Charlie Varon

When one thinks that old stagehand’s chestnut “Let’s get this show on the road,” the romantics among us envision circus trains and hobo vaudevillians; the more pragmatic perhaps imagine a cartography of chain motels and dwindling arts funding swiftly siphoned into the gas tank. For San Francisco’s Marsh Theater and the Sonoma Community Center, getting the show on the road is merely a forty-five minute commute.

Beginning Friday, the center inaugurates a new program that delivers solo works originated at the critically-lauded Marsh to the community center’s stage. First up is Charlie Varon and his much heralded solo work Visiting Professor of Pessimism, which the San Francisco Chronicle describes as “rueful, richly detailed and pluckily defiant night of topical humor”.

“We’ve had a long history supporting community theater, which in the last few years, we’ve tried to do even more so. But we’re not in the business of trying to do our own theater. We want to support certain productions of community theater and also want to make sure that we’re doing other things that the community might like that they haven’t had a chance, on a regular basis, to be exposed to,” says the center’s executive director Kathy Swett, who with artistic director Shelly Willis, had a yen to present top-flight solo performances.

They found exactly what they were looking for when a mutual friend of Swett’s and Stephanie Weisman, artistic director of the Marsh in San Francisco’s arty Mission District, connected the two. Swett attended a production at the Marsh and was impressed not only with the caliber of theater, but the audience it attracted.

“It was packed with all different ages of people,” recalls Swett. “Every imaginable gradation from up and down that scale. It didn’t feel cultish, just that they were really interested in what was going to be performed that night. They responded really well, it was just a great experience. I thought ‘This is exactly the kind of thing I would like to try in Sonoma.’”

The collaboration was soon afoot, thanks in large part, says Swett, to the efforts of Willis and Weisman.

“The Marsh is a perfect fit for the Community Center. It really is all about emerging performing artists. They provide a safe space where artists can grow and hone their craft, which we’re really interested in here too,” says Swett. “We got the cream of the crop when we got Charlie Varon.”

Indeed, Varon’s numerous solo works (Honest Prophets, Rush Limbaugh in Night School and The People’s Violin) have garnered much critical praise, as have his humor pieces in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly magazines. Varon, likewise was keen to bring his work to Sonoma.

“It’s a project that’s very dear to my heart because I love performing in smaller communities. It’s this little secret – I actually prefer playing in places like Santa Cruz, Sonoma and Pt. Reyes Station because the audiences are more alive and don’t have as much exhaustion, having spent half an hour looking for a parking place. They’re more, as we say, ‘emotionally available,’” Varon says wryly. “I’m very excited about it.”

Varon shirks the notion of spearheading a “pilot program” of importing San Francisco theater to Sonoma, preferring instead the term “Guinea pig.”

“In the city, we’re like a factory town for the arts. It’s important that we send some of the goods out,” says Varon, who, for the past 15 years has collaborated with director David Ford.

Among the goods en route to the Community Center is Varon’s collection of short monologues under the title of “Visiting Professor of Pessimism,” a collection of short monologues, some character-driven, others “short stories for the stage” culled from Varon’s own life.

During a phone interview from San Francisco, Varon previewed some of these bits, seamlessly slipping into accents and characters, often in mid-sentence. For a moment he morphs into an Israeli woman purporting to be the titular character of the show, proffering pessimism as a social science. Later, Varon becomes a BBC News announcer, twee accent and all, to report that “The American president Mr. Bush has lost his faith in god and once again taken up drink.”

“The virtue of doing many monologues is that we get many different windows onto what’s happening,” says Varon, pointing to what he perceives as an often inscrutable sociopolitical climate. Consequently, his characters span the gamut in their political sensibilities.

“I like to create characters – not all of whom I agree with,” says Varon. “For the me, the characters take me into territory I can’t go on my own. That’s the joy and the terror of character work. They’re like transportation to places I’m scared to go in my own being.”

Though Varon will perform some works inspired from his personal experience as well, he is reticent to populate his productions’ dramatis personae with too much of himself.
“I can’t sustain narcissism that long,” he quips. “The solo [performers] that interest me most – and not just in what I do – are people who are balancing the inner inquisitive voice with an attempt to understand something else – another person’s experience, a cultural trend – so that there’s both an inward and outward ‘looking.’ When it becomes completely inward it becomes a little less interesting.”

When asked what he hopes audiences will take away from his performance, Varon balks self-mockingly.

“I’ve given up on that question. We performers get on stage and have this fantasy that audience get what we’re saying. There are as many shows as there are people. We hope that people come with their friends and get to talking and arguing about it afterwards or explore.”

To wit, Varon suggests bringing one’s sense of humor. Moreover, he nudges that audiences should bring each other.

“I think that is something precious, to encounter work together. The rest of our experience of entertainment is so atomized. You go to the movies, you watch it on a screen at home, it’s on the computer, it’s on the headphones, it’s nothing, it’s diminishing social space for the arts. There’s something about performing for audiences that know each other and are in the room with you. There’s some kind of current that can travel between performer and audience.”

Charlie Varon’s Visiting Professor of Pessimism, a one-man show, produced by The Marsh Theater plays 8 p.m., February 24 and 25 at the Sonoma Community Center, 976 East Napa Street. Tickets are $15 for Sonoma Community Center Members, students and seniors and $18 for non-members and are available at the Center, or by calling (707) 938-4626, ext. 4. Tickets can also be purchased at Readers’ Books and Pharmaca.

Knee-mail

Knee-mail?“Portmanteau” always sounded to me a like a fancy place to dock your Parisian dinghy (this is where you sneeze “Euphemism!” and I say “Gesundteit.”). It’s a sly word coined by Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame, which apparently refers to “two meanings packed into one word” a la the French suitcase comprised of two conjoined compartments from which it borrows its name. Not to continue the William Safire act – but to make portmanteau plural, you add an “x” to the end, which makes it all the cooler in my book (possible title: “Portmanteaux: The Daedalus Howell Reader – Abridged.”

I embarked on this train of thought when strolling up First Street East and noticed a a sign on the lawn of a church that read “God answers knee-mail.” I thought ‘Hmm, there’s got to be a word to describe a pun predicated on two separate words’ – that’s if e-mail (once upon a time “electronic mail,” I suppose) even qualifies as two separate words. I’ve noted similar variations before: I once overheard a dog-owner comment that their hydrant-sniffing pet was checking its “pee-mail.” Whatever. Knee-mail may or may not qualify as a portmanteau, but then depending on who your God is, knee-mail also may or may not be a reference to prayer. Gesundteit.

Another thing: Soccer moms — send your Sonoma Valley Youth Soccer Association mail to Box 658, Sonoma, CA 95476 — not Box 653, which is where I collect your fan mail, prayers, etc.

Mock You

From CSA: The Confederate States of AmericaIn last Wednesday’s New York Times, Manhola Dargis performed a vivisection of director Kevin Willmott’s mockumentary, qua alternative history, CSA: The Confederate States of America. The film comically (if harrowingly) depicts what might have occurred had the South won the Civil War. In it, “the Confederate flag waves, Lincoln dies of old age and D.W. Griffith makes a movie about the disgraced president’s escape attempt by Underground Railroad and the good graces of a doomed Harriet Tubman.”

Dargis likens CSA: The Confederate States of America to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, the elder director’s satire about a black minstrel television show, but ultimately despairs: “Mr. Willmott’s film rises to the bait but not the challenge.” I haven’t seen the film, but I’m a fan of the mockumentary genre (see my own, Hold Me With Your Robot Hand) and surprised Dargis didn’t question whether or not issue-driven mockumentaries such as Willmott’s sabotage their own commentary by virtue of the genre itself. It’s like that old “I am a liar” conundrum. Can one take seriously something that purports to examine real issues but is framed in a manner that is, by its nature, unreal?

After some contemplation, I’ve concluded, yes, ultimately, one can put great stock in the unreal as a means of serious examination. Religion, for example, is a form of fiction used to examine our existential notions; politics is a farce fueled almost entirely by deceit devised to explain why you’re poor; high school has absolutely nothing to do with reality but aids in studying self-loathing.

This is not a bong.Ours is now a media-literate society, we no longer ask “Is it real or is it Memorex?” We know that a mockumentary is not asking us to suspend our disbelief nor is it attempting to fool us – it doesn’t challenge what we know so much as how we know. (I mean, if Magritte passed the pipe wouldn’t you take a puff even if you knew ceci n’est pas une pipe? I totally would, then I would say, “Damn, Rene, that’s some good shit.” And he would say “This is not shit” and the whole thing would start again, but we’d both be in on it.)

Dargis’ review brought to mind a cheeky mock-doc, similar in some ways to Willmott’s, by Malcom in the Middle scribe Andy Bobrow. Titled The Old Negro Space Program, Bobrow’s short (essentially NASA meets the Negro Baseball League) likewise lampoons Ken Burns style documentary-making while effectively commenting on America’s checkered past segregating black and white. As before, the elephant in the screening room is racism and though Bobrow doesn’t necessarily take it by the tusks, he does lob a mouse or two to make it squirm (some viewers may too). Either way, it serves to remind that the silver screen will always do better by humanity’s projections of itself than, say, a white sheet.

“A mock documentary, by containing some elements which are not of the real world, encourages viewers to question those elements of the real world which they would normally take for granted,” writes the University of Wisconsin’s Ethan de Seife in his essay “The Treachery of Images” (published, appropriately, on the website SpinalTapFan.com). Likewise, Willmott’s and Bobrow’s films aspire through the commentary of their comedy to air issues that sadly remain part of our “real world,” a noble endeavor no matter how fantasized the window-dressing, or mock the doc.

Blackoutman’s Wake

In any man who dies there dies with him,
his first snow and kiss and fight …
Not people die but worlds die in them.

— Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Brian Jostmeyer is hosting a wake for Dan French, a.k.a Blackoutman, devised as a multimedia exhibit of the man’s work featuring selections from his films and writings as well as his sundry visual and audio projects. As one can expect, this is a less a retrospective than it is a portal into the inner workings of the outer reaches of Dan French. And trust me, the man went far. Very far. Some might say too far, which of course, for Dan was never far enough.

The wake begins at 7 P.m., Friday, February 24 and takes place at Brian’s loft, 2898 Glascock St. #5, Oakland ca 94601. All friends of Dan French are welcome. For more information call 510 282 8847.

In the meantime, feast on these beautiful and insightful words Brian penned about Dan:

Dan is God

Dan’s life was literally a work of art. With his deft touch, he fashioned every moment into something worth living for. He could captivate with a bizarre monologue, an impromptu poem, a ready-made Dadaist collage, or even a searing letter to a politician — all with his trademark humor present, always sublime and clever surrealness. In addition to being an artist 24/7, Dan embodied everything that could be considered good in this life: he was loyal, forgiving, honest and the most tolerant person you could hope to meet, as evidenced by the diverse and interesting group that is known as Dan’s friends, compatriots.

Dan had a special ability to connect with people that I witnessed countless times. That not everyone “got him” was always unimportant to me because I got him and so did the people and friends that took the time and exercised some patience with this brilliant man. Some consider themselves a genius after taking an IQ test, I consider Dan a genius for the way he approached life, and for the manner in which he presented his creative mores to us.

Of course true genius cannot be bestowed upon us and Dan just embodied it without thought. He was a beatink, beat, bohemian, whatever you want to call it, he was Neal, Hunter S., Allen G., Charles B. to me — never trying — Dan just was, and will always be.

My one wish in life was that that Dan didn’t have the pain in his soul that moved him to medicate himself with reckless abandon. Not just so he would have been healthier, but because I’ve always wanted Dan to present himself in all his glory, minus the 10 Jamesons, minus the reasons someone could dislike him, if only for a few whiskeys. But my fantasies are unimportant, Dan was so fricking cool at his core he could be plastered and I never let it bother me too much. I always wanted to be the friend who loved him and supported him no matter how he decided to present himself, because to me he never did a bad thing in his life and fuck you to those that thought he was bad or needed to be changed.

Anyhow, ending up in China makes sense now, even through the tears when you think about what is lost, what was lost halfway across the planet. His students absolutely loved him and when I think of that it’s one of the hardest and the best thoughts to deal with: he had finally achieved his just desserts and in a cruel twist, it ended in a moment, without reason. –BJ

Blackoutman signs off

Dan FrenchPal Brian Jostmeyer relayed the sad news today that our friend Dan French – beatific barfly, dark horse littérateur and Zen rebel – had been found dead in his apartment in China. French had been working in China as an English instructor for the past year. The circumstances of his death remain unknown.

With risk of irreverence, I’ll say that Dan French was something of a bull in a China shop, but that’s just glib bullshit to work with the China angle. It’s kind of true though: his voluble nature and creative themes were not for squares and garnered their share of sidelong glances from the Lumaville hoi polloi. Fuck them. This is the man who had the chutzpah to write a story about the sexual habits of a bear, summarizing its experience as having gone from “ready teddy to ruined bruin.” I always thought that line was stellar on the order of, say, Lewis Carroll, but it got more than a few polite ahems during an impromptu reading in the corner of a party.

Language was a playground for French as evidenced by his notebooks, loaded with cock-eyed puns and brimming with tales of misadventure — not to mention, inexplicably, the interior ruminations of the raincoat-clad dude on the Gorton’s Fish Sticks box (a creative obsession that dogged him for a couple of months). Moreover, French had become fluent in Mandarin, a linguistic feat that probably accounts for his popularity with his students. I can only imagine when he came trundling into town – a six-foot-tall, white Westerner who could scat scatological in their native tongue whilst draining the local tavern. Those of little vision may shudder at the notion of Dan French, de facto diplomat, representing America abroad, but I’ve come to applaud it. Few could define America in all its reckless beauty, its absurd genius, simply by arriving.

Yes, Dan French was a madman, but an often brilliant one, prone to hair-trigger episodes of gorgeous street-theater such as when he hopped off his motorcycle outside of Aram’s Cafe and let it crash to the pavement behind him with nary a glance back. He had a knack for visual lampoonery: Jostmeyer located a postcard collage sent by Dan to Spec’s in North Beach depicting an illustrated ladle and some church tripe reading “With Joy You will Draw Water from the Wells of Salvation” juxtaposed an image of a urinal.

Blackoutman?French likewise had a habit of filing reports from the field, bizarre screeds sometimes penned by his alter-ego “Blackoutman.” In the tradition of Jekyll and Hyde, Blackoutman would emerge during French’s benders, utterly possess him, attempt to destroy him and finally leave him reeling, semi-conscious, groping for a pen to capture the affair for posterity.

Pasted below is an account of Blackoutman’s re-arrival in Dan’s life, which I received last November:

my folks mailed me a package of clothes the other day and i think blackoutman was a stowaway in the shipment. i am almost certain it is the Macy’s black wool sport coat that jackstrap handed down to me and he said it use to be yours at one time. no blackouts for 7 months, everything is pretty much sober here until i put the coat on last saturday. my colleagues and i went to a fancy kareoke joint where you get a president’s suite, top notch kareoke hi fi set, full bar and a large selection of girls to choose from for the evening. everything is covered under one price, so we went insane. “do whatever you want.” they saith. too drunk to take the girl for a quickie in the latrine, but i broke some bottles above my head (jackstrap move) and then i encouraged one of the teachers to do a cannonball dive into the glass coffeetable. next day was my south african and chinese friends crashing a wedding party (acceptable here). we drank oceans of liquor and ate lobsters. the rice whine here made us throw everything up later. real mess. went to work monday at 2:30pm. still felt drunk. at 5pm, i left feeling even more drunk… shittt, blackoutman was still partying in my liver. i must send you some pictures. – ok – dan

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Brian Jostmeyer is hosting a wake for Dan @ 7 P.m., Friday, February 24 at 2898 Glascock St. #5, Oakland ca 94601. All friends of Dan French are welcome. For more information call 510 282 8847.