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The love below


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Flexing muscles new and old, the 34-season-strong Asian American Theater Company bounds into its new home at Thick House with young Los Angeles playwright Michael Golamco’s wry 2005 comedy, Cowboy vs. Samurai, a clever nod to Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac set in Breakneck, Wyo., among its modest Asian American community.

The town’s Asian American population is so small that it actually doubles (and a community technically forms) with the arrival of high school English teacher and Korean American Travis Park (Chuck Lacson), an easygoing if increasingly exasperated LA transplant. Even this tight-knit society begins fracturing beyond repair with the arrival of a beautiful, self-confident Manhattanite named Veronica Lee (Melissa Navarro), a Korean American who dates only white men. Her sights soon fall on Travis’s friend, PE teacher Del (Wylie Herman), a winsome bit of lanky, twangy beefcake in a rumpled cowboy hat whose eloquent love letters, filled with wonderfully offbeat anecdotes and homespun ruminations on the meaning of love, have her swooning.

But in Golamco’s shrewd and droll calculation, nobody is quite what he or she seems, or is supposed to seem, in this backwater galumphing into multiculturalism. The most unexpected disguise relates to the sure, mature drama that emerges from behind the mask of puerile comedy. If, as Golamco suggests, identity politics in 2007 lie far beyond simple formulas, the AATC’s well-cast and nicely paced production (deftly helmed by San Francisco Mime Troupe veteran Keiko Shimosato) does plain, straightforward justice to this smartly contemporary take on love’s muddled p.c., post-p.c., and pre-p.c. negotiations.


Second Wind Production’s West Coast premiere of Bay Area playwright-director Ian Walker’s latest, The Gravedigger’s Tango, is currently up at A Traveling Jewish Theater, which last year housed Walker’s tightly written, engagingly original play A Beautiful Home for the Incurable. Unfortunately, Gravedigger falls short of that mark, though it continues to reflect a restlessly inventive pen wielded by the creator of works like Vigilance, Ghost in the Light, and The Stone Trilogy.

The new play folds two stories in one: a young woman (Kathryn Tkel) disguised as her couch-bound trailer-park honey, Trick (Joseph Rende), turns up for a job exhuming graves for a cranky caretaker (Doug Thornburg), soon becoming entranced by the rejuvenating story behind a young woman’s dateless tombstone inscribed with her lover’s timeless pledge.

The romantic ghost story feeds an interesting if fuzzy theme of natural and unnatural life, though the tango twist feels more tacked on than fully integrated. The complexity of the interwoven plotlines is a lot to pack in, moreover, and each suffers from underdevelopment and a lack of sustained attention amid dialogue that occasionally sparkles but elsewhere proves flat or stilted. There’s good work among an uneven cast, but some thinly drawn parts can leave even solid actors like Forsman at a loss. Given these limitations, Gravedigger is definitely mixed fare. Even so, its fresher aspects and sizable ambition bode well from a playwright who, like the romantics he juxtaposes on either side of the grave, has much more to give.*


Thurs/19–Sat/21, 8 p.m.; Sun/22, 2 p.m.; $20

Thick House

1695 18th St., SF




Through July 28

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $15–$25

Traveling Jewish Theatre

470 Florida, SF

(415) 508-5614


If the “Shrew” fits


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By early last week the pace of rehearsals for The Taming of the Shrew had picked up at the Magic Theatre. It was time for the Cutting Ball Theater to try a run-through of the whole play, and performers and crew bustled in preparation. Sound designer Cliff Caruthers, seated at a computer console halfway up the raked house, was busy cuing invigorating blasts of Italian hip-hop and other atmospheric sounds. Actors, with obvious gusto, practiced leaping on one another, tumbling onto the floor, shouting, screaming, and miming outrageous slapstick violence. Three hip-hop dancers, meanwhile, legs and arms jabbing and swinging in ecstatic synchronization, swept on and off the stage.

In a rather striking contrast to this commotion, director Rob Melrose sat quite still, with only the occasional consultation here or brief suggestion there, as if calmly situated in the eye of a storm. But then, it would be better to say that as the Cutting Ball’s artistic director, he is the eye of the storm: ever placid, ever watchful, and very much at the center of all activity.

The Cutting Ball’s mission, as its Web site will tell you, is geared to experimental new plays and "re-visioned classics" through thoughtful, stylish productions that reach for "poetic" truths over "naturalistic or realistic" ones. And its shows — including, notably, last season’s exquisite staging of Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World — invariably have a distinct sense of expertise, passion, and intelligence.

With its latest venture, a high-energy, cleverly updated, localized take on Shakespeare’s Shrew, the small but serious San Francisco company that Melrose founded in 1999 with partner and actor Paige Rogers (this production’s Kate) moves out of the 60-seat venues of the past and into the medium-big time of the Magic’s 160-seat Northside Theatre. It’s a significant step for a company still going places. Moreover, when the Cutting Ball premieres its very particular take on Shrew at the Magic this week, it will represent the culmination and confluence of several passions and pursuits for Melrose, Rogers, and their company, including the techniques and themes of commedia dell’arte, hip-hop, and, not least of all, a theater that reflects the diversity and particularity of its Bay Area environment.

Momentum for the current show began last season during a successful run of Macbeth at the Exit on Taylor.

"We were thinking of what our next Shakespeare was going to be," Melrose remembers. "David Sinaiko joined the cast when we extended, and I thought how Paige and David would make a great Kate and Petruchio. I [had also been] studying commedia dell’arte for a while, and in the summer I got a grant to go study with Antonio Fava in Italy, to kind of get it from the master. I love the influence of commedia dell’arte on Shakespeare’s work, [and] the most commedia dell’arte Shakespeare play is The Taming of the Shrew. The other thing is that my day job for the past eight years has been at the Marin Academy, [where] I’ve done lots of these big comedies — [A] Midsummer [Night’s Dream], Comedy of Errors, As You Like It. Because it’s at a school and I don’t have a lot of the limitations you have in the professional world, I’ve let my imagination run free. I’ve been a lot more bold there than I have in my professional world. Just free and easy."

That’s where he asked students versed in hip-hop dance (some of whom have since graduated) to perform during the transitions between scenes. "That worked so well that we kept doing shows with them, and it’s been really fun," Melrose said. "I also taught my students commedia. All those influences kind of fused and made for really live, fun, and no-holds-barred productions."

Rogers adds, "Those comedies had a feeling of real joy about them. I said, ‘Robby, what is going on here that you can be so free, take all these risks, and feel fine about it?’ He said, ‘Because they’re my students and they will love me no matter what I do and their parents are going to love the show no matter what.’ I said, ‘For God’s sake, let’s get some of that going at Cutting Ball!’"

If the roots of this production were in the inspiration of chemistry and coincidence, the Cutting Ball soon had to grapple with a play that comes especially freighted with political and theatrical conventions. Faced with the decidedly un-p.c. "taming" plot in which the smart and willful Kate finally submits to Petruchio’s abrasive wooing stratagem, modern productions have tended to try to subvert (often by making simply ironic) the play’s patriarchal thrust. This works against the text, as Melrose points out. His solution is to emphasize the prologue or induction scene at the outset (often cut from other productions) in which the drunkard Christopher Sly (played by Sinaiko) is made to believe he is a wealthy aristo by a mischievous lord (played by Rogers). By emphasizing this framework, which serves to make the taming plot a play within the play, and by doubling up Sinaiko and Rogers in parts that place them in alternating positions of dominance and deception, the production cleverly opens up the comedy’s themes of role playing and the social construction of self.

Finally, by rooting it all in a contemporary San Francisco milieu that includes a porn-industry wrap party, a transvestite bar in the Mission, and the Folsom Street Fair, this Shrew celebrates the fluid nature of identity in Bay Area drag, where everybody knows all the world’s a stage.*


Through July 29, $15–$30

Previews Thurs/12–Sat/14, 8 p.m.

Opens Sun/15, 5 p.m.

Runs Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.

Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, bldg. D, Marina at Laguna, SF




What comes around


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PREVIEW Until stumbling on The Wishing Bone Cycle some years back, I hadn’t wondered why owls die with wings outspread or how a man wearing antlers on his head can be tricked into thinking that real moose are after him. Yet Howard Norman’s eye-opening transcription-translations of Swampy Cree narrative poems are so arresting that I still find new questions in my life just to bring them to the stories. The tales invariably answer with bigger inquiries of their own. In the transformations they detail, animals — moose, lynx, frogs, bears — are adept shape-shifters, this being their key to survival, while humans change forms clumsily, afraid to be themselves.

When Theatre of Yugen presents The Cycle Plays in a daylong, one-time-only performance on 7/7/07, those present for the free event will be entranced by the resonant questing onstage. Our minds might even grow new antlers and roots at the same time. The Cycle Plays, connected to The Wishing Bone Cycle only in my head, was written by the hugely imaginative local playwright Erik Ehn, dean of theater at the California Institute of the Arts and an artistic associate with Yugen.

The Cycle Plays‘ five plays and opening dance have been in collaborative development for more than two years. They are an offering on a large scale, channeling the smaller, focused gestures of cleansing and growing closer that make up the company’s rich repertoire of movement. "Like many of Erik’s ideas, we just couldn’t bear to see a world without it," explained Lluis Valls, one of the three co–<\d>artistic directors who received the torch from founder Yuriko Doi in 2001.

A ritual dance play created with Doi, 10,000, opens the cycle. It features Doi, who is now in her 60s, alongside two of the company’s founding members, Brenda Wong Aoki and Helen Morgenrath. Based around a pulsating triangulation of three older women, it is an adaptation of the traditional Okina opening form. The plays that follow, interspersed with performances by guest comedy artists, represent the five traditional categories of Noh plays: Deity, Warrior, Woman, Madness, and Demon. They include Winterland, in which two teenage girls venture to see the Sex Pistols at the title club in San Francisco, and Long Day’s Journey into Night, a refiguring of Eugene O’Neill’s intense masterpiece. The company describes its Long Day’s Journey as "a ghost within a ghost within a variation of O’Neill’s fourth act."

Theatre of Yugen thrives on discipline and openness. Founded in 1978, the devoted troupe combines classical Japanese forms such as Noh theater and Kyogen comedy with cross-genre soundscapes and a willingness to reach into the heart of stories. Penetrating the psychology at the root of human actions, actors play ghosts and demons who are the embodiment of destructive attachments. The resulting unrest of the haunted characters stems from their not knowing whether they or the illusions are meant to disappear.

Lead composers and musicians Allen Whitman and Suki O’Kane help manifest this sense of being on the edge of great loss. Joined by the Yugen Orchestra on common and obscure instruments, they make music that is by turns postmodern and incantatory and harmonizes well with co–<\d>artistic director Jubilith Moore’s stunning performance in Winterland. Moore plays a leper, a beekeeper, and a milkman, all the ghosts of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), who appears to the overwhelmed girls as they try to reach the concert that turned out to be the Sex Pistols’ final show. Who hasn’t had a night like that in San Francisco? And who doesn’t replay it endlessly, searching for the point of no return?<\!s>*


Sat/7, first sitting 9 a.m., free (reservations are full; call to be put on waiting list)

Project Artaud Theater

450 Florida, SF

(415) 621-7978


“Bella” epic



As you walk into the theater to see Anna Bella Eema, you’ll meet the play’s three women seated on high stools in the midst of a found-object concert. They make sounds by swinging their arms, chomping their teeth, slurping through a straw, and rattling a hodgepodge of objects within arm’s reach. This prelude to Lisa D’Amour’s beautifully written, intermissionless play reminds us that the most basic instrument is the air we breathe.

Soon the lights dim around the dilapidated, debris-filled stage, and the women begin to form words with that air, singing to us in a round a story about a girl made from mud, Anna Bella Eema. Fittingly, her name sounds like an incantation, as D’Amour’s exquisite, dreamlike verse draws you deeply under its spell for the next 90 minutes. The characters spin from their song the tale of how this creature (Julie Kurtz) came to be.

Without leaving their perches, Irene (Cassie Beck) and Anna Bella (Danielle Levin) take turns telling the story, explaining that they are a mother and a daughter living in a trailer park soon to be razed to make room for an interstate, and Irene — who looks on the outside with disdain — won’t budge. Insulated from the world by an overbearing mother who thinks she’s part wolf, Anna Bella develops a powerful imagination. Through the character’s ensuing journey into alternate universes, D’Amour entangles Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein with a Gaia origin story, creating a distinctly feminine mythology that has a strong connection to the body, the breath, and all the fluids of the earth. The stage’s three inhabitants execute this complex work with perfect elocution and graceful movements to provide nothing short of a wonderfully engaging and magical experience.

Rarely is an experimental work so completely accessible. Such daring is what perpetuates the vitality of live theater, and we are lucky to have an extraordinary company like Crowded Fire to produce and perform works like this.


Extended through July 15

Mon. and Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $10–$20

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk.

(415) 439-2456


Tongues and tales


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The unconscious, the underworld, the undead — what is it that under-the-mattress anxiety points to, exactly? And what might it have to do with a pack of powdered French fops in Louis Seize costumes? Given the blissful nonchalance with which Dark Porch Theater’s Under the Bed tackles that thing called plot, it’s probably best not to mull it over too much. Suffice it to say that all of the above and a live band serve as lower bunkmates to Leonard Pinklestein (Chris Carlone), a World War II soldier crashed out on a fluffy brass bed, the limbo life raft for a lost soul that slipped its earthly mooring on the beaches of Normandy.

It’s a testament to the grace in some brands of lunacy that this swift, enjoyably madcap dance musical — a self-styled fairy tale set in purgatory, created and directed by Margery Fairchild and copresented with SafeHouse at a new Howard Street venue known pretty aptly as the Garage — can seem so endlessly expansive on an otherwise cramped (if nicely atmospheric) stage. Under the Bed not only draws a dozen or more bodies from beneath its title furniture; it also sets them exuberantly in motion.

But back to that willful plot: run aground on a patch of purgatory under the management of a sort of manic night nurse named Harriette D. (a comically adept Fairchild), Leonard finds himself the pawn in a battle royal between his gleaming but slightly sinister hostess and the Greek goddess and maiden huntress Artemis (a vigorous Alexis Blade Perry). The latter storms Hades, or whatever, with the intention of reuniting Leonard and his lost love, the cheerful would-be revolutionary Rosemary Short (Hilde Susan Jaegtnes), who arrives soon after him as another Lethe-headed amnesiac, though with raised fist ever at the ready.

Harriette, who for assistance is wont to call on a member of the band, the somewhat reluctant Mr. M. (a laid-back Patrick Simms), also conjures the French courtiers previously mentioned. When not mincing, they act as willing executioners and wield the same device that left such prominent scar lines on their own effete necks.

A fairy tale naturally allows for all manner of incongruities, and Under the Bed‘s just sweeten the pot. No doubt the unusually collaborative nature of the production has something to do with them, as do a winsome score (composed of more than a dozen droll and dreamy songs), eclectic choreography (by Fairchild and Perry), and some nicely offbeat dialogue. Add to that the production’s generally sharp and always game performances, beginning with a fine, versatile turn by Carlone as the slumbering soldier, and the unlikely spell cast by Under the Bed is complete.


Art in Artemisia is a dynamic, multifaceted force, skillfully and thoughtfully realized in just about every aspect of the Dell’Arte Company’s thought-provoking dramatic study exploring the life and work of the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Barbara Geary). In director Giulio Cesare Perrone’s well-acted and visually striking production, which closed its run at the Magic Theatre last weekend, the rape of the artist by Agostino Tassi and the sensational trial that followed in 1612 — as well as the biblical story of Judith, whose beheading of Holofernes served as a heroic subject for Gentileschi at a time when female painters were rare and deemed unable to handle such material — become the ever-present, intervening background to a physically choreographed dialogue set in 1635 between Artemisia and her model Giulia (Keight Gleason).

If the script (cowritten by Perrone and Geary) veers at points into an awkward mesh of heightened speech and contemporary frankness, the production design carries the theme of art’s transformative power in several directions. From the cleverly abstract yet functional use of painting materials and everyday objects in Perrone’s scenic design to Greta Welsh’s dynamic chiaroscuro lighting, composer Youn Joo Sim’s transporting score, and choreographer Yong Zoo Lee’s incorporation of the histrionic postures of the painter’s canvases, Artemisia‘s mise-en-scène elaborates a vision of symbolic and psychic redress that echoes down the centuries. *


Thurs/7–Sat/9, 8 p.m.; Sun/10, 7 p.m., $12–$20

The Garage

975 Howard, SF

(415) 793-8030




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There’s a section in Josh Kornbluth’s new show wherein the veteran (but weirdly ageless) monologist, waxing on admiringly about Sheldon S. Wolin, notes his old Princeton political science prof’s capacity for turning a student’s half-baked ideas into $10 notions. It reminded me of a professor I knew who was adept at the same thing. I’ve forgotten the exact metaphor Kornbluth employs to describe this pedagogical magic act, but I used to liken it to pushing a battered old Dodge across the seminar table and having the professor transform it into a Rolls Royce before sending it gliding back with your name on the license plate.

Of course, as anyone who knows his style will attest, the same might be said of writer-performer Kornbluth — or Citizen Josh, as his solo play premiering at the Magic Theatre has him. Kornbluth, though, works his similar magic with his own thoughts, the detritus of a quick but wandering mind: the memories, spontaneous associations, and clumsy social encounters of daily life. He manages to swirl these together, with plenty of humor, into a big, inquisitive stew, until they coalesce into a solution to the problem he has set for himself and his audience, whether it’s growing up in (and out of) a red diaper, negotiating the nightmare that is the federal tax system, or, in the present case, coming to terms with the meaning of democracy in the United States.

It’s in keeping with Kornbluth’s at once self-deprecating and knowing humor that this exploration of the American institution takes place on a stage efficiently made up to suggest a classroom. He and director-collaborator David Dower (along with production designer Alexander V. Nichols) proffer a short bookcase, an American flag on a freestanding pole, and a slide projector and screen. But Kornbluth stands there as teacher and student, we soon realize, and we’re merely along for the ride.

The spark sending him back to civics class comes from his frustrated disillusionment following the 2004 election, a response challenged by his Berkeley neighbor — an old-school chum and political scientist — as not in keeping with a democratic ethos. (You too may be wondering exactly how democracy fits into national elections these days. But as our guide suggests, for the purposes of this exercise, "Let’s just say it’s not passé.") Before giving up on democracy altogether, Kornbluth agrees to do some digging into the subject. (There’s a more fundamental incentive than saving face with his neighbor: Kornbluth’s son, while not a very detailed or developed character in the show, nonetheless provides his father with a certain critical perspective throughout. Fatherly instincts demand he do something to save the world his child will inherit.) The research sends him bouncing across a lot of time and territory, including his first year at Princeton, his graduation day four years later (when the desultory student did not officially graduate but rather began a 27-year incomplete that he finally decided to remedy by contacting senior thesis adviser Wolin), and even 1957 Little Rock, Ark.

In this last instance (a particularly well-written and engaging passage), he unpacks the image of the famous photograph depicting African American high school student Elizabeth Eckford — one of the Little Rock Nine, who tried to enter a previously all-white school — and the white woman spewing racial epithets behind her, one Hazel Bryan, whose democratic skills were none too desirable. Since Kornbluth catches himself "going Hazel" in a playground dispute (literally) with another Berkeley neighbor, this is also a self-effacing and humanizing reference that eschews simple dichotomies of good and evil in the name of the hard, imperfect work of talking to, rather than past, one another. (Much of Kornbluth’s monologue takes place, figuratively speaking, in Berkeley’s Ohlone Park, known as People’s Park Annex during the student protests of the late 1960s and still host to the lumpy lattice dome welded together there by protesters, which the unsuspecting Kornbluth uses as a cell phone reception platform and refers to in aesthetic horror as "the structure.")

It’s a bumpy ride, all said, for this self-fashioned Don Quixote of democracy. The first 15 minutes or so feel almost too neat, too presentational or precious. Then, as Kornbluth relates the story of his brother’s troubled beginning as an extremely premature newborn — and his (by now famous) nonconformist father’s startling intervention to save the baby — the performance moves suddenly to a new and altogether gripping register. Although it’s not entirely sustained afterward, the next hour proves an engaging one. At the same time, the show ends on an upbeat note of liberal defiance and optimism that is hard to credit in an era when even Wolin can write, in 2003, that "a kind of fascism is replacing our democracy." The show’s overt politics is less satisfying than the nuance and complexity that emerge from the more personal and idiosyncratic passages. Citizen Josh is at its most charming and compelling when the accent falls on the second half of that moniker. *


Through June 17

Tues.–Sat., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 and 7 p.m.; $20–$45

Magic Theatre, Sam Shepard Stage

Fort Mason Center, bldg. D

Marina at Laguna, SF

(415) 441-8822


Muse of fire


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REVIEW Perhaps the most intriguing question about David Gordon’s Pick Up Performance Company’s Dancing Henry Five is why it works so well. Gordon took the third of William Shakespeare’s Henry plays, the monumental but stiff Henry V, sent it through the wringer of his imagination, and spit it out as what he calls in the subtitle "a pre-emptive (post modern) strike and spin." That’s about as razor-sharp and witty a label as you could stick on this elegant and prickly entertainment, which lasts for an hour but resonated well beyond the confines of the ODC Theater’s modest stage during its May 16 to 19 run.

Not that Gordon didn’t have plenty of help; for one, there is Shakespeare’s resonant language, taken from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version, which buoyed a dispirited Britain. Then there is William Walton’s mostly excellent score. And let’s not forget the Bushites, whose own strike and spin provided the impetus for this sly look at history repeated. As for Gordon’s eight-member ensemble ("plus three dummies," as Valda Setterfield, the key pin in this finely tuned work, makes a point of specifying), it is an admirably gifted and beautiful group of dancers.

Gordon is not the first to use dance and language in a fully integrated way, but few others have become as masterful at holding the two in perfect balance. In a nod to his roots in the Judson Dance Theater, his work looks casual and ordinary. The language can be everyday conversational, the dancing based on walking. But the commonplace surface is deceptive. Gordon has assembled his components with a clockmaker’s attention to using finely calibrated gears that interlock to create momentum and flow. The resulting work charms with easy grace but impresses through impeccable craft.

For Dancing, Gordon took key elements of Shakespeare’s play — Henry’s debauched youth, his politically expedient abandonment of old friends, his going to war for economic reasons and with the moral force of religion behind him — and spun them into a contemporary fable whose parallels at times amuse but more often cut deeply.

The British-born Setterfield, Gordon’s life and artistic partner for the past 30-plus years, was the key to setting the tone for a work that easily could be but never became preachy. Her clipped delivery — sometimes cool, sometimes wry, and always straightforward — set up an ironic contrast with the mellifluous sonority of the Shakespearean language heard on tape. She brilliantly navigated between her roles as master of ceremonies, observing chorus, and when necessary, the various characters. Her function, she explained, was "to fill in, fill up, and fill out." She did so with the simplest of means. With direct addresses to the audience, while scurrying about or from her pedestal on a ladder, she interpreted the swiftly moving narrative. As the dying Falstaff, with a pillow held as a belly, she shrank in front of our eyes; as a woman with an adult-size rag doll in her arms, she became a mother who has lost a child to war; and as an attendant to Catherine of France, she was dainty, subservient, yet authoritative.

For all its simplicity, Gordon’s choreography is structured in overlapping phrases and precisely timed rhythms that are endlessly fascinating. Much of the dancing is robust, but it is always inflected. In the opening passage, the apparently random walks had a slight bounce to them. The Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls became a game of passing and bouncing — at first one, then two balls — while crisply circling walking patterns were maintained. During the multilevel battle of Agincourt, the pounding poles’ rhythmic accelerations suggested the rising violence. However, whether throwing dolls and folding chairs was the best way to choreograph the collapse of civility remains dubious.

Dancing is also elegant and refined. Setterfield’s charming English lesson to the future queen (a sturdy, fleet on her feet Karen Graham) was delivered as a minuet between the two women, their arms lacily acting out the anatomical vocabulary. After Falstaff’s death, Sadira A. Smith danced a lyrical solo that mourned the loss of innocence. In the courting duet, which became a trio with Setterfield as an intermediary, the dour king (a stocky Tadej Brdnik) even managed a low-level jeté or two. The costumes were rugby inspired, and Jennifer Tipton’s lush lighting design was brilliant. *

Serious games


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Two weeks before the world premiere of Aaron Loeb’s First Person Shooter, a play that explores the controversial relationship between video games and violence in the aftermath of a Columbine-like school shooting, Virginia Tech suddenly made the subject almost too relevant. SF Playhouse and PlayGround, the coproducing companies, considered a postponement — according to excerpts from e-mails between the theater’s cofounders, the director, and the playwright, which were reprinted in the program — but in the end went forward with the opening. Loeb’s argument to his colleagues for doing so, reasonable enough in itself, echoed the central dramatic thrust of his play: "We need to connect as people, as human beings in the face of this kind of tragedy, not just try to find who’s to blame and move on with our lives."

Even without the uncomfortable timeliness lent the play by the latest massacre on a US campus, First Person Shooter broaches the twin problems of violence and compassion in American society in a way that feels immediate and compelling. Of course, Loeb’s words carry unintended irony, given that for most of the country (released after only a few days from the condensed, media-scripted period of shock, mourning, and introspection reserved for national tragedies of a certain newsworthiness), the Virginia Tech killings are already yesterday’s papers and a fuzzy memory. Just as predictably, the shootings prompted another facile, recycled exercise in blame casting (into which the militarized and imperial system responsible for similar and bigger rampages abroad, needless to say, never enters), since which we’ve all been tacitly encouraged to move on with our lives.

Although it doesn’t go as far as it might, First Person Shooter admirably refuses the usual package of talking points that passes for a discussion of American violence. The plot’s deceptively narrow focus on a boisterous set of twentysomething business execs and video game makers on the one hand and the unassuming farmer parents of a slain student on the other moves beyond stale gun control debates and scientific studies of child brain chemistry to take in the intersecting legal, corporate, media, and racial logics determining how violence plays in the mainstream.

Loeb’s play, moreover, enters this fray from a particularly invested perspective: the rising playwright is also chief operating officer of Planet Moon Studios, a San Francisco video-game-developing house. That background lends a certain insider authenticity to the Bay Area start-up world depicted here and makes the play’s honest wrestling with and socially wide-ranging approach to the issue of video games and violence all the more striking.

Within a sharply written and straightforward drama (imaginatively staged with sustained verve and precision by director Jon Tracy), Loeb sets up a series of relationships and imaginary identifications that resonate increasingly as his story moves forward. In the opening scene, for instance, we see whiz kid programmer Kerry Davis (a terrific Craig Marker), the genius behind JetPack Games’ most violent and popular seller, at the keyboard wearing a pair of headphones, gangsta rapping with gusto in what he assumes is private abandon. Standing behind him, however, is his amused peer and JetPack’s rogue of a CEO, Tommy (an equally strong Chad Deverman). The comic effect of Kerry’s blind spot — an unawareness that his private fantasies might have public aspects — soon comes back in the grimmest guise: a masked shooter named Billy (alternately played by four cast members) posts a fan letter on the company’s Web site praising Kerry’s game as excellent training, shortly before going on a killing spree with a friend at an Illinois high school. As if this weren’t bad enough, among their victims is the school’s lone African American student, a boy, we come to learn, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the villain Kerry has programmed into the game as a secret (virtual) revenge on the man who murdered his wife.

Kerry’s guilt and anxiety are impossible to contain, invading both the haunted dream world where he relives the brutal attack on his wife (scenes impressively rendered in a bold, cinematic style on Melpomene Katakalos’s spare stage of toppled chairs and tables, augmented by Brian Degan Scott’s excellent two-panel video design and Ian Walker’s atmospheric soundscape) and the JetPack offices. Further, the legal and media uproar that results from the killings shakes the tight little team — rounded out by a hip young programmer named Wilson (Sung Min Park) and a forceful MBA named Tamar (Kate Del Castillo) — just as the now notorious and endangered company is set to launch the game’s successor. Enter lawyers all around, played by Park and Susi Damilano, who also plays a slain student’s well-meaning stepmother. They pursue winner-take-all strategies on behalf of the victims’ families and the embattled corporation, respectively, as Kerry and his counterpart on the other side of the battle, a dead student’s father (played movingly, in shades of turmoil and dignity, by Adrian Roberts), grope their way out of the dehumanizing machine that’s caught them up, toward some kind of contact, some identification, grounded in a shared suffering and understanding. *


Through June 9

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Sat., 3 p.m.)


SF Playhouse

533 Sutter, SF

(415) 677-9596


May day


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The May Day rampage of the Los Angeles Police Department over peaceful protesters and journalists at an immigrants’ rights march lends an undeniable immediacy to America Tropical, a new and at times poignant chamber opera by composer David Conte and librettist Oliver Mayer that addresses the legacy of racial and class exploitation built into the very fabric of the City of Angels.

The compact 60-minute work, which premiered April 27 at the Thick House under the auspices of San Francisco’s Thick Description, takes its cue from América Tropical, a 1932 Olvera Street mural painted by the great Mexican social realist artist David Alfaro Siqueiros (sung with appropriately formidable presence by a swaggering, tempestuous Mark Hernandez). Meant as a mirror held up to the past and future of Los Angeles, Siqueiros’s wall pointed back to the city’s 18th-century Mexican founders in a group of pobladores (played here by six capable singers led by an impressive Antoine Garth) and ahead to the grim strife of an ethnically and racially stratified class system.

That strife culminates in America Tropical as the conflagration of the 1992 riots sparked by the police beating of Rodney King (played by Garth), famously witnessed and transmitted to the world by private citizen George Holliday (Chad Runyon), whose videotape thus becomes something of the equivalent of Siqueiros’s politically charged mural.

In an apt, indeed concrete metaphor for an increasingly divided and dividing age, walls as sites of division, reclamation, toil, and creative resistance pervade the poetic libretto provided by playwright Mayer (Blade to the Heat, Joe Louis Blues), which effectively brings Sisqueiros’s social realist language into 3-D relief. "Tell me what a wall can do," Siqueiros sings. "I’ll show you what a wall can be."

Meanwhile, Conte (whose beautiful, ghostly desert opera Firebird Motel was commissioned and produced by Thick Description) has fashioned a score featuring serrated melody lines and lush choral harmonies to augment the work’s three centuries, succinctly blended in Mayer’s libretto. The music moves determinedly forward through alternately agitated, wistful, angelic, and angry passages provided by an excellent sextet of piano, strings, and woodwinds conducted by John Kendall Bailey.

At the same time, Siqueiros’s emotionally powerful and provocative visual allegory can translate awkwardly to the stage. Those walking in cold without any knowledge of the opera’s deeply rooted relationship to Siqueiros’s mural may find some of the mise-en-scène (such as the crucifixion) a trifle hokey, despite graceful staging by director Tony Kelly, not to mention the excellent singing, generally decent performances, and arresting music. Some preparation for the audience — a description of the mural on a lobby poster or somewhere in the program — might have been in order.

Siqueiros’s Olvera Street mural was one of the earliest examples of the Mexican urban art movement that publicly portrays the local narratives of ethnic and indigenous people. But in 1932 the police arm of the ruling class had a brush of its own, and soon after the mural’s unveiling the LAPD whitewashed it into what turned out to be temporary oblivion. (It was partially uncovered and rediscovered in the 1960s and has recently been undergoing restoration.)

It’s more than merely ironic that the mural’s images of workers and an indigenous American woman, named the India (sung by Sepideh Moafi), crucified on a double cross of American imperialism, were staging a second return in Conte and Mayer’s America Tropical even as LAPD clubs and rubber bullets rained down on workers and families at MacArthur Park. The redemptive force of the opera’s historical ghosts rises on a wave of events that gives distressing currency to the libretto’s emphatic assertion, "There is no present / There is no future / Only the past, happening over and over again." *


Through May 20

Thurs.–Sun., 8 p.m., $15–$25

Thick House

1695 18th St., SF


Meeting acute


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REVIEW In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, one of the only voices raised on behalf of understanding Timothy McVeigh — that is, as someone slightly more complicated than a Hollywood-style incarnation of pure evil — was that of Gore Vidal. Vidal insisted on pointing to the obvious: the bombing of offices that included the local headquarters of the FBI and the ATF — although utterly cruel and misguided in leading to 168 deaths — was not arbitrary wickedness but a carefully considered act of revenge. As Vidal put it in his article on McVeigh for Vanity Fair, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City "was the greatest massacre of Americans by an American since two years earlier, when the federal government decided to take out the compound of a Seventh-Day Adventist cult near Waco, Texas."

McVeigh — a decorated military hero of the Gulf War, as it turned out — had counterattacked a government he claimed was waging war against the American people. In this opinion, McVeigh, who insisted he had no accomplices, was not alone. He represented a growing libertarian movement afoot in the American heartland. Moreover, as Vidal, a critic from the left of federal tyranny, pointed out in a 1998 piece for Vanity Fair, "Shredding the Bill of Rights," the government had violated Posse Comitatus in laying its siege of the Branch Davidians.

For Vidal’s attention to the matter, McVeigh began a correspondence with him, even inviting the writer to attend his execution — an invitation Vidal declined. This immediately sounds like a fascinating, even dramatic dialogue. But stageworthy? Edmund White’s two-hander, Terre Haute, shrewdly ups the ante a bit, imagining an actual date between Vidal and McVeigh — respectively cast as the lightly fictionalized writer James Brevoord (a fine John Hutchinson) and the transparently McVeigh-like terrorist Harrison (a fiercely magnetic Elias Escobedo, who even bears a strong physical resemblance to the original). They encounter each other in the flesh in a series of brief meetings across a plastic security screen in the maximum-security prison in Terre Haute, Ind., during the days preceding Harrison’s execution.

On death row Harrison has had time to think over his actions. Neighbor Ted Kaczynski, we learn, has suggested he would have done better to blow the building up at night, when it was empty of innocents. But Harrison remains unrepentant, even if we see the burden of responsibility close over him when the lives of innocent "collaterals," particularly the children at the day care center, get mentioned. Brevoord — who is there to write on the meaning of Harrison’s act and to boldly ask the whys so studiously erased in the media — sympathizes with Harrison’s anti-imperialism while provoking the younger man with mounting scorn for his embrace of feeble right-wing conspiracy theories.

Besides a political tête-à-tête, the meeting is the occasion for a clash of personalities, temperaments, and backgrounds, all of which White brings out starkly in the dialogue: Brevoord, for instance, is the kind of man who has no trouble using kerfuffle in an idle sentence, although an indeed is more than enough to throw Harrison for a loop. The tension here is often lightly comical, but the point about education, intellect, and political opposition (and the art of the interviewer) is well made. And if the script feels overly expositional at times, the actors offer strong and credible performances throughout.

The New Conservatory Theatre Center’s US premiere is a sharp and intimate production, staged by director Christopher Jenkins with intelligent assurance, including a concentration on character that garners moments of alternately subtle and electric intensity between two men negotiating an extraordinary situation. Yet the director can’t resist kitschy flourishes, introducing the McVeigh character, for instance, with a short piercing scream of sound and a light that illuminates Harrison standing like Hannibal Lecter behind the see-through wall of the visiting cell. Scenic designer Bruce Walters’s visiting room, meanwhile, is a simple but convincingly dire arrangement of wire-woven Plexiglas walls, yellow-taped borders, and blinking security cameras.

White draws the facts of the case, as well as the style and argument from Vidal’s relevant essays, into well-crafted if sometimes information-laden dialogue. It can be too clashing and unnecessarily confrontational, but it is generally graceful and filled with absorbing ideas, especially in the monologues given to the Vidal character. Unfortunately, the play gets distracted from the meat of its story. That tale not only sports an intriguing tension between two very different sorts of rebels but is politically urgent and deep, ranging from the correct response to a truly totalitarian encroachment on fundamental liberties to the dissolving relation between cause and effect in a culture dominated by mind-numbingly interchangeable images of good and evil.

Instead, the play ends up veering off into carnal considerations of repressed desires, a layer to the characters’ relationship that was probably best left hinted at. The best you might say about it is that it further humanizes a figure too quickly passed off as a cartoon rather than a riddle that needs solving. But in practice it tends to trivialize what’s gone before, inevitably mixing an unhelpful pinch of Freud into the media-repressed why of a terrible public act. *


Through May 6

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; $22–$40

New Conservatory Theatre Center

25 Van Ness, SF

(415) 861-8972



Still evolving


The human race either sinks or swims. That’s evolution as Charles Darwin first saw it. But flippers and a seal pelt, that’s pure Kurt Vonnegut. The novelist plays God like no other, wresting the species from its self-destruction, then sending it on its wobbly way with a childlike capacity for invention and a wry if discontented grasp of human folly. That’s Galápagos, anyway, his 1985 best-seller in which evolution saves humankind from its big and mischievous brains by sending it back to the sea. And although the transition from page to stage is probably as slippery as that first fin step on dry land, Vonnegut fans (a species unto themselves) will no doubt flock to see the book’s adaptation in the world premiere of Galáp, by San Francisco’s Boxcar Theatre.

In a year that found the young company variously pitched in the sand at Baker Beach and careening onboard the Mexican Bus’s rolling party platform, it hardly surprises one to see the itinerant Boxcar pulling into the Cadillac Building at 1000 Van Ness to occupy the vacated offices of an online shoe company as it brings its inaugural season (aptly titled "Journeys") to a close. And indeed, a better-sounding setting for a play inspired by a Vonnegut story is hard to imagine.

Artistic director Nick A. Olivero wants to make the most of it too. His imaginative, kinetic staging contains continual surprises, aided by the aquatic and exotic atmosphere summoned through Lisa Lutkenhouse’s resourceful costumes, Norm Munoz’s puppets, and David Sophia Siegel’s jaunty original score. The room itself is divided into several stages, more or less enveloping the audience in the play’s fractured story line, which looks back one million years through the eyes of a ghost (Josh Truett) at the troubled but pivotal year of 1986 as several hapless tourists aboard "the nature cruise of the century" to Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands become the progenitors of the next wave in human evolution.

The six-member cast cycles through a number of characters, sometimes sharing duties in a single role. If the hardworking cast begins to win us over, it also never masters the rigors of the material or Vonnegut’s satirical style. Poor sight lines, moreover, make some scenes impossible to view from certain seats. Boxcar’s ambitious closer is a mixed bag, in other words, but like Vonnegut’s relentless survivors, the company shows it can adapt. (Robert Avila)


Through April 27

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m., $12–$28

AMC Cadillac Bldg.

1000 Van Ness, SF

(415) 776-1747



Home run



Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War, enjoying an exceptional world premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, is set during 1948 in a Fillmore boardinghouse run by a laid-back jazz musician and second-generation Japanese American named Chester "Chet" Monkawa (Vancouver’s Hiro Kanagawa in an impressive US debut). The bustling Fillmore District of ’48 was a highly diverse neighborhood that in particular mixed an African American business-owning and working class (whose members had recently arrived in the Bay Area from points south to fill jobs in the burgeoning defense industry) with "Japanese Town" residents returned from the horror and shame of forced evacuation and mass incarceration by the US government during the war.

Chet’s laissez-faire boardinghouse (and Donald Eastman’s brilliant two-story revolving set) puts a cross section of the neighborhood under one roof. This tangle of lives grows affectingly more snarled as the story unfolds. The fragility of the characters’ bonds, fraught with divisions between and within various communities, is soon apparent. At the center is Chet, whose background as a no-no boy (one of the interned men who refused to sign a pledge to the US government or volunteer to fight for it) puts him at odds with the tightly coiled local moneylender, Mr. Goto (longtime Gotanda associate Sab Shimono, in a deft performance of supple humor and menace). The latter’s disapproval reflects the bitter divisions among Japanese Americans struggling to regain dignity and a social foothold in the aftermath of traumatic isolation and victimization by their own, racially combustible country.

Given Gotanda’s recent and successful foray into more experimental work with Campo Santo and Intersection for the Arts, After the War marks a return of sorts to the finely crafted realistic dramas — centered on Asian American scenes, yet of delicate existential and social import — that have made him an internationally celebrated playwright. This beautifully conceived and executed period piece, commissioned by the ACT and helmed by artistic director Carey Perloff, places that work on an unprecedented scale. It reminds one that few American playwrights are as capable as Gotanda of carrying on the kind of dialogue on race, identity, and history that the late August Wilson turned into a broad theatrical canvas embracing the evolving American experience. (Robert Avila)


Through April 22

See stage listings for showtimes

American Conservatory Theater

415 Geary, SF

(415) 749-2228



“Good German,” bad German


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The title of David Wiltse’s 2003 play, The Good German, points in two directions at once: there’s the image of the individual who stands up to the injustice being perpetrated by his or her government, and there’s the image of the individual who follows the flag, however reluctantly, wherever it may lead. Of the play’s four characters, only one looks even remotely like a saint, and she’s killed early on. The other three, all of them men, have to negotiate a more twisted path between these two poles.

Wiltse’s supple and engrossing drama, now making a stellar West Coast debut at the Marin Theatre Company (and which, incidentally, has no relation to the recent Steven Soderbergh film), takes place entirely in the middle-class home of a middle-aged couple. The flawed but sympathetic Dr. Karl Vogel (Warren David Keith) is a professor of chemistry, and his wife, Gretel (Anne Darragh), is a nurse. Gretel has brought home Herr Braun (Brian Herndon), a German Jew who recently lost his wife and his child when his home was deliberately set ablaze with the intention of sequestering him. Karl is reluctant, being timid and aloof by nature and harboring an all too typical strain of anti-Semitism, which makes him "philosophically" antagonistic to the desperate man at his doorstep.

Karl nonetheless can refuse his beloved wife nothing and allows Braun to stay as a servant even after learning about his Jewish identity. Karl’s good friend Siemi (Darren Bridgett), meanwhile, initially appears only too willing to help a stranger in distress. As a member of the Nazi bureaucracy, though, he slowly gives himself over to the organized mass cultivation of hatred sweeping through the country at large. In the end, the bourgeois domesticity all three men cling to — even more so after Gretel’s death — is no guard against the spiraling madness of the outside world: sooner or later they have to face a life-and-death decision about who they are and what they stand for. Or rather, what they will and won’t stand for.

That choice — their dilemma — is very clearly our own. Wiltse’s play deliberately sets itself in Adolf Hitler’s Germany in order to address George W. Bush’s America. Although this is not the first time the Nazis have served onstage as a mirror to America’s totalitarian tendencies (John O’Keefe’s brilliant 2002 drama, Times Like These, and Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day are just two examples), The Good German proves exceptionally vital. Confidently helmed by director Kent Nicholson and featuring riveting performances, it’s a provocative mediation on questions confronting average — that is to say, flawed — individuals in extraordinary times.


There is no escape into domesticity for Franz Woyzeck either. Georg Büchner’s classic antihero, a lowly 30-year-old soldier beset by the complementary machinery of the military and medical science, finds only mockery and infidelity in the home and hearth he shares with his mistress, Marie, a former prostitute, and their illegitimate child. In his fevered brain a rebellion of sorts, prompted by a blood-red moon, is on slow boil. It’s a tragedy of minor and quintessentially modern proportions that is so apt, so portentous, that it has inspired countless productions and adaptations since its unearthing in the late 19th century (including Alban Berg’s opera and at least a couple brilliant films) and still amazes one to think it was penned (and left unfinished) in 1836 by a brilliant young chemist and revolutionary carried off by typhus at age 23.

But despite its popularity, Woyzeck is not an easy play to get right. Cutting Ball’s current stab impressively conveys the work’s jagged protoexpressionist spirit. Artistic director Rob Melrose’s able new translation also serves the play’s coruscating imagery. And yet director Adriana Baer has not managed to find a compelling way into the play. Casting accounts for part of the trouble. Moreover, there’s something staid in a scene like the opening tableau, in which all the characters peek from behind the set’s back wall of shelving to whisper maddening things into the ear of a progressively agitated Woyzeck. In the end, we never quite hear what all the fuss was about. *


Through April 15

See Stage listings for show info $29–$47

Marin Theatre Company

297 Miller, Mill Valley

(415) 388-5208



Through April 7

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m., $25

Exit Stage Left

156 Eddy, SF




“Rust” never sleeps


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Between Kirsten Greenidge’s rumbling and ambitious Rust and Chantal Bilodeau’s titilutf8g if more staid Pleasure and Pain, a metatheme is already emerging from the Magic Theatre’s annual three-play Hot House festival. Both Greenidge and Bilodeau merge a contemporary identity-focused story line and a fractured mise-en-scène to explore the porous border between mundane reality and individual and collective fictions.

Rust centers on a troubled patch in the high-flying career of football star Randall Mifflin (Mikaal Sulaiman). The Mighty Miff, to his fans, has temporarily retired for vague reasons having to do with the corruption of the game’s ideals, setting off a controversy embodied by two comically artificial-looking TV sportscasters (Eric Fraisher Hayes and Lance Gardner) complete with navy blue blazers, puffy microphones, plastic hairdos, and even banks of stadium floodlights strapped to their backs. Miff, meanwhile, stays home in edgy seclusion playing video games and collecting antique mammy-shaped cookie jars (and other fixtures of a commercial culture once saturated with antebellum black caricatures). To the growing concern of his wife (April Matthis) and friends (Nicole C. Julien and Donald Lett), it becomes clear Randall is being haunted over the phone by the ghosts of product icons Aunt Jemima, here known as Ella Mae Walker (Cathleen Riddley), and Uncle Ben, or Mr. Peale (L. Peter Callender), who plead with him to deliver the race.

A subplot features a yuppie brother (Gardner) and sister (Matthis) in the process of selling their late parents’ old house. Out of one wall steps a life-size version of Mary-Mary-Anne (Julien), a pickaninny the brother instantly recognizes from childhood as Farina, the cereal icon, one of many racist commercial images their mother bitterly pasted behind the wallpaper in a kind of symbolic burial. Mary-Mary-Anne leads the siblings on a hunt for the cookie jar now in Randall’s possession, as the two plot strands come together — along with an eerie set of lantern-wielding Gold Dust Washing Powder twins, Omas (Lett) and Snipe (Hayes) — in an antique shop operated by a drunken dealer named Gin George (Callender).

Setting these grotesque caricatures in motion among flesh-and-blood moderns is just one of the ways Greenidge’s uneven but vital, imaginative, and ambitious comedy theatrically realizes the uneasy blending of stereotypes and real life. It does so in a way particularly reminiscent of Suzan-Lori Parks’s work. As the enduring force of blackface caricature, and the white supremacist ideology behind it, threads its way into the present day, it becomes clear that the subtle negotiations and compromises attendant on personal and collective identity in 21st-century American culture stand in need of a little schooling, if not an exorcism.

The protagonist in Bilodeau’s Pleasure and Pain has her own problem with private demons bearing down on her social world. Peggy (Jennifer Clare) is an attractive, perky, semiawkward, almost unbelievably sheltered 21st-century young woman groping toward a more or less ’50s-style sexual awakening with an overactive fantasy life she half worries, half hopes will leave her "out of control." Needless to say, she gets her ambivalent wish. Her daydreams — ruled by a strapping dominator (Andrew Utter) dressed in casual S-M gear — soon spill out into her workaday world, which is split between secretarial duties alongside former babysitter and comically unguarded confidant Ruth (a sharp and amusing Catherine Smitko) and a prematurely settled home life with her schluby fiancé (Max Moore).

Not exactly new territory. Pleasure and Pain lacks anything like the imagination — let alone psychological or social import — of Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour or even a film by Catherine Breillat. Its limited journey is fairly dull. All the passing allure of bare midriff and lash could have come out of a Good Vibrations catalog circa 1978. *


Through April 1

See Web site for schedule, $20–$45

Magic Theatre

Fort Mason Center, bldg D, third floor

Marina at Laguna, SF

(415) 441-8822



Pillow talk


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The cold air these last weeks has played foul-weather friend to a couple chilling stage stories about serial child killers — one of them is even called Frozen. Both were recently toasts of Broadway too, though only one includes scary little apple men (not to mention the titular figure of a giant fellow made of soft cushions). This latter would be The Pillowman, of course, by Irish wunderkind Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore), which makes its local debut at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a very strong, utterly engaging production directed by Les Waters.

The theme of child murders aside, the two plays (which opened on consecutive nights) couldn’t be further apart. In fact, that very theme is a source of dispute and humor in McDonagh’s hilarious, eerie, and strictly macabre comedy set in a gritty police station–cum–torture chamber in an unnamed totalitarian country (the fine set, a simple but highly atmospheric take on old-world contemporary, is by Antje Ellermann, with sharply complimentary lighting by Russell H. Champa). Here a prolific but largely unrecognized writer named Katurian Katurian Katurian (Erik Lochtefeld) — a stubbornly emphatic name that’s like an engine that won’t turn over and maybe a bit sinister too, like the clang of a railway car with no windows — has been hauled in for some very rough questioning following a string of child murders whose gory details mimic the content of several of his generally ghastly stories.

Katurian and older brother Michal (Matthew Maher) — whose mental disability keeps him squarely in the role of Katurian’s charge and whom the police keep initially in a separate room down the hall for some questioning at the hands of a bulldog cop named Ariel (Andy Murray) — find themselves in a ghastly little story of their own, threatened with impending execution should the interrogation, led by the somewhat wry Inspector Tupolski (Tony Amendola), not go in their favor. But then, their backstory is, we learn, already quite ghastly, making the writer’s ghoulish tales seem all the more meaningful as a necessary escape from childhood horrors and the inevitable vehicle of the Katurian brothers’ worming segue into adulthood.

The Pillowman, however, ultimately has nothing to do with the kind of social, psychological, moral, and forensic themes brought up by Frozen playwright Bryony Lavery in her secularizing examination of sin and forgiveness. (Frozen runs through Feb. 11 at the Marin Theatre Company; see stage listings for information and the review). Instead, it has everything to do with the art, the incandescent allure, even the vital necessity of simply telling stories for their own sake. As such, its primary purpose is to grip the audience by the story-hungry throat, a feat it manages expertly and with a dreamlike complexity, merging one story into another.

Life and art come hopelessly entangled here, though just which is imitating which is hard to say. After the wily Tupolski (played by Amendola with wonderful humor and nuance like a Stalinist version of Barney Miller) synopsizes one of Katurian’s bleak parablelike tales, for instance, a self-satisfied Katurian savors it by absently applying the term "somethingesque" to its construction. Sure enough, our own Mr. K’s story is strikingly Kafkaesque, and so is the predicament such tales have landed him in.

These ironies and nuances come over without the least bit of pretension, however. They’re just part of the grimly comic nightmare director Waters and his cast unfold with unflinching panache. As Katurian, Lochtefeld (last seen at the Berkeley Rep in another memorable turn as a tortured writer, in The Glass Menagerie) delivers a cannily offbeat, charismatic performance, convincingly mixing bottomless artistic pride with obsequiousness before authority, sibling angst, and a gently subversive humor. Maher’s deft turn as Michal, meanwhile, is an equally riveting combination of utter ingenuousness and playful mischief.

If storytelling seems to be a double-edged sword and maybe even a sword of Damocles, its "spirit" (to borrow from Katurian’s exquisite final line) emerges immaculate in the end as a kind of joyful seduction by the master storyteller, the playwright himself, whose intoxicating yarns remain a boon for all concerned. *


Extended through March 11, $45–$61

See Web site for dates and times

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Thrust Stage

2025 Addison, Berk.

(510) 647-2949



WOW now


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Every January the Women on the Way Festival throws a spotlight on the performing arts as practiced by the female of the species. Not that producer Mary Alice Fry has to dig very deep in the field of dance, which is still heavily dominated by women. (For the moment we have to leave the reasons to sociologists — or perhaps psychiatrists.)

If this year’s second of three programs is any indication, the festival’s move from a tiny space on Ninth Street to Dance Mission Theater a couple years ago has blunted its funky edge. Understandably, some of the informal give-and-take that comes when artists perform practically on top of their audiences cannot be reproduced in a larger venue. But more seriously missing were a sense of discovery, the daring of something new in the making, and the need to put big ideas into a tiny space. Given more time and a larger space, artists will fill both — and not always with the best results. Maybe that’s why so much of this WOW program, which was built around dance-music collaborations, felt so drawn out, despite the enthusiasm and real competence of its dancers.

Standing high above the fray were Molissa Fenley’s two solos: Dreaming Awake, set to Philip Glass; and Four Lines, to Jon Gibson. A veteran of more than 20 years of solo dancing — though a serious injury and recent residencies at Mills College have prompted more ensemble work — Fenley is a master at saying much with little. Unadorned, almost emaciatedly spare, her movements spun long phrases that trailed and curled but were never anything but crystal clear in their trajectories. Every stretched leg and turned arm transformed space into something thinner and more transparent yet completely owned.

Fenley’s ability to make us hear the music remains a wonder. She inhabited it completely; her choreography, though meticulously crafted, seemed to flow spontaneously out of the music. Glass is not always an easy composer to listen to, but Fenley makes him so with Dreaming Awake, set to his eponymous piano piece. She roamed inside this score as if it were a home, picking up a rhythmic pattern here and anticipating a phrase there. The conversation between dance and music never stopped, and it was fascinating throughout.

Four Lines, set to Gibson’s soprano saxophone, was just as rigorously playful. Each of the four sections seemed to ride a different type of breath; in one of them Fenley found herself close to the ground. By the end of the piece, one had the sense that Gibson (performing on tape) was actually responding to the dancer — no mean trick for a choreographer to accomplish.

The rest of the WOW program also offered work that stood out, although for different reasons. Take Goat Hall Productions’ Cats, Dogs, and Divas, with libretto and direction by Harriet March Page, music by Mark Alburger, and movement direction by Fry: for some inexplicable reason this mono-opera was performed by six aspiring sopranos, most of them singing more or less on the same pitch. They were quite a sight to behold and to listen to. The subject matter of this very long, very bedraggled affair was the suggestion of father-daughter incest, apparently originally inspired by the Teutonic gods’ rather complicated family relationships. It’s good for the artists to try a humorous approach to a taboo, but this piece needs lots of therapy. Still, cheers to Fry for taking a chance on it.

The festival also offered an always-welcome opportunity to see Printz Dance Project. The company has performed full-evening concerts of Stacey Printz’s choreography for several years. Skirting the edge of jazz, hip-hop, and show dancing and driven by a strong beat, Printz has developed her own following. A beautiful performer, with one of the most eloquent backs around, she can be at once lyrical and aggressive. What Printz lacks at this point is the ability to choreograph organically so that connections grow beyond one section simply following another. Finding the Morning, inspired by a personal injury, was the strongest piece, with a solo Printz searching for a place for herself. Carlos Aguirre’s live beatboxing immensely enlivened Beat Sequitur, performed by Printz’s beautifully trained, energetic ensemble of six.

Raisa Punkki’s red Xing, set to a score by Albert Mathias, remained incomprehensible. Inspired by an E.E. Cummings poem, it rambled endlessly; Punkki and dancer Kakuti Davis Lin traded off solos that were punctuated periodically with duets in which they exchanged mysterious smiles. The poem, however, was lovely. *


Thurs/25–Sun/28, 8 p.m., $15–$20

Dance Mission Theater

3316 24th St., SF

(415) 289-2000



Goldies Theatre winner Last Planet Theatre


Offensive. Repugnant. Sick. Few theater directors enjoy hearing these words from patrons, especially as they’re bolting up the aisle ahead of the first-act curtain. Then again, for some there’s a certain satisfaction in knowing you’re still on track.
“The audiences are getting bigger,” notes Last Planet Theatre’s artistic director, John R. Wilkins. “Sometimes they hate it and walk out. They aren’t walking out, out of boredom. They’re walking out because it’s too much.”
That’s all right with him, provided what offends is delivered with artistic skill, vision, and honesty. “It’s not a lie that a 14-year-old rape victim, a retarded girl, should fall in love with a 45-year-old man who rapes her in diarrhea sex,” he muses. “I mean, it takes a lot to portray, but it doesn’t take a lot to imagine [the humanity of these characters]. You can say Seth [the 45-year-old in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Farmyard] is corrupt. And he is — he’s wrong. But he’s going for it. Like the woman in [Howard Brenton’s] Sore Throats. To me, that’s just exactly perfect. Go and burn all the money, go out and destroy yourself — either live or destroy yourself. In the realm of art, that’s great.”
Not every production from Last Planet merits a walkout. But without fail every Last Planet production is an attempt to take the audience beyond the expected, the usual, the safe, and the prepackaged.
To that extent, Last Planet has been proudly offending audiences since 1998 — the year husband and wife John and Kimball Wilkins shelved their new Berkeley PhDs in English to pursue what they privately concede was a madcap dream of founding a theater company. The company has been in its own 80-seat theater since 2004 and comprises a small group of committed collaborators — including longtime associates Paul Rasmussen and Andrew Jones, the core of the company’s outstanding production team. Its productions of highly literary and brazenly theatrical work by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Matthew Maguire, Michael McClure, Wallace Shawn, Howard Barker, and Ronald Ribman have less to do with a narrow sense of authenticity or realism than a commitment to exploring all you might be capable of feeling and thinking inside a theater. Along the way Last Planet presents an invariably bold and imaginative theatrical vision that’s in a refreshingly distinct orbit of its own.
“It has to be beautiful and confrontational,” John says, explaining the qualities that attract the company to a given work. “Those are some of the things we look for: sheer beauty and sheer brutality at the same time.”
Kimball pinpoints another crucial theme: “The logic or vision of the play has to believe more deeply in experience — the mystery of experience and the possibility of experience — than a particular idea, let alone an ideology. There’s something about the strength of experience in the plays that’s always an attraction.”
“We just see so many plays which are like copycats of television or copycats of movies,” John says. “They aren’t theatrical. They don’t have any theatrical models. Or if they do, they’re horribly content. You don’t get the type of nuts like Howard Barker or Howard Brenton and [Anthony] Neilson and Kroetz, who are just nutty to destroy the form that they love.”
“It’s a creative destruction,” Kimball says.
“Yeah, a creative destructive force,” John agrees. “So you’re sitting there thinking, can we match it? Pulling tricks on [the audience] — theatrical tricks are fine, but go right at them and try to grab them, shake them up and not let them loose and not let it be easy.”
“That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be enjoyable,” he adds with a laugh. “We don’t want to be avant-garde nuts. It should be an absolutely enjoyable experience. But given that, [it] should destroy people.” (Robert Avila)

Close encounters


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Love is more than metaphor in Orbit (notes from the edge of forever). Love is like the intractable need connected to the exploration of space — especially when the search is bent toward the hope of some ultimate encounter: that contact with somebody, out there, who knows who you are. It’s as if an inner wilderness were turned inside out and projected to infinity.
And so Orbit starts with the mutual seduction of two lovers onstage, and with flickering TV screens (the sets dangling from long vertical skewers loaded with books and the occasional table lamp) tapping classic sci-fi movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Alien, with their mix of rapture and terror. Here promise and betrayal collide with gravitational conviction, at the point where the yearning for communion meets the blind panic of a self dissolving; a body waylaid, violated, no longer your own (if it ever was). “That transmission? Mother’s deciphered it,” says Sigourney Weaver. “It doesn’t look like an SOS…. It looks like a warning.”
But Orbit itself is never warned off. Rather, as the title implies, it’s continually reapproaching. A new dance theater work from the Erika Shuch Performance Project — the brainchild of San Francisco–based choreographer, director, and performer Erika Chong Shuch, and the resident company at Intersection for the Arts — Orbit spirals around our obsession with UFOs, extraterrestrial life, alien abduction, and other moon-age daydreams. The piece pulls a variety of texts, media, and simulacra into its elliptical trajectory (including recorded interviews, pop music, original songs, and some wonderfully transporting interactive video segments designed by Ishan Vernalis and lll), and is a playfully eclectic, moody, and deeply romantic whirl, danced and acted by Shuch and cocreators Melanie Elms and Danny Wolohan. Joining them is an ensemble, dressed in street clothes and postal uniforms, composed of Kieran Chavez, Joseph Estlack, Daveen DiGiacomo (also responsible for the live music and sound design), Courtney Moreno, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart.
Elms comes on as the extradimensional counterpart to Shuch’s and Wolohan’s young lovers — whom we’ve seen alternately drifting over the sensual ridges of the lunar surface projected behind them (luxuriating in the exploration of personal space), helping one another (with a touch of comic strain) to moonwalk off the walls, or defending favorite metaphors for their place in the cosmos and their search for ETs. Behind them Elms’s retro space alien glides around as if invisibly in mischievous blue gloves, the show’s intergalactic pixie, puppet mistress of hapless earthlings.
At times, moving about the stage in an idiosyncratic way coolly reminiscent of some ray gun–toting go-go dancer, Elms seems no more than a figment of the collective imagination. (In one eerily comic scene, the strange hands rooting around in a panicky Wolohan’s sweatshirt turn out not to be blue-gloved, but the hands of his lover.) From other angles, however, she becomes an active force of violently erratic potential, like a galactic succubus. The chorus, meanwhile, in alternately trancelike and frenetic motion, do everything from dance, sing, and play instruments to operate the ropes and pulleys that rearrange those TV-and-book kebabs around the stage. With Elms they circle the lovers as forces of nature both internal and external, mercurial ones too, capable of imparting a gentle caress one minute, a savage abuse the next.
One or two segments veering toward the madcap — like Wolohan’s admittedly hilarious puppet-show narration of his rescue by a friendly lighthouse (Shuch) — can be funny at the cost of some subtlety, and in truth the parts don’t contribute equally to the whole. But the surprises in store are several, and there’s a cumulative force to the loose but inspired patterning of movement, theme, and image. If part of that pattern is the idea of lives in eternal orbit around some elusive whole, always approaching and never landing, Shuch and company manage a not insignificant union all the same, joining the passion of the true believer with the wry alert eye of the perennial searcher. SFBG
Through Aug. 5
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.
Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia, SF
$9–$20 (Thurs., pay what you can)
(415) 626-3311

Burritos of the gods


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SFBG So what inspires you?
MICHAEL SHOWALTER You do, you inspire me.
I think about you in the morning. I doodle little pictures of your face and think about you making me a burrito. Sometimes I doodle little pictures of you making me a burrito.
OK, so maybe that isn’t exactly how it goes. Although Showalter is a doodle enthusiast, he is only mildly turned on by baby-size burritos. Being the narcissistic Bay Area dweller that I am, I immediately ask Showalter, who’s on the phone from his home in New York City, about San Francisco.
“I like San Francisco. I like beat poetry. I like gay people…. I don’t like gay beat poets.”
So he doesn’t read Ginsberg?
“My favorite books are Everybody Poops and the Odyssey. They are actually very similar.”
Showalter is a smart guy. He’s one of those smart guys who scared the hell out of his parents by going into comedy. His dad, a Yale-educated French lit professor, and his mom, a literary critic, worried that their little brainiac (680 math, 620 verbal) was going down the wrong path. “It’s not like this is something you go to grad school for,” he says.
I remind him that his buddy Eugene Mirman did design his own comedy major and that he could have done the same.
“I would have designed a doodling major. My thesis would be on doodles.”
Instead, Showalter took the smart-guy route and studied semiotics at Brown. This is the mind fuck of all possible majors. Most people who spend their formative years steeped in the philosophy of language become literary theorists or filmmakers. People who spend this much time reading Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes take a long time to recover.
Showalter used sketch comedy as a catalyst for his recuperation. This might explain why his entire body of work is (a) fanatically devoured, quoted, and forever adored by viewers or (b) dismissed as ridiculous and forgotten promptly.
Personally, I can’t take anyone who didn’t like The State seriously, but Showalter takes it in stride. “I think people that don’t like it might not get it,” he says. “It’s metahumor — a lot of people aren’t into metahumor. A friend once told me that it is better to have nine people think your work is number one than a hundred think your work is number nine.”
After the Showalter- and David Wain–penned Wet Hot American Summer was released in 2001, some critics gave the boys a very hard time for the scene that involved someone slipping on a banana peel. “The joke was that we made a banana peel joke,” explains Showalter.
Still, one has to wonder, how the hell do these guys come up with this stuff? How does the absurdist sketch comedy show Stella get so far out there? Do Michael Ian Black, Wain, and Showalter just sit around a table bouncing ideas off each other?
“Yeah, exactly like that,” says Showalter. “It is that cliché situation with guys sitting in a room with a Nerf basketball. Only we don’t put it into the net. Ever.” All three members of Stella contribute equally to the creative process — “If we all think it’s funny, then it’s funny,” Showalter observes.
Last year’s film The Baxter marked a departure from sketch comedy. As the writer, director, and star of the romantic comedy, Showalter admits it wasn’t all tweed and roses on the set. “There were problems between the director and the star,” he says. “We just didn’t get along. I found it difficult to deal with myself.”
After his experience writing the film, Showalter joined the faculty of the Peoples Improv Theater. He currently teaches a course on writing comedic screenplays. Yeah, he’s a real teacher. He has a syllabus but doesn’t use textbooks. Instead, he shows movies to illustrate his points. “I show bad comedies like Annie Hall and good comedies like Porky’s.”
Showalter plans to continue teaching, possibly adding a sketch comedy class to his schedule. As far as acting goes, he says, “I’m working on a reality show for a major television network. That’s all I can say.”
The tour is also on his mind. Although stand-up is a pretty new thing for Showalter, he doesn’t worry much about people not laughing: “Pretty much everyone who comes to see me already thinks I’m funny, so I don’t really get heckled.”
Good thing. A heckler at a Showalter show would probably throw canned vegetables on stage. The Blue Collar Comedy tour made a movie. The Comedians of Comedy tour made a TV special. The idea of Showalter, Mirman, and Leo Allen traipsing up and down the West Coast in a van makes me nervous.
Will there be groupies? Drugs? Booze? “It will be like that part with the red snapper in the Led Zeppelin biography Hammer of the Gods,” he deadpans. “Very Zeppelin-esque. I have already said too much. Let’s just say it has a lot to do with sushi.”
Sure, Showalter gives a good interview, but I don’t think I’d let him near me with a fish. SFBG
Tues/25, 9 p.m.
628 Divisadero, SF
(415) 771-1421

Weill-ing away the hours


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Happy End was thrown together in 1929 at the behest of a starry-eyed theater producer looking to capitalize on the surprise success the previous year of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. It was an ominous year for capitalizing ventures in general, you might say. As if to prove it, Happy End, whose story of Chicago gangsters and Salvation Army evangelists was cobbled together by Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann, was anything but a success in its time. In fact, after its famously negative reception Brecht made a point of distancing himself from it. The score alone, including some of Weill’s most memorable work, survived more or less unscathed — at least until Michael Feingold’s 1972 English-language version helped give the full musical new life.
American Conservatory Theater’s production of Happy End makes it clear how, showing the revival off as something more than mere pretext for reanimating Brecht and Weill’s irresistible songs. True, Brecht and Hauptman’s plot seems like thin stew for three acts: In the midst of an evolving heist, Salvation Army Lieutenant Lillian Holiday (a slender but steely and musically superb Charlotte Cohn), a.k.a. Hallelujah Lil, leads her Christian soldiers to battle for souls in the gangster den of Bill’s Beer Hall, only to fall in love with top dog Bill Cracker (a gruffly charismatic Peter Macon) and precipitate falling outs with their respective outfits. Moreover, the political critique buried in its happy-go-lucky story is, let’s just say, unlikely to provoke anything like the notorious uproar of boos and whistles offered up by its bourgeois audience in 1929.
But ACT’s production and Feingold’s fluid adaptation (which cleaves to Brecht’s lyrics but freely reworks much of the book) make it easy to Weill away the hours (just over two of them) until lead gangster “The Fly” (Linda Mugleston) utters her famous closing line: “Robbing a bank’s no crime compared to owning one!” The show winds up with a terrific mocking paean to capitalist “saints” John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan. Throughout, artistic director Carey Perloff’s staging is stylish, lively, and sure, while the comedic and musical performances from a first-rate cast (decked out in Candice Donnelly’s snazzy costumes) are enjoyable enough that you won’t worry about the plot, or lack thereof.
While slight in comparison with much of Brecht’s oeuvre, Happy End has contagious fun with the contradictions inherent in a jolly left-wing musical assailing the capitalist class in the midst of one of its own commercial theaters. Walt Spangler’s bold scenic design says as much with its oddly shaped, impossibly shiny steel surfaces covered in a rash of rivets — including a great flat moon that descends from the flies in time for the moonlight evoked by both “The Bilbao Song” and “The Mandalay Song.”
Stumbling out of a series of Mission bars and onto 16th Street the other night, I was drawn to the doorway of yet another bar after my friend got a whiff of something worth investigating. There we proceeded to make friends with what seemed to be two other lollygaggers. Then one of them proffered a flyer, and asked us if we ever go to the theater. (We’d actually just come from a play, which, featuring a pitcher of Bloody Marys, had inspired our copycat binge.) We nodded and took the flyer. This sounded like fate to us, so the next day we headed to the Marsh and the New Voices Festival to see Rude Boy, a one-man show written and performed by Ismail Azeem about a troubled African American man moving in and out of various institutions and realities. Its combination of raw energy, deft delivery, beautifully honed characters, and inspired narrative flow (moving seamlessly from monologue to hip-hop to stand-up to dialogue and communion with the dead) was so transporting I actually lost my hangover. I wish I could report the show were still running, but stay tuned — chances are you’ll be hearing more about Azeem. SFBG
Through July 9. Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.)
Geary Theater
415 Geary, SF
(415) 749-2228

Hotel California


The father of all masked superheroes, Zorro first appeared in California in 1919, in serial form, brought to life by pulp writer Johnston McCulley. Soon afterward, the suave, playful Zorro (the secret identity of the decidedly unglamorous Don Diego Vega) became an enduring international phenomenon, thanks to screen legend Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and continues to evolve in a slew of films, TV shows, and comic books up to and including a new Isabel Allende novel and a forthcoming musical scored by the Gipsy Kings.

A new wave of anti-immigrant demonizing and criminalization under way nationwide makes all the more obvious the urgency behind the breezy but pointed comedy Zorro in Hell, Culture Clash’s beautifully staged romp in black leather, mask, and cape, in a coproduction with La Jolla Playhouse and Berkeley Rep and deftly helmed by the Rep’s artistic director, Tony Taccone. If it took the LA-based, Mission Districtbred Latino political-comedy troupe (composed of Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, and Herbert Sigüenza) 22 years of writing and performing to finally tackle the mythical Hispanic crime fighter, their timing couldn’t have been better.

But is Zorro to be considered an authentic pop-cultural or folk hero despite his conflicted origins in mass entertainment, ethnic stereotype, and pseudohistory? The trio’s own initial ambivalence serves as an engine for Zorro in Hell‘s critical but redemptive excavation of the myth at a time when resurrected rebel heroes, as spurs to mass action, seem to be the order of the day (very Z for Vendetta, in other words, and little wonder the Wachowski Brothers’ film is one of myriad cultural reference points bandied around to nice effect here).

The story centers on a frustrated LA writer and nominal Latino (Montoya) who’d prefer to be penning sitcoms but, meanwhile, has an “other voices” grant to write a play about the Zorro legend. He arrives at the El Camino Real Inn less than enthusiastic about a subject he considers culturally specious and politically irrelevant and meets a couple of larger-than-life characters who take it upon themselves to set him straight: the 200-year-old proprietress (a feisty, very funny Sharon Lockwood) and her ancient bellhop, Don Ringo (Sigüenza), proudly self-described as “the first Chicano.” Together, their careers seem to touch (literally in the case of Doña’s countless love affairs) upon most of California’s cultural history.

Cracking open the Zorro legend (given stage form by a versatile and amusing Joseph Kamal) sets in play a whole history and rebel tradition peopled by names like Ambrose Bierce, William Saroyan, Jack London, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Sacco and Vanzetti, Marx, Nietzsche, and, of course, the Scarlet Pimpernel (likely inspiration for McCulley’s masked avenger). Other references are more off the wall, or off the flag, as in the case of a talking grizzly named Kyle (Salinas), an erudite bear offering the slightly spooked, drug-addled writer some talking-cure in a charmingly professional bedside manner. Then there’s legendary outlaw Joaquin Murieta (Salinas again), the incarnation of crafty but principled revenge: “I taught myself to walk, talk, drink like them. But I never murdered like them.” The writer’s own transformation includes entering an old Zorro movie in the part of the archetypal “sleepy Mexican,” who, in this radical reappropriation of cultural capital, we’re told, is more like a sleeping giant beneath the wide brim of his tilted sombrero.

Doña has an ulterior motive behind all this consciousness-raising: She needs help fending off the imminent threat brought by land-snatching developers in league with the evil Gobernador, who naturally arrives by Humvee. (As the Latinos who voted against their own interests by helping to elect an action movie icon demonstrate, the superhero sword can cut both ways.)

Charming, sharp, and frequently wacky, the cutting jokes, quips, and allusions in Zorro come at a remarkable clip (a breathless 20 rpms, or references per minute, at least). All of it unfurls amid Christopher Acebo’s colorful, kinetic, and multifaceted scenic design; some zesty swordplay choreographed by fight director Dave Maier; and appropriately dramatic on- and offstage musical accompaniment by guitarist Vincent Christopher Montoya as the swashbuckling movies of yesterday spill onto the stage, and the stage antics of Culture Clash and company, in turn, transform into cleverly refashioned celluloid dreams projected onto a massive movie screen.

And so, with rapier wit, Culture Clash leaves its own mark on the Zorro legend, proving the pun to be mightier than the sword and the myth capable of new, subversive energies in a reactionary age. It might be that its sprawling, garrulous nature fails, in the end, to lay the best ground for the play’s final call to arms (at least the culminating “rise up!” segment feels a bit forced and tends to drag on), but no matter: Hundreds of thousands of Latinos and others are already in the streets of LA and other cities across the country. Zorro may or may not be a myth with real political traction, but either way, justice, as Zorro would be the first to tell you, is a do-it-yourself job.


Through April 16

Tues., Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.

Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater

2015 Addison, Berk.


(510) 647-2949 or (888) 427-8849