SAN FRANCISCO — A bright sun and brisk wind drove away the hard rain that had fallen all night. In its wake was left another of those crisp, fresh fall weekends where visibility is as unlimited as hope.
Something like that seems to have happened to theater in this city that, in the recent past, has seen the phasing out of Equity Waiver in favor of union contracts, resulting, says a qualified local observer, in less but better work.
The city also has watched its major theater company, the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), grapple with financial crises and strategic and political tribulations. These ended in the resignation of ACT founder William Ball and the near collapse of the company, which found eventual relief in the appointment early last year of founding member Edward Hastings as its new artistic director.
If the start of the current (22nd) season is any indication, Hastings, a man of action and low-profile, has done much to restore confidence in ACT's ability to reclaim its former glory. A brochure unabashedly proclaims "Rebirth . . . Resurgence . . . Renewal . . . ." For once the hyperbole seems near the mark. As Hastings put it to this writer, "We feel good. There is high energy in the company. It's large again (38). Audiences are responding. Those were the priorities."
Indeed, for the first time since 1983, ACT is doing shows in rotating repertory, and not small-cast ones either: "King Lear" and Sam Shepard's "A Lie of the Mind." The latter is a particularly strong entry, streamlined from the four-hour version that played Off Broadway (under Shepard's direction), to a crisp, tight incarnation that clocks in at just under three hours.
Director Albert Takazauckas is responsible. He remains faithful to the Shepard lexicon, not just in language but also in mood and imagery--that slightly skewed, subliminal black edge of violence where desperation, alienation and humor intersect, always in the bleakest of interior and exterior landscapes. Lawrence Hecht, Nancy Carlin, Joy Carlin and Will Marchetti stand out in a production that does everything to reaffirm both Shepard's position as the major chronicler of the American family out of plumb and ACT's claim to renewed ascendancy.
If the "King Lear," staged by Hastings, is more traditional and less prepossessing, it still has plenty of style, showing at least that the quality has not been lost even when the imagination falters. A mild case of reverential disease unfortunately afflicts much of the uneven supporting cast. Peter Donat, who played the title role at the performance I attended (he alternates with Barry Kraft), lapses into vocal affectations that ruin the very effect they hope to achieve. But the lapses vanish in the mad scenes, which grow more powerful, making a stronger impression.
For lasting impressions, however, you can head for Theatre Artaud's vast, industrial space south of Market Street, where the Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging a memorable revival of Eugene O'Neill's 1922 "The Hairy Ape." The concept for this difficult play is that of director George Ferencz, who has teamed up with jazz composer Max Roach to create a swirling, shadowy, fulminating 90-minute ensemble piece, as right-headed in its impressionism as the collaboration of Ferencz and Roach last summer on the San Diego Rep's "Midsummer Night's Dream" was wrongheaded in its excesses.
Roach's score brilliantly punctuates the fights, underscoring blows with drumbeats, lending abstraction to the play's violence, yet keeping its naturalism intact. Without ever seeming to overdo the idea, Ferencz also extends O'Neill's animal imagery to other characters in the play, suggesting an ensemble of beaked and plumed socialites led by a Mildred Douglas (Stacey Jack) who flirts and flits and taunts with all the motions of an unpleasant mating bird. It admirably drives home O'Neill's parable.
Sam Tsoutsouvas' Yank is superb--throbbing and feral and sculptured in space by Peter Maradudin's searching lights that serve as a furtive substitute for a set. This exceptional "Ape" is part of the Rep's three-play O'Neill centennial celebration, playing simultaneously with productions of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Ah, Wilderness!"
A journey to the Magic Theatre to catch Laura Farabough's "Bodily Concessions," her first piece in some time, was less rewarding. This multimedia solo effort by Farabough (who recently spent six months in Japan on a U.S. Japan Friendship Commission grant) dwells more ponderously than humorously on psychological misadventures and her own masochistic sexual fantasies. They are difficult memories expressed in a difficult form that can sink rapidly, as it does here, into a self-indulgence that seems to blind the artist to the fact that what is being shared is simply not that fascinating.
On the whole though, San Francisco theater seems back on track, perhaps blessed by its distance from the lures of Hollywood, perhaps aided rather than hampered by the fact that it now takes a contract as well as boards and a passion to put on a show. A little more time should tell.