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San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 2006


Shotgun Aims High

-- By Sam Hurwitt

San Francisco writer-director Mark Jackson and Berkeley's Shotgun Players have proved to be a formidable combination. Three years ago, the premiere of Jackson's "The Death of Meyerhold," about Soviet theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, became a huge critical and commercial success for Shotgun, constituting a watershed event that upped the artistic stakes for the then-nomadic company -- all the more so because on paper it seemed like the antithesis of a sure thing.

"I didn't know how people were going to respond to 'Meyerhold,' " Jackson says. "We're doing a play with 'death' in the title at Christmas, with the Russian Revolution -- sounds like a good time! How do we market this thing?"
Expectations have been running high for Jackson's follow-up for the company, "The Forest War," which opened last weekend at Berkeley's Ashby Stage, now Shotgun's permanent digs.

"The expectation changes how the next effort is viewed," Jackson says. "At certain points, I felt like, 'Let's not mention "from the guy that did 'Meyerhold.' " Let's back off from that a little bit, because I don't want it set up as "Meyerhold 2" -- come see more of that!' It's its own piece and creates its own world. The company is the same and the director and the writer are the same and some of the actors are the same, but it feels like a very different piece with a very different vibe to it."

Though his new play may be greeted with the usual scrutiny given a post-hit sophomore effort, Jackson has been active as a local playwright and director since shortly after getting his bachelor's degree in directing from San Francisco State in 1994, both with his own Art Street Theatre and for theaters such as Encore and the Magic.

"I started doing shows for the public in '95, so 'Meyerhold' didn't feel like a debut to me," Jackson says. "But I think, for a lot of people in the community, it was their debut experience with my work, so it marks a kind of turning point for me, and for Shotgun, too."

Jackson has been quite busy since "Meyerhold." He spent a year studying the relationship between theater and dance in Berlin on a Humboldt Fellowship, came back to direct American Conservatory Theater master of fine arts students in Bertolt Brecht's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," directed the Aurora Theatre Company production of Oscar Wilde's "Salome" and presented his play "Bang!" at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He's also writing and directing "American " (adapted from Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide") for Z Space's Z Plays and Encore Theatre Company, set for a world premiere at the Thick House in February.

Unlike "Meyerhold," "Forest War" wasn't written specifically for Shotgun. Jackson wrote it at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside in the summer of 2003, just before starting his directorial work on "Meyerhold," and it developed far from the usual considerations of who, what, where and how it would be done. He says the play was inspired by the tall grass outside his window, political conversations with fellow resident artists, reading Shakespeare's "King Lear," watching Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" and flipping through a book about world mythology at the writer's colony.

"It takes place in an invented ancient Asiatic land, and a 10-year war has just ended," Jackson says. "The old king hands over the reins not to his son but to this other guy, a wealthy noble he thinks will be a better person to run things. Of course, the son doesn't like that and goes about hatching a plot to undermine the new king. It's hard for me to sum up the plot because it's very plotty. At one point, this character Andrea asks, 'What is justice that does not count love among its laws?' There was something I was feeling around 2003, the war in Iraq was just getting started, but there was a mindless momentum, a lack of compassion for other cultures that seemed very profound and very American. Having said that, it's also about the pleasure of the theater and melodrama, of nasty villains being nasty and lovers who are torn apart."

As a director, Jackson is concerned with movement and visual style, and one of his demands for both shows, unusual for theater but essential for him, was to have costumes and sets ready when rehearsals began, so the players would know what they'd be dealing with. "Meyerhold" drew on the Russian director's "biomechanics" system of actor training, but Jackson says that, though stylistic elements in "Forest War" may seem reminiscent of kabuki, bunraku, Kurosawa or Peking opera, he's not trying to re-create any of these styles so much as give a whiff of their flavors to create his own fictional Asiatic culture.

"It's an invented place drawing on these icons to give it sort of a distance, so there's a gap between the current themes that it's dealing with and the form in which it comes," he says. "In rehearsals, early on, we agreed not to discuss or concern ourselves with any modern parallels that there might be. That was already present, and the audience can take care of that themselves. The intent behind the play is not to make a political statement purely; it's also to do what theater does best. Whenever people die, it's this huge operatic thing, when they kill each other they fly up in the air, and it's very artificial and formal."

Jackson says he approaches directing his own work much the same way he approaches directing Brecht or Wilde.

"The only difference is that, if I wrote it, a lot of my directorial homework has been done in the writing process," he says. "Once we get in there, if it's my own play, I assume the playwright is either dead or far away and we can't get to him, and we just assume that if it's not working it's just because we don't understand it yet. I try to trust the intuition first, and ask the actors to do that, too, in their own work."
"The Forest War" feels more like someone else's play than usual, he says, because it had been written with no particular cast or company in mind.

"I sort of assumed on some level that I was never going to see this play, because it's larger than 'Meyerhold' was," Jackson says. "The irony is that it's going to be Shotgun Players that's going to be able to do these larger-scale things, like the Lorin District project they just did, because they're poor and can't pay people much. The larger theaters can't afford to do that sort of thing so much, as a matter of economics. One of the great strengths of Shotgun is this combination of the support that comes from a feeling of family and (Artistic Director) Patrick Dooley's we-can-do-anything attitude that's so infectious and energizing. I think that's what makes a project of this size possible."

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