Go see Stupid Fucking Bird now!

20 Mar


SF Playhouse has been producing some of the most interesting, entertaining theater around. Continuing this trend, it offers Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, which is a postmodern take of Chekhov’s classic, The Seagull. I had the pleasure of seeing it in previews earlier this week. It opens tomorrow night.


Charles Shaw Robinson as Sorn

The seven-member cast is first-rate, featuring talented, versatile Bay Area actors, many of whom I’ve seen at Aurora or on the Ashby Stage. Charles Shaw Robinson is Sorn, the quiet doctor, an integral part of the family, who is virtually invisible to all the emotionally wrought characters who surround him.

Carrie Paff never disappoints, and this time she gets to play a narcissistic film actress who loves her grown son, Con, even if she has an odd way of showing it.

Stupid Bird Emma & Trig

El Beh as Mash

The peculiarly named Mash is played by El Beh, whom you may have seen in the Shotgun Players’ recent production of Our Town, where she portrayed Emily—quite a different role, to be sure.

Although the story elements are similar to Chekhov’s play, the format is distinctly fresh, with actors occasionally stepping out of character to address the audience, not in a Frank Underwood aside à la House of Cards, but in a full-fledged solicitation to participate. At one point Con faces the audience and appeals for ideas of how he can win his mother’s love. Later, Magill, the actor playing Con, refers to the likelihood that many of us stole a second look at his bio because his head shot shows him sans beard. (See below.)

But breaking down the fourth wall is not merely a gimmick—it helps to tell the story in a refreshing way. One could almost say it’s cheating on the playwright’s part because enabling the characters to speak directly to the audience allows them to cover back story in a way that couldn’t be done in a traditional play. But Posner does not rely on this method too heavily, and it’s interwoven artfully with dialogue and action.

And Posner stayed true to Chekhov’s principle that once a gun is introduced onstage, it must go off. But I don’t want to give away any crucial plot points…

Con on swing

Magill as Con


Magill’s head shot (Pretty different, huh?)








Tea and Handler at Book Passage—Yay!

8 Mar

D. Handler & Michelle Tea @ BP

Although I was on deadline writing a play, I took time out to go to Book Passage in Corte Madera to see Daniel Handler and Michelle Tea, who were reading from their newest books. I briefly considered blowing it off, since I’d just seen Daniel Handler at City Arts & Lectures and I’d seen Michelle Tea at a recent conference, but I decided to make the trek across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge.

And I’m so glad I went.

Before the event started, I made a quick trip to the restroom in Book Passage’s other building and saw Daniel Handler; his wife, Lisa Brown; their 11-year-old son; Michelle Tea; her partner/spouse; and their baby. They were all hanging out together, perusing and buying books. It was such a sweet literary scene.

Because the two authors are friends, their conversation was lighthearted and cozy. And it was entertaining because they are both extremely fun and interesting people. And Daniel Handler can make me laugh even with stories I’ve heard before. (In addition to seeing him in conversation with Michael Chabon in S.F., I also tuned in to KQED’s interview with him a few days ago. So I expected to hear some of the same material.)

Michelle Tea @BPEach of them read the part of their book that involved shoplifting, since they discovered that was a common thread. Handler read from We Are Pirates, his book for adults, and Tea read her memoir, How to Grow Up.

My favorite story was about Handler as a student at Lowell High in S.F. All students were required to take an aptitude test that asked what they wanted to be. Handler convinced a majority of his classmates to check the “other” box and write in “pirate.” It could have been simply a rather harmless prank, but apparently Lowell was being used to represent a huge number of teens across the nation. Imagine the bewilderment of test scorers who discover that a significant portion of our youth were hoping to become pirates. The principal yelled at him, and everyone had to take the test again.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked both Tea and Handler when they knew the wanted to be a writer. Tea knew from age five. Although writing was the first occupation he remembered aspiring to, Handler’s parents told him that when he was very young, he had a different dream: he wanted to be an old man who lived on a hill and dispense advice to those who sought it.Daniel Handler signing @BP

Someone asked how Handler came up with the name Lemony Snicket, his nom de plume for his children’s books. At one point when he was doing some research and needed right-wing material, he called an appropriate source, who asked him for his name. He suddenly realized that he didn’t want his real name to be associated with the material being sent, so he blurted out the first name he thought of—Lemony Snicket. And he liked it so much that when he needed a pen name, he adopted it.

My question, being the copyeditor, was what were they like as authors when they were edited. Did they demand last say on comma placement, or did they tend to take a copyeditor’s changes without fuss? Tea answered first, saying that she was no grammar expert and was happy to have a copyeditor go over her writing. Handler said he can get as uppity about commas as anyone, but he realizes that without copyeditors, he might end up sending a book to press in which he accidentally has a character enter a room twice.

Good answers.

I had already bought We Are Pirates, but I found two Lemony Snicket books that I did not yet own, so I bought those, which Handler stamped on behalf of Lemony Snicket. I wish I’d brought the book I’d bought by Michelle Tea so she could sign it, but I told her that I already had it at home.

It was totally worth taking time out from writing my play. Besides, I came back and pretty much finished it two days early!


My phone is trying to tell me something

6 Mar

iPhone hot (in Spanish)

I’ve had some weird glitches with my iPhone, but overall, I like it. When I first got it, Siri called me by my brother’s name, which is just strange any way you look at it. And I’m still quite certain that she misunderstands on purpose just to annoy me.

But I’m impressed by the lengths it will go to in order to communicate, including switching  up the language when an emergency situation arises.

iPhone hot FrenchI made the mistake of leaving my iPhone on an outdoor table in the sun  a very warm day while chatting with friends. When I picked up my phone, it was not only displaying a dire warning in English, but on the slide button was this note in Spanish: “para emergência.” Then when I tried to get rid of the message, the message popped up again in French.

I have to assume it was going to keep trying different languages until either I put it away or it suffered from heat exhaustion. I wonder if it knows Italian…

A happy conundrum

5 Mar

tanya smilingtanya whistling 2

This happens to me a lot: I’m whistling some tune as I walk to the gym, and some person approaches me going the other direction. I smile and give the person eye contact as we pass. In order to smile, I have to stop whistling. Why is it that one can’t do both at the same time? I’d call that a design flaw…

TMI Storytelling was fun and funky

27 Feb

TMI storytellingHalfway through last night’s My Funky Valentine event at La Pena Cultural Center, emcee and host Gina Gold responded to someone’s gasp in the audience that, after all, the series is called TMI for a reason, implying that if honest storytelling isn’t your cup of tea, nobody’s blocking your exit.

Gold is an African American Jewish comedian currently on tour with three other Jewish comics in a show called You’re Funny But You Don’t Look Jewish, but takes time to host this monthly storytelling event, described on its website as “unvarnished and funny looks at incendiary topics.”

La Pena seems an unlikely venue in some ways for a storytelling event. The café was still serving food, and, in fact, some of the audience members were duly holding their order numbers so the servers could find them in the crowd. And because there were no tables there in order to make room for more seats, people were eating from plates in their laps and trying to find places to tuck away their dishes under chairs when they’d finished eating.

When I’d learned that TMI would be at La Pena, I pictured it in the larger, separate space that is next to the eating area, but apparently they were screening an anti-Israel film there while we were listening to stories of love gone wrong. At one point, one of the other members of You’re Funny but You Don’t Look Jewish had us yell a cheerful Shalom, hoping the audience on the other side of the wall could hear us. (I hope they had a sense of humor.)

The evening’s stories were honest and raw and funny with occasional detours to more serious territory, but they all connected to love, dating, or sex.

Some presenters were more professional than others, but I got the feeling that it’s supposed to be a mix of veterans and up-and-comers who are still learning the ropes, which was okay with me. (Although someone should have clued in the young man who mumbles how to use the microphone. I don’t think I was the only one in the back who missed many of his quick one-liners.)

choco penis

How often do I get the chance to use the image of a chocolate penis?

Because the raffle prizes were donated by a sex gear shop, there was extended discussion on each of the items, which included candy nipples, lubricant, and a chocolate penis. (When we awaited the number to be called for the lube, the elderly man sitting next to me quietly offered to give me the lube if he won it, saying that he didn’t use it.) Gold learned that one of the lube’s ingredients was algae and wondered aloud how someone figured that out. Did someone insert algae directly into a vagina to see if it worked? She also wanted to know why the store called its items sex gear rather than sex toys, to which the owner answered that some of her inventory was more in the adaptive category to enable people of all sizes to have pleasure. Gold pressed further—what kind of adaptations was she talking about? Apparently ramps play a prominent role. Of course, references to algae and ramps continued throughout the rest of the show as a huge inside joke.

Gold is one of those naturally funny people who can make just about any situation humorous and it seems very extemporaneous. At one point, she walked onstage, looked down at her cleavage in a pleased and almost surprised way, and remarked that her breasts were looking quite ample in the dress she was wearing, to which we all applauded.

Next month TMI moves to a space with a full bar in Oakland at 3000 Broadway, and the theme is Sex in the City. There may be more opportunities to discuss algae and ramps…


Another Oscar Night come and gone

24 Feb

Gold Trophy

Well, I did not see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I’d hoped, but I did see 18 of the movies that were up for awards last night, including all of those that were up for best picture and any for acting.  I saw most of those up for writing awards but only one of the foreign films and one documentary. Luckily, I will still be able to see many of those on Netflix in the coming months.

My predictions weren’t too bad—I got 10 out of 24, but I missed a few of the big ones. I thought Boyhood deserved best picture, but I certainly think that Birdman was worthy.

I’m very happy that Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons both won for their performances. And I’m glad that Birdman took home the award for best original screenplay and that The Imitation Game won best adapted screenplay. graham moore

The acceptance speech by its writer Graham Moore was the best of the evening. “Stay weird” will be the catch phrase we remember most from last night. We should all be thankful that his suicide attempt at age 16 was not successful.

The big surprise of the evening for me was how beautifully Lady Gaga can sing. She did Julie Andrews proud belting out a medley from The Sound of Music, though I wasn’t exactly clear why that was part of the night’s program.

Neil Patrick Harris wasn’t bad, but I would love to see Ellen DeGeneres back as host. He did throw a good zinger right at the beginning, referring to Hollywood’s “best and whitest,” a clear dig at the lack of diversity represented by the nominations.

Of course Birdman director Alejandro Iñárritu is Mexican, so not all the awards were handed out to white people. And he appealed to the U.S. to treat recent immigrants with dignity, considering we are a nation based on immigration.

And I congratulate John Legend and Common for their win in writing the best song, “Glory.” Despite the few nominations that seemed to value diversity, the crowd loved their moving performance of this song from the film Selma and gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.

Oscar contender: Foxcatcher

23 Feb

Gold TrophyYesterday was my last-ditch effort to see films before the Academy handed out their awards. I had tried to see foreign film contender  Timbuktu on Saturday, but it was sold out! Everyone had the same idea, I guess, because 6 of the movies showing at the Shattuck were sold out. And of course I waited in line for 15 minutes before I found out that it was sold out. Grrr.

So Sunday afternoon I went across town 15 minutes early to the only theater still showing Foxcatcher.  There were plenty of seats.

I was disappointed. The acting was good, but there were gaps in the story, and I felt it was poorly edited.

In addition, it was never clear to me why events happened as they did. Perhaps it’s because it was based on a true story, and the writers didn’t actually know all the facts and motives, since two of the main characters are no longer living. But wrestling scenes were longer than they needed to be, taking up valuable time that could have been spent on character development or plot. The film was a full two hours long, which was at least 20 minutes too long in my opinion.

steve carell

Note the prosthetic nose that transforms Carell into DuPont.

I have to give props to the makeup people, though. Steve Carell was almost unrecognizable as crazy chemical heir John DuPont. Close-up shots on his face never revealed any tell-tale seams, yet DuPont’s schnoz is nothing like the nose that belongs to actor Steve Carell.

It’s a sad story that did pique my curiosity, but I can’t recommend the movie. Maybe I should find the book it was based on…

Oscar countdown: Moore is amazing in Still Alice

21 Feb

Gold TrophyIt’s almost upon us—Oscar Night. So Dave and I went to see Still Alice, despite the fact that his mother’s name was Alice, who had Alzheimer’s disease. So we knew it was likely to be an emotional movie-going experience.

Well, that was an understatement. This film touched me deeply. On one hand, it reminded me of my sweet mother-in-law’s final years. And on the other hand, I have been feeling for the last few years that my memory capacity has shrunk considerably, so I related to the protagonist more than was comfortable.

The movie opens with Alice—a beautiful, accomplished, articulate linguistics professor—celebrating her 50th birthday with her family. Then Julianne Moore skillfully takes us on her character’s painful journey from healthy independent woman to someone who gets lost in her own house and can barely speak. Because Alice is intelligent and highly educated (proclaimed by her husband to be the smartest woman he ever met), the audience feels her loss even more dramatically. And of course the irony that a leading expert on linguistics has trouble remembering the correct word is not lost on her.

still alice

Alice receives heartbreaking news.

It starts realistically as she gives a lecture and hesitates while she tries in vain to conjure a particular word, which she later remembers (lexicon). Her loving—but not perfect—husband (played by Alec Baldwin) responds to her concern the way most people would—we all forget things now and then, particularly as we age. As it progresses, she fails to recognize her surroundings on Columbia campus, where she teaches.

So Alice secretly consults a neurologist. On her first visit, he gives her a simple test, which she almost aces. She successfully spells the word water backward and is able to tell him exactly where she is, but she forgets one of the three items she is told to remember. Her doctor orders an MRI.

I recognized that test because I recently took it when I consulted my doctor, concerned by my memory loss. And I almost aced it too. Like Alice, I quickly spelled a word backward and was able to say exactly where I was. And like Alice, when I was asked to repeat words a few minutes later, I got two out of three. My doctor didn’t see any reason to worry, but he ordered some blood tests to rule out a few possibilities.

Alice and I both received a clean bill of health on the follow-up diagnostic tests. At that point, my doctor said that my condition did not seem to warrant any further testing. Alice’s neurologist, however, ordered a PET scan, which confirmed his suspicion that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s.

This did not give me comfort.

Neither did my husband’s insistence that we all forget things. Did he not see the same movie I did? That’s exactly what Alec Baldwin said!

I provided examples that I found parallel to those in the film, such as the time I found my grocery list in the freezer. Dave did not agree that this was just like Alice discovering her lotion in the frig. He claims that a grocery list in the freezer makes perfect sense. (Perhaps I should be worried about him too…) I have also missed appointments and been unable to recall words, not every day, but it happens.

Watching a woman who realizes she’s slipping rapidly into dementia was frankly more terrifying for me than any horror film, especially when Julianne Moore gives such a stellar nuanced performance. Let’s hope the academy remembers her tomorrow night.

Oscar countdown: Whiplash is a brutal experience

21 Feb

Gold TrophyWhiplash is nominated for Best Movie and Best Adapted Screenplay, and J.K. Simmons is up for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an abusive conductor at prestigious Shaffer Conservatory.

I have to admit that it was painful to sit in the audience and watch the constant abuse hurled onto promising young musicians who no more deserved it than a puppy deserves a beating for barking. I would dismiss such behavior as unrealistic and over the top if it weren’t based loosely on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s experience in a high school band. Although the screenplay was not an autobiographical film, I’m curious to find out just how far his former teacher and bandleader went to inspire the actions portrayed in the movie.

I was squirming in my seat as I watched Simmons embody the loathsome Fletcher, who not only threw a chair at the film’s protagonist, the ambitious drummer Andrew, but adeptly wielded mental cruelty whenever possible.

For instance, early in their relationship, Fletcher asks Andrew about his parents under the guise of trying to explain his natural talent. Caught off-guard, Andrew innocently reveals that his mother left him and his dad when he was quite young. That tidbit later gets flung in his face in a public shaming meant to break him.

Occasionally Andrew catches a glimpse of something more humane in the bandleader, which unfortunately gives him enough hope to stick around, enduring still more abuse at Fletcher’s hands. The audience breathes a sigh of relief when outside forces end the destructive relationship. But Andrew, still wanting to believe that Fletcher has a soul, gives him another chance despite their history and agrees to play in an upcoming performance.

J.K. Simmons’s acting lifts the movie to greater heights. The writing was fine but not, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy.

One scene particularly strained credulity. (Spoiler alert #1) Andrew is due at an out-of-area competition, but his bus breaks down. Undaunted, he rents a car to complete the trip. (Of course my bullshit alarm went off because I know that car rental agencies don’t lease to 19-year-olds.) And of course because he’s speeding and texting (the quintessential modern cautionary tale), his car gets broadsided by a semi. Shortly after impact, we see our bloody hero crawl out from under the wreckage and run the rest of the way to the concert hall. That was when my disbelief ended its suspension and snapped.

whiplashBut the moment that most disturbed me happened at the very end. (Spoiler alert #2) The audience has watched this monster in a position of authority screaming epithets at young impressionable music students for most of the movie, undermining and belittling them at every turn with sometimes tragic consequences. Andrew recovers from yet another manipulative blow to play in front of an audience that can make or break his career.

Now, there may indeed exist music lovers who might actually appreciate extended extemporaneous drumming, but I found myself checking my watch halfway through his performance, however skilled it may have been.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the downfall of that scene. On top of being subjected to the world’s longest drum solo, I was struck with what I thought was a horrible message—because Andrew worked hard, persisted, suffered endless abuse, and literally bled for his craft, he finally got Fletcher’s faint nod of praise. No doubt there was great satisfaction in proving to himself and to the assembled music critics that his talent could shine through despite Fletcher’s treachery. But ending with Fletcher’s much-sought-after approval, the movie seemed to me to condone his methods. Was that the point?

Hoping to gain insight on the writer/director’s implicit message, I read interviews with him in the L.A. Times and Variety. Chazelle claims that he wanted to make a movie about music that was like Raging Bull, to show the punishing side of an artist’s life and depict how much he is willing to go through to achieve his goal.

Fair enough. But that’s not enough payoff for the audience, who is suffering along with him. For the struggling artist to be a sympathetic character, his aim needs to reach beyond his tormentor’s belated validation; his goal needs to be producing something beautiful or bettering himself.

If, in the final scene, Fletcher had looked beaten at his own game, or if he’d become an alcoholic has-been, if he’d gotten what he deserved—he would not be smiling. I, for one, wanted the vicious music instructor to meet with a dark end in addition to our hero rising victorious.

But maybe that’s just me…

Focusing questions for a writer

20 Feb

happy typewriterAlthough there are not enough hours in the day to check out as many blogs as I’d like to, I occasionally read something from someone who follows my blog because I figure we probably have common interests.

Today I read a post from the Happy Typewriter, which had straightforward questions intended to focus one’s writing. Being one of those all-over-the-place writer, I was intrigued. So I answered the questions myself.

Q: What do you want to write about?

A: Ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances

Q: Do you want to do fiction or non-fiction?

A: That’s a bit of a Sophie’s Choice for me, but if I absolutely have to pick one over the other, I’ll go with fiction.

Q: What genre do you enjoy writing the most? 

A: Right now it’s plays.

Q: Why?

A: Writing for the stage has been so satisfying because when one of my plays is read aloud or performed by others, I get to hear it from the audience’s perspective. (The best part is being in the audience and hearing others laugh at my jokes!) In addition, my poetry and novels have reached far fewer readers, and I don’t get to be there when the reader is experiencing it (except in my critique group), which means it’s not as fun for me.

It would be interesting to pose these questions again in a year to see if I’m still in the same place…

Now I pose to my writer friends: how would you answer these questions?


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