Wednesday, April 10, 2019

These Roots Are Strong and Deep


In Old Age


Nancy Moricette as Abasiama Udot Photo: Jennifer Riley

written by Mfoniso Udofia
directed by Victor Malana Maog

Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, San Francisco

Until April 21, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

In Mfoniso Udofia’s In Old Age, a dilapidated house is indeed one of three characters with the elderly occupant Abasiama Ufot (Nancy Moricette) and the middle-aged Southern-born handyman Azel Abernathy (Stephen Anthony Jones).

Nancy Moricette Photo: Jennifer Riley

In a darkened living room with a pictureless television playing gospel music, a figure is cocooned in a pile of blankets on a worn couch. Insistent knocking on the front door stirs Abasiama to get up and warily shuffle to investigate the unexpected visitor. It turns out that Abasiama’s daughter had hired Azel Abernathy through the church to repair her mother’s house, starting with the floors.

Nancy Moricette brings a frail but unstoppable stubbornness to this elderly Nigerian matriarch. She’s “African AND old,” as Azel later comments, explaining Abasiama’s quirkiness of living in the modern world while connecting to unseen but palpable spirits. Like a deep-rooted baobab tree, the old house grips Abasiama in a tangle of unhappy memories of subjugation, dissatisfaction, and misery. She still argues with husbands who have since died, but whose "random stuff" shrinks her personal space so much that she retreats to the safety of the couch. The walls shudder and bang with loud thuds that are real as verbal threats to Abasiama, but she manages to hold her own.

Stephen Anthony Jones as Azel and Nancy Moricette at Abasiama Photo: Jennifer Riley

Azel comes to work on the floor over a period of days. When Abasiama asks several times “What kind of man are you?” he is at first puzzled and somewhat annoyed, but the question plants a seed in his mind. Stephen Anthony Jones creates an amiable but complex and conflicted Azel who, as he replaces each worn wooden plank with new cherrywood, learns more about himself and the cantankerous Abasiama who grows more and more alive and engaged.

Playwright Udofia reaches beyond the verbal layer of language into the realm of the heart. One person’s noise is another’s meaning. A thud to one is a scream to another. In a moving scene where Azel and Abasiama voice each other’s secret thoughts, we are invited to listen in a new way, too.

Nancy Moricette and Stephen Anthony Jones Photo: Jennifer Riley

Lighting (York Kennedy), Sound (Sara Huddleston) and Set (Andrew Boyce) designs are essential to the story, moving us from a cluttered abode of loneliness to a simpler space of hope. Sometimes it was hard to understand Abasiasma’s heavily accented words or to see past a wicker laundry basket blocking the action. Despite these minor distractions, In Old Age is a beautifully crafted and directed play that weaves gold thread from ancient roots into a modern, intricate and rich garment.

In Old Age

written by Mfoniso Udofia
directed by Victor Malana Maog+

Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, San Francisco

Until April 21, 2019
Run Time: 1:45 (No Intermission)
415.441.8822
boxoffice@magictheatre.org

CAST
STEVEN ANTHONY JONES*
Azel Abernathy

NANCY MORICETTE*
Abasiama Ufot

* Member of Actor’s Equity Association

CREATIVE TEAM
Set Design - Andrew Boyce**
Costume Design - Courtney Flores
Lighting Design - York Kennedy**
Sound Design - Sara Huddleston

**Member of United Scenic Artists local 829

+Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Jungle: Theater as Call to Action

The Jungle

Okot (John Pfumojena) Photo: Little Fang
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Until May 19, 2019

Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Today's news overwhelms us with images of displaced, huddled and disdained refugees such as the little Syrian boy lying face down in the sand, drowned in an attempt to flee his ravaged homeland. There is no shortage of such images.

Now imagine being in a ramshackle restaurant with dirt floors in one of the dozens of camps near Calais, France where thousands of Kurdish, Syrian, Somali, Eritrean, Afghan, Palestinian, Iranian and Iraqi refugees are trying to survive while waiting for their "good chance" of reaching the safe haven of England just across the channel.

Mahelet (Bisserat Tseggai) and
Helene (Nahel Tzegai) Photo: Little Fang
Welcome to The Jungle, a powerfully immersive play that recreates the experience of living in a refugee camp in a landfill off a roadway. Written by British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Roberston, who as volunteers started the Good Chance Theater in the camp, The Jungle was staged in England and New York before arriving at the Curran Theater.

The Curran Theater's plush seats and lovely decor are gone, radically transformed by Miriam Beuther’s set design. (See the development of the set at https://sfcurran.com/the-currant/articles/2019-2/). Audience members are packed elbow-to-elbow on backless benches in front of long wooden tables under a makeshift ceiling of  cardboard, tarps, fabric, and miscellaneous items. More than 20 performers weave through the audience, some offering chai tea in Styrofoam cups, as we learn we're in a restaurant managed by Salar (a wise and passionate Ben Turner) as the sound (designed by Paul Arditti) of loud bulldozers and roadway traffic periodically shakes the room.

Our guts tighten with fear, curiosity or excitement as we try to make sense of the chaos. A young boy is killed by a truck on the road and the grieving community unites in a Muslim burial service.

(L-R) Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati), Sam (Tommy Letts),
and Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) Photo: Little Fang
A narrator enters--Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad)--to provide perspective as the story shifts to months earlier when the refugees reveal how they fled their homelands to escape  destruction, threats, poverty and death.

 Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) and
Okot (John Pfumojena) Photo: Little Fang
The play is framed around the interactions between a handful of refugees seeking a home  and a group of well-meaning UK volunteers who want to mitigate the problems of housing, food, childcare and medicine within the larger sphere of hostile anti-immigrant sentiment in French society. We identify with the plight of these people as we hear stories of the hell they went through to get as far as they did.

The Jungle is beyond theater. It beckons us to care and invites us to take action by learning more about the plight of refugees everywhere. One way to start is by visiting  goodchange.org.uk/america.  Watching the news will never be the same.

The Jungle
 Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. Through May 19. Two hours, 50 minutes. $25-$165. Curran theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, 415-358-1220. https://sfcurran.com

CAST

MOE BAR-EL -- Maz

LORRAINE BRUCE -- Paula

ALEXANDER DEVRIENT -- Henri/Yasin

TREVOR FOX -- Boxer

AMMAR HAJ AHMAD -- Safi

TOMMY LETTS -- Sam

ARYA ROSE LOHMOR -- Little Amal

CATHERINE LUEDTKE -- Angela, u/s Paula

YASIN MORADI -- Hamid

JONATHAN NYATI -- Mohammed

JOHN PFUMOJENA -- Okot

ZARA RASTI -- Little Amal

RACHEL REDFORD -- Beth

IBRAHIM RENNO -- Imad, u/s Salar/Ali

DOMINIC ROWAN -- Derek

RACHID SABITRI -- Ali

MOHAMED SARRAR -- Omar

MOSES M. SESAY -- Mustafa, u/s Okot/Mohammed

ERIC TABACH -- Shahmeer, u/s Sam/Maz/Henri

MILAN TAJMIRI -- Omid

BISSERAT TSEGGAI -- Mahelet, u/s Beth/Helene

BEN TURNER -- Salar

NAHEL TZEGAI -- Helene

TIM WRIGHT -- Gary, u/s Boxer/Derek

KHALED ZAHABI -- Norullah


CREATIVES

JOE MURPHY AND JOE ROBERTSON
Playwrights

STEPHEN DALDRY
Director

JUSTIN MARTIN
Director

MIRIAM BUETHER
Set Designer

CATHERINE KODICEK
Costume Designer

JON CLARK
Lighting Designer

PAUL ARDITTI
Sound Designer

JOHN PFUMOJENA
Compositions

DUNCAN MCLEAN
Video Designer

TRISTAN SHEPHERD
Video Designer

JULIA HORAN, CDG
UK Casting

JIM CARNAHAN, CSA
US Casting

JILLIAN CIMINI, CSA
US Casting

ALEXANDRE BLEU, CSA
US Casting

DAVID LAN
Executive Producer

SUNNY JAIN
Music Director

GEORGIA BIRD
Stage Manager

Friday, April 5, 2019

Keep on Singing..Keep on Dancing

KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!


From Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Translated by Paul Schmidt
A new theatre piece directed by Mark Jackson & Beth Wilmurt

Until April 21, 2019

Shotgun Players / Ashby Stage / Berkeley

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Kill the Debbie Downers! Kill them! Kill them! Kill them off! squeezes juicy berries of absurdity from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters into a heady liqueur of song, dance, play..and an accordion! At the Shotgun Players Ashby Stage until April 21, Kill the Debbie Downers..., directed by Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt, answers Chekhov’s suggestion to “Have a look at yourself and see how bad and dreary your lives are.”

Gabby Battista, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Amanda Farbstein, Nathaniel Andalis, Sam Jackson

Three Sisters, like many of Chekhov’s plays, is a study in the stir-craziness of existential cabin fever as desperate characters try to preserve their spirit by living in the past, concocting trouble, or dreaming of a distant and better future without taking action to effect change.

Like the room in Sartre's No Exit, the setting of Kill the Debbie Downers... is an estate living room shrouded in a routine where the same lines are repeated over and over, the same clock chimes again and again, and the same conflicts grow in intensity. The three sisters are Olga (a solid Sam Jackson), the oldest and most pragmatic; Irina (a giddy Gabby Battista), the youngest  who fantasizes about love and the nobility of work; and Masha (a graceful and determined Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), the middle and most sardonically weary sibling. Amanda Farbstein seems to enjoy playing the annoying and controlling Natasha, as Nathaniel Andalis joins in as the quirky and distanced Solyony while Billy Raphael steps in as needed with witty observations as Dr. Chebutyken. We don’t see other characters such as the brother Andrey who has “Andrey’s happy song, it’s not long...” sung by the sisters who encourage the audience to join in. Nor do we see the commanding officer Vershinin who is reduced to a military cap with which Masha holds a conversation.

Billy Raphael

Everyone living so close together in a loop of reminiscing and annoyances is bound to create friction, so the only outlet is to do something, anything to dispel the dismal boredom such as move chairs around in practiced choreography, play silly games, chide one another, sing songs, make music and dance.

Gabby Battista, Amanda Farbstein, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Billy Raphael, Nathaniel Andalis















The music is diverse, unique and memorable, and it’s worth it to check out the show’s playlist on Spotify at this link 

Kill the Debbie Downers... reminds us to seize the moment and grab as much fun as you can before we die. It’s as simple as that, and I bet Chekhov would have loved it.


KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!
From Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Mark Jackson & Beth Wilmurt

Until April 21, 2019
Shotgun Players 
Run time is 2 hours without an intermission.

All Photos by Robbie Sweeny 

Cast
Nathaniel Andalis, Solyony
Gabby Battista, Irina
Amanda Farbstein, Natasha
Sam Jackson, Olga
Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Masha
Billy Raphael, Chebutykin

Crew
Helen Frances, Wardrobe Supervisor
Anton Hedman, Sound Engineer
Mark Jackson, Co-Director
Devon LaBelle, Props Designer
Jessica McGovern, Production Assistant
Ray Oppenheimer, Lighting Designer
Alice Ruiz, Costume Designer
Muriel Shattuck, Stage Manager
Adeline Smith, Scenic Charge Painter
Caitlin Steinmann, Master Electrician
Mikiko Uesugi, Set Designer*
Beth Wilmurt, Co-Director
Sara Witsch, Sound Designer

*Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829

See he original Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

What Would Helen Do?

Helen

Leticia Duarte and Adrian Deane Photo: Devlin Shand

By Ellen McLaughlin

Directed by Shannon R. Davis

Theatre of Yugen
2840 Mariposa St. San Francisco 

Until April 27, 2019 (Fri-Sun)

Reviewed by Christine Okon

In Ellen McLaughlin’s modern spin on Euripides’ classic play about the legendary and iconic beauty, the main character in Helen paces like a bored Hollywood star anxious for a callback in a lavish Egyptian hotel suite with nothing to do except swat flies, tend to her beauty regimen, and wait...for what? For news? For rescue? She herself does not know.

In this production of Helen, Theatre of Yugen steps beyond McLaughlin’s script to widen the palette of race and gender identity to explore the challenges of image vs. reality.  Director Shannon R. Davis taps into the skills of her diverse cast, a fusion of Asian, White, Native American, and non-binary gender actors, to bring us a fun, fast-paced, surprising whirl of interactions that move faster than preconceived notions can dry.

Remote and isolated from the warring world of Troy, Helen’s exposure to reality is limited to what she sees on the insipid and limited room television. She craves hearing stories from her dutiful, sardonic and somewhat bored servant (played with detached and often hilarious wit by Leticia Duarte). As Helen, Adrian Deane navigates moments from selfish obliviousness to the shaky self-doubt that can lead to change.

Helen Wu and Adrian Deane Photo: Devlin Shand

Helen receives her first visitor in Io whom the jealous Hera had turned into a cow. Helen Wu brings a carefree giddiness to this character in a delightful fur-and-glitter outfit, complete with cute floppy ears, that was collaboratively designed by Ariel Quinell-Silverstein, Davis, and Wu to connote both royalty and whimsy. After a fun but shallow chat with Helen, Io exits via the "elevator" that dings offstage.

Adrian Deane and Steven Flores Photo: Devlin Shand

Later, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, barges in to remind Helen of the damage she has caused civilization. In a fantastic and exciting costume that transcends gender (perhaps inspired by Burning Man, Braveheart or Game of Thrones?), Athena (played with true warrior spirit by Stefanie Foster) forces Helen to take a hard look in the mirror to realize her limitations.

Shaken, Helen’s certainty about her identity and beauty further dissipates when she gets no help from her final visitor and perceived rescuer-husband Menelaus, played by Steven Flores with the tortured intensity of a universal soldier damaged by every war from ancient times to the present.

Adrian Deane and Steven Flores Photo: Devlin Shand

Coming to terms at last with her limitations, Helen is challenged by the wise servant to risk leaving the room into the unknown world that may or may not lead to the discovery of her own story. What does she do?

In its recent expansion of scope beyond traditional Japanese theater  to include more culturally diverse and international stories, Theatre of Yugen has succeeded in infusing this Helen with real energy and relevance.

Helen
By Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Shannon R. Davis

Theatre of Yugen at NOH Space
theatreofyugen.org
2840 Mariposa St. San Francisco 
 (415) 621-0507

Until April 27, 2019
Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 8pm, Sundays at 1:30pm
Saturday, April 20 & 27 also at 1:30pm

TICKETS:
GA Tickets - $30 
VIP Tickets - $40 (includes drinks)
Student Discount - $15 with valid ID
Contact the Box Office for more details:
(415) 621-0507 | boxoffice@theatreofyugen.org

CAST
Helen - Adrian Deane
Servant - Leticia Duarte
Menelaus - Steven Flores
Io - Helen Wu
Athena - Stefani Potter

PRODUCTION TEAM
McKenna Moses (Production Manager/Stage Manager)
Ella Cooley (Sound Design)
Ariel Quenell-Silverstien (Costume Design) 
Miranda Waldron (Light Design)





Saturday, March 23, 2019

Love's Merry-Go-Round Spins in Cutting Ball's La Ronde

La Ronde

Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play Reigen
translated by Eric Bentley
directed by Ariel Craft

Cutting Ball Theater
Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., SF

March 14 – April 14, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Turn the pages back through the ages
What are their names? Just you and I...
Love's Roundabout from the movie La Ronde (1950)

In his charming 1950 film La Ronde, director Max Ophuls lets us peek at the endless waltz of desire, need and connection that is so very basically human, male or female.

Although the script calls for five women and five men, Cutting Ball Theater’s production of La Ronde features two women, EIla Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon, as the ensemble of all 10 characters to illustrate a new dance of sex, power, and sheer desire.

In Cutting Ball’s tiny box theater on Taylor St, the audience sits in a circle as the two actors sexually shapeshift in and out of the 10 roles. Like Tinder-swiping voyeurs, we watch the Whore hook up with the Soldier, the Soldier with the Maid, the Maid with the Gent, the Gent with the Wife, the Wife with the Husband, the Husband with the Lil’ Miss, the Lil’ Miss with the Poet, The Poet with the Actress, the Actress with the Count, and the Count with the Whore with whom the story begins.
 Jeunee Simon and Ella Ruth Francis Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Francis and Simon both play the light and shadow of each character under the precise and playful direction of Ariel Craft (also the new Artistic Director of Cutting Ball), moving in sync with the equally exact lighting (Cassie Barnes) and sound (James Ard) cues such as drapes being opened or a snorer wheezing next door. Simple costumes (Morgan May Louie) hang on the walls to allow quick character changes. 
Jeunee Simon (The Count) and Ella Ruth Francis  (The Whore) Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
With powerful pas-de-deux of acting and movement, Francis and Simon reveal how each character is changed by sexual interaction, from trampled innocence to jaded disappointment. Especially amusing is Simon’s stuttering Count as he tries to regain composure after an interlude.
Jeunee Simon and Ella Ruth Francis Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Cutting Ball's La Ronde offers the most explicit sex you can have on stage without nudity or physically obvious acts. With the speed-dating pace of the play not offering much time to think, I just let my body react. La Ronde invites the audience to be as aroused or put off as they wish; it makes no difference because the dance will continue anyway.

La Ronde
by Arthur Schnitzler
translated by Eric Bentley
directed by Ariel Craft

Cutting Ball Theater
Exit Theater, 277 Taylor St. SF

March 14 – April 14, 2019
Box Office at 415-525-1205

CAST
Ensemble - Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon

PRODUCTION TEAM
Costume Designer - Morgan May Louie
Lighting Designer - Cassie Barnes
Sound Designer - James Ard
Properties Designer - Adeline Smith
Scenic Consultant - Randy Wong-Westbrooke
Intimacy Choreographer - Maya Herbsman

Watch the trailer:  https://vimeo.com/319259282



Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Black Eagles: Trouble at Liftoff

Black Eagles

By Leslie Lee
Directed by L. Peter Callender
African-American Shakespeare Company
Marines Memorial Theatre / 609 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94102

Saturday and Sundays Until March 31, 2019

Above photo: Back row L-R: Luchan Baker, Ron Chapman, Donald Antoine; second row L-R: Devin Cunningham, Joseph Pendleton; front/center: Brandon Callender. Photo: L. Peter Callender

Reviewed by Christine Okon

African-American Shakespeare Company’s production of Leslie Lee’s Black Eagles is fittingly staged at that beautiful and revered bastion of military history, Marines' Memorial Theater.

The play begins with three elderly gentleman at a banquet in the late 1980s reminiscing about their WWII experiences as members of  the first all-black Army Air Force squadron of fighter pilots known as "The Tuskegee Airmen" or “The Fighting 99th.” The men are joined by their younger selves who bring the memories to life, laying out a predictable structure of back-and-forth reminiscing and staging that keeps the play at the level of storytelling than drama.

Elder Eagles (rear, Thomas Robert Simpson, Gift Harris, Todd Risby) Photo: Joseph Giammarco

Like weathered fisherman bragging about their catches, Elder Clarke (amiable Gift Harris), Elder Nolan (thoughtful Todd Risby) and Elder Leon (distinguished Thomas Robert Simpson) banter and argue about details of flight missions, aerial maneuvers, killing “Jerries,” losing friends and missing loved ones. Despite the racist military rules (such being denied admission to the white officer’s club) that blocked their full participation on the base,  they could be themselves amongst each other, away from the stateside clutches of Jim Crow.

EAGLES (Brandon Callender, Joseph Pendleton, Devin Cunningham, Luchan Baker III) Photo: Joseph  Giammarco
The six young soldiers--Clarkie (Luchan Baker), Roscoe (Ron Chapman), Nolan (Brandon Callender), Buddy (Donald Ray Antoine), Leon (Devin A. Cunningham) and Othel (Joseph Pendleton)--look sharp in their pressed khakis as they argue, chide, and laugh like the tight band of brothers they are. They engage in some aerial missions (hard to stage dynamically), argue about why the hell they are there, and snap to attention when General Lucas (a convincing Gene Thompson) enters the room and tells them that he wants to up his military stars to three if the “experiment” (about whether black men can make good fighter pilots),” for which he is “putting his ass on the line,” succeeds. Except for the really fun and hopping “Jitterbug Drill” and Nolan’s meeting with his Italian girlfriend Pia (Margherita Ventura), who establishes hat yes, they are fighting on the WWII Italian front), the first act circles around the runway without ever taking off, and a few heads were nodding in the audience.

General Lucas (Gene Thompson) give the Black Eagles their flying orders. Photo: Joseph Giammarco
Act II manages to lift off into the wild blue yonder and seems like a different play. There is more dialog, intent, desire and purpose. Two good-natured white soldiers--Dave Whitson (William Robert Caldwell, awkward but well-meaning) and Roy Truman (Kyle Goldman, with a Jimmy Stewart aw-schucksness)--pay a friendly visit and are immediately suspected by the Eagles. One of the Eagles pulls out a bottle of special cognac, but the proper civilized “savoring” quickly descends into a pass-the-bottle swill fest. The Black Eagles shout their pride, with Truman and Caldwell declaring themselves the "White Eagles". It seems like one team, but the sad reality is that the white pilots have far less training than the blacks yet have juicier, real combat flight assignments.

The camaraderie of the black soldiers brings a lot of energy to the scenes, and I wish the play had more of that. Some of the actors were strong and others not, with the effect being like high performance tires with small leaks. The cast has potential but the script is a scaffolding of historical trivia, which does not allow for momentum or exploration. But as an homage to the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen, Black Eagles is an enlightening slice of American history.

Tuskegee ELDERS (Center) reminisce about their younger years in Italy, 1944. Photo: Jospeh Giammarco
Director L Peter Callender, who performed in the original production of Black Eagles years ago, brings much love to this earnest production which unfortunately never quite gains the altitude of powerful drama.

Black Eagles
Written by Leslie Lee. Directed by L. Peter Callender. Through March 31. Two hours with 15-minute intermission. Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St, S.F.
http://African-AmericanShakes.org

CAST
Elder Clarkie — Gift Harris
Elder Leon — Thomas Robert Simpson
Clarkie — Luchan Baker
Nolan — Brandon Callender
Leon — Devin A. Cunningham
Pia — Margherita Ventura
Roy Truman — Kyle Goldman
Elder Nolan — Todd Risby
General Lucas — Gene Thompson
Roscoe — Ron Chapman
Buddy — Donald Ray Antoine
Othel — Joseph Pendleton
Dave Whitson — William Robert Caldwell

PRODUCTION TEAM
Director — L. Peter Callender
Stage Manager — Arashi Veronica Cesana
Lighting Designer — Kevin Myrick
Costume Designer — Sarah Smith
Production Manager & Props Manager — Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Set Designer — Kate Boyd
Sound Designer — Everett Elton Bradman
Choreographer — Kendra Kimbrough Barnes



Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Great Leap: More than a Game

The Great Leap 



By Lauren Yee
DIrected by Lisa Peterson
American Conservatory Theater - A.C.T. 
415 Geary, San Francisco, CA

Until March 31, 2019

Photo above: Tim Liu as Manford, Ruibo Gian as Connie, BD Wong as Wen Change Photo by Kevin Berne

Reviewed by Christine Okon

San Francisco native playwright Lauren Yee knows how to spin gold from her Chinese-American roots and weave it into the larger context of cultural history. In King of the Yees (recently at SF Playhouse), for example, she draws on her father’s commitment to the name Yee to take us on a wild ride through current news and ancient lore. In The Great Leap, currently at A.C.T.’s Geary theater, she frames Sino-American relations in the seemingly innocent structure of a rematch game of basketball between the American University of San Francisco coach (Arye Gross) and the coach of the Beijing team (BD Wong) who last encountered each other in 1971.

Set in 1989, The Great Leap seems to be about the world of basketball and basketball fanatics, and that alone is entertaining. But we soon learn that the real game occurs on the much bigger, global arena of politics, historical change, and evolving cultures.

BD Wong, Tim Liu, Arye Gross, Ruibo Gian (Photo by Kevin Berne)

At center court of the action is the 17-year-old Manford (an agile and eager Tim Liu), cocky in his self assuredness of being the best basketball player in the area and intent on joining the USF team headed to Beijing for the rematch. Manford is a Chinese-American kid whose energy seems to keep him aloft. He slips through the players’ entrance on the campus to reach coach Saul (Arye Gross), an almost hyperbolic fountain of crass obcenities and stubborn opinions about the game.  Manford’s longtime neighbor Connie (a down-to-earth and caring Ruibo Gian) is a surrogate sister and point guard of sorts, keeps him grounded. We learn that Manford’s dead mother was an avid Warriors fan and that he has never met his father.

Connie (Ruibo Gian) and Manford (Tim Liu) Photo by Kevin Berne

Some of the funniest dialog is between Saul’s brusque interactions with the controlled and subdued Wen Chang, highlighting the difference between American and Chinese demeanor and intention. The two men are playing the same game but with different rules and expectations. Americans win at all costs; Chinese collaborate, or else.

Wen Chang (BD Wong) and Saul (Arye Gross) Photo by Kevin Berne

Where Saul aims for the glory of victory, Wen Chang holds to a steady, measured pace to keep within party-approved bounds. BD Won delivers a superbly nuanced performance of a man trying to maintain an external compliance as his heart aches with the pain of opportunities and love lost because of the risks he did not take.

Wen Chang (BD Wong) Photo by Kevin Berne

The American team arrives in Beijing for the rematch during the student protests of Tiananmen Square. Manford gets lost in the swirl of student protests of Tiananmen Square; he has stepped out of bounds, and the contrasting ideologies come to the fore. Without revealing the most intense part of this play, I can only say you’re in for a surprise.

This production of The Great Leap gave me the  same adrenaline rush I get watching  a live basketball game, witnessing the non-stop movement, pauses, and shifts of power. With director Lisa Peterson balancing the emotional and kinetic energies of the play, the experience is largely due to the magnificent and dynamic projections (one of the best I’ve ever seen) that light up the stage and create excitement.  Scenic design by Robert Brill, projection design by Hana S. Kim, and sound design by Jake Rodriguez create the closest thing to a a non-VR immersive experience in theater.

The Great Leap is full of hilarious and poignant moments, and as we learn the real story behind of Manford’s  visit to Beijing we can sense that the sweep of history is a play-by-play of unresolved questions, family love, lost opportunity, and possibilities of change.


The Great Leap
Until March 31, 2019
A.C.T. Theater, 415 Geary, San Francisco

Single tickets are available at A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at www.act-sf.org


CAST
Arye Gross - Saul
Tim Liu - Manford
Ruibo Qian - Connie
BD Wong - Wen Chang


CREATIVE TEAM
Written by Lauren Yee

Directed by
Lisa Peterson

Scenic Designer - Robert Brill
Costume Designer - Meg Neville
Lighting Designer - Yi Zhao
Sound Designer - Jake Rodriguez
Projection Designer - Hana S. Kim
Voice and Dialect Coach - Christine Adaire
Movement Coach  - Danyon Davis
Dramaturg - Joy Meads
Casting Director - Janet Foster, CSA
Assistant Director - Ariana Johnson
Associate Scenic Designer - Justin Humphres
Assistant Scenic Designers -  Yi-Chien Lee, Nicholas Kim, Anna Robinson
Scenic Design Associate - Angrette McCloskey
Head Video Technician - Jason Vaughan
Video Assistant - Haley Miller
Wigs Supervisor - Tim Bohle
Production Props Artisan - Andrea Falker