For members of the American Theatre Critics Association (, their recent national conference was a late-spring week overflowing with the delights of the San Francisco theater scene.

The organization’s annual convocation moves around the country from city to city. This year’s choice of the City by the Bay was a major hit with all attendees and won universal praise for the group’s Operations Manager, Robert Sokol, who had able assistance with the countless conference details from ATCA Executive Committee Chairman, Bill Hirschman, and members, Susan Cohn and Brad Hathaway. The San Francisco Hilton at Union Square served as the splendid headquarters, while members branched out to countless area theatrical venues and performances, which on the first day alone included Grandeur (Magic Theater), How to be a White Man (FaultLine Theater), Kano and Abe (PlayGround), Shortlived VI: Round 1 (PianoFight), Sordid Lives and Warplay (both at New Conservatory Theater Center), Sex and the City Live! (Oasis Theater), and Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night (Custom Made Theater).

There was also a world premiere of Christopher Chen’s new play, You Mean to Do Me Harm at the Sandbox Theater of the San Francisco Playhouse. Crisply directed in theater-in the-round style by Bill English and staged in the spacious, high-ceilinged cubicle space of the Sandbox, this intriguing drama for four players (James Asher, Lauren English, Don Castro, Charisse Loriaux), begins innocently enough as two young couples chat while sharing a bottle of wine. But the plot twists and relationships build in intensity from scene to scene, as one off-hand remark generates a succession of misunderstandings that make for compelling theater from these four fine actors. Subtle lighting from designer, Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky, provides fine scene transitions, and can even magically turn beds of woodchips into lush green lawns. It's a thought-provoking production.

There was similar intrigue from the San Francisco Playhouse production of Jen Silverman's new play, The Roommate. Coyly directed by Becca Wolff, a prevailing air of mystery develops when Sharon (Susi Damilano), a middle-aged woman in Iowa, advertises a room for rent in her suburban home. Butch and free-thinking Robyn (Julia Brothers) answers the ad and moves in. She’s a gentle, gay, pot-smoking vegan who brings her own pots and pans and presents plenty of challenges to this simple Iowa homeowner during this attention-grabbing, seriocomic one-acter.

Between productions, ATCA members enjoyed informative workshops and panel discussions that featured such notables from the theater world as the aforementioned Mr. English, artistic director of San Francisco Playhouse, and Amy Mueller, artistic director of Playwrights Foundation. Also featured were Bay area critics, Robert Hurwitt & Lily Janiak, as well as local playwrights, Stuart Bousel, Christopher Chen, Lauren M. Gunderson, Aaron Loeb, and Michael Gene Sullivan.

Another series of popular presentations focused on how critics can expand their audience by mixing “Theater + Travel.”

A Theater Design workshop was of special interest with a panel of experts that included, Nina Ball (scenic design), Abra Berman (costume design), Cliff Caruthers (sound), Sean Kana (music direction), York Kennedy (lighting), Kimberly Richards (choreography), Jacqueline Scott (properties), and Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky (Projections).

With all of that, the focus continued to be on area performances as various members attended A Night with Janis Joplin (American Conservatory Theater), Brownsville Song (Shotgun Players), and Monsoon Wedding (Berkeley Rep). There were adventurous out-of-town pilgrimages that took the members to see the Palo Alto Players in a performance of The Graduate, and to the magnificent Fox Theatre in Redwood City, where the Broadway By the Bay Players presented a joyous rendition of the rollicking Stoller & Leiber musical, Smokey Joe’s Café.

Perhaps the group's most satisfying journey was the trip out to the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda where they enjoyed theater under the stars in the amphitheater for a merry production of Shakespeare's As You Like It. Prior to the show, guests were treated to an informative panel titled, “Re-Viewing Shakespeare: The Second 400 Years.” Moderated by the company’s resident dramaturg, Dr. Philippa Kelly, the panel featured artistic directors of Bard-centric companies including William J. Brown III (Arabian Shakespeare Festival), L. Peter Callender (African-American Shakespeare Company), Lesley Shisgall Currier (Marin Shakespeare Company), Rebecca Ennals (San Francisco Shakespeare Festival), and Eric Ting, the artistic director there at the California Shakespeare Theater.

If those informative discussions were not enough to delight the assembled critics, a lovely hillside picnic supper was provided in the Upper Grove above the amphitheater. It was a night to remember, even before the talented cast took to the stage for a fine performance of As You Like It, directed by Desdemona Chiang.

Finally, while theater is definitely serious business for the hard-working journalists of ATCA, that did not preclude enjoying some of the lighthearted fun abundant in San Francisco. Perhaps the best example of that was found by members who enjoyed the absolute hilarity and campy fun of Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon, which claims to be "...the longest running musical revue in American history." With one uproariously lavish musical number after another (and the colorfully outlandish costumes and hats to match), the show is great fun from start to finish with delicious satire abundant. Don’t miss it when you’re in town.

David Dow Bentley
June 2017