An Update on Today’s Bay Area Theater Scene

While time constraints, including our quick theater/museum/restaurant trip to New York prevented us from seeing as many Bay Area plays as we wished, we did make time to see the current productions at three of our favorite local theaters, ACT, BRT and the Aurora.

Tales of the City

Every San Franciscan knows of, if not read and reread, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and its personalized tale of life in 1970s’ San Francisco. The American Conservatory Theater (ACT), leveraging its position as the city’s premier native theater venue, partnered with a couple of proven Broadway talents (Jeff Whitty, author of “Avenue Q” and Jason Moore, director of “Shrek: The Musical” and collaborator on “The Book of Mormon”) and a glam-rock band (Scissor Sisters for music and lyrics) to transform the story into what is hoped to become a Broadway musical hit.

Although neither Joyce nor I are big fans of musicals, we do occasionally drag ourselves to those that sound particularly inventive, interesting or fun (like Avenue Q and hopefully, on our next NYC trip, Book of Mormon). This pedigree, combined with a desire to learn more of the cultural heritage” of our adopted home, brought us to Tales of the City.

While the show did not transform us into musical lovers, the story was fun, the characters cute and the music moderately engaging. We are both glad we saw it, hope it makes it to Broadway and think, from our minimal Broadway musical experience, hat it has many of the ingredients for a respectable, if not blowout, run.

Let Me Down Easy

We had seen one of Anna Deveare Smith’s previous personalized, documentary performances, the Pulitzer prize and Tony award-nominated Fires in the Mirror, which was about New York’s 1991 Crown Heights riots. Smith is playwright and actress. She selects an important, poignant topic such as New York and later Los Angeles race riots, interviews hundreds of people with direct experience and diverse perspectives on the events, and portrays this diversity (and the actual individual interviewees) in one-woman plays.

Let Me Down Easy, a 2008 play that has previously run in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco (at the ACT), was brought to Berkeley Repertory Theater as a substitute for planned one-woman performance by Rita Moreno, when Moreno took ill (her BRT production is now scheduled for the 2011-2012 season). It was an able substitution.

Let Me Down Easy examines the vulnerability of the human body, the challenges of the American health system and the spirit and, in many instances grace, of the people who deal with it. In the play, Smith, convincingly takes on the persona of the people she has interviewed. In this play, this includes doctors, cyclist Lance Armstrong and model Lauren Hutton, not to speak of flame dancer and rodeo bull rider.

Smith’s portrayal of her individual subjects was amazing and the overarching messages were poignant. This was especially true of the segment portraying a young intern in a New Orleans city hospital during Hurricane Katrina. But, for all of this, we both found ourselves looking at our watches, wishing that the number of characters she chose to portray were a bit smaller.

Metamorphosis

I was, especially in my college days, a big fan of Franz Kafka. Although my last reunion with him came about five years ago at Prague’s Franz Kafka Museum, I was enticed by the Chronicle’s strong review of the Aurora Theater’s presentation of Metamorphosis, one of my favorite of Kafka’s works.

We were not disappointed. The story of a young salesman’s sudden and inexplicable transformation into a giant insect—and the evolution in the ways in which his family member’s respond to their son/brother is frightening. Even more so is the less direct message as to the way society, particularly in times of stress, shuns and persecutes abnormalities, and persecutes those who are different. This was certainly true of fascist Europe of the 1930s (the period during which Kafka originally set the story) and McCarthy-era America of the 1950s (the setting for director David Farr’s current Aurora production).

The play’s very disquieting premise was perfectly leavened by the underlying and absurdity of the situation and the wonderfully acrobatic performance of Alexander Crowther in the starring role of Gregor Samsa—aka, the bug.

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