SF Theater Blog

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Mimi's Suitcase ☼ ☼ ☼

Ana Bayat speaks many languages. In her one-woman show "Mimi's Suitcase," she gives us Farsi, Spanish, French, American and Cockney English, depending on where her peripatetic story has taken her. For us, Ms. Bayat has a winning stage presence that bodes well for a career to follow. If "Mimi's Suitcase" still has moments where it feels like a work-in-progress, there are other moments that make us smile in recognition.

Imagine a world led and policed by bearded, religious fanatics who tell you how to dress, how to behave, where to go and with whom. Then imagine being a young teenage girl who has grown up in the freedom of modern-day Barcelona, then has to deal with life in Iran when she is taken back to her native country by a self-centered and oblivious father.

This is a theme we see over and over in stories about modern Iran: A father who cannot see how restrictive life is for the women in his family. We never understand how any man would bring a wife or a daughter back into that country.

We learn how teenage girls in Tehran figured out ways around the restrictions on their lives. We loved Farhad, the Clandestine Video Guy, who managed to smuggle Western videos into Mimi's apartment. We also enjoyed how the hated headscarf could be tweaked to actually display a bit of independence. And don't forget the well-dressed Persian psychic whose roof had been blown off during the Iraq-Iran war.

But these are bits. We want more. Ms Bayat has not decided whether Mimi's story is a comedy or a drama. With the help of overhead projections we are made aware of recent Persian history, but none of it is personal. With one person on stage, we want more facts. What happens at the ending, for example? Simply lying down on a blackened stage tells us little.

We understand Ms. Bayat and so many others of her generation suffered greatly from politics, from religion and from war. But how did it affect her? She shows us disdain for her homeland, which appears to be well-deserved, but we never learn anything except the most superficial things about her, about her father, her family, her career.

Ana Bayat is a very solid actor. As a writer, she has the chance to dig deeper into that suitcase and take us with her, which is where we want to go.


The San Francisco Theater Blog grants "Mimi's Suitcase" Three Stars. The show is well worth seeing. Ana Bayat has a true gift for languages -- now let us hear her real story, not just the one that currently works better on a small stage.

"Mimi's Suitcase"
The Theater of Yugen
2840 Mariposa Street, San Francisco
Four Nights ONLY, through January 25.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Noura ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Heather Raffo's "Noura" is a drama whose story cuts straight to the heart. Noura is an Iraqi refugee woman living in New York with her husband Tareq and small boy Yazen. She is slowly losing her mind over this unanswerable question: “How do I hold on and let go at the same time?”

This is the ultimate issue for any refugee. How do you keep what is truly irreplaceable from your old life while still trying desperately to fit in to a brand new one? And what if you left because that old world had become impossibly toxic and dangerous for you and your family?

Noura and her family are Christians who have emigrated from Mosul. After eight years, they have finally received their American passports: they are now Tim, Nora and Alex. They have a Play Station. They are Americans.

But then Noura's distant relative, Maryam, an unmarried young woman who is six months pregnant, shows up in the apartment. Her unwed pregnancy unleashes old-world indignation from Noura and the rest of her family. Even as this young woman explains that everyone she ever knew in Mosul has been murdered by ISIS, including her parents and the rest of her family, that they have even slit the throats of the nuns in the convent where Maryam had taken refuge, even as she tells Noura of all these horrors that have made her cling to her unborn baby as the only thing she has left to love and fight for, the attitudes of the Iraqi men in the New York apartment will never change. She is pregnant with no husband. She must be a slut.

Denmo Ibrahim plays Noura. Like everyone else, she has a secret. Maryam (Maya Nazzal) is involved. Both Tareq (Mattico David) and their oldest friend from home Rafa'a (Abraham Makany) are perplexed about what to do. Plus, they are holding onto secrets as well. 

The show is full of surprises observed by Noura. When Maryam does not want tea, Noura asks, "Who can talk without tea?" She tells Maryam about the beauty of snow: "For once, no one notices you." There is a breathtaking scene where Noura layers a traditional head covering on her son. She does it slowly, with patience and grace. Not a pin drops in the audience during this entire scene.

What must we hold on to? What must we give up? This is a question for us all.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The ending could be pared down some, but this is a show for everyone to see. The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Noura" Four Stars. We loved it. It will make you look at the world a little differently.

Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED through Feb. 9

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Pianist of Willesden Lane: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" has everything: glorious music, terrible Nazis, a well-meaning heroine, an interesting historical setting and, towering above all this, Bach. Beethoven, Debussy, Scriabin and Grieg.

But there is one niggle. Solo performer and co-writer Mona Golabek is brilliant while she is sitting at the piano, but somewhat less so when not. Her monologues are mannered. Golabek plays piano with a fire that, if transferred to her storytelling, would boost her show to another level.

Regardless, "Willesden Lane" is a joy, because we get long sections of spectacular pianism. We would recommend the show to anyone who wants to grab a feeling of what this musical canon has provided for so many generations of people. Yes, you will cry. Yes, you will leave the theater humming the beginning to Ode to Joy. Yes, you will feel lifted, as have audiences around the world, where the show has played to sellout crowds and standing ovations. Yes, they are making a movie.

And yes, says the San Francisco Theater Blog's resident curmudgeon, me. It could still be much more.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Mona Golabek's musicianship earns three stars all by herself. She earns a BANGLE for the way she played Claire de Lune with such grace while never stopping her narration. And we loved the segment where she plays along to an old film clip of Dame Myra Hess. Very touching stuff.

Sometimes, a show feels smaller than its venue. "Willesden Lane" makes us long for a small cabaret and a performer not forced to walk up and down artificial stage constructs in order to fill up space. Every moment away from the piano for Mona Golabek is a moment wasted.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA
EXTENDED through Feb. 16

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Pride and Prejudice ☼ ☼ ☼

Wonderful holiday fare, Theatreworks' new production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" is breaking box-office records in Palo Alto. It is easy to see why -- many of us long for a simple love story with upbeat music. Life is uncomplicated. Love consists of a flirtation followed by a kiss, which leads to eternal bliss. Or servitude, depending on who's asking.

This is Mary Mattinson's show. Playing Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter with backbone and spunk, the story spins through her non-courtship of the handsome and perhaps-not-evil Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti). Charisma is not his strong suit but he's got lots of loot.

Love has spurned Elizabeth's elder sister, the properly calm and reserved Jane (Sharon Rietkerk), but this will not last if Elizabeth has anything to do with it. Heather Orth is her usual charming and in-control self as mother of five unmarried daughters, while her husband, Mr. Bennet (Christopher Vettel) appears to do nothing at all but smoke his pipe and read the newspaper.

As it had to be in a society where women were not allowed to inherit property, money talks. Mr. Darcy seems to have the most. The Bennets live royally, but, by comparison to the Darcy and de Bourgh crowd, are paupers. Prospects can be slim for beautiful, intelligent daughters from families without the promise of huge dowries.

A special mention must be given to Brian Herndon who gives Parson Collins that slimy breath of rotting cheese that he deserves. Equally entertaining are Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Monique Hafen Adams who can play anything -- this time she is the haughty aristocrat Caroline Bingley.

They're all aristocrats but these, thanks to Jane Austen and Paul Gordon, speak lovely dialogue and sing nice songs. They do seem to get their knickers in a twist about relatively small issues, but they do it in a delightful way.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Pride and Prejudice" Three Stars. The women are cast beautifully but we were less intrigued by the men. They certainly fall in love easily, though. Audiences love it when aristocrats smooch.

"Pride and Prejudice"
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Rd., Palo Alto
EXTENDED through Jan. 4, 2020

Friday, December 6, 2019

"Groundhog Day, The Musical" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

For those of us who have seen "Groundhog Day," the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, at least twenty times, "Groundhog Day, The Musical" has special traction. Danny Rubin co-wrote the original screenplay and his book for the musical brings us many of the heartwarming moments from the film, especially as concerns Ryan Drummond, who plays weatherman Phil Connors, the Bill Murray character. We wondered if Drummond, whom we have seen in many different roles over the years, could pull off Murray's loveable grump. We are happy to say he does so, and then some. Plus, he is a gifted singer.

Rinabeth Apostol is very entertaining as his co-producer and eventual love interest. She is a star in the making. We also loved the supporting crowd of Punxsutawnians, especially the always entertaining Michael Gene Sullivan.

The songs by Tim Minchin are clever and advance the story. They work within the style of musical theater writing that seems to be today's standard, where the story counts and the songs are there for little but filagree. A fine band anchored by Dave Dobrusky pumps out rhythmical tunes which keep us pulling for boy to get girl.

Special applause for the staging of this show -- a series of revolving baffles and moving turntable that continually bring us back to the morning of Feb. 2. The show is a delight to watch.

Of course there is also a deeper subtext here -- what would you do if you knew that whatever you did on one day would be erased as soon as you awakened the next morning?  Me, I'd move directly to the Hot Fudge Sunday Bar.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "Groundhog Day, the Musical." We love the story, casting and directing by Susi Damilano. The Bangle is for that hysterical hospital scene. A few breakout songs could help make this show a standard.

"Groundhog Day, the Musical" 
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (2d floor of Kensington Floor Hotel)
San Francisco
Through January 18

Saturday, November 30, 2019

OUT OF TOWN REVIEW: “The Great Leap”

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” at Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, CA:

If her “King of the Yees” was a slam dunk, “The Great Leap” is a driible-off-the-foot out-of-bounds. No coach could ever be so foul, no kid so dumb, no story so concocted.

The San Francisco Theater Blog blows the whistle: DON’T BOTHER. Maybe the Father-Son meme worked in Star Wars. Not here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Robert Townsend: “Living the Shuffle” ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Robert Townsend has a fascinating history and he’s really, really funny. Known as one of the pioneers of independent film-making, his first feature “The Hollywood Shuffle” was financed on credit cards and shot for $100,000. It grossed over $8 million. As a stand-up performer, his Hollywood stories are very entertaining but he also shows us the frustration of so many actors of color as they seek to transcend the stereotypical roles offered to them. You can only audition so many times to play a pimp. 

We loved Townsend’s stories about growing up on the west side of Chicago, the lessons he gained from wonderful teachers, his move to Hollywood with Keenan Ivory Wayans and his informal initiation into the rat pack by Don Rickles. His performance of Shakespeare through an African-American perspective is amazing. Not everyone knows that Townsend directed Eddie Murphy’s classic “Raw. We loved the bit about meeting with the censors to whittle down the almost constant foul language in that film.  

This is a very respectful man. Perhaps this is what we love best. And he makes us laugh out loud.
It’s a short run, so hurry over to Berkeley for a fun evening, filled with cool stories, and while you’re laughing you’ll learn something about the most basic lesson of Hollywood: “Just keep working.”

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

 The San Francisco Theater Blog loves this show. Robert Townsend is as good as it gets. FOUR STARS.

Robert Townsend: “Livin’ the Shuffle”
The Marsh Berkeley
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through Through Dec. 15