In the uneasy room with Dana H.

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Jordan Baker is Dana H. in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., directed by Les Waters. Photos by Calvin Nguy/Berkeley Rep


The premise of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. may sound, at first, bizarre: a lone actor spends the 75-minute show lip syncing to a recorded interview. It’s certainly a novel approach to theatrical storytelling, and within minutes, the reason for this approach begins to reveal itself. By the end, it’s clear that there could be no more effective or powerful means of relaying this particular tale, which just happens to be the real-life story of Dana Higginbotham, who just happens to be Hnath’s mother.

The simple facts are these: in 1997, Higginbotham had been working as a chaplain in a Florida hospital psychiatric unit, met and counseled a patient named Jim. Upon his release, he ended up kidnapping and holding her for a life-altering five months.

The show, which just won two Tony Awards (for lead actress in a play and for the sound design by Mikhail Fiskel, who reprises his stunning work for this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production), is based on a 2015 interview Higginbotham had with Steve Cosson, who taped several days’ worth of audio. Higginbotham says she had not really talked about the events of her kidnapping in the nearly 20 years since they occurred, and it remains unclear how much her son, who took on the task of editing down many hours of the interview into the show’s short hour and 15 minutes, knew about his mother’s harrowing experience prior to this interview.

When the show begins, the actor Jordan Baker enters what looks like a cheap hotel room set (perfectly detailed design by Andrew Boyce), sits in a chair and is outfitted with earphones that will feed her the audio of the interview that we also hear. The real Dana H. then tells us her story as best she can. We hear Cosson asking questions, and whenever Hnath has made an edit in the audio, we hear a beep before the segment. So even though Hnath (who was away for his freshman year at NYU when the events of the story happened) is only peripherally a character in the play, he’s very much present as a playwright, shaping how we hear his mother’s story.

And what a story. There’s much more here than just the recounting of trauma. There’s deep psychological and emotional wrestling with the very essence of what it means to be human and how fragile our worlds are, even when we think we’re on solid ground. Dana H. is a play that aims to shake our foundations, and it does so with surprising force. It’s not nearly as difficult as we might think to slip into an underworld where none of what we might consider the usual rules apply.

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The notion of lip synching, as strange as it might seem, is utterly fascinating. It demands a kind of concentration from the audience that even the best actor probably could not command if she or he were simply acting the material with voice and body. We’re used to that, but we’re not used to this. As a piece of documentary theater, we are and we aren’t relying on Baker’s performance. We have Dana Higginbotham herself telling her story in her own words. But then we have Baker’s uncanny ability to make us forget she’s lip synching and to create the illusion of the real person.

Baker and director Les Waters (also nominated for Tony Award for the New York production), have worked out so many fascinating details that it’s impossible not to hang on every word, every laugh or big intake of breath, every rustling sound or tinkling bracelet captured in the audio. In one way, the lip synching keeps us at a distance – we are dissociated from the action by Baker, who serves as a bridge between the real Dana H. and the theatrical version she is presenting. You might think this technique would minimize the emotion or the shock of the violence or the horror of a life turned completely upside down, but it actually has a powerfully opposite effect as the details and complexities coalesce into a relentlessly captivating, devastating experience that is, mercifully, not without hope or humor.

Many questions emerge from this story, and it seems that Hnath has perhaps pushed himself too far out of the narrative. Every beep in the audio stream reminds us of his presence, and as the story comes into its final chapters and skitters through a number of years, we can’t help wondering where he was and how he fits back into his mother’s life in between the end of events recounted in the story and the creation of this play.

Dana H. stands (or sits, actually) as a wholly unique theatrical experience. It’s real and it’s artificial. It’s at a remove and yet it digs down into our depths. It’s a bold theatrical experiment and its resulting power is such that you’ll feel deeply moved if not more than a little bit terrified of the cracks and terrors it exposes.

[free event]
Dana H. director Les Waters will talk about his superb new book, The Theatre of Les Waters: More Like the Weather at a free Berkeley Rep event on Monday, June 28 at 8pm in the Roda Theatre. The event, Celebrating the Theatre of Les Waters, is free but registration is required: https://tickets.berkeleyrep.org/16522/16825. And the book is essential reading for all theater lovers, especially Bay Area theater lovers who have been lucky enough to see Les’ work on local stages through the years.

[for more information]
Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. continues through July 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

ACT immerses audience into captivating Fefu

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés includes (from left) Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu and Marga Gomez as Cecilia. BELOW: Taking place in various spots around The Strand, Fefu immerses its audience in scenes like this one in the lobby with Castellanos and Goldfield on a balcony. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are actors in American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her friends that I would travel continents to see. I would climb flights of stairs and even sit on the floor to get to see them perform. The good news about Fefu is that it’s not continents away – it’s down on Market Street in a Strand Theater that has been transformed, in its theatrical way, into a New England country home full of interesting people. You will, however, have to climb stairs (or take the elevator) and sit on the floor (if you want to) because this is an immersive production that takes you all over the building.

With its premiere in 1977, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu (pronounced FEH-foo) emerged as a theatrical experiment in feminism. Set in 1935 during a reunion of college friends, the all-women cast explores their relationships to each other and to a world that desperately wants men and women to conform to accepted gender roles.

There’s not a traditional plot, but that’s not really the point here. It’s all about discovery and play. We first meet the eight characters as they arrive at Fefu’s house for a weekend of fun and rehearsal for an upcoming charity event. The audience is seated in the theater, and the characters inhabit the lovely home designed by Tanya Orellana in a traditional proscenium setting. The tone that emerges under Pam MacKinnon’s direction is one of joviality, introspection and the ever-present possibility of surprise (good and bad).

For the second of the play’s three parts, the audience is separated into four groups (your color-coded wristband lets you know which group you’re in) and taken into various parts of Fefu’s house. Our group first headed to the lobby, which had been transformed into Fefu’s garden, complete with grass (of the artificial variety), gorgeous Monet-like projections (by Hana S. Kim) and a real-life plant exchange (bring a plant, take a plant, so if you’re going definitely bring a plant!). Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) and Emma (Cindy Goldfield) have an al fresco chat about, among other things, how none of us talks about our genitals enough.

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Then we headed backstage into a dimly lit room (Russell H. Champa is responsible for the gorgeous lighting throughout the building), where Julia (a mesmerizing Lisa Anne Porter) wrestled with demons. And then it was upstairs to the top of the building where a black-box space has been turned into two performance spaces (with a fair amount of sound bleed between the two stages). In one room, the study, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) talk about French verbs, dreams and nightmarish doctors, and in another, the kitchen (an absolutely stunning design), Paula (Stacy Ross) chats with Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) before rekindling an old flame with the enigmatic Cecilia (Marga Gomez).

Some characters wander out of one short scene and into another, which is thrilling – like turning the play house into a playhouse, and we’re all kids having a blast playing pretend (but the conversations are decidedly not childlike). It’s that sense of discovery again – poking into corners of The Strand that audience members don’t usually see and, with all the fanciful design touches along our travel routes, feeling embraced by the idea of pretending to be in some other place in some other time with people who were imagined into being by a playwright with a lot to say. Kudos to MacKinnon and her team (notably Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz, whose team works with military precision and maximum affability) for such sterling execution of the Fefu challenge.

After intermission, audience members return to their seats in the theater for the final section of the play. We know these women better now, so the intricacies of the relationships, the shared histories and the personal traumas all carry more weight. The miracle of the actors is that they do feel connected by years of events, so their ability to shift from joy and frivolity to deep sadness and despair feels lived. There’s unevenness in the performances in some scenes, but that can’t obscure some stunning work by Castellanos as the gregarious but enigmatic Fefu, Goldfield as the effervescent Emma, Ross as the deceptively grounded Paula and Porter as the tormented Julia.

There’s no end to the discovery as Fornés allows us to spend 2 1/2 hours immersed in what women are thinking – a significant undertaking executed with a great deal of spirit and fun. In that sense, you can definitely say that hanging out with Fefu and Her Friends is a seriously good time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Theatrical magic is the blessing in shorter Cursed

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ABOVE: Harry Potter (John Skelley,left), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu, center), and Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) are up to some new tricks in the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Curran Theater. BELOW: Dementors descend to terrorize both characters and audience. Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


Amid clanking bottles of butter beer, confetti canons and celebratory words from the mayor, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the live theater component of the Potter Empire, has officially reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.

Already a hit in London, New York and elsewhere around the world, Cursed opened late in 2019 and then was shuttered by the pandemic. During that time, creators J.K. Rowling (the author of the seven Potter novels), playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany decided to downsize their show. What was originally a five-plus-hour two-play experience has now become a 3 1/2-hour single play.

I saw and loved the original two-part production in December 2019 (oh, those sweet, unmasked days of yore) – read my review here – but wondered if the experience wouldn’t benefit from being shorter. Turns out, it is more potent in one sitting.

The new, condensed version re-opened Feb. 24 amid much hoopla re-directing attention to San Francisco’s beleaguered Union Square area and theater district, and the show is in sterling condition. Everything that was wonderful about the original is still here and strong – it’s just swifter and a little more dense. The best news is that all those incredible displays of theatrical magic are still dazzling and thrilling and chilling and mesmerizing. The soul-sucking dementors, for instance, are as horrifying as they are beautiful, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might actually feel like to slip through the cracks of time, hold tight. The effect, incorporating projections, sound and (probably) actual magic, is stunning.

But it’s not all mind-boggling effects bringing things like floo powder, wand battles and magic spells to life. Thorne’s script (based on an original story by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne) wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Harry Potter’s life 19 years after the action of the final novel. Harry (John Skelley) and Ginny Weasley (Angela Reed) have two boys, James (William Bednar-Carter) and Albus Severus (Benjamin Papac), at Hogwarts. Harry, who remains the most famous and beloved of wizards, works at the Ministry of Magic, and his legacy weighs heavily on his younger son.

Albus is a loner and does not enjoy his time at Hogwarts. Save for his friendship with Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), son of Draco (Lucas Hall), it’s all kind of a teen-angsty nightmare but with flying broomsticks. Being the son of “the boy who lived” involves a whole lot of pressure to live up to the Potter name, and Albus feels he’s nowhere near up to that task. It doesn’t help that Harry and Albus do not get along, thus setting the stage (literally) for a play that is primarily about fathers and sons.

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What the play does exceptionally well is mine the Potter mythology for insider delights and for hefty emotional connections. Beloved characters from the books pop up here and there, and though there’s plenty to enjoy for the Potter novice, it’s a much richer experience if you know why the audience collectively sighs when a certain someone whom we haven’t seen for a very long time, steps onto the stage.

Though Cursed Child is not a musical, it has the highly choreographed and fluid feel of a musical. Credit movement director Steven Hoggett for creating that flow – and all that robe swirling – and for designing one of the show’s most beautiful moments: a duet for rolling staircases that evokes the Escher-like Hogwarts architecture.

There is an emotional heart to this story amid all the fiery spectacle, and the actors are fully committed to the drama (or, in the case of Steve O’Connell’s Ron Weasley, the snide comedy). Skelley’s Harry is kind of a jerk for much of the play – a man pressured by his past and his celebrity status and his bureaucratic job – and there’s one intensely emotional scene in particular that serves as a reminder of just how much trauma Harry has been through in his nearly 40 years. I wish Hermione (the wonderful Lily Mojekwu) had more to do. Maybe the next stage epic – and there should be one – will focus on her and her daughter, Rose (Folami Williams).

The emotional core of the show belongs to Papac and Steiger as Albus and Scorpius, unlikely friends and even unlikelier heroes. Both actors manage to be believable, ultimately lovable teens whose father issues bond them and then compel them to behave rashly before doing some serious growing up.

The mix of wizarding razzmatazz and genuine emotion will be familiar to fans of the books (and the movies), but everything in the theater (effects AND emotions) feels at a higher volume and intensity. And that’s a glorious – you might even say genuinely magical – feeling. In this wacko world, it’s almost a relief to to escape into a theatrical epic for 3 1/2 hours and experience the satisfying thrill of magic empowering good vanquish bad.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through Sept. 4 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $59-$199 (subject to change). Visit harrypottertheplay.com for information.
Covid information: All ticketholders 16 years of age and older who are eligible must present proof of full vaccination with booster. All patrons, regardless of age, are required to wear masks inside the theater at all times when not actively eating or drinking. For more information, click here.


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.