March theater: world premieres, regional premieres

This month justifies the Bay Area’s reputation for showcasing the previously unseen

Although most audiences may not care whether a play is a world premiere, the Bay Area theater community is justifiably proud that it has long been known for developing new work.

Several theaters, such as the Magic Theatre, focus almost entirely on new plays, and others, like Berkeley Repertory Theatre, consistently stage a few new works throughout the season. That’s not to mention the adventurous smaller theaters — Campo Santo and We Players, among many others — and the dedicated play development companies like Playwrights Foundation and PlayGround.

This month — which, hooray, packs in more openings than we’ve seen for a while — justifies our reputation for showcasing the previously unseen. Here are a few of them, plus others.

Red Winged Blackbird

Friday brings a play independently produced by first-time playwright Alyosha Zim. A Berkeley psychiatrist, Zim based “Red Winged Blackbird” on personal experience. It follows the fraught journey of a Jewish family during the 1960s and 1980s who is dealing with an incurable hereditary illness, Huntington’s disease. The story centers on two brothers as each faces the possibility of future illness. One moves from Westchester County, N.Y., to Boulder, Colo., to follow Buddhist guru Rinpoche.

Acclaimed local actor/director Nancy Carlin says she was drawn to the play when she attended several readings. Early on, she imagined specific actors in the roles, including Danielle Levin as the mother, Julian López-Morillas as the immigrant father, Adam Magill as the brother on a spiritual quest. “For me, the project grew from the actors,” she says.

Carlin notes that as serious as the topic is, there’s plenty of humor in the 95-minute drama: “There’s playful banter; it doesn’t take itself too seriously.” It’s about, she says, “Surviving, survivors, transcendence.”

Sparkle Plenty Productions, Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Through March 20. $20. https://www.eventbrite.com/e/red-winged-blackbird-tickets-243788496957

Escape from the Asylum

Later in the month, another world premiere opens at Central Works, which is dedicated entirely to new work. In fact, “Escape from the Asylum,” by resident playwright Patricia Milton, is the company’s 67th world premiere. It’s a follow-up to Milton’s 2019 “The Victorian Ladies Detective Collective” and features the same intrepid female sleuths, played by several of the same actors. This time around, the trio attempts to rescue a famous woman explorer who’s been committed to an asylum by her dastardly husband. She’s entirely compos mentis, of course.

Such things happened quite a bit back then, says Milton, who researched the topic for her first “Victorian Ladies” mystery in which a husband tried to have his sane wife locked up. If you had hysteria, which could manifest as anything including being disobedient, explains Milton, your husband could convince a doctor to certify you as barking mad.

“I wanted to write a comedy even though it is a fairly serious subject,” adds Milton. “The way (the detectives) go about doing everything is theatrical and comedic. … The comedy comes from their flaws, the choices they make as they go about doing their business.”

Company co-director Gary Graves directs; the cast includes Central Works’ co-director/founder Jan Zvaifler.

Central Works, Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant, Berkeley. March 19-April 17. Tickets: $22-$40. centralworks.org/boxoffice

Dot

Another premiere is actor/playwright Colman Domingo’s comedy-drama about a matriarch slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and the ways in which her close-knit family struggles to cope. Having lived through my own mother’s 12-year battle with that soul-sucking disease, I know too well of its painfully funny, heartbreaking aspects.

Domingo, a former Bay Area theatre artist, is nationally known, nominated for just about every possible award (he won a Tony for his supporting role in “The Scottsboro Boys” in 2011), and was terrific in the 2020 Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” A version of “Dot,” called “West Philly, Baby,” is now being adapted for TV.

ShawnJ West directs for New Conservatory, one of San Francisco’s two dedicated LGBTQ theaters. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Through April 3. $25-$65.  ntcsf.org

Sense and Sensibility

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley specializes in new musicals, and this one, based on Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” is a regional premiere. It opened in Chicago, where retired TheatreWorks founder/artistic director Robert Kelley saw it. Kelley is a longtime director for musicals by Paul Gordon, who wrote the music, book and lyrics for the musical as well as for “Pride and Prejudice,” which Kelley world-premiered in 2019.

“Sense and Sensibility” focuses on a pair of sisters, the wildly impulsive Marianne and the more sedate Elinor, both searching for love.

“It’s quite an amazing opportunity and a challenge to condense a novel into a couple hours of stage time,” muses Kelley, “and a huge opportunity to explore what the characters are actually thinking because you can musicalize their process, their emotions.”

He adds: “We see ourselves in these characters even though it was 200 years ago. … And there’s the common ground of romance and love in the novels we’ve brought to life. What do you do with love, how does it work, what are the dangers and also the rewards?”

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Wednesday-April 3. $30-$100. theatreworks.org

Fefu and Her Friends

I’ve been waiting forever to see this 1977 award-winning play by the late Cuban American avant-gardist and quintessential feminist María Irene Fornés, last performed in the Bay Area in 1981 at the fabled Eureka Theatre. Now A.C.T. is producing it, dividing its multi-storied Strand Theatre into rooms that the audience wanders in to in groups to observe Fefu and her seven guests in her country home in New England, 1935.

In the living room, a shotgun is propped up against a wall. Fornés once said she was inspired to write the play by an old Mexican joke: At a bullfight, one man points out an attractive woman; the other man asks which one he’s talking about; and the first points his gun, shoots and says, “That one.” (In the play, all the men are offstage.) There’s also a bedroom, a kitchen, a study, a garden … So we’ll all have different experiences until we wind up together at play’s end in the living room.

What a terrific choice for the grand reopening of a flagship theater after its abrupt closing of “Gloria” in March 2020. With artistic director Pam MacKinnon at the helm, and a sublime cast — Catherine Castellanos, Cindy Goldfield, Marga Gomez, Jennifer Ikeda, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Sarita Ocón, Lisa Anne Porter and Stacy Ross — this is not to be missed.

American Conservatory Theater, Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., S.F. March 24-May 1. $25-$110. act-sf.org/fefu

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