by Cathy Cockrell
The object of fun in John Fishers new play is academia, Berkeley specifically, and no one should be surprised.
In some eight Fisher productions that preceded it since 1992, the Berkeley acting teacher, doctoral candidate and playwright and his student-based acting company, Sassymouth, have spared few clichÈs, isms or institutions.
Gay/straight, male/female and interracial relations, Noh theater, Greek tragedy and forced reinterpretations of Greek tragedy, gay concept directors, bad actors, drag queens and heavy metal rockers have all been lampooned.
And now it's academia, "the one institution that no one has gone after," as Fisher puts it, and especially the academy closest to home.
The new production, "UC: A Farce" currently at San Francisco's Stage Door Theater (where the group also performs its acclaimed "Medea: A Musical"), takes on the farcical elements of race relations, sexuality and sex in the campus fishbowl.
At the center of the storm are an acting teacher, played by Fisher, and a student named Darryl, played by recent Berkeley grad Darryl Stephens. Beneath their erudite-sounding discussions of drama pedagogy and Nazi Teutonic film esthetics, lust is the subtext. In fact, the relationship turns carnal even before the curtain opens.
When Darryl, an African-American, approaches the Daily Cal to denounce his teacher/boyfriend for promoting racial stereotypes in his acting classes, all manner of sexual liaisons and institutional cover-ups ensue in intertwining and parallel plots involving students, faculty, the Office of Teaching Effectiveness, even the chancellor himself.
Fisher says he wrote the new farce "to blow off comic steam" while creating "Combat," an ambitious four-hour drama about gays and lesbians in the military.
"'UC' is the first new thing I've done in 10 months," he said.
For Fisher that's a slow period. Earlier in his short career he was writing and producing at least two new plays a year.
He's now working on a piece concerning AIDS, and has done a screenplay about affirmative action set at Berkeley.
"I think what's happened to affirmative action is a real tragedy. I tried to write it like Dr. Strangelove."
One of the things Fisher says he has been teaching himself, in the process of transmitting his prolific dialogue to paper, "is to put content in."
The earliest plays were "almost completely silly. There would be men on stage in drag, but no discussion of misogyny or gender."
The acclaim greeting his "Medea: The Musical," is in large part a measure of his success in learning to meld a discerning take on serious issues with in-your-face fun.
In the more than two years since Sassymouth began performing "Medea," it has garnered numerous awards including the 1996 Glickman Playwright award for best new play and Bay Area Critics' Circle awards for best director, original script, choreography, female lead performance, musical direction and musical production.
For the cast, most of whom started out as acting students in Fisher's classes, the opportunity to perform, not to mention the success of "Medea," is a wonderful surprise.
Junior Jeffrey Fierson, who plays a campus official in "UC: A Farce," said the dual demands of performing and going to class ‚‚ he carries 17 units and spends six nights a week under stage lights ‚‚ can be very overwhelming. "We try to take everything in stride."
Fierson speaks high praise for Fisher's talents as teacher and director and his ability to keep material fresh by incorporating suggestions or spontaneously adding a new bit during a performance.
"Medea is funny," he says, "but the gags get stale. Sometimes John comes back stage and changes little bits in the show right before we go on. It's a frantic rush at intermission to find a prop to go with it."
Unlike most playwrights, who send their scripts out to theater companies on the thin chance of getting a production, Fisher has found both a talented crop of young actors and actresses and an institution where he could premiere his works.
"We've created our own opportunity," he says, "cobbled the thing together to create a professional experience." He works well under pressure of an opening night deadline, and with specific actors to write for.
If he can find the backing, Fisher would like his dissertation to be a "heavily annotated" version of "Combat," which he describes as a make-over of a John Wayne movie, but with lesbians and gays written in.
Remaining dates for "UC: A Farce" are Tuesday, Dec. 10, Tuesday, Dec. 17, and Thursday, Jan. 2. After that, according to co-producer Bob Fisher (no relation to John), "UC" might have to go on hold "because of national interest in Medea."
The company has been invited to perform "Medea" this February at the Aspen Arts Festival, which Bob Fisher calls "the Cannes of performing arts." And there's talk of taking the play to New York or L.A.