MTC’s Mañana captures real-life struggles, passions

My Manana 1
The four busboys at a Manhattan restaurant (from left) , Whalid (Caleb Cabrera), Jorge (Eric Avilés), Pepe (Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales) and Peter (Shaun Patrick Tubbs), prepare for their shift in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Tubbs’ Peter and Cabrera’s Whalid and bond at the workplace. Photos by Kevin Berne

Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes cuts through any pretense and gets right to the heart of real life in these United States. In so much of the entertainment we consume (and, truth be told, in the lives we lead), the people Irwin writes about here are on the fringes, working diligently to make modern life run smoothly and efficiently but without much consideration from those whose lives their work benefits. In this case, the focus is on four bus boys in a busy Manhattan restaurant. Two are Mexican immigrants, one here for four years, the other just a few months. The other two are American born. One is African American and the other is born to Mexican immigrants but without much connection to his parents’ native culture (he says he thought he was Puerto Rican until was a teenager).

All four share the need for more money than they presently have – to send money home, to save up to bring family to New York, to pay for education, to support wife and child. And they all have to find ways to deal with the low-paying grunt work they are required to do on a daily basis and the lack of respect and/or dignity that can entail.

Hearing these voices on stage, experiencing the lives of these men is reason enough to see My Mañana Comes – the humanity, the empathy, the struggle that come through is powerful and, in many ways, universal. Any examined life, as they say, will yield great drama and complexity, and that’s certainly true here. These men are dealing with issues of race, economy, immigration, self-respect and ethics in ways that can have profound impact on their lives like where they sleep that night, how to avoid the police or how to save money when it costs so much to live in New York (especially when you’re eyeing a new pair of Nike sneakers).

My Manan 2

The four actors – Eric Avilés, Caleb Cabrera, Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales and Shaun Patrick Tubbs – are the other reason to see this play. As realistic as the kitchen set is (by Sean Fanning), they bring even more realism to their portrayals of four very different men. Avilés’ Jorge is sort of the calm center of the group. He is radically frugal in an effort to save enough money to return to his family in Mexico and finish building their home. His deep commitment gives him a focused center around which the other guys bounce. Tubbs’ Patrick, the one black guy amid the Mexican and Mexican-American guys, is the crew leader, and when management attempts to screw the bus boys out of their salary pay, his ferocious energy is focused on galvanizing his coworkers and fighting back.

Cabrera’s Whalid is young and ambitious. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he sees this bus boy job as a stepping stone to something bigger and better, like being an EMT. And Morales’ Pepe, whose English is still a work in progress, is sort of the comic relief – lots of new guy and new immigrant jokes at his expense – but there’s also something compelling and sad about his desire to bring his brother to the U.S. and the pull he feels to spend money rather than save it.

There’s camaraderie and tension and fascinating dynamics within this quartet, and that’s when Irwin’s play and director Kirsten Brandt’s production are strongest. We mostly see the kitchen in off hours, before or after food service happens, but there’s a beautifully choreographed sequence involving the service of food (at this restaurant servers are apparently never in the kitchen, chefs are not part of the kitchen culture and bus boys prep the food and bring it to the tables), with the guys coming and going like a well-oiled machine. But the hyper-reality of the setting can also work against the production because it doesn’t feel quite real enough. There’s a lot of busy work involving the slicing of lemons and limes, and when one guy is doing inventory, he’s basically unboxing a few bottles of olive oil. For all the realism, this never feels like a functioning kitchen.

Brandt’s play has some great exchanges between the busy boys, and her dialogue often feels less like drama and more like documentary. But her dramatic structure invests a whole lot of the show’s 95 minutes in set-up. The actual conflict doesn’t occur until late in the play, and when it does, there’s real power to it. The lengthy set-up pays off, but in many ways it also feels like the story is just beginning.

Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes continues through Nov. 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $10-$58. Call 415-333-5208 or visit

Marin Theatre Co. meditates on Ruhl’s poignant Boy

Oldest Boy 2
Kurt Uy (left, as Father) and Christine Albright (as Mother) interact with their 3-year-old son, Tenzin, a puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa), Jed Parsario and Melvign Badiola in the Marin Theatre Company production of Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy. Below: Mother and son have a moment in India. Photos by Kevin Berne

The plays of Sarah Ruhl are mightily appealing in their intelligence, sensitivity, beauty and depth. From Dead Man’s Cell Phone to Eurydice (now at Shotgun Players) to In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, Ruhl makes the ordinary extraordinary and gives poetic voice to thoughtful, troubled lives that have a great deal to offer.

Now making its West Coast debut at Marin Theatre Company, Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy is in some ways very conventional: a well-heeled mother and father in the United States are conflicted about the education of their young son. But the circumstances surrounding this conflict are quite extraordinary. Their 3-year-old has been deemed an incarnate lama, the reincarnated soul of a “tulku” or high-ranking lama. Two monks arrive from India (where so many Tibetan Buddhists live in exile from their conflicted homeland) with the news, and the parents must decide if they will relinquish their son to life in a monastery on the other side of the world.

This news is perhaps more shocking to the mother (Christine Albright), who was raised Catholic in Ohio and has been a spiritual wanderer since, than it is to the father (Kurt Uy), a Tibetan who grew up in India and now operates a popular restaurant in an unspecified American city.

Oldest Boy 1

With the surprise arrival of a monk (Wayne Lee) and a lama (Jinn S. Kim), it quickly becomes clear that there is little doubt that the child is the reincarnation of the lama’s former teacher (who died three years previously), so the parents must decide how they will proceed. For a mother who is practicing attachment parenting, this is a jolt to be sure.

Ruhl doesn’t really spend much time with the “is he or isn’t he” issue of the child’s reincarnation, and the parents don’t fight much about the fate of their child. So there’s not a whole lot of conflict in this play, but there is a whole lot of feeling. When the action shifts to India, there’s also tremendous beauty in the ritual we see (Collette Pollard’s set is gorgeous, as are the costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt and the lights by Jeff Rowlings).

At the heart of the story is a little boy, Tenzin, represented by a bunraku-style puppet operated by Tsering Dorjee (Bawa) (who also provides the choreography), who provides the voice, and Melvin Badiola and Jed Parsario, who give astonishing expression to his body (the fantastic puppet is by Jesse Mooney-Bullock). There wasn’t one moment in this two-hour play when I didn’t feel the reality of the child, even though he was an obvious theatrical contrivance. That has a lot to do with the artistry of the puppeteers, Ruhl’s script and Albright’s strong central performance.

Director Jessica Thebus pulls nuanced, naturalistic performances from her actors, and that keeps the play grounded in reality, even when Ruhl stretches credibility in Act 2. We experience this story from the perspective of Mother, and Albright is a powerful focal point as we see her using her considerable intellectual abilities (she’s a literature professor, adjunct as she’d point out) to try and open up her spirituality and to the hardest thing a parent has to do: let go of a child. As she points out, “The cruel animal fact of motherhood is bigger than any idea.”

The play and this stunning production never lose sight of that, and The Oldest Boy turns out to be one of the more moving theatrical experiences I’ve had for a while.

Sarah Ruhl’s The Oldest Boy continues an extended run through Oct. 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Mill Road, Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Faith, choices, colonialism collide in Marin’s gutsy Convert

Convert 1
Chilford (Jabari Brisport, left) is thanked by Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter, kneeling) and her niece Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner) after he accepts Jekesai as his student and servant in exchange for her conversion to Catholicism. Mai Tamba’s son Tamba (JaBen Early, at rear) has serious doubts in the Bay Area premiere of Danai Gurira’s The Convert at Marin Theatre Company. BELOW: Prudence (Omoze Idehenre) gives the re-named Ester (Turner) advice about her studies in the language, religion and customs of the English settlers. Photos by Kevin Berne

For someone who kills zombies in her day job, Danai Gurira sure knows her way around a compelling drama. Best known as the kick-ass, Katana-wielding Michonne on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” Gurira is also a playwright, an impressive one as it turns out based on her Bay Area debut with The Convert now at Marin Theatre Company.

This is a good, old-fashioned historical drama – three acts and nearly three hours – about the soul-crushing damage of colonialism and missionary zeal. What’s interesting is that The Convert is the second play to open in the Bay Area recently specifically addressing the colonizing of Africa by Europeans. In Just Theater’s We Are Proud to Present… (read about it here), it’s about Germans (and later the British) in Namibia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In The Convert, we’re dealing with the English running roughshod over Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in the late 19th century. Both stories, perhaps needless to say, end horribly for the native Africans.

Gurira’s Convert finds a land at the breaking point. The British, Dutch and Portugese have had a profound effect on local culture, the Shona people, seizing land and forcing many of the men to work in diamond mines for paltry pay and wreaking havoc with the native spirituality by aggressively converting Shona people to Christianity. Rebellion against the settlers began in the 1890s – when The Convert is set – and continued into the 1960s.

Convert 2

The title character is Jekesai (Katherine Renee Turner), a Shona woman who speaks no English but is in need of help from a local missionary, an African convert named Chilford (Jabari Brisport), who will save her from entering into an arranged marriage with a much older man is she agrees to open her heart to Jesus. Coached by her aunt, Mai Tamba (Elizabeth Carter) to say yes to anything the missionary says, the young woman begins her conversion as a means of protection, but her agile mind and ferocious spirit are soon caught up in her conversion for real. She learns to speak English and becomes Chilford’s right hand when it comes to bringing locals into the church.

Colonialists and missionaries, it turns out, are blinded by a similar affliction: 100 percent certainty that everything they think and do is right and that the world owes them. The profound disrespect they show to “savages” has disastrous ramifications for all involved, not to mention the land, the cattle and anything else that can be thoughtlessly pillaged for profit. Gurira’s play is fueled by the conflict of traditional culture and spirituality being overtaken by foreign culture and spirituality. Jekesai, who is renamed Ester, represents the locus of the conflict, but Gurira gives us another fascinating woman who is torn in a different way.

Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), a Shona woman, was not only fully educated by the British, she turned out to be smarter than most of her teachers and is now more convincingly British than they are. She has a crisp accent and a powerful vocabulary, and she’s set to marry a local bigwig, the African Chancellor (Jefferson A. Russell). The interesting thing about Prudence, outfitted in starchy, confining British styles (costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt) is that she acutely feels how thoroughly she has turned her back on her own culture and people. She still speaks the local language when she can and encourages Ester to do the same. She’s also smart enough to know that what now separates her from her people will ultimately fail to connect her to the Europeans. She’s in between cultures and will likely be rejected by both.

Director Jasson Minadakis and his superb cast fill Nina Ball’s simple missionary home set with drama that comes from sharply defined characters and well-defined historical conflict. Turner as Jekesai/Ester is stunning, as is Idehenre as Prudence. Their characters are vivid and powerful and rich they almost need no supporting cast at all. But the supporting cast, which also includes JaBen Early and L. Peter Callender representing Shona men who resent the European influence and are preparing to to something about it, provides complex human beings rather than cardboard historical cut-outs.

It’s a bold move in our world of contemporary drama to present a long, three-act play. When so many playwrights are moving toward 90-minute (or less) one-acts, it’s refreshing to see a playwright go bold. The advantage of a three-act structure is the opportunity to fully draw in the audience and get them involved in the story. That certainly happens in The Convict, but I wasn’t convinced that the same couldn’t have happened in two acts. There are some slow patches in Act One, whereas acts Two and Three are full of action and emotion and consequence.

The Convert is a powerful drama, and as much as I love “The Walking Dead” (and especially as much as I love Michonne), it probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing for Gurira to give up her day job and focus on being the kick-ass playwright she so clearly is.

Danai Gurira’s The Convert continues through March 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

A Whale of a (heartbreaking) tale in Marin

Whale 1
Liz Sklar is Liz, a nurse and a friend, and Nicholas Pelczar is Charlie, a man who needs friends and nurses in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Charlie receives some help from a passing Mormon missionary (Adam Magill). Photos by Kevin Berne

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, now at Marin Theatre Company is a difficult play to watch. That description might not make you want to run out and buy a ticket, but hold on. Difficult doesn’t preclude greatness.

At first glance, the play, winner of MTC’s 2011 Sky Cooper New American Play Prize, involves a guy in a fat suit. Granted, it’s a really good fat suit (Christine Crook is the costume designer), but faking a 600-pound guy and watching an actual 600-pound guy are very different experiences. But here’s the thing: what actor Nicholas Pelczar brings to that suit is extraordinary.

He plays Charlie, a sweet-natured man stuck on his couch (which is raised and supported by cinder blocks) in a Northern Idaho town (the cramped, dingy set is by Michael Locher). He makes a living doing online tutorials, and his friend Liz (Liz Sklar), who happens to be a nurse, brings him junk food, makes cursory efforts to clean his outrageously filthy apartment and cares for his well being as best she can. It’s a losing battle, what with Charlie’s congestive heart failure and his utter unwillingness (not to mention lack of medical insurance) to consider a visit to the hospital.

Hunter, a savvy playwright whose A Bright New Boise was a wow at Aurora Theatre Company last fall (read that review here), focuses a lot of attention on Charlie’s heart. It’s a broken heart to be sure – the loss of his boyfriend years before precipitated his long, slow suicide by morbid obesity – but it’s a heart capable of tremendous compassion, for his faceless online students, for great writing, for the young daughter he essentially abandoned 15 years before. Physically, it’s no wonder that Charlie’s heart is giving out (we’re told at the top of the play that he’ll be dead by the weekend), but emotionally, it seems a man this lonely and this full of empathy would tax his heart in any condition.

Whale 2

There are many intriguing layers to this tale, directed with a sure hand by Jasson Minadakis, and though it’s a sad, sad tale, there is also a fair amount of humor, much of it provided by the acidic teenage daughter, played by Cristina Oeschger, who reunites with her father only because she thinks there might be money in it for her.

Pelczar imbues Charlie’s gargantuan body (outfitted in sweatshirt and sweatpants so grimy they rival his sofa for the things you would most want to avoid contact with) with such feeling, that you immediately root for him, even though the odds are decidedly not in his favor. The wheezing, the strenuous effort to journey from the couch to the walker to the bathroom is arduous and hard to watch, but then there’s Pelczar’s sweet face or Charlie’s even sweeter nature there to remind you of the person underneath all that person. Charlie is not just sweet, either. He’s complicated. He’s a gay man who left his wife and child for a man and has sort of paid the price ever since. He had a great love, but that love broke him, and he’s constantly apologizing. He’s on a rough road, and the compassion and empathy he feels for the world rarely comes back to him.

There’s a flash of kindness from an unlikely friend when a Mormon missionary happens by Charlie’s apartment just as Charlie is in the grip of a scary heart incident. Elder Thomas (Adam Magill) wants desperately to believe his faith can actually help someone and he sees Charlie as perhaps his last chance. But Charlie has a tricky relationship with the Mormon Church, and the nature of that relationship is used as a sort of plot-propelling mystery.

The supporting cast, which also includes Michelle Maxson as Ellie’s at-the-end-of-her-rope mom, is fantastic and fits into the docu-drama world of Hunter’s play with ease. There are moments, especially when the playwright bangs the Moby Dick drum a little hard, when the stark realism veers dangerously close to melodrama, but pitfalls are avoided.

The Whale is a tragedy that ennobles a good man. It’s difficult and challenging but also uniquely beautiful.

Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale continues through Oct. 26 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $35-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

When Muhammad Ali met Stepin Fetchit

Fetch Clay 1
The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Fetch Clay, Make Man includes (from left) Jefferson A. Russell as Brother Rashid, Eddie Ray Jackson as Muhammad Ali, Roscoe Orman as Stepin Fetchit and Katherine Renee Turner as Sonji Clay. Below: Jackson’s Ali and Orman’s Fetchit strategize about Ali’s upcoming bout with Sonny Liston. Photos by Kevin Berne

Playwright (and former San Franciscan) Will Power knows a potent match-up when he sees it. In this corner we have young, preening world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali who, in the last year of his life, has shed his former identity as Cassisus Clay to become a member of the Nation of Islam with a new name and a new wife. And in this corner we have actor Lincoln Perry, better known as his show business alter ego, Stepin Fetchit, a lazy comic character that became a polarizing force in the realm of African-American stereotypes.

This pairing seems to good to be true, the invention of a clever dramatist, but no. It’s true. Ali and Perry were indeed friends, and their meeting and ensuing relationship is the basis for Power’s intriguing Fetch Clay, Make Man, now having its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company (in a co-production with Maryland’s Round House Theatre).

It seems that Perry had been close friends with boxer Jack Johnson and may know the secret of Johnson’s “anchor punch.” That’s what Ali wants when he summons Perry to Lewiston, Maine in 1965 just days before his rematch with Sonny Liston.

What’s immediately clear is that Power has identified a fascinating moment in the lives of two prominent African-American icons who are known to the world not so much as their true selves but as the characters they presented. For Perry, his fame had crested years before and found himself reviled as an “Uncle Tom” or, as one character spits, “this coon, this lazy, shiftless discredit to our race.” But from Perry’s point of view, his career is a triumph – he made millions from the white-run film industry and was the first black man to receive star billing on screen. He shuffled through the back door, he says, so others, like Ali, could come through the front.

Fetch Clay 2

Ali, in his early 20s, is just forming the persona for which he would be known throughout his career. He was spouting poetry, declaiming his beauty and his prowess and, of course, his absolute greatness. Gone was Cassius Clay, and in his place was a clean-living man of God and example for all black men. That was the image, but the reality was more complicated. Ali’s new wife, Sonji, had converted to Islam, but as we see in the play, that choice proved to be short lived. Ali’s place in the brotherhood is also fraught because he doesn’t spread the word of the Messenger as much as he spreads the word of himself. And the assassination of Ali’s one-time friend Malcolm X has cast a threat of danger and retaliation over Ali’s camp.

That’s a lot of history and a lot of drama to pack into a two-plus-hour play, and it seems Power could distill his story down even further. Director Derrick Sanders helps set the historical context through projections (by Caite Hevner Kemp), and a sense of momentum that builds steadily until it diffuses in Act 2.

With consistently strong performances, Fetch Clay has a sense of power from beginning to end, but the excellence of the actors – especially Eddie Ray Jackson as Ali and Roscoe Orman (better known for his decades as Gordon on “Sesame Street”) as Stepin Fetchit – obscures the problem at the center of the play. We don’t know whose story this is. Presumably the protagonist is Stepin Fetchit. We see flashbacks to his early Hollywood days dealing with a studio mogul (played by Robert Sicular) and have a strong sense of what he has to gain by associating with Ali: a second chance at a career that will take him past the shame of his landmark character.

But Ali is such a powerful force in the story that it could also be his, especially as we see him dealing with a rupture in his young marriage as his wife (beautifully played by Katherine Renee Turner) asserts her independence. Ali’s tussle with the Nation of Islam is represented in the character of Brother Rashid (played with barely concealed rage by Jefferson A. Russell), and it’s a relationship fraught with tension and duplicity.

The whole play, in fact, is filled with tension, and it all but disappears toward the end of Act 2 when something mystical happens, and rather than focusing on Orman’s powerful presence center stage, director Sanders lets the slide show go crazy and overshadow his lead actor. Then the play’s ending sort of trickles away, and I found myself left wondering what I wanted to take away from the play. Other than the knowledge of a curious friendship between Muhammad Ali and Stepin Fetchit and some excellent work by actors, I have to admit I remain not at all sure.

Will Power’s Fetch Clay, Make Man continues through Sept. 7 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$55. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

MTC’s Failure blends death, music and whimsy

Failure 2
Gertrude Fail (Megan Smith, left) and her clocks (Liz Sklar on ukelele, Patrick Kelly Jones on bass and Kathryn Zdan on kalimba) are surprised by the entrance of the debonair Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon) in the West Coast premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Time marches on for the Fail Sisters – Jenny June (Sklar, left), Gertrude (Smith, center) and Nelly (Zdan) – with musical accompaniment from Mortimer Mortimer (Herndon on trombone) and John N. Fail (Jones on snare). Photos by Kevin Bern

Philip Dawkins writes about the inevitable ending of all our stories in Failure: A Love Story, but his version of death is pretty darn upbeat. His beguiling play, now having its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company

, is technically a “play with music,” but there’s a LOT of music, and it’s charmingly played and sung by the five-person cast. I reviewed the play for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Dawkins’ premise seems to be that there’s no such thing as a truly happy ending. We can all live happily ever after – until we die. So what matters is how we live. Why not sing “In the Good Old Summertime” or “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” while we wait?

That’s certainly what the Fail family does. It’s the early part of the 20th century, and Ma and Pa Fail have already succumbed to a terrible accident involving a new DeSoto and the Chicago River, leaving their four children to fend for themselves.

Some 13 years later, it’s 1928, the year we’re told in the show’s crisp narrative style that all three Fail sisters will die. Sounds dark and depressing – it’s anything but.

Read the full review here.

Failure 1

Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story continues through June 29 at Marin Theatre Company, 391 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37 to $58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Wilson’s Fences hits hard at Marin Theatre Co.

Fences 1
The cast of Marin Theatre Company’s Fences by August Wilson includes (from left) Eddie Ray Jackson as Cory, Margo Hall as Rose and and Carl Lumbly as Troy Maxson. Below: Lumbly and Hall are joined by Steven Anthony Jones as Jim Bono. Photos by Ed Smith

I’ve always been moved by August Wilson’s Fences, the 1950s installment of his extraordinary Century Cycle of plays depicting African-American life in the 20th century. But the current production of the play at Marin Theatre Company under the direction of Derrick Sanders made me feel the play in a whole new way.

This has largely to do with Carl Lumbly’s wrenching central performance as Troy Maxson, a complicated man whose life is ruled by ego. And that’s what struck me about this production: how much the play is about the destructive nature of ego – not the “I’m so great, look at me, check out my Google Glasses” ego but rather the insidious part of ourselves that divorces us from real life and forces us to live under the weight of preconceptions and regrets and fear and walled-off (perhaps fenced-off is more appropriate) emotion.

Troy has seemingly done everything right. He survived a gruesome childhood with a shabby father, struck out on his own and, after fighting the rampant racism of the early 20th century, nearly making it in baseball minors and surviving incarceration, finally put down roots inn Pittsburgh’s Hill District. He wasn’t a father to his first son, Lyons, whose childhood flew by while Troy was in prison. But with wife Rose, a saving grace in his life, he raised a second son, got a steady job as a garbageman and made a home for his family.

That’s the history of a good citizen, maybe not someone who started out that way but who eventually took responsibility for himself and his family in a big way. So what’s wrong with that? Plenty, and that’s what makes the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences so interesting. Troy is a proud man, an angry man who fights to live the life he thinks he should and struggles hard when it feels like parts of him are dying.

Fences 2

Lumbly’s performance is so powerful and so achingly real, it’s easy to see why Rose (a fine Margo Hall) and son Cory (Eddie Ray Jackson) are afraid of him to varying degrees. They aren’t really allowed to be themselves (just as Troy isn’t able to be himself) but rather the image he holds of them. Rose isn’t a person so much as a person to be loved, protected and provided for, and Cory isn’t a talented football player whose skill could be his ticket to college but rather a young black man who will have to fight, like Troy did, to make his way in the world.

Troy’s vision of his life has been pretty easy to uphold for nearly two decades, but unsupported facades fall away, and that’s where we are in Fences as secrets, resentments and outright hostilities send everything crumbling down.

Wilson’s set-up in the first act can get a little draggy, but once Troy is challenged – first by his son, then by his wife – the action and the emotional wallop are significant.

Sanders’ cast, which also includes Steven Anthony Jones as Troy’s best friend, Tyee Tilghman as Troy’s first-born son, Adrian Roberts as Troy’s damaged brother, Gabriel, and Makaelah Bashir and Jade Sweeneysharing the role of Raynell, is as sturdy as it gets, even though the drama belongs mostly to Lumbly. Later in the play, though, Wilson hands the play to Rose to bring everything into perspective, and Hall handles the shift with her usual grace and vigor.

Fences is a great American drama about the true cost of doing the “right” thing and living the life you think you should live rather than the life you’re actually living. That’s a fascinating clash and one that will remain relevant as long as we’re operating under the illusion of the American Dream.

August Wilson’s Fences continues through May 11 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Fifty shades of Wonder in Marin Theatre Co.’s Lasso

Lasso 1
Liz Sklar (left) as The Amazon and Jessa Brie Moreno as The Wife in the world premiere of Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Lauren English is The Girl and John Riedlinger is The Guy with one of over 200 illustrations by Jacob Stoltz in the background. Photos by Kevin Berne

You’re bound to like Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth if you like Wonder Woman…and a heaping helping of S&M on the side.

If you didn’t know the two were related, first of all, think about it for a minute (the golden lasso, the bustier, the metal bracelets, etc.), and second of all, boy has Kreitzer got an origin story for you. Commissioned by Marin Theatre Company, the play is part of the National New Play Network, which means this is what they call a “rolling world premiere.” The show begins in Mill Valley then heads to Atlanta and Kansas City.

So where did Wonder Woman come from (and we’re not talking about Paradise Island, home of the Amazons)? For many of us, she sprung fully formed in the 1970s looking like the stunning Lynda Carter in a patriotic bathing suit and gold accessories. That famous TV show is actually a jumping-off point for Kreitzer’s play.

She has a contemporary woman (Lauren English) telling the audience about a great betrayal in her life. As a lifelong fan of Wonder Woman (spurred by Carter and the TV show), she was horrified to learn that the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was, in her words a “perv.”

From the present, we jump into the past to explore Marston’s so-called perversion. In the years leading up to Wonder Woman’s first comic book appearance in 1941, Marston, a psychologist and academic (and inventor of an early version of the polygraph), was shucking convention. An admirer of strong, beautiful women, he was married to just such a woman, and he’s often seen sitting at her feet, looking up at her adoringly while she strokes his hair as if he were a prize poodle. But then Marston’s research assistant entered the picture, and then she really entered the picture. Marston, his wife and his mistress crafted a polyamorous relationship that led to a bundle of children and relationships within the triangle that could handle the deepest, darkest explorations of S&M, bondage and erotically charged, emotionally fraught exchanges of power.

Lasso 2

It’s fascinating stuff, and Kreitzer, working with director Jasson Minadakis, does something quite extraordinary here in that she handles what really amounts to an exploration of unconventional sexuality with sensitivity and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor. It could be pretty deadly watching grown-ups explore their sexuality with ropes on a stage, but all of that is handled well. Nicholas Rose as Marston (here called “The Inventor”), Jessa Brie Moreno as his wife and Liz Sklar as the girlfriend (who, it’s worth mentioning, bears a passing resemblance to Lynda Carter) create dimensional characters prone to candor, enthusiasm and risky exploration. Sklar, it turns out, is also a whiz with knots.

The 2 1/2-hour show feels long in stretches. In Act 1, when the action shifts from the Marston triangle to English and her quest to find the original comic in which Wonder Woman first appears, these scenes feel like a distraction. She’s tangling with a geeky comic book store clerk (John Riedlinger) about the comic, about feminism, about her sense of betrayal with Marston’s real-life proclivities. But these scenes, despite the charms of English and Riedlinger, come off as strident and shallow.

But by Act 2, the contemporary scenes have become more interesting as our modern duo explores an actual relationship, and their characters emerge more strongly. In this act, the distractions come from a too-often repeated gimmick of darkening the theater and having the actors making sexy talk into microphones as they negotiate (sometimes with humor) the games they’d like to play. There’s also a goofy lie-detector machine on stage in Act 2 that looks like a reject from Forbidden Planet and is just a little too silly.

Other technical aspects of the show are marvelous. Annie Smart’s set provides efficient sliding panels to effectively frame the video designs by Kwame Braun and the terrific graphic art by Jacob Stoltz that never lets us forget that we’re firmly in the world of comic books. There are also some very funny videos involving Gloria Steinem (as played by Moreno), who was a Wonder Woman champion and put her on the cover of Ms. magazine’s inaugural issue in 1972.

The past and the present do come together eventually, but Kreitzer doesn’t seem to know how or where to end the play, which stutters its way to a conclusion. The impression she gives us of Marston (an endearing idealist who believed a comic book character could end war and bring about utopia) and the powerful women in his life is quite a strong one. That they all contributed in some way toward the creation of a positive role model for girls and women is clear, but the punch of their story ends with a pow rather than POW!

[bonus interview]
I talked with Lasso of Truth playwright Carson Kreitzer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Carson Kreitzer’s Lasso of Truth continues through March 16 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.