Tag Archives: Cathy Hammer

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/past-livestreams/) 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. 

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.

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. 

Suicide Forest

Haruna Lee’s Suicide Forest is not so much a plotted play as an emotionally driven piece of performance art.  Sliding through dreamscapes saturated with Japanese cultural touchpoints, playwright and actress Lee allows the audience to undergo the experience of knowing that the way one is labeled by genetics conflicts with one’s sense of self.  So deeply personal is their storytelling that their actual mother, Aoi Lee,  appears on stage to represent the goddess mother, Mad Mad.  Her mature face whitened and her vocals racked with pain, she carries her grief symbolically in both hands.  The genuine pain was felt by the Lee family after the father passed away and the remaining members relocated from familiar Tokyo to unsettling Seattle.  With Mr. Lee in ashes, the father figure here is a put-upon salaried worker, who interacts uncomfortably with his own daughters and inappropriately with Lee’s character, Azusa.  The effect is unnerving whether your ancestors stepped off the Mayflower or you are a recent immigrant.

Lee’s story is disorienting and nightmarish, with dreamers and subjects exchanging places with frequency.  All of the characters are portrayed in poetic fashion with exaggeration and bold strokes, making them more like mythical figures than warm-blooded people.  But their feelings ring true, with repression and humiliation particularly starkly dramatized. Aya Ogawa’s dancelike direction builds on this illusory sensibility.  The Japanese-heritage cast — Ako, Keizo Kaji, Yuki Kawahisa, Eddy Toru Ohno, and Dawn Akemi Saito in addition to the Lees —slips easily between English and Japanese, sharing their befuddlement and isolation with most members of the audience. The flashback candy pink set by Jian Jung plays up the sense of otherworldliness, encompassing a graphical pattern that cleverly takes on added significance in the show’s second half.  Clothing by costume designer Alice Tavener combines elements of East, West, and cartoonish fantasy.

Design Team    Jian Jung | Scenic Design
    Alice Tavener | Costume Design
    Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew | Lighting & Video Design
    Fan Zhang | Original Music & Sound Design
    Jen Goma | Song Composition & Arrangement

Haruna Lee, Eddy Toru Ohno and Hoi Lee in Suicide Forest; Photo by Richard Termine

Holding this bold vision together is a taut framework of critical and timely conversation starters.  What does society use to measure what it means to be a man, a woman, or neither?  Is DNA destiny?  And what are accepted cultural norms when you live between more than one nation?  At one point Lee directly addresses the audience to share some of their thoughts on these issues, while designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew moves from stealthy shadows to literally illuminating the subject.  

Experiencing Suicide Forest is uncomfortable.  But this distinct work also provides a unique pathway into one person’s journey to self awareness that leaves a powerful impression.  The production presented by the famed Ma-Yi Theater Company runs until March 15 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre (502 West 53rd Street, Manhattan),  Performances  are Tuesday – Saturday at 7pm; Sunday at 5pm.  Tickets are $30–$75 and available at ma-yitheatre.org or by calling 866-811-4111.