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: `Squeeze Box’

At The Marsh in San Francisco through June 29


Ann Randolph wrote and stars in Squeeze Box at The Marsh. The solo show is about her loss and rediscovery of faith.

Superb solo show squeezes out laughs, drama
«««1/2 Extraordinary characters


There are certain people who, when they recommend a show, I snap to attention and see the show. One of those people is Anne Bancroft, the late great actress who will never stop delighting me with her talent. Bancroft had this to say about Ann Randolph’s solo show Squeeze Box: “When I first saw [Squeeze Box], I was deeply moved. Ann Randolph’s amazing work, both as a writer and fellow performer, touched my heart and my mind so profoundly that I felt it belonged on the New York stage.”

Bancroft and her husband, Mel Brooks, became producers of Randolph’s show and gave it a successful off-Broadway run in 2004. Since then, Randolph has been doing Squeeze Box around the world while she has continued to develop new work. That’s what brings her to The Marsh in San Francisco. Randolph does her show two nights a week, works on new characters and new monologues and conducts workshops in developing solo shows.

Lucky us.

There’s something so incredibly theatrical about a one-person show. We have two excellent examples in the Bay Area right now – Randolph’s show and Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (now extended through June 11) – in which women, on a mostly bare stage, become a cast of characters that we willingly and enthusiastically see beyond the shape and size of the amazing actress creating them.

Randolph’s autobiographical story is really one of faith. When we first meet the likeable, slightly goofy Ann, she’s working a minimum-wage job at a shelter for mentally ill homeless women in Santa Monica. The job is wearing on her, and she’s beginning to feel like no matter how hard she works or how much she cares, she is not really helping the women. Her life, she concludes, has ceased to progress. She has failed to move forward and, as a result, has lost the faith that once made her want to become a saint and provide “encouragement, hope and love to those most easily forgotten.”

One of the ways Ann hopes to get some life back into her life is through a personal ad on She’s hoping to find a rugged man with a love for Brahms. The rugged look, it seems, really turns her on. “Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to homeless men,” she says.

The man she finds is Harold, a musician and weekend hiker who speaks (and feels) in a monotone. But when Ann finds out what instrument Harold plays, it’s very nearly a deal breaker. He plays the accordion, the squeeze box and the soundtrack to many a beery oompah-pah Saturday night.

Nothing in Randolph’s tale is quite what you expect. There’s a whole lot of frank sex talk (especially from Brandy, the paranoid schizophrenic crack-head whore who lives in the shelter), and Ann’s downward spiral is quite dramatic (though the 75-minute show has loads of humor). The characters come and go, with some making more of an impression than others. The hippie-ish Shoshanna is there to represent liberal hypocrisy, while Julie, the shelter counselor just arrived from Christ the King Salvation Center, is a Bible thumper in the worst possible sense and couldn’t be more insensitive to the world around her.

Though the character of Irene, a new resident at the shelter, only makes a brief appearance, she has tremendous impact. Randolph pulls her hair up into a crude bun, twists her malleable face into something akin to a pain mask and strums the guitar while Irene sings of her marital woe. It’s a funny song that turns incredibly poignant. Irene, like Ann, has lost her faith in a big way.

But unlike Irene, Ann is able to rediscover faith through Harold, and in particular, a concert performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Randolph brings the show full circle and allows her audience to taste what she experienced in that concert hall: the redemptive power of art.

As a bonus for San Francisco audiences, Randolph is doing excerpts of new work after performances of Squeeze Box. On the night I saw the show, she showed a short film called Disaster Relief that she directed and stars in. She read pieces of a monologue then costumed herself as a demented crack whore and let herself get full into the foul-mouthed, interesting character. From there she assumed the character of Carol Diddle, a landlady in Santa Monica who loathes the impoverished artists who live in her building and can’t pay their rent. Carol is a disturbing character – far more so than the crack whore. Scary.

Squeeze Box continues through June 29 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Shows are at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Visit Ann Randolph’s Web site here: