A play about a young man so depressed that he wants to kill himself may not sound like an appropriate match for our national state of mind. But the journey Antonio Vega and Ana Graham invite us to take in Django in Pain is a beautifully rendered one. Filmed by Graham mid-pandemic on a cellphone, it features handmade puppets, with props and scenery fashioned from found objects. And just like in the parable made famous by The West Wing, Vega has been down there and he knows the way out. The 2016 election kicked him in the soul and the earthquake in Mexico the following year affected him more than he could comprehend. But the time he found himself in COVID lockdown, he could hardly function. An invitation to be part of a creative project — the one that resulted in this innovative work — is what motivated him to push away the mental cobwebs and seek help.
Performed on a clear desk by Vega and two visible puppeteers, the piece follows Django on a series of adventures. His suicide attempt is interrupted by an overexcited dog with whom he slowly forms a bond. The playwright often interacts with his inventions, his inner monologue taking the form of an astute vulture. While the story has gloomy themes, there are also absurdist images such as Django eating breakfast with a noose still secured around his neck. These farcical elements prevent Django’s anguish from becoming excruciating for the audience while still honoring the character’s feelings.
Vega’s dialogue isn’t distinctive nor is it a particularly important element for success. The visuals are what is essential to the narrative and they are inventive and impactful. Many types of puppets are employed including Indonesian style shadow puppets and traditional stringed puppets. The shadows are often as prominent as the characters and set pieces, well-representing the dark and lighter moods battling for attention. As Django’s outlook brightens, so too does the palette employed. Music with a Spanish flavor written by Cristóbal MarYán heightens the mood. Headphones may improve your streaming experience.
Django in Pain serves as an important reminder of the powers of connection and accountability. Whatever our circumstances, there is always an opportunity to develop our own story. Originally commissioned by PlayCo, the production is streaming from 59e59.org as part of their Plays in Place series. Runtime is 56 minutes including Vega’s introduction: essential for comprehending the ending of the play. Narration is available in both English and Spanish. $15 tickets are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/django-in-pain-streaming/ and can be used on demand through October 19. Due to the intensity of the content, there is a viewer advisory.
Closing out the San Francisco Playhouse’s 2020-2021 season is Starting Here, Starting Now, comprised of 24 songs with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire. The lively and upbeat musical review was originally created to save the Manhattan Theater Club’s then-new nightclub space. The songs are taken from shows that either never got produced or closed prematurely, so they have that familiar-yet-not feel. Maltby directed the original production while Shire shored up the work with newly created connective tissue. Performed in this instance by a cast of four (one more than the original production) the show is an often humorous exploration of relationships of various dimensions, some made modern with a gender-bending twist. Each piece is sung in character — though those change throughout — so they require solid actors to make them work. Equally important to their success is the jazzy trio, placed behind them right on the stage.
Directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Nicole Helfer, this incarnation moves breezily along for 90 minutes not including intermission. Though the cast members are all seasoned performers, it is Keith Pinto who demonstrates the most strength from his perfect articulation of rapid lyrics to his physical antics and sincere engagement with the audience. He elicits laughs in We Can Talk to Each Other and knowing nods in I Don’t Remember Christmas. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won the Tony Award for his turn as Angel in Rent, provides a gentler and more touching tone in solos including A Girl Should Know. Rinabeth Apostol adds bad ass energy in I’m Going to Make You Beautiful and several duets. Melissa Wolfklain rounds out the ensemble with quick wit, though she sometimes missed a note. (She sings my favorite in the line-up, Crossword Puzzle.)
Costume designer Rachael Heiman has wisely outfitted the cast elegantly in pure white, the better to project whatever is needed as they move swiftly from character to character. The set designed by Heather Kenyon has a touch of nightclub flair, especially as lit by Kurt Landisman in an array of rainbow shades. The musical trio, under the musical direction of David Dobrusky on piano with Amanda Wu on bass and Russ Gold handling percussion, is top notch and well suited to sharing the spotlight.
Like aural chicken soup for your tired soul, Starting Here, Starting Now goes down easy and leaves a warm feeling behind. There is no twisted plot to follow or deep roles to keep straight, just pleasing harmonies, light movement, and plenty of charm. It is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse at 450 Post Street in San Francisco with strict COVID-19 protocols in place ( https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/covid-safety/. ) It is also available to stream online, which is how I was able to enjoy it all the way in New York City. Tickets are available for either format at sfplayhouse.org for performances though October 2. In-person tickets are $30-$100; with access to the On Demand video starting at $15.
Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is colliding with fame rather than experiencing a gentle brush with it. Similar to Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines,” Robbie’s catchy “Bad Decision” (written in our world by Max Vernon and Helen Park) is a hit that is being met with charges of plagiarism and backlash for what some perceive as “rapey” lyrics. Unlike Thicke, who brashly defended himself (and was ultimately fined millions of dollars and served with divorce papers), Robbie internalizes every boo from the audience. In deep need of a mental break, he has ditched his upbeat manager, Joe (Reggie D. White), and taken a multi-motivated cab ride to his hometown of Pottsville. His return engagement begins with his devoted music teacher, Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh), who shares headlines from the nearly 12 years since he moved to the west coast. He is her success story and she serves as a surprisingly insightful mother figure. She also has an adopted daughter, Tina (Monica Ho), who was once Robbie’s best friend with ambitious dreams of her own. But Joe has visions of sold-out tours and five album deals and won’t leave his star act alone with his memories for long.
Lauren Yee’s The Song of the Summer —a romantic comedy with music — is certainly lighter than her breakthrough Cambodian Rock Band and might better fit this moment when audience members are trepidatiously returning to theaters. Robbie and Tina have the lively chemistry of many odd couples. Robbie’s meandering decision-making is sheathed in luck while Tina’s more directed path has taken many unplanned hairpin turns. Kahn in particular is a believably awkward and loving teen in flashbacks. But though the playwright reveals the roots of Robbie’s self criticism and esteem issues, she only gives us the briefest whiff of his potential to climb out of the pit and blossom. It’s a frustratingly thin resolution to Robbie’s genuine problems and our mostly enjoyable 90 minutes with him.
Director Bill English employs his usual skill in developing all of the relationships. Quieter connections are never overshadowed with comedic business. His scenic design is equally artful in bringing small-town warmth and eccentricity to the visuals. Mrs. C’s worn, skirted furniture fits her as well as her housecoat by costume designer Stephanie Dittbern. And one can practically smell the beer and cigarettes in the tacky karaoke bar. Projections by Teddy Hulsker slowly snap into place, filling out the setting. The exception is a distracting and seemingly unnecessary hobo bag that constrains Tina’s movement in the critical final scenes.
San Francisco Playhouse is thoughtfully offering this work On Demand as well as a live performance. However, after serving up several beautifully filmed productions, this is delivered as a back-of-the-house live stream. Whatever benefit is gained from the sense of immediacy is greatly offset by jerky camera work and flawed audio that loses many of Ms. Ho’s more intimate lines.
The Song of the Summer is a good natured if slight diversion. In-person performances at 450 Post Street in San Francisco have reduced audience capacity and safety protocols in place. The on-demand video stream will be available throughout the run which ends on August 14, 2021. Tickets for either version begin at $15 and can be purchased at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-song-of-summer/.