The Dardy Family Home Movies by Stephen Sondheim by Erin Markey, at the San Francisco Film Society, does not involve Stephen Sondheim in any capacity, nor is it a set of home movies, nor does it really chronicle the fictional Dardy family.
But the title isn't quite as misleading as it seems. Half of the Dardy family is in the autobiographical solo show: Kelly, who, like Markey herself, is a struggling actress in New York, and her mother Molly, who's back home in Bay City, Michigan. Video projection is a major part of the live performance: Because the mother-daughter relationship takes place exclusively on Skype, Markey performs Molly live while her recorded performance of Kelly appears on two flatscreen televisions (while Markey also manipulates a live projection, on a third, larger screen). And finally, while nothing in Markey's show approaches the sublimity of Sondheim, The Dardy Family Home Movies is a musical--of a sort.
For Markey, an accurate title just wouldn't be, well, accurate to her intentions. The Dardy Family Home Movies is always either farcically banal--e.g., a drawn-out argument about moving boxes in which the women seem to be simultaneously in comas and in a screaming match--or surreal--i.e., out of nowhere, a raunchy rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," supposedly performed by Molly's granddaughter. While sometimes the fantastical elements miss their mark, Markey's show is so unique and unpredictable that it always intrigues.
One of the show's main sustaining forces is the precision with which Markey portrays Molly. It shouldn't be surprising that Markey, a Michigan native, would nail the Mitten State's accent, with its jaw-contorting vowels. (I'm from Detroit, so I can say that.) But everything about Markey's performance of Molly conjures a small life practically wallowing in comfort: the way she can't be bothered to lower her wine glass from her mouth when she speaks, how she articulates her desires in terms of what her husband wants, the way she erupts into too-hysterical laughter when Kelly pulls up her sweatshirt hood and makes a face, which for Molly is "CRAZY!"
She makes for an effective contrast with Kelly, who has to work all day at "the farmer's market thing" before her performances and can barely contain her deadpan. But the real warmth in this production emanates from the simple fact that these two busy women make the effort to spend expanses of time talking about absolutely nothing, just to feel like real parts of one another's lives.
On the surface, however, Markey abjures all sentiment. Whenever she gets close to it, the Skype conversation cuts out and she launches into an absurdist song with an overwrought Broadway belt, doing more with an "ooo" than Mariah Carey. Or she tells an absurdist story--about eating all the Teddy Grahams that have fallen on the floor--with popping eyes and hushed voice, as though it's the most meaningful thing that's ever happened to her.
These incongruities are mostly welcome; they lend the everyday a fantastical quality. It's mostly the staging that perplexes. The Dardy Family Home Movies is part of SFFS's KinoTek program, which presents multimedia art. At times, Markey's multimedia--the camera and three screens onstage--feel arbitrary, as though they were tacked on at the last minute to make her piece fit into a grant proposal.
But you exit the show wanting to decipher the choices whose motivations didn't feel immediately clear. And by then, the title will start to feel more apt.
The Dardy Family Home Movies by Stephen Sondheim by Erin Markey continues through Dec. 11 at the San Francisco Film Society, 1746 Post St. (at Webster), S.F. Admission is $12 - $15. For tickets visit www.sffs.org.