SF Theater Blog

Friday, January 18, 2019

August Wilson: "How I Learned What I Learned" ☼ ☼ ☼

There are many wonderful things about Steven Anthony Jones's solo performance of August Wilson's final play. Wilson himself performed the role first, two years before his death in 2005, and Jones channels the great author as he talks about his life as a young man growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

We particularly loved the Wilsonisms, the wry and poetic asides that pepper every August Wilson play, such as a white man approaching the author at a party to say, "I don't see color." Wilson asks the man if he said the same thing to that white man over there, or that white man over there. When the first person says, "No," Wilson asks him, "...then, if you don't see color, why did you say that to me?"

Each character taught August Wilson a valuable lesson. His mother taught him to never settle for less than he is worth. His friend Cy Morocco taught him to dream as high as he wished but be ready to perform when opportunity strikes. Perhaps the biggest laugh of the night was when the author tried to make more money from a 16-line poem by turning it into 32 lines.

Clearly, there were writers in the audience.

Jones does not try to assume the personalities nor physical attributes of each character, as a solo performer might. Instead, we never lose sight of August Wilson, the older man looking back on his youth.

It is a one-man play, and therefore it all comes down to that one man. On Opening Night Jones was personable and accessible, but he also stumbled and mumbled, forgot lines and clearly missed critical sequences. When he was good he was very good, but when he was not the show dragged to an inconclusive ending. The good thing is that this show is co-sponsored by the Lorraine Hansberry Theater and the Ubuntu Theater Project. After the run at Marin Theater Company, the show will continue in smaller venues. We shall see it again then when all the pieces should be in place.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼ ☼ 
The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "August Wilson: How I Learned What I Learned" Three Stars. We expect that the show's rating will rise as the run continues.


"August Wilson: How I Learned What I Learned"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through February 3

Lorraine Hansberry Theater
762 Fulton Street, San Francisco
Feb 14-24

Ubuntu Theater Project
2020 4th Street, Berkeley
March 2019 (exact dates TBA)

Sunday, December 2, 2018

C.W. Nevius: "The Oakland Raiders, True Crime and Coming of Age in San Francisco" ☼ ☼

It's a convoluted title that may tell you everything you need to know -- that C. W. Nevius and director David Ford are fishing for a center to this show. Nevius, for years one of our favorite sports writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, is a new performer. He is engaging and likable, with an ear for dialogue and comedy. But we can't really tell you what the purpose of the show is, except to listen to a man tell a few enjoyable stories about the years he covered the Oakland Raiders, as well as a rather obscure sexual misconduct case against a basketball player with the University of San Francisco. The very best parts are Nevius's lookbacks on the Oakland Raiders he once knew, and what has happened to them as time passed. Nevius knows touching stories about these men, several of whom died quite young.

But if the center of this story is Nevius himself, he needs to make us care a little more. We get no insights into his upbringing or how or why he came to love sports, so we are not particularly involved with him as a sportswriting adult. His experiences are interesting to a local audience, and I am one of these who remembers with pleasure the Raiders' glory years, but the performer seems to have learned little from them except to always go for the scoop.

We love this advice, given by his editor: "Go the game, see what happens, and then write that." Every writer ought to pay attention to that one.

Our guess is Chuck Nevius is a really nice guy. He comes off that way. He can come to my house anytime to talk about the Raiders. But if he is going to have a solo show, he has to come up with a reason to be on stage, aside from talking about himself.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards TWO STARS to C.W. Nevius: "The Oakland Raiders, True Crime and Coming of Age in San Francisco." It is a young show that needs time to mature. Whether or not the show is about the Oakland Raiders or the beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, we need to know more. And a shorter title, please.

"C.W. Nevius: "The Oakland Raiders, True Crime and Coming of Age in San Francisco"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through Dec. 15
$20-$35 (sliding scale)

Saturday, December 1, 2018

John Fisher: A History of World War II: UNRATED

Unless you are Mel Brooks, it's hard to get laughs out of Nazis, but John Fisher tries. His manic one-man history of World War II from D-Day to the Fall of Berlin, as he falls to the ground shooting a pretend rifle and gets the audience to make machine gun sounds, and German soldier sounds, and bombs-exploding sounds, is funny and gay.  You will laugh, but you may have a problem with German soldiers being thought of as "hot," causing Fisher to hold his legs together as if he has to pee with, we suppose, desire. Perhaps we oldsters have stronger antipathy towards Nazi stormtroopers.

Not that the "great uniforms and monocle" joke doesn't work, once, but after the tenth time it started to feel kind of...weird. The guards at Auschwitz are not "hot." At least, not to this audience member.

John Fisher is a gifted physical comedian, as well as a student and encyclopedia of World War II. He has a great deal of fascinating information for us. Did you know the Russians raped their way into Berlin? Did you know how close the Germans came to winning the war at the end? Did you know Hitler was a vegetarian who didn't smoke or drink? All true. Now you know what to reply to your obnoxious friends who won't touch veal.

But we left the theater feeling we had missed the announcement that this is all high camp and everything is just a big joke. Maybe it is. Unless you miss the joke.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division feels a bit foolish and old fashioned, but we have chosen not to rate this show. John Fisher is a pro who knows how to work an audience. His show feels like a great party bit, but this is not a party everyone has been invited to. I'm afraid our invitation must have gotten lost, amidst all the confusion.

"John Fisher: A History of World War II"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Thursdays and Saturdays through Dec. 15
$20-$35 Sliding Scale

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War" ☼ ☼ ☼

It was lovely to see the house filled for the opening of Mona Mansour's "We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War," directed by Evren Odcikin. A minimalist production with four characters, a stage, a blackboard and a backdrop onto which electronic images are projected, the show attempts to involve the audience in a study about war. Why do we do it? Does war accomplish anything in the long run?

We loved the acting, especially the two leads Sarah Nina Hayon as She and Joshua Chessin-Yudin as He. She is He's anti-war aunt. He, her nephew, has enlisted in the army. Most of the show consists of She and He pretending to swim (done brilliantly, using nothing but chairs on wheels plus the sound of water in the background) while they carve out their positions: She doesn't get why He would ever want to kill Arabs (she is Lebanese, he is one-quarter Arab) while He is an American kid who just wants to "get bad guys."

Also present, from time to time, are Adam El-Sharkawi as The Arab and Tre-Vonne Bell as The American. The most telling moment of the night comes after She admits to He that she is afraid for him, that she wishes her nephew didn't have to go fight. From his perch, The American, who is African-American, says, "But it's OK for me to go, right?" In this moment we understand that none of us want to lose our own, but at the same time we understand somebody has to stand up for us against the bad guys. We just don't want it to be us.

RATINGS ☼  ☼ ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, admittedly headed by a one-time Draft Dodger, gives "We Swim..." THREE STARS. A World Premiere, there are important questions considered here, but we feel somewhat lectured to. We would prefer a little more theater.

Staging is what saves us from feeling like we have been sent to the principal's office. We love the evocative way the two swimmers choreograph their movements, including, at one point, the shared fear of drowning that neither wants to admit. We are with them every second they are in the water. This is a masterful touch.

"We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War"
Potrero Stage
1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Through Dec. 16

The Wickhams (Christmas at Pemberley) ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

In 2016, we loved "Miss Bennet," the first of two (so far) fictional continuations of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Written with great flair by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, the newest entry, "The Wickhams," is having its World Premiere at Marin Theatre Company. It is classic holiday fare, makes us laugh and allows us to leave the theater stepping high with holiday cheer. It is however, not yet in the same league as its older sister.

We loved the casting, especially downstairs. Jennie Brick as Mrs. Reynolds, the cook, is appropriately brusque but with a tray eternally filled with biscuits. August Browning plays Brian, the footman, with honesty in his heart; and Neiry Rojo is wonderful as Cassie, who yearns for an Eliza Dolittle-y loverly, warm space to sip her tea and read her book.

The problem is this has all been done before. It is Upstairs Downstairs meets Downton Abbey with a vaguely feminist tinge, and while certainly entertaining, gives us little new to sink our teeth into. Who knew we would miss Thomas the Evil Footman?

Madeline Rouverol as Lydia Wickham and Melissa Ortiz as Elizabeth Darcy both have expressive faces to go with strong talents in physical comedy. Lydia shrieks and Lizzie rolls her eyes like Luci and Ethel. They play off the rivalry between Mr. Darcy (David Everett Moore), the overstuffed and sputtering Lord of the Manor, and George Wickham, the never-do-well rake and rambling boy (Kenny Toll) who has been railroaded into a marriage with Lydia Wickham but is only in it for the shillings. We especially like Toll, even though he is a creep, because he keeps getting knocked down but gets back up. The others mostly fuss.

Little unexpected happens and though the ending is quite satisfying, you see it coming a kilometer away. We laugh, but we want to laugh more. We are happy Lydia resolves her difficulty, but what now? We want her to fall in love. We want Cassie to be won over by Brian. Barring that, we wish, at least, to taste Mrs. Reynolds's biscuits. No, no, the ones on the tray.


The San Francisco Theater Blog gives Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise to "The Wickhams." Right now it is a light and funny show that should get richer as the cast learns to play off each other better. Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian could take a few more chances. We already know Downton. "The Wickhams" needs to give us something we don't know.

The Bangle of Praise is for Neiry Rojo. We cheer for Cassie. We want the best for her. (Incidentally, Brian, you have no chance. Go to London. You don't want to see what happens when Wickham comes back for Cassie in 2020. Just sayin'.)

"The Wickhams (Christmas at Pemberley)"
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED through Dec. 16

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Mary Poppins: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It's been many years since we saw the Disney movie version of "Mary Poppins." What is surprising is how little we remember: Julie Andrews flying across the stage like Peter Pan, Dick van Dyke and his Cockney accent dancing like Donald O'Connor...what else? Nothing else. The essence of a Disney film: sing, dance and have a good time.

But the original P.L. Travers stories, from which Mary Poppins was taken, reveal a darker underside. For Travers, Mary wasn't Julie Andrews at all, but a character closer to Eliza Dolittle with plenty of rage against the Victorian machine. In the current San Francisco Playhouse version, El Beh gives us a far less saccharine Mary Poppins, and the results are both intriguing and fun.

We have seen El Beh in several previous roles and she has been a show stopper every time. As Mary Poppins, however, she is somewhat restrained, relying on unexplained nanny magic to bring a touch of fun to the proscribed lives of the two children on Cherry Tree Lane. The children (we saw Ruth Keith and David Rukin, both excellent) could use a little love. They are only too happy to have statues come to life and chimney sweeps pull kites out of bags.

As for the chimney sweep, the Dick van Dyke of old, Wiley Naman Strasser is terrific. He is the working man, the lower-station Englishman who, since he knows he will never be more than a tradesman, has learned them all. He sweeps chimneys, paints portraits and plays his accordion, ukulele and toy piano despite being stuck on a rooftop or in a chimney. The only thing he doesn't have on that roof is a fiddle.

As for the rooftops, let us say here that in many years of watching shows performed in front of Nina Ball's sets, this one eclipses them all. The elaborate chimney tops which turn into a Busby Berkeley stairway, the brilliant moveable flats of children's room, living room and bank office, all done with a Broadway-sized cast on a considerably smaller stage, may be the real stars of the show.

Director Susi Damilano knows every square inch of that stage. When the flats rolled around we were afraid they would knock a dancer into the audience.  Not to worry. It must be magic.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Mary Poppins" Four Stars. We loved the brilliant set, the adults and kids and the revamped story. During the Christmas season it is great to have a show adults will love as much than their children. Special credit must be given to Katrina Lauren McGraw whose crystal voice on "Feed the Birds" and Grandmother-of-Miss-Ratched role as the evil Miss Andrew are highlights of both acts.

It's a long run -- come see Mary fly.

"Mary Poppins"
San Francisco Playhouse
Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through January 12

☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

Monday, November 19, 2018

Everything is Illuminated: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The tough one: how to watch and absorb a stage play made from a book which was also a movie, when you dearly loved both the movie and the book? And yet, Simon Bock's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated" gives us the opposite problem: how to stop raving about such a brilliant piece of work?

True, there are issues. The side-story, involving stereotype Jews with Brooklyn accents pretending to be the author's muses as he attempts to create the story of his grandparents' lives in the old village, is at best stretched. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate Jonathan's ambivalence about his roots and culture, but it feels cutesy. If there is anything this story is not, it's cutesy.

OK, that's it for niggles. We adored the staging, particularly the way they utilized two chairs, a bench, a suitcase and a steering wheel to illustrate the long road journey the three men and one invisible dog undertake. It showed us how inspired imagination can make the world feel realer than real. Jeremy Kahn's Jonathan seems tailor-made for him, He is a little over-the-top, which is exactly how he should be here. As in all Jeremy Kahn roles there is a slapstick comic inside the man which always seeps out. We can't imagine a better Jonathan.

Alex (Adam Burch) may be even better. He is Jonathan's age, but in his Ukrainian world he has never heard nor read about Ukrainian complicity with Hitler's master-race plans. He neither understands what lies behind Jonathan's quest to discover the village of Trachimbrod, wiped off the map fifty years earlier, nor why his Grandfather (Julian Lopez-Morillas) becomes so violent and non-communicative when the name of the village is mentioned.

Marissa Keltie's various parts, especially the waitress with the attitude, are quite funny and Lura Dolas's old lady, the last person living who remembers Trachimbrod, is memorable. She has her own bitterly vivid tale from fifty years back. We will reveal no more of the story, except to say we miss the sunflowers from the movie. And we haven't changed our opinion that Alex could have gone a little easier on his grandfather.

None of this matters. Jonathan Safran Foer, Director Tom Ross and Aurora Theatre have given all of us a reminder that art may not be able to stop inhumanity, but great art can lift us into a new place, above and beyond the restraints of memory.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog gives FOUR STARS to "Everything is Illuminated." Writing, direction, acting and staging earn one strong star each. We loved the invisible Sammy Davis Jr., Jr., and for this we must give thanks to sound director Matt Stines.

"Everything is Illuminated"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 16