Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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Lauren English (left) is Harmony, Khary L. Moye (center) is Brooke and Anthony Fusco is Leonard in Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere audio play The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.

Sitting in the intimate Aurora Theatre watching great actors close up is one of the great treats of Bay Area theater. Even though we can’t be together in that space for a while, the Aurora crew is still storytelling in its inimitably intimate way: with a world-premiere audio play by three Bay Area writers. The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector is delivered in three installments. Parts 1 and 2 have already been released, and Part 3 comes out Nov. 6. All three episodes will then be available for streaming, which is good, because you likely won’t be able to listen to just one.

Plays on the radio used to be a regular thing. I even have original cast recordings of Broadway plays. But somehow, this most rewarding theatrical form has faded from mainstream popularity, though audiobooks and podcasts have admirably carried the audio drama mantle in various ways. What’s rewarding about The Flats (of which I’ve heard two of the three episodes) involves three excellent actors – Lauren English, Khary L. Moye and Anthony Fusco – and an intoxicating blend of tension, humor and substance.

Set in Berkeley, the play capitalizes on the dis-ease with which we’ve all become acutely acquainted these last seven months. But in this world, there’s not a global pandemic, but rather something much scarier and more intriguing. I won’t say what it is because that’s part of the fun. But suffice it to say that citizens are experiencing tight government quarantining, with certain liberties allowed here and there. Grocery stores are sorely understocked, and fresh produce is scant. In one particular triplex, three residents – well, two residents and the owner, who suddenly shows up in the vacant unit – are stuck at home with only their neighbors to distract them from the … situation.

Harmony (English) is escaping her troubled marriage and, consequently, her children. Brooke (Moye) is a bit more enigmatic but offers his landlord one of the most intriguing housewarming gifts ever: caterpillars that will soon become butterflies. And Leonard (Fusco) is a drug-taking old Berkeley hippie with his own radio show and a number of conspiracy theories that might not all be preposterous. It’s an uneasy mix of personalities, of course (hard to have drama without tension), and in addition to the stress of what’s going on in the world, this trio is also dealing with issues of race and relationships and earth-shattering revelations.

Director Josh Costello, ably abetted by composer/sound designer Elton Bradman, creates a wonderfully detailed sonic world in which you really feel like you’re with these people, and the actors deliver marvelously detailed performances that create vivid images of the characters and their states of mind.

There’s much more to say about this audio drama, but the fewer details you have, the richer your experience amid the scintillating heights of The Flats.

Single tickets for The Flats are available for $20 here, along with season memberships. The final (of three) episode of The Flats drops Nov. 6. Afterward, all three episodes will be available for streaming.

G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria fascinates, frightens at ACT

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Coworkers Ani (Martha Brigham, left) and Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) commiserate with each other over their publishing jobs and toxic workplace in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, at ACT’s Strand Theater through April 12. Below: Miles, the intern (Jared Corbin, left), talks with Dean (Jeremy Kahn) about his future plans. Photos by Kevin Berne

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a fascinating play. It’s a lively workplace comedy until it’s an unsettling workplace drama. There’s a sheen of satire to it but also reality and heart. There’s a bracing boldness to it that makes its two hours fly by, and its path is never exactly what you think it will be.

Director Eric Ting navigates the tonal shifts expertly with the support of a sterling cast. There’s not a weak or even wobbly performance here, and with some actors playing up to three roles, that is a thrilling thing. I especially loved Martha Brigham as a good-hearted office busybody, a curt publishing doyenne with an even more curt haircut and as an overly enthusiastic, slightly goofy script reading lackey. I was also delighted by Jared Corbin as a cheerful intern, a loquacious Starbucks employee and, in a sharp contrast to the intern, a show-biz executive.

Three established Bay Area actors, Brigham, Lauren English and Jeremy Kahn are giving the kind of performances that further solidify their status as actors whose work you miss at your peril. They are always good, reliable performers, but more often than not, they are brilliant, and that is most definitely the case here.

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I reviewed Gloria for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

Director Eric Ting, who has previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.
There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark were writing a sitcom for the CW.
But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

Read the full review here.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria continues through April 12 at ACT’s The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Chen causes masterful Harm in the Playhouse Sandbox

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Christopher Chen’s world-premiere play You Mean to Do Me Harm features a cast that includes (from left) Charisse Loriaux as Samantha, James Asher as Ben, Don Castro as Daniel and Lauren English as Lindsey. Below: Loriaux’s Samantha (left) English’s Lindsey go for a hike. Photos by Ken Levin

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen has brains for days (and days) and a theatrical sense that runs from absurdist comedy to political thriller. He reins in some – not all – of his wildest theatrical impulses for his latest world premiere, You Mean to Do Me Harm, a production of the San Francisco Playhouse’s new play development program known as the Sandbox Series.

There are only four characters in Harm: two married couples, each comprising a Caucasian-American and a Chinese-American partner. That’s important because Chen, in this incisive 80-minute play, is using mixed-race marriage to dive deep into the notion that when it comes right down to it, geopolitical machinations are essentially global manifestations of our personal relationships to others, to our particular life experience and to ourselves. Spoiler alert: that paints a pretty bleak scenario.

The play, performed in the black-box Rueff at ACT’s Strand Theater, begins as a quartet as the two couples meet for a good-natured dinner. The wife of one couple and the husband of the other went to college together and dated, but that’s all in the past (10 whole years ago). That the two characters with history happen to be the white ones is going to turn out to be important. There’s also another reason for the party. It turns out that one of the husbands, who has been unemployed since his wife was promoted and he was laid off at the same company, is now going to be working with the other husband at an up-and-coming search engine called Flashpoint.

The natural conversational rhythms of this dinner party are beautifully conveyed by Chen’s script, with the mix of awkwardness and enthusiasm, the link of nostalgia for the former lovers and the usual quick definition of who we are by what we do. Director Bill English deftly guides his excellent actors into evermore tension, but it’s the kind of tension that begins, as we will hear often in the upcoming scenes, in the subconscious and operates in hidden channels. As one character puts it: “Just because something isn’t said doesn’t mean it isn’t said.”

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James Asher is Ben, who will soon begin work at Flashpoint in the online content department. He laughingly describes himself as the “white China guy” in that he was hired, in part, for his expertise on all things China (he has lived and worked there, made it the subject of his dissertation, etc.). He will be described later on as a “good balance of being white and being sorry about being white.” Daniel (Don Castro) was born in Shanghai but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 5. He feels threatened by Ben, perhaps because of the past association with his (Daniel’s) wife but also because Daniel, at heart, thinks Ben is an “armchair Orientalist.”

Daniel’s wife, Lindsey (Lauren English) is in corporate law, and when she is prompted to weigh in on the discussion of China-America relations, she does the kind of geopolitical parsing out “degrees of shittiness” on all sides that would make cable news networks shimmy with delight. But Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), Ben’s wife, wants to challenge that notion and cites a “fairness bias.” Things could get contentious here, but everyone is in a good mood (the wine helps), and everyone is a grown-up, so the conversation grinds, bumps and steadies to the point where everyone raises a glass to the Cold War.

And that’s just the first scene. What follows is a series of duets that break down the racism and micro-aggressions and traps and betrayals of that seemingly benign evening. By fueling his drama with racial and cultural differences, Chen is able to quickly establish the shaky ground underneath most relationships, especially when it comes to being honest, really honest. That two people can live together (to say nothing of being truly honest) seems, at best, an unlikely notion, without some sort of peace treaty: what will be ignored, what will be allowed (or not), what will be forgiven. The depth of anger and insecurity and dishonesty (subconscious or not) that comes up in both of the play’s relationships is astonishing, and the level to which Chen is able to take us in such a short time is remarkable.

At certain points, the naturalism of the play is pushed aside, but it works because there are discussions here that benefit from loosening the bonds of reality. As heavy as this subject matter is, there’s a crackling energy to the production that keeps it from bogging down or slipping into clichés about race or relationships. Chen is too smart for that, and it also helps that no one is a bad guy unless everyone is a bad guy. They’re complicated humans with rich intellect and deep roots. Life is hard for them, and though the play simply stops more than it ends, it seems life will keep getting harder, and the poisons of the world will continue to corrode us personally and politically.

Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm continues through July 2 in a San Francisco Playhouse production at the Rueff at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 and up. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Delight and loss dance through Magic’s Waltz revival

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The cast of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at Magic Theatre includes (from left) Patrick Alparone as Carl, Lauren English as Anna and Greg Jackson as The Third Man. Below: Alparone’s Carl and English’s Anna spend some quality time in Paris. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Any of us would be lucky – beyond lucky – to be as loved as Paula Vogel’s brother Carl. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (who, after nearly 50 years as one of the country’s preeminent playwrights, will see her first Broadway opening next month with Indecent) wrote The Baltimore Waltz a year after Carl died of complications from AIDS. This is her tribute to him, a love letter from sister to brother, but she accomplishes this with such offbeat originality, whimsy and heart that there’s no room for sentimentality or feeble clichés about love and loss.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Magic Theatre has revived The Baltimore Waltz 25 years after hosting its West Coast premiere. Under the direction of Jonathan Moscone the plays still feels fresh and vital, and while its roots are firmly in the plague years, its fancifully clever and sound construction give it a timeless sense. There’s no expiration date for the love of a sibling or the depthless grief of losing that sibling.

When Vogel’s brother invited her on a trip to Europe, she had neither the time nor the money to make it happen. Here’s something else she didn’t have: the knowledge that he was HIV-positive and that within two years, he would be gone. From his hospital bed at Johns Hopkins in 1987, Carl wrote his sister a letter (which she invites theaters to publish in their programs) detailing his funeral arrangements. “Oh God – I can hear you groaning – everybody wants to direct,” Carl wrote. “Well, I want a good show, even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop.” That spark, that humor – they’re alive and well in Vogel’s rich 90-minute play, and she has given her brother what he wanted and more. She has written him a great show.

In perhaps the play’s most inspiring and heartbreaking conceit, Vogel gives her character the fatal disease. In this alternate reality, Anna (the Vogel stand-in played by Lauren English) is a Baltimore schoolteacher who sat on an infected toilet seat at school and contracted ATD – Acquired Toilet Disease. She hasn’t got long, so her older brother, Carl (Patrick Alparone) wants to take her to Europe. The trip would be for fun and to see a doctor in Vienna with a promising treatment. Even though she has a fear of not speaking any other languages, Anna agrees, and she and Carl head to France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, where everyone they meet – from doctors to the Little Dutch Boy to student activists – are played by the remarkably versatile Greg Jackson as a character referred to in the program as “the Third Man” (references to the 1949 movie abound).

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We know this is an alternate reality in several ways, but the most elegant is the set (designed by Nina Ball and lit by Heather Gilbert), which replicates a hospital room filled with flimsy curtains to separate the beds. There are harsh fluorescent lights for the more clinical moments, but mostly we’re in a dreamy wash of light and shadow and dances under a mirror ball. In the clothing department (costumes by Meg Neville) Carl wears pajamas and a sport coat (pink triangle on the lapel) and Anna wears a negligee and an overcoat – not your usual ensembles for international travel.

Throughout the play’s fragmented scenes, Carl clings to a stuffed rabbit throughout the trip but hastily hands it over to Anna when going through airport security or border crossings. Just what’s in the bunny remains a mystery, but Carl clings to the toy as if it were his soul, his sexuality, his comfort. He connects with other men carrying bunnies, and yet the minute his bunny is taken from him, the fantasy of the play begins to give way to reality.

For much of its running time, this is a fun and funny play about dying but with shadows lurking to darken the comedy. Vogel and director Moscone never let us forget what is really happening here. English as Anna is relatable and comic without being silly. Anna has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, she’s visiting Europe for the first time with the human she treasures most in the world, and she seizes the opportunity to live, to have lots of sex, to open her ears to new words and conditional tenses, to eat new foods and to love her brother.

Alparone has an edgy sort of charm that keeps Carl as prickly as he is passionate, as enigmatic as he is loving. He and English pair effectively as siblings who can clash and squabble but never question their inexorable bond. There’s an easy flow to Moscone’s production, where it seems every detail has been attended to, from the actual waltzes that dot the play to Anna’s red strap shoes to the croissants that dot the headboard in a Paris hotel.

Reality catches up with Anna and Carl eventually, and the shift from fragmented fantasy to the starkness of real life could, in less capable hands, be jarring. Here it is simply moving and, like the play itself, a thing of beauty that leaves the theater with you.

Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz continues through April 16 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$85. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Sisters count in SF Playhouse’s 1 2 3

Devin Shacket (left), Jessica Bates (center) and Tristan Cunningham are sisters 3, 1 and 2 in the world premiere of Lila Rose Kaplan’s play 1 2 3, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at the Tides Theater. Below: Cunningham’s 2 dances with Jeremy Kahn’s Luke in a drama about sisters, family and the scars of childhood. Photos by Fei Cai

The three daughters of domestic terrorists – activists, as the eldest girl insists on calling them – have moved so often and changed their names so many times they can’t really remember who they are exactly. The easiest thing to do is simply number themselves. 1 will be the eldest. 2 will be the middle child and 3 will be the baby.

When we meet these three smart, malleable children, in the world premiere of Lila Rose Kaplan’s 1 2 3, they are in a new town about to head to a new school. Again. The eldest (Jessica Bates) seems older than her 17 years but that’s likely because she’s had to step up and be the active parent while her parents, who work for an organization they call The Cause, are off blowing things up and making statements about American imperialism. 2 (Tristan Cunningham), who’s around 15, seems the most vulnerable. She has affected a tough, petulant exterior, but she’s in need. And the youngest child, 3 (Devin Shacket), is a pre-teen, and she’s a live wire, full of spark and energy.

What looks to be another ordinary morning of figuring out new names and navigating a new town turns nightmarish when the FBI arrives in full force to arrest the girls’ parents for the death of a policeman in one of their explosions. The parents land in jail, and the girls are separated and placed into different foster homes.

All that happens within the first few minutes of Kaplan’s play, an intriguing drama sensitively and astutely directed by Lauren English for San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, a launching pad for new plays.

Once ensconced in their new, admittedly more stable lives, the sisters have a moment to expand. 1 can think about going to college. 3 now has a foster brother whose technology (video camera, HAM radio) feeds into her need for attention and her fantasies of celebrity. The most dramatic impact of tis on 2, who begins taking dancing lessons from an 18-year-old aspiring ballroom dancer named Luke (Jeremy Kahn). In the dancing (and the physical contact) she finds a way to channel her pent-up emotions and take control of some part of her life.


What starts out as a sad, rather grim take on the lives of these children, grows a little lighter. Even tightly wound 1 can take a moment to flirt, window to window, with a boy across the street. Even through their separation, the sisters maintain a strong connection through their regular breakfasts at the diner owned by Luke’s mom, and then comes the news that their own mother is getting out of prison early. 2, who sees her parents as despicable terrorists, wants nothing to do with her mother, let alone live in her house, and this causes a tremendous rift between the sisters.

Act 2 jumps ahead in time by about a decade, and whenever time shifts like this happen in a narrative, I get a little nervous. Playwright Kaplan catches us up on the sisters’ lives, none of which is going terribly well, and before this nearly two-hour drama is over, there will be another big time jump, and this one doesn’t work nearly as well, although the basic idea that the central relationship here isn’t necessarily the one you’d expect, comes through in a poignant way.

Director English is also an accomplished actor, and if you know her work on stage, you’ll recognize that in her direction. Her production brims with powerful emotion. It is suffused with intelligence and is full of moments that plumb the depths of these complicated young women and their relationships to one another and to the world at large.

These four excellent actors make you feel their connection, even when relationships rupture, and they feel fully immersed in the world of the play, which takes place in what looks like a basement rec room (set and projections by Jordan Puckett) that, with the repositioning of a card table and some boxes, can also be a diner, a dance floor, a Hollywood café and a university lecture hall. There’s also a fair amount of dancing (choreography by Sofia Ahmad), of the ballroom variety and the kind that keeps us skipping and tripping through the push and pull of the past while attempting to wrangle life in the present.

Lila Rose Kaplan’s 1 2 3, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, continues through Sept. 5 at the Tides Theater, 533 Sutter St. (second floor), San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Cal Shakes ends season with a vibrant Dream

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Erika Chong Shuch (left) is Titania, queen of the fairies, and Margo Hall is Bottom, a transformed rude mechanical and Daisuke Tsuji (rear) is Oberon a mischievous king of the fairies in the California Shakespeare Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Below: Tsuji’s Oberon and Danny Scheie’s Puck figure out how to right all the wrongs they’ve made with their midsummer meddling. Photos by Kevin Berne.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a landmark play for California Shakespeare Theater. When the company really became the company, then known as Berkeley Shakespeare Company, the first show produced at John Hinkel Park was Midsummer. Since then, the play has been performed seven more times, and now Cal Shakes concludes its 40th anniversary season with a version of the play that feels unlike any other production of it I’ve seen.

The opening scene, a battle/rough seduction between Theseus (Daisuke Tsuji) and the conquered Hippolyta (Erica Chong Shuch), is a good example of director Shana Cooper’s unique approach to the production’s tone. It’s hard to know whether to credit Shuch, who choreographed the play’s movement, or fight director Dave Maier for this dazzling encounter. But that kind of blended work is a hallmark of the production.

There’s a vigorous physicality to this Dream, whether it’s in the more formal dance moments (music and sound design is by Paul James Prendergast) or the heightened sense of vibrancy that enlivens the work of the forest fairies or the quartet of Athenian lovers who get lost and mightily tangled in the night. Even if there were no dialogue, you’d get a sense of relationships and tensions and emotions just from the way the thoroughly vivacious cast attacks the play.

There is dialogue, of course, and these sturdy actors deliver it as well as they embody the choreography. Margo Hall, for instance completely owns the role of Nick Bottom, the amateur actor who thinks he (or she in this case) should probably play every role in the play he and his friends are preparing for the King’s wedding festivities. Bottom is a rich comic role, and Hall finds new laughs in the pompous but lovable thespian, but she also finds the sincerity and the heart. That moment when Bottom, in mid-performance, stops ego acting and starts actually acting is wondrous (there’s a similiar performance moment for Craig Marker’s Flute, and it’s just as sweet).

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As if Danny Scheie hadn’t impressed enough earlier in the season playing twins in The Comedy of Errors (read my review here) – now he’s breathing new life into Puck, chief fairy in charge of forest mischief. Outfitted by designer Katherine O’Neill in sort of a steam-punk ensemble of latex pantaloons, suspenders and sleeveless shirt, Scheie sports a mohawk and an attitude. This Puck still has a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also kind of over it and, as they say, can’t even. Scheie is hilarious and a little bit renegade – a good mix for Puck.

Audiences rarely leave Midsummer talking about the lovers (it’s usually Bottom and Puck), but Cooper’s quartet, especially the women, are really something. Hermia (Tristan Cunningham) and Helena (Lauren English) begin and end as friends, but in the middle, with the help of fairy trickery, things get rough. And that’s when things get fun. The befuddled men, Lysander (Dan Clegg) and Demetrius (Nicholas Pelczar), get major points for their all-out attack on the physical comedy, but the night belongs to the women, who lament and rage and struggle with all their mighty might. Cooper wants her lovers to get dirty, and boy do they. Set designer Nina Ball covers her forest floor with some sort of softy, dirty kind of material, and when that’s not enough, the lovers begin flinging actual mud.

When the hurricane of midsummer magic begins to dissipate, watching the lovers clean themselves up turns out to be one of the nearly 2 1/2-hour production’s nicest (and most thoroughly earned) moments.

This is not a colorful Midsummer so much as it is a moody one, but not so moody that it’s gloomy. The lights (by Burke Brown) are stark (to go along with Ball’s fragmented, woodpile of a forest set) and only occasionally festive. Only at the end, when the lovers end up together and the amateur theatricals begin does color infuse the world of the stage (and Brown lights the trees behind the stage to spectacular effect).

And a word about those amateur theatricals: Hall and Marker, along with Catherine Castellanos, James Carpenter, Liam Vincent and Scheie, deliver the funniest version of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe I’ve seen, and Castellanos is the funniest wall, perhaps, of all time.

Even the autumn chill of opening night couldn’t diminish the feverish heat generated by this Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s got the laughs, the sparks and the moves you only find in the most memorable of dreams.

California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through Sept. 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Writers’ souls crushed, hilarity ensues in Rebeck’s Seminar

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The cast of San Francisco Playhouse’s Seminar by Theresa Rebeck includes (from left) James Wagner as Martin, Patrick Russell as Douglas, Lauren English as Kate, Charles Shaw Robinson as Leonard and Natalie Mitchell as Izzy. Below: Leonard and Kate surprise Martin (and themselves). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The ego, the insecurity and the courage of fiction writers are all on hilarious and intriguing display in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, a one-act comedy that derives laughter from pain and theatrical pleasure from whiplash-smart word play.

The premise is simple: four New York writers have paid $5,000 each for 10 weekly classes with a famous writer. They meet in the beautiful (and rent controlled) apartment of one classmate and wait anxiously for the globe-trotting famous guy, who can’t really be bothered to remember their names, to pass judgement on their work.

Anyone who has ever written anything will feel the body blows as Leonard (Charles Shaw Robinson), the teacher, rips the writers to shreds. But the great thing about Rebeck’s play is that while she’s focusing on writers, a particularly intense and vulnerable artistic breed, the cruelty inflicted by someone with power on those without is immediately recognizable and relatable. That’s why the play is so damn funny.

Director Amy Glazer, who directed Rebeck’s The Scene for SF Playhouse (as well as that play’s subsequent film adaptation, Seducing Charlie Barker), knows exactly what to do here to achieve heightened realism. Her pacing is sharp, and her cast is superb. The actors’ ability to handle the comedy and then make it all devastatingly real is pitch perfect.

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Take Lauren English’s Kate for instance. She’s been laboring on the same story for years, and when Leonard has especially unkind things to say about it, she is devastated and turns to ice cream and potato chips for solace. Kate could turn into something from a “Cathy” cartoon strip, but the character is more interesting than that, and English finds all the heart and intelligence and occasional ferocity she has to offer.

There are some initially broad stereotypes here among the writers – Natalie Mitchell as the sex-forward Izzy, Patrick Russell as the puffed-up literary scion Douglas, James Wagner as Martin, a frightened, nearly defeated everyman – but they all emerge with more complexity as the play evolves. Even Leonard, so believably inhabited by Robinson, is more than just ostentatious cruelty. There’s a damaged, serious artist here, and we get glimpses of him from time to time.

In the end, Rebeck narrows her focus down to two characters – not the two who interested me most – and her ending seeks redemption that feels hollow. But with performances this good and a production this solid, the ending is a minor glitch. What comes before is a funny, incisive Seminar that is well worth taking.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Theresa Rebeck for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar runs through June 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Fifty shades of Wonder in Marin Theatre Co.’s Lasso

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Liz Sklar (left) as The Amazon and Jessa Brie Moreno as The Wife in the world premiere of Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Lauren English is The Girl and John Riedlinger is The Guy with one of over 200 illustrations by Jacob Stoltz in the background. Photos by Kevin Berne

You’re bound to like Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth if you like Wonder Woman…and a heaping helping of S&M on the side.

If you didn’t know the two were related, first of all, think about it for a minute (the golden lasso, the bustier, the metal bracelets, etc.), and second of all, boy has Kreitzer got an origin story for you. Commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, the play is part of the National New Play Network, which means this is what they call a “rolling world premiere.” The show begins in Mill Valley then heads to Atlanta and Kansas City.

So where did Wonder Woman come from (and we’re not talking about Paradise Island, home of the Amazons)? For many of us, she sprung fully formed in the 1970s looking like the stunning Lynda Carter in a patriotic bathing suit and gold accessories. That famous TV show is actually a jumping-off point for Kreitzer’s play.

She has a contemporary woman (Lauren English) telling the audience about a great betrayal in her life. As a lifelong fan of Wonder Woman (spurred by Carter and the TV show), she was horrified to learn that the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was, in her words a “perv.”

From the present, we jump into the past to explore Marston’s so-called perversion. In the years leading up to Wonder Woman’s first comic book appearance in 1941, Marston, a psychologist and academic (and inventor of an early version of the polygraph), was shucking convention. An admirer of strong, beautiful women, he was married to just such a woman, and he’s often seen sitting at her feet, looking up at her adoringly while she strokes his hair as if he were a prize poodle. But then Marston’s research assistant entered the picture, and then she really entered the picture. Marston, his wife and his mistress crafted a polyamorous relationship that led to a bundle of children and relationships within the triangle that could handle the deepest, darkest explorations of S&M, bondage and erotically charged, emotionally fraught exchanges of power.

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It’s fascinating stuff, and Kreitzer, working with director Jasson Minadakis, does something quite extraordinary here in that she handles what really amounts to an exploration of unconventional sexuality with sensitivity and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor. It could be pretty deadly watching grown-ups explore their sexuality with ropes on a stage, but all of that is handled well. Nicholas Rose as Marston (here called “The Inventor”), Jessa Brie Moreno as his wife and Liz Sklar as the girlfriend (who, it’s worth mentioning, bears a passing resemblance to Lynda Carter) create dimensional characters prone to candor, enthusiasm and risky exploration. Sklar, it turns out, is also a whiz with knots.

The 2 1/2-hour show feels long in stretches. In Act 1, when the action shifts from the Marston triangle to English and her quest to find the original comic in which Wonder Woman first appears, these scenes feel like a distraction. She’s tangling with a geeky comic book store clerk (John Riedlinger) about the comic, about feminism, about her sense of betrayal with Marston’s real-life proclivities. But these scenes, despite the charms of English and Riedlinger, come off as strident and shallow.

But by Act 2, the contemporary scenes have become more interesting as our modern duo explores an actual relationship, and their characters emerge more strongly. In this act, the distractions come from a too-often repeated gimmick of darkening the theater and having the actors making sexy talk into microphones as they negotiate (sometimes with humor) the games they’d like to play. There’s also a goofy lie-detector machine on stage in Act 2 that looks like a reject from Forbidden Planet and is just a little too silly.

Other technical aspects of the show are marvelous. Annie Smart’s set provides efficient sliding panels to effectively frame the video designs by Kwame Braun and the terrific graphic art by Jacob Stoltz that never lets us forget that we’re firmly in the world of comic books. There are also some very funny videos involving Gloria Steinem (as played by Moreno), who was a Wonder Woman champion and put her on the cover of Ms. magazine’s inaugural issue in 1972.

The past and the present do come together eventually, but Kreitzer doesn’t seem to know how or where to end the play, which stutters its way to a conclusion. The impression she gives us of Marston (an endearing idealist who believed a comic book character could end war and bring about utopia) and the powerful women in his life is quite a strong one. That they all contributed in some way toward the creation of a positive role model for girls and women is clear, but the punch of their story ends with a pow rather than POW!

[bonus interview]
I talked with Lasso of Truth playwright Carson Kreitzer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth continues through March 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

At SF Playhouse, pretty is as Pretty does

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Craig Marker is Greg and Lauren English is Stephanie in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Patrick Russell as Kent works his testosterone in front of Marker’s Greg. Photos by Jessica Palopoli



I’ve come to learn that when a Neil LaBute play or movie crosses my path, I detour around it, ignore it or make an immediate donation to a women’s support or LBGT organization. LaBute is a really good writer – his ear for dialogue is impeccable, and his ferocity for storytelling is admirable. I just rarely like what his characters have to say or where his stories end up.

That said, LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, now at San Francisco Playhouse, marks the first time I’ve left one of the writer’s play and not wanted to bash my head against the wall on the way out. Sure, there are traces of misogyny, homophobia and racism (mostly coming from the mouth of one classic LaButian male character). But what’s interesting here is that LaBute is being provocative in the name of evolution, of self-actualization, of emotional growth.

There’s not really a two-act play here – more like a 90-minute one act at best – and that becomes apparent after the explosive set-up that opens the show. A couple is in mid-fight. Greg (Craig Marker) has said something thoughtless about Stephanie (Lauren English), his girlfriend of four years. The comment was overheard by Steph’s friend and was immediately reported. Amid a storm of cursing and flailing through their bedroom, Steph forces Greg to admit what he said. “Don’t try and Lance Armstrong your way out of this,” she bellows. And just what was so awful? He described Steph’s looks as “regular.” That unflattering word unnerves Stephanie to her core. It pushes what appears to be her biggest insecurity button, and she flies off the handle. Way off the handle.

The relationship is over primarily because Stephanie doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t think she’s beautiful, and Greg, in his bumbling apologies, never quite says the right thing (or even that he loves her). The worst part, Steph says, is that because Greg didn’t know his comment was being overheard, he was saying what was really in his heart.

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The thrust of LaBute’s play is four scenes between Greg and Stephanie: their fight, a follow-up revenge-tinged meeting at a mall food court, a chance encounter at a nice restaurant and a none-too-plausible meeting in the wee hours of the morning at Greg’s workplace.

Marker and English, under the warm, clear-eyed direction of Susi Damilano, are so good they really make this material sing. First off, though, it’s a stretch of the imagination to perceive the stunning English as “regular” (provided “regular” doesn’t mean vibrant and luminous and more emotionally accessible than most of us). But she’s so good at conveying Stephanie’s insecurity, her discomfort in her own body that we buy it. We also see Stephanie mature a little bit with each scene. As unlikely as the last scene is, watching English’s Stephanie step more comfortably in her skin and take more responsibility for her emotional life is the kind of surprising triumph that makes this play more than an exercise in “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” clichés.

Marker carries the weight of the play as Greg, a seemingly educated guy always carrying a book (Poe, Hawthorne, Swift, Irving) who’s stuck in a warehouse job. He’s sleepwalking through life and spending too much time with his college buddy/co-worker Kent (a believably crass Patrick Russell), who is a Grade A asshole. Kent’s undue influence and Greg’s narcotized existence accounts for the “regular” comment, but it’s Stephanie’s extreme reaction that gives Greg’s life the jolt it needs. Her leaving him breaks his habits, and as much as he tries to resume his “regular” life, he can’t do it. He even gets embroiled in Kent’s troubled marriage to Carly (Jennifer Stuckert) and discovers that he actually has morals, has it in him to stand up to bullies and make change in his stalled life.

Even at two acts, LaBute’s play only glances on the deeper psychological workings that make this play less incendiary than some of his previous work, but the excellent actors do a lot to create the necessary depth. And the dynamic set by Bill English, with its dramatic revolutions and realistic details make Reasons prettier than it might otherwise have been.


Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty continues through May 11 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Playwright Jordan Puckett ready for prime time

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The cast of Jordan Puckett’s Inevitable includes, from left, Molly Noble, Carlye Pollack and Keith Burkland. The play is part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series supporting new work. Photo by Lauren English

We have a Theater Dogs guest writer! Welcome Scott Lucas of San Francisco magazine. Scott st down with playwright Jordan Puckett, whose Inevitable runs through March 23rd as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series.

Scott Lucas:
With the opening of Inevitable, it’s not only the first performance of this play, but the first time any of your plays has been done, right?

Jordan Puckett:
I’ve had readings of Inevitable before, though it’s had many titles and versions. This is the world premiere. It’s the first production of it, and my first production ever.

SL: The play is a sort of magic realism, in which a dying woman decides she’s going to stop time to keep her family together. Where’d that idea come from?

JP: Why would somebody be so interested in stopping time? How about if you were dying? I started looking at Huntington’s disease, which is genetic. You have a 50 percent chance of causing your child to go through the same pain. It’d be through no fault of your own. It’s pure genetics.

SL: The play unfolds in a non-linear fashion. Why?

JP: I wanted the audience to experience what it was like going through the disease. I took the play — which I had originally moved straight through time — and broke it up to be non-linear.

SL: You’re in your early 20s and you started writing this play in college.

JP: Yes. I went to Northwestern. I started writing this three years ago. In my senior year, I took a playwriting sequence.

SL: Where did it go from there?

JP: I went back to it this November and did major rewrites. We decided to do it at the SF Playhouse in December. It’s been shortened significantly. It was 80 pages and now it’s 65. We’ve lost five pages just this week. We’re seeing what doesn’t work and taking away dialogue so we can see the physicality. Lauren English, the director, has created this world that runs between reality and a dreamscape — not a peaceful dream, but haunting.

SL: What’s it like watching the rehearsals? It must be incredible to see the actors doing what you tell them – like something out of Being John Malkovich.

JP: It’s amazing, but it becomes a conversation. They say to me, “I don’t know why my character is saying this?” I say, oh yeah, that was from an earlier draft and it doesn’t work anymore. So we cut.

I’d be terrified. I get scared whenever I think about someone reading anything that I’ve written.

I’m terrified every day, but that’s where good art comes from. If you’re not terrified you’re not doing something that’s worth it.

SL: One of the big themes it deals with is the relationship between mothers and daughters. You don’t have any daughters, but you — I presume — have a mother. How much is personal in the play?

JP: My mother and I have a wonderful relationship. That part is not at all taken from her. Of course it’s impossible not to be somewhat influenced, but it’s much more of an idea study.

SL: What’s core idea, then?

JP: It’s this lovely idea that the world is constantly getting better because we as parents are sending out children that are better people than we are. We manifest so much from our parents — and we hope to pass on our best qualities to our children.

SL: What are you working on next?

I’m working a play about the intersection of news and politics, especially on how consumers of political news pay more attention to the gossip.

Anything else?

JP: I have the beginnings of many plays. I’m also interested in theater as a medium and how to do audience interaction without imposing on the audience. I have a piece that I’m working on right now that’s set in cars on the L line in Chicago. The actors are in the train cars with the audience, sitting next to them. It would be like four cars traced out in the seats, so you could see what was happening in your car and in the others.

SL: Parting thoughts?

JP: You should break your watch — see what happens.


Jordan Puckett’s Inevitable continues through March 23rd at the San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series at the Un-scripted Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.