Premieres aplenty at NCTC

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 29, 2016
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Harvey Fierstein's <i>Casa Valentina</i> (seen here in its Broadway production) will open New Conservatory Theatre Center's 35th season with a look at a 1960s<br>haven where straight men could act and dress as women. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina (seen here in its Broadway production) will open New Conservatory Theatre Center's 35th season with a look at a 1960s
haven where straight men could act and dress as women. Photo: Matthew Murphy

New Conservatory Theatre Center's New Play Development Lab will be paying back on its investment with three world premieres in its 2016-17 season, ranging from a biographical drama about blues singer Alberta Hunter to a contemporary take on the wartime bromance between Achilles and Patroclus of Ancient Greece. The slate of eight plays, recently announced by Artistic Director Ed Decker, is filled out with regional and West Coast premieres in addition to its fourth holiday production of Avenue Q.

This will be NCTC's 35th anniversary season for what was widely perceived as simply a gay theater in its early years, a designation that was consistent with the times but can no longer box in the work being produced. Officially, the theater calls itself an LGBQIA theater " the "A" standing for "allied," a subset that may find only tangential intersections with the specifics of what was once broadly called gay theater. It's all a reflection of a changing society, as new issues have arisen for former outliers and new outliers are pushing at frontiers that were hardly perceived 35 years ago.

Here are the productions that comprise NCTC's upcoming season. Both eight- and seven-show subscriptions (without Avenue Q ) are now on sale, as are four-show packages with a choice of any four shows in the season. Subscriptions are available at (415) 861-8972 or nctcsf.org.

Casa Valentina (Oct. 7-Nov. 5) Harvey Fierstein's 2014 Broadway play about men in drag is definitely not along the hemlines of his Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, and Kinky Boots. The time is the early 1960s, the setting a rundown colony of vacation cabins in the Catskills, and its occupants eight heterosexual men who make an annual escape to this haven where they can act and dress as women. Based on an actual place, the play looks at the men relaxing into this safe space even as an issue that will divide them is introduced: whether or not to allow gay cross-dressers to join the group.

Sons of the Prophet (Nov. 11-Dec. 18) Stephen Karam's play, seen off-Broadway in 2011, aims at being both funny about and sensitive to the tragedies that befall us all, and about how those tragedies are distributed in wildly uneven fashion. The play focuses on Stephen, a gay man with a host of unexplained physical ailments, who must struggle to keep the family together after a prank, and the subsequent trial of the young prankster, causes his father's death in a traffic accident. On top of all this, a disgraced publisher sees her way back to respectability by encouraging Joseph to write a memoir about his family's journey when she discovers they're distantly related to Kahlil Gibran of The Prophet fame.

Avenue Q (December) Despite billing last year's production as its "furwell tour," the adult puppet musical returns for its fourth holiday run at NCTC.

Daniel's Husband (January) Michael McKeever's play, first produced in Florida last year, looks at a gay couple who are split over whether to make use of their new-found freedom to marry. Michael doesn't want to be "as ordinary as straights," while Daniel (and his mother) deeply desires to be part of a married couple. It turns out that these opposing points of view have consequences beyond the ceremonial symbolism.

Blues singer Alberta Hunter is the subject of Jewel Gomez's Leaving the Blues, one of three plays having its world premiere in NCTC s 2016-17 season.

Leaving the Blues (March) Jewel Gomez's biographical drama is the first of the three world premieres of the season to emerge from NCTC's play-development lab. In this play with music, Gomez explores the life of blues singer Alberta Hunter. The backstage story is framed by Hunter's comeback in 1977 at age 82, after leaving behind her music career to work as a nurse for 20 years. The play takes her back to her harsh beginnings through to new acclaim, all the while living her offstage life as a lesbian. Gomez previously explored writer James Baldwin's life in Waiting for Giovanni, produced by NCTC in 2011.

Everything That's Beautiful (March) Another of NCTC's world premieres, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's play at first seems to be about a couple who allow their 8-year-old child to live as a girl. They relocate to get a fresh start, before other, darker reasons for the move begin to surface. Wilder, an Alabama native, is best known for her play Gee's Bend.

Del Shores'play Sordid Lives will finally make its SF debut as part of NCTC's upcoming season.

Sordid Lives (May-June) NCTC has produced other plays by Del Shores (Southern Baptist Sissies, Yellow), and the playwright himself has appeared locally with his one-man shows, but somehow the play that started it all is only now having its SF debut. The 1996 play, which became a cult movie in 2000, follows three generations of a dysfunctional small-town Texas family as they prepare for what promises to be a very embarrassing funeral.

warplay (June) NCTC closes its season with the third of its world premieres. JC Lee's play takes its inspiration from Homer's The Iliad, specifically its characters Achilles and Patroclus, celebrated warriors in Greek mythology whose close relationship gets a contemporary retelling. Lee's earlier plays have been presented at multiple Bay Area theaters, and he has also written for such TV series as Looking, Girls, and How to Get Away with Murder.