Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Playhouse San Francisco Presents a Way Out Production of The Mystery Plays

Also see Richard's review of Sly Fox

Rod Gnapp, T. Edward Webster and Cristina Anselmo
With shades of Rod Serling and "The Twilight Zone," Playhouse West is presenting the West Coast premiere of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's The Mystery Plays, two separate one-act plays involving the mysteries of death, the afterlife, religion, faith and the power of forgiveness.  The plays are directed by co-founder Susi Damilano and Associate Artistic Director Lauren English.

The Filmmaker's Mystery, directed by Ms. Damilano, reminds one of the work of Rod Sterling and Norman Corwin. The narrator, played by Rod Gnapp, opens the play with a Rod Serling-type speech: "We are all of use on a journey. We are forever rushing up against an invisible world of secrets, an intangible world of mysteries".   The playwright puts metaphysical meanings into both plays using dialogue that one would see in the current comic book craze. Playwright Aguirre-Sacasa actually writes for the monthly edition of "The Fantastic Four."

The Filmmaker's Mystery deals with a train wreck that somehow equates with the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Center. Joe Manning (T. Edward Webster) is a gay filmmaker who has just become famous for filming an H.P. Lovecraft tale, and he's on the road to becoming an A-list director.   Joe is scouting for locations in New Haven for his next Lovecraft film that will star Hugh Jackman. Since it is the Christmas season, he decides to takes a break and visit his family in Virginia. He has a fear of flying so he takes the local train. Joe meets the very handsome Nathan West (Craig Neibaur) and some sexual tension occurs between them.  They agree to meet in Manhattan on New Year's Day.

Joe leaves the platform of one the many station stops for some unknown reason.  When he returns, the train has left without him.    Several hours later he hears that the train has had a horrendous conflagration where fire and smoke spread from coach to coach. All souls on the train perished. 

Joe arrives home where he starts to have supernatural encounters with Nathan, who died in the disaster.   He wonders why is he being bugged by this ghost and the story becomes baffling as the playwright attempts to explain the reason.   I won't spoil the plot with more detail. If you are a Lovecraft reader, the key would be that Joe becomes a "Sin eater," which means he absolves people of their sins so they can move on.   Enough said about that.

Susi Damilano has directed a tight production that is full of power and excellent character development.   T. Edward Webster is splendid as the inquisitive and unconventional filmmaker who has boyish energy and fervor for the creepiness that is going on it this one-hour play.   Craig Neibaur gives a first rate performance as the mysterious Nathan West.   Lorraine Olsen excels in a loud mouth, aggressive parody of a Hollywood agent who always has a drink in her hand.  She also plays the role of the worried mother of Joe, and Chris Yule plays a sloppy looking younger brother in small but effective roles.   Cristina Anselmo makes a brief appearance in this act as Joe's attorney.   Ron Gnapp plays several parts, including a detective who wonders why Joe got off the train, and a train conductor in the last scene of thriller. 

Ghost Children is a disturbing tale about Abby (Cristina Anselmo),  a successful attorney on the East Coast, traveling to Medford, Oregon to make peace with her brother Ben (Chris Yule) who is currently in prison for the  murder of their parents. Fifteen years prior the abused and disturbed teenage boy committed a "Lizzy Borden" triple murder that included his innocent 11-year-old sister. Instead of an ax, he did it with a baseball bat.   Abby was up in her room reading a romance novel before discovering the results of the horrifying act. She cannot forgive her brother for the deed so she removes herself as much as possible from the young man.  

Abby tells the tale like a story teller, and we see flashbacks of her road to forgiving the brother for his dastardly deed.    The script, which is ordinary with some Catholic doctrine of forgiveness, is rescued by the excellent acting of Cristina Anselmo and Chris Yule plus Lauren English's exceptionally fluid direction.

Set designer Bill English has designed an interesting stage with panels surrounding the back area with some  interesting lighting by Jon Retsky that adds to the spooky effect in the first play.   There is a lot of fog in the first act to make it look like a "Twilight Zone" episode.

The Mystery Plays continues through February 11th at the The Playhouse San Francisco located at 536 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call the box office 415-677-9596. 

Their next production will be Our Lady of 121st Street opening on March 4th.

Photo: Mario Parnell  

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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