2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Be mindful of the gap: Small Mouth Sounds howls at ACT

Cast of Small Mouth Sounds2_Photo by T Charles Erickson
The cast of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, an almost entirely wordless play presented by American Conservatory Theater at The Strand Theater, includes (clockwise from left) Ben Beckley, Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Edward Chin-Lyn, Socorro Santiago and Cherene Snow. Below: Six urbanites experience the awkward tension of a silent meditation retreat. Photos by T. Charles Erickson

In the predominantly wordless play Small Mouth Sounds, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, it was a seemingly shambolic monologue that struck like a bolt of theatrical lightning.

The genius of Bess Wohl’s play, which is taking a victory lap around the country after its success off Broadway, is the way she and director Rachel Chavkin (late of Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) sculpt the silence and the storytelling into beats and rests and crescendos like conductors offering a symphony on the noise and connect/disconnect of modern life. There’s so little that’s actually said that every actual word, every sigh or grunt (or other small mouth sound) tells us something about a character’s emotional state or relationship with another character or with life in general.

This is a play about discovery, and because it’s such a unique experience to spend time in the relative quiet of mostly wordless storytelling, it’s best not to know too much. But do know this: Wohl and Chavkin, working with set designer Laura Jellinek, lighting designer Mike Inwood and sound designer Stowe Nelson have everything so firmly under control that you can just relax and trust that this will be a rewarding experience – warm, funny and moving.

The nice thing about Wohl’s premise – six urbanites descend on a forest retreat center for five days of silent meditation under the tutelage of heard-not-seen guru (Orville Mendoza) – is that everyone could easily come off as a stereotypical joke of a spiritually starved/evolved human giving in to New Age hooey. But as with most details here, Wohl is more interested in actual, flawed humans than in tired sketches.

Cast of Small Mouth Sounds3_Photo by T Charles Erickson

The six retreaters all feel like people we know (or think we do), and by the end of the play’s 100 minutes, we care about them because we’re invested in their quest to find answers to help them change something about their lives. That something in most of the cases here, is pain caused by death, disease, catastrophic luck, heartbreak, overweening ego. You know, the usual.

Mostly the characters abide by the rule of silence, but several of them – Cherene Snow as Judy and Brenna Palughi as Alicia – have a hard time unplugging from the digital world and just need to do one more thing on the iPad or make one more desperate call. Another great thing about the play (and Jellinke’s set) is that we can go from the meditation room to the bear-infested forest (featuring nature projections by video designer Andrew Schneider) to the sleeping quarters, where in frames of light, we watch the intimate rituals of getting ready for sleep and dealing with another person in that space. For roomies Ned (Ben Beckley), a serious all-in kind of guy, and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a celebrity yoga guru, it’s a decidedly uncomfortable space but fascinating to watch how much we get to know about these men simply by watching them interact wordlessly (and in passive and not-so-passive aggressive ways).

Also serious about making the most of her retreat are Joan (Socorro Santiago), whose fragile optimism seems destined to shatter, and Jan (Connor Barrett), a quirky guy who can’t seem to get enough sleep but is also capable of small but powerful acts of kindness.

Amid all the awkwardness and failed attempts at spiritual evolution, we get moments of genuine sadness (a kind of grief with the force of a locomotive) and silliness (skinny-dipping anyone?), all of it leading to – what? – the end of the retreat, certainly. But like the retreaters, we hope for something more than simply an ending: connection, hope or, if we’re really lucky, transcendence. Amazingly, Small Mouth Sounds offers some of all that.

But that lightning-bolt monologue is the thing that super-charges the play because, from a place of inner peace-seeking and spoofing, it seriously asks if, in a time of tumult and trouble, we should really be seeking inner peace. Maybe we should be riled up and angry and acting on those feelings. Maybe, amid the silence, we can use our words to make outer change as well as inner.

[bonus interview]
I talked with playwright Bess Wohl for a feature in the San Francisco Examiner. Read it here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds continues through Dec. 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $14-$90. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Peter Brook creates sacred space in Battlefield at ACT

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The elegance of simplicity creates space that allows for the profound reward of listening, truly listening. Peter Brook probably wouldn’t want to be labeled a legendary director, but he is. His more than 70-year career is festooned with innovation, genius and the fascinating arc of an artist following his muse rather than his ego. In Battlefield, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the 92-year-old director achieves something sublime in its stripped-down beauty and incredibly moving in its poetic grappling with the meaning of life.

In 1985, Brook, along with collaborators Jean-Claude Carrière and Marie-Hélène Estienne, debuted a mammoth nine-hour stage adaptation of The Mahabharata, an ancient Sanskrit poem depicting an epic battle of good versus evil. In 2015, Brook and his collaborators revisited that massive text to explore what happened after the war was over. Battlefield is only just over an hour in length, and it is performed by four actors and a musician. Though its elements are simplified, its power is extraordinary.

Theater at its most elemental is humans telling stories to other humans, the very means by which we realize our humanity: we sit in awareness, together, of our shared awareness. Battlefield is at once epic and personal, mythical and real, which is to say this is storytelling at is best.

With a cost of what we are told is millions of lives, the battle between the Kauravas (descended from demons, so, the bad guys) and the Pandavas (descended from the gods, hence, the good guys) is ended, and those left behind are taking stock and attempting to come to terms with what it was all about. One of the ways they deal with weighty issues like grief, guilt and despair is to tell stories – stories about a boy and a snake, about a worm in the road, about choices made in youth, about redemption and destiny.

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You don’t have to know anything about The Mahabharata to fully enjoy this gorgeous production. The actors – Carole Karemera (who is succeeded by Karen Aldridge beginning May 16), Jared McNeill, Ery Mzaramba and Sean O’Callaghan – are such gifted storytellers that all you have to do is listen and watch the way they transform in the simplest of ways using bright, blue, and red and gold swaths of fabric as if they were enchanted cloaks. Musician Toshi Tsuchitori adds to the rhythmic thrust of the action on stage and plays a very important role toward the end of the show when the secret of life is revealed (spoiler alert: the answer involves a rather profound silence).

Brook’s most famous book is called The Empty Space, and it’s clear from his work here, just how powerful that empty space can be when it is filled with just enough elements to create magic: actors who supply just enough emotion, costumes (by Oria Puppo) that are graceful but commanding, lights (by Philippe Vialatte) that shape space as much as they illuminate story, and a text that has the power to transcend a specific culture by addressing the very core of what it means to be alive on the planet, in battle or out.

As a director, Brook doesn’t lecture, doesn’t cheerlead, doesn’t judge. He lets the story be the story, and in this case, that story is about how humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of causing grief for themselves and damage for the world they inhabit. When they win, they lose, and vice-versa. There’s a simple level of good vs. evil and then layers of complication underneath, all presented with such focused simplicity that its beauty can be breathtaking.

Battlefield is theater (and life) distilled down to an essence of gentle reflection. This isn’t the Greeks beating their chests and screeching at the heavens. This isn’t Shakespeare orating beautifully about the vagaries of life. It’s sad humans contemplating their role and function in a baffling universe and grappling with that unknowable shape shifter known as destiny.

[bonus video]
Just for kicks, you can watch the nearly six-hour television adaptation of The Mahabharata on YouTube!

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Peter Brook’s Battlefield continues through May 21 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Splendid visuals in Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT

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Wellesley Robertson III (left) as Miles Davis and Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau in Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT’s Geary Theater through April 23. Below: Normand as Cocteau. Photos by Tristram Kenton

With Needles and Opium, writer, director and theatrical visionary Robert Lepage has created a show that will be remembered – not necessarily for what it’s about but definitely for the way it looks.

What began as a 1991 one-man show performed by Lepage himself in his native Québec City has evolved into a theatrical marvel, the kind of show that creates one jaw-dropping image after another.

You could say it’s still a one-man show…ish. There’s a very Lepage-ish central character named Robert (Olivier Normand, an actor from Québec who is in Paris to narrate a documentary about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1949 concerts in a Parisian jazz festival. He’s also suffering intensely from a broken heart. From his room in the Hôtel de la Louisiane (Room No. 9, which is significant because it was once occupied by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) he struggles through his pain leaning heavily on the music of Miles Davis, who appears as a silent, trumpet-playing character played by Wellesley Robertson III, and on the writings of Jean Cocteau, specifically his 1949 “Lettre aux Américains,” written on his way back to France after spending time in New York.

Unlike Davis, whose silence (save for his trumpet playing) seems strange, Cocteau, also played by Normand, talks a lot, with his most engaging monologue happening during a creative photo session with Life magazine. The notable thing about this trio of men – Robert, Davis, Cocteau – is that Davis and Cocteau are pretty interesting, while Robert isn’t. We hear him work his way through a tedious recording session for the documentary while watching images of Davis’ former lover, Juliette Gréco, flicker on the wall. We hear uncomfortable phone conversations with an operator, a front-desk clerk, a hypnotherapist and the ex who shattered his heart. In each of these cases, the constraints of the solo show are apparent as he must repeat what the invisible person has said in some way for our benefit.

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While the narrative of the piece, which also encompasses Davis’ battle with heroin (apparently Cocteau also battled opium addiction much of his life), never comes across as terribly cohesive or even compelling, Lepage’s visual storytelling is mind blowing. With his team from Ex Machina, he has created a show that doesn’t really need dialogue. I’d have probably been just as happy, if not happier, to watch the show unfold with only Davis’ music to accompany it. It’s something along the lines of high art/high intellect meets theme park razzle dazzle, which is a surprisingly tasty combination.

Set designer Carl Fillion has created a tiny rotating space at center stage: it’s three sides of a cube, and the action is confined almost entirely on, in or around the cube, with minimal activity (like a brief image of Gréco in a bathtub) happening on the floor of the stage. Actors are harnessed to or dangled above the cube, and the space becomes a hotel room, the streets of New York, outer space, the streets of Paris, a recording studio, a concert hall and various unnamable psychic spaces occupied by artists, addicts and the lovelorn. Images (by Lionel Arnould), both still and moving, are projection mapped onto the cube with astonishing precision and variety to help define all the different locations, and the acute lighting by Bruno Matte and sound design by Jean-Sébastien Côté further sharpen and deepen the theatrical experience. Director Louis Malle even appears briefly through the magic of projection to talk about hiring Davis to score his movie Elevator to the Gallows.

Doors and windows and trapdoors continue appearing the walls of the cube. Beds and lamps and chairs suddenly appear and then just as suddenly disappear. Cocteau, seen hovering in space, even appears to dive into a hole in the floor. It’s all astonishing and marvelous and dazzling – so much so, in fact, that all the other details, like the characters and their lives, can’t help but pale in comparison. But for about 95 minutes, Needls and Opium is like an extraordinary hallucination, a vivid dream whose details vanish but leave a sense of wonder in its wake.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium continues through April 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

A spooky, funny slow burn in ACT’s John

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Bed-and-breakfast owner Mertis (Georgia Engel, center) tells Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) stories over breakfast in Annie Baker’s John, running at at ACT’s Strand Theater. Below: Mertis (Engel, right) tells Elias (Paulik) and Genevieve (Ann McDonough) the story of how she met her husband. Photos by Kevin Berne

There are two Johns in Annie Baker’s John, neither of whom we actually meet. One wreaked mental havoc on another person and the other is wreaking havoc on a relationship. Both feel like sinister external forces, but they are just two of many in this wonderfully bizarre, engrossingly enigmatic play by one of our country’s most original and captivating voices.

Locally, we’ve seen Baker’s Body Awareness at the Aurora (read my review here), Aliens at San Francisco Playhouse (review) and Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin Theatre Company (review) – and that was all in 2012. Since then, she has won the Pulitzer Prize (for The Flick) and has continued to solidify her reputation as one of those shape-shifting playwrights whose work you don’t want to miss.

John arrives in the Bay Area courtesy of American Conservatory Theater, whose Strand Theater provides a much cozier home for the play in which coziness is an important factor. Set in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed and breakfast, the play traffics in the kind of creepy, overstuffed homeyness that so many B&Bs do so well. Set designer Marsha Ginsberg and lighting designer Robert Hand have created an astonishingly realistic multi-level set that is so rich in detail, so crammed with information that that it’s not like a fifth character in the show, it is the fifth character in the show.

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There’s an element of hyper-realism in Baker’s plays. The worlds her characters inhabit tend to be precise reflections of the world we live in, and the way her characters talk – every stammer, every “like” and especially every pause – also bring a sense of heightened realism as well as extended running times (John runs three hours and includes two intermissions, but I wasn’t bored for a second). All of that is true here, but Baker is playing with convention as well. For instance, she has star Georgia Engel, who plays Mertis, the innkeeper, push open the curtains at the start of an act and close them at the end. She also has a character make a surprise appearance (bizarre and unmissable) during one of the intermissions, so think twice about the bathroom run. These are reminders à la Brecht and Beckett that we’re watching a play and that this seeming reality is being messed with.

That notion of being messed with, of being the subject of mind games, looms large in John, which seems in so many ways to be a domestic drama about young love, old age and navigating crisis. But in other ways, the play is like an Edward Albee riddle, a conundrum asking big questions about the existence of god, the after-life and demons. Mertis, who would like people to call her Kitty but they hardly ever do, is the master of this universe to the extent that she even controls time (literally), so is she a god? Or is she the sweet-seeming older lady who occasionally talks like a beloved TV character (perhaps Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”)? Or perhaps, with her interest in H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu, she is something much darker.

There are no answers here. Just mysteries, and though we may crave big actions, big reveals, big scares, John, directed with precision and care by Ken Rus Schmoll is content to create a mood of sustained creepiness where shadows – real and metaphorical – loom large.

Engel, reprising her role from the New York production, is a dream. She plays in to stereotype and against it, her kindness and sweet daffiness contrasting with a hard life with hints of mental illness, marital discord and distinctly darker currents. Mertis’ guests for the duration of the play are a young Brooklyn couple, Jenny (Stacey Yen) and Elias (Joe Paulik). She writes questions for a game show and he’s a drummer with a penchant for Civil War history. They’re on a road trip, and their relationship has hit some significant bumps. Their sense of hipster irony digs the dolls, stuffed animals and general froufrou of the B&B (which is also decorated to the hilt for Christmas – so many layers!), but each in his or her way falls into the comfort – pretend or otherwise – of the space and of Mertis’ offbeat hospitality.

Ann McDonough adds more laughs to what is already a surprisingly funny play as Mertis’ friend, Genevieve. Blind and with a penchant for storytelling and Vienna Finger cookies, Genevieve is also another oddball feature of the play, a character that defies clear definition but adds sharp points to the general fog of mystery that hangs over the play.

John is not a play for everyone. Its rhythms are its own and nothing like our collective short attention span, but its rewards are great: a smart, original, confounding, entertaining, soulful, baffling work that makes you glad you checked in.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Annie Baker’s John continues through April 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theatre, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$90. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org

Humanity shines in ACT’s Splendid Suns

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Mariam (Kate Rigg, left) and Laila (Nadine Malouf, center) and Zalmai (Neel Noronha) say goodbye to Aziza (Nikita Tewani) in the world-premiere theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Furious Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) yells at Laila (Malouf, left) and Mariam (Rigg). Photos by Kevin Berne

Let’s be honest: sitting in a beautiful theater watching a well-crafted play is an absolute privilege, so where better to challenge our very notions of privilege and confront the reality that much of the world’s population is having a very different experience than those of us sitting in the velvet seats? With a play like A Thousand Splendid Suns, the world-premiere adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, there are moments when the gilded glory of the Geary melts away and we are totally invested in the story of two women and their family enduring the hardships of life under Taliban rule in Kabul, Afghanistan.

That kind of transference, putting ourselves into the lives of those whose experience is so far from our own, has always been invaluable but suddenly seems like an incredibly important way to interact with a work of art. It’s also a lot of pressure to put on a play, but when Splendid Suns is firing on all theatrical cylinders, it more than lives up to the challenge.

Adapted from the novel by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff (in a co-production with Theatre Calgary), the play takes much of its first act to find its legs and its momentum as we learn how the two main characters, Laila (Nadine Malouf) and Mariam (Kate Rigg) forged an enduring friendship amid circumstances involving a devastating bombing, an illegitimate child and a husband not at all averse to the idea of a second wife.

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Once Laila and Mariam have forged a loving family in spite of the rage-filled Rasheed (Kaysam Kadri), the story really takes off in Act 2. Laila’s children, daughter Aziza (Nikita Tewani) and son Zalmai (Neel Noronha), are growing up amid much hardship, including the Taliban’s horrific restrictions on women (not allowed to work, not allowed to go to school, not allowed outside the house except in a burqa and in the company of a man, etc.). There’s very little money or food, but there is love. Though the children are Laila’s, they are as much Mariam’s, and the powerful bond they all share is the most palpable thing in the 2 1/2-hour production.

Perloff guides her actors through beautiful, powerful performances. Malouf and Rigg are extraordinarily vivid as Laila and Mariam, and the young actors also make a strong impression. Denmo Ibrahim crackles with vibrancy in a number of small roles, and Kadri as Rasheed, representing the oppression of the patriarchy, still manages to convey a human side to this villain through the love and tenderness he shows his young son.

The stage design by Ken MacDonald conveys an impressionistic view of Kabul that is both beautiful and harsh. There’s spare ornamentation contrasting with barrenness, and the few set pieces conjure intricacy and ruin among the buildings themselves.

The power of this experience is the story itself. Mariam and Laila’s lives – their strength, their devotion, their connection to love despite its scarcity within the confines of their world – could be recounted in an empty space with no flourishes and still be emotionally shattering and inspiring. There’s something larger at work here than simply a play on a stage, and that is a slice of the human experience that illuminates a specific culture while connecting to the better (and worse) parts of our shared humanity. We fear, we lash out, we attempt to control and destroy, but we also connect and empower and create and love ferociously even when that seems an impossible feat.

The play’s (and the novel’s) title comes from Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi, who described the city as “enthralling to the eye”…One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” And it’s the “behind her walls” part that is so intriguing. Where there is beauty of where there is desperation, the best of humanity and the worst, there will always be light burning with the intensity of the sun, even if we aren’t able to see it. That is hope, and that is the glowing center of this theatrical experience.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kkaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, continues through Feb. 26 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Irwin illuminates Beckett at ACT

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Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin returns to American Conservatory Theater with On Beckett, his showcase comprising pieces of Samuel Beckett’s plays, prose and poetry at ACT’s Strand Theater through Jan. 22. Photos by Kevin Berne

Bill Irwin wants to address everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Samuel Beckett but were afraid to ask. His casual one-man show On Beckett, now in a short run at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the enigmatic Beckett from a safe distance and through utterly delightful filter of Irwin, a revered actor and clown with a deep San Francisco history going back to the Pickle Family Circus. Since his Pickle days, Irwin has won himself a Tony Award (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2005) and a reputation as an extraordinary human being in many ways – certainly for his deft clowning but also for his sensitive acting (I saw him on Broadway about 15 years ago in Edward Albee’s The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? opposite Sally Field and he blew me away in a role that I don’t think was meant to blow anybody away) and for his expanding expertise in the perplexing world of Beckett.

If you think about On Beckett as sort of a lecture demonstration, you’d have to rank it among the best imaginable lecture demonstrations. For about 70 minutes, the 66-year-old Irwin talks about Beckett, though not in a scholarly way. He insists from the start he’s not a Beckett scholar, nowhere near. He hasn’t even read the novels, though he has poked his way through them and extracted performable bits.

Rather, Irwin is a super fan of the Irish writer. As a physical comedian, Irwin says he has a special affinity for the way Beckett writes for the body. This is where the demonstration part kicks in. Performing three of Beckett’s 13 Texts for Nothing (imagine if Beckett, who died in 1989 at age 83 was able to write for texts as we know them today, not published works but jagged pieces of dialogue we zing through the air to each other’s phones), bits from the plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame and a passage from the novel Watt, Irwin brings the work to life as only he can.

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There’s a very fluid feeling to the evening as if Irwin could substitute any one selected piece with another, but the results would be the same: the pleasures of watching him are infinite and Beckett remains captivatingly obtuse. It’s not that Irwin doesn’t illuminate the work. It’s more that with Beckett there’s just no winning. There’s enjoyment, laughs, bafflement and frustration to be sure, but very little clarity. And he’d probably be very happy about that. Well, maybe not happy but content that his work was getting into people’s heads and funny bones even if they have no idea what it all means.

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Irwin followed the performance, as he apparently often does, with a Q&A beginning 90 seconds after the final blackout. Other than lighting cues, there wasn’t a significant difference between the show and the talk-back. Indeed, Irwin ended the Q&A with a treat: a reading from the novel The Unnamable. The most affecting part of the show is Irwin’s discussion of Godot, which he now pronounces GOD-oh (after pronouncing it for years, like many Americans, guh-DOH). Irwin is something of an expert here, having been in the 1988 Mike Nichols production with Robin Williams and Steve Martin as well as in the 2009 production with Nathan Lane and John Goodman, and still the actor says he’d like another crack at the play (and at Endgame, which he did with ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff) because, as with most great writing, you find different levels of meaning at different times of life.

It seems impossible that Irwin, so smart and engaging and genuine in his Beckettian affection, could be pedantic or pretentious, which plenty of people can be when expounding on Beckett. He seems deeply connected to the contradictory worlds Beckett conjures, and his interpretations are beautiful and full of feeling. Toward the end of the show, Irwin pays tribute to Beckett’s affection for vaudeville and offers the audience a bit of a palate cleanser with a soft-shoe tap dance and a song. It’s a sweetly thrilling moment: one master paying homage to another.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bill Irwin’s On Beckett continues through Jan. 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Raging with Marty @ ACT’s Strand

Martin Moran at The Strand Press Photo
Martin Moran performs his solo show All the Rage in repertory with his other solo show, The Tricky Part as part of American Conservatory Theater’s @TheStrand series through December 11. Photos by Joan Marcus

If Martin Moran wanted to tell me about his trip to the dentist, I would stop whatever I was doing and listen in rapt attention knowing that Moran is a master storyteller and will inevitably find every telling detail, every character nuance, every link to something bigger than just the story he’s relating.

Moran is an extraordinary performer. In 2005 at San Jose Repertory Theatre he performed his solo show The Tricky Part, a captivating, upsetting, utterly engaging piece about the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy with a counselor from his Catholic summer camp, and now he’s back with that show and another, somewhat related show, All the Rage. Both are being performed in repertory as part of American Conservatory Theater’s new series @TheStrand.

Because I had already seen and loved The Tricky Part (and read the equally engrossing memoir of the same name), I was especially interested in All the Rage, which, like its predecessor, is directed by Seth Barrish and has already been loved and admired on stages far and wide.

The show is ostensibly about how Moran, now in his mid-50s, was able to forgive the man who abused him (they actually met years later) and where in the world is all the rage that should be consuming him and driving him toward revenge?

That’s a rather dramatic description of what the play is sort of about because Moran appears to be a fairly gentle, intelligent, compassionate, wonderfully self-deprecating person not prone to fits of grand drama (which is funny considering he’s a successful actor with an impressive resume of Broadway shows and more). Rather, Moran, instead of acting on rage, is more prone to turning inward and examining himself and how he’s operating in the world around him. “Where is your rage?” people ask Moran. He pauses. “It pisses me off.”

Martin Moran at The Strand Press Photo

Sure he’s as quick to anger as any of us when it comes to almost being hit by a cab while using the crosswalk, and even his most calming Sanskrit mantra can’t always provide the calm, centering place when it is desperately needed. But in several key scenes that Moran shares with us – an enraging encounter with his father’s second wife on the day of said father’s funeral, the aforementioned encounter with the pathetic abuser – rage becomes something quite different.

Before heading into the theater, knowing a little about the show, I was kind of hoping to glean some useful information about dealing with rage. Let me just say that in our post-election world, with one swampy day after another, I have found that a channel for rage might be useful. And while Moran’s 80-minute show is hardly a self-help experience full of new-age platitudes, it is extremely helpful to experience a slice of the wider world through Moran’s sensitive, well-observed vantage point. This is a writer of great skill whose verbal flourishes are always incisive, never superfluous. He’s just as good as a performer, relaxed and funny, warm and energetic. This is a man who sees the world in an interesting way and with attention to detail. More than a few times in the show, we see what he’s seeing, feeling what he’s feeling, right down to the light on someone’s body or the nature of his breath or his heartbeat.

In some ways, Rage is a hodgepodge of references, skittering about from Denver to South Africa to Las Vegas to the Statue of Liberty. We see Moran on stage in the musical Spamalot and we see him visiting the cradle of civilization outside of Johannesberg. We watch him serving as a French translator for a refugee from Chad seeking asylum in the U.S. and we see him dealing with a profound family tragedy. All the while, he’s skittering about the stage from magnetic bulletin board to laptop computer to overhead project to wall map, conversing with us like he were an actual person (as opposed to a writer/actor) and we were one person (as opposed to many in the dark).

That’s the thing about Moran: he draws you in, and even when it seems like he can’t possibly pull all of this together, he does, and in such a moving way that you’ll be thinking about him and feeling his show long after you leave theater. I still feel rage, but I’m also consumed with gratitude that there are people like Martin Moran in the world to help us make more sense of our complex human messiness. (And you can bet I’ll be reading his latest book, All the Rage, a Quest, which is available here.)

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Martin Moran’s All the Rage and The Tricky Part continue in rotating repertory through Dec. 11 at ACT’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

ACT attempts to solve Stoppard’s Hard Problem

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Psychology student Hilary (Brenda Meaney, second from right) celebrates being published with colleagues from the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science in the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. Below: Spike (Dan Clegg) and Hilary (Meaney) meet up at a conference in Venice, Italy. Photos by Kevin Berne

All through American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Hard Problem you can feel playwright Tom Stoppard making an effort to be accessible. With a play about the very nature of consciousness – the “hard problem” about not just the knowing about what’s at our human core but the knowing about the knowing – there’s a danger of a) boring a lay audience with intricate lectures on neuroscience or b) becoming so involved in the intellectual pursuits of the play that actual drama. Stoppard slips a little into both camps during his play’s one hour and 40 minutes, but it’s hard to fault a playwright for being too smart or too passionate about the subject he’s exploring.

This production marks the 17th Stoppard play produced at ACT in the last 50 years and the 10th directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff. It’s Stoppard’s first new play in a decade, and as mildly entertaining as the play is, it feels like minor Stoppard – a lot of interesting ideas presented in an attractive package without a terribly compelling story or characters. This theatrical exploration of the nature of consciousness (and its relationship to altruism and the world’s financial markets) comes at a pop-culture moment when a television show, HBO’s “Westworld,” is exploring similar territory in a completely different (and more satisfyingly dramatic) way. Stoppard gives us neuroscientists, psychologists and hedge fund brokers debating about the nature of the mind and what guides us as human beings, while HBO gives us a theme park inhabited by lifelike robots on the verge of sentience. These robots are programmed to deliver humanlike responses, complete with a certain amount of randomness thrown in to make it highly realistic, but they’re machines incapable of actual original thought and feeling (or are they?).

Stoppard’s appealing main character is Hilary (Brenda Meaney), a psychologist whose mind is capable of considering elements beyond the scientific in her quest to understand the difference between the brain the mind, between evolutionary purpose and spiritual revelation. She dares to bring the concept of God into scientific discourse, and the scientists around her balk as if she had proposed chakra alignment as a cure for cancer.

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It seems the people around Hilary exist to provide breadcrumbs on her trail toward enlightenment of some kind. The spiky boyfriend Spike (the ever-amiable Dan Clegg, who is supposed to read a decade older than Hilary but doesn’t) and the brash brain scientist Amal (Vandit Bhatt) challenge and provoke (and occasionally demean) her, the colleagues (Narea Kang as Bo and Anthony Fusco as Leo) who fall in love with her and the big money bags who funds the brain institute where she works (the pitch-perfect Mike Ryan as Jerry, who seems to be in a different, more engaging play) leads her to the rather corny heart of the play where we consider the notion of coincidence vs. miracle. There’s also a lovely couple – scientist Ursula (Stacy Ross) and Pilates instructor Julia (Safiya Fredericks) – who seem to be hanging around for no apparent reason other than to employ two wonderful actors who don’t get nearly enough to do.

Stoppard has a lot of thoughts to share about the mysterious center of our humanity, but he does so in scenes that are ostensibly about something else – competing for a slot at the Krohl Institute, trying to get laid, having a disastrous dinner party (why must brainiacs fail so miserably at the domestic arts?), trysting in Venice – and that keeps the play on a relatable, human scale. Perloff’s production keeps to a brisk pace (too brisk in some scenes where it’s hard to pick up on everything being said), with the coolly efficient sliding panels of Andrew Boyce’s set shifting the action from laboratories to apartments to backyards to pilates classes, all with the aid of a rear projection screen that is mostly filled with clouds (as in “head in the…”).

There’s not a whole lot of drama here other than the publication of an article with dubious scientific merits and a deep dark secret that isn’t much of either. There’s a strange alpha-male confrontation between hedge fund gazillionaire Jerry and Amal that feels like it’s a different, more vital play suddenly encroaching on this rather stately one, and the sexual chemistry between Spike and Hilary never really registers, even when Spike cavorts around in Hilary’s micro-mini negligee.

There are bursts of humor (this is Stoppard after all), and some of the brainy brain stuff is thought provoking, but The Hard Problem ends up being more problematic than engaging.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem> continues through Nov. 13 in an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$125 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

ACT crowns a glorious King Charles III

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King Charles III (Robert Joy, right) is visited by a ghost (Chiara Motley) in Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater through Oct. 9. Below: Joy’s King Charles III tells Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen) about his meeting with the House of Commons. Photos by Kevin Berne

What will happen when Queen Elizabeth, Great Britain’s longest reigning queen, leaves the throne? In a hefty helping of royal speculation, playwright Mike Bartlett takes on that question, but does so by way of Shakespeare with a soupçon of Notting Hill.

The result is King Charles III a new history play that traffics in family drama, parliamentary procedure, the liberties of the fourth estate and everything we think we know about Charles, Camilla, William, Kate and Harry. There’s sensation and substance, comedy and some genuine emotion mixed in with provocative observations on the relevance of the monarchy in the 21st century.

This American Conservatory Theater season opener is a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it heads next, and Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, where it opens shortly after the presidential inauguration, and it’s thrilling to be part of a history play (imagined history, but still) in which we feel invested, well, invested to the level of our personal Anglophilia (my level, for instance, begins with collecting coffee table books about Princess Diana at age 13 and just tea-and-crumpeting on from there).

It’s also thrilling to hear Bartlett’s attempt at being a modern Shakespeare come so completely to life. His ambitious script comprises blank verse meted out in iambic pentameter, and while you’re aware of the language being rather vaulted or twisted into the occasional Shakespearean turn of phrase and in the rhymed couplets that end scenes, there’s a rhythmic realism that makes this feel like something nestled comfortably in between a kitchen sink family drama and King Henry VI, Part 2. If we’ve learned anything from Shakespeare, it’s that royals should not speak like the rest of us, especially when occupying a stage and behaving as if they’re the most important beings on the Plantagenet, sorry, planet.

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King Charles III is nothing if not juicy. Who doesn’t love seeing horsey Camilla Parker-Bowles slap a royal child or Prince Harry clubbing with his coke-snorting friends? Even as those of us who devour all things royal revel in the mon-arcana of it all, Bartlett and director David Muse take these proceedings veddy, veddy seriously, as they should. The Queen is dead, after all, and Charles, so long in waiting and with his own distinct take on what role the monarchy should play, finally seizes his moment.

Robert Joy plays Charles as something of a fascinating wily clown. He does that huffing and puffing Charles thing, but this observant man is an experienced statesman with a strong conscience and little concern for what his subjects think of him. He’s got a tremendous advocate/body guard in Camilla (Jeanne Paulsen, and it’s clear he adores his children and grandchildren (George and Charlotte are mentioned but, alas, never seen). During his first ceremonial meeting with the Prime Minister (Ian Merrill Peakes, a bill that has gone through Parliament restricting the rights of the press requires his ascent (aka signature). Charles feels the bill goes too far in impinging on free speech, so he refuses to sign it, thus setting of a remarkable series of events that throws England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into quite a tizzy. The great experiment in parliamentary constitutional monarchy goes incredibly awry when a king ascends who actually wants to wield his power in what he considers the best interest of his loyal royal subjects.

While Charles plays push me pull you with everyone in Westminster, William (Christopher McLinden) and Kate (Allison Jean White) are reveling in being the nation’s darlings and Harry (Harry Smith) is tormented by being the clown prince in his heir-to-the-throne brother’s nobel shadow. To make himself feel better, he goes clubbing with his friends (shades of Prince Hal), but instead of hooking up with Falstaff, he meets an art student named Jessica (Michelle Beck) and they begin the Notting Hill-meets-Love Actually portion of the play as a commoner begins a relationship with terribly famous person.

Traces of Hamlet (Princess Diana makes an interesting cameo) bump up against Macbethian ambition and King Learish child vs. father showdowns, and it all transpires within the walls of Daniel Ostling’s oppressive (and beautifully detailed) set, which feels a lot like Westminster Abbey, where centuries of history hang in the air and are literally buried in the ground beneath. Lap Chi Chu’s lights gracefully transform the gothic space into various Buckingham Palace rooms, a London disco, the scene of public rebellion and, of course, the Abbey itself.

In the end, what makes King Charles III more than just gussied up royal gossip gleefully sifted through an effective Shakespearean filter is that the characters actually emerge as interesting people. In William you can see his father’s intelligence and his mother’s spark. In Harry you see royal duty battling personal freedom and in Kate, perhaps the most intriguing character here, you see someone smart enough to know how the monarchy can survive and thrive and who possesses all the charm and skills to ensure that will happen.

The play’s two hours and 40 minutes doesn’t exactly whiz past, but there’s never a dull moment, and it’s ending is really just the beginning. With any luck, the BBC will pick it up for an eight-part series. Who needs Downton Abbey when you can have Buckingham Palace?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III continues through Oct. 9 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.