Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Waitin' 2 End Hell": ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG baub

The pity of Willam a. Parker's "Waitin' 2 End Hell" is that he didn't end it at Intermission. This Northern California Premiere has an Act One that is so funny, so interesting and so full of set-up and promise that at intermission the audience is buzzing about what might happen next. Will Dante get it on with Shay? Is Alvin heading for a fall? And what about big Larry?

Dante Jones, played deliciously by Alex Morris, has been married to Diane (PJay Phillips) for twenty years. But she has roving eyes and a basic dissatisfaction with being married to her parole officer husband. Dante, on the other hand, is committed to keeping his family together. He is the black man who black women say no longer exists, a man who is loyal and thinks of his family first. But that's not enough for Diane. She is looking for Mark (Allen Hurtt), a fast-talking attorney who is the exact opposite of Dante. We see in Diane's eyes just how she is really feeling during the Anniversary Toast Dante offers her at the beginning of the play.

The show revolves around the dialogue between three men (Donte, Alvin (Michael Wayne Rice) and Larry (Michael J. Asberry). They talk about man's superior role in the world: "It's in the Bible!" thunders Larry. "Corinthians. 'Man is the head of the woman!'"

We also have three women (Diane, Shay (Natasha Noel) and Angela (Charisse Loriaux) reacting to these men. But the men have all the good lines, such as Larry's observation: "We're men. We fix shit. What we can't fix we destroy." The women are far less perfectly drawn, which becomes fatal in Act Two.

Each scene is punctuated with the perfect musical cue, such as James Brown's "This is a Man's World."

In Act Two, the author attempts to make us feel sorry for all three women. He does not succeed. Diane is acting like a fool supposedly because her father mistreated her mother and therefore she can't trust men. Shay secretly is in love with Dante and Angie's childhood was traumatic. But it's all talk. The biggest problem is that PJay Phillips as Diane does not give forth any emotion other than depression and it's not helped by overwrought dialog. She's hard to empathize with on any level. On Opening Night there were two occasions in Act Two when the audience burst out laughing at lines that were meant to expose deep angst.

This Lorraine Hansberry Theater production is being presented at the PG&E Conference Center downtown. "Waitin' 2 End Hell" has a three week run. If they iron out the female roles by the end of the run they will turn a good show-with-potential into an excellent one.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Waitin' 2 End Hell' one star for Alex Morris's largeness of size and craft. This is one terrific actor. Michael Wayne Rice is also very good in the best friend role, as is Michael J. Asberry as the focus of male enlightenment (he has already been married twice, as he keeps reminding Dante). A star for them. Half a star goes out to David Hines's fabulous selection of sound cues (he did the same thing for Brian Copeland's 'Not a Genuine Black Man'). If any of the three women had standout roles, the play would rise to the Three Star Level.

The Bangle of Praise is for Allen Hurtt's Mark -- he's exactly who he says he is, and does not see Diane's attraction to him as anything but automatic. He is a bright light.

The bauble of despair -- the gun. And it misfires twice.
"Waitin' 2 End Hell"
PG&E Auditorium
77 Beale Street, San Francisco
Thu.-Sun. through March 1

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

" Burn the Floor:: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"Toto, this is not Union Square anymore," we were thinking, as we sat in the lobby of the Post Street Theater, waiting to take our seats before the Opening of "Burn the Floor." For one thing, the audience was easily a full generation younger than usual, with far less jewelry and considerably hipper shoes. For another thing, there was an honest excitement in the air. Premieres always evoke a sense of being where one is supposed to be, but this was more -- ballroom dancing has become nationwide now, thanks to "Dancing with the Stars," and the packed SF theater audience had come to see these folks dance.

As for this theater reviewer, he was thanking God he wouldn't be in for another night of witty banter interspersed with depressing angst.

Judging from audience reaction, the dance people got what they wanted. They cheered loudly and enthusiastically, usually the second one of the boy dancers took off his shirt. The theater reviewer found moments to cheer about too, but he would not be honest if he did not comment that 75% of the show looked and sounded like a taped Super Bowl Dance-o-Ganza on the Cirque du Soleil model.

Two excellent live percussionists took up the entire top of the set, with six stairs between them, down which would descend various singers and dancers with canes, wearing gowns of every color or tuxes with no shirts. There was NO fat to be seen on stage. The women had gorgeous bare backs and the men had rippling bare fronts.

The best moments of "Burn the Floor" were when the taped music (augmented by the live percussionists) died down and the beautiful Australian pair Damon and Rebecca Sugden took the stage. In the first act, they waltzed, she in a white gown and he in a black tux; and in the second act they, oh I don't know what it was, but it was very beautiful. These two made it look like touching and connecting really was the point here, instead of the man dancer strutting across the stage carrying a chair like a lion tamer's weapon, with his partner grimacing like she had just blown out a hammie.

It was also quite appealing when the dancers danced up and down the aisles. People sitting near an aisle got to see just how athletic and graceful these dancers are, as the lights caught their sweat as well as their smiles.

"Burn the Floor" was created in 1997 by Harley Medcalf, after the famed 50th Birthday Party in England for Sir Elton John, at which Medcalf was a guest. The act was amplified and taken around the world. Then Australian dancer Jason Gilkison took it over and made it into what it is today: a very successful, traveling company of muscular and va-voomy dancers, doing ensemble cheesecake, with lots of sass, strut, gorgeous costumes and man cleavage.

The costumes are something to behold, perhaps reaching a peak in Act One during "Knights in White Satin," where red, green and purple gowns are joined by blue and magenta.

The Slovakian dude did have some impressive pecs, lats and abs. There was one dancer who appeared to be off-white, but only one, as far as we could tell. Does this matter, in San Francisco in 2009? Dunno. It did to us. This is not your grandpa's ballroom dancing, but it may be yours.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division acknowledges that it knows less than it should about dance. As a dance performance, let's say we'll give it three and a half stars, because the dancers danced with great energy and dynamism. As a theater piece, let's say two and a half stars, because everything was on one level, the first act went on a long time with only two or three fine moments, and though Act Two topped Act One, it stayed on the same emotional plane. The Basic Laws of Mathematics say: THREE STARS with a BANGLE of Praise. The BANGLE is earned for the versatility of both percussionists. A live band would have made this show a lot less TV and a whole lot more memorable.

"Burn The Floor"
Post Street Theatre
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through Mar 15

Sunday, February 1, 2009

"The Landscape of the Body": ☼ ☼ ☼ Severed Head

Last night, after seeing a San Francisco Playhouse revival of John Guare's "The Landscape of the Body," which was written in New York in 1977, not exactly a high water mark period for optimism in The Big Apple, we came home and got out our reference books of voluminous theater criticism (it's called "Google") and read everything we could about how people reacted to this play when it first came out, and how that reaction has changed in the nearly 35 years since its premiere.

The answer is: not much has changed and neither has John Guare. Guare plays are famous for texts and subtexts and sub-subtexts and sometimes they pull together. Sometimes they don't. Director Bill English has a lot to contend with because he has to try and balance the real (woman run over by crazed bicyclist) with the surreal (same woman singing sappy torch songs afterward from Heaven). On the whole, he pulls it off.

The terrific Gabriel Marin plays two principal characters, Raulito, the Ricky-Ricardo-like small time huckster and Durwood Peach, the insane one-time ice cream man, and manages to give both over-the-top characters enough heart for you to actually believe they could be real.

But nobody answers the biggest issue of all: why did Betty (Susi Damilano) leave her comfortable life in Bangor, Maine, and try and assume the life of her sister Rosalie (Rana Kangas-Kent) in Greenwich Village? This is a fair question, since Rosalie is a hustler by day and porno actress by night. Without even a suggestion as to the reason for this switcheroo, the story flattens out. Damilano does an admirable job as Betty, who seems to be sent adrift by whichever wind blows through first, but is she, as the promo suggests, childlike? Not really. Is she just hollow inside? Maybe, but then what she does with her son Bert (Alexander Szotak) is so irresponsible that we have to work not to lose whatever empathy we may have had for her.

Oh, those creepy, creepy kids.

Like we said, this is one tough cookie of a plot. Guare's view of humanity, at least when the show was written, is a desperate one. Would Betty really look twice at the evil police captain (Andrew Hurteau) at the end? After all this, why the hell not?

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ + Severed Head
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Landscape of the Body" Three Stars with a Severed Head. The three stars are because the show makes you think. Whether or not you will enjoy your night at the theater may depend on how you feel about a cute kid having his head cut off. No hearts and flowers here.
"The Landscape of the Body"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Franciso
Tue.-Sun. through March 7