Monday, September 23, 2019

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ☼ ☼

Let it be said in advance that this reviewer has a conflict of interest. I love Word For Word. I generally receive more than I expect and in almost every circumstance end up floored by both the ensemble of actors and the immense task of taking a story and mounting it, word for word, on a theater stage.

That said: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is not W4W's finest moment. Clearly, the company realized something was up when they tried to take the shooting of the albatross, the great moral lesson of the 1798 Samuel Coleridge poem, and tie it into climate change as well as the destruction of native American lands. It doesn't work. The poem is arcane, the language is ancient and difficult to decipher and the bringing down of the albatross, in light of the corruption and misery we observe every minute of our lives here in 2019, seems like pretty small potatoes.

Word For Word shows are almost always magical. We found this one ponderous. Coleridge is known to have been an opium fanatic. The skeptic (me), says: "Dude smoked a lot of opium and saw God."

The skeptic's wife says, "I loved the staging."

Critic agrees. Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally's set, a representation of the open prow of an ancient sailing ship, which also turns into a coffin, is marvelous to view as we file into the theater. It sets the stage for what follows, as the actors parade down a ramp and into the ship.

Charles Shaw Robinson is an excellent Ancient Mariner, but, for us, the rest of the cast is a blur. Directors Delia MacDougall and Jim Cave appear to have been trying hard to figure out how a cast of nine can all speak one poem. Their solution is to have one person speak a few words and then someone else speak one or two, with a third person finishing the line or short stanza. The result is the words themselves lack power as we are concentrating on figuring out whose mouth is moving on stage.

The problem is magnified by the sound system, wherein each actor is miked into a large overhead speaker, with the result being all the voices come from overhead and not from the actor. It is very difficult to bond with an actor whose voice is separated from his body, especially when the words are in 1798 English and the actor does little but stand in one place and mouth a few words at a time.

We generally love Teddy Hulsker's Projection Designs, but this time not so much. Who were those people, anyway, with the white robes and the sun shining behind them? Jesus? Mary? We think so, but one of them looked a lot like Pat Silver. The one line that sticks with us is not the famous one ("Water! Water! Nor any drop to drink!") but instead what Coleridge said about his fantasy woman: "...her skin was as white as leprosy."


The San Francisco Theater Blog gives "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Two Stars. We understand that this rating places the show below the Mendoza Line (see sidebar for explanation). We applaud Word For Word, as always, for taking chances no one else takes. But ask any ancient mariner. If you go fishing enough times, sooner or later you will not haul up enough for dinner.

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
A Word For Word Production
Z Space (upstairs)
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 12

Monday, September 9, 2019

Exit Strategy: ☼ ☼

Some very good performances come close to rescuing Ike Holter's "Exit Strategy." This tale about the enforced closing of a Chicago public school tries to hit all the right themes -- unequal education, racism, gentrification, poverty, even the results of a suicide. But in the end none get dealt with in anything but the most simplistic manner. We know from the moment the show begins how it is going to end. Here we are in 2019 and Mr. Holter's lesson appears to be: "Give Up. Do Nothing. You Have No Chance."

Margo Hall has a short role as a disgruntled black teacher dealing with a clueless white administrator. We like her a lot, as always, but she is in and then out, except for two subsequent short appearances which add very little to the story. Ricky, the administrator, is played by Adam Niemann. Dense, socially inept and gay, Ricky is also carrying on a secret affair with Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno). Ricky is a mess. He may be trying to be a hero, or he may be a traitor. We never know.

We get the spicy Latina (Gabriella Fanuele), the disgruntled old man (Michael J. Asberry) and the loud-talking big-heart (Sam Jackson). All are fine actors, but no one has much to offer to the resolution of this story. Only Donnie (Tre'vonne Bell), a High School Senior who appears to be the one person in the school who understands the internet, has any plan at all.

The big problem is we never find out what that plan is. Everything happens off stage. And maybe it is successful and maybe it isn't, but none of this matters. As we keep being reminded, victory is not possible. The man triumphs. The poor lose. The only way out is a bullet in the head. Geez, what a depressing story.


As you can tell, The San Francisco Theater Blog is in a grumpy mood. We award "Exit Strategy" Two Stars, one for James Ard's very cool sound track and one for Kate Boyd's painfully accurate teacher's lounge. 

Art is not supposed to make you feel good. It is meant to challenge. We wish we weren't familiar with the issues written about here - but we are. We don't feel challenged by "Exit Strategy." It just makes us sad.

"Exit Strategy"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Sep 29

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The 39 Steps ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

You go to some plays for the story, some for the theatrical flash. The 39 Steps has a little of both but it's all about the acting. Four actors alone bring dozens of characters alive with Ron Campbell and Cassidy Brown playing many of them simply by switching hats. We have seen this show several times over the years, with different casts each time, and we have loved every one. (Brown also starred in the 2011 TheatreWorks version, with Dan Hiatt as his hilarious sidekick.) This latest production is filled with the same zaniness and belly laughs. We love it once again.

Lance Gardner plays ace detective Richard Hannay, currently suffering through a cold spell. He is only too happy to become involved in a caper that may or may not save England from an unnamed enemy who could or could not be about to smuggle information of some kind out of England or Scotland. 

His partner would have been Annabella Schmidt, except for the well-placed knife.

Schmidt is played, for a very short time, by Annie Abrams, who also plays Pamela, Richard's possible true love, except for the handcuffs. As for the enemy, Campbell and Brown manage to play all of them with nothing less than comic genius. The enemy is pretty danged dense, but then again so are the English.

The show belongs to Scotland. Why are Scots so easy to lampoon? We could probably figure it out if we weren't laughing so hard. 


This year, as eight years ago, we give The 39 Steps THREE STARS with two BANGLES OF PRAISE. It's the same show in 2019, just as funny and every bit as light-hearted and fun. Special mention for the car scene, in which the car gets built out of stage props as we watch, and we mustn't forget the hotel clerks and the knife in the back/lever. Oh, and Mr. Memory. And the police dogs. And just about everything else.

"The 39 Steps"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sept. 15

Monday, July 15, 2019

"The Language Archive" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Good as principal actors Jomar Tagatac and Elena Wright are, the supporting actors steal the new TheatreWorks production of Julia Cho's "The Language Archive." Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda) are the last speakers of Ellowan, a dying language spoken in a cold and faraway place where fur hats are worn with blue and black knee socks. Tagatac plays linguist George who is desperate to record this native tongue before, like so many others, it disappears.

The problem is Resten and Alta keep speaking English. The reason is they are in the middle of what appears to be a lifelong argument, ostensibly about her cooking and his body odor. Since Ellowan is the language of love, while English is the language of anger, naturally Reston and Alta are forced to argue in English.

Meanwhile, George's marriage to Mary (Elena Wright) has fallen apart. He and his wife cannot fathom each other. Mary tries leaving poetry scattered around the house but George does not understand it. He speaks more than a dozen foreign languages but cannot comprehend his wife.

Mary takes off on her own. She ends up standing on a railway platform where she meets a distraught older man, an ex-baker named Baker. Also played by Francis Jue, Mr. Baker and Mary befriend each other and bring common sense into each other's lives. He gives her his prize possession: his starter. You can't make great bread without a starter. And you can't move forward in your life without starting over.

The show is staged beautifully by director Jeffrey Lo, with actors entering and exiting from all over the theater. Noah Marin's costumes are perfect, especially those of Resten and George. Jue and Kuroda are belly-laugh funny in all their roles. Adrienne Kaori Walters plays George's love-struck lab assistant. We can't understand why she would be in love with stick-in-the-mud George, but she is.

"The Language Archive" is more than a love or out-of-love story. It talks to us about the power of language to mold the way people see themselves and others. We love this show.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Language Archive" THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE. Story, ensemble and direction earn One Star each. The Bangle of Praise is for the way Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda stop becoming caricatures by also being beautifully human. In our current world, we live in an environment of manipulated hatred, where being the least bit different is cause for mistrust. Julia Cho seems to be telling us to relax. We can be angry or happy, satisfied or frustrated, in any language. It is always our choice.

"The Language Archive"
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 4

Friday, July 5, 2019

San Francisco Mime Troupe: Treasure Island: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Watching a new San Francisco Mime Troupe show on the Fourth of July in Dolores Park is a San Francisco tradition. Since it is the first show of the season, and an outdoor show is always a challenge, especially with sound quality, the July 4 performance can be sketchy. But not this year.

"Treasure Island" arrives with the wind at its back. It is as entertaining a Mime Troupe show as we have seen in many years. Michael Gene Sullivan is back writing the shows, along with Ellen Callas and Marie Cartier, and their witty slap-shtick is as sharp as ever. Sullivan also stars in a variety of roles, along with Lizzie Calogero, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro, Andre Amarotico and Brian Rivera.

As always, the political vibe is everpresent. Modern-day pirates, now known as developers, attempt to kehaul the political process as they rape the system and pillage the populace, using the phrase that politicians love best: "Affordable Housing."

Half the pleasure of a Mime Troupe show is audience-watching. It being San Francisco, after all, one still hears cries of "Pass the guacamole" and "Who wants more burrata?" while the actors are railing about the excesses of capitalism. But you cannot beat the open-air feeling and exuberance of this company. After sixty years they are better than ever.

Arrrr, ye fireworks be damned. The Fourth of July (and the rest of the summer) belongs to the Mime Troupe.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division happily strikes a blow for the people by awarding "Treasure Island" Four Stars. We loved the music, acting, direction and, above all, the perception that all of us sitting on blankets in a public park can still make a difference if we stay together. The wreckage that has surfaced in Washington will not last forever. Hopefully the Mime Troupe will.

A special shout-out for the song: "How Will We Survive" by Michael Bello and Daniel Savio. Savio? This all just keeps getting better.

San Francisco Mime Troupe: "Treasure Island"
Various parks throughout the bay area
For dates and locations see SFMT.ORG
(But you can buy a t-shirt)

"Cabaret" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

As Artistic Director Bill English said after the Wednesday night premiere, '''Cabaret,' in 2019, hits a lot harder than it used to." We all felt it. San Francisco Playhouse's brilliant new production of Joe Masteroff, John Kander and Fred Ebb's classic "Cabaret," which seemed dark enough when it premiered in the Lyndon Johnson year of 1966, now feels frighteningly prophetic in the age of Donald Trump. What begins as a most tuneful homage to counter-culturalism and cabaret life in Berlin in the 1930s turns quickly into something far more sinister. From the last line of Act Two's "If You Could See Her" through "What Would You Do?," "I Don't Care Much" and on to the chilling reprise of "Cabaret," we understand the potential danger of being different. Fear triumphs far easier than tolerance. As Joseph Goebbels said in 1939, in a sentiment that appears to be repeated daily today, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."

Fortunately, great art transcends generations. Susi Damilano's direction and a spectacular ensemble cast bring us one of the finest musical evenings we have experienced in years. Viewers are in for a rare treat. 

It doesn't hurt that Cate Hayman's Sally Bowles is world-class. Her every gesture gives us anger as well as vulnerability. She has the voice to bring life to these often-performed songs but also the stage presence to make us feel as well as hear every note and every nuance. We have seen many Sally Bowleses in our time. Cate Hayman is the equal of any.

The toughest role in Cabaret is the Joel Gray role, the Master of Ceremonies. Gray made it his and has challenged two generations of actors to match him. John Paul Gonzales doesn't try. His Master of Ceremonies is far raunchier, sometimes to excess, but we trust and despair with him. 

Other standout roles are turned in by both Jennie Brick (whose performance in SFP's "Barbecue" we still remember) as Frau Schneider, and Louis Parnell as Herr Schultz. Their lovely, understated romance makes sense until it doesn't and we are forced to join them in plummeting to reality. Kander and Ebb wrote "What Would You Do?" more than fifty years ago but here we are again, pondering with discomfort as Frau Schneider sings, forced to ask ourselves the same question.

We loved Atticus Shaindlin as Clifford Bradshaw, a role often dumbed down to a bumbling American. Shaindlin also has a lovely tenor, in a role that unfortunately does not call for much singing. Will Springhorn, Jr. makes us want to punch out Ernst Ludwig, which is precisely the point.

Choreography is often difficult for SFP, due to limited space, but not this time. The dance sequences light up the theater. Dave Dobrusky's band is first-class. Costumes and lighting are too.

There are no sour notes here. This summer you must jump on the Kable Kar and hurry to the Kit Kat Klub to see "Cabaret."

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Cabaret" Four Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Story, acting, direction and production each earn one star. The Bangle of Praise could be for many outstanding moments, but we are still amazed at how Cate Hayman seemed to be balancing on one toe while crouching on a chair singing "Mein Herr." Perhaps that was Fake News? A pulley? Someone holding her hip? We don't think so. The Bangle stands.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel), San Francisco
Through September 14

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

"Wink" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Let's not beat around the bush: Jen Silverman's "Wink" is one of the most engaging plays I've ever seen. Wink is a cat, played by a muscly actor (John William Watkins) in the skimpiest of loin cloths. (Clearly, this cat has never been neutered.) He is beloved by his owner, Sophie (Liz Sklar), a frustrated stay-at-home housewife, and despised by Liz's husband Gregor (Seann Gallagher). Kevin R. Free plays Dr. Frans, a shrink who is counseling not only Liz and Gregor but the cat, Wink.  What happens next is audacious, innovative, completely surprising and jaw-dropping.

At one point Gregor strips off his clothing to reveal -- well, that was one of the longest, deepest, choking belly laughs I've heard in years in the theater.

The scene were Wink and the Shrink are both on the floor, facing each other on their knees, moving in for the inevitable kiss, closer, closer -- is a tour de force. Director Mike Donahue lets nature take its slow and steady course and the result is purringly beautiful.

At the curtain, the actors take their bows at the front of a stage littered with strewn cat toys and busted-in walls, from Sophie's remarkable stage-destruction scene at the beginning.

To think she gets to do this eight times a week!

Each actor has a shining moment: Jen's set destruction, Gregor's soliloquy which takes his life backwards in five year intervals, The Doctor's realization that love comes when we do not expect it, and, of course, Wink's reaction to humans, followed by his understanding about the irreversability of fate.

Do not look for spectacular reviews. If you are trying to tie A to B to C, you aren't going to get anywhere. Silverman's point is that we all eventually return to our true natures. We can't avoid it and no stage can hold us in.

Please. Do not Miss "Wink."

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

We want to give "Wink" Five Stars, but there is no music. So The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, at my insistence, grants "Wink" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The outrageous story, direction, acting and set each earn one star. The BANGLE is for Roland, the Terrorist, who exists inside all of us, just waiting to target us, track us and then pounce. He'll play with us a little bit first, but then we're done.

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 7

Saturday, June 15, 2019

"The Fit" : ☼ ☼ ☼

At the Opening Night party, author Carey Perloff graciously thanked several friends in the champagne-and-baklava crowd for helping with her newest ending to the show, which she joked was probably the seventy-fifth ending she had tried. If she had polled the theater audience, however, she might have found that seventy-six is a charm. Many of us felt the show is fascinating until the very last second, when the main character takes a turn out of nowhere, while the better conclusion, number seventy-six, is waiting in the hall with her cleaning solutions.

This advice is offered up by one more Reviewer With an Opinion, never a dependable source. Carey Perloff has surely been through this before.

We rooted for Sakina  (Avanthika Srinavasan), as we were supposed to, and despised Paul (Johnny Moreno) and Jeremy (Jeff Kim), also as intended. But when it became clear her goal was to also jump into the greed pool with the rest of them, Sakina lost some underdog luster. Since Paul, the head of the venture capital firm and Sakina’s boss, was so over-the-top phony, gullible and without a redeeming fingernail, and his pathetic assistant Jeremy was the Sarah Sanders of sidekicks, we were left with only Arwen Anderson, as Paul's wife Marcia, to feel hopeful about. Marcia seemed to get it. She remained the consistent voice of sanity in the room, until the puzzling ending.

...that is, except for Ching (Michelle Talgarow). Ching is the true star of the show. Long Live CEO Ching!

The Reuff Theater at A.C.T.'s Strand Complex is small and a difficult space in which to mount a performance with many entrances and exits, but Director Bill English pulled it off. The show is delightful to look at and though its subject matter feels a bit (I hate to say this) commonplace at this point, seeing as we are all coming to accept corporate dishonesty and financial chicanery as a fact of modern life, as something that is supposed to make us smart, not venal, we nonetheless walk out of the show uncomfortable. The ending doesn't pay off because up until then every person on this stage has been in it for him-or-herself. Sadly, this doesn’t surprise us anymore.

RATINGS  ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards “The Fit” Three Stars. It is a tight and worthwhile production, perfect for a small house like the Reuff. We hope Ms. Perloff is already thinking about the sequel, possibly entitled "Coco Bull," starring CEO Ching.

“The Fit”
The Reuff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theatre
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through June 29

PS: For those who have commented to us before that they are uneasy with coming to that section of derelict Market Street at night, we happily report that things have recently been spruced up. You can once again see the decorative cobblestones in front of the theater. We thank those responsible and sincerely hope this continues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Oedipus El Rey: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

We last reviewed Luis Alfaro's "Oedipus El Rey" in 2010. We loved it then and now, nine years later, the show has evolved into the same story but with a new cast and even more punch. We liked everything about this show, from the Greek chorus made up of Chicano prisoners in Central California, to the cast and direction by Loretta Greco, who also directed the earlier version. We get a new Oedipus (a muscular Esteban Carmona)...

...and a new and sexy Jocasta (Lorraine Vélez, with a difficult role - after all, Oedipus has sex with his mother.)

Sean San José, Juan Amador, Gendell Hing-Hernández and Armando Rodríguez are the Greek chorus as well as having individual roles as players in Sophocles' classic tragedy.

There are so many things to like. The music (Jake Rodríguez ), lights (Wen-ling Liao) and costumes (Ulises Alcalá) all add to this tableau of a community completely tied to its roots, good and bad. Change is to be suspected and newcomers must prove themselves to their elders.

We loved these elders, who dispensed wisdom and also, at other times, sold paletas, cell phones and tamales.

We are quite familiar with Pico-Union, the L.A, neighborhood where Alfaro has set his new Oedipus. Obviously, Alfaro knows it too. Everything about this show feels real. You can't say anything better than that.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is overjoyed to see "Oedipus el Rey" again. We grant FOUR STARS to this production and hope everyone gets a chance to come see it while it lasts.

"Oedipus El Rey"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through June 23