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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Perks of being a playwright

Nick, me, Layne & Vince@ Pint-sized Fest
Nick, me, Layne & Vince after night 1 of the Pint-sized Play Festival

Writing isn’t a lucrative career–certainly not at my level–but it’s incredibly rewarding. I love writing and would do so even if nobody else read my words. When I wrote a novel for middle-grade kids, I was over the moon when I thought it was on the path to publication. But it never happened. My husband, my daughter, my writing critique group, and my agent read it, but it never reached its target audience. Sigh.

But being a playwright has a distinctive benefit. Getting plays produced locally means I actually get to sit in the audience and get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. It is just about the best feeling in the world to hear laughter all around you when actors utter your words (presuming, of course, that your intention was to be funny).

Layne & Nick
Layne & Nick rehearsing

Tonight is a big night for me because I have several friends joining me to see my short play, “Where There’s a Will,” at PianoFight, part of SF Theater Pub‘s Pint-sized Play Festival. I have a great director, Vince Faso, who is also a middle-school drama teacher. My cast is the talented and beautiful Layne Austin, who plays Cordelia, and comically gifted Nick Dickson, who gets to be the time-traveling bard.

The rules for this festival is that all the plays must be ten minutes or shorter, the setting has to be a bar, and someone is required to finish a pint of beer during the piece. Is that great or what?

Eleven short plays are on tap (pun intended), and they range from hysterical to poignant. Some cover life’s bigger moments–a bat mitzvah, divorce, death. Some capture unlikely scenarios, such as running into Shakespeare in a bar and a pontificating, philosophical drunken llama. (In fact, there are so many different kinds of plays that if one isn’t your cup of tea, another one happens before you’ve had a chance to think too much about it! But I enjoy them all.) It’s a fairly roomy space, but because it’s not only a pub but a restaurant with tables to accommodate the dinner crowd, there is a limit to how many people you can cram into available spots. Luckily, the food is good and there’s a full bar, so we’re planning to arrive early and eat dinner while we stake out seats.

If you come tonight (Tuesday, August 23, 2016), find me and say hello! I’ll be the one beaming and surrounded by friends and family. Although I suppose with eleven playwrights represented, there may be others beaming as well…

You can still see the festival 8:00-9:30 tonight or catch its final performance next Monday, August 29. PianoFight is at 144 Taylor Street in San Francisco’. Oh, and it’s FREE!

Hearts of Palm is a winner

CW16.HeartsPalm.notype

Last night I was lucky to snatch some PWYC (pay-what-you-can) tickets for Central Works’ world premiere of Hearts of Palm, penned by their resident playwright, Patricia Milton, and directed by Gary Graves.  

Set on the fictitious island nation of Marititu, the play addresses both the consequences of corporate colonialism and having a one-night stand with a colleague, but it does so without getting preachy. I was intrigued when I read the synopsis online (the strikeouts are theirs):

A small Southeast Asian island is invaded visited by a gang of land grabbers a team of corporate negotiators intent on expanding a palm oil plantation. When a company rep goes rogue and joins the local rebel resistance, Viola Wells takes charge as Lead Negotiator. While fending off the unwanted advances of a corporate teammate, “Vi” must come to terms with the true nature of her employer: multi-national conglomerate, Empire Holdings, Ltd.

CENTRAL-WORKS_HEARTS-OF-PALM_FdLJPM-e1468784191602
Vi (Frieda deLackner) fends off Strap (John Patrick Moore) Photos courtesy of Central Works website

Milton was inspired by the Girl Scouts. When GSA discovered the shady business practices most often used to obtain palm oil, the girls in green campaigned to get rid of it in their famous cookies.

Many of the humorous lines in the play are delivered by Central Works regular John Patrick Moore as Strap, the none-too-bright unrequited lover, and the company’s co-director Jan Zvaifler as Helen, the trigger happy, Red Bull-fueled ex-marine. I greatly enjoyed Michelle Talgarow’s character as well. Her solemn demeanor as the local government official contrasted well with the absurdity of the situation. And kudos to Erin Mei-Ling Stuart who stepped into the role of Brittany when the originally cast Rinabeth Apostol had to bow out for personal reasons.

I really appreciate theater that tackles a serious subject with wit and humor. I mean, you might as well have some fun while you’re learning something, right?

Hearts of Palm is playing at the Berkeley City Club on Thursdays through Sundays until August 14. (And Thursdays are PWYC.)