Bay Area Performance Picks that go Beyond the Completely Obvious

Marjan Safa in Thrillpeddlers’ ‘The Untamed Stage: Weimar Berlin Kabarett’  (Photo: www.davidallenstudio.com)

So you've gotten tickets to shows by all the heavy-hitters -- the San Francisco Ballet, the American Conservatory Theater, the San Francisco Opera, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Broadway tour presenter SHN. Your date is impressed.

Now, here's how to make him or her admire your cultural with-it-ness even more: go experience something that's a little -- or a lot -- off-center. Below are some local performance gems to feed your arts-going habit in the coming weeks.

Now through Saturday, Apr. 30: Colossal at SF Playhouse, San Francisco
An arresting, intensely physical drama by Andrew Hinderaker which tells the story of an athletic young man who turns his back on a promising ballet career to pursue his true passion -- pro football -- only to land shortly thereafter in a wheelchair after taking a fall during a game. Featuring a strong cast of buff, male actors and fluid direction from John Tracy, Colossal epitomizes the feisty, high quality theater produced by SF Playhouse. Read KQED’s review here. And watch SF Playhouse’s preview below.

Now through Sunday, May 15: Shotgun Players’ Hamlet at Ashby Stage, Berkeley
This unusual production of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy directed by one of the Bay Area’s hottest directors, Mark Jackson, takes the line “the play’s the thing” as its starting point for an exploration of the myriad different ways the drama can be staged. Right before each performance, cast members draw lots out of Yorick’s skull to decide which role they’ll be playing that night. They have five minutes to prepare, then it’s lights down. This two-hour version of Hamlet artfully edited by Jackson features six supremely talented actors and is expected to continue to run in repertory for an entire after its initial run as part of Shotgun Players’ 25th anniversary celebrations. The company is selling special ticket packages to encourage audiences to experience three different casting combinations.

Saturday, Apr. 14 - Saturday, Jun. 11: Thrillpeddlers’ The Untamed Stage: Weimar Berlin Kabarett at The Hypnodrome, San Francisco
This sexy-scrappy musical by Scrumbly Koldewyn, founding member of The Cockettes (a famed San Francisco underground theater troupe of the 1960s and '70s), takes its name from “The Untamed Stage,” a Berlin hot spot founded in 1921. Through vaudeville skits and songs, the show features some of the Bay Area’s most captivating drag artists and touches on such universal subjects as belonging, fascism, and “a cow that becomes increasingly self-aware and might change the course of history.” And if you’ve never been to The Hypnodrome before, this is an experience not to be missed, as the theater -- home to SF’s grand guignol theater company Thrillpeddlers -- is one of the city’s hidden treasures.

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Saturday, Apr. 14 - Saturday, Apr. 30: CubaCaribe Festival at Dance Mission Theater and Brava Theater in San Francisco, and Laney College Theater, Oakland
Now in its 12th year, this vivid annual celebration of Caribbean performing arts turns its attention to Cuba, a country immersed in dance and music. Over three weekends, “Cuba On My Mind” explores the massive influence of Cuban culture on the rest of the world. The opening weekend at Dance Mission Theater features a mixed program, including Aguas Dance Company and Ballet Folklorico Odduara. Week two shifts to Laney College in Oakland with performances focused on more contemporary dance styles by the likes of Alayo Dance Company and Nicole Klaymoon’s Embodiment Project. The festival returns to San Francisco at the end of the month with a show that demonstrates the spread of Cuban ideas throughout the world, featuring Brazilian capoeira from Abada Capoeira SF, Mexican dance by Los Lupeños de San Jose, and other virtuostic groups. Here’s a video featuring Alayo Dance Company from a previous CubaCaribe Festival:

Wednesday, Apr. 20 - Wednesday, Jul. 20: David Gerard’s Game Night: An Evening of Magic and Mindreading at PianoFight, San Francisco
PianoFight is one of the core offbeat performance hubs in downtown San Francisco, an exciting and relatively new spot to grab a drink and dinner, and check out a variety of off-beat performances, like plays by underground theater companies, burlesque shows and standup comedy. Clever clogs mentalist David Gerard, who regularly sells out the venue, is back with a new show created specially for PianoFight. Game Night fuses mindreading with magic. The artist has chops on both fronts. Last year, for instance, Gerard baffled and delighted audiences by swallowing needles and thread and regurgitating threaded needles. Watch Gerard in action here:

Now through Sunday, Apr. 24: Ubuntu Theater Project presents The Grapes of Wrath at Oakland City Church, Oakland
Ubuntu Theater does something that’s hard to do: the small, ever-inventive company manages to produce socially conscious theater without thumping people over the head with a didactic message. The current season, presciently titled “Threatened Homes,” offers a broad and deep perspective on the idea of displacement, encompassing everything from a take on Shakespeare’s Othello that focuses on the title character’s conversion from Islam to Christianity, to Más, a docudrama by Milta Ortiz about the Chicano community in Tucson, Arizona. Up next, the company’s take on Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous 1939 novel about an impoverished Oklahoma family’s arduous journey to California. If Ubuntu’s memorable recent staging of Clifford Odets’ classic workers’ rights drama, Waiting for Lefty, set in a disused Oakland auto repair shop is anything to go by, this new production is very much worth checking out. Watch the directors of the company talk about Lefty and other things here:

Thursday, May 5 - Sunday, May 8: Cal Performances presents Helen & Edgar at Zellerbach Playhouse, Berkeley
New York City poet, playwright and ranconteur Edgar Oliver heads to Berkeley to share his brilliantly whacko story about growing up in Savannah, Georgia, with his sister Helen and their spectacularly eccentric mother. Oliver is a veteran performer with The Moth. The Peabody Award-winning radio series and live storytelling project helped to incubate this one man show which The New York Times describes as "utterly absorbing and unexpectedly moving.” Watch Oliver tell one of his childhood inspired monologues:

Saturday, Apr. 23: Stanford Live presents AXIS Dance Company’s To Go Again at the Bing Concert Hall, Stanford
The great Bay Area-based choreographer Joe Goode teams up with one of the country’s seminal contemporary dance companies, AXIS, based in Oakland, to present a new work around the theme of war veterans returning home from the front lines. Like the soldiers portrayed in To Go Again, AXIS dancers know what it means to confront challenges because many of them have physical disabilities and move on stage in their wheelchairs. The piece is part of Stanford Live’s series exploring war, return and recovery. Goode’s is the final work on a bill that also includes Dix Minutes Plus Tard (Ten Minutes Later) by Sonya Delwaide and Marc Brew’s Divide. Watch members of AXIS perform on the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance:

Thursday, Apr. 14 - Sunday, May. 8: Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
From The Other Boleyn Girl to Wolf Hall, audiences in this country can’t get enough of the period in English history when women in high places lost their heads and men vied over the size of their cod pieces and ruffs. Marin Theatre Company’s west coast premiere of a 2010 play by Howard Brenton draws us in with the former: The drama begins with the arrival of the ghost of King Henry VIII’s late wife, Anne Boleyn, lugging her severed proboscis in a blood-stained bag. Brenton’s revisionist history casts Henry VIII’s devoutly protestant second wife as an active player in the affairs of the state rather than merely a sorry victim. Watch the cast rehearse the show at Grace Cathedral:

Friday, Apr. 29 - Sunday, May 1: Opera Parallele presents Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse at Z Space, San Francisco
Opera Parallele is one of the most innovative contemporary opera companies around, producing edgy work like the recent jazz opera, Champion, based on the tragic life of the gay heavyweight prizefighter Emile Griffith. The company’s latest offering is a ghost story of a chamber opera inspired by real-life events about the mysterious disappearance of three fisherman stationed at a remote lighthouse off the coast of Scotland. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies’ rhythmic musical score calls for three virtuostic male singers (in this case, Robert Orth, David Cushing and Thomas Glenn) and 12 musicians playing some instruments not typically employed in opera productions like the banjo, guitar and an out-of-tune piano. Check out the preview here:

Thursday, May 5 - Sunday, May 8: Liss Fain Dance presents Tacit Consent at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has a new mission, emblazoned on billboards around the city -- “The Center for the Art of Doing Something About It.” In addition to following through on this aim with civics programming that asked artists and other thinkers to go deep into the most pressing social and political issues of our day, YBCA extends this mission into its collaborations with arts organizations. Such is the case with Liss Fain Dance, which presents an immersive world-premiere sound, video and performance art installation about surveillance and ambiguity. You experience the piece by wondering through four different rooms of the set.  Get a taste of the company's approach here:

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