"Local community theater" is a term that can evoke terror in the hearts of many -- or at least in mine. I've had to see friends take on material ranging from Anne of Green Gables to Fiddler on the Roof. Schmaltzy material seems to get a lot of play in local theater -- perhaps it's the only way to be financially viable in family-oriented communities. Luckily, local theater in the Bay Area takes on a whole different meaning, often bringing innovative and expert staging to challenging content. Three Wise Monkey's Bay One Acts Festival is an opportunity to see what a range of local theater companies are doing without having to see each one on a different night. Each play is written, directed and acted by local Bay Area talent. I saw Program One -- the comedies -- but this week will feature dramas, followed by a week of plays with a twist.
In CAUTION: the (Roughly) True Story of My Parents' Romance, writer Lauren Yee tries to distill her parents' "how we met" story into a frothy romantic comedy, produced by the Asian American Theater Company. Many of the traditional devices of a modern screwball comedy are thrown in, with a wry narrator, a flashback story structure, and an imaginary confidante for the young lady. Unfortunately, the story never gelled into the charmingly nostalgic trip through 1970s Chinatown I was expecting. I was confused at times by a slightly incoherent story structure and irritated at others by a heavy-handed attempt at addressing cross-cultural conflict. The narrator informed the audience that, and I paraphrase, you can call a Chinaman many things -- industrious was mentioned amongst a litany of other aging stereotypes -- but you can't call him tall. Really? I like to think we're living in a modern age, the age of Yao Ming, in which we don't need to trot out the old stereotypes just to make the point that Chinese people can be tall. Overcoming flaws in the script, the cast threw themselves wholeheartedly into the story and Randy Nakagawa and Sandy Chen in particular were highly likable as the young lovers.
A bored, beautiful woman in the tourist town of Yalta. An aging, married lecher who somehow discovers love. A pet dog. If this all sounds familiar to you, you've probably read "The Lady with the Pet Dog," one of Anton Chekhov's more well-known short stories. I hadn't had that pleasure before seeing The Pet Dog with the Lady produced by the Custom Made Theatre Company, but given that the one joke running through the entire play was the fact that the story was being narrated from the pet Pomeranian's point of view, reading the story beforehand would probably have destroyed any modicum of suspense that remained. The Pomeranian, carrying on in the tradition of A. R. Gurney's Sylvia, is played by a human, wearing a button-down shirt and slacks, pink tie, furry white gloves and dog collar and leash. Sadly, I can't say the joke was robust enough to carry the production, but all the provocative questions posed by the play kept my attention from straying too far. Such as: Why was the lady dressed in modern French woman garb -- complete with gigantic beret -- in turn of the century Russia? How did the dog acquire the morals of a Victorian prude? What other stories could benefit from a similar treatment, say, Moby Dick from the point of the view of the whale? What sort of ensemble would the whale wear to accurately represent his blowhole and powerful tail?
Dystopian near-futures are all the rage these days, with manifestos and plotlines referencing 1984 popping up everywhere. AtmosTheatre'sThe Pheasant starts from the same source material and races off in the opposite direction, with a broad comedy about a celebrity chef planning a final protest on the eve of the closure of his restaurant in the face of a new government dictum: people can no longer eat freely, but will instead eat government-issued nutritional substances. The chef has decided that he will be cooking and serving himself in a grand gesture. The four characters -- high-strung artiste Chef, his cold and arrogant wife Gloria, maudlin martyr sous chef Helen, and a government agent who is secretly a huge gourmand -- are depressingly unoriginal. A plot that relies on a sadly absent shock value, grand speeches that sound all-too-familiar, and a thoroughly predictable plot all detract from the momentum of the production.
I missed the innovative content I expect from Bay Area productions -- none of these plays felt like they were breaking new ground -- but this coming week promises a whole new lineup with entirely different material and productions. The Bay One Acts Festival runs through Mar 4, 2007 at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. For the lineup and tickets, visit threewisemonkeys.org.