Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Three Plays in Search of Home

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

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

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

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

By Christine Okon

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

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

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

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

Down Here Below

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

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

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

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

Scenes from 71* Years 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

These Roots Are Strong and Deep

In Old Age

Nancy Moricette as Abasiama Udot Photo: Jennifer Riley

written by Mfoniso Udofia
directed by Victor Malana Maog

Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, San Francisco

Until April 21, 2019

Reviewed by Christine Okon

In Mfoniso Udofia’s In Old Age, a dilapidated house is indeed one of three characters with the elderly occupant Abasiama Ufot (Nancy Moricette) and the middle-aged Southern-born handyman Azel Abernathy (Stephen Anthony Jones).

Nancy Moricette Photo: Jennifer Riley

In a darkened living room with a pictureless television playing gospel music, a figure is cocooned in a pile of blankets on a worn couch. Insistent knocking on the front door stirs Abasiama to get up and warily shuffle to investigate the unexpected visitor. It turns out that Abasiama’s daughter had hired Azel Abernathy through the church to repair her mother’s house, starting with the floors.

Nancy Moricette brings a frail but unstoppable stubbornness to this elderly Nigerian matriarch. She’s “African AND old,” as Azel later comments, explaining Abasiama’s quirkiness of living in the modern world while connecting to unseen but palpable spirits. Like a deep-rooted baobab tree, the old house grips Abasiama in a tangle of unhappy memories of subjugation, dissatisfaction, and misery. She still argues with husbands who have since died, but whose "random stuff" shrinks her personal space so much that she retreats to the safety of the couch. The walls shudder and bang with loud thuds that are real as verbal threats to Abasiama, but she manages to hold her own.

Stephen Anthony Jones as Azel and Nancy Moricette at Abasiama Photo: Jennifer Riley

Azel comes to work on the floor over a period of days. When Abasiama asks several times “What kind of man are you?” he is at first puzzled and somewhat annoyed, but the question plants a seed in his mind. Stephen Anthony Jones creates an amiable but complex and conflicted Azel who, as he replaces each worn wooden plank with new cherrywood, learns more about himself and the cantankerous Abasiama who grows more and more alive and engaged.

Playwright Udofia reaches beyond the verbal layer of language into the realm of the heart. One person’s noise is another’s meaning. A thud to one is a scream to another. In a moving scene where Azel and Abasiama voice each other’s secret thoughts, we are invited to listen in a new way, too.

Nancy Moricette and Stephen Anthony Jones Photo: Jennifer Riley

Lighting (York Kennedy), Sound (Sara Huddleston) and Set (Andrew Boyce) designs are essential to the story, moving us from a cluttered abode of loneliness to a simpler space of hope. Sometimes it was hard to understand Abasiasma’s heavily accented words or to see past a wicker laundry basket blocking the action. Despite these minor distractions, In Old Age is a beautifully crafted and directed play that weaves gold thread from ancient roots into a modern, intricate and rich garment.

In Old Age

written by Mfoniso Udofia
directed by Victor Malana Maog+

Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, San Francisco

Until April 21, 2019
Run Time: 1:45 (No Intermission)

Azel Abernathy

Abasiama Ufot

* Member of Actor’s Equity Association

Set Design - Andrew Boyce**
Costume Design - Courtney Flores
Lighting Design - York Kennedy**
Sound Design - Sara Huddleston

**Member of United Scenic Artists local 829

+Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Jungle: Theater as Call to Action

The Jungle

Okot (John Pfumojena) Photo: Little Fang
Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Until May 19, 2019

Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Today's news overwhelms us with images of displaced, huddled and disdained refugees such as the little Syrian boy lying face down in the sand, drowned in an attempt to flee his ravaged homeland. There is no shortage of such images.

Now imagine being in a ramshackle restaurant with dirt floors in one of the dozens of camps near Calais, France where thousands of Kurdish, Syrian, Somali, Eritrean, Afghan, Palestinian, Iranian and Iraqi refugees are trying to survive while waiting for their "good chance" of reaching the safe haven of England just across the channel.

Mahelet (Bisserat Tseggai) and
Helene (Nahel Tzegai) Photo: Little Fang
Welcome to The Jungle, a powerfully immersive play that recreates the experience of living in a refugee camp in a landfill off a roadway. Written by British playwrights Joe Murphy and Joe Roberston, who as volunteers started the Good Chance Theater in the camp, The Jungle was staged in England and New York before arriving at the Curran Theater.

The Curran Theater's plush seats and lovely decor are gone, radically transformed by Miriam Beuther’s set design. (See the development of the set at https://sfcurran.com/the-currant/articles/2019-2/). Audience members are packed elbow-to-elbow on backless benches in front of long wooden tables under a makeshift ceiling of  cardboard, tarps, fabric, and miscellaneous items. More than 20 performers weave through the audience, some offering chai tea in Styrofoam cups, as we learn we're in a restaurant managed by Salar (a wise and passionate Ben Turner) as the sound (designed by Paul Arditti) of loud bulldozers and roadway traffic periodically shakes the room.

Our guts tighten with fear, curiosity or excitement as we try to make sense of the chaos. A young boy is killed by a truck on the road and the grieving community unites in a Muslim burial service.

(L-R) Mohammed (Jonathan Nyati), Sam (Tommy Letts),
and Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) Photo: Little Fang
A narrator enters--Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad)--to provide perspective as the story shifts to months earlier when the refugees reveal how they fled their homelands to escape  destruction, threats, poverty and death.

 Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) and
Okot (John Pfumojena) Photo: Little Fang
The play is framed around the interactions between a handful of refugees seeking a home  and a group of well-meaning UK volunteers who want to mitigate the problems of housing, food, childcare and medicine within the larger sphere of hostile anti-immigrant sentiment in French society. We identify with the plight of these people as we hear stories of the hell they went through to get as far as they did.

The Jungle is beyond theater. It beckons us to care and invites us to take action by learning more about the plight of refugees everywhere. One way to start is by visiting  goodchange.org.uk/america.  Watching the news will never be the same.

The Jungle
 Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin. Through May 19. Two hours, 50 minutes. $25-$165. Curran theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, 415-358-1220. https://sfcurran.com









CATHERINE LUEDTKE -- Angela, u/s Paula




ZARA RASTI -- Little Amal


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




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

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


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



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






Set Designer

Costume Designer

Lighting Designer

Sound Designer


Video Designer

Video Designer

UK Casting

US Casting

US Casting

US Casting

Executive Producer

Music Director

Stage Manager

Friday, April 5, 2019

Keep on Singing..Keep on Dancing


From Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Translated by Paul Schmidt
A new theatre piece directed by Mark Jackson & Beth Wilmurt

Until April 21, 2019

Shotgun Players / Ashby Stage / Berkeley

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Kill the Debbie Downers! Kill them! Kill them! Kill them off! squeezes juicy berries of absurdity from Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters into a heady liqueur of song, dance, play..and an accordion! At the Shotgun Players Ashby Stage until April 21, Kill the Debbie Downers..., directed by Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt, answers Chekhov’s suggestion to “Have a look at yourself and see how bad and dreary your lives are.”

Gabby Battista, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Amanda Farbstein, Nathaniel Andalis, Sam Jackson

Three Sisters, like many of Chekhov’s plays, is a study in the stir-craziness of existential cabin fever as desperate characters try to preserve their spirit by living in the past, concocting trouble, or dreaming of a distant and better future without taking action to effect change.

Like the room in Sartre's No Exit, the setting of Kill the Debbie Downers... is an estate living room shrouded in a routine where the same lines are repeated over and over, the same clock chimes again and again, and the same conflicts grow in intensity. The three sisters are Olga (a solid Sam Jackson), the oldest and most pragmatic; Irina (a giddy Gabby Battista), the youngest  who fantasizes about love and the nobility of work; and Masha (a graceful and determined Erin Mei-Ling Stuart), the middle and most sardonically weary sibling. Amanda Farbstein seems to enjoy playing the annoying and controlling Natasha, as Nathaniel Andalis joins in as the quirky and distanced Solyony while Billy Raphael steps in as needed with witty observations as Dr. Chebutyken. We don’t see other characters such as the brother Andrey who has “Andrey’s happy song, it’s not long...” sung by the sisters who encourage the audience to join in. Nor do we see the commanding officer Vershinin who is reduced to a military cap with which Masha holds a conversation.

Billy Raphael

Everyone living so close together in a loop of reminiscing and annoyances is bound to create friction, so the only outlet is to do something, anything to dispel the dismal boredom such as move chairs around in practiced choreography, play silly games, chide one another, sing songs, make music and dance.

Gabby Battista, Amanda Farbstein, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Billy Raphael, Nathaniel Andalis

The music is diverse, unique and memorable, and it’s worth it to check out the show’s playlist on Spotify at this link 

Kill the Debbie Downers... reminds us to seize the moment and grab as much fun as you can before we die. It’s as simple as that, and I bet Chekhov would have loved it.

From Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters
Translated by Paul Schmidt
Directed by Mark Jackson & Beth Wilmurt

Until April 21, 2019
Shotgun Players 
Run time is 2 hours without an intermission.

All Photos by Robbie Sweeny 

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

Helen Frances, Wardrobe Supervisor
Anton Hedman, Sound Engineer
Mark Jackson, Co-Director
Devon LaBelle, Props Designer
Jessica McGovern, Production Assistant
Ray Oppenheimer, Lighting Designer
Alice Ruiz, Costume Designer
Muriel Shattuck, Stage Manager
Adeline Smith, Scenic Charge Painter
Caitlin Steinmann, Master Electrician
Mikiko Uesugi, Set Designer*
Beth Wilmurt, Co-Director
Sara Witsch, Sound Designer

*Member of United Scenic Artists Local 829

See he original Debbie Downer on Saturday Night Live

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

What Would Helen Do?


Leticia Duarte and Adrian Deane Photo: Devlin Shand

By Ellen McLaughlin

Directed by Shannon R. Davis

Theatre of Yugen
2840 Mariposa St. San Francisco 

Until April 27, 2019 (Fri-Sun)

Reviewed by Christine Okon

In Ellen McLaughlin’s modern spin on Euripides’ classic play about the legendary and iconic beauty, the main character in Helen paces like a bored Hollywood star anxious for a callback in a lavish Egyptian hotel suite with nothing to do except swat flies, tend to her beauty regimen, and wait...for what? For news? For rescue? She herself does not know.

In this production of Helen, Theatre of Yugen steps beyond McLaughlin’s script to widen the palette of race and gender identity to explore the challenges of image vs. reality.  Director Shannon R. Davis taps into the skills of her diverse cast, a fusion of Asian, White, Native American, and non-binary gender actors, to bring us a fun, fast-paced, surprising whirl of interactions that move faster than preconceived notions can dry.

Remote and isolated from the warring world of Troy, Helen’s exposure to reality is limited to what she sees on the insipid and limited room television. She craves hearing stories from her dutiful, sardonic and somewhat bored servant (played with detached and often hilarious wit by Leticia Duarte). As Helen, Adrian Deane navigates moments from selfish obliviousness to the shaky self-doubt that can lead to change.

Helen Wu and Adrian Deane Photo: Devlin Shand

Helen receives her first visitor in Io whom the jealous Hera had turned into a cow. Helen Wu brings a carefree giddiness to this character in a delightful fur-and-glitter outfit, complete with cute floppy ears, that was collaboratively designed by Ariel Quinell-Silverstein, Davis, and Wu to connote both royalty and whimsy. After a fun but shallow chat with Helen, Io exits via the "elevator" that dings offstage.

Adrian Deane and Steven Flores Photo: Devlin Shand

Later, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, barges in to remind Helen of the damage she has caused civilization. In a fantastic and exciting costume that transcends gender (perhaps inspired by Burning Man, Braveheart or Game of Thrones?), Athena (played with true warrior spirit by Stefanie Foster) forces Helen to take a hard look in the mirror to realize her limitations.

Shaken, Helen’s certainty about her identity and beauty further dissipates when she gets no help from her final visitor and perceived rescuer-husband Menelaus, played by Steven Flores with the tortured intensity of a universal soldier damaged by every war from ancient times to the present.

Adrian Deane and Steven Flores Photo: Devlin Shand

Coming to terms at last with her limitations, Helen is challenged by the wise servant to risk leaving the room into the unknown world that may or may not lead to the discovery of her own story. What does she do?

In its recent expansion of scope beyond traditional Japanese theater  to include more culturally diverse and international stories, Theatre of Yugen has succeeded in infusing this Helen with real energy and relevance.

By Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Shannon R. Davis

Theatre of Yugen at NOH Space
2840 Mariposa St. San Francisco 
 (415) 621-0507

Until April 27, 2019
Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 8pm, Sundays at 1:30pm
Saturday, April 20 & 27 also at 1:30pm

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

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

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