Tag Archives: Bill English

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/).

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.