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.

Tense, riveting Brothers from Crowded Fire

I Call My Brothers
Denmo Ibrahim is Tyra, Amor’s grandmother and one of many people surrounding Amor (Shoresh Alaudini) in his time of need in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. Below: The cast of Brothers includes, from left, Olivia Rosaldo, Mohammad Shehata, Alaudini and Ibrahim. Photos by Pak Han

Not much happens in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers, a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House. But then again, everything happens.

This is a mostly subterranean drama, which is to say, a little happens on the surface – a young man goes about his day running errands and interacting with friends and family – but a whole lot more is happening in his thoughts, his imagination, his paranoia. There’s a fragmented feeling to this 75-minute drama, and that’s reflected in the sculptural set design by Adeline Smith depicting what looks like a frozen explosion – all sharp, jagged edges – hovering just above the performance space.

Having that kind of visual energy dominating the space (and beautifully lit by Beth Hersh) makes sense for several reasons. In the play, set in a big New York-ish city, there has been a car bomb explosion in the heart of the metropolis, so the frozen explosions make sense in terms of that plot point. But it also lends an ominous, potentially dangerous tone as we explore the mental state of Amor, the young man, played with captivating intensity by Shoresh Alaudini.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the possibility that Amor, because of what he looks like, because of the keffiyeh he wears around his neck, because of the color of his skin, because of his name, because of his big backpack, because of his cultural and religious background, will be suspected of being a terrorist. A repeated set of instructions to Amor and his brothers is to lie low, blend in and not draw attention (but try not to appear like you’re not trying to draw attention). So even the simplest thing, like going to the hardware store to replace a drill head, becomes fraught with tension. At least it does for Amor, who has a very active mind.

I Call My Brothers

One of the most interesting things about this play is that Khemiri, an admired Swedish playwright and novelist, blends something extreme and terrifying (like being considered a terrorist when you’re just a citizen going about your day) with the turmoil and drama of being a young man who has family issues (his dad has returned, with other family members, to the country he was born in) and romantic obsessions (he is in love with a childhood friend who does not return his affections beyond their friendship). As we spend time with Amor and get used to the way his mind flips back and forth in time and between fantasy and reality, we get that he’s incredibly intelligent, big hearted and rather unstable. That instability poses a constant threat that he might give in to his fantasies or succumb to the pressure (real or imagined) of being a dangerous criminal and do something stupid and/or dangerous (he does have an old knife in his pocket).

That tension is part of what propels director Evren Odcikin’ compelling, superbly acted production. The four-person cast brings focused energy that allows Alaudini’s Amor to remain the center of the action while surrounding him with key shadings of humor, reality, fantasy, danger and, ultimately, connection. Denmo Ibrahim is powerful in two key roles: a cousin who has embraced spirituality and a grandmother who provides solace. Olivia Rosaldo shines as a voice on the phone trying to get Amor to support animal rights but who turns out to be something more and as Valeria, Amor’s unrequited love. Mohammad Shehata is Amor’s best friend, Shavi, a guy who’s mostly talk until he marries and has a daughter. In many ways, Shavi – annoying and jittery and lovable – is the heart of the story, the person with the best chance of getting through to Amor and pulling him out of his head.

The play doesn’t seem to go anywhere, really, but in the end, Amor has undertaken quite a journey and ends his long, challenging day in a different, potentially more powerful headspace if only because he is less alone.

Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers continues through April 23 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Visit for information.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[bonus interview]

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


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