Monday, September 30, 2019

"Dance Nation"

Dance Nation
Clare Barron

The Cast of Dance Nation
Thirteen.  Oh, God, when I remember thirteen, I get this strange knot in my stomach and a wave of brief nausea.  I was already six-foot, two-inches, and stuck out like a sore thumb in the school hallway.  I was awkward and stumbled over my size-twelve feet; my voice squeaked; my thick glasses slipped too often down my nose.  And did I mention those first pimples popping up overnight?  Just writing this, I feel a little sick.

But I was a boy.  After watching San Francisco Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of Clare Barron’s Dance Nation about six, thirteen-year-old girls who are experiencing the crossover from little girl to womanhood, all I can say is that I had it easy as a pre-pubescent boy.  The whiplashes of the emotional roller coaster these girls ride in a normal day are enough to send anyone running to the nearest bathroom (which happens several times for them in the course of the play).

While there are certainly a lot of moments when the world and its possibilities seem endless for a thirteen-year-old, Clare Barron reminds us that growing pains are very much real and that they leave scars.  In a stroke of genius, the playwright insists the six girls are played by actors in their thirties through sixties, allowing us to experience the girls in the bodies they will someday inhabit and for them periodically to transcend time’s boundaries to give us a glimpse of their future, often painful memories of the girls they once were and that we now see before us.

The Cast
These girls are living the lives that many their age might die to have: they are just three competition wins away from getting on a plane and going as a dance troupe to compete for a national dance title in Tampa, Florida.  Dance Teacher Pat (yeah, that is what they actually always call him) reminds them as they all stare at an elevated row of past years’ trophies that no one knows today who were the girls of 1996 – “It’s like they never existed” – but that everyone remembers those of 1997.  That difference between losing and winning is something these girls take in with looks both hungry for victory and frightened what if they are someday forgotten. 

Already, we see little girls who have grown-up ambitions for their moment in the spotlight, fired up by the cliché-barking of their pacing, arm-swinging teacher as he spits out phrases like “Show me you want it!”  Liam Robertson is like the stereotype of an army drill sergeant as he gets in the girls’ faces, belittles and praises in the same breath, and warns “Don’t get lazy” even as they demonstrate tirelessly for him a movement time and again. 

Michelle Talgarow & Liam Robertson
On the other end are the girls’ moms – stage moms who sometimes have moments of being a demanding Momma Rose who are trying to live out their missed chances through their daughters but who mostly are compassionate and supportive, troubled and worried, frustrated that they cannot make it better and even ready to go to battle when their daughter is not getting a fair shake by their teacher.  Michelle Talgarow is all this and more as she plays all “The Moms.”

The Cast
In the troupe of six, we meet a group of giggly, horse-playing friends who are also often vying competitors for the starring spots of the dances.  In one hilarious but telling scene, the girls line up on the stage’s edge with light splashed on their faces (part of Wen-Ling Liao’s lighting prowess) to try out for the lead role of Gandhi – Dance Teacher Pat’s creation as their ticket to nationals.  With a cute nod to Chorus Line, they all half-sing, half-say “I hope I get it” as they begin to move just their heads, mouths, and eyes in all sorts of exaggerated looks of shock, fear, hope, and desperation as they are giving us only a glimpse of their try-out moves while their teacher shouts his commands.

When not on the dance floor, the real lives of these girls and their relationships unfold before us.  Today’s locker room topic might be how to masturbate and what it should feel like, with descriptions of their nether regions given in graphic details by those more knowledgeable while those still inexperienced and naïve listen in wide-eyed, envious awe.  The terrifying onset of a first period (and its resulting blood) is met with knowing looks by other girls and also by their sudden, supportive growls and cheers like those of rugby players as they urge the tearful girl to get up and wear her new red badge with girl pride.  These are girls who find strength together in their newly-erupting sexuality and onslaught of womanhood.

But these girls are also still very young at times, as we see in Connie (Mohanna Rajagopal) who prays in her bed while clasping her lucky, toy horse in her hands, “Dear God ... Pleeeease give me Gandhi.”  There is tall Maeve with her unruly hair who collects pictures of wolves and whose little girl looks of wonder, impishness, distraction, and stubborn determination are all the more funny since Maeve is played by the oldest actor on the evening’s stage, an absolutely delightful Julia Brothers.   Like a kids’ club, several of the girls swear by drinking coffee that is half sugar to be loyal to death to each other, forming a secret group named Zamsac (using the letters of all their first names).

These same little girls have big-girl pressures.  Zuzu (Krystle Piamonte) is a good, solid dancer but worries that people “don’t say they cry when they watch me dance” like they do when they watch her friend Amina (Indiia Wilmont) dance.  “I know because I cry when I watch Amina dance.”  Amina – in fact the star dancer among the group – both is driven to be the best and to win (“When they get the trophies out, I just get the taste of metal”) but also confesses that sometimes she just wants to lose because “like I feel like I hurt people just by existing.”  Such is the price when you automatically take over the star role when your friend Zuzu falls on stage, yourself then winning a special crown as “most valued dancer.”

As much as the current lives of these teens is excruciating, difficult, and yet intriguing to watch, the power of Clare Barron’s script and Becca Wolff’s direction is when each girl reflectively time travels to a memory she will someday have of this period of her life.  Maeve has a sense at times that she can fly but realizes with regret that “one day I’ll forget I ever got to fly.”  The uber-talented Amina is sure “my entire life will be a victory” but also realizes that one day she will understand  that in that life “So I was alone.”

As the one boy in the troupe, Luke (Bryan Munar), is riding home with his mom one night as she discusses her day.  With head on her shoulder, he tells us that he knows that someday he will be experiencing in a car the same feelings as now –  that “delicious kind of sleepy” as the “world is whirling by” with “raindrops on the window shield” – but that he will also be listening for a mom that is no longer there.

Lauren Spencer
One of the most powerful of portrayals is given by Lauren Spencer as the already mature in body, Ashlee.  She proudly looks at herself in the mirror and brags about “my perfect ass” as well as flaunting her face and tits in wonderful, self-generated brouhaha.  She is one moment aloof and scowling among her friends, only to be in the next moment the first to lead a rousing cheer for the team that is full of four-letter-filled words that would embarrass most boys her age.  Her Ashlee is at other times the one most tender and most revealing with her friends, sharing one of those foreseen, time-splicing moments with Connie as she tells her how they will someday meet and discover that as girls and dance-team mates, they both suffered silently and alone debilitating, near-disastrous depression.

As powerful as these and other future-remembered moments are along with all the funny as well as painful-to-watch scenes of growing up that we see these kids go through, I have to admit that at times Dance Nation just goes so over the top in its explicit, repeated use of certain, locker-room words and foul-mouthed phrases that I lost interest and just wanted the next scene to begin.  A final cheer and chant that turns into repeated shouting by the entire cast came close to ruining the entire evening for me; anyone attending needs to be prepared for some very raw language and word imagery.  I also personally did not see the need for an opening scene of locker-room nudity of what were supposed to be thirteen-year-olds (even though these actors are of course much older and are all adults).  The scene, in my opinion, would have been just as strong with a little more cover-up of these supposed early teens.

But in the end, Dance Nation is a powerful reminder of what all of us – women and men – went through at a crucial and precarious juncture in our growing up years and what pieces of that time for us still linger to this day as part of who we are.  San Francisco Playhouse has once again pushed its and our own boundaries of safety and security in order to cause in this case long-dormant emotions and memories to awaken, to rumble uncomfortably about, and to stimulate new awareness of what the teens around us are often experiencing.

Rating: 3 E

Dance Nation continues through November 9, 2019 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Thursday, September 26, 2019

"Top Girls"

Top Girls
Caryl Churchill

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Michelle Beck, Monica Lin & Julia McNeal
It is 1982; and search-firm interviewer Marlene admires Britain’s Margaret Thatcher: “She’s a tough lady, Maggie; I’d give her a job.”  Marlene has toughed it out herself in the man’s world where she works and has just been named the new managing director of her firm.  To celebrate, she is hosting an exclusive dinner party at a local, upscale restaurant; and her guests are all women who have left their names engraved in the annals of history, fiction, or myth. 

This dream of an evening begins with each bragging about accomplishments that collectively stretch through the ages – a female-dressed-as-male pope from the ninth century; a world, adventure traveler from the staid Victorian Age; a peasant traveler from Chaucer’s Tales who married a nobleman; a woman warrior from a 1563, Pieter Bruegel painting who leads a charge on the demons of Hell; and a thirteenth-century girl who has the children of a Japanese emperor and later becomes a Buddhist nun.  But Marlene’s dream becomes a nightmare as each of the five, female guests begin to recount what their successes have cost them because they were women in a patriarchic-defined world, with their mounting, pent-up anger fueled by brandy leading to a mini-riot to end the dinner party.

With an opening scene that almost forty years later still feels current, bold, and extraordinary, Caryl Churchill’s 1982-premiering Top Girls opens in 2019 at American Conservatory Theater, raising many questions of just how much has actually changed for women in the workplace since the days of Thatcher (and Reagan).  With a cast of nine where Marlene and four others played by women of color, the accomplishments they earn, the prices they pay, and the doors shut on them take on much-added significance as we realize that whatever gains women have made these past four decades since the play’s debut (gains that still do not match where men are), many of those gains have not yet been afforded women of color at the same rate as white women. 

But that is just the first of many troubling questions without many easy answers that the ACT production poses in its Top Girls.  Michelle Beck boldly portrays Marlene, making evident a sense of her inner strength, determination, and willingness to disrupt the system.  Her Marlene has admirably broken the glass ceiling; but she appears to have done so by mimicking the ways the men around her have succeeded.  She is fiercely independent but also not particularly stepping forward to help the women around her also succeed.  Of those she interviews as part of her job, she sarcastically describes them as “half a dozen little girls and an arts graduate who cannot type.” 

Marlene has a sister and niece she has not seen in six years and, as we will discover, has neglected other family obligations in order to pursue her own life and career – much as the men around her have often done.  We are attracted to Marlene’s smart style and fearless manner.  We applaud when she says, “Piss off” to the wife of a white man who was passed over the promotion she got – a woman who insinuates by her looks and manners that Marlene got the job for reasons other than her competence.  But we cringe when we see Marlene time and again act in some of the worst ways the men of her world often act, with our left wondering if is there not some other way for women (and men) to forge a path to success in today’s business world rather than imitation of the male world’s worst aspects.

Michelle Beck & Gabrilella Momah
Our questions about Marlene grow larger when we contrast her with Angie, her teenage niece who is in many ways, yin to her yang.  Angie – brilliantly portrayed by Garbriella Momah – is a lot of what Marlene is not and never was: awkward in stance and speech, disheveled in appearance, emotionally underdeveloped for her age, and a school drop-out.  But there are also qualities the two share: a determined drive to escape their childhood home, a burning desire to be and do better than what life has seemingly dictated them, and a love-hate relationship with Joyce (Angie’s mom, Marlene’s sister).  

There is also a secret we learn that connects the two and explains the root of those similarities.  What it does not explain is Marlene’s assessment to an office mate that she does not believe Angie has what it takes to succeed; and with that casually said statement, she seemingly dismisses any hope for her niece’s future or any commitment to help her succeed.  For one more reason, Marlene is a dilemma and rich fodder for us as an audience to contemplate and debate the following day.

Caryl Churchill’s play goes from the opening dinner party to a scene introducing Angie and the antipathy she has for her life and her mom to a scene in the office the morning Marlene is announced as the new managing director finally to a scene one year prior when Marlene surprises Joyce in showing up in her kitchen on Angie’s birthday.  In each, the skins of the onion slowly unravel as we discover more of who Marlene really is while also getting to know this somewhat strange but intriguing girl, Angie. 

Nafessa Monroe & Michelle Beck
Central to both in both similar and different ways is Joyce, played by Nafeesa Monroe, who also plays through cunning double-casting, the silent but watching waitress in the opening act’s dinner party.  Joyce is viewed by Angie as thwarting her future because of her motherly restrictions on a restless teenager; the anger they both show to each other masks a love that peeks through to demonstrate its true core.  Joyce is strong, resolute, and confident of who she is in her own way and is in some respects a match and more for her fancy dressed, big-talking sister.  She is the stay-at-home mom that has borne a lot to be so and has been, as we learn, a sacrificing enabler of Marlene’s career in ways much like wives have been (and still are) of their husbands everywhere.  Her presence in this play and the strong performance of Nafeesa Moore adds more questions with no easy answers for us to ponder upon exit, with the play not pointing to how or if a successful business woman can be mother and boss at the same time.

Julia McNeal & Rose Hallett
Joining Marlene, Angie, and Joyce is an array of fantastically contrasting, double-role characters, all played masterfully by the rest of this cast.  Rosie Hallett is the royally robed Pope Joan whose incredible tale of being a woman posed as a man and rising up the ranks of the Church is still a story some historians believe about the actual, ninth-century Pope John VIII.  She is also the perfectly attired office interviewer, Win, who becomes the ‘mother-confessor’ of sorts of a woman in her mid-career, Louise (Julia McNeal), who is tired of staying in a job where she trains young men who get promoted over her and is ready to venture into some unknown position after twenty years for a chance of being recognized/rewarded for what she knows and can do. 

Rosie Hallett, Summer Brown, Julia McNeal, Monica Lin & Monique Hafen Adams
Julia McNeal is also the dinner guest, Isabella Bird, who defied all Victorian definitions of what a woman should do in order to travel the back roads and the mountaintops of the continents, even against all odds of her sex and a body riddled with physical issues.  Monica Lin is the talkative, excitable Lady Nijo – a thirteenth-century concubine of the Japanese emperor who does not question what she must do in her society in order to be successful; she is also Jeanine, a client looking for a new job full of travel and new sights/challenges.  Mrs. Kidd (Monique Hafen Adams), the wife who thinks her husband should be getting Marlene’s promotion, is also Patient Griselda, a fictional character who dutifully and without complaint goes through excruciating tests of her loyalty laid out by her husband.   Nell is a colleague of Marlene’s and also the fearless, chest-beating warrior, Dull Gret, who leads a war on Hell – the latter portrayed at the dinner party first hilariously and then with unbounded sorrow, anger, and fury by Summer Brown.  In each case of the five guests of her dream, aspects of Marlene can be quite easily depicted – aspects to be either admired or questioned, according to one’s perspective.

All of these women, past and present, have been colorfully and imaginatively attired through the artistic genius of Sarita Fellows.  Her women of the past are like those in storybooks on a coffee table while her women of the '80s are wonderful contrasts between those who are dressed to kill (in ways a man's world still wants its women) and those dressed just to exist day-by-day.

Tamilla Woodward directs with a flair that at times almost gets out-of-hand in its realism of a dinner party, an office full of chatter, or a family argument.  A number of times, women at the dinner party talk over each other with two or more conversations happening at once.  Sisters scream at each other simultaneously, making it impossible for either of them or us to hear/understand.  Yet in actuality, these same dynamics occur in all our everyday lives where deeply felt excitement or anger reign supreme and/or where egos are worn as crowns that declare, “Listen to me and my story ... now!”  In this respect, the director’s choices are brilliant even if the delivery is sometimes difficult to comprehend.

Nina Ball once again creates her own interpretation of a storyline through her insightful set designs.  A heavy-looking glass wall that arches out from the back stage reminds us of that ceiling the women at the dinner party have each broken in their own ways, in their own time periods, with Marlene being the last to shatter it.  The pristine, brightly lit (via Barbara Samuels’ design) office setting where desks are all together in one room makes us want to see that corner office where Marlene will move the next day.  The glass wall breaks open to reveal a cluttered home packed with reminders of the confined lifetime of Joyce – a home that seems particularly small, crowded, and plain when sister Marlene arrives.

I must admit that one day later, I like Top Girls much more than I did while watching it.  What was sometimes confusing last evening begins to fit together today upon reflection.  What was frustrating by the portrayals of Marlene, Angie, and Joyce today leads to questions and comparisons of how women and girls – especially those of color – are still viewed and treated from school age onward – both those considered ‘successful’ and those deemed not now and never will be.  American Conservatory Theater stages a play some might see as dated to prove that Top Girls is perhaps more timely than ever.

Rating: 4.5 E

Top Girls continues through October 13, 2019 at American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

"Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World"

Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World
Megan Cohen

Charlie Gray, Stacy Ross & Miyaka P. Cochrane
The setting is “Soon, San Francisco.”  The great frost’s snows are once again falling, and all the City’s hills are glistening in fresh snow.  Julie has stepped out of her home at the top of Nob Hill and is going for one last run down “the best slope in San Francisco,” madly screaming her delight along with copious “F-words” as she repeatedly jumps the steep slopes and barely lands upright – only adding more to her wanting never to end this slide down what is really her driveway. 

But the end is coming as is also coming the great thaw of decades of snow, the resulting flood waters, and maybe the end of the world ... as in coming probably tomorrow.  The question in front of her as she speeds forward is if there is still time to be someone else, someone better – “more thoughtful, more kind, more optimistic, mature; not as wild ... mean, selfish, reckless ... shitty.”  After another hard landing before going even faster, she wonders, “It’s not too late, is it?  What if it’s not too late to do a whole different thing ... With like, my life.”

With Julie’s words spilling out non-stop in the daredevil speed of a fearless downhiller, so begins Megan Cohen’s Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World, a loose and hilarious adaptation of August Strindberg’s original Miss Julie, now in fabulously funny and satirically smart world premiere at Cutting Ball Theater.  Knowledge of the 1888, naturalistic play with its Darwinist undertones and themes of a dying aristocracy; ridicule of the new, modern woman; and the better-fit-to-survive ‘new man’ is not necessary; but if one remembers the original, there are many references throughout in this updated version that lead to bonus chuckles.  But even a person who has never heard of Miss Julie and any of its play-, opera-, or film-adapted versions will find by the minute many reasons to laugh out loud and to revel in the linguistic gymnastics of a script that often seems to have no punctuation marks written into it.

Before middle-aged Julie does reach the bottom of her beloved Nob Hill run, she upends a much younger man carrying a bag of groceries.  John, it turns out, is the sous-chef in her mother’s servant-filled mansion – someone Julie has not noticed and thus does not know his name even after the three years he has worked there.  With a Noah-like flood coming within hours, the house’s chef has left to work on a submarine, and John is now head chef and in charge of the society event of the year tonight at Julie’s house – a kind of ‘melt-watch’ party.  The two banter back-and-forth in what is more and more like verbal foreplay, each crossing class boundaries that quickly get redrawn with reveals like the one that Julie mentions:  The family’s stand-by, escape helicopter is for family only – not servants like John.

Free for All is the first play to premiere under Cutting Ball Commissions (with the company’s plan being to stage a new, commissioned play every year).  During its two-year development, the two primary roles of Julie and John have been created with two of the Bay Area’s favorites in mind, Stacy Ross and Phil Wong. 

From the moment she heads down that hill spouting out comparisons between herself and other socialites (e.g., “over-dressed Samantha and her bad cheek implants” or “turn-the-other-cheek Elaine”) and wondering should she, could she be more like them (after all, “any person has 75 per cent the same DNA as a chicken” and thus she has “at least 73 per cent as Elaine”), there is no doubt only Stacy Ross could do such sarcastic and corny justice to Megan Cohen’s Julie.  With a mouth and face that stretch in every conceivable direction to the point of explosion as she skies ever faster, her Julie shoots like machine-gun bullets the joy of this moment, the regrets of her life thus far, the questions she has about possible improvement, and a whole slew of what if’s about the past and the probable, but still unknown future of the great melt.  And this all happens in just the opening minutes.  What we will see and witness the rest of the evening in Stacy Ross’ award-worthy, must-see performance cannot even begin to be described in any way to give it full justice.

Phil Wong with Rest of Cast
Likewise, Phil Wong’s oft-underplayed, aw-shucks approach to John is a delight to watch – an approach that begins to take on other, more daring, adventurous, and boundary-breaking angles and admissions as he and Julie encounter each other later in the kitchen where he meticulously prepares deviled eggs (a whole comedy routine on its own).  John is using these last few hours of a snow-covered world to find that “better version of myself,” fighting to stick to his resolve to quit smoking even as waters rise outside and tensions – sexual and otherwise – boil over in the kitchen between him and Julie.  As John, Phil Wong is a wonderful combination of humble, bold, sweet, angry, scared, and deeply prideful – all aspects which show themselves in the whirlwind of his and Julie’s kitchen close encounters as a wild party and a sudden climate change rage outside the walls of cupboards and counters.

Phil Wong & Stacy Ross
As in Strindberg, much of this play is consumed in the testy, teasing, and tempting backs-and-forth between Julie and John (the latter named Jean and a valet in Strindberg).  In Megan Cohen’s oft-bizarre update, other characters do enter – both seen and unseen.  Our primary actors appear also as two of the mansion party’s high-society, full-of-themselves guests, Brockingfeld Jacobson (Stacy Ross) and Jacobson Brockington (Phil Wong).  The two are a kind of Tweedledee/Tweedledum pair in their matching tuxes, mustaches, and high airs who down champagne while making obnoxious (to us, at least) comments like a woman’s job being “to make the world a nicer place ... bright and lovely” ... like a lamp” or “to remind us of innocence, of softness ... like a little pet kitten.” 

The drunker the two get, the more they brag on their own and the other’s business prowess and how they can soon make more fortunes when their fair City becomes the “San Francisco Islands” – beachfront properties to be known as “NobHillwaii” and “Sutrohiti.”  As they from time to time pause to dance a minuet, to twirl in sequence in their leather chairs, or to other wise mirror each other in their moves full of ego-splashed aristocracy, one can hear Strindberg laughing in cynical approval somewhere from his Swedish grave.  The Ross/Wong duo excels in antics that in the end could rival one of the great Vaudeville or ‘50’s-TV, comic duos.

Also very much present but never seen is Christine, a house maid and girl-friend of John who is addressed by both Julie and John by looking into the eyes – and sometimes right in the face – of individual audience members.  Christine plays important roles for both the J’s, and their one-way interactions with her and descriptions of her are more often than not,] guffaw producing (especially Julie’s fascination of Christine’s encounter with one dead pigeon on the driveway). 

Stacy Ross
And speaking of pigeons, just as there is a bird in a cage that plays a major role in Strindberg’s play, Chloe is the pet pigeon of our Julie – one of several pigeon encounters of both Julie and John throughout the evening.  All pigeons peck and fly about through the help of Puppeteers Miyaka P. Cochrane and Charlie Gray – puppeteers who also earlier enabled Julie to fly, leap, and bank with ease down the Nob Hill slope.  The two serve always deliciously and often devilishly like a silent Greek Chorus, observing Julie and John from kitchen corners and doorways with bemused looks, all-knowing eyes, and judging smirks. 

Director Ariel Craft, who also assisted in the play’s development, has given these two gifted actors free reign to use countless dimensions of their inbred talents to surprise us time and again with another singularly or duo-generated moment of hilarity.  At the same time, clearly the director’s intimate understanding of both Strindberg’s original and Megan Cohen’s vision has led to a play always on the edge of outlandish theatre-of-the-absurd while also being firmly planted in contemporary social and political commentary and critique. 

Jacqueline Wren Scott’s scenic design for the intimate Exit Theatre setting has some elements looking homemade (like draped bed sheets for snow hills) as if for a parlor’s spontaneous performance among friends while also employing wonderfully mobile elements of doorframes and a kitchen’s shelf and counter, among other roving pieces.  Director, scenic designer, and props designer Adeline Smith combine efforts for tongue-in-cheek hilarity using the likes of repeated appearances of an electric fan and several hues of torn paper bits that star in fun and telling parts of the story. 

The costumes of Racheal Heiman are so quickly changed that one cannot believe how clothing-elaborate and character-perfect each appearance of the primary actors is.  From pigeon’s coos to the wind of a skier’s run to the crash of melting ice and snow, James Ard has designed a wide array of perfectly timed sounds that add both drama and comedy.  Finally, Cassie Barnes’ lighting design against the stage’s black walls offers telling hints of bright, snowy cityscapes; a kitchen’s interior of shadows; and finally a world of new, tropical paradise.

Like in most world premiere ventures, not everything always holds together scene-to-scene in this new Miss Julie   Some character rants and rages – though usually hilarious – do go on and on a bit too long.  The ending itself is somewhat muddled and weird, but it is still an important reminder to San Franciscans who in society in the end too often survives and who does not.  The overall feeling upon exiting the Cutting Ball Theater is that tonight we have been fully engaged, intrigued, and entertained in a wonderfully conceived, adventuresomely directed, and extraordinarily acted Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World.

Rating: 4 E

Free for All: A New “Miss Julie” for a New World continues through October 20, 2019 as a world-premiere commission at Cutting Ball Theater at The Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Ben Krantz

Tuesday, September 24, 2019


Sujit Saraf

Natraj Kumar & Dancers
October 2, 2019 is the 150th birth anniversary of the man born with the first name Mohandas but whom the world now remembers as Mahatma (“venerable”) Gandhi.  To honor this occasion, the nation’s largest Indian theatre company, Naatak, is producing a world-premiere play, Gandhi, written and directed by the company’s founder and artistic director, Sujit Saraf.  Joining him in this monumental undertaking that covers the final sixty years of the one many consider the “Father of the Nation” of India is a cast of thirty-four – most from Silicon Valley’s high tech community – who play over sixty-five differently named parts as well as grouped roles ranging from Londoners to South African traders to Indian peasants and mill workers.  The result – told in a mixture of Hindi, English, and Gujarati with English supertitles – is much like a live documentary, packed with so many events, news headlines, and people (both famous and unfamiliar) to at times become such a swirl of facts and figures that any one detail is difficult to remember a few minutes later.  But the power of this theatrical biography is not particularly in its myriad of parts but in its gestalt, in an overall new understanding of this incredible man.  And in that regard, Naatak’s Gandhi more than achieves its purpose.

For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway

Rating: 3.5 E

Gandhi continues through October 6, 2019, playing at Cubberley Theater, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, California.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-499-5692.

Photo Credit: Sharma Podila & Ritendra Datta

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Charles Shaw Robinson
The longest, probably best-known poem by the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century founder of the English Romantic Movement, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is the latest theatrical undertaking by San Francisco’s Word for Word Performing Arts Company and its home, Z Space.  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written between 1797 and ’98, is a haunting parable whose message about the damning aftermath of a man’s killing for his own thrill an innocent albatross rings with modern, portending significance in an age where animal species, rain forests, and icebergs face critical reductions due to human intervention.  In an atmosphere visually and orally immersive where the audience is drawn into the poem’s story by a cast of nine who pass rhyming lines seamlessly one to another, Word for Word once again triumphs in bringing the words of the printed page to full life with no editing of an original that was certainly not written as a play’s script. 

For those who need a reminder of a long-ago English lesson in high school, Coleridge’s epic relates one man’s journey on a ship that is drawn into the icy seas of the Antarctic only to be saved by a guiding albatross that then leads the desperate crew back to warm waters.  For some reason unexplained in the poem, a young mariner shoots the noble bird with his cross-bow – a savior whom “as if it had been a Christian soul, we hailed it in God’s name.” 

This crime of nature does not go unnoticed by either the watching Sun or Moon, with the boat’s crew soon being visited by a ghastly figure named Death after languishing for days near an equator where no wind, water, or food can save them.  All perish except the guilty mariner who must not only watch all the others die around him, but must remain on the empty, still boat in his crazed state amongst their haggard bodies.  As is related in the poem, his punishment will take on many fevered, fantastical features as delivered from the spirits from above and the ghosts all around him.  Not letting him die, they curse him to survive and to be doomed to a wandering life of loneliness, retelling to whomever he meets his tale of sin.

Charles Shaw Robinson & Lucas Brandt
With long beard of white and a near-expressionless countenance save a look of desperate need to be heard, Charles Shaw Robinson is stunningly impressive as the Ancient Mariner who grabs the passing-by shoulders of a surprised Wedding Guest on his way to a friend’s nuptials and with scratching, gruff voice, demands the young man listen to his tale.  At first bemused, then irritated, and eventually both frightened and intrigued, the Wedding Guest soon becomes so caught up in the harrowing story himself to become – in this Word for Word retelling – the Young Mariner himself. 

Lucas Brandt gives the performance of the evening as the sailor who seals his own fate by the shot of an arrow and then is imprisoned on the doomed ship to suffer well-deserved consequences.  The ranges of emotions Mr. Brandt so ably displays in both his own poetic narratives but especially in his looks of fright, fatigue, resignation, and remorse are chilling to witness.

Robert Ernst
But this entire cast performs with a sense of poetic flow that is mesmerizing to watch.  Phrases that one person begins, another ends without a pause – each in the unique flavor and nature of the character represented.  There is the sea-scarred-and-schooled Helmsman (Robert Ernst) and the young crew members at first romping to their stations and later languishing in their torment (Nathaniel Andalis, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and Earl Paus).  Darryl V. Jones is royally commanding in his draping robes of various gold as The Sun, moving above the crew in his daily journey across the sky and serving as a powerfully voiced proclaimer and commenter.  Later in the poem, Mr. Jones transforms into an old Hermit, who sings his version of godly hymns to passing mariners and is the first to see the skeleton of ship where the Ancient Mariner barely breathes. 

Daryl V. Jones & Cast
In that sky above also appears nightly The Moon (Patricia Silver) in flowing white with sparkling crown and a Polar Spirit (Randall Wong), with both also taking on the eerie, other-worldly images of Life-in-Death and Death, respectively.  They, like the rest of the cast, bring many different tones of voice and choreographed stances and movements (designed by Nol Simonse) as Delia MacDougall and Jim Cave direct this cast in the massively impressive, collective recitation-in-action of Coleridge’s classic.

As good as is this cast, it is the design team itself that is the real ‘wow’ of the production.  Paired ramps encircle the slanted floor of a moving ship whose ribbed edges rise like the remains of the skeletons that will soon reside there – all designed by Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally.  Projections on those ramps and their environs by Teddy Hulsker become splashing puddles of a rainstorm, rainbow-colored and slimy creatures of the sea, and skies reflecting their millions of stars in the waters.  Nikki Anderson-Joy’s costumes expressively have a sense of movement of both sea and the sky while also bringing in the elements of a story both harsh and mystical.  Hannah Clague adds a design of props, one of which hangs around the Young Mariner’s neck and illustrates quite vividly the much-spoken idiom, ‘hung like an albatross around one’e neck.’

But as impressive as all this is, it is the sound genius of Matt Stines and the lighting miracles of Ray Oppenheimer that rule the evening.  Time and again they together turn Z Space into the likes of a tumultuous stormy sea, a frozen mass of icebergs, or a sinking and doomed ship with all its dying cracks and creaks surrounding us.

If only I as a senior in high school could have spent an hour seeing this Word for Word production rather than several grueling hours struggling to read the sometimes obscure, often difficult-to-comprehend words on a page.  But having said that and as wonderful and memorable as this production is, the potential theatre-goer should be forewarned that the production’s length is in fact barely one hour.  For some, that will be welcomed news; for others of us who must brave commuter traffic to get to SF from the ‘burbs, know the evening may be much shorter than the trip to see it.  Perhaps it is too bad this poem’s telling could not have been paired with another, perhaps shorter Word for Word poetic enactment to make the evening a bit fuller.

That said, there is little not immediately to like and a long time in memory to relish from this outstanding production by Word for Word.  More importantly, Coleridge leaves us with lines whose meaning echoes clearer today than ever before – lines in a poem that reflect the opposite of what we read almost daily about what we humans are doing to our earth and its native inhabitants, both plant and animal:

“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Rating: 5 E

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner continues through October 12, 2019 in production by Word for Word at Z Space, 470 Florida Street San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credits:  Hillary Goidell

Friday, September 20, 2019

"The Great Wave"

The Great Wave
Francis Turnly

Sharon Omi
Almost every stormy winter, we natives of the San Francisco Bay Area read the tragic news that along the city’s Great Beach or nearby coastal areas someone has been swept to sea by a sudden-appearing “rogue wave,” never to be seen again.  In 1979 off the west coast of Japan, two teenage sisters venture out during a terrific rain and lightning storm to a nearby beach.  A great wave appears – picture the famous nineteenth-century, woodblock print “The Wave” by Hokusai – and one sister disappears.  But in this case, the other stunned, surviving sister claims that she saw through the blinding rain and soaring waves two strange men grabbing her disappearing sister.  Their mother is also sure her daughter is still alive because if she were dead, “I could have felt it.”

As bone-rattling, eye-popping sound (Bray Poor), lighting (Lap Chi Chu), and video (Tara Knight) designed effects of an oceanic storm sweep through the Roda Theatre, Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave begins.  Currently in its gripping American premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Great Wave is full of mystery and suspense, little-known history and real-time relevance, and a family’s undying love and unwavering search for truth.

Police inspector, Takeshi, believes Reiko is still in shock over losing her sister as she keeps insisting that she saw strange men with long hair taking her sister away during that horrific storm.  He is much more certain that the male schoolmate, Tetsuo, who suggested in a lark to the girls that they all go to the beach that night is somehow connected to the girl’s demise.  The missing girl’s mother, Etsuko, also believes Tetsuo is the one who is to blame for Hanako’s disappearance; and even when he is released by the police with no evidence to counter his own story that he never went to the beach, she demands that Reiko stay away from her friend.  

But neither Tetsuo or Hanako’s family is willing to let go of the idea that somewhere that girl is still alive.  Each begins what will be a year-in, year-out pursuit to find her: Etsuko through messages in bottles sent to sea as well as homemade paper lanterns launched at the shore; Reiko through posters by the hundreds printed and posted/re-posted; and Tetsuo through journalistic research to find out about other coastal disappearances of the time.

Jo Mei
What none of them knows – and probably most of us in the audience did not know upon entering the theatre – is that in the ‘70s/80s, agents were in fact abducting people off the coast of Japan in order to take them to North Korea, where they were persuaded to teach future spies to speak and to be Japanese.  Francis Turnly’s play – one based on a true account of such an abduction – takes us next to North Korea where we find the frightened, confused Hanako in a bare, concrete-walled room where the only decoration is a hung photograph of he who is always referred to as “The Great Leader.”  A smiling but stern Official explains to the girl who cries to go home that “we would like you to stay with us awhile” because “our Great Leader requests you perform a duty.”  Further he informs her that she is here because “the sea chose you.”  Her task is to learn Korean with a promise that if she does, she can then go home. 

To go much further in this intriguing story would be to give away too many of the many twists and turns still to come.  This real-life mystery is at times like a wide-screen movie, with epic proportions as directed by Mark Wing-Davey on the Roda’s massive stage of two levels as the action alternates between the two countries over what will be twenty-five years.  The impressive scenic design of Chika Shimizu with an elevator stage element moving up-and-down to change settings and scenes allows parallel, sometimes over-lapping scenes between the two countries and between the ever-present sea and the confinements of North Korean rooms of interrogation and/or instruction.   Contrasting home settings of the two locations move seamlessly in and out while the costumes of Meg Neville bring the harsh contrasts of two cultures, economies, and political systems into our reality. 

As educating, captivating, and eventually genuinely moving as Francis Turnly’s story is, the play’s first half hour or so suffers from dialogue that is often a bit clunky and mindless, with actors delivering those lines too perfunctorily, almost as if casually reading from a script the first time.  As interesting as the set-up and as wowing are the visuals of video and lighting, the play takes quite a while to grab its audience. 

However, about halfway through the first act, things start to click in every respect – script, actors, and direction – and by intermission, there is a buzz in the lobby of “I can’t wait to see what is going to happen next.”  By the second act of this two-hour, thirty-minute show, I for one went from being mildly interested to being totally enthralled and emotionally moved by the back-and-forth and eventually interlocking action of the two settings and stories.

Jo Mei & Paul Juhn
As is typically true at Berkeley Rep, the cast – in this case an all-Asian ensemble – is in the end stellar to a person.  As played so convincingly by Jo Mei, the transformation of the abducted Hanako is at times reminiscent of what many of us once saw after the kidnapping of Patti Hearst, with our more and more wondering if Hanako’s increasing loyalty to “the Great Leader” and to her duties as a North Korean citizen is a matter of survival or of a true conversion.  A mirroring metamorphosis in her Korean instructor, Jung Sun, is uncanny to watch as Cindy Im goes from an emotionless, unformed, barking teacher to Hanoko to become herself a coy, soft-spoken version of a young Japanese woman (having been taught by now-instructor Hanako).

As the ever-vigilant mother, Etsuko, who finds solace conversing with the rocky shore of the sea (more of Chika Shimizu’s stunning set design), Sharon Omi embodies in her performance a mother’s courage to believe and a persistence through the years not to give in to what seems inevitable reality.  Her often quiet or underplayed presence is powerful in the strength she portrays of a mother’s love. 

Similarly, as the sister Reiko who remembers with great sorrow and guilt the final sisters’ quarrel she had with Hanako before they rushed into the storm that night, Yurié Collins gives yet a third performance among this family grouping that is striking and memorable.  The two-plus decades of her search for her sister via papering the country with her home-made posters and those same years of her pushing a government’s reluctant, closed-mouthed foreign officer, Jiro (played by Paul Nikauchi), to reveal what was known about her sister and missing others are portrayed magnificently through the intensity of a sister’s love and the admirable stubbornness of character that Ms. Collins shows in her Reiko.

Julian Cihi, Yurié Collins & Sharon Omi
As the initially accused friend, Tetsuo, Julian Cihi personifies in Tetsuo’s dogged pursuit of truth – and his relentless loyalty to the family of the girl he only knew as a kid – the life-long guilt the boy-now-man bears for instigating the foolish foray into the raging storm and for then abandoning the girls to go to his own safe and dry home.  That singular, year-in/year-out focus – often to the neglect it seems to all other of life’s possibilities – that he, Etsuko, and Reiko give to finding the whereabouts of Hanako is at times incredulous, stretching the story’s believability.  However, the convincing genuineness of these three actors and the compelling, ever-more-intriguing series of events of the playwright’s story in the end convinced even this skeptical reviewer that twenty-five years is not too long for such love and devotion to be sustained.

Providing chilling performances that lay bare the austere nature and the punishing atrocities of the North Korean regimes of those decades are Stephen Hu as Kum-Chol and Grace Chang Ng as Hana.  The natures of their particular roles must remain unsaid in this review in order not to spoil the suspense of the story.

(It must be said that on opening night, there were a couple of bumbling properties and clumsy attempts at recovery that dampened  (pun intended) The Great Wave.  However, my guess is that by the second night, those will be long-corrected.)

Villains and villainous acts – present and past – populate this fact-based tale. Through characters’ own tear-filled accounts, we as audience witness the results of a history that starts with Japan’s imperialistic takeover in 1910 of Korean land, language, and life and later includes hellacious occurrences of WWII when tens of thousands of Korean women were raped by Japanese soldiers.  But we also experience a North-Korean, modern era where a government’s absolute control of its people is demanded in a society where memory of Japan’s past sins is also vivid and revenge still sought. 

Where our sympathies should ultimately lie is difficult always to assess; but in this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave, what we are most sure is the lasting power of a family’s bonds – bonds that refuse to be weakened by years of no communication by those long separated, by two countries in a perpetual state of being mortal enemies, or by a modern-day democratic government that autocratically refuses to admit either its past sins or its present knowledge of secret goings-on.

Rating: 4 E

The Great Wave continues through October 27, 2019 on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne