Love doth evade Marin’s Shakespeare in Love

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Megan Trout is Viola de Lesseps and Adam Magill is Will Shakespeare in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1998 movie. Photo by Kevin Berne

The most produced play of the 2017-18 season, according to American Theatre magazine, is Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation (by Lee Hall) of the 1998 movie of the same name that is now (in)famous for being one of the first “success” stories of Harvey Weinstein’s battering ram-style Oscar campaigns. The movie picked up abundant awards, including best picture and best screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Then it took more than a decade and a half to find its way to the stage, and the results are disappointing. This should have been a musical, but apparently they couldn’t bear to cut any of the Stoppardian dialogue, so they just went the way of play with lots of music.

The Bay Area finally gets to see the show thanks to Marin Theatre Company, and while the cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s best actors – Stacy Ross, Lance Gardner, Megan Trout, Mark Anderson Phillips, L. Peter Callender – the production flails under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

I reviewed the production for Here’s a preview:

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by preeminent playwright Tom Stoppard (with Marc Norman), it seems only natural that a stage adaptation would eventually appear. What is surprising is that the play adaptation feels like it had aspirations to be a musical, with adapter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) wrestling it into a lumpy play with lots of music and retaining only some of the charm of the movie.

Director Jasson Minadakis goes for a stripped-down theater vibe with Shakespeare in Love at the Marin Theatre Company, with 13 actors playing around 30 roles and having them provide all of the musical accompaniment for Paddy Cunneen’s overactive score. That makes for a frenetic two-plus hours that offer only intermittent pleasures.

Read the full review here.

Shakespeare in Love continues through Dec. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

SF Playhouse offers a sweet, satisfying Kiss

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Carrie Paff and Gabriel Marin play actors in a romantic play who share a turbulent romantic past in Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Marin and Paff, along with Taylor Iman Jones as Angela navigate rocky real life off stage. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

San Francisco Playhouse puckers up and offers a nice juicy kiss for the holidays in Stage Kiss, a delightfully daffy theatrical spin with a touch of real-life melancholy.

This is the first time we’ve seen Ruhl’s play in San Francisco, but the whole Bay Area is alive with the sounds of Ruhl’s empathetic, intelligent, often mystical take on life. Marin Theatre Company and Shotgun Players recently produced her The Oldest Boy (read my review here) and Eurydice respectively. And Berkeley Repertory Theatre is gearing up for her For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday next summer.

There’s a reason Ruhl reigns over theater here (and across the country): her plays are warm, wise, funny and fresh. Stage Kiss, a cautious valentine to the theater (it’s wonderful, but it’s tricky, and its make believe has real-life repercussions), feels like equal parts 1930s theatrical farce and contemporary relationship comedy. The tone, as the director of the show within the show says, is “slippery.”

But the show’s actual director, Susi Damilano, mostly navigates the slip-and-slide tonal shifts deftly and with tremendous warmth. Her cast is headed by three Playhouse MVPs: Carrie Paff is an actress just coming back to the stage after leaving to raise a now-16-year-old daughter; Gabriel Marin is her leading man with whom she shared a turbulent but never quite forgotten romance in the past; and Mark Anderson Phillips is perhaps the worst director of all time (“Just go with your instincts!”). All three have shining moments, but Paff is positively luminous as the unnamed actress (known only as She in the program) whose insecurity gets knocked for a loop when her old lover shows up as her co-star.

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The play’s best moments occur in rehearsal for The Last Kiss a (fictional) creaky old play from the early ’30s, the kind of thing that Katharine Hepburn might have starred in and chewed up all the scenery (including her leading man). Ruhl’s dialogue for the play is convincingly awful, but as the former lovers rekindle their affections, their performances in the silly play suddenly become much more intense and passionate.

There’s a second play within the play in Act 2, a tormented love story abut an IRA terrorist and a whore (title: I Loved You Before I Killed you, or Blurry), and though it’s not quite as fun, it’s still got some big laughs, and all that kissing in the first play is replaced by more challenging fight choreography.

The idea of actors kissing in front of an audience – how weird that is, how titillating – gets a lot of exploration. By the former lover co-stars, of course, but also with the leading man’s understudy (a very funny Allen Darby as Kevin). The leading man, who is described as “a 17-year-old in man pants,” says audiences don’t really like all that kissing. “They tolerate it,” he says. “They don’t really like to see the act of kissing onstage, only the idea of kissing onstage. That’s why actors have to be good-looking, because it’s about an idea, an idea of beauty completing itself. You don’t like to see people do more than kiss onstage, it’s repulsive.”

There’s nothing remotely repulsive about any of the kissing on stage, but his point is well taken. Watching people kiss is odd. But it’s also fun in the proper context, and this context is continually interesting for much of the play’s two hours.

Michael Gene Sullivan, like many of the actors, plays multiple roles. He’s playing the husband of the leading lady in the Act 1 play, and then in Act 2, he plays her real-life husband, who turns out to be much more interesting than we might surmise. His observations about marriage and the way he fights to keep his alive is one of the most heartfelt and interesting aspects of the play. “Marriage is about repetition,” he says to his estranged wife, who has gotten carried away by her theatrical nature. “Every night the sun goes down and moon comes up and you have another chance to be good.”

Also strong in supporting roles are Taylor Iman Jones as several characters in the Act 1 play and then as a real-life daughter in Act 2, and Millie DeBenedt, who steals every scene she’s in when she appears in Act 2 as the leading man’s school teacher girlfriend.

The revolving set by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott conveys a rich sense of theatricality – Act 1 even gets lush red velvet curtains – and is part of the joke when real life turns into theater.

Stage Kiss doesn’t have the depth of some of Ruhl’s other work, but as light, bright comedies go, it has substance. There are some big, robust laughs here. Even better, this turns out to be a Kiss that lingers.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss continues through Jan. 9 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

TheatreWorks delights with devilish Angels

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Rebecca Dines is Jane and Sarah Overman is Julia, best friends whose marriages are boring them to tears. In Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the bored wives get up to some drunken mischief. Photos by Kevin Berne

Boredom, desire and champagne make for a potent cocktail in Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, now receiving a lively production from TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Director Robert Kelley delivers an elegant outing for this zesty comedy that keeps its focus on two live wire ladies – Jane and Julia, best friends since grammar school. Living the easy life with their lackluster husbands is taking its toll on their vivacity, and when left to their own devices, they manage to stir up a whole lot of excitement with the help of a man from their past (a cameo by the ever-dashing Aldo Billingslea.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

If Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz had been born into London’s upper crust, they might have resembled Julia and Jane, besties since childhood and now five years into their respective marriages to wealthy ninnies. Julia (Sarah Overman) is frank with her husband, Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips), over breakfast: “We’re not in love a bit,” she says. Ever-sensible Fred replies that they’re in love in a different way, a way full of affection and “good comradeship.”
Jane (Rebecca Dines) has a similar conversation with her Willy (Cassidy Brown); and when the two men go off for a short golf holiday, the women decide to inject some much needed passion and excitement into their lives. “To put it mildly, dear,” Jane says, “we’re both ripe for a lapse.”

Read the full review here.

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Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels continues through June 28 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Ideation redux: still smart, thrilling, funny

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The team – (from left) Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely and Ben Euphrat – deals with a surprise personnel issue in the SF Playhouse main stage debut of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation. Below: Superstars of management consulting, Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Ted (Michael Ray Wisely), return from a job in Crete, which they found full of cretins. Photos by Jessica Palopoli (photo of Aaron Loeb by Lauren English)

In November of last year I reviewed a play by Bay Area playwright Aaron Loeb, and I loved it. That play, Ideation, was part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sand Box Series, an incubator for new works. For a new play, Ideation was in remarkably good shape and went on to win the Glickman Award, which is given to the best play to have its world premiere in the Bay Area.

Knowing a good thing when he saw it, SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English, decided to open his 12th main stage season with Ideation – same director (Josh Costello), same sterling cast (Ben Euphrat, Jason Kapoor, Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Michael Ray Wisely).

The results are just as they should be. Loeb has tweaked the play a bit. The ending has more punch, and both the thrills and the laughs have been punched up a few notches. It’s one of the best plays you’ll see about paranoia and how quickly the seemingly “normal” can become abnormally scary.

I stand by my original review (read it here) and feel like improvements have been made (including a slick set by English) that make Ideation the must-see play of the fall.

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I wrote a tiny feature on Ideation for the San Francisco Chronicle (read it here), but Loeb submitted himself to an email interview what was too good not to share. So here is the interview in its entirety.

Q: What inspired you to write Ideation?
I was inspired by my work in tech (video games, specifically) and also my wife’s work as an international human rights lawyer at the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco. I had just started working with former management consultants for the first time in my life and I was entranced by their language and their thinking process. I was amazed by the way they could take any problem and break it down into its component parts, then relentlessly problem solve until they made progress.

At the same time, my wife was in the midst of leading a civil suit against the former defense minister of Somalia, filed by victims of the genocide and crimes against humanity in Somalia and Somaliland in the 80s. I learned in her preparation and work on the case about the systematic and methodical ways in which the crimes were planned.

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Somehow, the two things became connected and I was writing a play about management consultants working on something possibly terrible.

Q: How (if at all) has Ideation changed since its Sandbox premiere last year and how have you approached this second production?
I’ve done some significant rewrites to Ideation – though they might not be noticeable to everyone. I’ve strengthened the relationships of the characters and clarified the build-up to the ending of the play. Some of the changes are based on feedback I received from the first run. Some of it is to resolve issues I was never completely happy with.

There was a section in the middle of the play that I always felt was a bit too circular (as in, the characters discuss a problem once, then they discuss it again, just 10 percent more intensely). I’ve flattened out that circle now so that it’s a steady progression. 

A lot of the changes are in the construction of the play, not in any of the story elements. The biggest changes are in Hannah’s character to make it clearer who she is and to strengthen the fact that this is her story.

One of the things I’m so happy about in this next production is that the artistic team has remained intact. Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, Michael Ray Wisely, Jason Kapoor and Ben Euphrat are all recreating their roles from the first run and Josh Costello is directing once again. Bill English is designing the set this time, but also serves in his ongoing capacity as my unerringly honest reader; we’ve done three world premieres together and now have a shorthand that is pretty irreplaceable. 

Because it’s the same team together again, we have the chance to go deeper than we did last time. It’s a rare, rare opportunity.
Q: What did winning the Glickman Award for Ideation mean to you?
Any time you win an award with the pedigree of the Glickman, it means a lot. Angels in America won the Glickman with its world premiere. It’s an award with an incredible history, and it means the world to me to have been honored in such a way.

That said, the part of winning the Glickman I will always remember is the award ceremony at the annual Theatre Bay Area conference. Because this is an award bestowed by local theater critics, at the ceremony three of the judges of the award – Robert Hurwitt, Sam Hurwitt and someone calling himself “Chad Jones” (if that is his real name) – presented the award and each spoke about my writing. They didn’t talk about Ideation only, but about all of my plays. 

I don’t know any of the three men very well personally (I’m Facebook friends with two of them, but you could count the hours I’ve spent with the three on one hand), but each of them spoke about my work with such clarity, it was as though we were old friends. 

What a remarkable thing, I thought. I’ve had a years-long conversation with each of them through the theater.

This is only possible in a community. The play was born here in the Bay Area (as part of Just Theater‘s Play Lab), then developed at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, then premiered at SF Playhouse, then embraced by the Bay Area’s top critics.

As a writer, it is possible to feel terribly alone most of the time. You wonder if anyone will ever hear you. Winning the Glickman, I felt the embrace of my entire community, which was particularly gratifying because it gave me an opportunity to publicly thank everyone who helped me bring the play to life.

Ideation continues through Nov. 8 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Turning on a paradigm in Magic’s HIR

Max (Jax Jackson, left) and Paige (Nancy Opel) in the world premiere of Taylor Mac’s HIR at Magic Theatre. Below: Isaac (Ben Euphrat) and his mother navigate his bumpy return from war in Afghanistan. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

The last time Taylor Mac was in town, he gave us the five-hour Lily’s Revenge with glitter, drag queens, a cast of 40 and so much dazzling theatricality that we were able to withstand his absence in the following three years (read my Lily’s Revenge review here)

Mac has continued to wow audiences in shows like his two-man outing with Mandy Patinkin or La Ma Ma’s acclaimed The Good Person of Szechwan, but the Magic Theatre was able to lure him back to present the world premiere of something entirely different than Lily’s Revenge. This time out, Mac is the playwright of HIR (pronounced like “here”), a fairly traditional two-act, two-plus-hour play that seems like a sitcom filtered through Mac’s gender-fluid, ragingly intelligent, funny and passionate artistry.

Rather than plot, of which there’s not much, HIR focuses instead on characters dealing with change. Isaac (Ben Euphrat has just returned from three years at war working with Mortuary Affairs, and there’s a cloud hovering over his discharge. He expects to come home to find his parents and little sister were when he left them, but he’s in for a rude shock. The house, in some hot, dusty California suburb, is a complete mess, and chaos reigns. Dad (Mark Anderson Phillips), formerly an abusive brute, has had a stroke that has changed him completely. He can’t speak much, he moves with difficulty and he’s living out his wife’s revenge fantasy.

That revenge mistress would be Paige (Nancy Opel), a woman who has found her strength and, possibly, lost her mind. She refuses to clean the house, do laundry or cook because she’d rather work for a nonprofit. She emasculates her husband by putting him in glittery, clown-y makeup and by making him wear nightgowns. When she bothers to change his diaper, she just hoses him down in the backyard. She’s giving him estrogen, and when he misbehaves, she grabs the squirt bottle as if she were scolding a cat.

She’s also homeschooling Maxine, who is now Max. That is, perhaps, the biggest change under this family roof. Seventeen-year-old Max (Jax Jackson) is taking testosterone shots and making the transition. Paige thinks this is fantastic, and Max’s brave journey has been an inspiration to her own. She even has a sense of humor about it all: “I credit the Cheetos,” she says. “How could we feed our children fluorescent food and not expect a little gender confluence?” Full of enthusiasm for what she calls “an alphabet of genders,” Paige explains the new world of pronouns to Isaac. The word “ze” (pronounced “zay”) replaces he or she and “hir” replaces her or him.


Says Paige, “Any breach in decorum will cause hir to write in hir blog about how awful hir troglodyte fascist hetero-normative mother is. It’s fantastic.”

This section of the play, where Paige’s zeal is manic and marvelous and as touching as it is fun, is the best of the evening. Learning for Paige was “like being baptized only without the male-dominated, hegemonic paradigm. Everyone is a little bit of everything, Isaac. We’re simply us. Hir.” Having a transgender child has pulled the veil from Paige’s eyes, and her years as an abused wife and cowering woman are over. Gender barriers have crumbled. She has seen that she can be all things, and she has fully come into her power.

She even subverts the whole notion of American life in a single sentence: “You can’t do anything in life or to the world if your original intent is not to actually do the thing but to do better than the thing.” She is, as she might put it, fantastic.

But all this happens about halfway through Act 1. We still need to have Isaac rebel against all this change and begin protecting and nurturing his father (who, by the way, also used to beat him along with his mother and sister) and putting things back the way they used to be, the way they are, to his mind, “supposed” to be.

Alas, nothing in Act 2 reaches the heights of Act 1 except maybe the construction of a sheet palace, the wearing of festive wigs and the presentation of a shadow puppet show. More focus shifts to Arnold (the dad), and there’s a struggle between the evolved and the “normal” that cracks the dynamic-duo nature of Paige and Max’s big adventure. Isaac is the cause of that crack. He represents the way the flawed, narrow world works. Paige sees herself and Max as the new, “beyond gender, beyond possessions, beyond the past.” But the pull of home, which Paige calls “a mechanism of control,” and the notion of family exerts a strong pull on Isaac, who in turn exerts a strong pull on Max.

The bleak ending isn’t so much the problem as the lack of clarity. Max goes out of focus, as does Paige, and Isaac doesn’t really grow or change in any interesting way. He’s damaged by war and needs his old life and family back. He’s an empathetic person, even toward his father, and he’s doing his best to wrap his head around Max’s new place in life. But Mac can’t bring all of these things together as effectively in the end as he’s done in bringing them all together.

The production itself, directed by Niegel Smith, gets a big visual boost from set designer Alexis Distler, who has created a dilapidated “starter home” (that never got started), with see-through walls exposing the living room behind the kitchen, the hallway to the bedrooms and the general material oppression of middle-class life. The actors fill that space with tremendous energy, especially Opel and Jackson. They seem truly inspired by the twin journeys of Paige and Max, while Euphrat and Phillips, both strong actors, feel stunted by the way they cling to traditional male roles (with the exception being Phillips’ utter glee during the dress-up sheet fort/puppet show scene).

It seems HIR is not quite finished, but Mac has delivered a smart, incisive comedy that brings potentially mind-expanding perspectives to the stage.

Taylor Mac’s HIR continues an extended run through March 2 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Here’s an idea: go see SF Playhouse’s Ideation. Now.

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Coworkers Ted (Michael Ray Wisely, left), Sandeep (Jason Kapoor, center) and Hannah (Carrie Paff) find a routine session of ideation turning into something much more complicated…and terrifying in the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program. Below: Members of the team (from left, Wisely, Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips and Ben Euphrat) prepare to face the big boss and make choices that could affect their lives in big ways. Photos by Jordan Puckett

Don’t you love it when a new play starts out and you really like it, then it turns into something else and you like it even more? That’s what happens with Ideation, a world-premiere play by local scribe Aaron Loeb that is part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, an incubator for new plays.

As new plays go, Ideation is in remarkably good shape primarily because Loeb’s writing is so smart, sharp and full of grounding humor. It also helps that director Josh Costello has done such incisive work with his excellent cast. This is straightforward, bare-bones drama: one simple set (a generic office conference room by Alicia Griffiths), no special effects, consistently good performances and a script that continually surprises.

The 90-minute one-act begins as an engaging look at corporate power dynamics. An important meeting is going to start in minutes, and Hannah (Carrie Paff) is having some trouble with her young, male assistant, Scooter (Ben Euphrat). He’s a hotshot MBA student at Cal, and the fact that his daddy is on the board is amply reflected in his attitude of entitlement. He’d rather play with the big boys in the meeting than get Hannah the coffee she has asked for.

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Then the big boys arrive, fresh from a business trip to Crete, which proved to be a triumph in “passing liabilities.” Brock (Mark Anderson Phillips), Ted (Michael Ray Wisely) and Sandeep (Jason Kapoor) are kings in this high-powered consulting firm, and now they turn their attention to a top-secret project called Senna.

Playwright Loeb builds such a believable sense of camaraderie and serious skills/good humor among the players here (excepting young Scooter, or “Scoots” as Brock calls him) that it takes a while for the audience to figure out just what this team is working on. Clues begin to fill the dry-erase board – liquidation facility, containment, cremation – and a heavy sense of “uh oh” begins to pervade the stage. What could they possibly be designing? When, at the start of their work, they agree not to mention the “n-word,” that word turns out to be even worse than you might think.

And that’s the joy of Ideation – a workplace comedy/drama that becomes quite a serious and seriously thrilling thriller (at one point it’s even sexy – how did that happen?). The people on this team are smart cookies, and when they really start to delve into this project and its implications, their sense of paranoia and outright fear becomes quite palpable. Trust in facts and each other begins to crumble, replaced by a realization that they could be involved in something enormously global or as small as a corporate exercise. Loeb has a lot to say about corporations as well and the fact that the only three guiding principles in the world are “country, profit, God.”

By the time Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch” starts booming through the conference room, the sheer delight in the mystery of Ideation is in full flower. Secret relationships are revealed. There are mysterious disappearances and reappearances. And the momentum builds until the inevitable conclusion.

That ending is my only equivocation with Ideation. It ends right where you think it will (which is a perfectly logical and sensible place to end), but I was hoping for one more juicy, head-spinning surprise – that final jolt to cap a thrillingly electric theatrical experience.

Aaron Loeb’s Ideation continues through Dec. 7 as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox new play program at the Tides Theatre, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20. Call 415l-677-9596 or visit

Good People is good theater at Marin Theatre Co.

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Jamie Jones (left) is Jean, Amy Resnick (center) is Margie and Anne Darragh is Dottie in the Bay Area premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People at Marin Theatre Company. Below: ZZ Moor (left) as Kate, Resnick as Margie and Mark Anderson Phillips as Mike sort through some uncomfortable details of the past (and present). Photos by Ed Smith

There’s something to be said for a play that is simply good. Not earth shattering or even profound. It may not take the form of drama in new and exciting directions or reinvent the notion of entertainment, but a good play does indeed entertain.

David Lindsay-Abaire is a smart, funny, compassionate writer who makes good plays (and happens to have a Pulitzer Prize on his shelf for the play Rabbit Hole). They have depth and feeling and almost always a good laugh or two (or three). His most recent arrival in the Bay Area is Good People, a slice-of-life comedy/drama receiving its local premiere as the season-opener for Marin Theatre Company.

And here’s what’s really interesting: not only is the play about something – choices, luck and the American class system – but also manages to be heartfelt, thoroughly entertaining and, at times, even a little unsettling. How can you not be unsettled when talking about our unspoken but very real class system? We all know the basic rules but seldom acknowledge the realities outside of that great American myth involving hard work, boot straps and ultimate reward.

The play itself, set in Lindsay-Abaire’s native South Boston and Chestnut Hill, apparently one of Bean Town’s tonier suburbs, acknowledges that hard work is important when aiming to escape one’s hardscrabble roots, but it also posits that luck has an awful lot to do with it. Those who make good choices and rise above their humble beginnings may have had more luck than those for whom such choices didn’t ever exist.

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That’s essentially the difference between Mike (Mark Anderson Phillips), a successful doctor, and Margaret (Amy Resnick). They both grew up in the rough Lower End part of Southie. He had a working father who looked out for him and helped push him in the right direction – to college, then medical school and on to a successful career. She, on the other hand, got pregnant, dropped out of high school and devoted her life to raising a disabled daughter on her own and bouncing from one bad job to another.

Hard up for a job after being fired from her cashier gig at the Dollar Depot, Margie (as she’s called by her friends – with hard “g”) takes desperate action. It’s been 30 years since she’s seen Mikey, but she figures what the hell and crashes his office to see if he might offer her some sort of job.

The scenes between Resnick and Phillips are incredibly satisfying, both in the writing and performance. Margie and Mikey have a bond created by the old neighborhood. He got out, she’s stuck there, so that bond is a tricky one. He’s one of the “haves” now and she’s a “have not,” or as he says, he’s “comfortable.” “I guess that makes me uncomfortable,” Margie retorts. That’s the thing about these two – Margie is self-deprecating and calls herself stupid, as if that’s the reason she got trapped and he escaped. But Margie is sharp and up front. She really pushes Mikey’s buttons (“I’m just bustin’ balls,” she says. “It’s how I do.”), and it’s fun to watch him squirm, especially when the action shifts to his lovely suburban home and his wife (ZZ Moor) is there to amp up the intensity and discomfort and, ultimately, the honesty.

Resnick, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliable actors, is remarkable here, so real and thoughtful. Margie can be quite funny, but credit Lindsay-Abaire and Resnick for making the humor come from someplace honest and more than a little heartbreaking. One of the most sustained and rewarding laughs I’ve heard in a theater in a long time came in Act 2 on opening night. The lines themselves don’t really amount to much, but context and delivery are everything. Mikey asks a simple question, but it’s suffused with class implications, and Margie’s straightforward answer pierces right to the core of their differences and puts them on equal footing. Phillips, another Bay Area stalwart, is grounded and complicated as Mikey and is well matched with Resnick.

Credit director Tracy Young for guiding her strong cast with a sure hand. Some of the supporting characters – Margie’s friends Jean (Jamie Jones) and Dottie (Anne Darragh) and her former boss, Stevie (Ben Euphrat) – verge on the precipice of stereotype or caricature, but these actors are too good to let that happen.

Good People climbs up on a soapbox for a bit to allow two basically good people to demonize each other briefly before calming down and acknowledging that bad choices do get made, luck is sporadic but greedily consumed and that the lives we live are precarious no matter if we’re “comfortable” or “uncomfortable.”

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People continues through Sept. 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5288 or visit

Marin’s Godot and the impression we exist

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Mark Bedard (left) is Vladimir and Mark Anderson Phillips is Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, now at Marin Theatre Company. Below: James Carpenter (left) as Pozzo and Ben Johnson as Lucky complicate the barren landscape. Photos by Kevin Berne

I suspect Samuel Beckett knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Waiting for Godot and left more questions unanswered than answered. The less specific you are, the more your audience members project their own business onto the characters and their situation.

The world Beckett creates could be the depressed past or the post-apocalyptic future. He could be writing about God and religion or about the hell of human existence. His main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, could be clowns or tragic figures or both. It’s all up for discussion, open for interpretation. Everything is symbolic or nothing is symbolic and just is what it is and the population has increased. And that’s the genius of Beckett and the joy of his most famous play.

The first time you experience Godot is often the best (if you’re fortunate enough to see a solid production). My first time – and to consider this a theatrical deflowering is not at all inappropriate – was in the early ’90s on a stage in the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s skeevy Tenderloin neighborhood. Dennis Moyer was directing for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred John Robb and Joe Bellan in the leads, with a mind-blowingly brilliant Dan Hiatt as Lucky. This production demonstrated to me just how transcendent Beckett could be: funny and sad at the same time, crude and enlightened, bleak and hopeful. So many contradictions in one theatrical experience and yet so completely entertaining and moving.

That production is my high-water mark for Godot (although I love the original cast recording with Burt Lahr as Estragon and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir: click here to download on Amazon for a mere $3.56). I’ve seen productions since that I liked, but not one I loved as much as the first time.

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But the current production at Marin Theatre Company directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis comes pretty close. Mark Anderson Phillips as Estragon and Mark Bedard as Vladimir are, in a word, adorable. Should these crusty characters be adorable? Why not? Both of them at various times reminded me of dogs (and I noticed for the first time just how many canine references there are in the play), and sometimes Phillips even sounds like Scooby-Doo. Their clowning is inspired, but it’s all done with heart. I really liked these guys, who affectionately call each other Gogo and Didi, and that affection only magnifies their plight.

And just what is their plight? Living life is the short answer. Killing time. Waiting for whatever or whoever it is with the power to suddenly make their lives better, more interesting or somehow more meaningful. Vladimir, who tends to be more of an optimist than Estragon, says about life: “We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it…In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”

Much of Godot is about staving off boredom or at least creating the illusion of activity or some kind of momentum through the world. Waiting is, after all, an activity, and an exhausting one at that. It can even be exhausting just to watch men waiting, although in the hands of talented actors like the ones on the MTC stage, it’s also entertaining.

Phillips and Bedard make a captivating tragicomic duo. There’s real chemistry between them, and it’s easy to see why, even though they talk constantly of separating, they can never part. In this day and age, you could see how Didi and Gogo might be poster children for same-sex marriage minus the sex (which is what makes it marriage, ba dum bum). They’re partners in the futility, frustrations and occasional fun of life, and we root for them, not necessarily to succeed, which seems a tall order, but at least to rise above the misery and tedium from time to time. There are little details in their performances that are priceless, like Bedard’s penguin-like shuffle and the way Phillips keeps buttoning and unbuttoning a top button on his coat even though there is no button.

When James Carpenter and Ben Johnson arrive as Pozzo, a master, and Lucky, a slave, respectively. The play takes a decidedly darker turn. Both Carpenter and Johnson are in fright makeup. Carpenter looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie (the red hair is a nice touch) and Johnson looks like a member of the Addams Family.

But the show belongs to Phillips and Bedard, two lovably sad guys being human under bleak but not impossible circumstances. I do find myself wondering, though, where their clothes and bowler hats came from, where they shower (if they do) and how they subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots and black radishes. Clearly, they live in a world that still puts a lot of faith in the Bible (there are lots of references), and down the road there’s apparently some sort of fair where Pozzo was going to sell Lucky but ends up blinded (and Lucky is rendered mute). It’s a strange in-between world Beckett has created, a time-bending absurdist purgatory built for entertainment and, if you’re in the frame of mind, enlightenment. The simple but expert design certainly helps (clean, bright lighting by York Kennedy, barren tree and rock landscape by set designer Liliana Duque Pineiro, tattered suits by costumer Maggie Whitaker).

Seeing Godot in 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about a comment a friend made recently: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll have my iPhone with me, and when you have an iPhone, you always have a friend.” Perhaps we should start calling our smart phones and tablets Didi or Gogo. They’re our newest defense against boredom, our electronic shield from the great void of simply existing and a powerful illusion that we’re actually connected to other people and a way to masque the howling of existential angst.

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Just Wilde over Aurora’s Salomania

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Madeline H.D. Brown is Maud Allan (center) in the world premiere of Mark Jackson’s Salomania at the Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Brown as Allan observes the testimony of Lord Alfred Douglas (Liam Vincent, right) in the courtroom of Judge Darling (Kevin Clarke). Photos by David Allen

If only a 94-year-old scandal were sensational in ways we no longer understood, we could look back and wonder what all the fuss was about and why the media underestimated the taste of the general public and why the general public was so content to be constantly underestimated.

Alas, not much has changed since the early 20th century criminal libel suit that American dancer Maud Allan brought against British newspaper publisher Noel Pemberton-Billing after he described the interest in her dance piece Vision of Salomé as the “cult of the clitoris.” That was the headline he used in his paper, the Vigilante, to describe the moral reprobates who were attracted to Allan’s version of the play by Oscar Wilde, which had been banned since Wilde’s very public downfall.

What we learn in Mark Jackson’s fascinating and at moments electrifying new play Salomania is that the media, though their aims may be occasionally true, are a pawn in larger political games and panderers to public taste, which they help shape.

Allan, who spent her childhood in San Francisco, was a sensation in London, and as such, she became a prime target for Pemberton-Billing to goad her into filing a libel suit against him. He had apparently tried and tried to get the local politicos to do the same thing, but none of them took his bait. But Allan, with her past family scandal (her brother Theo murdered two girls in San Francisco) and her desire to be a self-made woman, wasn’t about to let a rabble-rouser tarnish her good name (though her actual name was Beulah Maude Durrant). So, at the height of World War I, Allan squared off against Pemberton-Billing at the Old Bailey, the same courthouse where Wilde had seen his world crumble 25 years earlier.

This is prime material for a drama, and Jackson is just the writer/director to bring it to interesting and finely detailed life. A trial is, of course, a kind of theater in and of itself, so there’s a scorching good drama already built in – especially when Wilde’s “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, took the stand as a witness for Pemberton-Billing and dredged up all the turmoil and name calling and closed mindedness from 25 years earlier.

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But Jackson takes a wider view beyond just the trial. He spends a good deal of time in the trenches of No Man’s Land, fighting alongside the British soldiers slogging through the mud of France. While we’re constantly reminded of how the British public was being distracted from the war by the sensation of the Allan trial, we see the soldiers completely captivated by scandal back home. One soldier even says the headlines, as they trickle in, are the only thing keeping him going.

Part of the irony in this complicated tale is that Pemberton-Billing wanted a sensational trial precisely so he could call attention to the failures of the British government and its weak peace plans and advocate for a swift and decisive end to the war. His theory, hatched with Harold Spencer, an American who served as a British secret agent, was that if they can bring attention to a German black book containing the names of 47,000 traitors to Her Majesty’s government, they could rally the troops, so to speak, infiltrate the vast German network of spies and accomplices and win the war for Britain.

That he wanted to do this by smearing the name of a dancer and aligning her with the same “moral perversity” nonsense that brought down Wilde is rather astonishing. But seeing how much traction this stunt got him is more than astonishing – it’s sickening.

Jackson is such an astute craftsman that he’s able to create a near-epic feel in the intimate Aurora. His cast of seven, all playing multiple roles except for Madeline H.D. Brown as Allan, makes a powerful impression as major historical figures, ordinary British citizens and beleaguered soldiers. Mark Anderson Phillips works up quite a froth as Pemberton-Billing, who represented himself in the libel case and apparently did so at very high volume. This man wanted to be heard, and he certainly was.

Brown’s Allan veers from being an ethereal presence, especially when she’s dancing (choreography by Chris Black) to an understandably tormented young woman who is far away from her damaged family and navigating the perils and pleasures of fame and notoriety on her own. As Judge Darling, the colorful presiding justice of the case, Kevin Clarke is having a marvelous time with the character’s eccentricity. Clarke also plays Wilde in an interesting if overlong scene toward the end of the play that could use more crackle.

Perhaps that particular scene suffers in comparison to an earlier scene, also set a table, between a soldier (Alex Moggridge) home in London on two days’ leave, and a war widow (Marilee Talkington) anxious to do her part and show the fighting men her appreciation. Jackson has two actors, both quite visible, on the floor rotating the platform on which the scene takes place (the fantastically utilitarian set is by Nina Ball). The effect is mesmerizing, and the scene is among the best in the 2 ½-hour play.

Liam Vincent is superb as Lord Alfred Douglas, with vestiges of his youthful brattiness still visible even has he fights to prove how much he has matured and changed since his association with Wilde. And Anthony Nemirovsky is great as Spencer, the American who’s on a crusade with Pemberton-Billing to change the course of the war. Watching Nemirovsky essay Spencer’s breakdown on the stand is absolutely thrilling (it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch the blowhards, no matter how sincere, crumble).

Through it all, Jackson orchestrates the proceedings with lyrical moments of dance – not just Allan but also the soldiers in the trenches – and humor and horror. There’s a scene of a hanging that is so jarring it might as well have been real and not just a clever theatrical effect (with nods to lighting designer Heather Basarab and sound designer Matt Stines).

If Salomania is overstuffed with information and parallels to our own times, it’s completely understandable. This is rich, rewarding material, even if its observations about the third estate, wartime hysteria and the distraction of a good scandal are as alarming as they are entertaining


Mark Jackson’s Salomania continues an extended run through July 29 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

TheatreWorks designs with Sense and Sensibility

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Jennifer Le Blanc (left) is Elinor, Stacy Ross (center) is Aunt Jennings and Mark Anderson Phillips is Colonel Brandon in the TheatreWorks production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Photo by Tracy Martin

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle, I talk with TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley, set designer Joe Ragey and costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt about their work on bringing Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to the stage.

Here’s a little bit to start:

How appropriate to have a calm, rational discussion about Jane Austen and the theater on a Menlo Park corner that used to house a brothel.

The discussion takes place in a conference room, part of the TheatreWorks rehearsal complex, that is affectionately known as Miss Kitty’s in deference to the madam who purportedly did a different kind of business on this site many years ago.

TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley is talking about his affection for Austen and the kinds of sights and sounds he wants to conjure in the production of her “Sense and Sensibility” he’s directing in Mountain View.

Read the entire article.


TheatreWorks’ Sense and Sensibility continues through Sept. 18 at the Mountain View Center for the Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit