Shotgun’s curious Watson: more than elementary

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Brady Morales Woolery is Watson, Sarah Mitchell is Eliza in Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Mick Mize is Merrick (with Morales Woolery as Sherlock’s friend Watson in the rear). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Now that artificial intelligence has infiltrated our homes (Amazon’s Alexa) and our pockets (Apple’s Siri), we have robotic personal servants at our beck and call, just waiting for us to ask for directions, to compose a message or even tell us a joke (did you ever ask Siri the meaning of life?).This is a fun, occasionally helpful technological development, but like so much in our Silicon Valley-centric world, it’s hard to fathom just how extraordinary this is.

Except for the flying cars, we are pretty much living The Jetsons, and we take it in stride. Playwright Madeleine George attempts to knock some wonder – and perspective – into us in her play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage in Shotgun Players production. George tackles one of the key issues of our time – how, with all this instant and constant digital connection, can we still be so isolated – but does so in a clever – if not wholly satisfying – way.

Sort of a comedy, sort of a drama, Watson examines invention in three different eras, each enlivened by the same three actors playing different characters with the same names. The first era is our own. A genius named Eliza (Sarah Mitchell) has left the bosom of Big Blue (IBM) and embarked on the start-up road. Her talent is for artificial intelligence, and taking a cue from IBM’s Watson, which famously competed and won on Jeopardy in 2011, she has built a full-blown AI man named Watson. Played by Brady Morales Woolery, Watson is the warmhearted version of robotic – if robots had hearts, that is. He speaks compassionately about wanting to give Eliza everything she needs, and if he doesn’t understand something, he requests she nudge him in the right direction with more specific information.

In other words, he’s the perfect man, unlike Merrick (Mick Mize), Eliza’s ex-husband, who is channeling his rage and betrayal into an election campaign aiming him toward the city auditor’s office. Merrick can’t deal with the smallest of tech details involving his home computer, so he gets a member of the “Dweeb Team” to help him out. Sure enough, this “dweeb,” one Josh Watson (played by Woolery) turns out not only to be helpful but also willing to spy on Merrick’s ex-wife, whom he is sure is plotting something against him (she’s not).

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When the time period flips, it’s into the 1800s and the world of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. A woman (Mitchell) shows up at 221B Baker Street with a mysterious and tiny wounds on her hands and arms. Sherlock is out, so Dr. Watson (Woolery) takes the case, leading him on trail that ends with an inventor named Merrick (Mize), who has the disturbing notion of replacing his actual wife with a less troublesome mechanical version. Nina Ball’s attractive, highly functional set is full of surprises that help make the time travel even more enjoyable.

Another time flip takes us to a 1930s radio studio where Thomas A. Watson (Woolery) is being interviewed about that fateful day in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful transmission over a wire, “Mr. Watson! Come here. I want you.”

All the Watsons are interesting here because Woolery’s performance is so full of delight in whichever one he’s playing. Whether he’s a robot, a techno geek in love or a famous sleuthing sidekick, he crackles with humor, intelligence and enthusiasm.

Director Nancy Carlin encounters some pacing problems in the two-plus hours of the play, primarily in the contemporary scenes, which tend to become a bit of a slog. Much of that has to do with George’s script, which tends toward the overwritten, especially in the second act.

There are definitely diminishing returns as the play progresses, although there are a couple moments of real connection – once in a monologue from the telephone Watson and once from Eliza, who has a disarming passion for wanting to use the most advanced forms of technology to provide actual assistance to people most in need. It’s a revolutionary concept, and even more than fostering deeper connection between actual people instead of people “connecting” through screens, that idea – of Siri or Alexa or their more advanced progeny – filling out medical or housing paperwork or serving as legal adviser or just being smart in a situation when people don’t know how to be. That’s the staggering intelligence I’ll take from this Watson.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the ) Watson Intelligence continues through Sept. 3 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Comedy and more fill Great Moment at Z Below

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Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment stars Danny Scheie and Aysan Celik and makes its world premiere under the direction of Sean Daniels at Z Below. Photos by Meghan Moore

There are so many great moments in The Making of a Great Moment, the new play from the scintillating San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, that it’s hard to decide if the best ones are from the comic side or the more dramatic one.

Of course the comedy moments have that pleasurable sting, like the insult, “I think her halitosis gave me pink eye” is one that lingers. And so is the sage advice: “Don’t give your own poop to the chimpanzee.” I may never look at a nursing home the same way now that I’ve heard them described as “the hole before the hole.”

Certainly Nachtrieb, one of the sharpest, funniest playwrights working in this or any city, knows his way around a great line, and Great Moment, a Z Space production at Z Below, packs its 90 minutes with memorable lines and some big laughs. But this seeming trifle of a comedy about two Canadian actors touring a ridiculous four-hour show on their bicycles is ultimately going for something much bigger. The epic drama that Mona (Aysan Celik) and Terry (Danny Scheie) are peddling while pedaling is called Great Moments in Human Achievement, and that says it all. Using daffy paper cutouts (by Jessica Ford) to transform quickly into characters from every epoch of human existence, they illuminate such moments as the invention of clothing and language to the all-important creation of the bicycle. The funniest excerpt we see, by far, is the invention of kissing.

But as silly as the play-within-the-play can be, its absurdity is masking a deep yearning to create something that matters to the world, to the actors and to the audience members (meager as they may be). Mona is especially insistent on honoring the play and its quest to honor humanity and inspire humans toward greatness in their own lives. Terry, on the other hand, is over it. For him, this is a job – a difficult one that, he admits, causes him to hemorrhage chunks of his dignity.

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Great Moment wants to have it all ways: laugh at the actors, laugh with the actors and develop an emotional connection with two humans who happen to be actors. Nachtrieb and director Sean Daniels mostly succeed in these tonal shifts thanks largely to the wonder of Celik and Scheie, who can be cartoons and flesh-and-blood within the same scene. Scheie, with his acid tongue, and Celik with her astonishingly expressive face and eyes, make for a great duo and easily bridge the transitions from tetchy, cynical comedy to the drama of frustrations aching for transcendence.

Apollo Mark Weaver creates a meta-theatrical set so that the play and the play-within-the-play both live in a formal theatrical space with painted backdrops. There’s a nifty mechanism that allows Terry and Mona to climb on their bicycles and pedal while the backdrop rolls behind them (kind of like an old cartoon), and when they make camp by the side of the road, we get the illusion of them in their sleeping bags though they’re actually standing up against another backdrop.

It’s a slick production, though it’s always about Mona and Terry and whether they can – or should – go on. One of the sharpest, funniest moments is Mona spending a sleepless night wondering if the ad lib she created in that night’s show when the electricity went out (“We are all in the dark.”) should become a permanent part of the show, even without the playwright’s permission. Mona’s personality splits in two, each arguing with the other – like a Canadian Gollum in the New Hampshire woods. Mona knows she’s onto something, a real moment of connection with people, but she’s a good theater person and doesn’t want to break the rules.

Terry implores her just to add it already, and while they’re at it, there are a million other things they should fix, but that’s the difference between them. He’s a journeyman who feels life and success has passed him by, and she is still holding out hope that she can make some sort of difference, that theater/art can make a difference. Like Terry, we might not quite believe that, but we really, really want to. Terry, after all, isn’t so far gone that he doesn’t hum Julie Andrews songs to himself (“Stay Awake,” “I Have Confidence”) while he’s doing other things.

There’s a lot to say about The Making of a Great Moment, a broad, entertaining comedy that aims to examine the human condition and figure out what purpose our lives can serve. But enough with the nice comments. As Terry says, “Arbitrary positivity is a sign of mental illness.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s The Making of a Great Moment continues through Aug. 26 at Z Below, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-626-0453 or visit www.zspace.org.

SF Playhouse La Cage celebrates Herman show tunes

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Albin (John Treacy Egan) performs as Zaza at La Cage aux Folles with Les Cagelles behind him in the San Francisco Playhouse production of La Cage aux Folles. Below: Georges (Ryan Drummond), Albin (Egan), Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn) and Jacob (Brian Yates Sharber) prepare for a tense dinner with uptight potential in-laws. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Let us all take a moment to praise the national treasure that is Jerry Herman, the musical theater maestro behind three massive hits: Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles. It’s an opportune time to toast Mr. Herman: his Dolly is back on Broadway in a ravishing production starring the divine (and Tony-winning) Bette Midler, and closer to home, San Francisco Playhouse just opened a sweet and funny production of La Cage.

I feel like Herman only occasionally gets his due as a masterful Broadway composer – he writes music and lyrics – because he tends toward the feel-good, belt-your-heart-out kind of show tune that helped define Broadway as we know it. For certain tastemakers, that is sometimes just too, too showtune-y (if there can be such a thing). Herman’s a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of writer, and that’s what has made him an audience favorite for five decades. I saw Dolly on Broadway, and though Midler is dazzling example of human pyrotechnics in action, the production itself, and especially the score, produces endless delight and honest-to-goodness, palapble joy. Anyone who can make that happen for hundreds of people at a time is heroic.

La Cage, which debuted in 1983, was remarkably ahead of its time for its warm-hearted, comic take on a middle-age gay couple, their son and their St. Tropez drag club. There’s an arch-conservative villain who wants to run the gays out of the country and protect family values who should seem dated but, sadly, does not. The show was the last big hit for Herman, who is 86, and it remains delightful. The ever-reliable Harvey Fierstein, adapting a play by Jean Poiret, creates a solid structure with the book. He delivers a pleasing blend of nightclub/cabaret performance, farce and sweet family drama, which includes an especially poignant look at two older gay men in a long-term relationship before gay marriage was actually a thing.

With La Cage, Herman crafted an outright gay anthem that is still spine-tingling. When Zaza, the drag performer, stands center stage and sings “I Am What I Am,” it’s a profoundly defiant, entertaining, heart-swelling moment – a true high point in all of American musical theater. He also added several standards to his already packed songbook in the slightly melancholy love song “Song on the Sand” and the rousing “The Best of Times.”

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There’s true greatness in this score, but I’ve always felt like it’s really only 2/3 of a great score. Act 2 feels somewhat incomplete. Though “Best of Times” is a terrific song, it’s repetitious and doesn’t reach the peak of the Act 1 closer, “I Am What I Am.” Instead, the farcical plot kicks in and the bad guy has to get his comeuppance in the nightclub finale. That’s fun, but it doesn’t quite feel like the ending of the story, which is really about the central family: Georges, the nightclub owner and emcee; Albin, the performer who inhabits the drag persona Zaza; and Jean-Michel, the son they’ve raised who has met the girl of his dreams.

The sense of incompleteness in no way hampers enjoyment of the show, but in the SF Playhouse production directed by Bill English, the performances by the actors in that central family trio are so solid and sweet, you really feel the need to re-focus on them. Ryan Drummond is Georges, and though he plays, forgive the expression, straight man to the more expressive Albin/Zaza, his comic timing is superb, and his voice is even better. I’ve seen some Albin/Zaza performers who were so grandly flamboyant you wonder how these two men ever found enough common ground to stay together for 20 years, but John Treacy Egan manages the marvelous trick of taking the character over the top and never losing his deep connection to the husband and son he loves so dearly. Egan is a robust comic and a gorgeous singer, and he looks positively radiant in some of the Zaza outfits designed by Abra Berman.

Nikita Burshteyn has a tricky role as Jean-Michel, the son who wants his too-gay parent to disappear when his conservative potential in-laws come for a visit. You have to like Jean-Michel and forgive his outright cruelty to Albin, which is no small thing. He’s young, he’s in love, he thinks he’s guaranteeing his future by denying his past. But he’s an idiot, and Burshteyn plays him with sincerity, and (spoiler alert) he eventually comes to his senses.

It’s all good for comic set-up and an affecting song called “Look Over There,” which, strangely, is sung by Georges to Jean-Michel about Albin, who is only a few feet away yet cannot seem to hear the ballad that is singing his praises.

Part of the fun of La Cage is the nightclub setting, and set designer Jacquelyn Scott delivers an immersive club that extends a runway into the audience so we can get up close and personal with Les Cagelles, the club’s resident chorines (some men in drag, some women in the same kind of drag). There’s some sort-of dancing, but it’s more of the comic variety like you might see in a “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” number from Gypsy, and the personae of the ladies – Hanna the whip woman, Phaedra the enigmatic – come through in broad, entertaining strokes. Lee Ann Payne deserves special mention as the larger-than-life restaurateur Jacqueline, who memorably joins in with Zaza on “The Best of Times” and has a grand time kicking the farcical finale into gear.

Musical Director Dave Dobrusky and a six-piece band keep the sound bright, with lots of accordion (it is France, after all), guitar and brass. At 2 1/2 hours, La Cage can feel a little long in parts, but Dobrusky and director English (with the help of the turntable set), keep things moving, which only helps the comedy.

Perhaps in coming seasons, Egan will help keep the Herman legacy alive by returning to play those other remarkable leading ladies, Dolly and Mame. Our troubled and troubling world could always use more Jerry Herman show tunes.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
La Cage aux Folles continues through Sept. 16 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit sfplayhouse.org.

Grit, exuberance mark TheatreWorks’ Immigrants

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The four immigrants of The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga are (from left) Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Fred (Sean Fenton) and Charlie (Hansel Tan). Min Kahng’s musical has its world premiere in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Below: The four women of Four Immigrants are (from left, behind the gentlemen) Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry Keiko Carnahan, Lindsay Hirata and Catherine Gloria. Photos by Kevin Berne

Think about how often you’ve seen the Asian-American experience represented in a piece of musical theater. Perhaps Flower Drum Song comes to mind or a sliver of Miss Saigon. A more serious recent work is Allegiance about the World War II Japanese internment camps. And now we have TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley’s world premiere, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga with book, music and lyrics by the enormously talented Bay Area writer Min Kahng.

A product of TheatreWorks’ 2016 New Works Initiative, the show has leapt from the development program to the main stage, which in this case, is the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. It’s easy to see why this delightful show took the fast track to full production.

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(at right) Panel from the cover of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s Manga Yonin Shosei, translated as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco 1904-1924 by Frederik L. Schodt (original Japanese-language edition, 1931) on which the musical is based, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA

Here is a story we seldom get to hear in any form of pop culture, let alone musical theater: four Japanese men leave their homeland to find better, brighter lives in the promise of America at the turn of the 20th century. They meet on the boat, form a friendship and land in San Francisco in 1904 a solid quartet ready to face tragedy and triumph (or so they think). What’s more, this story is based on Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 The Four Immigrants Manga, considered the first-ever comic book made up of original material – a predecessor to the graphic novel if you will.

The resulting production, directed by Leslie Martinson, captures the exuberance of a comic with a sort of vaudevillian/ragtime-y feel coupled with a serious, often harsh story about obstacles, violence and sheer stupidity faced by immigrants to the U.S., especially if they are not white. We’ve often seen the immigrant experience told from the European-East Coast perspective, so it’s especially interesting to get the Asian-West Coast perspective.

The boys start out young and hopeful in a deft opening number that establishes that they are really speaking Japanese to each other (they know very little English) and Charlie, Fred, Frank and Henry are their chosen American names. Even incarceration (for supposed medical reasons) on their arrival can’t dim their excitement.

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The personalities emerge fairly quickly. Charlie (Hansel Tan) is the chief optimist. In fact, his song, “Optimism,” is an absolute stand-out in an already charming and tuneful score. Fred (Sean Fenton) is practical and just wants some land to farm. Frank (Phil Wong) is the most timid of the group and the least forthcoming with his dream, which turns out to involve becoming the king of American footwear. And Henry (James Seol) is the artist who will eventually create the drawings that will eventually become the comic book that will eventually become the musical.

The bizarre new world of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast is represented by a colorful cast of characters, most played by a fabulous quartet of women: Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catharine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata. It’s also worth nothing that in the early years of the story (which covers 20 years), they are playing rather cartoonish denizens of San Francisco, from the matrons hiring the young men as house servants to police to women of the night to gambling hall gals. But as the story becomes more involved, each of the women becomes a distinct character, most notably Apostol as the elder from the church, Hirata as the independent-minded Hana and Carnahan as Kimiko, a mail-order bride with a singular mind of her own.

The look and feel of the show conveys the feel of cartoon panels in Andrew Boyce’s fluidly moving set, and though there were apparently opening-night computer problems marring Katherine Freer’s projection design, but what we saw was vivid and offered an efficient sense of place and color. The set and projections, with effective lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, also create a sense of Henry’s drawings as the go from being simply sketchbook doodles to important documentation and holders of memories.

Kahng’s score is immediately likable and mostly cheerful. His version of vaudeville is much brighter than, say, Kander and Ebb’s (Cabaret, Chicago), but the music (conducted by William Liberatore and played by a six-piece band) still manages to conjure joy (the aforementioned “Optimism”) and emotion (the beautiful “Furusato,” which conveys a deep connection to one’s roots and home).

The special spark of the evening comes from the ebullient choreography by Dottie Lester-White, who knows just how far to push her performers to make them seem joyful and vivacious but never silly (unless expressly meant to be).

Like Henry’s drawings, the vision of Japanese immigrants here is a far cry from the stereotypes that have been around for far too long. These are multifaceted human beings with hopes, dreams, roots and complications, all of which comes through in their expressive songs. These men – and eventually the women and children in their lives – are good friends to one another, and when racism and horrific laws (non-whites can serve in the armed forces but can’t be citizens or own land) and even floods and earthquakes threaten to derail them, they rally and provide sustaining support.

This eight-member ensemble truly feels like an ensemble, each a major player with heart and personality (and talent) to spare.

Though hopeful in the face of reality, there can’t really be a happy ending here. The action concludes in 1924, but we know what’s coming with World War II and the grotesque treatment of Japanese-American citizens. There’s even foreshadowing here with mentions of General Tojo and the emergence of Japan as a world power. But this is a musical, a bright and beaming musical and that, and reality, though not ignored, feels so much more tolerable in song.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Min Kahng’s The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues through Aug. 6 in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Cal Shakes musters a forceful Glass Menagerie

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Karen Aldridge is Amanda and Sean San José is Tom in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, directed by Lisa Portes. Below: Rafael Jordan is Jim, the gentleman caller, and Phoebe Fico is Laura. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Except for a large proscenium frame, the stage of California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater is mostly bare. There’s no back wall to the stage, so the light from the setting sun on the Orinda hills is spectacular. It will be dark soon – in more ways than one.

On such a gorgeous Saturday night, complete with a warm breeze and, eventually, a full moon, Cal Shakes opened The Glass Menagerie, marking the Bruns debut of Tennessee Williams.

Director Lisa Portes approaches this well-worn, ever-brilliant memory play with a blank slate, or stage as the case may be. Set designer Annie Smart provides the clean, open space, and stacks all the furniture that will eventually fill the stage off to the sides. It’s up to Sean San José as Tom, our narrator, to fill that stage with an evocation of his family and their life in a claustrophobic St. Louis apartment in the early 1940s.

The role of Tom is a central one and challenging under any circumstances, but San José works doubly hard moving furniture from the wings onto the stage, timed so that as his mother, Amanda (Karen Aldridge or sister, Laura (Phoebe Fico) prepares to sit, a chair suddenly appears. This is a manic Tom, and not just because he’s running around like a stagehand, but also because he’s at his breaking point. He works a factory job he loathes and spends his nights either drinking or going to the movies until the wee hours. He wants adventure and, most importantly, he wants out from under the pressure of being the man of the Wingfield family. His father abandoned them years before, and the family barely ekes by with Tom’s salary and money Amanda gets from odd jobs. He loves his mother and sister, but the weight of their dependence is crushing him.

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San José conveys that frustration with frenetic force, and Aldridge’s Amanda is equally as forceful. Her Southern belle charm is frayed around the edges, as her dreams of a genteel life have given way to a hardscrabble existence with a son who resists her and a daughter who couldn’t be further away from the girl she herself was growing up as a debutante.

Between the powerful personalities of her mother and brother, Laura doesn’t have much room left to discover herself. Living with a disability that requires the use of crutches to walk, Laura exists in a time and in a family where her own empowerment is of little interest. She has grown up painfully shy. She knows she cannot be the daughter her mother wants – the kind of charming beauty who attracts, as her mother did, 17 gentlemen callers in a single afternoon. She finds it painful to interact with people and instead channels herself into music played on an old Victrola or into the crystal creatures of her knickknack collections, which her mother refers to as her glass menagerie. The practical reality of Laura’s situation, from her mother’s perspective, is that she is damaged goods and unlikely to snag a husband with the kind of job/bank account to support Laura and Amanda when Tom bolts, which he will inevitably do.

Snagging a husband is the last thing Laura wants, but her self-deluded mother steamrollers over her daughter’s wishes and makes an attempt to marry her daughter off to the first guy they can get into the apartment.

That man is an old high school chum of both Laura’s and Tom’s, Jim O’Connor (Rafael Jordan), and his arrival is a do-or-die moment for the Wingfields. It also heralds the most extraordinary scene in Portes’ high-strung production. The lights go out because Tom failed to pay the bill, so when Laura and Jim have a moment to themselves, it’s by candlelight on the floor. At long last, in this intermisson-less nearly two-hour play, the angst and volume and frenzy of the production calm down, and the delicacy comes through. Fico and Jordan find a sympathetic rhythm that draws in the entire audience and makes us feel like their conversation – Laura’s first real interaction with a man – is the most important thing we could possibly be experiencing.

Their quiet, intimate duet, followed by a dance, is utterly captivating and seems as real as it is poetic. Its beauty then renders its conclusion that much more heartbreaking.

That this production is cast with actors of color and that Fico lives with a mobility disability works to underscore the sense of isolation the characters are feeling. Each of the Wingfields feels separated from the thing they most want or that elusive thing that will magically make life better and unlock happiness at last. The play being performed outside also emphasizes that sense of small, roiling lives at odds in an overwhelming world. The thing the Wingfields have is each other, but their triad is doomed to destruction from within by forces of the past, present and future.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie continues through July 30 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Facing a fearsome farce in Berkeley Rep’sOctoroon

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 29
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Lance Gardner is George, a new plantation owner, in the West Coast premiere of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Afi Bijou (left) is Minnie and Jasmine Bracey is Dido, slaves on the Terrebonne Plantation. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

What a miserable species we are.

Existence is difficult enough as it is, but we compound the misery with our unrelenting egomania, greed and all the isms and phobias and ogenies. We unleash a never-ending torrent of cruelty in the name of power and money thinking it will somehow fix something, be it global or deeply personal, and yet it always ends in a big pile of bloody pulp or crap or both. In the big picture, we don’t ever seem to learn. But in the smaller picture, we’re at least getting a little smarter.

Artists like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins do that cracked-mirror thing that helps us see where we’ve been and where we are. None of it is pretty, but his wild play An Octoroon, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre grabs you by your painful parts and delivers a surprising, funny and provocative 2 1/2 hours of theater.

To call this simply a play isn’t really accurate. An Octoroon is a meta-theatrical fantasia, layers upon layers of art and history, comedy and tragedy, music and melodrama, abrasive satire and inspired clowning. This experience is never just one thing, and that could be an unwieldy thing, but director Eric Ting, the artistic director at the California Shakespeare Theater, has a firm grasp of the constantly shifting situation.

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To begin with, this is an adaptation of an adaptation. Jacobs-Jenkins is adapting Dion Boucicault’s 1859 hit The Octoroon, which is itself adapted from a then-contemporary novel, The Quadroon by Thomas Mayne Reed. The antebellum-era plot involves a faltering plantation, the sale of its slaves and a love story between a slave owner and a woman who is part black (one-eighth is an octoroon, a terrible word if ever there was one; one-quarter is a quadroon, just as terrible).

All of that is still here, performed in a style between melodrama and farce (all accompanied on a jangly piano by Lisa Quoresimo in a Br’er Rabbit costume), but Jenkins gives us a very contemporary frame with a playwright character named BJJ (played by the always appealing Lance Gardner) who is working through his own personal issues (what does “black playwright” mean anyway?) taking the advice of a therapist he may or may not have by adapting the Boucicault play. Problem is that his white actors hired to play the slave owners have quit, so he slaps on some whiteface and plays the characters himself. Another writer appears, known simply as “Playwright.” This one is a stand-in for Boucicault himself and is played by Ray Porter, a ferocious presence on stage. Boucicault will also be in BJJ’s play. He’s playing the Native American character Wahnotee, and by the logic of this world, he naturally paints his face red for the role and dons an enormous feathered headdress (think Bob Mackie and Cher – fantastically stylish costumes by Montana Blanco). He’ll also play a slave trader, and BJJ will take on another role as well: the mustache-twirling villain who wants to sink the plantation and sell off Zoe (Sydney Morton), the octoroon, who is already in love with George, the plantation owner played by BJJ in whiteface.

The slave women in the play, primarily Dido (Jasmine Bracey) and Minnie (Afi Bijou), work in the house and are fairly straightforward, but rather than seeming like they’re in a 19th-century melodrama, they discourse like two women who have their own podcast about what’s going down on the old plantation. They’re hilarious and trenchant, and the weariness of the melodrama is enlivened whenever they’re on stage.

Because the law forbids the love between George and Zoe, George must attempt to make a profitable union in an effort to save his plantation. He turns to plantation neighbor Dora, played by Jennifer Regan in full-on goofy Carol Burnett mode (always a good thing, especially when stylistically appropriate, as it is here). And the world of the plantation is further filled out by Afua Busia as Grace, a pregnant slave (who also has a baby with a face that has to be seen to be believed) and Amir Talai, a non-Caucasian actor in blackface playing two slaves, including one whose name features the n-word. Speaking of that word, you hear it a lot, so however you need to deal with that, there it is.

The play is at its strongest when it’s not simply presenting the adaptation of Boucicault but is messing with it – and us. That means the best bits are at the beginning of the play and then in Act 2 when the melodrama becomes too outrageous to continue with a small cast (and not enough mean white men). Jacobs-Jenkins attempts to rattle a modern audience the way a 19th-century audience might have been rattled by certain twists in the plot. Let’s just say he pulls out some heavy artillery for this mission, and set designer Arnulfo Maldonado, with a huge assist from Jiyoun Chang’s effective lights, offers yet another design surprise to wrap things up with yet another tonal shift.

The ending brings us back to now, but in a timeless way (voices joined), but there’s little sense of resolution. How could there be? The Boucicault melodrama traffics, as all good melodrama does, in abject misery created by societal restrictions, and choosing the American South for such an exploration is rife with the kind of misery that has created every kind of drama every minute of every year since. In a theatrical experience like this, we see the mess. We laugh at it, we flinch from it, we bristle.

Some will likely take offense at the whiteface, the blackface or the redface or the n-word or the drinking of an entire bottle of wine in one go or the inclusion of a mammy or a stage overrun with cotton balls or an actor playing two characters attempting to murder himself (Gardner is a deft physical comedian) or the sight of a man giving himself a wedgie. But there’s no denying how effective An Octoroon is at not letting anyone off the hook. This is our mess, our misery, our melodrama, our tragedy, our farce. That Jacobs-Jenkins and the entire on-stage and off-stage crew of An Octoroon have made it so powerful, so baffling and so, dare I say it, so entertaining, is nothing short of a modern theatrical wonder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ An Octoroon continues an extended run through July 29 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peets Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Sad, hopeful elegy in Shotgun’s brownsville song

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Davied Morales is Tray and Cathleen Riddley is Lena in the Shotgun Players production of brownsville song (b-side for tray) by Kimber Lee. Below: Morales’ Tray has an uncomfortable meeting with someone from his past (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart as Merrell). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

The desperate craziness of our times has desensitized us to the reality behind the headlines that bombard us from every screen and feed and page. The level of injustice, death and willful cruelty reported on a daily basis, if you try to take a step back and really look at it, is staggering. Our desensitization is a survival tactic to be sure – could we spend every waking hour enraged or in tears? Absolutely! – but there’s a cost when we lose sight of the individuals whose lives are told in fragments on the news. We are removed from their lives and our connection to them, and news is just news (most of it bad to awful to grotesque) and not filled with actual human beings.

Playwright Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) offers a poignant reminder that our grim news feeds are built from lives, not just of victims and perpetrators and garbage politicians. There are the lives of the people whose names are in the news as well as the lives connected to those lives and the ripples that overlap with ripples that overlap with ripples.

First developed in San Francisco by the Playwrights Foundation, brownsville went on to productions at the Humana Festival and Lincoln Center. Now the play is back in the Bay Area courtesy of Shotgun Players with a production beautifully and sensitively directed by Margo Hall, whose work behind the scenes is proving to be as powerful as her onstage work as an actor, which is saying quite a lot.

Time is fluid in brownsville, named for the rough Brooklyn neighborhood in which it takes place. We begin after the tragedy. A promising young man, Tray, has been gunned down on the street. He was not part of a gang or a crew. He wasn’t involved in illegal activities. He had overcome numerous obstacles in his 18 years – an absent mother, a father murdered on the streets, a stepmother who abandoned him and his little sister, scuffles with the law when he was younger. But with the ferocious support of his grandmother, he had pulled his life together. He was doing well in school, he was disciplined about his boxing, and he was full of love (and sass) for his family.

He was also in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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The first voice of the play comes from Lena, Tray’s paternal grandmother. Played by Cathleen Riddley, she is impossible not to love and admire (and fear just a little bit). She tells us not to start the story with her. She’s not the beginning, she’s the end, and Tray was not just another story. He’s not just another victim you may or may not hear about on the news or a faceless statistic about gun violence in this country. He was simply himself, and you can feel through Riddley’s quiet, undeniably powerful performance, just how profound his loss is.

Through a series of flashbacks, we meet Tray who was, as his grandmother puts it, “semi-reliable about everything but his little sister and boxing.” Played the charismatic Davied Morales, Tray is a light. He’s not a saint but a believable teenager – intelligent, rebellious, bursting with energy – who does well in school, holds down a job at Starbucks, helps out with Devine, his little sister, and trains and competes in an amateur boxing circuit. Like Riddley, Morales is a powerful presence as Tray. He and Riddley are the motor and the fuel of this 90-minute play. Together, they are the cycle of hope and grief and hope that makes this experience so potent. Tray was fighting to not just be another hard-luck story of a kid from violent street, and we have every reason to believe he would continue shining brighter and brighter.

Playwright Lee can tend toward the cliché in her writing, but director Hall and her strong cast tend to circumvent any mawkishness and head for something more honest. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is a believably complex person from Tray’s past who, after her own difficulties, is attempting to make better choices, and 11-year-old Mimia Ousilas is Tray’s little sister. There’s a lot she could be sad about, and she is, but she also supplies some of the play’s lightest moments when she fails to blend into the background as a weeping willow in her dance class production of Swan Lake. William Hartfield as Junior, a neighborhood friend of Tray’s, at first seems to be trouble, but a later scene between him and Lena reveals layers and history and emotion that renders the character in a different light.

And therein lies the power of brownsville. Here, in flesh and blood, is a reminder to look and think and feel beyond headlines and statistics, as hard as that may be. This poetic, sometimes elegiac play – with straightforward, effective design by Randy Wong-Westbrooke (set), Allen Willner (lights), Joel Gimbell II (sound) – cuts right to the heart of why the life of someone you don’t know matters and how our unjust, violent, crazily complicated culture can encourage us to think we’re disconnected from one another when exactly the opposite is true.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues through July 9 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Show tune nirvana: Transcendence under the stars

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Transcendence Theatre Company’s sixth season of “Broadway Under the Stars” commences with the high-spirited revue Another Openin’ Another Show! through July 2 and a season of shows that continues through Sept. 10 at Jack London State Historic Park. Performances are in the ruins of a vineyard, a spectacular outdoor venue. Photos by Rebecca Call

Transcendence Theatre Company has a lock on the show tune market. Sure, other companies might be doing musicals, but only Transcendence offers multiple musical revues each summer performed in a spectacular outdoor setting amid a festival-like setting of food, wine and abundant merriment. Now in its sixth season at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen (Sonoma County), Transcendence more often than not lives up to its name with expertly assembled revues performed under the stars (at least by Act 2 when the sun has set and the first stars begin to appear) in the ruins of an old winery, with vines creeping up the hills in the background.

This year’s opening show, Another Openin’ Another Show!, is two hours of show tune bliss (well, mostly show tunes with a couple of pop tunes thrown in for good measure). Director Tony Gonzalez and Transcendence Artistic Director Amy Miller have built the two-hour revue to honor the 10-year history of the company, from a wedding toast in 2007 that inspired Miller to begin her journey to 2011, when Jack London State Historic Park was slated for closure but Transcendence swooped in with a plan to raise money and get people into the park. The birth of Transcendence has been a gift for all involved, most especially the audiences they pack in and delight with their talented company of performers, most of whom have left grimy New York City behind for a few months to come frolic in the Valley of the Moon.

Act 1 focuses on the birth of a dream and seeing it to fruition. Act 2 is about obstacles, limits and keeping the dream alive. And it so happens there are abundant show tunes to address all of those topics, and enough imagination here to re-invent songs we’ve heard many times and the wisdom to know when just to do a great song the way its creators intended.

Among the re-conceived tunes are “Gotta Get a Gimmick” from Gypsy performed by a woman and two men (Colin Campbell McAdoo, Eric Jackson, Lori Fox), “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables sung by a man (Stephan Stubbins), “Let It Go” from Frozen (not technically a Broadway show tune yet, but it soon will be) sung by a trio (Erin Maya, Meggie Cansler, Natalie Gallo) and “Electricity” from Billy Elliot performed by three adults (Andrew Hodge, Nick Kepley, Tim McGarrigal). Each of these re-inventions works and infuses new life into the songs. In the case of “Let It Go,” for instance, the arrangement/orchestration by musical director Daniel Weidlein makes the song sound like it wouldn’t be out of place in Dreamgirls, and “Gimmick” proves it can be hilarious in any iteration.

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The more traditional interpretations include a “Sound of Music” directed at the sunset-dusted Sonoma Hills, a Jersey Boys two-fer (“Walk Like a Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”) that demonstrates why those songs will always be crowd pleasers and Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” from the show of the same name that dazzles with vocals (by Lauren Sprague and spectacular dancing/tapping by the ensemble (choreography is by Jim Cooney).

While many of the songs here are familiar, including pop songs “Lean on Me” (featuring inventive choreography for a group of people sitting at a table) and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (a rock classic that was always meant to be a show-stopping show tune), some are not. It’s always risky when you include songs from shows that your audience might not know, but there’s no shortage of worthy songs from lesser-known shows, and Gonzalez, Miller and company make some terrific choices with the opener/closer “One Second and a Million Miles to Go” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County and another from Brown’s Parade, “Old Red Hills of Home.”

This is one of those showcases in which it’s nearly impossible to choose a favorite, but I’m going to give it a shot: “My Shot” from Hamilton burns up the stage with a powerhouse lead vocal by Nikko Kimzin and impressive backup from the rest of the company. Gallo makes you hear “San Francisco” with fresh ears, and the women who murder merrily in “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago do so with such comic glee you almost forget the number is practically dripping in blood.

The 23-member company breezes through this show effortlessly (seems that way anyway, which is an enjoyable illusion), but they don’t stint on passion or emotion. It’s an efficient and expertly produced show, but it’s not slick. There’s a nice balance of light and dark, comic and romantic, and costumer Ariel Allen makes sure everyone always looks casually elegant. The outdoor setting lends itself to marvels. Some are planned (the release of doves, the use of the crumbling walls as performance area, the appearance of an adorable dog) and some are not: the hawk doing lazy circles in the sky (thank you Oscar Hammerstein) during “Seasons of Love” from Rent. As outdoor venues go, it’s hard to top this.

Transcendence Theatre Company has rightly established itself as a beloved summer tradition (though the company has also expanded with a holiday offering). Some of us need to experience show tunes beautifully performed on a regular basis. Others of us need a good excuse to spend a night under the stars with friends, food and vino on a warm night. Happily, Transcendence is happy to offer something for everyone.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Transcendence Theatre Company’s sixth summer season of “Broadway Under the Stars” continues with Another Openin’ Another Show through July 2; Fantastical Family Night July 14 & 15; Fascinating Rhythm Aug. 4-20; Gala Celebration Concert Sept. 8-10. Pre-show picnics begin at 5 p.m. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m. Jack London State Historic Park is at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen. Tickets are $40-$149 (with $5 of each ticket benefitting Jack London State Historic Park). Call 877-424-1414 or visit BestNightEver.org.

Chen causes masterful Harm in the Playhouse Sandbox

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Christopher Chen’s world-premiere play You Mean to Do Me Harm features a cast that includes (from left) Charisse Loriaux as Samantha, James Asher as Ben, Don Castro as Daniel and Lauren English as Lindsey. Below: Loriaux’s Samantha (left) English’s Lindsey go for a hike. Photos by Ken Levin

San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen has brains for days (and days) and a theatrical sense that runs from absurdist comedy to political thriller. He reins in some – not all – of his wildest theatrical impulses for his latest world premiere, You Mean to Do Me Harm, a production of the San Francisco Playhouse’s new play development program known as the Sandbox Series.

There are only four characters in Harm: two married couples, each comprising a Caucasian-American and a Chinese-American partner. That’s important because Chen, in this incisive 80-minute play, is using mixed-race marriage to dive deep into the notion that when it comes right down to it, geopolitical machinations are essentially global manifestations of our personal relationships to others, to our particular life experience and to ourselves. Spoiler alert: that paints a pretty bleak scenario.

The play, performed in the black-box Rueff at ACT’s Strand Theater, begins as a quartet as the two couples meet for a good-natured dinner. The wife of one couple and the husband of the other went to college together and dated, but that’s all in the past (10 whole years ago). That the two characters with history happen to be the white ones is going to turn out to be important. There’s also another reason for the party. It turns out that one of the husbands, who has been unemployed since his wife was promoted and he was laid off at the same company, is now going to be working with the other husband at an up-and-coming search engine called Flashpoint.

The natural conversational rhythms of this dinner party are beautifully conveyed by Chen’s script, with the mix of awkwardness and enthusiasm, the link of nostalgia for the former lovers and the usual quick definition of who we are by what we do. Director Bill English deftly guides his excellent actors into evermore tension, but it’s the kind of tension that begins, as we will hear often in the upcoming scenes, in the subconscious and operates in hidden channels. As one character puts it: “Just because something isn’t said doesn’t mean it isn’t said.”

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James Asher is Ben, who will soon begin work at Flashpoint in the online content department. He laughingly describes himself as the “white China guy” in that he was hired, in part, for his expertise on all things China (he has lived and worked there, made it the subject of his dissertation, etc.). He will be described later on as a “good balance of being white and being sorry about being white.” Daniel (Don Castro) was born in Shanghai but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 5. He feels threatened by Ben, perhaps because of the past association with his (Daniel’s) wife but also because Daniel, at heart, thinks Ben is an “armchair Orientalist.”

Daniel’s wife, Lindsey (Lauren English) is in corporate law, and when she is prompted to weigh in on the discussion of China-America relations, she does the kind of geopolitical parsing out “degrees of shittiness” on all sides that would make cable news networks shimmy with delight. But Samantha (Charisse Loriaux), Ben’s wife, wants to challenge that notion and cites a “fairness bias.” Things could get contentious here, but everyone is in a good mood (the wine helps), and everyone is a grown-up, so the conversation grinds, bumps and steadies to the point where everyone raises a glass to the Cold War.

And that’s just the first scene. What follows is a series of duets that break down the racism and micro-aggressions and traps and betrayals of that seemingly benign evening. By fueling his drama with racial and cultural differences, Chen is able to quickly establish the shaky ground underneath most relationships, especially when it comes to being honest, really honest. That two people can live together (to say nothing of being truly honest) seems, at best, an unlikely notion, without some sort of peace treaty: what will be ignored, what will be allowed (or not), what will be forgiven. The depth of anger and insecurity and dishonesty (subconscious or not) that comes up in both of the play’s relationships is astonishing, and the level to which Chen is able to take us in such a short time is remarkable.

At certain points, the naturalism of the play is pushed aside, but it works because there are discussions here that benefit from loosening the bonds of reality. As heavy as this subject matter is, there’s a crackling energy to the production that keeps it from bogging down or slipping into clichés about race or relationships. Chen is too smart for that, and it also helps that no one is a bad guy unless everyone is a bad guy. They’re complicated humans with rich intellect and deep roots. Life is hard for them, and though the play simply stops more than it ends, it seems life will keep getting harder, and the poisons of the world will continue to corrode us personally and politically.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm continues through July 2 in a San Francisco Playhouse production at the Rueff at The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 and up. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Lip synch or swim! Drag fun in Marin’s Georgia

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 9
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The cast of Mathew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride at Marin Theatre Company includes (from left) Jason Kapoor as Rexy, Adam Magill as Casey and Kraig Swartz as Miss Tracy Mills. Below: Backstage drama comes to Miss Tracy Mills (Swartz, left), Rexy (Kapoor, center) and Eddie (John R. Lewis). Photos by Kevin Berne

When you’re already an Elvis impersonator, could drag really be that far behind? Not according to the glittery, big-hearted drag comedy The Legend of Georgia McBride now closing the 50th anniversary season at Marin Theatre Company. Playwright Matthew Lopez dips into territory previously covered by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Kinky Boots, Tootsie, Sordid Lives and Some Like It Hot, and while there are certain formulaic aspects of the story of a straight man embracing his inner drag diva, it’s all done with such sincerity and good humor it’s impossible to resist.

One question Lopez doesn’t really answer in his script is why Casey (Adam Magill) is so invested in being an Elvis impersonator at a rundown club in Panama City, Fla. He had done some musicals in high school, but now that he’s a married adult, his choice of profession is swiveling his hips and lip-synching to Elvis songs for about seven indifferent people in the audience. His wife, Jo (Tatiana Wechsler) is living the cranky life as a waitress and serves as the family’s bread winner. During a fight involving a bounced rent check, the loss of the Elvis gig and impending eviction, Jo announces she’s pregnant.

Even though he can’t don his rhinestone jumpsuit (complete with cape!), Casey returns to the bar to serve as bartender, but wouldn’t you just know? The drag duo the bar’s owner, Eddie (John R. Lewis), hired to drum up some audience interest has hit a snag: one of the performers, Miss Rexy (Jason Kapoor) has passed out cold. So in true show-biz fashion, the older, wiser drag queen, Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) whips Casey into a wig, a dress, heels and makeup and forces him onto the stage. Somehow, the number works in spite of Casey’s awkwardness and the fact that the Piaf song he was saddled with was in French (just mouth the words “watermelon motherfucker” is the advice he’s given, and it sort of works). A drag star is born.

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Casey doesn’t exactly tell Jo why they can suddenly pay the rent, so of course that will catch up with him. But apart from the requisite drama, the fun in director Kent Gash’s production comes from some delightful drag performances featuring a parade of beguiling outfits designed by Kate Harmon. Swartz has real panache – his Garland and Streisand bits are priceless – and the ever-appealing Magill oozes sincerity and sensitivity and makes his drag persona, Georgia McBride, really shine when his performances are more organic and less choreographed. Kapoor, who does double duty as Casey’s friend/landlord, also has an impressive Lady Gaga moment of his own. I’m not sure we needed another drag performance of the Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men,” but the choreography by Dell Howlett is awfully fun.

As you might expect from such a likable play, this is an extremely likable cast, and it’s especially nice to feel such warmth between Casey and the women in his life: his wife, to whom he gives foot rubs and his eternal devotion, and Miss Tracy, the mentor who will actually make him a better man (i.e. an adult who can see more clearly who he is and what he wants). As Miss Tracy puts it, Casey is a straight man in drag and she’s a drag queen in hell. Lopez gets off some nice zingers, and there’s a sustained sense of laughter and good cheer through much of the show’s intermissionless 115 minutes. We get an unnecessary lecture about what drag really means, and the play doesn’t know quite how (or when) to end, but as long as Swartz’s in-charge Miss Tracy is actually in charge, it’s all good.

Drag is complicated, especially in terms of its relationship to gender, sexuality and good old-fashioned camp. Georgia McBride isn’t the play that’s going to delve into and unpack or illuminate all of that. But it is a rousing good time with a zippy soundtrack, Florida panhandle glitz and endearing, open-hearted characters.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride continues an extended run through July 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets start at $22. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.