‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ as a holiday opera, hapless angel and all

From 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Photo by Karen Almond

ONSTAGE Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer have not shied away from big topics,  San Francisco Opera dramaturg Kip Cranna, pointed out. Heggie worked with Terence McNally on Dead Man Walking, and Heggie and Scheer’s projects include an opera of Moby Dick. Currently, they are working on one based on the story of Faust. And now their opera based on Frank Capra’s tearjerking 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is coming to the San Francisco Opera. 

The three were talking at a preview for Bay Area teachers who want to take their students to the opera. Heggie said the opera came about when, after the premiere of Moby Dick at the Houston Grand Opera, the director there asked them to create a Christmas story. The composer says he is a huge believer in the saying “Go big or go home”—especially when it comes to opera. 

“You’re in a big space and the singing is big, and there has to be a big conflict. There has to be universal themes,” he said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be Frosty the Snowman or the Grinch.”

In the movie, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, George Bailey is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve, feeling that he hasn’t done anything with his life. Clarence, an angel trying to earn his wings, shows him what the world would be like without him, and it’s a much crueler, bleaker place. The movie’s story, which is anti-greed and pro-compassion, seemed important now, Heggie said. 

From ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ Photo by Karen Almond

To make such an iconic movie into an opera, the two decided what they needed to do was some ruthless cutting. Unlike film, they can’t show what people are feeling through close ups of their faces, so they needed to find another way to convey emotion. 

“We  were reinventing each scene believing in power of music,” Scheer said. “We don’t need the audience to know everything, but we need the audience to feel everything.”

The two decided on a big change—Clarence, the somewhat hapless angel, has become Clara in the opera. This, like pretty much all the decisions they made, was based on music. For Heggie, it’s all about vocal casting, and he said he didn’t want to listen to a baritone and tenor for the whole opera. 

“I thought, ‘Lets make Clara aurally more inspiring,’” he said. “It’s a fresh way of telling the story.”

Scheer added that Clara will be sort of a stand-in for the audience and a way to follow the story. 

“For most of night, she wishes she could help,” Scheer said. “It’s nice to watch this person, who, like us, wants to help, and she’s trying to figure out how. It’s not as easy as pushing a button. She’s going on a journey as well.”

Kearstin Piper Brown, a soprano who plays the role of Clara (along with Golda Schulz), sang an excerpt from the opera, “Waiting to Earn My Wings.” While she sang, Heggie stood to the side of the room, smiling and mouthing the words along with her. Brown says she loves working on new operas, so no one can look on YouTube and compare her version of an aria to someone else’s, and she is delighted to be working with a living composer and librettist. 

“I always wish I could call Mozart up and ask him what he was thinking,” she said.  

Kearstin Piper Brown, Jake Heggie, and Gene Scheer demonstrate a song from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’
Photo: Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera

It’s a Wonderful Life is a co-production between the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Heggie says they have made changes to the opera since the shows at Indiana, adding a few duets, expanding some arias, and opening with what he calls a “joyous rush.” It also ends with a sing-a-long, not something you’ll experience at many operas. 

Scheer loves the movie, and watching it every Christmas is a tradition for him. But there was no way to present the opera in the same way as the movie, Heggie said, and they needed to add some theatrical devices to work for the stage. The two of them have gotten used to translating stories into operas, so this was familiar territory.

“One time after Moby Dick, this woman came up to me and said, ‘Well, I don’t know why no one has done it as an opera—it’s so obvious how you would do it,’” he said. “Once I stopped myself from poking her in the eye, I thought, ‘Well, actually that’s quite a compliment.’”

November 17 through December 9
War Memorial Opera House, SF
Tickets and more info here.

Holcombe Waller’s timely queer ‘Requiem’ for persecuted LGBTQs

Holcombe Waller, conductor and composer of Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Rite, in Grace Cathedral, September 2018. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Brittney Valdez.

ONSTAGE Holcombe Waller does “total theater.” The Portland artist-composer approaches music in terms of ritual, history, art, movement, and conceptual ideas, creating a spectacle that offers ceremony and catharsis.

His latest piece is an interesting twist on that immersive style: He’s bringing an all-ability community choir to Grace Cathedral, in partnership with YBCA, for his Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Rite, Fri/16 and Sat/17. The piece is dedicated to those who suffered persecution throughout history due to their sexual orientation or gender expression, and is drawn from Waller’s extensive research and community collaboration. Don’t expect a staid evening of Gregorian chants, however.  

“The Requiem is modeled after a Medieval requiem commemorative mass, with a Latin text intended to pray for the peaceful repose of the souls of the dead,” Waller told me over the phone during a break in rehearsals. “But it spans a lot of musical styles: liturgical as well as contemporary classical, and it draws on musical theater and pop music pretty shamelessly and joyously. It’s intended not only to be delivered in full ceremony, but also to reimagine what that ceremony might be in this entirely queer-centered alternate world.” 

“It’s not campy, although there are streamers,” he adds with a laugh. “Mostly it stays within the boundaries of the Latin mass while turning it inside out. It’s as if the queer leadership that has been at the heart of the church for millennia were actually out of the closet, and had been creating these ceremonies the whole time.”

That inversion of the requiem mass leads to some interesting juxtapositions and reinterpretations. “I mashup up the traditional Latin text with other passages from the Bible and queer-relevant texts,” including writings from Oakland poet Marvin K White. 

“All of the elements of high mass are in there, like a big procession, a big choir, church organ, readings, and a sermon. It’s just that we free ourselves from the somewhat more traditional expectations of what church looks and feels like. Because for many LGBTQ people, that part of their past, that religious upbringing, didn’t feel right at all—usually because the churches their families were involved with weren’t LGBTQ-affirming. So in order to create an experience that feels more fresh, that feels very queer, we stepped pretty far away from the traditional interpretation of the elements of the Catholic ceremony, while sticking with the overall form.”

Holcombe Waller leading a group of September workshop attendees prior to the November premiere of Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Ritein San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, September 2018. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Brittney Valdez.

The Requiem came about through a collaboration with the dean of the Episcopalian cathedral in Portland, where it has previously been performed, and also through a lot of discussion between Waller and Angela Mattox, the former artistic director for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. They created a community engagement process that involved a year of choral workshops in Portland, and a lot of the music and ceremony was devised through that process. 

“The inspiration goes back to the institutional support of Prop 8 from the Catholic and Mormon churches,” Waller said. “It pissed me off. Whenever biblical literalists point to the Bible to excuse and explain any of their bigoted and hateful behavior, it’s such a farce. These texts were never intended to justify anyone’s hate or discrimination. So I thought an intervention into institutional religious space would be an interesting artistic gesture. The form of the requiem mass seemed ripe for the picking because it’s something that became a concert form in the 20th century. It migrated away from the church. I thought, well, we can migrate it back, and in doing that apply a highly theatrical construct that affirms queerness.

“No religious ceremony ever needed to be anti-LGBTQ. That was a cultural construct that used religion as a device towards its own ends,” Waller continued. “One of the points the piece tries to make is that a cultural practice of ceremony does not have to be like that. A lot of the participants in this piece aren’t religious, and a lot of them are. It’s a very interesting mix, and the way that we interpret the language in the libretto that’s been drawn from the Bible is much more open-ended. The project has this uncanny balance between being very much High Church, and totally unlike anything anyone familiar with church would have experienced to this date.”

Honoring queer and trans lives that have been lost seems especially poignant, with the current administration’s attacks on transgender identity and a spike in hate crimes since Trump was elected president. (International Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20.)  

“I’ve been an out gay artist since the 1990s,” Waller said. “And I can tell you it freaked me out over the last five or six years when, after marriage equality, arts and human rights foundations began sidelining LGBTQ issues in this way that indicated a certain satisfaction with where that had arrived, like ‘OK we’re done.’ It alarmed me because backtreading is always right around the corner—and is now thoroughly upon us. There are many areas including gender and race that are being critically threatened by this hateful Republican regime. But LGBTQ is the low-hanging fruit to attack, to rally their base. And even if they are only doing it to rally a base of ignorant support, it still produces actual hate, actual violence, actual injustice.

“That’s why it’s more important than ever that we are culturally exploring how to spread a message of love and peace and tolerance and equity. Not just for the LGBTQ community, but for the most marginalized voices within the LGBTQ community. This is something the project has focused on, and as we’ve gathered as a group, it’s become clear that all of us are feeling a great support from each other at a time when all of these awful things are happening.

“Catharsis for the audience is on the table, but we’re also focusing on the peaceful repose of the persecuted, and the relationship the past can have with the present. The agitation of their souls can reflect the oppressed present.”

Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Rite
Fri/16 and Sat/17
7:30pm, $16.50-$36.50
Grace Cathedral, SF
More info here

In ‘Pike St.,’ embodying a caring community in crisis mode

Nilaja Sun in 'Pike St.' at Berkeley Rep's Peet's Theater

ONSTAGE Playwright and performer Nilaja Sun thinks maybe one day someone will do research into solo shows and shamanism.

“How is it possible for one body to embody all these different folks?” she asked. “It’s just pure empathy.”

In Pike St, her show coming to the Berkeley Repertory Theater (November 17-December 16), Sun embodies multiple characters on the Lower East Side of Manhattan getting ready for a hurricane. In No Child, a show that also came to the Berkeley Rep, and won just about every award for solo performance, including an Obie, she did the same thing with a drama teacher and her students at a Bronx high school. 

After Hurricane Sandy, the Lower East Side, where Sun grew up, didn’t have water or electricity for two weeks. This inspired Pike St. Sun says none of the characters in her play are imagined—they are all based on people in her life who mean something to her. She wanted to make an invisible community visible, she says, and to use real names in the program, like that of her grandmother, Dolores Vasquez Vega.

Sun calls this play a love letter to her LES community. Finding themselves without electricity and water after the hurricane, the neighborhood residents looked out for one another. 

“It was really neighbors helping neighbors,” she said. “I wanted people next time there’s a hurricane because, oh, there will be a next time, to think about the disabled and the elderly and folks who could use a knock on the door saying, ‘Mrs. Applebaum, could I get you anything? Do you need food? Do you want me to call your son?’” 

Nilaja Sun in ‘Pike St.’

Sun describes herself as a physical actor, creating all these characters, and says that doing this for 90 minutes, six or seven times a week, is a labor of love. What she values, she says, is a good director, who can tell her what the audience is seeing. She sometimes asks her director (in this case, Rick Rosenbaum of the Epic Theatre Ensemble) to tell her if he’s addressing her as the writer of the play or as an actor, since she’s both.

To be able to do the work of performing, Sun says she has to lead a sort of monastic existence during the weeks of the run, so she can give her all onstage.

“I want people coming to the Sunday matinee to get the same show people do on Tuesday night,” she said. “If people come up to me after the show and say they were waiting for other performers to come out and take a bow, I know I’ve done my job.”

For years, Sun has been teaching theater in New York high schools. It’s often these students’ first experience with theater, and to embody different character makes a real difference, she says. 

“I feel like theater reminds students that they are human,” she said. “Particularly for the students I work with who aren’t venturing out into the city, they need to know there’s a world outside their four block radius. If they can know for that for thousands of years people have been writing stories, and read the words of someone else and step into their shoes, that is true empathy with a capital ‘E’.” 

It’s important these students write their own stories, Sun thinks.

“You know we cannot be waiting for Hollywood to tell our stories,” she said. “But you have to write because something is deeply in your heart, because if you do not tell this story, you will die. Let that be your inspiration, not white guys who do not get you.”

November 17- December 16
Peet’s Theater, Berkeley Rep

Tickets and more info here

No men, no boats, no problem: ACT’s ‘Men on Boats’ is wild ride

Bradley (Katherine Romans) and Old Shady (Annemaria Rajala) aboard Kitty Clyde’s Sister navigate through the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers in Men on Boats. Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE The first thing you notice about Men in Boats at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater (through December 16) is that there are no men and there are no boats.

Well, I take that back. A slapdash concoction of wood slats and chairs depict boats. And a full complement of women actors on stage announce themselves as the male explorers of the Colorado River.

Within minutes—thanks to the vibrant acting and expressive agility of the cast—you believe that these actors are men and these sticks of furniture are boats.

And that is just the beginning of the suspension of disbelief. The play, directed by Tamilla Woodard, is a raucous, rollicking journey through treacherous whitewater rapids in search of a canyon that turns out to be truly grand.

Jaclyn Backhaus’s imaginative retelling of the story of the 1869 expedition of the one-armed Civil War officer John Wesley Powell (Liz Sklar) is based on his actual journals. Ten local women actors portray his motley crew of trackers, trappers, mappers, teenage war veterans, and adventurers. Backhaus’s script requires that the cast be “racially diverse actors who are female-identifying, trans-identifying, genderfluid and/or non-gender conforming.” Director Woodard notes, “In a story about white guys conquering the Grand Canyon, this may feel a bit disorienting, but it allows us to see something differently.”

Woodard’s direction is brilliant. With the collaboration of movement coach Danyon Davis, the troupe is choreographed with the complexity of a ballet, the humor of vaudeville slapstick and the breathtaking tension of high wire acrobats.

Lisa-Hori-Garcia and Lauren Spencer, engaging as the rough Howland brothers, Seneca and O.G., are especially intriguing when they double as the Ute tribal leaders, Chief Tsauwiat and his wife The Bishop, whom the famished white explorers must turn to for food. Amy Lizardo as Hawkins, the expedition’s cook, battles a rattlesnake with powerful ferocity, her last hope for dinner. Annemaria Rajala’s Old Shady, Major Powell’s brother and fellow veteran, portrays Civil War-era PTSD, drifting into nonsense songs that are both melancholy and moving.

The crew of the Emma Dean gets tossed overboard after their boat becomes wedged between two rocks and capsizes forcing the other expeditioners to come to their rescue in Men on Boats. Photo by Kevin Berne

Men in Boats is physical comedy at its best: against a stylized map of the newly charted Colorado River region, we are right there with the actors when they are hanging off the edge of a cliff, spinning out of control in a whirlpool, or literally facing off in a dispute about rations of tobacco.

When the rickety boats headed down a steep waterfall, I found myself gripping the sides of the theater seat, white-knuckled. But mapmaker Hall’s (Rosie Hallett) absolute joy at the precipitous descent was contagious. I was thrilled to be on the journey with this eccentric, endearing crew – and so will you. It’s a great ride. 

through December 16
A.C.T.’s Strand Theater
More info here

Sisters tell stories of undocumented Filipina caregivers in ‘Chasing Papeles’

'Chasing Papeles' writer and director Andrea Almario, left, with her co-director sister, Aureen Almario, right, and mom Rose Almario, who helped develop the show.

ONSTAGE For her masters’ thesis in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, Aureen Almario wrote about the stories of undocumented people. Telling those stories through the play Chasing Papeles, which she co-directs with her sister, Andrea Alamario, feels much truer.

“Theater is intimate and powerful and you’re all in the same space. It has a different impact as opposed to a book sitting in a library,” she said. “I feel like I didn’t tell it the way I wanted to. It’s not my language. The theater language is the way I speak best.”

Aureen is the artistic director of Bindlestiff Studio, the Filipinx-focused Bay Area theater company which is putting on Chasing Papeles. Aureen and her sister as well as their mom, Rose, have been involved with Bindlestiff for a while, and while she thinks there are definite challenges to running a community theater without a ton of money, there are advantages as well.  

“It’s a very DIY type of environment, and we get to do the content we want,” she said. “There’s a certain freedom to that. We do music shows and punk shows and do a lot of cultivating new artists’ works.” 

Actors Rose Almario and Aureen Almario in a 2016 production of ‘Chasing Papeles’ at UC Berkeley. Photo courtesy of Allesandra Mello.

Andrea wrote Chasing Papeles for her masters’ thesis in theater at University of California, Berkeley, and Aureen played a lead role in it when it was produced in 2016.The play is set in a senior care home in the SoMa neighborhood where Bindlestiff is located. Aureen says recent news about home care workers in the Bay Area who were trafficked and exploited were part of the inspiration for the play.

“There are so many layers and so many different experiences immigrants have,” she said. “It’s not just one story that’s being told, and some perspectives are still missing. There’s still a lot we don’t know.”

Andrea came here from the Philippines in 1991 and got into theater after taking a class at Chabot College. She wrote a short play based on stories she heard from Filipina caregivers, and she incorporated some of those stories into this play as well. She says theater was an outlet for her and her sister and mom.

“It was a way to have a voice in the US when we felt very silent,” she says. “My theater is influenced and shaped by my undocumented life.”

Andrea works as a dental hygienist and has started a nonprofit, the Magic Toothbrush, which uses theater to teach about oral health in the schools. Like her sister, Andrea thinks theater can have a real impact. 

“I feel like with the characters in a play, there’s a more human touch,” she said. “When you watch a performance, you get invested in the characters, and see the relationships. It’s different than just hearing a lecture or something.” 

Andrea looks forward to putting on Chasing Papeles at Bindlestiff. She has made some changes to the play since it was first performed at Berkeley. 

“The most exciting thing is we wrote new music for the last song, and I think that created the missing link. Now that final song is a hopeful ending that added a nice touch to this very sad story,” she said. “There’s a lot more movement—I had a lot of help to create my vision. Sometimes there are things you can’t say in words and through movement and music, it hits the spot.”

November 1-17
Bindlestiff Studio, San Francisco,
Tickets and more info here

A timely, unrelenting family drama unfolds at Magic Theatre

James Carpenter, Emilie Talbot, Emily Radosevich, and Martha Brigham in the World Premiere of Ashlin Halfnight's THE RESTING PLACE at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

ONSTAGE When Annie (Martha Brigham) opens the front door of her family home at the beginning of Magic Theatre’s “The Resting Place” (through November 4), dressed in knee-high boots and trailing a carry-on roller bag, and calls out, “Mom? Dad?” we are set up for conventional family drama. That expectation is underscored by the neat, but bland, living room—coffee table, armchair, blinds on the picture window, a couch covered with a faded Mexican blanket. And also by the entry of her mother Angela (Emilie Talbot), wearing a jokey apron, who gives Annie a perfunctory hug and asks the familiar question, “How was the flight.”

Then Annie’s father Mitch (James Carpenter) comes home, laden with groceries, and her younger sister Macy (Emily Radosevich) returns from bringing a bag of clothes to the Goodwill. Their initial conversations are also cheery and conventional.

But those quiet, commonplace opening scenes belie the gripping drama that follows—and doesn’t let up.

Martha Brigham and Emily Radosevich in the World Premiere of Ashlin Halfnight’s THE RESTING PLACE at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

Annie, a young mother and environmental activist living in San Francisco, has cut short a yoga retreat to come back to Detroit to help prepare for her older brother Travis’s funeral.

But something is amiss. Annie, efficiently planning a list of all the tasks she will to take on to arrange the church service, the obituary and flowers, is rebuffed by her parents and sister: they have decided there will be no public memorial. They simply want to scatter Travis’s ashes in a remote camping spot he loved.

Annie is dumbfounded by their decision. Mitch tells her that the church will not allow Travis to be buried in the family plot and, “Even if we had a funeral, it would be overrun with people from six different counties, and all of them would be throwing rocks and holding signs.”

“The Resting Place,” having its world premier as the opener of the Magic Theatre’s 51st season, is no ordinary family drama—raising some very ugly questions. It was written by Ashlin Halfnight, an award-winning writer for stage, film and television. Halfnight is both a Fulbright Scholar and a former professional hockey player with the Carolina Hurricanes.

This explosive tragedy examines a family torn apart by different responses to a crisis, even when everyone is acting out of the best of motives. Do you stop loving a son or a brother when he has committed unimaginable evils? Is it worth it to keep the family together at all costs? After all, what else is there?

James Carpenter and the cast of Ashlin Halfnight’s THE RESTING PLACE at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

Gradually it is revealed that Travis, once considered a beloved teacher and science camp director, committed suicide in the aftermath of heinous crimes. This has brought great shame on the family. Their home is besieged by aggressive reporters and photographers, the police have taken their cell phones and computers and his parents are traumatized each time they see the dentist, their business partners, and even the bagger at the grocery, who all know what their son has done. The family has hunkered down behind closed doors, until Annie arrives. Angela doesn’t want her daughter to open the blinds because “They have telephoto lenses. Like sniper rifles.”

Annie throws all kinds of accusations at her parents. They knew he had problems, they ignored his pleas for help, they don’t love him enough to honor his memory. Her tone—alternating between self-righteous and more self-righteous—is relentless. Just like Antigone, who wants to bury her brother despite social opprobrium, this prodigal daughter is at odds with the rest of her family.

As Annie digs in her heels, Angela retreats into the bottle and Macy tries to make peace. But the antagonism between Mitch and his daughter Annie escalates to a fever pitch. The first act is almost unbearably intense, with blame and threats flying thick and fast.

Martha Brigham and Wiley Naman Strasser in the World Premiere of Ashlin Halfnight’s THE RESTING PLACE at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

The only moment to exhale comes when Annie has a comforting, marijuana-laced conversation with her brother’s former partner Liam (Wiley Naman Strasser), relishing sweet memories of Travis’s generous, warm qualities and their love for him. When she apologizes that she may be preachy because of the weed, Liam teases her, “Girlfriend, you’re full-time dramatic and preachy. All the minutes of all the days. It’s your thing.”

In that scene, unlike any moment with her family members, Annie almost wavers in her determination to insist on a public church funeral for her brother. Almost, but not quite.

This talented cast, directed by Jessica Holt, has created a believable, sympathetic family thrown into chaos. In the confines of a conventional living room, their raw emotions roil, ranging from sorrow to rage and back again. Their attempts to deal with what Mitch calls “the worst moment of their lives” pull at your heartstrings and every last nerve.

The Resting Place was first produced as a dramatic reading in the Magic Theatre’s 2017 Virgin Play Festival. Magic’s artistic director Loretta Greco calls Halfnight, “a provocative addition to our family of writers.” And this play proves her right about that.

The drama raises questions that are probing and deeply disturbing. A little breathing space would allow for more reflection of those questions even if—as the playwright implies—there are no answers.

Through November 4
Magic Theatre, SF
More info here

From uproarious meme to poignant play (with salad)

Having the last laugh? Playwright Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Bronwen Sharp

ONSTAGE Sheila Callaghan appreciates a good meme. Several friends, knowing this, sent her the notorious one of “Women Laughing Alone with Salad,” after the blog Hairpin highlighted stock photos of women who looking awfully happy with their bowls of greens. 

Callaghan found the meme stuck with her, and she kept thinking about how people use images like these to sell products—and about the idealized version of women who need nothing but a salad to delight them. The things that occupy her mind are what she ends up writing about, so she wrote a play, titled after the meme, now at Shotgun Players (through November 11) in Berkeley. 

Before writing Women Laughing Alone with Salad, which explores gender roles, sexism, and marketing—memorable lines include “I’m sorry I let you ass-rape me. It won’t happen again”—Callaghan wrote three monologues, imagining what the women eating the salad were thinking. Then she decided she needed to look at a man’s perspective as well.

“I started wondering who was projecting this ideal female,” she said. “It’s fun to talk about who’s getting affected, but it’s interesting to talk about the people who are doing the affecting.”

Callaghan has written more than 20 other plays, founded The Kilroys company (“We Make Trouble and Plays” is the motto), and also writes for TV, including the Showtime comedy Shameless. She wrote Women Laughing Alone with Salad when Obama was in office: With the current administration, she says the play feels different. 

Callaghan says she used to have a lot of empathy for men who felt like they’d been promised things, only to have them taken away. After the Senate hearings on accused attempted rapist Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, that empathy has mostly dried up. She says that, sadly, she wasn’t surprised by Kavanaugh’s reaction in the hearings.  

“He acted shocked,” she said. “Women have to be 100 different kinds of women to be successful, and men only have to be one kind—assertive and dominant.”

She’s gotten complicated responses from people seeing the play, Callaghan says, and she’s not sure how people will react to it now with the current administration, and what she describes as a kind of cultural rage.

“A lot of people are so angry. I’m definitely one of them. And a lot of people are confused. And I’m one of them, too,” she said. “This is tricky because there’s this giant public figure enacting his worst self on women and feeling baffled by the response.”

That feeling of bafflement is what Callaghan wanted to understand when she wrote the play. Now, she says, she’s less interested in understanding. 

“If I were writing it now, I’m not sure I would bother with the empathy part,” she said. “I’ve been rewriting it, and my empathy has gotten smaller. Indictment has gotten bigger. It’s hard to tell because I’m so close to it, but now it feels a little more pointed.”

Through November 11
Shotgun Players, Berkeley 
Tickets and more info here

Pucks to plays: Former hockey pro brings drama to Magic Theatre

Playwright Ashlin Halfnight's 'The Resting Place' is at Magic Theatre through November 4. Photo by Gabriel Frye-Behar

ONSTAGE Ashlin Halfnight sees a lot of parallels between his former career as a professional hockey player and his current one as a playwright. 

“It seems weird to say, because most people think of sports, especially contact sports, at one end, and arts and theater at the other end. But really, they’re much closer cousins,” he said. “You have to work as a team to bring your best forward and the season and process is long. And on any given night one person may not be at their best, and it’s up to others to pull them up.

Halfnight in his hockey days

“Also, you need discipline for the writing like you do to train to be a high-level athlete. And sometimes, particularly with first drafts, there’s a kind of zone I can drop into where I channel the play and voices and characters. It’s sort of like what can happen in sports when you get out of your own way and let the game flow through you.”

Halfnight, who writes for TV and movies as well, has a play opening at the Magic Theatre this month, The Resting Place, which was part of the theater’s Virgin Play Festival last year. The Magic feels like his theatrical home, Halfnight says.  

“I think the theater is an amazing place as far as supporting playwrights and investing in process,” he said. “Most theaters pay lip service to that, but they put on a reading and kiss you goodbye. The Magic actually puts blood and sweat and tears into it.”

Halfnight is happy to be working again with Jessica Holt, who was his director for the original reading of the play. That means they both know where they want the play to go and have a shared vocabulary, he said. 

In The Resting Place, a family is dealing with the aftermath of a terrible situation, in “a cloudburst of crisis—filled with raw humor, piercing darkness and fierce love.” Halfnight says some of it comes from thinking about Sophocles’ Antigone as well as what we owe our families and communities—and what we do when those come into conflict. His writing sometimes comes from personal experiences and stories in the news, he says, but he wants to explore topics that aren’t so familiar. 

“Basically, I like to make shit up,” he said. 

First cast reading of ‘The Resting Place’ at Magic Theatre. Photo by Sonia Fernandez

Halfnight, who has an MFA from Columbia University in playwriting, got into working in film when one of his plays was optioned for a movie, for which he wrote the screenplay. He says film and TV have a more segmented approach than plays, and he enjoys the collaborative aspect of theater: It’s more hands-on, and you can inhabit a story as it evolves. “The Resting Place,” in particular, benefits from this. 

“With theater we all come and sit in a dark room together,” he said. “The questions the play is wrestling with are better served by that.”

It’s important to Halfnight that he writes something engaging and entertaining for the audience to chew on. His previous plays have gained critical applause for his approach to such moral dilemmas and his writing style. (The New York Times has praised his “punchy, coarse dialogue” and called him “deliriously imaginative.” 

“One of most boring things is going to the theater and being told what to think,” he said. “Hopefully, you’re so engrossed in the story that you stumble out and then start to process it. It should ideally be funny and heartbreaking and fun and fast – all the things life and good entertainment should be.”

Again, Halfnight says how thrilled he is to be at the Magic, which gets a lot of respect in the theater world, he thinks. 

“The history and legacy of the Magic in new play world is pretty incredible especially given their size,” he said. “They’re a theater that punches way above their weight.”

Through Nov. 4
Magic Theatre, San Francisco
Tickets and more info here

Chekhov, with some curveballs, in Cutting Ball’s ‘Uncle Vanya’

George Saulnier and Virginia Blanco in Cutting Ball's 'Uncle Vanya.' Photo courtesy of Ben Krantz

ONSTAGE George Saulnier plays the title role in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which opens the Cutting Ball Theater’s 20th anniversary season (through October 21). Saulnier feels the Russian writer is somewhat misunderstood. 

“He’s a lot funnier than people realize,” he said. “He’s very human. I like his humanness.”

Saulnier trained with Paige Rogers (the play’s director and the co-founder of the Cutting Ball with her husband Rob Melrose) at the Trinity Rep. Every few years after she and Melrose started Cutting Ball, she would call Saulnier to try and get him to come out, be in a play. Saulnier, who spent over a decade with Boston’s Rough and Tumble Theater and now lives in Pittsburg, could never do it. Until now. 

He’s glad to be in Uncle Vanya, which he thinks is about depression and loss and everything dripping away before you’re ready for it to. With some funny elements! You know—Chekhov. And Saulnier likes playing the role of Vanya. 

“He shows a lot of himself, and you have to be open and go to scary places to do it right. I find that gratifying,” he said. “Recently I was in Anne Frank, and I played the dentist who is sort of there as comic relief. It’s a very simple task – he’s sort of shortsighted and blunt and kind of obvious. With what I’m doing now, I don’t know how it’s going to land.”

In the play, Vanya, who once was considered a brilliant intellectual, feels he has wasted years managing the family farm. Now his dead sister’s husband, a retired professor, and his much younger wife have returned to the farm with Vanya’s niece. Vanya’s mother lives there as well, and a doctor keeps showing up to treat the professor’s gout, only to be sent away. As often happens in Chekhov’s stories, nearly everybody seems to be in love with someone who doesn’t feel the same about them. They also drink copious amounts of tea and take shots of vodka. 

George Saulnier, Nancy Sans and Adam Magill. Photo courtesy of Ben Krantz

Rogers has said she’s been interested in Uncle Vanya since teaching a class on Chekhov at an arts high school, finding the characters’ interactions true to life. Now, she says, she sees the play as being about work and how work impacts our self-esteem. 

Saulnier also sees a preoccupation with work in the play. Although they find it unfulfilling, some characters, including Vanya, say they need to work in order to distract themselves from their problems in life. 

“It’s definitely in the text,” he said. “All the characters talk about work, although it’s different. In 18th century Russia, there was a hard line class-wise between the working class and the upper middle class and the aristocrats.”

The staging of the play includes the characters sometimes speaking into mics that hang from the ceiling and climbing on scaffold-like shelving on the sides of the stage. Saulnier says he doesn’t like experimentation just for the sake of it, but in this case he thinks it works. The mics, for example, spotlighting certain ideas and creating intimacy in some moments. 

“I like using off-beat things as long as you’re enhancing the play,” he said. “It should be trying to communicate the story and serve the text.”

Through Oct. 21
Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco
More info here

ACT’s ‘Sweat’ asks: When does class solidarity end and racism begin?

The cast of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama, 'Sweat,' running through Octovber 21 at ACT. Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE  The tavern setting is a familiar trope for American theater and television—think Langston Hughes’ Simple series, Casablanca, The Iceman Cometh, or Friends. It offers both an intimate setting where habitués share their most intimate feelings, and a public place where issues of universal importance—like the economy, racism, addiction—can’t help but intrude. The doors are always open, so anyone can walk in, and sometimes they do, upsetting the whole equilibrium.

The local bar in Reading, Pennsylvania is the perfect place for Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat (through October 21 at ACT). Everyone there has a direct relationship to the local declining steel industry: Bartender Stan (Rod Gnapp) worked at the factory for almost three decades before a machine malfunction permanently injured his leg, a trio of women friends traditionally celebrate their birthdays there, their sons come in always hoping for some new kind of beer. Even the taciturn busboy Oscar (Jed Parsario) hopes to quit hauling cartons of booze and get a job at the mill one day.

Though the play was first produced in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and later at New York’s Public Theater, it’s hard to imagine a more talented, energetic, and tightly-knit ensemble than the cast in this ACT production.

The Brooklyn-based Nottage was sparked to write the play after visiting the Occupy Wall Street site in 2011 with a friend who was in financial straits. It led her to ponder, “Why suddenly do we have one percent which has so much wealth, and a majority that’s beginning to suffer in ways that we haven’t seen since the Depression.

Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon) and Cynthia (Tonye Patano) discussthe rumors that their positions could be outsourced to Mexico, with Tracey (Lise Bruneau) in the background. Photo by Kevin Berne

 A Yale Drama School graduate, Nottage takes her research seriously. She won her first Pulitizer for Ruined, a play about women in war-torn Congo, which was inspired by her four-year stint at Amnesty International. For Sweat, she headed to the Rust Belt and interviewed women and men left behind when the steel plants were shuttered and moved overseas. She learned first-hand about the catastrophic impact the closing of the factories had on families who had worked in them for generations.

Director Loretta Greco, the artistic director the Magic Theatre and a long-time admirer of Nottage, had seen the Ashland production of Sweat and welcomed the opportunity to direct it at the Geary Theater when invited by ACT’s new artistic director Pamela MacKinnon. “I’m kind of a class warrior,” Greco said, “We so rarely have genuine pieces of work in our culture that deal with the working class, that recognize the beauty and dignity of what it is to really believe in hard work and your piece of that bigger American Dream.” She hopes the audience will “re-engage with this whole swath of people who have been marginalized through no fault of their own.”

Though almost the entire play is set in a neighborhood bar, Greco contextualizes the patrons’ personal dramas with the aid of dramatic black-and-white illuminated images of working steel mills and factories in decline. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce and production designer Hana S. Kim effectively intersperse news footage above the neon signs of the bar to remind audiences of NAFTA, Y2K, 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the economic crisis of 2008.

Nottage delves deeply into both the overt and the subtle racial conflicts in this working class community. The trio of women friends at the heart of the drama, two African American and one white, have all worked at Olstead’s Mill, a steel tubing plant, for more than two decades. They’ve shared life’s laughs and sorrows, gossiping and dancing to the jukebox in the bar for just as long. Tracey (Lisa Bruneau), Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon), and Cynthia (Tonye Patano) are all bright and engaging—until outside pressures bring their flaws to the surface: Tracey can’t help blaming her troubles on immigrants and assuming she was passed up for promotion because she is white. Cynthia is so ambitious that she is willing to betray her fellow workers, including her best friends and her son, and Jessie’s retreat into alcohol often leaves her with her face planted on a barroom table.

Cynthia’s son Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris) and Tracey’s son Jason (David Darrow) are also friends who work at the steel plant. Chris is planning to go to college and become a high school teacher, while Jason, saving up for a powerful used Harley, tries to convince his friend that their futures are more financially secure at the plant. But when they discover that the owners have removed machinery in the middle of the night and try to force the workers to accept longer hours and pay cuts, both young men rally around the union’s attempt to fight the concessions.

Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (Chike Johnson) was locked out of the nearby textile plant for 93 weeks because workers there wouldn’t accept management’s offer of a 50% pay cut and the elimination of their retirement plan. Though he still tries to wake up in time to walk the picket line, he has sunk so deeply into drug addiction, that he tries to cadge money from his hard-working son and absconds with his wife’s presents and valuable tropical fish on Christmas Eve.

As the situation gets more desperate, Tracey and Jason reveal that the owners have put out Spanish-language leaflets offering up jobs at cut-rate wages. They blame the Latino workers—including Oscar—for crossing their picket line and stealing their jobs. Their accusations lead to disaster not only for them, but for Chris, Oscar, and bartender Stan.

The language is so colloquial—often downright vulgar—that it’s easy to believe you are overhearing barroom conversations. But Nottage does not shy away from the deeper, more nuanced problems her increasingly desperate characters face. She asks the tough question: When does class solidarity end and racism begin? When union loyalist Brucie feels ignored by his shop steward because he is black? When working class Tracey, who takes pride in the work of her German immigrant grandfather, accuses Oscar of “coming over” to take their jobs?

“The revolution I’m interested in,” Nottage explained, “is the one that’s happening right now. The revolution of de-industrialization.”

Nottage does not flinch from showing how decisions of distant capitalists slice deep gashes into the lives of the workers. It is painful to watch the actors sink under the weight of their hardship, frustration and anger. But if we cannot bear these truths from the stage, how will we ever begin to grapple with them in real life?

Through October 21 at ACT
Geary Theater, SF. 
More info here