SF Theater Blog

Monday, September 8, 2014

"Rapture, Blister, Burn" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

On one level, Gina Gionfriddo's "Rapture, Blister, Burn" is a primer on the modern history of feminist philosophy, but more to the point it is a women-bonding story, where three generations of women chart out their places on the continuum of female enlightenment. The show is funny, features some fine acting and snappy one-liners; at the same time it is talky. Act One's setup is long but Act Two delivers.

The two main characters are forty-somethings and appear to be on opposite sides of philosophical issues. Rebecca Schweitzer plays Gwen, mother of two who abandoned her career to be a stay-at-home Mom. Gwen is defensive about her life, recovering from alcoholism while living with Don (Gabriel Marin), a man content to slide through life without thinking too much about it. Meanwhile, Gwen's old graduate school roommate and friend Catherine (Marilee Talkington) shows up in town. Catherine had been Don's girl friend back then, but they broke up when Catherine got her degree and a job in London while Don stayed home. There, he fell for and married Gwen.

Now Catherine has the career as a successful writer and speaker that Gwen wants, while Gwen has the family (and the man) that Catherine wants. Catherine's mother Alice (Lillian Bogovich), has recently suffered a heart attack and this has brought Catherine to the realization that she will someday be all alone.

Let us not forget Avery, the 21-year-old played with passion by Nicole Javier. In many ways the story of the two middle-aged women is told through the younger Avery and older Alice. Avery is energetic and opinionated; Alice has been through it all before. These two understand that life is different than philosophy. Avery and Alice are delights, and for us they carry Gionfriddo's show.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rapture, Blister, Burn" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  The Bangle is for the writing which includes many one-liners, like Don's "Booze and love dupe you into thinking average people are great." Desdemona Chiang's direction keeps things in motion, although there is a lot of prop moving during the scene breaks. The ending is satisfying, if predictable. Women in the audience will relate to the self-analysis to which these women subject themselves; men, on the other hand, may scratch their heads and wonder why.

"Rapture, Blister, Burn"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through Oct. 5

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Water By The Spoonful" ☼ ☼ ☼

It is easy to identify with the characters in Quiara Alegria Hudes's "Water by the Spoonful." Each one has been physically or emotionally injured. Several are addicts attempting with great difficulty to remain clean; all are barely keeping their heads above water.

Two parallel stories intersect. In one, ex-Marine Elliot (Miles Gaston Villanueva) is trying to readjust to life back in Philadelphia with the help of his cousin Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela). In the other, a chat-room is hosted by Odessa (Zilah Mendoza), Elliot's birth mother, in an attempt to give crack addicts a place to come and talk, instead of going out and getting high.

Of the two stories, this latter one is fascinating, especially with the help of Erik Flatmo and Steven B. Mannschardt's brilliant set and lights. We find ourselves involved in each of the on-line character's lives. Anna Ishida is terrific as the wisecracking Orangutan, as are Anthony J. Haney as Chutes&Ladders and Patrick Kelly Jones as Fountainhead, two addicts unable to admit how close they are to the edge.

For us real-life story resonates less than the virtual one. Varela is excellent as the girl who got out of the family orbit but is now anxious to become the new head of the family. Villanueva, while giving a lot of energy to his role as the injured Iraqi war veteran, sadly does not exhibit a lot of heart. We see him acting, but he doesn't seem to feel much. In addition, there appears to be a romantic spark between the cousins which makes little sense. Part of the problem may be that the Mountain View Center's sound system was unable to pick up all the lightning fast dialogue; this may be the reason Act Two feels long.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Water by the Spoonful" three stars. It is a fascinating concept. When the curtain comes down on Act One the audience is buzzing about what they have just seen and what might come next. We wish we could leave the theater feeling that same excitement.

"Water by the Spoonful"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through August 22, 2014

Photo Credits: Kevin Berne

Monday, August 11, 2014

From Red to Black ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The World Premiere of Rhett Rossi's "From Red to Black" gives us a police drama with twists and turns. There has been a death on the subway tracks in New York City. The two suspects rounded up are young black men. The two police inspectors are Irish, one a thirty year veteran and one younger and greener.

Charles Shaw Robinson plays Inspector Denny Mitchell, a legacy policemen who reminisces about the days when the entire force was Irish and felt like family. His younger partner Jack Flanagan (Matthew Baldiga)  is a by-the-book guy who has strikes against him as far as Mitchell is concerned, not the least important of which is he is a college graduate.

But the story is not about them. It is instead a study about how preconceived notions of race, of class, of guilt and of innocence can lead different people to different conclusions. Once we meet William (Isiah Thompson), we understand this young man and these two detectives do not inhabit the same universe.

William is the heart of this story, but equally important is a smaller but crucial role played by Michael Shipley. Shipley's Lawrence Stevens adds sexual identity into the mix. What really happened in the subway station in the middle of the night is hard enough to decipher without everyone's notions about what others expect of them.  Each of these characters is trapped inside a stereotype and none see a way out.

Susi Damilano's direction is sharp but the show might play a little long. This may be because the actors on Opening Night had a little trouble with their lines. It is clear that SF Playhouse has found an engaging show from another excellent new writer. 

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "From Red to Black" Three Stars with an Exclamation Point!  The show is Isiah Thompson's to steal and he does so. The one-act 90-minute format is perfect. Don't let the false ending fool you -- the best is still to come.

"From Red to Black"
San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series
ACT Costume Shop
1119 Market Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. Through August 30

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"The Great Pretender": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

In the Theatreworks production of David West Read's "The Great Pretender" they seem to still be toying with the One-Act or Two-Act dilemma, as we can see by the hairpiece on Steve Brady above. Brady plays Roy Felt, the sincere host of a once-successful children's show, who is now mourning the death of his wife and partner, who played the cute little puppet Francis. In the current One-Act version Mr. Felt never uses the hairpiece, and we hope they keep it this way. Pacing and action are perfect. The show amused, entertained and touched us from beginning to end.

It is hard to pick out a favorite from this stellar cast. Suzanne Grodner plays Carol, who is the puppeteer voice of Carol the Pony. Carol has been with Mr. Felt for over two decades but doesn't really know him. Tom (Michael Storm) has been directing the show for fifteen years but doesn't know Roy either. It seems the married Felts stuck together and the others were never invited in.

Enter vivacious Jodi, played to innocent perfection by Sarah Moser. She has the unenviable task of trying to replace Roy's wife. This is impossible, even for a young woman who has grown up watching and idolizing each human and puppet on the show. But she not only has to learn to be a puppeteer, she must wade through a tsunami of raw issues no one has dealt with yet.

There are twists and turns along the way, lots of laughter and plenty of anguish too. We get a surprise ending that feels a little funny until you think about it. Then you realize the show couldn't have ended any other way.

"The Great Pretender" is directed by Stephen Brackett, who directed it last season as the star show in Theatreworks's New Works Festival. Now it has made it to the Main Stage and Brackett clearly loves his characters. It's hard not to. "The Great Pretender" is a simple story but it is never saccharine. And we love Southpaw, the cat who pitches for Cincinnati.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Great Pretender" Four Stars. In addition to the story and acting we loved the choices of music, especially the ukelele versions of Beatles  songs. "All You Need is Love" could not have come at a better time. You'll love it. Bring a hanky.

"The Great Pretender"
The Luci Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 3, 2014

Monday, June 30, 2014

"Into The Woods" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Everybody loves to go Into The Woods. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's fractured fairy tale opened on Broadway in 1987 and has never gotten old. But it's long. People seeing the show for the first time are always confused when the rest of the audience is not standing and cheering at the end of million-dollar Act One. Why is the cast not taking their well-deserved bows?

Well, Pilgrim, it ain't over 'til the Witch says it is. Act One gives us the happy ending and then comes Act Two, where real life takes over. The giant's wife is gunning for Jack. Cinderella is bored out of her mind. The baker's baby never stops crying and the princes aren't so charming. 

There are two kinds of audiences who come to musicals. One camp wants something new and different and one wants the same old thing. Sondheim is not for Group Two. He makes you think while letting you laugh. He gives you melodies, but the lyrics always come first so the music doesn't stick so easily. This is a three hour show with perhaps three hummable songs. Of course, those three ("Into the  Woods," "Agony" and "No One is Alone") burrow like blind mice into your brain and stay there for days.

Susi Damilano's first try at directing a musical makes her look like a natural. Act One flies, Act Two has a few fits and starts, but that's the way the show is written. 

The cast is fabulous, especially Monique Hafen as foot-sore Cinderella, Corinne Proctor as the effervescent Red, Jeffrey Brian Adams as the charming-but-not-sincere Prince and El Beh as the baker's wife who finds there are other tasty buns out in the woods. 

Of course, there is danger as well as magic when you venture away from home. The show will run for much of the summer and is bound to draw large crowds, so we suggest you buy tickets soon. And when you come to the theatre, look around on Post Street - some of those folks you see may just need a kiss to release their curses. Let us know how that turns out.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Into the Woods" Four Stars. The truth is, if the show had stopped after Act One that rarely seen Fifth Star was within reach. But the show has always both entranced and dragged in the second act. 

Four Stars is magic too. And Dave Dobrusky's live music enriches the whole experience. Get thee to the Woods.

"Into the Woods"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through September 6

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dezi Gallegos: "God Fights the Plague" ☼ ☼

Dezi Gallegos is not lacking chutzpah. At eighteen, his solo show "God Fights the Plague" attempts to bite off the central theme from the last, oh, five thousand years: Is There a God? As a performer, Gallegos has some promising moments, especially when he goes deeper into character with his voice. He doesn't do it enough yet. This is a show taken from interviews Gallegos did with various religious people on the street, and unfortunately some of the stories, performed verbatim, are interesting and some are not. The show feels long.

We liked the witch, we liked his opening character, the Christian woman on the bus, and Sylvia Boorstein, his American Buddhist had interesting things to say, especially the conversation about "Why me? Well, why not me?"

But, like this picture, if you look really closely you see he is holding up a little Buddha, but if you don't look all that closely…well, it's a little creepy. Sorry, but Dezi Gallegos is too young to be obsessing about this kind of thing. His director, Charlie Varon, well OK. Charlie has a few miles on him. He's allowed.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "God Fights the Plague" Two Stars. Gallegos has been given a long summer run, so he has time to do some constructive editing and lose himself in his characters. For us, Act One is too long. Act Two is better, because he has gotten a little more desperate. But it doesn't feel like a Two Act play yet, and the desperation drops away by the ending. Lots of death, lots of worry, just what you want on a Sunday night.

"Dezi Gallegos: God Fights the Plague"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat. and Sun. through Aug. 10

Sunday, June 22, 2014

American Buffalo: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

You want to reach out and empty the cigarettes out of the ash trays when you see the set for the Aurora Theater production of David Mamet's classic "American Buffalo," directed by Barbara Damashek. The garbage strewn around the room is an apt metaphor for the low-level heist our characters are planning.

Mamet gives us two men (Donnie and Teach) who aspire to be more than they are, and one (Bobby) who would be happy being just like Donny and Teach. James Carpenter's Teach makes us as uncomfortable as Paul Vincent O'Connor's Donny makes us smile. We want to reach out and pat Donny on the head while treating Teach like a loud, rambunctious kindergartner. But these are not children, they are grown men, and the desire of both to cash in on an unexpected score could have disastrous results.

Donny, at least, is doing his best to be good to Bobby (Rafael Jordan), a younger man who appears to be a simpleton. Bobby is just trying to please his two friends, but this doesn't stop Teach from considering him a rival.

American Buffalo opened on Broadway in 1975 and hasn't lost a bit. We still cringe and shift in our seats, laugh where we're supposed to, and by the time the curtain comes down we are already wondering who is going to have to clean all this garbage off the stage. It's a great Buffalo.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "American Buffalo" Four Stars. All three actors are excellent, with a special kudos to James Carpenter who really seems to understand Teach's sublimated desperation. Terrific casting, terrific show.

"American Buffalo"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through July 13