Box-office boom

Some good news from box offices both national and local today. First the local.

According to Berkeley Repertory Theatre, coming to the end of its 40th anniversary season,
Nilaja Sun’s No Child… broke the box office record for single-day sales last Saturday (May 24). The previous record was set a couple of months ago by Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, and that show broke the record set a couple of months before that by Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika. A happy 40th birthday indeed. By the way, No Child… has been extended a second time through June 11. See it if you can. Visit for information.

Across the country, on a little boulevard I like to call Broadway, the box-office news is pretty good as well. The Broadway League announced today that the season just ended (May 28, 2007-May 25, 2008) took in $937.5 million, down slightly from the previous year’s total of $938.5 million.

League members said last season probably would have broken records were it not for the the stagehands strike, which shut down much of the Broadway theater scene for 19 days.

Here are the season stats, just in case you follow theater like some people follow sports:
36 productions opened on Broadway during 2007-2008:
8 new musicals
1 musical return engagement
4 musical revivals
11 new plays
12 play revivals
Paid attendance at Broadway shows was 12.27 million, down .2 percent from the previous season.

Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, said in a statement: “While we are disappointed that we didn’t exceed last year’s record-breaking season, we are confident that in the coming season, with such big name shows on the horizon as Billy Elliot, Shrek, West Side Story and Equus, to only name a few, that we will have the best season in recorded history.”

Review: `Squeeze Box’

At The Marsh in San Francisco through June 29


Ann Randolph wrote and stars in Squeeze Box at The Marsh. The solo show is about her loss and rediscovery of faith.

Superb solo show squeezes out laughs, drama
«««1/2 Extraordinary characters


There are certain people who, when they recommend a show, I snap to attention and see the show. One of those people is Anne Bancroft, the late great actress who will never stop delighting me with her talent. Bancroft had this to say about Ann Randolph’s solo show Squeeze Box: “When I first saw [Squeeze Box], I was deeply moved. Ann Randolph’s amazing work, both as a writer and fellow performer, touched my heart and my mind so profoundly that I felt it belonged on the New York stage.”

Bancroft and her husband, Mel Brooks, became producers of Randolph’s show and gave it a successful off-Broadway run in 2004. Since then, Randolph has been doing Squeeze Box around the world while she has continued to develop new work. That’s what brings her to The Marsh in San Francisco. Randolph does her show two nights a week, works on new characters and new monologues and conducts workshops in developing solo shows.

Lucky us.

There’s something so incredibly theatrical about a one-person show. We have two excellent examples in the Bay Area right now – Randolph’s show and Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (now extended through June 11) – in which women, on a mostly bare stage, become a cast of characters that we willingly and enthusiastically see beyond the shape and size of the amazing actress creating them.

Randolph’s autobiographical story is really one of faith. When we first meet the likeable, slightly goofy Ann, she’s working a minimum-wage job at a shelter for mentally ill homeless women in Santa Monica. The job is wearing on her, and she’s beginning to feel like no matter how hard she works or how much she cares, she is not really helping the women. Her life, she concludes, has ceased to progress. She has failed to move forward and, as a result, has lost the faith that once made her want to become a saint and provide “encouragement, hope and love to those most easily forgotten.”

One of the ways Ann hopes to get some life back into her life is through a personal ad on She’s hoping to find a rugged man with a love for Brahms. The rugged look, it seems, really turns her on. “Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to homeless men,” she says.

The man she finds is Harold, a musician and weekend hiker who speaks (and feels) in a monotone. But when Ann finds out what instrument Harold plays, it’s very nearly a deal breaker. He plays the accordion, the squeeze box and the soundtrack to many a beery oompah-pah Saturday night.

Nothing in Randolph’s tale is quite what you expect. There’s a whole lot of frank sex talk (especially from Brandy, the paranoid schizophrenic crack-head whore who lives in the shelter), and Ann’s downward spiral is quite dramatic (though the 75-minute show has loads of humor). The characters come and go, with some making more of an impression than others. The hippie-ish Shoshanna is there to represent liberal hypocrisy, while Julie, the shelter counselor just arrived from Christ the King Salvation Center, is a Bible thumper in the worst possible sense and couldn’t be more insensitive to the world around her.

Though the character of Irene, a new resident at the shelter, only makes a brief appearance, she has tremendous impact. Randolph pulls her hair up into a crude bun, twists her malleable face into something akin to a pain mask and strums the guitar while Irene sings of her marital woe. It’s a funny song that turns incredibly poignant. Irene, like Ann, has lost her faith in a big way.

But unlike Irene, Ann is able to rediscover faith through Harold, and in particular, a concert performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Randolph brings the show full circle and allows her audience to taste what she experienced in that concert hall: the redemptive power of art.

As a bonus for San Francisco audiences, Randolph is doing excerpts of new work after performances of Squeeze Box. On the night I saw the show, she showed a short film called Disaster Relief that she directed and stars in. She read pieces of a monologue then costumed herself as a demented crack whore and let herself get full into the foul-mouthed, interesting character. From there she assumed the character of Carol Diddle, a landlady in Santa Monica who loathes the impoverished artists who live in her building and can’t pay their rent. Carol is a disturbing character – far more so than the crack whore. Scary.

Squeeze Box continues through June 29 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Shows are at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Visit Ann Randolph’s Web site here:

Review: `No Child…’

Opened May 12, 2008 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Nilaja Sun in her dynamic, moving solo show No Child… at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Photos by Carol Rosegg

Sun shines in extraordinary solo show
four stars An apple for the teacher

Nilaja Sun has been performing her solo show No Child… off and on for two years now, but you wouldn’t know that from the incredibly fresh energy she brings to it.

The show, an autobiographical tale of a teaching artist bringing theater to a rough Bronx public school, premiered at New York’s Epic Theatre Center almost exactly two years ago. Then came a rush of awards – an Obie, a Lucille Lortel, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Award, a Theater World Award – all of which were well deserved.

The thing about Sun’s show – aside from the incredible talent she displays that conjures up the excitement of watching a young Whoopi Goldberg or Lily Tomlin or Sarah Jones – is that it ends up being the best possible kind of activist theater.

Using humor, theatricality and some of the most precise and thrilling physical stage work I’ve ever seen, Sun becomes the entire adult and student population at Malcolm X High School. Well, OK, not the entire school but a portion of the administration and one unruly 10th grade English class. I lost track of how many roles she plays exactly, but it’s well more than a dozen, and each one is distinct.

Working with director Hal Brooks, Sun speeds through her tale in nearly 70 minutes. The brevity of the story shortchanges the drama somewhat – we’d be happy to spend more time with Sun and her “cast” – and lends an “Afterschool Special” vibe to what should be more realistic.

But Sun’s message comes through quite distinctly: we are shortchanging public school students and, to paraphrase Sun, we are preparing them more to be inmates than to be leaders.

Our narrator is an African-American janitor who has been at the school for nearly 50 years. Reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Our Town, the janitor sets the stage for us (the tiled hallways of the school nicely evoked in the set by Narelle Sissons and Sibyl Wickersheimer): this is the classroom of a beleaguered new teacher named Ms. Tam (a former Wall Street high roller who wanted to do something more with her life), who is unable to control her wild students.

Into this unruly den comes Ms. Sun, a “teaching artist” who will spend the next six weeks with the students working on a play – analyzing, rehearsing and performing. And no, Ms. Sun says, they will be doing neither A Raisin in the Sun nor West Side Story. They will be performing Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, which is about 18th-century Australian convicts performing a play within the play.

It’s a brilliant choice of play because there’s so much in it that celebrates the power of theater at its most elemental (and Berkeley Rep staged the play on this same stage in 1990 – my first-ever Berkeley Rep show). In addition to making cogent points about the failure of the current administrations No Child Left Behind test-focused approach to public education, she also gets to demonstrate how important the arts – especially theater – are to the development of young people.

The students Ms. Sun is working with – the sassy Shadrika, the tough kingpin Jerome, the hyper Hispanic Jose, the nerdy Chris, the tongue-tied Chris and so on – all come to life as they rehearse the play and prepare for their one-night-only performance. Real life (and mortality) interferes, but the show must go on. “These kids need a miracle,” a nearly depleted Ms. Sun says. “They need a miracle, like, every day.”

Ms. Sun nearly quits, and in so doing, unleashes the play’s most vociferous plea to respect, properly train and adequately compensate teachers, who have the world’s toughest job. No argument there.

More than just entertaining, No Child… is inspiring. You exit the theater vibrating at Sun’s frequency, which is amazingly high, and you want to channel that energy into making life better for students who, used to being given up on, are given a chance to become fully themselves.

No Child… continues through June 11 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $27-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.