Friday, December 29, 2017

A Christmas Story: The Musical

A Christmas Story: The Musical

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street

Until January 13, 2018

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Tucked among the holiday lights and memories of your personal Christmas past is, perhaps, the 1983 film A Christmas Story, Jean Shepherd’s warm and quirky reminiscence of his own childhood in circa 1940’s small town America. Good news: You can still experience a little bit of Christmas with San Francisco Playhouse’s production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, playing until January 13, 2018.

The Cast
Director Susi Damilano knows how to bring forth the wide range of talent and personalities of the large cast of children and adults who partake in the real and fantasy life of Ralphie Parker, the boy who dreams and schemes to get the special gift of a “Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle” despite warnings from everyone that he’ll “shoot his eye out.” The kids can really sing, dance and act, with special standout Jonah Broscow who brings a nerdy likeability to Ralphie, a complex mix of doubt and determination as he dreams of what he can do with the gun.

Ralphie and his dream gift  (Jonah Broscow) 
Ryan Drummond plays Ralphie’s dad, “The Old Man,” with the defensive insecurity of Don Knotts and the loopy agility of Donald O’Connor; The Old Man is a volatile and constantly irked ordinary guy who emits a creative cacophony of swearing.

Mother (Abbie Haug) at odds with the Old Man's prize lamp

Christopher Reber is the amiable and likeable narrator Jean Shepherd, lending a bemused but loving tone to the retelling of memories, not all of which are joyful.

Christopher Reber as Jean Shepherd
As the schoolteacher Miss Shields, Katrina Lauren McGraw supercharges the room with her presence and voice full of soul and passion, especially in the “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” number that’s set in a fantasy 1930s speakeasy.

Miss Shields (Katrina Lauren McGraw) and class 
And a really fun and energetic piece is “Ralphie to the Rescue,” where our pulse rises with Ralphie’s as he dreams of saving the day in many ways with his Red Ryder Gun.

Ralphie (Jonah Broscow) "rescues" Miss Shields (l) and Mother (r)
Ralphie’s dad also dreams of glory and is rewarded when his crossword entry wins him the special prize: a garish lamp that’s a sexy woman mannequin’s leg capped by a lampshade, much to to chagrin of Ralphie’s mom (a strained but patient Abbie Haug) who is the quiet engine of order in the midst of chaos.

The Old Man’s fantasy builds into song and dance as he imagines himself “The Genius of Cleveland Street,” joined by others swinging and waltzing with their leg lamps across the stage.

The Old Man (Ryan Drummond) exults in the Lamp Dance
While being diligent to his dream, Ralphie must live his ordinary kid’s life, surviving the daily school bully's attack; witnessing the triple-dog-dare that schoolmate Flick (Mario Gianni Herrera) accepts only to have his tongue stuck to the frozen flagpole; being big brother to the goofy Randy (Kavan Bhatia) who gleefully and noisily demonstrates that he’s “mommy’s little piggy” as he wolfs down dinner from a dish on the floor; and throwing away his shot to tell Santa what he really wants for Christmas.

The Triple Dog Dare
But “It All Comes Down to Christmas” after all, with the warmth of community and sense of home, and the bond of family that thrives beyond the expected trappings of the holiday and the surprises as diverse as a Chinese menu.

The Parkers Enjoy a Christmas Meal

Go ahead, treat yourself to a little more Christmas and start the new year with A Christmas Story: The Musical.


A Christmas Story: The Musical

San Francisco Playhouse
Until January 13, 2018

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Book by Joseph Robinette


Christopher Reber JEAN SHEPHERD
Jonah Broscow RALPHIE
Jack Barrett GROVER DILL
Kavan Bhatia RANDY
Ken Brill SANTA
Chloe Dalzell ESTER JANE
Ryan Drummond THE OLD MAN
Kathryn Han NANCY'S MOM
Abby Haug MOTHER
Gwen Herndon NANCY
Mario Gianni Herrera FLICK
Matilda Holtz SCUT FARKUS
Sophia LaPaglia ENSEMBLE
Charlotte Ying Levy NANCY
Katrina Lauren McGraw MISS SHIELDS

Jake Miller RANDY
Ozlo Ransom Mitchell FLICK/SCHWARTZ
David Rukin SCHWARTZ
Panita Serizawa MARY BETH
Sammy Vernick SCUT FARKUS


Director  - Susi Damilano
Music Director - David Dobrusky
Choreographer - Kimberly Richards
Scenic and Properties Designer - Jacquelyn Scott
Costume Designer - Abra Berman
Sound Designer - Theodor J.H. Hulsker
Lighting Designer - Thomas J. Munn
Stage Manager - Saraj Selig

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

42nd Street

Bay Area Musicals

Alcazar Theatre
650 Geary St., San Francisco

Ends December 10, 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

There’s something uplifting about the sound of dancing feet. Why, it’s almost better than therapy.

Shuffling Off to Buffalo
Depression era audiences knew this when they escaped into Busby Berkeley movies like Gold Diggers of 1935, Babes on Broadway, and of course, 42nd Street. Now you, too, can get a kick, with Bay Area Musicals' current production of 42nd Street, playing at the Alcazar theater until December 10, 2017.

Peggy Sawyer (Samantha Rose) and Gang

Director Daren A.C. Carollo and choreographer Matthew McCoy (who is also the driving force behind BAM) have gifted us with their version of the Broadway show that starts with a big dance number and and continues nonstop with songs like “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “We’re in the Money,” and more.

DC Scarpelli, Samantha Rose, and Cast

The plot is familiar: a young woman from a small town dreams of making it big on the New York stage, and, by golly, she does! Samantha Rose is a wonderful Peggy Sawyer, a demure presence with a dynamite voice and powerhouse legs that tap their way to stardom when a twist of fate creates the big chance. But she doesn’t do it alone: she’s part of a group of “kids,” fellow hoof and song aspirants who are betting it all with every step and number. There’s a lot of energy in their camaraderie that fills the room.

Billy Lawlor (Nikita Burshteyn)

Everyone in the cast is a fine performer, with special thrills given by Nikita Burshteyn as the wannabe beau Billy Lawlor, DC Scarpelli as the producer-with-a-heart Julian Marsh, and Marisa Cozart as the capable but fun stage manager Maggie Jones. All of the large cast deserves big applause.

We're in the Money!

This production is the result of a lot of work and it is amazing to see the young performers keep such lively rhythm and precision. The live music is fun but there were times the band could have used more practice.

42nd Street is a perfect show to see as a respite from holiday and other worldly stress. When you leave the theater, you may just want to tap dance your way down Geary to Union Square to get a little holiday spirit.

42nd Street

Music by Harry Warren; Lyrics by Al Dubin; Book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble

Direction by Daren A.C. Carollo
Choreography by Matthew McCoy
Musical Direction by Jon Gallo



Samantha Rose, Peggy Sawyer
Nikita Burshteyn, Billy Lawlor
Laurie Strawn, Dorothy Brock
DC Scarpelli, Julian Marsh
Marisa Cozart, Maggie Jones
John Brown, Bert Berry
Venis Goodman, Abner Dillon
Zach Padlo, Andy Lee/ M Ens
Peter Budinger, Pat Denning
Kevin Singer, Mac/Thug/Doctor
John Charles Quimpo, Oscar/M Ens
Janet Wiggins, Annie
Hilary McQuaide, Lorraine
Catrina Manahan, Phyllis
Danielle Cheiken, Ensemble/Dance Captain
BriAnne Martin, Ensemble
Lindsey Meyer, Ensemble
Alyson Chilton, Ensemble
Leslie Waggoner, Ensemble
RJ San Jose, Ensemble
Carlos Guerrero, Ensemble


Daren A.C. Carollo, Director
Matthew McCoy, Choreographer
Jon Gallo, Musical Director
Daren A.C. Carollo/Matthew McCoy, Scenic Design
Brooke Jennings, Costume Design
Courtney Johnson, Lighting Design
Wayne Roadie, Prop Design
Anton Hedman, Sound Design
Barry  Despenza, Sound Board Op
Jackie Dennis, Wig Design
Ryan Weinstock, Stage Manager
Wayne Roadie, Assnt. Stage Manager
Richard Gutierrez, Wardrobe Master
Stewart Lyle, Technical Director
Clay David, Scenic Artist


Sonja Lindsay, Trumpet
Jeremy Carrillo, Trombone
Larry De La Cruz, Woodwinds
Will Berg, Woodwinds
Keith Leung, Woodwinds
Kyle Wong, Bass
Randy Hood, Drums
Jon Gallo, Keyboard/Conductor

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Small Mouth Sounds: Six Characters in Search of...

Small Mouth Sounds

Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin

A.C.T's Strand Theater
1127 Market St, San Francisco
October 11- December 10 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Small Mouth Sounds at A.C.T Strand Theater begins with a serene, stark room with six chairs in a row, a simple setting not unlike Spirit Rock or Green Gulch. Soon, the chairs are filled with people who awkwardly try to communicate without speaking as they gesture, smile, shrug, giggle. We soon learn that they have come to a silent retreat, with the only voice being that of the guru, the unseen Teacher as he explains the rules of schedule and expectations in a lilting, soothing, unplaced accent.

Retreat Attendees: Ned (Ben Beckley); Alicia (Brenna Plughi); Jan (Connor Barrett); Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn); Judy (Cherene Snow); Joan (Socorro Santiago)

The retreat is silent, but the characters soon reveal their own internal noise, the noise of disappointment, failed relationships, grief, confusion, regret, curiosity. Like a memorable silent film, the real punch is packed without words.

The silence is a wonderfully engaging and effective device by playwright Bess Wohl in that it sparks the curiosity, anticipation, and ultimately catharsis of the audience. It’s fun getting to know the characters, all superbly cast. There’s Ned, the intellectual worrier on edge with his own vulnerability, captured so earnestly by Ben Beckley.
Ned (Ben Beckley)
Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow) are partners who learn to at last listen to each other during the silent retreat. Edward Chin-Lyn endows his character Rodney, a minor celebrity in yoga circles, with a bodily presence as lithe and strong as a big cat and an ego to match. (The small mouth sound that Joan utters upon seeing him is pretty funny.)
Ned (Ben Beckley) and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn)
Then there’s Alicia, a complex bundle of nerves, tears and raw emotion so convincingly played by Brenna Plughi that you just want to comfort her.
Alicia (Brenna Plughi) and Ned (Ben Beckley)
To me, the most intriguing character is Jan, a sad enigma so in need of a voice for his pain, compassionately rendered by Connor Barrett.
Jan (Connor Barrett)
All of these characters are confined within the rules of the retreat, guided by the voice of the Teacher (Orville Mendoza) who, even after leading countless retreats, is still grappling with his personal challenges. Imagine Sartre’s No Exit with deep belly breathing and mindful intentions.

Gradually, we get glimpses of each character’s history of pain, loss, stress, confusion. Each has his or her own wants; each hopes for answers to unrealized questions.

Director Rachel Chavkin brings Wohl’s simple but potent script to life, making this production work well on so many levels. The seeming spontaneity of the characters’ interactions is the result of many rehearsals and practiced choreography, with every gesture chosen deliberately. And orchestrating small mouth sounds of the characters to create meaning, humor, emotions, and story is quite an accomplishment.

If you go see Small Mouth Sounds, don’t be surprised if you find yourself a bit changed, or at least wondering.

Connor Barrett - Jan
Ben Beckley - Ned
Edward Chin-Lyn - Rodney
Orville Mendoza - Teacher
Brenna Palughi - Alicia
Socorro Santiago - Joan
Cherene Snow - Judy

Scenic Designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer Tilly Grimes
Lighting Designer: Mike Inwood
Sound Designer: Stowe Nelson
Props Designer: Noah Mease
Video Designer: Andrew Schneider
Associate Director: Lauren Z. Adleman
Production Stage Manager: James Steele
Assistant Stage Manager: Megan McClintock

PHOTOGRAPHY:  T Charles Erickson

Thursday, October 26, 2017

History through a Distorted Lens

Thomas and Sally
Written by Thomas Bradshaw
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company

Extended to October 29, 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

If you question the narrator of MTC's production of Thomas Bradshaw'sThomas and Sally,  the controversies about "revisionist history" stirred up by this play can be put into perspective, sort of.

Roomies Ella Dershowitz and Rosie Hallett
Martha (Ella Dershowitz) and Karen (Rosie Hallett) are college roommates in a typical modern dorm room, with two twin beds, desks, closet door, etc. that soon have different uses as the play unfolds. Martha is raving about the gorgeous, shirtless athletes she watched earlier in the day as she hunts for her vibrator which was casually "borrowed" by Karen who is now struggling with a paper she needs to write about Thomas Jefferson.  It turns out that Martha's last name is Hemings and that she is a descendant of Sally Hemings, the slave who bore several children by Thomas Jefferson. And boy, does Martha have stories to tell, since she knows "everything" about that topic, but in an Entertainment Tonight - meets American History 101 gossipy sort of way.

Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews), James Hemings William Hodgson), Martha Jefferson (Ella Dershowitz), Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips), Betty Hemings (Charlette Speigner), and Karen (Rosie Hallett).

Martha's storytelling is not linear and moves quickly between the present and 18th century America, with actors doing double or triple duty to portray multiple characters entering, exiting, and interacting, and set pieces being rearranged in a crisp and rapid choreography of stage design (kudos to Sean Fanning). The slavelife saga of Sally's mother Betty involved multiple sales and many children with different men; in one birth scene, "babies" (plastic dolls) are "delivered" one after the other in quick sequence, an amusing and effective trick to compress the passage of time. This same trick is later used to depict the many children of Thomas Jefferson with his wife Martha. A lot happens, and some of it may be historically accurate (Bradshaw did extensive research for the play), but remember, it's story told by someone from the future looking at events through her subjective lens.

The conflicted (he owns slaves, but thinks they should be free?) and contemplative Thomas Jefferson is earnestly and passionately played by Mark Anderson Phillips who engages in anachronistic banter with John Adams and Ben Franklin as if they were college buddies who "get to do all the fun stuff" when it comes to shaping the emerging new government.

Benjamin Franklin (Robert Sicular) and Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips)

The meeting of Thomas and Sally, so wonderfully played by Tara Pachecho, buzzes with an attraction that becomes pretty juicy and intense, depicting the two as passionate and creative lovers more than master and slave. Whether this is true or not is not at issue: Martha doesn't hold back on the vivid descriptions of what may have happened, although it is probably more of what she wishes for in her own romantic life.

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco).

Thomas and Sally
  tries to titillate with explicit details and a sprinkling of some facts to show how some parts of collective memory are shaped by the zeitgeist.  Martha and Karen never leave the dorm room, nor do they really learn anything new, from what went on with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Thomas and Sally

Photographer: Kevin Berne

L. Peter Callender*
Jupiter Evans/French Servant

Scott ​K. Coopwood*
John Adams/Lafayette/Captain Hemings/Overseer/Jacques

Ella Dershowitz

Rosie Hallett*
Abigail Adams/Patsy/Karen

William Hodgson*
James Hemings

Cameron Matthews
Robert Hemings/Hugo

Tara Pacheco*
Sally Hemings

Mark Anderson Phillips*
Thomas Jefferson

Robert Sicular*
Benjamin Franklin/John Wayles/French Cook/French Tailor/Man

​Charlette Speigner*
Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings/Renee

​Thomas Bradshaw

Jason Minadakis

Betsy Norton*
Stage Manager

Laura Brueckner
Production Dramaturg

Sean Fanning+
Scenic Designer

Ashley Holvick
Costume Designer

Mike Post
Lighting Designer

​Theodore J.H. Hulsker
Sound Designer

Jessica Berman
Dialect Coach

Jemier B. Jenkins
Assistant Director

* Denotes member of Actors Equity Association
+ Member, United Scenic Artists
^ Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue 
Mill Valley, California 94941
Phone: 415.388.5200 Fax: 415.388.0768

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Expectations Flipped with Barbecue at SF Playhouse

Written by Robert O’Hara
Directed by Margo Hall
September 26 to November 11, 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Bright lights glare down on a rundown urban patch of flattened grass, a bent and rusty safety fence, a beat up grill and the parks-and-rec-issue brutalist concrete washroom that sets the stage for Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue, directed by Margo Hall, to launch SF Playhouse’s 15th season.

Marie (Teri Whipple), James T (Clive Worsley), and Adlean (Jennie Brick) express reservations about the planned intervention

Blackout and lights up. A tableau of good-old-folks Americana: Adlean, a plump middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette in a portable chair, nonchalantly played by Jennie Brick ; James T, the backward-baseball-cap-wearing and slightly goofy brother played by Clive Worsley; Marie, the self-absorbed and sexy millennial played with detached snarkiness by Teri Whipple; and Lillie Anne (Anne Darragh), the frustrated sister who is trying to organize her family “team” to stage the intervention disguised as a barbeque for their wayward family member Barbara (a self-possessed Susi Damilano) whom they think is wrecking her life with drugs. These people can barely save themselves as they squabble with each other and argue about how they’re supposed to act when Barbara arrives. But despite their good intentions, Barbara follows her own story which unfolds later in the play.

Lillie Anne (Halili Knox*, right) explains to Adlean (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe), James T (Adrian Roberts*), and Marie (Kehinde Koyejo*) how an intervention works

Blackout again and lights up, but this time the characters are black. Whaa? Why? We’re intrigued. The same action continues but with a different pace and energy, and we are drawn into this extended story of a family trying to support one of their own. The juxtaposition of white and black families in the same situation has echoes of all those family sitcoms with familiar “types” like the sarcastic aunt, the snarky teenager, the doofus brother, and the do-gooder sister. The mirror-flip family forms a hilarious and vibrant unit,with Adrian Roberts as James T; Halili Knox as Lillie Anne; Edris Cooper-Aniforwoshe as Adlean; and Kehinde Koyejo as Marie trying to get ready for Barbara, played with powerful distinction by Margo Hall.

Marie (Kehinde Koyejo*), Adlean (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe), and James T (Adrian Roberts*) express skepticism
To describe what happens next would spoil the surprise, as this play has more twists than a mall pretzel shop, so enjoy the ride. Let it be said that this play is an innovative exploration of what happens when someone’s real-life story meets the primal forces of pride, ambition, greed and whatever it takes to turn that story into Oscar-worthy gold.

The most powerful dynamic--indeed the fulcrum of the play--is between the two Barbaras, Susi Damilano and Margo Hall, partners in crime who match wits as they strike a deal that seems like, but is not really, a win-win.

Margo Hall as Barbara
Susi Damilano as Barbara

Barbecue skewers the forces of fabrication and deception in our society, leaving the audience perhaps a bit confused and uneasily entertained.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli


Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe
Jennie Brick

Margo Hall
Susi Damilano

Clive Worsley
Adrian Roberts

Anne Darragh
Halili Knox

Kehinde Koyejo
Teri Whipple

Margo Hall

Bill English

Brooke Jennings

Cliff Caruthers

Wen-Ling Liao

Jacquelyn Scott

SF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

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

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

​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
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
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.

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.

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.

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.

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

KHARY MOYE, Ensemble


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
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

Julia Brothers

Susi Damilano

Creative Staff
Jen Silverman

Becca Wolff

Robert Hand

Theodore J.H. Hulsker

Melissa Trn

Jacquelyn Scott

Lauren English

Sarah Selig

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

SF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
415.677.9596 fax 415.677.9597