Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
After the War, American Conservatory Theater
Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

Williford aims to triumph in `Love’

Talk to enough actors and you’ll begin to see a trend emerge.

Most of them had a transformative experience as children acting in one particular show. Any guesses?

If you said The Wizard of Oz, you get a gold star _ or maybe a yellow-brick star.

Jud Williford, one of the Bay Area’s best and brightest emerging stars, played the Tin Man in what he calls “the greatest production of `Oz’ ever.”

“My mom made my costume,” he adds.

Count yourself unlucky if you missed little Judson Van Williford in that eighth-grade production, but despair not.

Young Jud survived a childhood bouncing from Louisiana to Colorado to Texas to become an actor of tremendous range and appeal. He arrived in the Bay Area about six years ago after graduating with an acting degree from the University of Evansville in Illinois, and spent three years getting his master’s degree from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

He has done standout work with California Shakespeare Theater in, among other shows, Nicholas Nickleby, with ACT in a number of productions, most recently “The Imaginary Invalid,” and with smaller groups like Encore Theatre and Z Plays’ American $uicide (pictured above, Williford is with Beth Wilmurt).

This weekend he opens in another California Shakes production, The Triumph of Love, a Marivaux romantic comedy in which he plays a prince falling deeply in love for the first time.

Earlier this year, ACT announced that Williford would be joining the core company for the new season, bringing him full circle — from student to professional on the same stage.

“It’s pretty neat to give back to a program that basically birthed you,” Williford says during a break in Triumph rehearsals.

In high school, Williford played basketball (his main position, he says, was “bench”) and a little football. But he made the choice to go for theater.

“We had this crazy head of the drama department, Mr. Larsen, and he loved theater. He yelled and threw stuff. It was great,” Williford recalls. “You’d be in two or three shows a year and spend seven weeks rehearsing and then perform for a weekend. He made us take it seriously — not just as a hobby or something to kill time, but something that was a viable option for existence. My GPA in high school was horrible. The only place I could focus was when I was being creative.”

Among his Bay Area acting highlights since his professional debut in ACT’s A Christmas Carol — which he will perform for a fifth time in December, but “that’s a whole other story,” he says — Williford cites the massive two-part Nickleby production at Cal Shakes two summers ago.

“To be a part of telling that story and to be part of something that was so truly an ensemble piece — it was a real pinnacle,” Williford says. “I’m doing Triumph of Love with people mostly from `Nickleby,’ and we spend most of our time talking about that.”

While working on a production of The Imaginary Invalid in Philadelphia (not to be confused with the more recent ACT “Invalid” in which he played the same role), Williford read The Triumph of Love for the first time, and his response to Price Aegis, the role he would be playing, was: “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a cakewalk.”

Then he got to the first read-through with director Lillian Groag, who has also newly adapted the Marivaux play. Williford’s perspective shifted.

“I realized the play was a whole lot deeper than it appears on the surface,” he says. “I thought: `This is the one — everyone will figure out I’m a fraud and demand their money back from previous productions.’ ”

Aegis is an isolated prince who has been told love is bad. He meets a young woman (pictured above, played by Stacy Ross, with Williford in the rear), who happens to be disguised as a boy, and Aegis, a true innocent, is thrilled to have found a best friend forever. Then he finds out she’s a woman and experiences something entirely different: true love.

“It’s all about experiencing love without knowing what love is,” he says. “As soon as love is turned on, so is all the bad s*** like jealousy and anger. You grow up real quick when you fall in love. Everything becomes extreme _ the highs are really high and the lows are really low. I love how hard this is.”

A co-production with San Jose Repertory Theatre, this Cal Shakes show heads to the South Bay in September. After Williford resumes Christmas Carol duties (he plays Bob Cratchit), his stint as an ACT company member kicks into high gear with roles in The Government Inspector, Curse of the Starving Class and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Now that he’s a full-fledged, active member of the Bay Area acting community, Williford says he couldn’t be happier with the company he keeps.

“I have yet to do a show where I don’t know somebody involved,” he says. “It’s a tight-knit community, and I like that. I also like audiences that like their actors and have a history with them and an opinion about them. There are a lot of good actors here, more than other places. What am I basing that off of? It’s just what I think.”

The Triumph of Love continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel, Orinda. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call (510) 548-9666 or visit

Review: “American $uicide”

(opened Feb. 12, 2007)
Jackson, actors commit American $uicide at Thick House
three stars Zesty satire

If “American Idol” ended each episode with a bullet instead of wild applause, some of us might stop watching. And some of us might start.

We love our reality TV in this country, and, truth be told, we love our violence. So far, the two haven’t collided much (discounting “Fear Factor” if only because “Fear Factor” should always be discounted).

That’s where director/writer Mark Jackson comes in. He’s still on a hot streak that began last fall with his Salome at the Aurora Theatre Company and continued through The Forest War with Shotgun Players.

With American $uicide, now at the Thick House in San Francisco, Jackson gives us something completely different: an ultra-contemporary twist on a banned Russian play.

While researching his brilliant The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson came across Nikolai Erdman, a writer whose second play was the biting comedy The Suicide. Finished in 1928, the play was a hot property, with multiple theater companies competing to produce it. But the Soviet government banned it for its supposed anti-government content. Stalin himself called the play “empty and even harmful.” Erdman was reportedly exiled to Siberia several years later and never wrote another play.

With the support of Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays, Jackson picks up where Erdman left off and gives us a wickedly funny, wonderfully warped mish-mash of human desperation, celebrity lust and good old American zeal.

As a writer, Jackson sets his action in the present day, but he’s clearly working in a 1930s stage comedy style with rapid-fire, exaggerated delivery and over-the-top characters. As a director, he takes that style to the next logical step: ’40s-style screwball comedy complete with pratfalls, broken dishes and zany costumes (by Raquel Barreto).

At the center of the story is a sincere sad sack named Sam Small (the incredibly funny Jud Williford, pictured above). He’s unemployed and ashamed that he has to rely on his waitress wife’s “greasy tips” and stolen sausages to survive.

His hardworking wife, Mary (Beth Wilmurt, a comedienne of the highest order), wants to help her husband out of his depression, so when he finally admits his secret desire to be an actor, she does her darndest to be a good cheerleader.

With the help of his across-the-hall neighbor, Albert (Marty Pistone), and his girlfriend Margaret (Denise Balthrop Cassidy), who make money on eBay and with their very own porn site, Sam makes his tentative way into show business.

This is when the personalities start to leap off the stage. We get a desperate, overly tan film director (Michael Patrick Gaffney) and a 22-year-old starlet (Jody Flader) _ the next big thing who’s also making a comeback. But best of all, we get Gigi Bolt, a former director at the National Endowment for the Arts and the current executive director of the Theatre Communications Group.

Bolt is a real person, but her presence here — in the divine form of Delia MacDougall, left, at her most Carol Burnett-ish — is sort of an inside joke. What’s funny for anyone who knows Bolt or not is the character’s grand dame theatricality. “Life is projected, transmitted and downloaded but no longer LIVED!” she intones.

Once Sam meets all these characters, he gets bamboozled into an outrageous scheme that has him committing suicide on live TV, with viewers bidding astounding sums to have him die in their name or in the name of their cause.

Sam agrees to do this because it will ensure his wife won’t have to work anymore. Gigi wants him to die in the name of American theater. The starlet wants him to die out of love for her in the hope that the attention might revive her career. And so on.

Going into intermission, which occurs just after MacDougall’s big scene, I was thinking “American $uicide” was just about the funniest thing I’d seen since Hunter Gatherers last summer.

But Act 2 disappoints if only because the build-up to the actual suicide — which takes place in a high N-R-G dance club (sturdy, flexible set by James Faerron) — results in an almost inevitable anti-climax. By this point we have Middle Eastern operatives and government baddies in the mix (all ably played by Liam Vincent), but Jackson’s sharpness dulls.

The play is so frenzied and fun that I wanted all the darker currents to amount to more. I had hoped that while we were having a great time watching the show, Jackson’s satirical saber was slicing into us more than we realized.

That doesn’t quite happen, but American $uicide, in all its grandly theatrical glory, remains a comedy to die for.

For information about American $uicide, visit