A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Double good, double fun in Cal Shakes’ Comedy

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Patty Gallagher (left) is the Courtesan, Adrian Danzig (center) is Antipholus and Danny Scheie is Dromio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Comedy of Errors. Below: Scheie steals the show as both Dromio twins. Photos by Kevin Berne

A visiting stranger makes a keen observation: “Your town is troubled with unruly boys.” The trouble is, he ends up being one of the unruly boys, and that’s the fun of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, a masterfully chaotic comedy now at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater.

As farces go, this Comedy requires us to believe that two sets of not-so-bright twins with the same names – the upper-class set is called Antipholus, the slave set is called Dromio – cause confusion, consternation and furious frustration when roaming the streets of Ephesus of the same day. Once over that hump (and Shakespeare makes it pretty easy), the farce clicks along like a finely tuned laugh machine until brothers are reunited, a father’s search is fulfilled and a courtesan gets her diamond ring back.

Director Aaron Posner strikes the right tone from the start as he has his troupe of seven actors deliver the pre-show speech about de-noising electronic devices and the traditional all-praise of Peet’s Coffee and Tea. There’s a lively informality to the proceedings that allows his loosey-goosey production to deliver an abundance of Shakespeare’s laughs and plenty devised by director and actors.

There’s a cartoonish feel to the proceedings, from the whimsical sound effects (by Andre Pluess) to the graceful arches and busy wooden-plank-heavy platforms of Nina Ball’s brightly colored set. But the zaniness is never so broad it becomes frayed and unfunny, and that’s thanks to a septet of actors that essays multiple roles with gusto.

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This is especially true in the case of Adrian Danzig playing both Antipholus twins and Danny Scheie as the Dromio twins. Many believe that Shakespeare originally intended that one actor play each set of twins, which makes for a double tour de force for a set of fine comic actors.

Danzig and Scheie are more than up to the challenge, with Danzig playing more of the straight role (still with cartwheels and a fantastic seduction of Tristan Cunningham as Luciana), making Antipholus of Ephesus kind of a thug and Anitpholus of Syracuse sweeter and more prone to naiveté. Scheie, a Cal Shakes favorite for good reason, all but steals the show as the Dromios. His nimble, high-energy performance gives us an abrasive Dromio of Ephesus and a dimwitted Dromio of Syracuse. With a Wonder Woman spin and a tilt of his hat, Scheie spends one scene being both twins, one on either side of a closed gate, and it’s so exciting you’d like to stop the show and ask him to do it again – stunt comedy at its finest.

Scheie might be described as a ham if he weren’t so incisive in his creation of distinct characters, mining the dialogue for each zinger and laugh. Dromio of Syracuse’s reaction to Nell, the large, greasy cook provides one of the evening’s best and most prolonged laughs, just as Dromio’s frequent cri de coeur, “Oh, for God’s sake!” just gets funnier each time.

There would be plenty to love about this Comedy with just Danzig and Scheie doing their twin thing, but the support they get from their fellow actors makes this zippy evening (not even two hours) all the more enjoyable. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent play multiple roles (Vincent’s deadpan way with a punch line is priceless), and at one point near the end of the show, they realize the plot requires them to assume characters seen previously with no time or opportunity to change costumes. So clothing racks appear miraculously from backstage and the actors change in full view (and much to the delight) of the audience.

Patty Gallagher does a marvelous striptease without taking of any clothing as the Courtesan (all to a recording of her lines) and then moments later is in full nun regalia as an Abbess sporting a giant, pain-inflicting ruler.

In addition to her tantalizing tango with Danzig (choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch), Cunningham charms as Luciana, a little sister who doesn’t know what to do when her older sister’s husband (or so she thinks) falls madly and instantly in love with her. And then there’s Nemuna Ceesay, fresh from her wonderful turn in Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun, as Adriana, a wife who is done with her husband’s shenanigans. I’ll always remember Ceesay’s performance fondly, not simply because she’s such a force on stage, but because in one of her forays into the audience on opening night, she interacted with male members of the audience and planted a big ol’ lipsticky kiss on my lips. As if the balmy June night wasn’t already warm enough, here’s a good example, kids, of how live theater can do things movies and TV never, ever could.

There’s so much good will and sheer enjoyment built up in this Comedy that by the ending, when the two sets of twins are required to share the stage at the same time, the audience quite happily plays along as Danzig and Scheie jump back and forth from twin to twin, untangling all the farcical knots and supplying a little jolt of familial warmth, supplying a nice little cherry on top of this expertly crafted Comedy.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Danny Scheie about playing a set of twins for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

California Shakespeare Theater’s The Comedy of Errors continues through July 20 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Bucky’s back and better than ever

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Ron Campbell reprises his role as inventor, architect, philosopher and futurist “Bucky” Fuller in D.W. Jacobs’ “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe” at San Jose Repertory Theatre through Feb. 23. Photo by Kevin Berne

I’ve probably seen D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe five times now, and I get something new out of it every time. I saw the one-man show starring the extraordinary Ron Campbell about 14 years ago when it opened in San Francisco at Theatre Artaud. That production ran for over a year, went on tour, then came back about a year later. I thought I might get weary of Bucky and his fascinations, but that was never the case.

Now History/Mystery is back, this time at San Jose Repertory Theatre and the show still has so much to say it’s almost impossible to absorb it all in one sitting. Campbell is just as good if not better, the new production features beefed-up video projections.

I reviewed the show for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sample. The link to the entire review is below.

It takes a certain kind of genius to make genius entertaining, and that’s what Ron Campbell does in D.W. Jacobs’ “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe” for nearly 2 1/2

Fuller as played by Campbell is still getting excited over icosahedrons and vector equilibrium and “ephemeralization” (doing more and more with less and less), much the way he did when we first encountered him in this beguiling solo drama 14 years ago in San Francisco. Now the show is at San Jose Repertory Theatre in the heart of Silicon Valley to preach Fuller’s gospel of saving his “Spaceship Earth.”

Read the full review here.

D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe continues through Feb. 23 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $29-$74. Call 408-367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.com.

Review: `Pericles’

California Shakespeare Theater production opened May 31, 2008, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

The eight-member cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles puts on a jousting pageant on stage at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda. Photos by Kevin Berne

Cal Shakes season opens with radiant romp
«««« Rich, rewarding, adventurous

Presented as a gorgeous fairy tale for grown-ups, California Shakespeare Theater’s first show of the season, Pericles, reminds us that in a seemingly horrible world, faith, love and integrity will receive their just reward.

One of those tricky plays labeled “romance,” Pericles might as well be called “kitchen sink Shakespeare” because it includes a little bit of everything: incest, fiery shipwrecks, knightly jousts, swirling romance, assassination attempts, tragic death, magical resurrection, marauding pirates, betrayal and beyond-belief happy ending machinations. Experts quarrel about the exact authorship of the play, especially the first two of the five acts, but the fact is, Pericles is mightily entertaining, especially when directed with flair.

And flair is something director Joel Sass has in great abundance. This Pericles, which is winnowed down to eight actors (and four general ensemble members) playing forty-some roles, is based on the adaptation Sass created for Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre in 2005. All the role switching gives the play a hyper-theatrical feel and helps keep it more in the realm of vibrant storytelling and less in the more emotionally demanding world of realism.

The stage of the Bruns Amphitheater, nestled in the rolling Orinda hills, has rarely been so beautiful. Set designer Melpomene Katakalos gives us a natural world – a tree trunk forms a central arch amid a sandy floor – with crude structures walled in by Persian carpets. Exotic carpets and pillows are strewn about the sand to create a warm, cozy atmosphere for ripping yarns and lusty romance. Russell H. Champa’s lights play with the set the way fireworks play with a Fourth of July sky – they form an extraordinary element in the storytelling here, with their dastardly shadows, warm hues, heroic posturing and near-operatic grandeur.

All of those elements are necessary in the telling of Pericles, the story of the Prince of Tyre (Christopher Kelly), whose life seems to take dramatic turns every time he takes a voyage. First he heads to a kingdom to woo a beautiful princess, but because her father the king is an incestuous letch, that doesn’t work out too well, and Pericles finds himself and his kingdom under attack.

So the handsome prince heads off to a kingdom suffering famine and brings them grain and hope. Returning from that trek, his ship catches fire and sinks. He washes up on the shores of a gentle kingdom and is taken in by kindly fisherman. It just so happens that there’s a knightly tournament going on and that the good-hearted king has a lovely, unmarried daughter. Cue the jousting. From here, the tale takes a more tragic turn, with death, kidnapping, jealousy, murder, forced prostitution and the supernatural all coming strongly into play.

But director Sass and his wonderful octet of actors sail through these bumpy dramatic waters with style. Shawn Hamilton(above) holds the narrative together as Gower, the storytelling poet who sings beautifully and fills in the blanks as the years hurry by over the course of the play’s nearly three hours. Having a narrator helps because it’s a little hard to keep track of this wandering tale.

But that’s another reason Sass’ production works so well – even when the play loses its way or gets tangled in yet another adventure, the stage is gorgeous and there’s always something interesting going on. Raquel M. Barreto’s costumes are lush and beautiful, like something out of 1,001 Nights. She also has a sense of humor. Her fishermen, for instance, look less like people and more like grass huts. And when it’s time for the joust, the knights strap on their horses like clowns. Composer Greg Brosofske lends pomp and romance to an already lyrical story.

The role-shifting actors all shine. Ron Campbell goes from dastardly (as the incestuous king) to dippy (as a fisherman) to equine (as a prancing knight on “horseback“); Delia MacDougall (above, with Kelly) is a robust redhead who wins Pericles’ heart, and then she’s a madam in a fat suit (complete with over-stretched fishnet stockings); Domenique Lozano is a duplicitous queen and an enigmatic sorcerer who has the power to bring the dead back to life; Sarah Nealis is a radiant Marina, daughter of Pericles; Alex Morf plays a series of bad guys until his final bad guy, in the face of overwhelming virtue, turns good; and Danny Scheie plays several good, noble men and one feisty hunchback.

Is the play nonsensical and outlandish? Absolutely. Is it incredibly moving at its tearjerking conclusion when all is set right, and noble Pericles, after all his misfortunes, is given what he most wanted in the world? Oh, yes, and then some. Fairytale is fantasy, and we want to believe some of that fantastical world, of outrageous wrong and unwavering right, can rub off on our world. We want to believe in happy endings so that in our daily dealings with shipwrecks, bawds and nefarious kings, we, like Pericles, can take heart in an ending of the happy, tear-stained variety.

Pericles continues through June 22 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit in Orinda (there’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station). Tickets are $32-$62 (with student, senior and under 30 discounts). Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.