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Wednesday, Jun 16 1999
Problem Play
Problem Child. By George F. Walker. Directed by John Warren. Starring Barry Levine, Allyson Kulavis, Stephen Pawley, and Christina Augello. At the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), through June 26. Call 673-3847.

Writing about Problem Child is problematic: How do I say exactly what's wrong with a show that turns on a very strange and unlikely (and funny) event without giving the event itself away? If the script were an excellent piece of writing I could just hand out vague praises and sign off, because the rest of the production is good. But the script has definite and interesting problems, so I'm warning everyone now that I may not be able to discuss them without ruining the plot.

George F. Walker, Canadian author of Nothing Sacred, has written a six-part cycle of plays called Suburban Motel, with every play set in the same dingy motel room. The idea, as far as I can tell, is to present unconnected stories of everyday people in a Ray Carver kind of setting. Problem Child is about a broke and drug-addicted young couple who've lost their daughter to a foster family. They're waiting in the motel room, full of hope, to hear their social worker declare them fit to take their daughter home. But the social worker doesn't oblige. She comes to the motel and tells them the process isn't that far along. Immediately we have a plot problem: Why, if the process still needs time, have the parents moved into the motel at all? Why didn't they stay where they were? The only answer is: because Denise (the mother) is so desperate. Denise's desperation fuels Problem Child the way jealousy fuels a soap opera, and most of the lurid events that unfold have a soap-opera gloss.

John Sowle has built the vividly realistic set, with ugly bedspread and plastic-wrapped lampshades, dull curtains and droning TV chatter. Allyson Kulavis plays a good deadbeat mom, in torn jeans, a tight tank top, and a gray cotton sweater. She finds a simple, appealing persona for Denise and only slips out of it on the awkward lines, the evidences of writerly effort. Barry Levine's R.J. (the father) feels a little willed, partly because he's obsessed with trash TV to an extent that stops being quite so funny after the first hour. But Stephen Pawley's Phillie Phillips, the drunken, simple-minded caretaker who gets involved in Denise's plot, is a stroke of brilliance. He philosophizes and complains in a monotone voice full of muted rage, and gives fresh life to lines that on the page aren't obviously strong. "The bathroom's spotless, NOT THAT I GIVE A SHIT," he hollers; and, later, while vacuuming: "I can't get into that shit, the haves and the have-nots, the fuckers and the fuckees -- no, I can't get into that shit. ... Let me just suck up what little dirt I can here."

You have to see it to really appreciate it.
Unfortunately, poor old Phillie gets into the master-victim theme so often that it starts to feel forced. And R.J. points out the same theme every time Jenny Jones or Ricki Lake drags some unwilling schmuck in front of the cameras for her audience to jeer at. Denise complains about it to Helen, the social worker; presumably this sense of injustice (combined with her desperation) is the reason she almost kills Helen, wrecking all hope of retrieving her child. It's a good theme, but it doesn't need to be ridden so hard, and Helen's near-death has such an unlikeliness about it that enjoying the humor is a strain. Without it, of course, there would be no play; and after it Christina Augello's performance as Helen vastly improves, from solid but slightly stiff to hilariously faux-polite and outraged. But the event creates a disconnect between Walker's crushing realism and his flights of imagination. It's a compromise solution to a number of plot problems, which places Problem Child in a purgatory between absurdism and simple awkward writing.

There. Nothing given away.
The other problem with Walker's script is that time freezes near the end, so Denise can turn to give the audience a summary of her next few months. It's like those wrap-ups at the end of a movie that scroll up the screen to let you know what happens to all the characters, only placed in one of the actors' mouths. These tweakings of convention should be David Lynch-like -- realism fused into something else -- and they might work if they had dramatic purpose; but they don't. They just make the writer's job easier, and diminish the play.

-- Michael Scott Moore

All Dolled Up
Cid Pearlman and Nesting Dolls. Text by Michelle Murphy. Original music by Erling Wold, vocals by Laurie Amat, conducted by Deirdre McClure. At ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., June 10-13.

There was plenty to like about Cid Pearlman's farewell show at ODC, the climax of a yearlong collaboration with composer Erling Wold and poet Michelle Murphy, but there was something plainly lacking, too: verve. Despite Wold's fascinating compositions and Murphy's often engaging text, it was a sleepy, even sluggish program that fell short of its ambitious mark.

In trying to strike a balance between dance, music, and language, Pearlman picked her partners well -- she and Wold have eased themselves into a comfortable rapport over time, and though Murphy wrote her poetry independently of the dance, her tactile imagery dovetailed nicely with Pearlman's aesthetic. Conflicting visions of companionship and solitude, urban cacophony and a bucolic hush played out in the repertory work I Brought My Hips to the Table, and Yes, I Dyed All Your Shoes Black and the premiere 13 Versions of Surrender, which shared Murphy's poetic language and simple but effective set pieces.

In fact, Hips, which followed Murphy's live spoken-word prologue on the dreamlike shadows cast across a bedroom ceiling, was laden with sensory appeal. Blocks of text projected on hanging screens described the smell of wet fur, the crackle of electricity, and the taste and texture of sour grass sucked translucent between one's teeth, and the live chamber ensemble (conducted by the Club Foot Orchestra's Deirdre McClure) conjured up swirling storm clouds with quick puffs of breath into the woodwinds. Folding themselves around Wold's languorous, jazzy score, dancers Jennifer Kesler and David King embodied what Murphy called "the seasons a body undergoes," with a shifting, symbiotic partnership of resistance and surrender. Despite a fluidity in cartwheeling, over-the-shoulder lifts and Kesler's generous extensions, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction to this pairing, which flared in a brief series of gestures and expressions delineating fury, shock, and recrimination.

A similar push-pull dynamic ran through Close, a 1997 quintet that floated above the roiling cello passages of Wold's mesmerizing score for strings, percussion, and vibes. Pearlman explored all the combinations you can make from five dancers (solos, trios, duos, and unisons) and produced a piece that is both "close" as in intimate and "close" as in closed off from its audience. Dressed in Hank Ford's flowery prints, the dancers turned their focus inward, on each other and themselves. With the exception of some truly inventive three-way lifts, Close was gentle, with much embracing and the cradling of heads in hands. It was too gentle, in fact: A stupefying sameness in mood and tempo could make a viewer think about joining the stacks of dancers lying face down on the floor.

And then there was 13 Versions of Surrender, the 30-minute chamber operetta capping Pearlman's two-year residency at ODC. Pearlman deserves credit for experimenting with brave new music (besides Wold, she's worked with Camper Van Beethoven alumni) and insisting on having it live when possible. That said, 13 Versions was both intriguing and problematic. Murphy's poetry reads well enough, but as a libretto, it often sounds silly, or worse. Singer Laurie Amat made a valiant attempt to transform the language into something more than musical spoken word, but it wasn't easy, given passages like "He stirs their coffee, watches the sugar dissolve." Amat served as narrator to the action, such as it was, and even became a part of it, banging on a drum listlessly as the dancers waltzed around the room. Life is something of a cabaret, or at least a depressing carnival, in Murphy's text, and Pearlman ran with the metaphor. The set (table and chairs and a windowpane upstage, champagne bottles three deep around a hatbox downstage) suggested equal parts joie de vivre and loneliness, but with the exception of a few crisp images, like a man stretching into remembered passion on a tabletop, Versions couldn't revive a timeworn idea.

-- Heather Wisner


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