Berkeley Rep’s White Snake: ‘sssssss wonderful

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Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman returns to Berkeley Rep for the world-premiere production of The White Snake, which stars Amy Kim Waschke (left) and Christopher Livingston. Below: Tanya Thai McBride is the Green Snake, better known as Greenie. Photos courtesy of

Even celebrated ophidiophobe Indiana Jones would fall in love with the stunning serpents at the heart of Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake, a poignant, colorful tale from ancient China that arrives at Berkeley Repertory Theatre like a giant holiday gift just waiting to be unwrapped and savored by audiences.

This is Zimmerman’s seventh show at Berkeley Rep, following in the wake of such stunners as Metamorphoses, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and, most recently, The Arabian Nights. Like these previous outings, The White Snake is theatrical storytelling at its very best, a fusion of stunning imagery, captivating music and, best of all, characters whose stories cut straight to the heart.

A co-production with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this Snake plays out on a mostly bare stage of bamboo flooring and two bamboo walls coming up on the sides (the set is by longtime Zimmerman collaborator Daniel Ostling). The back wall is a changing canvas of sumptuous projections by Shawn Sagady, often evoking Chinese watercolors and adding depth and lighting effects to the already stunning work of designer T.J. Gerckens.

From its earliest moments, Zimmerman’s script establishes a tone that is at once formal and serious in its storytelling and full of humor and contemporary connectors. We are told of the legend of the White Snake, a centuries-old spirit that lives high on a mountain. White Snake has studied the Tao so assiduously that she is able to practice a sort of magic, including the trick of being able to turn herself into a beautiful woman (Amy Kim Waschke. But there’s something restless about White Snake, and that restlessness has kept her from total transcendence.

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Spurred on by her friend Green Snake (Tanya Thai McBride), White Snake agrees that, as a lark, the two spirits should descend from their mountain home and cavort with humans in the mortal world.

Once among people, White Snake immediately falls in love with a common young man (who is uncommonly sweet) named Xu Xian (Christopher Livingston), and the way Zimmerman introduces this love story is indicative of how fun and rich her story is. As a side note, we’re told that in some versions of the White Snake story, the connection between Xu Xian and White Snake goes back to previous lives in which the young man spared the life of the snake. This destined them to fall in love somewhere along the continuum. These kinds of details, along with interludes in which we learn the formalities of Chinese drama, are great fun.

The love story of Xu Xian and White Snake, aided and abetted by the feisty and loyal Green Snake, or Greenie as she’s known, leads to marriage and a family. But the course of true love never did slither smoothly.

An egomaniacal Buddhist monk, Fa Hai (Jack Willis) senses the presence of a demon spirit and deduces that the pharmacist’s wife with the incredible power to heal must be the White Snake. So Mr. Monk makes it his mission to destroy the marriage and send White Snake back where she belongs.

Battles are fought, people are kidnapped, storms rage, characters die, and it’s all just gorgeous and beautiful and utterly enchanting. The original score by Andre Pluess evokes the sound and feel of China, but the music, so beautifully played by Tessa Brinckman (flute), Ronnie Malley (strings/percussion) and Michal Palzewicz (cello), is thrilling and moving in its own right. And the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld are just a feast of color and clever little touches (notice the red snakes trimming the white robes worn by White Snake).

Even though this one-act play is only an hour and 40 minutes, it has the feel of an epic adventure and an intimate love story. You don’t want to emerge from the spell cast by this tale, but there’s no denying that the ending, both sweet and sad, is just about perfect.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Mary Zimmerman about the creation of The White Snake for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Mary Zimmerman’s The White Snake continues an extended run through Dec. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$99 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

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The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

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The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Making theater dance – an ode to collaboration

One of the most exciting things about the world premiere of American Conservatory Theater’s The Tosca Project is that it shines a big old spotlight on the riches of the Bay Area.

Here is a revered local theater company venturing into risky territory – a play mostly without words told through dance and recorded music of all kinds – in collaboration with an artist from another revered local company. But get this, that other revered institution is not a theater company.

Yes, ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff has spent four years working with the San Francisco Ballet’s Val Caniparoli to create The Tosca Project, a story inspired by – hold your hats again – a piece of San Francisco history. Are you getting all this local, local, local stuff? The legendary Tosca Cafe in North Beach is the subject, from its opening in 1919 by a trio of Italians to its current status as the royal court of Jeanette Etheredge and her literary and cinematic pals, and that history is related via dance, music (opera, jazz, standards, rock) and even some beat poetry.

There are thrilling, beautiful moments in this 90-minute piece, and the stage pictures – created by Robert Wierzel’s lighting, Douglas W. Schmidt’s warm, inviting set and Caniparoli and Perloff’s staging – are often stunning in their visual poetry.

This “Project” should be the start of many such projects that take full advantage of the extraordinary resources we have in the Bay Area. Think about the history we have yet to explore in dramatic and musical ways. “The Tosca Project” focuses on one bar in one neighborhood. The city, as they say, is full of a million stories. Let’s hear more of them. And let them be told by local arts groups of all kinds working together.

I know it’s naive to think that arts groups can just join together and create. There are little hurdles like budgets (or lack thereof)and grants (or lack thereof). But the biggest hindrance seems to be the silos everyone works in. ACT, Marin Theatre Company and the Magic Theatre are busting out of their silos to present Tarell Alvin McCraney’s
The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy next season. Why are there so few of these inter-Bay Area collaborations? With any luck, such fruitful teamwork may be an inspired byproduct of this horrendous economy.

California Shakespeare Theater has collaborated brilliantly with Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts as well as with Word for Word. Think of what they could do with a little help from San Francisco Opera. Or the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Or Oakland’s flammably adventurous The Crucible. Think what might happen if Beach Blanket Babylon and Killing My Lobster decided to join forces. Or Thrillpeddlers and Lamplighters. The mind fairly boggles.


ACT’s The Tosca Project continues through June 27 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10 to $89. Call 415 749-2228 or visit

Above photo: The Bartender (Jack Willis) dances with the memory of his long-lost love (Sabina Alleman) in ACT’s world premiere of The Tosca Project. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Theater review: `War Music’

Opened April 1 at American Conservatory Theater

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Soldiers rock out with their “guns” out in American Conservatory Theater’s War Music, a world premiere adaptation written and directed Lillian Groag. Photos by Kevin Berne.


Not much music, not much war in ACT’s academic `War Music’

American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere War Music is a lot like a college course on the Greeks – it’s long and confusing, but unlike those dry academic lectures, at least this one has a better-than-average audio-visual presentation.

Adapted from Christopher Logue’s book of the same name based on Homer’s Iliad, War Music is the work of writer-director Lillian Groag, who has toiled admirably at both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and California Shakespeare Theater and previously at ACT. Having seen and enjoyed Groag’s work for years—especially her fine musical sensibility and her great sense of humor — perhaps I expected too much in the way of dynamic stage pictures set to bold, affecting original music by John Glover and exciting choreography by Daniel Pelzig.

The show on stage at ACT seems like a missed opportunity in many ways. The theatrical pulse of the show – the music, the movement, the images – is buried under a whole heap of words, words and more words that only occasionally spark to life.

Daniel Ostling’s simple, distinguished set – steps on both sides of a stage dominated by a moonlike orb in the back wall – is beautiful. Basic and classical, the steps and the circle provide just enough background, and when the circle moves to become a window onto the walled city of Troy or a crescent moon, the effect is powerful. Russell H. Champa’s lights cast some fantastic shadows on that giant back wall.

But we want this to be so much more than a shadow play.

The story is narrated within an inch of its life. The narrators – Anthony Fusco, Andy Murray and Charles Dean – do a fine job, but being talked at, especially in a nearly three-hour show, is disheartening. The narration, though, is absolutely necessary to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, though that’s a losing battle as well.

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We’re in the home stretch of the 10-year Trojan war. Something about Achilles (Jud Williford, at right) fighting with Agamemnon (Lee Ernst); something about the goddess Thetis (Rene Augesen, also at right); something about Zeus (Jack Willis) in a boxing robe and the other gods (especially Sharon Lockwood as Hera) behaving like they’re in a ’70s sitcom; something about Paris (Williford again) fighting Menelaus (Nicholas Pelczar) once and for all over Helen (Augesen again). Intermission.

Act 2 is somewhat livelier, and there’s even a piece of memorable Glover music underscoring a scene between Paris and Helen. Director Groag goes wild for one brief scene of warfare set to blaring rock music with bare light bulbs dangling above the warring soldiers (outfitted as they are through most of the evening in Beaver Bauer’s modern-day fatigues). Though this scene seems to be visiting from another show, this is the one I wanted to see. There’s also a scene with a ventriloquist’s dummy that, though amusing, is so perplexing as to seem pointless.

Too often, War Music feels static, and the musical score, rather than seeming original, comes across as cobbled together from other sources. The costumes are basic – the gold masks for the gods are effective – and the staging is too often as static as the text.

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If you don’t know your Scamander from your Pandar or your Thersites from your Idomeneo, you’ll likely have trouble following the story. Even with the narration and the four genealogy charts and guide to the players in the program, scenes are confusing, and all the multiple role playing is ultimately defeating. The Greeks wear red berets and the Trojans wear blue. Beyond that, anything goes.

The only time the play slows down and reverts to a scale of real human emotion is in Act 2 when Achilles and his beloved Patroclus (Christopher Tocco) face war, loss and grief unbounded.

Otherwise, we’re spending a lot of time and stage energy tell an oft-told tale that comes down to a simple message: mankind goes to war over the silliest things. Death, destruction and mayhem are part of the mortal condition, and it will ever be thus.

Groag seems to want to tell this story in a modern way, much the way Mary Zimmerman did in Argonautika, but Zimmerman is a masterful storyteller, and every piece of her production serves the story. Groag’s War Music trips over its story repeatedly and never settles into a satisfying style.

In the photo above, Jack Willis is Zeus, Anthony Fusco is Poseidon and Erin Michelle Washington shields them from the elements in ACT’s War Music.


ACT’s War Music continues through April 26 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

Cal Shakes, ACT’s Willis honored

The National Endowment for the Arts – did you know that even existed anymore? – has handed out some $20,000 grants as part of a new NEA New Play Development Program.

And one of the recipients was Berkeley-based California Shakespeare Theater, which will spend 20 grand on early play development activities — read-throughs, public readings and workshop productions — for Pastures of Heaven, which is being written by San Francisco’s Octavio Solis (right), based on a collection of interlinking short stories by John Steinbeck. The piece is being developed with San Francisco’s Word for Word Performing Arts Company

“We are extraordinarily grateful to the NEA for selecting us for this prestigious program,” Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone said in a statement. “Pastures of Heaven marks the first commissioned world premiere play for our Main Stage in our 35-year history.  I hope that our unique collaboration with Octavio, Word for Word and community members in the Salinas Valley and Bay Area will create a significant cultural impact on communities new to us, and perhaps to theater itself, as well as to the field at large.”

Pastures of Heaven is the third play to be developed under Cal Shakes’ New Works/New Communities program, which brings people of diverse backgrounds together around the creation of a new work of theater inspired by classic literature. Based upon Steinbeck’s little-known 1932 novel of interconnected short stories, the play will depict the destruction of dreams within a fragile farming community in Northern California’s Salinas Valley. The play is slated to premiere on Cal Shakes Main Stage in 2010, directed by Moscone.

“Every year the NEA supports about 135 new theatrical premieres, but the NEA New Play Development Program, in partnership with Arena Stage, is something special. It creates a small but superb national network to develop new works from across the country,” said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia.

 For more information about the NEA New Play Development Program, visit For information about California Shakespeare Theater, visit


Eleven top regional theatre actors from around the country have been selected as the inaugural Lunt-Fontanne Fellows by Ten Chimneys Foundation, the National Historic Landmark estate of Broadway legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne – as part of The Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program, a national program to serve regional theatre actors and the future of American theatre.

Among the 11 fellows is Jack Willis(right, photo by, a company member of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Each Lunt-Fontanne Fellow receives a cash fellowship and will participate in an intensive week-long master class and retreat at Ten Chimneys (in rural Wisconsin) with a respected master teacher.  Acclaimed actress Lynn Redgrave will be the very first master teacher in the Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program.  In addition to a prolific, award-winning career on Broadway, in London, and in film and television, Ms. Redgrave was named in honor of Lynn Fontanne – making her a particularly meaningful choice to launch this important program. 

Ten Chimneys is the home and retreat of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, widely considered the greatest acting couple in American theatre history.  (The estate is fully restored to its original glory.  With all of its contents and personal mementos in place, it looks just as it did in the 1930s and ’40s, when friends like Helen Hayes, Noël Coward, Katharine Hepburn, and countless others visited the Lunts summer after summer.)  For much of the 20th century, Ten Chimneys was the center of the theatrical universe – an important place for the luckiest of artists to retreat, rejuvenate, and collaborate.  The Lunts were known for their dedication to the “next generation” of actors.  They reveled in mentoring young actors.  Legends such as Laurence Olivier, Uta Hagen, Montgomery Clift and Julie Harris proudly considered themselves protégés of the Lunts.  The Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship Program continues that tradition of mentorship – as Ten Chimneys reassumes its historic role as a powerful resource and inspiration for American theatre.

Here are Willis’ fellow fellows: Suzanne Bouchard, Seattle Repertory Theatre (Seattle); Dan Donohue, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland, Ore.); Lee Ernst, Milwaukee Repertory Theater (Milwaukee); Mary Beth Fisher, Goodman Theatre (Chicago); Jon Gentry, Arizona Theatre Company (Phoenix and Tucson); Donald Griffin, Alliance Theatre (Atlanta); Naomi Jacobson, Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.); Kim Staunton, Denver Theatre Center (Denver); Todd Waite, Alley Theatre (Houston).

For information about Ten Chimneys, visit For information about American Conservatory Theater, visit

Review: “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Opened Sept. 17, 2008

Rene Augesen is Esme and Manoel Felciano is Jan in a scene set at Prague’s John Lennon wall in the American Conservatory Theater production of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. Photos by Kevin Berne


ACT gives Stoppard’s heavy `Rock’ a mighty roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll has a beat – a heartbeat.

Tom Stoppard’s play, the season –opener for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, bears all the playwright’s hallmarks: weighty intellect, deep sense of history, dry wit, thick dramaturgy. But all of that is less important here than the powerful emotions coursing through the characters’ complicated lives – the emotions and the words.

This is Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Like his protagonist, Jan, Stoppard is Czechoslovakian by birth and spent an important chunk of his childhood in England. This duality gives Stoppard, and Jan, a dual perspective, not to mention another language, through which to view the crumbling of Communism.

Perhaps Stoppard’s intimate relationship with the history involved here combined with his passion for rock music help the play wage a battle between the heart and the intellect that lets the heart ultimately rule.

Director Carey Perloff, who usually does her best work with Stoppard, doesn’t disappoint. Her production has focus and momentum, and her cast navigates well the tricky balance between the ideology and the humanity.

This is a play that dramatizes Czech politics, from “Prague Spring” in 1968 to the post-Communist world of perestroika in the late ’80s. Unless you’re a historian, you likely don’t know a whole lot about this place or this period beyond what you remember from watching (or reading) “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And while Stoppard requires his audience to be on its collective toes and pay close attention, the genius of the play is that underneath all the heated discussions about this regime, that petition, these arrests or the pros and cons of socialism, Stoppard allows life and emotions to propel the play.

This notion is embodied in – what else? – rock ‘n’ roll music. Jan (Manoel Felciano) is a rock devotee. When the Czech police want to destroy his spirit they know exactly what to smash: his LP collection full of the Doors, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett (a central, ethereal figure in the play).

Jake Rodriguez’s sound design is like a character in the play – the music is passion, connection and, in its way, revolution. The Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe (who are, coincidentally, playing Slim’s on Oct. 9) figure prominently in the play as comrades of Jan’s whom he admires musically and politically – he even ends up in jail with them after one of their subversive events (a wedding if I heard correctly).

A Rolling Stones concert becomes a testament to a changed world, and Barrett’s “Golden Hair” (itself based on a James Joyce poem) becomes a family’s musical touchstone.

Felciano (above right with Anthony Fusco as a Czech interrogator) as Jan carries much of the play’s emotional weight and does so beautifully. He ages more than 20 years in a believable, low-key way that takes him from the optimism of youth powered by a mighty mind to the realities of a police state and prison to a more subdued middle age where people matter more than politics.

ACT core company member Rene Augesen has one unforgettable scene in Act 1 as Eleanor, a cancer-ridden Cambridge professor giving Sappho tutorials on her back porch. Decimated by not defeated by her illness delivers a ferocious diatribe against words over meaning. She has just watched her student (Delia MacDougall as Lenka) flirt shamelessly with her Communist husband, Max (Jack Willis), during the lesson.

The word at issue is “mind.” Her husband has highbrow definitions of what the mind is – he says it’s a machine that could be made of beer cans — and she’ll have none of it: “Don’t you dare reclaim that word now,” she says. “I don’t want your `mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine – I want what you love me with.”

Augesen is extraordinary – not relying on any of the usual tricks we’ve come to see in her work over the years (those come in Act 2 when she plays Eleanor’s daughter, Esme) – she’s so real and vital and frail you almost feel the need to comfort her.

Words and truth are important and elusive in Rock ‘n’ Roll. How can so many words, so many shifting words, ever arrive at the truth?

Discussing words, Jan tells Max: “A thousand years of knowing who you are gives a people confidence in its judgment. Words mean what they have always meant. With us, words change meaning to make the theory fit the practice.”

The fascinating, compelling blend of words and music – intellect and spirit – fuels the play and makes it stand apart from Stoppard’s oeuvre. It’s a lifetime of experience in a complex, heartbreaking, spirit-crushing world that comes to no easy answer beyond giving yourself over to music you love.

That this trajectory comes through so clearly is a testament to the play itself and to Perloff’s handsome production. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set inspires a feeling of vertigo. Inspired by a photograph by Agata Jablonska, the set conveys a sense of standing amid dense buildings and looking up to the sky – oppression and release.

Aside from some accent issues (they come, they go), the cast is strong. Willis has fire but seems miscast as Max, the Cambridge professor for whom arguing is like breathing. But that’s the only major misstep, and strong supporting turns come from Jud Williford as Jan’s compatriot, Ferdinand, and Summer Serafin as Alice, an ‘80s teen with a restless mind and a big heart.

At nearly three hours, Rock ‘n’ Roll is overwhelming in the best sense. We’re pulled into a world – our world – and made to care. More importantly we’re made to listen. And think. And care.


Rock ‘n’ Roll continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT casts `Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ partners up for `Phedre’

Manoel Felciano, a San Francisco native who used to work at Recycled Records on Haight Street, plays Jan, the central character in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, an ACT production. Photo by Ashley Forrette Photography

With all this buzz about, there must be a new theater season about to start.

First up is news from American Conservatory Theater. Casting is complete for its season-opener, the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Tony Award-winning Rock ‘n’ Roll, which begins performances Sept. 11 and continues through Oct. 12.

Artistic director Carey Perloff, something of a Stoppard expert, is directing a cast that includes San Francisco native Manoel Felciano (Toby in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd on Broadway) makes his Bay Area professional debut as Jan, the rock ‘n’ roll-obsessed Czech graduate student at the center of the play. The cast also includes ACT company members Rene Augesen, Anthony Fusco, Jud Williford and Jack Willis. The cast is rounded out by James Carpenter, Delia MacDougall, Marcia Pizzo, Summer Serafin and ACT MFA third-year students Nicholas Pelczar and Natalie Hegg.

Previews begin Sept. 11 and opening night is Sept. 17. Tickets are $17-$62 for previews, $20-$73 for regular performances. Call 415-749-2228or visit for information.

In other ACT news, the company will partner for the first time with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Perloff will direct Racine’s Phèdre in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker, who previously provided scripts for Perloff’s Hecuba and Antigone.

The production, which will bow in the 2009-10 season, will star 17-year Stratford veteran Seana McKenna in the title role.

“We are thrilled to be producing Racine for the first time in ACT’s history,” Perloff said in a statement. “Timberlake’s extraordinary and fresh translation pays homage to the gorgeous poetry of the original while sustaining this play’s explosive heat and visceral sexuality. I have admired Stratford’s work for many years an am excited to work at the theater, where Heather Kitchen, my partner at ACT, started her career.”




Review: `Curse of the Starving Class’

Opened April 30 at American Conservatory Theater

Pamela Reed (left) as Ella, chucks artichokes out of the fridge across a prone Jack Willis as Weston and toward Jud Williford as her son, Wesley in ACT’s Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Photos by Kevin Berne


Shepard’s revised `Curse’ still packs punch
Three stars Let it bleat

Lambs, it turns out, are stage hogs.

There’s an adorable little lamb in the American Conservatory Theater production of Sam Shepard’s 1977 drama Curse of the Starving Class, and nearly every bleat emanating from the lamb pen got a laugh – or at least a chuckle.

That probably wasn’t Shepard’s aim, but he wanted naturalism, so he gets naturalism. When members of the Tate family want breakfast, they walk over to the functioning gas stove and fry up bacon and bread. Later on there’s some ham and eggs in a skillet. The title may include the word “starving,” but the Tates eat fairly well. Still, that’s not to say they’re not hungry for something. “We’re hungry, and that’s starving enough for me,” Mrs. Tate says.

Shepard has tinkered with his original ’77 script, most significantly turning it from a three-act to a two-act play, but what still registers is his view of the great American family and its ultimate dysfunction. The American dream is too big, too elusive. We kill ourselves and our families trying to achieve that dream, whatever it might be, and still we pursue it doggedly.

Weston Tate (Jack Willis) is a veteran – an air man – whose post-war life is a shambles. He’s drunk most of the time and ignores his wife, Ella (Pamela Reed) and his two kids, 20something Wesley (Jud Williford) and budding teen Emma (Nicole Lowrance). The wife and kids fend for themselves on a ramshackle desert ranch (beautiful, hyper-realistic set, complete with barbed wire, tumbleweeds and scrap-yard metal by Loy Arcenas) hoping against hope that dad will somehow straighten out and fill their empty refrigerator with food.

That refrigerator is practically a character in the play. Mom delivers a monologue to it and keeps peeking in, just in case the fridge, unlike life, has a surprise for her. The kids open the door to see if there’s any food. Groceries do occasionally arrive – mom has an assignation with a lawyer (Dan Hiatt) and gets some cash and groceries out of it. And then dad, on a bender, fills the fridge with artichokes.

Those artichokes later become projectile produce when mom – not pleased by the strange vegetables – hurls them across the room.

Many things are destroyed over the course of the play’s 2 ½ hours: a door, 4-H charts, a lamb, a car and, of course, dreams and lives. This is brutal stuff. As Weston says: “Family isn’t just a social thing. It’s an animal thing.”

Director Peter DuBois struggles with pacing in the first act. The natural rhythms are elusive, and it’s difficult to see where anything is heading (plus, what do you do after you have someone pee onstage?). But all the set-up has some nice payoff in Act 2. There’s blood, mayhem, nudity, napping, rebirth, death and a possible trip to Europe.

Reed (above left with Lowrance), who was so good as the wronged wife in ACT’s The Goat, returns to play another matriarch, this one much less likable, though Reed makes her awfully funny (and horrifying) and appealing (and awful). The really interesting thing is that in the original New York production of Curse, Reed played the angry daughter, and now, in this revised version, she’s playing the mother (a role originally played by Olympia Dukakis, another member of ACT’s extended family).

Reed’s Ella feels the most lived in of all the characters, though Willis seems to be having fun with the wastrel Weston. Williford (the one responsible for the nudity) is pouty and damaged as the son who has seen his “old man’s poison,” and Lowrance is a spitfire as the daughter who never met a screaming, angry fit she didn’t want to express to the utmost. Her tantrum and tirades are the highlights of Act 1.

As the economic downturn of the Tate family hits its spiral, Shepard quickly introduces some shady but entertaining figures (played by Rod Gnapp, T. Edward Webster and Howard Swain) before he turns Curse into a fully explosive tragedy with nothing good to say about the family unit.

Shepard seems to be saying that this is what happens to people who aren’t poor and who aren’t rich. They’re stuck in the middle with no hope, no prospects, no great love and a never-ending hunger that leads to terrible things. The playwright may have tinkered with the play, but he sure didn’t add a happy ending.

Curse of the Starving Class continues through May 25 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.


Review: `Blood Knot’

Opened Feb. 13, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater

Powerful performances tighten ACT’s Knot
Three stars (Powerful, scary)

Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot comes from a terrifying place, and I don’t mean the apartheid-dominated world of South African in the early 1960s, when the play was written.

The horror of Blood Knot is deeply human. It comes from that potential each of us has to be a monster, to let our better selves be trapped by fear, hatred, violence and lust for power.

At the center of the play, now receiving a sturdy production from American Conservatory Theater directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, indeed its only inhabitants, are brothers Morris and Zachariah living in a Port Elizabeth shack.

Zach (Steven Anthony Jones) is dark skinned and spends his days at an arduous, demeaning job that takes a heavy mental and physical toll on him. Morrie (Jack Willis) is much lighter skinned – you might even say he’s white – and though he was gone for many years, he has been living with his brother for about a year, cooking, cleaning and preparing Epsom salt foot baths at the end of along work day.

Act 1, for me, is troublesome. Fugard gives us a glimpse into the domesticity of the two men and hints at the drama to come. But aside from the writing of a pen-pal letter to an 18-year-old woman who turns out to be white and the sister of a cop, there’s more foreboding than drama.

Finally, in Act 2, we get to the dark heart of this family drama. Zach takes the money they’ve been saving to buy a two-man farm and squanders it on buying a fancy suit – complete with hat and umbrella – for Morrie to wear so he can meet the pen-pal girl in Zach’s place (a black man writing to a white woman would be unthinkable) because he can pass for white.

By forcing Morrie to play the game of “white man,” suit and all, Zach opens up a troubling episode that lays bare the brothers’ tangled race issues and leads to violence and, to put it mildly, fraternal upset.

The fact that the men are brothers means they can get to troubling places in one another faster than just about anybody else. They can hurt each other — and, conversely, help heal each other – with alarming efficiency.

Jones and Willis bump through the first act making us believe they are brothers but don’t fully pull us into their world. But in Act 2, their connection to each other and to the ferocious emotions is seismic.

Set designer Alexander V. Nichols fills the ACT stage with sheets of corrugated metal (which capture Kathy A. Perkins’ lights beautifully, especially when the men are fondly remembering a game they used to play in an old car), though most of the action is confined to the center of the stage where he creates an impressionistic shack of wooden slats.

The bleak world of the South Africa the brothers inhabit is effectively evoked in the design, but the most evocative aspect of the production is the music by Tracy Chapman. Mostly underscore, some instrumental, some with vocals, the music is filmic and powerful. At the top of Act 2, Chapman sings (on tape) a beautiful song about the heart of every man while we see video images of South Africa. It’s a glorious moment.

But the play, of course, belongs to Jones and Willis, who, for 2 ½ hours, pull us into quiet lives buffeted by storms both political and deeply personal. Their intensity, especially in the final section of the play, is astonishing, and the deeper they go, the more universal the play becomes.

Blood Knot continues through March 9 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17 to $82. Call 415-749-2228 or