Friday, April 18, 2008

"The Trojan Women": ☼ ☼ ☼

No one knows today exactly where the fabled city of Troy actually was -- somewhere on the west coast of modern Turkey -- but the ancient legend, reported in Homer's Iliad, lives on. It is the tale of Helen of Troy, the most desirable woman in the world, whose beauty drove both the Greek and Trojan kings to madness and war, culminating with the famous Trojan Horse and the destruction of one of the finest cities of the ancient world. The year was 1184 BC.

But what happened next? The Professional World Premiere of Ellen McLaughlin's fine "The Trojan Women," running for four weeks at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, stops to consider not the victorious Greeks, but the plight of the Trojan wives, daughters and sisters, after their home has been destroyed and they are faced with death or slavery. It is a mesmerizing story, which forces us to realize that history has always dealt with victory, not with the despair, borne by the survivors, that follows defeat.

At first, Barbara Oliver's production feels over-emoted -- a stage filled with wailing women in modern dress -- but, as one gradually settles into the scope of the unfolding tragedy, one realizes there is plenty to wail about. "I dream of a city, my home," they repeat, as the sea god Poseidon, dressed like a sea captain, enjoins them to keep sleeping: "From the moment you wake until your deaths, you will all be exiled."

Standouts in the cast are Queen Hecuba (played by Carla Spindt), Cassandra (Sarah Nealis) and Helen herself (Nora el Samahy). Hecuba has most of the lines, but Helen, dressed in a red dress, full-length fur coat and high-heeled leather boots, is the most conflicted -- she caused the whole war, but knows she never asked for her beauty: "What I have, the Gods gave me."

Perhaps Andromache, Hecuba's daughter (Emilie Talbot), gives voice to the most unanswerable question, as she surveys her destroyed city, her lost husband and murdered child: "Where are the Gods who loved us?"

The Gods aren't talking. McLaughlin's play is based on Euripides' "The Trojan Women," first published in 415 BC. Times do not appear to have changed all that much since the Greeks first started writing about it.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Trojan Women" three stars. The cast as a whole earns one, but the short running time (one hour, no intermission) does not allow any one character to outshine the others; the playwright's excellent original dialog, written in the style of the Greeks, earns another star; the last is for having the sense to stop the despair just short of demanding the audience run out to the snack bar and ask for a glass of hemlock. If the show had run another fifteen minutes it may have become unbearable, but one hour is just fine. We exit the theater ready to sit down, drink strong coffee and talk about what we've just seen.

"The Trojan Women"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. through May 11; $40-$42

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"Romancing the Caveman": ☼ ☼ baub

It wasn't only the Iraq war that started in 1991. That same year, Rob Becker's "Romancing the Caveman" opened in New York. The difference between Iraq and the Caveman is that the war stopped for a few years. "Romancing the Caveman" moved to Broadway in 1995 and played for two and a half years, becoming the longest running solo performance in Broadway history. By 2008, cavemen are as ubiquitous as Seinfeld. The show has been peformed in fifteen different languages in countries around the globe. Apparently, Becker tapped into something that men (although they are all a**holes) can understand.

The set is simple: a faux stone easy chair, a faux stone TV set and stand and a faux stone laundry basket. Performer Isaac Lamb walks to stage front and for the next hour and a half expostulates on how man is a hunter and loves to return to his cave to relax, while woman is a gatherer and loves to decorate her cave, in the process stripping the man of his dignity and forcing him to keep his dirty (presumably stone) underwear in the faux stone laundry basket.

It's funny. There are laughs. The first time you hear "men are all a**holes" you laugh and the second time too and maybe the third. But this whole shmear was probably funnier in 1991, before every bad comic in America began to mine the same gender vein. It's hard to argue with success, though. Women now have Vagina Monologues and men have Romancing the Caveman and, unlike Iraq, both men and women can leave the theater smiling and go home.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Romancing the Caveman" two stars. Isaac Lamb seemed a bit frazzled on opening night but there were happy shouts of "Right on, Brother!" heard periodically throughout the theater, particularly in Act One. There are no particular BANGLES of Praise, but the ending dragged on forever and earns a Bauble of Despair. It's up to you to decide whether or not you wish to spend $55 to hear comedy that hasn't been new since Saddam had a black mustache.

"Romancing the Caveman"
Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sun.; $55

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Monkey Room": ☼ ☼ BANG

AIDS research is not a frequently-discussed topic in film or on the live stage. There are probably any number of reasons, among them being 1) the subject matter is dry as burnt toast and 2) there are no happy endings -- yet. But playwright Kevin Fisher is a bona fide AIDS researcher as well as a writer, which gives him a unique window to observe what is going on inside the lab.

In "Monkey Room," having its World Premiere at the Magic Theater, the answer seems to be: the same things that are going on in the outside world. Professional jealousy, personal ambition and a drying-up cash flow threaten to scuttle an AIDS research lab's important work, even though four of the monkeys the lab is inoculating with possible AIDS antidotes appear to be coming through the treatment without getting sick.

Lauren Grace, as lead researcher Ava, gives an excellent performance. She is able to layer her character both with hard-driving personal ambition and honest love for her research. What is less clear is what she could possibly see in fellow researcher Zach (Kevin Rolston), who is duplicitous and does not appear to be motivated by anything but watching soccer. He is given to romantic lines like: "You love infectious diseases. You know you do."

Perhaps the problem is in the writing or perhaps it is simply casting, but -- don't want to give anything away here -- the couch scene. Facts don't add up. Needs further research.

Special notice needs to be given to the always-excellent Robert Parsons as the company man, sent to review Ava's research lab and either allow its work to continue or axe it forever. He has had his troubles too, but is the only one who seems to have his head out of the clouds.

In the end, Fisher's subject is an interesting one, and will perhaps evolve into a more entertaining play as time goes by. Right now our interest is piqued by the unique problems science researchers face. As science, we say yes. As theater: perhaps not quite yet.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Monkey Room" one star for the subject matter and another for fine performances by Grace and Parsons. A special Bangle of Praise goes to the Sound Design, led by Sara Huddleston, whose spot-on music accents each scene. Best of all is what plays as the audience files from the theater: "I'm a Believer" by the Monkees.

"Monkey Room" is sponsored by the Magic Theatre / Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Initiative.


"Monkey Room"
Magic Theater, San Francisco
Fort Mason, Building D
Wed.-Sun. $20-$45

"Caroline, or Change": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The Awards Committee awarded "Caroline, or Change" one star before the show even started, when the live ten-piece orchestra was heard tuning up. A peek into the pit turned up zero (0) synthesizers. That's one star without saying a word. But it got even better.

Tony Kushner's first operatic libretto, written in the mid-1990s after his phenomenal success with "Angels in America," and first produced on stage in 2003, is a production that is, on the surface, a simple story: a young boy, Noah (the autobiographical Kushner), misses his deceased mother and attempts to find solace in his family's basement in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the African-American maid, Caroline, spends most of her life doing family laundry.

But as Caroline sings in her opening: "Nothing ever happens underground in Louisiana. Because there is nothing underground in Louisiana. Only under water." Caroline is caught up in changing times (the year is 1963) and has little emotional space left over for Noah. We don't get a happy ending, or an unhappy ending, simply a pastiche of lives attempting to cross in a time when barriers were just beginning to fall.

You might love Jeanine Tesori's music, but you won't exit humming. The composer has obviously been required to fit her tunes around Kushner's thick dialogue, and it requires the audience's attention. It's not the Sound of Music, and it's not The Sound of Angels in America either. What it is, is a musical and intellectual journey, combining elements of blues and pop and gospel with Sondheim-like melodic reaches.

(Think 'Porgy and Bess,' but without 'I Loves You Porgy' or 'It Ain't Necessarily So.')

A critical decision was made when the show was first presented to New York Public Theatre director George C. Wolfe (who had directed 'Angels' on Broadway), to cast 'Caroline' not with operatic voices but with musical-theater actors. In this Theatreworks Production, we can see how important a decision that has been: the acting is superb. Wright and her show-daughter Emmie (Valisia LeKae) absolutely steal the show. Emmie has all the hopeful lines, and she delivers them with heart and passion. Plus, she can really sing -- actually, everyone in the cast can, and this includes the young actor Gabriel Hoffman, who was standing in as Noah for cast regular Julian Hornik.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Caroline, or Change" three stars to start: One for the involving live music, one for C. Kelly Wright and Valisia LeKae and one more for two other cast standouts: James Monroe Iglehart, who manages to play a clothes dryer, Caroline's ex-husband and a crosstown bus; and Allison Blackwell, who as Caroline's friend Dot is a needed voice of support and reason for Caroline. An extra half-star is awarded for the stunning contrast between Iglehart's "The Earth has Bled: The President is Dead," (as President Kennedy has just been shot) and Emmie's answer: "Some Old White Man."

One BANGLE of Praise goes out to the only terrific stab at humor in the score: 'Roosevelt Petrucius Cole Slaw,' sung by Emmie and her brothers. It's a nursery rhyme -- and one you can sing. It would have been nice to have a few more like it. Still, "Caroline, Or Change" is a novel show -- memoir, opera and social commentary all at once. It should not be missed.

"Caroline, Or Change"
Theatreworks Production
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA
Tue-Sun through April 17