Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Brilliant Mind artfully blends live, digital, interactive

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Denmo Ibrahim as Dina and Ramiz Monsef as Yusef in Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht’s live and interactive premiere of Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Dina and Yusef deal with the aftermath of their father’s death.


Samir El Musri texted me more than two dozen times the other night while I was watching an online play. Rather than tell Samir to stop bothering me while I was otherwise engaged, I eagerly awaited each short message or photograph.

Samir, you see, is not a real person. He’s a character in Denmo Ibrahim’s world-premiere show Brilliant Mind, a presentation from Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht that revels in the digital realm rather than treats it like a stopgap until theaters reopen.

Before the 80-minute show begins, we’re invited to explore a virtual 3-D replica of Samir’s apartment in which there are a number of items that will trigger additional information. We’re also invited to allow Samir to text us and to put his name in our address book so the texts actually come from Samir (and heightens the reality of the experience).

Unlike many digital plays, Brilliant Mind begins at a proscribed time because, as it turns out, there’s a live aspect in addition to the interactivity, and that live aspect involves Samir himself (as played by Kal Naga aka Khaled Abol Naga, who has died this very day and exists in a sort of limbo while he observes his grown children, Yusef (Ramiz Monsef) and Dina (Ibrahim) sort through what he has left behind – physically, culturally, emotionally.

Dramatically speaking, this live aspect combined with previously filmed segments involving Ysef and Dina, could be gimmicky at best and technologically glitchy at worst. Happily, Ibrahim, working with director Kate Bergstrom and digital/interactive designer Marti Wigder Grimminck, folds this idea meaningfully into the narrative, making Samir an observer – as we are – of the unfolding action and giving him a touch of magic realism in that he is able to use his phone to text us (his fellow observers) and make his presence felt in the world his children occupy.

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Yet another interactive component allows viewers to choose the play’s path at certain moments, which frankly made me a little anxious because of I have FOMO and am always certain I choose the less interesting option (and if you don’t choose rather quickly, the system chooses for you, so there’s that).

All the technology aside, the story of Brilliant Mind is intriguing in its own right as it explores the lives of Yusef and Dina, first-generation Arab-Americans, and how their lives have been (are being) affected by the lives of their immigrant parents and how a family forms its identity through cultural roots, geography, secrets and the politics of history (and the history of politics).

Ibrahim has long been a Bay Area actor of note, someone to rely on for depth, intelligence and emotional realism on stage. She and Monsef are marvelous together as their scenes crackle with the fraught chemistry of siblings who want to do better by one another but mostly fail to rise to that challenge. This period following their father’s death is sort of an emotional crucible, which is, of course, an excellent time to check with them from a dramatic point of view.

The richness of the characters and the bells and whistles of the presentation can’t conceal certain lags in the script (which would probably be more effective on stage than on screen) and a reliance on clichés (especially for Samir), but it’s all so well acted and produced that there’s still a great deal to enjoy, savor and ponder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denmo Ibrahim’s Brilliant Mind continues performances through June 13. Tickets are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Spectacular Animal Wisdom conjures spirits & raises the roof

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Composer/performer Heather Christian stars in the original streaming film adaptation of the Bushwick Starr’s production of Animal Wisdom. Below:Christian and her cast/band connect with another realm.


In the last year, we’ve seen some splendid streamers and some snoozy streamers. We’ve seen filmed productions that get an A for effort (and that’s about it) and Zoom productions that somehow transcend those little boxes. Theater just hasn’t been theater for a while, and we’ve done the best we could, as audiences, as performers, as producers, to keep the spirit alive as best we could.

Then along comes something like Animal Wisdom, a filmed version of Heather Christian’s Bushwick Starr theater experience from the 2017/2018 season. This concert/play/séance/requiem, originally directed for the stage by Emilyn Kowaleski and now filmed by Amber McGinnis, emerges as one of the most searing and satisfying of our pandemic entertainments.

Filmed in March 2021 at Wooly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., and presented by Wooly Mammoth and American Conservatory Theater, Animal Wisdom is, as Christian puts it, “something else.” It’s not theater, it’s not a TV show. It’s in between (like some spirits), and her unique spin involves interactivity (you stand, you sit, you hum). Early on in the two-hour show, she stops the action and sends you on a scavenger hunt around your house. The things you collect will help create a “ritual space” because this is a show about the dead.

Since she was a child in Natchez, Mississippi, Christian has been able to see and communicate with ghosts. Animal Wisdom is about putting some of those ghosts to rest, and so she creates and performs an unusual requiem mass that involves some glorious music that contains everything from folk to rock to pop to gospel to punch-you-in-the-heart communion with…well, with something.

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Christian is our primary focus, but her fantastic band also gets in on the act playing various people – living and dead – in Christian’s life. Sasha Brown, Eric Farber, B.E. Farrow and Maya Sharpe make glorious music and match Christian’s remarkable energy. McGinnis’ filmmaking also powerfully captures the dynamic moods of the show, whether it’s a manic burst of energy that sends actors racing around the theater or a meditative moment on stag in near darkness.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy this tale, though Christian is such an effective storyteller/singer that she could likely sway a skeptic into wondering how many of their own dead they brought to witness this show. Believer or not, there’s a lot of emotion packed into this show, and that’s what cuts through the screen and slices right into your guts. The music is a big part of that – especially when waves of choral voices wash through – and though you can imagine how incredible it might be to participate in Animal Wisdom live and in person alongside other flesh-and-bone folks as well as the spirit guests, the show is a powerhouse onscreen. Sometimes the medium is the message.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Animal Wisdom are available at three pay-what-you-wish prices: $19, $29 and $49. The show streams on Broadway on Demand through Sunday, June 13. Visit www.animalwisdomfilm.com

42nd Street Moon lights the stage with Lady Day

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Doris Bumpus plays Billie Holiday in the 42nd Street Moon streaming production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Brill by Lanie Robertson. Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon


The extraordinary resilience of theater companies adjusting to the shutdown and continuing to make work will never not amaze me. Against all pandemic odds, these companies muster the resources and figure out how to interact with audiences virtually until we can all come together again.

42nd Street Moon launched the MoonBeams subscription series in May with Jason Graae’s 100% charming tribute to Jerry Herman called Perfect Hermany and continues the trio of offerings with Doris Bumpus in a showcase role at the center of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

One of the most extraordinary things about these theatrical pivots is how skillfully companies have embraced the challenges of creating a theater/cinema hybrid by filming fully produced productions. Theater-makers have had to become filmmakers in a hurry – at least to the extent that viewers stop thinking about the camera work, the editing or other technical elements and relax into the production itself.

Moon’s Lady Day is a vibrant example of that hybrid working at its efficient best. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play finds Billie Holiday in one of the final performances before her death in July 1959. She’s back at a familiar Philadelphia jazz club with her pianist, Jimmy Powers (played by music director Marcus McCauley) and a small combo. In this play with music, Holiday sings some of her best tunes and tells stories about her life and her struggles.

Director Brandon Jackson‘s production, which is just over an hour, zips along with an emphasis on the music more than the drama. Bumpus doesn’t do a Holiday impressions so much as capture the essence of a gifted singer whose unique voice and phrasing cut right to the emotional core of the songs she sang. Bumpus has a beautiful musical theater voice that swings, caresses and soothes.

Like so many biographical playwrights, Robertson relies too heavily on contrived nightclub patter to convey a sense of drama as Lady Day goes from a position of jaunty strength at the top of the show to tipsy chanteuse as she tipples and talks and then to a desperate addict who has to run offstage for a fix.

Director Jackson smartly emphasizes the music, which is wonderful – especially Holiday’s trademark “God Bless the Child” (a song she wrote for her mother), “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” a rollicking tribute to one of her heroes, Bessie Smith.

Although the music is the star in this production, there’s still an undeniable sadness in Holiday’s story, especially her struggles as a Black woman in the first half of the 20th century. The mistreatment, the bad relationships with men, the drug addiction, the incarceration – it all adds up to a poignant portrait of an extraordinary artist – one of our great American singers, who deserved a whole lot better than she got.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill continues streaming through May 30. Single tickets are $25 and subscriptions range from $60-$112. The final MoonBeams production, Don’t Touch That Dial: DC and Peter’s Glorious Romp Through the Golden Age runs June 5-27. Visit 42ndstmoon.org for information.

Stream this! Julia Brothers @ SF Playhouse, Alice Childress @ ACT

I have two recommendations for online theater streaming. The first is a play written by and starring one of our best stage actors, and the second is an engaging reading of a timely play about race that happens to be 66 years old.

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Julia Brothers plays herself in her solo show I Was Right Here, streamed as part of the San Francisco Playhouse season. Photo by Donny Gilliland

A train ride through memory
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing Julia Brothers on stage in one of her many Bay Area appearances, you know that she is one of those performers you miss at your own peril. For San Francisco Playhouse’s streaming season – and hot on the heels of their extraordinary [hieroglyph] (read my review here) – Brothers not only stars in a solo show, but also makes her debut as a playwright with I Was Right Here. That makes two reasons you don’t want to miss this.

As usual, Brothers is absolutely compelling on stage (even being filmed on stage), and the story she’s telling this time out is her own. Taking the train from Manhattan to her native New Jersey to visit her 97-year-old mother, Brothers begins musing on memory. Lucille, her mom (whom she affectionately calls “madre”), is dealing with dementia and is losing great swaths of memory. Julia is serving as her mom’s link to the quickly receding years, and that sets the actor on her own journey through ghosts of her past and memories she has always relied on but isn’t entirely sure really happened.

In the play’s 75 minutes, Brothers the playwright gives Brothers the actor a highly entertaining variety of places to visit – RFK’s funeral train when Brothers was just a girl, boyfriends and friends who died far too young and a recurring sense of child-like terror when she feels she is not quite as visible or as present as she thinks she is. Director Padriac Lillis and Brothers create a smooth narrative that flows easily through the present and the past so that when Brothers arrives at her destination, she has reached more than just a place.

Brothers delivers a beautiful performance, and though she re-lives loss and trauma from her past, she can’t disguise the abundance of affection for many of the people who populate her recollections. This on top of Brothers’ own incandescence makes I Was Right Here a journey worth taking.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Julia Brothers’ I Was Right Here streams through April 17. Tickets are $15-$100) call 415-677-9596 or visit sfplayhouse.org

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David Harbour (center left) as Al Manners and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Wiletta in a reading of Alice Chidress’ Trouble in Mind, part of American Conservatory Theater’s trilogy of readings, A.C.T. Out Loud. Photo courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Trouble: When theater reflects the world
In the last year, we have seen lots of staged readings via Zoom – it’s been a touchstone to live theater that is reasonably easy to execute and distills the theatrical experience down to actors and words. As we reflect on a year without being together in theaters, it would seem Zoom readings are going to be here a while longer. If they’re all as good and as smartly produced as American Conservatory Theater’s Trouble in Mind, that will be OK.

The first of a trilogy of readings in A.C.T. Out Loud, this 1955 drama by Alice Childress is the flashpoint play we need right now. Childress goes deep into American race and oppression and the shallowness of polite, so-called enlightened society in a story about actors coming together in the mid-’50s to produce an anti-lynching play.

If people show up for a play (or a reading of a play), it figures that they would be interested in going behind-the-scenes at the making of a play, and that’s the genius of Trouble in Mind. Theater is a crucible, and it doesn’t take long into the first rehearsal to begin feeling the tension between the white actors playing the landlords and the Black actors playing the sharecroppers and the mix of attitudes embedded in the play (the play within the play) and the attitudes the actors bring in from the world just outside the theater doors.

Who is willing to stand up and say, “This is some racist bullshit right here”? Who is content to calm the waters and keep a steady paycheck? And who is going to pretend to be an ally until their racist core is fully revealed?

Director Awoye Timpo has assembled a superb cast, and one of the great delights of this reading – something that really helps highlight the performances and underscore the relationships – is the way the reading is “staged” so that it doesn’t look or feel much like Zoom but gives a sense of actors stepping in and out of the action.

Hostility bumps up against compassion, fear battles rage and courage wrestles with cowardice, and that makes for good theater. It also makes for relevant theater that, sadly, makes it seem we’ve hardly moved the needle in almost 70 years.

The entire cast is excellent, but the central conflict is between the white director, Al Manners (played by David Harbour of Stranger Things fame) and his Black star, Wiletta Mayer (played with blazing intensity by Patrice Johnson Chevannes). Their polite, professional relationship degrades quickly in the face of reality, and that makes the pretend of the play almost impossible to uphold. It all comes down to Wiletta saying, “We have to go further and do better.” And that may be the realest thing of all in the play’s two-plus hours.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind continues streaming through April 4. Tickets are $5-$50. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. A.C.T. Out Loud continues with readings of George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man (April 12–18, 2021) and Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (April 26–May 2, 2021).

Playhouse, Hansberry join for powerful [hieroglyph]

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Davis (Jamella Cross, left) explains herself to Ms. T. (Safiya Fredericks) after an altercation in the classroom in [hieroglyph], a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre streaming through April 3. Below: Davis explains the meaning of her artwork to her father Ernest (Khary L. Moye). Photos by Jessica Palopoli


No play can address all the ills of society, but a well-told family story that digs into the lives and psyches of human beings doing their best to get from day to day can reveal a whole lot about where we’ve gone wrong or (occasionally) where we get something right.

Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph], about a Black family navigating intense trauma, is one of those plays that feels small – only four characters – but grows into something epic on an emotional level. This streaming co-production of the San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and directed by the Hansberry’s new artistic director, revered Bay Area actor/director Margo Hall, is one of the most effective pandemic productions I’ve seen. It also carries on the Playhouse’s remarkable effort to continue staging productions (safely) and sharing them online.

On a revolving set by Bill English, beautifully lit by Kevin Myrick and with projections by Teddy Hulsker, the world of the characters is clear, and so as the play reveals itself, is their damage. And their strength, individually and collectively, and their hearts.

Davis is an extremely bright 13-year-old. Her family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina, and after having been relocated temporarily to the nightmare of the Superdome, she and her father have been relocated to Chicago. Amid all that drama, her mother and father have separated, she’s starting a new school mid-term in a city and culture that couldn’t be more different from New Orleans and she’s bearing the weight of something she cannot talk about.

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But she can express some of her inner turmoil through her art, and her new art teacher is one of those extraordinary educators who makes a difference in the lives of her students in a number of ways. Ms. T (Safiya Fredericks) is a sharply intelligent, complex and fascinating woman attempting to live her life kaleidoscopically rather than monochromatically. She wants to pass that multifarious approach on to her students through their study and practice of art (notably, in the play, through the work by Black artist Ernest Crichlow and his dimensional approach to depicting Black women). It’s not difficult to extrapolate here that playwright Dickerson-Despenza values art (paintings, plays, etc.) as a means through which we can understand life and each other more fully and more honestly.

Ms. T, whose own past trauma still reverberates through her life, connects with Davis (an extraordinary Jamella Cross), and though that connection is a lifeline, Davis is barely coping. Her father, Ernest (Khary L. Moye), has found work as a custodian in a museum and is doing his best to be there for his daughter. But he has issues of his own, not the least of which is a ruptured marriage and the traps of his own upbringing. Davis makes a friend in classmate Leah (Anna Maria Sharpe), a spirited young woman who attempts to provide an education in the subject of teenagers on Chicago’s West Side.

Even though difficult things grow more difficult in this world, Dickerson-Despenza still makes room for currents of love and moments of happiness to course through the drama, whether it’s Davis and Ernest acting out a playful father-daughter ritual or Davis and Leah practicing their dance moves before heading to a juke party. But this is a heavy story – how could it not be when its characters are facing natural and man-made disasters, sexual assault, displacement, PTSD and fractured relationships? There are no easy answers or conclusions here, just various forms of injury, strength, coping and confrontation.

At only about 90 minutes, [hieroglyph] (which refers to an actual symbol that surfaces in Davis’ artwork) is intense and demanding. Even though this is a well-filmed play, it still feels very much like a play, with the scene changes included rather than edited out, and that makes it even more satisfying. Hall and her excellent cast find depth and warmth and genuine emotion in these characters, which makes their pain all the more impactful on the audience. There aren’t superlatives big enough for the work done here by Cross as Davis and Fredericks as Ms. T.

If it seems that spending any amount of time – even 90 minutes – exploring pain, trauma and crisis is a lot to deal with on top of a world situation involving pain, trauma and crisis, consider this: Dickerson-Despenza is a talented playwright who infuses poetry into her drama. She is compassionate toward her characters, even when she’s brutally honest. And she’s shining a light – made all the brighter when you care about the people it touches, as you do here – on important aspects of history as it really happened (no matter what the people in charge say), on what life in this country is really like for Black people and on the roots of horrible crimes terrorizing Black girls and women that must be examined and obliterated. [hieroglyph] has the undeniable power of truth experienced through the prism of inspired art.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s [hieroglyph] streams through April 13. Tickets are $15-$100 from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.

Catastrophist unleashes contagious drama – catch it

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William DeMeritt is Nathan in Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist produced by Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre. Photos courtesy of Marin Theatre Company; Director of Photography Peter Ruocco; Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao; Costume Designer Sarah Smith

San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson was already one of the most admired and produced playwrights in the country. She didn’t necessarily need to be on the forefront of pandemic drama. And by pandemic drama, I mean several things: creating new, relevant, interesting work in this time of theatrical shutdown; but also creating work having to do with the pandemic itself. As a writer with a special penchant for creating drama fueled by a love and fascination with science, it seems logical that Gunderson would find a way to bring the science of our current situation to the stage in a way that only she can.

It just so happens that Gunderson’s husband, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, is one of the world’s foremost virologists. The Catastrophist is Gunderson’s one-man play about her husband, and it’s fascinating (again) on several levels: it can’t help but be interesting when a skilled and thoughtful writer decides to write about her spouse, his work and his inner life; and hearing from Wolfe (via Gunderson, of course) about why a brilliant scientist chases down viruses to try and prevent pandemics is, certainly, a relevant and captivating topic, especially as told by Gunderson, who has a flair for making the scientific entertaining and comprehensible.

William DeMeritt stars as Wolfe, standing on a stage, wrestling with the fact that his wife has made a play – this play – about him and acknowledges a sort of silent communication with her, like he can her her whispering in his ear at certain times during this 80-minute drama. It’s one of those conventions of a solo play that has to address the fact that a person is alone on a stage talking for whatever reason. Except in this case, DeMeritt is playing Wolfe in a theater empty of audience but filled with cameras. Jasson Minadakis directs this co-production from Marin Theatre Company and Round House Theatre (in Maryland) of a play commissioned by MTC, and he keeps the camera work active. DeMeritt’s sharp, impassioned performance is captured with the actor delivering his focus directly into this camera, then turning to this camera on this line and back to that camera on that line. It looks like a stage performance, but it feels more like a carefully choreographed and edited movie (especially toward the end).

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For me, the most interesting aspect of the play is its glimpse into the science of viruses and what led Nathan into a world filed with words like zoonotic, eukaryote and prokaryote. The fact that viruses, as Nathan tells us, are the most abundant life form on the planet and that viruses are built into our DNA is startling, especially since we all have a newfound awareness (and fear … and loathing … and fear) of viruses. But this is more a play about a scientist – an “expert in a terrible thing” as he puts it – than it is about our current predicament.

At a certain point, Gunderson leaves the science and dives deeper into the personal – Nathan’s relationship with his dad, Nathan’s relationship to becoming a dad, Nathan facing his own health crisis – all of which is embodied with intensity and gusto by DeMeritt. But I found myself wanting to know more about what Nathan had to say about where we are, almost a year into this thing, and how we get out and what dangers still lie in store.This, however, is not a TED Talk. The real Dr. Wolfe has already done that (watch it here – it’s fantastic). And written a book and will likely do more of both in the future. This is a play about a complex, likable human with a wealth of knowledge and a job that sets him apart but who is also a son, a dad and a husband. We experience all of that here.

I’d still like to spend time with Nathan – real or fictional – to know more about where we are now, but perhaps that will be The Catastrophist: Act 2, performed when we can all be in the same room together and we can, at along last, feel like this particular catastrophe is in the past.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist is available for streaming in an extended run through July 25. Tickets for on-demand streaming are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

ACT puts Scrooge in your head this year

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James Carpenter revisits the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in American Conservatory Theater’s A Christmas Carol: On Air, an audio adaptation of the beloved annual production. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Some years I’ve had it up to hear with A Christmas Carol and want nothing to do with the Cratchits, the crutch and bah humbugs. Other years, I feel like there’s never been a more potent perennial, and every human should experience Dickens’ ghost story in one form or another. This year, this mind-bending year, is one of the latter.

American Conservatory Theater has been making holiday hay with Carol for more than 40 years, and in this year of lockdowns and shutdowns and only the memory of audiences, the company has opted to keep the tradition alive, albeit with an audio adaptation that we can listen to from the comfort and safety of our own homes and through the intimacy (if we so choose) of headphones to build the production between our ears.

Director Peter J. Kuo has adapted the adaptation (as it were) by Carey Perloff and Paul Walsh from the Dickens novella, and the conceit here is that a group of young adults (all part of ACT’s MFA program), who constitute a social pod, attend a holiday party and do an impromptu reading of the play. Magic (and nifty sound effects) ensue.

Happily, once the reading begins in earnest, veteran actors James Carpenter and Sharon Lockwood show up – he to reprise his excellent performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, and she in a variety of roles, including Scrooge’s housekeeper, Mrs. Fezziwig and Mrs. Cratchit. Both Carpenter and Lockwood could perform all the parts and make it dazzling, but it’s satisfying just to have them in the mix with enthusiastic young actors.

The MVP here, without question, is sound designer Jake Rodriguez, who essentially has to replace sets, costumes and lights with an evocative soundscape to keep the audience immersed in the world of the play for two hours. Rodriguez has great fun with all the ghostly elements of the story and also incorporates the original score by Karl Lundeberg effectively. Everything about the production is crisp and straightforward and clear, which is a good thing so the Dickens storytelling can shine through.

Other than the running time (two hours is a long time to sit and listen at home), my one real reservation here is that an adult is saddled with the thankless task of playing Tiny Tim, complete with little boy voice. The role is so pivotal to the plot and to the emotional construct of the story that this casting choice simply does not work.

Happily, and occasionally merrily, the production is mostly filled with vibrant performances and that divine Dickensian blend of gloom and cheer. Despair and hope intermingle throughout (landing on the latter, of course), making this whole holiday enterprise feel especially affecting this year.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
ACT’s A Christmas Carol: On Air streams online through Dec. 30. Tickets
are $40–$60. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

SF Playhouse explores Art on stage on film

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The cast of Art at San Francisco Playhouse features a three-man cast: Serge (Johnny Moreno), Marc (Jomar Tagatac), and Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari). Below: The dispute over the white painting between Marc, Yvan, and Serge reaches a tipping p oint. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The Bay Area theater scene has been short on excitement, understandably, these last seven months. So it’s beyond thrilling news when a theater company, in this case San Francisco Playhouse announces a new play on an actual stage with actors acting together on a set that has been designed and lit, with nary a Zoom square to be seen. The only hitch, given this pandemical hellscape in which we find ourselves, is that the production is filmed and shared online. So the actors still can’t hear our laughs, our gasps, our sobs and, perhaps most importantly, our applause.

But, as we’ve all learned, we will happily take what we can get, and this SF Playhouse offering is special and so very welcome – a bold first step back to production. It seems every conceivable precaution has been taken to make it seem as if actors acting on a stage together is an absolutely normal thing (even though we know, in these times, it is absolutely not).

The choice of plays was smart: Bill English, Playhouse co-founder and artistic director, opted for Art by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), a mid-’90s crowd pleaser that deftly slices apart the very notion of friendship among men under the guise of an argument over an expensive piece of modern art. The play has three actors, and though we see each of the characters’ apartments, the set is less important than the people themselves along with, of course, the large piece of art that is either the work of a great modernist or an almost entirely white canvas that has no more merit than a piece of printer paper.

As director and set designer, English opts to be as theatrical as he can (the center of the set spins wildly when the scene changes) while delivering straightforward performances for the cameras. The result is an artful, angry, absolutely compelling work of Art that loses little in its transition to video.

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It would appear that the 15-year friendship between Serge (Johnny Moreno), Marc (Jomar Tagatac) and Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari) is much as it ever was. They are in and out of each other’s lives – though not as often as they used to be – with occasional meals or movies. But how close are they really, and have their friendships evolved and changed along with the men and their lives over those 15 years? That’s the real question, and it’s only after Serge spends $200,000 on a mostly white painting by a supposedly great artist, that fissures in the relationships begin to show and widen.

Marc thinks the painting is utter bullshit and doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion with Serge, who is deeply wounded by his friend’s harsh judgment and closed mind. Each accuses the other of having lost his sense of humor, and that’s when the more hapless Yvan, whose life has not gone well either professionally or romantically, gets sucked into to choose sides.

It’s not long before the feud over the artwork gives way to much deeper issues among the trio of friends, and how you react to their truths, hurts and insults is a lot like a theatrical Rorscharch test. Do you feel sorry for Yvan for being spineless but respect his self-awareness and his reliance on professional help? Do you admire Serge’s intellect and his willingness to embrace something he loves even if it means losing his friends? Or perhaps you side with Marc as we watch illusions about the person he thought he was shatter, and he has to face the harsh truth of middle-aged self.

Playwright Reza gives you ample reason to like or loathe each of these men, and as dark or as pretentious or as pathetic as things get, there’s always darkly satirical humor adding gas to the flames. It’s an especially nice touch when a Roman philosopher becomes a weapon in a funny “projectile Seneca” scene.

The actors attack this spiky material with gusto, and each provides glimpses of both man and monster in his character. It’s interesting to watch their civility deteriorate and revert to something much more primal and more realistically human. Reza softens the ragged, damaging edges of her play with an unnecessary epilogue of sorts, but it’s also kind of nice to leave these characters in an emotionally warmer, more grounded place than we initially found them.

Happily, this Art doesn’t feel like a placeholder until we can gather again. It is a substantial work that satisfies – not as much as it would in person – and helps us feel connected to live theater, even though technically, it’s neither of those things. But it’s close and it’s good and it leaves its hungry audience wanting more.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
Yasmina Reza’s Art continues streaming through Nov. 7. Tickets are $15-$100. Visit sfplayhouse.org for information.

Josh Kornbluth saves the world with Citizen Brain

Citizen Brain
Josh Kornbluth in Citizen Brain a Shotgun Players online production. Photo by Jayme Catalano

Josh Kornbluth is really working the Empathy Circuit these days. Unlike, say, the Borscht Belt or the nearly vanished cabaret clubs, the Empathy Circuit isn’t any sort of entertainment network. It’s the complex wiring that winds through various parts of our brains and allows us to feel empathy – that is, the ability to care about, imagine or even try to feel the feelings of another being.

The masterful Kornbluth has long had a way with a beguiling autobiographical show – Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, Love & Taxes – and his latest, Citizen Brain, comes at the most opportune moment imaginable. It’s too bad we don’t get to sit together in the Ashby Stage auditorium for this Shotgun Players production, but it turns out that Kornbluth’s vivacity, humor and intelligence fairly burst out of the Zoom box in which he performs his monologue live through Nov. 8. In these tense weeks leading up to the election, I can imagine no more effective balm than spending about 75 minutes with Kornbluth while he talks about brain science and making an effort to care about other humans (especially the ones who piss you off).

Written in collaboration with Aaron Loeb and Casey Stangl (who also directs), Citizen Brain is rooted in Kornbluth’s family. This time the focus is on his mom, Bunny, and her late-in-life second husband, Frank, who develops Alzheimer’s disease. With a real-life connection to brain disease, Kornbluth becomes involved as an artist fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute, a collaboration between UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center and Dublin’s Trinity College. It was here that Kornbluth began to understand how empathy works in the brain and how, if you consider our collective national consciousness as a “citizen brain,” it would appear that our empathy circuit has gone dark. There’s some crossover terrain here with his 2007 show Citizen Josh in which he discussed how important it was to speak respectfully with people on opposite sides of whatever spectrum might be generating tension, but this time he’s coming at it from an artist/humanist/scientist perspective.

All of this is also set against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and its divisive fallout, which makes Kornbluth wonder, “Could it be our country has dementia?” It’s a fair question, and though he doesn’t exactly have an answer, Kornbluth, with the help of his neurosurgeon mentors, begins to develop a solution that begins simply: take a breath; take another breath; then “make a leap into the perspective of another person.” Thinking on a grand scale, Kornbluth envisions this solution becoming nothing short of a peaceful worldwide revolution of empathy.

And what’s interesting about that from a Kornbluthian point of view is that Josh is at long last fulfilling the destiny laid out for him by his Communist parents as detailed in his show Red Diaper Baby. His revolution might not involve Marx, Lenin or Stalin, but it’s a a full-circle revolution moment none the less.

That’s part of the Kornbluth magic – storytelling that feels intensely personal and warmly universal – and it’s on full display (and in near close-up!) in this captivating online performance. With this show – in itself an act of deep empathy – and his ongoing work at citizenbrain.org (be sure to check out the videos), Kornbluth’s revolution is ramping up and working its way from heart to heart. Since watching the show, I’ve already heard Kornbluth’s voice in my head say, “Take a breath. Take another breath.” I’m going to continue working on my empathy circuit and try to play a small part in the revolution.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Brain continues through Nov. 8 in an online Shotgun Players production. Tickets are pay-what-you-can $8-$40. Advance reservations required. Click here for information.