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The Art Of Politically Engaged Art

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.

‘Down Here Below’ runs through April 28 at the side theater at FLAX art and design on 15th and MLK in Oakland. For tickets and information click here. For the Full Review click here.

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Urgent! Urgent! Play On Fire!

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.

‘KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!’ runs through April 21 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here. For the Full Review click here.

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Clowns Aren't People, Too

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.

‘La Ronde’ runs through April 14 at the Exit Theater on Taylor in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here. For the Full Review click here.

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