2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You For Me 2

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

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

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

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

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

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