SF Theater Blog

Sunday, May 14, 2023

"Chinglish" ★ ★ ★ ★

David Henry Hwang has won a Tony and an Obie and has been a finalist twice for a Pulitzer. His plays, like "M. Butterfly" and "Yellow Face" have been shown around the world, but none, perhaps, is as hilarious and audience-pleasing as "Chinglish." San Francisco Playhouse's production, directed by Jeffrey Lo with fabulous scenic design by Andrea Bechert as well as simple but necessary projections by Spenser Maturing, is nothing short of masterful.

An American businessman from Ohio is trying to sell his commercial signs to the politicians in charge of developing a cultural center in a mid-sized "midwestern" Chinese city. Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin), with typical American hubris, feels he can charm the Chinese into a lucrative contract for his moribund family company. The Chinese, however, have a different agenda, based around securing income for their own families and associates. Alex Hsu plays Cai Guoliang, who is Minister of Culture. He is under pressure to give the signage contract to his sister-in-law. At the same time, Vice-Minister of Culture Xi Yan, seen above in the green dress and played to perfection by Nicole Tung, is married to Judge Xu, on left in red necktie (Phil Wong), and who might be the recipient of the contract if his wife can successfully seduce Daniel Cavanaugh.

A substantial portion of the show is spoken in Chinese, with supertitles. This is Hwang's supreme joke: no one completely understands what is going on, in part because everyone is receiving inaccurate translations, which reflect more what the translator wants his Chinese boss or American client to hear than what has actually been said.

Sound complicated? It's not. We, the audience, revel in the foolishness and confusion on stage.  It is farce, but we are used to this by now - the politics, especially, feel way too familiar. The pace of "Chinglish" allows us time and enough gags to figure everything out for ourselves. 

And the part about Enron. Wow.

One suggestion: for this performance, because you really need to make sure you can read the supertitles, we might suggest acquiring seats in the middle rather than on one side or the other. Don't miss this show.

RATINGS ★ ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog gives FOUR STARS to SFP's production of "Chinglish." Writing is first rate, and then acting, direction and sets keep everything bubbling along. When you consider how difficult casting was, wherein comedic actors fluent in Mandarin as well as English had to be found and assembled, these Four Stars feel even more remarkable.


San Francisco Playhouse

450 Sutter St. (2d floor of Kensington Hotel), San Francisco

Through June 10, 2023


Monday, May 8, 2023

" The Ni¿¿er Lovers" ★ ?

 Here are two nice things to love about Marc Anthony Thompson's "The Ni¿¿er Lovers." Number one, the wacky and intriguing opening scene, and two, the excellent performances throughout from Rotimi Agbabiaka and Aejay Marquis Mitchell. The Opening Night audience at the Magic Theatre laughed at every gag and howled for the actors when they came out for a bow. 

Everyone knows the theater is in trouble in America. Younger, more diverse blood is desperately needed, on stage and in the audience. It is always an admirable achievement to bring in a younger, hipper crowd, in this case one that finds the word "ni¿¿er" to be entertaining. For those of us who are not the target audience, yes we understand the cultural nuances surrounding this word in different situations, but if the N Word were not hateful, you wouldn't need the upside-down question marks. 

Of course, it's all supposed to be slapstick. But the greatest joke in the world is only funny until it truly is not.

This is author Thompson's first show and he also directs. After the enticing first scene, in which Agbabiaka and Mitchell play two unsuspecting Africans who are heading onto a slave boat thinking they have signed up for a cruise -- "Did you apply for House or Field?" --  the action pivots into a variety show, where M.C. Tanika Baptiste tries to make the audience laugh every time she screams "Ni¿¿er" or "My Ni¿¿er!" or "Ni¿¿er Lover!" 

After the final curtain, the author came to the stage to deliver a long thank you. He apologized to "those who might be uncomfortable with the word 'ni¿¿er.'" What would have comforted us more might have been a real ending. 

This show is also a musical, with songs written by the playwright, about whom the Playbill notes "Marc Anthony Thompson is a reluctant singer and indolent songwriter."  

Sure, the whole thing is a joke. Sure, it's also a joke that killing white people gives the characters super powers. Yes, they also get to include gender and the Jews ("Mazel Fucking Tov!") for no discernible reason. Perhaps the bigger joke is on us.

There is also no way to write this review without sounding old and white and in the way so we stop here.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "The Ni¿¿er Lovers" One Star with a Question Mark. The Star is for Agbabiaka and Mitchell, with gratitude. The question mark is a thank you for whomever reached through the curtain to remove the dildo. 

This production needs a lot of editing, but it has promise. If it really is to be a musical, some of the actors need to be given something more tuneful to sing so they can be a little surer of their notes. 

"The Ni¿¿er Lovers"

The Magic Theatre

Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco

Through May 21


Thursday, April 13, 2023

Word For Word's "Home" ★ ★ ★

A Word For Word production has unique conceits. 
Since no liberty can be taken with the written word of the short story being performed on stage, the company must go to great lengths to keep an audience's interest. Part of this process comes from choosing the correct story to act out, but the other part comes from humorous visual clues -- the actors becoming, say, flowers along the road or a barking dog. These visual clues feel like "ah-ha!" moments for an audience and they almost always work.

But George Saunders "Home," a tale of a war veteran returning home with what appears to be PTSD, is anything but funny.  Brian Rivera, who plays Mikey, the returning vet, is confused, both by the home town he left and the unspoken act he committed while in the military for which he has been court-martialed.  Everything and everyone around him have changed. Perhaps this overwhelming seriousness makes it difficult to chuckle at an actor pretending to be a phone booth, so the visual clues can feel contrived. "Home" is not an easy story to feel lighthearted about.

As always, we loved the ensemble, all playing multiple roles. Norman Gee is terrific as a toothpick-toting sheriff and as the father of the especially obsequious Ryan (Tre'Vonne Bell). Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Robert Ernst are hilarious as Mikey's parents, whose deflated lives illustrate to us the class-consciousness at the heart of Saunders' story.

"Thank you for your service," the most clich├ęd phrase in our public discourse, next to "hearts and prayers," is on everyone's lips. It means nothing. The truest lines Saunders has Mikey say are his final ones: "You sent me. Now bring me back."

RATINGS: ★ ★ ★

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Three Stars to Word for Word's "Home." All Word For Word productions are worth seeing, not only because of their excellence, but because they give us a totally unique form of live performance. We have seen W4W shows we liked more than "Home," but part of the problem may be that we have entered the post-Pandemic "Please Make Me Laugh" portal. "Home" feels a bit close for comfort.

Word for Word's "HOME"


470 Florida Street, San Francisco

Through April 29



Monday, March 20, 2023

"Clue" ★ ★ ★ BANG!

It's silly, wacky, ditzy, impossible and choreographed. "Clue" reminds us of what it was like in the good old days, before atmospheric rivers and the ocean of depression we call the morning newspaper. Susi Damilano directs a cast of familiar actors paying even more familiar roles, for those of us who remember playing the Parker Brothers' board game when we were children - and then again with our own children. Surely, our house could not have been the only one where "Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with a wrench" became a standard excuse for "Who stole the cookies?"

No, it's not a world-class drama, and there is only one gender issue (and it's a brilliant one), thank you very much. The ensemble cast remains in character even as they trail en masse through imaginary doors, walking like Egyptians and bumping into walls, as they head into room sets that the backstage crew is desperately making ready as we all watch.

Every character is guilty. Of them all, Greg Ayers is the standout, as Mr. Green the, uh, FBI agent. as are Renee Rogoff as the treacherous Mrs. White, Stacy Ross as the spacey Mrs. Peacock and Michael Gene Sullivan as the pipe-smoking Professor Plum, though on Opening Night the role was voiced by Mr Sullivan but played on stage by Albert Hodge. Now, there's a trick.

We cannot forget Dorian Lockett's role as Wadsworth the butler, though since his part did not exist in the original game we tend to dismiss him as a Newbie. Courtney Walsh plays a fetching Miss Scarlett and Michael Ray Wisely the officiously daft Colonel Mustard. Special mention to the smaller but equally enjoyable roles of Margherita Ventura and Eiko Yamamoto as Yvette the maid and the especially ominous Cook with a cleaver. The ending is a tour de force of writing and performance, leaving us with the understanding that everyone is guilty and no one is guilty and life goes on in the English mansion of all our memories, with all the secrets as well as secret passages.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Sherlock Holmes Division for Whodunits awards "Clue" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for the delightful conclusion. See, people, this is what we all long for. A problem: an answer. More or less.


San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St., San Francisco

Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel

Through April 22


Tuesday, March 14, 2023

"Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" ★ ★ ★ BANG!

Greta Oglesby's performance is the highlight of Cheryl L. West's "Fannie: The Music and Life of 
Fannie Lou Hamer." This is essentially a one-woman show, with a three-piece backup band (keyboards, guitar/bass, drums). It is labeled a musical, but although Ms. Oglesby plays the part of Ms. Hamer and sings the protest songs of the era with grace and energy, the songs themselves, which were important to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, are so simple and so familiar by now that at times the show feels bogged down by them. 

However, Ms Hamer's life and the times in which she lived, wherein Jim Crow made the laws of our country into such a hypocrisy that the Soviets could use our tv news broadcasts as examples of why our government was failing its people, should never be forgotten. Ms. West and Ms. Oglesby, along with Director Tim Bond, have done right to bring this history onto the stage. As Fannie says to us: "We've got a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of." 

Preach, Ms. Hamer. 

We love the way Ms. Oglesby mixes music with history. We believe her and feel for Ms. Hamer's personal trials. But the show still feels smaller than the stage. Perhaps these are kinks that will be worked out during this run.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise to "Fannie: The Life and Times of Fannie Lou Hamer." The Bangle is, of course, for Greta Oglesby.

While we feel the show itself is a bit simplistic, Ms. Oglesby's performance is anything but. We would like to see the rest of the production, starting with the band, match her energy. This should not be a hootenanny with a camp director leading the audience in group sing. It is a powerful story that deserves more fire.

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Lucie Stern Theatre

1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Through April 2, 2023

$30 and up

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Travelers: ★ ★ ★ ★

Luis Alfaro's new play, "The Travelers," is a wonder. Glorious staging, costuming and choreographed movement have us fascinated and involved from the opening sequence, where the young men change from their everyday clothing into novitiate robes. These are all discarded souls, having managed to eke out a perilous haven in a religious order that is so obscure it is being canceled by its own church. Everyone here is ultimately on their own.

The actors use their real names. The most likeable is Yiyo, played by Guillermo Yiyo Ornelas, a frightened boy who understands how desperate their situation is. 

 The entire ensemble is first rate. We love them all: Juan Amador as new Brother Juan, Daniel Duque-Estrada as Brother Daniel, Brian M. Rivera as Brother Brian, Kinan Valdez as Brother Nancho and Ogie Zulueta as poor hostage Ogie, who lives in a bathtub next to the toilet.

Brother Daniel, seen above, just wants to run a circus back in his hometown of Zacatecas. Brother Nancho is suspicious of the whole enterprise. Brother Brian is the boss, but he has a secret that will present a problem that may be insoluble.

This being a Luis Alfaro show, there are lots of side jokes. They wish Brothers Andrew and Brother Michael good luck with their new lives in Palm Springs. Everyone knows God is good for arthritis. They are in agreement that pain leads to God but they'd rather have less pain and more God.  Meanwhile, Brother Juan looks like he's going to take over.

RATINGS ★ ★ ★ ★

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS to Luis Alfaro's "The Travelers." The run is short and this is a show you should not miss. We live in an age of confusion. It's good to know these devout brothers are as messed up as we are. And it is an infrequent pleasure to be front-of-the-seat involved in a show from curtain to curtain. 

OK, there is no curtain at the Magic Theater. God made me write that.

"The Travelers"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, 3rd Floor
San Francisco
Through March 5, 2023

Sunday, February 5, 2023

"He Wants to Run" ★★★ BANG

There are many solo performers who feel like they are speaking to a camera. David Kleinberg is an exception. His "He Wants to Run" is a simple story told simply. We are immediately involved in this touching tale of a man and his neighbor's dog running through the hills of Cloverdale. But there is a lot more to it. Butler, above right, wearing the collar, wants to run until he can run no more. His friend David, above left, pointing at his old buddy, discovers the secret Butler is trying to tell him: we all have to grow old, so why not chase those birds and splash in that river while we can? Everything works better when you have a good friend to keep you on your feet.

Don't expect fireworks, bells or whistles. Do expect the kind of story you can't stop thinking about afterwards. There are only four shows over two weekends during this short run, so hurry. We love "He Wants to Run." You will too.


This is one of those shows that is not made for a theatrical rating system. We are giving "He Wants to Run" a Three Star with a Bangle of Praise rating, despite no costuming, no set design, no music and zero flash. What Kleinberg does is tell a short, one-hour story that makes us feel good. That's it. Kleinberg the performer gets one star, Kleinberg the writer gets another, Butler the dog gets a third and he also earns a Bangle of Praise for barking the bejesus out of those dobermans. 


"He Wants to Run"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 12