Arctic Requiem celebrates work, spirit of local hero

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The cast of BootStrap Theater Foundation’s world-premiere play Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina includes (from left) Gendell Hernández as Raven and Cathleen Riddley, Michael Torres, Lynne Soffer and Lawrence Radecker as villagers. The production, about the first climate change refugees in the United States, runs through Nov 15 at Z Below Theater. Below: Damon K. Sperber (left) plays the late San Francisco environmental lawyer Luke Cole and Hernández is Raven. Photos by Vicky Victoria

A very personal play, BootStrap Theater Foundation’s Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina is both educational and emotional. You’ll learn more about Native Alaskan Inupiat people than you ever knew, and you’ll come to care about and feel the tragic loss of Luke Cole the San Francisco environmental lawyer whose good work in the world was ended by a tragic auto accident in Uganda in 2009.

I reviewed Arctic Requiem’s world premiere at Z Below for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt.

There’s definitely a conventional story here about the do-gooder lawyer from the San Francisco nonprofit (the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment) and how he went to Alaska and helped a Native Alaskan Inupiat village fight against water pollution from the world’s largest zinc mine. But the show’s creators, Sharmon J. Hilfinger, who wrote the script, and Joan McMillen, who composed the music, opt for something more interesting and much more theatrical.
Woven through the straightforward account of how Cole worked to gain the trust of the villagers and fought passionately for the survival of their way of life is a more spiritual account of the Inupiat way of life that is heightened by powerfully emotional music played by McMillen on piano and Helen Newby on cello.

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Read the full review here.

Sharmon J. Hilfinger and Joan McMillen’s Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina continues through Nov. 15 at Z Below Theater, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$45. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Here be dragons: Impact fires up fantastical drama

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Dragon (George Sellner, right) is a dangerous visitor who reenters the life of a woman he once knew (Sarah Coykendall) and her husband (Michael Michalske), while in the background, Boy (Jed Parsario) longs for his own beloved dragon, in the West Coast premiere of The Dragon Play by Jenny Connell Davis in her Bay Area debut. Below: Parsario and Lindsey Schmeltzer are a boy and a dragon in love. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Impact Theatre’s The Dragon Play breathes fire into what, at first glance, appears to be a fairly standard issue drama. Playwright Jenny Connell Davis blends the worlds of sci-fi/fantasy with Sam Shepard with surprising and wonderful results.

In only 80 minutes, director Tracy Ward creates two powerful worlds in which stories begin to bleed into one another. That’s no mean feat in the cramped quarters of La Val’s Subterranean, which offers set and lighting designers the ultimate challenge to turn a basement into a compelling performance space. Catalina Niño (sets) and Jax Steager rise to that challenge, even when the action spills off the stage and into the nether parts of the theater.

There are well-defined realms here, one of which is in some frozen northern state, where a woman (Sarah Coykendall), a librarian, lives with her husband (Michael Michalske) and their young son. Their sturdy home is represented by the kind of dining room that has been filling stage sets and Midwestern homes for a century. The other realm is more nebulous.

In that one, which we are led to believe is in the past, a boy (Jed Parsario) encounters a wounded young girl dragon (Lindsey Schmeltzer), whom he befriends and, in time, falls in love with. As their relationship progresses, we learn more about dragons (there’s something called the Dragon Dance and we aren’t allowed to know about it) and that they live for thousands of years. They have sex, but it’s beyond of realm of understanding.

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Schmeltzer’s performance as the dragon is mesmerizing. She often moves as if she’s performing some sort of dance, and it’s just quirky enough to convey a sense of dragon-ness without having to costume her in some ridiculous way (she worked with movement consultant Erin Mei-Ling Stuart). And Parsario is an understandably confused human boy who is tortured and consumed and transported by his love an otherworldly being.

Back in the snowy wilds, the uneasy marriage of the man and the woman is upended by the arrival of a stranger (George Sellner) from the woman’s past. Coykendall is a tormented wife and mother whom at first seems as if she wants to flee the confines of her domestic life. But when her exit strategy appears in the form of the stranger, we see that her torment is much deeper, and it involves him.

Michalske is eminently believable as the good-hearted, smarter-than-he-seems contractor who values the life he and his wife have made. He understands her and her torment a little more than she thinks he does, but he still doesn’t know the full story. Still, he’s charming, and he has a monologue alone at the kitchen table that turns out to be a show high point.

All the performances are strong, and the actors transcend the confines of the space to give us American wasteland, flight and fantasy. It’s really quite a marvel how much this short play and this astute production convey and convey powerfully. There’s deep feeling and imagination here, humor and sexiness, surprises and satisfaction. In other words, it’s just about a perfect Impact Theatre play.

Jenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play continues an extended run through Dec. 21 at Impact Theatre, La Val Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 510-224-5744 or visit

What you should know about Impact’s What Every Girl Should Know

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The cast of Impact Theatre’s What Every Girl Should Know, set in a Catholic reformatory circa 1914, includes, from left Abigail Edber as Anne, Arisa Bega as Lucy and Carlye Pollack as Theresa. Below: Edber is restrained by (from left) Elissa Beth Stebbins, Pollack and Bega. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

The first thing to know about Impact Theatre’s What Every Girl Should Know, a one-act play by Monica Byrne, is that it’s a gripping play about matters physical and spiritual. It’s also very well produced by director Tracy Ward and an excellent cast of four. This is a play set in 1914 but feels, rather sadly, of the moment because, it seems, there will always be people (old, white men mostly) who want to keep other people (women, mostly) as ignorant as possible, especially when it comes to their own bodies and – heavens forfend – sex.

Byrne’s drama is set in the tight confines of Room 14, a four-bed dorm room at St. Mary’s, a Catholic girl’s reformatory on New York’s Lower East Side. The year is 1914, and the church is the ultimate power for the occupants of Room 14: innocent Lucy (Arisa Bega), Anne (Abigail Edber) and Theresa (Carlye Pollack). These young women are not exactly prisoners, but their lives are circumscribed by formal prayers, church services and work in the laundry. Their room, where their confirmation saints sit in framed portraits on a shelf over their beds, is their haven. We know this early on when we meet the girls. Before we see them, there is darkness and the sounds of moaning and creaking bed springs. These women happily engage in the sport of pillow humping and then giddily log their exploits in a book they keep hidden in the rafters. Poor Lucy can’t quite get the hang of it the way Anne and Theresa have, but she tries.

The empty bed that once belonged to a recently deceased roommate is soon filled by Joan (Elissa Beth Stebbins), whose uptight nature is a stark contrast to the more relaxed and playful aspect of her new roommates. But Joan isn’t so rigid that she won’t engage in an ice-breaking game of Truth or Dare.

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While Byrne’s play seems conventional in nature, it soon breaks out of its familiar shell to embrace a level of emotional exuberance that can only be expressed in dances created by Erica Chong Shuch. The first of these thrilling moments involves the former roommate’s death and the next takes the play to whole different level as the women embark on a self-made spirituality inspired by Margaret Sanger, the activist who devoted her life to making birth control available to all and whose work led to the formation of what we now know as Planned Parenthood.

Here’s a glimpse into Sanger’s work, from her pamphlet that gives Byrne’s play its name:

Every girl should first understand herself: she should know her anatomy, including sex anatomy: she should know the epochs of a normal woman’s life, and the unfoldment which each epoch brings: she should know the effect the emotions have on her acts, and finally she should know the fullness and richness of life when crowned by the flower of motherhood.

Sanger becomes the patron saint of the women in Room 14, and it’s fascinating to watch what begins as sort of a lark deepen into something truly spiritual and meaningful to this four-person congregation. The same is true for the other games the girls play, including a game of pretend that allows them to roam the globe and assassinate those who have wronged them. Here, too, the act of pretending ends up reflecting more reality than fantasy. And though Lucy, Anne, Theresa and Joan are exploring their sexuality and spirituality in the safe and supportive confines of their room, the real world outside those walls, where spirituality is a means of suppression and sexuality too often involves violence and ignorance, intrudes in harsh and, alas, not surprising ways.

Bega, Edber, Pollack and especially Stebbins give powerful performances that only grow in intensity throughout the play’s 100 minutes. They don’t necessarily seem like people from the early 20th century, but their emotional reality is more important, and they really deliver, especially when it comes to conveying the growing—sometimes unsettling — bond between them.

What Every Girl Should Know is scaled perfectly for the intimate stage space of La Val’s Subterranean (set designer Anne Kendall creates a plain but absolutely believable dorm room) and the result is one of Impact’s most dramatically satisfying productions yet.


Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know continues through Oct. 13 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid, Berkeley. Tickets are $12-$25. Visit