“One good thing about music/
When it hits you (You feel no pain)”
– Bob Marley & The Wailers, “Trenchtown Rock”
One can’t help but think of the SF Playhouse as the quintessential test case for re-opened Bay Area theatre. Although Cal Shakes and We Players have recently returned to performances (due to both companies operating outdoors), neither of the Bay Area flagship theatres (ACT and Berkeley Rep) or high-brow spaces (SF Ballet and SF Opera) have dared open their doors to the public, as of this writing. In fact, with the exception of the SF Opera upcoming production of Fidelio, most of the others aren’t planning to do so until the final days of 2021 or the early days of 2021. That may explain why the Opera has such a rock-solid COVID policy in place.
With the Playhouse the first out of the gate, their COVID policy and enforcement thereof has been heavily scrutinized, and rightfully so. Indeed, when I came to see this very show on opening night, there was only one seat between me and the person on either side of me. What’s more, I walked into theatre to see an-unmasked-man-who-only-put-on-his-mask-because-he-saw-me-glaring-him, and the guy to my left was dick-nosing the entire show with no repercussion from theatre staff. The Playhouse may have a logical proof-of-vax policy, but enforcing it still leaves something to be desired (despite the staff talking openly of The City having “undercovers” ready to shut them down if lack of compliance is discovered).
Having said that, I’m guessing this show was selected because it appeared to be as stress-free and one could guess. It has no story, no rigid casting requirements, no production needs that require an obscene budget to pull off. No, designer Heather Kenyon’s set – which appears to be a gigantic set of diamond earrings hanging from the roof – allows enough room for the small band to perform as the actors dance around them to a pre-selected collection of showtunes.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not only are the multi-ethnic and -gender cast worth the watch (with Rinabeth Apostol, how could they not be?), but the songs are catchy. The show is clearly meant to be a distraction – something one would likely have on in the background whilst performing other tasks around the house.
That proves to be both its strength and weakness. With no narrative through line, it’s easy start to space out watching the stage, no matter how talented the cast. I imagine this will make for a comfortable watch for those streaming at home, but those seeking substance will have to wait ‘til the company’s next show.
But if you all you want is a revue show to help you ease back into being a live audience member, this isn’t a bad place to start. A lack of audience compliance may make you uncomfortable (a man behind me called the Playhouse “cheap-ass” because of their COVID-friendly policy of keeping their programs entirely digital), but those incidents aren’t as frequent as one would find in, say, Florida, Texas, or Las Vegas.
As SF and California continue to see a downward trend in COVID cases, one can only hope that it won’t be too long before the biggest audience annoyance is someone who’s just too chatty.
Starting Here, Starting Now is scheduled to run until the 2nd of October at the SF Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 40 minutes with one 15-min. intermission.
For live tickets, streaming access, and other information, please visit the production’s official site here.