White Noise shocks, ultimately disappoints at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s White Noise by Suzan-Lori Parks includes (from left) Chris Herbie Holland as Leo, Therese Barbato as Dawn, Aimé Donna Kelly as Misha and Nick Dillenburg as Ralph. Below: Holland and Barbato as Leo and Dawn work through some life and relationship challenges. Photos by Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise is an intensely interesting play. Just not a very good one.

And that’s surprising given that Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, has bent, molded and shaped contemporary theater to her will through sheer force of intelligence, powerful writing and the courage to configure theater as she needs it to be configured. Her most powerful plays – The America Play, Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) – take inspiration from other pioneering playwrights (Homer, Brecht) and become wholly original Parksian examinations of race and the endless echoes of slavery.

White Noise, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, continues exploring those issues, but it would appear that Parks wants to do that in a seemingly conventional way. Her set-up in Act 1 feels like the pilot of a Netflix series. Two interracial couples, friends since college (and, for a short, blissful time, even bandmates), are still close now that they’re living in a big city (never named) and preoccupied with adulting.

Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) is the play’s fulcrum. He’s a promising black artist who has a long-gestating craetive block. He has wrestled with insomnia since childhood, when a Sunday school teacher told him that the sun was going to go out. He’s anxious and sleep deprived, but he keeps saying that “through sheer force of will” he gets through his days. His college sweetheart, Dawn (Therese Barbato), is a crusading lawyer, “one of the good guys,” as she keeps putting it. She could have gone with a big firm but wanted to start at the bottom to see what it felt like (and, of course, to help the underrepresented).

Once a week, Dawn and Leo meet their besties at the local bowling alley. Ralph (Nick Dillenburg) inherited a mint from his bowling-alley magnate father, and that cushion of privilege allows him to do some sideline writing and college teaching as a lit professor. That multi-million-dollar cushion also allows his girlfriend, Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), to pursue her career as a vlogger. She hosts a live-stream call-in show called “Ask a Black” in which she, as she describes her performance style, “dials up the Ebonics.”

So far, so Netflix. But then Leo, during a late-night walk through a posh neighborhood, is assaulted by the police simply for being a black man where they didn’t think he should be. He is understandably traumatized and comes up with an extreme plan to deal with that trauma, not to mention his general life malaise.

If you’d rather not know Leo’s plan, stop reading. But this is where things get interesting…and then ultimately end up disappointing.

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Over the weekly bowling game, Leo says he would like Ralph to buy him for nearly $90,000 (the cost of his credit card debt and student loans) and make him a slave for 40 days. This is not something that would ever happen in real life, so the fact that Ralph needs little persuading to agree or that the women go along with it after feeble protestations hardly matters. Playwright Parks is conducing a theatrical experiment here and needs to jump start it.

The problem is that the experiment turns out to be not that interesting. No new theatrical ground is broken in terms of structure. There’s a big chart documenting 40 days that get ticked off in the longer second act. Ralph gets way too enthusiastic about being a slave master, and Leo seems to find some semblance of growth within this torture that he instigated. Tension mounts, relationships are shattered and everything pans out pretty much as expected (which is to say, not well at all).

Parks has each of her characters deliver a soliloquy to the audience illuminating their pasts and presents, and though the actors in director Jaki Bradley’s production are all skilled and charismatic, there’s not one person on the stage whom I would count myself lucky to call a friend.

There’s no bold theatricality at work here, just strained reality and a conceit that continually reviews itself while it’s happening (everybody’s checking in with everybody about how everybody is doing). If the situation here is contrived, the emotions should be real and heightened, but they’re not. Parks toys with fluid sexuality but not in a way that would directly challenge (or augment) her central plot, and the heavy presence of bowling (beautifully realized by set designer Adam Rigg, who manages to create two apartments and a bowling alley out of one set, and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman) is actually a drag. Bowling is just plain dull unless you’re the one smashing the pins.

There are moments here designed to outrage, shock and offend – not a surprise in a play about the “virus,” as Parks calls it, of racism. But this slightly amped-up sitcom needs bigger, bolder, even more outrageous moments to really register and to feel like this insular quartet is part of the American evolution that began in 1619 with the first the first sale of slaves on these shores.

If I had a choice, I’d rather see a play about Misha (especially as played by the dynamic Kelly). Her “Ask a Black” vlog is the best thing in the show. First it’s played for comedy, but the serious undercurrents grow stronger and stronger until her awakening (and the way she capitalizes on her friend and boyfriend becoming slave and master) becomes more interesting than Leo and Ralph’s increasingly troublesome experiment. I’m ready for her show about this show.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise continues through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Parks finds poetry, drama in epic Father

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The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones, third from left), Hero’s surrogate father, suggests that Hero (James Udom, second from left) cut off his foot so he will be unfit to go to war in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), at ACT’s Geary Theater. Observing the action are (rear, left to right) Hero’s wife, Penny (Eboni Flowers), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez, front), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka, back), and Third (Safiya Fredericks, back). Below: Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace, center), Hero’s faithful pet, appears with updates on Hero’s return from the war. Photos by Joan Marcus

There’s some epic myth-making happening on the stage of American Conservatory Theater’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks – one of those great American playwrights whose mere name should always inspire you to check out her work – nods in the direction of other great epics, most notably The Odyssey, but also, as she has said, The Oresteia and The Mahabharata as she tells the story of a slave who reluctantly follows his master into the Civil War.

It’s interesting that Parks’ title is very specifically about a father coming home, but in the play, no character is (yet) a father. Perhaps this is an indication of the even greater scope of Parks’ project, which she envisions as being at least six more parts.

As it stands now, Father’s three parts clock in at a solid three hours (with one intermission), and under the direction of Liz Diamond, part one, which essentially explores whether our hero, named Hero, naturally, will actually accompany his master into war in exchange, so the master promises, for his freedom at the end of the fight, becomes repetitive and draggy in spite of fiery performance by Steven Anthony Jones as The Oldest Old Man and father figure to Hero (again, not an actual father). It seems Parks is slowly ramping up her storytelling – a rich blend of the contemporary, the lyrical and the classical – because part two is much more engaging, with part three finding an ending that doesn’t quite feel like an ending (because more parts are forthcoming).

In part two, we get right into the crux of what it means to be free. Hero (a stalwart James Udom), has reluctantly followed The Colonel (Dan Hiatt) into war. It rankles Hero that he’s fighting on the wrong side, but he’s such a noble character that the thought of running away strikes him as stealing because he is the property of someone else. The Colonel, who is fond of drink and oration, is holding forth in front of his captured Union soldier, Smith (Tom Pecinka). The interactions between Hero and the soldier are especially charged and lead Hero to wonder how much he’ll be worth when freedom comes. Freedom, as it turns out, isn’t actually free.

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Hiatt delivers an astonishing monologue about how happy The Colonel is to be white, and the conclusion of this war section is tender and wrenching. You’d think such adjectives would be more appropriate for part three, when Hero, now called Ulysses (a nod to Homer and to Gen. Grant), returns to his pining wife Penny (Eboni Flowers) back on the plantation. But this final part, rather than being emotional, tends toward the comic thanks to Hero’s faithful canine companion, Odyssey Dog, played with adorable verve by Gregory Wallace. In Parks’ world, it’s not remotely odd that the dog can talk, but it is frustrating that he can’t seem to get to the part of his story that reveals whether Hero is alive or dead.

The stakes are high. There’s word about some sort of (emancipation) proclamation having to do with freedom, but the three runaway slaves hiding out in the slave quarters until nightfall (Rotimi Agbabiaka, Chivas Michael and Britney Frazier filling in for Safiya Fredericks at Wednesday’s opening-night performance) are still heading out. The trio may become a quartet with the addition of Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), a slave whose foot was cut off years ago by Hero in a cruel demonstration of power and punishment dictated by The Colonel. In Hero’s absence, Homer and Penny have shared a bed, but Penny has saved her heart for Hero/Ulysses, a man whose name change isn’t the only lasting effect of his wartime experience.

Parks finds music in her dialogue, and she has also woven a musician (guitarist/singer Martin Luther McCoy) into this tale, further elevating the lyricism of her epic. Set designer Riccardo Hernández and lighting designer Yi Zhao lend the story a sense of vastness and space in their elegantly spare stage pictures.

It’s interesting that Father Comes Home is the second time in the last year here in the Bay Area we’ve seen The Odyssey refracted through the African-American experience. Last summer, California Shakespeare Theater offered up black odyssey, Marcus Gardley’s extraordinarily moving and vibrant journey of a man named Ulysses (read my review here and note that the production returns to Cal Shakes this summer Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Clearly the time has come to crack open the classics and reflect the epic nature of every human struggle against oppression and violence, the intricate dramas of every human heart and the ways in which every life is connected, one to the other.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)continues through May 20 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Porgy sings anew at the Golden Gate

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Alicia Hall Moran is Bess and Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy in the national touring cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess directed by Diane Paulus. The tour launches its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. BELOW: Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life takes a roll of the dice along Catfish Row. Photos by Michael J. Lutch

The music of Porgy and Bess is so pervasive in the musical landscape that actually seeing the show and how the songs fit into the story is a little startling.

I know the George GershwinIra GershwinDuBose Heyward score not from cast recordings but from pop and jazz versions recorded by the likes of Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae, Cleo Laine and Ray Charles and Frances Faye and Mel Tormé. And then there are the countless covers of the show’s songs. “Summertime,” for instance, is considered one of the most recorded songs of all time, with more than 30,000 versions. This music, in other words, is deeply woven into the American cultural fabric.

Productions of Porgy and Bess don’t come along very often, and when they do, they’ll likely involve four hours spent in an opera house. Since its debut in 1935, Porgy has been the odd show out – part American folk opera, part Broadway musical. There’s no question of this landmark creation’s place in the pantheon, but getting audiences to embrace it has been a challenge over the years.

The latest effort to re-style Porgy and Bess for the populace is the result of director Diane Paulus working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to create a 2 1/2-hour version of the show that sits squarely in the realm of Broadway musical. Though initiated by the Gershwin and Hayward estates, this re-tooling was not without its detractors (hello, Stephen Sondheim). Still, the goal was accomplished. The revival, dubbed The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (as had a 2006 London revival directed by Trevor Nunn) won Tony Awards for best revival and best actress in a musical (Audra McDonald as Bess). That production, with a new cast, has launched its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

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Having never seen another production of Porgy and Bess I can’t make comparisons, operatic or otherwise, but I can say that what Paulus and Parks have done is create a strong, character-based showcase for the glorious score. Parks’ script, which replaces recitative with spoken dialogue, is sharp and pulls no punches. She creates a tangible sense of community in Catfish Row, and Paulus’ lean production, with rough, abstract designs by Riccardo Hernandez and painterly lighting by Christopher Akerlind create stage pictures that evoke African-American folklore more than real life.

That seems appropriate because this Porgy and Bess does play out like a grim folktale with glimmers of hope. George Gershwin’s remarkable score emphasizes this with its intoxicating blend of spirituals, folk music, jazz, blues and popular song. Diedre L. Murray has adapted the original score, played here by a 23-piece orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling, and she has created a sound that is at once grand and intimate.

What surprised me about this Porgy and Bess is that it’s really Porgy’s story. As played by a triumphant Nathaniel Stampley, Porgy is a compassionate voice of humanity. He is crippled (walks with a cane, not a goat cart as in the original) but not self-pitying or maudlin. He defends the wonton Bess from the community who reviles her drugging and drinking ways, and it is through his kindness and love that Bess finds, if temporarily, a better life. Stampley’s nuanced performance has warmth and beauty, strength and passion in abundance.

Like Stampley, this Bess, Alicia Hall Moran, was an understudy on Broadway, and that experience yields a compelling central couple wrestling with all kinds of demons. When Moran and Stampley launch into “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or “I Loves You, Porgy,” all notions of opera, Broadway, controversy and history vanish, replaced by simply extraordinary musical theater.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Diane Paulus about directing The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as well as the new Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

I also talked to Alicia Hall Moran, who plays Bess, about the role and about her marriage to renowned jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran for the Chronicle. Read the story here.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess continues through Through Dec. 8. at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Marin’s Topdog makes power plays into powerful play

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Bowman Wright (left) is Lincoln and Biko Eisen-Martin is Booth, brothers juggling for the title of Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Wright in costume for Lincoln’s day job as a presidential target in a shooting gallery. Photos by David Allen

“Know what is and what ain’t,” one brother advises another in Suzan-Lori Parks’ mesmerizing play Topdog/Underdog. Telling what is from what ain’t is a tricky business in this deceptively straightforward play about an older brother named Lincoln and a younger brother named Booth. You don’t expect men with those names – chosen by their father, who liked a joke – not to come to blows, and given we see a pistol within the first few minutes of the play, it’s not really surprising when Parks goes from contemporary to Greek drama in a single gunshot.

Parks’ Topdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002, and shortly after the play’s run on Broadway, it stopped in at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, where Parks’ extraordinary language, rich with urban slang frothed into gritty poetry and laced with deeply felt emotion, made a huge impression and justified all the fuss being made over the play.

Nearly a decade later, the play is back, this time at Marin Theatre Company, and though that language and its rhythms are still very much present in the play, what comes through most strongly in director Timothy Douglas’ production is the pull of family ties and the inescapable power of the past to shape the present.

If some of the rhythms of the 2 1/2-hour play seemed off at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, actors Bowman Wright as Lincoln and Biko Eisen-Martin as Booth still etched vivid characters that only grew more complex as the evening wore to its inevitable close. The older brother/younger brother dynamic creates real tension here, especially in an early dinner scene when we learn that Lincoln, separated from his wife, is bunking with Booth in his squalid apartment only temporarily. But of the two, only Lincoln has a steady job. He dresses up as Honest Abe, stovepipe hat, beard, white face and all, and lets people reenact the Lincoln assassination at a shooting gallery. Booth, on the other hand, is striving to master his brother’s old grift: three-card monte. On this night, Lincoln has brought home Chinese food for dinner, but who sets the table, who paid for the food and who’s a guest in whose home becomes one of many power plays both large and small.

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Another interesting dynamic between the two men involves their parents, who both abandoned the boys at different times. First the dad left, then, when the boys were 11 and 16, the mom took off. When the dad bolted, he left Lincoln with $500. When it was mom’s turn, she rolled five $100 bills and tucked them in a nylon stocking for Booth. Each boy, then, has become allied in a way to a particular parent, and that comes into their brotherly dynamic in interesting ways.

Wright as Lincoln gives a performance that sneaks up on you. He’s so laid back and disconnected as to be not fully present on stage. But as Booth slowly pulls his brother back into the card game (cards and games seem to take on heavy metaphorical weight here), Wright really comes to life.

Eisen-Martin’s Booth, on the other hand, is all nervous energy and desperation. He loves his brother but wants to top his brother. He’s got abandonment issues and a needy ego. To impress his girlfriend, Grace, he “boosts” slick suits for both him and Lincoln, and when it comes time to make dinner for Grace, he steals champagne (and crystal glasses) and a beautiful dinner service. But when he is spurned by the object of his affection, his flashes of charm quickly turn to flaring danger.

Director Douglas’ production heightens the otherworldly aspect of Parks’ play even while he grounds it in familiar familial tensions. Mikiko Useugi’s set puts a realistically run-down apartment (the brothers joke they live in the third world) in a sort of patriotic purgatory, with American flags and stars-and-stripes bunting surrounding reality in faded colors and unsettling angles.

It’s an appropriately off-kilter world for this story, with is both recognizable and foreign, a family drama that stretches from here back to Cain and Abel, and a modern work of art that fractures contemporary culture through the prism of a provocative and powerful playwright.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog continues an extended run through Oct. 28 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Review: `The America Play’

Rhonnie Washington (left) is The Foundling Father, an Abraham Lincoln lookalike, who lets customers (such as David Westley Skillman) take aim and fire a cap gun at him in Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play, part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season. Photos by Rick Martin.


Thick Description revives `America’


Echoes, parallels and holes fill the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright behind Topdog/Underdog and The America Play, which is being revived as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary.

Parks is a fascinating, entertaining, often inscrutable writer. She’s more poet than storyteller, and her work has a particular rhythm that plays out amid recurring motifs and themes. But when a director cracks the Parks code, as Thick D’s Tony Kelly has done with “The America Play,” the results rattle the brain and the bones.

Kelly and Thick Description first produced The America Play in 1994 at the cavernous Theatre Artaud, where the stage stretched 60 feet back and turned Parks’ work into an avant garde epic.

In the much, much smaller confines of the Thick House, set designer Rick Martin reconceived is design in a genius way. He frames the entire stage with a thick wooden border and forces perspective with a gorgeous, rustic wood-plank floor and wall that opens up in surprising ways to become the stage of Ford’s Theatre and the great maw of an open grave.

The visual precision of the production – which receives assists from Lucas Benjaminh Krech’s lights and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro’s 19th– and early 20th-century costumes – is important because the look is nearly as important as the content. Or maybe I should say there are as many visual echoes as there are auditory in Parks’ play.

The setting, we’re told, is an exact replica of the “Great Hole of History.” And in this hole is a man, the Foundling Father (Rhonnie Washington, reprising his role from 14 years ago), an African-American man who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, so he finds himself playing the man from time to time. Someone told him he played Lincoln so well that “he ought to be shot.”

So the Foundling Father, a grave digger by trade from a long line of diggers, abandoned his wife and young son and ventured into the world. He ended up with an interesting job: he would play Lincoln on the last night of his life attending a production of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. While the president sits in his box chortling over the middling comedy on stage, customers pay a penny (a Lincoln penny, of course) to aim a cap gun and pretend to shoot the great man. Following the “assassination,” in true John Wilkes Booth style, the assailant or assailants (played by David Westley Skillman and Deirdre Renee Draginoff) shout something along the lines of, “The South is avenged!” or “And so to the tyrants!”

It’s a living.

Washington is personable, funny and fully believable in this strange alternate universe, where his character is continually winking at the pasteboard cut-out of Lincoln to his right and nodding to the bust of Lincoln to his left.

It’s hard to make sense of oft-repeated lines such as, “He digged the hole and the hole held him,” or to make such words as “historicity” seem authentic, but Washington does it effortlessly.

In Act 2, Washington is mostly a memory as the Foundling Father’s wife, Lucy (Cathleen Riddley) and son, Brazil (Brian Freeman, another alumnus of the ’94 production), are digging in search of…what? In search of a body? Of artifacts? Of family? Of history?

Linear storytelling is not high on Parks’ list of priorities in this play, but Kelly’s production is so vivid, his cast so astute – Riddley and Freeman are wonderful together – that the free-form nature of the play becomes an asset. There’s humor and humanity in abundance, even when there’s an absence of coherence.

Being able to trust the production and the actors means you relinquish the need to know exactly what’s going on at every moment. The America Play, with its off-kilter view of history and patriotism, deals with race and legacy and purpose in ways that sneak up on you.

In the end, this is an America that makes it easy to stand up and salute.

In the photo above right: From Act 2 of The America Play, Lucy (Cathleen Riddley) and Brazil (Brian Freeman) dig through the Great Hole of History.



The America Play continues through Dec. 14 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org.

Review: `avantGARDARAMA’

Felicia Benefield is Mare in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Betting on the Dust Commander, one of three avant garde plays in The Cutting Ball Theatre’s avantGARDARAMA at the EXIT on Taylor. Photos by Rob Melrose.

Chan’s `Bone’ trumps Parks, Stein in evening of experimental plays

I’ll come right out and say I’m not a fan of avant garde theater. It’s frequently pretentious, self-involved, inscrutable and not much fun.

Call me an unsophisticated hack – OK, you’re an unsophisticated hack! – but I like story. I like humanity. I like to see myself reflected on stage in some way, and I guess I’ve never remotely seen myself in an oddly theatrical, experimentally artistic, forward-thinking way. Poor me.

But let me say this: I don’t love aggressively avant garde theater, but I really like the work of The Cutting Ball Theatre, a group run by Rob Melrose and Paige Rogers. I don’t always love the plays they do, but I always like the way they do them.

Take, for example, Cutting Ball’s avantGARDARAMA! a collection of three short avant garde plays, which just happen to ascend from incomprehensible to wonderfully, imaginatively coherent.

The opening salvo, Accents in Alsace, comes from Gertrude Stein’s 1922 Geography and Plays and doesn’t really make much sense off the page. There’s a soldier (David Westley Skillman), a motherly/sisterly woman with a baby carriage (Felicia Benefield) and a narrator (Rogers).

I got that this had to do with World War I, but that’s about all I got. Rather than try and find a story, as is my wont, I enjoyed director Melrose’s staging, set designer Michael Locher’s metallic box of a set, Heather Basarab’s sharp lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ superb video projections and sound design.

The second piece, Suzan-Lori Parks’
Betting on the Dust Commander, is also strange, but it’s funny – and boy does that make a difference in my enjoyment level. Dust Commander won the 1970 Kentucky Derby, hence the title.

Benefield and Skillman play a married couple stuck in an endless loop of silliness. He bet 35 cents on Dust Commander way back when and won enough to buy them a house. He’s going back to the track to see the old horse run an anniversary race. But before he goes, he’s got to somehow uncross his wife’s eyes.

Parks has a whimsical way with language, and her use of repetition brings out the humor and music of her dialogue. It’s all beautifully executed by Benefield and Skillman, who manage to traffic in Parks’ rhythms while bringing out darker shades involving sex, dissatisfaction, boredom and outright craziness.

The real treat of the evening is the world-premiere of local writer Eugenie Chan’s
Bone to Pick. A commission by The Cutting Ball and Magic Theatre/Z Space New Works Initiative, this retelling of the Ariadne myth brings the heroine to the modern world and leaves her stranded in a diner at the end of the world.

In her once-pink, now filthy, blood-spattered uniform, Ria, impeccably played by Rogers (above), sips dirty water from her coffee pot and re-lives her life of passion, isolation and choice making. “Someone needs to treat me like a piece of meat. Know what I mean?” is Ria’s opening line.

The combination of Chan’s funny, often heartbreaking script with Rogers’ bravura performance is a potent one to say the least.

Rogers establishes such rapport with the audience – especially when she talks about food (this stranded woman is HUNGRY) – that she could take us to any dark corner of theatricality she chooses.

This particular journey goes deep into her relationship with Theo (Theseus), the soldier who used her then abandoned her at the end of the world. He comes back for food every once in a while, but he doesn’t stay (nor does he pay).

Ria, it seems, is doomed to keep repeating the betrayal of her half-brother, the Minotaur (“Oh, brother, oh, bull,” Ria keeps saying). In the current, desolate state of the war-torn world, the Minotaur is the last “rib-eye steak” on the planet, and Ria, despite herself, will lead Theo to him once again. Fire up the barbecue.

Rogers is so moving and Chan’s play so well constructed that the play hardly seems experimental. It just seems like an extraordinary play of depth and expansive feeling.

AvantGARDARAMA continues through Aug. 16 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com.

Eugenie Chan spins into Avant GardARAMA!

Four years ago, Cutting Ball Theater continued its search for the edge that cuts with the first Avant GardARAMA!, a festival of short, experimental plays.

The quest for cutting-edge theater never ends, so Cutting Ball is reviving the festival, which opens Friday, July 18 and continues through Aug. 16 at the EXIT on Taylor. The roster of playwrights includes some heavy hitters such as Suzan-Lori Parks and Gertrude Stein. And there’s also a local name: Eugenie Chan.

Sandwiched in between Parks’ Betting on the Dust Commander and Stein’s Accents in Alsace is Chan’s world-premiere Bone to Pick, a new take on the Ariadne myth.

In the original story (or one of them), Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and helps him slay her brother, the Minotaur, and also helps him conquer the Minotaur’s maze. But then, as so often happens in these stories, Theseus cast Ariadne aside, and she was rescued by Dionysus.

In Chan’s take on the story, developed for a single actress, Ariadne is Ria, a waitress who has been slinging hash for 3,000 years in an island diner at the end of the world. Theseus, called Theo, has abandoned her, and she has done her best to serve all the nations who have visited her diner. But it’s the end of the world as we know it.

“Ria’s diner is demolished, she’s stuck in this wasteland, alone, trying to figure out her life,” Chan explains. “She addresses Theso, her lover boy, and her old boss, Kingman. And she thinks about when she had her lover, had her juice, and she sacrificed a family member. Now she’s at the end of the line, in isolation. She has to confront her role in her own abandonment. She’s a waitress with no more food to serve. She’s kind a sad, kinda mad.”

The idea to do this adaptation came from Cutting Ball artistic director Rob Melrose, with whom Chan worked at Marin Academy.

“Rob has long been fascinated by the idea of the labyrinth – purposeful wandering to somewhere you don’t know,” Chan says. “We talked about the myth, and I was all over the place about it. I have an opinion about Ariadne and Theseus. She was wronged. I know she’s saved in the original story – Dionysus turns her into a star, but I became fixated on that other relationship.”

The solo show concept was based in practicality. Melrose, who is directing all three Avant GardARAMA pieces, wanted a piece that he could take on the road to experimental theater festivals. When the official commission came, Chan says she was thrilled.

“But I didn’t realize how hard it would be,” she says. “It was a lesson in hubris, which is always good. I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with a bunch of other characters, but it turns out multi-character plays are much more natural for me. A solo show is like ice water in the face. But I love the challenge – any writer does. Otherwise you retreat into your old tricks.”

A Bay Area native, Chan is finding her work more in demand around the country. She’s in the midst of a seven-year residency at New Dramatists in New York and she’s working with Seattle-based composer Byron Au Yong on an opera project called Kidnapped Water. He’s basing the piece on the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching, and he’s given eight writers eight of the hexagram for which to create mini-libretti.

“I’m not quite clear on the concept,” Chan says. “But it was inspired by bottled water, and it goes up in places all around Seattle this summer.”

Given that her writing career is percolating, why does Chan stay in the Bay Area?

“I get a lot of my creativity just living here,” she says. “My family has a big history here. I feel rooted. And I love the theaters here, especially the smaller, younger theaters like Cutting Ball, Shotgun Players, Crowed Fire and Thick Description. Would that their kind of theater could flourish even more.”

Avant GardARAMA opens July 18 and continues through Aug. 16 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com for information.



Building `Fences’

We’ve seen San Francisco’s Best of Broadway announcing shows in recent weeks, then canceling them. The Wiz disappeared, then Whistle Down the Wind, then the new Irish musical Ha’penny Bridge.

Well, when you can’t book a great show, you produce one. At least that’s what SHN/Best of Broadway head Carole Shorenstein Hays is going to do. She broke into the world of Broadway producing in 1987 with August Wilson’s Fences, and she has announced plans to revive the show this fall.

Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog (which Shorenstein Hays produced), is slated to direct.

Read the New York Times’ coverage here.
Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage here.

For information about Best of Broadway, click here.