50 nifty years onstage
by Richard Dodds
In the event of a birthday cake decorated with 50 candles, the State of California requests you make note of your nearest exit. Two San Francisco theaters have reached the semicentennial stage, and are celebrating in various ways beyond the confectionary. For the Magic Theatre it's another in a series of "legacy" revivals, while ACT is publishing a book to detail its 50-year history.
The Magic first presented the West Coast debut of The Baltimore Waltz in 1992, only weeks after Paula Vogel's breakthrough play had made its debut in New York, and several years before the lesbian playwright won a Pulitzer for How I Learned to Drive. The new production, being directed by Jonathan Moscone, begins performances March 22 with a cast headed by Patrick Alparone and Lauren English as siblings on a vacation together to Europe.
It was the trip that lesbian playwright Vogel never got to make with her own brother, who was working as a San Francisco librarian when AIDS forced him to return to his family in Maryland. "While I was in the halls at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I thought, I have to write this play. There's no other way to get through all this," Vogel said back in 1992. "But after he died in 1988, I then thought, 'I will never write again.'"
But Brown University, which had recently hired her to teach playwriting, gently reminded her that a slot on the tenure track required her to occasionally write plays. "So I literally went to a cabin in the woods," she said, and was prepared to write a play about elderly prostitutes that eventually became Hot n Throbbing. "I had done all the research on that, and then I went, screw that. I'm going to write about Carl."
But she could not deal with the subject head-on, and pulled from the ideas of Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. "He said the thing is not to write into the subject matter but write away from the subject matter," Vogel said. "Then I needed a plot form, and I knew just what form I had to steal: Ambrose Bierce's Incident at Owl Creek ." In Bierce's short story, a Civil War traitor is about to be hung from a train trestle, but as the noose tightens, the rope breaks, and he is able to swim to shore. He makes his way back to his wife and home, when it is revealed all this has happened in his imagination in the split-second before the noose has fatally tightened.
"I could then write the play as if my brother had taken me to Europe, and I could create this imaginary journey," Vogel said. In the play, it is the sister who is suffering from a fatal illness – the fictitious Acquired Toilet Disease – and the siblings search the continent for both hedonistic sexual pleasure and a cure for ATD. The play's actual setting is a hospital room in Baltimore where Carl is dying, with the trip a hallucination of something that never happened.
The published edition of The Baltimore Waltz contains a letter Carl wrote to his sister shortly before his death, and Vogel encourages all theaters who produce the play to include it in their program. It starts, "I thought I would jot down some of my thoughts about the (shall we say) the production values of my ceremony. Well, I want a good show, even though my role has been reduced involuntarily from player to prop."
The Baltimore Waltz will run at the Magic through April 16, with tickets available at magictheatre.org.
Pages & stages at ACT
ACT has announced three of the plays that will be part of its coming season, as well as the publication of a new book detailing the theater's half-century history. Written by ACT's dramaturg Michael Paller, A Five-Act Play: 50 Years of ACT is divided into five chapters: "1967-69: Settling in San Francisco," "The 1970s: Triumph," "1979-89: Disaster," "The 1990s: Rebirth," and "The Millennium: Growth and Renewal."
"In doing the research and interviews for this book," Paller said, "I discovered a story that's incredibly dramatic, like a great play with an unforgettable cast of larger-than-life characters." The book will go on sale next month at the Geary and Strand theaters, as well as at Bay Area bookstores. Preorders are now being taken at act-sf.org/fiveactplay.
As the book looks back, the theater is looking ahead to its 2017-18 season. Three titles have been announced, including ACT's first staging of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party, which will return longtime ACT stalwart Marco Barricelli to the Geary stage. Tony Award-winner Judith Ivey will also star in director Carey Perloff's production.
The Strand Theater will be home to Qui Nguyen's Vietgone, a recent off-Broadway hit that follows three young Vietnamese immigrants escaping their war-torn country for an irreverent road trip through the pop culture of 1970s America.
The Geary will be home to Suzan-Lori Park's Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which tells the story of a Southern slave who leaves his family to join his master to fight with the Confederacy in the Civil War. Park, best-known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, uses the template of Homer's The Odyssey to "smoothly blend the high and the low, the serious and the humorous, the melodramatic and the grittily realistic," according to The New York Times' review of a 2014 production at the Public Theatre.
Four productions are still to be announced, along with performance order and run dates.