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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.