Saturday, May 27, 2017

New Works From Female Playwrights

Several years ago, I finally had a chance to ask Edward Albee a question when he was interviewed at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. When the event was opened up to questions from the audience I asked him about a curious performance of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that I had attended sometime around 1971.

I was living in Providence, Rhode Island when (barely two years after the Stonewall riots) a group of drama students decided to stage Albee's play at Brown University with an all-male cast without making any changes to the script. Although there has been some talk in recent years about the possibility of mounting an all-male production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there was no doubt that the taciturn playwright was not pleased by my question.

Playwright Edward Albee

A curious brouhaha recently erupted over the Albee estate’s refusal to grant performance rights to the Complete Works Project in Portland, Oregon. The key issue involved a theatre company’s decision to cast an African-American actor in the role of Nick (who is often described as one step short of an Aryan golden boy). In a post on his Facebook page, the award-winning playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, stated:
"The Edward Albee Estate is not racist for respecting the wishes of Edward Albee. And Edward Albee was not racist for having retained his right to see his plays produced as he wrote them and as he saw fit. Not every playwright is as stringent as Albee was. I'm not. But I'm glad he was. Theater is the one medium where a writer can't be rewritten or his intent changed without the writer's approval. Even so, it happens all the time -- which is why I'm grateful to guys like Albee. Even among theater artists, we are taught -- literally instructed -- to disrespect the writer's words from our earliest entry into the theater, i.e. 'Cut that monologue,' 'Edit that scene,' 'We don't need this part,' etc. The not so subtle message is that the writer's words & intent are important, but not that important. Or worse -- people edit scripts or alter meanings to 'improve the play' or to imprint 'their interpretation' on it."
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis
"In this case (with respect to director Michael Streeter), he sought to 'add depth to the play.' I get it. And I'm sympathetic. But Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece. It's already pretty fucking DEEP without anybody's help. Do the play. If they won't let you do the play how you want to do it? Fuck them. Do another play. Or write your own. There are a million examples of ongoing racism daily -- in our nation & in our theater. But Edward Albee has a legal right to be Edward Albee even in death. That doesn't make him a racist. It just makes him the prickly stickler genius that he always was. No harm in trying to open things up. And no blame shifting if the answer is 'no.' It's fuckin' Albee. Fuck him if you don't like it. Fuck me if you don't like me. But for playwrights, in large part, and perhaps sadly -- we ARE our work. Albee is Albee. And he paid the cost to be boss. His rights are protected. And our rights are not more important than his."
While plenty of outrage has been expressed over the situation, I was particularly taken by Melissa Hillman’s comments on her provocative theatre blog, Bitter Gertrude. Hillman argues that:
“There’s real value in creating space within white male canonical works for marginalized voices. This is because canonical works occupy a dominant cultural position that must be interrogated from multiple angles. However, we must also be staging new works by new voices. My company staged three or four new plays for every classic we did. I like that percentage; maybe a different one will work for you. But stage new work, especially work by writers whose voices have been marginalized -- women, people of color, trans people, people with disabilities, etc.

It is wickedly hard to sell a new play (which is part of what drives companies to choose canonical work). Put your money where your mouth is. Reward companies when they program the way you like by buying tickets, spreading the word, and choosing them when/if you donate. We’re nothing without playwrights. Stage living playwrights and defend their right to protect their work. And Albee’s executors, if you’re reading this, you have some serious damage control to do if you want that money to keep rolling in. Just a thought.”
Bitter Gertrude's Melissa Hillman

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The Bay area's theatre community offers numerous opportunities for readings of new works, ranging from the Playwrights Foundation's annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival to the San Francisco Olympians Festival. The San Francisco Playhouse's adventurous Sandbox series and American Conservatory Theater's use of its Strand Theater and Costume Shop Theater provide new opportunities for aspiring playwrights.

The Aurora Theatre Company's annual New Works Initiative (recently renamed Originate & Generate) and the annual New Works Festival produced by TheatreWorks SiliconValley in August give the most deserving project a fully-staged production in their upcoming seasons. CentralWorks and TheatreFIRST have taken to nurturing new plays through their unique artistic processes while the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's in-house Ground Floor serves as an incubator for new and developing works. Both Theatre Rhinoceros and the New Conservatory Theatre Center have a proud history of staging world premieres of new works that explore LGBT themes.

So when people complain about the lack of opportunities for women, African-American, Asian-American, or LGBT playwrights, they really need to pay closer attention to what's happening in small theatre companies where money may be tight, but the freedom to experiment is impressive. Two recent examples deserve special mention.

As part of its 21st Annual Playground Festival of New Works, the company is producing the world premieres of Robin Lynn Rodriguez's play about gentrification entitled Hedge and Ignacio Zulueta's new play, Kano + Abe. Short plays written by four young women from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (Annais Naylor Guerrero, Cicely Henderson, Chava Novogrodsky-Godt, and Camilla Dwyer) will be given "curtain raiser" readings at the Best of Playground 21 performances as part of the 2017 Young Playwrights Project.

I was lucky enough to see 15-year-old Annais Naylor Guerrero's short play, Crash, on opening night. Directed by Wendy Wisely, it featured David Chung as Matt and Louel Senores as Julio, two high school students whose car accidentally crashes into a parked vehicle while they are out joyriding. Within moments of impact, the sound of a car alarm causes the two panicking youths to confront certain painful realities:
  • The one who was driving does not have a driver's license.
  • At least one of them is an undocumented alien.
  • The boy who is obviously college material immediately starts to worry about whether or not this accident will sabotage his chances of getting into college.
  • Painfully aware of his more limited options, the less intelligent friend refuses to let his pal think about abandoning a promising future.
Aspiring playwright Annais Naylor Guerrero

In ten short minutes, Ms. Guerrero made it crystal clear that hers is a talent to be reckoned with. Not only did she create two fully fleshed-out characters, she was able to give voice to their critical thinking skills and dramatize their awareness of socioeconomic factors affecting their futures with more skill and greater clarity than many playwrights twice or three times her age.

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In a fascinating article entitled When Women Crowdfunded Radium For Marie Curie recently published on Smithsonian.com, Kat Eschner discussed a curious moment in radiation research documented by diagnostic radiologist Ann Lewicki in the medical journalRadiology. In a 1920 interview with an American reporter, Marie Curie told Marie Meloney that she didn’t have any radium with which to continue her research. Nor could she afford any. Curie’s famous husband (with whom she had shared the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics) had died in 1906, leaving his wife to support herself and their two teenage daughters on a professor’s salary. As Lewicki noted: “She who had discovered radium, who had freely shared all information about the extraction process, and who had given radium away so that cancer patients could be treated, found herself without the financial means to acquire the expensive substance.”

After a successful fundraising campaign led by American women, Curie traveled to the White House where, on May 20, 1921, she was presented with one gram of radium by President Warren Harding. “The price of radium is very high since it is found in minerals in very small quantities, and the profits of its manufacture have been great, as this substance is used to cure a number of diseases,” stated Curie. “Yet, I still believe that we have done right.”

In April, HBO aired The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a made-for-television movie directed by George C. Wolfe that stars Oprah Winfrey, Rose Byrne, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. At the same time, TheatreFIRST was in rehearsals for its world premiere of HeLa.

Poster art for the world premiere of HeLa

With rapidly increasing numbers of women graduating from college with majors in STEM fields, it should come as no surprise that playwright Lauren Gunderson (who has done an admirable job of dramatizing the achievements of women in science and math in such plays as Silent Sky, Ada and the EngineDeepen The Mystery: Science and the South Onstage) teamed up with another Bay area playwright, Geetha Reddy, to put a new spin on the story of Henrietta Lacks, the dying African American woman whose cancer cells were able to live outside of her body. Sensitively directed by Evren Odcikin (with dramaturgy by Lisa Marie Rollins), their thrilling new play capped TheatreFIRST's inaugural season of four world premieres.

Working on a unit set designed by Bailey Hikawa with lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson and sound by Kevin Myrick, the stage was dominated by a large sculpture made of plastic balls which, when bathed in different colors by Johnson's impressive lighting design, almost seemed to quiver with life.

Richard Pallaziol and Jeunée Simon in a scene from HeLa
(Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

In 1951, when Henrietta Lacks was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer, the medical team at Johns Hopkins harvested some of her cancer cells without the patient's consent (a standard practice at the time). Named HeLa cells (a combination of the first two letters of Henrietta's first and last names), the biopsy yielded a medical breakthrough -- the first line of immortal cells that could keep reproducing outside the human body.

Over the years, HeLa cells have proven invaluable in research aimed at finding cures for cancer, polio, AIDS, and numerous other diseases. Although their use gave rise to a billion dollar segment of the medical research industry, Henrietta's family never received any compensation (the Lacks family didn't even learn about the history of the HeLa cell line until 1975).

Khary Moye and Jeunée Simon as David and Henrietta Lacks
in a scene from HeLa (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs)

What made the HeLa cells so special? They came from a black woman (attempts to harvest similarly potent cell lines from white women routinely failed). While HBO's film will undoubtedly reach many more people than TheatreFIRST's intimate new play, I doubt that HBO would have had the poetic audacity, imagination, and wit to include a scene in which Henrietta's spirit has a conversation with Strelka (one of the Soviet Union's "space dogs") as she learns about the power of the cancerous cells which were taken from her body.

Jeunée Simon as Henrietta Lacks and Sarah Mitchell as Strelka (the
Russian space dog) in a scene from HeLa (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

As the plot of HeLa unfolds, it doesn't take long for Henrietta to succumb to cancer. But, as can only happen in live theatre, the running dialogue between her spirit and her grieving adult daughter, Deborah (Desiree Rogers), achieves a remarkable level of poignancy while delivering a huge amount of scientific information about the value of HeLa cells and the machinations of greedy researchers following Henrietta's death. All this is accomplished with a technical grace and sense of empathy that could easily have been lost had the story been placed in the hands of less talented playwrights than Gunderson and Reddy (who share a strong interest in science).

Desiree Rogers as Henrietta's daughter, Deborah, in
a scene from HeLa (Photo by: Cheshire Isaacs)

Odcikin's ensemble does some beautiful work with Jeunée Simon (Henrietta), Khary Moye (David), and Desiree Rogers (Deborah) as the key members of the Lacks family. Richard Pallaziol appears as a variety of selfish (and occasionally buffoon-like) medical researchers, with Akemi Okamura providing a sympathetic presence as the researcher who shows Deborah Lacks the living cells that contain her long-dead mother's DNA. As always, the wonderful Sarah Mitchell scores comic points with her impersonation of the cosmonaut dog, Strelka.

Having recently partnered with Margot Melcon in co-writing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly (which received a tightly-choreographed rolling world premiere from the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, the Northlight Theatre in Chicago, and the Marin Theatre Company), Lauren Gunderson has teamed up with Geetha Reddy (a family practice physician who spent several seasons in Playground's playwrighting program) to create a compassionate script which is medically sound and easily accessible to contemporary audiences. It should be stressed that, while Annais Naylor Guerrero, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson are certainly not the only women in the Bay area writing plays, their work leaves no doubt about the breadth and depth of their talent.

TheatreFIRST’s website states that the company’s goal is “to revolutionize the intersection of audience, artist, and activism by making theatre a place where social justice happens. As an all in-house development company, our staff, board, and creative teams are built to explore how best to lift and amplify marginalized stories by breaking down perceived barriers so that we might all explore an equitable world.” On opening night, HeLa was introduced to the audience by the production's lighting designer, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, an African-American member of TheatreFIRST's Board of Directors who, as a theatre artist and cancer survivor, was especially proud to be a part of this deeply moving world premiere.

Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson (Photo by: Steve Savage)

Performances of HeLa continue through June 17 at the Live Oak Theatre in Berkeley (click here for tickets).

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Far From The Best Of All Possible Worlds

We're living in an age of hyperbole. Where many of us once believed that we were merely drowning in superlatives, the competition for readers, eyeballs, and sales has transformed our media into a crude landscape built upon a shifting foundation of wretched excess. Between the demands of the blogosphere and cable news, the urgent need to grab a person's attention has led us into a world where some publicists are cursed with the professional version of premature ejaculation.

By 2005, marketing teams were labeling certain clients' performances as "the event of the century" with little wiggle room for what might happen during the next 95 years. Political headlines scream things like "Elizabeth Warren Eviscerates Donald Trump on the Senate Floor," thereby creating an image of the impassioned Senator from Massachusetts sticking her hand up Donald Trump's flabby ass and disemboweling the 45th President of the United States for all to watch on C-SPAN. Cable news pundits constantly talk over the people they are interviewing; certain interactions are routinely described as "destroying" an opponent. The result is that audiences expect polite discussions to play out with the vituperative force of a mixed martial arts battle or a cage match for heavyweight wrestlers.

Not every creative person is capable of hitting the artistic equivalent of a home run with every project.
  • Although athletes train intensely to keep in shape, they remain vulnerable to injuries.
  • Opera singers take care to warm up their vocal cords while understanding that allergies, stress, and any number of physical imperfections can cause their voice to crack.
  • Long hours of practicing scales may help a pianist improve keyboard dexterity but will not prevent someone from ever flubbing a note.
The arts are one of the few areas of the human experience where people can learn from being allowed to fail. Few creative talents hit their mark on their first try because, in most cases, artists are far more interested in process than product. Once they've finished a project, they're often hungry for a new challenge that will allow them to stretch their muscles and grow.

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Launched in 1994, Playground has become the Bay area's most prodigious incubator for local playwrights. Over the course of each season, certain theme nights (mathematics, musical theatre, science, etc.) challenge writers to create 10-minute plays on a specific topic. As part of its 21st Annual Playground Festival of New Works, Playground recently included six short plays in an anthology program entitled Best of Playground 21. While three selections proved to be surprisingly disappointing, it's helpful to understand a key factor that may have weakened their impact.

Written by Jerome Joseph Gentes and directed by Amy Sass, Or: Or, The Play of Light featured the following cast of characters: One (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Two (Liam Vincent), Three (Michelle Ianiro), Four (Robyn Grahn), Five (David Cramer), and Six (Morgan J. Booker). While each represented a photon boasting the properties of waves and particles, the playwright's attempt to explain the phenomenon of light with actors holding lightbulbs as they moved around a darkened stage never really took flight. As a result, a portentous (and occasionally pretentious) script couldn't hold a candle to Ian Walker's sound design. This attempt to let there be light proved surprisingly slight.


Nicole Jost's Monarchs in Space (directed by Jessa Brie Moreno) features the following characters: Elena Vela (Nicole Apostol Bruno), Monarch 1 (David Cramer), Monarch 2 (Michelle Ianiro), and Monarch 3 (Morgan J. Booker). The set-up is simple. An astronaut has been tasked with studying the effect of zero gravity on three Monarch butterflies which, during the launch phase, were mere cocoons. As they emerge and discover their striking new beauty, the butterflies implore the astronaut to tell them stories about life on Earth, which seem as magical to them as fairy tales.


Although Genevieve Jessee's I Had A Bird (directed by May Liang) is built on a solid premise and presents the audience with a genuine conflict, her characters are named One (Michelle Ianiro), Two (Robyn Grahn), and Three (Nancy French). An affecting vignette that demonstrates how children who may not be able to understand the concept of a plague attacking their community are nevertheless resilient enough to learn how to play with each other, I Had A Bird showed potential for further expansion. Although it quickly veered from a child's wide-eyed innocence to an adult's fear of "the other," and from talk about sickness to the pain of grief, something about this play just didn't seem to gel.


I'm going to go out on the limb here with my own personal theory. Photons are neither cuddly, nor would any be likely to be given names like Bruce. Butterflies may yearn to be free, but quickly lose their singularity in a swarm of thousands. Children of different races interact in communities around the globe. But as an exercise in playwriting, assigning a number to each character may deliver a same kind of result as what one achieves from painting by numbers. The boundaries and colors may be clearly defined, but the context needs a lot more work.

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Speaking of "needing more work," attention must be paid to the musical adaptation of Mira Nair's 2001 film, Monsoon Wedding, which recently received its world premiere from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This is the kind of pre-Broadway tryout that sets off alarms to warn producers that rhinestones are not a girl's best friend and "all that glitters is not gold."

Perhaps it's best to approach this particular experience through dual lenses (as two waves of seeming inevitability approached an opening night deadline).

Jaaved Jaaferi as Lalit Verma in a scene from Monsoon Wedding
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Set in Delhi, Monsoon Wedding focuses on the various conflicts involved in the planning of an arranged wedding. On one hand, there is the upper middle-class Verma family, whose patriarch, Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi), is facing financial troubles and whose daughter, Aditi (Kuhoo Verma), is the bride-to-be. Eager to escape from the clutches of her very traditional Punjabi Hindu family, Aditi has agreed to marry a complete stranger even though she has been carrying on a long-term affair with Vikram (Ali Momen), a married man at her place of employment.

Additional members of Lalit's household include his wife, Pimmi (Mahira Kakkar); their son Varun (Rohan Gupta), who is happily dancing his way out of the closet; their maid, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan); and their niece, Ria Verma (Sharvari Deshpande), who is as moody as Varun is gay. Other local relatives include Pimmi's sister, Shashi Chawla (Monsoon Bissell), her husband, CL (Sorab Wadia), and their 10-year-old daughter, Aliya (Emielyn D. Das).

Michael Maliakel (Hemant) and Kuhoo Verma (Aditi) are the
romantic leads in Monsoon Wedding (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The groom-to-be, Hemant Rai (Michael Maliakel), is arriving from New Jersey a few days prior to the wedding. Tired of straddling the cultural divide of being half Indian and half American, he longs for a traditional Indian wife who will help him build a family more in line with his ethnic heritage. His mother (Krystal Kiran) and father (Andrew Prashad) have contributed a substantial amount to the four-day-long wedding celebration even though they have never met anyone from the Verma family.

The two men driving important subplots are Tej Puri (Alok Tewari), Lalit's wealthy brother-in-law who lives in Texas, is attracted to underage girls and (unbeknownst to Lalit) molested Ria when she was much younger; and PK Dubey (Namit Das), the fun-loving, charismatic wedding planner hired by the Verma family who falls head-over-heels in love with their maid, Alice.

Namit Das as PK Dubey in a scene from Monsoon Wedding
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With a plot that includes (a) a nervous bride canceling her wedding after confessing to her groom that she is still seeing another man, (b) a woman who has lovingly been raised by her uncle telling him that she can't possibly attend her cousin's wedding, (c) a creepy child molester lurking within the family, (d) a simulated scene in which a lovesick man chases the woman he loves on horseback as she rides through the countryside on a train, and (d) assorted relatives bragging about the Ivy league American schools from which their children have graduated, there should be enough tension to make Monsoon Wedding an intense and lively affair.

With a book by Sabrina Dhawan (who wrote the original screenplay), choreography by Lorin Latarro, and news that the Berkeley Rep's run had been extended due to healthy ticket sales, there was an encouraging buzz in the theatre's lobby on opening night. Add an extremely attractive display of Indian-themed fashions worn by many members of the audience and it would seem as if the stage had been set for a most entertaining evening.

Anisha Nagarajan (Alice) and Namit Das (PK Dubey) in a
scene from Monsoon Wedding (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Shortly after the performance began, reality entered with a disheartening thud. Despite the glittering costumes (many in blazing colors) designed by Arjun Bhasin, Scott Lehrer's solid sound design, and Peter Nigrini's impressive projections, there was no escaping Susan Birkenhead's excruciatingly insipid lyrics. Under Mira Nair's direction, dramatic moments which should have crackled with tension didn't; set changes often revealed stagehands wearing headphones as they tried to rig scenic elements which could have been more effective had they been flown in from above.

Monsoon Wedding is one of those rare musicals whose first act is much weaker than its second. There is also an odd imbalance caused by the fact that the two brides are much less interesting than the two grooms (who are also much stronger singers).

From a musical standpoint, Vishal Bhardwaj's score is surprisingly undistinguished. Although Dubey's grandmother, Naani (Palomi Ghosh), has a moving solo entitled "Love Is Love" and Sharvari Deshpande's Ria finally gets her dramatic moment with "Be A Good Girl," Hemant's solo ("Neither Here Nor There") and his duet with Aditi ("Could You Have Loved Me?") have little, if any, traction (audiences are much more likely to leave the theatre whistling the show's costume designs).


Although most of the audience responded enthusiastically, I felt as if I had been seated at a wedding table with extremely well-dressed but fairly superficial guests who had nothing to spark a conversation other than their clothes. Bottom line? Monsoon Wedding makes Mamma Mia! seem downright Shakespearean.

There was, however, one moment which delivered an unexpected laugh on a very personal level. The groom's first name (Hemant) is pronounced the same way as my last name (Heymont). During the brief scene when Hemant arrives at the Delhi airport, I did a double take when I heard him referred to as "Mr. Heymont from New Jersey." Performances of Monsoon Wedding continue through July 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

Monday, May 22, 2017

Old Habits Die Hard

Some habits are deceptively easy to acquire. Whether by mimicking the behavior of parents and peers or trying to push the envelope just a little bit further, there comes a moment of reckoning when having another drink or lighting another cigarette becomes second nature; when we start to justify tossing refuse like candy wrappers and cigarette butts onto the sidewalk by telling ourselves that "everyone does it."

It took me years to break the habit of answering a phone just because it was ringing. Even if I was just stepping out of the shower, if the phone started to ring, I would grab a towel and (dripping with water) race to the next room to make sure I answered the call. Having a digital answering machine made no difference. Where I grew up, it was considered rude not to answer a telephone call within the first four rings.

What helped me break that habit? Robocalls. Once I understood that my sleep was being disturbed by an automatic dialer on a computer in another city, I taught myself to roll over and go back to sleep. If Barack Obama could "evolve" with regard to same-sex marriage, I could evolve with regard to phone scams and telemarketing.

Nowadays, if caller ID shows a telephone number or originating city that doesn't jog my memory, I simply ignore the call. If the caller doesn't leave a message, too fucking bad. Not only don't I care, I'm a whole lot happier without worrying about having missed a call.

Bad habits that lead to substance abuse (involving alcohol, drugs, and/or food) can be extremely difficult to break. So, for that matter, can habits involving language that has fallen from grace.
  • For some of us, it took a conscious effort to progress from using the word "Negro" to saying "Black" or "African-American."
  • Many of us still talk about "dialing" a phone number although no one I know uses a rotary phone anymore.
  • Some people have adjusted to referring to a man's husband or a woman's wife but still have difficulty using nonbinary gender terms.
  • Words which have morphed into verbs (such as "conversate" and "Google") or been popularized by hipsters and Millennials (such as "totes" and "whatevs") tend to drive grammarians crazy.

Over at the Potrero Stage, the 21st annual Playground Festival of New Works is presenting a program of six short plays, three of which help to remind us how some of our most deeply-ingrained habits can now paint us as clueless and anachronistic trolls.

Directed by Eric Reid, Maury Zeff's Come And Knock on Our Door takes a look back at the popular sitcom, Three's Company (which ran from 1977-1984) through the lens of a more socially enlightened society. Janet Wood (Robyn Grahn) gets a phone call from her roommate, Chrissy, informing her that Chrissy's cousin is coming to visit. As they chat about what Gloria (Nancy French) is like, Janet is admonished never to refer to Gloria as a "girl."

Gloria (Nancy French), Jack (Liam Vincent), and Janet (Robyn
Grahn) in a scene from Come and Knock On Our Door
(Photo by: Mellophoto.com)

Janet's roommate, Jack Tripper (Liam Vincent) -- a character originally created by John Ritter -- is now seen as a clueless straight white male whose behavior reeks of sexism. While that might seem like a minor detail, its significance becomes much more obvious when Gloria turns out to be a young Gloria Steinem and the landlord -- an African-American woman named Shirley (Michelle Ianiro) -- is actually Shirley Chisholm.

What makes this 10-minute play a winner is Liam Vincent's hilariously over-the-top characterization of Jack Tripper as a socially inept would-be Lothario who can't understand why his roaming hands are not welcomed by the ladies or why his standard pick-up lines (dripping with innuendo) are landing like lead balloons. Wearing a pair of beltless polyester pants, Vincent delivers comic gold. Here's the trailer:


Directed by Jim Kleinmann, Melissa Keith's Mission: Ambivalent spoofs another TV staple -- the secret agent who must always rush to a crime scene in order to save the day. There's just one problem. Tom (Liam Vincent) is not your typical hero. As the play starts, he's carefully shopping for grocery items which have double-value coupons in a supermarket when he is contacted by Jerry (Nicole Apostol Bruno) with news of a bomb threat.

Although Tom protests that it's not really a good time for him, the truth is that he has absolutely no talent at defusing bombs and is a bit of a klutz. Upon arriving at the scene, he has to deal with the hyperaggressive Julia (Robyn Grahn), who wants an immediate resolution of the problem, and Sam (David Cramer), an older man Tom regards as a mentor.

Robyn Grahn, Liam Vincent, Nicole Apostol Bruno, and David Cramer
in a scene from Mission: Ambivalent (Photo by: Mellophoto.com)

Not only is Sam revealed to be the mad bomber, he's also a totally ineffectual villain who forgot that if his bomb explodes while he's still in the room, he will effectively be committing suicide. Mission Ambivalent offers a painful reminder of how easily incompetence can sabotage careful planning (in the White House as well as in a 10-minute play). Here's the trailer:


In Sang S. Kim's Explicit Content, Matthew (Liam Vincent) and his father, Abner (David Cramer), are about to meet with some marketing consultants whose goal is to broaden their firm's clientele. At first, Abner insists that he doesn't want to do any talking and will leave everything up to Matthew. But as soon as three liberated women enter the room, the audience can almost see the steam coming out of Abner's ears.

Abner has spent most of his life using words like "bitch" to refer to any woman who crosses his path. As much as he hates having to deal with an aggressive woman like Helen (Nancy French), he's even more shocked when she starts treating him the way he treats her. While Abner may be horrified by Helen's plans to ignore his company's loyal customer base, something much deeper is stoking his anger.

Helen (Nancy French) locks horns with Abner (David Cramer)
in a scene from Explicit Language (Photo by: Mellophoto.com)

When Helen asks what he really wants to get from their meeting, Abner crumbles and admits that his son and daughter-in-law have forbidden him from having any contact with their children because of the way he talks. Family means everything to him and he's willing to do anything to get his grandchildren back in his life.

That gives Helen the ammunition she needs to help set some goals which can bring the company -- and Abner -- into the 21st century. With Morgan J. Booker appearing as Helen's assistant, Amanda, and Nicole Apostol Bruno's Louise taking notes on a computer, director Christian Haines has fun with the playwright's winning gimmick. Each time Helen or Abner uses an offensive term which Louise's word processing software does not allow, the computer noisily bleeps it out. As they discover terms which, surprisingly, pass muster with the software, their creative juices begin to flow with a vengeance. Here's the trailer:


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One could never accuse Del Shores of failing to make the most of his good luck. When a small play he wrote in 1996 had its world premiere in Los Angeles, Sordid Lives quickly became a cult phenomenon.

Although Del Shores and Leslie Jordan have each toured shows in which they talk at length about their experiences with Sordid Lives, until this month, the original play had never been performed in San Francisco. Thanks to Ed Decker (the artistic director of New Conservatory Theatre Center), that crime against local gay history has finally been rectified.

Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley, and Marie O'Donnell
in a scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

NCTC recently unveiled a new production of Sordid Lives before an adoring opening night audience. The performance was of particular interest to me because my first exposure to the Sordid Lives phenomenon had been a severe letdown. I was visiting someone in Long Beach and had read that the film was being screened at a small theatre that specialized in independent films. There may have been eight customers attending the Saturday night screening and their confused lack of enthusiasm could not be ignored.

The barroom scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Thankfully, that was not the case at NCTC. With the film, the TV series, and his one-man show entitled Del Shores: My Sordid Life all available on DVD, what was once a cult phenomenon has become a thriving franchise. As a result, the misadventures of the highly dysfunctional denizens of Winters, Texas have become the White trash equivalent of high art, effectively pushing the residents of Greater Tuna off the map.

What quickly becomes apparent is how much Sordid Lives gains by being performed in front of a live audience that can respond to all the unscripted pieces of business. Each double take, eye roll, and pregnant pause (as one character prepares to lob a truth bomb in another character's direction) gets the appreciation it sorely deserves. Every sigh from a wounded ego and vicious insult delivered with seething hatred elicits hoots of loving laughter from the audience.

Melissa O'Keefe and Scott Cox in a scene from Sordid Lives
(Photo by: Lois Tema)

With the passage of time, references to Thelma and Louise have become juicier than ever. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that the critical role of Brother Boy (which has been as tightly linked to Leslie Jordan as Dolly Levi was to Carol Channing) stands on its own as a powerhouse opportunity for someone with strong comic skills. Scott Cox made it his own with riotous results, leaving the audience in stitches.

Sordid Lives is structured as a series of flashbacks in which each vignette is introduced by Luke Brady as Ty Williamson, a closeted gay actor working in New York City who is terrified at the thought of returning to his home town in Texas for his mother's funeral. His fears, however, are nothing compared to the shenanigans taking place in the office of Dr. Eve Bolinger (Melissa O'Keefe) as she tries to "dehomosexualize" Earl "Brother Boy" Ingram (Scott Cox).

Melissa O'Keefe, Scott Cox, and Robin Gabrielli in
a scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

With scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo, costumes by Wes Crain, lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, and sound design by Ryan Lee Short, Dennis Lickteig has directed his cast with appropriately raucous levels of distress, despair, and discontent. Shannon Kase is a bundle of energy as Noleta Nethercott with Gary M. Giurbino standing as strongly as possible on G.W. Nethercott's two wooden legs. Nathan Tylutki has some very funny moments as Odell Owens (who can't stop playing cat's cradle) and the Reverend who presides over the funeral of a family matriarch who came to an untimely end in a sleazy motel.

While Cat Luedtke and Marie O'Donnell fight it out as the decedent's two daughters, LaVonda and Latrelle, Michaela Greeley struggles to avoid taking sides with either woman while making a futile attempt to give up smoking. Robin Gabrielli and Amy Meyers are the more rational souls as bartender Wardell "Bubba" Owens and Bitsy Mae Harling.

The funeral scene from Sordid Lives (Photo by: Lois Tema)

Performances of Sordid Lives continue through June 24 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (click here for tickets). If the political landscape has got you down, this production is guaranteed to lift your spirits. Here's the trailer:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Make Them Laugh

Hibernation is defined as how an animal spends its winter in a dormant state. Slumbering in a cave like a big old bear might seem like a cozy way to get away from the cold but, for humans, winter-long naps are not an option. Between the most recent winter solstice (December 21, 2016) and the upcoming summer solstice (June 20, 2017), so much shit has hit the fan that it seems like there never was (nor will there ever be) any rest for the weary.

The cause of this rancid phenomenon is no secret. It's not daylight savings time, nor is it a shortage of kale. It's Donald Trump.

For those who, shortly after November 9, 2016, began grinding their teeth as they slept, the political landscape has been infected with a toxic gumbo of paranoid lies, radioactive tweets, and brazen bullying, garnished a soupcon of impending dementia. Some fear that the end of the world is nigh; others think it's wiser to grab some popcorn, sit back, and watch Washington implode. Those loyalists who still think that Trump is the answer to their hopes and dreams would be well advised to watch the first episode of The President Show (Comedy Central's new hit starring Anthony Atamanuik as the 45th President of the United States).


A well-written farce may rest on a foundation of mistaken identity, erratic behavior, or unreasonable expectations. Social clumsiness and repressed lust can only add to the fun. Sadly, a constitutional crisis tends to put a damper on the proceedings.

Bay area audiences are currently enjoying the world premieres of two beautifully crafted farces. One is by a gifted theatre artist who also teaches playwriting at the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre. The other is an adaptation of a novella written by one of England's beloved authors. Each is marked not only by its careful plotting but by the fierce intelligence underlying the power of its storytelling.

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For several years, the San Francisco Olympians Festival has been a hub of creativity for new works inspired by the characters in Greek mythology. Whether reworking tales about Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Aphrodite into contemporary settings or bringing some of the more obscure gods and goddesses into the spotlight, under Stuart Bousel's direction, the festival has mined a huge amount of source material for comedic moments. Other playwrights have also found success updating stories from ancient Greece.
CentralWorks is currently presenting the world premiere (the company's 54th) of Edward King. Written and directed by Gary Graves with the kind of minimalistic flair that allows the audience to bathe in the glow of his dramatic craft, the action takes place in southern California with a cast of increasingly bizarre characters.


John Patrick Moore is a mail carrier in the San Bernardino Valley in
Edward King, a new play by Gary Graves (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Ed King (John Patrick Moore) is a mail carrier living in the San Bernardino Valley who loves his job, his country, and his wife. A true patriot, he treats his route like a glorified dance in which he proudly tosses the mail onto each person's porch with the grace and artistry of a professional baseball pitcher. Everything seems to be peachy-keen until one day, a dog named Chopper lunges at him and bites his leg. As Ed continues to deliver mail in the blazing sun, he passes out from the heat and has a bizarre dream in which a towering masked figure clad in black robes (perhaps Fate or a time-traveling member of an ancient Greek chorus) plants a seed of doubt in his mind about his true identity. Ed soon finds himself on a downward spiral as he quickly loses control over both his life and his wife.

Josefina/Jo King (Michelle Talgarow) met Ed when they were walking on a beach in southern California. Although she had previously been married to a creep named Morty (and was forced by her mother to give their child up for adoption), she fell in love with and married Ed, who was 13 years younger than her. Wanting to make sure that Ed truly loved her for who she was, Jo warned him never to ask about her age.


Michelle Talgarow is Ed's exhausted wife in Edward King,
a new play by Gary Graves (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

Although Ed and Jo have had a relatively good marriage, financial stress has started to put a strain on their relationship. Their daughter, Mia, is in her first year of college and, like any teenager, trying to break free from her family ties by leaving cryptic (and somewhat hostile) phone messages for her parents. Meanwhile, Jo is stuck waiting tables during the swing shift at a local outlet of Bob's Big Boy where the short-order cook is such an obnoxious creep that she fantasizes about cutting off his balls and tossing them into the deep fat fryer.

To make matters worse, something strange has started growing in their basement's laundry room and spreading through the building's foundation. Acting like a manly man, Ed attempts to kill off the mold (or whatever it is) with some kind of toxic spray. As he searches his memory for clues about his roots, the thing in the basement keeps growing until Ed begins to wonder if he might be cursed.

Poster art for Edward King

As he becomes more obsessed with tracing his roots, Ed encounters three mysterious characters who seem to understand him a whole lot better than he does.
  • Lucy is a jaded psychiatrist who becomes downright giddy at the prospect of working with a new patient who is a perfect textbook case of someone with an Oedipus complex
  • Morty is Jo's demented first husband who has been living alone on a hilltop while writing a 12,000-page book that he expects his estranged son to publish (in some ways, Morty bears a strange resemblance to Mel Brooks's portrayal of The 2,000 Year Old Man.
  • Edwina is an exterminator who comes to Ed's home to make a professional assessment of his house. For some reason, Edwina is convinced that she and Ed used to make out in the back of a red pickup truck.

Jan Zvaifler appears as Edwina the Exterminator in Edward King,
a new play by Gary Graves (Photo by: Jim Norrena)

While Ed and his wife struggle to make sense of the ominous presence taking over their home, Ed (who was adopted) grows increasingly spooked by the idea that he might have married his biological mother. Determined to learn the truth at any cost, he secretly orders a genetic testing kit and (in a brilliant piece of stage of business) tries to get a swab of Jo's saliva while she lies in her recliner, snoring.

One need not have a familiarity with the Oedipus legend to have a rollicking good time at Edward King. In addition to Graves's delicious script (which includes an hilarious argument involving the words "nuclear" and "nukular"), Gregory Scharpen has outdone himself in the sound design department.

Although John Patrick Moore and Michelle Talgarow give strong performances as Ed and Jo, Jan Zvaifler steals the show in the four supporting roles of The Figure, Lucy, Morty, and Edwina. Because CentralWorks is a small nonprofit company that has created many more than 50 world premieres, co-directors Graves and Zvaifler have developed an intellectual intimacy that allows them to make the most out of their tiny 50-seat theatre while working on a bare-bones budget. Together with Scharpen, they have honed a technique for crafting new plays that are clinically lean but can deliver a huge return on their dramatic investment.

With Edward King, the CentralWorks team has given birth to a superbly intelligent farce guaranteed to delight theatre buffs as well as "civilians" who just want a few good laughs. Performances of Edward King continue through June 11 at the Berkeley City Club (click here for tickets).

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Over at Z-Below, Word for Word is presenting the world premiere production of Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) in a new adaptation written and directed by one of the company's charter members, Amy Kossow. As Kossow explains:

“The first of two novella-sized stores in Smut is ‘The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,’ from which text we embark on our story. Underneath the story’s gentle demeanor stirs a plot that leads straight to a sort of deep radicalism. I read Smut while draped on a pool noodle in some clear water on a sunny day in Palm Springs, giggling while attempting to keep the book dry. When I was done, there was a queue of neighbors wanting to read it. I, of course, felt that Word for Word could do it wonderful justice. Imagine my joy in discovering a radio interview in which Alan Bennett said that Smut was indeed material that ‘wanted to be a play.’ I went to work, adapted the novella into a script and sent it to him. He gave approval and sent us his best wishes, telling us to ‘carry on the good work’ of bringing literature to our audiences.”

A scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

Smut focuses on the blossoming of Jane Donaldson (Nancy Shelby), a quiet, middle-aged woman who, having been newly widowed, has opted to supplement her income by renting out a spare room in her home to two medical students. In addition to her agreement with Andy (Andre Amarotico) and Laura (Rosie Hallett), Mrs. Donaldson has found a new source of income that involves simulating the symptoms of patients who might arrive in a hospital's emergency room in order to help medical students hone their triage and diagnostic skills. Much to her surprise (and that of the physician overseeing the program), Jane seems to have a talent for adding an extra level of drama to the simulation by creating surprisingly thoughtful backstories for the women she portrays during classroom situations.

Andre Amorotico (Andy) and Rosie Hallett (Laura) in a scene
from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

Jane's openness to learning places her in a curious situation where, not being overwhelmed with the kind of debilitating grief others might expect, she suddenly has the freedom to explore new options. Her disapproving daughter, Gwen (Delia MacDougall), is mortified by her mother's behavior and frequently reminds Jane that what she is doing is "not what Daddy would have wanted."

Since Gwen is married and no longer living with at home her mother, there's not too much she can do to halt Jane's new adventures. As Jane learns how she can be of value to medical students like Andy, Laura, and Rowswell (Phil Wong), she comes in contact with other "simulated patients" such as Violet Beckinsale (Patricia Silver), an condescending old woman with diva-like tendencies, and Terry Porter (Robert Parsons), a horny exhibitionist who is quite full of himself.

Nancy Shelby (Mrs. Donaldson) and Robert Parsons (Terry) in a
scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

After several months of waiting for Andy and Laura to pay their rent, the two young medical students confess that they don't have sufficient funds but would like to propose an alternate arrangement: Perhaps they could perform a demonstration of sorts for Mrs. Donaldson. What starts off as an unexpected introduction to sexual voyeurism whets Mrs. Donaldson's appetite for a little bit more spice in her life. Her daughter has no idea that Jane is listening through the walls each night when Andy and Laura have sex and, to be honest, Jane can't imagine that anyone at the hospital has a clue about the goings-on in the privacy of her home. The others, of course, have taken notice in Jane's change of temperament. In fact, Dr. Ballantyne has been developing quite a crush on her.

Nancy Shelby (Mrs. Donaldson) and Soren Oliver (Dr. Ballantyne) in a
scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

The entire story is related by the characters as if they were narrating it from the pages of Bennett's novella, rather than in standard script form. The effect is quite charming, helping to underline the English tendency to keep personal matters quite prim and proper ("No Sex, Please. We're British"). Nancy Shelby shines as the quiet and somewhat reserved Mrs. Donaldson, often acting as a foil to more extroverted characters portrayed by Soren Oliver, Robert Parsons, Delia MacDougall, and Patricia Silver. As the young medical students, Phil Wong is occasionally clueless but eager to learn and Delia MacDougall is constantly on the verge of quitting in a fit of frustration, while Andre Amarotico and Rosie Hallett portray two good-natured souls with healthy libidos.

A scene from SMUT: An Unseemly Story (Photo by: Mel Solomon)

Word for Word's production has been blessed with a handsome unit set that has been designed and lit by Jeff Rowlings, with costumes by Callie Floor. Performances of Smut: An Unseemly Story continue through June 11 at Z-Below (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer: