Churchill is tops in ACT’s Top Girls

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Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at ACT’s Geary Theater through Oct. 13. Below: Marlene (Michelle Beck), right, interviews Jeanine (Lin). Photos by Kevin Berne

The mind of Caryl Churchill is an extraordinary place to spend an evening. Happily, this theater season, the Bay Area will see an abundance of Churchill, beginning with American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening Top Girls from 1982. [Upcoming Churchill productions include Cloud 9 at Custom Made Theatre Company, Vinegar Tom from Shotgun Players and Escaped Alone from Magic Theatre.]

Churchill is one of theater’s most bracing, original and fascinating voices. At 81, she just premiered another boundary-pushing work, Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp., at London’s Royal Court, and she never seems to tire of experimenting with form. The one consistent from play to play is ferocious intelligence and curiosity and a mastery of the theatrical to both engage and entertain.

Top Girls is an interesting place to start the Bay Area’s informal Churchill festival. Nearly 40 years after its premiere, the play doesn’t feel dated, even though its time period is very much the big hair, neon colors, Maggie Thatcher world of 1980s London. In this exploration of feminism – specifically what it costs to be a woman, successful or not, in a man’s world – Churchill is in the world of fantasy, the confines of slick workplace ambitions and in the gritty, emotionally dense realm of family drama. She’s traversing, the past, present and future almost simultaneously, which is a dramatic feat to be savored.

The central character is Marlene (Michelle Beck), a committed career woman who has just landed a big promotion at Top Girls, a London employment agency. Act 1 begins with a celebration Marlene is throwing for herself in a posh restaurant’s private room (all shiny glass bricks and cool surfaces in Nina Ball’s set).

In this flight of fancy, Marelene hasn’t invited friends or family, she has invited women from history, some real, some fictional. For instance, there’s Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) who successfully hid the fact that she was a woman in the 9th century and became pope until she rather accidentally gave birth during a procession. Then there’s Dull Gret (Summer Brown) a warrior figure from a Bruegel painting, and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams), a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by way of Boccaccio. Among the most talkative at the table are Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), a concubine to the Japanese emperor, and explorer/author Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal).

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Though there’s a lot of talking over one another like at any dinner party involving lots of wine, each character has a moment to reflect on sacrifices they made in whatever realm of life they were in, and those sacrifices often had specifically to do with their bodies, their children and their relationships with me. What Marlene gets out of this, or how she came to choose such an eclectic guest list, is never quite clear. But we’ll learn more about Marlene’s own sacrifices at attitudes toward those sacrifices as the play proceeds to jump back and forth in time.

Director Tamilla Woodard and her cast take a while to relax into the rhythms of the dinner party. Some actors struggle with accents and with being heard over the general din. Things become more assured as the play progresses. The workplace scenes have some nice crackle to them – one scene is especially sharp, with a long-time employee of a firm (McNeal) making a bold step to find a new gig after realizing she has sacrificed any semblance of a personal life for a company that doesn’t appreciate her.

The sheen of commerce vanishes in Ball’s set as we delve more deeply into Marlene’s personal life, and the details of lower-middle-class home come sharply into focus. This is where the play lives and where all its disparate parts coalesce. Beck’s performance as Marlene crystalizes with help from fine work by Nafeesa Monroe and Gabriella Momah.

It’s interesting to think about what changes Churchill might have made – if any – were she to write Top Girls today. Would women be more supportive of one another? Would the #MeToo movement bring a sense of power or just add layers of complication? It doesn’t really matter because Churchill’s play – like most insightful human dramas – has enough depth and ingenuity to address questions beyond its time. But does it have the answers? That’s more of an off-stage, real-world matter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls continues through Oct. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Pointed Rhinoceros stampedes the Geary stage

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Berenger (David Breitbarth) watches in horror as citizens of his village turn into rhinoceroses in Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Citizens attempt to remain civilized in the face of craziness as people transform into beasts all around them. The cast includes (from left) Jomar Tagatac as Mr. Botard, Danny Scheie as Mr. Papillon, Trish Mulholland as Mrs. Boeuf (rear, on the back of a giant rhino), David Breitbarth as Berenger, Rona Figueroa as Daisy and Teddy Spencer as Mr. Dudard. Photos by Kevin Berne

There are multiple points in human history when Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros would make for funny/terrifying entertainment. Unfortunately, this is one of them.

In Ionesco’s 1959 play, a small French village is best by giant horned pachyderms. Or, more accurately, the citizens are, one by one, turning into beasts. It’s up to one man to resist the herd mentality, hang on to his sanity and resist whatever sort of magic is transforming small-town people into rampaging creatures.

There is never a moment in director Frank Galati’s robust production now at the Geary Theater courtesy of American Conservatory Theater that the audience doesn’t feel the weight of everything happening outside the theater walls, from coast to coast in this small French village we call America. The rhinos in the play (and we see a few of them in Robert Perdziola’s stage design and they’re awesome in every sense of the word) aren’t wearing red baseball caps, but they might as well be.

You might say, hey, wait. Ionesco was responding to Nazis and other really bad people from the 20th century, to which I would say, hey, we have Nazis of our own and hordes of bad people who seem hellbent on lying, cheating, destroying and stupefying. So it’s the perfect climate for Rhinoceros, which goes from silly to scary in only 90 minutes (including intermission).

Galati’s production has a finely tuned sense of what’s important here, and that changes as the play progresses. The first scene, for instance, takes place in front of a small backdrop painted with a village scene. Two friends are having a drink and arguing in front of a cafe when the first rhino is spotted in town. That causes a stir, but not quite the stir you might imagine if something like this were actually to happen. It’s more of a curiosity that townsfolk can regard as not really involving or affecting them. The tone is light, the pace brisk. Actors Matt DeCaro (a comic powerhouse) as Gene and David Breitbarth as Berenger, our unlikely hero, are arguing over propriety. Gene is all about it. Berenger is bored, disheveled and wants a drink. But then the rhino thing starts to get out of hand. Berenger’s workplace – the local newspaper – is damaged by a stampeding beast, but that’s not enough to convince Mr. Botard (the excellent Jomar Tagatac) that the rhinos exist or that there’s not something else happening here. He dubs all of this “fake news.” I’m hoping that translator Derek Prouse didn’t have to massage that quote at all and that Ionesco himself would have chosen those exact words if he were translating it today.

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More citizens are turning into rhinos, including Berenger’s best pal Gene, who does not slip easily into the weathered hide of the beast, but oh boy does that give DeCaro a lot to play with (at one point he even does the Macarena and the Floss to hilarious effect).

What was funny and absurd begins to carry more weight with each succeeding scene. The painted backdrops give way to a dark stage in which a giant rhinoceros looms (the lighting is by Chris Lundhal), and the tension mounts. Characters continue to debate philosophy and the true intention of the rhinos (or the people who want to join the rhinos) as if there was actually something to debate (people are turning into rhinos for goodness’ sake!). Whatever the reasons for this occurrence, it has actually occurred, and the majority has quite willingly accepted – some even enthusiastically – this new life of knocking about on four legs with a horn (or two, depending if you’re an Asiatic or African rhino). At some point you have to just shut up and try to do something.

That something for Berenger (so vividly and empathetically portrayed by Breitbarth) is to hold on to his humanity with everything he’s got, which turns out to be a whole lot more than he or anyone he knows could have guessed.

Galati pitches the mounting intensity with skill, and he gets able assistance from a cast that includes the always fascinating Danny Scheie as a newspaper editor and Rona Figuero as Daisy, a seemingly sensible, sensitive person and (we think) good romantic match for Berenger. The fact that she has a gorgeous voice and keeps singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” is a definite plus. Until it’s creepy.

ACT might consider selling red baseball caps in the lobby. But instead of the usual white-stitched words, they could read as a manifesto: “I will not capitulate!”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros continues through July 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Glorious Weightless soars back to SF

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

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

(Read my original review here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A non-traditional Vanity Fair bows at ACT

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The cast of Kate Hamill’s Vanity Fair continuing at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through May 12. Below: The cast includes (from left) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Lesser Pitt, Vincent Randazzo as Sir Pitt and Anthony Michael Lopez as Rose Crawley. Photos by Scott Suchman

For their adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, writer Kate Hamill and director Jessica Stone do a little bit of cheating. Hamill has decided to liven things up by making this a play about a play about a novel. We are in American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, but on stage, we’re told that our actual location is “Strand Musick Hall,” and the opening number tells us that seven actors are going to play all the parts for the next 2 1/2 hours. So we have a play about a play and actors playing actors playing multiple characters from Thackeray’s sprawling novel about two women – one impoverished and aggressive, the other well-heeled and passive – whose friendship begins in private school and extends through abundant highs, lows, triumphs and humiliations.

This approach is both enjoyably energetic and problematic. The theater-within-theater conceit works well to keep the tone light and fresh and funny, especially when the actors are allowed to play across gender or utilize masks or stick puppets to fill out the parade of characters. The attempt to incorporate musical numbers, featuring original pre-recorded music by Jane Shaw, should serve to bump up the energy and underscore the theatrical nature of the storytelling. But because no one in the otherwise wonderful cast seems comfortable with the singing, the musical numbers become something of a burden.

The other problem with the hyper-theatrical storytelling is that when the story or a particular character’s plight turns serious, or just when we might be fully suspending our disbelief and becoming fully immersed in the plot, the theatrical conceit (or a song) jolts us right back to being more of an observer and less of an emotional participant. That’s a shame because the performances grow and deepen in ways that make us want to care more and observe less.

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In those moments, Vanity Fair is utterly captivating, and the same can be said for some of the lighter moments when the caricatures are spot on. The redoubtable Dan Hiatt, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliably wonderful actors, is the de facto narrator (or Manager, as he’s called) to keep things rolling and add spicy commentary here and there. That’s great, but Hiatt is even better when he gets to play extremes, like the dowager Aunt Matilda, whose ill health and vast fortune make her quite appealing to potential heirs, and the creepy, well-connected Lord Steyne (well named), whose charity comes with much too high a price.

Most of the actors play multiple roles save for the two main characters, Becky Sharp, played sharply (naturally) by Rebekah Brockman, and Amelia Sedley, played with warmth by Maribel Martinez. These two lifelong friends/combatants are subjected to the strain of being an ambitious orphan (Becky) and the impermanence of being a wealthy milquetoast. As Becky maneuvers her way up the social ladder (largely thanks to two characters played by the enormously likable Vincent Randazzo), Amelia finds her station sinking. But what is more defining – character or situation? It’s a question that gets asked a lot (there’s a lot of plot), and the answer may be different for each woman. Brockman and Martinez are superb, and the play is at its best when the two of them are together, whether their characters are sharing sisterly affection for hurling deeply felt insults at one another.

Of the supporting players, Anthony Michael Lopez makes the strongest impression as Dobbin, the soldier who has long pined for Amelia, even during her marriage to the dastardly George (a wily Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) whose faults elude her. Lopez makes Dobbin’s affection so potent it threatens to become the dominant romance, when that title belongs to Becky and her own soldier, Rawdon (a dashing, conniving Adam Magill), who understands what Becky must do to keep their tenuous lifestyle going…until he doesn’t.

Through the vicissitudes of 19th-century life in the court of King George, battles against Napoleon and tumultuous relationships with unreliable men, Becky and Amelia make their choices and suffer (mostly) the consequences, even as they keep on, as they say, keeping on. They manage to do what they can to live the lives they have long imagined for themselves, whether of the nasty or virtuous variety. When this production slows down long enough, we begin to feel the weight of that perseverance, but then we move quickly on, leaving this boisterous Vanity Fair to revel in its appealing surfaces rather than in something more substantive.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray continues through May 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

ACT’s deep dive into Albee’s Seascape

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Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) meet Leslie (Seann Gallagher), a human-sized lizard that has just crawled out of the sea, in Edward Albee’s Seascape at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 17. Below: McLaughlin and Carpenter are startled by two human-sized lizards, played by Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon. Photos by Kevin Berne

As directing debuts go, Pam MacKinnon’s for American Conservatory Theater is pretty auspicious. Her production of Seascape by Edward Albee is her first on the Geary Theater stage since taking over as artistic director last year. A Tony Award-winner (for Albee’s 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who has worked on other Bay Area stages (Berkeley Rep, Magic), MacKinnon seems to have landed quite comfortably in the world of institutional regional theater.

Her production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 play crackles with crisp performances that easily carry the audience through the more naturalistic aspects of the play and into its wilder, more absurdist regions. When the curtain rises, there’s a moment of refreshing awe at the sight of David Zinn’s set: tall, grassy sand dunes along the Atlantic coast. The sound of waves crash in the background, the peace occasionally interrupted by a screaming jet plane overhead (sound design by Brendan Aanes). It’s interesting that the back of the theater is left exposed, as are all the bright, sunny lights that comprise designer Isabella Byrd’s grid. There’s reality and there’s fantasy reality occupying the same space, which is entirely appropriate for this play.

Seascape begins as a marital drama (an Albee specialty). A long-married couple is readjusting to retirement and the twin notions of aging and mortality as reality rather than concept. Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) has found her happy place on this sunny stretch of beach. She envisions a future free of grown children, grandchildren and responsibilities. She floats the notion of becoming beach nomads and seeing the world from sand strip to sand strip. But Charlie (James Carpenter) wants to do nothing. “We’ve earned a rest,” he keeps saying. This schism – “purgatory before purgatory” – is cause for a discussion that gets deeper and more intimate between husband and wife, and McLaughlin and Carpenter are riveting. They feel deeply connected yet strongly individual and can also be quite funny.

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Traversing the bumpy landscape of matrimony with this couple makes for surprisingly grand entertainment. Nothing major or melodramatic is happening, but in a way, as they review their life together, everything is happening. But then something major really does happen: a couple of human-sized lizards crawl out of the sea and begin a fairly deep existential discussion with the humans (once everyone determines that one couple is not interested in eating the other). It’s a little like the two-couple dynamic of Virginia Woolf meets the monster-in-the-house horror of A Delicate Balance.

Because Albee’s script is so smart and funny, and because the performances of the humans and the lizards – Sarah Nina Hayon as Sarah and Seann Gallagher as Leslie – are so warm and real, there’s never any difficulty making the leap into fantasy. The absurdity is quite enjoyable (like the man having the affair with the goat named Sylvia in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), although Albee never quite solves the internal logic of how Sarah and Leslie have excellent vocabularies and seem to know what human months and years are but don’t know what birds are. Because we’re in the realm of evolution and those key moments when the next phase actually happens, it feels like something’s missing in the story of the lizards’ evolution up to this point. But we do get some wonderful “learning” moments, as when the lizards learn the human custom of shaking hands to say hello.

Designer Zinn’s costumes for Sarah and Leslie are spectacular, and the way Hayon and Gallagher inhabit them makes them so much more than green suits with giant tails. It’s easy to fall in love with these creatures, especially Sarah, who is curious and empathetic in ways that make you root for her personal evolution. If she can do it, you know Leslie, who seems not quite as advanced, can do it, too.

There’s a sag in Act 2, and Albee doesn’t quite seem to know where he wants his curious quartet to land. The overall tone of Seascape carries the tidal weight of existence and emotional turmoil, but that is lifted somehow by an element of hope and acceptance.

[BONUS INTERVIEW]
I talked to ACT’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, about making her ACT directorial debut with Seascape for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Edward Albee’s Seascape continues through Feb. 17 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Shooting the rapids and tweaking history in ACT’s Men on Boats

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A brawny and eclectic band of explorers navigates a series of dangerous rapids on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 16. Below: Bradley (Katherine Romans) and Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala) aboard Kitty Clyde’s Sister navigate through the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Photos by Kevin Berne

Oars up! Oars out! We’re going adventuring.

The first thrill of our adventure is the sheer delight of seeing 10 women on stage – 10! – in the American Conservatory Theater production of Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus now at The Strand Theater. How often do we get to see that many marvelous women on a stage together? Hardly ever. What makes this assemblage even more enjoyable is that, like Hamilton and the way it re-cast our founding fathers as people of color, Backhaus tells the true story of late 19th century explorers in Colorado and Arizona – all of them men, naturally – played by a cast of women.

The exuberance and sincerity with which these actors tackle these roles quickly eliminates any thought that this gender switch might be gimmicky. Under the astute direction of Tamilla Woodard, the actors aren’t pretending to be men. They’re inhabiting characters who grow more interesting with each scene in the play’s swift 90 minutes, but they’re also getting to play in the big adventuring playground that has for so long been exclusively the domain of white men.

In the telling of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers and through the Grand Canyon (then known as the Big Canyon), Backhaus requires no men, no water and no actual boats. We get parts of boats, with office chairs and stools also serving as Whitehall boats while the crew braves these wild rivers. It’s all about imagination here, with Nina Ball’s set, comprising moving backdrops made of giant topographic maps, beautifully evoking the canyons and rocks of the Southwest.

This is a robust, highly enjoyable tale of adventure, the kind we’re used to seeing in old movies and reading in books that were targeted to a male audience. Having it brought to life by women somehow gives it new life and excitement. We’re able to read the relationships better and see the human beyond the character traits. This isn’t a deep dive into the psyches of our explorers – none of whom had experience rafting rivers – but we see and hear enough to know that they’ve lived lives before this expedition, and they harbor scars and triumphs and the complexities of humans surviving in a rough world.

Liz Sklar is Powell, the over-inflated leader of this government-sanctioned trek. He often speaks like he’s running for office, but he’s also endearingly sincere and surprisingly sturdy as a leader. Toward the end of the trip, when things are looking pretty grim for the dwindling crew, Sklar taps into some powerful emotion that ensures, despite all the laughs, that attention is paid to the trip’s expanding emotional weight.

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Powell’s brother, who goes by the name Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala), is an unsettling guy, whose propensity for bursting into song yield creepy songs that probably have something to do with his service in the Civil War. Another veteran on the trip, 19-year-old Bradley (a priceless Katherine Romans), had quite a different war experience with no actual combat. That could explain his indomitable good cheer.

Much less cheerful are the Howland brothers, Seneca (Lisa Hori-Garcia) and O.G. (Lauren Spencer), who might be filching from the supplies, while easily sunburned Brit Frank Goodman (Arwen Anderson) isn’t so much a hardy explorer as he is a rich tourist out for some thrills (until the thrills get too thrilling, that is).

In a play that uses contemporary language to elicit lots of laughs, no one has better comic timing than Libby King as John Colton Sumner, a likable pain in the ass who has a distinct loathing of snakes. The resident hunter/trapper (Sarita Ocón as William Dunn), cook (Amy Lizardo as Hawkins) and map maker (Rosie Hallett as Hall) all start out with crisply defined roles in the crew but emerge as some of the most interesting people in the bunch – and that’s one of the things that makes Backhaus’ play so good. You not only come to like just about everybody in these boats, but also feel a sense of kinship and understanding. What begins as a rip-roaring good adventure with expertly staged dangers – dangling off a cliff! waterfalls! capsized boat! rattlesnakes! man overboard! – becomes something more as the men bond, fracture, re-bond and face the very real possibility of not surviving to the end.

Just as women were never part of these adventure narratives, neither were Native Americans rarely seen as anything more than invisible, incidental or just plain villainous. But here, Backhaus gives a native couple (superbly played by Hori-Garcia and Spencer) one of the play’s juiciest scenes as they offer hospitality and supplies to our bumbling, oblivious explorers while serving them vast, continental-sized shade. Re-writing history is the work of actual villains, but re-casting history, as it turns out, can be whole lot of fun.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats continues through Dec. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

ACT’s musical Moon never quite achieves lift off

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The cast of the world-premiere musical A Walk on the Moon at American Conservatory Theater includes (from left) Molly Hager as Bunny, Monique Hafen as Rhoda, Ariela Morgenstern as Eleanor, Kerry O’Malley as Lillian and Katie Brayben as Pearl. Below: Pearl (Brayben) and her husband Marty (Jonah Platt) dance while Marty sings about how much he looks forward to seeing Pearl every weekend. Photos by Alessandra Mello

There’s a better musical struggling to emerge from the overgrown but amiable mess that is A Walk on the Moon, the world premiere that American Conservatory Theater is launching on the Geary Theater stage.

Based on the 1999 movie of the same name and featuring a book by Pamela Gray, who also wrote the screenplay, the musical is essentially two summertime coming-of-age stories: one for the housewife who had her first child at 17 and has lost her sense of self in the ensuing 14 years; and one for the 14-year-old daughter who is experiencing her first romance and also figuring out her parents are human beings (flaws and all).

It’s the summer of 1969 in a Catskills bungalow colony where New York’s Jewish families escape the oppressive city heat, and there will be two defining events. Neil Armstrong will become the first man to walk on the moon, and just a stone’s throw from the bungalows, 400,000 people will descend on a music festival called Woodstock.

The musical closely follows the movie as Pearl, the mother, embarks on an affair with The Blouse Man (the hippie version of a traveling salesman), while her husband, Marty, is stuck at his television repair job in the city. Alison, the angsty, angry teenage daughter, has a sweet summer romance with Ross, a fellow camper with a penchant for guitar playing and songwriting. The two summer flings intersect (not very believably), and the Kantrowitz family, which also includes Marty’s mom, Lillian, and younger son, Danny, is thrown into crisis.

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The basic problem with this musical Walk is that it doesn’t come to emotional life until Act 2. The Act 1 ending, with the entire camp gathered to watch the moon landing and walk, should be thrilling, but it’s not. It feels like a bunch of characters, most of whom we barely know or care about, watching TV. We see the broadcast footage on the giant projection screen that makes up the set’s back wall, but watching TV in live theater is never exciting. The same is true when the characters go to Woodstock. The stage is awash in archival footage of the concert, so it never feels like a live event being experienced by the characters. It feels like actors wandering through archival footage. Also not exciting.

The score, with music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman (and additional lyrics by Gray) is, like so much of the show itself, pleasant but bland, and there’s way too much of it. Of course the moon landing is a pivotal communal, emotional event for the show (and the country), but Goodman and Gray pound the metaphor of the lunar accomplishment into painful, monotonous submission. Some lines and lyrics are corny beyond belief, giving truth to the old legend – at least this Moon is occasionally made of cheese.

There’s often a visible moon in the sky of Tal Yarden’s projections, and at one point in Act 2, the moon is so big, it looms over Donyale Werle’s verdant mountain forest set like the evil Death Star.

Though there’s a cast of 14, there are really only five characters of note. Pearl, as played by Katie Brayben, is a strong focal point for the show, though she never has the charm or vulnerability that Diane Lane brought to the movie (a tall order to be sure, but Lane really did make the movie work). Jonah Platt as Marty is most interesting in Act 2 when his world starts to crumble and he has to reevaluate who he is as a husband, father and human.

Zak Resnick is so soft spoken and gentle as The Blouseman (aka Walker Jerome) that he barely registers, but Kerry O’Malley is superb as Pearl’s smart cookie mother-in-law, and her big number, “The Microscope,” is the one song that makes a real emotional connection.

Brigid O’Brien as Alison, makes a strong impression as a screaming teen who hates her mother, so it’s delightful to watch her blossom as she falls for the dorky/cool charm of Ross (Nick Sacks) and then to see her maturing into a more emotionally grounded young woman.

Director Sheryl Kaller and her creative team traffic heavily in nostalgia, and that’s just not enough to sustain the 2 1/2-hour show. There’s a lot of dead space in Act 1, and that hampers the eventual lift off of Act 2. To be more wicked about it, there’s a long way to go before A Walk on the Moon begins defying gravity.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
A Walk on the Moon continues through July 1 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Parks finds poetry, drama in epic Father

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The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones, third from left), Hero’s surrogate father, suggests that Hero (James Udom, second from left) cut off his foot so he will be unfit to go to war in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), at ACT’s Geary Theater. Observing the action are (rear, left to right) Hero’s wife, Penny (Eboni Flowers), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez, front), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka, back), and Third (Safiya Fredericks, back). Below: Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace, center), Hero’s faithful pet, appears with updates on Hero’s return from the war. Photos by Joan Marcus

There’s some epic myth-making happening on the stage of American Conservatory Theater’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks – one of those great American playwrights whose mere name should always inspire you to check out her work – nods in the direction of other great epics, most notably The Odyssey, but also, as she has said, The Oresteia and The Mahabharata as she tells the story of a slave who reluctantly follows his master into the Civil War.

It’s interesting that Parks’ title is very specifically about a father coming home, but in the play, no character is (yet) a father. Perhaps this is an indication of the even greater scope of Parks’ project, which she envisions as being at least six more parts.

As it stands now, Father’s three parts clock in at a solid three hours (with one intermission), and under the direction of Liz Diamond, part one, which essentially explores whether our hero, named Hero, naturally, will actually accompany his master into war in exchange, so the master promises, for his freedom at the end of the fight, becomes repetitive and draggy in spite of fiery performance by Steven Anthony Jones as The Oldest Old Man and father figure to Hero (again, not an actual father). It seems Parks is slowly ramping up her storytelling – a rich blend of the contemporary, the lyrical and the classical – because part two is much more engaging, with part three finding an ending that doesn’t quite feel like an ending (because more parts are forthcoming).

In part two, we get right into the crux of what it means to be free. Hero (a stalwart James Udom), has reluctantly followed The Colonel (Dan Hiatt) into war. It rankles Hero that he’s fighting on the wrong side, but he’s such a noble character that the thought of running away strikes him as stealing because he is the property of someone else. The Colonel, who is fond of drink and oration, is holding forth in front of his captured Union soldier, Smith (Tom Pecinka). The interactions between Hero and the soldier are especially charged and lead Hero to wonder how much he’ll be worth when freedom comes. Freedom, as it turns out, isn’t actually free.

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Hiatt delivers an astonishing monologue about how happy The Colonel is to be white, and the conclusion of this war section is tender and wrenching. You’d think such adjectives would be more appropriate for part three, when Hero, now called Ulysses (a nod to Homer and to Gen. Grant), returns to his pining wife Penny (Eboni Flowers) back on the plantation. But this final part, rather than being emotional, tends toward the comic thanks to Hero’s faithful canine companion, Odyssey Dog, played with adorable verve by Gregory Wallace. In Parks’ world, it’s not remotely odd that the dog can talk, but it is frustrating that he can’t seem to get to the part of his story that reveals whether Hero is alive or dead.

The stakes are high. There’s word about some sort of (emancipation) proclamation having to do with freedom, but the three runaway slaves hiding out in the slave quarters until nightfall (Rotimi Agbabiaka, Chivas Michael and Britney Frazier filling in for Safiya Fredericks at Wednesday’s opening-night performance) are still heading out. The trio may become a quartet with the addition of Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), a slave whose foot was cut off years ago by Hero in a cruel demonstration of power and punishment dictated by The Colonel. In Hero’s absence, Homer and Penny have shared a bed, but Penny has saved her heart for Hero/Ulysses, a man whose name change isn’t the only lasting effect of his wartime experience.

Parks finds music in her dialogue, and she has also woven a musician (guitarist/singer Martin Luther McCoy) into this tale, further elevating the lyricism of her epic. Set designer Riccardo Hernández and lighting designer Yi Zhao lend the story a sense of vastness and space in their elegantly spare stage pictures.

It’s interesting that Father Comes Home is the second time in the last year here in the Bay Area we’ve seen The Odyssey refracted through the African-American experience. Last summer, California Shakespeare Theater offered up black odyssey, Marcus Gardley’s extraordinarily moving and vibrant journey of a man named Ulysses (read my review here and note that the production returns to Cal Shakes this summer Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Clearly the time has come to crack open the classics and reflect the epic nature of every human struggle against oppression and violence, the intricate dramas of every human heart and the ways in which every life is connected, one to the other.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)continues through May 20 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Vietgone at ACT

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Quang (James Seol, front) and friend Nhan (Stephen Hu, back) embark on a motorcycle trip from Arkansas to California in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. Below: Two hippies (Cindy Im, left, and Jomar Tagatac) smoke a joint. Photos by Kevin Berne

I reviewed Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, an American Conservatory Theater production at The Strand Theatre, for Theatermania.com. Here’s an excerpt:

From the start, Nguyen attempts to defy expectations when he has an actor pretending to be him (Jomar Tagatac) tell the audience what they’re about to see. Even though the play begins with the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War and has a great deal to do with that conflict, he says this is a play about love, not war. Specifically, it’s a love story about two people who resemble his parents but are definitely not his parents. He also describes how characters will be speaking. The Vietnamese characters will not speak with the kind of Asian accents we’re too used to hearing on stage or screen. Rather, these characters will speak in a hip, urban lingo more akin to today than 1975 when most of the play’s action takes place. The American characters will speak in explosions of stereotypical nonsense involving words like “NASCAR,” “Botox,” “freckles,” and, of course, “cheeseburger.” This introduction builds an excitement that slowly dwindles throughout Act 1.

Read the full review here.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION
Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone continues through April 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$90 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Party on, Pinter! ACT throws a Birthday bash

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Stanley (Firdous Bamji) plays his new drum as Meg (Judith Ivey) listens with glee in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

There’s a lot to love about American Conservatory Theater’s The Birthday Party, a funny, slightly freaky Harold Pinter. The cast is uniformly strong, director Carey Perloff (essaying her last directorial effort as ACT’s artistic director) deftly balances the unease and the humor.

But for me, the joy, the electrical charge, the bright light of the production is Judith Ivey. She’s slightly daffy as Meg, who runs a boarding house with her laconic husband (Dan Hiatt), but she comes to life in the presence of her sole boarder (Firdous Bamji), with whom she has a flirtatious/motherly relationship. She’s also the life of a birthday party that shouldn’t be happening. And she’s not someone you want making your breakfast.

Ivey is such an absolute delight she elevates the entire production.

I reviewed The Birthday Party for TheaterMania.com. Here’s an excerpt.

The play’s sense of imminent threat gives it (sadly) a timeless feeling. Ball’s set and Candice Donnelly’s prosaic costumes feel neither current nor specifically dated. This is a world of contrasts, and Perloff’s finely tuned production makes the most of this. There’s a feeling of the past built into the walls of the boarding house (heightened by Robert Hand’s stark lighting design), and yet everything feels of the moment, a big laugh will be followed by a chill, and a goofy interplay will suddenly turn threatening and deeply serious.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party continues through Feb. 4 at the Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.