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

Calligraphy: ☼ ☼ ☼

Two cousins, one Japanese and one Japanese-American, the first living in Tokyo and the second in Los Angeles, are attempting to reconcile their mothers, who are sisters. The two older ladies quarreled as younger women over the love of a man and have never been able to get past it. Now they live thousands of miles from each other. Their two daughters are determined to bring their mothers back together.

Or...are they? Hiromi (Mia Nagano) and her mother Noriko (Emily Kuroda), in California, are prepared to travel back to a Japanese Hot Springs for the reunion, but Sayuri (Elizabeth Pan) is having trouble convincing her mother Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata). The younger cousins, who talk intercontinentally on Skype, have built a relationship through the years while the older women have remained angry at each other most of their lives.

Central to understanding "Calligraphy" is the concept of filial piety, and how Sayuri, who has remained in Japan caring for her mother, longs to escape. There is also the issue of racism, since Noriko married a black soldier and therefore Hiromi is half Japanese, half-African American.

But in the end, it is about the power of family. How will these four resolve their issues?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Calligraphy" Three Stars. We find it a little difficult to understand how Sayuri can do what she does at the end. Her character, and that of her mother Natsuko, are not easy to like. This makes the final resolution somewhat problematic. Still, the acting is good and the story interesting enough to recommend coming to see.

Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through April 2