Theater by the Bay: Best of 2008

Theatergoing in the San Francisco Bay Area is one of life’s treats. No question about it. If you love theater, this is a wonderland. In this devastating economic climate, may that only hold true for the next couple of years.

There is so much good theater here, so many incredible actors, writers, directors and crafts people that an annual Top 10 is often difficult to wrangle. That’s why the Top 10 is followed by a list of other shows that should, by all rights, also be included in the Top 10, but numbers being the chronological beasts that they are, dictate on show per number (still, I cheated with No. 6 and included two shows by one playwright).

1. TheatreWorks’ Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori – My favorite show of the year peeled yet another layer of this incredible musical to reveal a work of sheer genius. Director Robert Kelly and his extraordinary leading lady, C. Kelly Wright, offered some of their best work ever, and that’s saying something.

2. California Shakespeare Theater’s Pericles – Adapted and directed by Joel Sass, this incredibly colorful telling of one of Shakespeare’s oddest tales was entrancing and memorable, especially on a warm summer night in the gorgeous Bruns Amphitheatre in Ordina.

3. Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ Angry Black White Boy adapted by Dan Wolf from Adam Mansbach’s novel – The year’s most exciting new work was a bold act of contemporary theatricality, blending hip-hop, spoken word, drama and movement into a seamless blend directed by Sean San Jose. Good news for anyone who missed it – the show returns to Intersection Jan. 29-Feb. 15.

4. SF Playhouse’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party by Aaron Loeb – We had to wait all year for a world-premiere play that entertained as much as it titillated and thrilled. Funny, serious and wacky, this Chris Smith-directed musing on a divided America proved to be as smart as it is imaginative.

5. Traveling Jewish Theater and Thick Description’s Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain by David Greenspan — Weird and wild barely begins to describe this play about a gay son who essentially becomes his dead mother. Outstanding, memory-searing performances came from Liam Vincent and Deb Fink in Tony Kelly’s production.

6. SF Playhouse’s Shining City and Marin Theatre Company’s The Seafarer, both by Conor McPherson – Ireland’s top-tier playwright received two outstanding productions by local theaters, each demonstrated his compassionate (and slightly warped) humanity.

7. Shotgun Players and Banana, Bag & Bodice’s Beowulf – This rock musical take on one of college lit’s greatest hits was one of the year’s most delightful surprises. Composer Dave Malloy and writer Jason Craig breathed new life into an Old English classic. This one comes back for one performance only, Jan. 8, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, before heading out to conquer New York.

8. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s TRAGEDY: a tragedy by Will Eno – Audiences were sharply divided over this existential dark night of the soul as filtered through a TV news team. I loved its Beckettian aridness and humor, and Les Waters’ production was anchored by an outstanding cast.

9. Magic Theatre’s Octopus by Steve Yockey – Water poured and unease flowed in director by Kate Warner’s splashy production of a challenging, unnerving play in which death and disease ooze into every nook and cranny.

10. American Conservatory Theater’s Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard – ACT often does its best work with Stoppard, and this was on exception. Director Carey Perloff revealed the rich rewards of this dense, emotional work.

And now a few other greats in no particular order: Theatre Rhinoceros’ Ishi: The Last of the Yahi by John Fisher; Cal Shakes’ An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde; Magic Theatre’s Evie’s Waltz by Carter W. Lewis; SF Playhouse’s Bug by Tracy Letts; Word for Word’s Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Busy World Is Hushed by Keith Bunin; ACT’s The Quality of Life by Jane Anderson; Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman; Aurora Theatre Company’s The Best Man by Gore Vidal.

It was quite a year for excellent solo shows as well. Here are some highlights: Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Rep; Colman Domingo’s A Boy and His Soul at Thick Description; Roger Rees’ What You Will at ACT; Ann Randolph’s Squeeze Box at The Marsh; Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking at Berkeley Rep; Judy Gold’s 25 Questions for a Jewish Mother at the Marines Memorial Theatre; Billy Connolly live at the Post Street Theatre; Mark Nadler’s Russian on the Side at the Marines.

And, it has to be said, not everything is genius. Here are shows that lingered less than fondly in memory: Darren Romeo’s The Voice of Magic at the Post Street Theatre; Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector at ACT; Cybill Shepherd in Bobby Goldman’s Curvy Widow at the Post Street Theatre; Edna O’Brien’s Tir na nOg (Land of Youth) at the Magic Theatre.

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

Gabe Marin exorcises Aurora’s devilish `Disciple’

One of the great things about Bay Area theater is watching local actors grow into greatness.

They may or may not strike off to find fortune and fame in New York or Los Angeles, or they may choose to stay here and continue doing as much good work as they can.

The Aurora Theatre Company’s next show, George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, is packed with the kind of actors who, if you care about local theater, you’ve been watching for years. Names such as Stacy Ross, Warren David Keith and Trish Mullholland pretty much make a show worth seeing if they’re involved.

Another name to add to that list is Gabriel Marin (seen at right with Devil’s co-star Stacy Ross, photos by David Allen).

Theatergoers probably don’t remember Marin’s local stage debut in American Conservatory Theater’s The Play’s the Thing in 1995. He was a 23-year-old spear carrier amid some Bay Area greats such as Ken Ruta, Dan Hiatt and Kimberly King. He was fresh out of college (Chicago’s DePaul University) and eager to put all his acting training to use.

But on stage at the Geary, Marin remembers thinking: “Damn, I should have paid more attention in voice class. All the things I thought were old school and used to roll my eyes at, turned out to be more useful than I thought. And there I was watching people do it to perfection. Made me feel inadequate and in awe.”

But Marin persisted, even as he married, started a family and moved to Los Angeles. When the marriage ended, Marin and his son, Max, headed back to the Bay Area, while his daughter, Morgan, stayed in L.A. with her mom.

Being a single parent, Marin found a day job that involved theater – marketing director for Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company – that still allowed him to pursue acting opportunities.

“There’s nothing, other than acting, that I could do and be happy with myself,” Marin says. “When I was in LA, supporting a family, theater was something I had to obviously set aside, and those years were soul-sucking to me. Now I embrace the poverty. I embrace being bereft of amenities. That’s why I say this is all I can do and be happy.”

In the last couple of years, Marin has really come into his own, delivering some stunning performances for SF Playhouse (Bug, Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street), Magic Theatre (The Rules of Charity), Marin Theatre Company (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Traveling Jewish Theatre/Thick Description (Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain).

All the theater work has meant that Max, about to turn 13, has spent a lot of time backstage.

“I cannot thank my son enough,” Marin says. “He’s had to sit in a lot of green rooms. He’s the light of my life. What’s interesting, is when I bow, I make an `M’ with my hands, and if he’s in the green room, he’ll run out to the wings to see if I give him thanks. I couldn’t act if he wasn’t on board.”

The younger Marin is so on board, in fact, that he’s been expressing the desire to be an actor (when he doesn’t want to be a computer game programmer or airplane pilot).

“I’ll encourage him and help facilitate that,” Marin says. “But I’m very careful not to push that on him.”

Marin is returning to Berkeley’s Aurora, where he previously appeared in Gunplay, The Glass Menagerie and Shaw’s Saint Joan, directed by Aurora’s founding artistic director, Barbara Oliver, who is also helming The Devil’s Disciple.

This is the one Shaw play set in America (during the Revolutionary War, naturally), and it tends toward the melodramatic. Marin is playing Richard Dudgeon, the self-proclaimed “devil’s disciple” who pretends to be the local minister, who may be fitted with a hangman’s noose to demoralize the townspeople.

“Richard is awesome,” Marin says. “He’s kind of Han Solo meets Obi Wan Kenobi in a very Shavian way. He’s the rogue with a heart of gold, and he made me think of Obi Wan because he reminded me of Obi Wan saying to Darth Vader something like, `If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.'”

Marin’s girlfriend teases him that he’s finally playing a rogue instead of a loser with a heart of gold.

After Devil’s Disciple, Marin will be seen in John Guare’s Landscape of the Body at SF Playhouse in January and then Jack Goes Boating back at the Aurora next summer under the direction of Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin.

With such a non-stop schedule, Marin must be exhausted.

“I’m not exhausted,” he says. “I’m grateful.”

The Devil’s Disciple begins previews Friday, Oct. 31, opens Thursday, Nov. 6 and runs through Dec. 7 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $28 for previews, $40-$42 for regular performances. Call 510-843-4822 or visit for information.

Review: `A Boy and His Soul’

Colman Domingo revisits his West Philadelphia, soul music-infused childhood in the solo show A Boy and His Soul at San Francisco’s Thick House. Photos by Rick Martin.

Domingo’s soulful `Boy’ better than ever at Thick House
(four stars)

Marcel Proust had his madeleienes. Colman Domingo has his ’70s soul music.

The needle touches down on the spinning vinyl, snaps and crackles make the speakers bounce. Then the music starts to play, and we’re jettisoned back into a world where nostalgia, family and deep emotion provide the bass groove to an all-grown-up tune.

Domingo’s dynamic solo show “A Boy and His Soul” has traveled this memory road before – at the Thick House in 2005. Now Domingo and the show are back as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary year, and “Soul” finds new depth it didn’t have three years ago.

Since we last saw Domingo, he has starred in a Broadway show (“Passing Strange”) and lost both parents whom he so affectionately conjures in “A Boy and His Soul.” His show is about growing up, but in many ways, a bunch of that growing up has happened fairly recently.

Raised in West Philadelphia in the 1970s – the same neighborhood that spawned, among others, Patti LaBelle and Will Smith – Domingo watched his neighborhood evolve from “loving, educated working class to crack central.” At a pivotal moment – his parents are selling his childhood home – Domingo discovers crates of old albums in the basement.

Seizing on these records as a link to a childhood about to disappear, Domingo takes one long, groovy look back before he turns his attention forward.

Wearing a red Adidas track suit – appropriate clothing because he gets a workout both physical and emotional – Domingo spends a fair portion of his 85-minute show listening to music, singing and dancing along. Of course he and director Tony Kelly have shaped the well-written show in dramatic and emotional ways as well, but those moments of letting loose to beloved songs are the ones that really stick with you.

Who hasn’t found some sort of joyous abandon in a favorite song, played at maximum volume in the privacy of one’s own personal nirvana?

We may not have grown up gay or black or in Philadelphia, but we can feel the musical connection to Switch’s “There’ll Never Be” or Ohio Players, James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass, Smokey Robinson, Kool and the Gang, Al Green or Diana Ross.

At one point, we’re so into Domingo’s world, when he encourages us to sing along with him to the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” we do – shyly, but we do, and it’s magical.

We also get to know Domingo – called JJ by his family after his middle name, Jason – and his older siblings, brother Rick and sister Avery. There’s a younger brother, Philip, but Domingo says he’ll write another show about him. We also develop great affection for his mother, Edie, and his stepfather, Clarence.

There’s nothing shattering about Domingo’s upbringing – there was love, there was fighting, there was struggle – nor is there anything particularly novel about his coming out in college. But the story of anyone discovering himself or herself, coming to terms with the past and taking ownership of it is something we never grow tired of hearing – especially when it’s told with heart and honesty.

Domingo, with his boundless energy and ingratiating charm, definitely displays both, and he is able to punctuate his tale with the likes of Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Isley Brothers and the Five Stairsteps, so his story is that much more involving.

“A Boy and His Soul” continues through Sept. 14 at The Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit

Colman Domingo moves from`Strange’ to `Soul’

You know you’ve achieved a certain level of success when you’re on line, waiting to get into an exclusive magazine party, and Spike Lee sticks his head out the door, sees you waiting and immediately says, “Get him in here.”

That’s what life is like these days for Colman Domingo, one of those Bay Area success stories: young actor moves here, starts working like crazy, emerges as a major talent and then heads off to New York and stardom.

For Domingo, who moved from San Francisco to New York in 2001, the turning point came with Passing Strange, the Tony Award-winning musical that had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before heading to the Public Theater in New York and an eventual transfer to Broadway.

“The Passing Strange experience led to a lot of things career-wise,” Domingo says. “Creatively and spiritually, that was the most dynamic theater experience I’ve had in 15 years of being in this business.”

Domingo is back in the Bay Area, his old stomping grounds, for a revival of his solo show, A Boy and His Soul, opening Wednesday, Sept. 3, as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season.

The 38-year-old actor returns as a Broadway veteran who now has a management and a publicist. He was just splashed across the pages of Out magazine in a glamorous fashion spread, and he’s a regular on the LOGO network’s Big Gay Sketch Show.

“For me, being in this business 15 years, the idea that it’s all happening now, at 38, is great,” Domingo says. “I’ve worked toward this. I don’t know if I’d have appreciated this at 23.”

Though the Broadway experience had its dazzle – rubbing shoulders with Edward Albee and Marian Seldes during awards season, breakfast with Spike Lee, etc. – it also had its rigors. To maintain his health and stamina, Domingo says he “lived life as a nun.” He saw a chiropractor for the first time in his life.

“The work day began at 3 p.m.: eat, work out, nap,” Domingo explains. “On your day off you really had to do nothing. And then there all the events you need to attend, the press stuff. A friend got upset with me because I hadn’t called her or seen her. `No one can be that busy,’ she said. With a show on Broadway, actually you can be that busy. I had no idea.”

Domingo insists the success hasn’t gone to his head and that his friends keep him grounded.

“This has been a high time, a nice time,” he says. “I understand it and appreciate it. I’m enjoying the ride of it all. I still have my closest friends around me. I still have my apartment in Harlem. It’s nothing fancy. I just have better furniture now. For the first time I have furniture I actually bought and wasn’t handed down. I always realize that I could be back bartending like I was two years ago. This is a great time, but I’m very lucky – no different from any other actor.”

During Domingo’s decade in the Bay Area – “I tell people it’s where I became an artist” – Domingo hatched A Boy and His Soul – he connected with Thick Description on Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat in 1997, and the seeds for A Boy and His Soul, the story of Domingo’s childhood in Philadelphia in the 1970s, began to sprout.

Thick D artistic director Tony Kelly eventually directed the premiere of Boy in 2005 and began talking to Domingo about bringing it back for the anniversary season even before Passing Strange took off.

“I was happy with the San Francisco version,” Domingo says, “but it needed more work, more focus.”

In addition to work done at the New York Theatre Workshop and recent re-writes with Kelly in New York, Domingo says the piece has deepened with the loss of his parents in the last two years.

Passing Strange helped me heal, especially after losing my mom,” Domingo says. “I had my first audition on a Monday with the callback on Wednesday. My mom passed away on Tuesday. They held the callback for me two weeks later and sang an a cappella gospel song. It’s so interesting, with all that, and Broadway, I’ve been through something and life has changed so much. It’s good to get back to A Boy and His Soul.”

Domingo was recently back in Philadelphia visiting his sister and visiting old haunts. “It feels so different but inherently the same,” he says. “I feel like I’m always in a dream state when I’m here.”

In the less dreamy real world, Domingo’s career is still burbling. He has a bit part in Spike Lee’s new movie Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II drama in which he plays a West Indian postal customer. Of course he’ll also be in Lee’s filmed version of Passing Strange, which took place during the show’s final days on Broadway in July. And he plays a ’70s disc jockey in An Englishman in New York starring John Hurt.

As for a return to Broadway after his brief San Francisco sojourn, he says it could happen.

“I’m sniffing around a production or two,” he says. “Right now I’m in a place of what’s next? A lot of meetings. A lot of possibilities.”

A Boy and His Soul runs Sept. 3 through 14 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit

Here’s Domingo as a gay grandson visiting his grandmother on “The Big Gay Sketch Show” (the language is ROUGH, so don’t watch this at work…at least not with the sound on):

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 for information.



Review: `Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain’

opened Jan. 13, 2007 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco

Wacky `Dead Mother’ springs to vibrant life
three 1/2 stars Shirley not to be missed

Dead Mother, contrary to its title, is quite a lively evening of theater.

The full title of David Greenspan’s wickedly playful, intelligent play, Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain, gives you some idea of the writer’s general tone: funny, irreverent and secretly serious.

A co-production of San Francisco theater companies Traveling Jewish Theatre and Thick Description, Dead Mother opened marks the 17-year-old play’s first production since its premiere at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s easy to see why the play might scare companies less brave than TJT and Thick D. Here you have a farce involving sexual identity, cross-dressing, bestiality, Greek mythology, five acts and enough speedy dialogue to choke an untrained actor.

Thick D’s artistic director, Tony Kelly, is at the helm of Dead Mother, which is reassuring from the start, and he has assembled a cast of Bay Area stalwarts, all of whom do superb, even inspired, work here.

New York playwright (and actor and director) Greenspan seems to take his cue from Tony Kushner (Angels in America), who has called Greenspan “the most talented theater artist of my generation.” So, who knows? Maybe Kushner was inspired by Greenspan.

Whatever, Greenspan seems to relish breaking boundaries.

He sets up Dead Mother as a rollicking farce as Daniel (Gabriel Marin) has found the woman, Maxine (Deb Fink), he wants to marry. Trouble is, Maxine will only marry him if she can meet his mother, and Daniel’s imperious Jewish mother, Shirley, is dead.

Ever the creative thinker, Daniel goes to his brother, Harold (Liam Vincent).

It seems that years ago, while Shirley was still alive, Harold dressed up as his mother and successfully fooled his father, Melvin (Louis Parnell), into thinking he was Shirley.

If Harold is so convincing, why shouldn’t Harold pretend to be Shirley for just one more night so Maxine can be welcomed into the family?

Of course all goes swimmingly until Harold’s father shows up, sees his dead wife and is effectively convinced it’s her ghost.

This would all be so much gender-bending Neil Simon if Greenspan didn’t throw in some brainy, wacky stuff as well. When Maxine, Daniel, “Shirley” and Melvin go to the theater, we go with them and watch Greenspan’s randy take on the Greeks, with the cast playing the “actors” wearing togas with genitals on the outside (hilarious costumes are by Raul Aktanov).

Just what is all that Greek stuff? When Maxine gets back from the show, she asks the same question, but she says the play was “nice…we supported the arts and got out of the house.”

With the appearance of a sperm whale (played with Moby Dick style by Dena Martinez), the play heads off into self-conscious surrealism. Act 4 is performed as a reading, with the actors behind music stands, describing the epic action — Alice B. Toklas (played with elan by Corey Fischer) takes Harold on a guided tour through hell — that would be virtually impossible to stage on a shoestring budget.

The final scene is essentially a family drama, minus the farce, although Harold is still playing his mother, but the confrontations with his father are too intense and deeply felt to be comedy.
The epilogue, delivered gamely by Martinez, is far too conventional to wrap up a play that is so grandly — and oddly — entertaining.

Still, Dead Mother is a play that lingers because of the wonderful work by director Kelly and his actors — especially Vincent, whose extraordinary as Harold/Shirley with only a string of pearls to differentiate them, and Fink, who’s mile-a-minute mouth is a wonder.
Greenspan throws an awful lot onto the stage, but most of it works. Dead Mother is as audacious as it is funny, as head-spinning and confusing as it is beguiling and delightful.

Dead Mother, Or Shirley Not All in Vain continues through Feb. 17 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $31-$34. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or for information.

Looking ahead: Theater ‘08 highlights

There are some theater treats heading our way in 2008. Here’s a mere sampling.

The show I’m most excited about also seems the furthest away. The national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Spring Awakening is slated to start sometime in the second half of the year, courtesy of SHN/Best of Broadway. Spring Awakening was the best thing I saw on Broadway last year, and I eagerly anticipate the tour and the chance to hear the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater score performed by exciting young singer/actors.

A close second on the old excitement meter is Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, her autobiographical solo show coming to Berkeley Rep in February.

At SF Playhouse, Theresa Rebeck, a hot-hot playwright at the moment, arrives with the West Coast premiere of her The Scene starring “Melrose Place” alum (and Berkeley native) Daphne Zuniga. The show opens later this month.

At American Conservatory Theater, the most intriguing offering this spring is ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy about a brother and sister who fall in love…with each other. The show begins performances in June.

TheatreWorks in Mountain View ushers in the new year with Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, which begins performances next week. But the real excitement comes in April when the company mounts Caroline, or Change, the astonishing Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical.

At Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, the summer show will be Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage, but the big excitement comes at the end of the year when director Mark Jackson (Death of Meyerhold) returns to take a whack at Macbeth in December.

This summer, California Shakespeare Theater gives us some really good reasons to head into the Orinda hills: Jonathan Moscone directs Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (July) and Timothy Near is directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (August).

And this one is a little iffy, but should the fates conspire, Thick Description will bring back former Bay Area actor Colman Domingo (fresh from his Broadway turn in the musical Passing Strange) in his autobiographical solo show A Boy and His Soul. Proposed show run is July. Keep your fingers crossed.