Bay Area theater 2015: some favorites

2015 illustration

One of the best things about the year-end exercise to round up favorite theatergoing memories of the preceding year is that it can be such a powerful reminder of how much good theater we have in the Bay Area and how many really extraordinary theater artists we have working here. Another element jumps out at me this year and that is how, in addition to great homegrown work, our area also attracts some of the best theater artists from around the world to come and share their work (at the behest of savvy local producers, of course).

So here are some thoughts on memorable work I saw this year – and I will add as a caveat, I didn’t see as much as I should have (or as much as I used to for that matter), and I must express some pride that as we head into 2016, this old Theater Dogs blog will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and that makes me mighty proud. This is a labor of love, and I want it to be that first and foremost, a way of celebrating and promoting the riches we have here.

• The Curran Theatre is reborn. For me, the theater event of the year was actually a series of events comprising Curran Under Construction, a reintroduction of the fabled theater by its owner, Carole Shorenstein Hays not simply as a stop for touring shows but as an important player in the theatrical culture of the city. While the theater undergoes renovation in its lobby and restrooms, Hays invited audiences to enter through the stage door and sit on stage to experience one after another shows of extraordinary power and diversity. She began with The Event, a horrifyingly relevant exploration of mass violence, grief and understanding, and moved on to the wildly different but equally thrilling The Object Lesson with Geoff Sobelle blending materialism and memories in a magical way. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet offered whisky, haunting music and one of the year’s best, most immersive stage experiences. Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce brought a favorite son back to San Francisco, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald put their own rock-blues spin on James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. Every event at the Curran, including the speaker series hosted by the Curran’s resident literary star, Kevin Sessums, has been glorious and fascinating and involving. What more could you want from theater? (read the original posts here)

• Central Market gets a jewel of a theater in ACT’s The Strand. The Curran wasn’t the only re-birth this year. American Conservatory Theater spent a whole lot of time, money and effort bringing some class to the evolving Central Market area. The new Strand Theater is spectacular and should prove to be a key component in the cultural life of San Francisco. (read the original post here)

• Just Theater blows us away. Again. After A Maze last year, Just Theater became a company I wanted to pay attention to, and boy did that attention pay off. With Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 the company emerged as a producer of provocative, impactful work that should attract as big an audience as possible. This play within a play (within a rehearsal) tackled race, history and personal drama in ways that felt mind bending and heart racing.(read the original post here)

• We got to see Angela Lansbury live on stage. Even if she had just stood on stage and waved, that would have been something, but no, Dame Angela, the legend herself, gave a true and truly funny performance as Madame Arcati in the Broadway touring production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit as part of the SHN season. At 89, she defied any signs of age and offered pure magic. Extraordinary. (read the original post here)

Hookman splatters expectations. Playwright Lauren Yee offered abundant surprises in this “existential slasher comedy,” which is the best possible description of this electric one-act play from Encore Theatre. (read the original post here)

• Tuneful time travel in Triangle. The most heartfelt new musical I saw this year was Triangle at TheatreWorks, a time-twisting tale involving tragedy and romance. Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer have crafted a smart, melodious show that feels original and scaled exactly right (the cast of six feels much bigger, as do the emotions). (read the original post here)

• There’s still life left in Scrooge after all. There’s absolutely no reason that the new musical Scrooge in Love should not become a holiday perennial. Creators Kellen Blair, Larry Grossman and Duane Poole have crafted an utterly charming musical sequel to A Christmas Carol with songs you actually want to hear and characters you root for. Of course having Jason Graae as Scrooge is a big Christmas bonus, so kudos to all at 42nd Street Moon for breaking away from the classic or forgotten musicals and presenting something fresh and fantastic. (read the original post here)

• Alice Munro should love Word for Word. There’s no better theater company than Word for Word and no better writer than Alice Munro, so…mic drop. This was sublime from beginning to end as director Joel Mullenix and a cast that included the wondrous Jeri Lynn Cohen, Susan Harloe and Howard Swain brought two Munro stories to life, one from 1968, one from 2012. There was humor, heart and exquisite writing. (read the original post here)

• Cathleen Riddley lays it bare in Tree. Riddley can always be counted on for a strong performance, but in this powerful Julie Hébert family drama at San Francisco Playhouse she was riveting and heartbreaking as an older woman losing touch with herself and her family. (read the original post here)

• And then the drama comes flooding in. My favorite set of the year was G.W. Skip Mercier’s design for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Water played a big part in the design of a house in marshy Louisiana territory where the forks of the Mississippi meet. There was a storm, a leaky roof and then a deluge of biblical proportions. And boy was it fun to watch. (read the original post here)

• Hypocrites pummel Pirates perfectly. Probably the most fun you could have in a theater (and not mind getting beaned by a beach ball) was Chicago troupe The Hypocrites’ wild and wonderful take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Berkeley Rep had the smarts to introduce the Bay Area to this smart, enterprising company, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of their inventive, energetic take on interactive theater. (read the original post here)

Just Theater presents a wildly provocative Presentation

Present 1
Another White Man (Patrick Jones, left), Sarah (Megan Trout, center) and Another Black Man (Rotimi Agbabiaka) improvise a fight in the Just Theater production (in association with Shotgun Players) of We Are Proud to Present…. Below: Black Man (David Moore) and Black Woman (Kehinde Koyejo) attempt to spark a romance under Namibian skies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

In some ways, the less you know about Just Theater’s latest show, the better. Here’s what you need to know and then you can read the rest after you’ve seen it: this is a very modern show in that it deconstructs and wrestles to the ground ideas of traditional theater. It deals with heavy subject matter (genocide) but does so with intelligence, humor and a wildly energetic style that moves well beyond the usual, polite play-audience interaction and more into the visceral punch-in-the-gut territory that leaves you slightly dazed in its aftermath. This is a play (well written and astonishingly well performed to be sure) but it’s also an EXPERIENCE.

In other words, you should go. You aren’t likely to see anything like it, and in addition to seeing some great local actors being great, you’ll also have something on which to muse for a good while afterward. This show (presented in association with Shotgun Players knocks you for all kinds of loops.

Not unlike Christopher Chen’s Hundred Flowers Project (read more here), Jackie Sibblies Drury’s (take a deep breath) We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is a piece of theater within a piece of theater (a presentation within a presentation) that uses the making of theater to convey facts about history and to stir up deep emotions that quickly – and powerfully – make the pretend real. It’s hard to say how literal we are to take the premise here, but we begin in a rough performance space (the configuration of the space is just as it was for Shotgun’s Our Town, which is to say there are audience members on two sides of the space and no real set to speak of other than a table, chairs and a rolling ladder). There are six theater makers who address the audience with a rehearsed overview to give us some historical context.

Present 2

We are going to be dealing with Namibia in southwestern Africa. More specifically we will see how the German colonialists dealt with the native tribes, specifically the cow-herding Herero. By the time the Germans were ousted by the English in 1915, the Germans had exterminated most of the Herero. The idea is that the actors will read the only first-hand accounts of the German occupation, which are letters sent home by German soldiers. Apparently it’s an open rehearsal process with an audience, but that may be where the whole literal thing can be taken too far.

Through improv exercises and need to “create something real,” the actors – three black, three white – wrestle with one another and their director (Kehinde Koyejo, whose character is known only as Black Woman). They don’t know exactly what they’re doing or what they want to create, but they edge closer and closer to that something real until it’s too real and it’s not about the Herero and Germans at all. At first there’s a lot of recognizable actor angst – insecurity, ego, varying improv skills – but then the tension begins to become more specific. Is this story about the Germans? Or is it about the Herero? Is it about genocide? Or is it about something more personal and perhaps closer to home?

At only 95 minutes, We Are Proud to Present… condenses a traumatic human experience (historical and personal) into a manageable time frame but does so with extraordinary attention to detail. The cast, which also includes Lucas Hatton, David Moore, Patrick Kelly Jones, Rotimi Agbabiaka and Megan Trout, has to create a believable contrast between “the play/presentation” and “real life,” and they do so beautifully under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb. That contrast, so stark at the start, blurs more and more as this “rehearsal/workshop/whatever” continues, and by the end, art and reality, past and present, fact and emotion, are all in play in the most head-spinning way imaginable.

My only complaint about Drury’s play is its speed. These are intelligent, emotional people working out some complicated stuff, and the 90-minute framework stifles what could be some even more interesting arguments about what’s really going on here. Interesting points are raised, debated and then quickly subdued while the show barrels on when it seems the really juicy arguments are just beginning.

But wishing a smart, loud, aggressive play were even smarter, louder and more aggressive seems a little bratty when what’s here is so interesting, so physically adroit and, in the end, so moving. If you let this play take hold of you – and that’s easily accomplished – you won’t feel like the same person who walked into the theater.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present… continues through March 7 at the Ashby Stage (in association with Shotgun Players), 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 510-214-3780 or visit

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Simply put, Just Theater’s A Maze is just amazing

A Maze
Talk show host Kim (Lauren Spencer, left) interviews graphic novel artist Beeson (Clive Worsley) and Pathetic Fallacy band member Paul (Harold Pierce) in the re-mounted production of Just Theater’s A Maze by Rob Handel. Below: The Queen (Janis DeLucia) and the King (Lasse Christiansen) discuss plans for building a maze to keep their soon-to-be-born daughter safe. Photos by Pak Han

There’s only so much you can say about Rob Handel’s delectably intriguing play A Maze without spoiling the fun. The first thing to know is that the play was first produced in the Bay Area last summer by Just Theater at the Live Oak Theater. That production generated such buzz, both from critics and audience members, that the astute folks at Shotgun Players pricked up their ears and decided to re-mount that production at the Ashby Stage.

The re-mount brings back the original cast of eight under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb, and though I didn’t see the show last summer, it’s hard to imagine these performances are not sharper and more astute this time out. Aaronson-Gebl and her actors present the best possible case for Handel’s play as one of the juiciest, most involving dramas to be seen on a Bay Area stage in recent months.

What’s so exciting about A Maze is watching how expertly these actors handle the careful unfolding of Handel’s complex, multifaceted tale. Without giving anything away, there are three main plot strands. The first involves a 17-year-old girl named Jessica (the astonishing Frannie Morrison) who has recently escaped from eight years in captivity. She was abducted from a grocery story at age 9 and has come out of her ordeal with remarkable poise and camera-ready intelligence.

A Maze

The second involves a fractured rock band called Pathetic Fallacy in the wake of a giant hit called “I Want Love Brought to Me.” Boyfriend-girlfriend band members Paul (Harold Pierce) and Oksana (Sarah Moser) are making some big choices that will likely affect not only the future of the band but also their relationship. And the third revolves around a graphic artist named Beeson Earwig (Clive Worsley giving a jaw-droppingly good performance) whose multi-volume graphic novel, numbering in the thousands of pages, is building quite a cult following.

What playwright Handel does with time and the weaving together of his plot threads and shifts into fantasy is remarkable, and by the end of Act 1, he has the audience so in the palm of his hand that they would happily skip intermission and dive straight into Act 2.

There’s a whole lot more plot, and within this labyrinthine creation there’s an interesting discussion about the lives of artists, the separation of artist from the art and the heart of creativity, but it’s all craftily entwined in plot and increasingly interesting characters. Rounding out this exceptional cast is Lasse Christiansen, Janice DeLucia, Carl Holvick-Thomas and Lauren Spencer.

I can’t say enough about the sharp, incisive details in these performances. Even in the scene transitions (on Martin Flynn’s maze-covered, mostly black-and-white set), we get insight into characters as the actors head on and off the stage. It would seem that there’s not one detail, from Miyuki Bierlein and Ashley Rogers’ expert costumes to Michael Palumbo’s lighting design, in this 2 1/2-hour production that has not been given careful consideration by director Aaronson-Gelb and her team.

It’s easy to get lost in this Maze, but being lost has rarely revealed such rich theatrical reward.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with A Maze playwright Rob Handel for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Rob Handel’s A Maze continues through March 9 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 510-214-3780 or visit