The Bird Is the Word

There’s nothing to do in the country, Chekhov’s characters endlessly whine. Director Giancarlo Nanni tries to fix all that with a splashy, surreal version of The Seagull that’s half dream, half circus. Brought to La MaMa by Rome’s avant-garde Teatro Vascello, this Italian-language staging features a supple company of eight, who don red noses, drift on brightly colored swings, and balance brass poles. In an antic dance, they intone—and illustrate—Kostya’s cry for new forms in theater.

Some sequences are undeniably stunning. Creating a refrain from Masha’s line about wearing black to mourn her life, the company, in a row, drape themselves with a long black curtain that lies rolled up across the length of the stage. Showing naked shoulders, they retreat, trailing a funereal train against a dazzling white background. Later, Arkadina is wheeled in atop a platform of blazing stage lights as a curtain lifts to reveal her glitzy theatrical wardrobe spread across the rear wall.

After a while, though, the play settles down to focus more on intimate scenes, including a passionate, incestuous kiss between Kostya and his mom. The players seem well cast, especially Manuela Kustermann as the imperious narcissist Arkadina in a movie-star blond do and shades.

But what’s the vision? Why are there two Ninas—the “real” and the “inner”? The director claims he wants to illuminate the subtext of Chekhov’s artistic struggles, but there’s so much going on in this supercharged production that it overwhelms. In fairness, threads and themes may be harder to discern for English speakers who have to rely on imperfectly synchronized translations on screens at the side. Still, one thing is clear. As the giant videotaped seagull’s wings suggest, nothing in this production is writ small. —Francine Russo

Hitting for the Cycle

Ratan Thiyam, the founder and head of the Chorus Repertory Theater—a collective based in the troubled northeastern Indian state of Manipur—knows how to use spectacle intelligently and, at times, astoundingly. In Uttar Priyadarshi (BAM)—a depiction of the karmic cycle of birth, desire, destruction, and redemption in the Indian emperor Ashoka’s life—one moment flows smoothly into the next, the play unfolding with visually stunning grace and narrative power. In the central story, astride a magnificent puppet elephant, Ashoka returns from victorious campaigns against his enemies. He expects his subjects to lavish praise on him. Instead, he finds them mourning their dead and mocking him. In one gorgeous sequence, Ashoka winds up bound in red banners, symbolizing the bloodshed he has caused.

Thiyam draws from a rich and varied repertory—from classical Indian performances of The Mahabharata and The Ramayana to Manipurean martial arts and folk songs, all imbued with a distinct, modernist sensibility. The play’s four monk-narrators, for instance, often seem like a combination of vaudevillian clowns and Greek choristers. And the depiction of Hell and its ruler Ghor (really Ashoka’s dark Other) is simultaneously scary and hilarious. One scene, for instance, involves a tableau of various torture instruments and features a beheading by guillotine as a wildly comic photo opportunity.

At heart a Buddhist cautionary tale on the pitfalls of power, Priyadarshi can be seen as a metaphor for the secessionist violence in Manipur, but it can also be viewed in a universal context. This intense epic—only 80 minutes long—proves that sound and fury, when coupled with transformative vision, can signify something compelling and beautiful. —Luis Francia

San Francisco Giant Killers

“$3500-a-month rent?” wails Agnes. “That’s half my salary!” It’s hard to sympathize with this well-paid “yuppie skank,” whose purchase of a loft opens City for Sale (TNC), a musical satire about what happens when the forces of gentrification (young dotcommers, landlords) collide with longtime tenants (artists, minorities). Musicians Xavier and Junior, whose studio is to be converted into Agnes’s loft, protest their eviction by seeking help from the duplicitous Mayor; hoping to boost her poll numbers, she vows to protect the tenants. But pressure from developers (and their hefty campaign contributions) causes her to change her tune. In a fairy-tale ending, Agnes decides to live elsewhere rather than force Xavier and Junior out, and the pair fight on by refusing to move—”We’ll start one gigantic squat all over the city!” Yeah, that’ll work.

You can’t expect reasoned argument from agitprop, but the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s sketch-comedy antics—no mime, despite the company’s name—keep things lively, with gags like the ol’ pie in the face, cartoony costumes, and several song-and-dance numbers backed by the superb SFMT band. Stephanie Taylor is a hoot, whether pigeon-toed as Agnes or bug-eyed and tap-dancing as an aged protester; she also gets the show’s wittiest tune, “This Is the Place.” As the Mayor’s pollster, Luis Oropeza camps up a storm, capering about like a tiny, spazzy Elton John. But the sex-hungry Mayor is a joke that falls flat, and the nondynamic duo of Xavier and Junior are so tedious you want to evict them from the play. The spirited cast deserves a better script. Still, the piece hits its target: those who invade working-class neighborhoods with their money and their “microcreamery cheeses”—wait, that’s me. —J. Yeh

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