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Take These Broken Wings And Learn To Fly

May 10, 2007

The other day, I received an email from an SF Weekly reader, wondering why I "have it in for Carey Perloff." It's true that my essays about ACT's work have not been all that favorable in the past. But, as I pointed out to the reader in my response to him, my negativity has nothing to do with Ms. Perloff. In fact, I walk through the doors of The Geary Theater every time hoping and praying that what will happen to me in that auditorium over the next few hours will galvanize my brain, if not my heart. And if I really had it in for the artistic director of San Francisco's flagship theatre company, I wouldn't bother attending most if not all of ACT's productions, which I do, regardless of whether I'm reviewing them or not.

Such was the case last night, when I went to see ACT's production of Blackbird by Scottish playwright David Harrower -- a show I am not writing about for the Weekly but wanted to see nevertheless. The play is a solid, tautly spun drama about a woman in her 20s who confronts the much older man who deflowered her 15 years previously when she was only 12. I rather think that the world has witnessed too many plays about deviant sexual relationships with children in the last few years, from John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (sex with a minor in a church setting) to Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child (sex with a minor in a school setting.) And it's by no means a great play, as it works us over in a fairly predictable way and the tone of the piece is very unchangeable throughout. I'll never understand how it could have won the 2007 Olivier Best Play Award.

Still, I was engaged throughout and ACT did a fluid job of producing the west coast premiere of Harrower's work. Steven Culp nailed his British middle manager character Peter so precisely I thought I was watching an episode of The Office, as it might be played as a drama rather than a comedy. Jessi Campbell was less successful as Una. Her accent was a major distraction for one thing -- she sounded like she was from New Zealand at times. In fact, I don't know why ACT didn't just Americanize a couple of words in the script (e.g. pavement to sidewalk, biscuit to cookie etc) and let the actors speak in their natural voices. After all, there's nothing intrinsically English about this play. It's as much an American story as it is an English one. Given that it's being performed for an American audience, there seems little reason to preserve the Anglicisms. Also (and I think this might have been the fault of the playwright rather than the character) I didn't buy Una's motives for coming back to haunt the man who molested her. Still, Loretta Greco's production was tight and slick. And I think this might be the first time I've ever seen a homegrown ACT production with an elegant set. Robert Brill's trash-strewn office cafeteria design, with its harsh strip lighting, institutional furniture and frosted glass through which you could watch the ghosts of Peter's coworkers gliding past, tells a story of frustration all on its own.

I'm sorry I didn't get to review this play for the Weekly. The aforementioned reader would have seen that I don't have it in for Ms. Perloff or ACT if he'd read my words.

There are two famous songs about blackbirds. If I were to pick one of them as an expression of my feelings about ACT, I'd choose the Beatles' version over Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson's. Far from singing "bye bye blackbird" to that theatre and never going to see or review its work again, I'd much rather subscribe to Paul and John's lyrics about redemption, healing and survival:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

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