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.
San Franciscans once again have the chance to go see a major musical during its pre-Broadway tryout, getting to see a rough draft of a show that will assumably make the transfer to Broadway in the fall or next spring if all goes well. The last production to try out in San Francisco was Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which was a true smash hit when it made it to Broadway back in 2014, still raking in the cash today, three years later. The same producers as Beautiful have brought in Roman Holiday, a musical based on the 1953 romantic comedy film that launched Audrey Hepburn’s career and is today considered to be one of the most iconic films of the classic Hollywood era that uses Cole Porter standards to comprise its musical score.
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.
Entering the Curran theatre’s gorgeously renovated house to a see a performance of The Encounter, one is immediately struck by the presence of headphones at every seat in the house. Listening devices have become commonplace in the modern theatre world for hard of hearing patrons, but this appears to be something new entirely. Indeed, The Encounter, a one-man show directed and performed by one Simon McBurney, uses headphones for the show’s entire sonic output, which uses a variety of sound effects and binaural microphones onstage to create a sort of soundscape to accompany the relatively minimal action that happens onstage.
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.
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”.