Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Becky Shaw" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"F**k you, Mom!" she screams into the phone, then begs: "Call me!" Liz Sklar is the tormented thirty-something Suzanna Slater (seen on left, above) who is trying to deal with her difficult mom, also named Suzanna (Lorrie Holt) and her adopted brother Max (Brian Robert Burns), for whom she has developed, to say the least, conflicted emotions.

It's all complicated, but comprehensible, until the moment Becky Shaw walks in the door. Played brilliantly by Lauren English, Becky is the yin to everyone else's yang. She is working class, they are intellectuals. She is working hard to please, they are interested only in themselves. Most of all, Becky's world is basically invisible to these upwardly-mobile young professionals.

This seems to be at least part of playwright Gina Gionfriddo's premise -- the half-hidden American class struggle. But as Act One ends, we realize that simple-girl Becky is not quite so simple. She knows something the rest of these people do not.

Act Two is that rarity in modern theater: the superior Act Two that follows a wonderful Act One. Now we get to see Becky in full force, as she begins to chase her ultimate goal: Max. The beauty of Gina Gionfriddo's writing is when we get to the end, everything finally makes perfect sense.

We can quibble about Amy Glazer's direction and Ewa Muszynska's set -- but it may be that they have no choice, given a relatively small stage. There is a lot of scene changing where the action slows to a halt as they refit the stage behind an actor who is in freeze mode. We don't know how you speed that up -- but in the meantime, Steve Schoenbeck's sound design helps guide us through the pauses.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Becky Shaw" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Acting and production are excellent but the best part is Gionfriddo's writing. You are carried along by the action without realizing where you're going. It is not a short play, but feels like it.

The BANGLE is for Lauren English. Without her this is another rather precious thirty-something psychodrama. But with her we have to reorder our priorities -- who exactly are we rooting for here? The answer is we are rooting for ourselves -- that our best parts might have a chance against our demons.

"Becky Shaw"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through March 10, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"The Pitmen Painters" ☼ ☼ ☼

"Write what you know," they tell you, on your first night in a writer's workshop. "Make our lives art," is the way the miners put it in Lee Hall's excellent "The Pitmen Painters," which is having its West Coast premiere at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through February 12.

Hall, who is well known for his film and stage adaptation of "Billy Elliot," is mining familiar turf here. Where Billy was the savant dancer in a world of coal miners, here the miners, or pitmen, have produced from their ranks a group of inspirational painters. The difference is that "Pitmen" is a true story. The Ashington Group was established in 1934 by coal miners from Northumberland. These were men who had quit school at eleven to go down in the mine. They had no formal education and no knowledge of art, and yet they turned out a collection of work which touchingly depicted the miners' lives in the north of England at that time, and lives on to this day.

Judging from the order of bows at the end, Patrick Jones as painter Oliver Kilbourn (seen center, above), and Paul Whitworth as instructor Robert Lyon (following photo), are meant to be the stars. But the entire cast stands out. Jackson Davis as Jimmy, Dan Hiatt as Harry, and especially James Carpenter as George Brown, help us understand how provincial are these men's lives before they learn to paint. Nicholas Pelczar plays two roles, one as a miner and one as a successful painter; Kathryn Zdan is a model whose nude posing practically throws the miners into apoplexy, and Marcia Pizzo's art patron Helen Sutherland shows us, through her would-be relationship with Oliver, how important decisions can change our lives.

The critique with "The Pitmen Painters," is interestingly enough the same critique that Helen gives Oliver in Act Two, about his development as a painter: the work does not dig very deep. There is little passion. Or anger. Or any hint at what would make these men desire to paint in the first place.

Where are the women in the art? Were these men monks? Was it simple lack of technique that never gives us closeups of their faces? If we are to believe Oliver in his turning down of Helen's offer, shouldn't we at least understand what is the great value he puts on remaining in the grubby and dangerous colliery?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Pitmen Painters" Three Stars. We enjoyed how Andrea Bechert's set and Steven B. Mannshardt's lights allowed us to actually view the paintings being discussed in the action below. (From the rear of the house, however, these illustrations were not always easy to make out.) The universal struggle of the working man has its fascinating parallel with the downtrodden role of the artist in society. This has been true through the ages. It is a worthwhile and intriguing discussion.

"The Pitmen Painters"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Feb. 12, 2012
Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Friday, January 20, 2012

Humor Abuse: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼!

This reviewer gets to live in a city where the quality of solo performance is probably the best in the nation. So when a new artist appears with a new show -- regardless of the artist's pedigree -- we are going to judge him against the brilliance of Charlie Varon, Mike Daisey, Ann Randolph, Geoff and Dan Hoyle, Marga Gomez and many others.

Move over, you guys, there's a new clown in town. Lorenzo Pisoni's "Humor Abuse," which plays through February 5 at A.C.T. Theatre, is brilliant. His training, since age two, has been as a circus clown, but this is not Bozo at Ringling Brothers. Pisoni's clowning is contained within a deeply rewarding and inspirational story, which is the story of his life, up to here. And for San Francisco, he radiates a sense of the way things used to be, in the '70s and '80s, when the guerrilla theater of his family performance unit, The Pickle Family Circus, was still alive and prospering.

With the Pickles, Pisoni's father and mentor Larry was not only Lorenzo Pickle on stage but at home with his family too. He drove Lorenzo to learn tricks flawlessly. As a result, the meat and potatoes of "Humor Abuse" are Lorenzo's stunts. Two segments in particular stand out -- the stairway and the ladder. Imagine trying to climb a ladder wearing scuba diving flippers -- and then figuring out how to dive from the top of the ladder into an empty hat. Can't do it, can ya?

This is the kind of show where the artist warns the audience that he is not funny, but no one is listening because they're laughing so hard they keep banging their chins against the seat in front of them.

You'll love the music too -- circus music with a heart, written by Randy Craig -- as well as the old family photos which serve to ground the show in reality. "Humor Abuse" is the perfect length, one long act with no intermission, and takes less than an hour and a half. When Lorenzo is finished you're exhausted.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼!
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Humor Abuse" its highest award: Five Stars. Imagine the old carnival where you bang a sledge hammer on a scale and propel a ball upwards towards a red metal bell which will chime if you've swung hard enough. They've knocked this one off the charts. For writing (Pisoni and Erica Schmidt), directing (Schmidt), staging (Hannah Cohen), music (Bart Fasbender with original music by Randy Craig), and performance -- plus a big splash of old fashioned feel-good-ness, we tip our little red hat and say thanks for this one.

"Humor Abuse"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Feb. 5

Monday, January 16, 2012

"Food Stories: Pleasure is Pleasure" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Terrific theater is terrific theater. The extra dimension you get with Word For Word productions is fun. In advance you know they are going to act out a short story or two by authors you know, including all the "he-said-she-said"s. You wonder just how they're going to stage their theatric approach to these literary gems.

The current production is called Food Stories: "Pleasure is Pleasure," and features stories by T.C. Boyle ("Sorry, Fugu") and Alice McDermott ("Enough"). "Sorry Fugu" goes first, and is longer and funnier, but "Enough," which plays after intermission, will stick to your ribs for days.

Everyone is a foodie in our town, and some of us are even critics, so the travails of Chef Albert in T.C. Boyle's story will seem familiar to us. Dreaded restaurant critic Willa Frank, chic, bitter and in love with her own critical adjectives, is able to wreck a restaurant's reputation with a single column. She is coming for her third and final dinner and, in her first two visits, has been singularly unimpressed with all of Albert's efforts to woo her favor. If an audience has ever rooted for an underdog, we are doing so now.

Soren Oliver is a brilliant, oversized Albert, but if he is the main course his side dishes are also fabulous: Molly Benson as Willa (and also the zonked-out Torrey), Gendell Hernandez in many roles, principally Willa's deadened dinner partner The Palate, Rudy Guerrero as the Fabulous Eduardo the waiter, and the wonderful Delia MacDougall whose Marie in "Fugu" will only be topped by her Young Woman in "Enough."

Intermission comes, and you are going to be hungry. Just sayin'.

We get Pat Silver as Older Woman in Alice McDermott's "Enough." This story could be titled The Saga of the Sofa. MacDougall and Silver are able to chart the entire life of a singularly interesting Irish woman -- love, loss, and of course her "troubles with the couch" -- in not much more than twenty minutes. John Fisher's direction could not be better.

The show's subtitle "Pleasure is Pleasure" seems to apply here to ice cream. You never really get enough. You can't get this stunning story's message out of your head. You want more ice cream.

This is Word For Word at its finest. Incidentally, author T.C. Boyle is speaking at the January 21 show -- though it costs extra for a ticket that night.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Food Stories: Pleasure is Pleasure" Four Exuberantly Happy Stars. If I knew Photo Shop better I would paint happy faces on them all. If you're feeling a bit peckish when you go in, you'll come out rubbing your belly with satisfaction.

We have heard that Z-SPace has done a lot of work upgrading the audio -- which is to say you can hear a lot better in the upper reaches of the grandstand-style seating now. Still, we haven't heard this ourselves yet and we recommend you sit as close to the stage as possible.

"Food Stories: Pleasure is Pleasure"
Stories by T.C. Boyle ("Sorry, Fugu") and Alice McDermott (Enough")
Z Space Theater
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through February 5
$30-$55 (discounts available)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Ghost Light" ☼ ☼ ☼

Judging from reading the reviews from Ashland of Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone's "Ghost Light," when it opened last summer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we expected something special. The reviewers loved it. (Admission: Moscone is Artistic Director of Cal Shakes and Taccone is Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep.)

The George Moscone/Harvey Milk/Dan White saga was in many ways the most quintessential San Francisco story of the last half of the Twentieth Century. Jon Moscone is the late mayor's son who was fourteen when his father was killed. So he has a window into this piece of history that only someone from his family could ever open. We have to say we wish he had written it, instead of directed it, and that Tony Taccone, a brilliant director himself, would have directed and not written. Because, for whatever reasons, especially in Act One, the show is in denial. It doesn't feel honest because it plays as camp. With such a historical and artistic pedigree, "Ghost Light" gives us a first hour which feels not only overacted but underwritten.

Contemporary Jonathan (Christopher Liam Moore) cannot keep a boy friend and is having trouble with Hamlet's ghost. The young Jonathan (Tyler James Myers) has been traumatized -- he walks through his scenes like a ghost himself. All the men are queens. The one woman (Robynn Rodriguez) is channeling Mary Ann Singleton and loves them all to death.

The ghost in "Ghost Light" appears to be memory. Jon Moscone's grandfather, Mayor Moscone's father, appears as both a terrifyingly fit ghost (Bill Geisslinger) who must be slain to release Jon from his clutches, and as some kind of celestial soldier (Peter Macon), in military dress uniform, whose job is to escort young Jon into his father's coffin and down into the underworld. Grandfather Moscone indeed was a prison guard at San Quentin. Though Moscone has said he never knew his grandfather, he figures in the story far more than the late Mayor.

By far, the most interesting sidelight of this story is Jon Moscone's feeling that Harvey Milk has hogged all the headlines and historical perspective from that horrendous date in 1978. George Moscone, a straight man who was willing to put his career and life on the line to advance progressive causes such as gay rights, has been largely forgotten. It is this memory of the late king, disguised as a ghost, that has haunted his son to this day.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Ghost Light" Three Stars. But if San Francisco history is your bag, you will be disappointed because this is metaphor, not reality. These are fictional characters, though they are based to a substantial degree on the director's life. There are many in-jokes about the theater and somewhat of a connection, though not completely realized, to Hamlet. The show runs two and a half hours, with one intermission, which feels like a lot, though considerably less than the four hour Hamlet.

It took courage to impugn, albeit slightly, the sainted memory of Harvey Milk. Jon Moscone and Tony Taccone have taken a risk here that they could have stepped around. Within this sentiment lies honesty. We could have used more.

"Ghost Light"
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through February 19
$14.50 - $73