Performances make Dogfight musical sing

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Rose (Caitlin Brooke) and Eddie (Jeffrey Brian Adams) attend a suspicious party in the musical Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Marines (from left, Nikita Burshteyn, Adams, Brandon Dahlquist, Andrew Humann, Aejay Mitchell and Andy Rotchadl) celebrate their leave atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There are two very good reasons to see the musical Dogfight at San Francisco Playhouse. The 2012 stage adaptation of the 1991 movie starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor has its moments (mostly thanks to the emotional score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), but what really makes it connect are the lead performances by Jeffrey Brian Adams as a U.S. Marine with more depth under his gruff military exterior than even he may realize and Caitlin Brooke as a San Francisco waitress/folk singer who is smarter, stronger and more compassionate than anyone the Marine has ever known (or probably ever will know).

The premise of the show is a harsh one. A band of Marines lands in San Francisco the night before they ship out to Asia and, we can surmise, to the Vietnam conflict. It’s Nov. 21, 1963. No one knows President Kennedy will be assassinated the next day in Dallas, and on this night, the Marines engage in the age-old tradition of a “dogfight.” The Marine who parades the ugliest date across the dance floor at a dive bar wins the pot.<.p>

Private Eddie Birdlace (Adams) is especially gung-ho about the night’s event, as are his two buddies, whose names also start with B: Boland (Brandon Dahlquist) and Bernstein (Andrew Humann). The “three Bs” scour the streets of San Francisco for potentially prize-winning dogs (and also they wouldn’t mind getting laid), and Eddie wanders into a diner, where he hears Rose (Brooke) strumming a guitar and working on a song. There’s not really any universe in which Brooke could possibly be considered a “dog,” but costumer Tatjana Genser does her best to render the actor unattractive, especially in a yellow party dress she wears to accompany Eddie, after much persuasion, to the bar where she will unwittingly become a contestant in a hateful contest.

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The songs in Act 1 include a rousing Marines on the town number, “Some Kinda Time,” which features the hyper-masculine choreography of Keith Pinto, a sleazy “let’s bag the dogs” number (“Hey Good Lookin'”) and a terrific ballad for Rose, “Nothing Short of Wonderful.” The one musical misstep here is the title song, sung by Rose and the winner of the dogfight, Marcy (Amy Lizardo). The song is strident and hard on the ears, which is the exact opposite of the rest of the score, which lives in the emotional strata where pop meets show tune – territory that feels reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown and Duncan Sheik.

One of the big challenges for book writer Peter Duchan is to make us care about Marines behaving badly. Sure, they’re shipping off to serve their country, but they are, in essence, assholes. We get to know Eddie best of all, and while he’s never quite likable, we at least begin to understand him, and the fact that he finally recognizes Rose for the wonderful person she is, definitely works in his favor. Eddie’s pals, on the other hand, are just crass stereotypes of soldiers gone wild, attempting to whore it up and ending up (secretly) in tears but still retaining bragging rights to protect the fragile (and enormous) male ego.

Act 2 has a harder time resolving the Eddie-Rose love story, shipping Eddie and friends off to the war and then flashing forward four years to 1967 when returning soldiers were spat on by hippies in the streets of San Francisco. The attempt to frame the story in a larger context ends up diminishing the central love story and providing a pat ending that feels tacked on rather than emotionally earned.

Director Bill English, who also designed the multi-level set dominated by a leaning tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, guides a strong cast through the two-plus-hour show, and musical director Ben Prince and his six-piece band help find all the emotion in the (mostly) rich Pasek-Paul score.

Dogfight isn’t a perfect musical, but its central love story, especially as brought to life by Adams and Brooke, who couldn’t be more emotionally grounded and powerful, has us sitting up and begging for more.

Dogfight continues through Nov. 7 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Realistic portrait of the abstract artist in SF Playhouse’s Bauer

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Ronald Guttman (left) is painter Rudolf Bauer, Susi Damilano (center) is Louise Bauer and Stacy Ross is Hilla Rebay in the world-premiere production of Bauer by Lauren Gunderson at the San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Ross as Hilla wants to know what made Guttman as Bauer stop painting. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

A mysterious chapter in modern art history receives some theatrical exploration in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Bauer at San Francisco Playhouse. If you’ve never heard of the abstract painter Rudolf Bauer, whom some considered a genius beyond contemporaries like Kandinsky and Klee, that may have something to do with the fact that the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was built to display his work, kept his paintngs instead in the basement out of public view.

That’s one of the issues addressed in Bauer, a three-person drama by Gunderson, San Francisco’s most prolific and produced playwright. The other issues at hand involve the question of why Bauer, who survived a Nazi prison, stopped painting not long after arriving in the United States and how he navigated relationships with the women in his life: Baroness Hilla Rebay, who was his staunch advocate in the art world and probably the great love of his life, and Louise Bauer, who was hired by Rebay as Bauer’s maid but eventually became his wife and also a staunch advocate as illness brought Bauer closer to death.

Gunderson imagines a meeting – crafted with near-romantic comedy dexterity by Louise – between Bauer and Rebay, who have not spoken in a decade as an attempt to rectify the past and, perhaps, inspire Bauer to pick up the brush and paint again.

As we’ve come to expect from Gunderson, Bauer is full of intelligence, humor and passion. Bauer’s story is an interesting and sad one, exploring as it does, the difficult relationship between art, in its purest, most creative state, and the art world as it is ruled by ego and capitalistic greed. The issue here is not so much the sale of Bauer’s work but rather its ownership and how that impinges on an artist’s freedom and, consequently, the creative spark.

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Director Bill English, who also designed the half-realistic/half-abstract painting studio set, elicits strong performances from Ronald Guttman as Bauer, Susi Damilano as Louise and Stacy Ross as Hilla (an acerbic woman described as “harmless as odorless poison”). There’s tension, connection and fire within this trio, and they remain captivating for the play’s 90 minutes.

The women actually end up being more interesting than Bauer, whose German accent sometimes renders his lines intelligible. What begins as a cat fight ends up as something much deeper and more honest, with Bauer in the middle. Early on, Rebay takes stock of the situation: “God, we’re two modernists and a maid. It makes no sense.”

Gunderson has fun with the tempestuous, love-hate kind of relationship between Bauer and Rebay, who blame each other for a great deal. For Bauer, she represents the end of his artistic life: “The spirit tends to wither when ravaged by a succubus,” he tells her.

There’s interesting use of video here (designed by Micha J. Stieglitz). For instance, when the characters are looking through a portfolio of Bauer’s work, we see what they see projected on the large rear wall of the set. But then there are moments when the video goes too far as when emotional moments between the characters are emphasized by large, animated swatches of color on the walls – as if the writing and the performances aren’t enough, we need visual underscore (which we don’t). Same is true of the musical underscore that comes in toward the end – unnecessary and distracting, turning the play into a wannabe movie bio pic.

The video gets a real workout at the end. In theory, the moment works, but it’s just too much. Video is just that – video, temporarily projected light and pre-constructed. The moment calls for absolute reality, something created by the actors themselves in the moment. English’s production gets fancy just when it needs to be at its most laid bare, and that robs Gunderson’s potent play of some emotional impact.

In a nice confluence of events, San Francisco’s Weinstein Gallery is hosting an exhibit of Bauer’s work called The Realm of the Spirit through April 30. Rowland Weinstein, who also made a documentary about Bauer, serves on the Playhouse board and is executive producer of the play. Click for more info.

And the story of Rudolf, Louise and Hilla goes on. This production, cast included, is taking the show on the road. Bauer moves off Broadway at New York’s 59E59 Theater Sept. 2 through Oct. 12.

No longer consigned to the basement, Bauer is back in the world.

Lauren Gunderson’s Bauer continues through April 19 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Complex Jerusalem unfolds at SF Playhouse

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The cast of San Francisco Playhouse’s Jerusalem gets its revel on. Below: Bryan Dykstra (center) is Johnny “Rooster” Byron and Devon Simpson (left) is Pea and Riley Krull is Tanya. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

San Francisco Playhouse deserves tremendous credit for tackling Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a multi-award-winning play in London and New York whose success hinged, in large part, on a central performance by Mark Rylance, one of our greatest working actors.

Minus Rylance’s dazzle, the rambling, shambling play must stand on its own, and there’s not much there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. The SF Playhouse production, directed and designed by Artistic Director Bill English, offers much to admire, including a large, devoted cast that does steadfast, admirable work to keep the audience engaged for three acts that spill out over three hours.

The play, about a drug-dealing former daredevil who lives illegally in a forest camp and surrounds himself with passing generations of lost and misfit teenagers, is certainly interesting and offers pockets of rich, dramatic substance. But for a play where not much happens – the government attempts to evict Johnny, a teenage girl is lost or has run away, an aimless youth attempts to break away from his past – there’s a surprising lack of character development. The women, for instance, have very little to do other than tend to the menfolk, look like forest pixies and keep up their part in all the drinking and drugging.

The men get a lot more to do (there are 10 of them and five women), with Brian Dykstra at the top of the heap as the enigmatic Johnny. Dykstra delivers a compelling, multifaceted performance in a role that never fully emerges from the vapors of reality colliding with myth. Is Johnny a despicable drunk who has long sold drugs to teenagers from this dump of a trailer in the Wiltshire woods? Yes, he is. Has he been banned from all the village pubs for reprehensible behavior? Yes, he has. Is he a neglectful father of his young son? Indeed he is. But is there more to Johnny than all of this negative irresponsibility as a so-called adult? Possibly. It could be that Johnny is a descendant of a line of Englishman with rare Romani (Gypsy) blood who have a deep connection to the land and the ability to converse with giants, conjure visions and otherwise connect with the spirit world of ley lines and nearby Stonehenge.

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The fact that Johnny harbors this potential depth and power makes his squandered life all the more pathetic, but that seems to be part of Butterworth’s point. Here, in the character of Johnny, is England itself, a great, spiritual resource that, like so much of the “civilized” world, has been squandered in the grab for all-powerful gold.

We get all of this by the end of the first act, so there’s not much more ground to cover in the second and third acts. We do get a little more back story on some of the other men in Johnny’s realm, like Davey (Joshua Schell), who videos everything on his flip phone and is perfectly content to work in the slaughterhouse during the week and drink and drug is paycheck away on the weekends, or Wesley (Christopher Reber), the pub owner in a miserable marriage who needs Johnny’s drugs to get through the roughest parts of his day (especially this day in particular when he’s stuck dancing with bells on his legs at the village fair).

And then there’s Ginger (the magnificent Ian Scott McGregor), who has been with Johnny longer than anyone else and who is still adrift in the world. Ostensibly a DJ, Ginger has brains but is often befuddled by the world and is content to orbit Johnny’s ever-changing galaxy of miscreants. McGregor’s Ginger offers abundant comic relief, but he’s also the play’s most heartfelt character, the one you find yourself wishing could find a way onto his own path.

Jerusalem is a hefty piece of work with a large, constantly moving cast and dramatic leaps from the grimy, grotty world of Johnny’s camp to the less easily defined realm of pagan transcendence. That’s a tall order, and English’s production makes as clear a path as it can through Butterworth’s thicket of poetry and slang (the program includes a four-page glossary) and exposition. The actors’ accents – so often a problem when Americans tackle regional English dialect – are fantastic, so we get a real sense of the rhythms coursing through Butterworth’s dialogue.

But in the end, is Jerusalem a cautionary tale or a “sorry, it’s too late” tale or simply a reminder that there’s more to this life in which we’re constantly trying to buy or scrape or narcotize our journey to ever-out-of-reach happiness? There are no easy answers or labels here, and that’s actually great. It would be nice, though, to have a clearer dramatic arc and more character depth in the midst of so much everyday hustle bustle and dips into the spirit realm.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem continues through March 8 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Joseph’s Bengal Tiger prowls the SF Playhouse stage

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Marines (Craig Marker, left, and Gabriel Marin, right) guard a hungry tiger (Will Marchetti) in the bombed-out Baghdad Zoo in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph. Below: A night raid goes very badly for translator Musa (Kuros Charney, left) an Iraqi couple (Pomme Koch and Sarita Ocon) and for Kev, a volatile American solder (Marker). Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

The last time San Francisco Playhouse produced a play by Rajiv JosephAnimals Out of Paper in 2009 — the young playwright was becoming one of the hottest writers in the country. TheatreWorks produced his The North Pool in 2011, just as his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was preparing to bow on Broadway in a starry production that featured Robin Williams as the titular caged beast.

Joseph, with his Tony Award and Pulitzer nominations, has fully emerged as an American playwright of note and his work is back at San Francisco Playhouse to launch a new season, the second in the stellar theater on Post Street.

In Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Joseph has crafted a challenging war/ghost story that wrestles with the very notion of god (or, if you prefer, God). This world and the next intermingle in the rubble of our desert war as Joseph examines the costs — physical and spiritual — of brutality.

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Through performances and design, director Bill English creates a provocative world that allows the poetry of the dead and the garish reality of the living to blend in surprising, moving and perplexing ways. It helps that English is also a masterful set designer who places the action in the remains of a palace that, with the assistance of a few moving set pieces, becomes a topiary garden in a Hussein family manse, a military translator’s office, a hospital room, a bombed-out leper colony and the remnants of the Baghdad Zoo. Dan Reed’s lights and Steven Klems’ sound design add texture and mood to the setting, which is somewhere between dream and waking.

Without a clear protagonist, Joseph’s play is collage of Iraq experiences ranging from the American military (Craig Marker and Gabriel Marin as Marines) to the Iraqi civilian (Kuros Charney as Musa, a former gardener now working as a translator for the Americans). And in between, there are beings from another realm — a recently deceased Bengal tiger from the Baghdad Zoo (a deadpan Will Marchetti), Uday Hussein (Pomme Koch) carrying the severed head of his brother, Qusay, and a young Iraqi woman (Livia Demarchi) tortured and killed by the Hussein brothers.

Joseph doesn’t go down conventional roads with this story in any way and dispatches sympathy and empathy from the start. No one here is terribly likable, but then again, this is death and war. The Americans are ignorant, money-grubbing animals, while the tiger is an admitted atheist deep in thought about his place in the universe. Death brings vast intelligence to the ghosts who, for whatever reason, are still stuck roaming the human realm, and the living just seem to grow less intelligent.

English’s cast brings ferocious authenticity to Joseph’s tricky playing field, and while it’s hard to remain fully emotionally involved in this two-hour play, its provocative power is undeniable. The presence of Uday Hussein is especially troubling — the thought of that kind of evil never quite leaving and continuing to inspire more evil fogs the play with the mist of hopelessness. The only real kindness in the play is shown by a leper (Sarita Ocon) who comforts a man whose damage, greed and selfishness have brought him to his inevitable end.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is a strange, prickly play — not a crowd pleaser so much as an act of thoughtful provocation filled with vivid portraits of ghosts and humans wandering a wasteland of their own creation.

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo continues through Nov. 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Ham and jam and Camelot

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Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia, kneeling), King Arthur (Johnny Moreno, holding the sword) and Guenevere (Monique Hafen, right) take part in a knighting ceremony in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot. Below: Royalty in a tower: Moreno and Hafen look down on the simple folk. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

I never loved Camelot, not ever once in silence. Not in the lusty month of May. Never. And I wanted to because how could you not love the work of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the guys who created the masterwork known as My Fair Lady? I’m also genetically inclined emotionally hard wired to love anything involving Julie Andrews, who followed up her star-making turn as Eliza Doolittle by playing the placid Guenevere in Lerner and Loewe’s adaptation of the King Arthur stories as told in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. But the fact is that the role of Guenevere, like the show in which she’s stuck, is a big drag.

The songs are corny and prissy and all wrong for a story of passion and chivalry and civil justice in bloody dark ages. In fact, Lerner and Loewe were all wrong for this story. They wrote Camelot as if still in the mists of George Bernard Shaw. There’s no blood and guts here, no red-hot love, no edge, which is interesting for a show with so much swordplay. It’s as if the passion is under glass in Camelot – you can see it, you just can’t access it, not through the music (which often feels like warmed over operetta), not through creaky book and lyrics (which are too clever and wordy by half).

Every production of Camelot I’ve ever seen suffers from the same problem. Because the show itself is so clunky, even the most professional of productions come across as mediocre community theater crossed with a Disney princess parade with a little Renaissance Pleasure Faire thrown in for kicks.

How exciting, then, to hear that San Francisco Playhouse was going to re-imagine Camelot as something darker and grittier. Director Bill English got permission to tweak the book and add in two cut songs, “Fie on Goodness” sung by the Knights of the Roundtable and Mordred, King Arthur’s bastard son (and a bastard in general), and “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” sung by Guenevere as a way of riling up the knights to give Lancelot the smackdown he so richly deserves.

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For all of English’s efforts, it’s still Camelot. The actors do their best to infuse some fire into the script, but Lerner defeats them at every turn. English has banished the twee flourishes that make the show ridiculous, but the central love triangle of King Arthur (Johnny Moreno), Guenevere (Monique Hafen) and Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) still comes off as sorely underdeveloped.

The role of Mordred (Paris Hunter Paul) has been beefed up a bit but manages to remain a comic book bad guy who feels like he was thrown in at the last minute.

Nina Ball’s set gives us plenty to look at for 2 1/2 hours – castle towers, ruins, grassy hillsides (complemented by scenic projections at the back of the stage designed by Micah J. Stieglitz). And the fights are all grandly staged by Miguel Martinez and fiercely enacted by the actors.

Still and all, it’s Camelot, and that’s not such a good thing. Moreno has some affecting moments as the conflicted king, although Lerner’s ham-fisted dialogue tends to bring out Moreno’s inner Shatner. Hafen makes the most of Guenevere, but the role doesn’t ask for much more than anger, boredom and guilty passion. Heredia, who’s a long way from his days as Angel in Rent here, does everything he can to make Lancelot likeable in spite of his obsession with virtue and valor. Heredia is warm and appealing, although he seems hesitant in his big number, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” even though he has a beautiful voice.

Charles Dean opens the show on a lighter note as Merlyn, who is outfitted by costumer Abra Berman in a hilarious antler-tinged outfit with a bare midriff and a codpiece thrusting out into the audience. It’s such a funny moment that hopes are raised: perhaps this will be the Camelot that doesn’t take itself so very seriously. But no. Dean reappears later as an energetic Pelinore friend and defender to the king, and Merlyn is sorely missed.

Music director Dave Dobruksy and his quartet sound great (and make a brief appearance via video at the top of the show). The arrangements are refreshingly straightforward and aim to remove the preciousness that can make the score even more treacly than it already is.

But. It’s still Camelot, and though this is the most interesting and thoughtful version of the show I’ve seen, I should just accept the fact that I’ll never be a fan and leave it at that.

Camelot continues through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Wilson Jermaine Heredia goes from Rent to Camelot

When Wilson Jermaine Heredia decided to make a splash in the Broadway world, he dove right in and created giant waves. For his performance as the dazzling drag performer Angel Schunard in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent he won Tony, Drama Desk and Obie awards and was nominated for an Olivier when he reprised the role in London.

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Since that splash, Heredia has worked consistently – his most recent Broadway gig was opposite Harvey Fierstein in the Tony-winning revival of La Cage aux Folles, but for his next chapter, the 41-year-old actor has taken a road that has led him away from his native New York (he was born and bred in Brooklyn) and to a new home and a new life here in San Francisco.

He is making his local debut as Lancelot in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot directed by Bill English, who is putting a decidedly different twist on this classic, albeit eternally troublesome musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe.

From his San Francisco home, Heredia talked about his life change and what it’s like to be a Knight of the Round Table.

Q: Since the whole Rent experience, what have you done that makes you proudest or happiest?
A: Life has been so eventful it’s hard to pick something, but I have to say that after all those years in class and working toward something, I’m getting to work with people I admired. I love that. Another thing is being able to travel and meet the people who have been influenced by Rent. I was just having a conversation with somebody yesterday about the overturning of Proposition 8 here in California. I would like to think Rent had something to do with that – not directly, but in helping to influence a change of the public opinion or perception of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have told me that if it hadn’t been for the character of Angel, they might not have been able to sympathize with their child’s plight. That is priceless to me. Nothing can top that for me. The fact that I’ve been an instrument in changing people’s minds about just being human, about being more human to each other. I feel absolutely humbled by that.

Q: How did you end up living in San Francisco?
When we made the movie Rent here, the weather, the people, the food, the ambiance, the art, I thought, “This is the place.” When I wasn’t shooting, I’d explore the city and the Peninsula. It’s so beautiful, and socially, culturally, I fell in love with it. Me and the universe have this particular relationship – sort of a call-and-answer thing. I said, “If I had the opportunity, I’d live here” and the universe said, “Check. I’ll prepare that for you.” That was in 2005. Eight years later, the universe said, “Are you ready?” It was definitely time for a move, so I listened diligently and followed. I was initially worried that not being in New York or LA I’d be out of the loop. But on the contrary, more opportunities have opened up for me here. What I love most is that when I meet people here, they don’t necessarily pigeonhole me into something I’ve done before. It’s nice to stretch out and experiment.

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Q: You’re making your San Francisco stage debut in this re-imagined Camelot, which includes songs cut from the original production and a feel that’s more Game of Thrones than the fairy tale-ish Camelot we’ve come to know. What’s your take on director Bill English’s version?
I’ve never seen Camelot, but from my knowledge of how it’s been done before, it seems it was done more superficially. We’re really playing more of what’s in the script. For instance, my song “C’est Moi” is an easy number to perform if you just gloss over it as sort of a celebration of self. But in Bill’s vision, the song is much more about Lancelot’s desire to be the best. He’s worked his whole life toward this particular goal, and he’s there. When he says, “I’m far too humble to lie,” he really means it. His confidence comes less from himself and more from his faith. So much of what he does is about faith and ideals and values. Love definitely comes into that as a belief and a faith because it feels just as real as any belief system, any religion. That’s where the conflict comes for Lancelot. There’s this deification of King Arthur and elevating Camelot to a divine height, then there’s this love he feels for Queen Guinevere. I think part of what Bill is concentrating on here is the naivete of following things without thinking them through. He’s really trying to get to the core of the show and wants us to play it as truthfully as possible, which is really exciting.

Camelot photo above by Jessica Palopoli

Camelot begins previews July 16, opens July 20 and continues through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Yo, Mofo! SF Playhouse tips a mighty fine Hat

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Jackie (Gabriel Marin, far left) and Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero, left) visit sponsor Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly, right) and his wife Victoria (Margo Hall, center) to discuss suspected misdeeds in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat. Below: Marin’s Jackie fends off angry girlfriend Veronica, played by Isabelle Ortega. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

[warning: this review does not hide or disguise the word “motherfucker” in the title of the play at hand]

The comedy, the intensity and all that rough language keeps things skittering right along in the San Francisco Playhouse production of The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The play is this rush of plot and character and language, then the sadness and despair lands. It takes Lionel Richie and the Commodores to underscore it, but man oh man is it there.

In so many ways, Gurigis’ Hat is about growing up, about taking yourself and the world you live in seriously enough to find purpose and pursue it with as much discipline as you can muster. The grown-ups in the play, let it be said, don’t do such a good job on the discipline part, although most of them have (or find) some degree of purpose.

This is the fourth time the Playhouse has tacked a Guirgis play, and it’s easy to see the attraction to the hefty, funny, complicated worlds that Guirgis creates. Compared to previous shows such as Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the A Train, The Motherfucker isn’t quite as gritty or as dark, but it’s still a substantial work about lives (and lies) in transition.

The main character, Jackie (Gabriel Marin) is fresh out of a 24-month stint in prison for getting caught dealing drugs out of the apartment he shares with his on-and-off girlfriend since the eighth grade, Veronica (Isabelle Ortega). When we meet Jackie, he’s as excited as a puppy getting adopted. He has his sobriety, he has his love and he has a new job. Life is good for Jackie…until it isn’t, and all those things he thought he had require re-evaluation.

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Jackie turns to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly) for solace and guidance, and though the older man appears to be the soul of compassion and grounded intelligence, he’s not quite what he seems. Curiously, though we learn many unsavory things about Ralph and he’s a liar, he really does turn out to be a pretty good sponsor. He’s got a lot of life experience, which results in a fair amount of common sense (if not outright morality). When he says he loves his cranky wife, Victoria (Margo Hall), we believe him, in spite of evidence to the contrary. And when we think Victoria might just be unlovable, we discover a smart, passionate woman with a unique perspective on the truth.

Guirgis is a writer capable of surprising his audience, and that’s a welcome trait here. Probably the most delightful character in the play is Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero), who, like Victoria, is a truth teller. But flamboyant Julio has flair and charm and, surprisingly, a wife. He’s a muscle man who likes to cook empanadas on his balcony grill, and when he channels his inner Van Damme, the result is funny but also impressive. Maybe one day Guirgis will write a play all about Cousin Julio.

Director Bill English made a smart choice in set designers by hiring himself to create two New York apartments, one grungy, one pristine, set against a backdrop of brownstones and Cousin Julio’s plant-laden balcony high above it all. Now that the Playhouse is settled into its fantastic new space, the sky is clearly the limit in terms of set design.

English gets some superb performances from his cast, most notably from Lumbly as an AA warrior with a unique perspective on life and love, Hall as a knowing, frustrated wife and Guerrero as the unflappable Cousin Julio. Marin and Ortega also have stellar moments, but as the combustible couple at the center of the story, the one struggling with addiction and adultery, there’s something missing. They both create endearing characters, even at their most obnoxious, duplicitous and self-deluding, but they don’t seem to belong together – and the play seems to want us to think they do.

The play boasts some satisfying laughs and an engaging, “what could possibly happen next” sense of storytelling. But this is a serious piece, though it’s less rooted in the head than it is in the heart. Being a grown-up, even one who makes the right choices and still takes advantage of people, is posited as a better alternative to the freefall of addiction and perpetually indulgent, childish behavior. It’s’ not a terribly hopeful message, but it’s one that’s hard to argue.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat continues through March 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Bewitched? No, bothered and bewildered at SF Playhouse

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Lauren English as Gillian Holroyd casts a spell on publisher Shep Henderson, played by William Connell, in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Bell, Book and Candle, a 1950 romantic comedy by John Van Druten. Below: English (center) confers with Zehra Berkman (left) as Queenie and Scott Cox as Nicky. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Oh, how I would love to tell you how a graceful and convincing performance by Lauren English and a sturdy production by Bill English rescues John Van Druten’s 1950 comedy Bell, Book and Candle from the heap of mediocre mid-century plays that have become irretrievably dated. And while Team English is indeed in good form here, the play itself is an attempt at enchantment that fails to enchant.

It very well could be that this play has been forever ruined for me by the TV show “Bewitched,” which for eight seasons never failed to delight me as a witch made a family with a mortal man in a world with a closed collective mind where issues of magic were concerned. The TV show, which was inspired by Van Druten’s play as well as the 1942 movie I Married a Witch, featured a blithe central performance by the ever-enchanting Elizabeth Montgomery, who somehow seemed above all the slapstick mayhem surrounding her. Members of the magic world were played for big laughs, none more so that Agnes Moorehead’s delicious Endora, the mother-in-law from character actress hell (or heaven, depending on your point of view).

Van Druten’s play has none of the TV show’s charm and ends up a two-hour sitcom without many laughs. His primary witch, Gillian Holroyd, is bored and is ready for something more in her life, something witchcraft can’t offer. When she meets one of her Manhattan apartment building neighbors, a handsome publisher named Shepherd Henderson, she isn’t allowed to simply fall for him. Rather, Van Druten makes her spark to jealousy because Shep is engaged to one of her old college nemeses. And he deosn’t let her simply beguile the mortal with her feminine charms without casting a spell on the poor guy.

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So this amounts to one of the quickest and least interesting courtships imaginable. All this renders Gillian not terribly likable, so when she decides to come clean about her sorcery, the dramatic stakes aren’t very high, and the notion of Gillian and Shep ending up together isn’t terribly compelling.

Van Druten could at least surround his witch with interesting characters the way Montgomery’s Samantha on “Bewtiched” was up to her pretty eyeballs in spell-casting goofballs. But no, the relative down the hall, Queenie, is sort of a bumbler and meddler. And brother Nicky, a warlock, doesn’t have much of a profile beyond his sex life, which is mentioned several times. An author who has written a popular book about magic is thrown into the mix, but he doesn’t end up with much to do.

Director Bill English tries to mine this shallow material for something meaty — like early attempts at feminism, letting women wield the power, allowing shadow cultures to emerge from secrecy and shame — but there’s not enough there to sustain the play. At least English, in his role as set designer, delivers a sleek and stunning New York apartment with a gorgeous view of the Chrylser Building.

Lauren English’s performance as Gillian is admirable because the actress is so deft at combining the smooth polish of romantic comedy with some real emotion and complication. But again, Van Druten’s writing only allows a textured approach to go so far, so the talented and lovely English is caught up short.

Supporting actors Zehra Berkman as Queenie, Scott Cox as Nicky and Louis Parnell as the author, do their best to give this soggy material some effervescence. Leading man William Connell as Shep comes awfully close to being a perfect 1950s leading man, but the play never really lets Shep emerge as a worthy subject of Gillian’s affection. If she’s willing to give up being a witch for this guy, we never really get to see why. And we certainly can’t discern any plausible future for these two.

The whole notion of magic among mortals is so delicious, so fun — everything Van Druten’s play is not. This San Francisco Playhouse production tries to keep it light without letting it be silly, but the play itself combined with a typically 1950s ending that makes you crave Endora’s interference, keeps things pretty bland.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Lauren English for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

John Van Druten’s Bell, Book and Candle continues through Jan. 19 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Bloody good opening of a spiffy new Playhouse

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Ashkon Davaran (center) is President Andrew Jackson in Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s new theater. Below: Davaran’s Jackson has an uncharacteristically reflective moment with ensemble player Michael Barrett Austin providing the soundtrack. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Opening nights don’t come much more momentous than Saturday’s gala celebrating three things:

1. San Francisco Playhouse‘s new theater space in the former Post Street Theatre (formerly the Theatre on the Square, formerly an Elks Lodge ballroom)
2. The launch of the Playhouse’s 10th anniversary season
3. And opening night of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was there to offer a toast (how appropriate – a ham on toast duty) and compared the newly configured space, down from a too-capacious 729 seats to a much cozier and more manageable 200 seats, to a great off-Broadway space, or in this case, “off-Geary” space. He also admitted that he got into politics because he really wanted to act and surprised exactly no one with that admission.

The husband-and-wife team of Bill English, artistic director, and Susi Damilano, producing director, thanked a gazillion people and said that SF Playhouse, now officially known as San Francisco Playhouse, has grown up and what might have belonged to them 10 years ago now belongs to their cohorts, their subscribers and their audiences. How gratifying it is to see a worthy theater copany making such terrific strides. And the new space really is something to be proud of, an intimate experience (like the old space on Sutter Street) on a grander scale. You can just feel the potential in the space itself, which is incredibly exciting.

If the first show in the new space is any indication, that potential will be realized sooner rather than later. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers, was a hit off Broadway at the Public Theatre and not a hit when it transferred to Broadway. The concept is immediately appealing: an emo rock musical about the complex life and turbulent times of America’s seventh president aka Old Hickory aka The People’s President.

You expect irreverence, humor and parallels to our own time. You expect fun and ROCK and political cynicism and in-your-face attitude laced with contemporary sass. You definitely get all of that and more, but what’s really interesting about director Jon Tracy’s production is that this is not an easy show. It’s not a crowd pleaser in the way that Rent or American Idiot is. This bloody rose has major thorns.

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When Friedman taps the power of punk and emo and straight-on American rock, he doesn’t do it in a way that mollycoddles his audience. He preserves the fist-to-the-face nature of that music so that in Timbers’ telling of the Jackson story there’s no sentimentality, no rose-colored historical glasses, no getting off the hook for anybody (modern-day audiences included).

“I’m Andrew fucking Jackson! My life sucks in particular,” the young president-to-be sings early in the show, bringing to mind similar expressions in other musicals like “The Bitch of Living” in Spring Awakening or “It Sucks to Be Me” from Avenue Q. But this being emo rock, Jackson’s adolescent self-pity is deep in his bones and provides a signpost for the bloody life that lies ahead.

Ashkon Davaran, the actor now best known for retooling “Don’t Stop Believing” for the San Francisco Giants on their way to the 2010 World Series (if you haven’t seen that extraordinary video, watch it here), is a petulant, hard-driving Jackson with more than a touch of Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (maybe it’s the black eyeliner). After the death of his family in Tennessee Territory (were they killed by Indians or did they die of cholera?), Jackson becomes a militiaman fighting the British at age 13 and then a spokesmen for the Angry Frontiersman who feel the “doily-wearing muffin tops” in Washington, D.C., all those founding father aristocrats, are doing nothing to defend the frontier from the marauding Indians (who, by the way, were here first).

Fighting the Spanish, the French and the Indians becomes Jackson’s driving purpose, and after the practically doubles the size of the United States with all his battling (including the famous Battle of New Orleans), he becomes the first governor of Florida. When he runs for president on a campaign promoting “maverick egalitarian democracy,” he wins the popular and electoral vote, but slick maneuvering in the back halls of Congress handed the presidency to John Quincy Adams.

Four years later, Jackson runs again, promising all those populist hallmarks: transparency, accountability and open collaboration. “It’s morning again in America,” a citizen sings, and sure enough, Jackson takes the White House. He describes himself as “federal Metamucil” and says, ” I’m going to unclog this fucking system.” But he soon discovers that being president his hard. Democracy is really hard and you can’t really get anything done. So, according to this unsympathetic portrait, he turns his presidency into a personal vendetta against anyone who ever did him wrong (most notably Native Americans who would soon find themselves on the Trail of Tears). “The will of the people can’t stand in my way,” Jackson sings, “won’t stand in my way. How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed?”

This is a harsh show, as it should be, and Tracy’s production is rough and keeps its edge through 90 energetic minutes. The members of the ensemble assist musical director Jonathan Fadner in creating the raw sound of the music – they play guitars, cellos (El Beh‘s “Ten Little Indians” is a musical highlight) and drums, and they wail. I wanted more musical finesse in the vocal arrangements, but I guess that kind of polish or intricacy defies the raging spirit of the show.

Nina Ball‘s set is a giant domed scaffolding that seems to be about 10 times the size of the old Playhouse space on Sutter, and it’s the perfect bare-bones environment for what amounts to a musical in the form of a rock concert, complete with flashy (literally) lighting design by Kurt Landisman.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a risky show because its intelligence, impertinence and hostility are embedded in a deeply cynical historical narrative constantly bitch slapped by current events. It’s a major undertaking and a brave one. San Francisco Playhouse is heading into a new and exciting frontier and not just in terms of physical space.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Michael Friedman and Bloody star Ashkon Davaran for a San Francisco Chronicle story. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]

Watch San Francisco Playhouse’s promo video for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson:


Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.

Adjusting to a Period of lighter Tennessee Williams

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MacKenzie Meehan (left) is newlywed Isabel Haverstick and Johnny Moreno is her husband’s friend Ralph Bates in Tennessee Williams’ 1960 “serious comedy” A Period of Adjustment now at SF Playhouse. Below: Moreno’s Ralph reunites with Korean War buddy George Haverstick. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

As a fading Southern belle in a Tennessee Williams play might say, “Well I do declare! What’s a theatergoer to do with so many scrumptious Williams play from which to choose?”

The answer is: see all of them. As we come to the end of Williams’ centenary year, it seems only appropriate to be reveling in the writer’s work. Marin Theatre Company recently opened a lovely production of The Glass Menagerie (read my review here), and in January, Theatre Rhinoceros presents The Two-Character Play, which Williams claimed was his “most beautiful play since Streetcar.”

There’s no mistaking Williams’ A Period of Adjustment, now at SF Playhouse, for one of his most beautiful plays. Nor is it even one of his most interesting. But it is fascinating for a number of reasons. Written in 1960, between Sweet Bird of Youth and The Night of the Iguana, Adjustment is Williams working in sitcom mode as if to prove that he’s capable of something lighter.

He called the play a “serious comedy” and that comes pretty close to describing it, though it’s not all that funny. In fact, a lighter Williams ends up feeling strangely like Edward Albee if he were to try writing a 1950s sitcom.

The Albee comparison comes into play with the setting of the play: a Nashville suburb called High Point. It’s a well-appointed suburb, as so many suburbs were in 1958, but to ramp up the dramatic metaphor, this particular ‘burb is built on top of a cavern, which means that everything on it is sinking about a half an inch each year. Every once in a while, the entire theater shakes (some audience members around me went into full earthquake alert), and we feel the ongoing and eventual destruction of that annual half inch.

The sinking suburb is home to Ralph Bates (Johnny Moreno), a Korean War veteran who married the boss’ daughter, had a kid and finds himself in utter misery at the emptiness of his life. On this Christmas Eve, his wife (described as homely by Ralph but in actuality played by the beautiful Maggie Mason) has left, taking their son but leaving all the presents under the Christmas tree.

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It’s hardly a prime time for unannounced visitors, but on this snowy night, here they come. Newlyweds George Haverstick (Patrick Alparone) and Isabel Haverstick (MacKenzie Meehan) have driven in from St. Louis – in a funeral Cadillac no less – and need a place to stay. George and Ralph were in the Korean War together, so there’s little chance they’ll be turned away. Even on Christmas Eve.

Turns out the newlyweds aren’t getting along so well. Stuck in the car since the wedding, they’re climbing all over each other’s nerves and wondering what in the hell they’ve gotten themselves in for. Damaged by the war, George shakes uncontrollably. He received medical attention, and wouldn’t you know it? Isabel was his loving nurse.

Director Bill English is in firm control of the material and delivers a handsome production. Nina Ball’s set is a beautifully detailed ’50s home, and Tatjana Genser’s costumes are just as crisp and cool as they can be (cool as in coooool – not cold). The period evocation of this Period is just about perfect and adds a whole level of pleasure to the production.

The same is true of the performances, which all exhibit a level of intensity appropriate for the befuddled married couples but dialed down from the usual Williams sturm und drang. Meehan is especially good as Isabel, a bright, eager woman who is trying to hold it together even though she’s sinking more and more into sheer panic. These are not characters of great emotional depth – it’s a comedy, remember? – but they’re all damaged to some degree, all scarred by the past and petrified of the future, and these actors capture that.

This Period has been adjusted, you might say. This isn’t Williams’ full 1960 script but rather a version edited down by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn. I’ve never read the full text, but I have seen the 1962 movie starring Jane Fonda as Isabel, and this handsome/lovely cast is much better at striking a tone of marital ambivalence that leads to a somewhat happy ending.

A Period of Adjustment may not be classic Williams but it’s a Williams curiosity worth seeing in this impeccable production.

Tennessee Williams’ A Period of Adjustment continues through Jan. 14 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-677-9596 or visit