Editors' Picks: January 2016
Friday, January 1, 2016
Happy New Year from Theatre Bay Area! If the frosty weather’s got you down, why not snuggle up with a loved one—or a few loved ones—and see some inspiring theatre? From family to the lessons of history, from revamped classics to the digital future, this month’s Editors’ Picks tell ambitious stories on an epic scale.
This month’s guest editor is Sal Mattos, TBA’s intrepid marketing and communications coordinator and equally intrepid actor. You may have seen him recently in Custom Made Theatre Co.’s In Love and Warcraft, directed by fellow TBA staffer James Nelson. [Spoiler alert: he’s juiced about another upcoming show involving the Internet!]
|SK Kerastas in NCTC’s production of Sagittarius Ponderosa by MJ Kaufman. Photo: Lois Tema
New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF
Jan. 23-Feb. 28
Sometimes it seems that “American family drama” is synonymous with “show where we watch ordinary, everyday people tear each other apart emotionally in horrifying ways.” Mercifully, the warm and fuzzy mood of the holidays tends to give us a brief respite from all that fear and loathing—and this month, we’re treated to one more span of peace in MJ Kaufman’s quietly magical Sagittarius Ponderosa. In this just-as-American family drama, we encounter ordinary, everyday people who, it turns out, are capable of surprising acts of grace, honesty, and emotional generosity. Amid questions of identity and acceptance that center on trans-identified lead character Archer but are ultimately grounded in fundamentally human terms such as who and how we love, the family—while very human and imperfect—behaves curiously like a catalyst for understanding, growth, and healing. Add in a love potion and a puppet, and set it on the edge of a vast Oregon forest, and you’ve got an original, intelligent, refreshingly open-hearted winter wonderland. Visit What’s Playing or nctcsf.org.
Pear Theatre, Mountain View
Since 2008, when I heard playwright Katori Hall read a draft of the script to the artistic company of the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, The Mountaintop has become an Olivier Award-winning play and Broadway hit. It has also, by way of a recent casting controversy, come to occupy a charged space where a number of our field’s pressing issues overlap: America’s troubled history of racial inequality, American theatre’s struggle to achieve diversity on and off stage, playwrights’ control over their work, censorship, and more. If you haven't yet seen this ambitious two-hander—or even if you have—this is definitely recommended viewing. Scenic design is by two-time TBA Award Recipient Kuo-Hao Lo. Visit What’s Playing or thepear.org.
Gem of the Ocean
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
Jan. 14-Feb. 14
Speaking of American history, MTC’s opening volley of 2016 is August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the first piece in the master dramatist’s 10-play “Century Cycle,” a sweeping epic purporting to chronicle the African American experience in the 20th century. Considering the show’s exciting cast—which includes recent Charles Dean Award winner Margo Hall and 2014 TBA Awards Finalists Omoze Idehenre and Patrick Kelly Jones—and the play’s themes of social injustice, unrest, and violence—which are dismayingly resonant today—this production is positioned to provide a uniquely powerful encounter with this dramatic work. Visit What’s Playing or marintheatre.org.
|Composer Vân-Ánh Võ, at right. Photo: Christine Jade
The Odyssey—from Vietnam to America
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF
A full-evening, Homeric epic-esque composition about the Vietnamese boat people, this multimedia piece by composer/performer Vân-Ánh Võ, in partnership with the Asian Americans for Community Involvement, is one of the most interesting performances coming up in January. Võ, an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning composer, combines traditional Vietnamese instruments, traditional western instruments, and electronic music—integrated with video, field recordings, and interviews—to explore the personal and spiritual journeys of the million-plus Vietnamese who fled to the US by boat after the victory of the North Vietnamese. Võ has taken the text for the piece from her interviews with over 30 survivors, looking at the strength we gain from struggle and sacrifice. The performances will feature Alex Kelly on cello, Jimi Nakagawa on taiko and percussion, and Dan Cantrell on accordion and piano. Award-winning environmental sound artist/ethnomusicologist Philip Blackburn and award-winning video and media artist Ian Winters provide additional sound and video. Visit What’s Playing or ybca.org/odyssey.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Jan. 21-Feb. 7
Hillbarn Theatre’s first production for the 2016 season is the ridiculously funny, heartwarming comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This oddball musical takes the audience on an interactive (audience participation—squee!) journey as six “young people” attempt to win the spelling bee—each with their own personal problems and issues to overcome along the way. From puberty embarrassments and parental problems to new friendships and budding confidence, Spelling Bee is filled with such awkward, struggling, relatable characters that you can’t help but love them. 2016 also marks Hillbarn’s 75th anniversary “Dare to Dream” season; they’ve certainly picked a fitting show to start with! Visit What’s Playing or hillbarntheatre.org.
Jan. 22-Feb. 6
One of Ibsen’s best-known, classic stories, Peer Gynt has been reworked many times, in many ways—from musical adaptations to multimedia adventures. ArtistsRepSF (previously Artists Repertory Company of San Francisco), cofounded by Justin Gillman and Danielle Martino, begins 2016 with the company’s second production—the world premiere of Oren Stevens’ new adaption of Peer Gynt. The memorable adventures of the charming, lying, outrageous conqueror/casanova/emperor will be sure to entertain in this contemporary adaptation! Visit What’s Playing or artistsrepsf.org.
|Akemi Okamura and Melissa Weinstein in City Lights Theater Company’s production of Tigers Be Still. Photo: Susan Mah
Tigers Be Still
City Lights Theater Company, San Jose
Jan. 21-Feb. 21
My picks for January range from depressing drama to depressing comedy—or, should I say, comedy about depression! We’ve all had those days where it seems like things just can’t get worse, but then a tiger escapes from the local zoo! What’s a girl to do? In Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still, a depressed art therapy graduate begrudgingly gets herself out of bed and on to the next thing. As a not-so-recent college grad trying to figure life out, this play sounds like it might hit a little too close to home, but then maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes the most poignant plays are the ones that simply turn a mirror on us in the audience and ask us to laugh. As we ring in the New Year with all those resolutions we might never get to, City Lights’s latest might just be the perfect motivator to get us started. Visit What’s Playing or cltc.org.
San Francisco Playhouse
Jan. 23-Mar. 5
As someone who geeks out over gaming and tech as much as I do over theatre, SF Playhouse caught my attention with their production of The Nether. Jennifer Haley’s play is your standard detective story with a modern twist: in a future where the Internet is a virtual reality world and anonymity reigns supreme, a detective finds herself coming face to face with the dark side of desire. While this tale is set in the future, current issues including Facebook’s legal name controversy, Gamergate, “catfishing,” and the aptly named Anonymous make it feel all too real in the here and now. Visit What’s Playing or sfplayhouse.org.
A Steady Rain
Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa
Jan. 22-Feb. 6
For a decidedly different take on crime drama, look no further than Left Edge Theatre’s upcoming production of A Steady Rain by Keith Huff. Huff is no stranger to gritty, high-stakes drama, having worked on the television series Mad Men and House of Cards. This two-man show explores the strained relationship between a pair of Chicago cops as their professional and personal lives collide, and a case goes way, way, way off the tracks. A Steady Rain also broke the record for highest weekly gross of a nonmusical on Broadway when it debuted in 2007, starring Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. Visit What’s Playing or leftedgetheatre.com.