The Best Bay Area Theater of 2017

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) thinks of the future of the country while he takes a bath with the help of one of his slaves, the half-brother of his dead wife, Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews) in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) thinks of the future of the country while he takes a bath with the help of one of his slaves, the half-brother of his dead wife, Robert Hemings (Cameron Matthews) in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

In these end days of the year and perhaps the country, we might ask, just to while away the time, what we want from our American plays.

It’s a child’s experiment, really, as there’s no theater imaginable that might save us from the disasters looming before us. Still, we might ask of our American playwrights that they perhaps point out a way, a path to follow that might have escaped our sight, or to paint a sign in the woods that might lead us to a new and secret city on a hill.

Here’s a rare group of American plays that did just that in the Bay Area of 2017, giving us a few gentle hints of where others have gone and where we might run.

6. The Curran Theater, Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music

Taylor Mac lights up American song in 'A 24-Decade History of Popular Music' at the Curran.
Taylor Mac lights up American song in ‘A 24-Decade History of Popular Music’ at the Curran. (Photo courtesy of the company)

If America were a 24-hour queer slumber party, then it would be something like Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music — the country’s history at its most unguarded, wacky, and tragic. Mac is an extravagant realist, daring us to experience in full the songs that have marked the history of the nation for over 240 years. It’s an audacious examination and surrender to all the delights and discontents of the simple pleasures of song. Mac knows what we’ve felt and what we’re feeling, and he yanks it all out onto the open stage for everyone to see — with a razor wit and hard-fought joy.

5. The Shotgun Players, William Burroughs and Tom Waits’ The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) has an offer of some magic bullets in 'The Black Rider' by William Burroughs and Tom Waits.
Peg Leg (Rotimi Agbabiaka) has an offer of some magic bullets in ‘The Black Rider’ by William Burroughs and Tom Waits. (Photo: Cheshire Isaacs)

Robert Wilson’s production of The Black Rider was an international sensation, a lavish valentine to German expressionism, and a lovely artifact of what the lush, extravagant subsidies of European Art House Theater can accomplish. Yet lurking beneath all those Euros was a nasty American attack dog of a play. Director Mark Jackson strips William Burroughs and Tom Waits’ fairy tale of magic bullets down to dime store essentials and subjects us to the logic of a brutal equation — if you love to shoot, you’re aiming to kill. A beautiful and entrancing nightmare for which, unfortunately, there is no antidote. (You can still see the bullets fly in the Shotgun Players’ production running through Sunday, Jan. 21.)

4. Ubuntu Theater Project, Lisa Ramirez’s To The Bone

(L to R) Juana (Sarita Ocón) confronts the angelic Carmen (Carla Gallardo) in the Ubuntu Theater Project's production of 'To the Bone' by Lisa Ramirez.
(L to R) Juana (Sarita Ocón) confronts the angelic Carmen (Carla Gallardo) in the Ubuntu Theater Project’s production of ‘To the Bone’ by Lisa Ramirez. (Photo: Courtesy of the Company)

Lisa Ramirez’s play about a community of immigrant women working in a poultry preparation facility is an off-key bit of terror. Most of the screams are silent, and the victims more likely to simply vanish than to suffer the fate of the slaughterhouse — though that’s a constant threat, too. The play’s politics might be ripped from the headlines, but Ramirez’s characters are startling for their everyday dreams and concerns. This is what happens in America to all those the law refuses to recognize. And the Ubuntu production, under Michael Maron’s direction, never lets us escape the awful truth that what we’re really watching is a human preparation facility — as if cutting up chickens wasn’t bad enough.

3. The Wooster Group, The Town Hall Affair (at the Z Space)

Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) surveys her desk for clues to a wild evening in 'Town Hall Affair' by the Wooster Group.
Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) surveys her desk for clues to a wild evening in ‘Town Hall Affair’ by the Wooster Group. (Photo: Zbigniew Bzymek)

The Wooster Group often finds plays in the garbage heap of history, and The Town Hall Affair is as stunning a dumpster dive into the past as you’re likely to get: an acid-tinged recreation of Norman Mailer’s infamous 1971 state-of-the-woman summit, where the pugilist-minded author opined, bullied, and presided over a panel of feminist luminaries to hilarious effect. The sly Germaine Greer and the erudite Diana Trilling are worthy foils to Mailer, but it is Village Voice columnist and goofball supreme Jill Johnston who steals the show — and our hearts. In her antic tomfoolery, the Woosters discover a lovely dream of a possible future, one we’re only just beginning to glimpse.

2. California Shakespeare Theater, Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey

(Foreground) Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphose Nicholson) attempts to control a roiling storm as (L to R) Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea) causes trouble for Benevolence (Safiya Fredericks) and ticks off Great Grand Daddy (Lamont Thompson) in 'Black Odyssey' by Marcus Gardley.
(Foreground) Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphose Nicholson) attempts to control a roiling storm as (L to R) Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea) causes trouble for Benevolence (Safiya Fredericks) and ticks off Great Grand Daddy (Lamont Thompson) in ‘Black Odyssey’ by Marcus Gardley. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Why Shakespeare isn’t a model for American playwrights is a mystery of the field and an odd cultural misstep down the stairs of irrelevance. For now, at least we can marvel at Marcus Gardley’s contemporary twist on the Shakespearian romance, Black Odyssey, simultaneously a love letter to Oakland, a testament to African-American faith and resilience, and a complex accounting of guilt and innocence. Here is a true epic, where the twists and turns of life keep on revealing what a miracle it is just to hold on and make it through one more day — over 16 long years of struggle. (Black Odyssey returns to Cal Shakes for two weeks at the end of next summer.)

1. Marin Theatre Company, Thomas Bradshaw’s Thomas and Sally

Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) start with music and then things get more complex in 'Thomas and Sally' by Thomas Bradshaw.
Thomas Jefferson (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Sally Hemings (Tara Pacheco) start with music and then things get more complex in ‘Thomas and Sally’ by Thomas Bradshaw. (Photo: Kevin Berne)

Easily 2017’s most controversial and outrageous play, Thomas and Sally (a Marin Theatre Company world premiere) rushes headlong into the shadows and corners of a newly minted America already tainted by its idiot embrace of slavery. Bradshaw’s depiction of the 44-year old Thomas Jefferson’s love affair with his 15-year old slave Sally Hemings is both a bold, grand romance and a wary take on whether love is even possible under those conditions. With a scientist’s eye for the ugly facts of human nature and a touch of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s dead wife), Bradshaw’s comic epic imagines that we are all the daughters of the revolution — just not the revolution we thought.

The Best Bay Area Theater of 2017 18 December,2017John Wilkins

  • stefanie kalem

    So, uh, Wilkins DOES know that Black Odyssey was based on Homer, right? Not Shakespeare?

    • Curioso

      So, uh, yes he DOES know that. His point (elucidated more fully in his original review) is that the playwright Gardley has written “a contemporary twist on the Shakespearean romance,” and that it is a particularly apt production for Cal Shakes.

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

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor