If there’s one thing you shouldn’t pass up this holiday season, it’s the opportunity to experience The Forty Part Motet at the Fort Mason Center on San Francisco's waterfront. While an otherwise-featureless room containing nothing but a bunch of faceless speakers pumping out a recording of a 16th century choral music work sounds about as appealing as being forced to attend choir practice when you’re a teenager, Janet Cardiff’s epic sound installation has to be one of the most profound pieces of performance art I’ve ever witnessed.
The Canadian artist wanted to find a way to “climb inside” complex music, to hear all the separate parts in a way that isn’t possible when you experience a live concert or regular recording. So she picked on one of the greatest choral works ever created -- Spem in Alium, a sacred motet written for a whopping 40 individual vocal lines by the English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis around 1570 -- and collaborated with the august Salisbury Cathedral Choir in 2000 to record each individual part separately. Visitors to the installation wander around a room in which 40 speakers standing at ear level on skinny tripods arranged in a large oval shape pump out the music. There is one speaker for each vocal line, so you can either stand in the middle of the space and feel the entire piece washing over you. Or you can sidle up to a specific speaker and hear a solitary voice sing their part, and then move on to another voice.
And here’s why the work made such an impression on me: In the wake of the appalling terrorist attacks in Paris, Cardiff’s installation gave me an unexpected feeling of sadness and hope. As I listened to the specific voices coming out of the separate speakers, I could hear the unique beauty -- and, every now and again, the falterings -- of each one. It was as if those impassive noise-emitting cubes suddenly came to life! But then, taking a step back, the individual voices that seemed so pronounced with my ear up to a speaker merged together into a perfect, seamless whole. All I could think as I was hit by Tallis’ soaring polyphony was about the power of the collective spirit to come together and overcome challenges and tragedies like the one that unfolded in Paris the other night.
The Forty Part Motet is just one of the many performing arts events going on in the Bay Area this week. Here are a few more that caught my eye:
Now through Saturday, Dec. 5: Explosión Cubana: Una Noche Tropical at Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco
Cuba is changing fast. With Netflix and AirB&B already doing business with the until-recently-contraband Caribbean island and a gazillion U.S. tourists on the verge of a stampede, it might not be too long before the popular idea of Cuba as a run-down, rum-soaked paradise of hot nightclubs and cool vintage cars might become divorced from reality. CubaCaribe and Dance Mission Theater intend to keep the popular idea real with their joint effort to evoke the cigar-smoke-spirit of Havana’s famous Tropicana nightclub right in the heart of The Mission. The cabaret-style soiree explores the evolution of Cuban music and dance with the help of members of the Alayo Dance Company, headed by CubaCaribe artistic director Ramon Ramos Alayo, and live music from Patricio Angulo. Dinner is part of the show too, with Cubano delicacies like pork, plantains and yuca -- all fried, best washed down with mojitos -- on the menu.
Wednesday, Nov. 25: Al Madrigal at Punchline Comedy Club, San Francisco
Comedian, actor and San Francisco native Al Madrigal started out doing standup in local clubs before taking his wry brand of social satire to primetime TV, appearing as a regular on The Daily Show and NBC’s About a Boy with David Walton and Minnie Driver, among other fare. A comedian obsessed with his roots -- Madrigal is of Mexican and Sicilian extraction and devoted his recently-released one hour documentary Half Like Me to exploring his Latino heritage -- the comic now returns home to San Francisco for a live recording of his new album. It’ll be an intimate affair: The Punchline, one of the city’s longest running comedy clubs, has less than 200 seats.
Now through Sunday, Dec 13: Sunlight at Dragon Theatre Company, Redwood City
Like Al Madrigal, American playwright Sharr White likes to return to his Bay Area roots every once in awhile. The San Francisco State and American Conservatory Theater grad launched his career here before his dramas The Other Place and The Snow Geese hit Broadway. But White continues his allegiance to Bay Area stages, premiering his plays Annapurna and Sunlight at The Magic Theatre and Marin Theatre Company respectively in recent years. Sunlight, White’s 2010 drama exploring terrorism and its impact on civilians, is getting a new production right now with Redwood City’s feisty Dragon Theatre Company. The group has produced a couple of the White’s works in the past. In the wake of the Paris attacks a couple of weeks ago, this drama about the turmoil that arises on a university campus over a memo from a faculty member justifying the use of torture, couldn’t be more timely.
Now through Sunday, Dec. 20: Disgraced at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley
Pakistani-American playwright Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 play Disgraced takes a different look at life in our post 9/11 world. The polished Berkeley Rep production directed by Kimberly Senior (who helmed the impactful play on its journey from Chicago to London’s West West End and on to Broadway before mounting this west coast premiere) deftly captures the story of a high-powered New York lawyer’s complex relationship with his Islamic roots. Exploring the challenges of Muslim identity in the United States today, Akhtar shatters assumptions about religion and race as he keenly exposes the lies and deceit embedded deep within his protagonist’s psyche. Read KQED’s interview with the playwright here.
Now through Sunday, Dec. 20: The Dickens Fair at Cow Palace, San Francisco
Christmas Eve goes on for a full five weeks in this annual holiday favorite where Bay Area residents don hoop skirts and top hats and make believe that Cow Palace in 2015 is Merrie Olde Englande circa 1850. The event is a great place to pick up holiday gifts and pig out on cakes and ale. But it’s the theatricality of the thing that makes this fair stand out from other similar holiday pageants. If the hoards of actors wandering about dressed up as characters from Dickens novels aren’t enough to take you back to Christmas past, participating in an English country dance, watching the Stark Ravens Players' original musical version of Pinocchio, or -- if you’re a grownup -- getting your kicks at the titillating Dickens After Dark revue, surely will.