Monday, September 20, 2010

"The Brothers Size" ☼ ☼ ☼ Plus

Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" is the last thing you hear, and it is the message Ogun Size (Joshua Elijah Reese) and Oshoosi Size (Tobie Windham) have been trying to communicate to each other since the opening curtain. "The Brothers Size" is hard-hitting and honest, with three acting performances you will not be able to get out of your mind.

The story is heavy on cultural myth -- the flawed humans on stage all carry the names of ancient Yoruba gods. Ogun is the god of iron and in the story he is the big brother who owns an auto repair shop. Oshoozi is the god of fecundity. Here, he has just gotten out of prison and is bursting to sow his wild oats. Egelba is the Yoruba god of the crossroads. When he tells the truth he lies and when he lies he tells the truth. He is played beautifully by Alex Ubokudom. Egelba the human is the bad devil on Oshoozi's shoulder. The two were in prison together and Egelba remembers their unspoken intimacy there. He wants more. Oshoozi is not so sure.

Author Tarell Alvin McCraney grew up in the projects of Liberty City, outside of Miami, Florida. Perhaps he knows something about momentous decisions. Oshoozi Size has a big one to make -- does he do the easy thing and hang out with Egelba, where he is certain to get back into more trouble, violate his parole and end up returning to prison, or does he listen to Ogun, his elder brother who has been his role model most of his life, and come to work in the car shop, straighten up and fly right?

Octavio Solis is a great director. The show has innovative touches, in some ways like a Word 4 Word production in which stage directions are spoken (and performed) by the actors, and in other ways like a Shakespearean drama where you see the inner torments of each character. You see how impossible it is for Ogun to open up to his little brother, and you also see how much they both long for it. And you can't help but understand the inevitability of the finale.

Author McCraney could scarcely be hotter right now, with three plays premiering within a few weeks of each other. "The Brothers Size" is the second of the "Brother-Sister Plays." Judging from his fecund output, we are guessing Terrel Alvin McCraney has a lot of Oshoozi in him.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ Plus

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Brothers Size" Three Stars Plus. Each actor deserves one star each and the show's power and innovation makes it more than a three star production.

This reviewer has a few small stones to toss into the pond. There are no surprises here -- the story ends where you knew it would. The location is Southern Louisiana but none of the actors talk like it. And the show is probably funnier than it shows, since there are jokes and innuendo that fly over the heads of a traditional American theater audience.

But these are small pebbles and should cause few ripples. We have all been Oshoozi and we have all been Ogun. "The Brothers Size" makes us think about tenderness and the price you pay to find it.

"The Brothers Size"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Oct. 17

Friday, September 17, 2010

"Compulsion" ☼ ☼ ☼ Plus BANG

Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" calls for a lead who is Jewish, middle-aged and has a serious case of schpilkes. Mandy Patinkin can squirm with the best of them -- his performance gives Sid Silver, the fictionalized discoverer of Anne Frank's diary, copious amounts of anger and desperation, self-righteousness and self-loathing. He is a schmuck with charm. He can't let go and he can't sit still. Clearly half-crazy, one minute he is in love with life, the next infatuated with the dead Dutch teenager who, he has decided, must become nothing less than the voice of the Jewish people.

Groff's play is brand new -- The Berkeley Rep production is its world premiere. When it is brilliant it is truly so. The combination of marionettes, handled by a trio of puppeteers from a catwalk above the thrust stage, is inspired. When we see Anne, the subject of Silver's compulsion, she is a gangly and simply dressed marionette with a whitened face, as if half alive. To Sid Silver she symbolizes life itself, but to those around him, especially his wife (Hannah Cabell - more on her stupendous performance in a moment), Anne Frank is an impossible act to follow.

Cabell plays not only Sid Silver's French wife, but also his friend/nemesis at Doubleday Publishing, Miss Mermin. The two performances are both terrific -- you don't realize this is one actor playing both roles until later on when you only see one woman taking her bows. As Mrs. Silver she is patient but restless; as Miss Mermin she is understanding but finally driven over the edge by Silver's intransigence.

The other multiple roles are played by Matte Osian, as a series of New York stuffed suits, and also as an Israeli theater director. This is because eventually Silver must relocate to Israel, the only country where he has a ghost of a chance to see his play performed the way he wrote it.

But "Compulsion" rises or falls on the strength of the lead. We bought 95% of Mandy Patinkin's character, but we must warn you that in the other 5% he oozes more schmaltz than your grandmother's chopped liver. Of particular fascination is a scene where Ann appears in bed with Sid and his wife. It is a touching, heart-wrenching scene, perhaps the best in the show, but it is followed immediately by Patinkin singing what is probably a Yiddish lullaby, in a forced tenor that made us cringe. Not the quality of his voice -- he is a vocal performer after all -- but that this lovely scene with a wife coming to grips with the fact that her husband has another "lover" -- the deceased Anne Frank -- could possibly lead to a song? A song?

The brilliant parts far outweigh the negatives, and there is plenty of time for them to iron out the wrinkles. "Compulsion" looks like a play that is going to be around for a long time.

Final note: we really enjoyed the music. Darron L. West's sound design was simple -- solo piano, mainly -- but added greatly to the show.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ Plus BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Compulsion" Three Stars PLUS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE is for Hannah Cabell's performances as well as for the inventiveness of using marionettes to illustrate the inner workings of the characters' minds. It's a little long and overwrought right now. We would suggest you ignore the rave reviews you are going to see -- get your tickets for the end of the run, when the show, like a good soup, has had a little time for all the flavors to blend.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through October 31
$29-$73 (half price tickets available)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Olive Kittredge" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Word 4 Word has a new house. Last night they premiered two short stories from Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kittredge," at Z-Space in the Theater Artaud complex, where the company shall maintain a residency into the near future.

It's never easy to review a Word 4 Word performance because they are always perfect. Really. Every word counts, not only because the actors are so good but because the stories chosen are literary standouts to start with. In the two Olive Kittredge stories, "Tulips" and "River," Patricia Silver is a spot-on perfect Olive, reclusive, cantankerous, sad with unspoken memories but alive with observations about the world she lives in. Warren David Keith plays Jack Kennison in "River," and Paul Finocchiaro plays Henry Kitteridge, in "Tulips," and both are excellent foils for Silver's dissatisfaction.

What a grump she is. At one point, Henry wraps Olive in a hug. Olive rolls her eyes and stares out to space. She says (in narration): "She stood, waiting for the hug to end." In another example, she is worried that she enjoys walking by the river each morning, three miles up and three miles back. "Her one concern was that it might let her live longer."

But she is, in fact, seeking happiness like everyone else in this sleepy town. Perhaps she finds it at the end, perhaps not.

Her relationship with her son Christopher, played by Patrick Alparone, is hinted at in both stories, and he and the other minor characters are excellently rendered by Jeri Lynn Cohen (Mary Blackwell), Nancy Shelby (Louise Larkin) and especially Michelle Bellaver who plays Christopher's momentary wife Suzanne as well as a particularly nasty waitress. The ensemble plays multiple comedic roles, appearing as roller bladers or stroller pushes or an elderly couple walking by the river or gossipers in a local cafe.

These are sad stories of lives advancing with much regret, but the Word 4 Word format always leaves you with a sense of hope, because no matter how bleak their lives, Word 4 Word characters always tell great stories.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Olive Kittredge" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The actors are all excellent and Joel Mullennix's direction gives us plenty of rumination time as well as enough comedy to distract us from Olive's dour sense of impending doom. One of these small bits earns the BANGLE OF PRAISE: The Scots. They persevered!

"Olive Kittredge"
Z Space at Theater Artaud
450 Florida Street (at Mariposa Street), San Francisco
Through Sept. 26
$30-$40, discounts available