Sunday, March 13, 2011

"The Homecoming": ☼ ☼ ☼

First performed in London on June 3, 1965, Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" always seems on the surface like Theater of the Absurd. The characters are impossible to picture in real life, the situation is unimaginable and the way everyone is simply reacting, not interacting, makes you wonder upon whom Pinter could have based his story? Is there another family in East London like this one? Could there be?

It is certainly a brilliant production. A.C.T.'s core company does itself pround, with Jack Willis in particular turning himself with relish into the ultra-crochety patriarch Max. Rene Augesen's Ruth and Anthony Fusco's Teddy are the principal couple. You immediately realize that all the others, including Max's brother Sam (Kenneth Welsh), middle son Lenny (Andrew Polk) and youngest son Joey (Adam O'Byrne) are playing their hands with several cards missing from all three decks, but you're counting on Ruth and Teddy to make sense of the situation. Don't do it.

Pinter plays are like trips to a literate zoo. You can love the dialog, laugh heartily at the absurd situations, laud the playwright in your mind for his examination of each character and perception of each's fatal flaw, but you can never quite answer the question: why are we here? These are creatures unlike any of us. Why did he write about them? Why should we care?

The answer appears to be that we care because Pinter makes us care. Not unlike viewing a large collection of flamingos in their native habitat, plumage on fire, we observe this family homecoming in all its native insanity, beautiful in its way, but we know those fragile limbs can't hold these daft birds upright forever.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Homecoming" Three Stars, but it's a guess. If you love Pinter, you may give it four. The acting is that good. If you're really depressed you may give it five because this bunch has to make your world look sweet as whipped cream on plum pudding.

We're settling on three. You'll want to punch Max, shake Ruth, shy away from Lenny and Joey, smack Teddy a few times on the butt and hug Sam. Pinter died in 2008 so he's no help to us now. We've got to slap our way through this one on our own.

"The Homecoming"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through March 27

"The North Pool": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ! BANG

With but one scene and two actors, Rajiv Joseph's new 'The North Pool' does everything a play is supposed to do. It involves you, tricks you, gets you rooting for first one, then the other character, makes you figure out what is going on, and then you see the fallout shelter, and the bird containers, and the truth is you don't know anything, do you? Then we rip off in a different direction and the thunder begins. Joseph's dialog -- after all, this is all there is -- is stunning, the characters fully developed and in the end our hearts would be broken, if we weren't a little awe-struck.

Strong words from The Reviewer Who Didn't Like Rock of Ages? (Will you please stop throwing that stuff!) Yes, indeed. This Theatreworks production, directed by Giovanna Sardelli, is a World Premiere in Palo Alto, and we can scarcely imagine how much stronger it can get as the run continues.

Khadim Asmaan (Adam Poss) is a high school student who has been called into Vice Principal Danielson's office. Scenic Designer Erik Flatmo must have spent a lot time there himself because he got it right: the map behind the desk, the American flag, the too-small chairs, the trophies in the trophy case, the view through his window to the lockers behind. It gives you the shivers.

Dr. Danielson (Remi Sandri), middle aged and balding, starts off with a lot of banalities, but he has an agenda. It's not what you think it is at first, or second, but you come to understand he is seeking something important from Khadim. For his part, Khadim appears to be a perfectly normal, well-adjusted and intelligent kid, but soon you realize he is lying through his teeth. After that the map comes down and we see what's behind it. Now the real story gets rolling and you don't know where it will stop.

We'll give you a hint: Playwright Joseph is not writing about racism, but the other r-word: redemption.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ! BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards "The North Pool" Four Stars! with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The four stars are for the four monster performances, by Poss, Sandri, Director Sardelli and Author Joseph. The BANGLE has to go to Adam Poss for Khadim's remarkable confession scene -- and that is followed by one of almost equal emotional power from Sandri's Vice Principal. We see two people, alone in the world and carrying a terrible burden, from whose clutches only one can relieve the other. This is quite an achievement for a One Acter with two characters and no car chases. Congratulations to everyone.

"The North Pool"
Lucie Stern Theater,
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through April 3
Photo credits: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Friday, March 11, 2011

Word 4 Word "The Islanders": ☼ ☼ ☼

You won't get to see Word 4 Word's presentation of Andrew Sean Greer's "The Islanders" unless you hurry to Z Space this weekend. The short run is a tune up for the company as they head off to France. Sheila Balter directs the story of friendship between two American women in their forties as they travel through the countryside of Ireland.

Nancy Shelby is Maddy, the more introspective one, and Stephanie Hunt is Cat, her loquacious and slightly loony old friend. We learn about them both, Cat behind the wheel and Maddy reading the guidebook, each somewhat irritated by the other, until the final incident when Maddy's life is in danger and Cat blows the whistle.

As always, Word 4 Word ensembles are every bit as entertaining as the main characters, with Paul Finocchiaro, Delia MacDougall and Joel Mullenix singing Irish songs, pretending to be trees, rocks and bandits, while illustrating each bit of Greer's story exposition with over-the-top antics. This company is such a pleasure to watch as they go about their work as effortlessly as if they and the audience were all drinking beer in a local pub.

But there's a lot of Andrea Weber's choreography going on that you don't notice, and Joshua Raoul Brody's sound design helps keep the show flowing. Ms. McDougall has a beautiful Irish voice -- we could use more songs from her and Mr. Finocchiaro.

Bon chance, mes amis. Do they speak English in France? Or Ireland, for that matter?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Word 4 Word's "The Islanders" Three Stars. It's a short story -- the presentation lasts only one hour, including songs at the start -- but a sweet one. We love it when "unceremoniously, the video presentation ends." We've all been there. Our question is: do the Irish ever sing about anything except liquor, lost love and sadness, in reverse order?

"Word 4 Word "The Islanders"
Z Space Theater
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through Mar 12 ONLY

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Rock of Ages": ☼ ☼ BANG

It is easy to lampoon Rock of Ages, the silly story wrapped around '80's rock music that opened last night to an enthusiastic audience at the Curran. But first you've got to decide whether they're serious or not. Is this a parody of the mid-'80s music scene in Los Angeles, or is it, in fact, a tribute to Whitesnake and Journey and Foreigner and the various other rockers whose songs are featured?

We suppose it is probably both. As a parody it lacks practically everything -- story, humor, interest -- and spends most of its time laughing self-consciously at itself. But as a tribute "Rock of Ages" at least attempts to kick some serious butt. If you loved "I've Been Waiting for a Girl Like You" or "We Built This City (on Rock and Roll)" when they first came out, you'll enjoy the powerhouse four piece band and thank the show's lead singers who at least make us realize how good the original singers were.

Constantine Maroulis is the lead. He plays the poor boy who makes good. Maroulis was a finalist of some kind on American Idol, just to let you know. His love-interest counterpart is Sherrie (Elicia MacKenzie), who has been rejected by her parents in Kansas because she wants to be a star in L.A. The two would-be lovers have an astonishingly imperceptible amount of chemistry going on between them, but it might have something to do with their hair: Maroulis's is longer than MacKenzie's.

We mention hair because it is an icon of the show. But that's hair with a small h. "Rock of Ages" would love to be mentioned in the same breath with the original Hair -- in its casting, its costuming and its vibe. But Hair had fabulous original music and it was about an age. "Rock of Ages" has 25-year-old music and is about -- well, having a good time. Nothing wrong with that.

We also get terribly bad-taste jokes about drugs -- and poop too -- but the show's writers give us nothing about what the music meant to the period.

This is what is so irritating. These were great songs, whether you were into them or not, with amazing bands and astonishing lead singers. The current "Rock of Ages" seems to be right on schedule with the state of rock and roll in our American Idol world -- lots of people who have practiced to find notes in the proper range, but without any sense of the feeling that first imbued this music with so much life.

The audience around you will be young. They will be cheering. Don't leave at intermission -- Act Two is a lot better than dreary Act One.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rock of Ages" Two Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Two Stars are for the three characters who steal the show: Nick Cordero as Dennis, Casey Tuma as Regina and Travis Walker as Franz. Cordero has a voice for the ages, plus a stage presence none of the others possess, including the narrator Lonny (Patrick Lewallen) who tries really, really hard to be Jack Black; Tuma's Gilda Radner-esque protester is winning and eye-catching; and Walker's line as Franz, the fey-ish son of the evil real estate developer, wins the BANGLE OF PRAISE: "I'm not gay! I'm German!"

"Rock of Ages"
Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through April 9

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"Ruined": ☼ ☼

Lynn Nottage is hot now. We loved her "Intimate Apparel" a few years ago, and since her new show "Ruined" has won a Pulitzer for Drama and many other New York theater awards, we looked forward with excitement to this new production at Berkeley Rep.

Our subject is rape in the Congo. In the real world there are many women whose lives have been destroyed by bands of militia roaming the African countryside. In Nottage's story, several of these women end up in Mama Nadi's bar/whorehouse. Mama Nadi herself (Tonye Patano) is a large, effusive women who attempts to peddle whiskey and sex to all comers -- which is to say miners and soldiers from all sides of every struggle. Guns must be emptied and ammo clips stored behind the bar before you're allowed to sample any of the wares in Mama's, which tells us Mama is the only glue holding this conflicted part of the world together. (Think Rick in Casablanca.)

The story line belongs to the girls, Salima (Pascale Armand), Sophie (Carla Duren) and Josephine (Zainab Jah).

They are the ones who have suffered the most. Salima's history is particularly gruesome -- kidnapped and shackled to a tree by the ankle, she was raped repeatedly for five months by soldiers in the jungle. "I was soup before dinner, everyone take a taste," she says. Then, when she finally escaped, she was rejected by her husband and family because now she was damaged goods. In other words: ruined.

Everyone is trapped. Our hearts are broken for these women -- in real life, anyway. But the play is leaden. The playwright pontificates, the direction is heavy-handed and the set is filled with so many African objects all the actors barely have room to move, let alone stomp their feet. The language spoken is an African/English patois, mixed with French we are guessing. It is very difficult to decipher, let alone comprehend, more than a percentage of what any character says.

Even the Congolese music falls short, and this is difficult to do to such a catchy and danceable style. Although the two-person band has a superior musical pedigree (guitarist Adesoji Odukogbe played for five years with superstar Fela), their tunes never go anywhere. The guitarist noodles, the percussionist doodles and Carla Duren sings in a reedy voice that we suppose is meant to convey her discomfort and unhappiness. It doesn't help that the songs, like the dialog, are in a dialect we cannot follow.

Only at the very end, when the happy-in-quotes ending we knew was coming finally arrives, and Duren and Armand sing a lovely duet together, do we see what a difference taking the wraps off this irrepressible music might have made for Nottage's story, if not for our comprehension, then at least to convey the sense of inner beauty the playwright feels for this forgotten center of Africa. As it is, "Ruined" is mostly about tragedy and it is unremitting.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Ruined" Two Stars. The baddies are truly bad (Adrian Roberts as Commander Osembenga makes you want to duck under your seat so he can't find you) and that's always good. Tonye Patano can really sing (but you only get to hear her in one little chorus). Oberon K.A. Adjepong as Christian guzzles an entire Fanta as the show starts (we hope he doesn't have to do matinees too). He gets another Fanta in Act Two, but only takes a few sips.

Sadly, the show starts and ends in the same place. Mama Nadi's surprise is telegraphed a million miles away, and all we have to cheer for is the hope that these few women, out of the tens of thousands of others in the real word, can find a Mama to help them. They'll still be selling sex to survive, but at least they'll have enough to eat. Don't look for answers here. Neither the world nor playwright Nottage have any for you.

Berkeley Repertory Company
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through April 10
$34-$73 (half price to anyone under 30)