You just can’t get away from thinking about the state of the nation these days. If many of us couldn't have imagined President Donald Trump, then no one could have imagined the sheer breadth, scope, and creativity of his performance. There’s a predetermined air to most presidencies that Trump has shattered -- no more bland, good guys in well-intentioned dramas, the type of aesthetic slop Broadway and the Regional theater system has been spoon feeding us for years. Here's the real thing.
For liberals and the progressive left, he's a character worthy of the most horrific of Euripides’ tragedies. Brazenly crass, tuned in to the nation like a divining fork, and as nimble a political player as Shakespeare’s Richard the Third. For some conservatives and many in red America, Trump is an epic hero, blasting through years of political corruption and cultural stasis. And so in that spirit of mutual miscomprehension, here are six theatrical events that will never let you rest easy and challenge everything that you might understand of our great American drama, both theatrical and political.
Sept. 21 - Oct. 22
Ashby Stage, Berkeley.
The late Sarah Kane’s Blasted is one of those plays that everyone knows and no one has seen -- a bright diamond that's just out of reach. Since it was first produced upstairs at the Royal Court Theater in 1995, its reputation as a piece of fiery provocation, an incoherent scream, a nasty piece of filth, a sharp political commentary, and much more, has grown. That Kane died so young after hanging herself with her shoelaces has added that "what could've been"-feeling to her work, and added more weight to Blasted, her first play.
There's always a Joke with Thomas Bradshaw
Sept. 28 - Oct. 22
Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley
Thomas Bradshaw is the most gleeful nihilist in American theater and one can only imagine -- though soon we won’t have to -- what he’ll do with Thomas Jefferson'as and Sally Hemings' romance. (Or is it an affair? Abduction?) For Bradshaw, the difference between affair and romance are small, and if Thomas and Sally comes even half close to his other plays, I’m not sure what the Marin Theater Company audience will do. So, let’s hope for the worst, because that’s always the best when it comes to Bradshaw.
State of Siege
Nov. 10 and 11
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley.
France’s Theatre de la Ville came to Cal Performances in 2014 with an astonishing production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Now they’re back with Albert Camus’ State of Siege. Written in 1948, Camus certainly had any number of totalitarian regimes in mind and would certainly be dismayed at the number of burgeoning autocracies he’d have to choose from now. As with The Plague and The Rebel, Camus’ concerns aren’t so much with the dictator as they are with the individuals who make up the resistance. What will they do? What should you do?
'A 24-Decade History of Popular Music' with Taylor Mac
Curran Theater, San Francisco
Performance artist, playwright, and drag queen Taylor Mac's work has always seemed caught between the formal constraints of the theater and the need to have a party -- a very long party. Somehow, he’s managed to take all his talents and merge them into one brilliant freak out in his masterful, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. It’s so many wonderful things at once, and the only way to describe it is to say that you will experience a perfectly-balanced abundance.
Taking an hour for every decade of American popular music (which would mean whatever was popular at the time), 24-Decade is brilliant theater, a stunning upside down take on our history, and a Herculean act of energy and imagination, all at once. Performed in six-hour chunks, this dares our minds and souls to confront our history, and address a divided nation in crisis.
There is also a three-hour abridged performance at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University on Sept. 27. For tickets and information click here.
William Kentridge's Refuse the Hour
Nov. 10 and 11
Geary Theater, San Francisco.
If you ask me, one of the best pieces of ongoing theater in San Francisco occurs in a small corner room at SFMOMA. There you can see an approximately 20-minute long shadow puppet performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute by the great South African artist William Kentridge who, as you might guess, understands a thing or two about political injustice. His 2012 piece The Refusal of Time, which plays one floor up at SFMOMA and is equally entrancing.
For those who prefer a theater setting, ACT will present a fully-staged companion piece to Refusal at the Geary Theater, for two nights only. Titled Refuse the Hour, the piece is an opportunity to see Kentridge out of the gallery and in full maximalist mode.
The SF Fringe Festival
Sept. 8 - 23
The Exit Theater’s SF Fringe Festival is a mammoth event, with over 120 performances in 15 days. It's mostly composed of many small pieces -- at least 35 different shows, with a large number being them one-person outings. It is a model of the collective, loosely associated, challenging the dominance of institutions. Here is the unfiltered id of our culture, crazed, raw, and demanding an audience. There’s as much straight talk as there is foolishness, as much shocking material as there are amateur antics, and as much stunning visions as there is schlock. It is simply a festival of everything and a countervailing chaos to the anarchy of our present moment.