SF Playhouse streams lively version of Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art’

Manual Cinema enthralls with innovative ‘Frankenstein’ at Cal Performances


In San Francisco Playhouse’s new, made-for-streaming production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” the acting is so good, so spot-on, that it’s downright exhilarating.

The 1994 one-act drama (translated by Christopher Hampton) examines a longtime friendship among three Frenchmen as it devolves over the course of several intense days.

The catalyst for the three-way meltdown is a painting by a renowned artist, which the slightly pretentious Serge recently bought for a shocking $200,000. It’s a large white canvas—all white, snickers the smug and sardonic Marc.

Serge, highly offended, insists that the painting is not all white; it has subtle stripes of colors. Besides, he likes it; he’s moved by it.

It’s pure shit, Marc scoffs.

What starts out as a theoretical argument about artistic tastes quickly veers into highly sensitive personal territory.

When peacemaker Yvan, who’s always late, arrives with an outpouring of angst about his upcoming wedding, his efforts to calm the troubled waters backfires.

At various times during the course of the play long-hidden resentments spill out. With hapless slacker Yvan as a sort of punching-bag, successful professionals Serge and Marc go for the jugular. At times, the characters pause for asides to the audience, confessing their hurt and anger, expressing their most deplorable impulses.

This is a live-filmed production, and due to the choice of material, and to the smarts of director Bill English and his crack team of designers and technicians, it’s just right for screening; on English’s suitable barebones set, it’s staged gracefully (the actors maintain barely noticeable social distance), with close-ups included. Even the costumes designed by Randy Wong-Westbrooke are just so, each man’s outfit helping to define him.

This is an actors’ vehicle for sure, and Jomar Tagatac’s Marc, with his snarky, contemptuous laugh, and Johnny Moreno’s self-satisfied but vulnerable Serge, are right on target. Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari as the emotionally fragile Yvan was a little shaky on lines but right on target elsewhere.

What’s so great about all three actors is that, beneath the surface personality traits required by the script, they dig deep and ultimately reveal characters that are complex and painfully truthful.

“Art” streams through Nov. 7; tickets are $15-$100; visit sfplayhouse.org.

Sarah Fornace plays Victor in Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein,” streaming in a Cal Performances at Home presentation from Oct. 29 through Jan. 27, 2021. (Courtesy Drew Dir)

Sarah Fornace plays Victor in Manual Cinema’s “Frankenstein,” streaming in a Cal Performances at Home presentation from Oct. 29 through Jan. 27, 2021. (Courtesy Drew Dir)

Stories about lonely monsters are, it seems, timeless and endlessly enthralling.

Mary Shelley’s 1818 ghost story “Frankenstein” is certainly one of the most famous, unforgettably hilarious in Mel Brooks’ 1974 film rendition “Young Frankenstein,” and heartbreaking as seen in the more recent video of Britain’s National Theatre stage production with Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster.

Chicago’s Manual Cinema (described as a collective of musicians, composers, theater artists and filmmakers) has created its own, hand-made, silent-film, multimedia version of the gothic tale, with live actors, shadow puppetry, musicians playing multiple instruments and animated design elements. It must have been stunning to watch onstage, as devised by Drew Dir, Sarah Fornace and Julia Miller.

But now it’s available as a 90-minute streaming video, made especially for Berkeley’s new Cal Performances at Home series. And it’s mesmerizing, from the score—which ranges from the tinkle of bells to otherworldly music, the crack of thunder, the roar of wind and much more—to the evocative graphics (the monster lumbers through empty fields; a full moon slowly rises amid the pines and so on) and the touching, tentative scenes between monster and human.

A long prologue links a singular event in Mary Shelley’s life to the book she eventually writes. We see her give birth and then mourn the death of her baby, after which she and Percy Shelley (her lover at the time; later they married) go to Lake Geneva. There they meet Percy’s friend Lord Byron and agree to see who can write the best ghost story. Of course, it’s Mary’s melancholy and horrifying tale that wins the contest.

Throughout, characters morph back and forth from shadow puppets to the black and white silhouettes of actors (the distraught Victor Frankenstein himself is seen full-on, eyes wide in terror as his experiment goes awry) while some remain solely shadow puppets. Their mime performances are so elegant, so precise, that at first you might not be able to distinguish puppet from person.

Occasionally excerpts of Shelley’s text appear as ornate, early-cinema-style captions.

The monster is at times a bunraku puppet, complete with stitched-together, mismatched feet, a bulbous nose and glassy eyes; at other times he’s a masked actor.

This is a beautiful, heartbreaking rendition of the familiar story, a worthy addition to the Frankenstein compendium.

“Frankenstein” streams Oct. 29 through Jan. 27; tickets are $15 to $60; visit https://calperformances.org/at-home/.

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