SF Playhouse explores Art on stage on film

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The cast of Art at San Francisco Playhouse features a three-man cast: Serge (Johnny Moreno), Marc (Jomar Tagatac), and Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari). Below: The dispute over the white painting between Marc, Yvan, and Serge reaches a tipping p oint. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The Bay Area theater scene has been short on excitement, understandably, these last seven months. So it’s beyond thrilling news when a theater company, in this case San Francisco Playhouse announces a new play on an actual stage with actors acting together on a set that has been designed and lit, with nary a Zoom square to be seen. The only hitch, given this pandemical hellscape in which we find ourselves, is that the production is filmed and shared online. So the actors still can’t hear our laughs, our gasps, our sobs and, perhaps most importantly, our applause.

But, as we’ve all learned, we will happily take what we can get, and this SF Playhouse offering is special and so very welcome – a bold first step back to production. It seems every conceivable precaution has been taken to make it seem as if actors acting on a stage together is an absolutely normal thing (even though we know, in these times, it is absolutely not).

The choice of plays was smart: Bill English, Playhouse co-founder and artistic director, opted for Art by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), a mid-’90s crowd pleaser that deftly slices apart the very notion of friendship among men under the guise of an argument over an expensive piece of modern art. The play has three actors, and though we see each of the characters’ apartments, the set is less important than the people themselves along with, of course, the large piece of art that is either the work of a great modernist or an almost entirely white canvas that has no more merit than a piece of printer paper.

As director and set designer, English opts to be as theatrical as he can (the center of the set spins wildly when the scene changes) while delivering straightforward performances for the cameras. The result is an artful, angry, absolutely compelling work of Art that loses little in its transition to video.

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It would appear that the 15-year friendship between Serge (Johnny Moreno), Marc (Jomar Tagatac) and Yvan (Bobak Bakhtiari) is much as it ever was. They are in and out of each other’s lives – though not as often as they used to be – with occasional meals or movies. But how close are they really, and have their friendships evolved and changed along with the men and their lives over those 15 years? That’s the real question, and it’s only after Serge spends $200,000 on a mostly white painting by a supposedly great artist, that fissures in the relationships begin to show and widen.

Marc thinks the painting is utter bullshit and doesn’t hesitate to share that opinion with Serge, who is deeply wounded by his friend’s harsh judgment and closed mind. Each accuses the other of having lost his sense of humor, and that’s when the more hapless Yvan, whose life has not gone well either professionally or romantically, gets sucked into to choose sides.

It’s not long before the feud over the artwork gives way to much deeper issues among the trio of friends, and how you react to their truths, hurts and insults is a lot like a theatrical Rorscharch test. Do you feel sorry for Yvan for being spineless but respect his self-awareness and his reliance on professional help? Do you admire Serge’s intellect and his willingness to embrace something he loves even if it means losing his friends? Or perhaps you side with Marc as we watch illusions about the person he thought he was shatter, and he has to face the harsh truth of middle-aged self.

Playwright Reza gives you ample reason to like or loathe each of these men, and as dark or as pretentious or as pathetic as things get, there’s always darkly satirical humor adding gas to the flames. It’s an especially nice touch when a Roman philosopher becomes a weapon in a funny “projectile Seneca” scene.

The actors attack this spiky material with gusto, and each provides glimpses of both man and monster in his character. It’s interesting to watch their civility deteriorate and revert to something much more primal and more realistically human. Reza softens the ragged, damaging edges of her play with an unnecessary epilogue of sorts, but it’s also kind of nice to leave these characters in an emotionally warmer, more grounded place than we initially found them.

Happily, this Art doesn’t feel like a placeholder until we can gather again. It is a substantial work that satisfies – not as much as it would in person – and helps us feel connected to live theater, even though technically, it’s neither of those things. But it’s close and it’s good and it leaves its hungry audience wanting more.



FOR MORE INFORMATION
Yasmina Reza’s Art continues streaming through Nov. 7. Tickets are $15-$100. Visit sfplayhouse.org for information.

Josh Kornbluth saves the world with Citizen Brain

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Josh Kornbluth in Citizen Brain a Shotgun Players online production. Photo by Jayme Catalano

Josh Kornbluth is really working the Empathy Circuit these days. Unlike, say, the Borscht Belt or the nearly vanished cabaret clubs, the Empathy Circuit isn’t any sort of entertainment network. It’s the complex wiring that winds through various parts of our brains and allows us to feel empathy – that is, the ability to care about, imagine or even try to feel the feelings of another being.

The masterful Kornbluth has long had a way with a beguiling autobiographical show – Red Diaper Baby, Haiku Tunnel, Love & Taxes – and his latest, Citizen Brain, comes at the most opportune moment imaginable. It’s too bad we don’t get to sit together in the Ashby Stage auditorium for this Shotgun Players production, but it turns out that Kornbluth’s vivacity, humor and intelligence fairly burst out of the Zoom box in which he performs his monologue live through Nov. 8. In these tense weeks leading up to the election, I can imagine no more effective balm than spending about 75 minutes with Kornbluth while he talks about brain science and making an effort to care about other humans (especially the ones who piss you off).

Written in collaboration with Aaron Loeb and Casey Stangl (who also directs), Citizen Brain is rooted in Kornbluth’s family. This time the focus is on his mom, Bunny, and her late-in-life second husband, Frank, who develops Alzheimer’s disease. With a real-life connection to brain disease, Kornbluth becomes involved as an artist fellow at the Global Brain Health Institute, a collaboration between UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center and Dublin’s Trinity College. It was here that Kornbluth began to understand how empathy works in the brain and how, if you consider our collective national consciousness as a “citizen brain,” it would appear that our empathy circuit has gone dark. There’s some crossover terrain here with his 2007 show Citizen Josh in which he discussed how important it was to speak respectfully with people on opposite sides of whatever spectrum might be generating tension, but this time he’s coming at it from an artist/humanist/scientist perspective.

All of this is also set against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election and its divisive fallout, which makes Kornbluth wonder, “Could it be our country has dementia?” It’s a fair question, and though he doesn’t exactly have an answer, Kornbluth, with the help of his neurosurgeon mentors, begins to develop a solution that begins simply: take a breath; take another breath; then “make a leap into the perspective of another person.” Thinking on a grand scale, Kornbluth envisions this solution becoming nothing short of a peaceful worldwide revolution of empathy.

And what’s interesting about that from a Kornbluthian point of view is that Josh is at long last fulfilling the destiny laid out for him by his Communist parents as detailed in his show Red Diaper Baby. His revolution might not involve Marx, Lenin or Stalin, but it’s a a full-circle revolution moment none the less.

That’s part of the Kornbluth magic – storytelling that feels intensely personal and warmly universal – and it’s on full display (and in near close-up!) in this captivating online performance. With this show – in itself an act of deep empathy – and his ongoing work at citizenbrain.org (be sure to check out the videos), Kornbluth’s revolution is ramping up and working its way from heart to heart. Since watching the show, I’ve already heard Kornbluth’s voice in my head say, “Take a breath. Take another breath.” I’m going to continue working on my empathy circuit and try to play a small part in the revolution.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Josh Kornbluth’s Citizen Brain continues through Nov. 8 in an online Shotgun Players production. Tickets are pay-what-you-can $8-$40. Advance reservations required. Click here for information.

ACT Zooms into a new era with Warcraft

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The cast of In Love and Warcraft includes (clockwise from top left) James Mercer as Ryan, Cassandra Hunter as Evie, Wesley Guimarães as Tony and Madeline Isabel Yagle as Chai. Below: Hunter’s Evie and Angulo’s Raul meet in a café. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater

Our world now is squares, Zoom squares. It’s how we work, how we socialize and how we connect to cultural events all from the safety of our homes. We settle for this because it’s the best we can do for now, and sometimes it almost feels like the real thing.

Over the last almost six months of quarantine, I’ve enjoyed some hearty theater – some favorites have included Arizona Theatre Company’s The White Chip by Sean Daniels, Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins from star Michael Urie’s apartment, Shotgun Players’ Quack by Eliza Clark and The Old Vic’s Three Kings by Stephen Beresford. I’d much rather be in a room where people can actually laugh, cry, gasp and applaud together, but I’ll take what I can get.

The trick with theater on Zoom is how to actually connect the production and the person at home. We have shorter attention spans (at least I certainly do) at home, although I love being able to watch with my dog (Hank, the theater dog). We have distractions at home even when we try to replicate theater conditions with lights and phones turned off. And I have to admit I sigh a little when the show starts and it looks just like a staff meeting I had that morning.

But credit creative directors and designers who are working to turn Zoom into a dynamic theater space. American Conservatory Theater kicks off the fall theater, such as it is, with a production that amply demonstrates how effective Zoom can be as a play space. In Love and Warcraft by Madhuri Shekar is a co-production with Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, and it’s a remount of a production made last spring, at the start of quarantine, with members of ACT’s MFA Class of 2022 under the direction of Peter J. Kuo.

It was a smart choice to remount the show for a number of reasons, including the cast’s mastery of the script and the mechanics of managing their own sets and cameras and the fact that Shekar’s script (with a few tweaks by Kuo) unfolds entirely via phone cameras, laptop cameras, Instagram, Tik Tok and even security cameras.

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The cast of students is also playing a group of (mostly) students, so it all makes a certain amount of sense even before it starts, but then Kuo has devised clever ways to convey characters together in the same room – sometimes even making out! – by giving us a glimpse of the same painting on an apartment wall in both Zoom squares or starting a set in one square (the medical posters on a doctor’s wall) and finishing it in the next square (the patient on the exam table). These kind of touches could be distracting, but the fact that they’re even making an effort to create a sense of space is really all we need to climb aboard this particular Zoom train.

The six-member cast handles all of this scene building so deftly that it’s actually more entertaining than distracting, and their performances are so exuberant that they’re more interesting than the sets anyway.

Cassandra Hunter is Evie, the center of the story. A lover of playing a “World of Warcraft”-like multi-player video game and a Cyrano-like writer-for-hire of romantic texts, letters, Facebook posts, etc., Evie is doing what most people in college do: figuring out who she is and what her sexuality means to her. In Evie’s case, her love of the cyber world is partly how she deals with the fear of the real world and her own body in the real world. Her boyfriend (James Mercer as Ryan) is someone with whom she spends most of her time online. A date for them involves exploring a mermaid lagoon in the game they both love. But then one of Evie’s real-world clients, Raul (Hernán Angulo), begins complicating things.

While Evie deals with her fears surrounding real-world relationships, her roommate Kitty (Evangeline Edwards) deals with the repercussions of living her life in exactly the opposite way: no fears of anyone or anything and no desire left unfulfilled.

The world of these characters is filled out by Wesley Guimarães
and Madeline Isabel Yagle in more than a dozen small (occasionally very funny) roles.

If the way this story is told is novel, the plot really isn’t, but it’s still comforting to watch talented actors dive into the small dramas, triumphs and humiliations of young love in a world where online relationships with people you haven’t necessarily met in real life can be as impactful as those with whom you share space.

My challenged attention span found two hours of this story about 30 minutes too much, but it certainly wasn’t for any lack of energy or charm among the cast. The most remarkable aspect of In Love and Warcraft was the illusion of connection – that people really were looking at each other and responding to one another in space and time, physically and emotionally. The barriers of Zoom, it seems, were made to be broken.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
In Love and Warcraft will have two additional live performances Friday, Sept. 11 at 11 a.m. and Saturday, Sept. 12 at 8 p.m. In Love and Warcraft will be available on-demand from September 18–25. www.act-sf.org.

G-L-O-R-I-A! Gloria fascinates, frightens at ACT

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Coworkers Ani (Martha Brigham, left) and Kendra (Melanie Arii Mah) commiserate with each other over their publishing jobs and toxic workplace in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, at ACT’s Strand Theater through April 12. Below: Miles, the intern (Jared Corbin, left), talks with Dean (Jeremy Kahn) about his future plans. Photos by Kevin Berne

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria is a fascinating play. It’s a lively workplace comedy until it’s an unsettling workplace drama. There’s a sheen of satire to it but also reality and heart. There’s a bracing boldness to it that makes its two hours fly by, and its path is never exactly what you think it will be.

Director Eric Ting navigates the tonal shifts expertly with the support of a sterling cast. There’s not a weak or even wobbly performance here, and with some actors playing up to three roles, that is a thrilling thing. I especially loved Martha Brigham as a good-hearted office busybody, a curt publishing doyenne with an even more curt haircut and as an overly enthusiastic, slightly goofy script reading lackey. I was also delighted by Jared Corbin as a cheerful intern, a loquacious Starbucks employee and, in a sharp contrast to the intern, a show-biz executive.

Three established Bay Area actors, Brigham, Lauren English and Jeremy Kahn are giving the kind of performances that further solidify their status as actors whose work you miss at your peril. They are always good, reliable performers, but more often than not, they are brilliant, and that is most definitely the case here.

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I reviewed Gloria for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

Director Eric Ting, who has previously collaborated with Jacobs-Jenkins at Berkeley Rep on “An Octoroon,” establishes a propulsive rhythm to what is seemingly an average day at the office. The dialogue is lightning fast, and it doesn’t take long to suck us into the office drama involving secret manuscripts, the intern’s last day and the frustrations of feeling that work is sucking all the life out of your life.
There are barbs aimed at millennials and boomers, jealous tirades and harsh confrontations, all before the lunch hour. It’s as if David Mamet, with his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue and workplace snark were writing a sitcom for the CW.
But Jacobs-Jenkins has plans to go deeper into the office dynamic and what it means to share a formative experience with people who are neither friends nor family. We spend a great deal of time with these people, and what do we really know about them?

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria continues through April 12 at ACT’s The Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

There’s a Sting in this Ship but no sting

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Sting (center) plays Jackie White, a shipyard supervisor in the musical The Last Ship for which he also wrote music and lyrics. The show is part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson and the cast perform “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Photos by Matthew Murphy

When a show flops on Broadway and then undergoes serious re-tooling, you hold out hope that lessons were learned, wrongs righted and mistakes corrected. The debut musical from rock icon Sting, The Last Ship, fizzled in New York, but that didn’t mean dry dock for this vessel. No, Sting continued to work on it, giving it a complete re-write (with director Lorne Campbell), shuffling and re-shuffling songs and characters and setting out on another voyage, first in England, then in Canada.

The former Police man must be pretty happy with the results because he’s now starring in an American tour (before heading to Las Vegas for a more traditional rock ‘n’ roll residency). The show pulled into the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, and though the cast is able and voices are strong, the show is mild entertainment at best. Though the story takes place in 1986 as the Northern England shipyards were closing, the clothes look like 1973, and Sting’s score sounds like 1873.

Sting himself makes a disappointing impression as both an actor and a singer. He’s hard to understand both in volume and intelligibility. Some of his songs give you that old Sting frisson, but those moments are too few.

I will say that this show, for all its melodrama and righteous sincerity, has a few high points that hint at the way its creators would like us to be inspired by the strength of the working folk and their (temporary) rise against oppressive economic and governmental forces. But again, the highs are surrounded by doldrums. There is, however something remarkable: one of the worst death scenes I’ve ever seen played out on a stage.

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I reviewed The Last Ship for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

The bad news is that “The Last Ship,” as well-meaning, and mildly entertaining as it is, will never be a great or even very good musical. The whole enterprise is mostly grim and dreary, with competing plot lines involving soapy melodrama, economic downturn and labor strife. There’s even a character with a cough, which you know means that person won’t live to see the finale.
The story about how the shipyard men and the women who love them fight against the forces that are putting them out of business is meant to celebrate the indomitable human spirit. But it all comes across as a shallow gloss on how the downtrodden can fool themselves into a happy ending if they speechify and sing in beautiful choral unison while stomping about in a robust Celtic manner.
While the book never makes a convincing case for any of its plot lines – the wayward teenage love story, the shipyard closure, the family medical drama – there is some pleasure to be had in Sting’s score and the performances, especially by the women of the company.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sting’s The Last Ship continues through March 22 at BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $70-$275 (subject to change). Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one intermission). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com.

Soaking it up at the SpongeBob musical

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The company of The SpongeBob Musical, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Daria Pilar Redus is Sandy Cheeks, Lorenzo Pugliese is SpongeBob SquarePants and Beau Bradshaw is Patrick Star. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

The “why” is easy. When you’ve got a product that earns literally billions of dollars around the globe, at some point you have to stop and say, “Gee, wouldn’t this be a great Broadway musical?” At least that’s what happens these days, especially with successful animated ventures – please note all the Disney musicals (except Aida), Shrek, Anastasia and The Prince of Egypt on its way. So it wasn’t at all surprising when the folks at Nickelodeon decided to turn the internationally beloved SpongeBob SquarePants, created by the late Stephen Hillenburg, into a splashy live musical.

Following the Lion King blueprint, producers turned to a theater director who earned lots of off-Broadway and Chicago street cred before heading to Broadway to turn their franchise into something that could potentially please everybody: die-hard fans of the smiling yellow sponge, musical theater enthusiasts and families who want to enjoy a theater outing together.

The resulting show, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, was the kind of energetic, colorful endeavor that nearly did the trick when it came to making everybody happy. Director Tina Landau and scenic/costume designer David Zinn delivered something with broad humor, fan service and buckets full of flash and sparkle. Cynical critics had to admit they were somewhat surprised to enjoy something they would never have expected to like in a million years. The show never really found its audience on Broadway and closed after less than a year without recouping its costs.

But you can’t sink a sponge. Much of the Broadway cast reconvened for a television broadcast of the show on Nickelodeon last December, and now a non-Equity tour of the show is criss-crossing the country. That production, with a simplified new title for the road – The SpongeBob Musical – is making a quick five-day stop at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

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Zinn’s DIY set (think water weenies, metal drums and other garage sale-type elements) has been scaled down, and the young cast wavers in vocal quality and comic timing, but this SpongeBob makes a mildly successful case for the leap from TV (and movies and theme parks and gazillions of products) to Broadway for SpongeBob and all his neighbors from Bikini Bottom, their home at the bottom of the sea.

You don’t watch a musical like this lamenting the art form that gave us Carousel, Gypsy and Hamilton. No, you enjoy what there is to enjoy, which in this case is a bright, vivacious package full of sweetly acerbic characters providing entertainment that does indeed have appeal to young and old. Some knowledge of SpongeBob would be helpful but is not required. One wise decision the creative team made was to free the actors from cumbersome theme park-y costumes of any kind. If this guy is a well-adjusted sponge, and that gal is a science-loving squirrel, and this guy is a starfish and that gal is a computer, well it all makes a demented sort of sense without making any sense at all. At least it’s mostly easy to know who’s who and what’s what in this tale of impending apocalypse for SpongeBob and his pals (there’s a volcano and attempts at drama but none of that really matters).

The book by Kyle Jarrow captures a lot of what’s sweet and salty about the show, and Landau’s restrained chaos direction feels like a live-action cartoon, heavy on the looney gags and visuals. It was a smart move to have a percussionist on stage making a whole host of cartoon sound effects (three cheers for Ryan Blihovde. That helps keep things lively, although the show’s length (2 1/2 hours including intermission) does feel like a slog through a kelp forest here and there. That probably wouldn’t be the case were the score stronger or at least more consistent.

The songs represent the work of many people, most of them bona fide rock and pop stars (with only Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper representing experience with Broadway musical success). There are members of Aerosmith, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and Panic! At the Disco alongside artists including John Legend, Yolanda Adams and even David Bowie (who had done a voice on the TV show and let producers adapt his 1995 song with Brian Eno “Outside”). It’s an uneven mish-mash, but orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt works hard to make it all sound like it belongs to the same show. The best numbers are Lauper’s “Hero Is My Middle Name” and They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser.”

That last number, performed by a four-legged squid named Squidward Q. Tentacles (Cody Cooley), is the show’s apex. The sourpuss character attempts to convince himself he’s not a loser by imagining himself as the center of a lavish production number filled with pink sea anemones (the ensemble decked out in fluffy, funny costumes) and a solo four-footed tap dance. SpongeBob, played by the chipper Lorenzo Pugliese, never gets his own showstopper, but he’s a beaming presence on stage, and though his friendships with Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw) and Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus) are sweet, some of his most affecting moments are with Gary, his (inanimate) pet snail.

If corporations are going to keep turning their intellectual property into Broadway musicals (there must be an easier, more reliable cash grab), they could do worse than The SpongeBob Musical. There’s still a shiny, happy theme-park feel to the show in spite of all its smart Broadway touches, but it’s got some charm, some heart and that good old Broadway optimism that the sun will come out tomorrow.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
The SpongeBob Musical continues through Feb. 16 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$266. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com

Life, death and more fill Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey at ACT

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Guy (Tony Hale) asks the audience to follow him in an exercise of imagination in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey performing at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) stretches as Guy rests. Photos by Kevin Berne

When you write about theater, you tend to take notes while watching the show whenever a line or a moment triggers the part of your brain that says, “Oh, I’d like to mention that later.” During Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the first half had me writing so fast and furiously I finally just had to stop writing entirely and simply absorb the show.

This isn’t surprising in that Eno is one of the most interesting playwrights in the theaterverse. He’s weird and brilliant, funny and deeply humane. Because there can be an oblique and highly theatrical quality to his work, he has often been compared to Beckett, but for me, I feel more Thornton Wilder (somewhere between The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town). He wrestles in creative and insightful and surprising ways with what it is to be alive and how we’re all connected by the knowledge that none of us is getting out of here alive and that we could all probably be doing better when it comes to being aware of our lives as we’re living them.

Wakey, Wakey,, like other Eno works, defies easy description. There are people and things happen, but where they are and what exactly they’re doing isn’t clear. And it doesn’t need to be. We’re all here and this is happening. Director Anne Kauffman eases us into this world, helps us relax and just take the play as it comes without expectations that this is going to follow the rules and rhythms of plays we’ve experienced before.

The play begins with a prologue of sorts, The Substitution, about a community college driver’s ed class where the substitute teacher (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) shakes things up by not behaving the way the students expect her to and ends up giving them something far more interesting (if inscrutable) than the rules of the road.

Then the play begins in earnest with the appearance of Guy (Tony Hale), about whom we know nothing except that our first encounter with him finds him face down on the floor minus his pants. Seconds later, his pants are on, he’s sitting in a wheelchair and he’s talking directly to us.

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Apparently we’re all here for some sort of presentation (well, yes, isn’t that what a play is?). Guy is offering, with the help of some notecards, a semi-inspirational TED-ish talk about the nature of time and about how this is not really how it was supposed to be. The setting (by designer Kimie Nishikawa) is a nondescript auditorium or multipurpose room in some sort of civic or educational institution or perhaps a place where people live together or are receiving treatment. Again, details are sketchy and it doesn’t really matter (although I have theories, and I’m certain they’re all 100% accurate).

What Guy does (or did) before being in this room with us is not known. If he has connections to other people (spouse, child, friends), that also remains a mystery. He’s going to engage us as best he can and share a little of what he knows about life but with lots of distractions and asides. Hale’s basic likability is essential here. We know and love the actor from his incredible work making misfits lovable on “Arrested Development” (Buster) and “VEEP” (Gary) and most recently as the voice of Forky in Toy Story 4 (talk about an existential crisis). None of the quirks we might recognize from other characters inform Guy, who is clearly a kind person if somewhat frustrated by his current situation. So even though we don’t know much about Guy, we like him and connect with him and want him to succeed in this endeavor, even as it seems to grow increasingly difficult for him.

There is another character, possibly someone we met in the prologue (or someone else entirely), and that character helps clarify (a little) what we’re actually witnessing.

Wakey, Wakey feels like more of an experience than a play, one that lingers as a feeling (or an avalanche of feelings) rather than as conundrum we have to pick apart and solve. There’s a lot about death here – does the title refer to a gentle way of rousing a sleeping child or is it a play on the gathering we have after a funeral? – and as a result, it’s positively hopeful and life affirming. This rich experience – barely 90 minutes – is also funny, moving and inspiring. There are so many things we can do with the limited time we’re given. Absorbing Wakey, Wakey would be a good use of that time.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey continues through Feb. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Summer’s a bummer in all but music

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Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna, left), Alex Hairston (Disco Donna, center), Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna) and the company of Summer: the Donna Summer Musical at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: The three ages of Donna in various shades of blue. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade

For a terrible show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is fairly enjoyable, and that is for one reason alone: the music. As jukebox musicals go, this one is toward the bottom of the list, which is surprising given that director and co-writer Des McAnuff has two shows much (much) higher on that list: Jersey Boys and Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

Summer suffers from the bane of the jukebox musical: forcing innocent pop songs into being show tunes that are meant to convey something meaningful about plot or character. When “Dim All the Lights,” a groovy tune about gettin’ down and dirty, is sung at a funeral, we know we’re in trouble.

If Summer had a knowing sense of humor, such moments might play better. For instance, in the completely tone-deaf (emotionally not musically) scene involving cartoonish domestic abuse set to “Enough Is Enough,” Donna fights back, and one of her weapons happens to be a coffee table book about Barbra Streisand. Say what now? Joke or bad idea? Hard to say, but probably the latter.

Like The Cher Show, another jukebox bio musical that never quite connected on Broadway, Summer represents the late Donna Summer with three actors portraying her at different times in her life. There’s Ducking Donna, a young girl from a big family in Boston played by De’Ja Simone filling in for an ailing Olivia Elease Hardy. Once young Donna drops out of high school and heads to Europe, she becomes Disco Donna played by Alex Hairston, who is really the most interesting Donna as she goes from unknown to big star. And sort of lording above them all is Diva Donna played by Dan’yelle Williamson, who serves as our guide through this “concert of a lifetime.”

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If this really were a concert, things would be so much better. The Donnas could talk about life moments and sing the songs surrounded by the mostly female ensemble working through Sergio Trujillo’s rather uninspired choreography and wearing the glittery costumes by Paul Tazewell. You could also keep most of Robert Brill’s set (especially the gigantic Studio 54 disco ball), even if the design leans too heavily on over-active video screens, and Howell Binkley’s concert-appropriate colorful lighting could stay as well. Great voices, enjoyable songs, flashy lights and colors – that’s really all we need to be happy.

The book by McAnuff, Robert Cary and Colman Domingo does Summer (or anyone in her life) no favors because it’s shallow, cheesy and unreliable. All of these things may have happened to Summer in exactly this way, but because of the way the show puts her biography across, it all feels like gloss and shine with no relationship to reality. If Summer really did engage in a pitched battle with her record company, we never really know the details beyond the fact that the fight fits nicely with her song “She Works Hard for the Money.” And Diva Donna’s attempt to explain her “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” comment, which hurt and alienated her gay fan base, by singing “Friends Unknown” as a tribute to those lost to AIDS feels more like a PR move than a deeply felt moment. More shine over substance.

All we really need here is for the three talented leads to perform Summer’s hit parade. There are delicious moments of pure performance – “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio,” “Heaven Knows” – but they get derailed by the storytelling. When we finally get an unbridled, “Last Dance,” it feels like the party has begun at last, but then the show is over. In real life, Donna Summer was hot stuff and we loved to love her, baby. But on stage she’s another casualty of the empty-calorie cash grab known as the jukebox musical.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical continues through Dec. 29 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

Harry Potter grows up in magical Cursed Child

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With productions in London and New York, the two-part epic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has opened in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre. The story, focusing on the next generation of magical offspring, was created with J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Harry Potter, known as “the boy who lived,” has continuously found life on the pages of seven best-selling novels, on the screen in eight blockbuster films, in theme parks both in Florida and California and now on stage in an epic two-part, five-plus-hour play that has to be seen to be believed.

With successful productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child running in London and New York, the wizard’s theatrical reach has extended to the Curran Theater in San Francisco, where it will undoubtedly run for years to come. Otherwise, why would theater management have gone to the trouble of decking out the building with Harry Potter-themed carpeting?

The smartest thing Potter author J.K. Rowling did when considering an adaptation of her characters to the stage was to connect with director John Tiffany, whose work in shows like Once and Black Watch was incredibly dazzling without being overwhelming because he never loses sight of human scale and emotion within the spectacle.

Rowling, along with Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne provide the eighth chapter of the Potter saga by jumping ahead 19 years after the action of the final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So the story is really about the next generation of young wizards – and how they’ve either been encouraged or messed up by the previous generation. In other words, it’s about the inexorable passage of time. But because this is a magical world, there’s no guarantee that time will move in anything resembling a linear fashion.

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So with a story about parents and children, or fathers and sons to be more specific, Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany pull out all the stops in the creation of an absolutely dazzling, exhilarating, gob-smacking theatrical experience. The less you know about it the better, but know that in addition to Harry, Hermione and Ron, you’ll see a number of characters from the Potter-verse, some beloved, some not so much. It helps to have some knowledge of Potter lore – if you know who Voldemort is (or was), you’re doing pretty well – although this new story is specific enough and provides enough exposition to sustain interest for those who don’t know a horcrux from a Hufflepuff.

Could this story have been told in a four-hour show? Probably, but there’s something very satisfying about settling in for the long haul, and the protracted length allows for more dazzling special effects and tricks and mind-boggling theatricality than you can possibly imagine. Tiffany’s whole design team has done remarkable work here, but to my mind, the two stars are Jamie Harrison, credited with illusions and magic, and lighting designer Neil Austin, whose razor-sharp works allows those illusions to work in such beguiling ways. Of course, Christine Jones’ set and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are part of the trickery as well, but also a huge part of the beauty. This is a stunning show in every way from beginning to end – it’s almost like you can’t watch it hard enough for fear of missing something. There are images in these plays that are among the most strikingly beautiful I have ever seen in a theater.

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The less said about the plot the better because there’s so much joy of discovery and surprise in this tale of acceptance and honesty (it’s not exactly The Iceman Cometh, but it’s got some emotional heft). Tiffany’s cast is reliably sturdy to deliver the laughs and the deeper emotional moments, and that very Rowling-esque sense of story propulsion is felt throughout, especially when the larger group bonds together to fight a common enemy. The friendship between Albus Severus Potter (played by Benjamin Papac) and Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger is especially potent, and both actors bring a welcome angsty teen edginess to their performances.

The interesting thing about Cursed Child as the eighth Potter story is that it feels organic and heartfelt in a way the Fantastic Beast prequel movies have not. Those feel like a money grab overloaded with CGI effects. These plays are filled with storytelling, right-before-your-eyes magic and good, old-fashioned theatrical dazzle. These plays are proof that there is real magic in the world, and it resides – perhaps not surprisingly – in the realm of live theater.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne; based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. Tickets on sale through June 20, 2019. $59-$289. Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. harrypotteronstage.com

Of mice and music: Berkeley Rep’s Despereaux charms

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Dorcas Leung (Despereaux) with (back, l to r) Ryan Melia (Librarian), Betsy Morgan (Queen Rosemary), Matt Nuernberger (Botticelli) and Curtis Gillen (Most High Head Mouse) in Berkeley Rep’s production of PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux. Below: Despereaux (center) and the hardworking ensemble raise the roof of the Roda Theatre. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There are so many charming, astonishing, inspiring moments in PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux you have to stop logging them and simply realize that, from beginning to end, this is exactly the show we need this holiday season.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has a long tradition of bringing inventive, highly theatrical shows to its stage this time of year (the wondrous shows of Mary Zimmerman and Kneehigh come immediately to mind), and this year, we get a wildly wonderful Despereaux from PigPen Theatre Co., a group of friends who met and began making theater and music at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2007.

And while it’s easy to see why the handmade quality PigPen’s exuberant storytelling is so well suited to the stage adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Award-winning 2003 novel. But this production is a little fancier than that. It’s financed by Universal Theatrical Group, the stage arm of the movie studio that made the 2008 animated Despereaux novel, and it’s co-directed by PigPen and Marc Bruni, who also helmed the Tony-winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The stage Despereaux, which is acted, played and sung entirely by the 11-person ensemble, had its premiere last summer at San Diego’s The Old Globe, and one would guess that a new musical this good will go on to a long life wherever it wants to go.

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Like the novel, this musical is about finding the courage to be the one who makes a difference, fights for justice and overcomes preconceived notions of who someone should be. In this particular story, the hero is a mouse with giant ears (not Mickey, that’s a different movie studio) who, inspired by the story of a knight’s quest, determines to bring light back to the now-darkened kingdom where he and his family live.

Young Despereaux (played with verve by Dorcas Leung) lives in castle clouded with grief. Years before, the queen’s heart stopped at the sight of a rat in her soup. Since then, rats and soup have been forbidden, and the sad king (Arya Shahi) and his daughter, the Princess Pea (Yasmeen Sulieman), live a quiet, isolated life. They don’t throw parties or have feasts, so the crumb quotient for the castle’s mice population is alarmingly low, though the red-eyed rats that inhabit the castle’s darkest, dankest basement don’t seem to be suffering near as much.

One visit to the castle’s library and an encounter with the tale of a brave knight (Dan Weschler) is all it takes to ignite Despereaux’s warrior heart and a desire to fulfill his destiny as a hero. But first he must deal with the mice, who fear any change to the status quo, and the nasty rats in the basement, especially their leader, Roscuro (John Rapson, deftly capturing the light and dark of chiaroscuro). He breaks rules and tries to keep the faith that what he’s doing is right and just (not an easy task).

From beginning to end, this 90-minute treat is chock full of appealing songs with a Celtic pulse, performed with gusto by the ensemble. The voices are glorious (especially Sulieman’s princess, Betsy Morgan’s Miggery Sow and Rapson’s Roscuro), and the stage is alive with beautiful images. There’s a strong theme of light and dark built into the story, so the lighting by Donald Holder takes on significance beyond the beautiful way it illuminates the rough-hewn timber and crockery of Jason Sherwood’s castle set.

At the opening-night performance (Monday, Nov. 25), Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre was filled with children, and it’s a testament to the performers on stage (and to the parents) just how well behaved the audience was. Director Bruni and his ensemble manage to keep up the pace of the show without ever making it feel rushed. There’s time for ballads and introspection and shadow puppetry. And it’s absolutely enchanting the way the company uses stuffed mice and rats to convey the size difference between the animal characters and the human characters, all the while keeping us emotionally invested in every inter-species interaction.

The Tale of Despereaux is neither corny nor sappy the way entertainment aimed at all ages can sometimes be. Rather, this is rich, emotional, rewarding theater that pulls us all into its story of the littlest guy choosing to make the biggest difference.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux continues through Jan. 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$100 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.