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.

Making friends with Golden Thread’s Enemies

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In Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, Arab-American authors and couple Noor (Denmo Ibrahim) and Gamal (James Asher) navigate tensions both personal and professional. Below: Mosque leader Sheikh Alfani (Munaf Alsafi, left) prepares to send his son Hani (Salim Razawi) off on his first trip to Egypt. Photos by David Allen Studio.

When you go to a show from a specialized company like Golden Thread Productions, which focuses on plays from and about the Middle East, you expect your perspective to be expanded, to have your assumptions challenged and to encounter voices you may not hear enough. In its 20 years, Golden Thread has earned a strong reputation for accomplishing all of the above and more with more than 100 new plays produced and truly enlarging the conversation about the Middle East to include a diversity of artists, experiences and points of view.

With Golden Thread’s latest production, Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi, the conversation about the Middle East is front and center as a Muslim American writer attempts to find her voice as a writer, publish a novel, maintain a relationship, combat stereotypes about Muslims and live her life with some degree of enjoyment, engagement and self-respect. But because this woman, Noor, is so beautifully drawn, we don’t see her simply as a spokesperson for her birth country or her religion or for all writers or all women. Rather we see her as Noor, an incredibly intelligent woman of complexity and beauty and talent and sensuality and temper and flaws.

Much of that richness comes from El Guindi’s script. The rest comes from the sublime performance by Denmo Ibrahim, an actor of commanding presence and depth. All the characters in the play are interesting and multi-dimensional, but Noor is the passionate center, even though not all the characters – notably the head of a Mosque and his son – interact with her directly. Hers is the strongest, funniest, most impassioned voice, even though others might shout more loudly. And here’s a triumph: we actually watch a writer write and it’s INTERESTING!

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The play’s subtitle, Lively Scenes of Love and Combat, turns out to be quite an accurate description of the two-plus-hour play, though the combat ends up being more lively, especially the battle between Noor and Mohsen (Kunal Prasad), a successful Egypt-born Muslim writer now living in the United States. His publisher (Annemaria Rajala) is interested in Noor’s manuscript (only if she can rewrite it to reflect more of the heroine’s Egyptian-American experience), so he’s recruited to woo her into the publishing house fold. The problem is that Mohsen has become a popular talking head representing the Muslim-American experience in the nauseating 24-hour news machine, and the viewpoint he espouses does not sit well with Noor or her combustible boyfriend, Gamal (James Asher). When Mohsen and Noor meet at a dinner party, the play crackles with intensity as their differing ideologies about how to represent their shared culture clash.

At least Noor is capable of having an intelligent, mostly civil conversation with her adversaries. Gamal, on the other hand, is becoming a loose canon who’s beginning to scare himself. The play opens with Gamal cleverly sabotaging one of Mohsen’s TV appearances, and the success of that disruption leads him to another involving Sheikh Alfani, the head of a local mosque who has also become a go-to guy when the media needs a Muslim representative.

Playwright El Guindi allows us to get to know these multifaceted characters more than we might in another play this full of action, which means that we see Sheikh Alfani (the superb Munaf Alsafi) not just as a victim of one of Gamal’s “pranks” but also a compassionate community leader and a loving father to his son, Hani (Salim Razawi), who will soon be making his first visit to see his extended family in Cairo. The father-son dynamic is powerful here, and in a series of scenes, most notably their goodbye at the airport, Hani’s first ecstatic, detailed report about his experiences in Cairo and his father’s emotional plea for him to return, we sense generations passing, culture evolving and depthless love existing alongside sorrow and fear.

This is a remarkable play for many reasons, not the least of which is its ability to deliver potent, emotional characters and a plot in which surprising things happen (and just a side note: how refreshing it is to experience a play where things actually happen!). There’s sex, deep rumination, harsh conflict, galvanizing anger, violence, manipulation, lying, fierce intelligence, incisive criticism and genuine affection. Director Torange Yeghiazarian and her tremendous actors throw the conversation wide open and invite the audience to be active participants in the drama. The elegant, simple set by Mikiko Uesugi allows for quick scene changes abetted by the effective background projections of Kevin August Landesman, and the pace never lags.

We care about El Guindi’s characters as people making their way in the world, even the ones we may not like much (like the pompous but somehow sweet publisher played by Dale Albright who practically fetishizes all things Egyptian). That makes for powerful, unforgettable theater, which ends up feeling an awful lot like the rich, frustrating and head-spinning love and combat of real life.

Yussef El Guindi’s Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat continues through Nov. 20 in a Golden Thread production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$34. Visit

Golden Thread traverses a rocky Highway

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A young man named Traffic (Kiran Patel, right) and a wanderer named Zarif (Terry Lamb) join forces to chase trucks and sell fish on the Kabul-Jalalabad highway in Afghanistan in the world premiere of Kevin Artigue’s The Most Dangerous Highway in the World, from Golden Thread Productions at Thick House. Below: A lost Samira (Sofia Ahmad) stumbles upon Traffic’s makeshift home on the side of the highway. Photos by David Allen Studio

In his raggedy reflective vest and with his small voice booming, Traffic spends his days unlike most 8-year-olds: he waves traffic around a hairpin turn and in and out of a tunnel on the perilous mountain highway that links Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan. He is one of the “Pepsi boys” who scrapes up a living from waving a smashed soda bottle at passing cars, hoping for a few coins thrown his way as a tip. He also catches fish in the river at the bottom of the ravine and attempts to sell those as snacks to passing travelers.

The story of the Pepsi boys is a compelling one – check out this feature in the New York Times – and clearly playwright Kevin Artigue thought so, too. Their lives inspired his play The Most Dangerous Highway in the World, now receiving its world premiere from Golden Thread Productions, the country’s first theater company focused on the Middle East. Now in the midst of celebrating its 20th anniversary, Golden Thread focuses on stories from and about the Middle East, and Artigue is the first writer of non-Middle Eastern descent to receive a full production from the company.

Moving beyond the day-to-day drama of the Pepsi boys simply existing in such a difficult, hardscrabble and dangerous world, Artigue attempts a more poetic approach to the story. His main character, 8-year-old Traffic (played by the extraordinary Kiran Patel), has lost his family – to what is never clear, but the threat of the Taliban and the general volatility of the political landscape in Afghanistan looms heavily at all times – and his sister has recently wandered off and failed to return. Still, Traffic (he gave himself that name) plies is trade with gusto, slinging fish (“You can still eat them if they smell!”) and existing in fumes of exhaust from the cars he guides along their way.

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How long Traffic has been doing this and how long he plans to continue doing it is never quite clear. He’s living moment to moment and takes his rest on a salvaged car seat along the side of the highway. He’s existing in a sort of purgatory, and that is made more literal with the presence of ghosts, including car accident victims Zarif (Terry Lamb) and Samira (Sofia Ahmad) who are somehow tethered to Traffic. There are actual humans, too, in the form of soldiers Nader (Davern Wright), a bully who wants information about Taliban movements, and Daoud (Louel Señores), a sweet stoner who is much more compassionate. These soldiers don’t seem to be under any specific command, but they drive a big truck full of bagged and tagged bodies.

Director Evren Odcikin elicits a superb performance from young Patel, who really carries the entire 80-minute drama with his exuberance and his deeply felt connection with Traffic. The other roles, which also include dreamlike appearances by a little girl played by Jiya Khanna, tend to be exercises in repetition. They are ably performed but don’t coalesce into anything substantial.

The same could be said for the play itself, which can become surprisingly mawkish and trite (“You care too much. Life is easier when you stop caring.”). A play populated by the living and the dead doesn’t automatically add up to drama. Why the ghosts are there never becomes clear, and Traffic’s precarious state is no different at the end than it was at the beginning. That could be exactly the point, but the play seems to indicate some sort of movement that is also unclear.

The production itself is a strong one, from the evocative rocky mountain set by Kate Boyd to the nerve-jangling sounds of speeding traffic by James Ard, and though the hard lives of the Pepsi boys serves as a means of providing insight into life in modern Afghanistan, the view on this particular stretch of Highway is much more cloudy than clear.

[bonus video]
Golden Thread Productions looks at the real-life Pepsi bottle boys and talks with playwright Kevin Artigue and director Evren Odcikin.

Kevin Artigue’s The Most Dangerous Highway in the World continues through May 29 with Golden Thread Productions at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $34. Call 415-626-4061 or visit

Family, politics, history tangle in Golden Thread’s Urge

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Camila Betancourt Ascencio (left) is Jamila, an ambitious Palestinian girl living in Lebanon in a refugee camp with her father, Adham (Terry Lamb, center), mother, Abir (Tara Blau) and other family members in Golden Thread’s production of Urge for Going by Mona Mansour. BELOW: The cast of Urge for Going includes, from left, Lamb, Munaf Alsafi, Ascencio, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Blau and Wiley Naman Strasser. Photos by David Allen

The remarkable thing about Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going and the work of Golden Thread Productions is how effectively the complex world of the Middle East comes through in a moving family drama. A very personal story set against a sprawling backdrop of history, politics and geography forges a strong emotional connection and brings a distinct perspective to a part of the world that can feel overwhelming if, like me, you know precious little about real-life experiences there.

Certainly drama benefits from conflict and tension, and that’s where Mansour’s story, set in Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, begins. In an introduction called “The Noise,” members of a family attempt to explain the history of the refugee camp and how in 1948, with the formation of the State of Israel, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced and sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. The “temporary” camps received another infusion of refugees in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, so nearly 60 years later (the play is set in 2003) the camp is, as Mansour puts it, “permanently impermanent.” But the thing about “The Noise” is that no one can seem to agree on the historical details. Some even take issue with one another’s tone of voice when discussing the topic.

The thought of living in a refugee camp like that, cobbling together a home and an existence for you and your family is hard enough. But to think you’re living that way with the promise of returning to your homeland always hovering vaguely in the distance – it just seems impossible.

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And yet that is how this family, like so many others, is living. Some family members have been there since 1948. Others arrived in 1967, and somehow they make it work.

While the older generation holds out some hope that promises will be kept and the refugees will go home, the younger generation, represented here by high-schooler Jamila (Camila Betancourt Ascencio), sees the return as a pipe dream. Jamila knows her future options are limited, so she’s seizing on the one within her reach: taking the baccalaureate exam and going to college. Being the daughter of a scholar (Terry Lamb as Adham), Jamila is inspired to follow in her father’s footsteps.

What’s interesting here is the complicated relationship between father and daughter. Adham and his wife, Abir (Tara Blau) had the opportunity to stay and work at a school in London many years ago, but returned home only to end up in the refugee camp and a life of subsistence. Now Adham is ambivalent about his daughter’s attempts to study for her exam and finagle the necessary paperwork and photo IDs to secure an exam appointment.

Jamila and her older brother, Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) play a fascinating game together, a sort of fantasy talk show in which she imagines herself with multiple PhDs, traveling the world and changing it. The fact that her brother is brain damaged – we’re told he went out of the house one way and came back another – only underscores the poignancy of the game. Jamila has a chance, albeit a small one, to escape her family’s dire circumstances, while Jul does not. His primary pleasure in life is watching “Baywatch” reruns on a tiny television.

Emotions run high and strong in director Evren Odcikin excellent production. His cast, which also includes the extraordinary Julian Lopez-Morillas and Munaf Alsafi as uncles sharing Jamila’s home, cuts right to the emotional heart of Mansour’s powerful story. The details here are important – setting historical context, all of that – but at a certain point, we’re not just learning about life in the Middle East. We’re connecting with a family in the way that good drama finds those universal family heartbeats. On some level it could be O’Neill or Miller or Williams. The circumstances are unique, but a family’s love and loyalty, complicated by loss, strife and politics that affect your daily life, are part of a universal story and one we need to hear over and over again and connect with over and over again.

Set and lighting designer Kate Boyd depicts a ramshackle collage of a shelter – some cinderblock, some plywood, some plastic tarp – with a loosely wired electrical system providing a tentative current. But watching the family prepare a meal or reconfigure the sparse furniture for the sleeping of five people in a tiny space serves as a reminder: a home is a home is a home.

Ascencio as Jamila bears much of the story’s weight, and she’s marvelous, as is Strasser as Jul. There’s humor and depth and passion in all the performances, making Mansour’s intimate family drama all the more personal, all the more powerful.

Golden Thread Production’s Urge for Going by Mona Mansour continues through Dec. 8 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Visit