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Mr. In-Between



STAGE During a lively discussion of aesthetics, Lord Henry Wotton (John Fisher) and painter Basil Hallward (Jef Valentine) pry open a Pandora’s box of idolatry, narcissism, and moral quicksand called The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde, author of the novel, is of course the aesthete par excellence. But this genuinely creepy, darkly sexy, and thought-filled Gothic — now imaginatively brought to life on the stage by Theatre Rhinoceros artistic director and playwright-director Fisher (Medea, the Musical) — reminds us that Wilde was a man prone to paradoxes that were anything but facile.

If Wilde was uncompromising in his aestheticism (not to mention his admirable embrace of social frippery), these qualities came charged with a devastating, subversive wit and an unquiet, compassionate intellect prone to probing questions about so-called human nature, as well as the nature of the social world he had inherited (still familiar in its essentials today, a century later). In a way, Dorian Gray is the dark dramatic counterpart to Wilde’s “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” his still must-read essay on the cultivation of the individual as the basis of a just society and vice-versa.

But to the play. The preternaturally beautiful young man of the title (essayed here with the perfect balance of innocence and ruthlessness by a captivating Aaron Martinsen) is a privileged orphan who comes under the wing of a painter, but the hierarchy is immediately inverted: it is Basil who comes under the power of the initially oblivious Dorian. So possessed (as opposed to merely “inspired”) is Basil by his subject that he paints a portrait well beyond his usual powers and jealously guards it from public eyes. Reluctantly introducing the boy to his friend, the consummate aristo-hedonist Lord Henry (played with a slightly brooding manner and delicate raunch by Fisher), Basil loses Dorian to the pull of Watton’s morally unbounded worldview. Soon Dorian utters a fateful wish: his soul in exchange for the eternal youth represented by his portrait. Wish granted, the portrait bears all the scars of aging and debauchery and evil in his stead, as he spirals into a moral abyss that consumes more than one life along the way.

In the principle roles, Fisher, Valentine, and Martinsen are worthy vehicles for the play’s elevated language and heightened realism. Valentine’s smart and engaging performance as Basil carries real weight and is a fresh surprise coming from a talented actor seen more often in drag than “straight” clothes (though even here, his natty, late-19th-century threads and pointed mustachio suggest a refugee from a barber shop quartet). The principals get strong support from Maryssa Wanlass and Celia Maurice in a variety of parts, and inconsistent help from the hard-working but less versatile Stephen Chun and Adam Simpson.

Fisher’s staging is apt and frequently inspired in a manner that suits the idea-driven material. The Eureka’s ample stage remains empty but for the odd chair, with an occasional sheen of light and shadow (from lighting designer Anthony Powers) suggesting the outdoors. This stark approach emphasizes the actors, whose smart period costumes, courtesy of the able Christine U’Ren, do most of the visual work in setting a period mood. The play’s characters are serenely unmoored in a way that compliments the story’s moral drift, swift conflation of time, and ethereally — and sexually — in-between quality.

Balletic, operatic touches (including light but compelling movement from choreographer Lia Metz, amid occasional bursts of Wagner and other Romantics) enhance the more lurid moments lovingly, while filling out the action with the most economical yet graceful of gestures. When modest theater actress Sybil Vane (a sharp and appealing Wanlass), victim of Dorian’s caprice, jumps to her death, the moment shifts from sturm und drang to a tragic tranquility. The actress throws up her hands and recedes slowly backward upstage, already of another world, as the back wall stops her cold, her vertical pose perfectly in line with the audience’s sight line as it follows her down to the ground.

The production has minor flaws. Chun and Simpson speak into offstage microphones to substitute for onstage servants and other minor parts, and the disparities within sound quality and volume, along with the tossed-off line readings, prove jarring. But any missteps are small ones. Moreover, despite a nearly three-hour run time, the play’s length isn’t a problem. Every word of Wilde’s put to use here — and Fisher has elegantly managed to include a lot of them — feels relevant, enticing, and necessary. If anything, the subtlety and thematic density of the speech demands a certain period of adjustment, and the two sets amount to full immersion in the heart of Dorian Gray. *


Wed.–Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 3 p.m.;

(through Sept. 19); $15–$20

Eureka Theatre

215 Jackson, SF

(800) 838-3006


The final act



FALL ARTS The Brother/Sister Plays The most anticipated event of a rather sparkling fall theater lineup is surely this triptych of plays penned by a 20-something playwright being hailed as a vital new voice in American theater. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s celebrated trilogy, which premiered at New York’s Public Theater, delves with potent language and exceptional theatrical imagination into the lives of ordinary people in the bayous of Louisiana, its setting and themes made more urgent than ever in the wake of manmade catastrophe in the gulf. To make room for this epic work, three of San Francisco’s leading theaters are collaborating in the presentation of all three plays, with mid-September seeing the unveiling of In the Red and Brown Water at Marin Theatre Company and The Brothers Size at the Magic, and October following with Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet at ACT. Sept.–Oct., various venues; www.brothersisterplays.org.

How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? Ralph Lemon began as a dancer/choreographer but has evolved into an interdisciplinary artist of broad scope and rigorous invention. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts presents his latest multimedia piece, which unfurls in four separate events or chapters, together combining live performance, visual art and film in various spaces. Oct. 7-9, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; www.ybca.org.

Etiquette This half-hour, site-specific, audience-as-actor piece from lauded London-based experimental theater company Rotozaza plants two willing participants at a time in a San Francisco eatery (The Grove on Mission Street), wearing headphones that feed them their lines and actions. First launched in London in 2007, the globetrotting piece arrives in SF. Sept. 16-Oct. 3, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, www.ybca.org.

The Companion Piece A vaudeville duo struggle to cobble together their floundering opening act alongside the aesthetic perfection of the Headliner, as Z Space at Theater Artaud presents a new devised work conceived by actor Beth Wilmurt and directed by Mark Jackson. But this opportunity is more than the finished piece, which is still evolving ahead of its premiere in early 2011. This fall, audiences are invited into the process — by walking into the theater or watching streaming video online. Check the Z Space website for details. Jan. 16- Feb. 26, 2011, Z Space; www.zspace.org

Coraline It started as a book; it was made into a stop-motion animated feature; now it’s a musical brought to life by composer Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields) and playwright David Greenspan (She Stoops to Comedy; Dead Mother). Together they compliment the decidedly weird imagination of author Neil Gaiman, a latter-day Lewis Carroll of the children’s fiction genre who penned this creepy-funny story of a little girl’s battle against chaos and evil in a bizarre world just on the other side of the drawing room door. This West Coast premiere by astute presenter SF Playhouse will mark only the second production of Coraline after its initial off-Broadway run in 2009. Nov. 16–Jan. 15, SF Playhouse; www.sfplayhouse.org.

Compulsion Berkeley Rep, New York’s Public Theater. and Yale Repertory Theatre present Rinne Groff’s play based on the life of writer Meyer Levin and his complex obsession with producing his own version of a play based on the diary of Anne Frank. The Public’s Oscar Eustis, who cut his teeth at San Francisco’s storied Eureka Theater in the 1980s setting, among other things, Angels in America aloft, returns to the Bay Area to direct lead Mandy Patinkin amid a cast augmented by marionettes. Sept. 13-Oct. 31, Berkeley Rep; www.berkeleyrep.org.

San Francisco Fringe Festival A perennial, a pearl, a Road Trip to Pluto (judging by one title), the Exit Theatre–sponsored San Francisco Fringe Festival is always a trip. Sept. 8–19, various venues; www.sffringe.org.

Port Out, Starboard Home I recently saw a staged reading of this new work from New York playwright Sheila Callaghan at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. While Callaghan is still developing the piece with producing company foolsFURY, it seems clear the finished product — set aboard a mysteriously intense cruise liner among a group of vacationing seekers in the material world — should be well worth a look. But this production has yet to find a safe harbor. It will apparently be docking at a theater near you this fall. Date and venue TBD; www.foolsfury.org.

Failure to Communicate Performers Under Stress (PUS) opens its season with a new work of physical theater channeling the perspectives and inner visions of students and teachers at an inner-city high school for severely behavior disordered, emotionally disturbed, learning disabled children, based on the teaching experiences of the company’s managing director, Valerie Fachman. Oct. 29-Nov. 14, The Garage; www.pustheatre.com

Anton in Show Business (Sept. 2–Sept. 26) Three nightmare actresses come together in San Antonio, Texas, for a dismaying production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in Jane Martin’s 2001 award-winning send-up of the theater world. Oakland’s ever able TheatreFIRST leads off its new season with this swift and ruthless backstage comedy, helmed by artistic director Michael Storm and featuring a strong all-female cast meting out satirical justice to the men and women (and critics) of the art form and the dubious cultural landscape at large. Sept. 2-26, Marion E. Greene Black Box Theater; www.theatrefirst.com.

New and improv-ed


The launching of the San Francisco Improv Festival, back in 2004, signaled a major resurgence for improvisational theater in the Bay Area, long dominated by the exceptional BATS (Bay Area Theatre Sports) and related groups, but recently joined by a host of newer outfits as well. The rollicking festival attracted eager audiences, while bringing together a somewhat disparate local and intergenerational community of improvisers with national and even international acts. There was cross-pollination everywhere, in meetings on and offstage between players and groups, in workshops and master classes, and of course in many a bar. It all contributed to the latest wave in a tradition of Bay Area improv that reaches back to the storied days of the Committee in the 1960s.

Then things got rocky as well as rollicking as SFIF organizers shifted around and founding members headed to other projects and/or climes, culminating in last year’s hiatus. The cancellation of SFIF 2009 might have been more discouraging had not the members of Crisis Hopkins, the San Francisco–based improv and sketch comedy troupe, thought fast and leaped into the breach, organizing a last-minute smorgasbord they called the Temporary Improv Festival. Still, while TIF proved a modest success, the name alone inadvertently contributed to an impression that the peak might have already occurred.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As if to prove the point, SFIF has risen once more, like a soggy phoenix from a still-cresting wave. The revival of SFIF, which comes under new Crisis-led management, frankly looks more ambitious than ever. It even comes with an iPhone app.

“Which is ridiculous,” says Sam Shaw, Crisis Hopkins member and a cofounder of SFIF in 2004. “The people I’m working with — including Anthony Veneziale from The Freeze, and Jamie Wright, Cassidy Brown, Chris Hayes, and Chris Libby — we’ve come up with these little touches that I never would have thought of. We’re going to have a food truck for primetime shows hanging out in front of the [Eureka] theater. We’ve got Solstice, this bar in Pacific Heights, [to] help us serve alcohol, so we’ll have a full bar. There’s a lot going on.”

Of course, the real meat is in the shrewd and eclectic programming. In addition to a generous number of local, national, and international troupes, SFIF 2010 is hosting workshops (including an already sold-out improv “boot camp” with Armando Diaz) and inaugurating the SFIF Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Improv Community, which this year goes to beloved veteran performer Barbara Scott of BATS, True Fiction Magazine, Tonal Chaos, and other groups.

Also among the special events is an intriguing “Look Back at The Committee,” featuring a panel discussion with founding director Alan Myerson and other unannounced guests in conversation with improv historian and Monty Python pal Kim “Howard” Johnson. Shaw says this last event, connecting the improv scene with some of its heftier roots, realizes a long-held dream.

“I cofounded the fest with Shaun Landry in 2004, and ever since then I’ve wanted to do a program on The Committee. It was San Francisco’s Second City from 1963 to 1973,” he explains. “They did topical political satire; they did sketch comedy and improvisation.” Led for a time by the wildly influential improv director-performer Del Close, The Committee also spearheaded major developments in the form, in particular an exciting long-form structure called the Harold (a name coined by Committee musical director Allaudin Mathieu). “It’s like a 30-minute riff on a topic where the audience goes along for the ride,” says Shaw. “And it was born in San Francisco.”

Half-way out in the year from SF Sketchfest, the popular comedy showcase held each January, and centered in the same 200-seat venue downtown, SFIF looks more than ever like a natural compliment to its unaffiliated cousin. “We love Sketchfest, and we love doing it every year,” says Shaw, who notes the complimentary aspects to their programming as well. As for the Festival’s performance roster, the names alone tantalize. OJ in a Sippy Cup, for instance, just sounds refreshing.

“OJ in a Sippy Cup is a pretty awesome name,” admits Shaw. “They’re a duo from New York City, and they’re very fun. I have to say that I love the name Slave Leia. That’s an all-woman improv team from L.A.” Among other highlights, Shaw points to Men: A User’s Guide, “a really exciting duo from the Netherlands. They’re very highly trained long-form performers doing a show on men and men’s issues, and it’s just hilarious.” He sheds light on an enigmatic title, The Super-Dupers: Doo-Wop-Ner. “That is going to be doo-wop small claims court improvising,” he says, clearly impressed. “Their submission just said ‘doo-wop small claims court.’ And we let them in.”

Clearly, one take-home lesson is the sheer variety of improv out there. The common denominator remains the all-inclusive collaboration in the moment, in which audiences participate to varying degrees. “The fourth wall is very porous,” agrees SFIF’s executive producer Jamie Wright, a Bay Area native who came to improv from afar while bartending at Amsterdam’s famous Boom Chicago comedy club. But he stresses that interaction shouldn’t sound intimidating. “I’m an improviser and even I don’t like getting singled out by a comedian. Improv is really inviting, a very joyful thing to go to and watch. It’s also impressive. You are going to see something completely unique, and you’re going to be part of it — one way or another.”


Aug. 12–21, $15–$50

Eureka Theater

215 Jackson, SF

(800) 838-3006


Put on a happy face



THEATER Twenty-first-century post-9/11 gay America doesn’t get a makeover in Paul Rudnick’s new collection of short plays, it goes out for one. Rudnick (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told; Valhalla) surveys the state of the gay nation through four small, broadly comical vignettes in three far-flung American locales — all slouching toward Manhattan — and finds it taking itself and everything else far too seriously.

Admittedly, this is an opportune moment for some accounting. The Proposition 8 battle rages its way toward the Supreme Court; the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy looks set to become a quaint anachronism; and in another cunning argument for atheism, the bishop of Essen, Germany — hip-deep in an ongoing clerical sexual abuse scandal — has just declared that all gays are bound for hell.

Time sashays on. But The New Century, taking its local bow in director George Maguire’s sporadically effective production at New Conservatory Theatre Center, already feels a bit stale, despite dependable one-liners from its witty playwright.

In the first playlet, "Pride and Joy," well-to-do Jewish mother Helene Nadler (Marie O’Donnell, in a smart skirt and blouse and a less well-fitting New York accent) addresses us from the linoleum floor of a school auditorium. Backed by a banner whose utter inclusiveness demands the most estranging acronym, Helene relates her determination to be "the most loving mother of all time" in the face of three children whose homosexual orientations range from the hum-drum to the downright pootré ("In this house we use the toilet," she tells son David, "not a friend from Tribeca!"). The spirit of can-do parenting achieves a kind of crescendo when David (Seth Michael Anderson) briefly appears in full BDSM attire.

"Mr. Charles, Currently of Palm Beach" opens on the eponymous late-night cable-access flaneur (a solid Patrick Michael Dukeman) in an explosion of pastel finery. He’s a former Manhattanite forced into South Florida exile, we are told, for being "too gay." True to form, Mr. Charles flounces about in unabashed embrace of his self-proclaimed title as the last of the true queens. Answering viewer letters, he reads, "Mr. Charles, do you enjoy gay theater?" and responds, with perhaps too much truth, "I am gay theater!" Assistant Shane (Anderson) brings the beefcake to this on-air party, whose point again has to do with the embrace of radical — if heavily stereotyped — difference over conformity to the dreary American norm.

"Crafty," the third playlet, offers yet another angle, this one from a not so with-it but terribly handy mother from Decatur, Ill., (a sharp, genial Deborah Rucker) addressing the Junior Chamber of Commerce with her eye-poking assortment of craft treasures. "Crafts allow me to express myself," she says sweetly, "to create something worth dusting!" As she reminisces about her gay son Hank, a talented Broadway designer long dead of AIDS, we find an expansive note of acceptance peaking out from an unlikely assortment of tea cozies and sock monkeys.

All points and characters converge in the eponymous closer, set in a Manhattan maternity ward. There, Mr. Charles trains his "gay ray" on the next generation, and Shane describes an epiphany at the site of the old WTC brought on by the Century 21 sign beaming in neon above it. To Shane, the discount chain is like Prozac with parking, offering a way out of everyone’s funk. "It’s like if Patti LuPone were a store," he enthuses. That image of a new material neon dawn rising over the emptiness of ground zero is probably about right. But is it really so great or new?


New Conservatory Theatre Center

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (through July 11), $22–$40

25 Van Ness, SF


Deep red bells


A few months ago, Impact Theater premiered Enrique Urueta’s Learn to Be Latina, a raucous satire of market-driven multiculturalism that pivoted on the ethnic dos-and-don’ts of the music industry. That production only partly prepares one for Crowded Fire’s premiere of the Bay Area playwright’s latest effort, Forever Never Comes. There’s a notable strain here of the effervescent humor that propelled Latina (beginning with Forever ‘s blithe subtitle, A Psycho-Southern Queer Country Dance Tragedy), as well as a similar concern with the trials of cultural and sexual identity, familial roots, and the will to be oneself. But Forever is a darker, more complex story, a working-class gothic that draws inspiration from Urueta’s own background as a gay Latino growing up in a small Virginia town. But if the play’s reach is admirably wider, its focus is disappointingly fuzzier.

Its central character is Sandra (Marilet Martinez), a young Latina burdened with guilt after the suicide of her gay brother Ricardo (Shoresh Alaudini), and living again in semirural South Boston, Va., with her sad, widowed mother (Carla Pantoja) whose first language is somewhat ominously slipping away from her like her disintegrating family.

Sandra, stalked by a mysterious demon named the Fox Confessor (Lawrence Radecker), “has a debt to pay” associated with feelings of culpability for her brother’s death, and Fox Confessor is keen to collect it, haunting her dreams (including in several ghostly folk dance sequences) and menacing her small circle of friends and loved ones. Although the other characters do not see him, we witness this mischievous, brooding underworld figure alternately pacing the stage or revealed, courtesy of Marilee Talkington’s eerie video design, in isolated “snapshots” of the action that appear projected onto a screen at the back.

While running from what seems like the mythological incarnation of her grief-stricken conscience, Sandra reconnects hesitantly with ex-girlfriend Deborah, now called Dylan (a compelling Kathryn Zdan). A transgender preop bent on escape to San Francisco, Dylan is back in town to visit her pregnant unwed sis, Beth Ann (Marissa Keltie), on the eve of their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. Dylan remains smitten with Sandra. Sandra, however, seems almost as uncomfortable with Dylan’s physical transformation as Dylan’s mother (Michele Levy), a compulsively chatty, addled woman stunned into a rare moment of silence by the unexpected arrival of her one-time daughter.

Beth Ann, meanwhile, negotiates life with her oddball family; haunted best friend Sandra; and abusive, domineering boyfriend Hunter (a solid Daniel Petzold) while confining herself to soda pop at the local watering hole and doing her best not to smoke another Virginia Slim. Soon a tragic accident — if it is an accident and not the handiwork of the increasingly impatient Fox Confessor — throws everyone off-balance, and Dylan and Sandra back into each other’s arms, while setting up a parallel between two grief-stricken households and their contrasting crises of identity and unity. As Fox Confessor stirs up more and more trouble, the way forward remains unclear, multiple possible endings hovering over the action thanks to an out-of-sequence scene in which Sandra and Dylan flee for the West Coast in a blood-stained car.

Sandra and Dylan’s relationship adds momentum to the story, which otherwise tends to dissipate among its various subplots. Ironically, the central issue of Sandra’s guilt and her debt to Fox Confessor lacks the requisite poignancy and urgency, at least partly because there’s little sense of a relationship between Sandra and her deceased brother (who has only a flickering afterworld presence here, despite a key intervention near the end). The only hint of a tangible sibling connection comes when Sandra, in one of the more comical moments, repeats Ricardo’s detailed impressions of San Francisco to Dylan, at length and seemingly verbatim.

Director Mary Guzmán (who also helmed Learn to Be Latina) gets some nice performances across a generally strong cast. But the staging — around Emily Greene’s elegantly elemental thrust stage, complete with intermittent sheets of rain heralding Fox Confessor’s serious mischief — can be lackluster. The dose of underworld dosey doe, for example, proves sluggish and repetitive, despite sound designer Colin Trevor’s steady injections of the gorgeously moody songs of Neko Case. In the end, the play’s defiantly romantic spirit has charm, but Forever Never Comes leaves too much hanging.


Wed-Sat, 8 p.m. (through June 26), $10–$30

Boxcar Playhouse

505 Natoma, SF

(800) 838-3006



Sexy, seedy, comical



THEATER Downwind from a sprawling industrial pig farm stands a shabby little motel under new management. It’s maybe not what Business Week would call an auspicious location, but then proprietor Asuncion Boyle (Chad Deverman) is not your average entrepreneur. His enterprise — registered in marketing decisions like a bar that serves only one drink: “The Pissed-off Son of a Bitch” — is the overthrow of capitalism, one loathsome pig farmer at a time. Moreover, his first target, swaggering Texas dealmaker Charles Masterson (an extremely impressive Keith Burkland), is far from arbitrary. Asuncion — or “Assy” as his kinky lover and Charles’ trophy wife Lola (a compelling Madeline H.D. Brown) likes to call him — stalks the man he blames for his mother’s suicide many years before.

“This is about social justice, not revenge,” insists our somewhat addled if cocksure protagonist. It’s pretty clear no one else believes him, but Lola still proves a willing accomplice, even after she learns of the origin of their affair in his plot to buy her husband’s pig farm in foreclosure and turn it into a desert park for the community. This unexpectedly straightforward and hopelessly naïve stratagem comes backed by a frame-up ploy that recapitulates the violent act Asuncion saw through a motel window as a child, as well as by an inscrutable neo-Marxist treatise he penned called The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry. The document is the fruit of 10 years of dedicated study in the Albuquerque public library. (History repeats itself indeed, but the second time is definitely as farce, a detail Assy seems to have forgotten.)

The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry, the latest effort by industrious and popular local playwright William Bivins (Pulp Scripture; The Position), is less a play of ideas than a winking bit of Texan Panhandle neo-noir, a sardonic psychodrama cum thriller, something in the vein of Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe or Dennis Lehane’s Coronado (which SF Playhouse, the producing company, mounted a couple of seasons back). If Assy’s schooling of his materialistic, sadomasochistic, platinum blonde disciple and his verbal sparring with the vigorous and canny Charles come comically peppered with Marxist clichés, it’s the surprisingly tender, tortured relationships between all three on which history will actually turn.

But in also going for something beyond just another seedy, sexy, comical thrill ride, Apotheosis, part of SF Playhouse’s intriguing Sandbox Series of new works, winds up less than completely satisfying, despite a sporadic verve and emotional complexity as well as very engaging performances by a fine cast under direction from Bill English. Circling around the subject of political and personal commitment and the real engines of social change (or lack thereof), Apotheosis can strain after meaning to the detriment of its more forceful aspects — including its merits as a seedy, sexy, comical thrill ride. You’ll have to make allowances for some awkward, even confusing plot points in this table-turner, and forgive a main character who amusingly urges his partner-in-crime to “stay in the abstract” but who is in fact a little too abstract himself to be believed.

Deverman makes it possible to forgive a lot, actually, since he applies a good deal of charm to the part. But Asuncion is simply more concept than character, especially compared with Lola and Charles, who both breath more fully onstage (the dependably astute Burkland is doing some of his finest work in the latter role). Asuncion, by contrast, seems both out of place and off the page. This is doubtless part of the point. But in the end, it’s maybe both too arch and too telling that Assy writes everything, inexplicably and improbably enough, on a manual typewriter. If you can buy that detail, there’s a pig farm next door you should consider. 


Through June 12

Wed-Sat, 8 p.m., $20–$30

SF Playhouse

533 Sutter, SF



Butoh, and beyond


I was just in Baltimore for a conference on the New Drama movement in Russia — not so much a movement, as it turns out, as a new and diverse post-Soviet generation of theater artists carrying forward, reassessing and reinventing the form. The work on display over an eventful weekend was quite varied and, on the whole, an intriguing sampling of the restive theatrical activity being generated under the New Drama label. The take-home point: Russia is a hotbed of serious work to which attention should be paid.

The folks behind the San Francisco International Arts Festival don’t need to be told such things, much to the benefit of Bay Area audiences. They comb the globe for exciting developments in the arts and bring them to our doorstep each year. Indeed, when I last spoke to Andrew Wood, the festival’s executive director, he had just returned from Russia and Poland, where he was scoping out next year’s potentials among some of the most innovative theater-makers anywhere. But the beauty of SFIAF, whose seventh annual program opens May 19 and runs through the end of the month, is its commitment to bringing together local as well as international artists and companies under one broad, synergistic umbrella.

Among the tempting theatrical programs in 2010’s multidisciplinary lineup are two very different, envelope-pushing physical theater companies that nonetheless share a common Butoh influence: Russia’s Derevo and San Francisco’s inkBoat. Derevo’s artistic director Anton Adasinskiy predates the new generation of Russian theater makers I was learning about in Baltimore. He founded his company (whose Russian name means “tree”) in 1988, three years before the Soviet Union imploded. Now based in Dresden, Derevo enjoys a worldwide rep for innovative and devilishly clever work. Indeed, it’s been maybe the most buzzed-about theater ticket for weeks. The company’s 2009 piece, Harlekin, receives its U.S. premiere at SFIAF.

Pair this with local Butoh-fusion heroes inkBoat and that company’s SFIAF offering, the world premiere of The Crazy Cloud Collection — itself an international collaboration featuring choreography by Japanese Butoh master Ko Murobushi and inkBoat’s founder Shinichi Iova-Koga — which channels one of Zen Buddhism’s more eccentric figures, the 15th-century monk Ikkyu, also known as Crazy Cloud.

A rare glimpse of contemporary life and politics in the Middle East comes with the Syrian company Al Khareef Theatre Troupe, which makes its West Coast debut this year with The Solitary, a two-person play that posits the relationship between a political prisoner and the guard who represents his sole human contact.

And almost as rare: a new show from the Bay Area’s legendary Antenna Theater. The Sausalito experiential theater company (inventors back in the 1980s of Walkmanology, which adapted portable audioplayers to their all-encompassing sensory spectacles) rolls out its world premiere of The Magic Bus, a forward-moving look back at the Summer of Love and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters that (tooling around the city on a tricked-out bus) will be a real trip.

Also worth checking out: the circus-inspired French company A.K.Y.S. Project, making its U.S. debut with 100 Percent Croissance (100 Percent Growth), a highly physical meditation on contract workers in the high tech industry. SF’s own Keith Hennessey, of Circo Zero, presents one of his acclaimed (but rarely performed locally) all-improv concerts under the title Almost Nothing, Almost Everything. SF’s foolsFURY offers, as a work-in-progress, the American premiere of French playwright Fabrice Melquiot’s The Unheard of World. Local shadow theater masters ShadowLight unveil their latest, The Good-for-Nothing Lover: Concert Reading with Shadows. And last but not least, Australia’s Sunny Drake is here with the U.S. premiere of his other-wise, a solo multimedia performance piece as magic act about accepting yourself as different, distinct and not alone — a play that comes with a flat disclaimer: “You will only understand this show if you are human and born on Planet Earth.” You’ve been warned.


May 19–31

Various venues, most shows $25



Are you experienced?

THEATER José Sarria is many things: performer, activist, trailblazer, legend, Latino, diva, tenor … So just how many José Sarrias are there? In the latest meta-theatrical reclamation-and-floorshow from playwright-director John Fisher (Medea: The Musical, Combat; Ishi: The Last of the Yahi) you’ll meet several but get no strict count. That’s part of the point and much of the charm in SexRev: The José Sarria Experience, a production of Theatre Rhinoceros, currently ensconced in residency at queer performance incubator Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory.

First, there’s the Sarria of memory, in the mind of our ingenuous, ebullient narrator (Donald Currie), a gay man in middle age reminiscing about his precocious sexual awakening via “the Nightingale of Montgomery Street” in a certain storied postwar/Beat-era bar known as the Black Cat Café. At one point in this fourth-wall–smashing show, staged in the round as the invitingly sleazy Black Cat itself, audience members are invited to share their own first-hand impressions of the pioneering San Francisco drag performer and gay rights activist.

Then there are the Sarrias we meet on stage, played to the hilt by Tom Orr and Michael Vega. Each actor is responsible for an aspect of the Sarria “experience,” but in the insouciant critical consciousness of Fisher’s play, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will go unchallenged. “But José Sarria was brown!” shouts a “heckler” at Orr. “You’re not brown.” The contradiction and ensuing kerfuffle provide Fisher and the audience one way into the continuing political relevance and volatility of his subject matter, of course, and some productive laughs come out of it too. Add to this the real possibility of the “real” José Sarria showing up in the audience one night, and you get a sense of the tangled politics of art, and art of politics.

Frenetically staged, often very funny, endlessly self-referential, and indeed — as one character doesn’t hesitate to complain — a bit long, “SexRev” moves fitfully back and forth across the last several decades of San Francisco queer life and politics. But as a history lesson, a widening of horizons, and a spur to political vigilance on behalf of freedom for everyone, it’s a hell of a lively night out.

Happy returns



THEATER “I didn’t know you were still alive” is an unflattering salute to a long-lost relative, especially one on her deathbed. But it’s one of the nicer things to come from estranged nephew Kemp (Marco Barricelli) as he arrives at the home of his, as it turns out, interminably terminal aunt Grace (Olympia Dukakis). In American Conservatory Theater’s production of Vigil, the 1995 play from leading Canadian playwright-director Morris Panych (The Overcoat), a morbid yet gentle comedy of mismatched loners and reluctant roommates also marks, in its cast and playwright, a series of happy returns to the Geary stage.

After 30 years without contact of any kind, duty dictates that Kemp attend to his dying aunt as her sole surviving relative. In the decades since last seeing her, the once lonely child Kemp has become a 40ish misanthrope, without friends and with what he reports as a decidedly asexual bent (despite the promising homoeroticism of an upbringing spent in dresses supplied by a willful mother with a yen for daughters).

Grace, seeming at times rather spry for someone at death’s door, also seems not to be able to speak, which Kemp no doubt considers a blessing. Utterly caught up in his own self to be seemingly incapable of the most basic tact, let alone empathy, Kemp reels off the details of the funeral he’s planned, including a nifty notion about what to do with her ashes, while giving her brusque encouragement not to hang around on his account. Grace, for her part, takes these machinations and recommendations with slightly addled good nature, clearly not willing to look a gift horse in the mouth, no matter how large it might be.

Grounded in the verbal-gestural dialogue that Barricelli and Dukakis mount with such accomplished ease, the initial short scenes in Vigil have about them the gleefully sardonic urbanity of a New Yorker cartoon, bracketed by the “wonk wah” effect of a not-too-rapid blackout. But there’s a built-in need to escalate such a dynamic for momentum’s sake, and the animated humor can occasionally skirt the Warner Bros. end of the spectrum, though not without a certain cheeky flair. At one point, Kemp, possessed by impatience and channeling Rube Goldberg and Jack Kevorkian in equal measure, wheels out a makeshift euthanizer — a coarse contraption composed of a few choice household items held in taut suspension by a scaffolding of two-by-fours, hinges and strings, with helpful options for the user involving electrocution or bludgeoning, as the mood might strike.

Matching the mischievous tone precisely is scenic designer and longtime Panych collaborator Ken MacDonald’s loft apartment, with its soiled half-papered industrial windows and ramshackle furnishings. The whole thing is tellingly askew, expansive yet intimate, gloomily dilapidated yet airy as a whimsical line drawing.

The situation and the witty half-mute dialogue sustain the first act well enough, but what comes in the second act should ideally take us somewhere unexpectedly further. Here Vigil only halfway succeeds, although the major plot twist is nicely managed by all. Much of the tone and comic strategy of the first act otherwise continue forward, at least until the final scenes. And while it’s far from unpredictable that Kemp and Grace’s fraught anti-aunty-relationship would resolve into something more meaningful and healthy for both, Panych’s route there can at moments feel forced, a bit too “written.” Nevertheless, the actors movingly infuse a respectable measure of poignancy and, sure enough, grace to the play’s final turn, which neatly turns grand topics and outsized characters toward something as truly miraculous as it is utterly commonplace, a quiet little understated metamorphosis.

Barricelli, artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, last strode the Geary in 2005 as an ACT core company member. Few actors then or now can so effortlessly fill that cavernous stage like he, and he characteristically proves as commanding as he is subtle. Esteemed costar Olympia Dukakis also has a long connection with ACT, including another two-hander with Barricelli in 2002, For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, by French Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay. Dukakis’ largely mute and wonderfully elastic performance as the bedridden, bemused but hopeful Grace holds the stage as fully as Berricelli’s bounding Kemp with his onslaught of self-obsessed verbiage. There’s a palpable generosity between the two actors that makes all the more enjoyable the darkly comic tentativeness between their characters.


Through April 18, $10–$82

Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.);

Sun, 2 p.m. (also Sun/11, 7 p.m.)

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228


There be more


THEATER I don’t know from reclaiming rituals, but when I saw the gangling guy in the deer mask and beige unitard prancing around the stage once more, I knew the vernal equinox could not be far behind. Herald of this new season is none other than writer-performer Dan Carbone, a long-cherished and uniquely committed Bay Area talent who remarkably has eluded actually being committed. Back on March 6, Carbone was keeping it surreal in the Mission with a revival of two gems, Up from the Ground and There Be Monsters! (the latter featuring the aforementioned deer-man, among its varied and unexpected menagerie).

Carbone’s upcoming single-evening production lays these two works to bed while promising new dreams directly ahead. He returns to the Dark Room with entirely new material, including the premiere of something called Ol’ Blue Balls, pertaining to an encounter between Frank Sinatra and a little girl in the Eisenhower era, according to a press release, as well as a cross-cultural encounter called The Koreans and the piquantly titled Debbie and the Demons.

For those still woefully unfamiliar with Carbone’s idiosyncratic oeuvre, the March 6 evening proceeded by quiet but wild fits of storytelling and subconscious reverie into a genially demented and devilishly clever assemblage of monologue, nursery rhyme, and Dada dreamscape. Ideas rushed out of Carbone’s head amid a fit of logorrhea as bright and delighting as the silver tinsel yanked from the felt-lined anus of the well-soiled stuffed doggy in Monsters!

Befitting the late-night format, there were even some special guests. No less than Richard Chamberlain, ladies and gentlemen, was called out of the audience and onto the stage. And sure enough, bounding up with an aging, nearly forgotten celeb’s practiced modesty and eager step was a guy who looked at least not utterly unlike Chamberlain, the star of TV’s indelible Shogun miniseries, who let go a spiel too airily bizarre to recount here without much more coffee, its edge tempered by a vague mixture of nostalgia, regret, and that period ennui Jimmy Carter dubbed America’s malaise. Giddy days those might have seemed too from the vantage of today’s doom-clouded depravity, were it not for the growing suspicion that this guy isn’t Richard Chamberlain at all and probably insane.

The late-show slot at the Dark Room is altogether apt. Carbone’s stage occupies a space somewhere between Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Night Gallery. It’s such stuff as vaguely inappropriate dreams are made on. In so far as the Dark Room shows — which began in February with Carbone opening for Rick Shapiro — stand to be a regular thing, Satan and audiences willing, we can all rest uneasier.


Sat/3, 10 p.m., $8

Dark Room

2263 Mission, SF

(415) 401-7987



Fo sho


THEATER Leave it to a small and scrappy low-to-no-budget theater company to revive, at just the right time, Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay! We Won’t Pay! Fo, Italy’s esteemed latter-day commedia dell’arte rabble-rouser — the first clown (who really is a clown) to win a Nobel Prize — crafted this gem in inspired response to another period of social-economic bullshit, the tumultuous mid-1970s, when Italy was suffering the brunt of the “stagflation” resulting from an oil-triggered worldwide downturn. Fo’s 1974 farce draws on the real-life price rebellions and grocery-store riots carried out by Italy’s (financially) desperate housewives for a very funny and pointed tale of revolutionary high jinx in the domestic sphere. And Eastenders’ production, confidently helmed by artistic director Susan E. Evans, does it full justice. But the company doesn’t stop there: the second half of the evening is devoted to one of two series of new shorts plays (running in repertory) that take the Fo piece and run with it, in varying contemporary directions.

We Won’t Pay! takes up the bulk of the evening and remains the highlight, however, especially in Ron Jenkins’ lively translation, delivered shrewdly by a strong cast with palpable personality and fine comic instincts. Its homey scenario connects the personal and political effortlessly, as a bright working-class housewife named Antonia (a deft and utterly charming Beatrice Basso) tries to hide from her morally upstanding husband, Giovanni (a drolly pompous yet amiable Craig Dickerson), the groceries stolen in an exhilarating impromptu rebellion at the local market. Upright citizens and the coercive unjust hierarchies they protect are, of course, turned right on their head in the process. Even the policeman who shows up at the door (one of several supporting roles essayed with skill and aplomb by Matt Weimer) has had about enough of the whole system. By the end, an agitprop spirit takes over as Giovanni spouts what by now seems the most commonsensical thing — rebellion — as curtain and forth wall come down.

Often cleaving a little too closely to the original material, the playlets that follow in the second act can have the feel of an exercise rather than a fully wrought play of whatever length. But there are some small surprises to be found along the way. Actor Jeff Thompson strikes just the right pitch of whimsy and incipient political consciousness as he digests what has just gone before from the perspective of an incidental stage property, namely A Frozen Rabbit Head, in Gene Mocsy’s playful monologue of the same name. And playwright Isaiah Dufort’s A Statement shifts the opening scene between Antonia (Tristan Cunningham) and neighbor Margherita (Katarina Fabic) just enough to give it a distinctly Bay Area edge, nicely realized by the actors under Amy K. Kilgard’s direction. Less satisfying are the next two in the series, Jeff Thompson’s The Report, which strains after meaning and humor in a beat cop’s political awakening, and Scott Munson’s Safeway Encounter, which begins promisingly but soon gets off-kilter, charging headlong down broadly absurd aisles of no return. In the end, it’s a mixed bag, rabbit heads and all, but nourishing just the same.


Wed/17-Sat/20, 8 p.m.; Sun/21, 2 p.m., $20

Eureka Theatre

215 Jackson, SF

(510) 568-4118



Underground and proud


THEATER It’s difficult enough to want to perform in San Francisco without the added hardship of not quite fitting into someone else’s concept of “performance.” And the unclassifiable Dan Carbone must surely be one of the hardest acts to shoehorn into a hapless festival curator’s vision. As a performer who regularly skirts the way-out edge between the surreal and the downright schizophrenic, he’s had the dubious honor of being shut out of the comedy club circuit, kicked off the stage at San Francisco’s now-defunct Dadafest, and not selling out the house of numerous local and national “standard” venues.

But Carbone’s ability to evoke the most unconventional of worlds — beginning with his classic one-act Up From the Ground, involving a mysterious giant flower in a Southern cornfield, and most recently with his “one man space opera” Kingdom of Not — has been discomfiting and astonishing audiences and critics on for more than 10 years, and he has the accolades, if not the ticket sales to prove it.

“The SF theater world has no idea what I’m about,” Carbone confesses via e-mail. “They don’t know what to do with me.” Originally an experimental filmmaker, Carbone’s off-kilter performance aesthetic and penchant for dream logic meshes more readily with his silver screen collaborators (including the inimitable Kuchar brothers) than with his more traditionally linear solo show peers. So what’s a decidedly noncommercial, genre-shredding, avant-gardian to do to widen the scope of his influence? Start his own damn performance series, of course.

To kick start this series with a serious bang, Carbone is hosting professional provocateur-comedian Rick Shapiro in his second San Francisco appearance. A former drug addict and homeless rent boy, Shapiro’s own slow rise (literally, up from the ground) serves as ample fodder for his mercurial rants against the status quo, and his unstructured, stream-of-consciousness performance style once earned him the moniker “the James Joyce of comedy.” Or as Carbone puts it, “He’s the only guy on the circuit who not only tells dick jokes but also riffs on Sartre and Kierkegaard — and does so simultaneously.” Their shared inability to write for the mainstream, which has precipitated this joining of forces, will test the theory that art is at its best when designed to suit its creators — not its curators.

March 6, Carbone performs his two most celebrated solo shows, Up from the Ground and Here be Monsters, and premiere a show of works April 3 (both at the Dark Room Theater; check Web site for details). But his ultimate goal is collaboration. “The lesson,” he concludes, “is I need to start my own scene.” Dan Carbone and Rick Shapiro Sat/27, 10 p.m., $8 Dark Room Theater 2263 Mission, SF (415) 401-7987


Schooling the teacher


THEATER From the mouths of babes come some pretty hefty words in Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s initially darkish, ultimately feel-goody new comedy: congenial, altruistic, pertinacious, solipsism. But it’s the way they sound in the mouth of his protagonist, 57-year-old first-grade teacher Sydney (a thoroughly disarming Julia Brothers), that gets our attention. They’re new to her too for the most part, at least in daily use. Freshly gathered from her class in a dictionary game of “stump the teacher,” the words loll in her mouth like some savored sweet, so much does she herself relish using them.

That these vocab words take on a thematic flavor for our winningly oddball heroine, and for us, comes as little surprise: The First Grade — one of four scripts selected in 2009 for potential development as part of Aurora Theatre’s Global Age Project, and now enjoying its world premiere in a handy production helmed by artistic director Tom Ross — is a play about what adults learn and do not learn over the course of increasingly fractured and fractious lives. The children, by contrast — and there are several others who figure in the plot besides Sydney’s first-graders — are all offstage presences.

Sydney has her classroom shtick down. As the play opens she addresses the audience as her class with an easy authority that is hilariously convincing in its confidence, probity, and self-indulged eccentricity. But home is another matter, despite amusingly similar attempts to impose order in this realm. Here the “natural” state of things goes topsy-turvy: Sydney’s a divorcée whose embittered ex-husband (a delightfully malcontented Warren David Keith) still lives under the same roof. Meanwhile, her grown daughter (Rebecca Schweitzer), a wife and mother herself, has moved back in with her parents, professed contempt for her own Ritalin-dosed child, and reverted to infantile tussles with mom over a hidden cache of cookies.

At the same time, Sydney wrestles creakily and crankily with an aging body and two particularly bad knees. This brings her into contact with a physical therapist (Tina Sanchez), a young Latina mother whom the overbearingly direct Sydney soon has sobbing mid-session while confessing to her own marital nightmare. Moved from thorny solipsism to a warm rush of altruism by the young woman’s story, Sydney offers support and shelter from what seems an abusive, potentially dangerous relationship with the woman’s husband, a disfigured Iraq War vet.

Already by this point in the story we’ve heard variations of “crazy” and “dangerous” liberally applied to just about every on- and offstage character. But it’s only when Sydney brings this stranger into the dysfunctional family fold that these unofficial vocab words take on literal import. This paranoid streak in Johnson’s play, colored immigrant brown, is partly counterbalanced by the appearance of a dignified and peaceable Spanish-speaking father-in-law (Paul Santiago), and a plot twist that, while unsettlingly ironic, ultimately redeems “altruism” for the home team.

In its sometimes forced but generally witty dialogue and its wide range of thematic colors, The First Grade makes for an engaging evening, especially as led by the indomitable Brothers. It also marks an overdue Bay Area debut for playwright Johnson, after 20-plus years of productions in the Windy City. (Maybe the time is ripe. Another play of his, A Guide for the Perplexed, was chosen as a 2010 Aurora GAP winner, and just received a reading at the Berkeley theater ahead of its Chicago world premiere.) If First Grade‘s final note sounds a little too sweetly, I suppose it’s in keeping with the practice of treats after a lesson learned. *


Through Feb. 28

Wed–Sat, 8 p.m.; Tues and Sun, 7 p.m.

(also Sun, 2 p.m.), $15–$55

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk.

(510) 843-4822


Curtain calls


THEATER Up to around 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 12, Thrillpeddlers were having a very good year. One of 2009’s Goldie recipients, the city’s connoisseurs of Grand Guignol–style fresh flesh were riding a remarkable wave of success with their inspired revival of Pearls over Shanghai, by San Francisco’s storied Cockettes, when an altogether different current overtook them.

No doubt the vicious cold snap of those days had something to do with it, but sources report that a 100-year-old water main located just outside the front door of the Hypnodrome — Thrillpeddlers’ rumored-to-be-haunted haunt at 10th and Division streets — let loose some 2 million gallons of water, the bulk of which burst into the packed theater in a two-foot high crest that inundated the stage smack in the middle of actor and artistic director Russell Blackwood’s exquisite tap number, “Cruising.” Cast and audience members alike scurried through one of those evacuations they’re always vaguely referring to by law just prior to curtain or takeoff. In this case, escape was made through the back dressing room, where SF firemen heroically carried audience members and heavily tarted-up actors to safety as the power was cut, owing to the very real danger of electric shock. I’m happy to report that the piano was saved, thanks to quick coordination of hands from both sides of the footlights, but clearly there’s a very soggy theater to deal with, so more than ever your prayers, and much better yet your patronage, should be directed toward the intrepid Thrillpeddlers. (Shows resume Jan. 1.)

Now this just goes to show that, one, I’m never there on the best night. And, two, the year ain’t over until it’s over. So let’s say this year-end wrap up, while it tries to take in all sides, is necessarily partial and provisional.

On the bright side:

Skylight at Ashby Stage. David Hare’s play dexterously puts the nuts and bolts of modern politics into modern romance like no other, but it came to life in director Patrick Dooley’s production for Shotgun Players better than I could have hoped were I coughing up three figures for a Broadway ticket. Leads Emily Jordan and John Mercer were startlingly good.

Killing My Lobster’s Pure Shock Value at the Exit. Odds were against them in producing their second full-length play, if only because the first, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, was so strong. But KML pulled it off.

Jericho Road Improvement Association at Phoenix Theatre. Hella Fresh Theater’s strong debut was a solid production of writer-director John Rosenberg’s West Oakland tale, a neighborhood story that navigated the complexities of history, race, and social roles with intelligence and real dramatic force. Sadly for us, Hella Fresh has freshly relocated east to Philly, but they contributed to a memorable year.

On the dark side:

Thom Pain (based on nothing) at Exit on Taylor. Cutting Ball’s strong local premiere of Will Eno’s broodingly sardonic off-Broadway hit featured an exceptionally fearless and intimidating solo turn by actor Jonathan Bock.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Berkeley Rep. Maybe this belongs on the light side. It depends how you take to a stage strewn with sawed off limbs and cat brains, all awash in veritable barrels of blood. I found it amusing.

The Creature at Thick House. Trevor Allen’s appealingly shrewd adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein began as a podcast but, under director Rob Melrose and a great design team, blossomed into a supple, protean piece of live theater. The three-person cast was very strong, but James Carpenter’s beautifully wrought performance in the title role managed to surprise even those who know he’s one of the top actors on Bay Area stages.

The Walworth Farce at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach. Leading Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s darkly hilarious, structurally ingenious, and all-around exhilarating play was more like farcical tragedy, or tragical farcity, which is to say something very fresh and gripping. Druid Ireland matched it perfectly in their incredibly deft and intelligent production.

On the right side:

SF Mime Troupe’s Too Big to Fail. “Right” isn’t the best adjective to stick in front of the Mime Troupe, but as free-theater-in-the-park hell-raisers for 50 years and counting you know whose side they’re on. Anniversary events continue through the New Year (sfmt.org).

On the tight side:

Fat Pig at Aurora Theatre. Aurora’s production of Neil LaBute’s play had a very strong ensemble going for it. There were others too this year, some of the most memorable including casts of Jack Goes Boating (also at Aurora), In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Berkeley Rep), The Model Apartment (Traveling Jewish Theater), This World in a Woman’s Hands (Shotgun Players); Old Times (TheatreFIRST), and two exceptional ensembles courtesy of Off-Broadway West in The Homecoming and A View from the Bridge, respectively.

On the hype side:

American Idiot at Berkeley Rep. Actual satisfaction with Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) and Green Day’s Broadway-bound behemoth proved inversely proportional to the hype. (Among new musicals about American 20-somethings, the real McCoy was up the hill at UC Berkeley in the premiere of Joe Goode’s Dead Boys.)

Also, Spamalot. Rhymed with everything but laughed-a-lot.

On the south side:

Ghosts of the River at Brava. The second collaboration between playwright Octavio Solis and director Larry Reed’s Shadowlight Productions, a set of immigrant ghost tales set along the Rio Grande, was as aesthetically unique and engaging as it was humane and thought provoking.

Also from the Mission District: Theatre Rhinoceros vacated its space on 16th Street after god knows how long to wander itinerant for a while. They are still very much around and active, though (therhino.org).

And from Intersection for the Arts came word of the tragic loss of a large and unique talent: actor and Campo Santo cofounder Luis Saguar, gone at 52. Saguar was an integral and always fascinating part of some exceptional theater history, and you never saw another actor quite like him. To help the family he leaves behind, donations are being accepted through Intersection for the Arts (www.theintersection.org/luis/).

Revisiting the ReOrient



THEATER It’s the fall of 2001. The Americans have arrived. The Taliban is, for the moment, displaced. A young Afghani woman named Alya (Sara Razavi) stands in a burka, holding a suitcase. She’s met by her older sister, Meena (Nora el Samahy), returned from England to fetch her. Meena wears a headscarf but leaves her face proudly, fearlessly uncovered. She speaks of the freedoms ahead of them, the chance to study, even to talk to men. Alya is scandalized and fascinated.

The two sisters go on to engage in petty quarrels, teasing. Meena calls the younger one a hedgehog, a familiar nickname apparently, while noting she’s gained a woman’s figure since Meena has been away. Alya complains of her aching back — the result, she claims, of quills sprouting along her spine. Meena tells her about being carried one night by a gallant English stranger, leaving her sister beside herself with moral outrage and prurient interest.

All the while, nearby, the body of a young American soldier (Basel Al-Naffouri) lies sprawled on a large pillow. He’s soon on his feet — or socks rather, his boots having disappeared — ostensibly having slept off a night of revelry. Regarding the two young women in his room with some surprise, and self-congratulation, he confronts what he believes to be the previous night’s "conquests." He also seems to think he’s awoken in his mother’s house in Gary, Ind. He shouts for his mother and wonders aloud where his shoes have gone, but his cries are literally bootless.

We appear to have wandered into a dream — but whose exactly? Naomi Wallace’s No Such Cold Thing unsettles the ground beneath our feet much as her characters have found it vanishing beneath their own. The characters now meet on some existential plateau — pitched, dreamlike, somewhere between life and death — as Wallace expertly pinpoints the reality of war in the magical-surreal of dramatic imagination.

In a moment characterized by a decided lack of public antiwar momentum around the continuing tragedy of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, the world premiere of Wallace’s No Such Cold Thing could not be timelier. Nor, for that matter, could it be a more apt play to lead off Golden Thread Productions’ 10th anniversary edition of its ReOrient Festival, an annual cavalcade of short plays about the Middle East that has itself provided, in addition to a dependable variety of aesthetic pleasures, crucial space for public consideration and dialogue.

This year’s anniversary program makes the most of that function with an accompanying two-day forum (Dec. 5-6 at Theatre Artaud) to include discussion panels, a book launch, an art exhibit, music and dance performances, and Golden Thread’s first live internet-streamed play, The Review, written by GT stalwart Yussef El Guindi (Back of the Throat; Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes), featuring one actor in San Francisco and another in the Middle East.

In addition to Wallace’s quietly striking world premiere — which finds a winning balance of playful insouciance and poignant understatement in the hands of director Bella Warda and her cast — the dramatic program includes eight more plays spread over two rotating series. Emphasizing highlights of previous years, ReOrient 2009’s opening night program included a remounting of Betty Shamieh’s Taman, directed by GT artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian, a dual "monologue" from the perspective of a proud and embattled Palestinian woman, featuring el Samahy and Maryam Farnaz Rostami tastefully accompanied by percussionist Su Tang. It was followed by Yeghiazarian’s own irreverently funny charmer, Call Me Mehdi, neatly directed by Arlene Hood, in which an Iranian American woman (Ahou Tabibzadeh, reprising her 2005 performance with aplomb) and her Farsi-challenged American husband (solid newcomer George Psarras) give late-night vent to some cross-cultural baggage. Finally, Motti Lerner’s Coming Home (2003), well cast and sharply directed by Mark Routhier, provocatively unfolded the homecoming of a disturbed young Israeli soldier from the front lines of the occupation.

The second night’s program (seen too late for review) is also full of some small gems, including two from El Guindi his Cairo-centered adaptation of Chekhov’s A Marriage Proposal and his 2007 The Monologist Suffers Her Monologue) as well as the 1999 play from San Francisco–based filmmaker Kaveh Zahedi (I Am Not a Sex Addict) with the characteristically emphatic title, I’m Not a Serial Killer.


Through Dec. 13

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m. (no performance Thurs/26);

Sun, 5 p.m., $15–$25

Thick House, 1695 18th St., SF

(415) 626-4061


Beth Wilmurt



Beth Wilmurt’s whole approach to acting is a little unexpected, not unlike the devastatingly unassuming characters she can manifest — most recently, an excellent ensemble turn this year in Marcus Gardley’s This World in a Woman’s Hands at Shotgun Players. Over beers and enchiladas in the Mission District, she even confesses to a certain ambivalence. "Joy Carlin [who directed her this summer in Aurora Theatre’s Jack Goes Boating] just told me the other day, ‘You think like a dramaturge and a director, but not like an actor.’ And I started to realize maybe I’m not as interested in thinking like an actor. It’s not as fun. I like more conceptual things. I like thematic things. Sometimes I don’t even attend to character."

Wilmurt worked regularly in musicals at Concord’s Willows Theatre while still at San Francisco State University, where she and her companion of 18 years, director-playwright Mark Jackson, met as classmates in the drama department. In 1995 she formed Art Street Theatre with Jackson, Kevin Clarke, and Jake Rodriguez, and moved swiftly into bold experimental work, including a radically reinterpreted version of Romeo and Juliet (called R&J), which she called "Shakespeare thrown into a blender." That same spirit and method of blowing apart a classic and reconstituting it from the outside-in powers her memorable "two-minute Hamlet," a tour de force of physical technique and imagination tucked into Jackson’s generally stunning The Death of Meyerhold (2004). It also found an exceptional outlet in 2008’s Yes, Yes to Moscow, a wonderfully deft, insouciant, and absolutely telling deconstruction of Chekhov’s Three Sisters developed by Wilmurt and Jackson in collaboration with German theater artists during a stint at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater.

Can an actor of such versatility and so many successes really be ambivalent about acting? Yes and no. "I’d love to transition into directing, but I see that I am not quite right for directing either," Wilmurt explains. "I’m not a leader; I’m a follower. I’m an ensemble member, yet I have this mind like a director." She readily admits that living with a director may have something to do with this. But it’s clear there’s a more basic inclination at work, an intellectual curiosity and a capacity to forgo ego in the name of collaboration and its subtler satisfactions. It’s this very trait that lends her acting a seamlessness and flexibility — and makes her an artist to watch.


>>GOLDIES 2009: The 21st Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery awards, honoring the Bay’s best in arts



If you dare! Venture to the Hypnodrome, home of San Francisco’s Thrillpeddlers. The company is America’s preeminent producer of plays from the Grand Guignol, the infamous Parisian theater that peddled thrills (if you will) from 1897-1962; the Hypnodrome, which seats 45, has been in operation for five years. The brave can choose to sit in "shock boxes" that line the theater’s back row — each box is tricked out with buzzers and other devices designed to lend an extra-sensational experience. These special seats also add enhancement to a Thrillpeddlers tradition: a blackout "spook show" (three minutes of pitch-black mayhem!) that is part of every performance.

This year marks Thrillpeddlers’ 10th "Shocktoberfest," an evening-length show compiling a few short plays. Typical for the company, the current bill combines an original work, Phantom Limb, with an authentic Guignol relic, 1922’s The Torture Garden.

"The Grand Guignol was the first theater to have an operating room onstage, with an on-stage surgery, or to set plays in insane asylums," director Russell Blackwood explains. "They started their work in the theater of naturalism, so they were going to places that the theater would never deal with prior to that." Naturally, Parisian audiences back in the day lapped up the gore — and so do "Hypnodromers," repeat offenders who see every Thrillpeddlers show six or seven times.

Shocktoberfest 2009 shares marquee space with a newer, non-Grand Guignol Thrillpeddlers endeavor: the "Theater of the Ridiculous Revival." The second annual incarnation features the musical Pearls Over Shanghai, first performed 40 years ago by legendary San Francisco theater troupe the Cockettes. It’s been a huge hit, extended from its summertime run through New Year’s weekend.

Thrillpeddlers is now known worldwide, thanks in part to its Web sites, thrillpeddlers.com and grandguignol.com — resources that have inspired other companies to take up the Grand Guignol. If Blackwood has his way, spines will be tingled in San Francisco and beyond for years to come.

"Spook shows, like Grand Guignol, like Theater of the Ridiculous, are this very, very marginal part of entertainment history. It’s the kind of thing that when I would read about it, I would want to see it, and I couldn’t help but feel like there were other people out there who maybe had heard of it and would want to see what it was like live," Blackwood says, with the satisfaction of someone who’s found what he was looking for.



>>GOLDIES 2009: The 21st Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery awards, honoring the Bay’s best in arts

Teeny ‘Tiny’


THEATER A reunion between Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone and playwright Tony Kushner is a notable event. This is a relationship that goes back to the original production of Angels in America, after all. Currently up: Tiny Kushner. The amusingly self-effacing title, however, flagging an evening of short works by still one of the biggest names on the American theatrical landscape, ends up disappointingly prescient.

Flip Flop Fly! concerns a postmortem lunar encounter between two eccentric female historical figures: American entertainer and self-styled interplanetary composer Lucia Pamela (Valeri Mudek); and the Hitler-loving Queen of Albania (Kate Eifrig). The meeting delivers little more than a fairly tired clash between a naïve but boundlessly imaginative American and a crustily authoritarian European, climaxing in a Mel Brooks moment of musical harmonizing.

Next comes Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or "Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein" or Ambivalence. Terminating is a high point, witty and wisecracking, in a New Yorker sort of way. Terminating‘s clever riffing on love and our existential, species-defining "ambivalence" also comes buoyed by J.C. Cutler’s terrific turn as former patient Hendrick, a slovenly yet charming manic trying to worm his way back onto the couch, and into the bed, of his rattled lesbian analyst (an equally solid Eifrig).

Then comes the interminable East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues, a facile comedy concerning a tax evasion scheme rifling through the lower echelons of New York’s state bureaucracy, generated from afar by a cartoonish white supremacist with what he considers the mother of all tax loop holes. The wearying, jaggedly-paced series of scenes features a large set of social and ethnic caricatures by Lichtscheidl (who is dutiful but not quite up to the task) set against a backdrop of print-heavy IRS forms that, as a text, frankly begins to look no less interesting than the one being performed.

Also thin is Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise, another light take on potentially weighty themes in a fanciful setting, this one affably shared by a thousand-eyed "recoding angel" (Eifrig) and Nixon’s old shrink (Cutler).

If the evening means to showcase the breadth of Kushner’s work, there’s actually small reward in its repetitious themes and gestures — but, rather than highlighting larger, probing concerns, they instead feel like deeply grooved habits of form and rarely give rise to anything very inspired. The marked exception is the last piece, Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy, which, while problematic and dated, has the merit of being truly angry and at least fitfully commanding in its encounter between Laura Bush and a group of dead Iraqi children in heaven on the eve of the Iraq invasion. Here the play and playwright have something to voice and it carries. (Robert Avila)

TINY KUSHNER Through Nov 29, $27–$-71. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berk. (510) 647-2949. berkeleyrep.org

Night of the living theater



THEATER A small Texas ‘burb has just suffered attack by a horde of reanimated corpses, which can happen to anyone. But as luck would have it, the members of a bold experimental San Francisco theater company have taken it upon themselves to alight on the ravaged community, channel their story to the world, and thereby bestow on the good folk of Harwood "the healing that only theater can provide."

The actors of "the Catharsis Theatre Collective," dressed uniformly in black pants and tees, give or take a beret, begin by introducing themselves to the audience and explaining their modus operandi: in-depth interviews with a cross-section of the town’s population, whose personalities and stories they will then assume and relay to the audience as a living, breathing, documentary account.

We get reincarnations of the town’s mayor (Damian Lanahan), for instance, who happens also to be a car salesman, amid gradual intimations of a political cover-up and regular references to the superior craftsmanship in various makes of Toyotas. Or we hear from the proprietor of a local tavern (Ariane Owens) as she intones last call to her regulars on the night in question: "OK folks, you don’t have to go out and face the undead, but you can’t stay here." And, at steady intervals, we get the reenacted tale of three unlikely allies — an unabashed rocker dude (Ian Riley); a prissy and reluctant high school party chick (Owens); and an egotistical accountant (Drew Lanning) — holed up together through the night in an out-of-the-way cabin, where they battle an army of brain-eating creatures risen from the local cemetery (for reasons various characters are at pains to hypothesize over) while bickering ferociously among themselves.

As this familiar-sounding scenario of late-night TV and the multiplex develops, so too does another, equally familiar-sounding, meta-narrative, as we the audience get treated to the thoughts and feelings and interpersonal exchanges of the Catharsis members themselves, wrestling with the awesome responsibility of their task.

The real theatrical mavericks behind this Laramie-style "Zombie Project" are, of course, the members of Sleepwalkers Theatre, the talented young San Francisco–based company exclusively devoted to producing original plays. This gem is penned by Tim Bauer, a San Francisco playwright and former Texas resident, whose eye and ear for the culture clashes attendant not only in zombie movies but also between the humbler masses and certain rarified sections of the theater world makes Zombie Town a consistently witty treat. Sleepwalkers’ artistic director Tore Ingersoll-Thorp directs with an equally strong parodic sense a lively cast of living and post-living characters — played to perfection by an ensemble that could hardly be sharper or funnier were it to have a mining pick protruding from its collective forehead.


Through Nov. 7

Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m., $14–$20

Exit Stage Left

156 Eddy, SF




THEATER San Francisco’s Brava Theatre is mostly dark, except for the spotlights on stage. Under the white light, singer Nomy Lamm’s face peers out from under the beak of a vulture headpiece. She flaps her feathered wings and thrusts her hips, like she is working a hula hoop in slow motion.

"I remember the feel of your hands on my body," Lamm sings. "Makes me scream, ‘Am I broken?’"

It is three weeks before the premiere of this year’s Sins Invalid’s performance art show of the same name, and artistic director Patty Berne sits near the back of the theater. She watches Lamm’s rehearsal intently, and as the performance ends, her face splits into an approving smile. "Oh Nomy, I am so frickin’ excited," Berne exclaims. "That was so hot — you don’t even know!"

Currently in its fourth year, Sins Invalid is an annual performance project about sexuality and disability. The upcoming show, which runs for three nights at Brava, showcases 12 performances from local and international artists, including Oakland’s Seeley Quest and the U.K.’s Mat Fraser. The collection of theatrical, musical, spoken word, and multimedia performances includes passages that are confrontational and provocative and moments that are soft and sweet.

According to Berne, who is also the cofounder of Sins, the show’s dimensions reflect the diverse issues that people with disabilities face, living in societies where they are traditionally perceived as unsexy, or even sexless. "[People with disabilities] are thought of as asexual and [it’s assumed] that our lives are defined by our disabilities," she says. "Thinking that we are neutered is absurd. It’s like assuming parents stop having sex because they have a child."

According to the Sins Invalid mission statement, the performance project not only supports artists with disabilities, it also strives to centralize "artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists." The goal of the organization, explained cofounder Leroy Moore, has been to create a community of historically marginalized artists and to provide a mirror for those who are disabled, queer, or of color.

The tone of this year’s two-hour show is set with Lamm’s opening act, "a sexy monster rock opera" called The Reckoning. Dressed as a vulture, Lamm plays a dejected animal that struggles to know itself and its place in the universe. In the more intimate Bird Song, she is an abandoned baby bird that sings from a nest made of stuffed panty hose and prosthetic legs.

"[Bird Song] is about quiet power. It’s like, ‘I know what I have, and when you’re ready to see it, come say hi,’" said Lamm.

Other artists, among them Fraser and choreographer/dancer Antoine Hunter, use their bodies to create powerful performances. In the solo act No Retreat, No Surrender, Fraser taps into his martial arts training to simulate being physically beaten to a soundtrack of insults commonly hurled by ableists. In The Scene, theater marries film in a sexually explicit and tense performance about a man who visits a dominatrix and unexpectedly undergoes an inner transformation.

Moore, who plays the visitor in The Scene, explained that in addition to flipping the notion of who visits a dominatrix, the piece is about loving oneself. "In the beginning [of the scene, the man going to the domme] is not sure what to expect. At the end, he comes to love himself and know ‘I am beautiful.’"

Since the inaugural Sins Invalid showing at Brava in 2006, what once was a one-night annual event has blossomed into a three evenings of performance. According to Berne, previous shows have packed full houses. The public’s reaction to the project, many Sins artists say, has been a validating — if not overwhelming — experience.

For Sins performer Quest, who lives day-to-day as a "broke-ass artist schlep," receiving shout-outs from past audience members is one of the most rewarding parts of the experience. "All year ’round, people are like, ‘I saw you at the show, and I told about my friend about you guys!’ People are circuutf8g the news and it’s totally gratifying."

By helping to create new dialogue among the disabled and able-bodied communities, many of those involved with Sins feel like they are making history — and as Moore states, rewriting the books as well. "[Being involved in Sins] feels like I’m correcting history for people with disabilities," says the Berkeley activist. "History is not written from us — it’s always about others. Now we get to speak our own stories."

Houston-based Maria Palacios, a spoken word artist who has been with Sins for three years, feels that the project passes the torch of hope to the next generation of people with disabilities. "When I was growing up, I didn’t have a Barbie with a wheelchair," Palacios said. "But now kids will have us as heroes to look up to — they will have a history in place already."


Fri/2–Sat/3, 8 p.m.; Sun/4, 7 p.m.

Brava Theatre

2789 York, SF

(510) 689-7198

www.brownpapertickets.com, www.sinsinvalid.org

Musical melange



STAGE Kneehigh Theatre’s Noël Coward–inspired cinema-theater hybrid, Brief Encounter, the British import currently up at American Conservatory Theater, is a shrewd melding of winning formulas borrowed from more adventurous recent theatrical works as well as old-time British music hall entertainments. In addition to entr’acte bits, or the visual play on plays and films, actor-singers play their own instruments, à la the recent revival of Sweeney Todd — and in the more pretentious sequences, characters undulate à la Twyla Tharp to projected surf or a gust of wind.

But, not unlike Berkeley Rep’s American Idiot, Brief Encounter is a bit too clever and too cute for its own good, and not nearly brief enough. Very well executed by a versatile and charming cast, it’s a slick crowd-pleaser on its nostalgically cinematic surface, but there’s nothing behind the screen. Moreover, despite the originating premise, along with a song or two and a borrowed line here and there, there is an unexpectedly meager dose of Coward-like sensibility in the mix. Indeed, it’s a little ironic that the show makes so much of Coward’s own admission that he was "no good at love," since the central love affair borrowed from his play and screenplay comes across here as dull, while Coward’s rarely were: Cal Shakes recently proved as much with its fine production of Private Lives, very much still alive in the messy and violent tendencies knocking around inside its otherwise trim and tidy formula.

Brief Encounter works better than the snoresome American Idiot. But both flounder around as excuses for arty, music-laden entertainment, while the ol’ 1949 Rogers and Hammerstein musical juggernaut, South Pacific (freshly laundered in the traveling version of director Bartlett Sher’s 2008 Tony-winning production), comes in like a tsunami and washes them clean away (or right out of our hair, to borrow a line from somewhere). As everything you want from a musical, South Pacific, now at the Golden Gate Theater courtesy of SHN’s Best of Broadway series, is nothing short of awesome.

As a rule, musicals are spectacles for entertainment first, any intended social import usually going only so far. But while the two cents of social commentary being offered up by both South Pacific and American Idiot don’t amount to a Threepenny Opera, only South Pacific really delivers here too. Backed by an excellent cast, first-rate choreography and staging, and enthralling musical direction, South Pacific feels remarkably fresh in general, as if still at the peak of its powers, and its tackling of American racial prejudice — in the intertwined stories of Lt. Joe Cable (a dashing Anderson Davis), smitten with a young Polynesian (a sweetly innocent Sumie Maeda), and the equally rocky affair between Ensign Nellie Forbush (a wonderful Carmen Cusack) and French exile Emile de Becque (formidable baritone and charmer Rod Gilfry) — still comes across with a blunt force, albeit one circumscribed by the imperatives of happy endings.


Through Oct. 11, check Web site for showtimes, $14–$82

American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org


Through Oct. 25, check Web site for showtimes, $30–$99

Golden Gate Theatre, One Taylor, SF

(415) 512-7770, http://shnsf.com

Fringe follies



The San Francisco Fringe Festival is, like, 18 or something this year. That used to mean you were middle-aged in, like, the Middle Ages. But this is 2000-and-something. The multi-venue Exit Theatre–centered Fringe, lottery-based democratic mayhem at its most unsound and intriguing, appears as youthful as ever. Witness the healthy emphasis on clowns, derelicts, and deviants, the longstanding stalwarts of its revolving stage.

One of the kickoff shows Wednesday eve was LandEscape, Rowena Richie’s decidedly quirky but adept, factually hefty, and not unamusing theater-dance piece based on the work of real-food advocate Michael Pollan. It’s about the disastrous perversity of industrial farming and the hope in old-fashioned alternatives. But top of the 2009 crop (or at least what was glimpsed from among roughly 40 scheduled shows in the two days before print deadline) is The Godling, which marks the creepy-sexy and dependably weird return of New York’s Endtimes Productions, purveyors of last year’s homerun, Knuckleball. This time it’s a whole new cast and crew, with writing credit for this nicely rendered — and that’s a nice word for it — dark carnival descent going to Mark Borkowski, with a firm hand on the helm from artistic director Russell Dobular.

A sideshow sandwich-board advert for "The Godling" and small, scattered piles of clutter litter the stage at the outset of this horror-charmer, where soon a memorable set of disreputables take shape in the dim light. At the demented head of things is a randy carny showman and seething psychopath (a volcanic Leal Vona) sporting an altered hockey mask and straight razor. Nearby stands, sometimes on hands, his shapely assistant (Leah Dashe). On a chain is their little incubator: a thin naked waif (Candace Janee) hunched over and cupping her protruding stomach, her mess of long hair obscuring angelic features. The couple discusses the keeping of time, nervously, while taking time to mock their prize — the girl with the growing freak in her belly — and awaiting the arrival of a certain "him" who, when he does appear, turns out to be a dapper, gentlemanly torturer.

As Fringe shows go this is a veritable bear on a trike. Nicely acted too. But there’s a line running from The Godling to the other playlets I happened to catch immediately prior, including Cockroach and Hell, the Musical. SF’s Dark Porch Theatre offers a little fevered dream of its own, centered on the eternal return of one wandering brutalized madman-cum–shopping cart (played to a kind of operatic perfection by the ever able Nathan Tucker). Tucker, eyes wild and as prominent as two eight-balls, stirs the stage like a demon chef, as his tormentor (Alison Sacha Ross) rasps accusations and slights his way, all pointing back to a psychosexually fraught night 10 years earlier and its lingering scars mental and otherwise. Director Margery Fairchild also choreographs a trio of Cockroach dancers, three men in beige unitards moving frenetically and continually reconfiguring like blobs of mercury in solution. The nature of the incident is weird enough, and Tucker’s a treat, though not always served by playwright Martin Schwartz’ elevated language and furtive storyline, and a dramatic arc that doesn’t quite come off despite some strong moments amid the faltering momentum.

Darkness descends again in a philosophical and even more comical key with 2006 Best of Fringe winner K.S. Haddock’s Hell, the Musical, which astutely realizes that while Jean Paul Sartre cooked up the perfect image of hell in other people, he completely left out the power chords. The charismatic cast of this revamped No Exit can sing and act, and the live musical accompaniment by the Crooked Family provides the Pat Benatar-esque punch you’d expect to be leveled by and against the damned.


Through Sept. 20, $10 or less
Various venues, SF
(415) 673-3847, www.sffringe.org

Velvet goldmine


They came from outer space (via Haight Street) sometime in 1969, and first to prominence as the palpably 3-D entr’acte between late-night underground and vintage movie reels at the old Palace Theater in North Beach. There they mounted a sort of acid-fueled, glitter-bearded, hippie drag-queen free-for-all, causing immediate convivial mayhem among the rowdy stoners there assembled. This was only the beginning. The Cockettes were a streak of homegrown countercultural iridescence registering profound if indeterminate influence on the lives of us all — even if you’ve never heard of such musical revues as Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma.

Midnight movie sequel of sequels: after 40 years they’re back, as Thrillpeddlers presents a devilishly sharp and inspired revival of the Cockettes’ Pearls Over Shanghai. Perhaps their most polished gem — indeed, their first scripted production, penned by Cockette Link Martin — Pearls is a rousing mock-operetta of strikingly elaborate low-budget design (notoriously padded in its original incarnation with the contents of a costume trunk pinched from the visiting Peking Opera), catchy music, and highly questionable taste, loosely based on an unabashedly Orientalist 1926 Broadway play, The Shanghai Gesture. Wonderfully arch and exquisitely fashioned, this pungent bit of business is a triumph for director Russell Blackwood (who broods and bellows and taps beautifully in the role of Mother Fu) as well as his winning cast and crew — which in addition to special guests like Connie Champagne, includes original Cockettes Scrumbly Koldewyn (composer, musical director and accompanist), Rumi Missabu (unforgettably reprising his role as the evil Madame Gin Sling), and Tahara and Bill Bowers (collaborating with Kara Emry on the eye-popping costumes and makeup).

Pearls hasn’t just aged well — it may be even more offensive than when it premiered. But somewhere too, amid all the jade and jaded ladies, is a whiff of the innocence and insouciance, glamour and naughtiness of those earlier years. Not to mention the "complete sexual anarchy," which, as John Waters counsels sagely in The Cockettes, Bill Weber and David Weissman’s excellent 2002 documentary, "is always a wonderful thing."


Through Aug. 16

Fri–Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun, 7 p.m. (starting July 26), $30-$69

Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., SF

1-800-838-3006, www.thrillpeddlers.com

Home run


In American Hwangap, Lloyd Suh’s charmingly witty and gently woebegone world premiere, hwangap — the momentous 60th birthday marking completion of the astrological life cycle in Korean tradition — is occasion for a fresh start for Min Suk (an irresistibly expansive Keone Young), a former engineer and disenchanted immigrant returning home to his Texas-raised Korean American family 15 years after abandoning them and fleeing back to the old country. Of course, it’s not so easy to go home again.

Oldest son David (a razor-sharp Ryun Yu), the New York investment banker whose roiling inner turmoil takes the form of hilarious sangfroid, stays perpetually perched on the phone. Daughter Esther (a potent Angela Lin) vents her rage at her father soon after fetching him from the airport. Only youngest son Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider) seems suitably excited about the upcoming celebration, but then he’s over 30 and still living like a preteen in his mother’s basement. And while ex-wife Mary (a gracefully assured Jodi Long) musters a generous and forgiving mood, she is no longer the docile hausfrau Min Suk once knew. For his part, Min Suk remains determined to somehow win back their affection, persevering with sharp-witted good nature and newfound humility, even as it leads him literally up the backyard tree.

Magic Theatre and new artistic director Loretta Greco hit this one out of the park. Suh’s American Hwangap is a fresh, heartfelt and very funny family drama whose Shepard-esque themes and setting come underscored by passing slide-guitar licks and Erik Flatmo’s delicately whimsical scenic design, which gives just the right lift to the comically bent realism in director Trip Cullman’s production.


Wed/29-Sat/2, 8 p.m.; Sun/3, 2:30 and 7 p.m., $45-$75

Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina at Laguna, SF

(415) 441-8822