Courtesy photoRinabeth Apostol plays Ana in the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s “Fire Work.”

Tension mounts in TheatreFIRST’s ‘Fire Work’

Billed as a romantic comedy in its world premiere at TheatreFIRST, San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson's three-hander “Fire Work” is much more than that. In fact, it's really not a comedy at all, although there is a fraught romance at its heart.

The prolific, prize-winning Gunderson — who's had several local world premieres of plays she wrote more recently than this one, which she first developed in 2009 — is always looking at an expansive picture, whether the play is historically based, futuristic or, as in this case, set in an imaginary (and yet all too real) world, with a surreal element woven in.

In “Fire Work,” Ana (played with hyperactive intensity by Rinabeth Apostol) is a pyrotechnician in her father's fireworks shop (an appropriately small and shabby warehouse-type set by Martin Flynn). Dad taught her the tricks of the trade, including “how to make people and metal behave.”

When Ben (an engaging Aleph Ayin) arrives at the shop, on the eve of his arranged-marriage wedding, to exchange some sparklers that turned out to be the wrong color, he falls in love at first sight with Ana.

It's hard to understand why, since, at least as played by Apostol, she's initially wary to the point of snarly hostility. Maybe it's because he's had a chance to see her pretty face, which he recognizes, because they were schoolmates long ago.

In this oppressive society, under the draconian “new rules,” women apparently must be fully covered in the presence of men, but the feisty Ana recklessly throws off the hood that obscures her features.

Popping in and out of an adjacent workroom, her father (Brian Herndon) issues dire warnings. This place is unsafe for them, for reasons that we eventually learn. Ana is antsy, packed and ready to flee. Yet soon enough she's waylaid as Ben plies her with bouquets and words of love.

The mysteries that Gunderson has embedded into the plot — who are the "they” that Ana and her father fear? — take a long time to unfurl. When they do, things get increasingly intriguing, with the nascent romance between Ben and Ana taking on a new and morally ambiguous dimension.

Under Mina Morita's direction, the tension is palpable, despite an occasionally too-rushed tempo that makes the action more confusing than need be. And Gunderson's often poetic language resonates, her complex characters are realistically flawed and her scary world is dramatically explosive.

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