"You Need to Read Poetry" and "Ragged Wing" take flight
Against the back curtain of the stage, empty save a couple of small platforms, a mysterious tree, represented by a rainbow of colored scarves, stretched its silken boughs. Cut to the “great before,” when humans were still a figment of the future, and Mol’-luk (Liz Wand), a brooding, powerful condor, sat perched on a rock, little suspecting that the “mountain” is pregnant with his peregrine falcon son, Wek Wek (Juliana Lustenader), whose dramatic birth by fire was further facilitated by a chorus of rattlesnakes (select members of the oddience armed with noisemakers).
Soon grown, Wek Wek set off on a quest to find the music tree (also the title of the play), a fanciful construction of hidden voices and those bright scarves, undulating over the bodies of Hannah Lennett and Liz Wand. Based on a Miwok legend, and told with an energetic blend of music, movement, and poetic narration, “The Music Tree” fit neatly in with the Oakland-based Ragged Wing Ensemble ’s canon of mythology-centric explorations, and kicked off its single weekend run of their inaugural “Fierce Play” series. Three brand new works created and rehearsed in just fourteen days -- an exhibition of “theatrical athleticism,” stretching the boundaries of the possible with a truncated yet intensified creation process.
The avian protagonists of “The Music Tree” were good precursors to the second play “Air:born” which opened with a humorous depiction of poor ungainly ostriches, the fastest birds on land but also the heaviest, incapable of flight. “The ostrich is tragic because it came so close.” Of course it isn’t just ostriches that long to be airborne as the following two vignettes demonstrated—with cleverly devised sequences of swooping flight and paper planes—the first featuring Daedalus (Wendi Gross) and Icarus (Marlene Yarosh), the second, the Wright Brothers (Michele Owen and Soren Santos).
The final play, “Fish Tank Piece” started out as a whimsical romance between a frustrated artist (Anna Schneiderman) filling fish tanks with yarn (and charging $475 for them) and her equally frustrated, non-artist boyfriend (Michael Correa), then opened up into a more complex meditation on the meaning of purpose—in work and in life as in love. A second batch of “Fierce” will be served up in February with all new playwrights, and one hopes the promise shown by these raw flashes of inspiration can be nurtured further, perhaps with a follow-up festival in the coming year.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Performers Under Stress  “You Need to Read Poetry!” took a more rehearsed approach to its subject matter: the performance of dozens of the company’s favorite poems, from Langston Hughes to Lucia Perillo. In the theatrical context, each poem became a concise script, as when Nazelah Jamison attempted to seduce Shaye Angelo Acevedo with lines by Nikki Giovanni, or when Valerie Fachman gathered Jamison, Gloria McDonald, and Carina Lastimosa Salazar to her side while reminiscing ala Marge Piercy.
A section on the beats turned the stage into a rowdy café scene, and a segment with guest readers Mellissa Stein and Pireeni Sundaralingam, quietly electrified. Presented as integrative works rather than isolated lines with limited appeal and an intimidating reputation, “You Need to Read Poetry!” takes its message seriously. ”Poetry gets us there,” director Scott Baker writes in his program notes, but where is that? Considering the scope and reach of the presentation, I’m guessing anywhere you want it to.
“You Need to Read Poetry!” runs through December 23
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