Pauli N. Amornkul, Mia Tagano, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. All photos by David Flores II.

The main subjects of “Endlings” seem like inspiration for the kind of article you would see in “Parade” magazine – “World’s Most Unusual Occupations.”  Three Korean women, aged 78 to 93, are the last of a dying breed in a centuries-old occupation.  As recently as the 1970’s, over 15,000 women made their living in this manner in a matriarchal society.  They free dive as deep as 65 feet without additional air supply, repeatedly throughout each day, to harvest seafood and seaweed from the ocean’s bed.   Because more efficient means exist for capturing these delicacies, their earnings are subsistence level.  But they live on a small island, Man-Jae, with minimal commerce, and it’s the only income producing skill that they possess.

Playwright Celine Song honors these haenyeos, or “sea women” with an insightful and charming narrative about their daily cycles.  Each woman has her own schtick.  The eldest, Han Sol, is generally cheery and copes with the boredom of their existence best as indicated by her mantra “television rules.”  Go Min, the middle one by age, is somewhat dour and the saltiest of the salty mouths.  She insisted that her kids get as far away from the island as possible, and since her husband died, she finds nothing to stimulate her.  Sook Jo is the youngest (at 78!).  Never having married, she still thinks she knows how best to raise kids, and still concerned about appearance, she applies lipstick to dive.  Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Mia Tagano, and Pauli N. Amornkul respectively provide moving and authentic representations of these women.

Pauli N. Amornkul, Mia Tagano.

As might be expected, much of the women’s conversation centers on work, but with an uncommon focus – death.  The risks of their work are ever present, and they recount how other haenyeo have lost their lives during dives.  But the obsession with death goes beyond work, perhaps because of their ages.  There is even a recurring theme in which the pecking order of age plays a role, in which Han Sol insists that she must die first.  In this near-solitary existence, there is also concern about who would attend their funerals as the elder two’s families have dispersed, and Sook Jo has none.

What dissipates the attention from the main theme is that the playwright imputes herself into the play with a second story, but that scenario is full of perception.  The scene shifts to Manhattan, where we meet an ethnic Korean woman, Ha Young, in her late 20s who has just written the first act of a play, which is presumably the act that we just saw.  She feels that she had previously sold out to whiteness in her writings, and this is her first effort at a story that reflects her ethnic heritage.

Keiko Shimosato Carreiro.

Ha Young’s internal identity conflict is revealed in a play-within-a-play-within-a-play that concerns the perceived whiteness all around her.  Her husband really is white, but in the skit she envisions, white actors live in an all-white world with white prayer, white money, white rage, white everything.  The preoccupation with all things white is equaled by her world view centered on real estate, where all is reduced to “location, location, location” and the fixation on apartment rental prices.  The whiteness speaks to cross-cultural differences that she confronts, and real estate presumably is a commentary on comparative values and materialism.

The Manhattan act does try to tie back to Korea with the immigration story of Ha Young’s ancestors, but it still seems like the playwright wanted to force all of her ideas into one play, even getting into the political division of Korea and how it affected her fictional family.  The good news is that the playwright is portrayed by a delightful Joyce Domanico-Huh who informs the role with boundless freneticism and juicy sarcasm.

Joyce Domanico-Huh.

Happily, both acts have something to say, and those interested in cross-cultural issues will find the evening rewarding.  Typical of Oakland Theater Project plays, Director May Liang makes good with limited resources and creates a total environment feel.  Karla Hargrave’s spare scenic design with fine use of props offers enough tangible detail to give a good sense of place.  OTP stalwart Stephanie Anne Johnson does wonders with the lighting as we have come to expect.  Elton Bradman adds an extra dimension with the background sounds of sea and storm. 

“Endlings,” written by Celine Song, is produced by Oakland Theater Project in association with Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and plays on OTP’s stage at Flax Art & Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, CA through May 1, 2022.

Fefu and Her Friends

Sarita Ocón as Christina and Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy (both facing away), Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu, Marga Gomez as Cecilia. All photos by Kevin Berne.

In 1936, Clare Boothe Luce’s “The Women” became the first play with an all-female cast to reach the stage.  The women came from various walks of life; topics focused mostly on women’s relationships with men; the venues ranged from Manhattan to Reno and a trans-continental train that linked them; it took place over years; and the characters were stylized.

In 1977, María Irene Fornés’ innovative “Fefu and Her Friends” replicated the notion of an all-female cast but flips the script on all of those dimensions.  It concerns a reunion of a group of friends gathered to rehearse a presentation to be given to a charity; themes are varied, including women’s relationships with women, which was pretty daring at the time; the single setting is Fefu’s house; action takes place in one day; and the characters, if a little wacky, are grounded in realism.  ACT has assembled a cast of some of the Bay Area’s finest actors and provides a beautifully produced and directed, entertaining production of this quasi-absurdist play.

Catherine Castellanos as Fefu, Cindy Goldfield as Emma (both on balcony). Atrium as garden breakout venue.

But first, a note on a distinguishing structural conceit that limits the number of sites where it can be produced and creates unusual logistics challenges.  Although the happenings occur in one house, they span five locations.  For the opening and closing acts, the living room scenes are performed on the main stage.  In between, four breakout rooms are used for activities that go on simultaneously.  The audience is divided into four groups that rotate to the various locations to see the nine-minute scenes.  This play is highly regarded but seldom performed because of the design demands, so take advantage of seeing it while you can.

The use of simultaneity had been raised to high art by Alan Ayckbourn’s “Norman Conquests,” comprised of three full plays, each occurring in different parts of a house and grounds with the same six characters in each.  However, Fornés’ twist of the promenading to the four small locations adds the opportunity for audience reflection and sharing insights during the proceedings.   The viewer also observes those scenes with such intimacy as to feel like a member of the reunion.

Stacy Ross as Paula, Marga Gomez as Cecilia. Kitchen as breakout venue.

The play is set in New England in 1935.  Although Fefu, portrayed with flamboyance and dominance by the redoubtable Catherine Castellanos, facilitates the affair, wheelchair-bound Julia represents the axis of the plotline.  Sometime past, when a hunter had killed a deer in the woods, Julia, who was in attendance, fell as if shot herself.  And while no external wound was found, Julia suffered the loss of movement in her legs and a recurring madness developed.  Perhaps her condition represents the invisible emotional pain that many women suffer.

From start to finish, Julia’s story is quite short, but narratives zigzag as we learn about the women’s lives and relationships.  The playwright’s goal seems to be more about getting to know some real and diverse women and their relationships behind the curtains, rather than pressing a particular thematic agenda.  The content of scenes is all over the place.  One breakout session takes place in the study where Christina verbalizes her French language lessons and Cindy muses aloud at world records in a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” book.  They intermittently chat about things like the literal versus figurative meanings of being swept away.  That’s it!

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Paula deconstructs the cycle of love into its sequence of events and determines that it lasts for seven years and three months.  As she’s solving this profound mystery, she is visited by Cecilia, a former lover who appears interested in rekindling the flame.

Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy. Study as breakout venue.

The only breakout session with complete linearity to the central narratives has Julia lying in a semi-conscious state in a bedroom, hearing voices and mumbling about being clubbed.  Another odd thread is that she expresses misogynistic thoughts that are also espoused by Fefu in the living room.  These ideas are difficult to digest in the context of a play that advances women as whole people, but perhaps it’s another reflection of the playwright’s desire to be adventuresome and provocative rather than definitive.  As Fefu says, “Life is theater; theater is life.”

Subject matter is often dense and delivered with speed so that it may be hard to follow at a micro level, but whole skits can be missed without losing the overall sense of the play.  Each character has a chance to shine, but the most impactful is probably Cindy Goldfield as Emma.  She delivers an environmental treatise that includes dramatic sign language which is a hoot, as well as a line of questioning that starts “Do you think of genitals all the time?”

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Sue, Stacy Ross as Paula, Lisa Anne Porter as Julia.

Director Pam MacKinnon marshals her resources well.  Not only are there five stages to dress, but the logistics of moving the audience groups around as well as some of the actors who appear in more than one of the simultaneous vignettes is a special challenge.  Tanya Orellana has designed five spectacular and highly varied stages with separate audience seatings.  Jake Rodriguez with sound and Russell H. Champa with lighting have also created multiples of their artistic specialties.  The distinguished cast is Catherine Castellanos as Fefu, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Marga Gomez as Cecilia, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Sue, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, and Stacy Ross as Paula.

“Fefu and Her Friends” is a unique theatrical experience that stimulates all of the senses.  ACT’s realization excels by every measure.  But to fully appreciate it, you must be pleased to leave the theater with more questions than answers.

“Fefu and Her Friends” is written by María Irene Fornés, produced by American Conservatory Theater, and plays on its Strand Theater stage at 1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through May 1, 2022.

Hotter Than Egypt

Paul Morgan Stetler, Jen Taylor, Ahmad Kamal. All photos by Kevin Berne.

When Jean returns from the pool to the hotel room in a two-piece bathing suit and towel, husband Paul insists that she dress immediately, as their Egyptian tour guides, the recently engaged Maha (female) and Seif (male) are present.  Maha had previously been Paul’s tour guide, and she is breaking in Seif, as she hopes to shift to fashion design.  Maha insists that Jean is a tourist doing what tourists do, and that she is not offended.  Seif, supposedly speaking Arabic to Maha, is sarcastic.  Not wanting to offend local sensitivities, Paul persists, arguing to Jean that the Egyptians are not always going to say what they really mean.

This opening volley sets in motion the cross-cultural dimension of “Hotter Than Egypt,” which, by the way, is not a reference to the weather.  But the play-opening incident does raise some interesting questions.  Although cultural differences and norms clearly exist, does recognizing and acting upon them automatically affirm a form of stereotyping?  And though great differences between cultures often exist at the working-class level, generally, aren’t the richer and more educated in most places more cosmopolitan and not so bound by their society’s broader mores?  And should we cut more slack for private behavior than public action?

Naseem Etemad, Wasim No’Mani.

Yussef El Guindi’s new play deftly delves into a constellation of differences – not only cultural, but marital, economic, power, gender, and generational – some between cultures and some within.  The result is a lively dramedy that reveals the causes and consequences of the cracks in the American couple’s marriage.

Paul is a successful businessman from Wisconsin who has previously visited Egypt on business trips.  He and Jean have decided to celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary by combining business and pleasure on a trip Cairo.

Rather than a commemoration, the playwright shows how time together can expose classic, long simmering issues.  One is the asymmetry, particularly in the white-collar community, that results when the wife is a homemaker, which Jean is.  For decades, the husband engages regularly with other adults on issues of consequence beyond the family, while the wife’s horizons are limited mostly to dealing with children and interacting with other stay-at-home moms.  The husband thus may find the wife has become boring to him with less to say about the outside world.  The other is the contention that while men can become more attractive with age, that women invariably lose their appeal (this writer rejects that viewpoint), with the result that younger women become interested in older men and vice versa, often with disastrous outcomes.

Wasim No’Mani, Jen Taylor.

Structurally, the many social and personal divides are revealed in an unusual, but effective manner.  The bulk of the stage time is taken by scenes of two-person, mixed-gender conversations, with all four combinations of principal characters well represented.  Each twosome constitutes a very different relationship, and in these dyadal exchanges, we get in-depth looks into these people, who are depicted in very real ways.  The Paul and Jean conversations reinforce the notion that people simply change over time, and that any two people don’t necessarily change in compatible ways.  We also understand the kismet of random events.  Certain uncontrollable situations can have profound impacts on relationships.

Depictions by each of the actors resonate with authenticity. Paul (portrayed by Paul Morgan Stetler) is a great proponent of U.S. values; smarmy in his certitude; and deluded into believing that he is a great proponent of women’s rights, although he is quite condescending to his wife.  The diffident Jean (a particularly sensitive portrayal by Jen Taylor) feels her life has been wasted and dislikes her college-aged kids, but this adventure may be a game changer for her.  It’s not clear whether it is she or Paul who is more responsible for their sexual disengagement.  Maha (Naseem Etemad) is amiable, but goals oriented enough to keep her eye on the prize, tolerating what she must to get there.  The less self-censored Seif (Wasim No’mani) is “fed up with what we are in this country” but equally disparaging of ignorant foreigners.  In the end, however, he is perhaps the most complex of the characters, both in his restraint and in his foresight.

Paul Morgan Stetler, Jen Taylor.

Throughout, we see enough of Egypt to get the seeds of difference that separate it from American ways.  Nothing concerning this plot line is particularly original, but thematic elements are compiled in a cohesive and interesting fashion and effectively directed by John Langs.  The production is very worthy.  One glitch is that, at the beginning, it was not clear that Maha and Seif were speaking Arabic to each other when in the company of others, though later, Paul refers to being uncomfortable when they do.  More interesting options would be for the characters to speak Arabic while projecting English surtitles or for the Egyptians to code-switch into heavy accents to identify the foreign language speaking.

The story plays against Carey Wong’s strong and versatile set that had to be redesigned from the Seattle co-world-premiere, as it was performed there in-the-round, whereas Marin has a proscenium stage.  Special touches like antiquities features and the sails of a felucca boat on the Nile suspended from the fly add to the ambiance.  Johanna Melamed’s rich sound design evokes an Egyptian feel.

“Hotter Than Egypt,” a world premiere, is written by Yussef El Guindi, co-produced by Marin Theatre Company and A Contemporary Theatre of Seattle, WA, and plays at the MTC stage, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA through April 24, 2022.

August: Osage County

Allison F. Rich as Barbara, Michael Ray Wisely as Bill, Judith Miller as Violet, Marie Shell as Mattie Fae. All photos by Dave Lepori.

In “Anna Karenina,” one of his finest novels, author Leo Tolstoy notes that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  In “August: Osage County,” the greater Weston family of greater Tulsa, Oklahoma and beyond covers most of the bases for unhappiness – suicide, addiction, adultery, separation, betrayal, incest, and more.  But at least they pursue their unhappiness with a certain quasi-intellectual flair and rapier-sharp wit (complemented by an abundance of f-bombs) as the family abounds with writers, teachers, and a librarian.

Playwright Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and multiple Tony Award winning play concerns the family reunion from hell.  The family doge, Beverly, was a prominent poet in his younger days, but settled into a long life as a disgruntled teacher and acknowledged but likeable alcoholic.  Several days after his unexplained disappearance, Violet, his wife and family doyenne, musters the troops.  Her sister and three daughters, each with their own family attachments in tow, arrive at the family homestead, and the mayhem begins.

Elena Wright as Ivy, Judith Miller as Violet.

Letts has mastered dramedy.  The events could not be more serious, yet the constant flow of laughable moments seems totally organic and averts the dark descent into another “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”  San Jose Stage stays true to the play’s intent and delivers an absolutely riveting production with captivating performances that make the time fly by, though run time could be the play’s most common criticism.  Along with fine contributions from the creative team, this is an excellent rendering of an excellent play.

From the outset, we understand that we’re dealing with a family that has issues.  Director Kenneth Kelleher has cleverly designed the opening scene in which Beverly is interviewing a Cheyenne woman, Johnna, to be a live-in cook/maid for the cancer-suffering Violet.  All the while, he scours the premises trying to fill his glass from hidden bottles of Jim Beam with dregs remaining in them.  Bev shares with the prospective employee that he and Violet have a contract – he has his booze and she has her pills.  Randall King as Bev milks the incident for all it’s worth, avoiding the static nature of a conventional sit-down exchange.

The dysfunction and division within the Weston family is palpable, but why shouldn’t it be?  As Ivy, the demure librarian sister observes, relatives are accidental – “a random collection of cells.”  Why is the family even together after Bev disappears?  Habit?  Custom?  Inheritance?  Violet notes that they didn’t gather when she was diagnosed with cancer, but they did when they thought Beverly might be dead.  The playwright explores these and other issues of being part of a family, like who takes responsibility for being around and for caring as well as social standards.

(foreground) Carley Herlihy as Jean, Allison F. Rich as Barbara. (rear) L. Duarte as Johnna, Michael Ray Wisely as Bill, Terrance Smith as Deon Gilbeau.

As Violet, Judith Miller brims with bombast, stalking about like a crazed lioness, sometimes loopy from the alphabet soup of uppers, downers, and sideways that make things copacetic and quell the pain of mouth cancer.  Her modal communication style is screaming, and her modal message is belittling, mostly venting hostility on the daughters who have disappointed her.  Barbara is a professor in Colorado and married to a professor, but she could have aspired to more.  Ivy, who stayed near home, is single and in her forties, but refuses to dress in a manner to attract men.  Karen, who moved to Florida appears to be the airhead in the family.  She’s brought her three-times-married fiancé with her and either doesn’t get or doesn’t care why he is a serial husband.

The household remains in a constant state of siege as one character after another acts divisively or reveals some secret, though there is one family member who appears to know even the most private of those embarrassments.  Of the daughters, it is Barb who carries the greatest baggage, and whom Violet blames for some of Beverly’s errant behavior because of her abandoning the family for the last several years.  Allison F. Rich portrays Barb (an appropriate sobriquet) with self-absorption and great ferocity, attacking with similar breadth and intensity as Vi.  She goes toe-to-toe with her mother and will ultimately challenge her rule in the pride.

Matthew Kropschot as Little Charles, Tanya Marie as Karen, Joshua Hollister as Steve.

This is a family that may be extreme in its drama, but the characters and situations will feel uncomfortably familiar to many.  An effective production of “August: Osage County” depends on crack timing, which Kelleher’s actors provide.  The director also oversees realistic overlapping dialogs and simultaneous conversations to great effect.  And the choreography of the chaotic no-household-crevice-unexamined pill search is a scream.  (Note: there is a vignette told about a family member conveying contraband in a bodily crevice!).  Kudos to all of the actors, but in addition to those already mentioned, special recognition goes to Marie Shell as Vi’s sister Mattie Fae. In all, the company brings it home, offering a most rewarding theatrical experience.

“August: Osage County,” written by Tracy Letts, is produced by San Jose Stage and plays in its theater at 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA through April 24 2022.