Riveting drama in Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew

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Christian Thompson (left) is Dez, Margo Hall is Faye (center) and Lance Gardner is Reggie in the Marin Theatre Company/TheatreWorks Silicon Valley co-production of Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Kevin Berne

What an incredible talent to balance the dark weight of tragedy and the electrifying light of hope. That’s what playwright Dominique Morisseau does in Skeleton Crew, a powerful play now at Marin Theatre Company (in a co-production with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley). It’s a workplace drama set in a Detroit auto plant, so that pretty much tells you how bleak it is. But the four characters we meet here are not hopeless, nor are they whiny pits of despair.

The extraordinary Margo Hall heads a strong cast, and the show is definitely worth seeing. I reviewed it for TheatreMania.com. Here’s a taste.

For the play’s two riveting hours, director Jade King Carroll brings out humor and heartache in almost equal measure and works in concert with Morisseau to push the drama as far as it can go without tipping into melodrama. When a story deals with life and death, rage and resignation, the threat of violence and the spark of young love, things could easily slip into soap opera territory. But that never happens here. Carroll, Morisseau, and a quartet of fine actors focus instead on reality and dignity.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, a co-production of Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley, continues through Feb. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $22-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org. TheatreWorks presents the show March 7-April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Glickman prize forJulia Cho’s Aubergine

Julia Cho
Julia Cho (Photo by Jennie Warren)

Julia Cho’s Aubergine is the winner of the 2016 Glickman Award for the best new play to make its world premiere in the Bay Area. Aubergine was developed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’ Ground Floor, Center for the Creation and Development of New Work. The drama about a terminally ill father and his chef son opened in February at Berkeley Rep and was the first production in the newly refurbished and renamed Peet’s Theatre.

Aubergine received a warm critical welcome, including from me. Read my review here. The show also landed at the top of my 2016 list of most memorable theatrical experiences (read that story here).

The Glickman Award is awarded annually by a committee comprising Bay Area critics. This year’s committee included Jean Schiffman of the San Francisco Examiner Robert Avila of povertyartsjournal.com, Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, Chad Jones of TheaterDogs.net and Sam Hurwitt of the Bay Area Newsgroup and the Marin Independent Journal.

The award, which comes with a $4,000 cash prize for the playwright and a certificate for the producing company, will be presented at the Theatre Bay Area annual conference on March 13.

Honorable mention goes to the two runners-up that comprise the top three contenders in this year’s batch of local world premieres: Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry at Z Space (read my review here) and Theresa Rebeca’s Seared at San Francisco Playhouse (read my review here). It was a strong year for new plays.

Here’s a complete list of Glickman Award winners (the award is made in the year following the show’s premiere):

2016 in a word, Lauren Yee (San Francisco Playhouse)
2015 The House that will not Stand, Marcus Gardley (Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
2014 Ideation, Aaron Loeb (San Francisco Playhouse)
2013 The Hundred Flowers Project, Christopher Chen (Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation)
2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski et al (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)

Local kids make good, rock out in Hedwig

Lena Hall 1
San Francisco native Lena Hall reprises her Tony Award-winning role in the Broadway touring company of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Below: Former “Glee” heartthrob Darren Criss, also a San Francisco native, plays internationally ignored song stylist Hedwig in the show at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photos by Joan Marcus

The coolness of Lena Hall and Darren Criss relates directly to the city of their birth. The two performers, one a Tony Award-winning Broadway star and the other a former object of “Glee” affection, are headlining the Broadway tour of the raging rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which begins Sunday, Oct. 2 at the Golden Gate Theatre in their hometown, San Francisco.

In advance of the tour launch and its stars’ homecoming, SHN, the resident producer, held an onstage conversation for its subscribers and guests with Hall, Criss and Hedwig composer/lyricist Stephen Trask. The event featured a chat with interviewer Adam Savage (of “MythBusters” fame) and there was music from the show. Here are some highlights, including video footage of both musical performances.

Let’s start with Criss, Hall and Trask performing “Sugar Daddy.

Lena Hall was a cat who rocked: Hall was on Broadway in Cats when she saw Hedwig in its off-Broadway run starring its co-creator John Cameron Mitchell. “I had no idea what the show was and just showed up at the Jane Street Theatre and literally had my mind blown,” Hall says. “By the end my hands were in the air, I was sobbing. I got the cast album immediately and listened to it for years straight. It was the first time I had seen a piece of theater that broke the mold of what I thought musical theater had to be. It was the first time I had seen rock music truly represented in perfect form in a theater piece. That was so exciting for me as a nerd rock kid – both loves combine din one piece. To this day, that cast recording is among my favorites.”

Stephen Trask on the origin of Hedwig and “The Origin of Love”: Collaborating with Mitchell on what was going to be an autobiographical piece about past lovers, Trask had already written “The Origin of Love” (inspired by a story in Plato’s Symposium), but then the project stalled. “John was talking about his life, and I was taking notes on a legal pad when he started talking about a babysitter he’d had who lived in a trailer. He would go to her trailer and act out songs and dance for her, and she would give him vodka. she also had a lot of dates, which was weird because she wasn’t attractive and she didn’t always know who the dates were. The dates would come to the trailer, and they’d peek out at them. If they looked OK, John would run out the back door, but if the date didn’t look OK, they’d both run out the back door. I was working at a drag club called Squeezebox every Friday night doing punk rock, and one night, we brought in a song we’d written, ‘Wicked Little Town,’ thinking that the babysitter character would be one of the main character’s past lovers and appear in one scene. It was an instant hit. We started getting bookings in clubs, so we wrote more until it became obvious this character was going to be in more than one scene.”

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Darren Criss did not shower with Stephen Trask to get this job.: While attempting to shower Trask with compliments, Criss made what he called a Freudian slip and said that he had showered with Trask, which got a big laugh. That then became a running joke about how Criss ended up playing Hedwig on Broadway (following Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Michael C. Hall and Mitchell himself (after Criss, Taye Diggs closed the show). The real story is that Trask saw Criss at the Broadway opening night and asked him to do it. Trask says the extent of Criss’ audition was him saying, “Let me check my schedule.” Criss is a little more serious about tackling such a daunting role as Hedwig, an immigrant from East Germany, a person who is a unique gender unto her/himself and who expresses the deepest of emotions through searing and tender and kick-ass and deep rock ‘n’ roll songs. “Inevitably, everybody who has ever played Hedwig is part of this narrative,” Criss says. “The team, right down to costumes and producers, has been pretty much the same since off Broadway. When someone says so-and-so did this, I don’t take offense. It’s part of the throughline. Not every Hamlet willl have talked to every other Hamlet, so the fact that I get to do this is really cool. I don’t know what I specifically bring to it. The coolest feedback I’ve gotten was one day on Broadway, a Wednesday, a two-show day. Afterwards, one guy says, ‘You’ve got to be the meanest Hedwig I’ve seen.’ Then, further down the line, another guy says, ‘You’re one of the sweeter Hedwigs.’ I think that’s probably the variable of the audience. That give and take can yield certain attitudes sometimes. Each show really is different.”

Lena Hall gives the best audition ever. So good they teach it in classes.: Hall calls her audition epic, and she means it. Though she was in a hit show, Kinky Boots, Hall knew she wanted to be in the Broadway production of Hedwig. “No ifs, ands or buts,” she says. “To audition for Yitzhak, I showed up as a man. Brought my guitarist from my band to be my accompanist. He went in first, I followed with my Marshall amp. We plugged in and I sang a song that was not on the audition list, Lita Ford’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly.’ Then sang ‘The Long Grift’ from the show. At my final callback, I did all material from the show. The instructions were to tell a story, tell a joke and never break character. They would ask me questions and I would improv a scene with John. I was such a fan that even being in the room with Stephen and John was heart attack city. So, on a Wednesday, between the matinee and evening show, I got into my Yitzhak drag and told a story about Yitzhak coming from a small town in Croatia, the sole producer of the yak hair used in the costumes made for Cats. It was a boomtown, which is how I knew about theater. The town went under when Cats closed on Broadway and his mother, who hoarded yak hair and made a sofa out of it, died in a fire after smoking a cigar. All that was left was a cassette of the Rent cast album. Yitzhak saw that as a sign from his mother to follow his dreams to Broadway. He shows up at the theater, but Rent has been replaced by Newsies. So my idea was this: I would get the audition room to donate to my Kickstarter fund to bring Rent back so I could play Angel. I made a 2 1/2-minute video, which I played them on my laptop. The whole time I’m thinking, ‘This is brilliant. I’m nailing it. But there was not a sound. Nobody laughed. John Cameron Mitchell made a sort of a noise at one point. Then I figured I bombed, blew it. I did my songs. Did my improv with John, which involved him kissing me. I was late for my half-hour call back at my show.” Of course she got the job. Trask says: “It was the best audition ever. People look at the tape of that audition and show it in acting classes. That’s how to audition for a show. Literally the best audition ever.”

We don’t like to talk about Ally Sheedy: Hall is making Hedwig history by being the first woman to play Yitzhak and Hedwig in the same production. She’ll take over the lead from Criss once a week. She’s not the first woman to play Hedwig, however. That honor fell to Ally Sheedy of The Breakfast Club fame. “They don’t like to mention Ally Sheedy,” Hall says, to which Trask adds, “She did Alley Sheedy for three hours in a modified Hedwig costume.” Criss says: “No one is more qualified than Lena Hall to do this. She’s like our next president: she’s been around, knows what to do and is, in fact, overqualified. I hope you all get to see her perform.”

And finally, here is Lena Hall, butt naked: Once again referring to how Criss showered with Trask to get the job, Hall says she has a story about the first preview of Hedwig on Broadway. “We didn’t know how it would play with the audience, and it was mind blowing,” Hall remembers. “I’m in my dressing room butt naked. BUTT NAKED. Nothing covering anything. I keep it clean down there, so I’m out for the world to see. With not even a knock, Stephen and John walk in. ‘You were so great!’ And they hug me. Finally I look at Stephen. He looks down. ‘Can you guys leave? Can I put a robe on?’ ‘Oh, we don’t care,’ they said. ‘I care!'” Next stop, Tony Award for featured actress in a musical.

Now let’s wrap up with some musical genius. Lena Hall takes lead vocal on “Midnight Radio.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs Oct.2 through 30 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$212 (subject to change). Visit www.shnsf.com.

Theater Dogs at 10: A not-so-gala tencennial

Ghost Light

On August 1, 2006, a little theater blog called Theater Dogs (thank you, Paul Rudnick for the name and for the story behind the name) came into being, and 10 years later, here we are.

As the 10th anniversary approached, I thought about how I might like to celebrate. Perhaps a party where theater people might imbibe generously and give me fodder for turning this into a gossip rag. Perhaps a limited edition T-shirt followed by posts full of photos of readers wearing the T-shirt (I’ve actually wanted to do that for years). Maybe nothing at all. Or maybe, just maybe, it was time to let Theater Dogs crawl back into the dog house from whence it came. After all, this amiable pursuit doesn’t provide me income of any kind and, in fact, can take away time from the job that a) I love and b) allows me to survive in this increasingly non-survivable city. Rather than do anything drastic like throw a party or close down the whole shebang, I took some time off. I haven’t written about or seen a play since mid-July, and that is the longest I’ve gone without entering a theater since I started writing about theater in the Bay Area in September 1992. Did I go through withdrawal? Actually, not so much. I spent nights home with the husband and the dog (Fanny the original theater dog) and our giant television. I subscribed to Broadway HD and watched theater digitally. I planted things in our garden. I obsessed daily over Hamilton and sang along with the cast album and cried so many times I’ve lost count. I read books and comics. I deleted theater press releases from my email and contemplated what it might be like to have to actually have to pay for theater tickets.

When I started this blog, I was a gainfully employed journalist at a daily newspaper that was taking tentative steps into the digital world. When I was laid off from that job after a decade, the blog came with me (thanks, IT Department!) and it provided me with a link to the world (and the job) I couldn’t bear to leave. Other jobs followed, including a seven-year stint as an entertainment freelancer with the San Francisco Chronicle, which was awfully enjoyable and felt moderately important. Freelancing allowed me to keep a hand in the game while I began work with a worthy nonprofit that puts professional artists and outstanding arts programs into public schools, after-school programs and summer camps (please check out the website for the San Francisco Arts Education Project in your spare time, won’t you?). Best of both worlds. Then the day job began to loom ever larger. I became executive director and time for interviews and reviews and thoughtful writing became ever scarcer, and it’s no fun feeling like a hack cranking out copy because you feel you have to.

Hence the break, which officially comes to an end this week. Theater Dogs is here to stay – at least for now. The break was nice, but the insanity of our violent world, especially in this migraine-inducing election season, has me craving the profundity, the comfort, the humor, the pathos, the risk-taking of theater. So I’ll review what I can when I can, and I’ll savor it all.

But here’s another thing: I’m also going to write about whatever I feel like writing about. So I want to write about Carol Burnett’s new memoir diving into the 11 years of her variety show? I’ll do it. I want to rhapsodize about Barbra Streisand’s new album of movie star show tunes? Done. Something fun and exciting on Broadway? I’m happy to write about it (especially if it relates at all to Hamilton, a show that makes me feel like a singleminded 16-year-old again). If there’s something that catches my fancy in the head-spinning world of network/streaming/online television, I’m going to share it with you, and I’d like you to do the same. You can reach me through this website or you can email me at theaterdogs (at) gmail.com.

I’m going to try to get to theater companies I haven’t seen for a long time, and if you see something great (which is different from being paid to do PR for a theater company), I’d love to hear about it, and I’ll try to go. I won’t be on the road as much, so within San Francisco is preferred, though I’ll make it to the East Bay, down the Peninsula and Marin on occasion.

I want this to be a place of diversity, equity, access, kindness, respect – a place where attention is paid and assumptions are unwelcome. Taking a little break over the summer was healthy, and though no one really noticed I was gone, I’m glad to be back. Happy belated 10th birthday to Theater Dogs and huge thanks to the loyal readers (especially you).

MTC’s Mañana captures real-life struggles, passions

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The four busboys at a Manhattan restaurant (from left) , Whalid (Caleb Cabrera), Jorge (Eric Avilés), Pepe (Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales) and Peter (Shaun Patrick Tubbs), prepare for their shift in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Tubbs’ Peter and Cabrera’s Whalid and bond at the workplace. Photos by Kevin Berne

Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes cuts through any pretense and gets right to the heart of real life in these United States. In so much of the entertainment we consume (and, truth be told, in the lives we lead), the people Irwin writes about here are on the fringes, working diligently to make modern life run smoothly and efficiently but without much consideration from those whose lives their work benefits. In this case, the focus is on four bus boys in a busy Manhattan restaurant. Two are Mexican immigrants, one here for four years, the other just a few months. The other two are American born. One is African American and the other is born to Mexican immigrants but without much connection to his parents’ native culture (he says he thought he was Puerto Rican until was a teenager).

All four share the need for more money than they presently have – to send money home, to save up to bring family to New York, to pay for education, to support wife and child. And they all have to find ways to deal with the low-paying grunt work they are required to do on a daily basis and the lack of respect and/or dignity that can entail.

Hearing these voices on stage, experiencing the lives of these men is reason enough to see My Mañana Comes – the humanity, the empathy, the struggle that come through is powerful and, in many ways, universal. Any examined life, as they say, will yield great drama and complexity, and that’s certainly true here. These men are dealing with issues of race, economy, immigration, self-respect and ethics in ways that can have profound impact on their lives like where they sleep that night, how to avoid the police or how to save money when it costs so much to live in New York (especially when you’re eyeing a new pair of Nike sneakers).

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The four actors – Eric Avilés, Caleb Cabrera, Carlos Jose Gonzalez Morales and Shaun Patrick Tubbs – are the other reason to see this play. As realistic as the kitchen set is (by Sean Fanning), they bring even more realism to their portrayals of four very different men. Avilés’ Jorge is sort of the calm center of the group. He is radically frugal in an effort to save enough money to return to his family in Mexico and finish building their home. His deep commitment gives him a focused center around which the other guys bounce. Tubbs’ Patrick, the one black guy amid the Mexican and Mexican-American guys, is the crew leader, and when management attempts to screw the bus boys out of their salary pay, his ferocious energy is focused on galvanizing his coworkers and fighting back.

Cabrera’s Whalid is young and ambitious. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he sees this bus boy job as a stepping stone to something bigger and better, like being an EMT. And Morales’ Pepe, whose English is still a work in progress, is sort of the comic relief – lots of new guy and new immigrant jokes at his expense – but there’s also something compelling and sad about his desire to bring his brother to the U.S. and the pull he feels to spend money rather than save it.

There’s camaraderie and tension and fascinating dynamics within this quartet, and that’s when Irwin’s play and director Kirsten Brandt’s production are strongest. We mostly see the kitchen in off hours, before or after food service happens, but there’s a beautifully choreographed sequence involving the service of food (at this restaurant servers are apparently never in the kitchen, chefs are not part of the kitchen culture and bus boys prep the food and bring it to the tables), with the guys coming and going like a well-oiled machine. But the hyper-reality of the setting can also work against the production because it doesn’t feel quite real enough. There’s a lot of busy work involving the slicing of lemons and limes, and when one guy is doing inventory, he’s basically unboxing a few bottles of olive oil. For all the realism, this never feels like a functioning kitchen.

Brandt’s play has some great exchanges between the busy boys, and her dialogue often feels less like drama and more like documentary. But her dramatic structure invests a whole lot of the show’s 95 minutes in set-up. The actual conflict doesn’t occur until late in the play, and when it does, there’s real power to it. The lengthy set-up pays off, but in many ways it also feels like the story is just beginning.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes continues through Nov. 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $10-$58. Call 415-333-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Gardley gets a Glickman

Marcus Gardley

Oakland playwright Marcus Gardley (right, photo by Jared Oates) is the winner of the Will Glickman Award for the best new play to have its premiere in the Bay Area in 2014. The play is The House that will not Stand, loosely based on Federico Garcìa Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which had its premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in February of 2014. Read my review of the show here.

The award, administered by Theatre Bay Area comes with a $4,000 cash award for the writer and a plaque for the producing theater. Gardley told TBA: ““I’m thrilled to be accepting this award. I’m extremely proud of The House that will not Stand’s world premiere at Berkeley Rep and eternally grateful to have participated in The Ground Floor, which provided the creative space and artistic support to develop the play. The play has been enthusiastically received at Yale Rep and Tricycle Theatre in London. But this recognition from the Bay Area theatre community where I have deep roots is truly an honor.”​

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This year’s winner was chosen by a judging panel comprising Bay Area theater critics Robert Hurwitt of the San Francisco Chronicle, Robert Avila of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Karen D’Souza of the San Jose Mercury News, Chad Jones of TheaterDogs.net and Sam Hurwitt of KQED Arts and the Marin Independent Journal. The Glickman Award-winning play is usually published each year in the July/August issue of Theatre Bay Area magazine.

This year’s judges cited three other strong local premieres as runners-up: Hir by Taylor Mac (Magic Theatre); Hundred Days by Abigail Bengson, Shaun Bengson and Kate E. Ryan (Z Space) and The Scion by Brian Copeland (The Marsh).

Gardley and Berkeley Rep will receive their awards at Theatre Bay Area’s Annual Conference on April 13, which happens to be taking place at Berkeley Rep.

Photo above: Petronia Paley (as Marie Josephine) and Harriett D. Foy (as Makeda, background), starred in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s The House that will not Stand, a comedic drama about free women of color in 1836 New Orleans. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

Here’s a complete list of Glickman Award winners (the award is made in the year following the show’s premiere):

2014 Ideation, Aaron Loeb (San Francisco Playhouse)
2013 The Hundred Flowers Project, Christopher Chen (Crowded Fire/Playwrights Foundation)
2012 The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph (TheatreWorks)
2011 Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro (Magic)
2010 In the Next Room, Sarah Ruhl (Berkeley Rep)
2009 Beowulf, Jason Craig (Shotgun Players)
2008 Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle (Marsh)
2007 Hunter Gatherers, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Killing My Lobster)
2006 The People’s Temple, Leigh Fondakowski et al (Berkeley Rep)
2005 Dog Act, Liz Duffy Adams (Shotgun)
2004 Soul of a Whore, Denis Johnson (Campo Santo)
2003 Five Flights, Adam Bock (Encore)
2002 Dominant Looking Males, Brighde Mullins (Thick Description)
2001 Everything’s Ducky, Bill Russell & Jeffrey Hatcher (TheatreWorks)
2000 The Trail of Her Inner Thigh, Erin Cressida Wilson (Campo Santo)
1999 Combat!, John Fisher (Rhino)
1998 Civil Sex, Brian Freeman (Marsh)
1997 Hurricane/Mauvais Temps, Anne Galjour (Berkeley Rep)
1996 Medea, the Musical, John Fisher (Sassy Mouth)
1995 Rush Limbaugh in Night School, Charlie Varon (Marsh)
1994 Santos & Santos, Octavio Solis (Thick Description)
1993 Heroes and Saints, Cherrie Moraga (Brava)
1992 Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, Tony Kushner (Eureka)
1991 Political Wife, Bill Talen (Life on the Water)
1990 Pick Up Ax, Anthony Clarvoe (Eureka)
1989 Yankee Dawg You Die, Philip Kan Gotanda (Berkeley Rep)
1988 Webster Street Blues, Warren Kubota (Asian American)
1987 Life of the Party, Doug Holsclaw (Rhino)
1986 Deer Rose, Tony Pelligrino (Theatre on the Square)
1985 The Couch, Lynne Kaufman (Magic)
1984 Private Scenes, Joel Homer (Magic)

Sirs Ian and Patrick in conversation

Patrick StewartIan McKellen
Knights of the realm: Patrick Stewart (left, photo by Robert Ascroft) and Ian McKellen (photo by Sarah Dunn) bring Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land to Berkeley Repertory Theatre before taking it to Broadway, where it will run in rotating rep with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

It’s not the worst thing in the world to have to spend an hour with two of England’s finest: Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart. Though more famous from TV and film than for their extraordinary stage careers (on both sides of the Atlantic), the two journeymen actors are giving up the sci-fi/fantasy limelight to return to their first love: the stage.

They are currently on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land co-starring Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley. (Good luck getting a ticket; they’re awfully hard to come by, as you might expect.)

I interviewed McKellen and Stewart for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the full story here (subscription may be required).

Here’s my favorite part of the interview when the actors talk about the original 1975 production of No Man’s Land starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson:

“I saw the original production of ‘No Man’s Land’ in London starring John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson three times in one week,” Stewart says. “I couldn’t get enough. I’d have gone again if I’d had the money. It was the brilliance of the writing. I don’t think there’s anything quite like this play. I have been quoting bits of the play for years that I remembered simply from being in the audience.”

McKellen also saw that 1975 production and says Gielgud, whose role he is playing, left a lasting impression – maybe too lasting.

“I feel like I could do the whole performance as John Gielgud,” McKellen says. “Then I wouldn’t be feeling half so tired as I am trying not to be John Gielgud.”

“Ian had a bit of a meltdown in rehearsal today,” Stewart interjects. “He thought Gielgud had possessed him, which was not the case at all.”

Stewart is mostly resisting re-creating Richardson’s performance, but he does mimic the late great British actor every time he pours a drink onstage.

“I’m allowing myself one moment of homage when I say, ‘Good Lord, did you really?’ like Richardson,” Stewart says with gusto. “Richardson also wore dazzling blue socks under a silver suit. I’d like to do that if our designer can find the right socks.”

Ian and Patrick
Photo by Jason Bell

Here’s an exchange that didn’t make it into the final article.

McKellen: The first time I remember an actual conversation with Patrick, we were in America. You’d just been offered a chance at Star Trek.
Stewart: Yes. It was that week. I had been given from Monday lunch until Friday lunch to make a decision. I was staying with a friend and you came over for dinner.
McKellen: You asked me what I thought you should do, and I said, “Think very carefully.”
Stewart: You were reserved and cautious.
McKellen: It wasn’t that the material wasn’t worth doing. It was just the prospect of six years living outside your own country.
Stewart: That’s what terrified me about the part. As is now part of the Star Trek mythology, I spent those four days talking to everybody I knew with any experience of Hollywood. Without exception, they said that I shouldn’t worry about those six years. They said I’d be lucky to make it through the first season because you cannot resurrect an iconic series. I remember a well-established Hollywood writer telling me to take and make money for the first time (which was true), get a suntan, meet girls and go home. I was married at the time, so I didn’t meet any girls.

Wilson Jermaine Heredia goes from Rent to Camelot

When Wilson Jermaine Heredia decided to make a splash in the Broadway world, he dove right in and created giant waves. For his performance as the dazzling drag performer Angel Schunard in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rent he won Tony, Drama Desk and Obie awards and was nominated for an Olivier when he reprised the role in London.

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Since that splash, Heredia has worked consistently – his most recent Broadway gig was opposite Harvey Fierstein in the Tony-winning revival of La Cage aux Folles, but for his next chapter, the 41-year-old actor has taken a road that has led him away from his native New York (he was born and bred in Brooklyn) and to a new home and a new life here in San Francisco.

He is making his local debut as Lancelot in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Camelot directed by Bill English, who is putting a decidedly different twist on this classic, albeit eternally troublesome musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe.

From his San Francisco home, Heredia talked about his life change and what it’s like to be a Knight of the Round Table.

Q: Since the whole Rent experience, what have you done that makes you proudest or happiest?
A: Life has been so eventful it’s hard to pick something, but I have to say that after all those years in class and working toward something, I’m getting to work with people I admired. I love that. Another thing is being able to travel and meet the people who have been influenced by Rent. I was just having a conversation with somebody yesterday about the overturning of Proposition 8 here in California. I would like to think Rent had something to do with that – not directly, but in helping to influence a change of the public opinion or perception of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community. I’ve talked to a lot of parents who have told me that if it hadn’t been for the character of Angel, they might not have been able to sympathize with their child’s plight. That is priceless to me. Nothing can top that for me. The fact that I’ve been an instrument in changing people’s minds about just being human, about being more human to each other. I feel absolutely humbled by that.

Q: How did you end up living in San Francisco?
A:
When we made the movie Rent here, the weather, the people, the food, the ambiance, the art, I thought, “This is the place.” When I wasn’t shooting, I’d explore the city and the Peninsula. It’s so beautiful, and socially, culturally, I fell in love with it. Me and the universe have this particular relationship – sort of a call-and-answer thing. I said, “If I had the opportunity, I’d live here” and the universe said, “Check. I’ll prepare that for you.” That was in 2005. Eight years later, the universe said, “Are you ready?” It was definitely time for a move, so I listened diligently and followed. I was initially worried that not being in New York or LA I’d be out of the loop. But on the contrary, more opportunities have opened up for me here. What I love most is that when I meet people here, they don’t necessarily pigeonhole me into something I’ve done before. It’s nice to stretch out and experiment.

Wilson Camelot

Q: You’re making your San Francisco stage debut in this re-imagined Camelot, which includes songs cut from the original production and a feel that’s more Game of Thrones than the fairy tale-ish Camelot we’ve come to know. What’s your take on director Bill English’s version?
A:
I’ve never seen Camelot, but from my knowledge of how it’s been done before, it seems it was done more superficially. We’re really playing more of what’s in the script. For instance, my song “C’est Moi” is an easy number to perform if you just gloss over it as sort of a celebration of self. But in Bill’s vision, the song is much more about Lancelot’s desire to be the best. He’s worked his whole life toward this particular goal, and he’s there. When he says, “I’m far too humble to lie,” he really means it. His confidence comes less from himself and more from his faith. So much of what he does is about faith and ideals and values. Love definitely comes into that as a belief and a faith because it feels just as real as any belief system, any religion. That’s where the conflict comes for Lancelot. There’s this deification of King Arthur and elevating Camelot to a divine height, then there’s this love he feels for Queen Guinevere. I think part of what Bill is concentrating on here is the naivete of following things without thinking them through. He’s really trying to get to the core of the show and wants us to play it as truthfully as possible, which is really exciting.

Camelot photo above by Jessica Palopoli

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Camelot begins previews July 16, opens July 20 and continues through Sept. 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Marin’s Godot and the impression we exist

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Mark Bedard (left) is Vladimir and Mark Anderson Phillips is Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, now at Marin Theatre Company. Below: James Carpenter (left) as Pozzo and Ben Johnson as Lucky complicate the barren landscape. Photos by Kevin Berne

I suspect Samuel Beckett knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote Waiting for Godot and left more questions unanswered than answered. The less specific you are, the more your audience members project their own business onto the characters and their situation.

The world Beckett creates could be the depressed past or the post-apocalyptic future. He could be writing about God and religion or about the hell of human existence. His main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, could be clowns or tragic figures or both. It’s all up for discussion, open for interpretation. Everything is symbolic or nothing is symbolic and just is what it is and the population has increased. And that’s the genius of Beckett and the joy of his most famous play.

The first time you experience Godot is often the best (if you’re fortunate enough to see a solid production). My first time – and to consider this a theatrical deflowering is not at all inappropriate – was in the early ’90s on a stage in the Central YMCA in San Francisco’s skeevy Tenderloin neighborhood. Dennis Moyer was directing for Fine Arts Repertory Theatre, and it starred John Robb and Joe Bellan in the leads, with a mind-blowingly brilliant Dan Hiatt as Lucky. This production demonstrated to me just how transcendent Beckett could be: funny and sad at the same time, crude and enlightened, bleak and hopeful. So many contradictions in one theatrical experience and yet so completely entertaining and moving.

That production is my high-water mark for Godot (although I love the original cast recording with Burt Lahr as Estragon and E.G. Marshall as Vladimir: click here to download on Amazon for a mere $3.56). I’ve seen productions since that I liked, but not one I loved as much as the first time.

Godot 2

But the current production at Marin Theatre Company directed by Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis comes pretty close. Mark Anderson Phillips as Estragon and Mark Bedard as Vladimir are, in a word, adorable. Should these crusty characters be adorable? Why not? Both of them at various times reminded me of dogs (and I noticed for the first time just how many canine references there are in the play), and sometimes Phillips even sounds like Scooby-Doo. Their clowning is inspired, but it’s all done with heart. I really liked these guys, who affectionately call each other Gogo and Didi, and that affection only magnifies their plight.

And just what is their plight? Living life is the short answer. Killing time. Waiting for whatever or whoever it is with the power to suddenly make their lives better, more interesting or somehow more meaningful. Vladimir, who tends to be more of an optimist than Estragon, says about life: “We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it…In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness!”

Much of Godot is about staving off boredom or at least creating the illusion of activity or some kind of momentum through the world. Waiting is, after all, an activity, and an exhausting one at that. It can even be exhausting just to watch men waiting, although in the hands of talented actors like the ones on the MTC stage, it’s also entertaining.

Phillips and Bedard make a captivating tragicomic duo. There’s real chemistry between them, and it’s easy to see why, even though they talk constantly of separating, they can never part. In this day and age, you could see how Didi and Gogo might be poster children for same-sex marriage minus the sex (which is what makes it marriage, ba dum bum). They’re partners in the futility, frustrations and occasional fun of life, and we root for them, not necessarily to succeed, which seems a tall order, but at least to rise above the misery and tedium from time to time. There are little details in their performances that are priceless, like Bedard’s penguin-like shuffle and the way Phillips keeps buttoning and unbuttoning a top button on his coat even though there is no button.

When James Carpenter and Ben Johnson arrive as Pozzo, a master, and Lucky, a slave, respectively. The play takes a decidedly darker turn. Both Carpenter and Johnson are in fright makeup. Carpenter looks like something out of a Tim Burton movie (the red hair is a nice touch) and Johnson looks like a member of the Addams Family.

But the show belongs to Phillips and Bedard, two lovably sad guys being human under bleak but not impossible circumstances. I do find myself wondering, though, where their clothes and bowler hats came from, where they shower (if they do) and how they subsist on a diet of turnips, carrots and black radishes. Clearly, they live in a world that still puts a lot of faith in the Bible (there are lots of references), and down the road there’s apparently some sort of fair where Pozzo was going to sell Lucky but ends up blinded (and Lucky is rendered mute). It’s a strange in-between world Beckett has created, a time-bending absurdist purgatory built for entertainment and, if you’re in the frame of mind, enlightenment. The simple but expert design certainly helps (clean, bright lighting by York Kennedy, barren tree and rock landscape by set designer Liliana Duque Pineiro, tattered suits by costumer Maggie Whitaker).

Seeing Godot in 2013, I couldn’t help thinking about a comment a friend made recently: “Don’t worry about me. I’ll have my iPhone with me, and when you have an iPhone, you always have a friend.” Perhaps we should start calling our smart phones and tablets Didi or Gogo. They’re our newest defense against boredom, our electronic shield from the great void of simply existing and a powerful illusion that we’re actually connected to other people and a way to masque the howling of existential angst.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot continues through Feb. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Living history and meeting cute

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Matt R. Harrington and Kimiye Corwin play two historical re-enactors whose private lives become entwined in Carly Mensch’s Now Circa Then, a TheatreWorks prodution at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Photo by Tracy Martin


In the eighth grade, my class took a field trip from Reno to San Francisco — possibly the most exciting trip any 13-year-old has ever taken. One of our activities was a trip to Alcatraz, where we were given a guided tour by an actual ranger (this was before the audio tour conquered the island). As we toured The Rock, my life’s goals were falling in place before me. I would be come a National Park ranger, and I would be stationed on Alcatraz. But my tours were going to be better than your average point here, point there, rattle off facts kind of tour. My tours would give visitors a real sense of what it was like to be isolated so close to civilization. I would act out all the parts, from Bird Man to warden to cafeteria hash slinger.

Little did I know that I was fantasizing about something that already existed — a world of living history, people who reenact great moments from the past for the benefit of paying visitors. I never quite got around to fufilling this particular life goal, but I came close recently.

In honor of the play Now Circa Then, a romantic comedy by Carly Mensch (a writer on Showtime’s Weeds), I wrote a story for the San Francisco Chronicle about several local tour guides who don costumes to help visitors slip into a historical time warp.

Read the feature here.

I also went to see Now Circa Then and reviewed it for the Palo Alto Weekly. It’s a sweet, funny and entertaining show, but I ultimately found it disappointing because it happily paddled in shallow waters when it could have been just as enchanting — and much more moving — had it ventured into depths that are only hinted at.

Read the review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

TheatreWorks’ Now Circa Then continues through April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.