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