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.

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.

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

2012 flasback: 10 to remember

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James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

One of the things I love about Bay Area theater is that picking a Top 10 list is usually a breeze. My surefire test of a great show is one I can remember without having to look at anything to remind me about it. The entire list below was composed in about five minutes, then I had to go look through my reviews to make sure they were all really this year. They were, and it was a really good year.

10. “The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden” by Thornton Wilder, part of Wilder Times, Aurora Theatre Company

9. The White Snake by Mary Zimmerman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

8. Tenderloin by Annie Elias with Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko and David Westley Skillman, Cutting Ball Theater

7. The Scottsboro Boys by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson, American Conservatory Theater

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6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

5. The Hundred Flowers Project by Christopher Chen, Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation

4. Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, California Shakespeare Theater

3. Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, Marin Theatre Company

2. The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, American Conservatory Theater

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

Playwright Annie Baker appears twice on this list and could have appeared a third time for Aurora’s Body Awareness. This was the year of Annie Baker in the Bay Area – the first time her work was done here, and with any luck, not her last.

The most valuable player award in this list goes to Stacy Ross, who was extraordinary in #1 (Any Given Day) and #10 (“The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden”). In Any Given Day, she appeared opposite James Carpenter, another valuable player, and to see two of the Bay Area’s best actors work opposite each other in a remarkable play was sheer theatrical joy.

Three of the shows on this list – The Normal Heart, The Scottsboro Boys and The White Snake – all originated at other places, but that doesn’t make them any less brilliant or make ACT or Berkeley Rep any less canny for having the wherewithal and smarts to present them to local audiences.

Another name that is on this list twice is George C. Wolfe, represented as the adapter of Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, seen in a joyous production at Cal Shakes, and as director of the riveting and emotionally intense The Normal Heart at ACT.

There are two new plays here (#5, Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project and #8, Cutting Ball’s ensemble-created Tenderloin). They couldn’t have been more different, but they were both illuminating and exciting and felt a whole lot bigger than the small spaces in which they were taking place (in scope and importance, not in size).

As ever, thank you for reading Theater Dogs. This is a labor of love, and it would be silly for me to be here without you.

Happy New Year.

Annie Baker’s brilliant, reflective Circle Mirror

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Theresa (Arwen Anderson) and James (L. Peter Callender), standing, play an improvisational theater game involving the words “goulash” and “akmok” while Lauren (Marissa Keltie), Marty (Julia Brothers) and Schultz (Robert Parsons) watch in the Bay Area Premiere of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, now playing at Marin Theatre Company, in co-production with Encore Theatre Company. Below: The cast plays a more active theater game involving sounds and movements. Photos by Kevin Berne

At once the antithesis of drama (nothing’s happening!) and a complete exposure of the theater’s guts and bones, Annie Baker’s has a particular genius for creating simplicity of the most complex variety.

Earlier this year, the Aurora Theatre Company got the unofficial Annie Baker Bay Area Festival off to a strong start with her Body Awareness about sexual politics in the small university town of Shirley, Vermont. Then SF Playhouse dazzled with the low-key but brilliant The Aliens, also set in the fictional Shirley, about three unlikely friends, music, death and growing up.

Now Marin Theatre Company in a co-production with Encore Theatre Company conclude the Bay-ker Area Fest with what has become her most popular play, Circle Mirror Transformation. Even more than the previous two Baker plays we’ve seen so far, this one feels even less like a play and more like an actual experience – something carefully captured in the real world and observed within the artful frame of a proscenium stage.

Verisimilitude is the name of the game here. Everything has to feel real and alive or the play buckles. Happily, under the direction of Kip Fagan, This Circle Mirror is an astutely performed exploration of human connection at its most troublesome and at its most wondrous.

Andrew Boyce’s set is the first indication of just how real this is all going to be. He has created a slice-of-life community center rec room (in Shirley, naturally) down to the last water stain in the ceiling tile. You can even see the faint, dirty outline where something used to hang on the wall but has since been removed. Even the fluorescent lighting (skillfully designed by Gabe Maxson) feels exactly right.

The class taking place in this community center is Adult Creative Drama, and that’s what the play is: six weeks of once-a-week classes conveyed in two hours with no intermission but lots of short scenes and blackouts.

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If you’ve ever played theater games, you know just how awful and just how thrilling they can be. Making a fool out of yourself, pushing yourself well out of your comfort zone, being forced to interact in fairly intimate ways with virtual strangers – it’s all slightly terrifying. But once you get into it, there’s a sense of play and excitement and being in the moment that is invaluable.

That’s what the four students discover with the help of Marty, their teacher, played by the always-remarkable Julia Brothers. Everybody transforms in some way by the end of the six weeks, and what’s extraordinary about Baker’s play is the way the audience becomes as involved as the students in the class. The last few weeks of class, when the exercises begin to break into some powerful emotional places, are hilarious and moving. And there’s a sense of momentum and monumental conclusion even though it’s a little class and the monumental feeling is actually scaled down to human size. To paraphrase Kander and Ebb, it’s a quiet thing. There aren’t crashing cymbals and tooting trumpets to signal the end and all it encompasses, but big things happen in small, vitally important ways.

The fact that Circle Mirror feels more like an observed experience than a play is a testament to Fagan’s precision direction and to the staggering talent of his five-member ensemble. The difficulty inherent in these seemingly simple and spontaneous exercises cannot be over-emphasized. In one recurring game, all five actors lie on the floor. The goal is to count to 10 without any prearranged speaking order. If two people speak at the same time, the game reverts back to one and they start again. Memorizing lines is one thing, but memorizing counting and counting mistakes is quite another.

These kind of nuanced, completely grounded demands are nonstop in this play, and the actors are exquisite. Brothers is at the top of the heap as Marty, the slightly over-enthusiastic teacher who can’t quite handle the psychological bonanza her exercises unleash. L. Peter Callender (fresh from his fantastic turn in California Shakespeare Theater’s Spunk) is James, Marty’s husband, taking the class as a show of support for his wife, but perhaps there are other reasons. Watching Callender play a gibberish word game with Arwen Anderson, a once-aspiring New York actress, is one of many mind-blowing moments in the show when what’s happening on stage seems astonishingly, even electrifyingly real.

Robert Parsons is Schutlz, the group’s recently divorced sad sack. He provides a lot of the play’s humor as well as a lot of its heart. He seems the least likely kind of guy who’d take a theater class but then seems like he has the most to gain. The game in which he explodes like an atomic bomb (he’s literally pretending to be a bomb) is like poetry and dance and comedy in a glorious few seconds.

As the resident withdrawn teen, Marissa Keltie hides behind her bangs and withdraws into her hooded sweatshirt for much of the play. But when Lauren, her character, begins to connect with herself and her classmates, the stereotypical teen stuff drops away and a real person emerges. Of all the transformations, hers is the most heartening.

Is Circle Mirror Transformation real life as art or art as real life? Probably both, but what does it matter when what’s on stage is so original yet so familiar, so profound yet so ordinary? Baker has spoken about how much she admires Chekhov, and she clearly shares that great dramatist’s penchant for the complexity of real life over plot machinations, But Baker makes me think of Thornton Wilder. He and Baker are both awed by people and the very experience of life, all its wretched mistakes and dizzy delights, and how theater can give it a temporary frame. What comes through in Circle Mirror Transformation is the everyday human experience of unfathomable pain and unrelenting beauty.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Annie Baker last spring. Read more here.

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation continues an extended run through Sept. 2 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$52. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

The Annie Baker dead poets society

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Playwright Annie Baker is finally making a splash in the Bay Area. This year, three of her plays will have played in Berkeley, San Francisco and Marin. What took so darn long?

So far, playwright Annie Baker is two for two in the Bay Area. It took a while for the country’s hottest young playwright to make her mark locally, but she has done it now. Twice. And a third is yet to come later in the summer.

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company was the first to produce Baker locally with Body Awareness (read my review here). Then SF Playhouse did The Aliens (running through May 5, read my review here). The Baker trilogy concludes (at least for now) in August when Marin Theatre Company and Encore Theatre Company partner on Circle Mirror Transformation.

There’s always a danger when a new playwright sizzles into popular consciousness that there will be a backlash, that the writer will be praised one day then smashed for being overrated the next. I don’t think that will happen with Baker, at least not here. Her writing is too interesting, too compassionate. So far the plays have just gotten better.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Baker via email for a San Francisco Chronicle story. She was even charming in cyberspace. Read the interview here.

Here’s my favorite part of our exchange:

Q: After Emily Dickinson, are you now the second-most famous writer to come from Amherst, Mass.?
Ha ha ha. Definitely not. There’s Robert Frost, Chinua Achebe, Helen Hunt Jackson, Noah Webster, etc. But I love Emily Dickinson. I used to hang out at her grave when I was a kid and push pennies in the dirt so she’d have some spending money in heaven.

[bonus video]
Here’s a look at SF Playhouse’s production of The Aliens by Annie Baker.


The Aliens continues through May 5 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Subtle brilliance in out-of-this-world Aliens

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Haynes Thigpen (left) as KJ and Peter O’Connor (center) as Jasper share a song on the Fourth of July with Brian Miskell as Evan Shelmerdine in Annie Baker’s The Aliens at SF Playhouse. Below: Miskell, Thigpen and O’Connor hang out behind a cafe in Shirley, Vermont. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

When Annie Baker made her Bay Area debut with Body Awareness at the Aurora Theatre Company, I was impressed by the arrival of an intriguing, intelligent and compassionate new voice on the American theater scene (other folks who had seen Baker’s work were already well aware of this). But it turns out that with Body Awareness Baker was only getting warmed up.

Baker’s The Aliens is now running at SF Playhouse, and its brilliance is deceptive. The play seems so very simple. Two 30something slackers have nothing better to do than hang out in the staff break area behind a cafe called the Green Sheep in Baker’s fictional Shirley, Vermont. Their shiftless idyll is interrupted by 17-year-old Evan Shelmerdine, a new busboy at the cafe who insists, in his halting way, that the slackers can’t slack off her. This area is only for staff.

Happily, the slackers – KJ the poet and lyricist and Jasper the aspiring novelist – don’t listen to Shelmerdine but instead draw him into their exclusive little club.

The Aliens is an absolutely astonishing play. This production, sensitively directed by Lila Neugebauer, reveals all the nuance in the multi-layered play and makes it seem like, on the one hand, not all that much is happening on stage, and on the other, like everything in the world that matters is happening on stage.

The two-hour play works its magic slowly and deliberately. When Baker depicts slackers, she doesn’t hesitate in slowing time, reveling in silence or shunning the world just outside the slacker’s purview. She also lets her characters smoke. A lot. (SF Playhouse uses herbal cigarettes, but for us Californians, it’s a little unsettling to see people smoking so much indoors, although the outdoor set by Bill English is so realistic, it’s not all that hard to imagine we’re really outside.)

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First we get to know KJ (Haynes Thigpen) and his buddy Jasper (Peter O’Connor). KJ is a little hippie-dippy, good natured and has psychological issues that require medication. Jasper seems more functional in the world, at least he had, until very recently, a girlfriend. Both men are creative. Some time ago they had a band with many names (one of which was The Aliens), and KJ spins out some amazing lyrics. When Jasper reads part of his Great American Novel, it’s actually pretty good and you wouldn’t at all mind hearing some more.

When Shelmerdine (Brian Miskell) interrupts their insular little world, what starts out as a threat quickly becomes a reason to celebrate ̶ New blood, a fresh audience, a fellow outcast (Shelmerdine admits he doesn’t have any friends at school). The duo expands into a trio and bonding happens between two 30-year-old dudes and a high school senior.

The two-act structure serves the play amazingly well. While we’re at intermission, Evan spends a week at Jewish band camp, and change hits the trio in a big way. The change hits us, too, because we’re deep into the trio as well. This play sneaks up on you, through humor and natural rhythms and simple, exceptionally pointed writing. It’s easy to relate to all three of these men, to feel their slacker joy and fear and anger and affection.

The highest praise I can offer Baker is that she seems equal parts Samuel Beckett, Will Eno and Thornton Wilder. But her voice is also wholly original. She’s sharp and harsh and compassionate in equal measure. There’s deep, deep sadness in her play, but there’s also abundant humor, kindness and glimmers of hope. You could argue that her ending is happy (if you’re an optimist) or not so much (if you’re a realist). But within the ambiguity is staggering artistry and the kind of complexity, passion and humanity you crave when you go to the theater.

Director Neugebauer elicits wonderful performances from her actors. When we first meet KJ and Jasper, we think we know them. We all know guys like these, but the more time we spend with them, the more Baker reveals and the more Thigpen and O’Connor show us about these unique individuals who have a lot more going on than we might imagine. We come to feel affection for them, but they never lose the tension of their edginess.

And Miskell as Shelmerdine is a revelation ̶ so authentically awkward you can’t help but feel protective of him and hope that his growing affection for the slackers doesn’t deter him from the college track. Shelmerdine is responsible for a lot of the evening’s biggest laughs (especially when he comes back from band camp and even his body language is funny), but he’s also got the greatest potential for pain and damage and other brutalities of reality.

The Aliens is simply an extraordinary theatrical experience. You fall into a world and come out with your head still partly in that world. It’s almost 24 hours since I saw the play, and I have to say my head has not fully returned from Shirley.



Annie Baker’s The Aliens continues through May 5 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Four hot bodies heat up Aurora’s Body Awareness

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Body Awareness includes (from left) Howard Swain, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick and Patrick Russell. Below: Cohen and Swain prepare for a body awareness photo session. Photos by David Allen

Drama in the small college town of Shirley, Vermont, is much like it is anywhere: small, intimate and, for the people involved, earth shattering.

Playwright Annie Baker, one of the theater world’s most acclaimed and buzzed-about writers, has a particular skill in writing about the lives of ordinary people. She’s acutely aware of the comic absurdity and the fissures of sadness and anger that clash continually and cause tremors, both minor and majorly damaging.

Baker is a humane and very funny writer, and the Bay Area is finally getting a taste of her talent in the Aurora Theatre Company’s utterly delightful production of her Body Awareness. In true Aurora form, the production gives us a meaty play and performances by a quartet of Bay Area actors that defy you to find a false moment in this up-close and intimate space.

Baker is taking a sideways look at the essential and uniquely individual nature of family. She gives us a non-traditional family and quickly throws it into crisis.

Jeri Lynn Cohen is Joyce, a high school teacher and mom in her mid-50s whose son, Jared (Patrick Russell) is likely dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, but he’s never been diagnosed, let alone spent time with a psychologist. Joyce was married to Jared’s dad but has taken a different turn in middle age. She’s now partnered with Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a psychology professor at the local university.

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Phyllis is one of the organizers of the university’s Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorder Awareness Week), and to “celebrate” and create dialogue and otherwise create all that activity that empowered academics so cherish, she and her organizing crew have invited an array of guests artists, from a Palestinian dance troupe to a puppet theater, to discuss all aspects of body awareness.

One of those visitors – not one of Phyllis’ choosing – is Frank (Howard Swain), a photographer who shoots nude women of all ages. Because it’s a small university, guests are housed at professors’ homes, and Frank is staying with Phyllis, Joyce and Jared. It’s the perfect storm as Jared fights his parental figures and Frank appears as an inspired artist to Joyce and a loathsome misogynist pervert to Phyllis.

Director Joy Carlin gets such delicious performances from her actors, it’s hard to know where to begin in praising them. Resnick’s ability to play reality and comedy at the same time makes her the perfect actor for a Baker script. Phyllis could so easily come off as a ridiculously pompous academic, but Resnick keeps her grounded and her intellectual foibles within the realm of (very funny) reality.

Cohen is a superb foil for Resnick. She’s part pragmatist and part yearning earth mother. When she gets it in her head that she’d like Frank to photograph her, Phyllis is so repelled she threatens to end the relationship. Cohen’s reaction as Joyce is a wonder – surprise, hurt, defiance and a yearning to make everything right without sacrificing what she thinks is right for her.

It’s wonderfully complex, all of it, and these actors handle it with ease. Swain is downright goofy in a role that could easily be crass and repellent. His Frank has warmth occasionally cooled by ego but also genuine concern fueled by compassion.

And Russell, an ACT Master of Fine Arts graduate, is astonishing as he conveys Jared’s tortured interior life. He’s a young man smart enough to know not everything is right with him but afraid to do anything with that knowledge. His flashes of anger toward his mother are jolting but understandable. This is a sensitive, highly PC household, so flashes of unrestrained anger have a certain welcome appeal.

Carlin deftly keeps the action lively for the play’s 90 minutes and never lets the rhythms fall into predictable, sitcom beats. She keeps the humor at the forefront, which only makes the real-life drama of it that much more pronounced, especially at the end, when Baker allows the notion of family to define itself.

Body Awareness traffics in jealousy and devotion, maturity and folly, pomposity and true love. In its low-key brilliance, the play serves to heighten awareness – body and otherwise.


Annie Baker’s Body Awareness continues an extended run through March 11 as part of the Aurora Theatre Company’s Global Age Project. 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.