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Professional Suicide


February 21, 2007

Mark Jackson's play attempts to expose mediocrity, but winds up being mediocre itself

The expressions "next big thing" and "theater practitioner" are, generally speaking, contradictions in terms. If a dramatist or stage director gains any kind of recognition beyond the pages of American Theatre Magazine, it's usually either because he's already put the leaky roofs and squeaky seats of the theater behind him, or because he's supplementing his work behind the proscenium with more widely hyped (and better paid) stints in movies or television. So it stands to reason that any time a remotely promising auteur comes along, the theater world behaves like it's witnessing the Second Coming. And if members of the Bay Area performing arts community have started acting like a bunch of Jehovah's Witnesses in recent months, it's because of the return, following an 18-month research trip to Berlin, of our latest local theatrical messiah, Mark Jackson.

Jackson is one of the few true rising stars of the Bay Area theater scene. The writer/director started out in the mid-1990s as the founder and artistic director of the highly regarded Art Street Theatre (named "Best Experimental Theater Company" in SF Weekly's 2000 Best Of San Francisco' awards.) But it was as the creative force behind The Death of Meyerhold, produced in collaboration with Berkeley's Shotgun Players in 2003, that Jackson's reputation soared. Critics raved about the drama, which concerned the life of the emblematic Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. The play went on to receive its East Coast premiere at the Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Ever since Jackson returned to San Francisco from Germany in December 2005 (he'd popped back to the Bay Area in the interim to direct A.C.T.'s students in Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle), he's been very much in demand. Over the past few months alone, he's helmed well-received productions of Oscar Wilde's Salome at Aurora Theatre and for his own play, The Forest War, performed by the Shotgun Players; he's about to begin staging Michel Marc Bouchard's The Orphan Muses for A.C.T's Master of Fine Arts program; and, in addition, is developing further projects with the likes of Z Space and SF Playhouse. He was even the subject of a glossy two-page spread in a recent issue of San Francisco magazine.

Given that everyone around here seems to want a piece of the "red-hot" playwright/director right now, his current collaboration with Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays makes for an illuminating choice. American $uicide, Jackson's loose adaptation of The Suicide, a 1928 satire by Russian dramatist Nikolai Erdman, tells the story of Sam Small, a hapless unemployed husband whose sweet if naive dream of pursuing an acting career morphs into a grotesque nightmare following a misunderstanding over a piece of sausage. When Sam's thespian ambitions get confused with his desire to make money and his wife Mary's fears about Sam taking his own life, our hero finds himself coerced by his opportunistic neighbor Albert into going along with a spectacular moneymaking opportunity. The only trouble is, he has to kill himself in the name of the highest bidder in order to reap the financial rewards. It's an honor hotly contested by any number of suitors from a radical Middle Eastern faction and PETA to a washed-up movie director and a has-been screen siren, all of whom hope to send out a strong message to the world by being linked to Sam's self-immolation.

I don't for a moment mean to imply that Jackson's sprawling, raucous play is autobiographical in any way. But because American $uicide is about a man beset by offers from all sides, features an ongoing, ironic commentary on the role of theater and the artist vis-à-vis U.S. celebrity culture, and even includes (echoing a ruse Jackson employed in Meyerhold) self-deprecating references to the playwright himself ("Mark Jackson. He's the next big thing"), it invites comparison with the auteur's own career.

If nothing else, American $uicide strongly affirms Jackson's position as one of our most ambitious playwrights and directors. The play is at once a savage diatribe against the debilitating impact on the individual of this country's throwaway, media-saturated, dumbed-down culture, while at the same time an exercise in careening physical farce (the entire 2 1/2 hours is performed in the throwback, hammy style of 1930s screwball comedies). The work also reels between contemporary social satire and old-fashioned music hall shtick. Benny Hill-style double-entendres such as a skit on "tic" and "dick" and slapstick offset tidy one-liners and clever allegory. Jackson succeeds in making us feel like the characters in his play: giddy and hyperventilating and high.

The acting style is consistently big. (The prize for the most voluminous performance going to Delia MacDougall for her turn as Theatre Communications Group Executive Director Gigi Bolt — a character adapted to absurd effect, from real life.) Jackson and his boisterous ensemble find ingenious physical ways to express the characters' essential natures. In one of the most powerful moments, Mary's inability to comprehend Sam's love of acting is instinctively conveyed when Beth Wilmurt, as Mary, noisily sweeps broken crockery across the floor of the couple's cramped apartment while Jud Williford's Sam attempts to deliver a speech from Hamlet. Less subtle, but every bit as impactful, is diva Bolt's intermittent breaking of theatrical conventions; other characters might carefully make their entrances and exits through doors, but Bolt, occupying an alternate reality, gleefully ignores them.

Despite its energy and humor, American $uicide may trap its creator, like Chloe Banks, the 22-year-old "over the hill" starlet in the play, in the chasm between being the "next big thing" and "making a comeback." It's not simply that American $uicide feels overly long, wearingly loud, and, at times, like an insider joke aimed at theater professionals. It's the play's relentless and not particularly inflammatory exposé of all things mediocre — from homemade porn to e-commerce to reality TV — that most crucially undermines the creator's clout. "Too many ideas and not enough reason to pay attention to them," says Sam, in despair. I would agree.

While Soviet authorities considered Erdman's The Suicide so incendiary that they suppressed it for half a century and drove its author from the theater, American $uicide is roughly as provocative as a debate in Entertainment Weekly about the best and worst dresses on Oscar night. This mediocrity might be Jackson's entire point: As a shadowy U.S. government official puts it, "It used to be, Sam, that people had ideas they were willing to die for. Nowadays people with ideas just want to live."

But every truly great theater artist must have a bit of a death wish. Erdman committed professional suicide in writing his play. I challenge our local theatrical messiah to carry the same cross.



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