SF Theater Blog

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NASSIM: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !!!!!

This review will be short and sweet, because you are already running out of time. "Nassim," playing at the Magic Theatre for only five nights, is unlike anything else we have ever seen. Nassim Soleimanpour is an Iranian playwright living in Berlin who has figured out what a performer on a stage can do to bring an audience into his heart. And he isn't even the performer. He is offstage half the time.

A different actor, chosen by Artistic Director Loretta Greco, takes the stage each night, having never met Nassim nor seen the script. The actor is as much in the dark as we are as to what will happen next, as he or she opens an envelope which will tell him or her what to do or say. We saw the amazing Safiya Fredericks on Tuesday night. Wednesday (tonight) will feature Sean San Jose, Julia McNeal on Thursday, Sarah Nina Hayon on Friday, Lauren English for Saturday's matinee and James Carpenter Saturday evening.

Each actor follows video instructions from Nassim, and ...oh, this is silly. There is no way to explain it. If you are unaccustomed to trusting your faithful but normally grumpy and difficult-to-please reviewer, allow me to say: Now is the time. Go see this show. Then write and thank me.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ ☼ !!!!!

What the hell? FIVE STARS? Is there music? No. Will a show on one evening be like any of the other shows? No. Can we guarantee brilliance? No. But we saw it. How often can we say that?

What we have here is a strange but brilliant hybrid of mime, improv and humor that will have you and the rest of the audience leaning forward in your seats so you don't miss anything. And you will learn some very lovely Farsi. 

Yes, friends. Yes. Just go.

Seats are not expensive, but pay extra if you must so you can sit in the center section and not on the sides. The performer's reactions are every bit as fascinating as the material. 

And a special shout-out for Director Omar Elerian. 

The Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through Nov. 16 ONLY

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

"That Don Reed Show" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Less a stage show than a series of short sketches, "That Don Reed Show" is very funny in most places. The Marsh stage feels like a place where Reed tries out new material, some of which is terrific, and one, at the end, which shows you in which direction this brilliant mimic and comic may turn.

Reed is a physical actor with a face of plastic. He molds his cheeks and mouth to look and sound like politicians or persons from his past. We loved both "Slow Motion Theater" bits. Same for his description of Shug, the owner of Shug's tavern, who is a Jackie-Gleason-like bartender who opines about the state of the world while drying his imaginary glass with a towel. The evil Thanksgiving benediction involving "Father God" gives us delightful shivers, seeing as Thanksgiving is only two weeks away. 

Add to that the lovely segment where the audience fills in all the details of a story he is telling. This could be an entire show. As could be the final bit -- a heartfelt discussion of homelessness that shows Don Reed has a lot more to him than a gift for comedy and a face that appears to have no bones. 

Less successful are some of the musical bits -- Don Reed is a gifted performer but not quite Bobby McFerrin.

We go see Don Reed every chance we get. You'll love "That Don Reed Show."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division still loves Blinky. We grant "That Don Reed Show" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Bangle is not only for our favorite jokes, but for the genesis of a sensibility that could vault Don Reed into his own special category.

"That Don Reed Show"
The Marsh, San Francisco
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat. and Sun. through Dec. 29

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Gypsy" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

In the first place it's Jule Styne and in the second place it's Stephen Sondheim. You can stop right there, listen to the songs and go home whistling. 1959 was a good year for Sondheim, having previously finished "West Side Story," and Jule Styne's melodies stick in your ears like wax. And if you don't know the show, there are surprises.

"Clear the decks! Clear the tracks!
You've got nothing to do but relax.
Blow a kiss. Take a bow.
Honey, everything's coming up roses!"

Hundreds of people have recorded this song and it is always fast and peppy. Happy. Confident. It is anything but. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is about facing failure and the possibility of one's life being for nothing. It is sung by Mama Rose, played by the fabulous Ariela Morgenstern, at the end of Act One, as her world appears to be crumbling. Morgenstern is really good, especially since anyone taking on this career-defining role will always be compared to the Broadway greats who invented it, such as Ethel Merman, Bette Middler and Bernadette Peters among many others, Morgenstern can stand with all of them, as an actor as well as a song-belter.

The story is well known, written by Arthur Laurents from the 1957 autobiography by Gypsy Rose Lee. Mama Rose is the ultimate stage mom, spending her life to give her children the Vaudeville stardom that she herself was never able to achieve. 

"Curtain up! Light the lights!
You got nothing to hit but the heights!
You'll be swell! You'll be great.
I can tell. Just you wait."

Also terrific are Jade Shojaee as Louise, the younger, neglected daughter who turns into Gypsy; Tia Konsur as the adult June; and Emma Berman as the crackerjack younger June who might even steal this show. 

DC Scarpelli is a fine Herbie though he does appear to be channeling Yul Brynner.

And Gypsy wouldn't be Gypsy without the three strippers who teach Louise she's gotta have a gimmick. They are played to perfection by Glenna Murillo, Olivia Cabera and Elaine Jennings.

When was the last time you left a musical actually singing the tunes? For us, the night before last. Go feel good. Bay Area Musicals has a winner on its hands.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Gypsy" FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Story, acting, directing, music, it's all here. Our only caveat is to make sure you're in the middle of the Alcazar Theatre. The side seats can be iffy, depending on how far over they place you. We love this show and may beg to see it again, but this time between the goal posts. 

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for this bridge to "Small World, Isn't It?" The song is perfect. You can't write a better bridge than this, with a message that ought to be hung on America's wall:

"We have so much in common,
It's a phenomenon.
We could pool our resources
By joining forces from now on."


Alcazar Theater
650 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Dec. 8


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"Dance Nation" UNRATED

The run is over so it's too late to see San Francisco Playhouse's production of Clare Barron's "Dance Nation." It was a somewhat confounding presentation, seemingly out of kilter with glowing reviews from the earlier New York production, including a nomination for a Pulitzer.

There were good moments, especially at the beginning when it seemed as if the show had a solid sense of itself. But the author's instructions made this a particularly vexing show to watch. Older women pretending to be younger women and non-dancers pretending to be dancers made disbelief harder to suspend than it might have been,

Reviewers appear to be lauding the show's audacity, as well as Bill English and Susi Damilano's willingness to take chances. This has always been a hallmark of San Francisco Playhouse and we are happy to see it is continuing.


"Dance Nation"
San Francisco Playhouse
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel, San Francisco

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"The Chinese Lady" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Lloyd Suh's "The Chinese Lady" is beautifully written, staged and acted. The brilliant fabric canopy (by Liz Matos) in which the real Afong Moy was made to display herself as a carnival attraction in the America of the 1830s and '40s, is as beautifully constructed as was the story created by the American importers of Chinese artifacts who purchased the 14-year-old from her father to enhance their business dealings. Suh's story is an interpretation of actual historical events.

We loved Rinabeth Apostol as the young, tragic girl who believes she is doing something to enhance Chinese-American relations, and Will Dao, her perhaps even more tragic interpreter. Both know how to act out their employers' desires, but as the years pass neither can avoid seeing the truth: they are prisoners, unpaid and exploited. Their culture is disrespected as they are treated like curiosities in a circus, especially after P.T. Barnum buys them from their previous employers.

The picture this paints of America is troublesome. But it would not feel as sad if our attitudes were not in so many ways unchanged after all these years. The idea of extolling the values of a new culture always loses out to fear of the unknown. 

A highlight of this one-act show is Dao's portrayal of President Andrew Jackson. He has given a meeting to Afong Moy, but proves to be as distasteful as all the others. Atung plays the vainglorious President as well as himself as translator for both Jackson and Afong Moy. He speaks excellent, educated English, but must always translate in simple pidgin. This is a set piece that deserves accolades. 

Props to the Props. Jacquelyn Scott has peppered the stage with perfectly inauthentic Chinese artifacts meant to make Jacksonian audiences Oooh and Ahhh. 

The ending is long, because they seem to be laboring to make a point about racism that we all understood from the beginning. There are no other niggles. This is a terrific show.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Chinese Lady" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Acting, directing and staging earn one star each and the BANGLE is for Andrew Jackson. But don't forget how sensitive and vulnerable is Apostol. Congratulations on perfect casting. 

"The Chinese Lady"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through November 3

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Golden Thread Productions: "ReOrient 2019" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The delicious thing about reviewing theater is finding the gems. It was exciting to see Golden Thread Productions' 20th Anniversary production of ReOrient 2019, seven short plays written by writers dealing with issues pertaining to the Middle East or to Hyphenated-Americans with Middle Eastern backgrounds. Acting, humor and powerful subject matter were evident in each show; somewhat disheartening was how few people were in the audience. These terrific shows deserve far greater exposure. Hopefully, audiences will build as the run continues.

There were no clinkers. Each show was weird but understandable, with lots of words but no slowdowns in action. Perhaps it helps for a show to be five or ten minutes long. This also eliminates the issue of shorter and shorter attention spans.

The opener, "The Grievance Club" by Rendah Heywood, is a showstopper. Atosa Babaoff plays a seriously pissed-off banker, eager to perform physical mayhem upon the list of aging white men who have eagerly signed up to receive it. Babaoff returns as Maysoon in Yussef el Guindi's "Brass Knuckles." She is determined not to allow her anger to destroy her. She says "Today I will have more empathy for people who are assholes."

Lawrence Radecker is perfect as a guilt ridden Turkish Lieutenant in Mustafa Kaymak's "The Basement," delivering platitude after platitude to a journalist as bodies are hauled away in body bags.

We also loved Sofia Ahmad and Ali-Moosa Mirza, two adults playing eight-and-ten year-old Syrian children, whose besieged lives are illuminated only by Harry Potter in Lameece Issaq's "Noor and Hadi go to Hogwarts." This is a sad one, but perhaps not as chilling as Naomi Wallace's "The Book of Mima," in which the plight of Yemen and its children is played out in a monologue attributed to a Saudi Tomahawk Missile. This is truly brilliant writing, packing a punch and terrific performance by Lawrence Radecker.

We also enjoyed the other two shows, the futuristic "In Spenglic" and "An Echo of Laughter," in which a Hitler who does nothing but guffaw still manages to command the stage.

The show continues until Nov. 17.  Go soon. You will want to tell your friends.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Four Stars to "ReOrient 2019." Do not expect major productions with costume changes and elaborate sets. What each of these seven shows does is make us think, while also giving us room for hope.

"Golden Thread Productions:"ReOrient 2019"
Potrero Playhouse
1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 17

Monday, September 23, 2019

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ☼ ☼

Let it be said in advance that this reviewer has a conflict of interest. I love Word For Word. I generally receive more than I expect and in almost every circumstance end up floored by both the ensemble of actors and the immense task of taking a story and mounting it, word for word, on a theater stage.

That said: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is not W4W's finest moment. Clearly, the company realized something was up when they tried to take the shooting of the albatross, the great moral lesson of the 1798 Samuel Coleridge poem, and tie it into climate change as well as the destruction of native American lands. It doesn't work. The poem is arcane, the language is ancient and difficult to decipher and the bringing down of the albatross, in light of the corruption and misery we observe every minute of our lives here in 2019, seems like pretty small potatoes.

Word For Word shows are almost always magical. We found this one ponderous. Coleridge is known to have been an opium fanatic. The skeptic (me), says: "Dude smoked a lot of opium and saw God."

The skeptic's wife says, "I loved the staging."

Critic agrees. Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally's set, a representation of the open prow of an ancient sailing ship, which also turns into a coffin, is marvelous to view as we file into the theater. It sets the stage for what follows, as the actors parade down a ramp and into the ship.

Charles Shaw Robinson is an excellent Ancient Mariner, but, for us, the rest of the cast is a blur. Directors Delia MacDougall and Jim Cave appear to have been trying hard to figure out how a cast of nine can all speak one poem. Their solution is to have one person speak a few words and then someone else speak one or two, with a third person finishing the line or short stanza. The result is the words themselves lack power as we are concentrating on figuring out whose mouth is moving on stage.

The problem is magnified by the sound system, wherein each actor is miked into a large overhead speaker, with the result being all the voices come from overhead and not from the actor. It is very difficult to bond with an actor whose voice is separated from his body, especially when the words are in 1798 English and the actor does little but stand in one place and mouth a few words at a time.

We generally love Teddy Hulsker's Projection Designs, but this time not so much. Who were those people, anyway, with the white robes and the sun shining behind them? Jesus? Mary? We think so, but one of them looked a lot like Pat Silver. The one line that sticks with us is not the famous one ("Water! Water! Nor any drop to drink!") but instead what Coleridge said about his fantasy woman: "...her skin was as white as leprosy."


The San Francisco Theater Blog gives "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Two Stars. We understand that this rating places the show below the Mendoza Line (see sidebar for explanation). We applaud Word For Word, as always, for taking chances no one else takes. But ask any ancient mariner. If you go fishing enough times, sooner or later you will not haul up enough for dinner.

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
A Word For Word Production
Z Space (upstairs)
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 12