Comedy is off in SF Playhouse Noises

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The cast of Noises Off at San Francisco Playhouse includes (clockwise from left) Craig Marker, Nanci Zoppi, Johnny Moreno, Monique Hafen, Richard Louis James, Greg Ayers, Patrick Russell, Kimberly Richards and Monica Ho. Below: The farce-within-the-farce, Noises On, includes actors muddling through an ill-fated performance. The actors include (from left) Hafen, James, Richards, Ayers and Zoppi. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Every actor in San Francisco Playhouse’s Noises Off, the celebrated and oft-performed Michael Frayn ode to theater and theater people disguised as a knock-down, drag-out farce, has a wonderful moment or two. Perhaps a bit of inspired comic business, a sweet connection with another actor or a clever way of twisting a laugh from dialogue.

But as appealing as the cast can be, the whole of this farce never comes together in a satisfying way. Director Susi Damilano’s production is frantic and labored and lacking in the finely tuned details that make this comic machine hum like it should. The actors work hard, the set works hard and the audience works hard to muster up some enjoyment as the three-act play (Acts 2 and 3 are now bridged by a speech from the stage management) becomes an exercise in diminishing comic returns.

That’s a shame because the ingredients are all here for a delectable comic feast that turns out to be more of an intermittent snack fortified by occasional chuckles. After a clunky Act 1, which finds a sad-sack company of actors in a final dress rehearsal of the farce Nothing On, Act 2 literally flips the scene. Set designer George Maxwell’s country home theater set spins around so we can watch Act 1 of the play-within-the-play again, but this time from backstage, where the mayhem is far more intense than it is on stage. The actors have been on tour for a bit, and all the interpersonal relationships are exploding with varying degrees of jealousy, rage, alcoholism, nose bleeds and over-protectiveness. It’s this well-orchestrated physical shtick that allows the director and her company to shine, if only briefly, as axes are wielded, whiskey bottles are tossed, flowers are catapulted, sardines are slimed and just about everyone is attempting to settle a score with someone else.

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For the last section of the 2 1/2-hour play, we’re back on stage with the bedraggled company at the end of their disastrous tour, and their bitterness, exhaustion and ineptitude has completely overwhelmed them (and their audience, I might add). We should be tired from laughing at this point, but really, we’re just tired.

Noises Off had a much better run in 1988 at Marin Theatre Company in a production directed by Richard Seyd. It was such a hit that it transferred to San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre, where it ran for almost a year. That production (which Seyd revived at San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2003) provided stronger evidence that Noises Off, as many have said, is one of the great farces. but when it’s not firing on all cylinders, it can also be one of the most annoying (see the wretched 1992 movie version that not even Carol Burnett can save, or better yet, don’t).

Though the SF Playhouse actors do good work independently, the company never feels like a cohesive whole, which would raise the stakes on the fracturing of their intimate little tour troupe and make the comedy zing with more focus. Still, it’s hard to resist the charms of actors like Craig Marker, whose Freddy continually claims how stupid he is about everything, and Nanci Zoppi, whose character, Belinda, is basically a straight-man role, but she imbues it with such zest she seems more like the glue holding the company together. Monique Hafen as Brooke must spend the bulk of the show in her underwear, and while Hafen has no problem carrying that off, she’s also consistent in her character’s terrible acting and unwavering adherence to the script, even while the theatrical world is imploding around her and her contact lenses are popping off.

Some occasionally marble-mouthed English accents interfere with the comedy, but the roaring egos, ill-advised affairs and sincere attempts to make good theater come through and convey a sense of theater folks as being so immersed in their insular stage world that they lose perspective on real life. Ironically, some of the best laughs of this experience come from the fake program-within-the-program for Nothing On,, where actors have been in shows like Scenes from the Charnelhouse (by Strindberg, naturally), Twice Two Is Sex and an all-male production of The Trojan Women, and they’ve become “famous” for catch phrases like, “Ooh, I can’t ‘ardly ‘old me lolly up!” That program also reveals some intriguing hints about what might happen in Act 2 of Nothing On, which we never get to see. Apparently involves a hospital trolley, surgical supplies and a straitjacket.

Putting on a play is hard work, and that has never seemed more apparent than it does here in a disappointing Noises Off.

Michael Frayn’s Noises Off continues through May 13 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Money trumps all in MTC’s fascinating Invisible Hand

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Kidnapped banker Nick Bright (Craig Marker, left) deals with his Pakistani kidnappers, Dar (Jason Kapoor, center) and Bashir (Pomme Koch) in the Marin Theatre Company production of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. Below: Nick, Dar and Bashir are visited by group leader Imam Saleem (Barzin Akhavan, seated). Photos by Kevin Berne

Marin Theatre Company concludes its 49th season with a play that is timely for this election cycle to be sure, but because its focus is on the powerful religion known as money, it’s really timely all the time.

The Invisible Hand by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced), is set in the Middle East, involves Muslim extremists and traffics in terrorism in the form of a potentially lucrative (and vengeful) kidnapping of American banker Nick Bright. But the most fascinating aspect of the drama is how incisively it cuts into what money (lots of it) does to human beings, whatever their cause or background. Akhtar takes a situation we think we know: an American employee of Citibank is kidnapped and held for $10 million ransom while he is working in Pakistan. The kidnappers, followers of a man named Imam Saleem, are attempting to bring some semblance of order back to their country after the U.S. has “raped and plundered” it and the government has failed its people utterly.

“This country has gone to hell because of people like my father wanting something better for themselves,” says a kidnapper whose family moved from Pakistan to the outskirts of London. It’s the same kidnapper who says he gave up a “soft life in the West” for something more meaningful, which, in this case, involves extorting money from the West to serve the people of Pakistan.

Nick, played by the always remarkable and relatable Craig Marker, was not the intended kidnap victim – the goal was someone higher up the corporate ladder – but he happens to be a catch because he’s a brilliant financier who knows how to turn money into more money through smart, not always scrupulous ways. That’s going to come in handy because the kidnappers have decided to put Nick to work. With access to a few million dollars, he is going to have 12 months to raise his own $10 million ransom by playing the market. The British-born kidnapper, Bashir (an excellent Pomme Koch), will serve as his chief assistant (and manage the laptop, which Nick isn’t allowed to touch).

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So from the confines of a mud and brick prison (set by Kat Conley), Nick and Bashir create their own little financial empire, with Nick providing a crash-course master class in manipulating the markets for his eager and able student.

What’s remarkable about this two-hour play, especially in its tighter first act, is how tense and exciting it can be two watch two guys moving money around on a laptop. Director Jasson Minadakis keeps the emotional stakes high and, with the compelling performances by Koch and Marker, turns what could be a dry class in international economics into a powerful dive into the corruptive and addictive nature of money.

We see Nick warn Bashir that making money can be intoxicating and that he needs to pull himself away from that rush. We also see Bashir ignore that advice. We also see that no matter how well intentioned or righteous a cause or a person might be, money and the power it brings can trump spirituality, morals and intelligence. Even leader Imam Saleem (a charismatic, enigmatic Barzin Akhavan) cannot remain immune from its corrosive power.

The second act, filled with shorter, choppier scenes, isn’t as effective as the first, but as things change and grow more desperate, the stage, ironically, becomes more beautiful as the lighting by York Kennedy effectively conveys stark loneliness and isolation through some stunning, almost painterly images.

Akhtar’s ending is less than satisfying if only because what has come before has been such an intelligently and dramatically wrought tangle of politics, finance and personal drama. The end comes too soon and lets the political take over, when that has been the least interesting aspect of the play.

Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand continues an extended run through July 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $10-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Anne Boleyn seems to be heading in right direction

Extended through May 15
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Charles Shaw Robinson (far left) is Cardinal Wolsey, David Ari (center) is Thomas Cromwell, Liz Sklar is Anne Boleyn and Ryan Tasker (far right) is Simpkin in the West Coast premiere of Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn at Marin Theatre Company, running through May 8 in Mill Valley. Below: Anne and King Henry VIII (Craig Marker) begin a seven-year courtship leading to their complicated marriage. Photo by Kevin Berne

The relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – adulterous, adventurous and tragic (for Anne) – has long captivated the public imagination. Their story has been told on the page, on the stage and on screens large and small. There’s been a shift in thinking about Anne, not as a vixen, home wrecker or overzealous climber but as a smart cookie who was more of a power player behind Henry’s throne than we might have thought.

One such exploration can now bee seen on stage at Marin Theatre Company in Anne Boleyn, a 2010 play by Howard Brenton.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a slice:

There seem to be two reasons motivating this drama, the bulk of which was also depicted in the novel, TV series and stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” The first is to serve as a sort of reclamation project for Henry VIII’s second and most famous wife, proving she was a feisty, intelligent person who had a profound effect on English history. The second is to remind the “demons of the future,” as Anne calls us, that ruling power and religion make for a dangerous and disastrous combination.
In this contentious election season, when candidates claim that God (and, apparently, discrimination) is on their side, Brenton’s play, set in the early 16th and 17th centuries, strikes some powerful, resonant notes. One frustrated character, late in the play, laments that what we do in the name of God is usually the same thing we would do in our own self-interest.

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Read the full review here.

Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn continues an extended run through May 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are$10-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Cal Shakes closes with apocalyptic King Lear

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Kjerstine Rose Anderson is The Fool and Anthony Heald is Lear in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of King Lear directed by Amanda Dehnert. Below: Heald rages as Lear. Photos by Kevin Berne

When California Shakespeare Theater ended the 2007 season with a heavy, industrial-looking King Lear, opening night was a cold one in the Bruns Amphitheater (read my review here). Eight years later, Cal Shakes once again ends the season with another heavy, industrial-looking Lear, but opening night was one of the rare ones when you could have worn short sleeves throughout (most of) the 2 1/2-hour tragedy. There’s just something delicious about a warm, late summer night for watching the unraveling of the world.

More than any other Lear I’ve seen, this one feels apocalyptic. Perhaps I’ve been watching too many zombie shows on TV, but the play felt like the perfect recipe for end times: take a whole lot of hubris (and the ego, power, lust, greed and general wretchedness that comes with it), throw in the decay of actual madness to blur all the lines and then watch the cracks in the foundations followed by nihilistic chaos and the abundant flow of blood. If that’s not end times, what is?

At the top of the show, director Amanda Dehnert tips her psychological hand by having Kjerstine Rose Anderson sweetly sing a song (borrowed from Twelfth Night) that tells us about a man whose youngest daughter was “wise but he called her his fool.” Anderson will go on to play Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, the one who is banished when she refuses to kiss his royal ass when asked to do so in exchange for a third of the kingdom, and then she will reappear as the Fool. In this production, the Fool will be a sort of nefarious Snuffaluffagus, a figment of Lear’s fevered imagination that gives him tough love, taunts him and fuels his encroaching madness.

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Anderson is terrific in both roles, and she has crackling good chemistry with the marvelous Anthony Heald as Lear. The most poignant moment of the entire production comes when Lear, navigating the fog of his mind, recognizes Cordelia, home from her banishment to care for him.

Dehnert allows Heald to rage memorably from high atop the moving metal-and-glass boxes that comprise Daniel Ostling’s set. Stagehands connect, break apart, reconfigure and spin the boxes, and during Lear’s stormy night (mentally and literally), he finds himself high atop the boxes screaming at the sky and the hills of the Siesta Valley. It’s a beautiful, powerful image.

Another striking visual comes in the torture of Gloucester (Charles Shaw Robinson, whose clarity of language and thought make you wish he were in every Shakespeare play) by Regan (El Beh) and her husband, Cornwall (Craig Marker). First they strap him into a chainlink enclosure, electrify the metal and force him against it. Then, the box spins, and through shadows on the glass, we see them gouging out his eye.

The lighting of the play, by Christopher Akerlind, is distinct, with many large lights (like you used to see on movie soundstages) on stage and moved around to highlight different scenes. Depending on where you’re sitting, this can be like driving into the sunlight, but it also creates a stark landscape on stage and helps isolate action in a large space.

Along with Heald, Andreson and Robinson, the strength of this production comes from Aldo Billingslea as Kent, who even manages to dignify the silly get-up (complete with red mohawk) he wears when the banished Kent returns in disguise and from Dan Clegg as Edmund the cartoonish bastard of a bad guy who seizes on the moment of royal upheaval to destroy his own family and shred the country even more. Clegg takes such delight in Edmund’s dirty deeds he might as well be twirling his mustache, but he’s fun, even if his dirty deeds seem more cartoonish than evil.

Director Dehnert leans too heavily on comic relief from Patrick Alparone’s Malvolio-ish Oswald, footman to Goneril, and his death toward play’s end (though he’s perhaps playing a different soldier character, I wasn’t quite sure) elicits laughs that feel out of place in view of what’s to come.

As Cinderella’s stepsisters, er, sorry, Lear’s older daughters, Beh as Regan and Arwen Anderson as Goneril are fire and ice respectively and not much more. They come across as more cartoonish than human, and their deaths don’t register much more than the inevitable erasing of cartoon baddies.

There’s unevenness in tone to this Lear, but that doesn’t necessarily feel out of place when it seems everything is crumbling. While Heald’s Lear is center stage, there’s a pounding pulse to the production and you feel the real cost of our idiocy when it comes to the little things – like running the world, navigating family and dealing with other human beings.

California Shakespeare Theater’s King Lear continues through Oct. 11 at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit Free shuttles to and from the the theater and Orinda BART.

Aurora’s Fifth of July more cherry bomb than firework

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Ken Talley (Craig Marker, center right) debates his future with guests at his Missouri home (from left Harold Pierce, John Girot, Nanci Zoppi, Oceana Ortiz, Jennifer LeBlanc and Elizabeth Benedict) in the Aurora Theatre’s production of Fifth of July by Lanford Wilson. Below: Shirley (Oceana Ortiz, left) dramatically enacts meeting her famous future self in front of gathered family and friends (from left, Zoppi, Josh Schell, Girot and Marker). Photos by David Allen

It’s easy to imagine how, in 1978, Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July was remarkable for several reasons. It featured a loving gay couple at the center of its family-friend-reunion plot and didn’t make a big deal about it. That’s not what the play is about, but the couple and their relationship are as important as any other on stage. Also, the play wrestles with the repercussions of the 1960s anti-war movements and how all that passionate activism evolved, and in many cases, dissipated into the ’70s.

Some have compared Wilson to Chekhov, and it’s easy to see why – a large group of people at a country house (in this case, it’s a 19-room house in Lebanon, Missouri) musing on how they find themselves older and atop a heap of broken dreams. But the comparison really ends there. Wilson’s characters are very much the product of their time, which leaves Fifth of July feeling rather dated and, in the current Aurora Theatre Company production, rather dull.

It’s unfair to compare the play (which was produced on Broadway in 1980) with The Big Chill, which came out in 1983, but while watching the Aurora production, I couldn’t help thinking about how similar they are and how much more fun the movie is. But Wilson was first, so he should get credit, even if Fifth of July creaks more often than it should (a paternity subplot is downright deadly).

The central issue with director Tom Ross’ production is that it feels entirely surface. There are good actors in the cast working hard to break through the veneer of people playing ’70s dress-up, but that shiny surface never cracks. So if there are depths to this play, they are not visible here. And what is visible is only fitfully interesting.

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Craig Marker is Ken Talley, a Vietnam vet who lost both of his legs in battle. Ken and his lover, Jed (an understated Josh Schell) are at the Talley family home for the summer, though Ken is there most of the time, while Jed lives in St. Louis. They are joined by assorted family and friends for the Fourth of July weekend. Ken’s sister, June (Jennifer LeBlanc), and her daughter, Shirley (Oceana Ortiz), are also there, as is their Aunt Sally (Elizabeth Benedict), whose senior years are threatening to take her to California and the kind of life she’s not much interested in.

Also in the house are old friends of Ken and June’s from their wild, cocaine- and protest-filled UC Berkeley days, Gwen Nanci Zoppi) and her husband, John (John Girot), and a strange hippie-ish musician named Wes (Harold Pierce) who is going to help Gwen become a country-western star. It’s an eclectic lot, and Wilson doesn’t really give them much to do. Ken’s struggle to move on with his life and adapt to a different body and world is the most compelling component of the story, and Marker makes Ken likable even if he never quite discovers the darker shades under Ken’s attempts at good humor. The scene stealer here is Benedict as Aunt Sally, who, in the second act, comes as close as this production gets to being lively.

LeBlanc, a superb actor, does what she can with a woefully underwritten role, and Ortiz has to contend with some of the least believable dialogue ever written for a teen character. Many of the actors have a good moment or two but seem adrift and unable to really make a strong connection with the play or the audience.

Set designer Richard Olmstead gets points for building an enormous house in the tiny Aurora space and then takes us from inside the house in Act 1 to outside in Act 2 – no small feat in such a limited space.

But then again, maybe the size of this show is part of the problem. The Aurora is an up-close-and-personal space, and it’s entirely possible that Fifth of July, heralded by many as an American classic, works best from a distance and suffers in close-up.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July continues through May 17 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

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Erika Chong Shuch (left) is Titania, queen of the fairies, and Margo Hall is Bottom, a transformed rude mechanical and Daisuke Tsuji (rear) is Oberon a mischievous king of the fairies in the California Shakespeare Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Below: Tsuji’s Oberon and Danny Scheie’s Puck figure out how to right all the wrongs they’ve made with their midsummer meddling. Photos by Kevin Berne.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a landmark play for California Shakespeare Theater. When the company really became the company, then known as Berkeley Shakespeare Company, the first show produced at John Hinkel Park was Midsummer. Since then, the play has been performed seven more times, and now Cal Shakes concludes its 40th anniversary season with a version of the play that feels unlike any other production of it I’ve seen.

The opening scene, a battle/rough seduction between Theseus (Daisuke Tsuji) and the conquered Hippolyta (Erica Chong Shuch), is a good example of director Shana Cooper’s unique approach to the production’s tone. It’s hard to know whether to credit Shuch, who choreographed the play’s movement, or fight director Dave Maier for this dazzling encounter. But that kind of blended work is a hallmark of the production.

There’s a vigorous physicality to this Dream, whether it’s in the more formal dance moments (music and sound design is by Paul James Prendergast) or the heightened sense of vibrancy that enlivens the work of the forest fairies or the quartet of Athenian lovers who get lost and mightily tangled in the night. Even if there were no dialogue, you’d get a sense of relationships and tensions and emotions just from the way the thoroughly vivacious cast attacks the play.

There is dialogue, of course, and these sturdy actors deliver it as well as they embody the choreography. Margo Hall, for instance completely owns the role of Nick Bottom, the amateur actor who thinks he (or she in this case) should probably play every role in the play he and his friends are preparing for the King’s wedding festivities. Bottom is a rich comic role, and Hall finds new laughs in the pompous but lovable thespian, but she also finds the sincerity and the heart. That moment when Bottom, in mid-performance, stops ego acting and starts actually acting is wondrous (there’s a similiar performance moment for Craig Marker’s Flute, and it’s just as sweet).

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As if Danny Scheie hadn’t impressed enough earlier in the season playing twins in The Comedy of Errors (read my review here) – now he’s breathing new life into Puck, chief fairy in charge of forest mischief. Outfitted by designer Katherine O’Neill in sort of a steam-punk ensemble of latex pantaloons, suspenders and sleeveless shirt, Scheie sports a mohawk and an attitude. This Puck still has a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also kind of over it and, as they say, can’t even. Scheie is hilarious and a little bit renegade – a good mix for Puck.

Audiences rarely leave Midsummer talking about the lovers (it’s usually Bottom and Puck), but Cooper’s quartet, especially the women, are really something. Hermia (Tristan Cunningham) and Helena (Lauren English) begin and end as friends, but in the middle, with the help of fairy trickery, things get rough. And that’s when things get fun. The befuddled men, Lysander (Dan Clegg) and Demetrius (Nicholas Pelczar), get major points for their all-out attack on the physical comedy, but the night belongs to the women, who lament and rage and struggle with all their mighty might. Cooper wants her lovers to get dirty, and boy do they. Set designer Nina Ball covers her forest floor with some sort of softy, dirty kind of material, and when that’s not enough, the lovers begin flinging actual mud.

When the hurricane of midsummer magic begins to dissipate, watching the lovers clean themselves up turns out to be one of the nearly 2 1/2-hour production’s nicest (and most thoroughly earned) moments.

This is not a colorful Midsummer so much as it is a moody one, but not so moody that it’s gloomy. The lights (by Burke Brown) are stark (to go along with Ball’s fragmented, woodpile of a forest set) and only occasionally festive. Only at the end, when the lovers end up together and the amateur theatricals begin does color infuse the world of the stage (and Brown lights the trees behind the stage to spectacular effect).

And a word about those amateur theatricals: Hall and Marker, along with Catherine Castellanos, James Carpenter, Liam Vincent and Scheie, deliver the funniest version of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe I’ve seen, and Castellanos is the funniest wall, perhaps, of all time.

Even the autumn chill of opening night couldn’t diminish the feverish heat generated by this Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s got the laughs, the sparks and the moves you only find in the most memorable of dreams.

California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through Sept. 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Joseph’s Bengal Tiger prowls the SF Playhouse stage

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Marines (Craig Marker, left, and Gabriel Marin, right) guard a hungry tiger (Will Marchetti) in the bombed-out Baghdad Zoo in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. Below: A night raid goes very badly for translator Musa (Kuros Charney, left) an Iraqi couple (Pomme Koch and Sarita Ocon) and for Kev, a volatile American solder (Marker). Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

The last time San Francisco Playhouse produced a play by Rajiv JosephAnimals Out of Paper in 2009 — the young playwright was becoming one of the hottest writers in the country. TheatreWorks produced his The North Pool in 2011, just as his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was preparing to bow on Broadway in a starry production that featured Robin Williams as the titular caged beast.

Joseph, with his Tony Award and Pulitzer nominations, has fully emerged as an American playwright of note and his work is back at San Francisco Playhouse to launch a new season, the second in the stellar theater on Post Street.

In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Joseph has crafted a challenging war/ghost story that wrestles with the very notion of god (or, if you prefer, God). This world and the next intermingle in the rubble of our desert war as Joseph examines the costs — physical and spiritual — of brutality.

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Through performances and design, director Bill English creates a provocative world that allows the poetry of the dead and the garish reality of the living to blend in surprising, moving and perplexing ways. It helps that English is also a masterful set designer who places the action in the remains of a palace that, with the assistance of a few moving set pieces, becomes a topiary garden in a Hussein family manse, a military translator’s office, a hospital room, a bombed-out leper colony and the remnants of the Baghdad Zoo. Dan Reed’s lights and Steven Klems’ sound design add texture and mood to the setting, which is somewhere between dream and waking.

Without a clear protagonist, Joseph’s play is collage of Iraq experiences ranging from the American military (Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin as Marines) to the Iraqi civilian (Kuros Charney as Musa, a former gardener now working as a translator for the Americans). And in between, there are beings from another realm — a recently deceased Bengal tiger from the Baghdad Zoo (a deadpan Will Marchetti), Uday Hussein (Pomme Koch) carrying the severed head of his brother, Qusay, and a young Iraqi woman (Livia Demarchi) tortured and killed by the Hussein brothers.

Joseph doesn’t go down conventional roads with this story in any way and dispatches sympathy and empathy from the start. No one here is terribly likable, but then again, this is death and war. The Americans are ignorant, money-grubbing animals, while the tiger is an admitted atheist deep in thought about his place in the universe. Death brings vast intelligence to the ghosts who, for whatever reason, are still stuck roaming the human realm, and the living just seem to grow less intelligent.

English’s cast brings ferocious authenticity to Joseph’s tricky playing field, and while it’s hard to remain fully emotionally involved in this two-hour play, its provocative power is undeniable. The presence of Uday Hussein is especially troubling — the thought of that kind of evil never quite leaving and continuing to inspire more evil fogs the play with the mist of hopelessness. The only real kindness in the play is shown by a leper (Sarita Ocon) who comforts a man whose damage, greed and selfishness have brought him to his inevitable end.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a strange, prickly play — not a crowd pleaser so much as an act of thoughtful provocation filled with vivid portraits of ghosts and humans wandering a wasteland of their own creation.

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues through Nov. 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

At SF Playhouse, pretty is as Pretty does

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Craig Marker is Greg and Lauren English is Stephanie in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Patrick Russell as Kent works his testosterone in front of Marker’s Greg. Photos by Jessica Palopoli



I’ve come to learn that when a Neil LaBute play or movie crosses my path, I detour around it, ignore it or make an immediate donation to a women’s support or LBGT organization. LaBute is a really good writer – his ear for dialogue is impeccable, and his ferocity for storytelling is admirable. I just rarely like what his characters have to say or where his stories end up.

That said, LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, now at San Francisco Playhouse, marks the first time I’ve left one of the writer’s play and not wanted to bash my head against the wall on the way out. Sure, there are traces of misogyny, homophobia and racism (mostly coming from the mouth of one classic LaButian male character). But what’s interesting here is that LaBute is being provocative in the name of evolution, of self-actualization, of emotional growth.

There’s not really a two-act play here – more like a 90-minute one act at best – and that becomes apparent after the explosive set-up that opens the show. A couple is in mid-fight. Greg (Craig Marker) has said something thoughtless about Stephanie (Lauren English), his girlfriend of four years. The comment was overheard by Steph’s friend and was immediately reported. Amid a storm of cursing and flailing through their bedroom, Steph forces Greg to admit what he said. “Don’t try and Lance Armstrong your way out of this,” she bellows. And just what was so awful? He described Steph’s looks as “regular.” That unflattering word unnerves Stephanie to her core. It pushes what appears to be her biggest insecurity button, and she flies off the handle. Way off the handle.

The relationship is over primarily because Stephanie doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t think she’s beautiful, and Greg, in his bumbling apologies, never quite says the right thing (or even that he loves her). The worst part, Steph says, is that because Greg didn’t know his comment was being overheard, he was saying what was really in his heart.

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The thrust of LaBute’s play is four scenes between Greg and Stephanie: their fight, a follow-up revenge-tinged meeting at a mall food court, a chance encounter at a nice restaurant and a none-too-plausible meeting in the wee hours of the morning at Greg’s workplace.

Marker and English, under the warm, clear-eyed direction of Susi Damilano, are so good they really make this material sing. First off, though, it’s a stretch of the imagination to perceive the stunning English as “regular” (provided “regular” doesn’t mean vibrant and luminous and more emotionally accessible than most of us). But she’s so good at conveying Stephanie’s insecurity, her discomfort in her own body that we buy it. We also see Stephanie mature a little bit with each scene. As unlikely as the last scene is, watching English’s Stephanie step more comfortably in her skin and take more responsibility for her emotional life is the kind of surprising triumph that makes this play more than an exercise in “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” clichés.

Marker carries the weight of the play as Greg, a seemingly educated guy always carrying a book (Poe, Hawthorne, Swift, Irving) who’s stuck in a warehouse job. He’s sleepwalking through life and spending too much time with his college buddy/co-worker Kent (a believably crass Patrick Russell), who is a Grade A asshole. Kent’s undue influence and Greg’s narcotized existence accounts for the “regular” comment, but it’s Stephanie’s extreme reaction that gives Greg’s life the jolt it needs. Her leaving him breaks his habits, and as much as he tries to resume his “regular” life, he can’t do it. He even gets embroiled in Kent’s troubled marriage to Carly (Jennifer Stuckert) and discovers that he actually has morals, has it in him to stand up to bullies and make change in his stalled life.

Even at two acts, LaBute’s play only glances on the deeper psychological workings that make this play less incendiary than some of his previous work, but the excellent actors do a lot to create the necessary depth. And the dynamic set by Bill English, with its dramatic revolutions and realistic details make Reasons prettier than it might otherwise have been.


Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty continues through May 11 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Othello: not a fan but a grudging admirer

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Craig Marker (left) is Iago and Aldo Billingslea is Othello in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. Below: Billingslea with Mairin Lee as Desdemona. Photos by David Allen.

When faced with the prospect of seeing another production of Othello, I usually gird my loins, wipe my nose with a strawberry-embroidered hanky and settle in for a show I know I’m not going to like much. As a theater critic, I suppose I’m not supposed to have a bias for or against certain plays, but that’s really nonsensical when you think about it, especially plays you’ve seen over and over and over again. I’ve been doing the theatrical criticism thing for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen Desdemona choked (and choked and choked again) a number of times, in good productions and bad. And I’ve never really been moved by the play. Certain performances made an impact, but more on an intellectual than emotional level.

Perhaps I should have skipped the latest Othello at Marin Theatre Company, but the prospect of seeing two actors I admire greatly, Aldo Billingslea and Craig Marker as Othello and Iago respectively, was too much to resist. I have to say I’m glad I saw the production because these two formidable local talents do not disappoint. Watching Billingslea transform from noble warrior to blushing groom to murderous, jealousy-enraged monster is captivating. And Marker’s boyish earnestness somehow makes Iago even more coldhearted than usual. Even from behind a scruffy beard, Marker can’t escape a look of innocence that contrasts sharply with the evil spewing from his lips.

Billingslea and Marker perform a beautifully calibrated duet of provocation and victimization that erupts into a finale can’t help but satisfy when Othello realizes what a tool he’s been and Iago is exposed for the inveterate villain he really is.

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What gets me about Othello is that until that final section when all the plot machinations start to take hold and the bodies start to drop, I really couldn’t care less about any of it. The motivations, the exposition, the supposed justifications for the coming blood bath – it’s all just so much rumbling to me, and none of it really adds to the final act, which would still have a visceral impact without any of it.

So while I’m slogging through the first two-plus hours of the nearly three-hour MTC production directed by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, I have time to notice the set by J.B. Wilson. It’s two towers of a battlement connected by a wooden walkway with half of a big stone sphere visible between the two towers. The more I looked at the set, the more I realized what it reminded me of: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the sphere is like that giant boulder that nearly steamrollers over Indy in the opening sequence. And the lighting by Kurt Landisman is distinctive as well – very dark and shadowy like Shakespeare noir…or a really moody new restaurant in a hip Cypress neighborhood.

Fight director Dave Maier gets some vigorous sword fighting out of the cast, who hold swords in one hand and mini-shields in the other, so there’s lots of satisfying clanging going on. Speaking of the cast, the supporting players who impressed me most were Liz Sklar as Aemilia, Desdemona’s lady in waiting. Aemilia is such an impressive woman – so powerful, loyal and forthright. You have to wonder what she’s doing with a slime bag like Iago. Anyway, also good in the supporting cast are Nicholas Pelczar as Rodorigo and an underused Dan Hiatt as Desdemona’s pissed-off father. The other players were uneven and often seemed out of their depth with the Shakespearean language.

In spite of all the good things, this is still Othello, a play that tests my patience. In the end, this Othello left me wanting, as so many other productions have, wanting ever so much (you should pardon the expression) Moor.


Shakespeare’s Othello continues through April 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Marin reveals crystaline Glass Menagerie

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Craig Marker is the Gentleman Caller and Anna Bullard is Laura Wingfield in the Marin Theatre Company production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Below: Nicholas Pelczar is Tom Wingfield and Sherman Fracher is his mother, Amanda. Photos by Alessandra Mello

Tennessee Williams’ first brilliant move was to let everyone off the hook – himself included. By alerting the audience that The Glass Menagerie is a memory play, he removes it from reality (or not) and lets the creative team and the audience make their own accommodations as to what is memory, what is fact and what is flight of artistic fancy. In other words, you can try to get away with just about anything because it’s all a memory, right?

Marin Theatre Company’s production of Menagerie doesn’t stray too far from tradition, but director Jasson Minadakis definitely puts his own spin on the 1944 classic and gets some marvelous performances from his cast.

Minadakis’ boldest move is the inclusion of a trumpet player (Andrew Wilke) who hovers and plays above the play for the duration of its two-plus hours. The music, composed by Chris Houston, is gorgeous – aching and winsome – but to have the musician also represent the family’s absent father (the phone company worker who fell in love with long distances) is a bit of a stretch. It’s also tough to rationalize the occasional use of props (a glass unicorn, matches) mixed with pantomime (phones, food at the dinner table, dandelion wine, cigarettes) because the actors have extra work making sense of some real items and others imagined.

The fragmented aspect of memory finds physical form in the staircase/scaffolding/fire escape set by Kat Conley. If M.C. Escher designed St. Louis apartment buildings in the 1930s, this might be the result.

At the center of this angled tangle of construction is the Wingfield family: matriarch Laura (Sherman Fracher), son Tom (Nicholas Pelczar) and daughter Laura (Anna Bullard). Here is where the beauty and loving insanity of Williams’ memory play lies. This is also where Minadakis brings out some exquisite depth from most of his actors.

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Pelczar brings a very real sense of Williams himself to the role, which seems appropriate given that this production is partly in honor of Williams’ centennial this year. Tom, as a character, is something of a cypher, but Pelczar is at once warm and personable and tightly coiled. There’s a sense of personality bubbling just under the surface of this restless young man who is trying so hard to be a good son and brother but is destined to fail as he becomes his own man.

The showy role of Amanda, a faded Southern belle who lives as much in memory as she does in the economic and emotional privations of her present, can send even the greatest actresses into fluttery flights of dramatic fancy. But Fracher, in her Marin Theatre Company debut, puts on a wonderful (and fiercely funny) show but somehow remains intensely focused and very real. It’s a testament to how much we like and understand her that when she shows up in a ridiculous old gown (the bright yellow monstrosity is the deft creation of Jacqueline Firkins) we find it as sad as it is funny.

Bullard in the challenging role of Laura, whose limp and other physical ills have left her an emotional shell, is still searching for her character. Her accent, which flutters from the South to the outer burroughs of New York, is problematic, but it’s one of only several unfocused aspects of her performance. When Craig Marker shows up as Jim O’Connor, aka the Gentleman Caller, he brings exactly the kind of internal light to the stage that Williams suggest made the character such a star in high school.

Marker works wonders on Bullard’s Laura – suddenly the character begins connecting, not just with him but also with the audience – and it’s easy to see why. Marker is such a dynamic presence that he’s impossible to resist. Like Laura, Jim is somewhat damaged himself. He peaked in high school and has struggled to find his way as an adult. He still retains enough big-man-on-campus charisma left to make Laura feel special just for basking in his faded glow, and that makes both of them (temporarily) happy.

The long scene between Jim and Laura does exactly what it’s supposed to do in that it pulls the audience into an incredibly intimate exchange that happens mostly in the dark (Ben Wilhelm’s lights are practically poetry in their own right). It’s a scene full of hope and affection and second chances and discovery and, ultimately, heartbreak.

The Glass Menagerie is the kind of play that reveals more of itself each time you see it. This time around it was all about how the gentleman caller breezes in and absolutely changes the Wingfield family forever. We know, essentially, what happens to Tom, but this production made me want to linger in that sad apartment and watch what happens between mother and daughter.

[bonus video]
Watch the trailer for MTC’s The Glass Menagerie.

Trailer: THE GLASS MENAGERIE at MTC from Marin Theatre Company on Vimeo.

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie continues through Dec. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit