Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Monty Python's Spamalot": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The taunting Frenchmen at the castle. The body in the plague cart singing "I'm Not Dead Yet!" The Black Knight losing all his body parts: "It's just a flesh wound." The naked feet of God. "What happens in Camelot stays in Camelot." And that's just Act One.

Monty Python fanatics (mostly men) will love "Spamalot," which opened Wednesday at the Golden Gate Theater with its traveling company, helped along by shovels full of bloody heads and endless double entendres, plus the requisite amount of fart jokes and knights soiling their trousers. Although this is a brand of humor towards which many women do not normally gravitate, the wives (mostly women) of the Pythoniacs will also love Spamalot, with its ensemble singing and dancing, grand costuming and staging, plus pacing that barely allows you time to scratch your head and say: Did I really just hear what I think I heard?"

This is most evident in Act Two, when King Arthur's quest to find the Holy Grail morphs into a desire to turn the whole enterprise into a Broadway musical. From this point onward, Spamalot becomes a delicious spoof on Broadway, complete with songs like "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," in which Arthur is commanded to find some Jews, without whom Broadway success is not possible.

You have to be Monty Python to pull this off and Eric Idle's lyrics and John Du Prez and Idle's music are stupidly wonderful and as clever as ever. True Pythoniacs squeal with delight the moment they see the Black Knight, the infamous Killer Rabbit and the Knights Who Say Ni and when each act ends with the spoof song to end all spoof songs ("The Song that Goes Like This") even the jaded songwriter jumps to his feet to cheer.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Monty Python's "Spamalot" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Special kudos to the cast standouts, including John O'Hurley as long-suffering King Arthur, Matt Allen as Patsy (funny, he doesn't LOOK Jewish), the fabulously prancing Christopher Sutton as Prince Herbert and Merle Dandridge as an unexpectedly and delightfully soulful Lady of the Lake.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the whole production, including Tim Hatley's innovative and movable sets, where forests change into castles and rocks become singing peasants; Hugh Vanstone's lighting and Elaine J. McCarthy's projections, which keep the zany Python flavor. The orchestra, with real music played by real musicians on real and relatively real instruments always adds an extra dimension to the flavor of a show. With all this, Monty Python's Spamalot, though not inexpensive, is not outlandishly priced. There are limited-view $25 seats available by lottery on the day of the show and the top ticket in the house is $99. That barely gets you a pastrami sandwich on the real Broadway.

Monty Python's Spamalot
Golden Gate Theater
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco (corner Market Street)
Through July 5

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Krapp's Last Tape": ☼ BANG

Krapp is an old man. Every step he takes is accompanied by a painful grunt. His only smile is when he finds a banana in his desk. He regards the banana. He peels it and eats it. Then he finds another. This is what Samuel Beckett calls "action."

The rest of the very short play is Krapp, played by Paul Gerrior, sitting at a desk and turning on and off and pausing and rewinding a tape recorder. He is listening to old tapes of himself, recorded when he was young and already considered his life worthless. Now he is older and knows for sure. This is what Samuel Beckett calls "progress."

Some have called Beckett the last of the original modernists (he died in 1989) and his "Krapp's Last Tape" a minimalist and modernist classic. Some others might ask: what is it about Irish writers once they're older than thirty? How morose do we have to get? How much whiskey can we allow ourselves to drink? How little motion can we make in our lives, except to drink more whiskey and mourn our mothers and our wasted talents?

A question might also be asked about how a production company can have the chutzpah to charge full price for a 45-minute show?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Krapp's Last Tape" One Star with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Krapp might have earned a second star if he'd eaten that second banana. The BANGLE is for the sheer audacity of the longest fadeout in theater history. The lights went out over Europe faster than that light bulb over Krapp's desk. Please bear in mind that our minimum rating for a recommendation is Three Stars. You have been warned.

"Krapp's Last Tape"
Exit on Taylor Theater
277 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Through June 21

Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Three on a Party": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Three short stories, each written by masterful craftsmen, and each symbolizing an era in Twentieth Century social development, are brilliantly performed by a four-piece Word for Word cast. The stories' writers were gay (still are, as far as Armistead Maupin is concerned), and Theater Rhino is publicizing the gay aspects of each story, but the evening is far more nuanced that that.

First up is "Miss Furr and Miss Skeene," written in 1911 by Gertrude Stein, which seems on its surface to be the lightest of the three, with its Dr. Suess-like rhymes and repeated refrains:

"They were quite regularly gay there, Helen Furr and Georgine Skeene, they were regularly gay there where they were gay. They were very regularly gay."

The story is quite funny and it is remarkable that it is almost 100 years old. It is this story that was perhaps responsible for the modern use of the word 'gay,' though it meant something quite different when the story was written.

JoAnne Winter is the centerpiece of the tale of two woman, playing the real-life Ethel Mars, a compatriot of Stein's in her salon in Pre-World War 1 Paris. Winter is brilliant in this and the following piece, "Two on a Party" by Tennessee Williams, written in the early 1950s.

If "Miss Furr" is a short subject, "Two on a Party" is a complete novel. Nearly 60 minutes long, the story of Billy, the gay man and Cora, the straight woman, who decide to pool their talents and cruise the bars of America, is as touching as it is hard-hitting. Ryan Tasker's Billy is the lonely queen who has saved up his money earned from writing Hollywood potboilers and thrown in with Cora, a slightly overweight party girl several years past her prime. Together they try to enjoy the fast lane, to stay on the party as long as possible, knowing it cannot last forever. The great nights are "not as rare as hen's teeth but not so frequent as street cars." In the end, love enters the story and we feel fulfilled, heading for intermission.

After intermission, the last story is Armistead Maupin's "Suddenly Home," written in 1990, an age where issues of marriage are interspersed with worries about health. It is vintage Maupin, funny, breezy and topical, but sadly lightweight compared to what preceded it. It is probably impossible to follow Tennessee Williams with anything but another Tennessee Williams.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Three on a Party" Three Stars with a bauble of despair. Each story earns one star. The cast of Winter, Tasker, Brendan Godfrey and Sheila Balter is first rate and the Word for Word production is, as always, novel and fascinating.

The bauble of despair is because the short Stein and longer Tennessee Williams stories outclass the shorter Armistead Maupin that concludes the evening. It's not that the Maupin is bad, but that it doesn't fit. If these stories had not been chosen for their sexual politics but for the power of the written word, perhaps the company could have found a match for Williams's 'Two on a Party.' The way it is, it feels like an Act One of cake and Act Two of frosting. We leave the theater a little hungry.

"Three on a Party"
Theater Rhinoceros
16th Street, San Francisco
Through June 7

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Boleros for the Disenchanted": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

"There's a Place for Us, a Time and Place for Us, Take My Hand and..."

No, wait. This isn't West Side Story, it's Jose Rivera's "Boleros for the Disenchanted," though for anyone over the age of forty it will be difficult not to see and hear Natalie Wood as Maria when innocent young Lela Loren takes the stage as Flora in Act One. She is so sweet, so white nightgown-y and vulnerable, and so naturally she drives poor Manuelo (Dion Mucciacito) crazy. All he wants to do is marry her and father her children, so he can then go run around with whores and other women whom he will not love.

"Sex and love are different," he wails to Flora, but she's not buying it. "Can you just go into a store and buy a diamond?" she asks him. "No. You have to have money. You have to earn that money. You have to wait."

Brokenhearted, Flora breaks off her engagement and travels to visit her cousin Rita Moreno, no, wait, we mean Petra (played by the spirited Michele Vazquez), in the city of Santurce.

Along comes Eusebio, a young National Guardsman, and he is smitten by Flora. He comes to meet her parents, and they are married and that's that. Right?

No, senor. That is simply the end of Act One. One turns to one's neighbor in the audience and says: "This is fabulous. I can't wait to see what happens!"

Despair is what happens. In Act Two forty years have passed and the playwright's message becomes clearer: Manuelo was right. Men are loveable dogs but they're still dogs. Women have difficult lives but fortunately they are saints. True love endures, if the dog loses his legs. In America anything is possible, except for happiness.

"Boleros" is witty, beautifully acted and staged and if Act Two were set, say, at a rumble between Sharks and Jets, or in a bridal shop, or better yet if there were any measure of hope or redemption offered to us, Rivera would have written a memorable homage to love in difficult circumstances. But Act Two takes place in a military apartment with a hospital bed and a man with no legs lying in it. The heart does not easily soar like an eagle in this setting.

Act Two does have one memorable scene as Eusebio (now played, as an older man, by Robert Beltran, who steals Act Two as he did Act One as Flora's father Don Fermin) insists on confessing his sins to the local priest (now played by Drew Cortese, who was the young Eusebio in Act One). As Rickie Ricardo once said, he should'na did it. Flora (the fabulous Rachel Ticotin who was Flora's mother in Act One) is present and now hears what her husband has been hiding from her for all these years. She becomes furious at him -- but heck, it's OK, because he has a stroke and, remember, she is a saint.

Ai, yai, yai. 'Boleros' is so good but where does it take us? What did we learn? How did we grow?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Boleros for the Disenchanted" Three Stars with a BANGLE of Praise and a bauble of despair. Robert Beltran and Rachel Ticotin, especially, are engaging and get most of the good lines. Act One is like a fast-moving soap opera, leaving us hopeful for the future. Sandra Woodall's flouncy dresses for the young Flora and Petra are perfect, and Nancy Schertler's lights are stunning. In fact, the BANGLE of PRAISE is for Schertler's ending sequence, as the symbolic lights of the houses from the old village in Puerto Rico are flown back in as the young Eusebio and Flora ponder their futures. The bauble of despair is a woulda-shoulda: this is a story with 'boleros' in the title, yet music is so sparsely utilized. Where did it go in Act Two? They missed a big chance here.

"Boleros for the Disenchanted"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through May 31

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Dead Man's Cell Phone": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

She is eating that last bowl of Lobster Bisque, the one he woke up hungry for, but by the time Gordon (Bill English) got to the cafe they had run out, and Jean (Amy Resnick) is slurping her last slurp. She sits in her chair on one side of the spooky cafe, trying to read her book while finishing her meal, except that Gordon's cell phone keeps ringing on the other side of the stage and he's not answering.

Gordon's back is turned to us, but since the title of Sarah Ruhl's hysterical new play is "Dead Man's Cell Phone," we've got a pretty good idea why he isn't picking up. After many rings, Jean wanders across the room, realizes Gordon is dead, and then...answers his phone. What happens for the next act and a half is not at all what anyone is expecting.

Gordon's family thinks Jean knew him well, since she was with him when he died, more or less. Jean discovers she can tell them whatever they want to hear. So she reassures Gordon's always-complaining widow Hermia (Rachel Klyce) that Gordon's last words were of her. Jean tells Gordon's fabulously self-absorbed mother (Joan Mankin) that Gordon loved her like life itself. The stories are hysterical because they are so clearly bald-faced lies, but as one fantasy after another spins out of Jean's mouth we can see how happy she is to have the opportunity to tell them. And Gordon's family is only too pleased to hear all the nice things about them that Jean has made up.

Amy Resnick (seen above with the fabulous Florentina Mocanu) plays Jean for wonderful comic effect, but really this is a profound realization about herself that Jean has uncovered. We wish we knew a little more about her past, so we could watch her grow with her newly-discovered power, especially in Act Two which veers into magical realism. With a little more information, Jean's flirtation with the nebbishy Dwight (Jackson Davis), Gordon's brother, might hit home a little harder.

But maybe it's not supposed to. While on one hand it's a shame the author did not give director Susi Damilano a little more meat to exploit in Jean's character, it's also true that the temporary nature of modern human relations is what fascinates Ruhl here, with the cell phone its evil symbol.

Damilano's direction is strong and the production moves along without a dull moment. It's a family affair because not only does her husband Bill English play a marvelous dead man, but he also is artistic director and designed an intriguing set. Kurt Landisman's lights help give the production a noirish sheen from start to finish.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Dead Man's Cell Phone' Four Stars for Act One and Three for Act Two, which adds up to Three Stars with Two BANGLES of Praise. One BANGLE is for Emma Mankin's portrait of her mother which hangs so perfectly over the dining table in Act One and the other is for the dyspeptic sound of Mankin's tears, from offstage, at the end of Act One. "Mother is crying," says Dwight. You could have fooled us. It's a priceless moment.

"Dead Man's Cell Phone"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through June 13