Chilling winds blow through thrilling Wuthering Heights

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ABOVE: Leah Brotherhead is Catherine and Liam Tamne is Heathcliff in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: (from left) Brotherhead is Catherine, Jordan Laviniere is the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors, Katy Ellis is Isabella Linton and Sam Archer is Edgar Linton. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Photos by Kevin Berne.



Judging from Kate Bush’s thrilling song “Wuthering Heights,” my only reference to the Emily Brontë book of the same name, I thought the subject matter at hand was a ghostly love story. “Heathcliff, it’s me. I’m Cathy. I’ve come home. I’m so cold. Let me in your window.” I could just imagine the lovelorn ghost tapping on the window in the West Yorkshire moors and shivered those good tragic romance shivers.

When I finally got around to reading the 1847 novel (which was much later than it should have been), I discovered that there was a ghostly romance aspect to the book, but it was much darker, creepier and more violent than I had imagined. Revenge, cruelty and madness pervade the story. The cycles of abuse and racism that Brontë describes feel, sadly, very 21st century.

There have been many adaptations of Wuthering Heights – movies, series, literary take-offs – and now we have the West Coast premiere of a new stage version from the mind of the brilliant Emma Rice, whose previous work as a writer/director in the Bay Area includes Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater and The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Rice’s theater tends to be incredibly dynamic and raw – exuberant, striking and beautiful.

Her Wuthering Heights, now at Berkeley Rep after runs in London and New York, is all of the above. This is not a romantic take on this story, although there are several love stories. Rather, Rice concentrates on bigger issues like the oft-repeated refrain, “Be careful what you seed,” meaning the hatred and violence you perpetrate now will have repercussions for years to come in the form of death, division and more violence, among other awful things.

Watching this three-hour epic, I was struck over and over again by how this story and Romeo and Juliet are really about breaking that cycle.

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It all starts with what seems an act of kindness when Mr. Earnshaw (Lloyd Gorman rescues a boy (of unknown origin, but darker and more foreign than people in the North of England) from the streets of Liverpool and brings him home to meet his children, Catherine (Leah Brotherhead) and Hindley (Tama Phethean). The Earnshaw children have different reactions to the newly christened Heathcliff (Liam Tamne), their new sibling. Catherine immediately adores him (and he, her), but Hindley resents his father’s new son and embarks on what wil be years of abuse and degradation.

There’s a wildness to the personalities of these moor-dwelling folk, and when more proper society intrudes (as it does with the Linton family), it tends to feel silly and out of place. These moors are distinctive in many ways, and Rice actually brings them to life in the form of a Greek chorus headed by the dynamic Jordan Laviniere. There’s also a giant screen at the back of the Roda Theatre stage that exists to show us the Yorkshire skies, most often brooding and stormy, with flocks of silhouetted birds often fluttering by (set by Vicki Mortimer, video design by Simon Baker).

Rice’s storytelling is rough and tumble in the best way. Houses are represented by windows and doors on wheels. Piles of chairs represent various furnishings, and books on the ends of sticks are birds. It all feels very contemporary and period at the same time, which is difficult to do. When a punk-fueled Catherine grabs a microphone to offer a song of rage before being forced to reject Heathcliff and marry someone else, it feels exactly right.

The three-member on-stage band, often augmented by members of the cast (like the cello-playing doctor, and the many songs (most folk-y and tender) add an element of energy and life that help counter just how bleak this story is.

Rice’s troupe tackles the story with gusto, and it’s quite amusing how often they acknowledge just how confusing the characters can be because there are so many repeated names from generation to generation. Rice calls Catherine, Heathcliff and Hareton (the son of Hindley, played by the same actor) forces of Chaos, Revenge and Hope, and the actors Brotherhead, Tamne and Phethean are all phenomenal as they embody and enliven those messy human elements.

There’s not exactly a happy ending here, but there is a glimmer of hope. It’s well earned and powerful – the kind of thrill that only superb live theater can create and make feel 100% real.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, adapted and directed by Emma Rice from Emily Brontë’s novel, continues through Jan. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running Time: Three hours (including intermission). Tickets are $19.50-$124. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org

On thin ice with Disney’s stage Frozen

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ABOVE: Caroline Bowman (left) is Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman is Anna with the company of the North American tour of Disney’s Frozen at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Collin Baja is Sven the reindeer and Jeremy Davis is Olaf the snowman. Photos by Matthew Murphy. © Disney


Frozen on stage is a disappointment. Here you have the No. 1 animated film of all time (according to Disney) with one of the most beloved and omnipresent songs from a movie (animated or otherwise) in decades, and it comes from a multimedia entertainment company that has a history of translating its properties to the Broadway musical stage.

When Disney adapts one of its own, the results can vary wildly, with the better results at one end (The Lion King, Aladdin, Peter and the Starcatcher, which is play with music) and the disasters at the other (Tarzan, The Little Mermaid), and a bunch of pleasant enough work filling the middle (Mary Poppins, Newsies, Aida). On that scale Frozen is not a disaster, but it’s barely entertaining and feels like a missed opportunity.

Director Michael Grandage’s production feels like it wants very much to be a Disney Wicked, with two strong women at the center of a story and the requisite bad guys and love story relegated to the periphery. But this show, which features sisters instead of frenemies, doesn’t do world building nearly as efficiently or effectively as Wicked, and the score, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez has a few high points from the movie (“Let It Go,” of course, “Love Is an Open Door” and “In Summer”) and a whole lot of filler.

The set and costume design by Christopher Oram copies the movie slavishly, and the translation from animation to three dimensions lacks imagination in the way the story does. It’s all so literal and without charm. When Elsa finally unleashes her powers in “Let It Go” and builds an ice palace, there’s a spiffy instant costume change, but the palace itself is something akin to a Swarovski-sponsored Christmas display at Nordstrom. The rest feels very theme park fake with heavy reliance on projections (by Finn Ross trying hard to turn live action back into animation) and icy lighting (by Natasha Katz).

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Performances are fine, but there’s not a lot demanded of the actors in terms of complication or subtlety. Voices all have that singing competition belt, and leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna do their best to forge a sisterly bond and bridge the tonal gap in Jennifer Lee’s lazy book that shifts quickly from dramatic and dull to contemporary cartoon goofy.

What charm there is in this plodding production comes from Jeremy Davis as the fully visible puppeteer behind Olaf, the magically conjured snowman who likes warm hugs. Designed by Michael Curry (who provided similar services for The Lion King), the puppet has more personality that almost anyone on stage except Sven the reindeer, rendered as a fully costumed character and performed beautifully by Collin Baja and Dan Plehal alternating in the physically demanding role.

Of the humans, the brightest spark on the iceberg comes from Dominic Dorset as Kristoff, whose best song is still the sweetly silly “Reindeer(s) are Better Than People” from the movie, though he does his best with the heavy handed ballad “What Do You Know About Love?”

Even though the creative team has apparently tried to deepen the original story and correct the fact that the movie simply stops being a musical about halfway through, the results are so middling, there can’t be another reason for the show’s existence other than a money grab. There’s not a lot here for adults or musical theater enthusiasts, and for the target audience of kids, there will be moments of delight separated by too many turgid stretches.

There’s only one bit of appropriate advice here, and you probably know what that is. If you’re going to Frozen with an expectation of high-level Disney entertainment, do the opposite of hang on to it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s Frozen continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $50.50-$294.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit sfbroadway.com.

Octet at Berkeley Rep is a revelation

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In Berkeley Rep’s production of Octet, Alex Gibson (center) is Henry, surrounded by (from left) Adam Bashian as Ed, Margo Seibert as Jessica, J.D. Mollison as Marvin, Kuhoo Verma as Velma, Isabel Santiago as Paula, Justin Gregory Lopez as Toby and Kim Blanck as Karly. BELOW: The cast of Octet in the West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s astonishing theater piece, directed by Annie Tippe. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Writer/composer Dave Malloy calls his Octet a “chamber choir musical,” and that’s certainly an apt description of this one-act show featuring eight performers and a shimmering a cappella score. But an even better description of Octet might be a “revelation” or maybe even a “miracle.”

Commissioned by New York’s Signature Theatre, who premiered the work in 2019, Octet is now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, and it is (and probably was and will likely remain) the right show at the right time. As long as we’re isolated, anxiety-ridden or damaged, this show will have something to say (or perhaps sing is the better word) to us.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Octet, which is interesting because the show traffics in the internecine complexities of our modern world, more specifically, with the horrors of the Internet: the isolation, the addictions, the pornography, the self-righteousness, the polarization, the anonymity, the cruelty, the fraud…and the list just goes on and on.

The simplicity comes in the show’s form: eight people gather for a 90-minute support group meeting in a faith center community room. The group, created by an enigmatic figure named Saul, is patterned after a 12-step program but with eight guiding principles and designed for people in recovery from multitudinous online damage. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this program is that its therapy takes the form of choral singing. Armed with their pitch pipes, group members sing some hymns (of Malloy’s creation, of course, and very specific to the 21st century), but when it comes time for them to share their stories, these are also presented in song.

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The idea seems to be that this group embodies the exact opposite of the trauma suffered by its participants. By singing together, they are physically (through voice), mentally and emotionally connected in a way rivaled only by sex. Their octet is a living, creative organism that can only exist when they are together, and the mind-blowing beauty of what they create is matched only by the emotional wallop of what they’re actually telling each other (and us) about what they’ve suffered and how they’re surviving and evolving.

In addition to his glorious score, Malloy’s script also has its own power. There are familiar sitcom rhythms to the humor, but that’s just one of the ways Malloy pulls us in and calms us down before taking us places we could never have expected. There’s real wit here (especially in some of the lyrics), and it’s easy to relate to pretty much everything being discussed, which is why so much of it is at once funny and terrifying. There’s also a level of mysticism at work here – the Tarot factors in, as does a chatbot named Eugene Goostman that apparently fooled people into thinking it was human.

Local audiences have the benefit of seeing most of the original New York Octet cast reprising their roles, along with most of the creative team headed by director Annie Tippe. There’s not a false moment among the pitch-perfect actors, and the verisimilitude of the situation – the details in the set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are fascinating – only amplifies the otherworldly places the music takes us (Malloy did the vocal arrangements, which are like a language unto themselves, and Or Matias is the sterling music supervisor and music director).

Each of the actors gets a moment to shine, but, by design, the show’s undeniable power comes from all the voices. It’s hard to imagine anyone better in these roles than Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Isabel Santiago, Margo Seibert and Kuhoo Verma. We don’t know all that much about their characters, but we know enough to see ourselves and the people around us in them, and if it feels like they are working to be better and do better, so can we. Somehow, through the magic of experiencing something profound together, the octet expands to include the audience.

In the hours since I left Berkeley Rep, the show has continued to vibrate in me, and I haven’t interacted with a screen without thinking about it and about how ill equipped we have been to keep up with the rush of technological advances and all that entails (and the effect on our brains and our attention spans and our relationships with others). I can’t sing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a very strong urge to return to that community room as one of the Friends of Saul.

Octet is just astonishing. It is one of those theater experiences that makes good on the promise of the art form – the kind of experience that keeps you going to show after show after show because you know this kind of transcendence is possible every time you step into a theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dave Malloy’s Octet continues through May 29 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$159, subject to change. Visit berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.

ACT immerses audience into captivating Fefu

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés includes (from left) Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu and Marga Gomez as Cecilia. BELOW: Taking place in various spots around The Strand, Fefu immerses its audience in scenes like this one in the lobby with Castellanos and Goldfield on a balcony. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are actors in American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her friends that I would travel continents to see. I would climb flights of stairs and even sit on the floor to get to see them perform. The good news about Fefu is that it’s not continents away – it’s down on Market Street in a Strand Theater that has been transformed, in its theatrical way, into a New England country home full of interesting people. You will, however, have to climb stairs (or take the elevator) and sit on the floor (if you want to) because this is an immersive production that takes you all over the building.

With its premiere in 1977, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu (pronounced FEH-foo) emerged as a theatrical experiment in feminism. Set in 1935 during a reunion of college friends, the all-women cast explores their relationships to each other and to a world that desperately wants men and women to conform to accepted gender roles.

There’s not a traditional plot, but that’s not really the point here. It’s all about discovery and play. We first meet the eight characters as they arrive at Fefu’s house for a weekend of fun and rehearsal for an upcoming charity event. The audience is seated in the theater, and the characters inhabit the lovely home designed by Tanya Orellana in a traditional proscenium setting. The tone that emerges under Pam MacKinnon’s direction is one of joviality, introspection and the ever-present possibility of surprise (good and bad).

For the second of the play’s three parts, the audience is separated into four groups (your color-coded wristband lets you know which group you’re in) and taken into various parts of Fefu’s house. Our group first headed to the lobby, which had been transformed into Fefu’s garden, complete with grass (of the artificial variety), gorgeous Monet-like projections (by Hana S. Kim) and a real-life plant exchange (bring a plant, take a plant, so if you’re going definitely bring a plant!). Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) and Emma (Cindy Goldfield) have an al fresco chat about, among other things, how none of us talks about our genitals enough.

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Then we headed backstage into a dimly lit room (Russell H. Champa is responsible for the gorgeous lighting throughout the building), where Julia (a mesmerizing Lisa Anne Porter) wrestled with demons. And then it was upstairs to the top of the building where a black-box space has been turned into two performance spaces (with a fair amount of sound bleed between the two stages). In one room, the study, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) talk about French verbs, dreams and nightmarish doctors, and in another, the kitchen (an absolutely stunning design), Paula (Stacy Ross) chats with Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) before rekindling an old flame with the enigmatic Cecilia (Marga Gomez).

Some characters wander out of one short scene and into another, which is thrilling – like turning the play house into a playhouse, and we’re all kids having a blast playing pretend (but the conversations are decidedly not childlike). It’s that sense of discovery again – poking into corners of The Strand that audience members don’t usually see and, with all the fanciful design touches along our travel routes, feeling embraced by the idea of pretending to be in some other place in some other time with people who were imagined into being by a playwright with a lot to say. Kudos to MacKinnon and her team (notably Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz, whose team works with military precision and maximum affability) for such sterling execution of the Fefu challenge.

After intermission, audience members return to their seats in the theater for the final section of the play. We know these women better now, so the intricacies of the relationships, the shared histories and the personal traumas all carry more weight. The miracle of the actors is that they do feel connected by years of events, so their ability to shift from joy and frivolity to deep sadness and despair feels lived. There’s unevenness in the performances in some scenes, but that can’t obscure some stunning work by Castellanos as the gregarious but enigmatic Fefu, Goldfield as the effervescent Emma, Ross as the deceptively grounded Paula and Porter as the tormented Julia.

There’s no end to the discovery as Fornés allows us to spend 2 1/2 hours immersed in what women are thinking – a significant undertaking executed with a great deal of spirit and fun. In that sense, you can definitely say that hanging out with Fefu and Her Friends is a seriously good time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Theatrical magic is the blessing in shorter Cursed

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ABOVE: Harry Potter (John Skelley,left), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu, center), and Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) are up to some new tricks in the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Curran Theater. BELOW: Dementors descend to terrorize both characters and audience. Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


Amid clanking bottles of butter beer, confetti canons and celebratory words from the mayor, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the live theater component of the Potter Empire, has officially reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.

Already a hit in London, New York and elsewhere around the world, Cursed opened late in 2019 and then was shuttered by the pandemic. During that time, creators J.K. Rowling (the author of the seven Potter novels), playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany decided to downsize their show. What was originally a five-plus-hour two-play experience has now become a 3 1/2-hour single play.

I saw and loved the original two-part production in December 2019 (oh, those sweet, unmasked days of yore) – read my review here – but wondered if the experience wouldn’t benefit from being shorter. Turns out, it is more potent in one sitting.

The new, condensed version re-opened Feb. 24 amid much hoopla re-directing attention to San Francisco’s beleaguered Union Square area and theater district, and the show is in sterling condition. Everything that was wonderful about the original is still here and strong – it’s just swifter and a little more dense. The best news is that all those incredible displays of theatrical magic are still dazzling and thrilling and chilling and mesmerizing. The soul-sucking dementors, for instance, are as horrifying as they are beautiful, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might actually feel like to slip through the cracks of time, hold tight. The effect, incorporating projections, sound and (probably) actual magic, is stunning.

But it’s not all mind-boggling effects bringing things like floo powder, wand battles and magic spells to life. Thorne’s script (based on an original story by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne) wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Harry Potter’s life 19 years after the action of the final novel. Harry (John Skelley) and Ginny Weasley (Angela Reed) have two boys, James (William Bednar-Carter) and Albus Severus (Benjamin Papac), at Hogwarts. Harry, who remains the most famous and beloved of wizards, works at the Ministry of Magic, and his legacy weighs heavily on his younger son.

Albus is a loner and does not enjoy his time at Hogwarts. Save for his friendship with Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), son of Draco (Lucas Hall), it’s all kind of a teen-angsty nightmare but with flying broomsticks. Being the son of “the boy who lived” involves a whole lot of pressure to live up to the Potter name, and Albus feels he’s nowhere near up to that task. It doesn’t help that Harry and Albus do not get along, thus setting the stage (literally) for a play that is primarily about fathers and sons.

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What the play does exceptionally well is mine the Potter mythology for insider delights and for hefty emotional connections. Beloved characters from the books pop up here and there, and though there’s plenty to enjoy for the Potter novice, it’s a much richer experience if you know why the audience collectively sighs when a certain someone whom we haven’t seen for a very long time, steps onto the stage.

Though Cursed Child is not a musical, it has the highly choreographed and fluid feel of a musical. Credit movement director Steven Hoggett for creating that flow – and all that robe swirling – and for designing one of the show’s most beautiful moments: a duet for rolling staircases that evokes the Escher-like Hogwarts architecture.

There is an emotional heart to this story amid all the fiery spectacle, and the actors are fully committed to the drama (or, in the case of Steve O’Connell’s Ron Weasley, the snide comedy). Skelley’s Harry is kind of a jerk for much of the play – a man pressured by his past and his celebrity status and his bureaucratic job – and there’s one intensely emotional scene in particular that serves as a reminder of just how much trauma Harry has been through in his nearly 40 years. I wish Hermione (the wonderful Lily Mojekwu) had more to do. Maybe the next stage epic – and there should be one – will focus on her and her daughter, Rose (Folami Williams).

The emotional core of the show belongs to Papac and Steiger as Albus and Scorpius, unlikely friends and even unlikelier heroes. Both actors manage to be believable, ultimately lovable teens whose father issues bond them and then compel them to behave rashly before doing some serious growing up.

The mix of wizarding razzmatazz and genuine emotion will be familiar to fans of the books (and the movies), but everything in the theater (effects AND emotions) feels at a higher volume and intensity. And that’s a glorious – you might even say genuinely magical – feeling. In this wacko world, it’s almost a relief to to escape into a theatrical epic for 3 1/2 hours and experience the satisfying thrill of magic empowering good vanquish bad.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through Sept. 4 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $59-$199 (subject to change). Visit harrypottertheplay.com for information.
Covid information: All ticketholders 16 years of age and older who are eligible must present proof of full vaccination with booster. All patrons, regardless of age, are required to wear masks inside the theater at all times when not actively eating or drinking. For more information, click here.


Pass Over captivates at Marin Theatre Co.

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Eddie Ewell (left) is Moses, LeRoy S. Graham III (center) is Kitch, and Adam Roy is Mister in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over at Marin Theatre Company. BELOW: Ewell’s Moses transcends his situation. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are multiple ways to look at Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, which is probably why it’s one of the most discussed plays of the last five years.

The play, which has its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, can be looked at historically. After its Chicago premiere in 2017, the play headed to New York and Lincoln Center with plans for Broadway. Then the pandemic hit, and the country began to roil with protest and calls for change, especially where racial justice and police brutality were concerned. The hope was that as we emerged from a global crisis, that we would also be entering a new era with more focused intent around equality and access. It was into this world that Pass Over became the first play to re-open Broadway.

And then there’s Pass Over in the realm of legacy. Nwandu structures her play much like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in which two worn down tramps occupy a wasteland in anticipation of someone coming and something changing. Beckett’s play set the bar for existential exploration – the futility, absurdity, comedy and tragedy of human life – and tested the limits of an audience’s patience for obtuseness and lack of traditional plot. Nwandu also places two men into a wasteland of sorts. This time it’s Moses and Kitch under a streetlamp in some sort of dead-end urban setting. They’re also waiting for something to happen, but their “something” is more specific: they expect they’ll be killed by the police at some point.

It’s a powerful thing to build a contemporary play on a base made of Beckett. There’s a certain familiarity with the lack of specifics and in the sometimes playful, sometimes fearful interaction between the men, but Nwandu charts her own course here. She takes her characters somewhere – keeping in mind one of the characters is named Moses and the Bible, particularly the Book of Exodus, factors largely. Where Nwandu takes this brisk, 85-minute play is spiritual, emotional – even joyful. But because we’re dealing with human beings here, it’s also fraught. Nothing is going to be easy, it seems, and nothing is going to be permanent. Beckett would undoubtedly approve.

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Because Pass Over feels so vital and like a major step for American theater, it’s hard to see it as just a play. Nwandu, like Beckett, purposefully keeps many details out of the play, and as a result, it’s easier for audience members to project their own experiences and impressions into the action, which is infused with, among other things, threat and violence and fear. So viewers who have had their own experiences with racial injustice or being marginalized or being brutalized or feeling stuck or hopeless will have very different reactions than those who haven’t. There’s a reason the creative team includes a drama therapist and compassion consultant.

Director Kevin R. Free delivers a straightforward production that lets Nwandu’s play shine. His actors are stellar: Eddie Ewell is Moses and LeRoy S. Graham III is Kitch. They bear the responsibility of conveying a soul-deep connection to one another through the rhythm of their banter (which includes so many repetitions of “damn, nigger” that it begins to feel like song, poetry and even prayer). They do this effectively and will only get better as the run continues.

Playing dual roles of Mister and Ossifer, Adam A. Roy brings the tension of the racist white world onto Moses and Kitch’s block (depicted with spartan elegance by set designer Edward E. Haynes Jr.). This is where Free’s production could stand to turn up the volume so that the final portion of the play, where power and grace come into the mix, feels like more of a contrast. This final portion also feels hemmed in by being a play in a theater, a weird thing to say about a play in a theater. But if the walls were to come down (partially), and the sky become visible, that would feel like where the play is aiming to go more effectively than lighting changes and projections.

The physical production aside, what lingers after the curtain call is the connection between Ewell and Graham and how for their characters, Moses and Kitch, their push-and-pull connection to each other as friends, as brothers, as leader/follower, takes them into something bigger. They may or may not have escaped the block, but they’ve taken a giant step.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over continues through Feb. 20 at Marin Theatre Company, Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.
Marin Theatre Company’s COVID policies are here.

Great music can’t save sinking Swept Away

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John Gallagher, Jr., (front, center) is Mate in Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere musical, Swept Away. The cast also includes (from left, second row) Cameron Johnson, Taurean Everett, Jacob Keith Watson and Vishal Vaidya; (from left, back row) Adrian Blake Enscoe and Stark Sands. BELOW: (from left) Sands as Big Brother, Wayne Duvall as Captain, Gallagher as Mate and Enscoe as Little Brother. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


When you leave a new musical humming the shipwreck, you know there’s a problem.

The first question hovering over Swept Away, the world-premiere musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is why everyone behind it thought that, in the 21st century, the American musical theater canon needed an all-male show. Why choose a story that banishes women from the stage and leaves them only to be mentioned as whores in port or dear, sweet Melody Anne back home on the farm. The second is why re-purpose great songs from the Avett Brothers’ impressive catalogue in service of a cliché-ridden story that ends up being about four white guys in a lifeboat.

The impulse to turn songs by Scott and Seth Avett, who have released album after album of rich, melodious music over the last two decades, into some sort of theatrical experience is completely understandable. Their brand of folk-Americana-rock is humorous, dark, beautiful and full of interesting stories. The more than a dozen Avett songs incorporated into Swept Away are not the problem. As long as the men of the cast are singing songs like “Go to Sleep,” “Swept Away” and “Murder in the City,” all is well. The vibrant adaptations of the songs for the stage by Chris Miller and Brian Usifer are rousingly performed by the band under the direction of Julie Wolf and Sean Kana (both credited as music director).

If the performers just sang the songs and didn’t bother with the book by John Logan, Swept Away would be thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the songs are part of meager story about a late 19th-century whaling ship. There’s a stern captain (Wayne Duvall) who bemoans the loss of his way of life because people don’t need whale oil now that they have paraffin and kerosene. It’s not clear if we’re supposed to feel bad for a guy whose speech basically sounds like, “Damn that kerosene! I want to kill more whales!”

And then there are the neophyte sailors joining the crew. Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) has run away from his hard life on a hard farm surrounded by hard people. He wants to live life, dammit, not stare at the ass end of a mule. Big Brother (Stark Sands) couldn’t let his little brother run away unsupervised, so the young men set out on an adventure, with Big Brother certain that Little Brother will soon see the error of his ways and come home to family and church (and the aforementioned sweet Melody Anne).

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The fourth main character, played by Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr., known only as Mate, represents every hackneyed image of a sailor you can dredge up. He’s seen it all, done it all, killed it all, fucked it all and he’s here to tell you that he’s got a knife and he’s a menace. Gallagher, although an engaging singer, is miscast. He conjures about as much menace as a labradoodle puppy.

While on the ship, the show is buoyed by a terrific ensemble that includes Taurean Everett, Cameron Johnson, Vishal Vaidya and Jacob Keith Watson. They sing, they dance (a bit), they tie ropes. Their shining moment is the shipwreck – a dazzling bit of stagecraft helmed by director Michael Mayer. This stunning moment is a combination of slow-motion choreography by David Neumann, set design by Rachel Hauck, lights by Kevin Adams and sound by Kai Harada. This scene also serves, sadly, as the end of the ensemble.

The action then shifts to a lifeboat and the intense discussions about how the men might survive. Though the whole show is only 90 minutes, the lifeboat section feels like hours. Then there’s a wholly unearned ending filled with salvation for characters who have never felt anything but hollow.

I can only speak for myself here, but I had no interest in any aspect of Logan’s story. That’s hugely disappointing because the Avett Brothers’ songs deserve better. They don’t serve the story well here, and the wearisome story certainly doesn’t support them. You might say it’s all a bit of a shipwreck.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Swept Away continues through March 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peets Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $44-$180 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Berkeley Rep’s Covid information is here.

Enjoy this playlist of songs from Swept Away as originally performed by the Avett Brothers

The Band plays on, beautifully

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Janet Dacal is Dina and Sasson Gabay is Tewfiq in the national tour of The Band’s Visit, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: The boys in the band. Photos by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade.


Like Come from Away, The Band’s Visit is a musical about one set of people in a jam and another set of people offering some assistance – two groups never meant to be together share a little time and space and something wonderful happens. That’s really where the similarities end. While both are Tony Award-winning Broadway shows, The Band’s Visit, whose touring production is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, is a very different kind of musical. It’s subtle, gentle and runs deep with the emotion (mostly sadness and longing) of everyday people. Where other Broadway shows kick and flash and shine, this one is still and contemplative, except when music is revealing – and ultimately connecting – its characters.

Composer David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) and playwright Itamar Moses (a Berkeley native and revered playwright) have so skillfully adapted the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name that it’s hard to imagine Eran Kolirin’s story now without Yazbek’s decidedly non-showy songs. That’s how complete it now feels (and it was really wonderful to begin with).

Not much happens in this story other than a big misunderstanding. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives from Egypt for a special concert at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikvah. But because of issues involving language and Chet Baker, the band ends up in Beit Hatikva, a speck of a town in the desert where nothing ever happens and no one ever comes. So having a troupe of musicians in powder-blue uniforms is a major event.

There’s not another bus until the morning, so the band will stay with various residents and make the best of their predicament. Nobody seems to mind too much, although the heavy security in Israel feels ominous to the visiting Egyptians, so much so that they encourage one another to speak only in English.

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The band’s director, Tewfiq, is reserved but cordial. He and Haled, one of the group’s more colorful members, end up staying with Dina, who runs the town’s cafe. As night falls, Haled ends up at a makeshift roller disco with some locals, while Dina and Tewfiq get to know each other over dinner and a walk through what passes as a park (“You have to use your imagination,” Dina says).

Janet Dacal as Dina is tough and magnetic. She begins to feel that the band’s arrival, specifically Twefiq’s arrival, may have been destined for her. But as the strangers get to know one another better, specifically through the gorgeous songs “Omar Sharif,” “Itgara’a” and “Something Different,” reality is more complicated than meet-cute romantic comedy.

As Twefiq, Sasson Gabay offers a rich, admirable and complex portrayal, which is probably not surprising given that he originated the role in the movie 15 years ago. He commands respect from his bandmates, and it’s clear how much the music means to him. His gruff exterior shields a grieving soul, and this unexpected night clearly has an effect on him.

Director David Cromer trusts that this intimate tale will play out in its own time. The show only runs about 100 minutes, but it’s never rushed or frantic. The set design by Scott Pask allows various spots in the city to flow on and off stage, giving us a distinct sense of how isolated this town and its people truly are. Performances throughout are earnest and honest, scaled to the story and not to musical theater. The last third of the show is especially spellbinding, beginning with Joe Joseph’s superb “Haled’s Song About Love” through Dacal and Gabay’s park duet and into “Itzik’s Lullaby” tenderly sung by Clay Singer before the poignant finale. The show finds its deepest groove and transports us into as heartfelt a place as musicals can take us. It’s human, it’s spiritual…it’s simply amazing.

It’s the use of music throughout the show, both underscore and songs, that truly elevates the storytelling here (credit music supervisors Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow and conductor Adrien Ries). Of course there’s Yazbek’s stunning music, but there’s also space for people to connect over a love of “Summertime” warbled over a shared dinner, or Chet Baker’s take on “My Funny Valentine,” which soothes the end of an unusual night and gives us a glimpse into the heart of the musician playing it. There are violin and clarinet solos to melt the heart as well as instruments you don’t hear in every musical theater band, like the darbouka, riq and oud.

Not everything we see these days has to be about COVID, but it’s hard not to feel the connection in the loneliness and desperate hope of the small town inhabitants, especially as they feel their worlds enlarging, even if just a bit, through the brief visit from the band and the connection they feel. From isolation there’s connection through the shared language of music. In the most challenging times, as we have seen, art can mean more than just about anything. It can provide some relief, some joy, some emotional purging. It can also make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves – kind of like being players in a big, beautiful band.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Band’s Visit continues through Feb. 6 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com
Read about BroadwaySF’s COVID policies here.

Waiting for the curtain to rise




This Theater Dogs website has been going since August 1, 2006, making it a solid 15 years’ worth of theater news, reviews and assorted other stuff that captured my attention. If you’re a longtime reader, thank you. If this is your first time, welcome. I’m thrilled that a) this site is still here and b) that I’m still here. As they constantly say on The Great, Huzzah.

After the long pause of the pandemic, it’s beyond wonderful to be back in theaters with shows and audiences and the excitement of live theater. During the COVID lull, I spiffed up Theater Dogs a bit (thank you to those who noticed and commented), and the most recent addition is an original piece of art commissioned for the website that thrills me for a number of reasons.

The incredible textile artist Keeli McClintick has created the quilt-like banner for Theater Dogs that replicates the excitement of settling into your theater seat anticipating the rise of that beautiful red curtain. I urge you to check out Ms. McClintick’s gorgeous work on Instagram: @keelimcclintickstudios. These are not your granny’s quilts.

The inclusion of an original Keeli McClintick across the top of this website also thrills me because Ms. McClintick is an artist whom I’ve admired for a number of years. I won’t say how many exactly, but let’s just say since I was born. We are first cousins, and in addition to being constantly in awe of her mad skills and rampant creativity, she also happens to be one of my favorite people on this or any other planet.

Thank you, Keeli. And now, curtain up…

Welcome return to Pemberley with Georgiana and Kitty

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The cast of the world-premiere Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley includes (from left) Lauren Spencer as Georgiana Darcy, Aidaa Peerzada as Emily Grey, Emilie Whelan as Kitty Bennet, Zahan F. Mehta as Henry Grey, Adam Magill as Thomas O’Brien, Alicia M. P. Nelson as Margaret O’Brien and Madeline Rouverol as Sarah Darcy. Below: Mehta and Spencer find holiday romance in the Marin Theatre Company production. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, Scenic Design by Nina Ball, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao. Photos by Kevin Berne courtesy of Marin Theatre Company


Jane Austen has undoubtedly been visiting with her celestial publisher to check on the status of her earthly estate. Over the years, she has seen her cultural clout grow and grow, with movies, novel sequels, themed weekends and generation after generation of new Austen fans clamoring for more. Among the most interesting of the offerings related to the much-loved 19th-century novelist created in the more than 200 years since her death are the Christmas at Pemberley plays by San Francisco playwrights Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Locally, we saw the post-Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberley series begin in 2016 at Marin Theatre Company with Miss Bennett (read my review marintheatre.org) and continue in 2018 with The Wickhams (a sort of below-stairs/Downton Abbey take). Now, what has become a trilogy, concludes with Georgiana and Kitty. The genius of the trilogy is that it essentially covers one Christmas holiday but doesn’t actually require you to have seen the other installments (or read Austen, for that matter) – but your enjoyment and appreciation will be enhanced if you have.

This third chapter is the most audacious of them all if only because it takes the greatest liberties with Austen by imagining what the five Bennett sisters, their husbands and children will be doing 20 years after this initial holiday gathering. Not to give anything away, but the future for these characters involves bold moves for womankind, enduing female friendship and consistent breaking of women’s societal restraints – all within a warm holiday glow and amid boisterous (sometimes contentious) familial affection.

We didn’t actually get to meet Kitty Bennett in either of the other two plays, so it’s lovely to see the youngest Bennett finally get her moment in the spotlight along with her BFF, Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of Kitty’s sister Lizzy.

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There’s great excitement in the house because of – what else? – boys. Georgiana (Lauren Spencer) has been corresponding with Henry Grey (Zahan F. Mehta), a potential beau, for almost a year, and she has impulsively invited him to visit Pemberley at Christmas. He arrives, smitten and tongue-tied, in the company of his friend Thomas O’Brien (Adam Magill), who immediately sparks with the vibrant Kitty (Emilie Whelan). But this double romance quickly skids to a halt when Henry fails to pass muster with Georgiana’s domineering brother, Darcy (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whose self-imposed duty to protect his sister makes him overbearing and obnoxious.

The great thing about all the Pemberley plays is how they play with formula – calculated through both Austen and holiday romance equations – and still come up with something that is highly enjoyable, smart and full of real charm and warmth. Gunderson and Melcon honor Austen and write characters who defy expectations of the 19th, 20th and 21st century varieties. The holiday aspect wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark movie, but there’s an intelligence and spirit at work here that far exceeds all the usual, sappy trappings.

Performances are bright and focused in director Meredith McDonough (who also helmed Miss Bennett five years ago), and if some of the characters seem to be extra set dressing (on Nina Ball’s stately estate set), that is rectified when the action shifts ahead two decades and we meet a vivacious new generation of Darcys, O’Briens and Greys.

Austen would no doubt love to see the triumph of some her women characters as envisioned by Gunderson and Melcon, whether it’s the successful balancing of family and work life by one or the artistic success of another as she makes great inroads in a world wholly dominated by men. She may also love that even in the future, Mr. Darcy is a well-meaning ass who would do well to listen to his wife, who is seldom, if ever, wrong.

It’s a little bit sad that Kitty and Georgiana is the final chapter in the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, but here’s hoping that Gunderson and Melcon continue to make such savvy, satisfying theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley continues through Dec. 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.