Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"A Christmas Memory" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BFW

How does it get any better? How can any story take an audience, soaked through after a frigid hail-and-rain filled December day, from the wisecrack theater seats of Theater Rhinoceros directly to the countryside of southern Alabama in the 1930s, and do it so easily?

For more than twenty years, a reading of Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" was a one-man affair, with the late Robert Coffman sitting in his red chair center stage and reading one of the most satisfyingly sentimental short stories ever written. He didn't use voices or body language or very much inflection. All he did was read. Capote's language is truly incomparable in this story, and, through the power of performance and the written word, Coffman was able to transport every person, year after year, from the world of glitzy commercial Holiday Land, back to the pine forest, the Christmas trees, the fruit cakes and Mr. and Mrs. Ha Ha Jones.

But Robert Coffman died a few years ago and Theater Rhino hadn't resumed the tradition...until last night, when Word for Word, in conjunction with Theater Rhino, performed a staged reading of the story, using four actors. It was every bit as nostalgic, funny, emotional, heartwarming...which is to say the secret, obviously, resides in Capote's writing. The show is only 45 minutes long and it's the most perfect and warming antidote to yet another dismal day of disappearing 401K.

Alex Moggridge (far left in photo above, taken by this reviewer after the show), plays Buddy with the most perfect child's enthusiasm, while Patricia Silver (on the right) does the same for old Sook. We recently saw Moggridge as Ian the questioning shrink, in Connor McPherson's "Shining City," and Silver as Mrs. Mallon in Lorrie Moore's "Which is More Than I Can Say About Some People," both bravado performances. Even though this evening's show was a staged reading, meaning the four actors carried scripts in hand, there was never a sense of anyone reading instead of acting.

(Incidentally, the two people in the center of the photo are not Molly Noble and Chris Libby, who were both excellent ensemble actors in the performance. Next to Alex Moggridge is JoAnne Winter, Director, and holding the wine bottle is the woman from the audience who won the wine in a raffle!)

Wow. We wish we could see this performance again, but one night was it. Hopefully the Word for Word version of "A Christmas Memory" will become a new tradition at the Rhino each Christmas season, in memory of Robert Coffman, who would be very happy to sit back and watch this one.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Christmas Memory" Four Stars with a BFW -- a big, fat Wow. Thanks -- and see you next year?

"A Christmas Memory"
Theater Rhinoceros
2926 16th Street, San Francisco

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Abe Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party": ☼ ☼ BANG

Here's the thing. In school they taught us that Alexander The Great conquered the world. Later we learned he was gay. Does this mean that all gay people are military expansionists? We learned to love Michelangelo's sculpture before we found out his sexual orientation. So do we not like his art any more, now that he is off the scaffold and out of the closet? Or do we like it more?

Enter Abraham Lincoln. Aaron Loeb, whose 'First Person Shooter' was one of the best plays this reviewer saw in 2006 at the San Francisco Playhouse, or at any other playhouse, for that matter, seems to feel that if we learn Abraham Lincoln was gay, long a rumor within the gay community, we will change our opinion about...what? Lincoln? Gay people? Slavery? All three?

Of course, "Abe Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party" is a spoof. Its premise is that there is a parallel between Abe Lincoln's supposed homosexual affair when he was a state senator from Menard County, Illinois, and a right-wing witch hunt against a gay elementary school teacher in the same county in the 21st Century. Honest Abe is not so much a character but a metaphor about tolerance. Cast members play multiple roles and one of these always includes wearing a beard and a stovepipe hat. Lincoln's speeches are quoted, principally the ones about forgiveness.

But the metaphor is shaky and so is the preachy script. After the absolutely terrific opening dance number, complete with seven dancing Abe Lincolns alternating between patriotism and disco-ism, we await a delicious parody. The meal that follows is very long (three acts) and, sadly, there is not much to chew on, once you get past the comment in Act One: "What could be more American than to be pissed off at people who are different than you?" This theme is repeated, ad antebellum, for the rest of a long evening.

Proposition 8: disgusting but true. Bad bigots: sickening and also true, a million times true. We are not whining about the politics, but about the play. If it's a spoof, be funnier. If it's serious, stop making jokes about it. If it's both, make it shorter.

SF Playhouse is allowed to slip up occasionally, since we can't remember the last time it happened. Perhaps once Loeb and the production team rework the material, the Big Gay Dance Party will actually fulfill its author's promise, which is to make us multitask about gay rights: laugh, dance and think at the same time. It's a terrific idea and the show has got to improve with time.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Abe Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party" Two Stars with a BANGLE of Praise. The two stars are for Michael Phillis and Sarah Mitchell. Mitchell, in particular, absolutely lights up the stage every time she is featured, in a variety of roles. Phillis is excellent too. A star for each.

The BANGLE of Praise is for the timely interplay between Anton (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Regina (Velina Brown) about the touchy relationship between gays and blacks. There are fascinating issues and Loeb is to be congratulated for pulling no punches.

It's not so hard: just shorten it. A guy at the snack bar, during the second intermission, was overheard saying: "Are you going to just keep this thing going until you sell all the cookies?"

"Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Tue.-Sat. 8pm (some Christmas dates dark), through Jan. 17

Monday, December 8, 2008

"David Hirata and Friends: Magic Holiday": ☼ ☼ 1/2 (adults) ☼ ☼ ☼ (kids)

Illusionist David Hirata has that black magic thing going on and his costar Dr. Kim Silverman looks like Merlin at the Renaissance Faire. In "Magic Holiday," Hirata and Silverman appear to have the dual purpose of entertaining children (the audience, mostly children, howled with delight) and de-mystifying their tricks somewhat, so their audience can...almost...figure out how they're pulling these cool stunts off.

I mean, how does Hirata get the multicolored scarves out of the cylinder, anyway? How does Silverman get the torn dollar bill into the egg? How does one ball become two balls become three balls?

Kids are called out of the audience to help the magicians and they are the cutest part of the whole afternoon. As for the rest of it, adults will find themselves enjoying the show but they will really love watching their kids lose their collective cool. Whereas Wrapping Paper Caper, which follows Hirata's show on weekend afternoons, can be enjoyed by all ages, David Hirata's Magic Holiday is primarily about entertaining kids. It certainly seems to work.

One note: Occasionally, juggler Stefan Fisher stands in for Dr. Kim Silverman.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2 (adults) ☼ ☼ ☼ (kids)

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Magic Holiday" Two and a Half Stars for adults and Three for children. There are no tricks adults haven't seen before but kids don't care about that. The row in front of this reviewer was packed with children who couldn't stop jumping out of their seat to volunteer for every single stunt. You can't get a better review than that.

"David Hirata and Friends: Magic Holiday
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Holiday schedule through Dec. 29 (see www.themarsh.org for complete schedule)

"Wrapping Paper Caper": ☼ ☼ ☼ 3/4 BANG !

Wrapping Paper Caper is every bit as good as it's ever been, and maybe even better. For ten years Marin County's Liebe Wetzel has been doing something we never think is possible, even as we feel it transpiring before our eyes on stage: she gives our imaginations the green light to take us over. Our brains know it's her troupe, dressed in black clothing to render themselves invisible, who are really taking that cardboard toilet paper roll insert, or a piece of red wrapping paper, or a brown rag, and turning them into the dimwitted inspector, the French vamp (The Damsel in Dis Dress) or the scuba-diving creature made out of packing peanuts. But our Christmas-addled hearts hunger to get in on the fun. And so we do. This is the rare show where the children in the audience scream with delight, but don't enjoy the show any more than their parents do.

As Liebe Wetzel's Lunatique Fantastique has continued to create new works, some even for adults, she has made stars out of the most mundane everyday items -- not only wrapping paper but napkins, bread rolls, boxes, newspaper and PVC pipe. Don't expect huge production values -- but do expect to be transported into another realm. Best of all, the show has nothing at all to do with computers or space-age graphics or sound effects. The cast does it all. God, what a relief.

One last note: A ticket is only $10 bucks and the show lasts a little less than an hour. Don't let Wrapping Paper Caper go by another year without wrapping you up in its spell.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 3/4 BANG !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Wrapping Paper Caper" Three and Three Quarter stars with a Bangle of Praise. If there were a real story, or a premise, or anything at all to involve the intellect a tad more, Wrapping Paper Caper would be a solid Four Star performance. As it is, the Bangle of Praise is well deserved for the beautiful undersea ballet performed by the scuba diver and the inspector. The exclamation point is just because we feel like it. For something to do with your own kids or kids you import for this purpose alone, we couldn't recommend Wrapping Paper Caper any more highly.


"Wrapping Paper Caper"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat-Sun, 3PM, with 2 Monday shows, through Jan. 4

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Dame Edna: My First Last Tour": ☼ ☼ BANG BANG baub

Dame Edna is funny, no doubt about it, but she really makes you appreciate Chris Rock. Clearly, there are only a few great comedians who can dominate a stage for an hour and a half or more, and they all do it with a combination of a unique personality and brilliant material. Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna, tries to do it with his stage persona alone. Edna banters with the audience, she brings audience members on stage, she insults them and watches them react, she tosses them gladioli while singing a silly little ditty and she punctuates the show's opening, the opener to the second act and the finale with amusing videos.

So if the audience just happens to be brilliant, the show might be brilliant, but if it isn't, and it probably isn't more often than it is, and God knows it wasn't yesterday -- then the show goes on 'way too long without much more than a few good laughs and quite a lot of giggles.

Edna is a favorite with the San Francisco audience, as this is the town where she began her ascent in America, and there is lots of innuendo and one particularly wonderful song about her son Kenny, who appears to have many 'friends' here who all love opera and interior design. Edna shot off plenty of good ad libs, such as her comments about the "Nouveau Pauvre" -- that is, the people in the balcony who can't afford better seats -- as well as what she said to the 93-year-old woman in the audience who had been taken to the show as a birthday present: "Dear, you look a lot older than that."

Think Don Rickles in drag, plus a brilliant ending video. Cheapest ticket: $68. It's up to you.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Dame Edna: My First Last Tour" two stars with two BANGLES of Praise and one Bauble of Despair. It's the first time anyone has ever earned two BANGLES and less than three stars. This is because the act itself drags on too long to be worthy of more than two and a half stars, but the elevated ticket price eliminates that extra half a star. Edna is funny but she'd be a lot funnier at $30 in a night club with a two drink minimum.

The first BANGLE of Praise is earned for the wonderful song "My Kenny" in which Humphries pulls off the hat trick: he rhymes 'state trooper,' 'CNN is super,' and 'Anderson Cooper.' The second BANGLE is for her comment when she is tossing her endless supply of gladioli into the crowd: "these gladdies were grown on my organic farm with my own manure." OK, that's the kind of humor you get with Dame Edna. We thought it was funny.

The Bauble of Despair must be given to the jackass in back of this reviewer who began laughing before the curtain came up and continued through every single line for the first ten minutes. It wasn't a laugh, it was a donkey being put through a wood chipper.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Post Street Theater is proud to..."


"...present the wonderful..."


And yet...he was gone, with not a few others, by intermission. So there you go. Two stars, two BANGLES, one bauble and one jackass.


"Dame Edna: My First Last Tour"
Post Street Theater
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun. through Jan. 4

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"The Quality of LIfe": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

It is rare when the curtain doesn't come up on an A.C.T. show to reveal a multilayered and complex set, usually with a huge staircase and glorious period furniture. Not this time. Jane Anderson's brilliant "The Quality of Life" opens on two chairs and a tree. Bill (Steven Culp) sits in one chair, Dinah (JoBeth Williams) in the other. Though their conversation is about traveling to California to see Dinah's cousin, the subtext reveals that their daughter, Cindy, has died in some terrible way, an event with which neither parent has been able to come to grips. At the end of this short opening sequence, Bill walks away and leaves Dinah crying in her chair.

THEN, the curtain parts again and the true set is revealed: a fantastic yurt, somewhere in the California desert, into which cousin Jeanette (Laurie Metcalf) and her husband Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) have moved after their home has burnt to the ground, and after Neil has been diagnosed with incurable cancer.

Bill and Dinah arrive, and for the rest of the two-act 90-minute performance we are presented with an existential and often hysterically funny dilemma: under what circumstances is a dying man allowed to end his own life? Bill and Dinah have embraced Jesus after their daughter's death, so Bill, especially, is infuriated on religious grounds at Neil's decision to commit suicide. Dinah -- she's not so sure, even about God. "I love the son, but I cannot STAND the father," she says, during an especially hilarious section where she has smoked some pot with Neil and Jeanette while Bill is in the bathroom. "Sacrifice his son in such a cruel way? What kind of a monster is that? Am I high?"

The entire cast is first-rate. The two women steal the show, with Metcalf's Jeanette getting the funniest lines but Williams's Dinah allowed the most growth. We see raw suffering in every line of her dialogue, each slide of her knitting needles, even in the way she stands by herself, lost in thought. This is the kind of performance only a great actress can pull off.

The ending is perhaps a little anticlimactic, but then again so is life. "The Quality of Life" is not about death, but about how we all choose to live. It's terrific.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

After much thought, The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Quality of Life" 3 1/2 Stars with a Bangle of Praise. This is an excellent rating, well earned by the excellent cast, the crisp and excellent direction (by the author, Jane Anderson) and the wonderful set (Donald Eastman) and provocative lighting (Kent Dorsey). The Bangle of Praise is for any number of great lines, like Jeanette's answer to Bill:

(Bill) "Would you like to accept Jesus Christ?"
(Jeanette) "No thanks, I'm good."

We would be looking at a four star production except for one nagging niggle: Neil, though dying of multiple cancers, was able to seemingly recover from his agonizing condition whenever he felt like it to deliver a perfect line or two. But others might not agree. Perhaps the point of the entire show is just this: life is messy and it doesn't always make sense. We feel "The Quality of Life" could have even been longer -- and you don't hear that often on this page.

"The Quality of Life"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun $20-$65

Friday, November 21, 2008

"Evie's Waltz": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

"Are we going to talk about the gun?" says red-haired, 16-year-old Evie, maybe ten minutes into the play, and from that moment on Carter W. Lewis's 'Evie's Waltz' becomes a parent's nightmare of nightmares.

Evie is Danny's girl friend, and Danny is Gloria and Clay's son. Though we don't ever see Danny, he is the major player in this psychodrama, and his presence is constant, because Danny has hidden himself in the poison ivy thicket above the house, from which vantage point he is pointing a rifle at the barbecue area in his parents' backyard. This means that Evie, Gloria and Clay are in his gun sight at all times, which is an astonishingly good method to create tension. The kid is crazy. He could do anything.

Danny has two ways to communicate: he texts Evie on her cell phone, or fires his rifle at the patio, causing everyone to run for cover. Danny has been suspended from school for carrying a gun to protect himself against school bullies, but it's not this gun, and he and Evie have a lot more to worry about than school.

Marielle Heller is fabulous as Evie, a nuanced-but-unhinged teenager, and director (and Artistic Director of the Magic) Loretta Greco allows Evie to toggle emotionally back and forth, seeing herself one moment as a contentedly doomed Juliet and the next as a Columbine-style avenger. Although Julia Brothers's Gloria and Darren Bridgett's Clay make your skin crawl with their neurotic and cruel bantering, Brothers in particular slowly emerges as the focus on stage. She is the one who is trying the hardest to understand what's going on, whereas Clay is a conniving weasel and Evie -- well, Evie expects to die.

The ending is fantastic theater, and it makes perfect sense. Prepare to be surprised and stunned. "Evie's Waltz" is a dance with the devil through the psyche of the modern family. You will find yourself wanting to scream at the three actors: "Get inside, for God's sake!" But you know they can't. They have to sit it out, like all of us in the audience, if there's ever going to be a chance of making things right again.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Evie's Waltz" Three and a Half Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Two stars are for the writing, because Carter Lewis exposes what every parent knows: the line between banal normality and unexplainable tragedy is very, very thin. Heller's Evie rates a full star all for herself, because we end up rooting for her even though we suspect we're going to regret it by show's end. Half a star is for Brothers's Gloria, though her husband Clay probably deserves part of it -- they are both so contemptible.

The Bangle of Praise is for Sara Huddleston's sound -- man, when that gun goes off everything changes. And when it goes off again -- well, just you wait and see.

"Evie's Waltz"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco
Wed.-Sun. $40-$5

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Russian on the Side": ? ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

Wow! There are probably two audiences watching each performance of Mark Nadler's astonishing 'Russian on the Side,' running through November 16 at the Marines Memorial Theatre. One knows the music and gives out stars. The other one doesn't and holds up question marks. But judging from the enthusiastic Opening Night response, people who didn't understand Nadler's musical references were simply swept away by his virtuosity and silliness. The audience barely let him off the stage at the end.

The backbone of 'Russian on the Side' is a tongue-twisting song lyric, written by Ira Gershwin and sung originally by Danny Kaye in the musical "Lady in the Dark." The song incorporates (and occasionally rhymes) the names of 50 Russian composers. Kvochinsky? Stravinsky? Glinka? These are not simple names, but Nadler has learned a vignette about each one and plays a snippet of music that each composer wrote. At the end, he plays 'em all. If you stay with him, it's hysterical.

For those of us who are familiar with classical music and a few famous show stoppers from the Broadway tin-pan-alley tradition, this show is a rare gem. Nadler's acrobatic antics while in front of, in back of, or on top of his grand piano recall a young Victor Borge; his personality and enthusiasm remind you of an even-more energized Martin Short. Nadler is no classical master, but the dude can play -- with one hand or two hands or no hands. He tells funny jokes and fascinating stories.

What in the world is not to like? This reviewer is coming back and bringing his mother.

But hold on now. What about the masses of people who never heard of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev or either Anton Rubenstein, the Russian or Artur Rubenstein, the Pole? If you're younger than, say, forty, have you ever heard 'Stranger in Paradise?' Can you relate to the fact that the song's melody was taken from a theme written by the Russian composer Borodine, who subsuquently became the first composer to ever win a Tony Award seventy years after his death?

It's a funny story. But does it sink in? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mark Nadler doesn't care. He's having a ball on stage. Wearing his morning coat, gold vest and red cravat, his fey, Jewish, Broadway manner comes across as honest and appealing. You, the audience, may get lost but you probably won't. The truth is you won't know if you love this kind of thing until you see it, because you've never seen anything else like it.

Sitting at the end of the aisle to the side of the reviewer was a couple, he a bit older than she. The man shouted, laughed, then jumped to his feet clapping his hands over his head at the show's finale. The woman was less demonstrative. He turned and asked his date: "So, how'd you like the show?" and she paused awhile before saying... "well, it was different."

Different, it is. We love it. Go see "Russian on the Side." If you can dig up your old piano teacher, bring her along.

RATINGS ? ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Russian on the Side' a rare Four Star Rating with a Question Mark at the start and a Question Mark at the end. The question marks are because The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division believes Four Stars translates as "NOW! GO NOW!" But it has no idea if there exists a wide enough audience for this show.

Three stars would not be enough. Three and a half stars with no question marks would probably be OK, and three and three quarter stars with one question mark would also do. But to hell with it. Four stars and two question marks it is. After you hear Mark Nadler sing Frank Loesser's 'The Ugly Duckling' and Steven Sondheim's 'Next,' and play Rachmaninoff's Prelude Opus 3 No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, first relating the sad story of the grand piano master's lifelong exile in New York, we can talk about the question marks. Please comment when you see the show.

"Russian on the Side"
Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, Second Floor, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through November 16

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Radio Golf": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

After seeing the Northern California Premiere of August Wilson's final play "Radio Golf," this reviewer was enthused, as well as conflicted. I hurried home to read earlier comments about the play, since its official Broadway opening in 2005. Reviewers seem to be in agreement about the show's one red flag -- the lead is so passive it's hard to come down strongly on his side -- but there is a lot of disagreement on just about every other point.

I believe August Wilson saved the best for last -- his most scathing opinions about society as a whole, and race relations in particular, are delivered through the clear lens of a playwright who knows he is dying of cancer. Through the story of the young candidate for mayor (Harmond Wilks, played by Aldo Billingslea), we see the attempt to gentrify the venerable black district of Pittsburgh, known as The Hill, as part of the same struggle being disputed today across the nation. Assimilation means progress, but it also means bulldozing Aunt Ester's house, the 366-year-old conscience of several of Wilson's previous plays. Placing your development office on the Hill is good for your image but it also means somebody is bound to steal your golf clubs out of your trunk.

Golf: the ultimate symbol, the white power broker's game. It is fatally seductive to Harmond and his partner Roosevelt Hicks (played by Anthony J. Haney) but a golf club is just another weapon to hit somebody over the head with, if you ask ex-con Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender).

August Wilson grew up on the Hill, and The Hill is where all but two of the plays in Wilson's monumental ten-play cycle are set. These dramas record nothing less than a cross-section of the African-American experience of the 20th Century, and August Wilson knew what he was writing about. It's old versus new, and by extension good versus bad. It'll be nice to have a Starbucks and a Real Foods, but who will remember the chicken shack where the two old ladies fried chicken all weekend for neighbors lined up around the block? And what about Aunt Ester? Who will remember her?

Old Joe will, that's who. Old Joe is the show. Whenever Elder Joseph Barlow (played magnificently by Charles Branklyn) opens his mouth, wisdom and stubborness emerge in equal measure. He remembers the exact date of everything important that ever happened on The Hill. It's Old Joe's house the developers want to tear down and he's not about to let it happen. He is helped in his refusal to roll over by Sterling Johnson, the show's other sympathetic man of the people. These two men have the playwright's ear, while the forces of modernity, represented by Harmond Wilks, Roosevelt Hicks and Harmond's wife Mame (C. Kelley Wright) are not looked upon with favor.

Or are they? This is the rub. In the end, neither good nor evil triumph. It is reality that rises to the top. The ending is perhaps troubling, but that must be the way August Wilson wanted it. Many believe "Radio Golf" is not "Fences" or "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," but this reviewer is not so sure. Let's stew on it awhile longer.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Radio Golf" three and a half stars. Charles Branklyn is so good the author could have written Act Three with only him in it. The cowboy-and-Indian subtext carries a lot of power. And a special BANGLE of Praise is offered to Sterling Johnson for his metaphysical query about the quarter and the vending machine. If you (black people) put your quarter into the machine, and the machine (white power structure) spits it out, whose fault is it? The quarter? Or the machine?

It appears that the author's answer would be: you'd better learn just HOW to put that quarter in, if you ever want to get anything out.

"Radio Golf"
TheatreWorks: Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tue-Sun through November 2

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"May Day Parade": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"Diggigi doo BOP doo doo de BOP. Shaka shaka BOOP taka taka de dak!" Wayne Harris doesn't enter stage left, he MARCHES all over it. He's a big man with a lot of energy and he uses it all. Once his 90 minute recollection gets moving, recounting the day he first got to march in the annual May Day Parade in his native St. Louis, as an eight year old child, the ride never stops. Harris plays all the characters from that day in the 1960s -- most memorably his grandmother Mama Bell, who walks with bent over posture, balancing her 'shelf bootie' -- a rear end so big you can carry a tray on it. Family standouts as well are Harris's gentle mother, his hard-working railroad porter father, his brother and his aunts, the deacon's son with the foul mouth, as well as the many wonderful church goers, teachers and beauty shop operators who line the street as Wayne marches by.

Like all one-person shows, the performance is probably more important than the writing. Harris is a fine writer, and "May Day Parade" has many wonderful lines and a terrific flow, but Harris, who has been a performer all his life, dominates the stage in a way most soloists cannot. You can easily see him acting other people's material as well as his own.

One favorite moment is Harris's depiction of the 'Letter Girls,' a group of oversized young women from Beaumont High who, having been judged too large to become cheerleaders, get their moment in the sun dancing to James Brown at the May Day Parade.

Harris informs us that today the May Day Parade in St. Louis is sponsored by McDonalds and it no longer takes place in the 'hood. But his description of the way it used to be makes us all long to have been there, marching down the boulevard, staying in step and keeping it real.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'May Day Parade' three stars with a Bangle of Praise. Two of the three stars are for Harris's writing and performing, but the third is for all those drum lines. He is such a musical force on stage that it is hard to stay seated in your little red chair. This viewer wanted to stand up and form a Second Line right behind him.

There are several moments that deserve special mention, but the Bangle of Praise is for after the march, when eight year old Wayne relaxes in the park, shoes off, feeling the cool grass on his feet, surrounded by his loving family. He is, in Harris's words: "...sitting on the triumphant side of the struggle." We are so happy for him. And for us.

"May Day Parade"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St. San Francisco
Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, through Nov. 9
$15-$35 sliding scale

"Shining City": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

It's not often that you sit through an entire show, waiting for an ending that you don't realize is coming, but then when you see that last scene, which lasts on stage no more than ten seconds, you say to yourself "Ah HA! THAT'S what we're talking about! All right!"

Then, a few seconds later, you turn to the lovely lady sitting next to you and say: "What the hell was that?"

Riding home from San Francisco Playhouse, where Conor McPherson's 'Shining City' is having its Bay Area Premiere through November 22, after you get a chance to mull it about for awhile, you realize you just saw a perfect, perfect, perfect ending. The ghost, see, and John's still in Dublin and he doesn't need her anymore, but Ian, well, he does because, see, he's going down to Limerick and that's not gonna work out, 'cuz the ghost, see.

McPherson is Irish, which explains a lot, because nobody does guilt and loss of faith quite like the Irish. It must be all the rain. Not one character can ever finish a sentence -- everything fades out into an existential sigh. Paul Whitworth's John is having a nervous breakdown as he sits on the couch of brand-new therapist Ian (Alex Moggridge), who has his own demons staring him down. John is guilty because he's been a rat to his recently deceased wife, Ian has run out on his family, and Ian's girl friend Neasa (Beth Wilmurt), has just had a casual affair with a mutual friend. Their angst is thick. Of course, it's raining.

Do we believe in ghosts? Nope...yikes, but what's behind the door? You'll see. It's a great yarn. But if a black cat crosses your path on your way into the theater, think about going to see Jersey Boys.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Shining City' three solid stars, one each for the two principal actors and one for Amy Glazer's precise direction, which manages to keep us interested through a mountain of talk. The ending is so good it earns a Bangle of Praise all by itself. However, the obligatory Moment of Gayness between Ian and Laurence (Alex Conde) makes so little sense it earns its own bauble of despair.

But no worries. Don't miss 'Shining City.'

"Shining City"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 22
Tue-Sat. $40

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Towle's Hill": UNRATED plus ***UPDATE***

*** UPDATE! The Marsh has lowered the price of a ticket substantially to Towle's Hill and wine tasting. So as you read the review below, be aware the show is now only $15 if you mention 'wine tasting' at the ticket counter. For that small price, 'Towle's Hill' has become a bargain!***

'Towle's Hill' is a well written and captivating piece of theater. Mark Kenward (actor and writer) is very believable as farmer Towle Bundschu and is able to propel the audience into an understanding of the difficult lives of California's pioneer vinter families. The story, of one winery's travels from the Gold Rush into the 1970s, is as much a story about California history as it is about wine and the people who make it.

But it's very short (half an hour? a little more?). And if you look at it from a non-theatrical point of view, the show is basically a fluff piece about Gundlach Bundschu Winery, who commissioned it in the first place, and who offers, in exchange for a rather hefty admission price, a taste of chardonnay and merlot after the show.

The wine is very good. The show is very good. The problem is that wine lovers will want more wine and theater goers will want more show.

The Marsh is trying to do something novel here, and we applaud them for it. Hybrid art forms are gaining strength throughout the city and may turn out to be a large part of our entertainment future. Dinner theater like Teatro Zinzanni runs for years, circus combines successfully with hip hop -- why not theater with wine tasting?

Well, why not? The concept is a good one for both sides -- the Marsh would like to reach an audience who doesn't often venture into the Mission, and the winery would love theater goers to think about ordering its wines during dinner at the bistro after the show.

The sour grape in the barrel is the admission price. $35-$50 for a scant half hour paean to the farmer's life, followed by a tiny bit of wine, is just too much for this reviewer to be able to recommend the show, even though -- and mark this for the future when the price comes down -- Mark Kenward and David Ford (director) have fashioned a very winning story on the stage.

'Towle's Hill' is UNRATED

'Towle's Hill'
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St, San Francisco
FRIDAY NIGHTS ONLY through Nov. 21

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"The K of D": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

The hard-boiled critic slashes into the gala Opening Night crowd at The Magic Theatre, avoids the boiled shrimp and champagne with a sneer, finds his assigned seat, checks his cell phone for messages before turning it off (there aren't any), then sits down and prepares his knife-like adjectives to carve up the cast. Why? Because it's Opening Night, that's what we do.

But oops.

Laura Schellhardt's "The K of D," which plays through October 19 at the Magic, is a terrific show and Maya Lawson, who plays all the kids in a small rural town where at least one, no, two murders have taken place, is astonishingly good. There's spooky Charlotte and gangsta wannabe Trent and a guy named Kwisp and bubble-gum cigarette smoking Becky and the girl whose father is the Chrysler dealer, and there's also Charlotte's mother and father and dead brother, and then there's the really evil Johnny with the dogs and the narrator/sort of, and don't you dare forget the heron.

On Opening Night Lawson is already moving into all these characters and in a few more weeks she will own them. She makes you forget she's all by herself on that stage as each of her characters assume their own lives. After the show even the cackling coven of critics was heard whispering comments like: "Darn, she's good!" Plus "Wow. What a terrific show!"

The K of D had its premiere in Washington D.C. early this year and is still evolving. It's very good now, and although I suggest you hold off a week or two and let it grow a bit, don't you dare miss this run of The K of D. You just might be bowled over.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The K of D" Three Stars with two BANGLES of Praise. The writer, director and actress deserve one star each, as much for their gutsy chance taking as for their excellent deliveries. One Bangle of Praise is for Schellhardt's concept of the Urban Legend, and the question of what is real and what is only imagined. It's funny but equally thought provoking. The other Bangle is for Trent's father's line about his boy who'd rather shoot a gun than practice the piano: "If someone breaks into your house, do you want a kid who can shoot a gun or play a minuet?" That gun, not the piano, comes back to haunt everybody, especially the heron.

OK, you want to know what 'K of D' stands for. Here's a hint: Charlotte kisses frogs. Lots of things die. Put it together, then go see the show.

The K of D: An Urban Legend
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Wed.-Sun. Through Oct. 19
$40 and $45

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"Rock and Roll": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Everybody knows Tom Stoppard is a genius. They go to the theater to be bowled over by his cleverness, his mixing up of present and past and, probably above all, the fascinating topics he chooses to explore. "Rock and Roll," which had its Broadway premiere in 2007, has all of these and more. It's got rock and roll music. It's got politics. It's got failed Commies. It's got unrequited love which, in the end, pays off in a happy ending. What's not to like?

Nothing, if you were to go by the audience reaction on Opening Night at A.C.T. Theater. People cheered, whistled and demanded curtain calls. They laughed at every single joke. It was as if the playwright was their buddy and they already knew every line.

But not everyone was bowled over, at least not up in this reviewer's portion of the first balcony. He was not alone in wondering if the ponderous Act One was EVER going to end so he could loudly wrinkle the wrapper and eat the chocolates he had in his pocket. Every time he looked down his aisle, he noticed a continuous electronic sea of watch flashes, as people kept checking to see if the brilliant playwright had actually managed, for once and for all, to stop the hands of time.

By Intermission, all six truffles had melted into one! They were frozen when the show started. Add it up.

Act Two was better. Finally, Max (Jack Willis) became human in addition to bombastic. The excellent Jan (Manoel Felciano) aged believably. At last, the rock and roll imagery started to make sense, outside of marking the passing years. And the touching last scene almost paid off the lengthy setup.

Here it is in a nutshell: If we discovered 'Rock and Roll,' by an unknown playwright, in a small local theater, we would probably love it. But the huge, glitzy A.C.T. performance falls short. In the end, it doesn't matter how brilliant the playwright is, or how thick the press packet, or how interesting the autobiographical back story: it grabs you or it doesn't. 'Rock and Roll' has too much talk and not nearly enough rock.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Rock and Roll' Three Stars with one Bangle of Praise and one bauble of despair. The excellent actors' ensemble, Douglas W. Schmidt's set and Alex Jaeger's costumes bring two stars by themselves, and vintage Stoppard lines like "Everything is dissident except shutting up and eating shit" are easily worth another. The BANGLE is for Jan and Esme's joy at the end. It's so, so contrived, but also so perfect.

Still, 'Rock and Roll' should be better than it is. The bauble of despair is for just that. It should be better.


'Rock and Roll'
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through October 18
Tue-Sun. $17-$82

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"The Best Man": ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

Gore Vidal has a pedigree. He is the grandson of legendary blind Senator Thomas Prior Gore of Oklahoma, a distant cousin of Jimmy Carter and Al Gore and was even a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1960.

1960 was also the year that Vidal wrote 'The Best Man,' which has opened a five week run at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. It's a quasi-serious look at what goes on behind the scenes as two candidates for President, each in possession of a big pile of dirt against the other, vie for the best time to unleash their allegation. It is irrelevant that neither of the allegations is quite true. All a candidate has to do is smile, Secretary of State Russell reminds his campaign manager: "War is declared, and we just smile. We're like animals. All these predatory teeth!"

Charles Shaw Robinson's Secretary Russell is a dead ringer for former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, a handsome patrician from the privileged "Groton/Harvard" set. Think John Kerry, an educated man who finds it difficult to relate to the common man. His opponent, the slimy Senator Joseph Cantwell, played like a coiled rattler by Tim Kniffin, is a self-proclaimed "man of the people," armed with little intelligence but a surfeit of personal ambition. It's Kerry versus Bush all over again, except that Vidal wrote "The Best Man" almost 50 years ago.

Who will win? We don't know the outcome until the end and the winner is not who you think. Well, it's exactly who you think, because the play's largest flaw is that the outcome is telegraphed for the entire second act.

That's its only shortcoming, though. "The Best Man" has the satirical sensibility of a SF Mime Troupe show, only with far better writing and a superb cast. You'll laugh a lot, when you're not choking in realization of how little anything ever changes.

Charles Dean gives a fine reading as ex-President Hockstader, who gets most of the good lines (speaking to Cantwell: "It's not your being such a bastard that I object to, it's being such a stupid bastard."). And we can't forget Deb Fink whose cigarette-smoking, calculating Southern Belle is spot on perfect as Mabel Cantwell, wife of Senator Joe.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Best Man" Two and a Half Stars With a Bangle of Praise. It's a high Two-and-a-Half, though and the only reason it falls short of Three Stars is it feels a little dated. Not that Vidal doesn't see the world through wide-open eyes ("An immoral President?" laughs ex-President Hockstader. "Do they come in any other flavor?"). Maybe it's just getting a little too close to home.

The Bangle of Praise is for Elizabeth Benedict's perfect Mrs. Sue Ellen Gamadge, National Committee Woman for Russell. She makes us laugh and cringe at the same time with her hats, her gloves, her tightly corseted walk and all her pronouncements about "the women," as in "...the women don't trust intelligent men, Mr. Secretary."

"The Best Man"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. $42-$50

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Cabaret": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

When you think of 'Cabaret,' you see Joel Gray and Liza Minnelli and Michael York. You see huge production numbers and brilliant direction by Bob Fosse on a stage the size of West Berlin.

Ah, but now come to San Francisco Playhouse and grab one of the front row cabaret tables, put in especially for this run of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, and the show's patina takes on an entirely different hue. You're not looking at the Kit Kat Klub from a safe distance, you're living in it.

'Cabaret,' for all its hi-jinx and loveable misfits, is one of the darkest hits in the history of Broadway. Starting with the frightening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which closes Act One, and continuing through the entirety of Act Two, where each character's edge begins to fray, this is a show that could drive anyone deeply into a bottle of Schnapps.

But then we have John Kander's music and Fred Ebb's lyrics, always light and bouncy, with plenty of trombone oom-pahs to support the waltz and polka beats. They not only add to the story but lighten the mood. When you see 'Cabaret' in a small theater you realize a story with this much historical gravitas had to be wrapped in clarinets and comedy or it would be too much to bear.

Bill English's direction makes the most of the small stage. Standouts in the cast are Karen Grassle ("Ma" in the NBC series "Little House on the Prarie"), who gives Frau Schneider's character an elegant desperation; Louis Parnell (the excellent Sancho Panza from the 2006-07 production of "Man from La Mancha" on the same stage), who manages to keep the doomed Jew Herr Schultz hopeful; and the brilliant Kate del Castillo, whose legs may even be longer than Liza Minnelli's, and who turns on every light in the house with her stunning reprise of the final "Cabaret."

Shows evolve. The sexual references that were mostly hetero in the 1972 movie are quite a bit gayer in the 2008 San Francisco production, but they make even more sense this way. Frau Schneider sums it up at the beginning of the show in "So What?" There are Nazis everywhere. Live your life to its fullest. If we do that and still go down in flames -- so what?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards San Francisco Playhouse's "Cabaret" Three Stars with two delightful Bangles of Praise. The first star is for Kate Del Castillo. It ain't easy trying to be Liza Minnelli without going over the edge. Del Castillo is herself and every motion works. Another star is for the supporting cast, many of whom are also members of the band. Will Springhorn Jr., an excellent Ernst on stage and saxophonist up on the riser; and Tania Johnson, who as Fraulein Kost entertains every sailor she can get her hands on while also managing to leave time to play accordion in the band, are both wonderful. A third star, of course, is for the late Kander and Ebb's perfect songs -- "Money (Makes the World Go 'Round)" will stay in your head for days.

A special Bangle of Praise goes out to Frau Schneider's hair and clothing, for which we thank Costume Designer Valera Coble; another is for the pure chutzpah or mounting this play on this stage. Musicals, which can be excruciating in a small space if done poorly, seem to be turning into a trademark at SF Playhouse. Memo to Bill English: "My Fair Lady" is a very good idea.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. Through Sept 20

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Grey Gardens": ☼☼BANG

There are unsolved mysteries surrounding "Grey Gardens," having its Regional Theater Premiere through September 14 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The advance promo calls the show "hilarious" and "heart breaking," but it is neither. What it is is a fascinating look at the lives of two women who lingered for decades on the edges of American aristocracy and privilege. Edith Bouvier (Big Edie) was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (young Jackie has a continuing role in the play.) Together with her daughter Edie Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), the two Bouvier women were true eccentrics, whose lives took them all the way from fortune to poverty and from the heights of social acceptance to the depths of despair. It's all true -- you can look it up.

But maybe don't go see the play. Scott Frankel's soporific music, especially in the first act, will put you to sleep in your seat and keep you there through a lengthy intermission. When you snap awake for Act Two, you will find it far more interesting than Act One with several rich and lively musical numbers, but how anyone can survive Act One is the first unsolved mystery.

Why the show was written as a musical is another mystery. It would make a fine drama.

Yes, we know. You saw Grey Gardens on Broadway and loved it. Many will enjoy this TheaterWorks production too, especially those who remember how Jackie O and her sister Lee Radziwill made the front page of all the New York tabloids when they had to keep their aunt's grand home from being condemned. San Franciscans with fatal attractions towards Judy Garland, Maria Callas and other doomed divas may also find this play hard to resist.

Certainly, the two leads, played by several different actresses to represent different periods of the Bouvier women's lives, are all excellent. Beth Glover and Dale Soules, as 1941 Big Edie and 1973 Big Edie, respectively, are terrific. Elisa Van Duyne gives lots of heart to 1941 Little Edie, and Glover, who switches to Little Edie in Act Two, is a fine comic, though where that New York accent came from, since it was nowhere to be heard from Little Edie in Act One, is another unsolved mystery.

It's always nice to hear a live orchestra. They did their best. Lyrics (by Michael Korie) were quite clever and the book (by Doug Wright) might have been more interesting if the entire first act weren't basically a setup for Act Two. That's a lot of setup.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Grey Gardens" Two Stars with a BANGLE. One star is for the set by J. B. Wilson which is, as always impressive; the other is for Cathleen Edwards' costumes. A Bangle of Praise must be granted for "Jerry Loves My Corn," a song of depth and pathos where the music and Dale Soules' vocal bring more than one tear to more than one eye.

"Grey Gardens"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View CA
Tue-Sun through September 14

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"What You Will": ☼ ☼ 1/2

Roger Rees knows everything about Shakespeare. He knows soliloquies from Hamlet, love scenes from Romeo and Juliet, costuming from all the Henrys and Richards and also every book, article and scholarly work that has ever been written about the plays of Shakespeare, about performing Shakespeare or about the Bard himself.

Rees has a great smile and is also a familiar face, having appeared in countless TV shows, films, miniseries and TV specials. The first moment he steps out onto a stage sparsely furnished with not much more than a throne and Yorick's skull, you recognize him: It's the Sheriff of Rottingham, from Mel Brooks's "Robin Hood: Men in Tights!" You love him already.

Alas, the play's the thing. Roger Rees's one-man show "What You Will" isn't really a play. It is an entertaining and educational evening, yes; an homage to the great Shakespearean actors of the past 300 years, yes; and a few humdinger famous speeches from Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Romeo and Juliet and others are included, yes indeed. There are several memorable moments.

As a show, "What You Will" doesn't reach very far. If Roger Rees were our English teacher, this would be, hands down, the best class in the university. But it's a large stage and we are used to seeing a little more. There is not much arc to the story. We go out pretty much where we came in.

That said, there is plenty for which to applaud, and the audience certainly did so. But more Shakespeare! The stories get old, Shakespeare never does. When Rees performs Hamlet's famous 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy, we are simply stunned by its majesty.

One special moment should be mentioned: Rees's recitation of a James Thurber story in which an American tourist 'solves' the mystery of Hamlet. This is funny stuff; also, everything Rees has to say about Macbeth makes us want to run out and see Macbeth.

But probably not "What You Will" again, though actors and others who cherish Shakespeare will certainly find a lot to ponder, over a nice cold goblet of mead.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ 1/2

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "What You Will Two and a Half Stars. One star is for Rees's craft and another for his obvious and contagious love of the theater. The show earns another half star for the inclusion of Noel Coward's "Butterstumps!" comment to Vivien Leigh backstage, after she couldn't pick up a stick while playing Lavinia in Titus Adronicus. (Lavinia has had her hands chopped off.)

"What You Will"
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue.-Sun. through Aug 3

Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Not a Genuine Black Man": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It's still great. Even though Brian Copeland had serious spinal surgery in the Spring of 2008, and his week-long benefit for the Marsh Theater is his first spin back on stage in all that time, and even though up until his hospital stay he had been performing 'Not a Genuine Black Man' almost constantly, across the country and Off-Broadway, since its debut at the Marsh in 2004 (where it became the longest running solo show in San Francisco theater history), the material is still fresh. Its revelations continue to tear at our inner core.

Yes, Copeland is a little stiffer and maybe the tears and screams are a little more forced than when the show was new. But his story resonates, not because of his emotion in telling it, but because of the obvious truths he makes us face. Racism was real for him as a child in San Leandro in the late '60s and '70s, and though that monster has perhaps lessened its grip, it has not in any way disappeared from our lives.

It helps that Copeland is such an excellent performer. WARNING: his descriptions of everyone, be it his mother, father and grandmother or the landlords who are trying to evict them, are so spot-on that it may feel awkward at first to let that belly laugh escape. But you can't hold it back. The show is too funny.

Neither blacks nor whites are being held for ransom here, and Copeland is not trying to be Dave Chappelle. This is a theater piece, not a comedy review, and though his story may make you uneasy, it insists on making us all consider his central question: "What is it that makes the racial identity of successful black men suspect?"

There's only one week to see Brian Copeland at the Marsh, where his journey began. All proceeds are being donated to the theater to purchase new seats. We'll miss those old red spine squashers, but not too much.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Not a Genuine Black Man" Three Stars with a BANGLE of Praise. The BANGLE is for Copeland himself having enough heart to honor his commitment to the Marsh. It's nice to hear that Ed Asner is considering making a TV series out of the piece, though God help us if Asner wants to play Brian Copeland. They'll have to change the chitlins/chitterlings gag.

"Not a Genuine Black Man"
Benefit for Marsh Theater
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Thu-Sat. July 24-26
$25-$50, sliding scale

Thursday, June 26, 2008

"The Stove is White": UNRATED

Storyteller Jeanne Haynes is in her sixties and has an interesting tale to tell about her family. She appeared at The Marsh's Wednesday night Marsh Rising Series, whose purpose is to help development of new shows into the caliber suitable for a MainStage run. Haynes appears to still be more of a living room storyteller than captivating performer (she continually forgot her lines and needed prompting from a helper in the first row), so although there are touching and humorous moments, 'The Stove is White' is not ready yet.


"The Stove is White" has not received a rating.

'The Stove is White'
Marsh Theater
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco

Friday, June 20, 2008

"The Busy World is Hushed": ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG baub

At the heart of Keith Bunin's "The Busy World is Hushed" is a quest for understanding. Three characters circle the stage for two acts and spend most of their time discussing the life of Jesus and the parallels with their own lives -- which, the more they talk, become more and more intertwined.

Hannah (Anne Darragh) is an Episcopalian minister who has been sent a newly-discovered gospel of Jesus. She hires Brandt (Chad Deverman) to help her research and ghost-write a scholarly tome about this gospel. Brandt, struggling with the imminent loss of his father, can use a parent and Hannah, with trials of her own, needs someone onto whom whom she can pour her motherly feelings. It's all very neat until her wayward son Thomas (James Wagner) arrives. Brandt and Thomas are gay (the backdrop of the Episcopalian church's struggle with acceptance of homosexual pastors is embedded in the writing), so it's only a matter of time until they attempt to find Heaven in each other's arms. The Mom is perfectly happy with this arrangement -- too happy, in fact, which leads to the final inevitable blowup. No surprises here.

Anne Darragh does a marvelous job of bringing us into her world of scholarship and ministry. If she is bothered by the mysterious death of her husband, or the seemingly destructive behavior of her son, these only serve to strengthen her faith in God. Darragh has the craft to make us believe what would normally be a rather iffy rationalization.

Deverman and Darragh work beautifully off each other. But when Wagner's Thomas is in the picture it falls apart. Thomas and Brandt -- well, they don't have much chemistry. Brandt talks too much and Thomas is a jerk. Still, the audience is asked to feel empathy both for Thomas's disturbing lack of love for his mother, and for the inevitable breakup of his relationship with Brandt. Maybe it's casting, though all three actors have been excellent in other Bay Area roles (Deverman was fantastic in SF Playhouse's 'First Person Shooter'). Perhaps Robin Stanton's stand-here-speak-walk-over-there-speak direction was the best she could do with the material.

Anne Darragh is the only one with a clue and she tries hard to steal the show. The two men, when they're done groping, have little to add to the discussion.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Busy World is Hushed" two and a half stars with one BANGLE of Praise and one bauble of despair. One of the stars is for Anne Darragh's controlled and underplayed minister; another is for the moments she and Chad Deverman comfort one another. It's nice to watch. The last half star is because Bunin's writing makes us look over our shoulder for God when we leave the theater. We realize we could drive into a pothole and never come out while God stood on the sidewalk selling the Street Sheet.

The BANGLE of Praise is given for Minister Hannah's no-nonsense moment when she stares through the stained-glass windows (that she loathes), and says: "I want my windows clear of stain. I want nothing to cloud my view of God." She is able to bare her soul and bring us with her.

The bauble of despair has to be given to the depicted amorous relationship. Perhaps both actors are gay, or one, or none -- and perhaps straight theater reviewers are not supposed to get gay groping -- baloney. Has anyone seen Octopus? Love and fire are there, or they're not. If not, please let them stop writhing on the rug.

"The Busy World is Hushed"
Aurora Theater Company
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Thu-Sun through July 20: $40-$42

Sunday, June 15, 2008

" Squeezebox": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

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