Changes Afoot as the Theater Season Opens

By Jean Schiffman

The new theater season is marked by artistic directors coming and going.

San Francisco’s flagship theater, American Conservatory Theater, opens (in October) under the leadership of Pam MacKinnon, who takes over from longtime artistic director Carey Perloff. And among several September season openings highlighted below, three companies are facing artistic staff transitions as well.

Detroit ’67

Aurora Theatre Company, where artistic director Tom Ross will depart at season’s end, opens with Dominique Morisseau’s Motown-infused family drama “Detroit ’67.” It is the first play she wrote in her non-chronological Detroit trilogy (which includes “Paradise Blue” and “Skeleton Crew,” the latter staged last season at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley).

“Detroit ’67” is set in the basement rec room of the family home that siblings Chelle and Lank inherited and where they operate an after-hours club. Lank and his pal Sly want to open a bar, but for Chelle, their inheritance must finance her son’s college education. Tensions escalate when Lank and Sly unexpectedly bring home a stranger, a bruised and desperate white woman. Meanwhile, Detroit is burning—the race riots have begun.

The play, says director Darryl V. Jones, is about “ordinary people facing ongoing challenges and sometimes making extraordinary sacrifices to keep moving forward” in the face of oppression and police brutality. Morisseau, he notes, is “a master at pinpointing the vernacular of the African-American community.”

What’s unique here, he adds, is that while the city above is in chaos, another story is taking place below. That basement, he explains, is almost like another character. “During that time… having a party room in your basement was a big status symbol, like a shrine, with images [on the walls] of heroes and black power and black pride.…So the basement functions as a metaphor, too—being stuck underground but wanting to be out in the light…”

Sept. 6 → 30

Aurora Theatre Company

2081 Addison St., Berkeley 843-4822

A Doll’s House, Part 2

Longtime artistic director Tony Taccone’s final season at Berkeley Rep starts with a coproduction (with Huntington Theatre Company): Lucas Hnath’s sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, in which Nora Helmer famously leaves husband and children in order to (in modern parlance) find herself. That slamming door has echoed down through the centuries, a symbol of the female struggle for independence and self-realization.

It is 15 years post-slamming-door, and Nora returns to Torvald’s house; it seems he never actually divorced her, and now that’s causing problems for her as a successful novelist and liberated woman.

But this is much more than a battle of the sexes between wife and spurned husband. Hnath gives full voice to two other characters: the family retainer, Anne Marie, and Nora’s abandoned and now-grown daughter, Emmy; both see the fallout from Nora’s actions through their own distinct perspectives. The arguments get thicker and thicker.

Director Les Waters says, via email, “Lucas is one of my most important collaborators.” Waters, when he was artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, commissioned “The Christians,” Hnath’s earlier play (staged locally by SF Playhouse two seasons ago). Waters says this production will be, “as Lucas says, ‘roughly period,’ so there will be a disconnect at times between the look of the show and the language of the script.” He is referring to the fact that the text is written entirely in modern vernacular. “I think that will be both fun to rehearse and fun for an audience to experience,” he says. “It is a very funny play after all. Very timely too.”

Sept. 13 → Oct. 21

A Doll’s House, Part 2

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2015 Addison St., Berkeley 647–2949

You Mean to Do Me Harm

“I wanted to write a play that shows that attitudes from country to country on the macro level—government, corporate—really do have their roots in personal, cultural, deep psychological foundations,” says San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen, whose intricate, complex comedy “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” which was developed and initially staged at San Francisco Playhouse, now opens on the theater’s mainstage.

Initially, and ostensibly, two mixed-race couples—Ben, who’s Caucasian, and Samantha, who’s Chinese American; and Daniel (Chinese American) and Lindsay (Caucasian)—are having a friendly dinner together. But all is not as it seems. The connections among them are work-related, and, as it turns out, somewhat personal as well. As the play goes on, Chen probes increasingly tangled layers of interrelationships.

“One strain of it,” he says, “is how a person of color navigates America when their skin color or heritage labels them as Other, even if they’re not Other—how that makes it sometimes very tricky to navigate interpersonal dynamics.” Indeed, the dynamics among this foursome become so dense that some of the scenes play out in a surreal landscape; the audience is meant to wonder (as are the characters themselves), is what’s happening actually happening, or is it taking place only in the characters’ minds? The play itself, he adds, “mirrors the dynamics of the cold war between China and America—stable on the surface but full of tension because of fundamental distrust and misunderstanding between cultures.”

Sept. 22 → Nov. 3

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St., San Francisco 677-9596 

Uncle Vanya

At Cutting Ball Theater, outgoing
artistic director (and company cofounder) Paige Rogers and incoming artistic director Ariel Craft agreed to open the season with Anton Chekhov’s poignant “Uncle Vanya,” which Rogers has been wanting to direct for more than two decades. “I’ve never seen a playwright so on the money about human behavior,” she says.

“Vanya” premiered in Moscow in 1899, directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky. It is set on a provincial estate in Russia, managed by the dispirited Vanya and his young niece, Sonya. Sonya’s father, the elderly professor who owns the estate, has arrived for a visit with his beautiful, indolent young second wife, Yelena. Both Vanya and the local doctor (first played by Stanislavsky) are smitten by Yelena, while Sonya pines for the doctor. When the professor decides to sell the estate to solve a financial downturn, everyone is affected. This is the quintessential Chekhovian human comedy, full of yearning and despair, unrequited love and broken hearts.

To choose a translation, Rogers put five different versions into a document and, with the help of a Ukrainian native speaker, went over every line of the first two acts of each. She ultimately decided upon Paul Schmidt’s translation: “It most resembles human speech and cadences,” she says.

Cutting Ball’s production is not a traditional period piece; Rogers’ concept involves an abstract set and historical undertones. “The play is so bloody universal,” avers Rogers, “and I’m trying to let it be that way. So we’re in modern times but we’re universal.”

There will, however, be a samovar.

Sept. 27 → Oct. 21

Cutting Ball Theater

277 Taylor St., San Francisco 525-1205