Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

2017 Bay Area theatre in review


Georgia Engel played a B&B host whose guests (Stacey Yen and Joe Paulik) are at the start of a vacation they will never forget in John at ACT's Strand Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne
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My goodness, but hasn't this been a most interesting year? Bay Area theaters found ways both direct and oblique to reflect on the state of the union. And plays written before this most interesting year often resonate in new ways that can seem prescient. Here are 10 excellent productions seen in 2017 that provoke the stoutest memories, and are presented here in no particular order.

"John" Theater can offer pleasures in the moment, but even better are those that continue to resonate after the curtain has come down. This was the case with Annie Baker's "John," presented by ACT at the Strand Theater in a three-hour production of bewitching allure. Returning to the role she created in New York, Georgia Engel used her familiar breathy voice as something of an undercover provocateur who ever-so-innocently leads her B&B guests into explosive soul-searching.

Phil Wong, James Seol, Hansel Tan, and Sean Fenton played the title characters in the comic book-inspired world-premiere musical The Four Immigrants at TheatreWorks. Photo: Kevin Berne.

"The Four Immigrants" This TheatreWorks world premiere was a comic-strip musical, and assertively so. The musical's primary source is a collection of cartoon panels by Henry Yoshita Kiyama, who was illustrating his own experiences as an aspiring artist from Japan just arrived in San Francisco a century ago. It's the tale of four buddies whose dreams of easy assimilation are dashed, but their optimism remains. Min Kahng's script uses stylized vignettes often musically illustrated by catchy songs, and it all came together in Leslie Martinson's stylish staging.

"Hand to God" Playwright Robert Askins provided shocks of increasing intensity in the story of a church kid who is unable to remove a satanically obsessed hand puppet from his limb. The heart and soul of director David Ivers' excellent Berkeley Rep production came from Michael Doherty as alter egos good-boy Jason and his monstrous puppet Tyrone. Very profane and very fun.

"Barbecue" Robert O'Hara's play provoked a lot of post-show parsing, and if the details didn't always make sense in the moment, there are vivid memories held from San Francisco Playhouse's production. The playwright at first seems to be challenging us to compare reactions to a racial flip as a white family and then a black family of high dysfunctions each try to stage a drug intervention. But then a series of head-spinning twists was smartly wrought by director Margo Hall and the large cast of vivid characters.

"Assassins" This musical is always going to have a queasy edge, being about folks who tried, and sometimes succeeded, in killing U.S. presidents. But director Daren A.C. Carollo and Bay Area Musicals hit all the right notes in the Stephen Sondheim-John Weidman musical, and captured its moral ambiguities and unexpected humor in a handsome production.

"Smut: An Unseemly Story" Word for Word is a company dedicated to creating stage works from short stories without changing the authors' prose, and the presentation taken from Alan Bennett's "Smut" collection was a sublime manifestation of its mission. Director Amy Kossow was assisted by a delightful cast as she brought Bennett's wit to the stage in "The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson," the tale of a recent widow who is definitely not going gently into that good night.

Adam Harris and Michael Hanna played lovers with an uneasy acceptance of each other’s political views in the world premiere of “This Bitter Earth” at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema

"This Bitter Earth" Racial politics filtered through gentle humor and well-observed minutiae that encouraged warm involvement in Harrison David Rivers' play. Commissioned by New Conservatory Theatre Center, it had its world premiere there in a keenly sensitive production. Director Ed Decker confidently took it through the layers of a relationship between a politically apathetic African-American playwright and his Black Lives Matter-impassioned white boyfriend.

"New Girl in Town" This 1957 Broadway musical was part of 42nd Street Moon's first season under new management, and it certainly stepped up the production power for these purveyors of small-scale productions of lesser-seen musicals. "New Girl," based on Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie," was a strained amalgam of Broadway talents twisting a grim story of a worn-out prostitute into a musical comedy of modest success. In the smaller scale with which 42nd Street Moon operates, director Daren A.C. Carollo's "New Girl" proved to be merry entertainment about a sketchy lot along the waterfront.

"Small Mouth Sounds" The sounds of silence rang loudly in Bess Wohl's provocatively taciturn play presented at ACT's Strand Theatre. The attendees at a self-help retreat have been forbidden to speak, turning efforts at communication with strangers into an intriguing, confrontational, and humorous affair. Rachel Chavkin, who directed the original 2015 New York production, worked with a new cast here who wore the characters like second skins. Their predicaments were voyeuristically enjoyable to watch, but you might have been able to see bits of yourself scattered among these characters who are all just seeking a little bit more.

"Deal With the Dragon" The devil is in the details of this riff on Faustian bargains, with Kevin Rolston portraying multiple characters in his tantalizing solo play at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Directed by and developed with M. Graham Smith, the play contains keen observances of various characters' quirks in the story of a promising artist and his inflammably testy patron. Rolston astutely moved among the characters, a process highlighted in a monologue by a third character that evolves into a confessional of self-flagellation, and that becomes something like an aria.


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