ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Leading Light of the San Francisco Stage, Susi Damilano

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

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Susi Damilano

Actor/director/producer Susi Damilano is Producing Director of the San Francisco Playhouse, co-founded with husband Bill English, the company’s Artistic Director. In its seventeen years SF Playhouse has grown from relatively obscurity to one of the city’s preeminent theater companies. Damilano is a five-time recipient of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC) ‘Excellence in Theatre Award for Principal Actress in a Play’ for Playhouse productions “Abigail’s Party,” “Harper Regan,” “Bug,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “Reckless.”

She has also performed in many other leading roles, in addition to directing Playhouse productions of “Groundhog Day the Musical,” “Cabaret,” “Mary Poppins,” “Noises Off,” “She Loves Me,” “Stage Kiss,” “Company,” “Stupid Fucking Bird,” “Into the Woods,” “A Behanding in Spokane,” “Den of Thieves,” “Wirehead” (SFBATCC nomination).

Damilano also directed the West Coast premieres of “Honey Brown Eyes” (SFBATCC nomination), “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Coronado,” “The Mystery Plays,” and “Roulette,” and the world premieres of “On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz, “From Red to Black” by Rhett Rossi, and “Seven Days” by Daniel Heath. As will attest anyone who’s been to one of the Playhouse’s legendary opening nights, she is also a world-class caterer.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SD: When I was 27 I visited a friend in London. She told me that while she was at work during the day, to go to Leicester Square and get a half price ticket to anything. I did, and saw my first professional play, “Les Miserables.” I was hooked. The next day I saw “42nd Street.” Wow! That began my love for theater—the magic of seeing someone jump off a bridge to their suicide, and ‘knowing’ he must have landed on the floor, and believing he landed in water. Beautiful.

Our focus is on how plays impact the audience…

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

SD: The first play I performed was called “Coming Attractions” at City Lights Theater. I got to play tons of different parts, sang and danced and had so much fun. Wendy Wisely took a chance on me and because of her, I was accepted into the Bay Area acting world.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SD: As I was learning my craft I took jobs anywhere around the Bay: City Lights, Town Hall, CenterRep, Actors Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Bus Barn.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SD: We had our first show in 2003.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

SD: We dreamed of what we could be and decided from the first moment to work as if we were on par with Steppenwolf or Royal Court or Donmar or Almeida … all theaters we admired, and the ones in London that we loved to visit.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

SD: Our focus is on how plays impact the audience, not on any particular topic, niche or type. The goal is to bring people together, to touch and be touched. To share an experience and create compassion.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

SD: My husband, Bill English, who is a walking library of dramatic works and knowledge. I learned to direct by sitting next to him for years and observing. My acting work was most influenced by Jean Shelton and Richard Seyd, and my courage has most been influenced by our patrons, who keep coming back and who are in the lobby crying or laughing afterward, confirming that what we are doing makes a difference.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

SD: We have the most incredible staff and board and patrons. The shutdown happened the week we were supposed to start previews for “Real Women Have Curves.” Everyone took the news so bravely. Actors lost the opportunity to share a beautiful story, our staff went to work calling ticket holders; ticket holders became donors and supporters. We’ve had to furlough many of our dear staff and are grateful that California unemployment will provide that extra $600 to them. On the other hand, we continued with announcing our season. We did a virtual announcement that has received more views and positive feedback than any event in the past.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

SD: When we announced the season we did not include dates or actual order of the shows. That certainty is simply not available to us right now.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

SD: My vision (hope) is that we will come out of this ‘big pause’ stronger than ever. Our love and need for the arts have been solidified through its absence. The theatre has always been a place where people gather. Spacing, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer will be likely be the norm in the short term.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SD: It hasn’t impacted our plans other than inducing confusion as to how an artist or designer could be an employee.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SD: I left my ‘day job’ to run the Playhouse in our 12th season. Besides acting and directing, managing the Playhouse is my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SD: I love spending time with friends and family, and of course, my dog Emi.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

SD: I love the arts, and have dabbled with drawing, and film — wish I was a trained dancer and pianist … maybe soon, if we keep staying home.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SD: The words “no” and “but” are forbidden and to be replaced with “yes,” “and.” Honor the environment and keep it beautiful and strong. Be kind.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

SD: If I wanted to buy one, wouldn’t getting two be great?

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

SD: Been framed.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

SD: My soundtrack is more like the ocean waves, or breeze through the trees.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SD: Bracelets.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

SD: None. Too big for my house.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

SD: When I was younger, for sure. Not anymore.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SD: It’s from “The Sound of Music” — “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must’ve done something good.”

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! Lovely, Bold “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

Cast and Crew of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at SF Playhouse. Director Bill English is up-center-left in jacket.

An online advice columnist discovers that she is a wellspring of wisdom and empathy in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse, through March 7.

Before each performance, Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English delivers a curtain speech in which he reiterates that his company envisions their theater as an “empathy gym” where performers and audience alike get to flex their emotional muscles. The speech couldn’t be more appropriate than it is for “Tiny Beautiful Things” developed by Nia Vardalos from the autobiographical book by Cheryl Strayed.

English directs Susi Damilano as “Sugar,” the initially reluctant advice columnist, and Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor, and Jomar Tagatac as Sugar’s various correspondents, who seek guidance on everything from the intricacies of love to matters of life and death. Sugar’s no Ph.D. psychologist but simply a woman of vast personal experience—far more vast than she first understands—who digs deep to deliver heartfelt consolation and hope to her readers, often delivered with gentle humor.

Kina Kantor, Susi Damilano, Jomar Tagatac, and Mark Anderson Phillips make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together.

Damilano is confident and sly as Sugar, who goes repeatedly to her refrigerator for refills of white wine and emotional conviction. At first, amused by her work, she soon discovers that she’s dealing with serious issues, and rises to the challenge.

… a well-deserved standing ovation.

The play’s dramatic structure is a recitation of letters, each beginning with “Dear Sugar,” spoken and acted with palpable gravitas by Damilano’s three supporting actors. Part literary fugue and part call-and-response, the recitation continues in a rolling rhythm throughout the play’s 85 minutes, reaching a crescendo when Sugar incites her readers to find love in their hearts for everything that life throws at them.

Letter Writer #3 (Jomar Tagatac) takes in Sugar’s (Susi Damilano) words of wisdom in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

It’s a beautiful moment, on a dreamscape of suspended metal poles (set design by Jacquelyn Scott) evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Michael Oesch. Unfortunately, its impact is diminished by an extended continuation of letters and responses, as if Vardalos couldn’t decide what to keep and what to cut. It’s a not-so-unusual theatrical circumstance of less-could-be-more with more careful editing.

Even so, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a rare undertaking and within its limits, a sparkling gem. Author Cheryl Stayed was in the audience on opening night, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. The world could do well with more empathetic advisors like her and fewer snarky commentators.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionTiny Beautiful Things
Written byAdapted by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed.

Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos.
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 7th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW: SF Playhouse Missteps with “Dance Nation” – by Nicole Singley

Time flies when you’re having fun. And it slows to a crawl when you aren’t. “Dance Nation” at San Francisco Playhouse succeeds in proving that an hour and fifty-two minutes can feel like an eternity. It fails at just about everything else it ostensibly sets out to accomplish. With no intermission and thus no chance for a polite escape, this production feels more like an avant-garde experiment in torture than an illuminating night at the theater.

The premise is straightforward enough. An Ohio dance troupe comprised of preteen girls – played by adult women of various ages, at the playwright’s instruction – is vying for a spot at Nationals in Tampa Bay. The competition is fierce, and things get really strange and gory. But there isn’t much more to the story, if it could even be called that. Instead it merely serves as a backdrop for a series of disjointed, drawn-out monologues, ranging from flat and painfully boring to overly-intense and agitating, like a bad slam poetry throwdown at the local café where angry feminists commune to rail against the patriarchy and destigmatize the female body. It plays like a misguided grab at women’s empowerment wrapped up in a hollow coming-of-age story about resilience and self-discovery. But none of it rings true.

Clare Barron has packed a lot into her characters, but little that’s terribly realistic or relatable. We bear witness to one girl’s narcissistic meltdown, reaching fever pitch as she shouts at the audience “I’m going to make you my bitch, you motherfucking cunt-munching piece of shit prick. I am your god. I am your second coming.” In another scene, a girl who’s just gotten her period smears menstrual blood across her face like war paint. In yet another, a familiar childhood pact takes a warped turn when the girls wipe armpit sweat on each other’s upper lips and kiss (what ever happened to the good old pinky promise?). We watch grown women depicting thirteen-year-old girls strip naked together without a hint of modesty or embarrassment. (Does this match your childhood locker room experience? It certainly doesn’t mine.) And yet despite their comfortable bond, the show opens awkwardly on the troupe abandoning an injured teammate on the dance floor. It all feels gratuitous, ill-fitting and off-key.

Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not.”

The cast of “Dance Nation” at work at San Francisco Playhouse (Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli)

The coup de grâce is the show’s conclusion (dare I call it that), which features the entire cast chanting “I wish my soul were as perfect as my pussy!” – louder with each repetition – so many times that I could hear it echoing inside my head the whole drive home. Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not. None of it serves any discernible purpose but to shock and repulse the audience, for shock’s sake alone. Despite being the work of a young female playwright, “Dance Nation” is so deeply out of touch with its subject matter that it fails to be emotionally accessible in any meaningful way. It tries really hard to be controversial and edgy – in keeping with much of contemporary art – but only managed to leave me feeling tired, bored and angry. It certainly didn’t resonate with my experience of puberty and early womanhood, adolescent rivalries and friendships, the inherent camaraderie in competitive sports, or just about anything else it reaches for.

Without more believable and fully-formed characters or a compelling and cohesive narrative arc, it’s hard to feel all that connected to or interested in anything that’s happening on stage. The dancing isn’t very good, either. It’s just a lot of forced, unnatural dialogue broken up by obnoxious monologues and little to no plot, with some pointless nudity and a lot of fake blood thrown into the mix. The actors commit a commendable amount of energy to their roles, but it’s not enough to make us care about what happens to their characters. The set doesn’t help much, either. It’s clunky and underwhelming, offering little to look at but a shelf full of trophies and large pillars that often block the audience’s view.

In light of this experience, it’s difficult to fathom why this play has received such high praise from other critics. (It won the Relentless Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and was even a Pulitzer Prize finalist.) Is Becca Wolff’s direction at fault? Did SF Playhouse simply miss the mark with this one? Given their excellent track record, it’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but without any basis for comparison, it’s impossible to know exactly what to think. All I can say with certainty is that from start to finish, I didn’t find a single minute of this show enjoyable. Seldom have I felt so anxious for something to be over. SF Playhouse calls itself an “empathy gym,” but the only thing “Dance Nation” exercised was this reviewer’s patience.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionDance Nation
Written byClare Barron
Directed byBecca Wolff
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough November 9th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----