Love doth evade Marin’s Shakespeare in Love

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Megan Trout is Viola de Lesseps and Adam Magill is Will Shakespeare in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the 1998 movie. Photo by Kevin Berne

The most produced play of the 2017-18 season, according to American Theatre magazine, is Shakespeare in Love, the stage adaptation (by Lee Hall) of the 1998 movie of the same name that is now (in)famous for being one of the first “success” stories of Harvey Weinstein’s battering ram-style Oscar campaigns. The movie picked up abundant awards, including best picture and best screenplay for Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. Then it took more than a decade and a half to find its way to the stage, and the results are disappointing. This should have been a musical, but apparently they couldn’t bear to cut any of the Stoppardian dialogue, so they just went the way of play with lots of music.

The Bay Area finally gets to see the show thanks to Marin Theatre Company, and while the cast boasts some of the Bay Area’s best actors – Stacy Ross, Lance Gardner, Megan Trout, Mark Anderson Phillips, L. Peter Callender – the production flails under the direction of Jasson Minadakis.

I reviewed the production for TheaterMania.com. Here’s a preview:

With an Oscar-winning screenplay by preeminent playwright Tom Stoppard (with Marc Norman), it seems only natural that a stage adaptation would eventually appear. What is surprising is that the play adaptation feels like it had aspirations to be a musical, with adapter Lee Hall (Billy Elliott) wrestling it into a lumpy play with lots of music and retaining only some of the charm of the movie.

Director Jasson Minadakis goes for a stripped-down theater vibe with Shakespeare in Love at the Marin Theatre Company, with 13 actors playing around 30 roles and having them provide all of the musical accompaniment for Paddy Cunneen’s overactive score. That makes for a frenetic two-plus hours that offer only intermittent pleasures.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Shakespeare in Love continues through Dec. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Aurora’s Leni asks: Great artist, Nazi sympathizer or both?

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Leni Riefenstahl (Stacy Ross) ponders her relationship with Hitler in Aurora Theatre Company’s Bay Area Premiere of Leni by Sarah Greenman. Below: Older Leni (Ross, left) has a tête-à-tête with her younger self (Martha Brigham). Photos by David Allen

As a dramatic work, Sarah Greenman’s Leni about the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, has to juggle history, artistry and, now, discomfiting parallels to our own time. Was Riefenstahl the right artist at the wrong time? Was her extraordinary talent as a filmmaker overshadowed by Hitler and the Nazi party? Or was she a Nazi sympathizer and, consequently, as the show puts it, “a willing architect of Nazi mythology” and, worse, an accomplice to genocide?

There aren’t any easy answers in this 85-minute one-act play now at the intimate Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre Company. Director Jon Tracy and actors Stacy Ross and Martha Brigham, both of whom play Riefenstahl at advanced and early ages respectively, grab hold of the play with gusto and shake it for all it’s worth.

When a biographical play is set in some enigmatic limbo between life and death, the conceit usually comes across as a lazy way to make excuses for bringing back the dead and placing them awkwardly in a biographical drama. But here, it works. It is 2003 and Riefenstahl (Ross) has just died at 101. She emerges from a room into a phantom movie set (simply but effectively designed by Nina Ball) and gets to work filming scenes from her life. She shoots a scene of her younger self (Brigham) meeting with Hitler to beg for more money to complete her two-part documentary Olympia about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Evocatively using lighting that is by turns stark and shadowy (beautifully designed by Kurt Landisman), director Tracy is able to create movie/theater hybrid that makes sense. They’re not really making a movie, but they’re not really alive either. What we have is Greenman’s attempt to allow Riefenstahl to put herself on trial, to explain herself, to attempt to face the truth, to justify never apologizing or recanting, to accept responsibility for the part she played.

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Leni is in no way an apology for Riefenstahl. No matter her artistic ambitions or intentions, she was complicit with the Nazis, and that landed her squarely on the wrong side of history and understandably destroyed her career. Rather, the play is Riefenstahl wrestling with herself and attempting to establish some context for what is was like to be in the middle of it all, attempting to make great work (and Leni did truly believe her work was great – with Triumph of the Will she says she didn’t create propaganda, she created a masterpiece), maintain her artistic integrity (she says she was never a member of the Nazi party and no one ever interfered with her filmmaking) and play the political games that would keep her working (she and Hitler were friendly – he gave her gifts – but she and Goebbels did not get along).

Because she lived so long, Riefenstahl is able to offer an interesting perspective on her work. With her bold filmmaking techniques, she was decades ahead of her time and, as many would attest, set the standard for sports documentaries with Olympia. All the controversy surrounding her work with the Nazis tends to obscure her skills as a director and render her a villain rather than a visionary filmmaker. The footage we see from her films (sound and video design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) is absolutely mesmerizing, especially some of the montages of Olympic athletes (oh, the divers!). So when the older Leni proclaims, “I am on trial for creating the modern world!” her sense of self or her impact doesn’t seem as overblown as it might.

Asked why she didn’t condemn Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, Riefenstahl claims she, like so many Germans, especially those who believed in Hitler as the leader Germany needed at the time, simply didn’t know. All those rumors and stories purported by journalists about death camps were lies. Until they weren’t and – much too late in the game – she had to face the harsh facts. Does she love the work she created, she is asked? Yes. And does she regret it? Yes.

So where does that leave us with the complicated Leni Riefenstahl? Mired in complications, with probably more complications than Greenman’s drama allows. Ross and Brigham are, as usual, superb, and director Tracy’s production is able to cut through a lot of the corny docu-drama trappings and let all the thorny issues encompass audience and actors alike. Amid the specific details of Riefenstahl’s life, certain chilling elements echo – fake news! lying journalists! obliviously adoring crowds! dangerously narrow-minded nationalism! – and make us wonder who, some time from today, will we see as a Leni Riefenstahl among us now?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sarah Greenman’s Leni continues through May 10 in the Harry’s UpStage space at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

ACT attempts to solve Stoppard’s Hard Problem

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Psychology student Hilary (Brenda Meaney, second from right) celebrates being published with colleagues from the prestigious Krohl Institute for Brain Science in the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem. Below: Spike (Dan Clegg) and Hilary (Meaney) meet up at a conference in Venice, Italy. Photos by Kevin Berne

All through American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Hard Problem you can feel playwright Tom Stoppard making an effort to be accessible. With a play about the very nature of consciousness – the “hard problem” about not just the knowing about what’s at our human core but the knowing about the knowing – there’s a danger of a) boring a lay audience with intricate lectures on neuroscience or b) becoming so involved in the intellectual pursuits of the play that actual drama. Stoppard slips a little into both camps during his play’s one hour and 40 minutes, but it’s hard to fault a playwright for being too smart or too passionate about the subject he’s exploring.

This production marks the 17th Stoppard play produced at ACT in the last 50 years and the 10th directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff. It’s Stoppard’s first new play in a decade, and as mildly entertaining as the play is, it feels like minor Stoppard – a lot of interesting ideas presented in an attractive package without a terribly compelling story or characters. This theatrical exploration of the nature of consciousness (and its relationship to altruism and the world’s financial markets) comes at a pop-culture moment when a television show, HBO’s “Westworld,” is exploring similar territory in a completely different (and more satisfyingly dramatic) way. Stoppard gives us neuroscientists, psychologists and hedge fund brokers debating about the nature of the mind and what guides us as human beings, while HBO gives us a theme park inhabited by lifelike robots on the verge of sentience. These robots are programmed to deliver humanlike responses, complete with a certain amount of randomness thrown in to make it highly realistic, but they’re machines incapable of actual original thought and feeling (or are they?).

Stoppard’s appealing main character is Hilary (Brenda Meaney), a psychologist whose mind is capable of considering elements beyond the scientific in her quest to understand the difference between the brain the mind, between evolutionary purpose and spiritual revelation. She dares to bring the concept of God into scientific discourse, and the scientists around her balk as if she had proposed chakra alignment as a cure for cancer.

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It seems the people around Hilary exist to provide breadcrumbs on her trail toward enlightenment of some kind. The spiky boyfriend Spike (the ever-amiable Dan Clegg, who is supposed to read a decade older than Hilary but doesn’t) and the brash brain scientist Amal (Vandit Bhatt) challenge and provoke (and occasionally demean) her, the colleagues (Narea Kang as Bo and Anthony Fusco as Leo) who fall in love with her and the big money bags who funds the brain institute where she works (the pitch-perfect Mike Ryan as Jerry, who seems to be in a different, more engaging play) leads her to the rather corny heart of the play where we consider the notion of coincidence vs. miracle. There’s also a lovely couple – scientist Ursula (Stacy Ross) and Pilates instructor Julia (Safiya Fredericks) – who seem to be hanging around for no apparent reason other than to employ two wonderful actors who don’t get nearly enough to do.

Stoppard has a lot of thoughts to share about the mysterious center of our humanity, but he does so in scenes that are ostensibly about something else – competing for a slot at the Krohl Institute, trying to get laid, having a disastrous dinner party (why must brainiacs fail so miserably at the domestic arts?), trysting in Venice – and that keeps the play on a relatable, human scale. Perloff’s production keeps to a brisk pace (too brisk in some scenes where it’s hard to pick up on everything being said), with the coolly efficient sliding panels of Andrew Boyce’s set shifting the action from laboratories to apartments to backyards to pilates classes, all with the aid of a rear projection screen that is mostly filled with clouds (as in “head in the…”).

There’s not a whole lot of drama here other than the publication of an article with dubious scientific merits and a deep dark secret that isn’t much of either. There’s a strange alpha-male confrontation between hedge fund gazillionaire Jerry and Amal that feels like it’s a different, more vital play suddenly encroaching on this rather stately one, and the sexual chemistry between Spike and Hilary never really registers, even when Spike cavorts around in Hilary’s micro-mini negligee.

There are bursts of humor (this is Stoppard after all), and some of the brainy brain stuff is thought provoking, but The Hard Problem ends up being more problematic than engaging.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tom Stoppard’s The Hard Problem> continues through Nov. 13 in an American Conservatory Theater production at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$125 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Crazy about Guirgis’ Riverside at ACT

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Walter “Pops” Washington (Carl Lumbly, left) argues with his son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates, right), while Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez, center) reads the newspaper in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy, Between Riverside and Crazy, at American Conservatory Theater. Below: Lieutenant Caro (Gabriel Marin) chats with Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown). Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s a crackling vitality on stage the Geary Theater as American Conservatory Theater opens its 49th season with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy. The play is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee it will be an interesting play, but if you’ve seen any of Guirgis’ previous work – produced locally by San Francisco Playhouse and Custom Made Theatre Company – you know that this is a muscular, compassionate and deeply interesting writer.

If Riverside isn’t as gritty as some of his other work, it more than makes up for that with its fresh approach to the classic American dream-type play. This is Guirgis leaning heavily into Miller and O’Neill territory and staking his claim as a great chronicler of the contemporary American family and the state of that elusive but collectively held dream.

Between Riverside and Crazy is a surprising play in that it deals head on with powerful emotion – between father and son, connected co-workers, lost young man and surrogate father figure – and doesn’t flinch. There are teases of melodrama but then swift left turns that add suspense and keep the edges sharp. And there’s a whole lot of humor, dark humor that elicits satisfying and frequent laughter.

Director Irene Lewis navigates the barbs and the jokes and the shadows expertly with the help of a superb cast that knows exactly how to scale what is essentially a living room drama for the grand space of the Geary. The set by Christopher Barreca adds a touch of cinematic fluidity as the entire apartment set (hints of former Riverside Drive grandeur remain) slides back and forth to signal scene changes to the building’s roof and back again.

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Powering a whole lot of the play’s electric charge is Carl Lumbly as Walter Washington, a former New York City cop who caught a “bad break” years ago in an off-duty incident that may or may not have been racially motivated and left Walter with six bullet holes and an ongoing lawsuit against the city.

Walter is a heavy drinker – the play begins at breakfast and he’s already into his cups – with a lot weighing on him. He lost his wife after a long illness about a year prior, and his grown son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates) has moved back home with his girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown). Walter is also providing shelter for one of Junior’s wayward felon friends, Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), as he works through his newfound sobriety.

Lumbly’s Walter is cantankerous and acerbic, funny and lively even as he bemoans his fate. He shows true compassion for Oswaldo, and the two of them, as different as they are in age and experience, share a real chemistry. That spark turns out to be one of many. We see it between Lulu and just about everybody she deals with and after a dinner party attended by Walter’s former partner, Audrey (Stacy Ross) and her fiancé, Lt. Dave Caro (Gabriel Marin). And then there’s the Church Lady. Walter receives regular visits from the Church Lady, but he gets a surprise when a new lady shows up, a Brazilian spiritualist played by the always extraordinary Catherine Castellanos, who makes a decidedly non-church-like impact on Walter.

There’s all kinds of tension and affection coursing through this two-hour and 15-minute drama/comedy. So many of the details feel right out of the news: white cop shoots unarmed black man, family threatened with eviction from rent-controlled apartment. But the heart of the play is all about race and power, interesting topics to explore among cops and felons, and the drama comes less from headlines and more from the details and ongoing challenges of everyday life.

There’s a whole lot of game playing going on here, within the family unit and within the larger system. The players here are pretty smart and experienced, and watching them make their moves is the source of abundant pleasure.

This cast is, to put it mildly, beyond belief. Under Lewis’ direction, their performances are perfectly calibrated and able to veer between comedy and drama with aplomb.

Lumbly and Marin are veterans of Guirgis’ work as produced by SF Playhouse. Both actors were in the 2013 production of The Motherfucker with the Hat (read my review here) and in 2007’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (review here). Marin was also in the Playhouse’s 2006 production of Our Lady of 121st Street. So to say these actors have a familiarity and comfort level with Guirgis’ work is an understatement, and boy does it work to the advantage of Riverside. Their interactions are pointed and tricky and full of intensity and humor.

Valdez as Oswaldo doesn’t get much stage time, but he makes the most of it. Oswaldo is a troubled young man, but a sensitive one, and he emerges as a character you love immediately and want to know more about. As Lulu, Monte-Brown turns what could be a sexpot role into something more complex and interesting. She’s a game player, just like all the others, and claiming her slice of the power pie.

Ross and Castellanos, two of our best local actors, shine as women at very different points in their lives, and Gates as Junior really comes to the fore in a touching scene with Walter as the two men, in their contentious ways, try to express what they mean to each other.

Guirgis has a tremendous ear for dialogue that feels real but better than real. Through his lens, the drama and comedy of life is heightened, and Between Riverside and Crazy feels at times desperate, real and sad and other times hilarious and hopeful.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy continues through Sept. 27 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Women rock the Night at Cal Shakes season opener

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Lisa Anne Porter (right) plays separated twins Viola and Sebastian in the California Shakesperae Theater season-opening production of Twelfth Night. The female-led cast also includes (from left) Rami Margron as Orsino, Julie Eccles as Olivia, Margo Hall as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch and Domenique Loazno as Maria. Below: Stacy Ross (left) as Malvolio is under the mistaken impression that his mistress has the hots for him, a ruse concocted by Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. Photos by Kevin Berne

Last year, California Shakespeare Theater offered an off-season touring production of Twelfth Night that featured an all-women cast and made stops in prisons, homeless shelters, senior communities and the like. It was a stripped-down, wonderful production, and apparently its impact was strong enough that outgoing artistic director Jonathan Moscone (he bids adieu in August after he directs The Mystery of Irma Vep) decided to pull the play into the company’s 41st season.

With a different director (Christopher Liam Moore), this is a very different Twelfth Night but with two key returning players and one overriding concept. The actors reprising their roles are Rami Margron as Duke Orsino (she also played scheming lady in waiting Maria last year) and the invaluable Catherine Castellanos making an even deeper impression as boozy wastrel Sir Toby Belch. This is not an all-female production, but it is what you might call female led. Of the eight cast members, seven are women, and – the irony is not subtle here – the only man, Ted Deasy, plays Feste, the fool (and other roles including a sea captain, a priest, a police constable, Antonio and a member of Orsino’s court).

Director Moore’s production is so sure footed and satisfying that the whole idea of a gender-bending cast populating an already gender-bending play quickly becomes less of a gimmick and more about some really good storytelling. It’s great that companies like Cal Shakes are shifting the balance away from male domination of Shakespeare, but it’s even better that the company is giving the stage to some incredibly talented actors to tell a sad, romantic, occasionally very funny tale.

Deasy begins the show by climbing out of a coffin sitting center stage. If that sounds grim – this is a play largely about grief, after all – not to worry. In full court jester garb (costumes by Meg Neville, who mercifully makes this jester bell-less), he whips out his iPhone and samples a playlist to indicate a storm is brewing: “Riders on the Storm,” “It’s Raining Men,” “Stormy Weather” and one other that’s too fun to spoil.” We’ll see iPhones throughout the 2 1/2-hour play, mostly for cuing up music (Air Supply, Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin make appearances) but also for photo taking and the inevitable selfie.

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This is the 150th time Cal Shakes has done Twelfth Night (actually the eighth counting last year’s tour), and every time it feels like a slightly different play. Moore is having fun to be sure, but with that coffin never leaving the stage, the specter is ever present. The coffin represents several deaths affecting various characters. The twins Viola and Sebastian (both played by the marvelous Lisa Anne Porter) each think the other perished in a shipwreck. And the Lady Olivia (Julie Eccles, whose transformation from grief to love addled is spectacular) lost her father and brother in a short space of time and is drowning in her loss. But that coffin, being front and center in Nina Ball’s simple set, which resembles either a mausoleum or an elegant resort, also finds itself being used as various pieces of furniture, an ice chest for beer and as a dark, dank prison for the most notoriously wronged Malvolio.

Speaking of Malvolio, the righteous prig who brings out the bully in Sir Toby and his cohorts, Maria (Dominique Lozano) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Margo Hall), a word on the broad comic performances in this production. As Malvolio, Stacy Ross so fully inhabits the character that it’s as easy to hate him (and understand why he gets so viciously pranked) as it is to love him (when the prank goes way too far). Ross is funny, especially taking smiling lessons from the audience or gingerly navigating a set of stairs, but she’s also heartbreaking as the character is humiliated, taunted and bereft of the love he thought he had won.

With Castellanos’ turn as Sir Toby, there is broad hilarity (the costume conjures a Depptonian Capt. Jack Sparrow feel) but also a beating heart under all the liquor and brio and bullying. You get the sense that Toby is performing for Maria, whom he loves, and for Sir Andrew (Hall is quite funny as the blundering idiot), his sycophantic money bags of a sidekick. He’s got a (squalid) reputation to protect, but it really registers when even he admits the Malvolio prank has gone too far.

The happy ending, when the separated twins reunite, is handled deftly, and Porter, who has delineated her male and female (and female pretending to be male) characters beautifully, comes as close as a single actor could to making that scene poignant and a little heartbreaking (Viola gets her brother back from the void, but that hope does not exist for Olivia’s brother).

That this production can be rambunctious (Feste’s songs have a delightful country-western lilt) and funny, romantic and lyrical, sad and shadowy is its ultimate triumph.

FOR MORE INFORMAITON
California Shakespeare Theater’s Twelfth Night continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best

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Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.

FAVORITE SHOWS

1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.

ASSORTED THOUGHTS ON THE YEAR THAT WAS

Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Realistic portrait of the abstract artist in SF Playhouse’s Bauer

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Ronald Guttman (left) is painter Rudolf Bauer, Susi Damilano (center) is Louise Bauer and Stacy Ross is Hilla Rebay in the world-premiere production of Bauer by Lauren Gunderson at the San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Ross as Hilla wants to know what made Guttman as Bauer stop painting. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

A mysterious chapter in modern art history receives some theatrical exploration in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s Bauer at San Francisco Playhouse. If you’ve never heard of the abstract painter Rudolf Bauer, whom some considered a genius beyond contemporaries like Kandinsky and Klee, that may have something to do with the fact that the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was built to display his work, kept his paintngs instead in the basement out of public view.

That’s one of the issues addressed in Bauer, a three-person drama by Gunderson, San Francisco’s most prolific and produced playwright. The other issues at hand involve the question of why Bauer, who survived a Nazi prison, stopped painting not long after arriving in the United States and how he navigated relationships with the women in his life: Baroness Hilla Rebay, who was his staunch advocate in the art world and probably the great love of his life, and Louise Bauer, who was hired by Rebay as Bauer’s maid but eventually became his wife and also a staunch advocate as illness brought Bauer closer to death.

Gunderson imagines a meeting – crafted with near-romantic comedy dexterity by Louise – between Bauer and Rebay, who have not spoken in a decade as an attempt to rectify the past and, perhaps, inspire Bauer to pick up the brush and paint again.

As we’ve come to expect from Gunderson, Bauer is full of intelligence, humor and passion. Bauer’s story is an interesting and sad one, exploring as it does, the difficult relationship between art, in its purest, most creative state, and the art world as it is ruled by ego and capitalistic greed. The issue here is not so much the sale of Bauer’s work but rather its ownership and how that impinges on an artist’s freedom and, consequently, the creative spark.

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Director Bill English, who also designed the half-realistic/half-abstract painting studio set, elicits strong performances from Ronald Guttman as Bauer, Susi Damilano as Louise and Stacy Ross as Hilla (an acerbic woman described as “harmless as odorless poison”). There’s tension, connection and fire within this trio, and they remain captivating for the play’s 90 minutes.

The women actually end up being more interesting than Bauer, whose German accent sometimes renders his lines intelligible. What begins as a cat fight ends up as something much deeper and more honest, with Bauer in the middle. Early on, Rebay takes stock of the situation: “God, we’re two modernists and a maid. It makes no sense.”

Gunderson has fun with the tempestuous, love-hate kind of relationship between Bauer and Rebay, who blame each other for a great deal. For Bauer, she represents the end of his artistic life: “The spirit tends to wither when ravaged by a succubus,” he tells her.

There’s interesting use of video here (designed by Micha J. Stieglitz). For instance, when the characters are looking through a portfolio of Bauer’s work, we see what they see projected on the large rear wall of the set. But then there are moments when the video goes too far as when emotional moments between the characters are emphasized by large, animated swatches of color on the walls – as if the writing and the performances aren’t enough, we need visual underscore (which we don’t). Same is true of the musical underscore that comes in toward the end – unnecessary and distracting, turning the play into a wannabe movie bio pic.

The video gets a real workout at the end. In theory, the moment works, but it’s just too much. Video is just that – video, temporarily projected light and pre-constructed. The moment calls for absolute reality, something created by the actors themselves in the moment. English’s production gets fancy just when it needs to be at its most laid bare, and that robs Gunderson’s potent play of some emotional impact.

In a nice confluence of events, San Francisco’s Weinstein Gallery is hosting an exhibit of Bauer’s work called The Realm of the Spirit through April 30. Rowland Weinstein, who also made a documentary about Bauer, serves on the Playhouse board and is executive producer of the play. Click for more info.

And the story of Rudolf, Louise and Hilla goes on. This production, cast included, is taking the show on the road. Bauer moves off Broadway at New York’s 59E59 Theater Sept. 2 through Oct. 12.

No longer consigned to the basement, Bauer is back in the world.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s Bauer continues through April 19 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Fit to be tied in Aurora’s powerful, provocative Knot

EXTENDED THROUGH MARCH 9
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Stacy Ross (left) is a fifth-grade teacher and Jamie J. Jones is the mother of a fifth-grade student in Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, probably the most fraught parent-teacher conference you’ll ever experience. Jon Tracy directs the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

To call Gidion’s Knot, Johnna Adams’ play now at the Aurora Theatre Company, a mystery is accurate but only to a point. Certainly there are things we don’t know and need to find out, but there’s a whole lot more to this complex, disturbing and even devastating drama.

Looking at Nina Ball’s incredibly realistic fifth-grade classroom set – complete with tiled ceiling and fluorescent lights – it’s easy to think, “A play about a parent-teacher conference in a bright, friendly classroom. How intense could this be?” Oh, it’s intense all right. And surprising and fraught with the kind of societal and personal issues that create gulfs (or build bridges) between people.

Director Jon Tracy is especially adept at re-creating a version of real life for the stage that is unflinching, even if that means it’s sometimes hard to watch. This two-person play is, as you might expect of Tracy, so finely calibrated that there’s hardly a pause or a body movement that doesn’t feel at once natural or directly part of the playwright’s vision.

Tracy’s actors pull this off with incredible skill and emotion. Stacy Ross is the teacher, Heather, and Jamie J. Jones is the mom, Corryn. The topic at hand is Corryn’s son, Gidion, who has been suspended. Just why he was so severely disciplined and why this particular conference is so very intense is all part of the mystery and the dramatic motor of the play.

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And though hot-button issues like cyber-bullying and free speech arise, there’s something deeper happening, and it has to do with people who have very different viewpoints about life. It also has to do with core human qualities such as compassion, kindness and hostility. How do people deal with each other, person to person, personally or professionally, when their views of life are so fundamentally opposed?

Neither of these characters is exactly what you’d expect, although you probably know people like them. Heather is brittle, beleaguered and deeply invested in her students. Corryn is brash and honest, which can have the effect of making her unlikable. She’s the kind of person who asks a question and makes you guess at the answer. When you do hazard a guess, she guffaws at the sheer stupidity of your guess. Not so likable, but as she freely admits, she’s been up for 72 hours.

Whatever impression you have of either woman is likely to change – several times – over the course of this provocative play’s 75 minutes. You know it’s 75 minutes because there’s a clock over the classroom door (the same door through which you hear the bustle and see the shadows of the students going by when the bell rings), and the play spins out, sometimes agonizingly, in real time.

There’s some rough stuff in this play – one patch is so rough, in fact, it’s hard not to look around the intimate confines of the Aurora to assess how your fellow theatergoers are taking it all – but playwright Adams isn’t interested in the sensational here. Like Corryn, she’s more interested in honesty, even if it’s uncomfortable or unpleasant.

Gidion’s Knot is a hell of a tangle, and it’s somehow more than a play. It’s an extraordinary experience.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot continues an extended run through March 9 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

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.

Looking at the stars: Cal Shakes fans flames of Wilde’s Winderemere

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The central trio of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan includes (from left) Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Lord Windermere (Aldo Billingslea) and Lady Windermere (Emily Kitchens). The California Shakespeare Theater production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore. Below: Kitchens and Billingslea work through the first big challenge of the Windermeres’ two-year marriage. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you want, as Oscar Wilde did, to make cogent and funny points about men and women, husbands and wives and the notion of good people vs. bad people, what better way to do that than by putting Danny Scheie in a dress and letting him unleash his inner Dame Maggie Smith?

Scheie’s performance as the Duchess of Berwick in the California Shakespeare Theater’s production Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s first major theatrical it, is one of many pleasures in director Christopher Liam Moore’s beguiling production. The play itself remains fascinating and relevant, but oh the visual delights of a period piece!

Set designer Annie Smart has fashioned a spacious London townhouse complete with crystal chandeliers on a terrace with draperies blowing in the cool breezes of Saturday’s beautiful opening-night performance. York Kennedy’s lights add elegance and shadows when appropriate to suit the melodrama. And costumer Meg Neville brings a sly sense of humor to the Victorian costumes, especially for leading lady Emily Kitchens as the young, self-righteous Lady Windermere. Neville makes her look like various slices of cake, with floppy bows and layers of plush stuffing. She’s a little like a little girl playing dress-up, which seems only appropriate given that the play takes her from naive, entitled girl to more worldly woman of experience. For the scandal-plagued Mrs. Erlynne (Stacy Ross), Neville cleverly puts in her in a gorgeous black-and-white gown to underscore the extreme ways the character is perceived — no gray area where she’s concerned.

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And then there’s Scheie, doing a captivating riff on Wilde’s Lady Bracknell as the society matron who pronounces all women good and all men bad. Scheie conquers that tricky territory of high comedy and more serious intent that Wilde explores in Windermere. He lets the audience in on the joke, allows the laughs to come in regular waves but never relinquishes the satirical barbs and their sharp, wounding points.

At this point in the 21st century, Wilde’s late 19th-century play seems so clearly to be about the folly of conservatism, which is really nothing more than closed-mindedness (willful or naturally occurring) or utter denial of human beings’ capacity for complexity and inability to fit neatly into boxes like “good” or “bad.” It makes for delicious theater as Wilde sets up Lady Windermere to believe her husband (the stalwart Aldo Billingslea) is having an affair with the much-gossiped-about Mrs. Erlynne. The whole of London society is buzzing about the seemingly flagrant affair Winderemere and Erlynne are conducting, but appearances are rarely what they seem.

The one complication in Wilde’s formula is that the Lord and his supposed mistress are completely oblivious that their interactions might be construed as adulterous by gossip-minded outside observers. That doesn’t seem quite plausible for two such intelligent characters, but then again, if they’d taken pains to conceal their interactions, we wouldn’t have much of a melodrama, and the melodrama here is such juicy fun.

But again, the fun is constantly tempered by something real. One Wildean character can toss off an aphorism like, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” But later comes an observation like, “There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely — or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.” And sometimes the wit and the sting come packaged neatly together: “Gossip is charming! History is merely gossip. But scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”

There are many levels on which to enjoy Moore’s sturdy production, and the performances allow insight into all of them. Kitchens is a slightly annoying Lady Windermere, a young mother so impressed by her righteousness that she all but collapses when she’s exposed to the real world outside the walls of her comfy cozy ideals. But Ross is a revelation as Mrs. Erlynne, a hardened, bitter woman who discovers she has a heart after all (and she doesn’t like it: “Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old,” she says).

Lady Windermere’s Fan has a lot to say to a country divided by politics, religion and combinations thereof. “Do you know that I am afraid that good people do a great deal of harm in this world? Certainly the greatest harm they do is that they make badness of such extraordinary importance.”

How nice it is to see badness of such goodness on the Cal Shakes stage.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Christopher Liam Moore for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan continues through Sept. 8 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72 (subject to change). Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Cal Shakes runs a free shuttle to and from the Oridna BART station and the theater.