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New World, Old World: Two Plays Shed Light on the Future of Theater 

Wednesday, Jan 22 2014

To any who suggest that theater is an irrelevant, dying art form (as naysayers have done for hundreds of years), consider the San Francisco Neo-Futurists. This troupe just opened Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind in an open-ended run and lives up to its name. In their hands, theater is the future, and the future is now.

At the same time, this show is just a new iteration of an old idea — specifically, a 25-year-old idea. The Neo-Futurists were formed in Chicago in 1998, and the first spinoff, the New York Neo-Futurists, came into being in 2004. Those troupes also perform, and have been performing since their founding, the same play, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, which isn't so much a script as a concept: 30 plays in 60 minutes. The audience has a "menu" of numbered play titles and, after each play has concluded, calls out the play it wants performed next. SF Neo-Futurists, the second descendant of the original company, also introduce chance into the ticket prices; at the door, spectators roll a die and add that number to $10 to get their admission cost. Also, at the end of the show, an audience member rolls another die to determine how many of the plays must be removed and replaced from the docket by the next weekend. The show thus varies starkly week to week, with a flurry of script generation and rehearsing in between.

The show is also a race against time. At rise, the performers set a timer, and if the performers don't make it through all 30 plays in 60 minutes, they simply won't perform the remainder. This means the writer-director-performers, who can also change from week to week, work at a frenetic pace, scrambling through scene changes during which they might give up on reverting to full costume from full nudity.

This pace feels so akin to the way the digital age has altered our perception that it's scary — and familiarly riveting. TMLMTBGB is the news feed of plays, a semi-random assortment of pithy content where you never have to sit long with the duds (and when you must, you're in a cleverly outfitted cabaret space, with a bar inside the theater). But even more surprising than the dearth of bad apples is just how tasty the good ones are. The ensemble members (Adam Smith, Steven Westdahl, Megan Cohen, Ryan Good, Will Caldwell, and Zoë Lehman, the night I saw it) have a deep understanding of both the form's limits as well as its possibilities, reaching heights of comedy and pathos in mere seconds. They are ruthless winnowers of wheat from chaff, but they let their audiences savor the morsels that emerge.

San Rafael's AlterTheater Ensemble is also dedicated to stretching the boundaries of what theater can be; it stages its shows in vacant storefronts along the town's main corridor. If the spaces occasionally make for awkward staging, the expansive shop windows simultaneously invite the street into the show and bring theater out to the public. The 10-year-old company's programming, however, errs on the more traditional side, especially with its latest, The River Bride, which won the 2013 National Latino Playwriting Award.

Here in its world premiere production, Marisela Treviño Orta's play is, in a way, not too different from the oldest theater in the Western canon in that it stages a myth — the Brazilian myth of river dolphins who turn into men for three days each June. In their time ashore, they must convince a woman to love and marry them. If they succeed, they can remain human forever; if they fail, they are banished to the river and its crippling loneliness for another year.

Orta's writing is gentle and unhurried, with lines like, "A heart can heal. You have loved once. That's a good thing — it means your heart knows how." Her male characters have the Old World quality of always being in possession of themselves even when they're angry, and her women seem wise as grandmothers (or at least they think they are) even if they're very young. The moments of stillness in her writing provide an excellent vehicle for Carla Pauli as Helena, a youthful, quiet, and thoughtful woman who finds herself the object of sudden and strong attraction for Moises (Nick Garcia), a man who literally washes ashore and who won't reveal anything about his past. Under the direction of Ann Brebner and Jeanette Harrison, Pauli makes Helena's shyness contagious. Her thoughtful rendering of Helena's every qualm, tremble, and fluttering half-smile makes a spark of romantic connection feel like a tectonic shift.

If the courtship doesn't build from scene to scene as much as it could, Orta's lovely play nonetheless offers a tender but honest portrait of love, loss, and then life as making do.

About The Author

Lily Janiak


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