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.

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

Actors put some life in SF Playhouse’s Party

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Light my fire: Bev (Susi Damilano, far left) and Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones) grind into some dirty dancing, while Laurence (Remi Sandri, center) and Sue (Julia Brothers) keep things a little more polite in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Below: the revelers of Abigail’s Party, from left, Allison Jean White, Jones, Brothers, Damilano and Sandri. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

If you’ve seen a Mike Leigh movie, the conversational rhythms and that true-to-life quality of nothing happening/everything happening will seem familiar on stage in Abigail’s Party, a play Leigh devised in 1978 with the help of his actors (Leigh is famous for improvising scripts). Though not nearly as substantial or illuminating as some of Leigh’s best movies – Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Another Year Abigail’s Party has some delightful gin-soaked moments as an older couple and a younger couple mix it up Virginia Woolf-style under the wary (and woozy) eye of a neighbor who would probably rather be anywhere but this party.

At San Francisco Playhouse, director Amy Glazer and her quintet of actors is working wonders with the subtext in Leigh’s script, finding laughs that perhaps Leigh never even knew about. There’s a manic energy to this two-hour production that intensifies with each gin and tonic (for the ladies) or rum and Coke (for the nearly monosyllabic gentleman) or whiskey (for the host). While this can be very entertaining, especially each time the hostess grabs an empty (or nearly empty) glass from someone’s hand and gives them a “little top-up” whether they want it or not, it’s also a little unsettling, which is as it should be.

We’re on Richmond Road in a London suburb. As designed by Bill English, the living room/dining room/kitchen set evokes the late ’70s so perfectly you may feel time travel really is possible.

Beverly (Susi Damilano) and Laurence (Remi Sandri) are hosting a little neighborhood soiree. Their guests are the new couple in the ‘hood, Angela (Allison Jean White) and Patrick Kelly Jones), and Sue (Julia Brothers), whose teenage daughter is having a rowdy party a few houses down where mom is distinctly unwelcome. With her blond hair in a Farrah-like flip and a bright green dress cut down to here (terrific costumes are by Tatjana Genser), Bev is raring for a good time. Laurence is preoccupied with work, and poor Sue, an uncomfortable divorcee, is worried about her daughter (the unseen Abigail of the title), her home and her ability to withstand an evening with her neighbors.

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Sweet-natured, gabby Angela is game for anything and never minds Bev’s constant “topping-up” of her G&T, while Tony grunts an occasional word and makes no move to dissuade Bev from her flagrant flirtation with him. Laurence can’t help but notice the devouring looks being shared between Tony and his wife, and rather than address the situation directly, he reacts in passive-aggressive, wounded-ego ways that only intensify his indigestion.

The party is all fun and games for a while as the booze flows, the cigarettes turn to ash and social formalities begin disintegrating.

The entire cast is wonderful, but Brothers all but steals the show as practically silent Sue. Brothers can say more with a look than anyone else on stage, and she’s brilliant at conveying British reserve and good manners underscored by fear, loathing and utter disgust. It would be hard to tear your eyes away from Brothers if White weren’t so wonderful as Angela. Her accent is spot on, and though Angela can be annoying (you begin to understand why her husband is such a withdrawn caveman), she’s well intentioned and harmless – and in White’s capable hands, hilarious.

When the play decides to veer in a dramatic direction, it goes there in a hurry, and the inevitable hangover the next morning arrives early…and hammers hard. Director Glazer has modulated her production in such a way that the shift in tone isn’t a complete surprise. There are dark, serious currents to even the most frivolous scenes early on (Damilano is especially good conveying the nasty edge to the comedy), so when this party is over, you feel like the revelers are actually getting the evening they deserve.


Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party continues through July 6 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

At SF Playhouse, pretty is as Pretty does

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Craig Marker is Greg and Lauren English is Stephanie in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Patrick Russell as Kent works his testosterone in front of Marker’s Greg. Photos by Jessica Palopoli



I’ve come to learn that when a Neil LaBute play or movie crosses my path, I detour around it, ignore it or make an immediate donation to a women’s support or LBGT organization. LaBute is a really good writer – his ear for dialogue is impeccable, and his ferocity for storytelling is admirable. I just rarely like what his characters have to say or where his stories end up.

That said, LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, now at San Francisco Playhouse, marks the first time I’ve left one of the writer’s play and not wanted to bash my head against the wall on the way out. Sure, there are traces of misogyny, homophobia and racism (mostly coming from the mouth of one classic LaButian male character). But what’s interesting here is that LaBute is being provocative in the name of evolution, of self-actualization, of emotional growth.

There’s not really a two-act play here – more like a 90-minute one act at best – and that becomes apparent after the explosive set-up that opens the show. A couple is in mid-fight. Greg (Craig Marker) has said something thoughtless about Stephanie (Lauren English), his girlfriend of four years. The comment was overheard by Steph’s friend and was immediately reported. Amid a storm of cursing and flailing through their bedroom, Steph forces Greg to admit what he said. “Don’t try and Lance Armstrong your way out of this,” she bellows. And just what was so awful? He described Steph’s looks as “regular.” That unflattering word unnerves Stephanie to her core. It pushes what appears to be her biggest insecurity button, and she flies off the handle. Way off the handle.

The relationship is over primarily because Stephanie doesn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t think she’s beautiful, and Greg, in his bumbling apologies, never quite says the right thing (or even that he loves her). The worst part, Steph says, is that because Greg didn’t know his comment was being overheard, he was saying what was really in his heart.

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The thrust of LaBute’s play is four scenes between Greg and Stephanie: their fight, a follow-up revenge-tinged meeting at a mall food court, a chance encounter at a nice restaurant and a none-too-plausible meeting in the wee hours of the morning at Greg’s workplace.

Marker and English, under the warm, clear-eyed direction of Susi Damilano, are so good they really make this material sing. First off, though, it’s a stretch of the imagination to perceive the stunning English as “regular” (provided “regular” doesn’t mean vibrant and luminous and more emotionally accessible than most of us). But she’s so good at conveying Stephanie’s insecurity, her discomfort in her own body that we buy it. We also see Stephanie mature a little bit with each scene. As unlikely as the last scene is, watching English’s Stephanie step more comfortably in her skin and take more responsibility for her emotional life is the kind of surprising triumph that makes this play more than an exercise in “men are from Mars/women are from Venus” clichés.

Marker carries the weight of the play as Greg, a seemingly educated guy always carrying a book (Poe, Hawthorne, Swift, Irving) who’s stuck in a warehouse job. He’s sleepwalking through life and spending too much time with his college buddy/co-worker Kent (a believably crass Patrick Russell), who is a Grade A asshole. Kent’s undue influence and Greg’s narcotized existence accounts for the “regular” comment, but it’s Stephanie’s extreme reaction that gives Greg’s life the jolt it needs. Her leaving him breaks his habits, and as much as he tries to resume his “regular” life, he can’t do it. He even gets embroiled in Kent’s troubled marriage to Carly (Jennifer Stuckert) and discovers that he actually has morals, has it in him to stand up to bullies and make change in his stalled life.

Even at two acts, LaBute’s play only glances on the deeper psychological workings that make this play less incendiary than some of his previous work, but the excellent actors do a lot to create the necessary depth. And the dynamic set by Bill English, with its dramatic revolutions and realistic details make Reasons prettier than it might otherwise have been.


Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty continues through May 11 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Bloody good opening of a spiffy new Playhouse

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Ashkon Davaran (center) is President Andrew Jackson in Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s new theater. Below: Davaran’s Jackson has an uncharacteristically reflective moment with ensemble player Michael Barrett Austin providing the soundtrack. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Opening nights don’t come much more momentous than Saturday’s gala celebrating three things:

1. San Francisco Playhouse‘s new theater space in the former Post Street Theatre (formerly the Theatre on the Square, formerly an Elks Lodge ballroom)
2. The launch of the Playhouse’s 10th anniversary season
3. And opening night of the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was there to offer a toast (how appropriate – a ham on toast duty) and compared the newly configured space, down from a too-capacious 729 seats to a much cozier and more manageable 200 seats, to a great off-Broadway space, or in this case, “off-Geary” space. He also admitted that he got into politics because he really wanted to act and surprised exactly no one with that admission.

The husband-and-wife team of Bill English, artistic director, and Susi Damilano, producing director, thanked a gazillion people and said that SF Playhouse, now officially known as San Francisco Playhouse, has grown up and what might have belonged to them 10 years ago now belongs to their cohorts, their subscribers and their audiences. How gratifying it is to see a worthy theater copany making such terrific strides. And the new space really is something to be proud of, an intimate experience (like the old space on Sutter Street) on a grander scale. You can just feel the potential in the space itself, which is incredibly exciting.

If the first show in the new space is any indication, that potential will be realized sooner rather than later. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman and a book by Alex Timbers, was a hit off Broadway at the Public Theatre and not a hit when it transferred to Broadway. The concept is immediately appealing: an emo rock musical about the complex life and turbulent times of America’s seventh president aka Old Hickory aka The People’s President.

You expect irreverence, humor and parallels to our own time. You expect fun and ROCK and political cynicism and in-your-face attitude laced with contemporary sass. You definitely get all of that and more, but what’s really interesting about director Jon Tracy’s production is that this is not an easy show. It’s not a crowd pleaser in the way that Rent or American Idiot is. This bloody rose has major thorns.

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When Friedman taps the power of punk and emo and straight-on American rock, he doesn’t do it in a way that mollycoddles his audience. He preserves the fist-to-the-face nature of that music so that in Timbers’ telling of the Jackson story there’s no sentimentality, no rose-colored historical glasses, no getting off the hook for anybody (modern-day audiences included).

“I’m Andrew fucking Jackson! My life sucks in particular,” the young president-to-be sings early in the show, bringing to mind similar expressions in other musicals like “The Bitch of Living” in Spring Awakening or “It Sucks to Be Me” from Avenue Q. But this being emo rock, Jackson’s adolescent self-pity is deep in his bones and provides a signpost for the bloody life that lies ahead.

Ashkon Davaran, the actor now best known for retooling “Don’t Stop Believing” for the San Francisco Giants on their way to the 2010 World Series (if you haven’t seen that extraordinary video, watch it here), is a petulant, hard-driving Jackson with more than a touch of Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong (maybe it’s the black eyeliner). After the death of his family in Tennessee Territory (were they killed by Indians or did they die of cholera?), Jackson becomes a militiaman fighting the British at age 13 and then a spokesmen for the Angry Frontiersman who feel the “doily-wearing muffin tops” in Washington, D.C., all those founding father aristocrats, are doing nothing to defend the frontier from the marauding Indians (who, by the way, were here first).

Fighting the Spanish, the French and the Indians becomes Jackson’s driving purpose, and after the practically doubles the size of the United States with all his battling (including the famous Battle of New Orleans), he becomes the first governor of Florida. When he runs for president on a campaign promoting “maverick egalitarian democracy,” he wins the popular and electoral vote, but slick maneuvering in the back halls of Congress handed the presidency to John Quincy Adams.

Four years later, Jackson runs again, promising all those populist hallmarks: transparency, accountability and open collaboration. “It’s morning again in America,” a citizen sings, and sure enough, Jackson takes the White House. He describes himself as “federal Metamucil” and says, ” I’m going to unclog this fucking system.” But he soon discovers that being president his hard. Democracy is really hard and you can’t really get anything done. So, according to this unsympathetic portrait, he turns his presidency into a personal vendetta against anyone who ever did him wrong (most notably Native Americans who would soon find themselves on the Trail of Tears). “The will of the people can’t stand in my way,” Jackson sings, “won’t stand in my way. How can I tell you how deeply I’ll make them all bleed?”

This is a harsh show, as it should be, and Tracy’s production is rough and keeps its edge through 90 energetic minutes. The members of the ensemble assist musical director Jonathan Fadner in creating the raw sound of the music – they play guitars, cellos (El Beh‘s “Ten Little Indians” is a musical highlight) and drums, and they wail. I wanted more musical finesse in the vocal arrangements, but I guess that kind of polish or intricacy defies the raging spirit of the show.

Nina Ball‘s set is a giant domed scaffolding that seems to be about 10 times the size of the old Playhouse space on Sutter, and it’s the perfect bare-bones environment for what amounts to a musical in the form of a rock concert, complete with flashy (literally) lighting design by Kurt Landisman.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a risky show because its intelligence, impertinence and hostility are embedded in a deeply cynical historical narrative constantly bitch slapped by current events. It’s a major undertaking and a brave one. San Francisco Playhouse is heading into a new and exciting frontier and not just in terms of physical space.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed composer Michael Friedman and Bloody star Ashkon Davaran for a San Francisco Chronicle story. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]

Watch San Francisco Playhouse’s promo video for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson:


Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers’ Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson continues through Nov. 24 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.

Be-handle with care: lost in Spokane

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The best two things about SF Playhouse’s A Behanding in Spokane are Rod Gnapp (left) as Carmichael and Alex Hurt as Mervyn the receptionist. Below: Gnapp surprises Daveed Diggs as Toby and Melissa Quine as Marilyn. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

What did Spokane, Washington ever do to Martin McDonagh? The London-born, Ireland-identified playwright famously wrote six plays, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, in a year and then moved on to film. His short film, Six Shooter, won an Oscar, and he was nominated again for his screenplay to In Bruges (which he also directed).

Then the fiercely talented McDonagh returned to the stage with his first play set in America. A Behanding in Spokane, which ran on Broadway in 2010, is clearly a McDonagh play, what with the desperation, the black comedy and the flying body parts. But this is minor McDonagh, and, in fact, Behanding is a pretty lousy play.

The characters are, at best, sketched in, and the thrust of the play is that cruelty breeds loneliness, young people are idiots and racism is hilarious. There are moments of tension in the play, but they just as quickly go slack, and a 90-minute play ends up feeling like a needlessly prolonged sketch.

Bay Area audiences get their first whack at Behanding in a sturdy production from SF Playhouse, efficiently directed by Susi Damilano and cast with four appealing actors. But try as they might, this team can’t make much of a play that lets them down at every turn.

Rod Gnapp, no stranger to intensity on stage, is Carmichael (a role originated on Broadway by the King of Quirk himself, Christopher Walken), a stranger in town looking for the hand that a group of bullies supposedly removed – with the help of a speeding train – 27 years before. In a stained and decrepit hotel room (realistic set by Bill English), Carmichael is in the midst of a deal gone bad. Two young con artists, Daveed Diggs as Toby and Melissa Quine as Marilyn, have failed in a big way to deliver what they had promised: Carmichael’s long, lost hand.

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Attempts to create tension involving candles in gas cans, handcuffs and guns flare up and fade quickly. The plot, such as it is, goes nowhere, and the play’s conclusion is confusing, sentimental and ridiculous.

Gnapp’s performance as Carmichael delves into some depth, but the skilled actor can only go so far before McDonagh’s shell of a character just crumbles. Alex Hurt is superb as Mervyn, the spaced-out guy from the reception desk who kinda wants to be a hero and kinda has a death wish. For some inexplicable reason, he has a direct-address monologue to the audience that, while funny, is completely out of step with the rest of the play. At least Mervyn offers a fresh perspective on this strange hybrid of noir-meets-Western – film tropes that fail connect on stage.

When Carmichael and Mervyn begin to connect – psychopath attracts psychopath – the play comes to life in a way it hasn’t, but then that promise fades into that previously mentioned horrible ending.

And then there’s the casual racism that’s supposed to be funny, funny in a way that exposes how horrible and out of date it’s supposed to be. But McDonagh has thrown this element into the mix only halfheartedly. Are the nearly 20 mentions of the “n-word” really worth it in the end? Absolutely not – not funny, not interesting, not revealing.

[bonus interview]

I chatted with Behanding director Susi Damilano, actor Rod Gnapp and properties master Jacquelyn Scott for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.


Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane continues through June 30 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Short sweet frolic on the PlayGround

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Michael Phillis (in the refrigerator) and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White’s Frigidaire, one of seven 10-minute plays in Best of Playground 15 at the Thick House. Below: Phillis and Rinabeth Apostol in Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body. Photos by mellopix performance

In the spirit of PlayGround’s annual 10-minute play festival, I’m going to attempt to write a 10-minute review.

The time is 10:40am. Start the clock.

The joy of a short play festival is the utter diversity in style, tone and voice. You can have what amounts to a sketch comedy bumping up against muscular drama, an intriguing fragment or a surprising burst of poetry. All of that happens and more in Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays at the Thick House. The seven plays presented represent the cream of the PlayGround playwriting process, which runs from October through March. A pool of 36 writers is given a topic and then asked to write a 10-minute play on a chosen theme. The best of those plays are given staged readings, and then the best of that bunch makes it to this festival.

Of the seven shows now on display, I can tell you my three clear favorites.

1. Arisa White’s Frigidaire surprises and delights with its twist on the coming out story. A domineering mother (Holli Hornlien) desperately wants her son (Michael Phillis) to be gay. She even goes so far as to force him into the arms of a priest known for his predilection for young boys. But the young man isn’t having it. His mother’s forceful ways – she says it’s her way of building his character – have sent him ’round the bend. He comes home from the latest forced encounter and barricades himself in the fridge. Director Jon Tracy‘s production is funny and powerful.

2. Eveyln Jean Pine’s See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. Takes a familiar scenario – two homeless buddies drinking and arguing – and makes it lyrical and poignant. Nicky (Jomar Tagatac), the younger guy, is a heavy drinker, but all the alcohol can’t quite obscure his hope for a better, more meaningful life. Sammy (David Cramer) has been on the streets too long. His hope doesn’t extend much beyond looking at the rain from the inside of a warm room for a change. Nicky’s latest burst of enthusiasm concerns a quote – he thinks it’s by Jack Kerouac, but it’s really by Eugene O’Neill – and if he cuts up the words of the quote and draws them randomly from a bag, the words create poetry and visions of the future. As directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Pine’s piece is gritty and beautiful.


3. Daniel Heath’s This Is My Body also takes a familiar scenario – two teenagers break into a church for purposes of mischief and, if all goes well, making out. For Cole (Phillis), the escapade doesn’t really amount to much more than swiping some wine and coaxing his partner in crime up to a cozy nook. But for Sophie (Rinabeth Apostol), the church and its rituals actually mean something. Susie Damilano’s direction and the actors’ shapr performances create palpable tension – and heat.

OK. Stop the clock. It’s 10:50. I’m breaking the rules and extending my time long enough to mention that the festival also includes Katie May’s cute Rapunzel’s Etymology of Zero: A Feminist Fairy Tale; Jonathan Luskin’s Ecce Homo, a tribute to the durability of vaudevillians; Mandy Hodge Rizvi’s ambitious Escapades: A ballet with dialogue, or a dance through time and memory; and Brady Lea’s musical Calling the Kettle, with music by Christopher Winslow.

It’s all thoroughly enjoyable and nicely produced. Time spent on this PlayGround is always time spent with intriguing new writers from whom we’ll be hearing more in the future.


Best of Playground 15: A Festival of New Writers & New Plays continues through May 29 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 415-992-6677 or visit

You should also check out PlayGround’s staged readings of new plays at the Thick House. Still to come are Stiff Competition by Cass Brayton (2pm, May 15); A Marriage by Tom Swift (7pm, May 16); Book Club! The Musical by Geetha Reddy (2pm, May 22); Cristina Walters by Malachy Walsh (7pm, May 23); and Valley of Sand by Trevor Allen (2pm, May 29).


Musical Coraline is creepy, kooky, altogether ooky

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Brian Degan Scott as Mr. Bobo and Maya Donato as Coraline in the SF Playhouse production of Coraline. Below: Scott (left), Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


A door presents itself. You enter. Suddenly you’re immersed in a warped version of reality.

That’s what happens to 9-year-old Coraline, the heroine of Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name when she unlocks a door in her creaky new house. And that’s what happens to audiences that venture into Coraline the musical by David Greenspan (book) and Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) now at SF Playhouse.

This looks like a children’s musical, but there’s a twist. Things are pretty creepy in this tweak-y world. And it sort of sounds like a musical, though this is about as far away from Rodgers and Hammerstein as you can get and still be in a theater.

SF Playhouse’s Coraline looks just right. The black-and-white set (by director Bill English and Matt Vuolo) looks like a storybook haunted house, and when Coraline slips through that locked door and enters an alternate reality, Michael Osch’s lights kick into blacklight gear, with fluorescent colors cracking the darkness. The same is true of Valera Coble’s costumes – shades of black, white and gray give way to crispy fluorescents once Coraline encounters the mirror-image “others” on the other side of the door. Oh, and the others also come equipped with button eyes – a truly creepy feature.

The 90-minute show begins with the entire cast gathered around toy pianos, plunking out indecipherable melodies. Then the musical duties are handed over to musical director Robert Moreno (tucked behind the set), who is playing piano, toy piano and prepared piano (prepared with nuts, bolts, playing cards, earplugs, paperclips and anything else handy that might warp and twist Merritt’s music).

As much as I wanted to, I did not enjoy Coraline. It’s a half-hearted musical that never comes fully to life. Henry Selick’s movie version was much livelier and a lot more fun. Greenspan’s book follows the Gaiman novel pretty faithfully (more than the movie does), but Merritt’s music is challenging to the point of being dull. There’s an occasional flash of humor or snippet of melody to latch onto, and the musical mayhem toward the end is interesting. But the score mostly drones and plunks and fizzles. It’s like when Danny Elfman wrote music for The Nightmare Before Christmas – it should have been much better than it was, but Elfman, like Merritt, comes from the pop world and doesn’t really seem to know or care how songs function in a musical.

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That said, I adored 12-year-old Maya Donato as Coraline (she alternates in the role with Julia Belanoff). With a crisp British accent, she essentially carries the show and serves as our tour guide through the weirdness. Stacy Ross also shines as Other Mother, the button-eyed villainess intent upon enticing Coraline into her twisted lair. The bigger Ross’ hair gets, the more fun she is. By the end of the show, she has become a spider-like version of a giant hand, complete with bright red fingernail polish (puppets are by Christopher W. Wright).

Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry are having fun as Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, two old-maid actresses who live in the flat above Coraline and her family. With their herd of terriers, these doddering old ladies get the best song in the show, “Theatre Is Fun.”

The whiff of Oz and Wonderland pervade Gaiman’s world, though it’s not as much fun as any of its progenitors. Musically speaking, the show comes to life only at the end, as the ensemble – which also includes Jackson Davis, Brian Degan Scott and Brian Yates Sharber – sings “One Long Fairytale,” which encourages youngsters to “keep chasing your tale.” That’s good advice. The chase may lead to tales even more interesting than this one.



Read my interview with composer Stephin Merritt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here.



Coraline continues through Jan. 15 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415 677-9596 or visit for information.

Duct tape and yuks: holding comedy hostage

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Above photo: Ashkon Davaran (left) and Casey Jackson in Den of Thieves at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli. Photo below: Tommy A. Gomez and Lucinda Serrano in Sunsets and Margaritas, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

How strange it is to see two wildly different comedies at two different theaters and find they have something in common: plot twists that involve the restraining of characters by tying them down with duct tape.

Since when did that become an element of slapstick? Has someone alerted Abbott and Costello?

At the SF Playhouse, more than half the cast spends the second act bound to chairs with duct tape and plastic wrap (with extra cling, no doubt) in Stephen Adley Guirgis’ Den of Thieves. And down in Palo Alto at the Lucie Stern Theatre, the TheatreWorks production of Sunsets and Margaritas by José Cruz González also hauls out the sturdy gray multi-use tape to restrain a major character. One more instance of this and we’d have ourselves a trend (apparently a trend only requires a trio of appearances).

Perhaps the Guirgis use of severe restraint should be less surprising, given the writer’s time on the writing staffs of shows like The Sopranos and NYPD Blue. In his comedy (one of his earlier, slighter efforts that lacks the heft of later shows like Our Lady of 121st Street or Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train), desperate characters, none of whom are terribly bright, embark on a too-easy-to be-true heist and end up paying for their lack of proper research.

Director Susi Damilano grounds the comedy in realism, and she’s helped immensely by Bill English’s superb set, which turns a grimy New York apartment into a sinister disco basement during an impressive Act 2 scene change. The stage looks like the real world, and that makes the characters seem truer and more recognizable. That helps the comedy a lot and gives this Sopranos-lite script a greater sense of fun and comic adventure.

Damilano also gets some delicious performances from her cast. Casey Jackson is superb as Paul a young man who never met an addiction or obsession he couldn’t conquer through a handy 12-step program. Such groups receive a hearty amount of ridicule here, but there’s also an underlying respect for the powerful potential for change these programs can offer. As the adopted son of a Jewish family, Paul has a family legacy in the form a grandfather who worked as a skilled safe cracker with a group known as the Den of Thieves. The Den would pull heists then give all the money to local charities. Paul thinks he can do the same when he gets mixed up with a small-time hood named Flaco.

Flaco (an astute, very funny Chad Deverman) is a wannabe Latino gang-banger who hatches the easy-peezy scheme that goes awry. He’s still pining for his ex, Maggie (Kathryn Tkel), who’s working through her own pick-pocketing, kleptomania, compulsive over-eating issues. But being a ladies’ man, Flaco isn’t letting his broken heart get in the way of dating a stripper named Boochie (Corinne Proctor tickles every conceivable laugh from this familiar role). The comedy ramps up a few notches with the arrival of Ashkon Davaran as Little Tuna, a mobster with what appears to be a fully functioning human heart. His cohorts, Sal (Peter Ruoco) and Big Tuna (Joe Madero), are straight from gangland central casting.

Things get really interesting in Act 2 when the comedy gives way to actual drama, and the characters begin showing a little depth. Duct-taped and plastic-wrapped to their chairs, the would-be criminals are forced to decide amongst themselves which of them should be sacrificed as a mob hit. This is where we see the more soulful and searing Guirgis of the later plays, and Damilano and her actors do a terrific job hijacking the comedy by inserting from heartfelt drama. Den of Thieves steals plenty of laughs but cracks the safe only to find drama in the vault.

Sunsests and Margaritas

Down at TheatreWorks’ Sunsets and Margaritas, the duct tape comes in handy when a wily older gentleman becomes too much for his family to handle. On the anniversary of his wife’s death and facing possible imprisonment in a senior home, Candelario Serrano has chosen to lose his mind. After crashing his car through the wall of his restaurant and terrorizing the town with a gun (and with glimpses of him in his boxer shots), Candy has been captured by his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren and taped to a dolly.

It would certainly be easier to wheel the old man into the home while he’s taped up, but playwright González isn’t after heavy drama or even light drama. He’s after laughs, and that’s mostly what he gets in this affable comedy that feels mere inches away from being a weekly half-hour installment on Fox. Working with director Amy Gonzalez (no relation), he and a likeable cast do a sort of Latino version of Neil Simon. Instead of neurotic New Yorkers we get a middle-age son dealing with his much-macho father, his kids (a clothing designer son in a souped-up electric wheelchair and a lesbian Republican daughter) and his world-weary but loving wife.

Tommy A. Gomez as Gregorio, the son, keeps doing the equivalent of smacking his forehead and muttering, “Ay, dios mio!” by breathing into a paper bag and hallucinating that he’s seeing the Virgin of Guadalupe (a very funny and frisky Lucinda Serrano).

Just how the familial farce ends up with grandpa bound in duct tape is somewhat mysterious. But you know, there’s a lesson here. When life spins out of control, reach for the duct tape.

In comedy, apparently, nothing captures attention more than characters restrained by duct tape. It’s practically a trend. You heard it here first, folks.


SF Playhouse’s Den of Thieves continues through April 17 at 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415 677-9596 or visit

TheatreWorks’ Sunsets and Margaritas continues through April 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $24-$62. Call 650 463-1960 or visit

Review: `Dead Man’s Cell Phone’

Opened May 9, 2009 at SF Playhouse

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Jackson Davis and Amy Resnick are Dwight and Jean, two lovers awash in a sea of cynicism, stationery and sentiment in Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at SF Playhouse. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.

In Ruhl’s quirky `Phone,’ we get the message

There are few things more enjoyable, theatrically speaking, than watching Amy Resnick on stage. The veteran Bay Area actor fascinates, compels and entertains in ways entirely her own. She’s completely reliable and always surprising.

In Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone, now at the SF Playhouse, Resnick has found an ideal role: Jean, a seemingly nondescript woman who happens to be in a café eating lobster bisque when the guy next to her ups and dies. When his cell phone keeps ringing, she answers it and, in a manner of speaking, finds her calling. Jean is a blank slate, quite literally. Here’s what we find out about her life over the course of the play’s two hours: she reads in cafes, she likes lobster bisque, she’s a vegetarian (one that apparently eats shellfish), she’s a little bit religious, she occasionally goes to the pharmacy, she works in the office of a Holocaust museum and she is titillated by the feel of quality stationery.

Oh, and Jean lies. With good intentions.

In some ways, Ruhl’s play is like a Frank Capra movie. Jean is sort of an angel who wants to reassure the people in the dead man’s life – his name was Gordon, he did something really creepy and immoral for a living – that Gordon was a good man who, despite his behavior, really and truly loved and valued them. The only way she can do that is by lying to them, making up Gordon’s good intentions. She presents gifts he supposedly wanted his mother, his widow and his brother to have. She tells the widow and the mistress exactly what they want to hear to make them think Gordon loved them sexually and emotionally.

It’s extraordinary how much she lies – and how much her lies mean.

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But this isn’t Frank Capra, and Jean is not a kindly spirit helping Gordon get his angel’s wings. This is a Sarah Ruhl play, which means it’s a peculiar play in the best sense. We’ve seen Ruhl’s work at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (the exquisite Eurydice and, more recently, the fascinating In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) and at TheatreWorks (The Clean House). She’s one of the hottest playwrights in the country and for good reason. Her work is like nothing on television. She’s a deeply intelligent and emotional writer unafraid of connecting with her audience. Dead Man’s Cell Phone (also being done at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season) is Ruhl working in a lighter vein, but there’s still an undercurrent of darkness, and she’s unafraid, even in a quirky romantic comedy such as this, to indulge her fascination with death and the afterlife.

Ruhl’s work is all about connection, or lack thereof, and in Dead Man, she focuses in on cell phones. Jean describes not having a cell before she “inherited” Gordon’s because she liked to “disappear.” “But it’s like when everyone has their cell phone on, no one is there. It’s like we’re all disappearing the more we’re there.”

Jean is something of an innocent – perhaps psychologically damaged, we don’t know – and Resnick imbues this cipher with a rich inner life. There’s much about Jean we don’t know, but with Resnick inhabiting her skin, we know all we need to know about her compassion, her depth of feeling, her best intentions, her sentimentality.

Ruhl courts sentiment here as a defense. The play’s most touching scenes are between Resnick’s Jean and Jackson Davis as Dwight, Gordon’s brother. The two bond over caramel popcorn then visit Dwight’s stationery store, where they promptly fall in love. Dwight likes that she’s sentimental. “No one wants to remember anything,” he says. “I want to remember everything,” Jean answers, “even other people’s memories.”

Dwight hates the digital world because it’s so impermanent. “All the digital…stuff…the information bits..flying through the air. No one wants to remember People say I love you on cell phones and where does it go? No paper. Remembering requires paper.”

Ruhl is an extraordinary writer, and her brilliance rings throughout Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Director Susi Damilano’s efficient production can’t quite overcome the moments when Ruhl runs out of imagination in the second act – Jean ends up, improbably, in Johannesburg and then with Gordon in sort of a heavenly way station. Some of the smaller roles don’t quite land because the comic/dramatic tone of the play keeps shifting.

Joan Mankin, as Gordon’s mother, delivers a hilariously heartbreaking eulogy about vaulted ceilings and using cell phones on the toilet, and Rachel Klyce as Gordon’s widow gets a fun drunken scene with Resnick that turns on sexual frustration.

SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English, who also plays Gordon, designed the set, which had a few stumbles on opening night. Ruhl’s plays require a fluid, almost cinematic production with highly theatrical flourishes, and while the intimacy of SF Playhouse is great for actors like Resnick, the small space can sometimes cramp the ambitions of the play itself.

Even with the uneven second act, Dead Man’s Cell Phone rights itself by the end, and the final scene (involving Resnick and Jackson, naturally) is one of the most potent in recent memory, sentimentality and all.


Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone continues through June 13 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.


Bill English and Susi Damilano have announced the 2009-10 SF Playhouse season, which will be themed as “The Power of Laughter.”

  • The world premiere of Billy Aronson’s First Day of School directed by Chris Smith (Sept. 23-Nov.)
  • David Greenspan’s She Stoops to Comedy directed by Mark Rucker (Nov. 18-Jan. 8 )
  • Amy Glazer directs a play TBA (Jan. 20-Feb. 27)
  • Stephen Adley Guirgis’ Den of Thieves director TBA (March 10-April 17)
  • Allison Moore’s Slasher, director TBA (April 28-June 5)
  • Terrence McNally and David Yazbek’s musical The Full Monty (June 16-Sept. 5)

Review: ‘Bug’

At The SF Playhouse through June 14

Susi Damilano is Agnes and Gabriel Marin is Peter in Tracy Letts’ Bug at the SF Playhouse. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.


It sure is fun to watch an audience squirm. It’s even more fun to be part of that squirming audience.

Tracy Letts’ Bug, now at the SF Playhouse’s intimate, creepy-crawly theater space, has some juicy moments that make the audience cringe collectively. What else do you do when a probably crazy man attempts to extract one of his own molars with a pair of pliers? You squirm. You cringe. You have a good time – if horror-type thrills are your idea of a good time.

When it comes right down to it, Letts’ Bug, which has been a hit in London and off-Broadway, is a mix of paranoid sci-fi thriller from the 1950s and 1970s white-trash B movie. The fact that Letts is a skillful enough writer to make it all seem much more important means the work seems somehow more important than it actually is, and that’s a good trick. Bug is more fun than Letts’ trashy Killer Joe, which the Bay Area saw when Marin Theatre Company transferred its successful production to San Francisco. And it’s probably not as good as August: Osage County, the Broadway drama that just won Letts a Pulitzer Prize.

In Bug, Letts is dealing with lonely people and a whopper of a conspiracy theory, which makes them both feel a whole lot less lonely. Agnes (Susi Damilano) lives in a skeezy Oklahoma hotel room. She’s terrified her ex-husband, Jerry (John Flanagan) will get out of jail and come back to terrorize her some more. One night, while killing the pain with her friend R.C. (Zehra Berkman) and several lines of coke and a few puffs off the ol’ pipe, Agnes meets Peter (Gabriel Marin), a shy, intelligent drifter who needs a place to stay for the night.

You don’t have to ask Agnes twice. Just make her a cocktail – vodka and Coke – and you’re in. It won’t take long to learn Agnes’ biggest sorrow: her 6-year-old son disappeared from the grocery store about 10 years ago. Life just hasn’t been the same since. While Steve Wonder’s “Superstitious” plays on the radio, Agnes and Peter waltz through their strange courtship ritual. Agnes bares her soul and Peter theorizes about how none of us is ever really safe because of the chemicals, the technology and the information out there being generated by people and their machines.

Ah, the wondrous smell of romance and paranoia. Such a heady combination.

The titular bug first appears in the form of a chirping cricket, which actually turns out to be a faulty smoke alarm, which turns out to be more radioactive than plutonium (funny how you don’t read about that on the smoke alarm box). Then, one amorous evening, Peter awakes to find bug bites on his arm. He discovers aphids – he calls them plant lice – in the bed and the bug adventure really begins.

Peter sucks Agnes into his buggy world, a horrific place where soldiers are experimented on by demented doctors in the hope of creating bio chips to mark every human being since 1982. Or something like that. Peter, it turns out, is on the run and can’t let the bad people find him. They’re the ones that infested him with bugs. And Agnes believes every word.

Marin brings incredible intensity to his performance. When it looks like Agnes might leave him, Peter throws an incredible fit – it’s a wonder Marin doesn’t destroy Bill English’s superb hotel room set with his thrashing about. There’s also quietness in Peter – a sort of dim light of intelligence that belies all the weird stuff and makes you wish we were meeting him under less exterminating circumstances.

Damilano’s naturalness makes Agnes likable and understandable. We feel for her and watch helplessly as she gets sucked into the paranoia. There’s an incredible scene in Act 2, really the heart of the play, when Letts gives Agnes a monologue that makes a case for human faith, intelligence and gullibility as interchangeable pieces of our brain structure. Damilano sinks her teeth into the moment and makes it as powerful as it is sad.

Director Jon Tracy goes less for horror than for humor in this production. In Act 2, the tension goes slack when it should be taut, but Damilano and Marin (who appears bloody and shirtless through much of the play) somehow keep the play on track, making this a dramatic infestation you don’t mind squirming your way through.

Bug continues through June 14 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.