Robert Avila

Happy returns


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A man hides from the world in a shabby seaside rooming house until two men arrive determined to take him away. The latter represent a kind of conformity, brutal and ruthless in its determination and tactics. The turning point in their showdown with the wayward man will be the birthday party they help his smitten elderly landlady throw for her sole tenant.

The mystery-laden simplicity of The Birthday Party ‘s plot provides ample room for absorbing the subtle details of the relationships it presents, and Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre brings those out expertly. Artistic director Tom Ross’s production is not only sure and intelligent but palpably enthusiastic in its essaying of this nearly 50-year-old play, which is both Harold Pinter’s first full-length work and Aurora’s first production of his work since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

A scene of domestic nonbliss opens the play: housewife Meg (Phoebe Moyer) and deck-chair attendant Petey (Chris Ayles) are an aging couple mired in a domestic routine whose laconic, staccato rhythms are bleakly comedic. Their empty chat introduces the mix of precise characterization and the ruse that the play will go on developing. Their frowsy little boarding house, meanwhile, offers (in the choice details of Richard Olmsted’s set design) a muted clash of wallpaper, a lumpy armchair with soiled cushions, and a small, serviceable dining table among an obligatory arrangement of homey knickknacks. The place, it seems, is avoided like the plague by all but permanent resident Stanley (a dyspeptic antihero brilliantly realized by James Carpenter).

Vaguely suggesting guilt, despondency, or disgust, Stanley rises late, jabs at his cornflakes, complains about them and the tea, lights a cig, then spends the day doing nothing. The psychosexual aspects of this ad hoc family get played up grotesquely in Meg’s mommy lust for the younger man, in the clash of her youthful eagerness and frumpy exterior, and maybe just a bit in the ultimately impotent patriarch Petey’s playful moniker. The seductive girl next door, Lulu (Emily Jordan), and the arrival of Goldberg (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and McCann (Michael Ray Wisely) up the ante, threatening to sunder the bonds of the little household.

The genteel Goldberg and strong-arm McCann are precise and lively versions of their terrorist types and flaunt their respective Jewish and Irish Catholic backgrounds just enough to give their authoritarianism a religious as well as secular inflection. But power’s way is the way of the playground, and the power play by Goldberg and McCann has a lot of play in it. They’re keen on a set of games that never leave them far from grade school bullies.

The birthday party, the central event of the play, provides a kind of formal, ritual occasion for children still fighting, struggling, and pushing each other around, stubbornly refusing to give any ground. The pushing and shoving never really stops, but the party offers a set of temporary restrictions — new parameters for the game. And it’s a literal game of blind man’s bluff that caps the dreary, drunken celebration at which Stanley (who insists it is not his birthday) is the unwilling guest of honor.

Fifty years of modern theater, including not least Pinter’s subsequent work, have no doubt made a play like The Birthday Party more approachable, but it remains too esoteric for many. Instead of the elusive language used in The Birthday Party, audiences often expect something more akin to a crossword puzzle — enter the appropriate words in their respective boxes, and you achieve a definitive solution: nice, neat, and self-contained.

But if The Birthday Party is a puzzle, it is open-ended and without a solution, or rather with a series of partial and contingent solutions. Words are not really evidence here. Evidence has to be gathered between and behind the lines.

As if to underscore this limit of language, Stanley’s final word isn’t a word at all. It’s a horrifying howl that rises like bile in the throat of a man who has finally been tamed, blinded, and led off. As mysterious as it is immediate, it might be, fatalistically speaking, his last gesture of defiance, a final assertion of individuality and independence. More hopefully, it may be the first expression of some new measure of understanding for which there are no words yet. (Nine across: what a new animal sounds like.) Either way, something has happened. That much is certain. So happy birthday. *


Through March 4

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m., $28–$50

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk.

(510) 843-4822


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


Control of resources


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Among the usual tidings of war and occupation, the recent holiday season brought news that hundreds of people had been burned alive in a pipeline explosion in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria and its largest city. They were gathered around a section reportedly ruptured by a criminal gang of "bunkerers" siphoning petrol from the state-owned oil company prior to selling it on the black market.

In a cutting irony wasted on few in Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer (the fifth largest importer to the United States — and rising) has struggled for years with a serious fuel shortage. Within the crowded Abule Egba district of Lagos, where December’s horrible scene took place, low-paid workers and their families often forgo caution in the event of a pipeline rupturing to fill pails and cans with the desperately needed liquid, either for use in their own vehicles and home generators or for resale on the black market, where a small amount can equal several weeks’ wages.

To read the news reports on these accidents (if that’s the right term for such acts of desperation) is usually to miss much of the complex picture lying behind the scenes in Africa’s most populous and oil-rich country. The politics of oil in Nigeria reaches deep into an increasingly fractured society and far beyond its national borders.

Needless to say, it’s a lot for a lone actor-playwright to take on, even one playing multiple characters over the course of two hours. But young solo performer Dan Hoyle seems to thrive on such challenges. Developed with and directed by veteran solo performer Charlie Varon, Tings Dey Happen brings the 25-year-old Hoyle’s American theater audience a powerfully etched human-scale impression of the scope of oil politics in Nigeria as he discovered it during a 10-month trip in 2005 as a Fulbright scholar.

Without benefit of costume or scenery and with merely an atmospheric sound design (courtesy of David Hines) and some key lighting shifts (by Patti Meyer), Hoyle soon establishes his setting with a series of quick-change characterizations amid a bustling city street in Lagos. Affecting the pidgin English that is the lingua franca of Nigeria and smoothly transitioning through various postures and demeanors, Hoyle re-creates his reception as a white American sore thumb. From there we travel with him widely, from stops at the US Embassy and local bars frequented by expat oil workers to the network of swamps and streams in the delta known simply as "the creeks," the territory of dozens of militia groups at war with the state and one another for the liberation of the delta and a share of the oil money.

In all, Hoyle plays more than 20 characters based on people he met and interviewed. There’s also a friendly Nigerian stage manager who does not hesitate in taking exception to the character Dan’s sometimes overly downbeat treatment of the subject matter or spurring the crowd to let go of its Bay Area mind-set and try to adopt a more Nigerian one.

Hoyle also gained access to some highly placed people in Lagos. In addition to a somewhat unctuous US ambassador, for instance, Dan memorably meets the antigovernment rebel leader and Ijaw warlord Asari (a.k.a. Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, or Asari Dokubo), the Muslim militant whose forces have declared war on the Nigerian state and the oil companies who they (with justification) say have usurped and wreaked havoc on Ijaw land.

Throughout, Dan is glimpsed only in stories told by those he met. He’s the young white American who’s (remarkably) neither a Christian missionary nor a petrochemical engineer; who wants, crazily, to study oil politics (prompting one wag to advise him to practice ducking, as he’s sure to be shot at); who, to one local’s amazement and consternation, doesn’t know how to fix a computer.

Tings is a history lesson and a political lesson — even a geography lesson (the Niger Delta "is like your Mississippi Delta," the stage manager explains with knowing understatement, "but there are more guns"). But the show is also very much an entertainment and a display of performance prowess. Hoyle — whose first solo endeavor, Circumnavigator, was followed by Florida 2004: The Big Bummer, a report from a front line in the last presidential election — has made this multicharacter reportage-bricolage his forte, backing it with the limber facility of a physically disciplined actor and natural mimic.

There’s a certain admirable audacity in Hoyle’s Nigeria project, not just in his fearless reconnaissance of deeply troubled waters — especially among the battle-hardened rebels of the creeks — but in his willingness to boldly assume the voices and personae of ordinary Nigerians, to step inside their perspectives and encourage his American audiences to follow.

In what’s perhaps an overly eager attempt to please, however, his characters tend to be eccentrics. And in some cases the characterizations feel more put on, along the lines of caricature, than fully embodied. While invariably absorbing, the sum of these parts may also lend a skewed impression of the average Nigerian. There’s no mention, for example, of the nonviolent resistance led by women and student organizations against the exploitation of Nigerian people, land, and resources. (The only female character essayed in Tings is a sympathetically indignant prostitute.)

Moreover, the play’s two hours could stand trimming and focusing (a malaria-fueled fever dream in which Dan is visited by competing advice givers Graham Greene and Richard Pryor, for example, is only weakly funny and hence all the more tangential). These quibbles aside, Hoyle’s work brings a burgeoning talent to a still woefully neglected subject that, as presented here, is both absorbing in its dramatic complexity and urgent in its political import. *


Through Feb. 10

Thurs.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 p.m., $15–$22


1062 Valencia, SF

(415) 826-5750



James Broughton’s liberation machine


AVANT DVD "At an early age I arrived in San Francisco," James Broughton says in his 1974 cinematic self-portrait, Testament. "There I spent the rest of my life growing up." A straight-hearted honesty and smiling irony here lie snug side by side, as they do typically throughout the work of the poet and avant-garde filmmaker. Adults behaving like children are hardly an unusual sight in a Broughton film.

Lou Reed has a line about "growing up in public with your pants down," bemoaning (with his own habitual flair) the inevitable fate of the modern artist. But if becoming one today necessarily means dropping trou, no one ever did it more gleefully, readily, and speedily than Broughton, who died in 1999 at 85. Born in Modesto in 1913, Broughton was what you could call a self-made man — though not the kind his mother had in mind when she pictured him growing beyond the family’s generations of bankers into its first surgeon. Broughton created himself through his art: a playful, deeply erotic, and self-questioning poetry that, in its joyful and childlike (but never naive) reaching out to the world, ended up wedding itself brilliantly to the medium of the century.

Maximum exhibitionism was the idea. As Broughton explains in his lively autobiography, Coming Unbuttoned, he was visited one night as a lad of three by his angel, Hermy, who revealed his destiny and bestowed on him three attributes that would make his job easier: "intuition, articulation, and merriment." And so a liberator of the body and mind was christened a poet in his crib by an angel whose sparkling, throbbing wand made the boy wet his jammies. (Years later that wand was still making magic, as in 1979’s Hermes Bird, an 11-minute film in which Broughton reads a phallic ode over the profile of a slowly wakening penis, bathed in an ethereal light that sets it out shimmeringly against absolute darkness.)

In a film career (and life) that had more than one end and rebirth attached to it, Broughton had originally intended Testament as his epitaph, but he soon followed it with other projects, including an erotically charged close-up tour of bodily surfaces titled Erogeny (1976), after which began what can be considered his third and final period, the films he made with Joel Singer. (It was the prize-winning piece that began his second period of filmmaking, 1968’s The Bed — a multifarious 20-minute romp on a roving outdoor bed involving a large number of naked bodies — that first put full frontal nudity all over the art-film map. With a cameo by the filmmaker meditating naked before a semicoiled snake and another by friend Alan Watts, it’s still a curious, jovial work and leads into Broughton’s explicit mapping of human geography and erotic energy in films such as 1970’s The Golden Positions.)

It’s often pointed out how perennially unfashionable Broughton managed to be through a long career. In an era overshadowed by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, muscular Beat howling, and virtuously inscrutable language poetry, Broughton clove happily to his Mother Goose rhyme schemes (which he endowed with a sly wisdom and ribald play she would not have completely approved of). Although Broughton took his own good advice to "follow your own weird," he never lacked for influences, including giants on the American experimental film landscape such as his friend Maya Deren. His was a singular voice drawn from a merry mixing of lifelong passions: Mother Goose and Lao-tzu, Carl Jung and Alan Watts, Episcopalian ritual and Greek mythology, Jean Cocteau and Buster Keaton. It made him a representative figure in the San Francisco arts scene from the postwar renaissance through the next four decades, even while seeming to frolic forever outside the trends and categories of his day.

Recently, there have been at least three reasons to think about Broughton’s films. One is the release of The Films of James Broughton ($59.95) on DVD by Facets. While not quite complete, the three-DVD set is a pretty thorough overview of his film work, which was as central to the formation of a West Coast avant-garde as it was inherently and persistently individual.

Another reason is the April 2005 passing of Kermit Sheets. A gifted literary and theater artist in the Bay Area for many years, Sheets was a conscientious objector during World War II who afterward joined fellow COs in forming a San Francisco theater company, the Interplayers. In these years he was Broughton’s companion and collaborator on many early projects, including all the films that make up the first period of the latter’s always poetical filmmaking, four of which (out of a total of six, counting The Potted Psalm) are included in the Facets collection, beginning with Mother’s Day (1948) and culminating with The Pleasure Garden (1953).

There’s no end to the pleasure in watching Sheets play a crooning cowboy hero combing the grounds for a gal as sweet as Ma or, for that matter, his Charlie Chaplin–like tramp, Looney Tom, the eponymous hero of an 11-minute film made in 1951. His boyish grin and carefree capering through Golden Gate Park in search of one love after another might have made his career in comedy (or so you can’t help thinking). Over Looney Tom’s gleeful abandon, to the tinkling of a piano, Broughton’s gently raunchy storybook rhyming is merry and fey:

Give me a tune and I’ll slap the bull fife,

I’ll spring the hornblower out of his wife.

Any old flutist you care to uncover,

give me his name and I’ll be her lover.

La diddle la, the hydrant chatted

Um titty um, the milkpail said.

The best reason to revisit Broughton’s work, however, remains the cheering buoyancy and brightness of his vision — a serious tonic to the mordant hostility and hopelessness of the culture’s Apocalypto moment and one that comes close to justifying his definition of cinema as a "liberation machine." (Robert Avila)

Funny business


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The world has rushed headlong and with questionable taste into 2007. Whatever else that implies, it wouldn’t be funny if not for SF Sketchfest. The annual comedy showcase, which sails in buoyantly every January, grows fresher by the year, despite being nearly as old as this increasingly passé century.

Admittedly, the Bay Area has several admirable places to go for comedy — evergreen locales like Cobb’s, newer nooks like the Dark Room, and a couple yearly improv festivals, for example. But since its inception in 2002, SF Sketchfest has not only made room for more, it’s featured unique programming that only gets savvier.

"Each year we like to add new elements," cofounder David Owen says, "new acts, new venues, new styles of comedy, new workshops and interactive events." Audiences, meanwhile, have responded with enthusiasm. Houses are packed, and the lineup is almost always impressive. To run down the roster of SF Sketchfest 2007 is to press nose to glass and ogle the comedy candy on display: Upright Citizens Brigade’s Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh; MadTV ‘s Andrew Daly; Mr. Show ‘s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk (albeit in separate acts); Naked Babies (with Rob Corddry of Daily Show fame); a tribute to Paul Reubens (that’s Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens, of course); and much more.

Although Owen says the plan was always to grow SF Sketchfest into something bigger and better, he and colleagues Janet Varney and Cole Stratton originally conceived of the project in narrower, rather pragmatic terms — namely, as a means of getting their own act, the comedy troupe Totally False People, an extended run on a downtown stage.

"We frankly couldn’t afford to rent a theater on our own," he says. "So we teamed up with five other Bay Area groups — and we called it SF Sketchfest." Six years later, Owen looks back on this modest scheme with some justifiable awe. "When we were first putting it together, I don’t think we ever dreamed it would be where it is today."

There was plenty of magic even in that more low-key first year. But SF Sketchfest almost immediately reached out to national acts, which have seemed only too willing to oblige. The program has since blossomed into a sweet-smelling potpourri of wit from around the country while staying true to its original impetus by giving ample room to local groups such as Kasper Hauser, Killing My Lobster, and deeply strange soloist extraordinaire Will Franken.

If casting their net nationally while maintaining the fest’s original commitment to local acts takes considerable work ("Every year it’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle," Stratton says, "only we don’t have a picture to work off of"), Sketchfest’s directors have, to their credit, repeatedly struck a fine balance, producing a formidable mix of major headliners and more up-and-coming comedians. "It gives audiences a chance to see groups they love with potentially the next big thing, and it gives the performers enthusiastic, packed houses," Stratton says, explaining the strategy. "We probably put together 50 calendars before we can put a lock on things, but it always comes together beautifully."

"We’re so particular about what we program every year," Varney says. "There isn’t a show in the calendar that we’re not incredibly excited about." Still, Varney cites among the festival’s particular strengths this year its "more interactive side," including workshops in comedy screenwriting (with The Baxter ‘s writer-director-star Michael Showalter), sketch writing (with San Francisco’s Kasper Hauser), and an improv master class (with Upright Citizens Brigade’s Matt Walsh). "These are seriously respected people offering their expertise," she says. Moreover, she promises with understandable confidence, "The workshops are going to be tremendously fun."

Then there’s TV-style audience participation. "Some of the performers from the ‘Comedy Death-Ray’ show [David Cross, Maria Bamford, and Paul F. Tompkins] will be doing their version of the old ’70s game show Match Game. Jimmy Pardo hosts the show, and it’s a really fun, relaxed environment where the audience gets to both participate and to see the comedians think on their feet," Varney says.

"And of course," she adds, "we’re really excited to honor Paul Reubens at this year’s SF Sketchfest Tribute." The event — which in years past has saluted the likes of Amy Sedaris (2004), Dana Carvey (2005), and Cross and Odenkirk (2006) — includes an audience Q&A with Reubens after he has a sit-down conversation with journalist Ben Fong-Torres.

Closing night builds to a crescendo of sorts with a program of music and comedy, featuring Kids in the Hall veteran Bruce McCulloch (2005’s hilarious opener, back for more with accompanist Craig Northey) and two returning Los Angeles acts, the fine duo Hard ‘N Phirm and comedy rapper Dragon Boy Suede.

"Sketch is very strong right now," Stratton notes. "I think sites like YouTube are ushering in a new wave of sketch groups. High-quality cameras and editing equipment are readily available, so a lot of funny things are being produced and immediately snatched up online." It’s had a feedback effect on the comedy circuit. "A lot of groups mix their filmed stuff with live performance and tour festivals with it, a trend we’ve noticed increasing in the last few years. With festivals popping up in Chicago, Portland, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Vancouver, sketch is in high demand." *


Jan. 11–28

Various venues


(415) 948-2494


The territory of The Forest War


Three years ago playwright-director Mark Jackson and the Shotgun Players teamed up to present The Death of Meyerhold, Jackson’s devilishly imaginative and ambitious distillation of the revolutionary life, work, and world of Russian theater innovator Vsevolod Meyerhold. A remarkable success, Meyerhold was easily among the top three world premieres of the season and flagged Jackson, artistic director of Art Street Theatre (1995–<\d>2004), as an up-and-coming innovator in his own right.
Since then, Art Street Theatre has, according to its Web site, “put its producing activities on hiatus,” but Jackson (like his AST colleagues, with whom he continues to collaborate) has kept busy on a freelance basis, recently with his roundly lauded version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome for Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre and currently with his own play, The Forest War. The latter marks his second collaboration with Shotgun, and its powerful, graceful debut suggests Meyerhold’s chemistry was no fluke.
The play opens on the court of an ancient Asiatic kingdom at the cessation of a long war for control of a precious natural resource, namely, the economically indispensable forest. Having led his clan to a hard-won victory, the aging Lord Karug (Drew Anderson) takes the precaution of passing the mantle of state power over the head of his own bellicose and power-hungry son, Lord Kain (Kevin Clarke), and onto the irenic shoulders of Kulan (Cassidy Brown), popular with the populace as a just lord with humble roots in tilled soil. This sets Kain scheming — with the aid of his ally General Mau Tant (Reid Davis) — to take by stealth what he feels should be his by right. Kain’s machinations temporarily trade martial ferocity for the opportunities offered by marital infidelity, as a palace intrigue — devoted family man Kulan’s secret liaison with Karug’s courtesan (Tonya Glanz) — becomes the basis of a public campaign to topple his rival.
This Shakespearean plotline comes refracted startlingly, Akira Kurosawa–<\d>style, through a highly stylized lens — a fairly stunning mise-en-scène that astutely combines elements of Kabuki and Noh theater into a visual banquet with a palpitating dramatic energy behind it, all operating with a precise economy of movement, gesture, and sign. The story features other familiar-sounding details of war and peace — from the health care reform instigated under Kulan to Kain’s manipulation of intelligence and ill-considered war preparations. No matter how stylized or abstract the setting, there’s no missing the contemporary forest for these ancient trees. A whole set of secondary characters, moreover, as well as a parallel affair between Kulan’s daughter (Caroline Hewitt) and a poor artist (Ryan Tasker), flesh out the link between the common people and their turbulent leaders. Jackson directs his actors beautifully, extracting performances from Brown, Tasker, Hewitt, and Clarke, in particular, that breathe individually and expansively inside the productively strict choreography and caricature demanded.
If its vaguely two-party politics strike one as ultimately less sophisticated than its aesthetic vision, The Forest War still potently registers the anxiety of the times. And maybe, specifically, anxiety around our sense of time, in a world whose constantly increasing pace seems to both flatten time into an ever-uprooted, disconnected present and reinforce a by-now-inescapable fear of time running itself out completely. But in the realm of theater, the world that engulfs the characters onstage is also the ground of hope, where the audience, at least, remains to imagine new possibilities emerging from the charred landscape of runaway greed and war. (Robert Avila)
Through Jan. 14, 2007
Thurs.–<\d>Sun., 8 p.m.
Ashby Stage

Deep water, hard rock


In a house overlooking the San Francisco Bay, a young painter named Amy (Dena Martinez) hosts a seeming vagabond, Palo (Johnny Moreno), through one long grief-filled night. She’s in numb, guilt-stricken mourning for her husband, a purportedly shallow man who, out of his emotional depth, stepped off his sailboat, into the ocean. Palo, for his part, is convinced he knows Amy as Lila, the woman he once loved, abused, and has been searching for up the long coast from Mexico. So their meeting at the Marina Safeway, where Palo finds Amy stalled in the detergent aisle staring helplessly at the Tide, comes fraught with significance for both while reflecting the humor, irony, and metaphorical richness at work throughout Gibraltar’s brilliantly layered poetry.
The latest work by internationally acclaimed Bay Area playwright Octavio Solís, the San Francisco–<\d>centered drama was commissioned by and premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2005. Its impressive Bay Area debut comes somewhat revised, in an intelligent, well-crafted coproduction by Thick Description with the San Jose Stage Company (which will host it in the South Bay in early 2007). Solís’s relationship with Thick Description goes back a long way — to the playwright’s first major theatrical success, 1993’s Santos and Santos — and despite some unevenness in the generally strong cast, artistic director Tony Kelly’s discerning staging surely reflects, in part, the fruit of this long association.
Scenic designer Melpomene Katakalos renders Amy’s environment, a plank-board living room whose sole furnishing is a futon, with a serene, dreamlike simplicity, as if that futon were a life raft adrift in an endless night. One assumes Amy has taken the handsome but intensely volatile Palo home to her flat as an instinctual reflex betraying her acute loneliness and sexual tension.
Their violent courtship, which takes the form of competing stories, is as much a struggle as a dance, a wrestling with deep feelings and needs worthy of the term Solís uses throughout — duende — the ultimately untranslatable Andalusian term for a kind of soul or spirit, what Federico García Lorca spoke of as coming to life “in the nethermost recesses of the blood.” Visually, it is evoked here in the blackness at the edge of the stage (and also, later, in a poignant unveiling of a canvas entirely painted over in black).
Amy’s and Palo’s dueling stories, or cuentos, form a strong narrative current, pulling other stories, equally suggestive of duende, into the fray: a young man (David Wesley Skillman) whose boyhood grief over his father’s suicide resurfaces in the affair he has with the woman (Vivis) who drove the older man to despair; a police officer (Danny Wolohan) driven to desperation and self-doubt when his wife (Danielle Thys) leaves him for another woman; and finally, the story of Amy’s own involvement with a middle-aged man (Michael Bellino) and his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife (Joan Mankin), which begins to unravel the secret of her own despair. As she replays these scenes, interacting with them in a spot where time and space dissolve, Amy finds herself compelled to rewrite them. “This is not how the cuento ends,” Palo complains. “You’ve changed it. You’ve changed everything.”
Gibraltar’s mediation on love — its ruthless, destructive ferocity and its redemptive promise — shrewdly mimics the forces at work on its eponym, washing over its audience with the turbulent yet creative force of the surf as it constantly reshapes the shore.
Alone and horny on Christmas. Not even Mrs. Claus deserves that. But when Cochina (a nickname meaning “pig” bestowed on the title character as a free-spirited child by her deeply repressed and highly authoritarian maiden auntie) responds to this crisis with a militant government-funded abstinence program, she’s asking for some karmic retribution. Thus Marga Gomez’s solo show The 12 Days of Cochina — a revised and politically up-to-date version of her popular 2001 play, sharply staged by Theater Rhinoceros artistic director John Fisher — follows a jilted, sex-starved lesbian through a not exactly Dickensian but still Ebenezer Scrooge–<\d>like reawakening. Fans of the charismatic playwright-performer don’t need telling, but Gomez’s work is consistently funny and smart, and her high-energy performance is as deft as they come.
Through Dec. 17
Thurs.–<\d>Sun., 8 p.m.
Thick House
1695 18th St., SF
(415) 401-8081
Through Dec. 17
Wed.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Theatre Rhinoceros, Studio Theater
2926 16th St., SF
(415) 861-5079

Plays of the year


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You may not have noticed, but an unprecedented theatrical experiment was launched nationwide last week. Its San Francisco segment unfolded the night of Nov. 23 before an audience of 80 to 100 people in a modest wood-shingled community center atop Potrero Hill, with the playwright who started it all in attendance.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays project — a national yearlong grassroots theatrical festival premiering a unique and audacious play-a-day cycle by one of the country’s foremost dramatic voices — took off at a benefit performance put on by the Z Space Studio as a group of 11 performers, directed by Lisa Steindler and director-actor Marc Bamuthi Joseph, unveiled the first seven playlets in the cycle.
The pieces (each no longer than 10 minutes) percolate with a mixture of mischievous invention, absurdist humor, pointed irony, and somber reflection on a variety of themes. In the first, for example, the aptly titled Start Here, an African American man gets vague encouragement and direction as he prepares, with some trepidation and confusion, to head out on a path as obscure, ambiguous, and mysterious as the history behind him. (The names of the characters, Arjuna and Krishna, invoke the tale of the Bhagavad Gita and overlay it on this seemingly American allegory.) In another piece, a young woman from a long line of “good-for-nothings” fails miserably to make nothing of herself — rejected by a crowd as inadequately worthless, she is forced to reinvent herself as something instead.
In Veuve Clicquot, which deftly reframes a comic situation into one of pathos and acute ambivalence, a seeming gourmand is in the process of ordering a sumptuous meal until his waiter balks at his pretension, and a chorus of women haunts him with the ethereal voice of his departed victim — whose own last meal, as it turned out, was nothing all that special.
Well acted and smartly blocked on and around a nearly bare stage (with some choice choreography added by six female dancers), the evening’s performances coincided with similar premieres around the country involving a wide range of local theater companies (more than 800 and counting) that have each signed on to produce a week’s worth of Parks’s yearlong cycle (which she composed daily for one full year, beginning in November 2002). Locally, the project is spearheaded by the Z Space Studio, Playwrights Foundation, and Cutting Ball Theater (the last of which recently staged a very fine production of Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World). The Bay Area manifestation of the 365 Days/365 Plays festival (which runs daily to Nov. 12, 2007) will ultimately involve more than 40 companies and 300 theater artists. This week’s shows are by the all-female Shakespeare company Women’s Will.
Parks — the Pulitzer Prize–winning creator of Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood, and The America Play, among other works (including screenplays and a novel) — was in a jocular and expansive mood during the Q&A. She explained her commitment to the idea of writing a play a day for one year as the product of an inclination to entertain any idea that comes into her head — “through the window of opportunity,” she laughed, nodding to the suspended prop window stage left that had featured as the thematic and titular center of one of that evening’s seven playlets.
Plays in the cycle beyond these first seven run a varied and quirky gamut of inspirational matter, with themes of war, family, and spiritual life among the leitmotifs. There are pieces that revisit some of the playwright’s favorite themes (Abe Lincoln comes around again), some that pay homage to people who happened to have passed on during the course of the year (Johnny Cash, for instance), others that take off from real-life encounters (one piece incorporates Parks’s meeting with Brad Pitt, for whom she was developing a screenplay). At the same time, the festival aims to do much more than showcase Parks’s enviable talents. Each company is free to stage the plays as it sees fit, giving the festival a panoramic scope that takes in the diversity of the whole theatrical scene. This kind of coordinated national grassroots effort — something Parks described as an extension of a process of “radical inclusion” — has probably not been seen since the days of the Federal Theater Project in the 1930s.
According to Parks, many of her best ideas for the stage have come from entertaining spontaneous ideas others would prudently dismiss after a gratifying chuckle. (Two African American brothers named Lincoln and Booth? Why not?) In her telling, it was her husband, blues musician Paul Oscher, who first responded affirmatively from the couch to her spontaneous idea to write a play a day for a year. “Yeah?” she asked. “You really think it’s a good idea?” That, apparently, was enough. The rest is theater history. SFBG
365 PLAYS/365 DAYS
Through Nov. 12, 2007
This week: Fri/24–Sun/26
Oakland Public Conservatory of Music
1616 Franklin, Oakl.
Pay what you can, $15–$25 suggested
(510) 420-1813

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)

One nation under dog


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In Suzan-Lori Parks’s The America Play, the setting is a vast dirt hole — what the piece calls “an exact replica of the Great Hole of History.” You could say it’s still the operative landscape in her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Topdog/Underdog, which also takes as a central motif The America Play’s image of a black man dressed as an arcade Abraham Lincoln (there for patrons to shoot in a continual reenactment of the assassination in Ford’s Theatre). Parks now grounds it in a more ostensibly realistic plotline Linc-ing two African American brothers to a deep and sordid past they only partially and fleetingly understand. The hole of history here consists of the squalid apartment shared by Lincoln (Ian Walker) and Booth (David Westley Skillman), named by their father as “some idea of a joke.”
In Parks’s telling, the joke is loaded. The layering of history, it suggests, turns Booth’s inner-city digs downright archaeological. It blends — in subtle and intricate ways — the brothers’ troubled childhood, a history of racism and endemic poverty, and a ruthless culture suffused with fantasies of death and easy money.
Second Wind’s production, ably helmed by director Virginia Reed, is the first one locally since the touring Broadway version came through town. It’s great not only to have the opportunity to see this rich and dramatically powerful work performed again but to see a small company do this demanding piece such justice. (If justice is a word one can draw anywhere near the world of Linc and Booth.) The actors establish an engaging rapport onstage. Skillman is sharp and just vaguely menacing as younger brother Booth, jumpy and less certain than his big brother despite his obsessive ambition to be the three-card monte hustler his now disillusioned brother once was. Walker’s Linc, meanwhile, is a finely tuned combination of resignation, restraint, and irrepressible pride. He first appears in whiteface, wearing the president’s getup, which gives him a steady paycheck and time to think; when his startled kid brother trains a real gun on him, we have a tableau that sets the whole history ball rolling.
True, opening night saw the performances, especially Walker’s, fluctuating slightly in intensity, focus, and rhythm, but that’s only to say an excellent cast will likely prove even stronger as the run continues.
Bay Area playwright Brad Erickson’s new play, The War at Home, comes stitched together with song — religious hymns sung by a cast whose effortless harmonies belie the contested provenance of the play’s allegiances and convictions. It’s an ironic and rhythmically effective counterpoint to the disunion tackled by Erickson’s smart and well-crafted story, which begins with the lovely-sounding but nonetheless physically strained concord of a group portrait around the piano.
Jason (a nicely understated Peter Matthews) is a young gay playwright from the Big Apple who returns home to Charleston, SC, where his father, Bill (Alex Ross), is a popular Baptist minister, to put on a play lambasting the Baptist Church for its bigoted opposition to gay marriage and demonization of homosexuality. As the inevitable uproar gets under way — with his good-natured, well-meaning dad (played with wonderfully convincing sincerity by Ross) caught between his son and his strident, militant church assistant, Danny (Patrick MacKellan) — Jason’s renewed contact with his old lover Reese (Jason Jeremy) raises some hell of its own for him.
Pastor Bill has grown the congregation successfully over the years into a thriving community. Early in the play, he’s overlooking the floor plans for the church’s new Christian Life Center facility (which includes an elaborate gym confoundingly absent showers, he notices). But the growth of the church and Bill’s success as a pastor have come at a price — his own passive complicity in the purging over the years of progressive church leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention (as a Christian who had protested the Vietnam War and fought for civil rights, Bill finds his passivity amounts to a significant compromise). Now his son’s play and life become the catalyst for a confrontation with the right-wing leadership that threatens to end his career as well as break up his marriage to Jason’s serenely oblivious mother (a bottomless well of denial played with perfectly pitched charm by Adrienne Krug).
Having recently married his NYC partner in a legal ceremony in Boston, Jason becomes panicked over his infidelity with Reese, made troubling here by the thought that he may be living up to the hateful stereotypes of the Christian Right and stoking the facile certainties of their intolerant, authoritarian worldview (which to his father’s chagrin Jason labels — with youthful impetuosity perhaps but hardly without cause — “fascist”).
It’s part of the strength of Erickson’s play that it eschews easy answers or stereotypes. Nevertheless, Danny and, to a lesser extent, Reese remain less developed characters than Jason and his parents, whose interactions are some of the play’s most convincing and resonant. Director John Dixon, meanwhile, who shrewdly avoids stereotypes himself, as well as cheap laughs, garners strong performances from a very solid cast. SFBG
Through Nov. 18
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
Phoenix Theatre
414 Mason, SF
(415) 820-1460
Through Nov. 11
Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness, SF
(415) 861-8972

Static shock


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REVIEW When it premiered in New York two years ago, Sam Shepard’s latest play was timed to influence the outcome of the presidential election — an enticingly bold agenda. Of course, if you want to influence elections, as everybody understands by now, you need to be more than bold. You need to be Diebold. And anyway, what politician worries about what’s on an Off-Broadway stage? As political theater goes, Hugo Chávez calling George W. Bush the devil and sniffing out his sulfuric farts before the United Nations has much more oomph to it, in addition to getting at least as big a laugh. Chávez also backed up his warm-up zingers with a real political program. And he reads Noam Chomsky!
Two years and another flagrantly stolen election later, The God of Hell remains less interesting for any recyclable reference to the electoral contest between Democrats and Republicans (two packs squaring off again for dominance in the same corporate-owned kennel) than for the reflection in its bleak farce of something larger: an attempt to redraw the psychic and social landscape. Shepard’s ostensibly simple political broadside — whose call to alarm rings more with absurdist resignation than Brechtian defiance — has nonetheless a wily power curled up inside.
The play — sharply directed by Amy Glazer and leading off the 40th anniversary season of the Magic Theatre, Shepard’s old stomping ground — opens on the home of a dying breed: a Wisconsin dairy farmer and his wife. Emma (played with just the right suggestion of guileless good humor and native smarts by Anne Darragh) loves her indoor plants, which she compulsively waters to within an inch of their lives. Frank (John Flanagan), meanwhile, “loves his heifers,” as his affectionate wife readily explains to Frank’s old friend and their current houseguest, the jumpy and radioactive Graig Haynes (Jackson Davis), hiding from some unspecified disaster out west at a mysterious place called, in a name redolent of real-life nuclear disasters, Rocky Buttes. On the one hand, the couple looks primed to live happily heifer after. On the other, they appear stuck in a semiparadisial oasis amid unforgiving winter and a sea of agribusiness, isolated, alone, stoic, lonely, a little loony, and lost without knowing it — yet.
Emma is in the act of coaxing Haynes from the basement with some frying bacon when a stranger at the door interrupts her. As the pork sizzles, the man (Michael Santo), a business suit we later learn goes by the name Welch, appears to be selling a host of patriotic paraphernalia out of his attaché case. But his pushy demeanor quickly goes beyond the usual sales routine, his interest in Emma’s loyalty and her basement growing downright creepy, exuding an unctuousness and a sly arrogance that perfectly suggest the totalitarian turn in what Frank calls a “country of salesmen.” (Santo, whose face stretched into a thin grin bears an eerie resemblance to our real-life torturer-in-chief, is altogether perfect in the part.)
Shepard’s farmers, while purposefully cartoony, aren’t country bumpkins. Nor are they merely atavistic 1950s farmers, existing wholly in the past and detached from the present (as Welch, with telling condescension, likes to imagine them). Locally speaking, they are savvy and sure. (It’s no joke holding your own as an independent dairy farmer amid government-subsidized corporate behemoths.) Emma in particular is rooted to the very house itself, born on a patch of floor Hayes finds himself standing on at one point.
It’s the world beyond the farm and Wisconsin that the main couple find hard to grasp. In the play’s central irony, Frank and Emma tentatively mark the outer world by reference to a standard pop-cultural conspiracy narrative. But significantly, it’s just that laughable (at first) recourse to the formula of a TV thriller or sci-fi movie that points in the direction of the truth, helping Emma and Frank chart the terrain opened up by the arrival of Haynes and Welch. Long before his old friend resurfaces, Frank has already imagined for him, however vaguely, just the kind of intrigue and danger he turns out to have been undergoing. After passing the seeds of this narrative to his wife (who, as it were, dutifully overwaters them), Frank turns around and mocks her paranoia of government vehicles: “Dark cars. Suspicious. Tinted windows. Unmarked Chevies. Black antennas bowed over.” But we already know she’s right. The terrain of conspiracy, like the empire it limns, stretches in all directions, making borders meaningless except as a demagogic strategy in Welch’s fascist, state-centered patriotism.
The play invokes borders mainly to undermine, comically deflate, or cynically manipulate them. The overall and overwhelming implication is their irrelevance to an imperial might that recognizes no boundaries in the exercise of its will (things don’t need to escalate far before Welch threatens to send a bunker buster through Emma’s kitchen window). The vastness of the system confronting Emma and Frank comes across most dramatically in the unstoppable reach of plutonium — named after Pluto, the god of hell — which here serves as both a literal threat of the system and the ideal metaphor for its poisonous, apocalyptic reach. It’s this geography (real, metaphorical, potential) that the play wants us to pay attention to, since survival depends on some grasp of the lay of the land. SFBG
Through Oct. 22
Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, bldg. D, Buchanan at Marina, SF
(415) 441-8822

40-year-old teens


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American Conservatory Theater, the Magic Theatre, and Marin Theatre Company all turn 40 this year. Accordingly, these three regionally and nationally preeminent Bay Area companies are rolling out ambitious celebratory seasons. But despite all the satisfaction rightfully implied by this triple birthday, theater finds itself in a significant and uncertain period of transition.
Relevance and sustainability were prominent themes when artistic directors Carey Perloff (ACT), Lee Sankowich (MTC), and Chris Smith (Magic) sat down with the Guardian to share their thoughts on the trajectories of their respective organizations as well as theater’s past, present, and future in the culture at large.
CHRIS SMITH There is a lot of looking back and celebration of legacies and all that a significant landmark — turning 40 — suggests. But organic to the Magic’s mission is seeding the future, because we really are about new work. And to be committed to new work is really to have a perspective on the horizon.
We can talk about it from a number of different points of view, including the way most people want to talk about theater and art making these days, which is from the consumer model. We’re all completely obsessed with audiences and consumers. And that’s one of the critical differences [between] now and 40 years ago. In a weird way we’re a 40-year-old teenager. Suddenly we’re saying we have to be more concerned now than in the past about making sure people are having a good experience and getting them in.
But if you stop thinking for one split second about the financial success of the theater or the relevancy of the theater within a country that is arguably celebrating the dumbing down of the political spectrum, the health of the theater as an art form is very, very good. The best thing to cite on that front is the proliferation of high-quality MFA writing programs contributing to the number of committed, intelligent, craft-oriented, theatrically vibrant artists coming into our field.
So I actually have a great deal of optimism about the value that theater will have in the next decade in our society. That’s very distinct from numbers. The audiences that will be attending challenging, literate, smart work I expect are going to shrink. But I think it brings us back to a kind of churchlike sensibility.
The theater as a church for a thinking person is increasingly at value in our digital age, where we’re being separated from liveness, we’re being separated from the communal, separated from contact. We are in a moment between a fundamental impulse to look backwards and an impulse to look forwards. And the artists are the ones that live in that cusp.
CAREY PERLOFF Of course, this is exactly what [Tom Stoppard’s] Travesties is about. There’s a great moment where [Tristan] Tzara says, “As a Dadaist I’m a natural ally of the political left, but the paradox is the further left you go politically, the more bourgeois they like their art.” On the other hand, obviously what Stoppard believes — and what we all have to believe or we wouldn’t be doing this — is that in the long run, when everything else goes, the thing that lasts is art.
The real fight for us in the field right now is to have our own barometers of value. You have to try to take the long view. The only external measures of value [now] are box office sales and critical response. But there are many plays that had miserable box office returns and disastrous critical responses and have come to be the plays we treasure. As I get older, what I most admire in certain artists is their willingness to stay the course and keep their own exploration, their own voice, their own particular artistic journey going, whether or not it seems to be popular or viable.
We wrestle with it here all the time, because I wish people were writing bigger plays. We’re doing [Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War] at the Geary. Now this may be the most foolhardy choice I’ve ever made, but it’s such a big, meaty play that it deserves to be on the Geary stage. We do Lillian Hellman, we do August Wilson, we do Stoppard. Who’s the next generation of writers writing 10-character plays that can fit in the Geary? No wonder nobody’s doing it, because who’s producing it? Nobody! Of course everyone’s writing four-character plays. They’re not idiots.
You have to say to a writer, “Have the courage to think big. Learn the Chekhovian skill of writing for 10 actors,” which is extremely difficult. To sustain complex character over a canvas that size is a totally different challenge. We don’t ask our writers to do that anymore.
LEE SANKOWICH Well, it comes down to support. To be able to do what both of you are talking about, it comes down to corporate funding and grants.
CP But the grant ethos right now — the word that is used more than anything else — is outcomes, right? We’re all being asked to demonstrate measurable outcomes. To me this is so hilarious. It’s like saying, “I’m going to be raising my children, and the measurable outcomes are what?”
CS We need to — as artists and as leaders of artistic institutions — stand up and say, “No, we need cultural metrics. We need the enlightenment-o-meter for measurable outcomes.” Did I walk out of this performance of Orson’s Shadow knowing more about the peculiar nature of these tremendous stars and their relationships and how that impulse really created art? Did I leave there somehow changed? And can we measure that? Can we say, instead, there was a 20 percent increase in enlightenment — what a remarkable outcome! — although the attendance figures stayed flat?
LS It’s interesting, [when] you walk out of Orson’s Shadow, if nothing else, you realize that the big struggle, especially for Welles and Olivier, [is that] they’re known for what they did 30 years earlier. And their big thing is they’re trying to become modern.
CS The opening of our seasons is really emblematic. MTC is working with these great artists in a very literate, funny, interesting perspective. ACT is working on this very big social canvas in a really smart way with Stoppard. The Magic Theatre is getting to work with Sam Shepard and his most recent play [The God of Hell], likewise his most passionate play, written in a moment specifically with the intention to affect the outcome of an election! SFBG
For the complete interview with Perloff, Sankowich, and Smith, see

Fringe on top


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There’s a crisp fall edge to the heady pee-asma of the Tenderloin as huddled, roaming packs of theater scavengers move hourly among the tolerant local traffic — two unmistakable signs of the SF Fringe Festival. How like Halloween it all seems too, the greedy devouring of tricks and treats at the Fringe, that 12-day carnival of the theater world gleefully unimpeded by judges’ panels, censors’ boards, or the general plague of good taste.
The open-door policy of the Fringe makes for a thoroughly unhinged program of nearly 40 local, national, and international acts, all under an hour and all under 10 bucks. In this situation, word of mouth and capricious fortune serve as the principal guideposts for sporting patrons ricocheting from one show to the next among 10 different venues, including such nontraditional environs as Original Joe’s restaurant-bar and the mobile fiesta known as the Mexican Bus.
Amid opening night’s offerings Sept. 6 came the latest from Fringe superstars Banana Bag and Bodice. Something of a superstar satire itself, The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen explores, exclaims, and explodes the mass-cultural phenomenon (“mass retardo reactions”) surrounding a legendary band, the Rising Fallen, six years defunct since playing just one glorious gig.
Part one of a longer piece, Rising Fallen unfolds as a pretentious and outlandish presentation by a grad student expert (Christopher W. White) writing his thesis on the “post-wave neo-nick nick scene.” His quickly wayward lecture includes testimonials and reenactments featuring former lead guitarist Taylor Taylor (Dave Malloy), number one groupie Janey Jane (Rebecca Noon), and some other dude (a roving protean presence played by Joseph Estlack). Amid a couple of microphones and practice amps, an electric guitar, a handheld light source, a video monitor, and a suitably quirky musical score by Malloy come various ego-refracted takes on the myth and mystique surrounding the band’s long-estranged lover-founders, Jacko and Grandma Mo. They are played remotely if indelibly via some recorded images and a pair of cell phones by BB and B’s New York founders, Jason Craig (who cowrote the piece with Malloy) and Jessica Jelliffe.
Word-struck, wryly antisoulful, but only fitfully inspired (especially by comparison with their previous shows), Rising Fallen never quite finds its legs. Ironically, Craig’s and Jelliffe’s charismatic but elusive personae might have held the piece together more had the actors actually been live onstage.
The following night saw two premieres with strangely similar themes by SF companies. Get It? Got It. Good., an absurdist three-act play by SF playwright-director Dan Wilson (Vagina Dentata), begins as a desperate hunt by two losers (Catz Forsman and Sam Shaw) for an elusive “it” sought by their clients (a frustrated couple played by Kevin Karrick and Stefanie Goldstein) and ends with an inquiry into the nature of good and bad that devolves into a Luigi Pirandello–like unraveling of the play itself. Although the play tends to substitute volume and verbosity for more penetrating writing at points, Wilson and his capable eight-person cast reach several high notes (not least actor Hal Savage’s Catholic sermon).
The ghost of Pirandello haunted the stage once more that evening. This time it was in the back room at Original Joe’s on Taylor, where RIPE Theater unveiled its latest, @six, an amusing set of interconnected scenes written by the company that eventually turns its purported premise — a series of coincidental encounters between two antagonistic couples (Sarah McKereghan and John Andrew Stillions; Mark Rachel and Deborah Wade) and a silent bystander (Noah Kelly) — inside out. Some uneven writing and thematic unraveling aside, great ensemble acting and consistently sharp humor held this one together.
Other promising fare in the SF Fringe Fest couldn’t be sampled in time for this column, including local legend-in-his-own-right Dan Carbone’s new show, Bay Area playwright Ian Walker’s Stone Trilogy, and the anticipated sequel The Thrilling Adventures of Elvis in Space II. For the whole enchilada, including audience reviews, visit the fest’s Web site. SFBG
Through Sun/17
Call or see Web site for showtimes, locations, and prices

The soul stirrers


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The set is modestly spare, a disheveled if not quite ramshackle affair, being the basement studio of an imaginary low-watt radio station run by a solitary disc jockey (Peter Newton) with a thing for Japanese culture, an anguished relation to the American scene, and an insomniac disposition. But just as the deepest truths can rise immaculately from the muffled vibrations of a scratchy old blues record, so does Bay Area playwright Gary Aylesworth’s new play See That My Grave Is Kept Clean slyly and unassumingly sound nothing less than the soul-stirring chords and discords of an embattled American imagination.
The play’s DJ-everyman, sitting at his desk and console in a kimono, his samurai sword on one side, his classic blues discs on the other, coos into the microphone to whomever might be listening to the evening’s program. Caught between suicidal despair and a desire for revitalization, he’s fending off the highly bankable depression of a Prozac nation with the ameliorative properties of Japanese rice balls. He’s also bent on finding a little truth amid the “tsunami of propaganda” that characterizes the society outside. To this latter end, he’s got the classic recordings from the Anthology of American Folk Music on heavy rotation, markers of another era of American depression — marvelous songs Newton and Aylesworth actually perform live (including the song borrowed for the play’s title) in lilting harmonies to their own musical accompaniment.
But our DJ sets some archival interviews spinning too, in counter-rotation to one another, as it were. The other characters (played by Aylesworth, acting out the interviews the DJ intersperses throughout the program) are two formidable contemporaries and spiritual adversaries of the mid-20th century: Edward Bernays and Harry Smith. The juxtaposing of these two figures, polar extremes yet both highly influential in the economic and cultural spheres, becomes the motive propelling Aylesworth’s deceptively casual, humorous, melodious, and intriguing new play.
Bernays, considered a father of the public relations industry (“public relations” being a phrase he coined to substitute for the tarnished term “propaganda”), was by the 1920s and for decades afterward the much sought-after guru of ballyhoo. He sold everything from cigarettes to presidents to a bloody US-backed coup in Central America on behalf of the United Fruit Company. Bernays was also (not incidentally) the nephew of Sigmund Freud, whose ideas he put to pioneering use in the realm of what he called “the engineering of consent.”
On the other side of the stage (and every other important extreme) is Harry Smith, the play’s prickly patron saint. A character too protean and idiosyncratic for a neat label, Smith was among other things an experimental filmmaker and the musicologist who compiled the legendary multivolume Anthology of American Folk Music, recordings largely made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Originally issued on the Folkways label in 1952, it was so influential in the folk music revival and beyond that Bob Dylan (our DJ reminds us) once boasted that he would not have existed but for Harry Smith. Along the way, the play broaches Smith’s other passions as a jazz enthusiast, painter, and even a record producer (he recorded the Fugs’ debut album in 1965, which leads to the story recounted in the play of how he came to be consulted on the best way to levitate the Pentagon as part of a famous 1967 antiwar action).
Aylesworth plays the nonagenarian Bernays with a high, rasping voice and a set of repetitive, almost cartoonlike gestures that (along with a tendency for the “taped” interview to slow down and speed up at odd, sometimes telling moments) poke fun at the self-congratulatory figure. Bernays is a man so far from shy about bragging of his connections and achievements that he unconsciously paints an entirely grim view of modern society with the cheeriest of dispositions. By contrast, Smith (played with equal facility and a slightly hyperbolic, wry affect) has a cantankerous air about him. While forthcoming enough, he casts back a knowingly cautious, skeptical, even sarcastic tone to his various interviewers.
Here are two spiritual fathers, you might say, of the 20th-century United States, whose diametrically opposed outlooks constitute and reflect something like a metaphysical rift in the culture at large. Blended with Aylesworth’s simple yet choice staging, the acute and droll performances, and the laid-back but excellent renditions of selections from the Anthology, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean approaches its themes with a charm all the more forceful for being quirky and understated.
And if our DJ channels the despair of the age, it’s clear that despair cuts two ways too. It leads either to the acquiescence and metaphysical poverty of Bernays-style fables of freedom and plenty or to the awakened, agitated thought, action, and social conscience of a Harry Smith, which seeks nothing in the end more than the obliteration of myth and the reanimation of the senses. With its rousing good humor and a shrewd theatrical assurance whose crystalline simplicity resonates with far-reaching themes, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean gives eloquent voice to the restless rebel wide awake beneath the glossy, manufactured surface of the American dream. SFBG
Through Sun/27
Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF
$15–$20 (Thurs., pay what you can)
(415) 831-1943

Keeping it hyperreal


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It’s our bright and hazy fortune to be living in an age in which each day presents some new means of communicating with one another. So why does life itself come to feel ever more atomized, more suffocating, more confusing and lonely? Can it really be true that no man is poor who has Friendster?
Remote, the latest multimedia performance piece from partners Sara Kraft and Ed Purver, explores this distance, this ambivalence inside our desire to connect with one another amid proliferating technologies of communication and control. With performers Ernie Lafky and Rowena Richie, Kraft and Purver use a keen assemblage of live video feed, video-based art (all of it mixed live by Purver), Internet hookups, exuberant performance, and music to present a dispersed series of “lab studies.” These run the gamut from everyday text messaging between a bicoastal couple (Kraft and Purver) to the deeply ominous if also comical attempts by the US government in the 1970s to harness paranormal psychic phenomena for use by its military and intelligence apparatus.
This latter dimension of Remote’s evocative archaeology takes the mediation of everyday life in its most overtly sinister direction. Based on extensive research, including use of declassified CIA documents and interviews with key participants, Remote pursues its themes through the belly of the beast — in real-life programs and experiments (reproduced in various cunning and wry ways here) that had bruised military careerists attempting to walk through walls, would-be “psi warriors” trying to implode goats with bursts of psychic energy, and intel gatherers vigorously massaging their temples in an effort to peep into far-flung corners of the globe without leaving the office. (These strategies have since been made unnecessary by new technologies of remote surveillance and destruction — a point underscored in Remote by ghostly infrared images associated with the military’s remote human targeting.)
Moreover, as in the path they cut with 2002’s Woods for the Trees, Kraft and Purver pursue Remote’s themes through the prism of their own relationship — which came eerily to resemble the project they had already begun when Purver relocated to New York. Presenting their lives through the very media sustaining their real relationship gives supple and transparent significance to the projected image of a couple literally interfacing with one another across the ether of the Internet.
Throughout Remote’s nonnarrative sequence of scenes, the social and psychological reification that treats human beings as physical objects (and even goats as “targets”) blends and contrasts with the primacy of human subjectivity, casting its own “projections” onto the physical world, whether in the name of emotional affinity or under the guise of scientific, clinical, or technological detachment. The theme gives rise to a number of inspired, gorgeous scenic compositions integrating Kraft and Purver’s video work, Frieda Kipar’s enveloping lighting design, Sheldon B. Smith’s haunting soundscapes, and Kraft’s melodic refrains (“The farther you are, the closer I feel to you. Stay away. Please stay away…”). The mise-en-scène shrewdly unites media and theme to make at once obvious and strange the Möbius strip carrying technological and mental projections of ourselves to the world and back again.
At the same time, there’s much laughter in Remote’s investigation of these fundamentally absurd situations. Even a little too much. (The recurring attempt by the psi warrior–in–training to explode the heart of the inert goat, for instance, comes perilously close to beating a dead horse.) But then, pinpointing the humor in the otherwise bleak and chilling territory of the postmodern is an integral and mostly successful part of Kraft and Purver’s revelatory mode. Remote lacks some of the consistency of their earlier work. Still, they have a proven knack for conveying the authentic human voice singing in those darkened woods and between those flickering screens. SFBG
Thurs/10–Sat/12, 8 p.m.
1310 Mission, SF
(415) 435-7552

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

Imagine there’s no heaven


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A constitutional amendment mandating a national day of prayer? If such a proposal remains fictitious (for the moment), it hardly stretches the imagination. For these are the times that try a civic teacher’s soul and, not incidentally, call forth from the venerable San Francisco Mime Troupe one of its best efforts in years.
The world premiere of SFMT’s teeth-baring musical comedy, GodFellas — this year’s free agitprop in the park — tells the story of Angela Franklin (Velina Brown), a mild-mannered public school civics teacher with a thing for Tom Paine, who becomes the leader of a mass movement to save secular democracy from God-wielding gangsters grown fat on the church-state-mingling scam that is the Bush junta’s faith-based initiative, now pushing a theocratic Prayer Day Amendment.
Fronted by a suave evangelist named the Reverend C.B. De Love (Michael Gene Sullivan), the “Syndicate” is in the process of soaking up federal dollars, trampling the separation clause, and shoring up its political power while expanding the totalitarian reach of its Beltway allies. Our first glimpse of this outfit comes in the opening scene’s staged concert, the Ministry of Rock. Christian headbangers preaching with power chords (and amusingly outfitted by costume designer and actor Keiko Shimosato) soon introduce the headline act. “For everything I got, I wanna thank J.C.,” croons De Love to a jaunty rock-blues beat. “But I’m not working for Jesus. Got Jesus workin’ for me.”
Of course, where the art of rhetorical persuasion and the channels of popular culture fail, the Syndicate is ready to call in its muscle — a burly nun with a Bronx accent and five o’clock shadow, Sister Jesus Mary Joseph (Victor Toman). It’s in this holy spirit that the Syndicate comes knocking down the door of Angela’s Center for Extended Studies, a place, she says, for teaching all subjects that have been cut from the curriculum. Angela founded the Center with her liberal-minded colleague Todd (Christian Cagigal), a good-natured if sexually repressed Catholic-school art teacher and her shy love interest (his wild side is suggested, in a typical instance, by the donning of his “adventure cardigan”). Together they’ve been keeping the flame of critical thinking alive, in addition to fanning a smoldering flirtation (you know, involving lewd inflections of lines from the Federalist Papers and the like).
As the Syndicate muscles in on their operation, they retreat to separate camps, Todd capituutf8g to the new bosses in order to continue teaching and Angela heading for the Golden Gate Bridge. There, an epiphany of a decidedly secular nature convinces her to fight back, winning her first recruits from among passersby. As Angela takes on the forces of theocracy, the seduction of politics and mass media threatens to make her secular movement as dogmatic as the Syndicate. All of which brings home the message that democratic societies function under a popular regime of critical thinking and die under regimes of blind faith.
If the play itself sounds a little like a civics lesson, it is. But it’s one that goes down like a sweet, melodious riot of sharp comedy and contagious song — a combination that is ultimately a highly effective framework for the play’s ample citations of Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, clarion lines that give the lie to the insatiable authoritarianism, religious and otherwise, that cloaks itself in the flag. Despite its essentially familiar formula, all elements of the production — from Bruce Barthol’s skillful and imaginative score to the great performances under the astute direction of SFMT veteran Ed Holmes, to the finely honed script by Sullivan and collaborators Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan, and Christian Cagigal (Tom Paine should probably get a writing credit too) — smoothly come together to make GodFellas an inspired and genuinely stirring piece of political theater, not to mention an invigorating dose of common sense. SFBG
Through Oct. 1 around the Bay Area
Sat/15, 2 p.m.
Peacock Meadow
JFK Drive between McLaren Lodge
and Conservatory, Golden Gate Park, SF
Sun/16, 2 p.m.
Lakeside Park
Lakeside Drive at Lake Merritt, Oakl.
(415) 285-1717



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China, the burgeoning frontier of unfettered capitalism these days, naturally gives rise to much scholarly and popular commentary as one market follows another. Much of this is predictably pervaded by a sense of inevitability, as if so-called globalization were nothing but the natural march of human reason toward a higher evolutionary plain, and not the hodgepodge of policies, rules, initiatives, laws, power grabs, scams, offices, organizations, strong-arm tactics, lies, capitulations, and conspiracies that it is.
Two news stories out of China — the explosion of a school where children also assembled firecrackers for a factory and the torching of an illegal Internet café by two teenagers — served as inspiration for We Are Not These Hands, a new play by Sheila Callaghan that questions just the sort of assumptions basic to the neoliberal program busily rending the world in the name of inexorable economic laws.
The play follows two desperately poor teenage girls, Moth (Juliet Tanner) and Belly (Cassie Beck), natives of a riverside city in an imaginary, rapidly developing country not unlike China, with their noses habitually pressed to the glass of an illegal Internet café. The “café” (handily realized by scenic designer Joel Frangquist) is a ramshackle affair of plywood walls and foldout tables with barely a functioning computer and not a drop of actual java. But to the girls it represents the great big beautiful world leaving them behind.
All the more alone since their school blew up (in an accident kindled by the makeshift firecracker factory in the lunchroom), their outsider status is underscored by their private language, childish pet terms and patterns of speech as imaginatively askew as their understanding of the world across the river (patrolled, we learn ominously, by men with machetes) or flashing across the working screens inside the Internet café.
Soon they spot a meal ticket and maybe more in a Western man they dub Leather (Paul Lancour) working at one of the terminals. When they don “the sex clothes” and approach him in a naive and humorously grotesque imitation of professional soliciting, the ensuing interaction is one of mutual incomprehension, but somehow a transaction of sorts takes place. The more amenable Moth returns with Leather to his room at the hostel, beginning what turns into an offbeat and lopsided but semiviable romance, with the promise of salvation attached. “He not a hinky scuzzer,” she assures her friend later on. “He from across the river.”
Leather, it turns out, is a “freelance scholar” writing a thesis on the region’s development, determined to ride the cresting market to private glory on a particularly pathetic raft of economic gobbledygook. His imitation of academic jargon is another instance of mangled language, although with Leather it never leads anywhere, trailing off in ellipses, doubting parenthetical notes, and brilliant points “to be determined at a later time.”
As Moth spends time with Leather at the hostel, Belly takes the coins she’s stolen from his room to the Internet café, later describing to Moth, in terms vaguely mystical and full of wonder, her temporary escape to a paradisiacal beach encountered somewhere in cyberspace. A plan is hatched to get back there, across the river, with Leather as the key.
The play never quite registers the intensity it seems at times to be going for, but Callaghan’s characters reflect a set of tensions, affinities, and contradictions as they negotiate love and survival that speak fluently of their mutual alienation from a half-illusory world of winners. Kent Nicholson’s direction is lively and sure, capturing well the play’s pent-up energies — a mostly satisfying if kooky mix of the satirical, madcap, and bizarre — while also paying due attention to its darker surfaces. Beck and Tanner somehow make natural the comic physicality and verbiage of their characters, successfully plumbing the humor and poignancy in Belly and Moth’s playful but vital dependence on one another. Lancour’s fine, focused performance as the frazzled, disturbed, lonely, and beset Leather, meanwhile, is a nicely original creation, broadly absurd yet also shaded by a deep ambivalence. SFBG
Through July 16. Thurs.–>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby, Berk.

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

It’s a small world after all


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Are you a good dwarf or a bad dwarf? In the storied production history of The Wizard of Oz, there were notoriously (and no doubt, apocryphally) so few of the former that Glinda-like attempts at taxonomy seem pointless. They were all bad, or at least naughty, as dwarves have historically seemed in the popular imagination. Celebrated novelist Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) and screenwriter Dean Cavanagh’s ribald new stage comedy, however, about four “Munchkins” housed together during the filming of Oz, brings such stereotypes of good and evil center stage, where size may not count at all.
Babylon Heights, receiving a rocky world premiere at San Francisco’s Exit Theatre, builds on the towering Hollywood tale that has the 100-plus dwarves cast as Munchkins running amok in their Culver City hotel, converting it into a den of drunken rioting and sex orgies. But if the premise climbs to the heady stratosphere of urban legend, its story keeps us resolutely low to the ground. First of all, its average-size actors play on an oversize set (a dingy hotel room designed to surreal effect by Tony Kelly and Colby Thompson), giving us a waist-high perspective on the big-people world throughout. Moreover, the germ of its story line has to do with an even more sordid detail in that lasting legend: the rumored suicide of an MGM Munchkin on the set of the film (supposedly just visible in the background, swinging from an artificial tree, in the scene where Dorothy and company set off down the Yellow Brick Road).
With that tasty morbid morsel as an appetizer, Babylon introduces four misfits thrown together by circumstance, each drawn for subtly different reasons to Tinseltown’s mirage utopia, not unlike Dorothy to Oz. There’s Bert Kowalski (Russ Davison), an archetypal ’30s Brooklynite in all but stature, and a bilious, foulmouthed, raunchy little opium addict to boot. There’s Raymond Benedict-Porter (Dennis McIntyre), the self-styled master thespian and an unctuously pretentious name-dropper (who Bert mercilessly teases, recognizing the poseur from the circus circuit). There’s the equally disingenuous Philomena Kinsella (Brittany Kilcoyne McGregor), an Irish working-class girl who’s left the drudgery of a nunnery for the adventure of Hollywood and who artfully feigns fearful innocence in the face of a roomful of men. And finally there’s the true innocent, Charles Merryweather (Chris Yule), the play’s own Dorothy. Cast as a Munchkin infant, the sheltered Englishman (once in the king’s employ at Kew Gardens until driven off by big bullies) is the literal babe of the story, and its sacrificial lamb.
It sounds like a good arrangement for a saucy Rabelaisian send-up of the existing order of things. After all, the dark corners of Oz will never cease to fascinate. And as a depression-era tale, tall or otherwise, the desperation, tribulations, affinities, and infighting among a far-flung group of irregularly employed actors take on some added significance from the vantage of the “little people.” But Babylon never does much with the themes it broaches. In fact, its sardonic comedy never really takes off, although much of the blame could be laid at the feet of a lackluster production that, on opening night at least, could only stumble down the runway.
Contrary to the cavalier myth, the actors who played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz were more like overworked and underpaid studio fodder, and Babylon’s gritty focus plays on that harsh reality. But here at least the focus blurs, and the surprisingly halfhearted dialogue repeatedly goes slack. Welsh and Cavanagh probably wrote something slightly different, and no doubt director Jesse Reese intended something a bit tighter, but it’s hard to tell going by opening night’s performance (and absent the published version of the play, which is not yet available). Merryweather’s lines are decidedly dull, confining Yule, for the most part, to one or two wide-eyed reactions. McIntyre and Davison, meanwhile, though both capable actors, seemed to be fishing for their lines so often that it began to resemble an evening of unflattering improvisation. The only suitably sharp performance came from McGregor, who immediately infuses the proceedings with much needed energy, while helping to pick up the pace in two acts that drag out to nearly three hours.
Leaving aside opening night missteps, for all its ribaldry, Babylon Heights ends up giving conventional morality much less of a comeuppance than you might expect, or would find, for example, in a wittier Joe Orton farce. SFBG
Through July 1, Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.
Exit Theatre
156 Eddy, SF
(415) 249-9332

Passion plays



Campo Santo is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, a significant milestone for any small theater company. But this one really does have something to celebrate. The past decade has been an intense, vibrant, unconventionally structured experiment in multicultural communal theater that’s not your typical "community theater," but an ambitious undertaking that takes seriously both its own immediate community and the various communities making up society at large. Along the way, it’s consistently produced by far some of the most exciting and risk-taking productions around. And with more than 30 world premieres to its credit as the resident company at Intersection for the Arts (San Francisco’s premier multidisciplinary alternative arts organization), it’s fair to say Campo Santo’s output has been nothing short of awesome.

But Campo Santo + Intersection is more than the sum of its production history, as anyone who goes to a performance knows. Not just situated in the Mission District but very much a part of it it’s a place, a space, an environment, a neighborhood, and to many, precisely the hallowed ground the company’s name implies. With a loose and flexible network of individuals and groups capable of supporting and elaborating on each other’s artistic and social work as well as an atypically astute and diverse audience Campo Santo and Intersection’s personnel, setting, and semipublic work process all contribute to making it a conspicuously unique site on the theatrical landscape.

There’s probably no more ready proof of that, or the success of its formula, than the willingness of so many nationally prominent playwrights to repeatedly collaborate with Campo Santo on new work a list that includes Naomi Iizuka, John Steppling, Greg Sarris, Jessica Hagedorn, Erin Cressida Wilson, Philip Kan Gotanda, and Octavio Sol??s. It’s even famously coaxed the first stage works out of well-established writers and poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca, Dave Eggers, and Denis Johnson.

The series of events marking Campo Santo’s 10th anniversary from workshops, open discussions, and staged rereadings of past productions with the playwrights to a major blowout planned for June 3 comes as a rare opportunity for company and audience to reflect on a decade of feverish, often brilliant work that has always looked restlessly ahead, as if to the next fix.

The retrospective has been something of a revelation to the company’s members and associates, judging by the rapt discussion that followed a rehearsal last week for the Denis Johnson program.

Words like simple, basic, naked these recur repeatedly in any discussion of the theater with company member and Intersection program director Sean San Jose, who founded Campo Santo in 1996 with fellow actors Margo Hall, Luis Saguar, and Michael Torres. The occasion was a production of Octavio Sol??s’s Santos y Santos, a major dramatic success when Thick Description premiered it at Theater Artaud in 1993. San Jose, with Saguar and Torres (who had both been in the original production), staged a new version. Sol??s, who has since worked repeatedly with the company most recently on 2005’s world premiere of The Ballad of Pancho and Lucy, a modern folkloric joyride set in the bars of the Mission District remembers that first production as a portent of things to come.

"I found the production totally different but equally exciting to the one Tony Kelly had directed at Theater Artaud," he told me. "It was such a pressure cooker situation I didn’t think it would ever work in a small space like New Langton Arts. But it was stirring. I knew this company had a future. I saw it as very hungry and focused intense, brooding, and always on. Never a second wasted."

The decision to stage Santos at New Langton came out of another experience with bare bones performance. "These guys read the play in a youth correctional facility," explains Deborah Cullinan, who at the time had just been hired as Intersection’s new executive director financial straits having temporarily shuttered the arts organization and was tasked with reviving it. (The rise of Campo Santo and the resurgence of Intersection are intimately tied together, as it turns out.) "They were just reading it for these youth and the water pipe broke in the auditorium, so they got stuck in one of the living quarters, this tiny space. But Luis, Sean, and Michael will all tell you that’s when they understood that the words could drive something forward, because the boys were riveted."

The full production impressed Cullinan, and after their next one an equally successful staging of a very different play, Erin Cressida Wilson’s Hurricane she was convinced this was the sort of broad-ranging company Intersection wanted on board. In turn, Intersection gave Campo Santo crucial support, not least the Valencia Street space, to continue doing the kind of theater it had been groping toward.

The key to the company, Sol??s explains, is that "each actor is a dramaturge. They know what the play needs. They start to intuit it. It’s just part of their aesthetic now."

"It’s very much a playwright’s theater," notes Philip Kan Gotanda, whose A Fist of Roses was a thorough surprise last year, an exploration of male domestic violence whose highly original and unusually collaborative nature did as much credit to the veteran playwright as to the small company. "You just don’t find it that often especially if you’re interested, as I’m interested, in writing pieces that are a little off the beaten path, both in form and content."

"They’re a writer’s theater in that they do exclusively new work, and find the playwrights that appeal to them," Sol??s agrees. At the same time, however, he believes Campo Santo is a strong actor’s theater. "There’s a reason why they’re drawn to Erin Cressida Wilson or Naomi Iizuka. There’s a real reason why they’re drawn to Denis [Johnson]. And Denis now, as I do and I’m sure the other writers are doing we’re writing to suit the company. They have a great core of talent. They really know how to stretch and take chances. They do very dangerous acting."

Remarkably, 10 years along, Campo Santo continues to convey that sense of immediacy, a sense of raw intensity, risk, and daring, while always matching it with exceptional skill and a youthful, street-smart confidence.

Sol??s puts the formula succinctly: "They like passion. They like works about passion. And passion also in that religious sense." SFBG

Campo Santo 10th anniversary

Gala, Sat/3, 7 p.m.

Brava Theater Center, 2781 24th St, SF. $25

Real Women, Rock ’n’ Roll, and Karaoke:

The Work of Campo Santo and Jessica Hagedorn, June 9, 7:30 p.m.

Finale: Finding the Future, June 10, 7:30 p.m.

Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia, SF. $9–$20

(415) 626-3311

Bitter wounds


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Youthful innocence and stupidity can generally be relied on in making soldiers and war; those lacking such qualities may have to be beaten and intimidated into service. The process inspires some vivid imagery in French playwright Fabrice Melquiot’s The Devil on All Sides (Le Diable en Partage), a poetical mix of fantasy and harsh reality set amid the 199295 Bosnian war. Here the consummate soldier is, in one instance, literally the deconstructed man: reduced piece by piece, beginning with his eyes. But then, as the play unfolds, staying together as individuals, lovers, families, or neighbors becomes the supreme psychic and physical challenge in a state of war.

The central characters, Lorko (Rod Hipskind) and Elma (Nora el Samahy), are lovers separated by the conflict. Lorko a Serbian Christian who courts and marries Elma, a Bosnian Muslim, before the war finds himself viciously pressed into the militia when battle erupts. Despite his initial acquiescence in rabid nationalism and ethnic hatred, he soon abandons the front lines. Moving westward across Europe, he remains haunted by Elma and the family he’s left behind, who show up in his waking dreams. "No one is sleeping in this world," he notes echoing the poet for whom he was named (indeed, the play as a whole draws significantly on the imagery in Federico Garc??a Lorca’s "City That Does Not Sleep").

Meanwhile, Elma remains with her disintegrating in-laws in their disintegrating home, in a disintegrating country, her presence strongly associated with the garden she tends and the singing she loves. Being both family and Muslim, she acts as both buffer from and incitement to the rage and madness unleashed by the war around the dinner table: Lorko’s mother (Deb??rah Eliezer) knitting feverishly to plug the holes in the walls, sweet younger brother Jovan (Brian Livingston) succumbing to sadism, friend Alexander (Ryan O’Donnell) another enthusiastic soldier gradually whittled away, Lorko’s gentle, mentally unraveling father (Michael Sommers) occupied with writing down all the details of life "as it was."

The US premiere of Devil, a recent popular and critical sensation in France, is an impressive achievement for foolsFURY (in association with Alliance Française), beginning with artistic director Ben Yalom’s lively, eloquent translation and imaginative staging (the latter marred only by some action set too low at the front of the stage). The cast, led by strong performances from el Samahy and Hipskind, gracefully embodies the shifting tones in Melquiot’s darkly humorous, grim, fanciful, and melancholic poetry. Its tangled field of beauty and horror meanwhile is admirably reflected in scenic designer Dan Stratton’s battlefield home, Christopher Studley’s moon-bathed, spectral lighting, and the contrasts between sounds and silences in Patrick Kaliski’s excellent aural landscape of music and mayhem (original score by Dan Cantrell). Here, Lorko’s crumbling family home sits amid a concrete and steel graveyard where still a rebel flower may bloom.


"Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath," Oscar Levant once famously quipped. He certainly had the personality and career to understand the truth in that line, or the real tinsel underneath it. But as John Fisher’s new play shows, Hollywood in the 1940s did have a surface to scratch witness the otherwise unlikely encounter between Levant and Arnold Schönberg, the latter a part of Los Angeles’s community of German Jewish émigré artists and intellectuals on the run from Hitler.

Fisher, who skillfully plays the title role as well as directs, sets this real-life encounter between the formidable modernist composer and the Broadway-Hollywood composer-actor-pianist and mordant wit (played with coolly neurotic panache by Matthew Martin) against a present-day story of rattled sexual identities. As the play gets under way, a frustrated history professor named John (Matt Weimer), in a state of midlife crisis, breaks off his long-term relationship with his lover, Chris (Michael Vega), to start an affair with his best friend, Ash (Stefanie Goldstein), breaking up her long-term relationship to Jane (Maryssa Wanlass) in the process.

The resulting "emancipation of dissonance" brings forward a number of themes, as these overlapping attempts at reordering spark, chafe, and fly apart again in a state of ghostly proximity to one another. The scenes between the hip but nervous, pill-popping Oscar (a dedicated hypochondriac and phobic) and the imposing but dryly humorous Schönberg are especially riveting, serving, among many other things, to measure the tension between the incessant commodification of culture and some notion of pure art. The John and Ash affair, while well acted, seems less developed. Even given a certain fuzziness, however, it’s a completely worthwhile evening, suggesting that the fault lines running beneath Los Angeles are many and varied. As Levant once wrote, in a line that could speak for his culture, "I am, as I’ve told everyone, deeply superficial." SFBG


Through May 27

Thurs.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.

Traveling Jewish Theatre

470 Florida, SF

$12–<\d>$30 (Thurs., pay what you can)

(866) 468-3879


Through May 20

Wed.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.

Theatre Rhinoceros

2926 16th St., SF


(415) 861-5079

Double digits


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Bernard is a chip off the old block. "You’re just what I wanted," his father, Salter, assures him. Made to order, in fact. Now a grown man, Bernard (Josh Charles) confronts his father (Bill Smitrovich) with an unsettling discovery: He’s the clone of a previously undisclosed original, a replacement for the beautiful child Salter once had but, apparently, lost. At first it’s hard to say how Salter’s story keeps changing. But if each detail Bernard pulls from his reluctant, taciturn father is like another child ripped from the test tube, Salter acknowledges the essential truth of the matter, only insisting that he too was deceived, since he had ordered just a single replacement. The men in the lab coats have been pursuing an agenda of their own. According to the one who spoke to Bernard, there are in fact "a number" of clones like him out there, somewhere. A profoundly disturbed Bernard wonders if they share the same dreams. His father, trying to marshal their defenses, wonders if they can sue. How much is each slice of a person’s uniqueness worth anyway?

So begins renowned British playwright Caryl Churchill’s A Number, her shrewd, tightly drawn 2004 drama now making its West Coast debut at American Conservatory Theater (ACT). In the course of its lean hour-long single act, it takes several turns, as Salter and son confront one another as if for the first time, in halting, half-finished lines and overlapping thoughts. More dramatically still, each begins separately to confront his self-image anew. Indeed, even as two more sons arrive (each played by Charles), the theme of cloning that opens the play so forcefully begins subtly to dissolve in more general lines of inquiry, ultimately more unsettling than the narrow science fiction spinning out an indefinite series of genetic Xeroxes who may or may not share the same penchants and innermost thoughts. One of these lines of investigation has to do with patriarchal authority, you might say, or the tyranny of parental power and the prerogatives and rights of children. The fraught relationship between Salter and his son(s) touches on ground whose ethical and even philosophical contours are rocky at best, as we come to glimpse the darker recesses of Salter’s past and his straightforward desire to start over, to set things right, to bring his life (including, inevitably, his offspring) under control.

Another even more basic theme set in motion here, however, has to do with what makes us happy: how self-knowledge relates to self-image, to our definition of life, and to our definition of the human. It’s as if the traditional fear and fascination associated with the doppelgänger meet their modern equivalent in the laboratory clone, both of them cultural figments with the power to open up the presumably solid ground that underlies notions of our uniqueness as individuals and as a species. But whereas the premodern doppelgänger could suggest a spirit world beyond the material, in a demystified world the clone reduces everything all the more insistently to the material genetic material, to be exact: an interchangeable array of molecular puzzle pieces without spirits or ostensible meaning. The modern bureaucratic nightmare of being reduced to merely "a number" finally roosts in each chromosome. If this is understandably disturbing, however, it’s far from the end of the story. For, as the third son, Michael, suggests, why shouldn’t the revelation Bernard confronts with all its implications about our relation to other living things be a source of comfort or delight?

Churchill’s subtle, interesting, and creepy play has its full complexity partly trammeled, unfortunately, by ACT’s mostly bland production. While things get better over the course of the hour, the opening moments set what feels like the wrong tone. Director Anna D. Shapiro, of Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre, takes things at a brisk pace, with her otherwise highly capable actors playing the dialogue too much as if it were David Mamet’s stylized vernacular (which here tends to encourage playing the lines for laughs) instead of a clinical grafting of language more in tune with the play’s fraught tensions, tugging at one another as if in the throes of meiosis. SFBG


Through May 28

Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun., 2 p.m. (except Sun/14)

Geary Theater

415 Geary, SF


(415) 749-2228

Devil times four


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Campo Santo’s Haze slips comfortably into the 10th anniversary season of a company that’s built its rep (repertoire and reputation) on close collaborations with leading American fiction writers. This lean, shrewd, and forceful staging of stories by Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Denis Johnson, and Vendela Vida turns a literary buffet into a raw and atmospheric performance piece. Call it tragicomic episodes loitering at the brink on the vaporous edges of an otherwise solid sense of self or just a rambling confession addressed, "Dear Satan …"

In Vida’s What Happens When These Things Happen (the first chapter of her novel And Now You Can Go), the narrator (Catherine Castellanos) recounts the day her 21-year-old self was accosted by a man with a gun in New York’s Riverside Park. Eggers’s piece, Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance, takes a hilarious road trip to Bakersfield with the slightly unhinged Fish (Danny Wolohan), who is obligated to visit his pathetic cousin (Donald E. Lacy Jr.), a veritable suicide manqué, hospitalized after yet another bungled attempt on his own life. Then Lacy gets into the driver’s seat for Diaz’s high-spirited tale, The Sun, The Moon, The Stars, playing a guilty two-timer intent on salvaging his deteriorating relationship with the perfect girl, Magdalena (Luera), by taking her on a vacation to the Dominican Republic, his (and the author’s) home country, where he may have to settle for an uncomfortable moment of enlightenment in some sacred cave.

The carefully arranged stories flow smoothly into one another. Words are passed like batons between storyteller-protagonists, while a few mysterious lines from that letter to Lucifer wend their way through the evening in lonely and darkly comical reverie before finally roosting in the Starlight Recovery Center, temporary home to manic letter-writer Mark Cassandra (Wolohan) in Johnson’s Starlight on Idaho. Despite another devilishly sharp and boisterous performance by Wolohan, this thematic pulse actually loses some strength by the end, ironically, in Johnson’s funny and beautifully written but more episodic narrative, along with some of the focus and cohesion of the play as a whole.

Still, Haze‘s blend of text and mise-en-scène succeeds throughout in fresh and winning ways (perhaps nowhere as effectively as in Vida’s opening story). Director Sean San José, who concentrates more on tone than on the baroque inventiveness of a Word for Wordstyle approach to the verbatim staging of literature, garners bold and enjoyable performances from his four actors and skillfully manages the spaces, onstage and between the words, left open for the play of imagination. To this end, Joshua McDermott’s spare stage comes partially illuminated by shifting centers of light pitched onto the floor out of large four-sided shades overhead. When not actively participating in a scene, members of the ensemble often slump in half-shadow against the exposed brick at either side. Meanwhile, Victor Cartagena’s video installation loops a few select images on a screen at the back or projects them onto the walls left and right, and David Molina’s delicate soundscape adds still another moody dimension in which to roam.

Small Tragedy: Now and then

Tragedy seemed like such a simple, straightforward thing to the ancient Greeks. Why is it so hard for us to grasp? All that emphasis on hubris, pity, and terror, nobody seems to know exactly what they’re really talking about. So why bother? Aurora Theatre inaugurates its new Global Age Project an initiative centered on work exploring life in the 21st century and beyond with the West Coast premiere of Small Tragedy, by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul), a play that slyly approaches the horrors of the war-torn modern age through the seemingly incongruous fumblings of a comically amateur production of Oedipus Rex.

It’s a great beginning to a lively backstage comedy that steadily becomes an engrossing reflection on tragedy in a time of ethnic cleansing. But one gets the sense, somewhere after the second act’s startling turn of events, that the playwright may have been less certain how to end his work. Moreover, the second act raises the dramatic ante considerably, but its refocusing on two of the six characters also leaves it a bit thinner by comparison. If not a perfect play, however, Small Tragedy especially as fueled by director Kent Nicholson’s fine and thoroughly enjoyable cast is a sharp and intriguing one. SFBG


Through Sat/29

Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m.

Intersection for the Arts

446 Valencia, SF


(415) 626-3311


Through May 14

Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berk


(510) 843-4822