Ubuntu's 'Down Here Below' Perfects The Trick Of Watching The Homeless Vanish

The Ubuntu Theater Project is the most politically engaged theater company in the Bay Area, but if you like your theater to come with answers then Ubuntu will thwart you at every turn. Their latest, the world premiere of Lisa Ramirez’s Down Here Below is a rousing reworking of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths from which it takes both spiritual and aesthetic inspiration. Painting a despairing picture of the clearing of one Oakland homeless encampment (a close approximation of Snow Park at Lakeside and Harrison), Ramirez’s play—with a cast of twenty and running just 65-minutes—is both epic and swift.

Rather than telling us what to do, or how to feel, or mapping out some Quixotic plan for the future, Ramirez gives us people and lots of them. You walk into Ubuntu’s new theater (a nice slice of unused warehouse space in FLAX art and design) and suddenly you’re in a crowd, as if every homeless person in Oakland just kind of emerged out of nowhere.

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Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt have a long-standing relationship with Chekov’s The Three Sisters. Their devised Yes Yes To Moscow (which Jackson directed and Wilmurt starred in) was an eighty-minute comic romp, an inversion of the play’s signature wish — “We must go back to Moscow!” — that somehow worked itself around to a striking wistfulness that was, well, Chekhovian. And Wilmurt’s cabaret show, Olga, imagines the most sisterly of the three sisters as a game chanteuse, entertaining soldiers and yes, wishing to leave her provincial home and conquer the big stage that is Moscow and the world. It’s ending is also striking and wistful, so again Chekhovian.

One might say that KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF! kicking off the Shotgun Players’ 28th season is the third of the Jackson-Wilmurt Sisters, the last of the trilogy, or maybe the third of the quartet, or merely the unruly middle child of the quintet, who knows? Maybe we just need to slip them a copy of Uncle Vanya or The Cherry Orchard. Whatever its final position, DD TRIPLE KILL is both less contained and successful than its predecessors, but also — and this is what you should care about — more aesthetically and philosophically urgent. We’ll also add alert to the future. That too is Chekhovian, the other, less recognized one, but the one you get here and the one you should want.

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Cutting Ball's 'La Ronde' Is A Production For The Apologists

Schnitzler isn’t a great playwright, but he’s sharp, fascinating, and worth our time. In league with Chekhov and Freud, he’s another turn-of-the-century doctor (the 19th to 20th variety) who saw a corrupt world and gave it back to us with poison and a smile. He was a sophisticate who knew all the secrets and got a kick out of most of them, especially the bad ones. Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is an updating of Schnitzler’s novella Dream Story and the movie’s best moments catch the frosty morality at play in his work.

And despite Cutting Ball’s many content warnings, there is a distant morality present in La Ronde, though not one that would ever announce itself as such. The play is a series of sexual liaisons: A hooks up with B; B hooks up with C; C hooks up with D and so on until, say about, ten letters in when we return to A all over again, each coupling a failure if you believe in happily ever after or even a week or two of fun. Everything is distant, including Schnitzler’s judgments, and his accusations of social and personal hypocrisy come in whispers and jokes. You have to sidle up to him and you never know if you’re going to get a gentle hand on the shoulder or a punch to the face. And that’s all part of the fun.

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Keith Hennessy Interview: Part 2

This is the second half of my conversation with dancer, choreographer, provocateur Keith Hennessy at the Atlas Cafe on the last day of February, 2019. As we continued to talk, we touched on the notion of happiness, what it means for an artist to be a brand, and again the workshops coming up at SF MOMA, de(composition). Perhaps, most importantly, we started to wrestle with some ideas of what it means to be a political artist and create political work. Hennessy’s answers are clear, complex, tricky, and maybe, as a practical matter impossible to do unless you’re Keith Hennessy—maybe. CLICK TO LISTEN.

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Keith Hennessy Interview: Part 1

On the last day of February I had a conversation at the Altas Cafe with dancer, choreographer, teacher, and provocateur Keith Hennessy about his upcoming workshops at SF MOMA, de(composition). The workshops will take place on March 5th, 12th, 19th, and 26th. They’re presently filled, but there’s a waiting list and some spots should open up. We talked about what it means for Hennessy to run these workshops at SF MOMA and many other issues, including Hennessy’s recent pieces (future friend/ships and Sink), his 2012 epic at YBCA, Turbulence, and the arts culture in the Bay Area. This is part one of a two-part interview. CLICK TO LISTEN.

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The Berkeley Rep's 'Metamorphoses' Turns Ovid Into A Church Mouse

In her Metamorphoses, Mary Zimmerman trashes Ovid with the same tenacity that Shakespeare in Love does to Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, turning the ghost of real art into a pretty looking meal for haute bourgeois hicks. But what else would we expect of the Berkeley Rep, a theater that’s been aiming down for at least seven years and possibly a decade. Paying for these tickets is to feel the waste of contemporary capitalism, where everything is pre-packaged, even wild desire.

What you get here is the façade of art, pretty and beguiling on the outside, but as an experience utterly disposable. As it unfolds before you, know that every last moment of it is designed to shock and awe you into not caring, to sitting back in your chair and embracing the willful madness of experiencing nothing. That’s really not something we should be clapping for.

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Aurora's 'The Creditors' Is A Perverse Play Trapped In A Professional Productiom

The Aurora Theater in Berkeley is the King of dressing up junk in well-acted, well-designed productions. If steady competence alone were a virtue, the Aurora would ascend to the heavens to lounge with Shakespeare and Aristophanes. And yet somehow here they are producing The Creditors, August Strindberg’s nut fest of betrayal and revenge, tempting the Gods with the real thing.

And let’s just say the real thing destabilized the Aurora’s well-oiled machine and was a welcome surprise to the opening night crowd. As you might guess, it’s more fun to see a great play in an imperfect production, than a bad play in which the acting, direction, and design are without fault.

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Ubuntu's 'Mother Courage' Dares, Soars, And Falters All At Once

One of Ubuntu theater’s great successes is how they treat social justice as a theatrical project, a real art. Each play is a provisional response to a never-ending problem. There is not one truth, but many. There is not one situation or conflict, but multiple fronts. There is no solution, only the fight that continues from production to production.

And that brings us to their latest battle, three hours and twenty-minutes of Bertolt Brecht’s anti-war, epic, Mother Courage And Her Children. Under Emilie Whelan’s vigorous, though up-and-down, direction, the company makes a radical case for Brecht, testing the limits of his vision, what ambitious theater can do, and what Ubuntu can accomplish. Not everything is successful, but it is fascinating and bracing and unusual.

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ACT's 'Seascape' Dabbles In The Cosmic

With ACT’s new production of Edward Albee’s Seascape we have a fairly obscure work by a major playwright, despite the fact that it won the Pulitzer in 1974. The play’s mood is gentle and comic with few hints of the acid-in-the-face histrionics of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance, and his late-career, screech-fest, The Goat. And so we should ask, or at least wonder, what’s in this for new Artistic Director Pam McKinnon in her first directorial outing for her first year on the job.

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Campo Santo's 'Candlestick' and SF Playhouse's 'King of the Yees' Dream Of Missing San Francisco Fathers

There’s a touch of King Lear in all fathers. They begin in our lives as resplendent Gods and end their lives, at least before us, diminished, humbled, confused, and defiantly human. They are well suited to the needs of drama and two new plays, Campo Santo’s production of Bennett Fischer’s Candlestick at the Costume Shop and Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees at the SF Playhouse give us not just fallible fathers, but San Francisco ones as well.

And it is their daughters, not without their own troubles, who must contend with the humanity of these men and the ways their souls have seeped into their memories of a radically changing city. Look away and both the fathers and the San Francisco that they knew might vanish.

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