Tip o’ the Hat to Yee’s wacky theatrical fable

Hat Play 1
Jeff Garrett is Hetchman and Patricia Silver is Hetchman’s wife in the world premiere of Lauren Yee’s A Man, his Wife, and his Hat, an AlterTheater production. Below: Garrett’s Hetchman befriends a Golem played by Jonathan Deline. Photos by Benjamin Privitt

Talk about your unconventional love stories! Lauren Yee’s charming world-premiere play A Man, his Wife, and his Hat is a romance between an elderly hat maker and his favorite hat.

So where does this relationship leave the hat maker’s wife? Lonely and without a hat, that’s where. When she up and leaves, it’s hardly surprising. The only question was why was she with this chapeau-loving bozo in the first place?

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in this story, but that’s part of the point. Yee, working under commission from San Rafael’s AlterTheater has created a quirky fable with a decidedly Yiddish storytelling tilt.

It doesn’t all hold together in director Robin Stanton’s enjoyable production, though there’s genuine humor and emotion in abundance.

The core of the story – between Hetchman (Jeff Garrett) and his nameless wife (Patricia Silver) – is wry and compelling. Hetchman, who seems to live his life in an overstuffed easy chair, loses his hat. Then he loses his wife, which frankly doesn’t affect him nearly as much as the hat.

As Hetchman tells his wife, he’s not the “I love you type.” “I guess I’m the I-am-married-to-you-so-oh-well type.” Doesn’t he sound like a catch?

As played by the amiable Garrett, Hetchman is irascible and kvetchy but sort of sad. His only real contact with the world is his neighbor, Meckel (Ed Holmes), whose affection for the family is not without its ulterior motives. In Lee’s lovely, storyteller voice, we learn that Meckel “always lived in a giant hat-shaped shadow of Hetchman.”

Hat Play 2

The whimsy of the tale is highlighted by the character of Wall, voiced by Nakissa Etemad and brought to life through the video and sound design of Norman Kern. Wall is sort of a god-like presence, narrating and manipulating the story, sometimes in mischievous ways. There’s also an element of music – “hat music” as it’s called when someone joyfully dons a hat – that feels under-developed, though Daniel Savio’s clarinet-infused music is lovely.

Hetchman’s story takes an odd, not entirely rewarding turn with the introduction of a Golem, a sort of monster from Jewish lore that can be protective or dangerous.

Jonathan Deline makes for a disarming Golem, but his function here remains a bit too enigmatic.

The part of the play that doesn’t work as well involves a narrator known as Voice (Jeanette Harrison), who begins the play behind a podium but eventually becomes a major player in the plot – a little too major because her journey conflicts too much with Hetchman’s.

There’s also a movie-of-the-week quality to this part of the plot, even if Voice’s fiancé (Hugo E. Carbajal) is about to lose the battle with gravity and float up into the sky.

So why a contemporary Yiddish-lite fable? Why not? It’s exciting that Yee is pushing boundaries, paying homage to theatrical history, having fun with conventions and blending high-tech (the Wall) and ageless (clarinet music, Golems). It feels like A Man, his Wife, and his Hat is still a work in progress, but it’s a work of abundant delight.

Lauren Yee’s A Man, his Wife, and his Hat continues through Dec. 4 at AlterTheater’s temporary space, 1414 Fourth St., San Rafael. Tickets are $25. Visit www.altertheater.org.

AlterTheater opens a can of theatrical `Whup-Ass’

Being a small, ambitious theater company is tough enough in good times.

But in an economy as rough as this one, the challenge is even mightier.

Marin’s Alternative Theater Ensemble, aka AlterTheater, just might have found the formula for survival, and community is a big part of it.

In the wake of the dot-com bust, a small group of active Bay Area theater artists — Jeanette Harrison, Sharmila Devar, Tahzay Mikkael, Ken Sonkin and Michael Ray Wisely – decided two things were important to them: doing risky work that forced them outside of their comfort zones and not having to pay the exorbitant gas bills and bridge tolls that come with working outside of Marin County.

“It really was like guerilla theater,” says Harrison. “We knew we wanted to be a company that paid its artists. With so many companies, most of the money goes to paying for space, so we decided we’d try to get the space donated – landlords have enough money — and give the money to the artists.”

Now in its fourth season, AlterTheater has made this formula work by performing in storefronts all around San Rafael – art galleries, furniture stores, you name it. The current production, Justin Warner’s American Whup-Ass, performs in what used to be a sports club, and before that was the location of San Rafael City Hall.

“In many other companies, the first thing cut is actors and Equity contracts,” Harrison says. “The first thing we cut is the production budget. We do a lot of collaborative partnerships so that we can borrow or get donated most of the things we need for a show. One of our sponsors is Goodwill, which has been a wonderful relationship for us. We’re able to use what’s in their stock and return it at the end of the show. Also, when people donate items to us, we pass them on to Goodwill. In Moscow they have a theater position called `the procurer,’ who basically reads the script, determines what’s going to be toughest to find, then sets out to procure those items. That’s a little like what we do.”

The theater world can be tough on the environment. You build sets and props, use them, then destroy or store them. The Alter model, with the help of Goodwill, is based on use and re-use.

Though budget is always a concern – grants and donations help, of course – Harrison says Alter’s focus is primarily on the work and choosing the kinds of plays that tackle issues important to the community just outside the theater’s door.

Past plays have addressed alcoholism, acquaintance rape and elder care. The fourth season opener is a definite change in tone for Alter. American Whup-Ass, a world premiere by New York writer Warner, is about a once-celebrated Nevada senator attempting to redeem himself through a wrestling match on live TV. (American Whup-Ass is pictured at right with Paul Santiago atop Mick Mize. Photo by Ann Brooks)

“I was starting to feel like we needed to do a play in which nobody dies,” Harrison says. “I think it was something like three consecutive shows where people died. With American Whup-Ass, I love that we can poke fun at everything, laugh at ourselves and still explore serious issues.”

Plays are selected by the Alter ensemble, of which director and writer Ann Brebner is a part. She was not a fan of the American script to start.

“There’s a lot of old-boy humor in it, and I don’t respond to that very well,” says the soft-spoken Brebner. “But I love it now. On stage, with an audience, I have a terrific time watching it. I could see in rehearsals that it was taking on life, but it reaches full maturity with an audience. The audience changes the dimension of the humor, pulls it to another level. When I was reading it, my instinct was that I don’t want to go there. But the audience itself opens the door and you go there. The writer, Justin Warner, really understands that relationship.”

Looking into the future for AlterTheater, Harrison says she’d like to expand the season from two plays to three and envisions that finally happening next year. The group is also commissioning its first play – a major accomplishment for a small company.

“We’re at an interesting point in our growth, and we’re doing some strategic planning,” Harrison says. “We’re examining what we’ve done, where we want to go and what are our core values. We’re finding out what we as a group want our future to be.”

Brebner notes that AlterTheater is accomplishing its goal of becoming a vital part of the community in which it performs.

“We have an opportunity, now that we’re becoming more well known and more recognized, to better identify ourselves as a double fabric,” Brebner says. “We’re creative part of the community but also an innovative business. We’re part of that community in a very unorthodox way.”

AlterTheater’s American Whup-Ass continues through Nov. 9 at 1299 Fourth St. (at C Street), San Rafael. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-454-2787 or visit www.altertheater.org.

Theater Dogs Hot list: `War Music,’ Lamott, Wesla, `Coco’

Looking for quality entertainment this weekend? Never a difficult task in the Bay Area. In fact, there’s often too much from which to choose.

Here are some tips:

American Conservatory Theater’s First look Festival continues Friday and Saturday (April 25 and 26) with Lillian Groag’s War Music, a theatrical adaptation of poet Christopher Logue’s retelling of Homer’s Iliad. The play, revised since its Los Angeles run, will receive a full production during ACT’s 2008-09 season. Groag (right) directs. The script-in-hand workshop is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $10.50 general, $7.50 for students, seniors and ACT subscribers. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

– For the very first time, the work of Marin writer Anne Lamott (left) is being adapted for the stage. San Rafael’s AlterTheater presents the world premiere of Lamott’s first novel, Hard Laughter adapted for the stage Anne Brebner, a longtime friend of Lamott’s, and Laurel Graver. The show opens Friday, April 25 at The Wooden Duck, a store specializing in furniture made from recycled wood (which, not coincidentally, will comprise much of the play’s set). Jayne Wenger directs Lamott’s tale of a free-thinking NorCal bohemian family as they struggle with issues of mortality, sexual freedom and addiction. The cast includes Lindsay Benner, Jeffrey Bihr, Rio Codda, Zac Jaffe, Hannah Rose Kornfeld, Laura Lowry and Frances Lee McCain. The show runs through May 18, and the Wooden Duck is at 1848 Fourth St (at H Street), San Rafael. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 415-454-2787 or visit www.althertheater.org.

– Only one of the greatest singers ever (in the Bay Area or anywhere), Wesla Whitfield (right) appears Saturday, April 26 with the Peninsula Symphony as well as with her husband/arranger Mike Greensill and his trio. Whitfield and Greensill will do what they do best: sing gorgeous tunes from the Great American Songbook, only this time, they’ll be accompanied by more than 20 members of the symphony. The evening will include songs by Gershwin, Ellington, Rodgers and Hammerstein with new arrangements by Greensill (something of a genius when it comes to arrangements). Maestro Mitchell Sardou Klein leads the string orchestra and the Peninsula Symphony French Horn Quartet led by William Klingelhoffer. The show is at 8 p.m. at the Fox Theater in downtown Redwood City. Tickets are $34 general, $29 for seniors and students. Call 650-941-5291 or visit www.peninsualsymphony.org.

42nd Street Moon, the San Francisco company that dusts off lost or forgotten musicals and gives them spiffy concert productions, performs that rarity of rarities: a Katharine Hepburn musical. The company is reviving Alan J. Lerner and Andre Previn’s 1970 Coco, which starred Hepburn as the croaking Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel. For the concert production, 42nd Street Moon has the gorgeous Andrea Marcovicci (left) to play the title role. The show previews Friday, April 25 and opens Saturday, April 26 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. The show continues through May 11. Tickets are $22-$38. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.