The American Conservatory Theater has technically been back open and audiences have been seeing shows there since last September. But this week's opening of a new play by San Francisco-born playwright Christopher Chen marks a more complete return for the theater in presenting a new work on stage.
After months in which A.C.T.'s main stage has featured out-of-town imports (Passengers), a rerun of a one-man show (Bill Irwin's On Beckett), and the annual production of A Christmas Carol, the "regular" season at the theater now begins with The Headlands.
Chen's play The Headlands was a commission from Lincoln Center in New York, and it premiered there in February 2020. It was Chen's first play to premiere in New York, but it's perhaps his most specifically San Francisco work — a play that gives nods to Vertigo, and Dashiell Hammett, and takes place in the Sunset District's Chinese American community.
"Whenever I told Bay Area people about it, they’re like, ‘Why are you doing a San Francisco play in New York?’ And my response was always, ‘No, please bring it here! This is where it belongs!’” Chen tells Bay Area News Group this week.
A.C.T. Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon did just that, and this will be the first staged work that MacKinnon has directed at the newly rechristened Toni Rembe Theater (formerly the Geary Theater) since 2020's Toni Stone, which was forced to close early due to the pandemic. (MacKinnon directed Fefu and Her Friends at the Strand, the theater's smaller venue, last spring.)
"It really does feel like a watershed moment for me in a very personal way," Chen told Bay Area News Group. "Getting a play produced at the preeminent San Francisco stage is a really, really a meaningful thing for me."
MacKinnon calls The Headlands a "puzzle play," and compares it to her first collaboration with Chen in 2021, on a Zoom-based, one-hander play called Communion, featuring longtime Bay Area actor Stacy Ross. (Prior to Communion, SF audiences would have last seen Chen's work at SF Playhouse, where they produced his play You Mean to Do Me Harm in their 2018-2019 season.)
"The Headlands is a deeply personal play, with shards of other folks’ autobiographies and the specificity of neighborhoods and childhood memories," MacKinnon says in the program notes. "It also remains a new play, having only been produced once before at Lincoln Center’s smallest theater, LCT3, in New York in Spring of 2020. Chris came into auditions and rehearsals for A.C.T.’s production eager to continue his journey with the play, to tweak the dialogue for the rhythms of these particular actors."
MacKinnon adds, "I am a thrilled director to be in an ongoing process — two plays in, and many more to go — with this great playwright of San Francisco and am happy to share with you The Headlands."
The Headlands, which SFist will have a review of in the next day or so, incorporates projections and pieces of film, and tells a story of a murder that happened two decades ago through an unreliable narrator, a Google engineer named Henry Wong. The victim was Wong's father, and being a true-crime enthusiast, Wong begins telling the story almost podcast-like, only to then begin to misdirect, and lead us down unnecessary paths.
"It’s a play about the fallibility of memory," Chen tells Bay Area News Group, adding that one of his inspirations is the work of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. "And for me, when I think about my own shaky memories from childhood, they really do seem to play almost like little film clips."
The play runs through March 5 at A.C.T.'s Toni Rembe Theater (415 Geary Street), and tickets are $25 to $110.
Also, in conjunction with A.C.T.'s production of The Headlands, Shaping San Francisco is offering walking tours of "noir-ish" San Francisco this weekend and on February 25 — find tickets here. The one-hour tour promises to "take patrons through Polk Gulch’s literary and queer history, into the Tenderloin to explore jazz, migrations, and SRO housing, and explore the mist-covered landscape." Shaping San Francisco is also offering a three-hour version of the tour more specifically by The Headlands, and that's happening March 4.
Top image: (L–R): Phil Wong (Henry), Jomar Tagatac (Tom), and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart (Leena) in the West Coast premiere of Christopher Chen’s The Headlands, performing at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 5, 2023. Photo credit: Kevin Berne