Set and costume designer Robert Perdziola discusses choices he made in American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Rhinoceros” — actor David Breitbarth is pictured — in the company’s online “Takes on a Scene” presentation. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Set and costume designer Robert Perdziola discusses choices he made in American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Rhinoceros” — actor David Breitbarth is pictured — in the company’s online “Takes on a Scene” presentation. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

From ‘Rhinoceros’ to Chekhov and Black Lives Matter

Theater classics go online, troupes take viewers behind the scenes

From ‘Rhinoceros’ to Chekhov and Black Lives Matter

Theaters always have been at the forefront of social issues; now, all over the country, they are responding to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and worldwide protests that followed. Theatre Bay Area, the San Francisco nonprofit service organization for local theaters, posted: “The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the systemic inequities in this nation that are every day killing black, brown and Native people in far greater number than white Americans. This is no accident, and together we must work to dismantle the systems of racism.”

TBA goes on to suggest resources and specific actions at https://www.theatrebayarea.org/.

Meanwhile, theater during the pandemic continues unabated online.

Alligator Mouth

Theatre Rhinoceros and Epic Party Theatre joined forces recently to present “Alligator Mouth,” a very short two-hander by J. Julian Christopher, a New York-based gay/Puerto Rican/Dominican writer and actor.

Despite significant physical action (read as stage directions by director Richard A. Mosqueda), the drama’s intensity registers sharply in the digital format.

Actors Brandon Rivera and Hector Ramon Zavala play a man and a teenager who meet at a fortune teller’s salon in Greenwich Village. The troubled Hank is seeking some answers to personal problems, and young Van is hanging out as a helper to the fortune teller, who’s away at the moment.

Hank is weirdly fidgety and troubled, Van’s an insouciant motormouth from the South; the two bond in an unexpected and indeed unsettling way. (“You need to be loved and I could use a daddy,” Van, played by played by a particularly convincing Rivera, says.)

On the whole, though, the material seems to call for a much larger drama. While this show is no longer available for viewing, keep an eye out for other plays by this writer.

The Three Sisters

It’s a testament to the brilliance of playwright Anton Chekhov, and to this well-chosen cast, that a Zoom reading of “The Three Sisters,” even with plenty of technical glitches (actors losing their place in the script, a few with poor audio capabilities, one actor suddenly replacing another after intermission) can be deeply moving.

Theater artist David Sikula is Zooming a series of Chekhov readings that he himself translated, “The Three Sisters” being the most recent.

It’s one of the Russian master’s most well-known plays, and there’s not a character in it who’s not suffering to some degree from emotional distress, plus several, as always in Chekhov’s deeply humanistic comedy-dramas, given to philosophical pontification.

The focus is of course on the three sisters on a provincial estate (Stacy Ross as the acerbic Masha; Juliana Lustenader as the sweet-natured youngest, Irina; and, after intermission, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as the nurturing eldest, Olga), all pining to return to their native Moscow.

When a visiting military officer, Vershinin —a dashing figure from their childhood — arrives from Moscow, the unhappily married Masha is immediately smitten. As Vershinin, Philip Lombardo is soft-spoken, wry and simply terrific; a quiet scene between him and Ross’ Masha is as electrifying as anything to be seen on an actual stage.

Amid the strong cast, standouts included Stephanie Ann Foster, pitch-perfect as the hysterical, pretentious Natasha; Don Wood’s amiable drunken doctor, Chebutykin; and Michael Barrett Austin as the quarrelsome jokester Solyony.

Sikula says he didn’t so much direct the reading but rather reminded the actors that Chekhov’s plays are “really ironically funny observations on the stupid ways people live their lives.” Yes, stupid, but even in this restricted format, Chekhov’s exploration of unrequited love, loneliness, longing and existential malaise resonate.

Sikula’s available recordings include “Uncle Vanya” with Anthony Fusco, James Carpenter, Carrie Paff and Lorri Holt at

https://www.facebook.com/events/173397763940924/,

“The Seagull” at https://www.facebook.com/events/3187588951273815/ and ”The Cherry Orchard“ at https://www.facebook.com/events/1064507900594462/

Takes on a Scene

For those who have seen American Conservatory Theater’s productions of “The Great Leap” by Lauren Yee, Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” or, most recently, Lydia R. Diamond’s “Toni Stone” (which closed after opening night due to lockdown), the troupe offers an insider’s look at crafting those shows in Takes on a Scene.

For each of the three plays, one scene, recorded during a preview, has been selected; the chosen scene replays three times, each time with voiceover commentary by various artists connected with the production.

Most interesting are the three iterations of a key scene from “Rhinoceros,” the mid-20th century theater of the absurd classic about the pressure to conform, onstage last spring.

In the selected scene, the character Gene (Matt DeCaro) turns into a raging rhino in front of the astonished eyes of his friend, the baffled everyman figure Berenger (David Breitbarth).

Director Frank Galati describes in clear, precise prose, how, in this — “one of strangest scenes in all dramatic literature,” as he says — he worked to make it real, to make it “perverse, scary and funny.”

Set and costume designer Robert Perdziola discusses the carefully considered decision to have the physical transformation take place in the acting, not in prosthetics or costume. And as the two actors watch themselves on screen, they react with self-effacing humor, discussing how the scene looks compared to how it felt when they were doing it: “Oh, David, it’s really hard to watch yourself on video.” “It’s horrific!” “It’s so slow!”

Little Brother

In 2012, Custom Made Theatre staged “Little Brother,” Josh Costello’s world-premiere adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s 2008 novel about San Francisco teenagers who bravely take on Homeland Security’s invasion of privacy and disregard for the Bill of Rights.

Costello, now artistic director of Aurora Theatre Co., directed the play himself, and, as seen in an archival video of the production, with the inevitable echo-y audio common to archival videos, it must have been an exciting show — fast-paced, with video and plenty of intense action, partly narrated by main character Marcus (Daniel Petzold) and well performed by the actors (Marissa Keltie and an impressively transformative Cory Censoprano in multiple roles).

Other issues may be on our minds right now, but this thriller clearly is still relevant and powerful.

Visit https://www.custommade.org/little-brother-online/ for the schedule and to register.

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