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.