SF Playhouse explores Art on stage on film

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The cast of Art at San Francisco Playhouse features a three-man cast: Serge (Johnny Moreno), Marc (Jomar Tagatac), and Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari). Below: The dispute over the white painting between Marc, Yvan, and Serge reaches a tipping p oint. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The Bay Area theater scene has been short on excitement, understandably, these last seven months. So it’s beyond thrilling news when a theater company, in this case San Francisco Playhouse announces a new play on an actual stage with actors acting together on a set that has been designed and lit, with nary a Zoom square to be seen. The only hitch, given this pandemical hellscape in which we find ourselves, is that the production is filmed and shared online. So the actors still can’t hear our laughs, our gasps, our sobs and, perhaps most importantly, our applause.

But, as we’ve all learned, we will happily take what we can get, and this SF Playhouse offering is special and so very welcome – a bold first step back to production. It seems every conceivable precaution has been taken to make it seem as if actors acting on a stage together is an absolutely normal thing (even though we know, in these times, it is absolutely not).

The choice of plays was smart: Bill English, Playhouse co-founder and artistic director, opted for Art by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), a mid-’90s crowd pleaser that deftly slices apart the very notion of friendship among men under the guise of an argument over an expensive piece of modern art. The play has three actors, and though we see each of the characters’ apartments, the set is less important than the people themselves along with, of course, the large piece of art that is either the work of a great modernist or an almost entirely white canvas that has no more merit than a piece of printer paper.

As director and set designer, English opts to be as theatrical as he can (the center of the set spins wildly when the scene changes) while delivering straightforward performances for the cameras. The result is an artful, angry, absolutely compelling work of Art that loses little in its transition to video.

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It would appear that the 15-year friendship between Serge (Johnny Moreno), Marc (Jomar Tagatac) and Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari) is much as it ever was. They are in and out of each other’s lives – though not as often as they used to be – with occasional meals or movies. But how close are they really, and have their friendships evolved and changed along with the men and their lives over those 15 years? That’s the real question, and it’s only after Serge spends $200,000 on a mostly white painting by a supposedly great artist, that fissures in the relationships begin to show and widen.

Marc thinks the painting is utter bullshit and doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion with Serge, who is deeply wounded by his friend’s harsh judgment and closed mind. Each accuses the other of having lost his sense of humor, and that’s when the more hapless Yvan, whose life has not gone well either professionally or romantically, gets sucked into to choose sides.

It’s not long before the feud over the artwork gives way to much deeper issues among the trio of friends, and how you react to their truths, hurts and insults is a lot like a theatrical Rorscharch test. Do you feel sorry for Yvan for being spineless but respect his self-awareness and his reliance on professional help? Do you admire Serge’s intellect and his willingness to embrace something he loves even if it means losing his friends? Or perhaps you side with Marc as we watch illusions about the person he thought he was shatter, and he has to face the harsh truth of middle-aged self.

Playwright Reza gives you ample reason to like or loathe each of these men, and as dark or as pretentious or as pathetic as things get, there’s always darkly satirical humor adding gas to the flames. It’s an especially nice touch when a Roman philosopher becomes a weapon in a funny “projectile Seneca” scene.

The actors attack this spiky material with gusto, and each provides glimpses of both man and monster in his character. It’s interesting to watch their civility deteriorate and revert to something much more primal and more realistically human. Reza softens the ragged, damaging edges of her play with an unnecessary epilogue of sorts, but it’s also kind of nice to leave these characters in an emotionally warmer, more grounded place than we initially found them.

Happily, this Art doesn’t feel like a placeholder until we can gather again. It is a substantial work that satisfies – not as much as it would in person – and helps us feel connected to live theater, even though technically, it’s neither of those things. But it’s close and it’s good and it leaves its hungry audience wanting more.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
Yasmina Reza’s Art continues streaming through Nov. 7. Tickets are $15-$100. Visit sfplayhouse.org for information.

Vietgone at ACT

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Quang (James Seol, front) and friend Nhan (Stephen Hu, back) embark on a motorcycle trip from Arkansas to California in Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. Below: Two hippies (Cindy Im, left, and Jomar Tagatac) smoke a joint. Photos by Kevin Berne

I reviewed Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone, an American Conservatory Theater production at The Strand Theatre, for Theatermania.com. Here’s an excerpt:

From the start, Nguyen attempts to defy expectations when he has an actor pretending to be him (Jomar Tagatac) tell the audience what they’re about to see. Even though the play begins with the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War and has a great deal to do with that conflict, he says this is a play about love, not war. Specifically, it’s a love story about two people who resemble his parents but are definitely not his parents. He also describes how characters will be speaking. The Vietnamese characters will not speak with the kind of Asian accents we’re too used to hearing on stage or screen. Rather, these characters will speak in a hip, urban lingo more akin to today than 1975 when most of the play’s action takes place. The American characters will speak in explosions of stereotypical nonsense involving words like “NASCAR,” “Botox,” “freckles,” and, of course, “cheeseburger.” This introduction builds an excitement that slowly dwindles throughout Act 1.

Read the full review here.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION
Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone continues through April 22 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$90 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Sisters’ paths diverge in Crowded Fire’s You for Me for You

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In her attempt to cross the North Korean border, Minhee (Kathryn Han) finds herself on a mystical journey of memory where even the trees have ears. Along the way she encounters various characters played by Jomar Tagatac (right) in Mia Chung’s You for Me for You at the Potrero Stage. Below: In a world turned upside down, bears (Julian Green) and frogs roam free, and a peculiar government official (Tagatac) may or may not be the key to Minhee’s (Han) search for her son. Photos by Pak Han

Sort of an Alice in Wonderland for our topsy-turvy times, Mia Chung’s You for Me for You takes us through a very specific lookingglass: a refugee’s experience attempting to flee North Korea.

Like any good leap of imagination, this one begins grounded in reality. Sisters Junhee (Grace Ng) and Minhee (Kathryn Han) live a hardscrabble life of menial office work (Junhee) and illness (Minhee) brought on by malnutrition. Repeated trips to a government doctor result in meaningless red pills and, ultimately, frustration and a small act of defiance that pushes the fearful sisters to want to attempt a crossing into South Korea.

From there the play gets wacky as the sisters’ paths diverge. Minhee falls down a well, goes through a small door she finds in the wall and attempts to sort out her life and relationships with her young son and missing husband in a sort of slow-motion dream-state North Korea. Meanwhile, Junhee makes it to America, where time moves much more quickly, she gets a job as a hospital orderly, acclimates herself to American life and meets a nice man from the South.

In the Crowded Fire Theater production now at the Potrero Stage (the newly and beautifully refurbished – and climate controlled! – space formerly known as Thick House), the sisters’ journey plays out in about 90 engaging minutes, with the characters around the sisters adding a sense of whimsy and emotional heft to their separate journeys. Director M. Graham Smith establishes a world where anything can happen with a stage dominated by set designer Maya Linke’s tattered and battered honeycomb sculpture. One minute we’re in a well where Minhee meets a talking frog, and the next, we’re at the American border, where Junhee interacts with a customs agent speaking English the way she hears it, which is to say, like garbled nonsense.

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While Minhee’s time in the well/North Korea is dark and emotionally fraught as she tries to locate her 10-year-old son (who may or may not be dead) and her husband (who may or may not be dead), Junhee’s time in New York is brighter, louder, brasher (and, for the audience, a whole lot more fun).

Minhee’s emotional journey is populated by oddballs, brokering bureaucrats, fellow wanderers and mysterious old women in the woods, and they’re all played by the wonderful Jomar Tagatac. Sinister and funny, Tagatac’s creations are among the play’s best, and the tone of dark whimsy gets deadly serious during one of his character’s litany of horrors suffered at the hands of the North Korean government.

In New York, Junhee encounters many different women – hospital patients, fellow workers from the ICU, a therapist, the hospital HR rep – and they’re all played by Elissa Beth Stebbins, who conquers the daunting task of having to speak the garbled English that Junhee hears when she first arrives. As her time in the U.S. progresses, we understand more and more of the English, but, happily, Stebbins’ performances just keep getting brighter and funnier and more pointed.

Charismatic Julian Green straddles both worlds. In North Korea he’s a talking bear, and in New York, he’s Wade, the man from Alabama, who charms Junhee, though she is compelled to keep him in the friend zone.

The contrast between the sisters’ experience is pointed, and though there were some pacing issues at Monday’s opening-night performance, You for Me for You is a rich, imaginative exploration of the refugee experience from two very different points of view. We also get, thanks to Ng and Han, a strong sense of the sisters’ devotion to one another. The humor and the wonderland-ish tone keep the play buoyant, but a grim sense of sacrifice, pain and dissociation looms to keep a fantastical telling grounded in reality.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mia Chung’s You for Me for You continues through April 1 at Potrero Stage (formerly Thick House), 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 ext 1 or visit
www.crowdedfire.org.

Simple command: Catch Caught. Now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uneven tone tilts ACT’s Monstress double bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life, death and a ’70s groove in Magic’s Happy Ones

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Bao (Jomar Tagatac, right) and Walter (Liam Craig) form a unique relationship in Julie Marie Myatt’s The Happy Ones at Magic Theatre. Below: Craig (left) and Gabriel Marin as Gary marvel at the perfection of their Southern California lives. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

At first the music is loud and fun. Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” seems like the perfect audio accompaniment to a grown-up birthday party scene set in a Garden Grove, Califorina, suburban home circa 1975, where the swimming pool gleams and the neighbors all swing with martinis well in hand.

Then tragedy strikes, and there’s silence. The SoCal dream life suddenly has no fitting accompaniment…until it does, and that sound comes from another part of the planet – Vietnam to be exact. There’s a smattering of Creedence, of Paul Simon and Randy Newman. And when the good-time music returns, it’s in the form of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” but the “living the dream” moment has passed, and it’s time for new songs and new chapters.

That’s the story of The Happy Ones, an achingly beautiful play by Julie Marie Myatt now at Magic Theatre. Of course there’s a lot more to the play than the songs and the sound design, but they acutely underscore the emotional ups and downs in director Jonathan Moscone’s shrewdly observed and deeply felt production.

That this is a play about grief shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing it. There’s a lot of comedy packed into the two-hour drama, some of it from the acuity of mid-’70s details in Erik Flatmo’s set and Christine Crook’s costumes. Some of it from the notion that sometimes, when life is at its bleakest, all you can do is laugh.

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For protagonist Walter Wells (played with spaniel-like charm by Liam Craig), life is so good he can’t quite believe it. The house, the family, the hardware store he owns, the fun-loving friends, the pool – it’s all so dazzling, Walter can’t quite take it in. Standing outside the Unitarian Universalist Church where his best friend Gary (Gabriel Marin) is the minister, Walter says, “Beautiful women. Beautiful children. Great neighbors. Fantastic jobs. Gorgeous weather.” To which, Gary replies, “Praise God.” And Walter adds, “Praise California…Seriously. This is the dream right here. We got it.”

Such dreams have a way of not lasting. In a way, after everything collapses in on him, Walter remains caught in a world he can’t quite fathom. Just as the good life bedazzled and stunned him, so does grief. Gary can’t reach him, and neither can Gary’s girlfriend, the neighborhood divorcee and busybody, Mary-Ellen (a wonderfully overwhelming and gorgeous Marcia Pizzo). The only person who can cut through Walter’s numbness is a man linked to Walter’s tragedy, a complete stranger named Bao Ngo, a Vietnamese immigrant who was a doctor in his native land, and after the war has found himself far from home working nights in a suburban bakery.

Played with humor, dignity and tenderness by Jomar Tagatac, Bao is an unlikely savior, but what’s really interesting is that Walter turns out to be just as much a savior to Bao, though his unconventional methods include onion dip and barbecued steak with baked potatoes. Sometimes the American dream is only accessible if you can eat it.

The Happy Ones makes for a poignant journey and a nostalgic one if you happened to be alive in the ’70s. The ongoing quest for happiness as a destination (or even as an American birthright) hasn’t changed much in almost 40 years, which is probably why the unlikely relationship between Walter and Bao, bound by loss and grief and the darkest that life has to offer, is so moving. And it’s definitely why Myatt’s play, in its fleeting moments of happiness and hope, is so inspiring.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Julie Marie Myatt for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Julie Marie Myatt’s The Happy Ones continues through April 21 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$62. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.