Grungy glamour fills ACT’s new journey to Oz

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ABOVE: Katrina Lauren McGraw (center) is Glinda, Chanel Tilgham (left) is Dorothy and Travis Santell Rowland is part of the lively ensemble in the American Conservatory Theater production of The Wizard of Oz. BELOW: Attempting an audience with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz are (from left) Beth Wilmurt (Ozian), Darryl V. Jones (Tin Man), Tilghman (Dorothy), El Beh (Guard), Cathleen Riddley (Cowardly Lion) and Danny Scheie (Scarecrow). Photos by Kevin Berne

We’re all friends of Dorothy now. At least that’s what if feels like in American Conservatory Theater’s Pride Month production of The Wizard of Oz now at the Toni Rembe Theater. Part Pride Parade, part homage to the 1939 movie, part glam rock/glitter grunge dime store spectacle, this Oz has a lot going on, including a lengthy running time that inches toward three hours.

Director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton throws abundant ideas into this well-loved, well-worn tale of Dorothy Gale and her trip over the rainbow – some are clever and exciting, others are not. The intention seems to be a homegrown Oz that feels rooted in San Francisco history, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ activism, Summer of Love hippy vibes and queer culture evocation. This may be a story that begins in Kansas, but it ends up in a fantasy world where the Wicked Witch of the West is like a country-western Karen, the Wizard feels like a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Dorothy is a sweetly nondescript teenager in a Batman t-shirt. There’s even (at least on opening night) an appearance by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band marching across the stage.

It feels like Pinkleton wants to whip up a tornado of fun – a new, slightly edgier take on a beloved story but told with just enough sincerity and heart to keep the traditionalists (reasonably) happy. The tornado, for instance, is now a dance piece in which ensemble member Travis Santell Woland wears football shoulder pads from which dangles a dense fringe of plastic caution tape and spins around the stage. There are tall fans, tossed confetti, a Twister game mat (very funny) and a lot of chaos, but not much storytelling about where Dorothy is in all of this. We know where she is because this story is in our DNA at this point, but the stage is more confusing than it needs to be.

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There’s also a unique solution to the yellow-brick road. We never actually see it, but whenever the gang is “off to see the Wizard,” audience members wave the yellow paper napkins they find in their programs.

Set and costume designer David Zinn is clearly having fun with a non-traditional Oz. There are tinsel curtains aplenty, mirrors and multicolored Christmas lights. The challenge of Munchkinland is cleverly addressed (mostly with household objects and googly eyes), and when there’s a need for flashy costumes, like for Glinda (a marvelous Katrina Lauren McGraw in a cloud of pinks) or for residents of the Emerald City, Zinn delivers with some genuine glamor. His costumes for Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers focus on the humans rather than the creatures. Danny Scheie as the scene-stealing Scarecrow, is outfitted in hippy-ish crochet and a hat that’s actually a crushed milk carton. Darryl V. Jones as the Tin Man might be confused for a leather daddy if leather came in silver. And Cathleen Riddley as the Cowardly Lion is less predator and more teddy bear with a tail.

The sound of the show also takes a turn from the traditional, and in place of the lush MGM orchestrations for the classic Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score, we have electronic sounds as if from the early days of the Moog synthesizer. But when Chanel Tilghman’s Dorothy offers her lovely take on “Over the Rainbow,” we get cast members augmenting the on-stage five-piece band with cello, ukulele, violin and a surprise woodshed tool (that also happens to be surprisingly beautiful). I was kind of hoping at some point all that chilly electronica would erupt into a disco dance party, but that never really happens, although our time in Munchkinland comes close.

Working from a faithful 1987 stage adaptation of the movie by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pinkleton’s Oz feels less like an archetypal journey and more like an intermittent drag cabaret performed on the smaller proscenium with in the proscenium. I have to admit that as an adult, I find the plot rather tedious, and although this crew is exceptionally lively, I still found myself anxious to get to the “ignore that man behind the curtain” moment. There is surprising poignancy as Dorothy bids her Oz friends goodbye, but that may be borne more from familiarity than any deep feeling the production has earned.

Pinkleton throws a lot at this wizardly wall to see what might stick, and in the end, not much really does. It’s a vessel we all know and love dressed up and enlivened in some interesting ways, but once we’re back in Kansas, the memory of the dream feels disappointingly hollow. This Oz is fun. It’s fresh. But it’s ultimately frustrating.

American Conservatory Theater’s The Wizard of Oz continues through June 25 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission). Tickets are $. Call or visit

The knockout punch of Aurora’s Royale

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Tim Kniffin (left) is Max, Satchel André (left, on the floor) is Fish, Atim Udoffia (seated, rear) is Nina, and Calvin M. Thompson is Jay “The Sport” Jackson in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Udoffia’s Nina and Thompson’s Jay discuss matters. Photos by David Allen

There’s something wonderfully vital and theatrical about Marco Ramirez’s The Royale now at . It’s a play ostensibly about boxing, but really it addresses the much larger issue of race in America. Ramirez sets his story in a world of brutality, but the fighters on stage never actually touch each other. Rather, the heartbeat of this 90-minute drama comes from the boxing matches in which the actors face forward (mostly). They punch, the slide, they move to convey the rhythm of the ring, but instead of hitting each other, they stomp and clap to indicate contact. Lights flash when one fighter scores over another, so we feel the weight and progress of the fight, but the overall effect is more like watching a dance (director Darryl V. Jones also serves as co-choreographer with boxing coach Joe Orrach.

These sections of the story are incredibly powerful, even if, on Thursday’s opening-night performance, the movement and rhythms weren’t as sharp as they should be for a space as intimate and in your face as the Aurora. But there’s no denying how effective the conceit is. The impact of the fights is powerfully conveyed, but in a wholly theatrical way, which, in a way, makes them more interesting than actual boxing. Actors are allowed to sync their movement with the punch of the stream-of-consciousness dialogue to allow us inside the characters’ heads while they fight, and that is fascinating.

Inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, The Royale centers on the fictional Jay “The Sport” Jackson, who will emerge champion in the early part of the 20th century but only after he defeats the reigning white champion. Such a bout, though rife with marketing opportunities, also has serious repercussions for race relations in America. If he wins, it’s a triumph for the African-American community – a hero rises and conquers. But a victory could also inspire serious retaliation from white supremacist fans who might express their anger in violence.

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Those are the dramatic stakes, and they’re big. When we meet Jay (Calvin M. Thompson) in the ring, it’s clear that he’s got superheroic skills in the ring, with his only real flaw being an ego that can get in the way of his natural instincts. He deftly pounds his opponent (Satchel André as Fish, a fine fighter who eventually becomes an ally) and learn that Jay can pretty much do whatever he wants. His victory against Bixby, the white champ, seems assured, but he has to contend with the weight of that victory, which is conveyed through others in his world: his coach (Donald E. Lacy Jr. as Max), his sister (Atim Udoffia as Nina) and his (white) promoter (Tim Kniffin) as Max.

Jones’ production is intriguingly textured, both in performance and design. Richard Olmstead’s set creates a sort of American flag from rough planks and stars that serves as the centerpiece of the action, while Kurt Landisman’s lights effectively covey the ever-changing shape of the ring in which Jay is fighting. Courtney Flores’ period handsome costumes provide the strongest link to the era and help further flesh out the character of Jay, although the whole production has a timeless, almost dreamlike quality to it.

That this is a sports-centered drama that doesn’t employ the usual tricks (aside from a crusty trainer and a defining childhood drama) is a huge advantage. Ultimately, The Royale feels like a resonant, percussive tone poem that beats to the rhythm of an America still finding its feet when it comes to equality and decency – it’s an existential prizefight that, more than a century later, has yet to yield any winners.

Marco Ramirez’s The Royale continues an extended run through Dec. 10 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$65. Call 510-843-4822 or visit