How does a theatre (or any) company know it is a HOT company? How can it navigate the balance between an esteemed reputation and quality or quantity of product? Does the reputation of the company precede or enhance their business model? Their artistic choices? The audience experience?
I am sure that many organizations face those challenges at different points in their artistic careers. Within the Bay Area, the two organizations that most come to mind are the Shotgun Players in Berkeley and the SF Playhouse in San Francisco. Both have seen a meteoric rise in their local status over the past few years. Shotgun has navigated the transition well, with a particularly strong emphasis on visual and artistic identity through their work. SF Playhouse may have hung back slightly, as they have a smaller space, but they show no hesitation in the diversity of their artistic product. For example, the summer production they offer is often a familiar title – in 2009 it was ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, while 2010 brought THE FANTASTICKS. They compliment those performances with more offbeat fare, such as the recent West Coast premiere of CORALINE and the first play I ever saw there, ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S BIG GAY DANCE PARTY, a local hit that went on to be a darling of the NYC Fringe Festival, even making it to a re-cast Off Broadway run last summer.
When I visit the SF Playhouse, which is relatively infrequently, I consistently find that their local identity casts a very long shadow over their productions. With this most recent excursion to see HARPER REGAN, an import from the National Theatre in London, I felt underwhelmed and I wanted to be dazzled. The last time I was at the Playhouse, for SLASHER in 2010, I felt amused but I wanted to be surprised and ecstatic. It seems that the mental bar for their productions is set very high for me, for some reason. On the flip side, when the scale of the production was more clearly stated, as in the smaller 2010 production of the new play SAFE HOUSE, I highly enjoyed and appreciated that show. It helped in that case that there were unusual similarities to my then-current class in psychopathology at graduate school.
I wanted to like Harper Regan, the character and the play, more than I actually did. As I explained, her (I’ll refer to the play as Harper) pedigree is exemplary. There seemed to be a quiet forcefulness around the play’s early scenes, particularly as Harper, played by company co-founder Susi Damilliano, attempts to break from her London job to visit her ill father in the north of England. Having spent significant time in the UK, I noticed the company’s strong voice work. It was telling, however, that everyone pronounced “what” the same way, like they were saying “wutt” to each other.
Harper continues on her odyssey, trusting more of her impulses as she returns to her Uxbridge home and deals with challenging immediate family situations. The action shifts to Manchester for the second third of the play, as she confronts her past in that northern city and a testy relationship with her mother. Meanwhile, her husband and daughter wonder about her well being, and her mother’s husband casually greets her as one of his own. Harper is left to determine her own course of action, and to me it felt like the play took the complicated exit line, which was particularly evident in an out of place closing scene set after Harper has returned home.
Harper’s story is thoroughly British in that the audience is not lectured to and is left to draw their own conclusions and thoughts about her actions. However, the jagged nature of the scenes, where only Harper’s immediate family members appear more than once, limited my identification with the story. I wanted to see the narrative go into more depth and storytelling, both about Harper’s predicament and her thought process. In this incarnation, she was present on stage, but given little opportunity to share her own cognitive process in the face of her challenges.