Fall Theater Guide 2019: Top Plays and Performances in SF and the East Bay

New York cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Matthew Murphy)

After a summer full of outdoor festivals, touring shows in parks, and family-style recreating, autumn signals a shift—if not in temperature, than in the theatrical climate. For many Bay Area theaters, fall is when new seasons begin, and even for theater companies whose seasons follow the calendar year, rarely is their autumnal offering anything but a grand centerpiece.

For even the occasional theatergoer, it’s hard to choose wrong—the real challenge is in narrowing down the field. Here are nine picks from the heavy-hitting months ahead. (And as always, check The Do List for weekly recommendations in music, art and more from KQED Arts editors.)

Phil Wong and Stacy Ross in Megan Cohen's 'Free for All' at Cutting Ball Theater. (Estela Hernandez)

'Free For All'

Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco
Sept. 19-Oct. 20, 2019
Details here

This highly anticipated world premiere from local playwright and librettist Megan Cohen—the first playwright selected for Cutting Ball Theater’s new playwright commissions program—opens their 21st season with a champagne cork pop. Billed as a “new Miss Julie for a new world,” this non-naturalistic, San Francisco-centric riff on Strindberg’s problematic interrogation of power dynamics promises comedy, theatricality, and a foray into a future of elegant waste and survivalism. Can San Francisco be saved before half of it washes out to sea? Does anyone even care to try? Directed by Ariel Craft.

Leigh Rondon-Davis, Christell Lewis, and Everett Moore star in 'Inked Baby' at Crowded Fire Theater. (Cheshire Issacs)

'Inked Baby'

Crowded Fire Theater, San Francisco
Sept. 12-Oct. 5, 2019
Details here

Crowded Fire Theater continues its tradition of bringing dynamic American playwrights to their Potrero Hill stage with this early Christina Anderson work. A playwright with a history of Crowded Fire productions (they produced her Drip in 2009, and Good Goods in 2012), and erstwhile Bay Area artistic roots, Anderson has garnered international acclaim for her multi-layered works centering the black American experience. With Inked Baby, she begins by wrestling with the dynamics of an in-family surrogate pregnancy and winds up in a speculative realm where a mysterious malady ravages the city, and potentially their future. Directed by Lisa Marie Rollins.

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Caryl Churchill. (American Conservatory Theater)

Caryl Churchill-palooza

'Top Girls'
A.C.T., San Francisco
Sept. 19-Oct. 13, 2019
Details here

Vinegar Tom
Shotgun Players, Berkeley
Dec. 6, 2019-Jan. 5, 2020
Details here

Hot on the heels of new Caryl Churchill one-acts produced by Berkeley’s Anton’s Well, A.C.T. opens its new season with her best-known work, the inimitable Top Girls—partly set at the most interesting dinner party of all time. Then, closing their season in December, Shotgun Players presents a rollicking rendition of Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, a Brechtian musical foray set in a 17th century of witchfinders and oppressive patriarchy. It’s a wonderful opportunity for Bay Area theatergoers to reacquaint themselves with multiple decades' worth of Churchill’s feminist ideals and strong-willed protagonists.

Terror Vault returns to the Old Mint. (Jose A. Guzman Colon)

'Terror Vault'

The Old Mint, San Francisco
Oct. 10-Nov. 10, 2019
Details here

Most haunted houses don’t qualify as theater picks, but then again, most haunted houses aren’t 45-minute immersive experiences, scripted and staged by the great Peaches Christ (in collaboration with Non Plus Ultra and legendary haunted house designer David Flower). Last year’s Terror Vault was a taut tightrope of creepshow, camp, and bloodbath, with a surprisingly cohesive narrative throughline and plenty of (optional) audience participation, and this year’s version looks to be all that and more. This edition introduces Apolcalypse, a zombie-themed escape-room experience for folks who just can’t get scared enough. Discover the haunted histories of San Francisco’s Old Mint—or become one of them yourself.

Dan Wolf. (TheatreFIRST)

Haunted Playwrights

'From the Ground Up'
TheatreFIRST, San Francisco
Oct. 27-Nov. 10, 2019
Details here

Eugene O’Neill Festival
Various venues
Aug. 24-Sept. 29, 2019
Details here

Speaking of hauntings, is there anything so haunted as the unresolved past? TheatreFIRST’s anthology of commissioned short plays explores the personal as peril—and how society is shaped by the supernatural—in From the Ground Up: An Anthology of Ghost Stories Made New, penned by a who’s-who of some of the Bay Area’s most inventive voices, including Eugenie Chan, Dan Wolf, and Cleavon Smith. Meanwhile, the 20th Annual Eugene O’Neill Festival calls back to a pair of American Theater’s “haunted poets”—Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams. It includes a special weekend of O’Neill’s seafaring short plays at Hyde Street Pier, and a production of his epic Long Day’s Journey Into Night at his historic Tao House in Danville.

Cristina García. (Central Works)

'The Lady Matador’s Hotel'

Central Works, Berkeley
Oct. 12-Nov. 10, 2019
Details here

So successful was King of Cuba, last year’s Central Works collaboration with novelist Cristina García, that they’re back this year with another, The Lady Matador’s Hotel. Adapted from her 2010 book of the same name, The Lady Matador’s Hotel follows the adventures of an unlikely coterie of travelers, stranded in an unnamed Central American country in a state of political unrest. Featuring a high-caliber cast and directed by Central Works’ co-artistic director, Gary Graves, this production closes out their 29th season with their 65th world premiere.

Bubba Weller, Nadia Brown, Nicholas Podany in the New York production of 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.' (Matthew Murphy)

'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'

The Curran, San Francisco
Oct. 23, 2019-May 2020
Details here

Calling all wizards! The extravaganza that is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is coming to San Francisco in October for its West Coast premiere under the refurbished Curran Theater roof. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child features a grown-up Harry and his children, in particular his son Albus, who is heading to Hogwarts. Having been written with the many Harry Potter superfans in mind, the play is a two-part marathon, with tickets available for both consecutive and non-consecutive showings. Either way, be prepared to board the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9 ¾.

Still from 'Nassim.' (David Monteith-Hodge)

'Nassim'

Magic Theatre, San Francisco
Nov. 12-16, 2019
Details here

In his infamous White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim Soleimanpour challenged actors around the globe to perform his play without rehearsal, direction, or even time to read the script before the show. His eponymous Nassim asks a similar leap of performer faith. The twist, however, is that Soleimanpour himself controls how and when the actor receives the text they are to speak via a projection screen. They’ll also receive an onstage crash course in Farsi, while exploring the human nuances of language and our universal struggles to communicate. Winner of the 2017 Fringe First award in Edinburgh, Scotland.

San Francisco Skyline at Beach Blanket Babylon (Rick Markovich)

'Beach Blanket Babylon'

Club Fugazi, San Francisco
Through Dec. 31, 2019
Details here

Sure, it’s a little over the top. Ok, a lot. But Beach Blanket Babylon is as much a San Francisco institution as any of our mainstages, and predates many of them at a venerable 45 years old; it's the world’s longest-running musical revue. But despite its enduring charm, unflappable energy, and strong sales, the show must apparently not go on, closing for good on Dec. 31. So whether you’re a long-time fan, or one who’s been meaning to go but just haven’t quite made it out, this is your last opportunity to make some Beach Blanket Babylon memories to carry with you into a future bereft of its broad-stroke satire and iconic hats.

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