weekly theater guide
The Shotgun Players’ KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF is imperfect but alive and wonderfully urgent. Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of Lisa Ramirez’s Down Here Below is epic and swift and also wonderfully urgent. You should see both.
For the week beginning April 8, 2019
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 re-imagining of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths from which it takes both spiritual and aesthetic inspiration. An unsentimental and sharp depiction of the closing of an Oakland homeless encampment (imagine Snow Park at Lakeside and Harrison), Ramirez’s play — with a cast of twenty and running just 65-minutes — is both epic and swift.
Like her earlier To The Bone, which Ubuntu produced in 2017, Ramirez shows a great talent for taking the carcass of the socially engaged play and reanimating it with real artistic feeling and ideas. In an age where the rhetoric of our artists have become as threadbare as our politicians, it’s a relief to experience a political play that believes in the demands of art and the strange contours of actual experience.
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. So leave your home and go — to the theater.
Arthur 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.
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.
The problem with Cutting Ball’s production is that it’s a circus act. Ella Ruth Francis and Jeunée Simon are energetic and precise comediennes, but they’re playing clowns not the characters Schnitzler sketched with great and loving precision. We could be watching any play and that’s a problem. The production’s bruising style reduces every role to the same role, every line reading to a false and naïve jokiness that misses, buries, and destroys Schnitzler’s sharp, focused, take on individual human beings.
I guess as experiences go watching actors play in water is far from the worst thing that could happen in a theater, though after watching Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses for the second time in twenty years it’s also far from the best. But since water is endlessly enticing and you’re going anyway, let me at least pose a question or two for you to ponder as you drift off to sleep.
If you just read the script of Metamorphoses, would you have said to yourself—“Water, everything must be played in water”—? I think you would have probably thought that it was appropriate for the second of the six or so tales here, but that none of the others is especially watery. It is true that tumbling over in grief is more dramatic in a pool than on the hard ground, or having a temper tantrum and splashing the first three rows of the audience is marginally funnier than doing it on a dry stage, but as a go-to move it takes on a wearying, limited appeal. Just ask the birds: when everyone flies, it’s not that big a thrill.
And since we’re on the subject of the script, it feels like it was written by the youth minister of a progressive church in Marin—full of easy, ironic lessons; scores of opportunities for the type of peppy acting natural to privileged teens; and best of all, constant narration, so that no one in the congregation gets lost: “Wake up, Grandma, Dionysus is passing out the wine.”
I don’t think you’re seeing art; I think you’re looking at water. And there’s a big difference.
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.
Barbara Dameshak’s direction rarely courts the mania of Strindberg’s fever dreams, though she does manage one brief flourish that is expert and true. Towards the end, Gustav runs from Adolph’s room to hide from Tekla and spy on her. He’s told the hapless Adolph that he wants to help him by observing them alone. As soon as he’s shut the door behind him, the lights change, and what we thought was a solid wall turns out to be a translucent scrim.
The audience gasped in delight at the chance to see the duplicitous Gustav in action. That one moment is terrific and I won’t soon forget it, but the rest of the production is too much of not enough. It’s a nice staged reading with costumes and lights, which in the case of Strindberg’s The Creditors is worth your time but not his. He’s asking for an engagement with the world and that’s a type of theater the Aurora rarely aspires to.
We should start by saying that Chelsea Marcantel’s A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism has more than a few things going for it—compassion for human failure, a keen sense of how teenagers view time, and a lead role that allows for a superb, complex performance by Isabel Langen. When it stays within the confines of late adolescent portraiture, it soars in ways the old ABC After School specials sometimes caught the dangerous passageways between child and adult.
And of course we should add the grand belief of our age—that the Internet compounds the mistakes of adolescence a thousand times over. It’s an open question, but no less heartbreaking when young fools fall prey to online voices and slip into, say, terrorism. Especially when that young woman, cunningly named Blaze, is stuck in an economic wasteland while possessing a mind filled with fire and hope.
Now we should end by saying that A White Girl’s Guide suffers from the desire to say something significant, directly and forcefully, about the world. Without disputing the play’s critique of how the FBI prosecutes cases of domestic terrorism, we can safely say that Marcantel’s depiction is rather unconvincing. As the play becomes more and more about Blaze’s case rather than her flirtations with and embrace of terrorism, the drama turns flat and overwrought.
You sense more than a few of the tensions of contemporary American playwriting in White Girl’s Guide. Marcantel has the skill and focus to burrow into the psyche of a restless young woman, but she hasn’t the vision or scope to lift that depiction past a detailed character sketch. Sensing that her work needs more, she parrots true criticisms of law enforcement in ham-handed ways. Like terrorism, it’s a false path to significance.
There’s more to art than declaring your allegiance to the right side and Marcantel, after finding a worthy subject of our attention, misses a vaster, more terrifying world than a FBI sting and all the injustices that surround it.
‘A White Girl’s Guide To Terrorism’ runs through March 3 at the Creativity Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.
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.
‘Mother Courage And Her Children’ runs through March 3 at Lisser Hall on the Mills College Campus in Oakland. For tickets and information click here. For the Full Review click here.
Edward Albee’s Seascape begins as a minor but searching marriage play to become—in all its high concept glory—a play about an older, married couple’s encounter with a pair of human-sized talking lizards, also married, and in the midst of some crucial life decisions. Is this a good idea? That’s probably not the right question, but it is one that might lead us to another, perhaps more apt one: can Albee make this work?
Well, it all depends on your definition of make this work. But, if you crave in your theater anything approaching sense, art, emotion, intelligence, comedy, tragedy, or a few good jokes, well then, Albee’s lizards end it right there. And it’s not because it’s a bad idea, though it is, but because he doesn’t care. The most hackneyed science fiction writer would have understood scores of implications that Albee doesn’t bother with or only haphazardly addresses.
The most moving aspect of Seascape is that Albee would recover to write The Goat.
‘Seascape’ runs through February 17 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here. For Full Review click here.
Lauren Yee’s King of the Yees is part of a genre of mainstream plays that use the once radical techniques of experimental theater for mindless, mindful, mind-bending entertainment. Take your pick. What’s clear though is that you are not going to be challenged or confused or angered. Yee means to please.
In many ways that’s the problem with the play—its narrow, trite use of the experimental for nothing more than sketch comedy and dime store lessons in life. To be fair, it has some charms, but they wear off as the evening progresses. With all that meta-theatrical armor, King of the Yees has the pretensions of a much more serious work. And I would say—in a half-hearted damning critique kind of way—that it uses those pretensions to deflect our attention from how thinly constructed and thought out it is.
‘King of the Yees’ runs through March 2 at the SF Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.
For the Full Review click here.
In considering the case of the Berkeley Rep’s new musical Paradise Square under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, with a book by Marcus Gardley, choreography by Bill T. Jones, and music by Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan (also the lyricist), we might rightfully ask whose show this is. After all, Craig Lucas is also listed as writing the book along with Gardley and Kirwin, though Lucas seems absent from most of the show’s promotional material. And strangely enough there’s a “conceived by” credit for Kirwan. I wonder if this is an entirely new artistic field—”Mom, Dad, I’m majoring in artistic conception!”
Paradise Square is the unwitting product of the crisis of authorship in American theater. In many ways what the musical is about is beside the point, though its plot and aspirations are telling to say the least. In its seriousness, it obliterates any possibility of artistic ambition, wildness, freedom, and scope. Its goal is to parrot conventional sensibilities and give them a high culture sheen of political and social importance. There’s no author here, only a producer selling the idea of high-quality creativity.
Of all the theater companies in the Bay Area, the Shotgun Players, under founding artistic director Patrick Dooley’s guidance, is the most keen to the notion that theater is an occasion, that each performance is a gamble and a celebration of the play and the community that comes to see it. And it makes sense that Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia would represent a tantalizing bet for them. At his best, Stoppard is all about celebrations and Arcadia with its dual time periods (1809 and the present) is an attempt to feel the joy of the past in our fallen present.
Given what we might call the cultural situation, I wasn’t expecting much from Golden Thread’s world premiere of Mona Mansour’s family drama, We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War, and of course like many preconceptions I was wrong. What Mansour gives us is essentially a two-to-three-year argument that meanders around a young man’s choice to serve, go to war, and ultimately kill for America. That he’s a quarter-Lebanese complicates the matter, if not for him at least for his half-Lebanese Aunt.
One of Mansour’s sharpest insights is that the drama of the Aunt and the Nephew is fluid and has few rules. Rather delightfully, it is also a source of joy, exactly what we expect and want from family. So when we first meet She (The Aunt) and He (The Nephew) we immediately get the sense that not only do these two people get a kick out of each other, but also that they’ve always gotten a kick out of each other. They want to be together and that makes this political drama a rarity: two people with profound political differences who want to stay together for the joy of each other’s company.
There’s something distasteful about rank ambition and its stench is all over the Aurora Theatre’s production of Simon Block’s stage adaption of Jonathan Safran Foer’s kind-of-celebrated, first novel, Everything is Illuminated. The whole enterprise is what we might call anxious for significance.
You feel it in the forced nature of the writing, the way it wants to bully you into acknowledging the importance of what you’re witnessing. On a simple level, Block and Jonathan Safran Foer never miss the opportunity to let us know that even though the character Jonathan Safran Foer is a writer in the making in Everything is Illuminated, the book Everything is Illuminated and by extension the play Everything is Illuminated is actually the proof of his future greatness. In other words, the greatness of what we’re witnessing as we watch the play.
We could call it a literary case of circular reasoning, but it feels more like circular insistence, or wish fulfillment, or simply quite suspect. Whatever the case we should resist.
Men in Boats is as an incredible failure of imagination even as it touts the imagination as a theatrical force in representing the past. The actual story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 trip down the Colorado River is stirring and complex, a wild adventure worthy of investigation, critique, celebration, whatever your game. Yet you can’t get to any of that without a real vision or philosophy of history. And a real vision would never reduce the complex Powell and his crew to stick figure goofballs, which is what happens here.
What we get from Men on Boats is an illusion of real engagement and experimentation. It’s selling radical critique, revisionist history, feminist ideals, and theatrical invention, but it’s all packaging without soul or sense or care, just idle gestures to make us feel that something has happened. And nothing has and that’s a shame. A free audience should revolt and demand more.
Sometimes you see a play and you just want to make up some rules. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview has certainly garnered a lot of controversy and audiences and critics have been fairly tight-lipped about what actually happens in the Berkley Rep over the course of Drury’s 100-minute dissection of, I guess the best way to put it is, race and perception.
Though what audiences think they’re perceiving and even more complex what the playwright, cast, and producers think audiences are perceiving can’t be kept secret for the simple reason that they’re clearly thinking many different things, acting from different motives, and coming to the theater with radically different experiences. Whether the creators of the “Fairview” situation believe any of that matters is an open question and leads to our first rule: never let the production control your experience; you are free.
And so you should test that out at the Berkeley Rep and see where you land in the divide. It’s an almost completely fascinating experience.
‘Fairview’ runs through November 4 at the Alfred Peet’s Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here. For the Full Review click here.
There are a lot of problems with Shelia Callaghan’s Women Laughing Alone With Salad and, interestingly enough, many of them touch on what we might call the limits of representation. Or just simply, what can you get away with on stage. The talented but undisciplined Callaghan wants to get away with everything and director Susannah Martin, quite savvy at staging difficult texts, does her best to make that possible in a game but ungainly Shotgun Players production.
Girl is a kind of beautiful abstraction that takes the last girl trope of slasher films and subjects it to a philosophy of violence. We know the situation: after all the terror and killing is done, there’s always a girl with lovely brown hair struggling to escape, to claw her way back to something approaching a normal life, or any life at all. Her moment is always some combination of the smutty indifference of the snuff film and a survivor’s religious transcendence. Kate and Fauxnique choose transcendence (with snuff lurking at a distance) and the effect is, at times, stunning—a fragment of philosophy that somehow becomes a lovely bit of performance.
In many ways, the Ubuntu Theater Project’s Hamlet is a strict and traditional one, taking seriously all the play has to offer—its boundless energy, the way it repeatedly flirts with dramatic collapse and chaos, the biting humor, and the force of Hamlet’s mind and soul. And then that extra bit, the minds and souls of all the people of the world that surround him, too. That’s something an Ubuntu production would never overlook.
Ubuntu keeps on staking ground in a variety of material—the vicious melodrama of Hurt Village, the devastating, political violence of To the Bone, and this Hamlet, which burns with an intensity so ridiculous that parts of it will make you cry.
Explanation is the prime aesthetic concern of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer-prize winning Sweat. The playwright tells us, rather than trusting that we can intuit and feel our way through the material. Everything feels controlled, deliberate, and perfunctory. We know that Nottage has done a great deal of research, gone to Reading and talked to a lot of people—the program and countless articles tell us so with a kind of awe and reverence. But I would say to what end.
There’s no real philosophy here, there’s no real ideas, there isn’t even anger. People in the play get angry, but the play itself is curiously distant. Everything is meticulously explained, rather than alive with human imagination, and some of the lines, especially the speeches, seem culled from interviews rather than how people actually talk to lifelong friends.
I can’t help but think that there’s another play lurking inside Oslo, J.T. Rogers’ respectful account of how the Israelis and the PLO came to sign the 1993 Oslo Accords. This Oslo would be nastier, livelier, less fair-minded, and memorable enough to force the most jaded of us to care. Because right now, in Rogers’ Oslo, what we care about are negotiations. They could have been between East Timor and Australia, or a couple of boys trading baseball cards. There’s a way in which the Israelis and Palestinians at the center of the drama are incidental to the entire experience.
The problem cuts to the heart of what we consider serious playwriting in the American theater and serious art in general. Success comes down to the weight of the subject matter and nothing could be weightier and more intractable a problem than the Middle East. But it’s precisely the hushed tones of serious reflection that keep us away from, well, actual reflection. It’s a good production, though.
What I’m going to say about Cutting Ball’s Uncle Vanya is completely unrealistic and unfair, but the problem here is rehearsal time and how theaters produce work. The production feels like a very well-rehearsed first draft, where everything was attempted and nothing rejected. You wonder what might have happened if they had spent an equal amount of time with a scalpel, paring closer and closer to the bone until every effect was either excised or found its way into the blood of Chekhov’s stunning play. There are real pleasures here, but too many experiments for the sake of experimenting.
Everything begins provisionally. Perhaps in all our lives, but absolutely in death, choreographer Charles Slender-White’s sly, beautiful immersive dance receiving its world premiere at CounterPulse for his company FACT/SF. The piece begins off-handedly. A few friendly ushers lead us up some stairs to the top of the theater’s risers where a small picture box theater has been constructed—it’s as if the world before us has narrowed, focused in on one fragile moment. The eighty minutes that follow are both shocking and formally brilliant. You will want to see it again.
debbie tucker green’s dirty butterfly is a nightmare about nightmares. The play oscillates between the dreamily poetic and lacerating realism. At 65-minutes it could be longer, but it’s always fascinating. Anton’s Well gives this difficult play a more than credible production with three strong performances. The play and the production are not perfect, but they’re alive and vibrant. And that’s what we should want.
Young Jean Lee’s Church begins in the dark, which is always a great place to start an evening at the theater or a religious service. Darkness creates a sense of equality. It disrupts our sense of the world—all the psychic muck that we bring to every occasion—and, best of all, calms us down. When the soothing voice of Reverend José (a brilliant and assured Lawrence Redecker) pierces the Potrero Playhouse, we’re ready. You might ask, “Ready for what?” And I would say for contemplating your soul, which is more or less what happens during the Reverend’s opening speech. His initial parable ends with the injunction to “open your eyes!” and the effect is so complete that Lee’s clever pun doesn’t feel smart or ironic.
Lucas Hnath turns Ibsen’s Nora into an anti-marriage feminist, whereas what disillusions Nora is Torvald’s lack of commitment to the most basic tenant of any marriage—the vow to be there for the worst. This gives Ibsen’s A Doll’s House a nasty kick. With only a vague notion of feminist zeal—as if Hnath hired a steering committee to make sure he was up to date on the latest trends—his drama never gains any traction, a pale imitation of the still more shocking original.
As a playwright Dominique Morriseau has happy feet, constantly shifting back and forth between contrary dramatic styles and ideas. The first act hovers uneasily between conceptual daring, sitcom antics dressed up as everyday life, and dabs of Brechtian commentary between the scenes. The second act is organized like an August Wilson play, a series of vignettes that delay the drama to deepen our sense of the world from which it eventually emerges. No one should ever say that some balance between these four couldn’t work; it’s that Morriseau hasn’t the skill, talent, or daring to pull it off.
The challenge Gotanda poses in Pool of Wonders: Undertow of the Soul is sharp and his ending beautiful, both the writing and the pared down lavishness of Michael Socrates Maron’s staging; nonetheless, the beginning of the play is uncertain both in tone and content. Despite those problems both play and production are fascinating attempts at a new, more mysterious American theater.
Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss isn’t a great play, but it’s a sharp one. In the Shotgun Players’ excellent production in association with Golden Thread Theater you’re going to feel the sting of its anger despite its shaky ending scenes. Go for the first long scene and stay to think about the last two.
Cal Shakes’ flawed, four-hour journey into political mayhem hints at and kind of achieves some of the nervy, assaultive flair of continental auteurs such as Thomas Ostermeier or Ivo van Hove. I can’t remember a production with so much go-for-broke acting on the Cal Shakes stage, or really any of the major Bay Area stages.
The problem with the San Francisco Mime Troupe is that they put on awful productions of awful plays in a style that we might call, passably professional. Professional, because everyone involved in the production knows what to do. Lines are memorized, cues are hit, the musicians play the right notes, the whole enterprise moves along with the precision of a Swiss watch, and yet every year, every summer, it’s a disaster in the park. A disaster of art, thought, time, civic engagement, progressive politics, an indictment of the spirit of the Bay Area that this is what passes for politically engaged, left-wing theater.
Their latest outing is Seeing Red, a time travel comedy bereft of energy and ideas. I suppose there are bits of labor history that some of their audience is unaware of, but that’s what Wikipedia is for. These free shows in the park seem more and more costly every year. We should demand more of fifty-year institutions or shut them down for the good of the republic.
‘Seeing Red’ runs until September 9 in various Bay Area Parks. For times and dates click here.
Many years ago over the course of five years or so, I saw a number of Anne Galjour’s plays. They had a real mystery to them and it felt as if she were discovering and shaping new worlds right before us, or at least ones we rarely see. One piece ended with a young girl imagining herself in the middle of a dance floor, enveloped in a sea of light. That moment had the quality of a dream storming into reality. I’ve never quite forgotten it and have always thought that Galjour was an artist with a special feeling for theatrical form.
#GetGandhi, her self-proclaimed “radical feminist comedy,” seems the work of an altogether different artist, say an alternate Anne Galjour whose only notion of drama is 1980’s television sitcoms, and bad ones at that. Instead of a play that is restless, searching, and alert to new possibilities, #GetGandhi is merely a concept drowning in cliches.
Info and tickets.
There are two important points to make about Anton’s Well’s production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. The first is that it’s a pleasure to see a young theater company stake out an aesthetic philosophy, to essentially say: This is what we do and this is how we’re going to do it. In the bland world of Bay Area Theater, that’s a cause for celebration.
The second point is a bit more damning. Though you can understand why Artistic Director and Founder Robert Estes would be attracted to the late, avant-garde shock master Sarah Kane, the best you can say of her work is that it doesn’t require much attention. Reaction, maybe, but for a writer so interested in brutality, it’s amazing how little Kane’s plays demand that we think, engage, and concentrate.
Info and tickets.
Vietgone possesses a kind of conceptual genius that makes you feel that Qui Nguyen has found a more fluid and expressive form of American playwriting. And then he blows all that brilliance with some truly dreadful writing — weak-minded parodies, sitcom tripe, and post-modern juvenilia.
Full Review. Info and tickets.