Sunday, April 22, 2012

"Lucky Duck" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The kiss of death for a reviewer is to walk into a production expecting one thing and getting another --especially if the unexpected performance is a children's show and the hall is packed with kids of all ages. So how brilliant it is to discover that Henry Krieger, Bill Russell and Jeffrey Hatcher's "Lucky Duck" is not only funny, heartwarming and musically solid, but that there wasn't a peep from the Berkeley Playhouse audience except well-deserved applause and laughter.

Naomi Hummel is Serena the Duck and William Hodgson is the Wolf. The story is a familiar hodgepodge of a million others -- Serena is the ugly duckling who yearns to be a superstar. The Wolf is trying desperately to turn over a new leaf, but carnivores are not to be trusted in a kingdom of birds. He battles his base instincts -- he has to decide whether to love Serena or eat her.

Other standout performances are by Benjamin Pither as Drake, Nicole C. Julien as Goosetella, and by Nick Nunez who plays a rather disinterested King but a fabulous Armand, the fashion designer.

 We get coyotes and free range chickens and even a visit from the three little pigs.

It's all good fun but don't discount some very clever songs and a good 4-piece band, packed into a pit the size of a small chicken coop. You will probably leave the theater and wake up the next morning singing "Lucky Duck." We especially loved " A Helping Paw," "You Look Good Enough to Eat" and "Average, Simple, Mega Superstar."

Don't expect grand costume changes or sets that are anything more than the best they can do on a very limited budget. But do expect excellent material and performances that will make you sing like a bird.

RATINGS:  ☼  ☼  ☼  BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Lucky Duck" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The first two stars are for The Wolf and the Duck. They make us feel all quacky. The third star is for Kimberly Dooley's direction which is nothing short of miraculous on the Julia Morgan stage that looks more like the rec room at summer camp. And a well-deserved BANGLE OF PRAISE to all those little chickens and ducks who made us remember how much fun it is to be in a show -- and how good the audience feels when all the birds get it so right.

"Lucky Duck"
Julia Morgan Theater
2640 College Avenue, Berkeley
Through May 13

Photo credit: Larry Abel

Friday, April 13, 2012

"Anatol" UNRATED

Playwrights have been writing plays for upwards of twenty five hundred years. There are countless good stories from which to choose. So, if in a particular season your program calls for a revival, you can pick from history's best.

So we have to ask Aurora Theater: You could pick Sophocles and you do Arthur Schnitzler?

Many people, including translator Margret Schaefer, whose new translation is the basis for this World Premiere, are fascinated with the end of the 19th Century in Vienna. It was Paris a generation before Paris, the city of artistic experimentation, the hot bed of new expression in Europe. Schnitzler was a part of that scene and it could be that his work was titillating when it first appeared in 1893. Perhaps Freud, Schopenhauer and Schoenberg got a kick out of watching two drawing room gentlemen talking about women while pouring champagne.

But these are not nice people. Anatol (Mike Ryan) is a little prig, and his best friend Max (Tim Kniffin) is worse. Act One is interminable after the hypnosis gimmick at the outset goes nowhere. Act Two starts off better, but your hopes are soon crushed by the indifference of Anatol and Max.

The wonderful Delia MacDougall plays several different women, and in all cases her characters are fun to watch. But they are prisoners of love. 'Cora' is interesting, and 'Ilona' is too, as is the woman who breaks up with Anatol before he can break up with her. But no one learns anything, no one goes anywhere.

Maybe it's the translation. But it's so much talk about so little.

Despite some humor and the interesting Christmas Eve scene, in which Anatol almost appears human, the pacing of "Anatol" is deadly. The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has chosen not to recommend this show. It remains UNRATED.

The Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, San Francisco
Through May 13

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Any Given Day" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ! BANG!

After last night's American Premiere of Linda McLean's "Any Given Day," which had absolutely blown us away -- in fact, the audience never moved after the lights came back on, something we have never seen before at Magic Theatre -- the playwrights, actors, creative team and critics all gathered in the theater bar. All of a sudden, the buzz was about "the secret question" -- we'll just say there is one relationship within the two-story play that is undefined. When we asked Linda McLean about it she just said: "It's up to you. Take it however you want to."

So that's what we're doing. The show is brilliant, no matter how you slice it. These performances are a block past normal. They will stick with you for a long time.

The first half of the eighty-minute one act show features the astonishing Amy Kossow as Sadie and the equally brilliant Christopher McHale as Bill. Speaking in Scots dialect, these two characters are mentally challenged but amazingly communicative. Sadie's laugh makes us smile. Her sadness hits us in the gut. Bill's bantering with her shows a love that defies his words. But look out for the ending.

In the second half (separated by a total scene change camouflaged by Michael Locher's inspired wall of water), Stacy Ross is spellbinding as Jackie, a mom teetering on the edge of self-control, who is working in a bar owned by Dave (James Carpenter). We watch through fifteen minutes, as this relationship begins to explain itself, and then all of a sudden we realize Jackie is -- well, she's Jackie! Jackie! Remember in the first part? Jackie? Holy mackerel!

When the stories fit together it is playwriting at its best. It is a plus that we never know exactly what happens. "Any Given Day" will have you on the edge of your seat. You won't want to get up when the lights come on.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ! BANG!
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division wants to give "Any Given Day" Five Stars, but it can't, because...because...well just because. It's a small one-acter. There is no "Oklahoma!" or "Dancing Queen" or "Ease on Down the Road." Director Jon Tracy said it all came together on Opening Night. It certainly did.

So we are awarding Four Stars with an Exclamation Point and a BANGLE OF PRAISE: One star for each acting performance (including Patrick Alarpone's small but vital role in Part One), with an Exclamation Point for the creative team and writer. We are also giving Christopher McHale and Amy Kossow their own extra-special BANGLE. You will see why.

If you want to study acting, come. If you love interesting, involving theater that you can mull over when you go home, come. Just don't miss "Any Given Day."

"Any Given Day"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, Marina and Buchanan Streets, San Francisco
EXTENDED through April 29

Monday, April 9, 2012

"Of Mice and Men" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

"Nobody gets to heaven and nobody gets no land," says old Crook, summing up in one sentence what John Steinbeck would write about his entire life. Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," first a novella then turned into a play by the author himself, was written in the desperate 1930s. Yet, with the passage of time, it has become, if anything, even more believable today. This Theatreworks production, directed by Robert Kelley, is a powerhouse.

George (Jos Viramontes) and Lenny (AJ Meijer) are two wandering farmhands, looking for work as they try to build up a stake to someday buy their own place. George is sharp, but Lenny has the brain of a child inside the body of a superman. George's stories of the glory he and Lenny will find in their heaven-on-earth future are enthusiastically adopted by Candy (Gary S. Martinez) and Crook (Charles Branklyn), each hoping to find his own place within George's dream.

But then we meet Curley (Harold Pierce), and especially Curley's wife (Lena Hart), a small-town dreamer who pictures herself a movie star in Hollywood, and we all know how the story must end.

There are so many levels to this story. Poverty is one -- poverty of pocket and spirit. Steinbeck gives us insights into each character, all doomed to remain exactly where they are, even as they move from farm camp to farm camp, earning a little each month then blowing it all in the cathouse. The fate of poor Candy's dog, old and worn out, becomes the truest metaphor of all.

We have all read "Of Mice and Men" along with "The Grapes of Wrath." George's relationship with Lenny has been immortalized in movies and even Bugs Bunny cartoons. So we all know what's going to happen. And yet, the ending still shocks us. The real farm area Steinbeck was writing about was just down the road. It's all familiar and frightening. Expected and unexpected. Beautiful theater.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Of Mice and Men" Four Stars. Acting, directing, staging and story are all winners. And you get John Steinbeck too.

Everyone will recognize how fine a job Viramontes and Meijer do as George and Lenny but we want to give special credit to Martinez's Candy. He begins as a Walter Brennan clone (we're looking for the limp) but by the end of the show we recognize in Candy the soul of the entire enterprise. He has no chance -- but we can't help rooting for him anyway.
"Of Mice and Men"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 29

Photo credits: Mark S. Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Maple and Vine" ☼ ☼ ☼ DOUBLE BANG

You want to go see A.C.T.'s West Coast premiere of "Maple and Vine," with an emphasis on "see." Scenic designer Ralph Funicello has outdone himself -- in fact, the entire creative team of Alex Jaeger (costumes), Russell H. Champa (lights) and Jake Rodriguez (sound) have teamed up with Funicello to give us a visual and sonic masterpiece.

What's the show about? Well, hold on a minute. It is probably a sendup of today's overamped world of infinite choices, though it may also be a love story. The Society of Dynamic Obsolescence is probably not a veiled description of the Republican party, though it may be.

It's creepy. Act One makes your skin itch. At intermission everyone mills around asking each other what crazy thing is going to happen in Act Two? It has to, and it does, kind of, but if they would have answered some very basic questions the whole shebang would have made a lot more sense. Why, exactly, would a young Japanese-American doctor in 2012 choose to return to the segregated, mind-stultifying world of 1955 so he can work in a box factory? Are these people tuned into something we are missing, or are they all two olives short of a dirty martini?

It's fiction. What you're seeing on stage is so fascinating, and the visuals so compelling, that it's hard not to take it too seriously. Don't. Just revel in Funicello's flying houses and Jaeger's girdled-up cocktail dresses, in the intriguing concepts and questions raised (if not answered), and in author Jordan Harrison's wonderful lines like "What's a little hypertension if you're happy?"

Of the cast, Jullia Coffey as Ellen and Jamison Jones as Dean really grab our attention.

The other three actors (Emily Donahoe as Katha, Nelson Lee as Ryu and Danny Bernardy as Roger) all have their moments. Basically, we love the characters in the 1950s, where they have an eerie resonance. In the 21st Century -- not so much. We'd like to care a little more about them.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Maple and Vine" Three Stars with Two BANGLES OF PRAISE for Sets, Lights, Costume and Sound. Usually, two bangles would translate into an extra star, but the story doesn't really justify it. "Maple and Vine" is a quirky little story made into a grand production. It might play even better in a smaller venue, but you don't want to miss it exactly as it is.

NOTE: Don't buy the cheap seats for this show. You want to have a dubonnet and slide down onto that sofa.

"Maple and Vine"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through April 22