Arts Listings

The Theater: Ten Red Hen Takes on ‘365 Plays’ Project

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Friday December 08, 2006

“We wanted to do these plays in people’s homes. My mentor called theater-making in this day and age ‘cultural migrant labor’—that is, you load your stuff into your car and go to where you do it.” 

So said Maya Gurantz, founder of Ten Red Hen, this past Wednesday in welcoming everybody to Day One of Week Four of Suzan-Lori Parks’ ongoing national 365 Days/365 Plays project, in Ruth Lym’s remarkable Bernal Heights townhouse, designed by architect Glenn Robert Lym. The show was followed by house party/performances at a trapeze artist’s studio in Fruitvale on Thursday. 

It continues in San Francisco’s Mission District tonight (Friday), and concludes Saturday at a housing co-op on the Berkeley-Oakland-Emeryville border. All shows are pay-what-you-will and BYOB. Reservations and directions are available by calling 547-8932 or e-mailing 

The lively scene at the Lym townhouse underlined the troupe’s self-description: “a fledgling theater company based in Oakland ... committed to creating engaging, relevant new theater that integrates both the form of live art-making and the world around us.” 

Pulitzer Prize-winning, MacArthur “Genius” grantee Parks wrote a play a day throughout 2002. Before taking on performing week four of the project, Ten Red Hen produced a few months back as maiden voyage The 99-Cent Miss Saigon in the Willard School Metal Shop on Telegraph Avenue, one of the most audaciously theatrical events in the Bay Area this past year. In a way, they’re already old hands at putting on plays in places no one else would think of as a stage. 

Indeed the scene Wednesday had the feel of a bright holiday party in a fashionable and comfortable home, though with at least one noticeable difference: Jane Chen, featured in a one night only rendition of Napoleon Or Wellington? as the Imperial Eagle himself, practiced her accent on all and sundry with Gallic party patter, handing out blue handkerchiefs to those who agreed to be her loyal partisans.  

But then the chit-chat over wine and finger food suddenly died down as a fiddle stuck up an air reminiscent of Ken Burn’s “Civil War” TV theme, and a play began to take form as a tableau around a metal utility cart in the middle of the living room. 

The cart was being pulled ineffectively by a Confederate soldier (George Chan): “I can push the cart, sir!” The officer aboard took a pipe from his mouth: “Then go!” As he pushed with little more effect, the young soldier said: “I never seen a general walk. They all rode on carts, or horses—or over the shoulders of the men. My mother told me I was a general’s son, and that generals flew!” 

The scene was casual, but had the authority and tension to generate real stage presence; a few feet away, all around, the rest of us were rapt. As the motley crew settled down to camp, on what seemed one of the last days of that first great war of attrition, movie music—from a very particular movie—sounded out, and a vignette of two women (Alexis Wong and Issabella Shields), proved to be the rear guard of the retreat: “Do I look old? ... What is 20 years between two people who know each other ... who wrote letters!” And the Southern Belle had last word on it all: “Damn this war!” — “Yes, ma’am!” So played “House of Jones.” 

And so the evening went, in and out of the party, from which the plays seem to swirl up, like the dancers on the floor, or conversations over cocktails. Sometimes the only way to tell if a piece was starting was the silence that fell over the room.  

Some of the pieces are little more than poses, crystallizing a pensive moment, or one in transition. Others are sketchy, quick, playful takes the players sometimes sing their way through, refer to other plays out of context (“Why do you always wear black?” a dancer asks his partner in “Blackbird;” “Black is Beautiful!” she replies, playing off the opening lines of The Seagull), or various pairs of actors repeat a tableau, a phrase ... These often reminded me of bits and pieces, details from sometime-Oakland playwright Ed Bullins’ wonderful plays, seldom produced now, but pervasively influential in ephemeral touches as well as ideology. 

Finally, the whole party divided in two for The History Lesson, behind Wellington waving red scarves from the floor up at the blue scarf-wavers behind Jane’s Little Corporal in newspaper hat, along the staircase—who laughed derisively as Jane exclaimed, “Are you trying to teach me something?” To which the Iron Duke drew his toy sword and the French retreated upstairs. Maybe the colors, like “Red States and Blue States” were off, as well as battlefield topography, but The History Lesson was exhilarating. 

Following the principle that the end of a party is special, Dave Malloy and Conrad enacted a little male confrontation, “Pussy” (one of the “secret,” optional pieces) when almost everyone, including some of the players, had gone: “Looks like it hurts ...”—“I ain’t no pussy!”—closing with contention, a urinary obstruction, and architectural detail. 

Gurantz exhorted all to follow the future weeks of 365 Days/365 Plays on the Z Space or Theater Bay Area website, staged by East Bay groups like Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, TheatreFIRST, mugwumpin, Opera Piccola and Encinal High School. 

Next up for Ten Red Hen: Scriptural slapstick as Jane Chen plays both God the father and the Son of Man, in Clown Bible, just in time for Easter, this late March.