Once again we find ourselves at the end of the calendar year, and while most sane humans are taking this time to surround themselves with family and friends in preparation for the new year, the folks who have completely lost their minds—theatre people, as we might term them—use the end of the year to qualify and quantify the theatre performances that they were lucky enough to see throughout the preceding year.
Britain’s Royal National Theatre, which has an annual budget that could make any of America’s fine regional theaters boil with anger, has perfected a model of high-budget playmaking with large casts and technical dazzle that turns many of their products into must-see events, a rarity for straight plays in an age that heavily favors musical theatre. War Horse, a National Theatre production, hit the brass gong when it transferred to Broadway in 2011 and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on the ever-popular novel by Mark Haddon, raked in the cash during its 2014 Broadway run, which lasted over two years. Now, the National’s production of The Curious Incident has made its way to San Francisco on tour, where it once again has become theatre du-jour for eggheaded San Franciscans looking for something highbrow to do with their teenage children, who are doubtless reading Haddon’s novel in their seventh grade english class.
Even the most major playwright has her fair share of minor works, the ones that tend to go by the wayside after the author’s death. For every Long Day’s Journey Into Night there is a Desire Under the Elms; every Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a Clothes for a Summer Hotel. Such is the case with Rajiv Joseph, the prolific and intelligent playwright whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2011, and whose The North Pool, an 85-minute two-character drama currently in production at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, carries with it the distinct note of being a footnote to larger works by the same author.
In an age which has become brow-beaten by simply how much everyone living today has seen, the concept of being made uncomfortable by that which is new can be a slightly alien concept. This is true in life and perhaps even more true in art. In an era where the hyper-violent Game of Thrones is the single most culturally relevant piece of current pop culture, Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar, and most popular music has been sexualized to the point of diminishing returns, finding a piece of art that is invigoratingly, aggressively different from any perceived norm can be quite an uncomfortable experience, but it can also be vital and arrestingly beautiful if done correctly. Such is the case with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon, his 2014 play currently in a production at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which can be initially off-putting, but offers tremendous rewards for those willing to give it a chance.
There is a common phenomenon in modern playwriting that this reviewer likes to dub: “the revelation of a micro-aggression”. This is a moment within a play in which one character says something seemingly innocuous to another character, which that second character calls out for being subtly racist, sexist, classist, or judgmental of some sort. This being theatre, where, unless you’re an Annie Baker or a Kenneth Lonergan, everything has to mean something, this seemingly harmless comment is actually almost invariably a physical manifestation of a gargantuan chasm of hatred that exists within the first character’s soul. Prime examples of this phenomenon include prize-winning works like Disgraced or Clybourne Park, but perhaps have never existed more potently than in Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, which is currently playing in its world-premiere production through the San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series at the Strand Theatre.
It’s doubtful that many people still remember Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 film The Toxic Avenger nowadays. Perhaps the epitome of B-Movie campy body horror, the film is one of the single most nauseating experiences this reviewer has ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The story of a dweeb-y mop boy at a New Jersey health club who becomes a hyper-violent vigilante after a group of sociopathic sex-crazed exercise nuts chase him into a vat of nonspecific toxic waste, the film appears to be expressly made for the purpose of being watched while high, while those who are sober are left to ponder the film’s many gross-out moments without the refuge of a marijuana haze. In short, it is a truly terrible movie, not only in its violence, but in its writing, direction, and especially acting.
The Magic Theatre, which recently just mounted two legacy revivals of plays that were produced at the Magic early on in their respective lives (Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz), has returned to their original mission of producing world premieres with Han Ong’s new play Grandeur, about the life of Gil Scott-Heron, the spoken word poet who is generally considered to be, along with Coke La Rock, the very first rap artist. While the play is a rarefied experience and formally almost diametrically opposed to rap music, there’s no doubt that Grandeur is the first draft of a major American drama, and while it doesn’t appear to be finished in its current production, it still shows enough sparks of genius to be absolutely worth a trek to the Marina District in San Francisco to see it.