SF Theater Blog

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bad Jews: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ SHMEAR

You don't have to be Jewish to love "Bad Jews," which has been extended through October 19 at Magic Theatre. But if you are, the themes, body language, vocal gymnastics and cringe-invoking dialogue will make you remember the joy of driving three hours in traffic to get to Passover at your Uncle Max's.

Every culture has rituals about death. Families gather to honor the deceased but eventually it all comes down to who gets the treasured remains. Author Joshua Harmon has clearly been here before. Two strong-willed cousins, Dapha and Liam, whose names suggest their contradictory views about their heritage, are battling over their late grandfather Poppy's chai, a pendant he has carried with him his entire life, including several years in a concentration camp. Daphna, whose name is really Diane, considers herself the only grandchild who cares about her religion, while Liam is running as fast as he can in the opposite direction. But he has the chai and Daphna wants it.

Rebecca Benhayon as Daphna is the brilliant non-stop-talker who listens only long enough to gather ammunition with which to skewer everyone else in the room. Max Rosenak's Liam is the male equivalent of Daphna -- cruel, self-centered and equally brilliant. These two want what they want, while Liam's brother Jonah (Kenny Toll) and Liam's fiancee Melody (Riley Krull) are trying desperately to stay out of the way.

But you can't do that when you're all trapped in a tiny upper-westside NY studio apartment whose major attraction seems to be a view of the Hudson from the bathroom window. The erstwhile battle over the chai carries with it even more claustrophobic angst inside this cramped space that the three grandchildren and one girlfriend are forced to share.

Oi, can they rant! Melody has no idea what she has walked into. (Her hysterical rendition of "Summertime" does not help.) Daphna's attempted destruction of Melody, and Liam's of Daphna, as beautifully written and performed as they are, come down in the end neither to right, nor wrong, but to the pull of tradition. Tradition! We would have loved to hear Melody sing that one.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Bad Jews" Four Stars with a Shmear. The Shmear, temporarily replacing SFTB's normal BANGLE OF PRAISE is, strangely enough, for the sense of togetherness to which these dysfunctional characters bring us. If they didn't kill each other, we might not either. If being Jewish means using words as clubs, maybe guns we don't need? Sense, does any of this make? Can you end a review with a question mark?
"Bad Jews"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
EXTENDED through October 19

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Theatreworks: Sweeney Todd ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Stephen Sondheim allows tinkering with the settings of his stories, as long as you don't change a word or a note of melody. This time, Robert Kelley and Theatreworks have set the show during the blitz at the beginning of World War II and the action opens in a factory being used as a bomb shelter. But time and place matter little. The story is right out of Shakespeare: revenge driving a man to madness, with everyone ending up lying in a pile on the stage.

Andrea Bechert's abandoned factory leading to a subway station grabs our attention right away. In walk David Studwell as Sweeney Todd and Jack Mosbacher as Anthony Hope. The cast follows and we hear one of the great Broadway Opening Numbers: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Reprised over and again with additional lyrics, this is the show's musical glue, the tune we are humming not only as we walk out of the theater but the next morning as well. There are many other standout numbers, including Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) singing "The Worst Pies in London," Anthony Hope's ballad "Johanna" and the hi-jinx of "A Little Priest," sung by an ebullient Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett as they realize just how successful their little venture might become.

Yes, the song "Johanna" and the balcony scene in which it is set rips off West Side Story; yes, close your eyes and the music and long cadences of lyrics might make you think you're listening to "Into the Woods," but in all fairness Sondheim is usually stealing from himself. Think of it as a compliment.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sweeney Todd" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Writing, acting and singing deserve one star each, with the last star for Robert Kelley's faultless direction and staging (this is a Broadway production done successfully on a smaller stage). The BANGLE goes to Beadle Bamford, played by Martin Rojas Deitrich, whose body does not prepare you for the magnificent lyrical tenor emanating from it. We loved meeting the Beadle.

"Sweeney Todd"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Nov. 2

Monday, September 29, 2014

Don Reed: Semi-Famous ☼ ☼

 The funniest comedians always slug you in the gut every once in awhile. Don Reed has given us this satisfying mix of "ha-ha-ha" combined with "aw-gee-whiz" many times in his past performances. We first saw "East Fourteenth Street" in 2008 but can still see Reed's face and body language as he introduced us to his quirky friends and family, his father and mother and his brothers. We can see little Blinky right now as we write and would love to come back and hear more about all of them.

Sadly, we get too little of that in "Semi-Famous," Reed's latest solo performance. On the bright side, we get some funny bits ("E.T. So Stoned") cobbled around various tales involving celebrities he has come across in his journeys through L.A. semi-stardom. They all start out like bar-jokes: Reed walks into a  bar/club/restaurant and who is there? Jody Whatley. Or Keenan Wayans. Or Barry White. Or Chubby Checker (a peculiarly cruel impersonation). Reed does interesting impressions of all the people he has seen, but that's all there is to it. Like an audition, it's one shot and "next."

When Don Reed brings us into his story and gets us involved with his characters, we're happy to be with him. We love to ride along and meet his creations. In "Semi-Famous" we meet nobody but Reed, as he wanders through the city of the Angels, a semi-famous person having brief encounters with other semi-famous people. We get a few belly laughs. And then we're done.

The San Francisco Theater Blog loves Don Reed but this show: not so much. The Awards Division awards "Semi-Famous" Two Stars. You will laugh for sure, find out something nice about Tom Cruise and pretty much what you expected from Courtney Love.

"Don Reed: "Semi-Famous"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat-Sun through October 19

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ideation ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It's a little long and talky. It's also brilliant. Aaron Loeb's "Ideation," which is the first play to make it out of San Francisco Playhouse''s Sandbox Series and onto the main stage, takes us inside the creepiest corporate boardroom ever. Five participants in a project planning session start out with self-satisfied smurks and end up in terror, concerned their own lives are in imminent danger.

Mark Anderson Phillips has never been better. As Brock, the team leader, he spouts euphemisms like "liquidation," "transport," "cremation" and "mass graves," which give us a pretty good idea this is no everyday assignment. On the white board he writes "N," which refers to the 'N-Word' which is never allowed to be mentioned. What a surprise when we figure out to what this actually refers to.

Carrie Paff (Hannah) is perfect as the one woman on the team, sent by Corporate HQ to either spy on or assist in this meeting. Jason Kapoor plays the younger Sandeep, whose questions about the team's mysterious assignment only underline his not-so-secret relationship with Hannah.

Michael Ray Wisely is the older Ted who would love to wrap things up and get to his daughter's soccer game, while Ben Euphrat's Scooter starts out as a clueless beneficiary of company nepotism but winds up with more to do than bring Hannah coffee.

Bill English's set design team outdoes itself. The curved lines of stage and furniture and deco-like overhang help us understand nothing is on the straight-and-narrow here, as does the title of the show, another deliciously obfuscating dish of corpo-speak.

RATINGS:  ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Ideation" Four Stars. It makes you feel nervous as well as creepy, but you hang on the front of your seat from opening to curtain. It's hard not to feel excited about a World Premiere of a show this well written and acted.
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
 (2d floor Kensington Park Hotel)
Through November 8

Monday, September 8, 2014

"Rapture, Blister, Burn" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

On one level, Gina Gionfriddo's "Rapture, Blister, Burn" is a primer on the modern history of feminist philosophy, but more to the point it is a women-bonding story, where three generations of women chart out their places on the continuum of female enlightenment. The show is funny, features some fine acting and snappy one-liners; at the same time it is talky. Act One's setup is long but Act Two delivers.

The two main characters are forty-somethings and appear to be on opposite sides of philosophical issues. Rebecca Schweitzer plays Gwen, mother of two who abandoned her career to be a stay-at-home Mom. Gwen is defensive about her life, recovering from alcoholism while living with Don (Gabriel Marin), a man content to slide through life without thinking too much about it. Meanwhile, Gwen's old graduate school roommate and friend Catherine (Marilee Talkington) shows up in town. Catherine had been Don's girl friend back then, but they broke up when Catherine got her degree and a job in London while Don stayed home. There, he fell for and married Gwen.

Now Catherine has the career as a successful writer and speaker that Gwen wants, while Gwen has the family (and the man) that Catherine wants. Catherine's mother Alice (Lillian Bogovich), has recently suffered a heart attack and this has brought Catherine to the realization that she will someday be all alone.

Let us not forget Avery, the 21-year-old played with passion by Nicole Javier. In many ways the story of the two middle-aged women is told through the younger Avery and older Alice. Avery is energetic and opinionated; Alice has been through it all before. These two understand that life is different than philosophy. Avery and Alice are delights, and for us they carry Gionfriddo's show.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rapture, Blister, Burn" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  The Bangle is for the writing which includes many one-liners, like Don's "Booze and love dupe you into thinking average people are great." Desdemona Chiang's direction keeps things in motion, although there is a lot of prop moving during the scene breaks. The ending is satisfying, if predictable. Women in the audience will relate to the self-analysis to which these women subject themselves; men, on the other hand, may scratch their heads and wonder why.

"Rapture, Blister, Burn"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through Oct. 5

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Water By The Spoonful" ☼ ☼ ☼

It is easy to identify with the characters in Quiara Alegria Hudes's "Water by the Spoonful." Each one has been physically or emotionally injured. Several are addicts attempting with great difficulty to remain clean; all are barely keeping their heads above water.

Two parallel stories intersect. In one, ex-Marine Elliot (Miles Gaston Villanueva) is trying to readjust to life back in Philadelphia with the help of his cousin Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela). In the other, a chat-room is hosted by Odessa (Zilah Mendoza), Elliot's birth mother, in an attempt to give crack addicts a place to come and talk, instead of going out and getting high.

Of the two stories, this latter one is fascinating, especially with the help of Erik Flatmo and Steven B. Mannschardt's brilliant set and lights. We find ourselves involved in each of the on-line character's lives. Anna Ishida is terrific as the wisecracking Orangutan, as are Anthony J. Haney as Chutes&Ladders and Patrick Kelly Jones as Fountainhead, two addicts unable to admit how close they are to the edge.

For us real-life story resonates less than the virtual one. Varela is excellent as the girl who got out of the family orbit but is now anxious to become the new head of the family. Villanueva, while giving a lot of energy to his role as the injured Iraqi war veteran, sadly does not exhibit a lot of heart. We see him acting, but he doesn't seem to feel much. In addition, there appears to be a romantic spark between the cousins which makes little sense. Part of the problem may be that the Mountain View Center's sound system was unable to pick up all the lightning fast dialogue; this may be the reason Act Two feels long.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Water by the Spoonful" three stars. It is a fascinating concept. When the curtain comes down on Act One the audience is buzzing about what they have just seen and what might come next. We wish we could leave the theater feeling that same excitement.

"Water by the Spoonful"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through August 22, 2014

Photo Credits: Kevin Berne

Monday, August 11, 2014

From Red to Black ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The World Premiere of Rhett Rossi's "From Red to Black" gives us a police drama with twists and turns. There has been a death on the subway tracks in New York City. The two suspects rounded up are young black men. The two police inspectors are Irish, one a thirty year veteran and one younger and greener.

Charles Shaw Robinson plays Inspector Denny Mitchell, a legacy policemen who reminisces about the days when the entire force was Irish and felt like family. His younger partner Jack Flanagan (Matthew Baldiga)  is a by-the-book guy who has strikes against him as far as Mitchell is concerned, not the least important of which is he is a college graduate.

But the story is not about them. It is instead a study about how preconceived notions of race, of class, of guilt and of innocence can lead different people to different conclusions. Once we meet William (Isiah Thompson), we understand this young man and these two detectives do not inhabit the same universe.

William is the heart of this story, but equally important is a smaller but crucial role played by Michael Shipley. Shipley's Lawrence Stevens adds sexual identity into the mix. What really happened in the subway station in the middle of the night is hard enough to decipher without everyone's notions about what others expect of them.  Each of these characters is trapped inside a stereotype and none see a way out.

Susi Damilano's direction is sharp but the show might play a little long. This may be because the actors on Opening Night had a little trouble with their lines. It is clear that SF Playhouse has found an engaging show from another excellent new writer. 

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "From Red to Black" Three Stars with an Exclamation Point!  The show is Isiah Thompson's to steal and he does so. The one-act 90-minute format is perfect. Don't let the false ending fool you -- the best is still to come.

"From Red to Black"
San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series
ACT Costume Shop
1119 Market Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. Through August 30