A Tale Of Two Spaces (em and Z) Review: Companion Piece and A Hand in Desire

I’ve been heard to complain about the lack of experimental theater in the Bay Area, but this week has paid off quite nicely with two pieces that make me feel quite a bit more optimistic about San Francisco’s willingness to take chances with non-narrative theater.

Companion Piece

On Tuesday I saw a very early preview of Z Space’s ‘The Companion Piece’. I believe this was the first public performance of the piece still in development, so it’s quite likely that the creators have tweaked, honed, and sharpened the piece to great effect. I fully plan on swinging by the theater once the run begins to see how the piece, filled with potential, has matured.

Conceived by Beth Wilmurt and Directed by Mark Jackson, this is multi faceted piece uses fragments of song, dance, mime, and other bits of theater that defy categorization as a pair of performers struggle to develop and perform an act that both entertains an audience while expressing something of themselves. Their conflicts, both inner and outer, are on constant display, they are continuously collaborating, undermining, encouraging, and upstaging each other. The act that they’re developing and the act that they’re performing is one and the same. It’s theater about theater. And, of course, everything is theater. All the world’s a… well. You know the rest.

It’s not a new idea, and stretching it into an entire evening is a challenge, and at this early stage of the production, one that these multitalented performers are almost, but not quite, up to. The performances are simultaneously disarming and impressive. Beth Wilmurt is the subdued, sensitive, occasionally petulant, but always amazingly talented one. Christopher Kuckenbaker is the wackier, broader, occasionally grandiose, but always amazingly talented one. Jake Rodriguez is… something else entirely. Groucho Marx by means of David Lynch.

There are many lovely moments, Wilmurt accompanying herself whether on piano or ukelele, a laugh out loud riff on Cyrano with Kuckenbaker mishearing all the lines being fed to him, an utterly sublime transition into foot puppetry, and fantastic sound design throughout. But for all the talent on display, for all the theatrical inventiveness, I still found myself wanting a bit more. Not so much a point or meaning, but a moment of magic that could lift the show past a solid effort into a real success. I have sincere hope that by opening night, they will find that magic. With a troupe with this track record, the odds are pretty good.

Hand in Desire

A real success is what EmSpace Dance has on their hands with “A Hand in Desire”. Theirs is truly a companion piece, a Neo-Futuristic response to Tennessee Williams’s venerable Streetcar Named Desire (as far as I know, EmSpace has no affiliation with the Neo-Futurists, but the similarities can’t be merely coincidence). Taking the original as a point of departure, the ensemble, each representing a major character from the play, performs a series of short pieces in an order determined by an actual game of hearts played on stage. The pieces range from dramatic readings of the stage directions, to dance interpretations of individual scenes and iconic moments, to the actors interviewing one another about their analysis of the characters they are portraying.

EmSpace rises to the occasion quite nicely. Rowena Richie brings an intense, nervous physicality to Blanche in extended dance sequences. Her and Christopher W. White are wonderful in a complex conflicted reenactment of a ‘Bad Date’. Peter Griggs’s portrayal of of Brando’s masculinity is all the more impressive when juxtaposed against his considerably more feminine ‘real’ self. Natalie Greene shines in a sultry blues number sassily defending her choice to remain a battered spouse. Kegan Marling’s boyish presence haunts the stage as Blanche’s late husband, a character never seen in the actual play, but a welcome addition to this production that fleshes out the underlying themes of Williams’s work.

It’s hard to go wrong with source material of this caliber. While Wilmurt and Jackson had to create their theatrical world from whole cloth, EmSpace draws from an existing one, characters that are already fully realized, situations and conflicts that are already compelling. They’ve got Tennessee Williams in their corner. It’s somewhat less of a challenge to succeed with such a head start, so perhaps it’s not surprising that EmSpace emerges with the more successful production.

A Hand In Desire plays for one more weekend downstairs at Viracocha. It is sold out, but worth trying to get in via the waiting list.

Companion Piece is playing at ZSpace through February 13. Tickets can be purchased here.