Brian Copeland zeroes in on single parenting in Grandma & Me

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ABOVE: The Marsh presents Brian Copeland’s Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents, the new solo show by the award-winning playwright and performer. Photo by Marcus L. Jackson Photography BELOW: Copeland and his grandmother, Lena Mae Arbee. Photo by Sherry Kamhi


You’d think that after the gargantuan success of his previous solo show, Not a Genuine Black Man (the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history), and his very personal The Waiting Period, that Brian Copeland might not have more life story to mine.

That would be an incorrect assumption.

The ever-appealing Copeland has a new biographical solo show running at The Marsh San Francisco. Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents runs parallel tracks in Copeland’s life, both about the pressures of single parenting. The first is from Copeland’s childhood. His mother died when he was 15, leaving him and his four younger sisters (the youngest was a year old) in the care of their grandmother, who had been like a co-parent with his mother after his father’s departure when Copeland was young.

The other track involves Copeland and his own three kids (elementary and middle school age) and how he became a single parent when he and his wife divorced in 2001. Suddenly, he found a whole new awareness of what it cost his grandmother – emotionally, physically, financially – to raise five children by herself.

The best parts of this nearly two-hour show are when Copeland, working again with director David Ford, really digs deep into the heavy, unrelenting and often thankless responsibility of single parenting. Copeland admits that as a 15-year-old, he was an asshole and treated his grandmother shabbily, just as his oldest child follows suit in his teen years, but younger and older Brian come to a deep appreciation of everything Lena Mae Arbee, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, did for him and his sisters.

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That’s what’s moving about this show, and something that Copeland does really well is express his gratitude for not only his grandmother and mother but also for the people in his own life who proved pivotal in his own (eventually) successful transition to single parenthood (many of them were in attendance at the show’s Saturday opening night performance).

There’s also a sitcom smoothness to this show that keeps it from being as emotionally rewarding as it might be. Copeland, who has also worked as a stand-up comic, leans heavily into dad joke territory, and his foot-stomping, tantrum-throwing teenage re-creations grow wearying (just as they do in real life). In a way, Copeland is giving us too much information. He’s so eager to tell the two big stories of his childhood and his adulthood that the light he’s shining is so bright it washes out the people and the relationships. His audience is more capable than he realizes of making connections and sitting with the heavier elements of his story.

There are moments when Grandma & Me verges on the sentimental or sappy, but Copeland and director Ford mostly skirt them, and in the end this is a show that overflows with love. Every parent should be so lucky to have a child who pays such beautiful tribute as Copeland does for his grandmother.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Brian Copeland’s Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents continues an extended run through Nov. 19 at The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are on a sliding scale $25-$35 or $50 and $100 reserved. Running time: about 2 hours (with a 10-minute intermission). Call 415-282-3044 or visit themarsh.org.

ripple makes waves at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play the ripple, the wave that carried me home includes (left to right) Christiana Clark as Janice, Brianna Buckley as Gayle, Ronald L. Conner as Edwin and Aneisa J. Hicks as Helen. The play is produced in association with Goodman Theatre. BELOW: Clark’s Janice takes us back to her childhood in Kansas and life with her activist parents. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


In her moving new drama the ripple, the wave that carried me home, playwright Christina Anderson gives us what we want – or, more accurately, what we need – in a family play. She takes us into a very specific time and place, creates distinct personalities, raises a variety of colossal issues and then makes us feel like we’re inside that family in ways that relate to our own family situation.

When that dramatic click happens – when a play begins operating specifically and universally – you know you’re in good theatrical hands.

A world-premiere collaboration between Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the ripple unfolds on the stage of Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre in what looks like an abandoned public swimming pool. There’s no water in the tank, and chairs are tipped on their side. But there’s still a light on in the awards window.

Much of the story we’re about to hear has to do with swimming and how something so healthy, recreational and fun could turn into a sadly typical American tale of racism, oppression, violence and horror.

By any measure, Janice (Christiana Clark) is a successful adult. It’s 1992, and she’s a department director at a small Ohio university and has a supportive husband and two kids. As the narrator of this story, her story, Janice easily admits that she has compartmentalized her life. Her past and her family all belong in Beacon, Kansas, where she grew up. But a string of insistent messages on her answering machine (oh, the vestiges of 1992) from Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman calling from Beacon threaten to pull her from one compartment of her life into another, and she resists.

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This is when Janice’s story expands. We meet her parents, Edwin (Ronald L. Conner) and Helen (Aneisa J. Hicks) as young people in the late 1950s. She gives free swimming lessons at Brookside, one of three public swimming pools in Beacon but the only one that allows Black people. He gets bussed in from another neighborhood to enjoy the pool, and their lives entwine.

As tragedy rocks the town, Edwin and Helen become activists and begin a years-long battle against the deeply embedded racism of their hometown. Their daughter is born into this fight, and as a teenager, she finds herself embarrassed by her crusading parents (especially her dad) and embarrassed by her very blackness. By the early 1970s we can feel her compartmentalizing begin as she longs to escape to someplace easier and more peaceful.

But things happen both within the family and without that have a profound impact on how Janice will choose to live her life and deal with her parents. When those calls start coming from her hometown, she realizes she can’t just keep being the polite daughter from a distance. Her straight-talking Aunt Gayle (Brianna Buckley, who also plays Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman) is, in many ways, the ripple that creates the wave that brings Janice home, both physically and metaphorically.

Headed by the warm and eminently relatable Clark as Janice, this strong cast finds humor and drama in equal measure. The family connections feel strong and complex even while the outside world delivers nonstop horror. We see how women labor and suffer in the shadow of men who claim to be focused on issues of equality. We see repeatedly how virulent racism manifests in the lives of this Black family in the Midwest. “Are you new to America?” several characters ask? “Let me show you around.”

Director Jackson Gay unfolds the story at a natural pace, as the swimming pool set by Todd Rosenthal becomes family homes in Kansas and Ohio, a car being pursued by a police car and a fugue state somewhere between nostalgia and trauma.

A generous and empathetic writer, Anderson imbues her characters with depth and complication. Perhaps most importantly she allows for triumph amid the tragedy and for growth and understanding amid hostilities and resentments. Within this ripple turned to wave, she even leaves us swimming in the possibility of joy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christina Anderson’s the ripple, the wave that carried me home continues through Oct. 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $24-$100. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

A gorgeous Goddess descends at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: Amber Iman (front) is Nadira in the world-premiere musical Goddess directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Also pictured (l to r): Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari), Rodrick Covington (Ahmed), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Musi) and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi). BELOW (back, l to r) Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Grasan Kingsberry (Moto Moto Ensemble – Jaali) and Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa). In front is Rodrick Covington as Ahmed. Photos by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


There are so many ways a world-premiere musical can go. Goddess had its splashy premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and to use some examples from that theater company alone, a new musical can be bold and bracing and surely Broadway bound (Green Day’s American Idiot, Ain’t Too Proud); it can be intriguing but needs a lot of work (Amélie); or it can be a giant question mark, as in why oh why does this musical need to exist (Swept Away, Monsoon Wedding).

Goddess, an entirely original work (blessedly not based on a movie, a book or an existing catalogue of songs), is a vibrant explosion of exuberance featuring a cast whose combined talent and charisma is stratospheric. In those moments when this show clicks, its humor, emotion and storytelling fuse into the very reason we love musical theater – it is communal, it is bigger than us and it is filled with emotions that are too rich for words alone.

Happily, Goddess has a number of those moments in its 2 1/2 hours. From the joyous opening number introducing us to the setting – the nightclub Moto Moto in Mombasa, Kenya – it’s clear that this cast and creative team are going to take us somewhere worthwhile. That good will goes a long way toward keeping the show moving, even when the story gets a little clunky, when some of the songs don’t quite rise to the level of the performances and especially when the ending is clouded in rushed confusion.

To begin with the good in director/creator Saheem Ali’s production, look no further than the title character, Marimba, goddess of music in African folklore, who escapes her evil mother and takes mortal form so that she might find true love. On Earth, she becomes Nadira, the soulful headliner at Moto Moto, and while she spurns the advances of Madongo, the club’s owner, she falls for Omari, a sweet saxophone player whose parents are pushing him to continue their legacy as the first family of Mombasa politics.

Played by Amber Iman, whom local audiences might remember as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds in the first national tour of Hamilton when it opened in San Francisco in 2017, Nadira is a bit of an innocent when it comes to the ways of love but has a sultry way with a song. Iman is 100% believable as a goddess in hiding and looks stunning (as does all the cast) in the eye-popping costumes by Dede Ayite. She offers several tour de force solos, and even if the songs by Michael Thurber stop just short of being the dramatic showcases she deserves, her riveting performances more than make up the difference.

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A general issue with Thurber’s score, as appealing as it is, has to do with a lack of depth in his lyrics and definitive shape to his melodies. For instance, from the second we meet Omari’s regal mom, Siti, played by the captivating Kecia Lewis, we know we need a big solo from her. She is the driving force behind pushing her son (even if it’s against his will) into politics because that is her family’s legacy stretching back for a century. When we finally get that song, Lewis’ performance is stunning, but the song itself is not. It lacks the sophistication of the character.

Other than throw-away songs for Omari’s too-strident fiancé, Cheche (Destinee Rea), and a bland “I will get what I want” song for the bad guy club owner (Lawrence Stallings), Thurber’s score has a pulsing appeal and pleasing pop sensibility, even if he leans far too heavily on the “above, of, love” rhyme scheme. The on-stage band, led by music director Marco Paguia, sounds great, and they’re at their best when the stage is in full party mode, and the ensemble is twirling, stomping and leaping to the lively choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie.

As long as Goddess is in Moto Moto (a beautifully detailed set by Arnulfo Maldonado) or concentrating on Nadira, things are good. Whenever Jocelyn Bioh’s book wanders into Omari’s home life or his world of politics, things get a lot less interesting and much more melodramatic. The exceptions are the visits to Balozi (Reggie D. White), a shaman of sorts who can consort with the wishes of the gods. White is a compelling performer, and the stage smoke and video projections add a little pizazz to the production.

In supporting roles within the second-tier romantic plot, Abena as the club’s manager/bartender Rashida and Rodrick Covington as Ahmed, the club’s MC, are utterly charming and threaten to steal the show. But Nadira and Omari maintain the emotional center. Their love story, although rushed, is touching, and we root for them to achieve their destinies as the fullest versions of themselves. It seems there are some missed musical opportunities here with Nadira and Omari. She’s the goddess of music. He’s a musician. They sing/play together once, but that connection feels underdeveloped, especially musically.

And then there’s that ending, which is not as developed as it likely (hopefully) will be. A character shows up with a gun. Something happens with the shaman, an incredibly dramatic ballad is delivered and BOOM, the cast reprises the glorious opening number. Then we get to the cast bows. If something specific happened with the gun situation, I completely missed it. I wanted to be fully immersed in the jubilation of the ending, but I was honestly still trying to put the pieces together.

Even as this new musical continues to develop, there’s much to love and enjoy. This show could be the burst of color, energy and new life that Broadway needs. There are issues to work out, but this Goddess definitely has more than a prayer of success.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Goddess continues an extended run through Oct. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$138. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Goddess runs about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Watch the opening number of Goddess in rehearsal:

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.