SF Playhouse’s Barbecue sizzles

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The cast of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue at San Francisco Playhouse includes (from left) Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe as Adlean, Adrian Roberts as James T, Kehinde Koyejo as Marie and Halili Knox as Lillie Anne. Below: The clever, twisty play also includes cast members (from left) Teri Whipple as Marie, Clive Worsley as James T, Anne Darragh as Lillie Anne and Jennie Brick as Adlean. Photos by Ken Levin

Robert O’Hara is one of those playwright/directors who, when his name is attached to a project in any way, you pay attention. He’s smart, funny and has a keen eye for theatrical disruption. His Insurrection: Holding History may have played at American Conservatory Theater almost 20 years ago, but it remains one of the wildest, most wonderful things I’ve seen from that company.

O’Hara – the playwright – is back in town with Barbecue, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s 15th season, and here’s what’s on the grill: American families, race in America and recovery porn. This is comedy with deadly serious aim or drama with some really big laughs. Whatever it is, it’s almost indescribable, and that’s a good thing.

The one thing I will tell you, even though it would be better if you went into the play knowing nothing other than it was impeccably directed by Margo Hall and might elicit strong reactions from you on a number of fronts, is that O’Hara turns theater into a wacky mirror, almost literally. The subject is the O’Mallery family’s five (of seven) surviving siblings in a Midwestern city. They are a family plagued with addiction issues (alcohol, painkillers, marijuana, crack, control) and bad attitiudes. They don’t like each other much, but they love each other, and when sister Barbara needs an intervention to get her into rehab, the family rallies. Just like they’ve seen on TV reality shows, they stage a “barbecue party” in a local park in an attempt to lure her in.

But here’s the first of several twists you will encounter over the course of the play’s two hours: we see the O’Mallery’s as a white family in one scene and then as a black family in the next. Same characters, same situation, two sets of actors. When are we afforded the chance to challenge ourselves and our notions of how family and race and class are related? What does it say about me that I found the white family whiny and annoying while the black family was more interesting and likable and much funnier and more vivacious? (Perhaps the white family hit too close to home.)

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If the whole play had only been ricocheting between the alternate families, that would have been fine by me, but O’Hara has more in mind here. These families are alternating reflections, but what exactly are they reflecting? That’s the real question, and O’Hara does provide answers. And twists. And a lot more fun and some quite serious thoughts on rehab and recovery and the language and culture we have built around that process.

There are some wild tonal shifts here, but director Hall has everything firmly in hand, with an excellent design team including Bill English (the superb outdoor park setting complete with restrooms that you know are on the verge of disgusting), Wen-Ling Lao (perfect lighting alteration to accommodate the play’s twists) and Brooke Jennings (pitch-perfect costumes on the cusp of reality/comedy). Usually when Hall is in the director’s chair, the only downside is that it means she won’t be on stage. But that’s not a problem with Barbecue. She is part of the excellent cast and all but ignites the second half alongside the also excellent Susi Damilano. The black/white scene flips, in addition to being culturally, comically and dramatically fascinating, offer a wonderful opportunity to see talented actors tackling the same roles at the same time.

The entire cast is tremendous, but it’s especially instructive to see the dramatic work of Anne Darragh and Halili Knox as Lillie Anne, the controlling sister who is attempting to pull off this intervention and get her difficult (and addled) siblings on board with her. They approach the character differently and offer different levels of empathy, and it’s extraordinary. On a more comic level, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Jennie Brick as Adlean are both hilarious and, again, so different in the way they get laughs. One is more obnoxious and one is more lovable. The same is true of Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts as brother James T and Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo as Jack Daniels-swilling sister Marie.

If all of O’Hara’s twists don’t have the same potency, this cast pulls off this whole audacious enterprise beautifully and keeps the flames of Barbecue high and hot.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue continues through Nov. 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Simply put, Just Theater’s A Maze is just amazing

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Talk show host Kim (Lauren Spencer, left) interviews graphic novel artist Beeson (Clive Worsley) and Pathetic Fallacy band member Paul (Harold Pierce) in the re-mounted production of Just Theater’s A Maze by Rob Handel. Below: The Queen (Janis DeLucia) and the King (Lasse Christiansen) discuss plans for building a maze to keep their soon-to-be-born daughter safe. Photos by Pak Han

There’s only so much you can say about Rob Handel’s delectably intriguing play A Maze without spoiling the fun. The first thing to know is that the play was first produced in the Bay Area last summer by Just Theater at the Live Oak Theater. That production generated such buzz, both from critics and audience members, that the astute folks at Shotgun Players pricked up their ears and decided to re-mount that production at the Ashby Stage.

The re-mount brings back the original cast of eight under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb, and though I didn’t see the show last summer, it’s hard to imagine these performances are not sharper and more astute this time out. Aaronson-Gebl and her actors present the best possible case for Handel’s play as one of the juiciest, most involving dramas to be seen on a Bay Area stage in recent months.

What’s so exciting about A Maze is watching how expertly these actors handle the careful unfolding of Handel’s complex, multifaceted tale. Without giving anything away, there are three main plot strands. The first involves a 17-year-old girl named Jessica (the astonishing Frannie Morrison) who has recently escaped from eight years in captivity. She was abducted from a grocery story at age 9 and has come out of her ordeal with remarkable poise and camera-ready intelligence.

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The second involves a fractured rock band called Pathetic Fallacy in the wake of a giant hit called “I Want Love Brought to Me.” Boyfriend-girlfriend band members Paul (Harold Pierce) and Oksana (Sarah Moser) are making some big choices that will likely affect not only the future of the band but also their relationship. And the third revolves around a graphic artist named Beeson Earwig (Clive Worsley giving a jaw-droppingly good performance) whose multi-volume graphic novel, numbering in the thousands of pages, is building quite a cult following.

What playwright Handel does with time and the weaving together of his plot threads and shifts into fantasy is remarkable, and by the end of Act 1, he has the audience so in the palm of his hand that they would happily skip intermission and dive straight into Act 2.

There’s a whole lot more plot, and within this labyrinthine creation there’s an interesting discussion about the lives of artists, the separation of artist from the art and the heart of creativity, but it’s all craftily entwined in plot and increasingly interesting characters. Rounding out this exceptional cast is Lasse Christiansen, Janice DeLucia, Carl Holvick-Thomas and Lauren Spencer.

I can’t say enough about the sharp, incisive details in these performances. Even in the scene transitions (on Martin Flynn’s maze-covered, mostly black-and-white set), we get insight into characters as the actors head on and off the stage. It would seem that there’s not one detail, from Miyuki Bierlein and Ashley Rogers’ expert costumes to Michael Palumbo’s lighting design, in this 2 1/2-hour production that has not been given careful consideration by director Aaronson-Gelb and her team.

It’s easy to get lost in this Maze, but being lost has rarely revealed such rich theatrical reward.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with A Maze playwright Rob Handel for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Rob Handel’s A Maze continues through March 9 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 510-214-3780 or visit www.justtheater.org.