Onstage

Review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is a musical triumph, hashtags and all

Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen and Jessica Phillips as Heidi Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen at the Curran. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

ONSTAGE I admit I raced to see Dear Evan Hansen (through December 30 at the Curran) out of spite. Not to mock the smash-hit Grammy/Tony-winning musical’s swooning fans, who sing along to every word of the driving emo-meets-country-pop soundtrack (I love them, they are the future of this art). Nor to puncture the earnest hashtag marketing that sprang directly from the plot into the viralsphere (#YouWillBeFound could and maybe should be a generation’s rallying cry). 

No, it was this incredibly crabby review of the the LA production in right-wing rag American Thinker—let’s just say the name isn’t too descriptive of the contents—by Patricia Miller that jerked my chain. The cranky screed, titled “Dear Evan Hansen Celebrates All the Wrong Things,” has it all: fist-shaking at modern society, absolute obliviousness to the workings of irony or dramaturgy, and, of course, rage at the scourge of those darned millennials. “The millennials who now write and produce the entertainment to which we all subjected have no moral clarity, no real sense of absolute right and wrong,” Miller writes. “They are not morally discerning.”

This conservative knee-jerk against Dear Evan Hansen (whose writers and composers are indeed dreaded millennials, now in their 30s, how dare they) surprised me, since a bare bones summary of the plot, which centers on a hetero white male cis-male from a “broken” home so eager to impress a girl and fit into her wealthy nuclear family that he plays along with a series of escalating dramatic events, seems anathema to any leftist.

And, as if to underline the play’s resolute lack of subversive intent—in the end, adorable Evan Hansen may find inner strength through wrestling with the truth, but he’ll hardly be taking to the barricades—City Hall itself was lit up on opening night with the play’s chosen promotional color, blue. Not a Republican’s first choice, OK, but totally neoliberal-friendly and solidly American.  

It’s all in the telling, though, isn’t it? Dear Evan Hansen‘s sincere heart and fantastic performances light up a production that has you rooting all the way through for its hero and his circle. Despite its rather Hallmark Channel plot outline, the story is fleshed out in some unexpected ways—it’s a kind of teenaged Next to Normal meets zombie Cyrano de Bergerac with a dash of Heathers in there somewhere and a jolt of American Idiot suburban-solipsistic energy. Somehow it works—thrilling music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul plus David Korins’ brilliant social-media-immersed set design are key—and you’ll likely be left a wet puddle by the end.  

Ben Levi Ross and ensemble in ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ at the Curran Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Awkward, medicated, and therapatized Evan (a winning Ben Levi Ross, who manages to make two hours of teenage social tics endearing) lives with his hardworking single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips) and seems to have the same problems most other teenage boys have—his hands sweat when he attempts to talk to his crush Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna) and he’s having trouble getting psyched about college application essays. His discouraging high school milieu also includes ambitious overachiever Alana (Phoebe Koyabe), ever-scheming cousin Jared (Jared Goldsmith), and Zoe’s bully brother Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith).

Evan’s been writing daily affirmations to himself at his therapists’ request: When anger-bear Connor steals one and then later kills himself, Evan’s letter is mistakenly seen as evidence of a deep bond between them, two people not known to have any friends. Connor and Zoe’s well-to-do, previously self-absorbed parents (Christiane Noll and Aaron Lazar), desperate with grief and guilt, cling to the idea of Evan as the repulsive Connor’s bestie as a kind of redemption. Their semblance of a traditional family life—Evan’s dad flew the coop years ago—and the sudden attention of Zoe cause Evan to go along with the misunderstanding, partly out of pity, partly out of confusion, and partly out of self-interest.

The play then becomes a skillful examination of how social media and contemporary grief rituals can amplify the smallest deceptions into worldwide “fake news.” Evan discovers his voice (and a way to Zoe’s heart) by falsifying friendly emails from Connor while the school duly turns out for a kind of mourning-as-pep-rally, complete with inspirational viral speeches, clever hashtags, a crowdfunding campaign, and RIP Connor Murphy swag. Everything of course spirals out of control, but the ending’s more bittersweetly ambiguous than one would expect, and there are some astute observations of social class differences, how we develop stories about ourselves, and the insane pressures put on young people along the way. 

There are some jarring moments of tone in the script—methinks this is what really threw our American Thinker off—including jokes about “school shooter chic” and graphic gay sex, but taken in context they are actually appropriate to mouthy high schoolers, and nothing that hasn’t been around since movies by the Farrelly Brothers (who are now, I must add, in their 60s). 

The cast is uniformly great. Ben Levi Ross, onstage most of the time, affectingly navigates the moral conflicts of a teenage boy drowning in society’s expectations, while suddenly glimpsing absolute power and privilege. Phillips as mom Heidi brings a tender-tough Lucinda Williams touch and melts the audience in her climactic number.  McKenna as Zoe plays it sweet but smart, while Smith’s Connor, first as Neanderthal Keanu Reeves and then as Evan’s friendly, ghostly conscience, handles the range well. (There are a couple musical clunkers here—the sappy “To Break in a Glove” and the razzle-dazzle “Only Us”— and the way Evan’s relative Jared is written and played leans a little hard on Jewish stereotype.)  

That the social media that’s lampooned onstage has jumped past the curtain to become the main marketing tools of the production is fascinating, and wholly of our moment. #YouWillBeFound (pinched from Evan’s viral inspirational speech) is both earnest and ironic, and, sure, disturbing in the context of the play’s moral universe. “The audience stands and cheers, as it did after every insipid song, as though they’ve just seen West Side Story or The Sound of Music for the first time,” our American Thinker critic despairs. “Those musicals had glorious music and real stories based on human experience: conflict, joy, love, war and history.”

Those musicals also had racism, sexism, underage desire, assault, Nazis, overbearing religion, and violence. Dear Evan Hansen may not have much to say politically, but it does tell the story of a certain contemporary kind of human experience that should be told onstage. 

DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Through December 30
Curran Theatre, SF. 
More info here. 

Austen, downstairs, in ‘The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberly’

Neiry Rojo and August Browning in 'The Wickhams.' Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE When asked if he read novels, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle said, “Oh yes. All six, every year.” Ryle was talking about the work of Jane Austen, and he’s not alone in perhaps wishing for more of her stories.  

Lauren Gunderson (the most produced playwright in America in 2017) and Margot Melcon are doing their part to fulfill that longing. Two years ago, they presented Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a continuation of Pride and Prejudice at Marin Theatre Company.  That play focused on the bookish Mary, joining other family members at the house of their sister Elizabeth and her husband Mr. Darcy.

Now, with The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (through December 16) we are back at the Darcys’ mansion, but this time, the action is downstairs with the servants where George Wickham, Mr. Darcy’s nemesis and the husband of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, has shown up, drunk and with a black eye. 

After playing #46 on the girls’ soccer team in MTC’s The Wolves, Neiry Rojo got called in to audition for The Wickhams. She plays Cassie, an independent new housemaid hired for the holidays. She describes her character as a headstrong person who has had to take care of herself and is not used to other people helping her becomes more vulnerable and open.

Cassie’s story, and that of Brian, the groomsman played by August Browning, changed a lot from when they first went into rehearsal, Rojo said. 

“My character had an almost completely different arc than in the final play, and throughout rehearsal there were rewrites happening to Brian and Cassie’s storylines,” she said. “I think in the first version I saw, on page four, Brian is asking Cassie to marry him and it’s sort of over the top.”

Part of the reason for the change has to do with the #MeToo movement, Rojo thinks. She says the playwrights and actors wanted to find something that would work and make sense for the characters. 

“We talked a lot about what was Austenian—to have one main storyline and others happening around it,” she said. “Lydia and Cassie two women in two different places in the world and very different ways of seeing things, and we wanted to see how they influenced each other.” 

There are certain things she looks for in a role, says Rojo who has worked with Z Space, The Cutting Ball Theater, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and others. “It’s important for me to see women who exist not just to serve another character in the play,” she said. “I need to see complexity and a questioning of the world.”

From ‘The Wickhams.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Along with this production, Rojo has been assistant director on Austen’s Emma and worked on a production of her Persuasion as well. “I was just thinking the other day that she wrote these stories and here I am 200 years later working because she wrote those,” Rojo said. “Isn’t that amazing?” 

After attending community college, Rojo went to UC Santa Cruz to major in English. But when she got there, she spent all her time in the theater department, getting her undergraduate and graduate degree in it.

“I think that’s when I’m the best human I can be right now,” she said. “I can best serve by connecting with people and telling stories.”

THE WICKHAMS: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEY
Through Dec. 16

Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
Tickets and more info here 

As a queer POC, El Beh finds joy in playing ‘Mary Poppins’

Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser), Mary Poppins (El Beh), and ensemble in SF Playhouse's 'Mary Poppins.' Photo by Jessica Palopoli

ONSTAGE El Beh, who plays the title role in San Francisco Playhouse’s Mary Poppins (through January 12), never would have thought to play the no-nonsense nanny who comes in on the wind with her parrot-headed umbrella and whips the Banks family into shape. 

They got the part when Susi Damilano, the director, bumped into them on the street and asked Beh just to consider taking the role. Beh, who along with singing, dancing and acting, teaches theater to middle school students and movement and music to toddlers, decided to do it. Part of the reason was representation.

“It really meant something to me to have a queer person of color in that role,” they said.  “I was thinking about my kiddos getting to see that and how much that would mean, so I thought, I can’t walk away from that—I have to be brave enough to consider it. My social justice has to line up with my art or it’s just not worth doing. And I decided it was.”

From the SF Playhouse production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

P.L. Travers wrote a series of books about Mary Poppins, the nanny who comes to the Banks family when the two children, Jane and Michael, have driven their other nannies away. Their father works at the bank, and in the play, has little time for his children—their mother used to be an actress, but now tries to meet her husband’s exacting standards for the house and children.

Mary Poppins, who has a high regard for herself and does a lot of sniffing to signify disapproval, takes the children on magical adventures. Bill English, co-founder of the Playhouse with Damilano, writes in the program that the books drew unexpected fans like  Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot. According to English, Australian immigrant Travers wrote the books as a commentary on class: Mary Poppins teaches empathy and compassion for the poor. 

Beh’s first encounter with Mary Poppins was the Disney movie with Julie Andrews (which Travers supposedly hated), when she was very young. They liked it but weren’t swept away. But they found playing the role of enigmatic nanny rich and interesting. 

“She’s kind of single-handedly dismantling the patriarchy in this world,” Beh said. “And she’s not fascistically telling them how to do it. There’s a line I love that can be played tongue in cheek, but I think it’s absolutely her truth: When they’re going to the bank and Michael says she put it into her father’s head, Mary says, ‘The impudence! I would never put ideas into someone’s head,’ I think that she would be horrified at the idea of putting ideas into anyone’s head—she might guide them, but they have to come to it themselves.”

Dismantling the patriarchy is exactly what Beh wants their art to do, and Mary Poppins does it in a loving way, they think. 

“I toggle between being able to do that work through love—and feeling like, ‘Burn it all to the ground.’ It’s good to sit with doing it through love, and I’ve been in a burn it all to the ground mood for a while,” they said. “The thing about doing it with love is it lasts longer. She’s doing real facilitation, so the other characters come to it themselves.”

From the SF Playhouse production of ‘Mary Poppins.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Beh finds a lot of joy in the role. For one thing there’s the reaction of children in the audience. Then they get to co-star with their best friend, Wiley Naman Strasser, who plays Bert, the chimney sweep, who dances across the rooftops. 

Beh’s many productions include Black Rider, Our Town, and Hamlet at the Shotgun Players, Into the Woods and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Playhouse, and playing the cello and singing in Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Beh grew up singing and dancing—and their mother made sure to take them to see plays when they were young. It was studying theater at UC Berkeley that made them decide on this as a career.  

“That’s where I learned how my art makes a difference in the world,” Beh said. “And what it could do as activism.”

MARY POPPINS: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL
Through January 12
San Francisco Playhouse
Tickets and more info here 

A rush of that ol’ razzle dazzle in ‘Crazy For You’

Conor DeVoe and the Company of Bay Area Musicals' CRAZY FOR YOU. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

ONSTAGE Remember “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “Embraceable You”?

Can you hear these Gershwin tunes in your mind?

Did you ever imagine they were from the same musical?

Each of these classic tunes is featured in Crazy For You (though December 16 at Alcazar Theatre), a glittering extravaganza currently being performed by Bay Area Musicals.

The show has an unusual provenance. Though most of the songs were composed by George and Ira Gershwin for their 1930 Girl Crazy, in 1992 the play was reimagined by playwright Ken Ludwig and staged on Broadway where it garnered a Tony for Best Musical.

That’s the version now at San Francisco’s Alcazar Theater, directed and choreographed by Matthew McCoy. He and co-choreographer Danielle Cheiken adapted the dance numbers—created by Susan Stroman—into a stunning array of nonstop tap displays that will knock your socks off.

Danielle Altizio and Conor DeVoe in Bay Area Musicals’ CRAZY FOR YOU. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

The plot is a familiar chestnut. A wealthy New Yorker, Bobby Child (the multi-talented Conor DeVoe), wants nothing to do with his family banking business and longs to be a hoofer. Rejected by the pompous impresario Bela Zangler (Tony Michaels), he accepts his domineering mother’s (Mary Gibboney) assignment to foreclose on a derelict theater out in Deadrock, Nevada.

There he falls for Polly Baker (Danielle Altizio), the only woman resident in the town, who also happens to be the daughter of the theater owner (Charles Evans). Child’s solution: Bring out the dancers from Zangler’s Follies and put on a show to save the foreclosed theater. But this storybook plot is just the scaffolding on which to hang some uproarious physical comedy and the brilliant lyrics and music of the Gershwins.

Altizio’s voice is transcendent: Her rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me” is heart-wrenching, and her dance duets with Bobby are energetic and elegant. A comedic scene between Zangler and Bobby, who has disguised himself as Zangler in an attempt to win Polly’s heart, is hilarious. Sitting in a Western bar, drowning their sorrows over the elusive women they love, the two mirror each other’s actions with comic precision as they sing “What Causes That?” It’s reminiscent of a silent Charlie Chaplin movie come to life.

The whole company keeps up the vibrant pace with astounding dancing and acrobatics, punctuated by punchy comedy. The women in Zangler’s chorus line tap with Busby Berkeley precision. The faux shoot-outs and barroom brawls of the cowboys are uproarious.

The Company of Bay Area Musicals’ CRAZY FOR YOU. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

When the two groups—chatty New York follies girls and slow-talking desert miners who are “bidin’ their time”—get together, their dance numbers are as sparkling as their sequined costumes. Bobby convinces Moose (Lucas Brandt), the clumsiest dancer of the miners, to try playing the bass. Moose’s transition from gawky dancer to foot-tapping musician is accompanied by astounding choreography. In “Slap that Bass,” lariats and pantomime dancers become the stringed instruments, while the excellent off-stage orchestra, led by Jon Gallo, provides the music.

Given it’s a Gershwin work, it’s no surprise that every song has the makings of a showstopper, and this cast does them justice. The jokes, with references to Mickey Rooney, the revolution scene in the Broadway’s Les Miserables, and a sly reference that “no one would ever come to Nevada to gamble,” were updated for the 1992 version—but they connect smoothly with the original script, and you have the sense that George and Ira would have approved.

The old story of boy-meets-girl, show business dreams, false identities, and absurd coincidences comes alive to the sounds of Gershwin and the skilled rhythms of fleet tap shoes. It’s been an intense autumn and we could all do with a little exuberant fun. Crazy for You may hold no deep messages here, but plenty of high kicks, hijinks, and razzle-dazzle! 

CRAZY FOR YOU
Through December 16
Alcazar Theatre, SF.
More info here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
November 17 through December 9
War Memorial Opera House, SF
Tickets and more info here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nilaja Sun in ‘Pike St.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets and more info here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A timely, unrelenting family drama unfolds at Magic Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE RESTING PLACE
Through November 4
Magic Theatre, SF
More info here