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Marriage Customs: Crowded Fire's New Play Looks to an Italian Fabulist for a Story of Nostalgia and the Search for Love 

Tuesday, Sep 9 2014

Crowded Fire Theater artistic director Marissa Wolf knew she wanted to produce her company's coming show, The Late Wedding, before she had even finished rehearsing her last show with the company, The Hundred Flowers Project.

"We were sitting in tech rehearsal," she says, "and [director of new work Laura Brueckner] and I were like, 'So, what else do you have going on?'"

Hundred Flowers turned out to be incredibly successful, garnering Theater Bay Area's prestigious Glickman Award for best new play to premiere in the Bay Area in 2012. The avant-garde play, about a theater troupe putting on a show about Mao's regime, has remained much talked about-in the S.F. theater scene for its daring use of multimedia and for the way it continually breaks and rewrites its rules, redefining what kind of play it is.

The Late Wedding, a Crowded Fire Theater commission, also makes a habit of exploding conceits. Its narrator, who does not work at all as a traditional narrator, describes the show at rise as "an anthropological tour of imagined tribes and their marital customs." One couple believes in never seeing each other again after their wedding day, another speaks only in the language of nostalgia. These allegorical scenes, Wolf says, draw the reader in because they follow rules and because they're relatable: "They're just enough a part of who we already are — we absolutely create in our own lives nostalgia around memory; we absolutely pray at secret home altars, even if they're just in our hearts, about loves lost. They don't feel otherworldly."

But shortly, playwright Christopher Chen dispenses with that structure, plunging the play into a series of "interludes," each of which comments on the last; soon, it can be hard to tell what world the play is in, or what role a character is playing, even from line to line. Yet for Wolf, there's a driving force in the idea of "finding one's beloved." She interprets the play as a map toward achieving that goal.

Chen, a San Francisco native, was inspired for this play by the writings of Italian fabulist writer Italo Calvino — especially by the novel Invisible Cities. Chen's plays are often sparked by love affairs with literature, and much draws him to Calvino; the author's mix of the ancient and mythological coupled with the contemporary and profane, his ability to embark on flights of fancy without leaving his audience behind; his exquisite, poetic writing that feels disarmingly, compulsively forthright. In particular, Chen was moved by the way Calvino "conceives of very interesting structures in which to get at specific but also expansive corners of the psyche. He organizes the chaos of the subconscious in a very elegant way." Chen also admires this quality in writers like Jorge Luis Borges but says that the lightness of Calvino felt particularly adaptable to the stage. "Each one of [Calvino's] novels and stories has a playful structure; because of that ethos I felt running through his body of work, I felt I had more permission to imagine, 'What would be the theatrical equivalent of a Calvino novel? How can I write my own series of fables, but with drama?'"

The result of Chen's effort to "tap into Calvino's wavelength" is often very meta-theatrical. The presence of the playwright, which at first might appear to be Chen referring to himself through his characters but then which later takes on a life of its own, constantly asserts itself, commenting on the success (or lack thereof) of a monologue or, jarringly, inserting notes to self that don't even seem to be related to the play. The script often feels like stream-of-consciousness, but Chen says he didn't write it that way. "I would never be so disorganized to have a big document with random notes!" he jokes. "I tried to have a lot of fun with inserting the writing process into it. Those definitely reflect what I was thinking, but I did not literally type [those tangents] out."

For Wolf, these seeming tangents raise pointed questions about "the sense of who is in control, and how are we all complicit in that, even as audience members, once we walk in the door? For me, that underlying thing of the playwright's voice in this play — there's something really wonderful about how slippery it is."

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Lily Janiak

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