Onstage

The Civil War, from another side, in ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3’

Eboni Flowers as Penny and James Udom as Hero in 'Father Comes Home from the Wars, parts 1,2, and 3' Photo by Joan Marcus

ONSTAGE A historical epic, a taut thriller, a chamber melodrama, a heart-warming comedy, a social scalding: Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wrings a lot from her enthralling Father Comes Home from the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3 (through May 20 at ACT) from 2014.

Her strategy? Start with a rock-solid premise: What if you were a slave who was promised freedom if you accompanied your master into the Civil War, fighting against the Yankees? There are enough ironies in that horrible situation, one actually faced by dozens of enslaved men called Body Men, to fuel the three-hour running time and keep you glued to your seat. (There are six more parts to Father coming, although Parks says she’s in no hurry to write them.)

A chorus of enslaved people—Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Leader (Chivas Michael), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez) and The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones), Hero’s surrogate father—place bets over whether Hero will accompany The Colonel to the Civil War. Photo by Joan Marcus

From there, Parks lets her crystal clear and ingenious plotting unfold in unexpected and searing directions. Many contemporary African American artists have found that an Afro-Surrealism rooted in absurdism and metaphysics is the only tolerable way to approach the phantasmagoria of the Civil War. But Parks plays it mostly straight: Despite obvious callbacks to Homeric epics the Odyssey and the Illiad, a hyperreal but completely plausible plot twist in part 2, and the introduction of an irresistibly charming, totally impossible character in part 3, there’s no magical escape hatch for either the audience or the artist from the horror or the humanity of that still simmering American inferno.

That doesn’t mean Father is shorn of poetry or beauty. Parks’ trademark jazz-inflected dialogue pulls from both the classic (slave dialect, epic poetry, biblical passages) and the contemporary (“True dat,” “jet”) and gives the play a striking texture. The tone can shift on a dime, and you’re never quite sure from one minute to the next if Parks is sending up stereotypical expectations of how enslaved people should behave and talk—the plantation, where much of the action takes place, is of full of cliches that run deeper than you think—or celebrating a culture of simple humor, friendly rivalry, and cheering romance, guarding itself against sudden terror.

Smith (Tom Pecinka, left), an imprisoned wounded Union captain, is guarded by The Colonel (Dan Hiatt). Photo by Joan Marcus

Here’s the bare bones. In Part 1, the small slave community on a Texas plantation agonizes over whether the prevaricating Hero (a fantastic James Udom) will follow The Colonel (Dan Hiatt) in war. Hero’s been promised his freedom before—at the tragic expense of another slave, Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)—but after betraying Homer, Hero was himself betrayed. Will he fall for it again? Does he even want freedom, or know what it truly is? (This, I feel, is a genius insight of the play: Slavery so degrades people that the concept of freedom can be terrifying.) Meanwhile, everyone’s looking for Hero’s dog, Odyssey—or “Odd-See,” because his eyes “go this way and that.”    

Part 2 is a tense standoff in the woods a short distance from the boom of cannons, as The Colonel and Hero, who has indeed gone to war, watch over captured Yankee captain Smith (Tom Pecinka). The narrative and moral suspense ratchets up as the Colonel plays sick games with the other two, and opportunities keep opening for Hero to seize his freedom. The implications of “owning oneself” are overwhelming, in a society that puts a price on everything.

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero’s faithful pet, appears with updates on Hero. Photo by Joan Marcus

In Part 3, Hero, now renamed Ulysses after the general, returns to the plantation and his beloved Penny (Eboni Flowers, heart-rending) to find much has changed. Odd-See the Dog (a perfectly canine Gregory Wallace) returns and plays a crucial role in the melodrama that follows, with as much romantic turmoil as a telenovela, full of wonderfully funny moments and some of great philosophical gravity—what is freedom when you’re left with nothing in a capitalistic society?

Those economic concerns are one of the wonders of the play, which offers a taut Marxist gloss on the price of bodies and ideology. Another great strategy is the deployment of enslaved people, both runaway and enchained, as a Greek chorus—Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, and Chivas Michael are a fabulous ensemble who simultaneously comment on and contribute to the action. Minimal sets by Riccardo Hernandez and moody washes of lighting by Yi Zhao abet director Liz Diamond’s straightforward, uncluttered direction. 

Wearing a worn Confederate Army uniform, Hero (James Udom) finds himself fighting in the wilderness during the Civil War. Photo by Joan Marcus

Steven Anthony Jones as the plantation’s “Oldest Old Man” (his role as father figure brought home the realization that this family could be torn apart at a moment’s notice) and musician Martin Luther McCoy, punctuating the stage business with lovely blues snippets written by Parks herself, round out the cast. While the Homeric references didn’t quite add anything for me (you’ll recognize several plot points from both the Odyssey and the Old Testament), they provided some great wordplay and a solid framework. I also missed some of the dazzling linguistic experimentalism Parks has brought to famous works like Topdog/Underdog and Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, but that concentrated brilliance might be tiresome in an epic such as this.  

In a month that swerved crazily from Kanye West’s ridiculous pronouncements that slavery was a choice and Donald Glover’s sensational but highly problematic indictment of the country’s racist legacy in his “This is America” video, spending company with Parks’ deep, long, unwinding expressions of the historical black experience was emotionally refreshing and intellectually invigorating. 

FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS
PARTS 1, 2, AND 3
Through May 20
ACT’s Geary Theatre, SF
More info here

A giddy Go-Go’s time warp in “Head Over Heels”

Peppermint (center) as Pythio, The Oracle of Delphi (“Vision of Nowness”) and the ensemble. Photo by Joan Marcus

ONSTAGE It’s real cute, the good kind of cute. Head Over Heels (through May 6 at the Curran Theatre), the “posh meets punk” Elizabethan pastoral pastiche Go-Go’s jukebox musical—say that three times fast—debuted at Curran Theatre on Wednesday, for a small run before its transfer to Broadway.

Falling somewhere between Mamma Mia and American Idiot—which Heels director Michael Mayer also directed on Broadway, along with pubescent eruption Spring Awakening—the show motors along on lusty nostalgia, knowing winks, and some clever stage business and energetic dance moves. (Choreography and musical staging is by Spencer Liff, whose pompadour-coif at the premiere was about two feet tall, and, if it was an homage to John Sex, one of the best ’80s throwback effects of the night).

And, of course, those Go-Go’s songs, which Head over Heels will gladly re-implant into your brain for another eternity. The hits (along with some deeper cuts and singer Belinda Carlisle’s solo material—though sadly not her most philosophical jam “Circles in the Sand”)  are interspersed somewhat awkwardly throughout the tale, but they certainly rouse the crowd.

So what if the parts don’t quite fit together, or that there’s really no need for it to exist? This is all frothy fun, with some lovely moments of dialogue (much in iambic pentameter), unflagging energy from a swell cast, and a gender-fluid storyline, featuring Peppermint as Pythio the Oracle of Delphi, who is the first transgender woman to originate a Broadway role.

The tale itself, sparked by Sir Philip Sydney’s epic 16th-century Arcadia with a dash of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, concerns the amorous adventures of the royal family of Arcadia. Daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan, channeling a hysterical fag hag) despairs of too many suitors, relying on her attractive handmaiden Mopsa (Taylor Imam Jones) for full support. Younger daughter Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) pines for hunky shepherd Musidorus (a fabulous Andrew Durand, shouldering most of the dramatic load here). King Basilius (Jeremy Kushner) and Queen Gynecia (Rachel York, playing it perfectly tart) are drifting apart, relationship-wise, and could use a good, bawdy jolt. 

Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa (center) and the company (“We Got the Beat”). Photo by Joan Marcus

Luckily, Pythio is here to provide some amorous upheaval, dropping a kingdom-shattering prophecy in the form of four riddles that drive the plot. Soon Arcadia’s court is fleeing to Bohemia to escape the oracle’s soothsaying implications. As Pythio, the charismatic Peppermint gives you divine sass with a dash of Hedwig. (Mayer also directed the national tour of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) And if the play falls right into the trap of making the transgender black character a mystical signpost, at least Pythio gets her own personal storyline, though it comes very late in the play.

That’s not the only cliche by far in this narrative. But characterization, and even plot, isn’t really the point here. It’s charm. And original writer Jeff Whitty (who left the production earlier in the musical’s long gestation journey) and adapter James MacGruder have wonderful fun both parodying and fulfilling what audiences expect from 16th-century dramatic verse. (One of the best running jokes of the evening is that shepherd Musidorus speaks in “Eclogue.”) A heavy dose of classic gay sensibility and humor also add to the bubbly dialogue, as well as some good old-fashioned sexual snafus, obvious disguises, and cross-gender costumery.  

The Head Over Heels company (opening tableau of “We Got the Beat”). Photo by Joan Marcus

But where in the hallowed halls of Arcadia do the Go-Go’s fit in? Injecting punk tropes into royal court intrigue has a well-worn postmodern pedigree that stretches from Derek Jarman to Sofia Coppola. (Johnny Rotten could have been singing about Elizabeth I in “God Save the Queen,” as the sun finally set on the murderous empire she built). The ’80s pop charts were hardly punk, although they were “punky,” sometimes even allowing a well-tended Billy Idol sneer or two through. And with their class-signaling shoulder pads, voluminous pleats, sky-high hairstyles, and ruffled collars, the ’80s certainly have their own connection, at least sartorially, to ye olde Working Girl queens. (Costumes by Arianne Phillips and sets by Julian Crouch call up memories of Le Château as much as the poofier corners of BBC Shakespeare adaptations.)  

The Go-Go’s are definitely an ’80s aesthetic, improbably born of the ’70s SoCal surf-punk scene to conquer the pop charts with unflagging energy and musical dexterity. Your affection for their songs’ interpolation into the drama will depend on your depth of reverence for the group itself. The Go-Go’s are feminist musical inspirations, and club kid Jane Wiedlin, their rhythm guitarist, is a local treasure. But for those who grew up during their inescapable grip on Top Ten radio, encountering these songs was sometimes less a life-affirming experience than being bludgeoned by exuberance. Subtle wonder “Our Lips Are Sealed,” written with Fun Boy Three, managed to cross over the line into timeless art (and spawned two of the greatest 12-inch versions of the decade), but the rest can now feel like a surprisingly hip cheerleader shouting at you on the street.  

They’re still solid, unshakable tunes—and thankfully a silly attempt to tie “We Got the Beat” to Arcadia’s underlying spiritual motivations stays undeveloped. (“Vacation” and “Mad About You” don’t escape such a literal fate, though it’s not so bad). But to be honest, any ’80s pop group’s songs could fit into Head Over Heels. I imagined more poetic yet more riskier commercial proposition New Order, but who am I to deny this light-spirited Elizabethan tumble’s irresistible, singalong affability? Go-Go’s, I turn to thee.    

HEAD OVER HEELS
Through May 6

Curran Theatre, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

Review: ‘Disruption’ offers timely #metoo twist on tech scandals

CEO Andy Powell (Sally Dana) strategizes with her chief of staff Cris Friend (Heather Gordon) in 'Disruption.' Photo by Mario Parnell

ONSTAGE Since the #MeToo movement burst on the scene, it has illuminated the epidemic of sexual harassment that has long afflicted women in all kinds of jobs—from agricultural workers to actors, from restaurant workers to realtors from professors to park rangers.

It’s no surprise that it is rampant among the “tech-bro” culture of Silicon Valley, even among the highest echelons of the corporate structure. Witness the high profile sex discrimination case by Ellen Pao, a former venture capital executive, that sent shock waves through the world of tech finance.

So 3Girls Theatre Company’s production of Disruption at Z Space (through April 29) is definitely timely, although it offers a twist.

Playwright AJ Baker sets the drama smack dab in the middle of the booming biotech industry, when GeneFarm, headed by Dr. Andrea “Andy” Powell (Sally Dana), is just about to go public with a breakthrough drug called Miracle.

CEO Andy Powell (Sally Dana) and her chief of staff Cris Friend (Heather Gordon) get advice from their lawyer Vivian Starr (Nancy Madden in ‘Disruption. Photo by Mario Parnell.

When an anonymous whistleblower threatens to sue and go viral with accusations about the reliability of the clinical trials, Powell and her all-woman team have just one day to halt the disruption of the launch and the subsequent public relations (and financial) disaster. 

The action takes place in the expensive but sterile offices (perfectly designed by Jeff Wincek, down to the swivel chairs, the wood veneer credenzas, and the bland art on the walls) of the mediator, retired Judge Manny Diamond (played by Louis Parnell, who also directed the show). 

A laptop is always open on the desk and everyone has a cell phone at hand (although the elderly judge’s is a flip phone and he is mystified by the ubiquitous #, which he calls a number-sign). Negotiations are tense between the two sides, but the stakes become even higher when the whistleblower threatens to add a multi-million dollar sexual harassment charge to the lawsuit. The women realize the accuser is Laszlo Elza (Timothy Roy Redmond), a former head of global sales for GeneFarm, who had a short fling with Powell when she was still reeling from her husband’s death.

Powell’s team is fortified by the tough, salty attorney Vivian Starr, played with great wit and aplomb by Nancy Madden. Starr previously represented Powell in a successful sexual harassment suit against her former employer, and—because these current charges against Powell mirror the ones she brought in that suit—she smells a rat. 

But a whiff of rat does not a solid defense make, and most of the drama is taken up by trying to figure out the identity, the ulterior motives, and the financial backer of Powell’s accuser. Powell almost figures it out when she agrees to a back-channel meeting, where a smug and sleazy Elza lays on the false charm so thick that you wonder what she ever saw in him. She wonders, too.

The play stays pretty much on an even keel throughout, which unfortunately drains the initial tension. Glimmers of warmth emerge when Baker allows her characters a moment of reflection. In one scene, CEO Powell’s seemingly impenetrable veneer is cracked by a moving emotional confession about her husband’s death and the impact on her daughter. In another, we get a glimpse of the internal life of attorney Starr: When Powell asks her how long she’s been married, she responds, “I’m not.” When Powell presses, “Kids?”  Starr answers, “Cats.  I’m a stereotype.” Perhaps, but a stereotype with guts and smarts to spare.

Laszlo Elza (Timothy Roy Redmond) makes his case to CEO Andy Powell (Sally Dana) in ‘Disruption.’ Photo by Mario Parnell

Yet these moments are not sustained long enough to deepen either the drama or our understanding of the characters. Perhaps if Baker had stretched a little further beyond the corporate boardroom, the show may have been more provocative. But the fact that all the characters in Disruption are well-educated, white, and wealthy limits its appeal.  Even the villain of the piece ends up several hundred thousand dollars richer, and yet we’re supposed to feel like he’s the loser. Not sure how many people in the 99% can identify with that.

Disruption does depict how deeply ingrained sexual stereotypes about women are—even about women who are, as Baker puts it, “at the top of the org chart.” This includes internalized misogyny. The brilliant Andrea Powell’s achievements and professionalism are thrown into question—including by her—when it is revealed that she did have a brief affair with her accuser. And the new Miracle drug? It’s not for reproductive health or breast cancer, it’s a metabolic aid for weight loss.  

Playwright Baker, who is also the founder and artistic director of 3Girls Theatre Company, explains that she began working on the play in 2016 during the months leading up to the election. She was disappointed but not surprised by the amount of “hardcore gender bias” she saw. “Women who want power—and who succeed in getting it—are seen as ‘exceptional’ in the worst possible way,” she says. “That is, they aren’t ‘normal’, and therefore they aren’t entitled to play by the same rules or be judged by the same standards as powerful men. In Disruption, I wanted to explore how this dynamic looks from the inside.” 

In Disruption, however, instead of a penetrating look, we only get a tantalizing glimpse.

DISRUPTION
Through April 29

Z Space
Tickets and more info here

‘How To Be a White Man’ explores power and identity with a comic touch

Kevin Glass and Luna Malbroux in Malbroux's 'How To Be a White Man'

ONSTAGE Growing up in rural Louisiana, queer black comedian and social worker Luna Malbroux was pretty familiar with assumptions people might make about her. Hearing fellow comedian Mindy Kaling talk about how she carries herself with the entitlement of a white male made a big impression of her, and partly inspired her to write her play How to Be a White Man (at Burial Clay Theatre, March 23-April 1).

Malbroux, who leads anti-bias and anti-racist workshops, performed in the play with Faultline Theatre company at PianoFight last year. She got good feedback, but some people, including from Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr., who has an M.F.A. in theater from Carnegie Mellon, saw it more as a performance piece than a play.

Jackson, who co-founded the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, knew Malbroux because they were both doing a residency at the African American Art & Culture Complex, which gave them access to the offices and theater there (“like a African American futuristic We Work,” Jackson said.) They talked about reworking How to Be a White Man, and now they’re putting it on with Jackson directing and Malbroux starring.

Luna Malbroux

In the first version, Malbroux says, there were eight or so characters, and now there are just two.

“There’s a black woman and a white man,” she said. “I don’t want to give it all away, but it explores identity and power in a relationship. Also when I first wrote this, Obama was president [both she and Jackson laugh] and a lot has changed between the summer of 2017 and now, so I wanted to make sure it goes deeper.”

Jackson says the previous play had a lot of different stories in a vignette style, and now it’s possible to go more in depth. Because they share an office with each other as well as others involved in the play, they can check in with each other. This is helpful to her as a writer, Malbroux says, giving her immediate feedback, which she’s used to as a stand-up comic. Asked for an example of an idea she got or something she changed as a result of talking with her co-workers, both Malbroux and Jackson start laughing again. They were thinking about the artistic director of the play, a black woman, and what she said during a conversation about the concepts of the show.

‘How To Be A White Man’ director Rodney Jackson, Jr.

“She said when she was young and starting her own business, she would be taken more seriously if she said she was ‘Stanley Emerson’s secretary,'” Malbroux said. “He was a character she created to do business. We just lost it. I said, ‘I’m going to use this.'”

In How to Be A White Man, Malbroux plays Michelle, about to get a job at a SNL-like show, Avocado Nation, but constantly feeling the pressure to be twice as good, being a black woman in comedy. Her white male foil is played by Kevin Glass.

Jackson, who appeared in Motown the Musical as well as Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, about the Temptations, has directed musicals before, but this is his first time directing something like this, and he says it was fun to get the comedy and drama across just using words. Malbroux thinks this version of the play is easier to connect with, and she’s loving it as a writer and actor.

“The people I work with inspire me on the daily,” she said. “I work with Kevin Glass, and having his support and Rodney’s and doing a play that has such tense subject matter and we all get along and love each other—that means a lot.

HOW TO BE A WHITE MAN

March 23- April 1

Burial Clay Theatre, SF.

Tickets and more info here

Flipping the script on a tragic war’s fallout in ‘Vietgone’

Tong (Jenelle Chu) whispers an invitation to Quang (James Seol). Photo: Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE “You lost a brother, I lost my family. You lost a brother, I lost my whole country… I lost everything I had.”

With this scathing refrain, Quang (James Seol), a fighter pilot turned refugee, reminds an anti-war hippie (one of many roles played by the excellent thespian-chameleon Jomar Tagatac) that Americans will never know as much about the war as the Vietnamese who endured it on their native soil.

There are many facets to the Vietnam War—or the American War as the Vietnamese now call it, to distinguish it from invasions of their country by the Chinese and French over the centuries. In A.C.T.’s new “irreverent road trip comedy” Vietgone (through April 22), playwright Qui Nguyen has chosen to look at it from one particular perspective: the Vietnamese who sided with the Americans, and who escaped the fall of Saigon by the skin of their teeth to come to the United States. 

Lives intersect in 1975 at the Ft. Chafee, Arkansas refugee camp. Quang, a helicopter pilot trained at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, commanded a unit for the South Vietnam Air Force for eight years. Tong (Jenelle Chu), the woman he falls for in the refugee camp, worked at the US Embassy and was granted two tickets out. To her regret, her younger brother Khue (Stephen Hu, in one of his many roles) will not join her because he won’t leave the love of his life. At his urging, she brings their mother Huong (the delightfully caustic Cindy Im), who is unabashedly vocal about her disgust with the camp’s food, the incomprehensible language, and most especially the GI who is smitten with her daughter.

Huong (Cindy Im, left) walks in on Quang (James Seol) and Tong (Jenelle Chu) in ‘Vietgone.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Given the tragedy of their lives—years of war, forced separation from loved ones, landing on a distant and unfamiliar shore, confinement in a camp in the middle of nowhere—it’s quite a feat that playwright Nguyen and director Jaime Castaneda have created an exuberant comedy that has the audience roaring out loud at many moments.

Nguyen’s skillful play with language is nothing short of brilliant. In the opening scene, an actor representing the playwright (Tagatac) explains how the dialogue will be presented.  When the Vietnamese characters are speaking to each other, it will be in familiar, contemporary language, even raps, that the audience can easily follow: “Whoa, there’s a lotta white people up in here?” When an American attempts Vietnamese, it will be awkward and grammatically incorrect: “Seeing you for first time was love in sight first.” And when the Americans speak English to the Vietnamese it is a jumble of common words sounding like total gibberish: “Nascar, botox, frickles.”

As the play unfolds, the purpose of Nguyen’s linguistic gymnastics becomes clear: English-speaking audiences have to grapple with what it feels like not to understand the language that surrounds you in a strange place, and maybe share some deeper understanding of what it means to be a war refugee.

Nguyen has created the opposite of the classic Hollywood Vietnam War films, where the heroes are all Americans and the Vietnamese are minor characters, exoticized and stereotyped, and mostly silent. In Vietgone, the narrative is defined by the Vietnamese, and the Americans have the walk-on parts.

Two hippies (Cindy Im and Jomar Tagatac) smoke a joint in ‘Vietgone.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

The first act is snappy. We witness the fall of Saigon, the chaotic departure of many Vietnamese on helicopters and aircraft carriers, and their arrival in the bleak resettlement camp. The scenes go back and forth in rapid-fire sequence from Vietnam to America, aided by black and white projections of the war.

The main characters are irreverent and compelling. The beautiful Tong rejects her many suitors and asserts she is the “sheer opposite of every Vietnamese woman on the planet”—she doesn’t want to be protected or taken care of, she wants to strike out on her own in her new country. “I’m no Juliet waiting on no balcony,” she raps, “I can save my own kingdom, I’m a badass bitch!”  

Her mother Huong resents—after burying two husbands, birthing eight children, and surviving two wars—having to learn English, and thinks the Americans should learn Vietnamese. Until they do, she delights in voicing her obscenity-laced opinions in front of Americans who don’t understand a word of her insults and think of her as a sweet old lady.

Quang resists being seduced by America, “I don’t want to think about where I am, a soldier lost in some foreign land.” He is obsessed about getting back to his wife and two children in Vietnam. Yet he continues to defend the US role in the war even though he knows that in this new country he will be subject to racism: “We get to America by any desperate means/Cause they say they’ll take the poor and the weak/But does that do for refugees that look like me/peeps reminding them of their enemy?”

Nhan (Stephen Hu, left) and Quang (James Seol) in Qui Nguyen’s ‘Vietgone.’ Photo by Kevin Berne.

The drama, and the humor, slow somewhat in the second act as the characters reluctantly settle in to their new circumstances, knowing it will be for the long haul.

Nguyen said in an interview that growing up in Arkansas with Vietnamese refugee parents, he loved hip-hop, action movies, and comic books. These cultural influences are evident here: the music by composer Shammy Dee features dynamic raps, the set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge includes huge brightly-colored comic-book style letters announcing places and dates, and several scenes are reminiscent of movies that run the gamut from Dirty Dancing and Easy Rider to Revenge of the Ninja. Even Nguyen’s brilliant inversion of syntax and language echoes that technique in the groundbreaking film The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez.

Huong (Cindy Im) embraces her daughter Tong (Jenelle Chu) in ‘Vietgone.’ Photo by Kevin Berne.

Director Castaneda says, “A lot of my colleagues and I are part of a whole generation of artists who are either first- or second-generation American, who straddle different countries and different identities. It’s in that tension that we’ve seen a lot of new cultural productions grappling with race, identity, culture and history… asking questions about their place in this country, their place in the world.”

The playwright claims in his opening speech that “this story is not about war, but about falling in love.” That assertion is reiterated later in the play when he tries to convince his father, Huang, now a septuagenarian, to talk to him about the war. Huang, speaking in broken heavily accented English to his American-born son, only wants to share his memories of his child’s babyhood and teenage years.

Driving home from the theater, we heard news on the radio that a vet who had been treated for PTSD at a Yountville veterans’ home had taken three women staff members hostage, and then shot and killed them. That tragedy underscored the message of Vietgone, which, despite the actor/playwright’s on-stage denials, is a story about the deep consequences of war—just not the ones we thought we knew.

VIETGONE
Through April 22
A.C.T. at Geary Theatre, SF
Tickets and more info here

A school mass shooting inspires a new play at Berkeley Rep

Jackie Chung (Gina) and Daniel Chung (Dennis) in Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” directed by Lisa Peterson. A co-production with Long Wharf Theatre. Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

ONSTAGE After the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, playwright Julia Cho (Aubergine,
The Language Archive) was looking for something that would help her understand the murderous rampage which killed 32 people and injured 16—at the time the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in US history. None of her research, or the discourse of the time, helped her make sense of what had happened.

“It felt like conversation devolved into extreme opposite viewpoints and the language was reductive,” Cho said. “It was hijacked by the loudest and most extreme points of view. I wanted a more nuanced approach that could own the complexity of what was happening. I was hungry for that.”

In Cho’s latest play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Office Hour (through March 25), a teacher tries to get through to a sullen student whose behavior and dress—sunglasses indoors, violent pornographic writing—has people worried. Knowing where to begin the play was hard for Cho, who taught in grad school, until she read a teacher’s op-ed about a troubling student. Looking at that specific relationship, between a teacher and a student, gave Cho a way in.

Cho didn’t want to write about mass shootings—but she felt she needed to.

“The older I get, the more it takes to get me across the threshold of writing,” she said. “I felt like I had a sort of responsibility to write about the things that are troubling me. Not that the play answers any of them, but it does raise questions.”

While writing Office Hour, Cho read teachers’ blogs online as well as the report the governor of Virginia commissioned on the shooting She also read One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway—and Its Aftermath by Åsne Seierstad, the book about the horrible killing of 69 people at a youth camp in 2011. Cho said it was difficult emotionally to immerse herself in the world of school shootings, but she knows it doesn’t come close to the actual experience.

“I was reading in safety of own home,” she said. “But I owned that feeling of not being safe in public places which came from the events themselves. Basically, I decided I won’t hold the illusion of safety anymore.”

Playwright Julia Cho.

The play, a co-production with Long Wharf Theatre, has been performed at other venues including South Coast Repertory and New York’s Public Theater. Cho says sometimes she has had people who have been present at a shooting come up to her to talk and those are the responses that mean the most.

This current run of the play at Berkeley Rep comes soon after the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 people were killed with an AR-15. The student survivors have been speaking out on social media as well as traditional media- appearing on a CNN town hall, “The Ellen Show,” and other news and talk shows, demanding change. Major companies, including banks, rental car companies, and airlines have cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Others are feeling pressure, too

Cho says the aftermath of this shooting feels different to her, and it has changed how people are responding to the play.

“I think what’s interesting is now complacency isn’t settling in, and people are coming in with it more on the surface, and the audience is a bit more willing to be engaged,” she said. “It feels like we’re on the cusp of some change, and for me it’s changed my experience of the play and makes it more bearable to watch. Before we were so far from any dialogue or acknowledgement, and now it feels like there’s hope.”

OFFICE HOUR
Through March 25
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley
Tickets and more info here.

‘Born Yesterday’—but a 70-year-old play splendidly comments on today

The cast of Born Yesterday at SF Playhouse

ONSTAGE “It’s amazing how pertinent this feels,” a man in front of me at the SF Playhouse told his friend at the end of the 1946 play, Born Yesterday (Through March 10).

Why, yes, a story about a greedy, ignorant, bullying, vulgar, immoral millionaire going to DC to further his business interests does feel startlingly relevant. But more than that, it’s amazing how well the writing in this classic play by Garson Kanin holds up—how it feels funny and even fresh and not too hokey—70 years later. 

A couple months ago, I heard someone on a political podcast joke about “sucking pretty hard on the West Wing pipe,” as a reference to our need to see shows where government and democracy get treated as vital things that still matter. The producing director of the Playhouse and the director of Born Yesterday, Susi Damilano seems to have tapped into that need, with characters who say, for example, that selfishness is not a virtue—it’s something that hurts people. (Take that, Ayn Rand, and by the way, that’s not how you spell Ann.) 

In Born Yesterday, calling someone a fascist is a horrible insult. To which the character responds, “I can’t be a fascist! I’m from Plainsfield, New Jersey.” I’m always a sucker for New Jersey jokes (my favorite state after California), so that totally made me laugh. Not everyone may share my fondness for New Jersey, but the play is full of satisfying lines for audience members no matter what state they prefer, like: “I don’t want to live in a country of ignorant people – it’s too dangerous,” and “Who do you think the government is? It’s me—and you. And a few million more people.” 

Scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott’s created a gorgeous Washington DC hotel suite that has a view of the capital out the window, an elegant staircase, chandeliers, and a little wet bar, where people are constantly pouring themselves a drink. This is where corrupt junkman Harry Brock has come with his girlfriend, Billie Dawn, looking to get even more money and power by bribing politicians. Brock worries Billie, a former chorus girl, needs some polish, so he hires reporter Paul Verrall to show her around and teach he about Washington, not expecting her to start to think about what it means to be a citizen and how greed subverts democracy. 

The cast is luminous. As Brock, Michael Torres throws his weight around, practically growling and baring his teeth, seeming uncomfortable in his too-large suits—always loosening his tie and taking off his shoes. He’s the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s line about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, constantly judging people by how much money they make. Anthony Fusco gives a beautiful, funny and heartbreaking performance as the former US District Attorney, now working for Brock, who still has enough self- knowledge to realize he’s sold his soul and drinks heavily to forget it.

As the senator doing business with Brock, Louis Parnell shows, as he responds to Billie telling him he shouldn’t have to put up with Brock’s abuse because he’s a SENATOR and that’s special, that he still has some conscience and shame left. It would be hard to be more handsome, more charming, more nerdily worked up about democracy than William Holden playing the reporter in the 1950 movie, but Jason Kapoor somehow does it, while coming off as completely relaxed and delighted by Billie. 

Millie Brooks as Billie Dawn, shines. On opening night, people practically leapt to their feet to applaud her performance. It’s nice to see a woman getting all the best lines, but it was Brooks’ delivery and her total commitment to the role whether she’s beating Brock at gin, saying she doesn’t understand why a senator’s wife pretends to have read David Copperfield when she hasn’t, or strutting while saying “I’m superb! New word,” that made us all root for her and want to see her get the new life she talks about.

The supporting cast is incredible as well, including Melissa Quine as the maid who makes a whole hilarious production of entering and exiting a scene during a fight between Brock and Billie. 

The Playhouse’s artistic director Bill English calls the play, which earned its author a spot on the Hollywood blacklist for being a communist sympathizer, “a subversive comedy masquerading as a romance.” That’s about right. It’s pretty rare that a frothy, fun comedy takes on capitalist greed and makes you feel that integrity will win out over corruption. And that’s a real gift. 

BORN YESTERDAY 
Through March 10

San Francisco Playhouse, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

The tale of an enduring marriage, sound effects included, in ‘Reel to Reel’

Carla Spindt as Maggie 2 and Will Marchetti as Walter 2 in 'Reel to Reel' at Magic Theatre. Photo by Julie Haber

ONSTAGE If hearing about an intimate drama with two couples—one youthful, one aging—trying to figure out their relationships automatically conjures up “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” John Kolvenbach’s new play at the Magic Theatre will make you think again. The characters in Kolvenbach’s “Reel to Reel” (through February 25) are about as far from Albee’s bitter, antagonistic husbands and wives as you can imagine.

Kolvenbach’s dialogue is no less brilliant, but he uses words (and other sounds – more on this later) to plumb the depths of love within a marriage. The playwright skillfully interrogates the way two very different people come together over time (in this case more than half a century), shave off the sharp edges, lift each other’s spirits, and create a life together.

(Read our interview with “Reel to Reel” playwright John Kolvenbach here.)

In “Reel to Reel,” the young people and the elders are actually the same people at different times in their lives—aged 27, 42, and 82. The older couple is played by Magic Theatre veterans Carla Spindt and Will Marchetti, and their younger versions by Zoe Winters and Andrew Pastides. The ensemble performs together seamlessly. Their often-complicated action on stage—moving quickly from scene to scene, decade to decade, not only speaking but also producing Foley sound effects live on stage—is agile and engaging.

When we meet the octogenarians Maggie and Walter, they seem cozily matched. Their gentle banter is witty, sometimes stinging, but never cruel. “You’re 82. How did that happen?” Maggie teases Walter.

“I’m sorry, Maggie, but you are my one remaining interest. I’m focused. I’m a reduction sauce, thick at the bottom of the pan,” Walter tells her, trying to pull her attention away from the audiotape she is splicing at her worktable. Their interplay seems as comfortable as the well-worn Turkish rug in the middle of their bohemian New York apartment.

At first, it hardly seems possible they are the same people as the young Maggie who comes on like a take-no-prisoners military officer, barking orders at the bewildered Walter. “Take out your phone. Call her now and tell her you met somebody and I guess tell her you’re sorry and she can keep your guitar that you never play…”

Andrew Pastides as Walter 1 and Zoë Winters as Maggie 1 in ‘Reel to Reel’ at Magic Theatre. Photo by Julie Haber

Ambushed, Walter fumbles with record albums and beer cans before succumbing to this feisty woman who has already decided his fate.

When she finally leaves his apartment, he fears she has disappeared out of his life forever, and becomes desperate to find her.

The Magic Theatre has produced several plays by Kolvenbach, including “Goldfish” (2009), “Mrs. Whitney” (2009) and “Sister Play” (2015). This is the world premier of “Reel to Reel,” which he also directs. His witty and elegant writing never descends into sentimentalism, despite his concentration on the day-to-day stuff of romance, cohabitation, and lives that intertwine over the decades.

The sounds—some instrumental, some vocalized by the actors, a few played on tape—are crucial because Maggie is a “sound collagist.” She records everyday noises ranging from covert conversations to washing machine cycles, painstakingly assembling them by splicing raw tape, and sometimes incorporating them into live performance art routines. It’s been her lifelong obsession. She explains that she when she was nine years old, “I asked for a tape recorder for Christmas. The first thing I recorded was my mother’s washing machine.”

When we witness her performance art routine, including her recreation of the sound of “someone’s femur being crushed” by “breaking raw macaroni with a hammer” and her admission that she started covertly taping her parents because she was obsessed with what they talked about when she was not there, her odd profession starts to make some sort of sense.

Maggie is also fascinated with the intimate sounds of their marriage, and Walter gets drawn into them too. Both the young and old get a kick out of describing and recreating their partner’s snores “mumbling, and snorting and mewing—it sounds like cats,” and sighs, screams, cries and laughter in ways that are funny and familiar.

Zoë Winters as Maggie 1, Carla Spindt as Maggie 2, Andrew Pastides as Walter 1 and Will Marchetti as Walter 2 in ‘Reel to Reel’ at Magic Theatre. Photo by Julie Haber

Walter too is an aspiring artist, he wants to be a filmmaker. But he is so disappointed with his major attempt, that he burns the last copy in the trashcan. At one point, he takes over Maggie’s live “sound” act, one of the few scenes that seemed unnecessary and a bit too predictable.

All of the acting is superb, but Winters may have the most challenging role. As the younger Maggie, she has to go from shrill to shy, uninhibited to desperately private. This actress is not afraid to be vocal or vulgar and she creates a character that is intriguing and someone we—like the young, perplexed Walter—definitely don’t want to lose track of.

Another star of the show is Sara Huddleston who designed the complex soundscape, using voices, instruments, buckets, bottles, and all manner of props.

Kolvenbach succeeds in convincing us that the most ordinary sounds of our lives—the sighs, the creak of an open cabinet, the long-distance phone call from parents, the insistent ring of a doorbell—can evoke the most extraordinary feelings. You will leave the theater listening to the world around you with a very different ear.

REEL TO REEL
Through February 25
Magic Theatre, SF.
Tickets and more info here

Expanding the face of Detroit’s working class with ‘Skeleton Crew’

Christian Thompson, Mary Hall, and Lance Gardner in Domonique Morrisseau's 'Skeleton Crew'

The playwright Dominique Morisseau has family members and friends in Detroit who lost their houses in the 2008 recession, or got bad buyouts from jobs they’d worked at for years. That was an election year, and Morisseau heard people talk about letting Detroit go bankrupt. 

“I think they were saying that with the idea of punishing these greedy executives, but that’s not who makes up that city. Human beings work in those factories,” she told 48 Hills.

“It’s important to change the way we look at the working class. With our new president, the working class has come up again. And with the new president, when we speak on the working class being ignored, we’re talking about a small, centralized group. I like to expand the face of the working class because the people who have been forgotten are not just in Middle America or in Appalachia.”

That’s what Morisseau does in her play about four people in a Detroit auto plant, Skeleton Crew, a co-production of Marin Theatre Company and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. A manager, Reggie (Lance Gardner), tells Faye (Margo Hall), a friend of his mother’s and the union rep, that the plant will close soon and asks her what his best course of action is. Faye has worked there nearly three decades and will lose out on a full benefits package if she isn’t able to make it to a full 30 years. Along with Faye and Reggie, there’s Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), who is pregnant, and Dez (Christian Thompson), who is saving to start his own business. 

Dominique Morisseau. Photo by Joseph Moran

Through projections and sounds, we’re aware of activity on the floor, but the action takes place in the break room, where the characters ignore the signs Reggie puts up, fight, play cards, talk, share food, and encourage one another. Morisseau said she wanted to show the macro as well as the micro, but to keep the action centered on these four lives. She isn’t afraid of drama, she says. 

“Either you write with emotion or you don’t,” she said. “I write with emotion. I lean into it. One thing I love about people of color is how expressive we are. We get angry and we’re joyous. We feel things to the Nth degree.”

Morisseau, a Detroit native, who now lives in Los Angeles, says when she thinks of her hometown, she thinks of love. 

“We have strong Detroit pride from a young age, and we want to protect its identity because it’s so abused in the media that it makes us go extremely hard in the opposite direction,” she said. “I have 300 family members in Detroit and my husband’s family is from Detroit. I have a loving and generous family that supports my work and always has.”

Christian Thompson and Tristan Cunningham in ‘Skeleton Crew’

Skeleton Crew is the third in a cycle of plays Morisseau wrote about Detroit, known as the Detroit Projects, following Paradise Blue, about a jazz club, and Detroit ’67, about the riots/rebellion in that city. 

The recipient of numerous honors including an NAACP Image Award, a Spirit of Detroit Award, and an Obie Award for Skeleton Crew, Morisseau was partly inspired to do a trilogy of plays by August Wilson’s Pittsburg cycle as well as her friend (and the author of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight”) Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays.” She also liked the idea of creating a body of work like author and activist Pearl Cleage, who has written non-fiction, novels, and plays.

“It’s so cool she has this volume of work about black womanhood,” she said. “I see myself in her work.”

To write Skeleton Crew, Morisseau interviewed people who’d worked in auto plants, from those on the floor, retirees, managers, and union workers. Everyone she talked to had pride in the jobs they did. 

“There are a lot of assumptions about people who work in factories, but these people are passionate about their jobs,” she said. “I talked to one young woman whose father had worked in the factory before her, and she said ‘I love my job. Tell them that,’ and I said, ‘I will. I’ll tell everyone that.'” 

SKELETON CREW
Through February 18 at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
$10-$60
Tickets and more info here.

March 7 – April 1 at TheatreWorks,  Palo Alto
$40-$100
Tickets and more info here.

Telling—and dancing—the tragic story of Partition in ‘The Parting’

in 'The Parting,' the youth of today promise to look beyond the line of Partition and dance together, celebrating their common culture and heritage. Photo by Regie Lantin

ONSTAGE The crowd of weary travelers staggered on stage—some in elegant jewel-toned salwar khameez and saris, some in ragged dhotis and shawls. They carried bedding, a battered trunk, a sewing machine, a baby. Exhausted and bewildered, they seemed to be going in circles, unsure of their destination.

Behind them, a map of colonial India, dense with villages, was projected on white sheets hanging from a line.

A British bureaucrat in a suit, clutching a map in one hand and a long pointer in the other, smacked his pointer at the map and the travelers scattered, some to one side of the stage, some to the other, careening, pushing and falling over each other. He struck his stick again, and again they fled haphazardly across the stage, seeking safety.

The cause of their anguish? The Partition of 1947—the British division of India and Pakistan —which created “the greatest walking migration of the twentieth century.” That was the subject of The Parting, produced by EnActe and Nooorani Dance earlier this month at Z Space. (It comes to San Jose’s Hammer Theater March 23 and 24.)

Raaginder Singh Momi, composer of the original score, actor, and violinist in ‘The Parting.’ Photo by Regie Lantin

With cold regard for ancient traditions, village friendships, or families, the British divided the land along religious lines—forcing Hindus out of Pakistan, Muslims out of India. Cyril Radcliffe (Stefan Fisher), the Englishman creating the arbitrary and cruel boundaries at the behest of Lord Mountbatten, was not a cartographer and had never been to India—but his hasty decisions displaced 15 million people and caused the death of an estimated 2 million.

Writhing on the stage, the travelers moaned and cried, “Why remember? Some things are better left forgotten…”

But a small orphan girl Asha (Anika Warrier) begs her adopted grandmother Mamta (Ranjita Chakravarty) to tell her what happened to all these grief-stricken people. Mamta reluctantly agrees, explaining that she has to go back in time “to when the line was fresh in the sand, like a wound that had just begun to bleed.”

Each of the 15 million had a story, and the breadth and depth of those personal stories is what playwright/director Salil Singh brings to the stage in The Parting. The stories, all based on real events, were developed for the drama by Anurag Wadehra from newspapers, archival research, and oral histories. Singh forged them into this ambitious production, which dares to “awaken the pain and tear things apart.”

Hakim Lalchand, doctor in the refugee camp in India, goes to meet every train coming form Pakistan, looking for his mother. Here he tells Mamta the story of the separation. Photo by Regie Lantin

As Mamta shares the painful history with her young listener, they ride a primitive wooden cart, the centerpiece of the stage design by Salil Singh. The cart also serves as a metaphorical vehicle, traveling through time, locations, and sorrows.  

 In one vignette, Boota, a Sikh peasant (Chanpreet Singh) rescues Zainab (Farah Yasmeen Shaikh), a Muslim refugee who is brutalized by thugs. He shelters her with tenderness and respect, and they eventually fall in love, marry, and have a daughter. But their tragic past is resurrected when, after the passage of the Abducted Persons Recovery Act, Zainab is forcibly returned to her home village in Pakistan and torn from her husband and child.

Zainab (Farah Yasmeen Shaikh) being informed of the The Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act of 1949 and that she must leave the new family she has built to be reunified with her family on the other side of the border. Photo by Regie Lantin

In another tale, the hapless Ghulam Ali, (played with comic undertones by Chinmaya Vaidya), a limb-fitter in the British army, is trapped between the two new nations. The Pakistani authorities throw him out because he was born in India, the Indians deport him because he is Muslim. He is shunted back and forth across the border and, like so many others, becomes a man without a country.

The production director, Vinita Belani, founding artistic director of EnActe Arts, a company dedicated to presenting South Asian stories to theater audiences, undertook a challenging task: staging this epic with 22 actors (many of them children) and 18 dancers.  

The dancing was especially evocative—both the ensemble pieces and the solos. Farah Yasmeen Shaikh, the dance and music director, brilliantly incorporated multiple forms of south Asian dance, both classical and folk, focusing prominently on Kathak, which originated in North India, site of the most brutal conflict during the Partition.

In one of the most effective uses of dance, two lines of women dressed in black with gunghroos—ankle bells often used in Kathak dance—surrounded the seated travelers. Their costumes evoked the image of a sooty train car, and the insistent rhythmic jangles created by their precise foot movements mimic the wheels of the train.

Bengali dancers take the front stage in a scene from daily life days before the line cuts through the village, tearing family and friends apart; Bengali Dancers are Mosumi Bose and Chandreyee Mukherjee. Photo by Regie Lantin

But the most exquisite dancing was Shaikh’s own solo as Zainab. When she relived her anguish through tortured movements, her portrayal of pain was breathtaking. As she emerged from her terror under Boota’s tender care, her graceful dance was as fluid as liquid mercury. In a later scene, when Zainab has to denounce her husband in court, her movements were sharp and jagged, almost as if she was cutting herself off from her past love.

The solo violinist Raaginder Singh Momi was another standout. His original compositions are based on Indian classical, folk, ghazal, and contemporary cinema styles. His onstage renditions of South Asian melodies were poignant and beautifully executed. 

Unfortunately, some of the recorded background music used in the dance and ensemble scenes was not technically up to par, and often detracted from the elegant movement on stage.

The epic unfolds on a simple but visually compelling set, created by Singh. The white sheets hanging on a line divide the stage into the known and unknown, the perfect backdrop for the constantly displaced persons who shuttle from home, to road, to train, to refugee camp, and sometimes home again.

On both sides of the new border, trains become ghost trains as all their travelers are killed by mobs of opposing religions. Photo by Regie Lantin

To present such a difficult history on stage is a challenging task, and the creative team strived to make it both understandable to universal audiences, and deeply credible for those whose families lived through it. Sometimes the challenge proves too much. With so many stories strung together the power of the key ones was diminished. Yet if some of the drama seems muddled or repetitive, the overall impact was powerful: Director Singh succeeds in portraying both the broad sweep of history, and the personal toll that it took on individual Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs.

 In a particularly haunting scene, mobs massacre refugees on the trains heading both north and south. Survivors on both sides of the Partition ask the same question, “Will the nightmares ever end?” Producer Belani notes that unlike the Holocaust or Hiroshima, this tragic story is rarely told. Yet the wounds of this brutal Partition still scar both nations.