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.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
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 marintheatre.org.

Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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Lauren English (left) is Harmony, Khary L. Moye (center) is Brooke and Anthony Fusco is Leonard in Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere audio play The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.

Sitting in the intimate Aurora Theatre watching great actors close up is one of the great treats of Bay Area theater. Even though we can’t be together in that space for a while, the Aurora crew is still storytelling in its inimitably intimate way: with a world-premiere audio play by three Bay Area writers. The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector is delivered in three installments. Parts 1 and 2 have already been released, and Part 3 comes out Nov. 6. All three episodes will then be available for streaming, which is good, because you likely won’t be able to listen to just one.

Plays on the radio used to be a regular thing. I even have original cast recordings of Broadway plays. But somehow, this most rewarding theatrical form has faded from mainstream popularity, though audiobooks and podcasts have admirably carried the audio drama mantle in various ways. What’s rewarding about The Flats (of which I’ve heard two of the three episodes) involves three excellent actors – Lauren English, Khary L. Moye and Anthony Fusco – and an intoxicating blend of tension, humor and substance.

Set in Berkeley, the play capitalizes on the dis-ease with which we’ve all become acutely acquainted these last seven months. But in this world, there’s not a global pandemic, but rather something much scarier and more intriguing. I won’t say what it is because that’s part of the fun. But suffice it to say that citizens are experiencing tight government quarantining, with certain liberties allowed here and there. Grocery stores are sorely understocked, and fresh produce is scant. In one particular triplex, three residents – well, two residents and the owner, who suddenly shows up in the vacant unit – are stuck at home with only their neighbors to distract them from the … situation.

Harmony (English) is escaping her troubled marriage and, consequently, her children. Brooke (Moye) is a bit more enigmatic but offers his landlord one of the most intriguing housewarming gifts ever: caterpillars that will soon become butterflies. And Leonard (Fusco) is a drug-taking old Berkeley hippie with his own radio show and a number of conspiracy theories that might not all be preposterous. It’s an uneasy mix of personalities, of course (hard to have drama without tension), and in addition to the stress of what’s going on in the world, this trio is also dealing with issues of race and relationships and earth-shattering revelations.

Director Josh Costello, ably abetted by composer/sound designer Elton Bradman, creates a wonderfully detailed sonic world in which you really feel like you’re with these people, and the actors deliver marvelously detailed performances that create vivid images of the characters and their states of mind.

There’s much more to say about this audio drama, but the fewer details you have, the richer your experience amid the scintillating heights of The Flats.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Single tickets for The Flats are available for $20 here, along with season memberships. The final (of three) episode of The Flats drops Nov. 6. Afterward, all three episodes will be available for streaming.

TheatreFirst reveals short, powerful HeLa

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Day and Henrietta Lacks (Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon) in happier days before Henrietta’s illness in the TheatreFirst world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa at Berkeley’s Black Oak Theatre. Below: A scientist (Akemi Okamura) comes to the home of Deborah (Desiree Rogers) and only wants a little bit of blood. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

For decades, hardly anyone knew the origin of the HeLa cancer cells that were being used to study cancer, cure polio, research AIDS and function in any number of vital scientific projects. All they knew about this “immortal” line of cells is that they reproduced quickly and were invaluable components of scientific progress. They did not know that the original cells, which have generated some 20 tons of cells for research purposes, were taken without the consent (or knowledge) of the terminally ill woman in whose body they resided: Henrietta Lacks.

Chances are good that, unlike so many scientists for so many years, you have heard of Henrietta Lacks, whether from Rebecca Skloots’ best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or, more recently, the HBO movie based on the book starring Oprah Winfrey as Lacks’ daughter Deborah. The story continues to be told, this time for the stage, in the world premiere play from TheatreFirst: HeLa by Bay Area playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy.

There are so many ways you can go with this story: heavy family drama, intense scientific victory, yet another chapter in the exploitation of African Americans. Gunderson and Reddy’s HeLa, named for the history-erasing name given to Lacks’ cells, goes in all of those directions, but does so in an expedient way that somehow even manages, amid the sadness and anger, to find some lightness and depth.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this nearly 70-minute one-act is the almost effortless way it makes Lacks’ story part of the epic African-American struggle. “We live on a history of taking,” one character says, and that taking extends from human beings taken from their native land, sold and enslaved to cells from Lacks’ cancer-ridden body taken, studied and regenerated for decades (to the present day) to the tune of billions of dollars while Henrietta’s family members – the husband and five children she left behind and then her grandchildren and great grandchildren – struggled to afford their own healthcare.

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That notion of taking resonates throughout this short play, which weaves a thorough portrait of Lacks and her legacy, its issues and its triumphs, without being weighted down by too many details, either biographical or scientific, though there are plenty of both.

At the start, director Evren Odcikin’s energetic production feels like it could be veering into Hallmark Channel sweetness as we meet the Lacks family. But that slow dance in front of a sink full of dishes is short-lived, as Henrietta quickly succumbs to cervical cancer, though her presence continues to dominate the play through a warm, passionate portrayal by Jeunée Simon. Where Henrietta’s cells go, the spirit of Henrietta follows, sometimes to comic effect, as when she and her petri dish accompany a canine cosmonaut (played by ensemble member Sarah Mitchell) on a space research mission.

Odcikin moves his adept cast around the small stage with verve and efficiency, as years tumble by and we begin to comprehend the vastness of the research and scientific accomplishment achieved thanks to Henrietta and the HeLa cells. But then comes the emotional weight borne by her family when they begin to learn what became of Henrietta’s cells and how they – and in a way her – have become immortal (and made certain people rich in the process).

The family’s emotional connection to Henrietta and the legacy to which she was only able to contribute her physical matter is embodied in a grounded, complex performance by Desiree Rogers as Deborah, one of the five Lacks children. We get to age with Deborah, from a little girl at her mother’s feet to a grandmother, and we feel the absence of a mother in her life and the perplexing, wrenching and unexpected return of that mother in the form of millions of cells in a lab.

Except for an attractive and intriguing backdrop (by Bailey Hikawa) that resembles a giant mass of bubble-like cells that effectively catch the lighting design by Stephanie Anne Johnson, the stage is bare of anything other than actors – most playing multiple roles – and a few chairs. Khary Moye is Henrietta’s husband, Day, and Richard Pallaziol is the doctor who has to tell Henrietta she’s dying, but then in an unsettling monologue, is able to reach into the future and discuss the ways she will be exploited without her ever knowing it. In later years, Akemi Okamura is a young scientist who needs to extract blood (just a little!) from the family and unwittingly reveals Henrietta’s involvement in the science community for the past two decades.

There’s a cumulative power to this story that feels both intimate and epic, another chapter in our history of taking that tells an essential story that should keep being told.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa continues through June 17 in a TheatreFirst production at the Black Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $20-$25. Visit www.theatrefirst.com.

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.

Lost in Austen with Marin’s Christmas at Pemberly

Extended through Dec. 23!
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Cindy Im (left) is Elizabeth Darcy, Adam Magill is Arthur de Bourgh and Lauren Spencer is Jane Bingley in the rolling world premiere of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Martha Brigham (left) is Mary Bennet, Laura Odeh (center) is Anne de Bourgh and Erika Rankin is Lydia Wickham. Photos by Kevin Berne

We’re all in need of some genuine Christmas cheer this year, and that’s exactly what Marin Theatre Company’s Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley provides. It’s sweet without being sappy. It’s sharp, clever and funny with a warm undercurrent of genuine emotion. What more could you want from a holiday show (except maybe passed eggnog and a round of carols)?

The show also has the distinction of slaking the seemingly bottomless appetite for all things Jane Austen. Writers Lauren Gunderson (the San Francisco playwright who holds the distinction of being the most produced living playwright this season in the U.S.) and Margot Melcon (MTC’s former director of new play development) have gone back to the Austen well to fashion a sequel of sorts to the 1813 Pride and Prejudice. They focus in on Christmas in the grand home of Elizabeth (Bennet) Darcy and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esq., married for several years now and hosting family and friends for the holiday.

We never get to see the Bennet parents and daughter Kitty, who are on their way up from London, but we do get to spend time with oldest daughter Jane (who is nearing the birth of her first child) and husband Charles Bingley, unmarried Mary Bennet and youngest daughter Lydia, whose marriage to George Wickham remains a source of concern for the family.

So the Miss Bennet of the play’s title is Mary, a young woman who loves books and music and dreams of seeing the world even though she knows her fate as a middle daughter has landed her smack in the “old maid caring for the aging parents” slot. Gunderson and Melcon are not content to let the intellectually curious, spirited Mary fulfill her lonely duty, so they give her a big Christmas present in the form of Lord Arthur de Bourgh, who ends up at Pemberley for the holidays and quickly finds Mary to be as delightful an oddball as he.

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The Austen lovers will lap up the complications in the from of Anne de Bourgh, Arthur’s cousin (and a previous source of tension in P&P when her mother tried to forcefully engage her to Mr. Darcy), who is now, true to her departed mother’s memory, forcing an engagement with the most advantageous man, who happens to be Arthur.

Gunderson and Melcon clearly have great affection for all things Austen, and if there’s anything that connects the original with this new chapter, it’s the spirit of the women defying expectations of their corseted times with feisty intelligence, humor and compassion for one another. Even though Anne is sort of the bad guy, she is not simply discarded once the romantic machinations have clicked into happy ending gear. She is afforded a future and, happily, a friend.

The Marin Theatre Company production of Miss Bennet is the third part of what they now call a rolling world premiere. The first production opened at the Northlight Theatre in Chicago just before Thanksgiving. The second opened at the Round House Theatre in Maryland the night before the Marin production. That’s an abundance of Miss Bennets!

The MTC production looks appropriately grand with the Pemberley drawing room/library outfitted by set designer Erik Flatmo and featuring what was apparently a real oddity in the early 19th century outside of Germany: a freshly cut spruce in the corner just ready for trimming with jewels and candles. For much of the play’s two hours (plus intermission), a gentle snow falls just outside the stately windows, giving the whole enterprise an even cozier feeling.

Director Meredith McDonough has some trouble establishing a firm comic tone in Act 1, but by Act 2, things are much more solid. Part of that has to do with the arrival of Laura Odeh as Anne, a comic force of nature. Most of the really big, satisfying laughs in the show are hers.

The entire cast is tremendously appealing, and how nice to see the usual women-to-men ratio overturned here: five women in the cast and three men. Martha Brigham and Adam Magill are charmingly effective as the central couple, Mary and Arthur. Both are misfits in their world, so finding one another is incredibly appealing, and we root for them from the start. Brigham epitomizes the Austen heroine – smart, well spoken and painfully self-aware. Magill is awfully tall, and he uses his height to convey Arthur’s awkwardness in the world, which can also be terribly funny.

Cindy Im and Joseph Patrick O’Malley are appropriately google-eyed newlyweds Lizzie and Darcy, and though they have their moments, they know they’ve had their time in the spotlight and now it’s Mary’s turn. Lauren Spencer and Thomas Gorrebeeck add some fizz as Jane and Bingley, and Erika Rankin makes for a petulant but somehow endearing Lydia.

Spending Christmas with these people is quite pleasant. The conversation is always lively, the intrigues are on the low end of the silly/soapy scale, and by the end there is a wealth of good feeling, both on stage and off. The programming people who make beautiful television like “Downton Abbey” or “The Crown” would do well to return to the world of Jane Austen, and they would be wise to turn to Gunderson and Melcon to ensure that it’s done right.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon continues an extended run through Dec. 23 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Blood, gore, giggles galore at Impact Theatre

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Dana Featherby (left), Sarah Coykendall (center) and Maria Giere Marquis are three young women arming themselves for the world outside their door in Lauren Gunderson’s Damsel and Distress Go to a Party, one of the nine violent short plays in Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses. Below: Eric Kerr is a man with memory issues in Declan Greene’s Marimba, one of the more serious entries in Bread and Circuses. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Blood is fun – at least it is within the confines of Impact Theatre’s omnibus presentation Bread and Circuses, a collection of nine short plays fairly dripping with the thick red stuff.

As you’d expect with such an assortment, there’s a wide variety in style and substance here. There’s also one easy-to-draw conclusion: endings are hard.

The most satisfying entries in this two-hour experience at LaVal’s Subterranean include:


  • Heteronesia by Prince Gomolvilas about a dude so traumatized during masturbation (by a severed horse head falling through the window) that he’s unable to perform sexually in any way and must, under doctor’s orders, be gang banged by a football team. Hilarious. You don’t want to know where the blood comes from in this one.
  • Damsel and Distress Go to a Party by Lauren Gunderson is set in a dystopian future where three women are “putting on their faces” as they get ready to go to a party. They use the word “face” an awful lot in their slangy descriptions of themselves and their friends, and what emerges is a violent picture of women suffering abuse but choosing a warrior path (complete with painted warrior faces). (Now that I think about it, I don’t remember any blood in this short play – perhaps the war paint/makeup can be considered a stand-in for blood.)
  • Marimba by Declan Greene is the evening’s only solo outing and involves the actor Eric Kerr in an unsettling performance as a man for whom thought and memory has gone very wrong. The “marimba” of the title is the name of the ring tone on his iPhone that goes off at regular intervals and creates the jagged trajectory of this alarming tale. There’s blood here, but its appearance should remain a surprise.
  • The Play About the Aswang by Lauren Yee has a great set-up: a single mom is dating a flesh-eating Filipino monster. She can’t quite see the problem with that (even with the bones protruding from the bloody wound where her hand used to be), but her son and his best friend are quite alarmed and ready to do something about it. What’s really interesting about this short play is the way it blends horror, adult sexuality and adolescent sexuality in surprising ways.

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Those were my favorites, but that said, there isn’t one play here that doesn’t have something interesting about it. Steve Yockey has fun subverting horror movie tropes in Bedtime by having the traditional victim victimizing someone else to gain the upper hand. Dave Holstein’s Alone Together gives us a nightmarish mother-daughter scenario wherein the scariest thing (even more than the babysitter scalping) might be the fact that the mother participates in a social event called “jam night” that involves jars of actual jam.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Insect Love is a low-key 1950s love story among entomologists that is kind of sweet until the shadow of violence looms. Ross Maxwell’s Don’t Turn Around starts off as pure monster-driven horror but turns quickly into relationship hell as a young couple fleeing zombie-like creatures in a mall are sidetracked by their surprise break-up. And the evening comes to a satisfying end with JC Lee’s very funny The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich, which is exactly what it purports to be. How the story’s teenagers came to find Dietrich’s body to reanimate remains a mystery, but who cares when Lee gives us a flesh-eating Marlene pauses to sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”

Director Desdemona Chiang and her game cast are clearly having fun here. In addition to Kerr’s turn in Marimba, MVP honors are shared by Maria Giere Marquis, who is a terror of a little girl, a woman warrior, a quiet secretary and, perhaps most memorably, the reanimated corpse of Marlene Dietrich. The rest of the cast – Sarah Coykendall, Mike Delaney, Dana Featherby and Maro Guevara – all have excellent moments and add to the show’s fun, raggedy energy. But as is often the case at Impact, there are some serious smarts under the blood and irreverence.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Impact Theatre’s Bread and Circuses continues through April 6 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid, Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$25. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Starry, starry night: Gunderson lights up Sky at TheatreWorks

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The cast of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at TheatreWorks includes, from left, Matt Citron as Peter, Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret, Elena Wright as Henrietta, Sarah Dacey Charles as Annie and Lynne Soffer as Williamina. Below: Citron and Wright find love through astronomy. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Mind-expanding science and heart-expanding characters are the stock in trade of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose not-so-stealthy takeover of the Bay Area theater scene couldn’t be more welcome. Her staggering smarts are matched by her delectable sense of humor, so any new work with her name attached to it is reason to pay some serious attention.

Gunderson’s latest Bay Area production comes from TheatreWorks: Silent Sky, a bright, poignant drama about, among other things, the persistence and power of dreams, the transforming nature of scientific exploration and discovery and the triumph of women working under the weight of a sexist society. The play is warm, funny and incisive. It’s deftly directed by Meredith McDonough and features an entirely likable cast of five working on a lovely observatory set by Annie Smart that gives them plenty of room for stargazing.

Elena Wright, sharp and funny, is Henrietta Leavitt, a real-life pioneer of American astronomy and someone I didn’t know at all before this play. Her discoveries while working a menial job at the Harvard College Observatory went on to influence Edwin Hubble (of Hubble Space Telescope fame) and inspired consideration (albeit posthumously) for the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on “period luminosity relationship,” which had to do with the rhythmic (like music) pulsing of stars known as Cepheids (one can learn so much from the theater).

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If the real Leavitt was as disarming and lively as Wright and Gunderson make her out to be, she must have been fun (and occasionally frustrating) to be around. Though stifled in her own scientific explorations by the men who called the well-educated, hard-working women in her department a “harem,” she didn’t pout or rail. She just did her job (brilliantly) and pursued her own course of exploration on her own time. In Gunderson’s version, it helps considerably that she has the support of two of her co-workers, Annie (Sarah Dacey Charles) and Scottish pistol Williamina (Lynne Soffer), as well as a doting sister back home in Wisconsin (Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret) who took the more traditional wife-mother route rather than focusing on her music composition.

There’s also a sweet love story afoot involving one of Henrietta’s other co-workers, a man and automatically her professional superior. Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) is also a nerdy astronomer, but while Henrietta has an open, inquisitive mind and a willingness to accept the unknown, Peter is much more rigid in his views (about the universe and about women), so their relationship is far from smooth, and it helps us know Henrietta a little bit better as she navigates a realm – romance – she knows so little about.

Though Silent Sky paints a vibrant portrait of Henrietta Leavitt, with a abundance of good humor and some terrific laugh lines, I have to say I lost track of her in Act 2, which becomes more of a surface skim than a deep dive. Time goes by quickly, relationships get a little fuzzy and tragedy strikes. My impression of what fate befell Leavitt was such that I wanted to know more about her, so I was surprised to find out that what I thought was happening to her in her early 30s actually happened in her early 50s. Somehow I really lost track of the passage of time (which, as we’re reminded, is relative).

As beautiful as Gunderson’s Sky is – and it is, both in content and in form, with a lilting underscore by Jenny Giering – I found myself wanting more. More science, more biography, more time with Henrietta Leavitt. But that’s also the triumph of the play. Here’s a significant figure in American astronomy about whom I’d never heard a word, and I’m feeling greedy about her. I want more. So, perhaps we can fantasize about Silent Sky the Discovery Channel miniseries penned by Gunderson in her spare time when she’s not writing a new play for every theater in the Bay Area?

[bonus interview]
I talked to Lauren Gunderson and Jennifer Le Blanc about their working relationship for a story in American Theatre magazine. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky continues through Feb. 9 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marin Theatre Co. gets its yawp on with I and You

I and You 1
Jessica Lynn Carroll is Caroline and Devion McArthur is Anthony in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of I and You by Lauren Gunderson at Marin Theatre Company. Photos by Ed Smith

Call it the Great Gunder-splosion of 2013. And 2014. San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson has taken over the local theater scene with more productions than you can shake a dramaturg at. Only last week she opened The Taming with Crowded Fire Theatre Company (see my review here), and here she here is, barely a week later, with another world premiere, I and You with Marin Theatre Company (like The Taming, I and You is part of the National New Play Network and will receive several more productions as part of what they call a “rolling world premiere”).

Here’s what these two plays have in common: they both take place primarily in confined places – one’s in a hotel room, the other in a teenager’s bedroom – and both make surprising diversions (in time and space) out of that confined space. External factors also loom large. One play tackles the American Constitution, while the other wrestles with youth and mortality as reflected in the poetry of Walt Whitman. Those comparisons aside, these are two very different plays that share an abundance of intelligence, ambition and humor – all Gunderson hallmarks.

I and You is an intimate play about the exuberance of youth and all it entails, from the crazy mood swings from hope to despair to the identification with the wider world (the poetry of Whitman, the music of John Coltrane, etc.). It’s about connection and individuality, and it seems to be an enthusiastic after-school special that reveals itself to be a little deeper.

On an ultra-realistic bedroom set (by Michael Locher), director Sarah Rasmussen creates an isolated world ruled by Caroline (Jessica Lynn Caroll), a high schooler who hasn’t spent much time in high school because she’s dealing with some sort of serious illness. When she wants something, she texts her mom in another part of the house. But this room, which she describes as a “giant collage,” is the finite world over which she has control. She takes photos with her phone of sharp details within this world, and she uses her laptop as her primary means of connection with the outside world.

I and You 2

At the start of the play, Caroline’s world has been invaded by a stranger, classmate Anthony (Devion McArthur) who has volunteered to work with Caroline on an English literature assignment involving Whitman’s use of pronouns I and you in his “Song of Myself.” Caroline is, to say the least, resistant to Anthony’s presence and to the notion of exploring Whitman’s poem.

But Anthony is charming, and for whatever reason he feels a strong connection with Caroline even though they’re incredible different. She’s a sick but defiant shut-in and he’s a popular athlete. His enthusiasm for Whitman soon rubs off on Caroline, and a friendship is struck. Their affection for Whitman is quite disarming, and like those schoolboys in Dead Poets Society who also found kinship with the poet, it’s easy to see why Whitman appeals:

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Although Carroll and McArthur create believable (if hyper-smart and well spoken) teenagers, there’s a certain disconnect from reality in Caroline’s room – is all of this really happening in such a short timespan? why exactly is Anthony the one who ends up at Caroline’s house? why is Caroline’s mother so absent when there’s a strange boy in her daughter’s room? – and before the 85-minute play is done, the reason for that becomes more clear.

I and You is a sweet play without being sappy (except maybe when the stars come out in Caroline’s room) but somehow there’s not enough weight to it – to Caroline’s illness, to Anthony’s reason for just showing up. Whitman provides a poetic, energizing anchor to the show, but even that feels more on the surface than deeply felt. We’re talking a lot about life and death here, but though we like these teenagers, we don’t feel a strong connection with what’s going on in their lives. There’s a cloud of mystery obscuring our view of them. Maybe that’s why the last section of the play, which should bring some real emotional heft, ends up being more interesting than it is engaging.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s I and You continues through Nov. 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Shrew you, shutdown! The Taming gets it right

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

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

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

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

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

The Taming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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