Final analysis: Cutting Ball’s Tempest is a head-shrinker


Caitlyn Louchard (left), David Sinaiko (center) and Donell Hill are the only three actors in director Rob Melrose’s chamber version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a Cutting Ball Theater production at EXIT on Taylor. Photo by Rob Melrose

High-concept Shakespeare gives me a rash. I should modify that. Most of the time, when directors impose some great new twist, time period, setting, the result merely obscures rather than heightens the play itself.

That said, my favorite Merry Wives of Windsor of all time was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version, which was set in an “I Love Lucy”-like 1950s. The laughs were so big the actors had to hold and hold and hold. I was sure they had tinkered with the script, but when I ran to my Riverside Shakespeare after, it was all word for word. If a director’s concept pulls you deeper into Shakespeare’s world, I’m all for it.

When I heard that director Rob Melrose, one of the brilliant minds behind Cutting Ball Theater was turning The Tempest into a three-person chamber piece set in a psychiatrist’s office at the bottom of a swimming pool, I was hesitant but intrigued.

Looking at Michael Locher’s set at the EXIT on Taylor, I was impressed even though it looked more like a jungle gym than a swimming pool with a great back wall for Cliff Caruthers’ attractive video projections. The ladders on the sides of the stage allow for feats of physical dexterity on the part of the actors that enliven the action.

When the play started, with Miranda (Caitlyn Louchard) on the couch and Prospero (David Sinaiko) behind the therapist’s desk, the idea of a head-shrinker Tempest seemed inspired.

Prospero is all about playing manipulative head games with everyone around him, so it only makes sense that he would be a psychiatrist. But as the first scene began to play out, I wondered if, in this scenario, Prospero was actually Miranda’s father (would a father really psychoanalyze his daughter?) or if, through patient transference, he was more of a father figure. It soon became clear that he was indeed her father, which just ended up seeming weird.

I soon lost the psychiatrist thread and just saw a scaled-down Tempest that featured some intriguing performances – Louchard is a wonderful Ariel and Donell Hill is superb as Caliban (he’s fine as Ferdinand, too). Sinakio’s Prospero never came to life for me because I couldn’t really figure out who he was supposed to be. Also, having your Prospero appear as other characters (Sinaiko also plays Alonso and Stephano) really steals focus from the center of the play and diminishes the character – even if the concept has all this drama taking place in his head.

With the introduction of the revenge characters and the comic relief characters, Melrose’s production really lost me. The challenges of this chamber production erupted into confusion, and confusion turned into boredom. A friend who had never seen The Tempest before was lost almost from the beginning and left feeling like it was a play she had no interest in seeing again.

Cutting Ball productions are never easy, but their challenges often result in thrilling theatrical experiences. This Tempest certainly has its challenges but comes up short on the rewards.


Cutting Ball Theater’s The Tempest continues an extended run through Dec. 19 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$50. Call 800 838-3006 or visit for information.

Jesus and his extraordinary Mississippi moonwalk

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Above: Nicole C. Julien is Miss Ssippi in The Cutting Ball Theater/Playwrights Foundation production of Marcus Gardley’s …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi. Below: David Westley Skillman is The Great Tree/Jesus and Aldo Billingslea is Damascus. Photos by Rob Melrose.


Quilts and buttons are stars and stories in Marcus Gardley’s deeply lyrical, undeniably beautiful …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, now at the EXIT on Taylor in a co-production of The Cutting Ball Theater and Playwrights Foundation.

On the theatrical spectrum, this is the exact opposite of the sitcom-ready Sunset and Margaritas now at TheatreWorks (read my review of that play in the Palo Alto Weekly here), which is to say this is challenging, thought-provoking material given the kind of sharply etched production that inspires curiosity and wonder. There’s nothing easy about Moonwalks, and that’s a good thing. Gardley, working with director Amy Mueller, weaves myth, folklore, American Civil War history, personal family history and musings on race in this country.

That’s a lot to fold into a nearly 2 1/2-hour production, but Gardley and Mueller do it with the assistance of a fantastic set (by Michael Locher) that represents the night sky with buttons and plants an ominous hangman’s tree in the planks of the floor. The small but versatile stage (beautifully lit by Heather Basarab) is a battlefield after the siege of Vicksburg, a shattered Louisiana plantation and, most amazingly, the soul of the mighty Mississippi River.

Nicole C. Julien plays Miss Ssippi, the embodiment of the river that wends its way more than 2,300 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. She sings like a soulful angel (with sterling backup by her chorus, Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox and Erica Richardson), and she refuses to take sides in the divisive war raging around her. But like a goddess in the Greek tradition, she does take an interest in human lives and isn’t afraid to lend a helping hand (wave?) and assist in leading folks to their fate.

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In Gardley’s story, a freed slave named Damascus (a riveting Aldo Billingslea) is searching for his beloved, a slave named Poem (pronounced po-EMM). But Damascus is captured by Confederate soldiers and hanged from that terrifying tree. Jesus (in the form of David Westley Skillman, who occasionally tries to moonwalk to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”) decides to resurrect Damascus so he can continue his quest, but now the strapping man will be a woman named Demeter (echoes of the Demeter-Persephone myth here), and she has an extremely limited time to find Poem before death comes calling for real this time.

Damascus/Demeter is led to the ramshackle Verse plantation, where Cadence Marie Verse (a fierce Jeanette Harrison) is attempting to keep her daughters (Erika A. McCrary and Sarah Mitchell) and home together even though all her slaves have fled except for house servant Brer Bit (Martin F. Grizzell Jr.), who has a grand plan of his own (and it’s not good for his mistress).

There’s a tangled tale of romance and betrayal coursing through this plantation, so it’s hardly surprising that Damascus/Demeter’s fate lands her at this particular front door, where a Confederate roamer (David Sinaiko) and a shamed Yankee soldier (Zac Schuman) enter the fray.

It’s the story that compels, but it’s Gardley’s writing that fascinates. Interspersed amid some gorgeous spirituals, Gardley pours poetry over the drama and lets it cascade like water down a fall. The rhymes and images are so plentiful it would take a second viewing to appreciate them all.

Powerful, mesmerizing and complete with bolts of humor and tragedy, …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi is an intimate epic that pulses with power and beauty.


…and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi continues an extended run through April 25 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800 838-3006 or visit


Theater review: `Krapp’s Last Tape’

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Paul Gerrior is Krapp, a 69-year-old writer spending his birthday with the spirits of his younger selves via an old reel-to-reel tape recorder in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a Cutting Ball Theater production at the EXIT on Taylor. Photos by Margaret Whitaker

Get a load of `Krapp,’ another sad Beckett clown

Exactly 40 years ago, Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for a body of work that, even though it has been parsed and produced to a fare thee well for more than five decades, remains elusive, mysterious and vast. There’s space and darkness and humor aplenty in the world of Beckett, and all those qualities are the exact opposite of our fast, narrow, digital world.

It’s hard to imagine Krapp, the hero of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, celebrating his 69th birthday by plugging into an iPod or sliding a gleaming CD into a player as a means of listening to the voice of his 39-year-old self. No, there’s something entirely appropriate about the old man punching buttons and slinging ribbons of tape on a clunky old reel-to-reel tape recorder in order to conjure (and deride) the voice of his youth.

Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Krapp, now at the EXIT on Taylor, is, thankfully, a glimpse of time out of time. It could be 1958 (the play’s year of birth) or it could be in the back closet of now. Whatever time period allows for reel-to-reel, electricity, bananas and offstage hooch, that’s the time we’re in.

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Director Rob Melrose (who also designed the set – a table, a chair, some drawers and some boxes – and the lights) creates an inviting contrast between the stark light where Krapp sits and the thick blackness that surrounds him.

Paul Gerrior is a pitch-perfect Krapp. For much of the play’s brief but rich 45 minutes, Gerrior is a reactor. He’s listening to a recording made by his 39-year-old self (the voice on the tape, full of youthful pseudo-wisdom, belongs to David Sinaiko), who comments on listening to a previous tape made in his late 20s. It’s the three ages of the man all at once, and the expressive Gerrior gives us plenty to experience, even when he’s just listening.

The play begins with a little slapstick as Krapp rummages through drawers and finds a banana. He blithely tosses the peel on the floor then begins pacing. If you know anything about comedy, a banana peel on the floor means only one…oops, he just slipped on it. Ba dum bum.

When Krapp finally settles into the listening (the spot-on sound design is by Cliff Caruthers), the mood turns pretty bleak, especially when, after sufficient listening, Krapp attempts to record this year’s tape. Bitterness, rage and regret seep through his gruff crankiness, leaving us with an incredible vantage point into the aging process of a vibrant, creative mind. Krapp’s younger self has great expectations and won’t be derailed, “Not with the fire in me now,” he says.

But the older Krapp is more extinguished. There’s still a flame of sorts, but he says he’s “drowned in dreams and burning to be gone.” Such sentiment, which reverberates in the silence of a recording with no recorded sound, stir emotions that make Krapp’s Last Tape last far longer than its brief running time.


Cutting Ball Theater’s Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett continues through June 21 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Cutting Ball announces 10th anniversary season

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Husband-and-wife team Rob Melorse and Paige Rogers are the creative force behind San Francisco’s The Cutting Ball Theater. The company is heading into its 10th anniversary season. Photo courtesy Marin Independent Journal

One of the Bay Area’s most committed alternative theater companies, The Cutting Ball Theater has anounced its 10th Anniversary season.

The season opens in October with Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist comedy The Bald Soprano, in a new translation by Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose, who will also direct.

In March 2010 is … and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, a new play by Marcus Gardley, directed by Amy Mueller.

In May, back by popular demand is Eugenie Chan’s retelling of the Ariadne myth, Bone to Pick, which received its world premiere in Cutting Ball’s 2007-2008 season as part of Avant GardARAMA!; Paige Rogers once again stars, and the one-act will be accompanied by a newly commissioned companion piece, Diadem. Both will be directed by Melrose.

“For 10 years now, The Cutting Ball Theater has brought experimental new plays and re-visioned classics to the Bay Area,” Melrose said in a statement. “Our 10th anniversary season will be a year-long celebration of this mission featuring productions of new plays and our most extensive offerings in the Hidden Classics Reading Series ever. We are so proud to be presenting some of the most exciting and challenging stage works in San Francisco, as well as preparing risk-taking work to potentially transfer to the national stage; this indeed will be a great season.”

The Cutting Ball Theater continues its Hidden Classics Reading Series with six new installments this season: Aristophanes’ The Knights in September; William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida in November; Euripides and Seneca’s versions of Medea in January; Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton in February; August Strindberg’s Storm, in a new translation by Paul Walsh, in April; and Carlo Goldoni’s The Antiquarian’s Family, in a new translation by Beatrice Basso, in May. The entire season will be staged in San Francisco at the Cutting Ball Theater in residence at EXIT on Taylor.

Co-founded in 1999 by Melrose and Rogers, Cutting Ball Theater presents avant-garde works of the past, present and future by re-envisioning classics, exploring seminal avant-garde texts, and developing new experimental plays. Cutting Ball Theater has partnered with Playwrights Foundation, Magic Theatre and Z Space New Plays Initiative to commission new experimental works.

For information visit

Theater review: `Thom Pain (based on nothing)’

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Cutting Ball’s `Pain’ hurts so good

What begins in darkness ends about an hour later on a bleak shiver of hope.

Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) is many things: a solo show starring one man and an entire audience; a bleak comedy that thrives on paradox; an existential nightmare; a great piece of theater that makes you simultaneously thrilled to be alive and filled with despair.

San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater, the go-to company for absurdist, thoughtful, brain-expanding theater, is just about the perfect place for Eno’s 2004 show to land in the Bay Area. In director Marissa Wolf (who also happens to be the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre), Cutting Ball has found a sure-handed guide through Eno’s winding pathos.

Wolf assistant directed Les Waters on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s brilliant production of Eno’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy last year, and she gets just how funny, how theatrical and how gut wrenching Eno can (and should) be. This is a writer, after all, who would probably like to scream down the world’s rampant inanity, slaughter all the fools and describe every atom of pain as a means of exorcism. But he keeps getting tripped up by certain human things, most notably humor and emotion.

Just why this man, Thom Pain, played brilliantly by Jonathan Bock (pictured, photos by Rob Melrose), has arrived at the theater in his somewhat rumpled black suit, skinny tie and terrible shoes is never explained. It’s a theatrical convention that we, the audience, are in his thrall, and it’s his job to be “the show” and give us, in his words a little “turn on the themes of fear, boyhood, nature, hate, the nature of performance and vice-versa, the heart of man, of woman, et cetera.”

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Thankfully, Thom does put on a show, of sorts. He comes out in the dark and reads to us. In the dark. He attempts, without success, to light a cigarette. The lights finally come on (Stephanie Buchner is a lighting designer with a keen sense of humor). He’s highly aware of his audience to the point that he taunts us, manipulates us, scares us and even punishes us in a clever twist on the old audience-participation trick.

It’s all about contrast: Thom wants to be there sharing the story of how his childhood ended in pain, ugly death and bee stings. But you also sense he’d rather be anywhere else licking his considerable wounds. He’s a showman, a misanthrope and a marvelous poet.

Consider his definition of America’s favorite word, “whatever”: “…the popular phrase we use today to express our brainless and simpering tolerance of everything, the breakdown of distinction, our fading national soul.”

Bock’s performance as Pain can be electrifying. He makes fierce eye contact with the majority of his audience members, and he tends to deliver most of his performance mere inches from the people in the front row. He’s a little scary and a lot funny: “I made serious inroads into a woman, once, doing card tricks with a deck that only had one card left in it. `Pick a card,’ I’d say.”

Or, on the topic of his (naturally) painful love life, he recalls a date: “`You’ve changed,’ she said, the night we met.” He goes on to describe that same woman: “Sometimes you meet someone who you know right away is made up of trillions of different cells, and, she was one of these.”

Director Wolf’s production builds beautifully, and it’s impossible to resist Bock, especially at his most droll. This brief evening of theater feels much more substantial than its hour-plus running time, but you don’t really want it to be any longer. After all, you can only laugh and feel grim around the edges for so long.

Theater, in many respects, fulfills the deep-seated human need for storytelling as means to feel less alone in a giant world. The genius of Eno’s Thom Pain is that we experience the feeling of connection and isolation at the same time. Paradox, it turns out, is highly entertaining.

It’s hard to leave the theater without thinking about old/young Thom talking about the notion of a happy life: “Who can stand the most, the most life, and still smile, still grin into the coming night saying, more, more, encore, encore, you fuckers, you fates, just give me more of the bloody bloody same.”


Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues an extended run through Ma 9 at the EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit for information.

Review: `avantGARDARAMA’

Felicia Benefield is Mare in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Betting on the Dust Commander, one of three avant garde plays in The Cutting Ball Theatre’s avantGARDARAMA at the EXIT on Taylor. Photos by Rob Melrose.

Chan’s `Bone’ trumps Parks, Stein in evening of experimental plays

I’ll come right out and say I’m not a fan of avant garde theater. It’s frequently pretentious, self-involved, inscrutable and not much fun.

Call me an unsophisticated hack – OK, you’re an unsophisticated hack! – but I like story. I like humanity. I like to see myself reflected on stage in some way, and I guess I’ve never remotely seen myself in an oddly theatrical, experimentally artistic, forward-thinking way. Poor me.

But let me say this: I don’t love aggressively avant garde theater, but I really like the work of The Cutting Ball Theatre, a group run by Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers. I don’t always love the plays they do, but I always like the way they do them.

Take, for example, Cutting Ball’s avantGARDARAMA! a collection of three short avant garde plays, which just happen to ascend from incomprehensible to wonderfully, imaginatively coherent.

The opening salvo, Accents in Alsace, comes from Gertrude Stein’s 1922 Geography and Plays and doesn’t really make much sense off the page. There’s a soldier (David Westley Skillman), a motherly/sisterly woman with a baby carriage (Felicia Benefield) and a narrator (Rogers).

I got that this had to do with World War I, but that’s about all I got. Rather than try and find a story, as is my wont, I enjoyed director Melrose’s staging, set designer Michael Locher’s metallic box of a set, Heather Basarab’s sharp lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ superb video projections and sound design.

The second piece, Suzan-Lori Parks’
Betting on the Dust Commander, is also strange, but it’s funny – and boy does that make a difference in my enjoyment level. Dust Commander won the 1970 Kentucky Derby, hence the title.

Benefield and Skillman play a married couple stuck in an endless loop of silliness. He bet 35 cents on Dust Commander way back when and won enough to buy them a house. He’s going back to the track to see the old horse run an anniversary race. But before he goes, he’s got to somehow uncross his wife’s eyes.

Parks has a whimsical way with language, and her use of repetition brings out the humor and music of her dialogue. It’s all beautifully executed by Benefield and Skillman, who manage to traffic in Parks’ rhythms while bringing out darker shades involving sex, dissatisfaction, boredom and outright craziness.

The real treat of the evening is the world-premiere of local writer Eugenie Chan’s
Bone to Pick. A commission by The Cutting Ball and Magic Theatre/Z Space New Works Initiative, this retelling of the Ariadne myth brings the heroine to the modern world and leaves her stranded in a diner at the end of the world.

In her once-pink, now filthy, blood-spattered uniform, Ria, impeccably played by Rogers (above), sips dirty water from her coffee pot and re-lives her life of passion, isolation and choice making. “Someone needs to treat me like a piece of meat. Know what I mean?” is Ria’s opening line.

The combination of Chan’s funny, often heartbreaking script with Rogers’ bravura performance is a potent one to say the least.

Rogers establishes such rapport with the audience – especially when she talks about food (this stranded woman is HUNGRY) – that she could take us to any dark corner of theatricality she chooses.

This particular journey goes deep into her relationship with Theo (Theseus), the soldier who used her then abandoned her at the end of the world. He comes back for food every once in a while, but he doesn’t stay (nor does he pay).

Ria, it seems, is doomed to keep repeating the betrayal of her half-brother, the Minotaur (“Oh, brother, oh, bull,” Ria keeps saying). In the current, desolate state of the war-torn world, the Minotaur is the last “rib-eye steak” on the planet, and Ria, despite herself, will lead Theo to him once again. Fire up the barbecue.

Rogers is so moving and Chan’s play so well constructed that the play hardly seems experimental. It just seems like an extraordinary play of depth and expansive feeling.

AvantGARDARAMA continues through Aug. 16 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

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 for information.