Monday, November 19, 2018

Everything is Illuminated: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The tough one: how to watch and absorb a stage play made from a book which was also a movie, when you dearly loved both the movie and the book? And yet, Simon Bock's adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything is Illuminated" gives us the opposite problem: how to stop raving about such a brilliant piece of work?

True, there are issues. The side-story, involving stereotype Jews with Brooklyn accents pretending to be the author's muses as he attempts to create the story of his grandparents' lives in the old village, is at best stretched. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate Jonathan's ambivalence about his roots and culture, but it feels cutesy. If there is anything this story is not, it's cutesy.

OK, that's it for niggles. We adored the staging, particularly the way they utilized two chairs, a bench, a suitcase and a steering wheel to illustrate the long road journey the three men and one invisible dog undertake. It showed us how inspired imagination can make the world feel realer than real. Jeremy Kahn's Jonathan seems tailor-made for him, He is a little over-the-top, which is exactly how he should be here. As in all Jeremy Kahn roles there is a slapstick comic inside the man which always seeps out. We can't imagine a better Jonathan.

Alex (Adam Burch) may be even better. He is Jonathan's age, but in his Ukrainian world he has never heard nor read about Ukrainian complicity with Hitler's master-race plans. He neither understands what lies behind Jonathan's quest to discover the village of Trachimbrod, wiped off the map fifty years earlier, nor why his Grandfather (Julian Lopez-Morillas) becomes so violent and non-communicative when the name of the village is mentioned.

Marissa Keltie's various parts, especially the waitress with the attitude, are quite funny and Lura Dolas's old lady, the last person living who remembers Trachimbrod, is memorable. She has her own bitterly vivid tale from fifty years back. We will reveal no more of the story, except to say we miss the sunflowers from the movie. And we haven't changed our opinion that Alex could have gone a little easier on his grandfather.

None of this matters. Jonathan Safran Foer, Director Tom Ross and Aurora Theatre have given all of us a reminder that art may not be able to stop inhumanity, but great art can lift us into a new place, above and beyond the restraints of memory.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog gives FOUR STARS to "Everything is Illuminated." Writing, direction, acting and staging earn one strong star each. We loved the invisible Sammy Davis Jr., Jr., and for this we must give thanks to sound director Matt Stines.

"Everything is Illuminated"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 16

Thursday, November 15, 2018

"In the Heights" ☼ ☼ ☼ Baub

Before there was Hamilton, there was "In the Heights," Lin Manuel Miranda's hip hop ode to Manhattan's Washington Heights, where he grew up. The first play Miranda ever wrote, as a sophomore in college, "In the Heights" won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2008.

Custom Made Theatre tries hard to recreate on its intimate stage the feeling of a full-bore Broadway production. The cast is young and solid. Louis Lagalante's piano is the sole accompaniment for a hip-hop flavored score and the scenic design by Mara Ishihara Zinky is perfectly adequate. There is a lot of energy flowing from everyone involved, including director and choreographer Nicole Meñez.

We liked the women best -- Carla Gallardo as Nina, Nora Fernandez Doane as Vanessa, Mia Romero as Daniela and Elena Ester as Carla make us laugh as well as be aware of their plight. The lead, Usnavi de la Vega, played by Julio Chavez, as well as his grandmother Claudia (Michelle Navarrete) are supposed to be the central characters but they are upstaged by the younger ladies.

We enjoyed Ernie Tovar as the Piraguas Seller. He, alone in the cast, seemed to be relaxed and natural. But he did not have to memorize a hip-hop score and perform it on a stage packed with people. We also liked Dedrick Weathersby as Benny, Jepoy Ramos as Graffiti Pete and Edwin Jacobs as Sonny.

The difficulty of keeping the rhythm together probably explains why the piano was miked so loudly, often drowning out the overloaded vocal mikes of the performers. Often, if a character turned his or her head, his mike dropped out completely. With so many characters to keep track of, sound quality is a serious issue for the audience.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "In the Heights" Three Stars, but with a Bauble of Despair. The sound was so iffy and the piano so distractingly loud that we missed a great deal of Miranda's clever lyrics. We did get the gist and admire the chutzpah of Custom Made Theatre to try and pull off a show of this magnitude. If they get their sound together, we would love to remove that Bauble.

"In The Heights"
Custom Made Theatre Company
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED through Dec. 15.
$40-$55 (Tier Pricing)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

New York Extras: "Fiddler on the Roof" (in Yiddish) and "The Ferryman"

Most American Jews have an Eastern-European background. Many of our ancestors shared a common language: Broken English. Ha ha. No, it was Yiddish. The lingua franca for this subset of Germans, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and many others, Yiddish enabled immigrants from many different origins to speak with one another. My grandmother spoke Russian and my grandfather spoke Rumanian, but when they met in Chicago, somewhere around 1910, they communicated in Yiddish, later supplanted by heavily-accented English with interplanetary grammar.

So most America Jews today feel a special nostalgia for Yiddish, and a separate but equally strong connection to the stories our grandparents told us of poverty, murderous Cossacks riding through villages, intolerant rabbis and hate-filled peasants, mud, dirt, disease and so on. We LOVE this stuff. And no Broadway play ever tapped into this almost incomprehensible nostalgia for the Bad Old Days than Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's "Fiddler on the Roof." 

And now, the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, located in Battery Park in Manhattan, is offering a production of Fiddler in Yiddish directed by Joel Gray. Jerry Bock's melodies are the same, but the songs as well as all dialogue are sung and spoken in Yiddish. There are supertitles for those of us who barely know a pisher from a potch, but it is amazing how much we understand simply from the actors' body language. This is a spectacular show and one we suspect will come back every year from now until the Messiah finally comes.

Similarly, Jez Butterworth's "The Ferryman," though dealing with Northern Ireland in the 1980s, will resonate deeply with those whose origins are from the Ould Sod. Directed by Sam Mendes, every classic Irish meme is present here: huge stair-step families, corrupted priests, drunkenness, the IRA, men screwing up because they can't help themselves and their wives fixing everything because who else is going to do it?

"The Ferryman" is more or less the same length as Fiddler, but there are no songs. So, to us it felt somewhat long. BUT WE ARE NOT IRISH. It would probably be just as easy for an Irish reviewer to say, of Fiddler: "So the dairyman has five daughters. We all have five daughters. So what?"

The issues are the same in both shows: make enough money to survive, fight off the enemy invader and keep the family together. When you can't do that, the alternative is still there: America.

In these days, when many Jewish-Americans and Irish-American have forgotten their hyphens, as they rail against Mexicans and Syrians and Chinese who are still searching for theirs, it is perhaps too easy to love shows that celebrate our distinct heritages. But where better than in New York City, in the shadow of both the Statue of Liberty and the Freedom Tower?

"Fiddler on the Roof "in Yiddish
Museum of Jewish Heritage
36 Battery Place, Manhattan

"The Ferryman"
Bernard Jacobs Theater
242 W. 45th Street, Manhattan

Check theaters for dates and times

Friday, November 2, 2018

Irma Herrera: "Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?" NO RATING

Irma Herrera would like us to learn Spanish pronunciation. We agree. But that would presume that Americans (a) care, and are (b) proficient in learning foreign languages, because (c) it matters to them one way or the other. Her show, "Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name?" is filled with fascinating pieces of Mexican-American history and plenty of disenchanted bewilderment. For example, what gives a Filipina nun in South Texas the right to disallow her students to speak the language that has been dominant in that part of the world for hundreds of years?

Ms. Herrera is really good with language and dialects, in particular the voice of her mother and relatives, as well as the clueless South Texas authority figures with whom Irma and her brothers are constantly confronted. We loved her definitions of the all-purpose "pinche." And more than that, we are grateful that Ms. Herrera does not dial back her use of Spanish.

In real life offstage, Ms. Herrera is a successful attorney and advocate. She feels her subject deeply. However, the best parts of the show are her personal story; less so are her informational fill-ins. We love to watch her dance the two-step and the twist but we don't need to hear Martin Neimöller's clichéd quote ever again. The story of Mexican-American rights being trampled throughout American history is one we all need to remember, especially now. But, honestly, it seems a bit unfair to expect people who know others named Irma to remember to say "Earrrr-ma." Yes, "Herrera" has a silent H. Those of us who speak Spanish get it, but those who don't are not necessarily disrespecting Mexican-American culture.

This is an important subject. It will be easier to absorb when Ms. Herrera realizes we are all in her corner already. And we all loved to see Sergio Romo again.


The San Francisco Theater Blog has chosen not to rate this show at this time. There are strong moments and some that will become stronger as the run continues. The ending ending.

The bottom line of "Why Would I Mispronounce my Own Name" is respect. As a country, respect appears to be disappearing before our eyes. Performers like Irma Herrera can help us reverse that trend.

Irma Herrera: "Why Would I Mispronounce my Own Name?"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Thursday and Saturday through Dec. 8