Cutting Ball pumps energy into vivid Dream

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Like father like son: King Basilio (David Sinaiko, left) and Prince Segismundo (Asher Sinaiko) square off as their armies face one another in the Cutting Ball Theater production of Life Is a Dream. Below: King Basilio (Sinaiko, center) is beloved by his nephew (Matthew Hannon, left) and niece (Grace Ng), who may be his heirs to the throne. Photos by Fiona McDougall

What a rare treat to have had two productions of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream on local stages this year. First there was California Shakespeare Theater’s production (read my review here), and now we have a brisk, streamlined version from Cutting Ball Theater and its resident playwright, Andrew Saito at the EXIT on Taylor.

Both productions feature extensively adapted versions of the original script, and each reflects the personalities of both the adaptors and the producing companies. Where Cal Shakes’ production benefited from the natural setting and the poetry of the stars overhead providing counterpoint to the poetry on stage, the Cutting Ball production uses Saito’s laser eye to whittle the bulky play down to its essence, and director Paige Rogers delivers a physically exuberant production that makes up in vitality what it might lack in emotional wallop.

From the very start, this 75-minute version of the Dream comes out swinging, or should I say clapping. The actors emerge in the their underwear and scale Michael Locher’s sturdy bleachers set. All the actors get dressed save Asher Sinaiko, who plays the imprisoned prince, Segismundo. He remains in his black T-shirt and boxer briefs for most of the show, until that defining moment when Segismundo, who has fulfilled the prophecies and revealed himself to the be the savage his father feared he’d be, learns from his mistakes and begins to act through wisdom rather than impulse.

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There’s a percussive rhythm to the show provided by the actors (there’s lots of clapping, stomping and patty-cake-meets-drill-team choreography for the ensemble) and by Barry Dispenza behind the drum kit. By the final battle, the beat turns downright (upright) funky, and it’s fresh.

In fact, the whole show feels fresh. Part of that has to do with Saito’s elemental adaptation, which keeps the major plot points and characters and infuses some welcome humor and a whole lot of Yiddish (kvetch, schmo, putz). In the story, many swords are drawn, but on stage, swords take the form of kazoos. And when said kazoos are not being brandished, they are being played to herald the entrance of the king (David Sinaiko), who has decided it’s time to take his potentially dangerous son out of prison and let him rule the country.

The efficiency of the bleacher set means that Segismundo can go from prison (aka under the bleachers) to power (atop the bleachers) in seconds, and with the addition of a spiffy plaid jacket to his black underwear ensemble, he’s almost even human (costumes are by Courtney Flores. Then he starts throwing people out of windows and the dream of civilization and power ends, and he wakes up back in the prison tower.

One of the nice things about Saito’s adaptation is that it feels evenly weighted among the stories. There’s Segismundo and his father (in a lovely touch, David is father to 16-year-old Asher, who is making a mighty strong professional theater debut), but there’s also Rosaura (Sango Tajima) and her father, Clotaldo (Peter Warden), though she doesn’t know he’s her father. Rosaura, with the help of the stalwart (and funny) Clarin (Michael Wayne Turner III) is fixated on exacting revenge from Astolfo (Matthew Hannon), the arrogant royal who besmirched her virtue, but he’s fixated on seizing the throne, even if it means marrying his cousin, Estrella (Grace Ng), who doesn’t have nearly enough to do in this plot.

All this unspools and resolves very quickly, but we get the gist of the plot and its theme of life as a dream and death as an awakening, with everything temporary and constantly in transition. Emotionally, the production doesn’t cut too deep, although there is a doozy of a knock-down, drag-out fight between King Basilio and Segismundo that says a whole lot about the neglected son/absent father relationship.

These adaptations of Life Is a Dream have been grandly entertaining and admirable in their attempt to focus in on the core of the play’s beauty and power. But I think I’m ready for a big, messy, unwieldy version of a Dream – big enough to get lost in and beautiful enough to want to remain lost.

Pedron Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Nov. 1 in a Cutting Ball Theater production at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

2012 flasback: 10 to remember

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James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of the things I love about Bay Area theater is that picking a Top 10 list is usually a breeze. My surefire test of a great show is one I can remember without having to look at anything to remind me about it. The entire list below was composed in about five minutes, then I had to go look through my reviews to make sure they were all really this year. They were, and it was a really good year.

10. “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden” by Thornton Wilder, part of Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company

9. The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

8. Tenderloin by Annie Elias with Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman, Cutting Ball Theater

7. The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, American Conservatory Theater

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6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

5. The Hundred Flowers Project by Christopher Chen, Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation

4. Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, California Shakespeare Theater

3. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Marin Theatre Company

2. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, American Conservatory Theater

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker appears twice on this list and could have appeared a third time for Aurora’s Body Awareness. This was the year of Annie Baker in the Bay Area – the first time her work was done here, and with any luck, not her last.

The most valuable player award in this list goes to Stacy Ross, who was extraordinary in #1 (Any Given Day) and #10 (“The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden”). In Any Given Day, she appeared opposite James Carpenter, another valuable player, and to see two of the Bay Area’s best actors work opposite each other in a remarkable play was sheer theatrical joy.

Three of the shows on this list – The Normal Heart, The Scottsboro Boys and The White Snake – all originated at other places, but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant or make ACT or Berkeley Rep any less canny for having the wherewithal and smarts to present them to local audiences.

Another name that is on this list twice is George C. Wolfe, represented as the adapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, seen in a joyous production at Cal Shakes, and as director of the riveting and emotionally intense The Normal Heart at ACT.

There are two new plays here (#5, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project and #8, Cutting Ball’s ensemble-created Tenderloin). They couldn’t have been more different, but they were both illuminating and exciting and felt a whole lot bigger than the small spaces in which they were taking place (in scope and importance, not in size).

As ever, thank you for reading Theater Dogs. This is a labor of love, and it would be silly for me to be here without you.

Happy New Year.

Haunting Ghost Sonata kicks off Strindberg cycle

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Director Hummel (James Carpenter) crashes a “ghost supper” in the Cutting Ball Theater production of The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg. BELOW: The Colonel (Robert Parsons) and the Mummy (Gwyneth Richards) regain control after the Director has done his best to ruin them. Photos by Laura Mason

Watching August Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata at Cutting Ball Theater, it becomes clear that without Strindberg, we probably would not have the wonderfully weird worlds of Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter or Edward Albee or, in the film world, David Lynch or Spike Jonze. Strindberg, though famous for the naturalism of his Miss Julie, pushed into expressionism later in his career and helped redefine modern theater.

During this, the 100th anniversary year of Strindberg’s death, Cutting Ball has launched an ambitious celebration of one of Sweden’s greatest pre-Abba exports. The Strindberg Cycle collects all five of the chamber plays Strindberg wrote in 1907 that were performed in The Intimate Theater, which had about 150 seats, not unlike the EXIT on Taylor, where Cutting Ball is in residence. This cycle marks the first time all five of these plays have been performed together in an any language. For the real Strindberg fanatics – and this cycle will surely create new members of that category – Cutting Ball offers marathon days (Saturdays and Sundays, Nov. 10, 11, 17, 18) on which you can see all five shows in a row.

If The Ghost Sonata, the first show in Cutting Ball’s cycle, is any indication, this is going to be an enjoyably Strindbergian fall in San Francisco.

Like all these plays, Ghost Sonata features a world-premiere translations by Paul Walsh that makes the work immediately accessible and juicy. In addition to the weighty topics like guilt, pain, deception, bad karma, suffering, redemption and death – so much death for an 80-minute play! – we also get secrets and gossip and women living in closets, mysterious deaths and shattering revelations. Remember that horrifically watchable soap opera “Passions,” with its blend of the supernatural and the super-cheesy? This is the much more intellectual precursor to that.

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Ghost Sonata could be an incredibly dreary experience, but director Melrose, his production team and cast keep that from happening. For each of Strindberg’s three scenes, set designer Michael Locher gives us a distinct space within the space – the whole experience seems to transpire in a grand drawing room, somewhat faded by time. But thanks to York Kennedy’s colorful and intriguing lights and to the component boxes on Locher’s set, we get a street scene, a parlor scene (with a music room visible in the distance) and a final scene that seems to take place half in reality, half in hallucination (the latter half is helped by an eerie sound design by Cliff Caruthers).

Heading the cast is James Carpenter, who appears in all but one of the chamber plays, as Director Hummel, an unscrupulous business man who “ravages people’s fates” and is described as “demonically shrewd” and as a “horse thief in the marketplace of humankind.” In other words, this is not a nice guy. Now in a wheelchair referred to as the “war machine,” Hummel is at the end of his life and wants, in his way, to make amends. So he takes under his wing a young man, Arkenholz (Carl Holvick-Thomas) whose father was ruined as a result of doing business with Hummel. The goal is to match the young man with a sad young woman, Adele (Caitlyn Louchard) so that the young people can escape the wicked web of failure and mistakes made by the older people in their lives.

But it turns out that Hummel is also planning something bigger and more devastating. “I’m unable to forgive until I’ve punished,” he says.

The targets of his punishment include his former fiancée (Gwyneth Richards), the aforementioned woman in the closet, and The Colonel (Robert Parsons), a man with too many secrets to thrive in the presence of Hummel. There’s some surprising humor bubbling up in this production, including David Sinaiko as a butler who seems to have been watching a lot of Peter Lorre movies.

In its last third Ghost Sonata gets very sad as ideals (and lives) are shattered. But somehow in all of this there is liberation of a sort, maybe even a shred of hope.

What’s eminently clear, however, is that Strindberg has found an ally in the Cutting Ball Theater and audiences have found a cycle of plays to savor.

[bonus video]
Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose, who also directs the Strindberg Cycle, members of his cast talk about this mammoth effort.

Strindberg Cycle Trailer from The Cutting Ball Theater on Vimeo.


The Ghost Sonata, Part 1 of the Strindberg Cycle, continues through Nov. 18 at the Cutting Ball Theater, in residence at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

Part 2 of the Strindberg Cycle, The Pelican and The Black Glove, begins performances Oct. 25. Part 3, Storm and Burned House, begins performances Nov. 1. The cycle continues through Nov. 18.

Chamber play marathons of all five shows are on Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18. A Festival Cycle pass is available for $75.

Rough neighborhood, extraordinary theater

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Leroy and Kathy Looper (Rebecca Frank and David Sinaiko), Tenderloin community activists and owners of the Cadillac Hotel, describe the Tenderloin as a “containment zone.” Below: Filipino Health and Wellness Director Ester Aure (Tristan Cunningham) gives a motivational talk in Cutting Ball Theater’s World Premiere of Tenderloin. Photos by Rob Melrose

Waiting for a friend in front of the EXIT on Taylor theater, where Cutting Ball Theater is in residence, I had what you might call a Tenderloin experience. On Taylor between Eddy and Ellis, right smack dab in the middle of what some consider one of the least desirable neighborhoods in San Francisco (certainly in downtown San Francisco), the theater is not exactly in a prime tourist spot. There’s always a lot of activity in the neighborhood, much of it the kind that makes an outsider keep eyes averted, head down and feet moving quickly.

So there I was, pacing the sidewalk. Across the street, a man in some sort of state was speaking loudly and doing a sort of dance with a parking meter. With some difficulty, he got himself out of his jacket, which he draped over the meter and then sort of danced with it. Well, danced and held himself up with it. The shouting continued and quickly began to be directed more toward me. The man stumble-walked across the street, and because there’s a downhill slope, he ended up on my side of the street a little further toward the corner. But the shouting was definitely directed at me, something about how he’s a veteran and could kill me and who did I think I was. He tried spitting for emphasis, but mostly spattered the right side of his shirt.

I must admit a little relief when my theater date arrived, and we were able to move on. The irony is that the show we were seeing, Cutting Ball’s world-premiere Tenderloin, takes as its subject this neighborhood and its denizens. I felt like my own personal version of the show had already begun on the sidewalk outside the theater.

You may think you know the Tenderloin – drugs, poverty, violence, crime – and certainly those impressions are valid, but Tenderloin challenges audiences to think more deeply about the neighborhood, its history, its significance and even its beauty. Director and head writer Annie Elias and her team of actor-journalists – Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman (who is not in the show) – spent more than a year collecting interviews, conducting workshops and shaping a theater piece out of the real life happening on the other side of the theater walls.

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The result is a compelling and compassionate piece of documentary theater in the best tradition of Tectonic Theater Project and Anna Deavere Smith. You walk out of the theater with a fresh perspective, not just on the Tenderloin but on the wider world, all of which could be more interesting if you spend some dedicated time – like the 2 1/2 hours of Tenderloin – listening to people with stories to tell and important information to impart.

Of course it helps to have someone as skilled and humanistic as Elias doing the shaping of the stories. She mixes humor into the drama and finds fresh and surprising perspectives from her extraordinary range of characters, all of whom are played with integrity and admirable realism by the actors, all of whom also did the original interviews. I was especially delighted by Cunningham’s ebullient portrayal of Ester Aure, the director of Filipino Health and Wellness, and I was thrilled every time the action shifted to Kathy and Leroy Looper, played with beguiling cross-gender skill by Sinaiko and Frank.

As rich and rewarding as Tenderloin is, it still feels somehow unfinished. Like it’s one story short of brilliance. The show left me wanting more, but then again, it made me realize how much better I could be at finding and listening to stories on my own.


[bonus interviews]

I talked to director/writer Annie Elias, actor/journalist David Sinaiko and photographer/character Mark Ellinger for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.



Cutting Ball Theater’s Tenderloin continues an extended run through June 10 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

Music soars in Cutting Ball’s Tontlawald

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Ensemble members (top) Sam Gibbs and (bottom) Wiley Naman Strasser frolic in an energetic pas de deux in Cutting Ball’s world premiere of Tontlawald, a fairy tale told in music, dance and text. Below: A duplicate version of Lona (Marilet Martinez, bottom) is made (Rebecca Frank, top) while Lona’s cruel stepmother (Madeline H.D. Brown, rear) waits for the girl back in the village. Photos by Annie Paladino

Darkness. Voices. Chanting. Then drumming and clapping.

The opening of Cutting Ball Theater’s Tontlawald is electrifying. The sheer power of joined voices, unamplified, is undeniable and extraordinarily beautiful.

In John Bischoff’s stunning arrangements, the vocal music in this world-premiere production emerges as the star of the show. Performed by the seven-member ensemble, the music, which ranges from Sarah Hopkins’ “Aboriginal Song” to a delicious slice of Mozart’s The Magic Flute to doo-wop and barbershop quartet sounds, is reason enough to see this fitfully engaging, ultimately disappointing exercise in experimental storytelling.

The experiment is telling an Estonian fairy tale compiled by Andrew Lang in his 1901 The Violet Fairy Book about a ghost forest, where an abused girl named Lona goes to escape the torture of her stepmother and eventually seek vengeance against her. Co-directors Paige Rogers and Annie Paladino and choreographer Laura Arrington combine vocal music, dance and text fragments by Cutting Ball’s resident playwright, Eugenie Chan, to tell the story in bits and pieces.

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At only just over an hour, the piece is brief but still has too many moments that fail to engage. That’s a shame because there are so many interesting elements here, most notably the music. Production designer Silvie Deutsch, working with lighting designer David Sinaiko, creates an intriguing play space – a mostly empty black box surrounded by a papery web representing, I suppose, the ghost forest and its influence.

Visually and sonically, Tontlawald reaches some captivating heights, but Arrington’s choreography emerges as the most disappointing element in the mix. Except for an electrifying pas de deux performed by Sam Gibbs and Wiley Naman Strasser, two wild boys frolicking in the forest, the movement doesn’t have nearly the impact of the music, the visual design or the text. There’s a lack of detail to the work that clouds the intent of the performers, and any emotion generated by the music tends to dissipate in the dance.

At its best, Tontlawald feels mysterious and shot through with the sound of sadness and of joyful beauty – as when the music and the story pieces combine to create a sense of character and situation (especially whenever Cindy Im’s gorgeous voice takes the lead). But at its worst, the show feels like an artsy college project, as when, toward the end, the show practically dies when we’re asked to contemplate a tedious stage picture comprising an electric fan, a microphone in a boot and a male dancer. The show simply isn’t pushing far enough and meeting its own challenges.

I think if I could only listen to Tontlawald I think I’d like it a whole lot more than I did actually watching it.


The Cutting Ball Theater’s Tontlawald continues through March 11 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$50. Call 415-525-1205 or visit

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.

Where there’s a Will…

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Playwright Will Eno. Photo below by Farzad Owrang.

Recently I had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with playwright Will Eno, whose Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays closes this weekend at Cutting Ball Theater.

Read the interview in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

There was more interview than there was room in the newspaper, so please enjoy the rest of the brilliant Mr. Eno’s responses.

Q: Dogs tend to pop up in your work, or more specifically, the deaths of dogs. Does this mean you’re a dog lover or the opposite?

A: I am solidly and proudly a dog lover. I even sometimes think of this as an enlightened position, a paradoxically humane approach to the world. Other times, though, I worry that I love dogs because I love to imagine a world in which there are only about three total feelings and three total needs, and it never gets more complicated than that. “Yes, I want to go for a walk. Yes, I’m hungry. Yes, thank you, I would like to climb up on your leg. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go around in circles and then fall asleep until I wake up barking and run over to the door.” The great dogs in my life have made me feel like I’m a good and trustworthy person. They allow you to live on or near an essential level that is just fairly basic and stable needs, and once those are taken care of, it’s all cats and shiny hubcaps and tennis balls.

Q: Mr. Theatre nods in the direction of Shakespeare and the “Seven Ages of Man” speech from As You Like It. What in your canon do you think might inspire a nod from Mr. Shakespeare (given we could overcome his inconvenient death)?

A: The good thing about this is that we can’t overcome his death, convenient or not, and so the level of abstraction here is high enough that I won’t worry about seeming arrogant by even trying to answer. I could possibly imagine him hearing Thom Pain’s line to someone in the audience, “I have that same shirt,” and thinking, “Hey, that’s not a bad way to accomplish the thing that just got accomplished.” Another one might be a line in my play The Flu Season where, after one narrator has narrated a scenario in which a lot of terrible stuff is about to be reversed and erased by a change of setting, the change of setting does not occur, the terrible stuff continues, and the other narrator says, coldly and flatly, “Oops.”
Q: Do people ever think you’re Brian Eno and then get mad when your plays turn out not to be Music for Airports concerts?

A: It happens less and less that someone will ask if I’m related to Brian Eno, and I regard this as a bad sign for the culture at large. I just found out about a month ago, there is a small chance that we are, very distantly, related. I believe we both travel under a misspelled version of a French name, “Henault.” Mine was changed about five generations ago when some relatives who couldn’t spell came down from Canada. I don’t know what his story is. He’s someone I really admire. He has a kind of genius that expresses itself both at the very scientific level and, as well, at the level of the lullaby.

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Q: When Berkeley Rep produced your TRAGEDY: a tragedy in 2008 I recall audiences having extremes in their reactions, from thinking it was hilarious and brilliant to walking out mid-performance. How much does the audience’s experience with your work matter to you?

A: It means a lot, good or bad, when you’re sitting right there. But then time passes. That play, to me, is about death and anxiety and how we try to talk about unspeakable things. Also, around the time I was starting writing it, my mom was having terrible insomnia for the first time in her life, and I was feeling a lot of sympathy for how lonely and scary a night can be to some people. Those are the memorable things. As for my response to people’s responses, there’s not tons of nuance there – it hurts when people hate something, and feels good when they like it, but it’s good to remember you’re not owed either response. I loved that cast and loved working with Les Waters and Berkeley Rep and thought the production was really great. So I’m pretty sure that the people who hated it, hated what I wrote and how I wrote it, and not anything else, which is not exactly a good feeling, but at least a very clear one. It’s good to try to accept that thoughtful and intelligent and decent people might really hate what you do.
Q: If you could go to a show with any of the characters in these short plays – Lady Grey, Mr. Theatre, Mr. and Mrs. Smith or Jack and Jill – who would it be and why?

A: That’s an interesting question. I tend to resist giving that particular kind of reality to characters I’ve written, partly because I’m happy enough with the reality they achieve within a theatrical production and partly because it always seems weird to me when playwrights do that. But since you ask, it would probably be one of the women. Romulus Linney, who was a good good guy, and who just died over the winter, has a beautiful short play called F.M. I can’t think of the name of the main female character, but, she very much comes to mind as a fictional character I’d like to meet. I don’t know if we’d go to a play, though. Maybe we’d see some music or go to an aquarium.
Q: You’ve been compared to all kinds of people, from Samuel Beckett to Jon Stewart to Thornton Wilder. How would you describe what you do and how you do it to a non-theater-going person?

A: I try not to get too carried away with the comparisons, as I understand that we all need the convenience of a category, a point of reference. Think of how many incredibly different things are described by us saying, “It’s like riding a bike.” I don’t know why I thought of this, but, my cousin James said to me, about the character Thom Pain, after seeing the production in New York, “At first, I didn’t trust that guy. And then, I completely trusted that guy.” That always made me feel good. I would like to describe what I do by saying that I’m trying to create trust against terrible and even impossible odds, and then allow for something great and new to happen within that field of trust. That’s probably a little highfalutin or overreaching, but, hey, so shoot me, I’m highfalutin. Truly, I don’t think I’m up to anything too mysterious, or esoteric. I think it’s just something about trying to create or allow for the audience a certain sequence of feelings. I think the thing is to change the speed of life a little, speed it up or down, and put some felt and relevant words in the air, so that we can see it a little differently, and, my great hope would be, love it more, care for it more. Speaking of comparisons, here’s a good one. I was once visiting my great aunt in a nursing home. I’d just had my appendix out and weighed about 20 pounds less than I usually did, and she asked to see the scar. When I lifted my shirt and showed her, she said, “Look at you. You’re like Christ.” I didn’t know if she meant the scar, or, that I’d come to visit, or what. It turned out she thought I was too skinny. I like the idea of the word Christlike being used solely in reference to someone’s physique.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) and other plays continues through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Into the void with Will Eno; we do not move


Bathroom and beverage break: the cast of Will Eno’s Intermission includes (from left) David Sinaiko, Gwyneth Richards, Galen Murphy-Hoffman and Danielle O’Hare. Below: O’Hare as the title character in Lady Grey (in ever lower light). Photos by Rob Melrose

Will Eno builds some extraordinary bridges – between absurdist theater of the 1950s and now, between laughs that actually tickle and reality that is actually harsh, between ironic dismissal and deep, deep feeling.

I would happily lose myself in Eno’s world for days if possible – his combination of humor, desolation and intelligence come together in ways that make me incredibly happy. And incredibly sad. Thank whatever powers that be in the universe that Will Eno is writing for the theater and that he’s seemingly unaffected by anything remotely hipster or sappy or commercial.

Cutting Ball Theatre produced Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) in 2009 to great acclaim. Happily, the Cutting Ball-Eno collaboration continues. Three theater-related one-acts are now running at the EXIT on Taylor, and they’re every bit as engaging, hilarious and tinged with genius as Thom Pain.

Lady Grey (in ever lower light) contains two monologues and one multi-character play. They all confront the notion of theater as a “recreational” means to emotion, a gingerly step (as a group) into the maw of the abyss known as reality. We’re all alone, yet we’re all in it together.

“Let me guess – an audience, right? Or, wait, no – friends of the deceased? Family of the victim? Whoever you are, you’re very convincing. White people in chairs? Cheer up. You’re all very beautiful, in a very general way.” Those words are spoken by Lady Grey, the star of the first (and title) play. She assesses us and we her. As played by Danielle O’Hare, she is sharp, melancholy and a little distracted.

“It doesn’t work, my life, without people sitting there, staring, undressing me with their eyes, then undressing themselves, brushing their teeth in their minds and falling asleep, wishing they were dead. So, honestly, thank you,” Lady Grey continues, breaking down the fourth wall and giving us a sort of context for her monologue. She acknowledges that we’re all experiencing a piece of theater and the proceeds to tell us about the pains of life – childhood illness, show-and-tell day in school, lost love and the fear of oncoming night.


She sings a little and she jokes a lot. There are things she says that are outright hilarious and should bring down the house, but O’Hare’s delivery (under the direction of Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose) is so droll, so pained at times, that the laughs are tempered by lurking tragedy. It’s a powerful purgatory to inhabit – reveling in the artificiality of the theatrical experience yet savoring every real, prickly emotion that floats from stage.

“You could compare me to a summer’s day, though this really wouldn’t be necessary,” Lady Grey tells us. “I could be compared to a winter’s night, too, though by whom, and why? I’m like last Saturday. Cold, cloudy, over. I can’t be bothered.” She pauses the way a comedian should pause. Then she adds, “I can be bothered, I lied.”

The second piece, Intermission, is set just before and during intermission of a drama called The Mayor (the maudlin excerpt we hear is priceless). An older couple, David Sinaiko and Gwyneth Richards are sitting next to a younger couple, O’Hare and Galen Murphy-Hoffman. It’s an Albee-like set-up milked for all its worth, the age and experience of the older couple trumping the somewhat youthful ignorance of the younger, all the while satirizing serious drama (and the theater companies that underscore its very serious importance).

At one point the older man admonishes the younger: “But, son, do you have a mother? Do you love anything old? Have you ever lost anything, slowly? And if not, then, what experience are you hoping to see represented here? You are comparing this to what?” The artificiality of the theater suddenly seems quite small, especially in the shadow of a story the older man tells about losing his dog, Emily, after she was injured.

“She was like a member of the family,” the older woman adds.

“No, in fact, she was not like a member of the family,” her husband rejoins. “My father was like a member of the family. I’m like a member of the family. She was The Dog. Always there, never moody, living better and truer through life than any of us, by at least a factor of seven. She gave us many beautiful people years.”

In this funny little island of theatricality – the supposedly real space in between the fake parts – we get real drama, real feeling and the spectrum of life. We get a kinder, gentler Virginia Woolf in miniature with less booze. “This is very old-fashioned, somehow. All of us sitting here, having all these feelings, all lit up. It’s nice,” the older woman concludes. And so it is.

The final piece of this 85-minute evening (and that includes an actual 15-minute intermission between the first and second plays) is Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different, a showcase for Sinaiko to hurl scenery and mock the sturm und drang of the dramatic arts. He eats a flower, yearns (oh, how he yearns!) and hopes his fake emotions can somehow intersect with our own genuine emotions.

“Gentles all, my name is blank. And I have come and kicked things over. I have breathed badly. I will act quickly, entertain myself, and then leave,” Mr. Theatre tells us. “This is my character, as I would have you have it; and this, my interior life, as I would, for you, outwardly live it.” It’s a whirlwind performance full of Shakespearean notes, signifying nothing (and everything), and it made me think of something Lady Grey said earlier, “The unreadiness is all.”

Will Eno is his own particular kind of genius, and the showcase that is Lady Grey (in ever lower light) is just more evidence of that. To share the darkness with a Will Eno play is one of life’s pleasures. It’s as pretend and as real as it gets.



Lady Grey (in ever lower light) continues through April 10 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Cutting Ball revives a Bone to gnaw on

Diadem 1
Paige Rogers is a young, hopeful Ariadne in Eugenie Chan’s Diadem, a Cutting Ball Theater world premiere. The play is a companion piece to Chan’s Bone to Pick (below), also starring Rogers, as an older, much less hopeful Aridadne. Photos by Rob Melrose.

In the summer of 2008, Cutting Ball Theater threw audiences an incredible Bone. The play, part of the evening known as Avant GardARAMA!, was Eugenie Chan’s Bone to Pick, a one-act that re-imagined the myth of Ariadne, a princess of Crete and a key player in the whole Theseus/Minotaur tussle.

Chan’s play fascinated because it took a dusty old myth and gave it a compelling spin. Ariadne, known as Ria here, is haggard waitress at the end of the world. She was left on the island of Naxos by her new groom (Theseus, here called Theo) at the moment of her greatest happiness. She had just helped her new husband slay the Minotaur (actually her half-brother), and they were heading off to a glorious future together.

But for whatever reason, Theo dumped her. And here it is 3,000-some years later, and she’s a waitress in what’s left of a diner near the end of time. In her craziness/loneliness, she cycles through her life and takes a journey – possibly real, possibly imagined – into a meat locker that leads to a labyrinth of sorts filled with memory and emotion.

Oh, and meat. There’s lots and lots of meat in this story – not actual meet on the stage – but meat that factors into Ria’s emotional and physical state of hunger. You leave the play craving a rib-eye (though not necessarily one cut from a Minotaur, even though it might be as lean as buffalo).

The charms of Chan’s play came to extraordinary life in the performance of Paige Rogers under the direction of Rob Melrose. Her Ria mesmerized us and made her world as real as it could possibly be.

Happily, Cutting Ball has revived Bone to Pick, with the impeccable Rogers back in the role that she so masterfully defined. The play – a Cutting Ball commission – has been so successful that Chan was commissioned to write a companion piece. The result is Diadem, the play that now occupies the first half of the evening.

bone 1Chan dives even deeper into the myth of Ariadne by illuminating that pivotal moment when she realizes, though she tries to deny it, that Theseus is probably not coming back. This is a young, hopeful Ariadne (not the grizzled waitress in the blood-spattered uniform) adorned in flowing blond locks and an equally flowing white gown (costumes by Joceyln Leiser Herndon).

This Ariadne (also played by Rogers) lets her mind wander to the strange events within her family. She’s a little baffled and no wonder. Her mother, Pasiphaë, fell in love with a white bull and had her buddy Daedalus create a gizmo – sort of a cow costume if you will – that allowed her to mate with the bull. The offspring of this awkward union (thank the gods there was no YouTube back then) was the Minotaur, a creature slain by Theseus with the help of Ariadne.

To be frank, Greek myths have never quite captured my imagination. The names and the stories get all jumbled up in my head, and they tend to make me feel like I’m back in school and about to fail a test.

What makes this re-telling so effective is the way Chan makes the story feel ultra-contemporary without sacrificing the scope and mythic size of this ancient story. And through Rogers, we connect with the emotion of hope about to crash and of old wounds that never stop aching. There’s also a whole lot of weirdness, and why not? We’re talking Minotaurs and Zeus here, apocalypse and possible insanity.

Michael Locher’s gorgeous set gives the plays an otherworldly feel – the quilt-like squares of his metallic backdrop are incredibly effective at capturing the flashes and shadows of Heather Basarab’s eloquent lighting design.

This is challenging, rewarding theater filled with power, humor and beauty.


The Cutting Ball Theater’s Bone to Pick and Diadem continue through Feb. 13 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

2010 in the rearview mirror: My Top 10


Ryder Bach (left) and Jason Hite in Girlfriend my favorite show of the year (oops, spoiler alert!). Photo courtesy of 

I did two things I’m proud of this year. I worked for a great theater company and I stopped working for a great theater company. From June 2009 to September 2010, I was the communications manager for Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and it was a fantastic experience. For a critic to jump the fence and experience a theater company from the inside was the education of a lifetime.

A job change in September allowed me to go back to writing and reviewing with a renewed vigor and appreciation for the art of theater.

And my timing couldn’t have been better. top 10All of a sudden, with the launch of the fall season, it seemed that the Bay Area was the epicenter of all good theater. With Compulsion at Berkeley Rep, Scapin at American Conservatory Theater and the opening of The Brother/Sister Plays at Marin Theatre Company, there was great theater everywhere you turned.

Herewith, a conventional Top 10 list for 2010 – starting at No. 10 and working toward No. 1.

10. … and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi ̶ Marcus Gardley’s gorgeous tone poem of a play featured music, humor and history swirled into an extraordinary production courtesy of Cutting Ball Theater and the Playwrights Foundation.

9. Superior Donuts – The joys of a well-made play were incredibly evident in this wonderfully sturdy, amply entertaining drama from Tracy Letts and TheatreWorks. What lingers in memory, aside from the sweet, sitcom-ish world the play inhabits is Lance Gardner’s star-making performance as Franco Wicks.

8. Much Ado About Nothing – The joys of California Shakespeare Theater’s warm, autumn-tinged production were many, but chief among the pleasures was Danny Scheie in dual roles as Don John and Dogberry. What Scheie did with the latter, the word-mangling constable was nothing short of miraculous. He turned a one-note comic character into a richly shaded human being.

7. PalominoDavid Cale was the only person in his solo show, but the Aurora Theatre Company stage was brimming with extraordinary characters. This is how one-man shows should go – and best of all, it seemed like an actual play and not an indulgent autobiography.

6. Rabbit Hole – I have yet to see the Nicole Kidman movie version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. But the version that will be forever etched into my brain came from the Palo Alto Players onstage at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Director Marilyn Langbhen’s production hit all the right emotional notes, and though the play is filled with grief, it left the audience full of cathartic hope.

5. Scapin – This production will go down in history as the one in which star Bill Irwin got upstaged by one of his co-stars. Part of the genius of this rollicking ACT production was that Irwin, who directed as well as starred, happily shared his ample spotlight with the rest of the cast. And the one who emerged as the evening’s true star? Jud Williford, one of ACT’s own.

4. Compulsion – On paper, this seemed like an iffy proposition: puppets and humans bring to life a thinly disguised true-life tale of a man obsessed with Anne Frank’s diary. But on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, and under Oskar Eustis’ astute direction, this play was about as compelling as theater gets – especially with the masterful marionettes interacting with three fantastic actors: Mandy Patinkin, Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian.

3. The Brother/Sister Plays – Beginning at Marin Theatre Company then spreading to the Magic Theatre and then to ACT, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s trilogy allowed three Bay Area theaters to collaborate in a way that made audiences giddy with delight. Each production, from Marin’s In the Red and Brown Water to the Magic’s The Brothers Size to ACT’s Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet, made the entire experience that much richer. I think my favorite, because it was so emotionally astute, was the Octavio Solis-directed Brothers at the Magic.

2. 9 Circles – Thinking about Bill Cain’s Iraq War drama still gives me chills. Craig Marker’s central performance in this Kent Nicholson-directed three hander was mind blowing. He inhabited the role of soldier Daniel Edward Reeves so powerfully that even the phenomenal work of co-star James Carpenter was a little overshadowed. And that was OK because this was Daniel’s story – the story of what war can do to the mind of a young soldier. People should have been in lines around the block to get into this Marin Theatre Company production, but alas, the show didn’t even extend.

1. Girlfriend – I can’t even begin to name all the reasons why I loved this Berkeley Repertory Theatre musical so much. I didn’t review it because I was working at the theater company at the time, but not only is it my favorite show of the year, it’s probably my favorite Berkeley Rep show of the last two decades. Director Les Waters’ production was the perfect embodiment of Todd Almond’s script and Matthew Sweet’s music. Choreographer Joe Goode made a non-dance show move in just the right ways, and stars Jason Hite and Ryder Bach were sweet and recognizable and full of heart. And the all-girl bend led by Julie Wolf kicked some serious ass.