When my friend Jessica Heidt took over as artistic director of the Climate Theater in September 2007, the corner of Folsom and Ninth streets where the alternative performance space makes its home wasn't the kind of intersection you'd want to linger at for long. Characterized by tombstonelike warehouses, a few decrepit-looking storefronts, and an old-fashioned German restaurant equipped with an uninvitingly early closing time and surly owner, the location wasn't exactly a huge draw even for the most adventurous of theater junkies.
Over the past year and a half, though, this treeless, concrete-blasted SOMA intersection has started to become a place where people want to spend more time. The recent arrival of several new businesses, including Medici Lounge, a terrific Italian restaurant below the Climate with a generous happy hour and empathy for the late-night, post-theater crowd, hints at the promise of more widespread neighborhood rejuvenation.
Heidt's transformation of the Climate from a raggedy black-box rental space to a thriving presenter of provocative — if not always artistically captivating — performances is arguably central to the makeover of its immediate surroundings. On any given night, arts lovers can experience performances by tutu-clad clowns throwing spaghetti around or live interpretations of classic YouTube videos at the cozy 49-seat space. The company's perennial Dating Game events have even, on occasion, helped people get laid.
I've visited the Climate several times since Heidt took over. But it wasn't until one recent night, when I attended the final preview of the Climate and Encore Theatre's joint production of Steve Yockey's 2007 drama, Skin, that the transformation of the theater and the neighborhood seemed to coalesce into something palpable and exciting. Yockey's play — which explores the complex impulses of the flesh through offering glimpses into the lives of five urban, twenty- and thirtysomethings — didn't go as deep as I'd have liked. But that didn't ultimately matter: The evening's combined experience of theatergoing, good food and wine, and captivating cultural discussions will stay with me for a long time.
The first thing worth mentioning is how great the space looks. Black-box theaters usually operate on shoestring budgets. Sets are generally nonexistent or cobbled together at best, and buildings often emit musty smells. Heidt has been gradually giving the Climate a facelift with fresh paint, new lighting fixtures, and other cosmetic touches. James Faerron's scenic design for Skin carries this conceit to the proscenium. A modishly linened, full-sized bed dominates the theater's tiny 16-foot stage. Faerron completes the understated bedroom setting with smooth, subdued-colored walls and a few simple accessories. The Climate stage has never looked so stylish and expensive.
The same might also be said about Skin's cast of attractive Bay Area actors, most of whom spend chunks of the play jumping in and out of the sack with each other in various states of undress. The drama tells the story of two heterosexual couples and their struggle to reconcile exterior appearances with their innermost needs and desires. If the increasingly messy-looking bed acts as a visual metaphor for the characters' inner turmoil, the glossy style of the performances bespeaks a world of shiny surfaces with little going on underneath. We understand Danielle Levin's Laura to be uncomfortable about having sex with her boyfriend, Martin (Patrick Alparone), with the lights on. We get that Julie (Arwen Anderson) and Smith (Lance Gardner) cheat on each other. The script says as much. But the actors tend to indicate the emotions of their characters broadly rather than communicate the subtext more subtly. I don't know if this is a deliberate choice by director Mark Routhier. It certainly makes sense, given the play's thematic obsession with facades. But the external focus of the acting creates an atmosphere of unsatisfying vapidity.
In keeping with the acting style, the characterizations, themes, and metaphors in Skin mostly run skin-deep. Yockey's attempt to dramatize the concept of how relationships lead people to behave as if they have split personalities, such as through the recurring symbol of a broken-heart tattoo and the scene in which Martin's life suddenly and surreally goes in two directions, are intriguing. But the playwright doesn't push his themes and sense of theatricality far enough. The ideas are neat, but they ultimately don't add up to much. Only once does the play allow us a startling glimpse under its slickly waxed hood: When Miranda Calderon's tattoo-emblazoned, sexually predatory (but secretly lonely) Kyle hears bad news about her family on her answering machine, she plays the message over and over as if the recorded voice were speaking in Swahili. For just a few seconds, the girlish leer she wears around men softens with a single tear. It's an isolated yet moving moment.
After the performance, some friends and I repaired to the Medici Lounge downstairs. The lights were low, and the wine, snacks, and conversation flowed. We discussed the play for hours, taking in our thoughts about the dramatist's understanding of heterosexual relationships (Yockey is gay) to the production's sound effects. Here's another great thing about sticking around after a show: When sound designer Sarah Huddleston turned up, we were able to ask her directly about her concepts.
Going to the theater isn't just about sitting in the dark, watching a musical or play. A performance, whether good or bad, should be a catalyst for audience engagement. It's about enabling us to connect with each other and talk late into the night about the things that matter in our lives. The Climate and Medici Lounge are making the conversation happen. When I eventually left some time after midnight, the corner of Folsom and Ninth seemed, for the first time, beautiful to me.