If being a fly on the (digital) wall at a first rehearsal sounds appealing, San Francisco Playhouse offers a new series: Actors and director appear on Zoom for a table read. The theater hires a director, and the director chooses the play and actors.
At the company’s first Zoomlet, Susi Damilano chose Ruben Grijalva’s new short (15 minutes or so) two-hander, recently commissioned by the theater, “Where 101 Becomes The 101.” Damilano brought on actors Bobak Bakhtiara and Katrina Lauren McGraw to read the script about a couple who meet cute at a gas station on a mid-state spot where Northern and Southern California—two areas that really ought to be two separate states—almost converge.
She’s a Valley Girl who’s headed north to Silicon Valley to break into the tech industry; he’s a Bay Area guy heading south for a Hollywood career (Bakhtiara’s low-key in contrast to McGraw’s sardonic energy). Partly narrating as they banter, the pair ultimately comes up with an entirely new plan.
Along with SF Playhouse, The Marsh is offering many streaming options, including an excerpt from “A Box Without a Bottom,” local storytelling magician David Hirata’s solo show previously at The Marsh. Here, he performs specifically for online viewing, shooting with two cameras and moving around two areas in his home.
In the witty and engaging show, he deftly performs a series of tricks to enhance and illustrate stories about growing up as a dorky, magic-loving half-Japanese, half “regular American” in Baltimore in the 1980s. His themes include cultural appropriation and clueless racism (“You people make a great car,” a man at a car dealership tells him) and even some of the history of Japan.
A mysterious wooden box — called a “Jap box” at the magic shop where he bought props as a kid — features prominently in the show, along with a large red fan and other objects used for fluid sleight-of-hand illusions. The visual images he creates are poetic and potent, and Hirata’s an unpretentious, likeable presence on thescreen—undoubtedly even more so when seen live onstage. Go to The Marsh’s YouTube channel.
A much-anticipated Zoom production, organized by the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project (launched by local actor Aldo Billingslea) to celebrate Juneteenth brought together 33 local theaters last week—with PlayGround, which helped develop the play, as host—in support of a reading of Vincent Terrell Durham’s play “Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids.” The one-time event also took place in about a dozen other theater communities throughout the U.S., a rare occurrence of synchronicity that in this case marked the theater industry’s sympathetic response to the current civil unrest.
In the five-character drama, directed by Peter J. Kuo and performed by an ensemble of impressive local actors, a white couple — the ultra-socially-conscious Molly (particularly obsessed with rescuing endangered species) and the more cynical Peter (Carrie Paff and Michael Ray Wisely) — are preparing for a cocktail party with three invited guests: an African-American acquaintance of Molly’s from the local bookstore (Britney Frazier in a too-small role); Molly’s Black, gay friend (Rodney E. Jackson, Jr.) and his white, activist lover (Patrick Russell), and a grieving Black mother from down the block (Jennifer Bradford), whose young son was recently murdered.
After a long opening scene in which Molly and Peter —who live in Harlem and have an adopted African-American toddler son— banter and squabble about various topics (he complains about the low-flow toilets that she insists upon; she wants to learn more about Black Lives Matter while he wants to go upstairs and “screw like rabbits”; he accuses her of “collecting issues,” such as the plight of the titular prairie fringed orchid), the guests begin to arrive, not a minute too soon.
Predictably, the social gathering starts awkwardly and soon enough becomes quite tense and unsettling as ce onflicts aris. Well-intentioned Molly tries helplessly to smooth over troubled waters.
In a recent podcast, New York theater critic Elisabeth Vincentelli opined that the most exciting contemporary playwrights these days are African-American, and she’s right: Jackie Sibblies Drury, Lydia R. Diamond, Lynn Nottage, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Suzan-Lori Parks, Dominique Morisseau, to name only a few whose works we’ve seen here in the Bay Area.
Vincent Terrell Durham may or may not prove to be among them. We’ve yet to see other works by him, so it’s too soon to say. But this drama spends too much time on Molly and Peter’s marital problems (is their dialogue meant to be satirical? It’s hard to tell) at the expense of in-depth and revealing interaction with their guests. The melodramatic and, at the same time, sentimental ending doesn’t help. Perhaps further script development is needed.
But the nearly nationwide response, on the part of theaters, to the Juneteenth project is heartening and hopefully points to other such projects ahead.