Solo Times Four

The Bay Area is blessed with more than its share of terrific solo theater artists, and new ones are coming out of the woodwork all the time. I hadn’t had a chance to check out Thao P. Nguyen’s work before now, but I feel awfully fortunate to have managed to catch her one-woman show Fortunate Daughter at Impact Theatre last weekend. A story about trying to figure out how to come out as a lesbian to her supportive but still fairly traditional Vietnamese family, FD debuted at the New York Fringe Festival last year, directed by W. Kamau Bell, and then enjoyed a sold-out run at StageWerx helmed by Martha Rynberg, who also directs it here.

Thao P. Nguyen in Fortunate Daughter. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Thao P. Nguyen in Fortunate Daughter. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Nguyen is an appealing and just plain likeable presence who gets you on her side from the beginning—if there were really any sides involved, which there aren’t exactly. She talks about the nervousness of traveling to Vietnam to meet her grandmother for the first time at the age of 25. “I’m literally going over the river and through the woods to get to my grandmother’s house,” she marvels while describing the boat ride, then feels the need to check in with us: “You know Vietnam’s not a war, right? Right?” We see her giddily flirting in text messages with a girl she likes, and somehow convincing herself to take her mom to the Dyke March with her, despite the fact that she is very much not out to her mother and not planning to come out to her either, at least not yet.

The portraits she paints of her family and friends are unforgettable and often terribly endearing, especially her parents—her soft-spoken, heavily accented mother who’s surprisingly interested and cool with everything at the Dyke March, whether she’s connecting the dots or not. Her dad is warm and upbeat, and alternately hilarious and heartrending in a scene when Thao imagines his possible reactions to her coming out to him. Her sister’s self-centered take on the whole thing is priceless. Emmy, her boss at the Queer Youth Center, is very serious, very precise, and brimming with gravitas.

As engaging as Nguyen’s personal story is, she deals with a lot more than that in the monologue. She brings us back to the emotional roller-coaster ride of the 2008 election, with the Obama victory and the passage of Proposition 8, with the renewed pressure to come out because so many of the people who voted to ban same-sex marriage know and love gay people—they just may not know it, because their attitudes haven’t exactly encourages those loved ones to come out to them.

She also bitingly satirizes touchy-feely Bay Area liberal culture simply by chronicling it becoming a parody of itself. In one striking scene, she recalls a marriage equality rally in which the all-white, new agey speakers started singing old African-American spirituals of liberation and being gobsmacked by the thoughtless cultural appropriation.

Fortunate Daughter is a terrific piece of theater, solidly constructed and terrifically performed. The crowd was on the sparse side at the performance we attended, so I hope more people will trek down to Impact’s North Berkeley pizza-parlor basement space to see it. It’s well worth the trip.

Across the bay at the Marsh, San Francisco’s breeding ground for solo shows, Safiya Martinez is performing in So You Can Hear Me, her solo show about working as a 23-year-old teaching fellow in a tough South Bronx public school in the early 2000s.

Safiya Martinez in So You Can Hear Me. Photo by Patti Meyer.

Safiya Martinez in So You Can Hear Me. Photo by Patti Meyer.

Martinez is a magnetic performer with a dancerly way of moving her arms around when she talks that becomes distracting simply because it’s not at all clear what if anything those movements mean. It feels of a piece with her graceful, poetic delivery that makes it seem only appropriate when she says that her parents met at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

The real appeal of her show is in the characters she portrays, such as a heavy-lidded drug addict on the street, her friend with the jackhammer laugh and the unsolicited dating advice, and her hard-drinking, hard-dancing mother (“I know it’s hard being my kid. I’m very wild, I’m aware.”). And most of all there are the students: a motormouth kid who keeps getting into trouble, a belligerent lesbian always ready to rumble, and an impish wheelchair-bound boy with an infectious laugh who knows he can get away with saying pretty much anything.

There isn’t much of an arc to the show. Beyond the setup of Martinez having a hard time dealing with this school, it’s just each character telling her or his individual story, with only the thinnest of transitions between them. Still, Martinez’s exuberance is catching, and her storytelling style is charming. She just needs to work more on structure and substance.

Don Reed in Can You Dig It? Photo by Ric Omphroy.

Don Reed in Can You Dig It? Photo by Ric Omphroy.

Martinez’s show alternates in the Marsh’s space with a number of other solo shows, and one of them, Don Reed’s Can You Dig It?, is a knockout. It’s the latest in Reed’s series of autobiographical monologues, but set the earliest in his life—back to his Oakland childhood in the ’60s, before his parents split up, his mother remarrying and becoming a Jehovah’s Witness and his father becoming a pimp. I reviewed the show on KQED Arts, so you can go dig it over there.

Although also a solo show, Just Theater’s Underneath the Lintel is really a different animal altogether, because it’s a preexisting play, not autobiographical and not written by the performer. In fact, American Conservatory Theater will also be producing the same play this fall, starring screen actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck). In a solid, bare-bones staging by director Mina Morita, Just Theater’s production of Lintel is running in repertory with its superb West Coast premiere of Rob Handel’s A Maze, which I reviewed for KQED Arts.

Mick Mize in Underneath the Lintel. Photo by Adam Tolbert.

Mick Mize in Underneath the Lintel. Photo by Adam Tolbert.

The set is the one for A Maze, with only a few additions to the foreground: a projection screen, a cart with a slide projector, and a desk that looks like a large book from the side. The bookish connotation is particularly appropriate because the narrator/protagonist of Glen Berger’s play is a Dutch librarian who was so shocked to receive a book returned in the overnight slot that was 113 overdue that he had to investigate where it had been all this time, and with whom.

At first he sees it as a matter of justice; overdue books are supposed to be taken to the desk, not the slot, and he looks forward to administering an immense late fine. But the more unusual evidence he uncovers about the mystery borrower, starting with handwritten marginalia in the library book in every language known to man (“including Welsh”) and a post office box in China, the more obsessed he becomes with following this person’s trail for its own sake. He goes from being consumed entirely with proper library procedure to consumed with something else entirely, and the quest takes him all over the world.

By the time we meet him in Lintel, this new pursuit has become a full-time job, or rather what he does now that he’s been fired from his actual job, and the play is a sort of traveling lecture he does, reporting to the public on his findings. “Is this all there is?,” he says in dismay, looking out at the sparse Saturday-afternoon crowd. “I put up signs: ‘Impressive presentation.’” Recently returned from clowning in Cirque du Soleil’s Dralion, local actor Mick Mize is highly agitated as the nameless librarian, uptight and obsessive, as if it’s vitally important that we understand what he’s telling us. He’s also pedantic in an endearing way, explaining what phrases like “red herring” actually mean where someone else would simply use them. Around his neck he wears a due-date stamp taken from his old workplace, which contains every date that ever was, he explains with a sort of sacred wonder. “It’s all in here. All the trials and joys of history.”

The librarian’s findings are as impressive as he billed them, taking him (and us) into surprisingly mythic territory. Once you find out where he’s going with it, the narrative becomes more predictable, but no less resonant for that. It’s a compelling tale, almost Borgesian in its fantastical intellectualism, and Berger gives the librarian a charming not-quite-colloquial oddness to his otherwise fluent English. Accentuated by some charming old jazz and klezmer in Madeline Oldham’s sound design, and driven home by Mize’s fixed intensity as the librarian, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking journey well worth tagging along with for a while.

Fortunate Daughter
Through August 10
Impact Theatre
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid Ave.
Berkeley, CA

So You Can Hear Me
Through August 24
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA

Can You Dig It?
Through September 8
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA

Underneath the Lintel
Through August 4
Just Theater
Live Oak Theatre
1301 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Fortunate Daughter: Show #75 of 2013, attended July 19.

So You Can Hear Me: Show #67 of 2013, attended June 29.

Can You Dig It?: Show #78 of 2013, attended July 21.

Underneath the Lintel: Show #76 of 2013, attended July 20.

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