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Sam Hurwitt
Sunday, April 24, 2005

From its beginnings at the Steppenwolf Bar in Berkeley in 1967 to its current digs with two stages at Fort Mason, the Magic Theatre has been devoted to new work, premiering plays by Sam Shepard, Michael McClure, David Mamet, Nilo Cruz, Rebecca Gilman, Charles Mee, Anne Bogart, John O'Keefe -- the list goes on and on. And then it goes on some more.
So the Magic's second Hot House series of new plays, bringing together three world premieres by emerging playwrights, isn't just a nice thing to do. It's what the Magic does, and does well.
Past new plays have won Pulitzers, Obies, PEN-West Awards, NAACP Image Awards -- you'd better not get started on this list either. Let's just say this year's three playwrights are in awfully good company.

The Hot House opens with "The Rules of Charity" by John Belluso, now in previews and opening Saturday. Though the Los Angeles playwright is new to the Magic, Artistic Director Chris Smith directed his one-act "Knot Stew," from which this play is adapted, in a 1998 production for the Manhattan Ensemble Studio Theater, starring Kyra Sedgwick.

" Charity" is a biting exploration of the tension between poverty and charity, homosexuality and religion, and especially tenderness and brutality in family, romantic and caretaker relationships. The play walks a line between compassion and cruelty in which all the characters are some combination of not too bright, not too stable and not too nice. It centers on a professorial man named Monty, a closeted gay man with cerebral palsy, who uses a wheelchair, lives on Social Security and is looked after by his idle and somewhat spiteful daughter. In one scene, a documentary filmmaker becomes furious with Monty when he won't give her a sob story about his disability.

Belluso, who has a bone disease, has been in a wheelchair since he was 13.
His work often involves the disabled, but he's more interested in exploring issues that people don't like to think about than in writing tear-jerkers. At a production of another of his plays, he says, "People were going into the theater saying, 'I've got my Kleenex. I'm getting ready to cry.' And I'm like, 'Oh, OK, it's not my purpose to make you cry.' "

Betty Shamieh, whose play "The Black Eyed" previews May 7 and opens May 14 on the Hot House bill, is similarly aware of mainstream expectations, stemming from the fact that she is Palestinian American. As a playwriting graduate student at Yale, she tried to avoid being pigeonholed as a writer on Arab themes.

" Then I got out, and I realized that the best writing that I had done was the ethnic-specific stuff I didn't produce or develop," she says.
Those plays, adapted into a series of interconnected monologues called "Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America," proved to be her first success. "Chocolate" was a New York International Fringe Festival hit in August 2001 and was still running when Arab American issues were thrust to the forefront after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Shamieh's family drama "Roar" played off-Broadway last year, starring Sarita Choudhury and Annabella Sciorra.

If her plays all have something to do with Palestinian Americans, that's just about all they have in common, varying wildly in style and structure. "The Black Eyed" focuses on a meeting of Arab women from different eras (from the biblical Delilah to a suicide bomber) in some sort of afterlife antechamber, united only by their firsthand experience with violence and martyrdom. Oh, and there's a bawdy Greek chorus in there, too. Just try to pigeonhole that.

" I think the only thing that binds everything about my work is the melding of comedy and tragedy," Shamieh says. "That's the only thing that makes my voice recognizable in the forms that I've been experimenting with. I write about the Arab experience in hopefully the kind of way that Tennessee Williams wrote about Southerners, that's specific but also very universal."
San Francisco's Golden Thread Productions has staged short excerpts of "Chocolate in Heat" and what would become "The Black Eyed" as part of its "ReOrient" festivals of short plays about the Middle East, but this production is a theatrical homecoming for Shamieh, a San Francisco native who transferred from UC Berkeley to Harvard as a junior, moved on to Yale and now lives in New York. The Hot House production follows a reading of an excerpt staged at the Commonwealth Club last year by Associate Artistic Director Jessica Heidt, who's directing "The Black Eyed" as her first full production at the Magic.

" You know, I had a really exciting year last year, working with a Broadway director at a hot off-Broadway company with a film star, but for me, being at the Magic is more meaningful," Shamieh says. "My first theatrical experiences were all here. I grew up seeing shows at the Magic and the American Conservatory Theater, so I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be at the Magic."
The last of the three plays, Victor Lodato's "3F, 4F," starts previews May 20 and opens May 28, directed by Pam MacKinnon. Like the other plays, "3F, 4F" is very funny at times and harrowing at others. It concerns long-buried issues in the seemingly placid marriage of an older couple that are unearthed by a pair of aimless slackers in the apartment upstairs and a busty roller- skating nymph across the street.

Lodato is the only one of the Hot House playwrights whose work has been seen at the Magic before. Presenting yet another side of apartment living, his play "The Eviction" premiered during the 2001-2002 season, another example of the theater's commitment to getting new work onto the stage.

" The Magic is a unique institution known across the country for developing people like Nilo Cruz instead of trying to do classics that everyone's tired of," Shamieh says. "That they're really supporting young or upcoming artists is really unique, and very challenging. This Hot House is an opportunity for artists to produce more work that they want to support. I mean, I never know what a play's going to be until I have an audience."
HOT HOUSE '05 runs through June 19 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. $20-$38 ($72 for three shows). (415) 441- 8822,
Sam Hurwitt is a freelance writer.

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