G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria fascinates, frightens at ACT

Gloria 1
Coworkers Ani (Martha Brigham, left) and Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) commiserate with each other over their publishing jobs and toxic workplace in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, at ACT’s Strand Theater through April 12. Below: Miles, the intern (Jared Corbin, left), talks with Dean (Jeremy Kahn) about his future plans. Photos by Kevin Berne

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a fascinating play. It’s a lively workplace comedy until it’s an unsettling workplace drama. There’s a sheen of satire to it but also reality and heart. There’s a bracing boldness to it that makes its two hours fly by, and its path is never exactly what you think it will be.

Director Eric Ting navigates the tonal shifts expertly with the support of a sterling cast. There’s not a weak or even wobbly performance here, and with some actors playing up to three roles, that is a thrilling thing. I especially loved Martha Brigham as a good-hearted office busybody, a curt publishing doyenne with an even more curt haircut and as an overly enthusiastic, slightly goofy script reading lackey. I was also delighted by Jared Corbin as a cheerful intern, a loquacious Starbucks employee and, in a sharp contrast to the intern, a show-biz executive.

Three established Bay Area actors, Brigham, Lauren English and Jeremy Kahn are giving the kind of performances that further solidify their status as actors whose work you miss at your peril. They are always good, reliable performers, but more often than not, they are brilliant, and that is most definitely the case here.

Gloria 2

I reviewed Gloria for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

Director Eric Ting, who has previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.
There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark were writing a sitcom for the CW.
But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

Read the full review here.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria continues through April 12 at ACT’s The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Facing a fearsome farce in Berkeley Rep’sOctoroon

Octoroon 1
Lance Gardner is George, a new plantation owner, in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Afi Bijou (left) is Minnie and Jasmine Bracey is Dido, slaves on the Terrebonne Plantation. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

What a miserable species we are.

Existence is difficult enough as it is, but we compound the misery with our unrelenting egomania, greed and all the isms and phobias and ogenies. We unleash a never-ending torrent of cruelty in the name of power and money thinking it will somehow fix something, be it global or deeply personal, and yet it always ends in a big pile of bloody pulp or crap or both. In the big picture, we don’t ever seem to learn. But in the smaller picture, we’re at least getting a little smarter.

Artists like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins do that cracked-mirror thing that helps us see where we’ve been and where we are. None of it is pretty, but his wild play An Octoroon, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre grabs you by your painful parts and delivers a surprising, funny and provocative 2 1/2 hours of theater.

To call this simply a play isn’t really accurate. An Octoroon is a meta-theatrical fantasia, layers upon layers of art and history, comedy and tragedy, music and melodrama, abrasive satire and inspired clowning. This experience is never just one thing, and that could be an unwieldy thing, but director Eric Ting, the artistic director at the California Shakespeare Theater, has a firm grasp of the constantly shifting situation.

Octoroon 2

To begin with, this is an adaptation of an adaptation. Jacobs-Jenkins is adapting Dion Boucicault’s 1859 hit The Octoroon, which is itself adapted from a then-contemporary novel, The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reed. The antebellum-era plot involves a faltering plantation, the sale of its slaves and a love story between a slave owner and a woman who is part black (one-eighth is an octoroon, a terrible word if ever there was one; one-quarter is a quadroon, just as terrible).

All of that is still here, performed in a style between melodrama and farce (all accompanied on a jangly piano by Lisa Quoresimo in a Br’er Rabbit costume), but Jenkins gives us a very contemporary frame with a playwright character named BJJ (played by the always appealing Lance Gardner) who is working through his own personal issues (what does “black playwright” mean anyway?) taking the advice of a therapist he may or may not have by adapting the Boucicault play. Problem is that his white actors hired to play the slave owners have quit, so he slaps on some whiteface and plays the characters himself. Another writer appears, known simply as “Playwright.” This one is a stand-in for Boucicault himself and is played by Ray Porter, a ferocious presence on stage. Boucicault will also be in BJJ’s play. He’s playing the Native American character Wahnotee, and by the logic of this world, he naturally paints his face red for the role and dons an enormous feathered headdress (think Bob Mackie and Cher – fantastically stylish costumes by Montana Blanco). He’ll also play a slave trader, and BJJ will take on another role as well: the mustache-twirling villain who wants to sink the plantation and sell off Zoe (Sydney Morton), the octoroon, who is already in love with George, the plantation owner played by BJJ in whiteface.

The slave women in the play, primarily Dido (Jasmine Bracey) and Minnie (Afi Bijou), work in the house and are fairly straightforward, but rather than seeming like they’re in a 19th-century melodrama, they discourse like two women who have their own podcast about what’s going down on the old plantation. They’re hilarious and trenchant, and the weariness of the melodrama is enlivened whenever they’re on stage.

Because the law forbids the love between George and Zoe, George must attempt to make a profitable union in an effort to save his plantation. He turns to plantation neighbor Dora, played by Jennifer Regan in full-on goofy Carol Burnett mode (always a good thing, especially when stylistically appropriate, as it is here). And the world of the plantation is further filled out by Afua Busia as Grace, a pregnant slave (who also has a baby with a face that has to be seen to be believed) and Amir Talai, a non-Caucasian actor in blackface playing two slaves, including one whose name features the n-word. Speaking of that word, you hear it a lot, so however you need to deal with that, there it is.

The play is at its strongest when it’s not simply presenting the adaptation of Boucicault but is messing with it – and us. That means the best bits are at the beginning of the play and then in Act 2 when the melodrama becomes too outrageous to continue with a small cast (and not enough mean white men). Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to rattle a modern audience the way a 19th-century audience might have been rattled by certain twists in the plot. Let’s just say he pulls out some heavy artillery for this mission, and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, with a huge assist from Jiyoun Chang’s effective lights, offers yet another design surprise to wrap things up with yet another tonal shift.

The ending brings us back to now, but in a timeless way (voices joined), but there’s little sense of resolution. How could there be? The Boucicault melodrama traffics, as all good melodrama does, in abject misery created by societal restrictions, and choosing the American South for such an exploration is rife with the kind of misery that has created every kind of drama every minute of every year since. In a theatrical experience like this, we see the mess. We laugh at it, we flinch from it, we bristle.

Some will likely take offense at the whiteface, the blackface or the redface or the n-word or the drinking of an entire bottle of wine in one go or the inclusion of a mammy or a stage overrun with cotton balls or an actor playing two characters attempting to murder himself (Gardner is a deft physical comedian) or the sight of a man giving himself a wedgie. But there’s no denying how effective An Octoroon is at not letting anyone off the hook. This is our mess, our misery, our melodrama, our tragedy, our farce. That Jacobs-Jenkins and the entire on-stage and off-stage crew of An Octoroon have made it so powerful, so baffling and so, dare I say it, so entertaining, is nothing short of a modern theatrical wonder.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon continues an extended run through July 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peets Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.