Theater Dogs’ Best of 2016

Best of 2016

The theater event that shook my year and reverberated through it constantly didn’t happen on Bay Area stage. Like so many others, I was blown away by Hamilton on Broadway in May and then on repeat and shuffle with the original cast album (and, later in the year, the Hamilton Mix Tape) ever since. Every YouTube video, official or fan made, became part of my queue, and checking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s incredibly busy Twitter feed has become a daily ritual. Hamilton is everything they say it is and more. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, the score that continually reveals its brilliance and a bond with friends, family and other fans. In a year in which hope seemed to physically shrivel and evaporate, Hamilton keeps bolstering my faith in art, in theater, in musical theater, in theater artists and even in this messy country of ours. The show has yet to fail in delighting, surprising or moving me, and I plan to continue testing that limit.

Now that Hamilton is a bona fide phenomenon, the conquering expansion is under way. There’s a company wowing them in Chicago with another set for San Francisco (and later Los Angeles) next spring as part of the SHN season. If you don’t already have your tickets, good luck. I’ll be entering the ticket lottery daily because there’s no conceivable way I can get enough of this show.

Shifting focus back home, theater in the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be a marvel, which is really something given the hostile economic environment arts groups are facing around here. I saw less theater this year (while Theater Dogs celebrated its 10th anniversary in August) and took some time off to reevaluate my theater reviewing future. The upshot is I’m still here, still reviewing but on a more limited scale given the demands of my day job. I’ve been writing about Bay Area theater for 24 years (25th anniversary in September 2017!) and love it too much to stop, and that’s the truth. With so many extraordinary artists here and an ever-intriguing roster of visitors, who could stop trying to spread the good word?

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite Bay Area theatergoing experiences of 2016. (click on the show title to read the original review)

A good year for San Francisco Playhouse

Making notes about the most memorable shows I saw this year, one company kept coming up over and over: San Francisco Playhouse. Talk about hitting your stride! They kicked off 2016 with a mind-blowingly creepy show, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, a drama about virtual reality that blurred all kinds of lines between theater, audience, reality and fantasy. Thinking about this production, expertly directed by Bill English and designed by Nina Ball, still gives me the shivers. Two other shows made a powerful mark on the SF Playhouse stage as well: Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal, a blend of drama and dance in the service of exploring football and masculinity, and Theresa Rebeck’s Seared about a hot little restaurant and its chef and loyal staff. I could also add the Playhouse’s musicals, which continue to grow in stature and quality as seen in City of Angels and She Loves Me. But I’ll just give those honorable mention so that one theater doesn’t take up half of this list.

Local playwrights shine

Let’s hear it for our local scribes who continue to devise startlingly good shows. Each of these writers should inspire any prospective audience member to check out whatever they happen to be working on.

Christopher Chen has a brain that knows no boundaries. His Caught, part of Shotgun Players’ stunning repertory season, was like an intellectual amusement park park ride as fun as it was provocative and challenging. Chen had another new show this year, but on a different scale. His Home Invasion was given small productions in a series of people’s living rooms as part of 6NewPlays a consortium of six writers creating new work under the auspices of the Intersection for the Arts Incubator Program. Directed by M. Graham Smith the play is set in a series of living rooms (how appropriate), but its realm expands way beyond its setting. The concepts of multidimensionality that come up in the play truly are mind altering, and what an extraordinary experience to get to watch such amazing actors – Kathryn Zdan and Lisa Anne Porter among them – in such an intimate space.

Peter Sinn Nachtrieb also took us into a home with a new play this year, but this home was built primarily in the theatrical imagination (and in the wondrously impressionistic sets by Sean Riley). In A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Weston Ludlow Londonderry, Nachtrieb and his solo actor, the always-remarkable Danny Scheie, the audience got to play tourists as we moved from room to room in the most unique historical home tour imaginable. Commissioned by Z Space and written expressly for Scheie, this experience was so delectable we can only hope it will return for another tour of duty.

Not only is Lauren Gunderson a wonderful playwright, she also happens to be the most produced living playwright in the country this season. One of the reasons for that is the new play she wrote with Margot Melcon, Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that delivers a feel-good Christmas experience with snap rather than sap (especially in the top-notch Marin Theatre Company production). Gunderson’s love of science and literature combined with her grace, intelligence, good humor and prodigious dramatic talents should continue yielding marvelous results for years to come.

Big drama at Thick House

Two companies in residence at Thick House continually do fantastic things on its small stage. Crowded Fire hit two shows out of the proverbial ballpark this year: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment and Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers. Both plays explore different aspects of race, religion and being an outsider in this country, and both were powerful in their of-the-moment relevance and dramatic impact. The other company in residence at Thick House that dazzled is Golden Thread Productions, whose Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat by Yussef El Guindi delivered action and depth in its exploration of what it means, among other things, to be Muslim in this country. It should be noted that a significant part of what made both I Call My Brothers and Our Enemies so good was the work of the marvelous actor Denmo Ibrahim.

A dazzling finale for Impact

This one makes me as sad as it does happy. As it wound down its work at LaVal’s Subterranean, Impact Theatre unleashed yet another brilliant Shakespeare reinvention. This time it was The Comedy of Errors meets Looney Tunes, and the results in director Melissa Hillman’s production were inventively hilarious and so spot-on it’s a wonder Yosemite Sam or Bugs Bunny didn’t make cameo appearances. Here’s hoping that Impact returns in some form or another sometime soon.

My favorite play this year

Let the record show that this year Berkeley Repertory Theatre was home to two of my least favorite theater experiences (a ponderous Macbeth starring Frances McDormand and a disoncertingly disappointing For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) as well as my favorite local theater experience: Julia Cho’s Aubergine. Sensitively directed by Tony Taccone, this deeply moving play about families, loss and growing up was rich in quiet beauty and full of performances that allowed the understated to just be. Food and memory played a big part in the drama, but it really came down to who we are within the defining experiences of our parents and our own mortality. A gorgeous production of a gorgeous play that said as much in silence as it did in sound.

Lots to unpack in Crowded Fire’s Shipment

The Shipment
William Hartfield (left) and Nican Robinson in Crowded Fire’s production of The Shipment by Young Jean Lee with gravity-defying choreography by Rami Margron. Below: The cast of The Shipment plays out a surprising living room drama. From left: William Hartfield, Nican Robinson, Howard Johnson Jr., Nkechi Emeruwa and Michael Wayne Turner III. Photos by Pak Han

While Secretary Clinton and The Orange Bloviator were duking it out at the first presidential debate and helping the populace decide the fate of this troubled nation, Crowded Fire Theater was painting its own portrait of America at the opening of Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at the Thick House.

It was an incendiary evening for several reasons, not the least of which was the actual heat wave baking San Francisco. But Lee’s wild and wily play generated plenty of heat on its own with a Korean-American playwright taking a cast of black actors through a spectrum (or is it a prism?) of what being black can look like in this country.

The Shipment ventures into the realm of Suzan-Lori Parks and Caryl Churchill, whip-smart writers who stretch and often snap the boundaries of conventional theater. From its cryptic title through all of its 90 minutes, The Shipment confounds, delights, provokes and dazzles. Co-directed by Crowded Fire Artistic Director Mina Morita and Lisa Marie Rollins, this is contemporary theater at its most challenging and rewarding.

Somewhat ironically, the Thick House, a flexible play space, has been transformed by designer Deanna L. Zibello into a wholly traditional proscenium stage complete with red curtain. Within this world, the opening dance, rousingly choreographed by Rami Margron performed by William Hartfield and Nican Robinson, looks completely at home.

The Shipment

Exuberant and cartoonish and feeling like it’s part 1980s, part 1920s, the dance is an aperitif leading us into a stand-up comedy routine performed by Howard Johnson Jr. that essentially deconstructs our notion of what a black male comic is supposed to be all the while feeding us (occasionally) funny stand-up. But the longer the comic goes on, the more honest he becomes until he admits that his entire stage persona – from poop jokes, to button-pushing racial observations to infanticide to bestiality to incest – is a construct and bears no relation to the person he is offstage (except for maybe his affection for the scatological).

That unsettling monologue then leads into the evening’s strangest and most potent section in which we’re fed the kind of “gritty” black story we’ve experienced so much on TV and in film. A young man (Michael Wayne Turner III) dreams of becoming a rapper, gets tangled up in the drug world, ends up in prison, becomes a famous rapper anyway and falls down the fame hole. But in Lee’s version, the grit has been removed, and highly stylized stereotype takes its place. The result is at once bland and fascinating, a mirror held up to a mirror that reveals only the emptiness of familiarity devoid of actual human beings.

Some humanity returns in the form of a bizarre song sung in three-part a cappella harmony (by Turner, Robinson and Nkechi Emeruwa, music direction by Sean Fenton) that can’t help but be beautiful the longer it lingers and the more it repeats.

That little palate cleanser takes us into the evening’s only major set change, as a nicely appointed living room takes shape (is it notable that seemingly the only two caucasian people in the show are the guys moving the furniture?) and a party among friends commences. It’s quite clear from early on in this crisply performed mini-play that Lee is up to something more than just letting unlikeable people interact with one another over cocktails and cranky conversation. And sure enough, the scene takes some Albee turns and then whomps us with an exclamation point that emphasizes a simple fact: this is a Shipment carrying a whole lot of freight that may never be fully unpacked.

Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment continues through Oct. 15 in a Crowded Fire Theater production at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$35. Call 415-523-0034 (ext. 1) or visit

Young Jean Lee’s fire-breathing Dragons


Korean American (Cindy Im, right) makes fun of Korean 3 (Katie Chan) in Young Jean Lee’s mind-bending Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, a co-production of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company. Below: the cast of Dragons, including (from left) White people (Josh Schell and Alexis Papedo) and the Koreans (Katie Chan, Mimu Tsujimura, Lily Tung Crystal) and Korean American (Cindy Im). Photos by Dave Nowakowski


Race shmace. Let’s do plays about explosions – exploding race, exploding narrative, exploding audience brains.

That’s sort of what Young Jean Lee’s Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is like. This co-production of Asian American Theater Company and Crowded Fire Theater Company is filled with intelligence, talent and 70 minutes of utterly compelling theater. But the whole effect is somewhat like being too near an explosion. Afterward, you ears ring, your head pounds and your equilibrium’s a little off.

But that’s a good thing, right?

Playwright Lee, who dropped out of UC Berkeley’s English PhD program after six years, said something really interesting in an interview with American Theatre magazine last fall. “It’s a destructive impulse – I want to destroy the show: make it so bad that it just eats itself, eating away at its own clichés until it becomes complicated and fraught enough to resemble truth.”

By the end of Dragons, I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was about or even what it was I had just seen. But I would say it was original, outrageous and absolutely honest in its intention to entertain and eviscerate.

From the beginning, I sat there trying to identify metaphors from what I assumed was a satiric piece about Asian-American identity politics. But then I quickly gave up trying to assign formulas and just let it happen. I adopted this strategy in the first 10 minutes of the show, when we’re subjected to scenes of Lee being slapped in the face over and over again. First we hear the audio from the filming session when Lee was being pummeled. We hear a director guiding the slapper and telling Lee to fix her hair. Then we see some of the video results from that session – just the sounds of the slap and Lee’s immediate reaction (never the hand making contact). Essentially we’re watching a woman crying as she’s beaten for – what? – for her art?

It’s an unsettling start, and rather than try to figure out how it made sense, I took the emotion of it and let that be the entrance to the show, which is less a show and more of a collage. It’s like performance art – with extended bits in Korean – but with more self-awareness than usual. During a more conventional scene between a dying Korean grandmother (Lily Tung Crystal) and her Korean-American granddaughter (Cindy Im), the grandmother berates the granddaughter for making such a video.


I’d say that this scene, in which the grandmother breaks the granddaughter down emotionally and then tries to guide her into the arms of Jesus, is Lee making fun of conventional drama, but Im connects so powerfully to the emotions of the deeply unhappy granddaughter, that it’s actually quite effective.

Credit director Marissa Wolf, Crowded Fire’s artistic director, for somehow finding pockets of emotion amid the flying performance shrapnel, which includes an extraordinary pantomime among the Asian women – Im, Crystal, Mimu Tsujimura and Katie Chan – about gory, violent suicides (the one involving the newborn baby and the umbilical cord is extraordinary) that is set to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” We also get dance routines to Korean pop songs, angry racist monologues (that are actually quite hilarious), amazingly effective “reverse Bible study” and an intriguing recipe involving mud fish.

In between there’s a lot of pretend violence, destruction and craziness (with choreography by Dohee Lee) executed with manic aggression by a superlative cast. Oh, and there are white people.

Yes indeed, one of the major components of Dragons is a heterosexual couple (played by Alexis Papedo and Josh Schell) who are working out some major issues in their relationship. In their first scene, the woman tells the man that he’s “right on the borderline of being smart enough” for her and that his face is “inevitably inadequate.” You’d think this might signal the end of their relationship, but it’s only the beginning.

Somewhat amazingly, the white people take over the play. After a breathtaking quintet delivered by Korean American and Koreans 1, 2 and 3 (their official names) that calls into question everything we’ve seen in the show, the white people turn the rest of the play into their therapy session. A play that was so consciously about race and not about race suddenly becomes about a relationship that has nothing to do with culture or skin color or nationality and everything to do with narcissism, self-worth and the mysterious illness known as love.

Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven is one of those theater experiences that wakes you up and makes you feel excited to be watching it minute after surprising minute, then makes you feel like you’ve completely missed it. There’s something important and ridiculous about it in equal measure. It’s a theatrical explosion that stuns as much as it delights and discombobulates.

[bonus video]
Watch the trailer for Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.


Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven continues through April 16 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$35. Visit for information.