Tell ’em that it’s human Nature

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Soraya Gillis (left) is Delphie and Charisse Loriaux is Aya in the Sleepwalkers Theatre production of The Nature Line, the third part of a trilogy by JC Lee. Below: Lissa Keigwin as Dora and Janna Kefalas as Narcy (at left) watch their stud farm perform a talent show. The studs are, from left, Jeff Moran as Go-Go, Roy Landaverde as Pencil, Jomar Tagatac as Benji and Joshua Schell as Jason. Photos by Clay Robeson

If only the actual apocalypse could be so enjoyable.

Hand it to playwright JC Lee for making the end of the world – and after – so lyrical, so funny and so, well, human. That’s one of the things I loved about Into the Clear Blue Sky, Part Two of the This World and After trilogy, which kicked off almost exactly a year ago with This World Is Good. There may be monstrous things happening in the world, things that would require millions of dollars worth of CGI to represent on a screen, but Lee’s focus is essentially human and relatable.

And that’s only appropriate when the topic at hand is the very survival of the human race. In each of his three plays, Lee creates a stage full of seekers, and for his final chapter, they are seeking the future, which is in clear jeopardy.

After the worldwide havoc of the last play, when beasts roamed the planet and peaches became extinct (among other horrors), and attempts to find salvation in an outpost on the moon have apparently failed, there’s not a lot of hope in the future of mankind. Or what’s left of it.

In The Nature Line, Part Three of the trilogy, neither sex nor any human contact of any kind is allowed anymore. Women’s wombs have become unable to handle the stress of pregnancy, so that duty now belongs to scientists who help the process along. “Aren’t you relieved to see a corporate model can survive the apocalypse?” asks a crisply dressed fertility nurse.

Lee doesn’t spend a lot of time in this two-hour, two-act play explaining exactly what is going on, which is probably one of the reasons he’s able to make science fiction work on stage (a tremendously difficult thing to do). He trusts that we’ll fill in blanks and, even better, use our imaginations (to hell with CGI!).

The nature line of the title has much to do with childbirth and natural instincts, so it’s no surprise that the play is so focused on women and mothers. We meet our heroine, Aya (Charisse Loriaux), as she’s conjuring memories of a grandmother she never knew and burying yet another body of yet another dead baby.

This is a grim world, but Aya is not quite giving up on her maternal impulse. Her body may be betraying her, but she is going to submit to the ministrations of the medical professionals one more time because she knows she needs to be a mother.

The quartet of men in the play (Joshua Schell, Jomar Tagatac, Jeff Moran and Roy Landaverde) are fine specimens all. And they really are specimens. They’re kept under quarantine and forced, like prize stallions, to “fertilize” on command, which is to say, make constant sperm donations.

Lee first uses his men as comic relief as we see them performing a testosterone-raising talent show involving all kinds of hip-hoppy-happy dance moves that seem to have survived the end of the world just fine. But as the play progresses, the men become more interesting, even if they are revealed to be grown-up comic book geeks. We even get a sweet, if too-brief love story for a couple of the guys.

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But this is Aya’s quest, and as she seeks answers, she finds herself leaving the remnants of civilization and heading into nature – a scary prospect when we’re given to believe that nature could be as damaged and/or as damaging as anything else on the uncertain planet.

All roads, as they say, lead to the sea, and that’s where Aya ends up, although her journey takes her, rather enigmatically, into a reverie (or is it real?) with a Spanish-speaking grandmother (Carla Pantoja) and a little girl who could be one of Aya’s lost children or a young version of Aya herself (played beautifully by fifth-grader Soraya Gillis).

All of these disparate parts – the lyricism, the science fiction, the comedy, the human drama, the romance – hold together because Lee is an audacious, ambitious and uncommonly talented writer.

It also works because, like the previous chapters of the trilogy, it’s produced by Sleepwalkers Theatre, a company that likely has more courage than cash but has the chutzpah to take on a world-premiere apocalypse trilogy and let the plays speak for themselves.

Mina Morita, the director of The Nature Line, emphasizes the human scale here, which is exactly what the play demands. Relationships are key – like between Aya and her closest friend, Arty (Ariane Owens) or between head nurse Narcy (Janna Kefalas) and her assistant, Dora (Lissa Keigwin) or between the sperm studs. The detail to performances is admirable and so important to this production’s success and keeps characters from being just types.

The end of the world, Lee tells us, was quiet, “like a fairy tale” – a far cry from the destruction porn Hollywood churns out with such computer-generated regularity. We don’t know what happened, really, but from the evidence presented by Lee’s trilogy, we know that in art, that most human of expressions, there can be salvation.

JCLee’s The Nature Line continues through Aug. 27 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$17. Call 415-913-7272 or visit

Apocalypse wow! Clear Blue Sky captivates

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The cast of Sleepwalkers Theatre’s Into the Clear Blue Sky includes, from left, Pamela Smith as Margaret, Adrian Anchondo as Cody, Dina Percia as Mika, Christopher Nelson as The Scientist and Eric Kerr as Kale. Below: Anchondo and Smith connect in a disconnected world. Photos by Claire Rice

There are cannibals in Hackensack. A tsunami swallowed South America live on TV. And there are dogs the size of Chevys ransacking libraries.

Welcome to, as the producers put it, “your friendly neighborhood apocalypse.” Playwright JC Lee is in the midst of unfurling his world-premiere trilogy This World and After, and he’s getting some big-time help from Sleepwalkers Theatre, the company that produced Part One, The World Is Good, last summer and is now unveiling Part Two, Into the Clear Blue Sky.

If this is what post-apocalyptic life looks like, I don’t think I’ll mind so much when everything goes to hell. Not that life isn’t wretched. In addition to the horrors mentioned above, there are sea beasts to contend with, not to mention the fact that, due to acceleration of global warming, the very shape of the earth is changing and you can now, for reasons more poetic than scientific, find your way through the ocean to the moon.

But in Lee’s ravaged world, human beings are, mercifully, still human beings. His play, directed with flair by Ben Randle, is full of horror and wonder, but it’s all on a human scale. Lee has a graphic novelist’s flair imaginative drama and a playwright’s love of the poetic. He can be comic-geek funny one moment and Gabriel Garcia Marquez beautiful the next. As I said, human scale.

Our front-row seat to the mayhem is — where else? — right smack in New Jersey, described by one of the characters as “the worst of the 50 states.” It’s hard to image in any state being anything but horrific at this grim moment in history. We don’t know exactly what happened, or if there was even a defining event, but it seems the trajectory of world destruction and evolutionary mutation has picked up quite a bit of speed.

Lee’s focus is a family: brother and sister Kale (Eric Kerr) and Mika (Dina Percia), respectively, and their poetry-loving mother, Margaret (Pamela Smith) and cowardly scientific father (Christopher Nelson).

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The father is cowardly because he has escaped into the clear blue sky. Something terrible has happened between Kale and Mika — so terrible that it turned Mika’s hands black and left permanent black handprints on Kale’s back. The family has ruptured as a result, and the father has fled in a silver pod of his own creation.

Mika embarks on a quest to somehow get the black off her hands, and Kale, joined by his childhood friend Cody (Adrian Anchondo) begins a parallel quest to find his sister, even though she now wants nothing to do with him.

Along the way, Mika — given the compassionate soul of warrior poet in Percia’s appealing performance — corresponds with her mother via letters delivered by angry seabirds. The letters are heartbreaking in their succinctly but perfectly expressed emotion.

Mika’s journey ends on the moon, where, among other lost souls, she may find the opportunity for a fresh start.

Kale’s journey is more complicated. A somewhat emotionally twisted young man, he doesn’t really know what he wants. His mother has essentially cast him out of the family home. His father has abandoned him, and his sister is running from him. The only person fully on his side is Cody (a funny, expressive and mostly bare-chested Anchondo).

Cody is fully in love with Kale, but Kale toys with his friend’s overflowing heart. It’s mainly due to Kerr’s compassionate portrayal of Kale that the character remains somewhat sympathetic, even though he treats Cody badly and has presumably done something terrible to his sister. How can Kale not love Cody, a man who says he has been compared to “a transgender Chita Rivera“?

In only about 70 minutes, Lee and director Randle fashion an epic quest full of family drama and end-of-the-world nightmares with help from Randle and scenic artist Maya Linke’s paper-strewn black-and-white set.

Horrible things happen and yet Lee never lets his characters journey too far from hope. As more than one character repeats, “Things will be good again.”

Into the Clear Blue Sky is good right now.


JC Lee’s Into the Clear Blue Sky continues through April 30 at the Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason St., sixth floor, San Francisco. Tickets are $15 online and $17 at the door. Call 415-913-7272 or visit for information.

New theater company is Hella Fresh

If you want a big, dramatic scene involving John Rosenberg smashing things on his way out the door, you better look elsewhere.

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About three years ago, along with Tore Ingersoll-Thorp and Damian Lanahan Kalish, Rosenberg founded Sleepwalkers Theatre, a group committed to producing new work by new authors. The trio had been in what they considered to be the worst production of Hamlet ever (at an undisclosed location in the East Bay), and after commiserating backstage, joined together to create their own company.

That first season, Sleepwalkers produced one of Rosenberg’s plays, Use Both Hands, about strangers meeting and connecting in the keno lounge of the Circus Circus casino in Reno, Nev. But last year, Rosenberg decided to branch out and do his own thing.

He created his own theater company and decided to call it Hella Fresh Theatre because, well, it’s apparently hella fresh theater.

The parting of ways with old friends Ingersoll-Thorp and Kalish seems to be quite amicable.

“I had an incredible experience with Sleepwalkers,” Rosenberg says. “I loved working with them. As we geared up for the second season, we all realized we wanted to take things in different directions. I wanted to create plays and have control over them. I decided to move in a different direction. It wasn’t like there were screaming fights. I’m in my early 30s. At some point you have to stand up and make your own stuff.”

For their part, the Sleepwalker guys seem OK with the parting. On their Web site they write of Rosenberg’s departure: “John left the group to form another, and more cutting edge theatre will be coming from it soon. If this process were to repeat itself with other members, we couldn’t be happier. We need more exciting small theatre companies, and we think everyone should start one.”

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Jericho Road Improvement Association, the first production from Hella Fresh Theatre begins performances Thursday, June 4 at San Francisco’s Phoenix Theatre, and it should come as no surprise that the play is written and directed by Rosenberg. (Pictured above: Jericho Road Improvement Association cast members Sam Leichter, left, and Abel Habtegeorgis)

Set in the neighborhood where, in April of 1968, Oakland police clashed with the Black Panthers and ended up killing Little Bobby Hutton, Rosenberg writes about a veteran police officer who was part of that clash 30 years ago attempting to atone for himself and make positive change the neighborhood.

Inspiration for the play came from two places. After attending the University of California, Berkeley “back in the 20th century,” as Rosenberg puts it, he lived in North Oakland near the site of the famous clash.

“That idea, that history has taken place all around you stuck with me,” Rosenberg says.

The second factor came in the form of playwright August Wilson and his famous cycle of plays documenting African American life in each decade of the 20th century.

“Something about his work really touched me,” Rosenberg says. “I’m very interested in race in America, and I became more and more interested in creating a work that reflected a local piece of history, that tackled the problem of race and law enforcement in Oakland and that told a personal story. I think in some ways, since Obama was elected, people thing we’re in a post-racial America, but while I was writing this, BART police killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Eve and four Oakland police officers were murdered a couple months after that.”

Rosenberg’s day job as a bookkeeper for a Berkeley nonprofit gives him some flexibility to write and produce plays in his spare time, which he does entirely on his own, without the aid of grants or corporate sponsors. His mom, who happens to be a drama teacher, serves as an editor, and the people in his life – his girlfriend, his sister, his friends – all offer opinions and, when he needs it, extra funds. This is theater created on a budget – mostly Rosenberg’s.

“It’s definitely an interesting time to be starting a new company,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s definitely possible to do it. It’s exciting and challenging to do it on your own. I’m not trying to make money off of this. It’s just great to put new work out there. As long as I have my job and people who love me, I think we’ll be OK.”


Hella Fresh Theatre presents Jericho Road Improvement Association by John Rosenberg, through June 27 at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10. Call 510-292-6403 or visit for information.

Theater news: Moon gets `Spirited,’ Encore nabs Nachtrieb, `March’ goes on

42nd Street Moon, the company that specializes in charming productions of classic and lesser-known musicals, has announced a change in its season lineup.

Next March, the previously announced The Baker’s Wife by composer Stephen Schwartz, will be replaced by High Spirits, the musical version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

“Unfortunately, director Gordon Greenberg, who had delighted audiences on the East Coast with past productions of The Baker’s Wife, had a conflicting obligation,” said 42nd Street Moon artistic director Greg MacKellan. “His production of Stephen Schwartz’s Working has been scheduled for the Old Globe Theatre at the same time we would have done The Baker’s Wife. We hope to include the show in next season’s lineup, and meanwhile we will replace it with `High Spirits.’ As it happens, there will be a major Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett at the same time we are doing the musical version.”

The 42nd Street Moon production will star Megan Cavanagh (so funny in the Moon production of Out of This World) as the eccentric Madame Arcati, a role made famous by Beatrice Lillie in the original 1964 Broadway production. Also on board for the Moon cast are Michael Patrick Gaffney, Maureen McVerry and Dyan McBride.

MacKellan will direct and Dave Dobrusky will serve as musical director, with Mick DiScalla on woodwinds.

The 42nd Street Moon 2008-09 season continues with current hit Girl Crazy through Nov. 16 followed by Ben Franklin in Paris opening Nov. 29. High Spirits begins performances March 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Call 415-255-8207 or visit for information.


Encore offers Nachtrieb’s `T.I.C.’

Encore Theatre Company, one of the Bay Area’s most intriguing small companies, has announced that it will present the world premiere of San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s
T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common in January at the Magic Theatre.

Nachtrieb came to prominence with his 2006 hit Hunter Gatherers, which won the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award as well as the Glickman New Play Award. Encore commissioned him to create a new play, which turned into T.I.C., the story of a teenage girl publishing a blog about her Tenant-In-Common building. On a boring early-summer night, from her vantage point in the cottage in back of the building, she has a clear view of the building’s rear windows. She captures her neighbors’ private activities on her cell phone and publishes them online with commentary. When strange, menacing events begin to take place at her home, it’s evident that her journal isn’t going unnoticed. Someone is reading, someone is watching and everyone is in danger.

“As one of the leading Bay Area companies dedicated to developing new work, Encore Theatre Company has found an ideal collaborator in Peter Nachtrieb,” said Encore artistic director Lisa Steindler. “From the moment I saw Peter’s work, I knew that I wanted to support and nurture such an extraordinary artist. I am honored to present this new work by one of the most exciting young playwrights on the scene today.”

Developed with support from the Z Space Studio, T.I.C. will be directed by Ken Prestininzi, associate chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama, and the cast will include Lance Gardner, Arwen Anderson, Michael Shipley, Liam Vincent, Rebecca White and Anne Darragh.

T.I.C. Trenchoat in Common runs Jan. 2 through Feb. 1 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit


Sleepwalkers extend `March’


Sleepwalkers Theatre has announced the extension of its current world premiere production March to November, now playing now through Nov. 15 at the Phoenix Theatre. Performances have been added for Nov. 13, 14, and 15 at 8pm.

Additionally, anyone who brings a program from Boxcar Theatre’s current production of Animal Kingdom to Sleepwalkers on the 13, 14, or 15 can see March to November for $5 at the door.


Inspired by SF Weekly theatre critic Chloe Veltman’s Jan. 9th article “Election Stage Left,” which challenged Bay Area playwrights and theatre companies to create more “political” works, Sleepwalkers answers the call to arms with a classic hero story that assess the relevance of overtly political theatre. With the 2008 election as a backdrop, March to November, by Sleepwalkers co-founder Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, is an examination of one artist’s search to find political responsibility in her work.

Tickets are $14. The Phoenix Theatre is at 414 Mason St. (at Geary), San Francisco. Call 415-814-3944 or visit