Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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Lauren English (left) is Harmony, Khary L. Moye (center) is Brooke and Anthony Fusco is Leonard in Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere audio play The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.

Sitting in the intimate Aurora Theatre watching great actors close up is one of the great treats of Bay Area theater. Even though we can’t be together in that space for a while, the Aurora crew is still storytelling in its inimitably intimate way: with a world-premiere audio play by three Bay Area writers. The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector is delivered in three installments. Parts 1 and 2 have already been released, and Part 3 comes out Nov. 6. All three episodes will then be available for streaming, which is good, because you likely won’t be able to listen to just one.

Plays on the radio used to be a regular thing. I even have original cast recordings of Broadway plays. But somehow, this most rewarding theatrical form has faded from mainstream popularity, though audiobooks and podcasts have admirably carried the audio drama mantle in various ways. What’s rewarding about The Flats (of which I’ve heard two of the three episodes) involves three excellent actors – Lauren English, Khary L. Moye and Anthony Fusco – and an intoxicating blend of tension, humor and substance.

Set in Berkeley, the play capitalizes on the dis-ease with which we’ve all become acutely acquainted these last seven months. But in this world, there’s not a global pandemic, but rather something much scarier and more intriguing. I won’t say what it is because that’s part of the fun. But suffice it to say that citizens are experiencing tight government quarantining, with certain liberties allowed here and there. Grocery stores are sorely understocked, and fresh produce is scant. In one particular triplex, three residents – well, two residents and the owner, who suddenly shows up in the vacant unit – are stuck at home with only their neighbors to distract them from the … situation.

Harmony (English) is escaping her troubled marriage and, consequently, her children. Brooke (Moye) is a bit more enigmatic but offers his landlord one of the most intriguing housewarming gifts ever: caterpillars that will soon become butterflies. And Leonard (Fusco) is a drug-taking old Berkeley hippie with his own radio show and a number of conspiracy theories that might not all be preposterous. It’s an uneasy mix of personalities, of course (hard to have drama without tension), and in addition to the stress of what’s going on in the world, this trio is also dealing with issues of race and relationships and earth-shattering revelations.

Director Josh Costello, ably abetted by composer/sound designer Elton Bradman, creates a wonderfully detailed sonic world in which you really feel like you’re with these people, and the actors deliver marvelously detailed performances that create vivid images of the characters and their states of mind.

There’s much more to say about this audio drama, but the fewer details you have, the richer your experience amid the scintillating heights of The Flats.

Single tickets for The Flats are available for $20 here, along with season memberships. The final (of three) episode of The Flats drops Nov. 6. Afterward, all three episodes will be available for streaming.

Sacred and profane: much to mull in Playhouse’s Christians

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Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) reveals an urgent change in his faith during a sermon at his mega-church in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: The cast of The Christians includes (from left) Millie Brooks as Jenny, Lance Gardner as Assistant Pastor Joshua, Fusco as Pastor Paul, Stephanie Prentice as Elizabeth and Warren David Keith as Elder Jay. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

While the San Francisco Playhouse audience was delving into Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a powerful, fraught examination of faith and organized religion, protestors were shutting down airports in demonstrations against the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants from countries whose religions posed a perceived threat to our nation. In other words, the spiritual and emotional chaos inside and outside the theater were well matched.

Questions of faith – why we believe what we believe, why we want or need to believe what we believe, how we choose to live in our faith – will never be answered because each human being contains a multitude of answers at any given moment. Faith is powerful, elusive and subject to influence by ego, fear, instability, anger, desperation, peer pressure, greed and joy. In only 90 concentrated minutes, Hnath (one of the country’s hottest playwrights) manages to touch on all of that and provoke some hefty, complicated and unresolvable responses.

The fact that church is already so much like theater is exploited in the set-up for Hnath’s play. For the SF Playhouse production that opened on Saturday, Jan. 28, director and set designer Bill English turns the theater into a sleek contemporary mega-church somewhere in America in the 21st century. It’s the kind of church, we’re told, that has a cafe and a bookshop in the lobby and a parking lot so big you’ll get lost if you’re not careful. Almost as prominent as the abstract stained-glass windows are the video monitors hovering above the choir (played here by members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco). The setting feels so real that when Pastor Paul asks us to bow our heads in prayer, I looked around the audience half expecting audience member/congregants to do his bidding.

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As you might expect in a church of this size, the speakers use microphones, a detail that will come to complicate the play as it takes on more dimension. But at its start, The Christians is simply a re-creation of a Sunday church service. Pastor Paul (the always authentic and compelling Anthony Fusco invites us to a day of celebration: all debts incurred by the church in the building of its massive new home have been paid. He also drops a bombshell revelation: God has revealed to him that there is no such thing as hell – if anything, we are in hell now and striving, through Christ, to evolve heavenward.

Such a profound change in belief does not sit well with Assistant Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner), who immediately engages Pastor Paul in a scripture-laden debate. From here, the straightforward sermon-as-play deviates, and Paul becomes our guide through the fallout form his revelation. Interestingly, Hnath never allows the play to change settings: all the ensuing scenes take place in the pulpit and with the characters holding the microphones as if they were still in front of the congregation. At times, as when Pastor Paul is in discussion with Elder Jay (Warren David Keith), a member of the church’s board of directors, or with his wife, Elizabeth (Stephanie Prentice), they are speaking face to face with microphones in hand as if performing a duet minus the music. It’s a bizarre visual and is somewhat detrimental to the emotional impact of the scenes, but the notion of these discussions and debates playing out in an amplified and public way has an unnerving effect. And then there are the tangles and and dangers of those microphone chords getting in the way – communication is never easy here.

If God can reveal to Paul that there is no hell, he can just as easily reveal to Joshua that there is. When a single mother congregant (Millie Brooks) express her conflicted feelings about both ways of thinking, Paul fails to provide compelling answers, and his church spirals into full schism. Hnath doesn’t go for clear heroes and villains here, and the public beliefs are allowed to show their personal roots. There’s nothing public here that isn’t also bound to deeply held beliefs from childhood or woven into our most intimate family relationships.

Faith is such a complex thing. It can elevate and buffer us from the challenges of life. It can even promise eternal life with other believers, all the while dividing and alienating us in this life. How we invest our faith is among life’s most challenging issues, and in this particular moment, it seems to be dividing the nation and, indeed, the world, as it has for seemingly ever. That’s one of the reasons Pastor Paul’s revelation is so divisive. It’s so simple and, in may ways, removes the intricate structure of organized religion from the heaven-hell-sinner-saint equation. “We create an insurmountable distance,” he says, “where there is no distance at all.” Amen.

Lucas Hnath’s The Christians continues through March 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Trekking gently through O’Neill’s nostalgic Wilderness

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Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, pictured in orange suit) indulges the Miller family with food gags at the dinner table in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, at ACT’s Geary Theater through Nov. 8. Below: Left to right) Lily Miller (Margo Hall), Mildred Miller (Christina Liang) and Arthur Miller (Michael McIntire) do what the Millers do: hang out in the living room. Photos by Kevin Berne

Can we agree that Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is warm and wonderful…and weird? The sepia-tinted 1933 play is a rare light work from tragedian O’Neill, though its fantasy elements – the family O’Neill wished he had growing up rather than the more nightmarish version he depicted in Long Day’s Journey Into Night – lend it a rather sad underpinning.

It’s almost as if O’Neill strayed into Kaufman and Hart territory long enough to write the four-act play about a loving family dealing lovingly with each other and their minor crises but couldn’t quite escape the shadows long enough to completely avoid the shadows of alcoholism and devastating heartbreak.

So what feels like the prototype sitcom, all gentle rebellion, lessons learned and a fortifying hug, sends roots into the cultural ground, which decades later sprouts variations like “Family Ties” and “The Brady Bunch.” Can we really credit O’Neill for the story of a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own? Maybe, maybe not, but there is some shared DNA, especially in how utterly false but how utterly delightful it all feels.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of Ah, Wilderness! is a lively, lovely way to spend a little more than 2 1/2 hours in a theater. Nine of the 14 members of the cast are still students in ACT’s Master of Fine Arts Program (Class of 2016), are all solid, and it’s exciting to see them working on the big stage, especially Thomas Stagnitta as budding rebel socialist literary hound Richard Miller, who’s like a bolt of electricity on stage – believably young, believably brilliant, endearingly caught up in himself and the drama of his romance with the girl next door.

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There is some real-life drama attached to this production, which was supposed to have been directed by ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker. His untimely death in August was a devastating loss to the theater community, but, as they say, the show must go on. ACT has dedicated the entire season to his memory, and Casey Stangl, who last worked with ACT on the inaugural production at the Strand Theater, Love and Information in June.

The nostalgic tone of Stangl’s production comes through in a gauzy, dreamlike set by Ralph Funicello that renders the Connecticut home of the Miller family (as well as a seedy bar and a moon-swept beach) in the dreamy impressionism of see-through walls and only hints of reality. This is where the Millers fuss and fret. Dad (Anthony Fusco) runs the town newspaper, and he’s wise (like Mike Brady wise). Mom (Rachel Ticotin) is a fussbudget with a big heart. Uncle Sid (Dan Hiatt) is a lovable but self-loathing lush and spinster Aunt Lily (Margo Hall) had her heart broken by Uncle Sid years ago and keeps forgiving him and keeps putting her heart out there to be broken.

There are assorted other Millers – little Tommy (Brandon Francis Osborne), daughter Mildred (Christina Liang) and pretentious Yalie older brother Arthur (Michael McIntire) – but they don’t have a whole lot to do but be kid-like. Arthur gets to sing (off stage) some lovely turn-of-the-century tunes, but otherwise they come across as pretty well-adjusted young people and, frankly, aren’t that interesting.

Richard gets all the complication (and the bulk of the parental attention). He reads Wilde and Ibsen and Shaw and the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, so he’s just overflowing with pithy quotes and potent ideas. He’s a big boy mentally and a little boy emotionally, and it’s fun to watch those two parts of him battle, especially when it comes to standing up to his dad or nervously waiting to be grounded by him.

The laughs in Ah, Wilderness are pretty gentle, and the real heat from this production comes from watching pros like Fusco, Hiatt and Hall really work to make something emotionally real happen on stage. The final burst of romance feels pretty by the numbers – that’s when the show feels most like a familiar TV show – but there’s also some sweetness that could turn cloying if the play didn’t end shortly thereafter.

Modern viewers might keep waiting for the shoe to drop – for disaster to strike, for real life to actually intervene, for the cynicism or irony we expect from our art to finally infiltrate. But none of that happens. Everybody’s happy (or reasonably not too sad), and you finally have to say, well good for them.

Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! continues in an American Conservatory Theater production through Nov. 8 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Fractured tales confound in ACT’s Love and Information

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Cindy Goldfield (left) and Dominique Salerno star in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Below:Joel Bernard, Salerno and Christina Liang in a short scene of love, information or both. Photos by Kevin Berne

Confounding and captivating in equal measure, American Conservatory Theater’s debut production in the newly renovated Strand Theater certainly lives up to its title. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information sounds like a generic title for just about anything in our short-attention-span world, on or off line, and that seems to be part of the point.

More like a curated collection of scenes and short films than an actual play, Love and Information breaks down into 57 scenes (like Heinz, 57 varieties) for a total running time about about 100 minutes. There are 12 actors deftly assaying hundreds of characters (or sketches of characters, really), and the whole thing is slickly, fluidly directed by Casey Stangl.

Some scenes are more memorable than others – a man attempting to share mnemonic games with a woman is delightfully surreal (“the hedgehog is in the microwave”); a brother and sister redefine their relationship in a shocking way; a text battle between wife and philandering husband takes place under the surface of polite dinner conversation; a young woman describes to a friend what it’s like growing up unable to feel any pain at all; a grandmother attempts to teach a grandchild about fear; a man who experiments on chick brains regales a date with tales of decapitation and brain slicing. And the list does go on.

About half the scenes feel like they’re part of a bigger, more interesting play. The other half feels like filler.

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It’s all very proficiently done, and Stangl, working with scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz show off the Strand beautifully. The sound, the sight lines, the vibrancy of the room itself – it’s all thrilling and makes for an ideal second ACT stage.

What I didn’t get from the play was satisfaction. There isn’t much connective tissue here, and that seems to be part of the point. We’re fragmented, we’re chaotic, we’re filtered. Technology has increased our options for communications but has done the quality of communication no favors. That comes through here, but what I missed (after hitting the wall at about the one-hour mark) is that moment when it all comes together, when the fragments coalesce into something bigger and more meaningful. And though the end incorporates an appealing slice of Electric Light Orchestra, I never felt the whole became more than the sum of its attractive, often intriguing parts.

Maybe that’s what Churchill is after here: there is no sum game anymore. It’s all just parts. Maybe so. But as long as those parts keep coming on the stage of the Strand, I’m happy. San Francisco’s newest theater should be its most active and alive for many years to come.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Love and Information director Casey Stengl about her work on the play for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information continues through Aug. 9 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Cal Shakes sculpts a vital, vivacious Pygmalion

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Anthony Fusco (left) is Henry Higgins, Catherine Castellanos (center) is Mrs. Pearce and Irene Lucio is Eliza Doolittle in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Below: On the streets of Covent Garden – Nicholas Pelczar (on balcony) is Freddy Eynsford Hill, Lucio (center) is Eliza and Julie Eccles is Mrs. Eysnford Hill. Photos by Kevin Berne

When real life comes in and smacks Prof. Henry Higgins across the face, it’s a wonderful thing to see this brilliant yet stunted man consider, perhaps for the first time in his life, that kindness may have worth akin to genius.

The force representing the real world – a world of messiness and emotion and connection – takes the form of Eliza Doolittle, an extraordinary young woman who is the intellectual if not social equal of Higgins and his superior when it comes to living life as most of humanity experiences it.

One of the great things about the California Shakespeare Theater production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is how balanced it is. You feel Shaw’s guiding hand in Jonathan Moscone’s approach in the way that nothing feels superfluous. Every character is there for a reason and a point of view. Moscone’s cast is filled with Bay Area all-stars plus a remarkable company debut from Irene Lucio as Eliza, the flower girl with brains, bravery and aspiration.

Lucio’s Eliza is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is how she is fully emotionally alive without ever over-playing it. The rough Eliza we meet on the cobblestones of Covent Garden is recognizable in the graceful, articulate, beautifully spoken Eliza we see at the end. There’s an emotional through-line in the character I haven’t felt before in other productions of the play or its musical sibling, My Fair Lady. That makes a big difference in the focus of the story, which comes down to Henry, the teacher (or sculptor), and Eliza, the student (or sculpture) and then zeroes even closer in on Eliza before allowing Henry a moment of reflection, realization and possible heartbreak (which is, in its own right, a triumph brought about by Eliza).

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The pleasures of this 2 1/2-hour play are many, from the elegant, florally accented set by Annie Smart to the classy costumes by Anna Oliver. But it’s the sterling cast that really makes it crackle. As the “pretty pair of babies playing with their live doll,” Anthony Fusco and L. Peter Callender essaying Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively, are delightfully crisp in their camaraderie and confirmed bachelorhood. They embark on their experiment turning Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe,” into a princess at a ball with the glee of boys building a fort in the woods. That Pickering is the warmer, more mannerly man is clear from the start, and Higgins, for all his selfish thoughtlessness, is always interesting and usually honest. He’s frank and even mean, but it doesn’t seem he intends to be. Callender’s charms are many here, and the masterful Fusco keeps Higgins from being a monster by virtue of his intelligence, enthusiasm and emotional complexity under all that scholarly folderol.

Catherine Castellanos is the epitome of British resolve as housekeeper Mrs. Pearce. She’s strong and sensible and can’t for the life of her talk Higgins and Pickering into understanding that their “experiment” involves a real, live human being with feelings and attachments and a future growing more complicated by the day. Equally strong but with more humor and heart is Sharon Lockwood’s Mrs. Higgins, a mother continually frustrated by her rude, inconsiderate yet somehow adorable son. Lockwood and Castellanos are also very funny in the opening scene as squawking Cockneys.

The Eynsford Hill family is often forgettable in Pygmalion, but not here. As members of the upper class who have very little money, their desperation masked with pretension is a powerful component of Shaw’s deconstruction of class and its illusions and debilitating demands. Julie Eccles as Mrs. Eynsford Hill keeps up appearances but clearly has suffered in life. She has compassion, unlike her daughter Clara (Elyse Price), while her son Freddy (Nicholas Pleczar) is simply a noodle.

Probably as Shaw intended it, Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle, practically steals the show. James Carpenter’s performance bursts with charm and unfettered joy at being a proud member of the “undeserving poor.” Before he officially launches his crusade against middle-class morality, Alfred the dustman is a rouge and a ruffian touched with a gift for rhetoric. He brings discomfort and entertainment in equal measure, and there’s menace and merriment in Carpenter’s brilliant portrayal. It’s too bad Shaw never got around to writing a spin-off: Doolittle in America.

So often Pygmalion is presented as a play of ideas, which it certainly is. Shaw is never caught short on that score. But it’s also a play bursting with life. Eliza wants more and better for herself and does everything she can to get it, even if what she gets isn’t at all what she expected. But she’s undaunted, and she finds that she’s as smart as Higgins but even better equipped than he is to deal with the realities of modern life. She heads off into an uncertain future with confidence, and that’s absolutely thrilling.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Pygmalion dialect coach Lynne Soffer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

California Shakespeare Theater’s Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw continues through Aug. 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free BART shuttle to and from the theater at Orinda BART station. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

In praise of Anthony and Sharon and Lorri and Spike

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Sharon Lockwood (left) is Sonia, Heather Alicia Simms (center) is Cassandra and Anthony Fusco is Vanya in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the season opener for Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Mark Junek (center) as Spike does a reverse striptease, much to the shock/delight of Fusco as Vanya, Caroline Kaplan as Nina and Lorri Holt as Masha. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.

If you spend any time at all going to theater in the San Francisco Bay Area, you soon see that we have some extraordinary homegrown talent populating our local stages. That’s not empty boosterism – rah, Bay Area! – but something nearing actual fact – rah, working Bay Area actors in it for the long haul! In just the last month or so, Marin Theatre Company, TheatreWorks, Aurora Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theater and Magic Theatre have opened their seasons with at least one dazzling, shake-your-head-in-wonder performance by a Bay Area actor.

Now Berkeley Repertory Theatre gives a triple scoop of local actor goodness in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the local premiere of Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy. Playing the titular siblings, whose community theater-actor parents had a thing for Chekhov, are Anthony Fusco as Vanya, Sharon Lockwood as Sonia and Lorri Holt as Masha. Watching these three seasoned pros work together is a joy, to put it mildly. They have craft and nuance and real connection (with the audience and each other), and it genuinely feels like they’re having fun up there together.

Granted, Durang’s play, though rooted in the world of Chekhov and tinged with some of the same sadness borne of lives barely lived, is a jaunty vehicle for the talents of great actors. In this world, everybody is carbonated, some more than others, and everybody gets a chance to, if you’ll pardon the expression, pop their cork.

At the start, it would seem that Vanya and Sonia, now living in the country home they grew up in following the long, slow death of their parents, have absolutely no fizz left in them at all. Vanya is reasonably content – watch him take simple joy in a good cup of coffee and sunrise from the morning room – but Sonia is a lament on legs. Life has passed her by, and at 52, she has nothing to live for. She is, in effect, mourning her life in the morning room.

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Then sister Masha arrives, her international movie-star fame whirling around her like a dervish. She has lived more lives (and had more failed marriages) than her brother and sister could ever dream of having. Her current infatuation is a boy toy named Spike (Mark Junek), a wannabe actor to whom shirts and pants are but fleeting garments. He craves attention and cannot stop moving, undulating, teasing, texting and flirting with everyone. Junek’s performance is so deft, so physically alive he might as well be a modern dancer performing “Ode to 21st-Century ADHD.”

To continue the Chekhovian theme, a winsome, starstruck young lady from across the pond (literally, across the pond just outside the house) comes wandering over hoping to meet the famous Masha. Her name is Nina, naturally, and she ends up performing in a play Vanya (whom she calls Uncle Vanya just to clarify, for anyone who might be asleep, that Chekhov is the godfather of this comedy) has written, inspired by a scene from The Seagull.

Veering entirely away from Chekhov, Durang also throws in a cleaning lady named Cassandra (Heather Alicia Simms) who, like her namesake, has the power to foretell the future. In her case, though, the system is a little herky-jerky, but she gets it right a lot of the time. More the point, whenever she goes into a trance or brings voodoo into the mix, the audience goes wild with joy because Simms is so much fun to watch.

Director Richard E.T. White, returning to Berkeley Rep after an almost 20-year absence, knows that this is a light play. There are shadows to be sure, and some of it is almost poignant, but for nearly three hours, the experience is about the laughs and the mash-up of highbrow Chekhov and lowbrow pop culture and, most of all, the moments when the characters explode in effervescent bursts.

Fusco’s moment comes in the second act when Vanya has a major flip-out and decries everything about the present in favor of the gentler past. It’s a masterful tirade, and Fusco gives it all he’s got. Holt’s vainglorious Masha has multiple snit fits, not the least of which involves a costume part, her Snow White costume and a demand that everyone else be dwarfs (Spike at least gets to be Prince Charming). But perhaps Holt’s funniest moment comes when Masha attempts to realign her aura from the negative to the positive – or as positive as Masha can get.

Lockwood’s Sonia is, simply, a dream. Debbie Downer for the first part of the play, Sonia comes to life at the costume party when she makes herself pretty and sparkly and starts speaking in an imitation of Dame Maggie Smith in Neil Simon’s California Suite (for which she won an Oscar playing an actress who loses the Oscar). We watch Sonia come to life – she is re-carbonated, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The entire cast is a delight, but there’s special pleasure in watching Fusco and Lockwood and Holt bring their unique talents to bear in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a zany family comedy with the zing of sparkling wine and, thanks to marvelous actors, the occasional tang of real champagne.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Christopher Durang for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues an extended run through Oct. 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$89 (subject to change). Call 510-657-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

ACT’s Metaphor: a bright balloon that pops

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George Hampe is former military sniper Dean Trusk and Anthony Fusco is Oliver Denny, a military employment counselor in the world premiere of George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor, an American Conservatory Theater production. Below: Sharon Lockwood (left) as Frannie Trusk, Fusco and René Augesen as Helen Denny make the best of an awkward church encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

It seems there are two plays battling it out in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of Dead Metaphor by Canadian plawyright George F. Walker. Three of the characters are broadly comic – one foot in the real world, the other in a dark comedy of extremes. And the other three characters are just plain folks, getting by as best they can with anger, fear and desperation causing storms on a daily basis.

Both of those plays are pretty interesting, at least in Act 1. The comedy is especially biting as the three exaggerations – a politician running for reelection (the marvelous René Augesen getting to show of a real flair for biting comedy), her increasingly agitated husband (a grimly funny Anthony FuscoTom Bloom) acting erratically because of fatal tumor bearing down on his brain.

These three characters are able to wallow in the comedy extremes because the other three characters keep them grounded. Dean (George Hampe) is a military sniper returned from war in the Middle East. He’s been looking for gainful employment for months but with no luck. He’s about to re-marry his ex-wife (Rebekah Brockman), not because she’s pregnant but because she only divorced him while he was deployed because she couldn’t stomach the thought of being a military widow. And Dean’s mom (Sharon Lockwood doing wonders in a mostly thankless role) is suffering through her husband’s brain tumor-inspired dementia.

In the set-up, Walker’s play, under the keen direction of Irene Lewis, crackles with humor and potential. Whenever Augesen or Fusco is on stage, laughs are guaranteed as we get to know Helen Denny, Augesen’s unscrupulous, immoral candidate, and Fusco’s Oliver, a sensitive, intelligent man increasingly terrified by the monster his wife has become.

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When Dean goes to see Oliver about getting him a job, worlds collide and Dean ends up working as an assistant to Helen, much to the chagrin of Dean’s father, who, even in his addled state, can work up a full steam of hate directed toward conveniently conservative, opportunistic Helen and all the brain-dead politicos she represents. (“I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore,” is one piercing insult lobbed at Helen, and she absorbs it with astonishing aplomb.)

Act 2 starts to misfire as the satirical comedy and the real world begin to make uneasy intersections, and then, by the end, the whole play has self-destructed. It’s easy to feel compassion for Dean, who, as embodied by Hampe, is a well-adjusted young man who has been expertly trained for military murder but who can’t catch a break in real life. Potential employers tend to get jittery when they find out he was an effective sniper. Walker makes his point about the world our veterans face upon their return, but by the end, he has clouded that message and not taken Dean (or his ex-wife) into believable emotional terrain (even for a bleak comedy). Walker demonstrates some sharp shooting comedy then misses his target entirely.

Walker’s cop-out conclusion is just the last wrong turn of many in a act that expects us to make leaps involving plot and emotion that simply aren’t earned. So it’s a good thing these actors are so solid and the production itself is so slick (the dual turntables of Christopher Barreca’s prove incredibly effective). Otherwise, you might be tempted to say Dead Metaphor is dead not on arrival but on conclusion.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright George F. Walker for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

George F. Walker’s Dead Metaphor continues through March 24 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

The power you’re supplyin’, it’s Elektra-fyin’!

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René Augesen (left) is Elketra, Olympia Dukakis (center) is the Chorus and Allegra Rose Edwards is Chrysothemis in the American Conservatory Theater production of Elektra, translated and adapted from Sophocles by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Below: Nick Steen (left) is Orestes, Anthony Fusco (center) is Tutor and Titus Tompkins is Pylades. Photos by Kevin Berne

Suddenly, we’re awash in Greeks. Must have something to do with the upcoming election. Everyone’s feeling deeply and internationally tragic. We have An Iliad over at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and now at American Conservatory Theater, we have Sophocles’ Elektra in a muscular and potent translation/adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker.

If I could take the thing I liked best about An Iliad – the extraordinary bass player adding live accompaniment to the action – and replace the cellist here (Theresa Wong playing a score by David Lang), who is kind of precious and distracting, we’d have a gutsy bit of the Greek that stood a good chance of actually offering catharsis.

As it is, this Carey Perloff-directed Elektra has some gripping moments, most courtesy of core company member René Augesen in the title role. I lost track, but I don’t think there was one moment in this 90-minute production when her face wasn’t shiny with tears. There were angry tears, self-pitying tears, wretched-to-the soul tears and even a few joyous tears. You get the gist: lots of tears. But this is a tragedy, after all, and one smothered in murder, vengeance and the so-called “justice” of the gods.

Wertenbaker’s translation/adaptation retains a certain formality, which is welcome. This is, after all, foreign to us and should feel foreign to a degree. That’s why it’s so exciting when the raw human emotions break through the Greek-ness of it all and hits us afresh, even 1,600 years later, which is amazing.

Augesen’s primal grief is powerfully communicated in a performance that feels at once epic and deeply personal. Auguesen is so good, she even makes us forget the unattractive costume Candice Donnelly has put her in, a sort of black negligee pant suit with tight black granny panties visible underneath (I heard someone mutter about their resemblance to tap-dance pants) and black bra. Is Elektra part of a harem? A sex slave? It’s mysterious, and not in a way that really serves the drama. But Augesen connects in such a powerful way, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing (or not wearing, as the case may be).

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In the role of the Chorus, Olympia Dukakis is warm and compassionate and powerful in her own right, and Caroline Lagerfelt nearly steals the show as Clytemnestra, the evil queen (and Elektra’s mother) whose intelligence is outweighed only by her lust for power (and, perhaps, lust in general). Crisp and regal and really mean, Clytemnestra is a juicy role, not all villain because her actions are propelled, in large part, by a mother’s grief over the sacrifice of her daughter, Iphigenia. She’s not justified, but she’s coming from someplace real.

Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis, is played with surprising complexity by Allegra Rose Edwards – surprising because when we first meet/see her, she looks like a high-fashion mannequin (the lacy white getup Donnelly has created for her is perfect). She says she’s grieving over the death of her father, Agamemnon, at the hands of her mother, but she’s aligning herself with those in power to protect herself. She advises Elektra to do the same (to no effect). But it doesn’t take much for Chrysothemis to fall apart, Elektra-style. Her haute-couture façade crumbles and the damaged person emerges. I was disappointed that once Chryssie leaves, she doesn’t return.

For my catharsis, I needed to see a Shakespeare-style sibling reunion with Elektra, Chryssie and Orestes (Nick Steen), who was exiled then reported dead then suddenly live and in person and hellbent on avenging his father’s murder. But apparently Sophocles doesn’t roll that way. Nor does he want to show tit-for-tat murders in view of the audience, which, admittedly, might be a little too low-brow slasher movie for a high-brow Greek tragedy. But when you get emotionally invested with these kids, you kind of want to see big things to happen for them.

And for me, that’s where Perloff’s production slips, even though it’s an engaging, satisfying experience. We invest in the characters, fall into their drama, share their fury and care what happens next. The emotions are big, but they don’t take that next leap and get bigger – the kind of big where you clutch your chest and your cheeks get as shiny wet as Augesen’s.


Elektra continues through Nov. 18 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$120 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

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Dominique Lozano (center) is Madame Arcati, the outsize medium who sets the ghostly plot moving in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at California Shakespeare Theater. Also at the seance are (from left) Melissa Smith, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen and Kevin Rolston. BELOW: Augesen’s Ruth reacts to the ghostly presence of Jessica Kitchens (right) as Elvira, first wife of Charles (Fusco on the couch). Photos by Kevin Berne

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn’t dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she’s not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

Director Mark Rucker’s buoyant production is full of sly, well-observed moments that help ground Coward’s smooth-as-dressing-gown-silk dialogue as it flies quickly and crisply through a foggy night in the Orinda Hills. By all rights, a drawing room comedy like this shouldn’t work in the great outdoors, with hawks and bats making guest appearances in the play’s rural Kent setting. But Annie Smart’s marvelous set is elegantly cozy without pretending it’s not outside. York Kennedy’s lights are warm when they need to be and ghostly cool when they don’t.

Anthony Fusco is wonderful as British prig Charles Condomine, a mystery novel writer dealing with a furious and confused living wife and a scheming, ethereally lovely dead wife. Charles is not terribly likeable, but Fusco makes him fun, and by the end we’re even rooting for him a little.

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As the ghostly Elvira, Jessica Kitchens as as lovely as she needs to be (and then some), outfitted in flowing, creamy white elegance by costumer Katherine Roth. All we really need to know about Elvira is that she’s charming and bratty in equal measure. She’s an annoying ghost, but Kitchens softens her edges with sexy mischief.

Blithe Spirit is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the actor playing eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who travels everywhere on her bicycle and delivers schoolgirl aphorisms like the most valiant trouper on the planet. Certainly Domenique Lozano steals every scene she’s in, but the rest of the production is sharp enough to contain her beguiling performance without upsetting the comic balance. The most rewarding aspect of Lozano’s energetic, comically dexterous performance is that for all her goofiness, Madame Arcati seems like a sincere person with talents and intelligence to bolster her eccentricities.

The nicest surprise of this spirited Spirit is how it becomes the story of Ruth Condomine, the reluctantly haunted second wife who finds herself fighting for her husband with a ghost she cannot see or hear. On loan from American Conservatory Theater (as is most everyone involved in this production), René Augesen is all smart elegance and ferocity as she goes from horror at her husband’s inexplicable and astonishing behavior (he swears he sees the ghost of his dead first wife) to grudging acceptance and willingness to fight with everything she’s got. Augesen’s Ruth is emotional and grounded, a woman who feels her way of life is at stake and well worth a serious fight.

It’s not that Blithe Spirit needs gritty acting to make its sophisticated repartee work, but the warmth and relatable human-size stakes offered by Augesen and Lozano help make the play more than a pleasant diversion with an improbable plot. Their spirit makes this comedy more than blithe. It’s a farce with force.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with the lovely Jessica Kitchens about her work in Bay Area theaters and her spirited turn as Elvira for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

David Mamet stages a Race to obfuscation

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Race includes (from left) Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Chris Butler and Kevin O’Rourke. Below: Law partners Lawson (Fusco) and Brown (Butler) square off over a tendentious case. Photos by Kevin Berne

David Mamet never fails to fog me up.

He’s never been one of my favorite playwrights because, although he’s a wizard of compelling dialogue and unquestionable intelligence, his view of the world is just too bleak for me. Finding kindness and compassion and spirituality in his work is never as easy as finding brutality, ugliness and the absolute worst in mankind. I’m not saying he’s wrong in his assessment, it’s just that he makes me feel like Pollyanna in comparison. I don’t need a steady stream of sunshine, flowers and unicorns.

Mamet’s Race is making its West Coast debut in a compelling production from American Conservatory Theater. Director Irene Lewis isn’t messing around, and her quartet of actors attack this too intentionally provocative drama with real courage. They struggle (and partly succeed) to add a needed human dimension to Mamet’s button-pushing editorial cartoon about what he sees as the farce known as the law, the complicated impossibility of human relationships and the insoluble problem of race.

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He gives us a law firm headed by a black partner (Chris Butler as Henry Brown) and a white partner (Anthony Fusco as Jack Lawson). Also in their inner circle is a black junior lawyer (Suysan Heyward as Susan, the only female character and the only one without a last name), and they’re all struggling with a potential client. Billionaire Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke), who is white, has been accused of raping a black woman (possibly a prostitute).

“What can you say to a black man on the subject of race?” one character asks. “Nothing.” But Mamet finds plenty to say, and none of it’s good. Humanity is fueled by coffee and gossip, and the law is fueled by three things: hatred, fear and envy. All of that’s true, but there’s so much more. Not in this 85-minute exercise, however.

Mamet’s language is as sharp as ever, and the actors all attack it with gusto, but it’s all just so much talk without any emotional connection to these people. Mamet is most successful at creating some sense of mystery about whether Strickland is guilty or not and how the trio of lawyers goes about determining whether or not to take his case, and if they did, whether or not it’s winnable.

But then Mamet starts throwing his know-it-all punches. Everyone is smarter than everyone else, and everyone’s playing everyone else in one way or another. There’s no such thing as generosity here or genuine feeling because, in Mamet’s world, that’s all grist for the reality of vendettas and ill will and a shared history that damages rather than strengthens.

Race is fun to watch, mostly because the actors – Fusco and Butler in particular – are so adept at making the Mamet-speak seem so real. But this nonstop parade of ugliness (not to mention the high-powered foul language that Mamet seems to relish bombing the stage with) ends up feeling like a skit designed to amuse already cynical lawyers at a national conference for reveling in hideous humanity.

I didn’t feel as beaten up here as I did at the end of Mamet’s Oleanna, and the lack of compelling emotion made Race easier to shrug off, even if the issues it addresses linger long after the curtain calls. Maybe Mamet is right, and we shouldn’t even bother trying to communicate or trying to sort through our problems or are deeply held issues with one another.

I don’t agree with that, so I guess Mamet can go fog himself.


David Mamet’s Race continues through Nov. 13 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or vsit www.act-sf.org.