Ant-os in your Pantos: A lively English tradition comes to SF

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Renée Lubin as Genie of the Ring (left) and JM Appleby as Genie of the Lamp in the premiere of The Magic Lamp panto at the Presidio Theatre. Below: Curt Branom as Widow Twankey (left) and Danny Scheie as Abba, the bad guy. Photos by Terry Lorant


The holiday season just got a lot zippier with the opening of The Magic Lamp, a family show at the gorgeously refurbished Presidio Theatre (in the Presidio, not the movie theater on Chestnut of the same name) fashioned in the style of the much-loved British panto tradition. Pantos, if you don’t know, are big business in England this time of year, with shows generally based on a fairy tale or well-known children’s tale but gussied up with outrageous costumes, zany humor of the slapstick variety, cross-dressing and lots of audience participation in the form of sing-alongs, call-and-response or active booing of the bad guy.

The Magic Lamp, written by the wife-and-husband team of Christine Nicholson and Luther Hanson and directed by Tamroz Torfeh, includes all of that plus a whole lot of Bay Area shout-outs and a bundle of hit songs from various eras re-fashioned to tell an updated version of the Aladdin story.

With its fast-paced comedy, pop songs and larger-than-life costumes and wigs, there’s definitely a vibe here that recalls Beach Blanket Babylon, the gone-but-never-forgotten comedy revue that ran for 45 years at Club Fugazi. So it should come as no surprise, then, that there’s a large contingent of Beach Blanket veterans both on stage and behind the scene bringing this energetic holiday endeavor to life.

In this re-telling, Aladdin (Rotimi Agbabiaka is a Daly City-based delivery boy for an egg business run by his mother, Widow Twankey (Curt Branom playing the drag role to the hilt). He falls in love with Jazz (Sharon Shao), daughter of Sultana (Rinabeth Apostol), the richest woman in the world thanks to her online empire, Sultanazon.com.

Bay Area actor/treasure Danny Scheie is on hand to elicit boos and hisses as Abba, the Dodger-loving baddie who needs Aladdin to descend into a cave of jewels and bring him back the magic lamp. That’s all pretty basic, but what’s fun here is that there’s not one but two genies. Renée Lubin is the public transportation-loving Genie of the Ring and traverses the stage via turntable and cable car/magic carpet, and JM Appleby is the Genie of the Lamp, the more traditional three-wishes kind of genie.

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Probably the most enjoyable addition to this version is also the weirdest. Chickens are front and center here, primarily because of the Widow Twankey’s business selling blue eggs (often referred to as “blue balls” to make the grown-ups titter). Aladdin has two sidekicks: the human, Jarvis (Scott Reardon), who also serves as the spirited narrator, and Pecker, a very tall rooster played with admirable commitment by Matthew Kropschot and outfitted in a gorgeous costume by Alina Bokovikova (whose work across the stage is both comic and gorgeous).

And then there’s the scene-stealing trio of hens: Jen Brooks as Preeny, Ruby Day as Queeny and Albert Hodge as Steeny. They speak only in chicken, but their Act 1 number, “Doot Doot Chicken Dance,” is so hilarious that maybe future pantos might want to focus on further flights of the fowl.

At more than 2 1/2 hours (with an intermission), The Magic Lamp maintains an admirable level of energy as the large cast sings, dances (to choreography by Stacey Printz, jokes, tosses candy, vanquishes zombies, clucks and celebrates a big wedding. The aggressive panto style can get a little tiring for some, but these appealing performers (under musical direction by Bill Keck) keep the charm flowing and the laughs coming.

Perhaps best of all, it’s great to see the beautiful Presidio Theatre so full of happy people enjoying a show that overflows with fun and festivity,

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Magic Lamp continues through Dec. 31 at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$75. Call 415-960-3949 or visit presidiotheatre.org for information.

COVID Safety at the Presidio Theatre
The Theatre requires all guests to wear a mask at all times while inside the building. All guests 12 and older are required to show proof of full vaccination with a matching photo ID. Full vaccination is defined as two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Youth 12 to 17 can use a school ID, birth certificate or social security card in place of a photo ID. Young children under five years old are not allowed.<

Welcome return to Pemberley with Georgiana and Kitty

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The cast of the world-premiere Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley includes (from left) Lauren Spencer as Georgiana Darcy, Aidaa Peerzada as Emily Grey, Emilie Whelan as Kitty Bennet, Zahan F. Mehta as Henry Grey, Adam Magill as Thomas O’Brien, Alicia M. P. Nelson as Margaret O’Brien and Madeline Rouverol as Sarah Darcy. Below: Mehta and Spencer find holiday romance in the Marin Theatre Company production. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, Scenic Design by Nina Ball, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao. Photos by Kevin Berne courtesy of Marin Theatre Company


Jane Austen has undoubtedly been visiting with her celestial publisher to check on the status of her earthly estate. Over the years, she has seen her cultural clout grow and grow, with movies, novel sequels, themed weekends and generation after generation of new Austen fans clamoring for more. Among the most interesting of the offerings related to the much-loved 19th-century novelist created in the more than 200 years since her death are the Christmas at Pemberley plays by San Francisco playwrights Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Locally, we saw the post-Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberley series begin in 2016 at Marin Theatre Company with Miss Bennett (read my review marintheatre.org) and continue in 2018 with The Wickhams (a sort of below-stairs/Downton Abbey take). Now, what has become a trilogy, concludes with Georgiana and Kitty. The genius of the trilogy is that it essentially covers one Christmas holiday but doesn’t actually require you to have seen the other installments (or read Austen, for that matter) – but your enjoyment and appreciation will be enhanced if you have.

This third chapter is the most audacious of them all if only because it takes the greatest liberties with Austen by imagining what the five Bennett sisters, their husbands and children will be doing 20 years after this initial holiday gathering. Not to give anything away, but the future for these characters involves bold moves for womankind, enduing female friendship and consistent breaking of women’s societal restraints – all within a warm holiday glow and amid boisterous (sometimes contentious) familial affection.

We didn’t actually get to meet Kitty Bennett in either of the other two plays, so it’s lovely to see the youngest Bennett finally get her moment in the spotlight along with her BFF, Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of Kitty’s sister Lizzy.

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There’s great excitement in the house because of – what else? – boys. Georgiana (Lauren Spencer) has been corresponding with Henry Grey (Zahan F. Mehta), a potential beau, for almost a year, and she has impulsively invited him to visit Pemberley at Christmas. He arrives, smitten and tongue-tied, in the company of his friend Thomas O’Brien (Adam Magill), who immediately sparks with the vibrant Kitty (Emilie Whelan). But this double romance quickly skids to a halt when Henry fails to pass muster with Georgiana’s domineering brother, Darcy (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whose self-imposed duty to protect his sister makes him overbearing and obnoxious.

The great thing about all the Pemberley plays is how they play with formula – calculated through both Austen and holiday romance equations – and still come up with something that is highly enjoyable, smart and full of real charm and warmth. Gunderson and Melcon honor Austen and write characters who defy expectations of the 19th, 20th and 21st century varieties. The holiday aspect wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark movie, but there’s an intelligence and spirit at work here that far exceeds all the usual, sappy trappings.

Performances are bright and focused in director Meredith McDonough (who also helmed Miss Bennett five years ago), and if some of the characters seem to be extra set dressing (on Nina Ball’s stately estate set), that is rectified when the action shifts ahead two decades and we meet a vivacious new generation of Darcys, O’Briens and Greys.

Austen would no doubt love to see the triumph of some her women characters as envisioned by Gunderson and Melcon, whether it’s the successful balancing of family and work life by one or the artistic success of another as she makes great inroads in a world wholly dominated by men. She may also love that even in the future, Mr. Darcy is a well-meaning ass who would do well to listen to his wife, who is seldom, if ever, wrong.

It’s a little bit sad that Kitty and Georgiana is the final chapter in the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, but here’s hoping that Gunderson and Melcon continue to make such savvy, satisfying theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley continues through Dec. 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

A joyful circus bounces into Club Fugazi

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Ruben Ingwersen (left) and Jérémi Levesque hit remarkable heights in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story, the exuberant new show at Club Fugazi. Below: Devin Henderson jumps through the hoop. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


If it were possible to actually see the heart of San Francisco, it might look like the beautifully diverse group of awe-inspiring acrobats bouncing around the stage in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story. And this is not just any stage: this is Club Fugazi, the storied North Beach theater built in 1913 where Beach Blanket Babylon ran for most of its nearly five-decade run.

That’s a tough act to follow, but you know what? COVID is even tougher. And the glorious artists behind this enterprise rise to the challenge and then some. As Bay Area theater slowly begins to wake up from its 18-month imposed nap, it’s positively bracing to be in the presence of not only the wonderful performers of Dear San Francisco but also the loving, funny, thrilling show itself.

Co-conceived, created and directed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider for their company, The 7 Fingers, this is a circus show that aims to share what’s lovable, what’s quirky and what’s annoying about San Francisco. Such a show could run for six hours at least, but this one runs around 90 minutes, and, happily, it doesn’t get hung up on SF stereotypes or get too sappy or silly about what makes this place unique. It takes an open-hearted approach and embraces these 7×7 miles by creating a portrait of a city that feels as wonderful and exciting as it feels unknowable. This isn’t a schmaltzy show built for tourists, but any living, breathing human (tourist or not) would be inclined to enjoy it and its robust portrait of the City by the Bay.

Carroll and Snider come to the world of the modern circus through San Francisco’s own chapter of circus renown, specifically through the Pickle Family Circus (Carroll was a trapeze artist and Snider’s parents founded the Pickles when she was 4). We tend to think of modern circus in terms of Cirque de Soleil, but I have to admit a certain weariness for that empty corporate spectacle. Give me a pulsing, human troupe like The 7 Fingers any day, and in addition to reveling in the performers’ skills, I’ll also enjoy their camaraderie, the light in their eyes and the magic they can create with their bodies and very little else.

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The nine-person cast is charming, sexy, funny and gobsmacking. If you’ve ever been to Fugazi, you know it’s not a very big theater. How Beach Blanket managed to get those giant props and hats onto that small stage is one of the wonders of the world. And 7 Fingers goes even further toward making this an intimate experience by putting audience members on the stage. Those folks almost end up with acrobats in their laps several times, but it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining.

There’s a poetic fluidity to the sequence of events, and the acrobatic acts themselves are woven into captivating vignettes about, for instance, falling in love in Golden Gate Park (which involves a trapeze and, apparently, a deal with gravity to take some time off). Or there’s the unicyclist who seems to be dancing and taking over the city on one wheel. It’s aggressive and beautiful at the same time (and the effect often appears more like rollerskating than unicycle riding).

Diving through a twirling hoop is set against recitations from the Beat poets, and the magnitude of an earthquake is measured by two men on a teeterboard (and it is seismic). Even Sam Spade and an enigmatic, truth-challenged client get in on the act with white balls (sort of like smaller volleyballs) that allow for a startling blend of film noir and juggling.

Tech folks get a mild skewering in a bit called “Privatize This,” and a hand balancing act becomes poetry in motion involving the beauty of redemption. My favorite act – the one that literally made me hold my breath – takes place on the stage-to-ceiling poles with a level of strength and control that is mind boggling.

Dear San Francisco really is a high-flying love story. There are people in love mixed into its portrait of a beautiful city, but it’s really a love story between us and the city itself. At one point, performers read postcards written by audience members (and some famous folk), and at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, one postcard said something to the effect of, “San Francisco, you have broken my heart and filled it over and over again,” which makes this place almost impossible to quit. How do you capture a historic city in flux? With a pile of irresistible acrobat performers, that’s how. This living, breathing love letter of a show finds joy in every leap, razzle-dazzle in every flip and absolute joy in every moment.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story are on sale through Dec. 30. Tickets are $35-$89. Call 415-273-0600 or visit clubfugazisf.com. Club Fugazi is at 678 Green Street., San Francisco.

COVID Protocol
Club Fugazi requires proof of full vaccination with valid ID upon entry for all guests 12 years and up. Acceptable forms of proof include your physical vaccination card, a photo of your vaccination card, or a digital vaccination record. (California residents can request a digital vaccination record at https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov/). Masks will be required for all patrons (including children) at all times. Unvaccinated children between the ages of 5 – 11 will be able to attend with vaccinated adult(s).

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.

Tension is high in Aurora’s audio drama The Flats

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Lauren English (left) is Harmony, Khary L. Moye (center) is Brooke and Anthony Fusco is Leonard in Aurora Theatre’s world-premiere audio play The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector.

Sitting in the intimate Aurora Theatre watching great actors close up is one of the great treats of Bay Area theater. Even though we can’t be together in that space for a while, the Aurora crew is still storytelling in its inimitably intimate way: with a world-premiere audio play by three Bay Area writers. The Flats by Lauren Gunderson, Cleavon Smith and Jonathan Spector is delivered in three installments. Parts 1 and 2 have already been released, and Part 3 comes out Nov. 6. All three episodes will then be available for streaming, which is good, because you likely won’t be able to listen to just one.

Plays on the radio used to be a regular thing. I even have original cast recordings of Broadway plays. But somehow, this most rewarding theatrical form has faded from mainstream popularity, though audiobooks and podcasts have admirably carried the audio drama mantle in various ways. What’s rewarding about The Flats (of which I’ve heard two of the three episodes) involves three excellent actors – Lauren English, Khary L. Moye and Anthony Fusco – and an intoxicating blend of tension, humor and substance.

Set in Berkeley, the play capitalizes on the dis-ease with which we’ve all become acutely acquainted these last seven months. But in this world, there’s not a global pandemic, but rather something much scarier and more intriguing. I won’t say what it is because that’s part of the fun. But suffice it to say that citizens are experiencing tight government quarantining, with certain liberties allowed here and there. Grocery stores are sorely understocked, and fresh produce is scant. In one particular triplex, three residents – well, two residents and the owner, who suddenly shows up in the vacant unit – are stuck at home with only their neighbors to distract them from the … situation.

Harmony (English) is escaping her troubled marriage and, consequently, her children. Brooke (Moye) is a bit more enigmatic but offers his landlord one of the most intriguing housewarming gifts ever: caterpillars that will soon become butterflies. And Leonard (Fusco) is a drug-taking old Berkeley hippie with his own radio show and a number of conspiracy theories that might not all be preposterous. It’s an uneasy mix of personalities, of course (hard to have drama without tension), and in addition to the stress of what’s going on in the world, this trio is also dealing with issues of race and relationships and earth-shattering revelations.

Director Josh Costello, ably abetted by composer/sound designer Elton Bradman, creates a wonderfully detailed sonic world in which you really feel like you’re with these people, and the actors deliver marvelously detailed performances that create vivid images of the characters and their states of mind.

There’s much more to say about this audio drama, but the fewer details you have, the richer your experience amid the scintillating heights of The Flats.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Single tickets for The Flats are available for $20 here, along with season memberships. The final (of three) episode of The Flats drops Nov. 6. Afterward, all three episodes will be available for streaming.

Cricket tests history in ACT’s feisty Testmatch

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Tensions rise as (from left) England 3 (Millie Brooks), England 2 (Arwen Anderson), India 2 (Lipica Shah), India 1 (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) and India 3 (Avanthika Srinivasan) discuss which is the better team in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Testmatch at ACT’s Strand Theater through Dec. 8. Below: The Messenger (Kumbhani, right) shares astonishingly bad news with two British officers, Two (Brooks, left) and One (Anderson). Photos by Kevin Berne

You could say that Kate Attwell’s Testmatch, the world premiere play at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, is about cricket. You could also say it’s about untangling the gnarly knots of history. But the impact, especially in the savvy way Attwell has constructed the play, comes from its emphasis on the deep interconnection of everything to everything.

We think we’re watching a play about an International Cricket Council World Cup match between India and England women’s teams – and that makes for a mightily intriguing play – but really we’re seeing the frayed ends of a knotted rope that stretches back to England’s savage colonizing of India. There are infinite ways of examining how the past is directly affecting the present, but Attwell takes her slice from the world of sport, specifically a byzantine, vaguely baseball-ish sport the British brought to India.

There’s a bit of Caryl Churchill in Testmatch (thinking especially of the Anglo-Indian relations in Cloud 9), and I mean that as high praise. Like Churchill, Attwell digs into intimate details and grand theatrics to find the bigger picture. She also bends gender to her will in a quest to find theater in history and truth in fiction.

Directed by ACT Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon, Testmatch has a lively energy, though it surprised me at the end that only 90 minutes had passed. The play somehow feels more substantial and longer than that, which probably has to do with the way Attwell has split the action between present-day England and 19th-century India. In the modern first half, the cricket match in which the India women were leading the England women is interrupted by rain and is unlikely to continue. Three members of each team end up in a sort of ante-locker room to drink tea and vent their frustration. These scenes absolutely crackle with the fire of competition, cultural difference and nefarious secrets.

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Instead of names, the characters are given a nationality and a number, and it’s England 2 (Arwen Anderson) who works to keep the mood light with her astute observations on the differences between male lovers who play cricket (not so much) and those who play rugby (oh, YES, very much!). In spite of her best efforts, things nearly come to blows and racial epithets are nearly hurled and any pretense of good manners shatters.

From there, Nina Ball’s boxy white set shifts, as do Marie Yokoyama’s lights, and we’re in India watching two male buffoons (played by Anderson and Millie Brooks) in Calcutta as they dither and chortle and otherwise carry out their duties for the East India Company. Safely inside the walls of their estate, all is well. Uniformed Abhi (Lipica Shah) keeps things under control and does not at all approve of upping the opium dose for the lady of the house (Madeline Wise as the delusional, visionary Memsahib). From the other side of the wall comes an exuberant young local woman (the charismatic Avanthika Srinivasan as Daanya) who wants to train with the English cricket team. She’s the first crack in the wall, so to speak, as the reality of India begins to invade the colonialists’ willful ignorance of the damage their raping and pillaging of the country is wreaking. Then comes an emissary from Bengal (a gripping Meera Rohit Kumbhani) with news that would devastate anyone…anyone, that is, but a British businessman intent on squeezing out the last of the country’s riches before beating it back to Britain.

Some of the first half’s energy evaporates in the second half as the tone shifts from locker room reality to gender-bending satire and then again to grim, oppressive reality. Those are big shifts to make, and if Attwell and MacKinnon don’t entirely succeed in making them, the marvelous cast pulls out all the dramatic and comedic stops to keep driving the play to its end. There’s a welcome degree of humor in Testmatch, but this is an earnest examination of how deeply personal history can be and about how we never really plumb those depths or find ways – individually or culturally – to deal with the horror and injustice and greed that have placed us where we are today.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kate Attwell’s Testmatch continues through Dec 8 at American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Vivacious Aztec tunefully reclaims, re-writes Latinx history

EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 21
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(front) Yani Marin as Colombina; (back row, from left) Angelica Beliard (Ensemble), Maria-Christina Oliveras (Ensemble), Jesús E. Martínez (Ensemble) and KC de la Cruz (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! at Berkeley Rep, directed by Tony Taccone and co-written by Taccone and John Leguizamo. (Photo by Kevin Berne) Below: The ensemble of Kiss My Aztec (photo by Alessandra Mello)

After 33 years at Berkeley Repertory Theatre – 22 as artistic director – Tony Taccone is taking a final bow with Kiss My Aztec, a world-premiere musical that serves as a fitting farewell. Hatched from the fervid mind of John Leguizamo, the show hits a lot of Taccone hot spots. It attempts to stick it to the white man (in this case, the Spanish conquistadors who colonized, destroyed and attempted to erase Aztec civilization) while re-writing history with a focus on those who should have had a hand in recording it in the first place. It’s a sprawling, inclusive, celebratory explosion of energy that continually lobs truth bombs at its audience through crude, incisive, often hilarious lines and lyrics.

“The original sin of the nation you’re in is white people in boats.” That’s from the rousing opening number performed by an ass-kicking 11-member ensemble. The choreography by Maija Garcìa immediately lets us know we’re in for a show where everything goes. Urban, modern, traditional, Latinx – it’s all here, and it’s all exciting. Set designer Clint Ramos (who also designed the costumes) largely gets out of the way of the story by letting his actors climb on, around and under a basic two-level scaffolding structure surrounded by brick walls covered in colorful murals.

Based on a screenplay by Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky, Kiss My Aztec is an imagined tale of Aztec revenge. In the book by Leguizamo and Taccone, it’s the mid-16th century, where people speak with a hint of Shakespeare along the lines of, “Thou shall shuteth thy pie hole.” Though Cortes has successfully vanquished, pillaged and enslaved the Aztec civilization, a small tribe plots revenge on the Spanish ruler. In this version of history, the Aztecs are successful and very much part of the ongoing and successful effort to make the world more brown.

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This historical revision happens with the kind of musical irreverence you might find in shows like Monty Python’s Spamalot or The Book of Mormon. There’s a lot of slicing and sassing of the patriarchal conquerors, but there’s also a lot of love for the downtrodden and the wronged. The score, with music by Benjamin Velez and lyrics by Leguizamo, Velez and David Kamp, is all over the musical map. There’s rap and hip-hop, Broadway love song (albeit performed by lovers who are chained up and just out of each other’s reach), samba, tango, gospel and just about anything else you can think of. In spite of, or perhaps because of, that variety, the score is eminently enjoyable. There’s a song late in Act 1, “The Abstinence Song,” that is perhaps the catchiest, with its refrain of, “Keep it in your pants and dance.” And the aforementioned love song, with the chains inspiring the lovers to sing “just a few inches more,” is cleverly titled “Chained Melody” (sure to be a hit for the Unrighteous Brothers). The only song that didn’t fully work for me was the Act 2 opener, “Dark Meat,” which is funny for a verse and then tiresome.

The central characters here are Aztecs Columbina (Yani Marin) and Pepe (Joél Pérez). She’s a warrior trapped by her father’s limited idea of what women can do, and he’s a gentle soul who would rather practice sock puppetry than pick up a sword. They’re destined for each other, but first they have to prove themselves by infiltrating the Spanish citadel, capturing the viceroy’s giant ruby pendant (that and a blood moon figure largely in a prophecy) and guiding the Aztecs to victory. Columbina’s big double-negative statement of defiance is “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do,” and Pepe’s is the charming “Punk-Ass Geek-A.” They both get to be heroes, but it’s clear that Pepe is the most Leguizamo-like, a rolling ball of comic electricity and eccentricity whose charms are impossible to resist.

Within the Spanish court, the viceroy Roderigo (Al Rodrigo) is miserable. He loathes his gay son, Fernando (Zachary Infante), who is secretly in love with a Catholic priest, Reymundo (Chad Carstarphen), decked out in his Inquisition-red robes. Their down low duet, “Tango in the Closet,” is a hoot.

Many performers are double cast in fun ways. Carstarphen, for instance, is the gay priest and also the noble but beleaguered El Jaguar Negro, leader of the Aztec resistance. And Infante makes a second appearance as a Sebastian, a wacky bit of inbred Spaniard royalty with his own fizzy dance club number, “New Girl, New World.” Desiree Rodriguez also makes a strong double impression as an Aztec and as Pilar, daughter of the Viceroy who wants to mess with her father in a big way.

This is the kind of highly carbonated musical that makes audiences happy – makes them feel smart and entertained and progressive – and it looks like a joy to perform. This production heads to the La Jolla Playhouse this fall, and who knows where beyond that. It’s not a revolutionary show, but it’s part of a class of musical comedy that’s actually funny as well as heartfelt, relevant and full of catchy tunes. There’s a fair amount of snark and cynicism in the show’s humor, mostly to underscore the idiocy of our current political climate, especially in respect to brown people here, there and everywhere. But ultimately, this is a big, juicy Kiss that inspires celebration and hope, even amid oppression, darkness and abominable leadership.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kiss My Aztec by John Leguizamo, Tony Taccone, Benjamin Velez and David Kamp continues an extended run through July 21 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Candlestick resurrected in new Campo Santo drama

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The cast of Candlestick, the world-premiere drama from Campo Santo, includes (from left) Donald E. Lacy Jr. as Lyle, Brian Rivera as Karl, Britney Frazier as Riley and Anna Maria Luera Martina. Below: Frazier and Luera’s characters get into some family-related drama. Photos by Joan Osato/Campo Santo

Cards on the table right up front: I do not like football. Never have. Actively dislike it, in fact. Since childhood, I associated football players with bullying and cruelty, and through elementary, middle and high school, that association was never challenged. In my sophomore year of high school, a friend and I landed in a second period PE class that happened to be taught by the varsity football coach and included, as our classmates, the entire varsity football team. It was a yearlong nightmare.

I have family members who looooooove football, especially at the college and professional level, so it was always around. And my dad happens to be one of the world’s biggest fans of the San Francisco 49ers – well, he used to be. Not so much these days. It turns out that not only do my dad and I feel differently about football, but also have wildly diverging viewpoints on the actions of former 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

It was with trepidation that I went to opening night of the world premiere drama Candlestick by Bennett Fisher and produced by Campo Santo, long one of the Bay Area’s best incubators of new plays.

The premise is that a group of Bayview friends spend eight home games tailgating in the parking lot of Candlestick Park in its final season as home to the 49ers and its final days as a standing stadium.

In the intimate setting of the ACT Costume Shop, the football vibe is strong from the minute you walk in the door. The lobby is set up as an elaborate tailgate party complete with chili and Red Vines and game highlights on a TV screen. There’s a pre-show whoop-whoop session to get folks riled up and ready to scream and shout, even though there are only a few moments in the play where we are encouraged to chant things like, “Niners! Niners! Niners!” (something I will never, ever do).

That football vibe extends to the evocative parking lot set by Tanya Orellana’s – chainlink fence draped with 49ers banners, streetlights and the requisite food table (jalapeño tortilla chips seem to dominate) and ice chests full of beer. Maximiliano Urruzmendi’s lights swirl around like a halftime show, and projections (by Joan Osato) on a billowy screen above the action show us aerial footage of the stadium and tell us which team the Niners are facing. Act 1 scenes are all before the games. Act 2 scenes are all after the games.

Candlestick 1

My hope in going to a play about football is that the human drama will dominate the stage and not the actual game or the mania surrounding the game. We all have our passions, and those passions can create powerful connections to other people who are similarly inclined. We use our hobbies as a means of communication and as a safe place to express emotions that might otherwise make us uncomfortable in our “real” life.

All of that is definitely part of Fisher’s script, but this play is heavy with football. I can guarantee that if you like football, especially the 49ers, you will enjoy this two-hour experience much more than I did.

The drama here involves Lloyd, played by the vibrant Donald E. Lacy Jr., who is the king of his own little tailgate kingdom. From his comfy chair (covered by a 49ers blanket, naturally), he drinks beer and talks plays and statistics and smack talks opponents with his pals. Hugo (Juan Amador) and Karl (Brian Rivera) are as enthusiastic as Lloyd but in different ways. While Hugo is like a tornado of energy, Karl is more circumspect and less voluble. Martina (Anna Maria Luera), another enthusiastic fan, now runs her family’s company, a successful company that has contracted with Lloyd for more than 30 years but never made him an actual employee.

That’s the core crew, though we do meet some other folks, most notably Lloyd’s daughter Riley (Britney Frazier), whose relationship with her dad (and football) has not always been on sure footing. Aside from Lloyd’s erratic and volatile behavior, Britney’s motivation – is she acting selfishly or really trying to help her dad? – provides the play’s tension.

Director Ellen Sebastian Chang certainly gets lively and enthusiastic performances from her cast. There’s a real sense of connection among the core members of this group, and when things begin to rupture, it’s interesting to see how sturdy (or not) the football friendship connection really is.

There’s a tendency toward melodrama in the play’s second half, and the final scenes, with a mysterious figure in gold suit, are so out of sync with the rest of the play they just seem absurd. There’s an attempt to address changing attitudes about football – the player demonstrations, the toxic masculinity, the concussions – but it all seems slight amid the glorification of the sport that fuels the tailgate crowd.

If I was supposed to feel bad or sad or conflicted about the destruction of Candlestick and for what it meant to people through the decades, I did not.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bennett Fisher’s Candlestick, a Campo Santo production, continues through Feb. 3 at ACT’s Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30. Written by Bennett Fisher. Directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang. Through Feb. 3. 130 minutes. $30. https://candlestickcs.brownpapertickets.com

Aside from dancing, Berkeley Rep Square is far from paradise

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(front row, l to r) Hailee Kaleem Wright (Ensemble), Karen Burthwright (Ensemble), and Sidney Dupont (William Henry Lane); (back row, l to r) Chloé Davis (Ensemble), Sir Brock Warren (Ensemble), Jamal Christopher Douglas (Ensemble), and Jacobi Hall (Ensemble) in the world premiere of Paradise Square: A New Musical at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: (l to r) Jason Oremus (Ensemble) and Jacobi Hall (Ensemble), and the company of Paradise Square. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There are actually two competing musicals in Paradise Square: A New Musical now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. One of them is much better than the other.

Incredibly ambitious and overstuffed, Paradise Square wants to create excitement about a particular moment in American history with a wonderfully diverse cast and a score that blends show music, traditional music and contemporary sounds (sound familiar? can’t blame producers for not wanting to throw away their shot). But this show, many years in the making, is still fuzzy, unfocused and only intermittently interesting.

In telling the story of the Five Points, a 19th-century New York slum inhabited primarily by Irish immigrants and African Americans, Paradise Square complicates its storytelling by weaving in the life of composer Stephen Foster, whose music provides a base for the score crafted by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (the guy who had the idea to create this show in the first place) with lyrics by Nathan Tysen. Foster’s music became synonymous with minstrelsy, so putting his beautiful melodies in service of a story about, as they call it in the show, “race mixing,” is in theory an interesting idea. But in fact, those melodies are obliterated, blasted and torqued beyond recognition much of the time. When we finally get to a straightforward “Beautiful Dreamer,” it’s like we’ve arrived at a clearing full of light after slogging through a dense, dark forest.

Rather than giving us one central story to care about, book writers Kirwan, Craig Lucas and Marcus Gardley give us a handful, none of which are terribly compelling. They also give us dance-offs. In a story that should be rife with tension – racial tension, labor tension, political tension, Civil War draft tension, runaway slave tension, violent mob tension – the greatest intensity and satisfaction comes from three primary dance contests. The first is between a newly arrived Irish immigrant (A.J. Shively as Owen) and a fugitive slave (Sidney Dupont as Will Henry). Owen is doing Irish step dancing and Will Henry is doing Juba-style dancing. Both are electrifying. In Act 2, we get an official dance contest in a neighborhood bar, with the cash prize enough to buy your way out of the draft ($300). The contest begins and ends, but wait! We need a do-over, so Will Henry and Owen can compete head to head once again (and for a solo dance contest, they sure do a lot of singing and dancing with their squads).

Paradise 2

The dancing throughout the 2 1/2-plus hours of Paradise Square is routinely fascinating, often thrilling, which is exactly what you’d expect from choreographer Bill T. Jones. The problem is that the sharply etched choreography feels like it’s for a different, much more sophisticated show. If Paradise Square wanted only to dance, that would be just fine.

Director Moisés Kaufman simply cannot pull it all together. There are some powerful vocal performances from his nearly 30-member cast, but too often the acting is hammy and melodramatic (mostly the fault of the wobbly book). Actors feel like they’re creating tableaux more than they are playing actual people.

The show’s ending is a complete cop-out as the historical trappings fall away and the actors address the audience directly so they can tell us what happened to the characters after the chaos of the story comes to its conclusion. One of the things they mention is that the “race mixing” of the Five Points, primarily between Irish immigrants and African Americans, resulted in a new dance form called tap dancing. Why, oh why is this not part of this show, which just happens to be a musical wherein the best thing about it is the dancing? We see and hear tap dancing only once in the show, and it’s during a flashback to slaves being whipped on a plantation. Talk about a missed opportunity.

The presence of Foster as a character (appealingly played by Jacob Fishel) and as the basis for the show’s score should be more interesting than it is. He was coopting black music and turning it into popular song, which was in turn coopted by the racially repugnant minstrel circuit. One of the black characters gets to go on a tirade about how much she hates Stephen Foster to Stephen Foster, and it just feels irrelevant when the city is just about to explode into the deadly Draft Riots (oh, but wait, can the riots hold on a sec because we also need to do the big dance contest!).

Musicals are beastly contraptions that go wrong far more than they go right. In Paradise Square we’re told there was a time when people lived briefly in a time and place where race mattered less than character, but even the evidence we see of that seems fraught and far from idyllic. So the loss of this brief flash of semi-harmony – what we’re told was a glimpse of the future that has yet to come – doesn’t feel like much of a loss. As a result, Paradise Square doesn’t really feel like much of a show. Not yet anyway.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Paradise Square: A New Musical continues an extended run through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.