Saturday, January 30, 2010

"The First Grade": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

"Congenial." "Pertinacious." "Altruistic." "Solipsism."

These are the multi-syllabic words that the kids in first-grade teacher Sydney's class love to bring in to her. She treasures their open minds, while understanding that it's just a matter of time until that openness is beaten out of them.

And there you have the theme of Joel Drake Johnson's "First Grade," which is having its World Premiere at the Aurora Theatre: The innocence of childhood leads to the confusion of adulthood. There are three principle couples involved in the action, all three are separated and estranged from each other, and none of them is coping very well with either their mates, their children or their parents.

Julia Brothers's Sydney never stops talking, and is cruel most of the time to everyone except her beloved first graders. Her ex-husband Nat (Warren David Keith), who still lives in the house with Sydney and their daughter Angie (Rebecca Schweitzer), is a "working alcoholic," who is having a fling with Missy (whom we never actually see), a younger woman, but worst of all: a Republican. Angie, meanwhile, is in the middle of a nervous breakdown, and appears to be suicidal or perhaps homicidal. If you ask Angie, she gives her infant son small does of ritalin to allow him to function, but if you ask Sydney her daughter is turning Sydney's grandson into a drug addict.

Add Mora (Tina Sanchez) into the picture, the physical therapist who seems sensible at first but turns out to be nuttier than a can of cashews, and you've pretty much got the picture.

Tom Ross's direction keeps the action flowing in an agreeable way -- we never stop wondering what is going to happen next, as the plot thickens and more and more characters and situations are introduced. But sadly some of these characters -- Mora's husband and father-in-law in particular -- seem to have little purpose and the Spanish language/translation is distracting. There is one line about cancer and chemo tossed in somewhere but never explained, and then there's the matter of Mora's delusions.

Perhaps this is the point -- all these characters are laboring under delusions, about themselves, about their mates, about the world around them. "The First Grade" comes across as a soap opera, and it's fun, but it could all be fleshed out better. We are interested in the Dad/Mom/Daughter triangle and we know that Sydney could be as nice to her family as she is to her students, if she tried a little harder. She is good at heart.

This reviewer wishes the show had an Act Two -- to better tie up all the loose ends. As it is, the happy ending is telegraphed from the very beginning, and while audiences tend to like these sweet solutions, reviewers are far more crotchety.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The First Grade" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a bauble of despair. The stars are for Julia Brothers and Rebecca Schweitzer in particular, whose mother/daughter relationship is the most interesting subplot. Schweitzer earns the BANGLE OF PRAISE for her ability to convey fear, anger, hope and love all at the same time. Her part is not the biggest but it feels the truest.

The bauble of despair is for that pat ending -- but maybe Nat is drunk. Or lonesome. Probably both.

"The First Grade"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Feb. 28

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Animals Out of Paper": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

Reviewers don't generally get to sit next to the young star's father and mother in the audience on Opening Night. The reviewer knew this gentleman was Aly Mawji's father by the way his smile was crackling for two full acts, as his son received an ovation after his first entrance and, along with the two other cast members, another one after the final curtain.

In San Francisco Playhouse's West Coast premiere of Rajiv Joseph's "Animals Out of Paper," Aly Mawji plays Suresh, a young hip-hopper who just happens to be a genius when it comes to folding origami. Lorri Holt is Ilana, Suresh's mentor and perhaps a bit more, and David Deblinger is Andy, the high school calculus teacher whose heart is not only on his sleeve but written out in his book of blessings.

There is so much here to see, hear, feel, experience and think about afterwards. Perhaps loneliness is most important, and how three people find a common thread to try and deal with their personal isolation. Playwright Joseph has created two characters, Suresh and Ilana, whose tragedies have driven them to anger, while the third, Andy, deflects his pain by writing down everything that has happened to him in his journal. He has done this since he was 12 years old. He calls the entries blessings: we might call them agony.

Andy is the bridge between Ilana and Suresh. When Andy leaves his journal in Ilana's apartment she reads it, to discover the inner torment of a person she had previously written off as a kook. The story takes off from there. The playwright's message is that everyone suffers tragedies. We overcome them by opening ourselves to other people.

Bill English really outdid himself this time with a gorgeous Japanese-inspired set; Steve Schoenbeck's jazzy music with a welcome touch of hip-hop is perfectly timed with the action and Amy Glazer's direction is flawless, full of humor and angst, in perfect proportion like a good martini.

But it's all on the page. This is really a good play.

The ovation at the end continued a long time. When the lights came on, Aly Mawji's father whispered to this reviewer: "That's my boy." He's going to have to share his son with a lot of people from now on.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Animals Out of Paper" Four Stars with an exclamation point. Holt, Deblinger and Mawji earn one star each and the perfect script plus spot-on direction earn the fourth. A special kudos must be mentioned about the origami itself -- pause on the stage when the show is over and look at some of these amazing sculptures, folded from pieces of colored paper. A small army of real life origamists created them for the show.

One more special note: when Ilana has read Andy's journal of blessings, in which he has bared his heart, he complains that she now knows him far too well.

"It's weird not to be able to lie to someone, even a little bit."

"Then don't," Ilana answers.

Good answer. There is a lot of honest truth in this show.

"Animals Out of Paper"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Feb. 27

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Phedre": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Euripides wrote Phaedra in 428 BC in classical Greek. Jean Racine wrote another version of the same story more than two thousand years later, in 1675. They were both referring to the ancient Greek legend of Phaedra, the wife of the immortal Theseus, who fell in love with her own stepson with disastrous results. This look on Hippolytus's face says it all.

In Timberlake Wertenbaker's 2007 English translation of Racine's work, which was commissioned by and is having its World Premiere at A.C.T., guilt is triumphant -- Queen Phedre's sexuality is intolerable to everyone and no randy thought may go unpunished. King Theseus, thought dead but in fact only on vacation in the land of the unliving, has come back to his island kingdom of Trezene to discover that while he was gone his son Hippolytus fell in love with Theseus's political prisoner Aricie, his wife Phedre fell in lust with Hippolytus, the Queen's lady-in-plotting Oenone never stopped stirring up the pot -- really, the place was a mess.

Nobody was very happy to see Theseus back home from the dead. His survivors, so they thought, had neatly divided up the known world amongst themselves and with Theseus's reported death were now free to pursue their dreams and liasons.

But no. The big man is back and now it's all a huge headache. The humans are swimming upstream against an unrelenting river of desire. But they're Catholic, to Racine, or Greek, to Euripides, so nobody can actually DO anything about their lust, except to eventually expire in spasms of shame.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Phedre" Three Stars with a bauble of shame. The audience kept snickering throughout the first act (in the lobby after the show many were heard asking their fellows "this isn't supposed to be a comedy, is it?") because the characters, in their powerlessness and profound angst, seemed almost to be parodying themselves. The audience was not being unkind -- they seriously thought that overwrought line or this horrified grimace must be some kind of joke. So they laughed.

Christina Poddubiuk's set is enticing but spare, while original music by David Lang is even sparer. James F. Ingalls's lighting is used in effective touches.

Tom McCamus, as Theseus, was the only character with the ability to actually say what was on his mind. He was terrific, but, of course, his character is the one whose actual call to action ruins everything and destroys everybody's life.

In other words, suffer and the Gods will let you slide, but act upon your desire and you may as well pack up your sandals and head straight for Hades. C'est du Grecque pour moi.

A.C.T. Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Feb. 7

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Bright River": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

This photo makes Tim Barsky and his crew look absolutely merry, but merry is not the word that comes to mind after seeing "The Bright River," the third incarnation of Barsky's inventive production piece that is subtitled "A Mass Transit Tour of the Afterlife."

"Grimly optimistic" would be better, or perhaps "bus station fatalistic." As the only spoken word performer in the piece, Barsky plays several characters, and each one is memorable -- and weird. His noir depiction of Quick the Fixer, the being in the black hat with the voice like a reflective Vito Corleone, who journeys across the bridge from life to death and back, is brilliant and we never tire of his entrances. But Quick is no more brilliant than the raven, who preaches while making bird calls (he was born in prison), and the raven's charge Calliope, the beautiful red-haired heroine (with cystic fibrosis), and her boyfriend with the big heart (killed in Iraq).

We run into these characters one at a time. Their stories advance the plot, but they are also performance pieces on their own, in conjunction with the excellent three piece rhythm section, in which explosive beat boxer Carlos Aguirre stands out. The music is front and center; in fact the presentation feels more like a jazz concert with spoken word than a play with music.

In the end, for this reviewer, this is where the bus needs a slight tune-up.

Not that the players aren't terrific -- Aguirre, Barsky on a collection of flutes, cellist Alex Kelly and percussionist Kevin Carnes each get to take extended and inspired solos, but Barsky's music is simplistic, most likely intentionally so. After awhile the ear tires of the beat boxer's rhythms and the band's repeated musical phrases and reliance on elctronics. Act Two feels a lot longer than it is. Act One is over in a delirious heartbeat, Act Two, like Quick the Fixer, can't quite get to the other side.

The reason is clear: Act One: more character development. Act Two: more music. This reviewer finds Barsky, in this piece, to be a more brilliant performer than composer.

This said: what a performance! Don't let the reviewer's musical niggles keep you from seeing this show. (We reviewers live in that bus station between life and death most of the time anyway. In fact, we sell gum and lottery tickets there.) The cast and production team have a nice long run to work things out and director Jessica Heidt will strike a balance. "The Bright River" is a breath of fresh air -- novel, innovative, and young: the youngest, hippest theater audience you're bound to see all year.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Bright River" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE, which is a good review, but not as good as it will be when they shorten Act Two and try to fit the music in more with the story. For example, the beat box-percussionist trade-eight solos were great to listen to but there was no reason for them. They took the audience completely out of Barsky's carefully crafted world of purgatory and bus stations and demons.

We do not want to exit that world. We want to stay in it and revel in it.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for this man's impossible task: to remember all the words. How does he do it? He can't be making it all up, can he? Tim Barsky, more than everything else, has a lot of heart, and is a great performer. He's worth traveling to see.

"The Bright River"
Brava Theater
2781 24th Street, San Francisco
Through Feb. 20

Friday, January 8, 2010

"The Bald Soprano": ☼ ☼

In the 1940s and '50s, when playwrights were first developing the works that would come to define the Theater of the Absurd, the plays of writers like Beckett, Genet, Sartre and Ionesco signaled a new theater world. Their works were anti-works, their characters anti-characters and their plots novel because there weren't any.

Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" is known to be one of the great Absurdist works, although it was his first produced play, and it probably raised eyebrows when it was written in 1948. The Cutting Ball Theater Company's current Exit Theater production of "The Bald Soprano" elicits great laughter from the audience and seems to hit home to many, as the production has been extended twice already.

But for this reviewer it is one gigantic yawn. The cast is excellent, especially Paige Rogers as Mrs. Smith, Caitlyn Louchard as Mrs. Martin and the hysterical Anjali Vashi as Mary the Maid. But they are actors trying to be anti-actors performing a script made up of senseless phrases. In 1948, audiences were probably shocked. Now, the show feels like a modern art exhibit where the canvases are all the same shade of green. What's it all about, Alfie? Well, nothing. That's the point, see?

The Cutting Ball Theater has recently produced another Absurdist masterpiece, Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape." Audiences are appreciating their work. Perhaps the theater's location actually helps. Just walk outside and you're on skid row. A city of derelicts one block from the gigantic Hilton Hotel. Now there's absurd for you.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Bald Soprano" Two Stars for the hard working actors. But the ending -- oi. The actors do cartwheels on the sofa and bounce off the walls while spouting non-sequiters. It feels like a Preschool after a break for jelly donuts, and it takes a very long time. Perhaps this is not translator and director Rob Melrose's fault, since the lines are on the page. Perhaps the fire captain rang the doorbell. Perhaps he didn't. Maybe this matters to you.

"The Bald Soprano"
Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Through January 24

Saturday, January 2, 2010

"The Amazing Bubble Man": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

From the moment that the Bubble Man -- Louis Pearl -- walks out onto the stage he is in high gear. He blows bubbles, he makes jokes, he blows more bubbles, he gets kids from the audience to volunteer to help him, he builds on their enthusiasm and soon has the whole place in a joyous uproar. There were kids from three to thirteen or so in the audience and every one was busting an arm to be picked to come up on stage and get soaking wet.

It's really quite astonishing -- you stand in this little tub of water and he passes a wand over your head. The next thing you know you're inside a bubble. Sometimes the bubble bursts too soon and that makes it even better.

The show builds to a conclusion where the whole place is in mayhem. It's hard to remember the last time we saw a kids' show with this much audience participation.


The San Francisco Theater Blog would not normally review a non-theater show, but The Amazing Bubble Man is too good to miss, so we're awarding him Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The stars are for the man's audacity to build a production piece out of bubbles and the BANGLE is because it is so much fun to watch. The Marsh has extended the Amazing Bubble Man for several more performances, which always take place at the kid-friendly hour of 11am. If you have any children lying around the house who need an hour away from the tube, bring them to the Marsh. They'll get a good, enthusiastic soaking.

"The Amazing Bubble Man"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Boulevard