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Fall Preview: Theatre

by Jim Gladstone

"Dandy Darkly's All Aboard" will play the San Francisco Fringe Festival, produced by Exit Theatre. Photo: SF Fringe Festival
"Dandy Darkly's All Aboard" will play the San Francisco Fringe Festival, produced by Exit Theatre. Photo: SF Fringe Festival  

Bay Area theater companies are putting a smorgasbord on the boards this fall. Unfortunately, with dozens of productions on offer, it's not an all-you-can-eat affair. Here's a selection of quirky canapés, dramatic dishes and musical morsels that have my mouth watering.

A first course of Fringe

The season gets off to a spritely queer start next week at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, produced by Exit Theatre, with plenty of intriguing pieces among its extremely affordable offerings (all under $20, and as little as $8.50 per performance with multi-show passes). Just a few that pique my interest:

"Dandy Darkly's All Aboard" gives new meaning to "pulling a train" with off-the-rails gay Southern Gothic storytelling, jewel-encrusted costume design and much more to chew-chew on.

"Fatter Than You Think," comedian Justin Matson's take on gay men and body image, arrives fresh off a run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

"Dangerous When Wet: Booze, Sex and My Mother" is a Moth StorySLAM champ's exploration of the three most important relationships in his life.

Shows play at the Exit Theatre in SF, Sept. 6-15. www.sffringe.org

Main dish dramas

It's great to see San Francisco theaters investing in the cultivation of powerful work by emerging playwrights. This fall, both the Magic Theatre and San Francisco Playhouse will share the fruits of those efforts, moving plays featured last year in their development programs - the Virgin Play Festival and Sandbox Series, respectively - into full-scale mainstage productions. Signaling positive past audience response as well as artistic excellence, the elevation of these plays makes them excellent choices for audiences who want to support new voices but are hesitant to spend time and money on untested work.

SF Playhouse revisits local writer Christopher Chen's "You Mean to Do Me Harm," which finds two mixed-race couples at a dinner that devolves into a complex linguistic and psychological scrum over Chinese, American and Chinese American perspectives. www.sfplayhouse.org.

Magic remounts "The Resting Place," a wrenching, suspenseful Midwestern family drama by Ashlin Halfnight, who has mined related material as a writer for "Bloodline," the Netflix series starring Kyle Chandler and Sissy Spacek. www.magictheatre.org.

"The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" is simultaneously one of the late Edward Albee's most accessible and most potentially off-putting plays. Its Tony-winning premiere production in 2002 was staged in a sitcom suburban living room, with superficially vanilla Bill Pullman cast as the wacky dad. The nature of that wackiness, though, is decidedly not the stuff of prime time. Dad is having an affair with the titular ungulate. Hilarity - and hysteria - ensue. In another production I saw, the set was an artsy, black-accented urban loft and the paterfamilias played by John Glover, with his trademark reptilian sleaze. However director Paul Stout decides to envision things at Custom Made, Albee's brilliant, cutthroat dialogue will demand that audiences wrestle with the nature of taboos and social norms. Post-theater dinner conversations will be lively. Sept. 20-Oct. 20. www.custommade.org

I'll admit it. A three-hour, 14-cast-member play about diplomatic negotiations sounds daunting. Which is exactly why I'm looking forward to the Marin Theatre Company's production of "Oslo," the first West Coast production of J.T. Rogers' awards-sweeping play. Rogers won Lucille Lortel, Outer Critics Circle, Drama League, New York Drama Critics' Circle, Obie and Tony Awards for Best Play. It's said that Rogers never gets bogged down in detail and wrings riveting psychological drama from the 1993 summit meeting between Israel's Yitzhak Rabin and the P.L.O.'s Yasser Arafat in Norway. I'll need to see it to believe it, but it'd sure be nice to be reminded that there's room for intellect and sensitivity at the highest echelons of global politics. Sept. 27-Oct. 21. www.marintheatre.org

Last spring, the New Conservatory Theatre Company mounted a spare, thrilling and beautifully acted production that deftly handled overlapping interracial, interfaith and homosexual relationships, "The Mystery of Love and Sex." The mystery of the fall season is whether they can once again manage such a complex web of nuance. The work that sets the challenge is Korean playwright Hansol Jung's "Cardboard Piano," which finds a young Ugandan woman falling in love with the daughter of Christian missionaries. Produced with the Museum of the African Diaspora, this is one to root for. Oct. 26-Dec. 2. www.nctcsf.org


Scene from an earlier production of  

Singing for their supper

On the musical front this season, five productions especially grab my attention, three local and two touring. Three solid bets and two total headscratchers.

If you're going to splurge on one pricey show this season, make it the poignant powerhouse "Dear Evan Hansen" at the Curran, on its first national tour. It's particularly relevant to the Bay Area in its exploration of social media, remarkably insightful about suburban adolescence, and gifted with the richest, hands-down most hummable original Broadway score in years. Dec. 5-30. www.sfcurran.com

Running concurrently with the intimate "Hansen" will be the intentionally overwrought "Bat Out of Hell: The Musical," hanging out at the Orpheum for the holiday season. It's a dystopian rock opera built around Jim Steinman's songs for the 1977 album by Meat Loaf. And it was a huge hit in London. AYOR. Dec. 4-23. www.shnsf.com

The season's other oddball musical gamble is Theatre Rhinoceros' homegrown production of "The Boy from Oz," the jukebox bio of flamboyant 1970s song-and-dance man Peter Allen. The rarely produced show's success hinges almost entirely on a truly spectacular male lead. In the hit Broadway version, that was Hugh Jackman. When his contract ended, the producers shut the show down, unconvinced he could be replaced in the role. But who knows? Rhino artistic director John Fisher pulled a kangaroo out of his hat with his last Aussie musical, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." Fingers crossed. Oct. 26-Nov. 18. www.therhino.org

It's hard to believe that "Allegiance" has never been performed in the Bay Area before this fall's production at the Contra Costa Civic Playhouse. While no classic, the George Takei-inspired musical about the impact of WWII Japanese-American internment camps on a multigenerational family is sturdily built and touchingly delivers an important, often-overlooked history lesson. It's also got a virtually all-Asian-American cast. Local audiences should consider giving it the "Crazy Rich Asians" treatment. Sept. 21-Oct. 21.www.ccct.org

Finally, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley lets the Bay Area revisit "Fun Home," the musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel about the multiple self-awakenings of a young lesbian with a secretly gay father. A tender chamber piece with surprising humor and deeply nuanced characters, it joins "Evan Hansen" and "Next to Normal" in a new mini-genre of domestic musicals. Oct. 3-28. www.theatreworks.org


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