Category Archives: theater

Kristina Wong fuses cat pee, insecurity and pick up artistry in Cat Lady

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Photo by Diana Topshiko

I had planned to write about something else, but I got stopped in my tracks watching a vid of Kristina Wong eating cat food, or at least try to. How could I focus on anything else when an artist is willing to eat cat food to get me interested in her show?

Alright, Ms. Wong, you got me — DiverseWorks too. Wong’s newest opus, Cat Lady, which was co-commissioned by DiverseWorks, ODC Theater and The National Performance Network, runs through Saturday.

To be honest, Wong got my attention just the week before while trolling my favorite ladysnark site, Jezebel, over her beef with Oscarflop James Franco. “I could have hosted the Oscars in my sleep. Apparently, that’s what James Franco tried to do,” wrote the sassy Wong on her blog.

The wannabe-artist Francster had dissed Wong’s commencement address at the UCLA English Department graduation minutes before snapping a photo with her. Wong is an accomplished multi-disciplinary artist with more grants and honors to her name than fake artist Franco will ever amass. But things have been looking up for Wong since the overrated actor insulted her: “Thanks James! I need more A-list celebs to diss me ASAP,” she dishes from her “A brief break from Francogate”post.

But let’s get back to cats, specifically Cat Lady, a piece that attempts to bridge the world of lonely, desperate cat ladies and the subculture of pick-up artists. How can that be possible? It’s easy, according to Wong, who makes a living bringing people to startling new ideas with her own brand of irreverent mix mastering.

To prepare, Wong immersed herself in the seedy cult of the pick-up artist, reading Neil Strauss’ classic The Game and watching the VH1 reality show The Pickup Artist. I had never heard of the show, but one pathetic  YouTube vid later I am dying to own guru Mystery’s furry hat, which I suspect has been fashioned from someone’s dead cat. Not Wong’s cat Oliver, though, who provided some of the inspiration for Cat Lady, and has a featured role in the show.

Wong’s new work comes from the isolation of being on tour with her one-woman smash hit, Wong Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which she describes as a “swear-to-god-not-autobiographical, serio-comic portrayal of the high incidence of anxiety, depression and mental illness among Asian-American women.” It’s not exactly fluffy subject matter, and the tour took a toll on the performance artist. The piece has since been made into a film by Michael Closson.

Oliver didn’t appreciate Wong’s success, and began spraying her apartment. That’s fancy cat science talk for when your feline feels abandoned and pees all over your house. “It was really intense to be alone on tour doing this show about suicide and depression,” recalls Wong. She began to question her own identity. Could she be turning into a crazy cat lady?

“I wondered, ‘what else can I do?’ There’s always this fear that this is it,” Wong says.

Somewhere in the process, she happened on the bonanza of the pick-up artist world and found an immediate resonance in the language. “It’s the same material as theater games,” says Wong. “They are really teaching theatrical techniques. As a solo performer, we had a lot in common.”

Sixto Wagan first watched Wong’s work at a National Performance Network conference. It took another five years for their schedules to work out. “How she brings cat pee, pick-up artistry and loneliness together is just brilliant,” says Wagan, DiverseWorks’ co-director. “I love Kristina’s insightful, self-deprecating humor. The audience is part of it, not the target of it.”

For Cat Lady, Wong left the solo life behind, enlisting the talents of co-conspirators Miss Barbie Q, Clayton Shane Farris and Jabez Zuniga for her first ensemble piece. All have undergone considerable pick-up artist training, and, quite possibly, so has Oliver the cat. Bootcamp training with master DJ Fuji turned the cast into a clan of skilled practitioners.

The team gave me a crash course, trying such openers on me as, “You have this innocence about you; it’s really lovely.” But my fave is, “Hey, did you see the fight outside?” That one had me; connection is key.

The goal is to close the deal, or, in pick-up lingo, earn a “kiss close,” or the top banana, a “fuck close.” According to Miss Barbie Q, it’s really just about good social skills. All have reported better luck at bars since undergoing intensive training.

The show is directed by Shawn Sides of Austin-based devised theater legends The Rude Mechs. Ian Garrett is the production designer, his first show since returning to Houston as Fresh Arts‘ new executive director.

“I tried to create three worlds: The clubhouse or ‘dens’ of pick-up artist workshops, a club, and elements of Kristina’s world,” says Garrett. “Photos from the world summit  provided ideas as well.” Although the Los Angeles native is based in Houston now, he found collaborating with Wong easy and rewarding. “The show is wild,” he says. “She doesn’t hold back.”

Wong naturally sources her own life for her art. She currently lives in Los Angeles without a car, and after her pink biodiesel Mercedes Benz, Harold, died, she chronicled her wheel-free life in her show Going Green the Wong Way. You can crack up while learning something about crowdfunding from her cat food chow down or learn about “catsourcing” in her hilarious post, “I Made over $5,600 with only minor public humiliation: Ask me how.” The resulting show, Cat Lady, should prove well worth swallowing a little cat chow.

Plus one other thing — Wong says the show will end racism.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

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Theater LaB Houston

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Photo by Kata Fountain
At the mall, Theater LaB’s Bobby Haworth as Greg and Lauren Dolf as Steph

Neil LaBute doesn’t play nice. America’s obsession with beauty is not pretty in LaBute’s hands, but it will be funny, and, quite possibly, revealing.

The third piece of the savagely comic playwright’s beauty trilogy, reasons to be pretty, now up at Theater LaB Houston (TLH) and running through Feb. 5, captures contemporary life in all its scorching truth.

You might recognize LaBute’s name from the feature films, The Shape of ThingsNurse Betty and In the Company of Men. Or maybe you were one of the lucky ones who got in to see LaBute’s biting comedy, Fat Pig,during its sold-out run at TLH in 2007.

Reasons to be pretty follows Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, directed by TLH resident director Jimmy Phillips, which made numerous “best play” lists, including mine. Even with a several week run the play sold out. The season’s hottest ticket in town came from a tiny theater with a Texas-sized reputation.

There’s not a classic old chestnut in sight at TLH, which focuses on plays you could see in New York or London right now or in the past few years. Founded by Gerald Blaise LaBita in 1993, TLH regularly produces Houston premieres.

Its devoted audience has grown accustomed to cutting edge drama. LaBita travels to theater hubs to find plays that interest him, his sophisticated subscriber base and what will work in his cozy 65-seat theater. Comedies, dramas, musicals — they’re all there. Most often, they are plays you can’t see anywhere else in Houston.

After the resounding success of Fat Pig, LaBita wanted to keep LaBute’s acid tongue alive at TLH. Director Mark Adams sees LaBute as part of the lineage of David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

“LaBute studied with Mamet, who was influenced by Pinter. So you have the father, son and the holy ghost,” quips Adams, artistic director of theCollege of the Mainland Community Theater. “LaBute has such a gift for dialogue , the way people really speak. He drops you in the middle of a conversation, so we have to catch up and figure it all out. It’s like eavesdropping. ”

The New York Times agreed, calling LaBute’s prose “some of the freshest and most illuminating American dialogue to be heard anywhere.”

Adams sees a link with Pinter’s theater of menace.

“With LaBute, it’s emotional violence,” he says. He finds the script plays to his strength as a director. “With a cast of four, I can really flesh out the characters. And you will not like everyone in this play.

“A great Russian novelist wrote that unless you make an enormous number of mistakes in your twenties, you’ll never amount to anything. To me, LaBute is showing us four vividly drawn twentysomethings, all making big mistakes and/or showing bad judgment. What makes the play hopeful, ultimately, is that they can all amount to something someday if they will only learn from those mistakes.”

TLH regularly attracts both seasoned and up and coming actors. The terrific cast of reasons includes Bobby Haworth, Lauren Dolk, Mike Yager and Rebekah Stevens.

Next up is Gone Missing, created by The Civilians, an Obie Award-winning New York-based investigative theater company, with a book by Steven Cosson and music by Michael Friedman.

Gone Missing, which will be directed by Linda Phenix, is based on interviews with real-life New Yorkers, missing such objects as keys, personal identification, a Gucci pump and even their minds.

Gone Missing is not a traditional musical. It runs the gamut from funny to poignant, making it quite an emotional ride,” says Phenix, a longtime TLH collaborator. “The music is all over the genre map too, from pop to beautiful ballads.”

Phenix got hooked on TLH early on, and has directed about one play a year, including the popular The Big Bang and Boy Groove. “TLH has such a niche in Houston,” Phenix adds.

TLH’s space itself has good story. “This was Mickey’s Foot Market, my parent’s grocery store. We lived in the back,” says LaBita, who has always been interested in theater.

Situated south of I-10 not far from the Washington Ave. corridor, the neighborhood is in major transition. Sleek new townhomes nestle in between tiny cottages. With Spring Street Studios opening soon, the area is getting artsier by the minute.

“I was surprised how long it took to change though,” says LaBita, who realizes he might be sitting on some prime real estate.

LaBita, Adams and Phenix all see the intimacy of the setting as a plus. “It’s thrilling and harrowing. There’s no escape,” Adams says. “You are trapped in a room with the cast with no one more than 12 feet away. There’s a lot of painful exchanges in LaBute’s play. You might get uncomfortable. It’s cringe drama — you may be horrified but you cannot look away.”

For Phenix, it’s about finding the right piece that will work in the space. “I love the intimacy. It makes your hair stand on end. But I did have to learn how to work in the space.”

For LaBita, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “If we moved, I would still build a small theater.”

TLH concludes its season with [title of show]. No, that’s not a mistake — it’s really the title of this whimsical new musical about two nobodies named Hunter and Jeff who decide to write a completely original musical starring themselves and their attractive and talented lady friends, Susan and Heidi.

With TLH legend Phillips directing, expect equal doses of sass, flash and fun.

Reprinted from Culturemap.


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