Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bay One-Act Festival, Program One: ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG BANG

It's Year Seven of the Bay One Acts Festival (BAO) at the Eureka Theatre. There are two programs and each consists of four short one-act plays of 20-30 minutes each. We caught Program One on Sunday afternoon and it was delightful.

The first two shows are all about angst. Isaiah Dufort's 'Absolute Pure Happiness' is about young angst and John Levine's 'Here's That Rainy Day' is about old angst, but both are written with warmth and understanding of the characters. In Dufort's play, Bradly Mena as Rocky gives a strong performance, especially when he smiles, while John Hutchinson and Janice Wright (as the piano-vocalist duo 'El-n-El') bring us slowly to a surprise realization in 'Rainy Day.'

After intermission, the humor picks up. Cary Pepper's 'House of the Holy Moment' and 'Patricia Milton's 'Busybody' are comedies, with 'House of the Holy Moment' featuring a terrific Steve Buscemi-ish performance by Tom Juarez as the pastor (if you want to call it that) of the church (if you want to call it that). Milton's 'Busybody' is darker and both actresses give standout performances (Laura Jane Coles as shoulda-knocked-on-a-different-door Laura and Heidi Wolff as off-her-rocker Missy).

The beauty of these shows is that the writer gets to shine; it's not about sets or costumes or the slightest amount of glitz. The downside is that the shows are so short that unless the actors are spot-on with their lines, every imperfection is magnified. On the other hand, if you're not knocked out by one show, just hang on: they're already setting up for the next.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards half a star to all four plays, plus an extra half for "House of the Holy Moment.' There are two BANGLES of Excellence: one for the way Heidi Wolff cackles "Nipples grow back, y'know,' and the other for depressed Rocky's line: "Absolute Pure Happiness? What a TERRIBLE name!"

Two and a half Stars and two BANGLES for Program One, which plays through March 2. Program Two begins on March 6 and continues through March 16.

The Seventh Annual Bay One-Acts Festival, Program One
Eureka Theatre
215 Jackson Street, San Francisco
Thu - Sun through March 2

Saturday, February 16, 2008

"Come Home": ☼ ☼ 1/2 (baub)

With Jovelyn Richards it's all about sound and movement -- her hands and feet are bare, her legs and arms swirl in layers of draping fabrics. She tells her story in words, in moans, in shouts and in stomps, and her new one-woman show, 'Come Home,' playing through March 8 at the Marsh, grabs you the second she takes the stage. It doesn't end as strongly as it begins, though, so the one-act performance seems to stretch on longer than it might.

Richards tells the story of 26 black soldiers from Arkansas who enlisted in the army during World War II, motivated by two lynchings in their home town. When half of the men return alive after the war, they have changed forever, as is illustrated by the ruined relationship between the principal character, Donna Rae, and her soldier husband. At the outset of the play these two are described in bawdy exuberance, and we long to share more of their lives later on. But making 'Come Home' into a feel-good love story is not what Jovelyn Richards has in mind. As life in Arkansas deteriorates, and the writer becomes more metaphysical, the show's energy diminishes as well. Richards is such a riveting performer that we would be more enthusiastic if her ending were equally riveting.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ 1/2 (baub)

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Coming Home" two and a half stars, one for the first half of the story, one for Richards herself and another half for that sensual bout in the water when Jovelyn Richards gives new meaning to the word "eyelashes." We could have used more scenes like this one.

Perhaps in a larger theater space, the synthesizer player and two violinists could be tucked behind a screen so every time they played their instruments our attention weren't deflected away from the performer. A synthesizer? In a story about rural Arkansas in the forties? Anything that takes your eyes from Jovelyn Richards rates a Bauble of Despair.

"Come Home"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Thu-Sat through March 8, $15-$35

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Sonny's Blues": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG BANG

It doesn't get much better -- the words of James Baldwin, the original music of Marcus Shelby and a timeless story about the power of music and the twist of redemption. Baldwin wrote "Sonny's Blues" in 1955 (it was first published in the Partisan Review in 1957) but there isn't one sentiment nor piece of dialog that doesn't ring true in the cool light of February, 2008.

The period is the late 1940s in Harlem. Sonny's never-named elder brother (played with anguished conviction by Peter Macon) is recalling how he first knew Sonny (Da'Mon Vann) was in trouble, leading to the younger man's conviction for using heroin. When Sonny enters the stage, the two brothers interact with a back-and-forth dialogue much like a jazz duo, Sonny trying to explain why he loves music and his brother trying, in vain, to understand. Meanwhile, the wonderful Margarette Robinson (Mama/Ensemble) punctuates each scene with stinging one-liners and a stirring gospel voice.

Marcus Shelby's score helps set the mood, but the most amazing part is that Margo Hall's direction allows the cast to appear as if they are extemporizing, when in fact a Word for Word production -- where every word in the short story is actually spoken, including narrations -- could not be less improvised nor more completely choreographed. Of course, Word for Word productions always work so much better when the actual words are of the caliber of James Baldwin.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sonny's Blues" three stars for the writing and cast. It's a superb piece of composition that is hard for actors to match up against. But they do. An extra half star is awarded for the ensemble -- Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Allison L. Payne and Robert Hampton -- for how seamlessly they play multiple roles.

Plus, there are two Bangles of Praise: the first is for the way Ms. Payne tilts her hip at the gospel trio, managing to say I Believe You and I Don't Believe You with one motion. The second is for that incredible moment when Baldwin tells us how Sonny is encouraged to go off the deep end in his piano soloing. We won't repeat the lines here -- you'll know them when you hear them. Three and a half stars plus two Bangles for "Sonny's Blues." This is a story you won't forget.

"Sonny's Blues"
Lorraine Hansberry Theater
620 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed-Sun, through March 2 $27-$32

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Curvy Widow": ☼ ☼

The announcer's voice came over the PA: "The show will begin in a few minutes. In the meantime, we would like to let you know the Giants won the Super Bowl 17-14." So much for suspense and the DVR waiting at home.

Then Cybill Shepherd came out onto stage and "Curvy Widow" began. There weren't too many surprises here either. "Curvy Widow" is a fun evening of familiar female kvetches, with more pluses than minuses.

The show is written by Bobby Goldman (who is a woman). It is the story of one woman's difficulties in crossing the minefield of internet dating, after the mourning period for her late husband has passed. Shepherd commands the stage, walking from her desk to a chair to a sofa, while narrating the sordid details of all the crumb-bums she meets on line. The problem is that Cybill Shepherd, while perhaps no Spring chicken, is also nobody's meatloaf. She is a very, very attractive woman of a certain age, and it is tough to believe that Bobby Goldman's online misadventures could possibly have been the same as Cybill Shepherd's.

The monologue is structured for a female audience. The laughs are there -- "I wanted a man without tatoos, piercings or walkers." About how the men she met seemed to love golf more than her: "Maybe golf removes the penis." About how she loves her apartment: "Sometimes it all comes down to closets." The ladies howled.

For this reviewer, Cybill Shepherd's laid-back, Southern-tinged gentility is admirable, but she's an actress, not a comedienne. She's not Susie Essman. This is not to find fault with Cybill Shepherd, but the material has some edge and the performance might gain from an infusion of attitude. Just saying "f---" is not the same as meaning it.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Curvy Widow" one star for Cybill Shepherd, because she hasn't lost a step since "The Last Picture Show," and one for Bobby Goldman, who probably wishes she could have been Cybill Shepherd. Women will definitely enjoy this show more than men. "Curvy Widow" does not aspire to do much more than give a few laughs. It's not the Super Bowl. It's just funny.

"Curvy Widow"
Post. Street Theater, San Francisco
Wed.-Sun. through Mar 9, 2008; $50-$75

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"The Scene": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG BANGUITO

Clea, played by the deliciously clueless Heather Gordon (that would be her in the red dress, above), keeps saying things like "Somebody proved that eating is killing people." Zingers pop from her mouth like cocktail olives, and could probably only be provided by a playwright like Theresa Rebeck, who has three degrees from Brandeis University, including one in Victorian Melodrama. In the terrific West Coast Premiere of Rebeck's "The Scene," we certainly do get melodrama, but there ain't nothing Victorian about it. Ms. Gordon looks, ah, scrumptious in that red bra.

The play opens with Charlie, on the right, a once-employed-currently-suicidal actor, played to the max by Aaron Davidman, and Lewis (Howard Swain), his best friend who is just trying to get lucky, vying for the attentions of Clea, even though their dialogue is on this level:

Charlie: "She's a f***ing idiot."
Lewis: "I don't care."

Then we meet Charlie's wife Stella, the only one that seems to have a job, but who is also older, far less vivacious and more vulnerable than Clea. The next round of twists throws everyone into motion, including Clea: "I don't drink, but I'll have a vodka. Alcohol is great when you want to clear your head."

On Opening Night Nancy Carlin stepped into the role of Stella, subbing at the last moment for Daphne Zuniga, who was ill -- Carlin did a remarkable job, especially given that she had to carry the script that she hadn't had time to learn, plus endure, with the rest of the cast, two power failures which darkened the stage, causing the actors to freeze in place.

No one missed a beat. It has been a long time since this reviewer has heard applause at the end of every scene. This four-piece ensemble is so good and the writing so brilliant as well as gut-grabbingly funny, that by the time Rebeck is done skewering the New York glam scene we all feel like we've been there, done that many times, just like Poor Charlie.

As he says at the end: "We're all lonely."
To which Clea replies: "It's a party, Charlie!"

Indeed it is. Don't miss The Scene. It's surreal.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Scene" a star for Theresa Rebeck. There might be one false word somewhere in the evening's entertainment, but we were laughing too hard to catch it. Another two stars go to the whole cast -- it's hard to single anyone out, but the look on Howard Swain's face when distraught Stella says to him: "You thought she (Clea) was pretty!" and he answers "NO!" receives an extra half star all by itself and a nomination for Lie of the Year.

A BANGLE of praise is given for Charlie's musing "Why does real art make real people feel phony?" After a short consultation with the Rules Committee, we are also awarding a small BANG -- we know, it's the wrong word -- let's call it a BANGUITO -- for how easily Clea managed to maneuver herself into that red thong, but we'd have to see it again. A few times.

Bill English, Artistic Director at SF Playhouse, points out that anyone who has seen the previous incarnation of the show in Louisville will be surprised by the ending. We know what happened originally, and, trust us, this is perfect.

"The Scene"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed. - Sat. through March 8, 2008; $38

Saturday, February 2, 2008

'Satellites': ☼ ☼ 1/2 (baub)

We're not so sure about Diana Son's "Satellites," having its World Premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theater. The subject is a timely one, especially given Danny Hoch's superb "Taking Over," currently running next door at Berkeley Rep, which tangentially covers some of the same subjects.

In Son's story, a mixed-race couple with an infant daughter are moving into an old brownstone somewhere in a traditionally black neighborhood of Brooklyn. The issues they face deal not only with the multilayered story of 21st Century urban gentrification, but more importantly with the difficulties Nina and Miles are facing as they wrestle with their own Korean-American and African-American heritages.

Nina (Julie Oda) is completely overwhelmed by the pressures of trying to juggle her career in architecture, her relationship with her husband Miles (Michael Gene Sullivan), her friendship with Kit (Ayla Yarkut), racism, and, most of all, the searing depth of her bond with her new baby.

It's a tough role for any actress, but something is wrong here. Although Nina's plight is convincingly desperate, director Kent Nicholson seems to insist on having Julie Oda spell out every action, to explain in soliloquy emotions that could be more effectively conveyed with a look or a gesture, especially in a theater as small as the Aurora. The result is that she comes across as rigid.

Perhaps this would be less of a shortcoming if Sullivan's Miles was played with more nuance. It would also be nice if Miles's brother Eric (Darren Bridgett) was either more or less seamy. We long for someone to root for or against here. Nina is the obvious choice, but...

As things are, the people we care about most are the side characters. Reggie (Michael Asberry) is a fabulously charismatic neighbor who lights up the stage each time he enters; Mrs. Chae (Lisa Kang), the Korean nanny Nina has hired, is honest, funny and appealing (the scene when she spoon-feeds Nina her home-made Korean seaweed soup is touching and meaningful); and Kit, Nina's professional partner, is a terrific friend who is trying to cope with her own problems while watching Nina come apart at the seams.

The U-shaped seating of the Aurora Theater (no one in the audience is further than four rows back) brings the actors wonderfully close and you can feel the decay in the fading plaster of the well-designed aging brownstone set. You don't get to exorcise any demons with "Satellites," but you do exit the theater with an interesting take on race and how individuals attempt to work things out for themselves.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2 (baub)

The SF Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Satellites" half a star for Julie Oda's ability to fight through some stilted direction to bring as much life as she can to the taxing role of Nina; half a star each for Reggie, Mrs. Chae and Kit; and another half star for having Eric get mugged on Rosa Parks Avenue. There are no BANGLES of Praise to be awarded, but one Bauble of Despair: the perhaps unavoidable decision to use tape loops to simulate the baby's wailing. If it is supposed to be grating, it is. Plus, the baby has no face. We kept looking and looking. Two and a Half Stars and one Bauble for Diana Son's "Satellites."

Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Wed-Sun through March 2, 2008