The Grand Reprise: Fall Theater Is Off to an Exceptional Start with Two Astonishing Returns

When San Francisco Playhouse created its Sandbox Series in 2009, the idea was to develop risky and, in some cases, unpolished plays through rehearsals, workshops, and a bare-bones production, thereby making those plays ready for the main stage season. Five years later, after many Sandbox productions, the Union Square company has finally realized that goal.

Ideation, a corporate thriller by Aaron Loeb, premiered last year in the Sandbox to so much acclaim that it beat out many big-budget shows to win Theatre Bay Area's prestigious Glickman Award for Best New Play to premiere in the Bay Area in 2013. Now, SF Playhouse is opening its 12th season with the same show, and it's a real testament to the reward of investing in an artist over time. The taut, smart play is one of the best shows on our stages this fall.

The same director (Josh Costello) and the same all-star cast (Ben Euphrat, Jason Kapoor, Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Michael Ray Wisely) return from the Sandbox production, but it's not quite the same show: This version features a retooled script and a full set design by the company's artistic director, Bill English. On stage is a conference room with the swoopy lines and electric blues that are de rigueur in contemporary office towers, but as the play progresses, the space takes on other qualities. It's claustrophobia-inducing and insistently white, a panopticon-like chamber from which you can't escape and where everything you do is seen. The set aptly reflects the play's chilling justification for corporate structure: Infinite compartmentalization ensures ignorance — the leviathan is too big and complex for any single cog to fathom — facilitating evil and evil's attendant profits.

The five characters comprise a team of high-powered consultants tasked with solving a logistical problem with heinous moral consequences. It's all theoretical, of course — that's what their higher-ups tell them, anyway: to devise a theoretical solution to a theoretical problem — and that's what allows them to discuss it with eerie calm, to gamify it and even to joke around. The opening scenes can feel horrifying, and the characters are a self-important bunch, but in Costello's superb direction, they're also deeply human. They adore working with each other, even as they threaten to kill each other — Phillips and Wisely's chemistry alone is worth the cost of admission — and the play, even at its dizzying pace, gives each of them space to explore, in different ways, whether they're as moral as they think they are. Part mystery, part morality play, Ideation keeps you guessing til the lights suddenly black out — and long after.

Multiple skits in Old Hats, at American Conservatory Theater, also pit the individual against the insidious forces of contemporary life, but here the conflict is explored without words — mostly. The show stars two of the great clowns of our time, Bill Irwin (whose Bay Area roots go way back, to the legendary Pickle Family Circus in the 1970s) and David Shiner, Tony Award winners for Fool Moon (which also came to ACT 16 years ago).

The clowns are older now, of course, but Irwin in particular still has much of the physical elasticity — his legs seem to be made of goo — that's always distinguished his work. It's on rich display in a wildly inventive scene called “Mr. Business,” in which Irwin, with a walk so pompous it could slice through other people, battles with his likeness on a digital tablet. The technical timing alone is astonishing; various projections, a real human being, and his manifold props duke it out with nary a millisecond nor a millimeter to spare. But the creativity Irwin demonstrates in the scene's narrative is the real testament to his genius; in each successive beat, he finds a new way to represent and brawl with his enemy almost before your brain can finish identifying his last choice.

While not every scene reaches this comedic height, Shiner, for his part, closes Old Hats with a showstopper in which he recruits audience members to star in a cowboy melodrama. His acting coaching, all silent, is magic. Through coaxing, ridiculing, and some secret sauce, he can awaken the flamboyant clown lying dormant in the most ho-hum draftees (in one recent performance, he even had to instruct one actor to hold back in how exaggeratedly he scratched his balls).

Speaking of showstoppers, the musician Shaina Taub and her band provides them throughout Old Hats, in the moments between each scene when the clowns change costumes. (They also underscore the clowning scenes.) While Taub's banter with the clowns feels a little half-baked, her clever, profane lyrics are perfectly in keeping with the production's tone, and her voice — equally at home in a Broadway belt and a jazz singer's warble — could have a show to itself. She'd have to get the clowns off stage first, though.

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