In an age which has become brow-beaten by simply how much everyone living today has seen, the concept of being made uncomfortable by that which is new can be a slightly alien concept. This is true in life and perhaps even more true in art. In an era where the hyper-violent Game of Thrones is the single most culturally relevant piece of current pop culture, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar, and most popular music has been sexualized to the point of diminishing returns, finding a piece of art that is invigoratingly, aggressively different from any perceived norm can be quite an uncomfortable experience, but it can also be vital and arrestingly beautiful if done correctly. Such is the case with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, his 2014 play currently in a production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which can be initially off-putting, but offers tremendous rewards for those willing to give it a chance.
There is a common phenomenon in modern playwriting that this reviewer likes to dub: “the revelation of a micro-aggression”. This is a moment within a play in which one character says something seemingly innocuous to another character, which that second character calls out for being subtly racist, sexist, classist, or judgmental of some sort. This being theatre, where, unless you’re an Annie Baker or a Kenneth Lonergan, everything has to mean something, this seemingly harmless comment is actually almost invariably a physical manifestation of a gargantuan chasm of hatred that exists within the first character’s soul. Prime examples of this phenomenon include prize-winning works like Disgraced or Clybourne Park, but perhaps have never existed more potently than in Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, which is currently playing in its world-premiere production through the San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at the Strand Theatre.
It’s doubtful that many people still remember Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 film The Toxic Avenger nowadays. Perhaps the epitome of B-Movie campy body horror, the film is one of the single most nauseating experiences this reviewer has ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The story of a dweeb-y mop boy at a New Jersey health club who becomes a hyper-violent vigilante after a group of sociopathic sex-crazed exercise nuts chase him into a vat of nonspecific toxic waste, the film appears to be expressly made for the purpose of being watched while high, while those who are sober are left to ponder the film’s many gross-out moments without the refuge of a marijuana haze. In short, it is a truly terrible movie, not only in its violence, but in its writing, direction, and especially acting.
The Magic Theatre, which recently just mounted two legacy revivals of plays that were produced at the Magic early on in their respective lives (Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz), has returned to their original mission of producing world premieres with Han Ong’s new play Grandeur, about the life of Gil Scott-Heron, the spoken word poet who is generally considered to be, along with Coke La Rock, the very first rap artist. While the play is a rarefied experience and formally almost diametrically opposed to rap music, there’s no doubt that Grandeur is the first draft of a major American drama, and while it doesn’t appear to be finished in its current production, it still shows enough sparks of genius to be absolutely worth a trek to the Marina District in San Francisco to see it.
The Roommate, Jen Silverman’s 2015 comedy, premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, and has made the rounds of America’s professional regional companies since, including the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Baltimore Everyman Theatre. Now, it has arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse, the Bay Area’s top theatre company. While it’s doubtful that the play will ever win any major awards, it’s frequently very funny and is a showcase for two actresses of a high calibre to do what they do best: act up a storm.
Author Lucas Hnath specializes in postmodern morality plays in which four characters spend ninety intermission-free minutes arguing with each other within the context of some kind of metatheatricality: always reminding the audience that they are watching a play of some sort. In short: downtown theatre, the kind of play one might expect to be presented at a respected off-Broadway company, get rave reviews, and then close after the set six-week run. So what on earth is A Doll’s House, Part 2, a very postmodern, tongue-in-cheek “sequel” to Ibsen’s famous masterwork, doing at the Golden, an 800-seat Broadway house, in a glossy production produced by the almighty Scott Rudin? That question is seemingly impossible to answer, but New Yorkers should rejoice either way. A Doll’s House, Part 2 is an exceptionally strong play, and is exactly the antivenin needed by audiences weary of the parade of over-produced Broadway theatre. Continue reading “Review: “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at the Golden Theatre, New York”
Word on the street was that Annie Baker’s new play, The Antipodes, was a total bomb. Those new to her work and longtime fans alike are reporting that the work did not succeed in any way. Indeed, at the performance of the play that I attended, there was a cacophony of sighs of irritation during the show and a general sense of discontentment expressed by those milling about the lobby after the play ended. I understand their distaste, even outright animosity, towards the work, but I, for one, found it to be simply extraordinary. It’s a rarified experience, so much so that I would hesitate before actually recommending it to anyone. Those who find that they connect to The Antipodes will never forget it; those who don’t connect will wish they could.
There are a select few musicals that, despite bombing during their original New York productions, have been produced with surprising regularity by regional theaters across the country, often with revised books. Some have been kind-of fixed, like Merrily We Roll Along or Candide, both of which can make for wonderful entertainment, if not great musicals in and of themselves. Others, such as Anyone Can Whistle or Mack & Mabel, simply don’t work, regardless of who tinkers with what. The reason why such shows continue to be produced despite flaws is that they fulfill two specific criteria. First, they need a wonderful score, the kind that makes the show on record seem like a surefire hit. Secondly, they need a subject matter that sounds interesting enough on paper to make theatre companies think that they will be the first to “crack” the material where others have failed. Such is the case with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley’s production of Rags, which ultimately does not come together to create a satisfying evening of theatre, but offers enough of interest to reveal why companies still keep giving Rags a shot.
What can great theatre, the very best theatre, do to an audience? That answer tends to change depending on the show. We can leave the theatre crying our eyes out, reeling from having our perspectives of the world totally shifted, or nursing our aching stomachs from laughing so hard for so long. But perhaps my own favorite kinds of theatre are the plays that seek to frighten an audience out of their wits. Really effective horror plays like The Pillowman or Bug can make it difficult to sleep at night, but the kind of horror that works even better is designed to scare an audience in a cosmological sense. The 21st century has brought with it a smattering of plays that seek to do this and do so very well, namely plays like The Humans, Hand to God, or Marjorie Prime—each one terrifying; each one a masterpiece. Perhaps rising above all others in this respect is Annie Baker’s staggering masterwork John, her 2015 follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, which is currently being produced in San Francisco through April 23rd by the American Conservatory Theatre.
Needles and Opium is less of a genuine play than a piece of performance art. Consisting of a series of vignettes about the lives of Robert LePage, the French-Canadian director of the show, French writer/director/visual artist Jean Cocteau, and legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, the work is presented on a giant three dimensional cube that rotates and is suspended above the audience, lit by extremely elaborate projections while the actors either move balletically around the set or are suspended on wires. There are genuine theatrical scenes, however, so I do not feel inappropriate reviewing in in this space, which is designed for the review of theatre.