Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West": ☼ ☼ ☼

There is no absolute truth. The eyes discern only a portion of reality and leave it to the brain to interpret what is real and what is not. Also, people lie. And photographs are staged.

Is this what Naomi Iizuka's new play "Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West" is about?

Perhaps. It may also be a study of imperfection. Each of her characters is flawed, and each has something important to hide. Nineteenth Century characters Isabel Hewlett (Kate Eastwood Norris) and her husband Edmund (Danny Wolohan) are hiding desires for illicit and exotic sex (he, in addition, has a secret Japanese mistress and daughter). Twenty First Century characters Kiku (Teresa Avia Lim), Hiro (Johnny Wu) and Dmitri Mendelssohn (Bruce McKenzie) are con artists. The depth of their various shell games do not come clear until the very end -- if then.

Even the tattooed man is just an actor.

Playwright Iizuka has written that she loves "stage magic" and Director Les Waters and Lighting Designer Alexander V. Nichols use it to further distort reality. Each scene changes with a brilliant flashbulb effect, the centuries go bouncing back and forth, the actors play multiple roles and even the walls drop in and out of focus -- much like a real camera attempting to fine tune reality. It all makes for a fascinating trip but one which requires an audience to concentrate.

Berkeley Rep commissioned "Strange Devices" and we are seeing the World Premiere. So it's a new show and still has some bumps. At this point, the production is what one notices, not the characters. Perhaps this is because the story's twists and multiple characters require the actors to be picture perfect. There is one wordy set piece featuring Lim and McKenzie where all the in-and-out-of-focus tricks in the book cannot disguise a scene that needs to be trimmed.

But these are niggles. "Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West" is a fascinating tale and a feast for the eyes. It's a play that will grow more haunting with time.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West" Three Stars. One star is for Mimi Lien's inventive scenic design, one is for Nichols's lighting coupled with Bray Poor's Sound Design (we loved it when the music came up as the drinks on the wall of the bar became distorted). The third star is for Danny Wolohan -- he was the one character who seemed to have the green light to go a little bit deeper. He may have had the most flaws of all, but he made us care about him.

"Concerning Strange Devices From the Distant West"
Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through April 11

Saturday, March 27, 2010

"The Real Americans": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Poor Dan Hoyle. Like Woody Allen, who was never forgiven for growing up, Dan Hoyle is going to have to carry his previous show "'Tings Dey Happen" around with him for a long time. It's a tough act to follow.

And -- sure enough -- after seeing Hoyle's very entertaining "The Real Americans" last night at the Marsh, this reviewer found himself wondering why such a fascinating premise, brought to fruition by a performer with such amazing chops, would lead to a show that - subtract the genius of the writer and performer -- leaves you with so little to chew on?

Everyone who loves performance in general, and one-man shows in particular, should see "The Real Americans," because Dan Hoyle has hit his stride as a performer. His Wisconsin football father, his Texas preacher grandfather and his San Francisco slacker friends, in particular, touch all the right buttons. These characters have nuance. The Wisconsin dad is a Vietnam vet in addition to rooting for his boy on the football field, the Texas preacher has a grandson who is leaving for Afghanistan as well as a most-likely gay son, and the thirty-somethings in San Francisco make you cringe with recognition.

So what's the problem? For us it's that Dan Hoyle set off across America with the premise of learning how Americans, real Americans, are feeling. He seems to have interviewed the same kinds of people over and over. Sure enough, what he learned was that people are angry.

As the reviewer's grandmother would have said: "This is news?"

Why are they angry? The answer appears to be because they are under-educated or live in backwards places, or sometimes they are just plain ignorant.

Or, the answer may well be, as the show's one black character says: "Shit done changed."

The show has fabulous moments, particularly every time Dan Hoyle sings or dances, or speaks through his own character, Dan. His musings about what he, Dan, is seeing are the most interesting part of the show.

And of course the show is new, and is far more interesting now than it was in its first rehearsal run-through of a few months ago. The addition of the Danny Hoch-like young Dominican moving with his family through the midwest is by far the best part of the show, and the most revealing about seeing America through different eyes. This kind of character is is what Hoyle did best in his previous work, and we would like to see more of that here.

Less rednecks, please. We know about rednecks. So did you, before you left. Tell us something we don't know.

Did I say the show is brilliant? I did. Did I say you should see it, particularly at low Marsh prices? Absolutely. The show is excellent already, but Dan Hoyle has set a treacherously high bar for himself. This show can only keep getting better.



The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Real Americans" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The three stars are for Dan Hoyle and Charlie Varon's vision, though it may be that the form itself is becoming a bit dated, the same thing we felt with Varon's "Rabbi Sam." Hoyle snaps out of that static form when he sings or dances, creating a hybrid that is entertaining as well as feeling new.

The BANGLE is for his Bill Cosby imitation, and everyone's reaction afterwards. It has nothing to do with the story, it's just really, really funny. In the end, you can't beat really, really funny.


"The Real Americans"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through May 30, select evenings

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Den of Thieves'": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There are very funny moments in Stephen Adly Guirgis's 'Den of Thieves,' light hearted but still full of soul. Casey Jackson's Paul, Chad Deverman's Flaco and Ashkon Davaran's Little Tuna steal the show, with all the good lines and the most impossible situations. And when Boochie shows up everything gets ramped up another notch.

Paul is a self-help devotee, a compulsive shoplifter, who has been theft-free for 682 days, since his last SNIB (we're going to let you find out about that on your own). He is also a compulsive overeater and compulsive talker, and is attracted to Maggie (Kathryn Tkel), another compulsive shoplifter. She is trying to get over her relationship with Flaco, who is too stupid to be compulsive anything, except crazy.

Maggie, Paul and Flaco, with the help of Flaco's fabulous girl friend Boochie (Corinne Proctor), plan a heist of $750,000, which probably doesn't do much for their compulsive shoplifter classes.

The crime is so simple, it can't possibly fail. No way.

Act Two's opening sequence is priceless, when Little Tuna, his cousin Sal (Peter Ruocco, who was so slimy in the Aurora Theater's "Fat Pig") and the Big Tuna himself (Joe Madero) arrive on stage. These mobsters have foiled the heist of their money, but they now have to figure out what to do with the morons they are holding prisoner. Death is an option, but one that is not very attractive to anyone, especially Little Tuna, whose heart is just not into executions.

Lots of good lines, lots of laughs, lots of silly situations. On the plus side you get exchanges like:

Paul to Little Tuna: "Have you ever been in therapy?"
Little Tuna: "Have you ever been in a coma?"

On the minus side the first act is too short and the last act is too long. Big Tuna ought to be stupider or smarter -- as the big boss he is the least plausible of all and rolls over 'way too easily.

But "Den of Thieves" is not about real life, it's about fun. Fun it is. Everybody wins.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Den of Thieves" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Three Stars are for the cast, the opening of Act Two and for the fascinating construct of having Maggie, Paul, Flaco and Boochie have to give a speech as to why the world would suffer if he or she had to die. It leads to some self-searching and a surprise at the end.

The BANGLE is easy: Little Tuna's line to Maggie: "I hope you live. I got two tickets for Mariah Carey next week Fifth Row."

"Den of Thieves"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through April 17