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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

All The World's a Stage

Updated: May 19

Live theater is one of my great pleasures, and it delights me to discover a new playhouse -- new, at least, to me.

City Lights Theater Company, San Jose

In April 2024, I was pleased to discover City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, presenting King Liz by Fernanda Coppel. The play is about a rarity—a female sports agent (played by Damaris Divito.)

Liz Rico’s meteoric rise in the basketball business comes under siege when her newest client, high school superstar Freddie Luna (played by the riveting Davied Morales) struggles with his new-found fame and all the associated scrutiny of his past that comes with it. I was impressed by the stellar performances in this intense, fast-moving play. The small theater makes for a close, almost immersive experience. After the show, all actors and the Director came on stage for a discussion and Q&A with the audience.

CLTC has announced their 2024-25 season with plays both classic (Agatha Christie) and contemporary (the immensely talented Madhuri Shekar!)

Pear Theatre, Mountain View

Similarly, in 2023, I was thrilled to discover The Pear Theatre in Mountain View. I watched a gripping production of Shakespeare’s Richard II presented by Perspective Theatre Company, only to learn that I was attending their very last show--they could not survive the pandemic shutdown and all the associated woes that arts organizations suffered through it.

The Pear Theatre is now presenting their 2024-25 season-- a fascinating selection.

Queen, the Bee's Knees!

Earlier this year, I watched Queen by Madhuri Shekar, presented by Enacte Theater Company at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. I had watched an earlier production of the same play by Enacte, its premiere in 2018, and reviewed it here.  It’s a terrific play, and while some of the production elements were different this time, the questions at its heart - about personal and scientific integrity, and compromises in life and science - are enduring.

The Worlds of Khaled Hosseini

And now to share an unexpected error. I must confess, dear Reader, that after weeks of travel and general discombobulation, I stumbled into the Hammer Theatre in San Jose to watch what I remembered as a play I had seen previously at ACT San Francisco, in 2018 - The Kite Runner. I had enjoyed the ACT-SF production, and was looking forward to seeing the play again. This was a Broadway on Tour show presented by San Jose State University in collaboration with Enacte Theatre Company. It was adapted by Mathew Spangler from the book by Khaled Hosseini.

As the play commenced, I realized I had never seen it before - what I had seen at ACT-SF was a different work by Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns, adapted by Ursula Rani Sharma. At which point, the neurons of that memory lit up and reality sunk in: ah yes, I had intentionally stayed away from The Kite Runner despite all the accolades, because of the indescribable pain woven into the plot. Well, suffice it to say the gut punches were as I had feared -- chilling portrayals of bigotry, humiliation, violence...yikes! -- and yet, it is a tremendous work, with compassion, humor, redemption. The staging and acting were exceptional with many bay area artists, on the same stage where the play premiered years ago as a staged reading in 2007 at SJSU, and in 2009 at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. Lesson learned -- I'll do a better job of reading up on a performance in advance next time, to be more emotionally prepared.

Seeing live theatre is a wonderful way to enter new worlds and expand our minds, while supporting the arts at the same time. I've reviewed several plays in these pages by Naatak, a local theatre company that presents plays by / about South Asians.

National Theatre Live

Not to forget, there are exceptional recordings of live theatre! National Theatre Live, operated by the Royal National Theatre in London, is a gift to theatre lovers. Their tag line is "The best of British theatre. On a cinema screen near you."  These are terrific recordings of plays performed at respected playhouses. Since the intention is to transform the staged plays into films that can be enjoyed much more broadly, the camera work is beautiful, and the viewer gets to see close-ups of the actors just as in a movie, seldom possible during a live viewing.

I've watched King Lear, with the incomparable Ian McKellen as Lear.

An amusing play I watched is Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

NTL has several performances throughout the year at movie theaters. Be sure to check at least one out. I plan to see Dear England (about football and England, with Joseph Fiennes, Vanya (yes, Chekov's Uncle Vanya, a radical new version apparently) and Fleabag (a hilarious one-woman show starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge) over the next few months at the Hammer Theatre Center. You can enter your location at their website, and find viewings near you.

Opera, Omar

And then there's opera! In November 2023, I had the great pleasure of watching Omar at SF Opera. It is an American opera composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, with a libretto by Giddens. It 2023, Omar won the Pulitzer Prize for music.

Omar bin Syed, a scholar of the Quran, was stolen from West Africa to be enslaved in America. He wrote an autobiography in Arabic which was taken by Rhiannon Giddens and made into a stunning opera. Omar authored the only known autobiography written by an enslaved person -- It was only 13 pages long. In a post-show talk, Gidden spoke of how it is a compromised document in many ways, because there was likely the influence of the slave owners on the narrative.

The set was spare, reusing many props, with sheets of cloth that were pulled down and used in different ways to indicate different places. A tree that was beautiful and symbolic, appeared a different times, in Africa, and also in America. In the closing lines, Omar speaks about the greatest truth - that you must tend to the roots of a tree, and if you do, it spreads out and provides sustenance. 

The music was tremendous. The live orchestra performed in the pit. The strings and drums were incredibly moving and beautiful. The singing was sublime -- the voices of the soloists, as well as the chorus that seemed to hold everything together. 

For a few hours, the home of the SF opera was transformed into the house of God, with words from the Quran, as well as some from the Bible filling the space. In addition to being this almost unbelievable story about this man’s journey and life, it is also a deep reflection on faith - what it means to each of us, and how it sustained this man, like many others, during a time of the deepest difficulty.

Opera in Jazz

Another exceptional opera, also by a Black composer, was Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an "opera in jazz" which was available as a PBS recording of Great Performances at the Met. It marked the Met’s first performance of an opera by a Black composer and its first production back in its theater following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

I watched a 2022 SFJazz performance of Terence Blanchard's music for this opera, which was based on journalist and author Charles M. Blow’s powerful memoir chronicling his early life in rural Louisiana.

So, what performances will you see this year?!

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