Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Now with extra Pulp

Since this blog is intended as a chronicle of the art I'm making and experiencing, I've been meaning to tell you about how, a few months ago, I became obsessed with the '90s band Pulp. But it can be hard to write about things that you love unreservedly — it takes courage to share your passions, and not merely your opinions, with the world. In fact, I've been tinkering with this post for weeks, hesitant to take a deep breath and publish it. But then, today, Pulp's first new song in a decade became available on iTunes — so I should post this in the interest of timeliness, right?

I'm prone to sudden, random obsessions — stumbling upon a movie or a song or a performer that, for whatever reason, resonates with me so deeply that I need to research it to death and make it an integral part of myself. So, back in November, I was wasting time on the Internet and came across the music video for "Common People," Pulp's biggest hit song.

I'd vaguely heard of Pulp,  but this was the first time I'd ever listened to any of their music. As I watched the video, my thoughts were roughly as follows:
  1. This is a pretty good song.
  2. This guy is odd-looking.
  3. No, wait, this is a really good song.
  4. I want to do this song at karaoke. I wonder if they have it?
  5. He may be odd-looking, but he's incredibly charismatic.
  6. And he has some sweet moves.
  7. He is milking this "rock-and-roll frontman" thing for all it's worth.
  8. OK, he's hot! He is really, really hot.
  9. Is it weird that I think he's hot?
Subsequent internet research revealed that "this guy" is named Jarvis Cocker; that I am far from the only woman to find him attractive; and that critics tend to consider Pulp the best of the Britpop bands and "Common People" one of the best songs of the '90s. Cocker is famed for his sense of style, his onstage shimmying and posing, and his witty songwriting — and for being heterosexual despite all of that. In the U.K., where people affectionately refer to him as just "Jarvis," he is considered a national treasure and one of the coolest men alive.

Of course, all this raised the question of why he and his group had failed to register on my consciousness previously. I mean, why didn't anyone ever tell me about this tall, skinny British guy who wears hipster glasses and sharp suits, dances "like a sexy rubber band," and writes great lyrics? Hell, in 2011, Nirmala Nataraj titled her Olympians Festival play Selene, or Someone Like the Moon after a Pulp song — and Nirmala is uber-cool and glamorous, so why didn't I take that as a hint to investigate this band right away?

At the same time, I was glad to learn that my initial instincts were correct: this was a band and singer worth knowing about. Especially because I'm always on the lookout for catchy and well-crafted pop/rock music that also has something interesting to say. So I downloaded Pulp's major albums and have been listening to them on repeat. They've become the soundtrack to this period of my life; I'm even doing silly things like quoting the lyrics in my diary.

Because the songs are quotable, and super smart. It's almost impossible to avoid knife-related metaphors — "keenly honed," "sharply observed," "cutting wit" — when describing Jarvis Cocker's lyrics. While Oasis, the most successful Britpop band, are known for writing nonsensical lyrics, Pulp songs tell coherent, though often sordid, stories. They're full of racy come-ons, withering put-downs, and wry despair. The lyrics may not be complex in the sense of being brilliantly rhymed or packed full of wordplay, but they're complex in the feelings and situations they evoke. For instance, from Pulp's 1995 masterpiece Different Class, "Disco 2000" is an exuberant disco-rock song about nostalgia, failure, sexual frustration, and "damp and lonely Thursdays"; "Sorted for E's and Wizz" is a "let's get high and go to a concert" song that ends with the narrator losing his friends and wishing he could call his mother; and "Something Changed" is a sweet love song with an oddly philosophical twist. There's also an anguished ballad about "Underwear."

As a singer, Cocker has a rangy baritone voice and a fondness for punctuating his lyrics with sneers, sighs, gasps and other effects. There's something theatrical about his singing — you can hear it in "Common People," how he goes from aloof quipping to impassioned belting in the course of one song. Another thing he likes to do is deliver spoken monologues to musical backing, which sounds risky but somehow works, thanks to his charisma and the band's talent. (I particularly love "David's Last Summer," a gorgeous and heartbreaking monologue about a summer idyll and its inevitable end.) Overall, I'd say that Pulp's appeal is in the anthemic grandeur of the music mixed with the biting specificity of the lyrics. They have a knack for creating pop hooks on both guitar and synthesizer, and it pleases my feminist sensibilities that the keyboardist is a woman, Candida Doyle. If you are also a Pulp newbie, check out the Guardian's top 10 Pulp songs for beginners.

Actually, I don't know whether to refer to Pulp in the present or the past tense. They disbanded in the early 2000s, reunited in 2011 for some touring, and, as I mentioned, just released a new song. But also, evidently, they're about to go on hiatus again. It's a bit confusing, and I selfishly wish that they'll continue on in some fashion. Otherwise, it's rather embarrassing to discover and fall for a band just before they call it quits for the second time.

Meanwhile, Jarvis Cocker (great name for an English rock star, that) has made two solo albums and become something of a Renaissance man. He's revealed a literary side, publishing a book of his lyrics and writing a very funny and insightful review of The John Lennon LettersAnd I've become addicted to the show that he hosts on BBC Radio 6 called, with typical irreverence, "Jarvis Cocker's Sunday Service." He plays eclectic records, commemorates events that happened on this day in history, and delivers droll between-songs musings in his Sheffield accent. It's like a much hipper and quirkier "Writer's Almanac" and always causes me to download a motley assortment of songs from iTunes.

I find myself incapable of getting a crush on anyone, even a celebrity, if all he has going for him are his looks. Even as a preteen, I never crushed on boy-band members, no matter how cute they were, because I didn't think that they were interesting people. So I guess it makes sense that when I do get a crush on a rock star, it's on a wry British eccentric. Humor and intelligence are sexy. Though geek-chic outfits, snake-hipped dance moves, and innuendo-filled lyrics don't hurt.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Troublemaker" at Berkeley Rep: Scott Pilgrim vs. the Theater

I was prepared to dislike Troublemaker, or The Freakin' Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, the Dan LeFranc play making its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. There was that trying-too-hard-to-be-cool title. There was the ad copy, which made the play sound cutesy and juvenile: "Bradley and his bestest friend tangle with rich kid Jake Miller and his middle-school goons. And their nemesis has help from a bunch of zombies and grown-ups!" There was the usher informing me, to my dismay, that the play had three acts and was more than two and a half hours long. There was the annoying, video-game-like preshow music – and if I, a 25-year-old, found this irritating, I could only imagine how much it bothered the mostly retiree-aged audience who surrounded me at Berkeley Rep.

But then the show started, and, surprise surprise... I liked it. The fast pace, the stylized slang, the need to pay close attention to figure out what was going on – and whether it was really happening, or just happening in the protagonist's overactive imagination – swept me up and obliterated my qualms.

The nearest comparison to Troublemaker is probably Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in that both of them layer a flashy video-game/comic-book aesthetic on top of a story about a boy struggling with everyday problems in mundane surroundings. Well, Bradley would probably call me an "a-hole" for implying that his problems are commonplace. He's 12 years old and, in his own mind, he's a superhero with a tragic origin story, a sidekick, a nemesis, and special powers. But in reality, he's a working-class kid with a taste for mischief and a single mom who might be dating the father of a boy he hates. Well, that's how it feels to be that age: your view of the world doesn't match external reality, and you think that no one else's problems could compare to yours. (At 12, I imagined I was the crown princess of a magical kingdom. Maybe that's what girls do.)

The play is incredibly stylized, but it's far less cutesy than the ad copy implies – one of the things LeFranc explores is whether Bradley might not be just a fun-loving "troublemaker," but a seriously messed-up and troubled kid. The play is also really Genre Savvy. I think where I fell in love with it is the scene where Bradley asks his best friend Mikey to be his "sidekick," and Mikey takes umbrage at this because he's black, which is just what a genre-savvy character and playwright should do.

Act One toggles back and forth between realism and stylization; Act Two goes completely nuts; and Act Three brings it back down to earth to for a more naturalistic, emotional resolution. That second act, though, man... it might be the craziest thing I've seen at a Big Theater in a long time. There's a soup kitchen populated by homeless pirate zombies, the rich kid lounges on a divan as "Goldfinger" plays, our heroes do an unconvincing drag act (leading up to a gay kiss that actually drew gasps from the audience – in liberal Berkeley!), Bradley's smart and mouthy friend Loretta turns into a pint-sized femme fatale... I watched it in disbelief and giddy delight that Berkeley Rep was producing this in such lavish style.

Troublemaker is not a perfect play. There are some parts that I don't think work at all, including the last scene, and some moments whose value is debatable. (I think I was the only person in the theater who laughed at the "poutine" joke, which probably means that it should be cut, even if I enjoyed feeling that this joke was there just for people like me.) But often, imperfect plays are the most entertaining, and they certainly offer more fodder for discussion than a play that is smoothly written but takes no risks. Go see Troublemaker, because it's exciting, and because I want to discuss it with you. Maybe not all of its punches land, but it kicks some serious A.

Troublemaker plays at Berkeley Rep through February 3.

Image: Jake (Robbie Tann) and Bradley (Gabriel King) square off. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Complications of Comp Tickets @ SF Theater Pub blog

Over the long weekend I hope to have the time to write some marissabidilla posts that are currently gestating, but in the meantime, check out my Theater Pub column if you're jonesin' for a fix of my writing.

This column springboards off something a friend tweeted at me in response to my 2012 theatergoing list, which caused me to consider my attitude toward comp tickets. It turns out that my attitude is composed of a lot of neurosis, guilt, hand-wringing, hypocrisy, and humblebragging. Which is a cue to change my ways! After all, I'm not just some bozo with a blog, I've been writing about the arts here for 5.5 years, so I should stop thinking of myself as an anonymous hobbyist, and be more willing to request/accept comp tickets in 2013.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Theatergoing 2012

I promised myself I'd post my 2012 theatergoing list before heading to Berkeley to see my first show of 2013, Troublemaker, this evening.

Maybe I'm the only person who gets anything out of this, but I find it useful to look back on the previous year, and to index my posts -- even if I wrote fewer theater reviews this year than ever before. Still, the number of plays I saw increased from last year. I always say I'm going to give myself a break and see less theater, but that never seems to happen...

  1. The Wild Bride, adapted by Emma Rice, by Kneehigh Theatre (at Berkeley Rep)
  2. God's Plot, by Mark Jackson, at Shotgun Players
  3. Humor Abuse, by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt, at ACT
  4. Jesus in India, by Lloyd Suh, at Magic Theatre
  5. The Mandrake Root, by Machiavelli, produced by ACT's MFA students
  6. Little Brother, adapted by Josh Costello from Cory Doctorow's novel, at Custom Made Theatre
  7. Cabaret, by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff, produced by Independent Cabaret Productions
  8. A Taste of Honey, by Shelagh Delaney, produced by Virago Theatre
  9. Tontlawald, adapted by Eugenie Chan, at Cutting Ball
  10. Merchants, by Susan Sobeloff, produced by No Nude Men
  11. Octopus's Garden, by Scott Herman, produced by PianoFight
  12. Red, by John Logan, at Berkeley Rep
  13. Any Given Day, by Linda McLean, at Magic Theatre
  14. Maple & Vine, by Jordan Harrison, at ACT
  15. Voyage, by Tom Stoppard, at Shotgun Players
  16. A Bright Room Called Day, by Tony Kushner, at Custom Made Theatre
  17. Bay One-Acts Program 1, featuring plays by Anthony Clarvoe, 11th Hour Ensemble, Megan Cohen, Stuart Bousel, and Sam Leichter
  18. Bay One-Acts Program 2, featuring plays by Ken Slattery, Bennett Fisher, Erin Bregman, Amy Sass, and Christopher Chen
  19. Act One, Scene Two: The Curtailed Cavalier, improvised by Un-Scripted Theatre based on a scene I wrote
  20. Pussy, by Maura Halloran, at DivaFest
  21. Polaroid Stories, by Naomi Iizuka, produced by ACT's MFA students
  22. Tenderloin, documentary theater directed by Annie Elias, at Cutting Ball
  23. The Odyssey, adapted and staged by We Players on Angel Island
  24. The Great Divide, by Adam Chanzit (loosely adapted from Ibsen's An Enemy of the People), at Shotgun Players
  25. Bruja, by Luis Alfaro (loosely adapted from Euripides' Medea), at Magic Theatre
  26. Emilie: The Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, by Lauren Gunderson, produced by Symmetry Theater
  27. Fear, by Dominic Savage, at the Bush Theatre (London)
  28. Henry V, by Shakespeare, at the Globe Theatre (London)
  29. Truffaldino Says No, by Ken Slattery, at Shotgun Players
  30. Pint-Sized Plays, by 10 local writers (including me), at Theater Pub
  31. The Scottsboro Boys, by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and David Thompson, at ACT (touring production)
  32. Salomania, by Mark Jackson, at Aurora Theater
  33. The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare, at Custom Made Theatre
  34. It's All in the Mix, by Barbara Jwanouskos, produced by All Terrain Theater
  35. Measure for Measure, by Shakespeare, at Theater Pub
  36. Believers, by Patricia Milton, produced by Wily West
  37. War Horse, adapted by Nick Stafford from the novel by Michael Morpurgo, at the Curran Theater (touring production)
  38. Chinglish, by David Henry Hwang, at Berkeley Rep
  39. Weird Romance, by Nick and Lisa Gentile, at the SF Fringe Festival
  40. Precious Little, by Madeleine George, at Shotgun Players
  41. Roughin' It 2, by various local writers, produced by PianoFight
  42. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, by Kristoffer Diaz, at Aurora Theater
  43. Assassins, by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, at Shotgun Players
  44. The Scotland Company, by Jake Rosenberg, produced by Thunderbird Theatre
  45. An Iliad, adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from Homer, at Berkeley Rep
  46. Love in a Time of Zombies, by Kirk Shimano, at Theater Pub
  47. Chrysalis, by Evangeline Crittenden, at Theater Pub
  48. The White Snake, adapted by Mary Zimmerman, at Berkeley Rep
  49. One-Minute Play Festival, by 40 local writers, produced by Playwrights Foundation
  50. Christmas Bells are Ringing, by Jonathan Larson, at Theater Pub
  51. Woyzeck, adapted by Ann-Christin Rommen & Wolfgang Wiens from Georg Büchner's  play, with music and lyrics by Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan, at Shotgun Players
  1. Occupy Theater Pub, by various local writers, at Theater Pub
  2. Helen, by Euripides, at Theater Pub
  3. Waterline, by Claire Rice, at Bindlestiff Studio
  4. The Odes of March, by various local writers (including me), at Theater Pub
  5. Manic Pixie Dream Girl, by Katie May, presented by PlayGround
  6. White Rabbit Red Rabbit, by Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by SF International Arts Festival
  7. The Memorandum, by Vaclav Havel, at Theater Pub
  8. Bal littéraire: La maison bleue, by various French and American playwrights, at the Playwrights' Foundation Des Voix festival
  9. Out There, by Nathalie Fillion, at the Playwrights' Foundation Des Voix
  10. Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act, by Christopher Chen, at Cutting Ball
  11. Hit Trip Fall Run Dream Stick Sleep, by James D. Lock, at Theater Pub
  12. Hamlet and Cheese on Post, by various contributors, at Theater Pub
  13. Hestia, or the Rise of Dean Nysus and Dionysus, or Die, oh! Nice, us! by Lily Janiak, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival
  14. Mnemosyne and Themis, or the Broken Frame by Larissa Archer; Mnemosyne and Themis, or Letters from Helicon, Letters from Olympus by Susan Sobeloff; and Athena, the Musical, by Roberta D'Alois and Marilyn Harris Kriegel, at the Olympians Festival
  15. Phoebe & Theia, or How to Get to Tartarus by Amy Clare Tasker and Aphrodite, or The Love Goddess by Marissa Skudlarek, at the Olympians Festival
  16. Hermes, or The Computer that Wanted to Love by Kirk Shimano and Iapetus by Neil Higgins, at the Olympians Festival
  17. Prometheus, or Playing with Fire by Jeremy Cole and Hephaestus, or Heffy by Colin Johnson, at the Olympians Festival
  18. Coeus & Crios by Evelyn Jean Pine and Hades by Robert and Benji Cooper, at the Olympians Festival
  19. Tethys, or In the Deep by Meghan Kathleen O'Connor and Demeter, or In the Silence of Tangerine Groves by Patricia Milton, at the Olympians Festival
  20. Oceanus, or the Death of All Dolphins by Evan Winchester and Caenis & Poseidon by Bridgette Dutta Portman, at the Olympians Festival
  21. Atlas, or Do A Good Turn Daily by Charles Lewis III and Ares & Eris by Claire Rice, at the Olympians Festival
  22. Hyperion by Clinton Winder and Seanan Palmero and Apollo & Artemis, or Twins by Stuart Bousel, at the Olympians Festival
  23. Rhea by Maria Leigh and Hera: The Pregnant Man Play by Barbara Jwanouskos, at the Olympians Festival
  24. Chronos by Christian Simonson and Zeus by Megan Cohen, at the Olympians Festival
  • God's Plot
  • Voyage
  • Pussy
  • Precious Little 
  • The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
  • The White Snake
(clearly, I have a weakness for plays that are a. produced by Shotgun Players; b. have big casts, and/or c. involve people acting like animals)

  • The wordless scene in Red where they prime the canvas to classical music.
  • The set change between the two parts of Any Given Day -- technically amazing, but also the most emotionally charged set change I have ever witnessed. A moment of beauty and a chance to catch your breath, just when you most need it.
  • The entire experience of seeing Henry V as a groundling at the Globe Theater on a drizzly June night (really wish I'd written about this in more detail).
  • Stuart Bousel's decision to cut the casket scenes in The Merchant of Venice and stage them as a dumb show at the start of Act II, perfectly choreographed to the Magnetic Fields' "The Way You Say Goodnight." 
  • The moment in War Horse where the foal puppet turns into the full-size horse operated by three puppeteers.
  • Kirk Shimano's suggestion, in Love in a Time of Zombies, that the four fundamental human emotions are lust, anger, fear, and regret -- and that all other emotions are just a combination thereof.
I don't know if Kirk's theory is true, but I will say that the plays I saw in 2012 dealt with all of those emotions... and also evoked those feelings, and many more, within me. I have no doubt that that will continue with the theater that I see in 2013.

See also: my 2010 and 2011 theatergoing lists.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Comme les rois mages

On the Feast of the Epiphany I always find myself thinking of France, where they really know how to celebrate this holiday.

In 2008, for a production of Twelfth Night at Portland Center Stage, I wrote a playbill essay that began with an anecdote of spending Epiphany in France:
It is January 6, 2007 -- my third day as an exchange student in Bordeaux, France. That night at dinner, my host mother, Sévérine, brings out a flat, flaky golden cake with a metallic paper crown on top of it, and slices it into seven pieces, one for each guest. Then things get really crazy, especially to my jet-lagged eyes. Maxence, age 12, crawls under the table. Justine, 16, and her father, Guy, close their eyes tight. Guy turns the cake plate while Justine stands over it with a dangerously long knife. "Arrête!" Maxence shouts at random, whereupon Guy's hands stop moving and Justine stabs the nearest slice of cake. Then Maxence designates to whom she should serve that slice. After this finishes, I find a little porcelain tile in my slice of almond-flavored cake. The guests crown me and hail me as Queen; I suspect they rigged things so that I won, but can't figure out how.
Such are the modern-day vestiges of Twelfth Night, Epiphany, in a historically Catholic part of Europe. It's a night when bakeries from Seville to New Orleans do a brisk business in cakes with a plastic baby inside; when outwardly respectable, bourgeois French people enact an ancient, anarchic ritual. Epiphany, the "twelfth day of Christmas," is an excuse to have one last really good party to end the holiday season. It extends the egalitarian spirit of Christmas for one more night, making servants into masters and dazed exchange students into queens.
(I also wrote an Epiphany-themed blog post in 2008, but I think my playbill essay is more interesting, don't you?)

Nowadays, I count myself fortunate to live in a city where you can buy a king cake at any La Boulange, and to have found a group of friends who indulge my efforts to bring this French custom to our shores. Tonight, I'm headed to the first 2013 Olympians Festival writers' meeting at Stuart Bousel's house, king cake in tow. (Stuart is the kind of person who geeks out about hosting a party on Twelfth Night -- he even directed a production of Twelfth Night a year and a half ago.)

And, to bring this back around to my Francophilia, I was pleased to discover, a few weeks ago, that there is a catchy French pop song from 1971 that uses the Three Wise Men as a metaphor. The song is called "Les rois mages" ("The Wise Men") and was performed by Sheila.

Roughly translated, the chorus means "Like the Wise Men / in Galilee / Followed the shepherd's star with their eyes / I will follow you / Where you go, I will go / Faithful as a shadow / until the destination."

I don't think the French particularly associate this song with the Epiphany holiday (according to Wikipedia, it was originally released during the month of March), but to me, it's the perfect thing to sing while eating your king cake.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013 Theater (Ir)resolutions @ SF Theater Pub Blog

Happy New Year!

I am in the midst of drafting several different posts for marissabidilla -- including my annual round-ups of books read and plays seen -- but while I work on those, you can head over to the SF Theater Pub blog for my first column of the year.

In it, I reveal my theater resolutions for 2013 -- and my deep ambivalence with the whole notion of making resolutions. 'Cause I'm the girl with "a question for most things," right?

Although "I will endeavor to turn off the jaded, cynical part of my brain at the same time as I turn off my cell phone" is perhaps my favorite sentence in the piece, as well as a good resolution/mantra for any theatergoer.