2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages


Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.


The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.


Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

Time gets Sticky in experimental show

Sticky Time 1
Let’s do the time warp again: Rami Margron (left) is Thea, Lawrence Radecker (center) is Tim(e) and Michele Leavy is Emit in Marilee Talkington’s Sticky Time, a co-production of Crowded Fire Theater Company and Vanguardian Productions. Below: Mollena Williams is The Only. Photos by Dave Nowakowsaki

I was enthralled by the form and baffled by the content. That, in a nutshell, is my reaction to the world premiere of Sticky Time, an experimental new work from writer/director Marilee Talkington. A co-production of Crowded Fire Theater Company and Talkington’s own Vanguardian Productions, Sticky Time is a wild hour of theater.

I will not begin to pretend that I understood any of it. In plain fact, I did not. When I got home, I read the program, and the thoughts of dramaturg Laura Brueckner and science advisor Andrew Meisel were very interesting – all about the nature of time, which is an interesting blend of science and philosophy – but in the moment of the show, I strained to understand but failed.

But because Talkington has created an experience as much as she has created a play, there’s much to appreciate in the design and execution of Sticky Time, which is like stepping into an art installation for an hour. All your senses (except maybe smell and taste) are challenged in an interesting way.

The black box space (the upstairs studio at the Brava Theater Center) has been utilized in its entirety. The audience sits in a clump at the center of the room on swiveling office chairs. The performance space rings the room, which has been draped in white fabric. Lights, speakers and projections are everywhere – a veritable showcase for set and lighting designer Andrew Lu, composer Chao-Jan Chang, sound designer Colin Trevor, costumer Maggie Whitaker and video designers Rebecca Longworth (animation) and Lloyd Vance (cinematography).

There’s a horror movie/sci-fi vibe to the look, sound and feel of the room, which is exciting.

Sticky Time 2

As for the play itself, I can tell you the actors are all intense and committed, even if I’m not clear what they’re intensely committed to. Rami Margron seems to be at the center of the story as Thea, a sort of plant manager where the product is time. As with all plants, there’s a punch clock for employees and lots of maintenance on machinery that seems prone to blockages. Lawrence Radecker is Tim(e) and Michele Leavy is Emit, the only other plant employees we meet.

So then there’s this weird stuff with “timequakes,” and then Thea starts shooting up from fiber-optic time cables and seems to become addicted, but every time she hooks up to the fiber-optics, she messes with time and jeopardizes her family.

Then Mollena Williams is some sort of goddess figure floating through the action looking all wise and knowing. Her character, The Only, is the only one with a microphone, so her words must be extra-important. Can’t really tell you any more because, as I’ve said previously, my comprehension was sorely limited.

I must say that understanding a play doesn’t necessarily inhibit enjoyment. It certainly limits your level of involvement – especially emotionally – but if a play sucks you into its world, you don’t have to get everything about it to feel part of it. With Sticky Time I can only say that’s partly true. I loved the artsy rave atmosphere of the theater, but this was one long hour. There’s just enough story and character to make you think you should be more involved, but I could never catch hold, in spite of the actors’ best efforts to convey drama and tension.

In some ways, I wish Sticky Time had gone even further and been even louder and flashier and even more incomprehensible. I would relish a breathless hour in which I didn’t have time to think about what I was getting or not getting and just got caught up in the whirl of experience, when time really does stand still.

Marilee Talkington’s Sticky Time continues through Nov. 18 at the Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$40 with student and senior discounts. Visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Country-fried Bear offers finger-lickin’-good comedy

Bear 1

Hug it out! Three friends – Andrea Snow as Sweetheart (left), Reggie D. White as Simon (center) and Erin Gilley as Nan – rejoice in their revenge drama as their victim, Patrick Jones as Kyle (the one duct-taped to a chair) begins to reconsider his violent behavior in Lauren Gunderson’s spiky comedy Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a Crowded Fire Theater Company production at the Boxcar Theater. Below: Gilley and Jones work through some thorny issues. Photos by Dave Nowakowski


Falling in love with a playwright whose work you’re experiencing for the first time feels like Christmas morning at age 6 – giddy excitement, new toys, wonder and sugar high all wrapped up in a nice holiday package. That’s what it felt like the other night at the Boxcar Playhouse watching Crowded Fire Theater Company’s production of Exit, Pursued by a Bear, a new play by Lauren Gunderson, a Georgia native who now lives and works in San Francisco.

Taking her cue from the most famous stage direction in all of Shakespeare (The Winter’s Tale, Act III, scene iii), Gunderson returns to the hills of Northern Georgia for a crispy revenge drama served up with salty laughs and the kind of clever attention to detail that signals the arrival of a writer to whom you should pay attention. When writers say they’re going to tackle a serious subject from a comic angle, they’re really just marketing a heavy drama that maybe has a laugh or two but really it just makes you want to kill yourself.

Gunderson really does just that. Her play is brave in that it takes domestic abuse head on but in a completely unconventional way with huge laughs that in no way undermine the drama. If there’s ever been a play about a husband beating his wife that’s this much fun, I certainly don’t know it. Maybe some will feel there’s absolutely nothing to laugh at where this subject is concerned, but Gunderson’s world is so theatrical, so smart and so emotionally true there’s absolutely no reason to take offense. On the contrary – she’s a champion of female empowerment and refuses to demonize just for the sake of creating a bad guy.

It’s not hard to miss the bad guy. That would be Kyle (Patrick Jones), the redneck dude duct-taped to his recliner. Seems Kyle has not been a dream to live with these last six years of wedded non-bliss with wife Nan (Erin Gilley). He hunts illegally, while his animal-loving wife works at a veterinary clinic. He gets drunk and hits her. She’s bright and would seem to know that she doesn’t have to stay with him. But from her perspective, she has no hope, no choice, no life beyond the small house in the woods she shares with Kyle. She’s scared.

bear 2

But then she meets, by chance, a woman named Sweetheart (Andrea Snow), and over a Subway sandwich and discussion of Shakespeare, they bond. Sweetheart is a stripper/aspiring actress, and she’s good for Nan. Bolstered by Sweetheart on one side and Simon (Reggie D. White), her BFF since middle school, on the other, she finds the courage to take action. She hatches a plan to make Kyle see the error of his ways, and to do this, she creates a show of sorts. She and Sweetheart and Simon will reenact key scenes from Nan and Kyle’s marriage, a sort of play within the play for a very captive audience – theater with an “re” as one of the characters puts it. “Use the power of the fourth wall to expose himself to himself,” Sweetheart explains before adding later, “Let’s get classical!”

The play will end with Kyle surrounded by lots of raw meat, an open door, lots of bottles of honey and an open invitation to every bear in the woods to come on in and have a feast. The plan, in a nutshell, is “let nature in and get the hell out” or even more simply, “man hatin’ and bear baitin’.”

At only 75 minutes, the play flies by but never feels slight. Director Desdemona Chiang finds exactly the right tone to bring out the sympathy and sass in Nan’s story. The meta-theatrical jokes, the breaking of the fourth wall, the use of video slides (designed by Wesley Cabral) all contribute to the fun, but the performances really do the trick when it comes to mining the story for its emotional truth. Every actor in that rustic cabin (wonderful set design by Emily Greene really makes you feel like you’re in a Georgia home) is fantastic and just keeps getting more and more interesting as the play continues. They find ways to make their characters endearing without being cloying and manage to bring out the smartness and sincerity in Gunderson’s writing.

Gunderson is so deft she can even make something cliché – like Fourth of July fireworks to symbolize Nan’s independence – seem smart and funny. She even rescues a song from the slag heap of ’80s pop and makes you hear it with fresh ears.

I can see why three theaters – Crowded Fire, along with Synchronicity Theater in Atlanta and ArtsWest in Seattle – tripped over themselves to make this Bear growl this year. They formed an alliance to give the play a rolling world premiere, which is to say three separate productions in succession. The play is, in a way, post-ironic. Its meta-theatrical self-awareness makes it hip and of the moment, but all that leads to a powerfully authentic and emotional place.

I can’t wait to see what Gunderson brings to Bay Area stages next.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed Exit, Pursued by a Bear playwright Lauren Gunderson for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear continues through Sept. 7 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.

Young Jean Lee’s fire-breathing Dragons


Korean American (Cindy Im, right) makes fun of Korean 3 (Katie Chan) in Young Jean Lee’s mind-bending Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a co-production of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company. Below: the cast of Dragons, including (from left) White people (Josh Schell and Alexis Papedo) and the Koreans (Katie Chan, Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal) and Korean American (Cindy Im). Photos by Dave Nowakowski


Race shmace. Let’s do plays about explosions – exploding race, exploding narrative, exploding audience brains.

That’s sort of what Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is like. This co-production of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company is filled with intelligence, talent and 70 minutes of utterly compelling theater. But the whole effect is somewhat like being too near an explosion. Afterward, you ears ring, your head pounds and your equilibrium’s a little off.

But that’s a good thing, right?

Playwright Lee, who dropped out of UC Berkeley’s English PhD program after six years, said something really interesting in an interview with American Theatre magazine last fall. “It’s a destructive impulse – I want to destroy the show: make it so bad that it just eats itself, eating away at its own clichés until it becomes complicated and fraught enough to resemble truth.”

By the end of Dragons, I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about or even what it was I had just seen. But I would say it was original, outrageous and absolutely honest in its intention to entertain and eviscerate.

From the beginning, I sat there trying to identify metaphors from what I assumed was a satiric piece about Asian-American identity politics. But then I quickly gave up trying to assign formulas and just let it happen. I adopted this strategy in the first 10 minutes of the show, when we’re subjected to scenes of Lee being slapped in the face over and over again. First we hear the audio from the filming session when Lee was being pummeled. We hear a director guiding the slapper and telling Lee to fix her hair. Then we see some of the video results from that session – just the sounds of the slap and Lee’s immediate reaction (never the hand making contact). Essentially we’re watching a woman crying as she’s beaten for – what? – for her art?

It’s an unsettling start, and rather than try to figure out how it made sense, I took the emotion of it and let that be the entrance to the show, which is less a show and more of a collage. It’s like performance art – with extended bits in Korean – but with more self-awareness than usual. During a more conventional scene between a dying Korean grandmother (Lily Tung Crystal) and her Korean-American granddaughter (Cindy Im), the grandmother berates the granddaughter for making such a video.


I’d say that this scene, in which the grandmother breaks the granddaughter down emotionally and then tries to guide her into the arms of Jesus, is Lee making fun of conventional drama, but Im connects so powerfully to the emotions of the deeply unhappy granddaughter, that it’s actually quite effective.

Credit director Marissa Wolf, Crowded Fire’s artistic director, for somehow finding pockets of emotion amid the flying performance shrapnel, which includes an extraordinary pantomime among the Asian women – Im, Crystal, Mimu Tsujimura and Katie Chan – about gory, violent suicides (the one involving the newborn baby and the umbilical cord is extraordinary) that is set to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” We also get dance routines to Korean pop songs, angry racist monologues (that are actually quite hilarious), amazingly effective “reverse Bible study” and an intriguing recipe involving mud fish.

In between there’s a lot of pretend violence, destruction and craziness (with choreography by Dohee Lee) executed with manic aggression by a superlative cast. Oh, and there are white people.

Yes indeed, one of the major components of Dragons is a heterosexual couple (played by Alexis Papedo and Josh Schell) who are working out some major issues in their relationship. In their first scene, the woman tells the man that he’s “right on the borderline of being smart enough” for her and that his face is “inevitably inadequate.” You’d think this might signal the end of their relationship, but it’s only the beginning.

Somewhat amazingly, the white people take over the play. After a breathtaking quintet delivered by Korean American and Koreans 1, 2 and 3 (their official names) that calls into question everything we’ve seen in the show, the white people turn the rest of the play into their therapy session. A play that was so consciously about race and not about race suddenly becomes about a relationship that has nothing to do with culture or skin color or nationality and everything to do with narcissism, self-worth and the mysterious illness known as love.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is one of those theater experiences that wakes you up and makes you feel excited to be watching it minute after surprising minute, then makes you feel like you’ve completely missed it. There’s something important and ridiculous about it in equal measure. It’s a theatrical explosion that stuns as much as it delights and discombobulates.

[bonus video]
Watch the trailer for Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.


Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven continues through April 16 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.songs.eventbee.com for information.

Theater review: `Wreckage’

Opened May 11, 2009 at The Boxcar Playhouse

wreckage 2

Laura Jane Coles offers a sponge bath to a young man she found on the beach played by Eric Kerr in Caridad Svich’s Wreckage, a Crowded Fire Theater Company production at The Boxcar Playhouse in San Francisco. Photos by Bryan Wolf

Sex, power, poetry adrift in compelling `Wreckage’

The endless cycle of innocence lost, power gained and cynicism born receives an intriguingly poetic treatment in the world premiere of Caridad Svich’s Wreckage, the latest production from Crowded Fire Theatre Company.

Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Lost Highway” sets the mournful tone as lights come up on two boys entangled in the sand of beach. With smatterings of blood on their bodies and makeup adorning their eyes, the boys awake to distant memories of a previous existence while a faceless newscaster drones on about the dead bodies of boys found on a beach.

wreckage 1

After kissing and agreeing that they are connected in some way, the boys part ways. The older (Eric Kerr) is drawn to the sleek beach house occupied by an elegant woman (Laura Jane Coles) and her husband (David Sinaiko). The younger (Detroit Dunwood), having been abandoned by the older, ends up in the “care” of a pimpish voyeur called “Nurse” (Lawrence Radecker), who promptly dresses the boy in women’s clothing and sells his services on the boardwalk.

The plot, if you can call it that, tracks the parallel lives of the boys. The older is called “daughter” and used as a plaything by the older woman, who uses the boy to taunt and titillate her husband. The younger learns the ways of the world to survive on the lowest level of “civilized” life.

And it’s all a framework on which director Erin Gilley builds an attractive production that features some moody, well-produced video projections (by Wesley Cabral) and an appropriately versatile set by Evren Odcikin that contrasts the modernity of the beach house, the grittiness of the sandy beach and the vandalism-scarred boardwalk. Tim Szostek’s lights, especially in the beach house, capture the fleetingly hot and cold sexual tension roiling inside.

Marc Blinder’s sound design adds another layer of lyricism to the proceedings, especially when playwright Svich allows her characters to break into song – one from the underworld of the piers and the other from the erotically charged beach house.

Svich’s dialogue, with its neo-Shakespearean rhythms, is stylish and appealing. A beautiful turn of phrase lands often enough to keep the audience aware of the playwright as poet, which also creates a certain distance from the action, which remains at a cool remove for most of the play’s 75 minutes.

And that’s my only problem with Wreckage – it’s a visually appealing exercise in poetic drama that uses fancy language to keep from getting too specific. We hover in a pseudo-reality of archetypes and emotional shadows. Our world is recognizable, but we’re never allowed to fully engage, even though the actors handle the dialogue well and generate some human heat within the chill of this lovely Wreckage.


Crowded Fire’s Wreckage by Caridad Svich continues through June 6 at The Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St. (between Sixth and Seventh streets). Tickets are $15-$25. Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.


Theater offers bail out for audience

While most theater companies hunker down and attempt to get through this recession as best they can, others are taking bold steps.

Crowded Fire has announced that for its next production, Wreckage by Caridad Svich, running May 9 through June 6, there will be free tickets for the unemployed.

The tickets will be distributed before select shows (May 9-17, excluding opening night, May 11), and patrons need to show a current unemployment record or check stub.

The decision to offer these comps came out of a conversation with a local playwright and colleague who had just received a pink slip. “It is important to us that anyone who wants to see our work has the opportunity to do so, no matter where they stand financially. At Crowded Fire we wish to create community around and through our work. In the current economic climate, we felt that we needed to extend access beyond our typical Pay-What-You-Can preview performances,” said managing director Tiffany Cothran.

Wreckage is described as “a haunting tale in which two boys emerge from the sea and become engulfed in a world of savage longing. A Woman, Husband, and male Nurse find and care for the boys, who experience sexual awakening amidst a landscape of blurred roles, where a mother may be a lover, a boy may be a girl, and power and sex are one. Svich’s stylized, poetic language weaves together moments of disconcerting beauty and pain as the boys search for a home amidst a culture of brutality.”

Full price tickets range from $15 to $25 dollars with half price tickets offered via Theatre Bay Area’s Half Price Ticket booth. The show is performed at The Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St. (between 6th and 7th streets) San Francisco. Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.

Here’s the trailer for Wreckage:

Wreckage Trailer from Crowded Fire on Vimeo.

Crowded Fire shakes things up (again)

Seems like just yesterday that Crowded Fire Theatre Company announced the departure of founding artistic director Rebecca Novick and the ascension of co-artistic directors (and husband-and-wife) Cassie Beck and Kent Nicholson. Actually, it was more like a year ago.

Today the company announced that Beck and Nicholson have “decided to pursue their careers at a national level,” and Marissa Wolf will succeed them as artistic director.

Wolf, 26, recently directed Crowded Fire’s Gone by Charles Mee and has also worked with FoolsFURY Theater, Fury Factory, Playwrights Foundation and Cutting Ball Theater. She held the Bret C. Harte Directing Internship at Berkeley Repertory Theatre for two years, where she assisted artistic director Tony Taccone, associate artistic director Les Waters and visiting directors Lisa Peterson, Frank Galati and Mary Zimmerman. She was the assistant director for the world premiere of Passing Strange. She has a degree in drama from Vassar College and received additional training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Beck, a longtime Crowded Fire company member, will be performing at a number of theaters, among them Playwrights Horizons, The Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Nicholson, who continues as director of new works with TheatreWorks and as a freelance director, will shift to Crowded Fire’s board of directors.

Next up for Crowded Fire is the world premiere of Stephanie Fleischmann’s My Name Is Vera Cupido, running Oct. 4-Nov. 2 at the Thick House in San Francisco.

Visit www.crowdedfire.org for information.

Animal sex and theater money

Is it hot in here or is it just the animals?

Crowded Fire Theater Company is holding a fundraiser, and it’s of the hot and steamy variety. Sort of.

Playwright Trevor Allen has been working on a play, Zoo Logic, about his experiences as an employee of the San Francisco Zoo. As part of his research, he interviewed Jane Tollini, a former Zoo employee who became famous for her Valentine’s Day sex tour.

Somehow, during their discussion of hot-and-bothered animal love, Crowded Fire came up.

And now Tollini is giving an hour-long virtual sex tour as part of Crowded Fire’s summer fundraiser, Summer Lovin’: A Sex Tour with Jane Tollini. And the beauty part is you don’t even have to go to the zoo.

Press materials state that the presentation is “not for the weak of heart…Her factual, yet entertaining, take on the birds and the bees manages to shock even San Francisco’s unshockable audience!”

The event is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2 at the Magic Theatre (Southside), Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door or $25 if you buy them in the lobby at Crowded Fire’s current production, The Listener, at Traveling Jewish Theatre.

Money raised from the event will help support the September workshop of Allen’s Zoo Logic.

For more info: Visit www.crowdedfire.org

Eugenie Chan spins into Avant GardARAMA!

Four years ago, Cutting Ball Theater continued its search for the edge that cuts with the first Avant GardARAMA!, a festival of short, experimental plays.

The quest for cutting-edge theater never ends, so Cutting Ball is reviving the festival, which opens Friday, July 18 and continues through Aug. 16 at the EXIT on Taylor. The roster of playwrights includes some heavy hitters such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Gertrude Stein. And there’s also a local name: Eugenie Chan.

Sandwiched in between Parks’ Betting on the Dust Commander and Stein’s Accents in Alsace is Chan’s world-premiere Bone to Pick, a new take on the Ariadne myth.

In the original story (or one of them), Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and helps him slay her brother, the Minotaur, and also helps him conquer the Minotaur’s maze. But then, as so often happens in these stories, Theseus cast Ariadne aside, and she was rescued by Dionysus.

In Chan’s take on the story, developed for a single actress, Ariadne is Ria, a waitress who has been slinging hash for 3,000 years in an island diner at the end of the world. Theseus, called Theo, has abandoned her, and she has done her best to serve all the nations who have visited her diner. But it’s the end of the world as we know it.

“Ria’s diner is demolished, she’s stuck in this wasteland, alone, trying to figure out her life,” Chan explains. “She addresses Theso, her lover boy, and her old boss, Kingman. And she thinks about when she had her lover, had her juice, and she sacrificed a family member. Now she’s at the end of the line, in isolation. She has to confront her role in her own abandonment. She’s a waitress with no more food to serve. She’s kind a sad, kinda mad.”

The idea to do this adaptation came from Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose, with whom Chan worked at Marin Academy.

“Rob has long been fascinated by the idea of the labyrinth – purposeful wandering to somewhere you don’t know,” Chan says. “We talked about the myth, and I was all over the place about it. I have an opinion about Ariadne and Theseus. She was wronged. I know she’s saved in the original story – Dionysus turns her into a star, but I became fixated on that other relationship.”

The solo show concept was based in practicality. Melrose, who is directing all three Avant GardARAMA pieces, wanted a piece that he could take on the road to experimental theater festivals. When the official commission came, Chan says she was thrilled.

“But I didn’t realize how hard it would be,” she says. “It was a lesson in hubris, which is always good. I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with a bunch of other characters, but it turns out multi-character plays are much more natural for me. A solo show is like ice water in the face. But I love the challenge – any writer does. Otherwise you retreat into your old tricks.”

A Bay Area native, Chan is finding her work more in demand around the country. She’s in the midst of a seven-year residency at New Dramatists in New York and she’s working with Seattle-based composer Byron Au Yong on an opera project called Kidnapped Water. He’s basing the piece on the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, and he’s given eight writers eight of the hexagram for which to create mini-libretti.

“I’m not quite clear on the concept,” Chan says. “But it was inspired by bottled water, and it goes up in places all around Seattle this summer.”

Given that her writing career is percolating, why does Chan stay in the Bay Area?

“I get a lot of my creativity just living here,” she says. “My family has a big history here. I feel rooted. And I love the theaters here, especially the smaller, younger theaters like Cutting Ball, Shotgun Players, Crowed Fire and Thick Description. Would that their kind of theater could flourish even more.”

Avant GardARAMA opens July 18 and continues through Aug. 16 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com for information.