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Author: Ben Sloan

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” Shines on Women, at A.C.T., S.F.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” Shines on Women, at A.C.T., S.F.

Millennial Notes

Sarma Adapts Aghan Novel in Spectacular Style

by Ben Sloan

American Conservatory Theater has succeeded in putting Khaled Hosseini’s best selling novel on the stage in grand fashion in a world premiere adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma. Directed by Artistic Director Carey Perloff with epic splendor, the show recreates the story of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” with the allure of an actual voyage to the East.  The on stage story dazzles with its opulence and humanity, taking arms against a surge of Islamophobia in the U.S. Sarma brings Hosseini’s words to life, by appealing to the universal “Herstory” of women–from Kabul to California.

In contrast to the many male-centered war stories, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” brings us the female battlefront—more perilous, complex, and subtle than the male story. Hosseini has shown how women around the world encounter this battlefield every day, despite all religious or ethnic backgrounds.

On the heels of the Women’s March, “A Thousand Splendid Suns” brings us a story of abuse, subordination, and sacrifice. In Sarma and Peroloff’s vast, technical spectacle, women recognize their lives, and men open their eyes to their male privileges.

When the curtain opens on the Geary Theater’s enormous stage, we see the design of vast and translucent mountains, with two massive omniscient eyes or suns looming overhead. The gripping scene, the lush colors and long tapestries grab our attention. The hanging sculptures rivet us for the rest of the show. Thanks to Scenic Designer Ken Macdonald, these eyes in the sky look down from brilliantly colored heavens. The set constantly transforms, from mood changing blues to a massive blood spattered red, thanks to Lighting Designer Robert Wierzel. The designs cast shadows and rays of light in dramatic harmony with the action on stage.

The larger than life set is complimented by an original score, written and played live by the composer, David Coulter. Coulter stands stage right in a mini-orchestra booth, hardly separated from the audience. He makes us feel a part of more than a theatrical experience. Playing the musical saw and other unique instruments, Coulter completes the emotional immersion.

The play chronicles the life of the young and beautiful Laila (the mesmerizing Nadine Malouf) who lives in war stricken Afghanistan. Hosseini’s novel tells the story of Afghanistan, ravaged by internal strife and religious debate. In that tragic history, we experience the girl’s life in political wars with the Soviet Union and the fundamentalist Islamic regime of the Taliban.

When both of her caring, warm-hearted parents are killed by shrapnel, Laila is taken in by her neighbor Rasheed, (the skilled Haysam Kadri) who acts as surrogate father. With her own wounds tended by Rasheed’s wife, Mariam (the sensitive Hayam Kadri), she begins to recover. But she longs for her childhood friend, her first love Tariq (the bold Pomme Koch).

But Rasheed lusts after the 15 year old Laila, and clumsily starts to woo her. He decides, brutally, to cash in on the chance to betroth the wounded girl. Rasheed sees Laila as both sexually enticing, and capable of bearing him a male heir. So, he puts the long-suffering Mariam in second place. He forces Mariam to take care of “his” new young “queen,” in a painful depiction of male dominance.

When Laila bears a daughter, actually the fruit of her childhood romance, Rasheed decides to make her his victim, again. Trapped in Rasheed’s violent and angry clutches, Laila and Mariam finally become allies. Together, they try to escape the ongoing war and suppression.

Laila surpasses the typical male martyr-hero. Her journey with the inspiring Mariam is dynamic, taking us through their battles with misogyny and the continuing wartime terror, through a brutal and beautiful Afghanistan. Director Perloff examines the complexities that a mother faces after surviving an abusive marriage, boxed in from every angle. She creates an oppressive and magical Afghanistan that changes with every scene and emotion.

Told in a succession of simple, changing scenes, using moveable gates and embroidered screens, Laila lives like a prisoner. She is trapped under the close watch of the warden, Rasheed. When she tries to escape, she enters into another threatening world, run by the dangerous Taliban. She has to decide, whether to try and outlast Rasheed’s violent outbursts, or make a run for ‘freedom,’ where she will most likely be taken the Taliban—or killed, along with her child.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” closes the gap for males who might not understand the brutish journey that these women have to face. Laila and Mariam’s paths, along with every other Woman’s story, sets many traps, full of double standards and sexual guilt. We experience her story through her verve and hope and the magnificent imagery, the hallmark of A.C.T.’s multi-layered, emotional premiere.

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, original music written and performed by David Coulter, directed by Carey Perloff, at American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, February 26, 2017. Info: act-sf.org

Cast: Barzin Akhavan, Denmo Ibrahim, Haysam Kadri, Jason Kapoor, Pomme Koch, Nadine Malouf, Kate Rigg, and Nikita Tewani.

 

 

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Surprises, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Surprises, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley

Millennial Notes

Albee’s Cold War Couple Turns Hot

by Benjamin K. Sloan    

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962)—in the Shotgun Players wonderful new Repertory Season—takes us on a wild roller coaster ride. If you are an Edward Albee fan, or a virgin “Virginia Woolf” viewer, Shotgun aims to shock and surprise. And they pull the trigger. Shotgun uncovers hypocrisy and lies in the home of George and Martha, named after George and Martha Washington, our founding couple. Mark Jackson’s stark direction makes the case for a couple–and a country–at perpetual war and mutual destruction. Albee’s play analyzes both marriage and blind devotion to a cause, all in one deranged “typical” U.S. home. Jackson has made Albee’s great work relevant to America at the crossroads.

The production immediately entangles us in Albee’s jarring ironies. Albee exposes deep conflicts: husband and burnt out Associate Professor of History, George (David Sinaiko) and his wife Martha (Beth Wilmurt) resent each other with an implacable vigor. Why such hatred and animosity towards each other, and why do we even care? Their relationship serves as a metaphor for contemporary American issues: the monopoly that capitalism has on our country, and the ridiculous 50s Cold War arms race, called MAD, for Mutally Assured Destruction–still relevant in our militarized present.  

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Josh Schell, Beth Wilmurt, and David Sinaiko

The first act features George’s covert hatred and Martha’s inescapable “braying.” I got the impression that they barely know each other. Both highly talented actors in Shotgun’s superb series of plays in rotation, Sinaiko and Wilmurt deliver first-rate individual performances. In Albee’s play, however, it takes a leap of faith to see them as a couple. We have to remember that in the 50s, divorce was not so popular. They have created an historically accurate and frightening marriage, locked in a death grip, like the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

David Sinaiko plays George with an incredible sensitivity—his solid, sturdy silhouette highlights a dynamic acting style, a perfect mix for the defeated George. Beth Wilmurt plays Martha, his fierce wife, enemy, and beloved, ruling the stage with electrifying energy. Wilmurt stomps across the elegant, empty, and sterile set with authority, even when we would expect some diplomatic nuance. She makes us yearn for dull diplomacy, rather than Drumpfean narcissism.

The play takes place in one emotionally and intellectually exhausting night. Will this night be the culmination of a decade’s worth of mind games and sick manipulations between George and Martha? Or, will the couple’s Cold War escalate to many more Hot Wars? George and Martha are a microcosm of the U.S. engaged in ruthless competition, in the very era of “Mad Men.”

In fact, Martha represents the whole system! She embodies capitalist competition and the “arms race,” eating away at America. She eats, chews, and then spits out the men who have diminished her. She wants her revenge.

Beth Wilmurt and David Sinaiko

Their sadistically amusing relation escalates to fiery psychotic confusion. Because they require a 2:00 A.M. audience for their S&M encounters, they invite the young, ambitious biologist Nick (Josh Schell), and his wife Honey (Megan Trout) over for drinks. George announces the game called “Hump the Hostess,” and other treats. The eager and naïve faculty member and his ditzy wife are in for a serious indoctrination—something like the Presidential debates on steroids.

As Honey, the young wife, Megan Trout catapults the production to a new heights.  From the get-go, Trout brings a super-charged comical energy that ignites laughter, as she digs deep into Honey’s willful naiveté. At one moment, Trout will be hysterically laughing, out of place in the conversation. But before you know it, she is wailing, or becoming sick, making herself blind to the brewing sexual tango between her husband, Nick, and Martha. Trout brings comic relief to the flying  intellectual and emotional daggers.  She struggles to avoid the competition, an outlier among the beasts.

David Sinaiko, Josh Schell, Megan Trout, and Beth Wilmurt

Honey epitomizes our own fear and confusion. We have just “elected” a Trump into office as our next President, who represents corporate control, glorified greed, and icey individualism–all on display in Albee’s play. Our new leader wants our country to regress to an imagined 50s, which Director Mark Jackson has brilliantly and precisely laid bare in this production. Now, it’s “Make America Groan Again” and show the world that we are the biggest bully since Rome. Better get over to Ashby Stage and see our Brave New World on satirical and comic display, over in Berkeley, now.

Beth Wilmurt, David Sinaiko, Megan Trout, and Josh Schell

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, directed by Mark Jackson, at Shotgun Players, Berkeley, California, in repertory, through January 17, 2017. Info: shotgunplayers.org

Cast: Josh Schell, David Sinaiko, Megan Trout, Beth Wilmurt

Shotgun Players is now performing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in addition to four other excellent productions, in rotation. Their five shows are available on a unique weekly basis. For the dates, see: repcalendar

The productions include“Caught” by Christopher Chen, “Grand Concourse” by Heidi Schreck,The Village Bike” by Penelope Skinner, and “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare, running from November 25 to January 22, 2017.

 

 

 

“Safe House” Breaks for Freedom, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

“Safe House” Breaks for Freedom, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

Millennial Notes

Black Lives, White Rules

by Benjamin K. Sloan

Before the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were living in the South as “free” people—a status that constituted a misnomer, and still does.  Aurora Theatre tells us the horrifying story of pre-Civil War “free” Black people in “Safe House” (2014) by Keith Josef Adkins.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore

Director L. Peter Callender snakes us through the treacherous Kentucky countryside in 1843, where the law is only a suggestion, and the white man plays King of the Hill. We find ourselves in the cabin of the Pedigrews, a family of a free Black people, made up of two opposed brothers: Addison (a talented David Everett Moore) and Frank (the engaging Lance Gardner).  Between them stands their Aunt Dorcas (the motherly Dawn L. Troupe), who tries to keep the battling brothers from self-destruction in the dangerous South.

referf-3Aurora’s intimate staging, with the audience on three sides, arena style, puts us up close to the Pedigrew family. As we look at their worn wood floors, battered pots and pans, and worn-down furniture, we can feel their lives and their oppression.

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The Pedigrews are led by the older, authoritarian brother, Addison, who can barely keep the family afloat by over-working as an artisan cobbler and salesman of his expertly-made shoes. Addison is constantly trying to corral his younger brother, Frank, whose boisterous and rebellious behavior puts the safety and tranquility of the whole family at risk. Aunt Dorcas tries to act as the intermediary between the clashing personalities of Addison and Frank. But we sense that she has other, bigger interests.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore

The strain between Addison and Frank takes center stage, as we note their clash of ideologies in their dress and demeanour. Addison, the older brother, suits up conventionally with scarf, buttoned-up vest, and a smokin’ pair of sharp boots. Contrarily, Frank comes off as rugged, primal, and sexy, with hair popping out of his loose shirt and suspenders pressing tightly against his chest. They are a study in contrasts–reminding us of the later great debates between two leading Black thinkers: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois argued for independence, while Washington stood for subservience.

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Lance Gardner, Dawn L. Troupe, Jamella Cross, David Everett Moore

Frank and Addison debate what it means to be “free,” disagreeing on the very concept of “equality.”  Addison has conceded to the idea of “white superiority,” telling himself: “This is a white man’s world, ya gotta fit in when you can get in.” He wears his hair so that it looks like the wig of a white American politician, very George Washington-esque. He is obsessed with “getting equal” to the white man through his own merit, by succeeding as a businessman.  With success, he thinks he will reach the level of the oppressive white power structure. However, his strategy merely sets him up to be devoured by the traps of “institutionalized racism” in pre-Civil War Kentucky.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Cassidy Brown

On the other hand, Frank, the “free” spirit, gets furious with the white people in town who are, in fact, controlling them. He sees right through the veil of “freedom” that the whites have set up. The Sheriff sends his henchman, Bracken (the dynamic Cassidy Brown) to keep “an eye” on the rural and potentially rebellious Black folk.

Technically “free,” the Pedigrews have been put on a two year ‘probation’ for trying to help a slave escape from his master and cross to free territory in Ohio.  Two years before, that runaway slave was caught and tortured to death. The Sheriff controls Addison, through the power of  that probationary period. The Sheriff imposes his own version of “civilized” slavery, a new, illegal slavery, enforced by Southern custom and terror.

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Jamella Cross, Lance Gardner

Just as the Pedigrews are emerging from their “probation,” an escaped slave (the riveting Jamella Cross) will test their fortitude and ethics, profoundly. The production will have you at the edge of your seat, wondering if the Pedigrews can  survive the trials of the threatening and brutal world “free” Blacks in the slave-holding South.

“Safe House” becomes even more relevant when we realize that Adkins’ script offers parallels to today’s  America. What happens to the Pedigrews, still happens today. The patriarchal hierarchy still  sets up ideal expectations for African Americans and other immigrant groups to pursue.  Do we still dictate conformity to conventional culture to make success remote? Do we put high price-tags on colleges in order to bar the door to the “Other”? Adkins’ play and the powerful cast are asking us: Are we treating the the “Other” like children or worse? Have we changed our ways?

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Jamella Cross and Dawn L. Troupe

“Safe House” by Keith Josef Adkins, directed by L. Peter Callender, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, California, through Sunday, December 4, 2016. Info: auroratheatre.org

Cast:

Cassidy Brown, Jamella Cross, Lance Gardner, David Everett Moore, Dezi Soley, and Dawn L. Troupe.

 

 

“The Hard Problem” Bangs Heads at A.C.T. in S.F.

“The Hard Problem” Bangs Heads at A.C.T. in S.F.

Millennial Notes

Tom Stoppard’s Battle Royale: Faith vs. Science

by Benjamin K. Sloan

Many millennials have a tendency to  assert  their “truth,” impatiently, like angsty preachers who get silenced by other soapbox orators. Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” in its West Coast Premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, proves to be a delight for youthful questioning minds. The playwright forces us to analyze both sides of the conflict between religion and science. Director Carey Perloff offers us Stoppard’s educated alternative to mere dogmatism.  “The Hard Problem” relies heavily on serious dramatic debate, while also taking us on a scientist’s emotional journey.

We follow the career of Hilary (a spirited Brenda Meaney), from undergraduate dreamer to researcher in psychology, who expresses her belief in God. The play begins with her talking with her psychology tutor, a bad boy evolutionist called Spike (a witty, seductive Dan Clegg). He is coaching her for an interview at the Khrol Institute for Brain Science. Hilary expresses her optimism about the existence of God and about the human capability for altruism. She believes that genuine selflessness on behalf of other people exists in the world.

Dan Clegg as Spike and Brenda Meaney as Hilary, at A.C.T.
Dan Clegg as Spike and Brenda Meaney as Hilary, at A.C.T.

Her belief nearly short circuits Spike, brewing division between them.  They debate whether faith and science can mingle in modern times. They debate basic questions: Is there a separation of body and mind? Can humans be purely “good,” or are we just in pursuit of the best way to pass on our genes?

Despite their difference of opinion, they continue to enjoy sex. Their stark contradictions lead to opportunities for tongue-in-cheek humor, Stoppard style. Overflowing with sly sexual references to natural selection, we have to ask ourselves: Does Hillary really want to sleep with Spike out of sexual attraction, or is she trying to move our species forward?

In a post-coital scene, as Hillary prepares for bed, Spike discovers her on her knees praying to God. The moment changes everything between them because we finally realize that she practices her faith by actually praying! He is shocked.

Brenda Meaney as Hilary and Narea Kang as Bo, at A.C.T.

Hilary refuses to back down to her male counterparts. Her beautiful red hair and statuesque physique embody her optimism. Spike, a handsome know-it-all insists on being right and shoving forth his pretentious ideas. But, she fights them with vigor. She becomes a strong-willed female scientist who refuses to give in to her overbearing male counterparts. Although they intellectually argue, Spike genuinely cares about Hilary. Beside the fact that he staunchly opposes the validity of altruism, he is also living proof that altruism can exist.

“The Hard Problem” seems to have an emotion problem. Hilary’s relation to Spike hardly draws us into feeling any sympathy for either of them. Her closest emotional tie rests with two abstract concepts: God and altruism. Hilary also avoids romantic overtures from her academic advisor, Leo (a stoic Anthony Fusco). Nor do we relate to the manic billionaire owner of the Krohl Institute, Jerry Khrol (a dominating Mike Ryan).

Stoppard writes striking, witty dialogue, but these heady characters can slip away from us. The play offers us complex fast-talking collegiate banter. I felt as if I was still trying comprehend the last jest or loaded statement, while Hilary or Spike rattle off another brilliant quip. Stoppard includes edgy jokes about sexual selection, and elaborate metaphors for the brain’s grey matter, comparing the brain to the London subway system. 

Brenda Meaney as Hilary and Vandit Bhatt as Amal, at A.C.T.

 In “The Hard Problem,” Stoppard  discusses the Bank Crash of 2008, the greed of the financial industry, and our cruelty to animals. The once overzealous graduate student turned hedge fund manager, Amal (a boisterous Vandit Blatt), serves as Stoppard’s spokesman to expose these issues. At one point, Amal explains his support for animal testing because “they don’t sue.” He is a narcissistic social climber who adds controversy and flare to the production. His obsession with personal gain serves as the clear counter example for Hillary’s altruistic optimism.

The play’s intellectual platform offers a unique experience. “The Hard Problem” may not be a nail-biter, but it keeps your brow furrowed. I walked away with a very busy brain, wondering if these ideas could be realities.

Safiya Fredericks and Brenda Meaney, at A.C.T.
Safiya Fredericks and Brenda Meaney, at A.C.T.

“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, directed by Carey Perloff, at American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, through Sunday, November 13, 2016. Info: act-sf.org

Cast: Dan Clegg, Brenda Meaney, Vandit Bhatt, Anthony Fusco, Safiya Fredericks, Stacy Ross, Mike Ryan, Carmen Steel, Narea Kang, Julie Adamo.