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.)

Harold and the Boys work magic

master harold
Sam demonstrates his ballroom dancing moves to the young Harold. Andrew Humann, L. Peter Callender, Adrian Roberts (courtesy of Aurora’s website)

Afrikaner playwright Athol Fugard wrote often about the effects of Apartheid. “Master Harold”. . . and the boys, set in 1950 South Africa, was initially banned in his home country, no doubt for daring to expose the poor treatment of the black majority by the white Afrikaners in power.

Fugard’s first name is actually Harold, and the play is autobiographical. It captures a moment from Fugard’s teen years that he always regretted. His mother ran St. George’s Park Tea Room, just as the title character’s mother does in the play. And, like Harold, Fugard was close to the two black men who worked for his mother. One of them, Sam, practically raised Fugard, whose father was disabled. L. Peter Callender’s rendition of Sam is heartbreaking and is alone worth the price of admission.

“I wrote the play, I suppose at one level, in an attempt to try to understand how and why I am the man that I am.”

-Athol Fugard

Emotions run high in Aurora’s production–gasps and tears were plentiful–but the audience is in good hands with the excellent cast that also includes Adrian Roberts as Willie and Andrew Humann as Fugard’s younger stand-in. It was no surprise that the audience expressed appreciation with a hearty standing ovation.

If you have the chance to see “Master Harold”. . . and the boys, directed by Timothy Near, do so.

Shotgun Players’ Reading Series hits the spot

champagne reading seriesI love the Shotgun Players. For the last few years, I’ve been a happy subscriber to both the main season and the companion reading series that cleverly echoes themes from the fully staged shows. Now I have to choose more carefully which shows I can see and look for deals, whether it’s scanning Goldstar, going to previews, or taking advantage of the generosity of theater groups, such as the Shotgun Players, who allow theater-goers to donate what they can for certain performances.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Clare Lizzimore’s Animal, which was the two-night-only staged reading that took advantage of the great set designed for The Village Bike. 

Shotgun’s website describes the Champagne Reading Series this way:

We give our actors just enough staging and tech to get started and then we let adrenaline do the rest!

They take just four days to read, block, rehearse, and add music and lighting. And they do an amazing job that’s incredibly polished and professional! Yes, they consult their scripts, which they carry with them; but except when staging requires that they do something else with their hands, their playbooks are hardly noticeable. Director Katja Rivera worked wonders in her limited time.

And the cast was impeccable, headed by the impressive Jessma Evans, who portrayed Rachel, a woman who suffers from situationally induced psychosis. (Her British accent was even spot on.)

The play was both dark and funny and explored severe mental illness in a very real way. Although I’ve never had a psychotic episode myself, this story struck me to my core.

It’s too bad that it played for only two nights. This is another one that I would highly recommend if you see that it’s playing somewhere in the future.