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. 

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.

Inside The Wild Heart on Gather.Town

When she died in her mid-fifties, prominent Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector left behind a body of work that defies classification.  Her breakthrough novel, Near the Wild Heart, had made her a literary star in her twenties. On the occasion of what would have been her 100th birthday Group Dot BR, a New York based Brazilian theater company, has “re-stage” their interactive piece Inside the Wild Heart, inspired by the writer’s oeuvre.  Originally performed in a 19th Century three story Gramercy Park studio, the production has been transported to gather.town, an online platform that enables participants to navigate through a defined space.  (More on the software later.)  Upon entry, audience members are assigned an avatar which they can move through a model of the studio with their arrow keys.  When they approach an interactive element, they can engage with it by pressing the letter X and disengage by doing the same, creating a personalized experience.

Dominating the event is a filmed version of the 2018 production adapted for the stage by Andressa Furletti and Debora Balardini and directed by Linda Wise The streaming version runs simultaneously on all floors represented in the gather.town “house” just as it did live.  The rooms were obviously small and crowded with audience members perched on the furniture and stairways.  This results in awkward camera angles and poor sound quality further muffled by Sergio Krakowski discordant score performed by violinist Mario Forte.  The script — like Lispector’s novels — is more about feeling than narrative and it is possible to sense the underlying emotions and wild shifts in tone despite the technical limitations.  The expressive cast includes Debora Balardini, Mirko Faienza, Patricia Faolli, Andressa Furletti, Fabiana Mattedi, Gio Mielle, Gonçalo Ruivo, Yasmin Santana, Ibsen Santos, and Montserrat Vargas.  Vargas’s and Furletti’s production design such as the flowered wallpaper with eyes and a globe lamp used to see the future manages to shine through.  

A scene from Inside the Wild Heart filmed in 2018, a segment of Inside the Wild Heart on gather.town

More successful are the other ten stops along the journey.  There are stills of complex art installations, pages of a book to read, and participatory areas where audience members can write or draw.  A photograph of telephones hanging off the hook is accompanied by the reading of poetry as is a film of waves crashing on the beach.  But by far the most powerful segment is a video interview of Lispector herself conducted shortly before her death.  She was in near-constant pain from an accident several years earlier and seems to float between frustration and pride.  The unseen host skillfully elicits extraordinary answers from an author who bristles at comparison and doesn’t have much use for praise either.

While Group Dot BR is to be commended for matching their vision with a platform more easily tailored to their original “choose your own adventure” concept than Zoom would have been, gather.town may prove to be a barrier for attracting audience members who are not comfortable with technology.  It only runs on Google Chrome and Foxfire by Mozilla. Being able to view Inside the Wild Heart requires two entries.  If Chrome or Foxfire isn’t your default browser, you will have to copy the URL from your “magic link” generated by picking up your virtual reservation and paste it into a new tab.  Navigating using the arrow keys is slow and somewhat clumsy.  Chasing a character up a flight of stairs is difficult enough that you will likely miss their entrance into the next room.  You can make movement a little easier by operating in “ghost mode” so you can go through rather than around the other audience members.  However, their presence in a space with you will block a section of what you are trying to see, the effect being similar to having a revolving group of tall people sitting in front of you in the theater.  There is a bar area in which you can turn on your camera and microphone in order to interact with other people, but no one was ever there when I visited.  

For fans of Lispector, Inside the Wild Heart presents a unique opportunity to step inside and roam around her work.  And while there are issues, there is also appeal here for those who miss the unique sensation of performance art not possible in the static universe of Zoom.  All elements are available in Portuguese and English.  Since you will always be missing something, you can have multiple experiences if you choose to return.  Performances continue through Sunday, December 20, with showtimes Thursday through Sunday 7PM ET (21 hours Brazil, 1AM Europe) and Saturday and Sunday at 1PM ET (15 hours Brazil, 7PM Europe).  Be aware there are scenes involving partial nudity.  Tickets for all performances are $20-$50 and are available at Group.BR.com

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.

Political Idol 2020 (Streaming)

Streaming into your living rooms just as early voting wraps up is the latest rendition of Political Idol, a musical review written by Robert Yarnall and Marc Emory and staged online for 2020 by Michael Goldfried.  Hosted by a suspicious Russian accented “Simon Cowell,” the conceit of the show within a show is that the candidates are competing for your votes by singing 16 parodies of pop and show songs.  The opening number to the tune of “I Hope I Get It” from “A Chorus Line” and featuring the cast dressed as many of the democratic candidates illustrates the cleverness of the liberally-bent lyrics.  The contest concept is dropped early on in the script and it’s hard to gauge whether there remains an appetite for revisiting the earlier days of this taut election.  But certainly the performers deliver strong vocals and amusing impressions.

Still shot from Political Idol 2020

For those who can remember the 1970s, the humor is reminiscent of the musical interludes from Laugh-In, with often just a line or two from each entry performed with a punch. The strongest numbers are presented a third of the way through the 42 minute runtime with Mary Trump’s “Everything Comes From Neurosis” (based on “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy”), “Season of Trump” (set to the splendid “Seasons of Love” from Jonathan Larson’s “Rent”) and a memorable medley that will ensure you never forget how to pronounce the Democratic VP candidate’s first name delivering the biggest laughs.  The creative team has chosen to pre-record each performer remotely.  Having witnessed a fair amount of squishy green screen this season, I appreciated having Bruno-Pierre Houle’s virtual production design added in post so that the effects enhance rather than distract from images of the actors.  Sara Jean Tosetti contributes clever costume designs that also add value to the impersonations.

With music direction by Anessa Marie, each actor was recorded separately against a monochrome back drop.  Though I wish the lip synch was more consistently *synched*, the sound quality and vocals are high. Enga Davis has an edge having been given the shining characters of  Oprah, Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris to portray.  She gives each a clear and powerful voice, as you’d expect. Lara Buck Antolik is more exaggerated as Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi.  Her Melania Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle mug far more than they sing, though her body language has sparkle. Writer Yarnall gets into the act with a hilariously naughty Mike Pence and subtle Mayor Pete among others.  That Scott Foster’s orange-tinged Trump falls flat is not a reflection on his talent.  As feedback on the newest season of SNL illustrates, there is Trump Impression Fatigue throughout our land caused on one side by a feeling that the President is the one true American voice in politics and on the other by a sense of dread that democracy might never recover from his term in office.  Foster’s Biden fairs a little better, though the Democratic candidate plays a more muted role. Joe DiSalle rounds out the cast with a creepy Bill Barr and creepier Mitch McConnell.

As good natured as it is, Political Idol 2020 has an unfortunate timing issue.  This election has become too serious to be treated as a laughing matter.  However, if this jingly musical inspires even one more person to vote, it will have served its purpose well.  It is available online for $20.20 at https://www.politicalidollive.com until November 4. 

American Dreams Live Online

The shuttle bus between my former apartment and downtown San Francisco made a stop at an international art school.  I often overheard passengers grilling each other on citizenship questions and wondered A) how many of my friends would know the answers and B) whether being able to recite the preamble would really make someone a better neighbor.   Leila Buck’s new play American Dreams was an opportunity to revisit those thoughts through the stronger lens of our current political climate in which becoming — even BEING — an American is harder than ever.  Attendees play the role of the audience at a government run game show in which three contestants compete for citizenship.  Part Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and part Hunger Games, the experience is both illuminating and terrifying.

Hosted by former Special Ops vet Chris (Jens Rasmussen) and code-switching Lebanese-American Sherry (Leila Buck), American Dream the game has four rounds.  Competing for a rightful place in our society are three charming men representing populations largely held in suspension by our current administration.  Adil (Ali Andre Ali) is a Palestinian cafe owner who uses discarded food to create welcoming meals for his customers.  Usman (Imran Sheikh) is a Pakistani Muslim and US college graduate who longs to be a cartoonist.  And Alejandro (Andrew Valdez) is a recently deported former National Guard medic who had been brought to this country’s a child by his Mexican mother.  Buck provides each with a rich backstory that echoes those heard throughout our country.  As the competition goes on, more controversial details surface while a largely white affluent audience is asked to pass judgement.  Periodically, we vote in an online poll.  (And what could be more American than voting???)  We are guided by Deputy Director of Culture for the U.S., Bree, (India Nicole Burton) and an offscreen tech advisor known as Molly.  An animated applause sign is used to prompt clapping, though at more emotional moments it is made gloriously redundant.

Jens Rasmussen, Ali Andre Ali, Imran Sheikh, Andrew Valdez and Leila Buck – photo by Cherie B. Tay

“You are Exactly Where You Need to Be” assures the automated message in the virtual lobby.  Audience members are literally enrolled in the process with a pre-show questionnaire covering their ancestry and thoughts about what makes a productive member of our society.  To get the most from the evening, it is suggested that you use headphones and keep your video on.  The first few people through the “door” are asked if they’d be willing to be on-camera delegates, performing at critical moments in the show within a show.  I was partnered with Alejandro in the pop culture segment.  That I felt exhilarated when I helped him get the right answer is both a testament to the structure Buck and team have built and a natural outcome of the helplessness I feel daily in the face of our national immigration crisis.

The work is a collaborative effort created and developed by Buck and director Tamilla Woodard with Jens Rasmussen in collaboration with Osh Ghanimah, Imran Sheikh and the Company.  The newly launched live online production was developed and produced by Working Theater to be hosted by various theaters who will coordinate post-show town hall discussions.  Director Woodard has strategically staged the piece for Zoom, making it logical for actors to be in their own bubbles. She also utilizes audience faces as a startling backdrop as they slug wine, eat dinner, and fiddle with their Zoom controls all while giving a casual thumbs up or down to someone else’s life choices.  Katherine Freer’s video with virtual performance design by ViDCo ran relatively flawlessly and the unfortunate audio issues did not detract significantly from the taut atmosphere.  The patriotically painted set by Ryan Patterson and jingly music and soundscape designed by Sam Kusnetz capture the game show vibe that is the hideously inappropriate vehicle for a life-altering decision.  

Peppered with humor and enhanced by vivid storytelling, American Dreams is a nearly perfect piece in which to immerse yourself in the days leading up to the election.  Working Theater and their theatrical and cultural partners are to be congratulated for bringing this work into our homes.  Participation is all the more jarring at this time when our democratic systems are being tested and some have forgotten what it is that holds us together as a nation. You are strongly encouraged to stay through the end credits which graciously acknowledge the Indigenous Peoples who are solely entitled to call themselves Natives of this land.  

Live online 90 minute performances run through November 15, 2020.  Visit individual websites for ticketing information.

September 26: ASU Gammage 

October 2-3: Texas Performing Arts

October 5-11: Round House Theatre 

October 14-18: Salt Lake Acting Company  

October 20–25: Working Theater 

October 27-Nov 1: HartBeat Ensemble, The Bushnell and UCONN 

November 10-15: Marin Theatre Company

Pass Over on Amazon Prime

Spike Lee’s movie rendition of Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over debuted on Amazon Prime in April of 2018 without much fanfare.  It recently received a promotional bump by the service as part of their highlighted material related to Black Lives Matter.  The film couldn’t be more timely for those seeking a theatrical experience from the safety of their couch.

Produced at the Steppenwolf Theater, the 75 minute one-act is bookended with Lee’s footage of a primarily Black audience bussed in from the south side and west side of Chicago. The work is given more humanity by including throughout the faces of those whose lives all too often mirror the Pass Over themes as they witness the performance.  

The play was famously inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin.  Ms. Nwandu was teaching in Tribeca at the time of Trayvon’s murder and regularly coming into contact with young men who were being stopped by NYPD just for “breathing black.”  She wanted to explore whether we are capable of change as a nation, a conversation that has only gotten louder, broader, and more persistent in recent months. 

The tragedy portrays the deep friendship between two young Black men who have been cut off from everyone.  Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the classic from which Nwandu’s script takes its form, Moses and Kitch are stuck in a wilderness one-block long, starting each night by creating a top ten wish list.  Their desires are comprised primarily of simple things like clean tube socks with the occasional inclusion of something like a yellow sports car making them briefly smile. 

Julian Parker, left, and Jon Michael Hill in “Pass Over,” directed by Spike Lee_Credit_Chayse Irvin:Amazon Studios

Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill; Photo by Chayse Irvin/Amazon Studios

Lee takes full advantage of Danya Taymor’s strong stage direction, allowing us to see the characters’ cycles of ease and dis-ease she’s created with his wide shots punctuated by extreme close up.  Music by Howard Drossin emphasizes the stirring, melancholy mood.  The quality of the acting is sublime, with Jon Michael Hill  — who also appeared in the Lincoln Center production in the summer of 2018 — taking control of the stage as the outwardly assured Moses.  Julian Parker gives Kitch a refined and touching delicacy.  Balancing mannered charm and menace is Ryan Hallahan’s Master, with Blake DeLong rounding out the cast as an obvious and overblown police officer.  

Pass Over is not so much a conversation starter as a personal meditation that challenges us to dig deep and ask ourselves how we are each contributing to the patterns of racism.  For anyone who missed the original, this film offers an opportunity to see a well reviewed play performed by a first rate cast and filtered through the sensibility of a filmmaker of color at the top of his craft.  For those who saw the stage production, Lee’s revision displays the work through the sharpened lens of the BIPOC movement.  Pass Over contains strong language and adult themes.  It is available to Amazon Prime subscribers. 

Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe

For the 2020 production of Molière in the Park’s Tartuffe, the greenery of The LeFrak Center in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has been replaced by green screen.  But the production still provides a breath of fresh air with its engaging performances and a timeless story of a faker whose plots are foiled by love and loyalty.  

Though there are obvious ties to today’s political and social currents (including a visual nod to a recent incident when someone used a bible as little more than a prop), for the most part this is a traditional rendition of the Comédie-Française staple.  Orgon, an aging landed gentleman, has fallen under the spell of Tartuffe, a wily vagrant who uses false piety to cover his lust and greed.  Though most of his friends and family try to warn Orgon about Tartuffe’s deceit, he will hear nothing against his new friend.  So taken is Orgon that he signs over his property to the conman and attempts to force his daughter to break up with the man she loves in order to cement the relationship in marriage.  

lf translation of artistic work is tricky, then translation of verse composed by one of the greatest playwrights of all time is a veritable Cirque du Soleil act.  Fortunately MIP used a script created by Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur, who completely captures the gleaming wit and social insight of the original.  The production is directed with heart by MIP founder, champion of free theater, and Brooklyn resident Lucie Tiberghien. 

Known for its inclusive casting, MIP has chosen Samira Wiley (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black”) to take on Orgon.  To call this gender-bending is to wrongly emphasize the significance of Wiley’s sex rather than the elegant quality she brings to the part.  Providing a powerhouse performance that explodes beyond her small Zoom box is Toccarra Cash as Orgon’s charming, knowing wife, Elmire.  Between them stands Raúl E. Esparza in the title role.  He delights in playing every false note of Tartuffe’s guff with the twinkle of a Tony nominated star.  The supporting cast includes Kaliswa Brewster (Orgon’s vulnerable daughter, Marianne), Naomi Lorrain (Marianne’s protective brother Damis), Jared McNeill (bringing noble distinction to Cléante, Elmire’s brother), Lucille Lortel Award nominee Jennifer Mudge (clever housekeeper, Dorine), soap star Rosemary Prinz (Orgon’s deluded mother Mme Pernelle ) and Carter Redwood (Marianne’s devoted finance, Valère).

clockwise from top-Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill

Clockwise from top: Toccarra Cash, Jennifer Mudge, Naomi Lorrain & Jared McNeill in Tartuffe

While it must have been frustrating for the artistic team (Kris Stone – Production Design, Andrew Carluccio – Video Programmer & Technology Consultant) to be confined to online resources, their choice to use green screen for the backdrop is an unfortunate one.  The effect is highly distracting, reminiscent of video games from the early 1990s, with parts of props and faces frequently dropping out.  Animated between-act bumpers by Emily Rawson and Jonathan Kokotajlo are somewhat incongruous, but charming.

This highly satisfying production of Molière Tartuffe is co-presented with the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and LeFrak Center at Lakeside.  While this may not be the intimate night under the sky originally envisioned, moving online has provided a wonderful theatrical experience to a broader audience.  Replays with French captions have been extended until Sunday, July 12 on MIP’s YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/moliereinthepark).  The runtime is 90 minutes excluding introductions by the director, the producer and a Molière befitting the times.