Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Topsy-Turvy Time for Fun

Head Over Heels

William Giammona, David Bicha, Stephanie Temple, Jake Daniel Leahy, Scott Scholes,
Abigail Campbell, and Casey Anne Apregan  Photo: Lois Tema

Music and Lyrics by The Go-Go's
Directed by Ed Decker
New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco

Until January 12, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

If you’re in the mood for a fun party where 16th-century royalty bops to a 1980’s beat, head on over to New Conservatory Theatre Center's production of “Head Over Heels,” Jeff Whitty’s unlikely but delightful musical mashup of Sir Philip Sidney’s romance “Arcadia” and songs by The Go-Go’s.

"Head Over Heels" has a simple, rambling plot that follows a royal family as they come full circle to preserve the kingdom of Arcadia’s most precious resource, The Beat, and thus rediscover themselves and each other.

Ella Ruth Francis Photo: Lois Tema
King Basilius (William Giammona), Queen Gynecia (Stephanie Temple), and their daughters Pamela (Ella Ruth Francis) and Philoclea (Kimberley Cohan) go about their lives in peaceful Arcadia. As the self-absorbed Pamela, Francis exults in the bigger-than-life beauty that's magnified by huge projections (Chris Lundahl and Sarah Phykitt) of her ubiquitous face. Cohan brings a wide-eyed honesty to Philoclea who is in love with her childhood friend Musidorus, the humble shepherd played with Harpo Marx-like comic innocence by Scott Scholes. 

Rotimi Agbabiaka* Photo: Lois Tema

Like a fabulous, shimmering Trickster, Rotimi Agbabiaka shines as the Oracle Pythio who warns that the only way to preserve Arcadia’s Beat is to reinvent the status quo with topsy-turvy changes, which make for some very funny scenes. To keep the Beat, ya gotta let loose and enjoy the ride.  It’s like shaking a gender-fluid snowglobe where things settle in the most delightfully unpredictable ways.

Try not to time travel back to the Reagan era 1980's when you hear The Go-Go's hits like “We Got the Beat,” “Get Up and Go,” “Cool Jerk,” “Vacation,” “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Lust to Love,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”

William Giammona, Danya El-Kurd, Rotimi Agbabiaka*and David Bicha Photo: Lois Tema

Like many shows by New Conservatory Theatre Center, this "Head Over Heels" features some sharp choreography by Rick Wallace to the bouncy beat of Mark Dietrich and band. If you’re resolving to make changes in the New Year, "Head Over Heels"will no doubt get you up and going.

"Head Over Heels," music by The Go-Go’s, book by Jeff Whitty and Sir Philip Sidney, directed by Ed Decker. New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through January 12, 2020. Info:

Rotimi Agbabiaka* (Pythio), Casey Anne Apregan (Ensemble),  DavidBicha (Dametas), Abigail Campbell (Ensemble), Daniel Cancel (Ensemble), Ciara Carvajal (Ensemble), Kimberley Cohan (Philoclea), Danya El-Kurd (Mopsa), Ella Ruth Francis (Pamela), William Giammona (Basilius),
Jake Daniel Leahy (Ensemble), Scott Scholes (Musidorus), and Stephanie Temple (Gynecia).

*Appears through the courtesy of Actors' Equity Association

Director Ed Decker
Musical direction - Mark Dietrich
Choreography - Rick Wallace
Production audio engineering - Wayne Cheng
Costume design - Wes Crain
Props design - J. Conrad Frank
Stage management - Toni Lynn Guidry
Lighting design / Projections - Chris Lundahl
Fight choreography - Kristen Matia
Scenic design/Projections -Sarah Phykitt

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Witches Among Us

Vinegar Tom

Perry Fenton, Sam Jackson, Lyndsee Bell
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Ariel Craft

Shotgun Players, Berkeley
Until January 19, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

It is not a new thing that strong women are feared, mistrusted, blamed, and punished for owning their anger, passion, sexuality, or independence..for being too different, too poor, too anything that denied or baffled the patriarchal world order.

For four centuries, such women were demonized as witches, hunted, tortured, and extirpated according to rules established by those in power and documented in such go-to reference books as the 15th century The Malleus Maleficarum (the Hammer of Witches).

With the term “witch hunt” permeating the news these days, Shotgun Players has grabbed the devil by the horns in staging “Vinegar Tom,” Caryl Churchill’s evisceration of the belief that strong women are evil beings that must be punished.

Sam Jackson and Sharon Shao
Set in rural England in the 1600s when witch hunts were legal and dangerous, “Vinegar Tom” follows the lives of simple peasant women (and one man) trying to get by in a world where all depends on the health of livestock and unquestioned obedience to intractable, obscure laws. Irascible and misunderstood Joan (Celia Maurice) is blamed by neighbors for sick and dying cows, impotence, stillbirths, and other problems; her “nasty cat” Vinegar Tom is often seen near the dairy or other places where one can only conclude that proximity = cause of problem.  “Find something to burn / let it all go up in smoke / burn your troubles away.” Joan is deemed a witch and thus ostracized, demonized and painfully "examined" by renowned witchhunter Packer (Sarah Mitchell) and his assistant Goody (Melanie DuPuy) who finds it "an honor to work with such a great professional."

With the back and forth pace of a boxing match, “Vinegar Tom” doesn’t have a plot so much as it stirs commotion and upset. Caught up in larger and unseen societal machinations, the characters collide with each other in fear and desperation.

Celia Maurice as the demonized Joan
Director Ariel Craft brilliantly orchestrates the creative energy of the Shotgun actors to capture the conflicting but synchronous feelings of horror and delight of the play. Daniel Alley and musicians provide lilting interludes that help distance us from the primitive but procedured persecution. The cabaret-like chorus struts in sensuous costumes designed by Brooke Jennings as they sing witty commentary with an in-your-face audacity no peasant woman would dare assume. Churchill stirs the cauldron of our sense and reason, and how strangely exciting it feels to be both repulsed and delighted.

The absurdity of the “scientific” practice of witch hunting is brilliantly lanced in the vaudeville-Edwardian music hall scene with Sam Jackson as Kramer and Celia Maurice as Sprenger, the two authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.  Jackson and Maurice wield mean top hats and canes as they engage in witty banter in sprightly counterpoint to the treacherous tome.

Vinegar Tom” emerged at the beginning of the women’s movement in the 1970s, when the book Our Bodies Ourselves opened the eyes of so many women who never before questioned their place in society. Such women would have been witches for sure. Although we can look back at the absurdity of 15th century practices, we should not sit back and assume that all is well if “powers that be” have their way.

Where have all the witches gone?
Who are the witches now?
Here we are.
- “Lament for the Witches”

"Vinegar Tom" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Ariel Craft. Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through January 19, 2020. Info:

Photography by Ben Krantz

The Cast
Lyndsee Bell, Ensemble, Doctor
Melanie DuPuy, Goody
Amanda Farbstein, Susan
Perry Fenton, Ensemble, Bellringer
Dov Hassan, Jack
Sam Jackson, Ellen, Kramer
Celia Maurice, Joan, Sprenger
Jennifer McGeorge, Margery
Sarah Mitchell, Packer
Sharon Shao, Betty
Megan Trout, Alice

The Crew
Daniel Alley, Music Director
Nina Ball, Set Design*
Dani Chapparro, M.A.D. Sound Fellow/Sound Sound Board Op
Ashley Corso, Wardrobe Supervisor
Ariel Craft, Director
Evan Favela, M.A.D. Props Fellow
Natalie Greene, Choreographer
Taylor Gonzalez, Sound Engineer
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Liz Johnson, Production Assistant
Heather Kelly-Laws, Stage Manager
Amar Khalsa, Clarinet Sub
Devon LaBelle, Props Designer
Dave Maier, Fight Director
Caitlin McFann, Sound Sound Board Op
Ray Oppenheimer, Lighting Designer
Leigh Rondon-Davis, Assistant Director
Caitlin Steinmann, Master Electrician
Matt Stines, Sound Designer
Derek Sup, Piano/Associate Conductor

*Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829

The Band
Daniel Alley, Music Director, Piano/Conductor
Dup Crosson, Drums
Jorge Hernandez-Lopez, Alto Sax/Flute
Morgan Brittni Sonnenfeld, Clarinet

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What a Difference a Day Makes

Groundhog Day

Cameron La Brie, Sophia Introna*, Michael Motroni,  Jorge Luis Diaz

Book by Danny Rubin; Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Susi Damilano
Music direction by Dave Dobrusky
Choreography by Nicole Helfer

San Francisco Playhouse, San Francisco

Until January 18, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

SF Playhouse brings a bit o’ brightness with “Groundhog Day,” an uplifting story about second chances, redemption, and the importance of cherishing each moment. Although it takes place on February 2nd in Punxsutawney, PA when the famous rodent reveals or does not reveal its shadow, “Groundhog Day” fits right in with the ancient belief of bringing Yule light to the darkest nights of winter.

Based on the 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray, “Groundhog Day” gives rich life to the people in the small town where jaded weatherman Phil Connors (Dean Linnard, the understudy for Ryan Drummond) is assigned to report on the yearly reveal regarding the groundhog’s shadow. Linnard projects the smugness, disdain, and boredom of a man who sees himself as the center of his own universe, impatient to get out of the drudge town until he slips into a time loop where he must repeat February 2 again and again and again, waking up to the same annoying alarm clock in the same plain little B&B where he encounters the same people in their mundane daily routines. To Phil, “There's nothing more depressing than small town, USA / and there is no town smaller than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day.”

Ryan Drummond

Phil spins like a small cog in a larger clock, the clock of the day-to-day life we all must lead. Edward T. Morris’s ingenious stage design reminds me of a medieval cosmology where the rotating stage signals the passing of the days while Phil spins in his orbit. Gripped by boredom, he tries to escape “empty smiles in empty faces, the same old places, this stunning stasis” and tries everything from rudeness to cruelty to reckless behavior as he descends into a depression that leads him to creative but unsuccessful (and funny) suicide attempts. It’s a perfect metaphor for addiction where one does the same thing hoping for different results.

Scott Taylor-Cole, Jorge Luis Diaz, Ryan Drummond

While Phil careens through frenzied, frustrated confusion, we learn more about the other townsfolk who are also struggling with their lives. Phil joins two local good old boys, Gus (David Schiller) and Ralph (Jorge Luis Diaz), on a wild ride in a pickup truck where they sing a C&W lament about their routine lives: “I wake up hungover / I go to bed smashed / Like an alcoholic hamster / On one of them little wheelie things…”

In “One Day,” each character in the town voices what they want..some day. Rita Hanson (Rinabeth Apostol), the TV producer Phil tries to impress, sings about finding a real person to love: “...I'd rather be lonely / Than sit on my fanny / Waiting for my prince to come…” Apostol plays Rita with a wonderful mix of humor and skepticism that veils a deep longing for connection. Sophia Introna gives a standout performance with “Playing Nancy,” a heartrending and all-too-common story about a girl who “takes what [she] is given, just to feel the love again.”

Ryan Drummond and Rinabeth Apostol

Trapped in an infinite loop, Phil slowly realizes that it doesn’t matter what he does if he doesn’t connect with others. The passage of time is suggested by Phil’s learning the piano on a spinning stage, going from novice key-plunker to virtuoso over the course of so many days and years, always freshly impressing his teacher (Kathryn Han). His iterative observations of the people around him finally move him toward compassion, and he realizes that he has the chance to redeem himself and help others. Linnard and Apostol sing a beautiful duet “If I had my time again.../ To make mistakes and set them right / Delay the coming of the night.”

"Groundhog Day” is a much needed gift for the spirit, beautifully wrapped in Susi Damilano’s direction and presented by the masterful creative team and ensemble. It’s also a fun speculation on the quantum possibility that the same moment can be revisited, like a spot on Fibonacci spiral.

"Groundhog Day" Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin, Book by Danny Rubin, directed by Susi Damilano. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel, San Francisco, through January 18, 2020. Info:

Production photos by Jessica Palopoli

CAST on December 6, 2019
Rinabeth Apostol* as Rita Hanson
Jorge Luis Diaz as Fred, DJ, Ralph
Dean Linnard* (for Ryan Drummond) as Phil Connors
Kathryn Han as Doris, Piano Teacher
Sophia Introna as Nancy, Joelle, Healer
Larissa Kelloway as Mrs. Lancaster, Healer
Cameron La Brie as Chubby Man, Deputy
Scott Taylor-Cole (for Dean Linnard) as Ned Ryerson
Michael Motroni as Mr. Cleveland, Stormchaser, Elder
Montel Anthony Nord as Jeff, Groundhog, Bartender Billy
Danielle Philapil as Mrs. Cleveland, Stormchaser, Healer
Anthony Rollins-Mullens* as Sheriff, Healer
Bobby Singer (for David Schiller) as Jenson, Elder
Loreigna Sinclair as Debbie, Nurse, DJ
Michael Gene Sullivan* as Buster, Healer
David Schiller (for Scott Taylor-Cole) as Larry, Gus

*Member of Actors' Equity Association

Susi Damilano DIRECTOR
Sydney Isabelle Mayer DRAMATURG

Thursday, December 5, 2019

St. Joan through a Modern Lens

Mother of the Maid

Rosie Hallett, Sherman Fracher, and Scott Coopwood  Photo: Kevin Berne

By Jane Anderson
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley

Until December 15, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

If Joan of Arc were alive today, she might be a media “influencer” with a huge following. Although set in 14th Century France, Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid” has a modern feel that allows us to relate to the whole Joan: Joan the stubborn and outspoken teen, passionate leader, inspired saint, and ordinary girl who calls for her mother in times of suffering.

Mother of the Maid” widens the scope to include how Joan’s rise and demise affects her family, especially her mother Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher), a simple peasant woman occupied with the day-to-day tasks of  maintaining a home while trying to handle a daughter she doesn’t quite understand. Fracher takes her character from everyday exasperation to awed reverence and finally to heartbreaking grief when she tries to save her daughter. Isabelle walks 300 miles to visit her famous daughter in the palace, and Fracher deftly moves between the pride and awkwardness of a peasant who has never imagined such kind treatment of the exquisite court lady, played with regal stature and warm curiosity by an elegant Liz Sklar.

Sherman Fracher  Photo: Kevin Berne

Rosie Hallett gives us a strong, passionate, and stubborn Joan who is driven by her connection to St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and the warrior Archangel Michael to carry out a holy mission to restore the Dauphin to his rightful place as king of France. Hallett shines as the young peasant girl who doesn’t hold back with expletives and becomes the magnificent spiritual warrior who transcends her mortal surroundings. The powers that be seize upon the opportunity to use Joan as a symbol of what is good and noble about France. In a sense, she is put forth to improve the “brand” of the Dauphin and to rally the populace in support.  Why, even her style of mannish dress becomes fashionable for other young girls of the kingdom. Joan is given the royal treatment, literally, securing a spot in the luxurious castle while public acclaim swells. She is joined by her brother Pierre, played with a cocksure demeanor by Brennan Pickman-Thoon, who enjoys the palace benefits as his sister ascends in grace and notoriety, until the rules of the game are changed to demonize her for the very thing she was revered for. She becomes a pawn in  the nefarious machinations of the political religious dynamic of the times, only to be discarded and destroyed.

Rosie Hallett  Photo: Kevin Berne

The chasm of class difference is clear, and Fracher exudes the spirit of a proud but simple woman trying to navigate deep, dark, political, and religious-- waters. Despite the whirlwind of her daughter's life and being awed by Joan’s ascendant transformation, Isabelle’s love for Joan is the true constant. As Joan’s father Jacques Arc, Scott Coopwood gives a fine performance of a man who at first seems preoccupied with everyday concerns until he becomes he steadfastly witnesses his daughter’s cruel execution. Johnson’s device of characters narrating their own stories before moving into action is very effective, creating a story within a story.

Every character experiences profound and complex transformations that are expertly directed by Jasson Minadakis.

Rosie Hallett and Sherman Fracher  Photo: Kevin Berne

Special attention must be paid to Sean Fanning’s versatile and resplendent set design that suggests a peasant’s home as well as a castle. Sarah Smith’s expert costume design is wonderfully detailed and crafted, from the whipstitching on the hems of ragged peasant garb to the sparkling embroidery of the court. You could almost smell the dung balls on the sheep and the perfume of the palace.

"Mother of the Maid" is a powerful production with a superb cast that expands the familiar story of the Maid of Orleans to reveal how families share in the volatile and unpredictable forces of fame.

"Mother of the Maid" by Jane Anderson, directed by Jasson Minadakis, Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley, through December 15, 2019. Info:

*Sherman Fracher: ISABELLE ARC
*Rosie Hallett: JOAN ARC
*Scott Coopwood: JACQUES ARC
*Brennan Pickman-Thoon: PIERRE ARC
*Robert Sicular: FATHER GILBERT

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sweet Treat in "The Cake"

The Cake

J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

By Bekah Brunstetter

Directed by Tracy Ward
New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco

Until December 1, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

To make a perfect cake, “what you have to do is really, truly, follow the directions,” says Della, the proprietor of Della’s Sweets bakery in North Carolina in Bekah Brunstetter’s light but satisfying comedy “The Cake.”

Della is good enough to be a contestant on “The Great American Baking Show” where an unseen announcer booms out instructions in a Godlike British voice to which Della responds in flustered attempts to obey. The “revelations” of the voice, made more dramatic by light from above, get funnier and more absurd throughout the play. Bay area newcomer J. J. Van Name makes Della warm and likable, a good woman who follows the Good Book as closely as a recipe.

Jensen Power and J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

When Jennie (Jensen Power), the lighthearted daughter of Della’s best friend who died five years earlier, comes back to town to announce that she’s getting married and asks Della to make the cake, Della is overjoyed until she learns that the “lucky man” is actually a woman, Macy, a no-nonsense, truth-speaking, Brooklyn-bred black journalist. As much as she loves Jen, Della cannot bring herself to agree to fulfill Jen’s wish. “It just doesn’t sit right,” she finally admits sadly.

Conflicting beliefs, old traditions, fear, and love make for a lumpy batter. A Southern girl at heart, Jen longs for a lovely hometown wedding complete with a white dress, fairy lights, and cake, yet she realizes how much wider her world has become with Macy and their life in Brooklyn. Jensen Power portrays a soul divided in a tug of war of love. An exact opposite of Jen in temperament, Asia Jackson plays a cooly present Macy who cannot abide what the Southern lifestyle offers, from gluten and sugar loaded treats to conservative politics. When Della tries to politely converse with Macy, it’s like watching a dialog between two visitors from different planets.

Observing the genuine love between Jen and Macy, Della begins to realize the limitations of her own life, especially her marriage to her good ole’ boy husband Tim (a charming if not clueless Dixon Phillips). In a scene where Della, aching for physical touch, tries to tempt Tim with buttercream frosting, his confused response reveals the deep and sad dissatisfaction both of these characters have learned to hide over the years. In a powerful monolog, Della laments that her sexual urges bring the shame Eve must have felt when she ate the forbidden fruit, a shame that is passed down like a legacy from generation to generation. In a comedic counterbalance of one of the funniest scenes, Tim later tries to copy Della’s ploy in his own homey way.

Jensen Power, Asia Jackson, and J. J. Van Name Photo:Lois Tema

The optimism of “The Cake” shows that however unlikely, it is possible for change to occur albeit slowly. Given our current volatile political climate, the clash of worldviews could be incendiary if it weren’t for Brunstetter’s gentle touch and compassion for her characters.

A special nod to Carlos Aceves for his ingeniously simple and versatile set that makes Della’s bakery a contained world of delectable sweetness with turntables rotating to reveal alternate scenes.

Like a lovingly prepared buttercream confection, “The Cake” sparkles with a well-crafted script that allows the actors, directed by Tracy Ward, to enhance each other in scenes with surprising humor and revelations that give the audience a tasty treat.

"The Cake" by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Tracy Ward, New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through December 1, 2019. Info:

Della  J. J. Van Name
Macy Asia Jackson 
Tim Dixon Phillips
Jen Jensen Power

Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Tracy Ward 
Scenic design by Carlos Aceves 
Intimacy direction by Arturo Catricala
Costume design by Joanne Martin
Props design by Tom O’Brien
Lighting design by Molly Stewart-Cohn
Sound design by Kalon Thibodeaux

Sunday, October 27, 2019

A Wild and an Untamed Thing

The Rocky Horror Show

D'Arcy Drollinger and Joey Feldman Photo: Nick Otto

Book and Music by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Alex Rodriguez
Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theater, San Francisco

Until November 2, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

What “A Christmas Carol” is to Christmas, "The Rocky Horror Show" is to Halloween. It’s time to do the “Time Warp” again.

For the fifth and final year, Ray of Light Theatre turns the venerable old Victoria Theatre into the freaky funhouse of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who’s “just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.” First produced in 1973, "The Rocky Horror Show" was far ahead of its time in celebrating sexual freedom and gender fluidity in the framework of a silly plot full of old scifi and horror movie tropes, like aliens, a mad scientist, and a creepy house on a dark and stormy night. Most people learned the back-and-forth “liturgy” from the ubiquitous midnight showings of the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” which were full of fun cosplay and talking back to the screen.

Caleb Haven Draper and Courtney Merrell Photo: Nick Otto

Ray of Light Theatre always seems to get the best local talent in everything from acting to costume design, and this production of "The Rocky Horror Show" is no different. As the newly engaged and vacuously “normal” Brad and Janet, Caleb Haven Draper and Courtney Merrell work well off each other’s straight and naive demeanor in “There’s a Light,” and it is fun to watch each of these characters fall into the wild swirl of the night where much is learned. Unfortunately, the inadequate miking made it hard to discern a lot of the lyrics, but hopefully that problem has been fixed.

As Frank-N-Furter’s assistants Riff Raff and Magenta, Randy O’Hara and Jocelyn Pickett are delightfully sleazy and funny in their quirky physicality, as when Magenta’s butt cheek serves as the doorbell. As the outrageous plot devolves even more, John Flaw shines big as both the rock and roll rebel-without-a-brain Eddie and the wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott who later reveals a frilly secret underneath his lap blanket. J. Conrad Frank brings a controlled but hilarious Dame Edna aura to the Narrator who can return audience volleys as fast as they are dealt in a time-honored interactive tradition of the play.

But the absolute star is D’Arcy Drollinger as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, towering above all in a burst of glitter, swagger, seductiveness and humor as he welcomes Brad and Janet into his home and later reveals what he’s been working on in his lab. Not only is Drollinger a sublime drag diva with a deep voice and exquisite moves, he’s a master of comedic timing and acting.

D'Arcy Drollinger and Ensemble Photo: Nick Otto

Speaking of glitter, the costumes designed by Maggie Whitaker are a fantasia of gold lame, leather, sparkles, and chiffon. In shiny, clingy boy shorts, Joseph Feldman as Rocky scampers like a simian trickster let loose in sexual frolic, adding to the delightful chaos.

Scenic design by Peet Cooke makes good use of the small space, such as incorporating a turntable stage to maximize action or using the actors themselves as props. John Bernard’s lighting design intensifies the moods that range from confusion to ecstasy. The live music coordinated by musical director Steven Bolinger is never less than expert. Alex Rodriguez pulls it all together with keen directing and choreography.

Admittedly, people who have never seen or heard "The Rocky Horror Show" may have trouble following the details or lyrics of the plot. For those who know all the words to the outrageous liturgy of Rocky Horror Show, it's not too late to become a "creature of the night."

"The Rocky Horror Show" by Richard O’Brien, directed by Alex Rodriguez, Ray of Light Theatre, Victoria Theater, San Francisco through November 2, 2019.  Info:

Charles Atlas Ad
Kevin Achas (Phantom)Sara Altier (Phantom)
Melinda Campero (Columbia)
Caleb Haven Draper (Brad Majors)
D’Arcy Drollinger (Frank-N-Furter)
Emily Dwyer (Usherette)
Joseph Feldmann (Rocky)
John Flaw (Dr. Scott/Eddie)
J. Conrad Frank (Narrator)
Carlos Guerrero (Phantom)
Melissa Martinez (Phantom)
James Mayagoitia (Phantom)
Courtney Merrell (Janet Weiss)
Spenser Morris (Phantom)
Randy O’Hara (Riff Raff)
Jocelyn Pickett (Magenta)
Caroline Shen (Phantom)

"God Bless Lili St.Cyr"


John Bernard (Lighting Designer)
Steven Bolinger (Music Director)
Connie Caranza (Assistant Stage Manager)
Peet Cocke (Set Designer)
Jerry Girard (Sound Designer)
Madeline Lambie (Assistant Director/Assistant Choreographer)
Anton Hedman (Sound Engineer)
Maggie Whitaker (Costume Designer)

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Loneliness of a Long Day's Journey

Long Day's Journey into Night 

Cathleen Riddley, Victor Talmadge, Kevin Rebultan

By Eugene O'Neill
Directed by Michael Socrates Moran
Ubuntu Theater Project
FLAX Building, Oakland

Until Sunday, November 3, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Long Day's Journey into Night” is a pressure cooker of a play that locks us in with the Tyrone family who dwell in a dreary house by the sea but move past each other like lonely and lost ships in the fog. Eugene O’Neill draws from his own Irish-American roots to portray people gripped by past, present, and future ghosts.

As James Tyrone, the miserly head of the family, Victor Talmadge is a self-righteous, obstinate man who prides himself on providing for his family while withholding needed money for decent medical care for his wife Mary Tyrone, given a delicate vulnerability by Cathleen Riddley who moves like a compass needle looking for true North. Mary revels dreamily in past, happier memories but cowers from reality like a cornered animal desperate to escape. And escape she does, into the temporary peace of morphine prescribed by the low-rate physician hired by James. It would be very easy to lapse into the cliched exaggeration of a crazy “dope fiend,” but Riddley carries her character with dignity and guardedness. It is heartbreaking when Mary’s actions are seen as weakness of character and not cries of pain, but that was not the attitude of early 1900's.

Cellist Andrew Kort and Cathleen Riddley

Jose Rodriguez conveys the deep anger and stubbornness of Jamie, the son who drinks to dull the awareness that he will never be accepted by his father. Kevin Rebultan infuses the character of the consumptive brother Edmund with rage, confusion, and the passion for the most beautiful lines in the play, as when he recounts his time at sea when it was “as if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea….” As with his mother Mary, Edmund is a victim of his father’s closefistedness.

Victor Talmadge, Kevin Rebultan, Jose Rodriguez

This play references addiction, but what wrenches my heart is how each character suffers in utter loneliness. Director Michael Socrates Moran elicits a deep and disturbing energy from his actors, beginning with an opening tableau, silent save for the plaintive cello playing of Alexander Kort, where each character flinches, writhes, and convulses before moving on. The actors tune in to an inner vibrancy that transcends physical types.

As the characters interact with the hallmark rituals of addiction--blame, anger, denial, secrecy, fantasy, self-centeredness--they helplessly watch each other drown, alone.


"Long Day's Journey Into Night" by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Michael Socrates Moran, Ubuntu Theater Project, FLAX Building, Oakland, Th-Sunday through October 20, 2019. Info:

Photos by Carson French

Victor Talmadge* (James Tyrone)
Cathleen Riddley* (Mary Tyrone)
Jose Rodriguez (Jamie Tyrone)
Kevin Rebultan (Edmund Tyrone)
Alexander Kort (Cellist/Ensemble)
*Actors Equity

Director  Michael Socrates Moran
Stage Manager Vanessa Hill
Production Manager Dominick Palamenti
Set Designer Karla Hargrave
Sound Designer Uriah Findlay
Costume Designer Ralph Hoy
Lighting Designer  Stephanie Anne Johnson
Composer Andrew Vargas

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Enduring Fight for Identity


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:

Photos by Kevin Berne

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

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:

All photos by Theatre of Yugen

Watch the trailer:

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:

All photos by Kevin Berne

Monique Hafen Adams*
Patient Griselda, Mrs. Kidd
Michelle Beck*
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*
Nafeesa Monroe*
Joyce, Waitress

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:

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:

"The Flick"

Photography by Ben Krantz Studio | @benkrantzstudio

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

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: