Saturday, March 23, 2019

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

La Ronde

Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

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

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

March 14 – April 14, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting Ball Theater
Exit Theater, 277 Taylor St. SF

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

Ensemble - Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunee Simon

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

Watch the trailer:

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Black Eagles: Trouble at Liftoff

Black Eagles

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

Saturday and Sundays Until March 31, 2019

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

Reviewed by Christine Okon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Great Leap: More than a Game

The Great Leap 

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

Until March 31, 2019

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

Reviewed by Christine Okon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wen Chang (BD Wong) Photo by Kevin Berne

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

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

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

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

Single tickets are available at A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at

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

Written by Lauren Yee

Directed by
Lisa Peterson

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

Friday, March 1, 2019

Family Baggage Carried in Her Portmanteau

Her Portmanteau

By Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Victor Malana Maog

American Conservatory Theater
At the Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco

Until March 31, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

In Her Portmanteau, Mfoniso Udofia shows us how the threads of the fabric that we know as FAMILY can be frayed, stretched, broken and ultimately woven back together with a resilience born of loyalty, memory, tradition, humor and love. The story obviously resonated with director Victor Malana Maog for him to present such a crisply paced and moving interpretation.

Part of Udofia's nine-play Ufot Family Cycle, Her Portmanteau begins as the frantic and guarded Nigerian woman Ibiasisi (Eunice Woods) desperately tries to reach someone via a frustrating pay phone at JFK airport (see banner photo, above). She is greeted by a woman bundled up for a New York winter who is there to pick her up; it is her half-sister whom she hasn’t seen for decades and who is now a fully American 30-year-old with her own life and apartment in New York City.  Still filled with suspicion, Ibiasisi resists but reluctantly accepts the offer of a ride.

The rest of the play takes place in Adiaha’s tiny apartment which is full of character and warmth. David Israel Reynosos’s set design is simple and effective; you feel right at home among the furniture, paintings and family portraits.

Kimberly Scott, Aneisa J. Hicks, Eunice Woods Photo: Kevin Berne

We soon meet Abasiama, the mother of both Ibiasisi and Adiaha but with different husbands. She greets Ibiasisi in the Nigerian language Ibibio and just as seamlessly flows into American English with her other daughter Adiaha.

What seems to begin as a simple family visit deepens into an uncovering of deep and long-held beliefs, hurts, betrayals and hope. Guarded hearts, stubborn wills, the vagueness of memory and the persistence of imagination weigh down communication. The expectations of what it means to be a mother, to be a daughter, and to be free are challenged and argued, and frustration flies around in both languages. There is no need to translate the dialog verbatim. The three characters bump around the small apartment, the air sparking with uncleared anger, old feelings of abandonment and deep-rooted grief.

Kimberly Scott fills the character of Abasiama with a mother’s stubbornness, righteousness, concern and humor. Her wisdom is to be valued:  “I did not live to this age to know nothing.”
Aneisa Hicks as the younger sister Adiaha is likable, vulnerable, friendly, patient and open-minded; she is the catalyst for communication, providing a space and means for dialog. And Eunice Woods brings us the stranger-in-a-strange-land Iniabasi who is at once reserved and opinionated, especially when she claims the superiority of an “elder” over her younger sister.

Kimberly Scott and Aneisa J. Hicks Photo: Kevin Berne

When the daughters leave to go for some dinner, Abasiama recognizes Iniabasi’s suitcase as the very same one she used in Nigeria years ago and opens it out of curiosity. What she finds inside (no spoilers here) is an overwhelming treasure that aligns her thoughts and memories with her deepest heart.

As the reality of her discovery sinks in, Abasiama melts into a swirl of memories and regrets and can only utter sounds of joy, surprise, delight with few words. She realizes that grown-up Isiabasi is still the child she left many years ago, a child who needs her mother. When Abasiama realizes the pain she has caused, she cries for forgiveness. Scott is remarkable as a mother who is  turning her soul inside out, spilling it out in sobs, and reaching into years and years of history. Who cannot relate to such outpouring? Love and reconciliation are conveyed by images and actions, not words.

Eunice Woods and Kimberly Scott Photo: Kevin Berne

Udofia’s compact, simple script is as  tightly woven as a meticulously designed and embroidered garment. With the musicality of both Nigerian and English languages, the arc of communication grows from chaotic separation to rich connection.

The beauty of Her Portmanteau is how it so easily resonates with our own familiar experiences, making it a truly engaging theatrical interaction.

Her Portmanteau
Written by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Victor Malana Maog
Through March 31, 2019, at ACT's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $15-$110, and are available at

Aneisa Hicks as Adiaha Ufot
Kimberly Scott* as Abasiama Ufot
Eunice Woods* as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung

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

Playwright Mfoniso Udofia
Director Victor Malana Maog
Scenic Designer David Israel Reynoso
Costume Designer Sarita Fellows
Lighting Designer Yael Lubetzky
Sound Designer Jake Rodriguez
Props Design Associate Jacquelyn Scott
Vocal Coach Lisa Anne Porter
Dramaturg Joy Meads
Casting Director Janet Foster, CSA
Movement Support Danyon Davis
Assistant Director May Liang
Dialect Consultant Mr. Essien E. Idiong
Head Carpenter Dante Clarke
Head Electrician Ana Gabriela Hernandez-McKig
Wigs Supervisor Ksenia Antonoff
Wardrobe Crew Mika Rubenfeld