Curtain calls

Pub date December 21, 2009
WriterRobert Avila

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

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

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

On the bright side:

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

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

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

On the dark side:

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

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

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

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

On the right side:

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

On the tight side:

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

On the hype side:

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

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

On the south side:

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

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

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