Crowded Fire saddles up comic Horses

She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange
The cast of Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange includes (from left) George Sellner, Kevin Clarke, Marilee Talkington and Zehra Berkman. Below: Clarke as Max and Talkington as Sara wrestle with a big life change. Photos by Pak Han

There’s something very sly at work in She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange, the world-premiere from Amelia Roper with Crowded Fire Theater at the Thick House. From looking at the vivid, sharply designed set by Maya Linke, with its paper sculpture trees and angled artificial grass, it’s clear this is not going to be just any walk in the park.

But that’s exactly how the play starts: a Sunday in a suburban Connecticut park for new residents Amy (Zehra Berkman) and Henry (George Sellner). He’s a warm, easygoing nurse at a children’s hospital and she’s a high-powered investment banker. They’re an odd pair, especially in this enforced outing, which they make themselves take every weekend. He’s forcing the good cheer, and she can barely contain her work-centric ADHD enough long enough to relax on the picnic blanket.

The 70-minute play’s deliberately slow start contains some of its most incisive character work, especially from Berkman, whose annoyance and anxiety occasionally breaks through the sunny Sunday facade she’s trying to maintain

Then along come Max (Kevin Clarke) and Sara (Marliee Talkington), who also live in the tony neighborhood. He’s in a three-piece suit, which doesn’t seem odd for an investment banker, except that it’s Sunday…and he’s carrying a floor lamp. She’s in evening wear and lugging around an unusually heavy load of shopping bags (Coach, Neiman Marcus, Jimmy Choo).

She Rode Horses Like The Stock Exchange

As this quartet tangles, spars (Max and Amy used to work together) and socializes, it’s clear that something is definitely up. The surprise, when it’s revealed, isn’t really that surprising, but what’s sly about Roper’s script is the way she conveys a sense of absurdism – on the spectrum from Beckett to Will Eno – and high comedy for a situation that turns out not to be absurd or all that funny. Except it is.

Financial ruin, hubris, keeping up appearances – all those great American traditions – are all in play here, as is a whole lot of verbal dexterity. Director M. Graham Smith and his actors underscore Roper’s tone of comic desperation quite effectively even if the only character who really breaks through is Sara, and that has a whole lot to do with Talkington’s remarkable performance.

Sara, a naive, spoiled housewife, could be the true clown of the piece, but she turns out to be the most compassionate. She, among this quartet, has capacity for change, for opening up and experiencing life rather than fighting it. She’s always been one thing, and now faced with a change in circumstances, it seems she’s going to try and be another. Talkington is quite funny to be sure, but there’s so much going on in Sara, from her open-book face to her manor house body language, that it’s almost impossible not to watch her.

That’s not to take away anything from the other actors, all of whom are terrific. Sellner effectively conveys a sunny disposition underscored with something dark and brooding, while Berkman happily breaks through the Sunday doldrums to feast on poor Max. Clarke has all kinds of edgy charisma as Max plays on the swings – the mood swings, naturally, it’s a park – and takes stock of his life and all the things about it he hasn’t paid attention to since he was a child.

Amid the laughs and the shadows and the absurdist tangents, there’s something not quite there at the core of the play. In the end, there’s a confined, airless quality to it that’s hard to shake and makes the play feel longer than it is. Perhaps that’s intentional, but it also keeps Horses from reaching a full gallop.

Amelia Roper’s She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange continues through April 12 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

Shrew you, shutdown! The Taming gets it right

The Taming
In the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming, the future of America is in the hands of three slightly insane women – a liberal political activist (Marilet Martinez, left), a beauty queen (Kathryn Zdan, center), and a conservative senatorial aid (Marilee Talkington) – who might just be revolutionary geniuses. Below: The Crowded Fire Theater production (with, from left, Martinez, Zdan and Talkington) takes us into a 21st-century hotel room and into late 18th-century America. Photos by Pak Han.

The word “factions” is uttered in a way that makes it sound like the filthiest word you can imagine. And, in these tense government shutdown days, it actually is. But when James Madison says the word, you feel it whistling through the centuries like an airborne bomb that explodes afresh every time political idiocy allows factions (it’s such an easy word to say with loathing) to hijack democracy.

The world premiere of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming couldn’t come at a more volatile time. Our government just happens to be in the middle of a crisis that was anticipated, according to Gunderson’s play, by our founding fathers. The wise Mr. Madison did his best to avert the power of the special interests, but he compromised to keep our fledgling country steady and strong, at least to start.

Now we have a clusterfuck of right and left and red and blue and hardline, ego-dominated politics that is actually bad for the people of this country – all the people of this country. And that is exactly what Gunderson’s The Taming is addressing in a way that is smart, incisive and incredibly funny.

This vivacious world premiere from Crowded Fire Theater (part of a rolling world premiere with Seattle’s Arts West) couldn’t be more timely. Gunderson, who is pretty much writing every play on Bay Area stages these days (see Shotgun Players, see Marin Theatre Company, see TheatreWorks, see San Francisco Playhouse), has created a satirical comedy that works on its own terms, but she has also crafted a rather ingenious adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, that problematic play that asks a beaten-down, starved woman to say she’s “ashamed women are so foolish.”

The Taming

Gunderson will have none of that, so in her version, she spins Shakespeare’s characters – Katherine, the titular shrew, is now Miss Georgia, a contestant in the Miss America pageant; Bianca, the bratty younger sister of the shrew, is now a lefty-liberal blogger; and Petruchio, the “tamer,” is now a right-wing conservative Republican politico who also happens to be a lesbian – and sets them on a worthwhile task of taming. These ladies, who couldn’t be more different from one another, are asked to combine their passion, their intelligence and their love of country in an effort to tame the U.S. Congress, and while they’re at it, fix the Constitution and the country itself.

The Shrew connection is mostly played for laughs (actual shrews are mentioned often, but it’s in context of the liberal blogger’s quest to keep a species of panda shrews from extinction), with a few sly references here and there until the end, when Gunderson smacks down Shakespeare by kicking a formerly repellent speech (and nearly always repellent Congress) squarely in the ass.

The really nifty trick here is that Gunderson sets up three women we think we know – stereotypes of the beauty queen, the bleeding-heart liberal, the heartless conservative – and lets them surprise us (in good ways and otherwise). It feels great to laugh at smart comedy that cares about the Constitution, about the Founding Fathers’ best intentions, about making long overdue and necessary changes to a country that still has a lot of evolving to do and still has time for broad physical comedy involving a lack of pants.

Director Marissa Wolf drives an almost manic pace as Gunderson sets up her plot: a locked hotel room contains one genius mastermind (the beauty queen, naturally, played with delicious comic flair by Kathryn Zdan) and two seeming enemies, the social media-obsessed crusader (a loose canon Marilet Martinez) and the old-school Republican serving a powerhouse conservative senator (an increasingly hilarious and surprisingly sweet Marilee Talkington).

There are things about this hugely entertaining production that could be sharpened – too many lines get lost in rushed delivery and in the wake of big laughs – but the messiness is part of the appeal. Drugs, sparkly evening wear, sexual tension, kidnapping and scandal are all part of the mix.

And then Gunderson does something wonderful. She takes us to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and lets the 21st-century women play George Washington, James Madison and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (who voices the powerful opinion of the slavery-loving South and represents one of those factions who threatens to leave the discussion at every hint of not getting exactly what they want). Dolly Madison and Martha Washington make guest appearances, and once we’re back in the hotel room (set by Mikiko Uesugi), we get more zaniness, a satisfying glimpse into a better future and a “dance break for America.”

The happy ending, borne of actual conversation filled with actual dialogue, seems like pure fantasy at this point (alas), but it’s a giddy delight none the less. The Taming has much to offer that is pointed, thought provoking and laugh-out-loud funny, but I cannot get the image of Talkington’s pantyhose out of my head, nor the image of Zdan, all in sparkling blue, shouting, “I am an ambitious American woman in evening wear, and I will not be fucked with!” I’m ready to vote for either woman to do anything.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Lauren Gunderson (and local actor Jennifer Le Blanc) for a story in American Theater magazine. Read the story here.

Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming continues through Oct. 26 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

Crowded Fire plays games with death in 410[GONE]

Seventeen (Christopher James Cortez, center left) and Twenty-One (Cindy Im, center right) confront one another in the afterlife, a domain ruled by the Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon, left) and the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) in Crowded Fire’s world premiere of 410[GONE] at the Thick House. Below: Lydon and Loriaux blend tradition with modernity in the Chinese Land of the Dead. Photos by Pak Han

One of life’s great mysteries has at last been solved. Those outdated notions of the afterlife involving harps and angels and a paternal, white-bearded God never seemed to catch up with our fast-paced, multicultural world – until now. Thanks to Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s mesmerizing and ultimately moving 410[GONE], now having its world premiere courtesy of Crowded Fire Theater, we know that the afterlife, or at least one vision of it, involves deities from Chinese mythology playing Dance Dance Revolution (an high-energy dancing video game) as a means to transmogrify souls from one life form to the next.

Makes perfect sense to me, especially in Cowhig’s no-nonsense vision, where Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy (Charisse Loriaux) is so weary she’s lost all sense of mercy and her patience is constantly tested by her screeching companion, Monkey King (Alexander M Lydon). Life in the Chinese Land of the Dead ain’t what it used to be, even though the old traditions have been updated to include video games. The telephone contact with desperate humans in the outside world, however, are still old-school push-button land lines.

The digital revolution is also messing up what should be a simple transmogrification. A 17-year-old boy (Christopher James Cortez) should slip through the system, but his older sister (Cindy Im) can’t let him go. Using the power of her laptop, a disposable Chinese shrine and her brother’s old detective kit, she is intent on unraveling the mystery of her brother’s untimely death. In so doing, she finds ways (as if she were playing a video game) to send him things he might need in the underworld (like money and pickles).


With the help of the stunning but sparingly used Ox-Headed God (Michael Uy Kelly making the absolute most of his brief time on stage), sister and brother are reunited – briefly – in the afterlife, and that’s where the non-digital, non-wacky heart of 410[GONE] really lies.

Director Evren Odcikin (who also designed the set) nicely balances the groovily updated folklore aspects of the play with the very real human elements of loss, grief, mental illness and cultural identification. This is a smart, funny play that, for all its edgy games, turns out to be a modern riff on Orpheus and Eurydice in which coming to terms with loss and trying to understand death turn it into a much more conventional (but no less moving) drama.

Im and Cortez are superb as a brother and sister whose relationship is fraught with tension and deep devotion. From the beginning, Im serves as our emotional entry point as a sister who is not exactly in denial over her brother’s death but she certainly is obsessing over it, to the point where she keeps eating his final meal every day. When she’s finally able to break through into her brother’s limbo, Im is even better, and Cortez, who is such a believably tormented, video game-obsessed teenager, connects with her in a remarkably poignant way. Their final scenes together are completely free of sappy sentiment and full of love and loss in equal measure.

Though an intimate production in the cozy confines of the Thick House stage, Odcikin’s production benefits greatly from superb video design by Wesley Cabral and animation by Goose Manriquez. As fun as the projections are – and they can also be beautiful, as when the dead brother goes through otherworldly transitions – they never overwhelm the performers. The playwright leaves that to the emotions.

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410[GONE] continues through June 29 in a Crowded Fire Theatre production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

Crowded Fire’s Bereaved hawks drugs! nudity! absurdity!

The Bereaved
A “family meeting” is convened in order to solve their current financial crisis in Crowded Fire Theater’s The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw. The cast includes (from left) Lawrence Radecker as Michael, Josh Schell as Teddy, Olivia Rosaldo as Melissa and Denmo Ibrahim as Katy. Below: Schell and Rosaldo take a trip to Harlem for a visit with Reggie D. White as Jamal. Photos by Pak Han.

You know you’ve got your audience right where you want them when they’re laughing at the rape fantasy being played out – rather graphically and violently – on stage. It’s easy to imagine an audience sitting in wide-eyed horror as the scene, which also involves black face, goes to some surprising places.

But by this point in Thomas Bradshaw’s The Bereaved, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House on Potrero Hill, we’ve come to expect the outrageous, the politically incorrect, the shocking.

This is the first fully staged Bradshaw play in the Bay Area, and by some accounts, it’s his tamest. Clearly a provocateur with an affection for farce and parody, Bradshaw is like Molière writing for HBO. Or Skinemax, er, Cinemax. He mashes up the foreboding darkness and twisty surprises of a Pinter or an Albee with the shiny, happy pace of a 30-minute sitcom. The results are wildly amusing and, yes, even a little shocking.

But to what end the shocks? That’s a question you don’t really have time to think about until the 65-minute play begins careening toward its abrupt conclusion.

Until then, director Marissa Wolf keeps a steady hand as she makes outrageousness seem somehow every day. Like the dad (Lawrence Radecker) doing lines of coke off the dining room table and then talking to his 15-year-old son (Josh Schell) about the excessive amount of semen the parents are finding in the young man’s underwear when they go to do the laundry. Or the worldly-wise 15-year-old girlfriend (Olivia Rosaldo) who instructs the son, while she’s trying to take his virginity, that cocaine’s hard edge can be smoothed with alcohol or Valium – if he has any.

The Bereaved

It all seems so practical when people are as unfiltered as Bradshaw’s characters seem to be. When mom (Michele Leavy) is in the hospital and may not survive, she does two things: she reads the Tao Te Ching and, in the event of her demise, she arranges for her husband to marry her best friend (Denmo Ibrahim). That’s good news for the dad and the friend, who immediately embark on an intense and explicit voyage of sexual discovery.

The play’s funniest and ultimately most incisive character turns out to be drug dealer Jamal (Reggie D. White), who’s got an exaggerated pimp roll because he knows that’s what his customers, mostly rich white kids, expect. He’s a savvy businessman and does what he needs to do to play the role of the Harlem drug dealer in support of a sophisticated life that is the opposite of the mean streets.

Playwright Bradshaw’s plot heads into Breaking Bad territory, with the practical family dealing with a financial crisis and planning for the future. Their choices are, of course, outrageous but within the context of the play, perfectly reasonable. It’s just the ending that doesn’t satisfy.

We get the strong impression that everyone left alive – oh, yes, there’s death and mayhem – is more than capable of taking care of herself or himself. They’ll keep making bold choices, and the consequences will continue to be minimal. Or they won’t. (shrug) Life goes on. Or it doesn’t.

As fun and startling as The Bereaved can be, it doesn’t land with much weight. The satire’s got zip but little sting. There’s no emotional connection with the characters or their actions, but there is an interest in what crazy thing they’ll get up to or whose butt we’ll see in the next scene. There’s no final shock or twist or joke. Just drug-happy, highly sexed characters moving on in life, having sex and enjoying their drugs. Maybe that’s really it – the 21st-century American dream in all its underwhelming glory.

Crowded Fire Theater’s The Bereaved by Thomas Bradshaw continues through April 27 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or

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)

2012 flasback: 10 to remember

Any Given Day 2
James Carpenter and Stacy Ross in Magic Theatre’s Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, the best play of the year. Photo by Jennifer Reiley Below: the cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, another highlight of the Bay Area theater year. Photo by Kevin Berne.

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

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

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

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

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

Theater Games 3

6. The Aliens by Annie Baker, San Francisco Playhouse

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

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

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

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

1. Any Given Day by Linda MacLean, Magic Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

Crowded Fire: Please sir, may I have some Mao?

The Hundred Flowers Project
Cindy Im (far left), Anna Ishida (center) and Wiley Naman Strasser blur the line between theater, reality and revolution in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project. Below: The avant garde theater group devises a play about Mao Tse Tung using their “patented zeitgeist melding” process. From left: Wiley Naman Strasser, Ogie Zulueta, Charisse Loriaux, Anna Ishida and Will Dao. Photos by Pak Han

If Apple or some other high-tech giant was really smart, really forward thinking, they’d head down to the Thick House and check out the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project, a play that not only has a lot to say about our instantly archived society and its millions of digital histories but also utilizes technology in a fascinating way.

There’s something utterly primal about the premise of this Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation co-production: members of a San Francisco theater collective gather to create, in the most organic, zeitgeist-melding way, a dazzling piece of theater about the life and rule of Mao Tse Tung that has deep metaphorical connection to our own times. These theater folk are pretentious – the words “zeitgeist” and “congealing” are used so often they may cause indigestion – but they’re also real artists trying to create something new and interesting and meaningful.

Their leader, Mel (Charisse Loriaux), invites everyone to continue adding ideas to the group Google Doc, and as she incorporates those ideas, along with those inspired by group discussion, the actors read the updated text from their smart phones while they rehearse. The tech aspect of the show, involving dramatic lighting (by Heather Basarab) as well as live and pre-recorded video (designed by Wesley Cabral), is also created on the fly (it’s more organic that way, naturally).

Every once in a while, something weird happens. A big sound erupts (sound design by Brendan Aanes), the cast goes through a jerky modern-dance-like spasm (Rami Margron is the movement coach), and reality has shifted. At first these shifts take us more speedily through rehearsal so we can catch up on all the gossip like who used to sleep with whom and what the real power dynamics are in this collective.

But then the shifts start to get more serious as we experience more of the play and begin to see how Mao’s rule, likened to a work of theater itself, really does have parallels in a modern world where we create, share and, perhaps most importantly, edit our own histories as we’re living them.

The Hundred Flowers Project

Chen’s script makes some tricky twists and turns throughout its swift two acts dispatched in just over an hour and a half. There’s some deep intelligence at work here but also some sly humor to keep the pretension away, at least until it can’t. There are some dangerous dips into near melodrama, but director Desdemona Chiang and her astute cast of six keep the play crackling until Act 2 finally dives into some murky waters.

Two of the best scenes involve beautifully integrated video. I must confess here that I have an aversion to video on stage because I go to theater specifically to see LIVE people interacting with other LIVE people. But this play is about, in part, our almost obsessive need to record and archive our lives. So, at a certain point, when memories have become absent or unreliable, former lovers Mike (Wiley Naman Strasser) and Lily (Anna Ishida) are back in each other’s arms, literally. They’re dancing and throwing each other around and pretending to fly, all the while recording themselves with their iPhones, and the live video from their phones is projected on the walls of Maya Linke’s set.

Later on, after some time has gone by, Mike and his wife (Cindy Im) settle into a life of effortful domestic bliss. Their home is depicted in video renderings of a child’s drawing, and on the pretend TV we see the couple in the near future, while their live, present-day selves struggle to get to that near future.

Another video moment with great potential that isn’t fully realized involves video as a new form of masked drama (the Greeks would have loved this). An actor playing Mao (Strasser) is captured on video, while the video of his face is projected onto the sheet-shrouded head of another actor. The effect is a little like those creepy/fascinating talking mannequins at the deYoung’s recent Jean-Paul Gaultier show (see video here).

The Hundred Flowers Project, for all its intellectual zest and meta-theatrical zing, makes constant jokes about succumbing to traditional narrative structures but ultimately falls into a humorless home stretch that dulls some of the thought-provoking fun that has come before. But this is still a fascinating, even compelling piece of theater that feels like it really is about the here and now. OK, OK. You might even say it actually taps into the zeitgeist.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with playwright Christopher Chen and director Desdemona Chiang for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Christopher Chen’s The Hundred Flowers Project, a co-production of Crowded Fire Theater Company and Playwrights Foundation, continues through Nov. 17 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-746-9238 or visit

Crowded Fire’s Invasion!, or Abulkasem on my mind


Wiley Naman Strasser wraps up the final chapter of Invasion! as the playwright’s little brother in the Crowded Fire Theater production of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play. Below: An apple-picking asylum seeker (George Psarras) tells his story through an interpreter (Olivia Rosaldo Pratt). Photos by Pak Han

The thing to know about Crowded Fire’s Invasion! is that it’s best not to know too much. There’s comedy, mystery, surprises and sinister darkness all lurking about director Evren Odcikin’s sharp, crisply performed production. And if you have no idea what’s really going on or what could possibly happen next, well, that’s all for the better.

Even though the play is only about 80 minutes, it feels substantial – not heavy but not frivolous either. Playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri wants to explore the power of language and how that power is fueled by ego, fear, racism and the speed at which words enter and exit the lexicon.

The word here is Abulkasem. We first hear it in the context of a play, a sort of Middle Eastern fairy tale. But then Khemiri (translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles), in a moment beautifully and aggressively staged by Odcikin, disrupts the notion of theater and allows us to watch as the word resurfaces in a vulnerable moment that then, for reasons only teenagers understand, must be armored with testosterone. So Abulkasem becomes slang word – an insult, an adjective, a verb, a compliment, an unlikely slice of Arabic hip-hop hipness.


Almost like a riff on Schnitzler’s La Ronde, Khemiri’s play takes us into a world where, through linked scenes, the word Abulkasem becomes many different things. Each time it’s used, we get another window into how language can reinforce or reveal prejudice. Khemiri’s focus is on various people of Middle Eastern descent and how Abulkasem can go from something slangy and harmless to a name that invokes the menace of terrorism.

Odcikin’s quartet of actors – George Psarras, Lawrence Radecker, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt and Wiley Naman Strasser – deftly switch from character to character, handling the laughs (of which there are many) and the drama with astonishing skill. There’s one scene – without giving too much away – involving a potentially shady character (Psarras) and the translator he has been asking for (Rosaldo-Pratt). The dynamics of the scene are fascinating, as what we think is happening turns out to be something quite different. It’s a potent swirl of stereotypes and insidious operating and Abba lyrics.

Produced in the round, Invasion! has that interesting feel of being foreign and familiar, which is to say you can’t just kick back and relax because you never quite know what’s coming next. Alex Friedman’s set is really an art installation in itself, with the entire theater space covered in newspapers and graffiti by artist Ali Dadgar. Spray-painted images of shadowy men in sunglasses (one of whom looks just like Zach Galifanakis) occupy walls with slogans like “Debt to America.”

My only disappointment in Khemiri’s play is that it starts with such a bang and with such energetic fervor, that its descent into monologue-heavy, darkly lit scenes feels more conventional than I wanted it to. There are plenty of surprises in Invasion! but its form turns out not to be one of them.

That’s a minor cavil, though, for such an interesting, engaging production that takes language so very seriously. There’s always a danger that Khemiri will get preachy, but he never does. Are we all Abulkasem? If we don’t think seriously about the words we use and hear – especially the ones that supposedly describe other cultures – then the answer is a definitive yes.

[bonus interview]

I chatted with writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Crowded Fire Theater’s Invasion! continues through Sept. 29 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30. Visit

Crowded Fire delivers the goods with Good Goods

Good Goods

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (left) is Stacey and Armando McClain is Wire in the West Coast premiere of Christina Anderson’s Good Goods, a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Boxcar Playhouse. Below: Mollena Williams is Patricia and Lauren Spencer is Sunny. Photos by Pak Han

A little bit weird (in the most wonderful way) and a whole lot good, Christina Anderson’s Good Goods is a captivating drama that becomes a highly satisfying love story – or love stories to be exact. Crowded Fire Theater is producing the West Coast premiere, with artistic director Marissa Wolf firmly at the helm.

What’s so appealing about this two-act play is that it’s old-fashioned and fresh at the same time, mysterious and yet straightforward enough to be almost instantly engaging. You get a sense of community and real human connection intermingled with the supernatural as in an August Wilson play and abundant romance, betrayal and pining, as in a Tennessee Williams play. But this is not to say that Anderson is being derivative. It’s more like she’s using the best parts of drama to tell an interesting story and keep her audience involved and wondering what the heck is going to happen next.

It’s best not to know too much about the plot (of which there’s no shortage), but it’s OK to know that it all spins out in a small town that is rather out of place and time. There has been a major event – an “invasion” of some kind – in the not-too-distant past that has had a dramatic effect on the area, which is presumably an all-black town in the American south.

The major industry in town is a pencil factory, and that keeps the mercantile of Good Goods – owned by a man whose last name is Good – in operation. The business is ostensibly owned by Mr. Good’s son, Stacey, but he’s been gone for a decade, having hit it big on the comedy circuit with another hometown girl, Patricia. The one actually running the story, or at least keeping it from going under is Truth (“It’s a name you have to earn, that’s for sure”).

Good Goods

As with any good drama, the status quo is disrupted. Stacey returns home to deal not with the disappearance of his father but to revisit a lost love – his childhood friend (and Patricia’s twin brother), Wire. It’s a recognizable world but slightly askew. The set, by Emily Greene, makes the store look like something out of the 1800s, yet one character wears Nike shoes and another listens to a comedian on a cassette player. The time is now (or 1994 to be specific), yet it seems a world away from the modern world. Perhaps that’s why the spirit world is so alive and well here.

There’s talk of a cursed family going back for generations that might be the key to Armageddon, and there’s most definitely visitation from another world, yet somehow these fanciful flights seem just as part of the fabric of this town and these people as the love stories or family dramas.

Wolf’s cast is superb at underplaying the more sensational aspects of the story and imbuing the whole thing with real heart. Yahya Abdul Mateen II is Stacey the prodigal son returned to see if he can reconnect with Wire, played by the vibrant Armando McClain. Their love story is especially touching because it’s clearly meant to be in spite of Stacey’s inability to express himself fully.

Stacey has an easier time fighting with Truth (David E. Moore), a sort of brother figure who is bitter that he’ll likely be forced into work at the pencil factory if Stacey refuses to take over the store. A ray of hope comes into his life with the return of Patricia, played by the luminous Mollena Williams, and her new friend, Sunny, played by Lauren Spencer, an actor who shows extraordinary range in this surprisingly demanding role.

Before this quintet can figure out how their relationships will sever or evolve, the spirit world intervenes, which demands the presence of Anthony Rollins Mullens as a neighbor with talents that extend into various realms. Mullens is, to say the least, a commanding figure, and it’s no wonder the play ends on such a calm note after his hurricane of a scene.

The play zips by at only two hours, and though there are underdeveloped elements – I wanted more from Patricia and her transition into love – it satisfies like few new plays I’ve seen recently. It also feels like it could be the first chapter in an ongoing saga. Here’s hoping.


Christina Anderson’s Good Goods continues through June 23 at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma St., San Francisco. Tickets prices are on a sliding scale. Visit