The Song of the Summer – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is colliding with fame rather than experiencing a gentle brush with it.  Similar to Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines,” Robbie’s catchy “Bad Decision” (written in our world by Max Vernon and Helen Park) is a hit that is being met with charges of plagiarism and backlash for what some perceive as “rapey” lyrics.  Unlike Thicke, who brashly defended himself (and was ultimately fined millions of dollars and served with divorce papers), Robbie internalizes every boo from the audience.  In deep need of a mental break, he has ditched his upbeat manager, Joe (Reggie D. White), and taken a multi-motivated cab ride to his hometown of Pottsville.  His return engagement begins with his devoted music teacher, Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh), who shares headlines from the nearly 12 years since he moved to the west coast.  He is her success story and she serves as a surprisingly insightful mother figure.  She also has an adopted daughter, Tina (Monica Ho), who was once Robbie’s best friend with ambitious dreams of her own.  But Joe has visions of sold-out tours and five album deals and won’t leave his star act alone with his memories for long.

Lauren Yee’s The Song of the Summer —a romantic comedy with music — is certainly lighter than her breakthrough Cambodian Rock Band and might better fit this moment when audience members are trepidatiously returning to theaters.  Robbie and Tina have the lively chemistry of many odd couples. Robbie’s meandering decision-making is sheathed in luck while Tina’s more directed path has taken many unplanned hairpin turns.  Kahn in particular is a believably awkward and loving teen in flashbacks.  But though the playwright reveals the roots of Robbie’s self criticism and esteem issues, she only gives us the briefest whiff of his potential to climb out of the pit and blossom.  It’s a frustratingly thin resolution to Robbie’s genuine problems and our mostly enjoyable 90 minutes with him.

Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh*) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn*) © Jessica Palopoli

Director Bill English employs his usual skill in developing all of the relationships.  Quieter connections are never overshadowed with comedic business.  His scenic design is equally artful in bringing small-town warmth and eccentricity to the visuals.  Mrs. C’s worn, skirted furniture fits her as well as her housecoat by costume designer Stephanie Dittbern.  And one can practically smell the beer and cigarettes in the tacky karaoke bar.  Projections by Teddy Hulsker slowly snap into place, filling out the setting.  The exception is a distracting and seemingly unnecessary hobo bag that constrains Tina’s movement in the critical final scenes.  

San Francisco Playhouse is thoughtfully offering this work On Demand as well as a live performance.  However, after serving up several beautifully filmed productions, this is delivered as a back-of-the-house live stream.  Whatever benefit is gained from the sense of immediacy is greatly offset by jerky camera work and flawed audio that loses many of Ms. Ho’s more intimate lines.   

The Song of the Summer is a good natured if slight diversion.  In-person performances at 450 Post Street in San Francisco have reduced audience capacity and safety protocols in place. The on-demand video stream will be available throughout the run which ends on August 14, 2021.  Tickets for either version begin at $15 and can be purchased at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-song-of-summer/.

Judgment Day – Streaming on Demand

From the opening phone call (an old narrative device cleverly employed), you know what drives ambitious lawyer Sammy Campo in Rob Ulin’s hilarious modern comedy, Judgment Day.  Samuel is greedy beyond compare, defies the law he practices, and reframes every narrative to make himself look like a hero.  He is also about to die.  On the way to his hellish unrest, he is confronted by his former Sunday school teacher.  Now an angel, she gleefully delivers the bad news of damnation to this once naughty boy turned worse adult.  Recognizing that she has badly bent the rules by approaching him before he’s quite breathed his last, the silver tongued devil talks his way into a second chance at life in order to rack up the points he needs to be sent to heaven instead.  

Returned to earth, Sammy sets out to do good without actually BEING good.  It’s a warped journey gleefully interpreted by Jason Alexander, an unsurpassable master of the rant.  To fulfill his plan, he enlists the help of a Catholic Priest portrayed with doubt and discomfort-tinged charm by Santino Fontana.  Casting Director Patricia McCorkle deserves her own standing ovation for filling the entire ensemble with such remarkable foils for Alexander.  All bring out the best in Ulin’s well constructed banter under the practiced direction of TV vet Matthew Penn.  These also include Justina Machado as Sammy’s wife Tracy, by turns vulnerable and fury-driven, and great find Julian Emile Lerner as his edgy mini-me son, Casper.  The always assured Loretta Devine leverages her knowing stare and purring voice as assistant Della and Patti LuPone is clearly having a blast as the long dead Sister Margaret. In smaller supporting roles, Michael McKean (Monsignor), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra) make the most of their interactions while the indispensable Carol Mansell almost steals the show as Edna, the slightly slow widow who becomes one of Sammy’s clients.

The script is a brilliant choice for web-based entertainment.  Ulin — writer/producer for Ramy, Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne among other brainy comedic hits — has a remarkable way with language and wordplay.  This allows Penn to avoid the common pitfalls of Zoom from effects to false movement.  Scene-setting black and white drawings dissolve to the actors in front of solid white backgrounds.  Characters’ spacial relationships are established with the use of the stunningly well-timed handoffs of props.  Original music by Jordan Plotner supports the naughty tone of the work.

The pandemic has brought forth many a profound production exploring the freshly exposed rips in our social fabric.  While Judgment Day may make you contemplate what constitutes goodness, it’s most valuable contribution to this moment is undoubtably to make you laugh.  A lot.  (Thank god?)   This encore presentation in support of Barrington Stages is available to stream on Stellar (https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day.) from July 26-August 1.  Runtime is a breezy 83 minutes. Tickets are only $11.99.  Advance purchase using the code “EARLY” and receive a $4 discount. 

Lines in the Dust – Streaming On Demand

“Opportunity is about positioning.”  So says Denitra Morgan in Lines in the Dust, a powerful drama beginning today on NewNormalRep.org.  Though set in 2009 and 2010, the play is a well-constructed examination of the systemic racism that still proliferates our educational institutions.  Built on the relationships formed among a handful of characters, it illustrates just how easy it is for people to move those dusty lines that are theoretically put in place to protect a community and transform them into rigid roadblocks used to constrain those who are less privileged.

The action takes place in Millburn, a New Jersey suburb that is home to an upscale mall and Regional Theater Tony winning Paper Mill Playhouse. With one of the highest income averages in the state, the residents support a public school system with a student/teacher ratio of 11 to 1. So it is unsurprising that Denitra has gone to great lengths to place her studious daughter at Millburn Township High School.   There, the teen is thriving academically under the watchful eye of Interim Principal Dr. Beverly Long, whom the girl idolizes.  

Denitra and Beverly had met as the only two Black people at an open house. They bonded over the many racist euphemisms employed by the real estate agent representing the nearly $900,000 property.  Now a year and a half later, Denitra is in Beverly’s office trying to straighten out her daughter’s registration paperwork.  Her timing could not be worse.  Beverly is under considerable pressure because a student who was shot and killed turned out to be a so-called “border hopper” from nearby Newark.  Blacker and poorer, nearly 1 in 8 residents in that city don’t graduate from high school, making it tempting for ambitious parents to falsify their home addresses  in order to send their children to Millburn instead.  At the insistence of the school board, Beverly has just hired Mike DiMaggio, a private investigator, to look into possible other incidents of residence fraud.

Melissa Joyner and Jeffrey Bean in Lines in the Dust

Based on events all too familiar to her, Pulitzer nominee Nikkole Salter’s script is economical, with every line providing meaning and insight.  Though the issues discussed are well-known, they are deeply humanized by her characters.  As embodied by Melissa Joyner, Denitra’s frustration and anger reverberate with genuine rawness.  Lisa Rosetta Strum gives Beverly a foundation of both tenderness and professionalism.  Their performances are nurtured by director Awoye Timpo with the action crisply edited by Hiatt Woods.  Not only is the relationship of these two bright women beautifully rendered, but the connection to their children and their deep understanding of what they each represent to the larger world are also apparent.  Much of that knowledge and acceptance is brought forth by their interactions with DiMaggio (a fierce Jeffrey Bean), a man so deeply enmeshed in a fantasy version of safety and fairness that he can’t even see his prejudice when it’s doused in spotlights.

As with the other projects presented by New Normal Rep, Afsoon Pajoufar’s production design is precise without being distracting.  An original jazzy score by Alphonso Horne becomes increasingly cacophonous, reflecting the devolving situation.  Qween Jean provides the well chosen outfits, from Beverly’s bold and polished attire to Denitra’s slightly too casual look.  

Lines in the Dust is created specifically for theater lovers who are still not comfortable being in an enclosed space with strangers.  Thoughtful performances and expressive dialogue move it beyond an issue play into the realm of truly satisfying home entertainment.  Offered on demand through August 8 at NewNormalRep.org, it runs one hour and fifty minutes with a brief intermission. Tickets are $25 with discounts available for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased at NewNormalRep.org.

Brutal Imagination – Streaming On Demand

In late October 1994, OG “Karen” Susan L. Smith of Union, South Carolina called the police to report that an African American man had highjacked her car with her two young sons still strapped into the back seat.  Nine days later she was arrested for the boys’ murder.  Brutal Imagination is writer/poet Cornelius Eady exploration of the ease with which Smith constructed her lie.  Originally presented at the Vineyard Theatre at the end of 2001, it was nominated for the Lucille Lortel for the engulfing sound design and Eady was awarded an Oppenheimer for the script.  The piece has now been reimagined as a fundraiser for this supportive Off-Broadway incubator of dauntless voices.  Viewed through the shattering prism of recent events, the continued criminalization of Black men’s everyday actions, and the persistence of the rageful boogieman mythology, the work is as powerful as ever.

Though it is billed as a staged reading, this recreation by Joe Morton is more of a full-fledged film, complete with powerful special effects and a blood pumping score.  Fresh off her well-received role of Jane Apple in the Zoom-perfect Apple Family Plays, Sally Murphy revives her performance as the increasingly antsy Smith.  More tortured by her deception than the death of her children, Murphy is often shown caught in a frame constructed by turns from her bookshelves, her rearview mirror, and her television antenna.  But this is Morton’s show wherein he embodies Smith’s self-aware creation Mr. Zero.  At times he chuckles at his own inconsistencies, her shocking stereotyping, and above all the improbability of his very existence.  At others, his anger and those of thousands of others is channeled into brilliant condemnation of a society so deeply seeped in racism that Smith’s flimsy fabrication persisted for days.

Sally Murphy and Joe Morton in Brutal Imagination

Obie Award-winning video designer Jared Mezzocchi has brought Morton’s bold images to life, vividly blending them the way they would be entangled in someone’s mind.  This technique gives the piece tremendous movement even on a small screen.  Several racist touchstones are incorporated including the brilliant Buckwheat’s Lament.  The one flaw in the presentation stems from the sound mixing in which the score often obscures Murphy’s dialogue.  Closed captioning is unfortunately not available. 

Throughout the viewing of Brutal Imagination, it is hard not to feel weight of how little we have moved as a culture since the time of Smith’s saga.  Yet the poetry of the language and the wisdom of Mr. Zero’s observations shine through the darkness.  “We hope this play will be part of discussions about how we imagine or try to imagine what a future, a multicultural future, looks like,” says Cornelius Eady. “That to me is the heart of the struggle. This is part of the push that is going on. And the arts are part of this push… you have to imagine it before you can walk into it.”  This engaging play is available to stream On Demand through 11:59PM on June 7.  Runtime is 90 minutes and playback can be paused.  Tickets begin at $27.50 and are available on https://www.vineyardtheatre.org/brutal-imagination-2/.  Proceeds support the artists and programs in The Vineyard’s 2020-2021 Season.

History-Making Hairstylist Mia Neal

In honor of Mia Neal’s historic Oscar win (with teammate Jamika Wilson) as the first Black artist to take home the statue for makeup and hairstyling, I’m reposting the interview I conducted with her on behalf of the Drama Desk in November of 2016.  She had just won the organization’s first Award for Wig and Hair Design.

Hairstylist Mia Neal at the 2016 Drama Desk Awards; Photo ©Barry Gordin

Mia Neal knew she felt “beyond appreciative” when she was recognized by the Drama Desk for her work on Shuffle Along, or, the Making of a Musical Sensation of 1921.  She had been honored over some of the best stylists in the business, including a few she had apprenticed under.  What she didn’t know was that she had also just made history.  In the Award’s 61 years, this was the first time Wig and Hair Design had been recognized. 

The new award places attention firmly on a time consuming, unique skill that is typically acknowledge only as part of the overall costume design.  In Ms. Neal’s case, she was introduced to the singular craft when, as a talented hairdresser, she was invited by Juilliard to participate in their exclusive training program.  After graduation, she realized her new ability would be best perfected by studying under as many professionals as possible.  Because the world of wig design is a small one, she found that most in the field were generous with their time and knowledge.  Propelled by talent, love, and enthusiasm, she slowly earned her own reputation for developing period looks primarily for African American actors.  Throughout her 15 years in theater and television, she has periodically returned to the school to encourage others to follow this collaborative and rewarding career path.

Each of Ms. Neal’s ventilated wigs represents 80 hours worth of work before styling.  She begins by taking a mold of the actor’s head.  This is essential for ultimately forming a natural hairline.  Next, each strand of hair is knotted individually by hand.  Finally, the actors begin modeling the wigs during their rehearsal process.  She was fortunate that most of the Shuffle Along cast members had experience with wigs and were therefore comfortable moving in them.  But she admits it’s always a little more challenging with males who are less likely to have one in their personal wardrobe.  Neal also found that these particular pieces were best evaluated only after they’d been seen together with full costume and make-up.

While Neal had previously created finger waves and other looks from the 1920s, she acknowledges that her achievement with Shuffle Along was due in large part to the trust relationship bestowed by the show’s costume designer, Ann Roth.  She calls Roth “simply a genius,” rushing to add “that’s not a word I use lightly.”  Roth, along with director George C. Wolfe, wisely liberated Neal from concerning herself with re-dressing and maintenance issues that can inhibit creativity.  She was therefore able to fully explore all of her ideas inspired by period photos, historical reading and the original Shuffle Along itself.  

This artistic freedom resulted in highly individualized wigs, with no general back-up chorus look.  The audience was transported to a time when black actors were having a specific experience and each was boldly represented by on and off stage persona.  This may explain her triumph over the other worthy nominees (David Brian Brown, She Loves Me; Jason Hayes, The Legend of Georgia McBride; Robert-Charles Vallance, Women Without Men; Charles G. LaPointe, The School for Scandal ).  Ms. Neal could not have been more surprised to hear her name announced.  “Now I really feel like I’m part of a community,” she added with genuine joy. 

The possibility of adding this new category to the Drama Desk lineup was first discussed after members of the Nominating Committee attended The Legend of Georgia McBride, a musical about an Elvis impersonator who becomes a drag queen.  As one would expect, the wigs for that production were exceptionally elaborate, flamboyant and distinctive.  Their design clearly required a special discipline separate from the costumes. As the season progressed, it became apparent to the committee that should they include this new award, there would be a number of worthy contenders.  Taking this step was in keeping with Drama Desk tradition.  The organization’s award categories are dynamic, drawn from the production elements that stand out over the course of the season. In the past, if a discipline wasn’t strongly represented, it might even be eliminated entirely.  

It is not a surprise that the addition of this particular award would happen under new Committee Chairman, David Barbour.  Having covered theater design since the 1980s when he was a writer for Theater Craft Magazine, Barbour is trained to pay more attention to design than most audience members.  He assumed there was — or at least had been — a Drama Desk Wig and Hair Award and was surprised to find no history of one.  “Without quality wig and hair design, a hairdo can jar the style instead of completing it,” he explained.  The rest of the committee members agreed and the category was made an official part of the 2015-2016 ballot. Thanks to them and the work of Mia Neal and her colleagues, this artistry is something you’re sure to notice in the future.

Two Sisters and a Piano – Streaming on Demand

1991 was the beginning of a particularly challenging time for the Cuban people.  Perestroika had led to the break up of the Soviet Union, which began pulling troops and support from the Communist island nation.  It is against the backdrop of the resulting shortages and protests that Nilo Cruz sets Two Sisters and a Piano.  While he frequently explores the immigrant experience, here amnesty and escape remain out of reach.  Written four years before his Pulitzer Prize winning Anna in the Tropics, this work is spun tightly around sisters Sofia and Maria Celia who are fighting the diminishing effect of living under house arrest.  Sofia soothes herself by playing a decaying family piano and eavesdropping on her neighbor, while celebrated author Maria Celia pours her soul into letters to her absent husband.  Their country may be playing host to the Pan American Games, but the only sense of movement in their lives comes from their trips to the roof.  An opening is punctured in the crushing claustrophobia when the dashing Lieutenant Portuondo begins romantically pursuing Maria Celia; a relationship that offers both promises and threats.

The production currently being streamed by New Normal Rep springs to life in minute one when the silence of the opening credits is shattered by the entrance of two officers searching the sisters’ abode.  Despite limited physical action, the timing of the actors gives the drama a strong beating pulse throughout the two hours.  The opening interrogation sets the scene as well as the pace.  We can see the stained and browning walls and the once-grand furnishings beautifully rendered by Vanessa Corrente.  Like the previous NNR production, the Zoom backgrounds are designed to look contiguous making the staging appear more cohesive than many online offerings.  Bumper shots of Cuba pop splashes of color into the somberness.  Music by Sancho & Morin — both original songs and classical pieces — provide a wistful soundtrack for old memories and developing stories.

Florencia Lozano, Jimmy Smits and Daphne Rubin-Vega in NNR’s Two Sisters and a Piano

While the Russians may be receding from Cuba in the plot, their influence is ever present on stage.  The similarity between this work and that of Anton Chekhov is clear in both the emotional tides experienced by the characters and the poetry of the language they employ.  Also serving as director, Mr. Cruz enhances this flavor, developing a particularly strong chemistry between his two actresses.  He choreographs the luminous Florencia Lozano in the graceful and carefully considered gestures of the cerebral Maria Celia and brings forth a widening ripple of menace from deep inside a smoldering Jimmy Smits as Portuondo.  Daphne Rubin-Vega, who played the role of Sofia in 1999 at the Public Theater, repeats her performance, but this time her hair bows and childish mannerisms ultimately take on an uncomfortable Baby Jane quality.  Her strongest scene is with the charmingly awkward piano tuner played by Gary Perez as he tries to reverse the results of the instrument’s neglect as well as that of its owner.

Our collective desire to break free from our homes and a desperation for connection gives Two Sisters and a Piano an air of relatability at this precarious time.  It is available to stream on demand from the New Normal Rep website for $25 ($10 for students and theater professionals) through May 23.

San Francisco Playhouse Zoomlets: Deep dives into short works

Like many, I have been reflective on this pandemic anniversary. But I actually lost access to a favorite recurring theatrical event years ago when I moved to New York.  Monday night readings at the San Francisco Playhouse provided an opportunity to mingle with their welcoming creative team, the cream of Bay Area talent, and a passionate audience.  Some nights you got something like Lauren Gunderson’s historical drama Bauer, which went on to have full productions on both coasts.  On other occasions it was more like Remaking Pussycat, a loopy psychodrama by William Bivins that seems to have lived on only in my memory.  But these evenings always left me feeling deeply connected to a magical undertaking.  Plus there was an array of charcuterie and lots of wine.

SF Playhouse has worked hard to capture what was best about those readings with its Zoomlets: deep dives into the equivalent of first rehearsals of either a short play or a scene from a longer work.  Hosted by the company’s enthusiastic Artistic Director Bill English and attended by 300 unseen audience members, these online events are director-driven.  Ten minute cold readings are bookended by open conversation and informative exploration of the creative process.  I sampled three entries that represent the range of the selections by English and Producing Director Susi Damilano for their current library of 20 offerings.  I had to supply my own salumi and Malbec, but I could conjure up the sense memories of sitting in the darkened house at the Kensington Park Hotel.

There are 20 Zoomlets currently available to stream in the San Francisco Playhouse Library

Lee Cataluna’s Funeral Attire directed by Shaun Taylor-Corbett is the third in the Playhouse’s series by Indigenous playwrights.  Kalani Queypo and Román Zaragoza play rivaling half brothers who are assigned an unusual bonding ritual in preparation for their father’s memorial service. Darrell Dennis rounds out the cast as the funeral director trying to keep the atmosphere from getting too charged. Cataluna was responding to a prompt to write about a piece of Native attire and included inspiration from an altercation she had at her own mother’s funeral.  All you need to know to appreciate her unique cultural lens is present in the naturalistic dialogue, which you’ll experience a second time when the lead actors switch roles.  The team had previously worked together at Native Voices and the snappy ten minute comedy benefits from their comfort level with each other as well as everyone’s impressive timing.   

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is two masterclasses stuffed into one rich hour.  The same scene is taken from two versions of the play: a poetic translation by Cornell University based classicist Frederick Ahl and a more modern dramatization by mistress of political theater Timberlake Wertenbaker.  The exuberant Carey Perloff provides critical background into the historical setting and the story you may only know from college lit class or Freudian psychology.  She then gives a textbook-worthy lesson in direction by prodding and guiding the excellent John Thompson and Steven Jones as they explore the characters of Oedipus and Tiresias in a key exchange from the beginning of this classic work.  Thompson shows particular restraint, balancing the King’s frustration with vulnerability.  Jones has the tougher job of creating a backstory for an aged soothsayer who has lived as both man and woman.  This is a must-watch for anyone who has avoided the Greeks out of fear that these pieces are no longer relevant.

You won’t want to see yourself in Aaron Loeb’s A Sure Cure Lure Story, but thanks to his honest writing you almost certainly will.  The friendships between A, a black woman (Cathleen Riddley), Sure, a white woman (Stacy Ross), Cure, a black man (Aldo Billingslea), and Lure, a white man  (James Carpenter) grow brittle as a simple request for empathy disintegrates into a cycle of appropriation, impatience, and entrenchment.  The first read is fascinating; the second is chilling.  Jon Tracy does a dazzling job in limited time, using vivid imagery to help his cast lean into their discomfort and adjust their timing and pacing.  Displaying extraordinary listening skills, the uniformly excellent actors override the limitations of Zoom, increase the sense of urgency and bring out the best in Loeb’s searing dialogue.  The pre and post discussions among the team members are funny and convivial.  I really wanted to go out with them for a beer, a beverage that plays a memorable supporting role.

A treasure trove for theater lovers, Zoomlets can be streamed free of charge from the San Francisco Playhouse site (https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/) or on their YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/SFPlayhouse).  All the actors have been paid and donations are encouraged to cover this valuable investment in their talent (https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/empathy-gym-memberships/).

Jericho – Streaming on Demand

One in three American families has lost someone to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The grief of individuals has become hard to process in the face of daily headlines and our collective mourning as a nation.  The decision to launch New Normal Rep with the company Artistic Director Jack Canfora’s own Jericho superbly meets this searing moment in our history.  This drama interlaced with comedic exchanges features two families whose lives have been impacted by the events of 9/11, another tragedy with deep historic significance.  It is an entertaining vehicle that provides an opportunity to explore the search for identify and the need to feel connected to something (or someone) meaningful.  

At the opening we meet Beth (Eleanor Handley) whose husband Alec died in the towers.  It is clear that her therapy and drug regimen aren’t having the desired affect.  To Beth and us, her 67 year old Korean female therapist looks exactly like her 40-something Black husband.  (CK Allen’s simultaneous portrayal of two such disparate people is a delightful highlight of this online event).  After nearly four years, Beth is finally dating somewhat seriously.  Her boyfriend Ethan (Michael Satow) is incredibly understanding of her slow progress towards intimacy.  His brother Josh (Jason O’Connell) escaped from tower two and has had what the family views as a “crazy” response to his brush with death. While the Hartmans have always been secular Jews who didn’t think twice about serving lobster at a wedding, Josh has become so devote he can only envision living out his life in Israel.  His religious fixation is particularly hard on his wife Jess (a fully present and wonderfully layered Carol Todd) who has seen her own future severely altered with his change of priorities.  The threads of all of their stories will be pulled tightly together over a typically taut Thanksgiving dinner in the home of Hartman matriarch Rachel (Jill Eikenberry).

Eleanor Handley & CK Allen in JERICHO, © New Normal Rep

In her direction of this the Zoom-based production, Marsha Mason has mixed elements of stage and screen technique.  Occasional tight close-ups and establishing exterior shots are mixed with the now familiar talking heads in individual boxes.  The shifts of style make what should be a first-rate theater experience feel studied and distanced.  The clean set is designed to make the backgrounds appear contiguous when characters are in the same room.  But though they rehearsed together in quarantine, the actors come across as six skilled monologuist rather than a cohesive ensemble. 

Written in another decade, Jericho still provides delicious food for thought.  As we work through this challenging time, each of us must decide what provides us with meaning and is therefore fundamental to who we are.  The play is streaming from NewNormalRep.org. through Sunday, April 4.  Tickets can be purchased on the site and cost $25; $10 tickets are available for students and theater professionals. The On-Demand show includes options for HD and closed captioning.  Running time is a little over two hours plus a ten minute intermission.  The intention of NNR is to continue to build a streaming company that meets this moment of transformation in live theater.  Four-play subscriptions are available for $100, and include free access to special programming including live play-readings, special Q&A discussions and virtual happy hours. 

Delejos (from afar) – Live Stream

“Blessing” has its origins in the words for “blood” and “bend”.  Never have the connections among these three been more obvious than in Delejos (from afar), a solo performance currentlylive-streaming on Zoom.  Storyteller/comedian/musician Julie Piñero uses her many artistic talents to share with us her experiences of love and loss during her relationship with VR video game designer Jose Zambrano.  

Zambrano — whose family had immigrated from Venezuela in search of a more stable life — died at the age of 26 after becoming a victim of a random act of violence (https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/ny-game-developer-dies-after-brooklyn-attack-20191122-pjkampeqabczphrdhnngmy2vtq-story.html).  So completely does Piñero describe his energy and creative spirit that he is the more present of the two.  Through the shared screen of producer Caitlin Stone, who acts as a stage manager, we are treated to Zambrano’s illustrations, photos and text messages which bolster Piñero’s recounting of their adventures: his term for their dates.

Julie Piñero in Delejos (from afar)

While most of the focus is on her romance, we are also given enough of Piñero’s backstory to appreciate how that relationship opened her to new possibilities.  There are adjunct stories which touch on the feelings of distance produced by language and cultural gaps that are core to the couple’s experience as Latinx.  At several intervals you will be asked to put on your “VR headset” which is simply closing your eyes to better “see” the scene as painted by Piñero. To get the most from this Zoom-based live-stream, it is recommended that you use speaker view in full screen mode and pop in your headphones.

At the beginning of her piece, Piñero is addressing Zambrano in his medically induced coma before shifting to acknowledge us.  She often accompanies herself on the guitar and sometimes employs flashcards to help we monolinguals put her select Spanish vocabulary into full context.  The background of the frame is dominated by Zambrano’s drum set, the significance of which is revealed in the final chapter.  Her changes of scene are accomplished by simply moving to a different chair or switching on another light.  For all her talk of the power of flow, it is unfortunate that Piñero breaks the spell she has cast by taking a five minute intermission.  It’s a jarring disconnection that could be avoided by working with a compassionate and seasoned editor to trim the runtime by helping her sort through which elements truly serve the story.    

Delejos (from afar) is such a heartfelt ode to an extraordinary person that you too will feel his loss but also benefit from exposure to his ethos.  This immersive work is in a limited weekly run until May 1.  7PM performances are currently schedule for April 1, 11, 17 and 22. The show is free of charge but tickets are limited.  Reservations can be made at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/delejos-from-afar-tickets-131417508305 with donations accepted through Venmo.

[hieroglyph] – Streaming On Demand

Recent powerful productions including the film Promising Young Woman, the limited series Unbelievable, and the play What the Constitution Means to Me have strived to open conversations about our country’s seeming inability to effectively address violence against women.  All too often the aftermath of these crimes is focused on how to change the behavior of women (who should perhaps dress and act differently!) rather than the male perpetrators.  [hieroglyph] — a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre currently streaming from the SF Playhouse website — explores our near-dismissal of rape culture specifically as it manifests in the Black community.  Inspired by true events that took place in the projects near her Chicago home as well as headlines made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has crafted a work centered on 13 year old Davis.  Along with her father, the girl was evacuated by FEMA from New Orleans to Chicago while her mother has stayed behind. 

Her old life ripped away from her, Davis is struggling with her studies and seems unusually anxious. Concerned that she’s endangering her chances of securing a good college education, her father Ernest enlists the help of her favorite teacher Miss T.  Art is the only subject in which Davis is excelling and he hopes Miss T can encourage the talented teen to put that energy into academics.  Instead, Miss T shares her concerns that through her art, Davis is attempting to communicate a trauma for which she literally has no words.  (The play’s title is enclosed in square brackets, used to indicate that an outside voice is imparting information left unclear by the speaker. ) The pictures of women and street scenes of her old home are peppered with symbols.  When their secret is revealed, it is simple and yet devastating. 

Jamella Cross and Khary Moye in [hieroglyph]; photo by Jessica Palopoli

The Equity production was fully staged at the San Francisco Playhouse and filmed using three cameras with Zoom in mind and under the guidance of two COVID compliance officers.  Assuredly directed by Hansberry Artistic Director Margo Hall with choreography by Latanya D. Tigner, the drama is paced with rising urgency.  Hall’s steering of the quick changes of mood is cleverly color coded by costume designer Regina Y. Evans, who wraps Miss T in a radiant palate while signaling Leah’s comfort with her own body with soothing tones and relaxed fit.  Dickerson-Despenza’s dramatic device of muttering in one’s sleep as a way of filling in backstory isn’t nearly as impactful as the use of projections (created by Teddy Hulsker) to share Davis’s impassioned pictures.  Headphones are highly recommended in order to better feel the anguish evident in Everett Elton Bradman’s searing soundscape.

Jamella Cross provides the vulnerable Davis Hayes with the shaky defenses of a typical teen.  In a moment of particular tenderness, she clutches a teddy bear while trying to hide the alcohol on her breath from her concerned father.  Her delicacy is nicely balanced by the bubbly confident energy of Anna Marie Sharpe’s buoyant Leah.  The pivotal role of Miss T is beautifully rendered by Safiya Fredericks, who has to navigate the tightest emotional turns of the four.  While Khary L. Moye as Ernest Hayes is left holding the space for men who must confront the fallout from their own toxic masculinity.  The skillful performances bring authenticity and connection to a script that occasionally overruns its banks.  There are four vivid descriptions of rape, similar only in their level of disturbance.  The tidal wave of horrors risks drowning the audience in pain and potentially depresses their ability to fully respond.  (The playbill provides contact information for appropriate agencies for those who need to talk.)

It is heartening to see two fabulous production companies collaborating to provide a homebound audience with thought-provoking content.  And despite its relentless gut punches,  [hieroglyph] fulfills the mission of continuing to build community one play at a time. It runs 98 minutes without an intermission and is streaming On Demand at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/hieroglyph/ through April 3.  Tickets ($15 – $100) can be purchased from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org.