Cricket tests history in ACT’s feisty Testmatch

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Tensions rise as (from left) England 3 (Millie Brooks), England 2 (Arwen Anderson), India 2 (Lipica Shah), India 1 (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) and India 3 (Avanthika Srinivasan) discuss which is the better team in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Testmatch at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 8. Below: The Messenger (Kumbhani, right) shares astonishingly bad news with two British officers, Two (Brooks, left) and One (Anderson). Photos by Kevin Berne

You could say that Kate Attwell’s Testmatch, the world premiere play at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, is about cricket. You could also say it’s about untangling the gnarly knots of history. But the impact, especially in the savvy way Attwell has constructed the play, comes from its emphasis on the deep interconnection of everything to everything.

We think we’re watching a play about an International Cricket Council World Cup match between India and England women’s teams – and that makes for a mightily intriguing play – but really we’re seeing the frayed ends of a knotted rope that stretches back to England’s savage colonizing of India. There are infinite ways of examining how the past is directly affecting the present, but Attwell takes her slice from the world of sport, specifically a byzantine, vaguely baseball-ish sport the British brought to India.

There’s a bit of Caryl Churchill in Testmatch (thinking especially of the Anglo-Indian relations in Cloud 9), and I mean that as high praise. Like Churchill, Attwell digs into intimate details and grand theatrics to find the bigger picture. She also bends gender to her will in a quest to find theater in history and truth in fiction.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, Testmatch has a lively energy, though it surprised me at the end that only 90 minutes had passed. The play somehow feels more substantial and longer than that, which probably has to do with the way Attwell has split the action between present-day England and 19th-century India. In the modern first half, the cricket match in which the India women were leading the England women is interrupted by rain and is unlikely to continue. Three members of each team end up in a sort of ante-locker room to drink tea and vent their frustration. These scenes absolutely crackle with the fire of competition, cultural difference and nefarious secrets.

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Instead of names, the characters are given a nationality and a number, and it’s England 2 (Arwen Anderson) who works to keep the mood light with her astute observations on the differences between male lovers who play cricket (not so much) and those who play rugby (oh, YES, very much!). In spite of her best efforts, things nearly come to blows and racial epithets are nearly hurled and any pretense of good manners shatters.

From there, Nina Ball’s boxy white set shifts, as do Marie Yokoyama’s lights, and we’re in India watching two male buffoons (played by Anderson and Millie Brooks) in Calcutta as they dither and chortle and otherwise carry out their duties for the East India Company. Safely inside the walls of their estate, all is well. Uniformed Abhi (Lipica Shah) keeps things under control and does not at all approve of upping the opium dose for the lady of the house (Madeline Wise as the delusional, visionary Memsahib). From the other side of the wall comes an exuberant young local woman (the charismatic Avanthika Srinivasan as Daanya) who wants to train with the English cricket team. She’s the first crack in the wall, so to speak, as the reality of India begins to invade the colonialists’ willful ignorance of the damage their raping and pillaging of the country is wreaking. Then comes an emissary from Bengal (a gripping Meera Rohit Kumbhani) with news that would devastate anyone…anyone, that is, but a British businessman intent on squeezing out the last of the country’s riches before beating it back to Britain.

Some of the first half’s energy evaporates in the second half as the tone shifts from locker room reality to gender-bending satire and then again to grim, oppressive reality. Those are big shifts to make, and if Attwell and MacKinnon don’t entirely succeed in making them, the marvelous cast pulls out all the dramatic and comedic stops to keep driving the play to its end. There’s a welcome degree of humor in Testmatch, but this is an earnest examination of how deeply personal history can be and about how we never really plumb those depths or find ways – individually or culturally – to deal with the horror and injustice and greed that have placed us where we are today.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kate Attwell’s Testmatch continues through Dec 8 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Shooting the rapids and tweaking history in ACT’s Men on Boats

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A brawny and eclectic band of explorers navigates a series of dangerous rapids on the Green and Colorado Rivers in Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 16. Below: Bradley (Katherine Romans) and Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala) aboard Kitty Clyde’s Sister navigate through the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. Photos by Kevin Berne

Oars up! Oars out! We’re going adventuring.

The first thrill of our adventure is the sheer delight of seeing 10 women on stage – 10! – in the American Conservatory Theater production of Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus now at The Strand Theater. How often do we get to see that many marvelous women on a stage together? Hardly ever. What makes this assemblage even more enjoyable is that, like Hamilton and the way it re-cast our founding fathers as people of color, Backhaus tells the true story of late 19th century explorers in Colorado and Arizona – all of them men, naturally – played by a cast of women.

The exuberance and sincerity with which these actors tackle these roles quickly eliminates any thought that this gender switch might be gimmicky. Under the astute direction of Tamilla Woodard, the actors aren’t pretending to be men. They’re inhabiting characters who grow more interesting with each scene in the play’s swift 90 minutes, but they’re also getting to play in the big adventuring playground that has for so long been exclusively the domain of white men.

In the telling of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers and through the Grand Canyon (then known as the Big Canyon), Backhaus requires no men, no water and no actual boats. We get parts of boats, with office chairs and stools also serving as Whitehall boats while the crew braves these wild rivers. It’s all about imagination here, with Nina Ball’s set, comprising moving backdrops made of giant topographic maps, beautifully evoking the canyons and rocks of the Southwest.

This is a robust, highly enjoyable tale of adventure, the kind we’re used to seeing in old movies and reading in books that were targeted to a male audience. Having it brought to life by women somehow gives it new life and excitement. We’re able to read the relationships better and see the human beyond the character traits. This isn’t a deep dive into the psyches of our explorers – none of whom had experience rafting rivers – but we see and hear enough to know that they’ve lived lives before this expedition, and they harbor scars and triumphs and the complexities of humans surviving in a rough world.

Liz Sklar is Powell, the over-inflated leader of this government-sanctioned trek. He often speaks like he’s running for office, but he’s also endearingly sincere and surprisingly sturdy as a leader. Toward the end of the trip, when things are looking pretty grim for the dwindling crew, Sklar taps into some powerful emotion that ensures, despite all the laughs, that attention is paid to the trip’s expanding emotional weight.

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Powell’s brother, who goes by the name Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala), is an unsettling guy, whose propensity for bursting into song yield creepy songs that probably have something to do with his service in the Civil War. Another veteran on the trip, 19-year-old Bradley (a priceless Katherine Romans), had quite a different war experience with no actual combat. That could explain his indomitable good cheer.

Much less cheerful are the Howland brothers, Seneca (Lisa Hori-Garcia) and O.G. (Lauren Spencer), who might be filching from the supplies, while easily sunburned Brit Frank Goodman (Arwen Anderson) isn’t so much a hardy explorer as he is a rich tourist out for some thrills (until the thrills get too thrilling, that is).

In a play that uses contemporary language to elicit lots of laughs, no one has better comic timing than Libby King as John Colton Sumner, a likable pain in the ass who has a distinct loathing of snakes. The resident hunter/trapper (Sarita Ocón as William Dunn), cook (Amy Lizardo as Hawkins) and map maker (Rosie Hallett as Hall) all start out with crisply defined roles in the crew but emerge as some of the most interesting people in the bunch – and that’s one of the things that makes Backhaus’ play so good. You not only come to like just about everybody in these boats, but also feel a sense of kinship and understanding. What begins as a rip-roaring good adventure with expertly staged dangers – dangling off a cliff! waterfalls! capsized boat! rattlesnakes! man overboard! – becomes something more as the men bond, fracture, re-bond and face the very real possibility of not surviving to the end.

Just as women were never part of these adventure narratives, neither were Native Americans rarely seen as anything more than invisible, incidental or just plain villainous. But here, Backhaus gives a native couple (superbly played by Hori-Garcia and Spencer) one of the play’s juiciest scenes as they offer hospitality and supplies to our bumbling, oblivious explorers while serving them vast, continental-sized shade. Re-writing history is the work of actual villains, but re-casting history, as it turns out, can be whole lot of fun.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jaclyn Backhaus’ Men on Boats continues through Dec. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Shotgun’s curious Watson: more than elementary

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Brady Morales Woolery is Watson, Sarah Mitchell is Eliza in Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Mick Mize is Merrick (with Morales Woolery as Sherlock’s friend Watson in the rear). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Now that artificial intelligence has infiltrated our homes (Amazon’s Alexa) and our pockets (Apple’s Siri), we have robotic personal servants at our beck and call, just waiting for us to ask for directions, to compose a message or even tell us a joke (did you ever ask Siri the meaning of life?).This is a fun, occasionally helpful technological development, but like so much in our Silicon Valley-centric world, it’s hard to fathom just how extraordinary this is.

Except for the flying cars, we are pretty much living The Jetsons, and we take it in stride. Playwright Madeleine George attempts to knock some wonder – and perspective – into us in her play The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage in Shotgun Players production. George tackles one of the key issues of our time – how, with all this instant and constant digital connection, can we still be so isolated – but does so in a clever – if not wholly satisfying – way.

Sort of a comedy, sort of a drama, Watson examines invention in three different eras, each enlivened by the same three actors playing different characters with the same names. The first era is our own. A genius named Eliza (Sarah Mitchell) has left the bosom of Big Blue (IBM) and embarked on the start-up road. Her talent is for artificial intelligence, and taking a cue from IBM’s Watson, which famously competed and won on Jeopardy in 2011, she has built a full-blown AI man named Watson. Played by Brady Morales Woolery, Watson is the warmhearted version of robotic – if robots had hearts, that is. He speaks compassionately about wanting to give Eliza everything she needs, and if he doesn’t understand something, he requests she nudge him in the right direction with more specific information.

In other words, he’s the perfect man, unlike Merrick (Mick Mize), Eliza’s ex-husband, who is channeling his rage and betrayal into an election campaign aiming him toward the city auditor’s office. Merrick can’t deal with the smallest of tech details involving his home computer, so he gets a member of the “Dweeb Team” to help him out. Sure enough, this “dweeb,” one Josh Watson (played by Woolery) turns out not only to be helpful but also willing to spy on Merrick’s ex-wife, whom he is sure is plotting something against him (she’s not).

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When the time period flips, it’s into the 1800s and the world of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. A woman (Mitchell) shows up at 221B Baker Street with a mysterious and tiny wounds on her hands and arms. Sherlock is out, so Dr. Watson (Woolery) takes the case, leading him on trail that ends with an inventor named Merrick (Mize), who has the disturbing notion of replacing his actual wife with a less troublesome mechanical version. Nina Ball’s attractive, highly functional set is full of surprises that help make the time travel even more enjoyable.

Another time flip takes us to a 1930s radio studio where Thomas A. Watson (Woolery) is being interviewed about that fateful day in 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful transmission over a wire, “Mr. Watson! Come here. I want you.”

All the Watsons are interesting here because Woolery’s performance is so full of delight in whichever one he’s playing. Whether he’s a robot, a techno geek in love or a famous sleuthing sidekick, he crackles with humor, intelligence and enthusiasm.

Director Nancy Carlin encounters some pacing problems in the two-plus hours of the play, primarily in the contemporary scenes, which tend to become a bit of a slog. Much of that has to do with George’s script, which tends toward the overwritten, especially in the second act.

There are definitely diminishing returns as the play progresses, although there are a couple moments of real connection – once in a monologue from the telephone Watson and once from Eliza, who has a disarming passion for wanting to use the most advanced forms of technology to provide actual assistance to people most in need. It’s a revolutionary concept, and even more than fostering deeper connection between actual people instead of people “connecting” through screens, that idea – of Siri or Alexa or their more advanced progeny – filling out medical or housing paperwork or serving as legal adviser or just being smart in a situation when people don’t know how to be. That’s the staggering intelligence I’ll take from this Watson.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Madeleine George’s The (curious case of the ) Watson Intelligence continues through Sept. 3 in a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Amazing women open doors in The Roommate

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In Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at San Francisco Playhouse, Robyn (Julia Brothers) offers to clean up a mess while moving in with her new roommate, Sharon (Susi Damilano). BELOW: Sharon and Robyn spend a provocative evening at home. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There are several wonderful things about Jen Silverman’s The Roommate now at San Francisco Playhouse, not the least of which is that it seriously considers the lives of two women in their 50s and their attempts to grow and change and correct what they perceive as some of the missteps of their lives.

The nearly two-hour one-act play, directed by Becca Wolff, is also heartily entertaining, contains some satisfying laughs and creates a showcase for two dynamic actors to create complex characters that are full of surprises.

Susi Damilano, the Playhouse’s co-founder and producing director, is Sharon, a 54-year-old divorcé living alone in her big Iowa house. Her grown son is off being a designer in New York, and her constant phone calls and texts are pushing him further and further away. So, aside from her book club and a weekly gig at a shop, she’s very much alone and adrift.

Not yet ready to accept a life of loneliness, Sharon boldly seeks, for the first time in her life, a roommate. Enter Robyn (Julia Brothers), an escapee of the Bronx seeking to re-start her life in the great American Midwest. The things we think we know for sure about Robyn are that she’s done many things in her life, including things that were illegal. She’s about Sharon’s age and also has a child. She’s vegan who has retired from writing and performing slam poetry and she’s gay. Everything else about this tall transplanted New Yorker is enigmatic to say the least.

Silverman’s set-up is part sitcom spin on “The Odd Couple,” with the worldly Robyn enlightening and shocking the more sheltered Sharon, and part unique invention. A thriller element is introduced that could take the play into lots of dark directions, but there’s also a more serious element involving two women coming to know one another, surprise one another and befriend one another. What they have in common, aside from being mothers who can’t (or don’t) rely on men for co-parenting, is that they are at points in their lives ripe for change. One is ready for excitement and challenge and danger, while the other is opting for a calmer, more focused life. One outcome is possible, the other less so.

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Damilano and Brothers play off one another beautifully, which makes the comedy bigger and the drama deeper. Sharon could easily be a stereotype of a ditzy Iowa housewife, but as written, there are layers to her, and Damilano adds even more complexity and endearing charm. Brothers is one of those actors whose name on a cast list should immediately make you want to see that play. She never disappoints and constantly surprises. Her Robyn is grounded and smart but also terribly conflicted. She wields some hard-won wisdom, which is lapped up by Sharon, her eager student. On the subject of child rearing, for instance, Robyn says, “Our children’t don’t have to love us. They just need to survive long enough to become us.” Brothers walks that fine line between being a fascinating new friend and a potentially deadly threat.

Watching these two wonderful actors spar and bond and surprise each other is the heart and spark of the play, and set designer Nina Ball makes good on the promise of Iowa specializing in “corn and space” with her airy suggestion of a Midwestern domicile. She and lighting designer Robert Hand and projection/sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker use light, shadows, projections and see-through walls to convey the vast Iowa sky (clouds, sunsets and stars abound). There’s a strong sense of isolation that works to effectively intensify the relationship forming between the women.

Director Wolff creates a strong sense of rhythm that builds nicely through twists, turns, laughs and emotional revelations. But then the play stumbles in its final moments. A monologue is delivered in the form of a phone call to God, and then another is delivered directly to the audience, neither of which is as effective as it needs to be. It’s not the way the play ends (the fate of the characters) that’s the problem – it’s how that information is conveyed.

Brothers and Damilano have earned enough audience love by this time to curtail any serious damage to such an enjoyable play, but there’s a stronger ending in here somewhere for all the fascinating women involved, the actors and the characters.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jen Silverman’s The Roommate continues through July 1 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (in the Kensington Park Hotel), San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Delight and loss dance through Magic’s Waltz revival

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The cast of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at Magic Theatre includes (from left) Patrick Alparone as Carl, Lauren English as Anna and Greg Jackson as The Third Man. Below: Alparone’s Carl and English’s Anna spend some quality time in Paris. Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Any of us would be lucky – beyond lucky – to be as loved as Paula Vogel’s brother Carl. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (who, after nearly 50 years as one of the country’s preeminent playwrights, will see her first Broadway opening next month with Indecent) wrote The Baltimore Waltz a year after Carl died of complications from AIDS. This is her tribute to him, a love letter from sister to brother, but she accomplishes this with such offbeat originality, whimsy and heart that there’s no room for sentimentality or feeble clichés about love and loss.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Magic Theatre has revived The Baltimore Waltz 25 years after hosting its West Coast premiere. Under the direction of Jonathan Moscone the plays still feels fresh and vital, and while its roots are firmly in the plague years, its fancifully clever and sound construction give it a timeless sense. There’s no expiration date for the love of a sibling or the depthless grief of losing that sibling.

When Vogel’s brother invited her on a trip to Europe, she had neither the time nor the money to make it happen. Here’s something else she didn’t have: the knowledge that he was HIV-positive and that within two years, he would be gone. From his hospital bed at Johns Hopkins in 1987, Carl wrote his sister a letter (which she invites theaters to publish in their programs) detailing his funeral arrangements. “Oh God – I can hear you groaning – everybody wants to direct,” Carl wrote. “Well, I want a good show, even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop.” That spark, that humor – they’re alive and well in Vogel’s rich 90-minute play, and she has given her brother what he wanted and more. She has written him a great show.

In perhaps the play’s most inspiring and heartbreaking conceit, Vogel gives her character the fatal disease. In this alternate reality, Anna (the Vogel stand-in played by Lauren English) is a Baltimore schoolteacher who sat on an infected toilet seat at school and contracted ATD – Acquired Toilet Disease. She hasn’t got long, so her older brother, Carl (Patrick Alparone) wants to take her to Europe. The trip would be for fun and to see a doctor in Vienna with a promising treatment. Even though she has a fear of not speaking any other languages, Anna agrees, and she and Carl head to France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria, where everyone they meet – from doctors to the Little Dutch Boy to student activists – are played by the remarkably versatile Greg Jackson as a character referred to in the program as “the Third Man” (references to the 1949 movie abound).

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We know this is an alternate reality in several ways, but the most elegant is the set (designed by Nina Ball and lit by Heather Gilbert), which replicates a hospital room filled with flimsy curtains to separate the beds. There are harsh fluorescent lights for the more clinical moments, but mostly we’re in a dreamy wash of light and shadow and dances under a mirror ball. In the clothing department (costumes by Meg Neville) Carl wears pajamas and a sport coat (pink triangle on the lapel) and Anna wears a negligee and an overcoat – not your usual ensembles for international travel.

Throughout the play’s fragmented scenes, Carl clings to a stuffed rabbit throughout the trip but hastily hands it over to Anna when going through airport security or border crossings. Just what’s in the bunny remains a mystery, but Carl clings to the toy as if it were his soul, his sexuality, his comfort. He connects with other men carrying bunnies, and yet the minute his bunny is taken from him, the fantasy of the play begins to give way to reality.

For much of its running time, this is a fun and funny play about dying but with shadows lurking to darken the comedy. Vogel and director Moscone never let us forget what is really happening here. English as Anna is relatable and comic without being silly. Anna has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, she’s visiting Europe for the first time with the human she treasures most in the world, and she seizes the opportunity to live, to have lots of sex, to open her ears to new words and conditional tenses, to eat new foods and to love her brother.

Alparone has an edgy sort of charm that keeps Carl as prickly as he is passionate, as enigmatic as he is loving. He and English pair effectively as siblings who can clash and squabble but never question their inexorable bond. There’s an easy flow to Moscone’s production, where it seems every detail has been attended to, from the actual waltzes that dot the play to Anna’s red strap shoes to the croissants that dot the headboard in a Paris hotel.

Reality catches up with Anna and Carl eventually, and the shift from fragmented fantasy to the starkness of real life could, in less capable hands, be jarring. Here it is simply moving and, like the play itself, a thing of beauty that leaves the theater with you.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz continues through April 16 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$85. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Aurora’s Leni asks: Great artist, Nazi sympathizer or both?

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Leni Riefenstahl (Stacy Ross) ponders her relationship with Hitler in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area Premiere of Leni by Sarah Greenman. Below: Older Leni (Ross, left) has a tête-à-tête with her younger self (Martha Brigham). Photos by David Allen

As a dramatic work, Sarah Greenman’s Leni about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, has to juggle history, artistry and, now, discomfiting parallels to our own time. Was Riefenstahl the right artist at the wrong time? Was her extraordinary talent as a filmmaker overshadowed by Hitler and the Nazi party? Or was she a Nazi sympathizer and, consequently, as the show puts it, “a willing architect of Nazi mythology” and, worse, an accomplice to genocide?

There aren’t any easy answers in this 85-minute one-act play now at the intimate Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre Company. Director Jon Tracy and actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, both of whom play Riefenstahl at advanced and early ages respectively, grab hold of the play with gusto and shake it for all it’s worth.

When a biographical play is set in some enigmatic limbo between life and death, the conceit usually comes across as a lazy way to make excuses for bringing back the dead and placing them awkwardly in a biographical drama. But here, it works. It is 2003 and Riefenstahl (Ross) has just died at 101. She emerges from a room into a phantom movie set (simply but effectively designed by Nina Ball) and gets to work filming scenes from her life. She shoots a scene of her younger self (Brigham) meeting with Hitler to beg for more money to complete her two-part documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Evocatively using lighting that is by turns stark and shadowy (beautifully designed by Kurt Landisman), director Tracy is able to create movie/theater hybrid that makes sense. They’re not really making a movie, but they’re not really alive either. What we have is Greenman’s attempt to allow Riefenstahl to put herself on trial, to explain herself, to attempt to face the truth, to justify never apologizing or recanting, to accept responsibility for the part she played.

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Leni is in no way an apology for Riefenstahl. No matter her artistic ambitions or intentions, she was complicit with the Nazis, and that landed her squarely on the wrong side of history and understandably destroyed her career. Rather, the play is Riefenstahl wrestling with herself and attempting to establish some context for what is was like to be in the middle of it all, attempting to make great work (and Leni did truly believe her work was great – with Triumph of the Will she says she didn’t create propaganda, she created a masterpiece), maintain her artistic integrity (she says she was never a member of the Nazi party and no one ever interfered with her filmmaking) and play the political games that would keep her working (she and Hitler were friendly – he gave her gifts – but she and Goebbels did not get along).

Because she lived so long, Riefenstahl is able to offer an interesting perspective on her work. With her bold filmmaking techniques, she was decades ahead of her time and, as many would attest, set the standard for sports documentaries with Olympia. All the controversy surrounding her work with the Nazis tends to obscure her skills as a director and render her a villain rather than a visionary filmmaker. The footage we see from her films (sound and video design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) is absolutely mesmerizing, especially some of the montages of Olympic athletes (oh, the divers!). So when the older Leni proclaims, “I am on trial for creating the modern world!” her sense of self or her impact doesn’t seem as overblown as it might.

Asked why she didn’t condemn Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, Riefenstahl claims she, like so many Germans, especially those who believed in Hitler as the leader Germany needed at the time, simply didn’t know. All those rumors and stories purported by journalists about death camps were lies. Until they weren’t and – much too late in the game – she had to face the harsh facts. Does she love the work she created, she is asked? Yes. And does she regret it? Yes.

So where does that leave us with the complicated Leni Riefenstahl? Mired in complications, with probably more complications than Greenman’s drama allows. Ross and Brigham are, as usual, superb, and director Tracy’s production is able to cut through a lot of the corny docu-drama trappings and let all the thorny issues encompass audience and actors alike. Amid the specific details of Riefenstahl’s life, certain chilling elements echo – fake news! lying journalists! obliviously adoring crowds! dangerously narrow-minded nationalism! – and make us wonder who, some time from today, will we see as a Leni Riefenstahl among us now?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sarah Greenman’s Leni continues through May 10 in the Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Bouncy around here: Shotgun’s Virginia Woolf howls

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The quartet in Shotgun Players’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? includes, from left, David Sinaiko as George, Josh Schell as Nick, Megan Trout as Honey and Beth Wilmurt as Martha. Below: Martha and Nick get their groove on, while Honey and George watch from the sidelines. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is famous for being, among other things, a night in the life of a querulous quartet, a four-part marital slugfest, a boozy broadside in four parts. In other words, four actors fighting, lashing out, drinking and suffering. All of that is present and accounted for in director Mark Jackson’s production concluding Shotgun Players’ 25th anniversary season. But it feels like there’s another character here.

In the center ring, the boxing ring that is, we have George and Martha – the associate professor of history and the daughter of the college president – who make their detestation of life (and, consequently, each other) a contact sport. Jackson’s set designer, Nina Ball, helps him remove the play from reality (it’s all an illusion anyway) by creating a home without furniture. There’s a big parquet wood floor, a central staircase leading to a second level and, most prominently, two backlit built-in bars filled with an assortment of bottles.

The vast emptiness is, literally and figuratively, a stage on which George and Martha enact their drama for a late-night audience of two, new arrivals to the college Nick (a biology professor) and his wife, Honey. Once they arrive, that empty stage becomes more of a boxing ring, which is referred two several times in the play (there’s even a story about Martha punching George in front of her father). The void also creates additional tension – Albee’s script supplies plenty of its own – because none of the characters can sit comfortably. They have set on the edge of the stage, on the stairs or on the floor. The areas to the side of the stage become littered with coats, purses, shoes, broken glass and lots of empty cocktail vessels.

Even though we know how this Woolf works – Albee’s 1962 play, famously denied the Pulitzer by the very committee that awarded it, is familiar from the shrill movie and countless productions over the last 54 years – it’s both comforting and shocking to feel the oomph of the verbal sparring and to revel in the nastiness of impolite behavior by people who know better. Lines like “I swear if you existed I’d divorce you” or “My arm has got tired whipping you” are timeless because they’re just that mean. And the way the younger couple gets sucked into the older couple’s vortex is so fascinating it’s practically scientific. Why don’t they just leave? They can’t! They’re caught in an irreversible gravitational pull and the solar system is about to implode!

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So amid the familiarity of well-loved/feared play, the ever-intelligent and adventurous Jackson shakes things up. First thing you notice is that set (well lit by Heather Basarab) and all that space. Then comes that presence, something so potent it becomes like a fifth member of the party: Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” Piano vamp, unforgettable sax melody, colossal drum solo – it’s a familiar tune that takes on sinister proportions here used both as underscore and as a song that the characters are actually playing on the old record player. At one point, and I could have imagined this, it seemed like the characters were speaking in rhythm with the music, like Albee’s dialogue was jazz itself. Thrilling. The drum solo also pops in not unlike Antonio Sanchez’s drum score in the movie Birdman. Brubeck is replaced by more generic white noise horror movie sound in the third act, which isn’t as effective, but chances are good that for audience members, “Take Five” will trigger memories of this Woolf.

At more than three hours, this is a lot of play. But Jackson’s inventiveness and his sturdy quartet of actors ensure an evening that never lags. Beth Wilmurt and David Sinaiko are Martha and George, a couple whose aggression and passive aggression know no bounds. Wilmurt’s Martha shows some vulnerability underneath the gizzard-slicing wit and smart cruelty. She has the most unconvincing laugh ever heard – every time she laughs it sounds almost painful for her – and when she decides to be a sexual predator, she leaves no doubt that she could accomplish whatever she wants.

Sinaiko’s George hardly seems the victim here. He may be Martha’s punching bag, but he gives as good as he gets, and seems to take special delight in getting the guests, to paraphrase the name of one of his party games. Josh Schell and Megan Trout as Nick and Honey, the George and Martha in training, work hard to avoid caricature, and while Trout conjures images of an uptight Madeline Kahn in What’s Up Doc?, Schell effectively creates a more complex man than the straight white product-of-the-’50s jock that Nick seems to be.

The emotional intensity of the performances doesn’t always reach Albee’s maximum levels, but it’s all here, the train wreck, schadenfreude, hurt me some more, pour me another, please love me mind fuck that is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Rest in peace, Mr. Albee.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through Nov. 20 in its initial run then continues in repertory Nov. 27 through Jan. 22. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.

Simple command: Catch Caught. Now.

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El Beh (left) and Elissa Beth Stebbins toy with the audience’s sense of reality in Christopher Chen’s Caught, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Jomar Tagatac may not be the most trustworthy of narrators. Photos by Pak Han

Watching Christopher Chen’s new play Caught in its sublime Shotgun Players presentation is, in a word, disorienting, and that’s a good thing. Even clever theater-savvy folk who think they have it all figured out and are hip to what’s going on in this mind-twisting play will experience something new here, and it may not be apparent until they leave the theater. Your trust in what is real, what is true (a major theme of the play), will likely have shifted. The absurd things that happen to us on a regular basis and all the things we assume are true suddenly seem challenging and connected, as if we’ve stepped into a Chen play ourselves. The world has tipped slightly on its axis because of a play.

A serious examination of what is truth and what is fiction, Caught also deconstructs the theatrical experience itself to great effect. I’m not going to give anything away here except to say that this show (which is also enjoying an extended, sold-out run at New York’s The Play Company after productions all over the country) is something you should see, although tickets will be hard to come by. San Francisco-based Chen is fast emerging as one of the smartest, most inventive writers in American theater. If you saw his award-winning The Hundred Flowers Project in 2012 (read my review here), the way he uses China, Mao, theater and his outsize brain to dig into major themes may be somewhat familiar. But what he does with Caught takes things much further and blurs boundaries even more successfully.

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Chen, working with director Susannah Martin, deftly crafts a 90ish-minute experience that keeps you guessing but never leaves you behind as it switches and swerves. There’s a further blur at work between the theatrical world and the visual art world, and that also helps keep things nicely off balance. It’s hard to talk about performances when you can’t always be sure performances are actually happening – at least in the traditional sense anyway – but Martin’s cast, which includes Jomar Tagatac, Elissa Stebbins, Mick Mize and El Beh/Michelle Talgarow (depending on which night you “experience” it), makes what could be a fuzzy evening all the clearer with their sharp, energetic work. It’s so interesting how we can sense when a person is speaking extemporaneously and when they’re performing, but for all the moving parts here to work optimally, we can’t always be entirely sure when the actors are acting or just talking.

It was clear when I saw the play Wednesday night at the Ashby Stage that certain audience members didn’t realize that certain things in play were actually part of the play, and that’s a huge tribute to the skill of the actors as they work to pass off reality as art and vice-versa (also a key component of the play itself).

Designers Nina Ball, Wesley Cabral, Christine Crook, Devon LaBelle, Ray Oppenheimer and Matt Stines seamlessly and beautifully blend the needs of a visual art installation (in collaboration with the Xiong Gallery) and a theatrical venture. It all ends up being a crucible for Chen’s heady mixture of drama and deep thought, which incorporates elements of postminimalist Lawrence Weiner and writers like Mike Daisey (The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs) and James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), whose work has landed them in hot water when it didn’t remain resolutely in the lane of fiction or non-fiction.

There’s one section of the show involving concepts like “the box inside the outside of the box” and “breaking the authoritative borders of appropriation” that I need to hear/read again because I got lost (either by design or my thick head), but feeling all that brain power whizzing past you is also part of the play’s thrill. One thrill of many to be sure, some of which you probably won’t realize until Caught is long over. But then again, how can we be sure it’s ever really over?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Caught continues through Oct. 2 in its initial run and then through Nov. 26-Dec. 17 in repertory. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org or www.xionggallery.org.

Uneasy comedy, drama (+Rat Wife!) in Aurora’s Erik

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The Rat Wife (Wilma Bonet, right) stops by to see if Erik (Jack Wittmayer) and his family (from left: Mariah Castle, Marilee Talkington and Joe Estlack) need her help in the world premiere of Little Erik at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Joie (Marilee Talkington) and Freddie (Joe Estlack) discuss their dysfunctional lives in this contemporary adaptation by Mark Jackson of Ibsen’s Little Eyolf. Photos by David Allen

There’s a profoundly creepy core to Little Erik the new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1894 Little Eyolf by Mark Jackson, one of the Bay Area’s foremost theater artists. That creepiness is the best thing about the 80-minute one-act now at the Aurora Theatre Company. Though even in its brevity, the play can’t quite command its shifting tones.

Ibsen’s Eyolf probably won’t be found on any of his best-of compilations, but Jackson seizes on the play’s weirdness to explore how self-involvement (which seems so contemporary but has apparently been plaguing humans for quite some time) leads to detachment, which leads to a complicated, unfulfilled life.

At the heart of the play is the tragic death of a child, the titular Erik, and in this production – also directed by Jackson – the child is played with disarming enthusiasm and charm by Jack Wittmayer. Because Wittmayer, who handles Erik’s crutches and twisted body like an absolute pro, makes such a strong impression in only a few scenes, it should be absolutely devastating when news arrives that the boy has drowned in the Northern California river just outside his family’s slick new mountain getaway home. But it’s not, hence the creepiness.

The character of the Rat Catcher, a sort of mystical bit of Pied Piper woo-woo, appears as if in warning that she will gladly allow unwanted or unloved children with her to the bottom of the sea. In Jackson’s version, she’s a persistent cleaning lady offering her services all around town. As played by Wilma Bonet, the Rat Wife is instantly recognizable, and that grounds her firmly in reality and makes her more mystical aspect even creepier. It’s not that hard to be ignored or dismissed if you’re a woman of color among wealthy white folks. But you ignore the Rat Wife at your own peril.

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Once Erik is dispatched, his remaining family members are mostly too embroiled in their own dramas to grieve all that much. Erik’s mom, Joie (the incisive Marilee Talkington) has no illusions about her skills as a mother. She describes herself as “hard” and is proudly and firmly enmeshed in the digital age. Never too far from her phone, she has succeeded in business and admits she never really wanted a child. She had Erik to please her husband, Freddie (Joe Estlack), a man of humble origins who has just returned from a mysterious six months abroad (courtesy of his wife’s credit cards) while he was supposedly finishing his magnum opus novel about responsibility. But now, after an epiphany, he is a writer who no longer writes. He realizes he has never had to be responsible in his life, so now he has eschewed writing and technology and – oops! – just wants to be a dad to Erik.

In many ways, Little Erik is the story of a failed marriage, but that failure is really the result of monumental egos that could occasionally crash into each other (apparently the sex was great) but could never truly mesh. On the periphery of the marriage is Andi (Mariah Castle, Freddie’s half-sister, who picked up the pieces after their father’s death when Freddie was skittering around the globe. Andi was the closest to Erik, but even her naturally warm, maternal nature gets hijacked by a questionable romance, and it’s not the one with the architect who built the house (Gregy Ayers as Bernie, a character who seems to have dropped in from another play).

Jackson gets off some terrific lines here. My favorite is the acerbic Joie: “Children are not the future. Old people are the future. Nobody gets younger.” But the play’s ending is pretty ridiculous, perhaps on purpose given that the shifting from realism to hysterical drama to mysticism to outright comedy has the audience on shaky ground. Perhaps Jackson the writer and Jackson the director had different visions of where the play was headed. Certainly the actors, all of whom are terrific, are capable of giving Jackson what he wants. They tend to humanize their extreme characters and win some sympathy.

The severe simplicity and beauty of the set (by Nina Ball) create a sharp environment, and the effective video designs (by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky) and wonderfully unnerving sound design (by Matt Stines) indicate a much more serious enterprise than what we actually get.

In the end, Little Erik feels neither comic nor tragic nor fully developed. It’s go that ever-present creepy factor, and that’s certainly something.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mark Jackson’s Little Erik continues through Feb. 28 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Smart, creepy Nether wows at SF Playhouse

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Iris (Carmen Steele) marvels over the Victorian world that Papa (Warren David Keith) has created in Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Doyle (Louis Parnell, left) is questioned by Detective Morris (Ruibo Qian) about his dealings in the Nether, a futuristic version of the Internet where virtual reality is more than just a high-concept toy. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There aren’t that many plays with the power to totally creep you out and entertain you mightily. Such is the power of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse in a production that is stunning in all the right ways (director Bill English and set designer Nina Ball do yeomans work here).

The play is only 80 minutes, but it packs a mighty wallop. Here you have a play that is, ostensibly, about the rape and murder of children, but it’s not horrific. It’s nifty sci-fi trick is to set the action in the near future when virtual reality has become a big part of life. The Internet has evolved into something called the Nether, and, happy to say, there are still laws in the future, although how they govern (or don’t) the Nether and virtual reality is a big part of what the drama is about. So no actual children are harmed, but even in theory, seeing man holding an ax standing next to a little girl makes your skin crawl.

I reviewed The Nether for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

Haley has crafted a piece of theatrical science fiction that works astonishingly well straddling two realities. Theater itself is already a kind of virtual reality, so it’s the perfect place for Haley’s futuristic tale of a world where trees barely exist anymore and more and more people (called “shades”) are living their lives inside a more evolved Internet known as “the nether,” where lifelike communities are formed and imaginations (and morals and laws) are unbound.
This is a tricky, provocative 80-minute drama that could outrage audiences except that it’s so intelligently crafted that fascination trumps shock in this story of authorities going after the creators of a virtual world in which adults, adhering to Victorian dress and custom, interact with children who are then sexually abused and murdered (only to be regenerated by the program in a never-ending cycle).
As sick as that sounds, keep in mind that none of it’s real — it’s consensual role playing among adults who pay to be there (or, in the case of the “children,” adults who are employed by the virtual reality creators).

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You can read the review in its entirety here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jennifer Haley’s The Nether continues through March 5 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.