There’s a popular sentiment burbling through the ethos that you should go big or go home. In these tricky economic times, Bay Area theaters are taking that to heart. Rather than cowering under the safety of tried-and-true comedies or languishing in musicals we’ve seen too many times, local theater companies have opted for big, bold choices this fall.
They’re producing the kind of shows designed to pull people away from 3-D movies and flat screen TVs and super-surround sound systems at home. We’re talking shows that require multiple theaters and meal breaks, which is to say: theatrical events.
The really big collaboration involves three major Bay Area theaters and a cycle of plays by one of the country’s most promising young playwrights. Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brother/Sister Plays” is a massive trilogy described by the press as “the greatest piece of writing by an American playwright under 30 in a generation or more.” That’s a heavy load for a young writer to bear, but McCraney’s plays are up to the challenge.
Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley produces Part 1, “In the Red Brown Water,” Sept. 9-Oct. 3. San Francisco’s Magic Theatre tackles Part 2, “The Brothers Size,” Sept. 9-Oct. 17. Then American Conservatory Theater wraps things up with Part 3, “Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet” Oct. 29-Nov. 21.
Though produced around the country and in London, this marks the first time that all three “Brother/Sister Plays,” which deal with several generations of African-Americans forging their lives in Louisiana bayou country, have been produced in tandem at three different theaters. [Sept. 9-Nov. 21. $135. Marin Theatre Company, Magic Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, (415) 749-2228, www.brothersisterplays.org]
Glazed, sprinkled or jelly filled? Unlike most empty-calorie donut treats, Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts” actually has substance. We should expect nothing less from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the disturbingly delightful “August: Osage County.”
Chicago actor and playwright Letts followed up his enormous dysfunctional family drama with this much more intimate story of redemption and friendship. Of course it didn’t do as well on Broadway, where they favor screaming, pill-popping matriarchs over gentle tales of burned-out shop owners rattled by kids with talent and shady pasts.
That won’t stop Mountain View’s TheatreWorks from producing the play’s Bay Area premiere. Around here, people tend to favor the life-affirming over the cynical. [Oct. 6-31. $27-$42. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org]
If you think three plays sounds like a lot, try 12. Berkeley Repertory Theatre hosts “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” a hit for London’s Tricycle Theatre now on tour through the U.S. A dozen British and American playwrights were invited to write short plays about the complex history of Afghanistan from the 19th century to present day and the result is a lengthy “Game.” The 12 plays are broken into three parts (of four plays each, in case you don’t do math), which will be performed on consecutive nights or all together in bum-crunching weekend marathons.
Gen. Sir David Richards, head of Britain’s Armed Forces, recently attended the London production with a group of officer cadets. Richards talked to the media about wishing he had seen these plays before his first visit to Afghanistan because he would have had a much deeper understanding of the country. Not everybody wants enlightenment from a theater outing, but it can happen. [Oct. 22-Nov. 7, $29-$73. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org]
Every holiday season needs a big, green dude to liven things up — no, not the Grinch. This year, we get Shrek, a singing, dancing ogre, to deck our festive halls. Courtesy of SHN’s Best of Broadway series comes “Shrek the Musical,” a show whose name really does say it all.
This swampy fairy tale, based on the 2001 computer-animated movie, features a fine theatrical pedigree. Jeanine Tesori (“Caroline, or Change”) wrote the snappy, poppy score, and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rabbit Hole”) wrote the book and lyrics. Jason Moore, the man who made dirty puppets famous in “Avenue Q” directs alongside Rob Ashford, whose most recent credit is the Broadway revival of “Promises, Promises.”
Yes, there are songs that deal with the passing of gas — this is “Shrek” after all — but perhaps the show’s musical moment for the ages is when all the marginalized fairy tale characters burst out singing “let your freak flag fly.” Now that sounds like a Bay Area Christmas. [Dec. 1-Jan. 2. Subscribers only. Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F., (415) 412-7770, www.shnsf.com]
Celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy (“All the Pretty Horses,” “No Country for Old Men”) wrote “The Sunset Limited” as a “novel in dramatic form” four years ago. Now the story, about a mythical ride on the New York subway, gets the “play on stage” treatment at SF Playhouse. [Sept. 28-Nov. 6. $40. 533 Sutter St., S.F., (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org]
The hottest writer/director/theater genius in the Bay Area is Mark Jackson, and his latest adaptation for Shotgun Players takes its cue from Frederich Schiller’s potboiler pitting Elizabeth, Queen of England, against Mary, Queen of Scots. Consider it a battle royale. [Oct. 6-Nov. 7. $17-$26. Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, (510) 841-6500, shotgunplayers.org]
This coming-of-age comedy wins the prize for most intriguing title. Brian Christopher Williams takes us back to the late 1970s, when unemployment was high and gays were fighting for their rights. Sound familiar? [Sept. 17-Oct. 24. $18-$40. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F., (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org]
Partly because it was Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday earlier this year and partly because it’s hilarious, 42nd Street Moon revs up this toga-riffic musical with funny lady Megan Cavanagh cross-dressing as Pseudolus, a Roman slave scheming to win his freedom. [Oct. 6-24. $28-$44. Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F., (415) 255-8207, www.42ndstmoon.org]
We can only imagine the whoops and hollers of Word for Word’s artistic staff when word came that they had secured the rights to produce Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Olive Kitteridge” for the stage.
Word for Word is a unique theatrical enterprise that reveres the written word. The 17-year-old company transforms short works of fiction into fully, often brilliantly staged pieces of theater. The experience combines the pleasures of a great book and a great play into one satisfying evening.
After you’ve seen enough Word for Word shows, certain books jump out as perfect vehicles for the company’s transformative tricks.
“Olive Kitteridge,” an Oprah-approved book of loosely connected short stories, is just such a work because its quietly intimate but emotionally epic tales of life in coastal Maine cry out to be inhabited by Word for Word company members such as Jeri Lynn Cohen, Patty Silver and Nancy Shelby. It’s a page turner that needs — and has found — a sensitive spotlight. [Sept. 1-26. $20-$40. Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., S.F., (415) 626-0453, www.zspace.org]