Review: ‘Sheherezade’s Last Tales,’ a Festival of Original Short Plays from the PLaywrights’ Center of San Francisco (***1/2)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco’s 15th annual Short Play Festival, “Sheherezade’s Last Tales” at the Exit Theatre presents an emotional and moving group of new short plays that demonstrate why the short play remains the laboratory and seed-ground for both young and experienced playwrights in San Francisco. The form itself, practiced by the greats from Shaw to Williams, Miller, and Albee has always given us hints of what is to come. Young playwrights cut their teeth in this sharp and snazzy format, while older writers try out themes that will inform their future works.

“Sheherezade’s Last Tales” produced by Jerome Joseph Gentes and Bridgette Dutta Portman, serves up a final dish of goodies before they revamp with a new format next year. They wind up with a rich array of plays and a tour de force by directors and actors. The production fulfills the promise of this year’s fiesta because these plays embody the best of comedy, melancholy, challenge, love, and longing. In these eight plays we see ourselves reflected on the small stage, in the work of eight playwrights and seven actors, all well prepared for a leap into the present and future. Directed by Laylah Muran De Assereto and Adam L. Sussman.

First off, in “The Stuff We Keep,” by Rod McFadden, Julie (Alexaendrai Bond) and her brother Bob (Louel Senores), are organizing their father’s things after his death. With the discovery of an unexpected letter resulting in a conflict on how to deal with it, McFadden explores how families can risk alienation forever. We want to know more about this prickly family, so much in the vein of a Tennessee Williams play, with complications yet to come.

In “Rorschach Test” by Vaughn Hovanessian, a stylishly assertive wife, Maureen (Miyoko Sakatani) lords over her sheepish, humble husband David (Brian Levi) in a therapy session with Dr. Sandler (Rich Homa). What ensues between wife and doctor turns out to be scandalous and hilarious as the bumbling, self-absorbed hubbie natters on, unaware. “Rorschach” offers a priceless comic indictment of narcissism and modern self-regard. We look forward to more laughs from Hovanessian.

In “How to Make a Video,” Bill Hyatt wittily explores the relations between a searching and pregnant young widow, Janie (Amber Glasgow), and her bitter mother-in-law,  Helen (AJ Davenport). The younger woman is trying to make a video of Helen for her child, but the grieving mother-in-law is not cooperating. Hyatt gives us a fine emotional study of self-concern and soured family relations.

In the final play before Intermission, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Park Bench,” Patricia L. Morin offers a startling two-hander, featuring an old man on a park bench named Saul (Brian Levi), and an aggressive Kid (Amber Glasgow) trying to mug him at gunpoint.  Saul turns the situation on its head. Hostility tinged with love and longing creeps out of this play of shattered love, which perfectly caps the first half of the evening’s symphony of family conflicts and injustice. Morin successfully melds comedy, satire, and morality.

The intermission is followed by Madeleine Butler’s “A Comfortable Life,” as Kat (AJ Davenport) tries to forget her radical 1960s past, and the lover with whom she had to split after a serious revolutionary action gone wrong. Years later, leading her “comfortable life” as a librarian named Ruth, she tries to avoid her past while undergoing marital therapy with her husband, Fred (Brian Levi). Things get complicated when a mysterious older admirer (Rick Homan) turns up. Butler’s time-jumping play offers politically informed personal history/herstory, that intrigues us and clarifies both psychological and social interactions, in an experimental mode.

“By Any Other Name,” by Carol S. Lashof, presents a “typical” couple in their bedroom, arguing about names, connections, and honesty. S (Louel Senores) carries off a transgender role with subtle physical suggestiveness, cleverly straddling the gender divide, as she/he tries to please his/her lover Jeanette (Amber Glasgow). The now-male “S” has to debate his new name of “Steve,” because he used to be Sharon; but Jeanette has problems with “S,” preferring another name. Here we have a brilliant and humorous discussion of naming and gender and role-playing, which by any other name would still be a searching comic analysis of how we get to “know” the Other. A unique bedroom delight, both funny and touching.

In “New New Economy,” by Steven Hill, Roger (Brian Levi) awakens to discover a fabulous economic opportunity right there in his bedroom. He tries to convince his girlfriend Julia (Alexaendrai Bond) that they have a great treasure, akin to a vision of the Virgin at Lourdes, socking them right in the face. But the practical Julia just doesn’t get his raving and visions, since he spends most of his time in bed, not working. Here, writer Hill smashes the old working life against the new world of the “gig economy,” bringing up both for satirical fun and exposure.

The final play of this second quartet is “Sparse Pubic Hair” by Lorraine Midanik. It features the fearless Mildred (Miyoko Sakatini), a 60-ish elegant lady who has answered a Craigslist ad for a date. Her date Kenneth (Rick Homan) turns out to be a bit older than she requires, so she dishes him for his subterfuges. He remains shy and submissive while she attacks and argues with her disappointing suitor. But something magical happens as they debate, and their disaffection turns into a strange and beguiling connection. What a satisfying and hypnotic climax for eight fine one-acts, focused on love and devotion, subterfuge and sensuality.

“Sheherezade’s Last Tales” fill us with warmth and hope.

“Sheherezade’s Last Tales,” plays at The Exit Theatre through Saturday, December 12, 2015. For information, click here.

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“Sheherezade’s Last Tales,” a festival of world-premiere short plays, produced by Jerome Joseph Gentes and Bridgette Dutta Portman, for the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco. Directors: Laylah Muran de Assereto and Adam L. Sussman. Sets: Ellen Chesnut. Sound: Annemarie Scerra. Lighting: Sarina Renteria. Dance & Fight Choreographer: Wesley Cayabyab.

The Plays (Act I)

“The Stuff We Keep” by Rod McFadden, directed by Laylah Muran De Assereto.
“Rorschach Test” by Vaughn Hovanessian, directed by Laylah Muran De Assereto.
“How to Make a Video” by Bill Hyatt, directed by Adam L. Sussman.
“A Clean Well-Lighted Park Bench” by Patricia L. Morin, directed by Laylah Muran De Assereto.

The Plays (Act II)

“A Comfortable Life” by Madeleine Butler, directed by Adam L. Sussman.
“By Any Other Name” by Carol S. Lashof, directed by Adam L. Sussman.
“New New Economy” by Steven Hill, directed by Adam L. Sussman.
“Sparse Pubic Hair” by Lorraine Midanik, directed by Laylah Muran De Assereto.

Ensemble:

Alexaendrai Bond, AJ Davenport, Amber Glasgow, Rick Homan, Brian Levi, Miyoko Sakatani, and Louel Senores.

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