Grungy glamour fills ACT’s new journey to Oz

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ABOVE: Katrina Lauren McGraw (center) is Glinda, Chanel Tilgham (left) is Dorothy and Travis Santell Rowland is part of the lively ensemble in the American Conservatory Theater production of The Wizard of Oz. BELOW: Attempting an audience with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz are (from left) Beth Wilmurt (Ozian), Darryl V. Jones (Tin Man), Tilghman (Dorothy), El Beh (Guard), Cathleen Riddley (Cowardly Lion) and Danny Scheie (Scarecrow). Photos by Kevin Berne

We’re all friends of Dorothy now. At least that’s what if feels like in American Conservatory Theater’s Pride Month production of The Wizard of Oz now at the Toni Rembe Theater. Part Pride Parade, part homage to the 1939 movie, part glam rock/glitter grunge dime store spectacle, this Oz has a lot going on, including a lengthy running time that inches toward three hours.

Director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton throws abundant ideas into this well-loved, well-worn tale of Dorothy Gale and her trip over the rainbow – some are clever and exciting, others are not. The intention seems to be a homegrown Oz that feels rooted in San Francisco history, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ activism, Summer of Love hippy vibes and queer culture evocation. This may be a story that begins in Kansas, but it ends up in a fantasy world where the Wicked Witch of the West is like a country-western Karen, the Wizard feels like a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Dorothy is a sweetly nondescript teenager in a Batman t-shirt. There’s even (at least on opening night) an appearance by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band marching across the stage.

It feels like Pinkleton wants to whip up a tornado of fun – a new, slightly edgier take on a beloved story but told with just enough sincerity and heart to keep the traditionalists (reasonably) happy. The tornado, for instance, is now a dance piece in which ensemble member Travis Santell Woland wears football shoulder pads from which dangles a dense fringe of plastic caution tape and spins around the stage. There are tall fans, tossed confetti, a Twister game mat (very funny) and a lot of chaos, but not much storytelling about where Dorothy is in all of this. We know where she is because this story is in our DNA at this point, but the stage is more confusing than it needs to be.

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There’s also a unique solution to the yellow-brick road. We never actually see it, but whenever the gang is “off to see the Wizard,” audience members wave the yellow paper napkins they find in their programs.

Set and costume designer David Zinn is clearly having fun with a non-traditional Oz. There are tinsel curtains aplenty, mirrors and multicolored Christmas lights. The challenge of Munchkinland is cleverly addressed (mostly with household objects and googly eyes), and when there’s a need for flashy costumes, like for Glinda (a marvelous Katrina Lauren McGraw in a cloud of pinks) or for residents of the Emerald City, Zinn delivers with some genuine glamor. His costumes for Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers focus on the humans rather than the creatures. Danny Scheie as the scene-stealing Scarecrow, is outfitted in hippy-ish crochet and a hat that’s actually a crushed milk carton. Darryl V. Jones as the Tin Man might be confused for a leather daddy if leather came in silver. And Cathleen Riddley as the Cowardly Lion is less predator and more teddy bear with a tail.

The sound of the show also takes a turn from the traditional, and in place of the lush MGM orchestrations for the classic Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score, we have electronic sounds as if from the early days of the Moog synthesizer. But when Chanel Tilghman’s Dorothy offers her lovely take on “Over the Rainbow,” we get cast members augmenting the on-stage five-piece band with cello, ukulele, violin and a surprise woodshed tool (that also happens to be surprisingly beautiful). I was kind of hoping at some point all that chilly electronica would erupt into a disco dance party, but that never really happens, although our time in Munchkinland comes close.

Working from a faithful 1987 stage adaptation of the movie by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pinkleton’s Oz feels less like an archetypal journey and more like an intermittent drag cabaret performed on the smaller proscenium with in the proscenium. I have to admit that as an adult, I find the plot rather tedious, and although this crew is exceptionally lively, I still found myself anxious to get to the “ignore that man behind the curtain” moment. There is surprising poignancy as Dorothy bids her Oz friends goodbye, but that may be borne more from familiarity than any deep feeling the production has earned.

Pinkleton throws a lot at this wizardly wall to see what might stick, and in the end, not much really does. It’s a vessel we all know and love dressed up and enlivened in some interesting ways, but once we’re back in Kansas, the memory of the dream feels disappointingly hollow. This Oz is fun. It’s fresh. But it’s ultimately frustrating.

American Conservatory Theater’s The Wizard of Oz continues through June 25 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission). Tickets are $. Call or visit

Bouncy around here: Shotgun’s Virginia Woolf howls

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The quartet in Shotgun Players’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? includes, from left, David Sinaiko as George, Josh Schell as Nick, Megan Trout as Honey and Beth Wilmurt as Martha. Below: Martha and Nick get their groove on, while Honey and George watch from the sidelines. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is famous for being, among other things, a night in the life of a querulous quartet, a four-part marital slugfest, a boozy broadside in four parts. In other words, four actors fighting, lashing out, drinking and suffering. All of that is present and accounted for in director Mark Jackson’s production concluding Shotgun Players’ 25th anniversary season. But it feels like there’s another character here.

In the center ring, the boxing ring that is, we have George and Martha – the associate professor of history and the daughter of the college president – who make their detestation of life (and, consequently, each other) a contact sport. Jackson’s set designer, Nina Ball, helps him remove the play from reality (it’s all an illusion anyway) by creating a home without furniture. There’s a big parquet wood floor, a central staircase leading to a second level and, most prominently, two backlit built-in bars filled with an assortment of bottles.

The vast emptiness is, literally and figuratively, a stage on which George and Martha enact their drama for a late-night audience of two, new arrivals to the college Nick (a biology professor) and his wife, Honey. Once they arrive, that empty stage becomes more of a boxing ring, which is referred two several times in the play (there’s even a story about Martha punching George in front of her father). The void also creates additional tension – Albee’s script supplies plenty of its own – because none of the characters can sit comfortably. They have set on the edge of the stage, on the stairs or on the floor. The areas to the side of the stage become littered with coats, purses, shoes, broken glass and lots of empty cocktail vessels.

Even though we know how this Woolf works – Albee’s 1962 play, famously denied the Pulitzer by the very committee that awarded it, is familiar from the shrill movie and countless productions over the last 54 years – it’s both comforting and shocking to feel the oomph of the verbal sparring and to revel in the nastiness of impolite behavior by people who know better. Lines like “I swear if you existed I’d divorce you” or “My arm has got tired whipping you” are timeless because they’re just that mean. And the way the younger couple gets sucked into the older couple’s vortex is so fascinating it’s practically scientific. Why don’t they just leave? They can’t! They’re caught in an irreversible gravitational pull and the solar system is about to implode!

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So amid the familiarity of well-loved/feared play, the ever-intelligent and adventurous Jackson shakes things up. First thing you notice is that set (well lit by Heather Basarab) and all that space. Then comes that presence, something so potent it becomes like a fifth member of the party: Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Piano vamp, unforgettable sax melody, colossal drum solo – it’s a familiar tune that takes on sinister proportions here used both as underscore and as a song that the characters are actually playing on the old record player. At one point, and I could have imagined this, it seemed like the characters were speaking in rhythm with the music, like Albee’s dialogue was jazz itself. Thrilling. The drum solo also pops in not unlike Antonio Sanchez’s drum score in the movie Birdman. Brubeck is replaced by more generic white noise horror movie sound in the third act, which isn’t as effective, but chances are good that for audience members, “Take Five” will trigger memories of this Woolf.

At more than three hours, this is a lot of play. But Jackson’s inventiveness and his sturdy quartet of actors ensure an evening that never lags. Beth Wilmurt and David Sinaiko are Martha and George, a couple whose aggression and passive aggression know no bounds. Wilmurt’s Martha shows some vulnerability underneath the gizzard-slicing wit and smart cruelty. She has the most unconvincing laugh ever heard – every time she laughs it sounds almost painful for her – and when she decides to be a sexual predator, she leaves no doubt that she could accomplish whatever she wants.

Sinaiko’s George hardly seems the victim here. He may be Martha’s punching bag, but he gives as good as he gets, and seems to take special delight in getting the guests, to paraphrase the name of one of his party games. Josh Schell and Megan Trout as Nick and Honey, the George and Martha in training, work hard to avoid caricature, and while Trout conjures images of an uptight Madeline Kahn in What’s Up Doc?, Schell effectively creates a more complex man than the straight white product-of-the-’50s jock that Nick seems to be.

The emotional intensity of the performances doesn’t always reach Albee’s maximum levels, but it’s all here, the train wreck, schadenfreude, hurt me some more, pour me another, please love me mind fuck that is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Rest in peace, Mr. Albee.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through Nov. 20 in its initial run then continues in repertory Nov. 27 through Jan. 22. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Dear Comrade: No love posted in Aurora’s tense Letters

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The Director (Michael Ray Wisely) tangles with his employee Anna (Beth Wilmurt) in the Aurora Theatre Company production of The Letters by John W. Lowell, the first play in the Aurora’s second performance space, Harry’s UpStage. Below: The confrontation between the Director and Anna grows in intensity. Photos by Sarah Roland

After hosting three cabaret performances, the Aurora Theatre Company’s rehearsal/black box/office space (the Dashow Wing, to be specific) known as Harry’s UpStage at last beings life as a playhouse. The first play in the space, John W. Lowell’s The Letters, a tense, 75-minute two-hander about abuse of power and the triumph of smart people.

Director Mark Jackson is known for his kinetic, dynamic productions, but this time out he’s confined to one small office (1930s-era Russian Ministry utilitarian decor by Maya Linke), and for most of the play, the Director (Michael Ray Wisely) sits at his desk and subordinate Anna (Beth Wilmurt) sits across from him and we see them in profile. They sit side by side on an uncomfortable love seat (an ironic name) for a bit, but this is mostly a face-to-face confrontation, so creating a tense atmosphere is important.

From the outset, as Anna waits alone in the office, Jackson establishes a tone of discomfort for us and for Anna. The Director, a career soldier who has moved up in the Stalinist hierarchy, makes it a point never to be uncomfortable. He has the power and boy does he know it. That leaves Anna to squirm and figure out just why she has been called into this meeting. Has she done something wrong that will lead to arrest and brutality? Has she been implicated in a colleague’s dastardly scheme? Or could she possibly be getting a promotion?


It’s all possible, and as the truth comes out, it’s not all that surprising that lies, violence and overweening governmental control are all in play. There aren’t a lot of surprises in Lowell’s play, though it offers the pleasure of a good mystery thriller with a few satisfying twists. And the way he incorporates Tchaikovsky’s life and sexuality into the action is most intriguing. There’s nothing like a good sex scandal no matter how antiquated.

Wisely’s Director, who carries a chip on his shoulder about being an uneducated soldier in a Ministry full of nerdy intellectuals, looks like a cross between Stalin and Ronald Reagan, which is just about perfect. His attempts to be convivial and folksy are downright creepy. No man in his position can just joke around, and that is eminently clear on the face and in the body language of Wilmurt’s Anna, an “intellectual version of the perfect foot soldier,” as the Director describes her. She has lived her life pretty much by the rules, and this meeting, no matter how friendly it may seem, is fiendish in the way you imagine all such meetings were in Soviet Russia. One wrong word and you’re in Siberian Gulag or worse.

That reality underlies Anna’s every word and action, and Wilmurt plays the tension beautifully. She’s the humanity going up against the stone cold government, and it’s gratifying to see her strength and intelligence emerge to fight the power, even if the fight seems impossible to win.

John W. Lowell’s The Letters continues an extended run through June 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company’s Harry’s UpStage, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Shotgun raises curtain on glorious Gant

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Ryan Drummond and Sarah Moser spin an extraordinary love story in Shotgun Players’ Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness. BELOW: (from left) Moser, Patrick Kelly Jones and Drummond confront an interruption to the dramatic plan. Photos by Pak Han

From the moment you walk into the Ashby Stage auditorium to see Shotgun Players’ Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, you know something special is going to happen. The space contains space: the back of a truck has been opened up and turned into a stage, complete with red velvet curtain and strings of festival lights extending out over the audience (the gorgeous design is by Nina Ball). We’re about to see theater about theater, and that’s exciting.

Playwright Anthony Neilson begins in a cosmic way as our host, Edward Gant (Brian Herndon) explains that humankind is caught somewhere between instinctual beast and a spiritual being. Because we are born and live fully aware of our mortality, that makes all of us innately lonely. For the next hour and a half or so, Mr. Gant promises to regale us with “deformities of heart and mind” that will be as true as the truth and talent will allow. That’s a heck of a promise, and he actually makes good on that.

Gant’s three performers then enact several bizarre tales of love, greed, betrayal, mystery and – yes – loneliness that whisk us from Sicily to Monaco to Vienna to England to Nepal and, in the end to Berkeley.

Edward Gant's Amazing Feats of Loneliness

As a piece of writing, Neilson’s plays-within-the-play are marvelously imaginative and strange. Pearls squirt from pimples, holy men perform primitive brain surgery and life-size teddy bears tell sad tales of mistreatment a the hands of their child owners. Under the astute and careful direction of Beth Wilmurt, the splendid ensemble – Herndon, Ryan Drummond, Patrick Kelly Jones and Sarah Moser – finds exactly the right tone to balance the humor and the pathos. Everyone here, from the designers to the director to the actors, is reveling in theatrical storytelling as a means of identifying and, perhaps, temporarily staying that titular loneliness.

Edward Gant is an awful lot of fun, but this is soulful entertainment. Among its laughs and its oddities and its more disgusting moments (the word “cheese” takes on stomach-churning new meaning here), it has surprises to offer, not the least of which is a depth of yearning and a vast well of compassion for flawed humans stumbling through their own stories.

There’s so much to love about this show, but one segment that particularly thrilled me involved Drummond’s Jack Dearlove sharing some of his poetry, the highlight of which is “What Need Have I of Whimsy?” Also, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design offers a panoply of great organ music, something of which the world has not enough.

Speaking of music, the cast performs several beguiling musical interludes, including a heart-melting version of “Return to Me” with ukulele, accordion and wood percussion. A show can be as zany or grotesque as it wants to be as long as it can be grounded in something as beautiful and simple as this musical performance.

Shotgun famously programs anti-holiday shows during the holidays, but Edward Gant, which isn’t so far removed from the smart and spirited high jinks of Kneehigh over at Berkeley Rep, is actually perfect for this time of year: it’s a dazzling, emotional and altogether inspiring theatrical gift.

Anthony Neilson’s Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness continues through Jan. 11 at the Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit

Marin offers a real beauty of a Queen

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Beth Wilmurt (left) as Maureen, Rod Gnapp (center) as Pato and Joy Carlin as Mag star in Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Joseph Salazar’s Ray watches telly while Carlin’s Mag waits for the news. Photos by Kevin Berne

Watching Joy Carlin work her magic Mag Folan in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane is the epitome of theatrical delight. Here you have one of the great Bay Area actors offering a sly, darkly humorous, even compassionate portrayal of a woman who could easily be described as a nightmare. Carlin, like the character she’s playing, appears to be a lovely older woman. But perhaps unlike Carlin, Mag is something of a sociopath. And that’s a trait she’s passed along to the youngest of her three daughters, Maureen, played with sinewy gusto by Beth Wilmurt.

That mother-daughter relationship is the crux of Beauty Queen, and the source of its humor, its drama and its horror. Director Mark Jackson’s production for Marin Theatre Company etches that relationship with realism and a savory dash of melodrama. Neither Carlin nor Wilmurt is a scenery chewer, so everything they do comes from character and is directly invested in their mutual dependence/hatred. These marvelous actors create a finely detailed portrait of a mother and daughter that is so fraught, you flinch and still you can’t turn away.

McDonagh’s play (now 17 years on since its premiere in Ireland) is a soundly constructed dramatic work that puts on a good show, involves its audience and delivers something with heft and abundant laughs. It’s hard to ask for much more from a two-hour evening of theater. Set in a remote village in western Ireland, the action simply involves a needy, manipulative mother (she’s 70 but acts much older) and her 40-year-old spinster daughter who is stuck with care-taking duties and has never had much of a life of her own.

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From the start, there’s something sinister in this little house – evoked by Nina Ball’s wall-less kitchen/living room set adrift on a stage full of cloudy vagueness and illuminated by York Kennedy’s precise light. Sweetness and light do not dwell here. While Maureen makes endless cups of tea, porridge and vitamin drinks for her carping mother, she jokes about decapitating the old woman and spitting down her neck. And for her part, mother dear wastes no time telling a potential suitor (the estimable Rod Gnapp as Pato Dooley) about her daughter’s stint in a mental institution.

Eventually, the play turns into a sort of Whatever Happened to Baby McJane?, but director Jackson and his excellent cast – which also includes the testy Joseph Salazar as Pato’s brother Ray – don’t go for sensationalism as much as cringe-inducing shock. McDonagh’s play really is a horror show, and when something as sweetly old-fashioned as delivering a love letter goes terribly awry, the results are particularly gory.

But it’s not just about the horror, either. There are interesting wrinkles with characters who may be more divorced from reality than they realize, and that gives the actors even more deliciously meaty moments to play.

The Irish accents, well, they come and they go, but even if they vanish, clarity remains. And really, the most extraordinary thing about this production is the tension between Wilmurt and Carlin, two ferociously good actors creating a mother-daughter bond that is palpable. And terrifying.

Martin McDongah’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane continues through June 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Of pleasures and Eccentricities

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Love hurts: Beth Wilmurt is Alma Winemiller and Thomas Gorrebeeck is John Buchanan in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Below: Gorrebeeck’s John (far right) watches as Wilmurt’s Alma conducts a meeting with her fellow “misfits” (from left Leanne Borghesi, Beth Deitchman and Ryan Tasker). Photos by David Allen


Oh, Alma Winemiller. If you had been able to shuck off the burden of having an insane mother and a stern Episcopalian priest for a father, you might have become the woman you were meant to be: Lady Gaga.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but poor Alma is just a heap of talent and emotion and expression aching for release in Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a play with a convoluted history in the Tennessee Williams canon. The Aurora Theatre Company production of the play, directed with finesse and warmth by Artistic Director Tom Ross, makes a case for the play being if not alongside siblings like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, then at least in an honorable spot somewhere just below.

Eccentricities started out as a short story called “Yellow Bird,” which evolved into the play Summer and Smoke. That play’s Broadway premiere in 1948 failed to live up to expectations set by Streetcar, though a 1952 off-Broadway revival starring Geraldine Page salvaged the play’s reputation somewhat (Page reprised the role of Alma in the 1961 movie).

Soon after writing Summer and Smoke, Williams had already created an alternate version of it, which he called Eccentricities of a Nightingale. He offered that one to the Broadway producers of Summer and Smoke, but they stuck with original play. Williams is said to have liked Eccentricities better: “It is less conventional and melodramatic.” Even so, the alternate version didn’t have its Broadway premiere until 1976.

The Aurora, with its wonderfully intimate playing space, is a great way to experience Williams. Being able to see the slightest shift in an actor’s face, or to notice very specific physical movement, however small, makes it all very real and emotional. One of the chief pleasures of this Nightingale is experiencing – really experiencing – the beautiful performances by Ross’ cast.

It’s clear that Williams had a connection to and deep compassion for the character of Alma, a passionate, yearning woman forced by gender and convention into straitjacketed small-town life. She refuses, however, to surrender her individuality. That’s why she’s politely referred to as an eccentric. When she sings, she’s too emotionally connected. She’s too histrionic, too affected. But she’s unlike anyone else in town, and that’s a small triumph.

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Beth Wilmurt has a little bit of Geraldine Page in her Alma, and that can only be a good thing. Wilmurt is an immediately likable and accessible actor. We feel for Alma right away when we meet her at a Fourth of July picnic. She’s a spinster in the making (if not a spinster in the town’s eyes already), someone to feel sorry for but not think about too often. Alma knows all that but embraces her eccentricity anyway – even when it provokes the disapproval of her father (a stern Charles Dean).

Wilmurt has the tremendous advantage of being funny and heartbreaking at the same time. We can see in her Alma’s instability, which she may have inherited from her “disturbed” mother (Amy Crumpacker), who ambles about talking about her dead sister, Albertine, and the Musée Mécanique. We also see her father’s resilience and, underneath it all, the soul of an artist who wants to taste the world.

With Thomas Gorrebeeck as young Dr. John Buchanan, it’s easy to see why Alma has been in love with the boy next door since childhood. He broods without seeming like a self-indulgent narcissist, and though deemed a success in the world – summa cum laude from Johns Hopkins – he’s got parental damage as well. He’s a mama’s boy in the extreme. His doting mother – played with crisp, almost creepy authority by Marcia Pizzo – wouldn’t know an appropriate boundary if it was an electrified fence.

John still has a spark of individuality, though, and that spark lights up around Alma. Even though Mother Buchanan does everything she can to squash John’s interest in the wholly inappropriate girl next door, he pays her some much needed attention.

There’s an extraordinary scene – so well directed and performed you don’t want it to end – that involves a panic attack, a late-night visit to the doctor’s office and a powerful emotional flare-up. Wilmurt and Gorrebeeck bare the souls of their characters to such a degree that the play peaks in the scene. The following scene, in which Williams the love-as-fire metaphor into the ground, is anti-climactic (although Wilmurt continues to fascinate), and the epilogue is just sad, as it probably has to be. For a woman like Alma in the early part of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of good choices.

Simply and beautifully designed by Liliana Duque Piñeiro (sets), Jim Cave (lights) and Laura Hazlett (costumes), this Nightingale casts an emotional spell and makes you grateful that Williams kept coming back to Alma.



Tennessee Williams’ Eccentricities of a Nightingale continues through continues through May 8 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

The Companion Piece or “I glove you whore”

The Companion Piece

Jake Rodriguez shows off his vaudevillian chops in The Companion Piece, a world premiere at Z Space @ Theatre Artaud. Below: Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt are two of a kind, a pair of fools. Photos by Pak Han.


You could throw a lot of adjectives at The Companion Piece, a world-premiere creation by director Mark Jackson, actor Beth Wilmurt and their crew: wily, zany, exciting, perplexing, silly and utterly beautiful. You could throw a lot of words, but they don’t quite create the picture of just what the Companion experience is.

To begin with, this Encore Theatre Company/Z Space world premiere is all about entertainment – the old-fashioned, shtick-’em-up vaudeville kind of entertainment. Pratfalls, hoary jokes and razzmatazz. The 80-minute show is bookended by a pasty-faced vaudevillian with spit curls and routine that sputters like a rickety but reliable old car. He does magic. He sings. He says things like, “Do you have a mirror in your pocket? I can see myself in your pants.” And then he’s done and trundles up to his dressing room alone.

Then we get two modern-day performers trying to work in the vaudevillian tradition, but first they have to converse with the audience and get some feedback before they launch into the serious business of creating their comedy act.

And then the penny drops. This isn’t about entertainment at all (as entertaining as it is). It’s about relationships. You can go it alone like Jake Rodriguez as the ye olde time vaudevillian and turn into a misanthropic robot who sings barbed songs with lines like, “I’ve never needed someone less than I’ve never needed you.”

Or you could go through the world with a companion – someone to upstage you, mess with your props, critique your dramatic monologues and dance the dance of compromise.

The Companion Piece

That’s quite a choice. As director Jackson puts it in his program note, it’s the Hell of Other People vs. the Hell of Isolation. The Companion Piece doesn’t exactly make a case for either, though it seems that Wilmurt and Christopher Kuckenbaker are having a lot more fun. They fight and they duel with egos instead of sabers. But they also dance an exquisite pas de deux with giant rolling staircases. And they put on a charming puppet show with only their feet visible.

The genesis of this show apparently came from the book A General Theory of Love by a trio of San Francisco psychiatrists who ponder the scientific need for human companionship — a notion that we actually need to be around other human beings to survive. The concept for the show is Wilmurt’s, but the piece was developed without a script as Jackson, his actors and designers all found their way into the world of solos, duos and the dances they dance.

The result is astonishingly coherent, with moments of genuine comedy – as when Kuckenbaker mishears a cue and says “I glove you whore” – and real lyrical beauty as when Wilmurt, on a swing hovering over the audience, cracks the psyche of performers in a simple, eloquent, heartbreaking way. There are a couple drowsy moments here and there, but mostly the giant Theatre Artaud space is filled with a spirit of adventures in entertainment that actually means something.

Nina Ball’s set is filled with surprises, as are her wonderfully comic costumes (the striped union suit is especially fetching). The big, open space of the stage gives a show about intimacy (or avoiding it) an epic feel. We also get moments of theatrical flair, as when Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker create their own miniature proscenium stage for a magic act that turns into a battle of wills (I’m the magician and you’re the assistant. No, I’m the magician and YOU’RE the assistant). Gabe Maxon’s lighting design go a long way toward giving shape and theatrical flair to such a large performance space.

Rodriguez gives a startling performance in his brief but memorable time on stage, but his real magic is in the sound design, which features ’30s jazz, a scratchy recording of “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and all kinds of riffs on traditional rim shots and fanfares. There’s also live music – Wilmurt does some singing, which is always a good thing. The song “If I Loved You” features prominently, as it should.

The Companion Piece, directed with Jackson’s signature precision and inventiveness, is a disarmingly delightful show to watch, but it’s even more interesting to think about afterward. Now how often can you say that about something this entertaining? Go with someone you love. Or go alone.


The Companion Piece continues through Feb. 13 at Z Space @ Theatre Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Beth Wilmurt goes `Boating’ in Berkeley

You’ve heard about monsters being unleashed and wreaking havoc in New York? Well, Beth Wilmurt was just such a monster.

The San Francisco-based actor played a ferocious dragon in the final scenes of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, the Shotgun Players/Banana Bag & Bodice musical that headed to New York after its award-winning birth in Berkeley.

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Wilmurt replaced Cameron Galloway, who plays a starchy academic for most of the play then, at the end, turns into a dragon for one final battle scene with the warrior Beowulf. This was Wilmurt’s first New York performance experience, and she describes it as “a super-positive experience.”

“It felt like the best possible circumstances to be in New York,” she says. “I was there for about five weeks with one thing to concentrate on, this wonderful artistic experience. I had my days free during the run of the show, and during rehearsal I could go out at night and see shows. I saw a ton of theater and ran into a lot of people missing the Bay Area.”

Once she got home, Wilmurt didn’t have much time to dawdle before she was back in the rehearsal room, this time for the Bay Area premiere of Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, a four-person romantic comedy that begins performances this week at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. The play, directed by Joy Carlin, is about two couples, one more established, played by Amanda Duarte and Gabriel Marin, and one just forming, played by Wilmurt and Danny Wolohan.

The 2007 play was originally part of the LAByrinth Theater Company season starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, who will direct the upcoming film version.

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Wilmurt describes her character, Connie, as somewhat troubled. “I think she might even have some sort of diagnosed problem, though it’s never specified,” she says. “She’s dealing with issues, and Danny’s character, Jack, clearly has some, too. Here are two people in their late 30s/early 40s, and they’re facing a long-term relationship for the first time. Why hasn’t that happened thus far? There isn’t a lot of plot in the play, but there are obstacles. The obstacles are simple seeming, but they represent bigger obstacles for the individual.”

The role of Connie is somewhat similar to a role Wilmurt played in a previous Aurora outing, John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect (seen above, with Wilmurt and Cassidy Brown), which Carlin also directed.

“Joy is an amazing actor, right? So it’s no surprise that she’s a really good director when it comes to getting inside a moment,” Wilmurt says. “She senses when a moment isn’t fully embodied and senses what the rhythm should be. She can get inside these micro-moments and help figure out the timing and depth of them. She can speak from the outside in, and she’s a great comedic actress.”

Wilmurt is no slouch herself. The Bay Area native grew up in Dublin (in the Tri-Valley area, not Ireland) and began her performing career at the Willows Theatre in Concord and has worked consistently since doing musicals, musical revues, plays and productions of her own creation.

With her partner, Mark Jackson, she founded Art Street Theatre in 1995, which produced a show a year for about 10 years. Ask Wilmurt about her favorite theatrical memories –her time in Germany studying, creating and performing in theater and dance gets a shout out, but Art Street is at the top of the list.

“I have a ridiculous amount of great memories from Art Street,” she says. “We worked with a lot of the same people, and everyone had such amazing energy and enthusiasm. I certainly loved doing Io, Princess of Argos. I had an idea and started talking to Mark about combining Greek mythology and cabaret. We got Marcy Karr involved and just started writing it. We wrote the show and 15 songs in about four months. We didn’t preview it or workshop it. We just did it, whatever, flaws and all. Art Street was like our own little school because we were just moving forward and not worrying how things were received.”

Though completely immersed in Jack Goes Boating (and anticipating her next Shotgun show, Marcus Gardley and Molly Holm’s a cappella musical This World in a Woman’s Hands in the fall), Wilmurt is feeling that old Art Street itch to create new works.

“I’m really attracted to brand-new work,” she says. “I like the problem-solving aspect, the figuring out how it’s all going to work. I’ve worked with so many great companies and choreographers and directors, and I like all kinds of performance—musicals, plays, fringe, cabaret, dance – and I’m getting these ideas for plays. Should I be in them? Should I pitch them? Direct them? It’s that Art Street energy: gotta create a show!”


Bob Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating performs June 12-July 19 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

Review: “American $uicide”

(opened Feb. 12, 2007)
Jackson, actors commit American $uicide at Thick House
three stars Zesty satire

If “American Idol” ended each episode with a bullet instead of wild applause, some of us might stop watching. And some of us might start.

We love our reality TV in this country, and, truth be told, we love our violence. So far, the two haven’t collided much (discounting “Fear Factor” if only because “Fear Factor” should always be discounted).

That’s where director/writer Mark Jackson comes in. He’s still on a hot streak that began last fall with his Salome at the Aurora Theatre Company and continued through The Forest War with Shotgun Players.

With American $uicide, now at the Thick House in San Francisco, Jackson gives us something completely different: an ultra-contemporary twist on a banned Russian play.

While researching his brilliant The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson came across Nikolai Erdman, a writer whose second play was the biting comedy The Suicide. Finished in 1928, the play was a hot property, with multiple theater companies competing to produce it. But the Soviet government banned it for its supposed anti-government content. Stalin himself called the play “empty and even harmful.” Erdman was reportedly exiled to Siberia several years later and never wrote another play.

With the support of Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays, Jackson picks up where Erdman left off and gives us a wickedly funny, wonderfully warped mish-mash of human desperation, celebrity lust and good old American zeal.

As a writer, Jackson sets his action in the present day, but he’s clearly working in a 1930s stage comedy style with rapid-fire, exaggerated delivery and over-the-top characters. As a director, he takes that style to the next logical step: ’40s-style screwball comedy complete with pratfalls, broken dishes and zany costumes (by Raquel Barreto).

At the center of the story is a sincere sad sack named Sam Small (the incredibly funny Jud Williford, pictured above). He’s unemployed and ashamed that he has to rely on his waitress wife’s “greasy tips” and stolen sausages to survive.

His hardworking wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt, a comedienne of the highest order), wants to help her husband out of his depression, so when he finally admits his secret desire to be an actor, she does her darndest to be a good cheerleader.

With the help of his across-the-hall neighbor, Albert (Marty Pistone), and his girlfriend Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), who make money on eBay and with their very own porn site, Sam makes his tentative way into show business.

This is when the personalities start to leap off the stage. We get a desperate, overly tan film director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and a 22-year-old starlet (Jody Flader) _ the next big thing who’s also making a comeback. But best of all, we get Gigi Bolt, a former director at the National Endowment for the Arts and the current executive director of the Theatre Communications Group.

Bolt is a real person, but her presence here — in the divine form of Delia MacDougall, left, at her most Carol Burnett-ish — is sort of an inside joke. What’s funny for anyone who knows Bolt or not is the character’s grand dame theatricality. “Life is projected, transmitted and downloaded but no longer LIVED!” she intones.

Once Sam meets all these characters, he gets bamboozled into an outrageous scheme that has him committing suicide on live TV, with viewers bidding astounding sums to have him die in their name or in the name of their cause.

Sam agrees to do this because it will ensure his wife won’t have to work anymore. Gigi wants him to die in the name of American theater. The starlet wants him to die out of love for her in the hope that the attention might revive her career. And so on.

Going into intermission, which occurs just after MacDougall’s big scene, I was thinking “American $uicide” was just about the funniest thing I’d seen since Hunter Gatherers last summer.

But Act 2 disappoints if only because the build-up to the actual suicide — which takes place in a high N-R-G dance club (sturdy, flexible set by James Faerron) — results in an almost inevitable anti-climax. By this point we have Middle Eastern operatives and government baddies in the mix (all ably played by Liam Vincent), but Jackson’s sharpness dulls.

The play is so frenzied and fun that I wanted all the darker currents to amount to more. I had hoped that while we were having a great time watching the show, Jackson’s satirical saber was slicing into us more than we realized.

That doesn’t quite happen, but American $uicide, in all its grandly theatrical glory, remains a comedy to die for.

For information about American $uicide, visit