SF Theater Blog

Monday, May 20, 2019

Wayne Harris: "Mother's Milk" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


He isn't strutting around the stage in the same way as when we saw his "May Day Parade" in 2008. But Wayne Harris still can captivate us with stories about his native St. Louis, when Union Boulevard was filled with unforgettable characters.


Surrounded by bible pounders like his mother, his stepfather (Uncle Bill), and the Reverend Pruitt, Junior, it is amazing that Harris escaped that world at all. As he describes it, St. Louis had "midwestern mentality tied up with Southern ignorance." It wasn't for him. Once he figured out how to march away by playing his bugle, Harris rarely went home. But then his mother became ill.

This show, "Mother's Milk," is about those months when Harris, number three of five children, had to come to grips with his mother's breast cancer, illness and eventual death. These moments, when he returns to St.. Louis, are the highlight of the show.


Harris is accompanied by a small combo (Randy Craig on Piano and John McArdle on bass) and for the most part they impart flavor to the story. For us, we felt that the action tended to stop when Harris moved to the mike to sing and it took a few moments for the story to pick up again. We enjoyed the music and we enjoyed the story but they could probably seam together a little more smoothly. Harris's version of "God Bless the Child" was a standout.


We loved it best when Harris brought to life Reverend Pruitt, or his mother, or his crazy sister, or several other characters from his younger days. His voice became stronger, his body took on a different posture and we were happy to go along for the ride.

It's a heartwarming show. You can't help but like Wayne Harris.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Wayne Harris: Mother's Milk" Four Stars. We were sorry when it ended and will look forward to his next batch of St. Louis stories.


Wayne Harris: "Mother's Milk"
The Marsh
2120 Addison Street, Berkeley
Fridays and Sundays through May 31
$20-$35 Siding Scale

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Significant Other" ☼ ☼ ☼


Kyle Cameron's performance in Joshua Harmon's "Significant Other" is so spectacular that it outshadows the rest of the show. Cameron plays Jordan, the gay male friend of three women. They are thick as thieves until, one by one, each of the women gets snapped up by husbands. Jordan ends up feeling old and in the way.


We have seen these female characters in countless sitcoms, the stereotypical fast one, the ditzy one and the more soulful one. The male character is also a cliché, the gay male who is kind but misunderstood, a neurotic Jew, everybody's friend but nobody's baby. Kyle Cameron turns these overused motes into towers of strength with nothing but body language and performance of a brilliant script. He does his best to take a somewhat pedestrian story and turn it into art.


We liked the ensemble cast. Laura (Ruibo Qian) has the biggest part, as the sympathetic friend. Nicole-Azalee Danielle plays Vanessa and Hayley Lovgren plays Kiki, the other two women of this trio, whose ties are far closer than Jordan realizes. We love Joy Carlin but she is wasted here in a simplistic role as Kyle's doddering grandmother.


Of the two men in the cast, Greg Ayers shows great depth in his three roles. August Browning has three lesser roles, including a gender-confusing role as Will.

One thing is for sure: Nobody wants to be Kyle Cameron's understudy.

What is the point here? Gender matters, no matter what anyone says. Friendship counts, but straight women choose husbands over friendship. Gayness means loneliness. And, above all, great acting is every playwright's best friend.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼

 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Significant Other" Three Stars. Kyle Cameron's performance is award-worthy and that alone is worth the price of admission. Director Lauren English is wise to give him lots of space. And a special shout-out for Jacquelyn Scott's set. Each scene is a beauty. 



"Significant Other"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 15
$35-$125




Thursday, May 2, 2019

"Jazz": ☼ ☼ ☼


Gee, such promise. Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, a cast including Margo Hall and C. Kelly Wright and a score by Marcus Shelby. What could go wrong?

On the plus side, C. Kelly Wright's portrayal of the conflicted Violet, whose husband has shot a young woman with whom he was having an affair, is award-show caliber. Hall is her usual seen-it-all-nothing-surprises-me self as both Alice Manfred and True Belle. And Paige Mayes's Parrot, whose every gesture demands our attention, gives us a rare and stunning stage presence.


The truth is, though, that until the actors took their bows and C. Kelly Wright bowed first, we had no idea the story was about her. At least the actors think it is. There are many side stories and unexplained threads that appear and then disappear, to say nothing of time travel and Morrison's expected magical realism that is hard enough to portray on a page let alone on a stage.

And the music -- gee whiz. An adaptation of a Toni Morrison novel set in Harlem in 1926 and entitled "Jazz?" And this is what they wanted from Marcus Shelby? We know and love this man's work. The show desperately needs a wake-up call and it may start here.


Our favorite moments were when Dane Troy, seen above in overalls, who said little but was always on stage, danced with Paige Mayes. In those moments the show seemed to be poised to explode onto a new plateau. Sadly, the segments were short and never returned.


Michael Gene Sullivan plays Joe Trace. Sullivan is an admirable comedian, one of our favorites for many years in the Bay Area. But perhaps due to Awoye Timpo's direction, his relationship with the doomed Dorcas makes little sense -- why, exactly, does the beautiful young girl fall for the somewhat portly. middle-aged soap salesman? -- and then is exacerbated when his wife takes him right back without a thought to the young girl Joe has murdered.


This is "Jazz"'s West Coast Premiere and is sure to be discussed and, hopefully, tightened. Right now there are good notes but they have yet to be assembled into a meaningful score.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS to "Jazz." We enjoyed the show while it was going on, but had looked forward to so much more. With a cast like this, and a performance like C. Kelly Wright's, somebody has to add some oomph. We suggest a phone call to Mr. Shelby.


"Jazz"
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through May 19
$25-$70





Saturday, April 20, 2019

Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story (Claude Debussy): ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


Hershey Felder must be getting tired of dreaming up ways to tell the stories of his favorite composers. For us, just listening to him sit at the piano and play, while talking to us about musical history and context, would be more than enough. But not enough for Felder.

In the World Premiere of "A Paris Love Story," featuring the music of Claude Debussy, Felder adds a bit of autobiography, as he relates the story of a young boy (Felder), infatuated with Debussy's music, who travels through Paris searching for homes where Debussy lived, bridges the composer may have crossed, and of course the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. When Felder announced the boy was standing in front of Notre Dame there was a loud "ohhhhhh!" from the audience.



We love Hershey Felder and would not miss any of his shows. But perhaps the artifice is beginning to show. His French-accented English begins to sound Russian and the story of the young boy in Paris really has no beginning or end. We love Claude Debussy as much as the next person, but the 12-tone music invented by Debussy might not be accessible enough to sustain an entire show.



After the curtain, Felder stood at the front of the stage and took questions from the audience. These were our favorite moments. He is a citizen of the world, erudite and brilliant. His answers were on point and expanded upon. When asked about Notre Dame he reminded us that there are tens of thousands of tourists visiting the cathedral every day. That no one was killed putting out that fire is its own miracle.  At the end, he said, "I can't listen to the news anymore. Just be kind to each other. "



RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story (Claude Debussy)" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Hershey Felder is a wonderful musician but he is somewhat less of a story teller. When the music dominates, as in "Irving Berlin," we can't get enough. In this brand new show there is plenty of music but for now it is taking second fiddle to the autobiography.

"Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story (Claude Debussy)" 
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through May 5
$40-$120

Thursday, April 4, 2019

"Yoga Play" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


"Namaste. Now go away," says frustrated Susi Damilano, who plays Joan, the recently-hired financial wizard for Jojomon, manufacturer of incredibly expensive yoga wear for women. Jojomon, a billion-dollar company, has recently been outed in the press for using nine-year-old Bangladeshi women to create their products, so Joan has had to come up with a company-and-face-saving scheme. The company needs a guru.


At the end of Act One, we said, "We hope this gets crazy." Fear not, young rabbit. In Act Two a scene develops worthy of Luci and Ethel Mertz. Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari's Raj, he of the bugged-out eyeballs, meets Guruji, the spiritual leader imported from the foothills of the Himalayas who turns out to actually be from Santa Monica. Throw in Ayelet Firstenberg as Romola, the bubbly yoga-teacher with a sharp tongue, and Ryan Morales as Fred, who is only trying to stay employed, and we have an ensemble that keeps us in stitches as well as wondering where they are going next.

\
Craig Marker's John Dale, the founder of the company, seen by video-conference from his mountain retreat, is hilarious. He may or may not have another part in the show, in which he may or may not manage to make us howl by only moving his eyes.


We thank everyone involved for the twist at the very end. We say no more.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, currently practicing in Reviewer Pose, normally known as Downwardly Complaining Dog, grants "Yoga Play" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The whole thing cracked us up, and that's worth at least Three stars, and the Bangle is for classic lines like, "Bring on the celebratory Kombucha" and "Namaste, you bitch!' Special congratulations to Ayelet Firstenberg for her L.A. yoga-ishness and also for her apology as the off-stage Jojomon worker in Bangladesh who didn't notice the age of the workers: "You know, they're all really small!"


"Yoga Play"
San Francisco Playhouse
Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through May 16
$35-$125

"In Old Age" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


Some plays resonate in different ways with different audiences. Mfoniso Udofia's fifth entry into her Ufot Family Cycle, "In Old Age," currently having its World Premiere at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason, touched us deeply. Even with the sound difficulties of Opening Night, including miking that seemed to disappear when characters turned their heads, as well as one character of a two-person cast speaking in a heavy Nigerian English accent, we empathized deeply with these struggling souls and did not need language to understand their plight.


It doesn't hurt to have actors of the caliber of Nancy Moricette as Abasiama and Steven Anthony Jones as Azell. We meet Abasiama as she sleeps on the sofa of her dilapidated home in Worcester, Mass. The doorbell rings and in walks Azell Abernathy, played, no, inhabited by Stephen Anthony Jones, who has been hired by Abasiama's children to try and repair her floors. Abasiama wants nothing to do with him. She is far more involved with her dead husband and his spirits, who may or may not be living in the back room.


And that's it. The rest of this brilliant one-act show is all about how two people from opposite worlds, one half-crazy with remembrances, and one trying gamely to overcome his own sorrow, can come to see each other as real people. The show is memorable from beginning to end. The ending brought tears to our eyes and a standing ovation.


Both Jones and Moricette are certain to win honors for these performances. The scene on the sofa where Azell and Abasiama begin talking like one another is a classic. Andrew Boyce's set, in which the floor becomes more and more finished as the handyman and the frightened woman begin to trust each other more, makes us applaud when the work finally is done.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS to "In Old Age." This show is dynamite already and we can only imagine how powerful it will become in the next six weeks,


 "In Old Age"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through April 21, 2019
$20-$60



Friday, March 15, 2019

"Actually" ☼ ☼ ☼


This is one of those nights in the theatre where the show is very good and the two-person cast is not only excellent but moves with skill along a tiny stage upstairs at the Aurora. If there is a problem, it is that the subject matter is so distressful and one of the characters so cruel, that we left the theatre feeling less exhilarated than we would have liked.

Don't forget racism. The issue of white privilege rears its ugly head and it's not wearing a hat. If the real world doesn't depress you enough, this one will dig you deeper.


Michael A. Curry plays Tom, a freshman at Princeton whose response to a brand new social milieu is to have sex with as many willing young freshman women as possible. We understand him, we see his backstory and we feel for the spot he is in as a good-looking African-American young man in an overwhelmingly white and wealthy university.



Amber, on the other hand, played by Ella Dershowitz, is deliberately over-the-top as an entitled young woman, with an intellect that has gotten her into an Ivy League school but seemingly without a shred of understanding for others, nor any sense of responsibility for her actions. Director Tracy Ward gives Dershowitz an annoying set of body habits and a voice to match. We arrive at a sexual-misconduct charge whose outcome is preordained. It will change the lives of only one of these kids.



For us, with all the interesting dialogue and steps back and forth through time, from the day Tom and Amber meet through their university "hearing," we wish we could feel a little more for Amber. If we liked her a little more we could have a little more empathy for them both. As it is, poor Tom, man. Nothing ever changes.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼



RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS to "Actually." It is a fascinating show that requires us to think about a nuanced issue guaranteed to make us uncomfortable. This is what theater is supposed to do, isn't it?


"Actually"
Harry's Theatre Upstairs
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 5, 2019
$40