Sunday, May 14, 2017

Word 4 Word: "Smut" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Alan Bennett, author of The Madness of King George, Prick Up Your Ears and The History Boys, among others, is a literary icon in his native England. His 2011 two-story collection "Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)" has now been adapted for the Word 4 Word stage by Amy Kossow. It is a smashing success, one of the finest and funniest Word 4 Words we have seen.

Nancy Shelby plays Mrs Donaldson, on the surface a middle-aged widow with little joy in her life. She takes a job at a local medical school as an actor-out of various medical maladies, in order to teach medical students how to react during real-life diagnoses. Her boss, Søren Oliver as Mr. Ballantine, is magnificent in his frustration with his students' lack of humanity as well as his growing attraction to Mrs. Donaldson.

Enter the boarders: Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico as two young medical students, whose proposition to Mrs. Donaldson seems preposterous at first: they will allow her to observe them making love in lieu of paying the weekly rent. We then watch Mrs. Donaldson warm to the subject matter before her, which leads to a lovely ending.

Robert Parsons is excellent, as always, as another of Mr. Ballantine's stable of actors. Likewise Delia MacDougall as the dowdy daughter as well as Mrs. Donaldson's friend with whom she can share her intimate secret. But the show is about Mrs. Donaldson. We learn and we grow and then the unexpected takes us new places.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Smut" Four Stars. It's that good. The entire ensemble of actors, the story, the adaptation and direction earn one Star each. There is nothing not to love here -- "Smut" delivers. (It usually does.)

"Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)"
Z Space Below
450 Florida St., San Francisco
Through June 11

"The Mushroom Cure" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Either Adam Strauss knows a lot about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or he is an amazing actor. From the beginning of the 90-minute solo performance, where we find him paralyzed with indecision over whether to purchase an IPod or an IRiver, to his adventure with cyborgs and penises in the ambulance towards the end, we are convinced that we are watching one extremely talented comedian as well as someone we definitely don't want to date our daughter.

Zany or Certifiable, you can't take your eyes off him. The story centers around his attempts to find a supply of psilocybin, which is illegal in New York, but he has heard is a possible cure for the OCD that has plagued him as long as he can remember. Along the way we hear a touching story about his relationship with his girl friend Grace, as well as any number of vignettes from the world of people desperately seeking drugs. Strauss is addicted to trying to get better, if only these attempts didn't include using substances that make him worse. Until...well, we'll let you hear that for yourself.

"The Mushroom Cure," he is quick to remind us, is cheaper than Hamilton. And you can learn things too -- like, for example, if you call 911 on yourself you can obtain a transcript of that conversation for only $8.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Those Were the Days and Thank God They Are Over Division awards "The Mushroom Cure" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Adam Strauss is brilliant. The BANGLE is for his unforgettable riff on The Lexicon of Lonely Dinners.

"The Mushroom Cure"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Through June 3
(Wed. and Fri. at 8pm
Sat. at 8:30pm)
$20-$35 Sliding Scale

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Guards at the Taj" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

We loved this show. We really loved it. Rajiv Joseph's "Guards at the Taj" is painfully funny, and you laugh when you know you shouldn't, which makes it better. It is dark and preposterous, so I guess we must be too.

One Act, 80 minutes. The show harkens back to the legend of Shah Jahan, the Seventeenth Century Moghul ruler of India, who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to the memory of his deceased wife. It was to be the most beautiful building in the world, reflecting the light of the moon on the saddened and parched Earth.

The legend continues that after the building's completion, the Shah ordered that all 20,000 workers, including the architect, would have their hands cut off so they could never again try to replicate an edifice of such beauty.

Twenty-First Century meme: the Evil Egomaniacal Emperor. At least Shah Jahan left us the Taj Mahal, not a basket of tacky hotels.

The story is told through the eyes of the two guards, standing next to each other, who have been stationed in front of the in-construction palace for sixteen years, while it was being built. They have the lowest-status, worst jobs in the Moghul Guard world, and they know they won't even be allowed to turn around to see the Taj when it is completed, which is scheduled for that very morning when the sun comes up. The penalty would be death.

They also know that somebody is going to have to chop off all those hands, and, being at the bottom of the ladder, it is probably going to be them.

So here we have the ancient, past, present and future dilemma of man: Our ruler might be horrible, but our life right now is pretty soft. Should we blow the whistle? To whom? Or should we spend an entire night at the chopping block brandishing a sword and a cauterizing iron, and then the next day on our knees mopping up the blood?

Jason Kapoor (right, above) and Rushi Kota are wonderful, each in his own way. Kapoor, as Humayun, has pull, because his father is high up in the power structure. He is inclined to keep his nose down and pretend not to notice any irregularities.

40,000 hands to cut off, not easy to ignore.

Kota, as Babur, the perennially late and far more questioning partner, is outraged at the horror of the situation he and his friend Humayun find themselves facing. He knows their action will condemn 20,000 hand-less men to a life of begging, and that every one of those men will know who cut their hands off. He wants to stand on principle. The penalty, of course, is being pulled apart by an elephant.

There is also an apple dangling over their heads, which is a possible promotion to Moghul Guard heaven: guarding the emperor at the royal Harem.

"Oooh, naked women everywhere," Babur fantasizes.

"Remember, YOU CAN'T LOOK," Humayun reminds him.

We loved Kapoor and Kota equally. This is Humayun's story to tell, but the friendship between the two guards permeates everything. Shall we say it again? We love these two. They need a weekly show.

Also, Annie Smart's set, Mike Post's lights and Fumiko Beilefeldt's costumes are perfect. Make that bloody perfect.

Caveat: several people we spoke with after the show, including a few of our fellow reviewers, did not appreciate "Guards." It was far too dark for them. My wife was on their side. What does this say about your singular reviewer?

It says I know when something works. Please run to Marin to catch Kapoor and Kota doing this show while you can. Have dinner before the show. Afterwards, maybe not a good idea.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Bloody Indian Fable Department of the Plain Old Awards Division awards "Guards at the Taj" FOUR STARS with an EXCLAMATION POINT! The Exclamation Point is for Babur's matter-of-fact observation: "Swearing an oath not to talk? CONTRADICTION!"

"Guards at the Taj"
Marin Thjeater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through May 21, 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Rachel Corrie was a young and idealistic college senior from Olympia, Washington who was volunteering with an International Organization in Rafah, a Palestinian border town in the Gaza Strip. There, in 2003, she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes. She was twenty-three years old.

Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner have built a production from Corrie's e-mails, her journals and stories told to them by her parents. Written in 2005, at first this is a difficult show to watch, because there is only one actor: Charlotte Hemmings. It feels like an extended monologue, and the beginning is peppered with rather clichéd and precious musings -- the vaguely idealistic ramblings of a young woman in her bedroom.

But then everything changes. Hemmings puts on a scarf and the action shifts to Palestine, at which point the emails, the action and the flow of the story become spellbinding. We cannot overstate how involving this one-act-one-actor production becomes.

Charlotte Hemmings has been playing Rachel since 2010, when direction was taken over by Jonathan Kane. She seems born to the part. Hemmings says she has learned the lines by writing them all out longhand, until she feels Rachel Corrie inside her.  She is a joy to watch, particularly as the show moves to its inevitable conclusion.

An interesting sidelight is that after Rachel's death, her sister took it upon herself to transcribe every journal entry and every-mail that Rachel had made, from the time she was eight years old. This selfless undertaking seems to mirror the Corrie family. And it makes for great theater.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "My Name is Rachel Corrie" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The whole idea of building a solo performance around this historical event earns one star, plus direction and acting earn one star each. The BANGLE is for the stunning way Rachel Corrie summed up the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, with all the world pretending to look in the other direction: "I am questioning my fundamental belief in human nature."

This was in the last e-mail she sent to her mother.

Please do not listen to anyone who tries to cloak Rachel Corrie's experience with ideology. This is a human story. Don't miss it.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie"
The Magic Theater
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through May 14

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Temple" NO RATING

"Temple," by Steve Waters, is the fictionalized story of a real-life confrontation between Occupy protestors and London's St. Paul's Church, in 2011. These issues live on today, unsolved and waiting to happen again, as the Western world appears unable to stem the widening economic and cultural gulfs between haves and have-nots. Our positions have hardened, even though we all know where this eventually leads.

Yes, we wish they would all get off their knees, but our basic issue with "Temple" is not ideological, but theatrical. The characters do little but fret. We found ourselves disinterested in the Canon Cancellor (Mike Ryan), disappointed with the Dean (Paul Whitworth), angry at the City Lawyer (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), exasperated at the P.A. (Sylvia Burboeck) and didn't much care about the Virger (Sharon Lockwood). We kept waiting for the man the author intended to be our hero to stand up and be counted. In real life, apparently he did. On stage -- not so much.

We have a real problem with the ending. If the moral of the story is that everyone should dress up and walk out to pray, "Temple" accomplishes it. And the innocent little choir boys...oh, please.


The San Francisco Theater Blog admits it has zero interest in churches or the way their Boards of Directors suffer or don't suffer. So it must recuse itself and give this show NO RATING. Talk and little action do not accomplish much, on stage or out in the real world.

Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 14

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Rags" ☼ ☼

Joseph Stein's book for "Fiddler on the Roof" spoke of life on the other side, in the fictional but impoverished Jewish village of Anatevka.  In "Rags," he tried to tell the after-story -- what would have happened to Tevye once he emigrated to New York?

The problem was, Stein got Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick to write the music for Fiddler, and thus produced some of the most memorable theater music of all time. For Rags, Stein worked with
Steven Schwartz and Charles Strouse, no lightweights, but the songs are at the same time too lyric-heavy and not musical enough. There are good songs, not great songs, good characters but no memorable ones, plenty of angst but little joy, ample rhyming craft but, above all --- no Tevye. No larger-than-life character who sings all the great songs, who grabs the audience in a bear hug and will not let them go.

Yes, Jack Kerouac was correct: comparisons are odious. But how can you not compare these two shows, written by the same writer, one the result of the other? Musically, especially, "Rags" just cannot help but remind us of what is missing.

Act One feels long; most of the better songs are in Act Two. We liked Travis Leland as Ben. Likewise Darlene Popovic as Rachel, whose romantic interest in Donald Corren's Avram leads to our favorite song from the show, "Three Sunny Rooms." Julie Benko as Bella makes us cheer for her. It is her would-be romance with Ben that give us characters who seem to be in love with each other.

But the show hinges on the more traditional love triangle between Kyra Miller as Rebecca, her husband Nathan (Noel Anthony) and Danny Rothman as the labor-organizer Saul. But really, there are no fireworks among any of them. We don't care all that much. And that's a good thing, because nothing much happens.

The Irish bosses shake down the Jewish immigrants. The white-shoed plutocrats dance through their lives. Don't forget the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. There's a lot going on, and everyone is singing about it.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rags" Two Stars. This places it below the Julie Andrews line for recommendation.  See Sideboard for explanation of ratings.

We would like to be more positive about this production as a good many people are involved in getting it to the stage, and it is nice to the eye. But too many blown lines and scratchy vocals, plus a story that stays on one emotional level, make it difficult to feel confident that this new adaptation is about to make "Rags" into riches.

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 30

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Baltimore Waltz: ☼ ☼

Paula Vogel began writing "The Baltimore Waltz" in 1989 as a sister's remembrance of her brother Carl, who died of AIDS in the 1980s. The show premiered at the Magic Theatre in 1992. On top of being a memoir to her brother, it is also a farcical, magical-realism look at the medical snakepit of those early days of AIDS research.

The show is directed by Jonathan Moscone, but it does not have the power in 2017 that it had in in 1992. The 1980s and 1990s, the dreaded Baby Days of AIDS when fear was the dominant emotion, have become the 2000 Teens when people with money and access to AIDS drug-cocktails no longer need succumb to this disease. Yes. thousands still suffer and die around the globe, but this story is about middle-class Americans from Baltimore. So for it to work on a visceral level we need to be involved with the characters in the story. Sadly, with all the high-jinks and reversals of roles, plus the unfortunate decision to speak to the audience as if it is 2017 (example: in the above photo, Lauren English (center) says, "Where am I, in an HMO?") we have far less emotional stake in the lives of our characters. Certainly less than we may have had in 1992.

Lauren English plays Anna, Patrick Alparone her brother Carl and Greg Jackson all the other roles. Jackson is terrific in the same way he was playing the multiple roles in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Marriage," English uses evocative facial expressions to display her many internal struggles and Alparone is an excellent actor but he is also straight-jacketed by the audience's realization right off the bat that these characters are only pretending.

There are symbols spread throughout the show (such as the rather inexplicable stuffed rabbit) that will resonate with many in the audience. But inconsistencies make these signals confusing -- why did Carl have to hand the rabbit to Anna when they are going through customs? We figured there was some kind of metal inside it, but perhaps that is because we are watching this show twenty-five years after its premiere.

And what is with the Nazi-era black-gloved hand of the Austrian doctor? Does anybody really think this stuff is funny any more?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives Two Stars to "The Baltimore Waltz."  (This places the show below The Julie Andrews Line -- see ratings bar to right for explanation.)

Paula Vogel wrote a moving theatrical epitaph to her brother twenty-five years ago that still carries a lot of angst with it. Missing those who have gone before us never goes out of style.

"The Baltimore Waltz"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D
Buchanan at Bay, San Francisco
Through April 16

Monday, March 27, 2017

"Noises Off" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It felt like everyone in the audience had seen "Noises Off" at least once before. Between Act One and Act Two people on all sides of us were giggling with excitement during Intermission. "Just wait 'til Act Two," they said. They were right, but Act One is very funny too.

Michael Frayn's show-within-a-show premiered in London in 1982 at the Old Vic. The show is Farce with a capital F, filled with randy actors, a frustrated director and two excellent behind-the-scenes technicians who are also understudying for every major role, seeing as the principals could disappear or pass out dead drunk at any moment.  Act One is the last minute rehearsal before Opening Night, and Act Two is the same show seen from behind the curtain as everyone scrambles to get out the correct door wearing the proper costume. The latter half of Act Two is that same show, on Opening Night, seen from the audience's viewpoint, as the drunken cast memorably screws everything up.

The show we have already seen in rehearsal, now seen from backstage, is the brilliance of "Noises Off." So yes, the first half of Act Two is terrific. ("Noises Off" is a stage direction indicating a voice that comes from Off Stage.)  Belly laughs and gasps for air. Doors. Lots of doors.

The cast is packed with San Francisco Playhouse regulars, such as Johnny Moreno as the Director Lloyd. Lloyd is carrying on simultaneously with Brooke (Monique Hafen, resplendent in red underwear) and Poppy (Monica Ho, as the stage manager but also understudy to Brooke so she wears red underwear too). Marvelously dotty Dotty, played by Kimberly Richards, is eventually having a fling it Gary (Patrick Russell)? Or is that Belinda (Nanci Zoppi) with Gary? No, she's with Frederick (Craig Marker). Doesn't matter.

Certainly, the show is stolen by Richard Louis James who plays the doddering Selsdon. Selsdon's mission in life is to get his hands on the bottle of whiskey brought backstage by Lloyd. That bottle of whiskey succeeds in its mission to destroy any chance this crew had of surviving Opening Night without taking down the curtain. Selsdon's lines are basically incomprehensible to us, but we don't care. We love him. We also love the show's savior, Tim, played by Greg Ayers, seen above as Selsdon's understudy, with Nanci Zoppi understandably dubious.

What a difficult show to mount and choreograph. Director Susi Damilano will not sleep until the run is complete.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Noises Off" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Act Two plays a little long but this will improve during the run. Acting, Set and Story earn one Star each with the BANGLE for Damilano's figuring out how to get everyone in and out on time. As it were.

"Noises Off"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St. (2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
Through May 13, 2017

(This is a show with something happening on all sides of the stage. All seats are good at SFP, but this is one case when center will be best. We suggest front-row center in the mezzanine, if available.)

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Peerless" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Wow! We have just seen brilliant acting and directing, an eye-popping production and a fascinating story filled with laughs and surprises. What's not to like? Nothing. "Peerless" is as good as anything we've seen yet in 2017.

The author, Jiehae Park, says we are seeing a modern Macbeth, that she took her title from a speech by Banquo. That's author and reviewer talk. Shakespeare never made us laugh this hard.

Identical twins L (Rinabeth Apostol) and M (Tiffany Villarin) are every college administrator's nightmare. Consumed with getting into The College, where only one student from their school may be admitted each year, L and M have everything planned out perfectly, including transferring into a favorable suburban location and getting all their stats, extra-curriculars and grade-point averages in order. One will get in this year and one the following year, according to plan. You and then me.

Except for D, played fabulously by Jeremy Kahn. He is the one who has been given Early Acceptance into The School, not L. or M. Jeremy has allergies, ah, there's the rub.

Then there is BF (Cameron Matthews) and Dirty Girl (Rosie Hallett). Anyone who stands in the way of L and M must pay for their toil and trouble.

"Peerless" is as good to look at as it is to listen to. Scenic Designer Kate Noll and Lighting Designer Heather Basarab have outdone themselves. You never know which cool door someone will pop out of. And when they do, they are in Sydney Gallas's perfect outfits.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The Thank God I Am No Longer in High School subdivision of the San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Peerless" Four Stars. Acting, directing (Margot Bordelon), story and set are spot-on perfect. Make sure not to miss this one.

Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue. Mill Valley
Through April 2

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Leni: ☼ ☼ BANG

A two-actor ensemble of Martha Brigham and Stacy Ross, direction by Jon Tracy and a Northern California Premiere of Sarah Greenman's play "Leni" would seem to be foolproof.  Featuring Brigham as the younger and Ross as the older Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker known for two 1930s propaganda films in support of Adolph Hitler, Leni is a small theater piece that makes you think -- perhaps a little more than you want to.

The younger Leni thinks it's all about her, while the older Leni tries to hide her divided self in film-talk, lighting and camera angles. The two actors  work well with each other, though the film-making conceit combined with what appears to be the Nuremberg Trials is somewhat confusing. Projections from Liefenstahl's "Olympia" and "Triumph of the Will," broadcast on the wall of the small upstairs Harry's Stage, are quite effective. They serve to give us an idea of how and why these films came to be so severely judged after the war. It was always about Hitler. The awards before and the denigration and denunciation after had little to do with Leni, but she is the one who was never able to work again as a director of films.

The history is fascinating, as are the chilling comparisons to the times we are living through now. We wish the play itself had more to it. We have seen Martha Brigham several times in the past few months in excellent roles, but here Jon Tracy seems content to have her feign fury at her older self, while Stacy Ross, one of the Bay Area's finest actors, seems confined in an ersatz German accent. For us, the fault is not with the actors but with the play itself, which comes across with a lot of sturm but perhaps not enough drang.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Leni" Two Stars with a Bangle of Praise, one star each for Brigham and Ross and a Bangle of Praise for the renovation of Harry's Stage. This rating places this show under the Julie Andrews Line of recommendation -- those who love the actors will enjoy watching them work, but in the end the more we know about Leni Riefenstahl, the less we like her.

Aurora Theatre Harry's Stage
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 7