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Author: Kim Waldron

“You for Me for You” Crosses Forbidden Borders, at Crowded Fire, S.F.

“You for Me for You” Crosses Forbidden Borders, at Crowded Fire, S.F.

Mia Chung Tracks Strangers in Strange Lands

by Kim Waldron

In “You for Me for You,” Playwright Mia Chung and Director M. Graham Smith track two North Korean sisters who are separately fleeing Our Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un. Their journeys lack any logical itinerary, turn surreal, and sometimes pass too slowly. Nevertheless, the sisters encounter moments so full of truth and high comedy that it’s worth the trip that leads us to a most unexpected outcome.

Younger sister Junhee (a brash Grace Ng) questions the mad social order; while her older sister Minhee (a dignified Kathryn Han) obediently accepts all constraints, living in hope of better times. Their questioning versus obedient personalities prefigure even greater contrasts.  One sister is propelled into a nightmarish dream world with its own perverse rules, leaving reality behind. The other sister moves from a Third World life of patriotism and penury to a First World life of abundance and materialism, but leaving her sense of duty behind.

Jomar Tagatac, Kathryn Han, and Julian Green in “You for Me for You.” Photo: Pak Han

One sister wants out of North Korea. The other lives in hopes of re-connecting with the politically abducted members of her family. The would-be defector tells her sister: “We can miss them from anywhere. I want to miss them on a beach after a large meal.” She waits a beat: “I’m going … Do you want to miss me, too?”

The sisters frequently find themselves forced to maintain an impassive face to mask their true emotions in the presence of others, and sometimes in front of each other. Ng and Han do a champion job of eloquently expressing inner thoughts and feelings with their eyes, voices, and gestures. Their expressiveness is physical and sensitive—moving beyond language.

Kathryn Han and Jomar Tagatec in “You for Me for You” at Crowded Fire Theater. Photo: Pak Han

While one sister escapes across the dangerous border to China on her way west, the other falls down a well and crosses another border much harder to define. Whether the Well-world represents death and limbo, a comatose delusion, or an exaggerated version of North Korean life—life down the Well equals Hell. Agonizing scenes of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, dangerous black market deals, torture, and disappearances, all torment the Well-dwellers.

The other sister establishes herself in New York City. She encounters many white women, all named Liz and all played by the marvelously funny Elissa Beth Stebbins. The first Liz speaks in a fast slur of non-words, totally unintelligible to show that the new Korean immigrant cannot understand English. Time passes and the next Liz mixes in a few recognizable words as the immigrating sister understands more English.  And so on, until her final mastery of English. Each time Stebbins plays a Liz, no matter how disparate from the previous ones, she is completely believable. Chung’s concept and Stebbins’ performance are a joy.

Grace Ng and Elissa Beth Stebbins. Photo: Pak Han

In New York, the immigrating sister feels the absence of purpose in her new life of affluence. The dizzying consumerism confuses her. She has won her way to freedom, but now she needs a purpose. Lonely, she makes one friend, a patient and sweet boy (a gentlemanly Julian Green), a recent transplant to New York from Alabama. Ng and Green have good chemistry, and they are a pleasure to watch together. But even the Man from the South, for all his caring, cannot help fill her emptiness.

Grace Ng and Julian Green in New York City. Photo: Pak Han

The cast is rounded out by the multi-talented Jomar Tagatac, who plays over a dozen roles. He plays a pontificating North Korean doctor who has more rhetoric than medicine; an intense people smuggler who takes each sister across the border; and many nasty characters, male and female, in Minhee’s surreal Well-world.

Scenic Designer Maya Linke’s stark metal fence towering over the stage makes for a fittingly ominous North Korea and a surreal Well-world. Sound Designer James Ard has placed speakers all round to engulf us in their messages. The carefully created sinister atmospheres of the totalitarian state and the surreal dream world contrast effectively with New York’s First World commercialism.

For decades the famines, re-education camps, and dictator cult worship have lured pundits to predict the collapse of North Korea. And yet, it still stands. What keeps it going? Crowded Fire’s production gives us clues to this pernicious mystery. “You for Me for You” takes us to unexpected places and introduces surprising notions. That makes it worth a trip to Portrero Stage to pass through Mia Chung’s strange borders.

 

You for Me for You” by Mia Chung, directed by M. Graham Smith, by Crowded Fire Theater, at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco, through Saturday, April 1, 2017.  Infocrowdedfire.org

Cast:    Julian Green, Kathryn Han, Grace Ng, Elissa Beth Stebbins, and Jomar Tagatac.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Leaving the Blues”: Alberta Hunter Comes OUT, at NCTC, San Francisco

“Leaving the Blues”: Alberta Hunter Comes OUT, at NCTC, San Francisco

Jewelle Gomez Exposes Our Star-Spangled Bigotry

 by Kim Waldron

Playwright Jewelle Gomez and Director Arturo Catricala bring home a painful truth in the brand new play “Leaving the Blues.” We know bigotry hurts the victim and corrupts the oppressor. We prefer to forget that bigotry also compels the persecuted to betray one another to survive.   Internationally renowned 1920s Blues singer and song-writer Alberta Hunter had the backbone to face Jim Crow laws, homophobia, and misogyny over her long career. But even the strongest woman, battling all that hate, risks denying her heartfelt love. Alberta Hunter spent a lot of time hiding her sexuality.

Michael Gene Sullivan, Desiree Rogers, and Matt Weimer in “Leaving the Blues.”

A Blues star from the 1920s to the 50s, Alberta left her career behind, when taste in music changed; instead, she became a nurse. Decades later, when the hospital forced her to retire at what her boss thought she was 70, she was really 81. She returned to music and became a surprise success again, in 1977. Alberta Hunter was a tough and talented lady.

Alberta Hunter (a noble Desiree Rogers) dresses down her agent when he fails to find her a bed in the racist South. But she warms up to counsel and help younger musicians, like Cal and Calvino, her gay buddies, and May, a young singer, on tour.

Rogers presents Hunter’s philosophy: ”I’m having a good time living my life today because tomorrow I may die…and I ain’t passin’ nothin’ by!” Rogers’ expressive eyes sell us on Alberta’s life and loves:  from her mother’s accusing her of being “too dark” to the joy with her lover, Lettie. When she sings Hunter’s Blues, Rogers captures the slow rhythm and fun of her “comeback” style. Scrumbly Koldewyn ably handles the Music Direction, while Toshi Reagon created the original music for “Lettie’s Blues.”

Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter, in “Leaving the Blues.”

Playwright Gomez schools us on Alberta’s daring and heart, which she uses to help her fellow musicians, who travelled with her in the South and abroad, in France. In one poignant moment, a man kisses his male lover tenderly while bracing his arm against the door so no one can enter to catch them. We listen to the fear in lesbian voices discussing the prison sentences given Black women for same-sex activity. From her dressing room, we hang out with Black singers on tour, as they try to find a room and avoid the Klan after dark.

Breathe easy, it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s plenty of humor and song and dance.

Paul Collins, Jasmine Milan Williams, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens, in “Leaving the Blues.”

We fall in love with the exuberant gay Calabash Cousins, lively tap-dancers Cal (confident Anthony Rollins-Mullens) and Calvino (earnest Paul Collins). Right at the start, they tap dance terrifically across the stage, linked together like a train: a great old-fashioned bit. Choreographer Jayne Zaban clearly knows a thing or two about the railroad. Whether on stage, dancing, flirting, or planning how to get out of town before dark, Cal and Calvino bring the life and fun.

Lettie (a stylish Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) accompanies Alberta on her tour in Paris, but she expresses her independence and stands up to Alberta. Younger than Alberta and from a more secure and comfortable class, Lettie demands recognition: She wants them to get OUT of the closet. She wants to express her love for Alberta, openly. Mbele-Mbong makes it clear why Alberta is captivated with Lettie, her elegant and bold lover.

Desiree Rogers, Tai Rockett, and Michael Gene Sullivan, in “Leaving the Blues.”

An energetic singing and dancing ghost named Will (the whirlwind Michael Gene Sullivan) haunts Alberta, serving as both conductor and goad as she considers her “comeback.” Will represents Bert Williams the famous Black comedian of the minstrel era, at one point morphing into the Ink Williams who cheated Alberta out of royalties.  Even though he was a brilliant comedian, Bert Williams was forced to perform for a time in blackface.  Watching Williams perform here in the shuck and jive style is startling and painful, though effective.

Jasmine Milan Willliams plays both May, a young singer looking to Alberta for advice, and Blanche, a rival singer, apparently based on Blanche Calloway. Williams’ May is innocent and eager. Her Blanche— I mean this in the best possible way—is an exquisite bitch.

Beebe (the cocksure Tai Rockett) offers help and sympathy, as a sweet and youthful friend in the theater. This neighbor’s youthful confidence and admiration prop up the aging Alberta. The cool and easy manner always cheers us up.

Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter in “Leaving the Blues”

Matt Weimer turns in fine performances playing European supporters of Alberta’s work, as well as Alberta’s American agent, and has fun doing it. Weimer’s version of Alberta’s Danish music producer, who preserved her late songs, is especially charming

The single set of an old-time singer’s dressing room, complete with huge trunks and backstage ropes, by master Scenic Designer Kuo-Hao Lo, stands in for trains, hotel rooms, and changing rooms. Costume Designer Keri Fitch and Wig Designer David Carver-Ford accurately capture the many eras.

Will the Ghost’s double-sided hand-fan cleverly captures the changes of the Civil Rights Movement. Watch that move for a subtle but powerful touch. “Leaving the Blues” covers some hateful events in our history. Clearly, the hard-working and inspired cast enjoys working together, making Jewelle Gomez’s play a gay Blues party, celebrating past and present.

Ah, if only the world were as willing as Alberta Hunter was able.

Desiree Rogers as Alberta Hunter in “Leaving the Blues”

“Leaving the Blues” by Jewelle Gomez, directed by Arturo Catricala by New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco, through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Info: nctcsf.org

Cast: Paul Collins, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Desiree Rogers, Tai Rockett, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Michael Gene Sullivan, Jasmine Milan Williams, and Matt Weimer.

Note: Every Thursday at 7:00 PM, in the NCTC lobby, audiences can enjoy a live-music pre-show by Mr. Tipple’s Musicians, from Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio, the local jazz bar located in Hayes Valley/Civic Center.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

 

“John” Summons the Uncanny, at A.C.T., San Francisco

“John” Summons the Uncanny, at A.C.T., San Francisco

Annie Baker’s People Are Haunted—Not the House

by Kim Waldron

A play that includes orgasm from congress with the universe, a shaky partition between the real and the otherworldly, looking for love in the wrong places, as well as deep philosophical matters, asks a great deal of attention from an audience. In the case of “John” by Annie Baker, we have to consider a “Larger Presence” and Neoplatonism, both tossed out for our contemplation. Baker makes us think, and I, for one, welcome thinking about it for a long, long time.

Annie Baker’s “John” manages a neat trick, creating a study of doubt and madness that is also spiritual, hopeful, and feminist. Amid the small details of ordinary life, we keep running into extraordinary circumstances, always eerie, and also a little terrifying. “John” raises shadowy possibilities but leaves us to find our own way. We must decipher any meanings, though we are granted encouraging moments of grace.

The B&B at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Civil War Battlefield, at A.C.T.  Photo: Kevin Berne.

All the action is set in an over-loaded great room of a Bed and Breakfast, stuffed with dolls, juke boxes, Christmas ornaments, and thrift store collectibles. The comfy room is decked out for Christmas, complete with a tall twinkling tree and religious music. You may have been in a room like this. Maybe a cutesy inn, or maybe visiting the home of a single older woman who knits stuffed animals, or collects Hummel figures, with lots of tchotchkes on display. Here we have a collection of dolls to keep watch over us (possibly literally) in a B&B on the edge of the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Joe Paulik and Georgia Engel at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Georgia Engel plays Mertis, the B&B proprietor, the role she created for the 2015 premiere at New York’s Signature Theater, and for which she received an Obie. (If you remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show, you will recall her as Georgette.) Engel’s Mertis can make us laugh, cause us discomfort, or move us with equal ease. At first Mertis seems a quaint, old-fashioned woman, a little lonely. We soon learn differently. She is landlady to a house with a mind of its own. She is a bit of a mind reader. She is on an unusual diet plan. She reads Lovecraft. She writes fantastically—in the mythic sense—and with an unexpected vocabulary. She is the heart of this play, the source of hope, grace, and sheltering. She moves us deeply when she describes her love of birds, or when she first saw the man she loves. When she is not offhandedly giving rise to mysteries, she is offering food, kindness, and counsel.

Stacey Yen and Joe Paulik, in “John” at A.C.T.’s Strand Theatre. Photo: Kevin Berne

She manages more than the house; she has a little in common with the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” She laboriously pulls the curtains open, herself, to start and close each act, causing the action to come alive or to conclude. Each time she performs the god-like act, we are charmed—we laughed and clapped. Mertis may also have some power over time: You can decipher that riddle yourself, when you see the play.

Her older buddy, Genevieve, played by Ann McDonough who lets us see and feel Genevieve’s profound rage. Genevieve’s a no-holds barred, blind woman with a wicked tongue. She walks the fine line between psychotic and mystic. Years ago she was driven mad with the thought of her ex-husband entering her head to possess her. Genevieve eventually began life anew, but then went blind. Madness and blindness? Surely she must be a prophet, but her messages are mysterious and funny, for example “The thing about being crazy is that it might all be true.” McDonough makes the mad, angry Genevieve as enchanting as she is strange.

Ann McDonough, Joe Paulik, and Georgia Engel in “John” at A.C.T. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Jenny and Elias (Stacey Yen and Joe Paulik), a young couple traveling from Ohio back home to Brooklyn, stop at Mertis’s B&B to tour the battlefield that was home to the greatest slaughter of the Civil War. They are a couple on precarious ground. Jenny writes questions for a game show as a career. Jenny is fragile, and her unusual relationship with inanimate objects complicates her life.  Yen’s Jenny is utterly believable whether confused, suffering from menstrual cramps, or tipsy.

Elias, a drummer and sometime computer programmer, is a changeable kind of fellow. He jumps from resentment to self-loathing to ardor. He is capable of cruelty to and passion for  Jenny. All during their spats, he remains ever-polite to the older women. Paulik handles Elias’ ups and downs convincingly.

Stacey Yen at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne.

Elias is Jewish and Jenny is of at least partly Asian descent. Elias attempts to use cultural differences to explain the troubles in their relationship. We quickly learn that more knotty psychological problems bedevil this “sweet” young couple on their way home to Brooklyn.

“John,” the cryptic play, has much to love. In Act Two, all three women spend the evening talking over wine, ranging from Genevieve’s mental illness to Jenny’s relationship with dolls to Mertis’ philosophy.  In Act Three, the ever-hospitable Mertis reads to Genevieve, just two women passing the evening together. They weave a magic made of silences that lends a mystical air to the slowly unfolding dark and light.

Speaking of lights, the Christmas tree has a perplexing magic as its lights appear and disappear. Robert Hand, the Lighting Designer, uses light and dark, through candles, lamps, and the sun to give us hints to pay attention. Hand makes us aware of that suddenly shaky wall between us and the otherworldly. Other hints to tease us, such as a doll collection, the mysterious  music, and the recurring puzzle of who is a “Watcher” and who is being watched—all pile up to make a spooky mystery.

Georgia Engel, Joe Paulik, and Stacey Yen. Photo: Kevin Berne

Pulitzer-Prize Winner Annie Baker displays a scrupulous choice of words, providing us with real humor and real foreboding.  It is of course wonderful to see a play with meaty parts for two older women; it seems almost Un-American. It is heartening, too, to see the interplay between the generations. The young couple are unseasoned, trying hard with each other but failing. The older women want to help and stay present for the young couple, but ultimately can only watch and offer patient good will and a kind of clemency.

Be prepared for a long play, three hours with two intermissions. Annie Baker is known for her characters speaking naturally with ominous silences and false starts. Time passes more naturally here than on TV. Director Ken Rus Schmoll excels in handling the pacing for this unusually quiet production and succeeds most ably in producing a convincingly ghostly ambience.

Be aware that “John” starts promptly—arriving more than 20 minutes late means waiting to the first intermission for seating.

As Genevieve says, “Everyone knows someone named John.”  Watch this “John” and you might find out who is watching you.

Georgia Engel in Annie Baker’s “John.” Photo: Kevin Berne

“John” by Annie Baker, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, by American Conservatory Theatre, at the Strand Theater, through Sunday, April 23, 2017.  Info:  tickets@act-sf.org

Cast: Georgia Engel, Ann McDonough, Joe Paulik, and Stacey Yen.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

 

 

“Ideation” Questions Authority at Marin Onstage, San Rafael

“Ideation” Questions Authority at Marin Onstage, San Rafael

Just Doing Their  Jobs

 by Kim Waldron

“Ideation” by Aaron Loeb asks us to think about things we would rather not consider. A dark comedy with equal measures of humor and dread, Loeb’s play baffles (and rattles) us, as we watch ace corporate consultants in brainstorming sessions. Gradually, the recognizable managerial types slip from cold calculation of probabilities to confused paranoia.  Unless, of course, it’s not paranoia, but righteous outrage—and fear.

When they first get down to work, three engineers and a middle manager look like they have it all under control. Seasoned and brilliant, these experts, hand-picked by the boss, are set to tackle a huge and vital crisis. As we learn more about the specifics of their project, we discover the awful particulars of their commission and the potential consequences to all humanity.

Len Shaffer, Ben Ortega, and Heren Patel. Photo by Rob Nye.

As the team delves deeper, theorizing and reckoning, their doubts take hold. The more they speculate, the more confounded and fearful they become.  Listening and watching, we also become unbalanced. Bewildered as the characters we are watching, we ask the same questions:  Is this project a call to duty or a conspiracy?  Is this conjecture plausible or perilous?  Who can be trusted?  Who will betray us?

Without divulging the play’s central riddle, I can tell you the play touches on the issues we live with—gender, race, and immigration. But Loeb never loses sight of his fundamental inquiry: What is one person’s responsibility to an elite class that is enamoured of its own glorious accomplishments?

Marianne Shine, Ben Ortega, and Len Shaffer. Photo by Rob Nye.

Considering the horrors created by technicians in the past, this is hardly a new question.  The Greek engineer Daedalus, eager to demonstrate his competence, designed a labyrinth for King Minos from which no one could ever escape. In the Nazi era, some engineer or architect calculated the number of corpses that could be methodically consumed in their crematoriums.

In 2002, U.C. Law Professor John C. Yoo, working with the Justice Department, wrote a legal argument to deny the Geneva Conventions to Afghan war prisoners.  These issues have never been more timely. Today engineers and technicians hold great power in our world.  Their proficencies and expertise—skills that most of us do not have or understand—permit them to create realities for the rest of us.  We need artists like Mr. Loeb to help the technicians who are constructing our future fathom what they are about.

Because words create both the suspense and the humor in the play, “Ideation” features witty and funny conversations.  But these crafty words conceal as much as they reveal, hiding truths under jargon and corporate lingo. Early in the play rules are set for what cannot be said:  “Rule # 3—Do not use the N-word.” An hour after we learn this Rule #3, our assumptions about its meaning are turned upside down, in a way we are unlikely to forget.

Jeremy Judge and Marianne Shine. Photo by Rob Nye.

Loeb’s articulate word play requires a skilled and intelligent cast. All do a fine job here.  Hannah (the competent, brittle Marianne Shine) is a female middle manager in a primarily male corporate consulting firm. While careful to hide her forbidden office affair, in all other ways she appears a company woman. She wears the perfect suit and has the requisite tough demeanor. She handles middle management like a pro, facilitating the talent while reporting to the top man. When her moral center intrudes into her career, she is as surprised as everyone else.

The engineering team is made up of strutting, accomplished top-dogs.  Brock (a cock-sure Ben Ortega) is savvy, in-charge, and high speed.  Brock’s ideas roll out so quickly that he often stammers when his words cannot keep up with his mind. Ted (a hard-headed Len Shaffer) comes off as the archetypal common-sense engineer, more interested in finishing the job than knowing what it’s all about.

Ben Ortega and Heren Patel. Photo by Gary Gonser.

Sandeep (a cryptic Heren Patel) provokes the others. The youngest on the team, with elite schooling and experience, he is nonetheless dependent on the firm for his work visa from India.  He is the first to raise doubts that disturb the team.

Scooter (an obnoxious Jeremy Judge) is a young, loathsome intern who makes us wish it were legal to smack a co-worker. He has the job because Dad is on the Board. There is, finally, the boss, J.D. (uncredited), whom we meet only through phone and video-conferencing.

Director Queenelle Minet keeps the pace fast, so our interest, horror, and laughter run smoothly for 90 minutes without a break. Although we might quibble about the credibility of the fight scene, “Ideation” is a funny, sharp-edged, and chilling work.

Jeremy Judge, Len Shaffer, and Marianne Shine. Photo by Gary Gonser.

All the action takes place in one set, a conference room focused on a wall sized whiteboard  You are very lucky if you have avoided such rooms: a long table, boilerplate chairs, white erase board with markers, water, pads and pens. Gary Gosner’s set ensures that we are cut off and closed in for this team conference. Rick Banghart convincingly handles the sound for cell calls and videos.

Playwright Aaron Loeb grew up in central Illinois but has been a Berkeleyite since 1995, when he arrived looking for a tech job and found work as a video game designer. “Ideation,” his third play, won the Glickman Award for best play to premiere in the Bay Area in 2013.

Marin Onstage brings us something new and sharply performed. If you work or aspire to work in in a tech company, you probably need to see “Ideation.”  Afterward, you may ask yourself the question that’s been haunting me: Am I paranoid about the right stuff?

Marianne Shine and Heren Patel. Photo by Gary Gonser.

“Ideation” by Aaron Loeb, directed by Queenelle Minet, at Marin Onstage, Belrose Theater, San Rafael, California, plays Fridays and Saturdays through  Saturday, March 4, 2017.   Info:  MarinOnstage.org

Cast: Jeremy Judge, Ben Ortega, Heren Patel, Marianne Shine, Len Shaffer.