I really think we’re living in a golden age of San Francisco theater. I might be biased because of my proximity to PianoFight, the newly-minted venue and art space that puts on more worthwhile weekly events than I can keep up with, but I still believe it’s true. Most recently, I was lucky enough to come across the premier of “Don’t Be Evil,” a dark, thinly-scored commentary on the colliding paths of revolutionary technology and the modern police state.
I say “come across” because I just happened to notice the debut listing on an SF events page a few hours before the show began. Granted, it was a Thursday (September 10th, to be exact), but not only was I able to get last-second tickets, they were $5 apiece, and I was in the second row. I mean, come on! I hustled home from work and then to PianoFight, and since you can drink in their theaters, I grabbed an 8 roses at the bar (that’s my euphemistic name for a neat double shot of 4 Roses bourbon) and dropped into my seat with a grin.
In all that rush, I hadn’t had time to fully digest any description of the show, “Don’t Be Evil,” written by Bennett Fisher and staged now by the Department of Badassery, a production house led by Gabriel Montoya and Robin Fontaine (director and producer in this piece, respectively). But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because there weren’t any reviews yet, seeing as this run of the show is its premiere. I didn’t know what I was in store for, and that feeling would remain, honestly, until the last moments of the production.
Don’t Be Evil is set in a grim, windowless interrogation room, where two government agents, Kavanagh and Hayes (played by Eric Reid and Daria Johnson, respectively), slowly and haltingly carry out an interrogation that clearly has them out of their depths. William Webster (Justin Liszanckie) is a wunderkind computer engineer, as you can tell from his gray-and-cardinal STANFORD shirt, who has disrupted the wrong hornet’s nest by creating a preternaturally-intelligent search engine, the machinations of which have landed its creator in a bleak extrajudicial dungeon.
The first scenes of the play are given over to establishing that Kavanagh and Hayes know nothing about computers and that Webster knows nearly as little about why his program gave the honest-yet-damning answers that it did. The protestations of the latter don’t meet the needs of the former, and the parties go back and forth without gaining any ground or clarity. The heat slowly turns up, however, and it becomes clear that something will give eventually. Throughout this prologue, agent Hayes does most of the speaking with Webster. She is the more senior of the duo, she knows the ropes, and she is going to achieve an Uncle-Sam-approved outcome for the interrogation. In this role, Daria Johnson succeeds well: she exudes that particular conservative, dimwitted, Kafkaesque bureaucratic odor that is possessed by the worst cogs of the human machine. Every time she breathes in, you can feel the useless and stale words forming in her throat, feel how every aspect of her professional life has bent slowly over the years to serve the process, like a sick bonsai tree that conjures despair and conformity rather than introspection. Webster, so recently plucked from the brightest of his salad days, understandably rails against this quagmire and becomes increasingly agitated, yelling into the emotionless void of hayes, even as it clearly accomplishes nothing.
Kavanagh, meanwhile, sits back and plays the role of the muscle, occasionally slapping Webster around when Hayes nods or glances with those official bedroom eyes that say “please beat the suspect.” This is only worth mentioning because I think Kavanagh ends up being the deepest character as an acting study. Eric Reid spends half the production wearing the cardboard suit of a stereotypical bit player, owning almost no lines or even stage movements with which he might establish his character’s background and motivations. When he is not inert, he is predictable and cartoonishly violent, but yet he must convey a starting point, because he will need to grow explosively out from his shell in the second act. Reid does a noteworthy job with this, and I expect he will get even better as he has more performances to perfect the near-mime act of taking a two-dimensional man and dragging forth an entirely new axis. In the backdrop of this, agent Hayes also evolves, but her metamorphosis is incomplete and abortive, taking place through narration alone and ending short of the goalposts. She is the unsalvageable foil to Kavanagh, the bread that doesn’t rise, the Magic Grow sponge dinosaur capsule that doesn’t fully expand and that leaves behind a twisted brontosaurus with two legs and an impossibly-angled neck, half-covered in tepid gelatin, withering in the sink.
Throughout this, Justin Liszanckie is putting his soul on the line as an actor. His role as prisoner is the most physically demanding, and he embraces the sickening circumstances in an admirable approximation of a real reaction. He screams the veins in his neck to attention through half-sobs when he is abused, and the visceral impact is direct. When he is beaten asleep, he drools on the table without a hint of self-consciousness or levity. When intermission hits and you go to the bathroom and check your email, he lies motionless on the ground in manacles. It made me uncomfortable, and it was, at points, the most intense emotional reaction I’ve had through theater in some time. This is not to say it was beautiful, because the writing is so directly intended to turn your stomach with its chosen subject matter and no-punches-pulled approach that it is unsurprising when it succeeds. But it does. It does turn your stomach, and the audience was muted on several occasions. The show promises laughter, which it delivers, but it is literally gallows humor, the short-lived bread of an underfed inmate that is soon to be replaced by pessimism and bereaved nothing. Liszanckie brilliantly invests this space, and you believe his suffering. His character does not have the grand arc of Kavanagh, so his potential for greatness is more limited, but he fully fleshes out the finer emotional and narrative latitude that he does have available. In rodeo, he would be the standout rider on an average bull, capped in performance by the lower ceiling of his dance partner. But succeed he does.
Liszanckie’s march up the emotional volume knob is contained and squelched to a simmer only by the masterful late emergence of Steven Cloyes, expertly playing the off-note Murdock. Fans of hard-boiled tough men with exotic personal philosophies and intricate backstories, a la Mike in “Breaking Bad,” will love this aspect of the show. With as little offense meant as possible, Cloyes was built to wonder how many feet of rope might produce the best hanging, and he so deftly navigates his perverse world, with one foot in the macabre and one in the mundane, that it becomes easy to believe he’s really been doing it for years. He opens his jacket, like the proverbial stolen watch vendor, and salaciously displays a darkly sick corner of the human capacity for justification and passive evil. Murdock is summoned by the agents when they have failed in their objective, and he plays cleanup. Apart from one final wrinkle that sheds a literal ray of hope, the play ends with his trajectory, like a snuffer putting out the last candle before bed.
Don’t Be Evil is masterfully produced in many respects, beyond solely the acting. The set design is excellent, and the unchanging room serves to propel the narrative rather than to limit it, with its stacked filing cabinets aptly providing the hopeless and anachronistic miasma in which the characters move. A single, bare overhead bulb rounds this out, illuminating the room like you’re looking into headlights and bad coffee across an interview table, and its dimmable nature provides a credible built-in mechanism for scene breaks. A heavy steel cell door finishes the effect, allowing believable entrances and exits, and only when you concentrate on it do you realize that the door is not actually real: it has been created in your mind through nothing but subtle off-stage lighting and perfect sound work.
I was lucky to attend what I think was the first show of Don’t Be Evil, which was excellently done, and I suspect it will get even better throughout its run. It should not be mistaken for a lighthearted piece, however; it is clearly dark and introspective, and its heart lives deep in the realm of dystopia. No one-liner on earth can save the work from this final brand, and I believe its author intended this outcome. If you are ready for this, though, then get your double whiskey neat and get ready.
Don’t Be Evil runs through the beginning of October at PianoFight at 144 Taylor Street in San Francisco (tickets):
- Thursday, 9/17 @ 8pm
- Friday, 9/18 @ 8pm
- Saturday, 9/19 @ 8pm
- Thursday, 9/24 @ 8pm
- Friday, 9/25 @ 8pm
- Saturday, 9/26 @ 8pm
- Thursday, 10/1 @ 8pm
- Friday, 10/2 @ 8pm
- Saturday, 10/3 @ 8pm
Now, it being PianoFight, my night didn’t end after the show. As I came out of the theater, a jazzy three-piece version of Cynthia Lin and the Blue Moon All Stars was setting up for the mingling weekday crowd. The trio played an admirably-long set and traversed an impressive number of standards in a performance that was as lighthearted as it was pleasant. I couldn’t have asked for anything more relaxing after the heavy-hitting play, yet what began as simple relaxation became earnest interest as the group’s true talent level became apparent. Cynthia herself is a charismatic and gifted presence, and the raw abilities of the bassist and pianist gave great depth to what might otherwise have been sparse instrumentation.
After the show, the pianist, Serene Han, put on an impromptu classical performance and let loose a prodigious skill that illuminated the only-ten or so of us who were left, half of whom encircled the bar. It is a rare city that houses such spontaneous and incredible art, and I feel like I have found a new unblemished conch shell on the beach, or sighted a rare tiger, or found an undiscovered gemstone in a forgotten cave, each and every time I am at PianoFight. The word is not fully out yet, but you should get there before it is overrun on the regular, weekday or not. Oh and the mushroom/avocado burger was amazing, as if you needed any more reasons. Until next time, PianoFight; thanks again.