Ari’el Stachel floods the Berkeley Rep stage with Character

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Tony Award-winner Ari’el Stachel stars in the world premiere of his autobiographical solo show Out of Character at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

As a performer, Ari’el Stachel is everything you want on stage, especially in a solo show. He’s charming, dynamic, kinetic and fabulously entertaining. In his world-premiere autobiographical one-man show Out of Character, now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, he plays more than three dozen characters, does a little singing (sublime beyond sublime), a little dancing (perhaps not so sublime, which is why he got into singing) and a whole lot of exploration into two things that have played major roles in his 30-plus years on the planet: identity and anxiety.

Directed by Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s former artistic director and something of an expert in solo shows (see Sarah Jones, Carrie Fisher, Danny Hoch, Rita Moreno, John Leguizamo), Character comes out of Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works development program and still feels, frankly, like a new work. That said the production is superb, with a striking stage design by Afsoon Pajoufar whose shapes and textures are beautifully augmented by the lights and projections from Alexander V. Nichols.

The 80-minute show begins with what should be a high point in the life and career of Berkeley native Stachel: the night in 2018 when he won the Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical for his role in The Band’s Visit. But that night, as we see, only exacerbated his lifelong struggle with anxiety, and he ended up spending time hiding out in the bathroom rather than being celebrated for his triumph.

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Diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a kid, Stachel struggled in numerous ways – first with the voice in his head, which he named Meredith after the scheming girlfriend in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, and second with his growing shame connected to his Yemeni-Israeli-Ashkenazy Jew roots. After 9/11 (when he was 10), life got even more complicated – especially at school – for a brown boy whose bearded dad got immediately branded “Osama” by the other kids.

So the intertwined narrative of Stachel’s show is the anxiety, which often results in abundant, visible sweating, and the ways he would slip into identities to protect himself from his outer and inner worlds. At Berkeley High, for instance, he passes for black, and he’s thrilled that he can finally be “cool.” But then in college, he finally embraces his Middle Eastern heritage, until that too seems like a character he’s playing. And everywhere along the way, there’s Meredith (realized in the excellent sound design by Madeleine Oldham) promising the end of the world if he doesn’t do exactly as she says.

What it is to be American emerges as a fascinating aspect of the show, especially when Stachel is on vacation in Kampala, Uganada, and is seen as just another white guy. But here, as with the examination of anxiety, Stachel’s writing doesn’t yet match his strength as a performer. The way he tries to make peace with Meredith internally and with his father externally aren’t yet fully realized, and the show doesn’t feel finished by its conclusion. Perhaps that’s because Stachel is still so actively living his experience and figuring out the day to day. There are more depths to plumb here, but Stachel should rest assured that he’ll never find a more charismatic actor to enliven his evolving script.

[bonus video]
Ari’el Stachel performs “Haled’s Song About Love” from The Band’s Visit (2018)

Ari’el Stachel’s Out of Character continues through July 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $39-$119 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Stream this! Julia Brothers @ SF Playhouse, Alice Childress @ ACT

I have two recommendations for online theater streaming. The first is a play written by and starring one of our best stage actors, and the second is an engaging reading of a timely play about race that happens to be 66 years old.

Julia Brothers
Julia Brothers plays herself in her solo show I Was Right Here, streamed as part of the San Francisco Playhouse season. Photo by Donny Gilliland

A train ride through memory
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Julia Brothers on stage in one of her many Bay Area appearances, you know that she is one of those performers you miss at your own peril. For San Francisco Playhouse’s streaming season – and hot on the heels of their extraordinary [hieroglyph] (read my review here) – Brothers not only stars in a solo show, but also makes her debut as a playwright with I Was Right Here. That makes two reasons you don’t want to miss this.

As usual, Brothers is absolutely compelling on stage (even being filmed on stage), and the story she’s telling this time out is her own. Taking the train from Manhattan to her native New Jersey to visit her 97-year-old mother, Brothers begins musing on memory. Lucille, her mom (whom she affectionately calls “madre”), is dealing with dementia and is losing great swaths of memory. Julia is serving as her mom’s link to the quickly receding years, and that sets the actor on her own journey through ghosts of her past and memories she has always relied on but isn’t entirely sure really happened.

In the play’s 75 minutes, Brothers the playwright gives Brothers the actor a highly entertaining variety of places to visit – RFK’s funeral train when Brothers was just a girl, boyfriends and friends who died far too young and a recurring sense of child-like terror when she feels she is not quite as visible or as present as she thinks she is. Director Padriac Lillis and Brothers create a smooth narrative that flows easily through the present and the past so that when Brothers arrives at her destination, she has reached more than just a place.

Brothers delivers a beautiful performance, and though she re-lives loss and trauma from her past, she can’t disguise the abundance of affection for many of the people who populate her recollections. This on top of Brothers’ own incandescence makes I Was Right Here a journey worth taking.

Julia Brothers’ I Was Right Here streams through April 17. Tickets are $15-$100) call 415-677-9596 or visit

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David Harbour (center left) as Al Manners and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Wiletta in a reading of Alice Chidress’ Trouble in Mind, part of American Conservatory Theater’s trilogy of readings, A.C.T. Out Loud. Photo courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Trouble: When theater reflects the world
In the last year, we have seen lots of staged readings via Zoom – it’s been a touchstone to live theater that is reasonably easy to execute and distills the theatrical experience down to actors and words. As we reflect on a year without being together in theaters, it would seem Zoom readings are going to be here a while longer. If they’re all as good and as smartly produced as American Conservatory Theater’s Trouble in Mind, that will be OK.

The first of a trilogy of readings in A.C.T. Out Loud, this 1955 drama by Alice Childress is the flashpoint play we need right now. Childress goes deep into American race and oppression and the shallowness of polite, so-called enlightened society in a story about actors coming together in the mid-’50s to produce an anti-lynching play.

If people show up for a play (or a reading of a play), it figures that they would be interested in going behind-the-scenes at the making of a play, and that’s the genius of Trouble in Mind. Theater is a crucible, and it doesn’t take long into the first rehearsal to begin feeling the tension between the white actors playing the landlords and the Black actors playing the sharecroppers and the mix of attitudes embedded in the play (the play within the play) and the attitudes the actors bring in from the world just outside the theater doors.

Who is willing to stand up and say, “This is some racist bullshit right here”? Who is content to calm the waters and keep a steady paycheck? And who is going to pretend to be an ally until their racist core is fully revealed?

Director Awoye Timpo has assembled a superb cast, and one of the great delights of this reading – something that really helps highlight the performances and underscore the relationships – is the way the reading is “staged” so that it doesn’t look or feel much like Zoom but gives a sense of actors stepping in and out of the action.

Hostility bumps up against compassion, fear battles rage and courage wrestles with cowardice, and that makes for good theater. It also makes for relevant theater that, sadly, makes it seem we’ve hardly moved the needle in almost 70 years.

The entire cast is excellent, but the central conflict is between the white director, Al Manners (played by David Harbour of Stranger Things fame) and his Black star, Wiletta Mayer (played with blazing intensity by Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Their polite, professional relationship degrades quickly in the face of reality, and that makes the pretend of the play almost impossible to uphold. It all comes down to Wiletta saying, “We have to go further and do better.” And that may be the realest thing of all in the play’s two-plus hours.

Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind continues streaming through April 4. Tickets are $5-$50. Call 415-749-2228 or visit A.C.T. Out Loud continues with readings of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (April 12–18, 2021) and Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (April 26–May 2, 2021).

Catastrophist unleashes contagious drama – catch it

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William DeMeritt is Nathan in Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Photos courtesy of Marin Theatre Company; Director of Photography Peter Ruocco; Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao; Costume Designer Sarah Smith

San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson was already one of the most admired and produced playwrights in the country. She didn’t necessarily need to be on the forefront of pandemic drama. And by pandemic drama, I mean several things: creating new, relevant, interesting work in this time of theatrical shutdown; but also creating work having to do with the pandemic itself. As a writer with a special penchant for creating drama fueled by a love and fascination with science, it seems logical that Gunderson would find a way to bring the science of our current situation to the stage in a way that only she can.

It just so happens that Gunderson’s husband, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, is one of the world’s foremost virologists. The Catastrophist is Gunderson’s one-man play about her husband, and it’s fascinating (again) on several levels: it can’t help but be interesting when a skilled and thoughtful writer decides to write about her spouse, his work and his inner life; and hearing from Wolfe (via Gunderson, of course) about why a brilliant scientist chases down viruses to try and prevent pandemics is, certainly, a relevant and captivating topic, especially as told by Gunderson, who has a flair for making the scientific entertaining and comprehensible.

William DeMeritt stars as Wolfe, standing on a stage, wrestling with the fact that his wife has made a play – this play – about him and acknowledges a sort of silent communication with her, like he can her her whispering in his ear at certain times during this 80-minute drama. It’s one of those conventions of a solo play that has to address the fact that a person is alone on a stage talking for whatever reason. Except in this case, DeMeritt is playing Wolfe in a theater empty of audience but filled with cameras. Jasson Minadakis directs this co-production from Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre (in Maryland) of a play commissioned by MTC, and he keeps the camera work active. DeMeritt’s sharp, impassioned performance is captured with the actor delivering his focus directly into this camera, then turning to this camera on this line and back to that camera on that line. It looks like a stage performance, but it feels more like a carefully choreographed and edited movie (especially toward the end).

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For me, the most interesting aspect of the play is its glimpse into the science of viruses and what led Nathan into a world filed with words like zoonotic, eukaryote and prokaryote. The fact that viruses, as Nathan tells us, are the most abundant life form on the planet and that viruses are built into our DNA is startling, especially since we all have a newfound awareness (and fear … and loathing … and fear) of viruses. But this is more a play about a scientist – an “expert in a terrible thing” as he puts it – than it is about our current predicament.

At a certain point, Gunderson leaves the science and dives deeper into the personal – Nathan’s relationship with his dad, Nathan’s relationship to becoming a dad, Nathan facing his own health crisis – all of which is embodied with intensity and gusto by DeMeritt. But I found myself wanting to know more about what Nathan had to say about where we are, almost a year into this thing, and how we get out and what dangers still lie in store.This, however, is not a TED Talk. The real Dr. Wolfe has already done that (watch it here – it’s fantastic). And written a book and will likely do more of both in the future. This is a play about a complex, likable human with a wealth of knowledge and a job that sets him apart but who is also a son, a dad and a husband. We experience all of that here.

I’d still like to spend time with Nathan – real or fictional – to know more about where we are now, but perhaps that will be The Catastrophist: Act 2, performed when we can all be in the same room together and we can, at along last, feel like this particular catastrophe is in the past.

Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist is available for streaming in an extended run through July 25. Tickets for on-demand streaming are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Josh Kornbluth saves the world with Citizen Brain

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Josh Kornbluth in Citizen Brain a Shotgun Players online production. Photo by Jayme Catalano

Josh Kornbluth is really working the Empathy Circuit these days. Unlike, say, the Borscht Belt or the nearly vanished cabaret clubs, the Empathy Circuit isn’t any sort of entertainment network. It’s the complex wiring that winds through various parts of our brains and allows us to feel empathy – that is, the ability to care about, imagine or even try to feel the feelings of another being.

The masterful Kornbluth has long had a way with a beguiling autobiographical show – Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, Love & Taxes – and his latest, Citizen Brain, comes at the most opportune moment imaginable. It’s too bad we don’t get to sit together in the Ashby Stage auditorium for this Shotgun Players production, but it turns out that Kornbluth’s vivacity, humor and intelligence fairly burst out of the Zoom box in which he performs his monologue live through Nov. 8. In these tense weeks leading up to the election, I can imagine no more effective balm than spending about 75 minutes with Kornbluth while he talks about brain science and making an effort to care about other humans (especially the ones who piss you off).

Written in collaboration with Aaron Loeb and Casey Stangl (who also directs), Citizen Brain is rooted in Kornbluth’s family. This time the focus is on his mom, Bunny, and her late-in-life second husband, Frank, who develops Alzheimer’s disease. With a real-life connection to brain disease, Kornbluth becomes involved as an artist fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute, a collaboration between UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center and Dublin’s Trinity College. It was here that Kornbluth began to understand how empathy works in the brain and how, if you consider our collective national consciousness as a “citizen brain,” it would appear that our empathy circuit has gone dark. There’s some crossover terrain here with his 2007 show Citizen Josh in which he discussed how important it was to speak respectfully with people on opposite sides of whatever spectrum might be generating tension, but this time he’s coming at it from an artist/humanist/scientist perspective.

All of this is also set against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and its divisive fallout, which makes Kornbluth wonder, “Could it be our country has dementia?” It’s a fair question, and though he doesn’t exactly have an answer, Kornbluth, with the help of his neurosurgeon mentors, begins to develop a solution that begins simply: take a breath; take another breath; then “make a leap into the perspective of another person.” Thinking on a grand scale, Kornbluth envisions this solution becoming nothing short of a peaceful worldwide revolution of empathy.

And what’s interesting about that from a Kornbluthian point of view is that Josh is at long last fulfilling the destiny laid out for him by his Communist parents as detailed in his show Red Diaper Baby. His revolution might not involve Marx, Lenin or Stalin, but it’s a a full-circle revolution moment none the less.

That’s part of the Kornbluth magic – storytelling that feels intensely personal and warmly universal – and it’s on full display (and in near close-up!) in this captivating online performance. With this show – in itself an act of deep empathy – and his ongoing work at (be sure to check out the videos), Kornbluth’s revolution is ramping up and working its way from heart to heart. Since watching the show, I’ve already heard Kornbluth’s voice in my head say, “Take a breath. Take another breath.” I’m going to continue working on my empathy circuit and try to play a small part in the revolution.

Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Brain continues through Nov. 8 in an online Shotgun Players production. Tickets are pay-what-you-can $8-$40. Advance reservations required. Click here for information.

Raging with Marty @ ACT’s Strand

Martin Moran at The Strand Press Photo
Martin Moran performs his solo show All the Rage in repertory with his other solo show, The Tricky Part as part of American Conservatory Theater’s @TheStrand series through December 11. Photos by Joan Marcus

If Martin Moran wanted to tell me about his trip to the dentist, I would stop whatever I was doing and listen in rapt attention knowing that Moran is a master storyteller and will inevitably find every telling detail, every character nuance, every link to something bigger than just the story he’s relating.

Moran is an extraordinary performer. In 2005 at San Jose Repertory Theatre he performed his solo show The Tricky Part, a captivating, upsetting, utterly engaging piece about the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy with a counselor from his Catholic summer camp, and now he’s back with that show and another, somewhat related show, All the Rage. Both are being performed in repertory as part of American Conservatory Theater’s new series @TheStrand.

Because I had already seen and loved The Tricky Part (and read the equally engrossing memoir of the same name), I was especially interested in All the Rage, which, like its predecessor, is directed by Seth Barrish and has already been loved and admired on stages far and wide.

The show is ostensibly about how Moran, now in his mid-50s, was able to forgive the man who abused him (they actually met years later) and where in the world is all the rage that should be consuming him and driving him toward revenge?

That’s a rather dramatic description of what the play is sort of about because Moran appears to be a fairly gentle, intelligent, compassionate, wonderfully self-deprecating person not prone to fits of grand drama (which is funny considering he’s a successful actor with an impressive resume of Broadway shows and more). Rather, Moran, instead of acting on rage, is more prone to turning inward and examining himself and how he’s operating in the world around him. “Where is your rage?” people ask Moran. He pauses. “It pisses me off.”

Martin Moran at The Strand Press Photo

Sure he’s as quick to anger as any of us when it comes to almost being hit by a cab while using the crosswalk, and even his most calming Sanskrit mantra can’t always provide the calm, centering place when it is desperately needed. But in several key scenes that Moran shares with us – an enraging encounter with his father’s second wife on the day of said father’s funeral, the aforementioned encounter with the pathetic abuser – rage becomes something quite different.

Before heading into the theater, knowing a little about the show, I was kind of hoping to glean some useful information about dealing with rage. Let me just say that in our post-election world, with one swampy day after another, I have found that a channel for rage might be useful. And while Moran’s 80-minute show is hardly a self-help experience full of new-age platitudes, it is extremely helpful to experience a slice of the wider world through Moran’s sensitive, well-observed vantage point. This is a writer of great skill whose verbal flourishes are always incisive, never superfluous. He’s just as good as a performer, relaxed and funny, warm and energetic. This is a man who sees the world in an interesting way and with attention to detail. More than a few times in the show, we see what he’s seeing, feeling what he’s feeling, right down to the light on someone’s body or the nature of his breath or his heartbeat.

In some ways, Rage is a hodgepodge of references, skittering about from Denver to South Africa to Las Vegas to the Statue of Liberty. We see Moran on stage in the musical Spamalot and we see him visiting the cradle of civilization outside of Johannesberg. We watch him serving as a French translator for a refugee from Chad seeking asylum in the U.S. and we see him dealing with a profound family tragedy. All the while, he’s skittering about the stage from magnetic bulletin board to laptop computer to overhead project to wall map, conversing with us like he were an actual person (as opposed to a writer/actor) and we were one person (as opposed to many in the dark).

That’s the thing about Moran: he draws you in, and even when it seems like he can’t possibly pull all of this together, he does, and in such a moving way that you’ll be thinking about him and feeling his show long after you leave theater. I still feel rage, but I’m also consumed with gratitude that there are people like Martin Moran in the world to help us make more sense of our complex human messiness. (And you can bet I’ll be reading his latest book, All the Rage, a Quest, which is available here.)

Martin Moran’s All the Rage and The Tricky Part continue in rotating repertory through Dec. 11 at ACT’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

This Lion is king at ACT

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Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical solo musical, The Lion, has been a hit around the world and makes its San Francisco debut at ACT’s Strand Theater through May 1. Photos by Matthew Murphy

If Benjamin Scheuer were simply a musical act, I’d happily go see him in concert and buy his albums. his voice can go from sweet to gravelly, aggressive to tender, rollicking to romantic even within the space of a single song, and the same can be said for his guitar playing. He puts himself out there in his music, and in addition to being aurally pleasing, his music is also deeply satisfying.

But Scheuer is more than a concert act. He’s also a playwright and actor. So his version of a concert is the one-man autobiographical musical The Lion now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. His combination of monologue and songs is irresistibly wonderful, and my only complaint about the show is that, at 70 minutes, it’s too short. At the end I felt greedy and wanted more, more, more. I’ll just have to wait for his new album, Songs from The Lion, to be released June 3.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

With a vocal range that starts with James Taylor, detours into Dave Matthews and occasionally diverges into Marcus Mumford (and perhaps some of the Sons), Scheuer performs Tin Pan Alley, blues, folk and rock convincingly.
Even more, his writing is as masterful as his singing and playing. Two songs late in the show, one in which he imagines his mother receiving a call from her late husband and another in which Scheuer writes a postcard to the dad he never got to make up with, deal with the push and pull of grief and healing in ways that simple dialogue could not.
“The Lion” comes across as an effortless evening of song and story — that’s its polished surface. But in reality, it’s a rare and nearly perfect piece of solo autobiographical musical theater — that’s its triumph.

The Lion Review 1

Read the full review here.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Benjamin Scheuer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

[bonus video]
Here’s the official music video for Scheuer’s “Weather the Storm,” a song from The Lion.

Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion continues through May 1 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. . Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Pops is tops in ACT’s Satchmo

Satchmo at The Waldorf
John Douglas Thompson is Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, running at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 7. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

John Douglas Thompson is tall and handsome, which is to say, he looks nothing like Louis Armstrong. But so deft is Thompson’s performance as the legendary trumpeter in Terry Teachout’s captivating Satchmo at the Waldorf that audiences could almost swear they were in the company of the late, great man himself.

Thompson doesn’t really do that much to conform to our idea of the jolly Armstrong. He hunches over and walks with a limp and gives his voice a little of that “sawmill” quality (as Armstrong describes it in the play) that helped make Armstrong such a beloved singer as well as instrumentalist. Somehow, the illusion is complete. Through body language, intonation and sheer force of warmth and personality, Louis Armstrong lives (and please, as per Mr. Armstrong, it’s Lew-is, not Loo-ee).

This is the first play from Teachout, the longtime theater critic at the Wall Street Journal, and it’s already taken on quite a life since its 2011. Thompson has been in multiple productions of the drama, so it’s no wonder audiences have flocked – this actor puts on a show well worth seeing. The play offers him a sturdy vehicle in which to make a clear case for Armstrong as something more, something deeper, than the amiable, grinning personality most of his audience knew from TV and radio whose jokes and songs began to overshadow his considerable jazz chops.

The Armstrong we meet here is not long for this world. He’s nearly 70 and enjoying a cozy gig at the Waldorf Hotel. He will die shortly thereafter in his Queens home, but on this night, after a show, he’s in a talkative mood, which is a good thing because there are a lot of people who want to hear what he has to say about his storied career, which began in boys’ home marching band (after a wild youth in New Orleans), his attitude toward performing (he swears he just wants to make people happy) and what other people think of him (Miles Davis can take a giant leap).

Satchmo at The Waldorf

The man who comes across in this intimate setting is foul-mouthed (in rather a delightful way) and sincere, proud of his accomplishments and bitter about how he was treated by his longtime manager, Joe Glaser (a mobbed-up Jewish guy whose fortune was made on Armstrong’s back) and by his fellow musicians, most notably Davis (whom Thompson also plays, briefly, in a withering portrait) and Dizzy Gillespie, who made an unkind remark in a Time magazine story that featured Armstrong on its cover.

Playwright Teachout clearly knows his subject deeply – he should, having written a critically acclaimed 2009 biography (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) – and clearly he loves his subject deeply. This is a compassionate portrayal of a mine many, like Davis (though perhaps not as harshly), passed of as a sweaty, smiley artifact of days gone by. There’s a whole lot about race in this story, and it’s good to be reminded about what it was like for African-American entertainers to do their jobs in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Armstrong reminds us that he broke certain barriers at swanky hotels and even shared billing with Bing Crosby in a movie (Pennies from Heaven, 1936), though Crosby never invited Armstrong to his home in all their years of friendship.

Director Gordon Edelstein and Thompson work together like a finely tuned machine. There’s nary a misstep in the play’s 90 minutes. The dressing room set by Lee Savage is realistically appointed, and there are some visually arresting moments involving lighting shifts (design by Kevin Adams that help delineate character changes, although Thompson’s portraits of Glaser and Davis are so crisp, he could do them under a single light bulb and we’d get it.

In Thompson’s hands, Armstrong comes across as smart as well as affable and as edgy as he was sweet. He made certain choices in his career, some at the behest of his manager (whom he looked to as a kind of farther figure), and he was well aware what he was doing. WE also see an abundant sense of humor (not always gentle), and that’s especially rewarding. We also get the sense of a man deeply connected to his music and its beauty. He never plays the trumpet (though he does sing a tiny bit – one big hit and one a surprising choice), but he plays some recordings of his work (most notably “West End Blues), and hearing that horn is all the more moving for knowing the man behind it just a little bit better. You definitely wan to check in to the Waldorf and spend some time with this Satchmo.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Terry Teachout and actor John Douglas Thompson about Satchmo for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf continues through Feb. 7 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Slice of SF life in fascinating Pornographer’s Daughter

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Liberty Bradford Mitchell tells the story of her dad and her uncle, aka The Mitchell Brothers, in her show The Pornographer’s Daughter at Z Below. Photos by David Allen

Liberty Bradford Mitchell’s story of pornography, family and murder could so easily come across as a public form of therapy. Given what she and her family have been through, that would certainly be understandable and maybe even interesting in a sort of voyeuristic way. But Bradford Mitchell, working with director Michael T. Weiss has crafted something much richer and more interesting in The Pornographer’s Daughter, a show for solo performer and rock band now at Z Below.

Bradford Mitchell is the daughter of Artie Mitchell and niece of Jim Mitchell, the infamous Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn and major players in the sexual revolution of the 1970s. Best known for their “porn palace,” the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and the landmark porn feature Behind the Green Door, the brothers became millionaires as they rode changing attitudes toward porn on the way to creating an empire. Their story ends darkly, with Jim murdering his younger brother in 1991 and then serving only three years of his six-year prison sentence (Bradford Mitchell tells us he was a “model prisoner”) before dying of a heart attack in 1997.

What could be a lurid tale, in Bradford Mitchell’s hands, becomes a wry jaunt through the culture of the late ’60s and into the ’70s and ’80s. Leading up to the details of the murder is the best part of the show as the writer/performer paints a realistic but rather sardonic picture of what it was like to be part of the Mitchell clan.

We hear how the brothers got started in their film careers in an Antioch garage and how they aspired to Kubrick or Coppola heights. But once on the adult entertainment treadmill, with the flow of money ever increasing, those dreams were fed into the porn world. First came the purchase of the theater and then came the desire to up the porn ante with more legit feature films starring the likes of Ivory Snow girl Marilyn Chambers. Soon enough, the O’Farrell was the go-to spot for celebrities (well hello, Warren Beatty and Sammy Davis Jr.), and the Mitchells and their families were living like royalty.

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Bradford Mitchell tells all of this from her distinct perspective, and it soon becomes clear that her remarkable sense of humor has been something of a saving grace in a life that could have gone in many different directions. That she was derided by her father for being a square is ironic, but so is the fact that as a 4-year-old, she was exposed to skin flicks at her father’s workplace but grew up to be a “Little House on the Prairie”-loving adolescent. She would occasionally escape the world of “naked movies,” as her younger self described them, by visiting her maternal grandparents back east – the descendants from the Mayflower who inspired Bradford Mitchell to describe her heritage as “blue blood and blue movies.” She also went away to a performing arts high school, where she fell under the thrall of musical theater (“It was the honky version of Fame,” she says of the experience).

With college and maturity came complications and a increasingly complex relationship with her father, who divorced her lawyer mother when she was 6. And then, of course, she had to deal with the practically Shakespearean murder of her father by her uncle.

All of this is told with affection, intelligence and stirring emotion over the course of about 80 minutes. Bradford Mitchell is accompanied by a three-piece rock band known as The Fluffers (wink) to smooth transitions and keep the energy level high. There is a song performed, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” but its one of the show’s few lapses into the cheesy. Otherwise, Bradford Mitchell offers a highly polished performance and a script that is tightly focused and often quite funny and well observed.

She also gets a big assist from designer Jeff Rowlings, who positions a giant green door on the stage (no need for subtlety here), a sharply effective lighting design and a rear projection screen that boasts a vast array of images (not a few of which are quite X-rated) designed by Skye Borgman (with an assist by Brendan West). It would be impossible to tell this tale of movies and madness without the imagery of the time. The video screen also provides a key tether to reality. As slick and as expertly presented as this show is, it’s also a true story. It’s Bradford Mitchell’s very personal story, so it’s nice to see the players – especially Artie – represented.

In the end, The Pornographer’s Daughter, for all its zippy theatricality, is really a burnished tribute from a loving daughter to her dad.

Liberty Bradford Mitchell’s The Pornographer’s Daughter continues through Feb. 16 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $32. Visit

So Mike Tyson walks into the Orpheum Theatre …

It sounds like a set up for a joke. Mike Tyson, battered and bruised by his career as a champion boxer, by his addictions, by his ego, by life itself, walks onto the stage of the Orpheum Theatre, where people have paid good money – upwards of $110 – to listen to him talk about his tempestuous life for two hours.

Mike Tyson Headshot

If the 46-year-old “Iron Mike” (photo at right by Jerry Metellus) hadn’t already done this with some degree of success, you’d be excused for thinking this was an elaborate prank. And with the estimable Spike Lee as the director of this bizarre theatrical outing, you know there must be something interesting going on in Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, a one-man show by a somewhat baffling man.

To my immense surprise (and even delight), there is something interesting happening at the Orpheum Theatre (a quick three-day stand from the folks at SHN). I walked into the theater not remotely a fan of Tyson’s and knowing only what I had gleaned from media coverage of his triumphs and travails for the last 25 years or so. My uninformed opinion was that he was probably a brute damaged by his rough urban upbringing and became even more brutish when the championships and the ensuing millions began pouring in.

Turns out that impression was pretty accurate, but the way Tyson tells it, with the help of a giant video screen full of images compiled by Lee, he was a thug but now he’s “domesticated.” He beings the show sitting in a spotlight while Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy” plays for much longer than you expect. The audience responds like they’re in the presence of a rock star, and when the music finally ends, Tyson accepts the audience love as if he’d just performed the song himself.

He says the evening will be considerably lighter than the documentary about him James Toback’s 2008 film Tyson, and it is (mercifully), though Tyson doesn’t shy away from talking about rough stuff like his turbulent marriage to Robin Givens, his rape conviction (he says he was innocent) and prison term and the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus.

Though I was able to understand about 85% of what Tyson said (much higher than I expected, actually, having only heard him on TV), the former champ is a charismatic stage presence who manages to get his points across with swagger and humor and even a little bit of heart.

My favorite line came during his extensive trash talking about Givens (promoter Don King gets his share of trash, as does boxer Mitch Green). On the screen is a paprazzo photo of Givens with her then-new boyfriend, a sweet-faced Brad Pitt. Tyson calls them the “brokedown version of Pearl Bailey and Robert Redford.”

Written by Tyson’s wife, Kiki Tyson, the show skips around in time and doesn’t arrive at a satisfying conclusion other than little Mike may be happy at last. Clean and sober for four years, Tyson is rebuilding his relationship with his eight children and is living a happier, smarter life than ever before. That’s certainly a happy ending, but Tyson’s story is hardly over.

I found myself wondering why in the world Tyson is doing a stage show about his life. It’s certainly an unlikely step in his career, which makes it interesting. And frankly, the mere fact of Tyson stepping onto a stage is theatrical given all the history he brings with him. He says he wants us to have a better understanding of him, and the show certainly helps rehabilitate his image in relatively small groups (compared to film and television).

But do we really want a better understanding of Mike Tyson, the man who’s made a life of second chances? When he’s in his 70s doing his Elaine Stritch-style autobiographical cabaret, then he’ll really have something to say about life for those of us who have never had, as he has, the opportunity to find out how horrible it is to drive a Lamborghini or what it feels or tastes like to have a piece of chomped-off ear in your mouth.

Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth continues through March 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market St.,San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$110. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Brian Copeland enters a compelling Period

Brian Copeland 2
Comedian, author and TV personality Brian Copeland wrote and starred in one of San Francisco’s longest-running solo shows of all time. He’s back with a new show, The Waiting Period, which takes his art in a powerful new direction. Photo by Joan Marcus

There’s nothing unusual about the following statement: Brian Copeland is a funny, funny man. He has proved that time and time again over the course of his stand-up career and his TV work. We started to see more of Copeland in his extraordinarily successful solo show Not a Genuine Black Man, which ran for more than 700 performances then became a book. Though about something serious – the extreme racism of San Leandro in the 1970s – the show offered abundant laughter and gave audiences the unique experience of dealing with real-world problems in a funny and theatrical way.

Copeland takes that notion a step further with his new solo work, The Waiting Period. Like his previous show, this one is co-developed and directed by David Ford, and it has sprung to life at The Marsh in San Francisco. But unlike his previous outing, this is no comedy. Far from it.

Of course there are laughs in this 70-minute one-act. How could there not be with Copeland writing and performing it? But this is a very different experience because it is driven by a very clear agenda. The Waiting Period is about the disease known as depression and about how important it is for people suffering from depression to reach out to someone, anyone, and keep a connection to life. He dedicates the show to Colton L. Fink, a 15-year-old who lost that connection and took his own life.

The waiting period of the show’s title is the state-mandated 10 days before you can purchase a handgun. We know this because, as Copeland tells us, he was intending to spend about $400 on a gun he intended to use only once. On himself. In this darkest of dark times, Copeland was dealing with the effects of serious injuries sustained in a car accident that happened around the time his wife left him and their three children with no real reason.

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Lost in hopelessness, Copeland visits a gun dealership, where, in spite of his bleak state of mind, he finds humor in the whole enterprise. He sees posters on the wall of bikini-clad ladies holding firearms trying hard to look sexy and lethal. “I’ve been married twice,” he says. “They were either lethal or sexy. Never both.” Or in that moment when he’s holding the revolver, he senses it’s a “little black steel penis extender…not everyone can afford a Corvette.”

With pathos and heart, Copeland conveys to his audience the helplessness of depression and the disease of it. At one point, he’s standing outside of himself, the healthy Brian attempting to “slap the shit” out of depressed Brian. But the healthy self has to concede that, “He can’t hear us. He’s sick.” The power and emotion Copeland and Ford have invested in this story elevate it above your average night out at the theater.

This is an entertaining, intriguing show to be sure. But you know you’re seeing something important as Copeland slowly begins re-connecting to life, most notably when he goes to speak at a local high school where he recognizes an overachieving but depressed teenager. The Waiting Period is ultimately as life-affirming a show as you could hope to see. There’s an especially nice touch toward the end as Copeland, coming into the light and feeling hope trickle in, is surrounded by the sound of happiness, and it sounds like a trumpet playing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”


Brian Copeland’s The Waiting Period continues an extended run through Dec. 8 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 415-282-3055 or visit