Engage with the stage: curtains up for fall arts theater

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday August 29, 2023
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Gabby Momah and Mikee Loria in 'Wolf Play' at Shotgun Players (photo: Robbie Sweeny)
Gabby Momah and Mikee Loria in 'Wolf Play' at Shotgun Players (photo: Robbie Sweeny)

"I think differently after seeing this play," said Elizabeth Carter of "Wolf Play," which she's directing for Berkeley's Shotgun Players in a much-anticipated production that opens this weekend.

What more could one wish for from a night at the theater? The best plays and musicals not only entertain us, they make us see the world afresh.

Whether by revealing unsung delights of everyday life, provoking us to examine the nuances of human psychology, or exposing us to new modes of storytelling, they ask us not to sit back and relax, but to lean in and engage.

Our attendance and engagement are critical at this moment. Over the last few years, local and regional theaters have struggled mightily. The pandemic changed habits, hitting the performing arts particularly hard.

From now through the end of the year, Bay Area companies are mounting a remarkable variety of productions, wildly varied in style and content. If you've allowed yourself to slip into streaming somnolence, it's time to rise up, get out and support local theater. Here are some of the season's most intriguing offerings.

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'  

'Wolf Play' and 'Hedwig' at Shotgun Players
"As the queer mother of a middle-schooler, one of the things that resonates with me most about this show," said director Carter of Korean-American playwright Hansol Jung's script, "is the sense of helplessness that young people can feel in a system that's not well designed to support them."

This multi-layered, tonally quirky piece, which incorporates puppetry and allegory in telling the story of an adoption gone wrong, won acclaim in its recent Off Broadway debut.

"Allow yourself to go for the ride," encouraged Carter, "The emotions in this play can catch you off guard. You're asked to root for the supposed Bad Guy." $15-$36. Sept. 2-Oct. 1.

Take that wig down from a shelf as John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask's hit Broadway musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" returns to the Bay Area in a new production directed by Richard Mosqueda. The Tony-winning trans rock favorite plays Oct. 28 through Dec. 3 ($34-$50). Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. www.shotgunplayers.org

Adam Kuve Niemann and Henry Halkyard in 'Before the Sword' at New Conservatory Theatre Center (photo: Lois Tema)  

'Before the Sword'
at New Conservatory Theatre Center

NCTC kicks off their season with an exciting world premiere commission. "Before the Sword" is an imaginative exploration of events that may have inspired "The Sword in the Stone" and other Arthurian tales by acclaimed author T.H. White, who few readers realize was gay. Andrew Alty's stage adaptation plays Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

Also this fall, NCTC brings us Harrison Rivers' mother-son coming out drama, "We Are Continuous" (Oct. 20—Nov. 26) and some wickedly Grinchy holiday counter-programming in "Ruthless," a backstage musical with bitchy bite (Dec. 1—Jan. 7). $25-$45. 25 Van Ness Ave. https://nctcsf.org/

We Players' 'Adventures with Alice'  

'Adventures with Alice' at Montalvo Arts Center
It's rare for We Players to remount one of their elaborate interactive outdoor productions. So if you didn't get a chance to catch this linguistically delicious, snappily-costumed spin on Lewis Carrol's classics when it frolicked through Golden Gate Park last spring, make haste to chase the white rabbit on the peninsula.

Actors and audiences are on the move throughout the two-hour production, following that rushing rabbit around the grounds of Montalvo and stumbling upon witty storybook scenarios. While youngsters aged six and older are welcome, this is truly a show for all ages. A tip for the grown-ups: That bunny goes great with a gummy. $25-$55. Sept. 28-Oct. 8. Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. www.weplayers.org

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Artistic Director Margo Hall directs Jocelyn Bioh's "Nollywood Dreams" at San Francisco Playhouse. (photo: Lisa Keating Photography)  

'Nollywood Dreams' at San Francisco Playhouse
There's sudsy fun in store at this soap-operatic, sit-com silly delight by the Ghanian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh ("School Girls: The African Mean Girls Play"). Set in Lagos, amidst the titular Nigerian feature film industry, which produces around 1000 movies a year, significantly outpacing Hollywood.

The play employs a feather-light touch in pointing out the global influence of American media while simultaneously celebrating Nigerian culture. The production is a showcase for a pair of multi-faceted local theater dynamos. Fresh off her comedic coup playing the lead role in Magic Theater's hit "Josephine's Feast," local legend Margo Hall directs. And rising Bay Area theatermaker Tanika Baptiste plays one of the leads here before taking the directorial reins at Theatre Rhinoceros' "Group Therapy" (see below). $30-$125. Sept. 28-Nov. 4. 450 Post St. www.sfplayhouse.org

42nd Street Moon's 'Mame' at the Gateway Theater  

'Mame' at Gateway Theater
While some might argue that "La Cage Aux Folles" is the only Jerry Herman musical about gay family dynamics, I beg to differ. While the too-frequently produced and lately-showing-its-age "Cage" takes the subject on directly, Herman's earlier, less frequently revived "Mame" is a barely-veiled celebration of the lesbian aunts and guncles who help introduce their proto-queer nephews and nieces to all things worldly and fabulous.

After last year's knockout 42nd Street Moon production of "Merrily We Roll Along," I'm looking forward to the company's refurbishment of this classic with a hummable score featuring "We Need a Little Christmas" and "Bosom Buddies."

Fun fact: Patrick Dennis, the sexually fluid author of the 1955 comic novel that "Mame" is based on, gave up his writing career in the early 1970s, eventually finding work as a butler for Ray Croc, the CEO of McDonald's.

To paraphrase Mame: Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are eating McNuggets. $35-$80. Nov. 2-19. $35-$80. Gateway Theater. 215 Jackson St. www.42ndstmoon.org

Billy Crudup in 'Harry Clarke' at Berkeley Rep  

'Harry Clarke' at Berkeley Rep
Hollywood and Broadway star Billy Crudup, winner of an Emmy for "The Morning Show" and a Tony for Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," plays 19 different characters over the course of David Cale's trickily plotted one-man drama, being remounted here after acclaimed New York runs in 2017 and 2018.

Form and function dovetail beautifully here. The title character is himself a chameleon, a midwestern American who inveigles his way into posh society and dangerous situations by taking on an alternate persona. Depending on how you interpret the play, Clarke is gay or bisexual; some queer audiences may take umbrage at the connection of bisexuality and an unstable personality. If you're fascinated by the craft of acting, "Harry Clarke" provides a unique opportunity.

The 2018 New York production was recorded for Audible, so you can listen to Crudup perform the entire play before seeing it live. It should be fascinating to consider his techniques for switching characters vocally in advance of watching his physical transformations on stage. Single tickets avail. Sept. 13. Nov. 15-23. 2015 Addison St. www.berkeleyrep.org

Playwright Kheven LaGrone's 'Group Therapy' at Theatre Rhinoceros  

'Group Therapy' at Theatre Rhinoceros
Oakland playwright Kheven LaGrone ("The Legend of Pink," "Pillow Talk," "A Little Miracle") returns to the Rhino with a serio-comic piece that's perfectly scaled for the company's intimate new home in the heart of the Castro. It consists of a series of therapy sessions among a group of Black men at odds with the fact that they're turning 40.

The freedom of youth and the responsibility of adulthood are juxtaposed as each of the quintet briefly takes the spotlight to share the details of his own story.

"I think these guys are all faced with the question of whether life is something that's behind them or that's ahead of them," said Rhino Artistic Director John Fisher, who says that reading the script evoked memories of watching "The Bob Newhart Show" as a kid.

"As a person who's never been in therapy," he said, "I find it fascinating to get a sense of the process." $17.50-$35. Nov. 9—Dec. 3. 4229 18th St. www.therhino.org

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