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

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 9
Georgia 2
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.

Georgia 1

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.

Amazing women open doors in The Roommate

Roommate 2
In Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at San Francisco Playhouse, Robyn (Julia Brothers) offers to clean up a mess while moving in with her new roommate, Sharon (Susi Damilano). BELOW: Sharon and Robyn spend a provocative evening at home. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There are several wonderful things about Jen Silverman’s The Roommate now at San Francisco Playhouse, not the least of which is that it seriously considers the lives of two women in their 50s and their attempts to grow and change and correct what they perceive as some of the missteps of their lives.

The nearly two-hour one-act play, directed by Becca Wolff, is also heartily entertaining, contains some satisfying laughs and creates a showcase for two dynamic actors to create complex characters that are full of surprises.

Susi Damilano, the Playhouse’s co-founder and producing director, is Sharon, a 54-year-old divorcé living alone in her big Iowa house. Her grown son is off being a designer in New York, and her constant phone calls and texts are pushing him further and further away. So, aside from her book club and a weekly gig at a shop, she’s very much alone and adrift.

Not yet ready to accept a life of loneliness, Sharon boldly seeks, for the first time in her life, a roommate. Enter Robyn (Julia Brothers), an escapee of the Bronx seeking to re-start her life in the great American Midwest. The things we think we know for sure about Robyn are that she’s done many things in her life, including things that were illegal. She’s about Sharon’s age and also has a child. She’s vegan who has retired from writing and performing slam poetry and she’s gay. Everything else about this tall transplanted New Yorker is enigmatic to say the least.

Silverman’s set-up is part sitcom spin on “The Odd Couple,” with the worldly Robyn enlightening and shocking the more sheltered Sharon, and part unique invention. A thriller element is introduced that could take the play into lots of dark directions, but there’s also a more serious element involving two women coming to know one another, surprise one another and befriend one another. What they have in common, aside from being mothers who can’t (or don’t) rely on men for co-parenting, is that they are at points in their lives ripe for change. One is ready for excitement and challenge and danger, while the other is opting for a calmer, more focused life. One outcome is possible, the other less so.

Roommate 1

Damilano and Brothers play off one another beautifully, which makes the comedy bigger and the drama deeper. Sharon could easily be a stereotype of a ditzy Iowa housewife, but as written, there are layers to her, and Damilano adds even more complexity and endearing charm. Brothers is one of those actors whose name on a cast list should immediately make you want to see that play. She never disappoints and constantly surprises. Her Robyn is grounded and smart but also terribly conflicted. She wields some hard-won wisdom, which is lapped up by Sharon, her eager student. On the subject of child rearing, for instance, Robyn says, “Our children’t don’t have to love us. They just need to survive long enough to become us.” Brothers walks that fine line between being a fascinating new friend and a potentially deadly threat.

Watching these two wonderful actors spar and bond and surprise each other is the heart and spark of the play, and set designer Nina Ball makes good on the promise of Iowa specializing in “corn and space” with her airy suggestion of a Midwestern domicile. She and lighting designer Robert Hand and projection/sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker use light, shadows, projections and see-through walls to convey the vast Iowa sky (clouds, sunsets and stars abound). There’s a strong sense of isolation that works to effectively intensify the relationship forming between the women.

Director Wolff creates a strong sense of rhythm that builds nicely through twists, turns, laughs and emotional revelations. But then the play stumbles in its final moments. A monologue is delivered in the form of a phone call to God, and then another is delivered directly to the audience, neither of which is as effective as it needs to be. It’s not the way the play ends (the fate of the characters) that’s the problem – it’s how that information is conveyed.

Brothers and Damilano have earned enough audience love by this time to curtail any serious damage to such an enjoyable play, but there’s a stronger ending in here somewhere for all the fascinating women involved, the actors and the characters.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jen Silverman’s The Roommate continues through July 1 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (in the Kensington Park Hotel), San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

TheatreFirst reveals short, powerful HeLa

Hela 1
Day and Henrietta Lacks (Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon) in happier days before Henrietta’s illness in the TheatreFirst world premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy’s HeLa at Berkeley’s Black Oak Theatre. Below: A scientist (Akemi Okamura) comes to the home of Deborah (Desiree Rogers) and only wants a little bit of blood. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

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

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

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

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

Hela 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delight and loss dance through Magic’s Waltz revival

Baltimore 1
The cast of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at Magic Theatre includes (from left) Patrick Alparone as Carl, Lauren English as Anna and Greg Jackson as The Third Man. Below: Alparone’s Carl and English’s Anna spend some quality time in Paris. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Any of us would be lucky – beyond lucky – to be as loved as Paula Vogel’s brother Carl. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (who, after nearly 50 years as one of the country’s preeminent playwrights, will see her first Broadway opening next month with Indecent) wrote The Baltimore Waltz a year after Carl died of complications from AIDS. This is her tribute to him, a love letter from sister to brother, but she accomplishes this with such offbeat originality, whimsy and heart that there’s no room for sentimentality or feeble clichés about love and loss.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Magic Theatre has revived The Baltimore Waltz 25 years after hosting its West Coast premiere. Under the direction of Jonathan Moscone the plays still feels fresh and vital, and while its roots are firmly in the plague years, its fancifully clever and sound construction give it a timeless sense. There’s no expiration date for the love of a sibling or the depthless grief of losing that sibling.

When Vogel’s brother invited her on a trip to Europe, she had neither the time nor the money to make it happen. Here’s something else she didn’t have: the knowledge that he was HIV-positive and that within two years, he would be gone. From his hospital bed at Johns Hopkins in 1987, Carl wrote his sister a letter (which she invites theaters to publish in their programs) detailing his funeral arrangements. “Oh God – I can hear you groaning – everybody wants to direct,” Carl wrote. “Well, I want a good show, even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop.” That spark, that humor – they’re alive and well in Vogel’s rich 90-minute play, and she has given her brother what he wanted and more. She has written him a great show.

In perhaps the play’s most inspiring and heartbreaking conceit, Vogel gives her character the fatal disease. In this alternate reality, Anna (the Vogel stand-in played by Lauren English) is a Baltimore schoolteacher who sat on an infected toilet seat at school and contracted ATD – Acquired Toilet Disease. She hasn’t got long, so her older brother, Carl (Patrick Alparone) wants to take her to Europe. The trip would be for fun and to see a doctor in Vienna with a promising treatment. Even though she has a fear of not speaking any other languages, Anna agrees, and she and Carl head to France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, where everyone they meet – from doctors to the Little Dutch Boy to student activists – are played by the remarkably versatile Greg Jackson as a character referred to in the program as “the Third Man” (references to the 1949 movie abound).

Baltimore 2

We know this is an alternate reality in several ways, but the most elegant is the set (designed by Nina Ball and lit by Heather Gilbert), which replicates a hospital room filled with flimsy curtains to separate the beds. There are harsh fluorescent lights for the more clinical moments, but mostly we’re in a dreamy wash of light and shadow and dances under a mirror ball. In the clothing department (costumes by Meg Neville) Carl wears pajamas and a sport coat (pink triangle on the lapel) and Anna wears a negligee and an overcoat – not your usual ensembles for international travel.

Throughout the play’s fragmented scenes, Carl clings to a stuffed rabbit throughout the trip but hastily hands it over to Anna when going through airport security or border crossings. Just what’s in the bunny remains a mystery, but Carl clings to the toy as if it were his soul, his sexuality, his comfort. He connects with other men carrying bunnies, and yet the minute his bunny is taken from him, the fantasy of the play begins to give way to reality.

For much of its running time, this is a fun and funny play about dying but with shadows lurking to darken the comedy. Vogel and director Moscone never let us forget what is really happening here. English as Anna is relatable and comic without being silly. Anna has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, she’s visiting Europe for the first time with the human she treasures most in the world, and she seizes the opportunity to live, to have lots of sex, to open her ears to new words and conditional tenses, to eat new foods and to love her brother.

Alparone has an edgy sort of charm that keeps Carl as prickly as he is passionate, as enigmatic as he is loving. He and English pair effectively as siblings who can clash and squabble but never question their inexorable bond. There’s an easy flow to Moscone’s production, where it seems every detail has been attended to, from the actual waltzes that dot the play to Anna’s red strap shoes to the croissants that dot the headboard in a Paris hotel.

Reality catches up with Anna and Carl eventually, and the shift from fragmented fantasy to the starkness of real life could, in less capable hands, be jarring. Here it is simply moving and, like the play itself, a thing of beauty that leaves the theater with you.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz continues through April 16 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$85. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Comedy is off in SF Playhouse Noises

Noises 2
The cast of Noises Off at San Francisco Playhouse includes (clockwise from left) Craig Marker, Nanci Zoppi, Johnny Moreno, Monique Hafen, Richard Louis James, Greg Ayers, Patrick Russell, Kimberly Richards and Monica Ho. Below: The farce-within-the-farce, Noises On, includes actors muddling through an ill-fated performance. The actors include (from left) Hafen, James, Richards, Ayers and Zoppi. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Every actor in San Francisco Playhouse’s Noises Off, the celebrated and oft-performed Michael Frayn ode to theater and theater people disguised as a knock-down, drag-out farce, has a wonderful moment or two. Perhaps a bit of inspired comic business, a sweet connection with another actor or a clever way of twisting a laugh from dialogue.

But as appealing as the cast can be, the whole of this farce never comes together in a satisfying way. Director Susi Damilano’s production is frantic and labored and lacking in the finely tuned details that make this comic machine hum like it should. The actors work hard, the set works hard and the audience works hard to muster up some enjoyment as the three-act play (Acts 2 and 3 are now bridged by a speech from the stage management) becomes an exercise in diminishing comic returns.

That’s a shame because the ingredients are all here for a delectable comic feast that turns out to be more of an intermittent snack fortified by occasional chuckles. After a clunky Act 1, which finds a sad-sack company of actors in a final dress rehearsal of the farce Nothing On, Act 2 literally flips the scene. Set designer George Maxwell’s country home theater set spins around so we can watch Act 1 of the play-within-the-play again, but this time from backstage, where the mayhem is far more intense than it is on stage. The actors have been on tour for a bit, and all the interpersonal relationships are exploding with varying degrees of jealousy, rage, alcoholism, nose bleeds and over-protectiveness. It’s this well-orchestrated physical shtick that allows the director and her company to shine, if only briefly, as axes are wielded, whiskey bottles are tossed, flowers are catapulted, sardines are slimed and just about everyone is attempting to settle a score with someone else.

Noises 1

For the last section of the 2 1/2-hour play, we’re back on stage with the bedraggled company at the end of their disastrous tour, and their bitterness, exhaustion and ineptitude has completely overwhelmed them (and their audience, I might add). We should be tired from laughing at this point, but really, we’re just tired.

Noises Off had a much better run in 1988 at Marin Theatre Company in a production directed by Richard Seyd. It was such a hit that it transferred to San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre, where it ran for almost a year. That production (which Seyd revived at San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2003) provided stronger evidence that Noises Off, as many have said, is one of the great farces. but when it’s not firing on all cylinders, it can also be one of the most annoying (see the wretched 1992 movie version that not even Carol Burnett can save, or better yet, don’t).

Though the SF Playhouse actors do good work independently, the company never feels like a cohesive whole, which would raise the stakes on the fracturing of their intimate little tour troupe and make the comedy zing with more focus. Still, it’s hard to resist the charms of actors like Craig Marker, whose Freddy continually claims how stupid he is about everything, and Nanci Zoppi, whose character, Belinda, is basically a straight-man role, but she imbues it with such zest she seems more like the glue holding the company together. Monique Hafen as Brooke must spend the bulk of the show in her underwear, and while Hafen has no problem carrying that off, she’s also consistent in her character’s terrible acting and unwavering adherence to the script, even while the theatrical world is imploding around her and her contact lenses are popping off.

Some occasionally marble-mouthed English accents interfere with the comedy, but the roaring egos, ill-advised affairs and sincere attempts to make good theater come through and convey a sense of theater folks as being so immersed in their insular stage world that they lose perspective on real life. Ironically, some of the best laughs of this experience come from the fake program-within-the-program for Nothing On,, where actors have been in shows like Scenes from the Charnelhouse (by Strindberg, naturally), Twice Two Is Sex and an all-male production of The Trojan Women, and they’ve become “famous” for catch phrases like, “Ooh, I can’t ‘ardly ‘old me lolly up!” That program also reveals some intriguing hints about what might happen in Act 2 of Nothing On, which we never get to see. Apparently involves a hospital trolley, surgical supplies and a straitjacket.

Putting on a play is hard work, and that has never seemed more apparent than it does here in a disappointing Noises Off.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Michael Frayn’s Noises Off continues through May 13 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Aurora’s Leni asks: Great artist, Nazi sympathizer or both?

Leni 1
Leni Riefenstahl (Stacy Ross) ponders her relationship with Hitler in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area Premiere of Leni by Sarah Greenman. Below: Older Leni (Ross, left) has a tête-à-tête with her younger self (Martha Brigham). Photos by David Allen

As a dramatic work, Sarah Greenman’s Leni about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, has to juggle history, artistry and, now, discomfiting parallels to our own time. Was Riefenstahl the right artist at the wrong time? Was her extraordinary talent as a filmmaker overshadowed by Hitler and the Nazi party? Or was she a Nazi sympathizer and, consequently, as the show puts it, “a willing architect of Nazi mythology” and, worse, an accomplice to genocide?

There aren’t any easy answers in this 85-minute one-act play now at the intimate Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre Company. Director Jon Tracy and actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, both of whom play Riefenstahl at advanced and early ages respectively, grab hold of the play with gusto and shake it for all it’s worth.

When a biographical play is set in some enigmatic limbo between life and death, the conceit usually comes across as a lazy way to make excuses for bringing back the dead and placing them awkwardly in a biographical drama. But here, it works. It is 2003 and Riefenstahl (Ross) has just died at 101. She emerges from a room into a phantom movie set (simply but effectively designed by Nina Ball) and gets to work filming scenes from her life. She shoots a scene of her younger self (Brigham) meeting with Hitler to beg for more money to complete her two-part documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Evocatively using lighting that is by turns stark and shadowy (beautifully designed by Kurt Landisman), director Tracy is able to create movie/theater hybrid that makes sense. They’re not really making a movie, but they’re not really alive either. What we have is Greenman’s attempt to allow Riefenstahl to put herself on trial, to explain herself, to attempt to face the truth, to justify never apologizing or recanting, to accept responsibility for the part she played.

Leni 2

Leni is in no way an apology for Riefenstahl. No matter her artistic ambitions or intentions, she was complicit with the Nazis, and that landed her squarely on the wrong side of history and understandably destroyed her career. Rather, the play is Riefenstahl wrestling with herself and attempting to establish some context for what is was like to be in the middle of it all, attempting to make great work (and Leni did truly believe her work was great – with Triumph of the Will she says she didn’t create propaganda, she created a masterpiece), maintain her artistic integrity (she says she was never a member of the Nazi party and no one ever interfered with her filmmaking) and play the political games that would keep her working (she and Hitler were friendly – he gave her gifts – but she and Goebbels did not get along).

Because she lived so long, Riefenstahl is able to offer an interesting perspective on her work. With her bold filmmaking techniques, she was decades ahead of her time and, as many would attest, set the standard for sports documentaries with Olympia. All the controversy surrounding her work with the Nazis tends to obscure her skills as a director and render her a villain rather than a visionary filmmaker. The footage we see from her films (sound and video design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) is absolutely mesmerizing, especially some of the montages of Olympic athletes (oh, the divers!). So when the older Leni proclaims, “I am on trial for creating the modern world!” her sense of self or her impact doesn’t seem as overblown as it might.

Asked why she didn’t condemn Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, Riefenstahl claims she, like so many Germans, especially those who believed in Hitler as the leader Germany needed at the time, simply didn’t know. All those rumors and stories purported by journalists about death camps were lies. Until they weren’t and – much too late in the game – she had to face the harsh facts. Does she love the work she created, she is asked? Yes. And does she regret it? Yes.

So where does that leave us with the complicated Leni Riefenstahl? Mired in complications, with probably more complications than Greenman’s drama allows. Ross and Brigham are, as usual, superb, and director Tracy’s production is able to cut through a lot of the corny docu-drama trappings and let all the thorny issues encompass audience and actors alike. Amid the specific details of Riefenstahl’s life, certain chilling elements echo – fake news! lying journalists! obliviously adoring crowds! dangerously narrow-minded nationalism! – and make us wonder who, some time from today, will we see as a Leni Riefenstahl among us now?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sarah Greenman’s Leni continues through May 10 in the Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Sisters’ paths diverge in Crowded Fire’s You for Me for You

You For Me 1
In her attempt to cross the North Korean border, Minhee (Kathryn Han) finds herself on a mystical journey of memory where even the trees have ears. Along the way she encounters various characters played by Jomar Tagatac (right) in Mia Chung’s You for Me for You at the Potrero Stage. Below: In a world turned upside down, bears (Julian Green) and frogs roam free, and a peculiar government official (Tagatac) may or may not be the key to Minhee’s (Han) search for her son. Photos by Pak Han

Sort of an Alice in Wonderland for our topsy-turvy times, Mia Chung’s You for Me for You takes us through a very specific lookingglass: a refugee’s experience attempting to flee North Korea.

Like any good leap of imagination, this one begins grounded in reality. Sisters Junhee (Grace Ng) and Minhee (Kathryn Han) live a hardscrabble life of menial office work (Junhee) and illness (Minhee) brought on by malnutrition. Repeated trips to a government doctor result in meaningless red pills and, ultimately, frustration and a small act of defiance that pushes the fearful sisters to want to attempt a crossing into South Korea.

From there the play gets wacky as the sisters’ paths diverge. Minhee falls down a well, goes through a small door she finds in the wall and attempts to sort out her life and relationships with her young son and missing husband in a sort of slow-motion dream-state North Korea. Meanwhile, Junhee makes it to America, where time moves much more quickly, she gets a job as a hospital orderly, acclimates herself to American life and meets a nice man from the South.

In the Crowded Fire Theater production now at the Potrero Stage (the newly and beautifully refurbished – and climate controlled! – space formerly known as Thick House), the sisters’ journey plays out in about 90 engaging minutes, with the characters around the sisters adding a sense of whimsy and emotional heft to their separate journeys. Director M. Graham Smith establishes a world where anything can happen with a stage dominated by set designer Maya Linke’s tattered and battered honeycomb sculpture. One minute we’re in a well where Minhee meets a talking frog, and the next, we’re at the American border, where Junhee interacts with a customs agent speaking English the way she hears it, which is to say, like garbled nonsense.

You For Me 2

While Minhee’s time in the well/North Korea is dark and emotionally fraught as she tries to locate her 10-year-old son (who may or may not be dead) and her husband (who may or may not be dead), Junhee’s time in New York is brighter, louder, brasher (and, for the audience, a whole lot more fun).

Minhee’s emotional journey is populated by oddballs, brokering bureaucrats, fellow wanderers and mysterious old women in the woods, and they’re all played by the wonderful Jomar Tagatac. Sinister and funny, Tagatac’s creations are among the play’s best, and the tone of dark whimsy gets deadly serious during one of his character’s litany of horrors suffered at the hands of the North Korean government.

In New York, Junhee encounters many different women – hospital patients, fellow workers from the ICU, a therapist, the hospital HR rep – and they’re all played by Elissa Beth Stebbins, who conquers the daunting task of having to speak the garbled English that Junhee hears when she first arrives. As her time in the U.S. progresses, we understand more and more of the English, but, happily, Stebbins’ performances just keep getting brighter and funnier and more pointed.

Charismatic Julian Green straddles both worlds. In North Korea he’s a talking bear, and in New York, he’s Wade, the man from Alabama, who charms Junhee, though she is compelled to keep him in the friend zone.

The contrast between the sisters’ experience is pointed, and though there were some pacing issues at Monday’s opening-night performance, You for Me for You is a rich, imaginative exploration of the refugee experience from two very different points of view. We also get, thanks to Ng and Han, a strong sense of the sisters’ devotion to one another. The humor and the wonderland-ish tone keep the play buoyant, but a grim sense of sacrifice, pain and dissociation looms to keep a fantastical telling grounded in reality.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mia Chung’s You for Me for You continues through April 1 at Potrero Stage (formerly Thick House), 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 ext 1 or visit
www.crowdedfire.org.

A spooky, funny slow burn in ACT’s John

John 2
Bed-and-breakfast owner Mertis (Georgia Engel, center) tells Elias (Joe Paulik) and Jenny (Stacey Yen) stories over breakfast in Annie Baker’s John, running at at ACT’s Strand Theater. Below: Mertis (Engel, right) tells Elias (Paulik) and Genevieve (Ann McDonough) the story of how she met her husband. Photos by Kevin Berne

There are two Johns in Annie Baker’s John, neither of whom we actually meet. One wreaked mental havoc on another person and the other is wreaking havoc on a relationship. Both feel like sinister external forces, but they are just two of many in this wonderfully bizarre, engrossingly enigmatic play by one of our country’s most original and captivating voices.

Locally, we’ve seen Baker’s Body Awareness at the Aurora (read my review here), Aliens at San Francisco Playhouse (review) and Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin Theatre Company (review) – and that was all in 2012. Since then, she has won the Pulitzer Prize (for The Flick) and has continued to solidify her reputation as one of those shape-shifting playwrights whose work you don’t want to miss.

John arrives in the Bay Area courtesy of American Conservatory Theater, whose Strand Theater provides a much cozier home for the play in which coziness is an important factor. Set in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed and breakfast, the play traffics in the kind of creepy, overstuffed homeyness that so many B&Bs do so well. Set designer Marsha Ginsberg and lighting designer Robert Hand have created an astonishingly realistic multi-level set that is so rich in detail, so crammed with information that that it’s not like a fifth character in the show, it is the fifth character in the show.

John 1

There’s an element of hyper-realism in Baker’s plays. The worlds her characters inhabit tend to be precise reflections of the world we live in, and the way her characters talk – every stammer, every “like” and especially every pause – also bring a sense of heightened realism as well as extended running times (John runs three hours and includes two intermissions, but I wasn’t bored for a second). All of that is true here, but Baker is playing with convention as well. For instance, she has star Georgia Engel, who plays Mertis, the innkeeper, push open the curtains at the start of an act and close them at the end. She also has a character make a surprise appearance (bizarre and unmissable) during one of the intermissions, so think twice about the bathroom run. These are reminders à la Brecht and Beckett that we’re watching a play and that this seeming reality is being messed with.

That notion of being messed with, of being the subject of mind games, looms large in John, which seems in so many ways to be a domestic drama about young love, old age and navigating crisis. But in other ways, the play is like an Edward Albee riddle, a conundrum asking big questions about the existence of god, the after-life and demons. Mertis, who would like people to call her Kitty but they hardly ever do, is the master of this universe to the extent that she even controls time (literally), so is she a god? Or is she the sweet-seeming older lady who occasionally talks like a beloved TV character (perhaps Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”)? Or perhaps, with her interest in H.P. Lovecraft and Cthulhu, she is something much darker.

There are no answers here. Just mysteries, and though we may crave big actions, big reveals, big scares, John, directed with precision and care by Ken Rus Schmoll is content to create a mood of sustained creepiness where shadows – real and metaphorical – loom large.

Engel, reprising her role from the New York production, is a dream. She plays in to stereotype and against it, her kindness and sweet daffiness contrasting with a hard life with hints of mental illness, marital discord and distinctly darker currents. Mertis’ guests for the duration of the play are a young Brooklyn couple, Jenny (Stacey Yen) and Elias (Joe Paulik). She writes questions for a game show and he’s a drummer with a penchant for Civil War history. They’re on a road trip, and their relationship has hit some significant bumps. Their sense of hipster irony digs the dolls, stuffed animals and general froufrou of the B&B (which is also decorated to the hilt for Christmas – so many layers!), but each in his or her way falls into the comfort – pretend or otherwise – of the space and of Mertis’ offbeat hospitality.

Ann McDonough adds more laughs to what is already a surprisingly funny play as Mertis’ friend, Genevieve. Blind and with a penchant for storytelling and Vienna Finger cookies, Genevieve is also another oddball feature of the play, a character that defies clear definition but adds sharp points to the general fog of mystery that hangs over the play.

John is not a play for everyone. Its rhythms are its own and nothing like our collective short attention span, but its rewards are great: a smart, original, confounding, entertaining, soulful, baffling work that makes you glad you checked in.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Annie Baker’s John continues through April 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theatre, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$90. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org

Humanity shines in ACT’s Splendid Suns

Splendid Suns 1
Mariam (Kate Rigg, left) and Laila (Nadine Malouf, center) and Zalmai (Neel Noronha) say goodbye to Aziza (Nikita Tewani) in the world-premiere theatrical adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Furious Rasheed (Haysam Kadri) yells at Laila (Malouf, left) and Mariam (Rigg). Photos by Kevin Berne

Let’s be honest: sitting in a beautiful theater watching a well-crafted play is an absolute privilege, so where better to challenge our very notions of privilege and confront the reality that much of the world’s population is having a very different experience than those of us sitting in the velvet seats? With a play like A Thousand Splendid Suns, the world-premiere adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, there are moments when the gilded glory of the Geary melts away and we are totally invested in the story of two women and their family enduring the hardships of life under Taliban rule in Kabul, Afghanistan.

That kind of transference, putting ourselves into the lives of those whose experience is so far from our own, has always been invaluable but suddenly seems like an incredibly important way to interact with a work of art. It’s also a lot of pressure to put on a play, but when Splendid Suns is firing on all theatrical cylinders, it more than lives up to the challenge.

Adapted from the novel by Ursula Rani Sarma and directed by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff (in a co-production with Theatre Calgary), the play takes much of its first act to find its legs and its momentum as we learn how the two main characters, Laila (Nadine Malouf) and Mariam (Kate Rigg) forged an enduring friendship amid circumstances involving a devastating bombing, an illegitimate child and a husband not at all averse to the idea of a second wife.

Splendid Suns 2

Once Laila and Mariam have forged a loving family in spite of the rage-filled Rasheed (Kaysam Kadri), the story really takes off in Act 2. Laila’s children, daughter Aziza (Nikita Tewani) and son Zalmai (Neel Noronha), are growing up amid much hardship, including the Taliban’s horrific restrictions on women (not allowed to work, not allowed to go to school, not allowed outside the house except in a burqa and in the company of a man, etc.). There’s very little money or food, but there is love. Though the children are Laila’s, they are as much Mariam’s, and the powerful bond they all share is the most palpable thing in the 2 1/2-hour production.

Perloff guides her actors through beautiful, powerful performances. Malouf and Rigg are extraordinarily vivid as Laila and Mariam, and the young actors also make a strong impression. Denmo Ibrahim crackles with vibrancy in a number of small roles, and Kadri as Rasheed, representing the oppression of the patriarchy, still manages to convey a human side to this villain through the love and tenderness he shows his young son.

The stage design by Ken MacDonald conveys an impressionistic view of Kabul that is both beautiful and harsh. There’s spare ornamentation contrasting with barrenness, and the few set pieces conjure intricacy and ruin among the buildings themselves.

The power of this experience is the story itself. Mariam and Laila’s lives – their strength, their devotion, their connection to love despite its scarcity within the confines of their world – could be recounted in an empty space with no flourishes and still be emotionally shattering and inspiring. There’s something larger at work here than simply a play on a stage, and that is a slice of the human experience that illuminates a specific culture while connecting to the better (and worse) parts of our shared humanity. We fear, we lash out, we attempt to control and destroy, but we also connect and empower and create and love ferociously even when that seems an impossible feat.

The play’s (and the novel’s) title comes from Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi, who described the city as “enthralling to the eye”…One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” And it’s the “behind her walls” part that is so intriguing. Where there is beauty of where there is desperation, the best of humanity and the worst, there will always be light burning with the intensity of the sun, even if we aren’t able to see it. That is hope, and that is the glowing center of this theatrical experience.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kkaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, continues through Feb. 26 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 to $105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Sacred and profane: much to mull in Playhouse’s Christians

Christians 1
Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) reveals an urgent change in his faith during a sermon at his mega-church in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: The cast of The Christians includes (from left) Millie Brooks as Jenny, Lance Gardner as Assistant Pastor Joshua, Fusco as Pastor Paul, Stephanie Prentice as Elizabeth and Warren David Keith as Elder Jay. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

While the San Francisco Playhouse audience was delving into Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a powerful, fraught examination of faith and organized religion, protestors were shutting down airports in demonstrations against the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants from countries whose religions posed a perceived threat to our nation. In other words, the spiritual and emotional chaos inside and outside the theater were well matched.

Questions of faith – why we believe what we believe, why we want or need to believe what we believe, how we choose to live in our faith – will never be answered because each human being contains a multitude of answers at any given moment. Faith is powerful, elusive and subject to influence by ego, fear, instability, anger, desperation, peer pressure, greed and joy. In only 90 concentrated minutes, Hnath (one of the country’s hottest playwrights) manages to touch on all of that and provoke some hefty, complicated and unresolvable responses.

The fact that church is already so much like theater is exploited in the set-up for Hnath’s play. For the SF Playhouse production that opened on Saturday, Jan. 28, director and set designer Bill English turns the theater into a sleek contemporary mega-church somewhere in America in the 21st century. It’s the kind of church, we’re told, that has a cafe and a bookshop in the lobby and a parking lot so big you’ll get lost if you’re not careful. Almost as prominent as the abstract stained-glass windows are the video monitors hovering above the choir (played here by members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco). The setting feels so real that when Pastor Paul asks us to bow our heads in prayer, I looked around the audience half expecting audience member/congregants to do his bidding.

Christians 2

As you might expect in a church of this size, the speakers use microphones, a detail that will come to complicate the play as it takes on more dimension. But at its start, The Christians is simply a re-creation of a Sunday church service. Pastor Paul (the always authentic and compelling Anthony Fusco invites us to a day of celebration: all debts incurred by the church in the building of its massive new home have been paid. He also drops a bombshell revelation: God has revealed to him that there is no such thing as hell – if anything, we are in hell now and striving, through Christ, to evolve heavenward.

Such a profound change in belief does not sit well with Assistant Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner), who immediately engages Pastor Paul in a scripture-laden debate. From here, the straightforward sermon-as-play deviates, and Paul becomes our guide through the fallout form his revelation. Interestingly, Hnath never allows the play to change settings: all the ensuing scenes take place in the pulpit and with the characters holding the microphones as if they were still in front of the congregation. At times, as when Pastor Paul is in discussion with Elder Jay (Warren David Keith), a member of the church’s board of directors, or with his wife, Elizabeth (Stephanie Prentice), they are speaking face to face with microphones in hand as if performing a duet minus the music. It’s a bizarre visual and is somewhat detrimental to the emotional impact of the scenes, but the notion of these discussions and debates playing out in an amplified and public way has an unnerving effect. And then there are the tangles and and dangers of those microphone chords getting in the way – communication is never easy here.

If God can reveal to Paul that there is no hell, he can just as easily reveal to Joshua that there is. When a single mother congregant (Millie Brooks) express her conflicted feelings about both ways of thinking, Paul fails to provide compelling answers, and his church spirals into full schism. Hnath doesn’t go for clear heroes and villains here, and the public beliefs are allowed to show their personal roots. There’s nothing public here that isn’t also bound to deeply held beliefs from childhood or woven into our most intimate family relationships.

Faith is such a complex thing. It can elevate and buffer us from the challenges of life. It can even promise eternal life with other believers, all the while dividing and alienating us in this life. How we invest our faith is among life’s most challenging issues, and in this particular moment, it seems to be dividing the nation and, indeed, the world, as it has for seemingly ever. That’s one of the reasons Pastor Paul’s revelation is so divisive. It’s so simple and, in may ways, removes the intricate structure of organized religion from the heaven-hell-sinner-saint equation. “We create an insurmountable distance,” he says, “where there is no distance at all.” Amen.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lucas Hnath’s The Christians continues through March 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.