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Model A


The stuff of dreams, this model apartment. And a repository for them too. Dreams, though, run in two directions, heavenward being only one. For an elderly Jewish couple from Brooklyn beginning a new chapter of their lives in mid-1980s Florida, nothing in this apartment is as it seems. Neither are they what they may first seem to us. From the time Lola (Naomi Newman) and Max (Jarion Monroe) enter the freshly minted studio condo to the first intimations of their desperate flight, David Margulies’ deeply felt and well turned portrait of lives shattered but still groping in the wake of a catastrophic history wastes no time in peeling back one surface after another. Even what seems a lighthearted comedy quickly turns several shades darker with the arrival of unhinged, inexorable daughter Debby (Amy Resnick), followed soon after by her addled boyfriend Neil (Anthony Williams). Amy Glazer directs a truly memorable, hilarious, and moving cast in Traveling Jewish Theatre’s not-to-be-missed production, one of the smallest and most acute of plays to effectively tackle the greatest of historical subjects.


Through April 5

Thurs–Sat, 8 p.m.; March 25 and April 1, 2 p.m., $15–$44

Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida, SF

(415) 292-1233, www.atjt.com

Climate change


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

I’ve heard about a fortuneteller with a tarot deck and a dead fish. I can smell the fish, but I’m daunted by the line in front of the curtain, so I wander into another room and stand before a terrycloth sculpture of some tropical beach getaway. It looks a little like a desert nomad’s tent in Technicolor, and comes fronted by an immobile bare-shouldered woman in vertical repose, cast like a caryatid and basking in cat-eye shades under some imagined equatorial sun for, I’m told, hours on end.

I try not to stare at her beach towel, which not only conforms to her shape but also a life-size photorealistic representation of what you imagine to be the body underneath. Somebody finally offers her a color-appropriate drink through a straw as my eyes dart over to a bedroom scene of vaguely subconscious associations: an inanimate, incongruous couple pokes out from under a duvet, the whole scene partially obscured by a murky plastic curtain on which a playfully frenetic lightshow dances. Titled Sea of Dreams and fashioned by Joegh Bullock — landlord and Anon Gallery proprietor, in addition to being one of more than 20 artists with work on display here tonight — it stands just to the left of a DJ booth, and attracts a group of costumed art lovers who also break into dance.

Taking in Unseen/Unsaid, as this one-off evening of curated art and performance is called, is a lot like trying to take in the history of the Climate Theater itself, full of blurring boundaries and strange echoes. In some ways it’s as labyrinthine as the floor plan of the former bordering house at Ninth and Folsom streets whose second floor contains the theater, its offices, and Anon Gallery. Branching out in several directions at once, it also stitches together the fringe arts, tech, and underground party scenes of the mid-1980s to those of the present.

Next year the Climate turns 25, an impressive run for any theater, and probably a better occasion than just now to trace this one’s full baroque lineage. Suffice it to say that the Climate Gallery, as it was originally known, was an accidental theater started by artists who, by their own admission, had no background or even interest in theater per se. But in opening its doors in 1985 to Nina Wise, who had recently lost a performance space, it quickly became a vital scene and vibrant avenue for some of the most dynamic and promising crossover and experimental work around.

In the last year and a half, as a result of a spurt of new energy via new management — as well as a larger recrudescence, if you will, of some of the old SoMa arts scene of the ’80s — the Climate has been looking pretty spry for a decades-old theater. Granted, this is happening at a time of supreme social and economic uncertainty. But what’s particularly striking about this fresh whirl of eclectic programming, as well as some wider neighborhood networking, is how naturally it harks back to the early history of the quirky black box, founded by artists and famed trend-setting party impresarios Bullock and Marcia Crosby — also founders, with Mark Petrakis, of the famed Glashaus parties of the ’90s and the still-influential Anon Salons. The current vibrant and dedicated bustle on this little corner of the city frankly inclines one to wax wise: do not the biggest downpours also give rise to the most unexpected blooms?


Then again, a few months ago Great Depression II: the Reckoning was just the big coming unattraction. By now it has officially hit theaters, and already set more than one teetering. Most dramatic cases so far: the Magic Theater — whose recent close shave with the bill collectors put in jeopardy the rest of the current season before a massive donor campaign was launched — and Shakespeare Santa Cruz, which underwent a similar, narrowly averted disaster. If this can happen to established, midsize institutions, what of the little guy? And with funding for the arts promising to be an even shakier proposition than usual — $50 mil in the stimulus bill notwithstanding — it’s small wonder that GDII is the inevitable topic of conversation in theater circles.

Climate Theater artistic director Jessica Heidt, however, is talking to me about sloths. We’re parked at a table outside Brainwash, a couple blocks east of Climate, and it’s becoming clear she admires them. "There’s this theory," she says, "that the reason sloths are so sedentary and stay in one tree is that they then fertilize their tree."

I wait for the relevance of this remark to wash over me. I had thought we were discussing the Climate.

"I’m really interested in being rooted in the neighborhood that you’re living in," she continues. "So you can fertilize what’s around you and have a more symbiotic relationship."

Heidt took over Climate in September 2007, shortly after leaving her associate artistic director position at the Magic. Since then, and true to her words on symbiosis, she has been strengthening the theater’s area ties. Recently she banded together with colleagues from other small neighborhood theaters and dance venues under the banner of the newly formed SOMA Culture Coalition, organizing the first theater crawl between the Garage, Boxcar Theater, and Climate.

Meanwhile, Heidt has been coordinating some theater and dinner packages with Climate’s downstairs neighbor, the Medici Lounge. Then there are the collaborations she’s facilitating between Climate artists and neighborhood organizations. She describes one involving women in the penal system based out of the women’s re-entry program on Bryant Street. "That’s been key with the resident artist program," she says, "figuring out partnerships for my eight resident artists to go work with social service organizations, specifically in this neighborhood, where they can give back a little bit — the sloth theory."


So much sprang from the Climate’s operation in the 1980s and ’90s that the outfit was soon labeled "the biggest little theater in San Francisco." And no wonder, since the space managed to be at the precise center of some mighty major trends. Tapped into the local vanguard geek scene of the burgeoning tech industry, for instance, Climate opened the country’s first Internet-wired restaurant-bar downstairs, the Icon Byte Bar and Grill. Meanwhile, the same confluence of art-types and venturesome techies spurred on new social networking strategies, including the earliest version of ex-Climate board member Craig Newmark’s ever-expanding online message board.

In the performance world, Climate helped spawn the storied Solo Mio Festival in 1990, a jaw-dropping who’s who of the form — which enjoyed a real vogue as the most promising segue out of a performance art shtick everyone was getting pretty bored with. Solo Mio’s principal curator was also, as it happens, its second performer, after Wise, to grace the Climate’s new stage in 1985: former SF denizen Bill Talen, a.k.a. Reverend Billy, followed by a runaway hit that solidified Climate’s new status as a serious alternative venue, "avant-vaudevillian" Helen Shumaker’s turn as Mona Rogers in Person, which ended up ensconced off-Broadway. One could go on. There was the international avant-puppetry performance showcase Festival Fantochio …

Climate worked with the hand they were dealt: once, Winston Tong, one "performance art crossover guy" who sparked Fantochio, was stabbed onstage. "Suddenly there was this big blood-spurting thing that we knew wasn’t special effects," remembers Crosby with a cringe. Soon afterward she discovered, while putting up flyers for the show, that the accident had helped them in the all-mighty word-of-mouth department. "’Is that the show where somebody got stabbed?’ they asked. I said, ‘Yeah, you should see it.’ They went, ‘Yeaaah!’<0x2009>"

Bullock — while still a practicing artist and one of the biggest events presenters around, associated with everything from the Sea of Dreams NYE parties to the SF Burning Man events, Decompression, and Flambé Lounge — notes wryly that these days he’s not always recognized when he strays from Anon to the other side of the building. In truth, his and Crosby’s involvement with the theater side of Climate is limited. "I’m still a board member, and I’m still sub-landlord of this space," he says. "But I don’t have much to say about the programming."

The theater itself is the Climate’s second incarnation — after a progressively overtaxed Bullock and Crosby finally decided to hang up their theater hats and vacate the storefront space at 252 Ninth St. in the late ’90s — and it’s the handiwork of magician, actor, showman, and impresario Paul Nathan of Dark Kabaret — a lavishly popular event that has served in part, like Bullock and Crosby’s famous Glashaus parties, as a fundraiser for the theater.

Nathan happened to be driving by, contemputf8g a sojourn in Europe in the wake of the dot-com bust, when he saw the for-rent sign at Ninth and Folsom. He knew the space well from Glashaus party days and the old Billboard Café, which derived its name from the sheets with painted messages that regularly hung from the roof. "I thought, you know, small theater is a dumb idea," he says. "But with a billboard there, we might be able to make a go of it." He got a good deal on the rent from Bullock, built a stage in the empty space, and took on the Climate name again with Bullock’s hearty approval.

"We started with Devil in the Deck and Titillation Theater," Nathan recalls. The evolving smart and sexy sketches of Titillation Theater (favorite program title: Let’s Pretend I’m Not Your Mother) produced another long-running success for the Climate. "We got huge crowds, but we were also advertising in the Chronicle, so our advertising budget was just insane," he adds. "We were breaking even, or making a little bit of money each week. But we really didn’t know what we were doing. There was no grant money." Eventually, Nathan says, they couldn’t afford to continue: "You do the numbers — it just can’t happen."


Journey across the gulf of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, during which the theater briefly disappeared along with many other art spaces and artists, to the moment when Heidt joined the Climate in 2007. In step with the intrepid optimism she detects in her SoMa environs, she has cheerfully and tirelessly overseen a remarkable resurgence of activity at the 49-seat black-box theater. With its all-volunteer staff, the venue hit a high point in February, presenting in that one month 16 downright disparate shows, including the current West Coast premiere of Skin, a smart, bold, adults-only rumination on lust and fidelity by the sharp and whimsical young Atlanta playwright Steve Yockey, a coproduction with Encore Theater, which coproduced Yockey’s Octopus at the Magic last year.

As offbeat as any play by Yockey promises to be, it remains one of the more straight-ahead components in an unusually varied theatrical lineup. The Climate’s programming stretches beyond the average small theater fare and its audience, to encompass a range of performance and visual art styles and solid Bay Area microscenes — like those around clowning or belly dance — as well as a laidback, brew-in-hand atmosphere of cultured fun, or just funny culture, amenable to a more general bar-hopping crowd.

The first show Heidt produced, You Tubed, a performance series codirected by the artistic director and Richard Ciccarone, was a crowd-pleasing blend of quotidian Internet technology and live reenactments. At the same time, Climate is also making forays into exploratory works in other media: one of Heidt’s first initiatives was establishing both a music and (now defunct) film series. She also repeatedly brought in acclaimed clown and Cirque de Soleil vet John Gilkey’s rollicking band of bad-boy "anticlowns," Your New Best Friends.

"The great thing about this space is that we get to try stuff out and to be much more experimental," Gilkey explains, taking a break from rehearsing a new show he’s developing for the Climate stage. Gilkey’s association with the Climate runs back at least 15 years, but it’s not nostalgia that brings him back.

"The history of San Francisco is that of producing amazing clowns," he says, citing Geoff Hoyle, Bill Irwin, and Larry Pisoni. "I think we have to push a lot harder to be more subversive, more daring, and bolder in the kind of clown we’re creating. This is the place that has open doors for the forward stuff, and that’s what excites me."

Climate’s forward programming last month included installments of the Wednesday night Music Box concerts; another Improv Soapbox open jam session hosted by resident champs Crisis Hopkins; the Monday night Clown Cabaret directed by Paoli Lacy and showcasing students and grads from the Clown Conservatory, as well as faculty and seasoned clowns of the likes of Gilkey, Joel Salom, and James Donlon; another boisterous staging of the matchmaking show and runaway hit, The Dating Game; and Unseen/Unsaid, one in a series of irregular, curated, multi-artist, multidisciplinary, and multi-roomed art parties.

Looking back at its history, the Climate’s success then, and now, has resided in its talent for bridging not just disciplines and genres, but audiences and whole scenes in what was once — and increasingly is again — a flourishing hub of arts and nightlife in SoMa. While it remains to be seen if this gradual crawl back to life can weather the full brunt of the coming economic storm, Heidt’s sloth theory dovetails comfortably with her vision of a diverse but tight-knit artistic community.

Her extensive theater background has held her in good stead: Heidt knows how to produce, direct, and write grants — although ticket sales are still the main source of operation revenue. At the same time, she’s been inspired by what she was not familiar with. "For me that’s been one of the most exciting things about being here — going to Burning Man, knowing it’s a city of crazy artists, incredibly talented people, and it’s all sort of below the surface of what you’re seeing in the mainstream," she says. "To be able to tap into that world a little has been really fun."

As for Bullock and Crosby, who both have remained deeply involved in the culture and organizing of Burning Man and its year-round Bay Area events, they are clearly gratified with a direction they see as consonant with the theater’s long, remarkably fruitful tradition of cultivating crossover communities and promoting the edgy, fun, experimental, and unexpected. "She’s doing the kind of programming that we used to do," says Bullock, "which is eclectic."

I’m hearing echoes again. "South of Market is starting to come back," he continues. "I think there’s a resurrection of the arts right now. I think this corner and this block are key to it, with New Langton Arts and Eighth Street. I mean, this is becoming what it used to be 20 years ago." Bullock laughs. "It’s like, what the hell?"


Through March 21

Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7:30 and 10 p.m.; $15–$20

Climate Theater

285 Ninth St., SF

(415) 263-0830

For info on this and other events, go to www.climatetheater.com

Loving the enemy


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW Nation, ethnicity, family, friends, gender, lover — where do our true loyalties lie? More to the point, when our multiple loyalties slip out of concentric orbit and collide, how much say do we really have in the matter? These questions arise provocatively from two very different plays making their Bay Area premieres.

In the first, Golden Thread’s generally sturdy West Coast premiere of Joyce Van Dyke’s A Girl’s War: An Armenian-Azeri Love Story, an aging Armenian American fashion model, Anna (Ana Bayat), returns to the war-torn village of her youth determined not to be affected by the ongoing ethnic strife that has just taken the life of her brother (Adrian Cervantes Mejia) and racked the Azerbaijani region of Karabakh since the late 1980s — converting her stolid yet hot-tempered mother (Bella Warda) into a machine gun–toting foot soldier for the Armenian cause. Almost flaunting her own aloofness and disapproval, Anna even resists calling herself Armenian and soon falls in love with a returning member of her family’s onetime Azeri neighbors, now antagonists: a passionate young deserter (Zarif Kabeir Sadiqi) who arrives stealthily one day at her mother’s house, which he and his family briefly occupied years before.

Van Dyke’s 2001 play opens on a world seemingly apart, however, as Brit fashion photographer Stephen (Simon Vance) snaps photos of the still-striking Anna, his old flame and muse, glowering at him in some haute-couture idea of battle garb. The contrast is key and works its way into the second setting in Karabakh, when Stephen and his cheerful but recently shaken assistant Tito (Mejia) arrive after escaping anti-U.S. feelings during a harrowing trip to Turkey. Here in her mother’s house, Anna’s two worlds collide even as she insists she needs no land, passport, or language to define her. Her stoic but long-suffering mother, however, shows little patience for her daughter’s flighty Western cosmopolitanism, and we are left with our own sympathies unsettled, fraternizing with all sides.

Along the way, the play neatly works a certain doubling conceit. The same actor playing the Italian American Tito, for instance, also plays Anna’s recently deceased brother, a spectral presence in the form of the far more severe but equally sensitive Seryozha. The implications are subtle rather than crude, suggesting the dramatic shaping done by circumstance across a universal segment of young manhood. And the climax, in yet another doubling, underscores the point resonantly, as another two seemingly very different characters lie side by side, brought together in death — the most democratic of states — and made mirror images of each other. It’s an effect that might have been overplayed, but under artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian’s confident direction it happily comes off with matter-of-fact simplicity. The play as a whole succeeds in similar fashion, overshadowing, if not altogether escaping, its more maudlin and moralizing tendencies with fitting dramatic tension, unexpected twists, and thematic delicacy.

TO HELL AND BACK Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, meanwhile, offers an admirably complex take on love and loyalty in the context of the proverbial war of the sexes, in director Buddy Butler’s graceful Northern California premiere of William A. Parker’s Waitin’ 2 End Hell. An African American couple (a towering Alex Morris and a slyly understated Pjay Phillips) find their relationship hitting the skids after 20 years of marriage, dividing along lines of gender solidarity the four friends who’ve shown up to celebrate their anniversary. If the title — playing on the Terry McMillan novel — isn’t that funny, Parker’s naturalistic dialogue offers consistent laughs and truths, pivoting expertly on the comic and tragic dimensions of male-female rivalry in the context of African American experience. There is one seeming misstep late in the plot — a slightly hard-to-believe change of heart evoked at gunpoint — but this is a surprisingly powerful and well-rounded comedy about love; the entwined politics of race, class, and gender; and the long haul every family faces.


Through March 8

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; $15–$25

Thick House

1695 18th St., SF



Through March 1

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $24–$36

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre

77 Beale, SF


Night at the museum


REVIEW American Conservatory Theater leads off its new season with a revival of John Guare’s rollickingly self-referential 1974 comedy, a madcap musical so quirky and of the moment in conception and mood that it comes shrouded in a sometimes dazzling, more often distancing veil of nostalgia.

New York playwright Bing Ringling (Brooks Ashmanskas) has received his first commercial production — after only several hundred attempts — in a dreary downtown theater haunted by an insane producer (Mary Birdsong) with a failure wish and a strong resemblance to a tottering Kate Hepburn. Shadowed by the billboard superstardom of movie actor and old neighborhood pal Tybalt Dunleavy (Stephen Derosa), Bing recoils from the scathing reviews of Etruscan Conundrum, leading to a desperate search for meaning that winds through his past, his parents’ couch, the home of his maniacal death-devouring composer (played to the hilt by an irrepressible Derosa), and finally to the dizzy heights of celebrity, from which old pal Tybalt (Derosa again) is preparing to sail down in one big swan dive. The point is not that dreams do come true, you see, but that they exist at all — and get in the way of real life.

Although Guare reworked the material for ACT’s revival, adding even more autobiographical touches as well as some bright if unexceptional new songs, Rich and Famous remains a hit-and-miss affair, with some flat notes and fewer high ones shaking up its middle register. The often overly broad humor has dated — though it can still work well, as in the scene with Bing’s obsessive, half-senile parents, played by Derosa and Birdsong. Moreover, the main character, while sympathetic, never becomes more than mildly interesting, which contributes to the sense of the intermissionless performance dragging on. Overall, the feeling is not unlike walking around inside a museum piece — which is just what happens in one vignette. But the play’s whimsy is so rooted in a specific moment, despite a stab at more timeless themes, that maybe that’s inevitable.

Rich and Famous is, however, expertly performed by a versatile four-person cast — including ACT’s priceless Gregory Wallace in a couple of scene-stealing flights — and directed with appropriately zany energy by John Rando. It’s also lovingly gussied up by scenic designer Scott Bradley in jazzy, period-evoking slashes of color, including set pieces drenched in the garishly comic shades of nightmares. All of which ensures Guare and Ringling’s one-ring circus is nothing if not a frenetically romantic spree. (Robert Avila)

RICH AND FAMOUS Through Feb. 8. Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.–Sun., Jan. 21, and Feb. 4, 2 p.m. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary, SF. $17–$82. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

Couch-surf theater


PREVIEW No sooner do they settle into their snug and versatile new alley roost on Natoma Street than the people at Boxcar Theatre go itinerant again. The company, founded just a few years back on valiantly environmental productions set aboard moving buses (2006’s 21/One) or on the sands of Baker Beach (2006’s Zen), is spending the holiday season couch-surfing its production of Edward Albee’s The American Dream in a series of private living rooms around the Bay.

Fair enough. This early one act — a scathingly trenchant satire of quote-unquote American family values — is as personal and autobiographical an assault on the hollow mores and manners of a vicious culture as anything Albee ever penned: it’s almost like it never left home in the first place. The cozy parable of Mommy, Daddy, and Grandma — plus special guest: a mysterious young man the spitting image of a son they once adopted and destroyed — unfolds proudly and loudly in a strikingly absurdist key while laying the groundwork for more intricate creations/dissections in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and A Delicate Balance (1966). Like the teen who calls the fam out on all its bullshit, it’s a play the author himself described as "a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen." Who says you can’t go home again?

THE AMERICAN DREAM Fri/12, 7 and 8:30 p.m.; Sat/13 and Dec. 19 and 20, 7 p.m. $25. Various Bay Area living rooms; call for location. (415) 776-1747, www.boxcartheatre.org.

What do you remember?


PREVIEW "You can surely remember episodes from your childhood. Do you consider some of them or several so precious that you wouldn’t want to do without them?" "Is there an experience or experiences among your memories that you would describe as mystic, spiritual, or religious?" "What is your earliest memory?" "Which episode(s) of a sexual nature do you remember particularly fondly?"

These are but a few of the 50 questions that have been floating around the Internet and on printed questionnaires this fall. If you answered any of them, there is a good chance that your observations may show up in one of the season’s more unusual theatrical experiments, The Execution of Precious Memories, a collaboration by Nanos Operetta, Kunst-Stoff, and Blixa Bargeld, who created the first Execution in 1994 in Berlin. The idea is to develop a piece of dance/music/theater piece from the memories of people who live in specific places. So far Executions have taken place in London, Stockholm, Tokyo, and Kraków, among other cities. This is the first American version. Bargeld became famous in the 1980s as a cofounder of Einstuerzende Neubauten, one of the first and most influential industrial bands. But the Berlin native and current San Francisco resident is also an artist steeped in dadaism, an architectural critic, and one of the more radical and fascinating thinkers on contemporary culture, particularly as it plays itself out in Germany. Nanos Operetta founder Ali Tabatabai claims Bargeld as an important influence on all their work.

THE EXECUTION OF PRECIOUS MEMORIES Wed/19-Sat/22, 8 p.m.; Sun/23, 7 p.m.; $20. Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida, SF. (415) 863-9834, www.brownpapertickets.com, www.kunst-stoff.org

The Cutting Ball Theater


If you were at the latest Cutting Ball show, avantgardARAMA!, you entered a theater that looked like an art installation, already buzzing and flickering with video images on a screen suspended in front of a shimmering mirror-box set, accompanied by a soundtrack of voices and droning tones. It was like some serenely wicked room in a purgatorial funhouse, where all you’ve been and all you might become could be reflected at you, from every possible angle, ad infinitum. As it turned out, it was an environment perfectly suited to the material sharply staged that evening: three short experimental plays on war, power, and betrayal by three women writers — Gertrude Stein, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Eugenie Chan — whose bold narrative loops and lacunae literally rebounded off the walls.

The stylish, jarring, exhilarating effect: our sleepwalking world was dramatically distilled into fractal-like figures that somehow made it real again. This is the oblique strategy of the Cutting Ball Theater, a passionately intelligent and skillful company with a declared commitment to poetic truths over superficial naturalism.

As it approaches its 10-year milestone, Cutting Ball transitions from dogged itinerancy into luxurious residency at Exit on Taylor, a satellite stage of the Exit Theater complex in the Tenderloin. Much as a ball rolls forward by turning full circle, the move marks something of a return for the company, which launched its career in a production of Richard Foreman’s My Head Was a Sledgehammer at the Exit-sponsored San Francisco Fringe Festival in 1999.

"That was the last time you had to stand outside at 3 in the morning and camp out," associate artistic director and actor Paige Rogers recalls of that time, before the Fringe established its lottery system. Rogers, and husband and artistic director Rob Melrose, established both the company and a family that year, more or less simultaneously. Melrose did the camping out and rehearsed the play by night at an Alameda Catholic school where Rogers was teaching music.

(As with many a start-up theater, overlapping accommodations was the name of the tune: when the school’s principal expressed surprise at happening upon a late-night rehearsal of Foreman’s madcap dream-world in the kindergarten, Rogers deflected further inquiry by joyfully announcing, "Marilyn! I’m pregnant!")

Cutting Ball has mixed new plays and "re-visioned" classics ever since. The visual metaphor is apt since Cutting Ball productions are nothing if not strikingly designed. For years, the company has had a talented core of collaborators that includes designers Heather Basarab (lights), Cliff Caruthers (sound and electronic music), and Michael Locher (sets). Together in close collaboration with the astute, Yale-trained Melrose, they regularly produce some of the best designs to be found on any Bay Area stage, large or small. Add artistic associates like playwrights Kevin Oakes (2003’s The Vomit Talk of Ghosts) and Eugenie Chan (whose A Bone to Pick was a highlight of this theater season), as well as dependably strong acting from Rogers, Felicia Benefield, Chad Deverman, David Sinaiko, and David Westley Skillman, among others, and you have the makings of some great small theater.

The new residency marks another return. Its ninth season will be inaugurated by a rarely staged early play by Eugène Ionesco, Victims of Duty, a work Melrose says he’s waited 15 years to direct. Centering on the abrupt crisis-ridden invasion of a bourgeois couple’s placid bubble-world and their equally staid conceptions of theatrical art, Victims is a fever-dream of a play that not only sounds strikingly contemporary but echoes the company’s own MO. When theater "holds the mirror up to the world," it’s often the warped glass that furnishes the truest picture.


The Thousand Faces Ball


PREVIEW Imagine the unsavory digs of the Mos Eisley Cantina of Tatooine stormed by a horde of previously barred droids and miscreants and forced to hold a variety show to stave off certain destruction — it’s a scene reminiscent of those generated by San Francisco’s OmniCircus, which has been simultaneously thrilling and troubling audiences for two decades. Founded by local surrealist artist and roboteer Frank Garvey, first as a film project, then as a live performance troupe, OmniCircus combines the high tech with the lowdown, propagating an environment where down-and-out robot performers and their human counterparts can come together under one roof, creating a spectacle part Transmetropolitan, part Captured! By Robots, and part The Black Rider. No mere vehicle for cream pies and contortionists, this darkly subversive one-ring circus has all the hallmarks of an ecstatically apocalyptic experience: music, mayhem, and mechanical mendicants. The Thousand Faces Ball marks the latest incarnation of the project, introducing the Moth nor Rust band starring OmniDiva Joan Loon, and retaining the talents of longtime DeusMachina collaborators, including Daniel Berkman and Geoffrey Pond, as well as an army of robotic riffraff: junkies, beggars, street preachers, and whores. Billed as the world’s first robotic theatre ensemble, OmniCircus is nevertheless no ephemeral vision of the future, but a thorough examination of the present through an unsentimental, yet curiously life-affirming lens.

THE THOUSAND FACES BALL Sat/8, 8 p.m., $10 donation. OmniCircus, 550 Natoma, SF.

(415) 701-0686, www.omnicircus.com

No Seth Rogen


REVIEW Two young family-hungry couples, one unassuming victim of the staff Christmas party, and a lonely alky wife and mom-bonking boy-next-door all find themselves variously knocked up, around, and for a loop by the reproductive process in Imaginative Productions’ stage adaptation of its 2006 independent film, "conceived" and directed by Tonya Foster. And reproduction really is a process containing as much social baggage as genetic code in these predicaments which, while ranging from the urban banal to the tragically suburban, are all pretty much as thematically familiar as familial.

Unfortunately, the relatively slim potential in this otherwise pregnant theme is rarely pursued with much vigor or insight, as the multicharacter storyline meanders away from its subjects in seeming perplexity as to what to do with them. Further muting things is a muffled soundscape that sounds like unintended lobby noise. The more workable areas of drama and comedy, meanwhile, suffer from uneven performances and static direction — although, ironically, a visit by single preggy waitress Anna (a relatively strong and sympathetic Quinne Brown) to an actors workshop-cum-support group — led by a deeply histrionic drama instructor (a vibrant Erin Coker) — arrives as one of the more unexpected and apt scenes.

KNOCKED UP Through Oct. 18. Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m., $23–$25. Studio 300 Theatre, 442 Post, SF. 1-888-410-8355, www.imaginativeproductions.com

Waving the black flag


PREVIEW First the bad news, straight from the wise-ass, too-literate, poetry-writing punk rocker who once muscled his way through Los Angeles hardcore byways and back: "I think McCain will win," Henry Rollins tells me over the phone in Los Angeles after humping a shipment of his new book, Fanatic! Vol. Three (21361), off the truck and into his offices.

"He’s just an awful person." Rollins pauses. "I’m one to talk, but I’m not as awful. I just think America will make the wrong choice again. After all, Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity — and Republicans cheat."

Ah, Rollins — a heady gust of hardcore wit ‘n’ wisdom, the punk progenitor driving the original, alternate-universe straight-talk express. On the eve of a so-called change election, leave it to the ex–Black Flag frontman and IFC regular to take a talking tour titled "Recountdown" to gauge the state of the nation. Rollins, no doubt, will hold forth on subjects ranging from Sarah Palin ("Who needs five kids? What are you, working in the fields? Are you selling them for meat?") to his recent documentary-making and travels in Thailand, South Africa, New Orleans, Pakistan, and Burma (of the latter he says, "it was five wacky white guys with expensive cameras trying to pass themselves off as tourists").

So in a world that seems to witness even the most obscure underground combo bellying up to the reunion trough, can we ever expect the still-influential Black Flag to reassemble? The good news: Rollins amiably notes that he wouldn’t have much say in the matter since "Black Flag basically belongs to Greg Ginn. But as a hypothetical, I’d pass."

HENRY ROLLINS Fri/19, 8 p.m., $25. Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley Campus, Bancroft and Telegraph, Berk. (415) 421-8497, www.livenation.com

Curtain calls


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Fall arts resolution No. 1: have no faith in leaders. Obummer and McPain will only disappoint, or worse. (Probably worse.) If faith you must ooze, kindly direct it toward people who really care about you and have your interests at heart. Why did Gore Vidal write his play The Best Man (1960), for instance? Most likely it wasn’t to get elected (though he did try). And Frank Wedekind was even less enamored of the powers that be when he penned his way-pre-punk "tragedy of childhood," Spring Awakening, a late 19th-century cri de coeur against authority whose transition to Broadway and electric guitars has both an aptness and an irony going for it that might have amused old FW. As Tom Stoppard confirms, power is a compromised and compromising affair whatever side of history you happen to be on, but rock ‘n’ roll will save your soul. So will Teddy Pendergrass, for that matter, as soul-survivor and kinetic Philly memoirist Colman Domingo brilliantly attests. So this fall, remember who your real friends are. You can direct any remaining or follow-up questions to author-playwright Kobo Abe, as well as the other miscellaneous sage nonconformists referenced in the list below.

The Best Man A Broadway hit for Gore Vidal, this political comedy-drama remains fresh as a daisy, if such a sweet olfactory simile can apply to the mosh pit of electoral politics.

Now playing through Sept. 28. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, Berk. (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

San Francisco Fringe Festival The mighty Exit Theatre turned 25 this year. The SF Fringe Festival, the annual small-theater smorgasbord the Exit serves up each fall, turns a sexy 17. Judging by this year’s lineup, that means stripped-down, butt-plugged, bare-bones, rock-hard, strap-on sexy.

Sept. 3–14. Various venues, including the Exit Theatres, 156 Eddy, SF. www.sffringe.org

A Boy and His Soul (Thick House) and A Bronx Tale (Golden Gate Theatre) If only it were a double bill. These two solo plays about growing up (in Philadelphia and the titular Bronx) take place on radically different Bay Area stages, and deal with radically different stages in the lives of what you might call radically different actors (Coleman Domingo and Chazz Palminteri, respectively). Both are masterful, and as long as you’re at it, throw in Carlo D’Amore’s own deft and hilarious family-centered solo, No Parole, coming to the Marsh in November (www.themarsh.org).

Sept. 3–14. Thick House, 1695 18th St., SF. www.thickhouse.org

Sept. 23–Oct. 19. Golden Gate Theatre, One Taylor, SF. www.shnsf.com

Spring Awakening Best of Broadway brings to town this rock musical makeover of Wedekind’s great drama.

Sept. 4–Oct. 12. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary, SF. www.shnsf.com

Rock ‘N’ Roll Here comes Tom Stoppard’s character-concentrated take on Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, as well as on leftist politics across several decades of Cold War history. It’s a good play to argue about afterward, in your highest pinko dudgeon, over pinot and tartare de boeuf at the Grand Cafe.

Sept. 11–Oct. 12. American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary, SF. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

HyperReal Bay Area performance artist Sara Kraft’s low-key brilliance by now merits a neologism: krafty (with a k!). Krafty = shrewd, inventive, technically savvy, wry, playful, tuneful, eerie, unsettling, and, generally speaking, not to be missed.

Oct. 10–12. CounterPULSE, 1310 Mission, SF. 1-800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com/event/36251

War Peace: The One Drop Rule Living Word Festival 2008, titled "Race Is Fiction," features a new collaborative work by Youth Speaks alumni and Teen Poetry Slam champions Chinaka Hodge, Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs, and Nico Cary. Directed by festival curator Marc Bamuthi Joseph, War Peace imagines a drought-ravaged Bay Area as potential war zone.

Oct. 23–24. Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, SF. www.youthspeaks.org

Angry Black White Boy Felonious’ Dan Wolf and Tommy Shepherd unveil a poetical rap-fused remix of Adam Mansbach’s satirical and incendiary novel about race and identity in the United States, adapted by Wolf.

Oct. 23–Nov. 16. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia, SF. www.theintersection.org

Continuous City Last year’s work-in-progress is this year’s full-fledged multimedia outing as New York City–based boundary pushers, the Builders Association, returns with a three-pronged narrative (incorporating much Bay Area–derived material) negotiating the ever-more permeable membrane between the global and the local, and our networked and unplugged experience.

Nov. 6–8. Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard, SF. (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org

Friends Brava! For Women in the Arts’ new artistic director Raelle Myrick-Hodges carries forward the spirit of its founding mission with offerings eclectic and unexpected. The revival of Woman in the Dunes author Kobo Abe’s play Friends promises to be a timely and potent production, though Abe penned his scathing absurdist take on gentrification some four decades ago.

Nov. 6–17. Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St., SF. (415) 647-2822, www.brava.org

Connect four


Photos by Jeffery Cross


SFBG Who is inspiring or revolting to you, in terms of art and performance, including political performance?

Guillermo Gómez-Peña The best and — most inspiring performance I’ve experienced took place in the Mexico City zocalo. A group of 100 indigenous men from the Coordinadora de los 400 pueblos, tired of waiting for the mayor to listen to their claims, decided to take off their clothes, each drink a liter of water, and pee in unison against the walls of the Palacio Nacional. The power of this action was not in the collective pissing ritual but rather in the exposure of the nude indigenous body, marked by the scars of hard labor and history. The image has been haunting me.

SFBG What do you hope will happen in the US presidential election?

GGP In the realm of symbolic politics, the best thing that can happen is for the United States to elect an articulate mulatto president, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, whose second name is Hussein. But in reality, it worries me that Obama’s project of hope sounds more and more like Hallmark humanism.

SFBG What is your favorite time of year in seasonless San Francisco?

GGP I love it when the sun comes out in earnest and tropicalism hits the streets for a few days. I love to bar hop in the Mission and watch the myriad subcultures show off their self-styled fashion, muscles, tattoos and nalgas palidas. But I also love certain neighborhoods under heavy fog. I feel I am walking in the middle of a British gothic novel. My worry is that this gorgeous city is slowly becoming a bohemian theme park.


Oct. 2, 5–8 p.m.; Oct.11, 3–5 p.m.; and Oct. 21, 5–8 p.m.; free, $5

SF Camerawork

657 Mission (second floor), SF

(415) 512-2020



Oct. 23–25; times and prices TBD

Project Artaud Theater

450 Florida, SF

(415) 863-9834





SFBG What are your plans for this fall?

MATTILDA BERNSTEIN SYCAMORE I’m going on a crazy cross-country book tour, starting with the book launch Oct. 8 at City Lights — check my Web site (www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) for details.

SFBG Your novel, So Many Ways to Sleep Badly, is published by City Lights. A recent review in Publishers Weekly seems to think the book’s protagonist is a woman. What did you learn from that review?

MBS I learned most people are even more confused about gender than me. But guess what — the book is already available in Bay Area stores, so readers can rush to figure it out, just like the latest John Grisham.

SFBG So, are you allergic to oxygen?

MBS These days, who isn’t?

SFBG Where’s your favorite sex place in SF, or maybe better, where in SF needs to be turned into a sex spot?

MBS City Hall would be fun. So much elegance and charm, as long as they get rid of everyone who’s usually there. The 38 Geary would be perfect: I always get horny on that bus. Anywhere on my late-night walks — I usually walk up Leavenworth and Hyde from O’Farrell to Bush or so. Feel free to stalk me!

SFBG What do you want to happen in the presidential election?

MBS Do we still call that an election?

SFBG What is your favorite time of year in seasonless San Francisco?

MBS Anytime when the fog rolls in and I can breathe.


Oct. 8, 7:30 p.m.

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193




SFBG Your new show, Off Leash: Who’s a Good Girl?, ponders the canine-human continuum. What have you learned?

JoAnn Selisker In terms of interspecies relationships, I find human behavior and motivation to be much more strange and unfathomable (and sometimes disturbing) than that of the canine. I speak human, so I ought to understand where humans are coming from. If dogs weren’t so helpless, misunderstood, disregarded, and maltreated, I would prefer to be a dog.

SFBG What do you think of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer?

JS I think he makes some nice dog beds. You can get anything he thinks your dog needs with his "brand" on it. You could call him the Martha Stewart of the dog world. She reaches us through Wal-Mart, and he reaches us through PETCO. They both give us simple how-to instructions and affordable, quality products. All we have to do is buy the videos, magazines, supplies, and accessories, follow step-by-step instructions, and … voilà! The perfect dinner party; the well-mannered pet.

SFBG In your earlier show, Begin with a Box, you put creative instructions by Twyla Tharp to the test. What did you discover?

JS Well, how interesting — Twyla Tharp is a lot like the Dog Whisperer and Martha Stewart! Each of these masters generously shares secrets to success, in simple, step-by-step format. We can all become Twyla Tharp, the Dog Whisperer and/or Martha Stewart.

I discovered that I will never become Twyla Tharp. I started the Begin with a Box project with a box, just like she says, and proceeded step-by-step to completion. I should now be a MacArthur genius, with name recognition and a project with Prince.


Oct. 8, 8 p.m.; Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m.; $15–$18

Project Theater Artaud

450 Florida, SF

(415) 863-9834





SFBG What are your plans for this fall?

TIM SULLIVAN I traveled all summer, so I’m going to try my best to stay put. I have two shows opening this fall, one at SF Camerawork and one in Dallas. I’ll be teaching a class at San Francisco Art Institute and continuing to make things.

SFBG Your contribution to SF Camerawork’s fall exhibition, "I Feel I Am Free But I Know I Am Not," involves a rowboat. What should people expect if they step into the boat?

TS Everyone who gets into the boat will be instantly transformed into a movie star in a recreation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944). I really need people to come out and participate to make this work.

SFBG You’ve collaborated with George Kuchar before. Do you have a favorite Kuchar quote, or Kuchar story?

TS A few years back I was in Kuchar’s class film, Kiss of Frankenstein. On the first day he handed us the script, I was rolling on the floor laughing. The entire script is hilarious and quote-worthy! It was definitely the best reading I did in graduate school. The last line (spoiler alert!) always gets me: "Kiss me sloppy."

SFBG What is your favorite time of year in seasonless San Francisco?

TS Fall is always my favorite season. In my home state of Wisconsin I love it because the leaves fall off the trees. Here in SF I love it because the tourists leave and the streets thin out.


Sept. 4, 5–8 p.m., free; Sept. 13 and 27, 2–5 p.m., $5

SF Camerawork

657 Mission (second floor), SF

(415) 512-2020


>>More Fall Arts Preview

2008 Bay Area Playwrights Festival


PREVIEW Even 32 years after the Playwrights Foundation chose a young Sam Shepard for its first Bay Area Playwrights Festival in 1976, the annual celebration of the script still runs below the radar of the larger local theater-going audience. Perhaps that’s because most fans of the stage want to see a full production — with costumes, sets, and lighting design — rather than the bare-bones staged readings at the festival. Over the decades, the event has played an important role in keeping stages across the country full of vital new works and aiding the budding careers of now-established playwrights such as Pulitzer Prize–winner Nilo Cruz and Liz Duffy Adams, who won critical acclaim with 2002’s Dog Act. (SF’s Crowded Fire is currently premiering her latest, The Listener). Venture off to Fort Mason during the 10-day festival and you can check out the up-and-coming talent. Of particular interest to conspiracy theorists will be Dominic Orlando’s Danny Casolaro Died for You. In the thriller, the writer attempts to suss out the circumstances of his brother’s death. A freelance journalist, Casolaro was found dead in a hotel room in 1991 while investigating labyrinthine connections between spy software company Inslaw, US and Israeli governments, and various Islamic organizations. Marcus Gardley is another promising writer worth getting a peek at. The Yalie who made a name for himself here with the East Bay historical drama Love Is a Dream House in Lorin brings a new work, every tongue must confess, about the burning of black Baptist churches in a small Alabama town during the late 1990s. Proving that there is an art to the reading of the play, popular Bay Area director Amy Glazer takes on Whisper from the Book of Etiquette, Claire Chafee’s look into the dynamics of wooing surrogate mothers.

2008 BAY AREA PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL July 25–Aug 3. See Web site for details. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina and Buchanan, SF. $15–$25. (415) 626-0453, ext. 105, www.playwrightsfoundation.org

Blood in, blood out


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In John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, when Parma’s bright and talented Giovanni (Michael Hayden) confesses to Friar Bonaventura (Steven Anthony Jones) his passion for his equally exceptional sister, Annabella (René Augesen), the friar is quick to understand the stakes, declaring, "We have need to pray." He advises Giovanni to turn from so unnatural a desire to repentance and sorrow. "Acknowledge what thou art," he tells him, "a wretch, a worm, a nothing." But this strikes us as something of a denial of nature too, especially given our protagonist’s rare qualities. And it’s soon clear that religion will give him no solace or cure anyway. This is unsurprising, since the church — headed by a slimy cardinal (Jack Willis) — is a thoroughly dishonest institution deeply implicated in the pervasive corruption of the age. So where should Giovanni’s faith and ultimate allegiance lie in such a world? And where, in turn, should our sympathies lie?

Such questions go to the heart of what remains provocative and compelling in John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy four centuries on. It makes a kind of irrefutable sense within the context of the play that Giovanni and Annabella (clearly intended as a darker version of Romeo and Juliet) would pursue a mutual affinity and blood bond to the extremes of physical and emotional passion — with tragic consequences of course. But the surprise is that while tragic, the consequences are also, morally speaking, far from straightforward. Forging a bond that denies and defies a fallen world and its judgment, their relationship finally succumbs to the order of the day — which is to say, the disorder of violence — by self-destructing in an orgy of blood vengeance.

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Ford’s best-known work — whose central incest plot comes wrapped in intervening subplots driven by jealousy, power, and revenge — plumbs moral confusion and the individual conscience in a hypocritical and vicious age. No wonder it feels thematically and dramatically vital in our own spiraling time. Ford depicts a world — the tumultuous mid–17th century — where the Elizabethan certainties of Shakespeare’s day have dissolved and authority has blurred. Meanwhile, material and carnal appetites have bloomed like overripe fruit in a dilapidated garden that looks more like a jungle. The cruelty and gore here barely merit a raised eyebrow by today’s brassy standards, whether in the realm of entertainment, art, or politics. But in Ford’s time and ours, taboos don’t so much disappear as they become tantalizingly flimsy, porous and seductive, Guantánamo being one byword for this.

The still-burning fire in Ford’s tragedy is inconsistently sustained, however, in American Conservatory Theater’s new production, requiring a wade through a fairly static and fitfully persuasive first act to get to the juicier scenes and forceful momentum of the second. Artistic director Carey Perloff puts wonderful care into the production values and her casting is generally shrewd (in addition to leads Augesen and Hayden, who really heat up by the end, Anthony Fusco, Susan Gibney, and Gregory Wallace turn in particularly noteworthy performances). The baroque world of Ford’s play and our time is architecturally bridged, meanwhile, in Walt Spangler’s multileveled scenic design — an abstracted cathedral in its jewel-like beaded curtains, scattered candles in soft-colored glass, steep metallic stairways, and a treelike cluster of massive dangling organ pipes enshrouding composer-musician Bonfire Madigan Shive and her cello on a recessed tier. The "avant-baroque" cello score and Shive’s occasional anguished vocal lines add a somewhat thinner aural texture to character and scene than seems intended. But the set is stunningly integrated with Robert Wierzel’s sensual lighting design, evoking baroque canvases while draping the action in a sense of carnal luxury and exquisite decadence.

It’s a bumpy ride, but the end is well played and gripping, casting a memorable image of Giovanni drenched in the blood of his sister and lover, having utterly retreated into himself — literally into the womb of his flesh and blood, where sibling, wife, and child have all become horribly blurred. In the play’s crowning and irresolvable tension, incest is both a fundamental violation of natural order as well as an assertion of blood as the only terra firma in a world of quicksand. *


Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 2 p.m., $14–$82

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

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

Mixed doubles


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A new work by Robert Lepage is always a major event. In theater, the Quebecois director, actor, and filmmaker stands with the likes of Robert Wilson or Peter Sellars at the pinnacle of theatrical invention and global acclaim. Little wonder that, like Wilson and Sellars, Lepage has found opera a logical outlet for his extraordinary capacities and grand, all-encompassing visions. (His last Bay Area bow was in November 2007 at the San Francisco Opera, where he staged Stravinsky’s 1951 opera The Rake’s Progress.) But while he is a truly international force wielding the largest of canvases, there’s an intimate and personal side running through much of his work, perhaps nowhere more poignantly than in his stunningly staged solo plays The Far Side of the Moon (2003) and The Andersen Project (2005). The latter, which slyly folds layers of personal and cultural doubt (as well as biting cultural satire) into a glancing exploration of Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen’s troubled psyche, makes its local debut courtesy of Cal Performances.

As with Far Side, Andersen was developed with Lepage playing dual roles that together define a kind of split personality and serve as starting point for a series of thematic dyads. In this case, the main characters are a corrupt French opera director and a French Canadian musician-songwriter named Frédéric Lapointe, who arrives in Paris on a commission to write an opera based on an Andersen story. Also as with Far Side, Lepage eventually handed off the roles to Yves Jacques. An extremely gifted theater and film actor in his own right (probably best known to Americans through several Denys Arcand films), Jacques shares a history and affinity with Lepage (they’ve known each other since their twenties) that make him the best, and perhaps the only, person capable of stepping into these demanding, idiosyncratic solo shows, with their half-hidden strands of autobiography and fraught national identity. I recently spoke with Jacques by phone from Montreal.

SFBG Before Andersen, you took over another Lepage solo play.

YVES JACQUES It started with Far Side because it was a story very close to him. So he wanted someone with the same sensibility. I was able to understand his feelings about [the subject matter]. So afterward he said, ‘Why not continue with The Andersen Project?’

SFBG Was it at all intimidating to take over these plays from their originator?

YJ Oh, yes. I felt a big responsibility to be at least equivalent to Robert — just to reach the level of the acting he puts into the show. But he liked [what I was doing] and was very happy because for once he could see his own work. When you play in a solo show you don’t always understand what you’re doing. Now he could see himself, or himself through me.

SFBG How did you approach the part?

YJ I never feel I’m doing a one-man show; I’m doing a play. I’m doing the yin and the yang of the same character, in a way. Far Side was the story of two brothers, and this is quite the same. You have the director of the Paris Opera and then you have Lapointe. They’re very different but they’re played by the same actor. In a way, it’s the yin and the yang of the same personality, which is Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage is using two different characters to describe [the complexity of] Andersen. It’s very clever. You see Andersen only twice in the show but he’s not talking; he’s just a silhouette. The only way to know him is to understand the other two.

SFBG The assertion of a Quebecois identity against the dominant Anglo culture of Canada is a theme in much of Lepage’s work.

YJ Lapointe comes to Paris because he wants to be approved of by Parisians — [but] he says at the end, I came here for the wrong reasons. I came here for approval, and we shouldn’t do that. We should be proud of what we are. And Andersen had the same problem in his own country. People in Denmark loved his fairy tales but they didn’t take him seriously as a writer because he was writing for children. So he needed to come to Paris as well, and be approved of by Balzac or George Sand or Victor Hugo — just as we need to be approved of by the old country. It’s like being in a colony sometimes [laughs]. That’s why I’m very proud of working with Lepage, because he [raises] Quebec to another standard. His work is totally amazing. *


Wed/28–Sat/31, 8 p.m.; Sun/1, 3 p.m., $62

Zellerbach Playhouse

Bancroft at Dana, UC Berkeley, Berk

(510) 642-9988


Art Street Theatre


PREVIEW The places we long to be often have the greatest hold on our imaginations. In Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Olga, Masha, and Irina dream of returning to Moscow, believing it’s the only place they can be truly happy. Of course, in Chekhov’s version, they never do manage to reach the Promised Land. Their dreams unfulfilled, the sisters eventually must resign themselves to their respective quiet desperations. Mark Jackson’s Yes, Yes to Moscow, which makes its North American premiere at Dance Mission Theatre for the San Francisco International Arts Festival, imagines the long-awaited arrival of the sisters to Moscow and the pitfalls of getting what you wish for.

Jackson, whose focus on the physical has long been a hallmark of his work, collaborates with Berlin-based choreographer Sommer Ulrickson, American actor Beth Wilmurt, and German performance artist Tilla Kratochwil to create a multidisciplinary, multilingual, multifaceted production. A smash hit at the Deutsches Theater a continent away (leading to a commission for Jackson and Ulrickson to collaborate again in 2009), Moscow‘s San Francisco debut fits in well with SFIAF’s theme: the truth in knowing/now. Forced by an unsympathetic and foreign reality to reexamine their assumptions about home, Moscow, and familiarity, the sisters must confront the not-knowing within their now, and rediscover truth as best they can.

Art Street Theatre Fri/30, 9:30 p.m.; Sat/31, 4:30 p.m.; Sun/1, 7 p.m. Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., San Francisco. $20. 1-800-838-3006, www.sfiaf.org.

Acting pleasant


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George Bernard Shaw once titled a bound collection of his dramas Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, thus inadvertently summing up any year in any theater scene anywhere. But this is a happy time, so we can concentrate on the former.

The pool of local acting talent, in particular, spoils us in the Bay Area. While it’s not hard to find a strong performance from last year, finding room to list them all is another story, and a much longer one. But there’s space enough to list a few especially deft turns from 2007, including feats of physical and verbal dexterity, like the trio of weirdly gesticuutf8g women in Crowded Fire’s wowing production of Lisa D’Amour’s word-struck trailer-park gothic, Anna Bella Eema. Cassie Beck, Julie Kurtz, and Danielle Levin never left their chairs, but watching them — under the superb direction of Rebecca Novick (who stepped down as CF’s artistic director this year) — you didn’t want to leave yours either.

Then there was Alias‘s Carl Lumbly, skipping rope like a welterweight throughout his opening monologue in Jesus Hopped the "A" Train. A world-class actor with an East Bay address, Lumbly crossed the bridge this spring to appear in SF Playhouse’s excellent local premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s raucous drama. As in many Playhouse productions, the cast (astutely directed by the ensemble’s Bill English) was strong as a whole, but the moments when Lumbly’s upbeat, ever-hopeful death-row sociopath played unlikely mentor to a young neophyte out of his depth (a solid Daveed Diggs) were truly prime time.

The physically and comically nimble cast of writer-director Mark Jackson’s notable premiere, American Suicide — a smart, lively, and very funny adaptation of Soviet Russian Nikolai Erdman’s scathing 1928 comedy that had its lock-solid debut at the Thick House in February — also merit special mention for their fine fleshing out of the play’s arch, cartoonlike histrionics. Headed by the pitch-perfect pair of Jud Williford and Beth Wilmurt in what would have been a suicide mission in lesser hands, they managed the mishmash of zany caricature, a certain 1930s allusiveness, and macabre social satire with engrossing panache. The Coen brothers might have attempted something similar in The Hudsucker Proxy, but remember: they had special effects and coffee breaks. These actors work without a net — though the show’s madcap pace put them at risk of ending up in one.

Although not necessarily as athletic as the title might lead you to expect, Sex (at the Aurora Theatre) threatened to be hard enough, given that the play, while an interesting theatrical relic, has little in its lippy melodrama to shock audiences 80 years after its scandalous Broadway opening. Furthermore, stepping into Mae West’s shoes is a fine-line idea that had better be managed with grace and attitude. Fortunately, Delia MacDougall (in the attention-grabbing role West wrote for herself) proved a dazzling tightrope walker in pumps, creating a West-worthy impression in no way reducible to a mere impersonation (which is still fine at parties). (MacDougall, incidentally, was a hilarious part of Jackson’s American Suicide cast.) Costume designer Cassandra Carpenter decked out MacDougall and the rest of the company beautifully in pristine period threads indicative of the unexpected degree of life director Tom Ross and his thoroughly fine cast found in the play.

And as memorable costumes go, I wonder who among us present for Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway (at the American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater in July) could forget that frilly-legged chiffon number (by designer Marc Happel) on Justin Bond as the singing, slinging half of those two lounge legends? Needless to say, in the brilliant haute tastelessness of the Kiki and Herb aesthetic, this was genius swathing genius.

But back to casts (and premieres): the Custom Made Theatre Company scored a real coup, if not a coup d’état, with the Bay Area premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins. The small black box company assembled a terrific cast and offered a smart production design in no way lessened by its clearly low-budget proportions. Artistic director Brian Katz’s agile execution, if that’s the right word, of Sondheim’s musical-drama rumination on the men and women who tried to assassinate various American presidents was one of the year’s little big surprises and, heading into election year 2008, left us on a feel-good note.

Chair and chair alike


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What we owe one another, whether family, friends, fellow human beings, or just fellow creatures — and how we define we in the first place — is a perennial question of both politics and art. In Adam Bock’s tightly drawn, funny, and engaging new play about political commitment, this sense of communion — a frisson of recognition of the interconnectedness of our lives — works neatly as both theme and theatrical strategy as a kindhearted and intelligent middle-aged woman, perched in comfortable middle-class seclusion atop her new Shaker chair, straddles two long-standing relationships that force her to weigh her responsibility to public and private suffering.

Marion (the wonderfully sympathetic Frances Lee McCain) couldn’t be happier with her recent acquisition: a stylish if somewhat austere straight-backed wooden chair in imitation of a Shaker original, which makes up what it lacks in comfort with its thrilling built-in legacy of righteous action — a reminder to "get up and do something," she enthuses to sister Dolly (Nancy Shelby). Dolly, by contrast, is curled up in a comfy and well-worn armchair, the only other significant furnishing in scenic designer James Faerron’s elegantly focused wood-lined living room (exquisitely lit through varying moods by Heather Basarab). A hog for attention and wallowing in self-pity, the comically pathetic Dolly remains very much the aging little girl her name suggests, not only unmoved by the Shaker chair’s greater associations but completely oblivious to anything outside the crass little domestic drama she shares with philandering husband Frank (Will Marchetti).

Marion’s childhood friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth), meanwhile, an environmental and animal rights activist, scoffs openly at Dolly and her self-absorbed, contented victimhood, a role Jean dismisses as "stupid" (a word that gets thrown around a lot in a work whose vastly different priorities call up a kind of playground defensiveness in their holders). She has shown up to borrow Marion’s car for an action against a nearby industrial pig farm, which is spilling noxious waste into its surroundings. No doubt inspired by her newfound Shaker spirit, Marion not only lends the car but also agrees to accompany Jean and her much younger associates (sharply played by Andrew Calabrese and Marissa Keltie) on their late-night deed.

Marion’s initial thrill is soon dampened by a sense of betrayal when she discovers the group’s political act of vandalism went much further than she was led to believe it would. Although Jean attempts to justify the measures taken by introducing Marion to a liberated pig (one animal being a palpable miracle, according to Jean, while thousands are only an abstract blur), Marion remains pitched between Dolly’s obsessive private life and Jean’s dangerous radical commitments.

Finally, a violent act compels her to negotiate this gap between the public and the private for herself. It’s then that Marion fully attempts to confront the contradictions between a socially enervating middle-class solipsism and the responsibilities that come with awareness of the world around her.

The extremes represented by Dolly and Jean nonetheless share something in common. For Dolly’s banal romantic plight comes to loosely parallel (in less drastic form) the larger realm of cruelty and oppression against which Jean and her cohorts feel bound to take direct action. Indeed, in a scene in which the caddish Frank expertly turns Dolly from smoldering hurt and resentment back into compliant second-class spouse, the fine cast carefully bleed away the comedy from this one-way negotiation to end on a chilling note of humiliation and underlying violence.

Bock, a former Bay Area and now New York playwright best known locally for the 2002 production of his runaway hit Five Flights and the more recent Typographer’s Dream, has a seemingly effortless knack for unusual and inventive scenarios whose often painful subject matter comes leavened by a keen and warm brand of humor. In this splendid Bay Area premiere, gracefully directed by Tracy Ward and coproduced by the Shotgun Players and the Encore Theatre Company (both early and steadfast supporters of his work), Bock has fashioned a theatrical experience as well honed, poised, and resonant as the eponymous piece of furniture at its center. *


Through Jan. 27

Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; $20–$30

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk.

(510) 841-6500, ext. 302


Disaster preparedness


Above a semicircle of wooden crates arranged on a weathered wooden stage, two tattered flags of New Orleans and the United States are projected on a back screen. The flags appear to flutter in the rotating series of overlapping still images. This shifting perspective implicitly signals the living and composite nature of the history (recent and long-term, local and national) we are about to hear, as the 11 members of the ensemble representing survivors of Hurricane Katrina’s inundation of New Orleans in 2005 slowly assemble onstage and introduce themselves.

As they tell their individual stories — with charming, informal demeanors — and relate the story of their city, the flags give way to a steady stream of projected images (designed by Daniel Gamberg), including old snapshots, local landscapes, memorabilia, bits of relevant text, a pregnant cloudscape, and, finally, images of an unprecedented natural and human disaster. The social breakdown, government malfeasance, and open racism attendant on the Katrina disaster are balanced by stories of courage, compassion, camaraderie, and resolve — human capacities grounded in individual character and familial and communal solidarity, as well as the resources of a specific cultural life and history made manifest in the play’s wise and winning emphasis on New Orleans’s African American musical heritage.

While not uniformly strong, the cast includes some formidable talents (including Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Velina Brown, L. Peter Callender, and Elizabeth Carter) and has another actor playing herself: Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector Linda Rose McCoy (whose unique and surprisingly sympathetic perspective makes up for some awkward and rather abrupt entrances and exits). Although the unevenness brings unintended lulls to the show’s pith and pacing, in general these down-to-earth stories and alternately quiet and harrowing disaster testimonials — together with a solid mix of a cappella song, recorded music (from the irresistibly joyful Hot 8 Brass Band), and the occasional burst of movement — bring much life to a relatively spare stage. Amid a growing cult of catastrophe, Stardust reminds us poignantly of the culture of survival.


On dramatically turbulent waters of its own, the latest Mary Zimmerman extravaganza, a retelling of Jason and the Argonauts’ search for the Golden Fleece, sails smoothly into a West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the Bay Area berth for the director’s previous work, including the Tony Award–winning Metamorphoses. Zimmerman runs a tight ship and knows how to rig a stage — first of all, with cleverly intricate mise-en-scènes, including a dynamic, even acrobatic ensemble of actors (led by Jake Suffian as an average-dude Jason), beautiful sets (Daniel Ostling’s enormous and pristine wood plank walls and ceiling, with a matching wooden catwalk and a mast rising like a firehouse pole through an aperture, look like the environs of a high-priced New York art gallery), and the playful use of stage properties (including Michael Montenegro’s buoyantly rough-and-ready puppets).

But the play also feels rigged. With humor pitched low (from an occasionally clever angle) and a forced sense of wonder, the spectacle has a vaguely didactic, children’s-theater aspect, as if some assigned learning were being dressed up and played down as "fun." Some episodes work well dramatically, the story of Hercules and Hylas in particular. But in the end, the long (two and a half hours) journey, which scrawls a timely (if wishful) moral about mad missions abroad "to put an end to evil" ending miserably for their instigators, is a short hop, emotionally and intellectually.


Wed/21 and Fri/23–Sat/24, 8 p.m.; Sun/25, 3 p.m.; $18–$50

Brava Theater Center

2789 24th St., SF

(415) 647-2822



Through Dec. 16, $27–$69

See Web site for schedule

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2015 Addison, Roda Theatre, Berk.

(510) 647-2949


I feel pretty


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"Make my world beautiful," commands the (drag) queen (Flynn Witmeyer) of her corseted courtiers. The incantation naturally has something defiant and (given our location in a loft on Capp near 16th Street) maybe even a little urgent about it, summoning the new Eden as an unruly if royal realm of gender-blurring sexual role play and uninhibited frolic. Naturally too there’s bound to be trouble in paradise, the intruder in this instance being no snake but rather a pair of slithering fish-head waiters. But in theater group elastic future’s Beautiful it’s a party all the same.

A "gender-bending theater party," to be exact, which the company first staged in a more limited run in 2005. Set in the round among a haremlike arrangement of sheer curtains and floor pillows — on which audience members are encouraged to sprawl with a complimentary bottle of wine — the play presents a campy battle between the forces of good sex and evil prudery, or liberation and conformity if you like, with the aforementioned fish-topped waiters (the impeccably over-the-top Meghan Kane and Christopher P. Kelley) meting out a snooty version of Old Testament–style chastisement with a lot of modern-style prying, voter pandering, and enhanced interrogation.

While the piece was reportedly revamped somewhat from the original, it’s not entirely clear why the restive young company has chosen to revisit this early effort. (It has since brought out another cushion-and-two-buck-Chuck affair called The Greek Play, coproduced with Root Division in tandem with a like-themed gallery show, as well as a wonderfully original play–cum–rock show at the bar Amnesia about a famous real-life pair of sibling rock goddesses, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Deal.) As a troupe bent on appropriating and reinventing the classics (whether of the past couple of millennia or couple of decades) in site-specific performances that eagerly engage audiences in the conceit, elastic future cultivates a certain brash fervor that excuses some retracing of its theatrical trajectory. That said, the production comes across as highly uneven in conception and execution. The script by company member and cofounder Sue Butler (who also penned Kim Deal and Greek) is fairly freewheeling but thin, surviving on animated one-liners (played for all their worth by the expressive Witmeyer) amid somewhat stilted dialogue and on other eccentric touches here and there. It lacks a satisfying degree of character and plot development, and for all of the heated foreplay, which at one point bursts forth into a riot of spanking, the play remains surprisingly tension free.

Beautiful bills itself as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show of the experimental theater world," and if that self-description seems to pull in opposite directions (having the paradoxical ring of something quaintly cutting-edge), it kind of fits nonetheless. The plot’s mock battle between good and evil and decidedly unshocking transvestism and BDSM pantomimes, accompanied by a rock soundtrack only slightly more up-to-date than Rocky Horror‘s, amount to a harmless debauch akin to dress-up at the midnight screening. The "experimental" part of the outing, meanwhile, rests largely with the show’s enthusiastic mesh of performance and party.


In American Conservatory Theater’s production of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker, budding spinster Lizzie (René Augesen) may not be a great beauty, but she will gladly settle for being called pretty, a designation made to seem suddenly possible only by a barnyard brush with traveling salesman, charlatan, and stud Starbuck (Geordie Johnson). You’ll know the story thanks to the cringingly saccharine yet admittedly fixating movie starring Katherine Hepburn and a wholly outsize Burt Lancaster. The surprise is in director Mark Rucker’s wonderfully cast and perfectly pitched staging, which is a real beauty to behold. Augesen’s assured and generous performance leads an ensemble effort that is melodramatic manna for three acts. *


Through Dec. 1

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m. (no show Nov. 22–24), $15 ($10 if dressed in drag)

Space 180

180 Capp, SF



Through Nov. 25

Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Nov. 21 and Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 2 p.m., $14–$82

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228


Goldie winner — Theater: foolsFURY


One of the first things to strike you about a foolsFURY production is its sheer kinetic energy and rigorous physical vocabulary. Hovering somewhere between modern dance and mime, or maybe the fashion runway and the circus, the movement of the actors onstage suggests tightly coiled regimentation and an unpredictable, acrobatic freedom. Bodies rewrite the most seemingly inconsequential gestures as larger than life or in an altogether different register, so that you might suddenly see and wonder at them.

But the next thing to strike you will surely be the words. From its first outing nearly a decade ago to recent San Francisco and New York runs of artistic director Ben Yalom’s translation and staging of The Devil on All Sides (French playwright Fabrice Melquiot’s magic-realist rumination on Yugoslavia’s civil war) and the remounting in September of its exquisite version of the Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw (directed by company member Rod Hipskind), foolsFURY remains wedded to deep, often darkly comical, and alluring texts steeped in the mysterious potency of words.

The physical athleticism and stylization onstage — grounded in a unique, evolving synthesis of techniques from Tadashi Suzuki and Viewpoints to commedia dell’arte and Jerzy Grotowski — are, of course, inseparable from the company’s approach to such texts, whether they’re Martin Crimp’s silky and sinister ellipses (Attempts on Her Life), Don DeLillo’s gloomy, incantatory wisecracking (Valparaiso), Kirk Wood Bromley’s neo-Shakespearean, post-American rag (Midnight Brainwash Revival), or even Shakespeare himself (in one inimitable take on Twelfth Night that went solely by its telling subtitle, What You Will). This pairing of soaring physicality and textual depth has been a driving force behind the success of the small but restlessly active, ambitious company (which has also become a vital teaching center in the theater community) since its noteworthy debut in 1998.

Together with other choice elements — including the sensitive use of music, sound, and scenic design — foolsFURY’s heightened theatrical language is, at its best, a surprise and a challenge to audiences, inspiring and even requiring them to develop new ways of receiving a performance. Yalom concedes that it has taken some time to achieve all of this, including a stable group of like-minded, technically practiced actors. He claims he wasn’t thinking beyond a single play when he almost inadvertently founded the company. "I had no idea what it meant to be a professional theater director or artistic director," he recalls. "I was working with a couple of companies, trying to get them to hire me to direct a play — specifically The Possibilities, the Howard Barker play. After a while I started to get to know the scene, and it became pretty evident that that wasn’t going to happen. So I decided I was going to produce it myself."

Novice though he was, he had long been thinking about what makes theater different and vital, a train of thought the company members have since taken up together. "After spending a lot of time experimenting, we started to find certain aesthetic forms that were interesting. But to me it really comes down to the larger question ‘What should be the role of this art form in our contemporary culture?’ Because, frankly, if it doesn’t have a specific value and something that is unique about it, then, much as I love doing it, it would be irrelevant. I don’t think that’s the case [with foolsFURY], though it’s taken me a long time to figure out how and why."

And the name? "I made it up," says Yalom. "It really fit the Barker piece, and I think to a certain extent it fits [the company]. What underlies a lot of our sensibility is a collision of things that are uncomfortable and things that are funny because they’re uncomfortable. We’ve done a couple of shows that would be categorized as comedies. The far greater amount of work has been things that have been funny but funny because they are challenging and thought provoking and, certainly sometimes, very upsetting. The Barker was a perfect example of that: the ‘fool’ and the ‘fury’ just sort of crammed together."

Lean and meaty


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The word musical normally connotes light fare. But in its latest Broadway reincarnation, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street lends, in addition to bravura performances, a bracingly morbid bite to American Conservatory Theater’s new season.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Sweeney from delivering vigorous entertainment. Director-designer John Doyle’s attractively reconceived, Tony Award–winning revival of the groundbreaking Stephen Sondheim musical serves up a theatrical feast from, yes, soup to nuts. And it does so with a cost-effective ingenuity that would no doubt impress the economizing baker–cannibal maker Mrs. Lovett (played with inviting brio by Broadway vet Judy Kaye).

Kicking off a national tour in San Francisco, the show’s impressive cast members, drawn overwhelmingly from the 2006 Broadway run, not only act and sing beautifully but also (in what has become a trademark of Doyle’s work in the UK and on Broadway) play all of the instruments themselves. Using brilliantly pared-down orchestrations by Sarah Travis (who also collected a Tony for her effort), Doyle and his cast render Sondheim’s exquisite score an even more integral part of the drama.

To "attend the tale of Sweeney Todd," the drama follows a disturbed barber formerly known as Barker (a memorable David Hess), who returns to Victorian London after 15 years’ penal servitude in Australia on trumped-up charges engineered by Judge Turpin (Keith Buterbaugh), who fancied the barber’s beautiful young wife, subsequently raped her, and now keeps Barker’s daughter, Johanna (Lauren Molina), as his ward. Seeking a room to rent under his new name, Sweeney Todd, the barber finds a garrulous but incompetent pie seller named Mrs. Lovett and befriends her after she breaks the news that his wife committed suicide in the wake of Judge Turpin’s conquest and (clearly smitten as well as sympathetic toward the anguished Sweeney) agrees to help him seek revenge.

Meanwhile, Anthony Hope (Benjamin Magnuson), a young man returning to London at the same time as Sweeney but in the optimistic mood reflected by his name, meets and falls in love with Johanna, only to become the rival of the judge, who has determined to marry her himself. With motives nearly as straight as his razor (the revenge plot soon spirals out of control, taking in all of the inhabitants of his detested London), Sweeney dispatches his victims with a single flourish across their throats — a gesture that in Doyle’s production invariably evokes a single piping wail of woodwind as the lights go red over Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop (done up with deftly augmented plank-board modesty in his striking scenic design), and the victim, after an expressionless pause, dons the blood-streaked apron symbolizing his or her quick passage from palpitating body to lifeless flesh. That’s flesh that the enterprising Mrs. Lovett eagerly bakes into her publicly traded treats, to great repute and profit. (Adding a further Grand Guignol touch, Mrs. Lovett simultaneously occupies herself downstage at such moments in slowly draining blood from a bucket; the attendant noise, as the liquid hits the pan, produces a choice chill in the bone.)

Musically, those opening lines calling the audience to "attend" use a terse melody and a staccato rhythm that wind their way throughout Sondheim’s complex and beguiling score and devilishly clever lyrics. Along the way come passages that, under the circumstances, take one by surprise with their easy, slightly ribald charm (as in Mrs. Lovett’s good-natured confession, "The Worst Pies in London") or their breathtaking gentleness and grace (as in Anthony’s love song, "Johanna," later snatched up by his rival, who lends its lilt a sinister echo).

Hess’s turn in the title role, as the broken husband and father turned cracked serial killer, projects an imposing, warily sympathetic combination of the addled, the fierce, and the weary. Sweeney is at once a towering and a stooped presence, with a somber masculine charisma that commands our undivided attention whenever he’s onstage. That is, except when he shares the spotlight with Kaye’s lovably insouciant (if that word can be used for a woman who bakes people into pies) Mrs. Lovett. Then Sweeney and the audience have together found an ideal match.

It’s all over much too soon, but it leaves a memorable aftertaste that keeps on giving. Which just goes to show what really makes a great piece of musical theater. A great story? A great composer? The answer is both more general and more particular: it’s people!*


Extended through Oct. 14, $22–$82

See stage listings for schedule

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228


Once more unto the Fringe


The San Francisco Fringe Festival, second oldest in the United States, is a full-blown teenager this year and intends, by the look of its sneak preview, to act its age. Sixteen candles equal roughly 500 performances from 100 acts reliably ranging all over the place — from an ex-Christian throwing down (Jesus Rant) to a two-woman portrait of transgressing poet Anne Sexton (Her Kind) to a new musical ("RM3") set inside a Southern Congressional campaign that incorporates songs by Ben Folds. Whatever else there is to be found along the way, the following should be well worth checking out:

Perennial Fringe favorite Banana Bag and Bodice flows into town with The Sewers, an earlier version of which proved a highlight of FoolsFURY’s Fury Factory showcase of new work a couple of seasons back. From the people who, in 2004, brought you the delicious Sandwich comes this fine, funny, and poetically deranged underground morsel of mordancy, love, and more mordancy. It’s since had a successful off-off- run in New York and for its SF bow will park just off the usual Fringe track at the Garage. Totally worth the trip.

The latest from San Francisco worthies RIPE Theater (Best of Fringe winners 2002, and Best Ensemble 2006) is And Billions More, which finally posits the ever-popular apocalypse with some down-to-earth realism: after all, it will most likely come to you via execrable 24-hour news coverage (to wit: "Earth in Crisis: Black Hole of Death"), it will probably not much move your stoner roommate, and it will be simply impossible to dress for — which is just to say, it will probably be really lame. The hysterical sages at RIPE know, even if Tim LaHay doesn’t, everybody’s working for the weak end.

Terry Tate’s Shopping as a Spiritual Path sounds like it works a rather tired joke in Christian consumerdom and, judging by the excerpt at the Fringe preview show, it amounts to little more than a stand-up routine. But what grace it has on sale! Whatever she may have been before life threw her for a serious loop, Tate’s near-fatal brush with cancer has left her very witty as well as wise to life’s better bargains.

Surviving Harvard is the life-and-debt theme of low-key wag Kurt Bodden’s class act, Class Notes, in which the sweaty, thumbed pages of his alumni magazine provide all the material this underachieving graduate needs to meet with ivy-league success in comedy futures (as an alumni mag might put it). And on the subject of surviving schools, few testimonials outmatch Steven Karwoski’s Adventures of a Substitute Teacher, amusingly self-effacing notes from the edge of special ed. One wonders what kind of sub Stevie Lee Saxon’s Korean Badass would make. He certainly lives up to his billing on stage, in a spunky stereotype-chopping solo show presented by Asian American Theater Company. (Robert Avila)


Sept. 5–16

Various venues


Flocking together


They are an odd couple, the giant canary and the lounge-suited would-be lover. Yet you can’t help rooting for the unlikely protagonists of Our Breath Is as Thin as a Hummingbird’s Spine, Nanos Operetta and inkBoat’s collaborative journey into the absurd and hilarious world of love offered and rejected. In two acts and at 75 minutes, this witty charmer drags a bit midway; it probably could be condensed into one act without losing any of its considerable flair. Yet overall the show sings.

Lanky and bald Sten Rudstrom plays a hybrid of Tweety and Big Bird and the object of passionate affection from a wide-eyed dreamer, portrayed by Shinchi Iova-Koga, who will do anything to gain the bird’s attention. That includes donning a Rasputin beard, roosting in a tree, and turning himself into Dr. Strangelove. Ali Tabatabai’s smart script sharply defines its characters. Rudstrom’s placidity contrasts with Iova-Koga’s mercurial intensity; their chemistry carries the show through some of its weaker moments.

Much of Hummingbird‘s gentle humor derives from the physical discrepancies between its two heroes, with Iova-Koga’s love-struck poet trying to make himself more "manly" in the eyes of the laconic avian. Certain moments make you smile with pleasure: Iova-Koga’s quicksilver transformation of a forked stick into a tool and his lip-synching "You Are My Destiny" perfectly to Paul Anka. To watch Rudstrom’s bird finally spread his wings and Iova-Koga’s pursuer shyly rest his head against the bird’s breast is high comedy and also genuinely plaintive.

For the production’s third character, the narrator, imagine Tom Waits as a wandering troubadour in top hat and velvet overcoat, and you get a sense of Nils Frykdahl. Also a member of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Frykdahl has an astonishing vocal range — he easily slides from bass to soprano, with attacks that are as silken as they are raucous — which is put to first-rate use in the score composed collaboratively by Nanos members Max Baloian, Craig Demel, Robin Reynolds, Tabatabai, and Phil Williams. The music — which includes echoes of those most romantic dance forms, the tango and the waltz — is beautifully orchestrated. No surprise here: that’s something at which Nanos excels.


Through July 28

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m., $18–$25

ODC Theater

3153 17th St., SF

(415) 863-9834, www.odctheatre.org