Over the years, various performance series here have billed themselves as festivals, but none in my experience compared to arts fests in other countries, in which the festival (from the Latin for “happy”) atmosphere extends beyond the theater and transforms public space. So what a joy to have two honest-to-God genuine festivals in San Diego this year. In July, our debut Fringe Festival turned downtown streets into lively connectors among venues. This weekend, UCSD’s theater district is abuzz thanks to La Jolla Playhouse’s WithOutWalls (WoW) Festival. WoW still has a way to go; Festival Village was jumping on Thursday with opening night activities, but yesterday afternoon I ran into mostly fellow/sister critics, and it was quiet last night when I got out of a play. Nevertheless, wow. (A suggestion to the Playhouse for next time around: Encourage folks to spend all weekend at the fest via a Friend of the Festival pass with discounts on all tickets. The current VIP pass gets you discounts for only three events.)
The knockout performance I’ve seen so far was the Barcelona street theater troupe Kamchatka. Here are some other impressions from the first two days of WoW, starting with the most magical in case I run out of time.
“Seafoam Sleepwalk,” by internationally known puppeteer Basil Twist, takes place on the beach north of La Jolla Shores. Well, the audience sits on the beach. The performance happens in the ocean. The wetsuit-clad cast drags out what looks like bunches of flotsam, does some in-the-water construction, and voila! Aphrodite, a 12-foot (or so)-tall head with seaweed-y hair, appears. She’s greeted by two Cupids, cherub puppets with gold dragonfly wings. To a score ranging from the theme from “Jaws” to live Japanese singing (by Yumiko Tanaka) to 1950s American love ballads, many silly things happen. Four odd conical figures do a series of choreographed leans. Four people (including Twist) languorously peel off their wetsuits as if doing a striptease. It’s rough to make all the puppetry work amid wind and waves, and the show I saw had some glitches. It made me think of John Gardner’s comment about fiction, that it should create a “vivid and continuous dream.” This was a discontinuous dream, but when it was dreamlike, it was delightful. It plays again tomorrow at 1 and 3 p.m.
“Counterweight: An Elevator Love Play” is the festival’s hot ticket, in part because the audience area – inside an elevator in the Potiker Theatre – accommodates only five people at a time, so this one sold out early. This play by Jennifer Barclay, coproduced by MOXIE Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, also happens to be deliciously clever and wise. The elevator stops on three floors, and just outside the door on each floor, a couple is having a misunderstanding, all of them involving suitcases. There are the long-married folks getting cross with each other as they pack for a vacation, the lesbian couple where one is about to walk out and the other is wearing a sexy Little Red Riding Hood costume, and the teenage boy and girl alone together for the first time. You see these in snippets: You stop on the third floor and catch a minute of the older couple, then it’s down to the basement for the kids, then back to the third floor, etc. And you also get treated to Betty Jean’s philosophy of love; Betty Jean, a perky gal in a pink suit, is the elevator operator. What’s wonderful about this 25-minute play is that, although you spend about six minutes each with the three couples and Betty Jean, you see their relationships shift and grow; the older couple in particular is heartbreaking. Delicia Turner Sonnenberg directed. The run is sold out, but ask at the box office; I got on when there was a no-show.
Statistics, anyone? Actually, as we’ve all learned from Nate Silver (and I already knew from my brother), statistics can be 100% interesting, and that’s definitely the case with “100% San Diego,” playing at the Forum Theatre. German theater artists Rimini Protokoll meticulously assembled a group of 100 “representative” San Diegans in terms of age, gender, household type (single with kids, for example), geography, and ethnicity. Each person comes to a mic and briefly introduces him/herself. Then they sort into groups in response to various questions, some of them pretty loaded: Are they for or against gun control? universal health coverage? military intervention in Syria? Have they ever been a victim – or perpetrator – of violence? Have they ever seen a ghost? An astonishing percent answered said yes to this one. A bit where everyone mimed what they did at each hour of the day felt tedious, but overall, it was fascinating to see the participants’ playful interactions, think about how we’d answer the questions, and develop a growing respect for these folks, most of them non-actors, who were willing to reveal not only their beliefs but, for instance, whether they’d ever suffered from depression or considered suicide. “100% San Diego” plays again tomorrow at 4 p.m.
Off to tonight’s offerings – Kamchatka starts at 6, and I want to be there!