SF Theater Blog

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Word for Word's Holiday High Jinks: ☼ ☼ ☼

"Dancing Dan's Christmas," the first of three Christmas-themed stories presented in Word for Word's 2015 "Holiday High Jinks," is so entertaining that the other two stories coming afterwards have trouble keeping up. Though Joseph Mitchell's "The Cave Dwellers" has some fine moments and terrific acting, the ending is inconclusive. E.B. White's "Christmas and Relative Pronouns," comparing the usage of the word "which" versus the word "that" -- let's just call it "droll." The W4W ensemble, as always, is excellent in all three pieces.

We want to talk about Dancing Dan. Dan, as played by Rotimi Agbabiaka, is a guy without a care in the world, except his life is in danger due to his attraction to the glamorous show-girl Muriel O'Neill, played by Lisa Hori-Garcia. Muriel's other suitor happens to be the dangerous mobster Heinie Schmitz, played by Paul Finocchiaro, who is about to take his revenge upon Dancing Dan as well as Good-Time Charlie Bernstein (Soren Oliver), in whose prohibition-era speakeasy most of the action takes place. Jackson Davis is wonderful as our unnamed Speakeasy Regular, who manages to narrate this heart-warming story while simultaneously getting hammered on Hot Tom and Jerry. Stephanie Hunt plays Gammer O'Neill, whose last moments on earth become filled with treasure.

The three stories are all depression-era vignettes written in the 1930s for The New Yorker. All three are fun, but don't get there late -- the first story, "Dancing Dan's Christmas" is just like Hot Tom and Jerry -- booze, egg whites and cream, kind of like a hot egg-nog -- it will knock you over.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Holiday Awards Division awards W4W's "Holiday High Jinks" Three Stars. Word for Word makes its living choosing dialogue-rich short stories and acting them out on stage, and these three continue the tradition. "Dancing Dan" and "The Cave Dwellers," in particular,  show us the patched and faded face of Christmas during the 1930s in hard-times America, viewed through the cutting lens of New York City. Clearly, we all need to read more Damon Runyon.

"Word for Word's "Holiday High Jinks"
Z Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through December 24

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Stage Kiss" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We've seen Gabriel Marin and Carrie Paff in many, many shows over the years. Until tonight, as they kissed on stage, we never knew that they had once been…wait, that's not true? Are you telling me that actors can kiss like that on stage without, you know, without…

The answer is yes. And no. And maybe. Sarah Ruhl's "Stage Kiss" takes us backstage as we watch a show being rehearsed where the lead actors must kiss whether they like it or not. It's a terrific concept for a show and we walk out of the theatre glad to have our honey on our arm.

Mark Anderson Phillips is wonderful, as always, as the director of the show in which She (Paff) and He (Marin) have been cast, without realizing that She and He once had a white-hot but unfinished relationship. Phillips turns out to be less a director than a voyeur, realizing that these two characters have a chemistry that could perhaps salvage the execrable 1930s play he is directing.

Let's not forget Michael Gene Sullivan as She's real-life husband and Millie DeBenedet as He's midwestern and current girl friend. DeBenedet's Iowa vision of God is a highlight of Act Two.

Allen Darby is very funny as the stand-in actor and Taylor Iman Jones is perfectly hostile as daughter Angela.

True, the ending could be tighter and possibly shorter, but it's Sarah Ruhl. You take the good with the bad so you can get to memorable lines like "How can good actors have sex with bad actors?" and "Marriage is like tattoos. They're forever." It's a nice long run and perfect for the holidays. Take your sweetie.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Stage Kiss" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The stars are for writing, acting and for Susi Damilano's direction -- after all, the actors have to act like they are rehearsing and rehearse like they're acting. The show manages to move forward smoothly from one wrenching discovery to the next. 

The BANGLE is for all the kissing. We like kissing, even if the actors are acting. He and She fooled us all.

"Stage Kiss"
San Francisco Playhouse
500 Post Street, 2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through Jan 9, 2016
$20 and up

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Monster-Builder" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

What a romp is Amy Freed's "The Monster-Builder." Danny Scheie's brilliant Gregor, the mad architect whose modernist visions include constructing a hospital for Alzheimer's patients made out of a series of mazes, is both an award-worthy performance and a send-up of every minimalist piece of art you have ever hated. It feels SO good to laugh at Gregor.

(I can't wait to go back to the de Young to laugh derisively at the white wall surrounded by a frame. I know I'm not alone now.)

The cast is perfect. Sierra Jolene plays Tamsin, Gregor's superbly limber current wife, a natural comedienne who is able to pull off a wonderful set piece where Gregor uses her body to create a new artistic vision. "Careful, Buddy, I'm not in college anymore" is perhaps the best line in the show. You'll see.

Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck play Rita and Dieter, the young architects attempting to stay true to their artistic vision in the face of money and power, and Rod Gnapp and Nancy Carlin are perfect as Andy and Pamela ("call me Pam"), the moneyed patrons you can't help falling in love with despite their housing tract called Rancho Tuscany. An equal partner is Tom Buderwitz's eye-popping set which is a masterpiece of minimalist and functional art at the same time. Art Manke directs, as he did when the show first opened in Portland in 2014.

We love The Monster-Builder. Intelligent, funny and teeth-clenching at the same time, a mix we don't get often enough. Happy to hear it has been extended.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards a next-to-maximum amount of stars to the minimalist "The Monster-Builder."  Special mention to the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. We would love to see the show again, if only to see Sierra Jolene's, uh, fluidity.

We ran into Rod Gnapp and Tomas Gorrebeeck on the subway going home. We congratulated them on their terrific performances and they seemed genuinely surprised and grateful to hear compliments, the way actors always react when they are offstage. It has always amazed me that an actor can take me on such a wonderful ride, seemingly rolling down the same roller coaster himself, then morph back into just another guy taking the subway ten minutes after the curtain falls. It's one of theatre's delightful mysteries. Just sayin.'

"The Monster-Builder"
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through December 20

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Once" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We all loved "Once," the movie, and got a little weepy with "Falling Slowly," the Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova song that was the best film song of the decade. Usually it's hard to top the original, but we have to say Edna Walsh's book and divine staging at the Orpheum have made "Once" (the musical) far more interesting than the film. Having a band on stage at all times, with various band members having dramatic roles to play, gives us intimacy instead of the necessary distance of a film.

There are other songs in the soundtrack, and some of them are brought to life with Stuart Ward's spectacular acoustic guitar playing, but basically this show is a One Song Wonder. And a wonder it is. Even though it was very difficult to hear or understand any lyrics, due both to the Irish and Czech accents of all the performers and perhaps under-miking at the Orpheum, these songs could just as well be in Klingon. (They may have been.) But the emotion of the performers and our desire to see Guy get Girl overcome all issues of language. He loves her. Check. She loves him. Czech. That's enough.

Other musical highlights: The opening "Leave," where somehow Ward manages not to break his guitar in half; the Czech "Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka," sung by Girl (Dani de Waal) and her Czech immigrant cohort; "When Your Mind's Made Up," sung by Guy and the band; and a very special soft gospel arrangement of "Gold," a song which seems trite when heard in Act One but its reprise in choir format is quite touching.

So with all those songs mentioned, how can we say "One Song Wonder?" It's just that "Falling Slowly" ear-worms into your brain and days later you are still hearing it, and this despite the fact you have to buy the CD and rip open the package to read the lyrics before you have the slightest idea what he is saying. Nahh, but you knew didn't you? Yeah. (sigh)

"Once" (the musical) won eight Tonys including Best Musical of the Year in 2012. And now, in 2015, we see and hear exactly why. But it's a very short run. Hurry, or you'll be left sitting on your chair at home.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Once" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The stars are for performance, staging and for Stuart Ward. The BANGLE of PRAISE is for "Falling Slowly," that stupid song that I now hate because I can't stop singing it. It's even good in Klingon.

The Orpheum
1192 Market Street, San Francisco
Through November 1 ONLY
$65-$212 ($20 Rush Tickets available 2 hours before curtain)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Proof" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

David Auburn's Pulitzer-winning "Proof" opened in 2000 on Broadway and ran for over 900 performances, although the show is long, close to two hours of drama with no set changes and only four characters. Its success comes from our involvement with the tentative relationship between Catherine (Michelle Beck) and Hal (Lance Gardner).  Catherine is the daughter of a famous mathematician (Robert, played by L. Peter Callender), recently deceased. She studies math as well, as does Hal, who was her father's former student. But with all the talk of elegant mathematical proofs, no one is willing to believe that the untrained Catherine has her father's talent, even when presented with her own elegant theory -- her proof.

There are many wonderful moments, such as her father's flashback monologue about September in Chicago. Robert is perfectly academic, while Hal is a terrific geek, honest and winning while timidly courting Catherine. Superficial big sister Claire (Ashley Bryant) is a little hard to take, interested primarily in getting away from Chicago as she did long ago, leaving Catherine to take care of their ailing father.

It is fascinating that this show, which was cast with white actors originally as was the 2005 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Gwynneth Paltrow, here is presented with a black cast which gives an extra dimension to the issues discussed. The casting works perfectly and this ensemble makes us feel the roles could have been written for them. We love Gregory Robinson's excellent bluesy musical cues between scenes.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Proof" THREE STARS with a Bangle of Praise. The story, the cast and the director (Leslie Martinson) earn one star each while the Bangle of Praise is for the fabulous one-liner that terminates Act One. It's great when you can't wait for Act Two.

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through November 1

Friday, October 16, 2015

"The Submarine Show" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

For pure physical comedy genius, sick belly laughs and the sight of two guys having the time of their lives befuddling your funny bones, you must see Slater Penney and Jaron Hollander's "The Submarine Show," playing upstairs at the Aurora for only nine more days. Really. You must.

They're a submarine. They're in the submarine. They're in the water. They're on dry land. They're hacking through the jungle (read: the audience) with machetes. They're monkeys, peacocks, mama birds having babies. They're swallowed up by quicksand (read: behind the audience). They turn beautifully synchronized cartwheels. And they really, really, have to pee. Penney's Gotta Pee Ballet is worth the price of admission all by itself, but, you know, use the bathroom first.

 These guys are already old pros, they are instructors of clowning and gymnastics and circus skills.  Hollander is the Artistic Director of Oakland's Kinetic Arts Center. They've both done turns with Cirque du Soleil. They really know what they're doing.

But above all, they're in it for the laughs. There is no dialogue, only relevant and irreverent sounds coming from both of them. Lighting helps, but these guys don't need anything but a sidewalk to be brilliant. Or a pretty lady's lap. Or the back of your chair. It's a short show -- less than an hour -- and everyone is sad to have to get out of the water.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division would love to hand out Five Stars for "The Submarine Show," but that's for PRODUCTIONS, YA KNOW? Here we just have two guys and no props or sets or staging or music or dialogue, for God's Sake. So we are awarding FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Each performer gets one star for himself and one star for the way they coordinate their physical movements with the other guy. The BANGLE is for Penney's GOTTA PEE BALLET, but it might be for giving CPR to that mosquito or trying to get the sub's dead battery started, except the key went down the drain and into the fish, oh, you know.

"The Submarine Show"
Harry's UpStage
Upstairs at Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through October 25

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Life is a Dream" ☼ ☼ ☼

In Spanish, Pedro Calderón de la Barca's "La Vida es Sueño" (Life is a Dream) is a three act poem, a morality play written, astonishingly, in verse. First published in 1635, in the years since the story has become known as one of the finest works of Spain's Golden Age.

Resident playwright at the Cutting Ball Theater Andrew Saito has done a new translation and shortened it considerably, turning three acts into one and, of course, abandoning the verse. Director Paige Rogers stages the show as a farce in the Exit's trademark experimental fashion. For the most part it works well.

Prince Segismundo is played by Asher Sinaiko with energy and emotion. He is the standout performer of the show, with other excellent performances by Michael Wayne Turner III's Clarin and Sango Tajima's Rosaura. Sinaiko's father David plays King Basilio, who has cast his son into prison because of a dream his wife had before the child was born.

The show plays a bit long, because there is so much slapstick. The central theme -- that you never know if what you are experiencing is real or if it is just a dream -- can only be repeated so many times until you begin wondering if this dream is ever going to end. We enjoyed the battle fought with kazoos and the cast clapping rhythms along with Barry Despenza's drums.

1635 was not a great year. Bad things happened. Calderón de la Barca sums his show up best: "Prophesy never lies when it predicts misfortune."

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Life is a Dream" Three Stars for its audacity and novelty. Asher Sinaiko, who is only sixteen, may be a star in the making.

"Life is a Dream" 
Cutting Ball Theater at EXIT on Taylor 
277 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Through November 1
$10-$50 (many discounts available)