After almost seven months of watching all the Netflix and Amazon Prime series that I have missed in the past twenty years of annually seeing 150+ live performances on local and worldwide stages, I have been finally lured back to local theatre. What has prompted me to write my first review since March 12 is San Francisco Playhouse’s bold step to become one of the first theatres in the US to obtain all the local government and theatrical union approvals to film a live performance on their stage. After rehearsing for weeks on video chat, deep cleaning the theatre, placing PPE stations everywhere, doing COVID tests for all involved, and then isolating everyone until the in-person and on-stage work was complete, SF Playhouse had its first opening night in over a half year this past Saturday.
San Francisco Playhouse’s Art — the 1998 Tony Award for Best Play by French playwright Yasmina Reza and translated to English by Christopher Hampton – is an electrically exciting set of performances by a cast of three filmed straight through by three talented camera operators (Anthony Aranda, Tish Leung, Maurice Ramirez). Under the astute direction of Artistic Director Bill English, ninety minutes pass all too quickly as well-chosen camera close-ups, creatively switched angles of view, and exceptionally intimate monologued asides all add up to an evening so long over-due of outstanding theatre performed live, on-stage while enjoyed from our living room sofas.
The choice soon proves to be brilliant to produce in October 2020 this twenty-plus-year-old play. As we watch three best friends with a fifteen-year-history painfully tear apart their long-linked relationships, we see reflections of our own, current society. Their increasingly hostile insults that begin with comical differences of viewpoints too soon degenerate into all-out attacks based on warped perceptions of opposing beliefs and biases. How can we not be reminded of the scenes we now daily see of neighbors, colleagues, and even family members across this country often seething in anger over concepts held by some as true and by others as demonic. The increasing conflicts of the play’s principals are often triggered by the misinterpretations of words, tones of voice, or even side glances across the room – all too similar to what many of us are currently experiencing in this season of COVID and Election 2020.
A newly acquired piece of art by the urbane, stylishly attired Serge is the point of initiation of a conflict that will soon escalate to regions never meant to be explored by him or his two best pals, Marc and Yvan. When Serge proudly brings out the yet-to-be-hung canvas to show visiting Marc, the latter’s reaction is one of stunned disbelief sharpened with an acidic edge of tone when he hears that Serge has spent two hundred thousand on a five-by-four canvas that is all white. That it is an Antrios, even “a ‘70s Antrios,” does not keep Marc from spewing out several times the words “this shit” to describe what he thinks of Serge’s treasured purchase – made all the worst as Marc also cannot control his bent-over laughter as Serge becomes ever-more statuesquely stone-faced.
The third member of this triangle, Yvan, hears of the art purchase first from a near-ranting Marc who begins to use words like “sheer snobbery” and “exhibition freak” as he talks to one best friend about his other best friend. Yvan tries to assuage him that although $200K is a lot to pay for an all-white painting, what is wrong “if it makes him happy?” With an astounded look of almost disgust, Marc replies, “What sort of philosophy is that, if it makes him happy? … “It’s doing harm to me … I’m disturbed.” Again, the parallels to today quickly become apparent as one begins to hear current echoes of so many angry people who are “disturbed” because of what others hold as true, even if those beliefs or views in no way directly affect them and their daily lives.
Yvan tries to establish himself as the peacemaking go-between, visiting Serge and even getting Serge to laugh with him over the price paid. But bridges burned cannot be built back easily; and a subsequent planned evening of all three to go to dinner ends up becoming ever-shifting eruptions of each pair going after the third member, bringing up long-held but heretofore unspoken resentments and annoyances. Phrases like “a man of his time” or a description like “the way she waves away cigarette smoke” become sudden fuses that set off fireworks and near fisticuff explosions. And all the time, we keep reminding ourselves the hard-hitting drama we are now watching actually began as a light-hearted comedy, one built on something as innocuous as a blank, white canvas.
The three principals are each well-loved, seasoned favorites of both San Francisco Playhouse and many other stages in the Bay Area and beyond. Donned in tie and suit, Jomar Tagatac is superb as an easily eruptive Marc. His Marc displays a series of nervous arm and leg twitches as he talks about Serge and the painting to Yvan, looking as if mentioning the white painting makes him feel dirty all over his body. He takes words like “incredibly modern” or “deconstruction” in reference to art and to Serge’s artistic preferences and gives them through shifts in his voice, his expression, and his stance new meanings with vitriolic tones that speak volumes of pent-up feelings whose origins and depth he has never exposed to his two best friends.
As Yvan, bearded Bobak Bakhtiari dresses in relaxed colors and fabrics and is on the outside easy-going and light-hearted. But he clearly demonstrates in a myriad of mannerisms a perpetual, internal state of nerves on edge. He works hard to be seen as agreeing with both Marc and Serge and not surprisingly collapses as a hurt puppy when their paired attention and attacks suddenly turn toward him. At one point when he describes to the other two his highly frustrating day of wedding planning with his fiancé, step-mother, and mother, Bobak Bakhtiari exercises a plethora of vocal gymnastics that range from scratchy squawks to rollercoaster-speed swings of tone to cannon-size explosions in volume, all ending with the whimpers of a defeated little boy who could not stand up to the women in his life. The sequence is a performance not-to-be-missed.
Not to be outdone, Johnny Moreno time and again knocks it out of the ballpark in his portrayal of the oh-so-sophisticated, new art collector, Serge. His smoothly intoned “very, very” to a skeptical Marc on how well known the probably unknown painter Antrios really is would normally have sent rounds of audience laughter ringing in a full auditorium. (Instead, my husband and I laughed aloud on our couch.) The close camera shots of this live-filming particularly work well for Mr. Moreno’s Serge as his suddenly enlarged eyes, expressive eyebrows, and oft-appearing dimples speak their own script to supplement his suave-sounding, undulating dialogue.
Besides the aforementioned, inspired direction of Bill English who proves he is a master of both blocking a stage and planning the angles of a camera, these three actors are masterfully supported by an excellent creative team that takes full advantage of the fact the live play will be seen on small screens. The set design of Bill English is simple and enables the contrast between an all-white canvas and a mostly all-dark background to be stark and visceral – much like the black-and-white of opposing views voiced by the principals that have no gray between them. The lighting design of Heather Kenyon creates wonderful shadows on the otherwise, blank canvas as well provides hints of that there is in fact color in all that white. (After all, Yvan is sure he sees yellow, grey, and “some slightly ochrish lines” on it.) Together with the music composed and the sound designed by Teddy Hulsker, director and lighting designer pitch in to create scene changes that swirl in color, light, and sound with a repetitive, early foreboding of a whirlwind of trouble coming for once-solid friendships.
The joy of sitting in a live theatre and experiencing a ne’er-to-be-repeated evening with a community of fellow theatre lovers is impossible to replicate sitting on one’s sofa and watching a performance on an IPad. However, San Francisco Playhouse has found a substitute that certainly comes much closer than even the most creative of live, Zoom-based theatre. Art is funny, disturbing, and enlightening – much like the events of our own time – and as a filmed live performance, it is extremely watchable with an air of intimacy that makes its impact lasting and memorable.
Rating: 4.5 E
Art continues as an on-demand, video stream through November 7, 2020. Tickets range in four tiers, $15 – $100, with the link provided by calling 415-677-9596 or by ordering online at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/art/.
Photo Credits: Jessica Palopoli