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Charles Brousse

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‘Autobiography of a Terrorist’ is a comedy

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s ‘Autobiography of a Terrorist’ is receiving a lively world premiere at San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions. Photo courtesy of Golden Thread Productions.

By Charles Brousse

I’m sure there will be potential theatergoers who will be put off by the title of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s Autobiography of a Terrorist. The play is receiving a lively world premiere on San Francisco’s Potrero Stage, courtesy of Golden Thread Productions, a Bay Area company that specializes in Middle Eastern-themed events. Some may anticipate a stomach-churning account of how an ordinary individual may, for whatever reason (real or perceived), turn against the country that nurtured him and become a bomb-throwing monster. Others may not want to subject themselves to an all too familiar diatribe against the sins committed by the U.S. against weaker nations around the world—actions that, for those injured, make violence a justifiable response. In both cases, one might expect plenty of blood to be on the wall. On a nice spring night, who needs that?

Relax everybody—Autobiography is a comedy! Yes, you read that right. Its author’s proclaimed intent is to give people reasons to laugh as he uses satire to explore the absurdities that surround this country’s “War on Terror,” a conflict which, at the rate it’s going, may ultimately surpass Europe’s Hundred Years War in duration. No bombs or blood. Just a provocative (and amusing)  account of what it meant to be a “hyphenated American”—particularly one named Saïd Sayrafiezadeh—during a historical period that included the 1979-81 Iranian Hostage Crisis and the September 11, 2001 takedown of Manhattan’s World Trade Center by a disparate group of real terrorists from Muslim-dominated states.

While both were ground-shaking events, they are essentially background to the main story, which is: If you’re an American citizen, born and raised in this country, but have a name or color that betrays the fact that your parents are from somewhere currently in disfavor, how do you deal with events in the “old country,” and the impact that they have on the way more established Americans view you?

“Saïd” (from here on in, I’ll refer to the author by first name only, to avoid misspelling Sayrafiezadeh, and because it’s easier, which is itself an example of the accommodations that often occur when people emigrate to this country) has an Iranian businessman father and a New York Jewish mother. Neither parent puts much emphasis on ethnicity or religion, but their marriage technically made young Saïd a Jewish-Iranian-American, which is quite a burden to place on a boy who, like most boys, would like to know who he really is. It’s also the source of many of the script’s funnier moments.

In a pre-curtain appearance, Saïd introduced himself, welcomed the audience and provided background on what was happening on stage, where “director” Cassidy Jamahl Brown and two actors (Patricia Austin and Alan Coyne) were rehearsing what Saïd claimed was a work-in-progress, or “collage of scenes,” that would ultimately become his autobiographical play. While this was very irregular for a world premiere, I looked forward to any revelations he might provide.

Turns out this was all a clever ruse. Although he looked and sounded like I expected he would, this was not Saïd the playwright speaking, it was an actor (Damien Seperi) portraying Saïd in a play-within-a-play, nor was it the real director. For the remainder of the show, directed by Evren Odcikin, the real director, these four excellent performers—plus Jenna Apollonia, an assistant stage manager who makes a brief appearance as herself—dance around the moral issues posed by his mixed identity, without coming to any conclusive resolution.

There will be those who will fault Saïd for not taking firm positions against “the enemies of democracy,” even if they are “his people.” His answer seems to be that, fairly or unfairly, who and where you are often determines how you are labeled. One thing is clear from Saïd’s Autobiography, however: He’s a full-blown skeptic, and anything that links him with any form of terrorism is a contradiction in terms.

NOW PLAYING: Autobiography of a Terrorist runs through May 7 at the Potrero Stage,1695 18th Street, #C101 Annex, San Francisco; 415/626-4061; goldenthread.org.

The spectacle of ‘Needles and Opium’ lacks a human touch

In ‘Needles and Opium,’ now playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, the lives of Parisian filmmaker Jean Cocteau and American jazz legend Miles Davis collide. Photo by Tristram Kenton and Nicola-Frank Vachon.

By Charles Brousse

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would attend every iteration of Cirque du Soleil that came to San Francisco. The productions were awe-inspiring, a marvel of colorful costumes, evocative music, unbelievable acrobatic skills and, above all, technological wonders that made the whole thing seem magical.

Entranced as I was, however, I became increasingly aware that something was missing. That “something” was human content, a narrative featuring real people that would bind the spectacle together and give it warmth instead of just being an eye and ear-pleasing show—a gaudy performance wrapping around a void. When that didn’t happen, I stopped going.

I mention this because Robert Lepage, the renowned French Canadian writer/director, whose Needles and Opium occupies A.C.T.’s Geary Theater stage (or at least a portion thereof) for one more weekend, has a resume that includes major roles in developing two of Cirque’s past projects (2004 and 2010) and echoes of that experience are evident throughout the current production. Instead of a grand-scale, multi-event circus, however, he has compressed his playing area into a smallish three-sided cube, standing upright on one corner to provide sloping walls, and a floor and ceiling that change orientation as it rotates. Within that small chamber, Lepage and his expert crew from his multidisciplinary production company, Ex Machina, are absolute masters.

Windows and doors appear and disappear. Lights, sound and projections shift to allow the play’s two actors, attached to safety lines, to exist in two different worlds, Paris and New York, with an occasional detour into the starry cosmos, where they are reminiscent of astronauts engaging in spacewalks. Whether intended as an opium dream, an excursion into virtual reality, or simply a demonstration of what technology can now do, the effect is spellbinding.

At least it was for awhile. About midway through the 90-minute, no-intermission performance I began to have the same uncomfortable feeling that I had with Cirque du Soleil. Was there something human underneath the razzle dazzle? Actually, Lepage does supply a storyline of sorts, but it’s so anemic and cliche ridden that it might have been better to present the show as an abstract performance piece.

Although the title suggests otherwise, Needles and Opium has relatively little to do with either one, or addiction in general. The idea came to Lepage when he stayed in Paris at the Hotel Louisiane in late 1989, researching famed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for a documentary film and trying to overcome  depression over a  romantic breakup. After hearing that the room he occupied was where Davis and French singer/actress Juliette Greco had a brief but torrid love affair 40 years earlier, which ended unhappily, Lepage also learned that about the same time the brilliant, multi-talented French artist, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau journeyed to New York to help him overcome the sorrow he still felt after the sudden death of his young lover a few years earlier. Since Cocteau and Davis never met, those events have no relationship beyond the fact that the two chose to visit each other’s country at roughly the same time, and both turned to opium to relieve their respective heartbreak.

True to his aesthetic, Lepage doesn’t bother to flesh out the foregoing scenario and the actors seem to have been chosen more for their ability to perform on all angles of a moving

“stage” than to convey any impression of being real people. A silent Wellesley Robertson III mainly strikes poses with his trumpet as Davis. Olivier Normand slips and slides around the rotating cube while delivering lines from Cocteau’s “Letter,” or extolling the virtues of opium. Normand is also Lepage’s despairing surrogate (here named “Robert”) who bookends the show and eventually floats off into the starlit heavens like a 21st century Mary Poppins.

In a program note, Shannon Stockwell sums up the challenge for viewers rather nicely. “For LePage,” she writes, “the spectacle is the substance. Form is content. Content is form.”

As the old saying goes, “You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.”

NOW PLAYING: Needles and Opium runs through Sunday, April 23 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco; 415/749.2228; act-sf.org.

Ross Valley Players stages world premiere of ‘Way Out West’

In ‘Way Out West,’ gullible officials and citizens are taken in by a pair of con men who pose as governmental functionaries. Photo courtesy of Ross Valley Players.

By Charles Brousse

A friend recently asked me, “What’s the difference between comedy and farce? Aren’t both supposed to make us laugh?”

I referred him to the old banana peel joke. It’s a comedy if a nice but accident-prone young man whom you have come to care about slips on a banana peel while trying to keep up with his fast-moving sweetheart and she rewards him with a kiss. That’s worth an “aww” and a chuckle. It’s a farce if a pompous young man who is forever touting his superiority slips on a banana peel, falls, gets up, nonchalantly brushes himself off and resumes walking as if nothing happened—only to immediately slip again. The house will probably rock with laughter.

Stage farces are composed of multiple scenes like the latter. The distinguishing factor is whether the audience has an emotional involvement with the characters and their predicaments. Of course, there are other differences—in production style, degree of realism, psychological depth,  etc.—but both theatrical forms have a long history and can be immensely entertaining if done well. I think farce poses greater challenges because it’s essentially planned mayhem, or organized chaos, whichever term you prefer. The point is that everything has to be exactly in place. Instead of the linear storytelling found in comedies, farce depends on perfect timing, athleticism and an ability to improvise on the part of the actors, creative staging by the director and a script that features many opportunities for playful absurdity.

All of which leads us to the subject of this week’s column: Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) current world premiere of Way Out West, by Marin County author and bookseller Joel Eis. The play is part of the “RAW” (Ross Alternative Works) series, and has been under development for several years.

First, an important disclosure: The following brief appraisal is based on what I saw on what was supposed to be opening night, but wasn’t. Due to the unexpected departure of a performer in the key role of Mayor Andy “Rabbit’s Foot” Monahan two days earlier, director Buzz Halsing stepped in for the Thursday night preview and then yielded to Alex Ross for the remainder of the run. After a few hours of rehearsal, the veteran RVP actor went on for the Friday night opening (now reduced to a preview) with script in hand, and managed the sudden assignment with his usual competence. But the impact of these unsettling events could not help but have a substantial effect on everyone concerned.

Against that background, here is what I can say with some certainty about Way Out West as a play and RVP’s ability to handle a project of this nature: For the most part, Eis’ adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s early 19th century play, The Inspector General, could have a bright future if some simple adjustments are made.

Eis resets the action to San Francisco in 1848, then a small town where gullible officials and citizens are taken in by a pair of con men who pose as governmental functionaries sent to look into reports of local corruption, of which there is no scarcity. Anxious to cover up, town officials ply their visitors with bribes, and their women, enthralled by power, throw themselves into their arms. The imposters can’t believe their good fortune! Eventually, though … well, you probably can guess the rest. This scenario is replete with rich opportunities for broad humor, but I had the feeling that Eis, perhaps guided by a desire to stay as close to Gogol’s original as possible, chose to be more conservative than he had to be.

As for the performances, it’s really not fair to evaluate a cast that had to work under such difficult circumstances. What I can say, however, is that if a RAW play is to continue to be included in the regular season—as I hope that it will be—RVP should provide the same resources that are given to its other shows. Community theater or not, there should be no second-class productions. Finally, while I’m dishing out unsolicited advice, beware of farces!

NOW PLAYING: Way Out West runs through April 23 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

‘Bondage’ a gripping play woven together by psychosocial threads

Star Finch’s ‘Bondage’ boasts a captivating storyline that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. Photo by David Allen.

By Charles Brousse

My guess is that it won’t take you more than five or 10 minutes of watching AlterTheater’s production of Bondage to recognize that this is the real thing—what we look for in live theater, but rarely find.

Star Finch, its author, is a local woman. Born in San Francisco, she went to San Francisco State for a B.A. (Anthropology) and M.A. (Creative Writing), and made her professional debut in 2015 with H.O.M.E. (Hookers on Mars Eventually), produced by the Mission District’s Campo Santo theater company. In the same year, she was commissioned to write a new work by AlterTheater as part of its remarkably successful “AlterLab” program, and now here it is in a strong production directed by Elizabeth Carter.

I didn’t see H.O.M.E., so I have to rely on a second-hand report. In her review, San Francisco Chronicle critic Lily Janiak predicted a bright future for the young playwright, citing her ability to involve memorable characters in a story that reflected contemporary issues, told in a distinctive quasi-poetic style that blends reality with science fiction. The only problem seemed to be one that affects many playwrights’ early work—a tendency to expand the content beyond what the narrative can comfortably accommodate.                                                                                                                                                                               All of these virtues are present in Bondage and, while the danger of excess remains, it doesn’t negate the conclusion that Finch is a formidable addition to American playwriting. Looked at broadly, the play is a rich collection of psychosocial threads that include Freudian psychology, racism and sibling rivalry, bound together by a literary style that Finch labels “Afro-Surreal.”

Actually, Bondage is more Chekhovian than anything else. The action takes place on a rundown island plantation somewhere in the Caribbean during the waning days of 19th century slavery. It’s an isolated, claustrophobic world from which all of Finch’s characters would gladly escape if only they could find a way and have some clarity about what to do if their goal was achieved. Lacking both, the frustration level is extremely high, particularly for a pair of 13-year-old cousins who have been raised as sisters by Philip (Shane Fahy), the somewhat befuddled master of the household, who took on the task after his own sister died. Although he attempts to be fair to both his prim and proper daughter Emily (Emily Serdahl), and niece Zuri (a flamboyant Dezi Soley), who had a black father, he can’t quite overcome the racial bias that goes with being a slave owner. When that happens, it’s Philip’s black housekeeper Azucar (Cathleen Riddley) who must mediate the conflict.

Emily and Zuri’s relationship is also heavily affected by the racial issue. During childhood they played games together and were close in many respects, including sleeping in the same bed. Yet, Emily’s higher status as Philip’s white-skinned daughter has meant that she enjoys more privileges and material advantages than her darker cousin. When added to normal sibling rivalry, they create occasional power struggles that have to be controlled by the watchful Azucar. When these occur, demure Emily’s only weapon is a society-bestowed racial superiority that is easily countered by Zuri’s more aggressive, carefree attitude, and sexual maturity. Everything reaches an emotional climax when crotchety old Aunt Ruby (Emilie Talbot) comes for a visit and finds the girls in a compromising situation under a bedsheet.

By now, it should be clear that Bondage is not just about race. Like Chekhov’s refugees from a crumbling czarist regime, all of Finch’s characters are shackled by forces they can’t control. Strange, then, that she should end with a shocking act (which I won’t reveal) that is anything but liberating. For me, it was the only false note in an otherwise splendid play that adds to Finch’s reputation and that of AlterTheater, as well.

NOW PLAYING: Bondage runs through April 16 at AlterTheater’s temporary space, 200 Tamal Plaza, Corte Madera (opposite the DMV); 415/454-2787; altertheater.org.

A.C.T.’s ‘John’ full of problems

‘John,’ now playing at San Francisco’s A.C.T., reflects a ‘postmodern’ aesthetic that rejects realistic content in favor of a fragmented universe. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Readers who attend Marin Theatre Company (MTC)’s production of peerless (reviewed in last week’s column), or A.C.T.’s  John (this week’s subject) may wonder what has happened to American playwriting lately. For most of us, live theater was a place where—in Mark Twain’s words—we went to enjoy “a good story, well told.” More and more these days, however, people tell me that they exit from a show by a “hot young writer,” a winner of countless prizes and praised by critics, feeling confused about what they’ve seen and whether they wasted precious time and money on the experience.

My explanation for why this has occurred will have to wait for a time when a gap in the schedule offers column space. What I can say here is that peerless and John are perfect examples of the trend. Although the authors involved may not consciously be aware of it, both plays reflect a “postmodern” aesthetic prevalent in all of the arts, visual and performance, that rejects realistic content in favor of a universe that is fragmented, laden with paradoxes and mired in chaos that even the artists themselves can’t penetrate.

In my review of peerless I wrote that a reading of Jiehae Park’s script convinced me that MTC’s production didn’t do it justice. In John’s case, the opposite is true: While it is constantly undermined by the unexplained lacunae in Annie Baker’s script, Ken Rus Schmoll’s solid direction and the acting ensemble’s overall excellence almost (but not quite) succeed in making lemonade out of sour lemons.

The problems are many. To begin with, there’s the play’s length. Close to three hours divided into three acts is far too long to trace this rather cliched account of a young couple’s doomed relationship. Twenty-somethings Jenny (Stacey Yen) and boyfriend Elias (Joe Paulik) arrive late one stormy November night at a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed and breakfast run by an eccentric woman named Mertis (a nice turn by Georgia Engel). Their announced purpose is to allow Elias to visit the nearby Civil War battlefield, but it’s clear from the beginning that they aren’t getting along—he’s a control freak, and she’s a serial liar—so clear, in fact, that soon I began to wish I could reach for a fast forward button that would allow me to skip the inevitable carnage.

Alas, nothing like that was available and gradually it dawned on me that one of the main reasons for the play’s unnecessary length was that Baker’s fondness for the fragmentation and chaos associated with postmodernism took her (and me) off on so many unproductive paths. Take, for example, Mertis’ blind friend Genevieve. As vividly portrayed by Ann McDonough, she’s an ominous presence who seems to have clairvoyant powers early in the play, but then disappears—literally—when she hides in a shadow while Jenny and Elias engage in their most explosive encounter. She’s there, hearing the angry voices, but doesn’t involve herself in the aftermath.

Then, we have the question of the B & B’s upstairs rooms. Why is the choice of which one will be occupied by the couple so important? What is the symbolism of Mertis marking the passage of time by moving the hands on a grandfather clock? Why does she trudge back and forth along the stage apron pulling a bedraggled red curtain by hand at the beginning, end and between acts? Why is she writing a daily journal in an obscure language (or maybe gibberish)? Is there really a sick husband (who we never see or hear) behind the French doors that lead to her apartment? What does it signify that she has a doll among her multitudinous tchotchkes, a replica of which Jenny also owned as a little girl? Oh, and I almost forgot the player piano in the salon that twice interrupts the proceedings with a happy ragtime tune—what’s that about?

False leads all, and there are many more. One could explain some as director’s choices, except that Baker’s script prescribes them down to the last detail—an indication that the confusion is deliberate. Once I reached that conclusion, I stopped looking for answers.

NOW PLAYING: John runs through April 23 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco; 415/749-2228; act-sf.org.

Berkeley Rep takes on abortion in ‘Roe’

‘Roe,’ currently being staged by Berkeley Repertory Theatr
‘Roe,’ currently being staged by Berkeley Repertory Theatre, follows the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade. Photo by Jenny Graham.

By Charles Brousse

Weeks before Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BRT) opened its production of Lisa Loomer’s Roe, a play directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Bill Rauch about the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that established a woman’s constitutional right to a legal abortion, I anticipated that it would be a slam dunk for the pro-choice advocates. After all, what could be a more supportive environment than Berkeley, home of the free speech movement and a bastion of progressive liberalism? The downside, if any, would be that Loomer would be preaching to the choir.

Turns out I was wrong. Yes, salient arguments for choice made by characters on stage were greeted with applause, and most of opening night’s full house rose to express their enthusiasm at the end—but it wasn’t the full-throated endorsement I expected. The strangest part was that—without knowing where it came from—I also sensed a troubling undercurrent.

In an early January press release, BRT Artistic Director Tony Taccone is quoted as saying, “As the play unfolds, people may be forced to examine their beliefs about abortion, and it should be interesting to see what happens.” Interesting? How?

In a program note that acknowledges Loomer’s challenge of coming up with an “objective account” of events before and after the Roe decision, Taccone writes that the focus on the divergent accounts by her leading characters—lawyer Sarah Weddington and her client, Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe)—allows her to move beyond “the conventional wisdom of seeing two different sides of the argument” and instead concentrate on the human impacts of both positions. Loomer herself corroborates this goal in an interview and concludes, “Don’t we have to hear from both sides? … If we can open our minds enough to even consider a position that is different from the one we brought into the theatre—that is the beginning of compassion.”

The problem with that is that it poses a dangerous moral equivalency, made even more disquieting by the way the two sides are depicted. Weddington (played perhaps a little more  stiffly than the role requires by Sarah Jane Agnew) comes across as an ambitious legalist who is more interested in being the youngest female attorney to ever win a Supreme Court case than in the personal welfare of her client. Supporters in the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and the Betty Friedan wing of the feminist movement are similarly more directed toward general legal reform than individual needs. For them, Norma McCorvey, who told her story of having to bear a child after being raped, was only a convenient vehicle for challenging a Texas anti-abortion law.

Gradually, McCorvey (Sara Bruner, in a bravura performance), becomes disenchanted and ultimately hostile. Yearning to be recognized for who she is, rather than as “Jane Roe,” she eventually betrays her longtime partner and anchor, Connie Gonzales (sympathetically portrayed by Catherine Castellanos) and—attracted by a kindly preacher (Jim Abele) and a lovable young child (Zoe Bishop)—finds warm acceptance and Christian “rebirth” in a local Texas evangelical congregation. She also authors two books, in one of which she claims that all of her testimony in Roe v. Wade that made its way through the court system was based on lies.

So, there you have it. Since Weddington published a very different account of the events, we have dueling perspectives dramatized by Loomer. One stresses the decision, and its beneficial impact on women in general; the other centers on the need for compassionate responses to an actual person’s needs. Small wonder that there was unease beneath the liberals’ cheers.

NOW PLAYING: Roe runs through April 2 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.

Ross Valley Players’ ‘Bus Stop’ features a detailed examination

‘Bus Stop,’ directed by Christian Haines, offers audiences a look inside an era. Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

By Charles Brousse

Unless they’re written by someone named Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee or Neil Simon, there’s little interest among today’s producers in mid-20th century American plays—even those that in their time were quite popular. That’s a shame, really, because some of the works by lesser-known writers, if left in their original form rather than being updated, afford a better glimpse into what that era was all about, more than their more famous cousins.

Case in point: William Inge’s Bus Stop, currently on view in a strong production directed by Christian Haines at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre.

Inge is a second-tier playwright who has been lost in the shadow of the just-named big four. He is generally remembered today for the film version of his 1955 comic drama that starred Marilyn Monroe in her heyday and for Picnic, a 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning romance that later became a movie featuring William Holden and a very young, very beautiful Kim Novak. A Kansas native, during his brief period of national acclaim, Inge brought the lives and times of mid-Westerners onto the national stage, much as John Steinbeck and William Saroyan were doing for the far West, Carson McCullers for the South and Thornton Wilder for New England. Their characters are ordinary folk, whose stories resonate because they open a window into the lives and fortunes of people off the beaten track who might otherwise be totally ignored.

The ’50s are often dismissed as a low point in America’s cultural history. True, Dwight Eisenhower’s presence in the White House wasn’t exactly stimulating and Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt was a noxious influence, but a lot was going on under the surface that was barely noticed at the time. Like two titanic continental plates, the post WWII economic growth that raised the middle class to unprecedented dominance began to clash with a counterforce of disillusion and alienation.  

In his prescient 1950 book, The Lonely Crowd, sociologist David Riesman claimed that underneath the affluence produced by market capitalism, many Americans feel isolated and adrift, opening a widening gap between themselves and the happy white picket fence family stereotypes then found in popular TV shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. As if to prove Riesman’s thesis, in Bus Stop Inge takes us to Grace’s Diner, a smalltown cafe (nicely rendered by RVP’s scenic designer Bruce Lachovic) on the highway from Kansas City to Topeka, where a disparate group of characters gathers to wait out a fierce winter storm.  

Grace Hoylard, the good-natured “grass widow” owner/hostess (Mary Ann Rodgers), her bubbly teenage assistant Elma (Ariana Mahallati) and Will Masters, the stoical, by-the-book local sheriff (Steve Price), are alone when the Topeka-bound bus rolls in and its passengers receive the discomforting news that the road has been closed by snow until further notice. One-by-one we get to know them.

Carl (Jeffrey Taylor), the married driver who has admired Grace from a distance for several years, contrives to get her to allow him into her bedroom for a “quickie.” Dr. Gerald Lyman (Ron Dritz), an alcohol-spotted, poetry-quoting academic with a taste for young girls, attempts to lure gullible Elma into meeting him for a “tour of Topeka’s cultural attractions.” Then there is blousy, disheveled Cherie (Laura Peterson), who has left her job as an “entertainer” at Kansas City’s Blue Dragon nightclub and boarded the bus with no final destination in mind, but hoping to escape both the club and a boisterous young cowboy named Bo Decker (Andrew Morris), who wants her to marry him and come to live on his Montana ranch. Unfortunately, Bo, accompanied by Virgil, his sidekick (Aeron Macintyre, whose singing and natural performance are among the show’s highlights), has followed her and the sparks fly as he presses his awkward courtship.

That’s the setup. All of these people have a strong loneliness quotient; some are helped by being stranded in close quarters, some not. Bus Stop features the kind of detailed observation that is rare in theaters these days. For us, observing them from our 21st century vantage point is a couple of hours, including intermission, well spent.

NOW PLAYING: Bus Stop runs through March 26 at RVP’s Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

The secrets behind the success of 87-year-old Ross Valley Players

Ross Valley players theater company
Ross Valley Players’ production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ enjoyed a profitable run at the theater company’s historic Barn Theatre in Ross. Photo courtesy of Ross Valley Players.

By Charles Brousse

Taking advantage of a break in the review schedule, I’m devoting this first column in March to sharing some thoughts about a tiny but truly remarkable local theater company that, at the end of this season, will have been an important part of the Marin cultural scene since 1930. Eighty-seven years, and about 420 productions—it’s an amazing record, one which makes the current leaders completely justified in proudly proclaiming theirs to be the longest continuously performing community theater west of the Mississippi River.

The Ross Valley Players (RVP) began as an itinerant group, presenting plays wherever they could find space. Then, in 1940, they found a permanent home in town founder James Ross’ former barn, now on the grounds of the Marin Art & Garden Center. But longevity is only part of the RVP story. A search of their production history reveals that they haven’t settled for the lightweight comedies and thrillers that are the staple of most community theaters. Yes, there have been some of those, but sprinkled among them are many of the greatest plays that the modern Western theater has generated—foreign classics by Ibsen, Shaw, Wilde, Moliere, Coward and Goldsmith, and American classics by Miller, Williams, Albee, Wilder, Simon, Kaufman and Hart, to name a few. And they haven’t overlooked relatively unknown newcomers, like John Patrick Shanley, Caryl Churchill, A.R. Gurney, Jon Robin Baitz and Sarah Ruhl.

The further miracle is that they’ve done this on a shoestring, performing in a drafty old building, with non-Equity actors and almost everyone either working as a volunteer or close to it. So—to pose the question frequently asked of spry nonagenarians as they march toward the 100-year mark—what’s the secret?

I think the answer is fairly simple. Start with eclectic programming—seasons with just enough theatrical “meat” in them to attract Bay Area directors, designers and non-union performers who are looking for an artistic challenge to overcome the disadvantage of low, or no pay; seasons that appeal to Marin’s educated, affluent, but decidedly middle-brow audience, who like to feel that they’re culturally up-to-date as long as it doesn’t go too far and cost too much. Add a low operating overhead, thanks to volunteerism, and a below-market facility rental, which has made it possible to sell seats at a fraction of the professional competition. Top it off with a dash of nostalgia among the graying playgoers, and you have the makings of that single most essential ingredient of a sustainable operation: A loyal, committed following.

The trouble is that, with no financial reserves to fall back on, things are so delicately balanced at RVP that a single malfunction or miscalculation may affect everything else. Take the question of programming choices. In a telephone interview, veteran Business Manager Alex Ross cited examples from recent seasons. Robin Hood, Glorious and The Ladies of the Camellias were expected to have strong ticket sales. Instead, they were financial disasters that might have threatened the company’s viability if The Diary of Anne Frank and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance had not had such profitable runs.

Finding the right modern plays has also become harder. As the American theater has decentralized, there are no automatic “draws” like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon were in the ’40s and ’50s. Audiences have to take a chance on playwrights whose names they don’t recognize.

The availability of high-quality, non-union talent has declined as small nonprofit Bay Area theaters, many of them specializing in exciting experimental work, lure actors away from the decidedly “uncool” traditional sector.

Faced with financial troubles of its own, RVP’s landlord (the Marin Art & Garden Center) has raised monthly rents substantially over the last few years and has agreed only to a lease extension through 2018.

Those are a few of the headwinds that face the company in its 87th year and beyond. Yet, as far as I can determine, there is no lack of resolve to persevere, and plans to upgrade the risers and audience seating display continued confidence in the future. Frankly, I wouldn’t have expected otherwise.

Ross Valley Players, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; (415) 456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

A dramatic clash of ideas in ‘The Christians’

‘The Christians,’ now at the San Francisco Playhouse, takes on the born-again-Christian evangelical movement. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

By Charles Brousse

Religion and politics have always been the most common forbidden topics at American family gatherings. Perhaps it’s a tacit recognition that when it comes to matters depending on faith rather than factual verification, there is no easy way to avoid unbridgeable controversies that are bound to offend someone.

That being the case, it’s understandable why playwrights have also avoided these subjects, with occasional exceptions like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and, more recently, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Now, along comes Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays, and is currently enjoying wide circulation throughout the country. The local producer is the San Francisco Playhouse, whose artistic director, Bill English, saw it at Humana, fell in love with the script and quickly decided to include it in his “Empathy Gym” series.

The choice required some courage on English’s part. Hnath’s play doesn’t pull any punches as it takes on the born-again-Christian evangelical movement, particularly its tendency to be intolerant of any deviation from established doctrine. In the opening scene, Pastor Paul (the perfectly cast Anthony Fusco), addressing the audience as if we are his congregants, describes how the church has prospered since its humble beginnings. As they listen, the people onstage behind him—the choir, his devoted wife (Stephanie Prentice), the head Elder (Warren David Keith), who is the link to the church’s governing board, and the dynamic  associate pastor (Lance Gardner)—nod and smile at the joyous news.

Then, completely unexpectedly, Pastor Paul drops a bomb. After pausing for effect, he declares that there is a “crack” in this idyllic picture. In a powerful monologue, he relates how he had been talking with someone at a conference of evangelical missionaries who described how he witnessed a young boy try to rescue his sister from a burning building, only to lose his own life in the process. It was a heroic and unselfish act, but since the boy had not yet declared for Christ, his spirit could not be considered “saved.” He would have to pay for the oversight by being assigned to the fires of hell.

Listening to that, Pastor Paul says he underwent an epiphany. The loving God whom he worshipped and his church celebrated could not possibly be so cruel. It was hell that had to go. If God’s existence could not be questioned, the only alternative for Christians is to recognize that somewhere in history their faith took a wrong turn by adopting the Manichean view of human beings as suspended between heaven (those who have accepted Christ as their savior) and hell (those who haven’t). Following a fascinating public debate with his fundamentalist associate pastor in which the two trade biblical references like rifle fire across opposing trenches, Pastor Paul tells the congregation that he’s sure they will follow him in reimagining heaven as a place where believers, sinners and those—like the boy in the fire, who was undeclared—sit in peace at the Lord’s table.

Unfortunately, this is a doctrinal shift that goes beyond the congregation’s capacity for tolerance. Attacked on all sides—most especially by a choir member (Millie Brooks) who testifies that she cares more about dogma than about the personal needs of his flock—Paul watches helplessly as his supporters peel away until he stands alone, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, abandoned on the edge of a cliff.

All of this is fascinating dramatic material, but it loses much of its impact by being squeezed into a 90-minute, one-act play that has little room for exploring the characters, their relationships and even the clash of ideas that is at its heart. The feeling you get is that the San Francisco showing is more a workshop than a finished product. Perhaps the deficiencies can be remedied as it moves on to other venues. It will be interesting to watch.

NOW PLAYING: The Christians runs through March 11 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ portrays plight of Afghani women

‘A Thousand Splendid Suns,’ now playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, was adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma from Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling 2007 novel of the same name. Photo by Kevin Berne.

By Charles Brousse

Having to produce plays in a grand old palace like A.C.T.’s Geary Theater has always been a mixed blessing. On one hand, like the cathedrals of Europe, its scale is a reminder of how earlier generations honored their cultural heritage. On the other, the building’s vast stage with its high arching proscenium, cried out for plays to match its dimensions—plays that, due to costs and other factors, fell into the category of “they don’t make ’em like that anymore.” The only remedy, never completely satisfying, has been to treat these plays like miniature paintings framed inside a wide matting.

There’s no such problem in the case of A Thousand Splendid Suns, and the public is obviously responding. A.C.T. recently announced that the company’s standard three-week run has been extended by one day to February 26. That may not sound like much, but it means that more than 1,500 additional seats became available for sale.

Suns is a sprawling, three-generational epic that depicts civilian life, particularly the plight of women, in Afghanistan from the end of the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 occupation to the advent of Taliban rule in 1996, when the weak U.S.-backed government collapsed. It was adapted for the stage by Ursula Rani Sarma from Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling 2007 novel of the same name and is receiving its American premiere in association with Theatre Calgary (Canada).

A.C.T.’s production overcomes the challenge that routinely faces adapters of epic novels by managing to combine a large-scale setting and lengthy passage of time with an intimate focus on its major characters. Most of the action takes place in and around the Afghan capital of Kabul. Interiors are suggested by arched doorframes, a bed, a border control officer’s desk and a few other set units that are brought on and retired as necessary. Above these, a pair of horizontally overlapping cycloramas carry projections of the barren mountains that ring the city under an everchanging “sky” dominated by a huge oval sun, flanked by a pair of graceful Middle Eastern brushstrokes.

The sense of place is further established by designer Robert Wierzel’s atmospheric lighting, Linda Cho’s traditional Afghan costumes and Jake Rodriguez’s sound design, which is hugely enhanced by original music performed live on saw and assorted percussion instruments by David Coulter. With all of these things in place, from the moment the house lights dim, there can be no doubt that we have come a long way from the bustling shoppers and traffic outside in Union Square.

Sun’s plot, which closely follows Hosseini’s novel, revolves around two Afghani women who are forced to struggle for survival in a country wracked by war and misogynistic social conventions.  Laila (Nadine Malouf) is a well-schooled, attractive girl of 15 when Babi, her father (Barzin Akhavan), decides to take the family to a cousin’s house in Pakistan for safety. As they wait on the street for a taxi, an errant mujahideen rocket aimed at the retreating Soviets strikes them, killing all except Laila. Badly wounded and homeless, after her initial medical treatment, Laila is taken in by their shopkeeper neighbor, Rasheed (Haysam Kadri), who promises to protect her if she will become his second wife. Feeling that she has no choice, and pregnant from a last-minute tryst with a childhood friend, she agrees, only to discover that Rasheed is a tyrant who is given to violent fits of anger if either wife provokes him. The only bright spot in this dreary picture is that she and Mariam (Kate Rigg), wife number one, after initial hostility, forge a sisterhood that ultimately leads to Laila’s liberation—though the price is Mariam’s life.

While overly melodramatic at times and occasionally two-dimensional in its depiction of most of the male characters as being single-minded exploiters of any women they can coax or bully into subservience, A Thousand Splendid Suns is an exciting theatrical experience. Sensitively staged by A.C.T Artistic Director Carey Perloff, it belongs among the very best of the company’s long list of distinguished productions.

NOW PLAYING: A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco; 415/749-2228; act-sf.org.

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