Aurora’s Leni asks: Great artist, Nazi sympathizer or both?

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Leni Riefenstahl (Stacy Ross) ponders her relationship with Hitler in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area Premiere of Leni by Sarah Greenman. Below: Older Leni (Ross, left) has a tête-à-tête with her younger self (Martha Brigham). Photos by David Allen

As a dramatic work, Sarah Greenman’s Leni about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, has to juggle history, artistry and, now, discomfiting parallels to our own time. Was Riefenstahl the right artist at the wrong time? Was her extraordinary talent as a filmmaker overshadowed by Hitler and the Nazi party? Or was she a Nazi sympathizer and, consequently, as the show puts it, “a willing architect of Nazi mythology” and, worse, an accomplice to genocide?

There aren’t any easy answers in this 85-minute one-act play now at the intimate Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre Company. Director Jon Tracy and actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, both of whom play Riefenstahl at advanced and early ages respectively, grab hold of the play with gusto and shake it for all it’s worth.

When a biographical play is set in some enigmatic limbo between life and death, the conceit usually comes across as a lazy way to make excuses for bringing back the dead and placing them awkwardly in a biographical drama. But here, it works. It is 2003 and Riefenstahl (Ross) has just died at 101. She emerges from a room into a phantom movie set (simply but effectively designed by Nina Ball) and gets to work filming scenes from her life. She shoots a scene of her younger self (Brigham) meeting with Hitler to beg for more money to complete her two-part documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Evocatively using lighting that is by turns stark and shadowy (beautifully designed by Kurt Landisman), director Tracy is able to create movie/theater hybrid that makes sense. They’re not really making a movie, but they’re not really alive either. What we have is Greenman’s attempt to allow Riefenstahl to put herself on trial, to explain herself, to attempt to face the truth, to justify never apologizing or recanting, to accept responsibility for the part she played.

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Leni is in no way an apology for Riefenstahl. No matter her artistic ambitions or intentions, she was complicit with the Nazis, and that landed her squarely on the wrong side of history and understandably destroyed her career. Rather, the play is Riefenstahl wrestling with herself and attempting to establish some context for what is was like to be in the middle of it all, attempting to make great work (and Leni did truly believe her work was great – with Triumph of the Will she says she didn’t create propaganda, she created a masterpiece), maintain her artistic integrity (she says she was never a member of the Nazi party and no one ever interfered with her filmmaking) and play the political games that would keep her working (she and Hitler were friendly – he gave her gifts – but she and Goebbels did not get along).

Because she lived so long, Riefenstahl is able to offer an interesting perspective on her work. With her bold filmmaking techniques, she was decades ahead of her time and, as many would attest, set the standard for sports documentaries with Olympia. All the controversy surrounding her work with the Nazis tends to obscure her skills as a director and render her a villain rather than a visionary filmmaker. The footage we see from her films (sound and video design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) is absolutely mesmerizing, especially some of the montages of Olympic athletes (oh, the divers!). So when the older Leni proclaims, “I am on trial for creating the modern world!” her sense of self or her impact doesn’t seem as overblown as it might.

Asked why she didn’t condemn Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, Riefenstahl claims she, like so many Germans, especially those who believed in Hitler as the leader Germany needed at the time, simply didn’t know. All those rumors and stories purported by journalists about death camps were lies. Until they weren’t and – much too late in the game – she had to face the harsh facts. Does she love the work she created, she is asked? Yes. And does she regret it? Yes.

So where does that leave us with the complicated Leni Riefenstahl? Mired in complications, with probably more complications than Greenman’s drama allows. Ross and Brigham are, as usual, superb, and director Tracy’s production is able to cut through a lot of the corny docu-drama trappings and let all the thorny issues encompass audience and actors alike. Amid the specific details of Riefenstahl’s life, certain chilling elements echo – fake news! lying journalists! obliviously adoring crowds! dangerously narrow-minded nationalism! – and make us wonder who, some time from today, will we see as a Leni Riefenstahl among us now?

Sarah Greenman’s Leni continues through May 10 in the Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

TheatreFIRST gets tempest tossed in Bagyó

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Miranda (Grace Ng, center) learns the truth form her Sisters (Marsha Dimelanta, left, and Jennifer Jovez) in TheatreFIRST’s Bagyó at the Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. BELOW: Lintik (Ed Berkeley, left) and Palarin (Richard Robert Bunker) scheme. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

When one of the Bay Area theater scenes most reliably inventive, resourceful and rewarding directors takes over a theater company and begins making changes, you pay attention. Jon Tracy is now at the helm of the Berkeley-based TheatreFIRST, a small but ambitious company that has had bumps and triumphs over the last 20 years while building a reputation as a haven for actors and playwrights to share voices from around the world.

The company’s new season – complete with a new mission to give “voice to all communities” guided by the principle of “aggressive diversity” and telling the world’s stories through “a mix of centralized and decentralized viewpoints” – officially launched on Monday with the world premiere of San Francisco playwright Rob Dario’s Bagyó, a fantasia inspired by The Tempest and the history of Southeast Asia.

Simply but elegantly designed by Noelle Viñas (set), Kevin Myrick (lights), Miyuki Bierlein (costumes) and Lorin King (sound), this 95-minute one-act is more intellectually intriguing than it is emotionally satisfying.

The most powerful moments come not in the lyrically obtuse dialogue from playwright Rob Dario but in the dance moments staged by director Bridgette Loriaux. One particularly dazzling dance has all the performers wielding sabers/sticks adorned with little lights (let’s call them lightsabers) and another sees a lost young woman (Grace Ng as Miranda) falling in love with an American soldier (Soren Santos as Danny).

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There’s also great beauty in the singing we hear, particularly by Jennifer Jovez and Marsha Dimalanta as sisters (Miranda’s sisters? Spirit sisters? Cooking show host sisters?). When they sing a lullaby in Tagalog (written by Dimalanta) all the confusion that’s built into the story – is it a dream? is it theater? is it extended metaphor linking the conflicts of history and families? – melts away and the Live Oak Theater is awash in beauty.

Trying to follow Bagyó with The Tempest as a guide only takes us so far. “Bagyó” means storm in Tagalog, so there’s that. There’s a direct parallel with Shakespeare’s Miranda and with this one, although Dario’s heroine is a warrior in her own right attempting to slice through the fog of her confusion. Palarin, Miranda’s father, played by Richard Robert Bunker, is a mean and magical presence à la Prospero, but his true function as “governor of the island” is never clear. The hulking warrior Lintik (Ed Berkeley) is Ariel-like, and Iwaksi (Wes Gabrillo) has his Caliban-ish moments but is definitely human, though he’s referred to as monstrous. Certainly soldier Danny is a Ferdinand stand-in, although his best moment comes in the show’s more historical vein when he delivers speeches related to the U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia, first as President William McKinley, then as LBJ and finally as President Obama.

But the historical blur is just that – blurry. Given that it never feels we’re on an island related to a specific country and that the represented invaders – Spanish, French, Chinese – are rather clownish, notions of war and colonization never quite come across seriously.

The biggest blur, however, is the one obscuring the relationship between Miranda and her father. Apparently there’s a buried-in-the-past secret involving her mother (a ghostly Krystle Piamonte who gives birth, at the start of the show, to a … pineapple). Although that secret is supposedly revealed, I have to say I’m not clear exactly what it was or what actually happened or if it relates to the story in a strictly personal way to Miranda and Palarin or if there’s historical significance as well.

There’s a lot of that confusion here, much of it intentional as multiple languages mix with music and dance and modern and ancient, and that can be entertaining, especially as embodied by the appealing and talented cast. But by the show’s end, confusion wins out over any kind of clarity characters might have achieved (or not) as they worked their way through storms both literal and figurative.

Rob Dario’s Bagyó continues through Nov. 5 in a TheatreFIRST production at the Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25 or visit

Theater as contact sport in SF Playhouse’s dazzling Colossal

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The team prepares for a workout in Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal at San Francisco Playhouse: (actors, from left) Ed Berkeley, Brian Conway, Cameron Matthews, Thomas Gorrebeeck, Xander Ritchey and Brandon Hsieh. Below: Mike (Jason Stojanovski), in a wheelchair, and his younger self (Thomas Gorrebeeck) view playbacks of the play that changed his life. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Colossal at San Francisco Playhouse is a (foot)balls-out theatrical experience that manages to provoke thought and elicit feeling all the while it dazzles with its aggressive stagecraft.

Andrew Hinderaker’s play sets up theater as a competitive sport, that is, this play is competing with itself by placing a large scoreboard-type timer above the stage and letting four quarters unfold in real time over an hour. Then there’s also the turf-covered playing field (set by Bill English), the bright Friday night-style lights (design by Kurt Landisman) and the ear-piercing whistles (sound design by Theodore J. H. Hulsker). This is more than a stage for a play: it’s a playing field ready for intense action.

And that’s what it gets for about an hour – there is football tossing and tackling like you’d see on any field. But then there’s a dance/choreography element as well as a fantastic marching drumline (Alex Hersler, Zach Smith and Andrew Humann) to punctuate nearly every beat of the drama. There are seven football players on stage, sometimes in full gear, sometimes not (and more times than you might imagine shirtless), and they begin their workout before the show begins to get the blood pumping. You can’t even address the topic of football unless you’re pumped up, and that’s part of the point.

Hinderaker’s play wants to match the energy and testosterone level of an actual football game, and he does that by combining character-driven drama with all the (literal) bells and whistles of a football game combined with the he-man-godlike players attempting to be the superheroes their coach (and the gridiron-crazed fans) expect them to be. In director Jon Tracy’s muscular production, the play is successful on all counts – manic energy matched with outsize performances and a whole lot of theatrical dazzle that turns America’s most brutal pastime into a disarming evening of theater.

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This is a taboo-busting play that wants nothing less than to look into the very nature of masculinity and why its exaggerated displays of force on the football field are so alluring both to players and to fans in spite of the toll this display takes on physical health and long-term well-being. Within the world of these players (and their coach, played by Dave Maier who is so realistic you’d do laps if he told you to), you see men reveling in the homoerotic (the butt slaps, the close physical contact, the stripped-down workouts) while decrying it at the same time. Any show of anything other than ultra-masculinity is cause for name-calling or physical violence.

When Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) dances onto the field, he literally dances. His form of rebellion is to play football in direct opposition to his father (Robert Parsons), an esteemed dancer and head of a famous company. Mike grew up as a dancer, which automatically makes him less than manly in the eyes of the other players. But he proves himself on the field (a well-executed pirouette can evade the most brutal of tackles) and ends up as team captain (I was never quite certain, but I feel like this team is a university team).

We see Mike’s story unfold from the point of view of Mike 10 months in the future, in a wheelchair after a devastating spinal injury on the field (“I was reckless instead of fearless,” he says). Older Mike (Jason Stojanovski) is going through rehab, and in what is perhaps the play’s weakest gimmick, his physical therapist (a game Wiley Naman Strasser) is putting a lot of emphasis on the “therapist” part of his job, coaxing from Mike all of his secrets.

The biggest secret has to do with Mike’s co-captain, Marcus (Cameron Matthews), who has disappeared from Mike’s life following his injury. Issues of sexuality do battle with notions of what makes a good football player (or a man, really), and Mike seems much more comfortable with who he is than Marcus does, at least before the accident. The theater as a sport element, with that clock ticking through each quarter, really comes into play in the fourth quarter – will the emotional denouement occur before the clock runs out? It’s a strange thing to watch theater on the clock, but it’s also strangely effective here.

The collision of football and dance, both in the story and the physical production, is fascinating. The players (Xander Ritchey, Brandon Leland, Ed Berkeley, Jacob Hsieh, Brian Conway and Travis Santell Rowland) do an admirable job blending the dance choreography by Keith Pinto and the football choreography (by coach Maier himself), and Gorrebeeck as Mike manages to be tough, vulnerable, graceful and charismatic through it all, while Stojanovski’s post-accident Mike is a mass of tension, regret, grief and, ultimately, strength.

There’s a lot going on in Colossal, a play unlike any I’ve ever seen, where form is content and the more traditional parts (like where old Mke and young Mike converse and work through their issues) are less persuasive than the more daring and physical elements. The physicality is so powerful that it’s likely the story could be told – by this cast anyway – simply through percussion, movement and the passion men have for football…and each other.

Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal continues through April 30 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Hébert’s moving Tree explores family’s tangled roots

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Jessalyn Price (Cathleen Riddley) and her son, Leo (Carl Lumbly), share a rare moment of lucidity in Julie Hébert’s Tree at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Didi Marcantel (Susi Damilano, left) and JJ Price ( Tristan Cunningham) admire JJ’s portrait of her grandmother. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

I reviewed Julie Hébert’s drama Tree at the San Francisco Playhouse for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sample:

Director Jon Tracy’s powerful and poignant production feels grounded in reality of the siblings and their fraught, fractious attempts at a relationship, but in the realm of the parents, there’s a lyrical quality filled with love and sadness that elevates the play from kitchen-sink drama to something more.

Hébert is not just interested in airing family secrets or opening up a discussion about how people of different races deal with one another. Through the character of Didi especially, she’s exploring a child’s desire to truly know a parent. The father Didi meets in Jessalyn’s letters is so unlike the man she grew up with she feels compelled to learn more about this virtual stranger so filled with passion, humor and love. She wishes at one point that she could have been that man’s daughter.

Read the full review here.

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[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Julie Hébert for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Julie Hébert’s Tree continues through March 7 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Breakfast of champions? Aurora chills with Mugabe

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Dr. Peric (Dan Hiatt, center) looks to make an exit from his breakfast meeting with Robert Mugabe (L. Peter Callender, left) as presidential bodyguard Gabriel (Adrian Roberts) stands watch in Aurora Theatre Company’s Breakfast with Mugabe. Below: Hiatt’s Dr. Peric has a run in with Mrs. Mugabe (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Photos by David Allen

I can’t imagine the choosing of a tie or the pouring of orange juice has ever been more sinister as it is in Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, now on stage at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company.

One of the delights of the Aurora has always been its intimacy. The audience sits on three sides of the stage, and everyone feels part of everything happening on stage. Strictly from a theatrical point of view, that allows us tremendous access to every detail of the performance and allows us into the nuance of a beautifully written script.

That intimacy is all well and good…unless you’re dealing with a monster. And that’s essentially what we hve in Mugabe, making its West Coast debut after hit runs with the Royal Shakespeare Company and in New York. It’s not just Mugabe (L. Peter Callender), the longtime president of Zimbabwe, who’s the monster. He is, perhaps, suffering from acute psychological issues, but his power structure is firmly in place and making itself known through his bodyguard, Gabriel (Adrian Roberts), also an intelligence agent, and Mugabe’s much younger second wife, Grace (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), an ominous presence dressed up in elegance.

Our entrance into Mugabe’s world circa 2001 is through Dr. Andrew Peric (Dan Hiatt), a psychiatrist summoned to the State House in Harare. A white native of the country, Peric attempts to keep control of the situation from the start and remain as professional as possible, but it soon becomes clear that the control he usually requires with his patients won’t be happening here.

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What is so interesting about Grace’s play is that he takes his cue from history – it is said that Mugabe was indeed treated by a white psychiatrist – but rather than creating a documentary-like drama, he taps into his inner Shakespeare and gives history a Macbeth-ian, Richard III-ian spin. This Mugabe is seeing ghosts – literally. He’s haunted by an “ngozi” or the aggressive spirit of a restless soul, and it’s not some nameless spirit either. It’s Josiah Tongogara, a commander of the ZANLA guerrilla army whose death in a car crash (cause unknown) paved the way for Mugabe to become prime minister.

The psychiatrists’ job is to treat Mugabe and get to the source of his anxiety and his visions (hallucinations?). It’s game of psychological cat and mouse, though, as Mugabe (and his team) are toying with the doctor as well and his long-held family estate that may or may not be taken over by soldiers.

Director Jon Tracy keeps the action taut, though there are dull spots in Grace’s script. His lead actors, Callender and Hiatt, are each at the top of their considerable game, which is saying something. They know their Shakespeare and they know naturalism, so the balance they create is just about perfect for this 100-minute show down.

Confined within the elegance of the presidential home (set design by Nina Ball), the story grows darker and darker, and the stakes grow higher. Tracy, working with video designer Micah Stieglitz, brings the world into the palace via fuzzy TV news montages, flashes of headlines and, most effectively, in live video surveillance of Dr. Peric. If it feels like the play doesn’t know where or how to end, just wait. Grace’s conclusion is absolutely chilling. Clearly you don’t have breakfast with Mugabe. He has you for breakfast.

Fraser Grace’s Breakfast With Mugabe continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Fit to be tied in Aurora’s powerful, provocative Knot

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Stacy Ross (left) is a fifth-grade teacher and Jamie J. Jones is the mother of a fifth-grade student in Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, probably the most fraught parent-teacher conference you’ll ever experience. Jon Tracy directs the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

To call Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ play now at the Aurora Theatre Company, a mystery is accurate but only to a point. Certainly there are things we don’t know and need to find out, but there’s a whole lot more to this complex, disturbing and even devastating drama.

Looking at Nina Ball’s incredibly realistic fifth-grade classroom set – complete with tiled ceiling and fluorescent lights – it’s easy to think, “A play about a parent-teacher conference in a bright, friendly classroom. How intense could this be?” Oh, it’s intense all right. And surprising and fraught with the kind of societal and personal issues that create gulfs (or build bridges) between people.

Director Jon Tracy is especially adept at re-creating a version of real life for the stage that is unflinching, even if that means it’s sometimes hard to watch. This two-person play is, as you might expect of Tracy, so finely calibrated that there’s hardly a pause or a body movement that doesn’t feel at once natural or directly part of the playwright’s vision.

Tracy’s actors pull this off with incredible skill and emotion. Stacy Ross is the teacher, Heather, and Jamie J. Jones is the mom, Corryn. The topic at hand is Corryn’s son, Gidion, who has been suspended. Just why he was so severely disciplined and why this particular conference is so very intense is all part of the mystery and the dramatic motor of the play.

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And though hot-button issues like cyber-bullying and free speech arise, there’s something deeper happening, and it has to do with people who have very different viewpoints about life. It also has to do with core human qualities such as compassion, kindness and hostility. How do people deal with each other, person to person, personally or professionally, when their views of life are so fundamentally opposed?

Neither of these characters is exactly what you’d expect, although you probably know people like them. Heather is brittle, beleaguered and deeply invested in her students. Corryn is brash and honest, which can have the effect of making her unlikable. She’s the kind of person who asks a question and makes you guess at the answer. When you do hazard a guess, she guffaws at the sheer stupidity of your guess. Not so likable, but as she freely admits, she’s been up for 72 hours.

Whatever impression you have of either woman is likely to change – several times – over the course of this provocative play’s 75 minutes. You know it’s 75 minutes because there’s a clock over the classroom door (the same door through which you hear the bustle and see the shadows of the students going by when the bell rings), and the play spins out, sometimes agonizingly, in real time.

There’s some rough stuff in this play – one patch is so rough, in fact, it’s hard not to look around the intimate confines of the Aurora to assess how your fellow theatergoers are taking it all – but playwright Adams isn’t interested in the sensational here. Like Corryn, she’s more interested in honesty, even if it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant.

Gidion’s Knot is a hell of a tangle, and it’s somehow more than a play. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot continues an extended run through March 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

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.

Magic reaches a dark, rhythmic Terminus


Marissa Keltie (left), Carl Lumbly and Stacy Ross play nameless characters facing a dark Dublin night in the first American production of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus at Magic Theatre. Below: Ross plays a former school teacher now working with a volunteer crisis hotline who takes a personal interest in one of her callers. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Safe to say you’re not going to see anything like Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, the aptly named conclusion to Magic Theatre’s 46th season. If you saw O’Rowe’s last show at the Magic, the extraordinary Howie the Rookie 13 years ago, you’ll know to expect vivid, visceral language delivered in monologues. That seems to be O’Rowe’s specialty, along with depicting the rougher edges of Dublin with a strange sort of compassion and a gift for elemental storytelling that grabs hold and won’t let go.

While Howie operated in a familiar street thug/crime world setting, Terminus is something altogether different. Like one of his three characters in the play, O’Rowe pushes himself out on a precarious limb and leaps. There’s a distinct criminal element here as well, along with descriptions of violence that are somehow more vivid and horrific than if we were actually seeing them, but there’s also a supernatural, even spiritual, aspect to the play that is remarkably moving – if, that is, you’re willing to make the leap with O’Rowe and his brave actors and accept that one of the characters is falling in love with a demon from hell who takes corporeal form consisting entirely of wriggling worms.

This is brave, bold storytelling, and director Jon Tracy and his three actors, Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly, are wholly up to the challenge (Irish accents notwithstanding) of holding our attention for nearly two hours without intermission. When Ross begins her first monologue, it quickly becomes apparent that O’Rowe has crafted a play in verse – not with a strict meter but with a lilting internal, natural rhyme scheme that gives the storytelling a distinctly musical feel along with a hyper-theatrical remove from reality that only intensifies the twists and turns of the plot.

This is a dark, dark story, so it’s entirely appropriate that Robert Brill’s set is an exercise in blackness. The actors stand on what looks like a mound of shredded tire rubber. Or coal. Or something equally black and dirty. Gabe Maxson’s lights are stark bolts of illumination slicing through the thick stage smoke. Literally and figuratively there’s not a lot of light in this tale, but what you see is sharply in focus.


How the actors memorized their great blocks of rhyming text and then managed to infuse them with deep, flawed humanity is staggering to think about. All three make real connections with their characters, whose stories do link in eventual, surprising ways, and each has at least a moment or two of shiver-inducing horror or beauty. Pretty much every minute of Ross’s monologues is a sterling example of a skilled actor losing herself in her character but always keeping the audience with her. Her story is the most immediately moving, and the supernatural twist benefits her most. Ross is simply astonishing. How is it even possible that this great Bay Area actors gets better and better?

Keltie goes from damaged young woman fighting with life to a being in transformation with surprising charm and subtle intensity. And Lumbly gives us a man we think we know who then reveals himself to be someone else entirely. The ease with which he inhabits such a dis-eased character is astonishing and serves the story in powerful ways.

As good as the actors are, as strong as Tracy’s production is, Terminus is still a play of interwoven monologues. The fact that the three people on stage don’t ever engage in dialogue for nearly two hours is frustrating. O’Rowe’s approach to storytelling is clear, as are his reasons for keeping the stories separate. But even though I was fully engaged in the show, I crave interaction between actors on stage.

Still, Terminus is a play that lingers well after you’ve left the fog of the theater. The intricacies of the plot, the intensity of the characters and the sense of something larger guiding their trajectories continues to fascinate.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Terminus playwright Mark O’Rowe for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. (subscription may be required)


Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus continues through June 16 a Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-88722 or visit

Holy Zuzu’s petals! Get into the spirit with Wonderful Life

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The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play includes (from left) Patrick Kelly Jones as Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, Carrie Paff as Lana Sherwood, Michael Gene Sullivan as Freddie Filmore and Gabriel Marin as Jake Laurents. Below: Marin’s Jake gets into character as Bedford Falls’ favorite son, George Bailey. Photos by Ed Smith

At a certain point, no matter how much you love Dickens or get your heart cockles warmed by Scrooge and Tiny Tim, you’ve had it. Enough already with A Christmas Carol. Some years you just need to take a Carol break and find a little holiday spark elsewhere.

This year, if you’re searching for an alternative to Ebenezer and his ghosts, I recommend you head to Marin Theatre Company and spend some time with George Bailey and Clarence, his Angel Second Class. It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play takes Frank Capra’s much loved 1946 film and turns it into a stage experience by transforming it into a radio play. As re-conceived by Joe Landry, we’re in a Manhattan radio station on a snowy Christmas Eve as five actors play all the roles and create all the sound effects for a streamlined version of Capra’s story (which itself is based on a short story, Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift”).

This is a smart approach because it relieves the stage production from having to compete with indelible images from Capra’s movie and allows us the extreme pleasure of settling in and being told a good Christmas story enlivened by a quintet of vibrant performers.

Director Jon Tracy marshals a lot of good energy to keep things from veering into the corny, both within the story itself and within the 1940s context of the radio show, where we get flashes of the “actor” characters who are portraying the characters within the story. Thankfully, there’s not a lot of time spent developing the actors beyond their basic personae. We hear what movie, radio or TV shows they’re most famous for, and that’s about it. This keeps the focus on the “Playhouse of the Air” production of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Landry’s adaptation of the screenplay (by Capra, Frances Goodrich, Jo Swerling and Albert Hackett, with reported “polish” by Dorothy Parker) keeps all the basic details and the framework: beleaguered George Bailey (Gabriel Marin) has had enough of his dreams being killed by small-town life. His ongoing fight to keep his family’s building and loan business afloat has finally crashed (thanks a lot for nothing, Uncle Billy), and so has any semblance of George’s faith and hope in life, wonderful or otherwise.

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As townspeople pray for George, the angels we have heard of (on high) take note and make moves to do something about it. An angel who has yet to achieve his wings, one Clarence Odbody (Patrick Kelly Jones) is given an overview of George’s life (also known as Act 1) and then sent down to prevent George from killing himself and then showing himself what the world would be like if he had never been born.

It takes a good long while for the set-up to result in some action, but once George gains a new perspective on the life he has led and the work he has done, It’s a Wonderful Life becomes a mash-up of A Christmas Carol and Our Town. We have supernatural forces intervening in a human life, offering an alternative view of that life and leading to redemption and a new-found appreciation for the intrinsic value of human life – every human life. As Clarence says, “One man’s life touches so many others, when he’s not there, it leaves an awfully big hole.”

Marin’s George is understandably cranky for much of the play’s 100-plus minutes, but when George gets an angelic kick in the spiritual pants, Marin brings on a full-blown nervous breakdown and rebirth. Even when he’s cranky, though it’s easy to see why sweet Mary (Sarah Overman) would be infatuated with George, who’s smart and ambitious and edgy in ways that other Bedford Falls folks are not.

Rounding out the cast in a number of roles are Carrie Paff, most memorable as Zuzu, George and Mary’s sniffly little girl, and Violet Bick, as close as Bedford Falls gets to a vixen, and Michael Gene Sullivan, who gleefully sinks his teeth into “old money-grubbing buzzard” Henry Potter, the bad guy.

Like any good piece of holiday entertainment, this show is warm and entertaining for its first two-thirds and then gets profound and truly emotional in its last section. This Wonderful Life can stand on its own apart from the movie, which is no small feat, and stake a claim for being wonderful in its own right.

[bonus video]
Here’s the original trailer for the movie It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946:

It’s a Wonderful Life continues through Dec. 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Bloody good opening of a spiffy new Playhouse

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Ashkon Davaran (center) is President Andrew Jackson in Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s new theater. Below: Davaran’s Jackson has an uncharacteristically reflective moment with ensemble player Michael Barrett Austin providing the soundtrack. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Opening nights don’t come much more momentous than Saturday’s gala celebrating three things:

1. San Francisco Playhouse‘s new theater space in the former Post Street Theatre (formerly the Theatre on the Square, formerly an Elks Lodge ballroom)
2. The launch of the Playhouse’s 10th anniversary season
3. And opening night of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was there to offer a toast (how appropriate – a ham on toast duty) and compared the newly configured space, down from a too-capacious 729 seats to a much cozier and more manageable 200 seats, to a great off-Broadway space, or in this case, “off-Geary” space. He also admitted that he got into politics because he really wanted to act and surprised exactly no one with that admission.

The husband-and-wife team of Bill English, artistic director, and Susi Damilano, producing director, thanked a gazillion people and said that SF Playhouse, now officially known as San Francisco Playhouse, has grown up and what might have belonged to them 10 years ago now belongs to their cohorts, their subscribers and their audiences. How gratifying it is to see a worthy theater copany making such terrific strides. And the new space really is something to be proud of, an intimate experience (like the old space on Sutter Street) on a grander scale. You can just feel the potential in the space itself, which is incredibly exciting.

If the first show in the new space is any indication, that potential will be realized sooner rather than later. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers, was a hit off Broadway at the Public Theatre and not a hit when it transferred to Broadway. The concept is immediately appealing: an emo rock musical about the complex life and turbulent times of America’s seventh president aka Old Hickory aka The People’s President.

You expect irreverence, humor and parallels to our own time. You expect fun and ROCK and political cynicism and in-your-face attitude laced with contemporary sass. You definitely get all of that and more, but what’s really interesting about director Jon Tracy’s production is that this is not an easy show. It’s not a crowd pleaser in the way that Rent or American Idiot is. This bloody rose has major thorns.

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When Friedman taps the power of punk and emo and straight-on American rock, he doesn’t do it in a way that mollycoddles his audience. He preserves the fist-to-the-face nature of that music so that in Timbers’ telling of the Jackson story there’s no sentimentality, no rose-colored historical glasses, no getting off the hook for anybody (modern-day audiences included).

“I’m Andrew fucking Jackson! My life sucks in particular,” the young president-to-be sings early in the show, bringing to mind similar expressions in other musicals like “The Bitch of Living” in Spring Awakening or “It Sucks to Be Me” from Avenue Q. But this being emo rock, Jackson’s adolescent self-pity is deep in his bones and provides a signpost for the bloody life that lies ahead.

Ashkon Davaran, the actor now best known for retooling “Don’t Stop Believing” for the San Francisco Giants on their way to the 2010 World Series (if you haven’t seen that extraordinary video, watch it here), is a petulant, hard-driving Jackson with more than a touch of Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (maybe it’s the black eyeliner). After the death of his family in Tennessee Territory (were they killed by Indians or did they die of cholera?), Jackson becomes a militiaman fighting the British at age 13 and then a spokesmen for the Angry Frontiersman who feel the “doily-wearing muffin tops” in Washington, D.C., all those founding father aristocrats, are doing nothing to defend the frontier from the marauding Indians (who, by the way, were here first).

Fighting the Spanish, the French and the Indians becomes Jackson’s driving purpose, and after the practically doubles the size of the United States with all his battling (including the famous Battle of New Orleans), he becomes the first governor of Florida. When he runs for president on a campaign promoting “maverick egalitarian democracy,” he wins the popular and electoral vote, but slick maneuvering in the back halls of Congress handed the presidency to John Quincy Adams.

Four years later, Jackson runs again, promising all those populist hallmarks: transparency, accountability and open collaboration. “It’s morning again in America,” a citizen sings, and sure enough, Jackson takes the White House. He describes himself as “federal Metamucil” and says, ” I’m going to unclog this fucking system.” But he soon discovers that being president his hard. Democracy is really hard and you can’t really get anything done. So, according to this unsympathetic portrait, he turns his presidency into a personal vendetta against anyone who ever did him wrong (most notably Native Americans who would soon find themselves on the Trail of Tears). “The will of the people can’t stand in my way,” Jackson sings, “won’t stand in my way. How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed?”

This is a harsh show, as it should be, and Tracy’s production is rough and keeps its edge through 90 energetic minutes. The members of the ensemble assist musical director Jonathan Fadner in creating the raw sound of the music – they play guitars, cellos (El Beh‘s “Ten Little Indians” is a musical highlight) and drums, and they wail. I wanted more musical finesse in the vocal arrangements, but I guess that kind of polish or intricacy defies the raging spirit of the show.

Nina Ball‘s set is a giant domed scaffolding that seems to be about 10 times the size of the old Playhouse space on Sutter, and it’s the perfect bare-bones environment for what amounts to a musical in the form of a rock concert, complete with flashy (literally) lighting design by Kurt Landisman.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a risky show because its intelligence, impertinence and hostility are embedded in a deeply cynical historical narrative constantly bitch slapped by current events. It’s a major undertaking and a brave one. San Francisco Playhouse is heading into a new and exciting frontier and not just in terms of physical space.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Michael Friedman and Bloody star Ashkon Davaran for a San Francisco Chronicle story. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]

Watch San Francisco Playhouse’s promo video for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson:


Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.