Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

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Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.

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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.