From Peter Pan to Pride & Prejudice, there are a plethora of quality plays on the Peninsula this fall.
By Carol Maskus
Wondering what to do with your weekend? Looking for some culture of the thespian sort? The Peninsula is alive with theater, with both professionals and (passionate) amateurs showcasing their talent, so the Six Fifty has listed out the best shows set to run during these autumn months.
From award-winning contemporary playwriting about weighty issues (like Sweat) to big name musicals based on classic novels (Pride and Prejudice) to vibrant kids’ productions, it’s a cornucopia of pleasant diversions for discerning Californians. Some are playing right now, and some will begin in a few weeks.
Pear Artistic Director Betsy Kruse Craig calls it “the most important American play written in the last 20–30 years,” because “it takes on issues such as racism, misogyny and economic inequity in an honest and gut wrenching fashion.”
Capturing the zeitgeist of working-class Pennsylvania in the 21st century, Sweat tells the story of several people and the way their vocational, relational, racial and class dynamics are affected by globalization and a suffering economy. The Wall Street Journal said this play, with its focus on deindustrialization and its aftermath, explains Trump’s win. Author Lynn Nottage based it on interviews she did in Reading, Pennsylvania starting in 2011, a city with a 40% poverty rate at the time. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.
“This play should be seen by everyone — it is a reflection of our society and some of us live so myopically, in such a small microcosm, protected from the issues other Americans live with. This play does what good theatre should do. Evoke thought, conversation and hopefully action,” says Kruse Craig.
The Pear mixes classic plays by people like Ibsen, Shaw and Chekov, with modern American classics and original works, many of which come from the Playwrights Guild, a collective of local playwrights.
This production is a black-and-white Italian movie come to life— so take off your headscarf and let it fly behind you as you zip down the road in your Alfa Romeo. Nine the Musical is based of Federico Fellini’s classic movie, 8 ½, and follows the memories of a director as he looks for inspiration and wisdom among the best women he has known in his life.
And of course, it’s a musical.
“It is classic Broadway, but still feels quite contemporary,” says Shannon Guggenheim, one of the producers for the show. “And anyone who has spent any time enjoying Italian cinema will immediately recognize the references as the composer gives a nod to Cinema Italiano themes and moods throughout the score. There are rousing dance numbers as well as heartwarming ballads — the perfect combination for a musical theater score.”
The cast features nine women who are professional actors and singers, performing a Tony-award winning musical that opened on Broadway in 1982.
3Below is rife with activity on any given day — it holds three theaters, and hosts musicals, plays, book signings, comedy and more.
PYT is an oasis of children’s culture in a sea of coffee shops, modern American restaurants and art galleries that represent adult life in Silicon Valley. The theater puts on dozens of productions through its various arms: Stories on Stage (plays based on classic or award-winning books), teen productions, School Play in a Box (an after-school program offered to public and private school kids), Theatre in the Park (a summer camp where kids make their own sets and costumes, and perform in a local park) and of course, large musicals like Peter Pan. All of the plays cast local children, and some of them, like Peter Pan, include everyone who auditions.
“Kids get so much from the performing arts — confidence, responsibility, the ability to work as a team — to be one part of the greater whole,” says Executive Director Karen Simpson.
“Becoming another character helps build empathy and creativity.”
Simpson is proud of not only the unapologetic focus on kids, but also on the time parents spend with them at PYT helping with productions.
“To work on something together and see the finished project, [and] know that you both had a hand in making it come to life? It’s just magical. I’m a parent, and I find there are just very few opportunities to do that with your children when they are growing up. Where you’re a team. And that’s pretty cool.”
Peter Pan is the classic tale of Neverland, the evil Captain Hook and the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Fresh features of this production are that it’s an adapted version of the Broadway musical, as opposed to the music-less original J.M. Barrie play; and of course that it’s an all-youth cast. This adaption modernizes with a “lost and found” theme — using found objects for the set.
This is the story of Anne Boleyn, famous mistress of Henry VIII, King of England, and their tumultuous, passionate relationship. It’s the story of how their relationship affected others, how it affected their child Elizabeth (the future Queen) and especially how it affected Anne.
“Henry was smart, and creative, and petty and selfish which makes for fascinating storytelling,” says Managing Director Kim Wadycki.
Those who appreciate a choice turn of phrase will like this drama. It was written in blank verse (a form of iambic pentameter with no rhyming, common among English poets). Anne also makes incisive declarations throughout the play with the sincerity of notebook contemplations. Maxwell Anderson, who wrote the play in 1948, was celebrated in his time. Among his accomplishments, he contributed as one of the screenwriters for All Quiet on the Western Front.
Like off-Broadway, Dragon Productions is a 65-seat black-box theater. They produce plays instead of musicals, and “our plays are geared toward adults looking to see a play they’ve never experienced before,” says Wadycki. They use semi-professional actors and stage management — meaning they use locals with some experience or education in theater who have day jobs. The theater also hosts lots of community events — hip-hop artists, stand-up comics and game nights.
Nataak stands out as an Indian theater that focuses on plays from or about India, both contemporary and classic. According to Artistic Director Sujit Saraf, it is the largest Indian theater company in the U.S. It uses Indian-American actors from all over the Valley — who work in tech by day, and theater by night.
Mela 2019 is a collection of four short plays hand-selected by Saraf, two by well-known Hindi/Urdu authors and two by Naatak members. Collectively, they all reflect on the theme of desire through a variety of compelling storylines. One depicts a neglected wife in feudal society. Another is set in the cremation vats of Benaras. One reveals struggles during the India-Pakistan partition. And one considers the boundaries of forbidden desire set against the backdrop of the Catholic Church in Southern India.
“The themes are so universal that these stories might unfold in any society, in any age. They will engage and entertain, and sometimes shock,” says Saraf.
He adds, “my favorite is the one that is darkest, Khol Do. A father has lost his daughter during the violence following the India-Pakistan partition,” and the story describes the uncomfortable feelings roused by this separation, culminating in a shocking conclusion.
Be prepared to read subtitles if you don’t understand Hindi or Urdu — all but one of the plays are spoken in foreign languages.
Did you know the Valley was a location for world premiers of big-name shows? We didn’t. TheatreWorks (winner of the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award) finally gives you the chance to participate in one. Starting in December, the company will premiere the musical version of Pride & Prejudice. New York composer/lyricist/adapter Paul Gordon, a Tony nominee, wrote the music. Well-versed in period musicals, he’s also written music for adapted novels Jane Eyre, Emma and Sense & Sensibility. Gordon expresses an appreciation for the mindful way Robert Kelley, the theatere’s Artistic Director since 1970, has treated his shows in the past. Kelley directs this one, too.
Of the show, Kelley says, “I believe the combination of Austen’s period sensibilities, feminist perspective and satirical romance, combined with Gordon’s lyrical, contemporary music, have found the perfect audience in the highly-educated, forward-thinking and secretly romantic Silicon Valley.”
Will people who have read the book enjoy the show and its pop/contemporary music? “Of course!” Kelley confirms. “If a two-hour musical cannot capture the full detail and nuance of a huge novel, it can offer a focus on the book’s key relationships and express them with the emotional power of music and the inspiration of intriguing characters come to life before our eyes.”
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