Breaking Binaries: M.F.A. Third-Year Actors Present The Last Days of Judas Iscariot

Thursday, February 22, 2018

By Taylor Steinbeck

Is mankind inherently good or evil? This long-debated question is at the center of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’s dark comedy, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. “In a society plagued by the need to define everything from identity to justice in a binary,” says director David Mendizábal, “it is in the gray area that we will find discovery, change, and progress.” The M.F.A. Program’s third-year actors will be tasked with unpacking this heady idea in their last full-length production as M.F.A. students. To celebrate its opening at The Rueff tonight, we talked to four of the actors—Lily Narbonne (Fabiana Aziza Cunningham), Vincent J. Randazzo (Judge/Caiaphas the Elder), Oliver Shirley (Butch Honeywell/Saint Peter), and Justin Edward Keim (Simon the Zealot/Sigmund Freud/Saint Thomas)—about diving into the gray area and performing as the class of 2018 for the final time.

M.F.A. third-year actors Justin Genna, Adrianna Mitchell, Oliver Shirley, and Peter Fanone in
rehearsal for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Photo courtesy @ACTMFA2018 on Instagram.
What has your experience been like acting in this play?

Randazzo: What's been really great about working on this play is the muscle of Guirgis. For the past three years we've studied argument in Shakespeare and Shaw, and to apply that education to a contemporary writer like Guirgis has been really helpful, especially since this is a courtroom drama (albeit a very heightened one). So it's this fun mix of dense, heightened text but also this rough-and-tumble vernacular.

Narbonne: Playing Cunningham has been a wonderful challenge. Of all the large roles I’ve played , this is the first woman whose character is not concerned with love or her social status. This play is really about the big questions having to do with the history of Christianity, the existence of God, justice and mercy.

How do you hope audiences will respond to this production?

Shirley: I hope audiences will walk away with a renewed sense of how complex issues of “right and wrong” and “good and bad” can be. Things today often get categorized into one or the other, and what this play asks of its audience is to consider the gray area.

The M.F.A. Program class of 2018 in rehearsal for The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.
Photo courtesy @ACTMFA2018 on Instagram.
What does it feel like knowing that this is the final time the class of 2018 will be performing a full-length show as M.F.A. students?

Keim: Sad as all hell. I never want to stop working with these people. Over the last three years we have created such a cohesive "company"; it feels like we can do anything together. We know so much about each other—our ticks, what makes us laugh, what makes us cry—we can pull so much out of each other. It truly is a gift to work with people you feel so connected to; that's where the best work comes from. But the more I think about the connection I've made with these incredibly talented artists, the more I am confident that I'm going to hunt these people down in the future to work with me. This ride ain't over.

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot runs February 22 through March 3 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco. Click here to purchase tickets.

The Mischievous Artist: An Interview with Vietgone Playwright Qui Nguyen Part One

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

By Michael Paller

Growing up in Arkansas with Vietnamese refugee parents, Qui Nguyen loved hip-hop, action movies, and comic books. So when he began writing plays, he filled them with these passions: martial arts in Begets: Fall of a High School Ronin, superheroes in Men of Steel, and zombies in Alice in Slasherland. Many of these works were written for Nguyen’s Obie Award–winning “geek theater” company, Vampire Cowboys. We caught up with Nguyen to chat about Vietgone, a play that combines his passions with the story of his parents. This is Part One.

Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen. Photo courtesy Qui Nguyen.
We’ve read that you joined your high school drama club to meet cute girls, but since then you’ve written 12 plays and cofounded a theater company. What’s kept you in the theater besides the cute girls?

[Laughs] Right now I’m working in TV and film but I still go back to theater because in theater I know my mission. In TV and film I’m more of a workhorse, but in theater my artistry is specific; I know my voice and the context that I bring there. I’m creating shows for a younger demographic and creating characters that often don’t get depicted in a certain way. I had to write Vietgone because those are five really good roles that don’t exist for Asian Americans and their stories aren’t being told.

On the surface, Vietgone doesn’t resemble your other plays. Where did the idea for it come from?

It’s the play I’d always planned on writing. The first time I tried to write anything about my family was a play called Trial by Water, which was a big bag of garbage. My mom saw it and said, “It’s interesting but it doesn’t sound like you. You’re mischievous, you’re funny, and you goof around. None of that is on the stage.” It was one of the most profound criticisms I ever got. So I created Vampire Cowboys to explore who I was as a mischievous artist. When I got “old enough,” I thought I’d write my parents’ story. My parents are older now, and I have kids. At some point I thought, “I’m never going to become this mature artist. So I’m just going to write this play using all the tools in my toolbox, and see what it sounds like.”

Why did you choose to use rap as a major part of the musical landscape?

My brain doesn’t think in terms of melody. It’s an extension of being a writer and picking up words and seeing how I can play with the rhythms. I first fell in love with rap when I was freestyling on the corner with my friends. It’s part of who I am.

Vietgone begins at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater February 21 and runs through April 22. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about playwright Qui Nguyen? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

In Memoriam: Alan Stein

Friday, February 16, 2018

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

A.C.T. mourns the loss of Alan Stein, beloved Chair of A.C.T.’s Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1997 and a consummate advocate for and supporter of arts and culture across the Bay Area. A theater-loving Columbia College graduate with a distinguished career in finance, Alan first became involved at A.C.T. in the 1970s, shortly after relocating to San Francisco from New York. In the early days, he worked closely with Artistic Director William Ball to stabilize the company and orient it toward the future.

Carey Perloff and Alan Stein at A.C.T.'s Producers Circle Dinner at The Geary Theater, 2013.
Photo courtesy of Drew Altizer Photography.
In 1988, with A.C.T. facing economic challenges, Alan returned to the board, becoming chair months before the Loma Prieta earthquake. In the wake of that disaster, with The Geary in ruins, Alan pointed the way forward with the words, “The show must go on.”

Alan’s energy, persuasiveness, and financial know-how, developed during a career that included leadership roles at Goldman Sachs and Montgomery Securities, was paramount to A.C.T.’s recovery in the 1990s. He played an active role in hiring Artistic Director Carey Perloff and nurturing her creative vision, and was instrumental in the campaign to rebuild The Geary. His courage, commitment, and irreverence ushered in a new era for A.C.T. and helped stimulate the enormous growth the company has witnessed over the past two decades.

As emeritus chair, Alan served as the campaign co-chair for A.C.T.’s first endowment campaign that secured more than $30 million. Today, Alan and his wife Ruth are remembered throughout A.C.T. in the conference room at 30 Grant that bears their name, and in the Christmas Carol characters Alan and Ruth—two of the jolliest guests at the Fezziwigs’ party.

A.C.T. owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to Alan, a generous and visionary leader who worked hand in hand with three artistic directors, ensured the company’s long-term financial stability, and played numerous roles across five decades of A.C.T.’s history. We will miss him enormously, and we celebrate his remarkable life.
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