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Life and Death

SAN FRANCISCO—These days producers are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, wondering whether audiences want escapism or serious, relevant themes. In the case of subscription-based nonprofits, seasons were of course planned well before Sept. 11.

A Traveling Jewish Theatre was almost eerily prescient in choosing for its season opener Isaac, by Los Angeles wunderkind David Schulner. In re-imagining the Biblical story of Abraham's dutiful sacrifice of his son to an incomprehensible God, Isaac is unnervingly timely as it debates the nature of religious faith and Jewish destiny. Although Schulner's humor feels forced and his arguments eventually become pedantic, there are plenty of resonant theatrical moments, thanks to director Joan Schirle (the belle of Dell'Arte Company) and performers Corey Fischer, Aaron Davidman, and a magnetic, fierce-eyed Naomi Newman as the bereft Sarah.

Concord's popular Willows Theatre Company had a less apropos choice lined up for October. Gip Hoppe's Broadway spoof Jackie: An American Life, which shows how the media and the icon-hungry American public turned artsy, aristocratic Jackie Kennedy into a celebrity-in-spite-of-herself, is short on wit and feels passé—or at least it did when I saw it the day the first bombs fell on Afghanistan. Richard Elliott's direction, though, was delightfully antic, and the cast displayed great comic flair, with Tanya Shaffer as a sweetly conflicted Jackie and Steve Marvel as her emotionally challenged first husband.

A more entertaining spoof, especially for theatre artists, was the elusive Jane Martin's Anton in Show Business, which gently mocks and yet ultimately honors nonprofit theatre's tenuous position in American culture. Directed by Domenique Lozano, it got a strong West Coast premiere at San José Stage Company. As the actresses struggling to rehearse Chekhov's Three Sisters at a small, beleaguered theatre in Texas, Aimee Jolson, Kathleen Dobbs, and Jessa Brie Berkner were funny and believable in roles that are essentially caricatures, and C. Kelley Wright, Joan Mankin, and ej Ndeto offered a variety of comic cameos.

Up the Peninsula, TheatreWorks staged the much-anticipated Northern California premiere of Rebecca Gilman's partly satirical, partly dramatic Spinning Into Butter, dissecting covert racism at a small Vermont college. Gilman's script seemed flatly prosaic—until the famed second-act monologue, when the white-liberal dean of students comes unglued and confesses her own racism. Played with simple honesty by Lorri Holt, that speech made me (and surely others in the largely white audience) squirm. From that point on, Gilman's plot took interesting twists, with Holt well supported by Dan Hiatt, Warren Keith, Brian Stevens, Margaret Schenck, Tom Blair, and Richard Gallagher. Under Amy Glazer's direction, this was an admirably clear production.

A younger group, Last Planet Theatre, usually charms me with its brash vigor, but, uncharacteristically, it faltered with Ronald Ribman's 1987 satirical tragedy, Sweet Table at the Richelieu, in which a group of oddball guests mingle in a grand resort hotel. Planet regular Sarah Neal aced the central figure, a woman with a sorrowful secret, and Mary Saudargas was a hilariously self-absorbed writer. But the rest of the cast was left to ham it up under John Wilkins' inexplicably leaden direction.

Another small and ambitious company, Eastenders Repertory Company, has had luck with one-acts in rep for the past two years and chose to go all out with comedy for this season's opening festival, choosing some worthwhile material. I saw Tom Stoppard and Clive Exton's amusing The Boundary, which hinges upon clever wordplay; Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang's riotous spoof Medea, and a disappointing (and not especially comedic) intellectual exercise from Tony Kushner, Reverse Transcription, in which a group of playwrights discuss their lives in art while burying a colleague. Weak acting and slow pacing unfortunately undermined all three.

Meanwhile, as venues like Il Teatro 450 close down and Theater Artaud teeters on the brink, thank goodness Intersection is still in business for the true experimentalists. Robert Ernst recently premiered his solo "pocket opera" The John there. Intersection's Deborah Cullinan introduced the fiftysomething Ernst and his musician accompanists, Andy Dinsmoor and G.P. Skratz, as San Francisco legends. Indeed, Ernst was a Blake Street Hawkeye, along with Whoopi Goldberg, John O'Keefe, and others (O'Keefe, coincidentally, opened a new play of his own, Glamour, at the same time as Ernst's, at Project Artaud). In The John, a man, mourning his wife's sudden demise, has a close encounter with Death-as-a-yuppie in a theatre w.c. As directed by Jim Cave, it was an impressive, if overwritten and occasionally inaccessible, tour de force that was at various times funny, spooky, and riveting—and, in its expressionistic personalization of the death experience, yes, timely.

Ensemble performance of the month: Encore Theatre Company's Jibz Cameron, Brian Scott, Michael Sommers, and Lisa Steindler in Jeffrey M. Jones Seventy Scenes of Halloween. But the play itself, in which an unhappily married couple's inner demons materialize on Halloween night, is purposefully repetitive, at times amusing, but ultimately annoying.

Best, however, is the post-Broadway version of James Joyce's The Dead at American Conservatory Theater (a co-production with the Huntington Theatre), with an exquisitely melancholy, nontraditional book (director Richard Nelson), original music based on Celtic tunes (Shaun Davey), and lyrics conceived and adapted from various literary sources (Nelson and Davey). The musical is based on Joyce's short story "The Dead" from Dubliners, in which a turn-of-the-century family Christmas party reveals the subtlest of human interactions, evokes haunting memories, and gives fleeting, lyrical voice to life's most ineffable mysteries. With Sean Cullen narrating as the nephew Gabriel, The Dead casts a magical spell, evolving effortlessly from integrated song and dance to a more presentational style as the characters gradually express their deepest passions in musical form. It doesn't get any better than this, and I believe this is what audiences want to see, these days and always: live theatre that makes your heart ache—and sing.

—Jean Schiffman

Trouble Ahead

SACRAMENTO—"I think we're in for a long, hard time," said Jackie Schultz in a rare moment of quiet non-hyperactivity. While the co-founder of the League of Sacramento Theatres continues to bring in crowds to Six Women With Brain Death—a five-year phenomenon that continues to delight audiences at her own 94-seat Studio Theatre—she is worried about the after-effects of Sept. 11. "I think we're in a big mess," she continued. "Ultimately the arts will survive this turbulent, tumultuous time because they're such a benefit to the communities they serve. But Sept. 11 has completely changed our lives—period. Anything to do with people going out. The fallout here is only just beginning."

Schultz, 48, is anything but a pessimist. The former artistic director of Garbeau's Dinner Theatre collapsed onstage in 1997 due to a mysterious weakness in her legs. After making the rounds to countless doctors' offices, she herself deduced her problem was chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that left her all but bedridden for a year before she returned to her stage. Another debilitating bout took her off her feet for six months in 2000. If she were ever going to give up her passion for theatre, it would have been then.

But these bouts with adversity have served only to strengthen her resolve to focus on her gifts and her mission to pump up not only theatregoing in Sacramento but also interest in the arts in general. Her latest challenge in combating international terrorism's impact on the local theatre scene is just another stumbling block she plans to plow through. "We're not OK. Nobody's OK," said Schultz, noting the attendance drop-off for her usually SRO show for the month immediately following Sept. 11.

"All our audiences were down 30 percent from what they normally were," echoed Anne Tracy, artistic director of Beyond the Proscenium Productions, which opened The Harmony Codes at the Actor's Theatre of Sacramento on Sept. 14. Tracy, who pledged to donate $1 from every ticket to the Red Cross and a New York City firefighters' association, said those who did come were uncharacteristically reserved in the face of such high comedy. "They'd come after the show and say they really liked it, but they just weren't very vocal," she said. "It seemed like they just weren't very comfortable laughing out loud."

Schultz credits her own theatre's partial rebound to an Oct. 14 cover story in The Sacramento Bee's Sunday entertainment section. But she observed that her fellow League members haven't been so fortunate, noting a dearth of patrons for Sacramento Theatre Company's season-opening production of Educating Rita. Another impact has been on volunteerism and charitable contributions. "People aren't giving in the same way," said Schultz. "I keep thinking about that line in Applause: 'Hold on, we're in for a bumpy ride.'"

So she has spearheaded the current "See a Play" campaign, whose logo decorates T-shirts in league members' lobbies. She is also working with Sacramento.Com's "Ticket Club" to publicize area theatre through ticket giveaways and promotions, following a successful formula developed for film preview events.

—Barry Wisdom

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