Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Making friends with Golden Thread’s Enemies

Enemies 1
In Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, Arab-American authors and couple Noor (Denmo Ibrahim) and Gamal (James Asher) navigate tensions both personal and professional. Below: Mosque leader Sheikh Alfani (Munaf Alsafi, left) prepares to send his son Hani (Salim Razawi) off on his first trip to Egypt. Photos by David Allen Studio.

When you go to a show from a specialized company like Golden Thread Productions, which focuses on plays from and about the Middle East, you expect your perspective to be expanded, to have your assumptions challenged and to encounter voices you may not hear enough. In its 20 years, Golden Thread has earned a strong reputation for accomplishing all of the above and more with more than 100 new plays produced and truly enlarging the conversation about the Middle East to include a diversity of artists, experiences and points of view.

With Golden Thread’s latest production, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi, the conversation about the Middle East is front and center as a Muslim American writer attempts to find her voice as a writer, publish a novel, maintain a relationship, combat stereotypes about Muslims and live her life with some degree of enjoyment, engagement and self-respect. But because this woman, Noor, is so beautifully drawn, we don’t see her simply as a spokesperson for her birth country or her religion or for all writers or all women. Rather we see her as Noor, an incredibly intelligent woman of complexity and beauty and talent and sensuality and temper and flaws.

Much of that richness comes from El Guindi’s script. The rest comes from the sublime performance by Denmo Ibrahim, an actor of commanding presence and depth. All the characters in the play are interesting and multi-dimensional, but Noor is the passionate center, even though not all the characters – notably the head of a Mosque and his son – interact with her directly. Hers is the strongest, funniest, most impassioned voice, even though others might shout more loudly. And here’s a triumph: we actually watch a writer write and it’s INTERESTING!

Enemies 2

The play’s subtitle, Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, turns out to be quite an accurate description of the two-plus-hour play, though the combat ends up being more lively, especially the battle between Noor and Mohsen (Kunal Prasad), a successful Egypt-born Muslim writer now living in the United States. His publisher (Annemaria Rajala) is interested in Noor’s manuscript (only if she can rewrite it to reflect more of the heroine’s Egyptian-American experience), so he’s recruited to woo her into the publishing house fold. The problem is that Mohsen has become a popular talking head representing the Muslim-American experience in the nauseating 24-hour news machine, and the viewpoint he espouses does not sit well with Noor or her combustible boyfriend, Gamal (James Asher). When Mohsen and Noor meet at a dinner party, the play crackles with intensity as their differing ideologies about how to represent their shared culture clash.

At least Noor is capable of having an intelligent, mostly civil conversation with her adversaries. Gamal, on the other hand, is becoming a loose canon who’s beginning to scare himself. The play opens with Gamal cleverly sabotaging one of Mohsen’s TV appearances, and the success of that disruption leads him to another involving Sheikh Alfani, the head of a local mosque who has also become a go-to guy when the media needs a Muslim representative.

Playwright El Guindi allows us to get to know these multifaceted characters more than we might in another play this full of action, which means that we see Sheikh Alfani (the superb Munaf Alsafi) not just as a victim of one of Gamal’s “pranks” but also a compassionate community leader and a loving father to his son, Hani (Salim Razawi), who will soon be making his first visit to see his extended family in Cairo. The father-son dynamic is powerful here, and in a series of scenes, most notably their goodbye at the airport, Hani’s first ecstatic, detailed report about his experiences in Cairo and his father’s emotional plea for him to return, we sense generations passing, culture evolving and depthless love existing alongside sorrow and fear.

This is a remarkable play for many reasons, not the least of which is its ability to deliver potent, emotional characters and a plot in which surprising things happen (and just a side note: how refreshing it is to experience a play where things actually happen!). There’s sex, deep rumination, harsh conflict, galvanizing anger, violence, manipulation, lying, fierce intelligence, incisive criticism and genuine affection. Director Torange Yeghiazarian and her tremendous actors throw the conversation wide open and invite the audience to be active participants in the drama. The elegant, simple set by Mikiko Uesugi allows for quick scene changes abetted by the effective background projections of Kevin August Landesman, and the pace never lags.

We care about El Guindi’s characters as people making their way in the world, even the ones we may not like much (like the pompous but somehow sweet publisher played by Dale Albright who practically fetishizes all things Egyptian). That makes for powerful, unforgettable theater, which ends up feeling an awful lot like the rich, frustrating and head-spinning love and combat of real life.

Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat continues through Nov. 20 in a Golden Thread production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$34. Visit

El Guindi wins major award

Yussef El Guindi, who served as literary manager for San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, a dramaturg for the Eureka Theatre Company and a reader for the Magic Theatre, has won the American Theatre Critics Association’s 2009 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. The award will be presented today (April 4) at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.
Yussef El Guindi
The award recognizes El Guindi’s play, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, which premiered in March 2008 at the Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago.

Born in Egypt, raised in London and now based in Seattle, El Guindi received a B.A. from American University in Cairo and a MFA in playwriting from Carnegie-Mellon University in 1985. He frequently examines the collision of ethnicities, cultures and politics that face Arab-Americans. Those themes culminate in Our Enemies, a frequently witty, always intellectually challenging depiction of Arab and Muslim activists and artists arguing whether to dispel or encourage mainstream America’s stereotypical perceptions of the Arab world. He asks universal questions about the price of assimilation, who speaks for a minority community, whether minorities should abet a news media seeking fast food sound bites to explain complex problems and how frank minorities should be in publicly exposing their divisions and shortcomings.

Back of the Throat, El Guindi’s look at post 9-11 paranoia, was recommended for the 2006 Steinberg/ATCA Award and has had eight productions. Our Enemies was one of six finalists for the Steinberg/ATCA Award this year.

The Osborn Award is designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature – e.g., has not had a significant New York production, been staged widely in regional theaters or received other major national awards. Last year’s Osborn Award went to EM Lewis for her Gee’s Bend.

The Osborn Award was established in 1993 to honor the memory of Theatre Communications Group and American Theatre play editor M. Elizabeth Osborn. It carries a $1,000 prize, funded by the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association. Honorees are recognized in The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, the annual chronicle of United States theater now in its 90th year. Making the selection from plays nominated by ATCA members is the ATCA New Plays Committee, which also selects honorees for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award.

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Prior Osborn Award Recipients

2008 Gee’s Bend, EM Lewis, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL
2007 Vestibular Sense, Ken LaZebnik, Mixed Blood Theatre Company, Minneapolis, MN
2006 American Fiesta, Steven Tomlinson, State Theatre Company, Austin, TX
2005 Madagascar, J.T. Rogers, Salt Lake Acting Co., Salt Lake City, UT
2004 The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, Rolin Jones, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, CA
2003 The Dinosaur Within, John Walch, State Theatre, Austin, TX
2002 Chagrin Falls, Mia McCullough, Stage Left Theatre, Chicago, IL
2001 Waiting to be Invited, S.M. Shephard-Massat, Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver, CO
2000 Marked Tree, Coby Goss, Senachai Theatre, Chicago, IL
1999 Lamarck, Dan O’Brien, the Perishable Theatre Company, Providence, RI
1998 The Glory of Living, Rebecca Gilman.
1997 Thunder Knocking On The Door, Keith Glover.
1996 Beast on the Moon, Richard Kalinoski.
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon.
1994 Hurricane, Anne Galjour.