Sunday, June 28, 2009

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Dale Wasserman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was a play before it was a hugely successful hit movie - originally Kirk Douglas had Jack Nicholson's part, Gene Wilder was Billy Bibbitt and, get this, Ed Ames played The Chief.

But the film version, in 1975, not only became one of only three films in American film history to ever sweep the Big Five at the Oscars (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), but ingrained itself firmly on our consciousness. Can a remounting of the original play possibly have the power of that movie?

It sure can! "Cuckoo's Nest" is fantastic theater, giving us glimpses into characters that were de-emphasized in the movie. We spoke to SF Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English several months ago when they were beginning to talk about doing this show and his only reservation was: "Where will we find a seven-foot tall Indian?" No problem. Michael Torres gives a magnificent reading as Chief Brombden, managing to grab our hearts as he steals the show from the rest of a fantastic cast.

Hansford Prince gives Randall McMurphy a less manic than Nicholson but equally charged performance, and while Susi Damilano has little of Louise Fletcher's Academy-Award winning evil-to-the-core nature, Damilano makes it perfectly clear that she's the boss and that's the way it's gonna be, boys. The ensemble of patients on the ward is excellent to a man and woman, especially Louis Parnell as Harding and Patrick Alarpone as the frightened Billy Bibbitt who wakes up for one joy-filled moment, which turns out to be his last. Madeline H.D. Brown is the totally trashy Candy Starr who is surprisingly wholesome (she has 'Mom and Dad' tattooed on her arm, f'Gawd's sake).

You all know the story already: the ending will be no surprise. But keep your eyes on the Chief in his brilliant and moving soliloquies. If the Hollywood movie was about McMurphy, the arc of the play is all about the Chief. Michael Torres is fantastic: he's big, very big. "Cuckoo's Nest" turns out to be the Chief's redemption story and we can't wait for him to bust out through that window.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. If it seems that we are handing out Four Star reviews right and left, since the new rating system went into place (see explanation on right), it is simply because this has been a memorable season for San Francisco theater. Bill English's direction and set, the excellent ensemble acting performances and the power of Ken Kesey's original novel all make it an exciting evening of theater. The show shines in an intimate setting like SF Playhouse.

And the BANGLE OF PRAISE has to be for Michael Torres. We never knew The Chief had it in him. What a performance.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Sept. 5

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Mauritius": ☼ ☼ ☼

As far as Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" goes, the worst job in show business must belong to the stage crew at the Magic Theatre. They have only 18 minutes between acts to clean up the set that Zoe Winters has just trashed, though it took no more than three minutes for Winters to strew the stage two inches deep with the contents of her late mother's apartment. Playing Jackie, the nice stepsister, her rage is understandable, because Mary, the evil stepsister (originally played by Arwen Anderson and now by Jessica Kitchens in the show's extension), is a first-class, self-serving no-goodnik.

But Jackie is not Cinderella. Though Mary seems to be all bad, Jackie is hardly the perfect angel, especially once she realizes she is in possession of her step-grandfather's priceless stamp collection, which just happens to contain the "One Cent and Two Cent Post Office" stamps from the nation of Mauritius -- the first postage stamps ever issued.

And handsome princes are hard to find. Enter three men, all bad guys, who want those stamps. A.C.T. veteran Rod Gnapp plays the worst villain, Sterling, who maybe wants to sell those stamps or maybe just exult in having them; Philip, played by Warren David Keith, who seems to be an aging sheep but is actually a cunning wolf; and then there is Dennis. Played by James Wagner, whom we recently saw portray a particularly chilling American officer in 'Betrayed,' Dennis can't decide if he's good or bad, if he's a villain or a comedian. You can't get too mad at him because he's too vapid but you can't like him much either.

Meanwhile, James K. Faerron's set is inventive, with the actors and stage hands scurrying in the dark to make elaborate scene changes; Sara Huddleston's rock and roll sound track makes those scene changes seem like part of the show; and Sarah Sidman's lights keep our attention where it ought to be.

But does the slipper really fit? Is Mauritius a comedy, or a commentary on damaged people? Although this Magic Theatre production of Mauritius has received much well-deserved praise, for this reviewer the bad guys aren't very bad, the good girl isn't very good and the plot is telegraphed a million miles away. Maybe it was just an off night at the post office.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Mauritius' Three Stars. Zoe Winters's Jackie is a standout role and she does her best to bounce off a less than superlative supporting cast, but for an innocent girl Jackie certainly does warm up to a little larceny. Rod Knapp's Sterling gives an excellent and soulful reading of the joy of stamp collecting, along the lines of Paul Giamatti in 'Sideways' -- a guy whose life has not turned out perfectly but who still understands what really matters.

The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through June 28

Monday, June 22, 2009

"Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Perhaps a writer's greatest dream is to get the opportunity to revisit a story he has written years earlier, in order to discover what has happened to those characters he created when he himself was much younger. The great American playwright Edward Albee got that chance in 2004 when he was commissioned to write a companion piece for a mounting of his first published play "The Zoo Story" (1958). He created a one-act called "Homelife," which was a prequel to the events pictured in Zoo Story, with a fleshing-out of the major character Peter, so the audience would be able to better understand Peter's motivation in the earlier play. Later, Albee combined both plays into one and retitled it "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo."

As Act One opens, we see a comfortable living room, with white walls and white, upholstered furniture. The sense is of comfort and tidiness: everything is in place.

Peter (Anthony Fusco) sits on the sofa reading a manuscript. Ann (Rene Augesen) enters and says "We have to talk." Peter, engrossed in his reading, does not hear her. From here we gradually see Ann's dilemma: she seeks excitement, while Peter appears happy with keeping things the way they are.

This is not a new concept -- except Edward Albee is writing the dialogue. Although "Zoo Story" was written three years before his iconic "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff," and there is little of that vicious spleen to be vented here between Peter and Ann, everything either of them says can be taken in a number of ways. Peter asks Ann: "Aren't you happy?" Ann says "I'm happy," and moves to the far end of the sofa to hang her head.

In Act Two there are no pauses -- but in Act one the pauses are memorable. Each character is trapped in silence, as he or she tries to figure out what to say next. Peter tells Ann a story about his college days, when he performed an act of which he has ever since been deeply ashamed, and then puts on his jacket to go for a walk in the park. The door opens onto a deep, green light, as Act One ends.

Act Two, the original "Zoo Story," opens onto that green light, as Peter once again sits trying to read, this time on a bench in Central Park. (Albee had to modernize several details to reflect the passage of 46 years -- Stephen King is mentioned instead of the original J.P. Marquand, and Peter's salary has been upped from $18,000 a year to $200,000.)

Jerry (Manoel Feliciano) suddenly appears. He is clearly unhinged, but Peter appears oblivious to that fact. Jerry is exceptionally literate, if filled with fury, and the story he tells Peter has enough appeal to keep him listening.

Twice, Jerry repeats a phrase which seems to sum up the entire evening: "It's one of those things a person has to do; sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly."

In other words, one has to work hard to rid oneself of the comfortable present and confront the more exciting future.

These three A.C.T. actors are exceptional, as they always are. A lesser actress might make Ann's dilemma feel silly -- Augesen infuses her with composure that polishes her confusion. Feliciano's Jerry is quite an acting tour de force -- there are lots of words and emotions to convey -- but here the story seems to date itself a bit. (Perhaps in 1958 someone would have remained sitting on a park bench while a crazy man ranted at them -- gee, look! A crazy man! How novel! Let's see what he has to say! -- but in 2009 we wonder why Peter doesn't just go find another bench.) Still, Jerry has an answer for Peter, in response to Ann's question as to why she and Peter can't be less predictable and more animal-like.

Anthony Fusco is just perfect. We like him, and now, thanks to Act One, we have more of a glimpse into why he is the way he is. If Albee is advising us to cut loose, or warning us of what might happen if we do, you will have to decide for yourself. But the show will keep you on the edge of your seat. You'll have to work it out later.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo" Four Stars with one bauble of despair. Robert Brill's scenery and Stephen Strawbridge's lighting support the terrific acting by all three principals. Albee's dialogue is masterful, but the bauble of despair perhaps lands in the lap of director Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Peter's glibness, upon confronting Jerry, should have contained some portion of fear. If he had been shown to be more concerned for his own safety, it would have made more sense. If Jerry really wanted the conclusion he forced, shouldn't he have had to work a little harder? We're just sayin'.

"Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through July 5

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Back to the Graveyard": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Samantha Chanse threw herself a going-away party at Footloose Studios this weekend -- she is leaving the company to pursue a bicoastal lifestyle as she enrolls in Columbia University's Play Writing MFA program.

From the looks of things on stage Saturday night, Ms. Chanse will be able to teach them New York city slickers a few things too. Her four-character show "Back to the Graveyard" included bits as a self-inflated MC named Truth is Real, the poet herself, a father who can't quite accept that his son is gay, even though he's in medical school, and the marvelous Suzette, a depressed 19-year-old who has been forced into doing the color commentary on the poet's show. The characters are all interconnected -- with a little more time this could be the basis of a fascinating one-woman show about life in 21st Century America, viewed through an Asian-American lens.

...or a biracial one. Or not. Ms. Chanse immediately tells us her own father had their family name of Chang changed to Chanse ("he couldn't even spell it right"), and her skewering of Chinese family dynamics seems spot-on, but all of her characters (Suzette especially) are universal. The bit about taking a bunch of Berkeley girls out for dim sum, to demonstrate the poet's comfort with her own Asian-American-ness, only to discover that the chicken feet made her as sick to her stomach as it did them, will resonate with everyone. And Suzette's view of the cartoon slide show is just as funny.

Suzette, especially, will be a lasting character for Ms. Chanse, though the poor Chinese-American father, unable to understand what is happening to his new-age children, is a memorable character as well.

We wish Sam Chanse the best in New York and hope to see more in the future. Much more.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Back to the Graveyard" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Ms. Chanse is a gifted writer and performer. We're anxious to see what comes next. The BANGLE of PRAISE is for Suzette. Maybe she'll get her own show some day?


"Back to the Graveyard"
Footloose Theater
3252-A 19th Street, San Francisco (upstairs)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Jack Goes Boating": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Get ready for something really wacky: a love story with a happy ending. Say what?

Bob Glaudini's "Jack Goes Boating," which opened Friday night at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley, doesn't feel like it's going to end up happy and the characters don't appear to be heading in any positive direction except back and forth to the bong; yet, we find ourselves upset because we feel disaster lurking. We remain at the edge of our seats as we try to urge the playwright to get slow-moving Jack into that boat with loopy Connie.

Clyde (Gabriel Marin) is a limo driver who works for the uncle of his friend Jack (Danny Wolohan). At first, the two sound like semi-literate slackers, as they sit around Clyde's house getting wasted between limo jobs. But then Clyde, who is the more world-wise of the two, gets Jack, who is either painfully shy or a borderline schizo, to agree to go on a date with Connie (Beth Wilmurt), who is a friend and co-worker of Clyde's wife Lucy (Amanda Duarte).

(There are two other characters, never seen but interwoven into the plot: Dr. Bob, the seamy owner of the funeral solicitation business for whom Connie and Lucy work; and The Cannoli -- a chef and ex-lover of Lucy's who has earned his name due to his prodigious, uh, pastry.)

They meet. Connie and Jack's lives are both buried in past issues, unspoken but out on the surface: Jack is a white rasta-wannabe, sort of, who carries around a tape of "By The Rivers of Babylon" (by the Melodians, from the sound track of "The Harder They Come"), which he plays constantly, usually at the most inappropriate moments. Connie, meanwhile, is damaged goods, terrified of sex and touching.

Still -- they are attracted to each other. Connie mentions that no man has ever cooked dinner for her. She also tells Jack she'd love to go boating some day. This terrifies Jack, because he can't swim. He can't cook either.

Now we are set up for the night's most wonderful moments: Jack learning how to cook (The Cannoli gives him lessons) and Clyde teaching Jack how to swim. Fabulous kudos to director Joy Carlin and set designer Melpomene Katakalos for allowing Gabriel Marin to do his two swimming lesson sololoquies. These are truly inspired theatrical moments.

All four actors are terrific, each able to make us feel his or her character's flawed vulnerability as well as reach inside to imbue each with soul. We walk out singing "By The Rivers of Babylon" and smiling like we've learned something about ourselves too.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Jack Goes Boating" Four Stars with a BANGLE of Praise. The Four Stars are the easy part: writing, acting, staging, lighting and musical cues are all excellent. It is not easy to single out one of the four actors for extra praise -- Gabriel Marin's Clyde is a fool but a sincere fool; Amanda Duarte's Lucy has a down-to-earthiness that makes us forget that she did have a two year affair with the Cannoli's prodigiousness; Beth Wilmurt's Connie has too many flaws to count but she is the one who knows how to do the correct thing when the burnt-up dinner threatens to destroy Jack along with the poached pears; but perhaps the BANGLE goes to Danny Wolohan's Jack, who is an impossible hero, a dunce with not much going on inside those almost-dreadlocks, but when we see the boat floating down from the rafters at show's end -- well. One love, mon.

Jack Goes Boating
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Through July 19