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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life, love, kick-ass music in Bengsons’ Hundred Days

Hundred Days 1
Abigail Bengson and Shaun Bengson, the husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons, star in the ravishing new rock musical Hundred Days, a world premiere at Z Space. Below: The complete Hundred Days company (from left): Amy Lizardo, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, El Beh, Kate Kilbane, Abigail Bengson, Geneva Harrison, Shaun Bengson, Joshua Pollock, Dalane Mason, Reggie White. Photos by James Faerron

In those moments, when the music and voices are soaring, the drums are pounding, the feet are stomping and the hands are clapping, there’s no better place to be than sitting in Z Space fully immersed in the glorious new rock musical Hundred Days.

A creation by The Bengsons, the musical duo comprising spouses Abigail Bengson and Shaun Bengson, Hundred Days is an unconventional musical that is so much more than it seems. Director Anne Kauffman and book writer Kate E. Ryan have taken everything glorious about The Bengsons – including the passion, the humor, the warmth, the soul-stirring music – and helped craft a canny show about what it is to live and to love in the truest, most wholehearted sense.

Hundred Daysbegins as a casual affair. The cavernous Z Space theater looks like it’s set up for a rock concert. The great wall of windows, which is usually covered by heavy drapes to make it seem less industrial and more theatrical, is fully exposed, so headlights of passing cars are visible throughout the two-hour show. The 11 members of the ensemble, musicians and singers, ambles out, and The Bengsons take their places in front, music stand in front of them to help guide their way into the show.

If this musical ended up being like GrooveLily’s Striking 12, an excellent storytelling rock concert musical, that would not be a bad thing. The Bengsons begin telling their story of a young couple, Sarah and Will, who meet at a party, quickly fall in love and just as quickly get married. The bulk of Act 1 is telling their romantic tale punctuated by rousing songs that have the foot-stomping, feel-good-folk vibe that has made groups like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros so beloved. A concert/play by The Bengsons and company would be more than worth attending.

Hundred Days 2

But this is where the clever construction of the show factors in. Once Sarah and Will’s story is established, life throws them a big curveball. Will is diagnosed with a terminal diseases and has, at best, 100 days left. So this young couple throws the curveball a curveball by making a bold choice. They will live the rest of their lives, fully and eventfully, in those 100 days even if it means they have to shut out the rest of the world and kick their willing suspension of disbelief into high gear to do it.

By Act 2, we’re in a totally different show. Even Kris Stone’s seemingly non-set set has revealed some surprises (including a stunning “sands in the hourglass” effect), and the storytelling is shared by actor/singers Reggie D. White and Amy Lizardo, who play Sarah and Will alongside The Bengsons. This is the only place where the show falters, and it has nothing to do with White or Lizardo, who both make strong impressions. It’s just that The Bengsons make such a strong connection that it’s hard to relinquish any of their storytelling time to anyone else. The other Sarah and Will execute the gentle, emotionally driven choreography by Joe Goode, they sing well, and they enact the willful fast forward of the young couple’s marriage. But then a song like “Three Legged Dog” comes along in which Abigail Bengson rips the show to shreds with her searing vocal performance – part Alanis Morissette, part tribal warrior, part Edith Piaf – and it’s hard to track anyone else within the story.

It seems that part of the reason for the shadow actors is to keep an emotional remove as a way to banish sentimentality in the telling of a sad story. But the show and the score are sturdy enough to withstand any amount of sentimentality, which is primarily wrought here through the raw emotion of the Begnsons’ songs, which are so powerfully performed by their composers and by the entire company.

There’s some DNA from other unconventional musicals here – Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Once – but Hundred Days feels like such an authentic piece of The Bengsons that comparisons ultimately fail to convey just how vital Abigail and Shaun are to this beguiling enterprise. Sure, other people could do it, but it’s hard to imagine a connection – to the material, to the ensemble, to the audience – as strong as theirs.

Hundred Days is a glorious creation encompassing joy, grief and transcendence, sometimes within the space of a single song. The show should go on to have a long, vibrant life because, in the words of the show, it’s a “pin in the map” experience.

[bonus video]
Please enjoy The Bengsons and company performing the song “Hundred Days.” I am a universe indeed.

Hundred Days continues an extended run through April 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$100. Call 866-811-4111 or visit www.zspace.org.