SF Mime Troupe rocks the boat in Ripple Effect

Mime Troupe 2
Lisa Hori-Garcia (left, as Jeanine Adenauer), Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (center, as Sunny Nguyen) and Velina Brown (as Deborah Johnson) in this year’s San Francisco Mime Troupe free show Ripple Effect. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

I must admit that for a while there, I ceased looking forward to the July Fourth debut of the latest San Francisco Mime Troupe show at Dolores Park. The productions were feeling slack or worse, forced. The writing was off and the politics came off as strident or silly rather than relevant or even entertaining.Happy to report that this year’s show, Ripple Effect, is a major improvement. Much of the credit must go to writers Tanya Shaffer and Eugenie Chan, who co-wrote the show along with the Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan. Very smart to tap two of the Bay Area’s most interesting playwrights.

I reviewed Ripple Effect for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sampling:

This year’s offering, “Ripple Effect,” which opened, as tradition dictates, in Dolores Park on the Fourth of July, could be full of rage, disgust and an overwhelming sense of injustice. And it is, to a degree. But it’s wrapped in a brightly written, laugh-laden, altogether chipper package that makes it one of the most enjoyable Mime Troupe outings in recent memory.

As written by Michael Gene Sullivan, Eugenie Chan and Tanya Shaffer, “Ripple Effect” takes its time working the audience into a fit of San Francisco outrage (about life in San Francisco no less), but by the end, fists are pumping and everyone’s chanting, “Justice rules and the Earth comes first!”

Though tech companies, outrageous rents and the displacement of San Francisco’s working class are the obvious fuel for this year’s show, the focus is personal.

Read the full review here.

And one of the best parts of this year’s Mime Troupe experience: bringing Fanny, the original Theater Dog, who doesn’t actually get to see much theater. She had a splendid time as well.

Fanny Mime Troupe

San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Ripple Effect tours Bay Area and Northern California parks through Sept. 1. Shows are free. Call 415-285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.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.

Spirited new musical Messenger really delivers

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Young journalist Raina (Anna Ishida, right) arrives at Mama Sid’s (Annemaria Rajala) ashram to reveal the secrets of the world-renowned spiritual teacher’s past in the world premiere of The Fourth Messenger by Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng. Below: Sid’s father Sunny (Will Springhorn, Jr., center) and his neighbors sing about Bois Riche, the town he built to keep his daughter safe. Photos by Mike Padua

Beautiful, ambitious and with the kind of depth we’ve come not to expect from musicals, The Fourth Messenger is a triumph. This world-premiere work is not perfect…yet. But if any new homegrown musical were even half this good it would be considered a major success.

With a book by Tanya Shaffer, music by Vienna Teng and lyrics by both creators, The Fourth Messenger wants to tell an epic story in an intimate way, and in the most essential ways, that works. Shaffer’s book brims with intelligence and wit and Teng’s music feels rich in original ways, full of melody and intricacy captured expertly by musical director Christopher Winslow and his four-piece orchestra (the cello and woodwinds are especially expressive).

Director Matt August’s thoughtful yet robust production at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley has some rough edges, but it works because the story is strong. Taking a cue from other religious tales-turned musicals like Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, The Fourth Messenger turns to one of the greatest stories ever told, but this time it’s the life of Buddha that comes singing to the stage.

Shaffer has re-imagined young Siddhartha as Sid Arthur, a woman destined to change the lives of many on the planet. As we see from the cover of Time magazine, Mama Sid, as she is known by her followers, is a celebrity guru. She has carefully shielded certain parts of her life story from her minions, and that has piqued the interest of Raina, a journalist at Debunk Nation, who will go undercover at Mama Sid’s Newfoundland compound and uncover all the dirt.

Still grieving from the recent death of her father, Raina’s visit will turn out to be surprising on a number of fronts, more personal than professional. And what’s most interesting about this tale, which adheres fairly closely to Buddha’s life, from his exposure to the four messengers (sickness, old age, death and hope) to his visitation by temptations as he seeks spiritual nirvana.

Along the way we get some spirited numbers, like “Monkey Mind,” an ode to silent meditation and the brain’s resistance to quiet, and “Bois Riche,” a flashback look at Sid’s childhood in a gated community created to shield her from the inevitable horrors of the world. There are also sterling ballads, like Raina’s “The Story Is Mine,” which is reprised to great effect several times (especially at the end) and Sid’s “Force of Nature.”

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Working with choreographer Bridgette Loriaux, director August keeps the show moving at quite a clip (running time is just under 2 1/2 hours). Set designer Joe Ragey helps considerably with a simple but elegant set of wood and white (nicely lit by Steven B. Mannshardt) that conveys the wintry landscape of Mama Sid’s ashram and easily becomes many other locations.

Act 2 falls into soap operatics, which can be rewarding, but we also lose sight to some degree of Mama Sid’s empire and how followers are so anxious to deify their gurus, who are, after all, only human. There’s an interesting question here: if someone’s teachings are powerful and effective, does that person’s personal life and personal choices – whether we know about them or not—disqualify the teaching in any way? Or the teacher?

Those questions get subsumed by the Sid-Raina relationship, and that’s understandable, but some aspects of the larger story here are still waiting to be told (or sung).

That said, what’s here is compelling from beginning to end. The balance between humor and drama is nicely maintained, and the cast, in spite of some vocal limitations, rises to most of the score’s challenges. Anna Ishida as Raina effectively conveys barely contained rage and hurt, and Annemaria Rajala is commanding and almost ethereal as a highly believable Mama Sid. Among the spirited ensemble, Reggie White, Jackson Davis, Barnaby James, Will Springhorn Jr. and Cathleen Riddley all have standout moments.

By the final song, “As Long as I Am Living/Look to the Thought (Reprise),” the power of this story and Teng’s music combines in such a way that makes musical theater the best possible choice for this re-telling of an ancient tale. A smart producer will see the potential in this show – so abundantly displayed in this production – and help take it to the next level. It’s time for The Fourth Messenger to attain and share its own nirvana with a much wider audience.


[bonus interview]
I interviewed Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng about the creation of The Fourth Messenger for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

The Fourth Messenger by Tanya Shaffer and Vienna Teng continues through March 10 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $23-$40. Visit thefourthmessenger.com.