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.

Gamers roll good theater in Dice and Men

Dice & Men 1

Game on: Jonathon Brooks (left), Maria Giere Marquis (center) and Jai Sahai star in Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs


Nerd-on-nerd love is something to behold.

It’s sweet, it’s smart, it’s funny – at least it is in Cameron McNary’s sharply etched play Of Dice and Men, receiving its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. McNary boldly goes where no dramatist has gone before him (at least none I’ve ever seen). He takes his audiences into the world of Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game involving elves, fairies, wizards and the like – exactly the kind of game that gets kids beaten up in high school.

I remember the D&D kids in high school, and they weren’t like the other geeks. They were so into their thing it almost demanded respect. Some dressed up as their characters and proudly carted around their boxes and binders and backpacks, all of which was carefully unpacked around their designated table in the library. I remember once picking up a Dungeons and Dragons book to see what it was all about, and as I recall, the book might as well have been written in Latin. It didn’t make sense to me. At all.

One of the wonderful things about McNary’s play is that you don’t have to know anything about D&D to enjoy it. I’m sure there’s all kinds of verisimilitude that he and director Melissa Hillman have brought to this production – authenticity in the game-playing scenes, wonderfully obscure, titter-inducing references for those in the know, and that’s as it should be. As a foreigner in this world, I feel like the play tugged me into a world I didn’t completely understand but fully recognized. One character describes this world as “like having rules for playing pretend,” and that’s all I really need to know.

The center of the story involves love stories of various kinds – platonic and otherwise. We see how the playing of this game, with its Dungeon Master maneuvering behind a protective little wall, its crazy dice and its Tolkien-on-steroids characters, creates a bond among its players and gives them a creative outlet, a playground for their obsessions and, best of all, a society.

McNary pulls us into the world slowly and skillfully. First we meet the Johns: John Francis (Seth Thygesen), the stable Dungeon Master, and John Alex (Jai Sahai), the foul-mouthed loose cannon who is on the 22nd iteration of his D&D character, Spango Garnet Killer. In one brilliant scene (and with a nod to Colin Trevor’s projections), we see John Alex’s drawings of his character, scrawled on binder paper of course, through the years, the draftsmanship and attention to detail improving with each passing year. [Note: thank you to director Melissa Hillman for letting me know the drawings are by Emily Hardin and come from last year’s world-premiere production at the Penny Arcade Expo gaming convention.]

These passionate players are joined by an interloper, Jason (Jonathon Brooks), who is quickly taken into the fold.

Net thing we know, these guys are in their 30s. True to stereotype, John Francis is living in his mother’s basement, but you couldn’t call him a loser. The game is still a huge part of his life, and his circle has expanded to include a “hot gamer chick,” Tara (Maria Giere Marquis) and a married couple, Linda (Linda-Ruth Cardozo) and Brandon (Stacz Sadowski) who happily support each other’s hobbies (hers is D&D, his is the Washington Redskins – neither really likes the other’s obsession, but hey, that’s marriage).

This group of gamers is a lot more attractive than the group I remember from high school, but that may be part of the point. McNary makes several persuasive comparisons between D&D and football, both of which could be compared to any hobby. The reason you do it most often comes down to the other people – the people who help imbue the ritual of it all with meaning.

Through two acts and nearly two hours, McNary lets each of his characters appear in costume (nice work on a budget by Miyuki Bierlein) and tell us about them, and, consequently, about themselves. Tara is an elfin princess with too much back story. Jason is an armor-clad warrior. Brandon is a barbarian. And Linda is a dwarf with a Scottish accent and a penchant for dick jokes.

In Act 2, things get pretty serious as real-life stuff threatens the group and its social dynamic. There’s anger, there’s heroism, there’s romance, there’s bromance. There’s even an extraordinary speech about friendship and war that wrings a tear. Hillman and her cast are completely up to the challenge of the drama, especially when the real-world drama melds with the fantasy of the game.

It’s easy to like these people as people and not as geeky stereotypes, so you care that the sexy gamer chick finally gets together with the right gamer guy or that the friendships are the thing that matters most. McNary demonstrates the vital importance of pursuits like Dungeons and Dragons. They are utterly pointless, he says, and they matter. The latter is certainly true when it comes to Of Dice and Men, a play that explores the specific to reveal the universal.


Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men continues through Oct. 1 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Mouse tales live again

What would Walt think? Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen’s one-man recollection about being a costumed character in the Magic Kingdom, returns to Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

About nine years ago, Trevor Allen lifted the veil on an operation so shrouded in secrecy and intrigue that the merest glimpse inside set people salivating. He revealed what it was actually like to be inside a costumed character in Disneyland.

Oh, yes, This is deeply inside stuff. And sweaty. And hilarious. It’s what you call a theatrical experience bursting with character.

Allen’s autobiographical solo show, Working for the Mouse, premiered at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre in 2002 then transferred to San Francisco. Now Allen is reviving the show for Impact and his own Black Box Theatre at La Val’s Subterranean.

The estimable Nancy Carlin has taken over the directing reins from Kent Nicholson, and the revised show is sharper and funnier than ever.

Allen hits the stage ready for battle in shorts, knee pads (one of the characters is a pint-sized guy, so there’s a lot of time on bended knee) and a vintage “Zoo Crew” T-shirt (that’s how Disneyland’s costumed atmosphere characters are described) emblazoned with Jiminy Cricket. Like any good Disney employee, he’s also wearing his name tag.

We learn that at age 17, Allen left his hometown in the Bay Area to find seasonal work in Disneyland. Throughout the 70-minute show he glances off the deeper theme of not wanting to grow up, but he’s also beginning to flex his young actor muscles. His dream is to be a “face character,” which is to say a character like Peter Pan or Prince Charming who is not engulfed in a full, furry body suit. The face characters also tend to have what every actor desires: voice clearance. They get to talk to the guests rather than remaining a mute sweat bomb in a giant head and stuffed body.

We watch as Allen progresses through the character infrastructure. First he’s Pluto, then pirate Mr. Smee, then a talking Mad Hatter, and we can see him maturing and opening his eyes to some of what the real world – even in its Magic Kingdom form – has in store for him. He gets hazed by the veterans in the department, has his heart broken and gets his best, most creative intentions trampled by the corporate machine.

Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.

One of the things that tickled me the first time I saw the show was Allen’s Ed Wynn impression – a necessity for anyone playing Disney’s version of the Mad Hatter – and that delight is still very much present here. Another huge piece of enjoyment, especially for Disneyphiles, is the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, which is filled with wonderfully incisive references to rides and movies.

Allen has honed Working for the Mouse to an impressive level, but that’s not all. There are more tales to be told. If the show leaves you wanting more, and it will, check out Allen’s book-in-progress at www.workingforthemouse.com.

Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Black Box Theatre, continues an extended run through July 16 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Sex, drama and Impact’s Naked Guy

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

Naked Guy 1

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.

Naked Guy 3

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 www.impacttheatre.com or www.brownpapertickets.com for information.

Warm and fuzzy: `Working for the Mouse’ evolves

A man of character, Trevor Allen decided to put his character life behind him.

Having detailed what it’s really like to work as a costumed character in Disneyland in his popular solo show Working for the Mouse, Allen made a conscious decision to focus on his burgeoning career as a playwright. Mouse, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, had a great run at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre (and a transfer to the EXIT in San Francisco), but the time had come to hang up the ears and write.

Trevor Allen

He had abundant projects, including one about Albert Einstein with found-object puppeteer Liebe Wetzel, another about artificial intelligence that the Magic Theatre picked up for its New Media Festival and yet another assignment to write something for Playground.

The resulting plays, One Stone, The Nutshell and Tenders in the Fog respectively, were all well received but only Tenders ended up being produced (by San Jose Stage Company). Then came Zoo Logic and Lolita Road Trip, two more projects that generated readings and interest but, so far, no actual productions.

Rather than do the writerly thing and revel in despondency, San Francisco resident Allen headed back to the Magic Kingdom. For just a few jam-packed performances in the summer of 2005, he resurrected Working for the Mouse at Bus Barn Theatre in Los Altos. For those few shows, he traveled back in time to age 17. He was an acting student at UCLA (studying with “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed, no less) and worked at Disneyland, first as Pluto, then as Capt. Hook’s first mate, Mr. Smee, then as various characters including Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Friar Tuck (from Robin Hood) and Gideon (the mute cat from Pinocchio). He graduated to “face work,” meaning he wasn’t enclosed in plastic and fur, with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and actually got to utilize his improvisational skills when interacting with park guests.

A friend of Allen’s from Los Angeles encouraged him to come do Mouse at a small North Hollywood theater. “It’d sell out!” the friend said.

And Allen wondered, if he took the show to LA, if that is exactly what he’d be doing: selling out.

“I had considered taking the show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, then I had to think about LA, and then I thought, `Do I really want to be the guy who does funny voices and plays Pluto and the Mad Hatter?'” Allen says over lunch at, yes it’s true, Pluto’s.

That’s when Allen’s wife, Theatre Bay Area magazine editor Karen McKevitt, said it was time to do something serious about Working for the Mouse. She pointed out that when he talked about his four years as a character in Disneyland, he always had fresh stories to tell that never made their way into the show. She landed on a solution: Turn the stories into a book utilizing the factual but entertaining writing style known as creative nonfiction.


Allen is currently hard at work on that book. Until he finds a publisher brave enough to weather the Disney waters, that book-in-progress is also a blog: www.workingforthemouse.com. This is the 21st century, after all.

“As a performer, you get immediate response from an audience,” Allen says. “You know when a story or a line works or doesn’t work. The same is true with the blog. You put it out there yourself – you don’t have to wait for someone to publish you. There’s no barrier between the artist and the audience anymore. I hear immediately from people, some who love Disney, some who hate it.”

The blog belies Allen’s theatrical roots because there’s a whole lot more available than chapters (called “mouse droppings”) of the upcoming book. There’s performance video and, to the author’s great delight, podcasts in which the actor gets to exercise his expertise with voice over narration.

“Now that I’m not writing for performance, I’m able to get into the heads of the other characters more,” he says. “Then turning that into audio is great fun.”

Working for the Mouse is, in many ways, Allen’s coming-of-age story. He was a 17-year-old San Jose native, somewhat naïve, getting a fast education about life in the real world. Backstage and after hours at Disneyland was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it was also more than that.

“It was a real education,” Allen says. “What I saw there, backstage and during work hours, was tragic, raw, funny and sad. From inside the costumes, you saw a parade of human tragedy going by in the guests. At a certain point after I had left the Disney bubble, it occurred to me, `Why is no one telling this story?'”

One answer is easy: because Disney will sue your pants off. They’ll cease and desist you so quickly you won’t know your Mickey from your Mouse.

“I’ve always thought that in the world of theater, the more controversial the better,” Allen says. “Freedom of speech is supposed to allow for that. But Big business has co-opted the place of religion and government in dictating what you can or can’t say. I’m of the school, as a playwright, a performer or a writer, you have to tell stories that haven’t been told, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

So far, response to the blog has been good. There’s even been some interest in reviving the one-man show, which Allen says he’d be happy to do, especially since working on the Mouse has given him new insights.

“This has been a process of rediscovery,” he says. “The arc of the show would likely remain unchanged, but I think I’m finding some other stories with some different resonance.”

Here’s a taste of Working for the Mouse, the show and the Web site:

Visit www.workingforthemouse.com


Review: `Ching Chong Chinaman’

The cast of Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman at Impact Theatre includes (from left) Dennis Yen, Arthur Keng, Sung Min Park, Cindy Im and Lisa Kang. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Impact gets irreverent with Yee’s `Ching Chong’
(three stars)

NOTE: Dates added to the run: Monday, Oct. 6 and Wednesday, Oct. 8. The Monday show will be a cast & crew benefit: all proceeds from that evening’s admissions and donations will be split among the cast and crew, all of whom are struggling artists who have generously donated most of their time in the name of supporting great local small theatre.

Before we dive into Impact Theatre’s season-opening Ching Chong Chinaman, a word on Impact’s reboot of its performance space, LaVal’s Subterranean.

If you’re unfamiliar with this Berkeley performance spot, you probably don’t know that it’s actually the basement of LaVal’s Pizzeria at the north gate of the UC Berkeley campus. It’s not the most inviting of spaces – small, cramped, artistically challenging. But as teenagers across the country know, good things can happen in basements.

Despite the physical limitations, Impact, the theater’s resident company, usually manages to do good, imaginative work while audience members chomp on pizza slices and guzzle beer. Well, this summer, Impact upgraded the space in two major ways: the space now has a door to help cut down noise from the busy pie factory upstairs (the clomping on the floor above will always be with us) and there are all-new seats to give audience tushies a smooth ride through Impact’s dramatic adventures.

The seats help ease the crammed-in feeling and contribute to easing the sight-line issues, which is all the better to enjoy San Francisco playwright Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman, a gleefully irreverent, audaciously un-PC comedy about cultural identity.

Taking place almost entirely in the minty green Palo Alto kitchen of the Wong home (excellent set by Edward Ross, lit by Kelly Kunaniec), Yee quickly introduces us to a highly Americanized Chinese-American family.

Dad Ed (Dennis Yen) and mom Grace (Lisa Kang) have virtually no connection to their ancestry. One major concern of the family is to have their eyes “nice and wide open” for the annual photo Christmas card.

Their teenage children, Desdemona (Cindy Im) and Upton Sinclair Lewis (Arthur Keng), have even less cultural identity than their parents. Desdemona (Desi for short), desperate to get into Princeton, defies Asian stereotypes by not being good at math. Upton is a videogame addict specializing in “World of Warcraft,” and in order to win a tournament, he needs help doing his homework and chores.

Being a crafty guy, Upton buys an indentured servant from China in the form of Jin Qiang (Sung Min Park), whose name, as pronounced by members of the family, comes out sounding like “Ching Chong.” Though he speaks no English, it’s up to Jin to teach the Wongs how to use chopsticks.

One nice thing about Yee’s play, under the direction of Desdemona Chiang, is that it consistently defies sitcom rhythms and continually takes surprising turns. You don’t expect Jin to be an ambitious dancer who wants a spot on the reality series “America’s Next Top Dancer.” You don’t expect the action to shift to Mexico for a belated quinceañera, nor do you expect a Korean orphan (played by Pearl Wong, a deft comic actress essaying a number of small roles) to be pummeled by her altruistic American sponsor.

There are some great laughs in Ching Chong, but the play turns unexpectedly moving in its final moments when everything the Wongs thought they knew about culture and family is shaken and they’re forced to redefine life on their own terms.

Friday’s sold-out opening-night performance had some pacing issues early in Act 1, but the actors soon hit their stride, and the comedy and satire fired more assuredly.

Chiang’s cast rolls with the surprises in Yee’s script and finds humanity the comedy. Especially effective are Park as Jin, a stranger in a strange family, and Kang as Grace, a clueless mom who slowly gets a clue. Their scenes together are tender and even sexy.

Oh, and by the way, the seats – even in a hot basement on a sweltering late-summer night – couldn’t have been more comfortable.


Impact artistic director Melissa Hillman made the funniest “turn off your phone” speech I’ve yet to hear in a theater. She said that if your phone goes off during the show, “I will swallow it and you can come back for it later.”

Ching Chong Chinaman continues through Oct. 10 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$15 in advance and $10-$17 at the door. Call 510-464-4468 or visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Local theater folk in`Scrabulous’ doc

Check out this short documentary, part of Christopher Coppola’s Project Access Hollywood film festival.

It’s about the demise of the wildly popular game Scrabulous, a version of online Scrabble, that was uncerimoniously yanked from Facebook by Hasbro, the (money)makers of Scrabble.

It features Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman and former East Bay Express theater critic Lisa Drostova. Highly enjoyable.

Impact’s new `Bar Mitzvah’ season: Mazel tov!

“We’re calling it our Bar Mitzvah season not just because the company is run by two Jews,” says Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman referring to herself and managing director Cheshire Isaacs. “This season we’re taking some large leaps forward. It really is a rite of passage for us.”

Yes, Impact Theatre, one of the Bay Area’s most youthfully invigorating theater companies (their motto is: “Theater that doesn’t suck”) opens its 13th season next month with Lauren Yee’s irreverent new comedy Ching Chong Chinaman. The play won the 2007 Yale Playwrights Festival and made its debut at the New York Fringe Festival shortly after. Yee is a Bay Area native and is the founder and executive director of the San Francisco Young Playwright’s Festival.

Skewering every cliché about Asian-American identity, Yee’s play receives its West Coast premiere under the direction of former Impact associate artistic director Desdemona Chiang.

Next up, in November, is Melanie Marnich’s Tallgrass Gothic, a spare, haunting drama based on the Jaobean tragedy The Changeling. In this adaptation, the action takes place in the Great Plains, where Laura yearns to leave her hometown and escape her abusive husband. A lover appears to promise her a way out, but that path leads to a devastating climax.

Tallgrass was featured in the 2004 Humana Festival of New Plays, and Marnich’s works have been on some of the country’s major regional stages. But this production marks her Bay Area professional debut.

In February 2009, Hillman directs the company’s seventh “classic with a twist.” Previous outings have been heavy Shakespeare (Henry IV, Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, Measure for Measure). This time around, however, Hillman is in a lighter, brighter mood and will be directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her production, while retaining Shakespeare’s language, will be set in 1980s nightclubs.

The season concludes with the return of Impact Briefs in May 2009, an evening of original short plays on a theme, which this time around will be puberty.

“Impact may be growing up in many ways, but we’re still 13 years old,” Hillman says with a laugh. “I think puberty describes exactly where we are in our development. That said, no matter how old we get, we’re always going to have this streak in us.”

In addition to its roster of plays, the Impact season comes with some other news: audiences will enjoy new seats in LaVal’s Subterranean, the basement theater space under a Berkeley pizzeria. And the seats have fold out desks that promise to make the eating of pizza during the show that much easier.

Also, subscriptions are available for the first time – a full season commitment figures $13 per show. And the date for Impact’s popular poker night fundraiser, Full Houses, has been set for July 11, 2009.

Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Theatrical blogosphere

We here at Theater Dogs love the idea of blogs, obviously. We used to love newspapers, but now, not so much. They’re so…what’s the word?…pagebound. Sure there are good writers at newspapers (really good writers, actually), but on blogs, you can be sassy (snap!), you can be quick and you can add as many photos and videos and Web links as you want. Do that dumb ol’ pile of newsprint.

I just got back from a trip to the Midwest (and the dang airlines couldn’t get us back in time for the opening of High School Musical at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco, so you’ll just have to go yourself and send me the review so I can share it with other Theater Dogs, or you’ll just have to re-read my interview with the delightful star of the show, Arielle Jacobs, from Half Moon Bay). Anyway, in the Great Midwest (Indianapolis, actually) I found myself with some time on my hands at a computer with a dial-up modem. That made blogging not such a possibility, but I did spend 12 hours looking at two Web sites (dial-up is slooooow). Kidding. I checked out a bunch of theater-related Web sites, some local some not, some blogs, some not, and wanted to make sure you knew about them as well.

The two big nationals I check all the time are Playbill.com and BroadwayWorld.com. They have a lot of the same news, but they also have a lot of original content and make a genuine effort to include news from outside New York. Other good ones include TheatreMania and Broadway.com.

A really cool site that gathers theater news from around the country is the Ohio-based Theatreforte.

A national site with really good local coverage with an excellent (and active) chat board is TalkinBroadway.com. The chat board is called All That Chat, and you want the West Coast edition.

One of my favorite local bloggers is San Francisco playwright Tim Bauer, whose Direct Address blog directly addresses local productions as well as the daily life of a — you guessed it — San Francisco playwright. Another is Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, whose I Will Dance for You is just a delight to read and will keep you up to date on the life and work of the Hunter Gatherers author. And speaking of local playwrights, Prince Gomolvilas used to be local, but he’s in the Bay Area a lot, so he qualifies. Check out his Bamboo Nation blog for a very good time.

Berkeley’s Impact Theatre maintains a pretty active blog called Impact Splatter. Check it out.

Foothill Music Theatre keeps up a terrific blog with great input on theatrical subjects of all kinds (especially FMT when there’s a show going). Check it out.

When the California Shakespeare Theater season gets rolling, they have excellent blogs — usually directors, actors, etc. checking in when the rehearsal process starts, right up through the production. Check it out here.

And then there are some of my favorite newspaper writers who maintain excellent blogs: Karen D’Souza at the San Jose Mercury News and Chloe Veltman at the SF Weekly.

I know that’s just the tip of the theatrical blogosphere iceberg, so to speak, so please let me know what I’ve missed. I’d love to include more.

Write me at chiatovich@gmail.com or post a comment.

Chili scenes of autumn

On Saturday at San Francisco’s El Rio bar, where a giant cut-out of Carmen Miranda looks down on the back courtyard, Crowded Fire Theatre Company held a festive fundraising chili cook-off.

Here are the competitors, who each contributed three chilis — traditional, veggie and “anything goes”:

Impact Theatre

Fools Fury

Playwrights Foundation

Crowded Fire (actually this is just Mollena Williams, but her chili had the event’s best name)

Here are Crowded Fire artistic directors (and newlyweds) Kent Nicholson and Cassie Beck:

And here are the fine judges (Chloe Veltman of the SF Weekly, yours truly and Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News):

The overall winning chili was Playwrights Foundation’s traditional chili, “Fires in the Chili.”
Here are all the winners:

It was a great event. Everyone had a marvelous time, and with luck, funds were raised to keep all these artists in business.