Love, peace, soul fill ACT’s joyous Hippest Trip

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ABOVE: The cast of Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical dances up a storm on stage at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater through Oct. 8. Set design is by Jason Sherwood, projection design is by Aaron Rhyne and lighting is by Jen Schriever. BELOW: Amber Iman is Pam Brown and Quentin Earl Darrington is Don Cornelius. Photos by Kevin Berne & Alessandra Mello


For more than three decades, “Soul Train” was the “hippest trip” on TV. Soul, R&B, funk, disco and hip-hop music combined with the latest dance moves from young Black Americans fused into one of the longest-running syndicated programs in television history. And now “Soul Train,” perhaps inevitably in our jukebox world, is the hippest trip in musical theater.

Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical had its world premiere Wednesday and kicked off the new American Conservatory Theater on stage at the Toni Rembe Theater. Clearly this is a show with Broadway in its sights, and the news on that front is mostly good. Hippest Trip explodes with energy and joy. The score contains about 30 songs (mostly snippets) from the “Soul Train” era, which ran from 1971 to 2006. Orchestrated and arranged by Kenny Seymour and played by a sizzling hot 12-piece band (under the music direction of Sean Kana), the song selections feel more appropriate here than they do in a lot of other jukebox musicals.

Many of the songs underscore ferociously entertaining dance numbers choreographed by Camille A. Brown (who is not afraid to get out the rollerskates), and that’s when this show is at its dazzling best. If The Hippest Trip was just this extraordinary ensemble dancing singing through the evolution of ’70s, ’80s and ’90s music the way TV audiences experienced it on “Soul Train,” the show would still be a blast.

But book writer Dominique Morisseau and director Kamilah Forbes have more on their minds than just a nostalgic trip through song and dance. Their focus is “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius, who went from being a low-level Chicago TV journalist to the master of the “Soul Train” empire. The first act chronicles Cornelius’ struggle to get something on the air to represent Black America beyond the death and devastation that seemed to be filling screens in the early ’70s. Modeled after Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” “Soul Train” quickly became a hit in Chicago, so Cornelius moved operations to Los Angeles and took his show into national syndication.

By the end of Act 1, we’re getting into more typical show biz bio territory, with success and ego threatening to overwhelm Cornelius’ integrity (he’d feed his dancers, but he wouldn’t pay them) and taking a toll on his wife and two sons, who remained in Chicago.

While the show pays attention to some of the star “Soul Train” dancers and the artists who spun their time with the show into full careers – Damita Jo Freeman, Jody Watley and Rosie Perez among them – Cornelius remains at the center. Act 2 documents his troubled family life, serious medical issues and his reluctance to share his empire with his son, Tony.

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Scenes are fast and the pace is brisk in this 2 1/2-hour spectacle, but Morisseau, a noted playwright who also shaped Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations, manages to convey the weight of success and the toll it takes on a person even while fully representing the joy that Cornelius was so intent on documenting and sharing with the world.

Director Forbes revels in the fun of youth and the excitement of being on TV. She is ably assisted by the set (by Jason Sherwood), which turns the proscenium into an old-fashioned TV set and then sends those billowing steamy curls from the “Soul Train” locomotive into the theater in the form of wonderfully effective projection screens filled with the vibrant designs of Aaron Rhyne. I don’t usually dig projections on stage, but in a show about a classic TV show famous for replicating a dance club, the projections are perfect and seriously bolster the general feeling of elation that so often permeates the theater.

And here’s where we get into what might be addressed before heading to Broadway. To be clear, The Hippest Trip is a thoroughly entertaining experience full of sparkle and dazzle (just try to contain the exultation of costumer Dede Ayite’s creations). The parade of song, dance and fashion, combined with clips from the actual show, is simply splendid. And while Cornelius’ creation is justly celebrated and lionized, his life story feels fairly ordinary by show biz bio standards, so Morisseau pushes harder than she needs to convey a looming sense of his faults and the pressures he was under – as Cornelius says frequently, “You can let other people underestimate you, but you never underestimate yourself.” He was fighting to change the world but grew into a cranky old man who didn’t like disco or hip-hop and thought dancers with wild new moves were “weirdos.”

In the end, as much as I admired Cornelius, I found myself more interested in the dancers and the life of the “Soul Train” show itself. I kept wanting this Trip to erupt into a full-blown “Soul Train” dance party – and it felt like the opening-night audience, which happened to be one of the best-dressed audiences I’ve ever seen, wanted that, too. But it doesn’t really happen, even when the full-bore joy returns at the end.

Too many numbers are cut off or interrupted by dialogue. When the great Amber Iman, who plays Pam Brown, Cornelius’ most trusted associate, is singing a soulful song from 1990 (producers have asked we not divulge certain song titles to prevent spoilers), you do not interrupt her. The audience finally gets to let loose with their bottled-up hysteria after a New Jack Swing explosion of “My Prerogative” (that title we can share). But there should be many more ovations before that – the audience wants to pour love into this show and doesn’t get enough opportunity to do so.

What’s not to adore about this mighty, mighty cast? I’ve already noted that the ensemble is overflowing with talent, which is probably why their slice of the show (and a generous slice it is) packs such a wallop. Iman, who starred in the title role of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Goddess, is a forthright stunner in an underwritten role. Quentin Earl Darrington as Cornelius gives us a human-scale impresario, a man who wants to be The Wiz but is really just the flawed, hard-working guy behind the curtain. Darrington has a beautiful voice that he gets to show off in the Al Green song “I’m So Tired of Being Alone” and then in a duet with Sidney Dupont, who plays Tony Cornelius. In smaller roles, Kayla Davion, Rich James, Cameron Hah, Jaquez, Mayte Natalio, Alain “Hurrikane” Lauture and Charlene “Chi-Chi” Smith are marvelous as some of the breakout “Soul Train” stars.

As with most jukebox musicals, pop songs that were never intended to bear the weight of musical theater storytelling are nevertheless asked to do so. There’s less of that here because so much of the music is for dancing, and when the pop songs become character songs, there’s a higher success rate than usual. Still, when an optimistic mid-tempo 1970 tune becomes an emotionally fraught duet, the cringe factor is only relieved by the stellar performances.

While there’s still polishing that needs to happen, The Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical barrels down the tracks with style, spirt and, as we might expect, abundant love, peace and soul.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hippest Trip – The Soul Train Musical continues through Oct. 8 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$140 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Grungy glamour fills ACT’s new journey to Oz

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ABOVE: Katrina Lauren McGraw (center) is Glinda, Chanel Tilgham (left) is Dorothy and Travis Santell Rowland is part of the lively ensemble in the American Conservatory Theater production of The Wizard of Oz. BELOW: Attempting an audience with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz are (from left) Beth Wilmurt (Ozian), Darryl V. Jones (Tin Man), Tilghman (Dorothy), El Beh (Guard), Cathleen Riddley (Cowardly Lion) and Danny Scheie (Scarecrow). Photos by Kevin Berne


We’re all friends of Dorothy now. At least that’s what if feels like in American Conservatory Theater’s Pride Month production of The Wizard of Oz now at the Toni Rembe Theater. Part Pride Parade, part homage to the 1939 movie, part glam rock/glitter grunge dime store spectacle, this Oz has a lot going on, including a lengthy running time that inches toward three hours.

Director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton throws abundant ideas into this well-loved, well-worn tale of Dorothy Gale and her trip over the rainbow – some are clever and exciting, others are not. The intention seems to be a homegrown Oz that feels rooted in San Francisco history, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ activism, Summer of Love hippy vibes and queer culture evocation. This may be a story that begins in Kansas, but it ends up in a fantasy world where the Wicked Witch of the West is like a country-western Karen, the Wizard feels like a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Dorothy is a sweetly nondescript teenager in a Batman t-shirt. There’s even (at least on opening night) an appearance by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band marching across the stage.

It feels like Pinkleton wants to whip up a tornado of fun – a new, slightly edgier take on a beloved story but told with just enough sincerity and heart to keep the traditionalists (reasonably) happy. The tornado, for instance, is now a dance piece in which ensemble member Travis Santell Woland wears football shoulder pads from which dangles a dense fringe of plastic caution tape and spins around the stage. There are tall fans, tossed confetti, a Twister game mat (very funny) and a lot of chaos, but not much storytelling about where Dorothy is in all of this. We know where she is because this story is in our DNA at this point, but the stage is more confusing than it needs to be.

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There’s also a unique solution to the yellow-brick road. We never actually see it, but whenever the gang is “off to see the Wizard,” audience members wave the yellow paper napkins they find in their programs.

Set and costume designer David Zinn is clearly having fun with a non-traditional Oz. There are tinsel curtains aplenty, mirrors and multicolored Christmas lights. The challenge of Munchkinland is cleverly addressed (mostly with household objects and googly eyes), and when there’s a need for flashy costumes, like for Glinda (a marvelous Katrina Lauren McGraw in a cloud of pinks) or for residents of the Emerald City, Zinn delivers with some genuine glamor. His costumes for Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers focus on the humans rather than the creatures. Danny Scheie as the scene-stealing Scarecrow, is outfitted in hippy-ish crochet and a hat that’s actually a crushed milk carton. Darryl V. Jones as the Tin Man might be confused for a leather daddy if leather came in silver. And Cathleen Riddley as the Cowardly Lion is less predator and more teddy bear with a tail.

The sound of the show also takes a turn from the traditional, and in place of the lush MGM orchestrations for the classic Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score, we have electronic sounds as if from the early days of the Moog synthesizer. But when Chanel Tilghman’s Dorothy offers her lovely take on “Over the Rainbow,” we get cast members augmenting the on-stage five-piece band with cello, ukulele, violin and a surprise woodshed tool (that also happens to be surprisingly beautiful). I was kind of hoping at some point all that chilly electronica would erupt into a disco dance party, but that never really happens, although our time in Munchkinland comes close.

Working from a faithful 1987 stage adaptation of the movie by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pinkleton’s Oz feels less like an archetypal journey and more like an intermittent drag cabaret performed on the smaller proscenium with in the proscenium. I have to admit that as an adult, I find the plot rather tedious, and although this crew is exceptionally lively, I still found myself anxious to get to the “ignore that man behind the curtain” moment. There is surprising poignancy as Dorothy bids her Oz friends goodbye, but that may be borne more from familiarity than any deep feeling the production has earned.

Pinkleton throws a lot at this wizardly wall to see what might stick, and in the end, not much really does. It’s a vessel we all know and love dressed up and enlivened in some interesting ways, but once we’re back in Kansas, the memory of the dream feels disappointingly hollow. This Oz is fun. It’s fresh. But it’s ultimately frustrating.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Conservatory Theater’s The Wizard of Oz continues through June 25 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission). Tickets are $. Call or visit act-sf.org.

Poor Yella Rednecks: Second time is a little more charming

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ABOVE: Christine Jamlig and Will Dao in Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks running through May 7 at ACT’s Strand Theater. BELOW: Jenny Nguyen Nelson and Jamlig play daughter and mother in this continuation of the story that began with Vietgone. Photos by Kevin Berne


The sequel, they say, is never the equal of the original. In the case of Poor Yella Rednecks: Vietgone 2, the second time around is a little more satisfying, although it suffers from what made the first one hard to love. (I reviewed Vietgone for Theatermania, and you can read that review here and know that pretty much everything in there applies the sequel.)

Local audiences saw Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone a little more than five years ago when American Conservatory Theater produced it at The Strand. The story followed refugees from the Vietnam War as they made their way to a refugee camp in Arkansas, had adventures, met new people, fell in love and embarked on a new life in America.

Like that story, the sequel begins with an actor playing Nguyen coming out to tell us what we’re going to see. Instead of interviewing his father, like he did in the last play, he interviews his mother about her experience of starting over as a non-English speaker in the deep American South. The action takes us back to 1975 but then quickly scoots forward six years, with Nguyen, a young boy played by a puppet, and his parents (Jenny Nguyen Nelson as Tong and Hyunmin Rhee as Quang) and his grandmother (Christine Jamlig) living in a trailer and scraping by.

The terrific set design by Tanya Orellana covers the stage in flashy lights but reserves the center elevated part of the stage for a set within the set – a framed picture-like slice of life in the mobile home – cramped and crowded, but a safe place to live.

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When the play focuses on the what the family is facing both economically and culturally, the cast shines and Nguyen’s writing comes to life. But like the first play, this immigrant story is told with whiz-bang fantasy, silliness, rap numbers and jagged storytelling that feels like it should be much bolder, louder and more confident.

Director Jaime Castañeda, who helmed ACT’s Vietgone, is back with a production that feels like a carbon copy of the last one in the way it bobbles the various tonal shifts and lurches into uncomfortable hip-hop interludes (one of which directly shouts out Hamilton – not a good idea) that are meant to be empowering but, because of the actors’ varying degrees of comfort in the medium, are not.

One of the best things about the first play ends up being one of the best things about the second play, and that is Jomar Tagatac, who plays the playwright and a number of other roles (including the British narrator, a goes-nowhere bit of silliness). He, like the rest of the cast, has some great moments of humor and connection amid the chaos.

Where Poor Yella Rednecks fares better than its predecessor is in the warmth with which it tells the story of a family, and specifically the rocky love story of a mother and a father who clash and make mistakes but end up stronger together. They’re also allowed to be sexual beings – an element that is too often ignored in parental love stories related by children. This love story is also specifically an immigrant love story, so you have to add in the horrors of racism and xenophobia to make its survival that much more deeply felt.

And by the end of this two-plus-hour show, you do feel the impact of this family’s experience. You may even have come to love the puppet boy (designed and directed by James Ortiz, performed by Will Dao), especially in a surprisingly moving scene where he is sitting by himself, playing with his Spider-Man and Star Wars toys.

Poor Yella Rednecks is a strange show by design, but what’s best about it – the complicated core of a family in motion – isn’t strange at all.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Qui Nguyen’s Poor Yella Rednecks continues through May 7 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time is about 2 hours (including one 15-minute intermission). Tickets are $25-$60 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Murder, family meld in Chen’s Headlands at ACT

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ABOVE: Johnny M. Wu as George (left), Phil Wong as Henry (center) and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Leena in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s
The Headlands, running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 5. BELOW: Charles Shaw Robinson (left) is Detective, Wong (center) is Henry and Sam Jackson is Jess. Photos by Kevin Berne


San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen seems to revel in puzzle, enigma and truth quests. His fascinating body of work is rich with mystery and unconventional theatricality. He’s one of the most interesting and intelligent playwrights working today, and he’s one of those artists who, when you see his name attached to something, you immediately check it out.

This is quite true of Chen’s The Headlands, now receiving its West Coast premiere (after being at Lincoln Center Theatre in early 2020 right before lockdown) at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater. This one-act drama is a murder mystery and a complex family drama all rolled into one compelling package.

The less revealed about the plot the better, so I’ll just say that this is the story of Henry Wong, a San Francisco native and resident of the Sunset. As played by Phil Wong, Henry is distractingly charming. He speaks directly to the audience and lets us know that he’s an amateur sleuth with a penchant for solving cold cases. There’s one particular 20-year-old case that intrigues him. It involves a murder (or was it?) in his neighborhood. Not just in his neighborhood but in his house. OK. It was his dad. His dad was the victim, and Henry was only 10 years old.

Henry is what you call an unreliable narrator, but then again, how many 10-year-olds make reliable witnesses? His charm and easygoing manner pull us into his quest, but in true Chen fashion, the excitement of a whodunit soon gives way to some serious family complexities that make The Headlands more of an emotional puzzle than a criminal one.

That’s not to say we don’t care about what really happened to Henry’s dad and who may or may not have killed him. We absolutely do, and director Pam MacKinnon creates a propulsive but still deeply emotional production that plays with the idea of creating a film noir for the stage without sacrificing content to genre.

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The set by Alexander V. Nichols really is another character here because it contains the whole world of Henry’s story – his past and present, his memories, his misconceptions. The basic structure comprises the plain gray walls of Henry’s family’s Sunset – two stories, a staircase, a kitchen, a window looking out onto the street. The set gracefully rotates, with walls that slide in and out, and all of it serves to hold Nichols’ vivid projections. They’re mostly of San Francisco and environs – Chinatown, the Sunset, Land’s End, the Marin Headlands, Coit Tower, SFPD’s Taraval Station, Lucca Deli (which practically got a round of applause) – but we also get moody images of fingers hitting piano keys, glass breaking, an IV drip. As Henry delves deeper into his family’s secrets, the projections are a kind of stream of consciousness that envelops everyone and wraps them in the beauty and moodiness of San Francisco.

I’m not usually a fan of abundant projections in live theater (why not just make a movie?), but MacKinnon and Nichols use them so artfully and effectively I was completely mesmerized. When the story reaches intriguing places, the projections fade so the focus can be on the characters. There’s only one scene, to my mind, when the projections overstep and briefly (but still ineffectively) take over the storytelling.

The actors never get overwhelmed by the production primarily because they’re all so good. Beginning with Wong’s increasingly complex Henry, the cast does service to the murder mystery tropes but has no problem digging in to the demands of the family drama. Sam Jackson as Jess, Henry’s girlfriend, helps us navigate what we can and cannot trust in Henry’s storytelling, and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro adds whole new chapters to stories Henry thought he knew.

The invaluable Charles Shaw Robinson turns up twice and manages to fascinate both times (and reveal how casual racism can have drastic results). But it’s the trio of Jomar Tagatac, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Johnny M. Wu that carries the biggest dramatic load. Their stories involve elements of mystery (of course), rom-com, immigrant saga, soap opera and Greek drama, and the actors make it all feel real and vital.

The Headlands is seductive in the way that murder mysteries can be, but its cold case fever gives way to greater depths as one man wrestles with his family – their ghosts, their mistakes and their love for him. It’s a captivating experience that feels deeply rooted in San Francisco, not just as a location but as a state of mind – a head land, you might say.

[Bonus Chen!]
Last year, Christopher Chen dropped an Audible Original called The Podcaster, a 92-minute audio play that messes with the whole notion of podcasts. Of course there’s a mystery involved, and it’s a blast. Get more info here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s The Headlands continues through March 5 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $25-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Bill Irwin clowns around with Beckett

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Bill Irwin dives into the work of a favorite writer in On Beckett, part of the American Conservatory Theater at the Toni Rembe Theater. Photo by Craig Schwartz


About five years ago, the great Bill Irwin brought his solo show On Beckett to The Strand Theater as part of the American Conservatory Theater season. I described this journey into the work of Samuel Beckett as a lecture demonstration, but “you’d have to rank it among the best imaginable lecture demonstrations.” I still stand behind that review (read it here), but now that Irwin has brought the show back – to ACT’s big stage, the Toni Rembe Theater, this time – I feel like it’s even more enjoyable as a one-man play. It simply bursts with joy, and Irwin is really good at joy.

The show is ostensibly Irwin talking about why he loves Beckett and his draw-you-in, push-you-away energy that makes him so fascinating and so confounding. Irwin spends the better part of 90 minutes explaining why Beckett’s work is inexplicable. Being the superb actor he is, his discussion includes generous helpings of performance – from Texts for Nothing, The Unnamable, Watt, and, most delicious of all, Waiting for Godot (how you pronounce that depends on where you fall on what Irwin calls a “great culture divide”).

As enjoyable as it is to see Irwin inhabit Beckett, the evening’s greatest pleasure is Irwin himself. This is a show about loving art. Irwin loves Beckett and has devoted a good portion of his creative energy to going deeper and deeper into the work. Irwin also loves clowning because, in addition to being a fine actor, he is a clown to his bones, and this show gives him a glorious showcase to share his intellect (along with his high-wattage charm) and his black bowler, baggy trousers and red nose.

Irwin is well aware that Beckett is not to everybody’s taste, so, as creator, director and performer of this piece, he explicates the Beckett oeuvre just enough to make the show feel smarty pants before he puts on an even bigger pair of baggy pants (“industrial!”) and does another clown routine that makes you fully question that he was born in 1950, the same year Beckett published Texts for Nothing.

The section on Godot is especially good because Irwin has so much to say about the play and about the myriad choices actors and directors have to make when producing it. It would be an absolute shame if Irwin doesn’t direct a production one day.

This is a criminally short run for On Beckett, which is not only a thoroughly entertaining and edifying experience but also the only show in town that will point you toward the almost equally rewarding beckittns, a genius pairing of kitten photos and Beckett quotes.

https://beckittns.tumblr.com/
Courtesy of beckittns

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bill Irwin’s On Beckett continues through Oct 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes. Tickets are $25-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Climb aboard ACT’s dazzling Passengers

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ABOVE: Andrew Sumner and Beto Freitas in Passengers , from The 7 Fingers, at American Conservatory Theater’s newly christened Toni Rembe Theater, through Oct. 9. BELOW: Santiago Rivera (center) and the ensemble. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


Going along for the ride in Passengers, the season opener for American Conservatory Theater, is one of the most thrilling experiences of the year.

This shouldn’t be surprising given that the show, a glorious blend of dance, theater and circus, comes from the ever-inspiring troupe The 7 Fingers and is directed ,written and choreographed by one of that group’s founders, Shana Carroll.

For the few weeks while Passengers is running on the stage of ACT’s newly re-christened Toni Rembe Theater (named for an extraordinary patron of the Bay Area arts), we have the great honor of having two 7 Fingers shows in town. The other is the long-running Dear San Francisco at Club Fugazi. And what these two shows have in common is the marvelous, entertaining and often thrilling showcase of the human body in motion. There is poetry and drama and humor and sexiness in that movement, and a whole lot more. There are circus acts you may recognize, but there’s always a theatrical spin, a novel approach and/or a delicious charge to the choreography that gives it all a unique charm.

Passengers is all about train travel. In the opening moments, the troupe of nine begins breathing together as if in a meditation class. Then those breaths turn into the rhythmic sound of a train rolling down the tracks, and there’s no looking back.

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We are in stations, on bridges, in tunnels, inside the passenger cars exploring relationships among lovers, friends and strangers. The (mostly) pre-recorded musical score by Colin Gagné and the stunning visual designs by Johnny Ranger on Ana Cappelluto’s set conjure cinematic impressions of travel, with even the shadows of Éric Champoux’s lighting design adding to the beauty of the performances.

Once this whole enterprise gets moving, there is no let-up in the onslaught of gorgeous stage pictures. Just the movement and the detail in Carroll’s choreography is enough to keep your eyes finding fascinating places to land. But then there are the acts themselves, performed with such panache and gobsmacking skill. You’ve seen people juggle, walk the tightrope and swing on a trapeze before. But never quite like this.

Gravity is defied on ribbons and poles, and the finale, a sort of trapeze act that only involves human bodies and no actual trapeze, is filled with such power and grace that you may forget to breathe.

Rarely do you experience such high art that provides such thorough entertainment. There’s no pretension here – just the aim of creating something beautiful and amazing and even occasionally emotional. There’s spoken word, some live singing and some live ukulele playing. It doesn’t have the cold machine feel of some other modern circuses – this is warm and human and exciting.

At 100 minutes, Passengers flies by, even though the show never feels rushed. It’s a testament to Carroll and The 7 Fingers that this is one journey you just don’t want to end.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Passengers by Shana Carroll and The 7 Fingers continues through Oct. 9. Length: 100 minutes. Tickets range from $25-$110 (subject to change). Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

ACT immerses audience into captivating Fefu

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés includes (from left) Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu and Marga Gomez as Cecilia. BELOW: Taking place in various spots around The Strand, Fefu immerses its audience in scenes like this one in the lobby with Castellanos and Goldfield on a balcony. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are actors in American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her friends that I would travel continents to see. I would climb flights of stairs and even sit on the floor to get to see them perform. The good news about Fefu is that it’s not continents away – it’s down on Market Street in a Strand Theater that has been transformed, in its theatrical way, into a New England country home full of interesting people. You will, however, have to climb stairs (or take the elevator) and sit on the floor (if you want to) because this is an immersive production that takes you all over the building.

With its premiere in 1977, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu (pronounced FEH-foo) emerged as a theatrical experiment in feminism. Set in 1935 during a reunion of college friends, the all-women cast explores their relationships to each other and to a world that desperately wants men and women to conform to accepted gender roles.

There’s not a traditional plot, but that’s not really the point here. It’s all about discovery and play. We first meet the eight characters as they arrive at Fefu’s house for a weekend of fun and rehearsal for an upcoming charity event. The audience is seated in the theater, and the characters inhabit the lovely home designed by Tanya Orellana in a traditional proscenium setting. The tone that emerges under Pam MacKinnon’s direction is one of joviality, introspection and the ever-present possibility of surprise (good and bad).

For the second of the play’s three parts, the audience is separated into four groups (your color-coded wristband lets you know which group you’re in) and taken into various parts of Fefu’s house. Our group first headed to the lobby, which had been transformed into Fefu’s garden, complete with grass (of the artificial variety), gorgeous Monet-like projections (by Hana S. Kim) and a real-life plant exchange (bring a plant, take a plant, so if you’re going definitely bring a plant!). Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) and Emma (Cindy Goldfield) have an al fresco chat about, among other things, how none of us talks about our genitals enough.

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Then we headed backstage into a dimly lit room (Russell H. Champa is responsible for the gorgeous lighting throughout the building), where Julia (a mesmerizing Lisa Anne Porter) wrestled with demons. And then it was upstairs to the top of the building where a black-box space has been turned into two performance spaces (with a fair amount of sound bleed between the two stages). In one room, the study, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) talk about French verbs, dreams and nightmarish doctors, and in another, the kitchen (an absolutely stunning design), Paula (Stacy Ross) chats with Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) before rekindling an old flame with the enigmatic Cecilia (Marga Gomez).

Some characters wander out of one short scene and into another, which is thrilling – like turning the play house into a playhouse, and we’re all kids having a blast playing pretend (but the conversations are decidedly not childlike). It’s that sense of discovery again – poking into corners of The Strand that audience members don’t usually see and, with all the fanciful design touches along our travel routes, feeling embraced by the idea of pretending to be in some other place in some other time with people who were imagined into being by a playwright with a lot to say. Kudos to MacKinnon and her team (notably Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz, whose team works with military precision and maximum affability) for such sterling execution of the Fefu challenge.

After intermission, audience members return to their seats in the theater for the final section of the play. We know these women better now, so the intricacies of the relationships, the shared histories and the personal traumas all carry more weight. The miracle of the actors is that they do feel connected by years of events, so their ability to shift from joy and frivolity to deep sadness and despair feels lived. There’s unevenness in the performances in some scenes, but that can’t obscure some stunning work by Castellanos as the gregarious but enigmatic Fefu, Goldfield as the effervescent Emma, Ross as the deceptively grounded Paula and Porter as the tormented Julia.

There’s no end to the discovery as Fornés allows us to spend 2 1/2 hours immersed in what women are thinking – a significant undertaking executed with a great deal of spirit and fun. In that sense, you can definitely say that hanging out with Fefu and Her Friends is a seriously good time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Freestyle Love reigns supreme

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The cast of Freestyle Love Supreme at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater includes (from left) Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Jay C. Ellis (Jellis J), Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé), Morgan Reilly (Hummingbird), Aneesa Folds (Young Nees) and Anthony Veneziale (Two Touch). BELOW: Freestyling with (from left) Bancroft, Ellis, Folds and Veneziale. Photos by Kevin Berne


Wednesday night at the Geary Theater was one those nights theater lovers had been waiting for: the re-opening of American Conservatory Theater’s glorious home. We thought such an occasion would happen post-pandemic, but as that “post” era seems ever elusive, we’ll take what vaccinations and masks will allow.

And what they allow at this moment in the gorgeous Geary is exceptionally enjoyable. Freestyle Love Supreme is not a new show (its roots go back to 2004), but among its creators – Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale (who originally conceived the project) – are Broadway superstars. Miranda is, well, Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights, Encanto and a million things he’s already done) and Kail is the Tony-winning director of Hamilton. So this improv hip-hop side project garnered a lot of attention and eventually found life on Broadway and many other places.

The most recent Broadway iteration of FLS kicks off its national tour at the Geary, and though this 90-ish-minute blast of high-energy theatrics would be a giddy delight on any given night, its arrival during our most recent surge feels especially fortuitous. It’s a bountiful serving of inventive fun when we needed it most.

The concept is just like any improv show: the performers will create entirely original work based on suggestions from the audience. In this case, the stakes are raised by the performers having to freestyle rap with the help of two keyboardists and two beatboxers to control melody and rhythm. So the performers are rapping, singing and acting all at the same time, which is quite the high-wire act.

Happily, this crew, which can vary from night to night with special guests, knows how to spit rhymes (as they say), get laughs, connect with deeper emotions and offer high-velocity entertainment. Veneziale serves as the de facto host as the well-crafted but just loose enough structure keeps the show moving from segment to segment without feeling constrictive.

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In true improv fashion, audience members are called upon to supply raw material like verbs, things they intensely dislike, things they love and, twice during the show, more involved things like a painful memory you wish you could do over or how you spent your day. Of course the masks muffled the suggestions somewhat, but everybody who wanted to be heard was heard (from the balcony in response to things you couldn’t live without: the word “the”).

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, the verbs included litigate, catapult, masturbate and fondle. The crew chose litigate to expound upon, but they managed to get most of the other words in there as well. Among the things that were working the audience’s last nerves were Joe Manchin, Covid, the My Pillow guy, Wordle, “my vegan girlfriend” and “too much mayonnaise.” In a 21st-century pandemic twist, audience members can scan a QR code in the program and submit words for a fast round of improv rapping as the words are pulled at random from a bucket.

There are three more involved segments of the evening, all of which verged on brilliant on opening night. Recalling a childhood memory, an audience member named Breezy described her second day of third grade at a new school when she fainted while giving a book report. Veneziale interviewed Breezy for more details (the school was in New Jersey, the teacher was Mrs. Walker, the book was Nancy Drew, and if she had it to do over again, Breezy would have said “no” when asked to do her report). Then the cast re-created the event before rewinding and providing the “just say no” alternative reality. Morgan Reilly (aka Hummingbird) was especially effective in the role of Breezy, who became the center of a “raise your voice” anthem at the end of the bit.

A more intimate moment had four performers on stools riffing on the audience-inspired word “destiny” by sharing a story they assured us was 100% true. Jay C. Ellis (aka Jellis J) rapped about his childhood in Ohio and coming out. Andrew Bancroft (aka Jelly Donut) described his time living in the Bay Area when he discovered rap battles in Oakland and found his life’s calling. Veneziale (aka Two Touch) also recalled time spent living in San Francisco, but that quickly expanded into a piece about racial equality and George Floyd’s needless death. Throughout these stories, Aneesa Folds (aka Young Nees) supplied soulful vocals, which were mostly vocalizations on the word destiny. It was a beautiful segment that underscored the notion that improv isn’t always (and shouldn’t always be) going for laughs.

The show’s finale had Veneziale finding an audience member willing to go into great detail about their day prior to arriving at the theater. On this night, a high school science teacher named Jay talked about his kids, his parents, his job, his workout regimen and his invitation to discuss Finnish education at a Palo Alto senior center. Then the full cast turned that day into a rather astonishing hip-hop musical.

Part theater, part concert, part party trick, Freestyle Love Supreme revels in on-the-spot creativity. The stage crackles with invention as the talented performers revel in riffing off of one another and sharing the spotlight. It’s generous, it’s dazzling and it’s the kind of spine-tingling communal experience you could never get in front of a screen.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale’s Freestyle Love Supreme continues through Feb. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$130. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org. ACT’s Covid policies are here.

Check out the excellent documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme on Hulu.

Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Spectacular Animal Wisdom conjures spirits & raises the roof

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Composer/performer Heather Christian stars in the original streaming film adaptation of the Bushwick Starr’s production of Animal Wisdom. Below:Christian and her cast/band connect with another realm.


In the last year, we’ve seen some splendid streamers and some snoozy streamers. We’ve seen filmed productions that get an A for effort (and that’s about it) and Zoom productions that somehow transcend those little boxes. Theater just hasn’t been theater for a while, and we’ve done the best we could, as audiences, as performers, as producers, to keep the spirit alive as best we could.

Then along comes something like Animal Wisdom, a filmed version of Heather Christian’s Bushwick Starr theater experience from the 2017/2018 season. This concert/play/séance/requiem, originally directed for the stage by Emilyn Kowaleski and now filmed by Amber McGinnis, emerges as one of the most searing and satisfying of our pandemic entertainments.

Filmed in March 2021 at Wooly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., and presented by Wooly Mammoth and American Conservatory Theater, Animal Wisdom is, as Christian puts it, “something else.” It’s not theater, it’s not a TV show. It’s in between (like some spirits), and her unique spin involves interactivity (you stand, you sit, you hum). Early on in the two-hour show, she stops the action and sends you on a scavenger hunt around your house. The things you collect will help create a “ritual space” because this is a show about the dead.

Since she was a child in Natchez, Mississippi, Christian has been able to see and communicate with ghosts. Animal Wisdom is about putting some of those ghosts to rest, and so she creates and performs an unusual requiem mass that involves some glorious music that contains everything from folk to rock to pop to gospel to punch-you-in-the-heart communion with…well, with something.

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Christian is our primary focus, but her fantastic band also gets in on the act playing various people – living and dead – in Christian’s life. Sasha Brown, Eric Farber, B.E. Farrow and Maya Sharpe make glorious music and match Christian’s remarkable energy. McGinnis’ filmmaking also powerfully captures the dynamic moods of the show, whether it’s a manic burst of energy that sends actors racing around the theater or a meditative moment on stag in near darkness.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy this tale, though Christian is such an effective storyteller/singer that she could likely sway a skeptic into wondering how many of their own dead they brought to witness this show. Believer or not, there’s a lot of emotion packed into this show, and that’s what cuts through the screen and slices right into your guts. The music is a big part of that – especially when waves of choral voices wash through – and though you can imagine how incredible it might be to participate in Animal Wisdom live and in person alongside other flesh-and-bone folks as well as the spirit guests, the show is a powerhouse onscreen. Sometimes the medium is the message.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Animal Wisdom are available at three pay-what-you-wish prices: $19, $29 and $49. The show streams on Broadway on Demand through Sunday, June 13. Visit www.animalwisdomfilm.com