Friday, April 30, 2010

"A Night of Funny Firsts!": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

Being a reviewer means we have lows -- the overhyped, overwritten and underacted. Thankfully, 'Lestat' doesn't come along often. On the other side of the ledger, our highs are many in a town bubbling over with great theater. We love at least part of almost every show we see.

Then come the surprises, that really original piece of theater that springs up like a winning lottery ticket from an unexpected source. We saw one of these beauties last night, a jewel tucked inside an excellent show featuring the work of comedienne Cynthia Brinkman. Brinkman's 'Evolution of a Kiss' opens the program, followed by two short plays directed by Brinkman and written by Seattle's Wayne Rawley.

'Evolution of a Kiss' is the story of three generations of women -- Brinkman found journals from her grandmother and mother and also used her own, to describe that wonderful moment when a girl is kissed for the first time. She portrays all three women and her voices and accents are terrific. The women in the audience swooned.

But then Act Two came along, and the first of Rawley's two shorts: "Controlling Interest." This reviewer, along with the rest of the audience, caught a serious case of Runaway Funnybone with a side order of Belly Laughitis. The premise is that four men, dressed in suits, carrying around cell phones and behaving for all the world like stock brokers, are actually eight years old. The important issues they are discussing include the memo about no longer eating their boogers. This becomes very important later on when Jack (Matt Gunnison), their leader, brings up his next agenda item, which is: "perhaps we should think about liking girls."

The girls have sent two representatives to the office, and from the moment Bethany (Maria Leigh) and Ashley (Holly Silk) hit the stage we realize it's all over for the boys. "Our price is your undivided attention for the rest of your lives," says Bethany, and you and she know she has already closed this deal.

The show is not only novel and funny but very well acted. How sad it is only a short.

The second Rawley play "Happiness is Like a Beautiful, Bright, Shiny Red Apple," featuring the same ensemble of actors, is also excellent but with a more traditional premise: shy boy meets shy girl.

The show has a very short run -- by the time you read this there will probably be only one performance left, on May 2. If you can, run down to Footloose Studios in the Mission for an inexpensive and innovative night of laughter.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Night of Funny Firsts!" three stars with two BANGLES of PRAISE. Both the BANGLES are for "Controlling Interest" -- Brinkman's direction is perfect and the premise is just too cool for school. The rest of the program is excellent too. No surprise for you, though -- we've ruined that for you.

"A Night of Funny Firsts!"
Shotwell Studios
3252-A 19th Street, Sam Francisco
Through May 1

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Girlfriend": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Matthew Sweet’s album “Girlfriend” came out in 1991. It was never a huge seller but it attracted a loyal army of fans and put Sweet on the map. He has continued to put out records (his latest was released in 2008).

Somewhere along the line playwright Todd Almond fell in love with “Girlfriend” (as well as “Altered Beast” (1993) and “100% Fun” (1995)). These simple songs made such an impression on Almond that he eventually wrote a musical encompassing the songs from these albums. That show, “Girlfriend,” had its World Premiere on April 14 at Berkeley Rep.

But that was last night. Today is April 15 and taxes are due. We loved the brilliant performances of the twin leads (Ryder Bach as Will and Jason Hite as Mike), and the equally brilliant staging and pacing by director Les Waters and choreographer Joe Goode. The four-girl band was very good. Act One was stronger than Act Two, but both had merit and the best musical moments took place at the end of the show.

But these songs! They could be re-titled “Love in the Time of Teenager.” Simple and rocky, cute and pop-y, yes. But memorable? Let’s just say if this very accessible story (boy meets boy, boy anguishes about boy, boy gets boy, boy leaves for college) was the original genesis of the show and the playwright had written some music for his story, you’d say: "Nice story. Music Needs Work."

But Almond constructed his boy loves boy story around Sweet’s music. It must be said that in terms of commercial viability, the show’s simplicity, combined with the two actors’ vulnerability and familiar struggles with first love, might very well add up to a blockbuster; we can’t help but wish, though, that a story this – well, sweet – would have had contrasting or at least challenging music to support it.

That said, the showstopper number “Your Sweet Voice” (sung in FALSETTO while LYING DOWN! – try THAT, American Idolers), is a tour de force. The song’s depth, coupled with Bach and Hite’s delivery, gives us an idea of what might have been.

Or what might be. One Opening Night does not a theater work make. Ryder Bach is a star. He is wry, he is honest, he projects calm from a tortured interior. Jason Hite gives us the opposite: torture on the surface but a clear path underneath. Mike will dally and move on; Will will stay home and think about Mike the rest of his life. “I hate this town,” Mike says. “It’s not so bad,” answers Will.

We wish the ending were stronger. We wish the songs hit harder. This is the bottom line. You walk out of the theater thinking: “Well, OK, boys.” We’d much prefer, like Will, that our heart were broken in tiny pieces.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards “Girlfriend” Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The acting is -- there’s no other word for it -- beautiful. Bach and Hite’s performances are true to the music, true to the sentiment of the songs. Each earns one star and the production team a third. The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the scenes on the sofa (supposedly the front seat of Mike’s car) at the drive-in. Neither boy knows what to do next. If Mike puts his hand on his own knee, Will does it too. If Mike laughs, Will laughs. It’s such a touching remembrance of our first awkward lurches into adulthood.

The bad popcorn and the drive-in movie. We are all there with Will and Mike. This shared memory is the show’s power. It is certain to resonate with every person in every audience.


Berkeley Rep, Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 9

Monday, April 12, 2010

"A History of Human Stupidity": ☼ ☼

What a title! "A History of Human Stupidity" would draw anyone to the theater, just to see what the show is all about. In this case, you sit downstairs in a pizza parlor, eat pizza, drink beer, and see five women from Berkeley's Rough and Tumble theater company cut up on stage. It's a wild ride, sometimes informative and always amusing.

Chicago's Andy Bayiates wrote the show as a continuing piece from his "A 60 Minute History of Humankind" which appeared on a NBC reality show "Starting Over." The show is now 90 minutes long and though divided into three Acts, it feels like a One Act-er with a Prelude.

In Act One an ape slugs another ape. The second ape learns to slug back. Stupidity is defined: "A good idea gone bad."

(Later on, we get a better definition: "Stupidity may be genius in its larval form.")

In Act Two, the show really starts. We get a history of the entire world, beginning with Greece and ending with the War on Terrorism. In Act Three we are presented with a celebrity roast featuring history's five stupidist people.

Some of it works -- particularly Louise Chegwidden (The Patriot) and Charisse Loriaux's (Smartypants) duet during the segment on The Rise of Fascism.

Other standouts are Chegwidden's Nixon during the roast, and the company's excellent slap-shtick during the segments on Greece and Rome. (Other company members, all terrific performers, are Eowyn Mader (The Radical), Betsy Picart (The Fool) and Carolyn Doyle (The Critic, to whom this critic was particularly attracted. Are we really all that, well, critical?).

Some of it doesn't work so well but that may come down to personal taste. The celebrity roast is a brilliant idea, but to our ears it would be a lot funnier if people other than 20th Century tyrants had been chosen. (The show is supposed to be more about stupidity than politics, right? Does Pol Pot really give anyone a belly laugh?)

At its best "A History of Human Stupidity" is wordy and funny. But sometimes it's just wordy. These are smart people. They'll tighten it up.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A History of Human Stupidty" Two Stars. The ensemble and director Cliff Mayotte earn one star for managing not to step on each other's feet with so much choreography in such a small space. A second star is for the show's audacity. You have to love a company who will define stupidity by having Richard Nixon as a celebrity host.

"A History of Human Stupidity"
La Val's Subterranean
1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley
Through April 25

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"To Kill a Mockingbird": ☼ ☼

Everybody knows the film version of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," starring Gregory Peck as attorney Atticus Finch (and introducing a young Robert Duval as Boo Radley). The book, dealing with a small Alabama town's racial divide in the year 1935, was published in 1960 and made into a film in 1962. Harper Lee then went into seclusion and wrote little afterwards, except to collaborate some years later with Truman Capote, another child of small town Alabama, on his novel "In Cold Blood."

The book and film were adapted for the stage in 1970 by Christopher Sergel. This version is what we are seeing in Theatreworks' new production, running through May 5 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.

It's not the book and it's not the movie, not by a long shot. There are two stage sets, the principal one being a small village -- a collection of four houses presumably next door to one another in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. From one of these houses, Miss Maudie, played by Nancy Carlin, emerges periodically to narrate. If she's not talking a spiritual is being sung by Calpurnia (Cathleen Riddley), the maid in the Finch house two doors down. It is hard to overstate how annoying this narration and cliche'd singing are. If there were ever a chance for the characters to build their scenes, they are destroyed by these stage devices, wooden direction and possibly by the dated script itself.

Anthony Newfield is a credible Atticus Finch and looks the part in his white suit and graying hair. Rod Gnapp is his delightfully smarmy self as Robert E. Lee Ewell, the baddie of baddies.

Philipe D. Preston is properly cautious as the doomed Tom Robinson, and the children -- Sierra Stephens as Scout, Eric Colvin as Jem Finch and Gabriel Hoffman as Dill (Dill is supposedly based on a youthful Truman Capote) -- are adequate. Of the three, only Hoffman projects enough volume to be heard very clearly.

The major problem is that for the play to succeed you have to be captivated by Atticus Finch. Anthony Newfield has no choice: he has to be Gregory Peck. There is a fine line between noble, reticent hero and prudish ideologue. Newfield is very good but for any number of reasons, most having to do with the limits of this script, he cannot make us ignore all the holes.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "To Kill a Mockingbird" Two Stars. There were serious distractions on Opening Night, including a medical emergency, and the actors responded fabulously, barely skipping a beat. Perhaps the show will hit its stride later in the run.

"To Kill a Mockingbird"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through May 9

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Circus Finelli's Frau Bachfeifengesicht's Spectacle of Perfection": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

You're looking at Molly Shannon as Carmelita and Luz Gaxiola as Frau Bachfeifengesicht. You can't say either one of these women steal the show because both grab on to the limelight and run with it. The four-woman troupe of Shannon, Gaxiola, Mahsa Matin as Mustard (the clown) and Verka Zaskodna as the Cell Phone Horror Lady are a lot of fun to watch, even if all the bits don't always mesh. It's even funny when they don't.

Perhaps our favorite bit of all is the Wheel of Death. People come out of the audience to spin this wheel, realizing that the odds of winning the beer are considerably less than the slap in the face. This reviewer guesses that anyone fortunate enough to win the beer will also receive a slap in the face.

Next favorite: the knife throwing event. When the women are spoofing circus routines, as in this routine and the delightfully silly Wheel of Death, the show is at its satirical best.

The slapstick chase bits, especially when the Cellphone Horror Lady is running around the theater, are less novel. But every time Carmelita takes the stage, particularly as the disgusted Latina diva who used to employ an elephant in her glory days, and as part of the duo of Greek Musclemen from Mykonos, the laughs are nonstop.

It's a short, delightful evening of theater/circus/satire. If you're lucky you'll win a free beer, but if you're even luckier you'll get a firm one to the chops courtesy Frau Bachfeifengesicht.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Circus Finell's Frau Bachfeifengesicht's Spectacle of Perfection" Three Stars with a bauble of despair.

The show deserves three stars because you will really enjoy it -- short, sweet, funny, inexpensive and it doesn't take itself too seriously. Mustard even drew with a red crayon on a certain reviewer's balding forehead before the show (no, not anyone in the SF Theater Blog entourage). That takes courage.

The bauble of despair is to alert readers that you may also be disappointed by the uneven-ness of the show. But when it works it works, especially every moment with smiling Shannon and sneering Gaxiola.

"Circus Finelli's Frau Bachfeifengesicht's Spectacle of Perfection"
Stage Werx Theatre
533 Sutter Street (downstairs), San Francisco
Through April 25

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"Vigil": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG 1/2 baub

Morris Panych and Ken McDonald have staged Panych's "Vigil" half a dozen times since its premiere in 1995. The show has resonance for people around the world, for it is the story of a younger person dealing with an aging relative. Born after an experience that the author and scenic designer/husband McDonald experienced when McDonald's mother was dying, the show is grounded in harsh reality. But for all of that, 'Vigil' plays a little like a sit-com, complete with lots of jokes, camp and slapstick.

There are only two characters: Kemp and Grace. Kemp (Marco Barricelli) is a middle aged nebbish of a man who has quit his job and traveled 1,000 miles to care for his dying Aunt. That he has another agenda is obvious -- not only does he hope to be the beneficiary of the Aunt's meager estate, but he is also desperate for affection and acceptance.

As for the bedridden Aunt, played by Olympia Dukakis with only half a dozen lines but an ocean of facial expressions, her game is not revealed until the end.

Well...not the very end, and this is the problem we have with 'Vigil.' On the long side, the twist in Act Two is so delicious, and comes from so far out in left field, that it catches us by complete surprise and we are poised to explode with joy as the play now winds down to the end, dealing with this new information. It certainly will end here.

But it doesn't. The plot twist is only a tool to be used by the author to amplify the point he has been making all night: companionship is the most important thing in the world, no matter who gives it and who gets it.

Barricelli is a very appealing Kemp, and his manipulations in Act One are all humorous and bizarre, as he attempts to hurry the Aunt to her final moments. He plans and rehearses his funeral oration, he asks her opinion on her urn, he even builds a machine which offers her two quick options: electrocution or being hit on the head with a frying pan.

In the end, we realize why Dukakis has kept mum until the last spoken phrase of Act One, but until we get there we are able to enjoy how she reacts, wordlessly, to Kemp's increasing insanity. The crazier he gets and the more he orates about his past, Grace, and we too, come to understand how this poor man has come to feel so isolated.

Lights are everything in 'Vigil.' The stage is weird -- every scene fades in and out with different combinations of Alan Brodie's lighting filtered through newspaper-covered windows. It is very effective, and along with Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe's music help create the atmosphere of a world lived internally, where the only real interaction with the outside world comes from staring out a window. Even the sweater that Grace has been knitting the entire show has nowhere to hang except on a mannequin.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG 1/2 baub

The San Franciso Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Vigil' Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE and a bauble of despair, but not really a whole bauble, just half a bauble.

One star is for the set/lighting/music. Sets are always interesting at A.C.T. but this one ranks right up there with the best. The second star is for the actors, of course, and the third for Panych's direction. Fast cuts and quick monologues can make a stage play feel like MTV, but not this time. Of course, who knows better than the director when he is the writer as well?

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for that plot twist. Jeez, that was nice.

But the half bauble is for that plot twist too. Once we're there we can't go back to where we were before. Sure, the show is fifteen years old and successful so nobody is going to change anything, but that last twenty minutes or so takes longer than it should.

One more comment: Dukakis has only a few lines, and the two most important are basically inaudible. A little more volume on her, please? Duly noted.

A.C.T. Theatre
415 Geary STreet, San Francisco
Through April 18