A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Party People at Berkeley Rep: Necessary

Party People 1
Steven Sapp (right) as Omar leads an ensemble cast in UNIVERSES’ Party People, a fusion of story and song that unlocks the legacy of the Black Panthers and Young Lords at Berkeley Rep. Below: J. Bernard Calloway (left, asBlue), Mildred Ruiz-Sapp (Helita, background), and C. Kelly Wright perform in the extraordinary historical musical number that opens Party People. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

There are ovations and there are ovations. The opening of an envelope gets a standing ovation these days, so the stand and clap doesn’t really mean much anymore. But at the opening night of UNIVERSES’ Party People at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the audience was instantly on its collective feet at show’s end, applauding thunderously, shouting and hooting. The appreciative cast bowed, expressed gratitude and exited the stage. The house lights came on, and still the clamor continued. A few audience members exited the theater, but mostly the noise grew in intensity until the surprised cast had to return to the stage and bow yet again.

It seemed a fittingly over-the-top reaction to an ambitious, over-the-top show that leaves you feeling moved by the wheels of history and the vagaries of the human heart.

Party People was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle and had its premiere there in 2012. Created by UNIVERSES, a creative and social force comprising Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, aka Ninja, and director Liesl Tommy (who is also Berkeley Rep’s associate director), the show is ostensibly about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, two revolutionary groups born of the tumult of the 1960s that aimed to change the world and, in the face of powerful opposition, ultimately failed in their mission.

What’s extraordinary about Party People is how powerfully it works on its own terms. It can be kaleidoscopic and collage-like as it blends music (original compositions by Broken Chord) and video (live and recorded, beautifully designed by Alexander V. Nichols) and self-conscious art making with concise and incisive history lessons and, perhaps most importantly, human-scale stories that, individually and collectively, bring it all together and connect the audience to the past, present and future of this country.

Party People 2

That’s not to say that Party People is perfect – it seems unlikely that something this sprawling, rambunctious, fiery and beautiful could be. Some of the dramatic monologues are too long and don’t connect as powerfully as they might, but missteps are rare in this 2 1/2-hour fantasia on race, revolution and justice. From the extraordinary opening musical number that creates historical context for this intertwining story of the Panthers and the Lords, we become caught up in the flow of revolutionary zeal – free meals for kids, education reform, fighting police brutality and racism, recovery programs – and quickly see how egos and conflicts and violence can explode the truest of intentions.

On an urban two-level set (sturdy and graffiti covered design by Marcus Doshi who also designed the dazzling light show) covered with video monitors, we slip in and out of the present, where two children of the movement, Malik ( Christopher Livingston) and Jimmy (Ruiz), are processing their complicated legacy in a multimedia show. It’s opening night, and they have invited a wide assortment of personalities from back in the day, some of whom bring troubled and troubling histories with them.

Tension and conflict run high as these former revolutionaries (some are still active, even if only in their own minds) take an uneasy stroll down a memory lane littered with ideals and betrayals, rage and regret. This mash-up of nostalgia and minefields can veer to the melodramatic, but then real fire bursts forth as when C. Kelly Wright as Amira, a former Panther and wife of a Panther wrongly convicted and imprisoned for the murder of a police officer, lashes out at Malik and Jimmy and their generation of naval-gazing, Internet-obsessed “revolutionaries.” But then Malik lashes right back, and it becomes clear that the generation gap is a major force affecting communication and perception in this particular crowd.

So many sections of the show stand out, not the least of which is an incredible monologue by Sapp as troubled former Panther Omar accompanied by the other men in the cast exerting themselves in a powerfully athletic (and seemingly exhausting) display of the choreography by Millicent Johnnie. There are also some gorgeous voices to be savored here from Ruiz-Sapp, Amy Lizardo, Reggie D. White and Sophia Ramos.

As relevant and as thought-provoking as it is, Party People is also mightily entertaining. Humor, music and dance go a long way toward keeping this narrative afloat, even when the weight of history and sacrifice bear down heavily. These may be some of the most invigorating sad stories you experience. History is not over-explained, and nothing is emotionally tidy. We don’t get a concisely wrapped up ending, but we do feel like connecting with the past makes for a more powerful present and, in glimmers, a more hopeful future.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed UNIVERSES member Steven Sapp about creating Party People for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

UNIVERSES’ Party People continues an extended run through Nov. 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.