There are a select few musicals that, despite bombing during their original New York productions, have been produced with surprising regularity by regional theaters across the country, often with revised books. Some have been kind-of fixed, like Merrily We Roll Along or Candide, both of which can make for wonderful entertainment, if not great musicals in and of themselves. Others, such as Anyone Can Whistle or Mack & Mabel, simply don’t work, regardless of who tinkers with what. The reason why such shows continue to be produced despite flaws is that they fulfill two specific criteria. First, they need a wonderful score, the kind that makes the show on record seem like a surefire hit. Secondly, they need a subject matter that sounds interesting enough on paper to make theatre companies think that they will be the first to “crack” the material where others have failed. Such is the case with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley’s production of Rags, which ultimately does not come together to create a satisfying evening of theatre, but offers enough of interest to reveal why companies still keep giving Rags a shot.
What can great theatre, the very best theatre, do to an audience? That answer tends to change depending on the show. We can leave the theatre crying our eyes out, reeling from having our perspectives of the world totally shifted, or nursing our aching stomachs from laughing so hard for so long. But perhaps my own favorite kinds of theatre are the plays that seek to frighten an audience out of their wits. Really effective horror plays like The Pillowman or Bug can make it difficult to sleep at night, but the kind of horror that works even better is designed to scare an audience in a cosmological sense. The 21st century has brought with it a smattering of plays that seek to do this and do so very well, namely plays like The Humans, Hand to God, or Marjorie Prime—each one terrifying; each one a masterpiece. Perhaps rising above all others in this respect is Annie Baker’s staggering masterwork John, her 2015 follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, which is currently being produced in San Francisco through April 23rd by the American Conservatory Theatre.
There is a rather wide-reaching stereotype of pretentious avant-garde theatre, put on mostly by young people in tiny performance spaces, choosing to lecture their paying audience about social issues that most of the audience already sympathizes with a hand as heavy as lead. It is therefore understandable if my description of The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair, playing at Z Space in San Francisco through April 16th, being really and truly avant-garde, completely cools you from the idea of going to see it. And there is no guarantee that you will not hate it beyond words—I heard more than two people say that it was the worst thing they’ve experienced in their life after the show was over—but this reviewer managed to be intrigued and engaged for the entire performance.
Needles and Opium is less of a genuine play than a piece of performance art. Consisting of a series of vignettes about the lives of Robert LePage, the French-Canadian director of the show, French writer/director/visual artist Jean Cocteau, and legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, the work is presented on a giant three dimensional cube that rotates and is suspended above the audience, lit by extremely elaborate projections while the actors either move balletically around the set or are suspended on wires. There are genuine theatrical scenes, however, so I do not feel inappropriate reviewing in in this space, which is designed for the review of theatre.
It’s rare that a play comes along that is as intensely personal as The Baltimore Waltz. Seeing Paula Vogel’s 1992 play is like getting a private window into the author’s soul laid bare. Such autobiographical works can be devastatingly rewarding when done correctly, but also have a tendency to fall apart at the seams if the author lets their emotions get in the way of their dramaturgical instincts. Thankfully, while the edges of The Baltimore Waltz are slightly frayed, the play still amasses to a highly moving evening of theatre. Paula Vogel will get her long overdue Broadway debut later this month with Indecent, but west coast theatergoers are also given a great opportunity to celebrate the always innovative playwright at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, which is producing a top-notch revival of the play in celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary.
It’s great fun to be a contrarian. While I hope that every show I get to see ends up being a masterpiece, there’s a sense of satisfaction that I love to have when I see a show that everyone else praises to high heaven and I get to set the record straight on how good the show actually is. Such is the case with Hamilton, in which my much more reserved thoughts will doubtless be ignored by the thousands of people willing to drop thousands of dollars on the show, but I will still enjoy telling people who haven’t seen it yet that “it’s fine, but really, not worth the hype”.
San Francisco Bay Area theatre companies, ever ambitious, have an unusual penchant for developing new work to go hand-in-hand with their productions of newer plays and classic revivals. This lends a level of excitement to companies in the area, making them feel that they are pushing the boundary instead of just holding down the fort. Occasionally, this can produce great work, like Barry Eitel’s unmistakably San Franciscan The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. But the challenges of world premieres in the stead of producing the greatest shows of the last five years in New York can have its downfall. When companies get their pick of the litter from New York shows, they have a much higher chance of choosing great material, but a new piece is always a shot in the dark.