Big, scary ideas amid laughs in ACT’s Big Data

Big Data 1
ABOVE: Jomar Tagatac (left) is Max and BD Wong is M in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Big Data, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. BELOW: (from left) Gabriel Brown is Sam, Rosie Hallett is Lucy and Michael Phillis is Timmy. Photos by Kevin Berne

For the first act of Kate Attwell’s world premiere Big Data at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, we are in a slick, stylized vision of modern life, and though it’s pretty, it isn’t pretty (if you know what I mean).

The back wall of the stage (scenic design by Tanya Orellana and projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) looks like a smart phone on its side. Sometimes the giant screen is filled with live video of what’s happening on (or under) the stage. Other times, it’s a hallucinatory montage of birds and code and the chaos of lfie in motion.

In this sleek, antiseptic world, we meet two couples, both of whom are visited by a curious character who becomes more and more familiar, even if we never really know who he is. Max (Jomar Tagatac) and Lucy (Rosie Hallett) are in different places in their lives but are both facing down dissatisfaction and frustration. An erstwhile journalist, he stays home and berates himself for being a loser, while she, a successful ophthalmologist, wants more than confines of her current clinic situation.

Enter M, an enigmatic character played with great charm and a hint of enigmatic menace by BD Wong. Max meets him first and, after some hesitation that approaches alarm, becomes quite enamored of this oddball in a plaid suit (costumes by Lydia Tanji) who seems to know so much about Max, offering comfort, insight, distraction and the hope of something better in his life.

Later, after an odd interview between M and Lucy about a possible new job, it becomes clearer what M represents when he asks familiar security questions like “name of first pet” and “name of street you grew up on.”

For all his cleverness and charisma, M is the embodiment of why the Internet has taken over the world. He’s the companion, the disguise, the algorithm that eavesdrops on our conversations (written and spoken) and makes just the right ad pop up in our feeds. He’s ubiquitous surveillance and reassurance, connector and consumer of time, numbing brain killer and thrilling dopamine pusher.

Big Data 2

M also finds his way into the life of Lucy’s brother, Sam (Gabriel Brown), and Sam’s husband, Timmy (Michael Phillis). At first, he’s an app that connects the couple to an interested third, and that whole interaction opens up a whole passel of relationship/communication issues that are being mostly ignored because their lives are so filled with work and busy-ness.

There’s no question as to M’s motives of capitalistic exploitation of technology for world domination (after all, life is meaningless if you can’t scale up or take advantage of every juicy cyber morsel of user data). He begins the play with a prologue about pigeons and behavioral modification based on torture and reward to get them to do exactly what you want. Even before we know fully what the play will be, we know we are the addled pigeons.

Playwright Atwell and director Pam MacKinnon take the play in an entirely different direction in Act 2 when the action shifts to the remote country home of Sam and Lucy’s parents. Gone are the screens and clean surfaces of Act 1, replaced with a comfortable Craftsman-style home filled with many years of love and life. Didi (Julia McNeal) and Joe (Harold Surratt) are going through something significant, and they gather their children (and their partners) to share what’s going on. They, too, are responding to the omnipresence of technology abuse in every corpuscle of modern life, but their way of taking a stand and saying as forceful a NO as they can comes as quite a shock to their family.

At 2 ½ hours long, Big Data is never less than compelling (which is saying something for our dwindling, screen-size attention spans), even when it feels hectoring. We’re all complicit in all the issues addressed in the play, and we all likely know that our technology habits are not good for us, not good for relationships, not good for civilization. Attwell is too smart to be preachy – she opts for humor and heart and gets a huge assist from this wonderful cast.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more appealingly effective as the downfall of mankind than Wong is as M. Maybe he’s a savior, maybe he’s just committed to doing a good job, but he’s sweet and sly and full of irresistible magnetism.

The rest of the cast are more recognizable in their human foibles, and though they are familiar, Attwell is careful to give them quirks and complications and endearing traits that make us care about their lives. When things get really complicated, we’re right there with them trying to make sense of what could be utter craziness or absolute sanity.

If the ending isn’t quite the coalescence you might hope for, there’s no shortage of thought-provoking issues, ideas and performances here. Big Data uploads enough to keep our heads spinning for days.

Kate Attwell’s Big Data continues through March 10 at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater, 145 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Short sweet frolic on the PlayGround

Playground 1

Michael Phillis (in the refrigerator) and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White’s Frigidaire, one of seven 10-minute plays in Best of Playground 15 at the Thick House. Below: Phillis and Rinabeth Apostol in Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body. Photos by mellopix performance

In the spirit of PlayGround’s annual 10-minute play festival, I’m going to attempt to write a 10-minute review.

The time is 10:40am. Start the clock.

The joy of a short play festival is the utter diversity in style, tone and voice. You can have what amounts to a sketch comedy bumping up against muscular drama, an intriguing fragment or a surprising burst of poetry. All of that happens and more in Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays at the Thick House. The seven plays presented represent the cream of the PlayGround playwriting process, which runs from October through March. A pool of 36 writers is given a topic and then asked to write a 10-minute play on a chosen theme. The best of those plays are given staged readings, and then the best of that bunch makes it to this festival.

Of the seven shows now on display, I can tell you my three clear favorites.

1. Arisa White’s Frigidaire surprises and delights with its twist on the coming out story. A domineering mother (Holli Hornlien) desperately wants her son (Michael Phillis) to be gay. She even goes so far as to force him into the arms of a priest known for his predilection for young boys. But the young man isn’t having it. His mother’s forceful ways – she says it’s her way of building his character – have sent him ’round the bend. He comes home from the latest forced encounter and barricades himself in the fridge. Director Jon Tracy‘s production is funny and powerful.

2. Eveyln Jean Pine’s See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. Takes a familiar scenario – two homeless buddies drinking and arguing – and makes it lyrical and poignant. Nicky (Jomar Tagatac), the younger guy, is a heavy drinker, but all the alcohol can’t quite obscure his hope for a better, more meaningful life. Sammy (David Cramer) has been on the streets too long. His hope doesn’t extend much beyond looking at the rain from the inside of a warm room for a change. Nicky’s latest burst of enthusiasm concerns a quote – he thinks it’s by Jack Kerouac, but it’s really by Eugene O’Neill – and if he cuts up the words of the quote and draws them randomly from a bag, the words create poetry and visions of the future. As directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Pine’s piece is gritty and beautiful.


3. Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body also takes a familiar scenario – two teenagers break into a church for purposes of mischief and, if all goes well, making out. For Cole (Phillis), the escapade doesn’t really amount to much more than swiping some wine and coaxing his partner in crime up to a cozy nook. But for Sophie (Rinabeth Apostol), the church and its rituals actually mean something. Susie Damilano’s direction and the actors’ shapr performances create palpable tension – and heat.

OK. Stop the clock. It’s 10:50. I’m breaking the rules and extending my time long enough to mention that the festival also includes Katie May’s cute Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero: A Feminist Fairy Tale; Jonathan Luskin’s Ecce Homo, a tribute to the durability of vaudevillians; Mandy Hodge Rizvi’s ambitious Escapades: A ballet with dialogue, or a dance through time and memory; and Brady Lea’s musical Calling the Kettle, with music by Christopher Winslow.

It’s all thoroughly enjoyable and nicely produced. Time spent on this PlayGround is always time spent with intriguing new writers from whom we’ll be hearing more in the future.


Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays continues through May 29 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 415-992-6677 or visit

You should also check out PlayGround’s staged readings of new plays at the Thick House. Still to come are Stiff Competition by Cass Brayton (2pm, May 15); A Marriage by Tom Swift (7pm, May 16); Book Club! The Musical by Geetha Reddy (2pm, May 22); Cristina Walters by Malachy Walsh (7pm, May 23); and Valley of Sand by Trevor Allen (2pm, May 29).


Glitter and be Shanghai gay!

Thrillpeddlers - Pearls Over Shanghai
Above: Kara Emry and William McMichael get Shanghaied in Pearls Over Shanghai.
Below: Eric Wertz and Steven Satyricon dream of “un bel di.”Photos by David Wilson

Mash up Beach Blanket Babylon with Miss Saigon, throw in every bad Oriental exotica movie ever made, season with Ziggy Stardust and The Rocky Horror Show then sprinkle liberally with Cockettes. The result will be Pearls Over Shanghai, San Francisco’s most unlikely hit musical. It’s so hip John Waters even came to see it.

Forty years after it premiered, Pearls was revived last June by director Russell Blackwood and his Thrillpeddlers theater company at The Hypnodrome, their funky SOMA headquarters. And the show is still going strong. Not even a busted water main and an ensuing flood could rain on this pearly parade.

Pearls Over Shanghai has been extended through April 24, making it practically a San Francisco institution this side of Rice-a-Roni and just as phony (in the best possible way). Dirty, salty, nasty, slinky, sweet and sour are mere glints of the jewel that is Pearl.

Directed by Blackwood and featuring a cast of more than 20, this extravaganza features a score by original Cockette composer Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, who is still tickling the ivories (and the occasional funny bone) in a curly Ilsa She Nazi wig. The book and lyrics by Link Martin have more exotic flavors than an order of house chow fun and drag us into the underbelly of Shanghai circa 1937.

Thrillpeddlers _Pearls Over Shanghai

Three “Yankee Imperial tourists” wander down the wrong alley – imagine the Andrews Sisters falling into white slavery – and that’s the primary plot, though there is a fairly significant ode to Madame Butterfly with an American captain and his Shanghai peasant love. But who needs plot when you’ve got so much delightful decadence done up in so much glittery makeup and so many snazzily salacious costumes (by Kara Emry, Louise Jarmilowicz and Tahara)?

Blackwood is Mother Fu (Fu Manchu’s mother no less), sort of the opium den mother, and he presides over a stage full of familiar faces (Michael Phillis as the glitter-nippled Red Dragon, Veronica Klaus as Russian spy Petrushka, Kim Larsen as Madam Gin Sling) and some faces so garishly glittered they could be classically trained Kabuki actors. And in true San Francisco fashion, you see a whole lot more than just faces.

During intermission, audience volunteers are welcomed on stage, put on all fours and roundly spanked by Lottie Wu (Kara Emry), a dominatrix courtesan. And Act 2 of this two-hour camp delight gets down and dirty flirty with scanty costumes sometimes disappearing altogether. Call it Flower Bum Song. The second act also features some truly extraordinary black-light effects that take flight during an opium nightmare sequence.

With so much glittery carnality and Oriental kitsch filling the stage, just what does this Shanghai express? Sex, drugs and campy fun are the true San Francisco treat.


Pearls Over Shanghai continues an extended run through Aug. 1 at The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm Sundays. Tickets are $30 (or $69 for the special “Shock Boxes”). Call 800 838-3006 or visit www.thrillpeddlerscom or

Notable dates:
– On Saturday, May 1, Pearls Over Shanghai celebrates its 100th performance.
– Saturday, June 5 marks Pearls’ one-year anniversary.

Review: `Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party’

The cast of Aaron Loeb’s Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party performs an elaborate opening number in the SF Playhouse world-premiere production. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.


History, politics, utter zaniness collide in Honest Abe’s `Dance Party’
««« ½

Aaron Loeb’s world-premiere play Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party at the SF Playhouse embraces adventurous theatricality. There’s drama, comedy, dancing, politicized fourth graders, absurdity, murder, betrayal, romance, insanity, corruption, rampant homosexuality and even more rampant conservatism.

In short, this is an ambitious play that includes just about everything you can think of. By rights, the play shouldn’t work. With so much going on, the focus should be shot and the play’s intentions scattered all over the place.

But the great thing about Loeb, working with director Chris Smith (former artistic director of the Magic Theatre), is that he’s a ferocious entertainer. As he demonstrated last year, also at the SF Playhouse, with First Person Shooter, he builds plays with a sort of maniacal energy that helps them careen from scene to scene and back again.

Abraham Lincoln, which opened Saturday, is above all else, a hugely entertaining show. The fact that it has something serious on its mind is less immediately apparent when the cast of seven – all dressed as Abraham Lincoln — is performing an elaborate dance number (choreography by Kimberly Richards and Tom Segal) that pays goofy homage to the likes of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse.

There’s even a gimmick afoot to complicate the proceedings. The cast invites the audience to vote on the order of the three acts (with two intermissions). As we hear about the “trial of the century” in Menard County, Illinois, we’re asked if we want to hear first from the defense attorney, the prosecuting attorney or the reporter covering the trial for the New York Times.

On opening night we began with the defense attorney, Regina (Velina Brown), a black Republican senator with designs on the governor’s office (hard to imagine anyone at this moment in history wanting to be governor of Illinois). Her mentor and dear friend, Tom (Joe Kady), a disgraced senator of the Regan vintage, has surprised her by wanting the governor’s chair for himself.

Tom is using the bully pulpit of a county courtroom to stage his comeback. He’s prosecuting a fourth-grade teacher (Lorraine Olsen) for allowing her students’ Christmas pageant to claim that Abraham Lincoln liked to sleep with men and was likely in love with his friend Joshua Speed (as some historians have claimed).

Not to be outdone by Tom’s grandstanding, Regina and her trusty assistant, Tina (Sarah Mitchell), head for the cornfield county and proceed to play dirty and grab some headlines for themselves.

Loeb plays fast and loose with styles here. On Bill English’s highly efficient, Lincoln-plastered set full clever compartments and cupboards, action shifts quickly. We have realism in the offices of the politicos, then we have broad slapstick, as with the members of the press. The hayseed reporter, Sparky McGee, is a rube with flashes of brilliance. The blogger is a Bluetooth-y ass. And the New York Times reporter, Anton (Mark Anderson Phillips, above right, with Michael Phillis), arrives wearing a kingly cape amid reverent huzzahs.

It turns out that Anton will become an actual character in this drama, and his story was the second one we saw on opening. He arrives in Menard with his best gal pal, fashion photographer Esmeralda (Brown again in a zesty comic performance) and immediately makes a beeline for Tom’s pie shop-owning son, Jerry (Michael Phillis). If Tom is so insistent on continuing the gay witch hunt he began in the Reagan administration, Anton is going to make sure there are no useful secrets in the former senator’s family closet.

Anton’s story is the most poignant of the three because of his interaction with Jerry, a sensitive young man trapped by family in a painfully untenable situation. The two men have a heated scene in the thick of a corn field (English’s set triumphs yet again), and Loeb’s writing crackles with intelligence and intensity.

The third act on opening night was told from Tom’s point of view, and this proved to be the trickiest of the trilogy. Tom’s anti-gay crusade is never fully explored, and as issues of mental health enter into the picture, his motives become even fuzzier. Still, Kady gives an extraordinarily full performance as the troubled family man who isn’t above hiring a Karl Rove-like operative (Brian Degan Scott) to smooth the way to the governor’s office.

It’s hard to overstate the skill of this ensemble. Everyone plays multiple roles, and they all zip from comedy to drama and back (not to mention all the dancing) with ease. They all have individual moments to shine, but the greatest impression comes from their work together. There’s real connection here, and that’s another element that helps this scattershot approach adhere.

That said, Phillips and Phillis do extraordinary work together, and their characters both end up being far more interesting than first impressions would indicate.

Through it all, Loeb keeps returning to Abraham Lincoln, whose iconic visage permeates the entire production, both in serious and comic ways. A statesman, a humanitarian, an enigma and, perhaps most importantly, an American, Lincoln lends a certain gravitas to the evening. Even at its zaniest – and things do get zany – there are serious issues, both political and personal, being thrown around.

But here’s the thing: Loeb and this fantastic production aren’t on any soapbox. They’re throwing an all-American bash, and we’re all invited.


Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party continues through Jan. 17 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Playing with `Dolls’

Michael Phillis is one of those young actors who makes you excited you took a chance and saw a young actor.

His debut solo show, D*FACE, at the New Conservatory Theatre Center could have been just another autobiographical solo show/therapy session. But Phillis proved himself to be an engaging performer and intelligent writer. Exiting the theater you made a mental note: keep an eye out for what this one does next.

Well, Phillis is offering a sneak peek at his new solo show, Dolls, at 7:30 tonight (Monday, May 12) and Monday, May 19 at The Marsh in San Francisco. What the show is about exactly isn’t clear except that it really is about dolls.

Phillis, who is also a graphic artist and author of an ongoing online comic saga, has developed a rather involved Web site devoted to Dolls. Check it out here and plan to stay for a while. One area I enjoyed was the dolls’ rules. Here are a couple:

1. Never let them see you move.
2. Never let them hear you speak.
3. Always end up where they left you.

The sneak peek of Dolls is part of a Monday Night Marsh showcase evening that will also feature new work from Allison Landa, Patti Trimble, and Marga Gomez. Tickets are $7. The Marsh is at 1062 Valencia St. (near 22nd), San Francisco. Call 415-826-5750 or visit for information.