On Friday and Saturday, June 24 and 25, I saw three shows that all had “T” as a prominent letter in their titles…
#36: Tender Loin at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco
#37: Titus Andronicus at the California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda
#38: Care of Trees at Shotgun Players in Berkeley
TENDER LOIN was actually a “sneak preview” (staged reading) of a play in progress that will return to the Cutting Ball’s stage next year in a fully staged production. I’d heard a little bit about the show from two actors in the cast. Director Annie Elias, also a theatre teacher at Marin Academy near where I live, has spent an extensive amount of time researching the history and life of San Francisco’s “Tenderloin” neighborhood. This is a place that is often maligned – and neglected – as one of the roughest areas of the city. However, the reality is more complex. Elias involved all of the actors in her initial rounds of interviewing, so that they could gain additional higher understanding of their subjects and what they are doing for each other.
Unfortunately, this show experience fell victim to my difficulties with Golden Gate Transit late night travel, and I chose to only stay for the first act in order to get home at 11:30pm instead of 1:30am. Nonetheless, I found the production to be well-intentioned, if in need of some (sure to come) script editing and tightening. Considering the individual stories as they were told made me question my own assumptions about city life and what the people of San Francisco have to say for themselves. I was reminded of the sometimes invisible challenges of privilege, community and choice that one often makes in a public setting whether you realize it or not.
TITUS told a familiar story with a certain degree of elegant ferocity. Cal Shakes made a big deal of how this production was their first of this particular Shakespeare play in the 38 years of the company’s existence. They secured powerful Bay Area actor (and company associate artist) James Carpenter for the lead role, and built up a solid ensemble around him, with the wide-ranging local actor Stacy Ross particularly standing out for me in her role as Tamora. It didn’t seem quite as violent as local press had made it out to be. I also felt that the set design, a large cement hulk wall with some creative indentations here and there, was more limiting than enhancing of the play’s actions. Finally, seeing the show on a matinee performance was an undeniably different impression than if I’d gone in the evening. I wondered if a few of the actors were “tuning up” for the evening show, while also feeling sympathetic that they had to perform twice in one day, and very aware of how they needed to hold the bar high before their closing on Sunday.
Shotgun Players is celebrating their 20th anniversary this season, and they chose an intriguing and provocative piece in CARE OF TREES. The two-hander play seemed to allow slightly more economic and creative flexibility than they usually display, with two AEA actors in the cast, an elaborate set design, and extensive usage of video storytelling in the narrative. I was surprised to realize that it had been over a year since I last attended a Shotgun play in their home space. The company was a frequent theatrical destination for me earlier in my Bay Area life, but its attraction had faded somewhat. During that time, they’ve only gotten more dynamic in their marketing and outreach, painting the outside of their Ashby Stage building based on the current show of the moment, and clearly thriving based on word of mouth and their location right next to a BART station.
CARE OF TREES itself was captivating. I always appreciate stories that are told in a non-linear fashion and leave assembling the pieces up to the audience member. Director Susannah Martin and the two actors, Liz Sklar and Patrick Russell, really built up the character intensity and motivation. The actors brought a passionate, forceful urgency to their roles that upped the ante for the story’s poignancy and emotional impact. At the same time, they kept their versatility in motion and didn’t hesitate to invest in additional portrayals of supporting characters. The story took on a supernatural flair as it went on, but it was to the actors credit how that dimension did not feel forced or awkwardly developed. Eventually and inevitably, the intensity led to a lingering, powerful conclusion of the story.