Thursday, April 28, 2011

"The Lily's Revenge": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ??

Reviewers sit around their impeccably furnished cybercaves and bemoan the current state of the theater. "Mostly," they type, "it's the same damned thing over and over." Then they go see Taylor Mac's "The Lily's Revenge."

Well, Toto, it ain't Kansas anymore, though Lindsay Davis is from Kansas City. Davis designed the showstopping and eyepopping costumes which, like every other animate and inanimate object in this production, are so over the top they begin to look normal. Davis's five flowers -- make that, revolutionaries (poppy, pansy, rose, lilac and tulip) who are working for the restoration of the empire of dirt (the second child of Time), and who need to enlist gender and species-bending Lily (played by the spectacular Mr. Mac) into their cause -- oh, forget it. The flowers are brilliant. And you can't explain this story.

(Aside: Poppy is played by Carlos Aguirre, who was so good in Oedipus El Rey.)

Here's the bottom line: Lily wants to marry a human woman, so he has to turn into a man, kind of, in a manner of speaking, sort of, a little bit, but not too much.

FIVE acts later, Lily's quest is over, he has lost all his petals and he's wearing a tuxedo. As the lights go out and the curtain comes down, he asks the audience a simple question. You are to purse your lips if you say yes (you liked the show) and do nothing if you didn't. This reviewer astonished himself by not only pursing his lips but standing up to cheer, and this is after THREE intermissions and nearly FIVE hours, seat and theater changes and dinner in a box.

You can't help but compare Taylor Mac, the performer, with Freddie Mercury -- he's got that huge pop-Broadway voice.

(He really looks like this:)

The other terrific singer is the Bride Deity (Casi Maggio, who in addition to having pipes is also very funny). But there's not enough music in the show for it to be called a musical -- there are only two real songs (Maggio's "Love Me? Love Me Not?" and "Teetering on the Edge of Too Little, Too Late"). Mac sings a lot. But what does he sing? Sorry, can't remember.

OK, haters, on your marks, get set: "The Lily's Revenge" is like the gay "Hair." (The last time we invoked 'Hair,' we got more hate mail than Mohammar Qadaffi.) Both shows are about stretching boundaries and sexual freedom, in life and on stage. But there was a war going on in 1968. In 2011 it's all about fun and the bottom line is still sex -- you can pull up anybody's skirt or pants and pretend to lick his or her private petals.

The Great Longing (Mollena Williams) gets naked. There is a Pope named Baruch Porras-Hernandez and he is involved in some kind of hijinks but you can't really follow it with so much else going on.

SO much going on. Five acts and six directors. A cast of forty. Vaudeville acts during intermissions that could take place only in San Francisco without engendering police sirens. (Massages with large dildos? Yup.) That this show could feel as complete as it does is a tribute to Loretta Greco, Artistic Director of the Magic, and to the vision of Taylor Mac.

But it's really long, not just a little self indulgent, and doesn't add much to the discussion on sexism or homophobia or gay marriage or even sexual identity. "Angels in America" it ain't. But perhaps this misses the point. Lily's strongest statements seem to be about corporate America's packaging of all things beautiful -- the emasculated white rose in the plastic wrapper, for example, is a lasting metaphor. The animated film in Act Four illustrates this brilliantly.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ??
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lily's Revenge" the first-ever Four Star Two Question Mark rating. The show is too good for just Three Stars, but you probably really have to love going to the theater to want to endure all the standing around during all those intermissions.

Sorry, but it's annoying. You want to grow roots in a show -- become attached to your seat, for example. Having to leave the theater and take all your belongings is kind of cute the first time, and the novelty acts in the lobby are fun, plus you can buy dinner. When you come back in and everything has changed you feel like the cheshire cat. You smile. But after Act Two there is no dinner and if you don't happen to stand in the right place in the lobby you will get stuck behind a post in the brand new theater you sit in for Act Three. And the third intermission is just a drag. You can just drink so much wine in a plastic cup.

Taylor Mac is something else, though. He earns Star One as a writer and Star Two as an actor. He is also responsible for one Question Mark, which is for the endless dream ballet (Act Three). It was like a bad wedding -- complete with an emcee trying to cajole you into getting up and dance -- to a drummer and cellist. "Get the f___ up!" he screams. Question Mark Number Two.

Lindsay Davis's costumes earn Star Three for themselves and Loretta Greco brings home Star Four with a smile of gratitude from the committee. Herding six directors into one production had to feel like having her own petals pulled off one by one, but she did it. Mounting this ultra-ambitious project is a triumph for Loretta Greco and for the Magic.


"The Lily's Revenge"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Building D
Through May 22

Monday, April 25, 2011

"Lisick, Ali and Jackson": UNRATED

Three solo performers were on the bill for April's "Solo Sundays" at Stagewerx Theatre. Author and story teller Beth Lisick opened with a very funny (and brand new) piece on shooting a bank commercial -- she is forced to try and deal with inane suggestions from the producers ("who wants to see a forty year old woman freestyle a rap about a bank?"). Her second offering, which was basically a riff on embarrassing moments she has endured in her life, was more of an ad-lib jazz solo, with humor but not a lot of focus.

The second performer, Jawad Ali, is a relatively new performer. His "NATO Love Parade" is told with a sense of incredulity. It is his account of an e-mail mixup between him and NATO, who confused this Pakastani native for a Pakistani official with the same name. It's a little hard to follow -- he will want to make some of the connections clearer.

They saved the most memorable for last. Julia Jackson's "I Didn't Sign Up For This" is a heartfelt account of a same-sex couple attempting to adopt a baby. Jackson plays a lot of characters, including her hysterical sports-loving self and her ooh-wah partner feuding in Target ("hey, we're just your average mixed race lesbian couple having a fight."), the adoption agency sales agents, the birth mom (a very touching depiction), the birth mom's own mother, the birth mom's boy friend...and she was just picking up steam when the show ended. After the set, Jackson said she has two more scenes to write before the full show will debut in November. Julia Jackson lets it all hang out on stage. If you haven't heard of her yet, you will.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Ratings Division has chosen not to give a rating to these three performers because their shows are still unfinished. There is a lot of talent there, though, and we will be very excited to see how the shows develop.

"Beth Lisick, Jawad Ali and Julia Jackson"
Stagewerx Theater
533 Sutter Street (cabaret downstairs), San Francisco
No further shows scheduled for the moment

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Snow Falling on Cedars": ☼ ☼ ☼

It probably helps if you've read the book before you see Theatreworks' Regional Premiere of David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars." The show was originally adapted for the stage by Kevin McKeon and Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre, which means it is a fascinating hybrid: the actors quote passages from the book as well as act out well chosen scenes. Guterson's best seller from 1994 is filled with many poetic passages and it would be a shame to miss them; at the same time the cast is excellent and they get a chance to act as well as narrate.

Andrea Bechert's Scenic Design is another hybrid -- a lovely cross between a Japanese woodcut and a busy courtroom in Puget Sound, Washington, circa 1954.

Maya Erskine plays Hatsue, the young Japanese-American girl whose world falls apart as the aftershock of Pearl Harbor hits the West Coast of America. It doesn't help that she has had an innocent romance with Ishmael Chambers, son of the local newspaper publisher. When Hatsue's family is relocated with all other Japanese-American families to Manzanar in the Mojave Desert, and Ishamel is drafted to serve in the Pacific, events are put in motion that culminate in the trial for murder of Ishmael's long-time friend Kabuo Miyamoto (Tim Chiou), who has met and married Hatsue in Manzanar.

We get excellent performances as well by Molly Benson as Susan Heine, wife of the murder victim and Edward Sarafian, as the older lawyer defending Kabuo Miyamoto. But the heart of the story is the relationship between Hatsue, Ishmael and Kabuo. If this production has a flaw it is that we understand Hatsue and Kabuo, but Ishmael remains underdeveloped.

Though supposedly the same age, Collyer plays Ishamel like a boy, and Chiou's Kabuo is a man. It would be curious to see what would have happened if they'd cast it the other way around -- but the way it is, we can't see how Hatsue could pick differently, even without the racial prejudice of the world in which she lives. Sadly, it is Ishmael's story and relationship with his father, so interesting in the book, which has been condensed out of the theater version.

Mia Tagano and Randall Nakano are fine as Hatsue's parents, and Mark Anderson Phillips is a perfectly pompous prosecutor, though he would be more effective if we didn't keep seeing him as Richard Hannay in The Thirty Nine Steps. That's what happens when you're so good in one role -- the critics won't leave you alone.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Snow Falling on Cedars" Three Stars. It was fascinating to watch, involving from beginning to end and had several knockout acting performances. The lack of Ishmael's character development hurts the story, but perhaps only to those of us who loved the book. Robert Kelley's direction moves us quickly from scene to narration and back again. It's all about the story, which is how it should be.

"Snow Falling on Cedars"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 24

Photo Credit: Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"The Three Sisters": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Irina (Heather Wood), in white, stands dreamily at the upstairs window; Masha (Natalia Payne), in mourner's black, sits in her chair staring at her knitting; and Olga (Wendy Rich Stetson), in blue, paces back and forth holding her notebook. From this opening scene we understand the glue which holds Anton Chekhov's drama together: sisterhood. Life may not turn out like we planned it, but we will always have each other.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl has taken a literal translation by Elise Thoron, with Natalya Paramonova and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, and developed a new, more literal interpretation of Three Sisters. Those who know Chekhov in and out (which is to say, every theater major around the world) may notice Director Les Waters's somewhat lighter hand, but what most will appreciate is Chekhov's timeless cadences, eternal Slavic angst and the inward discoveries each character is forced to make.

The men - especially Officer Vershinin (Bruce McKenzie), Baron Tuzenbach (Thomas Jay Ryan) and brother Andrei (Alex Moggridge) serve as foils for the women, while the excellent Natasha (Emily Kitchens, who was so good in A.C.T.'s Clybourne Park), tall, gangly and hopelessly out of style, helps us appreciate the personal dilemmas of Irina, Masha and Olga. You can't say too much for Scenic Designer Annie Smart, who has built us a house we could all live in, as long as we got to wear Costume Designer Ilona Somogyi's Russian army uniforms and/or floor-length gowns.

Bear in mind that this is Chekhov: it's long, a full three hours with one intermission, and Act Two tends to stretch on a bit, seeing as we have already identified the bad guy far in advance and can see exactly how the story is destined to play out. Perhaps in 1902, when The Three Sisters premiered, the story could keep audiences on the edge of their seats, but by 2011 we have seen too many horror movies. "Dance, you fools! Don't do the duel!" we shout, but...nyet. No luck.

So you make an investment of time, but one that pays off handsomely. Chekhov is beloved because he makes you laugh, he insists that you think about your own life and he gives you the gift of a window into a long ago world in a faraway empire. Irina is right: we will all be dissolved by light, but before that we can hold our sisters' hands and dream of a better day.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Three Sisters" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The actors, set and story earn one star each, while the BANGLE is given for especially noteworthy performances by Ryan, Kitchens and each of the three long-suffering, endlessly-wintering, never-getting-back-to-Moscow sisters.

"The Three Sisters"
Berkeley Repertory Company
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 22

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Wirehead": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (!)

First off, go see "Wirehead" at SF Playhouse. Then, when you're standing on line for the brain transplant from the Chinese corporation engaged in destroying humanity as we know it while elevating intelligence to unheard of levels so we can create a cigarette that doesn't cause cancer while treating the humans who can't afford the operation as worthless pets so that...oh, hold on.

That's what the show does to you, though. Matthew Benjamin and Logan Brown's "Wirehead" is one of the meatiest, most thought-provoking shows to come along in a long time, and it doesn't hurt that it is hysterically funny too, although it's hard to laugh with your jaw dropping to your knees most of the time.

Scott Coopwood's Shock Jock perches high above the stage and his commentary helps us remember we are in Future World here, although it is not all that far-fetched. Gabriel Marin (Destry) and Craig Marker (Adams) play beautifully off each other, as the befuddled office workers who realize their previously-dense co-worker has just had "the operation" and is now a brilliant genius who is taking over their jobs. The two women in their lives, Monyca (Madeline H.D. Brown) and Laura (Lauren Grace), one ditzy and one overly ambitious, are good too but their roles are less fleshed out.

The show is stolen by Cole Alexander Smith, who plays three roles. In the first of these, as Hammy, the first recipient of the new brain-enhancer, he seems to have re-channeled a young Michael Keaton in Beelzebub. You may not think so in this photo as he sits between Marin and Marker, but that's just because your antiquated human brain/eyeball connection is inadequate in its current configuration.

Give director Susi Damilano the most credit of all: you don't ever feel her little humanoid finger in the production. The show flows along for 90 minutes with no intermission and you are on the edge of your seat the whole way.

I want a new Z-Drive! Die, humans! (Evil cackle.)

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (!)

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Wirehead" Four Stars with the addition of a possible Exclamation Point. The Four Stars are for writing, direction, acting and the cool music design (Scott Schoenbeck) and set (Bill English). Special thanks for the terrific phone call set piece between Marin and Marker as they begin to realize what is going on around them.

The (exclamation point) is just so this reviewer can get his Z-Drive before Robert Hurwitt gets his. It never hurts to ask.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through April 23

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Randy Rutherford "Singing at the Edge of the World": ☼ ☼

Randy Rutherford's autobiographical one-man show "Singing at the Edge of the World" is strong when it is heartbreaking. One feels empathy with the singer/guitar player who lost his hearing mid-career, in his early thirties; sadness when he reunites with his old girl friend, Molly; and even a little self-understanding when Rutherford quotes Helen Keller: "A blind person loses connection to things, but a deaf person loses connection to people." That'll make you count your blessings.

As a story of one man's triumph over a musician's nightmare, you have to love Randy Rutherford. But as a play: not so much. The lead character is passive to the point of inaction and his whininess makes us wonder why either he or his girl deserve ten minutes of our attention. He's depressed, she's a ditz.

A beautiful ditz, to be sure, we are told...and he was once a fine guitar player and singer too, we are also told. But we can't see Molly and the music that Rutherford performs, though commendable, sounds like it is coming from someone who is relying on digital hearing aids.

Within that framework he is astonishing, really, but what feels more astonishing is how they have chosen to focus almost the entire show on the doomed love affair, which had no chance from the moment Randy met Molly, and not on the agony and details of the singer's loss of hearing and how it has affected his subsequent career as an artist, or on the nuts and bolts of trying to sing when you cannot hear yourself clearly. This feels like a David Ford (director) decision but perhaps it is the author's wish. Either way, it's a little hard to fathom. It may be what that raven is whispering in his ear.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Singing at the Edge of the World" Two Stars. We'd love to hear Randy Rutherford tell us his interesting story over an elk burger and a six pack at the Fancy Moose in Anchorage, without the constrictions of trying to fit it into scenes and light cues, which don't really work. We get the feeling that if they let this man just talk he could blow us away. Perhaps that will happen down the line.

Randy Rutherford: "Singing at the Edge of the World"
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
Through April 16