2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowded Fire tells a futuristic Tale of Autumn

Autumn 1
Yul (Skyler Cooper) and Rena (Maria Candelaria) grow closer contemplating life outside Farm Company’s rules and regulations in Crowded Fire’s world-premiere production of Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn at the Potrero Stage. Below: San (Nora el Samahy) and Xavier (Christopher W. White) have a long history and common enemies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Who are the good guys/bad guys? What truth lies behind smokescreens and lies? And when good guys resort to immoral behavior, doesn’t that make them bad guys, thus leaving a dearth of good guys and obscured truth?

San Francisco playwright Christoper Chen’s world-premiere A Tale of Autumn, a commission from Crowded Fire Theater, is all about good gone bad and bad gone worse. Imagine Google, Oprah and the U.S. Government wrestling with notions of altruism and greed and you get some idea of what Chen is up to here.

Staged by director Mina Morita – also Crowded Fire’s artistic director – on what looks like a ritual platform carved of stone with a few chairs and tables straight from the Flintstone collection (design by Adeline Smith), the primitive space In the Potrero Stage is enhanced by elegant white drapes that effectively catch the lights (by Ray Oppenheimer and projections (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, who also contributes sound design) and convey a sense of modernism at odds with the primal furnishings. This play feels vaguely futuristic – there’s talk of phones, for instance, but electronic devices are ever seen – and the characters dress in a more elegant version of Star Wars/Star Trek finery (designs by Miriam R. Lewis).

At the center of the story is a massive agricultural outfit called the Farm Company that aims not to be the usual corporate behemoth raping the land and pillaging the people for profit. Not unlike Google’s “don’t be evil” mandate, Farm Co. has grown so big and so powerful that it can’t help being a little (or a lot) evil. The founder of the company has just died, and her successors are at a crossroads, both moral and financial. There’s an opportunity to make the company even more powerful so it can do more good for more people (according to one candidate to fill the CEO position) or they can, according to another candidate, make the shareholders happy by simply doing whatever it takes to beef up the profits.

San (Nora el Samahy) seems to be the idealist CEO candidate who espouses following a vaguely cult-y notion of the founder’s philosophy known as “The Way,” while Dave (Lawrence Radecker) is more of a capitalist pig type. But nothing is quite what it seems when massive amounts of money are involved. Plots are hatched, crimes are committed in the name of doing what’s best for the company and its customers and goals are achieved at the cost of people dying (unintentionally, or perhaps, intentionally).

Just another day in the good ol’ U.S.A.

Autumn 2

In this future world, Big Agriculture has taken over pretty much everything, including what people are allowed to plant at their own homes. One rebel (Michele Apriña Leavy, who also plays a scary member of the Farm Co. board of directors) grows a kind of wheat that has been outlawed just so she can make a delicious loaf of bread. It’s that kind of cruel future – one that messes with our carbs and our childhood memories of home cooking. When her rebelliousness is quashed, her friend Yul (Skyler Cooper) partners up with Rena (Maria Candelaria) a former Farm Co. employee who has suddenly become an investigative journalist aiming to expose corruption at the highest level. She even manages to get into a prison cell with a supposed terrorist (Christopher W. White in a sharp-edged performance).

So, is A Tale of Autumn satirical? Sometimes, especially when the character of Dave is involved (he’s like something out of the HBO show “Silicon Valley”). Is it a foreboding thriller? Sometimes but not nearly enough. Though there are lives and global economies at stake here, the tension doesn’t feel very tense. Is it a parable a bout the depthless greed and idiocy of humankind? Yes, and that’s where it’s most effective. The whole thing about the former employee becoming a journalist and somehow gaining access to people at the highest corporate levels feels implausible at best. There’s a lot of plot activity in this two-plus-hour play, but none of it carries much weight beyond the cerebral exercise of comparing the action to events of our own troubled times.

The most interesting character here is Mariana (Mia Tagano), a division leader at the company whose loyalty is kind of a gray area. She thinks San’s goal of realizing the late founder’s true vision for the company is a good one, even if it means the ouster of Dave, who happens to be her lover (even though Dave apparently lives with his male lover, Gil, played by Shoresh Alaudini. It doesn’t seem to take much to get Mariana to betray confidence, though when she has her final change of heart, we don’t know how or why, only that it happened, which feels dramatically inert. There’s something very interesting about how people change their minds based on how hard (or easy) it might be to affect change of one kind or another,
and though we see a bit of this process from other people, it would be interesting to be more inside Mariana’s head.

This feels like a new play that hasn’t yet found its way. The ending comes so abruptly it seems more a stopping point than an actual ending. If a tale of winter is hot on the heels of this Tale of Autumn, it promises to be more confusing than chilling.

Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn continues through Oct. 7 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034, ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Sisters’ paths diverge in Crowded Fire’s You for Me for You

You For Me 1
In her attempt to cross the North Korean border, Minhee (Kathryn Han) finds herself on a mystical journey of memory where even the trees have ears. Along the way she encounters various characters played by Jomar Tagatac (right) in Mia Chung’s You for Me for You at the Potrero Stage. Below: In a world turned upside down, bears (Julian Green) and frogs roam free, and a peculiar government official (Tagatac) may or may not be the key to Minhee’s (Han) search for her son. Photos by Pak Han

Sort of an Alice in Wonderland for our topsy-turvy times, Mia Chung’s You for Me for You takes us through a very specific lookingglass: a refugee’s experience attempting to flee North Korea.

Like any good leap of imagination, this one begins grounded in reality. Sisters Junhee (Grace Ng) and Minhee (Kathryn Han) live a hardscrabble life of menial office work (Junhee) and illness (Minhee) brought on by malnutrition. Repeated trips to a government doctor result in meaningless red pills and, ultimately, frustration and a small act of defiance that pushes the fearful sisters to want to attempt a crossing into South Korea.

From there the play gets wacky as the sisters’ paths diverge. Minhee falls down a well, goes through a small door she finds in the wall and attempts to sort out her life and relationships with her young son and missing husband in a sort of slow-motion dream-state North Korea. Meanwhile, Junhee makes it to America, where time moves much more quickly, she gets a job as a hospital orderly, acclimates herself to American life and meets a nice man from the South.

In the Crowded Fire Theater production now at the Potrero Stage (the newly and beautifully refurbished – and climate controlled! – space formerly known as Thick House), the sisters’ journey plays out in about 90 engaging minutes, with the characters around the sisters adding a sense of whimsy and emotional heft to their separate journeys. Director M. Graham Smith establishes a world where anything can happen with a stage dominated by set designer Maya Linke’s tattered and battered honeycomb sculpture. One minute we’re in a well where Minhee meets a talking frog, and the next, we’re at the American border, where Junhee interacts with a customs agent speaking English the way she hears it, which is to say, like garbled nonsense.

You For Me 2

While Minhee’s time in the well/North Korea is dark and emotionally fraught as she tries to locate her 10-year-old son (who may or may not be dead) and her husband (who may or may not be dead), Junhee’s time in New York is brighter, louder, brasher (and, for the audience, a whole lot more fun).

Minhee’s emotional journey is populated by oddballs, brokering bureaucrats, fellow wanderers and mysterious old women in the woods, and they’re all played by the wonderful Jomar Tagatac. Sinister and funny, Tagatac’s creations are among the play’s best, and the tone of dark whimsy gets deadly serious during one of his character’s litany of horrors suffered at the hands of the North Korean government.

In New York, Junhee encounters many different women – hospital patients, fellow workers from the ICU, a therapist, the hospital HR rep – and they’re all played by Elissa Beth Stebbins, who conquers the daunting task of having to speak the garbled English that Junhee hears when she first arrives. As her time in the U.S. progresses, we understand more and more of the English, but, happily, Stebbins’ performances just keep getting brighter and funnier and more pointed.

Charismatic Julian Green straddles both worlds. In North Korea he’s a talking bear, and in New York, he’s Wade, the man from Alabama, who charms Junhee, though she is compelled to keep him in the friend zone.

The contrast between the sisters’ experience is pointed, and though there were some pacing issues at Monday’s opening-night performance, You for Me for You is a rich, imaginative exploration of the refugee experience from two very different points of view. We also get, thanks to Ng and Han, a strong sense of the sisters’ devotion to one another. The humor and the wonderland-ish tone keep the play buoyant, but a grim sense of sacrifice, pain and dissociation looms to keep a fantastical telling grounded in reality.

Mia Chung’s You for Me for You continues through April 1 at Potrero Stage (formerly Thick House), 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 ext 1 or visit

Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Lots to unpack in Crowded Fire’s Shipment

The Shipment
William Hartfield (left) and Nican Robinson in Crowded Fire’s production of The Shipment by Young Jean Lee with gravity-defying choreography by Rami Margron. Below: The cast of The Shipment plays out a surprising living room drama. From left: William Hartfield, Nican Robinson, Howard Johnson Jr., Nkechi Emeruwa and Michael Wayne Turner III. Photos by Pak Han

While Secretary Clinton and The Orange Bloviator were duking it out at the first presidential debate and helping the populace decide the fate of this troubled nation, Crowded Fire Theater was painting its own portrait of America at the opening of Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at the Thick House.

It was an incendiary evening for several reasons, not the least of which was the actual heat wave baking San Francisco. But Lee’s wild and wily play generated plenty of heat on its own with a Korean-American playwright taking a cast of black actors through a spectrum (or is it a prism?) of what being black can look like in this country.

The Shipment ventures into the realm of Suzan-Lori Parks and Caryl Churchill, whip-smart writers who stretch and often snap the boundaries of conventional theater. From its cryptic title through all of its 90 minutes, The Shipment confounds, delights, provokes and dazzles. Co-directed by Crowded Fire Artistic Director Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins, this is contemporary theater at its most challenging and rewarding.

Somewhat ironically, the Thick House, a flexible play space, has been transformed by designer Deanna L. Zibello into a wholly traditional proscenium stage complete with red curtain. Within this world, the opening dance, rousingly choreographed by Rami Margron performed by William Hartfield and Nican Robinson, looks completely at home.

The Shipment

Exuberant and cartoonish and feeling like it’s part 1980s, part 1920s, the dance is an aperitif leading us into a stand-up comedy routine performed by Howard Johnson Jr. that essentially deconstructs our notion of what a black male comic is supposed to be all the while feeding us (occasionally) funny stand-up. But the longer the comic goes on, the more honest he becomes until he admits that his entire stage persona – from poop jokes, to button-pushing racial observations to infanticide to bestiality to incest – is a construct and bears no relation to the person he is offstage (except for maybe his affection for the scatological).

That unsettling monologue then leads into the evening’s strangest and most potent section in which we’re fed the kind of “gritty” black story we’ve experienced so much on TV and in film. A young man (Michael Wayne Turner III) dreams of becoming a rapper, gets tangled up in the drug world, ends up in prison, becomes a famous rapper anyway and falls down the fame hole. But in Lee’s version, the grit has been removed, and highly stylized stereotype takes its place. The result is at once bland and fascinating, a mirror held up to a mirror that reveals only the emptiness of familiarity devoid of actual human beings.

Some humanity returns in the form of a bizarre song sung in three-part a cappella harmony (by Turner, Robinson and Nkechi Emeruwa, music direction by Sean Fenton) that can’t help but be beautiful the longer it lingers and the more it repeats.

That little palate cleanser takes us into the evening’s only major set change, as a nicely appointed living room takes shape (is it notable that seemingly the only two caucasian people in the show are the guys moving the furniture?) and a party among friends commences. It’s quite clear from early on in this crisply performed mini-play that Lee is up to something more than just letting unlikeable people interact with one another over cocktails and cranky conversation. And sure enough, the scene takes some Albee turns and then whomps us with an exclamation point that emphasizes a simple fact: this is a Shipment carrying a whole lot of freight that may never be fully unpacked.

Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment continues through Oct. 15 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 (ext. 1) or visit www.crowdefire.org.

Tense, riveting Brothers from Crowded Fire

I Call My Brothers
Denmo Ibrahim is Tyra, Amor’s grandmother and one of many people surrounding Amor (Shoresh Alaudini) in his time of need in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. Below: The cast of Brothers includes, from left, Olivia Rosaldo, Mohammad Shehata, Alaudini and Ibrahim. Photos by Pak Han

Not much happens in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. But then again, everything happens.

This is a mostly subterranean drama, which is to say, a little happens on the surface – a young man goes about his day running errands and interacting with friends and family – but a whole lot more is happening in his thoughts, his imagination, his paranoia. There’s a fragmented feeling to this 75-minute drama, and that’s reflected in the sculptural set design by Adeline Smith depicting what looks like a frozen explosion – all sharp, jagged edges – hovering just above the performance space.

Having that kind of visual energy dominating the space (and beautifully lit by Beth Hersh) makes sense for several reasons. In the play, set in a big New York-ish city, there has been a car bomb explosion in the heart of the metropolis, so the frozen explosions make sense in terms of that plot point. But it also lends an ominous, potentially dangerous tone as we explore the mental state of Amor, the young man, played with captivating intensity by Shoresh Alaudini.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the possibility that Amor, because of what he looks like, because of the keffiyeh he wears around his neck, because of the color of his skin, because of his name, because of his big backpack, because of his cultural and religious background, will be suspected of being a terrorist. A repeated set of instructions to Amor and his brothers is to lie low, blend in and not draw attention (but try not to appear like you’re not trying to draw attention). So even the simplest thing, like going to the hardware store to replace a drill head, becomes fraught with tension. At least it does for Amor, who has a very active mind.

I Call My Brothers

One of the most interesting things about this play is that Khemiri, an admired Swedish playwright and novelist, blends something extreme and terrifying (like being considered a terrorist when you’re just a citizen going about your day) with the turmoil and drama of being a young man who has family issues (his dad has returned, with other family members, to the country he was born in) and romantic obsessions (he is in love with a childhood friend who does not return his affections beyond their friendship). As we spend time with Amor and get used to the way his mind flips back and forth in time and between fantasy and reality, we get that he’s incredibly intelligent, big hearted and rather unstable. That instability poses a constant threat that he might give in to his fantasies or succumb to the pressure (real or imagined) of being a dangerous criminal and do something stupid and/or dangerous (he does have an old knife in his pocket).

That tension is part of what propels director Evren Odcikin’ compelling, superbly acted production. The four-person cast brings focused energy that allows Alaudini’s Amor to remain the center of the action while surrounding him with key shadings of humor, reality, fantasy, danger and, ultimately, connection. Denmo Ibrahim is powerful in two key roles: a cousin who has embraced spirituality and a grandmother who provides solace. Olivia Rosaldo shines as a voice on the phone trying to get Amor to support animal rights but who turns out to be something more and as Valeria, Amor’s unrequited love. Mohammad Shehata is Amor’s best friend, Shavi, a guy who’s mostly talk until he marries and has a daughter. In many ways, Shavi – annoying and jittery and lovable – is the heart of the story, the person with the best chance of getting through to Amor and pulling him out of his head.

The play doesn’t seem to go anywhere, really, but in the end, Amor has undertaken quite a journey and ends his long, challenging day in a different, potentially more powerful headspace if only because he is less alone.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers continues through April 23 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.

So much love in Crowded Fire’s Mechanics

Mechanics of Love
Lauren Spencer as Faizi and Damien Seperi as Georg attempt to get under the hood in the world premiere by Dipika Guha’s Mechanics of Love, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House. Below: Luisa Frasconi is Francesca, a ballerina with an artificial spine in search of love, and Carl Holvick is the man who forgets everything … until he meets the ballerina. Photos by Pak Han

There’s something so odd, so wonderfully odd about Dipika Guha’s Mechanics of Love, a world-premiere comedy from Crowded Fire Theater. There’s a decidedly offbeat rhythm to this delightful one-act, a sort of controlled silliness underscored by a decidedly serious exploration of just how the metaphorical gears of the heart do (or do not) turn into roaring engines when connected to the gears of another.

This is a play that literally goes inside the box to think outside the box when it comes to love. Set designer Deanna L. Zibello turns the small Thick House performance space into separate little diorama boxes. One is the home of Francesca, a former ballerina, whose spinal injury ended her career and landed her with a somehow strong but fragile artificial spine. Her little home is dominated by a mirror in front of which she stretches and dances her peculiar style of dance. The other box is the home of Faizi and Glen, a married couple with a peculiar problem. Glen, if we’re to believe the sign sewn into his jacket, is the man who forgets everything. He keeps forgetting that he’s married and ends up marrying other women, most recently Francesca the ballerina.

Under Francesca’s box is a space delineated for an auto shop, where mechanic Georg, a good friend of forgetful Glen’s, works on motors like the big red one that hovers over the stage.

Mechanics of Love

Within these little domains there occurs abundant loving, questioning, forgetting and abandoning. Think of La Ronde crossed with Three’s Company that ends up looking and feeling like a Wes Anderson movie and you begin to get the idea, but there’s a sure-handed comic tone, both to Guha’s amusing script and director Jessa Brie Moreno’s measured work with her marvelous actors: Carl Hovick as Glen, Luisa Frasconi as Francesca, Damien Seperi as Georg and Lauren Spencer as Faizi.

The characters in this 75-minute play live, according to Guha, in a “mythical European city pressed up against a Communist state” (you have to read the program to fully get that), and they live their lives, or at least the sliver we see, with great abandon. They play charades with competitive fervor, they debate the ins and outs of working with one’s hands, and they keep falling in and out of love with one another with much shuffling of who is living with whom at any given moment.

It’s not like they’re hippies on a commune trading free love. They just happen to be exploring, as the title puts it, the mechanics of love, and in close proximity with one another, they keep finding new, impulsive ways to love each other. Conversely, they also find ways to move on from one another with seemingly few hurt feelings or other repercussions.

And that, perhaps, is where the play began to lose me a bit. This mythical world has some very real and recognizable emotions in play, and the tone remains, throughout, rather blithe, even when the shenanigans take a more serious turn. Of the characters, it seems that all have some edge and some depth…except Faizi, who seems manic with little else going on in her.

Guha’s sharp sense of humor remains constant throughout, which is a very good thing, and Frasconi’s Francesca is especially well drawn as a genuine, intensely sweet-natured person who firmly believes, “Love can’t be understood. Only felt.” My favorite line from Francesca: “I’m a feminist but sometimes I forget I’m a feminist. Or my language forgets I’m a feminist.” Though she says she never forgets anything, she begins to forget certain aspects of her life, but she remembers that, as she tells us at the top of the play, she’s good at being in love. So is this play, even if it ends up more on the mechanical side than emotional.

Dipika Guha’s Mechanics of Love continues through March 12 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Ramping up the teenage angst in Crowded Fire’s Truck Stop

Truck Stop 1
Teen friendship, power and sexuality are explored in Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop receiving its American premiere from Crowded Fire Theater. Directed by Marilee Talkington, the play features an ensemble that includes (from left) Jamie Asdorian as Aisha, Jessica Lynn Carroll as Sam, Jeri Lynn Cohen in multiple roles and Chelsea Looy as Kelly. Below: Kelly (Looy, left) and Sam (Carroll, center) have been friends since they were six. Can Aisha (Asdorian), the new girl in town, find a place in their inner circle? Does she even want to? Photos by mellopix.com

The whole time I was watching Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, I was working myself into a state of anxiety imagining being the parent of a teenage girl. How do you fight the global objectification of women and instill a sense of self-worth that comes as much from intellectual, spiritual, emotional places and not just the physical and sexual, which it seems is all the world cares about if you’re watching TV or movies, reading magazines or listening to music.

My ever-increasing anxiety level appreciated the fact that this play was only about 100 minutes long, but Philpott, director Marilee Talkington and a powerful cast cram a lot to worry about into that hour and a half. Interestingly, and, it turns out, wisely, Philpott’s Australian play is performed as written with lots of references to Australian things, but without making the actors speak with Australian accents. That’s just not necessary to convey the plot or the emotional power of the story. Teenage girls in Australia aren’t all that different from teenage girls anywhere else, so even though there’s a specific Australian small town setting, there’s a universal feeling of dread that we’re not doing enough to harness the considerable energy and unlock the great potential of young women.

To be clear, in no way is Philpott lecturing us. This is a far cry from an after-school special. Rather, in a hyper-theatrical (and engaging) way, he’s showing us what girls are up against, both in their intimate worlds of friends and family and in the greater cultural landscape. His time-bending story begins with the ruptured relationship of BFFs Kelly (Chelsea Looy) and Sam (Jessica Lynn Carroll), 14-year-old parochial high school students who have been friends since first grade. The girls are in some kind of trouble, and that has led to a big fight (slapping, punching and the like) and then the silent treatment followed by visits to the women’s health clinic and a counselor.

Truck Stop 2

The course of the play essentially leads us to the cause of the rupture and it’s quite something – aggressively sexual, shocking and illegal. Before that point, though, we get to know Sam, in all her harsh intelligence, and Kelly in her tormented search for a moral center. The contrast between the two friends comes into play with the arrival of a new student, Aisha (Jamie Asdorian), recently arrived from Bangalore. Kelly is compassionate and friendly with Aisha, a more innocent 14-year-old than either Sam or Kelly. Sam taunts the new girl by calling her Curry or purposefully mispronouncing her name as Asia, yet she allows the duo to become a trio that goes by the semi-jokey name of “the Skanks.”

We see the influence of Sam and Kelly on Aisha as she begins to rebel against her mother and her family’s traditions and makes a (sweet) connection with a boy.

From the beginning of the play, there are glimpses into the interior life of Sam and Kelly as they imagine their lives reflected in pop culture – in music videos, movies and more, and those images become sizzling, beautifully executed projections on Maya Linke’s set, which comprises chain link fencing, three metal benches and a dangling wall that is actually the pavement shot through with dead tumbleweeds. It’s desolate and gorgeous at the same time.

Moving through the bumpy story of these girls and their relationships is the invaluable Jeri Lynn Cohen. She plays all the adults (and even other teens), and the great thing about her (and Philpott’s writing for the adults) is that they are not the stereotypical enemy of all things teenage fun. There’s cluelessness to be sure but also concern and genuine care, and that keeps things interesting as Sam and Kelly head into a steep learning curve based on some poor (to say the least) choices.

The performances here all crackle with vitality and the spark of Philpott’s strong script. Watching Sam and Kelly make mistakes made me ache for my imaginary daughter, the one I want to embrace her freedom and value her whole self and make good choices and learn from her bad ones. How do you give girls what they need to transition from girls to women, protecting them and letting them do what they need to do? Truck Stop is not bleak. You get a sense that Sam (who has a fascinating moment of self-awareness) and Kelly will move on with the possibility of being smarter and stronger. But you just never know. Cue the anxiety.

Lachlan Philpott’s Truck Stop, a Crowded Fire Theater production, continues through Oct. 24 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-523-0034, Ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Crowded Fire’s Edith hits the target

Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them
Nicole Javier is Edith, the title character in A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. Below: Maro Guevara is Benji and Wes Gabrillo is Kenny, two 16-year-olds finding their way in the world. Photos by Pak Han

Think of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them as sort of a ’90s “Peanuts” strip come to life. Sixteen-year-old Kenny is like Charlie Brown, the weight of the world on his shoulders and frustration abounding. Twelve-year-old Edith is Kenny’s younger sister, so that makes her Sally (and so does her sassy confidence). And Kenny’s classmate Benji is Linus (with a little Schroeder mixed in), and instead of a security blanket he has a security mommy. There’s even a giant stuffed frog named Fergie that could be considered Snoopy-esque. Those are the similarities, and here are the differences: Charlie and Sally Brown have essentially been abandoned by their parents to fend for themselves on a farm, and Charlie Brown and Linus are in love.

The “Peanuts” comparison is apt here if only to convey the tone of Edith, which has mature actors playing tweens and teens. There’s a very grown-up feel to this tale of children, and that’s partly because Kenny and Edith are being forced to grow up much faster than normal. After their mother’s death, their physician father withdrew to the point of absence, leaving Kenny to assume the role of parent. Not to be outdone, plucky Edith decides to be the protector of her family. Armed with her stuffed frog and a BB rifle, she patrols the property and vows to quell any threat with her precision marksmanship. Sometimes their dad remembers to put money in their bank account (the kids have ATM cards) and sometimes he doesn’t. Still, they manage to cook and (occasionally) clean and go to school. They’re more than surviving, but it’s a terrible situation.

Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them

With only a trio of actors – Nicole Javier is Edith, Wes Gabrillo is Kenny and Maro Guevara is Benji – the focus of Pamatmat’s comic drama is tight. The set by Deanna L. Zibello is dominated by the rustic farmhouse, but other areas of the stage expand the action to the barn, school, an ice cream shop and other locales. It’s unclear exactly how long Kenny and Edith have been fending for themselves, but it’s been long to become routine (as has the scraping by when they run out of money and food).

Rather than being traumatized by their lot, Kenny and Edith maintain some level of youthful spirit. Edith, more mature than her 12 years, has tremendous gusto, and though lonely, she’s got a fighting spirit. Kenny is not only being the adult in the family but also maintaining good grades in his high-level high school courses. In one of his advanced math classes he met Benji, a nerd’s nerd whose mother still picks out his clothes. Now Kenny and Benji have moved beyond being study buddies and are enjoying their sexual awakening together. One of many interesting aspects of Edith is that this burgeoning relationship isn’t the center of attention. Though the boys’ relationship has adverse effects on some of the people around them (especially Benji’s tie-loving mother), they’re pretty confident, happy and healthy in their mutual attraction/affection.

The first act of this nearly 2 1/2-hour play gains momentum (both comic and dramatic) and pulls us deeply into the lives of these characters, each of whom we come to love. There’s a terrific crescendo and then after intermission, the play never regains that sense of drive and depth. It remains tender and sweet and we never stop caring about these kids, but the play ultimately feels too long.

Director Desdemona Chiang counters these longueurs with strong, finely detailed work from her actors. Gabrillo’s Kenny is heroic in his love for his sister and his willingness to open his heart to Benji. And Guevara as Benji is just about as note perfect as he could be as he continually subverts the stereotype of major dweeb with flashes of sensuality, humor and compassion. Javier as Edith has a taller order. As the youngest kid, she has to straddle that chasm between childhood and adulthood and not give one of those annoying “adult playing widdle kiddle” performances, which she studiously avoids. Edith is a firecracker, and if Javier doesn’t fully give us the darker, deeper shades of the character, she certainly delivers on ferocity, intelligence and emotional volatility.

Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them could wallow in the potentially disastrous situation these children find themselves in (and it is strange that even with interfering neighbors Child Protective Services is never alerted), but playwright Pamatmat is more interested in the resilient spirit of these young humans. Theirs is not exactly the story of triumph, nor is it tragedy. In the world of realism – good grief! – that counts as a happy ending.

A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them continues through March 21 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

I do? Crowded Fire finds fractured bliss in Late Wedding

The Late Wedding
Kathryn Zdan is a playwright searching for her long lost wife, and Michael Anthony Torres is a captain charged with manning a spaceship on a voyage to the mythical Calaman Islands in the world premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Late Wedding, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House. Below: Amid the many flights of fancy including in The Late Wedding is a play within a play with actors Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta as space voyagers performing the imagined fate of a crew member and his wife. Photos by Pak Han

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen doesn’t mind narrating his audience members’ experience of his play while they’re watching his play. That’s part of the fun. It’s also a tip of the fabulist’s hat to Italian novelist Italo Calvino the inspiration for Chen’s experiment with theatrical form and function in the world premiere of his The Late Wedding.

We’ve been here before, more or less. Chen is once again working with Crowded Fire Theater, the company behind his award-winning 2012 hit The Hundred Flowers Project (read my review here). Crowded Fire Artistic Director Marissa Wolf is at the helm of this intentionally bumpy ride, attempting to guide her audience through another Chen work that is as smart as it is funny and as challenging as it is intriguing.

Comparisons to Hundred Flowers are inevitable (the new play was actually written during tech rehearsals of that play), and the two works definitely seem of a piece. Chen establishes a pattern early on that involves sly humor and unconventional storytelling, and just when the audience is settling into that pattern, he upends it and takes the play someplace entirely different and more serious.

Late Wedding actually begins before it begins. Actor Kathryn Zdan comes out to welcome the audience at the Thick House, and while she’s making cell phone and emergency exit reminders, she’s actually commencing the instructions to the audience. She tells us – in the second person, no less, which she says should set off a full red alert – that if we trust this unconventional theatrical experience, and if we’re really rooting for it to seduce us, we should surrender to her anthropological tour of fictional tribes and their wedding customs. Now, if you’re going to play fast and loose with theatrical expectations, you can do no better than having Zdan be the initial guide. She’s warm, she’s funny and she oozes intelligence.

The Late Wedding

It turns out that each of the six cast members will take over as the tweed-coated anthropologist/playwright during the nearly 90-minute show, though how and when they do it becomes (predictably) hard to predict. At first, the tour is pretty straightforward. For example, we look in on the Bakaan Tribe as two married men (married to each other) practice their tribal duty of remembrance because, as we’re told, they “forever live in memory.” Michael Anthony Torres and Lawrence Radecker are setting memories and get caught up in the fuzziness of the great nectarine/peach debate.

The whitewashed set, comprising boxes filled with whitewashed artifacts (elegant set design by Melpomene Katakalos)Next stop is the Glynn Tribe, where two women, Zdan and Lauren Spencer, are celebrating their wedding, as custom dictates, with separate honeymoons. This idea of separation and prolonging the ecstasy of love’s first blush is taken to wild extremes, and it’s in this beautifully acted scene, that the sketch nature of the play deepens into something honest and emotional.

Another tribal couple, part of something known as the “tribe of death,” believes that we are all actually dead, so their marriages have no limits. This is a pretty dubious belief, and even the couple (Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta) seem to be having a hard time getting their stories straight.

The anthropological tour goes off the rails and onto the rails of a train station when our guide informs us that the playwright was actually working on many other things (including lists of chores involving Netflix and Trader Joe’s), so everything is up for grabs. A spy play bumps into a space epic, which includes a play within the play that, for the space travelers (and mercifully not for us), goes on for several years.

Motifs return and dangling threads are somewhat woven into the narrative, but I have to say the last third of The Late Wedding lost me, and the cumulative impact of the experimentation didn’t result in anything more than enjoyment (which is certainly a worthy accomplishment). The play, for all its fragmentation and narrative jolts, still feels like it’s heading somewhere, and that the underlying emotional narrative about marriage and connection and loss will come through all the exposed and splintered theatricality in an even more powerful way. Though there are hints of that power, this Wedding remains elusive.

Christopher Chen’s The Late Wedding continues through Oct. 11 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.