Monday, February 27, 2012

"Scorched" ☼ ☼ ☼ PLUS

With the backdrop of the Middle East consumed by an endless string of violence and retribution, we would expect a convoluted story. This is what we get with Wajdi Mouawad's "Scorched," which is an English translation of the original "Incendies," itself having been made into a Canadian French-language film.

You can make of it what you will. On one level it is a frustrating compendium of ignorance leading to hatred leading to violence. On a deeper level it is the story of a woman's love for her child, yanked from her the moment of its birth, and her lifetime search to find him -- with a totally unforeseen conclusion.

David Strathairn stars as Alphonse Lebel, the accountant charged with carrying out the final wishes of his friend Nawal, who had gone completely silent for the five years before her death. Nawal's two children, Janine (Annie Purcell) and Simon (Babak Tafti) know nothing of her horrific past, as she has never spoken to them about it. It is their voyage of discovery, particularly that of Janine, that drives the piece. All the actors are proficient, with standout roles by Strathhairn, Purcell and Tafti, plus Omozé Idehenre's captivating Sawda.

Note that we haven't told you how we feel about it yet. That's a complicated question. Some in our party loved it and some, this reviewer included, felt the show, with all its insistence on the ultimate powers of love and forgiveness, struck a false note somewhere. Perhaps this is because the conclusion, while theatric, seems so unlikely. Can a mother really pull forgiveness from this horrific hat? Perhaps.

All the creative pieces are there -- including an eye-popping set (Scott Bradley), lights (Russell H. Champa) and sound (Jake Rodriguez). This is a major production by a first class company. Your enjoyment will come down to whether Nawal's story moves you, or leaves you simply thoroughly depressed, not for the characters on stage but for frail and bitter humanity.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division argued with itself about this one, before awarding "Scorched" Three Stars Plus. It sounds good, it looks good, the actors and creative team do their jobs well. But the really ought to move us more. As Annie Purcell's Janine, the mathematics teacher, is asked by her brother: "Is there any time when one plus one does not equal two?" This may be one of those times.

A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through March 11, 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Brian Copeland: "The Waiting Period" ☼ ☼ ☼

Brian Copeland's last, record-breaking solo show "Not a Genuine Black Man" was his personal statement about trying to find a place to stand in a conflicted and bewildering world.

But this time Copeland is biting off even more. His target is the shadowy world of depression. A long-time sufferer from this debilitating illness, to the point of trying to buy a gun in order to do away with himself (the ostensible set-up of "The Waiting Period"), Copeland is on one hand trying hard to make us laugh, and on the other trying even harder to alert us to be aware of the people we know who may be suffering just out of range of our vision.

As a one-man show it all works -- to a point.

Surprisingly, because Brian Copeland is one funny comedian, the serious story is the one that resonates. But since the man tells jokes for a living, he spends a long time getting past the banter. And he seems unsure about whether or not we will understand him. Over and again, a character speaks, then Copeland explains to the audience why the punch line, which will follow, will be funny. Then he goes back into character and delivers the punch line. We would far prefer he just tell the joke, in character, and allow us to get it.

We love many things about this show, which will only get tighter as he continues to perform it. His descriptions of his stern grandmother, by whom he was raised, as well as the friends who are trying to pull him out of his funk, and especially his daughter who is portrayed as perhaps the only one who can save him, by insisting that her father at least try to help himself -- all these characters are memorably realized.

This reviewer hopes Brian Copeland will realize how strongly we relate to the plight of his protagonist. This is a serious situation he is in. So lose the kid in the gun shop -- of course he's a dimwit. But he's not the point. And we would love to find out why two very effective characters, one an older man and one a teenager in a school, are spilling their guts to the real Brian Copeland? Is he a counselor in the school or part of a self-help program?

But we know this show will mature, as "Not a Genuine Black Man" did. Brian Copeland is a seasoned performer who can touch all our emotions. "The Waiting Period" is worth seeing right now but perhaps needs a little more time to grow into itself.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Waiting Period" Three Stars. It may become a Four Star show soon. This initial run is through March 24. We might wait a few weeks to see it -- but don't wait too long.

Brian Copeland: "The Waiting Period"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Weekends EXTENDED through July 7
$15-$35 sliding scale

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Michael Smuin's Winter Program: ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

This reviewer knows quite a bit about theater, film and music. Ballet is not on that list. So what he has to say about Michael Smuin's Winter Program, which features four dance pieces, including Amy Seiwert's "Dear Miss Cline," is just this: it was fun.

The format is a little strange -- an opening dance piece, followed by a twenty minute intermission, and then two more pieces, followed by another twenty minute intermission, and finally the featured piece. What we said about the dancing does not apply to those long intermissions.

We loved Smuin's "Tango Palace" best. The music was terrific and the dancers tango better than anyone we ever saw in Argentina. Each segment is a showstopper.

"Stabat Mater" probably resonated more when it was written, in response to the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. But "The Eternal Idol" is an absolute tour de force -- two seemingly naked dancers who come alive from a Rodin sculpture of a nude couple locked in an embrace. You want sensual? You've got it.

"Dear Miss Cline" -- it's pretty lightweight. Patsy Cline had one of the most haunting voices in country music history, but the songs themselves are too vapid to justify ten dance sequences.

It was a fun evening. Perhaps some dance aficionados can comment about how they view the quality of the dancing.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ?
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Michael Smuin's Winter Program Three Stars with a question mark. Was it anything more than fun? We can't tell. The dancers have extraordinary bodies, but nothing is more extraordinary than their feet. How does anyone walk that way?
"Michael Smuin's Winter Program"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
through April 26
Sunset Center
San Carlos Street between 8th and 10th Streets, Carmel
March 2-3

Photo Credit: David DeSilva

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"A Doctor in Spite of Himself" ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

The moment Justine Williams bounces her oversized bazoomas (if they are not beach balls she really needs to see an interior designer) in front of the puppet theater, we are hooked. We can't help love Renata Friedman's puppets, in concert with Matt Saunders' Scenic Design. Perhaps the new Berkeley Rep production of Moliere's "A Doctor in Spite of Himself" is not exactly what the playwright envisioned, when the play was written in the seventeenth century, but when we see the combination of puppetry and live action we are charmed.

The other woman in the cast, Julie Briskman as Jacqueline, is every bit as entertaining as Williams. Her rap in three distinct voices is a show stopper.

You've got to love the band -- Greg C. Powers (left) and Robertson Witmer. And Steven Epp as the clown Sganarelle, Liam Craig as Lucas and Jacob Ming Trent as Valere give us plenty of laughs and some very nice vocalizing.

But you're right -- the above is not leading to a rave review. In the end, this show is just too clever for its own good. Slapsticky to a fault and over-the-top with dumbed-down updated jokes, Moliere himself would probably wonder what the show is trying to say. They bring down the Fourth Wall so often, by wisecracking with the audience about Orinda and Gingrich, that we feel like it is Friday night at the Comedy Club.

It's too bad -- because the acting is stellar and the puppetry and music are a lot of fun. But you don't walk out of the theater feeling any different than when you walked in. "Doctor" is a co-production with Yale Repertory Theater, so perhaps director and co-adapter Christopher Bayes, as well as Steven Epp who in addition to having the lead role is also credited with co-adaptation with Bayes, have been saddled with decisions made by others.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ?
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Divison awards "A Doctor in Spite of Himself" Three Stars -- in spite of itself. You can't hate Moliere. The show is so interesting visually that we would love to have people take a look at it. The question mark is whether or not you love slapstick geared to teenagers. The Opening Night crowd cheered in the right places and laughed at all the jokes, and you might too.

"A Doctor in Spite of Himself"
Berkeley Repertory Theater, Roda Theater
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through March 25, 2012

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Jesus in India: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Lloyd Suh gives us all the things we're not supposed to talk about: sex, religion, drugs, religious figures taking drugs and religious figures having sex. Maybe this is why Jesus in India is SO good!

It is an open question as to when diehard Christians will walk out of this play. They shouldn't -- because the dilemma posed is such a human one. What would you do if your father told you, when you turned eighteen, that he is not your real father, that you are instead the son of God and are destined to become King of the Jews, and then die?

You'd run away, that's what you'd do. Jesus (Damon Daunno) sets out on his bicy-camel for all parts East, accompanied by his adoring girl friend Abigail (Jessica Lynn Carroll). But he is eighteen and itchy for new experiences, which he finds when they get to India. His new friends Gopal (Bobak Bakhtiari), Sushil (Jomar Tagatac) and, especially, Sushil's fifteen-year-old sister Mahari (Mahira Kakkar) offer Jesus a nice alternative to returning home to Galilee, which, anyway, is under attack from the Romans.

Seeing as we know how the story ends, but Jesus apparently doesn't, we wonder why he would leave Paradise and go back to the desert. Life with Mahari and her stoner brother and friend could be excellent, if only that star hanging overhead would go away.

You have to really tip your hat to Damon Daunno -- his original music and performance puts "Jesus in India" on another level. And we love the bicy-camel.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Jesus in India Four Fat Stars. You never know what is coming next. Daunno and his buddies Tagatac and Bakhtiari are terrific stoners. We love the bits about smoking frankincense as the star rises overhead, as well as the way Jesus plays such funkified electric bass when he touches the instrument for the first time. Daniella Topol's direction couldn't be smoother. This is first-rate writing, acting and directing.

"Jesus in India"
The Magic Theatre
Bldg. D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through Feb. 19

Photo credit: Jennifer Reiley

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Body Awareness" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Annie Baker's Body Awareness is too crazy not to be real. Body Awareness Week at tiny Shirley State College will make you cringe, with all its politically correct nonsense-garble. But Body Awareness Week, where young women can learn about their exploitation by the white male gaze, falls apart when Frank Bonitatibus shows up with his photos of naked women.

Howard Swain is just perfect as the wacko photographer who sees visions every day of his dead mother. Somehow this smarmy nut case becomes the voice of reason, partly because he is the only one who can talk to Jared. Smooth Frank's sex advice to ultra-inhibited Jared is -- well, classic.

Ah, Jared. Convinced he does not have Asperger's Syndrome, although he displays every single symptom, we gradually come to identify with him as we realize his basic fear: he does not want to be called retarded. Patrick Russell is so dominant in this role that we worry about him in real life. Caution: expect sudden shouting.

Jeri Lynn Cohen plays Joyce and Amy Resnick is Phyllis, the lesbian couple responsible for Body Awareness Week. Phyllis has been a lesbian all her life, while Joyce is a more recent convert, and as we come to see, not necessarily all that sure about it. Frank awakens a desire in her to pose for him, which of course puts Phyllis into a blue funk.

But Amy Resnick is incapable of being in a funk without also cracking us up. The show is a delight start to finish. Kent Dorsey's sets and lights compliment Joy Carlin's direction. Annie Baker has given us a romp that makes us feel proud of ourselves while also skewering us to our own misguided good intentions.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Body Awareness Four Stars. Swain and Russell take the first, Resnick and Cohen the second, Director Carlin the third and, most important of all, Annie Baker's writing brings it all home.

"Body Awareness"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through March 11

"Cordelia, Mein Kind" ☼ ☼

There are three performance components to Deborah Leiser-Moore's Cordelia, Mein Kind: dance, film and story. The last two work especially well: Leiser-Moore's story about her father's and her connection to King Lear, backed by home movies of her father as well as an antique Yiddish-language Russian film of Lear. But her dance interpretations leave us perplexed: what do they mean? Why are they there? Leiser-Moore is an excellent story teller. Whether or not she is her own equal as an interpretative dancer, or whether Sally Smith's choreography can match Leiser-Moore's touching story, is open to debate.

We would also like to know: What did the story about the young men on the train have to do with heart surgery?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Cordelia, Mein Kind Two Stars, one for Leiser-Moore's fine narration and one for the fascinating Lear connection. It's difficult to rate it higher without more sense of story. As it is, her Dad managed to escape from Poland and make his way to Australia, then didn't really want to talk about it. This is not news, nor does it suffice to drive an entire show. But we could happily listen to Deborah Leiser-Moore tell us more, especially about herself, should she decide to expand the parameters of her show.

"Cordelia, Mein Kind"
The Marsh
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
ONE MORE SHOW ONLY: Sun., Feb. 5 at 3pm
$15-$35 sliding scale