Category Archives: Live Stream

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/).

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.

Dog Act – live stream and YouTube recording

Living through a pandemic has inspired multiple productions about post-apocalyptic terrors, but not many are as satisfying or oddly hopeful as Liz Duffy Adams’ Dog Act.  Blood-thirsty Scavengers may wander what’s left of the United States.  But here there are also bands of traveling performers, known as Vaudevillians, who are a protected community.  This tribe includes Zetta and Dog who are making their way on foot to China, pulling a cheery cart full of costumes and hoping to reach a new audience with their songs and stories.  Their journey is derailed when they encounter a fellow artiste, Vera, and her traveling companion JoJo, a professional liar/storyteller with a violent streak.  

The talented cast performs via Zoom in front of illustrator Laura Bonacci’s artfully sculpted dystopian landscape.  Below them appears the entrancing gaze of Weronika Helena Wozniak’s narrator.  The effect binds the actors to the space better than most online productions and attracts attention from even the most Zoom-weary of audience members.  William Ketter is a stand-out as the analytical Dog, drawing on his previous experience in Animal Farm to skillfully blend the ticks and traits of canine and man. Brandon Walker — who also conceived the menacing sound design — slyly dominates the stage area as the wily Vera.  Hailey Vest’s JoJo seems highly influenced by Daryl Hannah’s Bladerunner replicant, with anger bubbling at the surface and faint sweeter memories running beneath.  Robin Friend and Jon L. Peacock are suitably tough and rough edged as Scavengers Bud and Coke. Functioning as a metronome keeping the actors in time with each other is director Erin Cronican taking on the role of Zetta. 

Erin Cronican, Brandon Walker, William Ketter, and Hailey Vest in Dog Act

Adams’ plot unwinds leisurely, as she carefully fleshes out the necessary backstories.  Disquieting seasonal changes, earth tremors, and squirrel fish (“Squish”) are signposts along the bleak route.  Similar to Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, stories and songs have undergone an eery transformation as they’ve been passed along, with flecks of everything from Shakespeare to Abbott and Costello jumbled together.  As an added challenge, each character speaks a slightly different language reflective of their past and society’s evolution.  Entertaining Zetta uses Southern slang and French, scholarly Vera often incorporates definitions, and the Scavengers sling curses more swiftly than their knife blades.  

Ultimately Dog Act is fittingly an exploration of loyalty and the bonds that can be formed by circumstance.  If you’ve watched your circle of friends evolve during lockdown, this progression will feel familiar whether or not you also have a faithful four legged companion in your life.  A live stream will be performed on Wednesday, February 3, at 7:00PM ET.  A YouTube recording is also available until 11:59 PM that evening.  Running time is 2 hours plus a 10-minute Intermission, and a short talkback with the cast and creative team follows each reading.  A conversation with Liz Duffy Adams is scheduled for 7:00 PM ET Thursday.  Tickets can be purchased through Ovation at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34676 with profits supporting the food bank at St. Clements Church in New York City.  To learn more about The Seeing Place, visit https://www.seeingplacetheater.com.

Journey Around My Bedroom – Live Stream and On Demand

If your little one is feeling cooped up this holiday, I encourage you to take them for a Zoom visit with Xavi.  She’s a creative young spirit and the central character of Journey Around My Bedroom, a puppet show presented by New Ohio Theatre for Young Minds.  Like many children who have been isolated by the pandemic, Xavi is bouncing off the walls with boredom.  Instead of being stuck at home, she wants to use her homemade wings and fly to the moon.  With encouragement from her mother and an explorer who pays a visit all the way from 18th century France, Xavi learns to use her imagination to expand her space and take a trip within the safety of home.  

The enchanting production is specifically designed to work over Zoom and can bring family members from different locations together for a shared experience.  At intervals, audience members are given the opportunity to turn on their cameras and microphones and participate in Xavi’s travels.  Willing volunteers help her find the right tools in her toy chest and sing a song of encouragement to help her overcome her fears.  Post-show, they can ask the performers questions and take a look behind the scenes.  The at-home packet in the show program includes a printable template to make a self-styled puppet and map in order for kids to continue the story in their own way.

A scene from Journey Around My Bedroom

Dianne Nora developed the plot line from the writings of Xavier de Maistre, produced when he was under house arrest. From the seeds of his unusual books, Nora has grown a charming story that easily incorporates lessons about bravery and appreciation and contains just enough maturity to keep supervising adults engaged.  De Maistre literally drops into Xavi’s life when his balloon makes an unexpected landing in her bedroom, connecting the two adventurers.

The up-cycled cardboard puppets, meticulously designed by Myra Reavis with Ana M. Aburto, are similar to those used in Victorian toy theatre.  Held together with brads so that they bend at the joints, they are assisted in their movement by outside hands that surprisingly never distract.   Even Xavi’s dog Joseph is given distinct personality.  Close-ups are achieved with larger cutouts of specific body parts and props.  Miniature set pieces are organized on three separate stages that visually lead from one to the other.  The distanced cast members appear to interact with clever cutting between cameras as directed by Jaclyn Biskup.  Original songs and music by Hyeyoung Kim add to the joyful atmosphere.

Spoken word artist Starr Kirkland is our welcoming guide, appearing both as herself and as M. de Maistre.  Giving voice to Xavi is Ashley Kristeen Vega whose upbeat warmth inspired one little girl in my audience to practically bounce into the performance.  Rounding out the team is multi-hyphenate Laura Kay who subdues her comic chops and grounds the storytelling as the narrator and Xavi’s mother.

This imaginative production of Journey Around My Bedroom — fitting for this peculiar year — runs an attention-holding 35 minutes.  Best viewed on a laptop or desktop, it’s being offered as a live stream on weekends thru January 11.  This format will best suit outgoing children who will enjoy the interaction, as well as parents with flexible schedules.  After the conclusion of the initial run, a prerecorded version of the show will be available on demand until February 11.  All tickets are Pay-What-You-Will (suggested price is $25 for up to two viewers) and can be purchased through Ovationtix: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1033538 for live performances and https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/store/34708/alldonations/35894/dept/1499 for on demand.