Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Christians and the Challenge of Belief

The Christians
By Lucas Hnath
San Francisco Playhouse
January 24-March 11
Reviewed by Christine Okon

The Christians Drama Lucas Hnath
Are you a religious person?”

“Well, I don’t go to church, but I’m a spiritual person” is a familiar answer.

You don’t have to be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist or “prefer not to answer” to have your thinking provoked by The Christians, a play by Lucas Hnath, currently at San Francisco Playhouse until March 11.
Entering the theater, we are pulled into a world of simple, honest worship: multicolored stained glass, a crafted wood podium, and a jubilant choir (First Unitarian Universalist Society) singing a hand-clapping hymn that engages the audience before the play even begins. Bill English’s set design, with Michael Oesch’s strategic lighting, create a spare but soothing space for what’s to come.
The church service begins in jubilant song.
A confident, well-coiffed woman (a warm and composed Stephanie Prentice) takes the mike and begins to regale the crowd with the story of how a small storefront gathering of believers grew into a place of worship big enough to hold hundreds and hundreds of the faithful, and how this miracle is due to the man who started it all, her wonderful husband, Pastor Paul.

A man with a broad, genuine smile sprints to the front and takes the stage. It’s Pastor Paul (a humble and likable Anthony Fusco) who cheers and rouses the flock to celebrate the fact that the last mortgage for the church is finally paid. Paul introduces his team, Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Garner) and Church Elder Jay (Warren David Keith, a subtle steadfast accountant) who provide a balance that is soon skewed. The church didn’t grow magically; heavy financial realities hum underneath like an engine under the sounds of joy above.
Pastor Paul bringing the good news.
Paul launches into a sermon that begins like any other, how great and well the Lord is, how blessed we all are, his preaching answered by the happy smiles, nods, and a-mens of his faithful family.

Then he starts to tell a personal story that begins well enough but soon works to disturb and confuse the congregation.  It’s story of love and compassion for people who are not like us but who have nonetheless suffered; are they not children of God? Can a non-Christian go to heaven? Can someone who committed horrible sins, like Hitler, be saved? What is heaven? Does Hell even exist? Such thinking goes against the if-then-else belief that if you are a good Christian, you will go to heaven and if not, you go to purgatory, or hell. How frightening for the congregation to have this premise of faith shaken!

Paul’s new path of belief creates a fissure in the congregation. Congregant Jenny (Millie Brooks) steps forward during a service to speak her heart to Pastor Paul: she’s a good Christian woman with a family who has lived by the Word of the Lord all these years, and she cannot comprehend the expansive, foreign belief that Paul is on. She departs, as does the more traditional Associate Joshua, who has been engaging in an ongoing and intractable dialectic with Paul about truth, faith, and consequences.
Congregant Jenny speaks her heart about Paul's direction
Nothing is reconciled, and there Paul remains, alone in the desert, choosing spirit over structure, freedom instead of rules. But it is a decision he needed to make: to choose right over rote.
The Christians stirs the inner dialog and struggle we all may have when our foundation of belief—God or no—is rocked, and it will start a conversation that goes on after you leave the theater.

The Christians
By Lucas Hnath
SF Playhouse
January 24th to March 11th, 2017
Director: Bill English
Set Design: Bill English
Lighting Design:  Michael Oesch
Sound Design: Theodore J.H. Hulkser
Costume Designer: Tatjana Jessee
Music Directors: Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner
Choir Conductors: Tania Johnson, Mark Sumner, Bill Ganz, Louis Lagalantes

Cast: Anthony Fusco (Pastor Paul); Stephanie Prentice (Elizabeth, the wife); Lance Gardner (Associate Pastor Joshua); Warren David Keith (Elder Jay); Millie Brooks (Congregant Jenny).

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San Francisco, CA 94102
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Friday, January 27, 2017

Hedda Gabler Rules at Cutting Ball Theater

Hedda Gabler

By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh
Jan 19-Feb 26, 2017
Reviewed by Christine Okon

Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler presents one of the most challenging, complex roles for an actress to play.

Bored to death by married life with the tediously academic George Tesman, she yearns to smash the clockworks of societal expectations but, not knowing what she really wants, continues to pace back and forth in frustration, anger, and fear.

Directed by Yury Urnov (Ubu Roi), with condensed translation by Paul Walsh, this Hedda taps into an emotional chaos that boils beneath the veneer of polite 1890’s society.

All is well in the household as long as expectations are met and implicit rules followed. Aunt Juliane (Heidi Carlsen) and her nephew George Tesman (Francisco Arcila) have a bond as comfortable as the old pair of slippers she saved for him while he was on his six-month bookish honeymoon with Hedda Gabler. Arcila puts the limited and not really useful George into motion, with the catchphrase of “imagine that” fitting for someone with such limited imagination and passion.

Aunt Juliane (a prim and prodding Heidi Carlsen) sports the pretty hat (a whimsical spot of color thanks to costume designer Alina Bokovikova) that Hedda knowingly and unkindly dismisses as the maid’s old hat. Indeed, it is the maid Berte (a beleaguered and stressed out Michelle Drexler), who gives us an inkling that all is not as usual in the household, especially with a callous new mistress who is impossible to please.

Kunal Prasad (Ejlert Lovborg) and Carla Pauli (Thea Elstead) Photo by Liz Olson.
When Thea Elstead (Carla Pauli, projecting frantic steadfastness) visits and proclaims that Ejlert Lovborg is in town, and that she has helped him finish his book, Hedda’s claws come out, ever so insidiously, and we get glimpses of how dangerous and manipulative she is. We deduce that Ejlert was once in a tortured love relationship with Hedda, but now has broken free of the obsession with drink and reckless passion to live a “clean and sober” life.
Or so he thought. Upon seeing Ejlert again, Hedda knows his demons and coaxes him to celebrate with a drink. He protests but gives in to Hedda, taking a drink, and another, and another with Thea pleading all the way. Kunal Prasad (the remarkable Poet in A Dreamplay) is a larger than life Ejlert Lovborg, dragging a huge pitchfork across the floor like a ball and chain, making a painful grating sound. This Ejlert is more of a caricature, a device for Hedda to manipulate and discard as she has done before.

Britney Frazier brings us a Hedda who, like a panther or a snake, moves deliberately in its own realm, no matter how small that realm is. She is General Gabler’s daughter who wields a mean pistol even if she is only “shooting into the sky.” She banters with the ubiquitous Commissioner Brack (Steve Thomas), whose stature and Elmer-Fuddish demeanor belies the entitled and conniving creep that he is. Hedda muses on the misery of marriage, of taking a train ride with the same person your whole life. What if someone along the way comes into your car, muses Brack, insinuating that he complete the triangle with her and George. Hedda and Brack sit in chairs at both ends of the stage, volleying suggestions, comebacks, and vague propositions back and forth like a tennis match. Sensing that Brock is an adequate but ignorant player, stupid in fact, Hedda is all the more humiliated when she is eventually trapped in his corner.

Britney Frazier rules as Hedda Gabler. Photo by Liz Olson
Hedda's willful world is crumbling. Ejlert, wracked with remorse for carelessly losing his life's work, does not end his life as beautifully as Hedda wished. She is not part of the bond George and Thea form to recreate Ejlert's book. Brack is poised like the rooster in the hen house to her private realm. Trapped, she seizes her instrument of art-- her father’s pistol--to do the one creative act that is hers alone.

Here Urnov makes a very creative decision: A single gunshot is not enough for Hedda. She blows it all apart, powerfully staged as an explosion. We see Hedda as who she really was all along – the strutting, sleek and stunning panther in her glorious bareness, flicking ashes on the life she escaped, and promising to keep on disrupting order.

Britney Frazier (Hedda) and Commisioner Brack (Steve Thomas). Set design by Jacquelyn Scott. Photo by Liz Olson.
For a tiny stage with no walls, the set designed by Jacquelyn Scott conforms to the pace of the play. Planes of scrims divide the space and create depth. The mobile set is rearranged by sprightly stage hands wearing bowlers, skipping to contemporary and somewhat apropos songs like “Tiptoe through the Tulips” or “La Vie en Rose” from the whimsical sound design of Cliff Caruthers. Hamilton Guillen’s strategic lighting follows the emotional flow of scenes; his use of silhouettes adds even more dimension to the limited space. For the “burning the child” scene, light to suggest fire offstage would have heightened the effect of Hedda’s destructiveness.

Cutting Ball’s production of Hedda Gabler may not appeal to Ibsen purists, as much was done to alter the script to make it more “contemporary.” But there’s a wonderful energy to follow through the play that may spark some new insights. Imagine that!

Hedda Gabler
By Henrik Ibsen, translated by Paul Walsh
Cutting Ball Theater www.cuttingball.com
Jan 19-Feb 26, 2017

Director: Yury Urnov
Set Design: Jacquelyn Scott
Lighting Design:  Hamilton Guillen
Sound Design: Cliff Caruthers
Costumes: Alina Bokovilikova
Cast: Franciso Arcila (George Tesman); Heidi Carlsen (Julianne Tesman); Michelle Drexler (Berte); Britney Frazier (Hedda Gabler); Carla Pauli (Thea Elstead), Kanal Prasad (Ejlert Lovborg (Kanal Prasad); Steve Thomas (Commissioner Brack)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Bird Flips for Suet

The California Scrub Jay visits my backyard feeder. He is pretty insistent on getting the suet. Wait for it..

Monday, December 5, 2016

‘The Seagull and Other Birds’ by Pan Pan Theatre at SF International Arts Festival 2016

Audiences booed Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” at its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1896. Its head-on foray into the nature of art, creation, society, and relationships was not expected or understood. The characters in “The Seagull” churn in their own spheres of longing in a world that is not linear or tidy. Love is unrequited, failures ensues, dreams are dashed, and souls collide.

But, like islands born from lava in combat with the sea, new audiences emerged to embrace new forms.


This energy of creation sparks Pan Pan Theatre Company’s production of “The Seagull and Other Birds.” Like a seagull that patrols the coast to find unlikely sources of food, this award-winning Irish theater company uses Chekhov’s play as a point of departure to discover “other birds” — other forms of inspiration. Pan Pan Theatre Company scavenges from cultures across time and space — unexpected and fun images that reverberate in your memory, images that must be perceived but not over thought, as from a strange and compelling dream.

Upon entering the theater, we see all cast members on stage, warming up and stretching in pink and white ballet garb, tutus and all, creating an ironic image for what’s to come. We are given a sheet with the lyrics to “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats and are asked to sing along, dissuading one from accepting the kind of same-old, same-old feeling that Mondays bring. This is going to be a new ride, a kaleidoscope of movement, dance, erotic tableaus, rap, Luche Libre masks, and even a type of reality show where audience members are selected to interact with the cast on stage which becomes a dynamic canvas of innovation.

The seagull is not the only bird. “Other birds” loosely suggest points of divergence marked by hand drawn and hand held posters. There is “The Seagull,” Chekhov’s metaphor for failed love and aspiration. “The Shag” (Cormorant). The indomitable Arctic Tern. The huge and opportunistic Herring Gull. The “other birds” are facets or essence of characters: the dreamer Nina, literally running away from tethers, the despondent playwright Konstantin, the jaded author Trigorin, and the dark Masha —are present as suggestions of traits and dynamics.

Seeing “The Seagull and Other Birds” is a visceral, kinetic, and chaotic experience that seems oddly comfortable in this moving, hyperlinked, fragmented, yet oddly cohesive world.

‘Seagull and Other Birds’ can be seen for one more performance on May 28, at the Cowell Theatre. For further information click here.

‘Birdheart' at Z Space Below April 2016

“Birdheart” has the simplest of beginnings: a single egg lit warmly on a table covered with sand. Lovely, evocative, uncomplicated string music fills the room. We hear the sound of gentle waves lapping a shore. We watch intently, not knowing what to expect.

Soon, the egg begins to crack and move. Something is trying hard to get out. It is not a bird but a person, or rather, an animated sheet of brown wrapping paper that is shaped and manipulated to look and move like a person, much as a passing cloud might look like a horse.

The forces that do the shaping and moving are puppeteer-musicians Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane. Their presence is evident, not hidden in black like Noh theater koken, and the audience marvels and applauds at the things they do with this intriguing medium.

The paper person struggles to gain footing and soon realizes it is alone. It finds a small table and chair on the beach and arranges them to create an invitation to tea, complete with two small cups. We feel this creature’s loneliness, its sense of being earthbound and heavy. It seems stuck until it is enlightened (literally, a backlight throwing a shadow) to realize it has a tiny bird in its heart. The joy is palpable as the paper creature lifts up and is pulled down, lifts up and is pulled down until it finally transforms into a bird, from the same amazing piece of paper.

The bird gains wings which are fragile, skeletal paper. The design was inspired by Chris Jordan’s harrowing photos of baby albatrosses who starved to death with crops full of plastic detritus that their parents found and fed to their chicks.

The bird lays a single egg, tries to brood it but gives up. It flies away, abandoning the egg, and we are brought back to the beginning with single egg sitting in the spotlight. And I cried.

“Birdheart”reminds us of the profound simplicity of form, story, and emotion in classic Polish animation.

After the performance, Lane and Crouch met with the audience to answer questions about the source of inspiration (“we tried to be open to the accident of something, to be in chaotic collaboration with the world”), logistics, material (ordinary brown wrapping paper), music (by Saskia Lane, Julian Crouch and Mark Stewart) and meaning that shaped the piece, and even invited the curious to see the puppetry design up close. They plan to bring “Birdheart” to other countries, inviting local musicians to perform with that country’s instruments and music, making it a truly universal endeavor.

Prior to the performance, Lane and Crouch playfully turned each other into puppets, and performed a banjo bass duo. How they did this is a surprise worth waiting for.

Magical and intriguing, “Birdheart” helps us to believe that an ordinary brown paper bag can dance, fly, and have a soul that resonate with ours.

“Birdheart” played at Z Space in April 2016.

This review was initially published in Theatrestorm.com.