Cunning Sociopolitical Tale Premieres at Crowded Fire

by Jean Schiffman

Christopher Chen’s “A Tale of Autumn” is informed by the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In 2015, when Crowded Fire Theater offered San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen an open commission, he decided he’d write an entertaining power-struggle play. He’d been binging on the TV shows “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones” and thought, “This is the most engrossing stuff.” He considered “House of Cards,” especially, to be a modern-day version of a Shakespearean drama—“an epic power struggle plot-wise, but also, as in Shakespeare, philosophizing mixed in with the storytelling, in the way that Brecht and Shaw do as well.” At the same time, he was “translating” “Antony and Cleopatra” into contemporary English for an Oregon Shakespeare Festival project (36 playwrights commissioned to modernize Shakespeare’s language), so the Bard was on his mind.

But after the 2016 presidential election, he found himself in a “different kind of head space,” unsure how to proceed. “One thing screamed at me above all else,” he says. “I had to turn this play into something a little more serious, a little more overtly sociopolitical.”

Now “A Tale of Autumn,” one of Chen’s most sociopolitical plays yet, opens as a world premiere at Crowded Fire, where Chen is resident playwright.

A multiple-award-winner whose plays have been produced in New York, London, Seattle and elsewhere, Chen currently is under commission with four other theaters (not counting Oregon Shakespeare), including American Conservatory Theater. Crowded Fire artistic director Mina Morita, an award-winning local director, former artistic associate at Berkeley Rep and Chen’s close friend and colleague, was confident that anything he wrote would suit the 20-year-old company, which stages adventurous new work.

Set in a parallel world that’s unnervingly not unlike our own, although in no way futuristic, “Autumn” is a contemporary fable, with, by design, a looser and nimbler framework than Chen’s other plays (which number more than a half-dozen, among them, “The 100 Flowers Project” also produced by Crowded Fire, the Obie Award-winning “Caught” and, most recently, “You Mean To Do Me Harm” a premiere at San Francisco Playhouse). If his plays in general tend to twist and turn structurally, and are tricky and metatheatrical, in “Autumn” it is the characters themselves who are twisting and turning, alliances and declared beliefs constantly in flux. Thus the audience is unsure whom to trust in the swift-moving, deeply unsettling two-act, 23-scene play. Should we believe in any one or more of the four department heads (shipping, water, agriculture, chemicals) at the all-powerful and ostensibly beneficially minded Farm Company? Is the company saleswoman reliable? Or the local independent farmer and her tenant? The company’s board president? What about the late, lamented CEO, who promoted the ambiguous concept of corporate ethical conduct called The Way, and whose demise has caused an upheaval among the staff? Or maybe the presumptive new CEO—or his lover? Chen wrote the biggest, most powerful roles in the multi-ethnic cast for women (although “Genders of characters are variable,” he notes in the stage directions), but there are no easily identifiable heroines or villains here. “I think all the characters should be cared about to some extent,” he posits, “but I definitely wanted to make the issue of morality very unsteady. The play itself does have a point of view, but I wanted the audience to work for it, to keep them on their toes.”

As they were developing the play, Chen, director Morita and other collaborators watched a documentary, “The Corporation” (a primer on corporate greed, says Chen), read Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and talked, according to Morita, about “how dark or evil we can go with a character.” How morally bankrupt can a person be, they wondered, if he or she appears to be aiming for the common good? “Then with the shift after the election,” Morita continues, “and the divisiveness of that, it turned into, how does a person become complicit within a larger system?… And with that pivot, it became much more about the deeper psychology, and the plot became simpler—it expanded and opened up to the psychological maze of how we make decisions.”

In casting, she chose actors adept at Chen’s particular style: “There’s such a musicality, a poetry, a unique rhythm to the way Chris writes,” she observes, “coupled with such a density of ideas and thoughts.” She points to “the kaleidoscopic way ideas are shifted in a single speech or moment of dialogue.”

“Trump’s election helped me put into focus the idea that we elected him—we, as a country, are responsible,” muses Chen. “We are complicit in this relentless quest for power, which he’s crystallizing.” He notes that it is we the people who, in all kinds of insidious or perhaps self-delusional ways, accept giant corporations’ “relentless quest for power.” “I [myself] also instinctively think, Oh, yeah, certain companies are good, certain are bad,” he admits. “But it’s all within the same system, so it’s the totality of the system itself that I wanted to focus on.”

Crowded Fire has audience discussions after most performances, and Morita hopes the discussions after “Autumn” will be about recognizing how we are all part of a system even when we don’t want to be, and how we can participate in effecting change. “I feel such a deep commitment to our existence as a civic leader,” she says, of Crowded Fire, “and an awareness of how our art can shape culture, based on the provocation and interrogation we have on our stages.”

Says Chen, “The best plays for me are plays that get me thinking and actually wanting to question myself…shake me up a little bit. That’s my goal for [’Autumn’] as well.”

Sept. 18 → Oct. 7

Potrero Stage

1695 18th St., San Francisco 523-0034