A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Ideation redux: still smart, thrilling, funny

Ideation 2
The team – (from left) Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely and Ben Euphrat – deals with a surprise personnel issue in the SF Playhouse main stage debut of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation. Below: Superstars of management consulting, Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), return from a job in Crete, which they found full of cretins. Photos by Jessica Palopoli (photo of Aaron Loeb by Lauren English)

In November of last year I reviewed a play by Bay Area playwright Aaron Loeb, and I loved it. That play, Ideation, was part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sand Box Series, an incubator for new works. For a new play, Ideation was in remarkably good shape and went on to win the Glickman Award, which is given to the best play to have its world premiere in the Bay Area.

Knowing a good thing when he saw it, SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English, decided to open his 12th main stage season with Ideation – same director (Josh Costello), same sterling cast (Ben Euphrat, Jason Kapoor, Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely).

The results are just as they should be. Loeb has tweaked the play a bit. The ending has more punch, and both the thrills and the laughs have been punched up a few notches. It’s one of the best plays you’ll see about paranoia and how quickly the seemingly “normal” can become abnormally scary.

I stand by my original review (read it here) and feel like improvements have been made (including a slick set by English) that make Ideation the must-see play of the fall.

Ideation 1

I wrote a tiny feature on Ideation for the San Francisco Chronicle (read it here), but Loeb submitted himself to an email interview what was too good not to share. So here is the interview in its entirety.

Q: What inspired you to write Ideation?
I was inspired by my work in tech (video games, specifically) and also my wife’s work as an international human rights lawyer at the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco. I had just started working with former management consultants for the first time in my life and I was entranced by their language and their thinking process. I was amazed by the way they could take any problem and break it down into its component parts, then relentlessly problem solve until they made progress.

At the same time, my wife was in the midst of leading a civil suit against the former defense minister of Somalia, filed by victims of the genocide and crimes against humanity in Somalia and Somaliland in the 80s. I learned in her preparation and work on the case about the systematic and methodical ways in which the crimes were planned.

Aaron Loeb
Somehow, the two things became connected and I was writing a play about management consultants working on something possibly terrible.

Q: How (if at all) has Ideation changed since its Sandbox premiere last year and how have you approached this second production?
I’ve done some significant rewrites to Ideation – though they might not be noticeable to everyone. I’ve strengthened the relationships of the characters and clarified the build-up to the ending of the play. Some of the changes are based on feedback I received from the first run. Some of it is to resolve issues I was never completely happy with.

There was a section in the middle of the play that I always felt was a bit too circular (as in, the characters discuss a problem once, then they discuss it again, just 10 percent more intensely). I’ve flattened out that circle now so that it’s a steady progression. 

A lot of the changes are in the construction of the play, not in any of the story elements. The biggest changes are in Hannah’s character to make it clearer who she is and to strengthen the fact that this is her story.

One of the things I’m so happy about in this next production is that the artistic team has remained intact. Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely, Jason Kapoor and Ben Euphrat are all recreating their roles from the first run and Josh Costello is directing once again. Bill English is designing the set this time, but also serves in his ongoing capacity as my unerringly honest reader; we’ve done three world premieres together and now have a shorthand that is pretty irreplaceable. 

Because it’s the same team together again, we have the chance to go deeper than we did last time. It’s a rare, rare opportunity.
Q: What did winning the Glickman Award for Ideation mean to you?
Any time you win an award with the pedigree of the Glickman, it means a lot. Angels in America won the Glickman with its world premiere. It’s an award with an incredible history, and it means the world to me to have been honored in such a way.

That said, the part of winning the Glickman I will always remember is the award ceremony at the annual Theatre Bay Area conference. Because this is an award bestowed by local theater critics, at the ceremony three of the judges of the award – Robert Hurwitt, Sam Hurwitt and someone calling himself “Chad Jones” (if that is his real name) – presented the award and each spoke about my writing. They didn’t talk about Ideation only, but about all of my plays. 

I don’t know any of the three men very well personally (I’m Facebook friends with two of them, but you could count the hours I’ve spent with the three on one hand), but each of them spoke about my work with such clarity, it was as though we were old friends. 

What a remarkable thing, I thought. I’ve had a years-long conversation with each of them through the theater.

This is only possible in a community. The play was born here in the Bay Area (as part of Just Theater‘s Play Lab), then developed at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, then premiered at SF Playhouse, then embraced by the Bay Area’s top critics.

As a writer, it is possible to feel terribly alone most of the time. You wonder if anyone will ever hear you. Winning the Glickman, I felt the embrace of my entire community, which was particularly gratifying because it gave me an opportunity to publicly thank everyone who helped me bring the play to life.

Ideation continues through Nov. 8 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Aaron Loeb wins Glickman for Ideation

Ideation was a good idea from the start.

Berkeley-based playwright Aaron Loeb is the winner of the 2013 Will Glickman Playwright Award for the best new play to premiere in the San Francisco Bay Area. Loeb won for Ideation, Aaron Loebwhich had its premiere last fall at San Francisco Playhouse as part of the company’s “Sandbox Series” for new work. Josh Costello directed.

The play, about a brainstorming business meeting with ever-deeper complications and paranoias, is a fascinating blend of comedy and thriller. In my original review of the show I called it “a thrillingly electric theatrical experience” and it ended up on my Top 10 list as my favorite play of the year.

The award includes a $4,000 check for the playwright and a plaque for the producing company. Now Loeb and Ideation join the ranks of previous Glickman winners including last year’s Christopher Chen, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Tony Kushner, Luis Alfaro, Anne Galjour, John Fisher, Octavio Solis, Brian Freeman, Rajiv Joseph and Philip Kan Gotanda among many others.

The award will be presented at the Theatre Bay Area conference on April 14, and Ideation will open the San Francisco Playhouse 2014-15 season on the main stage.

In the San Francisco Playhouse world premiere of Ideation, the cast included (from left) Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely. Photo by Jordan Puckett

This year’s Glickman committee comprised yours truly, Robert Avila of the Bay Guardian, Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group, Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle and Sam Hurwitt of Theatre Bay Area and the Idiolect.

Here’s a complete list of Glickman Award winners

2013 The Hundred Flowers Project, Christopher Chen (Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation)
2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

Here’s an idea: go see SF Playhouse’s Ideation. Now.

Ideation 2
Coworkers Ted (Michael Ray Wisely, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) find a routine session of ideation turning into something much more complicated…and terrifying in the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program. Below: Members of the team (from left, Wisely, Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Ben Euphrat) prepare to face the big boss and make choices that could affect their lives in big ways. Photos by Jordan Puckett

Don’t you love it when a new play starts out and you really like it, then it turns into something else and you like it even more? That’s what happens with Ideation, a world-premiere play by local scribe Aaron Loeb that is part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, an incubator for new plays.

As new plays go, Ideation is in remarkably good shape primarily because Loeb’s writing is so smart, sharp and full of grounding humor. It also helps that director Josh Costello has done such incisive work with his excellent cast. This is straightforward, bare-bones drama: one simple set (a generic office conference room by Alicia Griffiths), no special effects, consistently good performances and a script that continually surprises.

The 90-minute one-act begins as an engaging look at corporate power dynamics. An important meeting is going to start in minutes, and Hannah (Carrie Paff) is having some trouble with her young, male assistant, Scooter (Ben Euphrat). He’s a hotshot MBA student at Cal, and the fact that his daddy is on the board is amply reflected in his attitude of entitlement. He’d rather play with the big boys in the meeting than get Hannah the coffee she has asked for.

Ideation 1

Then the big boys arrive, fresh from a business trip to Crete, which proved to be a triumph in “passing liabilities.” Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) are kings in this high-powered consulting firm, and now they turn their attention to a top-secret project called Senna.

Playwright Loeb builds such a believable sense of camaraderie and serious skills/good humor among the players here (excepting young Scooter, or “Scoots” as Brock calls him) that it takes a while for the audience to figure out just what this team is working on. Clues begin to fill the dry-erase board – liquidation facility, containment, cremation – and a heavy sense of “uh oh” begins to pervade the stage. What could they possibly be designing? When, at the start of their work, they agree not to mention the “n-word,” that word turns out to be even worse than you might think.

And that’s the joy of Ideation – a workplace comedy/drama that becomes quite a serious and seriously thrilling thriller (at one point it’s even sexy – how did that happen?). The people on this team are smart cookies, and when they really start to delve into this project and its implications, their sense of paranoia and outright fear becomes quite palpable. Trust in facts and each other begins to crumble, replaced by a realization that they could be involved in something enormously global or as small as a corporate exercise. Loeb has a lot to say about corporations as well and the fact that the only three guiding principles in the world are “country, profit, God.”

By the time Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” starts booming through the conference room, the sheer delight in the mystery of Ideation is in full flower. Secret relationships are revealed. There are mysterious disappearances and reappearances. And the momentum builds until the inevitable conclusion.

That ending is my only equivocation with Ideation. It ends right where you think it will (which is a perfectly logical and sensible place to end), but I was hoping for one more juicy, head-spinning surprise – that final jolt to cap a thrillingly electric theatrical experience.

Aaron Loeb’s Ideation continues through Dec. 7 as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program at the Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415l-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Theater by the Bay: Best of 2008

Theatergoing in the San Francisco Bay Area is one of life’s treats. No question about it. If you love theater, this is a wonderland. In this devastating economic climate, may that only hold true for the next couple of years.

There is so much good theater here, so many incredible actors, writers, directors and crafts people that an annual Top 10 is often difficult to wrangle. That’s why the Top 10 is followed by a list of other shows that should, by all rights, also be included in the Top 10, but numbers being the chronological beasts that they are, dictate on show per number (still, I cheated with No. 6 and included two shows by one playwright).

1. TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori – My favorite show of the year peeled yet another layer of this incredible musical to reveal a work of sheer genius. Director Robert Kelly and his extraordinary leading lady, C. Kelly Wright, offered some of their best work ever, and that’s saying something.

2. California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles – Adapted and directed by Joel Sass, this incredibly colorful telling of one of Shakespeare’s oddest tales was entrancing and memorable, especially on a warm summer night in the gorgeous Bruns Amphitheatre in Ordina.

3. Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ Angry Black White Boy adapted by Dan Wolf from Adam Mansbach’s novel – The year’s most exciting new work was a bold act of contemporary theatricality, blending hip-hop, spoken word, drama and movement into a seamless blend directed by Sean San Jose. Good news for anyone who missed it – the show returns to Intersection Jan. 29-Feb. 15.

4. SF Playhouse’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party by Aaron Loeb – We had to wait all year for a world-premiere play that entertained as much as it titillated and thrilled. Funny, serious and wacky, this Chris Smith-directed musing on a divided America proved to be as smart as it is imaginative.

5. Traveling Jewish Theater and Thick Description’s Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain by David Greenspan — Weird and wild barely begins to describe this play about a gay son who essentially becomes his dead mother. Outstanding, memory-searing performances came from Liam Vincent and Deb Fink in Tony Kelly’s production.

6. SF Playhouse’s Shining City and Marin Theatre Company’s The Seafarer, both by Conor McPherson – Ireland’s top-tier playwright received two outstanding productions by local theaters, each demonstrated his compassionate (and slightly warped) humanity.

7. Shotgun Players and Banana, Bag & Bodice’s Beowulf – This rock musical take on one of college lit’s greatest hits was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. Composer Dave Malloy and writer Jason Craig breathed new life into an Old English classic. This one comes back for one performance only, Jan. 8, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, before heading out to conquer New York.

8. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy by Will Eno – Audiences were sharply divided over this existential dark night of the soul as filtered through a TV news team. I loved its Beckettian aridness and humor, and Les Waters’ production was anchored by an outstanding cast.

9. Magic Theatre’s Octopus by Steve Yockey – Water poured and unease flowed in director by Kate Warner’s splashy production of a challenging, unnerving play in which death and disease ooze into every nook and cranny.

10. American Conservatory Theater’s Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard – ACT often does its best work with Stoppard, and this was on exception. Director Carey Perloff revealed the rich rewards of this dense, emotional work.

And now a few other greats in no particular order: Theatre Rhinoceros’ Ishi: The Last of the Yahi by John Fisher; Cal Shakes’ An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde; Magic Theatre’s Evie’s Waltz by Carter W. Lewis; SF Playhouse’s Bug by Tracy Letts; Word for Word’s Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Busy World Is Hushed by Keith Bunin; ACT’s The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson; Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal.

It was quite a year for excellent solo shows as well. Here are some highlights: Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Rep; Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul at Thick Description; Roger Rees’ What You Will at ACT; Ann Randolph’s Squeeze Box at The Marsh; Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking at Berkeley Rep; Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother at the Marines Memorial Theatre; Billy Connolly live at the Post Street Theatre; Mark Nadler’s Russian on the Side at the Marines.

And, it has to be said, not everything is genius. Here are shows that lingered less than fondly in memory: Darren Romeo’s The Voice of Magic at the Post Street Theatre; Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector at ACT; Cybill Shepherd in Bobby Goldman’s Curvy Widow at the Post Street Theatre; Edna O’Brien’s Tir na nOg (Land of Youth) at the Magic Theatre.

Review: `Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party’

The cast of Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party performs an elaborate opening number in the SF Playhouse world-premiere production. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.


History, politics, utter zaniness collide in Honest Abe’s `Dance Party’
««« ½

Aaron Loeb’s world-premiere play Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party at the SF Playhouse embraces adventurous theatricality. There’s drama, comedy, dancing, politicized fourth graders, absurdity, murder, betrayal, romance, insanity, corruption, rampant homosexuality and even more rampant conservatism.

In short, this is an ambitious play that includes just about everything you can think of. By rights, the play shouldn’t work. With so much going on, the focus should be shot and the play’s intentions scattered all over the place.

But the great thing about Loeb, working with director Chris Smith (former artistic director of the Magic Theatre), is that he’s a ferocious entertainer. As he demonstrated last year, also at the SF Playhouse, with First Person Shooter, he builds plays with a sort of maniacal energy that helps them careen from scene to scene and back again.

Abraham Lincoln, which opened Saturday, is above all else, a hugely entertaining show. The fact that it has something serious on its mind is less immediately apparent when the cast of seven – all dressed as Abraham Lincoln — is performing an elaborate dance number (choreography by Kimberly Richards and Tom Segal) that pays goofy homage to the likes of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

There’s even a gimmick afoot to complicate the proceedings. The cast invites the audience to vote on the order of the three acts (with two intermissions). As we hear about the “trial of the century” in Menard County, Illinois, we’re asked if we want to hear first from the defense attorney, the prosecuting attorney or the reporter covering the trial for the New York Times.

On opening night we began with the defense attorney, Regina (Velina Brown), a black Republican senator with designs on the governor’s office (hard to imagine anyone at this moment in history wanting to be governor of Illinois). Her mentor and dear friend, Tom (Joe Kady), a disgraced senator of the Regan vintage, has surprised her by wanting the governor’s chair for himself.

Tom is using the bully pulpit of a county courtroom to stage his comeback. He’s prosecuting a fourth-grade teacher (Lorraine Olsen) for allowing her students’ Christmas pageant to claim that Abraham Lincoln liked to sleep with men and was likely in love with his friend Joshua Speed (as some historians have claimed).

Not to be outdone by Tom’s grandstanding, Regina and her trusty assistant, Tina (Sarah Mitchell), head for the cornfield county and proceed to play dirty and grab some headlines for themselves.

Loeb plays fast and loose with styles here. On Bill English’s highly efficient, Lincoln-plastered set full clever compartments and cupboards, action shifts quickly. We have realism in the offices of the politicos, then we have broad slapstick, as with the members of the press. The hayseed reporter, Sparky McGee, is a rube with flashes of brilliance. The blogger is a Bluetooth-y ass. And the New York Times reporter, Anton (Mark Anderson Phillips, above right, with Michael Phillis), arrives wearing a kingly cape amid reverent huzzahs.

It turns out that Anton will become an actual character in this drama, and his story was the second one we saw on opening. He arrives in Menard with his best gal pal, fashion photographer Esmeralda (Brown again in a zesty comic performance) and immediately makes a beeline for Tom’s pie shop-owning son, Jerry (Michael Phillis). If Tom is so insistent on continuing the gay witch hunt he began in the Reagan administration, Anton is going to make sure there are no useful secrets in the former senator’s family closet.

Anton’s story is the most poignant of the three because of his interaction with Jerry, a sensitive young man trapped by family in a painfully untenable situation. The two men have a heated scene in the thick of a corn field (English’s set triumphs yet again), and Loeb’s writing crackles with intelligence and intensity.

The third act on opening night was told from Tom’s point of view, and this proved to be the trickiest of the trilogy. Tom’s anti-gay crusade is never fully explored, and as issues of mental health enter into the picture, his motives become even fuzzier. Still, Kady gives an extraordinarily full performance as the troubled family man who isn’t above hiring a Karl Rove-like operative (Brian Degan Scott) to smooth the way to the governor’s office.

It’s hard to overstate the skill of this ensemble. Everyone plays multiple roles, and they all zip from comedy to drama and back (not to mention all the dancing) with ease. They all have individual moments to shine, but the greatest impression comes from their work together. There’s real connection here, and that’s another element that helps this scattershot approach adhere.

That said, Phillips and Phillis do extraordinary work together, and their characters both end up being far more interesting than first impressions would indicate.

Through it all, Loeb keeps returning to Abraham Lincoln, whose iconic visage permeates the entire production, both in serious and comic ways. A statesman, a humanitarian, an enigma and, perhaps most importantly, an American, Lincoln lends a certain gravitas to the evening. Even at its zaniest – and things do get zany – there are serious issues, both political and personal, being thrown around.

But here’s the thing: Loeb and this fantastic production aren’t on any soapbox. They’re throwing an all-American bash, and we’re all invited.


Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party continues through Jan. 17 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

SF Playhouse’s `Big Gay Dance’ season

It’s worth reporting SF Playhouse’s 2008-09 season just for the name of the second show of the season. Check it out:

Shining City by Conor McPherson (Oct. 1-Nov. 22) – Wonderful Irish playwright’s modern-day ghost story.

Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party by Aaron Loeb (Dec. 3-Jan. 17) -This new comedy by local scribe Loeb tracks the happenings surrounding the outing of Abe Lincoln by a fourth grader at a Christmas pageant.

Landscape of the Body by John Guare (Jan. 28-March 7) – Long overdue Bay Area premiere of Guare’s part-play, part-musical.

The Story by Tracey Scott Wilson (March 18-April 25) – Drama based on the true story of a New York Times reporter fabricating a story. A co-production with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

TBA (May 6-June 13)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and Dale Wasserman (June 24-Sept. 5) – Nurse Ratched, oil up your sneer. It’s time to head back to the asylum.

For information visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `First Person Shooter’

Opened May 5, 2007 at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse’s sharp `Shooter’ targets violence, video games
three [1/2] stars Current, vital

We love tidiness in our news. The worse the news, it seems, the less we want to think about it, so we welcome a hasty generalization here, a rush to place blame there. Stories become so simplified so quickly we often lose sight of certain things — like the human cost of whatever horrible event has transpired.

Taking his cue from the Columbine tragedy (Virginia Tech happened well after the play was finished), Berkeley playwright Aaron Loeb invents a school shooting that might have been inspired by a violent video game and then lets the jagged, messy pieces fall into a dramatic pile that is anything but tidy.

And that’s a good thing.

Loeb’s First Person Shooter opened Saturday in a world-premiere production at SF Playhouse. The play was commissioned by PlayGround, the group that presents short plays by local writers on a monthly basis.

Loeb, who has won multiple awards in the short-play format, expands to full length with relative ease and reveals himself to be a writer of distinct skill. Much of the play is set in the offices of a hip, geeky video game company, and Loeb’s ear for contemporary rhythms and dialogue is unerring.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Loeb’s day job is as COO of a San Francisco video game company.

But more than that, Loeb is able to cut through the frenzy — of money-hungry gamesters, of lawsuits, of media madness — and find the heart of tragedy.

This is not a play about whether or not video game violence (or violence in movies or in rap music for that matter) causes real-life violence. Rather, Loeb uses his dramatic muscle to wrest the story out of the sound byte realm and back into the world of three-dimensional human beings dealing with grief, confusion, fear and a need to place blame.

“We need to hold some of the people accountable for some of the evil in this world,” says one character.

That sentiment covers a lot of ground here. In the wake of an Illinois high school shooting _ two teen shooters killed 14 classmates, including the only African-American student in the school _ makers of a violent, gun-based online video game called “Megaton” are pulled into the glare of the national spotlight.

Prior to the killings, one of the shooters left a message on the game’s Web site essentially saying “thanks for the practice.”

The lawyers then converge on the rural Illinois town with statistics claiming that video games alter brain chemistry and that “it’s only a matter of time before boys try to live out the game.” Their goal is to recruit as many grieving parents as possible for a lawsuit against the video game company.

Clearly, coming from the video game industry, Loeb has a distinct point of view when it comes to whether or not video games are responsible for real-life violence. But that’s not what interests him here.

He deflects that issue by focusing on the game’s primary creator, Kerry Davis (an intense Craig Marker, above), a damaged man still suffering his wife’s violent rape/murder.

There are distinct correlations between this particular video game and this particular killing spree, and the connection dredges up issues of racism, vengeance and accountability.
If anything, there’s too much packed into Loeb’s two-hour drama. Action shifts back and forth from the video game company’s offices to an Illinois farm.

At the office, Kerry deals with co-workers who are sympathetic (Kate Del Castillo as Tamar), jerky (Chad Deverman as Tommy) and terrified (Sung Min Park as Wilson). And on the farm, we meet the father of a murdered student (Adrian Roberts as Daniel) and his second wife (Susi Damilano, left with Roberts, as Rose).

The play comes into clear focus when the two grief-stricken men _ Kerry and Daniel _ are forced together in a TV news interview (an extraordinary scene) and later when they attempt to relate one-on-one as men suffering unthinkable loss.

Director Jon Tracy’s production is lean and powerful (video projections by Brian Degan Scott, Nick Bruty and Kevin Wright put us inside the video game), though he doesn’t seem to trust the drama of the play enough. He continually has his actors pounding and slamming furniture between scenes as if to remind us this drama has impact.

He needn’t worry. Loeb’s play is that rarity in theater: an insightful examination of current events that seems at once relevant and timeless.

For information about First Person Shooter visit www.sfplayhouse.org.