Monday, June 17, 2019

A Rhino Walks Into a Bar...


Eugène Ionesco Drawing by George Chialtis

by Eugène Ionesco

Translated by Derek Prouse
Directed by Frank Galati

A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, San Francisco

Until June 23, 2019

By Christine Okon

If “fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” a whole town turning into rhinoceroses should be no big deal. Unless you’re Berenger, the only man who stands alone against a growing stampede of conformity in Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic “Rhinoceros” at A.C.T. until June 23, 2019.

Director Frank Galati has unleashed his Asolo Theatre production in San Francisco where it goes on a rampage of hilarity and surprise. Although the play is said to be inspired by Ionesco’s reaction to how quickly his supposedly intellectual friends embraced Fascism, “Rhinoceros” is a fun circus of puppetry, mime, clowning, vaudeville, and ingenious set and sound design where a huge rhinoceros sits upstage like, well, an elephant in the room and people react with shock, awe, or skepticism as the beasts take over the town.

Jomar Tagatac, Danny Scheie, David Breitbarth, Rona Figueroa, Teddy Spencer, Trish Mulholland
Photo: Kevin Berne

Berenger (David Breitbarth) and Gene (Matt DeCaro) are two friends in a somewhat dysfunctional relationship, where Gene berates Berenger for his drinking, slovenliness, and timidity while Berenger tries to keep hold of his sanity and dream of winning over his coworker Daisy (Rona Figueroa). It’s a joy to watch Breitbarth and DeCaro play off each other like practiced vaudevillians or dancers engaged in conversations that go nowhere. Using only his body, expressions, and voice, DeCaro masterfully sculpts the illusion of a man indeed actually turning into a rhinoceros while his loyal friend Berenger reacts like a concerned parent nursing a child with a fever.

Matt DeCaro and David Breitbarth Photo: Kevin Berne

The whole town is literally shaken by the onslaught of the strange, powerful creatures, and so is the A.C.T. stage as a rhino trapped in the basement bashes through the floor, howling and bellowing (thanks to Joseph Cerqua’s sound design). When a frantic Mrs. Boeuf (hilarious Trish Mulholland) recognizes her husband-turned-rhino, she reaches out to him and later rides off on a rollicking rump of amazing stagecraft.

David Breitbarth and Trish Mulholland Photo: Kevin Berne

Soon everyone is joining Team Rhino, with some gradually changing while others, like Mr. Dudard, played with geeky self-constraint by Teddy Spencer, take a huge leap of faith. And why not join the rhinoceroses? They are singing, having fun, being together. They’re strong and powerful. The only one who us not enticed is Berenger who exclaims “I will never capitulate!” By the end of the play, one wonders whether it’s worth it to stay a Berenger.

David Breitbarth Photo: Kevin Berne

Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” ("No, I do not regret anything") is played throughout as a type of theme song, appropriate for someone who’s made  a decision one way or the other and resists change.

Rhinoceros” by Eugene Ionesco, directed by Frank Galati, at A.C.T. Geary Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, June 23, 2019. Info:

David Breitbarth -- Berenger
Matt DeCaro --Gene
Rona Figueroa -- Daisy
Trish Mulholland -- Mrs. Boeuf
Göran Norquist -- Marcel
Danny Scheie -- Mr. Papillon
Lauren Spencer -- Collette
Teddy Spencer -- Mr. Dudard
Jomar Tagatac -- Mr. Botard

Author -- Eugène Ionesco
Translator -- Derek Prouse
Director -- Frank Galati
Scenic and Costume Designer -- Robert Perdziola
Lighting Designer -- Chris Lundahl
Sound Designer & Original Music -- Joseph Cerqua
Vocal Coach -- Christine Adaire
Movement Coach -- Danyon Davis
Dramaturg  -- Joy Meads

The actors and stage managers employed in this production are members of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Unescapable Prison of Destiny

Oedipus El Rey

Sean San José and Esteban Carmona  Photo: Jennifer Reiley

Written by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Loretta Greco

Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Until June 23, 2019

By Christine Okon

Sophocles’ tragedy about a hubristic king ensnared in a destiny that leads him to kill his father and marry his mother is the template for Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, now in a 10th anniversary revival at Magic Theatre.

Brimming with machismo, afire with passion and rage, and studded with vivid (to say the least) urban Spanish idioms, Oedipus El Rey is a powerful journey of a soul traversing the past, present, and future in realms of the physical and mystical to reach a painful self-discovery. Alfaro weaves his own ancient and contemporary Hispanic roots into a complex tapestry of cultural beliefs, expectations, spirituality, and street-survival.

The play opens with men in orange prison jumpsuits shuffling in line. As the heavy gates slam shut, a power dynamic of cutthroat competition begins to play out among the men practiced in the game of survival. “Who is this man?” asks the chorus (Sean San Jose, Juan Amador, Armando Rodriguez, and Gendell Hing-Hernandez) who throughout the play voices ancient wisdom and admonitions of culture and spirit.

Gendell Hing-Hernandez, Esteban Amador, Sean San José, Armando Rodriguez
Photo: Jennifer Reiley

The man is Oedipus, a young and beautifully fit inmate who calls himself king. Esteban Carmona presents a visually strong Oedipus with an innocence that doesn’t quite project the ruthless toughness of a cursed man who has suffered his way to power. Oedipus has been protected from birth by the blind Tireisas (a wry and compassionate Sean San Jose) who alone knows the boy’s history and who has come to see him as a son. Because of Tiresias, Oedipus thinks above the fray enough to see himself as a king, and it is this attitude that locks him in the unstoppable train of destiny.

Gendell Hing-Hernandez, Armando Rodriguez, Esteban Amador,  Juan Amador
Photo: Jennifer Reiley
Once out of prison, Oedipus embarks on a journey to power, starting with a fierce standoff with another driver that ends in the fateful death of his father Laius (steely Gendell Hing-Hernandez). Fleeing from the crime, Oedipus finds a place with his uncle Creon (a tough and savvy Armando Rodriguez) who runs a “family business” with his sister Jocasta (played with a timeless sensuality by Lorraine Velez), the widow of Laius. “The dead can get into your head and make you stop living, even from the grave,” she says, in one of Alfaro’s many beautifully rendered lines. In blissful ignorance of their fated reality, Oedipus and Jocasta follow their palpable and vivid attraction into a deep and arousing passion that only heightens the devastating shock of truth.

Juan Amador, Esteban Carmona, Lorraine Velez
Photo: Jennifer Reiley
Throughout the play, the backdrop shifts like shadows on the cave wall in an evocative dreamscape of abstract and floating images. The square floor of the Magic’s northside theater, however, could be used to present more than static tableaux of characters interacting with each other.

Oedipus El Rey is about boundaries that, when crossed, can trigger deadly machismo standoffs as well as the wrath of the gods punishing the defiant, a reality faced all too often by those who must struggle to survive.

Oedipus El Rey by Luis Alfaro, directed by Loretta Greco, at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, San Francisco, through Sunday, June 23, 2019. Info:

Oedipus -- Esteban Carmona*
Jocasta -- Lorraine Velez*
Coro/Tiresias -- Sean San José*
Coro/El Sobador -- Juan Amador
Coro/Creon --  Armando Rodriguez*
Coro/Laius -- Gendell Hing-Hernandez*
*Member of Actors' Equity Association

Hana Kim** (Scenic/Projection Design)
Ulises Alcala** (Costume Design)
Wen-Ling Liao** (Lighting Design)
Jake Rodriguez (Sound Design)
Amanda Marshall (Stage Manager)
Sonia Fernandez (Dramaturg)
Libby Martinez (Props Design)
Jacquelyn Scott (Tattoo Design)
**Member of United Scenic Artists local USA 829

Friday, May 31, 2019

Wordless Resistance to Oppression


Spitfire Company, Czech Republic
Inspired by Vaclav Havel's "Audience"

Directed by Petr Bohac

San Francisco International Arts Festival
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco

Until June 2, 2019

By Christine Okon

The artistic troupe Spitfire from the Czech Republic gained permission just in time to participate in the San Francisco International Arts Festival with their performance piece “Antiwords.”*

Inspired by Vaclav Havel’s play “Audience” about working in a Communist-era beer factory, "Antiwords" revels in the same absurdist, bird-flipping attitude that Czechs have always maintained under oppression. Menial work will get done, yes, but at a surreptitiously slower pace interspersed with much drinking, complaining, and peeing.

Two lithe, young women wearing matching drab pants, T-shirt and sneakers carry two large paper mache heads. As each vie to catch the eye of audience members, the pecking order is soon established as one is obviously more powerful, but over what? Both women put on the heads, don drab coats, and sit at a small table. They look exactly alike as Man #1 takes control by inviting the other to “have a beer” while Man #2 reluctantly obliges.

Again and again, a beer bottle is opened, a mug is filled to a heady froth, and the order to drink is uttered, because it is “the tradition.”  This action iterates ad absurdum, with the audience sometimes cheering “chug, chug, chug” as one of the performers lifts her mask to down the entire glass. (I was amazed at how quickly the actresses could polish off nearly a case of Pilsner Urquell.) In an environment where all is “shit” and nothing really matters, the only options are to drink or find a way not to, in other words, to comply or resist.

“Antiwords” is a quirky, delightful one-hour show of unspoken but powerful dynamics. The head masks are wonderfully sculpted to indicate an everyman capable of riding a wide range of emotions. The deliberate, practiced and expressive micro-movements of the two women animate each head, reminding me of Czech or Polish animation that tells a story with universal imagery and no dialog. "Antiwords" is physical theater at its best, with shifting power dynamics conveyed through slumped shoulders, shrugs, crazy dances (including a superb moonwalk) and reactive gestures.

Spitfire’s “Antiwords” ends Sunday, Jun 2. While you’re at Fort Mason, check out the other incredible performances from around the globe at

* NOTE: The San Francisco International Arts Festival is keenly feeling the trickle-down effect of the US political decree that has stalled or denied visa approvals for some performing groups from other counties, leading to an unprecedented need for costly legal help. You can attend the free “Artist Visa Crisis Panel Discussion”  on Saturday June 1, 2:00pm, at Friends of SFPL Bookstore, Building C, Fort Mason. Info:

“Antiwords” based on “Audience” by Vaclav Havel, directed by Petr Bohac, at San Francisco International Arts Festival, Fort Mason, San Francisco, through Sunday, June 2, 2019.

Performers: Miřenka Čechová and Jindřiška Křivánková
Masks: Paulina Skavova
Lighting: Martin Spetlik
Music: Sivan Eldar, Karel Gott

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A Love that Spans Decades

The View UpStairs

Chris Morrell, Cameron Weston, David Bicha, Gary M. Giurbino, Anthony Rollins-Mullens*, Coleton Schmitto, Jessica Coker, and Jesse Cortez. Photo: Lois Tema.

By Max Vernon
Directed by Ed Decker

New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness, SF

Until June 9, 2019

By Christine Okon

The New Conservatory Theatre is celebrating 38 years as San Francisco’s center for LGBT themed theater, and its current production of Max Vernon’s musical The View UpStairs  brings that span of history to life.

In 1973, homosexuals were targeted, assaulted, discriminated against, and reviled by general society. But in the New Orleans French Quarter there was “The Upstairs Lounge” that served as a bar, meeting place, church, family room, sanctuary and “Some Kind of Paradise” for gays in the know. An arsonist’s attack destroyed the building, killing 32 and injuring 15, and no one was ever arrested.  The View UpStairs is the playwright’s homage to this bar, its patrons, and the sweep of gay history.

Cameron Weston, Anthony Rollins-Mullens*, Jessica Coker, Coleton Schmitto, and Nick Rodrigues. Photo: Lois Tema
The play begins with a dance party in a deliciously decadent room full of Christmas lights, a disco ball, and even a framed centerfold of a naked Burt Reynolds. Everyone freezes in place as director and NCTC founder Ed Decker steps up to welcome the audience to the party.

The stage darkens as a young man Wes (wide-eyed Nick Rodriguez) wanders the room and wonders why, in 2019, he bought this decrepit building that needs a ton of work. Suddenly, magically, the lights go up, the party resumes, and Wes, clutching his smartphone, joins the group of diverse characters who all welcome him. Is he “Lost or  Found”?

Anthony Rollins-Mullens*, Jessica Coker, and Cameron Weston Photo: Lois Tema

As with most time travel stories, the stranger from the past and/or future is baffled and amused by differences from the other era. Wes, who is used to interacting only through his phone via text, Grindr, Facetime, and hashtags, is not used to interacting face-to-face with people in real time. He finds more connection with the “ghosts” than with the usual 21st century faceless digital entities. Patrick, the handsome guy in orange bell bottoms that is drawn to Wes, scoffs at the need for technology. Vernon creatively compresses the arc of decades into the same moment, and we are right there with Wes taking it all in. What endures over the years are love, connection, and friends.

Jesse Cortez, Linda Dorsey*, and Nick Rodrigues. Photo: Lois Tema

Although not everyone had the same caliber of singing talent, some standouts are Coleton Schmitto as Patrick, the man who teaches Wes about real love. Jesse Cortez as the newbie drag queen who is lucky to have a supportive mother (open-hearted Linda Dorsey*) sings with sweetness and vulnerability. All of the cast members convey that The Upstairs Lounge was a real home for many, heightening the sadness of the tragedy.

Those who remember 1973 can see how far things have evolved and how precariously close we are to regressing, should certain powers have their way. The lessons of the past can give us resolve to move into the future.

The View UpStairs by Max Vernon, directed by Ed Decker, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through Sunday, June 9, 2019. Info:

David Bicha, Jessica Coker, Jesse Cortez, Linda Dorsey, Gary M. Giurbino, Chris Morrell, Nick Rodriguez, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Coleton Schmitto, and Cameron Weston
* Member of Actors Equity Association

Technical Director ... Carlos Aceves
Music Director ... Kelly Crandell
Choreographer ... Rick Wallace
Wig design ... David Carver-Ford
Production audio technician / Sound design ... Wayne Cheng
Costume design ... Wes Crain
Production audio engineering ... Taylor Gonzalez
Scenic design ... Devin Kasper
Fight choreography ... Kristen Matia
Lighting design ... Mike Post
Stage management ... Kaitlin Rosen
Props design ... Daniel Yelen

Guitar ... Khalil Anthony-Doak
Drums ... Tim Vaughn

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bloodthirsty and Bespoke

American Psycho: The Musical

Patrick (Kipp Glass) and Ensemble Photo: Nick Otto

Music & Lyrics by Duncan Sheik
Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theater / 2961 16th St / SF

Until June 8, 2019

By Christine Okon

Obsession with winning at all costs.  The need to be the center of attention and alpha male at all times. Ruthless competitiveness that wrecks the lives of others. Solipsistic grandiosity. Dangerous. Does this guy sound familiar?

No, not that guy. But close.

From the start, Ray of Light Theatre's production of American Psycho: The Musical  hurtles us into the late 1980s MTV-frenzied world of 26-year-old Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman, where appearance trumps substance, greed is good, and one’s purpose in life is to crush the competition at all costs. Underneath the smooth and suave exterior is a psychopath with bottomless bloodlust for getting what he wants and wanting what he can’t get. Like Showtime's serial killer "Dexter," Patrick manages to hide the monster behind a human disguise.

Patrick (Kipp Glass) on a "Killing Spree" Photo: Nick Otto

And with this premise American Psycho takes us on a wild and darkly satirical ride through the world of Patrick Bateman.

Inspired by the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis and 2000 film starring Christian Bale, American Psycho: The Musical premiered in London in 2013 and came to Broadway in 2016 where it closed after only 27 previews and 54 regular performances, although it captured two Tony Awards for the projection design and lighting which inspired this current production directed by Jason Hoover.

Ray of Light has done great justice to the sadly underacknowledged music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and gives the audience one hell of an aerobic workout to an incessant 80s dance beat and adrenaline rush of fear. From the exquisite, precise dancers who recreate the technology-infused 80s to the top-notch singing, this production is as good as it gets.

We are thrown into the world of “what it means to be Patrick Bateman” as he does the “Morning Routine” that keeps him in lean, mean fighting form. Kipp Glass is the perfect Patrick, a mix of sleek disdain, inordinate self-assuredness, and designer-perfect looks. In “Selling Out,” he revels in how easily he gets others to buy whatever he’s selling. His supreme egotism is captured in “Not a Common Man”: “There are gods, there are kings / I’m pretty sure I’m the same thing. / Beyond boundaries, beyond rules...” Kipp is a sharklike pro who easily swims between his cool exterior to inner sadist.

Melinda Campero, Danielle Altizio, Desiree Juanes, Madeline Lambie, Kirstin Louie, Jill Jacobs Photo: Nick Otto

Patrick sees himself as the biggest and only star in a universe where others are mere satellites obsessed with looking good, and better than others, at all costs. In “You Are What You Wear,” the women prance around a party and flaunt their fashion choices: “I'm with Prada / I'm with Gucci / Missoni, Versace, / Which one is best? / The guys just buzz, / Do I look underdressed?” As Patrick’s self-absorbed fiance Evelyn who sees marriage to Patrick as a another prize to acquire, Danielle Altizio brings a convincing and shimmering shallowness to the character. Evelyn’s opposite is Jean (Zoey Lytle), Patrick’s executive assistant who holds an innocent love for him, seeing substance where Evelyn sees style. Lytle sings “In the Air Tonight” in a moving and mournful solo, and the more we learn about Patrick, the more we fear for her.

Patrick’s male coworkers are equally obsessed with appearance, captured in “Cards” where the choice of font and paper for a business card, that immediate indicator of power and status, is critical because “The question isn't what's in a name, but what it's printed on.”

Kyle Ewalt as Paul Owen Photo: Nick Otto

When Patrick finds out that his rival Paul Owen (Kyle Ewalt) not only wins the prized Fisher account, can get a reservation at the elite restaurant Dorsia, AND has a better looking business card, the inner monster flashes his teeth. When Patrick invites Paul to his apartment before both attend a party, both men dance to “Hip to Be Square” by Huey Lewis and the News, and Ewalt, all legs and arms, shows his moves like a Gumby-Michael Jackson machine. When Patrick raises “cutthroat competition” with Paul to bloody Grand Guignol, we are shocked just in time to take an intermission breather.

This American Psycho: The Musical features superb choreography (Leslie Waggoner), costumes (Katie Dowe), set design (Angrette McCloskey), sound design (Jerry Girard), lighting (Weili Shi) and video projection (Erik Scanlon), showing that Ray of Light is on its way to becoming even brighter. It’s an experience to die for.

American Psycho: The Musical
Music & Lyrics by Duncan Sheik
Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theater

Until June 8, 2019

Patrick Bateman: Kipp Glass
Paul Owen: Kyle Ewalt
Tim Price: Matt Skinner
Van Patten/Ensemble: Clint Calimlim
McDermott/Tom Cruise/Ensemble: Julio Chavez
Jean: Zoey Lytle
Courtney: Kirstin Louie
Evelyn: Danielle Altizio
Mrs B/Svetlana/Ensemble: Anna Joham
Luis/Ensemble: Joshua Beld
Vanden/Ensemble: Melinda Campero
Victoria/Ensemble: Desiree Juanes
Sabrina/Video Clerk/Ensemble: Jill Jacobs
Sean/Ensemble: Spenser Morris
Christine/Waitress/Ensemble: Madeline Lambie
Detective Kimball/Homeless Man: Timothy Beagley

Director: Jason Hoover
Music Director: Ben Prince
Choreographer: Leslie Waggoner
Set Designer: Angrette McCloskey
Costume Designer: Katie Dowse
Lighting Designer: Weili Shi
Sound Designer: Jerry Girard
Video Designer: Erik Scanlon
Props Designer: Peet Cocke
Stage Manager: Lori Fowler

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Undiscovered and Unexpected


Hunter Scott MacNair, Chris Steele, Ava Roy Photo: Lauren Matley

Written and directed by Ava Roy
We Players -
Sunnyside Conservatory /  236 Monterey Blvd, San Francisco

Th-Sun until May 19, 2019

By Christine Okon

Leave it to We Players to conjure a magical stage from a familiar, real world place. In past productions, for example, Fort Point in the Presidio became Macbeth’s castle, and Sutro Baths was where Ondine came from the sea.

Now they’ve turned the historical and beautifully restored Sunnyside Conservatory into Undiscovered Country where the Wild West meets Shakespeare in Love inflamed with the madness of Hamlet. Written and directed by We Players Artistic Director Ava Roy and set in the American West in the late 1800’s United States, Undiscovered Country is a fast, visceral, fun, and sexy ride for actors and audience alike (especially if you agree to be a stagecoach "passenger.")

We think we know what to expect with the familiar western trope of two law-breakin', gun-totin’ cowboy pardners, a beautiful rich widow, and a stagecoach robbery. But whoa, there’s more.

Ava Roy and Hunter Scott MacNair Photo: Lauren Matley

Turns out that the alpha outlaw, Jack Spear, is as wild and unpredictable as a mustang and a manic actor who LOVES Shakespeare and draws only on lines from Hamlet to communicate with his compliant sidekick and best friend Horace. Red-haired and spry Hunter Scott MacNair percolates with Jack’s desperate and sparking madness as he spews dialog from Hamlet while Chris Steele’s Horace patiently obliges and replies in kind. When the widow Aurelia (Ava Roy), no innocent lamb, reveals that she also loves and knows Shakespeare even better than Jack (echoes of Annie Oakley’s “I can do anything better than you can..”) there’s no stopping the passionate repartee of the secret language "bardolalia" that ignites between them. The Hamlet-inspired back-and-forth volleys, slings and arrows of attraction soon burst into obsession, and things turn steamy indeed when the two engage in “country matters.”

Hunter Scott MacNair and Chris Steele Photo: Lauren Matley
Inevitably, the "bromance" of Jack and Horace is rocked as Jack’s passion for Aurelia escalates. As his hurt and resentment increase, Horace confronts Jack with the perceived betrayal. The tension builds to fighting, with Jack and Horace rolling across the floor in graceful and convincing fight scenes (designed by Steele).

Although no guns are fired, some beautifully crafted and historically accurate firearm artifacts from the collection of JD Durst are used. The scent of leather from the holsters and saddle adds to the verisimilitude along with the spot-on costumes meticulously researched and designed by Brooke Jennings.

We don’t really know where the characters are headed, and neither do they, it seems. As Jack spins off into madness, Aurelia and Horace face off and, in the kind of twist Shakespeare would have written himself, take first steps into their own undiscovered country.

Written and directed by Ava Roy
We Players
Sunnyside Conservatory 236 Monterey Blv SF
Th-Sun until May 19, 2019

Hunter Scott MacNair -- Jack Spear
Chris Steele  -- Horace
Ava Roy -- Aurelia

Brooke Jennings -- Costume Designer
JD Durst -- Historic Weapon and Leather Consultant
Chris Steele -- Fight Director
Britt Lauer -- Stage Manager
Nick Medina -- Collaborator

Thursday, May 9, 2019

New Rhythms of the Heart


Dezi Soley and Dane Troy Photo: Kevin Berne

Adapted by Nambi E. Kelley 
Based on the book by Toni Morrison
Directed by Awoye Timpo 
Music by Marcus Shelby 
Choreography by Joanna Haigood

Marin Theater Company 
397 Miller Ave | Mill Valley, CA 94941

Until May 19, 2019

By Christine Okon

Like the music itself, Marin Theatre Company’s (MTC) production of Toni Morrison’s book Jazz lifts and flows through the spirits, histories, needs and passions of African Americans living in Harlem in the 1920s. Part narrative, part dream, and part dance, Jazz focuses on four main characters: Joe Trace (Michael Jean Sullivan), his wife Violet (C. Kelley Wright), his mistress Dorcas (Dezi Soley) and Dorcas’s Aunt Alice Manfred (Margo Hall) with echoes of the past that shape the passion and hope of the present.

Jazz spans many layers of time and space, from a cotton field in Virginia to a dance hall in Harlem, from the solemn presence of a funeral to the ephemeral memories of childhood. Representing all of this on the MTC box stage must have posed quite a challenge to the set designers, and the result is confusing to the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the book.

Nevertheless, the power of this production is in the acting. As the fulcrum of strength, resilience and wisdom, Margo Hall’s Aunt Alice Manfred brings a spirit big enough to endure pain and eventually allow forgiveness when her niece Dorcas is killed; in the midst of chaos, Alice is a kind of healer.

Ensemble in the past Photo: Kevin Berne

C. Kelly Wright gives us an emotional Violet frazzled by her husband’s infidelity and her own fear of aging and loneliness. As the smooth-talking cosmetics salesman Joe Trace, Michael Gene Sullivan taps into the character’s wild and ancient roots that reveals why he would be so obsessively drawn to the young girl Dorcas (Dezi Soley as a Janus of innocence and seduction) with zero tolerance of her wanting to see other men.

C. Kelley Wright, Paige Mayes, Michael Gene Sullivan Photo: Kevin Berne

Especially captivating is Paige Mayes (in an amazingly resplendent suit designed by Karen Perry) as both the parrot who is Joe’s gift to Violet, saying the “I love you” she longs to hear, and Golden Gray, the mysterious and seductive mix of racial beauty from the past. When Mayes voice lifts into song, along with the constant live jazz pulse of Marcus Shelby and musicians, we get a visceral understanding of what jazz can do to a person; “It’s the music’s fault” is said many times in the play.

Director Awoye Timpo sustains playwright Nambi E. Kelley’s vision of Morrison’s novel to present a time when people, thoughts and music were moving wildly toward a new and unknown freedom.  And, as always, MTC fills its lobby with excellent background exhibits coordinated by dramaturgs Laura A. Brueckner and Arminda Thomas to make us aware of the significant historical and social context of the play.


Adapted by Nambi E. Kelley
Based on the book by Toni Morrison
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Music by Marcus Shelby

Marin Theatre Company

*Michael Gene Sullivan: JOE TRACE / COUNTRY JOE
Dezi Solèy: DORCAS / WILD

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association

​Nambi E. Kelley: Playwright
​Awoye Timpo: Director
Marcus Shelby: Composer
Kimie Nishikawa: Scenic Designer
Karen Perry+ : Costume Designer
Jeff Rowlings+ : Lighting Designer
Gregory Robinson+ : Sound Designer
Joanna Haigood: Choreographer
Arminda Thomas: Co-Dramaturg
Laura Brueckner: Co-Dramaturg
Jerome Butler: Dialect Coach
+ Member, United Scenic Artists
^ Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Bonds of Memory and Love

Mother Lear

Ava Roy and Courtney Walsh Photo: Lauren Matley

Adapted from William Shakespeare's King Lear
by Ava Roy and Courtney Walsh
We Players

San Francisco International Arts Festival
May 25 & 26, 2019
The Chapel at Fort Mason, San Francisco

By Christine Okon

When someone you know and love no longer recognizes you because their mind and memory have been dissolved by dementia, it brings a sadness like no other. And if you are a caretaker of such a person, as more and more people now are, the grief is compounded with tears of exasperation, anxiety, exhaustion, and love. Such drama occurs everywhere, in your neighbor’s home, retirement communities, hospitals, prisons, and more, whether you know it or not.

In Mother Lear, Ava Roy (Artistic Director) and Courtney Walsh of We Players have created a compact and powerful story of a daughter trying to take care of a scholarly mother with dementia who communicates only in lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear. In just 50 minutes, “Cordelia” (Roy) and “Mother Lear” (Walsh) bring us through the wringer of emotions, humiliations and struggles as each tries to bring the other into her own reality. Almost broken by having to deal with a once-dignified mother who has regressed to a stubborn, irascible child, Cordelia fights back tears of desperation as she plays the loyal Fool who tries to appease and care for the selfish and confused “King.”

We Players continues to perform Mother Lear in many different small venues (such as Cypress Golden Gate, where I saw it following a meeting of the San Francisco End of Life Coalition) in the Bay Area, and each performance is followed by open discussion with the audience who invariably shares their own experiences. The  characters and actions in the play have evolved from over 100 encounters with patients and caregivers, creating a profound and deep sense of reality for the audience.

Mother Lear is a simple and brilliant depiction of a painful drama so many of us share, and it’s fortunate that We Players is making it available to increasingly wider audiences.  To book a performance of Mother Lear, go to

Mother Lear will also be performed at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, Fort Mason Chapel, May 25 & 26, 2019. Tickets:

See a video of Mother Lear

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Three Plays in Search of Home

Down Here Below, Scenes from 71* Years, and The Jungle

Down Here Below
Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA
Until May 5, 2019

Scenes from 71* Years
Golden Thread Theater
Portero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Until May 5, 2019

The Jungle
Curran Theatre
450 Geary Street, San Francisco
Until May 19, 2019

By Christine Okon

What does home mean to you? Is it the house you grew up in? Is it a lifeline that keeps you from spinning into the existential void? To me, home is more than a place; it’s the deep connection to what has shaped my identity, history, and story.

When I was growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950’s, “DP’s” (an unfortunate, small-minded acronym for “Dumb Polack”) would wander uncertainly through the neighborhood, speak Polish or Czech amongst themselves, wear oversized dark woolen coats and floral head scarves called “babushkas,” and look lost and wary. To a kid (and to many adults), these people were “Other,” and it was not until years later that I learned that DP meant Displaced Person, at that time a refugee from WWII war-torn Europe. In that environment, it was so easy to keep a distance from these people whose lives were turned upside down by forces beyond their control.

Imagine losing home. What grief there is and what resilience is needed to recover from such a disturbance.

Three Bay area plays--Down Here Below, Scenes from 71* Years, and The Jungle--challenge us to hear and respond to individual stories of those who are in search of home.

Down Here Below

Some residents of the "Village of Radical Acceptance" Photo: Jose Manuel Moctezuma 

In the small garage of the Flax Store in downtown Oakland, Ubuntu Theater Project presents Down Here Below, Lisa Ramirez’s compact, intense play set in an Oakland homeless encampment. Inspired by Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Ramirez weaves the individual stories of the many people she interviewed into a tapestry of a present reality that we can choose to acknowledge or ignore. Under the direction of Michael French, the 20 characters in the play create a sense of real street life with cops, addicts, runaways, activists, developers, and others. The action is centered in the makeshift “Village of Radical Acceptance,” with Mama Gwen (Kimberly Daniels) trying to create a sense of family amid the transience and chaos. How ephemeral the idea of “home” is.

Down Here Below does not evoke pity, but engagement. It’s as if we, too, are in the camp; when the developer shows up with a potential property buyer saying “and all of this will be gone, of course,” we feel disregarded, like human debris.

Down Here Below is playing until May 5. More information...

Scenes from 71* Years 

Adam El-Sharkawi and Nida Khalil Photo: Najib Joe Hakim

Golden Thread Productions, dedicated to creating, staging and promoting Middle East theater, presents Scenes from 71* Years at the Potrero stage until May 5.  Written by Hannah Khalil and featuring a superb cast directed by Michael Malek Najjar, Scenes from 71* Years is just that: a montage of different stories over the 71-plus years of Palestinian occupation under Israel. We share the anguish of a man who revisits the home he was pushed out of years ago and is now occupied by Israeli strangers. We feel the indignation and nervousness of women trying to enjoy a picnic on the beach as they are harassed by Israeli guards. And we can share the tedium of waiting in long  checkpoint lines just to go to work across the border. The drama of the play is in the continuity of the story of loss and mourning that is passed down from generation to generation. Scenes from 71* Years  spotlights how much we Americans need to be schooled on the intricacies and treasures of Middle Eastern cultures, and that is indeed the stated mission of Golden Thread Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian.

Scenes from 71* Years is at the Potrero Stage until May 5. More information...

In The Jungle (previously reviewed here), we are thrust into the refugee camp in Calais, France to experience the chaos, violence, uncertainty and helplessness felt by individuals from different countries who have been displaced by powers beyond their control.

From a high level, it is easy to view the plight of refugees as one big problem, a problem of borders, security, and political priorities. But when we become engaged in the stories of individuals who are trying to survive after the loss of home, we realize that the human is in the details.

Down Here Below
Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building
1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way
Oakland, CA 94612
Until May 5, 2019

Scenes from 71* Years
Golden Thread Theater
Portero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Until May 5, 2019

The Jungle
Curran Theatre
450 Geary Street, Suite 301
San Francisco, CA 94102
Until May 19, 2019

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)

Azel Abernathy

Abasiama Ufot

* Member of Actor’s Equity Association

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 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  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.









CATHERINE LUEDTKE -- Angela, u/s Paula




ZARA RASTI -- Little Amal


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




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

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


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



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






Set Designer

Costume Designer

Lighting Designer

Sound Designer


Video Designer

Video Designer

UK Casting

US Casting

US Casting

US Casting

Executive Producer

Music Director

Stage Manager

Friday, April 5, 2019

Keep on Singing..Keep on Dancing


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.

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 

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

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?


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.

By Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Shannon R. Davis

Theatre of Yugen at NOH Space
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

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

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

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