A.C.T. On A Roll During It’s 50th Season

by Chris Narloch

American Conservatory Theater premiered Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’, its inaugural production in San Francisco, fifty years ago, and there has been no looking back since then.

There have been countless theatrical triumphs over those five decades, and many great actors have come out of the A.C.T. MFA program, including Denzel Washington, Annette Bening, Elizabeth Banks, and Danny Glover.

To celebrate their 50th Anniversary, A.C.T. has assembled a season of remarkable breadth, and that season is peaking this spring with three highly acclaimed works, now playing or opening soon in S.F.

Needles and Opium
Fans of Miles Davis and of bold theatrical staging should immediately beat a path to A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, where this hypnotic and highly acclaimed play is blowing patron’s minds on a daily basis.

Famed director Robert LePage connects the lives of two brilliant but troubled icons – Parisian filmmaker Jean Cocteau and American jazz legend Miles Davis – through a series of eye-popping stage pictures exploring the complex relationship between art, addiction, and heartache.

Davis’ haunting trumpet playing is depicted and heard to great effect throughout ‘Needles and Opium,’ but the aspect of the play that really stands out is the incredibly innovative way it has been staged.

The entire production takes place in and around a rotating, three-dimensional cube, with two walls instead of four and a floor but no roof, that is suspended over the Geary stage, allowing the audience to follow interwoven scenes from the lives of Cocteau (Olivier Normand) and Davis (Wellesley Robertson III).

Normand and Robertson III must have trained and rehearsed for a long time given the physical demands of the play, which requires the actors to slide down and across the inside of the moving cube as floor turns into wall and drug-fuelled dreams and reality are similarly jumbled.

‘Needles and Opium’ is also part of a trend taking theater in a more cinematic direction, and the show’s mixture of video projections and cool jazz is often intoxicating.

The show’s ingenious choreography and digital wizardry at one point allow you to think that a moving subway car has appeared on the stage of the theater, and it’s that astonishing level of visual storytelling, more than the play’s ‘story’, that transform the work into a one-of-a-kind theatrical experience.

‘Needles and Opium’ plays through April 23, 2017.

If you watched the classic ‘70s CBS sitcom ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ you will recall the adorable actress Georgia Engel, who played Ted’s girlfriend, Georgette.

Now 68, Engel is still adorable and still acting on stage and screen. Don’t miss your chance to see her this month in a mysterious new play by the acclaimed playwright Annie Baker.

‘John’ details an unraveling of the relationship between millennial couple Jenny and Elias (Stacey Yen and Joe Paulik), who arrive with plenty of ‘baggage’ but not much luggage at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg run by an odd landlady named Mertis (Engel).

Engel, Yen, and Paulik are all terrific in the play, which casts a spell over the audience despite its too-lengthy three-hour run time. I especially enjoyed the way that Engel manually changes the time of day on stage via a clock and provides scene changes by opening and closing a curtain herself.

If ‘John’ never completely flowers into the full-on ghost story I was hoping for, the play does subtly and successfully explore how jealousy and lack of trust can haunt a relationship.

‘John’ plays through April 23, 2017 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater on Market Street.

Next up at A.C.T. is this not-to-be-missed production by legendary British director Peter Brook, who returns to San Francisco with the help of his collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne to explore the uncertain future of a postwar world.

Thirty years after Brook’s groundbreaking adaptation of the ancient Indian epic ‘The Mahabharata’, the director has created an intimate new interpretation and staging of that timeless tale.

Written almost 2,500 years ago, the ‘Mahabharata’s’ magical story of finding tranquility in the midst of war and destruction has striking connections to modern times, and it contains some of Brook’s most beautiful images.

See the internationally acclaimed ‘Battlefield’ at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater April 26-May 21, 2017.

For more information about all three shows, please visit www.act-sf.org.

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