Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle:The15th Best of Playground—the best bet in town, at SF’s Thick House.

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday May 17, 2011 - 10:31:00 PM
Michael Phillis and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White's FRIGIDARE
mellopix performance
Michael Phillis and Holli Hornlien in Arisa White's FRIGIDARE

The art of the very short play is like writing a poem: the daunting challenge of compressing ideas that emotionally move the listener.

Now think about writing such a play on a specific topic in less than 5 days time.

The 15th Best of Playground, now playing at Thick Housein SF’s Potrero district, delivers seven amazing plays in a scant two hours including intermission, all written according to the above rules, and acted by a talented and versatile cast of six. 

Katie May’s “Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero” in the lead-off spot is a brainy, witty, and rapid-fire Fractured Fairy Tale version of Rapunzel as math whiz. Our Persian Princess works out number theory while holding the ever-clambering prince at bay by a hair-raising feat. It is spiced with just enough mathematics that the average college grad can get the gist—and then feel smart when they understand— and with so many fast and funny lines and ironies that one fears to laugh too loud lest the next line goes unheard. 

Putting together the batting order of a baseball team, assembling the order of songs on a singer’s album, and deciding the order of seven short plays is a challenge on which hangs success, and artistic director Jim Kleinmann knocks it out of the park with his choices that sing to our senses--in one instance, actually sings, since it ends with a short musical! He is also the director of “ZERO,” and his sight-gags, staging, and tempi are outstanding. 

Standing the issue of gay children on its head, “Frigidare “by Arisa White, gives us a furious, touching and funny take on a mom who wants her kid to be gay since it’s “in,” and because she wants his life to be challenging. So he hides in the refrigerator, a choice which is rife with metaphor. (In a short exchange after the performance, Ms. White revealed that she remembered the tale of a family friend from Guyana who stowed away in a refrigerator carton to come to America and perhaps her imagination was sparked from that.) Jon Tracy’s direction takes what could be just ironic into a loving bond between mother and son regardless of the funny, twisted premise.  

The struggle of two homeless men, bonded by their alcoholism, provides a unique point of view from the homeless we pass under bridges or sleeping in doorways in“See. On. Unseen. The. Lost.” by Evelyn Jean Pine. The American belief that “this idea will make me a millionaire,” the automatic writing of Kerouac and the Beats, and bottled-up secrets drive the story. Their struggle is compelling and insightful, right down to their wrestling match. 

Adapting to changing times seems the theme of “Ecce Homo” by Jonathan Luskin of two Vaudevillians on the downward slope performing for the last night. The Jewish comic and the Iowa farm-girl hoofer pair is a sweet, “Abie’s Irish Rose,” George-and-Gracie coupling in a story of true love and devotion—and rolling with the punches. 

Alzheimer’s and the tenacity of the human spirit fill us with foreboding and hope in “Escapades” by Mandy Hodge Rizvi. The actors expressively and gracefully dance portions of it which gives it the appropriate dreamlike tone for the fugue states of our elder protagonist, and plays grippingly in counterpoint to the painful office confrontations between nursing home staff and relatives. Memory flashbacks make our hero/victim’s plight more poignant, and touch a dark spot in the fear center of audience members over 60. 

A teenaged, mixed couple break into a Catholic Church, drink the wine, and have their own religious experience and communion in “This is My Body” by Daniel Heath. Heath focuses on the pain of being a teen in this unstable world, their spiritual need, and shines a light on the overlap of the drama of the Mass and our sexual longing. Subtle and true to the rhythms and expressions of teenagers, Heath and director Susi Damilano set-up a vignette that you’ll carry with you afterwards. 

A recently-divorced mom is called in to her daughter’s principal’s office and expects the worse. A chance encounter lands her kid’s stash in her lap, which she smells longingly, while gearing up for the anti-drug lecture she is obliged to deliver. These double-binds and turn-abouts continue in song in the musical “Calling the Kettle” by Brady Lea. Collaborator Christopher Winslow’s songs are melodic in duet and trio to reveal the inner fears and longings of all three; it ends the evening on a hopeful note. 

The cast of six brings truth to the words and the pain behind them, plays the comedy expertly, and is surprising in their ability as dancers and singers. Each actor playing many and diverse parts adds to the effect of making this smorgasbord into a tasty feast. I see a lot of plays, and this is the best cast that has been assembled in my theatre-going experience for some time.  

From a very non-Disney Middle Eastern princess to a Latino lost teen to a broken-home honor roll student with weed in her purse, Rinabeth Apostol’s performance, like all the other actors, differs in character and is first-rate. The young men—very white-boy Michael Phillis has the ability to get deep quickly and honestly and with a rollicking sense of deadpan, and very ethnic Jomar Tagatac is a theatrical “find” with considerable range. Hollie Hornlien is alternately steamy, sweet, touching and off-the-chart campy in her roles. Mature actor David Cramer tears your heart out regularly, and Brian Herndon is my kind of actor—short with a soul full of hurt and the sharp wit to cut through it. 

PLAYGROUND is a local treasure that fosters playwrighting, and this is an evening of theatre that is a sure bet. You’ll be debating about which one you liked best, and it’s a hard choice since they are all contenders. (The script of all seven plays is available, and really worth picking up at the play or from the website so you can relive the memory later or enjoy the plays if you can’t make it to a performance.) 

The 15th Best of Playground 

Playing through May 29. 

At Thick House, 1695 18th Street (off Arkansas Street), San Francisco 

Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero by Katie May, directed by Jim Kleinmann 

Frigidare by Arisa White, directed by Jon Tracy 

Escapades by Mandy Hodge Rizvi, directed by M. Graham Smith 

Ecce Homo by Jonathan Luskin, directed by Molly Noble 

See. On. Unseen. The. Lost. by Evelyn Jean Pine, directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges 

This is My Body by Daniel Heath, directed by Susi Damilano 

Calling the Kettle by Brady Lea, music by Christopher Winslow, directed by Jessica Heidt 

Ensemble: Rinabeth Apostol*, David Cramer*, Brian Herndon*, Holli Hornlien*, Michael Phillis, Jomar Tagatac* / Stage Manager: June Palladino* (* Member, Actors' Equity Association)