Geneva Anderson digs into art

Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company Tackles a new adaptation of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” through June 29, 2013 at EXIT Stage Left, San Francisco

“Tis A Pity She’s A Whore,” a world premiere adaptation by Oren Stevens, transplants John Ford’s infamous classic to Kennedy-era America.  Directed by Ariel Craft, at San Francisco’s Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre through Saturday, June 29, 2013.

“Tis A Pity She’s A Whore,” a world premiere adaptation by Oren Stevens, transplants John Ford’s infamous classic to Kennedy-era America. Directed by Ariel Craft, at San Francisco’s Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre through Saturday, June 29, 2013.

It would have been easy to miss Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co’s (BtaBB) world premiere of Oren Stevens’ adaptation of  ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in the Tenderloin’s EXIT Stage Left Theatre last Friday because almost everything about the production was scarcely bigger than a bread box, except for its energy and soul.  Wake up call for me, who regularly attends and reviews the larger theatre company productions—there’s incredible core of talent out there that is young, strong, collaborative, constantly adapting to opportunities, and so worthy.

Ariel Craft, 24, a former A.C.T. Artistic Fellow, founded Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co. a year ago.  Shortly thereafter, she contacted her young friend, the playwright and director Oren Stevens, who grew up in Lafayette and learned his craft at Yale, to write an adaptation of John Ford’s 1633 drama, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Pity.  The play’s uncondemning treatment of incest was controversial from its first performance and Stevens’ interventions have quickened the pace of the story while keeping it every bit as arresting.  In addition to a sensitive reworking of the story, Stevens displays a wonderful ear for language. His adaptation managed to make the play sound old but come across as crystal clear and quite colloquial—like the very best modern productions of Shakespeare.

One of the charms of this bare bones production is that, with no set to speak of, it all depends on the strength of the acting.  Justin Gillman was particularly engrossing as Giovanni (imagine a grubby Niles Crane) whose amorous feelings for his sister Annabella (Maria Leigh) lead to a brutal and bloody climax.  The scheming that goes on behind the two siblings and their forbidden love is remarkable.  The seemingly hum-drum  household conceals a world of deception and manipulation— betrayals, rival lovers competing for Annabella’s hand, and ultimately murder.  The siblings’ hypocritical mother, Floria (Cat Luedtke) has chosen the wealthy nobleman Sorzano to be her daughter’s mate and doesn’t care about her daughter’s wants.  Scorned Hippolita (scene stealer Allison Hunter Blackwell) seethes with passion and jealousy, whereas Annabella’s maid/nurse Putana (Jeunee Simon) plays the innocent but then quickly gives up the secret of the paternity of Annabella’s child and shows that she’s a master at household politics and landing on her feet.  Sam Tillis is spellbinding as Vasques, the cunning servant of Annabella’s eventual husband, Sorzano (Peter Townley).

The core of this drama emerges with the pregnancy—a joyless, shameful disaster that is punctuated with dramatic bursts of violence that had audience members gasping and cringing.  On Friday, Maria Leigh delivered a fascinating Annabella…I didn’t care for the self-indulged young woman who opened the play tossing love letters from potential suitors around like yesterday’s recycling.  I liked her even less as an expectant mother who didn’t have a protective instinct in her body.  Like her or not, a spirited young woman, who initially seemed to have the world at her feet, was shown to be extremely vulnerable in a society dominated by men.  For days, I was provoked to think long and deep about motherhood and the very modern familial issues surrounding an unexpected child.

Ariel Craft already shows a precocious ability to get her actors to deliver nuanced and emotionally riveting performances.  Her highly original production packages Ford’s disturbing drama within some of the fluffiest tropes of teen love movies of the 1960s. These are beautifully and sometimes comically evoked through original ballads and do-wop-style songs of San Francisco composer David Brown, which are nicely sung by the talented cast.

More from Ariel Craft —Theater is a place for exploration of the impulses which have no place in the daylight of our society, those which we usually don’t allow ourselves emotional space for: the instincts that we’re afraid of and that, if unpacked in our day-to-day lives, would yield catastrophic results. I can think of few plays better suited for this kind of exploration than ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which was massively controversial when written and still remains so almost 400 years later.

We made the decision to modernize in hopes of avoiding dismissal of the subject matter because it was a “different time.”  I, for one, make a lot of behavioral allowances for any action which happens in a time that I don’t feel I have a cultural reference point for.  I’m very quick to accept incest and murder in the 1600s as a given, in a way that I’m not in the 1960s. Why the 1960s specifically? There is something fruitful—I think—for the play in the bridge between the 1950s and the 1960s, the loss of innocence, the beginning of a sexual revolution.

Oren Stevens on his adaptation:  Ariel Craft and John Ford accidentally tricked me into doing this show. Ariel’s part was easy; all she had to do was ask for a light adaptation, and that’s exactly what I agreed to do.  I thought I would cut a few characters, streamline some language, and call it a day. Then I met John Ford’s play, which is this dense, meaty masterpiece dripping with scheming, passion, and violence.  Before long, I was having so much fun unraveling and discovering this story that I found I was doing a massive (or, as I say in the script, ruthless) adaptation. Through some fantastic conversations with Ariel, we recrafted Ford’s plot-driven spectacle of blood to be driven by the characters that inhabit the it.  Their desires, rather than their actions, were given the forefront. We ended up discovering the play bit by bit, through scattered sidebars after other meetings, or four AM revelatory text messages, and each new piece was a thrilling discovery; every moment of working on this play was exciting. Ariel and John tricked me into doing this show, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Run-time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Creative Team:  Adapted by Oren Stevens, Directed by Ariel Craft, Scenic Design by Joshua Saulpaw, Costume Design by Emily White, Lighting Design by William Campbell,
Original Compositions and Music Direction by David Brown, Verse Coaching by Jesse Brownstein, Fight Choreography by Will Springhorn, Jr., Stage Managed by Sana Yamaguchi

Performed by: Allison Hunter Blackwell (Hippolita), Alisha Ehrlich (Philotis), Justin Gillman (Giovanni), Maria Leigh (Annabella), Cat Luedtke (Floria), Lisa-Marie Newton (Sister Margaret Cortona), Jeunee Simon (Putana), Sam Tillis (Vasques), Peter Townley (Soranzo)

Details: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore closes Saturday June 29, 2013.  EXIT Stage Left is located at 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco.  All performances are sold-out.  For more information on Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre, click here.

June 27, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: SF Playhouse’s small production of “My Fair Lady” feels like a GIANT success—I could have danced all night!—through September 29, 2012

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The SF Playhouse closes its 9th season with  My Fair Lady, like you never seen it before!  Artistic Director Bill English has taken this classic Broadway musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based on Pygmalion and worked his magic once again—reinventing it as a sexy new production that feels perfect for SF Playhouse’s intimate stage.  By stripping the show to its core, and casting much younger actors as Higgins and Pickering, as well as a street tough Eliza, the power, brilliance and humor of Shaw’s original pour forth with palpable romantic heat.   Performed by an amazing cast of 11with two pianos, this small production, which opened Saturday, is a giant hit.  It’s wonderfully executed score of well-loved favorites— “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “Little Bit of Luck,” “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”—will have you singing all the way home.

The talented Johnny Moreno, who resembles Robert Downey Jr., is most definitely not Rex Harrison—he’s young, sexy, passionate, and brings his own brand of complexity to phonetics specialist Henry Higgins.  From the very start, he’s a show–off.  He can’t wait to impress Colonel Pickering (Richard Frederick) with his keen ability to tell where people are from by the sound of their voice and he can mimic them admirably too.  When he says he can turn a flower girl into a duchess, we can’t help but be intrigued.  The palpable chemistry between Moreno and Monique Hafen (Eliza) adds sizzle to the production.  By the second act, Higgins has shown us a little too much of his control tactics, treating poor Eliza like his little minion and from there on, the bundle of contradictions that Moreno brings to the self absorbed Higgins are captivating and feel absolutely authentic.  He knows he’s a jerk but he’s sitting pretty in the power seat until he is thrown a kilter by the unexpected emotions Eliza’s stirred.

Catch the loverly Monique Hafen now—as Eliza Doolittle, she’s edgy, vulnerable, sensual and extraordinary as the feisty poor girl/street urchin with a heart of gold.  This role suits her to a T, and Bill English has made sure her marvelous voice and dancing ability are showcased cleverly.  By the time the final act rolls around, we’re solidly in Eliza’s camp.

The experience is enhanced by the intimacy of the playhouse itself— it seats 100 with a few beams here and there— and has a very small stage on which miraculous things almost always occur.  For My Fair Lady, pianists Greg Mason and David Dobrusky, not visible to the audience, sit at opposite ends of the theatre and sweep you away in lush melodic rhapsody.  On October 13, 2012, SF Playhouse will open its 10th season in a new larger theatre (225) seats at 225 Post Street.  I hope they can re-create the special magic of all the treasured productions they launched from this space.

Run time: Two hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion written in 1912 and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion from 1938. Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe.

Production Team:  Directed by Bill English. Set Design by Nina Ball. Musical Direction by Greg Mason. Choreography by Kimberly Richards. Pianists Greg Mason and David Dobrusky.

Cast: Monique Hafen (Eliza Doolittle), Johnny Moreno (Henry Higgins), Richard Frederick (Colonel Pickering), Charles Dean (Alfred P. Doolittle), Karen Hirst (Mrs. Higgins/Mrs. Pearce), Justin Gillman (Freddy Eynsford-Hill) and an ensemble of Luke Chapman, Mandy Khoshnevisan, Kenneth McPherson, Randy Nazarian, and Corinne Proctor.

ARThound likes what Bill English, SF Playhouse’s Artistic Director, has to say about George Bernard Shaw:  “Shaw, like (Henry) Higgins, was a revolutionary, determined to change the social inequities of his time.  When Pygmalion opened, it terrified the wealthy ruling class. The differences in speech were how they kept the poor in their place. The idea that changing the way someone pronounced the word ‘rain’ could alter their social station was subversive and revolutionary. As Higgins puts it, he was passionately determined to lessen the ‘gulf separating class from class, and soul from soul’ by changing the way people speak.” (quoted from the program)

Thirsty Thursdays: The SF Playhouse now offers exclusive events in conjunction with its shows. Thirsty Thursday is August 9, 2012.  Join young professionals and socialize pre-show

while enjoying $1 beer, soda and pizza, great music, and a specially-discounted ticket.

Details:  My Fair Lady runs through September 29, 2012.  Shows are Tues/Wed/Thurs. 7 p.m., Friday & Saturday 8 p.m., plus Saturdays 3 p.m. SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (two blocks from Union Square, between Powell & Mason Streets) in San Francisco.  Tickets are $30 to $70.  For more information or to purchase tickets, go to or phone the box office at 415-677-9596.  Parking is $1/hour after 6 p.m. through the end of July at the Sutter/Stockton Garage, which is two blocks from the theatre.

July 20, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment