SF Theater Blog

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Straight White Men: ? ☼ ?


You may love Young Jean Lee's new "Straight White Men." You may find it speaks to issues you find crucial and contemporary. You may laugh out loud, as many in our Opening Night audience did, at things that others in the same audience found sad and depressing. It may be that if you are of an age closer to the dad in this story, as younger audience members hoot and holler, you will turn and ask your seat-mate: "What am I missing? Why are they laughing?"


Not that the slapstick is not funny. Sometimes it is. But this is not Father Knows Best. Everything has an edge. Lee writes that her story is actually about gender -- the entire production team is composed of female and/or gender-nonconforming people, for example. The father and three sons we see on stage, horsing around in both playful and destructive ways, are in this view caught up in gender normative roles. Eldest brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) has given up on the expectations everyone has for the smartest and most-highly educated son. He has returned to care for his recently-widowed father. The other two brothers, successful in their own careers, see Matt's assumed role as caregiver to be demeaning and beneath him.

Dad (James Carpenter) does too, though he is trying hard to pretend otherwise.


Jake (Seann Gallagher) and Drew (Christian Haines), the middle and younger brothers, take turns trying to categorize Matt. Jake wants Matt's reticence to compete in the world to be a political statement, while Drew hammers on Matt to see a therapist.

This sounds pretty much like a family with no women in it. There is another angle, however, which involves Person In Charge 1 (J Jha) and Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans). I don't want to take away any surprise, so let me simply say the guy in the dress APPEARS to be calling to Matt and the woman doing all the cleanup APPEARS also to be calling him.


More, we will not say. Anyway, the audience would probably not find it funny.


RATINGS: ? ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Department of Confusion awards "Straight White Men" ? Stars. We just don't know how to feel about this show. Did we miss something obvious? The youngsters in the audience seemed to think so. Others, like this reviewer, found ourselves scratching our gray beards and wondering what is so funny about these sad people?

"Straight White Men"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 8
$22-$60







Sunday, June 10, 2018

"A Lesson From Aloes" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


A brilliant play never ages. What a delight it is to revisit Athol Fugard's "A Lesson From Aloes." We find ourselves as involved in the lives of Piet, Gladys and Steve as we were when we first saw the show back in the 1990s. Performed in Johannesburg before opening on Broadway in 1981, the show takes us back to 1963 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Arpartheid is fourteen years old at this point and firmly in control of the racial inequalities it has officially visited upon the country. 


Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Wendy van den Heuvel) are preparing a dinner for an old friend in the anti-Apartheid resistance. There is tension between the couple, which we realize stems from Glady's recent release from an institution. Of course, the issues are deeper than that -- the government has taken her there on suspicion of agitating against them. And the bitter reason for that becomes even clearer later.


Steve (Adrian Roberts) arrives, a bit tipsy. He has announced that he is taking his family and emigrating to England because there is no more future in South Africa for non-whites. This was true enough in 1963 but Apartheid had more than thirty years left and the situation got so much worse in later years.


There are several lovely sequences when Steve and Piet remember the old days and the good times they had together.


The truth slowly emerges. Fugard shows us his all his skill as a dramatist, giving us but a taste as the plot thickens, and couching it in the voices of his characters so we can see how intolerable life has become in their beloved country.


This is a beautiful story and a brilliant rendition. By all means, rush down to Z-Space before June 29.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Lesson From Aloes" Four Stars. Story, above all, and then acting, set and Timothy Near's direction earn One Star each. All three actors will reach out and grab you. Their world is different than ours, but Athol Fugard makes sure we feel every beat of their hearts.


"A Message From Aloes"
Z Space Theater
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through June 29
$10-$50



Finks ☼ ☼ ☼

By the end of Joe Gilford's "Finks," you have learned more about America in the 1950s than you wanted to know. The wave of Anti-Communist hysteria that swept over the country in the wake of Russia's awakening and emergence as a world power is difficult for us to imagine now. But the underlying message is that fear will always make America react in the most reactionary ways.



Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) is a struggling comic who falls for Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino). Natalie is the prototypical Jewish activist of the day, filled with slogans and songs glorifying The Collective. Mickey just wants to work, but becoming involved with Natalie means also being present at meetings of show-business people with left-wing sympathies.

This is what America was like. Being in the room where it happened could get you thrown in jail and blacklisted from your job.


 We love seeing Gabriel Marin again, as doomed actor Fred Lang, plus an excellent set piece as a really tall Lou Costello. Leo Ash Evans plays Bobby, Natalie's professional and bisexual partner. His dance sequences with Natalie, and again at the powerful ending, are highlights of the show.


We also enjoyed Michael Barrett Austin, playing several roles including Elia Kazan (seen below), as well as the imposing Robert Sicular whose severe Committee Chairman look scared us silly despite remembering we were watching a show.



Act One starts too slowly for us, as we become accustomed to the staging, but in Act Two Director Giovanna Sardelli brings us home powerfully.

"Finks" is Joe Gilford's tribute to his parents, blacklisted actor and producers Jack and Madeline Gilford. We become drawn into the personal dilemmas faced by anyone ever accused of a trumped-up charge in a country where insanity has taken over.  In the end, deciding to be a fink or not depends on you. Sometimes, all you can do is dance as names are named.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Finks" Three Stars. The show is one that needed to be written. The excellent dramatic sequences, terrific cast and inventive staging outweigh the stylized comic routines which just make us uncomfortable. A little knowledge of Yiddishkeit --- well, it couldn't hurt.

"Finks"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through July 1, 2018
$40-$100

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


Go see the Ray of Light production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at San Francisco's Victoria Theater. The brilliant twist of an all-female cast adds a dimension to the original show that makes it feel new. Dancing, singing, acting and directing are spectacular. The set is first rate. We left the theater feeling like we had seen a Broadway production.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and Lyricist Tim Rice were in their early twenties when their rock opera debuted in 1970, a new period for post-"Hair" Broadway. The concept of Jesus being the pop star of his day was both loved, on Broadway, and reviled in Christian hinterlands.


But times have changed in half a century. Ray of Light effectively brings mixed media into the new show, with TV screens featuring network bubbleheads treating Jesus's last days in Jerusalem like every other silly and sensationalist newscast. It is a satisfying touch of modernity to see demonstrators on TV carrying signs that say "RESIST ROME!"

Jesus is played by Janelle LaSalle. Her entrance, afro soaking up the spotlight as her followers part to allow her through, is stunning. She sings more like an angel than a prophet.


We loved Maita Ponce as Mary Magdalene. She sings two of the show's most famous numbers, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's All Right." Ponce is very special and we will hear a lot more from her.


Another standout is the evil Caiaphas, sung and acted by Heather Orth. Her deep alto projects malevolent power. She is beautifully cast and played with power.

And let us not forget to mention Costume Designer Maggie Whitaker's clothing all the High Priests in sleeveless power dresses, each in a primary color.

Judas (Jocelyn Pickett) is a strong singer but may be somewhat miscast. As an actor she is given few chances to project any doubts Judas may have had. This may be the director's choice, but it is questionable. In the end we are led to believe she just cheaped out and ratted on her friend.


Well, maybe she did.

Disciples can sing. Apostles can sing. Everyone can dance. One walks on water. What a show.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Department gives "Jesus Christ Superstar (female version" a very high rating of Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE is for the delightful twist of the female cast. Director Shane Ray told us one of the reasons he chose to cast the show this way is there are so many brilliant female actors in the Bay Area who come to audition. Aren't we the lucky ones.

 "Jesus Christ Superstar" (female version)
Victoria Theater
2961 16th St., San Francisco
Through June 9, 2018
$35-$40







Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"An Entomologist's Love Story" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


The plight of the male firefly. He flashes his light and waits for a female to respond. When she does, they mate. When they are done, he dies. In some cases, she eats him. What's a guy to do?


Lucas Verbrugghe plays entomologist Jeff. He shares an office with entomologist Betty, played by Lori Prince. They flashed their lights with each other for a semester when they were much younger. Now, they are just pals, though there is still some lightning between them, whether they admit it or not.

Enter Lindsay, exactly the kind of woman Betty has been telling Jeff he will someday fall for. Played by Jessica Lynn Carroll, Lindsay is young, innocent, pretty and has great legs. She needs Jeff to take a look at some suspected bedbugs. Their lights flash immediately, to Betty's dismay.


Betty, meanwhile, keeps seeking out the wrong kind of guy. When a real possibility opens up with Andy, played by Will Springhorn, Jr., she is conflicted. Should she? Shouldn't she? But Andy is a worker and Betty is an intellectual. Workers do not get to date the queen, in either the insect or human worlds.


Director Giovanna Sardelli has been with this show since it began at Theatreworks Silicon Valley, and it shows. She knows these characters. Melissa Ross's book is very funny and each actor brings something different to the table. Jeff is calm and looking for stability, Betty is a scientist who loves to solve everyone's problems except her own, Lindsay is smarter than her cuteness would suggest and Andy was just born on the wrong side of the tracks. He would probably be perfect for Betty, but it's never going to happen.


SF Playhouse's staging and sets are always as good as anyone's in the city, but Nina Ball outdoes herself this time with an office that turns into a park bench. The only caveat is that in the real America there are no thirty-five year old scientists who have offices that big. But this is the theater. We come to pretend.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "An Entomologist's Love Story" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. It allows us to laugh at our own mating rituals, while offering a lot of heart and hope. If Melissa Ross ever decides to attack the class conflict between Andy and Betty this show could become deeper and more lasting. We love it like it is, but it might grow into something unforgettable.


"An Entomologist's Love Story"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco
Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 23, 2018
$20-$125







Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Marjorie Prime" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


One of the finest new plays we have seen in years, Marjorie Prime has stayed with us. The year is 2062. The Senior Serenity company has devised a computer application to store a person's memories in a robot that looks and acts like the person's late spouse. The robot is called a Prime. Armed with many shared memories, the Prime can be a companion for the Senior. Senior Serenity says companionship is important.


Joy Carlin plays Marjorie, a lady in her eighties who is forgetting more and more as she ages. She has been provided with Walter Prime, who Marjorie has chosen to have look young and handsome like her late husband Walter did in his thirties. Played by Thomas Gorrebeeck, Walter Prime freaks us out with his calm, all-knowing manner, and our unease does not dissipate, even when we realize Walter Prime is not the real Walter.


The Primes learn who they are by asking questions. Of course, the answers they are given are filtered through the aging person's view of his or her life. These stories become truth to the Prime, whether or not they were true in real life. We see that memory and reality are not always the same. Memory itself becomes less important than which memories we choose to hold on to.


Marjorie's daughter Tess (a brilliant performance by Julie Eccles) is having trouble coping with her life, made worse by a tragedy we slowly discover, one which has been ignored and forgotten by Marjorie. Tess's husband Jon (Anthony Fusco) tries desperately to hang on to Tess, to no avail. In time, we will meet Tess Prime and Jon Prime and this is where things get really crazy.


And wonderful. Jordan Harrison's story is intriguing and Ken Rus Schmoll's direction is the perfect blend of confusion and revelation. WORD OF WARNING: If you have an elderly parent, Joy Carlin's performance will hit close to the bone. Be prepared.


RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Marjorie Prime" FOUR STARS. It has everything we love in a show -- fine acting, writing, direction and the extra dimension of surprise. Marin Theater Company has a winner on its hands.

"Marjorie Prime"
Marin Theater Company
397 MillerAvenue, Mill Valley
Through May 27 (MUST CLOSE! DO NOT WAIT!)
$22-$60


Saturday, May 5, 2018

"Tinderella" ☼ ☼ ☼


A two-act comedy with an intriguing concept, "Tinderella" has some very funny moments, particularly in Act One. "Cinderella in the age of Tinder" gives us the young princess searching for love as well as dealing with her wicked sisters, a handsome young prince, kind of, golden slippers that turn out to be dazzling high heels, and a roommate who Disney never imagined. The roommate steals Act one. Ah, if Act 2 had only kept it up.

Rose Oser wrote the book which has many pluses, but the lyrics by Weston Scott and music by Christian B. Schmidt give us little to hang our hat on. Yes, this is a farce, and we should not hope for dazzling lyrics and soaring melodies, but the most entertaining song in the show is called "Dick Pix" and consists of a bunch of guys jumping around taking selfies of their private parts while singing "Dick Pix! Dick Pix! Dick Pix!"


Tinderella has two standout performers. We loved Juliana Lustenader as Meg, the blonde straight girl, and Branden Noel Thomas as Dylan, her gay (and large) roommate. Dylan convinces Meg to go on Tinder to meet the love of her life, though he has had no luck finding his. Lustenader stays in character and sings beautifully, while Thomas has a big, gospely voice. We wish he had been given a vehicle to show it off better.

The music, in general, is upbeat. At the curtain of Act One we were excited to see where the show would go, and how the characters would develop. Act Two begins with two excellent songs ("Super Cool Party" and "Slow Grind Love Song") but it's all downhill from there. The side-story of Marcus (Jackson Thea) and Julie (Sarah Jiang) bogs down because Marcus is so incredibly vacuous. Everyone knows Sarah will do what she wants and Marcus will forever remain a doofus.


We love Meredith Joelle Charlson's choreography, made even more impressive by the small stage. We were also impressed with the ensemble singing, especially the crew of Andrew Chung, James Seifert and Ryan Wakamiya. Don't get me wrong: "Dick Pix!" is hysterical.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ 
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Tinderella" an A for effort and a B for the cast. This translates as Three Stars. We hope some rewriting of Act Two is in store and we would love to have a song in our heads besides three guys shouting "Dick Pix! Dick Pix! Dick Pix!"



"Tinderella"
Custom Made Theater
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through May 26
$25-$42