And the Party rages on!

Two on a Party

Sheila Balter and Ryan Tasker are taking Two on a Party on the road to France for the annual Word for Word Tour de France. Photo by Mark Leialoha.


I loved it before and I love it even more now.

About a year ago, Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros joined forces for an evening of three shorts stories by gay writers adapted for the stage (in true Word for Word fashion, not a letter of the original text is changed). That production was a tremendous example of the Word for Word art – taking what’s great on the page and making it even greater on the stage. (Read my original review.)

Continuing the Word for Word tradition of taking shows to the American Libraries in France, Two for the Road, the Tennessee Williams story from the Rhino collaboration, is heading across the seas. But before the tour began, Word for Word decided to leave us with a taste of the show’s brilliance. On Saturday and Sunday at the thrilling new Z Space at Theater Artaud performance venue, we once again got to experience Williams’ sterling prose as he followed the lives and (sort of) loves of Billy and Cora, a gay man and a straight woman trawling the Eastern Seaboard for men and booze.

Director John Fisher’s ingenious production is, if anything, even sharper than it was a year ago, and the characters seem more deeply felt and poignant. In many ways, this is a tale as debauched as any tale ever was with its constant stream of sailors and simulated sex and rough trade and martinis from a Thermos. But Williams is far too skilled a writer to let this story be lurid or sensational. Billy and Cora are dimensional human beings, and as such, their interconnected stories are tender and sweet – even full of kindness.

Most of the original cast returns, which is a great thing. Ryan Tasker is note perfect as Billy, the Williams-esque writer who doesn’t always make wise choices in men. Most of those men are played by Brendan Godfrey, who is convincing as a nellie hotel clerk or a brooding motorcycle man. New to the cast is Jeri Lynn Cohen, who trills “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and makes a convincing barfly and sailor.

Sheila Balter was in the original cast but in the ensemble role now filled by Cohen. Balter is now Cora (originally played by the marvelous JoAnne Winter), and she makes the role her own. There’s an abundance of blousy, boozy warmth in Balter’s performance, and she and Tasker have sparkling chemistry.

So many moments resonate in this 70-minute story, but for me, this time out, I’ll always remember the four cast members clutching one another as Williams talks about why people are drawn to bars and to tricks – if just to be briefly connected and momentarily not alone. The words are simple but the image, which begins as sort of an orgiastic joke, becomes charged with power.

Audiences in France are in for a treat, but then again, this is Word for Word – they’ve been supplying France with flashes of genius for more than a decade now.

The other big news of the evening was that in the fall, Word for Word’s next production will be several chapters from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. If you’ve read that particular book – sort of a novel in short stories – you know how exciting that is. The only problem for me would be how to choose one story over another.

For information about this and about Word for Word’s annual benefit dinner (featuring a performance from Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate followed by a feast inspired by that book), visit



Theater review: `Three on a Party’


Rhino Party 1

JoAnne Winter is Cora and Ryan Tasker is Billy in Two on a Party, a theatrical adaptation of a Tennessee Williams short story and a co-production of Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The story is one of a trilogy, alongside work by Gertrude Stein and Armistead Maupin, and part of an evening dubbed Three on a Party. Photos by Kent Taylor

Something to celebrate: `Party’ trio brings out best in Word for Word, Rhino

You know something’s working when even Gertrude Stein is the life of the party.

It’s no exaggeration at this point to say that Word for Word is magical. For 16 years now, this company has been creating some of the best theater in the Bay Area out of short works of fiction. Though they change not a word of the original text, their stage works are fully theatrical and quite often more exciting, more moving and more expertly performed than work created expressly for the theater.

The Word for Word alchemy – take a story, add a stage, throw in a dash of brilliance – receives a jolt of inspiration with a new collaborator in the form of Theatre Rhinoceros, the nation’s oldest, continuously operating gay and lesbian theater. The two companies join forces for Three on a Party, an evening of three short stories by gay authors spanning the 20th century, from Stein’s Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (written in 1910, published in Vanity Fair in 1922) to Tennessee Williams’ Two On a Party (written in 1951, published in 1954) to Armistead Maupin’s Suddenly Home (written in 1990).

Rhino Party 3

I tried to read the Stein story and, to be perfectly honest, couldn’t get through it, which is why I’m all the more impressed with director Delia MacDougall for not only making the story a vibrant piece of theater but also for giving it fully rounded characters and emotional depth. Apparently Stein was trying to do in words what Picasso, in his cubist phase, was doing on canvas. Her Miss Furr and Miss Skeene is almost Dr. Seuss-like in its constant use of the words “gay” and “regular.”

Here’s a taste: “Certainly Helen Furr would not find it gay to stay, she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay, she said she did not find it gay, she said she would not stay where she did not find it gay, she said she found it gay where she did stay and she did stay there where very many were cultivating something. She did say there. She always did find it gay there.”

But MacDougall, along with JoAnne Winter as Miss Furr and Sheila Balter as Miss Skeene and Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker as the people in their lives, find the music and the humor in Stein. What had a tendency to become annoying on the page finds new life and clarity on the stage.

The centerpiece of the evening is the hour-long Williams story about two sozzled soul mates, Cora (Winter) and Billy (Tasker). She’s a barfly with a voracious sexual appetite, and he’s a gay writer more interested in liaisons than letters. They meet in a Broadway bar (where Balter is at the piano playing “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”), and over a double rye on the rocks, recognize something in one another that leads them to join forces – on the man hunt and as partners, of a sort, in life. They begin living and traveling together in pursuit, as Billy says, “of the lyric quarry.” They even make a misguided attempt at sex, which Cora sweetly brushes aside: “Sex has to be slightly selfish to have any real excitement.”

Williams’ writing is thrilling as what seems to be a fairly shallow tale of vice, brutality and hooch deepens into a love story about loneliness, companionship and sexual attraction. Director John Fisher finds endlessly clever ways to keep the story moving and evolving and makes expert use of a giant rectangle that is, by turns, a bar, a hotel desk, a train compartment, an elevator and a Buick Roadmaster.

Rhino Party 2

Winter and Tasker are extraordinary as they imbue the lush life of their characters with wells of emotion. Cora, whose eyes are described as “a couple of poached eggs in a sea of blood,” is above all else a kind person, and Winter makes that abundantly clear. Cora is complex and darkly shadowed but easy to love. Tasker’s Billy is somewhat aloof, which is not to say he lacks vitality. There’s nothing simple about him, but he’s a visitor to this rambling, shambling life and will eventually return to his world of words and leave life “on the party” behind.

The final piece of the trilogy belongs to San Francisco’s own Maupin, who sets his tale in an idyllic Noe Valley, where Will (Godfrey) and his husband, Jamie (Tasker), are making a happy life for themselves in the shadow of the AIDS plague. They’re visited by Will’s sister, Tess (Balter), who is on her way to Maui and a marriage with a man who treats her less than well.

Also directed by Fisher, and set to the bouncy-but-needy strains of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” Suddenly Home has the familiar rhythms of a sitcom but with some welcome sass and cynicism. Jamie, an AIDS activist, has just returned from a demonstration at Nordstrom and the spiral escalator. He describes it as being “like Tiananmen Square meets Busby Berkeley.”

This is Balter and Godfrey’s chance to shine, and their warmth and familial friction gives the piece a beating heart and some realistic edge.

I’ve said it before, and I plan on saying it again and again: there’s nothing better than a good Word for Word show, and this collaboration with Theatre Rhino is good times three and then some.


Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros’ Three on a Party continues an extended run through June 21 at Theatre Rhino, 2926 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415-861-5079 or visit or

Word for Word, Rhino throw a `Party’

Armistead Maupin

I wrote a story for today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the first collaboration between Word for Word and Theatre Rhinoceros. The two venerable companies are producing Three on a Party, an evening of short stories by Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams and Armistead Maupin.

Read the story here.

For information about Three on a Party visit or

Review: `More Stories by Tobias Wolff’

Anthony Nemirovsky is the son and Jeri Lynn Cohen is his mother in the Tobias Wolff short story “Firelight,” one of three stories in Word for Word’s More Stories by Tobias Wolff at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Photos by Clayton Lord


Word for Word remains hungry like the Wolff

The particular alchemy of Word for Word and author Tobias Wolff is undeniable. Six years ago the venerable theater company, which adapts short works of fiction without changing a word of the original text, produced three Wolff short stories, and the result was a theatrical and literary explosion.

Something about Wolff’s deep humanity and understated flair seemed to expand and blossom under the stage lights and in the capable hands of the Word for Word team.

Wolff, happily, is back on stage with Word for Word in the appropriately named More Stories by Tobias Wolff, a trio of tales from the author’s latest short story collection, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories ($26.95, Knopf).

Joel Mullennix directs the stories, and a five-person cast brings them to delectable life on the stage of the Magic Theatre.

Each of the stories is so different, and yet there are threads that run through them – something wistful in the narrative – that helps the evening feel of a piece and underscores the tender, complex authenticity of Wolff’s writing.

“Sanity” opens the evening with two superb performances. Michelle Pava Mills as April, a high school girl worried about her father’s latest stint in a mental hospital and the effect it will have on her second stepmother’s willingness to remain in the family. And Stephanie Hunt is Claire, the cool, collected stepmother whose roiling inner life (not to mention her past) can barely be sensed outside her cool, gray suit and wide-brimmed black hat.

The two women, after visiting the mental hospital, have a long walk back to catch the bus (people in Wolff stories are more likely to take busses than drive cars), and during that walk, Wolff plunges deep into the essence of marriage, of age contrasting youth, of need rebuffed by being needed.

It’s a fascinating, surprising story with ending that could even be considered happy.

“Down to the Bone” is the evening’s most touching story as a man (Paul Finocchiaro) in his late middle age, arrives in Miami to serve “long hours of useless witness to his mother’s dying.” With the usual Word for Word flair, we’re treated to snapshots of the mother’s youth and to the man’s relationship with his rented sports car, a red Miata (played by Mills in a sexy red vinyl dress – costumes by Laura Hazlett). We even get a guest appearance by Freud (Anthony Nemirovsky).

The man’s volatile emotional state gets a workout when he visits a funeral home run by an odd Viennese woman named Elfie (Jeri Lynn Cohen) who flirts with him and gives him beer.

What holds the piece together dramatically is Finocchiaro’s moving performance as a man anxious for his mother’s suffering to end, grieving the loss of “the great friend of his youth.”

A mother-son relationship is also at the core of “Firelight,” a Seattle-set story that illuminates the struggle of a mother (Cohen) and her young son (Nemirovsky, who also effectively plays the son as a much older man) who, despite their lack of money, led a slightly glamorous life dominated by shopping (but not buying).

This is Cohen’s moment to shine, and she is luminous (helped by the warm light of Jim Cave’s design). A woman of intelligence and spirit, this mother is also as eccentric as she is loving. One of her hobbies is shopping for apartments they can’t afford, if only to escape their dreary boarding house and its “smells disheartened people allow themselves to cultivate.” One chilly evening, after a day of pretend apartment hunting, they come upon a home near a university inhabited by a professor and his family (Finocchiaro, Hunt and Mills) who will soon be moving out.

The son is immediately taken in by the family scene – there’s a blazing fire in the fireplace, and the wife just made a batch of brownies – and changed before the evening is over. As a man, his sense of home will be forever defined by that evening and its ultimate betrayal.

Word for Word’s adaptations make these Wolff stories feel as if they were meant for the stage, and that’s probably their least likely destination. But that’s the magic of Word for Word, a company that cares about an author’s voice almost as much as the author.

More Stories by Tobias Wolff continues through Oct. 5 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$40. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Review: `Sonny’s Blues’

Opened Jan. 8, 2008,Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

Word for Word scores with jazzy Blues
three [1/2] stars Musical and muscular

First we see snapshots, glimpses of lives we have yet to understand. And we hear music. First the trumpet, then the bass, then the sax and, finally, piano.

More than a short story, which is how Sonny’s Blues began life at the pen of James Baldwin, and more than a play, which is what Sonny’s Blues has become through the efforts of Word for Word, what we are seeing is a jazz tone poem about love and creation.

Word for Word is consistently the most interesting and adventurous small theater company in the Bay Area. What could be an intellectual exercise — adapting short works of fiction to the stage without changing a word of the original text — becomes, in this company’s capable hands, becomes thrilling, emotionally involving theater.

And with director Margo Hall at the helm of Sonny’s Blues, the experience grows even further. Hall’s understanding of Baldwin’s 1957 work, set in Harlem in the ’50s, includes a deep sensitivity to the musical aspect of both the subject matter and Baldwin’s jazz-influenced writing.

To enhance these Blues, Hall recruited local jazz great Marcus Shelby to score play, and Shelby’s work here (performed via recording) is extraordinary in the way it heightens the already intense emotions of Baldwin’s story.

Music is a key part of the relationship between two brothers. A man known only as Brother (Peter Macon) has gone to school, served in the Army and settled into a high school teaching career with a wife (Allison L. Payne) and three children. His younger brother, Sonny (Da’Mon Vann), younger by seven years, has had a more difficult time of it, feeling restless and unable to fully channel his creativity.

As time goes on, Sonny, a jazz pianist, falls in with the wrong crowd, and the brothers’ relationship fractures. Brother always feels a sense of guilt because he promised his mother (Margarette Robinson) before she died that he would always keep an eye on Sonny. But Sonny has turned to drugs — heroin — and Brother wants no part of that.

After reading about Sonny’s arrest in the newspaper, Brother reestablishes contact with his little brother, and when Sonny gets out of jail, the two men begin the tricky dance of actually being brothers to one another. This means that Sonny must somehow make Brother understand what it means to play and create music.

When Brother does start to come around, it inspires some of Baldwin’s most beautiful writing: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.”

Baldwin is wise enough not to offer a pat happy ending, but he does offer understanding and love and creativity at their most emotionally vulnerable.

Hall’s production is first rate. Her ensemble, which also includes Mujahid Abdul-Rashid and Robert Hampton, is fluid and capable of playing anything from a small child (Hampton) to a fireplug of a jazz player (Robinson).

In true Word for Word fashion, Sonny’s Blues is a triumph on all levels. The production itself — with a spare, efficient set by Lisa Dent and moody lights by Tom Ontiveros — is strong, the performances are solid and the text, already muscular and evocative, becomes even more so when brought to life.

But it’s Shelby’s music that puts the show over the edge. You can’t have Sonny’s Blues without real blues in your ears, and between Baldwin’s words and Shelby’s music, these Blues translate to bliss.

Sonny’s Blues continues through March 2 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$36. Call 415-474-8800 or visit or

Special event:
On Feb. 15, Marcus Shelby will perform live, with vocals by Miss Faye Carol. The event begins with a pre-show reception at 7:30 p.m. and the gala party afterward. Tickets are $95.

Margo Hall gets the `Blues’

You’re forgiven if you didn’t know quite how amazing Margo Hall is.

If you’re a regular Bay Area theatergoer, you already know that Hall is an extraordinary actor. Last year, for instance, she reprised the character Fe in Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts’ Fe in the Desert and gave one of the year’s best performances.

But Hall is also an accomplished director. She was one of the creative collaborators and one of the performers in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s award-winning docudrama The People’s Temple, and last year she co-directed Shotgun Players’ excellent Bulrusher at the Ashby Stage.

Surprisingly, Hall says she prefers directing to acting.

“I say that when I’m directing,” Hall says. “I do love acting, but there’s something so fun, so freeing about directing.”

And one of Hall’s favorite directing gigs is for Word for Word, the San Francisco company that does amazing work turning short works of fiction into fully staged theater pieces without changing a word of the original text.

With Word for Word, Hall has been both performer (Langston Hughes’ The Blues I’m Playing, Barbara Kingsolver’s Rose-Johnny, Zora Neale Hurston’s The Gilded Six Bits) and director (Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth, Greg Sarris’ Joy Ride).

She finds herself back in the Word for Word director’s chair for James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, which opens tonight at San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

Baldwin’s story, published in 1957 and collected in the 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man, follows two brothers in 1950s Harlem. One is a schoolteacher and family man. The other is a jazz pianist with a troubled past.

Hall, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Oakland with her husband, the actor L. Peter Callender, and their 12-year-old son, reread the story and responded to it immediately.

“Visualizing the piece wasn’t difficult,” Hall says on the phone from her home. “Ever since I’ve worked with Word for Word I can’t read a story without visualizing it. I didn’t visualize the story’s opening moment right away — that took some time. But I clearly saw other parts.”
The story’s jazz milieu was a natural for Hall, whose stepfather was a jazz musician.

“I was exposed to Sonny Rollins and a whole lot of other jazz cats,” Hall says. “I was familiar with the world of be-bop. My dad’s 15-piece band rehearsed in our basement. When I was rereading the story, this music, these people — Charlie Parker, Bird — I just knew it. It was familiar. I could hear the music and everything. It was really exciting.”

With jazz music so prominent in the story, Hall had to decide how to handle music in the production. Should there be live music? Should the actors play instruments themselves? At first, Hall considered casting her friend, the actor and beat-boxer Tommy Shepherd, but then she decided to go for the full jazz sound.

She approached her friend and previous collaborator Marcus Shelby, a prominent Bay Area jazz musician.

“I knew Marcus would know this story, this world,” Hall says. “The more we talked about the show and the score, the more I talked about the sounds in the show — the traffic, the subway — all being created by instruments in a very stylized way.”

Ideally, Shelby and his band would be playing live for each performance, but Hall says that would have required more time in an already crowded rehearsal schedule, so the score is recorded. But on Feb. 15, after the performance, Shelby will perform the music live at a gala reception.

One of the most extraordinary (and most consistent) things about Word for Word is the company’s skill at making literature come to life in surprising ways that enhance the story. The experience of seeing a Word for Word show is often as rich as reading and as thrilling as live theater because the show is, quite literally, both.

For Hall, the key to a good adaptation is transformation.

“It’s easy to put the story up, make it narrative and let the audience enjoy the beautiful language,” she says. “But capture the essence of the story is hard. We as the creative team have to go so deep that the audience can see the transformation and get a true, honest sense of what the story is when they leave.”

The more narration in a story, the harder it is to stage. Not surprisingly, if a story has a lot of dialogue, it’s fairly easy. Sonny’s Blues lands more on the narration-heavy end of that scale.

When Hall directed Friend of My Youth, another narrative-heavy story, she elected to direct her actors away from talking directly to the audience.

“This time, I went, `No, I’m gonna do it.’ The actors should definitely address the audience,” Hall explains. “This story is so universal — it’s about relationships and siblings. One is this conservative guy who went to school and became a teacher. Most of the audience will relate to him. Let’s have him talk to the audience, then get back into the scenes. This gives me as a director the opportunity to make bold choices.”

Next up for Hall: directing a solo show by Ariel Lucky, Free Land, about his family’s pioneer history and interactions with American Indians. She’s also continuing to teach at Chabot College (“I love my kids…they lift me up with their zaniness”) and being a mom.

“My son is a computer genius,” she says. “He has his own computer business and Web site. He fixes computers. He loves reading Shakespeare, but he wants to be a CEO.”

Sonny’s Blues continues through March 2 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22-$36. Call 415-474-8800 or visit or

2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Murakami’s `quake’ rattles Berkeley Rep

Opened Oct. 17, 2007 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Galati translates Murakami stories to the stage
Three stars Stirred, not shaken

We’re lucky to live in the Bay Area for many reasons, the quality and bounty of theater chief among them.

When our theater companies aren’t producing interesting shows themselves, chances are they’re importing good stuff from elsewhere. That’s the case with Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new show, after the quake, which opened Wednesday on the Thrust Stage.

The show originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and is presented here as a co-production with the La Jolla Playhouse. You might call this Part 1 of a two-part mini-Chicago festival. Berkeley Rep’s next show is Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika, which hails from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Pulling shows from other places seems especially relevant in the case of after the quake, a theater piece created from fiction. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s after the quake deals with the aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

For the stage version, Galati, an avowed Murakami devote, takes two of the book’s stories and creates an 80-minute play that, for all its theatrical artistry, still feels like a piece of literature.

Getting back to the “lucky to be in the Bay Area” thing, one of our great companies is Word for Word, the company that turns short fiction into fully staged theater pieces without altering the original text. Well, Galati’s after the quake, which has been more liberally adapted, is beautiful but not on par with Word for Word’s best work (Stories by Tobias Wolff comes immediately to mind).

What’s missing is the theatrical thrill, the excitement of crackling good writing coming alive and becoming something more than just writing.

There are certainly moments in “quake” that reverberate. Most come from the story “Superfrog Saves Tokyo,” in which an action-hero frog (Keong Sim), shows up the home of a mild-mannered loan officer (Paul H. Juhn) to enlist his help in fighting the Worm, an underground villain that absorbs hatred, gets angry and makes earthquakes.

Sim, in his three-piece suit, green gloves and green sunglasses (costumes by Mara Blumenfeld), is a wonderfully droll frog who takes the saving of lives very seriously, and Juhn is just as good as the average Joe who rises to the challenge of being a heroic sidekick.

The other story, “Honey Pie,” is a sweet love story that aims to be something more but falls short, at least in theatrical terms. On the page, with time to muse and decipher, the story may reveal more depth.

Junpei (Hanson Tse), Sayoko (Jennifer Shin) and Takatsuki (Juhn) were inseparable in college until two sides of their friendly triangle fell in love, leaving the third side feeling lonely and rejected.

Years later, Sayoko and Takatsuki are the divorced parents of a little girl, Sala (Madison Logan V. Phan on opening night, alternating in the role with Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji), whose dreams are invaded by a creature she calls “earthquake man.”

The only thing that seems to calm the girl is a bedtime story from her mom’s old friend, Junpei, a short story writer by trade. He tells her about clever bears and other bears who miss their chances.

Notions of anxiety, safety and finding equilibrium on shifting grounds course through each of the stories, but aside from the fact that “Superfrog” is one of Junpei’s short story creations, the connection between them does not come through strongly, thus giving the brief evening a somewhat incomplete feel.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy, from Galati’s simple, fluid staging on James Schuette’s dark, elegant set (think of a hip advertising agency lobby beautifully lit by James F. Ingalls), to the warm, charming performances from the cast. Best of all is the live music performed by Jason McDermott on cello and Jeff Wichmann on koto (a stringed instrument that, like the accordion does for Paris, immediately conjures Japan). In addition to the original compositions by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, the duo also manages to work in the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and “You Light Up My Life.”

after the quake ends up being a more intellectual pleasure than an emotional theatrical experience — sort of like a good short story compared to a big, juicy novel.

For information about after the quake, visit

Review: `Angel Face’

Opened Aug. 10 at Project Artaud Theatre, San Francisco

Noir thriller `Angel Face’ gets a tough-talking Word for Word treatment
Three stars Hard boiled

Dames don’t come much more hardboiled than Jerry Wheeler. Back in the day she used to strut her stuff in a rhinestone g-string and they called her Honey Sebastian. Jerry knows her way around the tough, gangster-ridden streets of New York City, and the stone cold tone in her voice lets you know she’s not going to take any guff.

In other words, Jerry is sort of a female Philip Marlowe except she falls into the gumshoe business by accident when her kid brother, Chick, gets framed for murdering some doll who had underworld connections.

Jerry uses all her smarts – not to mention the assistance of a soft-hearted detective – to clear her brother’s name.

That, in a noirish nutshell, is the plot of Cornell Woolrich’s 1937 story Angel Face, which has been brought to shadowy, tough-guy life by Word for Word, the San Francisco company that turns short works of fiction into full-blooded pieces of theater.

It’s an interesting experiment, as director Stephanie Hunt finds ways to exploit the noir genre – brought so vividly to life in films of the 1930s and ‘40s – onstage. Sometimes Word for Word’s adaptations revel in their cleverness as simple narrative sentences become wonderful bits of stage business.

But for Angel Face, Hunt plays it pretty straight, and though all the “he saids’’ and “she saids’’ are all in place, the story unfolds with the precision of a movie script. The emphasis is on the genre dialogue, which evokes an entire era all by itself. Try these on for size: “That girl was murdered sure as I was born to shut a mouth.’’ “I’ve hocked everything I own up to my vaccination mark.”

Hunt has assembled an enthusiastic cast that embraces the noir conventions – fedoras askew, enticing evening gowns, finding the spot between the shadow and the light – and revels in Woolrich’s dialogue from the mean streets circa 1937.

Laura Lowry is Jerry Wheeler, the former burlesque girl now on the hunt for a killer in an attempt to save her brother (the ever-reliable Danny Wolohan) from the electric chair. Lowry has the good looks that make us understand how she gets away with her new nickname, “Angel Face,’’ and her tough exterior masks, of course, a heart that longs for the better, more wholesome things in life.

Hot on the trail of the real killer, Jerry initially resists the help of Detective Nick Burns (John Flanagan), but he’s a good guy, and she eventually succumbs to his charms – and his able assistance. He gets her out of a pickle or two.

Pulpy and fun, Angel Face doesn’t really want to be taken seriously as a story. We don’t exactly care about the characters or get to know them with any depth. But we’re carried along by the plot, which involves paid-off servants, nightclub magnates, thugs in zoot suits and maraca-shaking showgirls with bananas on their heads.

The Project Artaud Theater is enormous, and though the story has scope, it suffers from a lack of intimacy. It’d be great if we could see Lowry’s angel face up close. But set designer Mikiko Uesugi does her best to fill the cavernous space with a multi-level set that catches Thomas Ontiveros in appropriately shadowy ways.

The hardworking cast members, who play multiple roles with ease, include Morgan Voellger (as the wonderfully named Ruby Rose Reading), Michael Patrick Gaffney (as a brutish detective, a fey auctioneer, a nightclub manager and a gangster sidekick), Casey Jones Bastiaans (as a double-crossing maid, a calypso singer, a grieving old woman and a hunched-over piano player) and Paul Finocchiaro (as a sleazy gangster kingpin).

It’s funny, but Angel Face, because it is a well-done resurrection of the noir genre, ends up feeling less like a story, or even a play, and more like a movie you’d watch on Turner Classic Movies on a rainy Saturday night.

For information about Angel Face, visit

Review: Word for Word’s “Strangers We Know”

(opened Jan. 12, 2007)

three stars More Moore

For 13 years now, Word for Word has offered a different sort of book club.

The members — let’s call them “the audience” — all read the same works of fiction, just like in any other book club. But in the case of Word for Word, the process of reading is a little different.

You buy a ticket, head into a theater and, rather than being confined to a page, the words live and breathe on stage. You might say you’re being read to by actors, but a Word for Word show is much more than that. In translating short stories (or chapters of novels) for the stage without changing a word of the original text, the Word for Word wizards also manage to create fully formed, beautifully staged pieces of theater.

The latest Word for Word show, Strangers We Know, which opened Saturday at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, offers two short stories that originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1993: Mavis Gallant’s “Mlle. Dias de Corta” and Lorrie Moore’s “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People.”

Sharp and elegant in their writing, the stories are wildly different and demonstrate the dangers and pleasures of stage vs. page.

Gallant’s 40-minute opener (right) is a first-person tale addressed to the absent title character.
Susan Harloe (a Word for Word co-founder) plays a Parisian widow recalling a brief period years ago in which she took in a boarder, a struggling young actress named Alda Dias de Corta (Maria Candelaria).

Gallant’s story, though full of pithy observation (“Some people think the man she lives with is her son. If so, she had him at the age of 12.”), is highly undramatic and spends too much time detailing a bad TV movie starring the young actress. Director Amy Kossow employs the usual Word for Word cleverness in the staging as the ensemble plays everything from yapping neighbor dogs to shelves holding luggage.

But there’s no arc. The central character _ unattractively costumed and wigged by Ambra Sultzbaugh _ never comes across as more than a lonely French snob to whom vowels and rolled r’s are of the utmost importance. There’s little development and no real plot.

The exact opposite is true of Moore’s wonderful “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” (below) the story of a middle-age daughter, Abby (Sheila Balter) and her mother, Mrs. Mallon (Patricia Silver) as they take a driving vacation through Ireland.

Moore’s abundant humor and sardonic tone are captured perfectly in Balter’s nuanced performance, but Silver (a Word for Word regular) is a revelation as the domineering mother who’s not quite as wise or as fearless as she pretends to be.
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“Once you’re with a man,” the mother instructs, “you have to sit with him. As scary as it seems. You have to be brave and learn to reap the benefits of inertia.”

Moore’s incisive story takes us through thorny mother-daughter issues, marriage troubles and that particularly fascinating rite of passage when parents cease being parents and become flawed _ though lovable _ human beings.

The story culminates in the kissing of the Blarney Stone, which is much more difficult than you might imagine. Apparently you have to lie on your back while holding two iron bars and scoot under the stone in such a way that you’re practically hanging off the wall.

Well staged by director Joel Mullenix (who also plays a hilariously fey poet earlier in the piece), “Which Is More Than I Can Say” is Word for Word at its best: a great story made even greater by a robust yet sensitive adaptation to the stage that makes you wonder if, however secretly or unconsciously, the author really intended it for Word for Word’s theatrical book club all along.

Strangers We Know continues through Jan. 28 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Visit for information. Note: Show moves to the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley Jan. 31-Feb. 4