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.
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.
The Roommate, Jen Silverman’s 2015 comedy, premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, and has made the rounds of America’s professional regional companies since, including the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Baltimore Everyman Theatre. Now, it has arrived at the San Francisco Playhouse, the Bay Area’s top theatre company. While it’s doubtful that the play will ever win any major awards, it’s frequently very funny and is a showcase for two actresses of a high calibre to do what they do best: act up a storm.
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.
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.
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”