Premieres From SF Playhouse and Ubuntu Jolt Our Sense of Goodness

Just as the summer is winding down, along come two plays -- strange fever dreams that jolt our sense of the good and the bad.

These world premieres -- Kirsten Greenidge’s Zenith, under the auspices of the SF Playhouse’s Sandbox series, and noted Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s Rashomon, produced by the always-resourceful Ubuntu Theater Project -- are welcome reminders that dread is a special emotion that should never be underestimated, even in the waning days of our brightest season.

Zenith: A no-escape tragedy

Zenith is a no-escape tragedy whose brutality is a function of increasing knowledge. The play begins with Angela (a remarkable Atim Udoffia), a woman who is overcome with terror when she gets a glimpse of one of those majestic baby chairs that the Whole Foods class loves. You know right away that things are going to end badly and that knowledge shades every moment that follows.

Angela turns out to be Aunt Angela, and she’s trying to convince her uptight and wealthier sister-in-law, Hazel, that what Hazel’s three girls need is a camping trip with their fun-loving, freedom-inspiring aunt. The hidden jabs of privilege and class slip through what should be a light-hearted conversation between two African-American women. After all, they've both managed to secure some part of what we might still call the American dream.

When Hazel panics at Angela giving her daughters knives, Angela’s response is an odd mix of concern, moral certainty, and aggression: “You cannot baby them you can not," the character says. "My dad had us using those things when we were four. I told the girls we’ll bust them out first thing, so they’re getting them.” There it is, the first hint of pride that will destroy our hero, a woman who has lived a life of unparalleled goodness, a saint of sacrifice and shepherd of hope.

Greenidge understands that a life of good deeds is just as likely to end in total havoc as it will in graceful thanks and warm testimonials. At times her vision of Angela’s fall feels over-determined in the play’s headlong rush to tragedy, but at its best moments Zenith bristles with a disarming naturalism.

You can feel it in the way the exceptionally talented cast seems to live calmly on the edge of disaster, as if their characters never quite imagine the dangers we so easily intuit. And then when the world comes crashing down, that quality is still there in the off-handed way they express great and lasting loss. It’s a languid, horrid vision of everyday despair and a primer on what happens when your most trusted saint cracks and fails.

Rashomon: A slippery treatise on the power of lying

Akira Kurosowa’s Rashomon has become cultural shorthand for the notion that everyone has a different take on the truth. Phillip Kan Gotanda’s adaptation of the famous 1950 what's-actually-going-on-here crime film suggests that everyone lies to protect the truth and that the lies keep us from the disaster of total revelation. Or, flipped upside down, lies are the paradise we wish to preserve — and everything else, true or not, is filigree, a bit of honey, butter, and fancy flourishes to keep us going.

Like Kurosawa's film, Gotanda gives us two sets of narrators -- a priest, a woodcutter, and a wigmaker who tell the story of another set of narrators -- a bandit, a samurai, and the samurai’s wife. The supposed questions are: who killed the samurai and why is everyone eager, including the dead samurai, to take the credit?

We also get another narrator, a writer, Akutagawa, an odd young man overly invested in these stories. He exists outside the main timeframe, might even be the creator of everything before us. Or for reasons undetermined, the samurai's death might be overtaking him. Whatever the case, he’s fun. He mumbles the lines at the edge of the stage, comments on the action, finds some things gross, others enticing. He gets a kick out of the lies, and because he does, so do we.

Gotanda can be a vexing writer, capable of graceful bits of daring and clunky exposition within the same scene. His Rashomon jumps off the rails at least five times and then jumps right back on with equal force and vision. Michael Socrates Moran’s visually astute direction and a strong cast mute some of the play’s imperfections, but what carries the day is Gotanda’s outrage at a world of venal storytellers.

That their lies are also glorious, intoxicating, and kind of fun is more than a bit disquieting. It was the way of the world then, and it is the way of the world now.

‘Zenith' runs through September 10 at the Costume Shop in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

'Rashomon' runs through September 17 at Brooklyn Grove in Oakland. For tickets and information click here.