Ant-os in your Pantos: A lively English tradition comes to SF

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Renée Lubin as Genie of the Ring (left) and JM Appleby as Genie of the Lamp in the premiere of The Magic Lamp panto at the Presidio Theatre. Below: Curt Branom as Widow Twankey (left) and Danny Scheie as Abba, the bad guy. Photos by Terry Lorant


The holiday season just got a lot zippier with the opening of The Magic Lamp, a family show at the gorgeously refurbished Presidio Theatre (in the Presidio, not the movie theater on Chestnut of the same name) fashioned in the style of the much-loved British panto tradition. Pantos, if you don’t know, are big business in England this time of year, with shows generally based on a fairy tale or well-known children’s tale but gussied up with outrageous costumes, zany humor of the slapstick variety, cross-dressing and lots of audience participation in the form of sing-alongs, call-and-response or active booing of the bad guy.

The Magic Lamp, written by the wife-and-husband team of Christine Nicholson and Luther Hanson and directed by Tamroz Torfeh, includes all of that plus a whole lot of Bay Area shout-outs and a bundle of hit songs from various eras re-fashioned to tell an updated version of the Aladdin story.

With its fast-paced comedy, pop songs and larger-than-life costumes and wigs, there’s definitely a vibe here that recalls Beach Blanket Babylon, the gone-but-never-forgotten comedy revue that ran for 45 years at Club Fugazi. So it should come as no surprise, then, that there’s a large contingent of Beach Blanket veterans both on stage and behind the scene bringing this energetic holiday endeavor to life.

In this re-telling, Aladdin (Rotimi Agbabiaka is a Daly City-based delivery boy for an egg business run by his mother, Widow Twankey (Curt Branom playing the drag role to the hilt). He falls in love with Jazz (Sharon Shao), daughter of Sultana (Rinabeth Apostol), the richest woman in the world thanks to her online empire, Sultanazon.com.

Bay Area actor/treasure Danny Scheie is on hand to elicit boos and hisses as Abba, the Dodger-loving baddie who needs Aladdin to descend into a cave of jewels and bring him back the magic lamp. That’s all pretty basic, but what’s fun here is that there’s not one but two genies. Renée Lubin is the public transportation-loving Genie of the Ring and traverses the stage via turntable and cable car/magic carpet, and JM Appleby is the Genie of the Lamp, the more traditional three-wishes kind of genie.

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Probably the most enjoyable addition to this version is also the weirdest. Chickens are front and center here, primarily because of the Widow Twankey’s business selling blue eggs (often referred to as “blue balls” to make the grown-ups titter). Aladdin has two sidekicks: the human, Jarvis (Scott Reardon), who also serves as the spirited narrator, and Pecker, a very tall rooster played with admirable commitment by Matthew Kropschot and outfitted in a gorgeous costume by Alina Bokovikova (whose work across the stage is both comic and gorgeous).

And then there’s the scene-stealing trio of hens: Jen Brooks as Preeny, Ruby Day as Queeny and Albert Hodge as Steeny. They speak only in chicken, but their Act 1 number, “Doot Doot Chicken Dance,” is so hilarious that maybe future pantos might want to focus on further flights of the fowl.

At more than 2 1/2 hours (with an intermission), The Magic Lamp maintains an admirable level of energy as the large cast sings, dances (to choreography by Stacey Printz, jokes, tosses candy, vanquishes zombies, clucks and celebrates a big wedding. The aggressive panto style can get a little tiring for some, but these appealing performers (under musical direction by Bill Keck) keep the charm flowing and the laughs coming.

Perhaps best of all, it’s great to see the beautiful Presidio Theatre so full of happy people enjoying a show that overflows with fun and festivity,

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Magic Lamp continues through Dec. 31 at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$75. Call 415-960-3949 or visit presidiotheatre.org for information.

COVID Safety at the Presidio Theatre
The Theatre requires all guests to wear a mask at all times while inside the building. All guests 12 and older are required to show proof of full vaccination with a matching photo ID. Full vaccination is defined as two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Youth 12 to 17 can use a school ID, birth certificate or social security card in place of a photo ID. Young children under five years old are not allowed.<

Love chills in Berkeley Rep’s sizzling Wintertime

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The cast of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Carmen Berkeley (Ariel), Sharon Lockwood (Hilda), Lorri Holt (Bertha), James Carpenter (Frank), Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois), Jomar Tagatac (Bob), and Micah Peoples (Jonathan). Below: (from left) Nora el Samahy (Maria), David Ryan Smith (Edmund), Micah Peoples (Jonathan), James Carpenter (Frank), and Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois). Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Oh, the ragged, jagged, chilly, burning season that is Wintertime, the complicated, beautiful, messy play that heralds the live-on-stage return of Berkeley Repertory Theatre after a 20-month pandemic hiatus.

In so many ways, this is the perfect play to bring back this beloved company. First of all, the play itself, by Charles L. Mee is a chaotic, poetic, operatic farce/drama about lovers, friends and family members who have taken each other for granted for too long. What could be an idyllic post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s few days at a snow-covered country home turns into a rage-filled, poignant and occasionally hilarious explosion – like a snow globe has been smashed, and amid the dripping snow bits and wreckage and broken glass, there are humans struggling to find shards of hope, love and forgiveness.

Mee is a Berkeley Rep favorite, with his Big Love and Fête de la Nuit being two highlights of the theater’s production history. Both of those shows were directed by Berkeley Rep’s former associate artistic director, Les Waters, who also directs Wintertime. There’s likely not a director around who can more effectively bring out the raw humanity and sheer beauty in Mee’s fascinating collage of a script.

Then there’s the cast, which includes some of the Bay Area faces you would most wish to see after having been banished from the theater for a year and a half. Most poignantly, James Carpenter is Frank, a married man whose wife holds a prominent place in his heart and his life even though he’s mostly with his lover, Edmund (David Ryan Smith). This is a role Carpenter played 18 years ago at the now-departed San Jose Repertory Theatre, and if he was good then (he was), he’s magnificent now. As someone who has been expected to be solid all his life, Frank is fragile and so very sad. Contemplating the relationship with his wife, Maria (Nora el Samahy), Frank says when he wakes in the morning, “I can’t decide whether I most want to hurt you or give you something.”

Other local stalwarts in the cast include the great Sharon Lockwood and Lorri Holt as Hilda and Bertha, the interfering couple next door, and the gorgeous stage is designed by Annie Smart, whose set brings the winter woods indoors by hanging dozens of silver tinsel garlands from the rafters and gives us one window through which we see a never-ending snowfall. The winter light comes from designer Russell H. Champa, and it’s all appropriately cold until tempers flare and we get flashes of red and changing hints of color around door and window frames.

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The humans within this wintry arena speak in poetic arias like characters out of Shakespeare or Chekhov who behave like the only thing that matters is themselves and their feelings. This means Act One of this 2 1/2-hour play is a near-constant eruption of jealousy, betrayal and hurt. The act’s final scenes offer two showstoppers: one involves a much-slammed red door that becomes the centerpiece of a wounded ego/broken heart ballet and the other turns the stage into the physical embodiment of all those emotions with the kind of mess you don’t envy the stagehands having to clean up.

Through it all, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design keeps pumping loud, heavy music full of voice and orchestra. There are some lighter moments – Silk Sonic makes a welcome audio appearance – and Act Two, with mortality leveling out some of the egos and tormented love stories, features some emotional depth that brings young love back to earth and gives older love reason to hope. And the entire cast ends up dancing around in beautiful underwear (costumes by Anna Oliver because sometimes joy mixed with loud music, dancing and underwear is absolutely necessary.

The marvelous cast, under Waters’ astute, no-nonsense direction, also includes Thomas Jay Ryan as a French lover who (maybe) sees his ribald life a little differently by play’s end, the hilarious but deadpan Jomar Tagatac as a delivery guy/minister who brightens every scene he graces and Carmen Berkeley and Micha Peoples as the young lovers whose shallow sense of the romantic evolves into something much different.

Mee’s dialogue can soar, it can annoy and it can dazzle. He cares about his characters’ dreams and he has compassion for their abundant faults. Then there’s the odd line that makes you take a mental note to write into the script of your actual life: “You were born grouchy; you live in a snit; and you will die in a huff.”

The trick of Wintertime is that it seems like it will be a cozy, romantic canoodle by a roaring fire, but the reality is that this play is, for all its glorious theatricality, jagged, sharp-edged and emotionally authentic – more bitter than sweet, more vodka rocks than hot cocoa.

The play is a carnival mirror, broken as that mirror may be, and there’s much to see (and feel) in it from the perspective of this strange period in which we find ourselves. During a Viking feast, a toast is offered to the assembled, but it might as well be to all of us as we move slowly out of one terrifying era and into…whatever comes next:

to the end of squabbling
the end of jealousy
the end of suspicions
to the new times of gratitude
for what we have.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime continues through Dec. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$92 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

A joyful circus bounces into Club Fugazi

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Ruben Ingwersen (left) and Jérémi Levesque hit remarkable heights in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story, the exuberant new show at Club Fugazi. Below: Devin Henderson jumps through the hoop. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


If it were possible to actually see the heart of San Francisco, it might look like the beautifully diverse group of awe-inspiring acrobats bouncing around the stage in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story. And this is not just any stage: this is Club Fugazi, the storied North Beach theater built in 1913 where Beach Blanket Babylon ran for most of its nearly five-decade run.

That’s a tough act to follow, but you know what? COVID is even tougher. And the glorious artists behind this enterprise rise to the challenge and then some. As Bay Area theater slowly begins to wake up from its 18-month imposed nap, it’s positively bracing to be in the presence of not only the wonderful performers of Dear San Francisco but also the loving, funny, thrilling show itself.

Co-conceived, created and directed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider for their company, The 7 Fingers, this is a circus show that aims to share what’s lovable, what’s quirky and what’s annoying about San Francisco. Such a show could run for six hours at least, but this one runs around 90 minutes, and, happily, it doesn’t get hung up on SF stereotypes or get too sappy or silly about what makes this place unique. It takes an open-hearted approach and embraces these 7×7 miles by creating a portrait of a city that feels as wonderful and exciting as it feels unknowable. This isn’t a schmaltzy show built for tourists, but any living, breathing human (tourist or not) would be inclined to enjoy it and its robust portrait of the City by the Bay.

Carroll and Snider come to the world of the modern circus through San Francisco’s own chapter of circus renown, specifically through the Pickle Family Circus (Carroll was a trapeze artist and Snider’s parents founded the Pickles when she was 4). We tend to think of modern circus in terms of Cirque de Soleil, but I have to admit a certain weariness for that empty corporate spectacle. Give me a pulsing, human troupe like The 7 Fingers any day, and in addition to reveling in the performers’ skills, I’ll also enjoy their camaraderie, the light in their eyes and the magic they can create with their bodies and very little else.

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The nine-person cast is charming, sexy, funny and gobsmacking. If you’ve ever been to Fugazi, you know it’s not a very big theater. How Beach Blanket managed to get those giant props and hats onto that small stage is one of the wonders of the world. And 7 Fingers goes even further toward making this an intimate experience by putting audience members on the stage. Those folks almost end up with acrobats in their laps several times, but it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining.

There’s a poetic fluidity to the sequence of events, and the acrobatic acts themselves are woven into captivating vignettes about, for instance, falling in love in Golden Gate Park (which involves a trapeze and, apparently, a deal with gravity to take some time off). Or there’s the unicyclist who seems to be dancing and taking over the city on one wheel. It’s aggressive and beautiful at the same time (and the effect often appears more like rollerskating than unicycle riding).

Diving through a twirling hoop is set against recitations from the Beat poets, and the magnitude of an earthquake is measured by two men on a teeterboard (and it is seismic). Even Sam Spade and an enigmatic, truth-challenged client get in on the act with white balls (sort of like smaller volleyballs) that allow for a startling blend of film noir and juggling.

Tech folks get a mild skewering in a bit called “Privatize This,” and a hand balancing act becomes poetry in motion involving the beauty of redemption. My favorite act – the one that literally made me hold my breath – takes place on the stage-to-ceiling poles with a level of strength and control that is mind boggling.

Dear San Francisco really is a high-flying love story. There are people in love mixed into its portrait of a beautiful city, but it’s really a love story between us and the city itself. At one point, performers read postcards written by audience members (and some famous folk), and at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, one postcard said something to the effect of, “San Francisco, you have broken my heart and filled it over and over again,” which makes this place almost impossible to quit. How do you capture a historic city in flux? With a pile of irresistible acrobat performers, that’s how. This living, breathing love letter of a show finds joy in every leap, razzle-dazzle in every flip and absolute joy in every moment.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story are on sale through Dec. 30. Tickets are $35-$89. Call 415-273-0600 or visit clubfugazisf.com. Club Fugazi is at 678 Green Street., San Francisco.

COVID Protocol
Club Fugazi requires proof of full vaccination with valid ID upon entry for all guests 12 years and up. Acceptable forms of proof include your physical vaccination card, a photo of your vaccination card, or a digital vaccination record. (California residents can request a digital vaccination record at https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov/). Masks will be required for all patrons (including children) at all times. Unvaccinated children between the ages of 5 – 11 will be able to attend with vaccinated adult(s).

Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

42nd Street Moon lights the stage with Lady Day

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Doris Bumpus plays Billie Holiday in the 42nd Street Moon streaming production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Brill by Lanie Robertson. Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon


The extraordinary resilience of theater companies adjusting to the shutdown and continuing to make work will never not amaze me. Against all pandemic odds, these companies muster the resources and figure out how to interact with audiences virtually until we can all come together again.

42nd Street Moon launched the MoonBeams subscription series in May with Jason Graae’s 100% charming tribute to Jerry Herman called Perfect Hermany and continues the trio of offerings with Doris Bumpus in a showcase role at the center of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

One of the most extraordinary things about these theatrical pivots is how skillfully companies have embraced the challenges of creating a theater/cinema hybrid by filming fully produced productions. Theater-makers have had to become filmmakers in a hurry – at least to the extent that viewers stop thinking about the camera work, the editing or other technical elements and relax into the production itself.

Moon’s Lady Day is a vibrant example of that hybrid working at its efficient best. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play finds Billie Holiday in one of the final performances before her death in July 1959. She’s back at a familiar Philadelphia jazz club with her pianist, Jimmy Powers (played by music director Marcus McCauley) and a small combo. In this play with music, Holiday sings some of her best tunes and tells stories about her life and her struggles.

Director Brandon Jackson‘s production, which is just over an hour, zips along with an emphasis on the music more than the drama. Bumpus doesn’t do a Holiday impressions so much as capture the essence of a gifted singer whose unique voice and phrasing cut right to the emotional core of the songs she sang. Bumpus has a beautiful musical theater voice that swings, caresses and soothes.

Like so many biographical playwrights, Robertson relies too heavily on contrived nightclub patter to convey a sense of drama as Lady Day goes from a position of jaunty strength at the top of the show to tipsy chanteuse as she tipples and talks and then to a desperate addict who has to run offstage for a fix.

Director Jackson smartly emphasizes the music, which is wonderful – especially Holiday’s trademark “God Bless the Child” (a song she wrote for her mother), “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” a rollicking tribute to one of her heroes, Bessie Smith.

Although the music is the star in this production, there’s still an undeniable sadness in Holiday’s story, especially her struggles as a Black woman in the first half of the 20th century. The mistreatment, the bad relationships with men, the drug addiction, the incarceration – it all adds up to a poignant portrait of an extraordinary artist – one of our great American singers, who deserved a whole lot better than she got.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill continues streaming through May 30. Single tickets are $25 and subscriptions range from $60-$112. The final MoonBeams production, Don’t Touch That Dial: DC and Peter’s Glorious Romp Through the Golden Age runs June 5-27. Visit 42ndstmoon.org for information.

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.

ACT puts Scrooge in your head this year

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James Carpenter revisits the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol: On Air, an audio adaptation of the beloved annual production. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Some years I’ve had it up to hear with A Christmas Carol and want nothing to do with the Cratchits, the crutch and bah humbugs. Other years, I feel like there’s never been a more potent perennial, and every human should experience Dickens’ ghost story in one form or another. This year, this mind-bending year, is one of the latter.

American Conservatory Theater has been making holiday hay with Carol for more than 40 years, and in this year of lockdowns and shutdowns and only the memory of audiences, the company has opted to keep the tradition alive, albeit with an audio adaptation that we can listen to from the comfort and safety of our own homes and through the intimacy (if we so choose) of headphones to build the production between our ears.

Director Peter J. Kuo has adapted the adaptation (as it were) by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the Dickens novella, and the conceit here is that a group of young adults (all part of ACT’s MFA program), who constitute a social pod, attend a holiday party and do an impromptu reading of the play. Magic (and nifty sound effects) ensue.

Happily, once the reading begins in earnest, veteran actors James Carpenter and Sharon Lockwood show up – he to reprise his excellent performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and she in a variety of roles, including Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Both Carpenter and Lockwood could perform all the parts and make it dazzling, but it’s satisfying just to have them in the mix with enthusiastic young actors.

The MVP here, without question, is sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who essentially has to replace sets, costumes and lights with an evocative soundscape to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play for two hours. Rodriguez has great fun with all the ghostly elements of the story and also incorporates the original score by Karl Lundeberg effectively. Everything about the production is crisp and straightforward and clear, which is a good thing so the Dickens storytelling can shine through.

Other than the running time (two hours is a long time to sit and listen at home), my one real reservation here is that an adult is saddled with the thankless task of playing Tiny Tim, complete with little boy voice. The role is so pivotal to the plot and to the emotional construct of the story that this casting choice simply does not work.

Happily, and occasionally merrily, the production is mostly filled with vibrant performances and that divine Dickensian blend of gloom and cheer. Despair and hope intermingle throughout (landing on the latter, of course), making this whole holiday enterprise feel especially affecting this year.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air streams online through Dec. 30. Tickets
are $40–$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

SF Playhouse explores Art on stage on film

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Josh Kornbluth saves the world with Citizen Brain

Citizen Brain
Josh Kornbluth in Citizen Brain a Shotgun Players online production. Photo by Jayme Catalano

Josh Kornbluth is really working the Empathy Circuit these days. Unlike, say, the Borscht Belt or the nearly vanished cabaret clubs, the Empathy Circuit isn’t any sort of entertainment network. It’s the complex wiring that winds through various parts of our brains and allows us to feel empathy – that is, the ability to care about, imagine or even try to feel the feelings of another being.

The masterful Kornbluth has long had a way with a beguiling autobiographical show – Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, Love & Taxes – and his latest, Citizen Brain, comes at the most opportune moment imaginable. It’s too bad we don’t get to sit together in the Ashby Stage auditorium for this Shotgun Players production, but it turns out that Kornbluth’s vivacity, humor and intelligence fairly burst out of the Zoom box in which he performs his monologue live through Nov. 8. In these tense weeks leading up to the election, I can imagine no more effective balm than spending about 75 minutes with Kornbluth while he talks about brain science and making an effort to care about other humans (especially the ones who piss you off).

Written in collaboration with Aaron Loeb and Casey Stangl (who also directs), Citizen Brain is rooted in Kornbluth’s family. This time the focus is on his mom, Bunny, and her late-in-life second husband, Frank, who develops Alzheimer’s disease. With a real-life connection to brain disease, Kornbluth becomes involved as an artist fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute, a collaboration between UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center and Dublin’s Trinity College. It was here that Kornbluth began to understand how empathy works in the brain and how, if you consider our collective national consciousness as a “citizen brain,” it would appear that our empathy circuit has gone dark. There’s some crossover terrain here with his 2007 show Citizen Josh in which he discussed how important it was to speak respectfully with people on opposite sides of whatever spectrum might be generating tension, but this time he’s coming at it from an artist/humanist/scientist perspective.

All of this is also set against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and its divisive fallout, which makes Kornbluth wonder, “Could it be our country has dementia?” It’s a fair question, and though he doesn’t exactly have an answer, Kornbluth, with the help of his neurosurgeon mentors, begins to develop a solution that begins simply: take a breath; take another breath; then “make a leap into the perspective of another person.” Thinking on a grand scale, Kornbluth envisions this solution becoming nothing short of a peaceful worldwide revolution of empathy.

And what’s interesting about that from a Kornbluthian point of view is that Josh is at long last fulfilling the destiny laid out for him by his Communist parents as detailed in his show Red Diaper Baby. His revolution might not involve Marx, Lenin or Stalin, but it’s a a full-circle revolution moment none the less.

That’s part of the Kornbluth magic – storytelling that feels intensely personal and warmly universal – and it’s on full display (and in near close-up!) in this captivating online performance. With this show – in itself an act of deep empathy – and his ongoing work at citizenbrain.org (be sure to check out the videos), Kornbluth’s revolution is ramping up and working its way from heart to heart. Since watching the show, I’ve already heard Kornbluth’s voice in my head say, “Take a breath. Take another breath.” I’m going to continue working on my empathy circuit and try to play a small part in the revolution.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Brain continues through Nov. 8 in an online Shotgun Players production. Tickets are pay-what-you-can $8-$40. Advance reservations required. Click here for information.

ACT Zooms into a new era with Warcraft

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The cast of In Love and Warcraft includes (clockwise from top left) James Mercer as Ryan, Cassandra Hunter as Evie, Wesley Guimarães as Tony and Madeline Isabel Yagle as Chai. Below: Hunter’s Evie and Angulo’s Raul meet in a café. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Our world now is squares, Zoom squares. It’s how we work, how we socialize and how we connect to cultural events all from the safety of our homes. We settle for this because it’s the best we can do for now, and sometimes it almost feels like the real thing.

Over the last almost six months of quarantine, I’ve enjoyed some hearty theater – some favorites have included Arizona Theatre Company’s The White Chip by Sean Daniels, Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins from star Michael Urie’s apartment, Shotgun Players’ Quack by Eliza Clark and The Old Vic’s Three Kings by Stephen Beresford. I’d much rather be in a room where people can actually laugh, cry, gasp and applaud together, but I’ll take what I can get.

The trick with theater on Zoom is how to actually connect the production and the person at home. We have shorter attention spans (at least I certainly do) at home, although I love being able to watch with my dog (Hank, the theater dog). We have distractions at home even when we try to replicate theater conditions with lights and phones turned off. And I have to admit I sigh a little when the show starts and it looks just like a staff meeting I had that morning.

But credit creative directors and designers who are working to turn Zoom into a dynamic theater space. American Conservatory Theater kicks off the fall theater, such as it is, with a production that amply demonstrates how effective Zoom can be as a play space. In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar is a co-production with Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, and it’s a remount of a production made last spring, at the start of quarantine, with members of ACT’s MFA Class of 2022 under the direction of Peter J. Kuo.

It was a smart choice to remount the show for a number of reasons, including the cast’s mastery of the script and the mechanics of managing their own sets and cameras and the fact that Shekar’s script (with a few tweaks by Kuo) unfolds entirely via phone cameras, laptop cameras, Instagram, Tik Tok and even security cameras.

ILAW_Still2

The cast of students is also playing a group of (mostly) students, so it all makes a certain amount of sense even before it starts, but then Kuo has devised clever ways to convey characters together in the same room – sometimes even making out! – by giving us a glimpse of the same painting on an apartment wall in both Zoom squares or starting a set in one square (the medical posters on a doctor’s wall) and finishing it in the next square (the patient on the exam table). These kind of touches could be distracting, but the fact that they’re even making an effort to create a sense of space is really all we need to climb aboard this particular Zoom train.

The six-member cast handles all of this scene building so deftly that it’s actually more entertaining than distracting, and their performances are so exuberant that they’re more interesting than the sets anyway.

Cassandra Hunter is Evie, the center of the story. A lover of playing a “World of Warcraft”-like multi-player video game and a Cyrano-like writer-for-hire of romantic texts, letters, Facebook posts, etc., Evie is doing what most people in college do: figuring out who she is and what her sexuality means to her. In Evie’s case, her love of the cyber world is partly how she deals with the fear of the real world and her own body in the real world. Her boyfriend (James Mercer as Ryan) is someone with whom she spends most of her time online. A date for them involves exploring a mermaid lagoon in the game they both love. But then one of Evie’s real-world clients, Raul (Hernán Angulo), begins complicating things.

While Evie deals with her fears surrounding real-world relationships, her roommate Kitty (Evangeline Edwards) deals with the repercussions of living her life in exactly the opposite way: no fears of anyone or anything and no desire left unfulfilled.

The world of these characters is filled out by Wesley Guimarães
and Madeline Isabel Yagle in more than a dozen small (occasionally very funny) roles.

If the way this story is told is novel, the plot really isn’t, but it’s still comforting to watch talented actors dive into the small dramas, triumphs and humiliations of young love in a world where online relationships with people you haven’t necessarily met in real life can be as impactful as those with whom you share space.

My challenged attention span found two hours of this story about 30 minutes too much, but it certainly wasn’t for any lack of energy or charm among the cast. The most remarkable aspect of In Love and Warcraft was the illusion of connection – that people really were looking at each other and responding to one another in space and time, physically and emotionally. The barriers of Zoom, it seems, were made to be broken.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
In Love and Warcraft will have two additional live performances Friday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. and Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. In Love and Warcraft will be available on-demand from September 18–25. www.act-sf.org.