Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Legend of Georgia McBride and the Craft of Drag

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Kent Gash
JUNE 8 – JULY 9 
Marin Theatre Company

by Christine Okon

Marin Theatre Company is ending its 2016-2017 season with the glitzy and fun The Legend of Georgia McBride, written by Matthew Lopez, about a struggling Elvis impersonator who, through a twist of circumstance, finds success, fulfillment and most of all himself when he joins a drag performance act.
Adam Magill as Casey (in rehearsal)
Casey is an earnest musician trying to make a living as an Elvis impersonator in a dive bar in Panama City, FL, 40 miles from the tiny apartment he shares with his practical yet loving wife Jo (a warm and funny Tatiana Wechsler). Adam Magill brings a sweet (but perhaps not tough enough) vulnerability to Casey, a dreamer who is nudged to reality when he learns that Jo is pregnant, he’s out of money, and that the bar’s owner/emcee Eddie, desperate to stay afloat, has booked a new act to replace his. 
Kraig Swartz as Tracy with Adam Magill as Casey
Enter Tracy (a sharp and sassy Kraig Swartz) and Rexy (a recklessly selfish but wise Jason Kapoor), two seasoned, road-weary, hard-working yet glamorous drag performers who know the dive circuit all too well. (I expected to hear Tracy exclaim, “What a dump!” ala Bette Davis when she sees where she’s landed.) They’re pros who know how to wow a crowd, and wowed you will be with such numbers as I Will Survive or Amy Winehouse’s Rehab. But they’re also two people just trying to survive while being themselves.
Jason Kapoor channeling Amy Winehouse
When Casey is unexpectedly thrust into the drag light as an unwitting Edith Piaf who stumbles and staggers on stage like Bambi on ice, we’re right with him as he eases into having fun in the role. (I was reminded of the sweet and vulnerable young Tom Hanks in the 80's sitcom Bosom Buddies, about two ordinary guys disguised as women as a means of survival in the big city. Maybe it’s the hair.)
Kraig Swartz as Tracy, Jason Kapoor as  Rexy, John R Lewis as Eddie
The passage of time and the progress towards success is cleverly marked by a rapid succession of costume changes (thanks, Kara Harmon) as the emcee welcomes Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and so on, with the costumes and set getting glitzier and glitzier. Kudos to Jason Sherwood, Kurt Landisman and Chris Houston for creating different experiences, including a huge disco ball. Before we know it months have passed, and Casey is getting really good at drag. But he has not told his wife. He doesn’t know why—was he ashamed? It is Casey’s search for the answer that grounds him to the reality of his life. Rexy philosophizes about the importance of persona, of voice, of knowing who you are. Drag is about naming and claiming who you really are, proudly. “Two raised fists in sequined gloves.”
The Legend of Georgia McBride is about resilience, love, ambition, acceptance and FABULOUS clothes. It’s a simple story about finding your voice/persona without shame, and the important life lesson that no matter how bad things get, “there’s nothing a little makeup can’t fix.”
Kapoor, Magill, Swartz "Raining Men"
In San Francisco, where drag is a high art, MTC’s approach to the topic as presented in the lobby was an anthropological study with useful information about drag lingo and practices and the history of famous drag performers. 
If you like disco music and campy acts, you’ll especially enjoy this show. At curtain, several audience members sprang to ovation and kept on dancing. During San Francisco’s month of Pride, it may be just the show to bring visitors to. 



The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Kent Gash
JUNE 8 – JULY 9 

All photos by Kevin Berne

CAST
John R. Lewis* (Eddie)
Jason Kapoor* (Rexy/Jason)
Adam Magill* (Casey)
​Kraig Swartz* (Tracy)
Tatiana Wechsler* (Jo)

CREATIVE TEAM
​Matthew Lopez, Playwright
Kent Gash, Director
Dell Howlett, Choreographer
Jason Sherwood, Scenic Designer
Kurt Landisman, Lighting Designer
Kara Harmon, Costume Designer
Chris Houston, Composer and Sound Designer
Devon LaBelle, Props Master


Marin Theatre Company
http://www.marintheatre.org
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941-2885
Phone: 415.388.5200

Monday, June 12, 2017

HeLA: Connection, Communication, and the Legacy of Love

HeLa: The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks
By Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy
Dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins
Directed by Evren Odcikin

Runs through June 17th. 2017
TheatreFirst
Live Oak Theater
1301 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

"Tell me a story," a young girl asks her mother in a sunny home kitchen. The girl is Deborah Pullman, now grown, recalling a distant memory before her mother Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in 1950 but whose cells, harvested without consent by Johns Hopkins clinicians, continued to thrive and divide long after Henrietta’s death. These cells became an entity called HeLa, and it was quickly forgotten whether they belonged to Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane, or anyone for that matter.
JEUNÉE SIMON as Henrietta
There are many ways to approach this story of how the thriving cells of an ordinary African American woman with cervical cancer in the early 1950s in Baltimore made it possible to research phenomena that led to the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cures for several diseases, and the backbone of bioresearch industries like Genentech. The story was chronicled in the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, recently adapted into an HBO movie with Oprah Winfrey. The book and film address the who, what, when, where of the experiences, confusion and struggles of Henrietta’s family, especially her daughter Deborah, as they deal with the reality of Henrietta’s legacy. There is a lot of information to process if facts are the only guide.

DESIREE ROGERS as Deborah
Or you could choose to find the thread of meaning, the story beneath the story, to present the WHY of this story that makes it so compelling, universal, and beautiful. This is what TheatreFirst has done with its current production of HeLa: The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks, written by Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy, and the result is a remarkable journey through time and space that shows the legacy of love and connection through generations, with Henrietta as the constant point of reference.
KHARY MOYE and JEUNÉE SIMON

Don't expect a literal retelling of the story. This production of HeLa is more like a dance of character interactions, with the two main characters of Henrietta (played splendidly by Jeunee Simon) and her daughter Deborah (Desiree Rogers), a “motherless child a long way from home,” still seeking connection and answers.

Henrietta’s cells persisted after death, and in this play Henrietta is a person, a consciousness, and a presence who experiences, and reacts to, the situations the HeLa cells went through. Jeunee Simon conveys a range of emotion as Henrietta, there at Jonas Salk’s discovery of the polio vaccine; on the trip to space with the patriotic Russian canine cosmonaut; in the doctor's office sharing the joy of a couple who has just learned that they at last could have a child in vitro; witnessing the pharma exec’s thrill at the profit made by selling HeLa cells.

JEUNÉE SIMON as Henrietta and SARAH MITCHELL as the Soviet Dog
The strong ensemble cast greatly expanded the scope of time and place. Sarah Mitchell nailed the cordial but emotionless technician as well as the wildly patriotic Soviet dog that went into space, a hilarious part of the show, with the dog conversing and barking its purpose to Henrietta. Richard Pallaziol was versatile as the detached doctor, the excited Jonas Salk, the profit-conscious pharma exec, and even the gee-whiz young father amazed at having a baby in a test tube. Khary Moye had great heart as Henrietta’s loving husband as well as a stubborn teenager and a scientist. And Akemia Okamura balanced concern with practicality as the scientist who tells Deborah about the reality of her mother’s cells.

RICHARD PALLAZIOL as Jonas Salk
But it is the dynamic interaction between Desiree Rogers as Deborah and Jeunee Simon as Henrietta that fills heart and soul of the play as the two move toward each other. "I don't know how, but I can see you!" is a recurring line spoken by Henrietta and Deborah that compresses time, space and circumstance into powerful emotions, as when Deborah first sees the living, moving cells of her mother, projected on the white lab coats of the scientists, and realizes that they were her mother's. But there is confusion. Is it my mother? Are the cells my mother? It is about recognition of where one belongs in the grand scheme of things.
AKEMI OKAMURA and DESIREE ROGERS

The lighting (Stephanie Anne Johnson), costumes (Maggie Whitaker), sound and projection (Kevin Myrick), and set design (Bailey Hikawa and Devon Labelle) created a simple but compact and effective use of space to convey different settings and moods.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is about more than one person. She was the black marginalized patient in the 1950s who represents other marginalized patients today: the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, the sick, and even the dying, too often dismissed by the euphemistic efficiency of medicine, business and politics that too easily sidesteps humanity. As Henrietta realizes, it is ok to "take" but not "care" and too easy to say “take care.”

Like the cells themselves, the play HeLa is a living work in progress, with every show followed by a discussion. You still have time to see this show before June 17--don't miss this opportunity.
……………………
HeLa: The PoeticScientific DreamFate of Henrietta Lacks
By Lauren Gunderson and Geetha Reddy
Dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins
Directed by Evren Odcikin

CAST
JEUNÉE SIMON, Henrietta
DESIREE ROGERS, Deborah
KHARY MOYE, Ensemble
SARAH MITCHELL, Ensemble
AKEMI OKAMURA, Ensemble
RICHARD PALLAZIOL, Ensemble

DESIGN TEAM
BAILEY HIKAWA, Scenic
STEPHANIE ANNE JOHNSON, Light
KEVIN MYRICK, Sound
DEVON LABELLE, Property
MAGGIE WHITAKER, Costume

PRODUCTION TEAM
SALIM RAZAWI, Rehearsal Stage Manager
ELLEN BOENER, Performance Stage Manager
KATE LOGAN, Sound Technician
DIEGO PEÑA, Production Assistant

TIM PHAM, Production Assistant

All photos by Cheshire Isaacs








theatrefirst.com
TheatreFirst
Live Oak Theater
1301 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Stranger Comes to Town...


The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
Directed by Becca Wolff
May 23 - July 1, 2017
SF Playhouse

by Christine Okon

A​ ​mysterious​ ​stranger​ ​enters​ ​someone's​ ​life​ ​and​ ​changes​ ​it​ ​forever:​ ​this​ ​is​ ​a familiar, exciting story premise; think of William Inge's Picnic ​or almost any Western. The thrill is in the allure of the unknown, the seductive break from boredom, the last-ditch chance to live the life you were meant to live. It's​ ​the instant​ ​dynamic​ ​of​ ​object​ ​and​ ​force,​ ​of​ ​catalyst​ ​and​ ​inert​ ​substance,​ ​to​ ​effect​ ​change. 

San​ ​Francisco​ ​Playhouse is ending its 2016-2017 season with the one-act play The​ ​Roommate​ ​by​ ​Jen​ ​Silverman​; it's a good choice because it's not about endings but beginnings, about the thrill of "what's next?"

The​ ​Roommate​ ​takes place in a seemingly peaceful and tidy kitchen in a charming house in the middle of "corn cobs and open sky": Somewhere in Iowa. It's Sharon's house, and she seems somewhat lost in the space that has grown too big. Sharon's in her​ ​50's​ ​and​ ​in​ ​a​ ​precarious​ ​transition​ ​from​ ​the​ ​certainty​ ​of​ ​wife​ ​and​ ​mother​ ​to..what? Her​ ​son​ ​has​ ​grown​ ​and​ ​left​ ​home,​ ​but​ ​she​ ​still​ ​clings​ ​to​ ​the​ ​mother-son lifeline through "I just want to see how you're doing" phone calls. 

Sharon (Susi Damilano) and Robyn (Julia Brothers) with the wide Iowa sky as backdrop.
​Susi​ ​Damilano's​ ​Sharon​ ​is​ ​a grown-up good girl who's​ a bit ​​insecure, gabby ​but​ ​not​ ​especially​ ​thoughtful,​ ​as she goes through the motions of daily routine. Sharon is anxiously waiting​ ​for​ ​the person who has answered her ad for a roommate. 
Wide-eyed Sharon (Susi Damilano) makes a phone call to her son.
The renter ​turns​ ​out​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​woman​ ​of a similar age named​ ​Robyn (Julia Brothers)--​slender,​ ​self-assured, worldly,​ ​and​ ​capable​ ​​quite unlike the ​usual​ ​timid​ ​flock​ ​of​ ​book club friends​ that ​Sharon alludes​ ​to.​ ​Robyn is an intriguing mystery: why did move from the Bronx to Iowa? Is she running from or to something? Julia Brothers ​brings​ ​a​ ​self-contained​ ​strength​ ​and​ ​beauty​ ​to​ ​the​ ​vagabond​ ​soul who is seeking a sense of place while barely containing a constant restlessness. 
Robyn (Julia Brothers) and Sharon (Susi Damilano) discuss their plans for their futures.
You​ ​wouldn't​ ​call​ ​Robyn​ ​"nice"​ ​-​ ​but​ ​she​ ​sure​ ​knows​ and has done ​a​ ​lot of things​ ​that​ surprise, shock and thrill Sharon. The best thing about this production is Damilano's and Brothers' electric approach-avoidance dance between the doubt and trust, distance and intimacy, of Sharon and Robyn, unsettling the audience with suspense. This is real acting craft in action.

Emboldened by​ ​the​ ​possibilities​ ​of​ ​danger​ ​​that​ ​Robyn​ describes, Sharon changes before our eyes, perhaps too quickly to be believable.​ Still, it's fun to see her gain confidence, moving from a cautious "Do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​I​ ​could?"​ ​to a delighted ​"I’d​ ​be​ ​good​ ​at​ ​that."  
Sharon on the brink of change
Although​ ​Sharon​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​want​ ​a​ ​stronger​ ​connection​ ​with​ ​Robyn,​ ​perhaps​ ​friendship​ ​and​ ​even love, she learns one's personal journey is about movement, not stasis.

Silverman's script is adequate but contains some expositional cliched devices such as a long voice message left "on the machine" by Sharon's son, who is never seen, plus some setups with no payoff such as Amanda, Robyn's estranged daughter. The set was functional although the side porch full of boxes was a distracting imbalance. The innovative lighting of the white cloud-bright blue Iowa sky that later reveals a night of stars is innovative and very effective. Costumes were a lot of fun, especially as Sharon explores the different looks she discovers while snooping in Robyn's things.

But again, it is the wonderful interplay of Damilano and Brothers that brings the parallel journeys of the two vastly different characters to life.

The talented creative staff and cast.



The Roommate
by Jen Silverman
SF Playhouse

Cast
Julia Brothers
ROBYN

Susi Damilano
SHARON

Creative Staff
Jen Silverman
PLAYWRIGHT

Becca Wolff
DIRECTOR

Robert Hand
LIGHTING DESIGNER

Theodore J.H. Hulsker
SOUND AND PROJECTIONS DESIGNER

Melissa Trn
COSTUME DESIGNER

Jacquelyn Scott
PROPERTIES DESIGNER

Lauren English
CASTING DIRECTOR

Sarah Selig
STAGE MANAGER

Photos by Jessica Palopoli


SF Playhouse
588 Sutter Street #318
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.677.9596 fax 415.677.9597
www.sfplayhouse.org

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Synergistic Immersion of The Encounter

The Encounter
by Simon McBurney
April 26-May 7, 2017
Curran Theatre

The Encounter, now playing at the Curran Theatre until May 7, 2017, brings an extraordinary synergy of story, sound, memory and message through the performance of one man, Simon McBurney, who also directed. We join him on an immersive journey to follow the physical and metaphysical steps of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre who, in 1969, lost his way in the depths of the Amazon rain forest only to emerge with a heightened awareness of one’s humanity and place in the world.

Simon McBurney (photo by Robbie Jack)
Solo performer and director Simon McBurney invites us on a journey that defies the expectation of linear narrative and easy resolution. Each audience member is given a set of high end headphones, and McBurney playfully introduces us to how binaural sound technology (the remarkable sound design of Gareth Fry and Peter Malkin) can make it seem that he is right there. He's in our heads as he chats about everyday experiences and the novelty of the sound system, intertwined with musings on the nature of narrative, memory and time. He's showing us how the mind works, dipping in and out of the well of memory, focusing on impressions of the present, retelling other people’s thoughts. We learn about his life, how his little daughter seemingly interrupts the story until we learn that story is all about interruption, is non linear and boundless, and before long we are collaborating with him to build the set of the theater of the mind and to partake in a visceral experience that gives so much power to, and beyond, the story.

Simon McBurney (photo by Tristram Kenton)
But this is not technology for technology’sake. (I am reminded of George Coates Performances in the early 1990s where technology often eclipsed story.) The Encounter reveals how inextricably intertwined we are from narrative, time, memory and consciousness, made possible by the precise synchronization of sound design, lighting, set design and of course acting.
Simon McBurney (photo by Gianmarco Bresadola)
McBurney brings us along to experience the enlightenment of McIntyre when, after enduring extreme challenges to survival, learns that the native Mayoruna tribe he encountered did not comprehend a separateness between themselves and the world. Stripped of his “stuff"--his camera, shoes, things that anchor him to the world he knows--Lauren shifts into an awareness of another way of knowing, and being. The Mayaruna have seen death at the hands of white man’s greed taking the "blood" of the earth--oil--without respect or regard. We in the audience react not intellectually, but viscerally, to the horrible violation of life and spirit that is not happening just in a remote place in the world, but everywhere.
The Encounter is a call of alarm to the overt destruction our world, and especially the people of the Amazon who have suffered, and are suffering, greatly. What we don't get as Americans is that the Amazon people are us, and we them, and we are the earth. Once we have that realization, the rage bubbles into the need for action, an action one can take by supporting Amazon Watch, a cause promoted by McBurney and the Curran.











The Encounter
by Simon McBurney
Curran Theatre
April 26-May 7. 2017

Creative Staff
Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu

SIMON McBURNEY Writer, Performer, Director
KIRSTY HOUSLEY Co-Director
MICHAEL LEVINE Design
GARETH FRY Sound
PETE MALKIN Sound
PAUL ANDERSON Lighting
WILL DUKE Projection
JEMIMA JAMES Associate Director



Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Jitney's Relevant Ride

Jitney


Jitney

Written by August Wilson
April 1–16, 2017
African-American Shakespeare Company
Marines’ Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA, 94102

Reviewed by Christine Okon



As the audience gets settled, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” fills the Marine Memorial theater and then picks up on a small tinny radio in the shabby office of Becker’s Car Service, the single setting for August Wilson’s play Jitney. This play, part of Wilson’s Century Cycle of theater works charting the black experience over the decades, takes place in 1977 in a Pittsburgh neighborhood beyond the usual (i.e. white) taxi service range, thus filling a much needed niche.


ShawnJ West (Turnbo), Jonathan Smothers (Doub) and L. Peter Callender (Becker) Photo credit: Lance Huntley

The small office (true to Wilson’s precise stage description, thanks to Kevin August Landesman) holds many layers of stories: of the men who come and go to take turns picking up the ringing payphone to take a ride request, but also of the faceless vortex of “urban renewal” that is shuttering the neighborhood businesses, one by one. Yet Becker’s Car Service still stands.

ShawnJ West (Turnbo) and Edward Neville Ewell (Youngblood) Photo credit: Lance Huntley

Wilson’s characters are rich, complex, delightful and engaging in and of themselves, but the magic is in their interaction. We first meet Youngblood, perfectly named for his youth and passion and impatience, and Turnbo, the middle-aged male biddy who insists he “ain’t getting in your business” although that is what he is exactly doing. They are playing checkers, one of those games passed down over generations as a sort of rite of passage. It’s the closest thing an ordinary man comes to being a king. ShawnJ West’s Turnbo taps an inner gossipy and signifying trickster who knows it all and does get in your face. And Edward Neville Ewell fills out Youngblood with the swagger and energetic optimism of a kid trying to navigate the transition between adolescent impulsiveness and adult responsibilities, made even more urgent by the fact that he is a father of two-year-old boy.

Fred Pitts (Shealy) Photo credit: Lance Huntley
Soon we meet the other drivers, each with their distinct personalities. Shealy, the likable and super-fly neighborhood bookie (Fred Pitt, sporting a yellow oversize cap and flashy clothes, thanks to costume designer Nikki-Anderson Joy's grasp of 70’s polyester and plaid fashion fun). There's also really great soul/funk/R&B music throughout the play.

We meet Fielding, a tall, nattily dressed gentleman (played with a sweet vulnerability by Trevor Nigel Lawrence) barely hiding the effects of “just another nip” which fools only himself as he says “You gotta have someone to depend on.” The steady and thoughtful Korean War veteran Doub (played solidly by Jonathan Smothers, but cast a bit too young for the part) speaks little, but when he does, reveals how hard it is to become inured to the horrors of war. Philmore (Gift Harris) contributes his diligent perspective of being someone who’s never missed a day of work, and Rena (Jemier Jenkins) is the solid and loving rock that helps guide her lover Youngblood to become the man she needs for herself and their baby son, if they are to have a future.

But the strong center, the voice of reason, and the icon of respect is Becker, played by L Peter Callendar, who also directed the play. Callendar’s Becker commands the office chaos like Prospero; it is a treat to experience his range of intensity in such scenes as when he schools Youngblood after a fight with Turnbo (“He just young and foolish. I’ll straighten him up. He just young. He don’t know no better.”)

ShawnJ West (Turnbo), L. Peter Callender (Becker), and Edward Neville Ewell (Youngblood) Photo credit: Lance Huntley

Everything is going relatively smoothly until we learn that Becker’s son “Booster” (a capable but somewhat subdued Eric Reid) is being released from a 20-year stint in prison. Booster is a huge disappointment for Becker in that he ends the continuity of the dignified and rule-based life that Becker believes could lead to advancement. Like Lear, Becker armors his grief with stubbornness. Becker and Booster are exploding with a love that can only be expressed as rage and hurt. Scenes between Becker and Booster are heartbreaking to the point of tears, as the audience yearns for them to connect.

Eric Reid (Booster), L. Peter Callender (Becker), Photo credit: Lance Huntley

In the larger scheme of things, the real challenge is choosing to act, or not. With the community being steamrolled by “them” -–the unseen “powers that be” that create, as they have always created, powerlessness—Becker decides to keep the car service going and rallies the team, a band of brothers, to pitch in. They will join other shop owners facing the same fate of closure. Even with Becker gone, the team continues his spirit despite having no guaranteed outcome.

The story of Jitney is relevant now as so many small arts groups are struggling with funding cuts and threats to culture by the “forces that be.” The African American Shakespeare Company, having been based for years on Fulton St., needs a new home and much support. The company is also no longer able to provide free performances to hundreds of Bay Area high school students who must first experience the arts before they can protect them.

What choice do we have but to work with each other to change the tide that will lift all boats?

Jitney

Jitney
Written by August Wilson
African American Shakespeare Company
April 1 to April 16, 2017

Director: L. Peter Callender
Production Manager: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Stage Manager: Brian Snow
Set Designer: Kevin August Landesman
Technical Director: Roger Chapman
Lighting Designer: Kevin Myrick
Sound Designer: True Siller
Costume Designer: Nikki Anderson-Joy
Props Designer: Devon LaBelle
Assistant Director, Jemier Jenkins

Cast:
Becker: L. Peter Callender
Turnbo: ShawnJ West
Youngblood: Edward Neville Ewell
Fielding: Trevor Nigel Lawrence
Doub: Jonathan Smothers
Shealy: Fred Pitts
Booster: Eric Reid
Rena: Jemier Jenkins
Philmore: Gift Harris

African-American Shakespeare
African-American Shakespeare
762 Fulton Street, Suite 306
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 762-2071
http://www.african-americanshakes.org/

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).


The Bay Area's Fastest-Growing Theatre
588 Sutter Street #318
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.677.9596 fax 415.677.9597
www.sfplayhouse.org

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..https://youtu.be/Wgp4RI_Wt9s