2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

Campo Santo, Cal Shakes do some Califas dreaming

Alleluia the Road
Sean San José is Isaac in the Campo Santo/California Shakespeare Theater production of Alleluia, the Road by Luis Alfaro. The play is one part of the elaborate Califas Festival at Intersection for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Intersection for the Arts

There’s something extraordinary happening at Intersection for the Arts, and only part of it has to do with theater. Intersection, along with Campo Santo and California Shakespeare Theater have been partners for years, but their current collaboration is kind of staggering.

It began back last April with a production of Richard Montoya’s The River directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José (read my review here) and continued with Cal Shakes’ season opener, Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José in June starring San José and directed by Jonathan Moscone (read my review here).

Now we have the culmination of the collaboration in the Califas Festival, a multimedia exploration of what it means to be a Californian. There are filmed documentaries on display in the galleries alongside photo documentations and some really staggering art, not to mention a floor covered with letters written by theatergoers from the previous plays and notes they wrote for proverbial bottles. When you go to see the play, which is sort of the centerpiece art, you are completely immersed in this astonishing exhibition. The play takes place in one of the two installation rooms, and there’s no central stage. The action takes place all over the room, with different parts of the exhibition providing the backdrop.

The play, Alleluia the Road by Luis Alfaro, is one more part of this California mosaic. Moscone directs and San José stars, and though critics have been asked not to review the show itself, potential audience members should know that this experience – the art and the play – cannot be missed. As with every Campo Santo production, you are guaranteed intelligence and emotion and powerful writing and incredible performances. If all you knew about this play was that it was written by Alfaro (whose Oedipus El Rey and Bruja have been so powerfully engaging at the Magic Theatre) and that it stars San José and Catherine Castellanos and Nora el Samahy and Brian Rivera and Donald E. Lacy Jr. among others, you would know that is something you need to see. If you care at all about Bay Area theater.

Come early for the show or make time to stay after, but engage with the exhibition (I highly recommend the 10-minute documentary Aquadettes by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari). At a recent performance, it was heartening to see audience members writing letters and postcards during intermission to add to the exhibition. This isn’t one of those art things offering hollow jabber about interactivity. This really as interactive as you’d like it to be.

And just to be clear about Alleluia, the Road – this is not a performance piece in a gallery. It’s a full-on, two-act play (about two hours in length) that takes a figurative road trip through the Golden State. And when it comes right down to it, you can have all the art and photography and documentary films in the world to beguile viewers, but when the lights go down on a performance, what matters most is story, emotion, connection. That’s definitely the case here, but that level of engagement almost always happens when Campo Santo, Cal Shakes and Intersection engage in that thing we need so much more of in the Bay Area theater world: collaboration.

The Califas Festival and Alleluia, the Road continues an extended run through Nov. 23 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets for the play are $30. Visit www.theintersection.org.

Campo Santo’s wild ride on a raging River

The River
Lakin Valdez (left) is Javier and Christopher Ward White is Lance in the world premiere of Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production. Below: Donald E. Lacy Jr. (left) is Brother Ballard, Nora el Samahy (center) is Sally Ranger and Michael Torres is Crow. Photos by Pak Han

Some rivers run with water. This one is a torrent of words – some really extraordinary words.

Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ world premiere of The River, a dazzling fusion of poetry, comedy, satire, loss and beauty, heralds the welcome return of Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, who has become a powerful theatrical force in his own right. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José was a triumph at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has gone on to be produced around the country. Bay Area audiences will get a second helping of Montoya when American Night opens the season for California Shakespeare Theater in June. Until then, we have a magnificent River, which, like American Night, is part of Montoya’s The Border Series, plays that investigate California, its people, identity and its borders.

What’s so exciting about Montoya’s voice is its passion and vibrancy, the ease with which it hurtles from tender poetry to rough comedy to ultra-smart insight. There’s electricity in his writing and a sense of fearlessness. There’s nowhere he won’t go, and that makes his work incredibly alive.

If some of the River seems a little messy, that’s part of the charm. It’s not a neat and tidy package, but Montoya, working alongside director (and Campo Santo founder) Sean San José makes it entertaining and important and full of moments, both in performance and in language, that take your breath away.

Plot is secondary to character here, but the setting is the southern California desert, where a Native American called Crow (Michael Torres in a grand, funny, fiery performance) practices various cons, or as he calls them, “desert hustles.” In his rambling monologue that opens the play, he references everything from Bob Dylan to Alice in Wonderland and admits that he’s the world’s worst Indian. He mentions a cave he can’t find and a guy named Luis, but in his particular torrent of words, those details get caught up in the general flow.

The River

Then we meet the play’s central characters (central in that they’re the ones who will evolve most). In pairings of note, we’ve had Crosby and Hope, Abbott and Costello, Bill and Ted and Harold and Kumar. Now we can add to that list Lance and Javier. Brightly dressed in skinny jeans and the latest from American Apparel (or the like), this gay couple has driven down from San Francisco to have a desert experience. They are referred to several times as “burners,” and that makes sense. These aspiring artists want to take drugs in the desert, have sex and enter mystical realms.

Lance (Christopher Ward White) just completed his PhD in hip-hop (“I got a PhD in something I can never be,” he laments at one point) at UC Berkeley and he’s sort of an Oscar Wilde for the digital age. He says of his boyfriend, “Javier thinks he loves me, but really we just hate the same people.”

Javier (Lakin Valdez) is a little more grounded but just as whip smart. The two of them banter like an ADHD George and Martha at the White Party, but they’re not just tossing around zingers. These are two of the most interesting gay characters to hit the stage in a long time. They’re sexual and smart, funny and silly. They dive into stereotype and they smack it around. There’s ferocity under their humor but there’s also complexity and wells of feeling, longing and outright need.

During the early stages of their desert idyll, the boys stumble across a shrouded body in a cave, and that body turns out to be Luis (Brian Rivera), a Mexican deportee who has died before bringing his beloved wife (Anna Maria Luera) across the border.

But just who Luis is and what he experienced fills out what remains of the plot as we meet other intriguing characters including Sally Ranger (a hilarious Nora el Samahy), a slick trickster from the city named Brother Ballard (Donald E. Lacey Jr. in one of his most assured and energetic performances) and Sydell (Randall Nakano), a somewhat enigmatic man who presides over the chaos triggered by the body and the cave.

Referring to the proceedings as “fake magic realism” at one point, playwright Montoya takes flights of linguistic fancy that work because the play is so grounded in humor, filled with genuine emotion and performed with such infectious enthusiasm by San José’s cast. There’s also near-constant music provided by Steve Boss the guitar virtuoso tucked into the corner and wearing skeleton make-up.

There are lots of inside jokes about Bay Area theaters, theater artists, Mission hipsters and the spiritual cost of gentrification. But you don’t have to know all the names or the theater companies to get that they are being lovingly poked and that the whole notion of creating art, theater specifically, is the antithesis and, perhaps, even antidote to grief.

The River was inspired by and is dedicated to Luis Saguar, a founding member of Campo Santo, whose death in 2009 had a profound effect on the artists who knew and loved him. This play is a response to that – an incredible response – but like the inside theater jokes, you don’t have to know anything about Saguar to know that The River is grappling with big issues in original, fascinating and deeply heartfelt ways.

Performed in the flexible and intimate black box space at the ACT Costume Shop, The River is going to be a hard ticket to come by, but this is one of those productions you’ll want to say you were there for when people are talking about it years from now.

Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production, continues through May 4 at ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 415-626-2787, Ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org.

High art, grim lives shaded in ambitious Tree City

Tree City 3

Three Brothers: The Kane brother of Dennis Kim’s Tree City Legends are (from left) Sean San Jose as Denizen, Taiyo Na as Min and Juan Amador as Sum. Below: San Jose’s Denizen recalls a troubled childhood. Photos by Pak Han

Tree City Legends leaves you moved and somewhat perplexed. My experience with Dennis Kim’s play as directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph was equal parts fascination and confusion.

There are so many creative partners on this project, it’s no wonder the thing feels not only like an art installation but also like an entire museum unto itself. You walk through an art gallery in Intersection for the Arts’ new digs in the San Francisco Chronicle building, and then when you get to the performance space (which usually houses Intersection’s administrative offices), you walk through another art space, this one tied to the play, a sort of homage to the departed.

The performance space itself has chairs all facing the same direction, but that’s where the traditional component ends. There are video projections (by Joan Osato) on the walls and windows of Tanya Orellana’s set, which also includes performance platforms in front of the chairs, and to the left and to the right. Actors walk (and run) through the center of the audience many times in the play’s 95 minutes, and behind a scrim at the front of the space, is a band.

Tree City 2

The band is headed by Kim himself playing Junie Kane, the deceased elder brother of four Kane boys. Playing with Kane from beyond the grave are Dirty Boots, the dynamic musical duo of James Dumlao and Rachel Lastimosa.

So you have art, video, performance and music. You certainly can’t fault the creative team for lack of imagination or multimedia ability. But between Intersection, resident theater company Campo Santo, Joseph’s Living Word Project and its Youth Speaks theater company and ICTUS, a group that integrates photography, film, visual arts and new media into its projects, you can fault the team for failing to harness the power of all that in the telling of a compelling story.

Individually, these elements all have a certain power, but the whole is not more than the sum of its parts.

There are two things that work unequivocally. First, the performances by Sean San Jose, Juan Amador (aka Wonway Posibul) and Taiyo Na as the Kane brothers mourning the suicide of their brother Junie are electrifying. They don’t interact much, but each of their mammoth monologues have some extraordinary moments. There’s anger, poetry, lyricism, violence and deep pain in these young men, and their voices are distinctive and extraordinary.

The other great element is the wonderfully appealing music by Kim – jazzy and hip and full of feeling. If this evening unfolded in a black box, no frills at all, and only featured the actors and the band, it would probably be more powerful than what we have here with all the multimedia bells and whistles. Story is most powerful when it dictates form. This Tree seems to have grown in the opposite direction. Though rooted in powerful storytelling, it branches out into high art and loses focus.


Dennis Kim’s Tree City Legends continues through March 4 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org.

Fathers and sons, heists and homelands in Habibi

Habibi 3Aleph Ayin and Nora El Samahy are son and mother in the world premiere of Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s Habibi, a co-production of Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts. Below: El Samahy. Photos by Pak Han.

Love, tension and desperation are deeply felt in Habibi, the world-premiere production of Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s drama about always feeling away from home. This is yet another co-production from Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts that lights an oil lamp from within a dark subject.

On one level, the central relationship between a father and a son is completely recognizable by anyone from anywhere. Tariq (Aleph Ayin) should be in college, but he can’t really be bothered. He gets fired from crappy jobs and spends a whole lot of his time doing nothing in the tiny Mission District apartment he shares with his dad, Mohammed (Paul Santiago), a museum security guard.

They’re scraping by, and in their cramped quarters, they fight a lot. Tariq sounds like a spoiled, contemptuous brat when he’s talking to his dad – every sentence practically drips with a sneer and an eye roll. Mohammed is rigid in his own way, loving his son fiercely but holding too tight, lecturing too much.

Their strained existence – expertly directed by Omar Metwally – is familiar and relatable, but there’s so much more to their story. This isn’t some crabby family working through its suburban angst.

This family’s roots go back to Palestine, where they faced violence and after the destruction of a home, they lost their homeland. The only family heirloom that remains is an oil lamp that sits portentously on the mantel. It’s a tenuous connection to a past that is both cherished and fraught with complexity.

Playwright Abu-Hamdeh zeroes in on the personal relationship between father and son and lets the details of what life is like for them as immigrants slowly seep in. Mohammed keeps a very strong tie to his roots, while Tariq is very much the assimilated American, complete with the requisite bad attitude and disdain for his father’s attempts to connect him with family history.

Habibi 1Though less than 90 minutes long, Habibi (the name is a term of endearment for a man) is dense with emotion more than plot. Abu-Hamdeh expands the scope of the drama beyond the Mission apartment to include Nadia (Nora El Samahy), a museum docent who also has Palestinian roots.

How her story leads her to Mohammed and Tariq gives away too much, but she’s obsessed with art heists and what drives someone to steal a work of art – is it for monetary gain or is it the result of some deeper connection to the art itself?

El Samahy is extraordinary polished as the docent – lively and engaging with a twinkle in her eye. Then we get flashes of her real life, the loneliness of her childhood in various boarding schools, the salvation she finds in great art and artists. Nadia is a fascinating character, and it would be great to focus in on her a little more.

We do get more El Samahy (always a good thing) when she appears as the ghostly form of Tariq’s mother, who had abandoned the family before she died.

The plot kicks in fairly late in the play, which makes certain characters’ choices seem somewhat rushed. With actors as good as Santiago and Ayin playing father and son, with the super-charged complexities of their relationship so readily and powerfully apparent – the scene where they play soccer is priceless – we could spend less time delving into the troubles of Tariq and Mohammed and more time leading up to and following the moment of decisive action.

Metwally’s compelling production benefits from an incredibly realistic set by Tanya Orellana that turns into an art museum, and, indeed, a piece of art, courtesy of Aubrey Millen’s dynamic projections.

Habibi fascinates with its blend of intimate family drama and a more expansive cultural landscape. Like Terell Alvin McRaney in his Brother/Sister Plays, Abu-Hamdeh pulls his actors out of the play’s reality by having them read certain stage directions or, with a shift of Ray Diaz’s lights, they address the audience directly. These constant reminders that we’re watching a play do occasionally block the flow of emotion of the drama, but there’s so much packed into this beautifully performed play that there’s emotion to spare.


Sharif Abu-Hamdeh’s Habibi continues an extended run through Nov. 21 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 415 626-2787 ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org for information. Thursdays are pay what you can.

Intersection breaks walls, audience follows


Mirrors 3 - family
Pictured from left: Daveed Diggs, Traci Tolmaire, Margo Hall and Dwight Huntsman in the world premiere
of Chinaka Hodge’s
Mirrors in Every Corner at Intersection for the Arts. Photos by Pak Han


Watching the audience on stage at Intersection for the Arts was a stunning experience. Sometimes theater companies trying to push boundaries and break down walls really do get it right.

The show in this case is Oakland playwright Chinaka Hodge’sMirrors in Every Corner, and the companies involved in bringing it to life are many: Intersection, Campo Santo and The Living Word Project’sYouth Speaks theater company. They say it can take a village. In this case, it takes a community.

When you walk into the performance space at Intersection – sort of a bunker-like lecture hall – there’s something definitely different going on. The audience is milling about the stage as if at an art gallery. Wait – the stage is an art gallery. When artist Evan Bissell was asked to collaborate on the show and create a set, he didn’t quite know how to go about doing that, so he created a stunning art installation about families and racial identity and about community. There’s a giant mural of a Mission District family across the back wall, while on another there are seemingly hundreds of framed photos, collages, stories and poems all created by families in the Mission who came to Intersection for what turned out to be a hugely successful free family portrait day. Some came back to create art and write poems.
Mirrors 2 - Daveed, Margo

Intersection has always been a wall breaker, even if only because you have to cross the stage to get to the bathroom. The audience has always seemed part of the action, but this installation takes the concept even further.

By the time Hodge’s play begins, the audience is in an open-minded space ready to experience more art, and Hodge delivers in a big way. Her play – directed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph – is hilarious and deadly serious, outlandish and completely personal. She may only be 25 (and a product of the Youth Speaks program since her mid-teens), but this is a playwright to watch.

She tells the story of a black Oakland family with a secret. A mom (Margo Hall) and her three boys (Daveed Diggs, Dwight Huntsman and Traci Tolmaire) play cards and flip back and forth through time to tell the story of the family’s youngest member, Miranda aka “Random,” who for some mysterious reason was born white.

What that means to the family, let alone to the outside world, fills the play’s 80-some minutes with familiar warmth and humor, intense soul search and surprising violence. Hodge firmly grounds her play in a traditional family story, but she plays with all kinds of flourishes (some that work better than others) that imbue every moment with the tension of surprise and the delight of seeing a playwright flower.

As the matriarch, Hall is an intelligent woman caught up in a biological mystery. Hall also plays Random, and it is a testament to this actor’s tremendous skill that much of the play’s excitement comes from watching her slip effortlessly from role to role.

All the actors are terrific, but Diggs is especially vivid as Watts, the eldest child and the one with the wryest, driest sense of humor.

Mirrors in Every Corner reflects all kinds of wonderful things, most notably a young playwright making a sensational debut and a theatrical collaboration that doesn’t just talk about change but makes it.


Chinaka Hodge’s Mirrors in Every Corner continues an extended run through March 28 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 415 626-2787 ext. 09 or visit www.theintersection.org.

It’s alive! Death and theater

Two extraordinary shows are lighting up Bay Area stages, and in each of them, the specter of death hovers in the shadows.

In Trevor Allen’s intelligent, compassionate adaptation of Frankenstein at the Thick House, Victor Frankenstein defies death by creating life from dead parts and cowering from the unexpected results.

Erika Shuck Cong and Sean San Jose in The Future Project: Sunday Will Come

Over at Intersection for the Arts, Campo Santo and the Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project ponder the death of a goldfish and, through engaging text and movement, ruminate on the nature of life and breath in The Future Project: Sunday Will Come.

Both pieces, while they couldn’t be more different from one another, are completely compelling and find grace amid seriously dark subject matter.

In Sunday, a whole troupe of people, led by performers Erika Chong Shuch and Sean San José, have created a simple, hour-long three-hander about a seemingly small matter – a man and woman (Shuch and Sean José) contemplate the illness and imminent death of their goldfish. They act out the creature’s fight for breath through some extraordinary movement on a small but sturdy table, and their discussion of this aquatic mortality resonates in larger waves.

Troubadour Denizen Kane weaves in and out of the central action, lending the tale his soulful voice and songs that give the show a soothing pulse and a throbbing heart.

There’s none of the pretension that can come from a hybrid dance-theater-music-spoken word piece because the performers are so incredibly focused, so funny and so intensely emotional. They seem to live partly in the world of boring, normal people and partly in the world of extraordinarily talented artists who sing and move and speak on an entirely different, entirely dazzling plane.


Allen’s The Creature is equally dazzling but in entirely different ways. His adaptation rescues Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from the domain of creature features and returns it to the domain of gut-punching drama, where it belongs.

Taking his cure from the 1818 novel, Allen gives his stage over to three narrators: Captain Walton (Garth Petal), who is searching for a sail-able passage through the North Pole; Victor Frankenstein (Gabriel Marin), a scientist with a gift for reanimating dead matter; and the Creature (James Carpenter), who had the bad luck to be created by a scientist unable to bear the responsibility of his great work.

Time bends as we hurtle back and forth between past and present as the tale of Frankenstein’s creation takes shape and we, along with the scientist, begin to comprehend the scope of what he has done in creating a man from disparate dead parts. The sea captain makes for a sympathetic ear, but what really makes the story land is hearing from the Creature himself.

While Petal and Marin are grounded, intense and wonderful, Carpenter’s Creature is simply astonishing. This is the kind of performance – brave, complex and utterly devastating – that lingers for days, if not years afterward. Often crouched on a table and cast in shadows by Stephanie Buchner’s lights, Carpenter creates a vision of a misunderstood giant with minimal makeup and virtually no gimmickry. Props to Boris Karloff and his makeup team, but Carpenter is the real Creature – not a grunting monster (or one that warbles “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for that matter), but an eloquent soul touched with self-sustaining genius and afflicted by shattering loneliness.

Carpenter, under the direction of the always-astute Rob Melrose (of the Cutting Ball Theater), is giving the can’t-miss performance of the season. He already has the reputation of being one of the very best actors in the Bay Area. His work in The Creature allows us to see something he hasn’t really shown us before. And it is, in short, magnificent.
(PHOTO CREDIT: James Carpenter in The Creature by Allesandra Mello)


The Future Project: Sunday Will Come continues through Nov. 7 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415 626-2787 or visit www.theintersection.org

The Creature continues through Nov. 7 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St.,San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415 401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org or www.blackboxtheatre.com

Listen to Black Box Theatre’s podcast of The Creature featuring James Carpenter here.

Theater review: `Fukú Americanus’


Maria Candelaria (left) is Belicia, Biko Eisen-Martin (center) is Fukú and Vanessa Cota is Lola in the Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production of Fukú Americanus, a theatrical adaptation of Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Photos by James Faerron

Diaz novel finds vibrant life as stage `Fukú’

Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao presents all kinds of challenges, first to the reader who has to navigate a fractured time frame, footnotes almost as involved as the novel itself and shifting narration.

Good luck to anyone attempting to adapt this convoluted novel into anything other than the rich novel it is. Playwright Jose Rivera is taking a crack at the screenplay, but San Francisco’s own Campo Santo has beaten him to the punch with the first adaptation: a stage work called Fukú Americanus, now at Intersection for the Arts.

Co-directors Sean San José and Marc Bamuthi Joséph have wrestled with the novel and come out, for the most part, on top. The stage version retains a certain literary feel – indeed, much of the language comes directly from the book – but it crackles with emotional life and gives characters dimension and shading they didn’t have on the page.

Fuku 2

The six-member cast is excellent, especially in their heated emotional exchanges. I was blown away by Anna Maria Luera, who shifts from playing a Dominican Republic grandmother, La Inca, a fierce, passionate woman, to playing a smart but ditzy New Jersey girl named Anna Obregon, who can’t stop talking about her boyfriend Manny and his prodigious endowments.

Carlos Aguirre (seen at right in the blue shirt with Brian Rivera and Biko Eisen-Martin), who provides the dynamic soundscape as the resident DJ/beat boxer, emerges as the show’s most engaging character, a college-age lady player named Yunior, who keeps forgetting to hide his inner depths with his callow exterior.

The 2 ½-hour show gets off to a rousing start with Biko Eisen-Martin as a dancer/narrator/observer telling us all about the Dominican Republic and the notion of “fukú,” a kind of doom or curse that intricately weaves its way through Dominican politics and spirituality. We are all dealing with fukús of one kind or another, we’re told, and this story’s family is dealing with a doozy.

After suffering under the rule of Dominican dictator Trujillo, a young mother and her two children flee the Caribbean for New Jersey. In the ensuing years, mom Belicia (a powerful Maria Candelaria) has raised two children: bright, rebellious Lola (Vanessa Cota) and overweight sci-fi dork Oscar (Brian Rivera).

After the rousing intro, and after we meet the central family, Fukú stalls for about a half an hour while we get, essentially, the same information over and over. Oscar is such a nerd he’ll never get a girlfriend. Belicia is dealing with cancer and a rancorous relationship with Lola.

But then Oscar meets Anna (the aforementioned Luera), and the plot kicks in. From that plotline we move to a clash between mother and daughter that results in a runaway scenario. From there, we follow Oscar to college, where, after a suicide attempt, he becomes roommates with Yunior, who tries to make like Henry Higgins and turn Oscar into something resembling a non-loser.

Directors San José and Joséph imbue the story with rhythm, movement and flow, but somehow the show never quite breaks the literary bond the way last year’s Campo Santo hit, Angry Black White Boy, based on Adam Mansbach’s novel of the same name, managed to do. While that show felt like a fully realized theatrical experience, this one still seems propelled by forces outside the theater.

That said, Diaz’s story of the immigrant experience, the American teenage experience and the profound mother-daughter connection emerges from the stage with clarity and force. At its best, Fukú Americanus finds the theatrical wow in Oscar Wao.


Campo Santo’s Fukú Americanus continues an extended run through July 12 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25 on a sliding scale. Call 415-626-2787, ext. 109 or visit www.theintersection.org for information.




Theater by the Bay: Best of 2008

Theatergoing in the San Francisco Bay Area is one of life’s treats. No question about it. If you love theater, this is a wonderland. In this devastating economic climate, may that only hold true for the next couple of years.

There is so much good theater here, so many incredible actors, writers, directors and crafts people that an annual Top 10 is often difficult to wrangle. That’s why the Top 10 is followed by a list of other shows that should, by all rights, also be included in the Top 10, but numbers being the chronological beasts that they are, dictate on show per number (still, I cheated with No. 6 and included two shows by one playwright).

1. TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori – My favorite show of the year peeled yet another layer of this incredible musical to reveal a work of sheer genius. Director Robert Kelly and his extraordinary leading lady, C. Kelly Wright, offered some of their best work ever, and that’s saying something.

2. California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles – Adapted and directed by Joel Sass, this incredibly colorful telling of one of Shakespeare’s oddest tales was entrancing and memorable, especially on a warm summer night in the gorgeous Bruns Amphitheatre in Ordina.

3. Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ Angry Black White Boy adapted by Dan Wolf from Adam Mansbach’s novel – The year’s most exciting new work was a bold act of contemporary theatricality, blending hip-hop, spoken word, drama and movement into a seamless blend directed by Sean San Jose. Good news for anyone who missed it – the show returns to Intersection Jan. 29-Feb. 15.

4. SF Playhouse’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party by Aaron Loeb – We had to wait all year for a world-premiere play that entertained as much as it titillated and thrilled. Funny, serious and wacky, this Chris Smith-directed musing on a divided America proved to be as smart as it is imaginative.

5. Traveling Jewish Theater and Thick Description’s Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain by David Greenspan — Weird and wild barely begins to describe this play about a gay son who essentially becomes his dead mother. Outstanding, memory-searing performances came from Liam Vincent and Deb Fink in Tony Kelly’s production.

6. SF Playhouse’s Shining City and Marin Theatre Company’s The Seafarer, both by Conor McPherson – Ireland’s top-tier playwright received two outstanding productions by local theaters, each demonstrated his compassionate (and slightly warped) humanity.

7. Shotgun Players and Banana, Bag & Bodice’s Beowulf – This rock musical take on one of college lit’s greatest hits was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. Composer Dave Malloy and writer Jason Craig breathed new life into an Old English classic. This one comes back for one performance only, Jan. 8, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, before heading out to conquer New York.

8. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy by Will Eno – Audiences were sharply divided over this existential dark night of the soul as filtered through a TV news team. I loved its Beckettian aridness and humor, and Les Waters’ production was anchored by an outstanding cast.

9. Magic Theatre’s Octopus by Steve Yockey – Water poured and unease flowed in director by Kate Warner’s splashy production of a challenging, unnerving play in which death and disease ooze into every nook and cranny.

10. American Conservatory Theater’s Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard – ACT often does its best work with Stoppard, and this was on exception. Director Carey Perloff revealed the rich rewards of this dense, emotional work.

And now a few other greats in no particular order: Theatre Rhinoceros’ Ishi: The Last of the Yahi by John Fisher; Cal Shakes’ An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde; Magic Theatre’s Evie’s Waltz by Carter W. Lewis; SF Playhouse’s Bug by Tracy Letts; Word for Word’s Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Busy World Is Hushed by Keith Bunin; ACT’s The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson; Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal.

It was quite a year for excellent solo shows as well. Here are some highlights: Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Rep; Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul at Thick Description; Roger Rees’ What You Will at ACT; Ann Randolph’s Squeeze Box at The Marsh; Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking at Berkeley Rep; Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother at the Marines Memorial Theatre; Billy Connolly live at the Post Street Theatre; Mark Nadler’s Russian on the Side at the Marines.

And, it has to be said, not everything is genius. Here are shows that lingered less than fondly in memory: Darren Romeo’s The Voice of Magic at the Post Street Theatre; Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector at ACT; Cybill Shepherd in Bobby Goldman’s Curvy Widow at the Post Street Theatre; Edna O’Brien’s Tir na nOg (Land of Youth) at the Magic Theatre.