TheatreWorks launching first online New Works Festival | April 16, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 16, 2021

TheatreWorks launching first online New Works Festival

Two musicals, three plays, artist talks offered on pay-what-you-can basis

by John Orr

Pre-pandemic, Giovanna Sardelli's life was one of almost constant travel, flying from city to city to direct plays — especially world premieres.

During the COVID-19 crisis, her work has continued, pretty much nonstop, but from her sisters' homes in Las Vegas. Via Zoom.

To do a recent interview, however, she refused to do a Zoom meeting.

"I was Zooming all day," she explained during a regular, old-fashioned phone call. "I can't look at a computer screen anymore. My eyes are spinning."

In addition to being one of this nation's most in-demand theatrical directors, Sardelli is also the director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's esteemed New Works Festival, which gives audiences a glimpse into promising shows under development.

This year, it is called The New Works Festival Online, and will stream April 23-May 15, offering two musicals, three plays, a kickoff celebration and some artist talks. Festival passes are offered on a "pay what you can" basis, starting at $10, and each show or event will stream "live" (not on demand).

"Like always, I want to tell good stories in the festival," said Sardelli, "and support vibrant artists, artists who are saying something with their work. There are so many different styles in the festival, explorations of the ways we tell stories."

The festival includes a sneak peek at the indie folk-rock musical "Lizard Boy" and a digital theater/rap piece inspired by the themes from "The Merchant of Venice," by Bay Area Theatre Cypher. Two plays examine the impact and ramifications of the Muslim travel ban — one a comedy, and one a drama. Another highlight is a semi-autobiographical dance-theater piece about memory, grief, forgiveness and freedom.

Lisa Ramirez is an all-around theater genius who has been acting for 30 years and writing plays for 15. She was born in Palo Alto and grew up around the Bay Area, mostly in Berkeley.

"I've always loved writers," she said, during a recent Zoom interview. "If an actor casualizes a line, I would get upset. My mother was a poet. The written word was valued in my house."

She continues to write. "I keep saying this is my last play, but now I'm on play number eight. I keep getting commissions."

Her dance play, "pas de deux (lost my shoe)," is very personal, about her brother, Sean.

"My brother died 19 years ago, on April 11," Ramirez said. "I had just gotten one year sober."

Sean had not gotten sober, however, and alcoholism killed him, ending his promising career as a dancer at Oakland Ballet.

"I thought it would be interesting to explore my grief about my brother, and interesting to do the thing I hate most, which is take ballet."

According to a press release, "to confront and honor his death, she enrolled in a ballet class, attempting to learn the dances he had performed. Retracing his steps led her through the complicated terrain of their childhood, as she grappled with why she survived, and he didn't."

"I don't think I have survivors' guilt anymore," Ramirez said. "I'm always drawn to difficult work, to the impossible. It's a way of honoring him. Someone pointed out to me there is an element of dance in all my works."

She said she is enjoying working with TheatreWorks, where Jeffrey Lo is directing her play. "TheatreWorks bought me a new tutu," she said.

A video of her performance is to stream at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 15, followed by an artist talk.

Dan Wolf is an actor, rapper, writer, editor, and video producer who is a co-founder of Bay Area Theatre Cypher, "a collective of performers who live on the crossfader of hip-hop, theatre, activism, and community."

Wolf said during a recent interview that he is "culturally Jewish. I grew up in America, chose a life where I am a Passover Jew, a Hanukkah Jew."

Wolf conceived of a theater piece called "Currency," which breaks down the themes of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" and rebuilds them in different perspectives in a series of music videos.

"There always has to be a buyer, always has to be a seller," Wolf said. "Our mini-films explore, through text and song, a transaction between each merchant and a prospective customer."

The works explore the "transactional relationship of the merchant in a bunch of different societies," Wolf said. "Anchored in the one we know (from "Merchant"), in Venice, but also a corner in Oakland, one in Hong Kong, in downtown LA. ... We look at the role and function that Shylock plays in the world of 'Merchant,' at the oppressed but important part of capitalism in society."

"The Merchant of Venice," as Wolf pointed out, was "created by an English person when there were no Jews living in England. ... My own life has been in the shadow of the Holocaust experience."

Wolf has been writing rap plays for years (since well before "Hamilton").

"Hip-hop speaks to an oppressed culture," Wolf said. "The main plot of the play can't exist without him being, in effect, a venture capitalist. That's the root of the play.

"All my Jewish friends ask, 'How are you portraying Shylock?' I tell them, 'I'm portraying him like me.'"

"Currency" streams at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 24.

Justin Huertas remains very protective of his musical, "Lizard Boy," which began as a one-man show, then evolved into a three-hander in 2016. It has quite a following, but Huertas is keeping it to himself and his friends, not allowing it to be produced by others. Yet.

"We're keeping it to us for just a little bit, because we're not done," said the playwright/composer/lyricist/performer. "I still have work I want to do, specifically on the book of the musical. I really want it to be the ultimate 'Lizard Boy.' I want him to come into his power before we let other people have it."

As Huertas continues to tinker with the script, he and his cast mates Kirsten "Kiki" deLohr Helland and William A. Williams will perform selections from the show as part of the New Works Online Festival. Then, in the fall, it will be the first show in TheatreWorks' 51st season.

"Lizard Boy" is the tale of Trevor, who experiences a mysterious change that launches him and his green skin into a lifelong search for identity and acceptance.

When comic book fan and concert-level musician Huertas started writing "Lizard Boy," he said, "I was not understanding what I was writing about. What I was doing. My experience was as a person of color, growing up in white space."

As it has turned out, the show has proven meaningful to people of color.

"The audiences, the people of color, tell me it means a lot to have a superhero person of color on stage. ... I've never before seen a Filipino hero on stage."

Huertas especially loves Marvel comics, which is why his Martin guitar is named Wanda, for Scarlet Witch. (His cello is named Clementine, for Clementine Kruczynski in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.")

As a writer, Huertas said, "I'm not trying to be famous. As an artist, I want to create. I just want to make hero stories, about people who generally don't get a chance to be the hero."

Selections from "Lizard Boy" will be presented at 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 24. It will be followed by a conversation with the show's creative team.

Tickets and more information on TheatreWorks' New Works Online Festival are available at

Contributing Writer John Orr can be emailed at [email protected]


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