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SF International Arts Fest returns to confront our messed-up world

In troubled times, artists often look to archetypes, legends and folklore to explore the rumbling fault lines that put society at risk. Perhaps that’s why this year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival brims with productions that draw on iconic figures like Lear, Quixote, and Oedipus.
Running from May 23 to June 2 in various venues and spaces around the scenic Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture in San Francisco, the SFIAF offers a thrumming array of artists working in and across various disciplines, with a particular focus on music, dance, and theater.
Since the 2016 election the festival has embraced an explicitly political agenda, and this year’s programming is presented under the rubric “The Path to Democracy.” Judging by the work the festival is presenting it’s as much a hope as a directive, as many of the acts suggest that human fallibility is the source of the roadblocks and detours on the route to self-rule.
As an art form that brings literature to life, theater is uniquely equipped to investigate the cleavages that sunder families, communities and nations.
In “Mother Lear,” the Bay Area’s site-specific-specializing company We Players reprises Ava Roy and Courtney Walsh’s production about a daughter coping with her mother’s dementia, communicating only via the text of “King Lear” (May 25-26 at Fort Mason’s Chapel).
Magic Theatre is reviving “Oedipus el Rey,” a contemporary Latin retelling of the Greek tragedy, for the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Magic Theatre
Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro draws on an older tragedy with Magic Theatre’s “Oedipus el Rey,” which transports Sophocles’ fraught tale of a hero’s downfall to a prison where a young lifer dreams of freedom (May 29-June 2, Sam Shepard Theatre). And Hong Kong’s Theatre de la Feuille presents the U.S. premiere of “L’Orphelin 2.0” (May 24 and May 26, Cowell Theater), which reimagines one of China’s oldest plays, “The Orphan of Zhao.” A 13th-century tragedy about the lure of revenge, it’s often described as the Chinese “Hamlet.”
“This is a story that all Chinese people know, and they made this piece during the Yellow Umbrella protests,” says Andrew Wood, the arts festival’s founder and executive director, referring to the 2014 movement seeking to fend off Communist Party influence over Hong Kong’s elections.
“They don’t say this is about pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. It’s a story about how much will you stand up for what you believe in. In ‘Oedipus el Rey,’ Luis Alfaro takes the classic Greek tragedy and tells a story about a gang member, a young man trying to defy his own destiny. There are a lot of pieces that use these classic stories to reflect on our present moment.”
San Francisco Flamenco Dance Company presents “Don Quixote Rides Again” May 25. (San Francisco International Arts Festival) 
Riffing on another immortal character, San Francisco Flamenco Dance Company presents “Don Quixote Rides Again” (May 25, Gallery 308), a bilingual vehicle for master flamenco dancer Luis de la Tota. The Czech Republic’s Spitfire Company offers a different kind of satire with the West Coast premiere of“Antiwords,” an acclaimed production influenced by the works of Václav Havel, whose alter ego is one of the play’s two characters (May 30-June 2, Southside Theater).
“In the piece Havel is so broke he has to work in a brewery,” Wood says. “The boss is a communist spy, and both roles are played by women in masks. Through the course of the piece they drink a case of Czech beer, and are literally drunk by the end of the show. It’s done as a physical theater piece that’s almost nostalgic, but of course Havel was deadly serious, putting himself at risk writing in a communist part of the world.”
For Bay Area artists, the festival offers opportunities to make a major statement and shine alongside their international peers.
Berkeley-based Gamelan Sekar Jaya, the most respected gamelan ensemble outside of Indonesia, celebrates the company’s 40th anniversary with a new collaboration designed by two of Bali’s leading artists (May 31-June 1, Cowell Theater). Guest musical director I Nyoman Windha and guest dance director I Nyoman Cerita have created “Serasi!,” a production tailored to the manifold strengths of the 50-member company.
Bay Area vocalist and songwriter Jessica Lá Rel’s festival-opening performance (May 23, Gallery 308) marks a different kind of milestone. The Stanford University grad has been earning national attention since the 2016 release of her debut EP “Four Freedoms,” a project that introduced her vision of socially conscious soul music. Last October she released her first album, “War Love” a sumptuously produced project focusing on her original songs.
Jessica Lá Rel performs opening night at the festival, May 23. (San Francisco International Arts Festival) 
For Thursday’s show she’s performing with an eight-piece band featuring the album’s producer Tyler Brooks on synth and keyboards, and keyboardist Sundra Manning, who played an essential role in the rise of Bay Area-reared soul star Ledisi. The concert marks the end of the Bay Area phase of Lá Rel’s career, as she’s making the move to Los Angeles.
While the Bay Area continues to serve as a vital proving ground for artists, the region’s lack of music business infrastructure means a steady outflows of talent, a dynamic the scrappy SFIAF isn’t in any position to change.
“The Bay Area has been great in terms of opportunities to perform and find support for the work,” Lá Rel says. “There are plenty of musicians and talented singer/songwriters, but the challenge when it comes to building my team is there are not as many music industry professionals, publicists, management, agents. L.A is the place to find the network.”
While the SFIAF continues the commendable work of introducing new voices, artists face bottom-line decisions about how to build and sustain a career in the arts, a daunting path in any political climate.
Contact Andrew Gilbert at jazzscribe@aol.com.

SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL ARTS FESTIVAL
When: May 23-June 2
Where: Various venues at Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$38, $40-$75 festival passes; 415-399-9554, www.sfiaf.org

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