Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Enduring Fight for Identity

Sovereignty


Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances)

by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company

Until Sunday, October 20, 2019

By Christine Okon

Sovereignty,” termed a “documentary play,” is about how great wrongs done to a people--in this case, the Cherokee Nation--cause suffering that continues to be endured by many subsequent generations. Without doubt, it presents an important lesson about Native American history that is diminished in traditional American history books, and those who see it will be enlightened indeed. As a dramatic play, though, “Sovereignty” lags between drama and lesson, caught in the back-and-forth “A-B roll” staging that makes it hard to sustain empathetic continuity with the characters. Still, the very nature of the topic is compelling.

Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) meets with President Andrew Jackson (Craig Marker)

Present-day lawyer Sarah Ridge Polson (a dynamic and passionate Elizabeth Frances) tasks herself with understanding the role her forefathers played in the numerous treaties between Native tribes and the United States in the 1830s. The Cherokee Nation, in several attempts to negotiate with a new American nation headed by Andrew Jackson, hell-bent on westward expansion, ultimately lost their sovereignty, land, and rights that led to the “Trail of Tears.” The long-term result is the fragmentation of Native American tribal cultures, life, and identity that has persisted in devastating repercussions over generations.

The signing of the Treaty of New Echota (L-R: Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa).

Sarah renews the fight to preserve jurisdiction over people committing crimes on Cherokee land, specifically rape, echoing the struggles of her great-great-great-great grandfather Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) who was murdered for signing the 1835 Treaty of Echota in a failed attempt to bargain with the US government to preserve Cherokee sovereignty. When Sarah is violated by her jealous fiance Ben (Craig Marker, who also plays Andrew Jackson), the reality of inadequate legal protection hits home. A fine, diverse cast of actors, aptly directed by Jasson Minadakis, assumes double roles representing characters from the parallel lines of present and past, and it would have been interesting to have Sarah directly engage with individual ancestors as members of the Cherokee diaspora. A moving scene where Sarah’s grandfather (Andrew Roa) speaks to her infant is an example of powerful cross-generational interaction.

As always, MTC provides extensive, well-researched background information in the lobby and in numerous live-panel discussions about the wider scope and impact of the play. If you would like to learn about the current and past dilemmas of Native American tribes, “Sovereignty” will be well worth your time.

"Sovereignty" by Mary Kathryn Nagle, directed by Jasson Minadakis, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, through October 20, 2019. Info: marintheatre.org

Photos by Kevin Berne

CAST
Scott Coopwood* White Chorus Man
Ella Dershowitz*  Sarah Bird Northrup / Flora Ridge
Elizabeth Frances* Sarah Polson
Adam Magill* Samuel Worcester / Mitch
Craig Marker* Andrew Jackson / Ben
Robert I Mesa* John Ridge
Andrew Roa* Major Ridge / Roger Ridge Polson           
Kholan Studi* Elias Boudinot / Watie
Jake Waid* John Ross / Jim Ross
* Member of Actor's Equity Association

CREATIVE TEAM
Mary Kathryn Nagle Playwright
Jasson Minadakis Director
Brenda Pipestem  Cultural Consultant
Annie Smart+ Scenic Designer
E.B. Brooks+ Costume Designer
Danny Osburn  Lighting Designer
Sara Huddleston Sound Designer
Mike Post  Projection Designer
​Laura A. Brueckner Literary Manager & Resident Dramaturg

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A Poe-pourri of Puppets and Puns

Puppets & Poe: Devised Defiance


Steven Flores and Ella Cooley

Directed by Shannon R. Davis
Theatre of Yugen, NOH Space, San Francisco

October 3 - November 2, 2019
Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 PM

By Christine Okon

Who knew that Edgar Allan Poe could be the life of the party?

In "Puppets and Poe: Devised Defiance," the collaborative, creative spirits that comprise Theatre of Yugen riff on the greatest hits of the master of macabre in ways that are exotic, erotic, creepy, unnerving, and really fun.

Steven Flores and Ella Cooley

You’ll have a good time if you abandon expectations of traditional structure and plot and pretend that you’ve been brought to a strange and delightful party that’s brimming with unusual and engaging characters who are inviting you to play with them. The performers (Ariella Cooley, Alan Coyne, Shannon R. Davis, Steven Flores, Nick Ishimaru, and Jamin Jollo) use voice, improv, Noh and Kyogen movement, dance, and puppetry in short skits that all have some relevance to Poe.

Steven Flores

Trying to identify the unexpected allusions to “The Bells,” “Premature Burial,”  “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Annabelle Lee” is part of the fun. “The Raven” with the refrain of “Nevermore” is prominent with the added presence of a huge, hilarious raven skeleton puppet working the audience like a snarky and raunchy Sesame Street character.

Ella Cooley and Steven Flores

Overflowing with ideas, "Puppets and Poe" could use some editing, especially the “Murders in the Rue Morgue” segment. Still, it’s a fun and unexpected way to step into the spooky season.

"Puppets and Poe: Devised Defiance” directed by Shannon R. Davis, Theatre of Yugen, NOH Space, San Francisco, through Saturday, November 2, 2019. Info: theatreofyugen.org

All photos by Theatre of Yugen

Watch the trailer: https://youtu.be/Oh57Du3CbbU


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Success at All Costs

Top Girls

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Michelle Beck, Monica Lin, Julia McNeal

By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
A.C.T. Geary Theater, San Francisco

Until October 13, 2019

“Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill is a paradoxically anachronistic and timeless examination of the quandaries faced by women who try to make their mark on the world. Set in 1982 in Thatcher’s England, the fast-paced crosstalk among the characters creates an annoying noise that’s hard to follow until one realizes that the characters are trying to find their own “signal” in the noise.

Marlene (Michelle Beck), voluptuous and powerful in a striking red dress, is celebrating her promotion at the Top Girls Employment Agency with a dinner party at a posh restaurant with her besties who happen to be unique women from different historical and fictional times. It is interesting to compare this scenario with Judy Chicago’s art installation “The Dinner Party”
which was making the rounds around the same time as the play.

With their stories of struggle and resilience in a man’s world, Marlene’s female mentors are enhanced by the wonderfully inventive costume designs of Sarita Fellows. Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett) regales the group with stories of how she fooled everyone into thinking she was a man. Dull Gret (Summer Brown) carries the fierceness captured by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his apocalyptic painting of 1563. Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal), indeed a tough British bird, matter-of-factly describes how intense physical pain did not keep her from intrepid world travels. Soft-spoken Lady Nijo (Monica Lin) describes her path from royalty to exile to enlightened compassion.  Had there been room at the table, Lady Macbeth with her plea to “unsex me here” would have fit right in. 

Summer Brown and Rosie Hallett

Marlene relishes her role as a woman in power, but the very name of “Top Girls” diminishes the impact. Because “girls” could go just so far in a man’s world, their only recourse is to find ways to win. I am reminded of that 80’s guide Games Mother Never Taught You: Corporate Gamesmanship for Women .

In the office, Marlene reigns supreme in impeccable, shoulder-padded dress-for-success garb, and the other women fear and respect her. Her disdain of weakness becomes an unspoken measure of candidate selection as she ferrets out those who will “never make it.”

Michelle Beck and Gabriella Momah

Marlene’s tightly ordered universe is challenged when Angie (a desperately confused and vulnerable Gabriella Momah), the daughter of Marlene’s sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe), visits her favorite aunt Marlene unexpectedly at the office. Marlene at first feigns delight but realizes she can’t let Angie live with her as the teenager wants. As the reality of the relationship of Marlene, Joyce, and Angie is disclosed, we realize the sad effects of Marlene’s decision to choose power over maternal love. She is a victim of her own cross-talk between being a player in a man’s world vs. that of a mother to a child who just might not “make it.”

Michelle Beck and Nafeesa Monroe
I can’t say that I liked this play, but I thought about it a lot days after. Following it takes patience, and a few audience members left at intermission. Not a comfortably linear play with a discernible plot, “Top Girls” is as if Churchill were exploring an iceberg where the visible part is a mere fragment of the huge mystery underneath.

"Top Girls" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Tamilla Woodard, A.C.T. Geary Theater,
San Francisco, through Sunday, October 13, 2019. Info: act-sf.org


All photos by Kevin Berne

CAST
Monique Hafen Adams*
Patient Griselda, Mrs. Kidd
Michelle Beck*
Marlene
Summer Brown**
Dull Gret, Nell
Rosie Hallett*
Pope Joan, Win
Lily Harris**
Kit, Shona
Monica Lin**
Lady Nijo, Jeanine
Julia McNeal*
Isabella Bird, Louise
Gabriella Momah*
Angie
Nafeesa Monroe*
Joyce, Waitress

CREATIVE TEAM
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Tamilla Woodard
Scenic Designer Nina Ball
Costume Designer Sarita Fellows
Lighting Designer Barbara Samuels
Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez
Voice and Dialect Coach Christine Adaire
Dramaturg Allie Moss
Casting Director Janet Foster, CSA
Assistant Director Karina Fox

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

** Member of the A.C.T. M.F.A. Program class of 2020.







Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Special Bond Between Two Women of Words

HICK: A Love Story
The Romance of Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt



Written and performed by Terry Baum
Directed by Carolyn Myers

San Francisco Fringe Festival
Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco

Sept 5, 7, 8, and 12, 2019

“The love that dare not speak its name” finds voice in the letters between journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Playwright Terry Baum (who first performed this piece in 2014) IS Hick in this show. You’re right there with her in the New York newsroom of the Associated Press in 1932 when star “gal reporter” Lorena Hickok lands the choice assignment of covering the campaign tour of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his bid for the Presidency.

Terry Baum as Hick Photo: Bill Selby

In a gesture to give advantage to her fellow female reporters, Hick suggests to her editor that it would be a good idea to assign a female reporter to cover Mrs. Roosevelt. Instead, Hick herself is awarded that assignment, thus beginning a relationship with Eleanor that soon grows into passionate love.

Aware of FDR’s indiscretions, Eleanor maintained her position as his wife, and the two gave each other a wide berth when it came to personal matters. Eleanor was key in helping her husband land the Presidency while living as independently as anyone could in the public eye.

Baum dons the floppy hat, baggy clothes, and clunky shoes of Hick, a spitfire of a woman who was gifted with cojones and acerbic wit while realizing that she would always be on the periphery of social acceptance. It is Eleanor who triggers the romance with the reporter, a dream that Hick never imagined could come true.

The development of the love relationship is captured in over 2300 letters that reveal a range of emotion, passion, and tenderness between the two women, from coy fondness to outright “naughtiness.”

Loretta Janca as Eleanor Photo: Bill Selby

Baum bubbles like a giddy schoolgirl who learns that her “crush” is reciprocated. Her joyful exuberance fills the room, and the letter exchange between “E.R.” (Loretta Janca) and Hick suggests a wonderfully intimate inner life of a first lady who was often judged solely on a drab appearance that belied her colorful character. Realizing how deeply human, joyful, and sexual E.R. was is a fresh and delightful revelation.

As if waiting by the fireside for the next chat, the Narrator Tara Ayres colors the sweep of time with snippets of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Moonglow” and contextualizes events from the Great Depression to FDR’s inauguration to WWII, all the while highlighting the difficulty of sustaining a discreet bond between E. R. and Hick.

Terry Baum and Tara Ayres Photo: Bill Selby

The span ends in 1968, the year of Hick’s death, with Hick trying to decide what to do with the boxes and boxes of correspondence between her and Eleanor, “some of it good and some of it bad.” She ultimately decides to donate all to the FDR archives.

In an innovative and efficient way to establish the different worlds of the two women, the set is literally a pop-up, with enlarged handwritten letters on White House stationery on the left and various newspaper headlines on the right.

The energy of “HICK: A Love Story” is about a timeless and chaotic love that could barely be contained by the conventions of the time, and holds special relevance today. You will be rewarded with a warm and educational encounter with two women of words who briefly shared their life.

“HICK: A Love Story” by Terry Baum, directed by Carolyn Myers, at SF Fringe Festival, Exit Theater, San Francisco, September 5, 7, 8, and 12, 2019. Info: hick.brownpapertickets.com



Thursday, September 5, 2019

What Happens When You Leave the Movie Theater

The Flick


Chris Ginesi and Ari Rampy

Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Jon Tracy

Shotgun Players
The Ashby Stage, Berkeley

Until October 6, 2019

Playwright Annie Baker slows down the frame rate to follow three employees of a rundown movie theater called “The Flick” where movies are big  and everyday life is ordinary.

The audience sits in the dark as “movie music” fills the space. Our view is from behind the screen where blurry chiaroscuro shapes swirl in Rorschach shadows and light. End credits roll, the flickering projection lamp stops, and house lights come up to reveal a small theater that’s seen better days, with sad sconces tacked to dingy green walls surrounding rows of red seats. Popcorn is scattered all over the floor. Lighting, sound, and set design by Kurt Landisman, Kris Barrera, and Randy Wong Westbrooke, respectively, create a convincing small theater experience.

Justin Howard and Chris Ginesi

The mess must be cleaned before the next show, and longtime Flick employee Sam (Chris Ginesi) is teaching 20-something Avery (Justin Howard) the ropes of sweeping up. Sam proceeds to move the mop through the back row, slowly and carefully, pushing the debris to the end of the row before sweeping it into the pan. Avery, a geeky and bespectacled black kid, scrawny and introverted, watches and does the same on his end of the aisle. These two move at a pace so slow we wonder if they will ever finish. They finally exit, and soon there is another end credit roll, rousing music, house lights up, and mops manned by the two. This Sisyphean routine is repeated again, film after film, day after day, month after month. At age 35 and still living with his parents, Sam (given a subtle sadness by Ginesi) lives in the stasis between wishing for something better and passive resignation.

Justin Howard, Chris Ginesi, Ari Rampy

Sam is drawn to Rose (Ari Rampy), the projectionist who works in the booth above and grabs zzz’s between screenings. The job neither contains nor defines her, and Rampy bursts with dance and joy with this character who moves so fast she’s oblivious to how stuck she is. Rose, Sam, and Avery form a prism of desires, dreams, and disappointments.

Justin Howard

Avery lives in a universe where film is all that matters. He reveres the endangered celluloid format because it captures the actual shadows and light of the moment they were filmed and are not manipulated as with digital. Howard presents an Avery who is withdrawn, intelligent, and keeps to himself. Movies are his world and his refuge from real world pain. When Sam coaxes him to play a “six degrees of separation” movie game, Avery grows silent as he scans the movie database in his mind, like a computer, without fun. He comes up with the correct answer every time, showing a heightened sensibility that amazes and intimidates Sam.

Justin Howard and Ari Rampy

Rampy sparks Rose with exuberance and curiosity, and although she’s good at her job she really just wants to have fun. Sam yearns for her and wishes she would teach him the coveted skill of projection, for it may mean advancement for him. But she is instead drawn to Avery who is about as responsive as a movie poster.

Ari Rampy, Chris Ginesi, Justin Howard

Sam, Avery, and Rose move with and against each other with no real movement or direction, yet we sense their yearning for connection. Avery is on a mission to save cinema. Sam is desperate, lonely, and resigned. Rose keeps moving at a pace too fast for self-examination. These three continue until the inevitable change happens: The Flick is sold to a mega theater company, and the employees become walking brand symbols wearing logo-emblazoned, ill-fitting polo shirts. Conformity and efficiency are the new normal, as shown by how quickly the new employee Skylar (Rob Dario) sweeps up the post-screening mess.

"The Flick" is not so much about characters as it is about movement through time and space. Progress happens, change is inevitable, and one’s life can move forward or wind up on the cutting room floor (an anachronistic reference in a world of digital efficiency).

Like a too-long cut of a film that the director could not bear to edit, "The Flick" challenges your patience. I felt ansty, wanting the characters to do something with their lives until I realized that the pace mirrors the humdrum of routine and weary monotony where one waits for the “good parts” to make it all worthwhile.


"The Flick" by Annie Baker, directed by Jon Tracy of Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through Sunday, September, 2019. Info: shotgunplayers.org


"The Flick"

Photography by Ben Krantz Studio | @benkrantzstudio

CAST
Chris Ginesi Sam
Justin Howard Avery
Ari Rampy Rose
Rob Dario Skylar & Sleeping Man

PRODUCTION TEAM
Jon Tracy Director
Nikki Anderson Joy Costume Designer
Kris Barrera Sound & Video Designer
Helen Frances Wardrobe Supervisor
Linda Girón Assistant Director
Liz Johnson Production Assistant
Heather Kelly-Laws Stage Manager
Devon LaBelle Props Designer
Kurt Landisman Lighting Designer
Victoria Mortimer Costume Design Assistant
Adeline Smith Scenic Charge Painter
Caitlin Steinmann Master Electrician
Randy Wong-Westbrooke Set Designer
Elena Wright Intimacy Choreographer


Friday, August 16, 2019

"Somebody's Baby, Somebody's Child"

52 Letters

Regina Evans and Rashida Chase Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

Written and performed by Regina Evans
Vocals by Rashida Chase

Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building, 1501 MLK Jr. Way, Oakland, CA

Until August 25, 2019

By Christine Okon

"52 Letters" is more than a play.

It is a prayer, a poem, a cry, and an impassioned call to action to acknowledge a terrible wrong that is all too common yet invisible: the sex trafficking of young girls. Ubuntu Theater Project gives space to artist, activist, and poet Regina Evans to proclaim her message in a stage play that also won the Best of San Francisco Fringe Festival in 2013.

Like an angel of truth, a stunning woman (Rashida Chase) in a regal white dress and headdress enters singing “Motherless Child” with a deep and mournful voice that creates a sanctifying effect sustained throughout the play. Evans begins to tell the stories of young victims, each one “somebody’s baby, somebody’s child.”

Regina Evans Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

As a former victim herself, Evan uses her voice, body, and soul to convey her message, writhing and moaning as if reliving her own nightmare. Poetry flows from her like cleansing water from a deep, natural spring, immersing us in vivid and visceral descriptions of the degradation, suffering, and entrapment of young girls who are abducted, “processed,” and transformed into instruments of profit for their “handlers.” A real horror is how organized and collaborative traffickers are, smoothly moving girls like product from city to city, state to state, country to country. The recent exposure of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of young girls made the news, revealing that the crime crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. But how many such stories remain invisible and unheard?

Regina Evans and Rashida Chase Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

Like a wise medicine woman who knows the path to healing, Evans traces the journey from the hell of slavery to the hope of renewal. This is her mission in life: to help young girls find their way back to themselves and society. Evans is the founder of Regina’s Door, a non-profit that helps trafficking victims learn new skills in retail and fashion, and she joins in the voices of other organizations dedicated to helping young victims.

Each performance of "52 Letters" is followed by a guest speaker from one such organization. For example, former victim Sarai Mazariegos tells us that “we don’t sit on our trauma,” meaning that the goal of the S.H.A.D.E. movement she founded is to help victims realize their power to “thrive, not just survive.”

Center: Sarai Mazariegostion of S.H.A.D.E Photo by Christine Okon

Many more organizations exist, and "52 Letters" urges us to not only learn about the reality of sex trafficking but to take action to help. In this way, theater can indeed be an instrument of change.


"52 Letters," written and performed by Regina Evans at Ubuntu Theater Project, The FLAX Building, Oakland, CA, through Sunday, August 25, 2019. , Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com/letters

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Come to This Cabaret

Cabaret


John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Book by Joe Masteroff; Based on the play by John Van Druten 
and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Susi Damilano
San Francisco Playhouse

Until September 14, 2019

By Christine Okon

I saw “Cabaret” about 10 years ago at San Francisco Playhouse in a powerful production that showed how joy could be decimated by encroaching, fascistic powers that be. “Good thing we’re not in Nazi Germany,” I thought naively ruminating on the history lesson of how a whole country changed.

How the world has changed, with our democracy threatened from within as never before. In San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of the musical “Cabaret,” a subtle pulse of apprehension about the growing swell of fascism before WWII beats with the fabulous music about the lives of people in “a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world.”

John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Like a thousand moths beating their wings madly before the light goes out, this “Cabaret” is rich with story, dance, and songs of dark irony and warm poignancy. The scenic design (Jacqueline Scott) transforms the theater into the decadent Kit Kat Klub where the devious-trickster Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) insists that you can “leave your troubles outside” because “in here, life is beautiful...”  The Cabaret Girls, Cabaret Boys, and emcee raise the heart rate with "Willkommen" to show they are “happy to see you..” Fosse-inspired choreography by Nicole Helfer and the live music directed by Dave Dobrusky spark every dance number, and all of the dancers are decadently precise in their movements.

Kit Kat Klub Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Clifford Bradshaw (a gentle and convincing Atticus Shaindlin) rides the train into Berlin where he hopes to make his mark as a novelist. He is befriended by the uber-suave, powerful German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn Jr.); with a smile on his face and ice in his veins, Springhorn embodies a dispassionate character who later turns dangerous.

Ernst takes Cliff under his wing and finds him a place to stay at the run-down boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick). In many ways, the real story of "Cabaret" is the story of Fräulein Schneider, an ordinary German woman way past any semblance of youth, who must “learn how to settle” for what she gets, bemoaning that “it will all go on if we’re here or not / So who cares? / So what? / So Who Cares?”

Jennie Blick and Louis Parnell Photo: Jessica Palopoli

If you wonder how a “whole nation” could support Hitler, consider Fräulein Schneider’s choice between resistance and resilience. Jenny Brick brings a fullness to Fräulein Schneider; even the ill-fitting wig is in character to present a woman just trying to keep it together. Fräulein Schneider is courted by the sweet Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz who woos her with gifts of sweet Italian oranges and other delights. Louis Parnell is a lovable Schultz, and as the two grow in love for each other we root for them as they begin to choose happiness over loneliness.

One of the tenants is Fräulein Kost (a lithe and strong Mary Kalita). She has many visitors, mostly sailors, who are all somehow “related.” Although Schneider clucks disapproval, she must look the other way or else lose the rent money. Kost shows up later as the dangerous arm candy of Ernst as he sports a swastika armband. She sings the rousing nationalist theme “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as well as a loving “Heirat”  but also casually informs Ernst of Herr Schulze’s religion. Things turn ugly and the audience is filled with dread as arms are raised in the Nazi salute before intermission.

At the Kit Kat Klub, Cliff meets Sally Bowles, the British expat headliner of the cabaret show. Melissa WolfKlain creates an energetic Sally with a strong, moving voice that brings a lot of heart to the role. It's exciting to watch her lead the Kit Kat Klub dancers in a knockout, acrobatic "Mein Herr" complete with teetering chairs and floor-slapping. When Sally sings the final song "Cabaret," it is not as a joyful invitation to fun, but a sad, ironic reference to just the opposite. Watching WolfKlain in this scene is like watching a wounded creature dying, robbed of hope, and trapped in a stillborn dream.

Ambiguity and contradictions thread through the story. So many things hang in the balance between male-female, neighbor-enemy, trust-suspicion, poverty-wealth, compliance-power. This "Cabaret" taps into a dark desperation that transcends its time to convey the fear and  uncertainty of living on the brink of change.

"Cabaret," Book by Joe Masteroff; based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Susi Damilano, San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco, through September 14, 2019. Info: sfplayhouse.org

CAST
Jennie Brick* as Fräulein Schneider
John Paul Gonzalez as Emcee
Carlos Guerrero as Victor
Mary Kalita as Fräulein Kost
Melissa Wolfklain* as Sally Bowles
Zachary Isen as Bobby
Jean-Paul Jones as Texas
Nicole Helfer* as Frenchie
Louis Parnell* as Herr Schultz
Atticus Shaindlin* as Clifford Bradshaw
Will Springhorn Jr.* as Ernst Ludwig
Zoë Swenson-Graham as Helga
Shaun Leslie Thomas as Max
Joe Ayers as Rosie

*Member, Actor's Equity

CREATIVE TEAM
Susi Damilano  DIRECTOR
Dave Dobrusky MUSIC DIRECTOR
Nicole Helfer  CHOREOGRAPHER
Jacquelyn Scott  SCENIC & PROPERTIES DESIGNER
Abra Berman  COSTUME DESIGNER
Michael Oesch  LIGHTING DESIGNER
Teddy Hulsker SOUND DESIGNER
Laundra Tyme  WIG DESIGNER



Saturday, July 27, 2019

Dreamscapes of Mortality

Escaped Alone and
Here We Go


By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Robert Estes

Anton’s Well Theatre Company 
At Thousand Oaks Baptist Church, 1821 Catalina Ave., Berkeley

Until August 3, 2019. (Thursdays-Saturdays, with additional performance on Wednesday, July 31, all 7:30) 

By Christine Okon

Robert Estes, director of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, has chosen to produce two of Caryl Churchill’s later short plays "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" because they “so acutely chart our shared future.”

Victorian Skull Illusion

“Escaped Alone” brings to mind the Victorian image that shows either two women talking or a skull, depending on how it is viewed. Church presents a bifurcated reality of chit-chat among old friends against graphic descriptions of apocalyptic devastation and horror.

The audience waits in a small outdoor garden; there’s a waterless fountain and hummingbirds cruise the red flowers on the bushes.

Three women--Vi (Jenn Lucas), Sally (Jan Carty Marsh), and Lena (Susannah Wood) enter, sit down, and begin to engage in the ordinary, friendly banter of old friends. A fourth woman, Mrs. Jarrett (Marsha Van Broek), joins the group but seems uncomfortable. She faces the audience and describes an appalling and terrifying scenario of death, violence, and destruction; this is what the world has come to.  She then joins the other women in their conversation about daily routines, gossip, and pleasantries. All four sing The Beatles’ "Help," united in giddy familiarity with a tune from their youth until Mrs. Jarrett describes more horror, and the personal, bizarre crises of the women are revealed.

Sally is extraordinarily paranoid about her cat and is heading for a breakdown. Another talks fearfully about gunshots. All are traumatized somehow, yet they shift back into mundane chatter mode. To Churchill, images are visual morphemes to be interpreted as one would try to make sense of a strange dream.

Sound effects (e.g., meowing, explosions, or guns firing) were distracting and should have been used sparingly, if at all. Still, “Escaped Alone” reminds us of how easy it is to become inured to the global horrors we are exposed to every day.

Jenn Lucas & Jan Carty Marsh in ESCAPED ALONE Photo: Jay Yamada

After a brief intermission, the audience moves indoors for the next play,  “Here We Go.” The title alone connotes either enthusiasm or resignation. There are three scenes, each a study of the experience and reality of death and dying.

The first scene presents eight mourners at a post-funeral party chatting about their lives and reminiscing about the dearly departed man, who wanders among the crowd unseen yet wanting to participate. As each mourner steps forward to state how and when they later died, we are put on Churchill’s time-space continuum where past, present, and future are blurred, and existential finality underscores the most ordinary conversations.

Abe Bernstein in HERE WE GO Photo: Anton's Well Theatre Company

In “After,” a dead woman fretfully ruminates on death, dying, the afterlife and the meaning of existence but receives no answer. Words, even if philosophical, are empty in a vacuum.

The last scene, "Getting There," is the most moving and beautiful, with no words at all.  A caretaker in scrubs (Jan Carty Marsh) assists an old, frail,  woman (Alison Sacha Ross) in a hospital gown. The woman has long, flowing, gray hair, and she is tiny, almost melted away. Her body language denotes intense pain. The caretaker combs the woman’s hair and gives a sponge bath in a routine that is repeated a few times during the scene. Although the caretaker is simply doing her job, the patient relishes the act as a delicious, tactile respite from suffering and a moment of connection with another living being. When the caretaker moves across the room, the woman reaches forward in longing as if begging for the moment to last longer. Gradually, the caretaker becomes more involved and exhibits fondness, and the emotional intensity is profound and visceral. The two actors become one entity of empathy, and their interaction is remarkable to observe.

Both "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" are contemplations and meditations rich with images, talk, and the simple gift of presence, making for a quiet yet disturbing night of theater.


"Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Robert Estes of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Berkeley. Through Saturday, August 3, 2019. Info: antonswell.org



Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Translating the Language of the Heart

The Language Archive



By Julia Cho
Directed by Jeffrey Lo
Lucie Sterm Theatre, Palo Alto

Until August 4, 2019

By Christine Okon

Here’s a sobering fact from UNESCO: of the 7,000 living languages in the world, more than half will be extinct by the end of the century. In urgent response to the dilemma, many people dedicate their lives to the study and preservation of such languages.

In Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” George (Jomar Tagatec) is a linguist so immersed in the study of dying languages that he is oblivious to his wife Mary’s (Elena Wright) attempts to communicate. These two are not the kind of people who finish each other’s sentences, and it seems that one's signal is the other’s noise. For example, Mary leaves little desperate notes for George and cries continuously in her unhappiness, while George is befuddled by her actions. How did these two ever get married?

Jomar Tagatac and Elena Wright Photo: Alessandra Mello

When the last two remaining speakers of the dying language Elloway agree to visit from a far-off and unspecified country, George looks forward to fulfilling his research by capturing their conversation in their native language. He is surprised when his guests Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda), an old married couple, bicker about trivial things in English because, as Alta explains, “it is the language of anger.” Jue and Kuroda are as funny and practiced as an old vaudeville team as they shake up George’s, and our, expectations. Costume designer Noah Marin must have had a lot of fun dressing Resten and Alta in the motley and colorful items of clothing from a far-away land.

Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda Photo: Alessandra Mello

George, upset that his study is straying from protocol, tries to steer his subjects toward his ends. The concept of love is brought up, with George fretting in “analysis paralysis” while Resten and Alta define their bond as simply not being able to imagine living without the other person. Cho’s poetric gifts infuse “The Language Archive," illuminating how language gives voice to the heart. 

The give-and-take and sad breakdowns of communication form a delicate cat’s cradle among the characters. George thinks compiling a CD of “I Love You” in dying languages will win Mary back, but she leaves him to nourish an unfulfilled longing for her own life and passion. George’s assistant Emma (Adrienne Katori Walters) is his work-wife of sorts and strives to demonstrate her love by learning Esperanto, his favorite language. Torn by conflicting but unexpressed feelings, Tagatac delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a man who cannot even communicate with himself.

L-R Elena Wright, Jomar Tagatac, Francis Jue, Emily Kuroda, Adrienne Kaori Walters
Photo: Alessandra Mello

Justifiably exuberant with winning the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, Theatreworks Silicon Valley begins its 50th season with this play. Even though “The Language Archive” has ingredients for a perfect production: superb cast, smooth direction by Jeffrey Lo, an evocative and versatile set (Andrea Bechert), poignant music and sound (Sinan Refik Zefar), it was hard to connect with the characters except for Resten and Alta, who seemed to be the only ones who had self-awareness. The beautiful image of Resten and Alta after death becoming  “two trees whose leaves whisper to each other all day long” lingers long after the play ends, hinting at what real communication is all about.

"The Language Archive" by Julio Cho, directed by Jeffery Lo, Theatreworks Silicon Valley at the Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, through August 4, 2019.
Info: theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960

CAST
George  Jomar Tagatac
Mary  Elena Wright
Emma  Adrienne Kaori Walters
Alta and others  Emily Kuroda
Resten and others  Francis Jue

CREATIVE TEAM
Playwright  Julia Cho
Director  Jeffrey Lo
Scenic Designer  Andrea Bechert
Costume Designer  Noah Marin
Sound Designer  Sinan Refik Zafar

Friday, July 12, 2019

This "Hairspray" Has Bounce and Shine

Hairspray


Cassie Grilley and Company Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

Music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; based on the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters

Directed by Matthew McCoy

Bay Area Musicals
Victoria Theater, San Francisco

Until August 11, 2019

By Christine Okon

Long ago, my mother would take me to get a wash, set and styling for next to nothing at the local beauty school. The student would grab her can of Aqua Net hairspray as I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath as the ssshhhh buzzed around my ears, and small sticky droplets hit my neck.  Hairspray was the essential, bubblegum fix for the instant glamour of beehives, bouffants, and big hair.

Bay Area Musicals (BAM) has launched a high-powered, fun show with the musical "Hairspray.”  Under the direction of Matthew McCoy, BAM performers, in any show they put on, always exude commitment and enthusiasm, and this show is no different.

"Hairspray," set in 1962 when times were about to be a-changin’, follows the sweet and “pleasingly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (a big-haired and bubbly Cassie Grilley) as she celebrates her life in Baltimore, “where every day is an open door,” and dreams of meeting and marrying Link Larkin, the handsomest dancer on the Corny Collins (a slippery and suave Scott Taylor-Cole) after school dance show. Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (a remarkably versatile Melissa  Momboisse) squeal and wriggle as they watch the show on the small black and white television in the Turnblad living room. With her “radio and hairspray,” Tracy can take on the world, which indeed she does.

Dave J. Abrams and Company Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

This musical beats like the heart of a teenage girl dancing to songs, joys, challenges and triumphs. From beginning to end, the stage is full of action and surprises with dance numbers that keep on coming. You feel that sweet anticipation for the next 45 rpm to drop down the spindle rack and hit the turntable.

Jon Gallo and musicians adeptly travel the musical allusions that range from doo-wop, girl band, surf, and Trudy’s favorite: rhythm and blues and soul, which Corny Collins plays once a week on “Negro Day” when local black kids take the floor.  As lead dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs, Dave Abrams lights up the stage with his moves, flips and grinds in “Run and Tell That.”

Sarah Sloan and Lauren Meyer Photo: Ben Krantz Studi

When Tracy asks innocently why Negroes can’t dance every day with the white kids, she unveils the racism and snobbery of the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Sarah Sloan) who, with her equally vacuous and pink-chiffon-dressed daughter Amber (Lauren Meyer). will stop at nothing to do the white, er, right thing to protect the status quo. It’s as if she were using the show’s sponsor “Ultra-Clutch Hairspray” to keep flyaway hair, times, behavior, rules and mores in place.

Tracy’s eyes and consciousness are widened by Motormouth Maybelle (Elizabeth Jones), a “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” black woman in shimmering blue lame and sequins (cheers to costume designer Brooke Jennings). When Jones belts out “I Know Where I’ve Been,” I felt as if I were at a leap-to-your-feet church celebration.

Elizabeth Jones Photo: Ben Krantz


With “Welcome to the 60’s,” Tracy urges her mother Edna Turnblad, who has not left the house since 1951, to take chances. Scott DiLorenzo fills out Edna’s housedress adequately but needs to create a more convincing mother-daughter bond of affection.

Although the miking had problems opening night, BAM brings another fun night at the theater. When the audience leaps up to join the actors in the final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” everyone dances out the history lesson that teaches that for true change to happen, “just to sit still would be a sin.”

"Hairspray" by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, directed by Matthew McCoy of Bay Area Musicals at The Victoria Theatre, San Francisco, through Sunday, August 11, 2019. Info: bamsf.org

CAST
Cassie Grilley, Tracy Turnblad
Melissa Momboisse, Penny Pingleton
Scott DiLorenzo, Edna Turnblad
Kamren Mahaney, Link Larkin
Elizabeth Jones, Motormouth Maybelle
*Dave Abrams, Seaweed J. Stubbs
Kennedy Williams, Little Inez
Paul Plain, Wilbur Turnblad
Lauren Meyer, Amber Von Tussle
Sarah Sloan, Velma Von Tussle
Scott Taylor-Cole, Corny Collins
Bonnie Lafer, Prudy Pingleton/Others
Kim Larsen, Principal/Male Authority
Stephen Kanaski, Brad
Ronald James, Fender
Emma Sutherland, Brenda
Brendan Looney, Sketch
Claire Pearson, Tammy
Steven McCloud, I.Q.
Peli Naomi Woods, Detention Kid/Dynamite
Smita Patibanda, Detention Kid/Dynamite
Chanel Tilghman, Detention Kid/Dynamite
April Deutschle, Detention Kid
Carlos Carrillo, Detention Kid
Zoe Hodge, Detention Kid
Ajay Prater, Detention Kid

*Appears courtesy of Actor’s Equity Association   

ARTISTIC TEAM
Matthew McCoy, Director/Choreographer
Jon Gallo, Musical Director
Leslie Waggoner, Assnt. Choreographer
Cat Knight, Stage Manager
Andie Fanelli, Assnt. Stage Manager
Lynn Grant, Set Designer
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Eric Johnson, Lighting Designer
Anton Hedman, Sound Engineer
Jackie Dennis, Wig Designer
Matthew McCoy/Cat Knight, Prop Designers
Richard Gutierrez, Wardrobe Master
Stewart Lyle, Technical Director

ORCHESTRA
Sonja Lindsay, Trumpet
William Berg, Woodwinds
Adam Hughes, Guitar
Kyle Wong, Bass
Dominic Moisant, Drums
Jon Gallo, Keyboard/Conductor


Sunday, June 30, 2019

Quantum Dragon Breathes Fire into Bradbury Classic

Fahrenheit 451


Dorian Lockett as Beatty Photo: Morgan Finley King

By Ray Bradbury

Directed by Sam Tillis

Quantum Dragon Theatre
Potrero Stage / 1695 18th St, San Francisco

Until July 7, 2019

By Christine Okon

In 1953, Ray Bradbury wrote the novel Fahrenheit 451 to first lament McCarthy-era suppression of free thought and later to sound the alarm about mass media’s threat to reading literature. Although Marshall McLuhan called television “medium cool,” Bradbury’s story reveals how easily everything that defines a person--and society--can go up in flames. It’s especially relevant today in a global digital world that displaces discourse with sound bites, soul searching for quick Google results, and logic with Twitter rants. Does anyone have time to think?

Quantum Dragon Theater (one of four theaters in the country dedicated to science fiction and fantasy theater) brings a tight, intense and profoundly moving production of "Fahrenheit 451" to the Potrero Stage. Sam Tillis directs a wonderful ensemble cast in Ray Bradbury's own adaptation of his novel, with the ending inspired by Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film version.

In the distant future, the act of reading books threatens government control and is therefore a punishable crime. To enforce the law, firemen are dispatched as needed to destroy books by starting fires. Don’t like a particular point of view? Burn the book. Upset by the emotions stirred by reading? Burn the book. Why not make it easy and burn every book? (Substitute “burn the book” with “block or delete” to see how it relates to digital life.)

Guy Montag is a fireman not quite happy with his job, or his life for that matter. Ron Chapman gives us a Montag who is a somewhat confused dreamer who drifted into his occupation without thought and is just now realizing how it consumes him. He’s challenged and intrigued by his bright and questioning neighbor Clarisse (Emily Dwyer) who has the fierce cunning of a French Resistance fighter. His mind sparked by curiosity, Montag goes home to see his wife Mildred (Emily Corbo) once again asleep on the couch; even when awake, she can communicate only in terms of meaningless TV shows and drugs. He begins to realize that something is wrong with this picture, and thus begins a shift in his blind compliance to authority.

Emily Corbo and Ron Chapman Photo: Morgan Finley King

As Fire Captain Beatty, Dorian Lockett brings us a remarkable, sardonic character who heightens ordinary discourse with literary allusions that fly over the heads of his underlings (Melanie Marshall, James Aaron Oh). Like many people, he had long ago taken the job of fireman as a matter of survival only to become engulfed in the dangerous mediocrity of its responsibility. Lockett delivers an amazing 13-page monolog to paint the story of a man who revered books before he was forced to forsake discovery for destruction, details over headlines, and prattle over discussion. He is a man in despair.

Melanie Marshall, James Aaron Oh, Dorian Lockett Photo: Morgan Finley King

Beatty smokes a pipe that emits the sweet scent of a glowing fireplace, adding olfactory enhancement to the experience. Smells are suggested in other scenes, as when an elderly woman (Annette Oliveira) presses her nose into a book as if it were a baby’s belly, or when Montag describes the rich odor of kerosene. Strategic lighting to suggest fire and screaming alarms add to the multi-sensory drama.

Montag begins to revere books as sacred objects when he realizes they are written by individuals. He moves away from his soul-killing work toward self-discovery with the help of old Professor Faber (Annette Oliveira) who quotes lines from books to Montag via a tiny earpiece. Montag’s resolve is rewarded when he encounters a renegade tribe of book-lovers who have memorized the works of Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky and others to protect them via oral tradition, not unlike the origins of language itself.  Montag realizes he is home at last as he is welcomed by these guardians of literature, and there is a feeling of hope in the embers.

After turning off my phone before the play began, I was in no hurry to turn it on again when the play ended. There was just so much to think about, and the digital realm could wait.

"Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, directed by Sam Tillis of Quantum Dragon Theatre at The Potrero Stage, San Francisco, through Sunday, July 7, 2019. Info: quantumdragon.org

CAST
Beatty...Dorian Lockett*
Montag...Ron Chapman
Mildred...Emily Corbo
Clarisse...Emily Dwyer
Black/First Paramedic/Helen...Melanie Marshall
Holden/Second Paramedic/Alice...James Aaron Oh
Hudson/Faber...Annette Oliveira
Aristotle...Crystal Why
Tolkien...Lucianne Colón
Dostoevsky...Christine Sheppard
Saint-Exupéry...Willow Mae
Carroll...Jacinta Sutphin
Plato...Omar Osoria-Peña
Melville...Ray Dequina
Stevenson...Abe Bernstein
*Appears with the special permission of Actors' Equity Association.

PRODUCTION TEAM
Director...Sam Tillis
Stage Manager…Annie Tillis
Set Design...Katie Whitcraft
Master Builder…Karl Haller
Lighting Design...Sara Saavedra
Sound Design…Larry Tasse
Costume Design...Marisely Cortes & Emily Dwyer
Properties Design...Miles Callan
Projection Design...Colin Johnson
Poster Design...Marisa Darabi
Promotional Photography…Morgan Finley King



Monday, June 17, 2019

A Rhino Walks Into a Bar...

Rhinoceros

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: act-sf.org


CAST
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

CREATIVE TEAM
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: magictheatre.org

CAST
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

CREATIVE TEAM
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