Curran brilliance continues with stunning Ghost Quartet

Ghost Quartet 1
The performers of Ghost Quartet are, from left, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Dave Malloy and Brent Arnold. The play/concert/musical/event continues through Oct. 31 at the Curran Theatre as part of the Curran: Under Construction Series. Below: Composer/performer Malloy at work. Photos courtesy of the Curran Theatre

Before I rhapsodize about the incredible Ghost Quartet now at the Curran Theatre as part of the Curran: Under Construction series, can I just say how extraordinary this series has been so far? This is the third show following The Events (review here) and The Object Lesson (review here), and so far, producer Carole Shorenstein Hays is batting a million (I don’t know sports).

At this point, Hays’ curatorial skills have proven so wonderful I’d show up anywhere she told me was worthwhile. At some point in this ongoing series of shows set entirely – audience and all – on the stage of the Curran while it undergoes refurbishment, there will likely be a show that doesn’t blow my mind, but I have no doubt it will at the very least be interesting and worthwhile.

The experience of being on the stage, which has been creatively reconfigured for each show, is surprisingly cozy and intimate – the world’s nicest black box theater. Coming through the stage door at the side alley is exciting, and the staff is always welcoming. Hays is a brilliant producer, but I can’t imagine this impeccably produced series is making loads of money, so I think about this series as her gift to San Francisco audiences. For that we should be incredibly grateful.

Ghost Quartet 2

Ghost Quartet heralds the return of Dave Malloy, who made a strong impression when he was a Bay Area resident working with Banana Bag & Bodice on projects like Shotgun Players’ Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage. He decamped to Brooklyn nearly a decade ago and in the interim has produced a major work of genius, the unconventional War and Peace musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

With Ghost Quartet, which was developed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Ground Floor, he’s working in chamber mode, but his fervent intellect, passion for literary mash-up and melodic gifts are out in full force. the audience is seated on three sides of a performance area covered in Persian carpets. The stage’s curtain is up, so the empty Curran auditorium is on full view, with the lowered chandelier becoming sort of a character in the 90-minute piece (all the design is by Christopher Bowser, and it’s low-key spectacular).

Malloy on keyboards and Brent Arnold on cello (and other marvelous stringed instruments) are situated on opposite sides of the center-facing section of audience, while Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell on vocals and various harps and things, face forward with their backs to the open auditorium. The central playing area isn’t much used, which means the music surrounds you and the theatrical aspect feels less presentational and more like an active experience of being told an extraordinary story.

So what exactly is Ghost Quartet? I can’t say I got it all, exactly. There’s a multi-layered story thickly interwoven with threads made of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and of the New York Post’s infamous cover photo of a man about to be killed by an oncoming subway train. There are fairy tales (with a nod to Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods) and murders and ghosts and reincarnations and tributes to Thelonious Monk and a conjuring of Arabian Nights. It doesn’t all completely make sense, yet in the moment, amid the music and the performances and the cozy atmosphere and the way the story circles back on itself, it all makes perfect sense somehow.

The evening is broken into four “sides” (as in record albums), and just before we get to Side 3, the audience gets to participate in one of the recurring themes: whiskey (or section got Evan Williams Kentucky bourbon and my fellow audience members were generous with their pours). Just when the night couldn’t get any better – WHISKEY! – the lights go out, and the story unfolds in the dark. I heard some people got uncomfortable in the darkness (ghost stories win), but I loved it. I could have listened to the rest of the show in the dark and been ecstatically happy if they’d started it over again at the end.

But the lights do come back on, and the show comes to its thrilling, interactive conclusion that is sweet and eerie at the same time. The song is the traditional murder ballad “The Wind & Rain” slightly tweaked by Malloy, and it’s hard to imagine a more stirring finale.

These four performers are astonishing. Everybody sings and plays, but the bulk of the dramatic work is handled by Ashford and Bell. They’re so good (and so, for that matter, are Arnold and Malloy) that even when things don’t entirely make sense or you miss a lyric here and there, it doesn’t matter. You’re in good hands, and these performers will deliver you exactly where they want you to go – and that place is likely to blow your mind in the best possible way.

[bonus videos]
Enjoy “Any Kind of Dead Person,” one of the livelier numbers from Ghost Quartet and “Starchild,” one of the most beautiful.


Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet continues through Oct. 31 as part of the Curran: Under Construction series at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$50. Visit

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: `Beowulf’

A Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through June 22

Jason Craig, who also wrote the show, tackles the title role in Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, a Shotgun Players collaboration with Banana Bag & Bodice. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


Shotgun collaborates, monstrous musical roars to raging life
«««« Hungry like the Beowulf!

Forget last year’s craptastic half-live/half-animated Beowulf movie that put a tail on Angelina Jolie. Heck, you may even want to forget about reading the book. If you want to experience Beowulf – really experience the 1,000-year-old epic poem, head to Berkeley’s Ashby Stage, where you’ll dive into one of the most interesting and exciting shows currently on a Bay Area stage.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage is original, surprising and strangely moving. The world-premiere work marks a first collaboration between the Shotgun Players and the Banana Bag & Bodice, a group familiar to San Francisco Fringe Festival audiences. Also in the creation mix are Magic Theatre/Z Space and the New Works Initiative, and the show will be further developed when it moves to the Henry Street Playhouse in Manhattan a little less than a year from now.

So how do you approach Beowulf, a monumental epic, with a cast of seven? You make it a rousing musical, of course. The original aim of composer Dave Malloy was to create an opera, but what he and writer Jason Craig ended up with is something more interesting: a hurdy-gurdy rock musical that lives just on the other side of a Brecht-Weill beer hall. Malloy’s engaging score is, like the show itself, both funny and serious. And unlike so many new musicals, it features music you actively want to listen to. Just check out the composition of Malloy’s orchestra: Malloy himself is on piano and accordion (he also plays King Hrothgar); Jen Baker is on trombone; Chris Broderick is on bass clarinet and clarinet; Dan Bruno goes to town on percussion; Andy Strain slides the trombone; and Andre Nigoghossian plays guitar and – get this – the saw.

You get roiling anthems like the opening “Heorot” and angry heart-rippers such as “Bring It” sung by a rampaging Grendel’s Mother (who, strangely, has never been named after all these years). There are sweet harmonies (provided mainly by dancing soldiers Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha) that recall 1940s swing, and then you get a duet called “What Kind of a Face” sung between the warrior Beowulf (Craig) and King Hrothgar that sounds a little like Johnny Cash and June Carter flirting over the microphone.

Directed with verve by Rod Hipskind, Beowulf isn’t even two hours, but it never feels rushed. There are a few songs here and there that could be tightened, but the brisk pace and the constantly changing palate (played out on a set designed by Banana Bag & Bodice and lit by Miranda Hardy) make those two hours as full as they could be.

Craig has devised a smart narrative device to help put his story in both a historical and a modern context that also happens to skewer the academic world that Beowulf seems to live in these days. The show begins with three academics (Cameron Galloway, Jessica Jelliffe and Christopher Kuckenbaker) sitting behind microphones and preparing to lead us through a seminar on the epic story poem. Before too long, the academics have broken the bonds of their brains and jumped into the action of the play. Kuckenbaker becomes Grendel, the murderous monster man and Jelliffe becomes Grendel’s mom, who lives with her outcast son at the bottom of a lake. The mother-son relationship is especially strong, and once Beowulf severs Grendel’s arm, and the beast dies in his mother’s arms, there’s more than a pang of sadness in the number “Grendel’s Death.”

Galloway, who is just priceless in her timid academic suit and neckwear (the smart, funny, just-right costumes are by Kaibrina Buck), doesn’t break out until toward the end, during the last chapter of Beowulf’s life (when he dies battling a dragon) when she sings part of the tale in the original Olde English.

Craig makes for an ambivalent hero. When asked by Grendel’s mother why he murdered her son, the warrior can’t come up with a great answer. “It started with his action against. So, revenge I guess.” Beowulf, it seems, is not such a thoughtful guy. He can’t even come up with a definition of “good” when asked. Instead of thought, he lives in a world ruled by the all-too-common school of thought: “It is better to retaliate than to mourn.”

Part of what makes Beowulf so exciting is that it feels contemporary without straining itself to be hip. The aim seems to be the telling of a story and not the marketing of a performance art rock musical and all the wondrous personalities within it. There’s a natural ferocity, humor and thoughtfulness in this show, and that’s truly what makes this Beowulf howl.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage continues through June 22 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit for information. Find out more about Banana Bag & Bodice at