Friday, August 17, 2018

Washed Up on the Potomac ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG





We can't say that we saw a star being born on Opening Night, because Melissa Quine is already well known throughout the Bay Area. Thrust into a starring role in Lynn Rosen's "Washed Up on the Potomac" only three days earlier, due to a casting emergency, Quine plays Sherri, the complex, ultra-neurotic head of proofreading at a low-rent ad agency. We fall in love with her. She steals every scene she is in, delivering a delightfully nuanced performance even when being forced to read her lines from a notebook. Sherri has such a permanent scowl that when she smiles we have no choice but to smile along with her.


The office is staffed with a pair of woulda-beens and wannabes. We get irritating Kate, an over-the-hill woulda-been rocker, and lap-dog Mark, a young wannabe poet, both doing dead-end jobs in the proofreading department along with Sherri. Jessica Bates plays Kate as if she is trying to get herself slapped in the face, while Vincent Randazzo's Mark is so in love with Kate he would be happy for her to simply acknowledge he is alive. Perhaps Director José Zayas has these two play their roles a little too stereotypically. Neither feels quite real.


Their boss, Cole Alexander Smith, is terrific as a middle-level executive with a stunning combover. He is trying to be sympathetic to his staff, but an error has been made and someone's head is going to have to roll.


The last character has an office behind a glass window in what appears to be a stairwell. Played sympathetically by Max Forman-Mullin, he and Sherri might have had a chance together -- if only.


We loved lots of staging details -- the drastic way they changed sets, for example, and the way the proofreaders went about the the boredom of their jobs to the unwavering tone of a metronome. There is a lot to like here.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Washed Up on the Potomac" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The show itself probably needs a little trimming and tightening up of Kate and Mark's characters, to give us a window into why they seem so trapped in their own dead-end dreams. The Bangle, of course, is for Melissa Quine. I wish it were possible for her not to memorize another line. She could not have been more wonderful.

"Washed Up on the Potomac"
San Francisco Playhouse Playground Series
Custom Made Theater: 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through September 1
$30

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Word for Word's 25th Anniversary Show: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


If you are having trouble believing that Word for Word is 25 years old, just open the Special Program. Did we all look this young once? The Word for Worders did, anyway, and a few of the current crop of actors look like they weren't even born when the company began.


The 25th Anniversary show at Z Space features "Deep Kiss" by Tobias Wolfe and "Victory Lap" by George Saunders. Both are excellent and feature the same cast, with different directors: Joel Mullennix for "Deep Kiss" and Delia MacDougall for "Victory Lap."

Of the two, we liked...both. In "Deep Kiss," Adam Elder (as Joe) has a wonderfully expressive face, as he tries to make sense out of a life that got trapped in a High School memory. There is certainly a lot of kissing and it makes us happy that both Elder and Blythe de Oliveira Foster (as Mary Claude) appear to enjoy it. The story is funny and sad and everything in between.

Let us editorialize and say: Joe. You blew it.



In "Victory Lap," Isabel Langen plays the teenaged Alison Pope. Langen is perfect as a young girl who thinks the world around her is peaches and cream.



 Meanwhile, her neighbor Kyle Boot (Alexander Pannullo), while living only next door, is experiencing existential dread. His parents have him on the world's tightest leash.



The story is Kyle's. He has a pivotal decision to make when The Guy turns up. Played with broad humor by Mohammed Shehata, The Guy has his troubles too. One of them may, or may not, be named Kyle.


We loved Susan Harloe as Kyle's mom (who insists on calling Kyle "My Beloved Only") in "Victory" and Joe's mom in "Kiss." Paul Finccchiaro is his usual hard-ass self and Molly Benson played several roles to perfection in both plays.





We always exit a Word for Word show feeling good about the world. The company consistently creates shows that are different than anyone else's, blending literature and theater into a hybrid that appears seamless. It's a lot of work.

Congratulations, everyone. Twenty-five years. Wow.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Four Stars to Word for Word's 25th Anniversary Show: "Deep Kiss" gets four and "Victory Lap" gets four more, which ought to make eight, but let's just call it Four Stars. It's very nice to see them on the larger stage upstairs at Z Space. We never miss a Word for Word show, and you shouldn't either.

"Word for Word's 25th Anniversary Show"
Stories by Tobias Wolfe and George Saunders
Z Space
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through September 2
$20-$50






Friday, July 27, 2018

Guys and Dolls ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Frank Loesser's "Guys and Dolls" is just the ticket when you need a turn-off-your-brain 1950's musical with songs you can't stop singing. It is even better when you are sitting in a tiny theater, on top of the stage, and the singers are really good. Marin Musical Theatre Company's production, directed by Jenny Boynton, not only leaves us humming tunes like "Bushel and a Peck" and "I'll Know," but fills us with pride for the high quality of performers sprouting up all over the Bay Area.

There are several standouts in the cast. Deborah Spake as Miss Adelaide makes us laugh while identifying with her predicament (she has been engaged to Nathan for fourteen years). Nelson Brown, as Nathan Detroit, makes us smile with his romance of faithful and wacky Adelaide. Eric Levintow is the real singer of the group. He plays Sky Masterson, the brains behind the whole outfit, whose courtship of Lily Jackson's Sarah Brown makes us munch our cookies with joy. And Tim Ryan has a showstopper moment as Nicely Nicely Johnson singing "Sit Down, You're Rocking' the Boat."

These shows are classics because of the songs. Loesser was one of the few Broadway writers who wrote music as well as lyrics, and his songs are accessible and sweet. In addition to those mentioned above, we also get "Luck be a Lady," sung by Sky, and "Sue Me," sung by Miss Adelaide and Nathan.

There is nothing not to like here, except a very short run. We'll keep our eyes on MMTC in the future.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE to MMTC's "Guys and Dolls." The ☼ ☼ ☼ are for writing, acting and directing and the BANGLE  is for Katie Wickes's choreography, which basically means getting twenty-two people dancing at once on a stage the size of a canasta table. Well done, everyone.

SORRY: NO PRODUCTION PHOTOS AVAILABLE

"Guys and Dolls"
The Playhouse in San Anselmo
27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo
Through July 28
$25-$50

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Hold These Truths ☼ ☼ ☼


Joel de la Fuente is terrific as the solo actor in Jeanne Sakata's "Hold These Truths." He plays many different roles and is convincing in all of them. We particularly love how he shows us a young man moving into middle age with just a hitch of the shoulder and slump of the back. This is an award-winning performance.


American history, present and past, is an uncredited partner in Sakata's story. While taken from a memoir written by Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese-American who sued the American government for imprisoning American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II, what we see on stage is as much a condemnation of today's America as that of the 1940s. Nasty echoes of intolerance remain in our minds as Hirabayashi's story unfolds in front of us.

Lisa Rothe's direction keeps everything moving and de la Fuente is spectacular.


All that said, we exited the theater feeling a little bit underwhelmed. It is a large stage for one actor. Good as Joel de la Fuente is, we missed interplay; our attention flagged somewhat as the show marched towards its inevitable conclusion. We are Americans, and feel shamed by our country's past and present conduct. As history, "Hold These Truths" has a great amount of power, but as drama we found the scope of the story perhaps above the capacity of any one actor.


RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Hold These Truths" Three Stars, one each for acting, story and fascinating stage design by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. We were captivated by Joel de la Fuente's performance, one of the best we have seen this year.

"Hold These Truths"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 5
$40-$100

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sunday in the Park with George ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)


Before the show started Thursday night, Director Bill English said, "The beginning of this show is so different. It is about art, not necessarily about entertainment." He needn't have worried. San Francisco Playhouse's production of Stephen Sondheim's 1984 masterpiece "Sunday in the Park with George" is brilliant in every respect. It is not your average Broadway musical, and you probably won't exit the theater humming a melody, but you get to see the master in his prime. No one has ever written lyrics like Stephen Sondheim. The argument about him, if there is one, concerns his music. To this listener, Sondheim uses lyrics to tell the story and music to support the lyrics, and not the other way around. Everyone can't be Leonard Bernstein. And no one else can be Stephen Sondheim.


John Bambery and Nanci Zoppi bring emotion and honesty to George and Dot. Both singers are actors first, so their lovely voices spring from the hearts of their characters. Zoppi, who we loved in "Noises Off" and "She Loves Me" at SFP, always surprises us. She is a natural comedian so our first reaction is always to smile. And then, she sings. Bambery is from Boston and we hope he sticks around awhile.


Anyone involved with "Sunday in the Park" will understand the artistic dilemma, so brilliantly depicted in Act Two's "Chromolume #7, "Putting it Together" and "Children and Art." If your children ask whether they should go work for Google or try painting for a living, take them to see this show. Take them anyway. There are life lessons here that are not unique to theater. The creative process is alive in all of us. How we bring it out is what differentiates artists from...well, reviewers.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Sunday in the Park with George" FIVE STARS! What? Did I say Five Stars? Nobody gets Five Stars. We must be getting soft. Perhaps a misprint?

Nope, no misprint. One star each for writing, directing, acting and staging makes Four, and a Fifth for the audacity of Sondheim and James Lapine in looking at George Seurat's famous painting, "Un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la Grande Latte," and deciding the only thing missing was the story of the painter. And now we know. Five Stars. In any language. Ask the guy with the pipe.


"Sunday in the Park with George"
San Francisco Playhouse
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through September 8
$20-$125

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Dry Powder ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG







Our brains explode as they contemplate the survival of the fittest and realize that the bad guys are going to make it and we're  not. Nonetheless, we loved Sarah Burgess's "Dry Powder." A primer on the financial community's devotion to winning at any cost, we leave the theater feeling like a dinosaur staring up at the approaching comet. Where will we hide? Dude. I need to call my lawyer.



Emily Jeanne Brown (Jenny) and Jeremy Kahn (Seth) live to impress megalomaniac Rick (Aldo Billingsley), their boss at KMM, his private equity firm. The way to do that is to bring in new acquisitions that will add to the bottom line. How they do that, and what that acquisition will do to the company being acquired and all the people who work there, is not on the table. A few fractions of a percentage point will tell the tale. Nothing else is to be considered.

Feelings are weak and control is strength. The strong survive. The weak perish. Let's go get coffee.


Jeff (Kevin Kemp) has a suitcase company that is set to be acquired by Rick's firm. Seth brought in the deal. Jenny sees less profitability unless Jeff's company is immediately dissolved, with manufacturing moved from California to Bangladesh. This is unacceptable to Seth, and to Jeff...or is it?


We love the interplay between Seth and Jenny. The dialogue is fast and crisp. Both Kahn and Brown make us feel they have been doing this for years. Billingsley knows how to fume. The minimal set by Tanya Orellana helps us concentrate on the often-vicious dialog, while Victoria Livingston-Hall's costumes are simple -- one business suit per character. Rick's is expensive. Seth's and Jenny's look lived in. Jeff's is shlumpy. The brown shoes tell us everything we need to know.

Everyone has their price and it is always personal. Rick is the one who knows this best. In the end, that price is usually less than one would think.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Dry Powder" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for Kahn and Brown. These two could take their act on the road. The Bangle is for Sarah Burgess's writing. As "dry powder" is financial talk for cash on hand, great dialog is the dry powder of the playwright. Burgess has plenty in the bank, although, amazingly, this is her first produced play. We will hear from her again.

"Dry Powder"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through July 22
$33-$65

(*there are no bad seats at the Aurora. By cheapies. You will miss nothing.)




Saturday, July 7, 2018

In Brauanu: ☼



Nazis are easy pickings for writers. They are evil, or they are ridiculous. Playwright Dipika Guha has chosen to go for laughs. Sadly, her new "In Braunau" is more weird than funny. The laughs are about modern cultural references, but never about what she seems to feel is the heart of the show: the hidden Nazi in all of us.



Young idealists Sarah (Sango Tajima) and Justin (Josh Schell) have decided to open a B&D, that is a Bed and Dinner, in the very home in Braunau, Austria, where Adolf Hitler was born. Sarah calls it "A dark chapter with freshly baked cookies." This makes as much sense as not recognizing the clearly evil designs of their first long-term guests Katrine (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and Alfred (Timothy Roy Redmond). Katrine, channeling Nurse Ratched, and Alfred, looking and acting like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. have mannerisms which, one would think, might alert Sarah and Justin to certain nefarious tendencies. 

But Justin has fallen in love. Male-bonding-wise.


There is a Nazi in the basement, who may be imaginary.  Played by Mohammed Shehata, this young man wants Sarah to kill him.


Also participating are Shehata and Sam Jackson (as first guests Jai and Soha) who are, quite correctly, scared out of their minds. Jackson also plays P, an Egyptian refugee with an Israeli accent and an underground website who is trying to make sense out of Sarah and Justin.


No one could really be as naive as these Americans. The author seems to be lampooning characters who are lampoons to begin with. As for the ending, you will have to figure out for yourself what happens to Sarah.

RATINGS: ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "In Braunau" One Star, for Sango Tajima, whose character at least shows signs of recognizing reality. (See sidebar for explanation of ratings.) The show will improve when Guha decides if her story is horror, comedy, drama, farce, or something else.

And speaking of which: we would be remiss not to mention that leaving the theater you must expect to be assaulted by the Zombie Apocalypse that Market Street has become at night. Nazis upstairs and Zombies downstairs.

"In Braunau" 
The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through July 7
$30


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Straight White Men: ? ☼ ?


You may love Young Jean Lee's new "Straight White Men." You may find it speaks to issues you find crucial and contemporary. You may laugh out loud, as many in our Opening Night audience did, at things that others in the same audience found sad and depressing. It may be that if you are of an age closer to the dad in this story, as younger audience members hoot and holler, you will turn and ask your seat-mate: "What am I missing? Why are they laughing?"


Not that the slapstick is not funny. Sometimes it is. But this is not Father Knows Best. Everything has an edge. Lee writes that her story is actually about gender -- the entire production team is composed of female and/or gender-nonconforming people, for example. The father and three sons we see on stage, horsing around in both playful and destructive ways, are in this view caught up in gender normative roles. Eldest brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) has given up on the expectations everyone has for the smartest and most-highly educated son. He has returned to care for his recently-widowed father. The other two brothers, successful in their own careers, see Matt's assumed role as caregiver to be demeaning and beneath him.

Dad (James Carpenter) does too, though he is trying hard to pretend otherwise.


Jake (Seann Gallagher) and Drew (Christian Haines), the middle and younger brothers, take turns trying to categorize Matt. Jake wants Matt's reticence to compete in the world to be a political statement, while Drew hammers on Matt to see a therapist.

This sounds pretty much like a family with no women in it. There is another angle, however, which involves Person In Charge 1 (J Jha) and Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans). I don't want to take away any surprise, so let me simply say the guy in the dress APPEARS to be calling to Matt and the woman doing all the cleanup APPEARS also to be calling him.


More, we will not say. Anyway, the audience would probably not find it funny.


RATINGS: ? ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Department of Confusion awards "Straight White Men" ? Stars. We just don't know how to feel about this show. Did we miss something obvious? The youngsters in the audience seemed to think so. Others, like this reviewer, found ourselves scratching our gray beards and wondering what is so funny about these sad people?

"Straight White Men"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 8
$22-$60







Sunday, June 10, 2018

"A Lesson From Aloes" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


A brilliant play never ages. What a delight it is to revisit Athol Fugard's "A Lesson From Aloes." We find ourselves as involved in the lives of Piet, Gladys and Steve as we were when we first saw the show back in the 1990s. Performed in Johannesburg before opening on Broadway in 1981, the show takes us back to 1963 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Arpartheid is fourteen years old at this point and firmly in control of the racial inequalities it has officially visited upon the country. 


Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Wendy van den Heuvel) are preparing a dinner for an old friend in the anti-Apartheid resistance. There is tension between the couple, which we realize stems from Glady's recent release from an institution. Of course, the issues are deeper than that -- the government has taken her there on suspicion of agitating against them. And the bitter reason for that becomes even clearer later.


Steve (Adrian Roberts) arrives, a bit tipsy. He has announced that he is taking his family and emigrating to England because there is no more future in South Africa for non-whites. This was true enough in 1963 but Apartheid had more than thirty years left and the situation got so much worse in later years.


There are several lovely sequences when Steve and Piet remember the old days and the good times they had together.


The truth slowly emerges. Fugard shows us his all his skill as a dramatist, giving us but a taste as the plot thickens, and couching it in the voices of his characters so we can see how intolerable life has become in their beloved country.


This is a beautiful story and a brilliant rendition. By all means, rush down to Z-Space before June 29.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Lesson From Aloes" Four Stars. Story, above all, and then acting, set and Timothy Near's direction earn One Star each. All three actors will reach out and grab you. Their world is different than ours, but Athol Fugard makes sure we feel every beat of their hearts.


"A Message From Aloes"
Z Space Theater
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through June 29
$10-$50



Finks ☼ ☼ ☼

By the end of Joe Gilford's "Finks," you have learned more about America in the 1950s than you wanted to know. The wave of Anti-Communist hysteria that swept over the country in the wake of Russia's awakening and emergence as a world power is difficult for us to imagine now. But the underlying message is that fear will always make America react in the most reactionary ways.



Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) is a struggling comic who falls for Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino). Natalie is the prototypical Jewish activist of the day, filled with slogans and songs glorifying The Collective. Mickey just wants to work, but becoming involved with Natalie means also being present at meetings of show-business people with left-wing sympathies.

This is what America was like. Being in the room where it happened could get you thrown in jail and blacklisted from your job.


 We love seeing Gabriel Marin again, as doomed actor Fred Lang, plus an excellent set piece as a really tall Lou Costello. Leo Ash Evans plays Bobby, Natalie's professional and bisexual partner. His dance sequences with Natalie, and again at the powerful ending, are highlights of the show.


We also enjoyed Michael Barrett Austin, playing several roles including Elia Kazan (seen below), as well as the imposing Robert Sicular whose severe Committee Chairman look scared us silly despite remembering we were watching a show.



Act One starts too slowly for us, as we become accustomed to the staging, but in Act Two Director Giovanna Sardelli brings us home powerfully.

"Finks" is Joe Gilford's tribute to his parents, blacklisted actor and producers Jack and Madeline Gilford. We become drawn into the personal dilemmas faced by anyone ever accused of a trumped-up charge in a country where insanity has taken over.  In the end, deciding to be a fink or not depends on you. Sometimes, all you can do is dance as names are named.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Finks" Three Stars. The show is one that needed to be written. The excellent dramatic sequences, terrific cast and inventive staging outweigh the stylized comic routines which just make us uncomfortable. A little knowledge of Yiddishkeit --- well, it couldn't hurt.

"Finks"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through July 1, 2018
$40-$100