Live theater is back with a vengeance

A haunted house on steroids, an absurdist immigration comedy

Live theater is back, with a vengeance. Be assured, theaters are vigilant about checking vaccination cards, enforcing mask-wearing and keeping audiences socially distanced. Some offer a live-streamed component as well (check their websites). Here are a few best bets for theater-lovers this month.

‘The Immortal Reckoning’

Halloween is often cited as San Francisco’s favorite holiday, and there’s no better way to spend it this year than at “The Immortal Reckoning,” a theatrical haunted-house-on-steroids produced by Into the Dark (aka Peaches Christ, David Flower Productions and Non Plus Ultra).

Be prepared for a totally unsettling, guided walkabout of several floors in the San Francisco Mint, through dark and narrow passageways and creepy chambers, up and down seemingly endless staircases. The ambiance includes audio and visual effects (even odors — my companion smelled things like rotten meat and scorched who-knows-what, although I didn’t) guaranteed to disgust, amuse and horrify you, sometimes all at once. (I still have nightmares about a particular toilet in the bathroom.) Horror is guaranteed — this event is not for kids, or the faint of heart. (Beware of an intensely claustrophobic soft black tunnel.)

Visitors travel in isolated groups of eight; our group, which included a screamer and at least one hysterical giggler (me), quickly bonded. During the 45-minute tour, which, strangely, feels longer, but in a good way, you’re following a gothic story, full of mystery and violence, animated by various characters: cadavers, insane nuns (one threatened to whip me if I didn’t get down on my knees), vampires and malevolent humanoids of all persuasions. The ambiance is so anxiety-producing that it’s hard to follow the tale, which involves a family that apparently once hoarded mysterious supernatural possessions here at the Mint, but no matter. You’re there to get lost in a maze, jump out of your skin when that thing pops out of a cupboard, immerse yourself in the most chilling environment imaginable — and make it out alive.

“The Immortal Reckoning” continues at The Mint, 88 Fifth St., S.F., through Oct. 31. Tickets are $50-$70. Visit terrorvault.com.

‘The Claim’

For our resident theaters, the choice of a fall season opener is always significant, a harbinger of the year to come, and this year more so than ever, as theaters entice trepidatious audiences to finally venture indoors. The 30-year-old Berkeley theater Shotgun Players chose the short three-hander “The Claim,” knowing that to make audiences feel comfortable with the company’s first live performance in a year and a half, they’d better avoid, for example, large-cast musicals with actors singing and sweating. Luckily, founder-artistic director Patrick Dooley had seen a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival during the Before Time that, he says, “blew my mind.”

In the Kafka-esque absurdist comedy “The Claim” by Tim Cowbury, an African immigrant, Serge, seeking refuge in the U.K., finds himself facing a series of bureaucratic challenges. He’s trapped in a twisted world in which words have unexpected meanings, everything’s misunderstood and all goes spectacularly wrong.

Cowbury, who is expected to attend one of the performances here, has said, “Serge is basically in a Catch 22 from hell: expected to tell his difficult story in order to save his life, and denied a chance to tell it in the same breath. It would be funny if it weren’t true.”

The play struck Dooley as prescient, powerful, invoking a “blend of emotions,” he says. “It’s so great, so familiar and incredibly tragic. You find yourself in the shoes of a person trying to find a safe place to be.”

It’s about, he adds, “what it means to be an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant.” Rebecca Novick, one of the Bay Area’s best directors, is at the helm.

“The Claim” runs at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, from Oct. 14-30. Tickets are $8-$40. Visit shotgunplayers.org.

Kenny Scott, foreground, appears in Shotgun Players’ “The Claim” in Berkeley, with, from left, Soren Santos and Radhika Rao. (Courtesy Robbie Sweeney)

Kenny Scott, foreground, appears in Shotgun Players’ “The Claim” in Berkeley, with, from left, Soren Santos and Radhika Rao. (Courtesy Robbie Sweeney)

‘Lizard Boy’

Not to be confused with the 2011 sci-fi movie of the same name, “Lizard Boy,” described as an indie-folk-rock-comic-book musical fantasy, world-premiered at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2015. Its sole author (lyrics, music, book), Justin Huertas, was among the three-person cast, all of whom play a variety of instruments, from kazoo to piano. Huertas is in town for the new TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production as well, and the original director, Brandon Ivie, a New York/Seattle-based film and theater director, is in charge. TheatreWorks has long been a purveyor of new musicals; this three-hander sounds ideal for its new, live season.

Seattle Times critic Misha Berson described the show, at its premiere, as “a shy gay romance with a mock Dungeons & Dragons scenario” and points out that the multi-talented Huertas can “sing, dance and play cello at the same time, while portraying a humanoid reptile with cryptic powers and a Woody Allen-ish bundle of neuroses.” Like Elphaba in “Wicked,” he’s green, but apparently scaly too. Who wouldn’t be neurotic, given that?

“Lizard Boy” runs at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, from Oct. 6-31. Tickets are $30 and up. Visittheatreworks.org.

San Francisco International Arts Festival

This year’s San Francisco International Arts Festival — the brainchild of executive director Andrew Wood, who founded it in 2002 — is presenting about 28 outdoor performances in various genres this year (the number of shows is subject to change, he warns). For theater-lovers, of particular interest is, ahem, “Y.Y.aD.F.H. R.M.C.M.A.al.oH.,” a play from Pop-Up Theatre of St. Petersburg.

Wood produced one of the Russian company’s plays a few years ago, having been introduced to the company and its founder-director, Semion Aleksandrovskiy, by a former SFIAF staff person. This year, Wood expected Aleksandrovskiy and his actors to be here in person for the two-hander, but their visas were canceled at the last minute. Local actors Megan Trout and Caleb Cabrera are taking on the roles, with Aleksandrovskiy directing them over Zoom.

The play’s obscure title refers to a coded declaration of love that Tolstoy wrote to Sophia Behrs (and which she apparently had to decode), translated as “Your youth and the need for happiness remind me cruelly of my old age and the impossibility of happiness.”

On Fort Mason’s Great Meadow, the audience, divided into two groups, follows one of the two characters as they traverse the meadow in a sort of lockstep, so each audience group has a different experience. The two characters are searching for their soulmate, just as Tolstoy himself, explains Trout, was obsessed with how to find the perfect partner, how to create the perfect family life.

For Trout, working on the play with a Russian director is familiar; she studied briefly at the Moscow Art Theatre and describes the Russian approach to acting as one of tapping into deep wells of joy.

The ending of the approximately hour-long piece, very existential, will take you by surprise, Wood promises.

The SFIAF runs at Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., S.F., from Oct. 20-24. Tickets run from $36 to $135 for a multi-show pass. Visit sfiaf.org.

‘The Great Khan’

Two of The City’s best theater companies — San Francisco Playhouse (consistently bringing us great contemporary plays, often from Off-Broadway) and the (always funny and politically radical) San Francisco Mime Troupe — have joined forces to produce “The Great Khan.” It’s a National New Play Network rolling premiere, and since it’s written by the Mime Troupe’s head writer, Michael Gene Sullivan, and comprises a six-member cast that includes Mime Troupe mainstays Velina Brown and Brian Rivera, this coproduction is likely to be a match made in theatrical heaven.

Directed by Darryl V. Jones and performed at SF Playhouse’s downtown venue, it’s about a Black teenage boy and his struggle to find his own identity after he’s saved a girl from a sexual assault. And it’s about our culture and — well, it’s also about Genghis Khan, and what we can learn from history. Sullivan will discuss it in detail in an upcoming Examiner interview.

“The Great Khan” runs at SF Playhouse, 450 Post St., S.F., from Oct. 13-Nov. 13. Tickets are $30-$100. Visit sfplayhouse.org.

San Francisco Playhouse and the San Francisco Mime Troupe have joined forces to produce “The Great Khan,” about a Black teenage boy (Leon Jones, pictured with Brian Rivera) and his struggle to find his own identity. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse)

San Francisco Playhouse and the San Francisco Mime Troupe have joined forces to produce “The Great Khan,” about a Black teenage boy (Leon Jones, pictured with Brian Rivera) and his struggle to find his own identity. (Courtesy Jessica Palopoli/San Francisco Playhouse)

Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.

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