Cal Shakes musters a forceful Glass Menagerie

Menagerie 1
Karen Aldridge is Amanda and Sean San José is Tom in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, directed by Lisa Portes. Below: Rafael Jordan is Jim, the gentleman caller, and Phoebe Fico is Laura. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Except for a large proscenium frame, the stage of California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater is mostly bare. There’s no back wall to the stage, so the light from the setting sun on the Orinda hills is spectacular. It will be dark soon – in more ways than one.

On such a gorgeous Saturday night, complete with a warm breeze and, eventually, a full moon, Cal Shakes opened The Glass Menagerie, marking the Bruns debut of Tennessee Williams.

Director Lisa Portes approaches this well-worn, ever-brilliant memory play with a blank slate, or stage as the case may be. Set designer Annie Smart provides the clean, open space, and stacks all the furniture that will eventually fill the stage off to the sides. It’s up to Sean San José as Tom, our narrator, to fill that stage with an evocation of his family and their life in a claustrophobic St. Louis apartment in the early 1940s.

The role of Tom is a central one and challenging under any circumstances, but San José works doubly hard moving furniture from the wings onto the stage, timed so that as his mother, Amanda (Karen Aldridge or sister, Laura (Phoebe Fico) prepares to sit, a chair suddenly appears. This is a manic Tom, and not just because he’s running around like a stagehand, but also because he’s at his breaking point. He works a factory job he loathes and spends his nights either drinking or going to the movies until the wee hours. He wants adventure and, most importantly, he wants out from under the pressure of being the man of the Wingfield family. His father abandoned them years before, and the family barely ekes by with Tom’s salary and money Amanda gets from odd jobs. He loves his mother and sister, but the weight of their dependence is crushing him.

Menagerie 2

San José conveys that frustration with frenetic force, and Aldridge’s Amanda is equally as forceful. Her Southern belle charm is frayed around the edges, as her dreams of a genteel life have given way to a hardscrabble existence with a son who resists her and a daughter who couldn’t be further away from the girl she herself was growing up as a debutante.

Between the powerful personalities of her mother and brother, Laura doesn’t have much room left to discover herself. Living with a disability that requires the use of crutches to walk, Laura exists in a time and in a family where her own empowerment is of little interest. She has grown up painfully shy. She knows she cannot be the daughter her mother wants – the kind of charming beauty who attracts, as her mother did, 17 gentlemen callers in a single afternoon. She finds it painful to interact with people and instead channels herself into music played on an old Victrola or into the crystal creatures of her knickknack collections, which her mother refers to as her glass menagerie. The practical reality of Laura’s situation, from her mother’s perspective, is that she is damaged goods and unlikely to snag a husband with the kind of job/bank account to support Laura and Amanda when Tom bolts, which he will inevitably do.

Snagging a husband is the last thing Laura wants, but her self-deluded mother steamrollers over her daughter’s wishes and makes an attempt to marry her daughter off to the first guy they can get into the apartment.

That man is an old high school chum of both Laura’s and Tom’s, Jim O’Connor (Rafael Jordan), and his arrival is a do-or-die moment for the Wingfields. It also heralds the most extraordinary scene in Portes’ high-strung production. The lights go out because Tom failed to pay the bill, so when Laura and Jim have a moment to themselves, it’s by candlelight on the floor. At long last, in this intermisson-less nearly two-hour play, the angst and volume and frenzy of the production calm down, and the delicacy comes through. Fico and Jordan find a sympathetic rhythm that draws in the entire audience and makes us feel like their conversation – Laura’s first real interaction with a man – is the most important thing we could possibly be experiencing.

Their quiet, intimate duet, followed by a dance, is utterly captivating and seems as real as it is poetic. Its beauty then renders its conclusion that much more heartbreaking.

That this production is cast with actors of color and that Fico lives with a mobility disability works to underscore the sense of isolation the characters are feeling. Each of the Wingfields feels separated from the thing they most want or that elusive thing that will magically make life better and unlock happiness at last. The play being performed outside also emphasizes that sense of small, roiling lives at odds in an overwhelming world. The thing the Wingfields have is each other, but their triad is doomed to destruction from within by forces of the past, present and future.

Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie continues through July 30 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Campo goes seriously sci-fi with Hookers on Mars

Hookers on Mars 1
Lauren Spencer (left) is Chima and Davia Spain is Fresca in the world premiere of Star Finch’s H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually), a Campo Santo production at American Conservatory Theater’s The Rueff. Below: Spencer (left) and Jasmine Milan Williams as Apple. Photos courtesy of Campo Santo

What’s the last great work of dramatic science fiction you saw on a stage? Maybe you’ll have to get back to me on that one. Sci-fi, while stellar (in every sense) in comics, games, books, big screens and small screens, has not generally been a successful theatrical genre. Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams all neglected to set any of their dramas in space, which does seem a shame.

For whatever reason – maybe it’s just too much a suspension of disbelief to be in the same roof with actors pretending to be in space, in the future, etc. without feeling a kitschy ’70s flashback – sci-fi will likely remain successful outside the theater. But then again there’s H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually), a world-premiere play by Star Finch now receiving its world premiere from Campo Santo, a company that has faced some bumps in recent years but is managing to celebrate two decades of producing new plays by – what else? – producing an intriguing new play.

From its title, you might think H.O.M.E. is a sci-fi romp along the lines of Barbarella, and you’d be entirely wrong. San Francisco native Finch is a serious dramatist whose writing has depth, beauty and a muscular poetry to it. Early on in this simply but powerfully staged production, it becomes clear that if Finch wanted to set a play under the sea (and this one partly is), you’d gladly follow her and find a real connection to her story. In other words, she can take the outlandish and make it feel entirely human and lyrical.

Director Sean San Jose works with set designer Tanya Orellana, video artist Joan Osato and lighting designer Alejandro Acosta to create a believably futuristic world without being cheesy about it. A sleek metallic grid holding video screens serves as the streets of Oakland, where main character Chimama Magdalene Union (Lauren Spencer) is putting her life as a prostitute behind her to travel to Mars, where her sister (Britney Frazier as Isla) is raising the son (Micheael Wayne Turner III as Sante) she gave up many years before. We don’t have to know what exactly happened to the world that has led us to this point where Google pretty much runs everything on Mars and the United States is systematically auctioning off states to China and Mexico. Believing in a bleak, corporate-controlled future isn’t much of a stretch.

The fantastical elements here, from the on-face computer screens worn on Mars to the notion of teleporting humans from below the ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge to Mars, are taken at face value as part of everyday life, so even when the story is deeply in the sci-fi realm, there’s still a strong human focus.

Hookers on Mars 2

That comes from Finch’s writing as well as from the superb central performance by Spencer as a smart, passionate woman who is in deep contemplation about what it means to be a woman, a mother, a human. Her closest friend is fellow prostitute Fresca (Davia Spain), who has chosen to live life as a woman and with whom she tangles over issues of what defines womanhood. They may fight, but their bond is strong, and that is true of the other characters as well – there’s a potent sense of connection, even through the vastness of space.

Isla, who is given ferocity with shades of vulnerability by the stunning Frazier, has done what she needed to do to succeed in life and serve as mother to her nearly 20-year-old nephew, a young man full of questions and passions he doesn’t quite understand (and Turner’s performance conveys all of this with a poignant ache). She is attempting to bring her sister to Mars so that she can tell Sante the truth of his birth, but all kinds of complications could interfere with that revelation and, Chima hopes, a sort of re-birth for herself and her son.

What the theater can bring to science fiction, and what Finch does so beautifully here, is keep everything on a human scale. When Sante ventures off the proscribed Martian path, he meets a dancer (Jasmine Milan Williams as Apple), and just the fact of their meeting and having an actual conversation beyond the usual screens, is a profound experience. Mortality is also a heavy presence here, and one character wonders if you die on Mars if your soul will still know where to go.

At only about 90 minutes, H.O.M.E. packs a lot into a brief but potent experience that is ultimately less about its science fiction elements (fascinating though they are) and more about its universal human truths.

Star Finch’s H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually) continues through July 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Rueff in the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit for tickets.

Uneven tone tilts ACT’s Monstress double bill

Remember the I-Hotel 05
Vicente Pacram (Ogie Zulueta, left) serves a Filipino dish to Althea Benton (Kelsey Venter) in the room he shares at the I-Hotel with Fortunado “Nado” Giron (Jomar Tagatac, center) in Remember the I-Hotel, a one-act play by Philip Kan Gotanda adapted from Monstress, Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories. American Conservatory Theater’s Monstress double bill is at the Strand Theater. Below: The Squid Mother of Cebu (Melody Butiu) grabs a hold of Melissa Locsin in Presenting…the Monstress!, a one-act play by Sean San José also adapted from Tenorio’s Monstress. Photos by Kevin Berne

Two of the Bay Area’s most interesting theater artists, Philip Kan Gotanda and Sean San José, were asked to adapt a short story from Lysley Tenorio’s 2012 collection Monstress for American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater as part of the company’s San Francisco Stories initiative and the New Strands play development and commissioning program.

The results make up the double bill Monstress now at the Strand, and while both plays, under the emotionally astute direction of ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff, are enjoyable, one feels like a much more stage-worthy enterprise while the other comes off as more of a light sketch.

The latter, San José’s Presenting…the Mnstress!, concludes the 2-hour and 15-minute evening, and that, unfortunately, dissipates the power and impact of the first play, Gotanda’s riveting Remember the I-Hotel.

San José stars in his play as Checkers Rosario, a Manila filmmaker who specializes in schlocky D-grade horror movies starring his girlfriend, Reva Gogo (the wonderful Melody Butiu). Deluded by dreams of Hollywood glory, Checkers can’t see that his talents don’t really lie in filmmaking, and just when it seems like reality is catching up to his delusion, a visitor from Hollywood arrives to open doors to cinematic stardom. So Checkers and Reva are off to California, but it turns out that Gaz Gazmann (Nick Gabriel) isn’t really a Hollywood mogul. He’s makes terrible movies in the basement of his mother’s San Mateo home.

Monstress 01

There’s fun to be had with the silly ’70s horror movies being made (the costumes by Lydia Tanji are a hoot), and Butiu gives a full-bodied, emotional performance as a woman caught between the man she loves and his fragile ego. But there’s not much there there, as they say. A sort of Greek chorus of Checkers’ fans tells the story and plays supporting roles, but this device tends to make the play seem sillier than it actually is.

This slight play is also done no favors following the evening’s first play, the emotionally resonant, utterly compelling Remember the I-Hotel. The story is based on an incident from San Francisco history – the razing of the International Hotel in 1977 and the displacement of its mostly Filipino inhabitants – but Tenorio and Gotanda tap into a story that transcends historical connection.

Bookended by the public demonstration and police presence that accompanied the 1977 evictions, the story takes place primarily in the 1930s, when San Francisco’s Manilatown was full of Filipino clubs and restaurants. In one of those clubs, a dance hall (beautifully rendered by set designer Nina Ball and versatile enough to evoke a number of locations), bellhop Vicente (Ogie Zulueta) meets migrant farmworker Fortunado (Jomar Tagatac) taking a break from the Stockton asparagus fields. The two don’t immediately hit it off, but once Vicente nicknames his new friend Nado, they’re practically inseparable. They become roommates at the I-Hotel, and Vicente gets Nado a job at the hotel where he works.

Friendship quickly turns to love, or at least it does for Nado, but Vicente’s head is turned by Althea (Kelsey Venter), a white maid at the hotel (her race factors into the plot). Tension and betrayal follow, and once the action shifts back to the ’70s, we understand a great deal more about Vicente and Nado and the harshness of the eviction they’re facing.

Zulueta and Tagatac are astoundingly good in their roles, so much so you want to spend more time with their story and its complexities. All the while their story unfolds, Butiu appears behind a microphone on the small dancehall stage and sings standards like “The Very Thought of You” and “Wild is the Wind,” all a cappella. Her voice is gorgeous, and the songs lend a romantic and wistful underscore.

It’s a sad but somehow beautiful play, and it feels substantial to the degree that Presenting…The Monstress! feels frivolous. And that makes for an interesting but even experience.

American Conservatory Theater’s Monstress continues through Nov. 22 at the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Cal Shakes dreams a Dream under the stars

Dream 1
The cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderón de la Barca includes (from left) Kaiso Hill as Ensemble, Jason Kapoor as the Soldier and Sean San José as Prince Segismundo. Below: Amir Abdullah is Astolfo and Tristan Cunningham is Estrella. Photos by Kevin Berne.

There’s so much talk about nature and stars in Life Is a Dream that it seems perfectly natural to be sitting outside on a temperate summer night watching Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 1635 play about thwarting destiny and connecting to the deepest truths of human existence.

California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Dream, a beautiful if thorny play, offers the chance to see a work that is all too rarely performed (in my 25 years of writing about theater in the Bay Area, this is the first production of it I’ve seen). Considered one of the treasures of Spain’s “Golden Age,” Life Is a Dream has a Shakespearean feel in its mix of fantasy, soap operatics and complex humanity. In its original form, the play tends to be florid and rather convoluted. The Cal Shakes production, directed by Magic Theatre Artistic Director Loretta Greco, employs a lean translation/adaptation by Nilo Cruz, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Anna in the Tropics. The new script doesn’t solve all the play’s problems, but it strips the work to its essence and offers a spare but still poetic rhythm that adds lyrical grace to the machinations of the plot.

The ever-remarkable Sean San José plays Segismundo, a prince whose fault was in his stars. At his birth, all signs (and celestial portents) pointed to him becoming a tyrant who would destroy his kingdom. So the King (Adrian Roberts) decided to re-write fate by imprisoning the child for life, chaining him in a desolate cell and thereby, presumably, saving the country from his wrath.

Dream 2

When the play begins, Segismundo rattles his chain in a metallic prison (set by Andrew Boyce), lamenting the loss of the liberty given to birds and streams. San José is as compassionate as he is forceful – clearly this character is an intelligent, sensitive human being who has been treated like a monster his entire life.

This is the crux of Dream. Is Segismundo destined to be a wretched ruler no matter what? Or can he exert control over his fate and prove the portents wrong? Are human lives mapped out from the start, or is there really such a thing as free will?

All of that is interesting, but the aspect of the play that really crackles is the titular notion of life as a dream. When Segisumndo is released from bondage and put on the throne, his barbarism comes through, and he is thrust back into prison. His keepers try to convince him that his brief time on the throne was only a dream, and that gets him thinking about how life really is only a dream. The thin glass that separates waking and dreaming may be more permeable than we know, so why not throw off expectations and chains (physical or metaphorical) and live life with gusto. Like a dream, it will be over sooner than we know.

San José’s final soliloquy, delivered from the roof of his cell while beckoning to the wide-open sky, is remarkable and emotionally stirring.

Other aspects of the play provide entertaining but uninvolving court drama. There are two love interests for Segismundo, Estrella (Tristan Cunningham) and Rosaura (Sarah Nina Hayon), and he ends up with the wrong one because of courtly rules of honor, and the character of King Basilio, though sturdily played by Roberts, never seems anything more than an insecure ruler who may or may not regret his treatment of his son. There’s a visiting prince (Amir Abudllah) who treats women badly and then pisses off Segismundo, but he’s also more functional than fascinating.

Of the supporting characters, only the jester/clown Clarin (Jomar Tagtac) and the jailer Clotaldo (Julian López-Morillas) resonate on a deeper level.

Played out on a set that looks like a section of roller coaster track with internal lighting reminiscent of a Laughlin casino, this Dream belongs to San José’s Segismundo, a man who learns from dreams a powerful way to live his life.

Pedro Cadelrón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream continues through Aug. 2 in a California Shakespeare Theater production at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit
Note: There’s a free shuttle from the Orinda BART station to Cal Shakes beginning two hours before curtain.

Magic’s Five Minutes misses the mark

Every Five 1
Harpo (Jomar Tagatac, left) and Bozo (Patrick Alparone, right) prepare to bring Mo (Rod Gnapp) home in Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes, a world premiere play at the Magic Theatre. Photo: by Jennifer Reiley

I loved Linda McLean’s Any Given Day so much that I proclaimed it my favorite show of 2012 (read my review here). And that makes it all the harder to convey just how much I disliked her world premiere Every Five Minutes at the Magic Theatre.

In brief, the characters and relationships in the play are assumed rather than established. The use of projections is so excessive it would seem that director Loretta Greco strongly mistrusts her actors’ and McLean’s script’s ability to convey what is necessary for the audience to understand the play.

At the performance I attended, the projection mechanism broke down, so the actors were told to hold and then clear the stage until the problem was resolved. I hoped against hope that the projections wouldn’t return, but they did, and boy were they busy.

I have no doubt whatsoever in the actors’ abilities to convey exactly what McLean’s script required of them without the aid of moving visuals on the big wall behind them. It is possible to portray the horror of mental illness without a surrealist barrage of images, especially when you have Rod Gnapp in the role of a man who has been tortured mercilessly for more than a dozen years. But Gnapp, like the other excellent actors in the cast trying to be compassionate and intense, are trapped in a fragmented, fractured narrative that is neither compelling nor interesting nor even very original. Who are these people and why should we care? That’s never really established, and the play’s 90 minutes feel like the torture the main character was exposed to – and perhaps that’s the intention.

But then the ending comes – and we all play parlor games into the sunset – and it feels, like the play itself, inauthentic, shallow and trying too hard with too little effect.

I feel like I missed something huge here and can’t figure out what it is. So rather than go on, I’d like to shift attention to McLean, whom I interviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle. She talked about the organic process of her writing and how she follows where it leads. She also talks about feeling a sense of success as a playwright, and it includes an insightful perspective on writing that works and writing that doesn’t.

I think success also means you’ve survived at least one cycle of things not working out, or not being able to write, or what you’re writing is not what people want to see. You come back from that in a slightly fearless way, not changing the way you write to adapt, but keeping true to what you know of your own creativity.

Read the entire feature here.

Linda McLean’s Every Five Minutes continues through April 20 at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$60. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Sam Shepard feels a Holy song coming on

The new year begins with an intriguing, nearly under-the-radar collaboration. American Conservatory Theater and Campo Santo have jumped into the ring formed by Magic Theatre and dubbed Sheparding America, a far-ranging celebration of Sam Shepard that promises to flare for years to come.

Sam Shepard (1)

Co-directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José and ACT’s Mark Rucker and performed in the near-round at ACT’s Costume Shop, Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard is an amalgam of Shepard texts with an infusion of live music. The prologue and epilogue come from 1969’s Holy Ghostly and the big chunk in the middle comes from 1972 Tooth of Crime (which Shepard revised in 1997).

The best part of the 85-minute show is, without question, the music, which is composed and arranged by cast members Tommy James Shepherd Jr. and Golda Sargento along with the band: bassist and keyboard player Rachel Lastimosa and guitarist Steve Boss. It takes about a half an hour to get to the first real song, but from there on out the vibrant music trumps Shepard’s cryptic text.

The prologue and epilogue are almost spoofs of the Shepard playbook: a dying cowboy (Myers Clark attempts to reconcile with his son (Ryan Williams French) in a desolate Western landscape with a random corpse (Isiah Thompson) and a Native American spirit (Dan Flapper).

postcard_5x7_front outlined

Then the middle section, which is like a Western movie by way of sci-fi fantasy carbonated by rock opera, reveals itself to be mostly inscrutable in terms of plot and character. But this is where the good music lives. Anytime Shepherd is singing or beatboxing, Holy Crime is fully alive. The same is true when Juan Amador as Ruido shows up to rap up a glorious storm. Another nice musical moment comes when Sango Tajima pulls out her violin and joins the band.

Energetically staged by San José and Rucker, Holy Crime and well performed by a keenly focused cast and is always interesting to watch, even when it’s completely baffling and feels like a workshop production of a very much in-process work. There’s a formula at work here, but it seems to need more music (and amplification – this music needs to be LOUD! even in an intimate space like this) and less Shepard babble.

Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard continues through Jan. 19 at the ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

Campo Santo, Cal Shakes do some Califas dreaming

Alleluia the Road
Sean San José is Isaac in the Campo Santo/California Shakespeare Theater production of Alleluia, the Road by Luis Alfaro. The play is one part of the elaborate Califas Festival at Intersection for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Intersection for the Arts

There’s something extraordinary happening at Intersection for the Arts, and only part of it has to do with theater. Intersection, along with Campo Santo and California Shakespeare Theater have been partners for years, but their current collaboration is kind of staggering.

It began back last April with a production of Richard Montoya’s The River directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José (read my review here) and continued with Cal Shakes’ season opener, Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José in June starring San José and directed by Jonathan Moscone (read my review here).

Now we have the culmination of the collaboration in the Califas Festival, a multimedia exploration of what it means to be a Californian. There are filmed documentaries on display in the galleries alongside photo documentations and some really staggering art, not to mention a floor covered with letters written by theatergoers from the previous plays and notes they wrote for proverbial bottles. When you go to see the play, which is sort of the centerpiece art, you are completely immersed in this astonishing exhibition. The play takes place in one of the two installation rooms, and there’s no central stage. The action takes place all over the room, with different parts of the exhibition providing the backdrop.

The play, Alleluia the Road by Luis Alfaro, is one more part of this California mosaic. Moscone directs and San José stars, and though critics have been asked not to review the show itself, potential audience members should know that this experience – the art and the play – cannot be missed. As with every Campo Santo production, you are guaranteed intelligence and emotion and powerful writing and incredible performances. If all you knew about this play was that it was written by Alfaro (whose Oedipus El Rey and Bruja have been so powerfully engaging at the Magic Theatre) and that it stars San José and Catherine Castellanos and Nora el Samahy and Brian Rivera and Donald E. Lacy Jr. among others, you would know that is something you need to see. If you care at all about Bay Area theater.

Come early for the show or make time to stay after, but engage with the exhibition (I highly recommend the 10-minute documentary Aquadettes by Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari). At a recent performance, it was heartening to see audience members writing letters and postcards during intermission to add to the exhibition. This isn’t one of those art things offering hollow jabber about interactivity. This really as interactive as you’d like it to be.

And just to be clear about Alleluia, the Road – this is not a performance piece in a gallery. It’s a full-on, two-act play (about two hours in length) that takes a figurative road trip through the Golden State. And when it comes right down to it, you can have all the art and photography and documentary films in the world to beguile viewers, but when the lights go down on a performance, what matters most is story, emotion, connection. That’s definitely the case here, but that level of engagement almost always happens when Campo Santo, Cal Shakes and Intersection engage in that thing we need so much more of in the Bay Area theater world: collaboration.

The Califas Festival and Alleluia, the Road continues an extended run through Nov. 23 at Intersection for the Arts, 925 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets for the play are $30. Visit

A Night to remember as Cal Shakes opens season

American Night 1

Dena Martinez (far left) as Sacajawea, Sharon Lockwood (left) as William Clark, Dan Hiatt (center) as Meriwether Lewis and Sean San José as Juan José in California Shakespeare Theater’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José by Richard Montoya, directed by Jonathan Moscone. Below: (from left) Tyee Tilghman as Ben Pettus, Margo Hall as Viola Pettus, San José and Martinez. Photos by Kevin Berne.

Spring and early summer 2013 may well be remembered as the Great Montoya Surge.

In April, Richard Montoya – one third of the legendary San Francisco-born comedy trio Culture Clash – premiered a play with Campo Santo called The River (read the review here), and it was funny and brash and heartfelt and messy and pretty wonderful. It had to do with, among other things, death and immigration, and it made you crave more Montoya work.

We didn’t have to wait long. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José opened the California Shakespeare Theater season Saturday on a night so warm and beautiful under the stars in Orinda you wonder why every play can’t be done outdoors (how quickly we forget those freezing cold, windy, foggy nights when nary a star is visible). The play, developed with Culture Clash and Jo Bonney (who has directed earlier productions of the play, including its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the original commissioner of the work), is wild, messy, funny, irreverent and heartfelt. It’s about immigration (not so much about death) and about the strength of a nation built on and still thriving from the hard work of its diverse citizenry, most of whom are or descend directly from immigrants.

Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone attempts to contain Montoya’s manic energy in a 105-minute production that crams in so many references, both historical and pop-cultural, that it’s impossible to appreciate them all. There’s not a sour note in Moscone’s excellent cast, which is full of actors that seem to be loving the comic whirlwind, which has, among other personages, Sacajawea in braces and headgear, Lewis and Clark as egotistical buffoons, Celia Cruz (for no apparent reason), Neil Diamond, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mormon missionaries and Abraham Lincoln (using his Academy Award as a hand weight, naturally).

What keeps it all centered is the performance of Sean San José as Juan José, a recent Mexican immigrant who, after fighting corrupting influences on the Mexican police force, leaves his wife and infant son to try for a better, less morally compromising life across the border. He has his green card but needs to spend the night studying up before his citizenship test in the morning. Before he can delve too deeply into questions like, “Name the original 13 colonies,” he falls asleep. And the ensuing dream/warped history pageant is the bulk of the play.

American Night 2

San José is Dorothy in this wild American Oz, with episodes that range from downright silly (he uses dead rabbits as nunchucks) to the incredibly sweet. During a stay in West Texas, he encounters the Ku Klux Klan (Dan Hiatt as a local judge), an African-American couple saving infants’ lives during the flu epidemic of 1918 (Margot Hall and Tyee Tilghman as Viola and Benjamin Pettus) as well as some of his ancestors. His encounter with Jackie Robinson (Tilghman again) is also a rare quiet moment that is quite moving, as is a stop at a radio station in the Manzanar WWII internment camp, where Sharon Lockwood is a ferocious teacher of the young Japanese detainees and Todd Nakagawa is an ultra-cool teen feeling deep conflict about his country, his heritage and the war.

Two MVPs in this game cast are Brian Rivera in a number of roles, including Juan José the First, and Richard Ruiz in drag and out (and especially as a zaftig Neil Diamond belting out a re-written “America”), are hilarious and ferocious in equal measure – like they’re directly channeling that Culture Clash electricity.

Set designer Erik Flatmo and lighting designer Tyler Micoleau keep things simple to keep up with the fast pace and the hairpin turns, but special shout out to costumer Marin Schnellinger for adding a whole lot of zest and humor with his colorful creations.

Before Juan can depart his dream world, he has to suffer through a contentious town hall meeting in which every viewpoint is spewed and he’s reminded that he’s about to “pledge allegiance to a country that doesn’t want him.” We get a sweet “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the ukulele from Dena Martinez and an ending that is more poignant than you might expect from such a zany history lesson. The whole vibe of the show feels a lot like mature Culture Clash (no surprise there) but also like a San Francisco Mime Troupe show when that company was at its best. There are strange elements here, like a narrator who only appears to introduce the flu epidemic scene, and a Japanese game show sequence toward the end of the show (featuring a funny Nakagawa and Lockwood) is probably one more layer of zany the show doesn’t need.

But this American Night – especially on a gorgeous Northern California night – is historically hilarious and the most entertaining way imaginable to learn the three branches of American government (and the original 13 colonies).



Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues in a California Shakespeare Theater production through June 23 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Campo Santo’s wild ride on a raging River

The River
Lakin Valdez (left) is Javier and Christopher Ward White is Lance in the world premiere of Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production. Below: Donald E. Lacy Jr. (left) is Brother Ballard, Nora el Samahy (center) is Sally Ranger and Michael Torres is Crow. Photos by Pak Han

Some rivers run with water. This one is a torrent of words – some really extraordinary words.

Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts’ world premiere of The River, a dazzling fusion of poetry, comedy, satire, loss and beauty, heralds the welcome return of Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya, who has become a powerful theatrical force in his own right. Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José was a triumph at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and has gone on to be produced around the country. Bay Area audiences will get a second helping of Montoya when American Night opens the season for California Shakespeare Theater in June. Until then, we have a magnificent River, which, like American Night, is part of Montoya’s The Border Series, plays that investigate California, its people, identity and its borders.

What’s so exciting about Montoya’s voice is its passion and vibrancy, the ease with which it hurtles from tender poetry to rough comedy to ultra-smart insight. There’s electricity in his writing and a sense of fearlessness. There’s nowhere he won’t go, and that makes his work incredibly alive.

If some of the River seems a little messy, that’s part of the charm. It’s not a neat and tidy package, but Montoya, working alongside director (and Campo Santo founder) Sean San José makes it entertaining and important and full of moments, both in performance and in language, that take your breath away.

Plot is secondary to character here, but the setting is the southern California desert, where a Native American called Crow (Michael Torres in a grand, funny, fiery performance) practices various cons, or as he calls them, “desert hustles.” In his rambling monologue that opens the play, he references everything from Bob Dylan to Alice in Wonderland and admits that he’s the world’s worst Indian. He mentions a cave he can’t find and a guy named Luis, but in his particular torrent of words, those details get caught up in the general flow.

The River

Then we meet the play’s central characters (central in that they’re the ones who will evolve most). In pairings of note, we’ve had Crosby and Hope, Abbott and Costello, Bill and Ted and Harold and Kumar. Now we can add to that list Lance and Javier. Brightly dressed in skinny jeans and the latest from American Apparel (or the like), this gay couple has driven down from San Francisco to have a desert experience. They are referred to several times as “burners,” and that makes sense. These aspiring artists want to take drugs in the desert, have sex and enter mystical realms.

Lance (Christopher Ward White) just completed his PhD in hip-hop (“I got a PhD in something I can never be,” he laments at one point) at UC Berkeley and he’s sort of an Oscar Wilde for the digital age. He says of his boyfriend, “Javier thinks he loves me, but really we just hate the same people.”

Javier (Lakin Valdez) is a little more grounded but just as whip smart. The two of them banter like an ADHD George and Martha at the White Party, but they’re not just tossing around zingers. These are two of the most interesting gay characters to hit the stage in a long time. They’re sexual and smart, funny and silly. They dive into stereotype and they smack it around. There’s ferocity under their humor but there’s also complexity and wells of feeling, longing and outright need.

During the early stages of their desert idyll, the boys stumble across a shrouded body in a cave, and that body turns out to be Luis (Brian Rivera), a Mexican deportee who has died before bringing his beloved wife (Anna Maria Luera) across the border.

But just who Luis is and what he experienced fills out what remains of the plot as we meet other intriguing characters including Sally Ranger (a hilarious Nora el Samahy), a slick trickster from the city named Brother Ballard (Donald E. Lacey Jr. in one of his most assured and energetic performances) and Sydell (Randall Nakano), a somewhat enigmatic man who presides over the chaos triggered by the body and the cave.

Referring to the proceedings as “fake magic realism” at one point, playwright Montoya takes flights of linguistic fancy that work because the play is so grounded in humor, filled with genuine emotion and performed with such infectious enthusiasm by San José’s cast. There’s also near-constant music provided by Steve Boss the guitar virtuoso tucked into the corner and wearing skeleton make-up.

There are lots of inside jokes about Bay Area theaters, theater artists, Mission hipsters and the spiritual cost of gentrification. But you don’t have to know all the names or the theater companies to get that they are being lovingly poked and that the whole notion of creating art, theater specifically, is the antithesis and, perhaps, even antidote to grief.

The River was inspired by and is dedicated to Luis Saguar, a founding member of Campo Santo, whose death in 2009 had a profound effect on the artists who knew and loved him. This play is a response to that – an incredible response – but like the inside theater jokes, you don’t have to know anything about Saguar to know that The River is grappling with big issues in original, fascinating and deeply heartfelt ways.

Performed in the flexible and intimate black box space at the ACT Costume Shop, The River is going to be a hard ticket to come by, but this is one of those productions you’ll want to say you were there for when people are talking about it years from now.

Richard Montoya’s The River, a Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts production, continues through May 4 at ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 415-626-2787, Ext. 109 or visit