Party on, Pinter! ACT throws a Birthday bash

Birthday Party 3
Stanley (Firdous Bamji) plays his new drum as Meg (Judith Ivey) listens with glee in Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater. Photo by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full review here.

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

Humanity shines in ACT’s Splendid Suns

Splendid Suns 1
Mariam (Kate Rigg, left) and Laila (Nadine Malouf, center) and Zalmai (Neel Noronha) say goodbye to Aziza (Nikita Tewani) in the world-premiere theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Furious Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) yells at Laila (Malouf, left) and Mariam (Rigg). Photos by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

Splendid Suns 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACT attempts to solve Stoppard’s Hard Problem

The Hard Problem Press Photo 7
Psychology student Hilary (Brenda Meaney, second from right) celebrates being published with colleagues from the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science in the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. Below: Spike (Dan Clegg) and Hilary (Meaney) meet up at a conference in Venice, Italy. Photos by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

The Hard Problem Press Photo 6

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

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

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

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

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

Uneven tone tilts ACT’s Monstress double bill

Remember the I-Hotel 05
Vicente Pacram (Ogie Zulueta, left) serves a Filipino dish to Althea Benton (Kelsey Venter) in the room he shares at the I-Hotel with Fortunado “Nado” Giron (Jomar Tagatac, center) in Remember the I-Hotel, a one-act play by Philip Kan Gotanda adapted from Monstress, Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories. American Conservatory Theater’s Monstress double bill is at the Strand Theater. Below: The Squid Mother of Cebu (Melody Butiu) grabs a hold of Melissa Locsin in Presenting…the Monstress!, a one-act play by Sean San José also adapted from Tenorio’s Monstress. Photos by Kevin Berne

Two of the Bay Area’s most interesting theater artists, Philip Kan Gotanda and Sean San José, were asked to adapt a short story from Lysley Tenorio’s 2012 collection Monstress for American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater as part of the company’s San Francisco Stories initiative and the New Strands play development and commissioning program.

The results make up the double bill Monstress now at the Strand, and while both plays, under the emotionally astute direction of ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff, are enjoyable, one feels like a much more stage-worthy enterprise while the other comes off as more of a light sketch.

The latter, San José’s Presenting…the Mnstress!, concludes the 2-hour and 15-minute evening, and that, unfortunately, dissipates the power and impact of the first play, Gotanda’s riveting Remember the I-Hotel.

San José stars in his play as Checkers Rosario, a Manila filmmaker who specializes in schlocky D-grade horror movies starring his girlfriend, Reva Gogo (the wonderful Melody Butiu). Deluded by dreams of Hollywood glory, Checkers can’t see that his talents don’t really lie in filmmaking, and just when it seems like reality is catching up to his delusion, a visitor from Hollywood arrives to open doors to cinematic stardom. So Checkers and Reva are off to California, but it turns out that Gaz Gazmann (Nick Gabriel) isn’t really a Hollywood mogul. He’s makes terrible movies in the basement of his mother’s San Mateo home.

Monstress 01

There’s fun to be had with the silly ’70s horror movies being made (the costumes by Lydia Tanji are a hoot), and Butiu gives a full-bodied, emotional performance as a woman caught between the man she loves and his fragile ego. But there’s not much there there, as they say. A sort of Greek chorus of Checkers’ fans tells the story and plays supporting roles, but this device tends to make the play seem sillier than it actually is.

This slight play is also done no favors following the evening’s first play, the emotionally resonant, utterly compelling Remember the I-Hotel. The story is based on an incident from San Francisco history – the razing of the International Hotel in 1977 and the displacement of its mostly Filipino inhabitants – but Tenorio and Gotanda tap into a story that transcends historical connection.

Bookended by the public demonstration and police presence that accompanied the 1977 evictions, the story takes place primarily in the 1930s, when San Francisco’s Manilatown was full of Filipino clubs and restaurants. In one of those clubs, a dance hall (beautifully rendered by set designer Nina Ball and versatile enough to evoke a number of locations), bellhop Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) meets migrant farmworker Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) taking a break from the Stockton asparagus fields. The two don’t immediately hit it off, but once Vicente nicknames his new friend Nado, they’re practically inseparable. They become roommates at the I-Hotel, and Vicente gets Nado a job at the hotel where he works.

Friendship quickly turns to love, or at least it does for Nado, but Vicente’s head is turned by Althea (Kelsey Venter), a white maid at the hotel (her race factors into the plot). Tension and betrayal follow, and once the action shifts back to the ’70s, we understand a great deal more about Vicente and Nado and the harshness of the eviction they’re facing.

Zulueta and Tagatac are astoundingly good in their roles, so much so you want to spend more time with their story and its complexities. All the while their story unfolds, Butiu appears behind a microphone on the small dancehall stage and sings standards like “The Very Thought of You” and “Wild is the Wind,” all a cappella. Her voice is gorgeous, and the songs lend a romantic and wistful underscore.

It’s a sad but somehow beautiful play, and it feels substantial to the degree that Presenting…The Monstress! feels frivolous. And that makes for an interesting but even experience.

American Conservatory Theater’s Monstress continues through Nov. 22 at the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT’s Strand Theater: the new jewel of mid-Market

Strand Theater Artist Rendering
A rendering of the orchestra in American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, which is now officially open. (by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 2014) All photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

A vermillion treasure inside and out, American Conservatory Theater’s new Strand Theater on Market Street is – or should be – the future of San Francisco. This beautiful city is in crisis at the moment, the crisis known as boom, and its character is fading visibly each day. Our diversity, our artists, our culture disappears a little more with every swing of a giant construction crane as gazillion-dollar condos and apartments crowd the airspace.

City government’s slow reaction to this crisis of rampant success means we have lost people and organizations we’ll never get back. Galleries, theater companies, artists, families, musicians, dancers, actors gone, and with them, a piece of what made San Francisco special. And how have our fearless leaders responded in offering assistance to the evicted, the rent increased, the displaced, the creative, the non-tech zillionaires? A shrug and a promise of “meh.”

This week, ACT hosted all the appropriate bigwigs and moneybags to witness the official ribbon cutting of the Strand, a resurrected theater that began life in 1917 as a silent movie and vaudeville house (with an all-female orchestra), became a standard-issue movie theater and then a porn theater before sliding into dereliction as a squat for the homeless and drug addled. Shuttered since 2003, the Strand (which has been known through the years as the Jewel, College, Francesca and Sun), was a poster child of mid-Market blight.

Strand Historical Image 04 web

Then big tech came a-calling. Twitter, Uber and Square moved in. ACT tested the mid-Market waters with a flexible black box theater space in what had heretofore been their Costume Shop just a few doors away from the STrand. And then, the long-held ACT dream of a second stage came to fruition. Ground was broken on the Strand project in fall 2013, and less than two years later, with a hefty bill of $34 million, a theatrical jewel reemerged, possibly better than it ever was before.

As ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff exclaimed in a recent tour for members of the press, the idea behind the space was to make it easy for people to experience theater and make the space welcoming for all. Working with architects from Skidmore Owings & Merrill (Michael Duncan lead architect), the Strand succeeds on both counts.

The building feels accessible from the moment you walk in (BART and MUNI stations are right outside, the Orpheum Theatre is kitty corner, the F Market trolley rumbles by regularly). The two-story, open-air lobby is dominated by a giant electronic screen, the likes of which you see at rock concerts or in Disneyland, and the ghost of the former marble staircase is etched into the floor. Because one of the original cement walls is visible (you can see the grade of the original balcony), the space feels both old and new at the same time. There’s a bar/café in the lobby as well as a ticket office, the interior of which is the vermillion hue that decorates the outside of the building and, it turns out, the inside of the theater as well.

The main theater space holds 283 seats, though the house can be reconfigured into cabaret seating for 175. There’s a mezzanine and a balcony, but nothing feels too far away from the stage (in fact, no seat is further than 52 feet from the stage). The sound feels warm and intimate, which promises quite a different theater experience than you get at ACT’s other theater, the imperial Geary.

Strand 1

Upstairs there’s a second space, a flexible room called The Rueff, which on the day of the tour, was being used in the evening for an ACT dinner gathering with a small stage for entertainment, but any other time the space could be a classroom or a performance space that seats up to 140. The windows overlook UN Plaza and City Hall (Hello, Mayor Lee! This is the beginning of what a real arts district could look like! Mayor Lee? Hello?), but with the press of a few buttons, sun shades come down and then full blackout shades. Voila, a black box suitable for rental to other theater companies (already happening), for Tenderloin public school students (already happening) or ACT MFA or Young Conservatory students (already happening).

The best kind of arts development is one that invites others in – other artists, other companies, other groups that add to the richness and vitality of the space. This is an ACT building to be sure, but clearly the point is to be inclusive and for ACT to jump into the rental income stream. That’s all good and healthy and provides jobs for artists and the artist adjacent and gives audiences a place to be excited about and visit often.

I’m not privy to the kinds of hoops the City made ACT jump through to get this building built, but I’m sure there were many and they threatened to derail or degrade the project – such is the building of anything here. The City of San Francisco should be begging arts companies to ply their trades along Market Street. The implosion of a proposed arts complex at 950 Market is disastrous in many ways, not the least of which is that it could have been an eastern anchor for the arts district with the Strand to the west. Every viable company that was interested in 950 should be encouraged and funded (in part or in whole) by the City to be part of the Market Street renaissance. If the Strand is any indication, Market Street could be the grand boulevard it should be and all the evidence we need to prove that San Francisco values the arts as much as it should and that our leaders have what it takes to allow this city to boom while its native culture flourishes.

That is not happening now, and that leadership has not asserted itself, but with the Strand as a shining example, we can begin to experience just how extraordinary a Market Street Arts District could – and should and will – be.

The first show in the Strand is Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, which begins performances June 3 and runs through Aug. 9.
There’s a community open house at the Strand on Saturday, June 13 from 9 a.m. to noon.
Visit for more information.

Speaking words of wisdom, Mother Mary testifies at ACT

Testament 5 Print
Seana McKenna stars as Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Colm Tóibín’s solo play, Testament at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne

Has any mother ever inspired so much and such varied art?

Colm Tóibín’s Testament, now at American Conservatory Theater, is another in a long line of interpretations of Mary, mother of Jesus. In is version, which started life as a Dublin play, then became a novel before being turned into a different play on Broadway last year, Toibin is interested in the humanity of Mary, a mother first and foremost, and a citizen caught up – rather unwillingly – in a dangerous rebellion.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff and starring revered Canadian actor Seana McKenna (previously seen at ACT in Napoli! and Phèdre), this Testament is steeped in grief and fear and anger. A mother watched her son carried away by a movement she didn’t really understand and was, she tells us frankly, didn’t like. The earnestness of the followers, she tells us, bored her.

In his taut script, Tóibín creates a world of tension outside Mary’s door. The cultural and political shifts that led to her son’s execution are still raging. While she copes with the loss of her son, she’s still dealing with fallout of the movement in the form of the brutes and the notetakers who plague her life and ceaselessly record (and warp) her story. There’s a real sense of the modern world in this tension in the form of government brutality, paranoia, extremity and danger. But there’s also uncertainty in who are the bad guys and who are the good guys – it doesn’t seem, at least from this perspective, that there are any good guys, and that’s a grim notion.

Testament 4 Print

McKenna exhibits a lovely grace in her performance, and that underscores everything else we see in Mary: strength, ferocity, heartbroken anguish. McKenna is just a few degrees larger than life to fill the cavernous Geary Theater with her strong voice, but she’s also recognizably human – an older woman coping as best she can, sharing her deepest fears and darkest recollections in a moment of solitude (with an audience). Set and lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols surrounds McKenna with a towering skeletal structure and giant shards of what looks like shattered plastic – a harsh landscape for an agonizing story (though mostly passive the sets and lights do become active toward the 80-minute show’s end, creating the unfortunate image of an edgy dance club).

Even at its most intense – the recounting of the actual crucifixion is almost unbearable – Testament keeps a certain distance. Mary’s is a story full of emotion, but McKenna is not weeping and wailing like a Trojan woman. She’s pretty self-contained, which somehow makes her story even darker and angrier and sadder. If she’s closed off at all, it’s probably an act of self-preservation.

Testament pissed off people when it was in New York, and perhaps anybody’s interpretation of this story that doesn’t follow the standard line is subject to anger. But really, Tóibín’s take on it is compassionate and relatable and contemporary. It all comes down to a mother grieving the son whose life and work ultimately challenged and upset her. She’s in the long process of reconciling her feelings and history and the aftermath of an uprising. Amid all of that, she has people telling her that her son died for the sins of all people? The look on McKenna’s face when faced with that notion is remarkable. This Mary is not some passive portrait of motherly beneficence etched in stone or in strokes of a paintbrush. She is flesh and blood and has an extraordinary tale to tell.

[bonus video]
Probably my favorite piece of Mary-related Mary art is Patty Griffin’s song “Mary” from her 1998 Flaming Red album. For this live version, Griffin is joined by Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

Colm Tóibín’s Testament continues through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415.749.2228 or visit

ACT’s epic Orphan dusts off ancient tale

The Orphan of Zhao 01 Print
BD Wong is Cheng Ying, a heroic country doctor in American Conservatory Theater’s The Orphan of Zhao, an ancient Chinese tale that receives a new adaptation by James Fenton. Below: Wei Jiang (Orville Mendoza, left), Gongsun Chujiu (Sab Shimono, center) and Zhao Dun (Nick Gabriel) confer about the sad state of the emperor’s court. Photos by Kevin Berne

American Conservatory Theater concludes its season with The Orphan of Zhao an epic tale of revenge that some scholars think stretches back to the fourth century BCE. It’s a tale as old as time, and the first act of this 2 1/2-hour show feels like a millennia itself. But once the revenge gears really start grinding, there’s an interesting story here. I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Director Carey Perloff’s production (in association with La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego County, where the show re-opens next month) also comes across more as pageant than play, and that diminishes the visceral impact that should be building through the show’s nearly 2 1/2 hours.

Certain elements of that pageant are quite enjoyable, most notably the original score by Byron Au Yong and played by an onstage cellist and violinist augmented by cast members on percussion and unusual instruments (like water bowls). Some of the songs feel organic to the tale, while others come off as second-rate Sondheim.

“The Orphan of Zhao” is, at heart, a juicy revenge tale. Once we get to the actual revenge part, the production gains some much-needed traction, but that doesn’t happen until Act 2. The whole first act is set-up, and it feels mighty long in spite of a heartfelt performance by San Francisco native and Tony-winner BD Wong as a country doctor whose life is forever changed by making a house call to the savage palace of the emperor.

Read the full review here.

The Orphan of Zhao 03 Print

American Conservatory Theater’s The Orphan of Zhao continues through June 29 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT’s Lintel celebrates life, librarians

David Strathairn is a globe-trotting, mystery-solving librarian in Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo show at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Photos by Kevin Berne

What’s the haps in Hoofddorp, you ask? Well, for a small town in Holland, things are pretty dull, actually, thanks for asking. The good news is they’ve got a heck of a library in Hoofddorp, complete with the Dewey decimal system and time-stamped check-out cards and everything. We know this because a former librarian – we never find out his name – desperately wants to tell us about a life-changing adventure that was triggered by something that happened on an ordinary day on the job at the library.

It seems an overdue book made its way into the overnight bin (which is NOT supposed to be for overdue books, but it happens). But as our librarian was fussing (as librarians are wont to do), he discovered something interesting: this little Baedeker’s was 113 years overdue. If the book was returned in 1986 (as we’re told it was), that means the book was checked out in 1873. Adding to the intrigue, the book was checked to someone whose name is indicated only by an initial: A.

Tormented by his inability to fine the irresponsible book checker-outer, Librarian turns his focus to the notes in the margins of the book and to a laundry claim ticket he finds tucked in the pages that turns out to be a from a London outfit. Having never ventured out of his home country, Librarian can’t resist the urge to do a little exploring. And once he finds a pair of unclaimed trousers (never cleaned because of their deplorable condition), the adventure begins in earnest.

So goes Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo drama now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. The inestimable David Strathairn is the Librarian, complete with mild Dutch accent (he sounds a little like Tim Conway’s Mr. Tudball on the “Carol Burnett Show”) and the growing enthusiasm of globe-trotting storyteller on a mission to discover the elusive A.


It’s a journey that takes our humble fussbudget to China, Australia, America (where he does some adorable swing dancing in New York) and Germany among other places, all of which he conveys to us through an intermittent slide show complete with music he plays on an old cassette recorder. It’s actually charming to watch a talented librarian – depicted here as sort of a superhero with mad research skills – get so excited about finally stepping into real life.

It’s when his sleuthing starts spanning centuries that I started losing interest. There’s a suggestion that A could be the mythical Wandering Jew – a cobbler who taunted Jesus on his way to his crucifixion and was condemned to walk the Earth forever – and that means there’s no real solution to the central mystery (though it is amusing to think of Ahasuerus checking out a Baedeker’s in Hoofddorp).

Director Carey Perloff’s production also threw me off balance. The show begins with the Librarian taking the stage (Nina Ball’s marvelous set design crams all kinds of theatrical junk, from costumes to props to chandeliers to barely visible backdrops), addressing his audience and telling them he’s here for, as the play’s subtitle puts it, “an impressive presentation of lovely evidences.” On his fact-finding journeys, he has accumulated papers and items, all of which he has meticulously tagged and numbered. He occasionally shares his slides and plays his tape recorder, but mainly he tells his story.

But then he starts finding pieces of evidence in tucked-away places around the stage. And soon, there are lighting and music cues that he’s not controlling. So what begins as a real-life lecture demonstration becomes a fully designed theatrical presentation of which the Librarian is only a part (not the sole focus nor the master of the story).

Underneath the Lintel is a sweet, slightly sappy existentialist musing that ultimately takes the long view of time and the universe and man’s conversely important and insignificant place in it. Pondering such things is never a waste of time, though this production, in spite of Strathairn’s abundant charms, has the power to make 95 minutes feel longer. The end should be an epiphany, but it’s less profound, more pleasant, and that’s not quite enough for such an awfully big adventure.

Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel continues an extended run through Nov. 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets are $20-$140 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Stunning Arcadia returns to ACT

Aracadia 1
Julia Coffey (left) is Lady Croom, Nick Gabriel (center) is Captain Brice and Nicholas Pelczar is Ezra Chater in ACT’s production of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, directed by Carey Perloff. Below: Ken Ruta (left) is butler Jellaby and Jack Cutmore-Scott is tutor Septimus Hodge. Photos by Kevin Berne.

The ideas are as big as the heart in Tom Stoppard’s glorious Arcadia, a play that seems only to get better with time.

When American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Carey Perloff first directed the play in 1995 at the Stage Door Theatre, the production and the play came off beautifully and with more warmth than the chilly 1995 production at New York’s Lincoln Center. But now that Perloff has revived the play at the Geary Theater, it’s like switching from an cozy, old-fashioned living room TV to high-def, widescreen wonder.

The curtain comes up on a goergeous, glass-domed room at Sidley Park, a lush Derbyshire country estate (the set is by Douglas W. Schmidt and the sumptuous lighting is by Robert Wierzel). The room is sparsely furnished – a table, some chairs, a book stand – but the large windows and the trees painted on the walls give the perfect impression of opulence amid nature and the attempt to turn nature into another form of opulent art.

In Stoppard’s carefully constructed world, this room holds two time periods. The first is the early 19th century and the other is present day. We get a period piece and a contemporary comedy/drama, and by the end of this nearly three-hour experience, the two have fused into one of the most satisfying, inspiring, poignant endings in 20th-century drama.

Among Stoppard’s great qualities, and it’s something Perloff’s production accentuates, is that he has the power to make his audience feel smart. And fully immersed/involved in his world. Arcadia is intellectual in the extreme – some of its funniest moments come from skewering ego-inflated academic types and the rich mixture of math, science, history and art can be dizzying. But Stoppard never lets the brainy stuff overtake the play. He explains just enough to keep the threads of the storyline taut, and without dumbing down anything, he engages us in complex scientific thought by comparing certain theories to jam being stirred in pudding or a cup of hot tea (and, it turns out, everything in the universe) coming to room temperature all by itself.

Arcadia 2

Because Perloff and her wonderful cast are so in control of Stoppard’s world, the intellectual side of the play just makes its more human and comic aspects all the more alive and exciting. In the early 1800s, a 13-year-old girl named Thomasina Coverly (the remarkable Rebekah Brockman) proves more knowledgeable than her tutor (the Hugh Grant-charming Jack Cutmore-Scott) in the realm of abstract, forward-thinking science, but she depends on him to clue her in to the ways of the world (their discussion of “carnal embrace” is an early indication of the play’s humor and the depths of character that drive it). They are the center of the story around which buffoonish poets (Nichols Pleczar is a silly but sympathetic would-be Byron named Ezra Chater) and self-serving academics (Robert Parsons as Bernard Nightingale, admirably filling the shoes of Andy Murray, who has left the production, and Gretchen Egolf as Hannah Jarvis) jostle for recognition and wrestle with history, adultery and the compelling notion that everything we think we’ve lost will eventually come around again in one form or another.

Perloff’s direction is so assured, so clear-eyed and compassionate – even the most ridiculous people on stage are treated with affection – that the show flies by. But scene after scene unfolds its riches without feeling rushed or slighted in any way. The performances, from Ken Ruta as Jellaby, the somewhat baffled butler, to Julia Coffey’s sexy, funny turn as the domineering lady of the house, all crackle as if the actors were relishing every discovery they’re making in Stoppard’s multilayered script.

Arcadia is a play that feels inspired from beginning to end, and ACT’s revival make a persuasive case that this is Stoppard’s masterpiece, truly a play for the ages.

[bonus interview]
I talked with ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff about her long and fruitful relationship with Tom Stoppard and about returning to Arcadia. Read the San Francisco Chronicle interview here.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard continues an extended run through June 16 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$95. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

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

Elektra 1
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).

Elektra 2

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