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Worlds Apart

March 30, 2007

Last night, kind of on a whim, I headed down to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to catch the first night of Worlds Apart: Local Response. The performance featured four short works by local artists commissioned by YBCA to respond to the theme of globalization.

Normally, this kind of event, with its marriage of a vaguely socio-political theme and contemporary art leaves me cold. The work produced tends to be didactic and unpolished.

But what made me go and see the production was the excitement at seeing such an eclectic mix of performers. I knew a couple of the companies already (Kraft + Purver and the Erika Shuch Performance Project.) Ever since seeing Kevin Clarke's kamikaze turn in Mark Jackson's The Forest War late last year, I've been curious about this formidable actor-dancer. When I found out from Jackson that Clarke is part of a drag act, I wanted to see him in action. So I was looking forward to experiencing his work as half of the duo Hagen & Simone (alongside Monique Jenkinson.) Finally, I was extremely excited at the prospect of hearing Edmund Welles: The Bass Clarinet Quartet play. How can I resist a group that advertises itself as "the world's only composing group of four bass clarinetists, who invent and perform heavy chamber music"?

The first half of the program featured a piece entitled Web 4.0 conceived by the Kraft half (Sarah Kraft) of Kraft + Purver. Though this duo takes itself a bit too seriously for my liking and their tech-infused perambulations on the modern predicament tend to be rather self indulgent and lengthy, Kraft's outpouring of words and sounds in this short presentation was quite mesmerizing in its own way. Working with a voice recorder, Kraft recorded various vocal tracks such as a brief melodic line and utterances like "the truth is" and "I love you I love you I love you." The collage of sound was entrancing in its neuroticism as we watched and listened to the performer cycle through a wide range of conflicting emotions from ecstasy to fear. The piece seemed to suggest the noise and clutter in our heads that gets in the way of understanding what's really important in the world.

Erika Shuch then performed a chunk of 51802, the complete version of which will be seen as part of Intersection for the Arts' year-long Prison Project in the Fall. I was surprised and delighted with this work for a variety of reasons. Firstly, unlike the other two examples of Intersection's look at the prison system through the prism of art that I've seen so far, this piece actually grabs our emotions without preaching to us. Imagine -- a dance-theater piece about jail that's actually got a sense of humor! The cast performed the work beautifully. I always enjoy listening to Danny Wolohan articulate Shuch's matter-of-fact poetry words. The costumes and scenic elements were also powerfully integrated into the piece. I'm looking forward to experiencing the finished product later this year. This piece was harder to link to the theme of globalization than Kraft's was, but the spaciousness of it and the bitter taste of not being able to connect with loved ones serving sentences despite the marvels of technology and the whole global village idea, resonated with the theme at some level.

The highlight of the evening for me came after the intermission, when the very bizarre but strangely intoxicating bass clarinet quartet performed. I have never heard a group like this before. I couldn't fathom the premise for the piece they played, obscurely entitled 2012: A Requiem for Baktun 12 [the 13th and final Cycle]. But I didn't care. The music rattled around my mind and heart and left me feeling profoundly calm yet vibrating all over. The sheer range of sounds and moods that a quartet of bass clarinets can create is broader than I thought. Sometimes I heard jungle noises like elephants screaming. At other times, the sound was sweet, like a plodding old man. Sometimes I heard heavy artillery. At other times, the molasses-rich jazz voice of Bessie Smith. The performance also made me laugh out loud. Accompanied by a very earnest percussionist and vocalist (whose styles ranged from Tuvan throat singing to falsetto pseudo-operatic bellowing) the group seemed on occasion to be belching or playing like three-year-old kids. I have no idea what the piece was about or how it related to globalization, but it was mind-blowing anyway.

Not much to say about the final act of the evening -- Hagen & Simone's The Excused. The piece revolved around society's relationship with courtesy, etiquette and cultural codes and involved a mammoth cast of extras who shuffled on and off stage periodically, sometimes in bare feet and sometimes in flip-flops. Clarke and Jenkinson (disappointingly not in drag) played TV newscasters at times, at others, they were faces in the crowd. The piece was overly long and rambling and I kind of lost track of it and its message (if there was one hidden in there somewhere.) But the greatest wonder of The Excused was Clarke himself. The last time I saw the performer, as an evil kingdom usurper in The Forest War, he was dressed in a black and gold kimono and had a despotically curving moustache and jet-black hair that stood up on end. He was fearsome to look at. In The Excused, Clarke plays a little nebbishy fellow, clean-shaven in a bland brown suit. He looks about a foot shorter and several inches narrower.

Worlds Apart: Local Response is playing until Saturday evening, March 31. I've added the production to my Theatre Alert page. Anyone able to see it, really should.



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