Geneva Anderson digs into art

SF Playhouse Celebrates its 10th Season with a new home and the rock musical “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson,” through November 24, 2012

Rowdy adolescent emo-rock musical tells the life story of Andrew Jackson, a backwoods underdog, who by popular vote became the seventh President of the United States. Written by Alex Timbers with music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” opened on Broadway in 2009 to mixed reviews and was nominated for several Tonys.   At San Francisco Playhouse, East Bay native Ashkon Davaran’s petulant Jackson struts about the stage bursting with a curious mix of adolescent aggression, passion, and populist fervor, supported by a large cast of frontier renegades whose singing was energetic but uneven throughout the opening evening performance.  With a Presidential election just days away, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson is amazingly relevant for its insights about the American people and our insatiable need to believe that all our problems can be fixed in snap.  On the other hand, we’ve got so much overblown election drama on the tube right now, free of charge; it would take something exceptional to make one want to pay for more.

With its 10th anniversary and move to a much larger new venue that seats 225—the second floor theatre in the Elks-owned building that houses the Kensington Park Hotel and Farallon Restaurant on Post Street—SF Playhouse also changed its name to “San Francisco Playhouse.”  As co-founder Susi Damilano said to a packed opening night house, “We’re all grown up now.”   The theatre company, under the dynamic team leadership of Damliano and her husband, co-founder and artistic director, Bill English, has carved a niche for itself in the production of important contemporary plays by emerging playwrights, delivering a particularly strong 2011 season.  

If you’re curious to experience San Francisco Playhouse’s new space and its inaugural production, get your adolescent self together and prepare for a loud, high-energy history lesson.  This biting satire of the electoral process is clever in places but suffers from an over reliance on the F-word and inconsistency in delivery.  I found myself either too old or too weary to want to sit through 90 assaulting minutes of it….though I did appreciate El Beh’s riveting cello solo “Ten Little Indians.”

Written by Alex Timber, music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. Directed by Jon Tracy. Music Director: Jonathan Fadner.

Details:  Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson runs through November 24, 2012 at the SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, (2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel, between Powell & Mason Streets), San Francisco, CA.  Tickets: $30 to $70.  Box Office: 415-677-9596 or

October 19, 2012 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

In Zayd Dohrn’s “Reborning” at SF Playhouse, an artist creates life-like infant dolls that serve as a form of therapy for her select clients, May 9- June 11, 2011

Lorri Holt, Baby Eva & Lauren English in Zay Dohrn's "Reborning" which has its world premiere at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Cleaning up the unfinished business of the emotional past  is the theme of Zayd Dohrn’s engrossing play Reborning which had its world premiere Saturday at SF Playhouse.   This brilliantly acted drama takes an unsettling look at wounding from childhood and mothering experiences that can linger and enmesh adults in sadness, anxiety, obsession, and addiction.  Reborning also exposes the audience to a very unconventional healing path.   Continuing on a season that has offered one  provocative performance after another, Susi Damilano and Bill English, who run SF Playhouse, have found an exceptional talent in Zayd Dohrn.  Dohrn, the son of former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, has won the respect of audiences and critics all over for his plays, several of which  harken back to issues in childhood.

Reborning is the story of Kelly (Lauren English), a twenty something artist whose “Little Angels Nursery” fabricates custom made infant dolls for clients who have lost a child or have a need for a replica of a child and of Emily, her client who commissions a custom doll.  The play unfolds on multiple levels as it explores the fascinating and obscure real-world reborning phenomenon which most of us probably have no idea even exists. Grossly simplified, reborning is an attempt to recreate and relive the past.  Artists fabricate unbelievably lifelike human infant dolls that fill certain psychological needs for them and for the clients who buy them.  Clients commission custom-made dolls or “adopt” already created baby dolls.  They then live with and care for them as they would real infants.

In Zayd Dohrn's "reborning" which has its worldpremiere at SF Playhouse, Lauren English plays Kelly, an artist who creates reborning dolls. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In Reborning, Kelly’s special artistic talent for satisfying her clients’ exacting demands by replicating dolls solely from photographs is what she stakes her reputation on.  The play opens with a highly unsettling image—Kelly is crouched over a worktable, surgically implanting individual eyelashes into her baby’s eyelids with sharp puncturing tools, finishing flourishes on her latest artwork.  Her process is cleverly made available to the audience through a camera set-up that magnifies everything in gargantuan detail for her on a large screen.  And the details are astonishing—a life size latex baby replete with wrinkles, folds, drools, and hair whirls is painstakingly painted with layers and layers of paint right down to its flaking skin and unique retinal patterning. 

The play focuses on her relationship with her client Emily played masterfully by Lorri Holt–who appeared last year at SF Playhouse in Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper.  Emily is a brusk 50-something career woman who lost her infant daughter Eva some 25 years ago, and has commissioned Kelly to create a replica.  When Emily expresses some reservations about the quality of Kelly’s work, a whole range of emotions are triggered that send Kelly spiraling back into her own tragic childhood abandonment—she was stabbed and left for dead in a dumpster.   As Kelly begins to suspect that Emily is her birthmother, and that she has actually been commissioned to replicate her own infant self, she turns to familiar coping mechanisms—drugs and alcohol.  There is something in Emily that we can all relate to–she was thrown in a dumpster at birth but we’ve all been dumped at some point in our lives by people we should have been able to count on.  The sting of that can really mess with the mind and resurface in subsequent relationships.      

In "Reborning" Kelly (Lauren English) and Daizy (Alexander Alioto) find their sex drives out of sync when Kelly starts to process her childhood wounding. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

In "Reborning" Kelly (Lauren English) and Daizy (Alexander Alioto) find their sex drives out of sync when Kelly starts to process her childhood wounding. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

The play is loaded with poignancy and layers of symbolism.   If you’ve ever done therapy around childhood trauma, you may be familiar with any number of therapeutic processes that encourage revisiting the past and nurturing your inner child as a form of self-healing.  On one level, merely watching Reborning fast-tracks the cathartic aspect of this process.  Kelly’s and Emily’s visceral interaction with baby Eva, who symbolizes different aspects of the wounded self, and with each other is painfully real.  Dohrn’s ability to write these utterly complex female roles so believably, as if he’s right up inside their heads and defenses, is uncanny.  

Kelly’s partner, Daizy, (Alexander Alioto), is also meticulously crafted as a loving and devoted, but basically helpless, witness to her meltdown.  Daizy, who has neither experienced Kelly’s painful trauma around abandonment nor Emily’s maternal loss, is the vehicle through which the young couple’s issues around intimacy and childbearing are brought out.  He wants to talk; she wants to escape.  His humor provides relief from the paralyzing  pain playing out on stage and his courage to support his woman through validating her process is a message all partners need to heed. 

Directed by Josh Costello. Set Nina Ball; lighting, Michael Palumbo; sound design, Cliff Caruthers; video, Kristin Miltner; costumes, Miyuki Bierlein, props, Jacqueline Scott; doll designers, Cher Simnitt, Stef Baldwin, and Illusions of Life.

Details: Reborning runs 85 minutes without intermission. The SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (one block off Union Square, between Powell & Mason Streets).  Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m.  Tickets: ($30-$50) SF Playhouse box office (415) 677-9596, or

May 9, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment