Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Julius Caesar": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There are certainly more renowned Shakespeare Companies than Marin Shakespeare and many finer venues than the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, but there can't be a nicer place in Northern California to see Shakespeare in late August. Every seat is a good one, the nights are warm and gorgeous under a million stars and the actors and staging are terrific.

Through Sept. 26 you can see Barry Kraft in the underperformed "Julius Caesar." Kraft is a Shakespeare veteran and does an admirable job, but the historical tragedy is really about the relationship between Marc Antony, the victor, and Brutus and Cassius, the conspirators. Jay Karnes gives Brutus a brooding, patrician bearing, while Jack Powell's leering smile makes Cassius every bit as evil as Shakespeare intended. Marc Antony is harder to buttonhole -- William Elsman plays him as someone who truly loved Caesar, but is every bit as anxious as the others to become the new top dog in Rome. Karnes makes us trust Brutus, though he is a conspirator; Elsman, on the other hand is a bit too smarmy. Should we like him? Should we mistrust him?

"Julius Caesar" really should be performed more. This play is like your favorite "Greatest Hits" soundtrack, with famous speech after famous speech appearing one after the other.

Marc Antony, to the Roman people as he stands over Caesar's dead body:

"Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him
The evil that men do lives after them
The good is oft interred with their bones
So let it be with Caesar."

Caesar says of Cassius:

"Let me have man about me that are fat
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o'nights.
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

Brutus encourages his fellow generals to strike, after Caesar's death:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures."

Marc Antony eulogizes the dead Brutus:

"This was the noblest Roman of them all
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world: "This was a man!"

The senator Casca says:

"This is all Greek to me."

The soothsayer tries to warn Caesar:

"Beware the Ides of March."

One could go on and on, because Shakespeare does. Act One is fast paced, as all the plot points are outlined and characters introduced, but Act Two becomes bogged down in offstage battles, all of which lead to the suicide of one conspirator after another. This may have been the theatrical convention in Shakespeare's time, but today it tends to drag. Act One is worth its weight in gold; Act Two just makes you appreciate Act One.

Many theater goers bring picnic hampers, or you can buy nice-smelling dinners at the amphitheatre, to take down to your seat with your rented seat cushion (nice idea: hard wooden seats). Remember, however: Shakespeare is never in a hurry. The entire show takes two and one half hours with one intermission.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Julius Caesar" Three Stars with a BANGLE of Praise. Kraft, Karnes and Powell each earn a star for their ability to make us care a lot about a play none of us appreciated in High School English; the BANGLE of PRAISE is for the overall production, sets, costumes and all those stars overhead.

"Julius Caesar"
Forest Meadow Amphitheatre, Dominican University, San Rafael
Fri - Sun through September 26

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"East 14th Street": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Of the long list of one-man and one-woman show performers that have graced the stage at the Marsh over the last several years, perhaps no one else can make their face do what Don Reed's can. The cast of characters from his early life includes his buddy Steak Face, the sage pimp Trout Mouth, Little Donny's two brothers, one a player constantly dispensing awful advice and the other the toughest kid in the neighborhood, though so gay that he embarrasses other gay people. And let's not forget his father, though with Don Reed's dad it's not the face but the voice that makes us love this man. Of course, the story is centered around little Donny himself, known throughout his childhood as "Blinkie," for obvious reasons.

East 14th St. is the coming-of-age story of little Blinkie, as he moves from one end of Oakland's East 14th St. to the other, from the middle-class home of his mother and stepfather, where knocking on doors for the Jehovah's Witnesses is a way of life, to the heart of the ghetto, where his father lives, who just happens to be an excellent and efficient pimp. That's P.I.M.P., for "Put it In My Pocket."

Donnie doesn't realize his father is a pimp at first -- "I just thought he was really into hats." But it doesn't take him too long to realize that partying is a whole lot more fun than proselytizing for Jesus.

The arc of the show is the same as many other one-person shows where a comedian is the focal point -- early childhood, joke, joke, joke, a little older, joke, joke, joke, and looking back, joke, joke, joke. The form can feel dated at this point, especially the apparently-mandatory section towards the end where the performer chokes back tears before loosing another joke or two.

Don Reed overcomes the form by being funny, by nonstop motion and some really good dance steps. His audience is younger and blacker than most Marsh shows and the material feels a little like a profane sit-com, which makes sense since Reed got his start in television.

But it's all good. "East 14th St" offers a fun evening watching a terrific performer. There isn't a lot of meat on these bones but there is still plenty to chew on. We have to agree with Don Reed's father: "Can you dig it? It can be dug by me."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "East 14th Street" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The material is good, Reed is a seasoned performer who knows how to please an audience and you just have to love Steak Face. The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the really funny segment where Donny is forced by his stepdad to knock on the door of his friend Steak Face's house, on whose sister Donny has a stuttering crush. Delivering the Word was never quite this embarrassing. It's one of several excellent moments as we travel up and down East 14th Street.

"East 14th Street"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Fri-Sun, through October 10
$20-$35 sliding scale