2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Peter Brook creates sacred space in Battlefield at ACT

Battlfield 1

The elegance of simplicity creates space that allows for the profound reward of listening, truly listening. Peter Brook probably wouldn’t want to be labeled a legendary director, but he is. His more than 70-year career is festooned with innovation, genius and the fascinating arc of an artist following his muse rather than his ego. In Battlefield, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the 92-year-old director achieves something sublime in its stripped-down beauty and incredibly moving in its poetic grappling with the meaning of life.

In 1985, Brook, along with collaborators Jean-Claude Carrière and Marie-Hélène Estienne, debuted a mammoth nine-hour stage adaptation of The Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit poem depicting an epic battle of good versus evil. In 2015, Brook and his collaborators revisited that massive text to explore what happened after the war was over. Battlefield is only just over an hour in length, and it is performed by four actors and a musician. Though its elements are simplified, its power is extraordinary.

Theater at its most elemental is humans telling stories to other humans, the very means by which we realize our humanity: we sit in awareness, together, of our shared awareness. Battlefield is at once epic and personal, mythical and real, which is to say this is storytelling at is best.

With a cost of what we are told is millions of lives, the battle between the Kauravas (descended from demons, so, the bad guys) and the Pandavas (descended from the gods, hence, the good guys) is ended, and those left behind are taking stock and attempting to come to terms with what it was all about. One of the ways they deal with weighty issues like grief, guilt and despair is to tell stories – stories about a boy and a snake, about a worm in the road, about choices made in youth, about redemption and destiny.

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You don’t have to know anything about The Mahabharata to fully enjoy this gorgeous production. The actors – Carole Karemera (who is succeeded by Karen Aldridge beginning May 16), Jared McNeill, Ery Mzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan – are such gifted storytellers that all you have to do is listen and watch the way they transform in the simplest of ways using bright, blue, and red and gold swaths of fabric as if they were enchanted cloaks. Musician Toshi Tsuchitori adds to the rhythmic thrust of the action on stage and plays a very important role toward the end of the show when the secret of life is revealed (spoiler alert: the answer involves a rather profound silence).

Brook’s most famous book is called The Empty Space, and it’s clear from his work here, just how powerful that empty space can be when it is filled with just enough elements to create magic: actors who supply just enough emotion, costumes (by Oria Puppo) that are graceful but commanding, lights (by Philippe Vialatte) that shape space as much as they illuminate story, and a text that has the power to transcend a specific culture by addressing the very core of what it means to be alive on the planet, in battle or out.

As a director, Brook doesn’t lecture, doesn’t cheerlead, doesn’t judge. He lets the story be the story, and in this case, that story is about how humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of causing grief for themselves and damage for the world they inhabit. When they win, they lose, and vice-versa. There’s a simple level of good vs. evil and then layers of complication underneath, all presented with such focused simplicity that its beauty can be breathtaking.

Battlefield is theater (and life) distilled down to an essence of gentle reflection. This isn’t the Greeks beating their chests and screeching at the heavens. This isn’t Shakespeare orating beautifully about the vagaries of life. It’s sad humans contemplating their role and function in a baffling universe and grappling with that unknowable shape shifter known as destiny.

[bonus video]
Just for kicks, you can watch the nearly six-hour television adaptation of The Mahabharata on YouTube!

Peter Brook’s Battlefield continues through May 21 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Simplicity, beauty woven into ACT’s Suit

The Suit 02 Print
Ivanno Jeremiah and Nonhlanhla Kheswa are husband and wife in The Suit, a touring production from Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord now at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Adultery leads to a cruel and unusual punishment between Philomen (Jeremiah, left) and Matilda (Kheswa). Photos by Pascal Victor/ArtComArt.

Simplicity translates into great beauty in The Suit, a skillfully wrought tale that originated as a story by South African writer Can Themba and has been directed for the stage by the legendary Peter Brook who adapted the story with Marie-Hélène Estienne and Franck Krawczyk.

The Suit, adapted from a previous stage version by Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon, is offered as a contemporary fairy tale in the Grimm style. A charming narrator (Jordan Barbour) tells us that this is the kind of story that could only come out of oppression (such as apartheid), but while that feels heavy and ominous (and for good reason), Brook and his team demonstrate such a light touch that we’re charmed as the trio of musicians emerges. First Mark Christine on the accordion, with its lonely, melancholy sound, followed by Garthur Astier on guitar and Mark Kavuma on trumpet adding a livelier, happier tone.

The simple set by Oria Puppo features chairs in red, yellow, blue and green, a few tables and rolling garment racks to become walls, wardrobes, busses and more. It’s a rudimentary set-up, but like so much about this production, simplicity leads to abundant beauty.

The narrator takes into Sophiatown, a small township of Johannesburg that in the 1950s was alive with the culture of black South Africans. There he introduces us to husband and wife Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Matilda (Nonhlanhla Kheswa) snuggling in their bed. Philomen gets up and goes through his morning ablutions and brings his lovely wife breakfast in bed before he catches the bus to work in the city.

The Suit 04 Print

When things go wrong for Philomen this day, they go wrong in a big way. A trusted friend shares some difficult news with Philomen, who returns home to find his wife in the arms of a lover. Rather than snapping into a rage or confronting them directly, Philomen takes a surprising tack. When the lover flees the house in his underwear, he leaves behind his suit on a hanger, so the husband decides to use that suit to keep his wife off balance and good and shamed. He also, it should be noted, threatens to kill her (in a surprisingly gentle way) if she doesn’t do exactly what he says.

Matilda is not confronted by her adultery directly. Rather, she is told to honor the suit as if it were a guest in their house. She must feed it at meal time. She must treat it with great respect and talk to it, sing to it.

The thing we learn about Matlida, so beautifully played by Kheswa, is that she is a dreamer. Always the prettiest girl, things came easily to her, and she was allowed to believe great things would happen for her. A happy marriage to a nice, hard-working man is not satisfying her (hence the lover). She dreams of being a singer, and that dream, even amid the strangeness of the suit, begins to be realized and allows Kheswa to sing gorgeous songs ranging from “Feeling Good” to the Swahili “Malaika.”

Philomen may be helping his wife’s dream come true, and she may think he has forgotten about the suit, but he has not. Her shaming has no end, and the fairy tale has no happy ending. The villain, though is less Philomen than it is apartheid itself, the oppressive force that warps all it touches.

At one point we hear about horrendous violence perpetrated on a black South African by the police, and that story leads to Barbour singing “Strange Fruit,” the song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday, and it was for me the 75-minute show’s only heavy-handed misstep.

Otherwise, The Suit, for all its darkness and political undercurrents, is a deeply personal love story told with grace and enchantment borne of simple, direct staging. The use of music and song to evoke emotion is a marvelous touch, and this small company with its bare essential set, makes the gargantuan Geary feel intimate and alive.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed director Peter Brook for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]
Here’s a glimpse of The Suit

The Suit continues through May 18 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.