Friday, May 31, 2019

Wordless Resistance to Oppression

Antiwords


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

Directed by Petr Bohac

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

Until June 2, 2019

By Christine Okon

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


“Antiwords” based on “Audience” by Vaclav Havel, directed by Petr Bohac, at San Francisco International Arts Festival, Fort Mason, San Francisco, through Sunday, June 2, 2019.
Info: https://www.sfiaf.org/spitfire_company

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


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A Love that Spans Decades


The View UpStairs


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

By Max Vernon
Directed by Ed Decker

New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness, SF

Until June 9, 2019

By Christine Okon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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





Sunday, May 19, 2019

Bloodthirsty and Bespoke

American Psycho: The Musical


Patrick (Kipp Glass) and Ensemble Photo: Nick Otto

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

Until June 8, 2019

By Christine Okon

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

No, not that guy. But close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Ewalt as Paul Owen Photo: Nick Otto

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

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


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

Ray of Light Theatre
Victoria Theater

Until June 8, 2019

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

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

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Undiscovered and Unexpected

UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY


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

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

Th-Sun until May 19, 2019

By Christine Okon

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

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

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

Ava Roy and Hunter Scott MacNair Photo: Lauren Matley

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

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

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

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


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

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

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





Thursday, May 9, 2019

New Rhythms of the Heart

JAZZ

Dezi Soley and Dane Troy Photo: Kevin Berne

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

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

Until May 19, 2019

By Christine Okon

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

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

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

Ensemble in the past Photo: Kevin Berne

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

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

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

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

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/333218932

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

Marin Theatre Company
marintheatre.org

CAST
*C. Kelly Wright: VIOLET / COUNTRY VIOLET
*Michael Gene Sullivan: JOE TRACE / COUNTRY JOE
Dezi Solèy: DORCAS / WILD
Tiffany Tenille: FELICE / CIGARETTE GIRL / WILD'S SHADOW
Paige Mayes: PARROT / GOLDEN GRAY
*Margo Hall: ALICE MANFRED / TRUE BELLE
*Lisa Lacy: MALVONE / COUNTRY GOSSIP
*Dane Troy: HENRY LEVOY / ACTON / COUNTRY DRUNK / NUMBERS RUNNER

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association

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

Friday, May 3, 2019

The Bonds of Memory and Love

Mother Lear


Ava Roy and Courtney Walsh Photo: Lauren Matley

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

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

By Christine Okon

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

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

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

Mother Lear is a simple and brilliant depiction of a painful drama so many of us share, and it’s fortunate that We Players is making it available to increasingly wider audiences.  To book a performance of Mother Lear, go to http://www.weplayers.org/press-mother-lear

Mother Lear will also be performed at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, Fort Mason Chapel, May 25 & 26, 2019. Tickets: https://www.sfiaf.org/calendar_tickets_2019

See a video of Mother Learhttps://vimeo.com/312280544