Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco’s Boxcar Theatre opens Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” this Wednesday, February 8, 2012, part of a winter season of Shepard that is off to a roaring start

Family secrets are dragged out into the light of day in a remote farmhouse.  Dodge has lost control as the patriarch of the family and the mother, Halie, is in a not so secret affair with their pastor.  A heinous act, years ago, tore the family apart and killed all of the crops in the field.  It all bubbles to the surface in a heartbreaking conclusion.  San Francisco’s Boxcar Theatre opens Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” this Wednesday as part of what might their most ambitious season yet─staging four of Pulitzer Prize-winner Sam Shepard’s best-known plays in repertory.

True West, Buried Child, A Lie of the Mind and Fool for Love will run continuously through April 26, 2012 in two Boxcar locales─the Boxcar Playhouse on Natoma Street and the new Boxcar Studios on Hyde Street, each of which offer intimate staging experiences.  What makes Boxcar’s Sam Shepard project so innovative is that the Boxcar’s Artistic Director Nick A. Olivero, whose personality and passion for theatre are legendary, has turned his creative ratchet up even further than usual.  Boxcar really grabbed ARThound’s attention last January when they ingeniously staged their play “Clue,” like the classic board game.  The audience was seated six feet above, peering down at a life-size reproduction of the game’s exact playing board, replete with 9 rooms─the Ballroom, Conservatory, Billiard Room, Library, Study, Hall, Lounge, Dining Room and Kitchen─in which the characters moved about.  And once people caught wind of the whole concept— a play based on a movie based on a board game─and the hilarious acting itself, the extended run sold out. (Read ARThound’s Clue coverage here.)   The Sam Shephard series started off with some highly creative casting.

In Boxcar Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” actors Brian Trybom (left) and Boxcar’s Artistic Director, Nick Olivero (right), play brothers Austin and Lee but rotate roles frequently, giving them the chance to fully immerse themselves in Shepard’s drama. Boxcar is staging four Sam Shepard plays and several readings through April, 26, 2012. Photo: Peter Liu

In True West, which opened January 17, Olivero and actor Brian Trybom have been performing the roles of the two brothers Austin and Lee and rotating between the two roles nightly.  And once or twice a week, after briefly outlining the characters to the audience, they let the audience decide on the spot who will play what role that evening.  They change into the required clothing and are off and running.  I’ve seen the play both ways and live theatre just doesn’t get any better.  When you’re watching this unfold, it’s hard to process how they each keep their lines straight under these conditions and pull it off, night after night, with such seamless and spontaneous flow.  And the intimate Boxcar Studios, which can hold about 30, is configured perfectly for this tight drama─the audience lines the three walls, forming the border of a kitchen, some just inches from the actors.   That’s close enough to feel the toast, toasters and typewriters that are hurled whooosh by.

True West is focused around two brothers who unexpectedly come together in their mother’s suburban home while she is away on a trip.  Austin, a disciplined screenwriter pecking away at his typewriter (far too uptight and lacking the confidence to proclaim his work as pure art) has come to watch his mom’s place and finish his screenplay in solitude.  Lee, a drifter, thief and born storyteller (an artist to his core but without the discipline to harness and craft his ideas), shows up out of the blue.  

In Boxcar Theatre’s production of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” actors Brian Trybom (left) and Boxcar’s Artistic Director, Nick Olivero (right), play brothers Austin and Lee but rotate roles frequently, giving them the chance to fully immerse themselves in Shepard’s drama. Photo: Peter Liu

Initially disdaining and mistrustful, the brothers warm to the point where they are curious to taste the life the other leads.   As they embark on a project that forces them to collaborate, a cesspool of raw emotion erupts and they confront what it takes to survive in each other’s world of illusions.  Like real Western cowboys, the two are pulled into a deadly battle.  The drama taps the mythic dreams and dysfunction at the heart of most American families.  The father never appears but is referenced several times.  His alcoholic legacy is one of destruction and family abandonment, but both his sons are still enamored with him.   Mom (Adrienne Krug and Katja Rivera alternating) plays her part too─traditional, meek, passive.   When she returns from her trip early, she is astounded that her plants have died, her home is trashed and her boys are at each other throats.  When she hears that both her sons are talking about leaving for the mythic West, that same West that her husband ran off too, she turns tail and exits. This is rough and tumble drama, and, as chaos descends, Olivero and Trybom play it to the hilt, honoring Shepard’s enduring classic.

“I started reading Shepard in high school with Lie of the Mind, and it just resonated with me,” said Nick Olivero.  “I had two older brothers and one of them was really mean to me, beat the crap out of me, and that’s the way it is in a lot of families and that’s what happens in a lot of Shepard plays.  A lot of us connect with that.  In college, I directed True West and I worked on Fool for Love and, without even looking to do it, I just kept working on Shepard.  I had always wanted to work at the Magic Theatre because of Sam Shepard.  I moved up here in 2003, and within six months, I was hired at the Magic.  It was such a big thing for me to be at that company who had supported him, premiered and produced his work that I liked so much.  After Boxcar did Tennessee Williams in repertory for our 4th season, I started thinking about Shepard.  I’ve directed his work twice and always wanted to be in it and I thought…all right, here’s my chance to do it before I get too old.”

Stay tuned to ARThound for an interview with Nick Olivero about Sam Shepard at Boxcar.

Buried Child is an epic odyssey about finding one’s way back home and finding one place’s in that home.  Neither can be achieved until all the buried secrets are unearthed.  Like in True West, Shepard uses the premise of a son’s return home for a brief visit while on his way West, to California, to explore the raw pain within the American family.   The three act play, Buried Child had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 1978 and, in 1979, Shepard won the Pulitzer prize for Best drama for Buried Child.   The play ran for more than one year Off-Broadway and has received more than 400 productions around the world. 

Sam Shepard readings: Boxcar Studios will also present several additional Shepard plays throughout March in the form of readings and enactments of selected scenes.  On the docket so far:  Cowboy Mouth, Curse of the Starving Class, 4-H Club, Action, Suicide in B Flat, and Kicking A Dead Horse.  

Sam All Day Sunday:  On consecutive Sundays, March 25 and April 1, Boxcar runs all four plays on the same day starting at noon. The ticket price of $120 includes lunch, a shot of whiskey and private transportation from theater to theater by the rep series cast and crew, giving playgoers the opportunity between shows to speak with the actors and directors who make it all happen.

Details:  Sam Shepard in Repertory runs through April 26, 2012.  Full schedule, including casting for each performance at  Individual plays are priced as follows:  Previews $15; Opening night, including reception $35; General Admission $25. 

“Sam Shep Rep Pass” includes one ticket to each show in the series $85.

Admission is $5 – $10 for each reading or free with the $85 “Sam Shep Rep Pass.”

February 7, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “Clue” from board game to movie, and now the play–Boxcar Theatre’s brilliant staging makes this a must-see, through February 12, 2011

In Boxcar Theatre's Clue through February 12, 2011, the audience is 6 feet above a life-size reproduction of the game's actual playing board. Characters Miss Scarlet (Sarah Savage), (hidden) Mr. Boddy (Adam Simpson), Mr. Green (Peter Matthews), Professor Plum (Justin Liszanckie), (hidden) Mrs. White (Michelle Ianiro), Colonel Mustard (Nick A. Olivero), Mrs. Peacock (J. Conrad Frank) and Wadsworth (Brian Martin). Photo by Peter Lieu.

A play based on a movie based on a board game–it makes for a curious artistic vision. Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero, the artistic directors of San Francisco’s tiny Boxcar Theatre, have meticulously crafted Clue the play for the past four years.  Even before it opened to a sold out audience last Wednesday, Clue’s run had been extended an additional two weeks.  The team hit pay dirt when word got out that their play was ingeniously staged like the classic board game.  The audience is seated six feet above peering down at a life-size reproduction of the game’s exact playing board, replete with 9 rooms–the Ballroom, Conservatory, Billiard Room, Library, Study, Hall, Lounge, Dining Room and Kitchen.  In fact, everything is like the board game, rather the 1985 cult movie that ripped off the board game. 

Ever done a major home remodel?  The interior of Boxcar has that feel–there’s scaffolding, narrow passages and a flight of stairs to navigate.   The seating arrangement is a square, accommodating 11 people snugly on each side, 44 individuals in all, who look down and watch murder unfold amongst a group of six people summoned to a Tudor mansion on a foggy night.  The feel is very intimate, up close, something no big production could pull off.  

You’ll immediately recognize the  six guests–Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, Mr. Green, Mrs. Peacock and Mrs. White–and the butler.  First, Mr. Boddy, the mansion’s owner is found dead at the foot of cellar stairs by Miss Scarlett.  The cause of death has yet to be determined but there are 6 objects around the mansion that could have been used–a dagger, a rope, a piece of lead pipe, a candlestick, a revolver and a wrench.  Tensions build as bodies mount and the guests shuffle from room to room having discovered that they all have at least one thing in common–each one of them is being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy and each one thus has motive to kill.   With secrets unfolding and secret passages running underneath the audience’s seats and three complex endings to ponder, this thrilling who dunnit is the best Clue rip off yet.

Why the three endings?  In keeping with the nature of the board game, Clue, the movie, was released with one of three possible endings making it one of the only mainstream movies ever with alternative endings.   Different theaters received different endings and the film was then advertised locally as having ending A, B, or C depending on which ending the theatre had received.  In the film’s home video release, all three endings were included.  The play is true to the movie and gives you all three endings to consider.

The cast is wonderful, anchored by J. Conrad Frank playing the movie’s Eileen Brannon playing Mrs. Peacock, an elderly yet still attractive elegantly coiffed woman who maintains her dignity and marvelous falsetto at all costs. Frank, who was named Best Drag Act, 2008 by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is well known around town as Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy , brings warmth and an outrageous verve to the role.  Not to mention his fabulous satin gown, jewelry, netted peacock feather hat, shoes and bosoms…all designed by Stephanie Desnoyers who is also the on stage Stage Manager.  

J. Conrad Frank as Eileen Brannan as Mrs. Peacock and Nick A. Olivero as Martin Mull as Colonel Mustrad in Boxcar Theatre's outrageous production of Clue through February 12, 2011. Photo Peter Lieu

Michelle Ianiro is Madeline Kahn playing Mrs. White, a tragic and sassy widow who allegedly murdered her five previous husbands.  

While no one can really do Tim Curry doing the butler, Brain Martin shines as Wadsworth the know-it-all butler who guides the players and the game to its conclusion and at the end furiously spews three plausible versions of  who did it.

Sarah Savage shoots for Lesley Ann Warren as the sexy Miss Scarlet, while Justin Liszanckie is UN Health inspector Professor Plum ready to feel up whoever’s within his reach.  Linnea George is Yvette, the pretend French maid who’s voluptuous curves distract from other truths. 

And Boxcar’s artistic directors Peter Mathews and Nick Olivero shine as Mr. Green (Michael McKean in the movie) and Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull in the movie.)

And Adam Simpson, as the stock Mr. Boddy, et al., dies several times–as the cook, the stranded motorist, the lawman and the blackmailer Mr. Boddy.  

Keep your eyes fixed, there’s action below in the mansion and off to the sides at audience level as well.  Before you go, see the movie.  And if you aren’t familiar with the board game, start there.

What does the future hold for Clue?   Universal Studios recently announced that a Clue remake is in the works with a release date set for 2013.  

Details: Clue runs Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma Street (at Sixth Street), San Francisco.  There is street parking along with private and public parking lots, including a garage at Fifth and Mission streets.  tickets:  $25 – $30, (415) 776-1747,

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment