Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: 2013’s Most Memorable Theater Moments

Marissa Skudlarek jumps on the end of year list bandwagon.

“Nothing is forever in the theater. Whatever it is, it’s here, it flares up, burns hot, and then it’s gone.”

—Karen (Celeste Holm) in All About Eve

Theater is an ephemeral art, so I’m dedicating my last column of the year to celebrating five of my most memorable theatergoing moments in 2013. I don’t quite consider this an official “best of” or “top five” list; it’s more a record of five times in 2013 when theater did what it ought to do: surprised me, jolted me, thrilled me. They are arranged in chronological order.

Act Two of Troublemaker, at Berkeley Rep – I didn’t find Dan LeFranc’s comedy-drama about a troubled middle-school boy 100% effective, but parts of it delighted me beyond measure. As I wrote on my blog at the time: “Act One toggles back and forth between realism and stylization; Act Two goes completely nuts; and Act Three brings it back down to earth to for a more naturalistic, emotional resolution. That second act, though, man… it might be the craziest thing I’ve seen at a Big Theater in a long time. There’s a soup kitchen populated by homeless pirate zombies, the rich kid lounges on a divan as “Goldfinger” plays, our heroes do an unconvincing drag act (leading up to a gay kiss that managed to draw gasps from the liberal-Berkeley audience), Bradley’s smart and mouthy friend Loretta turns into a pint-sized femme fatale… I watched it in disbelief and giddy delight that Berkeley Rep was producing this in such lavish style.”

Finale of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, at Kazino (NYC) – This show is a sung-through, pop-opera adaptation of the section of War and Peace where young Natasha Rostova nearly runs off with a lothario named Anatole. I had seen Dave Malloy’s earlier Russian-themed musical Beardo at Shotgun Players and felt ambivalent about it: it was very clever, but also very arch, and it kept me emotionally distant. The opening scenes of Natasha, Pierre had some of that same winking irony, but by the end, it became heart-on-sleeve sincere. Despite war, scandal, and Russian melancholia, Natasha and Pierre achieve a measure of peace and understanding — symbolized by the passing of the great comet (itself represented by a beautiful chandelier). What began as a boisterous Russian party ended on a note of subtle delicacy. Shotgun, or some other Bay Area company, had better plan to produce this as soon as the rights become available, because I want to see it again.

End of Act One of A Maze, at Just Theater – If a play is titled A Maze, you can’t fault its first act for being puzzling and mysterious. Rob Handel’s script interweaves four different stories, three of them basically realistic and one a strange fairy tale or fable. At the end of Act One, though, all of the stories come together in a way that seems obvious in hindsight, but is completely astonishing (amazing?) in the moment when it occurs. I saw a lot of full-length plays this year, but A Maze was the one where I couldn’t wait for intermission to be over because I had to know what would happen in Act Two. I can’t go into any more detail than that, because it would be a spoiler; but if you want to experience this moment for yourself, Just Theater will be re-mounting its production in February 2014.

Ellen’s Undone, at the San Francisco Olympians Festival – Sam Hurwitt is one of my favorite Bay Area theater critics; his reviews are thoughtful and candid, and my tastes seem to align pretty well with his. But knowing what makes a good play doesn’t guarantee that you can also write a good play. Hurwitt, though, made an impressive playwriting debut with Ellen’s Undone, a contemporary interpretation of the Helen of Troy story. It’s a full-length play with just two characters, one set, and two long scenes – constraints that would challenge even a far more experienced playwright. This 100-minute argument between two smart, stubborn, acidly witty people reminded me of nothing so much as a modern-day Noel Coward comedy (perhaps it helped that Maggie Mason employed her natural English accent to play Ellen). A triumph for Hurwitt and for the San Francisco Olympians Festival as well – which continues to present an impressive variety of new theater every year.

Tinker Bell’s death scene in Peter/Wendy, at Custom Made – J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan depicts a whimsical world, where children can fly by thinking happy thoughts, and even the villains are comically blustering or incompetent. Still, there are darker and more adult undercurrents throughout, which burst to the forefront in the scene where Tink drinks poison to save Peter’s life. Anya Kazimierski (Tink) was honest and raw and terrifying in her death scene, and then there was a long moment as Sam Bertken (Peter) cradled Tink’s body and regarded the audience, seemingly trying to make eye contact with every single person there, stretching out the tension until we could hardly stand it. Finally – and without Sam needing to ask us the famous question – someone in the row behind me piped up “I believe in fairies!” And then another person in another section: “I believe in fairies!” It was a magical moment because the play got a little out of control from what the actors had expected; it was a magical moment because we, as an audience, were all in it together.

These were five of the moments where everything clicked for me, as an audience member watching a performance. But they wouldn’t happen without those moments earlier in the theater-making process where everything clicks for the cast and crew – those miraculous moments in the rehearsal room where you realize that, oh wow, this is actually going to work. So I also want to acknowledge some of my most memorable moments as a playwright: my living-room reading of Orphée last January, when I learned that my translation was playable; the first read-through of Teucer, in which actors Eli Diamond and Carl Lucania were already firing on all cylinders; rehearsing my one-minute play Cultural Baggage and making some subtle cuts so that its three overlapping monologues fit together perfectly. To everyone who made these and all of my theater experiences of 2013 possible, thank you.

Like a great comet, theater flares up, burns hot, and then it’s gone.

And I do believe in fairies.

Marissa Skudlarek wishes you a New Year sprinkled with fairy dust.

Pansy Blog Post #1: Make Believe A Little

Today we launch a new semi-monthly guest blog by Bay Area writer/actor Evan Johnson, who will be chronicling his process as he brings his new show, Pansy, to life at the New Conservatory.


I must’ve known already, at least on some level, that the Boy Who Never Grew Up was actually a middle aged woman with a pixie haircut, strapped down breasts and a pouch full of plastic glitter confetti. But it was 1993 and I was 7 years old and that whole “suspension of disbelief thing” still really worked because I clapped harder than anyone during Tinker Bell’s near-death scene; it was my clapping, I felt, that helped save her life.

PANSY opens in June. 3 years in the making. It’s the most ambitious project I’ve ever worked on. What started as an investigation of the queer shadow aspects of Sir James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story has eventually transformed itself into something more immediate, more local and more magical. I have been working with the ingenious Ben Randle, a local theatre director who was introduced to me by Ed Decker, producing Artistic Director at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, where PANSY has been in development since 2010.

Ben and I were set adrift, making this script, on our metaphoric raft of make believe, escape, sex, shadows, time and growing up. On these themes we rode till we arrived at the second star from the right.

Peter Pan was the first play I ever saw. I spent years after first seeing Cathy Rigby fly above my head, bent over lit birthday cakes and wishing for one thing only, as I extinguished each little flame: to fly. It was cheesy, impossible and sensationally sentimental. That was my childhood, though, hours and hours of playtime spent making myself believe in things beyond all doubt. I was Peter Pan and everyone else was everyone else. I deluded myself on purpose, for what purpose?

I grew up in the shadows of giant redwood trees, where I’d chase moving specks of light in the forest as a favorite pastime. I was lucky to have a truly gorgeous palette of colors to amuse and inspire me, rich earthy browns with green moss and ferns everywhere.

THE GAY 90’s

In the same “wrinkle in time”, also in San Francisco, as I was being sprinkled with confetti pixie dust, a lot of people were dealing with loss on a scale so horrific I can only imagine. Hidden from me of course, as a child, somewhere in the shadows, AIDS deaths were severely on the rise globally; reality for many was a tangled mess of pharmaceutical legislation and social stigmas.

Also in 1993, exactly 20 years ago now, queer punk fashions, music and culture were in full swing. Pansy Division, a local sex-positive “queercore” band, had just released their first LP. Parties like Club Uranus and Klubstitute provided escape and revelry to “femmes” in black leather jackets. Drugs, sex and music were escape from the harsh realities of funerals and fundraising for survival. Punk and club-kid aesthetics gave a lot of newcomers to the city a new community to be proud of.

Fast forward to the present. And to my play PANSY. See, I’m 27 years old and still writing plays and playing make believe.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes “Juxtaposition” as “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side; also : the state of being so placed.”

In crafting PANSY, I’ve created a “2-character/split-timeframe solo play” in which a modern day lost boy homosexual connects with a deceased lost boy homosexual via artifacts left behind on VHS tapes.

Actually my elevator pitch is this: “In Evan Johnson’s new solo play PANSY shadows stir in modern day San Francisco when Michael discovers a time capsule in his basement. As Michael looks through VHS tapes, audio cassettes and wrinkled party fliers, parallels begin to emerge between his life and that of 90’s gay club kid Peter Pansy.”

The script, to put it simply, has gone through quite a few changes or “stages of development”. And my mind of course, has been plagued with doubts and reservations. Is this too big a project for me? Am I getting it right? Will the work be flimsy or stale, overwrought or under-researched? I guess THAT’S WHY IT’S TAKEN SO LONG – in case you’re thinking, “3 years, geez! I could write a play in 3 years!” It is however now (mostly) finally complete in a very polished-feeling “rehearsal draft” and we will be putting it up on it’s feet- in front of a real paying audience- in a short matter of months. 3 months to be exact.


Early in the writing process, I was driven by a nostalgic fascination with Peter Pan and by my own feelings of “stunted growth” both internally and externally. The gay community and places like the Castro seemed to be stuck in a state of deep freeze. I had to take stock of these feelings, we made lists and I wrote rants. I wrote “from my generation’s point of view.” Which was weird. But that’s what happened. I mean, we recycle the same liquor sponsored rainbow banners each year in June and we march with our various interest groups. We aren’t as angry as the queers were in the past, hell, maybe we aren’t even as liberated! It feels like we’re all Peter Pans, trying to stay young forever, just acting selfishly out of our own best interests. This was all great fodder for conversations about the piece we were making; so, with my rambling notes and whatnot, off we went to go write a play!

At first, I sought out intergenerational connections and would-be lost bits of insight. I wanted a greater sense of time and place. I wanted to grow up and feel connected to this place as a home.

I felt a tugging and personal sense of responsibility to say something meaningful, anything at all, which might speak to that initial feeling of being stuck in PAUSE mode.


The origins of this piece included also a newfound sense of realism around making work. I guess I had been influenced by my peers, by performing friends of mine who were moving away from making “theatre”. There was a general drive away from making narrative work or work which was dubbed “populist.” People I knew were becoming increasingly preoccupied with performance as public act or witnessed act or contextualized theory. And, to be honest, I was bored at those shows, I was feeling frustrated and I wanted to see and feel something else.

The solo shows from the 80’s and 90’s, for instance, were seeping with cultural significance, that was back when “queer theatre” was radical and vital and images of survival and protest were necessary to our community’s growth and solidarity.

The desire to do so much with this project has at times weighed so heavily on my heart that typing one single line of text became next to impossible. It was too big and I was too small. I think this sense of being dwarfed by all of history and time was desperately wanting some stage time also. So that’s how some of the other threads became full on components of the piece.


Since June of 2010, we’ve hosted two official work in progress showings at NCTC, I have interviewed 17 local queer history keepers about “San Francisco-as-Neverland” and I have worked with two guests dramaturgs, Louis Jenkenson and Steve Yockey, respectively. I have many people to thank and a lot of people I am indebted to.

I will be writing weekly on this blog to chronicle the remaining 3 month process which will culminate in our big fancy World Premiere production. You can look forward to hearing all about how we (Ben and I) get our PANSY baby to fly!

I hope you’ll join me by reading this blog and seeing PANSY in June at NCTC. It should be an awfully big adventure.