Love chills in Berkeley Rep’s sizzling Wintertime

Wintertime 1
The cast of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Carmen Berkeley (Ariel), Sharon Lockwood (Hilda), Lorri Holt (Bertha), James Carpenter (Frank), Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois), Jomar Tagatac (Bob), and Micah Peoples (Jonathan). Below: (from left) Nora el Samahy (Maria), David Ryan Smith (Edmund), Micah Peoples (Jonathan), James Carpenter (Frank), and Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois). Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Oh, the ragged, jagged, chilly, burning season that is Wintertime, the complicated, beautiful, messy play that heralds the live-on-stage return of Berkeley Repertory Theatre after a 20-month pandemic hiatus.

In so many ways, this is the perfect play to bring back this beloved company. First of all, the play itself, by Charles L. Mee is a chaotic, poetic, operatic farce/drama about lovers, friends and family members who have taken each other for granted for too long. What could be an idyllic post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s few days at a snow-covered country home turns into a rage-filled, poignant and occasionally hilarious explosion – like a snow globe has been smashed, and amid the dripping snow bits and wreckage and broken glass, there are humans struggling to find shards of hope, love and forgiveness.

Mee is a Berkeley Rep favorite, with his Big Love and Fête de la Nuit being two highlights of the theater’s production history. Both of those shows were directed by Berkeley Rep’s former associate artistic director, Les Waters, who also directs Wintertime. There’s likely not a director around who can more effectively bring out the raw humanity and sheer beauty in Mee’s fascinating collage of a script.

Then there’s the cast, which includes some of the Bay Area faces you would most wish to see after having been banished from the theater for a year and a half. Most poignantly, James Carpenter is Frank, a married man whose wife holds a prominent place in his heart and his life even though he’s mostly with his lover, Edmund (David Ryan Smith). This is a role Carpenter played 18 years ago at the now-departed San Jose Repertory Theatre, and if he was good then (he was), he’s magnificent now. As someone who has been expected to be solid all his life, Frank is fragile and so very sad. Contemplating the relationship with his wife, Maria (Nora el Samahy), Frank says when he wakes in the morning, “I can’t decide whether I most want to hurt you or give you something.”

Other local stalwarts in the cast include the great Sharon Lockwood and Lorri Holt as Hilda and Bertha, the interfering couple next door, and the gorgeous stage is designed by Annie Smart, whose set brings the winter woods indoors by hanging dozens of silver tinsel garlands from the rafters and gives us one window through which we see a never-ending snowfall. The winter light comes from designer Russell H. Champa, and it’s all appropriately cold until tempers flare and we get flashes of red and changing hints of color around door and window frames.

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The humans within this wintry arena speak in poetic arias like characters out of Shakespeare or Chekhov who behave like the only thing that matters is themselves and their feelings. This means Act One of this 2 1/2-hour play is a near-constant eruption of jealousy, betrayal and hurt. The act’s final scenes offer two showstoppers: one involves a much-slammed red door that becomes the centerpiece of a wounded ego/broken heart ballet and the other turns the stage into the physical embodiment of all those emotions with the kind of mess you don’t envy the stagehands having to clean up.

Through it all, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design keeps pumping loud, heavy music full of voice and orchestra. There are some lighter moments – Silk Sonic makes a welcome audio appearance – and Act Two, with mortality leveling out some of the egos and tormented love stories, features some emotional depth that brings young love back to earth and gives older love reason to hope. And the entire cast ends up dancing around in beautiful underwear (costumes by Anna Oliver because sometimes joy mixed with loud music, dancing and underwear is absolutely necessary.

The marvelous cast, under Waters’ astute, no-nonsense direction, also includes Thomas Jay Ryan as a French lover who (maybe) sees his ribald life a little differently by play’s end, the hilarious but deadpan Jomar Tagatac as a delivery guy/minister who brightens every scene he graces and Carmen Berkeley and Micha Peoples as the young lovers whose shallow sense of the romantic evolves into something much different.

Mee’s dialogue can soar, it can annoy and it can dazzle. He cares about his characters’ dreams and he has compassion for their abundant faults. Then there’s the odd line that makes you take a mental note to write into the script of your actual life: “You were born grouchy; you live in a snit; and you will die in a huff.”

The trick of Wintertime is that it seems like it will be a cozy, romantic canoodle by a roaring fire, but the reality is that this play is, for all its glorious theatricality, jagged, sharp-edged and emotionally authentic – more bitter than sweet, more vodka rocks than hot cocoa.

The play is a carnival mirror, broken as that mirror may be, and there’s much to see (and feel) in it from the perspective of this strange period in which we find ourselves. During a Viking feast, a toast is offered to the assembled, but it might as well be to all of us as we move slowly out of one terrifying era and into…whatever comes next:

to the end of squabbling
the end of jealousy
the end of suspicions
to the new times of gratitude
for what we have.

Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime continues through Dec. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$92 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Catching up with Colette & Cyrano

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Lorri Holt stars in and co-wrote Colette Uncesnored, the story of the infamous French novelist’s life as a writer, a woman, a pioneer for social change and a lover. The solo show runs through May 14 at The Marsh San Francisco. Photo by David Allen Below: Le Bret (Michael Gene Sullivan, left) warns Cyrano (J. Anthony Crane) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of Cyrano, running through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Kevin Berne

So many shows, so little time!

Herewith, a petite voyage to France, first to check in with the writer Colette and then to catch up with the swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac. I reviewed both Colette Uncensored at The Marsh, a solo show starring and co-written by Lorri Holt (with Zack Rogow, and Cyrano, a new adaptation of Rostand’s tale at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here is a bit of the Colette Uncensored review:

There’s a definite “ooh la la” factor to Colette’s story, and Holt can flirt with and tease an audience like a true Parisian. But this is less a gossipy tale and more an evolutionary one. Colette thrived in the Belle Epoque period in which the bohemians sought freedom in all its forms (and suffered all the consequences).
At a certain point in her life, she delights that her reputation as a writer has overtaken her reputation as a scandal magnet, and by the time Paris is overtaken by the Nazis, we’ve seen her as a naive young wife, a successful actress, a journalist and a successful novelist. Through it all, she keeps coming back to a central question: “Is pleasure the same thing as happiness?”

Read the full review here.

Lorri Holt and Zack Rogow’s Colette Uncensored continues through May 14 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-282-3055 or visit

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And here is a peek a the Cyrano review:

There’s a robust charm to director Robert Kelley’s production in the first act, when Cyrano is surrounded by a noisy crowd of soldiers, actors, friends and antagonists. The second act, however, loses steam in a major way as the lively comedy and masterful swordplay (fight direction by Jonathan Rider) gives way to less exciting romance, a detour into battle and then a 15-year time jump into outright tragedy.
At nearly three hours, this “Cyrano” is at least 20 minutes too long and has a much easier time bearing the laughs and action of the first act than it does the increasingly sad drama of the second.

Read the full review here.

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner, continues in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$80. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

In praise of Anthony and Sharon and Lorri and Spike

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Sharon Lockwood (left) is Sonia, Heather Alicia Simms (center) is Cassandra and Anthony Fusco is Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the season opener for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Mark Junek (center) as Spike does a reverse striptease, much to the shock/delight of Fusco as Vanya, Caroline Kaplan as Nina and Lorri Holt as Masha. Photos courtesy of

If you spend any time at all going to theater in the San Francisco Bay Area, you soon see that we have some extraordinary homegrown talent populating our local stages. That’s not empty boosterism – rah, Bay Area! – but something nearing actual fact – rah, working Bay Area actors in it for the long haul! In just the last month or so, Marin Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, Aurora Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater and Magic Theatre have opened their seasons with at least one dazzling, shake-your-head-in-wonder performance by a Bay Area actor.

Now Berkeley Repertory Theatre gives a triple scoop of local actor goodness in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the local premiere of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy. Playing the titular siblings, whose community theater-actor parents had a thing for Chekhov, are Anthony Fusco as Vanya, Sharon Lockwood as Sonia and Lorri Holt as Masha. Watching these three seasoned pros work together is a joy, to put it mildly. They have craft and nuance and real connection (with the audience and each other), and it genuinely feels like they’re having fun up there together.

Granted, Durang’s play, though rooted in the world of Chekhov and tinged with some of the same sadness borne of lives barely lived, is a jaunty vehicle for the talents of great actors. In this world, everybody is carbonated, some more than others, and everybody gets a chance to, if you’ll pardon the expression, pop their cork.

At the start, it would seem that Vanya and Sonia, now living in the country home they grew up in following the long, slow death of their parents, have absolutely no fizz left in them at all. Vanya is reasonably content – watch him take simple joy in a good cup of coffee and sunrise from the morning room – but Sonia is a lament on legs. Life has passed her by, and at 52, she has nothing to live for. She is, in effect, mourning her life in the morning room.

Vanya 2

Then sister Masha arrives, her international movie-star fame whirling around her like a dervish. She has lived more lives (and had more failed marriages) than her brother and sister could ever dream of having. Her current infatuation is a boy toy named Spike (Mark Junek), a wannabe actor to whom shirts and pants are but fleeting garments. He craves attention and cannot stop moving, undulating, teasing, texting and flirting with everyone. Junek’s performance is so deft, so physically alive he might as well be a modern dancer performing “Ode to 21st-Century ADHD.”

To continue the Chekhovian theme, a winsome, starstruck young lady from across the pond (literally, across the pond just outside the house) comes wandering over hoping to meet the famous Masha. Her name is Nina, naturally, and she ends up performing in a play Vanya (whom she calls Uncle Vanya just to clarify, for anyone who might be asleep, that Chekhov is the godfather of this comedy) has written, inspired by a scene from The Seagull.

Veering entirely away from Chekhov, Durang also throws in a cleaning lady named Cassandra (Heather Alicia Simms) who, like her namesake, has the power to foretell the future. In her case, though, the system is a little herky-jerky, but she gets it right a lot of the time. More the point, whenever she goes into a trance or brings voodoo into the mix, the audience goes wild with joy because Simms is so much fun to watch.

Director Richard E.T. White, returning to Berkeley Rep after an almost 20-year absence, knows that this is a light play. There are shadows to be sure, and some of it is almost poignant, but for nearly three hours, the experience is about the laughs and the mash-up of highbrow Chekhov and lowbrow pop culture and, most of all, the moments when the characters explode in effervescent bursts.

Fusco’s moment comes in the second act when Vanya has a major flip-out and decries everything about the present in favor of the gentler past. It’s a masterful tirade, and Fusco gives it all he’s got. Holt’s vainglorious Masha has multiple snit fits, not the least of which involves a costume part, her Snow White costume and a demand that everyone else be dwarfs (Spike at least gets to be Prince Charming). But perhaps Holt’s funniest moment comes when Masha attempts to realign her aura from the negative to the positive – or as positive as Masha can get.

Lockwood’s Sonia is, simply, a dream. Debbie Downer for the first part of the play, Sonia comes to life at the costume party when she makes herself pretty and sparkly and starts speaking in an imitation of Dame Maggie Smith in Neil Simon’s California Suite (for which she won an Oscar playing an actress who loses the Oscar). We watch Sonia come to life – she is re-carbonated, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The entire cast is a delight, but there’s special pleasure in watching Fusco and Lockwood and Holt bring their unique talents to bear in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a zany family comedy with the zing of sparkling wine and, thanks to marvelous actors, the occasional tang of real champagne.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Christopher Durang for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues an extended run through Oct. 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-657-2949 or visit

Dating sharp, funny, creepy Becky Shaw at SF Playhouse


The cast of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw includes (from left) Liz Sklar, Brian Robert Burns, Lorri Holt, Lauren English and Lee Dolson. Below: Burns and English have an uncomfortable second non-date. Photos by Jessica Palopoli


The humor is in direct proportion to the discomfort in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, now in its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse.

If David Mamet were good at anything other than provocation and crisp dialogue, he might write something as entertaining and as distressing as Becky Shaw, a smart, incisive and very funny play that, despite its lack of focus, makes for a beguiling evening of theater.

By lack of focus I mean that Gionfriddo doesn’t delineate protagonist or antagonist. Even though the title of the play belongs to one character, the playwright’s aim seems much broader – like how power works between family members, between men and women and between the seemingly weak and the seemingly strong. She’s interested in highly functional dysfunctional people, which is to say, just about everybody.

Her targets here are members of an extended family: the matriarch, Susan (Lorri Holt), who is dealing with MS; Suzanna (Liz Sklar), the fragile adult daughter whose life is a mess; and Max (Brian Robert Burns) the sort-of adopted son who makes millions by managing the fortunes of others.

We meet this trio several months after the deal of Susan’s husband and Suzanna’s father. Family secrets and economic misfortune are the order of the day, but so are mother-daughter feuds and romantic liaisons probably best left outside the family unit.

Gionfriddo is a zesty writer with a taste for zingers, especially for the characters of Max and Susan, both brilliantly played with full-throttle, zinger-flinging relish by Burns and Holt respectively. Here’s Max on how to deal with death and still wield power: “Grieve. Be sad. But do it with a big dick.” On the same subject, Susan says the death of her husband, an elderly man who lived a full life and died peacefully “is not a loss. It’s a transition.”


With Sklar’s Suzanna, you want to make her hold still and take some deep breaths in an attempt to get a hold of herself, but she teeters through the play’s two-plus hours on the verge (and just on the other side) of nervous collapse and blinding rage.

As months go by, new people enter the fray who challenge the wicked family balance. Andrew (Lee Dolson) brings, as Max describes it in his customarily sarcastic way, an “indie rock” vibe to the clan, and his apparent concern for all creatures great and small is just another mask for his own particular damage.

And then there’s Becky Shaw (Lauren English), a possibly pathetic or possibly crafty (or more likely both) young woman whose life has taken some unfortunate turns and now finds herself at the mercy of both Max and Andrew. One thing we could have told Becky that no one in the play bothered to is this: never go on a blind date with Max, the man who sees marriage and prostitution as one and the same thing and the man who says, “Love is a happy by-product of use.”

English has a tricky role because we’re never quite sure about Becky and her reality. But this much is sure: English is extraordinary in the role. Compassionate and crazy-making, she turns the play on its ear, just as she should. There’s a moment when all Becky does is walk on stage, and the audience has a collective reaction just to her presence. That’s a testament to the character Gionfriddo has written and the skill with which English brings her to life.

As directed by Amy Glazer, Becky Shaw is a comedy of discomfort, a drama of ridiculous people. There’s a real-life edge to these people, both in Gionfriddo’s script and Glazer’s finely tuned cast. It’s not exactly docu-drama, but then again it wouldn’t be nearly as funny or as intriguing if it were. There’s real craft here in dissecting people we might be happy to dismiss but can’t because they’re too familiar.

The craft extends to Bill English’s set, which, with a few spins of the turntable, goes from a Manhattan hotel room to a posh Florida home to a grimy studio apartment in Providence, R.I. And congratulations to costume designer Miyuki Bierlein for finding a dress that, when described as a birthday cake, gets a laugh but also makes you feel sorry for the woman wearing it.

At one point, Max, who turns out to be the play’s most fascinating character, wonders why anyone would choose “an ugly reality over a beautiful fiction,” and it’s a good question. Becky Shaw has both in it, and that makes for a fascinating and highly entertaining play.


Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw continues through March 10 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Magic sends tingles through Chafee’s Body

Lilli played by Lauren English, Renee played by Rebecca Dines

Body checks: Lauren English (left) is Lili and Rebecca Dines is Renee in the Magic Theatre’s revival of its 1993 hit Why We Have a Body by Claire Chafee. Below: English’s Lili converses with Maggie Mason’s Mary. Photos by Jennifer Rei


“Once you start to ask,” Eleanor says, “there are more questions than answers.” Not a surprising statement in a play whose title, Why We Have a Body promises an answer to an implied question. And as Eleanor warns us, once those questions start forming, the answers, they keep multiplying.

Claire Chafee’s wonderfully enigmatic play is back at the Magic Theatre to open its 45th anniversary season with a look backward before heading into a season of newer plays. Body is being called a “legacy revival” because it was a huge hit for the Magic in 1993, running for six months and winning a passel of awards. What a welcome return it is.

In the nearly two decades since the play’s premiere, it has lost nothing in its sense of humor, sense of mystery and sense of, well, sensuality.

Chafee’s is an intellectual world – people living in their heads, in their pasts (the phrase “when I was a child” crops up a lot), in a perpetual state of perplexity – but that world is sliced through by a sharp comedy derived from family fractures and psychological scars. One of Chafee’s best lines comes when sisters Lili (Lauren English) and Mary (Maggie Mason) are on the phone talking about dreams. Mary has had another one of her feminist nightmares. “Like the once where you’re in a big circle and you have to come to a unanimous decision?” Lili queries.

Mary played by Maggie Mason and Lilli played by Lauren English

Though the play moves mostly in one direction, there’s a fragmented sense to this story of a mother (Lorri Holt) driven to remote stretches of the planet, while her daughters are left to try and figure out there thorny adulthoods for themselves. Lili is a private detective who helps women whose husbands are cheating on them. Mary is a criminal. She holds up 7-11s, obsesses about Joan of Arc and has the power to send faxes telepathically.

Mary is a singular person in every sense. She’s on her own in the world, perhaps mentally ill but very self-sufficient. Lili, though independent, buckles under the pressure of wanting and needing someone to love. The women she has loved have, as her sister, points out, are “busy not noticing her.” But she has recently met a rather extraordinary paleontologist on a plane. Renee (Rebecca Dines) is married but separated from her husband.

The scene on the airplane between Lili and Renee – so perfectly performed by English and Dines – is incredibly sexy, as is the following scene when a nervous Renee comes to Lili’s home and ends up presenting a paleontological slide show of her childhood.

Director Katie Pearl’s 90-minute production flows beautifully with the help of Marsha Ginsberg’s gorgeous white set, which represents airplanes, wild rivers in South America, the open desert (a pile of dirt is brought in to help manage that one), a Mexican beach and an airport bar among other locations.

I found myself longing for the character of Eleanor to be more involved in the play. She seems to be a short story circling a novel, an influence on everyone involved but not really present. Sharply etched by Holt, Eleanor is reacting to the limitations of her own upbringing. She’s out in the world with no plans to return home. “I was never told that you have to look for your life,” she says. “That some of aren’t born into our lives, we have to go and look for them. As if they’re taking place without us.”

The fine quartet of actors skillfully mine the humor and the darker, dramatic places to create characters that you care about – enough anyway to feel pangs when they do, which is fairly frequently.

It all seems to boil down to something Mary says to her older sister, who is not having enough fun. “You gotta just enjoy the human dilemma, Lili. That’s why it’s here.” That could be an answer to why we have a body. It could just as easily tell us why we go to the theater, but for some of us, they’re one and the same thing.


Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body continues through Oct. 2 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

Heavenly Angels exhibit takes wing

Angels caricatureThis Al Hirschfeld drawing of the Broadway Angels in America cast is on display at San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design in the exhibit More Life: Angels in America at Twenty. Below, Milton Glaser’s artwork for the Broadway production of Angels.

The millennium approached, then quickly fell behind us. Time marches on, but Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America remains a landmark achievement of 20th-century theater.

The legacy of the play that got its start at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre is on display at the Museum of Performance and Design, one of San Francisco’s best kept museum secrets. The exhibit hall may be filled with memorabilia from Angels’ humble beginnings on a red Formica table filled with scribbled-in notebooks to its domination of world stage (with the Pulitzer Prize and international posters to prove it), but what you really feel in this display is the extraordinary power of theater.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a play or a musical really taps into the American psyche, imaginations are ignited and artists are pushed to do work they didn’t know they could do. MPD’s curator of exhibitions and programs, Brad Rosenstein, has created a testament to the evanescence of theater. Plays may come and go, but sometimes in their wake, the world changes because people’s imaginations were truly engaged.

At a press preview for More Life! Angels in America at Twenty, (the exhibit opens to the public Saturday, Nov. 6), Rosenstein talked about his connection with the play from the first time he read it then described how enthusiastic everyone was when he contacted them for information or artifacts for the exhibit. No one had time, he said, but just about everyone made time, including Kushner, whom Rosenstein accurately described as “the busiest writer in the world.”

Angels posterKushner was there for the preview, as were original Broadway cast members Joe Mantello and David Marshall Grant. The Eureka production was represented by Tony Taccone, who, along with Oskar Eustis, ran the Eureka and had the foresight to produce the world premiere of Angels, along with cast members Lorri Holt and Anne Darragh.

The ever-present image in the exhibit, not surprisingly, is wings. There are angels’ wings from numerous productions, including the original Sandra Woodall wings from the Eureka (beautifully restored), the only surviving wings from Broadway, the American Conservatory Theater wings (metal and fabric and strangely beautiful) and the hyper-realistic wings worn by Emma Thompson in the HBO movie. There’s also a set piece from Broadway of the Angel of Bethesda Fountain that looks like it just fell off the beloved Central Park landmark. There are angels in photos and on posters, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to sense a few actual angels hovering among the artifacts.

Kushner was saving his speech for the big pre-opening gala, but in accepting a proclamation from San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty proclaiming Angels in America Day, Kushner said, “The only thing left is to climb in a box and shut the lid.” He described himself as “overwhelmed” and “out of my head.” And he described the experience of the exhibit as if someone had opened his closet and out spilled posters and wings and people.

Rosenstein conducted about 50 interviews with artists involved with Angels over the last two decades, and he said he will continue to add new audio and visual material into the exhibit. Among that material will be footage from a number of different productions. Toward the end of the exhibition, there will be a screening of Freida Lee Mock’s Kushner documentary, Wrestling with Angels at a Lucasfilm screening room, and there’s talk at the San Francisco Opera of unleashing the Adler Fellows on a concert presentation of the Angels opera.

The exhibit is so inspiring you want to head immediately into a nearby theater and see Angels in its entirety. You’d have to head to New York’s Singature Theatre Company to do that right now, but Supervisor Dufty mentioned a local theater company he’s helping, Theatre Shark, as they try to find a Castro neighborhood storefront in which to produce the entire two-part epic. Until then we can wallow in the wing-fluttering glory of More Life!.

More words!

I wrote about the contents of the exhibit in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the article here. You can also read Rob Hurwitt’s interview with Tony Kushner and his piece on the legacy of Angels.


More Life! Angels in America at Twenty continues through March 26, 2011 at the Museum of Performance and Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., Veterans Building, Fourth Floor, San Francisco. Suggested donation is $5. Call 415 255-4800 or visit

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Review: `The Crowd You’re in With’

Opened Nov. 17, 2007 at the Magic Theatre

Gilman’s Crowd stands out
Four stars Pleasingly provocative

There aren’t many plays, especially new plays, that stick with you days after seeing them.

Rebecca Gilman’s The Crowd You’re in With, which had its world premiere last weekend at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, is, in many ways, an astonishing play.

It seems so simple and so casual at first. A Chicago couple, Jasper (T. Edward Webster) and his wife, Melinda (Makela Speilman) are hosting a Fourth of July barbecue in the backyard of their building.

Their friends — another married couple, Dan (Kevin Rolston) and Windsong (Allison Jean White), and a single dude, Dwight (Chris Yule) — are coming, as are their older, upstairs neighbors, Karen (Lorri Holt) and Tom (Charles Shaw Robinson), who also happen to be their landlords.

The set, by Erik Flatmo, is your basic backyard: backdoor, stairs, grass, table, chairs, barbecue, etc. The play Proof could take place on this set. It looks real, and that’s key: Gilman is giving us a slice of life, and the more realistic the better.

Jasper and Melinda have been trying for a few months to get pregnant with no luck. Windsong, on the other hand, is in the late stages of her first pregnancy. The child status of the couples is important, because when Tom and Karen arrive (and while Karen makes what appears to be a delicious, fruity sangria with blueberries), we learn that this older couple, both of whom came together after unsuccessful first marriages, decided not to have children.

When the younger couples balk at their choice and imply that their decision is a selfish one, Karen’s calm defense belies the fact that she’s had to go down this road more than a few times. “It’s not like we’re bad people because we don’t want to procreate,’’ she says.

The tone of the cheerful barbecue quickly changes to one of unease and discomfort, especially when the older couple dons the landlord mantle and basically says to Jasper and Melinda that if they have a baby, they have to find another place to live.

The arrival of Dwight (Yule, above) — complete with cheap beer and a slacker attitude — lightens the mood somewhat. His showpiece is a monologue about what it’s like to be a waiter in a fairly nice restaurant when families with young children come in. It’s a great moment, and the mere mention of the word “Cheerios’’ brings a knowing chuckle from the audience.

When the barbecue breaks up, Gilman, paired up for the fourth time with director Amy Glazer, doing some of her best, most detailed work here, gets down to the meat of her drama. Jasper has been well and truly thrown by the afternoon’s events, and as night falls (Kurt Landisman’s transitioning, dusky lighting is gorgeous), he finds himself pondering all of his life’s choices.

Jasper is a bright, somewhat quiet man, and he admits that the idea of living an unexamined life is repellent to him. So he begins examining. Why are Dan, Dwight and Windsong — intelligent enough people but not really astute — his friends? Does he really want to have a child with Melinda? Does he even love her?

The older couple, having left the party when they sensed that their childlessness (“And our bad personalities,’’ as Karen puts it) were ruining the party, return to apologize, and the play deepens into something completely captivating and heartfelt.

Holt (above, with Webster) and Robinson, two veteran local actors, are incredibly good at maneuvering their prickly characters and imbuing them with warmth and intelligence. And Webster rises to their level.

In fact, all of the performances under Glazer’s direction are superb, and the play’s brief 75 minutes fly by but never feel rushed.

In some of her previous plays, Gilman has been sort of a finger-wagger, stirring up issues and hectoring her audience. With The Crowd You’re in With, she gives her audience a jolt, but it’s more like she wants to knock us out of our big, fat American apathy and think — really think — about the choices we make in our lives and why we make them.

The Crowd You’re in With continues through Dec. 9 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Call 415-441-8822 or visit for information.

Review: `Richard III’

opened June 2, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Villainy rules in Cal Shakes’ masterful Richard III
three [1/2] stars A Richard to remember

This smart, funny man can’t be all bad, can he?

When we meet the man who will become King Richard III in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, we’re completely charmed by him.

As he sheds his armor, we notice his right arm hangs limply at his side, while the hump on his back and his uneven legs have left his body twisted. But his self-deprecating wit — “…so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them” — disarms us.

That’s the trick. He can make us laugh with the way he says one silly word (“lute”), but then, just as we’re basking in his glow, he tells us something important. “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain.”

As played by Reg Rogers, making his Cal Shakes debut, Richard immediately has the audience on his side, which is key in any production of Richard III. Horrible things happen because of Richard — beheadings, betrayals, fratricide, to name a few — but we like him. We really like him. It takes most of the play and a staggering body count to make us finally admit that he really is a bad egg.

At Saturday’s chilly, fog-enshrouded opening-night performance in Orinda, the audience was fully taken in by Rogers’ Richard, and that’s a sure sign of success for director Mark Rucker.

The production may be three hours, but it doesn’t feel long because Rucker moves things along at a startling pace and keeps our focus intently trained.

Erik Flatmo’s set is all rough, raw plywood and utility lights (a whole lot of utility lights, fluorescent and otherwise) as if to let us know that we’re in a kingdom in such turmoil that nothing ever gets finished. This is the time, after all, of the War of the Roses, the thorny battle between the houses of York and Lancaster to get their kings on the throne.

The warring families are so weary of fighting, and their numbers so decimated, the moment is ripe for an ambitious egoist to seize the moment and catapult himself onto the throne. That’s exactly what Richard does, putting his brother in prison and then having him murdered, taking allies into his confidence and then turning on them, and, most famously, murdering two boy princes in the Tower of London.

Rogers’ charming ferocity and his keen physicality (Richard often looks like he’s dancing or skipping, when really he’s just trying to remain upright) carry the evening without question. His Richard carries us willingly into the heart of evil, and except for all the blood and horror, it’s an enjoyable place to be.

The rest of the cast — outfitted in flowing robes by costume designer Katherine Roth — is excellent but can’t quite wrest the spotlight away from Richard, and that’s only right.

There are exceptions. Catherine Castellanos as the ousted Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI, makes two memorable appearances. The first time we see her, she’s raving and cursing like a mad woman. The second, she is part of a quartet of spurned queens — Lorri Holt as Queen Elizabeth, Susannah Livingston as Richard’s wife, Anne, and Sharon Lockwood as Richard’s mother — who find strength in their shared misery and resolve to fight the tyranny.

Rucker’s production begins with Kay Starr’s 1952 hit “Wheel of Fortune,” which brings a smile before the villainy begins. But that pop song becomes the play’s theme, and in one brilliant scene, Richard even sings it himself.

Political villainy is timeless, as Shakespeare knew, and Cal Shakes’ vivid, engrossing Richard III reminds us that the really bad guys — the ones with charm and intelligence — can make us laugh and slice us in half between chuckles.

For information about Richard III, visit