Arts & Events

THEATER REVIEWS: Golden Thread's 'The Fifth String' & Inferno Theatre's Diasporas Festivalistrict

By Ken Bullock
Thursday May 15, 2014 - 01:54:00 PM

—Golden Thread staged 'The Fifth String,' another of their Islam 101 miniature extravaganzas at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, in the venerable century-old Masonic Building in Moorish revival style, kitty-corner to the Oakland Main Library, and now headed to a run this weekend at Brava! Theater in San Francisco's Mission District ... 

Written and directed by Golden Thread's founder, Torange Yeghiazarian, 'The Fifth String'—about the historical and legendary figure, a Persian or Kurdish instrumentalist, singer and composer at the court of the caliph in 9th century Baghdad, who came to Cordoba in Andalusia when most of Spain was ruled by Berber and Arab muslims, bringing Eastern culture with him—as well as his own musical, culinary and fashion innovations, some of which remain with us. 

Golden Thread raved it up as something like a cross between a festival and something operatic. The cast constantly switches roles; it's a storytelling play, and sometimes Ziryab himself changes hands ... The cast is from all over: Munif Alsafi, Camila Ascencio Betancourt, Jamie Coventry, Deborah Eliezar, Majd Murad, Naima Shalhoub—each with their own special performing talents ... acting, juggling, tumbling, just plain cutting up, playing various instruments from East and West (including Persian Tar, Oud—Ziryab's instrument, to which he reputedly added the fifth set of strings—fabulous percussion, harmonica, guitar—and raising voices in song, from Arabic singing to a blues to rap (as models walk the ramp in Ziryab's latest 9th century designs). 

Operatic, too, in the sense of importance given to—and achieved by—music (by Faraz Minooei) and wonderful design (by Mokhtar Paki, some of it on ), modular arabesques with colored patterns that—shifted around into different configurations—uncannily matched the architecture of the Cultural Center's grand hall ... 

The fun of a show, meant for the whole family, that combines a fast-paced yet absorbing, informative story out of a not-so-familiar past, is infectious throughout—another success for Golden Thread's mission to give voice to the history and present circumstances of the Middle East—so close to us in so many ways, but still tantalizingly unfamiliar to most. 

Friday, May 16 and Saturday , May 17 at 8, Sunday, May 18 at 3, Brava Theater Center, 2781-24th Street at York, San Francisco. $$15-$22. 

—Giulio Perrone's Inferno Theatre—resident in Berkeley the past few years—brought off a performing arts windfall with modest means this past weekend in the venerale South Berkeley Community Church, where they regularly perform. 

But their Contemporary Peformance Diasporas Festival featured a dozen other companies, solo acts, films besides Inferno—a true festival, and a very fine one, always—as any real festival should be—spontaneous and genial, but carefully put together, the acts complementing each other effortlessly. 

And the acts mapped out a wide terrain of performance, from Dell'Árte Company—which Perrone once directed—with Joan Schirle, Laura Munoz and Ruxandra Cantir (from the US, Spain and Moldavia) brilliantly performing selections from a new piece, 'Elizabeth's Book,' adapted from a historical event, when a woman in a concentration camp made a book of pictures of ordinary life before the camps, to cheer her book-loving friends and fellow internees ... and what happens after liberation ... to Christine Geramin (of Canada) and Slater Penney (who teaches at Berkeley Rep) performing a deux Germain's splendid choreography of a dance piece that tells a story of many couples, 'Le Projet Migration,' done with humor and acrobatic grace ... to the Five Deadly Improvisers, a San Francisco troupe of Kung fu-clad performers, making up onstage, while performing, a whole Hong Kong film scenario from an audience suggestion ("The Buddhist Squirrel") ... 

Many festivals, much more grandly funded and publicized, accomplish much less than this seemingly modest endeavor, which found its audience locally, coming out to acclaim and just enjoy its variety—and its point, of artists from all over the world, working together in the Bay Area. 

(Jerome Solberg of Actors Ensemble of Berkeley valiantly ran the boards, made announcements, even stood in for a role in Inferno's managing director Jamie Greenblatt's affecting little piece, about an Askenazi woman, daignosed with cancer, and a sewing machine ... ) 

Theatre of Yugen's artistic director Jubilith Moore performed with musician Polly Moller an improvisation, in brilliant costume from the Noh stage, from the story to ancient play, 'Semimaru'—exceptional voice, gestures, movement and flute, as a disturbed princess, wandering the hills near Kyoto, hears a flute and finds her blind brother—turned out of the Imperial court to die—playing it in a hut. 

Inferno staged a longer version of 'Oblivion,' put on before at the International School in San Francisco, a "take-off" of 'Antigone' in modern times, wry, sometimes bitter, to the heart of contemporary existence. 

Just a few of the 13 acts over three evenings, but giving a sense of the range of the inaugural sessions of an annual festival that will continue to grace Berkeley and the Bay Area.