ACT’s Metaphor: a bright balloon that pops

Dead Metaphor 1
George Hampe is former military sniper Dean Trusk and Anthony Fusco is Oliver Denny, a military employment counselor in the world premiere of George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor, an American Conservatory Theater production. Below: Sharon Lockwood (left) as Frannie Trusk, Fusco and René Augesen as Helen Denny make the best of an awkward church encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

It seems there are two plays battling it out in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of Dead Metaphor by Canadian plawyright George F. Walker. Three of the characters are broadly comic – one foot in the real world, the other in a dark comedy of extremes. And the other three characters are just plain folks, getting by as best they can with anger, fear and desperation causing storms on a daily basis.

Both of those plays are pretty interesting, at least in Act 1. The comedy is especially biting as the three exaggerations – a politician running for reelection (the marvelous René Augesen getting to show of a real flair for biting comedy), her increasingly agitated husband (a grimly funny Anthony FuscoTom Bloom) acting erratically because of fatal tumor bearing down on his brain.

These three characters are able to wallow in the comedy extremes because the other three characters keep them grounded. Dean (George Hampe) is a military sniper returned from war in the Middle East. He’s been looking for gainful employment for months but with no luck. He’s about to re-marry his ex-wife (Rebekah Brockman), not because she’s pregnant but because she only divorced him while he was deployed because she couldn’t stomach the thought of being a military widow. And Dean’s mom (Sharon Lockwood doing wonders in a mostly thankless role) is suffering through her husband’s brain tumor-inspired dementia.

In the set-up, Walker’s play, under the keen direction of Irene Lewis, crackles with humor and potential. Whenever Augesen or Fusco is on stage, laughs are guaranteed as we get to know Helen Denny, Augesen’s unscrupulous, immoral candidate, and Fusco’s Oliver, a sensitive, intelligent man increasingly terrified by the monster his wife has become.

Dead Metaphor 2

When Dean goes to see Oliver about getting him a job, worlds collide and Dean ends up working as an assistant to Helen, much to the chagrin of Dean’s father, who, even in his addled state, can work up a full steam of hate directed toward conveniently conservative, opportunistic Helen and all the brain-dead politicos she represents. (“I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” is one piercing insult lobbed at Helen, and she absorbs it with astonishing aplomb.)

Act 2 starts to misfire as the satirical comedy and the real world begin to make uneasy intersections, and then, by the end, the whole play has self-destructed. It’s easy to feel compassion for Dean, who, as embodied by Hampe, is a well-adjusted young man who has been expertly trained for military murder but who can’t catch a break in real life. Potential employers tend to get jittery when they find out he was an effective sniper. Walker makes his point about the world our veterans face upon their return, but by the end, he has clouded that message and not taken Dean (or his ex-wife) into believable emotional terrain (even for a bleak comedy). Walker demonstrates some sharp shooting comedy then misses his target entirely.

Walker’s cop-out conclusion is just the last wrong turn of many in a act that expects us to make leaps involving plot and emotion that simply aren’t earned. So it’s a good thing these actors are so solid and the production itself is so slick (the dual turntables of Christopher Barreca’s prove incredibly effective). Otherwise, you might be tempted to say Dead Metaphor is dead not on arrival but on conclusion.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright George F. Walker for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor continues through March 24 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

The power you’re supplyin’, it’s Elektra-fyin’!

Elektra 1
René Augesen (left) is Elketra, Olympia Dukakis (center) is the Chorus and Allegra Rose Edwards is Chrysothemis in the American Conservatory Theater production of Elektra, translated and adapted from Sophocles by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Below: Nick Steen (left) is Orestes, Anthony Fusco (center) is Tutor and Titus Tompkins is Pylades. Photos by Kevin Berne

Suddenly, we’re awash in Greeks. Must have something to do with the upcoming election. Everyone’s feeling deeply and internationally tragic. We have An Iliad over at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and now at American Conservatory Theater, we have Sophocles’ Elektra in a muscular and potent translation/adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker.

If I could take the thing I liked best about An Iliad – the extraordinary bass player adding live accompaniment to the action – and replace the cellist here (Theresa Wong playing a score by David Lang), who is kind of precious and distracting, we’d have a gutsy bit of the Greek that stood a good chance of actually offering catharsis.

As it is, this Carey Perloff-directed Elektra has some gripping moments, most courtesy of core company member René Augesen in the title role. I lost track, but I don’t think there was one moment in this 90-minute production when her face wasn’t shiny with tears. There were angry tears, self-pitying tears, wretched-to-the soul tears and even a few joyous tears. You get the gist: lots of tears. But this is a tragedy, after all, and one smothered in murder, vengeance and the so-called “justice” of the gods.

Wertenbaker’s translation/adaptation retains a certain formality, which is welcome. This is, after all, foreign to us and should feel foreign to a degree. That’s why it’s so exciting when the raw human emotions break through the Greek-ness of it all and hits us afresh, even 1,600 years later, which is amazing.

Augesen’s primal grief is powerfully communicated in a performance that feels at once epic and deeply personal. Auguesen is so good, she even makes us forget the unattractive costume Candice Donnelly has put her in, a sort of black negligee pant suit with tight black granny panties visible underneath (I heard someone mutter about their resemblance to tap-dance pants) and black bra. Is Elektra part of a harem? A sex slave? It’s mysterious, and not in a way that really serves the drama. But Augesen connects in such a powerful way, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be).

Elektra 2

In the role of the Chorus, Olympia Dukakis is warm and compassionate and powerful in her own right, and Caroline Lagerfelt nearly steals the show as Clytemnestra, the evil queen (and Elektra’s mother) whose intelligence is outweighed only by her lust for power (and, perhaps, lust in general). Crisp and regal and really mean, Clytemnestra is a juicy role, not all villain because her actions are propelled, in large part, by a mother’s grief over the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. She’s not justified, but she’s coming from someplace real.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, is played with surprising complexity by Allegra Rose Edwards – surprising because when we first meet/see her, she looks like a high-fashion mannequin (the lacy white getup Donnelly has created for her is perfect). She says she’s grieving over the death of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, but she’s aligning herself with those in power to protect herself. She advises Elektra to do the same (to no effect). But it doesn’t take much for Chrysothemis to fall apart, Elektra-style. Her haute-couture façade crumbles and the damaged person emerges. I was disappointed that once Chryssie leaves, she doesn’t return.

For my catharsis, I needed to see a Shakespeare-style sibling reunion with Elektra, Chryssie and Orestes (Nick Steen), who was exiled then reported dead then suddenly live and in person and hellbent on avenging his father’s murder. But apparently Sophocles doesn’t roll that way. Nor does he want to show tit-for-tat murders in view of the audience, which, admittedly, might be a little too low-brow slasher movie for a high-brow Greek tragedy. But when you get emotionally invested with these kids, you kind of want to see big things to happen for them.

And for me, that’s where Perloff’s production slips, even though it’s an engaging, satisfying experience. We invest in the characters, fall into their drama, share their fury and care what happens next. The emotions are big, but they don’t take that next leap and get bigger – the kind of big where you clutch your chest and your cheeks get as shiny wet as Augesen’s.


Elektra continues through Nov. 18 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$120 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

Blithe Spirit 1
Dominique Lozano (center) is Madame Arcati, the outsize medium who sets the ghostly plot moving in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at California Shakespeare Theater. Also at the seance are (from left) Melissa Smith, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen and Kevin Rolston. BELOW: Augesen’s Ruth reacts to the ghostly presence of Jessica Kitchens (right) as Elvira, first wife of Charles (Fusco on the couch). Photos by Kevin Berne

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn’t dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she’s not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

Director Mark Rucker’s buoyant production is full of sly, well-observed moments that help ground Coward’s smooth-as-dressing-gown-silk dialogue as it flies quickly and crisply through a foggy night in the Orinda Hills. By all rights, a drawing room comedy like this shouldn’t work in the great outdoors, with hawks and bats making guest appearances in the play’s rural Kent setting. But Annie Smart’s marvelous set is elegantly cozy without pretending it’s not outside. York Kennedy’s lights are warm when they need to be and ghostly cool when they don’t.

Anthony Fusco is wonderful as British prig Charles Condomine, a mystery novel writer dealing with a furious and confused living wife and a scheming, ethereally lovely dead wife. Charles is not terribly likeable, but Fusco makes him fun, and by the end we’re even rooting for him a little.

Blithe Spirit 2

As the ghostly Elvira, Jessica Kitchens as as lovely as she needs to be (and then some), outfitted in flowing, creamy white elegance by costumer Katherine Roth. All we really need to know about Elvira is that she’s charming and bratty in equal measure. She’s an annoying ghost, but Kitchens softens her edges with sexy mischief.

Blithe Spirit is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the actor playing eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who travels everywhere on her bicycle and delivers schoolgirl aphorisms like the most valiant trouper on the planet. Certainly Domenique Lozano steals every scene she’s in, but the rest of the production is sharp enough to contain her beguiling performance without upsetting the comic balance. The most rewarding aspect of Lozano’s energetic, comically dexterous performance is that for all her goofiness, Madame Arcati seems like a sincere person with talents and intelligence to bolster her eccentricities.

The nicest surprise of this spirited Spirit is how it becomes the story of Ruth Condomine, the reluctantly haunted second wife who finds herself fighting for her husband with a ghost she cannot see or hear. On loan from American Conservatory Theater (as is most everyone involved in this production), René Augesen is all smart elegance and ferocity as she goes from horror at her husband’s inexplicable and astonishing behavior (he swears he sees the ghost of his dead first wife) to grudging acceptance and willingness to fight with everything she’s got. Augesen’s Ruth is emotional and grounded, a woman who feels her way of life is at stake and well worth a serious fight.

It’s not that Blithe Spirit needs gritty acting to make its sophisticated repartee work, but the warmth and relatable human-size stakes offered by Augesen and Lozano help make the play more than a pleasant diversion with an improbable plot. Their spirit makes this comedy more than blithe. It’s a farce with force.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with the lovely Jessica Kitchens about her work in Bay Area theaters and her spirited turn as Elvira for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

ACT’s Perloff aims Higher

higher 1
Andrew Polk (left) is Michael Friedman, Concetta Tomei (center) is Valerie Rifkind and Ben Kahre is Isaac Friedman in the world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum. Below: René Augesen as architect Elena Constantine shares her work with Polk’s Michael, a renowned architect and Elena’s boyfriend. Photos by Kevin Berne

This is the season for artistic directors sharing their writing with their audiences. Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre has actually done it twice this season with Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup and the current Ghost Light.

Now American Conservatory Theater’s Carey Perloff is sharing her fourth full-length play as a special non-subscription production at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum). In both cases, the artistic directors are making bold moves to put their work out there ̶ a brave gesture, to say the least. And they’ve both wisely handed over the directorial reins to trusted cohorts. In Taccone’s case it’s Jonathan Moscone and in Perloff’s case, it’s ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker.

The last time I saw a Perloff play it was The Colossus of Rhodes at the same theater in 2003 (directed by Perloff as well). I didn’t like that play much. It seemed an intellectual exercise in out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard. Higher is a much more satisfying and entertaining play, a drama with substance and classy soap operatics.

Perloff’s fascinating with architects is evident throughout as she follows two acclaimed designers, one at the height of his notoriety and the other just beginning hers. Unbeknownst to each other, these two architects are competing to build a memorial in Israel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where 22 people were killed in a bus explosion.

higher 3

The two architects also happen to be lovers, spending time in hotel rooms as they cross paths on their way to building things in places like Dusseldorf and Abu Dhabi. The play leans heavily on the dramatic irony that the audience knows the lovers are also competitors long before both of them find out.

In addition to her love of the pomposity and purity of the architectural world, Perloff also seems fascinated with the idea of balancing work life and personal life and committing fully to a project (a heart thing) and just doing it to get it done (an ego thing).

Director Rucker allows the action to bounce between New York and Israel with ease (helped by the simplicity and elegance of Erik Flatmo’s set). The dramatic line is clean if at times contrived. But the substantial performances help ease the occasional strain of credulity. René Augesen is her usual marvelous self as Elena, an up-and-coming architect, a woman in what is mostly a man’s game. She’s smart and emotional and makes Elena a woman all the more appealing for all her complications.

Andrew Polk is Michael Friedman, a high-powered, world-famous architect and, if we assess him by what we see, a real asshole. He seems to really love Elena, but how much can an egomaniac really love someone? He certainly can’t handle being a responsible dad to his grown son (the charming Ben Kahre). His attitude toward memorials is, not surprisingly, all about him, just as most things end up being all about him. He has a bit of an attitude shift, but it’s not quite as believable as it should be.

The carbonation in this two-hour production comes from Concetta Tomei, an absolute delight as feisty Valerie Rifkind, a widow as smart as she is rich (and she’s extremely rich). Tomei looks fabulous in the elegant costumes by David F. Draper, and she commands the stage as easily with broad comedy as she does with subtle body language.

As the money behind the design competition, Valerie could be a sideline player relegated to turning the gears of the plot, but the character is much more interesting and, thankfully, much more present than that.

Higher holds audience interest for several reasons ̶ first, we want to see who wins the design competition; then we want to see Michael knocked off his architect celebrity pedestal. We’re satisfied on both counts, for the most part. Perloff pulls a couple punches at the end, but she remains true to her characters and makes the play ultimately more about character than plot.

[bonus interview]
All interviews should be as delightful as the one I had with Concetta Tomei, who talked about her stage and television career. Read the San Francisco Chronicle story here.


Carey Perloff’s Higher continues an extended run through Feb. 25 at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Laughs of a Lifetime in ACT’s season opener

Lifetime 1
Jerry Hyland (John Wernke, right) makes an unexpected proposal to his vaudeville partners May Daniels (Julia Coffey) and George Lewis in ACT’s season-opening production of Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Below: Playwright Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther) and May (Coffey) compare notes on the craziness of Hollywood. Photos by Kevin Berne.

American Conservatory Theater opens the season with a play that only American Conservatory Theater could do. And I mean really do – the way it should be done.

The play is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 comedy that seems oh so very jaded about the new Gold Rush represented by the advent of talking pictures. What’s funny is that all the trashing of Hollywood types – dimwitted performers, egomaniacal studio heads, apoplectic directors, long-suffering writers – is so disdainful. But at the time of the play’s premiere on Broadway, The Jazz Singer, the first big hit movie with sound, was only three years old!

What’s more, all those stereotypes feel strangely current, as if absolutely nothing in the Hollywood world had changed, but instead of the frenzy over sound, we have frenzy over CGI and gazillion-dollar budgets and opening weekend grosses. Turns out has been a laughingstock, especially to legit stagefolk, for more than 80 years.

Once in a Lifetime is full of old-fashioned pleasures, and by old-fashioned I don’t mean quaint or sentimental. I mean that the three-hour, two-intermission structure helps the 2 ½-hour evening zip by. I mean the sets (by Daniel Ostling) fill the vast ACT stage perfectly and with just the right hint of theatrical opulence.

And I mean it’s utterly delightful to see a stage so full of exuberant actors – 15 of them, many doubling, tripling and quadrupling their roles – all seeming to relish the crispy, fast-paced dialogue that makes you think the 1930s were populated by particularly punchy and verbose people. The fact that more than half the cast comprises current MFA students in ACT’s Class of 2012 or recent graduates of the program is just more reason to crow about this production’s pleasures.

Director Mark Rucker has the touch here, combining just the right amount of zaniness, sophisticated comedy and human-scale sentiment. The most personable aspect of the show is its central trio, has-been vaudevillians May (Julia Coffey), Jerry (John Wernke) and George (Patrick Lane) who decide to cash in on the talking movie craze and start an elocution school in Hollywood.

The zany element is represented by pretty much everyone else, from the hard-edged studio head Mr. Glogauer (the pitch-perfect Will LeBow) to the bizarrely elegant secretary Miss Leighton (played in deliciously daffy drag by Nick Gabriel).

The world of Hollywood is evoked by Alexander V. Nichols’ wonderful projections, which include film clips from Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer to Bing Crosby in Going Hollywood to some hilarious audition clips and clumsy cinematic performances by some of the characters in the play. Watching movies in the gorgeous theater is strangely comfortable – perhaps because the theater regularly screened movies for decades.

Lifetime 2

Amid the cast of loonies, several stand out. ACT core company member René Augesen hits all the right egocentric notes as a Hedda Hopper-like journalist and Jessica Kitchens is a hoot as a silent film star whose imperfect speech makes her future in talkies doubtful at best.

Coffey delivers May’s lines with a sharp punch just this side of Katharine Hepburn circa Stage Door in 1937. She’s delightfully wry, but her infatuation with Wernke’s Jerry doesn’t really register, probably because Jerry is such an uninteresting, under-written character.

Lane really gets to shine here in ways he didn’t as barely-there Brian in last season’s Tales of the City. He’s goofy and sincere, the opposite of most of the Hollywood folk we meet. He’s a dolt with a taste for crunchy Indian nuts (apparently another name for pine nuts) and terrible taste in women (Ashley Wickett as untalented actress Susan Walker). It’s interesting to watch a man-size ego grow in a manchild like George.

My favorite character, and the guy I wish May ended up with, is playwright Lawrence Vail, played by Alexander Crowther. As part of a “shipment” of playwrights from New York, Vail gets completely swallowed up by the studio system. He’s making tons of money, doing no work and losing his mind. The fact that he ends up in a sanatorium for playwrights is just the icing on his crazy cake (wouldn’t it be great to see a play about that sanatorium?).

Rucker guides his cast through the mayhem with style and grace. He navigates his actors skillfully through some of the play’s pitfalls and strange bends in construction, and he gives them a tap-dancing curtain call that is almost as entertaining the play that came before it.

[bonus video]
Watch a trailer for ACT’s Once in a Lifetime:

[another bonus video]
Watch Bing Crosby sing the title song in 1933’s Going Hollywood:

Once in a Lifetime continues through Oct. 16 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets range from $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

Homecoming 1

The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

Homecoming 2

The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Clybourne Park is amazing. But this is not a review.


The cast of ACT’s Clybourne Park includes (from left) Manoel Felciano, Rene Augesen, Emily Kitchens and Richard Theiriot. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Because I interviewed playwright Bruce Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle (read the interview here), I will not be reviewing his Clybourne Park at American Conservatory Theater.

Mr. Norris requests that journalists who interview him not review his work. I’m happy to respect that request, but know that it will be extremely difficult not to tell you how extraordinary this play is or that it’s the first absolutely-must-see show of 2011. A review might mention the extraordinarily deft hand of director Jonathan Moscone or how I’ll never hear Ray Charles’ “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” the same way again. But this is not a review.

And I absolutely won’t mention how exciting it is to encounter a play that stirs deep emotions, offers big laughs and makes you think very seriously about the nature of change.

If you want to see Clybourne Park — and you really should — information is below.


American Conservatory Theaer’s Clybourne Park continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$88. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Theater review: `At Home at the Zoo’

Opened June 10, 2990 at American Conservatory Theater

Home-Zoo 1

René Augesen is Ann and Anthony Fusco is Peter in the “Homelife” half of Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo, the final show of the American Conservatory Theater season. Photos by

Human beasts, growl, purr, bark in Albee’s revised `Home/Zoo’
«««« (four stars for Act 1) ««« (three stars for Act 2)

There are two Edward Albees on display in American Conservatory Theater’s season-ending At Home at the Zoo. We have the 30-year-old writer staking his first major dramatic claim in a one-act play called The Zoo Story, written in 1958 and produced the following year in Berlin on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Clearly the play marked the introduction of a major voice in American drama.

The other Albee on view here is the 76-year-old, three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner with one of the most consistently surprising and long-lived careers on the American stage.

Guess which one trumps the other?

Albee’s The Zoo Story gained a companion play in 2004 at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut. Homelife took us into the private life of Peter, a publisher of, as he describes it, important but boring textbooks. He interacts with his wife, Ann, and after we delve into some sensitive marital waters, Zoo Story unfolds as we follow Peter to Central Park, where he encounters a somewhat off-balance younger man named Jerry.

Home-Zoo 3

The complete evening, heretofore called Peter and Jerry, was renamed last year as At Home at the Zoo because Albee reportedly thought the other title conjured Ben & Jerry’s ice cream more than it did a drama about the difficulties inherent in living life to the fullest.

Director Rebecca Bayla Thompson’s production is beautifully directed, performed and designed. Set designer Robert Brill keeps the focus on the humans in Peter and Ann’s pristine beige apartment and then opens the stage up for the second-act move to Central Park, where Stephen Strawbridge’s lights cast a green hue on the back wall of the stage and sound designer Jake Rodriguez delicately weaves in the presence of man (cars, hubbub) and nature (birdsong).

Both acts, in their different ways, address one of Albee’s favorite topics: the monster that terrorizes and devours so many of us, which is to say the fear of life itself. And this is how the older Albee bests his younger self.

In the Zoo Story half, Albee gives us a study in contrasts with Peter (Anthony Fusco), the somewhat priggish, reasonably well-to-do executive interacting with the “permanent transient” Jerry (Manoel Felciano), a rooming house boarder with a desperate need to connect with a stranger. There’s a lot of talk, mostly by Jerry, in this 50-minute encounter about animals – a landlady’s aggressive hound, the caged animals in the zoo – and it’s clear that the beats somehow represent the life that we want to tame and cage.

This is Albee writing in large, metaphorical ways, and it’s fascinating, especially when you consider that this young writer was just beginning to unleash his talent. But the piece, even with certain updates, is dated. Jerry uses expressions (“hither and thither”?) that, safe to say, very few modern 30somethings would use. And are there really still rooming houses on New York’s Upper West Side?

The drama, though full of interesting writing and ideas, is grand and somewhat self-important. It’s interesting to watch expert actors like Fusco and Felciano grapple with the piece. Fusco mostly has to listen, but Felciano treads a delicate balance between Jerry’s compelling intellect and his threatening aggressiveness. He does so with a gathering sense of momentum that helps ground the play in something resembling reality even though it belongs more to the world of theatrical construction.

Home-Zoo 2

That’s definitely not true of Homelife, which opens the evening. Fusco, playing opposite René Augesen as Ann, gets to reveal depths to Peter that we would never even guess at if we were only seeing the Zoo Story part of him. And Augesen gets to do some of her best work since last fall’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. The two actors find a natural, impeccable rhythm that makes it easy to relate to these middle-age marrieds who tacitly agreed at some point to a “smooth voyage on a safe ship.”

But now Ann is restless and dissatisfied – with her husband, with life, with herself – and has deep yearnings and misgivings. In the space of an extraordinary hour, she gets her husband to put down his book and engage in conversation with her that conjures that monster – the dark places we go in the small hours of the night. Husband and wife break through the politeness and habit of long-time marriage and hit on some sensitive, troublesome territory.

This is, in the best sense, theater for grown-ups.

Director Taichman orchestrates the body language and movement of the two actors with tremendous emphasis but virtually no artificiality. You can feel the audience hanging on every word, and it’s thrilling to experience dialogue that feels like action. The action of Act 2’s Zoo is more boisterous and dramatic, but you leave the theater still buzzing from the current generated in Act 1’s Home.


Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo continues through July 5 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

Theater review: `War Music’

Opened April 1 at American Conservatory Theater

War Music 3

Soldiers rock out with their “guns” out in American Conservatory Theater’s War Music, a world premiere adaptation written and directed Lillian Groag. Photos by Kevin Berne.


Not much music, not much war in ACT’s academic `War Music’

American Conservatory Theater’s world-premiere War Music is a lot like a college course on the Greeks – it’s long and confusing, but unlike those dry academic lectures, at least this one has a better-than-average audio-visual presentation.

Adapted from Christopher Logue’s book of the same name based on Homer’s Iliad, War Music is the work of writer-director Lillian Groag, who has toiled admirably at both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and California Shakespeare Theater and previously at ACT. Having seen and enjoyed Groag’s work for years—especially her fine musical sensibility and her great sense of humor — perhaps I expected too much in the way of dynamic stage pictures set to bold, affecting original music by John Glover and exciting choreography by Daniel Pelzig.

The show on stage at ACT seems like a missed opportunity in many ways. The theatrical pulse of the show – the music, the movement, the images – is buried under a whole heap of words, words and more words that only occasionally spark to life.

Daniel Ostling’s simple, distinguished set – steps on both sides of a stage dominated by a moonlike orb in the back wall – is beautiful. Basic and classical, the steps and the circle provide just enough background, and when the circle moves to become a window onto the walled city of Troy or a crescent moon, the effect is powerful. Russell H. Champa’s lights cast some fantastic shadows on that giant back wall.

But we want this to be so much more than a shadow play.

The story is narrated within an inch of its life. The narrators – Anthony Fusco, Andy Murray and Charles Dean – do a fine job, but being talked at, especially in a nearly three-hour show, is disheartening. The narration, though, is absolutely necessary to keep track of who’s who and what’s what, though that’s a losing battle as well.

War Music 1

We’re in the home stretch of the 10-year Trojan war. Something about Achilles (Jud Williford, at right) fighting with Agamemnon (Lee Ernst); something about the goddess Thetis (Rene Augesen, also at right); something about Zeus (Jack Willis) in a boxing robe and the other gods (especially Sharon Lockwood as Hera) behaving like they’re in a ’70s sitcom; something about Paris (Williford again) fighting Menelaus (Nicholas Pelczar) once and for all over Helen (Augesen again). Intermission.

Act 2 is somewhat livelier, and there’s even a piece of memorable Glover music underscoring a scene between Paris and Helen. Director Groag goes wild for one brief scene of warfare set to blaring rock music with bare light bulbs dangling above the warring soldiers (outfitted as they are through most of the evening in Beaver Bauer’s modern-day fatigues). Though this scene seems to be visiting from another show, this is the one I wanted to see. There’s also a scene with a ventriloquist’s dummy that, though amusing, is so perplexing as to seem pointless.

Too often, War Music feels static, and the musical score, rather than seeming original, comes across as cobbled together from other sources. The costumes are basic – the gold masks for the gods are effective – and the staging is too often as static as the text.

War Music 2

If you don’t know your Scamander from your Pandar or your Thersites from your Idomeneo, you’ll likely have trouble following the story. Even with the narration and the four genealogy charts and guide to the players in the program, scenes are confusing, and all the multiple role playing is ultimately defeating. The Greeks wear red berets and the Trojans wear blue. Beyond that, anything goes.

The only time the play slows down and reverts to a scale of real human emotion is in Act 2 when Achilles and his beloved Patroclus (Christopher Tocco) face war, loss and grief unbounded.

Otherwise, we’re spending a lot of time and stage energy tell an oft-told tale that comes down to a simple message: mankind goes to war over the silliest things. Death, destruction and mayhem are part of the mortal condition, and it will ever be thus.

Groag seems to want to tell this story in a modern way, much the way Mary Zimmerman did in Argonautika, but Zimmerman is a masterful storyteller, and every piece of her production serves the story. Groag’s War Music trips over its story repeatedly and never settles into a satisfying style.

In the photo above, Jack Willis is Zeus, Anthony Fusco is Poseidon and Erin Michelle Washington shields them from the elements in ACT’s War Music.


ACT’s War Music continues through April 26 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit for information.

Review: “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Opened Sept. 17, 2008

Rene Augesen is Esme and Manoel Felciano is Jan in a scene set at Prague’s John Lennon wall in the American Conservatory Theater production of Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard. Photos by Kevin Berne


ACT gives Stoppard’s heavy `Rock’ a mighty roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll has a beat – a heartbeat.

Tom Stoppard’s play, the season –opener for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, bears all the playwright’s hallmarks: weighty intellect, deep sense of history, dry wit, thick dramaturgy. But all of that is less important here than the powerful emotions coursing through the characters’ complicated lives – the emotions and the words.

This is Stoppard’s most autobiographical play. Like his protagonist, Jan, Stoppard is Czechoslovakian by birth and spent an important chunk of his childhood in England. This duality gives Stoppard, and Jan, a dual perspective, not to mention another language, through which to view the crumbling of Communism.

Perhaps Stoppard’s intimate relationship with the history involved here combined with his passion for rock music help the play wage a battle between the heart and the intellect that lets the heart ultimately rule.

Director Carey Perloff, who usually does her best work with Stoppard, doesn’t disappoint. Her production has focus and momentum, and her cast navigates well the tricky balance between the ideology and the humanity.

This is a play that dramatizes Czech politics, from “Prague Spring” in 1968 to the post-Communist world of perestroika in the late ’80s. Unless you’re a historian, you likely don’t know a whole lot about this place or this period beyond what you remember from watching (or reading) “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”

And while Stoppard requires his audience to be on its collective toes and pay close attention, the genius of the play is that underneath all the heated discussions about this regime, that petition, these arrests or the pros and cons of socialism, Stoppard allows life and emotions to propel the play.

This notion is embodied in – what else? – rock ‘n’ roll music. Jan (Manoel Felciano) is a rock devotee. When the Czech police want to destroy his spirit they know exactly what to smash: his LP collection full of the Doors, Beach Boys, Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett (a central, ethereal figure in the play).

Jake Rodriguez’s sound design is like a character in the play – the music is passion, connection and, in its way, revolution. The Czech rock band Plastic People of the Universe (who are, coincidentally, playing Slim’s on Oct. 9) figure prominently in the play as comrades of Jan’s whom he admires musically and politically – he even ends up in jail with them after one of their subversive events (a wedding if I heard correctly).

A Rolling Stones concert becomes a testament to a changed world, and Barrett’s “Golden Hair” (itself based on a James Joyce poem) becomes a family’s musical touchstone.

Felciano (above right with Anthony Fusco as a Czech interrogator) as Jan carries much of the play’s emotional weight and does so beautifully. He ages more than 20 years in a believable, low-key way that takes him from the optimism of youth powered by a mighty mind to the realities of a police state and prison to a more subdued middle age where people matter more than politics.

ACT core company member Rene Augesen has one unforgettable scene in Act 1 as Eleanor, a cancer-ridden Cambridge professor giving Sappho tutorials on her back porch. Decimated by not defeated by her illness delivers a ferocious diatribe against words over meaning. She has just watched her student (Delia MacDougall as Lenka) flirt shamelessly with her Communist husband, Max (Jack Willis), during the lesson.

The word at issue is “mind.” Her husband has highbrow definitions of what the mind is – he says it’s a machine that could be made of beer cans — and she’ll have none of it: “Don’t you dare reclaim that word now,” she says. “I don’t want your `mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing. I do not want your amazing biological machine – I want what you love me with.”

Augesen is extraordinary – not relying on any of the usual tricks we’ve come to see in her work over the years (those come in Act 2 when she plays Eleanor’s daughter, Esme) – she’s so real and vital and frail you almost feel the need to comfort her.

Words and truth are important and elusive in Rock ‘n’ Roll. How can so many words, so many shifting words, ever arrive at the truth?

Discussing words, Jan tells Max: “A thousand years of knowing who you are gives a people confidence in its judgment. Words mean what they have always meant. With us, words change meaning to make the theory fit the practice.”

The fascinating, compelling blend of words and music – intellect and spirit – fuels the play and makes it stand apart from Stoppard’s oeuvre. It’s a lifetime of experience in a complex, heartbreaking, spirit-crushing world that comes to no easy answer beyond giving yourself over to music you love.

That this trajectory comes through so clearly is a testament to the play itself and to Perloff’s handsome production. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set inspires a feeling of vertigo. Inspired by a photograph by Agata Jablonska, the set conveys a sense of standing amid dense buildings and looking up to the sky – oppression and release.

Aside from some accent issues (they come, they go), the cast is strong. Willis has fire but seems miscast as Max, the Cambridge professor for whom arguing is like breathing. But that’s the only major misstep, and strong supporting turns come from Jud Williford as Jan’s compatriot, Ferdinand, and Summer Serafin as Alice, an ‘80s teen with a restless mind and a big heart.

At nearly three hours, Rock ‘n’ Roll is overwhelming in the best sense. We’re pulled into a world – our world – and made to care. More importantly we’re made to listen. And think. And care.


Rock ‘n’ Roll continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit