TheatreFirst reveals short, powerful HeLa

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Day and Henrietta Lacks (Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon) in happier days before Henrietta’s illness in the TheatreFirst world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa at Berkeley’s Black Oak Theatre. Below: A scientist (Akemi Okamura) comes to the home of Deborah (Desiree Rogers) and only wants a little bit of blood. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

For decades, hardly anyone knew the origin of the HeLa cancer cells that were being used to study cancer, cure polio, research AIDS and function in any number of vital scientific projects. All they knew about this “immortal” line of cells is that they reproduced quickly and were invaluable components of scientific progress. They did not know that the original cells, which have generated some 20 tons of cells for research purposes, were taken without the consent (or knowledge) of the terminally ill woman in whose body they resided: Henrietta Lacks.

Chances are good that, unlike so many scientists for so many years, you have heard of Henrietta Lacks, whether from Rebecca Skloots’ best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or, more recently, the HBO movie based on the book starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter Deborah. The story continues to be told, this time for the stage, in the world premiere play from TheatreFirst: HeLa by Bay Area playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy.

There are so many ways you can go with this story: heavy family drama, intense scientific victory, yet another chapter in the exploitation of African Americans. Gunderson and Reddy’s HeLa, named for the history-erasing name given to Lacks’ cells, goes in all of those directions, but does so in an expedient way that somehow even manages, amid the sadness and anger, to find some lightness and depth.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this nearly 70-minute one-act is the almost effortless way it makes Lacks’ story part of the epic African-American struggle. “We live on a history of taking,” one character says, and that taking extends from human beings taken from their native land, sold and enslaved to cells from Lacks’ cancer-ridden body taken, studied and regenerated for decades (to the present day) to the tune of billions of dollars while Henrietta’s family members – the husband and five children she left behind and then her grandchildren and great grandchildren – struggled to afford their own healthcare.

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That notion of taking resonates throughout this short play, which weaves a thorough portrait of Lacks and her legacy, its issues and its triumphs, without being weighted down by too many details, either biographical or scientific, though there are plenty of both.

At the start, director Evren Odcikin’s energetic production feels like it could be veering into Hallmark Channel sweetness as we meet the Lacks family. But that slow dance in front of a sink full of dishes is short-lived, as Henrietta quickly succumbs to cervical cancer, though her presence continues to dominate the play through a warm, passionate portrayal by Jeunée Simon. Where Henrietta’s cells go, the spirit of Henrietta follows, sometimes to comic effect, as when she and her petri dish accompany a canine cosmonaut (played by ensemble member Sarah Mitchell) on a space research mission.

Odcikin moves his adept cast around the small stage with verve and efficiency, as years tumble by and we begin to comprehend the vastness of the research and scientific accomplishment achieved thanks to Henrietta and the HeLa cells. But then comes the emotional weight borne by her family when they begin to learn what became of Henrietta’s cells and how they – and in a way her – have become immortal (and made certain people rich in the process).

The family’s emotional connection to Henrietta and the legacy to which she was only able to contribute her physical matter is embodied in a grounded, complex performance by Desiree Rogers as Deborah, one of the five Lacks children. We get to age with Deborah, from a little girl at her mother’s feet to a grandmother, and we feel the absence of a mother in her life and the perplexing, wrenching and unexpected return of that mother in the form of millions of cells in a lab.

Except for an attractive and intriguing backdrop (by Bailey Hikawa) that resembles a giant mass of bubble-like cells that effectively catch the lighting design by Stephanie Anne Johnson, the stage is bare of anything other than actors – most playing multiple roles – and a few chairs. Khary Moye is Henrietta’s husband, Day, and Richard Pallaziol is the doctor who has to tell Henrietta she’s dying, but then in an unsettling monologue, is able to reach into the future and discuss the ways she will be exploited without her ever knowing it. In later years, Akemi Okamura is a young scientist who needs to extract blood (just a little!) from the family and unwittingly reveals Henrietta’s involvement in the science community for the past two decades.

There’s a cumulative power to this story that feels both intimate and epic, another chapter in our history of taking that tells an essential story that should keep being told.

Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa continues through June 17 in a TheatreFirst production at the Black Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Visit

Golden Thread traverses a rocky Highway

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A young man named Traffic (Kiran Patel, right) and a wanderer named Zarif (Terry Lamb) join forces to chase trucks and sell fish on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway in Afghanistan in the world premiere of Kevin Artigue’s The Most Dangerous Highway in the World, from Golden Thread Productions at Thick House. Below: A lost Samira (Sofia Ahmad) stumbles upon Traffic’s makeshift home on the side of the highway. Photos by David Allen Studio

In his raggedy reflective vest and with his small voice booming, Traffic spends his days unlike most 8-year-olds: he waves traffic around a hairpin turn and in and out of a tunnel on the perilous mountain highway that links Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan. He is one of the “Pepsi boys” who scrapes up a living from waving a smashed soda bottle at passing cars, hoping for a few coins thrown his way as a tip. He also catches fish in the river at the bottom of the ravine and attempts to sell those as snacks to passing travelers.

The story of the Pepsi boys is a compelling one – check out this feature in the New York Times – and clearly playwright Kevin Artigue thought so, too. Their lives inspired his play The Most Dangerous Highway in the World, now receiving its world premiere from Golden Thread Productions, the country’s first theater company focused on the Middle East. Now in the midst of celebrating its 20th anniversary, Golden Thread focuses on stories from and about the Middle East, and Artigue is the first writer of non-Middle Eastern descent to receive a full production from the company.

Moving beyond the day-to-day drama of the Pepsi boys simply existing in such a difficult, hardscrabble and dangerous world, Artigue attempts a more poetic approach to the story. His main character, 8-year-old Traffic (played by the extraordinary Kiran Patel), has lost his family – to what is never clear, but the threat of the Taliban and the general volatility of the political landscape in Afghanistan looms heavily at all times – and his sister has recently wandered off and failed to return. Still, Traffic (he gave himself that name) plies is trade with gusto, slinging fish (“You can still eat them if they smell!”) and existing in fumes of exhaust from the cars he guides along their way.

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How long Traffic has been doing this and how long he plans to continue doing it is never quite clear. He’s living moment to moment and takes his rest on a salvaged car seat along the side of the highway. He’s existing in a sort of purgatory, and that is made more literal with the presence of ghosts, including car accident victims Zarif (Terry Lamb) and Samira (Sofia Ahmad) who are somehow tethered to Traffic. There are actual humans, too, in the form of soldiers Nader (Davern Wright), a bully who wants information about Taliban movements, and Daoud (Louel Señores), a sweet stoner who is much more compassionate. These soldiers don’t seem to be under any specific command, but they drive a big truck full of bagged and tagged bodies.

Director Evren Odcikin elicits a superb performance from young Patel, who really carries the entire 80-minute drama with his exuberance and his deeply felt connection with Traffic. The other roles, which also include dreamlike appearances by a little girl played by Jiya Khanna, tend to be exercises in repetition. They are ably performed but don’t coalesce into anything substantial.

The same could be said for the play itself, which can become surprisingly mawkish and trite (“You care too much. Life is easier when you stop caring.”). A play populated by the living and the dead doesn’t automatically add up to drama. Why the ghosts are there never becomes clear, and Traffic’s precarious state is no different at the end than it was at the beginning. That could be exactly the point, but the play seems to indicate some sort of movement that is also unclear.

The production itself is a strong one, from the evocative rocky mountain set by Kate Boyd to the nerve-jangling sounds of speeding traffic by James Ard, and though the hard lives of the Pepsi boys serves as a means of providing insight into life in modern Afghanistan, the view on this particular stretch of Highway is much more cloudy than clear.

[bonus video]
Golden Thread Productions looks at the real-life Pepsi bottle boys and talks with playwright Kevin Artigue and director Evren Odcikin.

Kevin Artigue’s The Most Dangerous Highway in the World continues through May 29 with Golden Thread Productions at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $34. Call 415-626-4061 or visit

Tense, riveting Brothers from Crowded Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far from mangy, this Mutt is a gut buster

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No really, let’s talk about race: cable news talking head Dave Matthews (Matthew Lai, right) interviews Len (Michael Uy Kelly), the Republican candidate for president who’s not just hapa but a member of every race and ethnicity on the planet in the world premiere of Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen, in a co-production by Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Below: Democratic National Committee heads Elizabeth (Patricia Austin, far left) and Mikey (Lawrence Radecker, far right) are thrilled to have found a hapa candidate for president in Nick (Matthew Lai) and a powerful brain trust in his campaign consultant, Hanna (Michelle Talgarow). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Between the Shakespearean twists of House of Cards and the utter inanity of Veep, you’d think that we’d have Washington politics pretty well covered by pop culture. Well clearly not because we need to make room for Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!, the absolutely hilarious and crazy smart new comedy from San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen.

Chen, you may recall, made quite a splash with The Hundred Flowers Project two years ago. That award-winning play pushed boundaries and offered all sorts of juicy theatrical challenges and made it clear that Chen is the kind of writer who delights and provokes and digs deep with intelligence and inspiration.

His latest work, Mutt, is an entirely different kind of play – a rollicking satirical comedy with grand guffaws and so many great lines the whole thing ends up feeling like a great line – but the brains are bolstering every belly laugh.

Chen is doing nothing less than taking on the issue of race in a big, bold way. He presents a completely corrupted and ridiculous two-party system that couldn’t’ make a good choice if the fate of the world depended on it (oh, wait, it does). The Republicans, still smarting from the last presidential election, realize they have a problem with race. With the help of a race management operative named Hanna (the wonderfully grounded Michelle Talgarow), they set out to find a hapa (mixed Asian race) candidate because Asian has been deemed a “safe” race in that it’s practically white.

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The perfect candidate turns out to be a “super hapa” who has some of every race in the world floating through his DNA. Len Smith (Michael Uy Kelly) is a god-like figure who feels the course of all history running through him. All that inner activity leads him to be something of a dolt on the outside, but he looks good on TV and has enough sexual charisma to make the whole world want to sleep with him, so he’s a shoo-in.

Frustrated by politics as usual, Hanna goes rogue and finds her own hapa candidate in Nick (Matthew Lai) to bring some semblance of reality into the presidential race. It may come as no surprise to find out that such reality is going to be in extremely short supply.

This world-premiere co-production between Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company is not only well written, it’s expertly directed by Evren Odcikin, who makes the tiny La Val’s Subterranean space feel more fluid and limber than ever before. The play doesn’t feel constrained by the space so much as supported by it. Odcikin’s exuberant cast knows how not to push the comedy too hard to maximize laughs.

As both the Republican and Democratic Party hacks, Patricia Austin and Lawrence Radecker could not be funnier, and Austin deserves a special shout-out for a piece of slapstick comedy that precedes one of the funniest bits I’ve seen on a stage in a good long time.

The invaluable Marilet Martinez, in a parade of ever-more astonishing wigs, is the world’s worst therapist, a series of witnesses to brutal crimes, and a representative of the Latin immigrant community who does not take kindly to political bullshit. She definitely puts the whip in whip-smart comedy.

Most of the actors play multiple characters, and at the performance I saw Thursday night, they seemed to be feeding off the packed audience’s collective delight, relishing in comic pauses and savoring the raucous laughter.

Race is certainly no laughing matter, unless, of course, the political issues surrounding it are sliced and diced into such comically delicious (and dare we say, nutritious?) bite-sized pieces the way they are in Mutt.

Christopher Chen’s Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, continues through June 8 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit

Family, politics, history tangle in Golden Thread’s Urge

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Camila Betancourt Ascencio (left) is Jamila, an ambitious Palestinian girl living in Lebanon in a refugee camp with her father, Adham (Terry Lamb, center), mother, Abir (Tara Blau) and other family members in Golden Thread’s production of Urge for Going by Mona Mansour. BELOW: The cast of Urge for Going includes, from left, Lamb, Munaf Alsafi, Ascencio, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Blau and Wiley Naman Strasser. Photos by David Allen

The remarkable thing about Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going and the work of Golden Thread Productions is how effectively the complex world of the Middle East comes through in a moving family drama. A very personal story set against a sprawling backdrop of history, politics and geography forges a strong emotional connection and brings a distinct perspective to a part of the world that can feel overwhelming if, like me, you know precious little about real-life experiences there.

Certainly drama benefits from conflict and tension, and that’s where Mansour’s story, set in Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, begins. In an introduction called “The Noise,” members of a family attempt to explain the history of the refugee camp and how in 1948, with the formation of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The “temporary” camps received another infusion of refugees in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, so nearly 60 years later (the play is set in 2003) the camp is, as Mansour puts it, “permanently impermanent.” But the thing about “The Noise” is that no one can seem to agree on the historical details. Some even take issue with one another’s tone of voice when discussing the topic.

The thought of living in a refugee camp like that, cobbling together a home and an existence for you and your family is hard enough. But to think you’re living that way with the promise of returning to your homeland always hovering vaguely in the distance – it just seems impossible.

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And yet that is how this family, like so many others, is living. Some family members have been there since 1948. Others arrived in 1967, and somehow they make it work.

While the older generation holds out some hope that promises will be kept and the refugees will go home, the younger generation, represented here by high-schooler Jamila (Camila Betancourt Ascencio), sees the return as a pipe dream. Jamila knows her future options are limited, so she’s seizing on the one within her reach: taking the baccalaureate exam and going to college. Being the daughter of a scholar (Terry Lamb as Adham), Jamila is inspired to follow in her father’s footsteps.

What’s interesting here is the complicated relationship between father and daughter. Adham and his wife, Abir (Tara Blau) had the opportunity to stay and work at a school in London many years ago, but returned home only to end up in the refugee camp and a life of subsistence. Now Adham is ambivalent about his daughter’s attempts to study for her exam and finagle the necessary paperwork and photo IDs to secure an exam appointment.

Jamila and her older brother, Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) play a fascinating game together, a sort of fantasy talk show in which she imagines herself with multiple PhDs, traveling the world and changing it. The fact that her brother is brain damaged – we’re told he went out of the house one way and came back another – only underscores the poignancy of the game. Jamila has a chance, albeit a small one, to escape her family’s dire circumstances, while Jul does not. His primary pleasure in life is watching “Baywatch” reruns on a tiny television.

Emotions run high and strong in director Evren Odcikin excellent production. His cast, which also includes the extraordinary Julian Lopez-Morillas and Munaf Alsafi as uncles sharing Jamila’s home, cuts right to the emotional heart of Mansour’s powerful story. The details here are important – setting historical context, all of that – but at a certain point, we’re not just learning about life in the Middle East. We’re connecting with a family in the way that good drama finds those universal family heartbeats. On some level it could be O’Neill or Miller or Williams. The circumstances are unique, but a family’s love and loyalty, complicated by loss, strife and politics that affect your daily life, are part of a universal story and one we need to hear over and over again and connect with over and over again.

Set and lighting designer Kate Boyd depicts a ramshackle collage of a shelter – some cinderblock, some plywood, some plastic tarp – with a loosely wired electrical system providing a tentative current. But watching the family prepare a meal or reconfigure the sparse furniture for the sleeping of five people in a tiny space serves as a reminder: a home is a home is a home.

Ascencio as Jamila bears much of the story’s weight, and she’s marvelous, as is Strasser as Jul. There’s humor and depth and passion in all the performances, making Mansour’s intimate family drama all the more personal, all the more powerful.

Golden Thread Production’s Urge for Going by Mona Mansour continues through Dec. 8 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Visit

Crowded Fire plays games with death in 410[GONE]

Seventeen (Christopher James Cortez, center left) and Twenty-One (Cindy Im, center right) confront one another in the afterlife, a domain ruled by the Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon, left) and the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) in Crowded Fire’s world premiere of 410[GONE] at the Thick House. Below: Lydon and Loriaux blend tradition with modernity in the Chinese Land of the Dead. Photos by Pak Han

One of life’s great mysteries has at last been solved. Those outdated notions of the afterlife involving harps and angels and a paternal, white-bearded God never seemed to catch up with our fast-paced, multicultural world – until now. Thanks to Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s mesmerizing and ultimately moving 410[GONE], now having its world premiere courtesy of Crowded Fire Theater, we know that the afterlife, or at least one vision of it, involves deities from Chinese mythology playing Dance Dance Revolution (an high-energy dancing video game) as a means to transmogrify souls from one life form to the next.

Makes perfect sense to me, especially in Cowhig’s no-nonsense vision, where Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) is so weary she’s lost all sense of mercy and her patience is constantly tested by her screeching companion, Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon). Life in the Chinese Land of the Dead ain’t what it used to be, even though the old traditions have been updated to include video games. The telephone contact with desperate humans in the outside world, however, are still old-school push-button land lines.

The digital revolution is also messing up what should be a simple transmogrification. A 17-year-old boy (Christopher James Cortez) should slip through the system, but his older sister (Cindy Im) can’t let him go. Using the power of her laptop, a disposable Chinese shrine and her brother’s old detective kit, she is intent on unraveling the mystery of her brother’s untimely death. In so doing, she finds ways (as if she were playing a video game) to send him things he might need in the underworld (like money and pickles).


With the help of the stunning but sparingly used Ox-Headed God (Michael Uy Kelly making the absolute most of his brief time on stage), sister and brother are reunited – briefly – in the afterlife, and that’s where the non-digital, non-wacky heart of 410[GONE] really lies.

Director Evren Odcikin (who also designed the set) nicely balances the groovily updated folklore aspects of the play with the very real human elements of loss, grief, mental illness and cultural identification. This is a smart, funny play that, for all its edgy games, turns out to be a modern riff on Orpheus and Eurydice in which coming to terms with loss and trying to understand death turn it into a much more conventional (but no less moving) drama.

Im and Cortez are superb as a brother and sister whose relationship is fraught with tension and deep devotion. From the beginning, Im serves as our emotional entry point as a sister who is not exactly in denial over her brother’s death but she certainly is obsessing over it, to the point where she keeps eating his final meal every day. When she’s finally able to break through into her brother’s limbo, Im is even better, and Cortez, who is such a believably tormented, video game-obsessed teenager, connects with her in a remarkably poignant way. Their final scenes together are completely free of sappy sentiment and full of love and loss in equal measure.

Though an intimate production in the cozy confines of the Thick House stage, Odcikin’s production benefits greatly from superb video design by Wesley Cabral and animation by Goose Manriquez. As fun as the projections are – and they can also be beautiful, as when the dead brother goes through otherworldly transitions – they never overwhelm the performers. The playwright leaves that to the emotions.

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410[GONE] continues through June 29 in a Crowded Fire Theatre production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

Crowded Fire’s Invasion!, or Abulkasem on my mind


Wiley Naman Strasser wraps up the final chapter of Invasion! as the playwright’s little brother in the Crowded Fire Theater production of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play. Below: An apple-picking asylum seeker (George Psarras) tells his story through an interpreter (Olivia Rosaldo Pratt). Photos by Pak Han

The thing to know about Crowded Fire’s Invasion! is that it’s best not to know too much. There’s comedy, mystery, surprises and sinister darkness all lurking about director Evren Odcikin’s sharp, crisply performed production. And if you have no idea what’s really going on or what could possibly happen next, well, that’s all for the better.

Even though the play is only about 80 minutes, it feels substantial – not heavy but not frivolous either. Playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri wants to explore the power of language and how that power is fueled by ego, fear, racism and the speed at which words enter and exit the lexicon.

The word here is Abulkasem. We first hear it in the context of a play, a sort of Middle Eastern fairy tale. But then Khemiri (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles), in a moment beautifully and aggressively staged by Odcikin, disrupts the notion of theater and allows us to watch as the word resurfaces in a vulnerable moment that then, for reasons only teenagers understand, must be armored with testosterone. So Abulkasem becomes slang word – an insult, an adjective, a verb, a compliment, an unlikely slice of Arabic hip-hop hipness.


Almost like a riff on Schnitzler’s La Ronde, Khemiri’s play takes us into a world where, through linked scenes, the word Abulkasem becomes many different things. Each time it’s used, we get another window into how language can reinforce or reveal prejudice. Khemiri’s focus is on various people of Middle Eastern descent and how Abulkasem can go from something slangy and harmless to a name that invokes the menace of terrorism.

Odcikin’s quartet of actors – George Psarras, Lawrence Radecker, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt and Wiley Naman Strasser – deftly switch from character to character, handling the laughs (of which there are many) and the drama with astonishing skill. There’s one scene – without giving too much away – involving a potentially shady character (Psarras) and the translator he has been asking for (Rosaldo-Pratt). The dynamics of the scene are fascinating, as what we think is happening turns out to be something quite different. It’s a potent swirl of stereotypes and insidious operating and Abba lyrics.

Produced in the round, Invasion! has that interesting feel of being foreign and familiar, which is to say you can’t just kick back and relax because you never quite know what’s coming next. Alex Friedman’s set is really an art installation in itself, with the entire theater space covered in newspapers and graffiti by artist Ali Dadgar. Spray-painted images of shadowy men in sunglasses (one of whom looks just like Zach Galifanakis) occupy walls with slogans like “Debt to America.”

My only disappointment in Khemiri’s play is that it starts with such a bang and with such energetic fervor, that its descent into monologue-heavy, darkly lit scenes feels more conventional than I wanted it to. There are plenty of surprises in Invasion! but its form turns out not to be one of them.

That’s a minor cavil, though, for such an interesting, engaging production that takes language so very seriously. There’s always a danger that Khemiri will get preachy, but he never does. Are we all Abulkasem? If we don’t think seriously about the words we use and hear – especially the ones that supposedly describe other cultures – then the answer is a definitive yes.

[bonus interview]

I chatted with writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Crowded Fire Theater’s Invasion! continues through Sept. 29 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Visit

By hooker by crook in The Oldest Profession

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The cast of Brava Theater’s The Oldest Profession includes (from left) Patricia Silver, Linda Ayres-Frederick, Lee Brady, Tamar Cohen and Cecele Levinson. Below: Silver as Ursula belts a number (with Angela Dwyer on the piano behind her). Photos by Eric Harvieux

By focusing in on some of the oldest practitioners of the world’s oldest profession, playwright Paula Vogel finds a lot to say about the way the world views senior citizens. Even more than sexuality, Vogel’s charming and sad The Oldest Profession takes an insightful look into the power of bonding – especially among women.

Staged upstairs in Brava Theater’s cozy Studio Theater, Oldest Profession is an immensely enjoyable, if somewhat heartbreaking experience. Director Evren Odcikin calibrates the evening just about perfectly, guiding his quartet of actors plus one rollicking good piano player through Vogel’s poignant, but laugh-filled landscape.

With the feel of a plush bawdy house parlor, the Studio Theater creates an enticing environment for the play. Music director/pianist Angela Dwyer is at the upright next to a velvet couch – she’s mere steps away from the small stage, which set designer Jacqui Martinez has tricked out to give us hints of New York’s Upper West Side (please not the 72nd Street Subway stop). Lighting designer Allison Bell has shaded lamps scattered around the theater and even hangs a few from the ceiling for optimal coziness.

The most functional part of the set is a park bench. That’s the congregating spot for five working ladies who have been in “the business” for decades – ever since they worked out of a house in New Orleans. Their ages aren’t really specified, but they’re in their 60s and maybe 70s.

They look out for each other, both as friend and as business associates. Fireplug Mae (Cecele Levinson) is the boss. She’s got a knife in her purse and isn’t afraid to pull it to make a point.

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Patricia Silver is Ursula, the second in command. She’s got some tough business-minded thoughts about increasing profits, and lollygagging on a park bench isn’t one of them. Tamar Cohen is Lillian, the free spirit of the bunch. A patron of the arts, she exchanges services with theater folk so she can feel a part of the community.

And then there’s Edna (Linda Ayers-Frederick), freshly sprung from jail after a jealous wife unleashed the police to exact revenge on her philandering husband. Even after a rough night in the pokey, Edna’s spirits cannot be dimmed.

The childlike Vera (Lee Brady) is the heart of the group. She’s practical and streetwise, as a prostitute of her advanced years and experience would be, but she hasn’t lost her delight in the world. She also has one of the funniest lines in the play (and helps set the late ‘70s mood): “Ursula, you just used Jimmy Carter and poontang in the same sentence!”

These five women (and pianist Dwyer) make a formidable group. They are absolutely captivating and bring a powerful life force to the stage. You feel them working as a group and making the most of Vogel’s poignant drama.

They also get to sing some great old songs – “I’m No Angel” and “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ on It” among them – and do some serious shimmying. But again, Vogel’s take on all this is never far away from the sadness of death and loneliness.

The Oldest Profession, it turns out, really is about the oldest story in the book. Under the laughs and behind the music is a powerful story about history and hard work, defiance and despair and the power of women.


Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession continues through April 9 at Brava Studio Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 415-647-2822 or visit

Sex, drama and Impact’s Naked Guy

Naked Guy gets fully extended – now through Dec. 18!

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Steven Satyricon is the titular naked guy and Jai Sahai is the adoring Harold in Impact Theatre’s The Play About the Naked Guy. Below: Monica Cappuccini (center) is Mrs. Anderson, a Connecticut moneybags trying to woo her daughter away from off off Broadway theater. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Salacious (and accurate) title aside, David Bell’s The Play About the Naked Guy is a little bit sweet and a whole lotta funny. The Impact Theatre production, affectionately and astutely directed by Evren Odcikin, satirizes everything about theater, from pompous artists obsessed with obscure classics to sleazy svengalis who pander to the lowest common denominator. This play is what you want and expect from Impact – big laughs, energetic performances and just enough potentially offensive material to feel hip and edgy.

Take an overly sincere off-off-Broadway company called The Integrity Players and force them into producing borderline stage porn, and you’ve got a recipe for some delicious comedy. Odcikin and his knowing cast blow through this naughty silliness with comic abandon, offering more titters than titillation.

Dan (Brian McManus), the artistic force behind The Integrity Players (“Sounds like a Christian soccer league,” says one quippy gay), believes passionately in two things: his tremendous talent as an actor/director/theatrical genius and the value of, as he lays it on, “real, live, living, breathing, real, live theater.” Into his web of absurdly sincere devotion to plays like The Ha’penny of Brixton Street or The Perplexities of Tristan, Dan pulls his pregnant wife, Amanda (Eliza Leoni), though she’s more often called names like Pretty and Princess, and Harold (Jai Sahai), their star thespian.

With cast members more often outnumbering audience members, Integrity Players is going down the toilet. Amanda’s mother, Mrs. Anderson (Monica Cappuccini), is their only funder, and she’s only doing that to ensure that her daughter doesn’t starve to death. When she pulls all financial support, Integrity must resort to desperate extremes for survival.

Those extremes come in the form of Eddie (John Ferreira), a producer whose specialty is casting porn stars in mediocre stage creations and watching the money pour in. “Slap some fresh meat on the stage, and the jackals will come to feed,” he says. And he’s right. With his two drugged-up, finger-snapping succubae at his side, T. Scott (Adrian Anchondo) and Edonis (Timitio Artusio), Eddie is the reigning dark lord of cheap, nudie theater with titles like Naked Boys Running Around Naked and Frat Boys Making Porn. He’s the antithesis of Dan and Integrity, but he’s got what Dan needs: access to filthy lucre.

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Mrs. Anderson sees a prime opportunity to see Integrity fail and drive a wedge between her Princess and Princess’ too intensely theatrical husband, so she steps up as lead producer. Dan and Amanda see an opportunity to save their art. And Harold, freshly out of the closet, sees a big object of lust in his porn-star co-star, Kit Swagger (Steven Satyricon) as they rehearse a decidedly campy spin on The Passion of the Christ called Jesus Christ, He’s Hot! (I have to assume there’s an exclamation point even though it’s not technically a musical, though there are mighty techno beats and Amanda does play Madonna – not Jesus’ mom but mother of our Lourdes).

Playwright Bell invites his actors to have all kinds of fun with gay stereotypes, and boy do they. “Jesus Timberlake Christ!” one exclaims, while another sighs, “Heavens to Oprah.” The two sidekicks say “Yay!” hundreds of times (well, maybe not hundreds but there’s still a drinking game to be had here), and Eddie thinks he knows everything there is to know about the realities of theater. “No one goes to Cymbeline because they want to!” he snaps. They’d much rather ogle naked flesh, and maybe he’s right.

Bell also peppers his comedy with theater jokes that will appeal to a very limited audience – as Paul Rudnick once told me, “There are some jokes only theater dogs can hear.” But those dogs will enjoy the references to, among others, Marian Seldes, Patti LuPone, Charles Isherwood, Mary Martin and Sutton Foster.

Part of the fun of Naked Guy is how much fun the actors are having, but amid the sexy shenanigans, there are two truly outstanding performances. Cappuccini as the Westport matron with the power and attitude afforded her by a bottomless checking account is absolutely hilarious. In her smart white pantsuit (costumes by Miyuki Bierlein), Mrs. Anderson sasses up a storm and shoots wicked barbs like some martini-swilling weapon of mass destruction. She has lust in her heart for the gay porn star and contempt for everyone but her daughter.

The other piece of brilliance comes from Sahai as Harold, a sincere and befuddled “new gay” as the annoying sidekicks keep calling him. Too well spoken for his own good, Harold finds solace in words, and Sahai has a real way with all that dialogue – it’s impressive and pathetic at the same time, sincere and sincerely funny.

The Play About the Naked Guy does have a brain in its silly, satirical head, which only deepens the laughs, and yes, Virginia, there is a penis, so don’t bring the kids to the beer-soaked basement theater under the pizza parlor.


Impact Theatre’s The Play About the Naked Guy by David Bell continues an extended run through Dec. 18 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit or for information.