Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Honey Brown Eyes" ☼ ☼ ☼

It's in your face for sure -- war is like that. We're talking about the civil war in Bosnia in 1991, where the six characters in Stefanie Zadravec's "Honey Brown Eyes" intersect. Act One concerns Dragan (Nic Grelli), a Serbian paramilitary, Alma (Jennifer Stuckert), a Bosnian caught alone in her kitchen while attempting to hide her daughter from the rape and genocide on the streets below, and Branko (Cooper Carlson), a terrifying Serbian soldier. It is through Branko's aggressively evil nature that we understand that Dragan, who really only wants to play rock and roll, is in a difficult situation himself.

Poor Alma. She is the beautiful girl who Dragan and all his friends once called Honey Brown Eyes, back in the days when the boys were in a rock band and Alma's brother Denis (Chad Deverman) was the brilliant lead guitarist. In those days in Visegrad, everyone got along. But now the Serbs are murdering Muslims, music means nothing, the world has turned upside down and Zlata (either Madeleine Pauker or Rachel Share-Sapolsky), who is Alma's daughter, is hiding in the heating ducts.

In Act Two we meet Jovanka (Wanda McCaddon), the grandma who attempts to shield Denis from the Serbs.

Her Sarajevo kitchen appears to be the only safe zone in the universe. We also move to a split/stage format where two scenes are acted out simultaneously -- Dragan, Alma and Zlata on one side in Visegrad and Denis and Jovanka in Sarajevo on the other. The juxtaposition is effective, thanks to Kurt Landisman's lights which show us on which side of the small stage we are supposed to be concentrating.

Denis is a casualty of war already. He begs Jovanka to slit his throat. She, knowing she has survived one war and can make it through this one too, refuses.

Stefanie Zadravec and "Honey Brown Eyes" received a Helen Hayes award in 2009 for Best New Play or Musical. It is a riveting show, but it is also loud and intense. This may be one of those rare shows where you want to sit in the back. But don't miss it.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Honey Brown Eyes" Three Stars. Grelli and Stuckert grip us -- the girl trying to survive and the soldier himself caught up in a war not of his making. But what happens between Dragan and Alma is hard to fathom. And why does Denis choose to leave the safety of the kitchen? Perhaps this is the author's intention: war makes no sense. You just react, or, like Branko, end up watching Alf on a pilfered TV.

"Honey Brown Eyes"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through November 5

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Race" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

If you doubt that issues of race permeate our lives, the first fifteen minutes of David Mamet's excellent "Race" should change your mind. The show opened on Broadway in a two act version in 2009, but has been trimmed with excellent results to an 85 minute one act in the current ACT production. It is precise and crisp, with perfect casting and issues that you will revisit for days afterwards.

Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco, on left above) and Henry Brown (Chris Butler) are law partners. They smell a big case when Charles Strickland walks in their door, asking for representation in a case where he has been accused of the rape of a black woman in a hotel.

Strickland (Kevin O'Rourke) looks like Mitt Romney. He is everything a jury will dislike: rich, aloof, entitled and, worst of all, white. He appears to be guilty, though he proclaims innocence, something the experienced lawyers know has nothing to do with conviction or acquittal. The legal system is about only three things, says Lawson: "hatred, fear and envy." A jury will automatically hate and fear their wealthy client.

A third lawyer in the firm is Susan (Susan Heyward), whose position becomes more and more convoluted as time goes on. She is an attorney, but she is also a black woman who is convinced Strickland is guilty. She knows in her heart that due to his influence her client will probably walk. This puts her in an uncomfortable situation.

Mamet's dialogue is brilliant and incisive. It is hard to know which pillar of American values is being hit hardest -- the law, sex, race, privilege or just plain humanity. All people are stupid and prone to blindness, Lawson says. Jews feel guilt. Blacks feel shame. It's all about feelings of inferiority or guilt about superiority. The lawyer's job is to simply tell a better story to the jury than the other lawyer does.

Whatever David Mamet is feeling these days, we are sure of one thing: we wouldn't want to be his lawyer.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Divison awards "Race" Four Stars. It is brilliant theater -- the cast (especially Butler and Fusco), Irene Lewis's flawless direction and Chris Barreca's law office set (another of those A.C.T. sets that makes you smile in anticipation the second you turn the corner and see the stage) couldn't be much better. Most of all, Mamet's plot leads us towards an ending we do not expect, while at the same time forcing us to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and our world.

It is interesting to this reviewer, and a point to consider for a perspective audience, that many reviewers across the country have not been enthusiastic about this show. It is hard to see how that could be, unless possibly the subject matter -- race, especially -- is just too uncomfortable. Perhaps lines like this one -- when Henry reminds Jack that a preacher's testimony will not be able to be impeached because "white clergymen are allowed to say fuck, nigger and bitch in one sentence" -- are too much for us still.

Don't miss "Race." Maybe you'll figure out who's winning.

A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 13

Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Hair" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Broadway has always seen its purpose as entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. When 'Hair' hit the big stage in 1968 (after opening at Joe Papp's off-Broadway Public Theater a year earlier) it caused an uproar. Nudity! Social issues! Race! Gender! What will the neighbors think!

The neighbors loved it. Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermot's little show grew to become a time piece and the icon of an age, encapsulating an era when speaking these issues aloud was still unheard of. It didn't hurt to have several show songs become world-wide smash hits. Still today, when we hear "Good Morning Starshine" and "Aquarius," our hearts are filled with peace and light. "Aquarius" is one of the best musical opening numbers we have ever seen.

What is surprising today is how subversive this show was and is. Songs like "Black Boys" and "White Boys," as well as "Sodomy" and "Hashish" would probably not be seen on a stage now, and the PC police would surely temper the constant sex and psychedelia references. In 2011 you would be unlikely to hear "we've got the white man sending the black man to fight the yellow man so we can defend land stolen from the red man" unless it were a toss-off joke in a sit-com.

And of course, you can't escape looking at the political message of 1967 -- cops beating kids over the head as they protested the war in Vietnam -- contrasted with today -- cops beating kids over the head as they protest America's economic inequities. The fact that so little has changed makes you squirm a little in your seat as you watch 'Hair' 40-some years after it was written.

This current production of "Hair" has two very strong moments: the beginning and the end. "Aquarius" opens and the surprising and touching "Let the Sun Shine In," which closes the show, with the actors marching up the aisles as we see the terrible detritus of what remains on the stage -- still leaves the audience aghast. These are beautiful sections, worthy of the best of Broadway.

Sadly, the rest of the show drags a bit. There are forty musical numbers listed in the playbill, but most are short, almost like a variety show where every actor gets to sing a chorus of his favorite song, and you can't easily understand the convoluted lyrics on most of them -- especially when the ensemble is singing. The stage at the Golden Gate really is too small for all these people, and the miking makes it next to impossible to pick out who is singing.

The band is terrific and there are more than the two standout songs: "My Conviction" and "Hare Krishna" in Act one and "What a Piece of Work is Man" and "Good Morning Starshine" in Act Two stand the test of time.

From the national company, Sheila (Sara King) makes us sit up and pay attention every time she sings. The others are good...but not little man jumping off his chair. It is not their fault -- this is a show about the power of the group, not the leadership of a few. Sound familiar?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Hair' Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. One star is for the opening, one for the closing and one for all the color. The BANGLE is for hiring that great ten piece band (five horns! Hallelujah!) and employing all those tie-dyers. As a legitimate Broadway event, 'Hair' stands up after several decades, and proves that a few beautiful songs can transcend the aging process.

The Golden Gate Theater
Market Street at Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco
Through November 20

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Word for Word: Two Short Stories By Siobhan Fallon: STAGED READING ONLY

On Monday night, October 24, Word for Word brought six excellent actors to Z Space to do a staged reading of two stories from Siobhan Fallon's "You Know When the Men Are Gone." The idea is to try the stories out in front of a live audience and then get feedback as to whether or not to take these stories into full Word for Word production.

For our money, the answer is a resounding YES. Fallon's stories about vets returning from Iraq, written from the perspective of a writer married to an Army Major and currently living in Amman, Jordan, are heart-rending and theatrical. We hope we get to see more.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division says YES, PLEASE. And also: Maggie Rastetter was a standout in story two.

"Word for Word Staged Reading of Siobhan Fallon's "You Know When the Men Are Gone"
Z Space
450 Florida Street, San Francisco

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Don Reed: "The Kipling Hotel" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Whether he's a young waiter serving breakfast to the elderly, or a developmentally challenged friend in a bar, or his uncle in prison, or E.T., or dozens of other characters whose identity he assumes during his new show "The Kipling Hotel," Don Reed crawls into the faces of each character and becomes them. His own face must be made out of silly putty.

As part of the autobiographical arc that began with Reed's previous solo show "East Fourteenth Street," the Oakland native takes us through his beginnings in show business, starting with his acceptance into UCLA on a partial scholarship ("what partial scholarship means is 'not enough f___ing money"), through his attempts to find a place to live (ending up with his brother's friend T ("a tall, black squirrel on coke"), and into his discovery of a live-in job at the retirement hotel that is the title of the show. The elderly residents of the hotel, as well as the staff, become Reed's principle characters.

Got to love his boss with the flip curl.

The show is brand new and is bound to change a lot -- though all of the bits are funny, there is a little too much reliance on partying right now. His reflections at the end seem a bit forced after all that, but wouldn't if they were mixed in more organically with the story.

Reed flows in and out of character with a rub of his shaved head. His impressions are so effective that we stay with them longer than he does. If he didn't do the rub to show us he had left the previous character we might not realize it. We loved Michael Jackson's shades and the yellow Opal that wouldn't go into reverse.

Right now the show is very funny with not a lot of depth, but like George, one of the hotel residents, said to Reed: "you're a mensch." He is. It's all there, he's just got to put it all together. Nobody else can write lines like:

"Ungawa! Black powa! Yo mama didn't take no showa!"

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Don Reed's "The Kipling Hotel" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for E.T. How DO you make your face do that?

We predict that this will be a four star show very soon. Right now it's a fun night at the theater and you walk out laughing and repeating the jokes.

Don Reed: "The Kipling Hotel"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED Through Dec 18

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"How to Write a New Book for the Bible" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

This reviewer has an elderly mother in declining health. Many of the issues in Bill Cain’s “How To Write a New Book for the Bible” hit home, especially as concerns the relationship of the mom, Mary (Linda Gehringer) with her younger son, thirtiesh Bill (Tyler Pierce), who has moved back home to care for her. Bill is a priest, but he is a son first. With all his theological underpinnings, Mom exasperates him. And when she says “it seems a shame to have gone through all this pain and not to have gotten better,” Bill and the rest of us all know exactly what she means. Life’s a bitch and then it’s over.

The four-person cast is excellent. Linda Gehringer steals the show, alternating seamlessly between the pain-ridden, aging woman and the younger wife and mother. Pierce is as sincere as his brother Paul (Aaron Blakely) is aloof. Leo Marks plays several key roles, including the dad and various doctors. Director Kent Nicholson moves the actors around the stage cleverly – props fall from the sky, lights pop up from the floor and the cast keeps the action moving forward without a hitch.

We love the illustrations of Mary and Pete's early years -- in many ways the backstory is as interesting as the current one.

Genius? Maybe not. It’s touching, but not particularly edifying. We know very little about Bill -- his explanation that he became a priest to take care of his functional family doesn’t make a lot of sense. Their are holes in the story that the author attempts to fill by philosophy which feel an awful lot like sermons. As in: here are my parents. They were happy. I believe this makes God happy.

But you never lose interest. Mom’s going to die – we know that already, from what Billy says early in Act 1 – and we wait to see exactly how. In the end, like she has done throughout her life, she makes out a list and executes it:

1) Get Billy Out of the House.

2) Get Paul Home.

3) Die.



The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards “How To Write a New Book for the Bible” Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for Linda Gehringer’s ability to distill her lines into her facial expressions. She is a complex actor playing a complex role – it’s easy to see why Billy loves his mom as much as he does.

The biblical overtones to the story are the weak link. The story either doesn’t need them or needs more of them. We never do really get what the new book of the bible is or what it says or what its purpose would be. We’d like to know, or just call the show "Mom."


“How to Write a New Book for the Bible”

Berkeley Rep, Thrust Stage

2025 Addison Street, Berkeley

Through November 20