It’s Showtime, Bay Area: A Guide to Must-See Theater this Fall

Lauren Spencer and Kathryn Zdan in The Late Wedding; photo: Cheshire Isaacs

Lauren Spencer and Kathryn Zdan in The Late Wedding; photo: Cheshire Isaacs

FAll arts preview 2014Right about now is when most of the hundreds of local theater companies are opening their seasons, and they’re putting their best feet forward with a dazzling array of plays and musicals, many of them new. On any given week there’s a ton of tempting theater going on around the Bay Area, but in the fall there are too many choices to even get your mind around, much less see. As a mercy, we’ve picked out some particularly promising candidates to get you started, but there’s plenty more where these came from once you’ve whetted your appetite.

Zilah Mendoza and Patrick Kelly Jones in Water by the Spoonful; photo: Kevin Berne
Zilah Mendoza and Patrick Kelly Jones in Water by the Spoonful; photo: Kevin Berne

Water by the Spoonful

Aug. 20 – Sept. 14
TheatreWorks (Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View)
Tickets and information

Still in her mid-30s, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes had already been a Pulitzer Prize finalist twice (for Eliot, a Soldier’s Fugue and the musical In the Heights) before she won the 2012 drama prize for this second installment in her Elliot Trilogy. In Water by the Spoonful, wounded Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz struggles to adjust to postwar life. A second storyline follows various characters in an online drug addiction recovery group. Inevitably, the two thoroughly engaging threads interweave and collide in unexpected ways. TheatreWorks’ Bay Area premiere boasts a diverse cast featuring some terrific local actors.

Gabriel Marin and Marilee Talkington in Rapture, Blister, Burn; photo: David Allen
Gabriel Marin and Marilee Talkington in Rapture, Blister, Burn; photo: David Allen

Rapture, Blister, Burn

Aug. 29 – Sept. 28
Aurora Theatre Company (2081 Addison Street, Berkeley)
Tickets and information

New York playwright Gina Gionfriddo made a fascinating Bay Area debut in 2012 with Becky Shaw at San Francisco Playhouse, a 21st-century comedy of manners packed with sharp insights about how people use other people. Now Aurora brings us another incisive Gionfriddo play that boils down to four women talking about feminism: Catherine, the hotshot academic who regrets never having a family; Gwen, the stay-at-home mom who regrets not having a career; the cocktail-mixing mother whom Catherine’s supposedly taking care of after a heart-attack; and Gwen’s cocky post-feminist babysitter. The fact that Gwen’s troubled marriage is with the grad school boyfriend she stole from Catherine makes things exquisitely uncomfortable.

Don Reed in Semi-Famous; photo: Patti Meyer
Don Reed in Semi-Famous; photo: Patti Meyer

Semi-Famous

Sept. 13 – Oct. 12
The Marsh (1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco)
Tickets and information

With a phenomenal knack for morphing from one unforgettable character to another, writer-director-performer Don Reed has been a near-permanent fixture at The Marsh with his hilarious one-man shows about his early life: East 14th, about moving from his Jehovah’s Witness mother’s house in the 1970s to that of his dad, who happened to be an Oakland pimp; Can You Dig It?, recounting his ’60s childhood; and The Kipling Hotel, about his misspent college years in 1980s Los Angeles. Now Reed treats us to his own sad but true Hollywood tales as a standup comedian and occasional screen actor in Semi-Famous.

Lauren Spencer and Kathryn Zdan in The Late Wedding; photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Lauren Spencer and Kathryn Zdan in The Late Wedding; photo: Cheshire Isaacs

The Late Wedding

Sept. 18 – Oct. 11
Crowded Fire Theater (Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco)
Tickets and information

Young San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen is a marvel. After The Hundred Flowers Project, his mind-bending 2012 multimedia spectacle about a collaborative theater piece that takes over the lives of its creators, he revealed a talent for broad satire with Mutt at Impact Theatre, about the search for the perfect multi-ethnic presidential candidate. Now Chen returns to Crowded Fire Theater, home of Hundred Flowers, for the world premiere of The Late Wedding, an homage to the cerebral fantasies of Italian writer Italo Calvino that explores the detachment of relationships in the virtual age with an anthropologist’s eye.

The Whale
The Whale

The Whale

Oct. 2 – 26
Marin Theatre Company (397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley)
Tickets and information

A play about a 600-pound recluse titled The Whale just sounds kind of…mean. But for all the cruelty, contempt and self-destructive behavior in Samuel D. Hunter’s award-winning 2012 drama, it’s ultimately touching. The play follows an obese online writing instructor’s desperate attempts to connect with the daughter who hates him even more than he hates himself, and the Mormon missionary who keeps coming around. (Hunter also gave us the Hobby Lobby evangelicals of A Bright New Boise at Aurora Theatre last year.) Oh, and there are recurring references to Moby-Dick, so the title’s rudeness has some plausible deniability.

Yeast Nation; photo: Erik Scanlon
Yeast Nation; photo: Erik Scanlon

Yeast Nation

Oct. 3 – Nov. 1
Ray of Light Theatre (Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco)
Tickets and information

The Tony-winning creators of the hit musical Urinetown are back, and they’re taking on that timeless theatrical topic: fungus. Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) harks back to a simpler time a few billion years ago, when salt-eating yeasts were the only life on earth, and they sing about their problems, hopes and dreams, and this strange new thing called love. This show debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2011, but creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann have been working closely with San Francisco’s small Ray of Light Theatre to further evolve Yeast Nation for its West Coast premiere.

Tara Grammy; photo: Denise Grant
Tara Grammy; photo: Denise Grant

Mahmoud

Oct. 16 – 26
Golden Thread Productions (Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco)
Tickets and information

San Francisco’s theater company devoted to Middle East-themed plays brings us a one-woman show that’s been the toast of Fringe Festivals from Toronto to New York. Iranian-Canadian writer-performer Tara Grammy plays several different outsize characters in Mahmoud: the titular chatty Iranian immigrant who went from Tehran electrical engineer to Toronto cabbie; a flamboyant gay Spanish cologne salesman; and a thoroughly assimilated 12-year-old Iranian-Canadian girl named (not so coincidentally) Tara. Though the show touches on various issues from anti-Arab hysteria to homophobia, it’s very much a comedy.

Party People; photo: Jenny Graham
Party People; photo: Jenny Graham

Party People

Oct. 17 – Nov. 16
Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison Street, Berkeley)
Tickets and information

What could be more Berkeley than old-guard activists coming together to argue about the old days? In Party People, New York ensemble Universes depicts veterans of the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords assembling at an art opening orchestrated by the next generation. Sparks fly, of course, and so does an explosive mix of music, video and spoken word. Commissioned for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, Party People has been revamped since its 2012 premiere at OSF, just in time for it to “come home” to the Bay Area, birthplace of the Panthers.

The Totalitarians
The Totalitarians

The Totalitarians

Nov. 19 – Dec. 14
Z Below (470 Florida Street, San Francisco)
Tickets and information

This dark comedy by San Francisco’s own Peter Sinn Nachtrieb (Hunter Gatherers, boom) tackles the cynical superficiality of electoral politics with razor-sharp satire. Penelope Easter is a breathtakingly ignorant and charismatically outspoken political candidate (some real-world parallels may come to mind), a former professional roller skater with a scandal-magnet husband and plans for Nebraska that may be less than benign. But hooboy does she fling the empty rhetoric like a pro. The Totalitarians comes to Z Space (where Nachtrieb is playwright in residence) after productions in New Orleans and Washington, DC, as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere.

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Author

Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is editor-in-chief of Theatre Bay Area magazine and theater critic for the Marin Independent Journal in addition to keeping up his own theater and culture blog, The Idiolect.  You can find him on Twitter cleverly camouflaged as shurwitt.

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