We’ll have a Black Christmas without you

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Robin Herford (left) and Antony Eden spin a chilling ghostly tale in The Woman in Black at ACT’s Strand Theater. Below: Eden (front) and Herford explore the grounds of a haunted house in remote England in this stage adaptation of the novel by Susan Hill. Photos by Kasey L. Ross


Nothing like a gothic horror story to bring on all those Christmas feels. But seriously, if this holiday season is feeling like a slow-motion nightmare, have I got a show for you!

Forget A Christmas Carol and all those karma-pushing British ghosts. The Woman in Black is the play for old-fashioned spooky houses, ghostly figures and tragedy-filled back stories. If the title of the show sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s the second-longest-running play in London’s West End (after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap) and there have been several movies based on the same source, the 1983 novel by Susan Hill (the most recent from 2012 with Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds).

Stephen Mallatratt adapted Hill’s novel for the stage in 1987, and the director of that original production, Robin Herford, is back to direct the touring production now at the Strand Theater and also to co-star with Antony Eden.

The deep 34-year experience that Herford has with this material is quite apparent, both in his precise and expertly paced direction and in his superb performance. He plays Arthur Kipps, a very nervous non-actor who is terrorized by an experience he had many years before. In attempt to exorcise his demons (literal and figurative), he has committed the entire experience to paper and wants to read it from the stage to an audience full of his friends and family. He has hired an actor/director (Eden, whose character is never named) who determines that simply reading Kipps’ tome will take at least five hours. The actor suggests that they adapt the material into a two-man show. The actor will play the younger Kipps, whose London law firm sends him to a remote corner of England to attend the funeral sort through the estate of a longtime client. The real Kipps, who keeps insisting he is not an actor, will play all the other parts.

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So, it’s an adaptation within an adaptation, which is a tricky way to get us into a theatrical horror story. First we’re engaged intellectually as actors play actors playing parts, but the deeper the actors get into the story, the more engaged we are in the story itself and not the storytelling. By the time the shocks and the chills come, our spooky bone is primed (it’s like the funny bone but more attuned to horror). Even the stage (designed by Michael Holt) begins as a mostly empty stage between productions but eventually introduces more specific locations as we get to know the village of Crythin Gifford (and its graveyard) and the imposing Eel Marsh House (and its graveyard), which is only accessible through the salt marshes at low tide (a warning sign to stay away if ever there was one).

I have found it almost impossible to really scare a live theater audience, but this Woman has some nifty tricks up its sleeve, and a lot of it has to do with skillful work by lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia and sound designer Sebastian Frost (based on the original sound design by Rod Mead). In a situation like this one – with haunted houses, ghostly apparitions and things that make a very loud bump in the night – you’re either game for the chills or you’re a wet blanket. If you play along, The Woman in Black is an awful lot of jittery fun.

Herford and Eden walk that fine line between real drama and melodrama so there’s room for little bursts of humor and a great deal of genuine interest in the unfolding story. Herford plays everything from a freaked-out village lawyer to an enigmatic pony cart driver to a wealthy landowner who doesn’t have time for local lore. And Eden, as Kipps, gives us younger Kenneth Branagh-level earnestness and theatrical panache.

There’s a lot that can’t be told here, but then any good ghost story has to keep its secrets. And The Woman in Black is a walloping good ghost story.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt) continues through Jan. 16 at the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org/womaninblack.

COVID Policy:
All ticket holders entering the Strand Theater will be required to show proof of full vaccination (except for those legally exempted), along with an ID with photo and full name. A physical vaccination card, picture of your vaccination card, or digital vaccination record will suffice. California residents may obtain a digital vaccination card at https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov/. Proof of vaccination must indicate that it has been at least 14 days since the patron’s last vaccination dose (two doses are required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, one for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). All ticket holders are
required to wear face masks inside the venue.

Welcome return to Pemberley with Georgiana and Kitty

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The cast of the world-premiere Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley includes (from left) Lauren Spencer as Georgiana Darcy, Aidaa Peerzada as Emily Grey, Emilie Whelan as Kitty Bennet, Zahan F. Mehta as Henry Grey, Adam Magill as Thomas O’Brien, Alicia M. P. Nelson as Margaret O’Brien and Madeline Rouverol as Sarah Darcy. Below: Mehta and Spencer find holiday romance in the Marin Theatre Company production. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, Scenic Design by Nina Ball, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao. Photos by Kevin Berne courtesy of Marin Theatre Company


Jane Austen has undoubtedly been visiting with her celestial publisher to check on the status of her earthly estate. Over the years, she has seen her cultural clout grow and grow, with movies, novel sequels, themed weekends and generation after generation of new Austen fans clamoring for more. Among the most interesting of the offerings related to the much-loved 19th-century novelist created in the more than 200 years since her death are the Christmas at Pemberley plays by San Francisco playwrights Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Locally, we saw the post-Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberley series begin in 2016 at Marin Theatre Company with Miss Bennett (read my review marintheatre.org) and continue in 2018 with The Wickhams (a sort of below-stairs/Downton Abbey take). Now, what has become a trilogy, concludes with Georgiana and Kitty. The genius of the trilogy is that it essentially covers one Christmas holiday but doesn’t actually require you to have seen the other installments (or read Austen, for that matter) – but your enjoyment and appreciation will be enhanced if you have.

This third chapter is the most audacious of them all if only because it takes the greatest liberties with Austen by imagining what the five Bennett sisters, their husbands and children will be doing 20 years after this initial holiday gathering. Not to give anything away, but the future for these characters involves bold moves for womankind, enduing female friendship and consistent breaking of women’s societal restraints – all within a warm holiday glow and amid boisterous (sometimes contentious) familial affection.

We didn’t actually get to meet Kitty Bennett in either of the other two plays, so it’s lovely to see the youngest Bennett finally get her moment in the spotlight along with her BFF, Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of Kitty’s sister Lizzy.

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There’s great excitement in the house because of – what else? – boys. Georgiana (Lauren Spencer) has been corresponding with Henry Grey (Zahan F. Mehta), a potential beau, for almost a year, and she has impulsively invited him to visit Pemberley at Christmas. He arrives, smitten and tongue-tied, in the company of his friend Thomas O’Brien (Adam Magill), who immediately sparks with the vibrant Kitty (Emilie Whelan). But this double romance quickly skids to a halt when Henry fails to pass muster with Georgiana’s domineering brother, Darcy (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whose self-imposed duty to protect his sister makes him overbearing and obnoxious.

The great thing about all the Pemberley plays is how they play with formula – calculated through both Austen and holiday romance equations – and still come up with something that is highly enjoyable, smart and full of real charm and warmth. Gunderson and Melcon honor Austen and write characters who defy expectations of the 19th, 20th and 21st century varieties. The holiday aspect wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark movie, but there’s an intelligence and spirit at work here that far exceeds all the usual, sappy trappings.

Performances are bright and focused in director Meredith McDonough (who also helmed Miss Bennett five years ago), and if some of the characters seem to be extra set dressing (on Nina Ball’s stately estate set), that is rectified when the action shifts ahead two decades and we meet a vivacious new generation of Darcys, O’Briens and Greys.

Austen would no doubt love to see the triumph of some her women characters as envisioned by Gunderson and Melcon, whether it’s the successful balancing of family and work life by one or the artistic success of another as she makes great inroads in a world wholly dominated by men. She may also love that even in the future, Mr. Darcy is a well-meaning ass who would do well to listen to his wife, who is seldom, if ever, wrong.

It’s a little bit sad that Kitty and Georgiana is the final chapter in the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, but here’s hoping that Gunderson and Melcon continue to make such savvy, satisfying theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley continues through Dec. 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Love chills in Berkeley Rep’s sizzling Wintertime

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The cast of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Carmen Berkeley (Ariel), Sharon Lockwood (Hilda), Lorri Holt (Bertha), James Carpenter (Frank), Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois), Jomar Tagatac (Bob), and Micah Peoples (Jonathan). Below: (from left) Nora el Samahy (Maria), David Ryan Smith (Edmund), Micah Peoples (Jonathan), James Carpenter (Frank), and Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois). Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Oh, the ragged, jagged, chilly, burning season that is Wintertime, the complicated, beautiful, messy play that heralds the live-on-stage return of Berkeley Repertory Theatre after a 20-month pandemic hiatus.

In so many ways, this is the perfect play to bring back this beloved company. First of all, the play itself, by Charles L. Mee is a chaotic, poetic, operatic farce/drama about lovers, friends and family members who have taken each other for granted for too long. What could be an idyllic post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s few days at a snow-covered country home turns into a rage-filled, poignant and occasionally hilarious explosion – like a snow globe has been smashed, and amid the dripping snow bits and wreckage and broken glass, there are humans struggling to find shards of hope, love and forgiveness.

Mee is a Berkeley Rep favorite, with his Big Love and Fête de la Nuit being two highlights of the theater’s production history. Both of those shows were directed by Berkeley Rep’s former associate artistic director, Les Waters, who also directs Wintertime. There’s likely not a director around who can more effectively bring out the raw humanity and sheer beauty in Mee’s fascinating collage of a script.

Then there’s the cast, which includes some of the Bay Area faces you would most wish to see after having been banished from the theater for a year and a half. Most poignantly, James Carpenter is Frank, a married man whose wife holds a prominent place in his heart and his life even though he’s mostly with his lover, Edmund (David Ryan Smith). This is a role Carpenter played 18 years ago at the now-departed San Jose Repertory Theatre, and if he was good then (he was), he’s magnificent now. As someone who has been expected to be solid all his life, Frank is fragile and so very sad. Contemplating the relationship with his wife, Maria (Nora el Samahy), Frank says when he wakes in the morning, “I can’t decide whether I most want to hurt you or give you something.”

Other local stalwarts in the cast include the great Sharon Lockwood and Lorri Holt as Hilda and Bertha, the interfering couple next door, and the gorgeous stage is designed by Annie Smart, whose set brings the winter woods indoors by hanging dozens of silver tinsel garlands from the rafters and gives us one window through which we see a never-ending snowfall. The winter light comes from designer Russell H. Champa, and it’s all appropriately cold until tempers flare and we get flashes of red and changing hints of color around door and window frames.

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The humans within this wintry arena speak in poetic arias like characters out of Shakespeare or Chekhov who behave like the only thing that matters is themselves and their feelings. This means Act One of this 2 1/2-hour play is a near-constant eruption of jealousy, betrayal and hurt. The act’s final scenes offer two showstoppers: one involves a much-slammed red door that becomes the centerpiece of a wounded ego/broken heart ballet and the other turns the stage into the physical embodiment of all those emotions with the kind of mess you don’t envy the stagehands having to clean up.

Through it all, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design keeps pumping loud, heavy music full of voice and orchestra. There are some lighter moments – Silk Sonic makes a welcome audio appearance – and Act Two, with mortality leveling out some of the egos and tormented love stories, features some emotional depth that brings young love back to earth and gives older love reason to hope. And the entire cast ends up dancing around in beautiful underwear (costumes by Anna Oliver because sometimes joy mixed with loud music, dancing and underwear is absolutely necessary.

The marvelous cast, under Waters’ astute, no-nonsense direction, also includes Thomas Jay Ryan as a French lover who (maybe) sees his ribald life a little differently by play’s end, the hilarious but deadpan Jomar Tagatac as a delivery guy/minister who brightens every scene he graces and Carmen Berkeley and Micha Peoples as the young lovers whose shallow sense of the romantic evolves into something much different.

Mee’s dialogue can soar, it can annoy and it can dazzle. He cares about his characters’ dreams and he has compassion for their abundant faults. Then there’s the odd line that makes you take a mental note to write into the script of your actual life: “You were born grouchy; you live in a snit; and you will die in a huff.”

The trick of Wintertime is that it seems like it will be a cozy, romantic canoodle by a roaring fire, but the reality is that this play is, for all its glorious theatricality, jagged, sharp-edged and emotionally authentic – more bitter than sweet, more vodka rocks than hot cocoa.

The play is a carnival mirror, broken as that mirror may be, and there’s much to see (and feel) in it from the perspective of this strange period in which we find ourselves. During a Viking feast, a toast is offered to the assembled, but it might as well be to all of us as we move slowly out of one terrifying era and into…whatever comes next:

to the end of squabbling
the end of jealousy
the end of suspicions
to the new times of gratitude
for what we have.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime continues through Dec. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$92 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

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.

Brilliant Mind artfully blends live, digital, interactive

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Denmo Ibrahim as Dina and Ramiz Monsef as Yusef in Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht’s live and interactive premiere of Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Dina and Yusef deal with the aftermath of their father’s death.


Samir El Musri texted me more than two dozen times the other night while I was watching an online play. Rather than tell Samir to stop bothering me while I was otherwise engaged, I eagerly awaited each short message or photograph.

Samir, you see, is not a real person. He’s a character in Denmo Ibrahim’s world-premiere show Brilliant Mind, a presentation from Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht that revels in the digital realm rather than treats it like a stopgap until theaters reopen.

Before the 80-minute show begins, we’re invited to explore a virtual 3-D replica of Samir’s apartment in which there are a number of items that will trigger additional information. We’re also invited to allow Samir to text us and to put his name in our address book so the texts actually come from Samir (and heightens the reality of the experience).

Unlike many digital plays, Brilliant Mind begins at a proscribed time because, as it turns out, there’s a live aspect in addition to the interactivity, and that live aspect involves Samir himself (as played by Kal Naga aka Khaled Abol Naga, who has died this very day and exists in a sort of limbo while he observes his grown children, Yusef (Ramiz Monsef) and Dina (Ibrahim) sort through what he has left behind – physically, culturally, emotionally.

Dramatically speaking, this live aspect combined with previously filmed segments involving Ysef and Dina, could be gimmicky at best and technologically glitchy at worst. Happily, Ibrahim, working with director Kate Bergstrom and digital/interactive designer Marti Wigder Grimminck, folds this idea meaningfully into the narrative, making Samir an observer – as we are – of the unfolding action and giving him a touch of magic realism in that he is able to use his phone to text us (his fellow observers) and make his presence felt in the world his children occupy.

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Yet another interactive component allows viewers to choose the play’s path at certain moments, which frankly made me a little anxious because of I have FOMO and am always certain I choose the less interesting option (and if you don’t choose rather quickly, the system chooses for you, so there’s that).

All the technology aside, the story of Brilliant Mind is intriguing in its own right as it explores the lives of Yusef and Dina, first-generation Arab-Americans, and how their lives have been (are being) affected by the lives of their immigrant parents and how a family forms its identity through cultural roots, geography, secrets and the politics of history (and the history of politics).

Ibrahim has long been a Bay Area actor of note, someone to rely on for depth, intelligence and emotional realism on stage. She and Monsef are marvelous together as their scenes crackle with the fraught chemistry of siblings who want to do better by one another but mostly fail to rise to that challenge. This period following their father’s death is sort of an emotional crucible, which is, of course, an excellent time to check with them from a dramatic point of view.

The richness of the characters and the bells and whistles of the presentation can’t conceal certain lags in the script (which would probably be more effective on stage than on screen) and a reliance on clichés (especially for Samir), but it’s all so well acted and produced that there’s still a great deal to enjoy, savor and ponder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denmo Ibrahim’s Brilliant Mind continues performances through June 13. Tickets are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

42nd Street Moon lights the stage with Lady Day

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Doris Bumpus plays Billie Holiday in the 42nd Street Moon streaming production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Brill by Lanie Robertson. Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon


The extraordinary resilience of theater companies adjusting to the shutdown and continuing to make work will never not amaze me. Against all pandemic odds, these companies muster the resources and figure out how to interact with audiences virtually until we can all come together again.

42nd Street Moon launched the MoonBeams subscription series in May with Jason Graae’s 100% charming tribute to Jerry Herman called Perfect Hermany and continues the trio of offerings with Doris Bumpus in a showcase role at the center of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

One of the most extraordinary things about these theatrical pivots is how skillfully companies have embraced the challenges of creating a theater/cinema hybrid by filming fully produced productions. Theater-makers have had to become filmmakers in a hurry – at least to the extent that viewers stop thinking about the camera work, the editing or other technical elements and relax into the production itself.

Moon’s Lady Day is a vibrant example of that hybrid working at its efficient best. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play finds Billie Holiday in one of the final performances before her death in July 1959. She’s back at a familiar Philadelphia jazz club with her pianist, Jimmy Powers (played by music director Marcus McCauley) and a small combo. In this play with music, Holiday sings some of her best tunes and tells stories about her life and her struggles.

Director Brandon Jackson‘s production, which is just over an hour, zips along with an emphasis on the music more than the drama. Bumpus doesn’t do a Holiday impressions so much as capture the essence of a gifted singer whose unique voice and phrasing cut right to the emotional core of the songs she sang. Bumpus has a beautiful musical theater voice that swings, caresses and soothes.

Like so many biographical playwrights, Robertson relies too heavily on contrived nightclub patter to convey a sense of drama as Lady Day goes from a position of jaunty strength at the top of the show to tipsy chanteuse as she tipples and talks and then to a desperate addict who has to run offstage for a fix.

Director Jackson smartly emphasizes the music, which is wonderful – especially Holiday’s trademark “God Bless the Child” (a song she wrote for her mother), “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” a rollicking tribute to one of her heroes, Bessie Smith.

Although the music is the star in this production, there’s still an undeniable sadness in Holiday’s story, especially her struggles as a Black woman in the first half of the 20th century. The mistreatment, the bad relationships with men, the drug addiction, the incarceration – it all adds up to a poignant portrait of an extraordinary artist – one of our great American singers, who deserved a whole lot better than she got.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill continues streaming through May 30. Single tickets are $25 and subscriptions range from $60-$112. The final MoonBeams production, Don’t Touch That Dial: DC and Peter’s Glorious Romp Through the Golden Age runs June 5-27. Visit 42ndstmoon.org for information.

Playhouse, Hansberry join for powerful [hieroglyph]

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Davis (Jamella Cross, left) explains herself to Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks) after an altercation in the classroom in [hieroglyph], a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre streaming through April 3. Below: Davis explains the meaning of her artwork to her father Ernest (Khary L. Moye). Photos by Jessica Palopoli


No play can address all the ills of society, but a well-told family story that digs into the lives and psyches of human beings doing their best to get from day to day can reveal a whole lot about where we’ve gone wrong or (occasionally) where we get something right.

Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph], about a Black family navigating intense trauma, is one of those plays that feels small – only four characters – but grows into something epic on an emotional level. This streaming co-production of the San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and directed by the Hansberry’s new artistic director, revered Bay Area actor/director Margo Hall, is one of the most effective pandemic productions I’ve seen. It also carries on the Playhouse’s remarkable effort to continue staging productions (safely) and sharing them online.

On a revolving set by Bill English, beautifully lit by Kevin Myrick and with projections by Teddy Hulsker, the world of the characters is clear, and so as the play reveals itself, is their damage. And their strength, individually and collectively, and their hearts.

Davis is an extremely bright 13-year-old. Her family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, and after having been relocated temporarily to the nightmare of the Superdome, she and her father have been relocated to Chicago. Amid all that drama, her mother and father have separated, she’s starting a new school mid-term in a city and culture that couldn’t be more different from New Orleans and she’s bearing the weight of something she cannot talk about.

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But she can express some of her inner turmoil through her art, and her new art teacher is one of those extraordinary educators who makes a difference in the lives of her students in a number of ways. Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks) is a sharply intelligent, complex and fascinating woman attempting to live her life kaleidoscopically rather than monochromatically. She wants to pass that multifarious approach on to her students through their study and practice of art (notably, in the play, through the work by Black artist Ernest Crichlow and his dimensional approach to depicting Black women). It’s not difficult to extrapolate here that playwright Dickerson-Despenza values art (paintings, plays, etc.) as a means through which we can understand life and each other more fully and more honestly.

Ms. T, whose own past trauma still reverberates through her life, connects with Davis (an extraordinary Jamella Cross), and though that connection is a lifeline, Davis is barely coping. Her father, Ernest (Khary L. Moye), has found work as a custodian in a museum and is doing his best to be there for his daughter. But he has issues of his own, not the least of which is a ruptured marriage and the traps of his own upbringing. Davis makes a friend in classmate Leah (Anna Maria Sharpe), a spirited young woman who attempts to provide an education in the subject of teenagers on Chicago’s West Side.

Even though difficult things grow more difficult in this world, Dickerson-Despenza still makes room for currents of love and moments of happiness to course through the drama, whether it’s Davis and Ernest acting out a playful father-daughter ritual or Davis and Leah practicing their dance moves before heading to a juke party. But this is a heavy story – how could it not be when its characters are facing natural and man-made disasters, sexual assault, displacement, PTSD and fractured relationships? There are no easy answers or conclusions here, just various forms of injury, strength, coping and confrontation.

At only about 90 minutes, [hieroglyph] (which refers to an actual symbol that surfaces in Davis’ artwork) is intense and demanding. Even though this is a well-filmed play, it still feels very much like a play, with the scene changes included rather than edited out, and that makes it even more satisfying. Hall and her excellent cast find depth and warmth and genuine emotion in these characters, which makes their pain all the more impactful on the audience. There aren’t superlatives big enough for the work done here by Cross as Davis and Fredericks as Ms. T.

If it seems that spending any amount of time – even 90 minutes – exploring pain, trauma and crisis is a lot to deal with on top of a world situation involving pain, trauma and crisis, consider this: Dickerson-Despenza is a talented playwright who infuses poetry into her drama. She is compassionate toward her characters, even when she’s brutally honest. And she’s shining a light – made all the brighter when you care about the people it touches, as you do here – on important aspects of history as it really happened (no matter what the people in charge say), on what life in this country is really like for Black people and on the roots of horrible crimes terrorizing Black girls and women that must be examined and obliterated. [hieroglyph] has the undeniable power of truth experienced through the prism of inspired art.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph] streams through April 13. Tickets are $15-$100 from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.

Catastrophist unleashes contagious drama – catch it

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William DeMeritt is Nathan in Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Photos courtesy of Marin Theatre Company; Director of Photography Peter Ruocco; Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao; Costume Designer Sarah Smith

San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson was already one of the most admired and produced playwrights in the country. She didn’t necessarily need to be on the forefront of pandemic drama. And by pandemic drama, I mean several things: creating new, relevant, interesting work in this time of theatrical shutdown; but also creating work having to do with the pandemic itself. As a writer with a special penchant for creating drama fueled by a love and fascination with science, it seems logical that Gunderson would find a way to bring the science of our current situation to the stage in a way that only she can.

It just so happens that Gunderson’s husband, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, is one of the world’s foremost virologists. The Catastrophist is Gunderson’s one-man play about her husband, and it’s fascinating (again) on several levels: it can’t help but be interesting when a skilled and thoughtful writer decides to write about her spouse, his work and his inner life; and hearing from Wolfe (via Gunderson, of course) about why a brilliant scientist chases down viruses to try and prevent pandemics is, certainly, a relevant and captivating topic, especially as told by Gunderson, who has a flair for making the scientific entertaining and comprehensible.

William DeMeritt stars as Wolfe, standing on a stage, wrestling with the fact that his wife has made a play – this play – about him and acknowledges a sort of silent communication with her, like he can her her whispering in his ear at certain times during this 80-minute drama. It’s one of those conventions of a solo play that has to address the fact that a person is alone on a stage talking for whatever reason. Except in this case, DeMeritt is playing Wolfe in a theater empty of audience but filled with cameras. Jasson Minadakis directs this co-production from Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre (in Maryland) of a play commissioned by MTC, and he keeps the camera work active. DeMeritt’s sharp, impassioned performance is captured with the actor delivering his focus directly into this camera, then turning to this camera on this line and back to that camera on that line. It looks like a stage performance, but it feels more like a carefully choreographed and edited movie (especially toward the end).

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For me, the most interesting aspect of the play is its glimpse into the science of viruses and what led Nathan into a world filed with words like zoonotic, eukaryote and prokaryote. The fact that viruses, as Nathan tells us, are the most abundant life form on the planet and that viruses are built into our DNA is startling, especially since we all have a newfound awareness (and fear … and loathing … and fear) of viruses. But this is more a play about a scientist – an “expert in a terrible thing” as he puts it – than it is about our current predicament.

At a certain point, Gunderson leaves the science and dives deeper into the personal – Nathan’s relationship with his dad, Nathan’s relationship to becoming a dad, Nathan facing his own health crisis – all of which is embodied with intensity and gusto by DeMeritt. But I found myself wanting to know more about what Nathan had to say about where we are, almost a year into this thing, and how we get out and what dangers still lie in store.This, however, is not a TED Talk. The real Dr. Wolfe has already done that (watch it here – it’s fantastic). And written a book and will likely do more of both in the future. This is a play about a complex, likable human with a wealth of knowledge and a job that sets him apart but who is also a son, a dad and a husband. We experience all of that here.

I’d still like to spend time with Nathan – real or fictional – to know more about where we are now, but perhaps that will be The Catastrophist: Act 2, performed when we can all be in the same room together and we can, at along last, feel like this particular catastrophe is in the past.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist is available for streaming in an extended run through July 25. Tickets for on-demand streaming are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

ACT puts Scrooge in your head this year

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James Carpenter revisits the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol: On Air, an audio adaptation of the beloved annual production. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Some years I’ve had it up to hear with A Christmas Carol and want nothing to do with the Cratchits, the crutch and bah humbugs. Other years, I feel like there’s never been a more potent perennial, and every human should experience Dickens’ ghost story in one form or another. This year, this mind-bending year, is one of the latter.

American Conservatory Theater has been making holiday hay with Carol for more than 40 years, and in this year of lockdowns and shutdowns and only the memory of audiences, the company has opted to keep the tradition alive, albeit with an audio adaptation that we can listen to from the comfort and safety of our own homes and through the intimacy (if we so choose) of headphones to build the production between our ears.

Director Peter J. Kuo has adapted the adaptation (as it were) by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the Dickens novella, and the conceit here is that a group of young adults (all part of ACT’s MFA program), who constitute a social pod, attend a holiday party and do an impromptu reading of the play. Magic (and nifty sound effects) ensue.

Happily, once the reading begins in earnest, veteran actors James Carpenter and Sharon Lockwood show up – he to reprise his excellent performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and she in a variety of roles, including Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Both Carpenter and Lockwood could perform all the parts and make it dazzling, but it’s satisfying just to have them in the mix with enthusiastic young actors.

The MVP here, without question, is sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who essentially has to replace sets, costumes and lights with an evocative soundscape to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play for two hours. Rodriguez has great fun with all the ghostly elements of the story and also incorporates the original score by Karl Lundeberg effectively. Everything about the production is crisp and straightforward and clear, which is a good thing so the Dickens storytelling can shine through.

Other than the running time (two hours is a long time to sit and listen at home), my one real reservation here is that an adult is saddled with the thankless task of playing Tiny Tim, complete with little boy voice. The role is so pivotal to the plot and to the emotional construct of the story that this casting choice simply does not work.

Happily, and occasionally merrily, the production is mostly filled with vibrant performances and that divine Dickensian blend of gloom and cheer. Despair and hope intermingle throughout (landing on the latter, of course), making this whole holiday enterprise feel especially affecting this year.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air streams online through Dec. 30. Tickets
are $40–$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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Lauren English (left) is Harmony, Khary L. Moye (center) is Brooke and Anthony Fusco is Leonard in Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere audio play The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.

Sitting in the intimate Aurora Theatre watching great actors close up is one of the great treats of Bay Area theater. Even though we can’t be together in that space for a while, the Aurora crew is still storytelling in its inimitably intimate way: with a world-premiere audio play by three Bay Area writers. The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector is delivered in three installments. Parts 1 and 2 have already been released, and Part 3 comes out Nov. 6. All three episodes will then be available for streaming, which is good, because you likely won’t be able to listen to just one.

Plays on the radio used to be a regular thing. I even have original cast recordings of Broadway plays. But somehow, this most rewarding theatrical form has faded from mainstream popularity, though audiobooks and podcasts have admirably carried the audio drama mantle in various ways. What’s rewarding about The Flats (of which I’ve heard two of the three episodes) involves three excellent actors – Lauren English, Khary L. Moye and Anthony Fusco – and an intoxicating blend of tension, humor and substance.

Set in Berkeley, the play capitalizes on the dis-ease with which we’ve all become acutely acquainted these last seven months. But in this world, there’s not a global pandemic, but rather something much scarier and more intriguing. I won’t say what it is because that’s part of the fun. But suffice it to say that citizens are experiencing tight government quarantining, with certain liberties allowed here and there. Grocery stores are sorely understocked, and fresh produce is scant. In one particular triplex, three residents – well, two residents and the owner, who suddenly shows up in the vacant unit – are stuck at home with only their neighbors to distract them from the … situation.

Harmony (English) is escaping her troubled marriage and, consequently, her children. Brooke (Moye) is a bit more enigmatic but offers his landlord one of the most intriguing housewarming gifts ever: caterpillars that will soon become butterflies. And Leonard (Fusco) is a drug-taking old Berkeley hippie with his own radio show and a number of conspiracy theories that might not all be preposterous. It’s an uneasy mix of personalities, of course (hard to have drama without tension), and in addition to the stress of what’s going on in the world, this trio is also dealing with issues of race and relationships and earth-shattering revelations.

Director Josh Costello, ably abetted by composer/sound designer Elton Bradman, creates a wonderfully detailed sonic world in which you really feel like you’re with these people, and the actors deliver marvelously detailed performances that create vivid images of the characters and their states of mind.

There’s much more to say about this audio drama, but the fewer details you have, the richer your experience amid the scintillating heights of The Flats.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Single tickets for The Flats are available for $20 here, along with season memberships. The final (of three) episode of The Flats drops Nov. 6. Afterward, all three episodes will be available for streaming.