SF CHRONICLE: Moments that defined Bay Area theater in 2019

by Lily Janiak, published December 10, 2019 by Datebook San Francisco Chronicle










Justin Howard plays Avery (left) and Ari Rampy plays Rose in Shotgun Players’ “The Flick.” Photo: Ben Krantz Studio, Shotgun Players


One of the many joys of my job is that the instant I convince myself I have some grasp on the Bay Area theater scene, it transforms. One new company is born; another takes a giant leap forward. One actor plays against type; another gets the chance to unlock new depths.

Below are some of the moments, trends, news and performances that changed Bay Area theater in 2019, followed by my favorite shows of the year.


Sophie Bortolussi (upper left) and Geoff Sobelle with Justin Rose (on the stairs, right), Jennifer Kidwell (stairs, center) and Ching Valdes-Aran, in “Home,” a giant house party of a production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Photo: Kevin Berne, Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Audience participation that’s not horrible
If you’re like me, the very phrase “audience participation” makes you search for your imaginary invisibility cloak or concentrate really hard on melting into a puddle so you can seep into the bowels of the Earth and hide.

But in 2019, theater broke the fourth wall in ways that weren’t invasive but gentle and welcoming, that used the audience as part of a broader artistic vision, not as a gimmick. “Home” at Berkeley Rep gave us all a seat at the table of a giant house party, making us co-conspirators in great feats of decorating and celebrating. “Nassim” at Magic Theatre made its audience the helpers of an unrehearsed actor, that we might all feel together and in a new way what it means to be a cultural outsider.


Vladimir Putin (Curt Branom) in “Putin on the Ritz” in Steve SilverÕs Beach Blanket Babylon, the world’s longest running musical revue, performing at Club Fugazi in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Photo Credit: Rick Markovich


Beach Blanket Babylon’s coming to a close
When the world’s longest-running musical revue announced in April that it would don its enormous wacky wigs and hats for the last time on New Year’s Eve, it was a bit as if San Francisco announced it would be casting a neighborhood off into the bay, nixing cable car service or taking a wrecking ball to Coit Tower. It’s still hard to imagine the city without its most famous theatrical ambassador, whose millinery is known around the world, and we’ll probably be reckoning with that void for a long time.


Carole Shorenstein Hays speaks as The Curran Theatre announces its four show 2018 main stage season in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, January 17, 2018.


BroadwaySF parts ways with Carole Shorenstein Hays
It was the legal battle that only got more complicated the harder you tried to understand it.

From 1977 to 2010, Carole Shorenstein Hays had been co-president of SHN (now called BroadwaySF). Then in 2014 she gave up her leadership role while still co-owning it, concentrating on programming the Curran theater. Then, while she still co-owned SHN, SHN alleged her shows at the Curran — including “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — broke a non-compete clause and sued to block the productions. In August, finally, the two settled and permanently severed their partnership, which should allow San Francisco’s two biggest for-profit theatrical enterprises to fully devote their resources to making theater.


Donald E. Lacy Jr. (left) and Anna Maria Luera in Campo Santo’s “Candlestick,” performed at ACT’s Costume Shop. Photo: Joan Osato, Campo Santo.


Campo Santo’s ‘Candlestick’
I’ve always thought of my sports-fan self and my theater-lover self as separate; depending on who I’m talking to, one or the other always feels shameful. But Campo Santo’s world premiere about 49ers fans during the team’s last season at Candlestick Park brought those two spheres together for me.

Fandom isn’t just about a corporate-owned team, Bennett Fisher’s play pointed out. It’s an expression of family and identity and love and community. It’s staking a claim on a place. It has a lot more in common with theater than I tend to think, and we’ve only just begun to explore what could be a very fertile intersection.


Fred, played by Ryan Morales (left), Raj, played by Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, and Joan, portrayed by Susi Damilano, take a conference call with corporate CEO John Dale, played by Craig Marker (on screen) in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Yoga Play.” Photo: Jessica Palopoli, San Francisco Playhouse.


Craig Marker’s performance in ‘Yoga Play’
Craig Marker has long been one of the most reliable and versatile leading men in the Bay Area, equally at home in classical and contemporary work, making villains likable, making character flaws relatable. So bless San Francisco Playhouse for letting us see still another side of this magnificent actor in Dipika Guha’s comedy about a Lululemon-like corporation.

Marker’s performance as a loopy CEO and would-be guru channeled every oblivious, self-important boss you’ve ever had, just from his glassy gaze and strung-out vocals. He was a man on another planet, and Marker beamed him to Earth.


Teenager Dwayne Clay often carried the show as Tiny in “Kill Move Paradise,” produced by Shotgun Players in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Photo: Robbie Sweeny, Shotgun Players in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.


Dwayne Clay’s performance in ‘Kill Move Paradise’
Dwayne Clay’s bio in Shotgun Players’ playbill said he was just 15 years old. When he tumbled onto the stage as the character Tiny in James Ijames’ play, the other three characters, all older, took ferocious exception. What they had been through, as unarmed black victims, was already too much, and he was simply too young, and he looked it.

Clay’s acting only astonished further. He made the thoughtful, finely shaded, committed choices of a much more veteran actor, occasionally carrying the show. What would happen, it made me wonder, if we more regularly made space for local youth on our stages?


Isabelle (Sherman Fracher, right) visits her imprisoned daughter, Joan (Rosie Hallett), in Marin Theatre Company’s “Mother of the Maid.”


History reframed
The way we perceive ourselves and others in the world comes in large part from the histories we’ve absorbed, but history’s victors have traditionally shaped those stories to justify their positions. Local theater this year has worked to right that imbalance, mapping the obscure and putting the marginalized at the center of historical narratives.

In Those Women Productions’ “Witch Hunt,” the white girls and women of the Salem witch trials took a backseat to Tituba, the Native American woman who was the first accused of witchcraft. A mother to a hero became the protagonist in “Mother of the Maid,” at Marin Theatre Company, and Asian and Asian American stories got told from within in Magic Theatre’s “The Chinese Lady,” and the Marsh’s “The Box Without a Bottom,” instead of from a white gaze, with its tendency to whitewash or exoticize.


The Messenger (Meera Rohit Kumbhani, left) shares wisdom with Daanya (Avanthika Srinivasan) in ACT’s “Testmatch.”


Pushing the boundaries of theatrical structure

Theatrical time doesn’t have to be linear. It can circle back like an Ouroboros or veer off course or leap into the unknown and leave no trace. Tone and style can shatter from one scene to its successor. Dialogue needn’t hew to realism; it can burst or gush or spin like a top or dance a private jig.

Experimentation flourished in Bay Area theater this year, especially in Poltergeist Theatre Project’s “The Julie Cycle,” foolsFURY’s “Dionysus Was Such a Nice Man” and ACT’s “Testmatch.”


Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) performs one last time at the Kit Kat Klub in “Cabaret” at San Francisco Playhouse.


San Francisco Playhouse’s ‘Cabaret’
I thought I had decent sense of how San Francisco Playhouse does musicals: generally solid production values, but an orchestra that often sounded under-rehearsed and tinny, a bit like an afterthought. The company’s production of the Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb musical showed just how far it’s come since I formed that assessment.

Dave Dobrusky’s music direction of a six-piece band created not just a professional sound, but a full and sumptuous one that matched the caliber of Nicole Helfer’s zingy choreography, the craftsmanship of Jacquelyn Scott’s set design and especially the singing of Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles, who deployed her throaty voice as a virtuoso cowgirl twirls her lasso.

For me, this “Cabaret” proved that however you think about a theater company, keep your opinion constantly and rigorously open to amendment.


Former American Conservatory Theater faculty member Stephen Buescher sued ACT for racial discrimination, opening a public discussion of the issue. Photo: Jessica Christian, The Chronicle.


Lawsuit against American Conservatory Theater
When former ACT faculty member Stephen Buescher sued his past employer for racial discrimination, he brought into the open conversations the theater industry typically keeps clandestine.

The suit, now settled, alleged among other grievances that Buescher was barred entry from his place of work and that he was underpaid, both because of his race, and that the culture at ACT was hostile to people of color, including students.

Theater workers often feel like they can’t lodge complaints against their employers, because opportunities, especially those that pay a living wage, are scarce. Buescher’s going public will hopefully encourage others to do the same, while also spurring theaters across the region and the country to look deeply and honestly at their own institutional biases and make change — not just for legal cover, but because artists can probably make better art when they’re not afraid of racial oppression.


Phil Wong (left), Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and J Jha perform in California Shakespeare Theater’s “The Good Person of Szechwan.” Photo: Kevin Berne, California Shakespeare Theater.