The Startling Brilliance of a Somewhat Troubled Year: Bay Area Theater in 2016

Martha (Beth Wilmurt) and George (David Sinaiko) cap off a very sad year in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Martha (Beth Wilmurt) and George (David Sinaiko) cap off a very sad year in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Brilliance makes its own rules, goes where it wants, and disappears all too soon. After seeing thousands of productions, I sometimes think I’ve seen it all. But these six pieces, well, I just never imagined anything like them. So here’s to the singular and brilliant theater of our somewhat troubled 2016.

San Francisco Playhouse’s The Rules by Dipika Guha at The Creativity Theater, San Francisco (Jun. 22 – Jul. 5, 2016)

Julia (Karen Offereins), Ana (Sarah Moser), and Mehr (Amy Lizardo) get excited about Ana’s second date.
Julia (Karen Offereins), Ana (Sarah Moser), and Mehr (Amy Lizardo) get excited about Ana’s second date. (Photo: Ken Levin)

The first five minutes of Dipika Guha’s The Rules have the feel of a poorly written soap opera. But the show quickly becomes compelling, then gripping, then hypnotic. And so this poorly written soap opera ends up being the most beautiful and artful one you could ever imagine. SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English’s commitment to showcasing new plays and playwrights isn’t always successful, but it shouldn’t be. When a play like The Rules comes along, you realize how vital and important the company’s “Sand Box” series of new works is.

Kevin Rolston’s Deal with the Dragon at The Costume Shop, San Francisco (Mar. 25-Apr. 16, 2016)

Kevin Rolston (Brenn) starts to feel the beast within in 'Deal with the Dragon.'
Kevin Rolston (Brenn) starts to feel the beast within in ‘Deal with the Dragon.’ (Photo: Kenny Yun)

We tend to think of theater as existing in the moment, but much of our experience of it is after the fact. And Kevin Rolston’s Deal with the Dragon gave me more after-the-fact pleasure than any other play this year. I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the sly ways this show burrowed into my mind, such as the AA meltdown of the drug addled artist Gandy Schwartz that anchors the middle section.  Many people helped Rolston develop Deal with the Dragon, but in the end this was a self-produced enterprise. Theaters should have been fighting for the right to even have a chance to produce Rolston’s show.

Tom Sachs’ Space Program: Europa at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco (Sep.16, 2016 – Jan. 13, 2017)

Astronauts explore Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, and the YBCA galleries.
Astronauts explore Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, and the YBCA galleries. (Photo: Joshua White)

Six hours is a long time for a performance that claims to be only a demonstration. Yet, one could equally claim that any mission that manages to send us to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, and back to earth in less than a day is time wisely spent — especially when it includes astronauts spooning to Al Green, the discovery of the first extraterrestrial Noguchi sculpture, the brilliant use of a Hibachi grill, and a Japanese tea ceremony. Tom Sachs’ Space Program: Europa is a grand stunt of conceptual beauty. And it’s so joyous that it will make you embrace the most dangerous aspects of the human imagination. And there’s still one more opportunity to catch Sachs’ intergalactic demo, on Friday, Jan. 13.

Circo Zero’s future friend/ships by Keith Hennessy and Jassem Hindi at Counterpulse, San Francisco (Dec. 15 – 17, 2016)

Jassem Hindi (Masked Man) speaks of Arab futurism in 'future friend/ship.'
Jassem Hindi (Masked Man) speaks of Arab futurism in ‘future friend/ship.’ (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

Anything that Keith Hennessy participates in should be prefaced with the words “breakthrough” and “damage.” Other artists take on serious subjects, but only Hennessy and his many collaborators (in this case, a sly and magnetic Jassem Hindi) seem to get inside the experience and risk actually living it. It’s as if anthropology suddenly turned into a dangerous art form. In the 70-minute future friend/ships, we take a journey into an Arab future that includes and transcends drones, birds of prey, and astronauts. The connection between friendship, flight, and the future has the haphazard charm of science fiction, as well as all the genre’s prophetic and tragic force. Hennessy and Hindi’s piece is both a radical dream of a possible time to come and a dismal depiction of the world as it is now.

Ubunthu Theater Project’s Hurt Village by Katori Hall at Grace Temple Church, Oakland (Jul 15 – 31, 2016)

Crank (Jasmine Hughes) tries to center herself in the Ubuntu Theater Project's production of Katori Hall's 'Hurt Village.'
Crank (Jasmine Hughes) tries to center herself in the Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of Katori Hall’s ‘Hurt Village.’ (Photo: Colin Battel)

Ubuntu Theater Project productions erupt from the most fervent concerns of our times and demand attention, not because the issues are important (though they are), but because Ubuntu gives them such potent theatrical expression. The company’s artists understand that political art means nothing unless it’s great art. Ubuntu’s take on Frank Galati’s adaption of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and its production of an Othello set in a rug store were terrific large cast affairs. But it was Katori Hall’s Hurt Village that blew the lid off the party. Buoyed by a terrific cast and two astounding performances by Chaz Shermil and Jasmine Hughes, Hall’s tale of the destruction of a West Memphis housing project demanded that we at least recognize two facts: one, that we’re living in a world where the least powerful are routinely destroyed; and two, that we’re all playing a role in that destruction.

Shotgun Players’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee at The Ashby Stage, Berkeley (Oct. 12, 2016 – Jan. 17, 2017)

(L to R) Nick (Josh Schenell) and Honey (Megan Trout ) get a little lesson from Martha (Beth Wilmurt) on drinking and life in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
(L to R) Nick (Josh Schenell) and Honey (Megan Trout ) get a little lesson from Martha (Beth Wilmurt) on drinking and life in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (Photo: Jessica Palopoli)

Shotgun Player’s five-play repertory season is a masterpiece of programming and execution on the part of artistic director and founder Patrick Dooley and his team of directors, actors, designers, stage managers, and box office personnel. All the plays and productions have taken strange and inordinate risks, and none more so than director Mark Jackson’s stripped-to-the-bone Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? With a set consisting of only a staircase and a luminous rack of liquor, Jackson sets Albee’s iconic characters free. Unchained from realist decor, George, Martha, Nick, and Honey take on the fury of warring Greek gods. And somehow, through a kind of magic, the characters seem all the more human for it. The show is a pure and unrelenting act of imagination on the part of everyone involved — and you can still see it into early next year. Q.Logo.Break

Though most of the shows in this year-end round-up have come and gone, you can still catch two of them:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through Tuesday, Jan. 17 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.

Tom Sachs’ performance/demonstration of Space Program: Europa plays once more on Friday, Jan. 13 at YBCA in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

 

Author

John Wilkins

John Wilkins is the theater critic for KQED Arts. He was the Artistic Director of Last Planet Theatre for ten years and teaches in the Writing and Literature program at CCA. Follow him on Twitter @johnrwilkins2

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