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Letter from Santa Clara

Sandra Tsing Loh deconstructs "The Nutcracker" in an autobio. monodrama "Sugar Plum Fairy" at the San Jose Rep., 101 Paseo de San Antonio, downtown San Jose CA 05113-2603. (408) 367-7233. www.sjrep.com.  Thru 02 Jan 05.  Tx: $22; students $11; teachers, $16.  Free indoor parking (after 6pm) just a short walk away.

By Bill Costley

We've just moved back to the S.F. Bay area (for the 3rd time) from Wellesley MA, 11mi west of downtown Boston, where, thanx to BosTix first-nite discount-tx. service (cf. Artsopolis, Goldstar, Theatre Bay Area/TBA) we often could afford to see a lot of small independently produced shows ("Batboy," "Uncle Tom's Cabin," etc.) in the tiny theaters in Boston's re-converted old South End Cyclorama bldg., big-stage productions at Harvard's ART (formerly the Yale Rep.) Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Sq., & the Boston Ballet at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.

This year, Boston Globe performing arts critic Ed Siegel (& others) are making a cause celebre of the Wang management’s bumping its beloved, family-pleasing "Nutcracker" in favor of the bigger-money-making Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Here's just the lead of Siegel's latest:


Let me explain something. My sister was a ballerina. My niece still dances. I have, in the course of trying to be a supportive brother and uncle, seen  "The Nutcracker" something like 750 times. So when the Wang Theatre announced that "The Nutcracker" was out and the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" with the Rockettes was in, I figured that I could use a change.

Siegel goes on to admit he actually loathes BOTH "The Nutcracker" AND the Rockettes (but the Rockettes, more), so I sent him Sandra Tsing Loh's "Sugar Plum Fairy" promo-postcard, followed by an e-mail telling him he ought to see her deconstructionist autobiographical monodrama (running thru 02 Jan 05 at the San Jose city-run Rep, see: slug at top) to finally get fully layered overdue revenge on "The Nutcracker." Fat chance; he's not about to fly from Boston to San Jose just for one review. So I'll do it for him, here.

Sandra exposes & demolishes the highly calculated competition-torture of ever-hopeful early teenage girls who struggle to land parts on all levels of "The Nutcracker." She bottoms-out, a sad self-accused as a fat-ass nobody at the lowest-level of the pyramidal talent hierarchy (a flower in "The Waltz of the Flowers") while her thin, older sister Caitlin rises to become a svelte somebody at the top (the Sugar Plum Fairy), only to suddenly walk out, calling it all a fraud  (much like those functionally parallel for-profit child-beauty-queen “contests”). Surviving, now without Caitlin, contemplating her whole future life from the dead-bottom of the early-teen-talent septic-tank, Sandra sulks alone in her room eating big bags of Fritos, knowing she's forever doomed to being an almost-anonymous ballet-cow, but we, as her rapt audience, also know she will/is simultaneously getting the inevitable writer's last-word while telling us her family's exceptional bi-cultural story (Chinese dad, German-speaking mom, living in L.A. in the 1970s) using "The Nutcracker" as her omnibus-narrative-device (or Maguffin, as Alfred Hitchcock called it, retelling an old joke about a Scottish train-trunk that falsely repels tigers. Where are they? See none? See! It works!).  Sandra's ironic, continually re-opened narrative-trunk attracts animals, but they're all over-stuffed with hope, pride, jealousy, frustration, failure, rage, Fritos & eventually, obviously delusional transformative memory: looking back now, as an adult, she hopes her two small daughters will also engage with "The Nutcracker."  Or does she, really? Ironies abound; that's what Sandra's always all about. Is this true? How much isn't? Does she tell all, some, or none of the “true” Truth? That's the true/false hidden fulcrum of performance art: what's really real? That? Owww!

When we saw Sandra perform recently, I was amazed to hear people around us in the audience cheaply, hypercritically, even apologetically diss- her performance right after it; one even told us that her performance was “not quite tight” that night. Well, frankly I couldn't see any looseness in that relentless workout-hour+ of solo bravura physical & verbal perf. How she does it amazes me & should you, too.

Speaking just-ex-Bostonly, a city-run theater at the bottom of the Bay is lucky to even have her play it & I assume it's bringing them in $ome $eriou$ $$$. But, of course, it pay$ & plays both-ways: a painter friend of ours (Roberta Loach), who recently moved from Los Altos to Kensington, tells us: "They get away with things down in San Jose they just couldn't do in S.F." (I.e., staging Sandra as a relentless auto-ironist, rather than a humble, racial-sentimental-dutiful Chinese daughter. Frankly, in this show, she's sortof a half-Chinese Dame Edna who comes on in a gnarly green Xmas-tree suit.)

As for Sandra's “acting ability” (recently panned in the San Jose Mercury-News)… Look, she's trying to narrate her presumably real life, while performing in it, mono-dramatically, for 1hr + 20min. which sortof flattens its narrative out some — vs usual drama — since she's playing all the parts alone on the stage, after all (with a few wordlessly ironical elves as prop-handlers).  OK, she's not stand-up-solo, loud, brash mugging lesbian Margaret Cho, or whining, squeaky drag-actor Bobby Lee (now seen on Mad TV), but aren't you paying & showing up to see writer Sandra describe & play character Sandra, while spinning her own extended life-story at the same time? Cut her a break! Warning: Where's that manic, dangerously depressive monologist Spaulding Gray now that we don't need him anymore? Ah, right, he suicided!  Let that be a warning to us while we still do have Sandra, alive.