There probably was no fourth wall to begin with at PianoFight Productions. Virtually all of the company’s theatrical works involve some form of audience participation. Sometimes, we get to cast judgment, as is the case with the annual “ShortLived” playwriting competition. Other times, we throw vegetables — hopefully within the sanctity of “Throw Rotten Veggies at the Actors Night,” though one could imagine a spoiled tomato being hurled from the back row of Off-Market Theaters at any point in time. It’s probably the only stage in San Francisco where an actor will stay cool when he’s hit by a cucumber. Obnoxious behavior isn’t just sanctioned; it’s embraced. And that’s always cause for celebration.
Particularly at this time of year, when holiday stress gets compounded by seasonal depression, and the last thing any of us wants to do is watch Scrooge get in verbal altercations with the Ghost of Christmas Past. With that in mind, PianoFight came up with an anti-Christmas Christmas show that allows the audience to steer the drama. A Merry Forking Christmas had its genesis two years ago, after the company teamed up with San Francisco writer Daniel Heath, who won PianoFight’s first-ever ShortLived. Heath’s original Forking, called Fork Off on Your Own Forking Adventure Which You Forked: Forking, was a choose-your-own-adventure play about sex. Actors used vote-by-applause as the mechanism to decide what would happen. The concept was inspired, the props were minimal, and the script was funny enough to guarantee a bizarre outcome.
A Christmas version inevitably followed. Merry Forking is set in a shopping mall on Christmas Eve, where a small-time weed dealer in a Santa Claus suit (Derek Fisher) uses a cookie vendor (Nicole Hammersla) as his mule. A security guard (Devin McNulty) tries to bust them, but he’s hopelessly — and inconveniently — smitten with the cookie vendor. Meanwhile, a young soon-to-be-married couple (Rachel Feresowicz and Alex Boyd) are quarreling bitterly in the store aisles. Various other characters enter the fray, including a few stoners, a mortuary attendant (Ruth Grossinger), a bespectacled Tiny Tim (Jed Goldstein), and a sassy New York grandmother (Gabi Patacsil). Pianist Arlen Hart glues the whole thing together with an original score, played on a small upright piano at stage right. At several points he interrupts the action with a two-bar riff, which is our cue to vote on what happens next. Will grandma eat the weed cookie? Will Phoebe ditch her fiancé and run off with Santa Claus? Will the security guard shut down Monique’s cookie stand, or let her go free?
Obviously, none of these questions are purely open-ended. They’re all designed to lead us in a certain direction, and the outcome is pre-ordained. That said, they do make the production more exciting. Not to mention that weed, adultery, betrayal, crippled children, and a bumbling Santa Claus help keep things spicy. Goldstein and Patacsil play all the minor characters with gusto, often outshining their fellow actors. Goldstein steals the show with his rendition of a wheezing Cratchit child.
Concept plays are a hard thing to make work, particularly if you’re handing off creative control. Heath obviously took the risks into consideration. He made the plot pretty thin — it’s really just a loose agglomeration of storylines that all interconnect, in a setting that lends itself to happenstance. The mall is one of those labyrinthine spaces where it’s easy to be led astray, or have a random interaction with a stranger. Not to mention it embodies so many features of Christmas that we don’t always take into consideration: tawdry commercialism, the urgency of a clock ticking, the sense of being lost in a crowd. For all the candy-cane decorations and melodically wafting piano music, it’s quite sinister.
PianoFight gets that, and as the play drags on, its tone gets progressively more ominous. Phoebe and Charles’ marriage threatens to disintegrate. Charlotte, the morgue worker, launches into a seductive monologue about embalmment. Monique insists that drug-dealing is the only way she can pay her rent. Audience members still get to commandeer the action, yet by the time we reach the second half, a bitter outcome seems inevitable.
As for outcomes, PianoFight’s future is a little uncertain, too. Off-Market Theaters will close in January, so company directors Rob Ready and Dan Williams hope to move their operation to a large building near Union Square, which once housed Joe’s Restaurant. If all goes according to plan, they’ll secure the lease and start construction on a restaurant and two new theaters in January. Ready wants to hold a soft opening by April 1, in time for the next ShortLived.