2012 flasback: 10 to remember

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James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of the things I love about Bay Area theater is that picking a Top 10 list is usually a breeze. My surefire test of a great show is one I can remember without having to look at anything to remind me about it. The entire list below was composed in about five minutes, then I had to go look through my reviews to make sure they were all really this year. They were, and it was a really good year.

10. “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden” by Thornton Wilder, part of Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company

9. The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

8. Tenderloin by Annie Elias with Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman, Cutting Ball Theater

7. The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, American Conservatory Theater

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6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

5. The Hundred Flowers Project by Christopher Chen, Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation

4. Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, California Shakespeare Theater

3. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Marin Theatre Company

2. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, American Conservatory Theater

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker appears twice on this list and could have appeared a third time for Aurora’s Body Awareness. This was the year of Annie Baker in the Bay Area – the first time her work was done here, and with any luck, not her last.

The most valuable player award in this list goes to Stacy Ross, who was extraordinary in #1 (Any Given Day) and #10 (“The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden”). In Any Given Day, she appeared opposite James Carpenter, another valuable player, and to see two of the Bay Area’s best actors work opposite each other in a remarkable play was sheer theatrical joy.

Three of the shows on this list – The Normal Heart, The Scottsboro Boys and The White Snake – all originated at other places, but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant or make ACT or Berkeley Rep any less canny for having the wherewithal and smarts to present them to local audiences.

Another name that is on this list twice is George C. Wolfe, represented as the adapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, seen in a joyous production at Cal Shakes, and as director of the riveting and emotionally intense The Normal Heart at ACT.

There are two new plays here (#5, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project and #8, Cutting Ball’s ensemble-created Tenderloin). They couldn’t have been more different, but they were both illuminating and exciting and felt a whole lot bigger than the small spaces in which they were taking place (in scope and importance, not in size).

As ever, thank you for reading Theater Dogs. This is a labor of love, and it would be silly for me to be here without you.

Happy New Year.

Rough neighborhood, extraordinary theater

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Leroy and Kathy Looper (Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko), Tenderloin community activists and owners of the Cadillac Hotel, describe the Tenderloin as a “containment zone.” Below: Filipino Health and Wellness Director Ester Aure (Tristan Cunningham) gives a motivational talk in Cutting Ball Theater’s World Premiere of Tenderloin. Photos by Rob Melrose

Waiting for a friend in front of the EXIT on Taylor theater, where Cutting Ball Theater is in residence, I had what you might call a Tenderloin experience. On Taylor between Eddy and Ellis, right smack dab in the middle of what some consider one of the least desirable neighborhoods in San Francisco (certainly in downtown San Francisco), the theater is not exactly in a prime tourist spot. There’s always a lot of activity in the neighborhood, much of it the kind that makes an outsider keep eyes averted, head down and feet moving quickly.

So there I was, pacing the sidewalk. Across the street, a man in some sort of state was speaking loudly and doing a sort of dance with a parking meter. With some difficulty, he got himself out of his jacket, which he draped over the meter and then sort of danced with it. Well, danced and held himself up with it. The shouting continued and quickly began to be directed more toward me. The man stumble-walked across the street, and because there’s a downhill slope, he ended up on my side of the street a little further toward the corner. But the shouting was definitely directed at me, something about how he’s a veteran and could kill me and who did I think I was. He tried spitting for emphasis, but mostly spattered the right side of his shirt.

I must admit a little relief when my theater date arrived, and we were able to move on. The irony is that the show we were seeing, Cutting Ball’s world-premiere Tenderloin, takes as its subject this neighborhood and its denizens. I felt like my own personal version of the show had already begun on the sidewalk outside the theater.

You may think you know the Tenderloin – drugs, poverty, violence, crime – and certainly those impressions are valid, but Tenderloin challenges audiences to think more deeply about the neighborhood, its history, its significance and even its beauty. Director and head writer Annie Elias and her team of actor-journalists – Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman (who is not in the show) – spent more than a year collecting interviews, conducting workshops and shaping a theater piece out of the real life happening on the other side of the theater walls.

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The result is a compelling and compassionate piece of documentary theater in the best tradition of Tectonic Theater Project and Anna Deavere Smith. You walk out of the theater with a fresh perspective, not just on the Tenderloin but on the wider world, all of which could be more interesting if you spend some dedicated time – like the 2 1/2 hours of Tenderloin – listening to people with stories to tell and important information to impart.

Of course it helps to have someone as skilled and humanistic as Elias doing the shaping of the stories. She mixes humor into the drama and finds fresh and surprising perspectives from her extraordinary range of characters, all of whom are played with integrity and admirable realism by the actors, all of whom also did the original interviews. I was especially delighted by Cunningham’s ebullient portrayal of Ester Aure, the director of Filipino Health and Wellness, and I was thrilled every time the action shifted to Kathy and Leroy Looper, played with beguiling cross-gender skill by Sinaiko and Frank.

As rich and rewarding as Tenderloin is, it still feels somehow unfinished. Like it’s one story short of brilliance. The show left me wanting more, but then again, it made me realize how much better I could be at finding and listening to stories on my own.


[bonus interviews]

I talked to director/writer Annie Elias, actor/journalist David Sinaiko and photographer/character Mark Ellinger for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.



Cutting Ball Theater’s Tenderloin continues an extended run through June 10 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit www.cuttingball.com.