Friday, December 11, 2009

African American Shakespeare Company's "Cinderella": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

The African-American Shakespeare Company is a serious enterprise that turns out consistently high quality performances of the works of the Bard. But if you would ask the people who came last night to see the premiere of the company's annual run of "Cinderella," they would tell you they love this one most of all.

And what's not to love? The evil stepmother and stepsisters are so EVIL! Cinderella is so GORGEOUS! The Fairy Godmother is the grandma we all love to remember and everybody knows what happens when the slipper fits. Good trumps evil. The handsome prince carries his bride away to happy land.

But getting there is the best part and they're walking on somewhat different turf than Walt Disney ever did. In this decidedly Afro-centric version of the beloved fairy tale, the sisters are named Zonita and Shaniqua. The tall, skinny Zonita (Martin Grizell) and the shorter, even dumpier (if this is possible) Shaniqua (Abbie Rhone) steal the show every time their size 12s hit the stage. They ramp up the camp without mercy. What Zonita flashes the Prince's pages, when it is her turn to try on the slipper, was definitely not in Walt Disney's playbook.

Belinda Sullivan is the most soulful Fairy Godmother ever, and Melvina Hayes is suitably nasty as the stepmother. The men take second fiddle in this story, but Prince Charming (Detroit Dunwood) is charming enough. The man also knows how to pick the right woman, because Delina Brooks gives Cinderella a smile that can melt rocks.

The theater is filled with teenagers, and in a very nice way. They have come to see the show even though it isn't a cartoon and it is not dumbed down. Adults laugh as hard the kids. It's impossible not to love this Cinderella.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Cinderella" Three Stars with Two BANGLES OF PRAISE. African American Shakespeare has been performing this show for some years now and it's just getting better each year. One BANGLE is for that touching Nat Cole version of "Smile," and the other is for Belinda Sullivan, who not only knows good from evil but is smart enough to keep her granddaughters from fighting with each other...almost.

Everybody looks for a show to take the kids to that the parents will enjoy every bit as much as the kids. This is the one.

African American Cultural Center
762 Fulton Street, San Francisco
Through Dec. 27

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"A Civil War Christmas": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Paula Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas" was written with her 4-year-old niece in mind and during the first act it shows. The playwright wished to present a heartwarming Christmas story set during a difficult time for our country, but rather than use plot and dialog, which might confuse a youngster, the action is done with simplistic narration. Many new characters are introduced (General Lee, General Grant, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, President Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and confidant, etc.), and each one of them speaks a word or two and then breaks into a piece of a period song.

This reviewer was itchy through the first act and but for the courtesy of giving a show the full attention it deserves might have left at intermission. He would have missed the point entirely.

In Act Two all the characters begin to tie themselves together, there is a nicely suspenseful search for a lost child, while at the same time John Wilkes Booth is plotting to kidnap the President and Mrs. Lincoln needs to get her Christmas tree back. The finale arrives with great satisfaction, served with a TON of shmaltz, plus some fabulous gospel music. We see that each actor can not only act but some of them can sing their rear ends off.

C. Kelly Wright, who was so terrific in Theatreworks' production of Tony Kushner's "Caroline, or Change," steals the show with her lead on the spiritual "Balm in Gilead," and she has been equally strong throughout the play in her twin roles as Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley and the runaway slave Mrs. Thomas.

Michael A. Shepperd's roles as Decatur Bronson and James Wormley are equally riveting, especially when blacksmith Bronson, whose wife has been kidnapped by retreating Texas Conferedate soldiers, sings "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and ends it with a rap on his anvil that brings the audience to its feet.

Period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are particuarly notable, because each character plays multiple roles and many of them are wearing hoop skirts. Sometimes there's no time to get the skirt off when you change from a female to role, so -- just put on a jacket and a hat, as Elizabeth Palmer is seen doing here.

Perhaps the best part of "A Civil War Christmas" is its telling of history from a more African-American perspective. Vogel has done us all a service in filling in a few blanks over which our history books have traditionally glossed. A slave market three blocks from Abe Lincoln's White House? Are you kidding? No.

The show has faults, principal of which is the ponderous Act One. But let us not undervalue the power of the "Awwwwww!" The audience gets to expend one after another at the finale, smiling after each one, and hankies are universally produced and used. Everyone exits smiling. Hey, it's Christmas.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Civil War Christmas" Three Stars with one BANGLE OF PRAISE and one bauble of despair. Act Two is so good, but Act One needs shortening, tightening, and -- what's the opposite of dumbing down, smartening up? -- smartening up the dialog and speeding up the staging. If Act Two pays off so nicely now, imagine how it will impact us once we are sorry Intermission has come?

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for the music. Vogel, along with Musical Director William Liberatore and Arranger Daryl Waters, take us across many lines of American musical history. The black gospel arrangements, especially, bring excitement and power to the production.

The bauble of despair perhaps lands, quivering, at the feet of director Robert Kelley, who seems more in love with the playwright's history lessons than he is with motion and entertainment. This may be endemic to a smaller stage at Lucie Stern Theater, or may in fact be already on the page. Either way -- they need to do more with less, rather than less with more.

"A Civil War Christmas" feels like it wants to become standard holiday fare. With a little work, it may turn out to be just that.

"A Civil War Christmas"
Lucie Stern Theater
Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec. 27

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cirque du Soleil's 'Ovo': ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

Cirque du Soleil has really done it this time. For this reviewer, Cirque performances over the years have been coming to resemble Las Vegas productions with a muscular Bulgarian on a tightrope filling in for Wayne Newton. You witness astonishing physical feats but you always plod out of the tent searching for the closest slot machine.

Not this time, Bunko.

Take the six red ants. Here you see them precision-juggling spinning trash can lids but they also toss each other all over the stage while either on their backs or standing on their hands. It's indescribable, really -- and that's only the second act. They follow the blue dragonfly, who balances on one muscular arm while contorting himself into impossible positions. And everywhere you look, there are green crickets.

The costumes -- you have to wonder about costume designer Liz Vandal. Does she have a thing about sensual bugs? Does she look like this?

No, she looks like this.

And she has created a world, along with director and writer Deborah Colker, that is nothing short of insect ballet. The performers have the most finely-honed circus skills on the planet, but they never let you forget they are bugs. They move around the stage like bugs. They jump like bugs. And on the unforgettable Wall act, which is the performance finale to Act Two, there are twenty of them, running, jumping and tumbling on trampolines as they mount and dismount from a 26-foot vertical wall.

Sadly, there is no photo of the man-woman rope climbing team who manage a sensual pas-de-ropes while many feet off the ground. And we never did find out what kind of insect this guy is, but he looks like a soldier in the army of Genghiz Khan, even when he's balancing precariously on a slack wire.

We cannot imagine a finer Cirque du Soleil. Tickets are not cheap, but they are not unreasonable for such an intensely labor-intensive production. Christmas is here. You might think about motoring up the family cocoon and heading on down to Pac Bell Park.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Cirque du Soleil's "Ovo" its highest possible rating: Five Stars. No, it's not Hamlet, but you will be moved by the grace of the human body and the ingenuity of the entire production team. You will shake your head and wonder: "Did I just see that? How in the world did he do that?"

After 25 years, Cirque cannot top itself each year, and recently they have not. This time they did. Take your favorite spider and sit down beside her.



We sat behind one and could not see everything, and it didn't really matter in the end, but it would be better to be in the center.

*** BONUS QUOTE: "The largest and CLEANEST outdoor rest room I have ever seen!" (The Reviewer's Wife) ***

"Cirque du Soleil's "OVO"
Under the Tent at AT&T Park (Giants' Stadium)
China Basin, San Franciso
Through Jan 24

Sunday, November 22, 2009

UNRATED: "2009 Eleventh Annual San Francisco Hip Hop Dance Fest"

To most people not familiar with Hip Hop, the very phrase 'Hip Hop' conjures up pictures of boys wearing sideways baseball caps and sagging their trousers down below their rear ends, and heavily made up women in high top sneakers with lots of tattoos. The music has one beat and it is incessant and the lyrics are frequently misogynistic and racist. Skateboards may or may not be involved.

Above all, it is a black art form. Right?

Wrong. Hip Hop has become so mainstream at this point that its style of dress, dance, music and countercultural vibe has taken the entire world by storm. This was easy to see Friday and Saturday nights on stage at the Palace of Fine Arts, where the 2009 Eleventh Annual San Francisco Hip Hop Dance Fest brought in dance groups not only from the SF Bay Area, but also from as far away as England, Ireland, Norway, South Korea and Japan. B-Boy Spaghetti, seen on top, is a hip-hop dancing Persian who comes from Norway. How diverse can we get?

The performers were men, women, young, old(er), black, white, brown and everything in between. They hipped and they hopped but many were obviously trained as well in classical ballet to say nothing of the martial arts and acrobatics. No one appeared to have any elbow or knee sockets. As far as the taped accompanying music, this reviewer had never heard of any of the artists, with the exception of Beyonce and Britney Spears. DJ this and MC that? Daft Punk? Busta Bust? The Muthafunkaz?

But that's what it's all about, isn't it? A new generation's music might be impenetrable to a reviewer whose knees ache just watching these kids dance, but the performers' buoyant spirit, athleticism and artistry explode off the stage. Of the second night's performers, two acts stand out for originality and personality: L.A.'s Versa-Style Dance Company who did an extraordinary piece while seated on chairs as if they were driving on the freeway, and the two person company (Buddha Stretch and Uko Snowbunny) (!) from New York called MopTop Music and Movement whose hip-hopping Super Mario Brothers characters were priceless and infectiously personable. Assuming Snowbunny was the female, she has got one gorgeous smile.

Fun. Nothing but fun. When organizer Micaya brings a new show back to SF next year, it's bound to be every bit as super. Watching these dancers is a treat.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Awards Division will not rate this show because it is a collection of individual performances with no cohesive theme, unless the theme might be "Dancing in the Face of Disaster," or maybe " the Face of your Parents." Whatever. These kids are on the right road. If, as they claim, Hip Hop is a way of life as well as an art form, the next generation is going to turn out just fine.


2009 Eleventh Annual San Francisco Hip Hop Dance Fest
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco
Nov 20-22

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Fat Pig": ☼ ☼ ☼

They meet innocently enough at a lunch counter. Tom (Jud Williford) is young and handsome, dressed in a smart business suit and tie; Helen (Liliane Klein) is pretty and dressed equally well, but there is one obvious difference: she is perhaps 100 pounds overweight. He is eating a salad. She has eaten three slices of pizza and has several containers of chocolate pudding. She offers him one, which he accepts with pleasure. They banter back and forth and Tom finds himself attracted to Helen, and she to him.

What follows is partly a discussion of America's warped standards of beauty, and partly a story of doomed love. We can understand Helen's attraction to Tom, and his to her, but it is more difficult to see how Tom, who is a weak person barely able to finish a sentence, will summon the courage to allow Helen to enter into his world of shallow, upwardly-mobile office mates.

Tom's ex girl-friend Jeannie (Alexandra Creighton) is hurt that Tom has apparently broken things off with her without bothering to tell her, but she is absolutely aghast to discover that Tom's new flame is overweight. "Fat pig" is only one of the many vicious slurs she uses to describe this woman, of whom she has only seen one small photograph; weasel-like, conniving co-worker Carter (Peter Ruocco) is far more explicit in his condemnation not only of a woman he doesn't know but of Tom's future with the company if he continues in his pursuit of this obviously unacceptable partner.

The key scene at the company beach picnic drives the message home. We are forced to investigate our own senses of right and wrong. As author Neil LaBute has said, referring to his own dieting challenges: "This remains one of the last prejudices that is largely accepted. People always feel it's fair game to ridicule fat people, because they feel if you really wanted to, you could stop eating so much."

Liliane Klein and Jud Williford are each terrific, Helen outwardly comfortable with her physical sense but inwardly frightened of rejection, and Tom, whose office life is populated by 'friends' who seem happy to make all of his decisions for him. He stands up for himself only twice in the entire play, and both times it is to say no.

We would have liked to have a little more examination into Tom's character -- that he would be self-conscious about Helen is too easily accepted. If this is so, why was he attracted to her in the first place? Why can't he stand up for himself? If "societal pressures" is the only answer offered, we haven't had a chance to grow any more than Tom has.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Fat Pig" Three Stars. Director Barbara Damashek moves the show forward with little wasted space; the discussions are often discomfiting but always heart felt. Klein, Williford, Creighton and Ruocco work well together, and in the end it is shallow Carter who spells things out best for Tom: "you're only young once. Don't take a complete dump on your one moment in the sun."

And there you have it.


"Fat Pig"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Extended through December 6

"She Stoops to Comedy:" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

It's 1997. Amy Resnick is just brilliant. Brilliant is what Amy Resnick is. She is a lighting designer. No, she is an archeologist. At one point she is both, at the same time, and then it's while sitting on a bed. But maybe that's in an earlier version. This doesn't make much sense. Let's start again in 1970.

You're just not going to be able to put David Greenspan's "She Stoops to Comedy" into a neat little box. It's a sex farce, a sendup of Elizabethan comedy, a modern discussion of play writing and an examination of gender switching. It's intellectual, it's funny, and despite requiring all your brain cells to be firing at once in order to concentrate on what might actually be happening on stage, the show turns out to be quite touching as well.

Alexandra (Liam Vincent) loves Alison (Sally Clawson), but Alison has gone off to Maine to play Rosalind in a new production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It." So Alexandra decides to make herself look like a man, to audition for the part of Rosalind's heart throb Orlando, and in this way win back her girl friend.

Of course, Liam Vincent is a man to start with, a man playing a woman who is now pretending to be a man. This deception is easy for Alex(andra) to pull off, since we know Alex is actually a man playing a woman playing a man, but Alison thinks Alex, whose supposed stage name is Harry, is nothing but a sensitive man who acts like a woman playing a man.

Get it? Alison doesn't. Or does she? Not so sure.

Amy Resnick's two roles as Jayne Summerhouse and Kay Fein are so beautifully crafted you might not even notice, as this reviewer did not, that they are both being played by the same woman, until both Jayne and Kay appear together in a back-and-forth double monologue, or, that is, only Amy Resnick does, because she is playing both characters, who have a hysterical discussion with each other about life and love. Resnick moves a few inches and totally inhabits first one character and then the other, which is where the brilliant part comes in. She is so good she confuses herself.

Coupled with Scott Capurro's lengthy monologue about being a self-loathing gay man only a few minutes before Resnick's, David Greenspan has given us two astonishing and memorable theater moments back to back. Everybody is good, but these two monologues are both show-stopping.

You walk out of the theater having really enjoyed the show, but you can't help asking yourself: "How DO they remember all those words?"


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "She Stoops to Comedy" Three Stars with Two Bangles of Praise. We have already discussed Resnick and Capurro's Bangles of Praise, but we also have to laud the way director Mark Rucker just loosens the reins and lets this cast go. What a delight. "She Stoops to Comedy" runs all the way through January 9. You shouldn't miss it.

"She Stoops to Comedy"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through January 9, 2010

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Mrs. Whitney": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

After seeing "Goldfish," the first of two John Kolvenbach shows playing in repertory at the Magic, we looked excitedly forward to the sort-of sequel "Mrs. Whitney," which expands the story of one of the Goldfish characters. Played in the second show, as in the first, by Patricia Hodges, "Mrs. Whitney" is a far more traditional piece than "Goldfish," and, sadly, seems to have lost excitement and innovation somewhere along the way.

As good as he was playing Leo in "Goldfish," Rod Gnapp is perhaps even better as Tom Whitney, the love interest of not only Mrs. Whitney, who was his first wife, but four other wives as well. Tom's son Fin is played by Patrick Alarpone (Billy Bibbitt in SF Playhouse's recent "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), in a touching performance with a lot of heart. Arwen Anderson is perfectly insane as Luisa, while Charles Dean's Francis mirrors Margaret Whitney's loss of hope. The difference is that, unlike Margaret, Francis can't think of anything to do about it as he finds himself unable to deflect her romantic illusions.

This is "Mrs. Whitney"'s World Premiere, so it is not surprising that it still feels unsettled, particularly in Act Two. The reason perhaps is direction. Whereas Magic Theater Artistic Director Loretta Greco directed "Goldfish" and filled it with innovative and quirky light and set changes, author John Kolvenbach is directing "Mrs. Whitney," and he is in love with the soliloquy. Every time anything important happens on stage, Mrs. Whitney then faces the audience and pontificates about what we all just saw. The action grinds to a halt. If you wanted to make sure you were distracting the audience from the characters, you couldn't think of a better way to do it.

Margaret Whitney's first lines, with a torch song setting the mood in the background, are: "My name is Margaret Whitney and I'm a romantic." Point taken. But for the show to work, you've got to give her credit for a little more than that. We need to be cheering for the reuniting of Maggie and Tom Whitney. Right now he's a loser and she's...well, she loves torch songs.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Mrs. Whitney" Three Stars with a bauble of despair. Those flow-destroying world-weary pronouncements about love might work if Lauren Bacall were spouting them from the top of a piano with Edward G. Robinson in the bathtub smoking a cigar. They don't work here.

Special mention must be given to Tom's description of diet soda: "It's worse than nothing. It's fake nothing."

"Mrs. Whitney" isn't fake, but it doesn't seem real yet either. Give it a little time, though. The pieces are there.

"Mrs. Whitney"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Nov. 22

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Brick Circk": UNRATED

Stevo Capko's shtick is that he is the clown voted Least Likely to Succeed. None of his tricks quite work out and the audience must either laugh along with his futile attempts to pick up all the bricks, or squirm self-consciously in their seats, waiting for the poor clown to finally pull off one his tricks. It's a little bit like watching a good-natured Andy Kaufman on Verse 12 of 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

In green face paint, red overalls and nose and black mouse ears, Capko attempts to balance a long pole on its end, but the pole is too long. He tries to hang a yellow brick on top of it, but it ends up crooked. He has quite a struggle with picking up a pile of bright red bricks, but there is always one too many.

Children will enjoy his lighthearted, huge-shoed floppiness and adults will get laughs out of his best bits, like fighting the chair that is tied to his ankle with rope. This reviewer would have liked to see him actually grab that last brick with a masterful flourish, instead of...well, not being able to grab it.

Brick Circk is part of the International Czech Theater Festival and Capko has a lot of street busker in him. He relates well to the audience but for this onlooker there doesn't seem to be a lot of new ground uncovered.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division will leave Brick Circk unrated. Consider it circus, not theater, and bring a child. There is no minimum age for this show.

"Brick Circk"
part of Czech International Theater Festival
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through 10-28
$15-$35 sliding scale

Friday, October 23, 2009

"Albert's Fear": Many ☼ Many BANG

Perhaps the best part of being a theater reviewer is that you get offers to see productions you'd probably never dream of attending otherwise. "Albert's Fear," starring the fabulous Czech physical comic Vojta Svejda, is one of these joyous surprises. One of four shows that make up the International Czech Theater Festival that is bouncing into the Marsh on a pogo stick and bouncing out just about that quickly, "Albert's Fear" makes us realize what a pity it is that more people won't get to see these quirky and powerful hour-long pieces.

Poor Albert. He sleeps peacefully in his blanket until his Mom calls him to wake up for school. He is then tormented by everyone and everything -- his toothbrush, his breakfast, the bullies on the school bus, his teacher, his beautiful classmate Eva, and, most of all, his demonic dreams. Svedja performs in Almost Mime -- which is to say he doesn't really talk, except to utter a few words now and then. Mostly, he mutters, squeals, squeaks, gasps and invents sounds for everything taking place around him. Accompanying him are two excellent musicians, Martin Zpevak (upright bass) and Jiri Mraz (clarinet, piccolo, others), who also invent sounds to add to the sound pastiche illustrating Albert's many dilemmas.

It all ends well: fears conquered, bullies vanquished, love interest kindled. Our greatest disappointment is that as we write this review, there is only one more presentation of "Albert's Fear." The International Czech Theater Festival will be gone for good by this coming Wednesday. Hopefully next year we'll get to see more shows and for longer runs.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division scratches its chin as it attempts to figure out how to rate "Albert's Fear," then throws up its hands and says "Many Stars, Many BANGLES OF PRAISE." On one hand it's not really a play, on the other hand it has a beginning, a middle and an end, the character grows, the action is continuous and we feel like we've learned something by the time the show is finished. But, but, wait: there's no set. Yes there is, it's the actor. But, but, there's no dialog. What, a chain saw isn't dialog?

You'll just have to figure it out and we hope you do. We loved "Albert's Fear." October 24 (Saturday) at 8pm is the only performance left. For $15 bucks it's a little gem.

"Albert's Fear"
Part of the International Czech Theater Festival
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through Saturday Oct. 24
(Festival continues through Oct. 28)
$15-$35 sliding scale

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Loveland": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG BANG

Ann Randolph is a woman of many faces. She uses three of them in "Loveland" -- her new one-act 70 minute solo piece which takes place on an airplane heading from LA to the small town where the main character grew up: Loveland, Ohio.

The three faces are: Franny Potts, Agnes Potts (her Mom) and Everybody Else. Franny has the sad, elastic expression, where her face is buffeted by surprise and anger and happiness, sometimes all at the same time; her Mom-face is round-eyed and brash, punctuated by loud, alcoholic staccato phrases and always with two fingers holding the imaginary cigarette; the other characters are young ingenues, innocent in their denseness -- the frantic stewardess on the airplane, the mortuary saleswoman, the director of the Hideous Hall for the Soon To Be Dead --oops, that was Franny talking. We mean the Crane Lake Country Manor.

The flight East is uncomfortable for anyone, especially Franny, but Franny would be out of sorts in Nirvana. She is also hell on wheels to the businessman and his spreadsheets seated next to her, the pilot she is trying to seduce, the stewardess who is attempting to keep order and every other passenger on the plane. From this day forward we will always think of Franny's mom when a stewardess talks about the contents in the overhead bin shifting during the flight.

Sometimes a comedian makes you laugh and the great ones also make you gasp, but the amazing thing about Ann Randolph is it all happens every other second. It's true that we remember her new characters from her old characters -- her Mom seems a lot like Brandy the Crack Whore (in 2008's piece "Squeezebox") and Connie with the Asshole Boyfriend is definitely Shoshana Who Just Got Back From Calcutta.

Frannie Potts runs you through all your emotions, and then look out because here they come again. Ann Randolph is a treasure.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards "Loveland" Three Stars with three BANGLES of PRAISE. We looked back at the ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG review we gave "Squeezebox" and this show is funnier and deeper and more satisfying. If there were a few more characters and another surprise in the plot, Loveland would easily be a Four Star show.

BANGLES were made for Franny's sex fantasy with the pilot ("Say your landing strip is wet." "OK, your landing strip is wet." "No, say YOUR landing strip is wet." "OH! MY landing strip is wet.") There is a very powerful scene as she looks at her own face in her mirror. And we can never forget her facial gesturing to a six-voice car alarm.

If you love solo performance you should see every Ann Randolph show. This is the best one yet. Who knows where Franny will end up next?

The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 14
$15-$35 sliding scale

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Goldfish": ☼ ☼ ☼ PLUS BANG BANG

Albert (Andrew Pastides) is about to leave home for college, but it's not that easy. His dad Leo (Rod Gnapp) has a large gambling habit and is clearly incapable of caring for himself, and though Albert has attempted to methodically plan out everything Leo might need during Albert's absence, both father and son know there's going to be trouble.

Plus -- Albert is not a rich kid, like the others he envisions attending his un-named Northeastern university. He is convinced he's not going to fit in, and his Dad's gambling habit is only one of many reasons.

At the same time, Lucy (Anna Bullard) is also a freshman at the college, and she has become infatuated with Albert, who clearly has never had a girl friend before.

Lucy's mother, Margaret (Patricia Hodges), is world weary and drinks too much. Their pristine living room and plush sofa are a total contrast to Albert and Leo's linoleum kitchen table back home.

Loretta Greco's direction is fast, the scenes change completely and often (hats off to the stage crew!), playwright John Kolvenbach's dialog is both funny and alarming, and each character is flawed while also filled with promise. That "Goldfish" is a prequel to "Mrs. Whitney," which is playing in repertory with "Goldfish" and premieres in two weeks, fills we reviewers with the kind of anticipation we're not supposed to have: it's like we're watching a really good soap.

"Goldfish" is very good and stands alone. If "Mrs. Whitney" measures up, the Magic has uncovered a pair of aces.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards "Goldfish" Three Stars with a big PLUS and two BANGLES OF PRAISE. The PLUS is granted as we wait for "Mrs. Whitney" -- the only possible downside of "Goldfish" is that it flies by so quickly and we are left wanting more. "Mrs. Whitney" may jump both of these shows to Four Stars.

The first BANGLE of PRAISE is for Michael Locher's sets -- the way they pull out the sofa with Mrs. Whitney lying on it, then lock it back down to become Leo's kitchen: priceless.

The second BANGLE has to go to Lucy's mother's fantastically self-absorbed musing, while staring at her daughter: "Look at you. I am flabbergasted by how beautiful I used to be."

You go, Mrs. Whitney. I wait for you to knock my socks off in two weeks.

Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Through November 8

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Chosen": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

The major plot point in the brilliant Theatreworks adaptation of Chaim Potok's "The Chosen," playing through the first of November at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, is the maturation of two young Jewish teenagers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the mid-to-late 1940s. But the beating heart of the story is the relationship of the young men with their fathers.

All the characters in this story are Orthodox Jews, but young Reuven Malter and his father (Jonathan Bock and Rolf Saxon) are more secular, whereas the young Danny Saunders and his father (Thomas Gorrebeeck and Corey Fischer) are strict Hasidic Jews. But it's more than that -- Danny's father, Reb Saunders, is not only a rabbi but a tzadik -- a holy man -- and as such is the absolute pillar of his community. His father and grandfather before him, in Europe, were also tzadiks, and as the eldest son of such a tzadik, Danny Saunders is expected to step into the same role in the future.

But Danny's role with his father is a difficult one. The old tzadik refuses to speak with his son, preferring to teach him how to suffer in silence, whereas Reuven and his father have a beautiful and enriching relationship, sitting over tea and talking constantly in their apartment only a few blocks away from the Saunders' home. Over the course of this magnificent tale, we see how the old rabbi, though trapped in his centuries-old view of the world, comes to regard Reuven as his bridge to break through to his own son.

Jonathan Bock (last seen in the enigmatic Thom Paine (Baised on Nothing), gives a nuanced performance that reminds of us Matthew Broderick. His friendship with Danny Saunders, after the momentous baseball game between the two Yeshivas, has soul as well as heart; Thomas Gorrebeeck's Danny is even more soulful, because he seems to have so much more to overcome. Whereas both boys will make decisions as to the eventual courses of their lives, only Danny's will affect his entire community, as well as reflect upon countless generations lost in Europe.

Corey Fischer dominates the stage as Reb Saunders. He hulks, he muses, he limps, he looks like his stomach is forever upset, but he fools us -- he knows far more than he is letting on.

In the end, we love every character. We are on their side. The issues that concern them in 1949 concern us still today. Chaim Potok, who died in 2002, wrote a masterpiece and Theaterworks has brought it into the shining light.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Chosen" Three Stars with Two Bangles of Praise. Director Aaron Davidman earns one Star for his excellent staging and pacing, while obviously knowing the story inside and out. Chaim Potok felt perhaps even more deeply for the Hasidic father and son and Corey Fischer and Thomas Gorrebeeck do them proud.

One Bangle of Praise is for the interestingly-staged baseball scene at the beginning of the show, and one is for a beautiful set piece when the old rabbi, his son and Reuven are davening together (that is, praying in Orthodox style). We realize these three are so close in their hearts, but far apart in their chosen ways of life. In the end, we see the issues of the forties in Brooklyn as the same issues that have concerned the Jews since Moses went up on the mountain. The world still needs a tzadik.

"The Chosen"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through November 1

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"First Day of School": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG PLUS!

It really makes sense that Billy Aronson's new comedy "First Day of School" is having its World Premiere at San Francisco Playhouse. This very funny, completely off-the-wall farce is the kind of play San Francisco Playhouse does best. The author was too shy to be introduced to the audience before the show on Opening Night, but he was happy to stand up afterwards, as the raucously belly-laughing audience roared its approval.

The set-up is that David (Bill English) and Susan (Zehra Berkman) have just dropped off their two children at elementary school on the first day of the school semester. Realizing they now have nothing planned for the rest of the day, Susan suggests they follow through with their idea to go have sex with other people, who just happen to be the parents of the other children in the school.

Susan has her eyes on Peter (Jackson Davis)...

...and David is thinking about Kim (Marcia Pizzo)...

...and Alice (Stacy Ross).

Eventually, everyone says yes.

But like Maria Muldaur once said, it ain't the meat, it's the motion. The convoluted measures that Peter, Kim and Alice have to take in order to feel comfortable with this new arrangement, which is so perfectly natural to David and Susan but fraught with impossible angst for the other three, lead to three terrific soliloquies at the beginning of Act One, back to back. Peter's, which lasts at least ten minutes, as he attempts to justify why he's going to actually consider thinking about perhaps agreeing to contemplate having sex with Susan, is an absolute classic. You can't stop squirming and you can't stop laughing, but it's the kind of laughter that comes with a desire to either hug Peter or shoot him.

Kim's discussion of her shower ain't chopped liver either.

We won't divulge the plot, but when Susan and David's baby-sitter Belinda (Tori Laher) shows up with her boyfriend Jonah (Myles Landberg), thinking the house is empty, the whole situation gets even crazier.

You've had it with sicko politicians disguising their peccadillos with lame excuses, haven't you? No excuses here, just a fabulous cast and an even better script. You want to see this play.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "First Day of School" three stars with two BANGLES of PRAISE and a Special PLUS! The writing, acting and Chris Smith's perfect hands-off direction each rate a star. The first BANGLE is for Jackson Davis and Marcia Pizzo's soliloquies about how they won't but will have sex with David and Susan, and the second BANGLE is for Bill English's Color Man Sportscaster description of Peter, Alice and Kim groping on the couch. All English needs is a bad toupee and a mike.

The Special Plus!, rarely awarded, is granted for playwright Billy Aronson, who managed to sum the whole thing up in one mouthful: "It's all right for our bodies to do it, as long as our brains don't find out about it."

"First Day of School"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 7