Best of SF Fringe Festival: Brooks’s Tasha

Cat Brooks in Tasha

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is part of a long tradition of giving the stage to less mainstream indie performers. From slapstick to satire to the one-person show, Fringe performances are ones you are unlikely to see at A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. This year’s line-up offers 30 choices.

Cat Brooks artfully presents the tragedy of Natasha (Tasha) McKenna, a woman with schizophrenia who was killed in police custody in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2015. Representing her mother, one of the officers, the sheriff in charge, other characters, and most notably, Tasha herself, Brooks takes the audience on the journey that leads up to and includes Tasha’s death.

Actual footage from the events plays intermittently on screens between Brooks’s portrayals of different characters, never letting the audience forget that this is fact not fiction.

The most moving scene for me was Tasha’s mother after her daughter’s death. Her pain is so present and personal; yet set within the larger context of police violence against black people, we know that despite the specific details that make this case distinctive, it is a story that plays out far too often.

Through tears, I gave a standing ovation for Brooks as a playwright, a performer, a storyteller, and an activist. Afterwards, Brooks gave audience members the chance to ask questions in the limited time we had until the next show needed to set up. I think we were all glad that we had that time to process, if just for a few moments, before going back out into the world.

I was disappointed that the small house at Exit Theatre wasn’t full. Everyone should see this piece. I think it deserves a longer life than its four showings at the festival and hope it finds a home on one of the bigger stages in the Bay Area.

If you see only one SF Fringe performance, let it be this one.

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Go to The Other Place!

Robert Parsons and Stacy Ross

Sometimes I’m lucky and see a play early enough in its run that I can recommend it to others. I am so glad that is the case for “The Other Place,” directed by Taylor Korobow.

I don’t recall even hearing of Symmetry Theatre Company before last weekend.  But the play featured my favorite local actress, Stacy Ross, so I was excited to be able to get tickets because I will see her in anything.

In fact, the whole cast was very good. Robert Parsons always gives a solid performance in everything I’ve seen him in. Lisa Morse and Michael Barrett Austin are both versatile actors who play a range of roles well. Within the play itself, Morse portrays three distinct characters, though her role is listed simply as “The Woman.”

Ross plays Juliana, a smart and confident research scientist, who opens the play by addressing the audience as if we were attendees at a conference where she was presenting. With skill, she smoothly goes back and forth between her presentation and her thoughts as she speaks. We meet her doctor (played by Morse), her husband, Ian (Robert Parsons), and hear her account of events. But clues are steadily dropped, and gradually the audience learns what’s really going on and also discovers the trauma in her past that makes its way into her present. The combination of the script and the staging let us know different facets of a complicated situation a little bit  at a time, rather than building to a big reveal all at once, which provided a more realistic feel that this story benefited from.

It comes as no surprise that the “other place” of the title represents not only the vacation home where the trauma originally occurred but also the alternate reality in which Juliana finds herself. Expressing that complicated transition from one reality to another on stage can be hard to portray convincingly, but Ross does so exquisitely.

The program, though glossy and professionally printed, gave little information about the theater company and even less about the playwright, which seems like lost opportunities to me. (It did have the largest print I’ve ever seen in a program, which was a refreshing change for my eyes; but I would have given up a few font sizes to have more content.)  I’d have thought the playwright was a woman, knowing only the name–Sharr White–which to my ear sounds like a diminutive of Sharlene or Charlotte. But I discovered that Sharr White is a man by googling the name while we waited for the show to begin. And after the show I went online to find out more about the theater company, whose mission is

to create professionally produced theatre that will excite, stimulate and challenge our audiences. The plays we choose will always have at least as many female characters as male, and in any given show there will always be at least as many Equity contracts given to women as to men. In addition we will produce plays that acknowledge that women’s stories are as important as men’s and in so doing we will hope to bring about further awareness to the public and the theatre community at large of the need for more “balance on the boards.”

Live Oak Park
Live Oak Park Theater entrance

Now that wouldn’t have been so hard to put in the program, would it?

The program aside–and I realize that most theater-goers wouldn’t be bothered by its shortcomings–I highly recommend this production of “The Other Place.” It is playing one more weekend at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. If you appreciate a good story, excellent acting, and thought-provoking theater, go buy your ticket right now!  https://www.symmetrytheatre.com/.

Shotgun’s Events is phenomenal, thought-provoking theater

Wow.

I’ve been a theater-goer for decades, a choral singer on and off throughout my life, and more recently, a playwright. But last night I experienced theater in a completely new and transforming way. I was both audience and performer in an incredible play at Shotgun’s Ashby Stage, and I have to say–it felt amazing to be part of it.

Scottish-born David Greig wrote The Events in response to the 2011 massacre in Oslo that left 77 people dead. Though the circumstances differ, Greig explores the painful aftermath for one particular survivor of a mass shooting, Claire. Part of Greig’s vision of the play was to include actual community choruses onstage–a different one each night.

Which is how I got involved. Shotgun put out word that it was seeking both intact community choruses and people with choral music background to learn songs and perform them in the role of the play’s choir. One large four-hour music rehearsal introduced us to the songs back in late April. Then we were on our own to learn and practice the music, using mp3s that were sent to us, although presumably some of the choirs used their own practice time as well.  But for those of us who responded to the call as individuals, we didn’t practice together until the night of our performance, in a two-hour rehearsal that also included blocking, cues, and the addition of a few spoken lines.

Claire, exquisitely portrayed by the talented Julia McNeal, is a minister and leads a community choir. (And having been in a few choirs myself, I think she did an admirable job of conducting us onstage.)  While her partner and her therapist want Claire to focus on herself, Claire is driven to search out anyone whom she thinks may be able to answer the one question she has–why?

The Boy (Caleb Cabrera) Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Caleb Cabrera takes on the twelve other roles in the play, which includes the young perpetrator (known only as The Boy), but he also portrays her partner, a cab driver, a journalist, The Boy’s father, a friend, a classmate of The Boy, a choir member, a politician, her psychiatrist, a man named Gary, and even a baby. And he does so, quite effectively, without costume change, without props, and without gimmicky affectations. Although initially confusing, the blending of characters highlights the omnipresence of The Boy in her thoughts. In a particularly chilling scene, Cabrera flips back and forth between portraying The Boy and Claire’s partner, Katrina, putting us in Claire’s head, which, of course, is a confusing place to be. As The Boy, Cabrera leaps, runs, climbs, and even does jumping jacks, in what is certainly a taxing physical performance.

Director Susannah Martin made some bold choices for this production but never left the audience hanging. For example, she extended the boundaries of the stage by having The Boy climb ape-like alongside the audience.

Angrette McCloskey’s set was simple, focusing on the choir’s practice room, which allowed multiple settings without disruptive scene changes and also kept Claire essentially trapped in the place where her life changed forever. The particular challenge of creating a space for the choir that was both practical and not too intrusive was creatively solved with a slightly recessed nook.

Because Shotgun stuck to the playwright’s vision of using a different choir each time, it was a huge job to wrangle numerous singers, schedule rehearsals, and patiently explain the same blocking to a new group every night of the performance. For that, Choir Captain Brady Brophy-Hilton deserves a special award.

Claire (Julia McNeal) Photo by Jessica Paloponi

And for being the true musical director beneath the dramatic surface, Lisa Quoresimo was an effective leader in a quiet, unobtrusive way, performing a miracle–taking 16 to 20 different singers each night and pulling from them polished, moving renditions of eight songs whose origins varied from traditional to Kanye West. Bravo!

The script was intricate and thought-provoking, the direction was creative while remaining respectful of the playwright’s vision, the acting was stellar, and the music that was written for the play was hauntingly beautiful.

But what really took hold of me was the thought of being part of something so great in a number of ways: the camaraderie of fellow choral members (most of whom I’d never met before that night), watching the play unfold before me while I was onstage myself (singers were not given scripts so that they could experience the play as a true audience), and knowing that the journey that Claire was on is not a fictional occurrence because unfortunately a growing number of people are sadly going through similar recoveries. And some are not recovering.

And the speech that I got to recite about humankind’s relationship to apes and bonobos, which seemed oddly out of place during our tech rehearsal, may have been what made the most connections for me after I rolled it all around in my head after the play.

But I don’t want to give away any more details than I already have because you should see this play for yourself if you possibly can. And after you do, let’s talk!

The Events has been extended through June 4 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.

Strauss shares his tale of OCD, mushrooms, and cacti

Adam Strauss is a stand-up comic from New York. But right now at S.F. Marsh, you can see his one-man autobiographical show, The Mushroom Cure, which focuses on his personal struggle with OCD. Funny, vulnerable, and engaging, Strauss is willing to laugh at his own flaws, share painful moments, and offer up his darkest fears in what feels less like a monologue in front of an audience than it does an authentic self-portrait in progress. He reminded me of a younger, more intense Marc Maron with a bit of Paul Rudd thrown in. I was moved by his honesty and impressed with his stage presence. He’s a talented performer who doesn’t seem like he’s performing. Which is the best kind, right?

Don’t be fooled by the title–it’s not a tale of how to successfully treat a seriously disabling condition with psychedelic fungi, though that is a major plot point. It’s a man trying to find his way who allows us to watch part of that journey.

Definitely a thumbs up. I hope to see more of Adam Strauss in the future.

Go see Summer in Sanctuary. NOW!

Al Letson is the Peabody Award-winning host of the insightful radio show and podcast Reveal, but his show, “Summer in Sanctuary,” is not investigative journalism. Currently at the Marsh in Berkeley, Letson’s one-man show is an autobiographical account of his summer teaching creative writing to at-risk teens.

He takes us on his journey, one he began somewhat reluctantly but in the end was life changing. It could not strictly be referred to as a monologue because although he was the only one on stage, he embodied several people in addition to himself. He begins his show with a short video to introduce some of the kids he will be talking about, but he doesn’t really need to because he does a fine job playing each one distinctively, sometimes even when they’re all talking in quick succession.

The language Letson uses is often poetic, and he repeats lines to emphasize, clarify, and bring home certain points but never in a gimmicky or overdone manner.

Humor is mixed in with heartbreak, and he expresses both with raw honesty.  I admit that I did not remain dry-eyed, and neither did Letson. But his tears were not those of an actor eliciting an emotional response from his audience; they erupted naturally from the memories he was sharing with us.

This was not a passive sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show kind of theater experience–I was engaged from the beginning and hung on each of his words until it ended with a well-deserved standing ovation. I highly recommend this show.

The Best Way Out–

A political dramedy in Seussian verse

Here’s an excerpt from my ten-minute play that depicts the Cheetoh-in-chief’s first day as president.

DONALD TRUMP:
I’m huge with the good people in this great nation. paul-noth-trump-oath-cartoon

You could see them all at my inauguration. 

Millions were there to see me take the oath. 

And I used two Bibles--I needed them both. 

My hands are not tiny like some people say. 

In fact no part of me is, by the way.

If you enjoyed this snippet, here is a link to the whole play: best-way-out

And I couldn’t resist including this Paul Noth cartoon from the New Yorker.

Theater Around the Bay: Tanya Grove, Caitlin Kenney, & Vince Faso of “Where There’s a Will” & “Why Go With Olivia?”

San Francisco Theater Pub

The Pint-Sized Plays just got a great review (complete with Clapping Man) from SF Chronicle theater critic Lily Janiak, and they have 1 more performance, next Monday the 29th. In the meantime, here’s another in our interview series with Pint-Sized folks.

Vince Faso is directing 2 shows in Pint-Sized this year: “Where There’s a Will” by Tanya Grove, and “Why Go With Olivia?” by Caitlin Kenney. In “Where There’s a Will,” Will Shakespeare  (Nick Dickson) visits a contemporary bar and finds inspiration in an unlikely source: a young woman named Cordelia (Layne Austin), whose dad is about to draw up his will. Meanwhile, Lily’s review aptly describes “Why Go With Olivia?”  as “an epistolary monologue from perhaps the world’s most ruthless email writer, played by Jessica Rudholm.”

Here’s our conversation with Caitlin, Vince, and Tanya!

IMG_20160809_170616 Caitlin Kenney at Crater Lake.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year?

Caitlin: I…

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