooster Group productions I have seen in the past because it isn't an explicit deconstruction of one or two significant texts, but rather a critical response to an entire genre (or three).

First and foremost, North Atlantic is a piece about military culture and the military in popular culture. The action takes place on an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic (although you wouldn't necessarily know that unless you read it in the program) and begins with a wonderfully gruff young officer (Roscoe Chizzum, I believe was his character name) spouting military intelligence cliches at two enlisted men. His rapid-fire delivery of utter nonsense was one of many high points of the production for me.

The production comes into focus when Wooster Group veteran Kate Valk appears as Ann Pussey, serving as madam for a team of secretaries. The women offer a series of bawdy sexual comments about competing in an upcoming wet uniform contest as they fiddle manically with reel-to-reel tape and rotary phones, separated from the downstage playing area of the men by a long table on a raked platform stretching upstage at a steep angle. Although all of the women were excellent, I found Maura Tierney with her shaved head and short shorts particularly compelling and I wish the character had explored that shockingly butch first impression more. Seriously. I would love to see a Maura Tierney play butch for real. *Swoon*

Lurking behind the explicit sexuality depicted in the play lies the threat of homosexuality. Implicitly, North Atlantic suggests that extreme performances of heterosexual voraciousness are necessary in the military to disprove the threat of queerness. When an outside officer, Ned Ludd, arrives on the carrier, Captain Roscoe first challenges his heterosexuality and later dismisses him as an 'egghead,' suggesting a critique of the military's homophobia and anti-intellectualism as intertwined. The constant low-level threat of homosexuality culminated in a dance scene at an after-hours social event in which three couples danced awkwardly together, with the heterosexual couple in the center, two men dancing together on one side and two women on the other. This scene created a beautiful tableau of the possibilities and impossibilities of romance and intimacy within military culture.

Occasional song-and-dance numbers livened and lightened up the production, providing another layer of interpretation by linking the military setting with cowboy images of Americana. At a few points in the show, the action stopped while everyone broke out into slightly skewed versions of familiar songs such as "Yankee Doodle" and "I Ride an Old Paint." Though I believe these songs have existed since the show's beginnings in 1983/4, they felt particularly pertinent in evoking the George W. Bush's cowboy militarism of the most recent wars. These songs speak to the central images of how the U.S. views itself and represents itself as a military powerhouse that valorizes individuality and independence even when they are destructive or impossible. In the stark technology of the stage/battleship, these songs offer a nostalgic depiction of rural romanticism and longing for a Wyoming that seems impossibly distant, while being corrupted by the raunchy worldliness of the plays characters (particularly the women).

The play also deals with issues of interrogation and torture in a comical but disturbing way. Overall, North Atlantic explores and exaggerates the cliches of military culture and how the military is represented to civilian audiences in a strange, disturbing, thoughtful way. Like all Wooster Group productions, there are more questions than answers, but sometimes that in itself can be compelling and productive if the questions are asked in the right way. I have criticized the Wooster Group in the past for depicting problematic political and cultural images (most notably blackface in Route 1 & 9) without clear critical commentary. In this piece, while their position wasn't necessarily unambiguous, it at least gives me a hook on which to hang my own critical hat, suggesting satirical commentary on a culture of sexism and sexual exploitation within the military and criticism of the popular reconfiguration of rigid gender roles and sexual opportunism into film narratives of romance. These aren't necessarily the Wooster Group's or director Elizabeth LeCompte's positions, but they are the ideas that the performance inspired me to think about, and I think for this production, that is critical interpretation enough.

NOTE: Please excuse the fact that I haven't linked actor names to the roles. The program only offers the list of ensemble members, so all I know is that the cast includes Ari Fliakos, Frances McDormand, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk, and special guest artists Steve Cuiffo, Koosil-ja Hwang, Paul Lazar, Zachary Oberzan, Jenny Seastone-Stern and Maura Tierney and they were all absolutely excellent in a demanding ensemble performance. If I can find more information, I will try to amend the text at a later date to reflect proper actor and character names.