Transbay Double Feature

Yesterday I constructed a Sunday Adventure around two theatrical productions on opposite sides of the San Francisco Bay. I must add that both of the shows were equally rooted in the stories of this region, adding to their appeal. The first play, Born and Raised, in a highly unusual 12:00 noon showtime, looked at modern family life. The second show, The 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival, compiled the Greatest Hits of this year’s PlayGround writings – and I’ve written before about how much I enjoy this company’s work.

First, Born and Raised. This “new musical in development” looked at the modern topics of gay marriage and modern family, set against a local familiar backdrop of the Bay Area. I appreciated the urgency of the subject matter and recognized how the audience/viewer can be drawn right into the work if they know exactly what they are looking at. It’s a different attraction than being drawn by a title, such as a Shakespeare play. In this case, the audience was drawn by the subject matter. It was my first visit to the Berkeley Playhouse, located in a building designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan. Her signature Redwood design look is visible throughout the building, reminding me most clearly of the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove.

I also appreciated the care and attention through which Jon Tracy (a highly prolific local theatre artist) constructed the script. One character entered as a seemingly minor role, but became fully developed by the close of the play. A few characters were not who they seemed to be. ALL of the multi-age ensemble was onstage for the entire show, in Nina Ball’s evocative and creative set design. Characters connected to the protagonist stood up in the rear of the stage at times, to signify that they were included – even if not directly in the scene. Magical realism entered the play when characters from two different eras began to address and interact with each other on the stage. Hints of further elements to the story were sprinkled throughout the show, and yet, they were not explicitly spelled out. (My friend who played a leading role explained to me later how that may have been caused by rewriting, but I still appreciated it.) My only quibble, really, was how the ending seemed to rush into an overly happy and satisfying conclusion, although it was the uplifting tilt that the story had been moving towards.

On a personal note, this production exemplified the “Theatre and Social Change” that I am drawn towards, using the power, creativity, therapeutic intent and active imagination of the arts to look at a current issue.

I crossed the Bay Bridge in heavy traffic to make my way back to Potrero Hill (San Francisco) and the Best of PlayGround festival. The Potrero Hill area (here’s a handy Wikipedia description) was the site of many early SF Theatre memories for me when I stage managed at Thick Description. I was therefore very surprised to realize that it had been nearly a year since I was last in the neighborhood.

This year’s PlayGround festival seemed to be their most technically audacious yet. Extensive props littered the stage on two occasions. One actor sat in a real plugged in refrigerator for part of one piece. Back projections appeared on an upstage scrim as a key component of one piece. Dramatic lighting cues and sound design added a distinct layer of narrative to the penultimate piece. The closing piece added a musical interlude to the story before bringing it to a conclusion.

In my view, this year’s festival had a standout short play in Escapades by Mandy Hodge Rizvi, directed by M. Graham Smith. Rizvi was there in the audience last night to accept the June Baker prize, awarded to a promising local female playwright. She crafted a powerfully evocative story of an older man facing a debilitating Alzheimer’s disease. In a creative twist, the audience was shown stories from his life in reverse. The play began with his son, then went to his daughter, and finally to his wife, all in reversed chronological order. The scenes were broken up with dance theatre-esque stylized movement and dramatic music cues that seemed to match the introspective mood. One mini-scene had the old man (actor David Cramer) dreaming with the aid of a dramatic spotlight that turned its way directly to him – and the audience. The other three actors in the piece played multiple distinct roles.

PlayGround’s creativity and passion is completely, utterly infectious. They are clearly well loved by the Bay Area theatre community.


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