Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

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.

ACT’s deep dive into Albee’s Seascape

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Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) and Charlie (James Carpenter) meet Leslie (Seann Gallagher), a human-sized lizard that has just crawled out of the sea, in Edward Albee’s Seascape at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 17. Below: McLaughlin and Carpenter are startled by two human-sized lizards, played by Gallagher and Sarah Nina Hayon. Photos by Kevin Berne

As directing debuts go, Pam MacKinnon’s for American Conservatory Theater is pretty auspicious. Her production of Seascape by Edward Albee is her first on the Geary Theater stage since taking over as artistic director last year. A Tony Award-winner (for Albee’s 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) who has worked on other Bay Area stages (Berkeley Rep, Magic), MacKinnon seems to have landed quite comfortably in the world of institutional regional theater.

Her production of Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1975 play crackles with crisp performances that easily carry the audience through the more naturalistic aspects of the play and into its wilder, more absurdist regions. When the curtain rises, there’s a moment of refreshing awe at the sight of David Zinn’s set: tall, grassy sand dunes along the Atlantic coast. The sound of waves crash in the background, the peace occasionally interrupted by a screaming jet plane overhead (sound design by Brendan Aanes). It’s interesting that the back of the theater is left exposed, as are all the bright, sunny lights that comprise designer Isabella Byrd’s grid. There’s reality and there’s fantasy reality occupying the same space, which is entirely appropriate for this play.

Seascape begins as a marital drama (an Albee specialty). A long-married couple is readjusting to retirement and the twin notions of aging and mortality as reality rather than concept. Nancy (Ellen McLaughlin) has found her happy place on this sunny stretch of beach. She envisions a future free of grown children, grandchildren and responsibilities. She floats the notion of becoming beach nomads and seeing the world from sand strip to sand strip. But Charlie (James Carpenter) wants to do nothing. “We’ve earned a rest,” he keeps saying. This schism – “purgatory before purgatory” – is cause for a discussion that gets deeper and more intimate between husband and wife, and McLaughlin and Carpenter are riveting. They feel deeply connected yet strongly individual and can also be quite funny.

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Traversing the bumpy landscape of matrimony with this couple makes for surprisingly grand entertainment. Nothing major or melodramatic is happening, but in a way, as they review their life together, everything is happening. But then something major really does happen: a couple of human-sized lizards crawl out of the sea and begin a fairly deep existential discussion with the humans (once everyone determines that one couple is not interested in eating the other). It’s a little like the two-couple dynamic of Virginia Woolf meets the monster-in-the-house horror of A Delicate Balance.

Because Albee’s script is so smart and funny, and because the performances of the humans and the lizards – Sarah Nina Hayon as Sarah and Seann Gallagher as Leslie – are so warm and real, there’s never any difficulty making the leap into fantasy. The absurdity is quite enjoyable (like the man having the affair with the goat named Sylvia in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?), although Albee never quite solves the internal logic of how Sarah and Leslie have excellent vocabularies and seem to know what human months and years are but don’t know what birds are. Because we’re in the realm of evolution and those key moments when the next phase actually happens, it feels like something’s missing in the story of the lizards’ evolution up to this point. But we do get some wonderful “learning” moments, as when the lizards learn the human custom of shaking hands to say hello.

Designer Zinn’s costumes for Sarah and Leslie are spectacular, and the way Hayon and Gallagher inhabit them makes them so much more than green suits with giant tails. It’s easy to fall in love with these creatures, especially Sarah, who is curious and empathetic in ways that make you root for her personal evolution. If she can do it, you know Leslie, who seems not quite as advanced, can do it, too.

There’s a sag in Act 2, and Albee doesn’t quite seem to know where he wants his curious quartet to land. The overall tone of Seascape carries the tidal weight of existence and emotional turmoil, but that is lifted somehow by an element of hope and acceptance.

[BONUS INTERVIEW]
I talked to ACT’s new artistic director, Pam MacKinnon, about making her ACT directorial debut with Seascape for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Edward Albee’s Seascape continues through Feb. 17 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Charm and romance bubble up in Berkeley Rep’s Amélie

EXTENDED THROUGH OCT. 18
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Samantha Barks is Amélie with the cast of Amélie, A New Musical, a world premiere based on the French film of the same name. Below: Barks’ Amélie inches ever nearer to a romance with Nino, played by Adam Chanler-Berat. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com

In this age of illusory connection, a story of isolation told through music seems more necessary than ever. Connection with the world and people in it is a central theme of Amélie, the whimsical 2001 film, and it’s even more pronounced in the world-premiere musical version of the story now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

The whimsy has been turned down (not altogether), but the charm and romance have increased in this tuneful adaptation with a book by playwright Craig Lucas and a delightful score by Daniel Messé (of the band Hem) and lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen. Told in a fleet, occasionally bumpy 100 minutes, this Amélie boasts an appealing ensemble under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, making her musical directorial debut, and romantic leads who leaven the charm with the pulse of real life.

After a rocky opening number that describes how we’re all leaving trails of breadcrumbs for others to follow all the while tracking the flight of a fly, the show kicks into gear with the story of a bright, spirited little girl named Amélie (Savvy Crawford in a dynamic performance), whose distant, over-cautious parents (Alison Cimmet and John Hickok) mistake her joie de vivre and lively heartbeat as illness. So they decide to minimize her connection with the world by home schooling her.

This isolation has a debilitating effect no the child that will affect her as an adult, but it does allow her to bond with an unlikely pet – a goldfish named Fluffy – and inspires a number that provides the first indication that Amélie will march to its own musical beat. The silly puppetry and vivacious choreography (by Sam Pinkleton) strike just the right notes of comedy and whimsy, even in the face of sudden tragedy.

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When Amélie grows up and becomes the wonderful British actor Samantha Barks, we see her as an intensely shy young woman show somehow found the wherewithal to move away from home and start a life for herself in the Montmartre district of Paris, where she’s a waitress in the Café des 2 Moulins.

Of the assorted characters in Amélie’s life, the one that makes the biggest impression is the Man of Glass, an elderly artist named Dufayel (Tony Sheldon) show studio Amélie can spy on from her apartment (she has been an inveterate spier and skulker since childhood). Each year, Dufayel, whose brittle bones mean everything around him must be padded, copies the same Renoir painting and gets everything right except the woman in the center who is looking at the artist.

Dufayel becomes a sort of Jiminy Cricket character in Amélie’s life as she begins making broader overtures in the world, meddling in people’s lives in the name of anonymous good deeds.

Partly inspired by the death of Princess Diana, Amélie begins following various breadcrumb trails and slowly finds a place for herself in the world, which includes a hesitant romance with an offbeat young man named Nino (the wonderful Adam Chanler-Berat), who compiles people’s rejected photo booth photos.

Amélie is the kind of musical that has the audacity not only to care about the beating of the human heart but to depict that beating with hearts and flashes of light. There’s a little sappiness around the edges here, but the sweetness is earned and intercut with enough humor and theatricality to keep it grounded.

The score by Messé and Tysen provides abundant pleasure, although a strange comic number that spins Elton John’s performance of “Candle in the Wind” at Diana’s funeral into a sort of gospel nightmare for Amélie begins in good humor and verges toward the offensive.

One of the stand-out numbers is performed by three of Amélie’s chums at the café – Carla Duren as Gina, Maria-Christina Oliveras as Suzanne and Alyse Alan Louis as Georgette – as they make sure that Nino’s intentions toward their friend are honorable.

One problem with the show is that you really need to have seen the movie to fully get it. Lyrics and plot points go by in a hurry, and without any familiarity, it’s kind of a blur, especially when we’re expected to know the finer points of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, which is explained in a number that involves projections and diagrams but is still confusing. It has something to do with never getting anywhere because you have to get halfway first, and it must reflect Amélie’s difficulty breaking out of her constrained world. But it definitely adds to the confusion.

The central romance, however charmingly portrayed, also comes across as contrived, especially when the lovers’ ultimate connection keeps getting delayed and avoided to the point of wanting to call the whole thing off. By the time they get to their tender duet it’s not quite clear why they should be together other than its having been decreed by the script and the strictures of romantic comedy.

Amélie falls somewhere between tradition and innovation, folk and pop, delightful and frustrating. As new musicals go, it’s got the kind of vibrant, heartfelt spirit that Amélie’s parents would mistake for a disorder, but it’s a lovely show that, with more creative tinkering, should go on to have a long, charming life.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed much of the creative team behind Amélie, A New Musical for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Amélie, A New Musical continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.