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

Stream this! Julia Brothers @ SF Playhouse, Alice Childress @ ACT

I have two recommendations for online theater streaming. The first is a play written by and starring one of our best stage actors, and the second is an engaging reading of a timely play about race that happens to be 66 years old.

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Julia Brothers plays herself in her solo show I Was Right Here, streamed as part of the San Francisco Playhouse season. Photo by Donny Gilliland

A train ride through memory
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Julia Brothers on stage in one of her many Bay Area appearances, you know that she is one of those performers you miss at your own peril. For San Francisco Playhouse’s streaming season – and hot on the heels of their extraordinary [hieroglyph] (read my review here) – Brothers not only stars in a solo show, but also makes her debut as a playwright with I Was Right Here. That makes two reasons you don’t want to miss this.

As usual, Brothers is absolutely compelling on stage (even being filmed on stage), and the story she’s telling this time out is her own. Taking the train from Manhattan to her native New Jersey to visit her 97-year-old mother, Brothers begins musing on memory. Lucille, her mom (whom she affectionately calls “madre”), is dealing with dementia and is losing great swaths of memory. Julia is serving as her mom’s link to the quickly receding years, and that sets the actor on her own journey through ghosts of her past and memories she has always relied on but isn’t entirely sure really happened.

In the play’s 75 minutes, Brothers the playwright gives Brothers the actor a highly entertaining variety of places to visit – RFK’s funeral train when Brothers was just a girl, boyfriends and friends who died far too young and a recurring sense of child-like terror when she feels she is not quite as visible or as present as she thinks she is. Director Padriac Lillis and Brothers create a smooth narrative that flows easily through the present and the past so that when Brothers arrives at her destination, she has reached more than just a place.

Brothers delivers a beautiful performance, and though she re-lives loss and trauma from her past, she can’t disguise the abundance of affection for many of the people who populate her recollections. This on top of Brothers’ own incandescence makes I Was Right Here a journey worth taking.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Julia Brothers’ I Was Right Here streams through April 17. Tickets are $15-$100) call 415-677-9596 or visit sfplayhouse.org

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David Harbour (center left) as Al Manners and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Wiletta in a reading of Alice Chidress’ Trouble in Mind, part of American Conservatory Theater’s trilogy of readings, A.C.T. Out Loud. Photo courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Trouble: When theater reflects the world
In the last year, we have seen lots of staged readings via Zoom – it’s been a touchstone to live theater that is reasonably easy to execute and distills the theatrical experience down to actors and words. As we reflect on a year without being together in theaters, it would seem Zoom readings are going to be here a while longer. If they’re all as good and as smartly produced as American Conservatory Theater’s Trouble in Mind, that will be OK.

The first of a trilogy of readings in A.C.T. Out Loud, this 1955 drama by Alice Childress is the flashpoint play we need right now. Childress goes deep into American race and oppression and the shallowness of polite, so-called enlightened society in a story about actors coming together in the mid-’50s to produce an anti-lynching play.

If people show up for a play (or a reading of a play), it figures that they would be interested in going behind-the-scenes at the making of a play, and that’s the genius of Trouble in Mind. Theater is a crucible, and it doesn’t take long into the first rehearsal to begin feeling the tension between the white actors playing the landlords and the Black actors playing the sharecroppers and the mix of attitudes embedded in the play (the play within the play) and the attitudes the actors bring in from the world just outside the theater doors.

Who is willing to stand up and say, “This is some racist bullshit right here”? Who is content to calm the waters and keep a steady paycheck? And who is going to pretend to be an ally until their racist core is fully revealed?

Director Awoye Timpo has assembled a superb cast, and one of the great delights of this reading – something that really helps highlight the performances and underscore the relationships – is the way the reading is “staged” so that it doesn’t look or feel much like Zoom but gives a sense of actors stepping in and out of the action.

Hostility bumps up against compassion, fear battles rage and courage wrestles with cowardice, and that makes for good theater. It also makes for relevant theater that, sadly, makes it seem we’ve hardly moved the needle in almost 70 years.

The entire cast is excellent, but the central conflict is between the white director, Al Manners (played by David Harbour of Stranger Things fame) and his Black star, Wiletta Mayer (played with blazing intensity by Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Their polite, professional relationship degrades quickly in the face of reality, and that makes the pretend of the play almost impossible to uphold. It all comes down to Wiletta saying, “We have to go further and do better.” And that may be the realest thing of all in the play’s two-plus hours.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind continues streaming through April 4. Tickets are $5-$50. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. A.C.T. Out Loud continues with readings of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (April 12–18, 2021) and Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (April 26–May 2, 2021).

ACT puts Scrooge in your head this year

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James Carpenter revisits the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol: On Air, an audio adaptation of the beloved annual production. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Some years I’ve had it up to hear with A Christmas Carol and want nothing to do with the Cratchits, the crutch and bah humbugs. Other years, I feel like there’s never been a more potent perennial, and every human should experience Dickens’ ghost story in one form or another. This year, this mind-bending year, is one of the latter.

American Conservatory Theater has been making holiday hay with Carol for more than 40 years, and in this year of lockdowns and shutdowns and only the memory of audiences, the company has opted to keep the tradition alive, albeit with an audio adaptation that we can listen to from the comfort and safety of our own homes and through the intimacy (if we so choose) of headphones to build the production between our ears.

Director Peter J. Kuo has adapted the adaptation (as it were) by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the Dickens novella, and the conceit here is that a group of young adults (all part of ACT’s MFA program), who constitute a social pod, attend a holiday party and do an impromptu reading of the play. Magic (and nifty sound effects) ensue.

Happily, once the reading begins in earnest, veteran actors James Carpenter and Sharon Lockwood show up – he to reprise his excellent performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and she in a variety of roles, including Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Both Carpenter and Lockwood could perform all the parts and make it dazzling, but it’s satisfying just to have them in the mix with enthusiastic young actors.

The MVP here, without question, is sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who essentially has to replace sets, costumes and lights with an evocative soundscape to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play for two hours. Rodriguez has great fun with all the ghostly elements of the story and also incorporates the original score by Karl Lundeberg effectively. Everything about the production is crisp and straightforward and clear, which is a good thing so the Dickens storytelling can shine through.

Other than the running time (two hours is a long time to sit and listen at home), my one real reservation here is that an adult is saddled with the thankless task of playing Tiny Tim, complete with little boy voice. The role is so pivotal to the plot and to the emotional construct of the story that this casting choice simply does not work.

Happily, and occasionally merrily, the production is mostly filled with vibrant performances and that divine Dickensian blend of gloom and cheer. Despair and hope intermingle throughout (landing on the latter, of course), making this whole holiday enterprise feel especially affecting this year.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air streams online through Dec. 30. Tickets
are $40–$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

ACT Zooms into a new era with Warcraft

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The cast of In Love and Warcraft includes (clockwise from top left) James Mercer as Ryan, Cassandra Hunter as Evie, Wesley Guimarães as Tony and Madeline Isabel Yagle as Chai. Below: Hunter’s Evie and Angulo’s Raul meet in a café. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Our world now is squares, Zoom squares. It’s how we work, how we socialize and how we connect to cultural events all from the safety of our homes. We settle for this because it’s the best we can do for now, and sometimes it almost feels like the real thing.

Over the last almost six months of quarantine, I’ve enjoyed some hearty theater – some favorites have included Arizona Theatre Company’s The White Chip by Sean Daniels, Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins from star Michael Urie’s apartment, Shotgun Players’ Quack by Eliza Clark and The Old Vic’s Three Kings by Stephen Beresford. I’d much rather be in a room where people can actually laugh, cry, gasp and applaud together, but I’ll take what I can get.

The trick with theater on Zoom is how to actually connect the production and the person at home. We have shorter attention spans (at least I certainly do) at home, although I love being able to watch with my dog (Hank, the theater dog). We have distractions at home even when we try to replicate theater conditions with lights and phones turned off. And I have to admit I sigh a little when the show starts and it looks just like a staff meeting I had that morning.

But credit creative directors and designers who are working to turn Zoom into a dynamic theater space. American Conservatory Theater kicks off the fall theater, such as it is, with a production that amply demonstrates how effective Zoom can be as a play space. In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar is a co-production with Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, and it’s a remount of a production made last spring, at the start of quarantine, with members of ACT’s MFA Class of 2022 under the direction of Peter J. Kuo.

It was a smart choice to remount the show for a number of reasons, including the cast’s mastery of the script and the mechanics of managing their own sets and cameras and the fact that Shekar’s script (with a few tweaks by Kuo) unfolds entirely via phone cameras, laptop cameras, Instagram, Tik Tok and even security cameras.

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The cast of students is also playing a group of (mostly) students, so it all makes a certain amount of sense even before it starts, but then Kuo has devised clever ways to convey characters together in the same room – sometimes even making out! – by giving us a glimpse of the same painting on an apartment wall in both Zoom squares or starting a set in one square (the medical posters on a doctor’s wall) and finishing it in the next square (the patient on the exam table). These kind of touches could be distracting, but the fact that they’re even making an effort to create a sense of space is really all we need to climb aboard this particular Zoom train.

The six-member cast handles all of this scene building so deftly that it’s actually more entertaining than distracting, and their performances are so exuberant that they’re more interesting than the sets anyway.

Cassandra Hunter is Evie, the center of the story. A lover of playing a “World of Warcraft”-like multi-player video game and a Cyrano-like writer-for-hire of romantic texts, letters, Facebook posts, etc., Evie is doing what most people in college do: figuring out who she is and what her sexuality means to her. In Evie’s case, her love of the cyber world is partly how she deals with the fear of the real world and her own body in the real world. Her boyfriend (James Mercer as Ryan) is someone with whom she spends most of her time online. A date for them involves exploring a mermaid lagoon in the game they both love. But then one of Evie’s real-world clients, Raul (Hernán Angulo), begins complicating things.

While Evie deals with her fears surrounding real-world relationships, her roommate Kitty (Evangeline Edwards) deals with the repercussions of living her life in exactly the opposite way: no fears of anyone or anything and no desire left unfulfilled.

The world of these characters is filled out by Wesley Guimarães
and Madeline Isabel Yagle in more than a dozen small (occasionally very funny) roles.

If the way this story is told is novel, the plot really isn’t, but it’s still comforting to watch talented actors dive into the small dramas, triumphs and humiliations of young love in a world where online relationships with people you haven’t necessarily met in real life can be as impactful as those with whom you share space.

My challenged attention span found two hours of this story about 30 minutes too much, but it certainly wasn’t for any lack of energy or charm among the cast. The most remarkable aspect of In Love and Warcraft was the illusion of connection – that people really were looking at each other and responding to one another in space and time, physically and emotionally. The barriers of Zoom, it seems, were made to be broken.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
In Love and Warcraft will have two additional live performances Friday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. and Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. In Love and Warcraft will be available on-demand from September 18–25. www.act-sf.org.

G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria fascinates, frightens at ACT

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Coworkers Ani (Martha Brigham, left) and Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) commiserate with each other over their publishing jobs and toxic workplace in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, at ACT’s Strand Theater through April 12. Below: Miles, the intern (Jared Corbin, left), talks with Dean (Jeremy Kahn) about his future plans. Photos by Kevin Berne

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a fascinating play. It’s a lively workplace comedy until it’s an unsettling workplace drama. There’s a sheen of satire to it but also reality and heart. There’s a bracing boldness to it that makes its two hours fly by, and its path is never exactly what you think it will be.

Director Eric Ting navigates the tonal shifts expertly with the support of a sterling cast. There’s not a weak or even wobbly performance here, and with some actors playing up to three roles, that is a thrilling thing. I especially loved Martha Brigham as a good-hearted office busybody, a curt publishing doyenne with an even more curt haircut and as an overly enthusiastic, slightly goofy script reading lackey. I was also delighted by Jared Corbin as a cheerful intern, a loquacious Starbucks employee and, in a sharp contrast to the intern, a show-biz executive.

Three established Bay Area actors, Brigham, Lauren English and Jeremy Kahn are giving the kind of performances that further solidify their status as actors whose work you miss at your peril. They are always good, reliable performers, but more often than not, they are brilliant, and that is most definitely the case here.

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I reviewed Gloria for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

Director Eric Ting, who has previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.
There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark were writing a sitcom for the CW.
But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria continues through April 12 at ACT’s The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Life, death and more fill Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey at ACT

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Guy (Tony Hale) asks the audience to follow him in an exercise of imagination in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey performing at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) stretches as Guy rests. Photos by Kevin Berne

When you write about theater, you tend to take notes while watching the show whenever a line or a moment triggers the part of your brain that says, “Oh, I’d like to mention that later.” During Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the first half had me writing so fast and furiously I finally just had to stop writing entirely and simply absorb the show.

This isn’t surprising in that Eno is one of the most interesting playwrights in the theaterverse. He’s weird and brilliant, funny and deeply humane. Because there can be an oblique and highly theatrical quality to his work, he has often been compared to Beckett, but for me, I feel more Thornton Wilder (somewhere between The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town). He wrestles in creative and insightful and surprising ways with what it is to be alive and how we’re all connected by the knowledge that none of us is getting out of here alive and that we could all probably be doing better when it comes to being aware of our lives as we’re living them.

Wakey, Wakey,, like other Eno works, defies easy description. There are people and things happen, but where they are and what exactly they’re doing isn’t clear. And it doesn’t need to be. We’re all here and this is happening. Director Anne Kauffman eases us into this world, helps us relax and just take the play as it comes without expectations that this is going to follow the rules and rhythms of plays we’ve experienced before.

The play begins with a prologue of sorts, The Substitution, about a community college driver’s ed class where the substitute teacher (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) shakes things up by not behaving the way the students expect her to and ends up giving them something far more interesting (if inscrutable) than the rules of the road.

Then the play begins in earnest with the appearance of Guy (Tony Hale), about whom we know nothing except that our first encounter with him finds him face down on the floor minus his pants. Seconds later, his pants are on, he’s sitting in a wheelchair and he’s talking directly to us.

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Apparently we’re all here for some sort of presentation (well, yes, isn’t that what a play is?). Guy is offering, with the help of some notecards, a semi-inspirational TED-ish talk about the nature of time and about how this is not really how it was supposed to be. The setting (by designer Kimie Nishikawa) is a nondescript auditorium or multipurpose room in some sort of civic or educational institution or perhaps a place where people live together or are receiving treatment. Again, details are sketchy and it doesn’t really matter (although I have theories, and I’m certain they’re all 100% accurate).

What Guy does (or did) before being in this room with us is not known. If he has connections to other people (spouse, child, friends), that also remains a mystery. He’s going to engage us as best he can and share a little of what he knows about life but with lots of distractions and asides. Hale’s basic likability is essential here. We know and love the actor from his incredible work making misfits lovable on “Arrested Development” (Buster) and “VEEP” (Gary) and most recently as the voice of Forky in Toy Story 4 (talk about an existential crisis). None of the quirks we might recognize from other characters inform Guy, who is clearly a kind person if somewhat frustrated by his current situation. So even though we don’t know much about Guy, we like him and connect with him and want him to succeed in this endeavor, even as it seems to grow increasingly difficult for him.

There is another character, possibly someone we met in the prologue (or someone else entirely), and that character helps clarify (a little) what we’re actually witnessing.

Wakey, Wakey feels like more of an experience than a play, one that lingers as a feeling (or an avalanche of feelings) rather than as conundrum we have to pick apart and solve. There’s a lot about death here – does the title refer to a gentle way of rousing a sleeping child or is it a play on the gathering we have after a funeral? – and as a result, it’s positively hopeful and life affirming. This rich experience – barely 90 minutes – is also funny, moving and inspiring. There are so many things we can do with the limited time we’re given. Absorbing Wakey, Wakey would be a good use of that time.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey continues through Feb. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Cricket tests history in ACT’s feisty Testmatch

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Tensions rise as (from left) England 3 (Millie Brooks), England 2 (Arwen Anderson), India 2 (Lipica Shah), India 1 (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) and India 3 (Avanthika Srinivasan) discuss which is the better team in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Testmatch at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 8. Below: The Messenger (Kumbhani, right) shares astonishingly bad news with two British officers, Two (Brooks, left) and One (Anderson). Photos by Kevin Berne

You could say that Kate Attwell’s Testmatch, the world premiere play at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, is about cricket. You could also say it’s about untangling the gnarly knots of history. But the impact, especially in the savvy way Attwell has constructed the play, comes from its emphasis on the deep interconnection of everything to everything.

We think we’re watching a play about an International Cricket Council World Cup match between India and England women’s teams – and that makes for a mightily intriguing play – but really we’re seeing the frayed ends of a knotted rope that stretches back to England’s savage colonizing of India. There are infinite ways of examining how the past is directly affecting the present, but Attwell takes her slice from the world of sport, specifically a byzantine, vaguely baseball-ish sport the British brought to India.

There’s a bit of Caryl Churchill in Testmatch (thinking especially of the Anglo-Indian relations in Cloud 9), and I mean that as high praise. Like Churchill, Attwell digs into intimate details and grand theatrics to find the bigger picture. She also bends gender to her will in a quest to find theater in history and truth in fiction.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, Testmatch has a lively energy, though it surprised me at the end that only 90 minutes had passed. The play somehow feels more substantial and longer than that, which probably has to do with the way Attwell has split the action between present-day England and 19th-century India. In the modern first half, the cricket match in which the India women were leading the England women is interrupted by rain and is unlikely to continue. Three members of each team end up in a sort of ante-locker room to drink tea and vent their frustration. These scenes absolutely crackle with the fire of competition, cultural difference and nefarious secrets.

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Instead of names, the characters are given a nationality and a number, and it’s England 2 (Arwen Anderson) who works to keep the mood light with her astute observations on the differences between male lovers who play cricket (not so much) and those who play rugby (oh, YES, very much!). In spite of her best efforts, things nearly come to blows and racial epithets are nearly hurled and any pretense of good manners shatters.

From there, Nina Ball’s boxy white set shifts, as do Marie Yokoyama’s lights, and we’re in India watching two male buffoons (played by Anderson and Millie Brooks) in Calcutta as they dither and chortle and otherwise carry out their duties for the East India Company. Safely inside the walls of their estate, all is well. Uniformed Abhi (Lipica Shah) keeps things under control and does not at all approve of upping the opium dose for the lady of the house (Madeline Wise as the delusional, visionary Memsahib). From the other side of the wall comes an exuberant young local woman (the charismatic Avanthika Srinivasan as Daanya) who wants to train with the English cricket team. She’s the first crack in the wall, so to speak, as the reality of India begins to invade the colonialists’ willful ignorance of the damage their raping and pillaging of the country is wreaking. Then comes an emissary from Bengal (a gripping Meera Rohit Kumbhani) with news that would devastate anyone…anyone, that is, but a British businessman intent on squeezing out the last of the country’s riches before beating it back to Britain.

Some of the first half’s energy evaporates in the second half as the tone shifts from locker room reality to gender-bending satire and then again to grim, oppressive reality. Those are big shifts to make, and if Attwell and MacKinnon don’t entirely succeed in making them, the marvelous cast pulls out all the dramatic and comedic stops to keep driving the play to its end. There’s a welcome degree of humor in Testmatch, but this is an earnest examination of how deeply personal history can be and about how we never really plumb those depths or find ways – individually or culturally – to deal with the horror and injustice and greed that have placed us where we are today.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kate Attwell’s Testmatch continues through Dec 8 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.