SF Theater Blog

Monday, May 16, 2016

Red Velvet: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There are many things to like about San Francisco Playhouse's production of Lolita Chakrabarati's "Red Velvet."  Ms. Chakrabarati has created a fictionalized recounting about the real-life appearances in Europe of Ira Aldridge, a black American actor, the first non-white actor to play Shakespearean leads on a European stage. The story, from the 1830s, is true. For hundreds of years, even Othello was played by a white actor in blackface.

Carl Lumbly plays Aldridge and Susi Damilano plays Ellen, the centerpieces of this drama. They exude a sexual energy that can lead only to downfall, Aldridge unable to curb his fierceness as an actor and Ellen making little effort to curb her attraction to him.

 Elena Wright plays three roles, including Aldridge's wife Margaret, Tim Kniffin is an excellent Charles Kean, Richard Lewis James gets to display his Henry Higgins English and Patrick Russell his Maurice Chevalier. Devin O'brien plays Henry and Britney Frazier has a small but important roll as the theater's Jamaican maid and voice of caution to Ira.

Language is key here. Aldridge has assumed the upper-crust English he knows he must use to succeed, but when he is angry his true vernacular bubbles to the surface. We need to keep reminding ourselves this is 1833. Britain's economy depends on American cotton produced by black slaves, and the English attitude about cheap labor sounds terrifyingly similar to our own concerning immigration.

The set is eye-popping. Gary English has designed a masterful Victorian drawing room which blends well with Abra Berman's costumes.

If this show has a fault it is that it feels somewhat awkward, in that the author has chosen to impose a twenty-first century sensibility upon nineteenth century characters. Then again, one of the show's strengths is pointing out to us how little some things have changed.


 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Red Velvet" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Right now Act II feels a bit forced. I would wait a week or two until the actors settle into their material.

 "Red Velvet" is ultimately about betrayal, as is so much Shakespeare. The Bangle of Praise is for reminding us of that miraculous connection between great actors and powerful drama.

"Red Velvet"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 25

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Empty Nesters: UNRATED

 It's a familiar problem to those of us whose children have grown up and left the house. It's really quiet around here, isn't it Hon? Garret Jon Groenweld's "The Empty Nesters" takes us through the angst, as Mom and Dad attempt to figure out what's going to happen next.

Greg (John Walker) and Frances (Pamela Gaye Walker) have dropped off their daughter at her new college in Arizona. They've driven on to tour the Grand Canyon, but can't stop thinking about her not being home any more. Frances doesn't understand why her daughter hasn't phoned her yet, seeing as the two are used to talking several times a day on the phone. Greg, meanwhile, hasn't stopped complaining about the price of parking, the curios in the gift shop, the length of the ticket line and everything except his sadness.

The two begin to take it out on each other. Frances drops a bomb and Greg reacts. Clearly, both parents are bereft. It is a feeling we have all had.

But it doesn't really feel like a play yet, it's more like a chat room conversation. Nothing much happens, there are no surprises and the ending is anti-climactic, so the audience isn't sure the show is over.

Frances: "I don't think I can face her empty room."

Greg: "What are we going to do instead?"

That's about it. The Walkers are trained actors, hit their marks and deliver their lines. But there is little mystery here. Something needs to happen. They're in Arizona. Maybe a UFO?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has decided not to rate this show. It's better than Two Stars, because there are nice moments. But not quite enough yet to merit a Three Star recommendation.

"The Empty Nesters"
Z-Space Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
through June 11

Thursday, May 12, 2016

runboyrun: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

If you are willing to work, Mfoniso Udofia's 'runboyrun' will reward you with a nuanced story and extraordinary acting. The show is performed in Nigerian English with no attempts to temper either the thick accents or the magical realism. It took us half the ninety minute show to acclimate to the language, but once we did we were transported into another dimension.

Part of a proposed nine-play saga of a Nigerian family's survival during the Nigerian Civil War and ultimate immigration to America, runboyrun features Adrian Roberts as Disciple Ufot, a man haunted by the memory of his sister's death, Omoze Idenhenre as Abasiama Ufot, Disciple's long-suffering wife and Katherine Renee Turner as Sister. Turner played the younger Abasiama in "Sojourners," the prequel to runboyrun,

Also in the cast is Rotimi Agbabiaka as the shellshocked Boy, Rafael Jordan as the blinded Ben Gun and Nancy Moricette as Mother. We don't want to give you too much information because figuring out the mysterious plot is one of the evening's pleasures.

We loved the set by Erik Flatmo, which brought us a frosty main floor and an overheated basement in the family home in Massachusetts, plus room for the frightening chaos back in Southern Nigeria. This is not an easy show to watch but it is an effort well worth making.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "runboyrun" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We like to work for our dinner, to see a story not mired in the obvious. Udofia's writing, Sean San Jose's direction and the entire ensemble of actors earn one star each. The BANGLE is for the Magic, and the courage it takes to present a show as complex as this one. Ms. Udofia is a marvel.

The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through May 15

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The Heir Apparent: ☼ ☼ ☼

Early Eighteenth Century French farce updated for relevance for modern audiences, "The Heir Apparent" is witty and enjoyable. Playwright-Adapter David Ives and a terrific cast keep us chuckling as the plot thickens and those who are about to die never quite do.

Written originally (in 1708) by Jean-Francois Regnard and told entirely in rhyming couplets, we have a familiar story: the rich old aristocrat Geronte (Julian Lopez-Morillas) appears to be on his last legs, so the race is on to see who can score his estate. Nephew Eraste (Kenny Toll) has the closest claim and he hopes his girl friend's mother Argante (Elizabeth Carter) can help secure his financial fortunes. The old man has other ideas, including marrying Argante's daughter Isabelle (Khalia Davis), who just happens to be Eraste's beloved.

As we all know, francs are the root of all evil.

It all comes down to what Scruple, the very short lawyer, says. Played on his knees by Lawrence Radecker, Scruple's scruples (or lack thereof) will determine who gets the cash, that is, if the old man ever dies. 

Performing an entire show in bawdy rhyme showcases the skill of the ensemble. We loved many of the rhymes, but rhyming "feminist" with "enemas" is probably our favorite.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Heir Apparent" Three Stars. French rhyming farce, admirable in execution, the show has moments that rise above slapstick into true humor with a bite. Katie Rubin and Patrick Kelly Jones bring humor to their roles as Servant Schleps. We loved Callie Floor's costumes, especially the maroon outfit Geronte sports as his demise proves to have been postponed.

"The Heir Apparent"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through May 22

Friday, April 22, 2016

"The Lion" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG !

Benjamin Scheuer had me with his first guitar riff. "The Lion" is the finest show we've seen all year, as well as the shortest. All those songs, all that grief and joy, a brilliant guitarist and singer, a story that ebbs and flows and then flows some more. Half a box of kleenex later you walk out of the theater and you look at your watch and realize the whole thing lasted less than forty five minutes. It's impossible. And yet -- I was there. And you should go too.

Scheuer wanders around the stage, playing different guitars, but, as good as he is, only three of them sound different (electric, small acoustic and the rest). They probably have different tunings, so that's why he does it, but…maybe a different sound now and then? Maybe we could even see that banjo?

OK, we're stretching it. Maybe he could sing in Swahili too. And his name has three vowels in a row.

Sometimes the reviewer needs to shut up. There is nothing in this show but pleasure. Go quickly! "The Lion" only runs until May 1.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lion" its highest possible rating for a one man show: Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE AND AN EXPLANATION POINT! Ben Scheuer can write, play, sing and perform, and earns a Star for each one. The BANGLE is for the one song that touched us most: "You Make Me Laugh." This is one magnificent love song.

And Prince died today. You know? Music can indeed be transcendent and change our lives for the better. Keep going, Ben. You're on a roll.

"The Lion"
A.C.T. Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through May 1

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Anne Boleyn" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

You love this show before it starts. Nina Ball's castle interior, with all those doors for characters to hop in and out of, gets us ready for all the machinations and pomp of Tudor England.

And it just gets better. This is only the second American production of Howard Brenton's 2010 homage to the mysterious and short-term second wife of Henry VIII. She has historically been presented as an unfortunate victim of Henry's lustful appetites. Here, she becomes a willing conniver whose true goal, in tandem with Thomas Cromwell, is to bring Protestantism to England.

Whatever the truth may have been, Liz Sklar is mesmerizing as Anne Boleyn. In a role that demands we see her as both a woman and a ghost, she keeps us pulling for her, despite the history with which we are well acquainted. Craig Marker is Sklar's equal, as King Henry VIII but even more as King James 1 (Henry's grandson through Mary, Queen of Scots).

We also loved Charles Shaw Robinson's two roles as Lord Cecil and Cardinal Wolsey, as well as Dan Hiatt as Tyndale. And Ashley Holvick's costumes are worth the price of admission by themselves.

Anne Boleyn has been portrayed many times throughout modern history. Here we get a far more nuanced view. Historically accurate or not, it makes for great entertainment.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards "Anne Boleyn" Four Stars. Mrs. Kritic, the reviewer's wife, really loved it. The reviewer himself was enthralled with Act 1 but found his eyes getting heavy during an extended Act II. As is always best in situations involving love and theater criticism, he will err on the side of keeping his head. Four Stars.

"Anne Boleyn"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
 Through May 8

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Cyrano" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

(Introductory Note: a closer inspection of the above photo illustrates why 17th Century background singers did not stand behind the lead singer.)

Cyrano de Bergerac lived a short life in the 17th Century, a dramatist known for his swordplay as well as his wordplay. In the 1890s Edmond Rostand's"Cyrano" immortalized Monsieur de Bergerac's oversized nose, and the rest is history. The classic story of impossible love and failed opportunity has been performed countless times and in many languages since then. This is even the second presentation by Theatreworks, this time a newer adaptation by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner.

There are two memorable scenes in Act One. In the first, Cyrano (J. Anthony Crane) becomes the bard, composing and singing an ode in iambic pentameter while simultaneously dueling with a Duke. In the second, Cyrano dispatches a hundred foes, one after the other, all dumb enough to stand in a line and attack him one-on-one. It appears life was cheap in the seventeenth century.

In Act Two we get the memorable balcony scene, where Cyrano declares his love for the fair Roxanne (Sharon Rietkerk), but does it through the mouth of Christian (Chad Deverman), whose nose is the normal size. This is a lovely set piece, with all three actors playing off each other effectively.

It is all good fun, but we must mention that Act Two feels like Acts Two and Three. They desperately need to shorten it or remove the lengthy epilogue, or perhaps it is just a further story that feels like an epilogue. An otherwise witty production grinds to a halt as we duel the author to get to the finish.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Cyrano" Three Stars with a bauble of despair, but the bauble would be removed if they simply tighten up Act Two and pare it down to our admittedly limited Twentieth Century attention spans.

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