Friday, October 19, 2018

The Resting Place: ☼ ☼ ☼


Ashlin Halfnight's "The Resting Place," having its World Premiere at Magic Theatre through November 4, has a disheartening message at its core: We humans are able to ignore those closest to us when they make us uncomfortable.


The story develops slowly. Mitch (James Carpenter), the dad, and his wife Angela (Emile Talbot) have been forced to deal with the suicide of their son, under circumstances that have their entire Michigan home town uniting against them. Their daughters Macy (Emily Radosevich) and Annie (Martha Brigham) have returned home, both to deal with their own grief and to help with their parents.


Things unfold. The story gets seamier. Everyone feels they could have done more to help their son and brother. In the end, guilt overwhelms everyone.


"The Resting Place" is a show well worth seeing, but its main characters feel under-developed. The story twists at plot points, but some of these do not feel nearly as crucial to us as they do to the author. In particular, the wedding-day "almost-confession" of the son to his father is so ambiguous it feels lightweight. Any father would do exactly what Mitch has done.

They take the proverbial gun out of the drawer at the end of Act One -- this becomes what we are all talking about at intermission -- but then forget all about it.

The last scene is agonizingly long and pure T.S. Eliot. This appears to be the way the world ends.


RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Resting Place" Three Stars. This is an excellent ensemble. As time goes on, the author will fill in some back-story holes and his already-strong dialogue will feel like it comes less from him and more from his characters. We are intrigued by the family's treatment -- and non-treatment -- of Liam (Wiley Naman Strasser). We are haunted by Annie's line at the end about having let her brother go to Voice Mail a long time ago. Do we do this, intentionally or unintentionally, to the people we love?



"The Resting Place"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Nov. 4
$25-$75

Sunday, October 7, 2018

FUN HOME: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !


Having read and loved Alison Bechdel's graphic novel "Fun Home," we were excited to finally see the Tony-winning musical adaptation. Realizing that these elevated expectations are usually a recipe for disaster in the theater, we are happy to report the musical excites as much or more than the book.
Plus. the young kids in this cast give us great hope for the future of Bay Area theater.



There are strict hourly work limits for juveniles in the theater, so Theatreworks has cast six children for three roles. On Opening Night we saw Lila Gold as young Alison and she was spectacular, almost the equal of Erin Kommor as Medium Allison. Kommor's version of "Changing my Major" was performed with body language as engaging as Lisa Kron's lyric, and Gold gave "Flying Away"  a child's innocence mixed with prescient loss.


The entire cast can sing; Gold, Kommor and the others give such nuanced and believable performances that we were able to block out the huge elephant in the room: dad's insanity.


Moira Stone as Alison, James Lloyd Reynolds as Bruce, the father, Crissy Guerrero as Helen, the mom, and Ayelet Firstenberg as Joan all have standout moments. Reynolds scares us silly with his manic anger. The others stay within their roles and, when it's time to sing, all deliver.

Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron won Tonys for their music, book and lyrics. It's easy to see why, but we also must remember this was an adaptation from Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, a most unlikely source for a musical. There is brilliance enough for everyone here. Theatreworks has a big winner on its hands.


RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is happy to award "Fun Home" Four Stars with a big, fat Exclamation Point for the finale. We like it when we tear up during encores. Two people and four watery eyes equals one Exclamation Point. Beautifully done, everyone.

"Fun Home"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Oct. 28
$40-$100

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Oslo ☼ ☼ ☼


"Oslo" won a Tony for Best Play of 2017. Before the curtain went up, Marin Theater Company Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis announced they had sold a record number of seats-before-opening. The show is certain to be extended. It was a hit in New York and it will be a hit in Marin.


So never mind about a story that plods, with little character movement or growth, a bunch of people whose names have to be narrated to us as if we were having trouble reading their name tags and a history with whose sad ending we are already far too familiar. In our own present world of deceit posing as truth where good people spend too much time trying to force bad people to act with decency, "Oslo" does little to make us believe in the ultimate triumph of mankind.

We liked Mark Anderson Phillips very much as the well-meaning Terje. His wife Mona (Erica Sullivan) was also good, but she had the unfortunate task of continually leaving character to walk to the front of the stage and introduce new participants (whispered to audience: "This is Yohan Jorgen Holst..."). She, like the rest of the Norwegians, are said to be troubled by losing their jobs if word should leak out of their clandestine mission, but nothing ever really happens to anyone.


The Palestinians (Ashkon Dvaran and J Paul Nicholas) are appropriately hostile but able to be gotten drunk enough to tell jokes, while the Israelis are equally inhospitable, especially the higher-level diplomats like Joel Singer (Peter James Meyers) and Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul). You wouldn't invite either one of these guys to hula hoop at your kid's bar-mitzvah. Perfect for a peace treaty.

We sat on the right in the second row. Much of the night the actors had their backs turned to us and we had no idea what they were saying. It may be that the good reviews, and there are many already, will come from the left.


RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Oslo" Three Stars. Perhaps it was Opening Night jitters. Perhaps the cast hasn't learned its lines yet (there were flubs and not a few). "Oslo" won a major-league Tony. Somebody has to know something we have not seen on stage yet.


"Oslo"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through October 21
$22-$60

Friday, September 28, 2018

Bravo 25: Your Therapist Will See You Now


Bravo is right. Eliza Gibson's solo show "Bravo 25: Your Therapist Will See You Now" is intelligent, funny and fascinating. Gibson plays six different patients who have come together for a group therapy session. The session is led by "Amber," a developing Artificial Intelligence avatar who is being programmed to understand human problems.

The problem is, Amber is a machine so she has no feelings. However, she is a quick study. As Tony, Cheryl, Victoria, Jeremy, Marsha and Little Bit explain the difficulties they have been having in their lives with boyfriends, girlfriends, jobs, exes and children, Amber begins to absorb their pain. She even learns how to enjoy Little Bit's favorite jelly donuts.

The show takes a turn at the end which robots in the audience will probably appreciate, but for the rest of us is probably unnecessary. As a result, Bravo 25 runs a little long. But we never lose interest.


It's hard to say if we liked Gibson, the actor any more than Gibson, the writer. She runs on human warp speed, as she changes characters seemingly without drawing a breath. As a physical comic she makes most of her patients instantly recognizable, especially the lovely Marsha, the heartbroken Tony and the downtrodden Little Bit. And as a writer, she gives us a story which commands that we pay attention as we discover what we knew all along: that people need each other more than they ever realize.

A special thanks to comedian Maureen Langan, who opened the show and tossed in some memorable lines, including, when talking about her age: "I'm post-period pre-death."



RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼ 

The avatars and the humans at The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division agree: this show is a must-see. We love Eliza Gibson as a writer and performer and wouldn't mind calling her when we need a clinical social worker, the work she does when she isn't wowing us on stage.

"Bravo 25: Your Therapist Will See You Now"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
8pm Thursdays and 5pm Saturdays through October 27
$20-$35

Monday, September 24, 2018

You Mean to Do Me Harm: ☼ ☼ ☼


Christopher Chen's brand new "You Mean to Do Me Harm" has many pluses and only one minus. Especially inventive staging makes us excited to see where the cast of four might go next. The set,  which looks like a fancy U-shaped bar on an upscale spaceship, allows each character to make unexpected entrances. Director Bill English uses these entrances to blend one character's story with another's. It is very effective. In this World Premiere, Chen's story makes us examine our own motivations as we try to make sense out of the ways we interact with the ones we love.


Lindsey (Katie Rubin) and her husband Daniel (Jomar Tagatac) are celebrating with Ben (Cassidy Brown) and Samantha (Charisse Loriaux). Ben has been hired by Daniel for an un-named job at Daniel's tech company. But the night starts out badly and goes downhill from there. A previous relationship between Lindsey and Ben, as well as Daniel and Samantha's mutual attraction to one another threaten to sour not only this social event but Ben's job as well.


There is more here too: race. Daniel and Samantha are Chinese-American and their expectations color their reality. Chen takes us onto alternate channels where all four people imagine slights that maybe were real and maybe weren't, and things that were said but not meant like they sounded. What is maybe isn't and what happened maybe didn't. It's confusing but for the most part we follow along.

There is a problem, however, and it's personal. These are not nice people. Ben, especially, is played with such annoying and whining dweebiness that we cannot root for him. His ex is cold, his to-be-boss is paranoid and reveals nothing. And then there is Samantha, the one character who seems to see through everyone else and will use it to her advantage. The author's message appears to be that no one can be trusted to rise very far beyond cultural expectations. Without revealing the ending, we are left to wonder whether any of these people are capable of making a difference in the world.



RATINGS  ☼  ☼  ☼


The reviewers at San Francisco Theater Blog loved looking at this show. English's direction made scenes sizzle into each other. It was enjoyable to try and piece out what was reality and what was imagination. But all of this is brain. We will like "You Mean to Do Me Harm" better when we can bring more of our heart on board.


"You Mean to Do Me Harm"
San Francisco Playhouse
Second Floor,  Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through Nov 3
$35-$125



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.)