Created in 1976, the Playwrights Foundation is something of an institution. The Bay Area Playwrights Festival, which the foundation held this year from July 18 through Sunday out of the Thick House theater in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill area, received about 500 submissions this year. Only six plays, however, could be featured. The six chosen (including Elizabeth Hersh’s “Shelter in Place,” which is not reviewed here) represent a wide variety of narratives and themes, as well as the most promising of the next generation of playwrights, according to the criteria of the judges. The foundation — and, subsequently, the festival — prides itself on being at the cutting edge of American theater, supporting plays that talk about America as it is now and that bring themes of war, National Security Agency surveillance and deaf cultural identity, among others.
Fathers leaving their families to fight a war is a regrettably common occurrence, but a depiction of that involving a Tibetan monk, a yeti, a lot of Whitney Houston music and an apparition holding a mask from the movie “Predator” is not so common. And yet all of these things — and much more — is what a staged reading of Phillip Howze’s “abominable,” part of the 2014 Bay Area Playwrights Festival, entails.
“abominable” follows the tale of a family of four — one brother, one sister, one father and one mother — as they work their way through a family vacation that ends up being much more than any of them bargained for. As they move closer and closer to the father’s departure date for the army, they individually encounter an eccentric curator, a Tibetan monk and yes, a yeti.
As “abominable” riffs on the themes of some stereotypical American experiences — road-tripping, dealing with a sibling, rekindling the romance in a marriage that has endured decades and raising children — it is easy to understand why it was chosen for a festival that prides itself on being culturally relevant. In turn, however, it touches on some American stereotypes that are less favorable, such as the difficulties in the American public school system and the foster care system.
Considering the father’s imminent departure to war, death and survival are a central part of the play, particularly because Howze applies more and more apocalyptic elements as the plot progresses. Appropriately, Howze has chosen to juxtapose the ideas of death and survival with the themes of chance and fate, bringing a very modern play about America at war indeed.
“Ozma of Oz”
At this year’s Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Robert Melrose presents his first musical, a futuristic pop rock production created in collaboration with the San Francisco-based band Z.O.N.K. “Ozma of Oz” is based off of the third installment in the Oz series by L. Frank Baum and follows Dorothy (Brittany Berg), who after the excitement of the brilliantly colored Oz feels dissatisfied with her dull, Midwestern existence. In her opening song she declares to the audience that she “may look like a Model T but inside (she’s) a Ferrari.” Dorothy doesn’t suffer for long, though. Her cruise ship is shipwrecked, and she and the only other survivor — a chicken named Billina (Cathleen Riddley) who prefers to be called Bill — are transported to the land of Ev, which is seated next to Oz.
But the kingdom of Ev grieves. The people lost their king and the entire royal family to the greedy, Santa-esque Nome king, and they now live under the rule of a self-obsessed royal cousin with 39 heads. So Dorothy, along with the beautiful and magnanimous Queen Ozma of Oz and a bevy of familiar and new friends, sets out to free the royal family and restore peace to Ev. Some characters might even find a little love along the way.
When Melrose began working on his first musical, “Ozma of Oz,” he didn’t have Kansas in mind. In fact, he thought more about adapting the story to a San Francisco experimental theater style. How does this play out onstage? Instead of skipping down the yellow brick road to bouncy show tunes, the characters of Ozma storm across the land of Ev to pop rock (and sometimes rap) songs like “Trippin’ on Ev.” By transforming a stereotyped story into something supremely new, “Ozma of Oz” deals with themes related particularly to personal identity and gender, and it contemplates how modern audiences can experience old stories in a new and unfamiliar context.
“I see so much noise with my eyes … I am grateful to have been given the gift of silence.”
“Sound” is a show about crossing worlds — journeying between the past and the present and the hearing and the deaf — on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. The first of the two parallel plots recounts Alexander Graham Bell’s (Cassidy Brown) obsession with discovering a cure for deafness even as he immerses himself in a thriving deaf community. The second tells the story of a modern, divorced family with a hearing mother (Michele Leavy), a fiercely prideful deaf father named George (JW Guido) and a deaf daughter, Alison (Diedre Tubb), who is caught between the two of them. The play follows their lives at the moment when Alison, who longs to hear the chirping of crickets again, decides to get a cochlear implant and struggles with the process of bridging two worlds that don’t necessarily want to be joined.
Playwright Don Nguyen appears to have designed the stories to operate separately, but he also weaves the two plots together through the shared themes of fear, acceptance, pride, storytelling and communication. Forms of communication play an important role in the overall structure of the story. Some characters speak and sign simultaneously, while some only speak or only sign. Some speak, with their words translated into sign language, while others sign and have their signs translated into speech. The complexity of the dialogue patterns seem to address the broader issues of the deaf community, namely, that if a person who is deaf has the option to hear, should they? Is one form of communication more valuable than the other? Is a silent world a wrong world? Or are those who are deaf given a gift that they should treasure?
“Split the Stick”
“Split the Stick,” a term for paying one’s dues, follows an Iraq War veteran named Cody, his grueling experience with post traumatic stress disorder and the painful effects it has on his family. Quick scene changes between the home, Cody’s travels to Nevada and abstract flashbacks make it hard to distinguish which moments are in the external world and which represent Cody’s tormented psyche. The play also personifies one Gertrude Bell history doll, whose beautiful monologues weave the history of British and American involvement in Iraq into the disjointed storytelling.
Along the way to Nevada, Cody and his friend Scott pick up a college girl named April, who frequently breaks into disturbed and sometimes nonsensical thoughts.
“Are you a rock? Are you a feather?” she repeats in one scene. Her mental state is given just as much attention as Cody’s, but her trauma — whether it is war-related is not explicit — hangs without context. At times she feels like Cody’s foil; where he’s abrasive in conversation, April is pensive. At other times, they’re equals; Cody wavers from socially functional to uncontrollably haunted just as April is expressively depressed and self-abusing. What playwright E. Hunter Spreen does exceptionally well with their pain is erupt them in scenes where something completely mundane is at the forefront, like a family dinner or a dialogue on paint colors. Spreen, who makes it easy for the other characters to ignore central traumas in the story, confronts the audience with a telling theme of how people today deal with the unpleasant or rather don’t deal with it at all.
With various mini-stories layered between Cody’s and April’s experiences, “Split the Stick” can be difficult to follow at times, but that difficulty is at an appropriate cost to this compelling tale about upheaval of inner worlds wrought by history and broken identity struggling to heal again.
“Queens for a Year”
With a great grandmother who packed parachutes in World War II, a Vietnam vet and grandmother affectionately named Gunny and an aunt Lou who fought in the Gulf War, Molly’s household harbors a historic catalog of the female military experience. When Molly, a U.S. Marine Corps officer, returns to West Virginia, she brings her friend and fellow troop mate Amanda with her. What seems like a break from deployment slowly unfolds as an escape from the sexual abuses and bureaucratic injustices in the armed forces.
This production powerfully addresses corruption and sexism in the military system with a multitude of theatrical elements. The characters march during scene changes, reciting real military cadences that disturbingly celebrate the violence of war. Flashbacks show firsthand what it’s like to report a rape committed by a commanding officer. Juxtaposing this reality with a “mythical place” where the actresses narrate the Greek myth of transgendered warrior Caeneus, playwright T.D. Mitchell expands the play’s scope from institutionalized sexism to a critique on society’s culture of gendering fighters.
Mitchell’s writing is not only impressively researched but wonderfully eclectic in its treatment of varied female voices — from a flashback where the white, American Amanda frisks an Arabic woman without a translator to Molly’s lineage of strong Latina veterans, who anchor the play in a sense of triumph.
“This is like Camp Badass. No one can mess with us,” Amanda exclaims. But the message of “Queens” is clear: The real threat of war may not be abroad but actually stationed right there at base. Mitchell’s work — for its expose on sexist military structures, compelling theatrical composition and spotlight on oppressed voices — is one to sound off for.