The Great Khan

Brian Rivera as Genghis Khan, Leon Jones as Jayden. All photos by Jessica Palopoli.

No good deed goes unpunished.  Often, acts of compassion or bravery imperil the hero.  The ensuing limelight is often unwelcomed as the savior may prefer to lead an anonymous life.  Worse yet, the person may have something to hide that becomes exposed with the notoriety, so that hero becomes victim.  Even the beneficiary of the good deed can be displeased.  The public portrayal of that person may not be consistent with the person’s self-image.

Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan fills the house with laughter in addition to thoughtfulness and social reflection.  In his affecting premiere “The Great Khan,” an otherwise unassuming, middle-class, black teenage boy, Jayden, has saved a black teenage girl, Ant (full name – Antoinette), from a gang of boys.  This creates a dissonant condition for both of them.  Each must deal with the undesired reputation that the situation has spawned.  They are sweet kids, but does Jayden have to live up to being courageous, and should Ant accept the perception that she needed saving, or should she show that she’s tough?  Single-parent mother, Crystal, is so concerned that the gang might strike back at her son for interfering that mother and son move, with the boy enrolling in a new school.

Leon Jones as Jayden, Jamella Cross as Ant.

Several short thrusts into other social issues occur – relationships between mother and child, teacher and student, boy and girl; white abuse of and ignorance about blacks; puberty and more.  Some may consider the play a bit preachy, but quite frankly, there’s a lot more to preach about beyond the limits of this staging.  The other main theme of the play derives from a school research assignment that Jayden shares with Gao-Ming, a shy, yet effusive Chinese-American girl.  The task is a presentation on Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, an evocative figure, largely reviled in the West, and indeed, by many Asians including Gao-Ming’s mother.

While the two students affirm much of what is popularly known of Genghis Khan, they find that he, like many famous leaders, was very complex with much to admire.  So why does the playwright care about this historical figure?  Jayden notes that when European countries by dint of superior force colonized the African continent, they decimated local leaders, records, and cultural artifacts, destroying the people’s heritage.  African heroes from history were lost.  Largely, whites feared blacks and often assaulted them preemptively in many ways, a condition which remains today.  Jayden latches onto Genghis as a proxy, who, because of a different set of circumstances than Africans, beat the Europeans at their own game.

Leon Jones as Jayden, Kina Kantor as Gao-Ming.

Much of the humor in the play derives from surprise visitations that Jayden receives first from Ant and later from Genghis Khan.  Ant is tangible and her mission is palpable.  She wants to assure that Jayden doesn’t spoil her reputation, and maybe something else.  But what about Genghis?  Is he Jayden’s fantasy? a neighbor? Gao-Ming’s father?   In any case, he has some wise things to say, and he sure is funny as he rattles the kid’s cage.

Finally, beyond the moral issues and conflict resolution, “The Great Khan” is about the beauty of youth, and how many of us look back blissfully on our younger days.  Kids never want to move.  We don’t want things to change.  Both Jayden and Ant want nothing more than to have their lives before the defining incident back.  Even Genghis perceives himself not as the great conqueror, but as Temujin (his birth name), who loved and fought to win his young wife and who brought people together in his early days.

Velina Brown as Crystal.

Structurally, a weakness in the play is the extended use of video games toward the end, which slows the pace and won’t resonate with those unfamiliar with the particular titles.  As a preface to the major irritant, let me note that I am a liberal/progressive.  But even I find it offensive that Jayden and Ant repeatedly use “the n…. word” which is deemed so despicable that whites aren’t to even use the word in a third-party quote or reference.  Putting the word unnecessarily and aggressively on display provides ammunition to racists who don’t buy the argument that minorities get an exemption to call themselves by ethnic pejoratives that others can’t.

Although the characters are largely stereotypes, they are sympathetic.  The performers are engaging, led by Leon Jones as the always under pressure but resilient Jayden, with a particularly strong comic contribution by Brian Rivera as Genghis.  Jamella Cross as Ant, Velina Brown as Crystal, Kina Kantor as Gao-Ming, and Adam KuveNiemann as Mr. Adams, round out the excellent cast. Credit Darryl V. Jones with fine direction.

Adam KuveNiemann as Mr. Adams.

“The Great Khan” by Michael Gene Sullivan is produced by San Francisco Playhouse in co-production with The San Francisco Mime Troupe in a rolling world premiere.  It plays on SF Playhouse’s stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through November 13, 2021.


Elza van den Heever as Leonore/Fidelio, Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, James Creswell as Rocco, Christopher Oglesby as Jaquino. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest serious music composers ever, loved opera but created only one.  Near death, he noted of “Fidelio” that “Of all my children, this is the one that cost me the most birth-pangs and the most sorrow… is the one most dear to me.”  After the failures of earlier produced versions, the composer endlessly revised it into its final form over nine years ending in 1814.  It emerged a masterpiece enriched by the composer’s complete musical vocabulary.  It also acted as a springboard for his most famous and incomparable vocal piece, Beethoven’s Ninth (Choral) Symphony.

Despite compelling and highly respected music, however, “Fidelio” has generally been consigned in status and popularity to the second twenty of best operas.  San Francisco Opera’s current production maximizes the values of the piece through excellent casting, fine musical direction by Eun Sun Kim, and the addition of what amounts to another character, the stunning scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols, under the purview of Director Matthew Ozawa.

Elza van den Heever as Leonore/Fidelio, Russell Thomas as Florestan.

“Fidelio” is the story of Leonore, whose husband has been imprisoned in a secret location.  In modern terminology (and the setting has been made modern) the husband, Florestan, is a whistleblower (and the modern implications of the risks of this practice are unsettling).  The perpetrator he exposed, Governor Don Pizarro, portrayed chillingly by Greer Grimsley, has vowed to terminate him.  Against this threat, Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, and takes employment as a guard in the prison where Florestan is isolated.

The relentless and courageous Leonore is played by South African Elza van den Heever.  Her triumphant return represents a homecoming for the world class artist, who received her training and development in San Francisco, from Conservatory through Merola and Adler Fellowship.  Although classified as a dramatic soprano, her timbre smooths the usual harshness associated with that vocal quality, with the result that her voice penetrates yet gleams.  Effective throughout the performance, she acquits herself particularly well on Leonore’s signature aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst do hin!” (O! thou monstrous fiend!).

Leonore’s foremost ally and greatest obstacle is Rocco, the chief jailer, sung admirably by recurring SF Opera visitor, bass James Creswell.   While his vocal parts are not very memorable, Creswell does participate in the ethereal quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar!,” led by fine young soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh as his daughter Marzelline.  Unlike most characters in the opera who lack dimensionality, a decided weakness in the libretto, Rocco reveals conflicts in objectives and cracks in disposition and morality.  Most vitally, to what limit will Rocco go to facilitate Don Pizarro’s evil plot?

Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro, James Creswell as Rocco.

Florestan doesn’t appear until Act 2 when the forces of both life and death descend to his dungeon.  As the victim, able tenor Russell Thomas displays near-dead weariness from his captivity but must rise to the occasion for his thrilling and iconic call for “Freiheit! Freiheit!” (freedom! freedom!) which he does with imposing skill.

All of the action of the production takes place in and around the 20-ton “cube” of steel tubing and plates that revolves to reveal its different aspects.  Most appropriately and obviously, its massive angularity represents the prison, but from other angles, it is offices or the dungeon.  This powerful metaphor in metal, glaring in harsh lights, dominates the stage and the viewer’s perception of the severe world that it comprises.

San Francisco Opera’s rendering of “Fidelio” pulls out all of the stops and offers a superb experience.  Kim conducts with verve – capturing the dynamics and tempo of the orchestral-like score.  Ensembles excel, often with beautiful close harmonies, and the prisoners’ choruses stand out.


For those inclined to look at opera with further analysis, it is noteworthy that the conductor chose to omit the option of performing Leonore Overture #3, which saves 15 minutes of run time but loses the most famous music from the opera.  That said, nothing is lost in conveying the narrative.  What’s more, there is plenty of fine music, though surprisingly, given Mozart’s precedent, no arias from “Fidelio” have found their way into common usage.    A final criticism that matters little to many is that the opera is in the form of a singspiel, meaning that there is considerable spoken dialog that results in inconsistent dramatic tone.  Of course, “The Magic Flute” is a singspiel, so “Fidelio” is in good company.  And as we know, “Fidelio” was the composition by Beethoven that was most dear to him, and who could be a more illustrious judge of fine music?

“Fidelio,” composed by Ludwig von Beethoven with libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, is produced by San Francisco Opera and is performed at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Street, San Francisco, CA through October 30, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

The Claim

Soren Santos, Radhika Rao, Kenny Scott. All photos by Benjamin Krantz.

Stories define lives.  Humorous vignettes, accounts of accomplishments, chronicles of courage, tales of failure.  These windows into notable experiences form the perceptions that people have of themselves and the perceptions that others have of them.  Sometimes stories are not fully revealed.  Sometimes they change over time.  Sometimes the teller believes the revisions, forcing reality to the rear.  Overwhelmingly, these projections of self are harmless, even if somewhat delusional.  Only rarely do they determine the direction of one’s life.

In “The Claim,” Serge hails from Congo.  Now in the U.K., he seeks asylum.  In this farcical three-hander, the immigrant is interrogated by two British bureaucrats – a male who we’ll call A, and a female, who we’ll call B. The pair are intermittently distracted and consume valuable time with their own relationship sideshow while determining the fate of their charge.  The absurdity of the situations resonates with Americans as our country confronts unprecedented waves of refugees on our southern border as well as asylum seekers from Afghanistan as a result of our military departure from that country.

The play opens somewhat confusingly with exchanges and crosstalk between Serge and A that don’t seem to go anywhere.  Then, when B arrives, Serge’s competent communicating ability turns heavily accented with limited vocabulary.  When the light comes on, you realize that he is speaking his native tongue with A, and in his halting English with B.

Kenny Scott, Radhika Rao.

The interviewers seek to hear Serge’s story to determine his eligibility to stay in the U.K.  But how can one retell true stories that brought shame or pain?  Is it more important for Serge to tell the whole truth; or to share a partial truth that may be easier to digest; or to craft a hopefully unverifiable fantasy that is the kind of narrative that will win support?  Will the interviewers realize that they, too, embellish stories, or, as is common, will they set a different standard for those wishing admission to their club? 

The incompetence of the interviewers overwhelms their generally good intentions.  Their misunderstanding of a single incident and the translations from A to B takes them down a Kafkaesque rabbit hole leading to a succession of wrong conclusions that could steal Serge’s agency.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conclude how often this must tragically occur in the real world.

Although the bureaucrats are mostly earnest and trying to be helpful, the baggage that they carry is also in evidence.  No matter how many times the immigrant asks to be called Serge, B insists on using his Congolese name, Sese, a testament to the British colonial mentality of disrespecting native people’s wishes.  The playwright excoriates the system of dealing with refugees and pointedly criticizes the bureaucracy’s unaccountability and anonymity by not providing names for the interviewers.

Kenny Scott, Soren Santos.

The acting of all three performers is superb.  In Kenny Scott’s dominating and charismatic portrayal of Serge, he radiates effusiveness when optimistic but can quickly turn conflictual when he realizes that he is misunderstood.  Soren Santos excels in his blithe cheerfulness as A.  He seems to live in another world almost oblivious to the facts that surround him.  Either that, or he’s on some interesting drug.  Radhika Rao effectively grounds B with a Type A personality – rule-driven, focused, and determined to accomplish her task.

“The Claim” explores only a small portion of the demeaning and frightening experiences that refugees endure.  In doing so, it provokes and entertains.  It is full of word plays and misunderstandings by all, though some of the situations and humor seem a bit extraneous.  Theatergoers who enjoy absurdism should find this very much to their liking.

“The Claim” is written by Tim Cowbury, produced by Shotgun Players, and is performed live at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA through October 30, 2021 and on live-stream October 21 and 28.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

Every Brilliant Thing

Lists.  Everybody makes them.  Often, lists can be reminders to take action – lists of things to do or groceries or activity schedules or guests to invite to a party.  But they also serve to keep records – to catalog checks written or music saved or household inventory.  My wife and editor, Karin, has listed virtually everything she’s eaten in the last 18 years, in print so small that few adults of a certain age can read it (it’s a long story!).

Duncan MacMillan’s award-winning, 60-minute, one-person play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” centers on a list reflective of obsessive compulsion.  The narrator/protagonist itemizes everything worth living for.  Remarkably, he starts the list at age seven.  As might be expected, what’s worth living for in the world of a boy includes things like ice cream, roller coasters, and the color yellow.

As the narrator ages, his values evolve and his intelligence expands, but he persists with the list.  He decides that what is worth living for should be both wonderful and life affirming.  And the list becomes populated with items that are more complex – defined by phrases rather than objects – like “The fact that there is a song somewhere that is perfect for the time” or “People who can’t sing but either don’t know it or don’t care.”  These recitations are often humorous and nostalgic, as we reflect on the things we appreciate in our own lives.

So other than the obvious revelation of the narrator’s quirky passion and his maturation process, how does this content constitute material for a play?  A parallel narrative arc intertwines events in the narrator’s life.  Most importantly, we see the depressive burden of being a child with a suicidal mother.  But we learn over time of his relationships with his music-loving but distant father, his wife, teachers, and analysts.  Some vignettes are particularly illuminating such as discussions of Johann Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the Samaritans “Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide.”

What distinguishes the play is the theatrical conceit of structured audience involvement.  Attendees read out items from the list and play counterparts to the narrator in mini scenes.  To facilitate this device demands an actor with skills beyond the script.  Fortunately, William Hodgson, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Oakland Theater Project (formerly Ubuntu), is just the man for the job.  He exudes the necessary charm, empathy, and quick wit, as he prompts and cajoles participation with great aplomb.  He is directed by his partner-in-crime, Michael Socrates Moran, who shares the same OTP titles as Hodgson.

William Hodgson. Photo by Colin Mandlin.

A necessary consideration in reviewing a theatrical piece of this sort is to assess whether audience participation enhances or detracts from the drama.  “Every Brilliant Thing” would certainly work as a straight forward one-person show.  It would be more focused and intense with the possibilities of its seeming deeper, darker, more poignant and penetrating, but at the risk of being flatter in the wrong hands.  Conversely, audience participation yields spontaneity, with every performance being a little different.  It may feel less oppressive, more cathartic, and even uplifting.  Which format works better depends on what the individual is looking for in a theatrical experience.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is written by Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe; produced by Oakland Theater Project; and plays at Flax Art & Design; 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; Oakland, CA through October 31, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

Lizard Boy

Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas, William A. Williams. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Origin stories are as old as, well, human origins.  Societies, governments, clubs, and all manner of organizations craft stories to honor their legitimacy.  These myths tend to be self-serving glorifications that often stretch the truth and sometimes create legends out of whole cloth.  The brilliant and imaginative “Lizard Boy” origin builds on the slaying of the dragon responsible for the 1980 Mount St. Helens volcano eruption.

Rarely has this reviewer attended a play with less enthusiasm.  Traveling, I hadn’t slept in my own bed in a week; drove hundreds of arduous miles that day; rushed from an afternoon party in Big Sur; and would have to unload the car after driving another hour when the play and reception were over. What’s more, expectations were not favorable as the play’s profile falls outside of the wheelhouse of a traditional theatergoer on a number of criteria – a seeming appeasement to youth culture targeted at attracting a younger audience; comic superhero fantasy motif; a small cast (three hander); a contemporary “new musical;” online-arranged gay dating encounter.

Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas.

Suffice it to say, my predictions were wrong on all counts.  With “Lizard Boy,” youth is served and age is respected.  This is a big tent musical that will please anyone with an open mind and a caring heart.  The auteur, Justin Huertas who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, and who plays the lead role, has fashioned an absolutely riveting theater piece that pulsates with emotion and extracts enormous empathy.

In many ways, the play unfolds like “A Day in the Life,” as the action compresses into less than 24 hours.  Huertas plays Trevor, who has escaped his past into the anonymity of the big city – Seattle.  His loneliness prompts Trevor to seek connection through the gay social networking site, Grindr.  Linking up with the heavily hormonal yet sensitive Cary, played in a dorky and lascivious manner by William A. Williams, their clumsy relationship sets off in fits and starts.

It is the time of the annual Monster Fest, and when Cary asks Trevor to take his makeup off, Trevor’s reality is revealed.  He wears none.  He developed lizard scales from being splattered by the blood of the Mount St. Helens dragon that he slayed as a five-year old.  So the subtext reveals the suffering of those who look or act differently, including those of minority ethnicity and those in any way disabled or disadvantaged.  Both young men feel dispossessed and seek acceptance and simple human compassion.

Justin Huertas, William A. Williams

The third character is the super-antihero antagonist, with cover as a singer named Siren.  Portrayed with sexual allure and provocative maleficence by Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, she stomps and slithers in a skin tight red costume.  But because of their shared past at Mount St. Helens and her designs, Siren represents a threat to Trevor’s future.

The play works for a number of reasons.   First, it is hard not to care for the characters, particularly Trevor, who is trapped in a desultory existence through no fault of his own.  His pain and earnestness are palpable throughout, especially as he sings “Nobody Wants You.”  The dilemmas that the characters face are convincing and expressed eloquently, in large part through the music.  Not only do the charming and thoughtful songs propel the narrative, but the segues from dialogue to song and from one voice to another are uncommonly organic.  Along with the humor, the hand offs are exquisitely timed by all of the performers.

The music itself falls in the folk-pop-rock genre and is melodic and oh so listenable.  It is totally acoustic, with the dominant instruments being – get this – cello, ukulele, and guitar.  (Sidebar – when Seattle Rep commissioned Huertas to write a musical, which he had never done before, the single condition was that he play the cello in it!).  Collectively, the instruments act as another character, and in a fight sequence, they are simultaneously played and used as weapons.  The composer finds incredible two-and-three-part harmonies in ensembles as well as soaring solos to display Helland’s powerful pipes.

William A. Williams, Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas.

For those who expect visually descriptive sets to fit the plotline, looking at a stage more suited for a rock concert might seem a little disconcerting at first.  And some of the songs are even done in a “stand and deliver” storytelling style.  But what can I say?  It all works.  We have the imagination to fill in the blanks where necessary.

The structure of the play is playful.  It seamlessly flashes back and forth in time, and some contemporaneous sequences flash between Trevor with Siren and Trevor with Cary.  The one thing that could stand improvement is that the conclusion becomes a little extended and confusing.  The minor flaw in no way undermines this powerful entertainment.

“Lizard Boy,” with book, music, and lyrics by Justin Huertas, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through October 31, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association