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.

Hansberry’s Sun blazes brightly in Cal Shakes opener

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The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s A Raisin in the Sun includes (from left) Nemuna Ceesay as Beneatha Younger, Marcus Henderson as Walter Lee Younger, Margo Hall as Lena Younger, Ryan Nicole Peters as Ruth Younger and Zion Richardson as Travis Younger. Below: Henderson’s Walter imagines a brighter vision of the future for him and his family, including his mother, Lena. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you can’t make it to Broadway to see the latest star-studded version of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic American drama A Raisin in the Sun, you’ll probably do just as well to head out to Orinda and catch California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production.

Director Patricia McGregor’s production offers a superb cast and makes a case for Hansberry’s play to be in the pantheon of American dream plays alongside Miller, Williams and O’Neill. This is very specifically an African-American play from the late 1950s, but it’s also a timeless family drama about struggle, failure and redemption played out in a classic battle between taking (aka capitalism, money, material worth) and giving (aka love, compassion, family).

A sense of place is vital to the success of Raisin. The Younger family lives in a cramped, decaying, roach-infested tenement on Chicago’s south side, and the hope that emerges in the play, thanks to a $10,000 insurance check, is that they can start over in a home of their own in a sunny suburb known as Clybourne Park. Set designer Dede M. Ayite tackles the challenge of turning the gorgeous expanse of valley on view at the Bruns Amphitheater into a dingy, oppressive slice of the inner city by blending the two. At the center of the stage is the Younger’s apartment, too small for its five inhabitants and too shabby for this family’s strong sense of pride. Surrounding the apartment walls is a grid of fire escapes and balconies, with lines of laundry flapping in the cool evening breeze. It’s surprisingly effective (with a tremendous assist from Gabe Maxson’s lights) and offers a subtle but constant reminder that there’s a better, brighter life waiting just outside.

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The extraordinary Margo Hall (fresh from her powerhouse turn in Marin Theatre Company’s Fences) is Lena Younger, the matriarch whose depths of compassion and love for her family are constantly surprising. She sees her family falling apart around her and takes drastic action by using her late husband’s insurance money to buy a house that will not only get them out of the grit and grime of Chicago but will also serve their future by giving them roots (albeit roots in a neighborhood with no other black families, but change has to begin somewhere).

Hall’s performance has such depth and feeling that she anchors the entire production, and that anchor is especially helpful because Lena’s children are angry and explosive in different ways. Walter Lee (Marcus Henderson) is 35 and restless. His 11-year marriage to Ruth (a strong Ryan Nicole Peters) is strained because Walter’s focus is almost solely on money, or lack thereof. He wants, he needs, he yearns, but he can’t latch on to anything. His chauffeur job is a dead end, and he figures he could use his mother’s insurance check to invest in a liquor store to make a better way for his wife, 10-year-old son and mother and sister.

Walter’s younger sister, Beneatha (Nemuna Ceesay) is a bright young woman on her way to medical school. Her unease has to do with limitations she feels as a woman and as a black woman wrestling with her heritage (she and Walter are the fifth generation of Youngers in this country, a family of slaves and sharecroppers). She rails against “assimilation” and yearns to know more about her African roots.

In both of these children – and in the actors’ powerful performances – you feel the push and the force that will explode and change history in the ’60s. But for now, the Youngers’ angst is contained in their small apartment, described in the play as a “beat-up hole.”

Hansberry’s Raisin has had two Broadway revivals in the last 10 years, with the most recent perhaps inspired by the success of Clybourne Park, a play by Bruce Norris that imagines what is happening in the suburbs as the Youngers prepare to move in and then jumps into present day to examine the state of the neighborhood. The only character in Norris’ play that actually appears in A Raisin in the Sun is Karl Lindner (played at Cal shakes by Liam Vincent), the Clybourne Park resident who basically tells the Youngers they’re not welcome and offers to buy them out (he also, horrifyingly, keeps calling them “you people”). It’s a fascinating bit of subtext, but what becomes clear in this fine Cal Shakes production – a wonderful way to kick off the 40th anniversary season – is that Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is the real thing and everything else is a riff on her masterwork.

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun continues through June 16 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.