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.

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.

2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Love among the stars in TheatreWorks’ Constellations

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Above and below: Cosmologist Marianne (Carie Kawa) and beekeeper Roland (Robert Gilbert) experience a multiverse of love in the Bay Area premiere of Nick Payne’s Constellations presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photos by: Kevin Berne

British playwright Nick Payne isn’t interested in changing minds or even changing the world in Constellations. He settles for nothing less than changing the universe – over and over again. Imagine if Einstein and Hawking had decided to write a love story – you might get something resembling this fascinating play.

Payne’s 2012 play, which debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre before heading to New York in 2015 (in a production that marked the Broadway debut of Jake Gyllenhaal), is an absolute wonder. That a two-person, one-set, 70-minute play would find success in regional theater was a forgone conclusion. Who wouldn’t want to produce an economical romance with an intellectual twist and an ever-deepening sense of engagement?

The first local company to leap at the chance is TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley performing at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The advantage of a two-person show in this space (as opposed to the company’s other, smaller performance home, the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto) is that we get a glorious light sculpture set by Andrea Bechert and lit by Steven B. Mannshardt that creates a vast universe of constellations, one for each of the short scenes that plays out between the two characters as they meet, fall in love, break up, face death and fracture like mirrors before putting themselves back together in different configurations.

When the play, under the sharp direction of Robert Kelley, begins, it feels a little like an acting class exercise. Carie Kawa is Marianne, a theoretical cosmologist whose job keeps her head in the stars and in the atoms and in the realm where several different outcomes can exist simultaneously. Robert Gilbert is Roland, a beekeeper, a grounded farmer of a sort whose head is in the biology of drones and hives and honey. The two meet at a rainy barbecue, and we see their meeting over and over again, each time with a slight variation. She strikes up a conversation and he turns out to be married. Or, as the scenes fly, by, he’s just out of a long relationship, and they finally click.

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The whole play is like this: variations on a theme of Marianne and Roland. They’re together and happy. They’re together and she’s cheating. No wait, he’s cheating. They’re broken up. They’re together and dealing with serious illness. And so on. Once we get into the swing of the play, it’s easy to see how each variation, each shift of the universe, lets us watch the characters explore multiple facets of their personalities both as individuals and as partners in this coupling. Their humor and heartbreak and violence and family histories all come into play, and though each scene gives the characters a slight or major variation, we the audience begin to accumulate a rich, full view of who these people are, who they strive to be and what might be holding them back.

I’ve never seen a play like this, and by the time it ends, it’s hard to believe it’s only been just over an hour since it started. The fast pace and the swift accumulation of information makes the experience feel far deeper and more complete that many much longer plays.

That said, there’s also a slight disconnect working here as well. Perhaps its cause is rooted in the fact that Gilbert’s performance is more nuanced in showing us different facets of Roland than Kawa’s is in revealing Marianne. It could also be the play itself, which, by the end, feels like it should have accumulated much more emotional weight than it actually has.

While the love story between Marianne and Roland is the centerpiece of the play, the notion of free will versus a fully mapped out universe of fated behavior creates a fascinating tension, even while we’re invested in the sad, playful, angry phases of the romance. Other works have explored parallel universes (the movie Sliding Doors, the musical If/Then), but Constellations is a more interesting work – more serious and more plausible. And, it must be said, the notion of being able to slip into an alternate reality has rarely been more appealing that it is right now.

Nick Payne’s Constellations continues through Sept. 17 in a TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org

Grit, exuberance mark TheatreWorks’ Immigrants

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The four immigrants of The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga are (from left) Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Fred (Sean Fenton) and Charlie (Hansel Tan). Min Kahng’s musical has its world premiere in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Below: The four women of Four Immigrants are (from left, behind the gentlemen) Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry Keiko Carnahan, Lindsay Hirata and Catherine Gloria. Photos by Kevin Berne

Think about how often you’ve seen the Asian-American experience represented in a piece of musical theater. Perhaps Flower Drum Song comes to mind or a sliver of Miss Saigon. A more serious recent work is Allegiance about the World War II Japanese internment camps. And now we have TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley’s world premiere, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga with book, music and lyrics by the enormously talented Bay Area writer Min Kahng.

A product of TheatreWorks’ 2016 New Works Initiative, the show has leapt from the development program to the main stage, which in this case, is the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. It’s easy to see why this delightful show took the fast track to full production.

Four Immigrants Drawing

(at right) Panel from the cover of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s Manga Yonin Shosei, translated as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco 1904-1924 by Frederik L. Schodt (original Japanese-language edition, 1931) on which the musical is based, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA

Here is a story we seldom get to hear in any form of pop culture, let alone musical theater: four Japanese men leave their homeland to find better, brighter lives in the promise of America at the turn of the 20th century. They meet on the boat, form a friendship and land in San Francisco in 1904 a solid quartet ready to face tragedy and triumph (or so they think). What’s more, this story is based on Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 The Four Immigrants Manga, considered the first-ever comic book made up of original material – a predecessor to the graphic novel if you will.

The resulting production, directed by Leslie Martinson, captures the exuberance of a comic with a sort of vaudevillian/ragtime-y feel coupled with a serious, often harsh story about obstacles, violence and sheer stupidity faced by immigrants to the U.S., especially if they are not white. We’ve often seen the immigrant experience told from the European-East Coast perspective, so it’s especially interesting to get the Asian-West Coast perspective.

The boys start out young and hopeful in a deft opening number that establishes that they are really speaking Japanese to each other (they know very little English) and Charlie, Fred, Frank and Henry are their chosen American names. Even incarceration (for supposed medical reasons) on their arrival can’t dim their excitement.

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The personalities emerge fairly quickly. Charlie (Hansel Tan) is the chief optimist. In fact, his song, “Optimism,” is an absolute stand-out in an already charming and tuneful score. Fred (Sean Fenton) is practical and just wants some land to farm. Frank (Phil Wong) is the most timid of the group and the least forthcoming with his dream, which turns out to involve becoming the king of American footwear. And Henry (James Seol) is the artist who will eventually create the drawings that will eventually become the comic book that will eventually become the musical.

The bizarre new world of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast is represented by a colorful cast of characters, most played by a fabulous quartet of women: Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catharine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata. It’s also worth nothing that in the early years of the story (which covers 20 years), they are playing rather cartoonish denizens of San Francisco, from the matrons hiring the young men as house servants to police to women of the night to gambling hall gals. But as the story becomes more involved, each of the women becomes a distinct character, most notably Apostol as the elder from the church, Hirata as the independent-minded Hana and Carnahan as Kimiko, a mail-order bride with a singular mind of her own.

The look and feel of the show conveys the feel of cartoon panels in Andrew Boyce’s fluidly moving set, and though there were apparently opening-night computer problems marring Katherine Freer’s projection design, but what we saw was vivid and offered an efficient sense of place and color. The set and projections, with effective lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, also create a sense of Henry’s drawings as the go from being simply sketchbook doodles to important documentation and holders of memories.

Kahng’s score is immediately likable and mostly cheerful. His version of vaudeville is much brighter than, say, Kander and Ebb’s (Cabaret, Chicago), but the music (conducted by William Liberatore and played by a six-piece band) still manages to conjure joy (the aforementioned “Optimism”) and emotion (the beautiful “Furusato,” which conveys a deep connection to one’s roots and home).

The special spark of the evening comes from the ebullient choreography by Dottie Lester-White, who knows just how far to push her performers to make them seem joyful and vivacious but never silly (unless expressly meant to be).

Like Henry’s drawings, the vision of Japanese immigrants here is a far cry from the stereotypes that have been around for far too long. These are multifaceted human beings with hopes, dreams, roots and complications, all of which comes through in their expressive songs. These men – and eventually the women and children in their lives – are good friends to one another, and when racism and horrific laws (non-whites can serve in the armed forces but can’t be citizens or own land) and even floods and earthquakes threaten to derail them, they rally and provide sustaining support.

This eight-member ensemble truly feels like an ensemble, each a major player with heart and personality (and talent) to spare.

Though hopeful in the face of reality, there can’t really be a happy ending here. The action concludes in 1924, but we know what’s coming with World War II and the grotesque treatment of Japanese-American citizens. There’s even foreshadowing here with mentions of General Tojo and the emergence of Japan as a world power. But this is a musical, a bright and beaming musical and that, and reality, though not ignored, feels so much more tolerable in song.

Min Kahng’s The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues through Aug. 6 in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Race, politics, compassion at odds in riveting Confederates

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Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll), the daughter of a presidential candidate, reveals a secret to journalist Will (Richard Prioleau) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s world premiere of Confederates by Suzanne Bradbeer. Below: Will commiserates with fellow journalist Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence) about the pressures of covering the campaign trail. Photos by Kevin Berne

Feels like we’ve been in an election cycle for at least a decade and we haven’t even gotten to the conventions yet. This particular cycle has been grueling for many reasons, not the least of which is the scarcity of in-depth, trustworthy journalism and the abundance of talking heads opining, bloviating, sniping and slathering more opinion on their opinion. It’s exhausting and, for the most part, unilluminating, dispiriting all part of the noise cloud surrounding the noise cloud of the candidates themselves.

Such is the landscape of Suzanne Bradbeer’s Confederates, a thrilling world-premiere drama from TheatreWorks Silicon Valley now at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Developed, in part, at TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival, this three-person one-act slices into the heart of modern politics and journalism. Bradbeer comes from a realistic perspective in terms of the degradation of modern journalism and the obfuscating chaos surrounding a presidential campaign, but she might rely on types – the noble young journalism, the crusty older journalist, the naive candidate’s daughter – those types deepen into characters with depth, complication and easily relatable flaws, ambitions and conundrums.

A senator is emerging as a presidential candidate with real potential, and among the pack of journalists following him on the trail are two writers from the same newspaper: Stephanie (Tasha Lawrence), an experienced journalist who knows how to play the game (and how is so good she was recently offered a buy-out from her paper) and Will (Richard Prioleau), a novice reporter hoping this short-term gig turns into something permanent.

The buses and generic hotels of the campaign trail are folded neatly into Andrew Boyce’s revolving set, which helps director Lisa Rothe maintain a steady rhythm as she builds momentum in a plot that begins to resemble a high-stakes thriller with very human stakes. It seems that Will has a sort of ace up his sleeve because he knew the candidate’s daughter, now a senior in college, when they were in summer camp together. When the daughter, Maddie (Jessica Lynn Carroll), shows up to join the campaign, she recognizes him immediately and even admits she had a crush on him at camp.

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In short order, Maddie makes the mistake of seeing Will as a friend first and a journalist second when she lets him in on a secret that has been troubling her. It seems that an angry ex-boyfriend has texted her a potentially damaging photograph of Madde wearing nothing but a Confederate flag. Being a smart reporter and a compassionate human, Will quickly sees how things could unfold and encourages Maddie to get ahead of the story and let her father’s campaign create a plan to react and recover. First things, first, she should sit down for an interview with him and then bring in her parents.

Maddie reacts emotionally and refuses all of Will’s suggestions. The boyfriend who texted her the photo has promised not to text it to anyone else (but he then texts it to Will, so…) and everything will be fine. The photo is completely out of context and has to do with her rebellious (and possibly drunken) reaction to an adviser telling her that she can’t write a thesis on Harriet Tubman because she’s white. So Maddie starts thinking about her own heritage and what she can write about, and being a Virginian and with family who fought at Gettysburg and all that, her instinct is to mess with the iconography of America’s racist history.

But as Maddie and Will both know, the high-minded artistic context for the photo will be ignored by the general public, and all they’ll see is a naked girl in a Confederate flag. She’ll be ripped to pieces across the Internet, and whatever she does in life, she’ll always be associated with that photo, which Will could simply delete if he so chose.

Will, an African-American man with his own feelings about the Confederate flag, fully understands the extraordinary scoop he has on his hands, and Stephanie, who is, in essence, a mentor and a rival, is pushing hard to get him to write the story immediately and even inserts herself into the narrative by alerting their editor about what he has.

The tension mounts beautifully, and the weight of American politics, the ethics (and importance) of responsible journalism and the ever-complicated issue of race in this country all come into play. The race aspects, in particular a speech Will delivers about his parents sitting him down as a child and having “the talk” with him about how to deal with certain situations, are even more resonant in some ways now than the political tumult. Happily, Bradbeer never lets us lose sight of these characters as people facing difficult and troubling choices, and the actors convey that complexity and all the humor, torment and ferocity it entails.

The ending, however, doesn’t feel quite right. There’s a certain niceness to the conclusion that, sadly, feels at odds with reality. Where we expect a sting, we get sentiment involving fathers doing their best to protect their daughters. Given that we never meet Maddie’s father the candidate, this personal moment feels smaller than the broader national landscape we’ve just been traversing and prevents a truly exciting and provocative drama from sticking its landing.

Suzanne Bradbeer’s Confederates continues through Aug. 7 in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1306 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$80. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Catching up with Colette & Cyrano

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Lorri Holt stars in and co-wrote Colette Uncesnored, the story of the infamous French novelist’s life as a writer, a woman, a pioneer for social change and a lover. The solo show runs through May 14 at The Marsh San Francisco. Photo by David Allen Below: Le Bret (Michael Gene Sullivan, left) warns Cyrano (J. Anthony Crane) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of Cyrano, running through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Kevin Berne

So many shows, so little time!

Herewith, a petite voyage to France, first to check in with the writer Colette and then to catch up with the swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac. I reviewed both Colette Uncensored at The Marsh, a solo show starring and co-written by Lorri Holt (with Zack Rogow, and Cyrano, a new adaptation of Rostand’s tale at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here is a bit of the Colette Uncensored review:

There’s a definite “ooh la la” factor to Colette’s story, and Holt can flirt with and tease an audience like a true Parisian. But this is less a gossipy tale and more an evolutionary one. Colette thrived in the Belle Epoque period in which the bohemians sought freedom in all its forms (and suffered all the consequences).
At a certain point in her life, she delights that her reputation as a writer has overtaken her reputation as a scandal magnet, and by the time Paris is overtaken by the Nazis, we’ve seen her as a naive young wife, a successful actress, a journalist and a successful novelist. Through it all, she keeps coming back to a central question: “Is pleasure the same thing as happiness?”

Read the full review here.

Lorri Holt and Zack Rogow’s Colette Uncensored continues through May 14 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-282-3055 or visit www.themarsh.org.

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And here is a peek a the Cyrano review:

There’s a robust charm to director Robert Kelley’s production in the first act, when Cyrano is surrounded by a noisy crowd of soldiers, actors, friends and antagonists. The second act, however, loses steam in a major way as the lively comedy and masterful swordplay (fight direction by Jonathan Rider) gives way to less exciting romance, a detour into battle and then a 15-year time jump into outright tragedy.
At nearly three hours, this “Cyrano” is at least 20 minutes too long and has a much easier time bearing the laughs and action of the first act than it does the increasingly sad drama of the second.

Read the full review here.

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner, continues in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$80. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Bay Area theater 2015: some favorites

2015 illustration

One of the best things about the year-end exercise to round up favorite theatergoing memories of the preceding year is that it can be such a powerful reminder of how much good theater we have in the Bay Area and how many really extraordinary theater artists we have working here. Another element jumps out at me this year and that is how, in addition to great homegrown work, our area also attracts some of the best theater artists from around the world to come and share their work (at the behest of savvy local producers, of course).

So here are some thoughts on memorable work I saw this year – and I will add as a caveat, I didn’t see as much as I should have (or as much as I used to for that matter), and I must express some pride that as we head into 2016, this old Theater Dogs blog will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and that makes me mighty proud. This is a labor of love, and I want it to be that first and foremost, a way of celebrating and promoting the riches we have here.

• The Curran Theatre is reborn. For me, the theater event of the year was actually a series of events comprising Curran Under Construction, a reintroduction of the fabled theater by its owner, Carole Shorenstein Hays not simply as a stop for touring shows but as an important player in the theatrical culture of the city. While the theater undergoes renovation in its lobby and restrooms, Hays invited audiences to enter through the stage door and sit on stage to experience one after another shows of extraordinary power and diversity. She began with The Event, a horrifyingly relevant exploration of mass violence, grief and understanding, and moved on to the wildly different but equally thrilling The Object Lesson with Geoff Sobelle blending materialism and memories in a magical way. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet offered whisky, haunting music and one of the year’s best, most immersive stage experiences. Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce brought a favorite son back to San Francisco, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald put their own rock-blues spin on James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. Every event at the Curran, including the speaker series hosted by the Curran’s resident literary star, Kevin Sessums, has been glorious and fascinating and involving. What more could you want from theater? (read the original posts here)

• Central Market gets a jewel of a theater in ACT’s The Strand. The Curran wasn’t the only re-birth this year. American Conservatory Theater spent a whole lot of time, money and effort bringing some class to the evolving Central Market area. The new Strand Theater is spectacular and should prove to be a key component in the cultural life of San Francisco. (read the original post here)

• Just Theater blows us away. Again. After A Maze last year, Just Theater became a company I wanted to pay attention to, and boy did that attention pay off. With Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 the company emerged as a producer of provocative, impactful work that should attract as big an audience as possible. This play within a play (within a rehearsal) tackled race, history and personal drama in ways that felt mind bending and heart racing.(read the original post here)

• We got to see Angela Lansbury live on stage. Even if she had just stood on stage and waved, that would have been something, but no, Dame Angela, the legend herself, gave a true and truly funny performance as Madame Arcati in the Broadway touring production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit as part of the SHN season. At 89, she defied any signs of age and offered pure magic. Extraordinary. (read the original post here)

Hookman splatters expectations. Playwright Lauren Yee offered abundant surprises in this “existential slasher comedy,” which is the best possible description of this electric one-act play from Encore Theatre. (read the original post here)

• Tuneful time travel in Triangle. The most heartfelt new musical I saw this year was Triangle at TheatreWorks, a time-twisting tale involving tragedy and romance. Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer have crafted a smart, melodious show that feels original and scaled exactly right (the cast of six feels much bigger, as do the emotions). (read the original post here)

• There’s still life left in Scrooge after all. There’s absolutely no reason that the new musical Scrooge in Love should not become a holiday perennial. Creators Kellen Blair, Larry Grossman and Duane Poole have crafted an utterly charming musical sequel to A Christmas Carol with songs you actually want to hear and characters you root for. Of course having Jason Graae as Scrooge is a big Christmas bonus, so kudos to all at 42nd Street Moon for breaking away from the classic or forgotten musicals and presenting something fresh and fantastic. (read the original post here)

• Alice Munro should love Word for Word. There’s no better theater company than Word for Word and no better writer than Alice Munro, so…mic drop. This was sublime from beginning to end as director Joel Mullenix and a cast that included the wondrous Jeri Lynn Cohen, Susan Harloe and Howard Swain brought two Munro stories to life, one from 1968, one from 2012. There was humor, heart and exquisite writing. (read the original post here)

• Cathleen Riddley lays it bare in Tree. Riddley can always be counted on for a strong performance, but in this powerful Julie Hébert family drama at San Francisco Playhouse she was riveting and heartbreaking as an older woman losing touch with herself and her family. (read the original post here)

• And then the drama comes flooding in. My favorite set of the year was G.W. Skip Mercier’s design for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Water played a big part in the design of a house in marshy Louisiana territory where the forks of the Mississippi meet. There was a storm, a leaky roof and then a deluge of biblical proportions. And boy was it fun to watch. (read the original post here)

• Hypocrites pummel Pirates perfectly. Probably the most fun you could have in a theater (and not mind getting beaned by a beach ball) was Chicago troupe The Hypocrites’ wild and wonderful take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Berkeley Rep had the smarts to introduce the Bay Area to this smart, enterprising company, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of their inventive, energetic take on interactive theater. (read the original post here)

The delights of TheatreWorks’ time-twisting Triangle

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Brian (Ross Lekites, left) finally accepts Ben (Zachary Prince) into his life in the TheatreWorks world premiere of the musical Triangle at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Kevin Berne

In the wake of my review of TheatreWorks’ world premiere musical Triangle someone tweeted a link to the review and suggested that the show could make it to Broadway. I have some thoughts about that. First of all, if Triangle opens on Broadway, godspeed and congratulations to all the talented people who made it and happy (or sad as the case may be) will be the audiences who get to enjoy its well-crafted pleasures. But I don’t think Triangle belongs on Broadway. This is an intimate chamber musical – cast of six – that takes love and grief and history seriously and deftly uses music to underscore its rich emotions. In other words, it’s too good for Broadway – at least the Broadway we knew before Fun Home and Hamilton made it safe for intelligence and intensity once again on the Great White Way.

Who knows if this trend continues, but if it does, maybe shows like Triangle will reach the larger audiences they deserve to, but if this musical continued through the world of regional theater or even ended up off Broadway, that would be OK. Audiences would have the pleasure of experiencing it in smaller houses where it feels personal and scaled just right – epic emotions but small-scale storytelling with the added twist of time travel.

I can imagine audiences experiencing Triangle in a stripped-down version at TheatreWorks New Works Festival three years ago and falling hard for it and feeling proprietary about it. That’s kind of how I feel about it now. I don’t want Broadway to ruin something with such integrity.

Here’s a bit of my review:

The show, a hit at TheatreWorks’ 2012 New Works Festival, aims to accomplish a complex and ambitious task while remaining heartfelt and intimate. Though there are still kinks to work out, “Triangle” is astonishingly successful.
The trick is flipping back and forth in time without making the show feel bifurcated and blending a contemporary pop sound with a more traditional chamber musical sound. Composer Curtis Moore and lyricist Thomas Mizer, who both crafted the book with Joshua Scher, have mostly figured out how to do it, with a huge assist from Meredith McDonough’s effectively streamlined direction.

Read the full review here.

Triangle continues through Aug. 2 in a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks delights with devilish Angels

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Rebecca Dines is Jane and Sarah Overman is Julia, best friends whose marriages are boring them to tears. In Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the bored wives get up to some drunken mischief. Photos by Kevin Berne

Boredom, desire and champagne make for a potent cocktail in Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, now receiving a lively production from TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Director Robert Kelley delivers an elegant outing for this zesty comedy that keeps its focus on two live wire ladies – Jane and Julia, best friends since grammar school. Living the easy life with their lackluster husbands is taking its toll on their vivacity, and when left to their own devices, they manage to stir up a whole lot of excitement with the help of a man from their past (a cameo by the ever-dashing Aldo Billingslea.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

If Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz had been born into London’s upper crust, they might have resembled Julia and Jane, besties since childhood and now five years into their respective marriages to wealthy ninnies. Julia (Sarah Overman) is frank with her husband, Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips), over breakfast: “We’re not in love a bit,” she says. Ever-sensible Fred replies that they’re in love in a different way, a way full of affection and “good comradeship.”
Jane (Rebecca Dines) has a similar conversation with her Willy (Cassidy Brown); and when the two men go off for a short golf holiday, the women decide to inject some much needed passion and excitement into their lives. “To put it mildly, dear,” Jane says, “we’re both ripe for a lapse.”

Read the full review here.

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Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels continues through June 28 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Blitz bombs but TheatreWorks’ Sweeney still soars

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Tonsorial expert Sweeney Todd (David Studwell) and Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) concoct a recipe for revenge in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Below: Tobias (Spencer Kiley) revels in the booming business of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop. Photos by Kevin Berne

Tory Ross’ sublime performance as Mrs. Lovett, maker of the “worst pies in London,” threatens to hijack the TheatreWorks production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and turn it into Nellie Lovett: People Who Eat People Are the Luckiest People.

There’s no escaping the genius of Angela Lansbury’s indelible performance (captured on video) in the original production of what composer Stephen Sondheim describes as a “dark operetta,” but that star turn was a Victorian cartoon, a manically genial grotesque with shadings of a real flesh-and-bone woman under all the goofiness.

But Ross is a whole lot less cartoon and a whole lot more human being. She’s still funny and sharp and kind of crazy, but she’s also a little sexy, a lot smart and quite adorable. She’s not some zany old broad but a vibrant woman who looks to be around Sweeney’s age (if a little younger). She’s a bright spot in a dark show and she makes more of an impression than David Studwell in the title role or director Robert Kelley’s strained updating of the show to World War II London.

This updating is vague at best. Set designer Andrea Bechert has built what looks like an underground factory that turns into a Tube station, which doesn’t entirely make sense, and the beginning of the show sees officials running around with air raid sirens wailing and people decamping to the safety of the subterranean setting. But then it gets fuzzy. Are we to believe that the evacuees are performing Sweeney Todd in its entirety complete with sets, orchestra, swirling stage smoke and lots of lighting cues? Or perhaps that’s too literal. But otherwise why is a Victorian tale of murder being performed during a potentially deadly bombing raid?

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There’s a song later in the show called “City on Fire,” which takes Sondheim’s metaphorical firestorm (“City on fire! Rats in the grass/And the lunatics yelling in the streets!/ It’s the end of the word! Yes! City on fire!”) and makes it a literal bomb fest. That’s the only time the setting makes actual sense, but it doesn’t really add much to what Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler (working from Christopher Bond’s play) have already so masterfully created.

The best news about the “Keep Calm and Carry On”-ization of Sweeney is that it doesn’t really matter. Kelley’s production is otherwise tip-top. The voices are gorgeous and William Liberatore’s nine-piece orchestra sounds lush and full and heavy and bloody in all the right places, especially in the show’s cinematic underscore.

Sweeney Toddd is an extraordinary musical – incredibly efficient in its storytelling and full of comical and emotional surprises. It purports to be a horror show, but Sondheim’s score is constantly igniting laughs and sparking human connections. I’m not a fan of the Tim Burton movie except for the 64-piece orchestra and glorious orchestrations because the performances, for the most part, are cold and empty, as is the arm’s-length filmmaking.

But on stage, Sweeney pulses with life in all its operatic, chaotic craziness, and Kelley’s cast handles it all with tremendous gusto. Studwell’s Sweeney may not be as deeply felt or as vocally powerful as he might be, but he’s a strong, menacing presence who knows his way around a a dark ballad (“Epiphany”) and a straight razor. Jack Mosbacher as Anthony Hope makes a fine impression with his lustrous “Johanna,” one of Sondheim’s most achingly beautiful melodies, and Spencer Kiely couldn’t be any sweeter as Tobias Ragg on “Not While I’m Around.”

The entire ensemble sounds fantastic, but the musical highlights belong to Ross’ Mrs. Lovett. Her duet with Sweeney, “A Little Priest,” ends Act 1 on the highest of notes, and her “By the Sea” is at once delightful and sad (because it’s a fantasy that can never be).

There’s no blood in this production (just splashes of red light from designer Steven B. Mannshardt), but there’s plenty of melodrama, high and low, which is as it should be in a tale of revenge, murder and love, sweet love. Once this story gets going, it’s an efficient machine, not unlike Sweeney’s slick barber chair, which, with the pull of a lever, dumps bodies down a chute and into the butcher shop/cellar. As long as that machine is in motion, not even a cosmetic overlay like the Blitz setting, can keep it from accomplishing its wicked yet somehow wonderful musical magic.

TheatreWorks’ Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through Nov. 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.