Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Clybourne Park: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

You know something is happening when they extend a show before it even opens. Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park," which is barely a year old but has been winning prizes everywhere it goes, opened last night at A.C.T. and delivers on every promise.

Though originally from Dallas, Texas, Norris is considered a "Chicago playwright." Clybourne Park is a neighborhood in Chicago -- not a real neighborhood, but the very one invented by Lorraine Hansberry in her epic 1957 drama "Raisin in the Sun." In "Raisin" we watch what happens when a black family wants to move into the white neighborhood of "Clybourne Park," and now Bruce Norris tells the story of the house itself, and what happens as time passes and demographics begin to change.

Act One takes place in 1959. Russ (Anthony Fusco) and Bev (René Augesen) are moving from their white neighborhood. Their living room is filled with packing boxes and memories (the nature of which become increasingly important). It turns out their house has been sold to a black family (the fictional "Raisin" family), which engenders an exceedingly uncomfortable half hour in which we must revisit a world we all hoped to leave far behind us.

You might practice squirming at home before you see Act One. If Richard Thieriot as Karl Lindner doesn't rattle your brain with his supercilious racial stereotyping, then you're just not old enough.

In Act Two the year is 2009 and the same house has been sold to a young white couple, Lindsey (Emily Kitchens) and Steve (Thierot), who want to tear it down and build a 'nicer one.' They are in conflict with Lena (Omozé Idehenre) and Kevin (Gregory Wallace), a black couple who, though obviously upper middle class themselves, have familial ties to both the neighborhood and the house itself.

And then there's the house's secret. But this secret, which unfolds as the play continues, is no more secret than the unspoken fears about race that no one can allow himself or herself to verbalize. In 1959, the neighbors are just plain oblivious, while in 2009 they ought to know better, but they don't. If there is blame it is shared: no one is willing to speak from the heart.

Until the jokes start. Well. Do you know why a white woman is like a tampon? Ask Lena. Do you know what is long and hard for a black man? Ask Steve. Once these scabrous and hysterical jokes start flying around the room, laughter can begin. And despite the surprisingly sad conclusion, the author leaves us with the sense that with laughter we can overcome a lot, especially when we step back and laugh at, and with, ourselves.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Clybourne Park" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for excellent writing. It's just a great play, one that surprises you, shocks you, makes you cringe and then pays it all off. Playwrights often throw all their best stuff into Act One and then fizzle out in Act Two. Norris sets the stage in Act One and then writes the book on how to construct an Act Two.

Along with Jeff Mockus's Sound Design (great song choices) we also want to recognize director Jonathan Moscone for perfect pacing. A ponderous Act One might be too much to bear. Moscone (and the cast) are just laying a foundation to build on in Act Two, like good plays and strong houses are supposed to do.

"Clybourne Park"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Extended through Feb. 20

Photos by Erik Tomasson

Monday, January 24, 2011

"The Thirty Nine Steps": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

If, like handsome, suave and debonair Richard Hannay, you long for something mindless, trivial and utterly pointless, but also a load of laughs and a ton of fun, we recommend the new Theaterworks production of "The Thirty Nine Steps" at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. An homage to Alfred Hitchcock films, the show is a collection of sight gags containing Hitchcockian bits, English drawing room humor and Monty Pythonesque slapstick. Above all we get brilliant performances from Mark Anderson Phillips as Hannay, and Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown who play all the other roles, and there are many, which are not being portrayed by the glorious Rebecca Dines.

Oh, there are train chases (a real one and a toy one), and a puppet or two, and a murder, sort of, and true love, in a way, and a bullet stopped by a hymnal (that's Sherlock Holmes, isn't it?). But it's not the journey we care about --it's how the production takes us there. Our favorite bits are where the small cast takes odds and ends (like chairs, hooks, a podium, hats) and turns them into a train compartment or a motorcar or a hotel room. The show is at least as much fun to watch as to hear.

Every star should get a supporting cast like Dines, Hiatt and Brown. Two scenes stand out among many -- the hat sequence on the train, where a simple turn to the rear and change of hat allows all the characters to switch roles in an instant, and then switch back in another instant; and the bedroom scene in the Scottish inn where the innkeepers flit in and out.

In fact, we loved everything where there are Scots. Why are Scots so funny? Perhaps because the shows about them are always written by Englishmen.

Special kudos to Costume Designer B. Modern for all those period costumes (there are over 60 costume changes between Mr. Hiatt and Brown alone), and to lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt for his clever cues which help us keep our eyes on the important stuff and off where everyone is frantically changing clothes and hats.

Thirty Nine Steps has been in the Bay Area at least twice before and it keeps coming back because people love it. So will you.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Thirty Nine Steps" Three Stars with two, count'em, two BANGLES OF PRAISE. One star is for the cast, another for the production and a third for Robert Kelley's lighting fast direction. The first BANGLE is for the way Phillips extricates himself from under the dead Fraulein Schmidt. We could watch that scene over and over. The other BANGLE is for the hats. Oh, and the handcuffs!

"The Thirty Nine Steps"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Feb. 13

Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mike Daisey: "The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It's almost impossible to compare "The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs" with "The Last Cargo Cult," both of which are written and performed by the monologist Mike Daisey, and are playing in repertory at Berkeley Rep.

In both, Daisey sits behind a desk and spins his story, but whereas in "Cargo Cult" you hear a story that is fun but played for laughs, "The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs" hits you in the gut. It is still very funny, but the world you live in changes after you see this show.

The difference between the two shows is easy to see -- this one hits Mike Daisey where he lives too. He is a true techno-file, and has been an Apple maniac since his first Apple 2C. The narrative is divided into two alternating story lines -- the first, which is a veritable history of the computer industry with an emphasis on Apple and its co-founder Steve Jobs; and the second, which is a first-hand report of a trip Daisey made to Southern China and the appalling and eye-opening conditions he found existing in the factory where "they produce 52% of the electronics in the entire world. That means half of all YOUR shit."

We get fabulous images, told by a man who is more than a tourist (which is how he comes across in "Cargo Cult"). He is a true believer who is trying hard to hang onto his faith. We see the Hong Kong markets "where cell phones hang on wires like freshly caught fish," the godawful city of Shenzen, only a few decades ago a fishing village with seven thousand people but now the third largest city in China with more than fourteen MILLION inhabitants; and we hear about the grinding daily lives of the workers who turn out to be anxious to speak with the large American in the Hawaiian shirt.

In between we get a fascinating story about Steve Jobs himself, the mad genius who built Apple but was impossible to work with, and what happened to him and to the corporation when he was removed from power and then rehired a dozen years later. In Daisey's blog he speaks about his sorrow at Jobs's current resignation from Apple for health reasons, and how no one can imagine the company continuing without him.

These are words from someone who drank the Apple Kool-Aid a long time ago but is asking all of us to at least consider the cost in Chinese lives, before we plunk down many hundreds for more new, slick, well-designed gadgets. We have to report that we too found ourselves staring differently this morning at our snappy and shiny MacBook Pro. (Sigh. It sure is nice, though.)

Go see this show. Put DOWN the I-Pad. Go.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Mike Daisey's "The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs" Four SOLID stars, and if he wants to add a few musical numbers we will think about raising it. One comment he makes at the end of the show (and remember, this is a long evening -- two hours with no letup, no costume changes, no car chases and no intermission) has stuck with us all day: with all the complaining and whining in the first world about how machines have taken over our production, the fact is that the most complex electronic gizmos in our world are basically made by hand in China by workers laboring like they did in cloth factories in England in 1850.

That's what we get with "hand made." It makes this reporter wonder where is the Chinese Charles Dickens?

Mike Daisey: "The Agony and Ecstacy of Steve Jobs"
Berkeley Repertory Theater, Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
In repertory with "The Last Cargo Cult," through February 27.
$34-$73, many discounts available

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Mike Daisey: The Last Cargo Cult": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The lights come halfway up on Mike Daisey, a heavy-set man sitting behind a wooden desk, glass of water to his right, hand towel folded in back of the glass, a few sheets of yellow paper in front of him. He inhales, places his palms gently on the desk, then the lights come up and Daisey goes ballistic. He yells, screams, rants, f-bombs, wipes acculmulated sweat off his face with his towel, looks right, looks left. He is infuriated. He is humiliated. He is terrified. He is out of patience. And then Part One is over.

He folds over one piece of yellow paper and glances at the one underneath it. He takes a deep breath and starts screaming again. This is Part Two.

Seven Parts and two full hours later we have heard about the islands of Vanuatu and Manhattan, a cargo cult religion called John Frum, a volcano, problems with where to send your kids to school, the way his wife drives and the way our culture values our "awesome shit" -- that is, our cargo. We have heard about fermented yam paste, and the history of America. MOST OF ALL we have listened to a man rant about money. Money causes nothing but grief but everyone wants more. Mike Daisey wants more. This seems to be at the heart of his schtick. He needs more awesome shit.

He sits in front of a massive row of accumulated gift boxes, from every major retailer, except they are all empty, which appears to be an apt metaphor. If the box is empty, you need to go buy another box with something in it.

It's hard to like Mike Daisey, the character, but this is his choice. He works hard at keeping the viewer at arm's length. Warm and fuzzy he's not. But you have to love Mike Daisey, the actor. He is fascinating. And hard working. And if you don't mind being screamed at, or hearing the f-bomb used so much it loses all meaning, or if you can find truth in his simplistic view of economics ("everything in your culture has a price but nothing has any value") -- you may find a kindred spirit in "The Last Cargo Cult."

The show is very strong but, for us, could use editing. Two hours is a very long time to watch a young man schvitzing behind a desk. At an hour and a half this may be a brilliant show. At two hours you are, more than anything else, astonished that the performer can expend this much energy every night.

They do interesting things with lighting the boxes, and there are a few musical cues here and there, but "The Last Cargo Cult" is all about Mike Daisey, period. His performance takes your breath away, and his too.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Mike Daisey: The Last Cargo Cult" three stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a bauble of despair. The BANGLE is for his description of IKEA ("their boxes warm our hearts like their meatballs warm our stomachs"). And we agree with his definition of money as 'liquid power.'

The bauble is an easy one to fix. The show is currently too long. In our opinion the natural ending is at the volcano. But that's just one idea. Take away one or two yellow pieces of paper and "The Last Cargo Cult" would knock us over the head with its power, rather than scream us into submission.

Mike Daisey: "The Last Cargo Cult"
Berkeley Rep, Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
In repertory, through February 27.
$34-$73, many discounts available

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Jeff Greenwald: "Strange Travel Suggestions": ☼ ☼ ☼

It's tricky business to see one of Jeff Greenwald's "Strange Travel Suggestions" shows, playing currently through January 22 at the Marsh Berkeley. You listen to him talk of faraway places and part of you wants to stand right up, throw down your pencil and get on the next plane to anywhere. Everywhere. Whatever, let's go.

Then he gets to the luggage carousel at Calcutta International Airport and you sit back down, thinking: "Maybe let's just sit on the sofa and rent a movie about it."

Seeing Jeff Greenwald is like renting the movie. He talks, you listen. Greenwald is a gifted storyteller. The best travel stories, like the best travels and the best stories, usually involve something weird popping up unexpectedly, and Greenwald doesn't disappoint you. You wait for the weirdness. You're ecstatic when he crosses his legs and drops the chicken. You love the leather-bound "COMPLAINTS" book. You prefer it when he has some attitude, and somewhat less when he is simply describing something gorgeous, as in his dawn scuba dive in the Philippines.

This is the yin and yang of Jeff Greenwald. He's the kind of guy you want to come over for dinner. You want to listen to him laugh and spin his tales, even though you know perfectly well that the details change over time. He's a little preachy, tossing off little nuggets like "I spoke Nepali quite well," as if you should just accept that a Jewish guy from Oakland would OF COURSE speak Nepali, but he is also respectful of the local cultures he is visiting, and of his place in them.

Above all he's funny and fun. An evening at the theater listening to Jeff Greenwald makes you remember that the world is divided into travelers and visitors. Listening to Jeff you are a visitor, but he makes you want to get out there and hit the road.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Jeff Greenwald's "Strange Travel Suggestions" Three Stars. It's a low-key affair, with Greenwald taking audience volunteers to spin the travel wheel which will more or less determine the story he chooses to relate. It is less satisfying when you end up hearing the same story you have heard before at a previous show, because it was a lot funnier when it was new.

Maybe Greenwald should sell Story Cancellation insurance. If he tells a story you have heard him tell before, you get a free cookie. Hey, it works for the airlines.

Jeff Greenwald's "Strange Travel Suggestions"
The Marsh (Berkeley)
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
Through Jan 22
$20-$35 sliding scale

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Doug's List 2010

When you see as many shows as we did in 2010 it's easy to allow a gem to fall through the crinkly cracks of our diminishing human RAM. Which is to say when we take the time to review what we saw last year, we are astonished at how many standouts there were.

From January's brilliant "Animals out of Paper" at SF Playhouse through December's innovative masterpiece "Lemony Snicket: The Composer is Dead" at Berkeley Rep, we saw musicals, dramas and comedies on big stages and little stages, under tents, in playhouses and in the park. Some companies lavished $$Big Bucks$$ on their productions and some barely had money for extra shoe laces, but rich or poor, with casts of 1 or 40, the common denominator was excellence. What a great year.

Here are our favorite shows of the year 2010, by month, with links to their reviews. Some months there were several bedazzlers but we have restricted our list to a dozen. Thank you to all the brilliant actors and playwrights, artistic directors and producers, lighters, stagers, costumers and musicians. Thanks, too, to our fellow reviewers. Our opinions are not always the same but we all have a profound appreciation of the immensity of the task at hand: to unearth a great story and let the audience in on the secret.

Here we go:

January: "Animals Out of Paper" at San Francisco Playhouse.

February: "Oedipus El Rey" (adapted by Loretta Greco) at the Magic.

March: "The Real Americans" (Dan Hoyle) at the Marsh

April: (no winner)

May: "Peter Pan" under the tent on the Embarcadero

June: "The Tosca Project" at A.C.T.

July: "Auctioning the Ainsleys" at Theaterworks

August: "The Light in the Piazza" (Adam Guittel), also at Theaterworks

September: "Olive Kittredge" (Word 4 Word) at Z Space

October: West Side Story" at the Orpheum

November: "Or" at the Magic

December (2): "Shrek" at the Orpheum and "Lemony Snicket: The Composer is Dead" at Berkeley Rep.

There are others good enough to have made the cut had the competition not been so stiff. Several that stick in the memory are Alice Childress's "Trouble in Mind" at the Aurora, Terrell Alvin McCraney's "The Brothers Size" at the Magic and Steven Adly Giurgis's "Den of Thieves" at SF Playhouse.

How good is that? And it's only going to get better. See you all next January One.

-- Doug