Nine justices ponder pasties, g-strings and nudity in Arguendo

Arguendo 2
New York’s Elevator Repair Service makes its San Francisco debut with Arguendo, a verbatim recounting of a Supreme Court case, at Z Space. Photos by Joan Marcus

For those of us with no ear for legalese, for whom courtroom scenes in TV shows and movies induce narcolepsy, the premise of Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo does not sound promising. This celebrated and intrepid New York company, most famous for its word-for-word production of The Great Gatsby (the eight-hour Gatz), turns its attention to our highest court for a verbatim account of a 1991 case, Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc., that dealt with issues of public nudity, more specifically the nude dancers at the South Bend, Ind., Kitty Kat Lounge and Glen Theatre. If you haven’t heard of this case, not to worry. It wasn’t exactly Brown v. The Board of Education, but it did delve into what is and isn’t considered freedom of expression and whether or not it’s OK for people to dance naked in public.

As might be expected, this is not your run-of-the-mill verbatim courtroom drama. If it were, the audience, even the lawyers, would be asleep. Instead, director John Collins and his fantastic troupe of five energetic actors pull out all the stops to create the liveliest, most irreverent courtroom imaginable.While the lawyers make their cases – Ben Williams as the Petitioner and Mike Iveson as the Respondent – the justices of the Rhenquist court (White, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy and Souter) interrupt with intermittent intelligence, but mostly they’re depicted here as black-robed children – bored, distracted, annoyed and playful. They do not seem to be the country’s font of judicial wisdom but rather petty, quirky goofballs who seem drunk on their power. That’s pretty entertaining to watch.

Arguendo 1

Collins begins the show on the steps of the courthouse with a stripper (Maggie Hoffman) proudly stating to the assembled press corps how much she enjoys erotic dancing and how such dancing truly is a form of expression. What follows is 80 minutes of expertly and inventively staged courtroom dancing (on a simple set with ramps by David Zinn). The justices (played by Iveson, Vin Knight, Susie Sokol and Williams), in their wheeled chairs and robes, zip around the small performance space and torture the lawyers (also entertaining) and each other.

Adding to the dynamism of the piece is a rear projection wall that zips through legal texts and references like an old-fashioned microfiche machine on 21st-century steroids (the media software is by The Office for Creative Research and the vide designer is Ben Rubin). The projections are such a strong presence in the piece that they even take a bow along with actors at show’s end.

As the show progresses, it gets more manic, the theatrical gestures growing bolder and bolder, and when the full-frontal nudity happens, it’s not even that surprising (but it’s still pretty funny and couldn’t be more integral to the proceedings). Apparently it’s not all that difficult to make the Supreme Court and its machinations look ridiculous.

Under it all, of course, is a serious tussle with the First Amendment, and the issues raised on both sides offer some food for thought in between the delicious morsels of zany theatricality.

Arguendo (the title is apparently a bit of legalese meaning “for the sake of argument”) is fresh and sharp and bursting with intelligent satire. It’s a great introduction to Elevator Repair Service and, with any luck, it will pave the way for a Bay Area presentation of (a fully clothed) Gatz.

Elevator Repair Service’s Arguendo continues through Nov. 2 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$50. Call (866) 811-4111 or visit

Life, love, kick-ass music in Bengsons’ Hundred Days

Hundred Days 1
Abigail Bengson and Shaun Bengson, the husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons, star in the ravishing new rock musical Hundred Days, a world premiere at Z Space. Below: The complete Hundred Days company (from left): Amy Lizardo, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, El Beh, Kate Kilbane, Abigail Bengson, Geneva Harrison, Shaun Bengson, Joshua Pollock, Dalane Mason, Reggie White. Photos by James Faerron

In those moments, when the music and voices are soaring, the drums are pounding, the feet are stomping and the hands are clapping, there’s no better place to be than sitting in Z Space fully immersed in the glorious new rock musical Hundred Days.

A creation by The Bengsons, the musical duo comprising spouses Abigail Bengson and Shaun Bengson, Hundred Days is an unconventional musical that is so much more than it seems. Director Anne Kauffman and book writer Kate E. Ryan have taken everything glorious about The Bengsons – including the passion, the humor, the warmth, the soul-stirring music – and helped craft a canny show about what it is to live and to love in the truest, most wholehearted sense.

Hundred Daysbegins as a casual affair. The cavernous Z Space theater looks like it’s set up for a rock concert. The great wall of windows, which is usually covered by heavy drapes to make it seem less industrial and more theatrical, is fully exposed, so headlights of passing cars are visible throughout the two-hour show. The 11 members of the ensemble, musicians and singers, ambles out, and The Bengsons take their places in front, music stand in front of them to help guide their way into the show.

If this musical ended up being like GrooveLily’s Striking 12, an excellent storytelling rock concert musical, that would not be a bad thing. The Bengsons begin telling their story of a young couple, Sarah and Will, who meet at a party, quickly fall in love and just as quickly get married. The bulk of Act 1 is telling their romantic tale punctuated by rousing songs that have the foot-stomping, feel-good-folk vibe that has made groups like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros so beloved. A concert/play by The Bengsons and company would be more than worth attending.

Hundred Days 2

But this is where the clever construction of the show factors in. Once Sarah and Will’s story is established, life throws them a big curveball. Will is diagnosed with a terminal diseases and has, at best, 100 days left. So this young couple throws the curveball a curveball by making a bold choice. They will live the rest of their lives, fully and eventfully, in those 100 days even if it means they have to shut out the rest of the world and kick their willing suspension of disbelief into high gear to do it.

By Act 2, we’re in a totally different show. Even Kris Stone’s seemingly non-set set has revealed some surprises (including a stunning “sands in the hourglass” effect), and the storytelling is shared by actor/singers Reggie D. White and Amy Lizardo, who play Sarah and Will alongside The Bengsons. This is the only place where the show falters, and it has nothing to do with White or Lizardo, who both make strong impressions. It’s just that The Bengsons make such a strong connection that it’s hard to relinquish any of their storytelling time to anyone else. The other Sarah and Will execute the gentle, emotionally driven choreography by Joe Goode, they sing well, and they enact the willful fast forward of the young couple’s marriage. But then a song like “Three Legged Dog” comes along in which Abigail Bengson rips the show to shreds with her searing vocal performance – part Alanis Morissette, part tribal warrior, part Edith Piaf – and it’s hard to track anyone else within the story.

It seems that part of the reason for the shadow actors is to keep an emotional remove as a way to banish sentimentality in the telling of a sad story. But the show and the score are sturdy enough to withstand any amount of sentimentality, which is primarily wrought here through the raw emotion of the Begnsons’ songs, which are so powerfully performed by their composers and by the entire company.

There’s some DNA from other unconventional musicals here – Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Once – but Hundred Days feels like such an authentic piece of The Bengsons that comparisons ultimately fail to convey just how vital Abigail and Shaun are to this beguiling enterprise. Sure, other people could do it, but it’s hard to imagine a connection – to the material, to the ensemble, to the audience – as strong as theirs.

Hundred Days is a glorious creation encompassing joy, grief and transcendence, sometimes within the space of a single song. The show should go on to have a long, vibrant life because, in the words of the show, it’s a “pin in the map” experience.

[bonus video]
Please enjoy The Bengsons and company performing the song “Hundred Days.” I am a universe indeed.

Hundred Days continues an extended run through April 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$100. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages


Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.


The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.


Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

The Companion Piece or “I glove you whore”

The Companion Piece

Jake Rodriguez shows off his vaudevillian chops in The Companion Piece, a world premiere at Z Space @ Theatre Artaud. Below: Christopher Kuckenbaker and Beth Wilmurt are two of a kind, a pair of fools. Photos by Pak Han.


You could throw a lot of adjectives at The Companion Piece, a world-premiere creation by director Mark Jackson, actor Beth Wilmurt and their crew: wily, zany, exciting, perplexing, silly and utterly beautiful. You could throw a lot of words, but they don’t quite create the picture of just what the Companion experience is.

To begin with, this Encore Theatre Company/Z Space world premiere is all about entertainment – the old-fashioned, shtick-’em-up vaudeville kind of entertainment. Pratfalls, hoary jokes and razzmatazz. The 80-minute show is bookended by a pasty-faced vaudevillian with spit curls and routine that sputters like a rickety but reliable old car. He does magic. He sings. He says things like, “Do you have a mirror in your pocket? I can see myself in your pants.” And then he’s done and trundles up to his dressing room alone.

Then we get two modern-day performers trying to work in the vaudevillian tradition, but first they have to converse with the audience and get some feedback before they launch into the serious business of creating their comedy act.

And then the penny drops. This isn’t about entertainment at all (as entertaining as it is). It’s about relationships. You can go it alone like Jake Rodriguez as the ye olde time vaudevillian and turn into a misanthropic robot who sings barbed songs with lines like, “I’ve never needed someone less than I’ve never needed you.”

Or you could go through the world with a companion – someone to upstage you, mess with your props, critique your dramatic monologues and dance the dance of compromise.

The Companion Piece

That’s quite a choice. As director Jackson puts it in his program note, it’s the Hell of Other People vs. the Hell of Isolation. The Companion Piece doesn’t exactly make a case for either, though it seems that Wilmurt and Christopher Kuckenbaker are having a lot more fun. They fight and they duel with egos instead of sabers. But they also dance an exquisite pas de deux with giant rolling staircases. And they put on a charming puppet show with only their feet visible.

The genesis of this show apparently came from the book A General Theory of Love by a trio of San Francisco psychiatrists who ponder the scientific need for human companionship — a notion that we actually need to be around other human beings to survive. The concept for the show is Wilmurt’s, but the piece was developed without a script as Jackson, his actors and designers all found their way into the world of solos, duos and the dances they dance.

The result is astonishingly coherent, with moments of genuine comedy – as when Kuckenbaker mishears a cue and says “I glove you whore” – and real lyrical beauty as when Wilmurt, on a swing hovering over the audience, cracks the psyche of performers in a simple, eloquent, heartbreaking way. There are a couple drowsy moments here and there, but mostly the giant Theatre Artaud space is filled with a spirit of adventures in entertainment that actually means something.

Nina Ball’s set is filled with surprises, as are her wonderfully comic costumes (the striped union suit is especially fetching). The big, open space of the stage gives a show about intimacy (or avoiding it) an epic feel. We also get moments of theatrical flair, as when Wilmurt and Kuckenbaker create their own miniature proscenium stage for a magic act that turns into a battle of wills (I’m the magician and you’re the assistant. No, I’m the magician and YOU’RE the assistant). Gabe Maxon’s lighting design go a long way toward giving shape and theatrical flair to such a large performance space.

Rodriguez gives a startling performance in his brief but memorable time on stage, but his real magic is in the sound design, which features ’30s jazz, a scratchy recording of “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and all kinds of riffs on traditional rim shots and fanfares. There’s also live music – Wilmurt does some singing, which is always a good thing. The song “If I Loved You” features prominently, as it should.

The Companion Piece, directed with Jackson’s signature precision and inventiveness, is a disarmingly delightful show to watch, but it’s even more interesting to think about afterward. Now how often can you say that about something this entertaining? Go with someone you love. Or go alone.


The Companion Piece continues through Feb. 13 at Z Space @ Theatre Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit

Theater news: Moon gets `Spirited,’ Encore nabs Nachtrieb, `March’ goes on

42nd Street Moon, the company that specializes in charming productions of classic and lesser-known musicals, has announced a change in its season lineup.

Next March, the previously announced The Baker’s Wife by composer Stephen Schwartz, will be replaced by High Spirits, the musical version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

“Unfortunately, director Gordon Greenberg, who had delighted audiences on the East Coast with past productions of The Baker’s Wife, had a conflicting obligation,” said 42nd Street Moon artistic director Greg MacKellan. “His production of Stephen Schwartz’s Working has been scheduled for the Old Globe Theatre at the same time we would have done The Baker’s Wife. We hope to include the show in next season’s lineup, and meanwhile we will replace it with `High Spirits.’ As it happens, there will be a major Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett at the same time we are doing the musical version.”

The 42nd Street Moon production will star Megan Cavanagh (so funny in the Moon production of Out of This World) as the eccentric Madame Arcati, a role made famous by Beatrice Lillie in the original 1964 Broadway production. Also on board for the Moon cast are Michael Patrick Gaffney, Maureen McVerry and Dyan McBride.

MacKellan will direct and Dave Dobrusky will serve as musical director, with Mick DiScalla on woodwinds.

The 42nd Street Moon 2008-09 season continues with current hit Girl Crazy through Nov. 16 followed by Ben Franklin in Paris opening Nov. 29. High Spirits begins performances March 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Call 415-255-8207 or visit for information.


Encore offers Nachtrieb’s `T.I.C.’

Encore Theatre Company, one of the Bay Area’s most intriguing small companies, has announced that it will present the world premiere of San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s
T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common in January at the Magic Theatre.

Nachtrieb came to prominence with his 2006 hit Hunter Gatherers, which won the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award as well as the Glickman New Play Award. Encore commissioned him to create a new play, which turned into T.I.C., the story of a teenage girl publishing a blog about her Tenant-In-Common building. On a boring early-summer night, from her vantage point in the cottage in back of the building, she has a clear view of the building’s rear windows. She captures her neighbors’ private activities on her cell phone and publishes them online with commentary. When strange, menacing events begin to take place at her home, it’s evident that her journal isn’t going unnoticed. Someone is reading, someone is watching and everyone is in danger.

“As one of the leading Bay Area companies dedicated to developing new work, Encore Theatre Company has found an ideal collaborator in Peter Nachtrieb,” said Encore artistic director Lisa Steindler. “From the moment I saw Peter’s work, I knew that I wanted to support and nurture such an extraordinary artist. I am honored to present this new work by one of the most exciting young playwrights on the scene today.”

Developed with support from the Z Space Studio, T.I.C. will be directed by Ken Prestininzi, associate chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama, and the cast will include Lance Gardner, Arwen Anderson, Michael Shipley, Liam Vincent, Rebecca White and Anne Darragh.

T.I.C. Trenchoat in Common runs Jan. 2 through Feb. 1 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit


Sleepwalkers extend `March’


Sleepwalkers Theatre has announced the extension of its current world premiere production March to November, now playing now through Nov. 15 at the Phoenix Theatre. Performances have been added for Nov. 13, 14, and 15 at 8pm.

Additionally, anyone who brings a program from Boxcar Theatre’s current production of Animal Kingdom to Sleepwalkers on the 13, 14, or 15 can see March to November for $5 at the door.


Inspired by SF Weekly theatre critic Chloe Veltman’s Jan. 9th article “Election Stage Left,” which challenged Bay Area playwrights and theatre companies to create more “political” works, Sleepwalkers answers the call to arms with a classic hero story that assess the relevance of overtly political theatre. With the 2008 election as a backdrop, March to November, by Sleepwalkers co-founder Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, is an examination of one artist’s search to find political responsibility in her work.

Tickets are $14. The Phoenix Theatre is at 414 Mason St. (at Geary), San Francisco. Call 415-814-3944 or visit

David Szlasa gives us a `HOT Lobotomy’

Spencer Evans (left) is the Mariachi and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart is Joey McGee in David Szlasa’s My HOT Lobotmy at CounterPULSE. Photos by Katrina Rodabaugh.


Last time out, theatrical innovator David Szlasa had a hit with a bomb.

He explored the creation of the atomic bomb in 2006’s Gadget. Now he’s attempting to discover the stupid things we’re doing as a society and postulating about how we’ll regret them in the future.

The show is My HOT Lobotomy, a Z Space Studio production created and directed by Szlasa with choreography by his frequent collaborator, Sara Shelton Mann, and with music chosen through an online contest. More on that in a minute.

For Szlasa (pronounced Sla-za), lobotomies are one of those things (not unlike the atomic bomb) that seemed like a good idea at the time but, with hindsight, turned out to be quite ludicrous.

“In the span of about 50 years, what seemed to be a serious solution to an issue of psychological distress seems ridiculous now,” Szlasa explains. “I started thinking about those kinds of things happening now that we’ll look back on as quite absurd, and I realized the notion of burning fossil fuels to move us around in our cars and planes will be looked on as equally as ridiculous as a lobotomy was. It may take more than 50 years, but future generations will look back on this strange time when we burned core elements of the earth to get us from here to there. There will be a much more beautiful solution in the future.”

In the show, which opens Friday, Oct. 17 at CounterPULSE and continues through Nov. 2, Szlasa has created a character named Joey McGee who, like many of us, wants to make a difference but doesn’t know quite what to do. We can go buy an energy-efficient light bulb at Home Depot, but it was shipped from China. The contradictory bits of information fighting for our attention can be overwhelming.

“For the character of Joey, the solution is a lobotomy,” Szlasa says. “He figures that’s the sexy way out. He hires a caretaker before he self-lobotomizes, and the caretaker is a songwriter. That’s where the music comes in.”

In what he describes as “meta-meta theater stuff,” Joey, a man, is played by a woman, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. And Spencer Evans plays the Mariachi, a sort of traveling minstrel/troubadour, who sings about why Joey did what Joey did.

The 70-minute, one-act show, which features Joey’s choreographed exercise routines and Szlasa’s trademark video collages, also includes songs by Sean Hayes, Carrie Baum, Joshua Lowe and Cody James Bentley. Several months ago, Szlasa put out a request for songs for his show and promoted the contest on various Web sites (, and on MySpace and other social networking sites.

Szlasa received more than 60 songs from artists around the country.

“Part of this was to find songs for the show and to do research,” Szlasa says. “We were vague about what we wanted: songs about global warming. The songs I was sent helped me get a better handle on what other creative thinkers are doing about the issue. We chose three songs and commissioned a song by Sean Hayes, a local songwriter. You can hear all the songs at

Growing up in rural New York, Szlasa saw touring shows and thought theater meant Annie. When he headed to New York City to work in theater, he had every intention of getting into musical theater. But life had other plans for Szlasa, who spent 10 years in New York as a video, lighting and set designer for theater, dance and gallery installations.

The Oakland resident has been in the Bay Area for three years and says he likes being part of the community here.

“This is a great town to build an audience and develop technique,” he says. “In New York, it’s super competitive, space is at a premium and money is hard to come by. I’m fortunate to get to do the work I’m doing here, and hopefully what the work does – with the content and the form – is work on different levels technically and is satisfying for me and for the audience as it provides insight into things we deal with on a daily basis and gives us a different way to think about it.”

My HOT Lobotomy runs from Oct. 17 through Nov. 2 at CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 800-838-3006 or visit or

Here’s Szlasa doing a little lobotomy research:

Margo Hall gets the `Blues’

You’re forgiven if you didn’t know quite how amazing Margo Hall is.

If you’re a regular Bay Area theatergoer, you already know that Hall is an extraordinary actor. Last year, for instance, she reprised the character Fe in Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts’ Fe in the Desert and gave one of the year’s best performances.

But Hall is also an accomplished director. She was one of the creative collaborators and one of the performers in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s award-winning docudrama The People’s Temple, and last year she co-directed Shotgun Players’ excellent Bulrusher at the Ashby Stage.

Surprisingly, Hall says she prefers directing to acting.

“I say that when I’m directing,” Hall says. “I do love acting, but there’s something so fun, so freeing about directing.”

And one of Hall’s favorite directing gigs is for Word for Word, the San Francisco company that does amazing work turning short works of fiction into fully staged theater pieces without changing a word of the original text.

With Word for Word, Hall has been both performer (Langston Hughes’ The Blues I’m Playing, Barbara Kingsolver’s Rose-Johnny, Zora Neale Hurston’s The Gilded Six Bits) and director (Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth, Greg Sarris’ Joy Ride).

She finds herself back in the Word for Word director’s chair for James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, which opens tonight at San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.

Baldwin’s story, published in 1957 and collected in the 1965 book, Going to Meet the Man, follows two brothers in 1950s Harlem. One is a schoolteacher and family man. The other is a jazz pianist with a troubled past.

Hall, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Oakland with her husband, the actor L. Peter Callender, and their 12-year-old son, reread the story and responded to it immediately.

“Visualizing the piece wasn’t difficult,” Hall says on the phone from her home. “Ever since I’ve worked with Word for Word I can’t read a story without visualizing it. I didn’t visualize the story’s opening moment right away — that took some time. But I clearly saw other parts.”
The story’s jazz milieu was a natural for Hall, whose stepfather was a jazz musician.

“I was exposed to Sonny Rollins and a whole lot of other jazz cats,” Hall says. “I was familiar with the world of be-bop. My dad’s 15-piece band rehearsed in our basement. When I was rereading the story, this music, these people — Charlie Parker, Bird — I just knew it. It was familiar. I could hear the music and everything. It was really exciting.”

With jazz music so prominent in the story, Hall had to decide how to handle music in the production. Should there be live music? Should the actors play instruments themselves? At first, Hall considered casting her friend, the actor and beat-boxer Tommy Shepherd, but then she decided to go for the full jazz sound.

She approached her friend and previous collaborator Marcus Shelby, a prominent Bay Area jazz musician.

“I knew Marcus would know this story, this world,” Hall says. “The more we talked about the show and the score, the more I talked about the sounds in the show — the traffic, the subway — all being created by instruments in a very stylized way.”

Ideally, Shelby and his band would be playing live for each performance, but Hall says that would have required more time in an already crowded rehearsal schedule, so the score is recorded. But on Feb. 15, after the performance, Shelby will perform the music live at a gala reception.

One of the most extraordinary (and most consistent) things about Word for Word is the company’s skill at making literature come to life in surprising ways that enhance the story. The experience of seeing a Word for Word show is often as rich as reading and as thrilling as live theater because the show is, quite literally, both.

For Hall, the key to a good adaptation is transformation.

“It’s easy to put the story up, make it narrative and let the audience enjoy the beautiful language,” she says. “But capture the essence of the story is hard. We as the creative team have to go so deep that the audience can see the transformation and get a true, honest sense of what the story is when they leave.”

The more narration in a story, the harder it is to stage. Not surprisingly, if a story has a lot of dialogue, it’s fairly easy. Sonny’s Blues lands more on the narration-heavy end of that scale.

When Hall directed Friend of My Youth, another narrative-heavy story, she elected to direct her actors away from talking directly to the audience.

“This time, I went, `No, I’m gonna do it.’ The actors should definitely address the audience,” Hall explains. “This story is so universal — it’s about relationships and siblings. One is this conservative guy who went to school and became a teacher. Most of the audience will relate to him. Let’s have him talk to the audience, then get back into the scenes. This gives me as a director the opportunity to make bold choices.”

Next up for Hall: directing a solo show by Ariel Lucky, Free Land, about his family’s pioneer history and interactions with American Indians. She’s also continuing to teach at Chabot College (“I love my kids…they lift me up with their zaniness”) and being a mom.

“My son is a computer genius,” she says. “He has his own computer business and Web site. He fixes computers. He loves reading Shakespeare, but he wants to be a CEO.”

Sonny’s Blues continues through March 2 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $22-$36. Call 415-474-8800 or visit or

Review: `Angel Face’

Opened Aug. 10 at Project Artaud Theatre, San Francisco

Noir thriller `Angel Face’ gets a tough-talking Word for Word treatment
Three stars Hard boiled

Dames don’t come much more hardboiled than Jerry Wheeler. Back in the day she used to strut her stuff in a rhinestone g-string and they called her Honey Sebastian. Jerry knows her way around the tough, gangster-ridden streets of New York City, and the stone cold tone in her voice lets you know she’s not going to take any guff.

In other words, Jerry is sort of a female Philip Marlowe except she falls into the gumshoe business by accident when her kid brother, Chick, gets framed for murdering some doll who had underworld connections.

Jerry uses all her smarts – not to mention the assistance of a soft-hearted detective – to clear her brother’s name.

That, in a noirish nutshell, is the plot of Cornell Woolrich’s 1937 story Angel Face, which has been brought to shadowy, tough-guy life by Word for Word, the San Francisco company that turns short works of fiction into full-blooded pieces of theater.

It’s an interesting experiment, as director Stephanie Hunt finds ways to exploit the noir genre – brought so vividly to life in films of the 1930s and ‘40s – onstage. Sometimes Word for Word’s adaptations revel in their cleverness as simple narrative sentences become wonderful bits of stage business.

But for Angel Face, Hunt plays it pretty straight, and though all the “he saids’’ and “she saids’’ are all in place, the story unfolds with the precision of a movie script. The emphasis is on the genre dialogue, which evokes an entire era all by itself. Try these on for size: “That girl was murdered sure as I was born to shut a mouth.’’ “I’ve hocked everything I own up to my vaccination mark.”

Hunt has assembled an enthusiastic cast that embraces the noir conventions – fedoras askew, enticing evening gowns, finding the spot between the shadow and the light – and revels in Woolrich’s dialogue from the mean streets circa 1937.

Laura Lowry is Jerry Wheeler, the former burlesque girl now on the hunt for a killer in an attempt to save her brother (the ever-reliable Danny Wolohan) from the electric chair. Lowry has the good looks that make us understand how she gets away with her new nickname, “Angel Face,’’ and her tough exterior masks, of course, a heart that longs for the better, more wholesome things in life.

Hot on the trail of the real killer, Jerry initially resists the help of Detective Nick Burns (John Flanagan), but he’s a good guy, and she eventually succumbs to his charms – and his able assistance. He gets her out of a pickle or two.

Pulpy and fun, Angel Face doesn’t really want to be taken seriously as a story. We don’t exactly care about the characters or get to know them with any depth. But we’re carried along by the plot, which involves paid-off servants, nightclub magnates, thugs in zoot suits and maraca-shaking showgirls with bananas on their heads.

The Project Artaud Theater is enormous, and though the story has scope, it suffers from a lack of intimacy. It’d be great if we could see Lowry’s angel face up close. But set designer Mikiko Uesugi does her best to fill the cavernous space with a multi-level set that catches Thomas Ontiveros in appropriately shadowy ways.

The hardworking cast members, who play multiple roles with ease, include Morgan Voellger (as the wonderfully named Ruby Rose Reading), Michael Patrick Gaffney (as a brutish detective, a fey auctioneer, a nightclub manager and a gangster sidekick), Casey Jones Bastiaans (as a double-crossing maid, a calypso singer, a grieving old woman and a hunched-over piano player) and Paul Finocchiaro (as a sleazy gangster kingpin).

It’s funny, but Angel Face, because it is a well-done resurrection of the noir genre, ends up feeling less like a story, or even a play, and more like a movie you’d watch on Turner Classic Movies on a rainy Saturday night.

For information about Angel Face, visit

Kornbluth gets political

About four years ago, I was having a chat with Berkeley monologist Josh Kornbluth.

He was touting his latest show, Love & Taxes, but something he said then occurred to me before I talked to him last week.

Kornbluth was discussing how he didn’t want to invade the privacy of his wife and son by creating a show specifically about them.

“But because I have a family, I’ve been thinking about politics, the future and the wider picture. That has forced my gaze outwards and away from my navel,” Kornbluth said.

Sure enough, that outward gazing has pulled Kornbluth squarely into the realm of politics. His new monologue, Citizen Josh opens May 19 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

Even though he keeps threatening to make his next show about playing the oboe, Kornbluth decided he wanted to concentrate on democracy.

“I’m interested in citizenship and democracy,” Kornbluth says from his home. “I’m particularly interested in people who are just becoming citizens and hearing what they think.”

As he has with many of his shows, Kornbluth hit the road to improv. He made the circuit of Bay Area campuses — UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Cal State East Bay and University of San Francisco among others — and started testing material on “audiences not necessarily comfortable with my references and definitely not from my age group,” as Kornbluth, 48, puts it.

As he talked about the frustration of the 2004 election, his feeling of disconnection from the rest of the country, making the world a better place for children and wondering aloud if democracy is even possible in today’s world, Kornbluth found himself learning.

“I was learning not just about the show but about myself and who I am politically, which feels really helpful. What do I believe in? What kind of `-ist’ am I?”

One improv session proved to be particularly insightful. A theater professor at UC Berkeley invited Kornbluth into a History of Theater class, the first of several visits. He had just seen the documentary “Berkeley in the ’60s” and had its visions of politically agitated students protesting and turning over cars dancing in his head.

But what he saw in the classroom was a bunch of young people surfing the wireless Internet on the laptop computers.

“You know if someone is looking at a computer while you’re talking, chances are they’re shopping at the Gap or doing anything but being present,” Kornbluth says. “I really didn’t connect with them at all.”

He was, in his words, “really bummed,” and didn’t relish the idea of returning to the classroom. “I wondered if I was fooling myself that I had connected better with the students at other schools.”

But Kornbluth did go back. He jumped off the stage and started his presentation on the floor. I told them no one was allowed to eat or be on the computer.

“I told them it had seemed like a slap in the face to them to have this guy start talking about the ’60s. `It seemed irrelevant to you. How did you feel about it?’ ”
Then the students started talking.

“The entire class got totally passionate,” Kornbluth recalls. “All these important, profound issues came up. I left there thinking that finding passion is an important part of what democracy allows, what keeps it going, sustains it. As I was leaving the class, a student said, `I’ve never talked about politics like that.’ I realized a lot of what they were talking about, in terms of life and acting, affected me: fear, anger, worry that stuff won’t work out or that no one will agree with me.”

Re-energized, Kornbluth, working with director David Dower, formerly of San Francisco’s Z Space Studio and now an associate artist at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, immersed himself even more into politics.

“I have a feeling with this piece that I haven’t had with others,” Kornbluth says. “I’m trying to address a profoundly widespread feeling, a shared community feeling, our communal response to the political traumas of our time. In my own little way I’m trying to respond to it all.”
While gainfully employed as the host of KQED-Channel 9’s “The Josh Kornbluth Show,” a chatty, free-form talk show in the typically Kornbluthian mold, Kornbluth managed to find time to work on Citizen Josh at the Sundance Theater Lab in Utah.

While there, he, a loquacious Berkeley liberal, found common ground with the heavily Mormon, red-state folks he was meeting at the mall.

“We need to be in the habit of talking to each other about serious, important things respectfully across the spectrum,” Kornbluth says. “This idea of red states vs. blue states is anathema to me. I hate it. I don’t think it’s true that red states are that different from blue. We take for granted that we can’t talk to each other, we won’t talk to each other and we’re done.”
A professor of theology from Brigham Young University got into a conversation with Kornbluth about the need to get people to talk to each other and participate in government.

“He was passionate about that, too,” Kornbluth says. “We agreed that what’s wrong with American politics is that people only talk with people they agree with. Talking to him was exciting and gratifying. In many ways, we were both the `other’ and yet we were so much on the same side.”

Because Kornbluth says he’s still at the beginning of his political education, he doesn’t know quite where to end his show.

“I’ve said this in rehearsal, and I mean it,” Kornbluth says. “I can’t wait to see how this show ends.”

Citizen Josh continues through June 17 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$45. Call (415) 441-8822 or visit

For all things Josh Kornbluth, visit his Web site at