SF Theater Blog

Friday, February 9, 2018

Reel to Reel ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

In John Kolvenbach's 2009 "Goldfish" at the Magic Theatre, Andrew Pastides played an introverted young man who was pursued by a beautiful young woman seemingly out of his league. Kolvenbach's newest play, "Reel to Reel," which is having its World Premiere at the Magic, also involves Andrew Pastides as an introverted young man being pursued by a beautiful young woman. Clearly, the playwright has a rich fantasy life, and equally clearly, the fatal attraction of this young woman to this young man makes no sense. But hold on. Have patience.

"Reel to Reel" is a tour de force, a show that intrigues, involves, surprises and rewards the watcher with a complex story about the beauty of storytelling as well as the power of love.

The two characters are shown at three points in their lives: Ages 24, 42 and 82. Zoë Winters as the younger two Maggie 1s and Carla Spindt as the older Maggie 2 are perfect in their roles. Winters also plays the hysterical Betty, friend to Pastides as Walter 1. Oh man, can Betty scream.

Will Marchetti plays Water 2, whose career as a filmmaker has not produced the lasting art that his wife's has. Her splicing together bits of random recordings of their lives -- on the reel-to-reel tape recorder that gives the show its name -- is the last piece for us to unravel in this unusual but fulfilling drama.

The decision to have the actors making the sound effects on stage is a curious one. For this viewer, it works OK, but it brings us into the theater instead of allowing us to remain within our characters' lives.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Reel to Reel" Four Stars. Writing and directing, both by Kolvenbach, acting and staging earn one star each. The show makes you work a little. There is much to see and enjoy.

"Reel to Reel"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Feb. 25

Saturday, February 3, 2018

"Skeleton Crew" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

As the third installment in The Detroit Project, a trilogy of shows about author Dominique Morisseau's home town, "Skeleton Crew" is engaging. The stage action takes place inside the lunchroom of the auto stamping factory at which the four characters work, but we also catch glimpses of their lives outside. Those lives are what are at stake here, as the auto industry contracts to try and survive the paralyzing recession of 2008. The more we hear about outside the lunchroom, the more we understand what goes on inside.

It's a terrific cast. The two men in the show, Christian Thompson as Dez and Lance Gardner as Reggie appear to be opposites. Dez is young and fiery while Reggie is older and measured.

In some ways, this is Reggie's show. He has moved up to a white collar job, but he grew up in the same East Detroit neighborhood as everyone else. His loyalties are divided between wishing to keep the house he has been able to purchase and not wanting to sell out his friends. He is the one who must choose which side he is on.

Margo Hall is Faye, the elder stateswoman, full of wisdom for everyone but herself. It takes the whole show for us to realize how far she has fallen. Tristan Cunningham plays Shanita, pregnant and unmarried, but determined not to let that get in her way of success.

We loved Dez. His character is allowed to vent his honest frustration. And those frustrations are real: the people at the bottom are the people who get hurt first and worst. These workers, who take pride in doing a job that will result in people everywhere getting to ride in well-built cars, are rewarded by cut pay, longer hours and eventually pink slips as the factory closes.

The attraction of Dez for Shanita, and vice-versa, feels real.

Special mention to Ed Haynes for his lunchroom set. The "sofa," which is actually a repurposed bench seat from one of their cars, the signs all over the walls, the old refrigerator, the coffee pot, the mismatched chairs and that photo of Barack Obama on the inside of Shanita's locker all bring us into the room with our four workers, fighting for their jobs and their pride.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Skeleton Crew" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for the terrific set piece between Dez and Faye about why Dez brings a gun to work. All four actors bring life to their roles. "Skeleton Crew" gives us a lot to think about.

"Skeleton Crew"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through February 18

"Widowers' Houses" ☼ ☼ ☼

George Bernard Shaw's "Widowers' Houses," which in 1892 was his first published play, explores themes he would develop in his later work: the plight of the working poor, relationships within the upper classes, and the realization that social change is difficult to achieve.

It's an entertaining farce. The cast, for the most part, is excellent. When we first see Meghan Trout as Blanche, she seems to be a typical upper-crust young Englishwoman abroad on holiday, but as the show proceeds her venal nature is pulled out of her. She coaxed the opening night audience into a satisfying hiss with her "I HATE the poor!"

Warren David Keith plays her father, Sartorius, a self-made man who knows he will never be accepted into the company of the well-born. He is, however, wealthier than any of them, due to his occupation as a London slumlord. Michael Gene Sullivan and Howard Swain share lickspittle duties, Sullivan as the wannabe upper-crust Cokane and Swain playing the show-stopping Lickcheese. Lickcheese is the common man -- think Eliza Dolittle's father -- except that in this case he turns into the equivalent of the modern techie. He enters in rags but returns in a sealskin coat, having figured out how to use the system to his advantage. This turns all the presumptions of the aristocracy upside down.

Costumes by Callie Floor are wonderful, especially with Lickcheese. "Widowers" is already a three-act play, but we would be happy to watch one more act with no one in it but Lickcheese.

Sarah Mitchell is always, always, always a fabulous comedic player. She can walk funny, talk funny, even have her face squeezed funny.

Our only caveat is although we are huge Dan Hoyle fans, we have trouble with him as leading man Dr. Trench. Hoyle can do wonderful things with his face by not saying a word, but for a man who has done solo shows using twenty characters and voices to match, his poor attempt at aristocratic English makes it hard to even understand, let alone identify with him. He seems like a spoiled teenager. Perhaps this is what GBS intended.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Widowers'' Houses" Three Stars. It is worth seeing. But the show is long and the payoff is tipped far in advance. Director Joy Carlin can do little to keep us from knowing early on where these characters will end up. No surprises here.

"Widowers' Houses"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Feb. 25

Monday, January 29, 2018

Born Yesterday: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG



Michael Torres brays like a high volume goat and Millie Brooks gives it right back to him.  Playing the corrupt industrialist Harry Brock, Torres has a face as florid as his voice is demanding, and as his ex-showgirl/concubine Billie, Brooks counters Harry's obnoxiousness with her refusal to knuckle under. Written in 1946, against the all too-familiar backdrop of a congress for sale to the highest bidder, Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday" has a little sermon for us too: the bad guy just might lose and the good girl just might win.

Wait -- what year are we talking about? The business tycoon who needs to pull the entire world down into the mud, the lawyers who enable his nefarious schemes and the Senator who will push through any favorable legislation if the bribe is high enough?

We enjoyed Jason Kapoor as journalist Paul Verall; also Louis Parnell as Senator Hedges though he probably could have been smarmier; Anthony Fusco had the requisite amount of smarm as lawyer Ed Devery but he had become world-weary, whereas Harry Brock's nonstop ranting and raving must have seemed cartoon-like in 1946.

Today, not so much. The cartoon is our daily life and nothing is beyond belief.

Special attention should be given to the brilliant set designed by Jacqueline Scott as well as Abra Berman's ultra-cool double-breasted suits. Director Susi Damilano displays her usual great sense of timing for comedies and Theodore H. J. Hulsker's forties music keeps everybody lathered up and in the mood.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Born Yesterday" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The first star is for Garson Kanin, whose career as actor, writer and director spanned more than half a century; acting and direction in this SF Playhouse production earn one star each. We award a Bangle of Praise to Millie Brooks's Billie -- it is as if she started Act One in 1946…

... and ended up in 2018.

"Born Yesterday"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through March 10

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Around the World in Eighty Days: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Michael Gene Sullivan steals the show. No, Ron Campbell steals the show. No, Tristan Cunningham steals the show. Jason Kuykendall and Ajna Jai are terrific too. So let it be known that Mark Brown's adaptation of Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days," in this latest Theatreworks production, is so good that every character makes us howl with delight.

We all know the story, so the show is completely character-driven. From the opening, when Campbell lets loose his fearsome voice as an usher, we are delighted each time he appears, as various British consuls, or Captain Speedy, or Judge Obadiah or even San Francisco's own Emperor Norton.

The little boy inside Michael Gene Sullivan gets to come to the front of the stage. As Detective Fix, he is determined to solve the crime that exists only in his own head, even if to do so he must accompany Phileas Fogg (Kuykendall) on his epic journey around the world. He blusters, he stammers, he creates foolish plots worthy of Wile E. Coyote, all the while maintaining his supposed dignity as a guardian of the crown. He also gets to drive an elephant.

Cunningham is an acrobat and one heck of a Frenchman, for a young woman wearing a bad mustache. She could have made this role pure slapstick, but instead we feel kinship with her attempt to remain a loyal servant to the eternally calm Mr. Fogg.

That Phileas Fogg falls in love with Princess Aouda makes perfect sense, even though it really makes no sense at all. Ajna Jai is excellent in her role as a woman who was supposed to be sacrificed to religious dogma but finds herself instead the love interest of her British savior. We may question whether this is an improvement, but she does not.

There are puns upon puns (yes, Robert Kelley, we heard the "yeah, yeah, yeah" when the ship docks in Liverpool), endless nonstop adventure and spectacular staging. The mystery is not where the iconic balloon is or isn't (explained in the program), but how Ron Campbell can possibly switch costumes and accents so quickly. Too bad about the theme song, not in the play at all but which we sang all the way home.

Take everyone in the family to this show. There were small children and oldsters like us in the audience and everyone walked out smiling and laughing. We love everything about "Around the World in Eighty Days."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Around the World in Eighty Days" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It is a seamless production that earns one Star each for Writing, Acting, Directing and Staging, plus a Bangle of Praise for the cowboy (Campbell) scene as their train is shooting over a river in Nebraska. Don't forget the typhoon scene too. Oh, hell, throw 'em all in. Terrific.

"Around the World in Eighty Days"
Theatreworks, Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec. 31

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Shakespeare in Love" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

The cast is perfect. The writing is sublime. The actors sing and play their own instruments. The boy gets the girl, kind of, though it's a moot point since the action took place more than five hundred years ago. Bottom line: Marin Theater Company's production of "Shakespeare in Love" is as good as theater gets. Barring a December surprise, this is the best show we've seen all year.

Adam Magill is a star. As young Will Shakespeare, during an age when females are not allowed on a theater stage, he is finding it impossible to find male actors capable of conveying the passion he writes into his characters. Enter Viola de Lesseps (Megan Trout), a beautiful young woman disguised as a man so she might also become an actor, and bingo! We now have more passion than the authorities can deal with. Magill and Trout make us believe they mean it when they kiss, something as rare on the Bay Area theater stage as an unlimited arts budget. 

The entire cast shines. L. Peter Callender, Stacy Ross, Kenny Toll, Mark Anderson Phillips, Robert Sicular and Thomas Gorrebeeck have the greater roles, but there are two show-stoppers in the supporting cast as well: Sango Tajima as the irrepressible young boy who can't quite get anyone to recognize him ( the "Anybodys" character from West Side Story) (Tajima also plays violin in the band); and the audience's favorite Molly (Spot the dog). The Queen does prefer a story with a dog, you see. On Opening Night, Molly, a cross between a standard poodle and a cocker spaniel) kept staring at the audience and wagging her tail as they Oooohed and Ahhhed. What a ham.

This is a collaboration of geniuses. First Shakespeare, then Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's screenplay for the movie, and now Lee Hall's adaptation of the film for the stage. We know that with a cast of fourteen, each playing multiple roles, there are in fact hundreds of sticky spots. But everything feels seamless. Credit must be given to Jasson Minadakis for Direction, as well as to Scenic Designer Kat Conley, Costume Designer Katherine Nowacki and Music Director Jennifer Reason.

Quickly, away ye to the Buy Now key. Go fast, while tickets remain. Like us, you will want to go again.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

We are waiting for the white smoke to come out of the Awards Division Office at San Francisco Theater Blog, because there are rumors of...wait...wait, yes!

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has awarded "Shakespeare in Love" FIVE STARS! This is the first Five Star Review in more than four years: one star each for story, acting, directing, set and dog. How do you feel about that, Sango Tajima?

 "Shakespeare in Love"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through Dec. 17

Monday, November 20, 2017

"The Royale" ☼ ☼

Marco Ramirez knows boxing, so he realized that actors on stage pretending to be boxers will never feel authentic. So in his "The Royale," making its Bay Area Premiere at the Aurora in Berkeley, he decided to negate the lack of realism my stylizing the pugilism. The main character, Jay (Calvin M. Thompson), as well as Jay's first opponent, Fish (Satchel André), and also his final opponent ( spoiler alert - we cannot tell you who this is) all stand at a distance from one another across the stage and kind of -- dance. To supposedly throw punches they slam their feet down and grunt, and when they have been hit by those punches their facial expressions become pained, or if they have been knocked out, one lies on the stage and one exults.

If you have never seen a boxing match before, or if you ore one of the many who despise boxing for its animalistic overtone, this stylization may work for you. For us -- not so much. The actors have to also stay in time with a complicated rhythmical motif. There is just too much going on to feel real.

Ramirez's story, which parallels the real-life story of Jack Johnson, the great American fighter from the beginning of the 20th century, is more about racism and classism than it is about boxing, and the issues resonate to this day. But the ending -- the final fight -- well, we won't say anything more about it except that the whole show points to the payoff -- the epic struggle between the two great fighters of the day -- and what we get is symbolism. You can't get around it -- you accept this theatrical conceit, or you don't. Many do -- the show has been extended. We don't.

Satchel André is a particularly effective Fish, the primitive man from Mississippi with power in his fists but lacking an appropriate fear of the world around him. Tim Kniffin plays Jay's white manager who cannot help himself from uttering racist dogma.

Atim Udoffia plays Jay's sister, but her insistence on beating her brother down for social ills, about which he can do nothing, grates on this audience member. We want Jay to tell her to just go home. Instead -- well, you'll see.


The San Francisco Theater Blog is unable to get behind this production of "The Royale." We are giving it Two Stars, one for Donald E. Lacy Jr.'s fine performance as Wynton, the wise and world-weary trainer who tries to keep Jay centered, and one for the idea of trying dancing and finger snapping instead of boxing. It is an admirable attempt, but one that, for us, tires quickly, unable to make it through to the final round.

Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley