Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Pidge Meade: Forty Pounds in Twelve Weeks": ☼ ☼ ☼

When Pidge Meade came home for the summer after she had put on forty pounds as a college freshman, her gymnastics coach Dad told her she had to lose that weight before he would pay a penny for her Fall semester. In "Forty Pounds in Twelve Weeks" the young Pidge is faced with a monumental task -- and it is made so much harder by her father's consistently cruel commentaries on her progress. Meade, the average-sized performer, makes us root for the success of Meade, the young overweight woman. This is not such a simple task since we can already see the results with our own eyes.

Meade plays all the parts of her story -- herself, her ex-roommate in college, her father, her mother, a Carnival barker (possibly the best of all these roles), the guru of weight loss and others. Charlie Varon directs, so we can be sure there will be no wasted dialog. Meade hits her musical cues with precision and when you get done with the evening you leave with new appreciation for all the people portrayed in her show -- her parents, trying to help but helpless; her friends, dying to have her 'secret,' except that there isn't one; and most of all the plight of so many among us who face a far more daunting task to lose that weight than the rest of us ever imagine.

We loved Meade's portrayal of her parents and her side characters. We will never hear "the proof is in the pudding" again without flinching. But if the show has an Achilles heel it is that the central character, the young Pidge Meade, is not as enthralling as the others. Since the show is basically one long flashback and we are looking at the end result in front of us, we can't root as hard for her as we might if we saw her start out heavy and end up thin. So what we have is basically a travel story -- her journey matters far more than her destination. We would like her portrayal of herself, true or not, to give us a little less hand-wringing and a few more brilliant moments like the scene in the car with her Dad.

Perhaps that scene most typifies Meade's power. She is forced by her Dad to sing the show tune with which she auditioned for the lead in a school play. Pidge Meade can sing, friends! What a glorious voice -- but of course, she did not get the part and we all know why. This simple scene illustrates what so many words could not. A few more scenes like this one will take "Forty Pounds in Twelve Weeks" to another level. Pidge Meade is the real deal.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Pidge Meade: Forty Pounds in Twelve Weeks" Three Stars. It's a lovely show that has only now graduated to the bigger stage after Meade won the Marsh's Performance Initiative Competition. We are certain the show will grow in power as she grows out of her memory and into the hearts of her audience.


"Pidge Meade: Forty Pounds in Twelve Weeks"
The Marsh
1074 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through March 26
$15-$35 sliding scale

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Christopher Titus: Neverlution": ☼ ☼

"Lady Gaga is proof that David Bowie married Carole Burnett." Comedian Christopher Titus's new solo show "Neverlution" is full of lines like that. The show has some brilliant moments but it's unsettling. You never quite get over the sensation that people younger than you are laughing 'way louder than they should be laughing.

Titus stands on the stage and rants about various things. His idea about late-term abortions (they should be legal up to the age of 22), and his comments about America being addicted to prescription drugs are really funny. His experience at the DMV where an out-of-control obese five year old manages to make the DMV even worse, which segues into Titus's view on child-raising in modern America, make your head smack back in your seat as the laughter flows. His ideas and delivery are excellent and some of the gags are truly novel. It's all good.

But -- honestly -- why would you want to pay theater ticket prices to see a comic who is doing little more than his night club act? Wouldn't you rather get two drinks for your money at a comedy club?

But Titus is not appearing at a comedy club, he's standing in the middle of a theater stage lampooning modern culture. And yet, that's the only reason he's got an audience. He's been on TV. That makes him worthy. It rubs us the wrong way to hear about his humble East Bay roots -- OK, he never got an A in his life, wow that's GREAT Chris! That means it's OK to charge $42 for a ticket and $4 for a bottle of water at intermission. Got it.

It may be generational. The twenty and thirty-somethings who were laughing the loudest probably were closer to the source of Titus's rampages. He's a funny guy.

RATINGS: The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Christopher Titus" Neverlution" Two Stars. There are lots of great bits. If you're into contemporary culture you'll enjoy watching Titus rant about it.

"Christopher Titus: Neverlution:
Marine's Memorial Theater
609 Sutter Street, San Francisco
SHORT RUN: Four more performances ONLY, through Feb. 19

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sarah Felder: "Out of Sight" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

It is an undeniable truth that even the most experienced reviewers sometimes see shows dealing with subjects with which we cannot relate. In those cases we do our best to concentrate on the theatrical aspects of the presentation in front of us.

Then comes the rare show that talks about, basically, the reviewer's life. Sarah Felder's "Out of Sight" is one of those. Take away the Lesbian part and the female part and you've got a middle aged Jewish protagonist with an elderly almost-blind mother with whom she can talk about almost anything, as long as it's not Israel.

Mom, you're not reading this, are you? No, you can't. You're almost blind.

Sarah Felder is a genius. She is also a juggler. Every time her show gets to an emotional crisis, she starts to juggle. It might be lemons, it might be scarves, it might be passing a little red nerf ball back and forth between her arms and shoulders and chin with grace and tenderness. She uses shadow puppets to great advantage, especially at the end. And when she is talking about her time as a college student visiting Israel, and she saw that her mother's beloved Israel was in fact flawed and full of hypocrisy, she is standing on a long board balancing on a beach ball as she juggles three large and nasty looking knives. She is caught in that all-too familiar balancing act, whenever she must discuss the tough stuff.

Our favorite scenes: her mother at the opera. Her friend Norman and his conversion. The way she describes falling in love for the first time with a woman she meets in Israel: "She knows about Israel supporting apartheid in South Africa, and the contras, and Pinochet, and taking away the rights of the Palestinians. Wow, she's hot!"

Our city is filled with amazing solo performers. Only one juggles. Sarah Felder has just been extended at the Marsh for five more weeks. You don't have to be Jewish or gay or a juggler to love this performer. We could not recommend her more highly.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Sarah Felder's "Out of Sight" Four Stars and they are gleaming (!). You get eighty minutes of a story filled with laughter and love. She gives you lemons and makes you the lemonade. Above all, she makes it look easy. Don't miss Sarah Felder.

Sarah Felder: "Out of Sight"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through Mar 27, weekends only
$20-$35 (very small theater. NO bad seats.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"What We're Up Against": ☼ ☼ BANG

In her third Bay production in four years, Theresa Rebeck appears to be on a roll, Her basic theme is unchanged: power and politics in interpersonal relationships. Whereas 2008's "The Scene" was about the entertainment biz and 2009's "Mauritius" about a struggle between sisters over an estate, "What We're Up Against" deals with sexism in the workplace.

There are many interesting sidelines to the story of the new female hire in the architecture firm, Eliza (played by Sarah Nealls). She has been shunted to a rear office and given no assignments while the young pretty boy Weber (James Wagner) receives every opportunity to excel. Eliza's boss Stu (Warren David Keith) and her co-workers Ben (Rod Gnapp) and Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) are not sympathetic to her plight, as they are caught up in insecurities about their own jobs.

Stu is a drunk. Janice is the good little girl. Eliza is a bitch. Weber is an idiot. Ben is --- well, Ben is Rod Gnapp, slightly dyspeptic, world-weary and in the end always the diamond in the rough. We like Ben. We don't much care for any of the others.

As with "Mauritius," it is hard to call "What We're Up Against" a comedy but harder still to name it a drama. It is too entertaining to be called a polemic but there is too little motion to call it great theater. The characters remain unchanged by the final curtain and their problems have not been dealt with. The best we can hope for is that Ben and Eliza go out for dinner and don't strangle each other.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "What We're Up Against" Two Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Though this rating falls slightly below the Julie Andrews Line (see sidebar on right for explanation of ratings), you will enjoy Warren David Keith (brilliantly seamy). Sarah Nealls is good as the pretty girl everyone figures is sleeping with the big boss David (never seen). And you'll root for Rod Gnapp to figure it all out.

The BANGLE is for Stu, who is just plain bewildered by women. He makes us think he means it when he says "She tricked me. But I wasn't fooled."

Could James Wagner's Weber REALLY describe a shopping mall as "...the human heart meets the void in those places and shops anyway." Could Pamela Gaye Walker's Janice actually fawn THAT fatuously, and either of them still be employed the next day?

Apparently. The critic's wife, who worked for many years in an environment like Rebeck's architecture firm, assures him that not only is every word in this show true but in real life it's even worse. Way worse. There's your tragedy.

"What We're Up Against"
Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Through March 6

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Collapse": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

What a fine story. Allison Moore's "Collapse" has everything -- a perfect cast of four, craziness, love, a sex addict support group, a collapsed bridge, a marriage heading for the deep water, even a happy ending. Well, not happy ha ha but happy ai yai yai.

Plus, you get Amy Resnick, who is the nut in charge of the fruitcake. She plays Hannah's sister Susan (we'll get to Hannah in a second). Susan is trouble, wrapped up in a layer of delusionary psychobabble. Hannah, played with equal brilliance by Carrie Paff, is falling apart, while maintaining the veneer of control.

Meanwhile, Hannah's husband David (Gabriel Marin), has suffered a tragedy which has rendered him emotionally impotent, but sexually potent, apparently, while Ted (Aldo Billingslea) has had prostate cancer which means he can emote like mad but no longer do the deed.

The laughs come a mile a minute, but they make you think too. Susan's final line "OK, but you're buyin' the pancakes" is very funny, but Hannah and David's final couplet really defines the show:

David: "How do we keep from collapsing?"

Hannah: "Maybe we don't. Maybe we just figure out how to fall together."

Paff, Marin, Resnick and Billingslea are fabulous, the writing is perfect and the small Aurora stage makes you feel like you're right in the middle of it all. Special shout-out for the original music, written and recorded by James Mitchell, Adam Thompson and Neil Wadhawan.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Collapse" Four Stars, one for the writer, two for the actors and director Jessica Heidt and one more because this show just makes you feel good. Even a theater critic needs a good laugh and "Collapse" delivers them in bunches.

Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Mar 6

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Harper Regan": ☼ ☼ ☼

In each pivotal scene in Simon Stephens's "Harper Regan" we see Harper herself, played with finesse by Susi Damilano, alternating between sad and sadder. She is on the run, even when she's home, and when she leaves home she longs to be back. The San Francisco Playhouse production is a Western Premiere and bills itself as a physical odyssey through England, but it is nothing of the sort. Harper's journey is an internal one and could take place anywhere, as she winds herself through three men, a bar, a bridge, a hotel room and a leather jacket.

Damilano, in her finest role to date at SF Playhouse, gives her heroine depth simply by her facial expressions. The corners of her mouth turn down when she's glum, but her eyes always betray the hope of finding something or someone new.

It won't be her boss or Mickey (both played with pizazz by Richard Frederick), worthless reprobates, and not the young boy at the bridge (Daniel Redmond), and certainly not her mother (Joy Carlin). Harper's husband Seth and her fast fling James (both played by Michael Keys Hall) don't seem to help much either. What Harper Regan wants, more than anything else in the world, is to talk to somebody.

We might quibble with Joy Carlin's role as an English grandmother -- though we have loved Ms. Carlin in countless works through the years, this play seems to have a strong subtext about the English class struggle. Carlin does not sound English nor does she appear to embody whichever social class the author expects us to find in her. Mum is supposed to be distant, we imagine, but really she isn't all that bad.

Special notice goes to Monique Hafen, who stands out in both her roles as Harper's disaffected teenage daughter (is there any other kind?) and as a nurse in the hospital where Harper's father has just died. She brings a lot of life to the stage.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Harper Regan" Three Stars. It is worth seeing, though Stephens's story still feels a little like a work in progress, with loose ends and plot points (for example, all the idle chatter about porn) that don't seem to go where they should. Damilano and Hafen are terrific as mother and daughter. We hope they are on stage together again soon.

"Harper Regan"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through March 5