Jonesing for cosmic connection in ACT’s Joneses

The Realistic Joneses
The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s The Realistic Joneses includes, from left, James Wagner as John Jones, Allison Jean White as Pony, Rebecca Watson as Jennifer Jones and Rod Gnapp as Bob Jones. Below: Watson’s Jen and Gnapp’s Bob hang out in the backyard in Will Eno’s comic drama. Photos by Kevin Berne

The topic is: things that have happened. That broad, yet somehow quite specific, statement comes from a character in Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses now on stage at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Another broad yet specific topic might be: lives that are lived.

Eno is one of those playwrights whose gift seems to be making raising the bizarre, often absurd experience of human existence to the level of cosmic grace and beauty. How he does that exactly is a bit of a mystery, as it should be, but it’s on fully display in Joneses even more than it was in several of his remarkable earlier plays such as Tragedy: A Tragedy and Middletown. Eno has a dash of Samuell Beckett, more than a pinch of Thornton Wilder and a heaping helping of any smart stand-up comedian you’d care to name.

With The Joneses, Eno takes two couples, both with the last name Jones (my grandfather once told me everyone was born Jones but only the good ones stay that way) and lets them reflect on each other and affect one another. A quiet, four-person play would seem to be out of place on the massive Geary stage, but that is not the case. As director Loretta Greco is well aware, Eno is micro and macro. There’s an epic quality to his intimacy, and that’s reflected in Greco’s beautiful production, which features a set by Andrew Boyce that offers the backyards of two homes in suburban American (somewhere near the mountains and sea, we’re told). There’s a massive tree canopy that allows some visibility of the stars, and that’s important. As I said before, this play opens up in its curious way, to the cosmic. Size matters here, and the production makes the vastness count.

One quiet night, interrupted only by the rustling and chirping of night sound, Bob and Jennifer Jones (Rod Gnapp and Rebecca Watson) are outside at their picnic table. You could say they were talking, but that becomes a topic of discussion: are they talking, really talking? Or are they “throwing words at each other.” Just as they might be veering from throwing to talking, they are interrupted by new neighbors, Pony (Allison Jean White) and John (James Wagner), bearing greetings and a bottle of wine.

The Realistic Joneses

From here, we discover interesting connections within this quartet as Eno shuffles them up – a grocery store meeting here, late-night backyard encounter there – and casts a shadow of mortality in the form of an illness one character calls “the Benny Goodman Experience.” There is nothing “normal” about this play, not its rhythms, not its character interactions, not its trajectory. And yet, as it proceeds through its one hour and 45 minutes, it gains a weight and a poignancy that is surprising, especially given how many good laughs it offers. The wonderful cast and Greco can take a lot of credit for that, but the real architect here is Eno.

The engine of the play is John, a man who is searching and struggling and suffering. The path his thoughts, and consequently his words, take give rise to much of the humor because he’s the king of the unfiltered non sequitor. He says of his wife, “What my lady wants, with some huge and basic exceptions, my lady gets.” Or when he asks Jennifer if she has any brothers, Jen answers that she has two half-sisters. “So that sort of equals a brother,” John says. He also points out later on that “even a hundred-year-old fake is an antique.”

Pony and John have their comically absurd moments as well. Pony, in a moment of frustration with her life, says, “I feel like I should go to med school or get my hair cut or something.” Or something. Then she muses on other tracks her life might have taken: “I probably would’ve overdosed on drugs, if I’d gotten into drugs and then taken too many.” Only Jennifer seems to be the fully anchored grownup in the group, the mother figure who is as lost and in search of something as the rest of them. She just functions in everyday life at a higher level than they do.

The Realistic Joneses is, in its subdued, humorous way, stunning, a deeply felt examination of what we do with this life and these brains and these souls. The ending, as surprising as everything else in the play, brought to mind the comedian Rita Rudner’s deep philosophical query: “Any questions? Any answers? Anyone care for a mint?”

Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses continues thorugh March 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Cal Shakes dreams a Dream under the stars

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The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca includes (from left) Kaiso Hill as Ensemble, Jason Kapoor as the Soldier and Sean San José as Prince Segismundo. Below: Amir Abdullah is Astolfo and Tristan Cunningham is Estrella. Photos by Kevin Berne.

There’s so much talk about nature and stars in Life Is a Dream that it seems perfectly natural to be sitting outside on a temperate summer night watching Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play about thwarting destiny and connecting to the deepest truths of human existence.

California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Dream, a beautiful if thorny play, offers the chance to see a work that is all too rarely performed (in my 25 years of writing about theater in the Bay Area, this is the first production of it I’ve seen). Considered one of the treasures of Spain’s “Golden Age,” Life Is a Dream has a Shakespearean feel in its mix of fantasy, soap operatics and complex humanity. In its original form, the play tends to be florid and rather convoluted. The Cal Shakes production, directed by Magic Theatre Artistic Director Loretta Greco, employs a lean translation/adaptation by Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Anna in the Tropics. The new script doesn’t solve all the play’s problems, but it strips the work to its essence and offers a spare but still poetic rhythm that adds lyrical grace to the machinations of the plot.

The ever-remarkable Sean San José plays Segismundo, a prince whose fault was in his stars. At his birth, all signs (and celestial portents) pointed to him becoming a tyrant who would destroy his kingdom. So the King (Adrian Roberts) decided to re-write fate by imprisoning the child for life, chaining him in a desolate cell and thereby, presumably, saving the country from his wrath.

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When the play begins, Segismundo rattles his chain in a metallic prison (set by Andrew Boyce), lamenting the loss of the liberty given to birds and streams. San José is as compassionate as he is forceful – clearly this character is an intelligent, sensitive human being who has been treated like a monster his entire life.

This is the crux of Dream. Is Segismundo destined to be a wretched ruler no matter what? Or can he exert control over his fate and prove the portents wrong? Are human lives mapped out from the start, or is there really such a thing as free will?

All of that is interesting, but the aspect of the play that really crackles is the titular notion of life as a dream. When Segisumndo is released from bondage and put on the throne, his barbarism comes through, and he is thrust back into prison. His keepers try to convince him that his brief time on the throne was only a dream, and that gets him thinking about how life really is only a dream. The thin glass that separates waking and dreaming may be more permeable than we know, so why not throw off expectations and chains (physical or metaphorical) and live life with gusto. Like a dream, it will be over sooner than we know.

San José’s final soliloquy, delivered from the roof of his cell while beckoning to the wide-open sky, is remarkable and emotionally stirring.

Other aspects of the play provide entertaining but uninvolving court drama. There are two love interests for Segismundo, Estrella (Tristan Cunningham) and Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), and he ends up with the wrong one because of courtly rules of honor, and the character of King Basilio, though sturdily played by Roberts, never seems anything more than an insecure ruler who may or may not regret his treatment of his son. There’s a visiting prince (Amir Abudllah) who treats women badly and then pisses off Segismundo, but he’s also more functional than fascinating.

Of the supporting characters, only the jester/clown Clarin (Jomar Tagtac) and the jailer Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas) resonate on a deeper level.

Played out on a set that looks like a section of roller coaster track with internal lighting reminiscent of a Laughlin casino, this Dream belongs to San José’s Segismundo, a man who learns from dreams a powerful way to live his life.

Pedro Cadelrón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Aug. 2 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit
Note: There’s a free shuttle from the Orinda BART station to Cal Shakes beginning two hours before curtain.

Slow, thoughtful Silence at the Magic

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Jessi Campbell (left) is Dee and Tristan Cunningham is Jamie in Naomi Wallace’s And I and Silence at the Magic Theatre. Below: Angel Moore is young Jamie Siobhan Marie Doherty is young Dee when the two women met in prison. Photos by Jenifer Reiley

In Naomi Wallace’s And I and Silence now at the Magic Theatre we meet two interesting women, Dee and Jamie, who became friends while in prison. Both are in for nine-year stints, and as their bond intensifies, they begin to train one another for a life after prison – a life that will include the two of them together. As lovers? As friends? Not quite clear. But given that Jamie is black and Dee is white and their release will occur in the late ’50s, there are all kinds of complications to contemplate.

Rather strangely, the flashback scenes to the prison feel freer and more fun than the scenes set in the weeks after their release. Issues of race and sexuality seem to matter less in prison than they do in the world outside of it, which makes for a fascinating contrast of time and place. In the “present,” Jamie and Dee have to deal with the oppression and cruelty of racism and misogyny and are not able to wield the confidence or creativity they each seemed to have in prison.

Wallace’s play, directed by Loretta Greco is simple and fairly straightforward. It’s a lean sort of drama that requires a simple set – designer Daniel Ostling provides a skeletal bed on a raised platform and some water buckets – and only four actors: present day Jamie and Dee in the free world (presumably somewhere in the South) and Jamie and Dee nine years earlier in prison. Jessi Campbell and Tristan Cunningham are the older women, while Siobhan Marie Doherty and Angel Moore are the younger. All are compelling, though it grows increasingly more difficult to navigate the shifts in tone and character between the two time periods.

2. Young Jamie & Young Dee (Angel Moore - Siobhan Marie Doherty)

And I and Silence, which takes its title from Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral in my Brain,” is sensitive – sensitive almost to a fault. There are times the play can come across as precious, and too often it’s just plain slow. In its bouncing back and forth between the past and present, Wallace’s script goes for lyricism and the poetry that can enliven even the bleakest of situations. But without much in the way of plot, the play slips further and further away from reality and the weight of real life and more into the realm of lovely playwriting. The flashbacks, especially, don’t feel related to the reality of a woman’s prison (we’re told about what that world is like, the cruel guards, the punishments, the violence but we never feel it). The prison scenes feel like a courtship, a friendship (or more) burnished in survival. The women share a hope for the future, a future in which they will work as domestics. They put each other through the intricate paces of training to work with difficult bosses, but when they’re out and looking for employment, the world is a lot rougher and crueler than anticipated.

By play’s end, which is heavy indeed, real life intrudes, but even then, it still feels distant, as if reaching in from a different play. There’s a danger in dealing with a story of women in prison and an unconventional love story of tipping into pulpy melodrama. That doesn’t happen here – not by a long shot – but Wallace is almost too careful. The power of the drama, the connection between the characters (young and old) and the increasing tension that should accompany the women’s journey diminishes when we’re craving intensity. In terms of emotional volume, this Silence could be louder.

Naomi Wallace’s And I and Silence continues through Nov. 23 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Magic’s Five Minutes misses the mark

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Harpo (Jomar Tagatac, left) and Bozo (Patrick Alparone, right) prepare to bring Mo (Rod Gnapp) home in Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes, a world premiere play at the Magic Theatre. Photo: by Jennifer Reiley

I loved Linda McLean’s Any Given Day so much that I proclaimed it my favorite show of 2012 (read my review here). And that makes it all the harder to convey just how much I disliked her world premiere Every Five Minutes at the Magic Theatre.

In brief, the characters and relationships in the play are assumed rather than established. The use of projections is so excessive it would seem that director Loretta Greco strongly mistrusts her actors’ and McLean’s script’s ability to convey what is necessary for the audience to understand the play.

At the performance I attended, the projection mechanism broke down, so the actors were told to hold and then clear the stage until the problem was resolved. I hoped against hope that the projections wouldn’t return, but they did, and boy were they busy.

I have no doubt whatsoever in the actors’ abilities to convey exactly what McLean’s script required of them without the aid of moving visuals on the big wall behind them. It is possible to portray the horror of mental illness without a surrealist barrage of images, especially when you have Rod Gnapp in the role of a man who has been tortured mercilessly for more than a dozen years. But Gnapp, like the other excellent actors in the cast trying to be compassionate and intense, are trapped in a fragmented, fractured narrative that is neither compelling nor interesting nor even very original. Who are these people and why should we care? That’s never really established, and the play’s 90 minutes feel like the torture the main character was exposed to – and perhaps that’s the intention.

But then the ending comes – and we all play parlor games into the sunset – and it feels, like the play itself, inauthentic, shallow and trying too hard with too little effect.

I feel like I missed something huge here and can’t figure out what it is. So rather than go on, I’d like to shift attention to McLean, whom I interviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. She talked about the organic process of her writing and how she follows where it leads. She also talks about feeling a sense of success as a playwright, and it includes an insightful perspective on writing that works and writing that doesn’t.

I think success also means you’ve survived at least one cycle of things not working out, or not being able to write, or what you’re writing is not what people want to see. You come back from that in a slightly fearless way, not changing the way you write to adapt, but keeping true to what you know of your own creativity.

Read the entire feature here.

Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes continues through April 20 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Wonky tone buries Magic’s Buried Child

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Vince (Patrick Alparone, standing) comes to terms with his family legacy and with Dodge, his grandfather (Rod Gnapp), in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Magic Theatre. Below: Tilden (James Wagner) shucks some corn, much to the consternation of his father, Dodge. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

By all rights, the Magic Theatre’s season-opening production of Buried Child by Sam Shepard, the man who helped build the Magic’s national reputation during his 12-year stay from the mid-’70s into the early ’80s, should be a triumph. Continuing the five-year Sheparding America celebration of the writer’s work, the production should be a potent reminder of just how electrifying, unsettling and beautiful Shepard’s writing can be.

This is not that production.

Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, struggles establishing the tone from the very start, and though some of the performances, most notably by Rod Gnapp and James Wagner, connect powerfully with the world of the play, much of the cast seems adrift in Shepard’s world, which is somewhere between reality and fantasy, truth and illusion.

Gnapp plays Dodge, the patriarch of an Illinois farm family that has seen better, more prosperous (and more sane) days. Dodge is relegated to a dingy couch, where he further damages his straining lungs with cigarettes and dulls the pain with whiskey hidden under the cushions. Gnapp plays grizzled and grumpy better than just about anybody, and he masterfully conveys humor and menace in ways that allow him to live in the naturalism of Shepard’s play and its lyricism.

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The same is true of Wagner as Tilden, Dodge’s son who was once a hometown football star but then came into some mysterious trouble in New Mexico and is now a damaged shell. Tilden’s damage somehow connects him to the enigmatic side of Shepard’s play. Every time Tilden heads out into the rainy backyard, he returns with armloads of fresh corn and carrots. Never mind that no one has planted any vegetables back there for 35 years. The only thing they’ve planted, if we can believe the family legend, is an unwanted baby boy.

The surrealism of the play kicks in when Tilden’s grown son (Patrick Alparone making the best of a shallow role) shows up for a surprise visit and no one seems to recognize him, which sends the young man into a tailspin, questioning his very existence. This is where Shepard’s play starts to feel like an inferior version of Pinter’s The Homecoming, especially in this production, where actors tend to pose awkwardly, as if for soap opera cameras, and deliver their lines in stilted cadence. There are scenes that feel almost like Shepard parodies here, which adds nothing to the tone of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which should be as creepy as it is enthralling.

You can feel Shepard leaning into Pinter throughout the play, with definite nods to Albee. But Buried Child, at least in this production, feels dated, confused and underdeveloped.

Sam Shepard’s Buried Child continues an extended run through Oct. 13 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

Magic’s Se Llama Cristina or What’s in a name?

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Sarah Nina Hayon and Sean San José star in the world premiere of Octavio Solis’ Se Llama Cristina at Magic Theatre. Below: Rod Gnapp is the embodiment of bad guys plaguing the lives of struggling people. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

There are moments when Octavio Solis’ darkly poetic writing leaves me breathless. Take this passage from his world-premiere play Se Llama Cristina as two lovers are driving down a lonely highway. The driver looks at his sleeping passenger and says: “And your head is leanin’ against the window and the passing cars light up your face like a Hollywood starlet. Famous, then not. Famous, then not.”

Truth be told, there are also moments when the San Francisco playwright’s writing leaves me befuddled, and that happens, too, in Se Llama Cristina. But confusion and mystery is part of the foundation – albeit rocky a rocky one – on which this intriguing drama is built.

Essentially Solis is telling the story of everyday triumph, specifically the ability move beyond the horrors of the past to stake a claim as a functioning – however flawed – human being capable of sustaining important relationships such as spouse to spouse or parent to child. Parenting is the guttering neon sign at the center of this creation, flickering at various levels of brightness until it all but explodes by the end.

Solis eschews a linear narrative and, curiously, turns his protagonists into audience members as they watch their story unfold in bits and pieces, with flashbacks within flashbacks and even flash-forwards.

Lights come up on a dingy, battered room (the low-ceilinged set is by Andrew Boyce). A man and a woman are just coming to after what appears to have been quite a bender. The guy still has the rubber strap tied around his arm with a syringe embedded in his skin.

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Neither of these characters knows their names, where they are or how they came to be so drugged up. The doors and windows of the room are locked, and there’s a crib in the corner. Only instead of a baby, the crib holds a piece of fried chicken, a drumstick.

We’re just as confused as the characters on stage, and when the first explanatory flashback happens, we learn things right along with them. How that works exactly, I’m not sure. I know how it works for the audience, but what exactly are the characters seeing in that room? That’s really too literal a question for this play, which has the feeling of a fever dream leading up to the making of a pivotal life decision.

Director Loretta Greco’s production feels substantial, even at only 85 minutes. As the play jerks us back and forth in time and tone – flights of poetry crash against gritty realism – she guides her cast from a strong emotionally grounded center.

Sean San José and Sarah Nina Hayon are superb as broken people who don’t expect to accomplish much in this life beyond surviving and making mistakes. They find each other by accident and begin a journey, sometimes a reluctant one, toward realizing potential they didn’t know they had. As rough and gritty as this play is, there’s a current of hope that continually pushes through the violence and neglect and poverty (of many kinds) in these people’s lives.

San José, whose character is a would-be poet, is especially adept at navigating Solis’ dramatic turns from naturalism to fantasy. He has two scenes on the phone, one with Hayon and one with a figure from his past, and both are incredible. One of those conversations is mostly in Spanish, and you don’t have to understand a word of the language to feel your heart break along with the character.

If you want charm and menace in equal measure, Rod Gnapp is your go-to guy. Here he embodies every bad choice a woman can make, and though he’s a walking nightmare (an effect augmented by Sara Huddleston’s sly sound design), he’s also funny as hell and completely recognizable as someone you may know.

The performances are so good here (the cast also includes a nice turn by Karina Gutiérrez) that they almost compensate for the ways in which the fractured structure confuse the narrative and cloud the emotional impact. Piecing it all together isn’t all that hard, but the emotional through line gets somewhat clouded because there are so many questions about what is reality and what isn’t. Questions are good in drama, but when those questions are straddling dream and reality, it’s hard to know what to trust and grab hold of so that by the end you’re holding on to what’s important in this story.

But then again, that’s so much of what Se Llama Cristina is about: what’s worth holding onto and what’s better left behind. Sometimes you don’t have a choice in that, but sometimes you do.

[bonus interviews]
I talked to director Loretta Greco and playwright Octavio Solis for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Octavio Solis’ Se Llama Cristina continues through Feb. 5 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Magic between a tricky spot and The Other Place

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Donald Sage Mackay is Ian and Henny Russell is Juliana in Sharr White’s The Other Place, the season-opener at the Magic Theatre. Below: Carrie Paff (left) plays several key characters in the unraveling mystery of Juliana’s illness. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

There’s a slippery quality to Sharr White’s The Other Place, the drama opening the Magic Theatre season. The first half of this 80-minute one-act is especially slick as we try to gain our bearings, but White and director Loretta Greco keep tilting the playing field. Just when we think we know what’s really going on in the story of a brilliant scientist’s life, along comes new information or a trip to the past that reconfigures what we thought we knew.

Memory is a tricky, tricky thing. How accurate or trustworthy are our memories? That’s a question that Juliana Smithton should be asking herself, but she’s not, because she doesn’t know anything’s wrong. A renowned medical researcher, Juliana heads a team creating a revolutionary drug that will aid in the treatment of dementia. But as we see her making a presentation on the drug to a group of doctors in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, we begin to sense that this pioneering scientist may be suffering from the very disease she’s trying to cure.

White further complicates our discovery of Juliana’s exact condition by having her narrate her own story. As played by Henny Russell, Juliana is a sharp, funny storyteller. She vacillates between her drug presentation and bringing us up to speed on what’s going on in her own life. In addition to her intense work promoting the new drug, she’s also dealing with the repercussions of her teenage daughter’s disappearance a decade ago.

It’s not long, however, before we begin to sense that Juliana is probably not the most reliable teller of her own story, and that’s when The Other Place subtly turns into a horror story. Not a slasher, blood-and-guts, ghosts-bumping-in-the-night horror story, but a reality-based tale of terror that could, and probably will, affect each of us in some way.

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Juliana is a fascinating character, not least because we’re constantly trying to piece together who is the real Juliana as opposed to the Juliana fragments we see that are affected by things other than her own personality. Russell’s performance is so grounded, and full of so many blasts of warmth, ego and genius, that’s it hard not to recoil when Juliana is sharp and defiant with the people she doesn’t realize are trying to help her.

When The Othe Place opens on Broadway later this year, Laurie Metcalf will play Juliana. She’ll be brilliant and probably rack up a bunch of awards (it’s that kind of role), but it’s hard to imagine anyone more believable in the role than Russell.

Surrounding Juliana is a trio – Donald Sage Mackay, Carrie Paff and Patrick Russell – that holds keys to her situation and to that elusive thing known as the truth. Mackay is especially sympathetic, though his character seems the least developed. Except for one key emotional scene, his function seems to be dispensing important facts and being incredibly patient.

Russell has a great telephone scene that only intensifies the mystery surrounding Juliana, and Paff has several showcase roles, including a very understanding doctor, that show off her range and charisma.

Greco’s direction is understated and solid, with a production featuring an excellent set (by Myung Hee Cho) that transitions from the cold and technical (aided by projections by Hanna Sooyeon Kim) to the warm and personal in a quick blackout.

The Other Place is as fascinating as it is unsettling, and it will linger in memory. Until it doesn’t.

[bonus interview]

I talked to playwright Sharr White for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Sharr White’s The Other Place continues through Oct. at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco, Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Magic time, or what’s all the Bruja-ha?

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Sabina Zuniga Varela is Medea in Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at the Magic Theatre. Below: Sean San José is Jason, Medea’s husband and a man with some powerful secrets. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Sometimes names are facts. Like now – there’s magic at the Magic Theatre.

The play is Luis Alfaro’s world-premiere Bruja, and it’s extraordinarily powerful. Even better, it has one foot very firmly grounded in the real world, and the other somewhere else that’s hard to describe, but rather than being some twinkly netherworld, this supernatural zone can be dangerous. And deadly.

Being an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, you know this experience wont’ end happily. But what you might not know is that Alfaro, who scored at the Magic two years ago with his award-winning Oedipus el Rey, is going to make you care and he’ll freak you out a little, maybe a lot. How does he do this when we know how the story goes and how it ends? How can he make the story personal and infuse it with believable magic that stretches into cultural traditions that are eons old? The easy answer is that he’s an awesomely talented writer. The trickier answer is, of course, magic.

Walking through the new wood-paneled corridors into the Magic Theatre auditorium, you hear children playing. Part of the sound is from Jake Rodriguez’s sound design. The rest of it comes from the two boys playing soccer on the stage paneled in the same wood that now surrounds the theater space. Ah, children in a production of Medea. The heart sinks a little because you know their fate.

When Wilma Bonet as Vieja, the servant, begins addressing the audience, her tone is at once colloquial and poetic, talking about life in the Mission District and referring to the deep currents of Mexican history and culture. That dichotomy of everyday and historic, of culturally specific and universal is where Alfaro’s art lives, and it’s thrilling.

Turning the Medea story into a modern-day tale of Mexican immigrants making a life for themselves in San Francisco seems like a stretch, but Alfaro makes it seem as natural as can be. The gorgeous Sabina Zuniga Varela as Madea is wife, mother and healer. She practices her art, which lead some to call her a “bruja” (witch), and makes as happy a home as she can for her twin boys, Acan and Acat, and her hardworking husband, Jason (Sean San José), a contractor.

How can such a seemingly ordinary existence reach the majesty and magnitude of Euripides’ Medea? In the skilled hands of Alfaro and director Loretta Greco, easily.

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Ancient undercurrents swirl under this highly modern scene, and by the time we meet Jason’s boss, Creon (Carlos Aguirre), who has plans to leave his construction empire to Jason, we begin to see how this new tale will synch with the original. The really interesting thing is that we feel the connection between Medea and Jason (thanks to the passionate performances by Varela and San José), and we sense how invested Jason is in creating a better life for his family.

When it all starts to unspool, the tragedy comes fast (the play is only about 90 minutes), and this Medea truly puts the fury in furious.

The imagery in Greco’s surprisingly gorgeous production — who knew such beauty could come out of such rough wood and such ordinary surroundings? (well, clearly set designer Andrew Boyce knew) — is stunning and feels as integral to the story as Alfaro’s charged langauge.

You get to feel so invested in the story, in fact, that you hope against hope that maybe this time Medea will turn her fortunes around and avoid using her magic for destruction and her machete for bloody murder. She’s a smart, powerful woman, and just this once, you want to see her escape the horror without dragging everyone — the innocents and the guilty — down with her.

But this remains a tragedy. Triumphant in its art and staggering in its darkness.

[bonus video]
This sneak peek of Bruja is short but potent – it gives you a real sense of the production.

Luis Alfaro’s Bruja continues an extended run through July 1 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

The Magic’s Lily blooms!

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Taylor Mac as Lily. Photo by Jose A. Guzman Colon

There’s a lot of excitement burbling through the Bay Area theater community this spring. One of the reasons is the Magic Theatre’s The Lily’s Revenge, a ballsy five-hour play by Stockton native Taylor Mac.

With five acts performed in five different styles – musical theater, dance, puppets, Elizabethan-style drama – the show has a cast of nearly 40 (all local, by the way) musicians, actors, dancers, acrobats, drag queens, etc. There are actually six directors – one for each act plus one to direct the intermission events between each act. This is definitely the biggest, boldest theatrical event of the spring.

Check out this extraordinary roster of directors:

Meredith McDonough, director of New Works at TheatreWorks
Marissa Wolf, artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater
Erika Chong Shuch, choreographer and director of Erika Chong Shuch Project
Erin Gilley, founding artistic director of Elastic Future
Jessica Holt, director at Berkeley Playhouse, Magic Theatre, Shotgun Players and more
Jessica Heidt, artistic director of Climate Theater

Among the enormous cast are Julia Brothers, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Carlos Aguirre and Tobie Windham.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Mac and Magic Theatre Artistic Director Loretta Greco for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

As usual, I couldn’t fit all the good stuff into the story. Here’s more with Taylor Mac.

Asking audience members to commit to a five-hour experience is a lot. Mac understands this and asks you to consider the following: “You go to the office for eight hours a day, sit at a desk and do things. Here you have an opportunity to hang out for five hours at what is essentially a party. You get to think about themes that are essential to the way we’re living our lives. You’ll see adults dressed up like flowers in the most amazing costumes you’ll ever see. You’ll experience a theatrical play you’ll never forget. Or you can go to the office for five hours and forget almost everything about your day.”

Mac says five hours is really nothing in our lives, “especially if it’s an experience you’ll remember the rest of your life. Five hours is nothing.”

After having done The Lily’s Revenge to much acclaim at New York’s HERE Art Center, Mac says he’s in love with the long form because long shows are events, not the usual thing.

“The audience makes an investment and comes with different expectations,” he says. “When you give people what they think they want, you end up with High School Musical, which they don’t actually want. They may think they do, but they don’t actually want what they already know. I get that. I see them at these shows getting what they said they want. They’re bored out of their minds, but they stand up at the end. They don’t look bored at my shows because they’re constantly trying to figure it out.”

Mac’s drag persona is, as some drag personae tend to be, larger than life and outrageously wonderful. Still, people ask Mac, who happens to be adorable in his civilian get-up, why he has to channel his talents through the exaggerated makeup and wild costumes.

“In some ways, when people say that, it’s like they’re saying, ‘You don’t have to do drag. You don’t have to be gay.’ Ugh. I feel like my ddrag is what I look like on the inside,” Mac says. “I’m not hiding in drag, not hiding behind the costume. I’m exposing something. When I dress in jeans and a T-shirt, that’s when I’m hiding because I blend in with everybody else. When I’m on stage, my responsibility is to expose something about myself I wouldn’t normally. Even with the Lily costume, it’s may saying what I look like on the inside: ugly, beautiful, chaotic, specific, polished, rough, feminine, masculine. All at the same time. This is the full range of who I am. When I try to find an aesthetc or look that expresses what I feel like on the inside, it turns out to be a kind of freak drag.”

Having grown up in Stockton, Mac rebels against homogeneity, the surburan code of things having to be a certain way.

“I keep going back to that: how can I not be just one thing?” he says. “I want to show the range of who I am. It’s this anti-relativism that is so prevalent in so much of our culture that says there is only good and only evil. That couldn’t possibly be true. If it were, the pope would have to be wholly evil, and he’s not wholly evil. He’s not wholly good either. We know that. Obviously there is some gray there.”

Mac’s work comes from a queer perspective, but for him, the word “queer” isn’t a gay/straight issue. “My friend Penny Arcade says queer means you were ostracized by society as a young person to such a degree that you could now never ostracize anyone else,” Mac explains. “I agree wholeheartedly. The kind of work I’m doing is actually traditional. Theater used to be theatrical. The Greeks wore platform heels and did cross-gender characters. Realism has only been here for 100 years or so, which makes realism the real avant garde. A David Mamet play – that’s some serious avant garde. That’s the weird stuff. Theatrical stuff like I’m doing is traditional. I’m doing it from a queer person’s perspective, a counter-culture person’s perspective, but it’s still definitely traditional.

[bonus video: The Lily’s Revenge trailer]


Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge runs April 21 through May 22 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 415-441-8822 or visit for info.

Magic Up Against some funny creeps

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Pamela Gaye Walker (left) is Janice and Sarah Nealis is Eliza in Theresa Rebeck’s incendiary workplace comedy What We’re Up Against at the Magic Theatre. Below: Rod Gnapp (left) is Ben and James Wagner is Weber. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Playwright Theresa Rebeck, a master of barbed contemporary dialogue, conducts an interesting experiment in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of What We’re Up Against.

Her Petri dish is a big-city architectural firm – all glass and metal in Skip Mercier’s sleek, mostly black, white and gray set. Her chosen bacteria: the architects, all of whom turn out to be antiseptic assholes.

To stir the chemical reactions, Rebeck introduces elements commonly found in the workplace: power plays, raging sexism, vaulting ambition, moronic behavior and that ever-powerful agent, greed.

The architects at this particular firm are mostly isolated from the outside world. We hear about some client interaction, but the focus of their activity is internal. There’s not talk of spouses, significant others, children, parents, pets, groceries or dry cleaning. This nearly two-hour, two-act drama (with some hearty if stinging comedy) has a sharp focus and that is unpleasant behavior from unpleasant people.

“This is no one’s finest or most shining hour,” one architect says toward the end, and that’s so true. But it’s fascinating to watch people being ruthless in everyday, creepily corporate ways.

From the first scene, between Warren David Keith as Stu, a boozy senior architect and Rod Gnapp as Ben, a less senior but vitally important architect, we get hammered by Rebeck’s sharp dialogue.

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You can hear Mamet-like rhythms in the chatter – as when speakers interrupt themselves mid-sentence – but Rebeck’s dialogue is more engaging, less slick. Stu, who is enormously threatened by women in the workplace, talks a lot about his balls (especially about them being cut off) and about systems and rules. Both men say things like “What I’m saying” or “I’m telling you” or “Listen!” They desperately want to be heard (and acknowledged or, better yet, praised) but say the same thing over and over.

There’s discord at the firm because a hotshot young architect, Eliza (Sarah Nealis) is going against the corporate grain and not keeping her mouth shut. It’s not that she doesn’t have enough to do –she doesn’t have anything to do. With too much time on her hands and her abundant talent going untapped, she stirs up trouble.

The other woman in the firm, Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker), makes a feeble attempt to comfort the distraught younger woman, but she makes abundantly clear that just because they’re both women, they are not allies.

The one sort of superfluous character here is Weber (James Wagner), a golden boy who’s been at the firm a shorter time than Eliza. He talks a good game, like when discussing strip malls: “The human heart meets the void in these places and shops anyway.” And he can keep up with the scotch-swilling other boys, but he’s a dolt. “History is a fiction,” he says. “But it’s a sustainable fiction.” He serves his purpose in the plot, then he disappears.

Director Loretta Greco, the Magic’s artistic director, keeps the pace swift and the action intensely focused. She gets a superb performance from Nealis as the complex Eliza, who, you get the impression, would behave less horrifically if she were given the respect she deserves.

The amazing Gnapp goes on a verbal rampage in Act 2 about something central to the plot – air ducts in a mall remodel – and almost chokes himself on his words before observing, “It’s a relentless metaphor for why we can’t breathe.”

It’s interesting that the sexual element of the male-female dynamic in this workplace is barely addressed – perhaps that’s because Rebeck’s experiment is too focused. Sex is messy and real, and these people, in their slickly casual but expertly fitted clothing (by Alex Jaeger) are removed from the reality outside Rebeck’s microscopic lens.

This laboratory yields compelling results, but the experiment seems unfinished. The play ends, but the bad cells, you can feel, just keep multiplying.

Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re Up Against continues through March 6 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $44-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit