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.
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.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, currently being presented at the American Conservatory Theatre, is a major theatrical event no matter how you slice it. Khaled Hosseini’s 2007 novel was a literary sensation, the follow-up novel to the 2003 cultural event that was The Kite Runner and a New York Times #1 bestseller for fifteen weeks after publication. It is therefore automatically of note that the first major adaptation is being presented not on Broadway, but in San Francisco, where it is running until the end of February. Not having read the novel, I cannot speak to its quality, nor can I speak to how well playwright Ursula Rani Sarma has adapted the material for the stage, but I can say with some assurance that A Thousand Splendid Suns simply doesn’t work as a piece of stagecraft, being both overly-melodramatic and unfortunately shallow, despite good intentions. Continue reading “Review: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” at American Conservatory Theatre”
The American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Indian Ink, the previous Tom Stoppard piece to play in San Francisco, ranks among the worst things I saw in 2015. One might thus be able to understand my reluctance at attending The Hard Problem, the company’s newest production of a Stoppard opus, especially given the play’s rather tepid reception during its London premiere. However, I am pleased to report that The Hard Problem is a very fine evening of theatre. It’s not the best thing that either the Conservatory or Stoppard has done, but a solid two-base hit that takes Stoppard’s own hyper-intellectualism and boils it down for a broader audience.