Many Iranian families who could, left Iran during the revolution in 1979. But Ana Bayat’s family members did things a little differently. They left their native Tehran years before the revolution to go live in Barcelona—and came back to the country after the Revolution had started. Bayat, who now lives in the Bay Area and teaches Modern Languages at Saint Mary’s College of California, says these moves happened for two reasons: to Spain because of her father’s romantic nature and back to Iran because of financial concerns.
Her father learned to dance flamenco and bolero as a boy and had always loved Spain and its culture, so the family moved there when Bayat was just six years old. Her grandmother had a business making ready-to-wear clothes in Iran (Bayat says she still sometimes runs into people who tell her they bought a dress from her grandmother 40 years ago), which supported the whole family. But with the revolution times were hard, and her grandmother needed Bayat’s family to come back and help her run the business. So they moved back when Bayat was 14.
She loved Spain and she was not happy about leaving.“Initially, I was inconsolable,” she said. “I was crying and crying, and my auntie said, ‘You’ve been crying for eight months.’”
Theater was what saved her, Bayat says, She trained in the Stanislavski system at the same school where her father had gone years before. Now her one-woman show about her experience of being Iranian in Barcelona, and then feeling European in Iran, Mimi’s Suitcase, is coming to Theatre of Yugen at NOH Space January 23 to January 25.
The show has toured internationally, including stops in Los Angeles, Miami, Cologne, Toronto, and Edinburgh where it was “Pick of the Fringe” at the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In Mimi’s Suitcase, Bayat speaks four languages (English, Farsi, Spanish and French) and plays 27 characters. Bayat says taking on the different roles isn’t tiring—rather, she finds it pleasurable.
“It’s so much fun to do the accents and to think to yourself, ‘How does a consulate security officer talk?’” she said.“You have to sometimes think, ‘Well, let’s change this,’ and it’s born on the spot, and it feels very much alive.”
When Bayat left Barcelona to move to Tehran, where women were veiled and Western culture was forbidden, it was a big shock. Bayat and her friends all wanted to listen to ‘80s pop stars like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Boy George, and Billy Idol. So they would get them, and the latest movies like Dirty Dancing, on the streets (something that will be familiar to readers of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis.)
“Once a week these men would come with briefcase full movies and cassettes,” Bayat said. “It was like Amazon or something.”
Bayat left Tehran to live in England, where she studied English and continued taking theater classes. She moved to the Bay Area and started writing Mimi’s Suitcase in 2007 in a solo performance class with W. Kamua Bell, and finished it in 2015.
Bayat appreciates the reaction from audiences.
“People laugh a lot, which is wonderful,” she said. “It’s been many years, and it’s good to see we can laugh at things that were painful at the time, like a party being raided.There are very deep and serious moments too.”
Bayat has hopes that this show, which has been going for four years, will go on to another life.
“I have big dreams for it,” she said. “I imagine it as a musical. The pop music of the ’80s is such a big part of it.”
MIMI’S SUITCASE January 23- January 25 Theater of Yugen at NOH Space More information here
Movies, Chinese food, and volunteering are the three most common go-tos for Jews on Christmas.
Twenty-seven years ago, San Francisco comic Lisa Geduldig added a fourth option, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, for anyone feeling left out on the Christian/Hallmark holiday.
The “Jewish-comedy-on-Christmas-in-a-Chinese-restaurant” extravaganza has over the past three decades hosted headliners like Henny Youngman, Shelley Berman, David Brenner, and Elayne Boosler and over 40 thousand attendees.
Come at 5pm for a six-course Chinese banquet or at 8:30pm for cocktails and vegetarian dim sum. The fortune cookies filled with Yiddish proverbs like “With one tuchus, you can’t dance at 2 weddings” are worth the trip alone!
I spoke to Hoffman, who can currently be seen as “Yente the Matchmaker” in the critically acclaimed Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof — Off-Broadway and in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series The Politician, about coming to Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, playing Mamacita and Yente, and the “death of humor.”
48 HILLSWhy are you excited to spend Christmas with Kung Pao Kosher Comedy?
JACKIE HOFFMAN Who said I was excited? Actually, I am very excited and anxious, but I’m anxious before everything. It’s always exciting for me to do my own stuff whether it’s at home in New York or elsewhere, especially to see what’s going to work. Lisa [Geduldig] has been trying to get me to do Kung Pao Kosher Comedy for years and I think the whole setup is such a great idea.
48 HILLSKung Pao Kosher Comedy’s Jewish take on Christmas makes me think of your previous shows, A Chanukah Carol and Jackie’s Kosher Kristmas. Why were these projects interesting to you and what’s the connection between these shows and an event like Kung Pao Kosher Comedy?
JACKIE HOFFMAN It’s a frequently done theme — the Jew at Christmas. A Chanukah Charol is more like a one-woman play modeled after Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol. Jackie’s Kosher Kristmas were holiday-themed variety shows. The time of year and the vast difference in our holidays provide a lot of fodder. Kung Pao Kosher Comedy is all about the ambience of a Jewish tradition on Christmas, so it has an excitement all its own.
48 HILLSWhy was playing the Mamacita character on Feud an interesting proposition for you? Were you surprised to get the Emmy nomination and were you robbed of a win?
JACKIE HOFFMAN It was my first regular role in a series and it was based on a real person who was fascinating and likable to me. I campaigned hard for that nomination and was shocked and thrilled beyond belief to be nominated, but I can’t think of myself as being robbed because of the brilliant actresses I was nominated with.
48 HILLSTalk to me about your experience playing Yente in Fiddler on the Roof. And why, in your opinion, has this Jewish musical appealed to so many different cultures over so many years? What keeps it relevant?
JACKIE HOFFMAN It’s been intense and eye-opening playing Yiddish Fiddler every night. Speaking this language has made this the most meaningful thing I’ve ever done. I think the piece endures because of the universal themes — love, family, religious tradition versus modernity, persecution, and immigration.
48 HILLSWhat was your experience working with Bill Cosby on the show, Cosby? Did you know him before that?
JACKIE HOFFMAN I did not know Mr. Cosby before we taped Cosby. Funny you should mention him because in my last show I sang a song I wrote about him. He was very kind and cool. I really liked him. The whole thing is very sad.
48 HILLSIn recent years, comedians like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle have been getting grief for their comedy. Do comedians have a right to say whatever they want?
JACKIE HOFFMAN I think that what’s happening is infuriating. It’s the death of humor. Humor can and should be inappropriate, wrong, and shocking. The people who object most of all are people who are not only without a sense of humor but are also ignorant. They are often misinterpreting things. We have lost our sense of irony, sarcasm, and satire — and that is really tragic.
I was warned about the audiences in San Francisco, that they are super politically correct, so we’ll see if they get me or are completely appalled.
48 HILLSAre Jews still misunderstood? If so, what are some of the biggest misconceptions?
JACKIE HOFFMAN I think a lot of younger Jews don’t have a Jewish education anymore, so they don’t really know what it means to be Jewish. They know about the Holocaust and the Israeli/Palestinian mess. The larger world thinks we’re all Chasidim or all rich and that the women are selfish in bed, which really pisses me off!
48 HILLSWhat are some of the ways that Jews can get into the holiday spirit in addition to Kung Pao Kosher Comedy?
JACKIE HOFFMAN Go volunteer putting slop on people’s trays at a homeless shelter. Watch the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.
THE 27TH ANNUAL KUNG PAO KOSHER COMEDY Tue/24 — Thu/26 5pm Dinner Show, $74; 8:30pm Cocktail Show, $54 New Asia Restaurant, SF. More info here.
The holidays can be particularly challenging for members of the LGBTQ community — especially those who’ve lost loved ones to AIDS or who’ve felt disenfranchised from friends and family after coming out.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) makes every effort to combat any potential feelings of isolation by bringing the greater community together at its signature shows, blending heart and humor.
Founded in 1978, when the gay community was at one of its loneliest points, following the assassination of gay supervisor Harvey Milk, the Chorus soothed wounded souls with song during its first official performance on the steps of City Hall.
The pioneering choral group continues in this mission with each and every performance in addition to lifting spirits during more celebratory moments. The Chorus, itself, has plenty of reasons to whoop it up as it closes out the year with Holigays Are Here (Tue/24 at the Castro Theatre, 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm).
SFGMC’S 30th-annual romp through festive favorites — from Liza Minnelli’s “Ring Them Bells” to a new arrangement of “Silent Night” — comes on the heels of two big wins for the Chorus this year. Not only did it acquire its first permanent home base for rehearsals and offices (what’s set to become the first-ever National LGBTQ Center for the Arts) in high-rent San Francisco, it also made a splash with its groundbreaking documentary feature Gay Chorus Deep South about its historic 2017 Lavender Pen tour through the Bible Belt.
I spoke to Artistic Director Dr. Timothy Seelig and longtime choreographer Steve Valdez about the Christmas show, the now widely acclaimed documentary, and how the LGBTQ community can feel engaged and included over the holiday season.
48 HILLSWhat’s the significance of SFGMC’s holiday show for the SFGMC community and the greater LGBTQ community?
TIM SEELIG In the chorus’s third year, the first 41 homosexuals were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. San Francisco was an epicenter of the disease. Rather than some church or school holiday concert, it became a gathering place — a home for so many. That alone set it apart in its purpose.
STEVE VALDEZ The importance of the SFGMC holiday show, the performances at the Castro Theatre on Christmas Eve, is tied to the plight of AIDS in our community. We first performed the Christmas Eve shows in 1991 when the AIDS pandemic was at its worst. The chorus, itself, has lost over 300 members since its inception.
In 1991, many people were sick and alienated from their families with no place to go for Christmas. The Christmas Eve shows became “Christmas” for many in the LGBTQ+ community and it remains so now. Of course, now it has extended its reach and draws diverse audiences of all ages.
The goal of every SFGMC holiday show is to provide thrilling music, laughter, some emotional chills, and some “Oh no they didn’t!” moments. We put a gay twist on the traditional and make it fabulous.
48 HILLSHow do you keep the show fresh after all these years?
TIM SEELIG There are two ways we go about this. We listen and research new holiday music. And, if we don’t find what we want, we commission it to be composed or arranged. We are very lucky, indeed. Every year has a different theme or guest, which we build the program around.
48 HILLSHow do these shows fulfill the SFGMC’s mission to bring communities together, embrace our similarities and differences, and build lasting memories?
TIM SEELIG The holiday show is truly the one experience that guarantees bringing everyone together. It is the one concert during the year that people seek out to attend. And the singers love to invite their friends, fans, and families as well. Some even invite those folks as a way to come out to them. The shows are produced within an inch of their lives with costumes, props, full-chorus choreography, and some wild and crazy antics, all nestled in the warm cocoa of the familiar. It has become the SF destination.
STEVE VALDEZ Music is the universal equalizer. We try to incorporate various styles of music in our holiday programs. I think we manage to find the common threads that resonate with everyone through our music. And, at the end of the day, our holiday shows are highly entertaining and touch on emotions and messages that are the same for everyone.
48 HILLSWhy is spending Christmas Eve with the SFGMC an exciting proposition?
TIM SEELIG Many of us grew up in church. What do you do on Christmas Eve? Go to church. When you come out, you don’t do that so much anymore. And many LGBTQ folks still don’t go home. It leaves a blank spot on the calendar of your life. Voila. Filled by SFGMC. Filled to the brim.
STEVE VALDEZ There is no better way to bring in Christmas than spending some time with SFGMC at the Castro Theatre on Christmas Eve. The shows are 90 minutes long with no intermission, the theatre is packed, and the spirit of Christmas is everywhere. The hustle and bustle leading up to Christmas is stressful for most, so attending one of these shows is completely relaxing and ushers in the feeling of Christmas. SFGMC in the Castro Theatre is truly a San Francisco experience. The setting is magical. It’s one of those experiences that makes you proud to live in San Francisco.
48 HILLSWhat keeps the group engaging for you?
TIM SEELIG After 32 years of conducting LGBTQ choruses across the country, there is nothing I would rather do. It is my life. I love everything about it — the music and the mission and even the occasional drama that might crop up from time to time among 300.
STEVE VALDEZ I have been a singing member of SFGMC for 25 years and am also the choreographer. SFGMC is family to me. I am inspired by our work, in love with our product, and proud to be a part of the SFGMC legacy. I also love that we are constantly evolving through our membership and many of the programs that have been born, such as RHYTHM (Reaching Youth Through Music).
48 HILLSHow did the Lavender Pen tour transform you and the people you encountered?
TIM SEELIG The tour changed everyone who went on it. We got to see how our music touches people and encourages them. Of course, we get that in San Francisco, but nothing like the tour with brand new people who absolutely embraced us.
STEVE VALDEZ On paper the tour seemed to be good outreach and a chance to bring our message of positivity to communities in the oppressed South. Of course, it turned out to be so much more when you put names and faces to the tour.
From sitting in the First Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama and connecting the dots of the Civil Rights Movement to our own LGBTQ struggles to meeting so many influential activists in the different cities we visited, it was truly monumental.
Fortunately, you can experience the SFGMC Lavender Pen Tour by watching the award-winning documentary that was filmed on the tour, Gay Chorus, Deep South.
48 HILLSWhat updates can you give me about Gay Chorus Deep South? I read that it was acquired by MTV Films and now there’s even Oscar buzz?
TIM SEELIG The film is amazing. It has now won 30-plus awards at 102 festivals. It’s a rough year with 156 documentaries entered. We are just happy to be associated with this film.
48 HILLSWhat’s next for the SFGMC? Any updates about the new center?
TIM SEELIG We’ll be launching programming for the Center in January and cannot wait. No spoilers, though.
48 HILLS What are some ways that LGBTQ+ people can feel engaged during the holidays (outside of coming to these performances) if we don’t have strong family support systems?
TIM SEELIG I have always thought the best way to stop navel-gazing is to give back. Do something for someone else. I would look up the incredible Glide Memorial Church and volunteer this December!
STEVE VALDEZ I am very fortunate to have strong family support with my SFGMC family and my own family of choice. I am not an expert in this area, but I think the key is being around people and finding something that motivates you. The SF LGBT Center is probably a great place to start.
HOLIGAYS ARE HERE Tue/24, 5pm, 7pm, & 9pm, $35-$45 Castro Theatre, SF More info here.
An idyllic Christmastime setting, a loving family, and the gift that keeps on giving grief. Gremlins, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, has all the makings of a Hallmark holiday movie — from hell.
In the film, written by Chris Columbus, directed by Joe Dante, and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, a teenager named Billy (Zach Galligan) receives an exotic mogwai creature named Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) for Christmas.
It’s cuter than a Cabbage Patch Kid but harder to handle than a Chia Pet, especially if you expose it to direct sunlight or overwater it. Or water it at all, for that matter.
Light kills the mogwai and water makes it aggressively reproduce. Worst of all, feeding its demon spawn after midnight turns them into a legion of sadistic reptilian monsters called “Gremlins.”
The now cult comedy-horror classic (itself a twisted take on the traditional Christmas tale) gets its own perverted parody with Peaches Christ’s “Femlins” (Sat/14 at the Castro Theatre, 3pm and 8pm).
In the San Francisco scream queen’s riotous staged version, co-produced with Michael Varrati, the Billy character has been replaced by the made-up Phoebe Cracker (played by RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 superstar Miz Cracker). The alien pet’s name has been changed from Gizmo to “Jizmo” and gremlins are now “femlins,” mischievous monsters dead set on destroying drag queens everywhere.
“Femlins,” also starring RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Detox and Phi Phi O’Hara, 2017’s Grand Duchess of San Francisco Migitte Nielsen, and Peaches Christ herself, will be followed by a film screening of the special 35th-anniversary 35 mm print of Gremlins.
I spoke to Miz Cracker—the Seattle-born artist and activist who divides her time between drag, comedy, writing, and activism and bills herself as a “Woman’s Lifestyle Brand”—about “Femlins,” her increased feminism, and teaching the next generation of gender illusionists.
48 HILLSHow did you join the cast of “Femlins” and what drew you to the project?
MIZ CRACKER Peaches Christ called me one day and said, “We’ve been trying to work together—How does this sound? I have a show based on Gremlins.” The idea was so ridiculous, there was no way I could stay, “No.”
48 HILLSWhat was your earliest experience of the Gremlins and Gremlins 2 movies?
MIZ CRACKER I first saw Gremlins shortly after I first saw ET. The ’80s and ’90s were a time for really scary children’s movies. We’re in the age of Pixar now, not Labyrinth. I was easily freaked out, so I was not the biggest fan of Gremlins at the time. But the images definitely did stick in my head.
48 HILLSHow does making the main character a woman change things up in your opinion?
MIZ CRACKER Making the main character of a parody drag show into a woman is a classic move. The same thing was recently done with the musical Company. It just makes everything fresh and offers a new perspective.
48 HILLSWhy are you excited to work with Phi Phi, Detox, and Migitte Nielsen, in particular, on this show?
MIZ CRACKER I’m really excited to work with the entire cast of “Femlins.” They are part of the reason I decided to do the project. We all come from such different places, with different drag styles, so it will be fun watching us play off of each other.
48 HILLSWhy is “Femlins” the perfect way to spend the holiday season?
MIZ CRACKER We have so much to worry about these days, from politics to the environment. And now, with the holidays around the corner, we’re about to spend a bunch of time with family. There’s no better way to prepare for this scary and stressful holiday season than by seeing a hilarious show.
48 HILLSYou bill yourself as a “Woman’s Lifestyle Brand.” What does this mean exactly?
MIZ CRACKER There’s been a big shift in my drag toward creating things for women. Women are such a huge part of my audience and my life. It would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that by making performances, shows, and videos that challenge, celebrate, and play with everything a woman can be.
48 HILLSWhat’s inspired your increased feminism?
MIZ CRACKER My feminism is inspired by the fact that I owe everything to women. From my mother and sister who helped shape who I am, to Katelyn, the woman who made my RuPaul’s Drag Race audition video, I would be nowhere without the women figures in my life.
48 HILLSWhat can you tell me about your forthcoming solo show, “American Woman”?
MIZ CRACKER It’s all about what people can do to be better allies to women. But it’s important to know the show is not a downer. It’s all about hope, laughs, and me making fun of myself in order to grow.
48 HILLSHow can drag queens and gay men be better to women?
MIZ CRACKER There are a lot of ways that drag queens and gay men can learn to treat women with more respect. But the first way is simply to listen to what they’re asking for. It’s a start.
48 HILLSI read that you also do drag lectures at universities across the country. What exactly are you teaching students?
MIZ CRACKER One of my favorite things to do is visit colleges and talk about drag, because young people are so fascinated it, but they don’t know about the history that makes it great.
FEMLINS Sat/14, 3pm & 8pm, $20-$130 Castro Theatre, SF More info here.
Growing up, MacArthur “Genius” Award winner and Tony nominee Sarah Ruhl read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, about a young woman, Kit Tyler, who moves from Barbados to the Connecticut colony tolive with her aunt’s family after her grandfather dies.
In the book, Kit becomes friend with a Quaker woman, and both are accused of witchcraft. Ruhl liked the book, but it didn’t quite hook her interest in the famous Salem witch trials which took place in Massachusetts in 1692 to 1693. During these trials, 19 people were executed and more than 150 imprisoned.
Ruhl’s sixth play at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, however, Becky Nurse of Salem(in previews starting Dec. 12) deals with those trials, and the descendent of one of the women put to death, Rebecca Nurse.
Ruhl says the idea for this play came to her during Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency, seeing masses of people shouting, “Lock her up,” about Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, and the constant talk of “witch hunts.”
Another factor was seeing Arthur Miller’s 1953 The Crucible, a play dealing with the Salem witch trials that Miller wrote in response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against supposed communists.
It was a wonderful production, Ruhl says, and she was impressed by the structure of the play, but the story had, to put it mildly, a few holes. Starting with main character.
“Abigail William wants to have sex with an older man, and there’s this whole thing was about her wreaking vengeance,” Ruhl said. “That seemed implausible, so I did a little research and found out Abigail was 11 and John Proctor was 60.”
One idea she had was just to rewrite her own version of the play, Ruhl says, but then she decided to write a contemporary comedy, with Becky Nurse, a guide at the Salem Museum of Witchcraft. Nurse loses her job after calling out The Crucible to some school children on a tour, and she decides to visit a witch. Hilarity—and a not-so-hilarious exploration of how much women’s status has not changed—ensues.
“She’s a descendant of Rebecca Nurse, the oldest woman put to death in the witch trials,” Ruhl said about her lead character. “Once I started writing, I couldn’t get her voice out of my head.”
Doing research for the show, Ruhl found out that modern day Salem is a tourist town where most reminders of its history have been destroyed.
“They didn’t want to be reminded of it,” Ruhl said. “They got rid of the grave markers and everything. Then in the 1950s, they thought, ‘Oh, we could make a living out of this.’”
In her research, Ruhl came across something that fascinated her.
“Some scholars had a dispute over whether the site of the witches’ execution was a Walgreens or a Dunkin’ Donuts,” she said. “That just seems so American to me—these layers of history papered over with franchises.”
Ruhl, who teaches at Yale University and lives in Brooklyn, loves getting to do multiple plays at Berkeley Rep. She enjoys the food and the scenery of the Bay Area, she says, but there’s more than that.
“It’s such a wonderful place to make theater,” she said. “The people that work here are so warm and welcoming, and the audiences are smart and generous.”
Ruhl says with Becky Nurse of Salem, she’s enjoying working with a group of women, including director Anne Kauffman, scenic designer Louisa Thompson, and costume designer Meg Neville.
“It’s really delightful,” Ruhl said. “I feel like we have our little triumvirate of witches.”
On paper, “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” (through December 29 at Golden Gate Theater) doesn’t have much going for it: another jukebox musical in a sea of them; a corny script that reads like a Hallmark Wikipedia Page of the Week (yes, you will witness “Love to Love You Baby” sung to an actual baby); and a somewhat tired gimmick, with three different actresses playing Summer at different times of her life, who are often on stage at the same time. Even the title isn’t lifting a disco finger to set this production apart. It’s refreshing to see a big show center an extravagantly talented Black woman whose career stretches through the ’70s and ’80s—but look out, here comes Tina Turner.
While Summer herself could be an effusive storyteller onstage and possessed a blazing personality, she’s remembered now more for her sensuous vocals and a sphinx-like glamour than colorful outbursts and a make-it-or-break-it life story. To contemporary minds, she’s more Sade than Lizzo. The people behind “Summer” have a lot of work to do to convince us that we wouldn’t just be happier at a tribute concert.
Here, for better and worse, they ramp up Summer’s Sassy Diva mode and sometimes uncomfortably paper over her weaker moments (more about that in a bit), sanctifying her as everything from Today’s Independent Woman Corporate Ball-Buster to Jesus-Powered Super-Matriarch, Sacrificing It All For Her Family. Her life, as breathlessly traced here from shy Boston gospel choir member to Queen of Disco, is a wild rollercoaster ride—and don’t think they don’t actually say that out loud in the play, either. Some of it sweeps you up, much of it is a bit much.
But oh, those songs. Underestimating the awesome power Summer’s songs still hold over a theater full of middle-aged queens would be like thinking you could harmlessly step into the headlights of an oncoming Mack truck. Most pop divas would thank their lucky stars to record two or three songs that could outlast the trends of several decades. Summer has at least a dozen, from ‘I Feel Love,” which still rules underground dance floors from Berlin to Beijing, to eternal anthem “She Works Hard for the Money,” a canny update of “Bad Girls” for Ladies of the ’80s feminism that is still one of the best examples of subtextual subterfuge in the American canon.
So Summer’s story here is broadly inspirational and “Summer” makes a solid case that she broke down several barriers in the industry and society. But once that thumping beat hits, it’s over, honey. Nothing else matters.
Which of course was the point. Summer offered ecstatic, self-obliterating communion on the radio and in the clubs. In one of the few comments on her actual music in the show, the mature Summer, aka Diva Donna (a strong, declamatory Dan’yelle Williamson) talks about the magic of “I Feel Love,” an electronic breakthrough that “was built on a bass line” and foregrounded a drum-machine beat that equalized the dance floor, celebrating a diverse crowd with a new kind of expression. That climax comes early in the play, but except for a fun vignette that shows Disco Donna (Alex Hairston, lovely) writhing gamely on the floor in Giorgio Moroder’s studio to record “Love to Love You, Baby,” and a meet-cute moment later during a recording session, there’s barely any exploration of the depth of her music, let alone her songwriting process.
But the songs, interspersed throughout her life story, are the real stars here, and all three Donnas (including charismatic young Olivia Elease Hardy as Duckling Donna) deliver what they know you came for. The frantic choreography, inventively minimal sets, and flashy costumes (a visual symphony of unforgiving ’70s fabrics), as well as the story itself fade in the presence of the music, played lovingly by a live band and given more life by the excellent ensemble, made up almost exclusively of women. “Heaven Knows,” sung with Summer’s eventual husband, played by hunky Steven Grant Douglas, and “MacArthur Park” just sound incredible from the stage, as does “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” with Donnas doing double duty in the duet, absent Barbra Streisand.
Some of Summer’s best songs don’t make the cut. I thought for sure “State of Independence” would fit right in, as well as “Spring Affair.” You can guess which number closes the show. (Hint: It rhymes with “fast pants.”) And added music, while maybe appropriate for the story, seemed a distraction. I know Summer fatefully went to Munich for a production of Hair, but did we really need an enthusiastic rendition of that musical’s icky “White Boys” as she finds herself the center of multiple romantic attentions? (A pleasantly unexpected inclusion, on the other hand, was Summer’s ’40s pastiche “I Remember Yesterday,” representative of that weird post-modern Star Wars Cantina mish-mash of jitterbug, sock-hop, and film noir aesthetics that was her Casablanca Label’s default style.)
It’s a shame that just as the musical really catches fire and the Donnas begin to draw us in emotionally , we’re subjected to its most manipulative scenes. Diva Donna, late in her career, sits at a piano and explains away (to her gay friend, natch) her comment that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” at a 1983 concert, which many fans took to be homophobic—not a huge stretch since Summer was deep in a religious revival and often intertwined preaching into her act. (You can see the context of this comment here, during a song called “Woman” when her gay male fans often drowned out the women of the crowd Summer encouraged to sing along. In the play, she says that’s what prompted the “bad joke.”)
Looking back, it all may have been taken out of context, but her failure to confront and address the controversy properly was probably her biggest professional flop. Rumors of homophobic comments, including that AIDS was divine retribution, dogged her for the rest of her career, despite a much later apology. But wait! Then we’re treated to the tearjerking deep cut “Friends Unknown,” with black and white photos of frolicking gay men descending from the rafters. This after Summers says “I’ve lost so many friends.”
If your gut isn’t forcefully punched into tatters at this point, Williamson winds it all up with a balcony-aiming wallop of a climax. I was kind of mad about it all afterwards—the whole thing just sat funny—but was entranced while it was happening.
Anyway, you get it. And at least we’re spared a deathbed scene. (Summer passed away from lung cancer in 2012, at the age of 63.) “Summer” is well worth seeing for the music and the cast—and the feeling you’ve stepped back briefly into the Trocadero Transfer. But it works a little too hard to earn your unconditional love.
Sugar, booze, and music — these are the things that Ana Gasteyer’s holidays are made of.
Top on the comedian, actress, and singer’s list of most beloved holiday sweets are fruit curds. The rich and tangy spreads (also a favorite of Martha Stewart, whom Gasteyer regularly impersonated on SNL in the late ‘90s) are closely followed by Brach’s Lemon Drops, Spearmint Leaves, and Star Brites.
“All the things that make your face slightly screwball,” she told 48 Hills. “They are my true personal cocaine in the most positive of ways.”
When it comes to Christmas spirits, Gasteyer is all about the smokey mezcals, as well as other winter-warming favorites like Irish coffee and spiked cider.
Musically, she’s drawn to the swingin’ jazz records, the Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Chet Baker, and Nat King Cole that her father played over the holidays when she was growing up.
It’s this vintage swing vibe that the actress, who most recently appeared on ABC’s The Goldbergs and Schooled, aimed to capture on her retro-modern and deeply personal Sugar & Booze holiday album, mixing covers of Christmas classics with original numbers.
This big-band exuberance is also immediately apparent in Gasteyer’s “Happy Jazz” act, which she’s bringing to Holiday Gaiety with the San Francisco Symphony this weekend.
The Christmas-themed variety show, co-emceed by conductor Edwin Outwater and scream queen Peaches Christ and featuring musical performances by the SF Symphony and guest vocalists, as well as drag entertainers and the Fou Fou Ha! performance ensemble, comes to Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday.
I spoke to Gasteyer about the making of Sugar & Booze and why performing at the Holiday Gaiety show feels like a career milestone.
48 HILLS Sugar & Booze is one of the best new Christmas albums I’ve heard in ages. I love your covers of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” as much as your four original tracks on the album. Your “Nothing “Rhymes with Christmas” song is absolutely hilarious.
ANA GASTEYER My producer Julian Fleisher is a great lyricist and writer in his own right. He made me laugh because he said, “I really want to write a song for the album.” Then he couldn’t think of anything to rhyme with Christmas, so he came up with that song, which is really clever. It’s like the songwriter’s lament.
48 HILLSOne of my favorite songs on the album is “Secret Santa” with your friend and former SNL colleague Maya Rudolph. How did it feel to work with her again?
ANA GASTEYER I wrote “Sugar & Booze” and “Secret Santa” with my good friend Nicholas Williams who is half of a member of a really fun cabaret group in New York called The Gay Agenda. Those hooks came to me like inspiration and then Nicholas and I got together to properly craft them.
At a certain point, in all ridiculous songs you have to ask what the song is actually about, so you know what you’re leaning toward. He’s so funny because he said, “I guess what I’m getting here is that she had a bad boyfriend, went down to Havana, slipped on a banana, cracked her head on a sidewalk, and got woke.” I’m like, “That’s what happened.”
Maya is one of my favorite harmonizers in the world. She has a crazy good ear and she’s a natural fun singer. I knew the song was up-tempo, a kind of ridiculous and happy song, and she’s the most perfect person to lean into what’s joyful about a song, so I just asked her if she’d harmonize on it. She heard it, loved it, and was happy to oblige. Working with her on it was really fun.
48 HILLSMost of the songs are so joyful, but there’s definitely a touch of sadness in “Blue Black Friday.” What inspired that song?
ANA GASTEYER I came to Tedd Firth, an accomplished jazz pianist I work with, with a lyric for “Blue Black Friday” that spoke to me — “It’ll be a Blue Black Friday if I don’t spend it on you.” Even though it’s kind of cheeky, anti-commercial, and funny, I did want a ballad. I think there’s loneliness sometimes that comes around that time of year, particularly right after Thanksgiving when you’ve eaten too much and the guy hasn’t called. So I wanted to write a blue song because there’s nothing worse than gluttony and rejection.
So I just worked on those lyrics on my own, and in the studio, Tedd helped me get it into a form that made sense for us. I love it so much. I think it’s so beautiful and I really wanted a musical moment that was a little more sentimental, which is hard sometimes.
When I do my act, the goal is to have a great time and have it be a cocktail party in a show, but every great musical evening takes it down a notch for a second and lets people feel for a moment. It’s hard to find songs that have some humor in them that are sincere nonetheless, so writing my own seems like a good solution for that problem.
48 HILLSWith so many Christmas songs out there, how did you choose which ones to cover?
ANA GASTEYER We were looking for a balance because I didn’t want to do a totally wacky, kooky novelty album. I wanted it to feel traditional, sentimental, and fun. There are so many great songbook songs written by great American songbook writers, so all those tunes like “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” have a great sense of the classic songbook in them.
That Cy Coleman song, “He’s Stuck in the Chimney Again” was introduced to me by my reed player who’s a novelty fanatic. It was only in demo form, discovered posthumously after Cy Coleman’s death, and it’s kind of amazing. He wrote it with Floyd Huddleston who wrote the music for The Aristocats and it just has that really subversive and fun energy. So I was just thrilled when the Cy Coleman people said I could record it.
48 HILLSWith so many Christmas albums out there, how did you approach yours to make it stand apart?
ANA GASTEYER It was less of how am I going to stand apart and more about what I like and what kind of band and arrangement I want. It’s an incredibly personal, joyful, and naturally vintage and throwback record because that’s the nature of my approach to music in general. Certainly, the swing of it, and I like jazz-swing music during the holidays. The Nat King Cole Christmas Album and Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas are my favorite Christmas records.
I think that for the holidays, so much is rooted in tradition and what we come back to year after year are our favorite ornaments, movies, and foods. So I wanted to make a record that felt like you had it before, that felt like it fits into the collection of your favorite Christmas party music. I also wanted to make a record that you could leave unattended, that wasn’t all over the map and confusing in the styles. That the originals would fit in seamlessly with the nostalgic numbers, so that you’re free to mix your drinks and eat your cookies and not running over to change the record every second.
48 HILLSWhat can you tell us about your upcoming Holiday Gaiety performance?
ANA GASTEYER I am thrilled because I wrote the song “Sugar & Booze” a year ago, and a year ago we had a few little gigs in New York and Boston and I put it up to see if it was a song that people might like. Now, the fact that it’s not only recorded but that we have an orchestral chart, makes me want to pass out with joy. I can’t even believe I get to hear that music with a giant orchestra. We have some really fun songs from the album and a couple of other ridiculous things planned as well, so I’m very much looking forward to it.
Between the symphony, drag queens, and Sugar & Booze, my three favorite things on the planet, if I died that night it would all be ok, meaning I could die happy. That’s an incredible lineup. These are the reasons you play shitty clubs and suffer all the indignations we endure for a living — for opportunities like this.
HOLIDAY GAIETY Sat/7 7:30 pm, $20-$89 Davies Symphony Hall, SF. More info here.
There are plenty of ways to experience yūgen or “beauty, with a tinge of sadness,” according to the great 14th- and 15th- century Japanese playwright, Zeami. Just watch a flower grow out of a rock, the sun’s descent behind a flower-clad hill, or once visible ocean ships obscured by far-off islands.
It’s the same feeling one gets by absorbing the pomp and pathos of A Noh Christmas Carol (opening Thu/5 at Theatre of Yugen). Written by Theatre of Yugen founder Yuriko Doi and Cienna Stewart and directed by Nick Ishimaru, A Noh Christmas Carol, now in its third year, is a unique reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella.
Here, Victorian-era England has been replaced by Meiji-era Japan and miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge and his late business partner Jacob Marley with Ebezo Sukurooji and Jakube Mashima. The story of a man who’s reminded of the true meaning of Christmas by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future is told using a mix of centuries-old Japanese theatrical forms — Noh, kyogen, kabuki, and butoh — as well as traditional music and costumes.
I spoke to Nick Ishimaru, Theatre of Yugen’s artistic director, about reinventing A Christmas Carol, the story’s message of altruism, and how we must step up our support of local theaters this giving season and beyond.
48 HILLSWhy do an alternative take on a holiday classic like A Christmas Carol?
NICK ISHIMARU Classics have a way of becoming staid museum pieces as audiences become more and more familiar with them. Eventually, the power and magic that make them classics dull and audiences stop responding to them as living art, but only through the lens of tradition.
But when a classic is completely reinvented and told through a new medium, to loosely borrow from Brecht, the familiar is made strange, and viewers are forced to shed their traditional understanding of both story and form in order to understand what they’re seeing and hearing. The text is opened up, revealing new insights and nuances that, perhaps, had been dulled over the years. Reinvention invites viewers to experience a classic, like A Christmas Carol, in a whole new way.
48 HILLSWhy was A Christmas Carol ripe for the Noh treatment?
NICK ISHIMARUA Christmas Carol is a perfect story for transposition into Noh because this call for the alleviation of suffering through community parallels the spirit of Noh.
A typical Noh is about someone performing a prayer or task for a long-suffering spirit, resulting in that spirit’s enlightenment and escape from the endless cycle of suffering in life and death.
Furthermore, the liminal space that A Christmas Carol relies on resonates in perfect harmony with the aesthetics of Noh where spirits come and go and the corporeal interact freely with the phantasmal.
48 HILLSHow would you explain Noh and Yugen to someone who knows little about Japanese culture?
NICK ISHIMARU Excellent question! I’ll start with the harder of the two and talk a bit about yūgen first. Yūgen is a word that talks about a feeling one gets from experiencing something profound, and as it lacks a direct translation, there are a variety of phrases and imagery scholars and performers use to explain yūgen.
It has been described as “beauty, with a tinge of sadness,” “profound elegance,” “the beauty of human suffering,” or even “transcendence.” My favorite way to describe yūgen is through mental imagery. It is the feeling you get when you look up into a cloudy night sky, just in time to see the clouds part and a full moon revealed behind them.
Yūgen is often used to describe elements of Noh because Noh is a ritual performance art that seeks to evoke the otherworldly and dredge up the profound from the depths of the human soul. It is derived from, and in many ways remains, a religious experience, rooted in Shinto and Japanese Buddhism. Performers don masks in a shamanistic invocation of spirits, and many performances are about a priest who prays for the release of a spirit from the suffering of the world.
Noh is a meditative, deliberate performing art where power often lies in what is not said or done, rather than in active performance. Noh is not theater. It is not an experience that audiences attend expecting to be entertained in the way someone might expect to be “entertained” at a tragic drama or slapstick comedy. Noh does not tell a story; it meditates on a moment within an experience and invites the audience to exist in that moment with the literal and figurative spirits enacting said moment.
48 HILLSWhy is it important to keep Noh and kyogen alive in this way?
NICK ISHIMARU The bar for entry into authentic Noh and kyogen is very, very high. Even in Japan, most people have never been to a Noh or kyogen performance and are unlikely to ever go.
There are currently experiments with performances of Romeo and Juliet and Comedy of Errors that are trying to bring these traditional arts into the contemporary world theater. Experiments with adaptations like these serve to lower the barrier to traditional performing arts and draw audiences in through a mix of name recognition and celebrity.
A Noh Christmas Carol is a step further removed, but it piques Bay Area audience interest in the original forms we employ enough for audience members to feel like maybe traditional Japanese theater isn’t quite so difficult to understand!
48 HILLSThere is so much Christmas-themed entertainment out there vying for our attention and dollars. Why is A Noh Christmas Carol the perfect way to spend the holiday season?
NICK ISHIMARUA Christmas Carol is a reminder to reconnect to our communities, be they social, familial, or economic. This story is not just a literal wake-up call to one man to become altruistic; it is a reminder that we are all on this journey through life together, and in times of crisis, our most crucial duty is to be our best selves, both for the sake of others and ourselves. Only then can we truly provide respite from strife. Telling this story in the way that we do deepens and re-emphasizes these core truths of the text, which are often lost in the tradition and pageantry of other more typical productions.
48 HILLSWhy should audiences support local theater?
NICK ISHIMARU Audiences need to support local theater because without them, the ability to tell our City’s stories, to take chances, to create in the moment together, will die.
San Francisco is at a breaking point, where companies are closing and our old paradigms are failing. Without direct support, both by buying tickets and through generous donations, our local theater scene will continue to shrivel and wither.
Local arts, be it theater, music, dance, poetry, or anything, are the heartbeat of a city. There is no better way to devise, imagine, tell, and experience the collective moments a location is experiencing than through local art.
Theater is my medium of choice because of the ability to bring so many performing bodies together in a combination of words, sounds, rhythms, visuals, and creativity. Yet that culmination is always ephemeral, just like any moment in history is. It might leave its impact, but it’s impossible to experience the same live performance twice.
A NOH CHRISTMAS CAROL Thu/5 through December 29 $10-$45 Theatre of Yugen, SF. More info here.
Jane Anderson wrote her play Mother of the Maid about Joan of Arc’s mother, Isabelle Arc, as a tribute to her own mother. When she had a child herself, Anderson realized she must have been difficult to raise. Her mother, she says, was both proud of her and deeply embarrassed.
“I was a gay girl in the ’70s and ’80s, which was unspeakable back then,” she said in an interview with 48 Hills. “I was artistically talented, so to speak, and she took great pride in that and she also worried for me and wanted me hidden away. In the play, I gave Isabelle these lines to says to the Lady of the Court; ‘Women in my village think I’ve raised a strange daughter.’”
Anderson describes the beginning of the play, where Joan tells her mother about her visions of Saint Catherine, as very personal.
“It’s this whole confession of having visitations and what Saint Catherine does to her,” Anderson said. “In essence, it’s a coming out scene.”
Anderson was talking while driving down Highway 5 from her home in Marin to Los Angeles. Glenn Close had the title role in Mother of the Maid in New York, and Close also starred in Anderson’s adaptation of The Wife. Mother of the Maid’s West Coast premiere is at Marin Theatre Company, where it has already been extended to run through December 15.
Over her 30 years as a playwright and screenwriter, Anderson’s work includes an Emmy for her adaption of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge for HBO, and screenplays for many movies, including How to Make An American Quilt, and The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio, which she also directed.
Anderson was obsessed with Joan of Arc as a child. She liked the idea of a girl dressing in men’s clothes, leaving town and going off to do great and ambitious things. As an adult and mom, Anderson started to see how strong Isabelle, Joan’s mother, must have been.
“Any mother who loves their child dearly and is both ambitious for her child and fearful for the child, fearful of what the world might do to her, has nerves of steel,” she said. “She was a peasant woman who was illiterate and barely left her small town, but she had seen horrible things—the death of her babies and English soldiers coming in and slaughtering her best friend and her family. Those people in that time may appear to be simple, but they had to deal with earth-shaking things and they had to be very strong to keep their sanity.”
Anderson said she did a lot of research about Joan of Arc, but her intention was not to write a historical play, but rather a sort of metaphor about mothers and daughters. She encouraged the actors in the play to discard their assumptions about Joan of Arc being saintly and grand. She must have had a certain arrogance to do what she did, Anderson thinks.
“I’m sure it must have been true of any young person who has the balls and the moxie to just walk up to important people and say, ‘I’m going to save France,’” Anderson said. “We know that people of 18 or 19 or in early 20s, there’s both an extreme callousness and extreme boldness. You think you know everything.”
In 1429, Joan of Arc was with the French forces who broke the siege at Orléans. A couple months later, she traveled to the coronation of King Charles VII. The next year she was captured and tried for heresy and burnt at the stake in Rouen.
Twenty-five years after her daughter’s death in 1455, Isabelle of Arc traveled to an inquest to clear Joan’s name. The following year her condemnation was nullified. When Anderson did her research, she was particularly struck by Isabelle traveling to testify for her daughter.
“She began her testimony by saying, ‘I had a daughter once,’ and that killed me,” Anderson said. “So I ended the play like that.”
I can’t even count how many times I held my breath or clutched on to my seat. Or put my palms over my eyes, peaking through my fingers.
But if I could, you would get a sense of the nonstop display of sparkle, suspense and physical prowess that is taking place under the big top in Cirque du Soleil’s latest show Amaluna(through January 2020 at Oracle Park).
I had never been to a Cirque du Soleil performance before, so I was easily charmed even before the performance began by the bejeweled musicians, stilt walkers, and dancers in the bay-front parking lot on a very chilly San Francisco night. Once the show started, I was grateful I was not the only one overwhelmed by the glittering razzle-dazzle—my seatmates also seemed to be alternatively gazing in awe and hiding their eyes as well. Did I mention that they were girls aged seven and four?
Amaluna, directed by Tony Award-winning Diane Paulus, takes place on a verdant enchanted island, governed by goddesses and the cycle of the moon. Scott Pask’s set features towering rainbow-colored bamboo-like branches arcing over the action.
Queen Prospera (Amanda Zidow) leads the coming-of-age ceremony of her daughter Miranda (Anna Ivaseva) in a rite honoring the strength of women, rebirth and balance. My seatmates and I were agape as one woman after another performed feats of astonishing agility and strength. We flinched as two unicyclists (Satomi Sakaino and Yuka Sakaino) stopped their cycles within millimeters of the edge of the stage. We held our breaths as the Moon Goddess (Sabrina Againer) twisted and turned through an aerial hoop high above the stage, holding on with only one ankle. And we silently begged Miranda, doing acrobatics under water in a giant glass bowl, to please, please come up for air.
When a group of young men are shipwrecked on the island, two parallel love stories unfold: one between Miranda and Romeo (Danny Vrijsen) and the other between two raucous clowns, Miranda’s nanny (Kelsey Custard—read our exclusive interview here) and Romeo’s manservant (Thiago Andreuccetti). The captive men exhibit their athleticism as they leap and tumble at high-speed off a perpetual-motion teeterboard, passing within inches of each other in mid-air.
This is director Paulus’s first collaboration with Cirque de Soleil. She says that she drew from a series of classical influences when creating the concept of Amaluna, including Greek and Norse mythology, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Mérédith Caron’s ingenious costume design reflects these magical sources. To facilitate swift movement by the cast, she created costumes with multiple configurations. Huge, showy wings and capes worn during the theatrical moments are instantly transformed into close-fitting leotards when the performers need to freely run, climb, swim or spin from a high wire. Caron also created fantastical outfits for the half-human, half-animal characters, most notably Cali (Vladimir Pestov), the mischievous lizard with an unruly tail.
The majority of the cast—including the entire band—is comprised of women. Director Paulus wrote in the program notes, “I wanted to create a show with women at the center of it, something that had a hidden story that featured women as the heroines.”
The unimaginably talented Cirque women handle crossbows, trapezes, electric guitars, complex balancing sticks and men with grace and strength. I can only imagine how inspiring it was for the little girls beside me. They might just imagine that they can grow up to do anything—wearing sparkly costumes too!