Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Obligation: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Growing up, we were always assured another Holocaust was impossible. The truth is, these ethnic cleansings are part of America's own history and we can read about them every day in stories from around the world. But all of a sudden, with Donald Trump's takeover of the American government, the Nazis are making a comeback here, along with their white nationalist cousins. America is once again faced with the same issues of organized repression that Roger Grunwald discusses in "The Obligation." If there is one lesson to be gleaned from this show, it is that the bad stuff never goes away.

Grunwald's one-man show, directed by Nancy Carlin, has several brilliant segments, especially his portrayal of a scheming and arrogant Nazi bigwig. Grunwald's characters command the stage and demand that we listen, even when they are telling us things we would rather not hear. As always, Germans are the enemy here, portrayed as hideous, hateful monsters, filled with rage against people they consider their inferiors. We despised them when we walked into the theater and we despise them when we walk out.

For us, this is "The Obligation"'s problem. There is no story arc here, no redemption and little to be learned, except that people do what they do either to protect themselves or to attempt to move up the ladder. We are supposed to be shocked Grunwald's particularly-evil Nazi soldier is half-Jewish. We're not shocked. He is no different than any of them.

On a theatrical level, what is Groucho Marx doing here?

If we are to be warned that prejudice never disappears, "The Obligation" succeeds. The touching understory -- that may survivors of the camps never recovered from the horrors they witnessed -- stays with us. But there is a cost we must pay: it is a dark evening at the theater. Roger Grunwald is an excellent actor telling a thoroughly discouraging story.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is having difficulty rating"The Obligation." For acting: Three Stars. Roger Grunwald knows what he is doing. For writing: a few holes to fill in. For enjoyment? Perhaps this depends on how upset you get hearing about Nazis.

"The Obligation"
The Portrero Stage
1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Through November 5

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Thomas and Sally" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

A revised history lesson in three acts, the World Premiere of Thomas Bradshaw's "Thomas and Sally" attempts to bring to life Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings. The theatrical conceit is a dialogue between two contemporary, white college girls, one of whom is a direct descendant of Jefferson and Hemmings. The concept is intriguing and the staging fascinating, but there are several red flags that never stop waving. As a result, after a rousing opening in Act One, Act Two slows down and Act Three screeches to a revisionist halt, as the Jefferson descendant attempts to explain how all master-slave relationships weren't really that bad, and some of them were based on love.

If you can manage to push this aside, there is the issue of the dildos.

We are not naive. Just as symphony hall music directors have been complaining for years that no one will subscribe to the yearly series if it does not include Mozart and Beethoven, perhaps dildos and penises are what bring in today's crowds. The conversation between Karen (Rosie Hallett) and Simone (Ella Dershowitz), after Karen has used Simone's dildo and not returned it (and also not washed it off) is inexplicable in a story about Thomas Jefferson. And, as all playwrights understand, when you take the dildo out of the drawer in Act One you have to use it in Act Three. When that happened, every person in our row went, "Oh, Jesus."

And what a pity, because there is true brilliance here. William Hodgson as James Hemmings and Cameron Matthews as his brother Robert bring fire to their roles. L. Peter Callender is a dominant Jupiter, Robert Sicular gives an excellent reading to Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles and there were intriguing moments from Mark Anderson Phillips as Thomas and Tara Pacheco as Sally.

But not enough. Admittedly, chemistry between actors is not always achievable, but it would have helped explain the smarminess of a fifteen year old slave becoming the concubine of a forty-something aristocrat. It is not enough to have him declare his love and buy her a new dress.

We understand about power, and how the real Sally Hemmings could never have chosen to stay in France where she would be free but also pregnant and penniless, whereas returning to slavery in Virginia could bring relative comfort to her children. We too can choose, if we wish, to believe that the fifteen year old slave remained forever with the forty-ish aristocrat because she loved him. Of course it could have nothing to do with the fact that Jefferson promised to free her only after he was dead. 

On the other hand, the year is 2017. The audience laughed when hearing Jefferson's noble lines about American democracy spoken against the reality of Donald Trump. It is a blot on Jefferson's personal history that he was never able to practice what he preached about the evils of slavery. "Thomas and Sally" has decided none of that matters. Love and Mozart are the answer. 

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division feels that because "Thomas and Sally" is daring in concept, and assuming the running time will be cut as the run continues, and that they will put the dildos back in the drawer and keep them there (they can leave Mark Anderson Phillips's flag flying if this will help sell some tickets), we are awarding "Thomas and Sally" Three Stars but with a bauble of despair. We understand this brings the total ratings down below the Julie Andrews Line (see sidebar for explanation). There is much to like in Bradshaw's new play but an equal amount to fix.

"Thomas and Sally"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through October 22, 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017

Barbecue: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We loved Act One of Robert O'Hara's "Barbecue," directed by Margo Hall. A San Francisco Playhouse play to the core, the show is funny, strange and unpredictable. The O'Mallerys are an homage to the dysfunctional family. Acting is great, with standout performances by Adrian Roberts, Anne Darragh and the rest of this excellent ensemble. We go with the flow and as Act One is about to close we are on the edge of our seats, giddy to find out what will happen next.

Then boom! The end of Act One. And then Act Two. The ensemble disappears and the explanation begins. We don't want to give anything away, but we will say it's probably more explanation than we need. Margo Hall and Susi Damilano are both excellent as the real Barbara and the Fake News Barbara emerge from under their blindfolds. Damilano is at her best and we get to watch her character develop, but Hall is forced to keep explaining. We know Margo Hall. She can tell a story with her little finger. After the delightful zaniness of Act One, we can't wait for everyone to get back on stage and go crazy again.

We love both Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Jennie Brick as the cigarette-toting Aldean. Anne Darragh and Alili Knox make you want to put Lillie Anne through her own private intervention.

Roberts and Clive Worseley as James T, and Kehinde Koyejo and Teri Whipple as Marie round out a cast where there are no incomplete characters. The set manages to look like so many little parks in San Francisco -- beat up and littered with deflated balloons.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division would grant Act One FOUR STARS and Act Two THREE STARS, so we end up awarding "Barbecue" THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE.  The Bangle has to be for our favorite moment, when Adrian Roberts pulls out the taser. That is humor at its smokiest. "Barbecue" is terrific now and will get even tastier as the run continues.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through November 11

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Luna Gale ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Rebecca Gilman has tapped into some of our deepest fears about the way our society deals with our most vulnerable citizens. Here we are talking about the impossible job our social workers have been given to determine the fate of children at risk. Karlie (Alix Caudra) and Peter (Devin S. O'Brien) are meth addicts. They are also the young parents of infant Luna Gale, who has been brought to the Iowa hospital in a compromised, dehydrated condition.

The baby must be taken away from the parents, but to whom should she be entrusted? Currently she is being cared for by Karlie's mother Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey, in a terrific role), but Cindy is a Jesus Freak convinced the end days have arrived. Everyone agrees the foster home system is a complete disaster and must be avoided at all costs. The only way the parents can be reunited with their daughter is to cycle through a series of counseling and rehab, except these programs have been overwhelmed and have no openings. And anyway, MOM (Mothers off Meth) is not going to do anyone much good.

So it all comes down to a judgement call made by the social worker. Jamie Jones plays Caroline, a devoted twenty-five year veteran who is counting the days until her own retirement. Whatever she reports will most likely be agreed to by the judge who makes the final decision, but Caroline understands there are no good solutions. Everyone is flawed, and so is she.

We loved Kevin Kamp as Pastor Jay, which is to say we hated Pastor Jay for his supercilious piety. We also loved Bailey's portrayal of Cindy as someone who has exchanged loneliness for her church. The key line in the show is when the pastor tells Caroline "God will show you love whether you want it or not!" Caroline, who was molested as a child, says "That sounds just like my f***ing father."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is happy to grant "Luna Gale" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  Gilman's writing, the ensemble of actors, direction by Tom Ross and perfect set by Kate Boyd keep us on the edge of our seats for two long acts.

The Social Welfare system is a reflection on ourselves. It is terribly inadequate but as a society we have decided we will do no more for our poor. The Bangle of Praise is for the way Gilman forces us to think about all the unfortunate people trapped inside this terrible nightmare.

"Luna Gale"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through October 1

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Constellations: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

You can't begin to discuss Nick Payne's "Constellations" without mentioning the set. Like an astral jungle gym, the twinkling lights change as each scene-let changes, to let us know that the characters may be speaking the same dialogue as a moment ago, but their situation has changed. It is a brilliant way to discuss string theory -- that is, the world of parallel universes, each of them real, each existing at the same moment in time.

Roland (Robert Gilbert) has gotten nowhere with his come-on at the barbecue to Marianne (Carrie Kawa) -- she is married. Switch flashing lights, change positions on stage and here comes Roland's come-on again -- this time she's got a boy friend. Switch again -- it works! She likes him! All these outcomes can occur simultaneously in our universe of surprises.

This conceit works well for most of the show. Gilbert and Kawa rely on voice, on body language and even sign language at one point. This latter usage strains credibility somewhat -- the beekeeper and the physicist are amazing quick-study linguists, no?  -- but it is a pleasure to see so many tools come out of these fine actors' toolboxes.

Our problem is not logical but theatrical. The story demands emotion from actors that feels staged in a world where nothing lasts longer than a minute. We've got the idea -- the tragedy that will soon be upon them -- but we're not convinced. In many ways "Constellations" is brilliant -- but it also feels somewhat gimmicky. In the end, we believe Marianne more than Roland. We wish he would back off a bit. He comes off as a bit of a bumpkin in a play about physics and love.

The San Francisco Theater Blog always treasures plays about Science. We will grant "Constellations" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for staging and the intelligence of Payne's writing. It is a fascinating show and one you will enjoy.

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through September 17

Monday, July 24, 2017

"The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga" NOT RATED

Min Kahng's "The Four Immigrants" tells the story of four Japanese nationals who come to America in the beginning years of the Twentieth Century. It is based on a manga, or cartoon series, drawn by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama in the 1920s. The artist is one of the four characters depicted in our story.

We can assume that Act One would have been better had we been able to take the music in context with the cartoon story; as it is, the computer foul-up on Opening Night left the songs to stand perilously on their own. Act Two was better, when we could see the cartoons, the actors settled into their roles and their songs felt less derivative. We very much liked "Furusato," a more traditional song sung by the ensemble without attempts at the pseudo-ragtime that haunts the rest of this score.

We enjoyed the ensemble, but particularly Phil Wong as Frank (The Footware King), who stands out as the most accessible and understandable of the four.


The San Francisco Theater Blog has decided to not rate "The Four Immigrants," as technology sadly rendered this performance unrepresentative of the final product. The show was a hit at last year's New Works Festival so we are certain it will find its footing.

"The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga"
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 6, 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

"La Cage Aux Folles" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

In all entertainment, first come the stars, then the imitators. Most often we are stuck with watching people attempt to reproduce the original, a song here, a setting there. Then, if we are lucky, we get to see the real deal, the show all the imitators have been imitating. Now we understand what the fuss was all about.

Thus it is with the San Francisco Playhouse version of "La Cage Aux Folles," directed by Bill English. It has everything -- acting, dancing, intelligence and heart.

Jean-Michel (Nikita Burshteyn) has been raised by his two dads, natural father Georges (Ryan Drummond) and George's partner Albin (John Treacy Egan). Now, Jean-Michel wants to marry...a woman! Samantha Rose plays Anne, Jean-Michel's hopeful bride.

However, in order to win Anne's parents' approval, the couple must first introduce them to Georges and Albin. A homophobic, conservative French politician, Anne's father's consent will be next to impossible to attain.

 And Albin will have to be mollified. And the world as it is will have to become the world it never was. Which is possible in the theater.

 When all fails, resort to blackmail.

There are no false steps here. The show stands the test of time and this ensemble of actors brings pleasure and fun into a trying situation. Egan's Albin brings Nathan Lane to mind, while Drummond makes us smile, even when singing the melancholy showstoppers "With You on My Arm" and "Look Over There." We love Jacquelyn Scott's roundabout set, and Kimberly Richards's choreography adapts well to the small space a company of fourteen manages to inhabit. Everyone in the cast can sing, but special kudos to Nikita Burshteyn, who has a clear, soaring voice.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS with an EXCLAMATION POINT! to "La Cage Aux Folles." We might make it FIVE STARS, but usually we get a handsome payoff for one of those, like first in line at the post-show buffet or an extra cream puff. Didn't happen. So we will settle for FOUR STARS with an EXCLAMATION POINT OF THANKS. Anyone who loves musical theater, or great art, or just enjoys hearing songs written by a master, ought to hurry down to San Francisco Playhouse while tickets are available.

"La Cage Aux Folles"
San Francisco Playhouse 
450 Post St., San Francisco
(Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
Through Sept. 16


Wednesday, July 12, 2017

San Francisco Mime Troupe 2017: "Walls" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We sat on the Press Blanket next to Dick Cheney! Sadly, Ed Holmes has retired after 28 years with the Mime Troupe, but we asked him to show us how he performed Cheney, surely the most beloved and reviled character of recent Mime Troupe history. The secret: he can sneer out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.

Only the Mime Troupe has a Press Blanket.

The current show,  Michael Gene Sullivan's "Walls," has fine acting, good songs and a lot of big laughs. In light of last November's election it is great to once again see farce only on a Berkeley stage, not the national stage.

This year's subject is immigration. As Breitbart News duly noted, "Walls" is about a lesbian relationship between an illegal alien and an immigration cop. Marilet Martinez is Zaniyah Nahuatl, who has come across the border looking for work. She is alternately perky and traumatized. Velina Brown plays Agent L. Mary Jones, Zaniyah's lover and protector, while Rotimi Agbabiaka plays numerous roles, including the refugee store-owner Bahdoon. Martinez, Brown and Agbabiaka are all excellent but the show gives its best laughs to Lizzie Calogero as the unpronounceable Irish immigration official Cliodhna Abhabullogue. Calogero is a wonderful physical comic and leads us to a conclusion obvious to everyone except Breitbart news.

Perhaps because The Mime Troupe has been around the Bay Area for so many years, there are always those who expect a company of actors to come up with answers to complex societal problems. We think part of the solution is to have a great time on a sunny afternoon in a local park, listening to live music and watching fine actors maneuver across a tiny stage.

"Walls" has done it again. It wouldn't be summertime without the San Francisco Mime Troupe.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Walls" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for all four actors. By Labor Day the show will be even tighter but can't be any more fun. By the way, Bretibart, you are right. There is a red star in the SFMT logo.

San Francisco Mime Troupe 2017: "Walls"
Various parks around the Bay Area
Weekends through Sunday, Sept. 3
See SFMT.ORG for complete schedule

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"The King is Dead. Long Live the Queen." If ever a slogan fit a show, this is it. We loved everything about Matthew Lopez's "The Legend of Georgia McBride," a celebration of not only the world of drag but the dreams and ambitions of us all.

Adam Magill is brilliant as Casey, an Elvis impersonator in a small beach town in the Florida panhandle. Casey's luck has run out -- not only are he and his wife broke, but she has discovered she is pregnant. He then loses his Elvis job at a funky bar on the beach, having been replaced by the cousin of the bar owner. The new act is made up of two drag queens, Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) and Anna Rexia Nervosa (Jason Kapoor).

Kraig Swartz and Jason Kapoor could not be better. But Adam Magill is off the charts. Casey must fill in for Anna Rexia Nervosa when she becomes too drunk to perform. The scenes where Miss Tracy instructs the straight Casey on how to dress and act like a woman are absolutely priceless. "Tits up and testicles tucked," she says and Casey gamely straps on his high heels and teeters out to the mike.

Many surprises follow. Casey is good at it -- really good! Audiences start filling up the bar. Bar owner Eddie (John R. Lewis) is ecstatic and keeps adding more shows. The only one who has been kept out of the loop is Casey's wife, Jo (Tatiana Wechsler), because Casey is embarrassed to admit he has been wowing the crowds as a drag queen. This leads to touching moments where Miss Tracy and Anna Rexia speak frankly to Casey about the outcast lives they have been forced to live. Casey realizes he must face his own fears of failure. The lesson here is: we are who we are.

With such grand  humor and slapstick buffoonery, "Miss Georgia McBride" closes gaps between us and teaches us to open our eyes as wide as we can.

The inclusion of Lady Gaga's "I Was Born This Way" as the grand finale number is genius. Perfection. Just like the rest of this lovely show.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is proud to give FOUR STARS and a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "The Legend of Georgia McBride." The Four Stars are for Story, Acting, Directing (Kent Gash) and Set/Lights (Jason Sherwood and Kurt Landisman). The music is perfect. The show is funny and important -- a rare combination. And we can promise that Tammy Wynette never knew "Stand By Your Man" could sound this good.

"The Legend of Georgia McBride"
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 2, 2017
$22 - $72

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Hershey Felder, Beethoven" ☼ ☼ BANG

We have seen Hershey Felder in his memorable "Irving Berlin," one of our favorite evenings of theater in recent memory. I wish I could say we enjoyed "Beethoven" nearly as much. Sadly, this Felder performance is funereal. (The set is a grand piano in a graveyard.) The costumes are dark, the set is dark and, above all, the story line Felder has invented, that of the son of a best friend of Beethoven's narrating an outline of the composer's life, is without energy or excitement. There is little connection with the audience. And, amazingly, for a show about one of the greatest composers in the history of western culture, there is far too little music. When Felder plays piano, we enjoy the timeless melodies so many of us grew up with. But there is far too much talk and too many forgettable characters.

Beethoven himself is portrayed as bombastic. Perhaps this was so. But between Beethoven's bombast and the narrator's strained sadness, there is little. Yes, it is a tragedy that Beethoven went deaf so early in his life, but surely there must be something else in the maestro's life we could learn about? Something else must explain his massive outpouring of creativity? Yes, his father beat him. So...that's it?

Hershey Felder is worth seeing at any time. But we wish this show were more about the composer 's music and less about the actor's craft.


 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants TWO STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "Hershey Felder: Beethoven." But be forewarned: if the music of Ludwig von Beethoven could not squeeze another star out of those of us who grew up playing and venerating his music, it may not do so for you either.

A BANGLE OF PRAISE, certainly, for "Ode to Joy."

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
EXTENDED through July 9

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Grandeur" ☼ ☼ ☼

It is rewarding for an audience to absorb pieces of a story and have them come together at the end to reveal the heart of the show. Perhaps we have war and revolution and the vastness of a snowbound continent, but ultimately we care more about Zhivago and Lara. Our brains love the details, but our hearts are involved with more intimate matters.

Sadly, the opposite seems true in the World Premiere of Han Ong's "Grandeur." There is no big story, only details. If you are an ardent fan of the words and music of the late Gil Scott-Heron, you may relish the story of the older Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly), towards the end of his life, being interviewed by the young and fawning journalist Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan). Scott-Heron reveals little, he speaks in riddles that the younger man takes to be signs that his hero has not lost his touch. Scott-Heron's sort-of-niece, Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks) has a role that feels undefined -- except that she certainly shares Scott-Heron's revolutionary ideal.

In real life, Gil Scott-Heron, even in his prime of the early 1970s, was an acquired taste. Brilliant at times but also a substance abuser, his reputation suffered as he continued to decline to show up at his concerts. For some fans, this was a plus -- the poet refusing to knuckle under to the demands of the commercial marketplace. But though he is played to KJAZ-deejay laconic perfection by Carl Lumbly, our story is not with Scott-Heron, who remains static, but with Steve Barron. Will this young man become a true hero, or is he simply another opportunistic writer attempting to further his own career by scoring cocaine for the old man and then writing about the experience?

The Supertitles at the beginning of Act 2 suggest the latter.

World Premieres are often raw and things always change as the show advances. We are aware that we are watching historical fiction, that no such encounter as is enacted here ever really occurred. So we wish we were left with something at least moderately uplifting. It is somewhat surprising that Scott-Heron's estate would allow such an unflattering, if fictional, portrait.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Grandeur" Three Stars. Any show with Carl Lumbly is worth seeing and loose ends will become tied up as the run proceeds. We particularly enjoyed Ray Oppenheimer's subdued lighting, which becomes part of our understanding of this latter part of Scott-Heron's life. Also, Sara Huddleston has thrown in some terrific blues guitar at the show's beginning and during intermission.

The CD spoken of in the show, "I'm New Here," is real. It was the comeback album that never quite came back. The CD was released in 2010. Scott-Heron died in 2011.

The Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through June 25, 2017