Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Wakey Up Before It's Too Late

Wakey, Wakey 

Kathryn Smith-McGlynn and Tony Hale Photo: Kevin Berne

Written by Will Eno
Directed by Anne Kauffman
A.C.T Geary Stage, San Francisco

Until February 16, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Wakey Wakey” begins with Guy (Tony Hale) inexplicably lying face down on the stage floor, waiting for a cue to begin. He climbs into a wheelchair and, like a little kid excitedly describing his first day in school to whoever will listen, begins to unspool a rambling commentary of quirky observations of little moments that delight him: cute YouTube animals, scenic landscapes, home movies, a magic eye optical illusion, and countless fast-cut images streaming on a jumbo projection screen. We are immersed in visual and auditory media whether we like it or not. Hale is engaging as Guy, a loner starved for interaction and addicted to digital technology who shares non-stop, almost desperate, bemused observations.

But he is not alone. Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) the caretaker enters; she helps Guy but does not patronize or condescend. They banter in random, freewheeling conversation about the meaning of existence and the preciousness of each moment, and we soon deduce that Guy is at the end of his life. With little time left, he scrambles to harvest small, joyful seconds that are so easy to take for granted: little kids playing, a family picnic, a parade, flowers that fill the screen, a star-filled night sky.

Tony Hale  Photo: Kevin Berne
So yes, the message is clear. Stop and smell the roses, cherish the moment, appreciate what you have, be in the Now. Celebrate life! With balloons! (which actually drop from above to cover the stage. All of this--the images, music, and lighting--are literally in your face. The visual bombardment barely allows us room to think or breathe. And it is this aspect of the play that will divide the audience. Those inclined to swipe left for continuously new sensory input might be excited, while others may see that when technology overpowers meaning, the effect can be gimmicky.

Wakey, Wakey” is like a mashup of the cinematic tone poem “Koyaanisqatsi,” the life lessons of “Desiderata,” and the silly giggles of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Despite the solid acting and innovative staging, "Wakey, Wakey" prods the audience to respond to a surprise electric shock from an ungrounded outlet.

Jeff Wittekiend, LeRoy S. Graham III, Kathryn Smith-McGlynn, Emma Van Lare, Dinah Berkeley

Prior to “Wakey, Wakey” is “The Substitution,” a new A.C.T-commissioned short play also written by Eno that takes place in a community college classroom. It features Kathryn Smith-McGlynn as Ms. Forester, a substitute teacher who inadvertently widens the minds of the students who are there for driver’s ed. The cast of this play, comprised of students from A.C.T’s MFA program, is solid, showing a range of types. Whether the two plays are linked is unclear, which may cause confusion.

"Wakey, Wakey," written by Will Eno, directed by Anne Kaufmann. A.C.T. Geary Stage, San Francisco, through 2/16/20. Info: http://www.act-sf.org

CAST for “Wakey, Wakey”
Tony Hale*  Guy
Kathryn Smith-McGlynn* Lisa

CAST for "The Substitution"
Kathryn Smith-McGlynn* Ms. Forester
Dinah Berkeley** Jennifer
LeRoy S. Graham III** Bobby
Emma Van Lare**   Marisol
Jeff Wittekiend**  Jimmy

* Member, Actor’s Equity Association
** Member, A.C.T’s MFA Program Class of 2020

CREATIVE TEAM                     
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Photography:  Kevin Berne
Scenic and Costume Designer Kimie Nishikawa
Lighting Designer Russell H. Champa
Sound and Projection Designer Leah Gelpe
Choreographer Joe Goode
Voice Coach Christine Adaire
Movement Coach Danyon Davis
Dramaturg Joy Meads

Friday, January 24, 2020

A Life's Journey

Mimi’s Suitcase

Ana Bayat Photo: Bob Hsiang

Written and performed by Ana Bayat
Directed by Elyse Singer
Theatre of Yugen at NOHSpace, San Francisco

Until Jan 25, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Our stories are prized possessions that we may or may not keep hidden in our own baggage that sometimes weighs us donw. In her autobiographical solo show “Mimi’s Suitcase,” Ana Bayat unpacks her experiences as an Iranian teenager dealing with radical changes to her country and herself. Initially coached by W. Kamau Bell, Bayat has honed and polished “Mimi’s Suitcase” over the years, bringing it to audiences around the world and winning prizes at many festivals.

"Mimi’s Suitcase"is the story of a girl growing up, facing the challenges to individuality and resilience any girl encounters coupled with the added stress of a country flipped upside down by revolution.

Ana Bayat Photo: Diaspora Arts Connection

Born in Iran in a time of freedom for women and cultural expression, Mimi spends a happy childhood in Barcelona while her father pursues his wild dream of a Hollywood career that never pans out. Forced to return to Tehran for economic reasons after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mimi and her family stepped into an alternate universe that prohibits any Western influence and punishes women for seemingly trivial acts such as not covering their heads. Like any teenage girl who just wants to have fun, Mimi is shocked but still stays rebellious as she and her friends secretly listened to forbidden music by Madonna, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, and other Western media, showing that joy may be underground but not killed.

Bayat’s story is as rich, diverse, and entertaining as the 27 different characters she fluently voices in four languages (English, Spanish, French and Persian/Farsi) with English supertitles. She celebrates her comedic and dramatic range as she captures the intonations, faces, and gestures of girlfriends chatting about a cute boy to the police officer who pounds threateningly on the door. Bayat moves from scene to scene effortlessly, and we’re right there with her.

Video projections (Tyler Gothier) and animations (Celine Moteau) enhance the stage in some scenes, adding to the visualization of Mimi’s life; in the home movie clip of her father astride a white stallion in an urban environment, he seems to be saying “no matter where you are, Mimi, you always have your dream.”

Although polished to a bright shine, "Mimi’s Suitcase" draws on the audience’s energy to deepen its impact and meaning, and like life itself, is a work in progress.

"Mimi’s Suitcase," written and performed by Ana Bayat, directed by Elyse Singer. Theatre of Yugen at NOHSpace, San Francisco, through January 25, 2020. Info: https://www.anabayat.com/mimissuitcase

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Restless Ache for Home


Valentino Herrera, Mattico David, Denmo Ibrahim
Maya Nazzal, Abraham Makany Photo: Kevin Berne

By Heather Raffo

Directed by Kate Bergstrom
Marin Theatre Company, Marin
with Golden Thread Productions

Extended to Febrary 9, 2020

Reviewed by Christine Okon

A refugee is a restless soul, caught in the gray space between a lost home and an uncertain future. The search for the sense of place, both physical and psychic, is at the heart of “Noura,” Heather Raffo’s heartfelt play about Christian Iraqi refugees who fled war-shattered Mosul to establish a new life in New York City.

It is Christmas Eve in a New York apartment dominated by a huge, festive tree that magnifies the claustrophobic space designed by Adam Rigg. New passports have arrived in the mail for Noura, her husband Tareq and their young son Yazen bearing the Americanized names of Nora, Tim, and Alex. Becoming an American citizen does not quell Noura’s ache for her homeland and culture, and despite Tareq’s desire to celebrate, an agitated Noura escapes to the patio to relish a cigarette and some alone time in the falling snow.

Denmo Ibrahim Photo: Kevin Berne

Denmo Ibrahim creates a powerful Noura, a vibrant, intelligent, conflicted, and passionate woman who paces like a tiger in a cage she will never get used to. She does not share the easy optimism of Tareq (Mattico David) who tries to make the best of his new life as a way to counter the horror of his past as a wartime surgeon. David is convincing as a man who aims to be a good father, husband and American citizen while still exhibiting old cultural attitudes toward female passion. As Yazen, Valentino Herrera plays a typical American kid who has no notion of previous suffering while he plays video games.

All of the pieces are in place for a seemingly happy life, but Noura is torn. Christmas dinner guests arrive, including Rafa’a (Abraham Makany) who is in love with Noura, and a newly arrived Mosul refugee named Maryam (Maya Nazzal) who is tough, self-assured, and pregnant, and to whom Noura gives special attention, the reasons for which are disclosed later. Trained as an architect, Noura tries to create a livable structure for her life and those involved in it, but the foundation is as ephemeral as memory. We don’t totally understand what Noura wants, but we feel her frustration.

Abraham Makany and Denmo Ibrahim Photo: Kevin Berne

Expertly directed by Kate Bergstrom, “Noura” is a powerful, moving glimpse of a woman trapped by custom and limitations of society and culture. The heart of this production is Denmo Ibrahim, depicting a woman who cannot bring herself to rest where she is, stranded between the past and future. This plight of the refugee is mirrored in other productions by the coproduction company Golden Thread Productions, focusing on Middle Eastern plays.

Although the overall effect is moving, “Noura” ends with an uneven pace as surprise questions and resolutions are introduced. Still, it is a very enlightening revelation of refugees and how they deal with challenges to their resilience and connection.

"Noura," written by Heather Raffo, directed by Kate Bergstrom. Marin Theatre Company and Golden Thread Productions, Marin, through February 9, 2020.  Info: info@marintheatre.org

Mattico David*  -  Tareq/Tim
Valentino Bertolucci Herrera  -  Yazen/Alex
Denmo Ibrahim*  -  Noura/Nora
Abraham Makany*  -  Rafa’a
Maya Nazzal  -  Maryam
* Member of Actors Equity Association

Heather Raffo Playwright
Kate Bergstrom Director
Liz Matos* Stage Manager
Adam Rigg  Scenic Designer
Kate Boyd Lighting Designer
Anna Oliver Costume Designer
Nihan Yesil Sound Designer
Nakissa Etemad Dramaturg
Torange Yeghiazarian Cultural Consultant
Lynne Soffer Dialect Coach

+ Member, United Scenic Artists
^ Member, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers