Review: In Amy Herzog’s “4,000 Miles,” a directionless young man moves in with his feisty grandma and it works, at A.C.T. through February 10, 2013
In Amy Herzog’s new play 4,000 Miles, which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.), twenty-something Leo, arrives in the middle of the night at his grandma Vera’s apartment in Greenwich Village after having biked some 4,000 miles from Seattle. She’s an old Communist and he epitomizes the aimlessness of the failure-to-launch generation. While on the trip, there was an accident and Leo’s best friend and biking partner was killed, and he decides to take respite with Vera, a surprisingly spry 91-year-old widow. As these two unlikely roommates re-connect, both grief-shattered in their own way, a surprisingly tender, honest and healing connection is forged which makes for a quietly captivating drama. What’s unique about this play, is that on its opening night—last Wednesday—it managed to pack the Geary Theatre, at least the balcony section where I was seated, with young adults who were thoroughly engrossed in its story. How wonderful it was to see row after row of young and older, side by side, everyone enjoying this intergenerational drama.
As it turns out, playwright Amy Herzog is just 33 but she’s on a roll—“4000 Miles” was the recipient of two 2012 Obie Awards, including best new American play. 4000 Miles had its 2011 world premiere at New York’s Lincoln Center Theatre, where it played to sold-out houses and received accolades from critics. At A.C.T., under Mark Rucker’s skillful direction, the play’s emotional resonance lingers long after the 95 minute performance.
Like many young adults, easy-going Leo is searching for something that will give his life meaning. And while it’s not immediately obvious, he actually has a lot in common with his grandma—they are both non-conformists, refreshingly honest, good listeners and open minded. That’s a very good thing because all the other women in Leo’s life have issues with him. His mother is disappointed in his ability to keep in touch, especially after he and his adoptive sister got high on Peyote and he kissed her. His adoptive sister is supposedly in therapy over the event. Bec, his girlfriend, can’t understand his immaturity. And Amanda, a drunken young woman he picks up and brings home to Vera’s place, can’t figure out what he wants either. After some initial trust issues are worked through, Vera really warms to Leo’s presence and has a palpable influence on him. By listening and not judging, she meets his emotional needs and, by the end of the play, Leo is exhibiting some long overdue maturity. He is salve for her wounds too. As Vera talks about the old days, her marriage and the family, Leo listens. This is priceless because Leo, it turns out, is her sole confidant.
Herzog based the play on her real-life grandmother, Leepee Joseph, now 96, who she lived with for six months in New York when she was just getting her start as a novice actor. Leepee also figured prominently in her 2010 play “After the Revolution,” which has character named Vera Joseph, who was also a widowed grandma and card-carrying Communist. In that play, Vera’s granddaughter learns that Vera’s deceased husband had been a Soviet spy. Herzog also drew inspiration from her own grueling cross-country bike ride trip a decade ago with Habitat for Humanity that ended with a ride across the Golden Gate Gate Bridge.
Reggie Gowland shines as soft-spoken, laid-back and scrambled Leo and there’s a lot to recognize in this character. Leo epitomizes the generation of young adults now in their twenties—aimless but likeable adult-kids who are ambling through life, unable to make decisions and satisfied to let the chips fall as they may.
Susan Blommaert plays Vera Joseph as a declining force to be reckoned with. Her interaction with Leo is funny and seems completely natural; whether she’s accusing him of stealing something she’s actually misplaced or reaching her limit when it comes to talk about sex or searching for a forgotten word. She also has an affecting and gruff phone rapport with her elderly neighbor. They have a kind of mutual pact where they call each other daily, partially out of loneliness and to make sure they are each still alive. Blommaert, 65, is well-known to audiences from her roles in various episodes of the long-running tv series Law and Order, as well as The Good Wife, Guarding Tess, Boardwalk Empire and Doubt.
Julia Lawler is excellent as Bec, Leo’s long-distance girlfriend who has recently completed college and can no longer relate to Leo’s ambling mentality.
Camille Mana is delightful as inebriated Parson’s student who Leo brings home for a make-out session that is interrupted by Vera.
Everything flows naturally in Herzog’s compassionate drama which all takes place in Vera’s pleasantly out-of-date living room. At the end of “4,000 Miles,” we come to realization that being a young adult and an adult facing the end of life, are very confusing and frustrating times. While each of Herzog’s four characters has a complex back story, as we all do, the light is clearly focused on Leo and Vera. And even though we might like to believe that we don’t have too much in common with these two wounded souls, both grappling with the shattering aftershock of death—one about to graduate to adulthood and the other witnessing it slip away—we all do.
Run Time: 95 minutes without intermission.
CAST: Reggie Gowland as Leo Joseph-Connell; Susan Blommaert as Vera Joseph; Julia Lawler as Bec; and Camille Mana as Amanda.
CREATIVE TEAM: 4000 Miles is directed by A.C.T. Associate Director Mark Rucker with scenic designer Erik Flatmo (Higher and Scapin at A.C.T.); costume designer Alex Jaeger (Maple and Vine and Once in a Lifetime at A.C.T.; Looped at Pasadena Playhouse); lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols (Endgame and Play at A.C.T.; Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway and Wishful Drinking on Broadway); and sound design by Will McCandless (Higher at A.C.T.; Spunk and Blithe Spirit at California Shakespeare Theater).
Audience Exchanges: Stick around after the shows on Tuesday, January 29 at 7 p.m., Sunday, February 3 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday February 6 at 2 p.m. for a lively Q&A with the actors and artists who create the work onstage.
Details: 4,000 Miles runs through February 10, 2013 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets: $20-$105, available online through A.C.T.’s online box office or (415) 439-2473.
Review: In Carey Perloff’s riveting production of Sophocles’ “Elektra,” Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis and A.C.T.’s fabulous René Augesen enliven this age old tale of justice—at A.C.T. through November 18, 2012
With American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and Berkeley Rep, the Bay Area’s two most prominent theatres, staging revitalized Greek dramas this November, there’s no escaping the enduring power of the ancient Greek classics. A.C.T. presents A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff’s production of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Elektra — featuring a specially commissioned new translation by Olivier Award–winning British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, an original score by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer David Lang and Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis. Across the Bay, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre has extended its run of An Iliad, performed by Henry Woronicz and adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare with a compelling translation by Robert Fagles. An Iliad provides an unforgettable
oral overview of the battles and main characters of the Trojan War, which transpired some 3,200 years ago. Elektra is set later and focuses on the fall-out from one of those ancient wars and is a cause and effect case study in the ideas of justice and vengeance, pitting truth and deception against each other. Sophocles left it up to the audience to ferret out the ethics of avenging a strike to the family bloodline with more murder. Timberlake Wertenbaker distills the story brilliantly in her adaptation with poignant and, at times, very humorous passages which are enlivened by René Augesen in particular.
A.C.T.’s Elektra is a must-see for the exceptional women it brings together on stage— René Augesen, Olympia Dukakis, Caroline Lagerfelt and Allegra Rose Edwards. Watching A.C.T. core actress René Augesen over the past 11 years has been transformative—she just keeps digging deeper to deliver astounding character performances (she’s done over 30) that have come to anchor entire productions from Hedda in Hedda Gabbler (2007) to Esme in Tom Stoppard’s Rock–n-Roll (2008) to Ruth in Harold Pinter’s Homecoming (2011) to Beverly in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (2011). She always good but when she gets on stage as Elektra, Agamemnon’s grief-stricken grown daughter, it is like watching some sort of primal creature emerge. She readily delivers an Elektra who cannot shake the traumatic memory of her father’s murder by her mother Clytemnestra (Caroline Lagerfelt), an Elektra who is so obsessed, so stuck in grief, that she is incapable of moving forward in her own life. Augesen credibly sinks to the lowest suffering imaginable showing the heroic and tragic nature of her character. She is addicted to pain and we can all somehow relate to that.
As the entire chorus, boiled down to one character, Olympia Dukakis is formidable. The Academy-Award winning actress (Moonstruck), now 81, seems born dispensing wise counsel. At times empathetic, at times burning with intensity, she urges the distraught Elektra to justice, knowing full-well the blood that will be shed. Clothed in a dark gray tunic with an ornate metallic scrolling on the front (all costumes are by Candice Donnelly), Dukakis dramatically entered to the very minimalist music of Pulitzer Prize winning David Lang, which successfully evoked the sense of ancient rhythms and tones as they might have existed in that very time. As cellist Theresa Wong began keening and wrapping on her instrument, it was as if she was calling up the ancient spirits. As Dukakis took to the stage, she transfixed the audience and held them in her grip for the next 90 minutes. Her natural rapport with Augesen is palpable.
And lithe Caroline Lagerfelt, as Clytemnestra, Elektra’s adulterous murderer of a mother, is a model for glorious aging. She wears the trappings of queen hood well—exquisite jewelry and eloquent flowing gowns—and she feels justified in killing Agamemnon. Is she? Her daughter, Iphigenia, was murdered, in a deal that her husband Agamemnon cut with the goddess Artemis to save the Greeks in the Trojan War. As morally reprehensible as she is, she has a case, adding complexity to the drama. In fact, many of the characters feel justified in their actions in this play—Clytemnestra needs to extract justice on Agamemnon for the death of her daughter; Orestes needs to kill his mother Clytemnestra for killing his father; and Elektra feels bound to kill Clytemnestra and her new husband Aegisthus, but as woman, she needs her brother Orestes to carry out the revenge. With no divine intervention, Sophocles leaves the question of justice squarely on his audience.
Elektra’s sister, Chrysothemis is cast perfectly in Allegra Rose Edwards (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program class of 2013), who has survived by living with the imbalance in the universe. Dressed in a ridiculous white dress haut couture dress looks like one of the impossibly impractical numbers that gets a full page spread in Vogue, she engages authentically with Augesen throughout the play, acknowledging that Elektra has justice on her side but she prefers to go with the flow. In one of the play’s most touching passages, Elektra finally persuades her to offer a prayer at their father’s grave that Orestes will return and avenge their father’s death.
Orestes (Nick Steen), Elektra’s brother, and true heir to the throne, was the weak link in the play. From the moment Orestes spoke, it seemed as if his lines were not deeply felt. Of course, he is younger and hasn’t suffered the way Elektra has. When he was very young, Elektra feared for his life and took him to live with King Strophius of Phocis, who raised Orestes with his own son Pylades (Titus Thompkins), who accompanies him to the oracle at Delphi. Then, with Pylades, and his Tutor (Anthony Fusco), Orestes travels in disguise to his former home to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover. Another Orestes might have brought more to the production.
Run time is 90 minutes
Cast: René Augesen, Elektra, Olympia Dukakis, Chorus Leader, Caroline Lagerfelt Clytemnestra, Anthony Fusco, the Tutor, Nick Steen, Orestes, Allegra Edwards, Chrysothemis, Steven Anthony Jones Aegisthus.
Creative Team: music by composer David Lang, cellist Teresa Wang, scenic design Ralph Funicello, costume design Candice Donnell, lighting design Nancy Schertler, and sound design by Cliff Caruthers.
InterACT Programming for Elektra: InterACT events are presented free of charge to give patrons a chance to get closer to the action while making a whole night out of their evening at the theatre.
Audience Exchanges: Sunday, November 11 at 2 PM, Wednesday, November 13 at 8 PM, and November 14 at 2 PM. Learn firsthand what goes into the making of great theatre. After the show, join A.C.T. on stage for a lively onstage chat with the cast, designers and artists who develop the work onstage.
Wine Series: Tuesday, November 13, 8 PM. Raise a glass at this wine-tasting event featuring leading sommeliers from the Bay Area’s hottest local winderies.
PlayTime: Saturday, November 17, 12:30 PM. Get hands on with theatre and the artists who make it happens at the interactive preshow workshop.
Details: Elektra’s limited run ends on Sunday, November 18, 2012 at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday-Sundays at 8 PM, with several 2 PM matinee performances, including Saturday, November 10, Sunday November 11, Wednesday November 14, Saturday November 17, and Sunday, November 18, 2012. Tickets (starting at $20 to $150) are available at or at act-sf.org or by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228
Olympia Dukakis narrates SF Symphony’s holiday performance of Peter and the Wolf
Delight your children with San Francisco Symphony’s annual presentation ofPeter and the Wolf including festive holiday songs for the whole family to sing—perfect for music lovers of all ages. Donald Cabrera conducts The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra as it performs Prokofiev’s charming tale with Olympia Dukakis narrating. Approximate length is 1 hour. Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 1 PM and 4 PM at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are $27-$57 for adults and $13.50 to $28.50 for Children. For more information and tickets: www.sf.symphony.org
No one pokes fun at the misery of existence with the crystalline lines of the late master playwright Samuel Beckett. The problem has always been finding actors who can deliver those lines with the exact flavor of irony and detachment that Beckett calls for. Two-time Tony Award winner Bill Irwin, no stranger to Beckett, gives a memorable performance as Hamm in Beckett’s masterpiece, Endgame, which is currently at American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) in a double bill with Beckett’s Play, a lesser known absurd comedy written in 1963. These two Beckett one acts are well-executed revivals that pair well together.
Play opens with a spotlight directed on the three babbling ashen faces protruding out of three huge funeral urns, placed side by side. A man (M), Anthony Fusco, occupies the middle urn, while his wife (W1), René Augesen, occupies the left urn, and his mistress (W2), Annie Purcell, occupies the urn on the right. Eternally together in the afterlife, locked in their urns and only able to engage in slight turns of their heads, Beckett uses this trio of lovers like a captive chorus. Each is condemned to repeat his or her version of the affair for eternity. One character speaks at a time, in a very mechanical and detached refrain, and only when the spotlight shines on his or her face.
After the realization that you cannot possibly comprehend all that is said because it is delivered too quickly, you begin to experience it as a concert, taking in fragments and understanding that the heads aren’t communicating with each other, they seem oblivious to each other. Beckett is all about repetition, which is core to his discourse and is used as a means to unsettle some of our most fundamental notions of how humans function. Once completed, the cycle of dialogue is repeated. Hearing it all again, you begin to get a sense of Beckett’s brilliance, much of which will only come through if the timing and delivery of these lines is perfect. Last Wednesday’s performance was delivered with admirable skill by this unharmonious trio of dead lovers. A.C.T. core-acting company member Annie Purcell, who gave a vivid performance this February in as the daughter/sister, Janine, in A.C.T.’s Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, again gave a compelling performance as a seething woman who felt she had won the love of this man (M) and scorned her rival, his wife Augesen (W1). The wife, of course, has a different take, she feels she owns him.
What makes Play all the more interesting it that it somewhat models Beckett’s personal experiences. When Play premiered in June 1963, Beckett had recently married his long-time companion of twenty-odd years, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. He had also resumed his long-term affair with Barbara Bray, the acclaimed BBC script editor, who had moved to Paris to be near him. When Play premiered, Bray not only attended but reviewed it favorably for the venerable Observer, referring to the man (M) as “scooting breathlessly back and forth between the two women, perhaps the worst of the bunch: all need and weakness and feeble, if amiable duplicity…” (A.C.T.’s program p 20).
Endgame, one of Beckett’s best plays, takes its English name from the final part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left, and the outcome is obvious. Its French title, Fin de partie, applies to games beyond chess as well, but there is no precise English equivalent for the phrase. Beckett himself was an avid chess player. Endgame is a commentary on death and our transition through life. Beckett has whittled human drama down to the bone—longing, relationship, abuse and hope. Everyone meets Endgame on a different terrain based on their own individual life experiences, aesthetics, and needs. Some will see it as the story of a master and slave and others as that of an overworked caretaker tied by some means to an ill or dying man.
The setting is minimalist. A bare, partially underground room is inhabited by four characters—Hamm the master (Bill Irwin), Clov his servant (Nick Gabriel), and Hamm’s father, Nagg (Giles Havergal), and mother, Nell (Barbara Oliver). Hamm is blind and can’t walk and is in a wheelchair that also might be a throne. He makes Clov, who cannot sit, move him around the room, fetch objects, and look out the window for signs of life, of which there are none. Nagg and Nell have no legs and reside in huge trash urns and are fed and watered daily by Clov. Inside this bleak little world, staged wonderfully by Daniel Ostling, the characters pass their time waiting for an end that never comes.
Bill Irwin, who has acted in Waiting for Godot three times, brings a vibrant energy to Hamm. Irwin delighted audiences with his perfect comedic timing and remarkably elastic body movements as the wily servant, Scapin, in Molière’s Scapin, which opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season. In Endgame, even though Hamm is confined to a chair, Irwin manages to make him the life of the party, using his dancing eyes and sharp facial gestures to imbue him with human spirit, so much so that we pity him.
There is a strong and palpable chemistry between Irwin and Nick Gabriel, who plays Clov. The two are well-synced in their sparse dialogue and numerous pauses but an almost comedic undertone locks into place between the two, overshadowing the necessary cruelty, abuse and anxiety that are part and parcel of the power-tripping relationship Beckett calls for. When Clov delivers sadly powerful lines like “No one that ever lived thought so crooked as we,” we don’t understand the full extent of their perverted existence. In this regard, A.C.T.’s enactment of Endgame falls short of its full dramatic potential. On the other hand, watching Nick Gabriel move about the stage, re-arranging a short step ladder so that he can peer out through the windows into one of two views of oblivion and report on it to Hamm, is slapstick brilliance. So is Gabriel/Clov’s brief encounter with what he thinks is a flea in his trousers. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any two actors with more instinctive mastery of the physical gesture than Bill Irwin and Nick Gabriel.
Beckett is frequently criticized for making people feel stupid because they don’t get it. There’s plenty to ponder in this double bill—our human response to loneliness—but there’s a lot that’s laugh out loud funny too, even if Beckett’s characters are too exhausted to laugh themselves.
Run-time: Play is 22 minutes long, followed by a 15 minute intermission and Endgame runs for 90 minutes
Cast Endgame: Bill Irwin (Hamm), Nick Gabriel (Clov), Giles Havergal (Nagg), Barbara Oliver (Nell)
Creative Team: Carey Perloff (Director), Daniel Ostling (Scenic Design), Candice Donnelly (Costume Design), Alexander V. Nichols (Lighting Design), Fabian Obispo (Sound Design), Michael Paller (Dramaturg), Janet Foster, CSA (Casting Director), Elisa Guthertz (Stage Manager, Megan Q. Sada (Assistant Stage Manager), Daniel Ostling’s staging
A.C.T. InterACT Events:
Audience Exchanges: May 22, 7 p.m., May 27, 2 p.m., June 3, 2 p.m.
After the show, stick around for a lively Q&A session with the actors, moderated by a member of the A.C.T. artistic staff.
Killing My Lobster Plays With Beckett: May 24, 8 p.m.
San Francisco’s premiere sketch comedy troupe offers an original, Beckett-inspired performance 15 minutes after the final curtain (approximately 10:15 p.m.). Possible sketches include “Hunger End Games,” “Cooking with Clov,” and a speed-dating sketch featuring Beckett characters. Admission is free, but seating is limited. Ticketholders for the May 24 performance will receive priority seating but must RSVP—information will be emailed to you separately. Non-ticketholders who wish to attend can add their names to the waitlist by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with their name and requested number of seats (limit two seats per person).
OUT with A.C.T: May 30, 8 p.m., The best LGBT night in town! Mingle with the cast and enjoy free drinks and treats at this popular afterparty. Visit www.act-sf.org/out for information about how to subscribe to OUT nights throughout the season.
PlayTime New!: June 2, 2 p.m.
Get hands-on with the art of theater with the artists who make it happen at this interactive preshow workshop. Doors open at 12:45 p.m.; the workshop will begin promptly at 1 p.m.
Details: Endgame and Play end on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday-Sundays, with several 2 p.m. matinee performances, including Wednesday May 30, 2012, Thursday, May 31, 2012, and all Saturdays and Sundays of the run. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.
Review: In Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,” a stressed out modern day couple chooses to live life like it’s 1955 again, at A.C.T. through Sunday, April 22, 2012
How much would you be willing to sacrifice for what you thought would lead to true happiness? In Jordan Harrison’s provocative comedy, Maple & Vine, which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), a young professional couple overwhelmed by the complexity and plentitude of the modern world find an unconventional exit—they join a community of 1950’s re-enactors, the “Society for Dynamic Obsolescence.”
The idea of leaving it all behind for simpler times is certainly intriguing but the play itself never rises to the level of engrossing drama. The story unfolds simply—Emily Donohoe, as Katha, and Nelson Lee, as Ryu are representative of the young New York couple on the rise—she’s got a high-powered position in publishing that allows her the satisfaction of pushing around a few people and he’s a plastic surgeon. He’s also Japanese –American. On the surface, things look good, but Katha’s suffered a miscarriage that she can’t seem to recoup from, is no longer interested in sex and is just plain lost. They meet another couple (Jameson Jones, as Dean, and Julia Coffey, as Ellen) who seem to have the joie de vivre and confidence that they lack and so crave. Their secret—which they are happy to share—is that they have essentially checked of the modern world and live happily in a community where it’s always 1955. After a few meetings, the idea grows of Katha. At her urging, she and Ryu decide to swap their cell phones, sushi, lattes and stressed-out lives in Manhattan for rotary phones, fish sticks and Sanka by joining this community in the Midwest where life is slower, passion is risqué́, and a cocktail is a daily accessory.
Escapism—it’s always lovely at first. Katha—now Kathy—especially, enjoys her life as housewife. It’s an implausible stretch to imagine that Ryu gets much out of his entry-level position as a box assembler at the local factory, but he goes along for the ride. Of course, there’s a trade-off. This meticulously recreated Ozzie and Harriet world is way beyond off-the grid. Conformity is strictly enforced by an “authenticity committee” that meets regularly to ensure that disruptions from the real world are minimized. Rigid retro attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality stir up powerful questions about how good the “good ole days” actually were. Kathy and Ryu encounter pressure about their interracial marriage and, in her attempts to fit in, Kathy actually stirs the pot by encouraging more prejudice.
A potentially interesting subplot involving a homosexual affair between Ryu’s very bigoted boss and seemingly straight-laced Dean (who brought them into the community) takes off but doesn’t sufficiently land. All in all, by the middle of the second act, the play has grown so implausible that it has become a farce and it ends without having sufficiently explored the many complexities created by the conscious choice to check-out.
Set designer Ralph Funicello outdid himself with a splendid New York City backdrop that is expertly lit by Russell H. Champa. The 1950’s clothing too, by Alex Jaeger, is to die for, especially the women’s dresses with their fitted bodies and flowing skirts and the elegance of heels. Of course, we all know that under those dresses, enforcing the hourglass shape, are foundation garments that literally meld to the body.
Run-time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Friday’s 50’s Dress-Up—the Drinks are on A.C.T.: Come dressed head-to-toe in ’50s wear at the 8 p.m. Friday performances, and enjoy a free pre-show cocktail at the Geary Theatre’s third-floor Sky Bar. Limit: one free drink per ticketholder. Valid only before the show at the third-floor Sky Bar.
A.C.T. Family Series Workshop: Saturday, Apr. 21, at 1 p.m.
A new theater experience for young adults and their families! Meet before the 2 p.m. show for a lively, interactive workshop. Please note: due to sexual situations and partial nudity, Maple and Vine is recommended for audiences ages 14 and up.
Details: Maple and Vine ends its limited engagement Sunday, April 22, 2012, at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Performances: Tuesday–Saturday at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at act-sf.org.
review: Like father??? Lorenzo Pisoni’s “Humor Abuse” reflects on his life as a clown and the son of Pickle’s founding clown Larry Pisoni─ at A.C.T., extended through Sunday, February 5, 2012
Ahhh… men and their fathers….one can’t can’t help but be a reflection of the other. What makes Lozeno Pisoni’s one man show, Humor Abuse at A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) so special is that it is hilariously funny, packed with dazzling tricks, and, at its core, it’s all about growing up with a very controlling dad and making peace with it. Lorenzo Pisoni is the youngest member of the Pickle Family Circus and the son of Pickle co-founder Larry Pisoni. In Humor Abuse, Pisoni not only shows off the tricks of the trade he learned from his father, he also relates the complex relationship he had on and offstage with him. Pisoni first appeared onstage at the age of two. He became his father’s clown partner not long after, and he continued to perform with the troupe during his teens. A natural storyteller, Pisoni’s recollections are centered around physically demanding tricks (both newly created acts as well as and reenactments of his father’s famous Pickle performances) that show off his skills as a juggler, acrobatic, clown, and physical comedian. This is one show where it really pays to sit as possible to the stage, to get a good glimpse of the vein-popping, sweat-drenched rigor and special protective padding involved in pulling off a clowning stunt like casually tripping down a flight of stairs or jumping off a platform into a bucket or performing a series of handstands, cartwheels and body-slamming vaults and then juggling.
Breathtaking and funny, Pisoni’s show also contains several bittersweet moments when he reflects on his father’s perfectionism and how he was forced to practice a trick for several hours, days on end, to master it. No matter how perfectly he performed it, he would always garner criticism, rarely praise, from his father. Sound familiar? The show is aptly titled—you get a good sense of the physical abuse that these daring comedic feats impart on the body and a sense of the deeper current of torment that Lorenzo experienced growing up under the thumb of such a perfectionist. And it will come as no surprise that, aside from the circus, the father and son have little in common. It seems that what lay at the bottom of all these physical acts Lorenzo performed to perfection was disappointment, something missing, some essential emotional territory that the relationship didn’t meet. But it’s not a downer, at least not anymore…Pisoni, actually seems to be cherishing the opportunity to express and revision himself…because underneath it all is the quest for his own unique identity. Larry Pisoni was one sour Pickle but Lorenzo has emerged a sweet one.
Pickle Family Circus History: Pisoni was born into the Pickle Family Circus shortly after his parents, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, founded the alternative big top in 1974 with their juggling partner Cecil MacKinnon. After Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle joined their ranks—creating the incomparable clown trio of Lorenzo Pickle (Pisoni), Willy the Clown (Irwin), and Mr. Sniff (Hoyle)—the Pickles became a venerable and beloved Bay Area institution. They toured the West Coast (and beyond) through the 1980s and ’90s and led the charge in the renewal of the American circus, exchanging animal acts and pyrotechnics in the supersized three-ring format with daring acrobatics and its famous show-stopping group juggle, all presented on one intimate stage so audiences would not miss a single moment.
Bill Irwin opened A.C.T.’s 2010 season with Scapin. Pisoni last appeared on the A.C.T. stage in 2005′s in the hugely popular The Gamester. He also recently performed in Broadway’s Equus alongside Daniel Radcliffe and says: “Ever since Erica (Schmidt) and I created Humor Abuse, I’ve wanted to do it in San Francisco…I know many A.C.T. audience members will have a deep, nostalgic connection to what happens in the play because the Pickles were a part of San Francisco’s culture for so long.”
Humor Abuse runs 80 minutes with no intermission.
Humor Abuse: Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt. Directed by Erica Schmidt.
Creative Team: Hannah Cohen (stage manager), Randy Craig (composer), Bart Fasbender (sound designer), Ben Stanton (lighting designer)
Featuring Lorenzo Pisoni
Related Events: A.C.T. Family Series (NEW this season!): Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012, before the 2 p.m. performance. Join A.C.T. at 1 p.m. for a fun preshow event! An A.C.T. artist will lead a lively, interactive workshop on clowning and physical theater. Visit www.act-sf.org/family for information about how to subscribe to the A.C.T. Family Series throughout the season.
Details: Humor Abuse has been extended through Sunday, February 5, 2012. The Geary Theater is located at 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at http://www.act-sf.org.
Up Next at A.C.T: February 1-19, 2012: The world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, directed by Mark Rucker.
In this smart and sexy new play, two American architects dive into a high-stakes competition to design a memorial in Israel. They’re also in love—but don’t know that they are vying against one another. Higher whisks us from sleek New York studios to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as the architects confront their own pasts in a race to make their mark on history. Faith, family, desire, and design fuel this thrilling new work, featuring A.C.T. core acting company member René Augesen and A.C.T. favorite Andrew Polk (The Homecoming, November). (Learn more.) Note: Performances of “Higher” take place at the The Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum Theater), 221 Fourth Street, San Francisco.
In David Mamet’s captivating Broadway hit “Race,” a court case involving race and sex causes three lawyers to get real about their own beliefs, at A.C.T. through November 13, 2011
What do you get when you mix three attorneys with a white man accused of raping a black woman? It all depends. David Mamet’s dramedy “Race,” which has its West Coast premiere at San Francisco’s A.C.T.(American Conservatory Theatre), uses a not-so-straightforward scenario of rape to explore the complex world of sexual and racial politics and our discomfort at talking about our deeply held beliefs. When Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco), Henry Brown (Chris Butler) and Susan (Susan Heyward) are roped into defending Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke) a wealthy white man who appears to have raped a young black woman in a hotel room, we quickly see how this law firm operates. Their mandate is to get their client off the hook by whatever legal means available, despite the truth. Newly-hired associate Susan is most challenged. As a young black woman, she empathizes with the victim and grows increasingly uncomfortable as a zany defense strategy involving a red sequined dress unfolds, but being new and lowest on the totem pole, she has little power to stand-up directly to her two senior partners. While the two men spar directly each other about their respective assumptions about racial relations and sex and power dynamics and what may have really unfolded in the case, Susan finds non-verbal ways to assert herself, proving she is not as naïve as she presents. White versus black; male versus female; privilege versus underprivileged–each character at first seems to conform to certain perceptions but then doesn’t. Personal convictions and prejudices are road-tested all around by Mamet who also explores the predatory nature of the news media.
Given Mamet’s track-record for presenting first-rate controversy, “Race” has no real shock impact─it has been upstaged by some of the racially-repugnant language currently on television but it is an entertaining puzzler hat offers a wide platform for exploration of our own deep prejudices. The 2009 play also has an uncanny applicability to the issues in the highly-publicized case against former International Monetary Fund Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid in May of this year. The shift in that case came when the Manhattan County District Attorney’s office disclosed in a letter to the defense team that the accuser admitted to lying on her 2004 asylum application and subsequent lies were then revealed. Separating out and isolating issues relevant to the case at hand became part of a legal and media extravaganza and personal biases and projections were intentionally whipped up. In rape cases, it seemed that one needed to be the near perfect victim, whereas, the friends, family, and supporters of the accused, a man of great wealth and power, argued that he was a certainly seducer but not a rapist. Justice was a game that was to be played out and the truth was something else.
At the end of the first act of “Race,” lawyers Lawson and Susan are debating the Strickland case when Susan tells Lawson, “This isn’t about sex. It’s about race.”
“What’s the difference,” Lawson asks. “It’s a complicated world, full of misunderstandings. That’s why we have lawyers.” “Race” explores what’s at the heart of our biases and the world of sin that attorney-client privilege can hide. At 90 minutes, without intermission, with a four member cast, and all set in a law firm’s conference room, it is one the best productions in A.C.T.’s recent history. Alert: intentionally coarse language.
Cast: Anthony Fusco as partner Jack Lawson; Chris Butler as partner Henry Brown; Susan Heyward as associate Susan; Kevin O’Rourke as wealthy client
Directed by Irene Lewis; scenery by Chris Barreca; costumes by Candice Donnelly; Lighting by Rui Rita; Sound design by Cliff Caruthers
“Experts Talks Back” special post-show discussions: Delve deeply into the issues raised by “Race” with legal and cultural specialists leading discussions about many of the provocative topics that percolate throughout the production:
• Friday, October 28, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance: Regina Arnold, a former rock critic who teaches at Stanford University, leads a discussion about race and ethnicity in today’s popular culture, moderated by Edward Budworth, A.C.T.’s groupsales and student matinee representative.
• Thursday, November 3, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance: Mary McNamara, a white collar criminal defense lawyer who was named one of the top 50 women lawyers in Northern California, leads a discussion moderated by Patrick S. Thompson, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a member of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees.
• Thursday, November 10, 2011, following the 8 p.m. performance: Wilda L. White, executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law, and Jennifer Madden, deputy district attorney in Alameda County, lead a discussion moderated by Patrick S. Thompson, a partner at Goodwin Procter and a member of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees.
Admission to all Experts Talk Back events is free with a ticket to Race; the discussions will take place in Fred’s Columbia Room on the lower level of the American Conservatory Theater (415 Geary Street, San Francisco).
Details: The West Coast premiere of “Race” runs through November 13, 2011; tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at http://www.act-sf.org.
review: Pinter’s “The Homecoming” at San Francisco’s A.C.T. is still pathologically disturbing after 47 years, runs through March 27, 2011
Written in 1964, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming was revolutionary in its exploration of the dark and dysfunctional side of family and marriage. The original Broadway production won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play and its 40th anniversary Broadway production at the Cort Theatre was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for “Best Revival of a Play.” Now at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), The Homecoming is a must-see for its superb acting, anchored by A.C.T. core actors René Augesen as Ruth and Jack Willis as Max the family patriarch. And while it’s no longer the cutting- edge provocateur it once was, it is one of the most profoundly disturbing and exceptional portraits of a family to be found. That’s because in the play’s near half decade of existence, our society has evolved to the point where we can recognize bits of ourselves in these wounded and intriguing characters and admit they embody a primal darkness that lies in all of us. We’ve almost caught up with Pinter.
The Homecoming is the story of a long absent son, Teddy (Anthony Fusco) who shows up in the middle of the night at his family home in North London with his wife, Ruth (René Augesen). Teddy, a philosophy professor in the Midwest, seems to have little in common with the working-class relatives he left behind: Max, his father, (a butcher)(Jack Willis) and his younger brother Sam (a driver)(Kenneth Walsh) and Max’s two grown sons who still live at home, Lenny (pimp)(Andrew Polk) and Joey, the youngest (a boxer)(Adam O’Byrne). They are all what a therapist might call trigger happy–constantly warring, trying to one up each other as they act out an ingrained pattern of lobbing hurtful responses back and forth. Anything and everything is up for grabs—they fight over a cheese roll as passionately as they discuss philosophy, constantly vying for power. As soon as Ruth enters the picture, they all compete for her attention.
By the second act, Ruth, who was initially quiet, grows misogynistically pathological and cranks her own game into high gear, ultimately calling the shots in the family. Augesen laces every word and gesture with ambiguity, hauntingly alluding to Ruth sexual past. It’s a curious experience to watch a family implode before your eyes and at the same time to be wondering what it would be like to be any of them, as repulsive as each of them are.
Acclaimed theatrical designer Daniel Ostling’s stage set, with its inward tilted walls, vertigo-inducing wooden staircase and stark lighting enhances the feeling of suffocating oppression within the family. Thick clouds of fragrant cigar smoke and evocative jazz frame many of the conversations while Alex Jeager’s costumes for Ruth, particularly a form-fitting red silk dress, aid her in stealing power from right under the noses of these men.
Details: The Homecoming plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through March 27, 2011. Tickets ($10-$85) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.
From all the critical buzz about playwright Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and its recent extension at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre) until February 20, you would think it was hilarious or riveting, but I found it neither. The play, which has its West Coast premiere at A.C.T. and is directed locally by Jonathan Moscone, is so full of dumbed-down humor in Act 1, that you may not appreciate Act 2 where it all comes together. Is this the reaction renowned provocateur Norris was aiming for in this button pusher about urban development and race? If you like your repartee razor-sharp, steer clear of this production of Clybourne Park. If you can hang through the first hour, you will find the story in Act 2 builds to a quite provocative end. If you’ve read it’s funny and are expecting to laugh a lot, this is not that type of funny…this is nervous laughter that pops out and then sits by you.
The idea of “neighborhood” in a major American city as seen through a house and its ownership, white and black, over a period of 50-odd years is a fascinating topic. Playwright Bruce Norris takes the events of Lorraine Hansbury’s acclaimed play 1959 A Raisin in the Sun and spins a new story about race and real estate in America that picks up where that play ends. Clybourne Park was the fictitious all-white Chicago neighborhood that the African American Younger family was moving to at the end of Hansbury’s play. The move to the house symbolized promise—access to a broad range of resources, including school funding, infrastructure, and law enforcement that would mean a much better quality of life that would lead to a better future.
In Norris’ Clybourne Park, we visit the same Younger house in two different eras, a half-century apart. Act 1 is set in 1957 Clybourne Park, just after Russ and Bev Stollers, a white couple, have unknowingly sold their house to a black family, the Youngers. Act 2 is set in the same house in 2009 but the situation is reversed: the now-black neighborhood is gentrifying and a black couple is selling to a white couple who are planning to rebuild on that property and upset the neighborhood. The dialogue is very similar to the one that transpired 50 years earlier in the house. Times have changed but the concept of white privilege remains embedded in the culture of home ownership and people still have very hard time knowing what their biases are unless, of course, they are actually thrown into a situation that forces them out. Enter Norris.
As the play opens, Russ (Anthony Fusco) and Bev (René Augesen) Stoller are in the process of packing up their home to relocate to Glen Meadow, a suburb outside Chicago. Their African American housekeeper, Francine (Omozé Idehenre), is helping them. Apron-clad Bev is heavily channeling June Cleaver and hovering over Russ but it’s too overdone, detracting. She starts up a phonics word game about capital cities that is funny up to a point and then grinds. Was that what substituted for meaningful conversation back then? The way characters farcically embody their roles in Act 1 is frustrating….is that the point?
Francine’s work shift has ended but Bev hints that she wants her to move a huge trunk upstairs and offers her a silver chafing dish, one that she pronounces she has no use for and which we assume Francine will not need either (because she is not of a class that entertains with sterling) but will accept. Bev then takes back the offer. Francine holds her tongue. And so it begins…a series of gestures and phrases that form a collection of biases, universal biases, that Norris serves up and keeps simmering all night long.
The elephant in the room for the couple is the tragic loss of their son and Russ’ depression. Since their son, Kenneth, committed suicide in the home two and half years ago, it has come to be a place of pain and Russ has been unable to talk about his loss. Bev sees their move as a fresh start.
When Francine’s husband, Albert (Gregory Wallace), arrives to pick her up, the action kicks into high gear. While Albert awkwardly waits, the minister, Jim (Manoel Felciano), arrives for a house call and attempts to counsel Russ which goes over horribly. Then, Karl Lindner (Richard Thieriot), a representative from the neighborhood community association, and Karl’s deaf pregnant wife Betsy (Emily Kitchens) arrive.
The discussion, which unfolds in front of Albert, focuses on the fact that new buyers are black and the likely negative impact on property values in the neighborhood and that there are differences between blacks and whites that will make the move into the neighborhood awkward…. for the new Black residents. It starts with what foods the neighborhood stores stock (blacks and white eat differently) and culminates in Karl’s absurd argument that blacks don’t downhill ski (and therefore won’t enjoy the sports that other residents do.)
Russ won’t change his mind about the sale, distancing himself from their claims that he has a responsibility to protect the community. He feels that the community betrayed his son when he returned traumatized from Korea and that he and his wife were treated horribly after Kenneth’s suicide. By intermission we are grappling both with what appeared to be a simplistic presentiation about racial bias in the 1950′s–none of us were alive to really know— and the loss of the son.
In Act 2, set in 2009, a group is gathered in the same living room about to wade through some legal documents and a petition protesting the proposed renovation of the house by the white new owners who are moving from the Glen Meadow suburb into Clybourne Park and are planning to build a much bigger house on the property. The current owners are black and the suburb is now all-black and the property owners association wants to ensure that the re-do proposed for the home by the new white owners is consistent with the aesthetic of this “historically significant” (black) neighborhood.
The discussion gets more and more inane, zeroing in on building codes and specs, and rehashing the proposed building’s height and scale, while the topic of race is circled round and round. Norris has cleverly incorporated several people from Act 1, reintroducing them in tangentially related roles—–Bev now plays a savvy lawyer named Kathy who is representing the young white couple buying the home and Lena (Omozé Idehenre, who played the maid Francine in Act 1) is the grandniece of the Younger family matriarch (from Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun) who wants to do right by the neighborhood, meaning protect it black character.
No one will come out in the open about how a white owner will change things. It gets heated very quickly though when race is addressed directly, culminating in an unexpected exchange of blatantly sexist and racist jokes that leaves everyone flabbergasted. Lena’s zinger “How is a white woman like a tampon? brings the audience fully into the drama as people melt down in uncomfortable laughter. All to show what prejudices still lie buried in supposedly liberal people like them–AND us.
The play concludes by unearthing the trunk from Act 1 and wrapping the subplot about the Kenneth, the young vet who committed suicide in the house, another chapter in America’s unease.
Post – Play Discussions “Experts Talk Back”: Thursday, February 10, 2011: After the 8 p.m. performance, A.C.T. presents a new post-show discussion program “Experts Talk Back.” Stanford University Professor Michael Kahan, a specialist in 19th and 20th –century social history, will be in conversation with Scott Miller of the Oakland Zoning Commission. Free admission with performance ticket.
Details:Clybourne Park plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, through February 20, 2011. Tickets (starting at $10) are available by calling the A.C.T. Box Office at 415.749.2228 or at A.C.T. online box office.
review: God Bless us, everyone! A heartwarming performance of Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” through December 24 at San Francisco’s A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre)
The holiday season for me means time spent with family and friends and getting back in touch with my “goodwill towards all” vibe. Tuesday evening, after a romp through a bustling and very commercial Union Square, I had the pleasure of attending A.C.T.’s “A Christmas Carol” and highly recommend this family-friendly classic for setting spirits right. The performance (with intermission) runs two hours and the evening show begins an hour early at 7 pm, with additional 1 or 2 pm performances nearly every day. This makes it a doable evening outing for families with kids or for those who are from the greater Bay Area and face a long drive home.
“A Christmas Carol” was written by Charles Dickens and published in somber Victorian-era Britain in December 1843, when new customs such as the Christmas tree and greeting cards were just being introduced. This was before Christmas became today’s highly commercial venture but also during a time when there wasn’t much gleeful celebration. The novella was an instant hit, largely for its memorable characters and its realistic depictions of the hardships of the working class which people related to. It also infused people with hope and has been credited with putting the “merry” in Merry Christmas in England and America during a stifling period. It was pirated immediately and adapted to the stage and the rest is history. Now in its 34th year at A.C.T., the play is a cornerstone of A.C.T.’s repertory and has become a holiday tradition for families all around the Bay Area. Adapted by Paul Walsh and Carey Perloff, and directed by Domenique Lozano, this version has been around since 2004 and has been performed over a thousand times and stays true to the heart of Dickens’ timeless story of redemption.
We all know the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s wake-up call and it rings ever true today. Rich Ebenezer Scrooge was a miser and a kill joy–not very loving, giving, or even friendly. James Carpenter, now in his fifth year in this role, doesn’t flinch from playing Scrooge’s harsh sides to the hilt but he also shows us a man who is completely and tragically unaware of how stuck and disagreeable he has become. In Northern CA, we all know what happens when there’s no flow and Scrooge embodies the big “NO” with every ounce of his being.
By contrast, impoverished Bob Cratchit, who is Scrooge’s clerk and whipping boy, hasn’t a schilling to his name but he has vast inner resources– a true heart of gold- and a large loving family. Cratchit is played with genuine warmth and dignity by Nicholas Pelczar whose radiance is matched by Delia MacDougall’s portrayal of his equally good-hearted wife, Anne Cratchit. The Cratchit’s material hardship makes the wealthy Scrooge seem all the more despicable, even pitiable, because he cannot enjoy or share the massive fortune he has amassed. Dickens realized that if Scrooge’s imagination could be stimulated, it would be possible for him to wake up on Christmas morning an entirely new man and that’s the message of the play. Scrooge’s remarkable transformation—ideological, ethical and emotional– is brought about by the visits of four ghosts on Christmas Eve—Jacob Marley (his former business partner) and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future. At Tuesday’s press opening, the show was full of marvelous special effects associated with the visits of each of these ghosts who led Scrooge through some very poignant and harrowing scenes from his life. Jack Willis, who returns as the Ghost of Jacob Marley, set the pace by robustly rising from Scrooge’s bed, rattling chains and warnings amidst clouds of smoke. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played delightfully by A.C.T.’s Steven Anthony Jones, emerged in striated green velvet as a jovial and lusty Bacchic spirit of abundance.
And then there’s Tiny Tim (little Timothy Cratchit), the play’s emotional center, played wonderfully by young Sadie Eve Scott. When Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present, he learns just how ill Tim really is, and that Tim will die unless he receives treatment (which the family cannot afford due to Scrooge’s miserliness). When he’s next visited by The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, all he can see is Tim’s little wooden crutch because Tim has died. This and several other harrowing visions, lead Scrooge to reform which begins from the moment he wakes up on Christmas morning and shocks his cleaning lady Mrs. Dilber (Sharon Lockwood channeling Bewitched’s dingy Aunt Clara ) by thanking her, paying her generously and giving her the holidays off.
Val Caniparoli’s choreography is fantastic—lots of lighthearted dancing and movement that show off the period costumes designed for the production by Beaver Bauer of Teatro ZinZanni. Dickens’s lovely descriptions of the abundance of Christmas bounty are staged creatively at the start of Act 2 as “The Waltz of the Opulent Fruit,” with six charming young Bay Area actors taking on the roles of dancing French plums, Turkish figs, and Spanish onions.
Details: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.
7 p.m.: December 10, 11, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23
5:30 p.m.: December 12, 19
2 p.m.: December 9, 11, 21, 22, 23, 24
1 p.m.: December 12, 19
Run-time: Two hours including one 20 minute intermission.
Tickets: $15-$102, available online through the A.C.T. online box office , or by phone (415) 749-2228. For all performances, no children under the age of 5 are permitted
Theatre Review: ACT’s “The Tosca Project” – a dance journey through time toasting the beloved Café Tosca
Saturday night’s world premiere production of “The Tosca Project” at ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) (through July 3, 2010) marked the first time I had been to the historic Geary Street theatre since I stopped my season subscription two years ago. I love good theatre and had subscribed to ACT for several years. Increasingly though, I found myself struggling to connect emotionally with the stories and characters. Lacking the private Ah-ha moments that actively engage the senses and intellect, the experience too often seemed flat. At nearly $75 a pop for Orchestra seats (plus parking and incidentals like gas and bridge faire), I began to begrudge the expenditure and the considerable chunk of time invested in a drive into the City for a less-than spectacular evening.
Having given it a rest, I was eager to see “The Tosca Project” and to revisit ACT. ACT’s artistic director Carey Perloff and SF Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli worked together on this piece for four years which Caniparoli calls “a character study through movement.” San Francisco’s Café Tosca ranks as one of my favorite old-European style bars in America–a place that time forgot. The collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet held the promise of new energy.
The experience was pleasant but not memorable—the dancing carries the show but the storyline is so underdeveloped that it doesn’t do jthis famous watering hole justice. Nor is there enough sustained dance in the 10 rapid-fire vignettes– lasting 90 minutes in all– to feel satisfied with it as a complete dance piece.
The idea itself is brilliant—a homage to San Francisco’s iconic Café Tosca, now 91, grounded in the history of San Francisco and set to an enthralling score of music ranging from Puccini’s Tosca to Rosemary Clooney singing “What’ll I Do?” to Jimmy Hendrix. Anyone who has ever been to the Café Tosca is keenly aware of the bar’s old world atmosphere and mystery–the play of light and shadow against that long solid mahogany bar, the burnished glint of copper from the espresso machine and the lingering melancholy permeating the booths. Current owner Jeanette Etheredge plays hostess to a glamorous celebrity crowd along with eccentrics, tourists and locals. While the world outside changes, Cafe Tosca doesn’t: the secrets, demons, and dreams of generations are well-tended ghosts. All this makes for great theatrical content– the characters hold their emotional histories in the space of the bar and the journey of the piece is the excavation of those histories. Instead of mining these connections, the production offers a furry of brief—albeit lovely—sequential dance encounters that speed by without enough grounding for viewers to really invest themselves in any of the characters or the bar itself.
The production opens as the founding bartender (Jack Willis) and his two business partners first arrive in San Francisco from Italy near the end of WWI. The bartender is haunted by a ghost–a woman from his past, reminiscent of the melodramatic heroine from Puccini’s Tosca. One of the bar’s first customers is an immigrant (Rachael Ticotin). A regular at the bar, she becomes its soul, anchoring it through time as a home for those without a homeland.
Prohibition comes just months after the bar opens and forces a clever change of menu. Café Tosca begins to booze up its coffee—the “coffee royale” is the genesis of Tosca’s now signature “house cappuccino”— Ghiradelli chocolate, steamed milk and shot of brandy.
During the Great Depression, a musician on the run from the law finds a haven in the bar and ends up with a job there. The action is then anchored around the trio of bartender, musician and Russian immigrant who reveal their tragic stories to each other and in the sharing find solace and healing. What is revealed directly to the audience though is precious little. Unless you read the program notes or the Words on Plays you are likely to be grappling as to who’s who and what’s transpiring in this nearly wordless production. The immigrant, for example, clutches a set of matryoshka (nested dolls). Those who can see them might deduce she is Russian but nothing about her tragic past–that she left her husband and baby behind– or that her great love of Russian dance and poetry connects her symbolically to current owner Jeanette Etheredge’s mother Arman Baliantz. Baliantz
established her own North Beach restaurant (Bali’s) and befriended a diverse array of artists, including the great Rudolf Nureyev, who is represented in one of the later vignettes. The lack of detail transforms the unique history of these patrons and of Cafe Tosca into universal patrons at a universal bar. With relationships between the characters as hazy as cigarette smoke lingering in the bar, there is little to hook the audience in emotionally.
The dancers clearly steal the show, beginning with a classical ballerina who gracefully pirouettes across the bar in a dream conjured up by the old bartender. Hopping along from Prohibition to the Great Depression to the flappers to WWII to the Beats to the hippies and digitalis, each new era is ushered in by a change in the music on the jukebox, a new dance fad and new fashion. The transitions are seamless but the performance begins to feel more like a generic dance sampler than the advertised “valentine to San Francisco.”
A humorous duo between the businessman (Canadian actor Peter Anderson) and classical ballerina (Sabina Alleman) is captivating and had the audience clapping wildly at the performance I attended. Anderson, who starred in ACT’s 2005 riveting wordless adaptation of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” also shines as a Beat poet reciting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” to a bar full of Beats and tourists. The trio of characters around which the performance is built remain emotionally distant throughout. The experience definitely calls for a drink afterwards and ticket holders are entitled to a buck off their tab at Cafe Tosca.
June 3- July 3, 2010, American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA 94108, tickets: $17 to $89. Tickets and info (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org