While a decade or so ago the sign in downtown Redwood City proclaiming "Theatre District" may have seemed a stretch, these days, Broadway Street (appropriately enough) is hopping, not only with patrons of the Century 20 cinema but plenty of real live theater as well. It's not easy being an artist on the uber-expensive Peninsula, but Dragon Productions Theatre Company, Fuse Theatre and Broadway By the Bay have a busy summer ahead, including innovative new works, a splashy musical and some collaborations with each other.
"Redwood City has recently emerged as (a) hub for arts and culture on the Peninsula," Mayor Ian Bain told the Weekly. "I'm proud of the many creative people in our community who are bringing these theatrical productions to life."
Here's a peek at what's going on with these companies this month:
Redwood City Play Festival: Dragon Theatre, Fuse Theatre
Dragon Theatre, known for its quirky programming and intimate, intelligent productions, has teamed up with Fuse Theatre (also based in Redwood City) to co-produce the first annual Redwood City Play Festival, taking place June 8-16. The event will be based at the Dragon's space but also incorporate some other locales around downtown.
Fuse Theatre, founded in 2015, is dedicated to offering inclusive, socially responsible theater in various venues throughout the community, often in an educational context, and in partnership with nonprofits and arts groups of all kinds, including music and dance.
"I always say we're a nomadic company. We take theater out into the communities and do theater with the community," Founding Artistic Director Stacey Ardelean said.
The Redwood City Play Festival, titled "Gender Shorts," revolves around three one-act plays exploring the theme of gender: "Because I Went There," by Hedi Flores (a Dragon board member and Fuse ensemble member); "Never Swim Alone," by Daniel MacIvor; and Leanna Keyes' "Legal-Tender Loving Care."
"One-acts are a great format to engage with an issue or a theme in a very intense way without exhausting the audience and becoming tiresome and didactic," Dragon Co-Artistic Director Max Koknar said.
Fuse received a CA$H grant from Theatre Bay Area to write "Because I Went There," which centers around a sexual-assault case involving a promising young athlete, and approaches the story from a feminist point of view, Flores said. The idea for the festival came about when Ardelean approached Dragon about staging "Because I Went There" (which she is directing) and Koknar suggested pairing it with others on the "gender" theme.
"Never Swim Alone" takes a darkly satirical look at toxic, competitive masculinity, and was suggested by Dragon regular Nate Card, who is also directing the production.
"Legal-Tender Loving Care," director Kieran Beccia told the Weekly, focuses on public gender presentation and a story of two young trans people falling in love.
"Leanna's script beautifully explores how presentation affects outside perception and questions around recognition and disclosure of transgender identity," they said.
"We're finally reaching a point, culturally, where trans people can tell our own stories on our own terms. We're not side characters or tokens. We can share our truths, our lived experiences, our fears, our dreams," writer Keyes explained. The one-act structure, she said, "is focused, tight, and gets right to saying what it wants to say. Anyone seeing a one-act can engage directly with the big ideas the artists present -- there's no filter."
Pop-up visual-art exhibitions, talks and live music (at local restaurants Cyclismo, The Bap and Kasa, plus public installation site Art Kiosk) relating to the themes of the plays and held during the festival weekend will round out the event.
"We are as interested in engaging the community and bringing other artists during that (first) weekend," Ardelean said. "It's more than the experience in the theater; it will continue outside the theater as well."
'Grease': Broadway by the Bay
Down the street at the historic Fox Theatre, Broadway By the Bay is taking audiences on a trip back to 1959 with its production of "Grease," the classic musical full of teenage romance, sock hops, fast cars and beauty-school dropouts.
"Grease," Broadway By the Bay's Executive Artistic Director (and show director) Alicia Jeffrey said, was a natural choice for a start-of-summer musical, with its undeniably catchy score taking influence from early rock 'n' rollers and doo-wop groups, plus all the retro-fun inherent in 1950s imagery.
"The summer always just feels very light and music-driven," she said. "'Grease' really fit that bill perfectly."
The plot follows Rydell High School's Class of 1959, most notably the two coolest cliques in school: the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies. Innocent new girl Sandy is taken under the Pink Ladies' collective wing and reveals that she had a hot romance with none other than top Burger Palace Boy Danny. Summer lovin' had them a blast, but when Danny is unexpectedly reunited with his love, he's embarrassed in front of his "bad-boy" buddies. Sandy and Danny, along with their friends and classmates, alternately break up and make up, examine their identities as they make their way toward adulthood, and, of course, sing and dance about it all.
In some ways, the gleefully campy "Grease" may make an interesting complement to the gender-themed play festival happening in the same neighborhood. The show has taken heat in the #MeToo era for some dreaded "locker-room talk" and other lines that haven't aged well. Jeffrey said she hasn't felt pressured to censor or omit anything from the script, noting that it's a period piece with dialogue appropriate to its adolescent context.
"We try not to give a lot of weight to a lot of those phrases because it would have been said as casually as we're talking right now about anything," she said. "It deals with topics that are a little touchy, like teen pregnancy, but to be honest, that feels not even that racy nowadays," she said.
"We've also taken the position that the women of the show have a little bit more power than in some productions of 'Grease,'" she added. It's not so much about Sandy changing herself to attract a guy, she said, but rather exploring her identity.
"For Sandy, she's grappling with her own issues of the facade that she puts on as a 'good girl' that might be a little exaggerated for who she really is," she said. "It all ties back to that rebellion culture. It's really about experimentation and pushing against the grain."
There's a special quality about actor Kylie Abucay, Jeffery said, "that embodies all these elements of who Sandy is."
Abucay, a Daly City resident who when not on stage as Sandy is a nursing student and children's musical theater and dance teacher, is a Broadway By the Bay veteran, having performed in the ensemble in several productions.
For Alex Alvarez, a waiter by day who commutes from Concord to San Francisco to Redwood City and back again, the role of Danny in "Grease" marks his debut with the company.
Alvarez originally tried out for the role of Danny's best friend Kenickie, having been cast in that role before in a production that ultimately didn't happen. Jeffrey, though, saw him as leading-man material.
"He would have been a phenomenal Kenicke as well ... but sometimes you just see something and think, 'this is the guy that can lead this whole story,'" she said.
Abucay and Alvarez both named the drive-in scene, in which Sandy and Danny have an ill-fated date, as one of their favorite moments in the show. Not only does it give them the chance to flex their teen-angst acting skills, but new backing-vocal arrangements with stellar harmonies (original to Broadway By the Bay's version) make the moment extra special.
There was only a 12-year window between the musical's 1959 setting and its premiere in 1971. How was it able to capture such nostalgia for a not-so-distant past (it seems doubtful, for instance, that a 2007-set musical would engender much nostalgia today)?
The 1950s "feel very stylistically specific. It really was a cultural turning point, with the introduction of rock 'n' roll," Jeffrey mused. "It's a flashpoint people can attach to."
Youth program: Dragon Productions Theatre Company, Broadway By the Bay
With Broadway By the Bay's focus on big musicals and Dragon's mission to showcase lesser-known, intimate and out-of-the-box gems, plus a shared interest in fostering educational theater opportunities, the two companies have decided to collaborate on a year-round youth theater program, starting this summer with classes for children and teens.
"Our friends at Dragon are literally a half block away. We've had an education program for three years and they've been wanting to start one. By partnering with them, it strengthens all our abilities," Jeffrey said. "Part of the struggle of nonprofit theater is everything is getting more expensive. Real estate, labor, with the cost of doing business escalating, the best strategy, we think, is to lock arms and try to tackle the challenges together, to support each other."
Alika Spencer-Koknar, Dragon co-artistic director, agreed.
"We're really excited to be joining forces," she said.
"It's great to be able to know you are partnering with another theater company rather than competing," Jeffrey said, acknowledging that Broadway By the Bay and Dragon have different core patrons.
"If you have a community that values theater, they're going to see more theater. The more that we can support each other and be communal in those efforts, the better for everyone."
What: Redwood City Play Festival: "Gender Shorts."
Where: Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City (plus satellite venues near the theater).
When: June 8-16.
Cost: $75 for full day pass; $35 for two-show ticket.
Info: Fuse Theatre.
Where: Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Weekends, June 7-23.
Info: Broadway By the Bay.