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[whitespace] Sandra Tsing Loh Tsing Loh, Sweet Chariot Once, twice, tree times a lady--Sandra Tsing Loh brings her 'Sugar Plum Fairy' show to San Jose Rep.

Nuts To You

Reformed potty mouth Sandra Tsing Loh searches for intelligent signs of life during the holidays

By Todd Inoue

IN HER BOOKS, NPR commentaries and one-woman performances, Sandra Tsing Loh's life might seem more surreal than it appears. The Angeleno's parade of characters--her gawky adolescent self, her eccentric Chinese father, her Zen macrobiotic ex-boyfriend and her German mother with a flair for the theatrical--are pulled from her life growing up among the suburban sprawl of Southern Cal. Her stage shows--Aliens in America, Bad Sex With Bud Kemp, I Worry and Sugar Plum Fairy, plus her occasional commentaries on NPR's Marketplace--have secured Tsing Loh's reputation as a whimsical, absurd humorist who happens to enjoy knitting.

She certainly didn't anticipate the words "raunchy" and "infamous" being attached to her, but in March, her public persona blew up to an unprecedented level of notoriety, pushing her expanded limits of surrealism even further.

During the recording of her Feb. 29 monologue The Loh Life on L.A. public-radio station KCRW, she riffed about the sleeping habits of her husband, a touring guitarist with Bette Midler. She dropped the "F" bomb. The line went, "He does play guitar for Bette Midler on her massive new stage show. There are times when he stands within five feet of her! So I guess I have to fuck him," with the intentions of bleeping the offensive word out in postproduction. The engineer forgot, and the piece broadcast unedited twice, causing a tempest in a teapot. The engineer received probation while Tsing Loh was fired for the oversight and became a convenient casualty in the FCC crackdown on immorality following the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake forbidden titty tango.

Tsing Loh moved from public-radio mouthpiece to unlikely First Amendment crusader. She was interviewed by the BBC, Larry King and Bill Maher. She made the cover of the California section of the L.A. Times. Much to her amazement, it's the most attention she ever received for anything she's done. "I made $150 a week at KCRW, and my firing made the news crawler at CNN," she brags. She remembers the maelstrom with a mixture of clarity, confusion and, of course, sarcastic humor.

"A lot of times I felt like the character Zelig from the Woody Allen movie or Peter Sellers in Being There," she says. "You're this blank slate going through something, and people from all sides are throwing stuff on you. That's really quite fascinating. I was a 'First Amendment Crusader.' Then I was an 'Oppressed Minority Female.' My radio station manager was calling me a 'Janet Jackson performance artist who is mentally unstable' in a way that the Jackson family is. It's difficult to get the breast into the speaker."

After the fallout, she took a hiatus and landed a new home for The Loh Life on a Pasadena public radio station. She riffs more than ever on the challenges of motherhood now that she takes care of her sister-in -law's three kids as well as two of her own after her sister-in-law fell ill. Sandra moved to Pacific Grove, near Monterey, and sends her weekly dispatches via DSL. The incident--her personal Teatgate--only comes up as an afterthought in her recent radio monologues. She talked about it for a whole month straight in venues ranging from the L.A. Times Op-Ed page and NPR's Marketplace to an ACLU dinner and an L.A. Press Club party. She even performed a theater piece with radio host and fellow KCRW refugee Joe Frank, naming names and breaking down the blandness and cultural elitism of the Southern California public-radio affiliate.

"That was the month I shook it all out," she says. "The theater piece with Joe Frank--we just went balls to the wall. We said everything on our minds about that station and station manager. It's a once-only performance; you had to be there."

Sandra's been saving her voice for an extended engagement of Sugar Plum Fairy, which comes to San Jose starting this week. Much like her experience with public radio, she takes an emotionally hazardous situation--the holiday season--and extracts humor from personally devastating events. She puts audiences through the trauma of being passed up for the role of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy in her junior high school's production of The Nutcracker and examines the holiday classic's hierarchy. It's a physical piece with Tsing Loh playing both narrator and actor.

She illustrates the love/hate relationship many have with the holidays. The outdoor lights are festive, but the traffic sucks. The smell of sweet potatoes is delicious, but carbs are verboten. The show releases large quantities of sarcasm from her bloodstream.

"This bar has been set from childhood where [Christmas is] this magical thing," she says. "The season is very ambivalent for some people. We're not all Norman Rockwell. We can't hit that bar. If you try not to hit that bar, you're sitting alone at Christmas with no restaurants open with bad food in a dead city."

The set is decorated in a style that Tsing Loh describes as "David Lynch Christmas nightmare" with every possible Christmas bric-a-brac on display. She arrives onstage in a sparkling Christmas tree dress, glittering and tossing candy canes. Then she announces,
"I hate Christmas" and the riffs come fast and furious.

However, the sarcasm in her bloodstream is pumped by a good heart; Sugar Plum Fairy exits on a hopeful note of self-acceptance. She recalls her worst real-life Christmas experience: the year she and her "Buddhist macrobiotic boyfriend" agreed against gift giving. On Christmas Eve, brimming with alternating pangs of guilt and hopeful Christmas spirit, she ran out to buy him an ugly plaid shirt. He got her an $8 bottle of Korbel. With the arrival of her own children, she now relishes Christmas, though, she admits, performing in the sarcastic Sugar Plum Fairy has therapeutic qualities.

"When children arrive, Christmas takes on this totally different thing," she admits. "They see that magic of Christmas morning even if they see the Target receipt showing. I've become the manic sensei in our family. I'm up until 2 in the morning putting up stockings--"Ooh, there's a cookie Santa dropped"--because it's theater. And I love theater, and this is one place where it works--and you have a captive audience every time, and you can do no wrong."

SUGAR PLUM FAIRY, presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre, starring Sandra Tsing Loh and directed by David Schweitzer, runs Nov. 27-Jan. 2 at the Rep, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Opening Night is Dec. 3 at 8pm. Tickets are $22-$52. (408.367.7255 or www.sjrep.com)

THE SCENE AT THE REP. Before the Dec. 4 performance, the Rep inaugurates a new series of events for young professionals. The night includes a pre-show party at the Blue Monkey Lounge, some behind-the-scenes encounters with the creators of the show and a post-show party at Stratta Grill and Bar. Call 408.267.7297 for details.

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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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