Women rock the Night at Cal Shakes season opener

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Lisa Anne Porter (right) plays separated twins Viola and Sebastian in the California Shakesperae Theater season-opening production of Twelfth Night. The female-led cast also includes (from left) Rami Margron as Orsino, Julie Eccles as Olivia, Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Domenique Loazno as Maria. Below: Stacy Ross (left) as Malvolio is under the mistaken impression that his mistress has the hots for him, a ruse concocted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Photos by Kevin Berne

Last year, California Shakespeare Theater offered an off-season touring production of Twelfth Night that featured an all-women cast and made stops in prisons, homeless shelters, senior communities and the like. It was a stripped-down, wonderful production, and apparently its impact was strong enough that outgoing artistic director Jonathan Moscone (he bids adieu in August after he directs The Mystery of Irma Vep) decided to pull the play into the company’s 41st season.

With a different director (Christopher Liam Moore), this is a very different Twelfth Night but with two key returning players and one overriding concept. The actors reprising their roles are Rami Margron as Duke Orsino (she also played scheming lady in waiting Maria last year) and the invaluable Catherine Castellanos making an even deeper impression as boozy wastrel Sir Toby Belch. This is not an all-female production, but it is what you might call female led. Of the eight cast members, seven are women, and – the irony is not subtle here – the only man, Ted Deasy, plays Feste, the fool (and other roles including a sea captain, a priest, a police constable, Antonio and a member of Orsino’s court).

Director Moore’s production is so sure footed and satisfying that the whole idea of a gender-bending cast populating an already gender-bending play quickly becomes less of a gimmick and more about some really good storytelling. It’s great that companies like Cal Shakes are shifting the balance away from male domination of Shakespeare, but it’s even better that the company is giving the stage to some incredibly talented actors to tell a sad, romantic, occasionally very funny tale.

Deasy begins the show by climbing out of a coffin sitting center stage. If that sounds grim – this is a play largely about grief, after all – not to worry. In full court jester garb (costumes by Meg Neville, who mercifully makes this jester bell-less), he whips out his iPhone and samples a playlist to indicate a storm is brewing: “Riders on the Storm,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Stormy Weather” and one other that’s too fun to spoil.” We’ll see iPhones throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, mostly for cuing up music (Air Supply, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin make appearances) but also for photo taking and the inevitable selfie.

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This is the 150th time Cal Shakes has done Twelfth Night (actually the eighth counting last year’s tour), and every time it feels like a slightly different play. Moore is having fun to be sure, but with that coffin never leaving the stage, the specter is ever present. The coffin represents several deaths affecting various characters. The twins Viola and Sebastian (both played by the marvelous Lisa Anne Porter) each think the other perished in a shipwreck. And the Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles, whose transformation from grief to love addled is spectacular) lost her father and brother in a short space of time and is drowning in her loss. But that coffin, being front and center in Nina Ball’s simple set, which resembles either a mausoleum or an elegant resort, also finds itself being used as various pieces of furniture, an ice chest for beer and as a dark, dank prison for the most notoriously wronged Malvolio.

Speaking of Malvolio, the righteous prig who brings out the bully in Sir Toby and his cohorts, Maria (Dominique Lozano) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), a word on the broad comic performances in this production. As Malvolio, Stacy Ross so fully inhabits the character that it’s as easy to hate him (and understand why he gets so viciously pranked) as it is to love him (when the prank goes way too far). Ross is funny, especially taking smiling lessons from the audience or gingerly navigating a set of stairs, but she’s also heartbreaking as the character is humiliated, taunted and bereft of the love he thought he had won.

With Castellanos’ turn as Sir Toby, there is broad hilarity (the costume conjures a Depptonian Capt. Jack Sparrow feel) but also a beating heart under all the liquor and brio and bullying. You get the sense that Toby is performing for Maria, whom he loves, and for Sir Andrew (Hall is quite funny as the blundering idiot), his sycophantic money bags of a sidekick. He’s got a (squalid) reputation to protect, but it really registers when even he admits the Malvolio prank has gone too far.

The happy ending, when the separated twins reunite, is handled deftly, and Porter, who has delineated her male and female (and female pretending to be male) characters beautifully, comes as close as a single actor could to making that scene poignant and a little heartbreaking (Viola gets her brother back from the void, but that hope does not exist for Olivia’s brother).

That this production can be rambunctious (Feste’s songs have a delightful country-western lilt) and funny, romantic and lyrical, sad and shadowy is its ultimate triumph.

California Shakespeare Theater’s Twelfth Night continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Ladies’ night at ACT’s Music

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Madame Armfeldt (Dana Ivey, right) tells her granddaughter, Fredrika Armfeldt (Brigid O’Brien), about how the summer might smiles three times in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music, an ACT production at the Geary Theater. Below: Emily Skinner is Countess Charlotte Malcolm, an embittered wife who sings the fierce song “Every Day a Little Death.” Photo by Kevin Berne

In the 1970s, Stephen Sondheim was on some kind of roll. From Company to Follies to Pacific Overtures to Sweeney Todd, the decade found at the peak of his considerable powers. He was – and is – a musical theater superhero, but in the midst of all that musical and lyrical genius, he dropped a nearly perfect show that was at once a classic musical – operetta almost – and completely contemporary.

A Little Night Music is a dazzling combination of light and funny, clever and romantic with sharp and incisive, deep and dark. The show has elegance and a light touch with an undercurrent of regret, sorrow and misery to keep it from floating away.

American Conservatory Theater is producing Night Music, and though there are some problems with the production, it provides a stellar opportunity to see the show’s genius at work. I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt.

Leading men Patrick Cassidy as lawyer Frederik Egerman and Paolo Montalban as dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm both cut striking figures, but their acting and singing tend toward the stolid or overly cartoonish. They are eclipsed by their female co-stars who, in scene after scene and song after song, handily take control of this “Night Music.” Of the men, only Justin Scott Brown as Frederik’s frustrated, lovelorn son, makes a lingering impression.

Karen Ziemba as fading stage actress Desiree Armfeldt gets to be world weary (“The Glamorous Life”), funny (“You Must Meet My Wife”) and gently heartbreaking (“Send in the Clowns”), all the while managing to be completely lovable. Desiree is aching for “some sort of coherent existence after so many years of muddle,” and Ziemba makes us root for her success.

Read the full review here.

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I interviewed director Mark Lamos and cast members Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Dana Ivey and Patrick Cassidy about working on A Little Night Music for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music continues through June 21 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Gently with a chainsaw: Heathers really sings

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Jessica Quarles (right) is Veronica Sawyer in the Ray of Light Theatre production of Heathers: The Musical at the Victoria Theatre. Below: Jordon Bridges is JD, the bad (very bad) boy in Westerberg High. Photos courtesy of Ray of Light Theatre

Funnier and feistier than the movie on which it’s based, Heathers: The Musical is an exceedingly successful screen-to-stage adaptation, and San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre is just about the perfect company to produce it.

Heathers, which features a score and book by Laurence O’Keefe (of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde fame) and Kevin Murphy, (Reefer Madness, “Desperate Housewives”), is dark and damaged in all the right ways. But the musical amps up the fun factor with the ideal amount of camp. It winks and nods to the 1989 movie but lets the story be the story, with all its attendant snarkiness, teen angst, murder and sincere hope for a more beautiful life.

All of that lands right in Ray of Light’s wheelhouse. Hot on the heels of shows like Carrie: The Musical and Yeast Nation (from the Urinetown team), ROL is emerging as the city’s best source of edgy musicals performed with seemingly depthless raw energy and talent the likes of which other theaters must surely envy.

The young and exuberant cast and the wicked, tuneful show combined with an opening-night audience overflowing with audible adulation made for a kind of pop-rock musical nirvana. This kind of show too grungy, fun and primal for Broadway-type houses, but the Victoria Theatre is the perfect raw nerve kind of a place for this sort of musical to really take flight. There’s a bit of that “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” energy backed up by the talent and panache to make the $25-$36 ticket price one of the best deals in town.

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From the first number, “Beautiful” (which depicts an Ohio high school experience that is anything but), it’s clear that the show and the production are going to hit the right notes of humor and horror. And leading lady Jessica Quarles is a showstopper in multiple ways: her voice, her performance and not least of all, her pitch-perfect channeling of Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer while avoiding slavish imitation.

Within that one number, we’re immersed in the toxic world of a high school full of bullies and the bullied and the three queens who rule it all: the Heathers (Jocelyn Pickett as Heather Chandler, Samantha Rose Cardenas as Heather Duke and Lizzie Moss as Heather McNamara). In their primary colors, ‘80s shoulder pads and big hair (costumes by Katie Dowse), the Heathers pop and lock with bitchy authority in Alex Rodriguez’s delightful choreography. They’re fierce and they know it.

Once Veronica falls in with these popular mean girls, it’s only a matter of time before her heart and their viciousness will battle to the death, but when Veronica meets the enigmatic, trench coat-wearing JD (Jordon Bridges), that death becomes more than metaphorical.

As the body count begins to rise, the tone of director Erik Scanlon’s production shifts just enough to make the insanity of Westerberg High School and its seeming wave of student suicides both believable, funny and sad.

The Act 2 opener is set at the funeral of two brutish jocks (Paul Hovannes as Kurt and Nick Quintell as Ram), who are believed to have killed themselves as part of a gay love pact. The song, “My Dead Gay Son,” is performed by their dads (Mischa Stephens and Andy Rotchadl), and it is hilarious, sweet and surprising – easily one of the best Act 2 openers in recent memory.

Heathers: The Musical has all the pop hooks and renegade spirit of a big hit, a sort of full-throated revenge fantasy for anyone who has lingering high school damage, which pretty much means all of us.

[bonus interview]
I talked to leading lady Jessica Quarles (who plays Veronica Sawyer) about her experience with Heathers: The Musical for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Ray of Light Theatre’s Heathers: The Musical continues through June 13 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$36. Visit www.rayoflighttheatre.com.

Empty Nesters explores a grand marital canyon

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John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a married couple at a crossroads in Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, part of the 19th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at the Thick House. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

A marriage heads over a cliff, literally, in Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, a co-production of PlayGround and Virago Theatre Company and part of PlayGround’s 19th annual Festival of New Works.

Luckily, the cliff in question is on the western rim of the Grand Canyon, and there happens to be a popular tourist spot called Skywalk that allows visitors to make a u-shaped jaunt on a glass walkway, with the canyon floor more than 3,000 feet below them.

The visitors making this trip are Frances and Greg, played by real-life husband and wife, Pamela Gaye Walker and John Walker. They have just dropped off their young child, a daughter, at college. Their older child, a son, is a college junior, which means that when they return to their Los Angeles home, that home will be what they call in the parenting business, an empty nest. “We have two kids out of the house,” Greg says. “But somehow they cost twice as much.”

While waiting in line for the glass-bottom trek, amid a lot of familiar-sounding squabbling of longtime marrieds, Frances drops a bomb that throws this little Arizona sojourn into a whole different light.

San Francisco playwright Groenveld offers three distinct chapters in this tale of a day in the life of a marriage at a crossroads. The first is at the canyon’s rim. The second is in a busy café, and the third is in a nearby hotel room. Each section delves deeper into the nature of this marriage, which actually seems to be a sturdy marriage built on love and companionship and not a lot of excess drama. At play’s end, just over an hour after it began, Groenveld makes a bold shift in his storytelling that turns Frances and Greg into characters in their own story as they recount a seemingly unimportant few minutes that turns out to be much more vital than they realized.

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Directed by Amy Glazer, The Empty Nesters has a natural rhythm that subtly builds tension and deepens the connection between husband and wife, thus raising the stakes. Married 25 years, Frances and Greg have fallen into distinct patterns of disengagement with each other. She has focused primarily on work and the kids (mostly the kids). He has focused on work and sports (mostly “SportsCenter,” the Dodgers, the Lakers and televised poker tournaments). Now that it’s just them again, they have a big readjustment to make.

They acknowledge that they knew this time would come, but it came more quickly than they realized, with the surprise being an unexpected, unfamiliar and uncomfortable stretch of mid-life without children and retirement still years away. We’ve seen bickering couples with faltering marriages before, but this couple feels more grounded in reality.

It’s never a sure thing that hiring a married couple to play a married couple is going to work in the characters’ favor, but here, under Glazer’s sure directorial hand, there’s a big payoff. The Walkers give us recognizable types – he’s whiny and a little clueless, she’s constantly annoyed and feeling unseen. But Groenveld takes us beyond those façades, and the Walkers open up the emotional lives of these spouses with warmth and compassion. It’s also helpful that there is abundant humor. They’re going through a rough patch, but they both get off a few good laugh lines every now and then.

Once we’re into the motel room scene, it’s easy to empathize with Frances and Greg – there’s no real bad guy…other than time and marriage (or the challenge of) itself. There’s a kind of sexual tension hovering over the scene – not the good kind – and you begin to see how they could easily break apart at this point. But you also sense the depth of their connection and feel the enormity of what they have to lose. That’s what gives The Empty Nesters its edge and makes it feel much heftier than its brief running time.

Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters continues through June 14 as part of the19th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-992-6677 or visit www.playground-sf.org.

One man, two guvnors & 102 belly laughs

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Dan Donohue stars as Francis Henshall, a failed skiffle player who finds himself juggling two masters, in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, a mash-up of slapstick comedy, British pantomime and music-hall revue. Below: The cast also includes (from left) Sarah Moser as Pauline, Becca Lustgarten in the ensemble (background), John-David Keller as Harry Dangle, Robert Sicular as Charlie Clench, Steven Shear in the ensemble and Brad Culver as Alan. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

Francis Henshall may be one sandwich short of a picnic, as they say, but that’s one of many reasons One Man, Two Guvnors is so much fun. Francis’ hunger literally drives the first act’s zaniness, and truth be told, once that hunger is satisfied, the farce loses a bit (but certainly not all) of its oomph. Thankfully there’s a perky skiffle band on stage to keep things bouncing along.

Oh, if only all adaptations could be this fun. When playwright Richard Bean decided to pull Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century comedy into a specific time and place in the 20th century – Brighton, England, 1963 – he did so with an eye to heightening and broadening the comedy from its Venetian origins. Inspired by stock commedia dell’arte characters, we get low-grade hoodlums, charming murderers, girls disguised as boys and a central clown who just wants some fish and chips (or anything edible for that matter).

A massive hit for London’s National Theatre in 2011, Bean’s Guvnors transferred to the West End and then to Broadway, where it scooped up a bunch of awards for its prat-falling, audience-engaging goofiness.

The swaggering, swinging, singing show is finally filtering down to the provinces, and now we have a bright blast of a West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with South Coast Repertory. Director David Ivers and a robust, rowdy cast elicit abundant laughs for more than 2 1/2 hours.

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At the center of the party is Oregon Shakespeare Festival staple Dan Donohue as Francis, the hungry clown who finds himself working for two masters – one a woman disguised as her murdered twin brother (Helen Sadler), the other an overgrown schoolboy of a Lothario on the lam after knifing rival (William Connell) – all so he can afford to buy himself some mushy peas. Donohue is part Conan O’Brien (the ginger part), part Peter Sellers, part VW full of circus clowns (all of them). He’s adept at the physical comedy (his attempt to lift a trunk is surpassed only by the fistfight he gets into…with himself), but he’s also a wonderful actor and makes Francis endearing in his stupidity and hunger (as a Martin Short fan, I also saw a fair amount of Ed Grimley in this Francis as well).

Though Donohue offers a dynamic star turn, he’s really part of an intricate, carefully calibrated comedy machine. The whole cast – decked out in marvelous early ’60s garishness by costumer Meg Neville – works effectively as a team to bust guts and keep the momentum rolling to the clap-along, sing-along ending. The house band, called The Craze, provides pre-show, intermission and post-show merriment (not to mention during-show interludes) with songs by Grant Olding that evoke a mildly famous skiffle quartet from that era. From Liverpool I think. Various cast members get a chance to take lead vocals, and the music adds a little extra carbonation to the lager of the comedy.

Ron Campbell, one of our great local comic actors, is priceless as Alfie, an ancient waiter who never met a staircase he couldn’t tumble down in the most hilarious fashion, and Danny Scheie, another local comedy genius, makes the most of his turn as waiter Gareth (including a pre-show announcement that sets the tone for the evening). Sarah Moser as Pauline bravely lives up to the character’s description of being “pure innocence, unsoiled by education…like a new bucket.” And Claire Warden as Dolly a savvy bookkeeper with a taste for Francis’ antics, is as sexy as she is smart and funny.

Audience members in the orchestra have reason to fear, for there is audience interactivity. Donohue’s Francis magically breaks the fourth wall (he’ll happily tell you all about how great it feels), and he’s unafraid to ask the audience questions and expect an answer. I know some audience members felt a little punked by Francis’ shenanigans, but it’s all in good fun and adds the evening’s feeling of general revelry where anything can happen, and the audience is going to be part of the mayhem.

One Man, Two Guvnors continues an extended run through June 28 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St. Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$57, subject to change. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

ACT’s Strand Theater: the new jewel of mid-Market

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A rendering of the orchestra in American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, which is now officially open. (by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 2014) All photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

A vermillion treasure inside and out, American Conservatory Theater’s new Strand Theater on Market Street is – or should be – the future of San Francisco. This beautiful city is in crisis at the moment, the crisis known as boom, and its character is fading visibly each day. Our diversity, our artists, our culture disappears a little more with every swing of a giant construction crane as gazillion-dollar condos and apartments crowd the airspace.

City government’s slow reaction to this crisis of rampant success means we have lost people and organizations we’ll never get back. Galleries, theater companies, artists, families, musicians, dancers, actors gone, and with them, a piece of what made San Francisco special. And how have our fearless leaders responded in offering assistance to the evicted, the rent increased, the displaced, the creative, the non-tech zillionaires? A shrug and a promise of “meh.”

This week, ACT hosted all the appropriate bigwigs and moneybags to witness the official ribbon cutting of the Strand, a resurrected theater that began life in 1917 as a silent movie and vaudeville house (with an all-female orchestra), became a standard-issue movie theater and then a porn theater before sliding into dereliction as a squat for the homeless and drug addled. Shuttered since 2003, the Strand (which has been known through the years as the Jewel, College, Francesca and Sun), was a poster child of mid-Market blight.

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Then big tech came a-calling. Twitter, Uber and Square moved in. ACT tested the mid-Market waters with a flexible black box theater space in what had heretofore been their Costume Shop just a few doors away from the STrand. And then, the long-held ACT dream of a second stage came to fruition. Ground was broken on the Strand project in fall 2013, and less than two years later, with a hefty bill of $34 million, a theatrical jewel reemerged, possibly better than it ever was before.

As ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff exclaimed in a recent tour for members of the press, the idea behind the space was to make it easy for people to experience theater and make the space welcoming for all. Working with architects from Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Michael Duncan lead architect), the Strand succeeds on both counts.

The building feels accessible from the moment you walk in (BART and MUNI stations are right outside, the Orpheum Theatre is kitty corner, the F Market trolley rumbles by regularly). The two-story, open-air lobby is dominated by a giant electronic screen, the likes of which you see at rock concerts or in Disneyland, and the ghost of the former marble staircase is etched into the floor. Because one of the original cement walls is visible (you can see the grade of the original balcony), the space feels both old and new at the same time. There’s a bar/café in the lobby as well as a ticket office, the interior of which is the vermillion hue that decorates the outside of the building and, it turns out, the inside of the theater as well.

The main theater space holds 283 seats, though the house can be reconfigured into cabaret seating for 175. There’s a mezzanine and a balcony, but nothing feels too far away from the stage (in fact, no seat is further than 52 feet from the stage). The sound feels warm and intimate, which promises quite a different theater experience than you get at ACT’s other theater, the imperial Geary.

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Upstairs there’s a second space, a flexible room called The Rueff, which on the day of the tour, was being used in the evening for an ACT dinner gathering with a small stage for entertainment, but any other time the space could be a classroom or a performance space that seats up to 140. The windows overlook UN Plaza and City Hall (Hello, Mayor Lee! This is the beginning of what a real arts district could look like! Mayor Lee? Hello?), but with the press of a few buttons, sun shades come down and then full blackout shades. Voila, a black box suitable for rental to other theater companies (already happening), for Tenderloin public school students (already happening) or ACT MFA or Young Conservatory students (already happening).

The best kind of arts development is one that invites others in – other artists, other companies, other groups that add to the richness and vitality of the space. This is an ACT building to be sure, but clearly the point is to be inclusive and for ACT to jump into the rental income stream. That’s all good and healthy and provides jobs for artists and the artist adjacent and gives audiences a place to be excited about and visit often.

I’m not privy to the kinds of hoops the City made ACT jump through to get this building built, but I’m sure there were many and they threatened to derail or degrade the project – such is the building of anything here. The City of San Francisco should be begging arts companies to ply their trades along Market Street. The implosion of a proposed arts complex at 950 Market is disastrous in many ways, not the least of which is that it could have been an eastern anchor for the arts district with the Strand to the west. Every viable company that was interested in 950 should be encouraged and funded (in part or in whole) by the City to be part of the Market Street renaissance. If the Strand is any indication, Market Street could be the grand boulevard it should be and all the evidence we need to prove that San Francisco values the arts as much as it should and that our leaders have what it takes to allow this city to boom while its native culture flourishes.

That is not happening now, and that leadership has not asserted itself, but with the Strand as a shining example, we can begin to experience just how extraordinary a Market Street Arts District could – and should and will – be.

The first show in the Strand is Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, which begins performances June 3 and runs through Aug. 9.
There’s a community open house at the Strand on Saturday, June 13 from 9 a.m. to noon.
Visit www.act-sf.org for more information.

Hooked from the start on Yee’s Hookman

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Sarah Matthes (left) is Jess and Taylor Jones is Lexi in Lauren Yee’s Hookman, described as an “existential slasher comedy.” The Encore Theatre Company production continues through May 30 at Z Below. Below: Back in her Connecticut dorm room, Lexi encounters the energetic Chloe (Aily Roper). Photos by James Faerron

Leave it playwright Lauren Yee to bring clear definition to the sub-genre “existential slasher comedy.” That’s exactly what her Hookman is, a fascinating world-premiere play from Encore Theatre Company that draws laughs from teen speak and the usual first year of college tropes but blends in a rich and disturbing examination of loss, responsibility, maturity and what it is to be a young woman in the 21st century.

Is the man with the hook a real serial killer? Did a drunk driver really subvert Lexi’s life and kill her best friend? Is everyone on campus really consumed by demonic seizures and blood lust? Those are some of the questions plaguing Lexi (Taylor Jones), a college freshman whose first return home to California for break didn’t go as planned. She and bestie Jess (Sarah Matthes) did their usual thing: late-night run to In-n-Out then a midnight movie, but amid their friendly car chatter (set designer James Faerron delivers a simple but effective onstage car), there emerges some tension and the kind of growing pains that come from high school friends moving on to different lives on different coasts.

Then tragedy strikes, and when Lexi gets back to school on the East Coast, life is decidedly different and more sinister. Her energetic but enigmatic roommate, Yoonji (Katharine Chin), can’t wait to post the news about Lexi’s involvement in a fatal accident but is willing to attempt sympathy because, as she keeps saying, “your friend died.”

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Lexi doesn’t want to drive in cars, she doesn’t want to go to class. She doesn’t really want to leave her dorm room. What starts out as a funny Skype session with a maybe boyfriend (Devin O’Brien plays all the guys), turns, as things in this play tend to do, dark and serious, indicating that the accident isn’t the only thing tormenting Lexi.

It’s highly likely that all the weirdness in the winter world of Connecticut is a reflection of Lexi’s inner turmoil, but let’s just say it’s really bloody (and bloody interesting) weirdness. Director Becca Wolff delivers a fast-paced 75-minute play with a cast that seems to come more and more to life as the play continues to deepen and darken. Jones’ Lexi is a compelling central character, complex and unreliable as she strains to make sense of grief and guilt and growing pains. Matthes and Chin are colorful characters in Lexi’s life with their talk of otters, Joan Didion and Jameson’s Irish whiskey, but the stage really comes to life with the entrance of Aily Roper as Chloe, a high-energy coed with a penchant for petitions and protests and almost Tourette-like truth telling. Roper has the kind of wild, unpredictable presence that feeds the unsettling nature of this comedy. Sure it’s funny, but it’s also deadly serious, and so is Roper (whose pre-curtain call routine is priceless).

Jessica Lynn Carroll makes a late-in-play appearance as a high school sophomore to haunt your dreams and pierce your hopes for the future of civilization, and though there’s a less bleak ending, a grim weight still presses down after the bows.

In Yee’s Hookman, it’s not the slasher part that’s upsetting (some of the blood effects are quite good), nor is is the comedy that prickles. It’s that existential part that draws blood.

Lauren Yee’s Hookman, an Encore Theatre Company production, continues through May 30 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.

Aurora’s Fifth of July more cherry bomb than firework

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Ken Talley (Craig Marker, center right) debates his future with guests at his Missouri home (from left Harold Pierce, John Girot, Nanci Zoppi, Oceana Ortiz, Jennifer LeBlanc and Elizabeth Benedict) in the Aurora Theatre’s production of Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. Below: Shirley (Oceana Ortiz, left) dramatically enacts meeting her famous future self in front of gathered family and friends (from left, Zoppi, Josh Schell, Girot and Marker). Photos by David Allen

It’s easy to imagine how, in 1978, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July was remarkable for several reasons. It featured a loving gay couple at the center of its family-friend-reunion plot and didn’t make a big deal about it. That’s not what the play is about, but the couple and their relationship are as important as any other on stage. Also, the play wrestles with the repercussions of the 1960s anti-war movements and how all that passionate activism evolved, and in many cases, dissipated into the ’70s.

Some have compared Wilson to Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why – a large group of people at a country house (in this case, it’s a 19-room house in Lebanon, Missouri) musing on how they find themselves older and atop a heap of broken dreams. But the comparison really ends there. Wilson’s characters are very much the product of their time, which leaves Fifth of July feeling rather dated and, in the current Aurora Theatre Company production, rather dull.

It’s unfair to compare the play (which was produced on Broadway in 1980) with The Big Chill, which came out in 1983, but while watching the Aurora production, I couldn’t help thinking about how similar they are and how much more fun the movie is. But Wilson was first, so he should get credit, even if Fifth of July creaks more often than it should (a paternity subplot is downright deadly).

The central issue with director Tom Ross’ production is that it feels entirely surface. There are good actors in the cast working hard to break through the veneer of people playing ’70s dress-up, but that shiny surface never cracks. So if there are depths to this play, they are not visible here. And what is visible is only fitfully interesting.

Fifth of July 2

Craig Marker is Ken Talley, a Vietnam vet who lost both of his legs in battle. Ken and his lover, Jed (an understated Josh Schell) are at the Talley family home for the summer, though Ken is there most of the time, while Jed lives in St. Louis. They are joined by assorted family and friends for the Fourth of July weekend. Ken’s sister, June (Jennifer LeBlanc), and her daughter, Shirley (Oceana Ortiz), are also there, as is their Aunt Sally (Elizabeth Benedict), whose senior years are threatening to take her to California and the kind of life she’s not much interested in.

Also in the house are old friends of Ken and June’s from their wild, cocaine- and protest-filled UC Berkeley days, Gwen Nanci Zoppi) and her husband, John (John Girot), and a strange hippie-ish musician named Wes (Harold Pierce) who is going to help Gwen become a country-western star. It’s an eclectic lot, and Wilson doesn’t really give them much to do. Ken’s struggle to move on with his life and adapt to a different body and world is the most compelling component of the story, and Marker makes Ken likable even if he never quite discovers the darker shades under Ken’s attempts at good humor. The scene stealer here is Benedict as Aunt Sally, who, in the second act, comes as close as this production gets to being lively.

LeBlanc, a superb actor, does what she can with a woefully underwritten role, and Ortiz has to contend with some of the least believable dialogue ever written for a teen character. Many of the actors have a good moment or two but seem adrift and unable to really make a strong connection with the play or the audience.

Set designer Richard Olmstead gets points for building an enormous house in the tiny Aurora space and then takes us from inside the house in Act 1 to outside in Act 2 – no small feat in such a limited space.

But then again, maybe the size of this show is part of the problem. The Aurora is an up-close-and-personal space, and it’s entirely possible that Fifth of July, heralded by many as an American classic, works best from a distance and suffers in close-up.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July continues through May 17 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org