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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read 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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More
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.Read More