Sunday, May 23, 2010

"The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It's a simple story of dialectical revenge, with a manifesto, a set of handcuffs and a pistol. Two men vie for one woman, but actually the woman doesn't want either one of them. She wants what everybody wants: freedom. You'd want that too if you spent your time in a smelly motel next to the pig slaughterhouse.

William Bivins's "The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry," running in the Sandbox Series on SF Playhouse's second stage, is exactly the kind of play the Playhouse does best: wacky story-with-great acting. Something weird always ends up on the floor.

In this case it's part of Charles's face. Motel operator Assy (Chad Deverman), though a pacifist (and possibly a vegetarian), bites it off of Charles (Keith Burkland) during a mano-a-mano fight that Charles has been itching for. Since the fight takes place at the Lazy Eight Motel next to the hog butchery that Charles owns and Assy covets, the chunk of face on the floor seems to take on a pulsating life of its own.

(Director Bill English says it is actually a small piece of lasagna.)

Lola (Madeline H.D. Brown) is married to Charles, but Charles has made some questionable investments and is about to lose everything, and that will surely include Lola. Assy, whose manifesto "The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry" will remind everyone in the audience why they dropped out of graduate school, intends to acquire all of Charles's possessions and do good for humanity. Har hardy har har har.

"Apotheosis" is spicy. It's chewy with a lot of bite. It sticks to your ribs. There are many belly laughs. This reviewer is licking his chops to see where the show goes next.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. All three actors plus director English earn one star each for their performances. They do justice to terrific lines like Assy to Charles:

Assy: "Well, you and I got off on the wrong foot."

Charles: "F___ing a man's wife will tend to do that."

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the only cocktail served in the motel's, uh, bar. The drink is called a Pissed Off Son of a Bitch. When Assy asks us if we want a drink he says "Do you feel like a Pissed Off Son of a Bitch?"

Act Two is still a little squirrely -- not too long, just less focused than Act One. But Deverman, Brown and Burkland are never less than stellar.

"The Apotheosis of Pig Husbandry"
San Francisco Playhouse, Sandbox Theatre
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through June 12

Thursday, May 20, 2010

"In The Wake": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Lisa Kron's "In The Wake," which is having the second half of its World Premiere at Berkeley Rep, is two and a half hours long. It is basically a soap opera with a lot of talking and hand-wringing, but is also thought-provoking and captivating. The six female actors are all well drawn (we'll talk in a moment about the one man) and Kron leaves you with a lot to ponder -- fatal attractions and the future of the world, for example.

Ellen (Heidi Shreck) seems to have everything -- job, friends, a relationship. In the theater this means she has nothing. Judy (the fabulous Deidre O'Connell) appears depressed and traumatized in Act One, but you know she'll have all the answers by Act Two. Most action occurs in the upstairs apartment living room of Ellen and Danny (Carson Elrod). Judy is staying there too, while Kayla (Andrea Frankie) and Laurie (Danielle Skraastad) live downstairs. Tessa (Miriam F. Glover) is Judy's niece.

Confused yet? Wait. Danny is Kayla's brother. Kayla and Laurie, though gay, are married and Ellen and Danny, though straight, are not. Wait another second. Ellen is actually having an affair with Amy (Emily Donahoe) and Danny, who knows and condones that affair, is the gayest straight man you've ever seen.

There is a lucky horseshoe over the door of Ellen and Danny's bedroom. It must be broken.

To embellish scene changes we see absolutely chilling news clips of the Bush years. Ellen periodically walks to the front of the stage to deliver monologues about our country's and her own blind spots -- America's insistence that things will turn out great, no matter how terribly we screw them up. This goes for war as well as relationships.

At the end of Act One Ellen says: "It's easy to see someone else's blind spot, harder to see our own."

By the end of Act Two things are worse: "I'm lost. I wanted more. Maybe this is what more looks like."

Pretty grim stuff and Bush, Cheney and Wolfowitz ("That Combover Weasel") on top of it. Brrrrr.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "In The Wake" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE and a bauble of despair. Alexander V. Nichols's lights are extra-special -- not only to light featured areas of the stage but to give emotional cues. David Korins's set is like the living room in Friends: sooner or later every character ends up on that sofa.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for Tessa. This fourteen-year-old Kentucky-raised teenager gives a giant Hello There! to her elders' world of feigned contentment. She's the child who notices the Emperor is naked. "If you love her, why don't you marry her?" she says to Danny. Ha ha, well now, hmm.

The bauble of despair is for the character of Danny. Perhaps it is the author or director's intention to make Danny such a sit-com wimp that Ellen will have no option but to fall for another woman. If so, as GWB said: "Mission Accomplished."

"In The Wake"
Berkeley Rep, Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through June 27

Thursday, May 13, 2010

"In the Heights": ☼ ☼ ☼

"In the Heights" won the Tony Award as Best Musical of 2008. It is probably unfair to call it a modern-day update of West Side Story, but you kind of can't help it. It's true that this time around the Puerto Ricans don't have the Irish to kick around -- it's half a century later and they and the Dominicans have got the neighborhood to themselves. (We know because we see Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic flags festooned on the apartment railings.)

Anna Louizo's inventive set looks so much like the real Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, that you can just about smell the sofrito and bacalao. You've got the unisex hair salon, the bodega, the car service (taxi) stand and several apartment houses open to the sky. This lucky, bouncy barrio even has a view of the George Washington Bridge.

Kyle Beltran plays Usnavi, who runs the bodega, which he has inherited from his parents. (He got his name when his parents saw a ship as they entered New York harbor upon emigrating. The ship had 'U S Navy' painted on the bow.) Usnavi is a very agreeable and hard-working guy whose coffee has become the neighborhood's addiction. Most of the show's action takes place in front of the bodega, as the locals walk in and out, carrying coffee and gossip.

Elise Santora plays Abuela, everyone's favorite grandma whose world-weary wisdom is reflected in her song "Paciencia y Fe" ("Patience and Faith"). Her granddaughter Nina (Arielle Jacobs) has been the hope of the barrio -- the smart girl who would go off to Stanford and succeed in the modern world. Unfortunately, Nina has had to drop out of school because she can't work and study at the same time.

The real connection to West Side Story comes with the humorous female chorus of hairdressers -- played wonderfully by Daniella (Isabella Santiago), Carla (Genny Lis Padilla) and Vanessa (Sabrina Sloan). Their first song "No Me Diga," which is about the glory of gossiping, comes right off the same boat as Bernstein/Sondheim's "America." It is the standout of Act One.

Music and lyrics are by Lin-Manuel Miranda who won a Tony in 2008 and a Grammy in 2009 for this show and for its Broadway Cast Album. Hip Hop rules the day here, with clever and inventive lyrics and rhyme schemes, and music that...well, music that...well.

Here's the rub. For this listener, Miranda is a lot better lyricist than he is a composer. His Hip Hop rhythms feel basically the same. There are two tempos: fast (with Latino feel) and slow. During 'fast' everyone break dances and hugs each other and during 'slow' the sentiment seems forced, like a Mariah Carey video. No one has bothered to develop the characters, so slow songs can't have much resonance.

Of course we want Nina to succeed -- but do we really want her hard working father to sell his car service business and become a laborer so she can go back to college? Is this the message implied here -- that good looking kids have the right to do whatever their heart tells them, even if it bankrupts their parents?

One more thing. This reviewer likes to walk around the theater to determine how the show sounds from different areas. One thing is for sure: if you sit in the mezzanine or above you cannot hear very well. With a show whose music is provided by an orchestra that is basically electronic, all the sound must be amplified through the house speaker system along with all the voices. This means that unless you are sitting close enough to actually hear or at least see a performer's mouth move you have no idea who is singing what -- it's like a record more than a live performance. And since this show is all about the lyrics -- you'd better be able to hear them. So a word to the wise: sit in the front, not...

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "In the Heights" Three Stars, which is to say you should go see it. It's fun and has some exciting moments. Several of the songs are excellent: "No Me Diga," "The Club/Fireworks" and "Alabanza" are perhaps the most memorable. The ballad "Sunrise," in which the stunning duet voices of Jacobs and Rogelio Douglas Jr. (who plays Benny) are featured, would probably be a showstopper if we cared a little more about the romance between Nina and Benny (Rogelio Douglas Jr.).

Special kudos to Shaun Taylor-Corbett whose Sonny lights up the stage whenever he dances across it.


"In The Heights"
Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through June 13

Monday, May 10, 2010

"Peter Pan": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG!

Maybe you're over thirty five and your parents took you to see Sandy Duncan or Kathy Rigby sail above the stage as Peter Pan. Or maybe you're somewhat older and saw the movie version, as a child, or as an adult with your own children. If so, you not only gloried in the timeless story of the boy who would never grow up, but you probably also remember all the songs. Written by some of the greatest songwriters on the 1950s, songs like "I've Gotta Crow" and "I'll Never Grow Up" became part of the Broadway lexicon for the next fifty years.

All of this is prelude to tell you that the new Peter Pan, which had its American Premiere last night under a magical Big Top set up across the street from San Francisco's ferry building, is not a musical. And it's not your Mama's Pan.

This brand new cutting-edge production incorporates the latest technology, utilizes 88 speakers set up in a spectacular theater-in-the-round configuration and overhead IMAX-like projections which allow you to soar through the sky with Peter, Tink, Wendy and her brothers. It feels more like Cirque du Soleil than the Curran Theatre. There is a booming musical score, composed by Benjamin Wallfisch, but NO songs. So don't wait for them.

You won't miss them because your jaw won't stop dropping. In Act One, especially, you are staggered again and again by what can be accomplished not only by deep pockets but brilliant illusionists and story tellers who love Peter Pan as much as you do. The first flying sequence, with all five soaring above London, dodging Buckingham Palace and zooming under London Bridge (on their way to Neverland), is nothing short of spectacular.

When Captain Hook's pirates spot his enemies and fire Long Tom (the cannon) at them, the cannon balls shoot right at your head (not quite 3-D, but close). The pirates enter, each from his own separate door, in full costume (as well as each carrying a musical instrument -- clarinet, concertina, mandolin). They remind us we are in a theater, as does the tour de force (reptile division): the fearsome (female) crocodile, which looks more like a Chinese dragon with two cast members inside pedaling it. Hook is terrified of the croc, but we can't stop clapping.

Act Two slows down, but perhaps the biggest reason is Act One is so good. The story must now be resolved, and this resolution takes a little longer than it should and there are nowhere as many special effects. But you do get Tiger Lily (Heidi Buchler) doing a sensual Bollywood slinky dance number (we knew she was Indian, but THAT kind of Indian?) that would have popped the waistcoat buttons off J. M. Barrie.

Act Two also carries out the fall of Captain Hook, featuring the sword fight between Hook and Peter Pan, which isn't really all that fair since Peter is aided by overhead wires (he can't quite fall off that plank, can he?).

As perfect a boy-child as Nate Fallows is as Peter, two other characters run away with the show: Jonathan Hyde as Captain Hook (he also doubles as Mr. Darling) and the fairy with the biggest 'tude of all time: Itxaso Moreno as Tinker Bell.

No sticking this little firefly's light under a basket. Tinker Bell is vicious. She's also delicious. For this viewer Moreno flies off with the award for Best Jealous Fairy in a Supporting Role.

And Hook! Poor Hook! We feel for him when he laments: "Why is that crocodile the only female who has ever shown any interest in me?"

Oh, people will quibble and reviewers are bound to want to compare the new with the old, Nate Fallows with Mary Martin, songs with no songs. But make no mistake: this Peter Pan will make other Pans feel like yesterday's plum pudding. The musical will always be magical, but your kids will probably prefer to see this one.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards the threesixty production of Peter Pan Four Stars with two BANGLES of PRAISE. The BANGLES are given to reward the creative team: Sets, 3D, Puppetry, Illusions, Choreography, Direction and so much more. It is the highest award we can think of without granting Five Stars. Act Two's inability to live up to Act One -- the extra length required to pull all the pieces together -- is what makes Five Stars impossible.

But everything else is there: spectacle, sound, acting, acrobatics, costuming, lighting, story, staging and, best of all, a sense of wonder. Peter will never grow up and, if we're lucky, neither will we.

"Peter Pan"
The ThreeSixty Theatre
Ferry Park, San Francisco (next to Justin Herman Plaza)
Open-ended run

Thursday, May 6, 2010

"Round and Round the Garden": ☼ ☼ BANG

The program guide that A.C.T. gives you when you enter the theater begins like this: "The author of some 74 plays, Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most produced playwrights of all time (second only to Shakespeare)..."

We didn't know that. And with such a laudatory intro, after seeing the new A.C.T. production of "Round and Round The Garden," we'd like to ask the prized Englishman "What else ya got?"

Not that it's not clever. It is very clever. And funny, in a British drawing room kind of way. There are many plays on words (clever) and the lead character (Norman, played by Manoel Felciano) gets to act stupid, unquestionably as a send-up of British middle-class stuffiness. This apparently makes him irresistible to the three sisters, Sarah (Marcia Pizzo), Annie (Delia MacDougall) and Ruth (Rene Augesen).

Once Ruth enters the fracas, in Act Two, Ms. Augesen injects a different kind of class into the banter: this is one classy dame. Her scene on the garden chairs with Annie's suitor Tom (Dan Hiatt) is peppered with the best lines in the play and we would be excitedly awaiting the obvious conclusion if it weren't for Norman.

I mean -- he's such a drip. If Ayckbourn's point is that any fool would win the heart of these three women, he has succeeded.

Lydia Tanji's costuming stands out -- Annie lounges around in an oversized sweater in Act One but dons a marvelous yellow number in Act Two. Her suitor Tom doesn't notice, but Norman does. Sarah and Ruth wear perfect dresses which speak to their different personalities -- Ruth the business woman and Sarah the home maker.

Why did Carey Perloff decide to revive this show? The satire that was shocking in 1972 -- that a woman might have her own desires and even choose to act upon them -- is by 2010 no longer the lead story on Channel Four News. If this were Moliere we might beam with the realization that times haven't changed all that much across the centuries. But they have changed since 1972. The show is done well, the set is glorious, as always at A.C.T. and the cast is admirable. But do we care? A little?

A little, yes.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Round and Round the Garden" Two Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The first star is a given at A.C.T. -- the set, costuming and lighting are their usual standout selves. Star Two is for Rene Augesen -- until she enters the show is floundering. Her humor and stage presence rescue the second act. Anthony Fusco is also very entertaining as Reg with Dishpan Hands.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is given for Alan Ayckbourn's many awards (Oliver, Tony, Moliere, Lifetime Achievement and so on). Obviously, hoards of theater goers love to see the middle classes drop their knickers.

"Round and Round the Garden"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through May 23

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Slasher!": ☼ ☼

You get a lot in Allison Moore's "Slasher" -- a few quarts of blood, a pretty girl in a purple bra, a spoof of Hollywood low-budget flasher movies and some spirited and delightfully demented performances. What, you want all the parts to fit together?

Susi Damilano plays a feminist mom who is also a lunatic ("I'm gonna force feed you the collected works of Betty Friedan"), Robert Parsons is a sleezeball horror film producer and director Jon Tracy tries hard to help us keep track of whose blood is whose, despite an insane amount of scene changes and an ambulance full of plot points that are never quite explained.

Starting out does Sheena McKinney (Tonya Glanz), the Texas barmaid, know how to so perfectly handle her negotiations with the Hollywood film producer (Robert Parsons)? And speaking of Texas, if that's where all the characters in the show come from, how come nobody has a Texas accent?

On a philosophical level, the concepts of sexploitation and Hollywood worship of youth are worth discussing. That the horror film genre appears to be becoming more popular as real life gets more and more impossible to believe is a topic well worth pondering.

Everything gets touched upon but there is no time for reflection. Sets are flying open, weapons appearing and disappearing, actors walking, crawling and zipping across the stage in a battery powered wheel chair. It's hard to follow, and not always easy to see -- for example, if you're sitting in the back of the theater you have to stand up to realize -- hey, there's a body on the floor! Did they mean it when that riser was still being pushed into place while the actors were already speaking their lines?

It's early. This SF Playhouse production is a Bay Area Premiere of Moore's 2009 show. It's promising but could use a few bandages.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Slasher" Two Stars. There are some fine performances (Damilano, Robert Parsons and Cole Alexander Smith, in particular) but they are easy to overlook in all the mayhem. "Slasher" holds our interest but, like life, it needs a better ending.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter St., San Francisco
Through June 5