Feeling burned by ACT’s Scorched

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In fulfillment of her estranged mother’s final wishes, Canadian notary Alphonse Lebel (David Strathairn) gives Janine (ACT core acting company member Annie Purcell) a jacket with the mysterious number 72 embroidered on the back, in the West Coast premiere of Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched at the American Conservatory Theater. Below: A militiaman (A.C.T. core acting company member Manoel Felciano) apprehends Nawal (Marjan Neshat, left) and her friend Sawda (ACT Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Omozé Idehenre) when he suspects them of being notorious revolutionaries. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Wajdi Mouawad’s drama Scorched is a riveting, affecting and thought-provoking play – in its last 30 minutes. To get there you have to spend more than two hours slogging through layers of back story, stilted acting and rigid dialogue (the translation is by Linda Gaboriau). You have to ask yourself, is the slog worth it? I’ll let you know in a minute.

This American Conservatory Theater production directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff features a wonderfully baffling performance by Academy Award-nominee David Strathairn as a Canadian notary who has been named executor of a late client’s estate. The performance is wonderful because Strathairn is among the only actors on stage who seems to feel any depth to his character. Everyone else is just plain intense. But Strathairn, though he has moments of intensity, is warm and, unlike most everyone else, on a relatably human scale. His Alphonse Lebel clearly cared a great deal for his late client, the mother of two surly twins, and his inability to complete a sentence with some sort of malapropism is endearing (if not remotely believable). That’s what’s baffling about the performance – the slight absurdity of the character doesn’t really make sense in the world of utter intensity that Mouawad is creating. But it’s so nice to have comic relief, albeit slight, that you welcome Strathairn’s every moment on stage (which amounts to not nearly enough moments).

Mouawad is unfurling an epic family story here that begins in the 1950s in an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Mouawad is Lebanese Canadian, so we can probably do the math here) where Nawal, a smart and defiant young woman (Marjan Neshat) falls in love and gives birth to a son who is ripped from her arms.

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That woman grows up and, unlike the other women in her village, learns to read and write. She embarks on a quest to find her lost son with the help of another village woman, Sawda (Omozé Idehenre). The quest takes the women into the middle of a war between government forces and rebels, and the horrors of that war lead to a staggering number of horrifying events.

The narrative bounces back and forth between the Middle East of the past and Canada of now, where twins Simon (Babak Tafti) and Janine (Annie Purcell) are informed by the bumbling Alphonse that their recently deceased mother, the same Nawal, left them with assignments involving her homeland and the father they didn’t know was alive and the brother they didn’t know they had.

By Act 2, the play has become a mystery leading up to some sort of big revelation. Though Act 1 is almost devoid of tension (though there’s voluminous stage smoke attempting to disguise the fact), Act 2 gains momentum from the sheer force of the storytelling promising some sort of resolution. When it finally comes – through a series of hard-to-believe connections, recollections and stock characters – it’s a doozy.

Even more than the plot details, the play finally becomes about something other than the difficulty of the past (“childhood is a knife stuck in the throat – it is not easily removed,” we’re told) and the danger of the Middle East. Suddenly we’re dealing with characters holding love and hatred simultaneously, and the performances finally come to life, if only briefly. Jacqueline Antaramian delivers several difficult monologues that overflow with pain and, at long last, ground the play in something genuine and not just theatrical.

So is the slog worth it? I’d have to say yes. When you remember the play, you really won’t think much about the first two-plus hours. You’ll remember the sensation and surprising depth of the last half hour. The journey could be a lot more interesting, but the destination is ultimately worth the ride.

[bonus interview]
I talked to David Strathairn about Scorched and, among other things, his work on Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Read the San Francisco Chronicle interview here.

Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched continues through March 11 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10 to $85 (subject to change). Call (415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

ACT’s Perloff aims Higher

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Andrew Polk (left) is Michael Friedman, Concetta Tomei (center) is Valerie Rifkind and Ben Kahre is Isaac Friedman in the world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum. Below: René Augesen as architect Elena Constantine shares her work with Polk’s Michael, a renowned architect and Elena’s boyfriend. Photos by Kevin Berne

This is the season for artistic directors sharing their writing with their audiences. Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre has actually done it twice this season with Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup and the current Ghost Light.

Now American Conservatory Theater’s Carey Perloff is sharing her fourth full-length play as a special non-subscription production at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum). In both cases, the artistic directors are making bold moves to put their work out there ̶ a brave gesture, to say the least. And they’ve both wisely handed over the directorial reins to trusted cohorts. In Taccone’s case it’s Jonathan Moscone and in Perloff’s case, it’s ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker.

The last time I saw a Perloff play it was The Colossus of Rhodes at the same theater in 2003 (directed by Perloff as well). I didn’t like that play much. It seemed an intellectual exercise in out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard. Higher is a much more satisfying and entertaining play, a drama with substance and classy soap operatics.

Perloff’s fascinating with architects is evident throughout as she follows two acclaimed designers, one at the height of his notoriety and the other just beginning hers. Unbeknownst to each other, these two architects are competing to build a memorial in Israel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where 22 people were killed in a bus explosion.

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The two architects also happen to be lovers, spending time in hotel rooms as they cross paths on their way to building things in places like Dusseldorf and Abu Dhabi. The play leans heavily on the dramatic irony that the audience knows the lovers are also competitors long before both of them find out.

In addition to her love of the pomposity and purity of the architectural world, Perloff also seems fascinated with the idea of balancing work life and personal life and committing fully to a project (a heart thing) and just doing it to get it done (an ego thing).

Director Rucker allows the action to bounce between New York and Israel with ease (helped by the simplicity and elegance of Erik Flatmo’s set). The dramatic line is clean if at times contrived. But the substantial performances help ease the occasional strain of credulity. René Augesen is her usual marvelous self as Elena, an up-and-coming architect, a woman in what is mostly a man’s game. She’s smart and emotional and makes Elena a woman all the more appealing for all her complications.

Andrew Polk is Michael Friedman, a high-powered, world-famous architect and, if we assess him by what we see, a real asshole. He seems to really love Elena, but how much can an egomaniac really love someone? He certainly can’t handle being a responsible dad to his grown son (the charming Ben Kahre). His attitude toward memorials is, not surprisingly, all about him, just as most things end up being all about him. He has a bit of an attitude shift, but it’s not quite as believable as it should be.

The carbonation in this two-hour production comes from Concetta Tomei, an absolute delight as feisty Valerie Rifkind, a widow as smart as she is rich (and she’s extremely rich). Tomei looks fabulous in the elegant costumes by David F. Draper, and she commands the stage as easily with broad comedy as she does with subtle body language.

As the money behind the design competition, Valerie could be a sideline player relegated to turning the gears of the plot, but the character is much more interesting and, thankfully, much more present than that.

Higher holds audience interest for several reasons ̶ first, we want to see who wins the design competition; then we want to see Michael knocked off his architect celebrity pedestal. We’re satisfied on both counts, for the most part. Perloff pulls a couple punches at the end, but she remains true to her characters and makes the play ultimately more about character than plot.

[bonus interview]
All interviews should be as delightful as the one I had with Concetta Tomei, who talked about her stage and television career. Read the San Francisco Chronicle story here.


Carey Perloff’s Higher continues an extended run through Feb. 25 at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

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Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

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The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Making theater dance – an ode to collaboration

One of the most exciting things about the world premiere of American Conservatory Theater’s The Tosca Project is that it shines a big old spotlight on the riches of the Bay Area.

Here is a revered local theater company venturing into risky territory – a play mostly without words told through dance and recorded music of all kinds – in collaboration with an artist from another revered local company. But get this, that other revered institution is not a theater company.

Yes, ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff has spent four years working with the San Francisco Ballet’s Val Caniparoli to create The Tosca Project, a story inspired by – hold your hats again – a piece of San Francisco history. Are you getting all this local, local, local stuff? The legendary Tosca Cafe in North Beach is the subject, from its opening in 1919 by a trio of Italians to its current status as the royal court of Jeanette Etheredge and her literary and cinematic pals, and that history is related via dance, music (opera, jazz, standards, rock) and even some beat poetry.

There are thrilling, beautiful moments in this 90-minute piece, and the stage pictures – created by Robert Wierzel’s lighting, Douglas W. Schmidt’s warm, inviting set and Caniparoli and Perloff’s staging – are often stunning in their visual poetry.

This “Project” should be the start of many such projects that take full advantage of the extraordinary resources we have in the Bay Area. Think about the history we have yet to explore in dramatic and musical ways. “The Tosca Project” focuses on one bar in one neighborhood. The city, as they say, is full of a million stories. Let’s hear more of them. And let them be told by local arts groups of all kinds working together.

I know it’s naive to think that arts groups can just join together and create. There are little hurdles like budgets (or lack thereof)and grants (or lack thereof). But the biggest hindrance seems to be the silos everyone works in. ACT, Marin Theatre Company and the Magic Theatre are busting out of their silos to present Tarell Alvin McCraney’s
The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy next season. Why are there so few of these inter-Bay Area collaborations? With any luck, such fruitful teamwork may be an inspired byproduct of this horrendous economy.

California Shakespeare Theater has collaborated brilliantly with Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts as well as with Word for Word. Think of what they could do with a little help from San Francisco Opera. Or the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Or Oakland’s flammably adventurous The Crucible. Think what might happen if Beach Blanket Babylon and Killing My Lobster decided to join forces. Or Thrillpeddlers and Lamplighters. The mind fairly boggles.


ACT’s The Tosca Project continues through June 27 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10 to $89. Call 415 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Above photo: The Bartender (Jack Willis) dances with the memory of his long-lost love (Sabina Alleman) in ACT’s world premiere of The Tosca Project. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Theater review: `Boleros for the Disenchanted’

Opened May 13, 2009 at the American Conservatory Theater

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Rachel Ticotin (left) is Doña Milla, Lela Loren (center) is Flora and Robert Beltran is Don Fermin in the American Conservatory Theater production of Boleros for the Disenchanted by José Rivera. Photos by Kevin Berne (www.kevinberne.com)


ACT’s `Boleros’ marries schmaltz with substance
«« ½

After the rough going of War Music, American Conservatory Theater’s previous show, José Rivera’s straightforward Boleros for the Disenchanted feels like a masterpiece.

But it’s not.

Rivera’s play has real heart and delivers a powerful, even edgy message about what marriage and commitment actually mean in the long term. We see two long-term marriages in the play, one toward the middle of its span, the other at both the beginning and the end. And though there’s romance, tenderness and true love, there’s also pain, violence, betrayal, righteous indignation and downright stubbornness.

Based on his own parents’ love story, Rivera writes with passion for much of the play’s 2 ½-plus hours. He begins in Puerto Rico in the early 1950s when lovely Flora (Lela Loren), her heart broken by the man she thought was the love of her life (a weasley Dion Mucciacito), meets and falls in love with a young National Guardsman named Eusebio (Drew Cortese).

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Then, in Act 2, Rivera jumps us 40 years ahead to the early ’90s. Flora, now played by Rachel Ticotin, is the caretaker of Eusebio (Robert Beltran), whose spirit is intact though his body has been ravaged by diabetes.

In spite of a difficult life together, including the births of nine children and the deaths of three, Flora and Eusebio still seem to have the kind of bond that young, idealistic Flora dreamed about in the years leading up to her marriage. They have held on, worked hard and raised a family. Now they’re stuck in Daleville, Ala., lonely and, as the play’s title indicates, disenchanted. But they still have each other and Eusebio’s obsession with his own death.

Ticotin and Beltran are marvelous together, and Tictotin displays extraordinary reserves of strength and passion and anger. She is the heart of the play, though she must concede the highlight of Act 2 to Cortese as a priest called to give Eusebio last rites but who instead attempts to reinvigorate the passion and deep connection of a bumpy 39-year-old marriage.

At times, Rivera makes marriage seem like a prison cell (emphasized by the Act 2 penitentiary-like set by Ralph Funicello) and at other times like the only conceivable way to get through life as a fully alive human being.

The play would probably benefit from a theater smaller than ACT’s beautiful but spacious home. Funicello’s sets, especially in the Act 1 Puerto Rico scenes, overwhelm the actors, who seem to be fighting the space. Director Carey Perloff has trouble moving her actors around the stage in ways that don’t seem programmed to counteract the epic space and its effect on a much more intimate, if over-long, drama.

Act 1 feels like an extended prologue that keeps ending and then continuing. The time spent in Puerto Rico with Flora and her parents (played by Ticotin and Beltran) is colorful and dramatic, but there’s a lot of unnecessary time spent with characters who don’t necessarily add to the portrait of a marriage we see in Act 2.

When we finally get to the tough, tender core of the play in Act 2 – the relationship between Eusebio and Flora in their later years – the potency of Rivera’s writing finally begins to land. But the distance between audience and actors prevents the play from being as moving as it could and should be.


José Rivera’s Boleros for the Disenchanted continues through May 31 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.

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: “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Opened Sept. 17, 2008

Rene Augesen is Esme and Manoel Felciano is Jan in a scene set at Prague’s John Lennon wall in the American Conservatory Theater production of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. Photos by Kevin Berne


ACT gives Stoppard’s heavy `Rock’ a mighty roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll has a beat – a heartbeat.

Tom Stoppard’s play, the season –opener for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, bears all the playwright’s hallmarks: weighty intellect, deep sense of history, dry wit, thick dramaturgy. But all of that is less important here than the powerful emotions coursing through the characters’ complicated lives – the emotions and the words.

This is Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Like his protagonist, Jan, Stoppard is Czechoslovakian by birth and spent an important chunk of his childhood in England. This duality gives Stoppard, and Jan, a dual perspective, not to mention another language, through which to view the crumbling of Communism.

Perhaps Stoppard’s intimate relationship with the history involved here combined with his passion for rock music help the play wage a battle between the heart and the intellect that lets the heart ultimately rule.

Director Carey Perloff, who usually does her best work with Stoppard, doesn’t disappoint. Her production has focus and momentum, and her cast navigates well the tricky balance between the ideology and the humanity.

This is a play that dramatizes Czech politics, from “Prague Spring” in 1968 to the post-Communist world of perestroika in the late ’80s. Unless you’re a historian, you likely don’t know a whole lot about this place or this period beyond what you remember from watching (or reading) “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And while Stoppard requires his audience to be on its collective toes and pay close attention, the genius of the play is that underneath all the heated discussions about this regime, that petition, these arrests or the pros and cons of socialism, Stoppard allows life and emotions to propel the play.

This notion is embodied in – what else? – rock ‘n’ roll music. Jan (Manoel Felciano) is a rock devotee. When the Czech police want to destroy his spirit they know exactly what to smash: his LP collection full of the Doors, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett (a central, ethereal figure in the play).

Jake Rodriguez’s sound design is like a character in the play – the music is passion, connection and, in its way, revolution. The Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe (who are, coincidentally, playing Slim’s on Oct. 9) figure prominently in the play as comrades of Jan’s whom he admires musically and politically – he even ends up in jail with them after one of their subversive events (a wedding if I heard correctly).

A Rolling Stones concert becomes a testament to a changed world, and Barrett’s “Golden Hair” (itself based on a James Joyce poem) becomes a family’s musical touchstone.

Felciano (above right with Anthony Fusco as a Czech interrogator) as Jan carries much of the play’s emotional weight and does so beautifully. He ages more than 20 years in a believable, low-key way that takes him from the optimism of youth powered by a mighty mind to the realities of a police state and prison to a more subdued middle age where people matter more than politics.

ACT core company member Rene Augesen has one unforgettable scene in Act 1 as Eleanor, a cancer-ridden Cambridge professor giving Sappho tutorials on her back porch. Decimated by not defeated by her illness delivers a ferocious diatribe against words over meaning. She has just watched her student (Delia MacDougall as Lenka) flirt shamelessly with her Communist husband, Max (Jack Willis), during the lesson.

The word at issue is “mind.” Her husband has highbrow definitions of what the mind is – he says it’s a machine that could be made of beer cans — and she’ll have none of it: “Don’t you dare reclaim that word now,” she says. “I don’t want your `mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine – I want what you love me with.”

Augesen is extraordinary – not relying on any of the usual tricks we’ve come to see in her work over the years (those come in Act 2 when she plays Eleanor’s daughter, Esme) – she’s so real and vital and frail you almost feel the need to comfort her.

Words and truth are important and elusive in Rock ‘n’ Roll. How can so many words, so many shifting words, ever arrive at the truth?

Discussing words, Jan tells Max: “A thousand years of knowing who you are gives a people confidence in its judgment. Words mean what they have always meant. With us, words change meaning to make the theory fit the practice.”

The fascinating, compelling blend of words and music – intellect and spirit – fuels the play and makes it stand apart from Stoppard’s oeuvre. It’s a lifetime of experience in a complex, heartbreaking, spirit-crushing world that comes to no easy answer beyond giving yourself over to music you love.

That this trajectory comes through so clearly is a testament to the play itself and to Perloff’s handsome production. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set inspires a feeling of vertigo. Inspired by a photograph by Agata Jablonska, the set conveys a sense of standing amid dense buildings and looking up to the sky – oppression and release.

Aside from some accent issues (they come, they go), the cast is strong. Willis has fire but seems miscast as Max, the Cambridge professor for whom arguing is like breathing. But that’s the only major misstep, and strong supporting turns come from Jud Williford as Jan’s compatriot, Ferdinand, and Summer Serafin as Alice, an ‘80s teen with a restless mind and a big heart.

At nearly three hours, Rock ‘n’ Roll is overwhelming in the best sense. We’re pulled into a world – our world – and made to care. More importantly we’re made to listen. And think. And care.


Rock ‘n’ Roll continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Manoel Felciano aims to make Stoppard `Rock’

Manoel Felciano stars in the ACT production of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. Photo by Ashley Forette Photography

Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native, had to play Broadway before he could make his hometown professional stage debut.

He’s starring in American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening production of the Tom Stoppard drama Rock ‘n’ Roll, now in previews, opens Wednesday, Sept. 17 and continues through Oct. 18.

And he says the role of Jan, a sort of stand-in for Stoppard himself, is a good fit.

“Jan is something of a nerd, an intellectual,” Felciano says. “He’s a huge rock fan, and he became politically activated later in life. That’s me as well. Politically, the last seven years have been a galvanizing force.”

Through the upheaval of the play, which documents Prague’s revolution in the ’60s and continues into the ’90s, rock music provides a sort of connective tissue between the emotions and the politics.

“In some ways, “Felciano says, “music is a political action in itself. The act of playing a record loud where it is forbidden, is a subversive act. I love that, and it’s part of what makes doing this play here in San Francisco so perfect. This is where some of the music on the soundtrack came from.”

Felciano, known as Mano to his friends, was born 30-some years ago to a Portuguese father and a Swiss mother. He started playing the violin at 5 but later added bass and guitar to his repertoire because “the violin is no way to get girls.” While attending the bilingual French-American International School here in San Francisco, Felciano was tapped for a small role in San Francisco Opera’s Carmen because he could speak French.

“I was 10 years old, and backstage, I had the gall –or was it lack of superego? – to go up to Placido Domingo and in Spanish tell him that he sang Spanish very well.”

That was the last time Felciano was on a professional stage in his hometown. After graduating from Yale and beginning a life on Wall Street, Felciano got sucked into the world of musical theater when he was cast by Hal Prince in the ill-fated Washington, D.C. production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind.

From there, he landed swing and understudy parts in Cabaret and Jesus Christ Superstar, among others. While in Superstar, and after he fell off the stage and into the orchestra pit, injuring his hand, Felciano decided maybe it was time for a little formal acting training.

Grad school paid off handsomely with the plum role of Tobias in John Doyle’s acclaimed 2005 production of Sweeney Todd in which the actors also played all the instruments (Felciano played violin, keyboard and clarinet). The gig scored Felciano a Tony nomination for best supporting actor.

Now he’s back on familiar territory – at least geographically. Other than doing a scene from Stoppard’s The Real Thing in grad school, this is his first Stoppard play and first time working with director Carey Perloff.

To connect with his character Jan’s love of rock, he need look no further than his own love of rock, which began when his dad played him a Beatles song. Felciano was about 10 and immediately headed to Recycled Records, the neighborhood record store on Haight Street, where he bought “Introducing the Beatles.”

Felciano ended up working at Recycled for a number of years, and on a recent visit to the vinyl specialty shop, he recognized the same turntable he used to spin as an employee.

With his own vinyl collection now numbering in the hundreds, Felciano says his prize LP is the Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today” album with the “butcher cover,” the photo of the boys amid decapitated babies and meat that was almost immediately recalled.

During rehearsals, the cast has been listening to the music Stoppard mentions in the play, everything from the Beach Boys to Guns N Roses, with detours into the seminal Czech rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe.

Talking about music, Felciano grows fevered.

“Music, especially the way it’s used in this play, is everything it’s supposed to be: irrational, sexual, visceral, personal, hypnotic. It makes you want to move, scream, fuck, dance, break things. Music is such a primal force. It’s seductive.”

Stoppard is one of the most complex playwrights working, and his blend of intellect, passion, politics, world history and human drama is deep and rich. It also means a whole lot for the actors to work through.

“I trust what Stoppard has written will carry me,” Felciano says. “It’s like with Shakespeare or a Sondheim lyric, it’s all there in the words. The historical, cultural and political context is important, but what really matters is the character’s need and what the conflict is. Audiences instinctively get that.”

After Rock ‘n’ Roll, Felciano will hang around San Francisco a little longer before heading home to New York. He’s appearing in the Oakland East Bay Symphony’s
Zipperz on Nov. 14, which features music by his childhood friend Nathaniel Stookey and a libretto by one of his former French-American International School teachers, Dan Harder. (Visit http://www.oebs.org/page/nov.htm for information)

ACT’s Rock ‘n’ Roll continues through Oct. 18 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.

Visit Manoel Felciano’s Web site at http://mano.felciano.com/

And of special note, The Plastic People of the Universe just happen to be performing in San Francisco at Slim’s on Thursday, Oct. 9. Tickets are $15. Visit http://www.slimstickets.com/evinfo.php?eventid=27443&sid=

Here’s Manoel Felciano performing his original tune “Purple Perfect” with the help of Julie Reiber at the Broadway for Barack Benefit Concert, Feb. 11, 2008:

Sheik, Sater want `Nightingale’ to fly at ACT

Duncan Sheik (left) and Steven Sater say they hope to open their new musical, The Nightingale, at American Conservatory Theater. Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Could San Francisco be the starting point for the follow-up to Spring Awakening?

If Tony Award-winning creators Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater have anything to say about it, The Nightingale, their follow-up to the mega-hit musical Spring Awakening, will make its debut at the American Conservatory Theater in the near future.

In a recent phone interview, Sheik said that when he’s in town for the official launch of the Spring Awakening national tour in early September, he and Sater hope to sit down with ACT artistic director Carey Perloff.

“We really want to get down to brass tacks in terms of a schedule and a plan,” Sheik said. “I’m so crossing my fingers that we do the show in that theater. That’s been a dream of mine and Steven’s since we saw The Black Rider there. Love that space, love the ACT team. What better place to begin The Nightingale, this fairy tale of mythical China?”

Sater also confirmed the discussion with ACT: “We are in serious conversation with them,” he said. “I’m very hopeful of bringing Nightingale there sometime next year.’

Perloff said in a statement that The Nightingale has been a dream project for Sheik and Sater for many years, and they have “longed to see it born at ACT.” To that end, ACT, in association with Martin McCallum, produced a major New York workshop of The Nightingale in November last year in after which the writers continued working through rewrites and maintaining an open dialogue with ACT.

“After last year’s workshop, they did a major rewrite, coming up with a gorgeous, streamlined and deeply moving version of Hans Christian Andersen’s magical tale,” Perloff said. “We very much hope to realize this new musical as part of our 2009-10 Season. Like Fool Moon, Shockheaded Peter and other cross-generational pieces ACT has produced, this should be a huge event for the whole Bay Area.”

The Spring Awakening tour, part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season, opens Sept. 4 at the Curran Theatre. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.