SF Theater Blog

Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Speechless" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Imagine being asked to give a ten-minute Powerpoint presentation on a topic you aren't given until you begin, using random slides you've never seen before. In addition, the slides have nothing to do with your topic, but you must incorporate them into your presentation anyway, using a laser pointer.

Part improv, part TV game show and part payback for being forced to sit through far too many Powerpoint speeches, host Sammy Wegent's "Speechless" can get really funny and is always fresh and interesting. Like all improv, things can slow down and it's uncomfortable when they do, but most of the time you are on the edge of your seat wondering how the contestant is going to avoid stepping on his/her latest visual landmine.

The auduence is young and silicone-valley hip. It's boisterous like Singles Night at your local pub, loud, irreverent and swirling with hipster language and double entendres you don't always understand -- the ones about sex, yes, but the ones about startups and coding, not so much. The contestants are serious but the judges are in it for the laughs, because what they think doesn't matter. The winner is chosen by the audience texting to a predetermined address.

Bottom line: it's a lot of fun. Keep in mind that parking at Public Theatre is problematic, despite two empty and unused city-owned lots next door. "Speechless" runs once a month and the place is packed. Get there early to get a good seat.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division says Hey, it's improv. You might catch a Three Star Night and you might catch a Four Star Night, depending on the luck of the draw. Ours was worth Three Stars Plus a BANGLE OF PRAISE because we hate Powerpoint too, but also with a Bauble of Despair for the amateurish warmup act. So Three Stars sounds about right.

Public Works Theater
161 Erie Street, San Francisco
Every third Thursday of the month
$12 advance $20 at door

Saturday, April 18, 2015

"Sister Play" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

In John Kolvenbach's "Sister Play," four characters are caught up in their long-accepted roles. Since their mom left when the girls were young, Anna, the elder of two sisters (Lisa Brescia), has taken over as mom while the younger Lily (Jessi Campbell) has responded by becoming the wayward child. Even as adults, neither sister is happy with these roles, but they seem to have little interest in changing them. Meanwhile, Anna's husband Malcolm (Anthony Fusco), caught between his love for his wife and his inability to crack through Anna and Lily's sisterly bonds, has accepted his lesser spot in the trio…until William Casey arrives.

Played by Patrick Kelly Jones, William is a Texas-born drifter who would be out of place standing in an empty room. He is creepy, though apparently harmless. You have to suspend your disbelief to trust that Lily would pick him up standing on the highway in the middle of the night and bring him back to what was her father's summer house on Cape Cod, where she, Anna and Malcolm are vacationing; nonetheless, she does. And William sticks around. Self-conscious about coming from a lower social class, William rattles everyone's nerves.

The sisters have the key roles, but the meaty lines come from the men. Malcolm, especially, has a beautiful monologue in Act 2 about being a pamphlet stuck between two compendiums written in a language only they understand; William's musings on needing to act precipitously when you find someone you love make you both appreciate him and accept that he is…out of balance.

"Sister Play" is engrossing and keeps your attention through two long acts, separated by a ten minute intermission. The ensemble cast is excellent and Alex Jaeger's costuming adds an honest note to the production.


The San Francisco Theater  Blog Awards Division awards "Sister Play" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We are awarding the BANGLE to the production, for the wonderful touch of having the characters, in costume, instead of a stage crew, preparing the dinner table for the beginning of Act 2. It involves us intimately in what will follow.

"Sister Play" is a fascinating night of theater, and if we could buy into William Casey a little more the rating would be even higher. As good an actor as Patrick Kelly Jones is, his William is just never going to get Lily. Ain't gonna happen. We give him one more night around the dinner table.

"Sister Play"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through April 19

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Don Reed "Stereotypo: Rants and Rumblngs at the DMV" ☼ ☼ ☼

A more musical show than his previous solo efforts, Don Reed's new "Stereotypo" shows us that in addition to his expected humor Reed owns some cool steps and a nice voice to boot.

In his first, and for our money best solo piece, we fell in love with his characters, especially Blinkie, Reed's pre-adolescent self. East Fourteenth Street came alive as we became involved with the interaction of his characters. But there is no interaction here, and the DMV is little but a location the author can use to opine on the downtrodden characters one might find there.

So this story's strength is its weakness -- there is no Blinkie, no sign of Don Reed himself. And we are already familiar with the DMV. It's difficult to imagine how any of his characters, the kid with no arms, the transgender guy, the old Jewish guy, the Indian taxi driver or any of the others, would actually tell Reed their personal stories in that context we know too well, sitting on an uncomfortable bench with head down, waiting for them to call your number.

As funny as some of the bits are -- we particularly liked Alberta, the DMV greeter as well as the armless boy Reed portrayed by crossing his arms inside his t-shirt so only his opposite hands would protrude from the shirt's armholes -- others feel incomplete. The show's finest moments are the dance sequences -- especially the Indian guy with a black girlfriend doing a dance that mixes Jay-Z and Bollywood. This is a brilliant set piece.

And, in a total switch from 99% of the shows we see, Reed gives us a crackerjack ending. Finally, finally, we see the characters interacting instead of standing and delivering long monologues about themselves. We wish there could be more of this throughout, so we could be involved in a real story in addition to Reed's beloved rants and rumblings. We love and laugh with Don Reed, but we're still waiting for another Blinkie.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division feels "Stereotypo: Rants and Rumblngs at the DMV" was treading water until the ending. But the final moments are so good the show leaped above the Julie Andrews Line (see sidebar for ratings explanation). So we are awarding Three Stars. Don Reed is a funny man and he has plenty of material here to give you some good laughs and remind you to pay those parking tickets so you never have to walk into the DMV again.

"Don Reed Stereotypo: Rants and Rumblngs at the DMV"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED through May 9

Monday, April 6, 2015

"Fire on the Mountain" ☼ ☼ ☼

Part theater and part concert of old-timey music, The Theatreworks Regional Premiere of Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman's "Fire on the Mountain" is a fun night in someone's old barn. You'll get a little coal country history, a lot of nostalgia for the tough old days in Appalachia, plenty of songs (thirty-six, according to the playbill) and some excellent performances. But you have to love this music, because after awhile each song starts to sound like the last one and the next one.

Molly Andrews and David M. Lutken are really, really good. Andrews sings unaccompanied often, in the Irish-y falsetto that makes up so much of this style of music, while Lutken plays a whole series of instruments and his voice has its own special timbre. When the entire ensemble sings in gospel harmony we can feel the strength that comes from a top flight cast who loves what it's doing.

For us, however, the attempt to weave so many songs into a story shortchanges each one. Each song gets a few verses and choruses and then it's done. You do understand the point each is making, but you get little emotion out of it. The show would have far more power if they allowed the songs and the musicians some room to breathe.

Harvy Blanks is the one black actor in the cast and his songs are few, but excellent. The others have individual moments, but this is pretty much the Molly and David Show. If you love Appalachian music you will be in old-timey heaven.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Fire on the Mountain" Three Stars. There are a few show-stoppers, such as Lutken and Tony Marcus's version of "Dark in the Dungeon," Andrews's "Single Girl" and an uncredited U. Utah Philips song by Lutken and Andrews entitled "Miner's Lullaby." They sing that entire song and it's a true heartbreaker.  Look forward to ninety minutes with no intermission.

"Fire on the Mountain"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 26

Monday, March 30, 2015

Stupid F**king Bird: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Dev loves Mash who loves Con who loves Nina who loves Trig who loves himself more than Emma who loves herself a lot. So it went in Anton Chekhov's 19th Century Russia and so it goes in Aaron Posner's Americanized sort-of adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull," now called "Stupid F**king Bird."

It's the production that shines here. There is a play within a play, a fourth wall which is breached constantly to include audience participation, marvelous soliloquies and even some clever songs and dances. If Chekhov had seen "F**king Bird," he may have left the pistol in the drawer and come back the next night to see how it all turns out.

The cast shines, with each actor receiving his or her moment in the spotlight. El Beh is a perfectly depressed Mash, the Goth girl; Adam Magill the overwrought playwright who thinks the weight of the world is on his shoulders, but it's only his mother (an essay in self-absorption by Carrie Paff); Nina (Martha Brigham) is crazier than you think while Joseph Estlack's Dev has more staying power than even he expects. Rounding out the cast are Johnny Moreno as the Oh So Brilliant Trig and Charles Shaw Robinson as Sorn, the voice of reason. Naturally Sorn is the first to die.

Director Susi Damilano takes a lot of chances and most of them work. We've seen El Beh in lots of roles now and she is a fine actress, not 'just' a brilliant musician. James Sugg has given her some wonderfully silly songs to sing, and what a lovely choice to make the ukelele the instrumental voice of such woeful angst. The show is long, but not too long, and how often do we get to say that?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Stupid F**king Bird" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Acting, directing and writing earn one star each, while the BANGLE is for Magill's and Estlack's excellent repartee with the audience as Con begs us to tell him what he ought to do next. It is very difficult to burst through the curtain so many times without it starting to feel phony, but Damilano, Dev and Con pull it off.

Poor baby. Mom was right after all.

"Stupid F**king Bird"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Kensington Park Hotel, Second Floor
Through May 22

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Lake Effect: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A cold front is passing over the warmer waters of Lake Erie, bringing snow and icy winds to the streets of Cleveland. The metaphor of rising and falling temperatures permeates "Rajiv Joseph's "The Lake Effect," as frigid personal relations yield slowly to acceptance and understanding.

Vijay (Adam Poss) has returned to the family diner, having received a note from his father Vinode that the diner is to be sold. Poring through his father's ledger, he discovers the family has run out of money. Enter Jason Bowen, playing Bernard, a friend of Vijay's father but unknown to Vijay. Lots of things have been unknown to Vijay, including his father's gambling habit which has been ably assisted by Bernard.

But Bernard is no thief. And Vinode appears to always win his bets. So where is the money? The understory begins to reveal itself as Priya, Vijay's sister arrives. Priya is a little sketchy but has her own story to tell.

Drama, humor and honesty: "The Lake Effect" is a perfect one-act play. Author Joseph and Director Giovanna Sardelli present us with complete stories within each scene. We see disbelief and mistrust change to understanding, we see the immigrant experience as it evolves with each advancing generation and we see how trust can sometimes trump truth.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lake Effect" Four Stars. Story, acting, directions, sets, costumes, lights and music are all first rate. We feel for Vijay and Priya but we love Bernard. Jason Bowen's big heart shows us how basic is our need for community and friendship. For us, this is Rajiv Joseph's best work since the brilliant "Animals Out of Paper." The Lake Effect will stick with you for awhile, and make you happy you don't live in Cleveland during the winter.

"The Lake Effect"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA
Through March 29

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Lyons: ☼ ☼ ☼

Bear in mind, Nicky Silver's "The Lyons" is a comedy. But Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis, your quintessential nuclear family, it ain't. Dad's dying of cancer and barely tolerates his two children, who despise their parents and aren't too fond of each other either. Everyone is lost and one will soon be dead.

Ben Lyons (Will Marchetti), the patriarch, is a foul-mouthed wreck of a man, who is said to be wasting away but it seems more likely his wife Rita (Ellen Ratner)'s prattling will put him away first. Ratner's Rita is perfect. At first she appears to be socially inept, but we come to realize she is just plain nasty, ecstatic to soon be rid of Ben so she can remodel the living room. There is no visible hope for their helpless alcoholic daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates) nor her gay and pathetic brother Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar).

Still, Act One is quite funny: we have hope. In Act Two those hopes are quashed, although we do see each family member make a limping stride or two towards what optimists might call recovery. (Of course none of their choices, such as Lisa's falling in love with a terminally ill lymphoma patient, has a shred of possibility of success.) Nurse Jeanette (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) tries to inject a little humanity into the situation and eventually does reach Curtis; Joe Estlack plays Brian, who takes over the beginning of Act Two with a particularly desperate story of his own.

Disfunction does lead to humor. "The Lyons" is funny while you're seeing it but you really don't want to spend much time thinking about it afterwards.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lyons" Three Stars,  two for the brilliant performance of Ellen Ratner and the third for director Barbara Dameshek, because she drips a little sardonic humor into every show she touches. This is Nicky Silver's first show that made it all the way to Broadway. It's funny and disturbing, probably in that order.

"The Lyons"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through March 8