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From The Home Of Asians.com To A Site Specific Performance Venue

February 18, 2008

Site-specific theatre -- that is, a live performance production created in and inspired by a particular, non-conventional theatre space -- isn't something one often sees these days. In recent memory, I can only think of a few productions that have been created in this way, such as Boxcar Theatre's 21/One which took place on a touring bus during the 2006 San Francisco Fringe, and Epiphany Productions' Trolley Dances, which has happened for the past few years on local tram lines. Antenna Theater also makes a lot of site-specific work, but this company has been around for decades.

The San Francisco theatre company Scrap & Salvage is helping to resurrect a performance trend redolent of a bygone era with its latest production, Day 19. co-artistic director Jamie Mulligan found a disused space on Craigslist and, together with his co-director Rafal Klopotowski and production team, has transformed it into a venue for an intriguing if ultimately unsatisfying 37-minute performance. The Kearny Street space in North Beach has been gutted. It used to be a hardware store, though you wouldn't know it as you take your seat with about 20 other people in the tiny, claustrophobic room. The building also once hosted a business called Asians.com (the sign is still up outside), and may have been a cinema up until the 1970s. On the wall to the right of the seating area is a faint sketch of a room. Mulligan says that this sketch is an outline for the cafe that the current owner hopes to turn the space into at some point in the future.

Day 19 is a cryptic little performance with touches of Beckett and a strong whiff of 20th century Eastern European theatre. There are no words in it and meaning is very elusive. An actor wanders around the stage to the sound of quirky, melodic cello and mbira music (played live). During the course of the show, she interacts with a lightbulb, wrestles with massive uncooperative plastic sheets, tries to get a disembodied human head (buried to the neck under the floorboards like Beckett's protagonist in Happy Days) to stop screaming, reads a phone book, build a makeshift yacht out of various bits of scattered debris, and holds a dance-off with a full-size human papier-mache mannequin.

To me, the whole production feels like a human sized puppet theatre, in which a human performer's "strings" are pulled by a variety of unseen actors performing in a gallery space upstairs. But really, I have no idea what it's about. It doesn't help matters that unless you're sitting in the front row or are very tall, some of the action is lost as it takes place so close to the ground. I spent quite a bit of time unable to see anything, wondering what was going on to accompany the sound of shuffling and crackling plastic.

Though the show features some engaging visual and sound effects, I'm not sure if Day 19 (which partly gets its title, Mulligan told me in an email, "from a stamp in the plywood above the heads of the audience") is particularly innovative as site specific work. I loved the use of the gallery, but beyond that, the relationship between the space and the play largely doesn't come across from experiencing the production. I only know the story behind the title and the sketch on the wall because Mulligan shared that information. This production could just as easily taken place in more or less any space of a similar size with a gallery above it.

Perhaps Mulligan and Klopotowski need to delve more deeply into this dark corner of North Beach to truly come to grips with this building. It seems to have a fascinating history after all. Hopefully the company will manage to get further along with its archaeological dig before the run is over in early March. Site specific performance is most effective if the work and the space complement each other in revealing ways. Otherwise, you might as well just put on a play in a regular theatre with better sight-lines and a concessions stand.

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