Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Sense and Sensibility": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Jane Austen's first published novel, "Sense and Sensibility" was brought out in 1811, only five years before the author's death. Her career was short but her influence has been great, as her novels "Pride and Prejudice" (1813), "Mansfield Park" (1814) and "Emma" (1815) have cemented her reputation, not only as one of the first great female novelists, but as a chronicler of the tribulations of the young heroine in upper class Georgian England.

Austen's novels are complicated, so Roger Parsley and Andy Graham's adaptation of "Sense and Sensibility", which is having its American Premiere at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, has been greatly simplified. If you love Jane Austen, if you have always had a soft spot in your heart for free-spirited Marianne and her strong sister Elinor, you will feel at home here.

Also excellent are Stacy Ross (who was so good recently in SF Playhouse's "Coraline") as Aunt Jennings, whose primary interest is digging up and distributing gossip; and Mark Anderson Phillips as Colonel Brandon, the older patrician who feels he has no chance with Marianne. Rounding out the cast are Thomas Gorrebeeck as Elinor's suitor Edward (Mr. Good) and Michael Scott McLean as Willoughby (Mr. Bad).

In Jane Austen's day, the eldest brother inherited the family estate and all other children were left on their own. So for young women, the procuring of a husband of wealth was their only means of retaining the lives they had known as children. These men needed to be judged by the standards of the day. If we may compare the three men in the story to bears, we would say that Austen feels Willoughby has too much porridge, Edward too little and the Colonel's is just right.

Every costume designer must dream of working on a Jane Austen novel with so many elaborate period costumes. Fumiko Bielefeldt's gowns -- and the boots! -- are perfect.

But -- and this is something they will have to deal with -- the music! Director Robert Kelley and Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers have chosen to insert songs into the production that they imagine Jane Austen would have loved. This decision might not be a bad one if they didn't also decide that Marianne should sing most of them. So we have the poor distraught young lady, heart in hand as her suitor departs forever, repairing to the pianoforte to sing a jaunty little air. Again and again she turns to face the audience and croon a hey nonny nonny. The mood is shattered each time.

When the ensemble sings together, as on the opening number in Act Two, everything works. But the heroine should not be the chanteuse -- at least, not this heroine. It bogs things down, especially in Act Two which plays long.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sense and Sensibility" Three Stars with a bauble of despair. The actors, staging and costuming earn one star each. But the bauble -- that decision to add warbling songs into the mix -- at this point is a fatal one.

"Sense and Sensibility"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sept. 18

Photo Credits: Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka

Friday, August 19, 2011

"Stuffed and Unstrung: ☼ ☼

There can be few people who were either children or parents of children during the long era of Sesame Street who do not have a soft spot in their heart for muppets, as well as the for the names Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the creators and popularizers of all that marvelous entertainment. Henson and Oz, along with their crews and designers and puppeteers, applied a new, shiny veneer of hipness onto the ancient art of puppetry.

So we looked forward to laughing and feeling young again when we saw the new Henson Alternative "Stuffed and Unstrung" on our calendar, with Brian Henson in charge of a live cast of puppet masters, along with a Master of Ceremonies (Patrick Bristow) to move the whole show along.

It is SO dreary.

The idea is that the muppet audience has now grown up and wants to hear Bristow lob the f-bomb over and over again, wants to hear deafening music during the intermission that drives everyone out into the lobby, wants to have the muppets stuck on lame joke after lame joke about sex and wants to put the whole thing in the hands of an m.c. who manages to be both manic and unfunny at the same time.

The format is "Whose Line is it Anyway? -- the audience throws suggestions at the actors and the actors, holding their puppets high to make them visible on two large tv screens, act out the suggestions, the aim being to show us the magic of puppets and improvisers working together. The tech is fabulous, the gimmicks world-class, the puppets and puppeteers terrific. But it's also exactly what you expect from improv comedy -- some of it works, much of it doesn't, and all the technology in the world cannot make humor out of pretending a muppet has a penis.

They really do need better jokes. Maybe they can find Henny Youngman's muppet somewhere. If they want to give us Borscht Belt raunch it really should be funnier.

But who knows? Maybe this reviewer spent too many years caring for the now-geriatric Oscar, Miss Piggy, Kermit and The Count, even the later, gentler generation of Fozzie and Elmo. Maybe people who spend most of their time at comedy clubs and in pickup bars will find this stuff entertaining. And on that magic night when all the routines work, Bristow calms down a little, the audience produces fascinating characters, they make the screens bigger and the sound system audible enough so you can hear most of the improv lyrics, the show could be brilliant. It could happen.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Stuffed and Unstrung" Two Stars for the technology. The two segments with people from the audience brought up to stage worked better than most of the planned numbers. There was one wonderful bit: the one with the computerized puppet interplaying with the actors on stage. We could have watched that all night long.

Jeez, you can't shut this guy up: the music -- the tinkly synthesizer player -- wow.
Henson Alternative "Stuffed and Unstrung"
The Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through August 27