Aurora scores a smackdown with Chad Deity

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Chad Deity (Beethovan Oden, right) pummels The Bad Guy (Dave Maier) in the Bay Area Premiere of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. BELOW: Wrestling promoter EKO (Rod Gnapp, center) lays out his version of the American dream to VP (Nasser Khan, rear left) and The Mace (Tony Sancho). Photos by David Allen

In professional wrestling, we’re told, you can’t kick a guy’s ass without the help of the guy whose ass you’re kicking. Talk about a democracy! Perhaps there’s more to learn from the gaudy world of professional wrestling than we thought.

Playwright Kristoffer Diaz, a self-confessed fan of the fake-out body slams and outsize characters of the pro-wrestling world, seems to think there’s an allegorical relationship between that world and the United States, especially when it comes to racism and the exploitation of labor in the name of almighty capitalism. His play The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity opens the Aurora Theatre Company’s 21st season (or 21st “anniversary” season as the pre-show announcement puts it – why is 21 years an anniversary?).

There’s certainly truth in advertising with this play – it’s incredibly elaborate, and director Jon Tracy’s production is enormous. Imagine a wrestling ring (not regulation size), towering video screens and elaborate rock concert-style lighting surrounding the Aurora’s intimate 150-seat theater. Set designer Nina Ball, lighting designer Kurt Landisman and sound designer Cliff Caruthers have done a remarkable job re-creating the garish arena of fictional operation THE Wrestling in the dignified Aurora space. This is an immersive experience, and that’s part of the fun. Before the show, Dave Maier, the fight director and the guy who plays wrestlers The Bad Guy, Billy Heartland and Old Glory, comes out in his good ol’ buy Billy Heartland guise to train us theatrical types how to behave like wrestling types, which is to say we’re coached to boo the bad guy, chant “champ, champ, champ” whenever Chad Deity comes into the ring and salute and bark “sir, yes sir!” when Old Glory makes his dramatic entrance rappelling from the ceiling.

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Knowing what our role is, the play begins in earnest – and it is an earnest play with something to say about the corrosive power of stereotypes and the never-ending smackdown of the little man in corporate America. The central character is Macedonio “The Mace” Guerra (Tony Sancho), one of the most important guys in the wrestling world because he makes the superstars look good. He’s the character without the character, the highly trained and skilled acrobat/actor who makes it look like the inept big-name wrestlers (like Chad Deity, played with appropriate bluster and grit by Beethovan Oden) look like they know what they’re doing.

In his revealing monologues, beautifully delivered by the charming Sancho, Mace tells us he’s pretty happy with his lot in life. He has loved wrestling since he was kid watching it on Saturday morning TV, and he makes a good living, even if he is smarter, more articulate and more sensitive than most of the other guys in the room. He fully recognizes that pro-wrestling guru Everett K. “EKO” Olson (Rod Gnapp) utilizes racial stereotypes to rile up his audiences, but he bites his tongue and does what is asked of him.

When Mace hears about a Brooklyn hip-hop kid of Indian descent who talks a good game, his mind starts spinning with possibilities and introduces the kid, Vigneshwar “VP” Paduar (Nasser Khan) to his bosses. Promoter EKO immediately sees possibilities in the new kid’s brown skin and turns him into “The Fundamentalist,” a bearded, Osama-like wrestler (who, by the way, can’t even begin to wrestle), whose primary function is to enrage the audience and goad Chad Deity.

The play’s trajectory, which isn’t all that convincing, has Mace rising above skeeviest parts of the wrestling world. If the play’s conclusion lacks emotional heft, it sure is a lot of fun. The bulk of the actual wrestling happens in Act 2, and it’s fantastic to be able to watch it all so close up. The big noisy body slams and power bombs are great, but the most effective moments are actually those in slow motion (as when one of Maier’s wrestlers suffers one of The Fundamentalist’s super kicks known as “The Sleeper Cell”). All the flash of the production is fun, too, especially the video screens full of busty ladies in bikinis with wrestlers opening beer cans on their chests and the like (video design by Jim Gross).

This is a very different kind of show for the Aurora, and that’s fantastic. Some companies open their seasons with a bang (see Berkeley Rep’s Chinglish). The Aurora opens its season with a theatrical ass-whoopin’, but that’s OK. They have full permission from the smiling audience to whoop its collective ass.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed busy Bay Area fight director Dave Maier about his work on The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity continues through Sept. 30 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Extraordinary Day dawns at the Magic

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Christopher McHale is Bill and Amy Kossow is Sadie in the Magic Theatre production of Any Given Day by Linda McLean. Below: James Carpenter is Dave and Stacy Ross is Jackie. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Linda McLean’s Any Given Day, now having its American premiere at the Magic Theatre, is theater for grown-ups. There’s nothing fanciful or sensational about. It’s basically duet conversations in two acts and less than 90 minutes. But the richness of McLean’s language, seemingly so simple yet so precise in defining the characters and their relationships to each other and to the world.

The pain and sadness is palpable in these people, yet so are the passing moments of joy and kindness and good humor. McLean’s world is full of the kind of emotional upheaval you only get to see when you spend time with people and see what’s really happening with them under their reasonably calm, reasonably functional exterior selves. To catch glimpses of the real turmoil underneath is an astonishing achievement, and that’s what McLean and this powerful production manage to accomplish.

Directed with subtlety and precision by Jon Tracy, Any Given Day revels in the simple complexity of everyday life. The first half introduces us to Bill (Christopher McHale) and Sadie (Amy Kossow), two residents of Glasgow council housing. The more we learn about them, the more we see that they’ve probably spent time institutionalized or under some sort of supervision but are now living on their own.

We also learn what kind and genuinely sweet people they are, how tender they are with each other when they’re able and how their partnership forms a sort of protective blockade from the world outside their windows. Kossow’s performance is especially poignant – her Sadie is clearly damaged in some key ways, but her moments of panic, terror and anger are balanced by washes of happiness that make her giggle and shine like a little girl.

McLean introduces an element of danger into this cocoon, and from that moment on, the play becomes quite different. The valiant efforts of Sadie and Bill to organize their day and make preparations for a visitor are suddenly underscored by a growing sense of dread. It’s a fascinating thing because we find ourselves feeling protective of these characters we’ve only just met, yet there’s nothing we can do for them.

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In the second half, we’re in another part of Glasgow at a bar (authentic and efficient sets by Michael Locher lit with restraint and realism by York Kennedy) where the owner, Dave (James Carpenter) and his newish employee of three months, Jackie (Stacy Ross), are having a chat. Their whole relationship unfolds from the sharing of a phone message, and they find themselves suddenly in the midst of an intimate conversation over a bottle of Sancerre.

The two halves are related most significantly by dramatic irony. We have information that will affect Bill and Jackie but once again are powerless to do anything but watch them, in their unknowingness, as they delve into topics of sex and family and what makes a good day. Carpenter and Ross deliver their customary insightful, beautifully honed performances, but Ross find heartbreaking depth in a woman feeling herself slide ever closer to just giving up.

All the actors in the cast, including Patrick Alparone filling in for Daniel Petzold in a small but important role, are so focused and strong. They even manage believable Scottish accents, which is no small feat in itself. Restraint and reality rule in this everyday world, but passions are present, too. There’s violence and heroism in large and small ways on this Given Day, and it’s an absolutely phenomenal thing to experience. This is an unusual play in that it feels complete yet unfinished because, somehow, it’s still going on. The play lingers in memory to be sure, but it feels these people are still out there affecting each others’ lives in ways they’ll never know and just trying to make it through another day.

[bonus interview]
I talked to rising Bay Area director Jon Tracy (and the people who love him) for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Linda McLean’s Any Given Day continues an extended run through April 29 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Yo to the Ho! Pirates rock in Penzance

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John Paul Gonzalez (far right) as Frederic proclaims his love and his loathing for his fellow pirates and their life of crime in the Berkeley Playhouse production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rock update of the operetta classic. Below: Rana Weber is nursemaid Ruth, explaining to the pirates how Frederic, her charge, ended up with pirates instead of a pilot, as was intended. Photos by Larry Abel

Singing pirates automatically make me think of two things: the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland with their rousing “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me)” and the dreadful and utterly loveable 1982 movie musical flop The Pirate Movie starring Kristy McNichol and Christopher Atkins as Mabel and Frederic, respectively, in a pop-rock adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance. Along with Grease 2 (also 1982), this is one of the worst movie musicals ever and, also like Grease 2, one of my all-time favorites. For a taste of The Pirate Movie, see the videos below. Would that I could show you the whole, terrible thing. We’d have so much fun.

I’m thinking about singing pirates because I had the pleasure of seeing Berkeley Playhouse’s production of The Pirates of Penzance this weekend. If Berkeley Playhouse is not on your radar because you think it’s a kids theater, you should think again. The Playhouse’s professional season produces shows for the entire family, and they do mean entire. Adults can have as much fun (if not more) than the kids. They hire some fantastic directors such as, in this case, Jon Tracy, who turns Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 operetta into a high-energy rock musical.

Without straining too hard, musical director Jonathan Fadner (on guitar and keyboards) and his other three players turn the score into a legitimate pop-rock score. The only difference between this and, say, Rent, is the abundance of clever, tongue-twisting lyrics and the utter sweetness of a swashbuckling show that values poetry as much as swordplay.

There’s a vague futuristic tone to Tracy’s vision, from the industrial look of Nina Ball’s sets to the punky flair of Abra Berman’s costumes, and that makes it all seem rather cartoony in a fun comic book sort of way. Why shouldn’t there be merrily marauding pirates in the future?

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The G&S story about a 21-year-old pirate – Frederic (played with dashing charm by John Paul Gonzalez) – who’s really only 5 years old because of leap year complications and his love-at-first-sight girlfriend, Mabel (the silken-voiced Juliet Heller). There’s a Pirate King, of course, played with cross-dressing panache by Cathleen Riddley, and a hard-of-hearing nursemaid who’s much cuter than she’s supposed to be (thanks to Rana Weber) and the very model of modern major general who happens to ride a motorized scooter (excellent driving and rapping by Terry Rucker).

Even musical director Fadner gets in on the act. During an Act 1 scene change, he pops up from the orchestra pit in full snorkel headgear, wailing on his guitar … with a fish.

The show is just under two hours even with an intermission and zips by with help from Emily Morrison’s fist-pumping choreography that occasionally recalls large group moves from ’80s videos – and what’s more fun than ’80s videos? The kids sitting around me were captivated by the show, especially when swords were drawn and the large cast was engaged in fight director Dave Maier’s always excellent moves.

The rock sound of the show spans the decades. There’s a lot of 1950s rockabilly with an Elvis-like rumble, not to mention ’60s surf guitars, ’70s punk and ’80s post-punk. Of course it’s all of a family-friendly variety and played at a comfortable volume.

[bonus videos]
In case your knowledge of The Pirate Movie is limited, please feel free to drink from this well of ’80s kitsch and see why Christopher Atkins and Kristy McNichol were never huge musical stars (but they’re adorable and awfully good sports). The first song, “Pumpin’ and Blowin’,” is an extreme guilty pleasure. The second song is the grand finale, with Frederic and Mabel and everyone pairing off for a happy ending. What would Gilbert and Sullivan think?


Berkeley Playhouse’s The Pirates of Penzance continues through April 1 at the Julia Morgan Theatre, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$35. Call 510-835-8542 or visit

Short sweet frolic on the PlayGround

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Michael Phillis (in the refrigerator) and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White’s Frigidaire, one of seven 10-minute plays in Best of Playground 15 at the Thick House. Below: Phillis and Rinabeth Apostol in Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body. Photos by mellopix performance

In the spirit of PlayGround’s annual 10-minute play festival, I’m going to attempt to write a 10-minute review.

The time is 10:40am. Start the clock.

The joy of a short play festival is the utter diversity in style, tone and voice. You can have what amounts to a sketch comedy bumping up against muscular drama, an intriguing fragment or a surprising burst of poetry. All of that happens and more in Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays at the Thick House. The seven plays presented represent the cream of the PlayGround playwriting process, which runs from October through March. A pool of 36 writers is given a topic and then asked to write a 10-minute play on a chosen theme. The best of those plays are given staged readings, and then the best of that bunch makes it to this festival.

Of the seven shows now on display, I can tell you my three clear favorites.

1. Arisa White’s Frigidaire surprises and delights with its twist on the coming out story. A domineering mother (Holli Hornlien) desperately wants her son (Michael Phillis) to be gay. She even goes so far as to force him into the arms of a priest known for his predilection for young boys. But the young man isn’t having it. His mother’s forceful ways – she says it’s her way of building his character – have sent him ’round the bend. He comes home from the latest forced encounter and barricades himself in the fridge. Director Jon Tracy‘s production is funny and powerful.

2. Eveyln Jean Pine’s See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. Takes a familiar scenario – two homeless buddies drinking and arguing – and makes it lyrical and poignant. Nicky (Jomar Tagatac), the younger guy, is a heavy drinker, but all the alcohol can’t quite obscure his hope for a better, more meaningful life. Sammy (David Cramer) has been on the streets too long. His hope doesn’t extend much beyond looking at the rain from the inside of a warm room for a change. Nicky’s latest burst of enthusiasm concerns a quote – he thinks it’s by Jack Kerouac, but it’s really by Eugene O’Neill – and if he cuts up the words of the quote and draws them randomly from a bag, the words create poetry and visions of the future. As directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Pine’s piece is gritty and beautiful.


3. Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body also takes a familiar scenario – two teenagers break into a church for purposes of mischief and, if all goes well, making out. For Cole (Phillis), the escapade doesn’t really amount to much more than swiping some wine and coaxing his partner in crime up to a cozy nook. But for Sophie (Rinabeth Apostol), the church and its rituals actually mean something. Susie Damilano’s direction and the actors’ shapr performances create palpable tension – and heat.

OK. Stop the clock. It’s 10:50. I’m breaking the rules and extending my time long enough to mention that the festival also includes Katie May’s cute Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero: A Feminist Fairy Tale; Jonathan Luskin’s Ecce Homo, a tribute to the durability of vaudevillians; Mandy Hodge Rizvi’s ambitious Escapades: A ballet with dialogue, or a dance through time and memory; and Brady Lea’s musical Calling the Kettle, with music by Christopher Winslow.

It’s all thoroughly enjoyable and nicely produced. Time spent on this PlayGround is always time spent with intriguing new writers from whom we’ll be hearing more in the future.


Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays continues through May 29 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 415-992-6677 or visit

You should also check out PlayGround’s staged readings of new plays at the Thick House. Still to come are Stiff Competition by Cass Brayton (2pm, May 15); A Marriage by Tom Swift (7pm, May 16); Book Club! The Musical by Geetha Reddy (2pm, May 22); Cristina Walters by Malachy Walsh (7pm, May 23); and Valley of Sand by Trevor Allen (2pm, May 29).


Sing out, Aslan! Narnia warbles a show tune

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The Pevensie children (from left), Peter (Andrew Humann), Susan (Alona Bach) and Lucy (Dakota Dry) join forces with Mrs. Beaver (Mary Gibboney) in Berkeley Playhouse’s musical version of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Below: The Pevensies get to know their Uncle Diggory (Anthony Rollins-Mullens). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

If your Narnia lacks magic, there’s a problem. C.S. Lewis’ contribution to the enchanted lands branch of children’s literature requires that the kingdom beyond the back wall of the musty old wardrobe demands magic.

The books in the Narnia series certainly do the trick of transporting readers to someplace beyond the page. The various film versions have been hit and miss with the enchantment. The most recent Disney versions are heavy on the CGI effects, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a magical spark.

Berkeley Playhouse, that bold company creating professional theater that appeals to family members of all ages, does a much more effective job locating that magic in its musical adaptation, Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The trick, it seems, was hiring director Jon Tracy, who has recently been spending a lot of time with Shotgun Players writing and directing his epic version of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Tracy is not a sentimentalist, and he’s a rigorous director. Both of those qualities serve this Narnia quite well. He’s marshalling a lot of forces here – professional adult actors, experienced child actors, child actors in training (part of Berkeley Playhouse’s educational internship), a band and a two-turntable set.

One or two of those elements might cow a weaker director, but Tracy cracks his whip – or let’s say, in this instance, waved his magic staff – and gets results.

Jules Tasca has streamlined Lewis’ book into a nearly 2 ½-hour experience that somehow finds time for nearly two dozen songs (music by Thomas Tierney and lyrics by Ted Drachman). Except in a few cases, the music is really the least interesting aspect of this show, and that’s nothing against music director Amy Dalton, who makes her crack seven-piece band sound like a much bigger orchestra.

No, what works here is what always works: story. We get sucked through that wardrobe right with the Pevensie children, and we end up caring how they fare when faced with fantastical creatures, sibling betrayal and blood-and-guts war.
It’s your basic good-vs.-evil set-up, with good represented by the children and their leader, Aslan the Christ-like Lion, and bad represented by the White Witch, whose crime is turning enemies into stone and making it always winter (and never Christmas).

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Tracy’s direction of the Pevensie children cuts the treacle by a good deal. Andrew Humann is especially good (and deadly serious) as eldest sibling Peter, and Alona Bach is just as good as the highly practical Susan. As troublesome Edmund, Alexander Franklin (alternating in the role with Will Reicher) is a believable lover of Turkish Delight and not much else. And young Dakota Dry (alternating with Maytal Bach) as Lucy is about as adorable and as heartfelt as she can be.

Of the adults, I was most captivated by Michael Barrett Austin as Mr. Tumnus, the faun. His lament, “Narnia (You Can’t Imagine),” is the song that comes closest to capturing the melancholy of Narnia under the reign of the White Witch.

Nina Ball’s scenic design makes excellent use of two turntables that allow set changes a bit of cinematic sweep (not to mention speed). It’s hard to create an epic feel on a smallish stage, but Ball and Tracy (who also designed the lights) do just that. The battle scenes (fight choreography by Dave Maier) are effective at conveying a sense of the fight without detailing the violence – a good solution for families with younger children.

Chelsea White’s costumes have a nice sense of whimsy, but her real achievement here is making Aslan (the strong-voiced Anthony Rollins-Mullens) as majestic as he needs to be. There’s a danger of making him look like a cross between Simba in The Lion King and the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, neither of which really works here. But her warrior-like headdress does just the trick.

Details like that are what makes this Narnia so sturdy and, ultimately, so effective. Director Tracy gets the details right and lets the story do the heavy lifting of making magic.


Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe continues through April 3 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$33. Call 510-845-8542 or visit for information.

Review: `The BFG (Big Friendly Giant)’

Some of the enthusiastic cast members of Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) are (clockwise from top right) Nkechi, Alona Bach, Tom Darci and Niko Darci-Maher. Photo by Kevin Berne.


Berkeley Playhouse scores big fun with energetic `Giant’

In only its second full production, Berkeley Playhouse is proving itself to be a joyously reliable practitioner of family theater.

You hear the words “family theater” and tend to think of precious shows on a shoestring budget that mean well but can’t really compete with the wealth of other entertainments grabbing kids’ attention.

But Berkeley Playhouse, under the artistic direction of Elizabeth McKoy, really gets it. McKoy and her team, in addition to running classes for all ages and popular summer programs, create theater that is indeed for the entire family, meaning that adults will enjoy the experience as much as the children.

At a Saturday afternoon performance of The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), a 1982 Roald Dahl story adapted for the stage by David Wood, the packed audience at the Ashby Stage was fairly evenly split between large and small theatergoers – and it’s difficult to imagine anyone in that crowd not having a grand time.

Following last year’s vibrant, vital Seussical, the Musical, Berkeley Playhouse presents something entirely different but equally as entertaining.

From the delectably twisted imagination of Dahl comes the tale of an orphan named Sophie and the BFG, a big, friendly giant in charge of blowing dreams into children’s slumbering brains. One night, a sleepless Sophie sees the giant performing his duties, and rather than risk being tattled on and captured, the giant kidnaps her and takes her to Giant Country.

The two lonely souls become fast friends, and Sophie discovers that the BFG is alone among his giant compatriots in that he is neither evil nor flesh eating. The rest of the over-sized bunch, with names such as Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler, Bonecrusher, Meatdripper and Gizzardgulper, are foul and mean and threatening to go eat children in England.

It’s up to Sophie and the BFG to stop the carnage, so they cleverly enlist the help of the Queen of England, who marshals the resources of her navy and air force.

It’s a charming story, but the telling of it in this imaginative production is the real delight.

The play begins at a birthday party for Sophie (Alona Bach) being held in her family’s attic (fantastic set design by Kim Tolman). It’s total chaos because the hired entertainers haven’t shown up, Sophie’s mom (Nkechi) is screaming into her mobile phone and the children are wreaking havoc on the harried maid.

Sophie’s dad (Tom Darci) arrives with a package, but it’s strangely empty. “Sometimes it’s best to leave things a little loose,” he says. Then Sophie’s teenage brother (Rob Dario) arrives with his skateboarder buddies, prompting one young party-goer to moan: “Teenagers! Devastating!”

But the teens have an idea to restore order to the proceedings. They enlist everyone’s help – child and adult – to act out Sophie’s favorite story, which happens to be The BFG. Using props they find in the attic, they unfurl the story in deliciously creative ways.

The mean, ugly giants, for example, are all created by one kid partnered with one adult using household items such as crutches, umbrellas, colanders and toys. But the designs are ingeniously simple and effective (costumes are by BJ Bandy, props are by Hannah Phillips Ryan – and it’s hard to know where costumes end and props begin).

Darci plays the giant, and Sophie plays herself … sort of. To convey the sense of giant and tiny human, the character of Sophie is played by a stuffed turtle in a nightdress, and the human Sophie provides the voice.

Director Jon Tracy miraculously orchestrates the mayhem and keeps the storytelling crisp and clear. The performers, both young and old, are all capable and better yet, seem to be having a marvelous time. There’s not a weak link in the cast of 14, and everyone gets a moment to shine.

Everyone seems to relish Dahl’s linguistic flourishes as the giant talks of foul-tasting snozzcumbers, brain-bogglingsome dilemmas and stinky but musical whizzpoppers (with a young audience, there’s no end to the delight ignited by flatulence jokes).

Everything about the show is designed with young people foremost in mind. The first act contains the meat of the show, and the long, steam-letting intermission is followed by a short second act and a curtain call that invites a young audience member to come on stage and create a giant from several baskets of toys and props. Then all young audience members are invited to come up and grab a giant prop to take home. The whole experience is a kid-friendly 2 hours and 20 minutes, or thereabouts.

That’s interactive in the best sense. And of course there are winks to the adults as well. Taking a call from the American president, a young man says, “Oh, thanks Barack.” It’s also mentioned in passing that even Sarah Palin has had her share of whizzpoppers.

Fresh, funny and with far more imagination than your average movie, TV show or video game, Berkeley Playhouse’s The BFG is a BFD: a bright, fanciful, delight.


The BFG continues through Nov. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $22 for children and $28 for adults. Special “pay what you can” Thursday performances Nov. 6 and 13. Every full-time K-12 teacher gets in free. Call 510-665-5565 or visit

Review: `Evil Dead: The Musical’

Continues through July 26 at the Campbell Theatre, Martinez

Michael Scott Wells and Alexandra Creighton scare off Candarian demons in Evil Dead: The Musical, a Willows Theatre production at the Campbell Theatre in Martinez. Photos courtesy of Willows Theater.

Singing and bleeding in horror musical
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Adding the words “the musical” to a title is, in some cases, automatically funny. ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: The Musical. Mein Kampf: The Musical. Spider-Man: The Musical. (Don’t laugh – that last one is real and coming to Broadway soon.)

So already, Evil Dead: The Musical has a leg up in the laugh department, albeit a dismembered, bloody leg.

Sam Raimi’s early ’80s gore fest splattered across movie and video screens through much of the decade, lending it cult status, spawning two sequels and making a sort-of star of Bruce Campbell and a budding blockbuster director of Raimi (who would go on to direct the Spider-Man franchise).

Whenever the word “cult” is attached to a movie, the musical stage version can’t be far behind. About two years ago, a group of Canadian kids – George Reinblatt (book, lyrics, music), Christopher Bond (music and additional lyrics), Frank Cipolla (music), Melissa Morris (music) and Rob Daleman (music) – decided to camp up the already campy comedy-horror film and turn it into an all-singing, all-dancing zombie fest. The show was a hit in Toronto, had a run off-Broadway and is now back in Toronto.

The musical finally makes it to the Bay Area courtesy of the Willows Theatre Company, who’s producing it in their Campbell Theatre, which is a spiffy cabaret-style space in downtown Martinez. The ironic thing is that years ago, this is the kind of outrageous, sensational show that people would come see in the big, bad city. But now these kinds of shows tend to spring up in the suburbs, and city folk have to make the trek.

Now to the review. In the immortal words of Ash, the hero of Evil Dead: “Yo, she-bitch. Let’s go.”

But wait, before I even get to the actual show, which is fun and amateurish and not as well produced as it should be, I want to commend the Willows for the entire Evil Dead experience. First off, there’s a “splatter zone,” the more expensive first few rows of the theater, where customers get drenched in stage blood (really just pink water, but LOTS of it). You can buy a white T-shirt to wear with the promise that by the end, it will be a red-spattered, customized souvenir tee. You can also buy protective plastic poncho for a buck, but that defeats the purpose of being in the splatter zone, which is almost always sold out. Kids today love their splatter.

Your friendly cocktail waitress will inform you of the special cocktails, most of which have unprintable names and promise to have you on the floor (or thinking this musical is brilliant) in only two shots. You can order meat and cheese trays, nachos and the like, which all contributes to the carnival atmosphere of the show, and that’s just grand.

What’s happening on stage is less grand. Like the movie that inspired it, this musical is meant to be Grade B (or C or D) material that revels in crudeness, silliness and cheap thrills. I get that. And director Jon Tracy’s cast has the requisite exuberance and attitude.

What they don’t have is good music (performed on a tinny, prerecorded soundtrack) or a decent sound system. Complicating the sound issues are the zombie masks the actors wear once they become Candarian demons. The microphones and the full-face masks do not work well together and muddy the sound almost beyond recognition. Any cleverness in the lyrics is mostly obscured. That’s why the show’s mask-free final number, “Blew That Bitch Away,” comes across best — we can hear every word.

Much of the technical attention seems to have been lavished on the gore and the construction of water canons to shoot the spray into the audience. When the spraying isn’t enough, a stagehand (Greg Asdourian), steps out on stage with a powerful water gun and just shoots randomly into the audience. Even those outside the splatter zone are in danger of flying blood.

Full props to Michael Scott Wells, who stars as Ash and channels Bruce Campbell like a pro. He can wield a chainsaw with a severed right hand all while singing and dancing. Top that, Patti LuPone.

In the supporting cast, Corey Lenkner as hillbilly Jake has a great song (“Good Old Reliable Jake,” performed without a mask, by the way), and Lowell Abellon as Ed, sings a woeful number about being a bit-part demon (it’s sort of the “Mr. Cellophane” of the show). Alexandra Creighton also shines as a late-entry love interest for Ash. Her dying ballet, with Ash’s severed hand holding a knife in her back, is priceless.

Clearly the show’s creators were going for something along the lines of The Rocky Horror Show. They even throw in their version of “The Time Warp” called “Do the Necronomicon.” This is no Rocky Horror, but it will do in a pinch.

In case you were wondering, this show is NOT for kids. It has strong language, sex jokes and, of course, gallons of pretend blood. Bring your inner child (or more appropriately, your inner drunk college student), but not your actual child.

Evil Dead: The Musical continues through July 26 at the Campbell Theatre, 636 Ward St., Martinez. Tickets are $30 for the splatter zone, $25 regular. Call 925-798-1300 or visit for information.

In the director’s chair with: Jon Tracy

The cast and crew of SF Playhouse’s Bug. Director Jon Tracy is on the right in the hat.

Ask Jon Tracy what’s bugging him these days, and the answer is easy: Bug.

Tracy is directing the Bay Area premiere of the play, by recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) for SF Playhouse. The production begins previews May 7, opens May 10 and continues through June 14 at the downtown San Francisco theater.

Famously creepy and skin-crawly, Bug is a tale of paranoia – a man and a woman in a grimy, slimy hotel room suffer delusions of a bug infestation brought about by a nefarious government conspiracy…or mental illness…or actual bugs. A movie was made of the play in 2006 directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, the star of the original Chicago production of the play. The movie, which some hailed and others reviled, did not impress Tracy, who was a fan of the play.

“Seeing that movie only made me want to direct the play more,” he says. “When you see a version of something you love that you don’t care for, that didn’t grab the story correctly, you want to fix it.”

What appeals to Tracy about the play is that there’s more to it than just the gore and horror it’s famous for.

“It’s an unbelievably wonderful look at a love story,” Tracy says.

The lovers in Tracy’s production are Gabe Marin as Peter, the AWOL Gulf War veteran who thinks he may have been subjected to experiments by the military, and Susi Damilano as Agnes, a cocktail waitress with a propensity for partying.

“What we’re finding in rehearsals is that Letts has a distinctive rhythm and sensibility,” Tracy says. “We’re working with two different rhythms in a farce staging that includes some really interesting rules to live by. There is a wit that needs to come out of it. There’s so much subtext. In most contemporary plays we don’t really say anything we mean, but what we mean is down there somewhere. Letts is an unbelievable wordsmith. He’s not afraid to punch you twice before you realize you got punched the first time. The play is beyond clever. The emotional journey is mathematically precise and goes well beyond the shock value he has become known for.”

Where the movie went wrong, in Tracy’s opinion, was in missing the natural comedy of the piece and messing up the ending.

“Friedkin misstated the end,” Tracy says. “We weren’t along for the ride. It was all screaming people, spinning camera and aluminum foil covering everything. Any amount of belief was blown out and it became silly. The central relationship wasn’t the love story I’ve come to see as so important to the play.”

SF Playhouse is just about the perfect space for a play like Bug that trades on paranoia and claustrophobia. Set designer Bill English (also SF Playhouse’s artistic director) has created a seedy motel set that Tracy says is “a character in and of itself.” The audience, for good or ill, is going to feel trapped in that hotel room and the paranoia that’s building around something that may or may not actually be happening.

That’s exactly how Tracy likes it.

“It’s time for theater to get back to holding the audience accountable,” he says. “That happens less in our modern theaters. We like to tell them what to do and what to think. Here, let me turn my imagination off. That’s counterproductive to why we started doing this in the first place.”

Why Tracy, a Vallejo native who now lives in Oakland, started doing this theater thing was simple: he thought it would be a cool way to meet girls. These days, though, he has a different philosophy.

“My thought is that we live today in an unbelievably beautiful, giving world that masquerades as a horrible, treacherous place,” he says. “If you’re looking for the good in it, it’s not going to appear. It’s about realigning ourselves so we can see what’s been there the entire time, and embrace what’s been there the entire time. I have to believe that theater is that bridge. For me, that’s what I believe we do. We call ourselves artists, but that’s the worst possible title for us. Instead, we need to look at the fact that we are like every other person pursuing their craft for the betterment of the community. By that definition, the plumber or the accountant is an artist. The problem is, that in the trappings of life – the mortgage, three kids and so on – we lose our art. That’s why we commune in the theater or go to a museum – to find a little of ourselves again and maybe to see that everything is actually here to help.”

Plucked out of the Solano College theater program by George Maguire who suggested directing over acting, Tracy says he has been lucky to have great people shepherd him along. Joy Carlin (right, with Tracy) and the Carlin family have been “incredible influences,” and now he says he has been embraced by co-founders English and Damilano at SF Playhouse.

“I’m a huge, huge, unbelievably huge believer in the people I work with,” Tracy says. “I know I will always learn more than I dish out. I know I’m lucky to be in the room.”

So far this year, Tracy’s directorial plate has been full of darkness – Macbeth, The Diviners and Bug – and now it’s time to lighten up. His next project, which will open Friday, June 13, in the Willows Theatre Company’s Martinez theater, is Evil Dead: The Musical.

“I listened to the music and thought it was raunchy and silly and fun,” Tracy says. “I grew up with the Sam Raimi films and just couldn’t say no to this one.”

SF Playhouse’s Bug runs from May 7 through June 14. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.