Looking back over ten years of seeing nearly 1500 theatrical performances (plays, musicals, and solo shows) in the San Francisco Bay Area (and another near 500 globally), I am both pleased and surprised what productions/events are now remembered most vividly – ones that I find myself returning in order to relish the productions’ creative accomplishments. The following are what I see as the key, Bay Area theatrical events and productions that I was privileged to see (not including shows that were here on tour, many of which were of course remarkable).
- Beach Blanket Babylon’s Ends 45-Year Reign as San Francisco Icon.
17,000 performances, 6.5 million audience members, performers who have spent entire careers on the stage at Club Fugazi. Snow White, Louis XIV, the Peanut Man, Dancing Christmas Trees, Decades of Presidents & Politicians Spoofed. Lady Gaga, Tina, Barbra, Oprah, Elvis. Hats over ten feet tall weighing up to 250 pounds or more.
And for me alone, at least 27 performances attended, including buying out the entire arena three times for professional groups, securing half of the arena another time for my son’s bar mitzvah weekend, and taking visitors from New Zealand to Netherlands and everywhere in between to the show. I attended BBB’s bar mitzvah celebration and the party afterwards complete with blintzes, chopped liver, and Steve Silver’s relatives in a greeting line to welcome all of us as if we were long, lost friends. I performed with the company’s cast and with over 250 other men of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus an abridged version of Beach Blanket Babylon in Davies Symphony Hall for two, sold-out performances. And I finally even attended the spectacular musical as a reviewer in 2016.
How can any thing in this decade of Bay Area theater top the final bow of Beach Blanket Babylon, the world’s longest running musical review, on the 31st? Thanks, Steve Silver and Jo Schuman Silver for all the memories that will never leave millions of us.
TheatreWorks Wins the Regional Theatre Tony in Its 50th Year and the 50th and Last Year of Its Retiring Artistic Director, Robert Kelley.
For half a century, Robert Kelley has provided artistic vision to the upstart theatre that began with a world premiere musical called Popcorn in the summer of protest, 1970, in Palo Alto. Over fifty world premieres and scores upon scores of West Coast and Regional premieres later – along with 175 productions that Kelley himself has directed – the longest, tenured artistic director in an equity-level theatre steps down and hands over the reigns to Tim Bond. In this decade alone, I am particularly reminded of the world premiere productions of Four Immigrants Min Kahng (Book, Music & Lyrics), Triangle (Curtis Moore, Music, and Thomas Mizer, Lyrics), Fly by Night (Kim Rosenstock,Michael Mitnick & Will Connolly) and the currently showing Pride and Prejudice (Paul Gordon, Book, Music and Lyrics).
3. Hamlet. William Shakespeare, Shotgun Players, Jan. 2016-Jan. 2017.
Seven actors, all dressed in white, stood on stage while an audience member drew night after night over the course of a year from a skull slips of paper announcing who would play what parts for the evening’s staging. As names and roles were called, each picked up a black book with the assigned character name(s) boldly emblazed on it — books that would help audience members throughout the night know who was who and books that would also be cleverly, often with great impact, be used as props. Once assigned, each dashed off the stage to prepare not only appropriate mindset but also the called-for hair and costume — in all of the five minutes allotted before first words.
Never will I forget the sheer adrenaline rush and thrill of watching such a performance where every actor was prepared to play any part. I still get chills down my back thinking about being there!
The Nether. Jennifer Haley, San Francisco Playhouse, Jan.-March, 2016.
Once again we were reminded that live theatre exists not just to entertain but to challenge, not just to leave us elated but to cause some unease. San Francisco Playhouse rose to new heights of daring excellence in presenting The Nether, a play that still remains in my vivid psyche to this day. Questions raised in this electrifying, disturbing, powerful production still haunt me. How far out in the future is there a virtual world where anyone can create a personally constructed wonderland realm, invite others to enter, and live for some extended time away from a real world that for whatever reasons, is not the place one wants to be? What rules will apply in that other world? If we can already kill millions with imaginary guns today in the virtual gaming world, what are the limits what we can and cannot do tomorrow in the next generation Internet? Who decides? Who regulates? Through presenting Jennifer Haley’s gripping, The Nether, San Francisco Playhouse invited us to ask these and many more intriguing and often troubling questions.
House and Garden. Alan Ayckbourn. Pear Theatre, 2014
Pear Theatre undertook to produce Alan Ayckbourn’s two plays, House and Garden simultaneously in two different but nearby buildings, using the same cast whose members alternated between the two sets as action occurred inside a house and outside in its garden. As characters exited one play, they showed up often a minute or two later in the next play, continuing the story but from a different angle as secrets, loves, and events inside and outside the house spilled forth in different flavors. While it was perfectly enjoyable just to see one of the two plays, to return a second night to see the other half was enlightening, fascinating, and often jaw-dropping (knowing already what was now also going on in the other play). What an undertaking with Jeanie K. Smith deserving a ‘director of the decade’ for pulling off both plays so magnificently!
Valley of the Heart. Luis Valdez. San Jose Stage Company in Partnership with El Teatro Campesino, Feb.-March, 2016.
Grand and epic in theme and scope while intensely personal in individual stories, Luis Valdez’s Valley of the Heart received its world premiere through a partnership between two award-winning companies, San Jose Stage and El Teatro Campesino. The resulting three-plus-hour production never faltered for a minute in holding its audience captivated by a slice of important local and American history that probably few arrived knowing. Further, the outstanding cast, director, and production team took a riveting, educating script and used its words of personal sacrifice, family devotion, and romantic intrigue to grab the heart strings of everyone present about the Japanese and Mexican American families who once lived next door yet worlds apart in what was farm-rich Santa Clara Valley in 1941.
No Exit. Jean-Paul Sartre. American Conservatory Theatre and Virtual Stage and Electric Company, April 2011.
What if you had to watch the same play perform over and again, locked in your seats for eternity? What if the three principals of that play are themselves locked in a sealed-off room with your only able to see them through onstage monitors? Their eternal damnation becomes yours, shared by an onstage valet whose eternal role is to meet each new arrival on their repeat entrance and usher them once again into the room with no doors for leaving. The performances, the setting, the direction, and the hell that is created still to this day send shudders down my spine.
The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, Shipwreck, Salvage. Tom Stoppard. Shotgun Players, 2014.
A nine-hour epic journey through pre-revolution Russia (1833-1866) was performed in the three-play segment in one day (noon, 4 p.m., 8 p.m.), with the plays’ philosophers, radicals, anarchists, and socialists leaving lasting impressions as the history unfolded. The fact that a relatively small-stage theatre like Shotgun Players won the rights for this 2007 Tony-winning play is still amazing; but there was nothing small-time about the direction of Patrick Dooley or of the wonderful, repertory cast that played memorable characters and scenes galore.
The Chairs. Eugène Ionesco. Cutting Ball Theater, March 2013.
A second Theatre of the Absurd lands in this list of a decade’s memories. In the tiny space of Cutting Ball Theater, an elderly couple passes time remembering a lifetime of friends and playing a game that becomes their reality, all the time moving more and more chairs into their seaside abode for anticipated guests that will never arrive. The wit of the script, the flawless execution of the two-person cast (David Sinako and Tamar Cohn), and the inspired direction of Annie Elias combined to leave impressions on one’s memory that fail to go away.
Dan Hoyle: Tings Dey Happen, The Real Americans, Each and Everything, Border People. The Marsh, Almost the Entire Decade.
The Marsh is a San Francisco blessing and a unique breeder of solo performance shows that originate here and often travel the world – most assuredly New York – and then return to their birth place for revivals and often updates. No one exemplifies any better the gripping, funny, heart-warming, and true-life tales that founder Stephanie Weisman has helped spawn since 1989 than one of her most prolific and talented perennial stars (among many), Dan Hoyle.
At the beginning of this decade, Dan was still performing his award-winning Tings Dey Happen about his year among the militants, warlords, prostitutes, and diplomats involved in Nigerian oil. Through the years, he set out on other ventures within our country’s borders, meeting ordinary and not-so-ordinary people from coast-to-coast (including many spots a young, white liberal from SF would not normally be welcome) to create Each and Everything (2014 and 2018 at The Marsh), The Real Americans (2016 and 2017), and the currently running and much acclaimed Border People (2019). In these stories that are told in the dialects, postures, and languages of people of every color, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender preference, and range in age and political position, Dan has created our America for us to meet, to know, to respect – even when we do not always agree with each he introduces to us. Dan Hoyle, The Marsh, and the many other solo performers that perform in Stephanie Weisman’s Temple of Talent are a San Francisco treasure and a rich set of a decade’s memories.