Glorious Weightless soars back to SF

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Kate Kilbane (left) and Lila Blue in the rock musical Weightless at ACT’s The Strand. Below: Dan Moses, Kilbane and Brothers bring the story of sisters Procne and Philomela to musical life. Photos by Julie Schuchard

Last year I fell in love with Weightless, the rock musical by The Kilbanes, when it had a triumphant world premiere at Z Space. The show had muscle and heart and passion and staggering beauty. The experience of watching the show was so thrilling it felt like something important was beginning – a new hit musical on its way along the lines of Hadestown or Once but on a slightly different scale, one that finds an intriguing balance between rock concert and rock musical.

(Read my original review here.)

Weightless may yet become the massive hit it so richly deserves to be. A year later, the show is back in San Francisco, this time at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater for a quick two-week run. It’s the same glorious cast/band – the wife-and-husband team of Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses, Lila Blue, Julia Brothers, Josh Pollock and Dan Harris – and the same creative team headed by director Becca Wolff. The biggest difference is that the show has moved from the customized performance space that the marvelously malleable Z Space affords, with audience on three sides of the stage and into a more traditional proscenium situation.

Happily, the Strand is so intimate that very little is lost in transition. The design elements – primarily the gourd-shaped objects of Angrette McCloskey’s set design that hover of the stage are even more effective at catching the lights (by Ray Oppenheimer and the dynamic projection designs (by Hana S. Kim). The nuances of the performances, especially Brothers who plays God in such a way that if I ever find out such a deity exists and it’s not in the image of Brothers channeling David Bowie, I’m going to be shatteringly disappointed. I felt like this time I heard and absorbed more of the score and the story, making it that much more exciting and moving.

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And what a story. Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Weightless tells the story of inseparable sisters Procne (Kilbane) and Philomela (Blue) and how their love and devotion to one another is threatened and nearly destroyed by a man, Tereus (Pollock). There are lies, betrayals and excruciating violence. There is ferocious anger and revenge. And there is transcendent beauty – all set to a dynamic, heart-grabbing score that combines rock, pop, folk and anything else that sounds good.

Kilbane and Pollock danced the most delicate dance because they have to be raging rock stars – she on bass, he on lead guitar – and deliver high-voltage dramatic performances. Both are tremendous. Blue remains as stunning and as ethereal as ever. Her Philomela hardly seems of this earth. The character is transformed by art and nature even before God interferes and takes that transformation to a whole different level, and her voice ranges from deeply emotional to realms of beauty we are rarely allowed to visit. Every time she and Kilbane combine their voices, it’s like Weightless jolted by bolts of lightning from Mt. Olympus. And I would posit that the driving “Awake” is as exciting as any musical theater moment currently on any stage right now.

As enjoyable as Weightless is, it also has heft. The canny re-crafting of Ovid’s story (which is far more violent and grotesque) allows for more beauty in the telling and makes a strong case for beauty in art and nature being – along with earth, wind, fire and water – one of the essential elements of life. There is also joy, plain and simple joy, in being told a fascinating story with clear characters, tension and outcomes. The fact that much of the story is narrated by one of the few gods that still cares about humans makes it even more poignant. Somebody really is listening. Maybe.

It’s so heartening to revisit a beloved work and find it not only as good as you remembered but maybe even better. Oh, Weightless, to paraphrase you: your heart and your bones, your heart is my home.

The Kilbanes’ Weightless continues through May 12 at ACT’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Floating on air in rock musical Weightless

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The Kilbanes’ new rock opera Weightless includes performers (from left) Dan Moses on keyboards, Kate Kilbane on bass and vocals as Procne and actor Julia Brothers as God in its world premiere at Z Space. Below: Kilbane as Procne sings with her sister, Philomela, played by Lila Blue. Photos by Julie Schuchard

When I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’m pretty certain my ideal afterlife will be an ongoing concert by The Kilbanes, and if I’m worthy, God will welcome me to that concert venue in the form of Julia Brothers.

I hope that particular shuffle is many years away, but I got a taste of that heavenly vision at Z Space in the form of Weightless, a world-premiere rock opera by The Kilbanes inspired by a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and featuring Brothers in the role of a Bowie-esque androgynous God.

Like Once and Passing Strange and the Bengson’s Hundred Days (also born at Z Space – read more here), Weightless fuses the energy of a rock concert with the storytelling of theater. Emotions run high in this story of sisters Procne and Philomela who are so close they practically share breath and bones (as they sing in a closely, beautifully harmonized song). Their first challenge comes when their father wants to marry Procne off to a halfwit, so they escape and find their own paradise. But no paradise can last, and a man, Tereus, comes between them and terrible things happen.

In this version of the story, adapted by Dan Moses and Kate Kilbane, the horrible things aren’t quite as godawful as they are in Ovid (the cannibalism, for instance, is absent), but they’re still pretty bad, and they (surprise surprise) fit right into our collective #MeToo moment. A man exerts his power to silence a woman. A woman summons her own power and fights back. In this version, God (who also serves as our narrator) intervenes to give us an ending that, like in Ovid, allows conflict, violence, pain and suffering to create beauty. In the story, that beauty involves music, so how perfect, then, that this entire 75-minute musical is also spectacularly beautiful.

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The beauty comes from many places, not the least of which is the divine songs by the Kilbanes and performed by a band that also includes Dan Harris on drums and Josh Pollock on guitar. Kilbane plays bass and also handles lead vocals as Procne. The extraordinary Lila Blue (all of 17 years old) lends her exquisitely expressive voice to Philomela, and her vocal mix with Kilbane is otherworldly. Pollock also performs (and is quite the scene stealer) as Tereus, the man who destroys the sisters’ paradise and then suffers the consequences of his abuse of power.

The flexible Z Space auditorium, has been reconfigured so that the stage, with a long ramp, is central, with bleacher seating on either side and a bar conveniently tucked into the premium seats directly facing the stage. It’s a nightclub/theater set-up that works well (especially for the rotating roster of opening acts, who perform in the hour before the show – definitely worth showing up for). The stage looks like it’s ready for a rock concert, with intriguing pod-like structures behind the band (Angrette McCloskey designed the set). Those pods, along with the ramp extending down from the stage catch the lights (by Ray Oppenheimier) and especially the projections (by Hanna S. Kim) to give the stage texture and underscore the emotions of the story with some striking visuals.

Weightless, directed with a firm and perhaps magical hand by Becca Wolff, is so completely absorbing that it’s easy to get lost in the captivating swirl of music and story, which is guided by Brothers, who is telling the story from an omniscient point of view but also a participant in it. Her wry take on a god’s view of humanity (one of the last gods who still cares about our earth-bound drama) is an irresistible mix of bemusement and melancholy.

Even with a sad story like this one, there’s joy in the telling and, especially, in the music, which you could describe is indie-rock tinged with folk and pop and the simple beauty of two unamplified (for a brief time) voices joining in harmonic connection and sending chills through the entire theater. When a story is told with this much energy and passion, it’s easy to fall under its spell and, in the most ecstatic moments, feel a little weightless yourself.

The Kilbanes’ Weightless continues through March 18 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-626-0453 or visit

Comedy and more fill Great Moment at Z Below

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Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment stars Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik and makes its world premiere under the direction of Sean Daniels at Z Below. Photos by Meghan Moore

There are so many great moments in The Making of a Great Moment, the new play from the scintillating San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, that it’s hard to decide if the best ones are from the comic side or the more dramatic one.

Of course the comedy moments have that pleasurable sting, like the insult, “I think her halitosis gave me pink eye” is one that lingers. And so is the sage advice: “Don’t give your own poop to the chimpanzee.” I may never look at a nursing home the same way now that I’ve heard them described as “the hole before the hole.”

Certainly Nachtrieb, one of the sharpest, funniest playwrights working in this or any city, knows his way around a great line, and Great Moment, a Z Space production at Z Below, packs its 90 minutes with memorable lines and some big laughs. But this seeming trifle of a comedy about two Canadian actors touring a ridiculous four-hour show on their bicycles is ultimately going for something much bigger. The epic drama that Mona (Aysan Celik) and Terry (Danny Scheie) are peddling while pedaling is called Great Moments in Human Achievement, and that says it all. Using daffy paper cutouts (by Jessica Ford) to transform quickly into characters from every epoch of human existence, they illuminate such moments as the invention of clothing and language to the all-important creation of the bicycle. The funniest excerpt we see, by far, is the invention of kissing.

But as silly as the play-within-the-play can be, its absurdity is masking a deep yearning to create something that matters to the world, to the actors and to the audience members (meager as they may be). Mona is especially insistent on honoring the play and its quest to honor humanity and inspire humans toward greatness in their own lives. Terry, on the other hand, is over it. For him, this is a job – a difficult one that, he admits, causes him to hemorrhage chunks of his dignity.

It’s easy to laugh at actors who are serious about acting because they can seem pretentious and narcissistic, but Great Moment 1
Great Moment wants to have it all ways: laugh at the actors, laugh with the actors and develop an emotional connection with two humans who happen to be actors. Nachtrieb and director Sean Daniels mostly succeed in these tonal shifts thanks largely to the wonder of Celik and Scheie, who can be cartoons and flesh-and-blood within the same scene. Scheie, with his acid tongue, and Celik with her astonishingly expressive face and eyes, make for a great duo and easily bridge the transitions from tetchy, cynical comedy to the drama of frustrations aching for transcendence.

Apollo Mark Weaver creates a meta-theatrical set so that the play and the play-within-the-play both live in a formal theatrical space with painted backdrops. There’s a nifty mechanism that allows Terry and Mona to climb on their bicycles and pedal while the backdrop rolls behind them (kind of like an old cartoon), and when they make camp by the side of the road, we get the illusion of them in their sleeping bags though they’re actually standing up against another backdrop.

It’s a slick production, though it’s always about Mona and Terry and whether they can – or should – go on. One of the sharpest, funniest moments is Mona spending a sleepless night wondering if the ad lib she created in that night’s show when the electricity went out (“We are all in the dark.”) should become a permanent part of the show, even without the playwright’s permission. Mona’s personality splits in two, each arguing with the other – like a Canadian Gollum in the New Hampshire woods. Mona knows she’s onto something, a real moment of connection with people, but she’s a good theater person and doesn’t want to break the rules.

Terry implores her just to add it already, and while they’re at it, there are a million other things they should fix, but that’s the difference between them. He’s a journeyman who feels life and success has passed him by, and she is still holding out hope that she can make some sort of difference, that theater/art can make a difference. Like Terry, we might not quite believe that, but we really, really want to. Terry, after all, isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t hum Julie Andrews songs to himself (“Stay Awake,” “I Have Confidence”) while he’s doing other things.

There’s a lot to say about The Making of a Great Moment, a broad, entertaining comedy that aims to examine the human condition and figure out what purpose our lives can serve. But enough with the nice comments. As Terry says, “Arbitrary positivity is a sign of mental illness.”

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment continues through Aug. 26 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-626-0453 or visit

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.

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

Trickle down theory: parallel lives in Now for Now

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Mark Jackson and Megan Trout are the creators and performers of Now for Now, a captivating performance piece that involves theater, dance and technology at Z Below. Photos by Tracy Martin

I’ve never seen anything quite like Now for Now, the new theatrical work devised and performed by Mark Jackson and Megan Trout now at Z Below through July 26 (time is short – go see it). Because I have long admired Jackson as a director, writer and sometime actor, I would be intrigued to see any new work he created, especially something he was performing in, and Trout, in only a few years, has become one of the most exciting performers on the local theater scene (which always sparks apprehension that seek greener pastures elsewhere). As two dynamic and acutely interesting theater people, Jackson and Trout make for an intriguing combination on paper and, happily, that intrigue (and a whole lot more) extends to the work they have created.

To tell you anything specific about Now for Now would be giving too much away because so much of the joy of this piece is reveling in its surprises, its patterns, its emotional and intellectual intelligence.

Suffice it to say that the work is challenging, occasionally uncomfortable, very funny and quite moving. There is dance, there is theater (monologue and dialogue), there is technology. There is direct address to the audience and there is a fascinating exploration of either one relationship seen from three different angles or three different relationships seen from one common core. Whatever, Jackson and Trout employ recurring life events and details to tell the story of a father and a daughter, a pair of lovers and a teacher and a student.

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Each story begins and ends the same way, and in between each telling, there’s dance (or movement or whatever you call two people moving around a stage and each other in compelling, character-driven ways). There’s hostility, love, sex, stunts, goofiness and grace (and some great music). There’s also a fair amount of honesty about things that can be pretty embarrassing – that’s the source of humor as well as discomfort.

Technology comes into play in multiple ways. During the monologues, the actors park themselves in front of a laptop and use it as a prompter. They control music from the computers as well as projections on a rear screen, which often come from the smart phones in their hands. During one monologue, an actor tells a story while the other sits and listens in front of another computer as if on Skype, with that actor’s face (and responses to elements of the story being told) projected on the rear screen.

Texting comes into play as well, and if you think it can’t be interesting to watch two people text on stage, think again. It’s all about context and the story being told.

Now for Now is probably not for everyone. At the beginning, Jackson says the show will be pretty straightforward and you’ll know by the end if you like it or not. Trout says that show will be abstract and poetic and definitely not linear. They’re both right, and that’s what makes the show so interesting. There’s performance art indulgence, or so you might think, but there are no loose strands here. It may seem loosey-goosey at times, but there’s intention and intelligence behind everything. Jackson and Trout are disarming to the degree that they make the show seem, if not easy, then very much of the moment and filled with the sparks of creation and discovery. Individually, Jackson and Trout are extraordinary. Together they are…wow.

Megan Trout and Mark Jackson’s Now for Now continues through July 26 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit
NOTE: Now for Now is going on the road, and donations are welcome at

Hooked from the start on Yee’s Hookman

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Sarah Matthes (left) is Jess and Taylor Jones is Lexi in Lauren Yee’s Hookman, described as an “existential slasher comedy.” The Encore Theatre Company production continues through May 30 at Z Below. Below: Back in her Connecticut dorm room, Lexi encounters the energetic Chloe (Aily Roper). Photos by James Faerron

Leave it playwright Lauren Yee to bring clear definition to the sub-genre “existential slasher comedy.” That’s exactly what her Hookman is, a fascinating world-premiere play from Encore Theatre Company that draws laughs from teen speak and the usual first year of college tropes but blends in a rich and disturbing examination of loss, responsibility, maturity and what it is to be a young woman in the 21st century.

Is the man with the hook a real serial killer? Did a drunk driver really subvert Lexi’s life and kill her best friend? Is everyone on campus really consumed by demonic seizures and blood lust? Those are some of the questions plaguing Lexi (Taylor Jones), a college freshman whose first return home to California for break didn’t go as planned. She and bestie Jess (Sarah Matthes) did their usual thing: late-night run to In-n-Out then a midnight movie, but amid their friendly car chatter (set designer James Faerron delivers a simple but effective onstage car), there emerges some tension and the kind of growing pains that come from high school friends moving on to different lives on different coasts.

Then tragedy strikes, and when Lexi gets back to school on the East Coast, life is decidedly different and more sinister. Her energetic but enigmatic roommate, Yoonji (Katharine Chin), can’t wait to post the news about Lexi’s involvement in a fatal accident but is willing to attempt sympathy because, as she keeps saying, “your friend died.”

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Lexi doesn’t want to drive in cars, she doesn’t want to go to class. She doesn’t really want to leave her dorm room. What starts out as a funny Skype session with a maybe boyfriend (Devin O’Brien plays all the guys), turns, as things in this play tend to do, dark and serious, indicating that the accident isn’t the only thing tormenting Lexi.

It’s highly likely that all the weirdness in the winter world of Connecticut is a reflection of Lexi’s inner turmoil, but let’s just say it’s really bloody (and bloody interesting) weirdness. Director Becca Wolff delivers a fast-paced 75-minute play with a cast that seems to come more and more to life as the play continues to deepen and darken. Jones’ Lexi is a compelling central character, complex and unreliable as she strains to make sense of grief and guilt and growing pains. Matthes and Chin are colorful characters in Lexi’s life with their talk of otters, Joan Didion and Jameson’s Irish whiskey, but the stage really comes to life with the entrance of Aily Roper as Chloe, a high-energy coed with a penchant for petitions and protests and almost Tourette-like truth telling. Roper has the kind of wild, unpredictable presence that feeds the unsettling nature of this comedy. Sure it’s funny, but it’s also deadly serious, and so is Roper (whose pre-curtain call routine is priceless).

Jessica Lynn Carroll makes a late-in-play appearance as a high school sophomore to haunt your dreams and pierce your hopes for the future of civilization, and though there’s a less bleak ending, a grim weight still presses down after the bows.

In Yee’s Hookman, it’s not the slasher part that’s upsetting (some of the blood effects are quite good), nor is is the comedy that prickles. It’s that existential part that draws blood.

Lauren Yee’s Hookman, an Encore Theatre Company production, continues through May 30 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Sublime stories from Word for Word and Alice Munro

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Jeri Lynn Cohen is a homemaker who wants an office of her own in which to write in Word for Word’s Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly.” Below: Howard Swain and Sheila Balter are a couple addressing the end of their lives and dealing with their past in “Dolly.” Photos by Mark Leialoha

Any celebration of Alice Munro merits attention, but when that celebration comes from Word for Word, the ever-astonishing local company that transforms short fiction into brilliant theater with complete fidelity to the original text, attention must not only be paid but also reveled in and savored.

Word for Word brought a Munro story to life in 1999 (“Friend of My Youth”), and the intervening years have brought more acclaim for the Canadian writer and a Nobel Prize for literature. Now that she is rightly revered for her masterful prose, Munro is given a full Word for Word evening in Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly,” a sort of career bookend with one story from her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968) and her most recent, Dear Life (2012). What’s clear is that Munro started out with a gift for clarity, precision and astonishing insight, and that gift only intensified with time.

The first story, “The Office,” feels somewhat autobiographical as Munro’s protagonist is a homemaker who also writes but is embarrassed to call herself a writer. What she really wants is an office, a writing space of her own. A man’s work outside the home has its traditional, respected place in society, but a woman’s place, the home, is ruled by children, and the though of a mother removing herself from them behind a closed door is perceived as unacceptable. So this mother, this wife, this writer (Jeri Lynn Cohen), heads downtown to find herself a room of her own.

She finds the perfect spot, formerly occupied by a chiropractor, and quickly sets up her minimal furnishings – table, typewriter, hotplate, kettle, instant coffee and mug. Her separate, simplified space turns out to be too good to be true. There’s a man, the landlord (Paul Finocchiaro), who feels no compunction about invading her space and squandering her time. He refuses to accept that she doesn’t want a touch of color in the room – a rug, new paint, a plant, a plush chair because women want those kinds of things – and turns himself into a nuisance.

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There are likely many actors who could convey the flustered frustration and inner turmoil of the protagonist, but I can’t imagine anyone better than Cohen, who manages to be heartfelt and funny and misanthropic all while conveying a desperate need to create in solitude. This is a woman operating on multiple levels. There’s the polite citizen attempting to navigate home life and an attempted professional life, and then there’s the sharp, enraged, wildly intelligent woman inside reacting to everything around her. Our view of this woman is so thorough (through Munro’s prose and Cohen’s superb performance) that humor is abundant and laughs are hearty.

And that’s an amazing thing to me. I’ve read most of Munro’s work and relished it, but I don’t recall laughing out loud often. But in both “The Office” and “Dolly,” the second story, the humor is deeply satisfying and quite audibly appreciated by the audience. It’s a laughter of recognition, and that’s always the best kind.

Both of these stories deal with the inner lives of smart, complex women dealing with seemingly ordinary problems, but Munro can take us deeper in the space of a sentence. There’s also a link between the stories when it comes to writing. In “The Office” the woman can’t quite own up to being a writer. And in “Dolly,” a man, a horse trader by profession, also works as a published poet. But for him, too, writing is a little shady. When you’re working with horses, you’re obviously, he says. But when you’re working on a poem, you just look idle.

There’s a woman writer in “Dolly” as well. After a career in the classroom, she has taken to writing books rescuing certain Canadian writers from obscurity. The teacher/writer (Sheila Balter) and the poet (Howard Swain) are in their later years. He’s in his early 80s, she’s about a decade younger, and they casually but efficiently discuss the details of their joint suicide. But then life, in the from of an old flame named Dolly (Susan Harloe) shows them they’re not quite as tapped out as they thought.

As in the first story, the actors here, under the expert direction of Joel Mullenix, revel in the kind of humor that not only elicits laughs but also deepens our connections to the characters. Balter is especially good at conveying the emotional turmoil of a woman who is surprised to find herself in the kind of upheaval she would have never expected at this stage in her life. And Harloe and Swain convey the power of a years-old connection with a mix of joy and confusion and, ultimately, nonchalance.

This set of stories delivers exactly what we’ve come to expect from both Munro and Word for Word: brilliant prose and beguiling theatricality. It’s the perfect combination.

[bonus interview]
I wrote a cover story for the San Francisco Chronicle’s 96 Hours section on Word for Word’s Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly”. Read the feature here.

Word for Word’s Stories by Alice Munro: “The Office” & “Dolly” continues through April 12 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$55. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Shaker it up, baby now!

Shaker 6
The ensemble of the Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals, featuring Frances McDormand (center), performs some ecstatic dancing toward the end of the hour-long show. Below: The show’s core women singers (from left) Elizabeth Lecompte, Suzzy Roche, McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom. Photos by Paula Cort

If, as they say, ’tis the gift to be simple, then Early Shaker Spirituals is truly gifted.

Just what is this show exactly? Is it an hourlong piece of documentary theater about songs sung (and danced) by the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quakers? Is it a simply staged concert in which four women sing along with a record album? Is it some avant garde comment on simplicity and spirituality by New York’s famed Wooster Group? Yes, yes and yes.

If you happen to be going to this sold-out touring production now at Z Space, first of all, lucky you. It is, first and foremost, a highly enjoyable experience that, in its way, also finds a way to challenge its audience. Here’s what you’re in for: four women dressed in simple Shaker garb (long print dresses, sensible shoes) are gathered. Because The Wooster Group has subtitled this “a record album interpretation,” it should come as no surprise that the women – via high-tech earpieces – are listening to the album “Early Shaker Spirituals” being played on a record player over at the sound booth. They sing along to side one of the 1976 album (the recordings were made in the ’60s and ’70s), and a narrator (Jamie Poskin, reads the album’s liner notes and talks briefly about the origins of the songs. Occasionally the women – Cynthia Hedstrom, Elizabeth LeCompte, Frances McDormand and Suzzy Roche – shift position in their cluster, but mostly they just sing. And it’s beautiful.

These are older women with interesting voices. Other than Roche (one third of the Roches), who could sing all night and hold the audience in her thrall, none of the voices is likely to win a televised singing contest, and that makes their singing all the more wonderful.


The women sing 17 songs and recite two of the album’s spoken-word tracks describing aspects of the song and song culture among the Shakers. Then, the women are joined by younger men in contemporary garb – Max Bernstein, Matthew Brown, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Bobby McElver and Andrew Schneider – to add dancing to their singing. It’s a patterned, ecstatic kind of circle dancing – lots of spinning and stomping – and it elevates the show from a sort of NPR special report come to life into a modest spectacle suffused with joy.

There’s no question that this is an odd show. Because these are performers and not actual Shakers (by 2012 there were only three Shakers left), we’re given to interpret their work rather than simply appreciate it. This is Shaker simplicity examined and exalted by artists for the enjoyment, education and, perhaps, puzzlement of others. It’s an interesting thing to think about while you’re watching the show: in life, these songs are ingrained in everyday spirituality, touchstones for believers to connect to other believers and that which they believe is bigger than them all. On a stage, it’s also musical theater, complete with choreography, sound, set and lighting design and an Academy Award-winning familiar face in a bonnet. It’s unreal and real at the same time, a delicious theatrical duality.

The Wooster Group’s Early Shaker Spirituals: A Record Album Interpretation continues through Sunday, Feb. 8 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50 (and all shows are sold out). Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Threats of totalitarianism have never been so fun

Z Space
Liam Vincent (left) is Jeffrey, a Nebraska doctor, and Andrew Humann is Benn, is his revolutionary young patient in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians at Z Below. Below: Vincent’s Jeffrey gets cozy with his wife, Francine (Alexis Lezin), a political consultant. Photos by Mark Leialoha

Our sorry political state may be sending the country down the toilet, but it sure is inspiring some grand entertainment. Veep and House of Cards offer two distinct points of view on the absurdity of Beltway power mongering. Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming was a comic highlight of last year’s local theater scene (review here) in its exploration of political game playing.

Now we have Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians, a Z Space production in association with Encore Theatre Company and the National New Play Network. Set in the fine state of Nebraska, Nachtrieb’s biting comedy watches seemingly ordinary people mix with politics, all to disastrous results. Not that the play is anything resembling a disaster. On the contrary. It’s hilarious and painful and horrifying in the way it so effortlessly conjures a sham democracy populated by tricksters and schemers, murderers and mental incompetents.

What could be simpler than a race for Nebraska’s lieutenant governor? Those easygoing Midwesterners don’t get caught up in all that political nonsense do they? Oh, but they do, and there’s no such thing as simplicity in politics, not with every race leading back to some power broker in D.C.

Z Space

In this particular race, the underdog candidate is Penelope Easter (Jamie Jones in a performance so ferocious you have to wonder if she might actually be part politician), a foot-in-mouth candidate not unlike the former governor of Alaska. Except Penny is not dumb. She may not be a whiz with words (“Things come in my mouth wrong?), but she’s got passion and lots of it. And ambition. As long as she has someone to put words in her mouth (and maybe a few thoughts in her head), she’s OK.

Her underdog status shifts thanks to a career-defining speech by consultant Francine (Alexis Lezin), who is aching to break out of her Nebraskan confines. She may think Penny is stupid, but she’s also a powerful orator who makes Francine’s prose sing. Every writer responds to that.

Francine’s husband, Jeffrey (Liam Vincent), a generic general practitioner, is alarmed that his wife’s ethics seem to bend so easily to accommodate Penny’s grab for power. Perhaps that’s why he’s so easily swayed by a charismatic (and terminally ill) young patient, Ben (Andrew Humann), who believes that Penny is part of a covert scheme to turn Nebraska into a totalitarian regime.

The first act of this 2 hour, 20-minute comedy ends on such a comic high that is seems nearly impossible that Act 2 will be anything but a letdown. And it is, but only to a certain degree. There’s a lull in the first half of the second act that director Ken Prestininzi has some trouble carbonating. But then Nachtrieb gets his comic groove back, and the darker elements of the satire come bursting out in a bloody climax that essentially turns a Nebraska stadium into a Greek amphitheater.

If Jones is the holy roller (derby) motor of the play, then Lezin is its fuel. She straddles the worlds of realistic working woman and ruthless politician in a play (who is probably more realistically ruthless than we might like to believe). Her frustrations with her talent, her marriage and her career are as rich as her speech-writing, candidate-defining triumphs, and Lezin is such a marvelous actor we feel every bit of everything.

Vincent and Humann make an appealing duo, sort of a would-be terrorist Bert and Ernie, but they’re never quite as interesting as Jones and Lezin, nor are they given as much scenery to chew.

The enjoyment level of The Totalitarians (the title reminds me of a politically themed soap opera I wish I could DVR daily) is high. This new play, part of a rolling world premiere (we’re the second stop after New Orleans), isn’t perfect, but The Totalitarians is, like, totally the subversive laugh fest you need as we head into the brainwash known as the holidays.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Totalitarians continues through Dec. 14 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 866-811-4111 or visit