Editors' Picks: January/February 2015
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Marin Theatre Company
Katherine Renee Turner as Jekesai in the Bay Area premiere
of The Convert. Photo: Kevin Berne
Feb. 19–Mar. 15
Danai Gurira knows how to make an entrance. On TV she's best known as the sword-wielding zombie-chopper Michonne on The Walking Dead, but she's also an Obie Award–winning playwright, and she's set to make a big impression with her Bay Area debut at Marin Theatre Company. Set in the 1890s in what would become Zimbabwe (the country the Ohio-born playwright grew up in), Gurira's play The Convert centers on a young African woman who converts to Christianity to avoid a forced marriage to an older man with other wives. But her woes are only beginning as young Jekesai, now renamed Ester, gets caught between the forces of colonialism and native uprisings against it. But the white settlers are unseen here; instead these rifts between old and new ways, foreign and indigenous, are embodied in the zeal or pragmatism of Jekesai's relatives and other homegrown acquaintances. Visit marintheatre.org.
Sam's Other Picks
X's and O's (A Football Love Story)
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Jan. 16–Mar. 1
People make all kinds of sacrifices for love, and that's certainly also true of the love of the game, a subject playwright KJ Sanchez tackles head-on in Berkeley Rep's commissioned world premiere docudrama X's and O's (A Football Love Story). (Somewhere along the way since the season announcement, "Football" replaced "Gridiron" in the title, a helpful move for folks like me who don't understand sports talk.) Football may not be the proverbial most dangerous game, but it's still pretty damn dangerous, and Sanchez and collaborator Jenny Mercein (daughter of former NFL running back Chuck Mercein) take a hard but tender look at the people who risk injury for our entertainment and the people who love them, based on interviews with players, their families and fans. Visit berkeleyrep.org.
Late: A Cowboy Song
Custom Made Theatre Co.
Jan. 8–Feb. 7
The Bay Area has a long-term love affair with playwright Sarah Ruhl, from a steady trickle of new works at Berkeley Rep to countless productions of her luminous play Eurydice (look for another one at Shotgun Players in August) to less frequent ones of her many other clever and magical scripts such as The Clean House, Passion Play or Dead Man's Cell Phone. Ruhl's early work Late: A Cowboy Song is definitely one of the ones more seldom seen, so it's a treat that Custom Made Theatre Co. is giving it a go as a follow-up to the company's previous production of—you guessed it—Eurydice. Late is a bittersweet and often humorous portrait of a strained marriage between a passive-aggressive and clingy husband who can't keep down a job and a melancholy and secretive wife who'd prefer to be out with her friend Red, a female cowboy (definitely not a cowgirl) with whom she's pretty clearly infatuated. Visit custommade.org.
San Francisco Playhouse
Jan. 20–Mar. 7
"I set out to write a play about race and ended up writing a play about family," says Julie Hébert in the press release for the regional premiere of Tree at San Francisco Playhouse. The drama, which debuted in Los Angeles in 2009, is about Leo (Carl Lumbly), an African-American chef in Chicago, who finds a white Southern gender studies professor on his doorstep claiming to be his half-sister. According to newcomer Didi (Susi Damilano), the Leo's aged mother had a passionate affair with Didi's father, nearly unimaginable to the daughter who only knew him as a bitter and bigoted old man. The newfound siblings' struggle over whether to trouble the ailing Jessalyn (Cathleen Riddley) with these old memories, while Leon's own daughter JJ (Tristan Cunningham) is stuck in the middle. It's also a homecoming of sorts for Hébert, a Louisiana native who started her theatrical career at SF's Magic Theatre and Eureka Theater in the 1970s. Visit sfplayhouse.org.
Maurya Kerr as Juliet in The Most Excellent and Lamentable
Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet—A Fire Ballet
at The Crucible, 2007. Photo: Juan Carlos
Jan. 9 & 10
The Crucible's fire performances are one of those mondo bizarro phenomena that make me proud to be part of the Bay Area art-maker scene. Over its 15-year history, the Oakland-based "industrial arts" school (think welding and glassblowing) has also developed—and pretty much defined—professional fire performance as a genre, producing fire operas, including Purcell's Dido and Aeneas; fire ballets, including Romeo and Juliet; Heat, a fire cabaret; and Inferno, a fire circus. Hot Couture is another fire-and-fantasy event: a runway show of fire-inspired high fashion, highlighting "traditional materials," whatever that means for welders and glassblowers. But go for the fire performances. They will get you thinking new things about theatrical movement, light, space, and fire. Designers and techies: the Crucible has developed the most comprehensive documentation anywhere on theatrical fire use and safety. Couldn't hurt to meet some folks and ask what knowledge they'd be willing to share. Hot Couture is 18 and older. Visit thecrucible.org.
Laura's Other Picks
Maple and Vine
Los Altos Stage Company
Jan. 29–Feb. 22
Modern life got you down? Tired of measuring your worth by the number of "likes" on your FB post about that RT from your friend @collisiondancer with the tinyurl link to that one Salon article? Do you freeze up when attempting to decide between organic-feed, cage-free, or locally sourced eggs? In Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine, deliverance is at hand—the "Society of Dynamic Obsolescence" provides weary Millennials and those weary of Millennials a refuge from the complexity of today's technology, politics, civil rights and contraception. The crispness of Harrison's wit, characters and dialogue keeps us engaged in their worlds even as it all starts lurching toward catastrophe. Visit losaltosstage.org.
The Lariat sounds amazing. And by "sounds," I mean that music clips are already available on composer Lisa Scola Prosek's Soundcloud; find it and listen to "The Lariat 1." Scola Prosek is a prolific composer credited with making real advances in operatic form (it's time somebody did). The Lariat, based on a novella by Jaime De Angulo, depicts 1700s Alta California on the brink of irrevocable change, as Spanish monks begin to convert the local people to Christianity. The opera adapts the novella's magical realism and Native American storytelling into a stage piece rich with talking animals and shifting narrator voices, all confronting the future. Visit www.scolavox.org.
The North Plan
Renegade Theatre Experiment
Jan. 31–Feb. 21
There's nothing like a fast-paced farce to liven up late winter gloom. In The North Plan, a "ruthless faction seizes power in Washington, D.C." (hmm) and declares martial law, prompting our hero to steal a top secret document (the list of Americans to be detained under the new regime) and run…for the town of Lodus, MI. There, in the local police station, an unlikely batch of kooky characters probably figure everything out and save the world…but wait! This play is dark. Reviews call it "Martin McDonagh without the accents. Quentin Tarantino without the cars" and "disturbing." Disturbing as November's voter turnout? Welcome to the future. Visit renegadetheatre.com.
Newsies. Photo: Deen van Meer
Feb. 17–Mar. 15
If the journey of this musical from Disney B-movie and box office flop to, two decades later, Broadway gold surprised you, one cohort could have called it: my jammie-sporting, sleepover-partying peers and I, who, through the slow burn of our cumulative VHS purchases, rescued this charmer from the dustbin. Way to go, girls. Harvey Fierstein significantly retooled the screenplay, a Disney-fied, kid power-friendly telling of New York's 1899 newsboys' strike, for its stage premiere in 2011, abandoning out-of-place tunes such as a showgirl's whispered "My Lovey Dovey Baby" (where did that come from?) and giving the female love interest, y'know, lines and desires. The story's joyful core remains, though. They might swagger like mobsters, dress like ragamuffins (or hipsters?), talk like Bugs Bunny and get oppressed by Pulitzer and Hearst, but these scamps own their city, just in the way they shout, "Extra!" Visit shnsf.com.
Lily's Other Picks
A Lie of the Mind
Jan. 28–Feb. 22
The Magic's Shepherding America project, a celebration of the work of Sam Shepard that began in 2013 (when the playwright turned 70) with a production of Buried Child, has since involved many Bay Area theatre companies in productions of both his plays and new plays inspired by him. This last of Shepard's so-called family plays brings Shepherding America home to the Magic, which is also where the playwright got his start, in the '70s. Written in 1985, it follows lovers who attract and repel each other with ruinous force as their clans mostly sit by, scorning the world and scarring each other. Visit magictheatre.org.
I Am My Own Wife
The character of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is the role of a lifetime. In Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man play, playing this antique-collecting (museum-creating, really) transvestite, who through force of personality (and more nefarious means) not only survived but thrived in Germany under both the Nazis and the Communists also means playing 35 other characters—one of whom is Wright. Wright makes the shifts subtle and deliciously theatrical—one character becomes another by fingering a necklace or doffing glasses. All but one wear Charlotte's costume: a simple black frock, a string of pearls and a kerchief. Steven Abbott stars. Visit cinnabartheater.org.
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
American Conservatory Theater
Feb. 18–Mar. 15
Anne Washburn's play, here in its West Coast premiere, is an unusual and exciting choice for ACT. The opening scene feels like black box theatre material: four actors huddle around a fire remembering The Simpsons' spoof of Cape Fear (featuring Sideshow Bob) in excruciating detail. They debate not just chronology but individual lines of dialogue and how characters' tattoos are spelled. But this is no geeky campfire reminiscence. In their post-apocalyptic world, The Simpsons no longer exists except in their memory, and their telling of it becomes a way to connect to the past, assert their humanity and, eventually, make art. Visit act-sf.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 in dramaturgy.
Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area. She is also a theatre critic for publications including SF Weekly and HowlRound.