06 July 2015

Love & Information & the vague feeling "Is that all there is?"

On a recent Tuesday I went to the Strand Theater, newly renovated and redeemed from its porn house past by the American Conservatory Theater, to see their inaugural production, Caryl Churchill's Love and Information, directed by Casey Stangl. ACT did a beautiful job with the theater, which is now some kind of Platonic ideal of the small "black box" theater. They must have stripped it completely inside, because there is little to remind you that the theater was built in 1917. The lobby is clean and bright and stripped down with a streamlined and eternally modern chrome-and-glass look, with a large electronic board in the lobby. It seems designed to appeal to the nearby tech workers, allegedly all youthful and rich and masters of the future, that arts groups so fervently hope will become hooked on live performance.

The interior of the theater and the marquee are a lively red. Large trees wave outside on Market Street. The low evening sun brightens the little café in the lobby. The theater is conveniently located just steps from the Civic Center BART station. But the dignified and friendly doorman is a reminder that the surrounding area is still a bit dicey, despite such continued efforts at social uplift as the nearby Twitter headquarters and the fancy markets and indeed the renovated Strand Theater itself. When I arrived the doorman was talking to someone so, in an effort not to interrupt him, I started to go for the other glass door. He politely stopped me and opened the door he was standing in front of for me. Clearly an eye is being kept on who comes in and out. (I'm not necessarily complaining about that, by the way.)

I did not have anything at the café, but the theater-goers who did seemed to be enjoying themselves. Considering the care shown in the renovation, I was surprised at the bathrooms (well – the men's room; I have no idea about the women's room), which seemed inadequate even for a theater with only 283 seats. The seats themselves are not exactly outrageously comfortable but I was pleased to see that they all had their own armrests (so no need for a land-grab struggle with your neighbor) as well as a sliver of space between each seat. The rows were also banked enough to give good sightlines throughout the house. Clearly thought had been put into the arrangements.

As I was waiting for the play to begin I took a couple of photographs of the inside of the theater and the lone usher walked over and gently but firmly told me that photography was not allowed inside the theater. I did not point out the number of people using cellphone cameras and simply apologized, as I thought the photography ban applied only during performances. Nope, none at all: "It's just like the Geary Theater," she said. But I rarely go to the Geary anymore. ACT does a number of plays each season I'd like to see, but then I look at their schedule, and they have maybe one workweek 7:00 start time for the entire run, and then I look at their prices, and my jaw drops and a cold Brechtian sense of harsh economic reality sets in – honestly, I get six plays at Shotgun for just a bit more than the cost of one orchestra seat at ACT, and (again, honestly) I've had better times at Shotgun. High prices and 8:00 start times during the work week – that's why I think of ACT as "theater for the Peninsula but in San Francisco."

But I was curious to see the new Strand, and I had a special e-mail offer from ACT: to commemorate the new Strand Theater, tickets for certain performances of Love & Information would be priced $19.17 to mark the year it was built. That, plus a 7:30 start time, sounded good to me. And (once again: honestly) if I'd paid more than that (I think regular tickets are around $90) I would not have been happy with my evening, as the play itself struck me as mostly OK and not much more.

We get a series of brief scenes, moments really, that flash by, leaving you to draw connections and make inferences. But that probably makes it sound more interesting than it was, as each of the brief scenes, despite the skill and charm of the actors, each playing multiple roles, struck too many familiar notes with me – in fact, some of them I swear I had heard before. Nothing too ambiguous or suggestive or surreal happens; mostly we get little vignettes that seem like the highlighted moments of "realistic" "social issue" dramas that would be really boring at full length. Apparently Churchill's script consists only of the lines of dialogue, without speakers assigned, so that the company has to decide who is speaking what and even who is who. This would require an exploration during rehearsals that may make the play seem, to those involved in the process, daring and suggestive in a way that it is not for someone just sitting in the auditorium for one night.

I would not say I was bored during the one hour and forty minute run time (no intermission, thank God), but I also was not particularly engaged. It may be a twist that the old former lovers reminiscing about their days together are both men, or that the two using dream interpretation as a justification for their adulterous affair are both women, but the scenes themselves aren't up to much beyond the mildly interesting, and same-sex couples barely register as a novelty these days. I mean, I was glad to see them, and the use of a multi-racial cast, but that's the world around us and it would be pretty sad at this point if the theater didn't reflect that.

The marketing of the play implied that it would reflect how tech/social media were changing our personal relationships, and I can understand why they would play up that angle considering who now has money around here, but fortunately only a few scenes really depend on (please note that I did not say "examine") tech/social media – and, again, that is just the world around us, and nothing was said on that front that wasn't already familiar. "Information" is used in a much broader sense, and can mean things like the convenient dream interpretation I mentioned earlier, or gossip about mutual friends, or a remark that betrays romantic interest, or even a rash on a young man's body that gives his girlfriend pause: how do we get information, and how do we act when we get it? A few scenes make the point that fear can also be a valuable piece of emotional information that we might be wise to act on. But again I'm afraid I'm making this all sound more interesting than it was to experience. Churchill's script seemed mostly banal to me. One of the tech-related scenes showed a middle-aged employee bursting into the office of his young boss to berate him for firing him via e-mail. This is a scenario we've seen often, maybe too often, the whole "you are young and do not know how to behave with decency" thing, and nothing much was added here except a sense that they weren't quite getting it right: these things are done now in a way that prevents disgruntled workers from bursting into the manager's office (assuming that the office itself hasn't been replaced with one of those horrible Panopticon "open offices."). A number of the scenes have this air of something conventional but not quite right (like the one of a white woman office worker sitting having a conversation with a slightly crazed black male streetperson: I have worked in the Financial District for years and have seen plenty of both types of person and they just do not interact in this way).

In another tech-related scene, a man, maybe around thirty, goes to visit his father at his remote country house. The son of course is constantly using his phone, because that's what those young people are like these days!, only out where his father dwells there is no reception. In fact the father seems to live a life of almost monastic austerity (which people rarely do without a guiding philosophy, but if there was one we weren't given it, which was probably just as well since I can easily imagine it). So when it turns out there's no cellphone reception, no TV, no radio, the son asks his father what he does when he needs a weather forecast. I didn't hear his response because the woman two seats down from me announced loudly and smugly, "You look out the window!" But in the great tradition of audience remarks that interrupt a performance, she was both boringly obvious and completely incorrect: looking out the window will tell you what the weather is like outside the window. It will not necessarily tell you what the forecast is.

I did like some things in the play, especially a recurring bit with a silent older woman, looking depressed and brow-beaten, beyond the reach of those around her, that is, those who actually bothered to notice her and try to reach her. But the whole thing felt like a path we've walked down many times, ending at a place that is no great shakes. I might as well stop here. I would like to repeat that the actors – Joel Bernard, Anthony Fusco, Cindy Goldfield, Dan Hiatt, Joe Holt, Rafael Jordan, Christina Liang, Sharon Lockwood, Leo Marks, Dominique Salerno, Mia Tagano, and Shona Tucker – were all skillful and appealing, and I felt that the humdrum qualities of the evening were due to Churchill and not the performers. The theater itself is an attractive and welcome addition to the area, and I hope to be back there soon for something more interesting. The run continues until 9 August.

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