Thursday, March 29, 2012

"The Caretaker" ☼ ☼ ☼

Because Harold Pinter ( 1930-2008) is such a giant in twentieth century theater, we tend to look for what there isn't and make light of what there is. What you don't get in SHN's new mounting of "The Caretaker" is plot. What you do get is a vehicle for three terrific actors. Written in 1960, "The Caretaker" is absurdist but it is also personal. We feel for each of the three characters, though we're really not sure why we should.

Jonathan Pryce is marvellous. Playing Davies, the elderly transient who has been taken in and given a place to live by Aston (Alan Cox), Pryce is cantankerous and self-righteous to start, but as his footing becomes more treacherous we see the frightened soul inside. Aston, meanwhile, seems too calm and trusting to be real, until we hear his remarkable monologue about his own history, after which we realize both these men are deeply scarred.

All along, we've realized that Aston's brother Mick (Alex Hassell) is completely off his rocker. His stream-of-consciousness dialogue with Davies, unhinged to any semblance of reality, changes completely when he is speaking with his brother, whom he criticizes in one breath while flying to his defense in the next.

What is the sum of all this craziness? Ah, well, this is the essential question of Pinter. Does it amount to anything at all? Do we care about the lives of these men? Does their situation have any bearing upon our own? Above all, when the show is over, have we learned anything? Has anything changed in our lives?

For this reviewer, the answer is yes on a theatrical level -- particularly because "The Caretaker" was Pinter's breakout play -- but probably no by every other measure. "The Caretaker" feels as vague as most absurdist theater, but, like the best of the genre, gives us the chance to watch great actors act.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Caretaker" Three Stars, one for each actor. It is in some ways like an absurdist sit-com. There are laughs aplenty, with situations for Pryce, Hassell and Cox to shine. But the show is long and you have to work a bit to stay tuned.

One note: the working-class English accents are tough. We suggest you try to sit as close to the front as possible.

"The Caretaker"
The Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through April 22

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"The Aliens" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Act I of Annie Baker's "The Aliens" opens with two blank stares. Two slackers sit on a picnic bench in back of a restaurant. One stares off into space. The other lights a cigarette and smokes it, rises to stub it out, sits back down and lights another. Nothing is said.

By the opening of Act II we are down to one slacker.

But in the meantime a third character has entered. Evan (Brian Miskell) is ten years younger than KJ (Haynes Thigpen) and Jasper (Peter O'Connor). He is still in High School but has a job working at the restaurant. Each time he walks out in the back to put a bag of garbage into the dumpster, he runs into Jasper and KJ, who appear to spend all their waking hours on the bench. In the end, Evan's immaturity and need for friendship turns out to be the spark that ignites KJ and Jasper. They become, in a spaced-out way, his mentors.

We know these three young men. Annie Baker must know them too, as must Bill English, who designed a set so realistic we even see the mouse droppings on top of the old electric meter hanging on the weathered siding. Clearly, we've all been here before, though not everyone has had the idea to take the tea out of tea bags, fill them with psilocybin and then brew 'shroom tea.

Things might end well. It's hard to say. If it's a coming of age story for Evan, then yes they do. If it's a nothing-will-ever-change story about KJ, or a commentary about wasted lives, then no they don't. You will not be enlightened but you will love the entire journey. "The Aliens" is the work of a fascinating playwright in the prime of her career.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Aliens" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE is for director Lila Neugebauer, who was able to keep a play moving forward that has more long silences than any show we've seen in years. The silences are perhaps the best part of the whole show -- the actors get to show us by means of their faces, their hands, their body language and their craft just how they are feeling inside. Jasper is furious. KJ is frightened. And Evan is taking it all in. They are excellent actors but it takes a strong director to allow that magic to take place.

Playwright Baker has only recently closed her "Body Awareness" across the bay. It was a brilliant work. "The Aliens" could scarcely be more different. This is the sign of a playwright to keep our eyes on. Like KJ, Annie Baker sparkles.

"The Aliens"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through May 5

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Red" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"The only thing I fear, my friend," says Mark Rothko... "one day the black will swallow the red."

David Chandler plays Rothko, the famous 20th Century modernist painter, in John Logan's Tony-winning "Red," which opened March 22 at Berkeley Rep. Red, the color is everywhere, in Louisa Thompson's paint-strewn artist's studio, on the paintings, spilled on the floor -- but it is also in our minds, as Rothko and his assistant Ken (John Brummer) lash out at their own demons, arguing over what makes art worthwhile.

The show begins in 1958, as the artist is preparing five enormous red murals, for which he has been paid a fortune in advance, to adorn the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram's Building in midtown Manhattan. He is wrestling with the realization that no one who goes to that restaurant will ever appreciate his art, if they notice it at all, but he is also proud that it is he who received the commission instead of one of his rivals like Willem de Kooning.

We see the creative process -- or, at least, a creative process as imagined by a dramatist who is writing about a painter -- with all its wiggles and splashes and messes. Rothko claims painting is 90% contemplation and 10% putting paint on canvas -- and it certainly seems that way here. The show is 90+ minutes without an intermission, and consists of two men talking. There is only one scene with action, and it is surely to be your favorite. Let's just say it involves a lot of red.

But "Red" is not the least bit tiresome. Chandler's Rothko is wise and reflective and says whatever comes into his head. His assistant Ken, who is at first afraid to say much, eventually delivers the ultimate stinger to his employer. Their relationship - the boy with no father and the older man who refuses to be one - is fascinating to watch.

But don't expect "Pollock." In life, Jackson Pollock, who was both Rothko's friend and rival, had already committed suicide by 1958. He was a wild man, and so was his film. "Red" is measured, like the artist and his brilliant murals.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Red" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It is a difficult show for only two actors but Chandler and Brummer pull it off. We would have liked to have seen a little more development in Brummer's Ken, but, after all, the show is not about him.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the Red Scene. Picasso has his Blue Period, and now Rothko has his Red Scene. It is not an accident that during this scene there is silence.

Berkeley Repertory Theater
Thrust Stage
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through May 12.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Will Durst "Elect to Laugh" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BOEHNER

We were afraid our brains would burst like over-ripe blackberries if we listened to any more 2012 pathetic political humor -- before we walked up the stairs at the Marsh to see Will Durst's "Elect to Laugh." Could we bear any more Rick Perry jokes? Michelle Bachmann? Herman Cain? DONALD TRUMP? No, dear Jesus, no.

But guess what -- "Elect to Laugh" is one of the funniest ninety minute joke-a-second laughaloozas this normally upstanding reviewer has seen in years. Will Durst is not only a terrific joke teller but he's a master performer with a great voice. And like he says -- "you can't make this s**t up."

Our favorite jokes (that we can remember):

-- Durst's description of the Obama victory celebration in Mill Valley -- "they were like happy little hobbits celebrating the destruction of the ring."

-- Explaining what a newspaper is to people under thirty: "It's like a Huffington Post you can hold."

OK, no more punch lines:

-- Obama and the Aflac duck. You really have to see this one.

-- Where smokers have to go to smoke in San Francisco.

-- Oh, God, the grieving beekeepers at the mall.

We lied about the punch lines. Here are two more, but without the setups:

-- "The Queen of the Illiterati" and "Mr. Rogers with rabies."

Durst has a happy stage demeanor -- you kind of want to hug him, once he takes off that purple tie. "Elect to Laugh" is nothing like what we feared -- Mark Russell without the piano, with shovelfuls of West Coast Smug -- instead, Durst is hysterical, brilliant and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But why DIDN'T Anthony Weiner change the pronunciation of his name?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division admits "Elect to Laugh" is a comedy bit, not a theater piece. But you can't miss it, because Will Durst may never again have so many buffoons to lampoon. Plus, he smokes. He needs your money.

We award this ninety minute celebration of banana-peel politics Four Stars with a Boehner. You'll have to come to the show to see how to pronounce it.

Will Durst "Elect To Laugh"
The Marsh (Studio Theater upstairs)
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Tuesday nights until the November election, 8pm
$15-$35 sliding scale
(The Studio Theater is only three rows deep. Do you really need the more costly seats?)

Monday, March 12, 2012

"Now Circa Then" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Playright Carly Mensch is a story editor for the TV series "Weeds," so it is not surprising that her new play "Now Circa Then" would be funny, quirky and contain the kind of setup we can hear her pitching her boss on the elevator.

"Listen to this: a young woman from Michigan and a young guy from Brooklyn get jobs recreating a couple from the 1890s in a historical museum. Their own personalities adapt to the traits they imagine the historical couple would have had, and they fall in and out of love. There's lots of kissing. We contrast 1890 with 2012. Is that cool or what?"

"Did you say kissing? Let's do it."

"Now Circa Then" is a feel-good play that allows us to exit laughing and talk about it afterwards. Gideon, played by Matt R. Harrington, is a natural comic and we enjoy watching him come to grips with his fated-to-fail love for Margie (Kimiye Corwin). If Margie, whose spunk we like but who has issues the author never tells us anything about, had grown as much as Gideon, the show would hit us harder.

Andrew Boyce's set is first class, especially as the different rooms in the museum change to reflect how Margie and Gideon are carrying on their initial romance. 'Now Circa Then' appeals to us as it reminds us love is never easy, now or then.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Now Circa Then" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Both actors are particularly good as the characters they play while they are doing their show within a show. The BANGLE is for Margie's wonderful last line, in which the modern girl has come to understand the young girl of a hundred years earlier: "I was an incredible woman, I think...will be, I hope."

"Now Circa Then"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through April 1

Photo credits: Tracy Martin