Solo shows can feel particularly intimate on Zoom, as if it’s just you and the performer.
Case in point: Marga Gomez’s “Spanking Machine,” a Brava Theatre production.
In her many solo performances, the Bay Area’s longtime, treasured comic explores her own life— her flamboyant Cuban American parents, her search for love and sex, her all-too-human mishaps and missteps — in ways that are hilarious and always deeply affecting.
This latest show’s titular spanking machine recurs as a motif. Mostly it represents that mysterious thing that you fear all your life without knowing exactly what it is. Gomez narrates, tracking herself from childhood through her teenage years to the present. Along the way she inhabits various characters with wit and insight.
She first encountered the spanking machine in third grade at Immaculate Conception. The kids quaked at threats from the nuns to send them off to that scary apparatus.
One boy, Scotty, who became little Marga’s buddy in innocent mischief, was the first to be sent there and lived to tell the tale—or to evade the truth. Much later in life, Marga reconnects with her childhood friend, and surprising and sometimes bitter memories emerge.
Gomez initially rehearsed “Spanking Machine” live onstage. In this digital re-creation, she interweaves clips of that stage performance. You see her perched on a stool at Brava and hear audience laughter, but it’s a relief when she switches back to the virtual format. The audio’s better, and she’s exceptional at establishing an up close and personal rapport with us, the viewers.
On either platform, though, Gomez’s story registers strongly, equal parts funny and painful. The show continues in live streams on Sundays through Oct. 11. Tickets are $10-$20 at brava.org.
Further proof of how well solo shows can work on Zoom: “What Will I Be When You Grow Up?,” which is just as amusing and poignant as its title implies and impeccably performed by that chameleon Geoff Hoyle.
This latest solo venture, billed as a workshop production, could be trimmed of just a few extraneous moments during its 90-minute length—maybe two uncles is one too many—but under the direction of David Ford, it’s utterly charming.
British-born Hoyle, now a grandfather in his 70s, wonders what legacy he’s handing down to his grandson, 4-year-old Buster, whose main interest, during the course of the play, is creating his own show involving his toy garbage truck. To see Hoyle turn himself into a garbage truck, or a church organ, is pure bliss.
During the play, as he ponders what exactly he can offer the kid that will be valuable as he grows up, he plays a variety of characters, including Buster, his own Yorkshire working-class elders (Mum, Dad, grandfather, Uncle Bob the self-designated outlaw, Uncle Horace), his giddy childhood violin teacher, Miss Felix (she’s one of several characters who return as ghosts, offering Hoyle startling new perspective on their lives) and others. He even briefly inhabits his own future geezer self as a composite of all seven of Snow White’s dwarves. What kind of grandfather should he—can he—be? He tries various ones on for size.
He weaves in some of his own childhood and young-adult experiences as a budding musician and performer and, surprisingly, as a soldier stationed in Northern Ireland: “Do you believe I did this?” he says, gazing into his computer’s camera (like Gomez, he’s masterful at seeming to establish intimate contact with viewers).
Hoyle’s the rare solo performer whose writing and his acting skills are equal. There’s apparently nothing the physically agile, rubbery-faced comic talent can’t do. The Marsh has been nurturing his career for a long time and hopefully will eventually put this show, streaming now on its YouTube page, on stage.
The literary troupe Word for Word chose an uncannily apropos story for its initial pandemic-era podcast series: the first chapter of E.M. Forster’s sci-fi novel “The Machine Stops.” The world Forster created 100 years ago is one in which everyone lives underground, in isolation, communicating with family and friends through a “plate” that glows, reflecting their images.
Vashti (Susan Harloe) is completely comfortable in this mechanized world, but her adult son, Kuno, who lives on the other side of the planet, suddenly announces he wants to see her in person, not through a machine—she must come by “airship” to visit him.
It’s downright eerie how similar Forster’s vision is to our own current reality. Brian Rivera narrates, with various roles played by other Word for Word regulars. Don’t expect this to resemble an audiobook reading. This stellar company, it turns out, enhances literature in this audio format just as beautifully as it has always done onstage. The terrific sound design is by David R. Molina , Gendell Hing-Hernández directs. Two more episodes follow Sept. 24 and Oct. 1. Visit zspace.org/pod.
Bonus: A particularly hilarious and satirical new playlet by hometown heroine Lauren Gunderson, “Two Pigeons Talk Politics,” directed by Tracy Ward and featuring El Beh and Nic A. Sommerfeld, can be viewed in SF Playhouse’s Zoomlet series at its Youtube page.
One time only: A staged reading of “Manatee on Mars,” a premiere by actor-playwright Tanya Shaffer (full disclosure: she’s a friend), is about a 12-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. Catherine Castellanos, Anna Ishida, Adrian N. Roberts and others appear; Giovanni Rodriguez directs. It’s at 2 p.m. Sept. 26 at https://bit.ly/3kaavy8.