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#ATCASF17 For members of the American Theatre Critics Association, (AMERICANTHEATRECRITICS.ORG) their recent national conference was a late-spring week overflowing with the delights of the San Francisco theatre scene. The annual convocation moves around the country from city to city.
This year’s choice of the City by the Bay was a major hit with all attendees, and won universal praise for the group’s Operations Manager, Robert Sokol, who had able assistance with the countless conference details from ATCA Executive Committee Chairman, Bill Hirschman, and members, Susan Cohn and Brad Hathaway. The San Francisco Hilton at Union Square served as the splendid headquarters, while members branched out to countless area theatrical venues and performances, which on the first day alone included, Grandeur (Magic Theatre), How to be a White Man (FaultLine Theatre), Kano and Abe (PlayGround), Shortlived VI: Round 1 (PianoFight), Sordid Lives and Warplay (both at New Conservatory Theatre Center), Sex and the City Live! (Oasis Theatre), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night (Custom Made Theatre). There was also a World Premiere of Christopher Chen’s new play, You Mean To Do Me Harm at the Sandbox Theatre of the San Francisco Playhouse (SFPLAYHOUSE.ORG). Crisply directed in theater-in the-round style by Bill English, and staged in the spacious, high-ceilinged cubicle space of the Sandbox, this intriguing drama for four players (James Asher, Lauren English, Don Castro & Charisse Loriaux), begins innocently enough as two young couples chat while sharing a bottle of wine. But the plot twists and relationships build in intensity from scene to scene, as one off-hand remark generates a succession of misunderstandings that make for compelling theatre from these four fine actors. Subtle lighting from designer, Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky, provides fine scene transitions, and can even magically turn beds of woodchips into lush green lawns. It’s a thought-provoking production. There was similar intrigue from the San Francisco Playhouse production of Jen Silverman’s new play, The Roommate. Coyly directed by Becca Wolff, a prevailing air of mystery develops when Sharon (Susi Damilano), a middle-aged woman in Iowa, advertises a room for rent in her suburban home. Butch and free-thinking Robyn (Julia Brothers) answers the ad and moves in. She’s a gentle, gay, pot-smoking vegan who brings her own pots and pans and presents plenty of challenges to this simple Iowa homeowner during this attention-grabbing, seriocomic one-acter.
Between productions, ATCA members enjoyed informative workshops and panel discussions that featured such notables from the theatre world as the aforementioned Mr. English, Artistic Director of San Francisco Playhouse, and Amy Mueller, Artistic Director of Playwrights Foundation (playwrightsfoundation.org). Also featured were Bay area critics, Robert Hurwitt & Lily Janiak, as well as local playwrights, Stuart Bousel, Christopher Chen, Lauren M. Gunderson, Aaron Loeb, and Michael Gene Sullivan. Another series of popular presentations focused on how critics can expand their audience by mixing, “Theatre + Travel.” A “Theatre Design” workshop was of special interest with a panel of experts that included, Nina Ball (Scenic Design), Abra Berman (Costume Design), Cliff Caruthers (Sound Design), Sean Kana (Music Direction), York Kennedy (Lighting Design), Kimberly Richards (Choreography), Jacqueline Scott (Properties Design), and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky (Projection Design).
With all of that, the focus continued to be on area performances as various members attended A Night with Janis Joplin (American Conservatory Theater), Brownsville Song (ShotgunPlayers.Org – Berkeley), and Monsoon Wedding (BerkeleyRep.Org). There were adventurous out-of-town pilgrimages that took the members to see the Palo Alto Players (paplayers.org) in a performance of The Graduate, and to the magnificent Fox Theatre in Redwood City, where the Broadway By the Bay Players (broadwaybythebay.org) presented a joyous rendition of the rollicking Stoller & Leiber musical, Smokey Joe’s Café.
Perhaps the group’s most satisfying journey was the trip out to the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda (calshakes.org) where they enjoyed theatre under the stars in the amphitheater for a merry production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Prior to the show the guests were treated to an informative panel titled, “Re-Viewing Shakespeare: The Second 400 Years.” Moderated by the company’s resident dramaturg, Dr. Philippa Kelly, the panel featured artistic directors of Bard-centric companies including William J. Brown III (Arabian Shakespeare Festival- arabianshakes.org), L. Peter Callender (African-American Shakespeare Company – african-americanshakes.org), Lesley Shisgall Currier (Marin Shakespeare Company – marinshakespeare.org), Rebecca Ennals (San Francisco Shakespeare Festival – sfshakes.org), and Eric Ting, the artistic director there at the California Shakespeare Theater. If those informative discussions were not enough to delight the assembled critics, there was a lovely hillside picnic supper provided in the Upper Grove above the amphitheater. It was a night to remember, even before the talented cast took to the stage for a fine performance of As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang.
An added and very delightful surprise for this critics’ caravan was a fascinating day trip to tour the facilities of the renowned TheaterWorks company in Redwood, CA. (theatreworks.org). The organization was founded in 1970 by its creative Artistic Director, Robert Kelly, as a theatre workshop for college students and teens. Guests were generously treated to both breakfast and lunch. In between, the visitors were courteously toured around the amazingly vast home of this prestigious American theatre group that has produced such successes as the Tony Award-winning musical, Memphis. The company may very well be on its way to yet another triumph. Following introductory remarks from Mr. Kelly there was a preview presentation from the forthcoming musical, THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS An American Musical Manga, with Book, Music, & Lyrics by Min Kahng, and directed by Leslie Martinson. Set at the turn of the last century, the work is billed as, “…the adventures of four endearing Japanese immigrants in a world of possibility and prejudice.”
With considerable esprit de corps, a youthful and vocally talented group of eight (4 guys and 4 gals) provided this energetic sampling of the lusty, joyful and appealing musical score, which seemed to be endearing as well. Both the opening number, “Meet the Four Immigrants,” and the closing reprise of “We’re the Four Immigrants,” had a captivating quality that easily called to mind the infectious sounds of the earlier musical, Ragtime. If this is a hint of what lies ahead in full production, there is much to look forward to.
Finally, while theatre is definitely serious business for the hard-working journalists of ATCA, that did not preclude enjoying some of the lighthearted fun abundant in San Francisco. Perhaps the best example of that was found by members who enjoyed the absolute hilarity and campy fun of Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon, which claims to be “…the longest running musical revue in American history.” With one uproariously lavish musical number after another (and the colorfully outlandish costumes and HATS to match), the show is great fun from start to finish with delicious satire abundant. Don’t miss it when you’re in town. (beachblanketbabylon.com)