Sunday, July 18, 2010

"Auctioning the Ainsleys": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The World Premiere of Laura Schellhardt's "Auctioning the Ainsleys" is so original, fresh, funny and eye-grabbing that it sent the reviewer scurrying through his archive of reviews to find the last Schellhardt play he had seen. Not surprisingly, he loved that one too.

Punch here for review of 'K of D' from September, 2008.

Schellhardt, currently in charge of the undergraduate playwrights at Northwestern University has managed to top herself here. "Auctioning the Ainsleys" is even more original than "K of D" and this time includes a six person cast of inspired crazy people, all playing characters with first names that start with 'A.'

The Ainsleys are all auctioneers. Alice Ainsley (Diane Dorsey), the mom, appears to be the sanest voice in the room, though her refusal to react to the abuse of her children by their deceased father appears to be at the heart of the drama.

Her four children, Avery (Heidi Kettenring), Annalee (Molly Anne Cogan), Amelia (Jessica Lynn Carroll) and Aiden (Liam Vincent) are all as nutty as $100 bags of M&Ms and we see their flaws in auctioneer images. Avery, for example, the eldest and once daddy's favorite (including being his chief target of abuse), speaks in the auctioneer's fast-lipped patois but is overcome with guilt and anger. She pounds her podium with her own hand instead of a gavel. Annalee is the organizer. She believes having an impossibly complicated filing system can keep things on an even keel, just as her sister Amelia must organize all items in complimentary groups to attempt to keep them in balance. Aiden both refinishes and ruins items -- some people like 'em clean and some like 'em dirty -- but in his private life he wants possession of no clutter whatsoever, including other humans.

As Arthur, who Alice Ainsley has hired to catalog her treasured keepsakes as her diminishing memory threatens to obliterate their histories, Gardner's performance is both off the wall and heartfelt. "Write quickly, Arthur," Alice keeps telling him. Shy and bookish at first, he gradually begins to understand this crazy family and allows us to take the journey with him.

Meredith McDonough's direction is razor sharp and the set is one of the best we've seen at Theatreworks in many years: a revolving three scene apparatus with Amelia's carriage house on one side, Annalee's office on the second, and the rest of the house, including Mom Alice's upstairs getaway and Aiden's basement, takes up the third. It really is inventive -- and characters are constantly walking up the stairs or through a door from one room to another as each new scene is rotated towards the audience.

We love this show. If the World Premiere was this good we should be lucky enough to be seeing the Ainsleys on many stages for a good long time.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Auctioning the Ainsleys" Four Stars. All the elements are here: surprise, story, acting, direction, set. We might quibble about Cliff Caruthers' rather annoying plinky-plunky keyboard music used to signal scene changes, but -- well, we just did, didn't we?

But the show is fabulous. It always starts with the writing and Laura Schellhardt is a gem. If the rest of the 2010-11 season can match this one we are all in for a series of great discoveries.

"Auctioning the Ainsleys"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 8

Monday, July 5, 2010

SF Mime Troupe: "Posibilidad, or Death of the Worker": ☼ ☼

Where's Dick Cheney? Somebody call Dick Cheney!

The one thing you could truly say for our former vice-president was he was easy to hate. Without Cheney, played for several years by San Francisco Mime Troupe veteran Ed Holmes, always to enthusiastic hisses and heartfelt boos, the Mime Troupe has no spectacular villain to kick around. The troupe has been forced back to its same old story: bad capitalists, good collectivists, bad factory owners, good workers.

Even if you agree with the politics, as many in sun-baked Dolores Park always do, the concept seems to have lost some of its lovin' feelin.' The 2010 show is called "Posibilidad, or Death of the Worker," and features telenovela-watching factory workers being displaced by corporate stooges. Rotimi Agbabiaka's Ernesto is a slimy enough bad guy, but he's little! And he's not bald! Lisa Hori-Garcia's Sofia and her mother Claudia (Velina Brown) have several funny scenes, especially when arguing over football instead of sex, but the jokes are few and the scenes are long. There is nobody to shoot somebody else in the face with a hunting rifle.

Who knew we'd miss Dick Cheney so much?

So it's long, there is less music than usual, and there are no real bad guys. What a pity the gulf oil spill didn't start sooner -- THERE are some stooges we could have a lot of fun despising.

But it's always fun to be out in the park to see one of San Francisco's truly pioneering theater companies, and although the Mime Troupe's donations are down during the economic downturn, the show is still free. As for "Posibilidad" -- believe me Troupe fans, you've seen this one before.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Posibilidad, or Death of the Worker" Two Stars. NO BANGLES of Praise, no baubles of despair. It's fun. It's OK. We still love you, man.

SF Mime Troupe: "Posibilidad, or Death of the Worker"
Various Parks throughout the Bay Area
Mostly weekends through Sep. 19

Thursday, July 1, 2010

"Young Frankenstein": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The jokes keep right on coming. "Young Frankenstein" is Mel Brooks's newest venture into the movie-becomes-musical genre, and Brooks hasn't changed his humor since he wrote for Sid Caesar in the 1950s. (Those old enough to remember can't help but see Caesar's famous Count Dracula when Drac makes his appearance at the end of Act Two, negotiating to buy the castle from Dr. Frankenstein.) This is old-time Broadway at its spoofable best - the characters take a few steps then launch into another song or dance. And Brooks never seems to run out of long schlong gags. Remember, Luke: Use your Schwartz!

Funny, but it don't look Newish. It's certainly not The Producers, which had an innovative story at its core -- write the world's worst musical and you'll get rich. Young Frankenstein was a spoof as a film and it is really tough to spoof a spoof. If anyone can pull this off it's Mel Brooks.

What fab-u-lous performances! Roger Bart as Frederick Frahnk-n-STEEN might not be Gene Wilder but no one is. Bart is funny as hell and he can sing and dance too. Brad Oscar is a showstopper as the blind hermit and peg-legged inspector. (Interesting note: in the film these two roles were played by two characters who weren't exactly chopped monster: Gene Hackman as the hermit and Kenneth Mars [the crazy Nazi in 'The Producers'] as the inspector.)

Joanna Glushak's Frau Blucher is the best of the best and she sings the show's most unforgettable song: "He Vas My Boyfriend." But we can't forget Beth Curry's "Please Don't Touch Me," Bart and Anne Horak's "Roll in the Hay" and all the villagers crooning and tapping out "Transylvania Mania."

Did we mention Shuler Hensley's fabulous monster-turned-song-and-dance-man?

Jokes. Dancing. Singing. Loveable characters. What is not to like, you self-loathing theater critic, you?

Maybe it's my rheumatism. Lots of time has passed. With all its enthusiasm, "Young Frankenstein" feels dated. Brooks's music is supposed to feel old fashioned, but it drags. Every song sounds the same, harmonically. The lyrics are very funny, but you can't catch them, especially at the start.

The show does not lack for trying its hardest. The actors are all top drawer. If there is a flaw, perhaps it is in the frenetic pacing. Brooks not only wrote the whole shmear but directs too. Next time maybe he can also build the theater.

The show already played 14 months on Broadway so it's not gonna change. It is a lot of fun and if you love Mel Brooks you'll find a lot to smile about.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Young Frankenstein" three stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. What a production! Lights (Peter Kaczorowski), sets (Robin Wagner), costumes (William Ivey Long) and orchestra under Robert Billig are absolute first class.

A special BANGLE OF PRAISE goes out to all the actors who realize they have to fill enormous shoes -- especially Roger Bart with Gene Wilder hanging over his every look of big-eyed disgruntlement. It is a testament that Bart, Glushak, Curry and company make us forget all those earlier ghouls we came to know and love.

"Young Frankenstein"
Golden Gate Theater
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Through July 25