Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Anniversary! Stories by Tobias Wolff and George Saunders,
"Deep Kiss" and "Victory Lap"

Word for Word Performing Arts Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's review of The Comedy of Errors and Patrick's review of Shall We Dance

Isabel Langen and Blythe de Oliveira Foster
Photo by Hillary Goidell
Twenty-five years ago, Susan Harloe and JoAnne Winter established a new theatre company in San Francisco: Word for Word Performing Arts Company. Their stated mission is "to tell great stories with elegant theatricality, staging performances of classic and contemporary fiction."

If you've never been fortunate enough to catch one of their performances, here's what they do: in keeping with their name, the artists at Word For Word create theatrical stagings of short stories (or occasionally novellas) in which every word of the author's original text is spoken onstage as actors perform the piece in its entirety, exactly as it was written on the page. This illuminates character and motivation in a way that is simply unavailable to a solo reader. As I said in my last review of a Word for Word production, it is a simple concept, but one with powerful effect.

Anniversary! Stories by Tobias Wolff and George Saunders: "Deep Kiss" and "Victory Lap" is the latest installment and, like the other Word for Word productions I've seen, it blends the worlds of theatre and literature (already tightly linked) in a way that reveals aspects of stories that a reader might not immediately notice on a first, or even second or third reading.

The reason for this is simple: when reading a short story—even one from writers as skilled as these two—we bring only our own perspective to the text. But with Word for Word, a director (in this case, two directors, Joel Mullennix for "Deep Kiss" and Delia McDougall for "Victory Lap") makes a deep reading of the story and interprets it and stages its action in front of us. What's more, each of the actors brings their own understanding of the character(s) they play. Each performer in this production (a marvelous cast of eight portrays all the roles in both stories) has clearly invested many hours with the text in order to tease out their character's desires, motivations, mindset, and actions.

Through these efforts, Word for Word is able to manifest dimensions of the story that might not reveal themselves to a casual—or even dedicated—reader. For even the most committed and passionate consumer of short fiction can bring only their point of view and their sensibilities to a story. But with Word for Word, we are treated to the interpretation of an entire cast (and directors) who, in collaboration, illuminate aspects of story and character in ways any single reader of a story cannot. Lines that might read as flat on the page come alive when performers make the effort to unearth the emotion behind those lines, and wring the sadness, the joy, the bitterness out for us so that we can experience those emotions more completely and honestly.

This, I think, is Word for Word's secret sauce, and what separates them from every other theatre company.

Both of the stories chosen for this production center on the loss and regret (or relief) of choices made by and for teenagers—choices that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Tobias Wolff's "Deep Kiss" tells the story of Joe, a man in his 40s who looks back on a moment in his life when he was 15, and his burgeoning love for a classmate is abruptly cut short—by both fate and the intercession of his mother. For Joe, that first love never had the chance to reach an organic conclusion, and he imagines how different his life might have been if it hadn't been upended, and he hadn't been ripped from the arms of his young love and spirited away to another city hundreds of miles distant.

After intermission the audience is treated to George Saunders' "Victory Lap." The 15-year-old at the heart of this story is the polar opposite of Joe in "Deep Kiss." Besides being a girl, Alison Pope isn't living in regret. Not yet, at least. When we first meet her, she is indulging in fantasies of control and power—but not in a neurotic or violent way. Her fantasy of princes that aren't quite good enough for her is charming, and even a bit naïve for a 15-year-old. She then segues into a litany of all the things she loves about her life: her house, her friends, her town ... pretty much everything in Alison's life is a source of happiness and joy and possibility.

Until it isn't, and her neighbor and schoolmate Kyle is drawn into Alison's world in a way that is tense and thrilling and disturbing on multiple levels. As with "Deep Kiss," choices are made that will resonate across decades. But in "Victory Lap," it's the kids who are faced with decisions that might literally mean life or death, and watching them make those choices—either with blithe innocence or agonized deliberation of various consequences—had me on the edge of my seat.

Word for Word Performing Arts Company is a true San Francisco treasure, creating unique theatrical experiences for audiences hungry for just such things. Rice-a-Roni may have gotten there first, but I think Word for Word deserves consideration as the real "San Francisco treat."

Anniversary! Stories by Tobias Wolff and George Saunders: "Deep Kiss" and "Victory Lap", through September 2, 2018, at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. Performances are Wednesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$50, and are available at or by calling 415-626-0453.