Editors' Picks: November/December 2014
Monday, November 17, 2014
Breakfast with Mugabe
Aurora Theatre Company
L. Peter Callender as Robert Mugabe in Aurora's West Coast
premiere of Breakfast with Mugabe. Photo: David Allen
Nov. 7–Dec. 7
What is it about fictionalized stories about real-life African dictators and their white doctor/confidants? First we had a made-up Scottish doctor befriending Ugandan president Idi Amin in the 1998 novel and 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, and now we have Fraser Grace's play Breakfast with Mugabe, which the Royal Shakespeare Company premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2005. After a hit run off-Broadway last year, it now makes its West Coast premiere at Aurora. This one, of course, is about Robert Mugabe, who's remained president of Zimbabwe since 1987 through elections commonly considered to be fraudulent and bad things happening to his political opponents. It's loosely based on news reports that Mugabe consulted a white psychiatrist while battling depression. Grace imagines the president convinced that he's being haunted by the angry ghost of a former comrade-in-arms, his own personal Banquo, and inevitably becoming embroiled in a battle of wills with his shrink, accustomed to controlling the conversation. Just having L. Peter Callender in the title role is more than reason enough to rush out and see it. Visit auroratheatre.org.
The Cutting Ball Theater
Nov. 21–Dec. 21
This is actually the second show called Superheroes to play one of the Exit's many stages this year, after Wily West Productions' collection of short plays on the theme of costumed crimefighters. Despite the title, however, that's not the subject of Sean San José's new play at all. His Superheroes is the story of a journalist trying to uncover the hidden roots of the rise in crack cocaine in San Francisco, inspired in part by Gary Webb's investigative journalism into the CIA's involvement in the Nicaraguan drug trade. The Cutting Ball Theater's world premiere is produced in association with Intersection for the Arts' erstwhile company-in-residence Campo Santo, of which San José is artistic director. Visit cuttingball.com.
The Pear Avenue Theatre
Sandwiched between work by big dogs Alan Ayckbourn, David Lindsay-Abaire and Harold Pinter in the Pear's season is this original work written and directed by frequent Pear actor James Kopp. This one's definitely set in a comic book world of spandex-clad adventurers. Fiendish mastermind the Remote finds himself suddenly alone in life now that his superhero nemesis is gone. What will he do without the only one who really cared about him? Could this be that most dreaded of fates, a learning experience? Visit thepear.org.
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Acclaimed as a standout show of the Exit Theatre's 2012 DivaFest, writer-performer Maura Halloran's solo show Pussy may be playing New Conservatory Theatre Center just a month after Michael Bartlett's similarly provocatively titled Cock, but get your mind out of the gutter. It's a play about a cat. But the titular house pet is only one of the characters Halloran embodies in her comedic monologue; others include a Canadian and English lesbian couple whose relationship is on the rocks and the Russian landlady who disapproves of homosexuality but is oddly fascinated by it. Visit nctcsf.org.
Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Robert Wilson's The Old Woman at Zellerbach Hall. Photo: Lucie Jansh
The Old Woman
I hope there are still tickets to this show by the time you read this, because it looks extraordinary. Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach) directs Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe in a wild two-hander—"a surreal marriage of abstract storytelling, pitch-black comedy, and vaudeville"—including death, vodka and, apparently, flying puppets. The Old Woman is a challenging piece of theatre, no kidding—its main source text is a bizarre novella by censored Soviet-era absurdist poet Daniil Kharms. In it, an old woman dies; her corpse gets stuffed into a suitcase, which is then lost. Events repeat. What's real and unreal remains unclear. Wilson's aggressively abstract approach shatters even this thin veneer of story, creating a nonlinear, highly physical comic extravaganza in which Baryshnikov and Dafoe, in clown-white makeup with red-slash mouths, play counterparts in a dozen different relationships, on a set (designed by Wilson) that reminded critics of Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss. Visit calperformances.org. Quickly.
Nov. 19–Dec. 14
New-play advocates bemoan the field's tendency to fetishize a piece's "world premiere," leaving stunning plays, tested by audiences, to languish awaiting a second production. The National New Play Network's rolling world premiere program circumvents this by "premiering" a play in three different cities, at three different companies. Z Space, where Totalitarians playwright Peter Nachtrieb is in residence, is the play's third stop on a world premiere that's already rolled from New Orleans to DC. And, since Nachtrieb's already had the benefit of two productions to finesse the script and try daring new ideas, the darkly comic, unsettlingly relevant Totalitarians we'll see may be the best yet, polished to a sinister shine. Visit zspace.org.
The Complete History of Comedy (abridged)
Marin Theatre Company
Seeing the original Reduced Shakespeare Company perform its Complete Works of William Shakespeare on a bare outdoor stage (pity the lone sapling that involuntarily became Jess Winfield-as-Juliet's balcony) was a theatrical awakening. It was suddenly clear that theatre wasn't about fancy technology or expensive costumes—theirs were tattered and, frankly, filthy—it was about virtuosity and joy. Three California dudes brought hundreds of people to tears of gut-cramping laughter using only their smarts, preternaturally flawless comic timing, and bad wigs. The RSC has grown and changed, developed many successful shows—like Complete History of Comedy—but I still hope the founding values hold true. Visit marintheatre.org.
The Great Dickens Christmas Fair
Nov. 22–Dec. 21
The Dickens Fair was created, unsurprisingly, by the family that invented the original Renaissance Pleasure Faire—who were producing "immersive" and "interactive" theatre long before those became marketing catchphrases. It's not exactly the stage shows that make it "theatre," though they can be great fun. The real star is the all-encompassing, hyper-detailed theatrical environment: a fantasy London, a playground for both the hired actors and for visitors, who often dress up and play characters themselves. You're surrounded by live sound (sea chanteys, brass bands—no recorded music) and aromas (hot cinnamon almonds, fish and chips—it is London, after all). That's my kind of multimedia. Visit dickensfair.org.
Tim Green, Melissa Carter and Justin Gillman in Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company's Blood Wedding.
Photo: Alandra Hileman
Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co.
This young company is dedicated to exploring the tension between temptation by the lives we want and duty to the lives we believe is best—or, as executive artistic director Ariel Craft puts it, the "dark choices that lead us to dark places, but where we go joyously." It's no surprise, then, that this director and Bay Area native would be drawn to Federico Garcia Lorca's tragedy, about two lovers who together run away from their married lives. What is surprising, though, is the mise-en-scène: Craft is presenting the show in grayscale, and (inspired by Dolly Parton's "Jolene," which for Craft captured the essence of one of the characters) she's relocating the play to the American South—a frequent Bigger Than a Breadbox device. The original music, composed by David Brown and performed live by Brown and the 10-person ensemble, echoes the work of Parton and her contemporaries. Visit btabtheatreco.org.
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
Kung Pao Kosher Comedy
Having just married a Jew, I know that Judaism's Christmas Day tradition—going to the movies and then to a Chinese restaurant, obviously—is codified, ritualized and redolent of cultural import. This show enhances that glorious custom with live performance. Local comedian Lisa Geduldig created it 22 years ago when the comedy club she thought she was playing turned out to be a Chinese restaurant. Today Kung Pao Kosher Comedy features a lineup of approximately four comedians and both dinner shows and later, cocktail-only shows at Chinatown's New Asia Restaurant. At both performances, the fortune cookies have Yiddish proverbs inside. Visit koshercomedy.com.
KMLZ: A Holidaze Variety Show
Killing My Lobster and Z Space
Comedy troupe Killing My Lobster allocates just 50 hours to write and rehearse this holiday show that involves as many as 17 actors, as well as its 19-member writers' pool, which here is led by Griffin Taylor. Acts should satisfy Scrooges, Bob Cratchits and Hare Krishnas alike: One scene last year centered on Arbor Day. Z Space programs the other acts in the variety show, which last year included circus performers and the She's, a rock band of high school girls who were so good, says KML co-creative director Allison Page, "that the rest of us felt lame." Dan Wolf directs. Visit killingmylobster.com.
Nov. 17–Dec. 13
For playwright Angela Santillo, California is "a pretty woman—who could kill me at any time." The L.A. native, St. Mary's grad and New York transplant wrote this mythical dark comedy, about a woman who can predict earthquakes because she was born during one, as her "'I'm a Californian' play." (It's also her Bay Area premiere as a playwright.) Santillo personifies rivaling fault lines, and director Evren Odcikin imbues the piece with foolsFury's signature daring physicality. To be Californian, in Santillo's vision, is to simultaneously revel in paradise and ceaselessly dread that paradise destroying you through quake, drought, mudslide or fire. Visit foolsfury.org.
About the editors:
Sam Hurwitt is editor-in-chief for Theatre Bay Area. He is also the author of The Idiolect, a blog about theatre, movies, comics, media and the decline and fall of Western civilization.
Laura Brueckner is digital content manager for Theatre Bay Area, and the author of "Bread and Circuits," an apparently annual TBA Online column on intersections of theatre and technology. She is also resident dramaturg at Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco and a PhD candidate in dramaturgy.
Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound.