SF Playhouse offers a sweet, satisfying Kiss

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Carrie Paff and Gabriel Marin play actors in a romantic play who share a turbulent romantic past in Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Marin and Paff, along with Taylor Iman Jones as Angela navigate rocky real life off stage. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

San Francisco Playhouse puckers up and offers a nice juicy kiss for the holidays in Stage Kiss, a delightfully daffy theatrical spin with a touch of real-life melancholy.

This is the first time we’ve seen Ruhl’s play in San Francisco, but the whole Bay Area is alive with the sounds of Ruhl’s empathetic, intelligent, often mystical take on life. Marin Theatre Company and Shotgun Players recently produced her The Oldest Boy (read my review here) and Eurydice respectively. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre is gearing up for her For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday next summer.

There’s a reason Ruhl reigns over theater here (and across the country): her plays are warm, wise, funny and fresh. Stage Kiss, a cautious valentine to the theater (it’s wonderful, but it’s tricky, and its make believe has real-life repercussions), feels like equal parts 1930s theatrical farce and contemporary relationship comedy. The tone, as the director of the show within the show says, is “slippery.”

But the show’s actual director, Susi Damilano, mostly navigates the slip-and-slide tonal shifts deftly and with tremendous warmth. Her cast is headed by three Playhouse MVPs: Carrie Paff is an actress just coming back to the stage after leaving to raise a now-16-year-old daughter; Gabriel Marin is her leading man with whom she shared a turbulent but never quite forgotten romance in the past; and Mark Anderson Phillips is perhaps the worst director of all time (“Just go with your instincts!”). All three have shining moments, but Paff is positively luminous as the unnamed actress (known only as She in the program) whose insecurity gets knocked for a loop when her old lover shows up as her co-star.

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The play’s best moments occur in rehearsal for The Last Kiss a (fictional) creaky old play from the early ’30s, the kind of thing that Katharine Hepburn might have starred in and chewed up all the scenery (including her leading man). Ruhl’s dialogue for the play is convincingly awful, but as the former lovers rekindle their affections, their performances in the silly play suddenly become much more intense and passionate.

There’s a second play within the play in Act 2, a tormented love story abut an IRA terrorist and a whore (title: I Loved You Before I Killed you, or Blurry), and though it’s not quite as fun, it’s still got some big laughs, and all that kissing in the first play is replaced by more challenging fight choreography.

The idea of actors kissing in front of an audience – how weird that is, how titillating – gets a lot of exploration. By the former lover co-stars, of course, but also with the leading man’s understudy (a very funny Allen Darby as Kevin). The leading man, who is described as “a 17-year-old in man pants,” says audiences don’t really like all that kissing. “They tolerate it,” he says. “They don’t really like to see the act of kissing onstage, only the idea of kissing onstage. That’s why actors have to be good-looking, because it’s about an idea, an idea of beauty completing itself. You don’t like to see people do more than kiss onstage, it’s repulsive.”

There’s nothing remotely repulsive about any of the kissing on stage, but his point is well taken. Watching people kiss is odd. But it’s also fun in the proper context, and this context is continually interesting for much of the play’s two hours.

Michael Gene Sullivan, like many of the actors, plays multiple roles. He’s playing the husband of the leading lady in the Act 1 play, and then in Act 2, he plays her real-life husband, who turns out to be much more interesting than we might surmise. His observations about marriage and the way he fights to keep his alive is one of the most heartfelt and interesting aspects of the play. “Marriage is about repetition,” he says to his estranged wife, who has gotten carried away by her theatrical nature. “Every night the sun goes down and moon comes up and you have another chance to be good.”

Also strong in supporting roles are Taylor Iman Jones as several characters in the Act 1 play and then as a real-life daughter in Act 2, and Millie DeBenedt, who steals every scene she’s in when she appears in Act 2 as the leading man’s school teacher girlfriend.

The revolving set by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott conveys a rich sense of theatricality – Act 1 even gets lush red velvet curtains – and is part of the joke when real life turns into theater.

Stage Kiss doesn’t have the depth of some of Ruhl’s other work, but as light, bright comedies go, it has substance. There are some big, robust laughs here. Even better, this turns out to be a Kiss that lingers.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss continues through Jan. 9 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

SF Playhouse’s Stupid Bird f##king soars

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Nina (Martha Brigham) and Conrad (Adam Magill) prepare to present a play for family and friends in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Stupid Fucking Bird by Aaron Posner. Below: An Act 2 fast forward takes us four years ahead into the lives of characters played by (from left) Joseph Estlack, El Beh, Charles Shaw Robinson, Carrie Paff and Johnny Moreno. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

In Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird, an energizing riff on Chekhov’s The Seagull, a playwright laments that what he’s written is just another play where nothing real happens. You can’t really say the same thing about Posner’s play.

Bird doesn’t change the world, as the fictional playwright at one point says that theater should aim to do, but it does rattle the theatrical cage and clears away some musty clouds that hover over business as usual. It’s irreverent, gutsy, funny and even moving – everything you want Chekhov to be but so rarely find in his productions. Posner has his characters refer to what he’s doing as a “deconstruction” and a “rip-off” of Chekhov, but what he’s really doing is finding the essential heart of the original and providing new-and-improved access for a contemporary audience. In interviews, Posner repeatedly refers to Chekhov’s work being a “playground” that appeals to him, and that feels just right. Different rides – a slide, a swing, a merry-go-ground – providing different sensations but all immersive and contributing to an overall experience.

On the set of the Playhouse’s Bird there’s not one but two swings: one from a pier over a lake and one a more traditional push or pump variety. We’re at the lake house of a famous movie/stage actress, the ideal playground for the lovelorn, which pretty much everyone is here.

Posner follows the Chekhov blueprint like someone who knows and loves his Chekhov but is ready to do his own thing. He gathers seven people, some related by blood, some by choice and others by longing. Emma (Carrie Paff) is the vain star, and Trig (Johnny Moreno) is the world-famous writer who now shares her bed. Emma’s son is the tortured Conrad (Adam Magill), who is deeply, painfully in love with his lovely neighbor, Nina (Martha Brigham, a radiant blend of Julia Roberts and Lili Taylor both in looks and talent). Nina does not return his affections, but she does get swept up into the celebrity and literary genius of Trig, thus compounding Conrad’s misery.

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The all-in-black Mash (El Beh) has been pining for Conrad for years, but he’s too caught up in Nina to notice, so Mash works out her longings with sad songs played on the ukulele. Dev (an endearingly understated Joseph Estlack) loves Mash and lets her know it, but he’s not the dramatic sort. He doesn’t moon and swoon and self-flagellate (he mishears that word as “self-flatulate” and wonders how that even works). Unlike the other divas who surround him, he’s a grounded, funny guy. He’s aware he comes across as sort of a boob, but the advantage to that is people underestimating just how much you notice going on around you. There’s another person on the periphery of the drama, Emma’s doctor brother Sorn (Charles Shaw Robinson), a man who plays a mean clarinet, longs for a monthlong hug (from whom remains a mystery) and reviles his chosen profession: “All those sick people!”

Once all of this is set up, Posner wastes no time bashing through the fourth wall, allowing his characters to share with the audience that they are well aware they are in a play and that they are watching the audience almost as much as the audience is watching them. From that point on, the vibe in the theater changes. The artificiality is acknowledged and toyed with, and that suddenly, somewhat mysteriously makes the characters and their situations more real and more interesting. While Conrad at first bemoans the state of theater (“the one we’re doing this play in seems all right”) and how it’s essentially boring and not enlarging people’s minds or hearts and so we need new, new, new forms. There’s a petulant, whiny tone to some of this, but by play’s end (which takes us four years into the future), it’s not new forms he seeks but doing the traditional thing better. After all, he reasons, certain elements like protagonist, antagonist, climax, denouement and catharsis have been around for thousands of years for a reason.

Is Posner doing the traditional thing better? Yes. With the help of director Susi Damilano and her exceptional cast, he pushes us to think about what we’re experiencing and then challenges us to truly feel what we’re experiencing. He allows each character to be more interesting than we might have imagined, and though Act 2 feels less successful than the first and finding an ending proves elusive, he takes us to a place that feels more alive, more thoughtful and, ultimately, more soulful than we might be used to going. That’s pretty f##king amazing.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Stupid Fucking Bird playwright Aaron Posner for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird continues through May 2 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Ideation redux: still smart, thrilling, funny

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The team – (from left) Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely and Ben Euphrat – deals with a surprise personnel issue in the SF Playhouse main stage debut of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation. Below: Superstars of management consulting, Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), return from a job in Crete, which they found full of cretins. Photos by Jessica Palopoli (photo of Aaron Loeb by Lauren English)

In November of last year I reviewed a play by Bay Area playwright Aaron Loeb, and I loved it. That play, Ideation, was part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sand Box Series, an incubator for new works. For a new play, Ideation was in remarkably good shape and went on to win the Glickman Award, which is given to the best play to have its world premiere in the Bay Area.

Knowing a good thing when he saw it, SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English, decided to open his 12th main stage season with Ideation – same director (Josh Costello), same sterling cast (Ben Euphrat, Jason Kapoor, Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely).

The results are just as they should be. Loeb has tweaked the play a bit. The ending has more punch, and both the thrills and the laughs have been punched up a few notches. It’s one of the best plays you’ll see about paranoia and how quickly the seemingly “normal” can become abnormally scary.

I stand by my original review (read it here) and feel like improvements have been made (including a slick set by English) that make Ideation the must-see play of the fall.

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I wrote a tiny feature on Ideation for the San Francisco Chronicle (read it here), but Loeb submitted himself to an email interview what was too good not to share. So here is the interview in its entirety.

Q: What inspired you to write Ideation?
I was inspired by my work in tech (video games, specifically) and also my wife’s work as an international human rights lawyer at the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco. I had just started working with former management consultants for the first time in my life and I was entranced by their language and their thinking process. I was amazed by the way they could take any problem and break it down into its component parts, then relentlessly problem solve until they made progress.

At the same time, my wife was in the midst of leading a civil suit against the former defense minister of Somalia, filed by victims of the genocide and crimes against humanity in Somalia and Somaliland in the 80s. I learned in her preparation and work on the case about the systematic and methodical ways in which the crimes were planned.

Aaron Loeb
Somehow, the two things became connected and I was writing a play about management consultants working on something possibly terrible.

Q: How (if at all) has Ideation changed since its Sandbox premiere last year and how have you approached this second production?
I’ve done some significant rewrites to Ideation – though they might not be noticeable to everyone. I’ve strengthened the relationships of the characters and clarified the build-up to the ending of the play. Some of the changes are based on feedback I received from the first run. Some of it is to resolve issues I was never completely happy with.

There was a section in the middle of the play that I always felt was a bit too circular (as in, the characters discuss a problem once, then they discuss it again, just 10 percent more intensely). I’ve flattened out that circle now so that it’s a steady progression. 

A lot of the changes are in the construction of the play, not in any of the story elements. The biggest changes are in Hannah’s character to make it clearer who she is and to strengthen the fact that this is her story.

One of the things I’m so happy about in this next production is that the artistic team has remained intact. Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely, Jason Kapoor and Ben Euphrat are all recreating their roles from the first run and Josh Costello is directing once again. Bill English is designing the set this time, but also serves in his ongoing capacity as my unerringly honest reader; we’ve done three world premieres together and now have a shorthand that is pretty irreplaceable. 

Because it’s the same team together again, we have the chance to go deeper than we did last time. It’s a rare, rare opportunity.
Q: What did winning the Glickman Award for Ideation mean to you?
Any time you win an award with the pedigree of the Glickman, it means a lot. Angels in America won the Glickman with its world premiere. It’s an award with an incredible history, and it means the world to me to have been honored in such a way.

That said, the part of winning the Glickman I will always remember is the award ceremony at the annual Theatre Bay Area conference. Because this is an award bestowed by local theater critics, at the ceremony three of the judges of the award – Robert Hurwitt, Sam Hurwitt and someone calling himself “Chad Jones” (if that is his real name) – presented the award and each spoke about my writing. They didn’t talk about Ideation only, but about all of my plays. 

I don’t know any of the three men very well personally (I’m Facebook friends with two of them, but you could count the hours I’ve spent with the three on one hand), but each of them spoke about my work with such clarity, it was as though we were old friends. 

What a remarkable thing, I thought. I’ve had a years-long conversation with each of them through the theater.

This is only possible in a community. The play was born here in the Bay Area (as part of Just Theater‘s Play Lab), then developed at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, then premiered at SF Playhouse, then embraced by the Bay Area’s top critics.

As a writer, it is possible to feel terribly alone most of the time. You wonder if anyone will ever hear you. Winning the Glickman, I felt the embrace of my entire community, which was particularly gratifying because it gave me an opportunity to publicly thank everyone who helped me bring the play to life.

Ideation continues through Nov. 8 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Magic’s Five Minutes misses the mark

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Harpo (Jomar Tagatac, left) and Bozo (Patrick Alparone, right) prepare to bring Mo (Rod Gnapp) home in Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes, a world premiere play at the Magic Theatre. Photo: by Jennifer Reiley

I loved Linda McLean’s Any Given Day so much that I proclaimed it my favorite show of 2012 (read my review here). And that makes it all the harder to convey just how much I disliked her world premiere Every Five Minutes at the Magic Theatre.

In brief, the characters and relationships in the play are assumed rather than established. The use of projections is so excessive it would seem that director Loretta Greco strongly mistrusts her actors’ and McLean’s script’s ability to convey what is necessary for the audience to understand the play.

At the performance I attended, the projection mechanism broke down, so the actors were told to hold and then clear the stage until the problem was resolved. I hoped against hope that the projections wouldn’t return, but they did, and boy were they busy.

I have no doubt whatsoever in the actors’ abilities to convey exactly what McLean’s script required of them without the aid of moving visuals on the big wall behind them. It is possible to portray the horror of mental illness without a surrealist barrage of images, especially when you have Rod Gnapp in the role of a man who has been tortured mercilessly for more than a dozen years. But Gnapp, like the other excellent actors in the cast trying to be compassionate and intense, are trapped in a fragmented, fractured narrative that is neither compelling nor interesting nor even very original. Who are these people and why should we care? That’s never really established, and the play’s 90 minutes feel like the torture the main character was exposed to – and perhaps that’s the intention.

But then the ending comes – and we all play parlor games into the sunset – and it feels, like the play itself, inauthentic, shallow and trying too hard with too little effect.

I feel like I missed something huge here and can’t figure out what it is. So rather than go on, I’d like to shift attention to McLean, whom I interviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. She talked about the organic process of her writing and how she follows where it leads. She also talks about feeling a sense of success as a playwright, and it includes an insightful perspective on writing that works and writing that doesn’t.

I think success also means you’ve survived at least one cycle of things not working out, or not being able to write, or what you’re writing is not what people want to see. You come back from that in a slightly fearless way, not changing the way you write to adapt, but keeping true to what you know of your own creativity.

Read the entire feature here.

Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes continues through April 20 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Here’s an idea: go see SF Playhouse’s Ideation. Now.

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Coworkers Ted (Michael Ray Wisely, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) find a routine session of ideation turning into something much more complicated…and terrifying in the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program. Below: Members of the team (from left, Wisely, Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Ben Euphrat) prepare to face the big boss and make choices that could affect their lives in big ways. Photos by Jordan Puckett

Don’t you love it when a new play starts out and you really like it, then it turns into something else and you like it even more? That’s what happens with Ideation, a world-premiere play by local scribe Aaron Loeb that is part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, an incubator for new plays.

As new plays go, Ideation is in remarkably good shape primarily because Loeb’s writing is so smart, sharp and full of grounding humor. It also helps that director Josh Costello has done such incisive work with his excellent cast. This is straightforward, bare-bones drama: one simple set (a generic office conference room by Alicia Griffiths), no special effects, consistently good performances and a script that continually surprises.

The 90-minute one-act begins as an engaging look at corporate power dynamics. An important meeting is going to start in minutes, and Hannah (Carrie Paff) is having some trouble with her young, male assistant, Scooter (Ben Euphrat). He’s a hotshot MBA student at Cal, and the fact that his daddy is on the board is amply reflected in his attitude of entitlement. He’d rather play with the big boys in the meeting than get Hannah the coffee she has asked for.

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Then the big boys arrive, fresh from a business trip to Crete, which proved to be a triumph in “passing liabilities.” Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) are kings in this high-powered consulting firm, and now they turn their attention to a top-secret project called Senna.

Playwright Loeb builds such a believable sense of camaraderie and serious skills/good humor among the players here (excepting young Scooter, or “Scoots” as Brock calls him) that it takes a while for the audience to figure out just what this team is working on. Clues begin to fill the dry-erase board – liquidation facility, containment, cremation – and a heavy sense of “uh oh” begins to pervade the stage. What could they possibly be designing? When, at the start of their work, they agree not to mention the “n-word,” that word turns out to be even worse than you might think.

And that’s the joy of Ideation – a workplace comedy/drama that becomes quite a serious and seriously thrilling thriller (at one point it’s even sexy – how did that happen?). The people on this team are smart cookies, and when they really start to delve into this project and its implications, their sense of paranoia and outright fear becomes quite palpable. Trust in facts and each other begins to crumble, replaced by a realization that they could be involved in something enormously global or as small as a corporate exercise. Loeb has a lot to say about corporations as well and the fact that the only three guiding principles in the world are “country, profit, God.”

By the time Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” starts booming through the conference room, the sheer delight in the mystery of Ideation is in full flower. Secret relationships are revealed. There are mysterious disappearances and reappearances. And the momentum builds until the inevitable conclusion.

That ending is my only equivocation with Ideation. It ends right where you think it will (which is a perfectly logical and sensible place to end), but I was hoping for one more juicy, head-spinning surprise – that final jolt to cap a thrillingly electric theatrical experience.

Aaron Loeb’s Ideation continues through Dec. 7 as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program at the Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415l-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Holy Zuzu’s petals! Get into the spirit with Wonderful Life

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The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play includes (from left) Patrick Kelly Jones as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, Carrie Paff as Lana Sherwood, Michael Gene Sullivan as Freddie Filmore and Gabriel Marin as Jake Laurents. Below: Marin’s Jake gets into character as Bedford Falls’ favorite son, George Bailey. Photos by Ed Smith

At a certain point, no matter how much you love Dickens or get your heart cockles warmed by Scrooge and Tiny Tim, you’ve had it. Enough already with A Christmas Carol. Some years you just need to take a Carol break and find a little holiday spark elsewhere.

This year, if you’re searching for an alternative to Ebenezer and his ghosts, I recommend you head to Marin Theatre Company and spend some time with George Bailey and Clarence, his Angel Second Class. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play takes Frank Capra’s much loved 1946 film and turns it into a stage experience by transforming it into a radio play. As re-conceived by Joe Landry, we’re in a Manhattan radio station on a snowy Christmas Eve as five actors play all the roles and create all the sound effects for a streamlined version of Capra’s story (which itself is based on a short story, Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift”).

This is a smart approach because it relieves the stage production from having to compete with indelible images from Capra’s movie and allows us the extreme pleasure of settling in and being told a good Christmas story enlivened by a quintet of vibrant performers.

Director Jon Tracy marshals a lot of good energy to keep things from veering into the corny, both within the story itself and within the 1940s context of the radio show, where we get flashes of the “actor” characters who are portraying the characters within the story. Thankfully, there’s not a lot of time spent developing the actors beyond their basic personae. We hear what movie, radio or TV shows they’re most famous for, and that’s about it. This keeps the focus on the “Playhouse of the Air” production of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Landry’s adaptation of the screenplay (by Capra, Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling and Albert Hackett, with reported “polish” by Dorothy Parker) keeps all the basic details and the framework: beleaguered George Bailey (Gabriel Marin) has had enough of his dreams being killed by small-town life. His ongoing fight to keep his family’s building and loan business afloat has finally crashed (thanks a lot for nothing, Uncle Billy), and so has any semblance of George’s faith and hope in life, wonderful or otherwise.

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As townspeople pray for George, the angels we have heard of (on high) take note and make moves to do something about it. An angel who has yet to achieve his wings, one Clarence Odbody (Patrick Kelly Jones) is given an overview of George’s life (also known as Act 1) and then sent down to prevent George from killing himself and then showing himself what the world would be like if he had never been born.

It takes a good long while for the set-up to result in some action, but once George gains a new perspective on the life he has led and the work he has done, It’s a Wonderful Life becomes a mash-up of A Christmas Carol and Our Town. We have supernatural forces intervening in a human life, offering an alternative view of that life and leading to redemption and a new-found appreciation for the intrinsic value of human life – every human life. As Clarence says, “One man’s life touches so many others, when he’s not there, it leaves an awfully big hole.”

Marin’s George is understandably cranky for much of the play’s 100-plus minutes, but when George gets an angelic kick in the spiritual pants, Marin brings on a full-blown nervous breakdown and rebirth. Even when he’s cranky, though it’s easy to see why sweet Mary (Sarah Overman) would be infatuated with George, who’s smart and ambitious and edgy in ways that other Bedford Falls folks are not.

Rounding out the cast in a number of roles are Carrie Paff, most memorable as Zuzu, George and Mary’s sniffly little girl, and Violet Bick, as close as Bedford Falls gets to a vixen, and Michael Gene Sullivan, who gleefully sinks his teeth into “old money-grubbing buzzard” Henry Potter, the bad guy.

Like any good piece of holiday entertainment, this show is warm and entertaining for its first two-thirds and then gets profound and truly emotional in its last section. This Wonderful Life can stand on its own apart from the movie, which is no small feat, and stake a claim for being wonderful in its own right.

[bonus video]
Here’s the original trailer for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946:

It’s a Wonderful Life continues through Dec. 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Magic between a tricky spot and The Other Place

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Donald Sage Mackay is Ian and Henny Russell is Juliana in Sharr White’s The Other Place, the season-opener at the Magic Theatre. Below: Carrie Paff (left) plays several key characters in the unraveling mystery of Juliana’s illness. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

There’s a slippery quality to Sharr White’s The Other Place, the drama opening the Magic Theatre season. The first half of this 80-minute one-act is especially slick as we try to gain our bearings, but White and director Loretta Greco keep tilting the playing field. Just when we think we know what’s really going on in the story of a brilliant scientist’s life, along comes new information or a trip to the past that reconfigures what we thought we knew.

Memory is a tricky, tricky thing. How accurate or trustworthy are our memories? That’s a question that Juliana Smithton should be asking herself, but she’s not, because she doesn’t know anything’s wrong. A renowned medical researcher, Juliana heads a team creating a revolutionary drug that will aid in the treatment of dementia. But as we see her making a presentation on the drug to a group of doctors in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, we begin to sense that this pioneering scientist may be suffering from the very disease she’s trying to cure.

White further complicates our discovery of Juliana’s exact condition by having her narrate her own story. As played by Henny Russell, Juliana is a sharp, funny storyteller. She vacillates between her drug presentation and bringing us up to speed on what’s going on in her own life. In addition to her intense work promoting the new drug, she’s also dealing with the repercussions of her teenage daughter’s disappearance a decade ago.

It’s not long, however, before we begin to sense that Juliana is probably not the most reliable teller of her own story, and that’s when The Other Place subtly turns into a horror story. Not a slasher, blood-and-guts, ghosts-bumping-in-the-night horror story, but a reality-based tale of terror that could, and probably will, affect each of us in some way.

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Juliana is a fascinating character, not least because we’re constantly trying to piece together who is the real Juliana as opposed to the Juliana fragments we see that are affected by things other than her own personality. Russell’s performance is so grounded, and full of so many blasts of warmth, ego and genius, that’s it hard not to recoil when Juliana is sharp and defiant with the people she doesn’t realize are trying to help her.

When The Othe Place opens on Broadway later this year, Laurie Metcalf will play Juliana. She’ll be brilliant and probably rack up a bunch of awards (it’s that kind of role), but it’s hard to imagine anyone more believable in the role than Russell.

Surrounding Juliana is a trio – Donald Sage Mackay, Carrie Paff and Patrick Russell – that holds keys to her situation and to that elusive thing known as the truth. Mackay is especially sympathetic, though his character seems the least developed. Except for one key emotional scene, his function seems to be dispensing important facts and being incredibly patient.

Russell has a great telephone scene that only intensifies the mystery surrounding Juliana, and Paff has several showcase roles, including a very understanding doctor, that show off her range and charisma.

Greco’s direction is understated and solid, with a production featuring an excellent set (by Myung Hee Cho) that transitions from the cold and technical (aided by projections by Hanna Sooyeon Kim) to the warm and personal in a quick blackout.

The Other Place is as fascinating as it is unsettling, and it will linger in memory. Until it doesn’t.

[bonus interview]

I talked to playwright Sharr White for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Sharr White’s The Other Place continues through Oct. at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco, Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Aurora tips Albee’s Balance delicately

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Kimberly King (right) gives a stellar performance as Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Agnes’ world is upended by the arrival of best friends Edna (Anne Darragh, rear left) and Harry (Charles Dean) who are fleeing a nameless terror. Below: Ken Grantham (in bathrobe) is Tobias, patriarch of a challenging clan, which now includes Harry (Dean, right) and (rear, from left) Agnes (King), Julia (Carrie Paff), Claire (Jamie Jones) and Edna (Darragh). Photos by David Allen

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance only looks like a suburban comedy. It’s really an existential nightmare slightly more gussied up than your average slasher movie. Oh, blood flows in this eviscerating drama, but it’s of a more metaphorical variety than you’ll find in the Saw franchise. Between the ravages of time and the mighty pen of Albee, the family on stage has absolutely no chance at all.

And their demise is so very delicious. (Also delicious: Albee himself was in the audience for Thursday’s opening-night performance.)

A Delicate Balance opens Aurora’s 20th season, and as directed by Artistic Director Tom Ross, it’s a perfect example of why the Aurora is such a glorious part of the Bay Area theater scene. An intimate theater and a thrust stage so deep it’s practically in the round make the Aurora a crucible in which outstanding writing and superb performances combine and, with luck and a good director, ignite. To watch an actor lose herself or himself in an exquisitely crafted part is one of the greatest pleasures in the theater, and there’s no better vantage point for this than the Aurora.

Ross’ Balance is one of those wonderful Aurora experiences – a cracking good play with a strong director at the helm and intricate performances that blur the line between art and reality.

Chief among this production’s pleasures is a central performance by Kimberly King as Agnes. Hers is a performance so compelling it’s sometimes to hard to watch anybody else. From the play’s opening moments, as Agnes muses on the very real possibility that she’ll lose her mind, it’s clear that King will be the vital center of this story. Agnes is a fascinating character – strong, controlling, incredibly smart and hard to the point of impenetrability. But through Albee’s incisive writing and King’s dynamic performance, we also see the person Agnes once was – warm, funny, compassionate, nurturing – before life, and the choices she made to deal with that life, built up her defenses and made her more sour than sweet.

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Because the audience is on three sides of the stage, it’s impossible for actors to escape the careful inspection of audience members at all times. Ross, who has been with the Aurora since 1992, is adept at directing the most minute details. This means that wherever you look at any time during the play, you’ll see something revealing, especially if, like me, you’re compelled to watch King’s Agnes for the play’s three acts and nearly three hours.

Whether she’s lovingly manipulating her somewhat baffled husband, Tobias (Ken Grantham, fighting her alcoholic younger sister, Claire (Jamie Jones or dealing with the hysteria of her oft-divorced daughter, Julia (Carrie Paff), Agnes is a force of nature (“There’s no saner woman on Earth,” we’re told). She’s well spoken (indeed, she apologizes at one point for being articulate), and her words have powerful impact. She’s the fulcrum attempting to maintain the delicate balance of the title.

She rules her suburban roost (the gorgeous living room set is by Richard Olmstead and the lighting by Kurt Landisman) like a drill sergeant crossed with dowager empress with a hint of Margaret Thatcher. And yet she’s entirely likeable, even empathetic, and that’s largely due to the intricacies of King’s masterful performance.

Agnes gets even more interesting when her world starts to rock. Errant daughter Julia returns home after her fourth failed marriage on the same day that best friends Harry and Edna (Charles Dean and Anne Darragh) arrive with news that they have fled their home due to some unnamed terror. The monster of mortality is storming the neighborhood, like Godzilla touring Japan, and Agnes is just the warrior to ready her troops. As she and Tobias discuss early in the play, from their plateau of soul-numbing suburban domesticity, “we do what we can,” so of course they take in their creepily spooked friends and mentally unbalanced daughter. They don’t want to but they do.

There are so many good laughs in this production that it can feel like a rollicking comedy, but for every great laugh line, or accordion solo, there’s an equally searing observation about marriage, friendship, family and the ruinous nature of time. As when Claire, a self-described drunk rather than an alcoholic, asks for a refill on her cocktail: “Oh, come on. It’s only the first I’m not supposed to have.” The more you laugh, the closer you get to falling down the bottomless pit – “the dark sadness” as Albee describes it – at the center of the play. And that’s a theater experience to savor.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org

Tiny but terrifying: Go ask Alice

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Rod Gnapp and Carrie Paff work out some kinks in their relationship in the Marin Theatre Company production of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice. Below: Andrew Hurteau as Brother Julian. Photos by Kevin Berne

The legend of Tiny Alice looms large. Edward Albee’s notorious 1964 follow-up to his monster Broadway smash Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf baffled critics and continued to cause kerfuffles for years to come (especially when William Ball, in the early days of American Conservatory Theater played fast and loose with the script).

This is not one of Albee’s frequently produced scripts, and after seeing Marin Theatre Company’s riveting production, it’s easy to see why. This play is a monster. It’s not like Albee hasn’t created monsters before (he loves to rile the beasts in many ways), but this one is especially weighty.

Notions of God, faith, corruption and the supernatural all bear down for three acts and three solid hours, which means a serious evening of theater. It’s not that there aren’t laughs – how could there not be, the Catholic Church is involved (cheap shot, sorry)? – Albee is such a sharp writer and this cast is so astute that chuckles and outright laughs are frequent (and that can make the difference between endurance and enjoyment).

But this is a challenging play to say the least. Act 1 is familiar territory as Albee introduces his players, his zest for zingers and a juicy central mystery. In Act 2, the ground begins to wobble, and by Act 3, the ground has given way altogether. The monster, perhaps literally speaking, is loose.

Directing this play has been a decades-long obsession for MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis, and his production clearly demonstrates the guiding hand of someone to whom the play’s mysteries are, if not clear, at least illuminated.

Minadakis has said he couldn’t do the play until he had just the right actors, and it’s good thing he waited as long as he did. The quintet at work on stage here is doing some mighty powerful work.

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Andrew Hurteau is the emotionally and spiritually conflicted center of the play as Brother Julian, a lay brother whose crisis of faith – seemingly in his past but powerful enough to institutionalize him for a number of years – makes him especially vulnerable to the machinations of those whose motives may not be pure.

The motives of the Cardinal (Richard Farrell) are quite clear. The Church has been promised $20 billion dollars from the estate of a young woman who, working through her lawyer, wants to spend time with a representative of the Church. That turns out to be Brother Julian. If Alice takes a shine to him, the Cardinal is a hero, and the Church is billions of dollars richer.
From their first, bizarre meeting, Julian and Alice create a bond. It would be hard not to be intrigued by Alice, especially as played by the beguiling Carrie Paff (looking gorgeous in elegant costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt).

The power dynamic between Paff and Hurteau, sometimes charged with sadistic thrill (Alice) and sometimes with wrenching heartbreak (Julian), never ceases to fascinate.

Alice also works a strange dynamic with her lawyer, played with aggressive intelligence and chilling malice by Rod Gnapp. They have a sexual relationship, but they’re in each other’s heads to a dangerous degree.

Alice’s trusty butler is always on hand to provide a quirky line or a bit of comfort – and Mark Anderson Phillips is a comfort indeed. He makes Butler (yes, that’s the butler’s name) as fascinating as everyone else, even though he functions on the periphery of the action. He, like Julian, seems a little more human than the devils conspiring to win the lay brother’s soul for reasons they won’t divulge until it’s too late (for Julian).

J.B. Wilson’s set (lit beautifully by Kurt Landisman actually becomes another character in the show. As Julian becomes more and more immersed in Alice’s world, he gets to know her mansion and the miniature replica of it that dominates the main drawing room.

I won’t say I understand where Albee is going with Tiny Alice, but I will say I enjoyed the ride. Asking questions about the nature of God and man’s relationship to spirituality is fascinating, especially in the hands of a compelling writer. Brother Julian, so fiercely and compassionately played by the astonishing Hurteau, has a tenuous relationship with God at best. The world of hallucination and reality are not comfortably defined for him, nor are they for us.


Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice continues through June 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $32-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org for information.

Aurora premiere bridges gap between comedy and Collapse

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Amy Resnick as Susan does an upward facing dog during a conversation with Gabriel Marin as David and Carrie Paff as Hannah in Allison Moore’s Collapse at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Aldo Billingslea is the enigmatic Ted, a stranger who gets to know Paff’s Hannah. Photos by David Allen


Sometimes things collapse. Sometimes buildings and bridges, things that are built to physically support us. And sometimes marriages and families, things that are meant to sustain and bolster us, crumble as well.

Both kinds of ruin are examined – sometimes to hilarious comic effect – in Allison Moore’s Collapse, a rolling world premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. The concept of a rolling premiere is essentially a collaboration, in this case with the National New Play Network and Curious Theatre in Denver and Kitchen Dog Theater in Dallas.

Director Jessica Heidt’s sharp, wildly entertaining production begins on rather a sly note. She has pitched her actors to an extreme level of discomfort, yet their goal is to appear perfectly normal and happy. It’s a total sitcom situation – living room set and all – as David (Gabriel Marin) attempts to inject the posterior of his wife, Hannah (Carrie Paff), with fertility drugs. Their chipper anxiety about the fertility process is masking something else. We don’t know what, but we sense it’s serious. He’s drinking too much, she’s worried about being laid off from her legal firm and there’s a shadow looming over their relationship.

The sitcom rhythms continue with the arrival of Hannah’s kooky sister from California, Susan (Amy Resnick) – why do all the kooks have to be from California? Sure enough, this one almost immediately announces her life as crumbled, so she’s moving back home to Minneapolis and will crash with her sister and brother-in-law for the foreseeable future. Then she starts doing yoga.

There’s nothing wrong with sitcom rhythms when they’re done well – and this trio of actors is superb. But there’s more to Moore’s play than what first appears. This is a rollicking comedy with decidedly serious undertones, and before too long, it feels like a drama – a beautifully written and produced drama – more than it does a sitcom. And that’s a wonderful thing.

The shadow looming over Hannah and David is actually, physically looming over them in Melpomene Katakalos’ set design. In addition to the spare settings for a living room, a diner or a support group, the intimate Aurora space is filled with pieces of a bridge – Minneapolis’ I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River, to be exact, the one that collapsed in August of 2007 and killed 13 and injured 145.

That horrific accident affected Hannah and David personally, and they have spent the last year and a half (the play is set in 2009) confronting and avoiding the issue, but mostly suffering through their own personal and matrimonial hell.

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Hannah is so on edge that when she meets the enigmatic Ted (Aldo Billingslea) at a support group meeting, she immediately falls under this Southerner’s spell. Is he a nice guy or a master manipulator? It’s hard to tell, and Billingslea’s smoothly sexy performance makes it almost impossible to know for sure. Listen to him croon, “Oh, I will be your bulldog” and you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for people from Georgia.

It’s amazing that from under the rubble of a collapsed bridge, a collapsed economy and collapsing relationships that Moore can find any laughs, but there are plenty in this brisk but fully satisfying 80-minute one-act. There’s silliness skittering over some serious darkness, but the play never feels frivolous. Those sitcom stereotypes that we see at the start of the show, deepen into richer characters than we might expect. Even Susan, the kook, whose every laugh is mined by the brilliant Resnick, earns our sympathy. Her West Coast spiritual facade is a kind of armor she wears to combat the constant string of failures in her life. She means well and will likely continue stumbling through the years, opening herself to the “universal flow.”

And Paff and Marin show us the real pain stabbing Hannah and David, and the real affection that brought them together in the first place. There’s a good marriage between good people at stake here, and you feel that acutely by play’s end. Things may collapse, but they can also be rebuilt.


Allison Moore’s Collapse continues through March 6 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.