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San Francisco Magazine 2006


Action Jackson

The plays Mark Jackson directs stand out for their intense
physicality and leave both his actors and his audiences exhilarated.

-- By Lisa Drostova

Photo by Kathrin Miller

Director and playwright Mark Jackson shows up for lunch at a downtown sushi joint with his hands full. For the afternoon's meetings and rehearsals, he's carrying a laptop, an ergonomic seat cushion, and a large sack filled with Chinese paper umbrellas. Even so burdened (and did I mention he's 6 foot 3?), he moves easily between the close-set tables without touching anyone. While I, with years of martial arts and dance training, knock a man's jacket to the floor and take out a waitress with my purse. It occurs to me that with his superior control of space and motion, Jackson could easily sneak up on someone.

Which is exactly what he's doing to our theater scene this winter, showing up as if out of nowhere at the helm of not one but three sizable productions-two of them world premieres-within a six-month period. His gorgeous, challenging, exhilarating take on Oscar Wilde's 1894 Salome, at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, closed in October after an extended run. Shotgun Players performs Jackson's epic The Forest War at its theater beginning this month, and Jackson is directing American $uicide, his adaptation of a sardonic Russian farce, for the Encore Theatre Company in February. Jackson, 35, is still so unknown that at a preview performance for Salome, the people sitting next to him were loudly dissecting the show, unaware that their boyish neighbor with the quizzical, bushy eyebrows had directed it. But Jackson's profile is about to get a whole lot higher, because after years of laboring in relative obscurity, he's poised to give the Bay Area theater scene a good strong shake-up.

Even in a region with many excellent directors, Jackson's smart, intensely physical work stands out. His plays are notable for their electricity and the elegant intelligence of his writing and staging; Jackson draws out the best in his collaborators and then forges their contributions into a coherent and affecting whole. The difference in his productions begins with his approach to the body. Arnerican-trained actors usually employ some form of Method acting, building a character from the inside out by beginning with the emotions and adapting their physicality accordingly.

Jackson's character building works from the outside in. While a few other theater directors (the SITI Company's Anne Bogart in New York, her collaborator Tadashi Suzuki in Japan) work this way and the technique is gaining ground, it's still fairly exotic to have your actors concentrate on their voice and movements first and trust the emotional state to follow.

This approach can lead to some highly charged ensemble work, as almost anyone who saw Jackson's stunning 2003 breakout play, The Death of Meyerhold, will tell you. Of the several hundred productions I've seen in the Bay Area, I've stood up for the ovation (something critics really aren't supposed to do) three times.

The conclusion of Meyerhold, which Jackson wrote, was one of them, and as I looked around, defiantly dashing away tears, I realized I was not the only critic on her feet. The story of an uncompromising Russian theater director who ran afoul of Stalin, Jackson's opus for the Shotgun Players had everything: romance, revolution, humor, and the longest, most wildly complex death scene I've ever watched. As the doomed eponymous hero, Cassidy Brown stood howling in ecstatic grief as the other actors swirled around him. It was a triumphant, indelible image, breathtaking and audacious.

It was also a turning point for everyone involved. Brown, who still gets stopped by Meyerhold-mad strangers, told me, "I can thank Mark almost directly for whatever my level of notoriety in the Bay Area is." Shotgun Players
artistic director Patrick Dooley says that the show created a "frenzy" for his then-nomadic theater. The play got rave reviews, and Studio Theatre, in Washington, D.C., gave it its East Coast premiere with a different cast and director. Suddenly Jackson had arrived.

And just as suddenly he vanished.

The month after Meyerhold closed in Berkeley, Jackson won a fellowship to study the intersection of theater and dance at a research center for physical theater called Mime Centrum Berlin. So he and his girlfriend and collaborator, Beth Wilmurt, an actress and singer, went to Germany for a year and a half. It was a risky move for someone who had just made such a big splash at home. But Jackson stayed connected to San Francisco, nipping back occasionally to meet with theater companies and to direct. an MFA student production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle for A.C.T. It may seem as if he's appeared out of thin air, but we're seeing the result of years of patient focus.

Jackson, who grew up in Placerville, had planned to become a filmmaker but decided he could address bigger and more interesting themes in live theater. When he graduated from San Francisco State University in 1993, he thought about grad school until he realized that the best way to learn to direct was to direct. So in 1995, after teaching English in Japan, Jackson joined Wilmurt to form San Francisco's Art Street Theatre, producing plays that he wrote or adapted. These included memorable pieces such as 2001's quirky Io-Princess of Argos, which Bay Guardian critic Brad Rosenstein called "a playful, fluid instrument for humor, hallucination, and horror."

Art Street drew the attention of people at other theaters, among them Dooley, Tom Ross at the Aurora, and Encore's artistic director, Lisa Steindler, who remounted 10 in 2002. Ross later offered Jackson the opening spot for this season, which was gutsy on his part since his cozy theater is not known for experimental fare. Set in a fantastic Art Deco Manhattan, Jackson's SaWme stunned audiences and delighted critics with scenes like the one in which the prophet lokanaan {Wilde'sJohn the Baptist) hung like a glowing marble sculpture in a slender cage, while below him the dissipated Herod begged his stepdaughter to dance for him and his tuxedo-clad courtiers. Beautiful and otherworldly, the play honored the flamboyant Wilde yet felt very modern.

By contrast, The Forest War will reflect Jackson's Japanese sojourn, with its Asian-styled setting, heightened language, elaborate costumes, and Kurosawa-Iike story of war, treachery, and forbidden love. A Shakespearean take on the abuses of patriotism, the play brings Brown back as the noble but flawed Lord Kulan, who wants to rebuild his war-torn land. Art Street regular Kevin Clarke, Meyerhold's limber Shostakovich, plays Kulan's nemesis, Kain.

American $uicide will be a different kettle of koi, showing off Jackson's versatile wit. Written in 1928, Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide is supposed to be the funniest Russian farce ever written. Jackson is freely adapting the play, setting it in contemporary America and skewering eBay, celebrity Web sites, and homemade porn. The story of a man whose acquaintances want him to kill himself to further their own agendas promises to be funny and sharp. I laughed out loud reading the script. I can't wait to see what happens when Jackson fleshes it out with actors and action-and to see what he'll spring on us next.

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