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