Kristina Wong sews up the pandemic for us in Sweatshop Overlord

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(Above and Below) Kristina Wong’s award–winning solo show, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, at ACT’s Strand Theater through May 5, tells the story of the pandemic through her experience of building a community to make masks. Photos by Kevin Berne


If you have to re-live the horrors of the pandemic, there’s no better companion to do it with than Kristina Wong, the author and star of the dynamic, dazzling and deeply moving solo show Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater.

On a stage filled with giant pin cushion tomatoes, parcels made out of cloth and other warped fairy tale representations of Wong’s Los Angeles Korea Town apartment, we are taken back to March 2020, when the world changed. Wong begins the show before she begins the show with a little prologue to ease us into the right frame of mind. She jokingly offers a trigger warning because she’s going to talk about the pandemic, death, racism, “the last president” and other horrific things. Of course she gets a laugh, but she knows what she’s doing (she has, after all, been performing this show since 2021). This show really is a trigger, and it all comes flooding back.

It’s a fascinating aspect of good storytelling that by focusing in on very specific details of a very specific story, you also open the window onto a much larger narrative. In this case, the specifics involve Wong, a busy performance artist, whose calendar and livelihood have suddenly evaporated with California’s shelter-in-place orders. Fairly quickly, she takes the Hello, Kitty sewing machine on which she used to make props and costumes for her shows and begins sewing masks for the likes of firefighters and healthcare workers whose employers can’t provide enough PPE (just hearing the acronym for “personal protective equipment” again made me shrink into my chair).

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Through word of mouth and social media, Wong soon has more orders than she can fulfill, so she harnesses the power of Facebook to create a network of sewers, which she calls Auntie Sewing Squad (A.S.S.), and she is lovingly dubbed the “sweatshop overlord.” The sewers are mostly women, many of Asian descent and all wanting to contribute and feel useful in what often felt like a hopeless and overwhelming time.

In a time of rampant government failure on so many fronts, these Aunties created a community that not only provided essential products for people who needed them most, but also found ways to care for and sustain each other through illness, death, fear and relentless stress.

Wong is such an vigorous, personable storyteller that her humor keeps the 100-minute show bouncing along while the emotional weight of it builds steadily under all the bright colors and abundant laughs. Credit also has to go to director Chay Yew for helping create a show that is as moving as it is funny.

Wong takes us through all of it, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement; the horrifying rise of violence directed at Asian communities; the eruption of anti-maskers and the obliteration of any hope that this international crisis would bring humanity together; and then the election and the January 6 riots. All the while, we re-experience this through the lens of Wong and her Aunties staying strong, productive and loving (at least of one another).

It’s a lot to be sure, but while we shudder once again through the worst of humanity, Wong keeps a light on the best of us – when we’re together and actively (and respectfully and generously) engaged in community, in action and in hope.

We’re going to be parsing the last four years in lots of ways for many years to come because it still doesn’t all make sense, and it’s too big to fully comprehend. That’s why Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord is more than just a wonderful solo show by a gifted writer/performer. It’s also a vital chapter of an epic story we’re still writing.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord continues through May 5 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Run time: 100 minutes. Tickets are $25-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Cult of Love casts a spell at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love includes (from left) Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Mark Dahl, Dan Hiatt as William “Bill” Dahl, Vero Maynez as Loren Montgomery, and Luisa Sermol as Virginia “Ginny” Dahl. The show continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Sermol as Ginny and Near-Verbrugghe as Mark. Photos by Kevin Berne


Can we just agree that the phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant? Dysfunction is part of every family in one way or another, so when we say “family,” we mean a complicated set of relationships knit together with love, resentment, injury, abiding affection and mystery (among a whole smörgåsbord of other items).

Playwright Leslye Headland, probably best known for her film (Bachelorette, Sleeping with Other People) and TV (Russian Doll, the upcoming Star Wars: The Acolyte), goes right for the family jugular in Cult of Love, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. This is like the frozen orange juice concentrate of family plays, and let’s just say there’s very little added water in this metaphorical pitcher.

This is the last part in Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays series, and it’s a fun sin for families: pride. At 100 intermissionless minutes, Cult of Love is equal parts dark comedy, withering drama and musical feast. With a boisterous play like this – 10 characters in a smallish Connecticut house for Christmas Eve – you know that for every big laugh (and there are many) there’s going to be something equally as painful later on (check).

Working with director Trip Cullman, Headland really piles on the issues for the Dahl family. Dad (Dan Hiatt) may be slipping into dementia, or maybe his constant stream of “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” is his way of trying to broker peace among the sibling combatants. Mom (Luisa Sermol) is heavy into denial about pretty much everything, but one family tradition she can get behind is the giant punchbowl full of Manhattans she brings out before the much delayed lamb dinner (and in the Dahl family, because tradition is everything, we pronounce the “b” in lamb because it’s…fun?).

The four grown Dahl children trudge through the snow for the one holiday when they’re all together. Of course they come bearing baggage of infinite variety. Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) left the seminary to become a government lawyer and is now at a crossroads. He no longer considers himself a Christian. His wife, Rachel (Molly Bernard), converted to Christianity to marry him and gain the acceptance of the family. She’s bitter about a lot of things, including that, but her love for her husband, troubled as he may be, is never in doubt.

Diana (Kerstin Anderson) is expecting her second child with husband James (Christopher Lowell), a minister, and while their firstborn sleeps upstairs, they express God’s disapproval of sister Evie (Virginia Kull) and her wife, Pippa (Cass Buggé). They aren’t really gay, Diana, suggests, they’re just missing God from their hearts.

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It’s after 9pm, and everybody’s hungry, but mom won’t serve dinner until Johnny (Christopher Sears) arrives. He’s 10 years sober, but he still makes everyone nervous (except his mother, who doesn’t really accept that he was ever a heroin addict). When he does finally arrive, he’s accompanied by Loren (Vero Maynez), who is also in recovery and – too bad for the Dahls – is something of a shame-free truth teller.

Though the Dahls were a devoutly Christian family, the children have all traveled their own roads in and out of the church. Faith, prophecy and mental illness all get drawn into the religious discussions (and fights), where judgements, insults and intolerance (of all kinds) create a sort of hell storm set amid a cozy house over-decorated for Christmas (the set is by Arnulfo Maldonado and the lights are by Heather Gilbert).

Through it all, though, no matter how many times someone storms upstairs or stomps out of the house and says they’re not coming back, they still come back. The lure of the holiday, the promise of family as an ideal way to give and receive love, the need to reconcile past and present all create a sort of magnetic vortex that makes it almost impossible to escape, no matter how harsh and ugly things get.

And then there’s the music. Though not exactly the Von Trapps, there’s enough music here to need a music director and arranger (Jacinth Greywoode doing stellar work). The Dahls play piano, guitar, fiddle, melodica and any number of percussion instruments, and they love to sing holiday tunes, folk songs and even some more contemporary fare. The music on the piano is a volume called “The Family Songbook,” and as a family, they take music seriously – even the cranky or out-of-sorts family member can be coaxed to sing a line or two. It’s a meaningful source of connection, even amid the fracturing of relationships and the flames of explosions new and old. The music is a safe space.

Director Cullman and his cast achieve a believable level of hilarity and hatred, holiday and harassment as family members talk over, through and beyond one another. Each of us will likely identify strongly with one or another of these characters, and for me it was Rachel, Mark’s wife. She married into the Dahls but is still an outsider. She self-medicates and makes sure her wine glass is rarely empty. She’s not afraid to push back when things get spiky, and, in Bernard’s astute performance, she can be counted on for a good one-liner that’s usually something more than just a laugh.

The entire cast weaves a fascinating family web, but the play does get overwhelmed with so many issues: religion, mental illness, sexuality, addiction/recovery, childhood trauma, science denial and more religion. Pippa, the newest spouse in the family, feels the need to defend her wife but wonders, “How do you protect someone from their own family?” And later, Johnny admits that it took him years to “de-program” from his upbringing, not unlike a cult referenced in the title.

Headland eventually quiets things down enough to allow some sad, thoughtful and deep conversations to happen. Even after all the turmoil, she allows space for beauty and – if you’re feeling hopeful – love to settle in, however fleeting. It’s such a relief, though there’s no escaping the fact that even for the happiest of families (which this is most certainly not), there’s no such thing as a happy ending.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Hot Coco spices up Golden Girls in 18th year

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ABOVE: The cast of The Golden Girls Live: The Christmas Episodes at the Victoria Theatre includes (from left) Coco Peru as Dorothy, Holotta Tymes as Sophia, D’Arcy Drollinger as Rose and Matthew Martin as Blanche. BELOW: Martin, Peru, Tymes and Drollinger catch up on their People reading. Photos by Gareth Gooch


This time of year you have your Christmas Carols and your Nutcrackers. Here in San Francisco we have those, but we also have our own traditions. Now in its 18th year, The Golden Girls Live: The Christmas Episodes is one of our homegrown best.

This year’s installment at the Victoria Theatre comes with a tinge of sadness. This is the first production without the late, great Heklina, one of the driving forces behind the show and also one its stars. She played Dorothy Zbornak, the role created in the original TV sereis by Bea Arthur. So who to fill those large (in every sense) shoes?

That’s where the good news comes in. Drag legend and comedy dynamo Miss Coco Peru is now playing Dorothy, and she is superb. It probably helps that Coco was friends with Heklina and Bea Arthur, but she brings her own deft comic timing and inimitable stage presence to the part and absolutely shines. Dry and droll and funny as hell, Coco is the golden gift we all need this holiday season.

Another highly enjoyable aspect of this holiday outing – two episodes from the long-running series, this year they are “From Here to the Pharmacy” from 1991 and “Goodbye Mr. Gordon” from 1992 – is the wildly different styles of the performers. D’Arcy Drollinger (San Francisco’s first drag laureate, thank you very much) directs and co-stars as Rose Nyland (the Betty White) part, and the acting style could best be described as shameless mugging – and it’s hilarious.

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Holotta Tymes is Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy’s mother, and Tymes is so spot-on in the re-creation of Estelle Getty’s indelible characterization that it’s almost like we’re seeing the real thing. And then there’s Matthew Martin, long one of San Francisco’s treasures, as Blanche Devereaux. He takes a little of original star Rue McClanahan and amps up the character with sexpot elements borrowed from every great movie star diva from the 1940s.

The star performers – the Girls, if you will – are experts at squeezing laughs from the sitcom script, but they also seem to be having a ball, laughing at each other and encouraging boisterous audience response. It also helps that the scripts themselves can be laugh-out-loud funny. Some of Dorothy’s lines, especially as delivered by the delectable Coco, are devastatingly funny. My favorite from the first act is, “I’ll say hail Marys until Madonna has a hit movie.” That’s followed closely by Sophia saying she’s saving money for her old age, to which Dorothy gasps, “Old age? You don’t leave fingerprints anymore!”

As in previous years, during the transition moments when there would be commercials on the show, the live version hands the stage over to Tom Shaw for rousing holiday sing-alongs. The raucous songs combined with flowing cocktails from the bar (in the lobby and in the theater before the show and during intermission) gives the even the feel of a Christmas party on the verge of exploding. For my money, this time of year if you’re searching for festivity, that’s just the kind of place you want to be. Thank you for being a friend, indeed.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes continues through Dec. 23 at the Victora Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$75. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. Visit goldengirlslive.com for tickets and info.

Cult of terror ignites interactive horror show at SF Mint

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Audience members are recruited into a spiritual cult gone terribly wrong in The Initiation, a new interactive horror experience at the San Francisco Mint through Oct. 31. Photos by Jose A. Guzman Colon


Claustrophobes be warned: The Initiation, the new immersive horror experience at the San Francisco Mint, is going to put you through some very tight experiences. You (and your date) will be locked into a dark cabinet and subjected to flashing lights, bursts of cold air and pounding noises. You will be asked to crawl through an air vent to reach a secret location to spy on evil-doers. And you will be expected to push your way through a dark, completely enveloping fabric tube that has the feel of making your way through and out of a very large intestine.

For some, those descriptions might inspire utter horror and repulsion. For others, they inspire utter horror and a desire to experience every shudder-inducing moment. Welcome to the world of site-specific, interactive theater mashed up with the creepy carnival-like house of horrors. Halloween season has officially begun.

From the producing team known as Into the Dark – local drag legend Peaches Christ, David Flower Productions and Non Plus Ultra – The Initiation is a full-blown Halloween experience, from the show itself to the ’80s/New Wave vampire-themed bar in the basement (Fang Bang) to the Instagram-ready photo op room. This is the sixth iteration of this dark holiday experience, and it’s exactly as fun – and as scary – as you want it to be.

There’s a 1970s low-budget horror movie feel to The Initiation, and that is in no way a criticism. In fact, it’s a groovy, grungy vibe captured perfectly by the set, costume and lighting designers to tell the story of a spiritual cult called INsight in which the leader, Father Isaac, has gone mad with power. Taking a cue from the Disney/Star Wars ride “Rise of the Resistance,” the plot revolves around a group of new recruits (you and your group of up to 10 people who are ushered through the experience every 15 minutes or so) who are being put through the initiation process in the form of training modules. The rebel alliance, sorry, I mean the cult members who are trying to fight back, shanghai the first module and tell us to act like we’re there to become new members, but really we’re going to help them find the leader’s imprisoned and imperiled wife.

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There are lots of stairs, lots of dark, twisting hallways and byways and a pace that never slows for very long. Every transition means another opportunity for secret panels to slam open with someone jumping out or screaming at you (the jump scares are the scariest scares, after all). When you get to the new location, another actor (or two or three) will attempt to further the plot and demonstrate something shocking or pressing or just plain gross. There are some nifty effects involving removal of eyeballs and the frying of a naked man, leaving nothing but a twitching, mysteriously still breathing skeleton.

My favorite areas were the “outdoor” sequences with fog and trees and winding pathways. The action eventually leads to Father Isaac’s home on the institute grounds, and those interiors, from the drawing room and library to the dining room, are beautifully detailed environments. Once the rescue mission is going full bore and we end up in the basement, the show ends up feeling like a laser tag playground without the lasers. The action gets a little confusing, and the ending comes rather abruptly. But you do end up right next to the bar, so a horror-themed cocktail seems like the best option.

An event like this is quite an operation with seemingly hundreds of people working hard to rattle your cage, and the more you give in, the more fun it is. The actors range from those who seem to savor every interaction with the visitors to those who feel like they’re barely getting their dialogue out before the group moves on. But keeping in mind that they have to repeat their scenes ever 15 minutes, it’s a wonder they make any connection at all.

There’s a VIP package that offers more intimate interaction with the actors, so if you opt in, you get a glowing necklace and you get touched a lot more and pulled into the action more directly. We had one VIP in our group, and he had to throw a switch to kill someone and was caressed or mauled at every opportunity. He seemed quite happy about it.

I was content to experience my initiation and the subsequent rebellion as part of the pack and admired the way the cast maintained a sense of mounting tension and kept things moving right along. There’s gore and goofiness and a sense that a horror movie come to life is fun – but not for the uninitiated.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Into the Dark’s The Initiation continues through Oct. 31 at the San Francisco Mint, 88 5th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$85 (plus $40 for the VIP experience). Run time: about an hour. Tickets and info at terrorvalut.com.

Women in the White House make for a crude, funny POTUS at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: (from left) Stephanie Styles is Dusty, Deirdre Lovejoy is Harriet, Kim Blanck is Jean and Allison Guinn is Bernadette in Selina Fillinger’s feminist satire POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive, performing at Berkeley Rep through Oct. 22. BELOW: Dominique Toney is Chris, a journalist and single mom. Photos by Kevin Berne


Berkeley Repertory Theatre opens its 2023-24 season with a hot property. Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive had a starry run on Broadway in 2022 and is now popping up all over the place because a) it’s very funny b) it features a cast of seven women and c) it attempts to turn our ongoing political nightmare (at least for half of the country) into the stuff of theatrical farce.

All the ingredients are there for a raucous experience. On this day in the White House – which could easily be imagined as a typical day between January 2017 and January 2020 – the president’s staff is attempting major damage control on a number of fronts. POTUS (who is not a named or featured character) has shot his mouth off in an astonishingly offensive manner. His international relations have gone nuclear. His constant infidelities are catching up with him. And he’s supposed to be hosting 200 feminists at a dinner for FML (Female Models of Leadership, in this case).

So it’s up to POTUS’s chief of staff, Harriet (Deirdre Lovejoy), and his press secretary, Jean (Kim Blanck) to keep the government running, as they usually do. Margaret (Stephanie Pope Lofgren), the First Lady, is also on hand to lend her brainpower (she has degrees from Stanford and Harvard) and her mammoth ego to the mayhem.

There are, of course, abundant surprises that upset the schedule and demonstrate just what a raging dumbass POTUS is and has been for the previous three years.

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Playwright Fillinger has a wicked way with a one-liner, and her first act has some gargantuan guffaws. Her women are smart, ambitious and crude as hell. From the first line to the last, the play’s language is so salty you may need to bring hydration – and that’s when the play is at its best. The more outsize and crazy the action, the sharper the satire and the bigger the laughs.

Director Annie Tippe, who did such beautiful work at Berkeley Rep on Octet (read my review here), doesn’t show the same command here. When the farce really erupts in Act 2, the pacing (at least on opening night) never found the manic rhythm that would carry the audience through the hilarity without getting annoyed.

She also gets uneven work from her cast. What should be razor sharp in the performances too often feels forced and manic without being funny. That said, there are some strong moments from Stephanie Styles as a Midwestern farmer’s daughter (yes, like the old jokes) who slips and out of stereotype long enough to discuss recidivism and reproductive rights and from Allison Guinn as a woman of many dark talents who turns out to be kind of a super-raunchy, fresh-from-prison Melissa McCarthy.

There’s also something jagged in the play itself as it extracts laughs from what is actually a terrifying (and seemingly ongoing) situation in what’s left of our sand castle of a democracy. Sure, we want to laugh at the idiot in the White House. Sure, we want to fist pump in solidarity with the women who do the actual work and should actually be president. But the truth is (and this is pointed out in the play), they’re also enabling the Dumbass in Chief and perpetuating his destruction. So this satire has a very real edge to it, and the laughs often have a sickening feel to them. That’s certainly an interesting place to put an audience, and one that could be explored more thoroughly, but Fillinger tends more toward the sitcom than she does the dark farce.

There’s nasty fun to be had in POTUS, but the titular dumbass casts a mighty shadow that the seven women trying to keep him alive can’t quite escape.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Selina Fillinger’s POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive continues through Oct. 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$134 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Ari’el Stachel floods the Berkeley Rep stage with Character

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Tony Award-winner Ari’el Stachel stars in the world premiere of his autobiographical solo show Out of Character at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep


As a performer, Ari’el Stachel is everything you want on stage, especially in a solo show. He’s charming, dynamic, kinetic and fabulously entertaining. In his world-premiere autobiographical one-man show Out of Character, now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, he plays more than three dozen characters, does a little singing (sublime beyond sublime), a little dancing (perhaps not so sublime, which is why he got into singing) and a whole lot of exploration into two things that have played major roles in his 30-plus years on the planet: identity and anxiety.

Directed by Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s former artistic director and something of an expert in solo shows (see Sarah Jones, Carrie Fisher, Danny Hoch, Rita Moreno, John Leguizamo), Character comes out of Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor new works development program and still feels, frankly, like a new work. That said the production is superb, with a striking stage design by Afsoon Pajoufar whose shapes and textures are beautifully augmented by the lights and projections from Alexander V. Nichols.

The 80-minute show begins with what should be a high point in the life and career of Berkeley native Stachel: the night in 2018 when he won the Tony Award for best featured actor in a musical for his role in The Band’s Visit. But that night, as we see, only exacerbated his lifelong struggle with anxiety, and he ended up spending time hiding out in the bathroom rather than being celebrated for his triumph.

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Diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a kid, Stachel struggled in numerous ways – first with the voice in his head, which he named Meredith after the scheming girlfriend in the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, and second with his growing shame connected to his Yemeni-Israeli-Ashkenazy Jew roots. After 9/11 (when he was 10), life got even more complicated – especially at school – for a brown boy whose bearded dad got immediately branded “Osama” by the other kids.

So the intertwined narrative of Stachel’s show is the anxiety, which often results in abundant, visible sweating, and the ways he would slip into identities to protect himself from his outer and inner worlds. At Berkeley High, for instance, he passes for black, and he’s thrilled that he can finally be “cool.” But then in college, he finally embraces his Middle Eastern heritage, until that too seems like a character he’s playing. And everywhere along the way, there’s Meredith (realized in the excellent sound design by Madeleine Oldham) promising the end of the world if he doesn’t do exactly as she says.

What it is to be American emerges as a fascinating aspect of the show, especially when Stachel is on vacation in Kampala, Uganada, and is seen as just another white guy. But here, as with the examination of anxiety, Stachel’s writing doesn’t yet match his strength as a performer. The way he tries to make peace with Meredith internally and with his father externally aren’t yet fully realized, and the show doesn’t feel finished by its conclusion. Perhaps that’s because Stachel is still so actively living his experience and figuring out the day to day. There are more depths to plumb here, but Stachel should rest assured that he’ll never find a more charismatic actor to enliven his evolving script.

[bonus video]
Ari’el Stachel performs “Haled’s Song About Love” from The Band’s Visit (2018)

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ari’el Stachel’s Out of Character continues through July 30 at Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $39-$119 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Grungy glamour fills ACT’s new journey to Oz

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ABOVE: Katrina Lauren McGraw (center) is Glinda, Chanel Tilgham (left) is Dorothy and Travis Santell Rowland is part of the lively ensemble in the American Conservatory Theater production of The Wizard of Oz. BELOW: Attempting an audience with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz are (from left) Beth Wilmurt (Ozian), Darryl V. Jones (Tin Man), Tilghman (Dorothy), El Beh (Guard), Cathleen Riddley (Cowardly Lion) and Danny Scheie (Scarecrow). Photos by Kevin Berne


We’re all friends of Dorothy now. At least that’s what if feels like in American Conservatory Theater’s Pride Month production of The Wizard of Oz now at the Toni Rembe Theater. Part Pride Parade, part homage to the 1939 movie, part glam rock/glitter grunge dime store spectacle, this Oz has a lot going on, including a lengthy running time that inches toward three hours.

Director/choreographer Sam Pinkleton throws abundant ideas into this well-loved, well-worn tale of Dorothy Gale and her trip over the rainbow – some are clever and exciting, others are not. The intention seems to be a homegrown Oz that feels rooted in San Francisco history, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ activism, Summer of Love hippy vibes and queer culture evocation. This may be a story that begins in Kansas, but it ends up in a fantasy world where the Wicked Witch of the West is like a country-western Karen, the Wizard feels like a Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and Dorothy is a sweetly nondescript teenager in a Batman t-shirt. There’s even (at least on opening night) an appearance by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band marching across the stage.

It feels like Pinkleton wants to whip up a tornado of fun – a new, slightly edgier take on a beloved story but told with just enough sincerity and heart to keep the traditionalists (reasonably) happy. The tornado, for instance, is now a dance piece in which ensemble member Travis Santell Woland wears football shoulder pads from which dangles a dense fringe of plastic caution tape and spins around the stage. There are tall fans, tossed confetti, a Twister game mat (very funny) and a lot of chaos, but not much storytelling about where Dorothy is in all of this. We know where she is because this story is in our DNA at this point, but the stage is more confusing than it needs to be.

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There’s also a unique solution to the yellow-brick road. We never actually see it, but whenever the gang is “off to see the Wizard,” audience members wave the yellow paper napkins they find in their programs.

Set and costume designer David Zinn is clearly having fun with a non-traditional Oz. There are tinsel curtains aplenty, mirrors and multicolored Christmas lights. The challenge of Munchkinland is cleverly addressed (mostly with household objects and googly eyes), and when there’s a need for flashy costumes, like for Glinda (a marvelous Katrina Lauren McGraw in a cloud of pinks) or for residents of the Emerald City, Zinn delivers with some genuine glamor. His costumes for Dorothy’s trio of fellow travelers focus on the humans rather than the creatures. Danny Scheie as the scene-stealing Scarecrow, is outfitted in hippy-ish crochet and a hat that’s actually a crushed milk carton. Darryl V. Jones as the Tin Man might be confused for a leather daddy if leather came in silver. And Cathleen Riddley as the Cowardly Lion is less predator and more teddy bear with a tail.

The sound of the show also takes a turn from the traditional, and in place of the lush MGM orchestrations for the classic Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg score, we have electronic sounds as if from the early days of the Moog synthesizer. But when Chanel Tilghman’s Dorothy offers her lovely take on “Over the Rainbow,” we get cast members augmenting the on-stage five-piece band with cello, ukulele, violin and a surprise woodshed tool (that also happens to be surprisingly beautiful). I was kind of hoping at some point all that chilly electronica would erupt into a disco dance party, but that never really happens, although our time in Munchkinland comes close.

Working from a faithful 1987 stage adaptation of the movie by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pinkleton’s Oz feels less like an archetypal journey and more like an intermittent drag cabaret performed on the smaller proscenium with in the proscenium. I have to admit that as an adult, I find the plot rather tedious, and although this crew is exceptionally lively, I still found myself anxious to get to the “ignore that man behind the curtain” moment. There is surprising poignancy as Dorothy bids her Oz friends goodbye, but that may be borne more from familiarity than any deep feeling the production has earned.

Pinkleton throws a lot at this wizardly wall to see what might stick, and in the end, not much really does. It’s a vessel we all know and love dressed up and enlivened in some interesting ways, but once we’re back in Kansas, the memory of the dream feels disappointingly hollow. This Oz is fun. It’s fresh. But it’s ultimately frustrating.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Conservatory Theater’s The Wizard of Oz continues through June 25 at the Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission). Tickets are $. Call or visit act-sf.org.

Dear San Francisco still charms, dazzles

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The human-scale circus acts in Dear San Francisco are as captivating as ever as the show continues to evolve in its second year at Club Fugazi. Photos courtesy of Dear San Francisco and Club Fugazi Experiences


Dear San Francisco, the dazzling acrobatic spectacular that had the audacity to set up shop in Club Fugazi after the historic nearly half-century run of Beach Blanket Babylon’s, is now in its second year. The show will always hold in a place in my heart as only the second in-person show I attended after a year and a half of watching theater on screens. That experience was mind blowing, not least because I was in a crowd of people who seemed to be as happy as I was just to be in the same room.

And then there was the show – co-conceived and co-directed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider of the amazing cirque nouveau troupe The 7 Fingers – a thrilling, up-close experience with nine acrobats/dancers/athletes/charmers who wrote a love letter to San Francisco with their bodies and their startling hold on the audience and each other.

I had the pleasure of returning to Dear San Francisco recently to see how the show has evolved since October 2021. I still stand by everything in my original review (read it here), and, if anything, I enjoyed the show even more simply because the performers are are so relentlessly talented and charismatic.

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As with any circus-type venture, the acts may change as performers come in and out of the show. I missed the unicycle and teeter-board acts that blew the top off my head the first time around, but the 90-minute show (which seems to have trimmed its subtitle, A High-Flying Love Story) is still bursting with thrills and heart and humor.

A shout out to the entire cast – Sereno “Reno” Aguilar Izzo, Dominic Cruz, Devin Henderson, Maya Kesselman, Oliver Layher, Shengan Pan, Chloe Somers Waller, Enmeng Song and Kyran Walton – for their stunning virtuosity and their extraordinary teamwork. Though the performers have their specialties, it also seems like everyone does a little bit of everything, including playing instruments, reciting beat poetry and creating gorgeous stage pictures in tandem with the projections by Alexander V. Nichols.

Dear San Francisco has beauty, power, excitement, laughs and abundant reminders of San Francisco’s pleasures (and occasional pains). It’s hard to imagine a more worthy successor to Beach Blanket or a show that deserves to have just as long a theatrical life.

Here’s a lovely segment from the show:

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dear San Francisco is selling tickets through July 30 at Club Fugazi, 678 Green St., San Francisco. Running time is 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $49-$99. Call 415-273-0600 or visit clubfugazisf.com

At Marin Theatre Company, these Supremes sing of Justice

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ABOVE: The cast of Justice: A New Musical at Marin Theatre Company includes (from left) Karen Murphy as Sandra Day O’Connor, Stephanie Prentice as Sonia Sotomayor and Lynda DiVito as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. BELOW: DiVito as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photos by Kevin Berne


We are told in Marin Theatre Company’s Justice: A New Musical, now continuing its world premiere (after its debut at Arizona Theatre Company), that power should be shared. But to share it, you must first have it.

And power, at Tuesday’s opening night performance, was a tricky proposition. With cold winds howling through Mill Valley (and much of the Bay Area), the lights in the theater flickered a bit just as the audience was being welcomed to the show. And then the emergency lights clicked on. The power was out just long enough for the tech crew to have re-set the whole shebang and run through a full battery of tests. Then, once the show began, the same thing happened. Power out, emergency lights on, intrepid actors halted mid-song. The outage was short lived, but someone announced that the show would not go on and they’d be happy to re-ticket us in the lobby. But wait! The show WILL go on! Book writer Lauren Gunderson and composers Kait Kerrigan (lyrics) and Bree Lowdermilk (music) jumped up on the stage to discuss how they came to write a musical about the first three women on the Supreme Court bench.

There’s nothing like live theater and the enthusiasm with which theater folk carry on the “show must go on” tradition. Even with the winter winds still blowing, the show resumed where it had left off and carried on to its semi-hopeful, semi-terrifying conclusion about the state of the court moving forward.

The notion of a musical about Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsurg and Sonia Sotomayor doesn’t exactly seem like a natural fit – it somehow feels too light or too silly to do justice (ahem) to the gravity of what these women have accomplished (and in Sotomayor’s case, are still accomplishing). So give full credit to Gunderson, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk as they quickly establish that the show will be respectful, emotional and enjoyable without being (too) preachy.

To say that Justice is like a feature-length “Schoolhouse Rock” is not a diss. The show is less about the workings of the Supreme Court and more about how O’Connor, the first woman in the court, and then Ginsburg, forged an unlikely friendship (Repbulican-Democrat, Episcopalian-Jew, Texan/Arizonan-Brooklyn Baby) and paved the way for Sotomayor and others (Ketanji Brown Jackson is named; I can’t recall if Elena Kagan is name dropped; and the other one is definitely not mentioned by name).

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At only 90 minutes, Justice covers a lot of ground, from 1981 when O’Connor took her seat, to present day, and we see a lot of the American dream/nightmare cross the stage. While the world is turning, we also come to know the O’Connor, Ginsburg and Sotomayor a bit – their personal lives, their quirks, their judicial passions. What makes it all work is not necessarily Gunderson’s vivacious book or Lowdermilk and Kerrigan’s pleasant if not always distinct songs. It’s the powerful women playing these powerful women.

The voices, the dignity, the humanity – it’s all on full display in the strong, beautiful performances by Karen Murphy as O’Connor, Lynda DiVito as Ginsburg and Stephanie Prentice as Sotomayor. I would say that DiVito has the toughest job to do if only because Ginsburg is such an icon (which is, in fact, addressed in one of the songs), but she brings the requisite intelligence, wit and charisma to make a singing Ginsburg (who did, after all, love opera and Barbra Streisand) entirely plausible.

My issue with director Ashley Rodbro’s production is that it doesn’t support its superb actors nearly enough. The cumbersome, unattractive set – think a high school production of Sweeney Todd set in a marbled bathroom – just gets in the way and makes unnecessary work for the actors. At one point Rodbro has actors spinning parts of the set during a song, and it’s beyond distracting. There are hints of projections, but they’re ineffectual and unnecessary (there are actual stars and stripes projected at various times as if we need reminding we’re in America).

And the music. Ugh. From what I can tell in the scant program, there are two keyboard players, and that explains why the faux-symphonic accompaniment sounds so dead. When it’s just piano-like keyboard, we’re fine. The actors are so good they don’t need bells and whistles. They’re brining the power and emotion, and the lackluster accompaniment too often tries to stifle them.

The production simply does not rise to the level of the performers, and that’s a shame. We learn a lot about these women and the often sorry state of our union over the course of Justice, and it’s actually interesting to see these justices bond through song. Had the power actually gone out at the theater, I suspect that if the three actors simply sang and performed the show on their own without the ineffective staging, we’d have been taken right to the heart of this piece and been stirred deeply by these women’s stories, the extraordinary work that has been done and the seemingly impossible work yet to do.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Justice: A New Musical by Lauren M. Gunderson, Bree Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan continues through March 12 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Running time is 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $25-$65. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Murder, family meld in Chen’s Headlands at ACT

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ABOVE: Johnny M. Wu as George (left), Phil Wong as Henry (center) and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Leena in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s
The Headlands, running at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 5. BELOW: Charles Shaw Robinson (left) is Detective, Wong (center) is Henry and Sam Jackson is Jess. Photos by Kevin Berne


San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen seems to revel in puzzle, enigma and truth quests. His fascinating body of work is rich with mystery and unconventional theatricality. He’s one of the most interesting and intelligent playwrights working today, and he’s one of those artists who, when you see his name attached to something, you immediately check it out.

This is quite true of Chen’s The Headlands, now receiving its West Coast premiere (after being at Lincoln Center Theatre in early 2020 right before lockdown) at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater. This one-act drama is a murder mystery and a complex family drama all rolled into one compelling package.

The less revealed about the plot the better, so I’ll just say that this is the story of Henry Wong, a San Francisco native and resident of the Sunset. As played by Phil Wong, Henry is distractingly charming. He speaks directly to the audience and lets us know that he’s an amateur sleuth with a penchant for solving cold cases. There’s one particular 20-year-old case that intrigues him. It involves a murder (or was it?) in his neighborhood. Not just in his neighborhood but in his house. OK. It was his dad. His dad was the victim, and Henry was only 10 years old.

Henry is what you call an unreliable narrator, but then again, how many 10-year-olds make reliable witnesses? His charm and easygoing manner pull us into his quest, but in true Chen fashion, the excitement of a whodunit soon gives way to some serious family complexities that make The Headlands more of an emotional puzzle than a criminal one.

That’s not to say we don’t care about what really happened to Henry’s dad and who may or may not have killed him. We absolutely do, and director Pam MacKinnon creates a propulsive but still deeply emotional production that plays with the idea of creating a film noir for the stage without sacrificing content to genre.

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The set by Alexander V. Nichols really is another character here because it contains the whole world of Henry’s story – his past and present, his memories, his misconceptions. The basic structure comprises the plain gray walls of Henry’s family’s Sunset – two stories, a staircase, a kitchen, a window looking out onto the street. The set gracefully rotates, with walls that slide in and out, and all of it serves to hold Nichols’ vivid projections. They’re mostly of San Francisco and environs – Chinatown, the Sunset, Land’s End, the Marin Headlands, Coit Tower, SFPD’s Taraval Station, Lucca Deli (which practically got a round of applause) – but we also get moody images of fingers hitting piano keys, glass breaking, an IV drip. As Henry delves deeper into his family’s secrets, the projections are a kind of stream of consciousness that envelops everyone and wraps them in the beauty and moodiness of San Francisco.

I’m not usually a fan of abundant projections in live theater (why not just make a movie?), but MacKinnon and Nichols use them so artfully and effectively I was completely mesmerized. When the story reaches intriguing places, the projections fade so the focus can be on the characters. There’s only one scene, to my mind, when the projections overstep and briefly (but still ineffectively) take over the storytelling.

The actors never get overwhelmed by the production primarily because they’re all so good. Beginning with Wong’s increasingly complex Henry, the cast does service to the murder mystery tropes but has no problem digging in to the demands of the family drama. Sam Jackson as Jess, Henry’s girlfriend, helps us navigate what we can and cannot trust in Henry’s storytelling, and Keiko Shimosato Carreiro adds whole new chapters to stories Henry thought he knew.

The invaluable Charles Shaw Robinson turns up twice and manages to fascinate both times (and reveal how casual racism can have drastic results). But it’s the trio of Jomar Tagatac, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Johnny M. Wu that carries the biggest dramatic load. Their stories involve elements of mystery (of course), rom-com, immigrant saga, soap opera and Greek drama, and the actors make it all feel real and vital.

The Headlands is seductive in the way that murder mysteries can be, but its cold case fever gives way to greater depths as one man wrestles with his family – their ghosts, their mistakes and their love for him. It’s a captivating experience that feels deeply rooted in San Francisco, not just as a location but as a state of mind – a head land, you might say.

[Bonus Chen!]
Last year, Christopher Chen dropped an Audible Original called The Podcaster, a 92-minute audio play that messes with the whole notion of podcasts. Of course there’s a mystery involved, and it’s a blast. Get more info here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s The Headlands continues through March 5 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $25-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.