Onstage

Dan Hoyle’s border-crossing art of empathy

Dan Hoyle. Photo by Peter Prato

ONSTAGE Bay Area writer-performer Dan Hoyle, with his smart and poignant brand of journalistic theater, is at it again with his latest solo show, Border People (extended through August 30 at the Marsh). The 75-minute piece takes us on a journey into the lives of 11 characters who are straddling borders of culture, geography, and socio-economic class. 

The characters in the show, all played by Hoyle, tell stories about the borders they’ve crossed, willingly or unwillingly, throughout their lives. The characters include an African American Navy vet who owns a food cart in Manhattan and tries to appease both white and Black communities by dressing in business casual while rocking Jordans; a deported HIV+ Mexican man who must choose between a dangerous attempt to get back to the US or dying closeted in Mexico; a temporarily US-situated teenager from Kabul who reflects on how the sunrise after his American high school prom reminds him of a sunrise the morning after he lived through a bombing in Afghanistan; and a gay, pagan farmer who lives off the land without electricity in Southern Arizona and occasionally helps Mexican migrants survive the border-crossing journey. 

In a plain t-shirt and a pair of jeans, Hoyle fluidly morphs from one character to the next, sometimes speaking Spanish, other times taking on a strong accent or dialect, the portrayals so authentic that he seems to be channeling his characters rather than performing at all. In part, that’s because the characters aren’t fictional—they’re based on people he’s met in his travels; in part, it’s because, when it comes to performing, he’s simply that good. 

Border People is Hoyle’s sixth solo show that’s premiered at the Marsh Theater, all of which have been based on live interviews he’s done with people from all walks of life. While he calls his work journalistic theater, it goes beyond both journalism and theater. He’s not simply telling people’s stories; he’s creating cross-cultural connection in a disconnected world, and asking us to do the same. I spoke with Hoyle, 39, to talk about his latest show, his life’s work to date, and his own experience with crossing borders. 

KAREN MACKLIN  You were introduced to theater at a young age through your dad, Geoff Hoyle, who was a prominent Bay Area actor. Is theater what got you interested in cross-cultural exploration?

DAN HOYLE Actually, it was growing up in the city and taking buses. We lived in Portrero Hill, so we’d take the 48—by the end of the ride, we’d be the only white kids in the back of the bus. Or when I would go to the park and play pick-up basketball. That’s the great thing about growing up in a city. Before you even know what’s happening, you’re all doing ethnographic research. You’re making friends and figuring out how not to piss each other off on the basketball court. I’ve always been more comfortable in environments where everyone didn’t all look like me.

Photo by Peter Prato

KM So you decided to make theater out of your experiences?

DH When I was at school at Northwestern, doing straight theater didn’t seem as interesting to me as the theater of the street that I was locking into at the time. Northwestern is in Evanston, which is a suburb, and I missed city life. So I would take the train to Chicago at night and get off at some random stop and just kind of talk to people. It was my way to feel connected to something beyond the bubble that is any college campus. 

KM Is that when you started creating the kind of solo shows that you do today?

DH Yeah. On Howard Street in Chicago, there was this basketball court I would go to play on, and I was the only white guy. At first, people would call me Dan Aykroyd and Wayne Gretzky, super generic white guy names. But then once I proved myself as a player, I started to get called The Professor. The guys were really cool and I ended up hanging out there a ton. That experience turned into my first performance. It was a 20-minute performance piece called Stuck Up: Hoops on Howard. “Stuck up” is slang for the ball getting stolen. That show was a big step for me. After that, came Circumnavigator, which was based on a trip I took around the world, and then Tings Dey Happen, which I developed after getting a Fulbright to live in the oil delta of Nigeria for a year.

KM It seems you’ve made a life out of intentionally placing yourself in situations where the culture, language, or societal norms are different from the ones you were brought up in. What’s important to you about having that experience? Does it feel like a spiritual calling, in some way?

DH I’m not really religious, but the longer I do it, there is a spiritual dimension to it. There’s something profound about the way I’ve been able to connect with people from massively different backgrounds on a really intimate level, and I want to encourage other people to do that. I think getting out of your comfort zone is one of the treats of being a human being. I’ve been doing it professionally for almost 20 years now. Also, I know everyone can’t just go out and do this, so I’m happy to give people that experience through my theater pieces.

Audience members often tell me they are moved to reach out in their own communities, or dive deeper into social justice or social service work, from seeing my shows. During one run of Each And Every Thing, we raised $3,000 in post-show audience donations to help a guy featured in the play to get secure housing and pursue his career in stand-up comedy. So that’s the point. To expand the empathy within us.

KM As a white guy portraying folks from all ethnic backgrounds in your shows, do you ever feel concerned about misrepresenting a culture or offending someone unintentionally?

DH As a white guy, I have a choice. Only portray my type, or portray a very diverse group of folks I’ve met. To me, the more interesting answer is the latter. In order to do that well, you have to really do the research, you have to put in the time. It’s a real honor and it’s ethically complex to do this work, and I work hard to do it right. This involves being very transparent about what I’m doing with the communities and people I interact with, getting their permission to tell their stories, and developing relationships that often continue past the process of creating the show.

There’s a lot of conversation right now about cultural appropriation and I think that dialogue is important. And this type of work certainly can be done poorly and be a problem. But I do sometimes fear that people are so worried that they can’t understand each other’s experience that we don’t even try to understand each other’s experience. To me that’s not progressive. It’s a political and cultural tribalism that is happening on both the right and the left. I don’t think it’s healthy and it’s just not true to my experience. I hope my work shows that there’s another way to have cross-cultural interactions that are interesting and dynamic, and have value. 

Photo by Peter Prato

KM How do people react to your wanting to tell their stories on stage?

DH They’re often very excited. They feel pride and dignity in having their lives, which are often overlooked or ignored by our culture, held up onstage and acknowledged and celebrated as being meaningful. Several of the people whose stories I tell have been inspired to write their own story. An ex-militant in Nigeria, who is now a close friend, wrote his autobiography after seeing my show Tings Dey Happen in Nigeria.

KM Do you consider your work political?

DH Obviously, everything about what I do is tied up in political, socio-economic, and cultural questions. But it’s also about the humanity. I try to portray people in all their complexity. Like in Border People, one minute I’m talking to an older Black guy in the Bronx about police-involved shootings and the legacy of racism in America, and it’s super intense. Then the next moment, he’s laughing, saying he’s gotta go because his wife wants to get a fourth Teacup Yorkie. You don’t always see that in political theater. The complexity, the messiness. 

KM Your last show, Each and Every Thing, asked timely questions about whether technology is robbing us of human connection. And your show before that, Real Americans, took us through the heartland of our country to better understand the diversity of views and opinions during political upheaval in the US. What inspired Border People?

DH I was an artist in residence at Columbia University between 2016-2017. Basically the charge was to create a new solo show. Then Trump got elected on my son’s first birthday. We’d hung up a happy birthday banner on the TV and it was still there as the votes were coming in later that night. I felt like I had to respond to this new reality.

KM Were you concerned about his immigration policies with Mexico?

Yes, but also all of the borders people cross every day in our country. First, I met Jarrett, the Navy vet who grew up in upper middle-class New Jersey and now lives in the projects. He was talking about the way he has to code switch by wearing khakis and Jordans. Then I read about the refugee safehouses on the Northern border of the US and learned that’s where people who were scared about their status were going, to try to flee to Canada, now that Trump was elected.

And I had been hanging out in the Andrew Jackson projects in the Bronx for a couple of years, too, and thought of that as another border because most people who aren’t from the projects don’t go into the projects. My exploration of the Southern border was last. I have a lot of love for all of the characters. They’re interesting, funny, and surprising. And I feel like I’m a border person, too, a culture border crosser.

Photo by Peter Prato

KM You were born and raised in San Francisco. Do you feel like your work has been influenced by the city, itself?

DH As a kid, it was all mixed up here. I remember from a young age people would talk about their ethnicities. I had friends who were Mexican, Black and German, or Filipino and Irish. There was a strength and an honesty about it. San Francisco is a way different city today. I live in Oakland now and it feels more like San Francisco did in the ‘80s and ‘90s when I grew up, and I’m glad my son is going to experience that. But yes, there’s a kind of a fearlessness in the Bay, a hybridity and cross pollination of cultures that has always existed in a very organic way, and has always been understood as part of the culture. That’s huge and intrinsic to my work. 

KM How has your work—and the stories of people you’ve met—affected you?

DH I carry all of these stories with me. I think about my friend See Know on the South Side of Chicago every day. I think about Okosi in Nigeria, about my Vietnamese translators in Vietnam, about the coal miners in Kentucky. After 20 years of doing this, all I know is that the only way to move through the world is to be more curious, open, and empathetic with everyone you meet. 

BORDER PEOPLE
July 19-August 30
The Marsh, SF.
Tickets and more info here

“What does it mean to be a good person?”

The cast of 'The Good Person of Szechwan.' Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE Isn’t trampling other people exhausting work? The vein on your forehead bulges from the strain of being greedy.

This is the question that Shen Te, a prostitute with a heart of gold, poses when confronting evil in Bertold Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan (at Cal Shakes through July 21).

But she has also shown us how exhausting it is to be good.

“What does it mean to be a good person?” is the central question of this play. If you have any doubts about that, the backdrop of  Michael Locher’s set, will dispel them: Huge letters outlined in electric lights spell “G-O-O-D.” At key moments, the lights blink, sometimes they flash, sometimes they go dark, leaving us with “O” or “G-O-D.” 

The question is as timely now as it was when Brecht first wrote the play, as an exile from Nazi Germany. 

This is the first time that a Brecht play has been produced at Cal Shakes, and if Brecht was bold to write it in 1943, Artistic Director Eric Ting is equally as bold in putting it on a 21st Century stage, which is not always welcoming to agit-prop theater.

Yet after seven decades, Brecht’s play, translated by Wendy Arons and adapted by Tony Kushner, is surprising, at times uproarious, and always riveting, even as the underlying question nags at your conscience.

The play opens with Wang the water-seller (Lance Gardner) frantically seeking lodging for a trio of gods (Phil Wong, Lily Tung Crystal and Monica Ho) who have traveled to a remote, poverty-stricken town in the province of Szechwan. Wang knows they are gods because “They’re well-fed, they don’t look like they do any work, and their shoes are dusty which means they come from far away.” All the residents ignore or refuse his plea, except for the indigent but generous Shen Te (the versatile and engaging Francesca Fernandez McKenzie). She even forfeits a paying customer so the gods can sleep in her tumble-down shack on the edge of town.

‘The Good Person of Szechwan’ at Cal Shakes. Photo by Kevin Berne

The gods reward her goodness with a sack of silver dollars—but instead of ending her troubles, their money catapults her into a sea of new ones. She purchases a tobacco shop, and is soon besieged by those who demand she share her good fortune: creditors, former landlords, and freeloaders of all sorts, with huge families in tow.  

Dubbed the “Angel of the Outskirts,” Shen Te tries to provide for them all, but the destitute conditions of the town impose a harsh reality. Her funds run out and her little space is jammed. No matter how good she is, she cannot overcome the demands of the world around her. “How can I stay good when everything is so expensive,” she laments. “The little life raft is instantly pulled under. Too many drowning people, greedy, grab hold.” 

As she struggles to be good, she falls in love with an out-of-work pilot, Yang Sun (Armando McClain) and Shu Fu, a wealthy, well-fed barber (a perfectly pompous Phil Wong) falls in love with her.

Shen Te attempts to solve her dilemma by impersonating her stern cousin Shui Ta, who is as heartless as Shen Te is kind. His way of offering the poor and hungry a better life is to force them into backbreaking work in his factory.  

Ting has assembled a star-studded creative team. The cast includes Bay Area favorites playing multiple roles: Margo Hall is both a compassionate neighbor and the manipulative mother of the pilot, Dean Linnard is hilarious as the earnest but bumbling policeman, and J Jha moves easily between roles as a bossy neighborhood busybody and an addled grandfather. 

Other versatile cast members include Anthony Fusco, Sharon Shao, Victor Talmadge, and Lily Tung Crystal, the founding director of the Lotus Theatre Company. They all sing and dance, and many play instruments as well.

Monica Lin, Margo Hall, Lily Tung Crystal, Victor Talmadge, Sharon Shao in ‘The Good Person of Szechwan.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

The original score by Min Kahng uses both Chinese and Western instruments, and the musical numbers range from hip-hop to heroic anthems where dancers strike frozen revolutionary poses, reminiscent of Chinese opera during the Mao period. 

As dramaturge Phiippa Kelly explained in a pre-performance talk (talks are held each night and are well worth attending), Brecht, although he had never been to China, was influenced by the style of Peking Opera. 

The innovative playwright was drawn to the way that characters directly addressed the audience, not via soliloquy as in Shakespeare, but by facing them and posing difficult questions. And though he was in exile in Hollywood when he wrote this play, Brecht’s style was in stark contrast to the naturalism of American theater of the time—think O’Neill, Miller and Williams.

Using stylized gestures, dance, and mime, Brecht wanted to arrest the audience’s attention. One especially moving scene is all in mime, as Shen Te imagines the child she is carrying as a young boy playing in the field, picking cherries, and hiding from the police. Particularly poignant lines or aphorisms, are marked with a gong. 

Brecht is known as the inspiration for American agit-prop theater—from El Teatro Campesino to the San Francisco Mime Troupe—and this production shows why. As Ting notes, “In Kushner’s extraordinary hands, Brecht’s exploration of human decency becomes something delightful, something contemporary, something deeply searching and deeply human.”

Though neither Brecht nor Ting provide the definitive answer of what it takes to be a “good” person in troubled times, their work answers the question what it takes to be a gutsy one.

THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHWAN
Through July 21
Cal Shakes, Orinda
Tickets and more info here

A ‘Witch Hunt’ that reverberates today

A scene from 'Witch Hunt.' Photo by W. Newton

ONSTAGE In 2014, playwright Carol Lashof and director Elizabeth Vega wanted to put on a play, Just Deserts, that Lashof had written.  

“We connected because of unusual commonality of interests – a love of classical literature and drama, and we’re both inveterate feminists who love great stories,” Lashof said. “We were frustrated trying to get our stories made, so rather than rant and rave we started making our own theater.”

The play was about the trial by jury system from the point of view of the Furies and was based on Aeschylus’s Oresteia. They produced it for the St Mary’s College Great Books Program and ended up starting their own company, Those Women Productions. 

The company is dedicated to exploring issues of gender and power, and previous productions include Unquestioned Integrity: the Hill-Thomas Hearings, Shifting Spaces, and The Lady Scribblers. Their most recent play, Witch Hunt (Fri/12-August 4 at La Val’s), opens this month. 

Several years ago, Lashof started reading about the Salem witch trials, which took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 to 1693. Nineteen people were executed and more than 150 imprisoned. Tituba was a key figure in the panic, enslaved in the house of minister Samuel Parris, and one of the first to be accused of witchcraft. 

Carol Lashof. Photo by W. Newton

“The main thing I thought I knew came from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. One of his characters is a real historical character, Abigail Williams, and he portrays her as a 17-year-old tramp. In fact, she was an 11-year-old girl,” Lashof said. “I came across a book about Tituba [Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies by Elaine Breslaw], who was widely portrayed as African and a practitioner of witchcraft, but scholars research strongly suggest she was a South American Indian woman kidnapped as a girl by English traders and enslaved in Barbados.”

Lashof says that her reading of history totally contradicted the view she and most people she knew had about the witch trials. 

“Myself and my friends were seeing it as a result of the repressed sexuality of teenage girls frustrated and fooling around in the woods,” Lashof said, referring to Miller’s play that has the girls and Tituba dancing naked in the woods. “I did think there were records of people practicing voodoo and girls running around naked in the woods. But it was one of most bitter winters in history, and the arrests started in February. Believe me, nobody was taking off their clothes and running around.” 

Another book Lashof read on the topic was In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton. 

Nathan Bogner and Renee Rogoff in ‘Witch Hunt.’ Photo by W. Newton

“In Northern New England there were ongoing Indian wars, and she was absolutely convinced that the witch trials had a lot more to do with fear of Indians than a fear of sex,” Lashof said. “The more I read the deeper I got into this complex web of causes and it was hard to figure out how to write a play about it.”

Vega and Norman Johnson, an associate artist with the company and the dramaturg on Witch Hunt, encouraged Lashof to try. When she started, she was pulling from primary sources like the transcripts of the trial and the Parris’ notebooks, but eventually she dropped that idea and began to make up scenes. Johnson and Vega thought she should introduce the character of Tituba, who historical records say was a great storyteller, early on in the play. 

There are a couple reasons Witch Hunt has resonance now, Lashof thinks. 

“One obvious superficial thing is we keep talking about witch hunts, and every time I pick up the paper, the president is complaining about witch hunts, and we’re arguing about whose truths get to be heard,” Lashof said. “Then in a deeper way the United States government and some people living here are demonizing folks they think don’t belong. Tituba, even though she’d been Christianized and assimilated, would never be accepted into Christian culture and there are clear parallels to what’s happening now with immigrants.” 

WITCH HUNT
July 12-August 4
La Val’s Subterranean Theater, Berkeley
Tickets and more information here

Bring it on, Bob the Drag Queen

Bob The Drag Queen. Photo by David Ayllon

ONSTAGE Coming in at number eight on “New York Magazine”’s “The Most Powerful Drag Queens in America” list meant next to nothing to Bob the Drag Queen.

“It didn’t mean a whole lot, to be honest,” said the RuPaul’s Drag Race season 8 winner and current host of MTV’s web series “Drag My Dad.” “I wasn’t like ‘Wow, I’m so honored that this random group of people value me. You really can’t base your worth as an artist off how much people like you. You can base the worth of your tickets on that, but not your worth as an artist.”

This life lesson was one that Torrance Shipman, the insecure, validation-hungry cheerleading captain character, in the 2000 film classic Bring It On, had to learn the hard way.

In the campy comedy, the newly promoted “cheer leader” (played by Kirsten Dunst) must learn to believe in herself as she grapples with a squad and a boyfriend who doubt her every move as well as the knowledge that her predecessor has been lifting their winning routines from a competing inner city school team, led by Isis (Gabrielle Union).

A longtime fan of the movie, Bob the Drag Queen, who was most recently seen in the 2018 Berkeley Repertory performance of Angels In America and on Netflix’s Tales Of The City, will next be seen opposite “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” season 4 winner Monét X Change and San Francisco scream queen Peaches Christ in the premiere of “Bring It On, Queen” (Sat/13 at Castro Theatre, 4pm and 8pm).

In Christ’s live, dance-heavy musical film parody, Bob and Monét play captains of two rival drag queen cheer squads competing for a national championship trophy.

I spoke to Bob the Drag Queen and Peaches Christ about the enduring appeal of “Bring It On,” the story’s socio-political relevance in 2019, and why it’s perfectly ripe for the Peaches Christ treatment.

48 HILLS What do you love about “Bring It On”?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN Bring It On is my Mean Girls. You know how people love Mean Girls? For me, that’s Bring It On. I love the campiness of it. It’s very much of that era, with the long opening credits, kinda like Legally Blonde, and it was really great to see all the talent in the movie, like the singing group Blaque. They were so big at the time, especially in Atlanta where I was from.

It also cracked me up, the real-life age difference between Gabrielle Union and Kirsten Dunst. Kirsten looks 18 and Gabrielle looks 28.

PEACHES CHRIST Bring It On is one of those teen movies that came out long after I was a teenager that I enjoyed from the first time I saw it. I think the film is really well-written, very funny, and it was a fresh look at the teen genre film when it was released, which is why I think kids embraced it so much.

One of the most refreshing parts of the film is that it’s one of the first teen movies to feature a lead that’s not white, as well as an openly gay character who’s not presented as a joke.

48 HILLS What makes it an LGBTQ classic?

PEACHES CHRIST I think for a certain generation of people it is indeed an LGBTQ classic because of the unapologetic queerness that’s presented in the film as well as the message of “doing better.” And besides that, it’s a film about cheerleading! That alone makes it of special interest to loads of queer folks.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN Yes, it’s cheering and it’s got boy cheerleaders, great music, campiness, bitchiness—a lot of really fun elements to it.

48 HILLS It seems so perfect for the Peaches Christ treatment.

PEACHES CHRIST I think that if there’s a cult audience out there that loves a movie and really knows all the lines and can sing along to the opening cheer, it’s ripe for the Peaches Christ treatment. I rely on fans of the movie and fans of drag to come and celebrate this film they love so much. And people have been asking me to do Bring It On for years.

48 HILLS Outside of making the characters drag queens, how did you make the story your own?

PEACHES CHRIST I’d say the biggest change I made was that I added a bit of storyline about the East Compton Purses (not Clovers) that’s not in the original film. I wanted to showcase their team equally with the rival team, The Sponges. I think the audience will appreciate some of the additions we’ve made to flesh out their journey to get to Nationals.

Monet X. Change

48 HILLS Bring It On is chock-full of memorable catchphrases. Which are your favorites?

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN I have so many. I really like the cheer: “Awesome! Oh wow! Like totally freak me out. I mean right on!” I also like when she says, “I transferred from Los Angeles. Your school has no gymnastics team. This is a last resort.” That always pops out in my mind. That whole scene has great lines, like “You’re a cheer-tator, Torrance, and a pain in my ass!”

PEACHES CHRIST I love the line “This is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy.” And, of course, the “Oh, I’ll bring it. Don’t worry,” with the reply “I never do.”

48 HILLS Silliness aside, the fact that a white team is stealing routines from a Black team in the story adds a socio-political relevance to the story.

BOB THE DRAG QUEEN The idea of people coming into more maligned cultures and lifting what they want and then kinda leaving and going back to the comforts of their culture is certainly a story that’s still relevant today. It’s something that I’ve experienced not only as a black person but also as a queer person.

PEACHES CHRIST We’ve talked a lot about that as far as the casting of this show goes, which is why I think it might be addressed a bit more overtly in our show. Monét is playing the newly nominated Black cheer captain of an upper-middle-class mostly white high school who doesn’t know that the former cheer captain was stealing routines. Of course, when she finds out, she’s able to articulate how fucked up it is, but she’s also seen as a traitor by the other school.

48 HILLS What keeps “Bring It On” relevant in 2019?

PEACHES CHRIST I think the biggest thing is that it’s still a very funny and entertaining movie and the fact that the underlying message about appropriation continues to make it relevant.

BRING IT ON, QUEEN
Sat/13, 4pm & 8pm, $20-$140
Castro Theatre, SF
More info here.

Wilkommen to the ever-relevant ‘Cabaret’

The Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) performs with the Kit Kat Dancers in 'Cabaret' at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

ONSTAGE Probably most of us can remember the first time we saw Cabaret (at SF Playhouse through September 14).

For many it would have been the groundbreaking movie directed by Bob Fosse with Liza Minnelli as nightclub singer Sally Bowles and Joel Grey as the beguiling Kit Kat Klub MC. Luckier ones might have seen it on Broadway with Lotte Lenya, widow of composer Kurt Weill, as Fraulein Schneider, and Joel Grey again (Grey is one of only a handful of actors to win both a Tony and an Oscar for the same role). Younger audiences may remember its Broadway revival with Alan Cumming as the MC and a series of Sallys including Natasha Richardson, Brooke Shields and Molly Ringwald.

Whether or not you’ve seen one or more of these star-studded earlier versions, the current production at the San Francisco Playhouse will still knock your socks off. Maybe it’s the dynamic direction by Susi Damilano, co-founder and producing director of the San Francisco Playhouse, or the hard-hitting songs—including the classics “Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome” and “Money [Makes the World Go Round]” by John Kander and Fred Ebb—or the fact that what’s going on outside the theater resonates deeply with the threat so effectively evoked on stage.

Cabaret is based on Christopher Isherwood’s stories inspired by his experiences as a young writer in the 1930s Weimar Republic of Germany, just as the Nazi Party was in ascendance. Isherwood’s story was turned into the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, and later adapted into Cabaret by Joe Masteroff. The host for the evening is the MC of the Kit Kat Klub, played by John Paul Gonzalez. Our first glimpse of him is a pair of eyes behind a peephole in the door of the club, then a beckoning arm, and finally his long, muscular fishnet-and-heels clad leg.

He tells us to “Leave your troubles outside,” and his gaze is so seductive that we readily accept his invitation to “Come to the Cabaret.” Once inside, we are immediately exposed to the lusty depravity of 1930s Berlin. The Kit Kat dancers, women and men, are all dressed in kinky black leather corsets and stockings. The daring costumes (and they have many!) are by Abra Berman. They join the MC in singing “Wilkommen,” while performing a dazzling dance that includes every simulated sex act you can imagine.

So, even before we meet Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin), a young American aspiring novelist who arrives in Berlin with his typewriter and not much else, we know that he is in for a wild ride. On the advice of Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.) whom he meets on the train, he takes a room in a boarding house run by the elderly Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick) on the Nollendorfplatz (quite near to where Isherwood actually stayed).

Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman*) re-takes the stage at the Kit Kat Klub in ‘Cabaret’ at San Francisco Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

On Bradshaw’s very first night in the city, he meets Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a vivacious British torch singer at the Kit Kat Klub. He also runs into a former male lover there, Bobby (Zachary Isen), which complicates matters when fur-clad Sally later shows up at his room with her suitcase. She convinces him (and Frau Schneider) that she should move in, and he reluctantly agrees. Despite himself, he falls in love with her.

Hayman has a terrific voice and range. Her nightclub songs are growling and sultry and her rendition of the lament “Maybe This Time” is truly sublime. But her Bowles—who, granted, is supposed to be oblivious to the ominous times—is just too peppy. The contrast with the understated Cliff makes it hard to believe the chemistry between them. There is a more tender, convincing love story between Fraulein Schneider and her Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), a Jewish fruit vendor. Their dance duet “Married,” is a sweet and welcome interlude as the political storm clouds gather.

A musical quintet, directed by Dave Dobrusky, who is also the resident music director at 42nd Street Moon, plays on stage behind a scrim. The musicians are outstanding, particularly Nick DiScala who played clarinet and saxophone on opening night. The combination of live music, innovative choreography by Nicole Helfer and the exuberant energy of the dancers is exhilarating.

The Kit Kat Dancers and Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman, center) at the Kit Kat Klub in ‘Cabaret’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

The character who holds it all together is the magnetic Gonzalez’s MC. His subtle shifts in expression reflect the delicious pleasure he takes both in the erotic dances and in thumbing his nose at societyís conventions. His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

When the second act begins the threat of creeping fascism becomes more palpable. The Kit Kat dancers are still in their sexy outfits, but this time they have added military caps and knee-high leather boots. Their lascivious dance ends with a goose-step. The rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism begins to take its toll—a brick is thrown through the glass window of Herr Schultzís fruit market, Bradshaw is beaten on the street for refusing to help a Nazi operative. Yet others get by unscathed, either by ignoring the jackboots or trying to get along.

This pivotal dilemma reflects today’s conflict: how perilous does the situation have to become before we recognize it, before we act? Perhaps that’s why Fraulein Schneiderís song, “What Would You Do?” resonates so strongly. Of course, all of Cabaret’s audiences, from the first production in 1966 to today, know very well what happened in Germany. But being reminded of how pernicious fascism can be as it sneaks up on you is still deeply disturbing. Even the outré dancers who have created their own hedonistic bubble in the Kit Kat Klub are not immune to the horrors: They have to take off their shoes and don prison uniforms, some with a pink triangle some with a yellow star.

“Today, as the last of the Holocaust survivors are passing, it feels more important than ever to revisit this great story,” explained Bill English, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Playhouse. “We must never forget and always stand watch against the power of ultranationalist hatred to take away our human rights.” This musical will make you laugh, gasp, tap your toes, and cry—and remind you to never forget.

CABARET
Through September 14
SF Playhouse 
Tickets and more info here

Playing a skinned cat: John William Watkins of MTC’s ‘Wink’

Wink (John William Watkins) and Dr. Frans (Kevin R. Free). Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE  John Williams Watkins, who plays the title role of the cat, Wink, in the play premiering at the Marin Theatre Company (through July 7), knows the playwright Jen Silverman from when they were both at the University of Iowa, getting MFAs. A couple years ago, Watkins auditioned to be in another play of Silverman’s, The Moors, directed by Mike Donahue (who also directs Wink.) Watkins didn’t get that role, but he got called back for Wink and scored it. Watkins says he loves Silverman’s work. 

“It’s exciting. It’s dark. It’s poetic. It’s quirky,” he said. “I would do anything Jen asked me to do.” 

In the play, an unhappy couple, Gregor (Seann Gallagher) and Sofie (Liz Skylar), are wondering where their cat is. Well, Gregor isn’t worrying because he knows—he skinned him. And now he’s keeping the fur in a box. Separately the two go see a therapist, Doctor Frans (Kevin Free), who gives them consistently terrible advice, mostly involving shoving their feelings down. Then Wink shows up, stalking around, making himself at home, and preening, as cats do. The cat could have been just used as a prop, Watkins says, but instead he’s given his own arc. 

Sofie (Liz Sklar) and Wink (John William Watkins).
Photo by Kevin Berne

“It’s just crazy fun,” he said. “The doctor and Sofie and Gregor have all spent so many years learning to live in a small way and to take up as little space as possible, and then this cat comes in and he’s the total opposite. And then Kevin Free—it’s just so wonderful to play in scenes with him.”

Silverman is prolific. Along with The Moors, about two sisters and their dog living on the English moors and dreaming of love and power, her plays include The Roommate, about “two badass women in their 50s,” and Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties; in essence, a queer and occasionally hazardous exploration; do you remember when you were in Middle School and you read about Shackleton and how he explored the Antarctic?; imagine the Antarctic as a Pussy and it’s sort of like that. She’s also written a novel and a book of short stories, and she writes for TV, including working on the new Tales of the City. Her work has been described as “unashamedly queer.” 

Dr. Frans (Kevin R. Free) and Wink (John William Watkins). Photo by Kevin Berne

Asked if Wink is queer, Watkins says for a lot of people, queer means gay. But he thinks there’s more to it. 

“I think it means radicalism in a way, maybe not living inside the norms and seeing life the way you see life, and not letting cultural or societal norms influence that,” he said. “It’s about being a radical. Being an anarchist and blowing the top off the roof and looking at life in a critical way and being open to its many possibilities.”

In Wink, all the characters undergo a transformation. It’s an absurdist play with a lot to say about how society compartmentalizes us, Watkins says. 

“It can be good to live in harmony with social norms, but the downside is we do that to the point of pain and suffering,” he said. “The play asks what is the balance of limiting or putting a firm hand on our animalistic impulses but also a loose enough grip so we can feel and realize desires and express them in a healthy way and live an honest life.”

WINK
Through July 7
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
For tickets and more information 

Avast ye, developers! SF Mime Troupe’s ‘Treasure Island’ opens 60th season

(l-r) Keiko Shimosato Carreiro (John Livesey), Michael Gene Sullivan (Benny Gunn), Lizzie Calogero (Jill Hawkins), Andre Amarotico (William Bones), Brian Rivera (L.J. Silver) in 'Treasure Island.' Photo by Mike Melnyk

Art mirrors Bay Area life in San Francisco Mime Troupe (SFMT)’s 60th-anniversary show, Treasure Island.

Opening in Dolores Park on July 4, the play about a greedy one-legged developer, L.J. Silver, whose rush to develop Treasure Island overrides any human or environmental safety concerns, is heavily inspired by both Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 novel Treasure Island and a more recent conversation about the plundering of the same-named landmass in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.

“Back in late December or early January, we were debating which issue to explore,” said Treasure Island writer, actor, and SFMT Collective member Michael Gene Sullivan. “A friend of the company said, ‘Oh, talk about what’s going on on Treasure Island.’”

Sullivan is referring to the extensive redevelopment project that is currently underway to transform the former military base into a thriving metropolis with up to 8,000 homes, three hotels, restaurants, shops, entertainment venues, and public parks.

But critics complain that the land is not equipped to withstand a major earthquake, that the island’s soil may be toxic, and that the development plan called for hundreds of evictions of existing residents.

Sullivan says it’s critical for SFMT members to spotlight local issues like these in the new San Francisco, where even the most progressive residents may be too distracted by their tech devices to see what’s happening right in front of them.

“When I first got to the Mime Troupe, 31 years ago, there was more of an alternative press, like the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and people were getting their information from a variety of progressive sources of which we were one,” Sullivan said. “So back then, we could rely on more knowledge in the community about things. But as rents have gone up and [alternative news sources] got pushed out, now we have to think, ‘Even though this is happening in San Francisco, does everybody know about it?’”

Sullivan spoke to 48 Hills about the greed buried beneath Treasure Island, keeping the Tony- and Obie Award-winning SFMT alive, and how the collective hopes to inspire a new generation of playwrights to tackle hard-hitting issues like homelessness and environmentalism.

48 HILLS Talk to me about the parallels between Stevenson’s book and what’s currently happening on Treasure Island today.

MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN I was thinking about how developers are planning to build stuff on Treasure Island even though it’s poisoned with radiation and chemicals and how they are kicking people off and how it’s in line with what’s happened in San Francisco in the past with redevelopment.

But I realized that any story like this is not just about the environment and housing, but it’s also about that kind of freeform, free-market greed that flips around and ruins communities and puts people in the worst possible situations. 

The underlying thing is greed and desperation, so when I thought about Treasure Island and who is it that goes around destroying communities, ripping off civilians, and then sweeping away? Pirates. So if we were going to do something about Treasure Island, why don’t we do our version of Treasure Island? And that’s what it is, my own particular adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, only with developers as pirates.

48 HILLS How do you get audiences out to a show like this, who may not be familiar with the SF Mime Troupe’s history and work? “Mime” probably still throws people.  

MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN If someone hasn’t seen a Mime Troupe show, they may not quite get how it works, but if they visit the website and watch some show clips, then they say, “Oh, it’s this kind of farce.”

But it’s not easy. I was recently talking to someone whom I’ve known for years and has seen Mime Troupe shows, but somehow the shows they saw, even though we were singing and dancing, were exceptions in their minds. They still thought, “But you’re still a mime troupe.”

Technically we are. Mime is an exaggeration of everyday life in story and song and silent mime is a type of mime. Sometimes what I tell people is that it’s just like seeing a Broadway show, but it has a point.

48 HILLS I’ve read that the group has even toyed with the idea of changing its name for clarification purposes. Is this something you’re still considering?

MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN I don’t know. There’s always a point where we say we’ve got to change the name. But then, there’s also the perspective of we’re just too famous. All of the awards, the Tony award, the Obie award, and also when we go outside of California, people remember us as the San Francisco Mime Troupe. But in San Francisco, we’re kind of this weird open secret.

48 HILLS Last year, you compiled and released an anthology of 17 Mime Troupe plays on the iTunes bookstore. What did you want readers to take away from the experience?

MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN The purpose of the anthology was not just for our audience members to go back and read the shows, but also for colleges, teachers, and schools trying to figure out how they can use drama to analyze and approach all these weird, political, socio-economic issues. How can they deal with social justice, economic justice, and racism? We want to make sure that the particular way that the Mime Troupe does it is on the table and an option for them.

We made them available so they can read them and say, “That’s a way to deal with homelessness or environmentalism that’s just as hard-hitting, but not depressing.” This way you’re activating the audience.

48 HILLS What does it mean for an arts group to have survived for 60 years in San Francisco?

MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN I think 60 years anywhere is a big deal, but what I always tell people is that the Mime Troupe is a collectively run non-profit, doing free shows—all of these things that we’re told in the United States are loser propositions and yet we’re still here and Lehman Brothers is dead. All of that just goes to the money that rises and falls, but throughout that, the Mime Troupe has always been here and hopefully always will be.

48 HILLS How can audiences best support the San Francisco Mime Troupe today?

MICHAEL GENE SULLIVAN The hardest thing with the Troupe, since arts funding keeps getting cut and we don’t take corporate sponsorships, is always reminding people that we are the community’s theatre and how much we rely on people to be able to make donations and contributions to keep us alive.

So how do you support the company? Bring your friends to shows and make sure you’re always giving as much money as you’d pay to see the Avengers: Endgame movie. Put us in your will, leave us your horse… maybe not your horse. We need a van. Donate cars to us. We are always working right on the edge, counting every penny.

TREASURE ISLAND
Thu/4, 2pm, Free (Suggested donation $20)
19th St. & Dolores St., SF
Northern California dates run through Sep. 8
More info here.

Matteo Lane gets Clusterfested

Photo by Alex Schaefer

ONSTAGE Out New York-based comedian Matteo Lane didn’t dream of a career in comedy, growing up.

In fact, the “Moving On” (2015), “Crashing” (2018), and “The Comedy Lineup” (2018) star told 48 Hills that stand-up wasn’t even a draw for him, initially. That is until he discovered more inclusive, gay-friendly comedians like Kathy Griffin.

“I didn’t watch stand-up as a kid, because it didn’t feel like it was speaking to me,” Lane said.

“So I didn’t become interested in it till I saw Kathy Griffin, because she was the first comedian I saw who didn’t make fun of gay people like we were the butt of the joke. We were in on the joke. I was lucky to have women like Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, and Joan Rivers lead me to comedy.”

As part of this weekend’s Clusterfest, Lane will be paying tribute to comedy queens Lisa Kudrow, Mira Sorvino, and Alan Cumming with the Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion Live Read alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamolodchikova.

“I’m playing Alan Cumming’s part where they do the interpretive dance at the high school reunion where I think Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ is playing,” he said. “So I have to learn the dance.”

At the annual comedy and music festival, now in its third year and featuring Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Neal Brennan, Issa Rae, John Mulaney, Leslie Jones, The Roots, Chelsea Peretti, Courtney Barnett, and My Favorite Murder, among many others, Lane will also appear in Todd Barry’s Crowd Work Show, Saturday’s Chi Guys, and Sunday’s Patton Oswalt show.

I spoke to Matteo Lane about coming out with humor, relating to Alladin’s Jafar, and why he refuses to make Trump jokes.

48 HILLS Matteo, you went from being an opera singer and oil painter in Italy to a stand-up comedian. Do you ever imagine what your life would have been like had you pursued those other talents?

MATTEO LANE I just don’t think about it that way. Your life just happens as it happens and stand-up has allowed me to do all sorts of things including drawing because I have my comic book with Bob the Drag Queen called “Kickass Drag Queen” that we’re going to hopefully get made into a cartoon, and I’ve been able to do my own singing show, which I tour the country with.

I feel like none of those would have been possible had I not done stand-up, so in a way I don’t look at it as separate. I look at it as other ways to explore my creativity, so if anything it’s helped me be more of a singer or artist than I ever was.

48 HILLS You have a bit called “Every Disney Character is Gay.” Do you really think so, or are you just trying to piss off conservatives?

MATTEO LANE I’m just trying to write material that makes people laugh. If we wanted to have an existential conversation about those types of characters, I’d say, “Yeah, usually the villain in a Disney movie doesn’t bend to the male or female roles, like the prince or princess. They’re somewhere on the outside, look different and feel different. They’re some sort of an other.

I think that gay people growing up often fall into that experience of being the other, at least in my experience. So I feel like I’ve always latched on to the villain, as most young queer kids do. I don’t relate to Princess Jasmine and Aladdin. I relate to Jafar.

But I don’t write my material to say, “Who am I going to get?” Or to do a bigger conversation about something. I’m doing it, at the end of the day, to make people laugh.

48 HILLS You also talk about growing up on the same block as your 22 cousins in your act. When you came out, was your family supportive?

MATTEO LANE I am very lucky because my brother’s gay and my cousin’s also gay, so we’re all gay. [Laughs]  I’m very lucky to have a very supportive family.

My mom had a very difficult childhood and my grandfather grew up in an immigrant family, went blind at the age of five, put himself through law school, and became a judge. So my family was able to see that there are bigger things out there than just being gay. So being gay was like, “OK, cool, pass the butter.”

My family communicates through humor, so I used humor to make it not this taboo subject we couldn’t talk about, and, as a result, I feel just like the rest of my cousins.

48 HILLS You’ve said before that while you don’t discuss Trump directly in your act, your “material in itself is a stand against Trump.” What did you mean by that?

MATTEO LANE What I mean by that is a technical thing. I’m not the kind of comedian who writes topical jokes about what happened or what I saw on MSNBC yesterday because the news cycle is going so quickly that even if I do a joke that’s funny about what Trump said yesterday, it’s forgotten the next week. So it doesn’t serve me or an audience in any way, because they’ve forgotten because he’s done something else that’s stupid since.

So I have some jokes that are political but I’m not a comedian who’s only interested in talking about Trump. So yeah, if I’m onstage in Ohio and I’m gay and talking to voters who may have voted for Trump, by me not living my life apologetically or editing or censoring myself to hundreds of people I’m performing for daily, that’s something. It’s better than me just sitting at home and tweeting about it.

48 HILLS Gay material makes up a lot of your act. Do you feel like you’re a comedian or a gay comedian?

MATTEO LANE I don’t think about it as being a gay comedian. I think about it as doing good work and being as funny as possible.

But I probably am in the last generation who grew up not having the Internet and not having the easy access to a gay community. So now that it’s so prevalent, the only thing I think about is that it’s cool that young kids can look at the TV and see me or other gay comedians and it’s just normal.

48 HILLS Can you envision a day when your sexual identity won’t matter to audiences?

MATTEO LANE When I started stand-up, I would have thought, “I just want to be a stand-up and not have my sexuality determine who I am.” But now that I’m doing it and onstage and talking around the country, I’m proud of it.

I don’t care how anyone reads me — that’s a gay comic or that’s just a comic — because it doesn’t matter what someone else says. I know who I am and I’m proud of being gay and proud of being a comic.

I think where we start to go wrong is when we start labeling everything. So however you want to describe me, I don’t care. I think as we have more diversity onstage we can start having the idea of stand-up not being just for straight men. But I think it’s happening right now.

CLUSTERFEST
June 21-23, $119-$1250
Civic Center Plaza
Tickets and more info here.

In Rotimi Agbabiaka’s ‘Manifesto,’ a call to visionary black, queer ambition

Rotimi Agbabiaki in 'Manifesto'

ONSTAGE Waiting after school for his mother to pick him up after a high school French club meeting, Rotimi Agbabiaka—whose new show Manifesto plays at the African American Arts and Culture Complex Fri/21—ended up in an audition. He got cast as a hotel clerk, and for the rest of high school, performed in all the shows the theater department put on. Agbabiaka and his family had moved to Texas from Lagos, Nigeria, a few months before that, and theater seemed like a welcoming place for him.

“It was a way to play out roles and try on personas and find a place in a new society,” he said. “Going to high school in suburban Texas, theater was a place that celebrated the strange and different, and I felt different as a foreign student.”

Rotimi Agbabiaki in ‘Manifesto’

Agbabiaka majored in journalism in college with plans to go to law school. But the draw of acting was too much. A wonderful experience with a program called Shakespeare at Winedale sealed his desire to act for a living. 

“We spent three months in the Texas countryside doing theater in what felt like the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We were creating these worlds and made our own costumes and performed in a 19th century barn. There was this purity and simplicity that I found moving and exciting and made me want to pursue acting as a career.”

And that’s what he’s done. Agbabiaka appeared Off Broadway in If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka and has performed with the Magic Theatre, American Conservatory Theatre, Brava Theater, Shotgun Players, and the California Shakespeare Theatre. He’s a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and his solo shows include Homeless, and Type/Caste.

He also teaches theater at a variety of places including the Performing Arts Workshop, Cal Shakes, the San Francisco Mime Troupe’s Youth Theatre Project, and Middlebury College. June 21 his latest solo show, Manifesto, appears at the African American Arts and Culture Complex as part of the Queer Arts Festival. It will examine what theater means to him now. 

“I think Type/Caste was about an artist on the outside looking in,” Agbabiaka said. “Manifesto is about someone who’s gotten in a little, but is not totally fulfilled or sure there’s been progress in theater. Now usually there is sort of diverse programming, but there’s still a lot of dissatisfaction and you still hear stories of people who feel marginalized and feel voices aren’t being heard.”

Rotimi Agbabiaka. Photo by Jann Giocoppa

As the show notes put it, “As the entertainment industry extends a welcoming hand to this previously excluded queer, black actor, he must decide whether to pursue the trappings of mainstream success or remain an outsider artist on the road less traveled. ‘Manifesto’ speaks, sings, and screams its way to an art form capable of taking on the unhinged forces of racist, fascist, capitalistic foolishness … and winning.”

In the show, some artists appear to help guide Agbabiaka to his vision of a manifesto, a “spectacular reckoning” with his situation. These artists—like writer James Baldwin, singer Nina Simone, and musician Fela Kuti—mean a lot to Agbabiaka because of their revolutionary spirit and the way they challenged power structures, he says. Baldwin said the purpose of art to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers, and Agbabiaka says in Manifesto that’s what he’s trying to do: ask questions about theater and art. 

Agbabiaka is working with the same director on this piece that he worked with on Type/Caste, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, and he says it’s invaluable to him to have her perspective and her eye. The two have co-directed show for the Mime Troupe and Cooper-Anifowoshe calls them artistic twins.

“I did my show Traveling While Black at Brava and Rotimi came, and I could see him almost falling off his chair,” she said. “We laugh at the same kinds of things and kind of snarl at the same kinds of things.” Cooper-Anifowoshe says she appreciates Agbabiaka’s willingness in solo shows to do as many characters as he needs. 

“Rotimi is an amazing performer,” she said. “I come in to be on the outside and make sure transitions are clean from one character into another. I want to keep that sharpness. That’s why you need a director for a solo show. You need an eye to make sure everything is making sense from a visual point of view. The pleasure is in helping to develop it. He throws a lot on the table, and I like messing with it and flipping it upside down.”

MANIFESTO
African American Arts and Culture Complex
June 21
For tickets and more information 

In ‘Rusalka,’ water nymphs, a frog king, and humanity’s destructive nature

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen as Rusalka. Photo by Cory Weaver

ONSTAGE Leah Hausman worked on Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sir David McVicar five years ago for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Now she is directing the revival version of his production at the San Francisco Opera (June 16-28). The piece sticks inside you, she says, and she calls getting to use her background in dance and movement in the story of a water nymph falling in love with a prince and wanting to be human, “delicious.”

The Czech opera is a great story, Hausman says, rich with folklore and myth. “We all love a fairy tale, and it’s so simple and bold,” she said. “It’s full of mystery and magic.”

Hausman said she enjoyed digging into the folklore and archetypal figures in the story. Rusalka means “unquiet dead being”: unlike mermaids, water nymphs have legs, not tails, and can leave the water to sit in trees. Hausman thinks Rusalka’s father, the water goblin, Vodník, and the witch, Ježibaba, also have fascinating stories.

“All the characters come out of a big history,” Hausman said. “Vodník is the frog king and the father of all the water. He can be terrifying as well as playful. The wood sprites tease and poke at him, at their peril. He can swallow them up. He’s got a dangerous side.”

Ježibaba, the guardian of the forests, is also called Baba Yaga. “She’s like the old bag lady who lives in the woods,” Hausman said. “She has a big history in Europe and Celtic myths. They list all the amazing things she can do, like turn a man to a monster and a monster to a man.”

The staging of this Rusalka shows the harm humans do to nature, with the beautiful pond in the forest dammed, carcasses of forest creatures that have been hunted, and a storm ripping through the forest and destroying it.

The first image we see in the opera is of a beautiful painting of nature, which puts us into the world of representing nature, rather than being part of it, Hausman says.  

Director Leah Hausman

“It’s really there and we don’t ignore it in any way,” Hausman said about the divide between man and nature. “The characters speak about it so vividly. When she asks to become a human, instead of going ‘Oh, what a great idea,’ Vodník is shook to the core. For the world of nature, humans are nothing but full of destruction. Baba Yaga says the only way a human can be a human is by shedding each other’s blood.”

The story of Rusalka seems relevant now, Hausman says.

“There are big divides in their world, and somebody converting to the other side is a really big deal,” she said. “The gamekeeper is freaked out by Rusalka because she comes from the world of witches and witchcraft. It’s a really rightwing attitude of ‘let’s get all those people out of the palace and drive them away.’ It’s a so-called comedy, but it’s really dark.”

Rachel Willis‐Sørensen as Rusalka and Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince in ‘Rusalka.’ Photo by Cory Weaver

The cast for Rusalka includes soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen singing the title role for the first time, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Ježibaba and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Vodnik. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who’s the Prince, has played the part several times. 

The prince is a difficult role, Hausman thinks. 

“It could just be the asshole prince, the guy you really hate, but I didn’t want that,” she said. “There’s something so ultimately human about him, and we get the fact he’s a tortured soul.”

RUSALKA
June 16- June 28
San Francisco Opera
Tickets and more information here