Wednesday, October 31, 2007

"The Rainmaker: ☼☼ 1/2 BANG

As the curtain was rising at A.C.T. Theater, the Calaveras Fault came a-rumbling to the tune of a 5.6 earthquake. The floor shook a tiny bit and maybe the first balcony hiccuped, but the venerable 1910 theater laughs at 5.6.

Then the curtain went up on Mark Rucker's production of N. Richard Nash's 'The Rainmaker.' Written in 1954, the very successful show spawned several revivals, a 1956 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster, and even a musical ("101 in the Shade") in 1963. So the show is 53 years old. That's good and bad.

Rene Augesen has the starring role as Lizzie who thinks she's plain, and she makes the most of a stock female character. Augesen makes us feel for Lizzie, suffering from a lack of options in her hot and dusty farmhouse, but, sadly, there is no one opposite her to root for. She can't be Maria without Tony. Even Julie Jordan had a bad-to-the-bone Billy Bigelow.

But Lizzie is stuck in the middle. Her kinda-sorta beau File (Anthony Fusco) is a banana slug (spineless arthropod - check it out) while her rainmaker hero Bill Starbuck (Geordie Johnson) could use an extra jolt of high-caf snake oil. We want to believe Pretty Bad Bill could captivate Good Lizzie. In 1954 this may have been possible. Reality is closer now.

As nights at the theatre go, "The Rainmaker" looks fantastic. Robert Mark Morgan has designed a farmhouse that makes you want to lay down on the sofa and eat popcorn, but then that farmhouse splits in half and the sheriff's office rolls up and flies down center stage. It's masterful and period at the same time. Beautiful.


As far as ratings go, The SF Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Rainmaker" a star for the gorgeous sets, a star for Rene Augesen and Jack Willis (who was so good as Ben Hubbard in last season's 'The Little Foxes'-- he's seen above on left) and a half star for the very fine performance of Alex Morf as Jim Curry, who brings some badly needed fire to the Currys. A Bangle is awarded in self defense as the critic realizes his wife, his (female) friend and his (female) friend's daughter liked the show somewhat more than he did. Plain girl gets guy: women love it. You can't predict earthquakes, but this you can.

A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through Nov 25 $17-$82

Friday, October 26, 2007

"Six Degrees of Separation:" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG <¿>

'Six Degrees of Separation,' John Guare's 1990 Broadway hit which was turned into an even more successful film in 1993 starring Will Smith, Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland, is back on stage at SF Playhouse. It features a standout performance by Daveed Diggs as Paul and excellent starring roles by Robert Parsons and Susi Damilano as the art dealer Flan and his wife Ouisa.

Guare's story is not a comfortable one for theater audiences, who are for the most part the age of the clueless parents in the story. Their kids despise them (Jennifer Siebel shines as the spot-on perfect daughter Tess -- "I'm getting married and moving to Afghanistan...") and the parents' acquisitive lifestyles have left them perfect targets for the conniving Paul, who pretends (brilliantly) to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier.

Three sets of parents are taken in by Paul's deception. In the first act (the show is 85 minutes with no intermission), the empty lives of each parent are exposed for all to see. As a result, when their children appear in Act Two, and we find them played so over-the-top and self-absorbed, we have no choice but to try to start rooting for their parents again and that isn't easy to do after Act One. We have to choose between Crazy and Delusional or Shallow and Defamatory.

What we want to know is why Paul, clearly a genius, has become so disturbed and crazy. But you don't get neat story-packages with John Guare, and Bill English's spare production gives us no further inklings.

That said, the show keeps everyone honest as many truths hit close to the bone. "Six Degrees of Separation" deals with deception and racism and class but at its heart it is about loneliness. Each flawed character is, in the end, looking for a new experience, for something more than they have, even though they are smart enough to know that what they are hoping for will not be quite what they find. Flan says it best: "The imagination is not our escape. On the contrary. The imagination is the place we are all trying to get to."

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG <¿>

The SF Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Six Degrees of Separation" a star and a half for Daveed Diggs's bravura performance, another star for great lines like: "In the black newspapers, the theater section is right next to the want ads" and a half star for the way the ensemble moves flawlessly through a difficult plot with no intermission. Plus, there is a Bright Bangle for Ken Sonkin's South African, Jewish and (Italian?) Detective accents. The play also receives one upside down question mark <¿>: this reviewer will admit RIGHT NOW that, after seeing the play and the film and reading countless commentaries, he still can't figure out what 'six degrees of separation' has to to do with...well, anything. But nobody else seems to be having any problem with that, so John Guare has the last laugh.

Three Stars, a Bangle and an UDQ for "Six Degrees of Separation." Go see it. Daveed Diggs will knock your socks off.
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street (Upstairs)
Through November 17 - $38

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"After The Quake": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

Haruki Murakami's two short stories 'Honey Pie' and 'Superfrog Saves Tokyo' are the basis for "After The Quake," playing on Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage through November 25. The 85 minute production (with no intermission) is like Tokyo in the summer -- complex, crazy and a little steamy.

The show starts slowly, as the five-person cast switches roles and takes turns at narration. But Frank Galati's direction is so crisp, and the cast so riveting -- is the remarkable Paul H. Juhn REALLY playing both the mild mannered Katagiri and the young, strutting Takatsuki? -- that when the dream-within-the story-within-the play format finally emerges, it does so with explosive power.

Hanson Tse and Jennifer Shin do a marvellous job as the two shoulda-been lovers Junpei and Sayoko -- or maybe they actually do become a couple, unless it's just another of Junpei's stories. Murakami's work is always multi-layered, so don't expect to get everything. As Frog says, quoting Nietzsche: "Understanding is the sum total of all our misunderstandings."

Oh, that know-it-all Frog. He quotes not only Nietzsche but Conrad, Hemingway, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Costumer Mara Blumenfeld has dressed him in a three piece suit with green gloves, green socks and green glasses, and that incongruous getup helps the marvelous Keong Sim give Frog a combination of agent of salvation and Yakuza mobster. Frog is defintely The Man.

Kudos to the live duo of Jason McDermott on cello and Jeff Wichmann on koto, always in gauzy view of the audience while playing. But one small niggle: everytime they play the Beatles' 'Norwegian Wood,' in an otherwise Asian-inspired score, it feels terribly out of place. Sure, the cognoscenti will know that another Murakami short story is entitled 'Norwegian Wood.' Others -- who, me? -- find it jarring.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The SF Theater Blog Awards Division awards "After The Quake" one star for Murakami's beautiful language, one star for acting and direction, one star for the costumes and sets and another half for getting a child actor (six-year-old Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji alternates with nine-year-old Madison Logan V. Phan) to speak her lines with such power; a Bangle is awarded for that amazing audience-gasps-moment when Paul H. Juhn throws off Takatsuki and becomes Katagiri before our eyes. Three and a Half Stars plus one Bangle for "After The Quake" and remember: at Berkeley Rep's Thrust Stage every seat is a good seat.

Berkeley Repertory Company
2025 Addison St., Berkeley
Tue-Sun $27-$69.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"D'Arc: Woman On Fire" : ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Amanda Moody and Footloose want you to approach Moody's one-woman show "D'Arc" with aloof hipness. The set is sparse, there's an electronic cellist in high heels on the stage and the fellow two seats down is asleep before the show starts. But it's hard to remain aloof with Amanda Moody -- she's Too Darn Hot.

With bright red hair and a rapturous smile, she opens as Joan of Arc, with a thick French accent, sallying into battle on her horse; she then morphs into a mother sounding like she's from Little Neck, Queens, who is desperately trying to locate her missing daughter Joan; and the daughter herself, a do-gooder who has disappeared somewhere in Afghanistan, where she was attempting to teach beauty tips to local burka-wearing women. A box wrapped in white paper drops from the ceiling at some point, as Moody takes us back and forth, from character to character, filling out her story and making us sweat, as we keep wondering WHAT IS IN THE DAMNED BOX?

'Hip Show' usually just means 'weird sophomoric music,' but D'Arc's music, composed by Jay Cloidt, has intriguing depth. It helps that Moody is a trained singer and superb performer. Indeed, one gets into the car afterwards singing "Everyone Burns, Everyone Burns," and it may not be all that uplifting but you do exit singing.

D'Arc is an excellent and thought-provoking show, very much worth seeing and bringing your friends along. Arrive with your own chocolate, though, because the show is an hour and a half long with no intermission. When they lop ten minutes off the ending, D'Arc will be even stronger and the guy two seats down may wake up.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

SF Theater Blog awards "D'Arc: Woman on Fire" three stars for Moody's story and performance, plus one Bangle for the way she stomps incomprehensibly off stage, down the stairs and out the front door with a loud slam -- and the show isn't even over! -- and one Bright Bauble for when they shorten the ending -- it's over when the door slams, folks.

Three Stars, A Bangle and a Bauble for D'Arc and a long round of applause in both English and French.

Shotwell Studios: 3252-A 19th St (upstairs)
Fri-Sat through Oct 27 $12-$20