Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Theater as contact sport in SF Playhouse’s dazzling Colossal

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The team prepares for a workout in Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal at San Francisco Playhouse: (actors, from left) Ed Berkeley, Brian Conway, Cameron Matthews, Thomas Gorrebeeck, Xander Ritchey and Brandon Hsieh. Below: Mike (Jason Stojanovski), in a wheelchair, and his younger self (Thomas Gorrebeeck) view playbacks of the play that changed his life. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Colossal at San Francisco Playhouse is a (foot)balls-out theatrical experience that manages to provoke thought and elicit feeling all the while it dazzles with its aggressive stagecraft.

Andrew Hinderaker’s play sets up theater as a competitive sport, that is, this play is competing with itself by placing a large scoreboard-type timer above the stage and letting four quarters unfold in real time over an hour. Then there’s also the turf-covered playing field (set by Bill English), the bright Friday night-style lights (design by Kurt Landisman) and the ear-piercing whistles (sound design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker). This is more than a stage for a play: it’s a playing field ready for intense action.

And that’s what it gets for about an hour – there is football tossing and tackling like you’d see on any field. But then there’s a dance/choreography element as well as a fantastic marching drumline (Alex Hersler, Zach Smith and Andrew Humann) to punctuate nearly every beat of the drama. There are seven football players on stage, sometimes in full gear, sometimes not (and more times than you might imagine shirtless), and they begin their workout before the show begins to get the blood pumping. You can’t even address the topic of football unless you’re pumped up, and that’s part of the point.

Hinderaker’s play wants to match the energy and testosterone level of an actual football game, and he does that by combining character-driven drama with all the (literal) bells and whistles of a football game combined with the he-man-godlike players attempting to be the superheroes their coach (and the gridiron-crazed fans) expect them to be. In director Jon Tracy’s muscular production, the play is successful on all counts – manic energy matched with outsize performances and a whole lot of theatrical dazzle that turns America’s most brutal pastime into a disarming evening of theater.

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This is a taboo-busting play that wants nothing less than to look into the very nature of masculinity and why its exaggerated displays of force on the football field are so alluring both to players and to fans in spite of the toll this display takes on physical health and long-term well-being. Within the world of these players (and their coach, played by Dave Maier who is so realistic you’d do laps if he told you to), you see men reveling in the homoerotic (the butt slaps, the close physical contact, the stripped-down workouts) while decrying it at the same time. Any show of anything other than ultra-masculinity is cause for name-calling or physical violence.

When Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) dances onto the field, he literally dances. His form of rebellion is to play football in direct opposition to his father (Robert Parsons), an esteemed dancer and head of a famous company. Mike grew up as a dancer, which automatically makes him less than manly in the eyes of the other players. But he proves himself on the field (a well-executed pirouette can evade the most brutal of tackles) and ends up as team captain (I was never quite certain, but I feel like this team is a university team).

We see Mike’s story unfold from the point of view of Mike 10 months in the future, in a wheelchair after a devastating spinal injury on the field (“I was reckless instead of fearless,” he says). Older Mike (Jason Stojanovski) is going through rehab, and in what is perhaps the play’s weakest gimmick, his physical therapist (a game Wiley Naman Strasser) is putting a lot of emphasis on the “therapist” part of his job, coaxing from Mike all of his secrets.

The biggest secret has to do with Mike’s co-captain, Marcus (Cameron Matthews), who has disappeared from Mike’s life following his injury. Issues of sexuality do battle with notions of what makes a good football player (or a man, really), and Mike seems much more comfortable with who he is than Marcus does, at least before the accident. The theater as a sport element, with that clock ticking through each quarter, really comes into play in the fourth quarter – will the emotional denouement occur before the clock runs out? It’s a strange thing to watch theater on the clock, but it’s also strangely effective here.

The collision of football and dance, both in the story and the physical production, is fascinating. The players (Xander Ritchey, Brandon Leland, Ed Berkeley, Jacob Hsieh, Brian Conway and Travis Santell Rowland) do an admirable job blending the dance choreography by Keith Pinto and the football choreography (by coach Maier himself), and Gorrebeeck as Mike manages to be tough, vulnerable, graceful and charismatic through it all, while Stojanovski’s post-accident Mike is a mass of tension, regret, grief and, ultimately, strength.

There’s a lot going on in Colossal, a play unlike any I’ve ever seen, where form is content and the more traditional parts (like where old Mke and young Mike converse and work through their issues) are less persuasive than the more daring and physical elements. The physicality is so powerful that it’s likely the story could be told – by this cast anyway – simply through percussion, movement and the passion men have for football…and each other.

Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal continues through April 30 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit