Catastrophist unleashes contagious drama – catch it

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William DeMeritt is Nathan in Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Photos courtesy of Marin Theatre Company; Director of Photography Peter Ruocco; Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao; Costume Designer Sarah Smith

San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson was already one of the most admired and produced playwrights in the country. She didn’t necessarily need to be on the forefront of pandemic drama. And by pandemic drama, I mean several things: creating new, relevant, interesting work in this time of theatrical shutdown; but also creating work having to do with the pandemic itself. As a writer with a special penchant for creating drama fueled by a love and fascination with science, it seems logical that Gunderson would find a way to bring the science of our current situation to the stage in a way that only she can.

It just so happens that Gunderson’s husband, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, is one of the world’s foremost virologists. The Catastrophist is Gunderson’s one-man play about her husband, and it’s fascinating (again) on several levels: it can’t help but be interesting when a skilled and thoughtful writer decides to write about her spouse, his work and his inner life; and hearing from Wolfe (via Gunderson, of course) about why a brilliant scientist chases down viruses to try and prevent pandemics is, certainly, a relevant and captivating topic, especially as told by Gunderson, who has a flair for making the scientific entertaining and comprehensible.

William DeMeritt stars as Wolfe, standing on a stage, wrestling with the fact that his wife has made a play – this play – about him and acknowledges a sort of silent communication with her, like he can her her whispering in his ear at certain times during this 80-minute drama. It’s one of those conventions of a solo play that has to address the fact that a person is alone on a stage talking for whatever reason. Except in this case, DeMeritt is playing Wolfe in a theater empty of audience but filled with cameras. Jasson Minadakis directs this co-production from Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre (in Maryland) of a play commissioned by MTC, and he keeps the camera work active. DeMeritt’s sharp, impassioned performance is captured with the actor delivering his focus directly into this camera, then turning to this camera on this line and back to that camera on that line. It looks like a stage performance, but it feels more like a carefully choreographed and edited movie (especially toward the end).

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For me, the most interesting aspect of the play is its glimpse into the science of viruses and what led Nathan into a world filed with words like zoonotic, eukaryote and prokaryote. The fact that viruses, as Nathan tells us, are the most abundant life form on the planet and that viruses are built into our DNA is startling, especially since we all have a newfound awareness (and fear … and loathing … and fear) of viruses. But this is more a play about a scientist – an “expert in a terrible thing” as he puts it – than it is about our current predicament.

At a certain point, Gunderson leaves the science and dives deeper into the personal – Nathan’s relationship with his dad, Nathan’s relationship to becoming a dad, Nathan facing his own health crisis – all of which is embodied with intensity and gusto by DeMeritt. But I found myself wanting to know more about what Nathan had to say about where we are, almost a year into this thing, and how we get out and what dangers still lie in store.This, however, is not a TED Talk. The real Dr. Wolfe has already done that (watch it here – it’s fantastic). And written a book and will likely do more of both in the future. This is a play about a complex, likable human with a wealth of knowledge and a job that sets him apart but who is also a son, a dad and a husband. We experience all of that here.

I’d still like to spend time with Nathan – real or fictional – to know more about where we are now, but perhaps that will be The Catastrophist: Act 2, performed when we can all be in the same room together and we can, at along last, feel like this particular catastrophe is in the past.

Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist is available for streaming in an extended run through July 25. Tickets for on-demand streaming are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Love doth evade Marin’s Shakespeare in Love

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Megan Trout is Viola de Lesseps and Adam Magill is Will Shakespeare in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1998 movie. Photo by Kevin Berne

The most produced play of the 2017-18 season, according to American Theatre magazine, is Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation (by Lee Hall) of the 1998 movie of the same name that is now (in)famous for being one of the first “success” stories of Harvey Weinstein’s battering ram-style Oscar campaigns. The movie picked up abundant awards, including best picture and best screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Then it took more than a decade and a half to find its way to the stage, and the results are disappointing. This should have been a musical, but apparently they couldn’t bear to cut any of the Stoppardian dialogue, so they just went the way of play with lots of music.

The Bay Area finally gets to see the show thanks to Marin Theatre Company, and while the cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s best actors – Stacy Ross, Lance Gardner, Megan Trout, Mark Anderson Phillips, L. Peter Callender – the production flails under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

I reviewed the production for Here’s a preview:

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by preeminent playwright Tom Stoppard (with Marc Norman), it seems only natural that a stage adaptation would eventually appear. What is surprising is that the play adaptation feels like it had aspirations to be a musical, with adapter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) wrestling it into a lumpy play with lots of music and retaining only some of the charm of the movie.

Director Jasson Minadakis goes for a stripped-down theater vibe with Shakespeare in Love at the Marin Theatre Company, with 13 actors playing around 30 roles and having them provide all of the musical accompaniment for Paddy Cunneen’s overactive score. That makes for a frenetic two-plus hours that offer only intermittent pleasures.

Read the full review here.

Shakespeare in Love continues through Dec. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Money trumps all in MTC’s fascinating Invisible Hand

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Kidnapped banker Nick Bright (Craig Marker, left) deals with his Pakistani kidnappers, Dar (Jason Kapoor, center) and Bashir (Pomme Koch) in the Marin Theatre Company production of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. Below: Nick, Dar and Bashir are visited by group leader Imam Saleem (Barzin Akhavan, seated). Photos by Kevin Berne

Marin Theatre Company concludes its 49th season with a play that is timely for this election cycle to be sure, but because its focus is on the powerful religion known as money, it’s really timely all the time.

The Invisible Hand by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced), is set in the Middle East, involves Muslim extremists and traffics in terrorism in the form of a potentially lucrative (and vengeful) kidnapping of American banker Nick Bright. But the most fascinating aspect of the drama is how incisively it cuts into what money (lots of it) does to human beings, whatever their cause or background. Akhtar takes a situation we think we know: an American employee of Citibank is kidnapped and held for $10 million ransom while he is working in Pakistan. The kidnappers, followers of a man named Imam Saleem, are attempting to bring some semblance of order back to their country after the U.S. has “raped and plundered” it and the government has failed its people utterly.

“This country has gone to hell because of people like my father wanting something better for themselves,” says a kidnapper whose family moved from Pakistan to the outskirts of London. It’s the same kidnapper who says he gave up a “soft life in the West” for something more meaningful, which, in this case, involves extorting money from the West to serve the people of Pakistan.

Nick, played by the always remarkable and relatable Craig Marker, was not the intended kidnap victim – the goal was someone higher up the corporate ladder – but he happens to be a catch because he’s a brilliant financier who knows how to turn money into more money through smart, not always scrupulous ways. That’s going to come in handy because the kidnappers have decided to put Nick to work. With access to a few million dollars, he is going to have 12 months to raise his own $10 million ransom by playing the market. The British-born kidnapper, Bashir (an excellent Pomme Koch), will serve as his chief assistant (and manage the laptop, which Nick isn’t allowed to touch).

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So from the confines of a mud and brick prison (set by Kat Conley), Nick and Bashir create their own little financial empire, with Nick providing a crash-course master class in manipulating the markets for his eager and able student.

What’s remarkable about this two-hour play, especially in its tighter first act, is how tense and exciting it can be two watch two guys moving money around on a laptop. Director Jasson Minadakis keeps the emotional stakes high and, with the compelling performances by Koch and Marker, turns what could be a dry class in international economics into a powerful dive into the corruptive and addictive nature of money.

We see Nick warn Bashir that making money can be intoxicating and that he needs to pull himself away from that rush. We also see Bashir ignore that advice. We also see that no matter how well intentioned or righteous a cause or a person might be, money and the power it brings can trump spirituality, morals and intelligence. Even leader Imam Saleem (a charismatic, enigmatic Barzin Akhavan) cannot remain immune from its corrosive power.

The second act, filled with shorter, choppier scenes, isn’t as effective as the first, but as things change and grow more desperate, the stage, ironically, becomes more beautiful as the lighting by York Kennedy effectively conveys stark loneliness and isolation through some stunning, almost painterly images.

Akhtar’s ending is less than satisfying if only because what has come before has been such an intelligently and dramatically wrought tangle of politics, finance and personal drama. The end comes too soon and lets the political take over, when that has been the least interesting aspect of the play.

Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand continues an extended run through July 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $10-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Faith, choices, colonialism collide in Marin’s gutsy Convert

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Chilford (Jabari Brisport, left) is thanked by Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter, kneeling) and her niece Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner) after he accepts Jekesai as his student and servant in exchange for her conversion to Catholicism. Mai Tamba’s son Tamba (JaBen Early, at rear) has serious doubts in the Bay Area premiere of Danai Gurira’s The Convert at Marin Theatre Company. BELOW: Prudence (Omoze Idehenre) gives the re-named Ester (Turner) advice about her studies in the language, religion and customs of the English settlers. Photos by Kevin Berne

For someone who kills zombies in her day job, Danai Gurira sure knows her way around a compelling drama. Best known as the kick-ass, Katana-wielding Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Gurira is also a playwright, an impressive one as it turns out based on her Bay Area debut with The Convert now at Marin Theatre Company.

This is a good, old-fashioned historical drama – three acts and nearly three hours – about the soul-crushing damage of colonialism and missionary zeal. What’s interesting is that The Convert is the second play to open in the Bay Area recently specifically addressing the colonizing of Africa by Europeans. In Just Theater’s We Are Proud to Present… (read about it here), it’s about Germans (and later the British) in Namibia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In The Convert, we’re dealing with the English running roughshod over Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in the late 19th century. Both stories, perhaps needless to say, end horribly for the native Africans.

Gurira’s Convert finds a land at the breaking point. The British, Dutch and Portugese have had a profound effect on local culture, the Shona people, seizing land and forcing many of the men to work in diamond mines for paltry pay and wreaking havoc with the native spirituality by aggressively converting Shona people to Christianity. Rebellion against the settlers began in the 1890s – when The Convert is set – and continued into the 1960s.

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The title character is Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner), a Shona woman who speaks no English but is in need of help from a local missionary, an African convert named Chilford (Jabari Brisport), who will save her from entering into an arranged marriage with a much older man is she agrees to open her heart to Jesus. Coached by her aunt, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter) to say yes to anything the missionary says, the young woman begins her conversion as a means of protection, but her agile mind and ferocious spirit are soon caught up in her conversion for real. She learns to speak English and becomes Chilford’s right hand when it comes to bringing locals into the church.

Colonialists and missionaries, it turns out, are blinded by a similar affliction: 100 percent certainty that everything they think and do is right and that the world owes them. The profound disrespect they show to “savages” has disastrous ramifications for all involved, not to mention the land, the cattle and anything else that can be thoughtlessly pillaged for profit. Gurira’s play is fueled by the conflict of traditional culture and spirituality being overtaken by foreign culture and spirituality. Jekesai, who is renamed Ester, represents the locus of the conflict, but Gurira gives us another fascinating woman who is torn in a different way.

Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), a Shona woman, was not only fully educated by the British, she turned out to be smarter than most of her teachers and is now more convincingly British than they are. She has a crisp accent and a powerful vocabulary, and she’s set to marry a local bigwig, the African Chancellor (Jefferson A. Russell). The interesting thing about Prudence, outfitted in starchy, confining British styles (costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt) is that she acutely feels how thoroughly she has turned her back on her own culture and people. She still speaks the local language when she can and encourages Ester to do the same. She’s also smart enough to know that what now separates her from her people will ultimately fail to connect her to the Europeans. She’s in between cultures and will likely be rejected by both.

Director Jasson Minadakis and his superb cast fill Nina Ball’s simple missionary home set with drama that comes from sharply defined characters and well-defined historical conflict. Turner as Jekesai/Ester is stunning, as is Idehenre as Prudence. Their characters are vivid and powerful and rich they almost need no supporting cast at all. But the supporting cast, which also includes JaBen Early and L. Peter Callender representing Shona men who resent the European influence and are preparing to to something about it, provides complex human beings rather than cardboard historical cut-outs.

It’s a bold move in our world of contemporary drama to present a long, three-act play. When so many playwrights are moving toward 90-minute (or less) one-acts, it’s refreshing to see a playwright go bold. The advantage of a three-act structure is the opportunity to fully draw in the audience and get them involved in the story. That certainly happens in The Convict, but I wasn’t convinced that the same couldn’t have happened in two acts. There are some slow patches in Act One, whereas acts Two and Three are full of action and emotion and consequence.

The Convert is a powerful drama, and as much as I love “The Walking Dead” (and especially as much as I love Michonne), it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Gurira to give up her day job and focus on being the kick-ass playwright she so clearly is.

Danai Gurira’s The Convert continues through March 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

A Whale of a (heartbreaking) tale in Marin

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Liz Sklar is Liz, a nurse and a friend, and Nicholas Pelczar is Charlie, a man who needs friends and nurses in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Charlie receives some help from a passing Mormon missionary (Adam Magill). Photos by Kevin Berne

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, now at Marin Theatre Company is a difficult play to watch. That description might not make you want to run out and buy a ticket, but hold on. Difficult doesn’t preclude greatness.

At first glance, the play, winner of MTC’s 2011 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize, involves a guy in a fat suit. Granted, it’s a really good fat suit (Christine Crook is the costume designer), but faking a 600-pound guy and watching an actual 600-pound guy are very different experiences. But here’s the thing: what actor Nicholas Pelczar brings to that suit is extraordinary.

He plays Charlie, a sweet-natured man stuck on his couch (which is raised and supported by cinder blocks) in a Northern Idaho town (the cramped, dingy set is by Michael Locher). He makes a living doing online tutorials, and his friend Liz (Liz Sklar), who happens to be a nurse, brings him junk food, makes cursory efforts to clean his outrageously filthy apartment and cares for his well being as best she can. It’s a losing battle, what with Charlie’s congestive heart failure and his utter unwillingness (not to mention lack of medical insurance) to consider a visit to the hospital.

Hunter, a savvy playwright whose A Bright New Boise was a wow at Aurora Theatre Company last fall (read that review here), focuses a lot of attention on Charlie’s heart. It’s a broken heart to be sure – the loss of his boyfriend years before precipitated his long, slow suicide by morbid obesity – but it’s a heart capable of tremendous compassion, for his faceless online students, for great writing, for the young daughter he essentially abandoned 15 years before. Physically, it’s no wonder that Charlie’s heart is giving out (we’re told at the top of the play that he’ll be dead by the weekend), but emotionally, it seems a man this lonely and this full of empathy would tax his heart in any condition.

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There are many intriguing layers to this tale, directed with a sure hand by Jasson Minadakis, and though it’s a sad, sad tale, there is also a fair amount of humor, much of it provided by the acidic teenage daughter, played by Cristina Oeschger, who reunites with her father only because she thinks there might be money in it for her.

Pelczar imbues Charlie’s gargantuan body (outfitted in sweatshirt and sweatpants so grimy they rival his sofa for the things you would most want to avoid contact with) with such feeling, that you immediately root for him, even though the odds are decidedly not in his favor. The wheezing, the strenuous effort to journey from the couch to the walker to the bathroom is arduous and hard to watch, but then there’s Pelczar’s sweet face or Charlie’s even sweeter nature there to remind you of the person underneath all that person. Charlie is not just sweet, either. He’s complicated. He’s a gay man who left his wife and child for a man and has sort of paid the price ever since. He had a great love, but that love broke him, and he’s constantly apologizing. He’s on a rough road, and the compassion and empathy he feels for the world rarely comes back to him.

There’s a flash of kindness from an unlikely friend when a Mormon missionary happens by Charlie’s apartment just as Charlie is in the grip of a scary heart incident. Elder Thomas (Adam Magill) wants desperately to believe his faith can actually help someone and he sees Charlie as perhaps his last chance. But Charlie has a tricky relationship with the Mormon Church, and the nature of that relationship is used as a sort of plot-propelling mystery.

The supporting cast, which also includes Michelle Maxson as Ellie’s at-the-end-of-her-rope mom, is fantastic and fits into the docu-drama world of Hunter’s play with ease. There are moments, especially when the playwright bangs the Moby Dick drum a little hard, when the stark realism veers dangerously close to melodrama, but pitfalls are avoided.

The Whale is a tragedy that ennobles a good man. It’s difficult and challenging but also uniquely beautiful.

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale continues through Oct. 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

MTC’s Failure blends death, music and whimsy

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Gertrude Fail (Megan Smith, left) and her clocks (Liz Sklar on ukelele, Patrick Kelly Jones on bass and Kathryn Zdan on kalimba) are surprised by the entrance of the debonair Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon) in the West Coast premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Time marches on for the Fail Sisters – Jenny June (Sklar, left), Gertrude (Smith, center) and Nelly (Zdan) – with musical accompaniment from Mortimer Mortimer (Herndon on trombone) and John N. Fail (Jones on snare). Photos by Kevin Bern

Philip Dawkins writes about the inevitable ending of all our stories in Failure: A Love Story, but his version of death is pretty darn upbeat. His beguiling play, now having its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company

, is technically a “play with music,” but there’s a LOT of music, and it’s charmingly played and sung by the five-person cast. I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Dawkins’ premise seems to be that there’s no such thing as a truly happy ending. We can all live happily ever after – until we die. So what matters is how we live. Why not sing “In the Good Old Summertime” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” while we wait?

That’s certainly what the Fail family does. It’s the early part of the 20th century, and Ma and Pa Fail have already succumbed to a terrible accident involving a new DeSoto and the Chicago River, leaving their four children to fend for themselves.

Some 13 years later, it’s 1928, the year we’re told in the show’s crisp narrative style that all three Fail sisters will die. Sounds dark and depressing – it’s anything but.

Read the full review here.

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Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story continues through June 29 at Marin Theatre Company, 391 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37 to $58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Fifty shades of Wonder in Marin Theatre Co.’s Lasso

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Liz Sklar (left) as The Amazon and Jessa Brie Moreno as The Wife in the world premiere of Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Lauren English is The Girl and John Riedlinger is The Guy with one of over 200 illustrations by Jacob Stoltz in the background. Photos by Kevin Berne

You’re bound to like Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth if you like Wonder Woman…and a heaping helping of S&M on the side.

If you didn’t know the two were related, first of all, think about it for a minute (the golden lasso, the bustier, the metal bracelets, etc.), and second of all, boy has Kreitzer got an origin story for you. Commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, the play is part of the National New Play Network, which means this is what they call a “rolling world premiere.” The show begins in Mill Valley then heads to Atlanta and Kansas City.

So where did Wonder Woman come from (and we’re not talking about Paradise Island, home of the Amazons)? For many of us, she sprung fully formed in the 1970s looking like the stunning Lynda Carter in a patriotic bathing suit and gold accessories. That famous TV show is actually a jumping-off point for Kreitzer’s play.

She has a contemporary woman (Lauren English) telling the audience about a great betrayal in her life. As a lifelong fan of Wonder Woman (spurred by Carter and the TV show), she was horrified to learn that the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was, in her words a “perv.”

From the present, we jump into the past to explore Marston’s so-called perversion. In the years leading up to Wonder Woman’s first comic book appearance in 1941, Marston, a psychologist and academic (and inventor of an early version of the polygraph), was shucking convention. An admirer of strong, beautiful women, he was married to just such a woman, and he’s often seen sitting at her feet, looking up at her adoringly while she strokes his hair as if he were a prize poodle. But then Marston’s research assistant entered the picture, and then she really entered the picture. Marston, his wife and his mistress crafted a polyamorous relationship that led to a bundle of children and relationships within the triangle that could handle the deepest, darkest explorations of S&M, bondage and erotically charged, emotionally fraught exchanges of power.

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It’s fascinating stuff, and Kreitzer, working with director Jasson Minadakis, does something quite extraordinary here in that she handles what really amounts to an exploration of unconventional sexuality with sensitivity and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor. It could be pretty deadly watching grown-ups explore their sexuality with ropes on a stage, but all of that is handled well. Nicholas Rose as Marston (here called “The Inventor”), Jessa Brie Moreno as his wife and Liz Sklar as the girlfriend (who, it’s worth mentioning, bears a passing resemblance to Lynda Carter) create dimensional characters prone to candor, enthusiasm and risky exploration. Sklar, it turns out, is also a whiz with knots.

The 2 1/2-hour show feels long in stretches. In Act 1, when the action shifts from the Marston triangle to English and her quest to find the original comic in which Wonder Woman first appears, these scenes feel like a distraction. She’s tangling with a geeky comic book store clerk (John Riedlinger) about the comic, about feminism, about her sense of betrayal with Marston’s real-life proclivities. But these scenes, despite the charms of English and Riedlinger, come off as strident and shallow.

But by Act 2, the contemporary scenes have become more interesting as our modern duo explores an actual relationship, and their characters emerge more strongly. In this act, the distractions come from a too-often repeated gimmick of darkening the theater and having the actors making sexy talk into microphones as they negotiate (sometimes with humor) the games they’d like to play. There’s also a goofy lie-detector machine on stage in Act 2 that looks like a reject from Forbidden Planet and is just a little too silly.

Other technical aspects of the show are marvelous. Annie Smart’s set provides efficient sliding panels to effectively frame the video designs by Kwame Braun and the terrific graphic art by Jacob Stoltz that never lets us forget that we’re firmly in the world of comic books. There are also some very funny videos involving Gloria Steinem (as played by Moreno), who was a Wonder Woman champion and put her on the cover of Ms. magazine’s inaugural issue in 1972.

The past and the present do come together eventually, but Kreitzer doesn’t seem to know how or where to end the play, which stutters its way to a conclusion. The impression she gives us of Marston (an endearing idealist who believed a comic book character could end war and bring about utopia) and the powerful women in his life is quite a strong one. That they all contributed in some way toward the creation of a positive role model for girls and women is clear, but the punch of their story ends with a pow rather than POW!

[bonus interview]
I talked with Lasso of Truth playwright Carson Kreitzer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth continues through March 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Take it on faith: see Marin’s Whipping Man

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Tobie Windham (left) is John, L. Peter Callender (center) is Simon and Nicholas Pelczar is Caleb in the Bay Area premiere of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Below: Windham’s John and Pelczar’s Caleb fall into the chaos of life after the Civil War. Photos by Kevin Berne

If Matthew Lopez were a miner, he could brag that he uncovered a rich mineral vein of enormous wealth, both cultural and commercial. But Lopez isn’t a miner. He’s a playwright, and though there are similarities to be sure, what Lopez brings to the surface in his fascinating play The Whipping Man is a mostly untold chapter of American history with deep spiritual resonance.

Lopez, whom Bay Area audiences met earlier this year when his play Somewhere ran at TheatreWorks, is a young playwright of note. The Whipping Man is the play that first brought him notice, and it receives its Bay Area premiere courtesy of Marin Theatre Company and co-producer Virginia Stage Company and in association with San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

The great thing about this co-production is that we are on the latter half of it, which means the cast of Bay Area actors – L. Peter Callender, Nicholas Pelczar and Tobie Windham, all of whom start out being at the top of their game – have had the benefit of a full run in Virginia and extra rehearsal in Marin with director Jasson Minadakis. The result is a riveting two hours of finely tuned performances so in sync with one another the play is elevated to an astonishing level of immediacy and impact.

Act 1 is mostly set-up, as we meet wounded Confederate soldier Caleb (Pelczar) returning to his family’s decimated Richmond, Va., plantation (the ruins of set is by Kat Conley) in mid-April, 1865. The Civil War is over, and though Caleb is thrilled and relieved to meet Simon (Callender), one of his family’s slaves, there’s a new tension between them, especially when Caleb orders Simon to do something instead of asks – as if he were still the owner and Simon still the property.

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With the arrival of John (Windham), another former slave from the estate, the trio is complete, although John brings with him a whole lot of uncertainty. He’s been looting the neighboring plantations, and there’s something he’s not telling. There are, in fact, secrets all around, but there are two pieces of business that need to be addressed more immediately.

The first is Caleb’s leg would – he was shot in the Battle of Petersburg, the final humiliation of four years at war. Simon recognizes gangrene and knows decisive action must be taken to save Caleb’s life. The other issue is Passover. Caleb’s family is Jewish, and the slaves raised on the plantation have also been raised Jewish, so Passover is a major holiday. Simon and John are up for improvising a Seder, though Caleb’s war experience has led him to a crisis of faith.

There’s more juicy drama packed into Act 1 involving emancipation, romance and betrayal, but the real heart of The Whipping Man emerges in Act 2 when the three men begin the ritual of the Passover Seder, and the words about being freed from the bonds of slavery take on even deeper meaning, and the ritual quickly becomes raw emotion.

These extraordinary scenes also beg certain questions, like how is it that Jews in the South had slaves? It’s a fact that they did, but how did a people whose freedom from slavery in Egypt has become a touchstone in their religion, reconcile that with actually owning slaves? And feeling the power of the Passover ritual acted out in those confusing, exciting, dangerous post-war days also exposes the absence of a dignified commemoration or ritual in this country’s relationship with the end of slavery. How do we go from generation to generation ensuring that the enslavement of one people by another never happens again?

Well, theater is ritual, so in a way, The Whipping Man serves a purpose greater than an evening’s entertainment. Lopez is a compassionate writer, and his characters – even the touchy John – are full of complex emotions and, in spite of obvious obstacles, a strong sense of family and kinship to one another.

All three actors are superb, but Callender just ignites the play in Act 2. His Simon conducts the Seder as if it’s the first time such a service has ever been held, with every word and gesture infused with meaning and spiritual connection. It’s a beautiful performance.

On one level, The Whipping Man is a thoroughly enjoyable Civil War melodrama, on another, it’s a much more significant glimpse into the nature of faith and how it connects us and into the upheaval of great historical moments and what we do – or fail to do – in their wake.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Matthew Lopez for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man continues an extended run through April 28 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Marin’s Godot and the impression we exist

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Mark Bedard (left) is Vladimir and Mark Anderson Phillips is Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, now at Marin Theatre Company. Below: James Carpenter (left) as Pozzo and Ben Johnson as Lucky complicate the barren landscape. Photos by Kevin Berne

I suspect Samuel Beckett knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Waiting for Godot and left more questions unanswered than answered. The less specific you are, the more your audience members project their own business onto the characters and their situation.

The world Beckett creates could be the depressed past or the post-apocalyptic future. He could be writing about God and religion or about the hell of human existence. His main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, could be clowns or tragic figures or both. It’s all up for discussion, open for interpretation. Everything is symbolic or nothing is symbolic and just is what it is and the population has increased. And that’s the genius of Beckett and the joy of his most famous play.

The first time you experience Godot is often the best (if you’re fortunate enough to see a solid production). My first time – and to consider this a theatrical deflowering is not at all inappropriate – was in the early ’90s on a stage in the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s skeevy Tenderloin neighborhood. Dennis Moyer was directing for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred John Robb and Joe Bellan in the leads, with a mind-blowingly brilliant Dan Hiatt as Lucky. This production demonstrated to me just how transcendent Beckett could be: funny and sad at the same time, crude and enlightened, bleak and hopeful. So many contradictions in one theatrical experience and yet so completely entertaining and moving.

That production is my high-water mark for Godot (although I love the original cast recording with Burt Lahr as Estragon and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir: click here to download on Amazon for a mere $3.56). I’ve seen productions since that I liked, but not one I loved as much as the first time.

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But the current production at Marin Theatre Company directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis comes pretty close. Mark Anderson Phillips as Estragon and Mark Bedard as Vladimir are, in a word, adorable. Should these crusty characters be adorable? Why not? Both of them at various times reminded me of dogs (and I noticed for the first time just how many canine references there are in the play), and sometimes Phillips even sounds like Scooby-Doo. Their clowning is inspired, but it’s all done with heart. I really liked these guys, who affectionately call each other Gogo and Didi, and that affection only magnifies their plight.

And just what is their plight? Living life is the short answer. Killing time. Waiting for whatever or whoever it is with the power to suddenly make their lives better, more interesting or somehow more meaningful. Vladimir, who tends to be more of an optimist than Estragon, says about life: “We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it…In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”

Much of Godot is about staving off boredom or at least creating the illusion of activity or some kind of momentum through the world. Waiting is, after all, an activity, and an exhausting one at that. It can even be exhausting just to watch men waiting, although in the hands of talented actors like the ones on the MTC stage, it’s also entertaining.

Phillips and Bedard make a captivating tragicomic duo. There’s real chemistry between them, and it’s easy to see why, even though they talk constantly of separating, they can never part. In this day and age, you could see how Didi and Gogo might be poster children for same-sex marriage minus the sex (which is what makes it marriage, ba dum bum). They’re partners in the futility, frustrations and occasional fun of life, and we root for them, not necessarily to succeed, which seems a tall order, but at least to rise above the misery and tedium from time to time. There are little details in their performances that are priceless, like Bedard’s penguin-like shuffle and the way Phillips keeps buttoning and unbuttoning a top button on his coat even though there is no button.

When James Carpenter and Ben Johnson arrive as Pozzo, a master, and Lucky, a slave, respectively. The play takes a decidedly darker turn. Both Carpenter and Johnson are in fright makeup. Carpenter looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie (the red hair is a nice touch) and Johnson looks like a member of the Addams Family.

But the show belongs to Phillips and Bedard, two lovably sad guys being human under bleak but not impossible circumstances. I do find myself wondering, though, where their clothes and bowler hats came from, where they shower (if they do) and how they subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots and black radishes. Clearly, they live in a world that still puts a lot of faith in the Bible (there are lots of references), and down the road there’s apparently some sort of fair where Pozzo was going to sell Lucky but ends up blinded (and Lucky is rendered mute). It’s a strange in-between world Beckett has created, a time-bending absurdist purgatory built for entertainment and, if you’re in the frame of mind, enlightenment. The simple but expert design certainly helps (clean, bright lighting by York Kennedy, barren tree and rock landscape by set designer Liliana Duque Pineiro, tattered suits by costumer Maggie Whitaker).

Seeing Godot in 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about a comment a friend made recently: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll have my iPhone with me, and when you have an iPhone, you always have a friend.” Perhaps we should start calling our smart phones and tablets Didi or Gogo. They’re our newest defense against boredom, our electronic shield from the great void of simply existing and a powerful illusion that we’re actually connected to other people and a way to masque the howling of existential angst.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Othello: not a fan but a grudging admirer

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Craig Marker (left) is Iago and Aldo Billingslea is Othello in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. Below: Billingslea with Mairin Lee as Desdemona. Photos by David Allen.

When faced with the prospect of seeing another production of Othello, I usually gird my loins, wipe my nose with a strawberry-embroidered hanky and settle in for a show I know I’m not going to like much. As a theater critic, I suppose I’m not supposed to have a bias for or against certain plays, but that’s really nonsensical when you think about it, especially plays you’ve seen over and over and over again. I’ve been doing the theatrical criticism thing for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen Desdemona choked (and choked and choked again) a number of times, in good productions and bad. And I’ve never really been moved by the play. Certain performances made an impact, but more on an intellectual than emotional level.

Perhaps I should have skipped the latest Othello at Marin Theatre Company, but the prospect of seeing two actors I admire greatly, Aldo Billingslea and Craig Marker as Othello and Iago respectively, was too much to resist. I have to say I’m glad I saw the production because these two formidable local talents do not disappoint. Watching Billingslea transform from noble warrior to blushing groom to murderous, jealousy-enraged monster is captivating. And Marker’s boyish earnestness somehow makes Iago even more coldhearted than usual. Even from behind a scruffy beard, Marker can’t escape a look of innocence that contrasts sharply with the evil spewing from his lips.

Billingslea and Marker perform a beautifully calibrated duet of provocation and victimization that erupts into a finale can’t help but satisfy when Othello realizes what a tool he’s been and Iago is exposed for the inveterate villain he really is.

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What gets me about Othello is that until that final section when all the plot machinations start to take hold and the bodies start to drop, I really couldn’t care less about any of it. The motivations, the exposition, the supposed justifications for the coming blood bath – it’s all just so much rumbling to me, and none of it really adds to the final act, which would still have a visceral impact without any of it.

So while I’m slogging through the first two-plus hours of the nearly three-hour MTC production directed by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, I have time to notice the set by J.B. Wilson. It’s two towers of a battlement connected by a wooden walkway with half of a big stone sphere visible between the two towers. The more I looked at the set, the more I realized what it reminded me of: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the sphere is like that giant boulder that nearly steamrollers over Indy in the opening sequence. And the lighting by Kurt Landisman is distinctive as well – very dark and shadowy like Shakespeare noir…or a really moody new restaurant in a hip Cypress neighborhood.

Fight director Dave Maier gets some vigorous sword fighting out of the cast, who hold swords in one hand and mini-shields in the other, so there’s lots of satisfying clanging going on. Speaking of the cast, the supporting players who impressed me most were Liz Sklar as Aemilia, Desdemona’s lady in waiting. Aemilia is such an impressive woman – so powerful, loyal and forthright. You have to wonder what she’s doing with a slime bag like Iago. Anyway, also good in the supporting cast are Nicholas Pelczar as Rodorigo and an underused Dan Hiatt as Desdemona’s pissed-off father. The other players were uneven and often seemed out of their depth with the Shakespearean language.

In spite of all the good things, this is still Othello, a play that tests my patience. In the end, this Othello left me wanting, as so many other productions have, wanting ever so much (you should pardon the expression) Moor.


Shakespeare’s Othello continues through April 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit