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.

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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.

G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria fascinates, frightens at ACT

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Coworkers Ani (Martha Brigham, left) and Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) commiserate with each other over their publishing jobs and toxic workplace in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, at ACT’s Strand Theater through April 12. Below: Miles, the intern (Jared Corbin, left), talks with Dean (Jeremy Kahn) about his future plans. Photos by Kevin Berne

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a fascinating play. It’s a lively workplace comedy until it’s an unsettling workplace drama. There’s a sheen of satire to it but also reality and heart. There’s a bracing boldness to it that makes its two hours fly by, and its path is never exactly what you think it will be.

Director Eric Ting navigates the tonal shifts expertly with the support of a sterling cast. There’s not a weak or even wobbly performance here, and with some actors playing up to three roles, that is a thrilling thing. I especially loved Martha Brigham as a good-hearted office busybody, a curt publishing doyenne with an even more curt haircut and as an overly enthusiastic, slightly goofy script reading lackey. I was also delighted by Jared Corbin as a cheerful intern, a loquacious Starbucks employee and, in a sharp contrast to the intern, a show-biz executive.

Three established Bay Area actors, Brigham, Lauren English and Jeremy Kahn are giving the kind of performances that further solidify their status as actors whose work you miss at your peril. They are always good, reliable performers, but more often than not, they are brilliant, and that is most definitely the case here.

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I reviewed Gloria for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

Director Eric Ting, who has previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.
There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark were writing a sitcom for the CW.
But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria continues through April 12 at ACT’s The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Life, death and more fill Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey at ACT

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Guy (Tony Hale) asks the audience to follow him in an exercise of imagination in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey performing at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) stretches as Guy rests. Photos by Kevin Berne

When you write about theater, you tend to take notes while watching the show whenever a line or a moment triggers the part of your brain that says, “Oh, I’d like to mention that later.” During Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the first half had me writing so fast and furiously I finally just had to stop writing entirely and simply absorb the show.

This isn’t surprising in that Eno is one of the most interesting playwrights in the theaterverse. He’s weird and brilliant, funny and deeply humane. Because there can be an oblique and highly theatrical quality to his work, he has often been compared to Beckett, but for me, I feel more Thornton Wilder (somewhere between The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town). He wrestles in creative and insightful and surprising ways with what it is to be alive and how we’re all connected by the knowledge that none of us is getting out of here alive and that we could all probably be doing better when it comes to being aware of our lives as we’re living them.

Wakey, Wakey,, like other Eno works, defies easy description. There are people and things happen, but where they are and what exactly they’re doing isn’t clear. And it doesn’t need to be. We’re all here and this is happening. Director Anne Kauffman eases us into this world, helps us relax and just take the play as it comes without expectations that this is going to follow the rules and rhythms of plays we’ve experienced before.

The play begins with a prologue of sorts, The Substitution, about a community college driver’s ed class where the substitute teacher (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) shakes things up by not behaving the way the students expect her to and ends up giving them something far more interesting (if inscrutable) than the rules of the road.

Then the play begins in earnest with the appearance of Guy (Tony Hale), about whom we know nothing except that our first encounter with him finds him face down on the floor minus his pants. Seconds later, his pants are on, he’s sitting in a wheelchair and he’s talking directly to us.

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Apparently we’re all here for some sort of presentation (well, yes, isn’t that what a play is?). Guy is offering, with the help of some notecards, a semi-inspirational TED-ish talk about the nature of time and about how this is not really how it was supposed to be. The setting (by designer Kimie Nishikawa) is a nondescript auditorium or multipurpose room in some sort of civic or educational institution or perhaps a place where people live together or are receiving treatment. Again, details are sketchy and it doesn’t really matter (although I have theories, and I’m certain they’re all 100% accurate).

What Guy does (or did) before being in this room with us is not known. If he has connections to other people (spouse, child, friends), that also remains a mystery. He’s going to engage us as best he can and share a little of what he knows about life but with lots of distractions and asides. Hale’s basic likability is essential here. We know and love the actor from his incredible work making misfits lovable on “Arrested Development” (Buster) and “VEEP” (Gary) and most recently as the voice of Forky in Toy Story 4 (talk about an existential crisis). None of the quirks we might recognize from other characters inform Guy, who is clearly a kind person if somewhat frustrated by his current situation. So even though we don’t know much about Guy, we like him and connect with him and want him to succeed in this endeavor, even as it seems to grow increasingly difficult for him.

There is another character, possibly someone we met in the prologue (or someone else entirely), and that character helps clarify (a little) what we’re actually witnessing.

Wakey, Wakey feels like more of an experience than a play, one that lingers as a feeling (or an avalanche of feelings) rather than as conundrum we have to pick apart and solve. There’s a lot about death here – does the title refer to a gentle way of rousing a sleeping child or is it a play on the gathering we have after a funeral? – and as a result, it’s positively hopeful and life affirming. This rich experience – barely 90 minutes – is also funny, moving and inspiring. There are so many things we can do with the limited time we’re given. Absorbing Wakey, Wakey would be a good use of that time.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey continues through Feb. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Cricket tests history in ACT’s feisty Testmatch

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Tensions rise as (from left) England 3 (Millie Brooks), England 2 (Arwen Anderson), India 2 (Lipica Shah), India 1 (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) and India 3 (Avanthika Srinivasan) discuss which is the better team in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Testmatch at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 8. Below: The Messenger (Kumbhani, right) shares astonishingly bad news with two British officers, Two (Brooks, left) and One (Anderson). Photos by Kevin Berne

You could say that Kate Attwell’s Testmatch, the world premiere play at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, is about cricket. You could also say it’s about untangling the gnarly knots of history. But the impact, especially in the savvy way Attwell has constructed the play, comes from its emphasis on the deep interconnection of everything to everything.

We think we’re watching a play about an International Cricket Council World Cup match between India and England women’s teams – and that makes for a mightily intriguing play – but really we’re seeing the frayed ends of a knotted rope that stretches back to England’s savage colonizing of India. There are infinite ways of examining how the past is directly affecting the present, but Attwell takes her slice from the world of sport, specifically a byzantine, vaguely baseball-ish sport the British brought to India.

There’s a bit of Caryl Churchill in Testmatch (thinking especially of the Anglo-Indian relations in Cloud 9), and I mean that as high praise. Like Churchill, Attwell digs into intimate details and grand theatrics to find the bigger picture. She also bends gender to her will in a quest to find theater in history and truth in fiction.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, Testmatch has a lively energy, though it surprised me at the end that only 90 minutes had passed. The play somehow feels more substantial and longer than that, which probably has to do with the way Attwell has split the action between present-day England and 19th-century India. In the modern first half, the cricket match in which the India women were leading the England women is interrupted by rain and is unlikely to continue. Three members of each team end up in a sort of ante-locker room to drink tea and vent their frustration. These scenes absolutely crackle with the fire of competition, cultural difference and nefarious secrets.

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Instead of names, the characters are given a nationality and a number, and it’s England 2 (Arwen Anderson) who works to keep the mood light with her astute observations on the differences between male lovers who play cricket (not so much) and those who play rugby (oh, YES, very much!). In spite of her best efforts, things nearly come to blows and racial epithets are nearly hurled and any pretense of good manners shatters.

From there, Nina Ball’s boxy white set shifts, as do Marie Yokoyama’s lights, and we’re in India watching two male buffoons (played by Anderson and Millie Brooks) in Calcutta as they dither and chortle and otherwise carry out their duties for the East India Company. Safely inside the walls of their estate, all is well. Uniformed Abhi (Lipica Shah) keeps things under control and does not at all approve of upping the opium dose for the lady of the house (Madeline Wise as the delusional, visionary Memsahib). From the other side of the wall comes an exuberant young local woman (the charismatic Avanthika Srinivasan as Daanya) who wants to train with the English cricket team. She’s the first crack in the wall, so to speak, as the reality of India begins to invade the colonialists’ willful ignorance of the damage their raping and pillaging of the country is wreaking. Then comes an emissary from Bengal (a gripping Meera Rohit Kumbhani) with news that would devastate anyone…anyone, that is, but a British businessman intent on squeezing out the last of the country’s riches before beating it back to Britain.

Some of the first half’s energy evaporates in the second half as the tone shifts from locker room reality to gender-bending satire and then again to grim, oppressive reality. Those are big shifts to make, and if Attwell and MacKinnon don’t entirely succeed in making them, the marvelous cast pulls out all the dramatic and comedic stops to keep driving the play to its end. There’s a welcome degree of humor in Testmatch, but this is an earnest examination of how deeply personal history can be and about how we never really plumb those depths or find ways – individually or culturally – to deal with the horror and injustice and greed that have placed us where we are today.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kate Attwell’s Testmatch continues through Dec 8 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

White Noise shocks, ultimately disappoints at Berkeley Rep

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s White Noise by Suzan-Lori Parks includes (from left) Chris Herbie Holland as Leo, Therese Barbato as Dawn, Aimé Donna Kelly as Misha and Nick Dillenburg as Ralph. Below: Holland and Barbato as Leo and Dawn work through some life and relationship challenges. Photos by Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise is an intensely interesting play. Just not a very good one.

And that’s surprising given that Parks, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, has bent, molded and shaped contemporary theater to her will through sheer force of intelligence, powerful writing and the courage to configure theater as she needs it to be configured. Her most powerful plays – The America Play, Topdog/Underdog, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) – take inspiration from other pioneering playwrights (Homer, Brecht) and become wholly original Parksian examinations of race and the endless echoes of slavery.

White Noise, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, continues exploring those issues, but it would appear that Parks wants to do that in a seemingly conventional way. Her set-up in Act 1 feels like the pilot of a Netflix series. Two interracial couples, friends since college (and, for a short, blissful time, even bandmates), are still close now that they’re living in a big city (never named) and preoccupied with adulting.

Leo (Chris Herbie Holland) is the play’s fulcrum. He’s a promising black artist who has a long-gestating craetive block. He has wrestled with insomnia since childhood, when a Sunday school teacher told him that the sun was going to go out. He’s anxious and sleep deprived, but he keeps saying that “through sheer force of will” he gets through his days. His college sweetheart, Dawn (Therese Barbato), is a crusading lawyer, “one of the good guys,” as she keeps putting it. She could have gone with a big firm but wanted to start at the bottom to see what it felt like (and, of course, to help the underrepresented).

Once a week, Dawn and Leo meet their besties at the local bowling alley. Ralph (Nick Dillenburg) inherited a mint from his bowling-alley magnate father, and that cushion of privilege allows him to do some sideline writing and college teaching as a lit professor. That multi-million-dollar cushion also allows his girlfriend, Misha (Aimé Donna Kelly), to pursue her career as a vlogger. She hosts a live-stream call-in show called “Ask a Black” in which she, as she describes her performance style, “dials up the Ebonics.”

So far, so Netflix. But then Leo, during a late-night walk through a posh neighborhood, is assaulted by the police simply for being a black man where they didn’t think he should be. He is understandably traumatized and comes up with an extreme plan to deal with that trauma, not to mention his general life malaise.

If you’d rather not know Leo’s plan, stop reading. But this is where things get interesting…and then ultimately end up disappointing.

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Over the weekly bowling game, Leo says he would like Ralph to buy him for nearly $90,000 (the cost of his credit card debt and student loans) and make him a slave for 40 days. This is not something that would ever happen in real life, so the fact that Ralph needs little persuading to agree or that the women go along with it after feeble protestations hardly matters. Playwright Parks is conducing a theatrical experiment here and needs to jump start it.

The problem is that the experiment turns out to be not that interesting. No new theatrical ground is broken in terms of structure. There’s a big chart documenting 40 days that get ticked off in the longer second act. Ralph gets way too enthusiastic about being a slave master, and Leo seems to find some semblance of growth within this torture that he instigated. Tension mounts, relationships are shattered and everything pans out pretty much as expected (which is to say, not well at all).

Parks has each of her characters deliver a soliloquy to the audience illuminating their pasts and presents, and though the actors in director Jaki Bradley’s production are all skilled and charismatic, there’s not one person on the stage whom I would count myself lucky to call a friend.

There’s no bold theatricality at work here, just strained reality and a conceit that continually reviews itself while it’s happening (everybody’s checking in with everybody about how everybody is doing). If the situation here is contrived, the emotions should be real and heightened, but they’re not. Parks toys with fluid sexuality but not in a way that would directly challenge (or augment) her central plot, and the heavy presence of bowling (beautifully realized by set designer Adam Rigg, who manages to create two apartments and a bowling alley out of one set, and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman) is actually a drag. Bowling is just plain dull unless you’re the one smashing the pins.

There are moments here designed to outrage, shock and offend – not a surprise in a play about the “virus,” as Parks calls it, of racism. But this slightly amped-up sitcom needs bigger, bolder, even more outrageous moments to really register and to feel like this insular quartet is part of the American evolution that began in 1619 with the first the first sale of slaves on these shores.

If I had a choice, I’d rather see a play about Misha (especially as played by the dynamic Kelly). Her “Ask a Black” vlog is the best thing in the show. First it’s played for comedy, but the serious undercurrents grow stronger and stronger until her awakening (and the way she capitalizes on her friend and boyfriend becoming slave and master) becomes more interesting than Leo and Ralph’s increasingly troublesome experiment. I’m ready for her show about this show.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise continues through Nov. 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Churchill is tops in ACT’s Top Girls

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Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at ACT’s Geary Theater through Oct. 13. Below: Marlene (Michelle Beck), right, interviews Jeanine (Lin). Photos by Kevin Berne

The mind of Caryl Churchill is an extraordinary place to spend an evening. Happily, this theater season, the Bay Area will see an abundance of Churchill, beginning with American Conservatory Theater’s season-opening Top Girls from 1982. [Upcoming Churchill productions include Cloud 9 at Custom Made Theatre Company, Vinegar Tom from Shotgun Players and Escaped Alone from Magic Theatre.]

Churchill is one of theater’s most bracing, original and fascinating voices. At 81, she just premiered another boundary-pushing work, Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp., at London’s Royal Court, and she never seems to tire of experimenting with form. The one consistent from play to play is ferocious intelligence and curiosity and a mastery of the theatrical to both engage and entertain.

Top Girls is an interesting place to start the Bay Area’s informal Churchill festival. Nearly 40 years after its premiere, the play doesn’t feel dated, even though its time period is very much the big hair, neon colors, Maggie Thatcher world of 1980s London. In this exploration of feminism – specifically what it costs to be a woman, successful or not, in a man’s world – Churchill is in the world of fantasy, the confines of slick workplace ambitions and in the gritty, emotionally dense realm of family drama. She’s traversing, the past, present and future almost simultaneously, which is a dramatic feat to be savored.

The central character is Marlene (Michelle Beck), a committed career woman who has just landed a big promotion at Top Girls, a London employment agency. Act 1 begins with a celebration Marlene is throwing for herself in a posh restaurant’s private room (all shiny glass bricks and cool surfaces in Nina Ball’s set).

In this flight of fancy, Marelene hasn’t invited friends or family, she has invited women from history, some real, some fictional. For instance, there’s Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) who successfully hid the fact that she was a woman in the 9th century and became pope until she rather accidentally gave birth during a procession. Then there’s Dull Gret (Summer Brown) a warrior figure from a Bruegel painting, and Patient Griselda (Monique Hafen Adams), a character from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by way of Boccaccio. Among the most talkative at the table are Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), a concubine to the Japanese emperor, and explorer/author Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal).

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Though there’s a lot of talking over one another like at any dinner party involving lots of wine, each character has a moment to reflect on sacrifices they made in whatever realm of life they were in, and those sacrifices often had specifically to do with their bodies, their children and their relationships with me. What Marlene gets out of this, or how she came to choose such an eclectic guest list, is never quite clear. But we’ll learn more about Marlene’s own sacrifices at attitudes toward those sacrifices as the play proceeds to jump back and forth in time.

Director Tamilla Woodard and her cast take a while to relax into the rhythms of the dinner party. Some actors struggle with accents and with being heard over the general din. Things become more assured as the play progresses. The workplace scenes have some nice crackle to them – one scene is especially sharp, with a long-time employee of a firm (McNeal) making a bold step to find a new gig after realizing she has sacrificed any semblance of a personal life for a company that doesn’t appreciate her.

The sheen of commerce vanishes in Ball’s set as we delve more deeply into Marlene’s personal life, and the details of lower-middle-class home come sharply into focus. This is where the play lives and where all its disparate parts coalesce. Beck’s performance as Marlene crystalizes with help from fine work by Nafeesa Monroe and Gabriella Momah.

It’s interesting to think about what changes Churchill might have made – if any – were she to write Top Girls today. Would women be more supportive of one another? Would the #MeToo movement bring a sense of power or just add layers of complication? It doesn’t really matter because Churchill’s play – like most insightful human dramas – has enough depth and ingenuity to address questions beyond its time. But does it have the answers? That’s more of an off-stage, real-world matter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls continues through Oct. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Great Wave crashes

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The cast of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Great Wave includes (from left) Yurié Collins as Reiko, Julian Cihi as Tetsuo, and Jo Mei as Hanako. Below: Grace Chan Ng as Hana is interrogated by David Shih as Soldier One and Cindy Im as Soldier Two in Francis Turnly’s play. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Berkeley Repertory Theatre opened its new season Sept. 19, a new era with a new artistic director in Johanna Pfaelzer, with the American premiere of Francis Turnly’s epic drama The Great Wave.

For three hours, the play aims to depict the effect of the political on the personal and the personal on the political, and at its most successful, it conveys a powerful sense of how ferocious, tenacious and depthless the love of a mother can be. But for much of its running time, The Great Wave is superficial and performed with a surprisingly topsy-turvy level of conviction by its cast.

Director Mark Wing-Davey layers an intricate sound design (by Bray Poor) and an even more intricate projection design (by Tara Knight) onto the play in a way that makes it seem he doesn’t fully trust Turnly or the actors enough to convey the emotional weight of the show. And he may be right.

The play’s first act feels like a proloooooonged prologue in which a young Japanese woman disappears from a beach during a storm under mysterious circumstances. The mystery is solved – for us not her family – very shortly when we learn the woman, Hanako (Jo Mei) was abducted by operatives from North Korea along with more than a dozen other Japanese citizens in a diabolical plot (based on a true story!) to train North Korean terrorists to effectively infiltrate South Korea posing as Japanese visitors.

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In Hanako’s case, she is training a Korean woman named Jung Sun (the excellent Cindy Im) all the while being brainwashed into the North Korean way of complete and total abasement and lack of individuality at the feat of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. Meanwhile, back in Japan, Hanako’s mom (Sharon Omi), sister (Yurié Collins) and friend (Julian Cihi) somehow know that she’s still alive and work feverishly to get the attention of their government officials, who mostly look the other way.

This is one of those plays where words drift across the stage along the lines of “six years later” or “two years later,” and each time that happens, it feels like any dramatic momentum the play had dissipates. Act 2 gains more traction as Hanako’s family comes closer to finding her and Hanako herself is faced with some difficult choices involving the life she came from, the life she’s living now with a government-ordered husband (Stephen Hu), a daughter (Grace Chan Ng) and a country in famine.

Though Hanako’s life in Korea seems to evolve over the 25 years, the lives of her family seem to exist only in service to finding her, and as such feel dramatically inert. There’s a parade of time-going-by wigs along with an attempt at a love story, but mother, sister and friend simply aren’t interesting enough to inspire our investment in their emotional lives or their complete devotion to finding Hanako.

It certainly doesn’t’ help that the opening-night performance was rough. The set malfunctioned noisily at one point, and actors seemed in need of more rehearsal (one two-person scene veered noticeably off the rails with muddled dialogue and sound effect cues).

The Great Wave is fitfully engaging, but its most potentially most rewarding moments are drained of dramatic impact or cut off much too quickly. There’s a big story to tell here, but this is is a Wave that definitely spends too much time splashing in the shallows.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave continues through Oct. 27 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$97, subject to change. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Come to the Cabaret at SF Playhouse

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The Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) performs with the Kit Kat Dancers in Cabaret at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) contemplates her future with Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) in tumultuous Berlin in the 1930s.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli


San Francisco Playhouse’s Cabaret is, to put it simply, a wow. A big, debauched, delightful wow. Everything in director Susi Damilano’s production just clicks. The look, the feel, the sound of this John Kander and Fred Ebb classic are all securely in place, so this well-constructed musical (Damilano is using the 1998 Broadway revival as her base) can connect directly with its audience.

This is the second time the Playhouse has done Cabaret. Co-founder and artistic director Bill English directed a strong production in 2008 at their tiny former theater on Sutter Street (read my review here). Two of the actors from that production return to the new one in the same roles. Louis Parnell is even better and more sensitive as Herr Schultz, and Will Springhorn Jr. is once again Ernst Ludwig, one of those fine German citizens who turns out to be monster.

Damilano (also a Playhouse co-founder and its producing director) has a much bigger stage to work with than English did 11 years ago, and she and set designer Jacquelyn Scott make the most of it with a two-level structure that shifts easily from being the stage of the Kit Kat Klub (the epitome of early 1930s Berlin decadence) to the rooming house where newly arrived American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) is going to finally find something worth writing about. The stage even has room for a few cabaret tables, so audience members are able to get very up close and personal with the exuberant cast.

There’s not a sour note in this production (not counting the Nazis – Nazis are always the sourest of notes in any form), from the lusty ensemble executing Nicole Helfer’s clever sensual/vulgar choreography to the hot, hot band led by Dave Dobrusky (with a special shout-out to drummer Geneva Harrison for giving the show its driving pulse).

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It’s all top-notch, but the pinnacle here is the star-making performance by Cate Hayman as the Toast of Mayfair, Sally Bowles. Her program bio yields some interesting facts, not the least of which is that she just finished her junior year of college at Carnegie Mellon University. Also of note is that this is her THIRD production of Cabaret in a year (although in the last two she played the aggressively amorous Fräulein Kost). The bio doesn’t mention that Hayman is a Marin native who won a $15,000 Beach Blanket Babylon scholarship in the voice category in 2016. After experiencing this performance, it’s easy to see why Hayman is an award winner. She is polished and assured but vulnerable and fully present. Her Sally is a pragmatist who gauges her debauchery almost as a means of survival. This Sally is less of a kook and more of an artists whose capacity for hurt and damage is more than she can bear. This comes through powerfully in “Maybe This Time,” but then in Act 2, when Hayman dives into the title song, the stage ignites, and we hear the song as if for the first time.

Unlike the 1972 film, which scrambled and chopped the original stage production, Cabaret is not only the story of Sally and Cliff and the Kit Kat Klub shenanigans. It’s also a love story between two older people: landlady Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick) and Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Parnell). They get five numbers in the show, which makes them central characters. In addition to dealing with aging, loneliness and romance, they’re also up against the rise of Nazi power and a growing tide of antisemitism. Parnell and Brick are wonderful together, and Brick’s performances of “So What” and the especially daunting “What Would You Do?” are poignant and nuanced. With such strong actors in these roles, the show feels more balanced.

In many productions, the role of the Emcee tends to overwhelm the proceedings, but here, John Paul Gonzalez is less of a show-off and more part of the ensemble. It’s only in Act 2, when he delivers a stunning “I Don’t Care Much” that we get something more from the character than just brash sexuality.

Sadly, it seems a musical about the rise of Fascism will never seem quaint. When, at the end of Act 1, a group of Berliners joins in on the Nazi propaganda tune “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” it feels strangely familiar and more than a little unsettling. Cabaret has been kicking around for more than 50 years now in various forms, and it has never felt so relevant. There’s so much to enjoy in it and yet so much to fear.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret continues through Sept. 14 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Berkeley Rep’s Good Book is a revelation

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The cast of The Good Book at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (foreground) Lance Gardner; (background, from left) Annette O’Toole, Wayne Wilcox, Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Ibrahim is surrounded by (from left) Alexander, Gardner, Wilcox and Tyo. Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Let’s just admit it. The Bible is a clusterf**k. How in the world did such a literary hodgepodge, political football, myth collection become one of the most influential – if not the most influential book – ever created? That is the mammoth question playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare ask in their fascinating play The Good Book now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Their focus here really isn’t Christianity or even religion in the larger sense but rather how the Bible evolved over centuries into what we know it to be today: a confusing, contradictory, occasionally beautiful piñata poked at by people around the globe who want everything from solace to spiritual connection to straight up power.

How Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s associate director, and O’Hare (a Tony-winning actor best known lately for his TV work on “American Horror Story” and “This Is Us”) go about answering the question of what the Bible really is takes nearly three hours and a play that careens all through time and space in a most entertaining manner. They gather their seven remarkable actors amid the detritus of Rachel Hauck’s set – mostly overturned tables and chairs – and begin to create order. Then they begin what feels like a Bible 101 class, with Annette O’Toole taking the lead, as they all ponder the questions: what is the Bible (what is it really apart from all the baggage piled on top of it) and where the hell did it really come from?

The college seminar idea, as it turns out, isn’t far off. As the play comes into focus, O’Toole emerges as Miriam Lewis, a renowned Bible scholar and professor who, it should be noted, does not believe in God. The free-form nature of the play allows us to be in Miriam’s classroom and to bounce back centuries as we experience great moments in the creation of the Bible. Well, maybe not so great. Just moments. Like when a group of travelers, who have done their best to record the stories of their people and Jesus and Jesus’ wife on various scrolls, discover that a member of their band has discarded some of the most important scrolls so that he might collect figs to nourish them on their journey. B’bye, Jesus’ wife.

The other thread of the story involves a boy named Connor (Keith Nobbs), who is being raised Catholic and has become a “Biblehead,” someone obsessed with the Bible. He has an old-fashioned cassette recorder and, in addition to capturing the details of his life, he pretends to interview important figures from the Bible and the Bible’s history (King James even shows up). All of that biblical fascination adds layers of complication as he grows up and realizes he’s gay. He then struggles to hide that fact from his parents and his God until he rejects the church (even if temporarily) to figure out how to discover a loving deity instead of a hateful one.

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The motor at the heart of the play is O’Toole as Miriam. She’s smart, sarcastic and unafraid to put you in your place because she knows more than you do. In one of the play’s more contrived constructs, Miriam is the subject of a New Yorker article about the “new atheists,” and the reporter (Shannon Tyo) crafts a profile that displeases the professor mightily. The article also causes problems professionally (her students, especially the Christian students, find her judgmental) and personally with Miriam’s longtime companion (Elijah Alexander), an archeologist spending more and more time on his far-away digs.

Weaving in and out of Miriam’s and Connor’s stories, the play allows for an overview of the Bible (via Miriam) and its role in persecution and personal pain (via Connor). What’s really interesting, though, is the sense that most of us know so little about the Bible other than the parts that are dragged out all the time (say hey, Leviticus!) or so ingrained in our consciousness (Ecclesiastes!) that it’s hard to imagine Western culture without them. Though the play isn’t interested in Bible bashing per se, it does seem to relish tossing off facts like such and such an apostle never existed! Such and such an apostle never actually knew Jesus! Except for Paul’s letters, the Bible is not historical! All these little nuggets indicate that the Bible is like a Christian Wikipedia, altered and edited by just about anyone and everyone, not all of whom had the best or most spiritual intentions.

The Good Book, which also features sharp performances by Denmo Ibrahim, Lance Gardner and Wayne Wilcox, can feel scattershot, but that’s probably by design. Except for a trite TV talk show moment, it all works and proves that from disparate parts, you can assemble something that, even though it seems unlikely, coalesces in a deeply meaningful, thought-provoking way.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s The Good Book continues through June 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.