Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Crowded Fire tells a futuristic Tale of Autumn

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Yul (Skyler Cooper) and Rena (Maria Candelaria) grow closer contemplating life outside Farm Company’s rules and regulations in Crowded Fire’s world-premiere production of Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn at the Potrero Stage. Below: San (Nora el Samahy) and Xavier (Christopher W. White) have a long history and common enemies. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Who are the good guys/bad guys? What truth lies behind smokescreens and lies? And when good guys resort to immoral behavior, doesn’t that make them bad guys, thus leaving a dearth of good guys and obscured truth?

San Francisco playwright Christoper Chen’s world-premiere A Tale of Autumn, a commission from Crowded Fire Theater, is all about good gone bad and bad gone worse. Imagine Google, Oprah and the U.S. Government wrestling with notions of altruism and greed and you get some idea of what Chen is up to here.

Staged by director Mina Morita – also Crowded Fire’s artistic director – on what looks like a ritual platform carved of stone with a few chairs and tables straight from the Flintstone collection (design by Adeline Smith), the primitive space In the Potrero Stage is enhanced by elegant white drapes that effectively catch the lights (by Ray Oppenheimer and projections (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker, who also contributes sound design) and convey a sense of modernism at odds with the primal furnishings. This play feels vaguely futuristic – there’s talk of phones, for instance, but electronic devices are ever seen – and the characters dress in a more elegant version of Star Wars/Star Trek finery (designs by Miriam R. Lewis).

At the center of the story is a massive agricultural outfit called the Farm Company that aims not to be the usual corporate behemoth raping the land and pillaging the people for profit. Not unlike Google’s “don’t be evil” mandate, Farm Co. has grown so big and so powerful that it can’t help being a little (or a lot) evil. The founder of the company has just died, and her successors are at a crossroads, both moral and financial. There’s an opportunity to make the company even more powerful so it can do more good for more people (according to one candidate to fill the CEO position) or they can, according to another candidate, make the shareholders happy by simply doing whatever it takes to beef up the profits.

San (Nora el Samahy) seems to be the idealist CEO candidate who espouses following a vaguely cult-y notion of the founder’s philosophy known as “The Way,” while Dave (Lawrence Radecker) is more of a capitalist pig type. But nothing is quite what it seems when massive amounts of money are involved. Plots are hatched, crimes are committed in the name of doing what’s best for the company and its customers and goals are achieved at the cost of people dying (unintentionally, or perhaps, intentionally).

Just another day in the good ol’ U.S.A.

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In this future world, Big Agriculture has taken over pretty much everything, including what people are allowed to plant at their own homes. One rebel (Michele Apriña Leavy, who also plays a scary member of the Farm Co. board of directors) grows a kind of wheat that has been outlawed just so she can make a delicious loaf of bread. It’s that kind of cruel future – one that messes with our carbs and our childhood memories of home cooking. When her rebelliousness is quashed, her friend Yul (Skyler Cooper) partners up with Rena (Maria Candelaria) a former Farm Co. employee who has suddenly become an investigative journalist aiming to expose corruption at the highest level. She even manages to get into a prison cell with a supposed terrorist (Christopher W. White in a sharp-edged performance).

So, is A Tale of Autumn satirical? Sometimes, especially when the character of Dave is involved (he’s like something out of the HBO show “Silicon Valley”). Is it a foreboding thriller? Sometimes but not nearly enough. Though there are lives and global economies at stake here, the tension doesn’t feel very tense. Is it a parable a bout the depthless greed and idiocy of humankind? Yes, and that’s where it’s most effective. The whole thing about the former employee becoming a journalist and somehow gaining access to people at the highest corporate levels feels implausible at best. There’s a lot of plot activity in this two-plus-hour play, but none of it carries much weight beyond the cerebral exercise of comparing the action to events of our own troubled times.

The most interesting character here is Mariana (Mia Tagano), a division leader at the company whose loyalty is kind of a gray area. She thinks San’s goal of realizing the late founder’s true vision for the company is a good one, even if it means the ouster of Dave, who happens to be her lover (even though Dave apparently lives with his male lover, Gil, played by Shoresh Alaudini. It doesn’t seem to take much to get Mariana to betray confidence, though when she has her final change of heart, we don’t know how or why, only that it happened, which feels dramatically inert. There’s something very interesting about how people change their minds based on how hard (or easy) it might be to affect change of one kind or another,
and though we see a bit of this process from other people, it would be interesting to be more inside Mariana’s head.

This feels like a new play that hasn’t yet found its way. The ending comes so abruptly it seems more a stopping point than an actual ending. If a tale of winter is hot on the heels of this Tale of Autumn, it promises to be more confusing than chilling.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s A Tale of Autumn continues through Oct. 7 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034, ext. 1 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Chen causes masterful Harm in the Playhouse Sandbox

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Christopher Chen’s world-premiere play You Mean to Do Me Harm features a cast that includes (from left) Charisse Loriaux as Samantha, James Asher as Ben, Don Castro as Daniel and Lauren English as Lindsey. Below: Loriaux’s Samantha (left) English’s Lindsey go for a hike. Photos by Ken Levin

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen has brains for days (and days) and a theatrical sense that runs from absurdist comedy to political thriller. He reins in some – not all – of his wildest theatrical impulses for his latest world premiere, You Mean to Do Me Harm, a production of the San Francisco Playhouse’s new play development program known as the Sandbox Series.

There are only four characters in Harm: two married couples, each comprising a Caucasian-American and a Chinese-American partner. That’s important because Chen, in this incisive 80-minute play, is using mixed-race marriage to dive deep into the notion that when it comes right down to it, geopolitical machinations are essentially global manifestations of our personal relationships to others, to our particular life experience and to ourselves. Spoiler alert: that paints a pretty bleak scenario.

The play, performed in the black-box Rueff at ACT’s Strand Theater, begins as a quartet as the two couples meet for a good-natured dinner. The wife of one couple and the husband of the other went to college together and dated, but that’s all in the past (10 whole years ago). That the two characters with history happen to be the white ones is going to turn out to be important. There’s also another reason for the party. It turns out that one of the husbands, who has been unemployed since his wife was promoted and he was laid off at the same company, is now going to be working with the other husband at an up-and-coming search engine called Flashpoint.

The natural conversational rhythms of this dinner party are beautifully conveyed by Chen’s script, with the mix of awkwardness and enthusiasm, the link of nostalgia for the former lovers and the usual quick definition of who we are by what we do. Director Bill English deftly guides his excellent actors into evermore tension, but it’s the kind of tension that begins, as we will hear often in the upcoming scenes, in the subconscious and operates in hidden channels. As one character puts it: “Just because something isn’t said doesn’t mean it isn’t said.”

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James Asher is Ben, who will soon begin work at Flashpoint in the online content department. He laughingly describes himself as the “white China guy” in that he was hired, in part, for his expertise on all things China (he has lived and worked there, made it the subject of his dissertation, etc.). He will be described later on as a “good balance of being white and being sorry about being white.” Daniel (Don Castro) was born in Shanghai but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 5. He feels threatened by Ben, perhaps because of the past association with his (Daniel’s) wife but also because Daniel, at heart, thinks Ben is an “armchair Orientalist.”

Daniel’s wife, Lindsey (Lauren English) is in corporate law, and when she is prompted to weigh in on the discussion of China-America relations, she does the kind of geopolitical parsing out “degrees of shittiness” on all sides that would make cable news networks shimmy with delight. But Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), Ben’s wife, wants to challenge that notion and cites a “fairness bias.” Things could get contentious here, but everyone is in a good mood (the wine helps), and everyone is a grown-up, so the conversation grinds, bumps and steadies to the point where everyone raises a glass to the Cold War.

And that’s just the first scene. What follows is a series of duets that break down the racism and micro-aggressions and traps and betrayals of that seemingly benign evening. By fueling his drama with racial and cultural differences, Chen is able to quickly establish the shaky ground underneath most relationships, especially when it comes to being honest, really honest. That two people can live together (to say nothing of being truly honest) seems, at best, an unlikely notion, without some sort of peace treaty: what will be ignored, what will be allowed (or not), what will be forgiven. The depth of anger and insecurity and dishonesty (subconscious or not) that comes up in both of the play’s relationships is astonishing, and the level to which Chen is able to take us in such a short time is remarkable.

At certain points, the naturalism of the play is pushed aside, but it works because there are discussions here that benefit from loosening the bonds of reality. As heavy as this subject matter is, there’s a crackling energy to the production that keeps it from bogging down or slipping into clichés about race or relationships. Chen is too smart for that, and it also helps that no one is a bad guy unless everyone is a bad guy. They’re complicated humans with rich intellect and deep roots. Life is hard for them, and though the play simply stops more than it ends, it seems life will keep getting harder, and the poisons of the world will continue to corrode us personally and politically.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm continues through July 2 in a San Francisco Playhouse production at the Rueff at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 and up. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Simple command: Catch Caught. Now.

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El Beh (left) and Elissa Beth Stebbins toy with the audience’s sense of reality in Christopher Chen’s Caught, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Jomar Tagatac may not be the most trustworthy of narrators. Photos by Pak Han

Watching Christopher Chen’s new play Caught in its sublime Shotgun Players presentation is, in a word, disorienting, and that’s a good thing. Even clever theater-savvy folk who think they have it all figured out and are hip to what’s going on in this mind-twisting play will experience something new here, and it may not be apparent until they leave the theater. Your trust in what is real, what is true (a major theme of the play), will likely have shifted. The absurd things that happen to us on a regular basis and all the things we assume are true suddenly seem challenging and connected, as if we’ve stepped into a Chen play ourselves. The world has tipped slightly on its axis because of a play.

A serious examination of what is truth and what is fiction, Caught also deconstructs the theatrical experience itself to great effect. I’m not going to give anything away here except to say that this show (which is also enjoying an extended, sold-out run at New York’s The Play Company after productions all over the country) is something you should see, although tickets will be hard to come by. San Francisco-based Chen is fast emerging as one of the smartest, most inventive writers in American theater. If you saw his award-winning The Hundred Flowers Project in 2012 (read my review here), the way he uses China, Mao, theater and his outsize brain to dig into major themes may be somewhat familiar. But what he does with Caught takes things much further and blurs boundaries even more successfully.

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Chen, working with director Susannah Martin, deftly crafts a 90ish-minute experience that keeps you guessing but never leaves you behind as it switches and swerves. There’s a further blur at work between the theatrical world and the visual art world, and that also helps keep things nicely off balance. It’s hard to talk about performances when you can’t always be sure performances are actually happening – at least in the traditional sense anyway – but Martin’s cast, which includes Jomar Tagatac, Elissa Stebbins, Mick Mize and El Beh/Michelle Talgarow (depending on which night you “experience” it), makes what could be a fuzzy evening all the clearer with their sharp, energetic work. It’s so interesting how we can sense when a person is speaking extemporaneously and when they’re performing, but for all the moving parts here to work optimally, we can’t always be entirely sure when the actors are acting or just talking.

It was clear when I saw the play Wednesday night at the Ashby Stage that certain audience members didn’t realize that certain things in play were actually part of the play, and that’s a huge tribute to the skill of the actors as they work to pass off reality as art and vice-versa (also a key component of the play itself).

Designers Nina Ball, Wesley Cabral, Christine Crook, Devon LaBelle, Ray Oppenheimer and Matt Stines seamlessly and beautifully blend the needs of a visual art installation (in collaboration with the Xiong Gallery) and a theatrical venture. It all ends up being a crucible for Chen’s heady mixture of drama and deep thought, which incorporates elements of postminimalist Lawrence Weiner and writers like Mike Daisey (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) and James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), whose work has landed them in hot water when it didn’t remain resolutely in the lane of fiction or non-fiction.

There’s one section of the show involving concepts like “the box inside the outside of the box” and “breaking the authoritative borders of appropriation” that I need to hear/read again because I got lost (either by design or my thick head), but feeling all that brain power whizzing past you is also part of the play’s thrill. One thrill of many to be sure, some of which you probably won’t realize until Caught is long over. But then again, how can we be sure it’s ever really over?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Caught continues through Oct. 2 in its initial run and then through Nov. 26-Dec. 17 in repertory. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org or www.xionggallery.org.

Of nihilism, comedy and epic theater in Aulis

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Matthew Hannon is Agamemnon in Christopher Chen’s Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act, a production of U.C. Berkeley’s Theater Dance & Performance Studies Department directed by Mina Morita. Below: Samuel Avishay as Achilles gets deep into combat. Photos by Adam Tolbert

Award-winning San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen gets deep into existential nihilism in his latest world premiere, Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act. That title pretty much says it all: Chen takes the premise of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis and gives it a contemporary spin that allows for abundant comedy yet still leads to a bloody, ultimately futile end.

Chen’s epic one-act receives a spiffy production from U.C. Berkeley’s Theater Dance & Performance Studies Department, which seems appropriate as Chen is a Cal alum and began his playwriting career there. The really good news is that there’s nothing about this production that would indicate it’s a student production (not that there’s anything wrong with a student production, especially a university, duh). Credit director Mina Morita and her team of extraordinary designers and actors for giving Chen’s play the life and flash and impact it requires.

Entering Zellerbach Playhouse, the audience finds the play has already begun, with the Greek soldiers and their 100,000 ships stranded in Aulis due to lack of winds. The soldiers are on the Aulis beachhead trying to keep themselves occupied. Some are watching animé on seven battered TVs in one part of the sand-covered set (design by Martin Flynn). Others are in front of another screen playing the video game “God of War.” Still others are engaging in intense mock battles involving roshambo with actual swords and fists. These soldiers, all pumped and ready to kick some Trojan keister and exact revenge for Paris’ theft of the lovely Helen, wife of Menelaus. But without wind, their ships are stuck, and a prophecy has come down that in order to get the winds to blow, their leader, Agamemnon (brother of Menelaus) must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia.

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All of this storytelling is quickly dispatched as Agamemnon, who does and doesn’t want to murder his daughter, awaits the arrival of his wife, Clytemnestra, and Iphigenia. In this enforced delay, where boredom, restlessness and bad decision making abound, Agamemnon is losing sight of pretty much everything: why are they fighting? why are they stuck? why does life seem so meaningless?

Chen’s spin on this ancient tale crackles with modern humor, especially in the character of Agamemnon, expertly played by Matthew Hannon, who has the ability to play the comedy and satire and, as they play demands it, provide a deeper, darker take on commander losing his drive and a father weighing his own broken heart agains the welfare of his troops. It’s no accident that Chen originally wrote Aulis during the Bush era, when wartime decision making seemed dubious at best. This 90-minute play overflows with the absurdity of war, and director Morita and her 14-member cast tread delicately on that ever-shifting line between barbed comedy and complex, human drama.

That’s why this handsome production feels less like a student production and more like something you’d see on the main stage of a sturdy regional theater. In addition to Flynn’s sandy set (which, if you watch closely, begins shrinking as the drama intensifies), the lighting by Jim French lends an operatic feel to the proceedings, creating gorgeous stage pictures with the set and with Erik Scanlon’s projection designs. The costumes by Ashley Rogers also play that line between serious and comic, with some seriously beautiful images coming through (especially with the arrival of Iphigenia and company). Hannah Birch Carl has crafted a magisterial sound design but with comic touches – the music (and the lights) keep cutting out at inopportune times, leaving the actors to look befuddled until the production gets back on track. No matter how many times it happens, it’s always good for a laugh.

There are several kick-ass fights, courtesy of fight director Dave Maier, and the high-energy cast really goes for it. The sand flies and the clanging swords ring. Perhaps there is one way you can tell this is a student production, and that’s the incredible enthusiasm the actors show for the work they’re doing. From the soldiers in the ensemble to the leads, these performances have a gusto and finesse you don’t often find in Greek drama.

In addition to Hannon’s excellent Agamemnon, we get a wonderfully bizarre Achilles courtesy of Samuel Avishay (and his henchperson Polly played by Eleanor White) and a strong Clytemnestra (Annie Fei) and even stronger Iphigenia (Veronica Maynez). In supporting roles, Eddie Benzoni is a droll assistant to Agamemnon, but no one has more gum-chewing sass than Morgan Steele as Iphigenia’s maid, Grace.

If you have to be stuck in Aulis with anyone, this is the crew you want. Nihilism has rarely been so enjoyable.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Aulis: An Act of Nihilism in One Long Act continues through March 15 at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $13-$20. Visit tdps.berkeley.edu.

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best

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Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.

FAVORITE SHOWS

1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.

ASSORTED THOUGHTS ON THE YEAR THAT WAS

Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

I do? Crowded Fire finds fractured bliss in Late Wedding

The Late Wedding
Kathryn Zdan is a playwright searching for her long lost wife, and Michael Anthony Torres is a captain charged with manning a spaceship on a voyage to the mythical Calaman Islands in the world premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Late Wedding, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House. Below: Amid the many flights of fancy including in The Late Wedding is a play within a play with actors Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta as space voyagers performing the imagined fate of a crew member and his wife. Photos by Pak Han

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen doesn’t mind narrating his audience members’ experience of his play while they’re watching his play. That’s part of the fun. It’s also a tip of the fabulist’s hat to Italian novelist Italo Calvino the inspiration for Chen’s experiment with theatrical form and function in the world premiere of his The Late Wedding.

We’ve been here before, more or less. Chen is once again working with Crowded Fire Theater, the company behind his award-winning 2012 hit The Hundred Flowers Project (read my review here). Crowded Fire Artistic Director Marissa Wolf is at the helm of this intentionally bumpy ride, attempting to guide her audience through another Chen work that is as smart as it is funny and as challenging as it is intriguing.

Comparisons to Hundred Flowers are inevitable (the new play was actually written during tech rehearsals of that play), and the two works definitely seem of a piece. Chen establishes a pattern early on that involves sly humor and unconventional storytelling, and just when the audience is settling into that pattern, he upends it and takes the play someplace entirely different and more serious.

Late Wedding actually begins before it begins. Actor Kathryn Zdan comes out to welcome the audience at the Thick House, and while she’s making cell phone and emergency exit reminders, she’s actually commencing the instructions to the audience. She tells us – in the second person, no less, which she says should set off a full red alert – that if we trust this unconventional theatrical experience, and if we’re really rooting for it to seduce us, we should surrender to her anthropological tour of fictional tribes and their wedding customs. Now, if you’re going to play fast and loose with theatrical expectations, you can do no better than having Zdan be the initial guide. She’s warm, she’s funny and she oozes intelligence.

The Late Wedding

It turns out that each of the six cast members will take over as the tweed-coated anthropologist/playwright during the nearly 90-minute show, though how and when they do it becomes (predictably) hard to predict. At first, the tour is pretty straightforward. For example, we look in on the Bakaan Tribe as two married men (married to each other) practice their tribal duty of remembrance because, as we’re told, they “forever live in memory.” Michael Anthony Torres and Lawrence Radecker are setting memories and get caught up in the fuzziness of the great nectarine/peach debate.

The whitewashed set, comprising boxes filled with whitewashed artifacts (elegant set design by Melpomene Katakalos)Next stop is the Glynn Tribe, where two women, Zdan and Lauren Spencer, are celebrating their wedding, as custom dictates, with separate honeymoons. This idea of separation and prolonging the ecstasy of love’s first blush is taken to wild extremes, and it’s in this beautifully acted scene, that the sketch nature of the play deepens into something honest and emotional.

Another tribal couple, part of something known as the “tribe of death,” believes that we are all actually dead, so their marriages have no limits. This is a pretty dubious belief, and even the couple (Michele Leavy and Ogie Zulueta) seem to be having a hard time getting their stories straight.

The anthropological tour goes off the rails and onto the rails of a train station when our guide informs us that the playwright was actually working on many other things (including lists of chores involving Netflix and Trader Joe’s), so everything is up for grabs. A spy play bumps into a space epic, which includes a play within the play that, for the space travelers (and mercifully not for us), goes on for several years.

Motifs return and dangling threads are somewhat woven into the narrative, but I have to say the last third of The Late Wedding lost me, and the cumulative impact of the experimentation didn’t result in anything more than enjoyment (which is certainly a worthy accomplishment). The play, for all its fragmentation and narrative jolts, still feels like it’s heading somewhere, and that the underlying emotional narrative about marriage and connection and loss will come through all the exposed and splintered theatricality in an even more powerful way. Though there are hints of that power, this Wedding remains elusive.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s The Late Wedding continues through Oct. 11 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit www.crowdedfire.org.

Far from mangy, this Mutt is a gut buster

Mutt 2
No really, let’s talk about race: cable news talking head Dave Matthews (Matthew Lai, right) interviews Len (Michael Uy Kelly), the Republican candidate for president who’s not just hapa but a member of every race and ethnicity on the planet in the world premiere of Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race! by Christopher Chen, in a co-production by Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Below: Democratic National Committee heads Elizabeth (Patricia Austin, far left) and Mikey (Lawrence Radecker, far right) are thrilled to have found a hapa candidate for president in Nick (Matthew Lai) and a powerful brain trust in his campaign consultant, Hanna (Michelle Talgarow). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Between the Shakespearean twists of House of Cards and the utter inanity of Veep, you’d think that we’d have Washington politics pretty well covered by pop culture. Well clearly not because we need to make room for Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!, the absolutely hilarious and crazy smart new comedy from San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen.

Chen, you may recall, made quite a splash with The Hundred Flowers Project two years ago. That award-winning play pushed boundaries and offered all sorts of juicy theatrical challenges and made it clear that Chen is the kind of writer who delights and provokes and digs deep with intelligence and inspiration.

His latest work, Mutt, is an entirely different kind of play – a rollicking satirical comedy with grand guffaws and so many great lines the whole thing ends up feeling like a great line – but the brains are bolstering every belly laugh.

Chen is doing nothing less than taking on the issue of race in a big, bold way. He presents a completely corrupted and ridiculous two-party system that couldn’t’ make a good choice if the fate of the world depended on it (oh, wait, it does). The Republicans, still smarting from the last presidential election, realize they have a problem with race. With the help of a race management operative named Hanna (the wonderfully grounded Michelle Talgarow), they set out to find a hapa (mixed Asian race) candidate because Asian has been deemed a “safe” race in that it’s practically white.

Mutt 1

The perfect candidate turns out to be a “super hapa” who has some of every race in the world floating through his DNA. Len Smith (Michael Uy Kelly) is a god-like figure who feels the course of all history running through him. All that inner activity leads him to be something of a dolt on the outside, but he looks good on TV and has enough sexual charisma to make the whole world want to sleep with him, so he’s a shoo-in.

Frustrated by politics as usual, Hanna goes rogue and finds her own hapa candidate in Nick (Matthew Lai) to bring some semblance of reality into the presidential race. It may come as no surprise to find out that such reality is going to be in extremely short supply.

This world-premiere co-production between Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company is not only well written, it’s expertly directed by Evren Odcikin, who makes the tiny La Val’s Subterranean space feel more fluid and limber than ever before. The play doesn’t feel constrained by the space so much as supported by it. Odcikin’s exuberant cast knows how not to push the comedy too hard to maximize laughs.

As both the Republican and Democratic Party hacks, Patricia Austin and Lawrence Radecker could not be funnier, and Austin deserves a special shout-out for a piece of slapstick comedy that precedes one of the funniest bits I’ve seen on a stage in a good long time.

The invaluable Marilet Martinez, in a parade of ever-more astonishing wigs, is the world’s worst therapist, a series of witnesses to brutal crimes, and a representative of the Latin immigrant community who does not take kindly to political bullshit. She definitely puts the whip in whip-smart comedy.

Most of the actors play multiple characters, and at the performance I saw Thursday night, they seemed to be feeding off the packed audience’s collective delight, relishing in comic pauses and savoring the raucous laughter.

Race is certainly no laughing matter, unless, of course, the political issues surrounding it are sliced and diced into such comically delicious (and dare we say, nutritious?) bite-sized pieces the way they are in Mutt.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Mutt: Let’s All Talk About Race!, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company, continues through June 8 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit impacttheatre.com.

Chen’s Hundred Flowers wins the Glickman

Christopher Chen Desdemona Chiang
San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen (right) has won the Glickman Award for the best new play to have its world premiere in the Bay Area. His 2012 play The Hundred Flowers Project was a co-production of Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation and was directed by Desdemona Chiang (left). Photo by Pak Han

This being awards season, it’s nice to temper all the movie accolades with a homegrown theater award. The Glickman Award, presented each year to the best play that had its world premiere in the Bay Area, comes with a $4,000 cash prize and the honor of having your work set alongside other Glickman winners like Tony Kushner, Denis Johnson and Octavio Solis.

This year’s winner is Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project, a co-production of Crowded Fire and Playwrights Foundation. The play, a wild, multimedia tale of theater making and revolution, was directed by Desdemona Chiang. (read my original review of the play here)

Honorable mention goes to adaptation of Josh Costello’s adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother for Custom Made Theatre.

This year’s Glickman committee comprised critics Robert Avila (SF Bay Guardian), Karen D’Souza (San Jose Mercury News and the Bay Area News Group), Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sam Hurwitt (The Idiolect and Theatre Bay Area) and yours truly.

Here’s a list of previous Glickman winners:

2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)