Thursday, December 12, 2013

"The Oy of Sex" ☼ ☼

The title of Alicia Dattner's one-woman show says a lot about what you see. "The Oy of Sex" is a play on words, as is much of her show. She has some genuinely funny bits, and some of it, in addition to being hysterically funny, is unlike anything you've seen before. Case in point: the bit about giving Anastasia a very special birthday present in the bar. She is at her best when she is outrageous.

But unlike, say, Sarah Silverman, who prides herself on being raunchy, Dattner is also trying to be the good little girl, especially with a contrived, almost girl-scout ending. Jokes alone, no matter how clever, don't make a show, even if it's about everyone's number one favorite subject.

All that said, we laughed a lot. "How to break up with polyamorous people" was very funny. Lots of memorable quips -- "a one life stand," "a menage a moi," "Cooch 22" -- all sharp and entertaining. And the previously mentioned bar sequence really is a classic.

It's a master bit -- no tongue intended.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Oy of Sex" Two Stars. Funny routines from a comedienne who loves taking chances. It's still a collection of jokes, not quite a solo show, but Ms. Dattner has a pleasing on-stage personality. She is sharp and she'll figure it out. We suggest giving her a little time to see what works -- check back in towards the end of the run. We certainly will. Probably won't take Mom though.

"The Oy of Sex"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Thu-Sat through January 18
$20-$35 sliding scale

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

"Storefront Church" ☼ ☼ ☼

If you want a blockbuster for the Christmas season, it's a great idea to hire a cast featuring some of the finest and hardest-working actors in the Bay Area. Scarcely a week goes by that we don't see Gabriel Marin or Rod Gnapp on a stage somewhere. Carl Lumbly has had a great year, with superb performances in SFP's The Motherf**ker With the Hat and the Magic's "Terminus." Add in old pro Ray Reinhardt, plus Derek Fischer and Gloria Weinstock and you have a cast that makes you understand why Bay Area theater has become such an ongoing treasure.

Local rave reviews notwithstanding, we're not sure John Patrick Shanley's "Storefront Church" measures up to this cast. As the last of a trilogy (the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Doubt" was the first), "Storefront Church" once again talks about issues of faith and their intersection with the real world. Act One introduces us to Reed (Gnapp, a bank manager) and Ethan (Reinhardt, an old man looking for a loan). We watch them interact with Lumbly's Chester, the depressed pastor of a new storefront church and Marin's Donaldo, the Borough President of the Bronx. Donaldo needs Chester to pay his debts to Jessie (Weinstock), a neighborhood compatriot of Donaldo's. The plot is simple to understand. We get plenty of laughs at the goodhearted expense of religion and politics as we await Act Two.

Granted, it's a Christmas show, so we're supposed to exit smiling and we do. But we also wonder how the action in Act Two became so stilted and the conclusion so improbable? The cast seems off-kilter. Lumbly is too self-assured to be so paralyzed, Marin is too morally conflicted to be Borough President, perhaps the most smoke-filled backroom job ever created, while Tom, while deliciously smarmalicious as the bank CEO, does not seem intellectually capable of pulling off his grand plan, which is to blackmail the Borough President in order to guarantee support on an ill-conceived construction project.

Watching these actors is worth the price of admission. But there are a lot of loose ends. Faith always wins at Christmas. We could have used a little more devil.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Storefront Church" Three Stars. We especially loved Rod Gnapp, getting a chance for once to play a more nuanced character. Go for the actors: they're all good. The show is funny and wholesome, but feels like it might have been more.

"Storefront Church"
San Francisco Playhouse
Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through Jan 5, 2014

Monday, November 25, 2013

"The Jewelry Box" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Brian Copeland has had a lot of success as a solo performer, beginning with his epic "Not a Genuine Black Man," which still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in San Francisco theater history. The reason is simple: the man is really funny. This time, Copeland has polished up another gem from his past with "The Jewelry Box," a wacky and heartwarming story about trying to raise the money to buy his mom a Christmas present when he was six years old. We meet lots of characters from his East Oakland neighborhood of the 1970s, including his mom and his sisters, his estranged father and his two grandmothers, his landlord, a car salesman, the school counselor, a chihuahua and, best of all, two trash-talking winos hanging out in front of the local convenience store.

Nobody does voices better than Brain Copeland and David Ford's co-production allows each character plenty of space to come alive. We cringe when we see his dad, Sylvester, because we know what's going to happen; we cheer when the school counselor comes up with a solution to Brian's problem; and we are first horrified and then gratified by the fine surprise ending.

We also get a supporting soundtrack including lots of soulful Christmas songs. Seeing as it isn't even Thanksgiving yet and we are already over the edge with "Winter Wonderland," hearing these old nuggets just adds to the show's luster.

You never know how long solo performances can last, but "The Jewelry Box" could turn into one of those shows you bring your family to every season. We saw it last year in development and it is even richer now. Call up everyone, even Grandma -- just not Brian's Grandma -- and bring them down to the Marsh for a smile and tug at the heart.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Jewelry Box" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. In addition to being an amazing performer, Copeland is a fine writer. None of these vignetters are wasted, each tells us something -- about a character, about a different perspective on Christmas, about the neighborhood, about Brian Copeland as a man. He tackles a lot of subjects along the way. Writing, production and acting: Each deserves one star.

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for "The First Santa Threat of the Season." Oh, woe, so true. Brian, we feel (and remember) your pain.

"The Jewelry Box"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 5pm through Dec. 28

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Arlington" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

At the talkback after Friday night's performance of "Arlington" at the Magic Theater, someone said "I don't know what this is. Is it a musical? Is it an opera? I don't know where to put it."

Victor Lodato and Polly Pen's new show is sung all the way through, as if it were an opera, and Analisa Leaming, playing Sara Jane, has an opera background. But there are no soaring arias, and Ms. Leaming has a human-quality voice, quite unlike anything you would hear in the opera house. Polly Pen's score is haunting, but its atonal, arrhythmic nature serves to show us the development of Sara Jane's character, not to give the audience anything to leave the theater humming. There are "songs," which make it more like a musical, but only a few and you don't always know you're listening to one.

The show, by the way, is brilliant. Leaming's performance is as good as anything you will see this season. Though she dominates the action, musical director Jeff Pew, sitting at a raised grand piano at the rear of the stage, is a character as well. At one point, Leaming sits down at an upright piano and plays an intriguing, if too-short duet with Pew. They create a rare back-and-forth musical dialogue that becomes the heart of the show, as the story begins to crystallize around the stories from Arlington National Cemetery.

It's short -- one hour -- and doesn't need to be any longer. Jackson Gay's direction carries us seamlessly through what is at heart a difficult story. This show will go through many changes as it develops, but you must not miss Analisa Leaming's performance here. It could hardly be any more breathtaking.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Arlington" Four Stars. It is that good. We emphasize this is a musical but not a Broadway musical, with operatic form but in no way operatic. You are seeing a hybrid and all you have to do is plug yourself in.
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through December 8

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Urge for Going" ☼ ☼ BANG

Mona Mansour's "Urge for Going" is written from the viewpoint of a Palestinian family stuck in a refugee camp in Lebanon, where they have lived for over sixty years. Sixty years is a long time. Why have they not left? Author Mansour, whose father is Lebanese, gives us some answers. Adham, the intellectual (Terry Lamb), has remained in the hope that some day he and his family will receive the right to return. His brother, white-bearded Ghassan (Munaf Alsafi) sees this dream as most likely an impossible one, while young Jamila (Camila Betancourt Ascencio) just hopes to get away and see the world.

There are tensions within this intergenerational household and they are exacerbated by the poverty in which they live. Jamila's brother Jul (Wiley Naman Strasser) has been left emotionally fragile, the result of a confrontation with a Lebanese policeman. Jamila and Jul's mother Abir (Tara Blau) finds herself as the referee, trying to find a middle ground between her husband's intellectual intransigence and her daughter's dream of a better life. Julian Lopez-Morillas plays Hamzi, Abir's brother, who has a more measured point of view.

Meanwhile, life goes on. The family plays cards, goes to work, watches "Baywatch" and discusses politics.

Perhaps pacing could be quicker. Director Evren Odcikin has done his best but it is a very small stage with a lot of furniture on it. This is no doubt intentional, to illustrate the cramped conditions of a refugee camp, but it does make for a lot of sitting around and not a lot of motion.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Urge for Going" Two Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE which brings it close to the Julie Andrews Line (see sidebar for ratings explanation). Opening Night performances were a little shaky but this will improve as the run continues. Middle East politics are impossibly complex and Americans tend to hear only two sides of a multi-faceted story. "Urge for Going" has its own story to tell and it is a fascinating one.

"Urge for Going"
Z Space Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through December 8
($45 for two-show pass, including "444 Days" by Torange Yeghiazarian) 

A Bright New Boise: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"A Bright New Boise" is one dark little night at the theater. Gripping and funny, with interesting characters and strong performances from each of the five actors, you exit the theater looking carefully in all directions, particularly up.

Robert Parsons is a great choice to play Will, the ex-evangelist -- maybe -- at the center of this drama. He has left upstate Idaho and come down to Boise to look for his son Alex, played by Daniel Petzold.  Alex is barely coping with reality, and his job as cashier at Boise's Hobby Lobby is the only thing he's got. When Will finds him and takes a job at the same store, it puts Alex in an impossible situation.

Luckily for Alex, he's got a protector: his stepbrother Leroy, played by Patrick Russell. Leroy is crazy, but he's got a plan -- to protect his little brother from his evangelist father, whose exit from the cult in northern Idaho has been well documented on the local news.

We particularly love the two women in the cast. Gwen Loeb plays Hobby Lobby supervisor Pauline with irreverent gusto, lobbing constant curses at everyone, to the dismay of Will who is still not ready to hear the Lord's name taken in vain. Pauline takes everyone's name in f-ing vain.

Meanwhile, silent Anna (Megan Trout) is as damaged as Alex. She is frightened by all contact and hints at a terrible situation at home. She and Will discover that neither has anywhere else to go, which is why they have taken to sneaking into the Hobby Lobby break room after hours. Trout's portrayal of Anna harkens back to her role as Grete in the Aurora's 2011 "Metamorphosis." Anna's present is grim, her past was sordid and we see little hope for her in the future.

Religion is the elephant in playwright Samuel D. Hunter's room. "A Bright New Boise" is about the search for meaning in life. The corporate video, which all Hobby Lobby employees are required to watch, is the obvious Big Lie. But hoping that humanity perishes so that the Rapture may begin is its destructive counterpart. When Will screams "Now, Lord! Now! Now!" we are relieved that the only thing that falls is the curtain.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Bright New Boise" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Writing, staging and performances by the ensemble cast merit one star each. The Bangle of Praise is for the little things -- the corporate video/medical video, the way the antiseptic lunch room becomes a haven for lost souls, the hints at sexuality issues without becoming specific. This is a show that will stay with you.

"A Bright New Boise"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 8

Monday, October 7, 2013

"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"You get hungry, you get stupid," says the tiger, which pretty much sums up Rajiv Joseph's "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo." The tiger was captured several years ago from his home in India, tranquilized and sent to the Baghdad Zoo. Now, the zoo and everything around him has been pulverized by American bombing, the lions have all escaped and been shot on the street, and the tiger is faced with an existential dilemma.

Will Marchetti plays the Bengal tiger with excellent large-feline angst. He feels guilty for his transgressions in the past, especially for killing and eating several small children, but he can't figure out why God would make him a predator and then get angry at him for preying. He also can't fathom why so many Iraquis are still worshiping a deity who would allow the horrors under which they must now live their daily lives.

Meanwhile, two marines, sympathetic Tom (Gabriel Marin) and dense Kev (Craig Marker), have been stationed to guard the zoo.  It doesn't end well for either one, nor does the story get any more heartwarming with the entry of translator Musa (Kuros Charney) and Uday Hussain, Saddam's evil son (Pomme Koch). War is Hell, and death is only the beginning.

Joseph is a beautiful writer. The story and the characters twist and turn. At the end of Act One there is no way to guess what will happen in Act Two. In the end, we are left with the only explanation of human behavior that has ever made any sense: "You get hungry, you get stupid." And we get it from the mouth of a tiger.

RATINGS": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. We get a brilliant, offbeat story, terrific performances as well as excellent direction by Bill English. The BANGLE is for Pomme Koch's depiction of Uday -- he is chilling while convincing, evil while sensible. A lesser actor might go over the top -- Koch does not. A monster like Uday Hussein feels completely believable. This is the scary part.


"Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
San Francisco
Through 11/14

Thursday, September 19, 2013

"Buried Child" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It seems like every time there is a role in the Bay Area for a character who is deranged and damaged beyond redemption (but still erudite), someone rings Rod Gnapp's bell. This time, Loretta Greco at the Magic Theatre tapped Gnapp to play Dodge, the central figure in Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "Buried Child." Dodge is deranged, all right, but everyone else in his family is several bolts short of a bridge as well.

Shepard wrote this play while in residence at the Magic in 1978, then re-wrote it for a 1996 Steppenwolf production. We see this later version, with a 2013 cast to do it proud.

You never want to walk into a dark alley with any character in a Sam Shepard play. You have relatives like them. Denise Balthrop Cassidy plays Dodge's wife Halle who oozes deliciously hypocritical religious prattle while carrying on with the local minister. Dodge and Halle's two surviving sons, Tilden (James Wagner) and Bradley (Patrick Kelly Jones) are each shattered wrecks, the detritus of an unspoken family secret. Bradley has lost a leg and Tilden his mind.  

Then Tilden's son Vince (Patrick Alarpone) and his girl friend Shelly (Elaina Garrity) enter and upset the applecart. Garrity comes close to stealing the show. With her initially vapid L.A.-girl persona, she is an outsider, and therefore the only person who can engage Dodge -- and finally get him to confess about what really happened all those years ago. 

The story is thick, the plot thicker, and, for a Pulitzer winner, there are some holes in the second act. But this is an actor's show and the cast brings life to Sam Shepard's desperate Illinois world. 

Special mention to costume designer Alex Jaeger. Tilden's final costume looks like he has gone down to hell and come back up. Which isn't far off.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Buried Child" Four Stars, all for the acting. The play itself is a little obtuse -- what would have shocked an audience silly in 1978 just looks like another night on reality television in 2013. But Shepard's words make all the difference. We hear the playwright, as Halle speaks at the end of the show:

"...You can't force a thing to grow. You can't interfere with it. It's all hidden. Unseen. You just gotta wait 'til it pops up out of the ground." 

"Buried Child"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
EXTENDED Through October 13

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Word for Word: "In Friendship" by Zona Gale: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The expressions of Patricia Silver and Joanne Winter notwithstanding, Word for Word's latest presentation of five short stories by the early twentieth-century author Zona Gale is absolutely charming. It takes its time to get going, but by the last story "Covers for Seven" we are wrapped up happily in the small town world of Friendship, Wisconsin, somewhere around 1910.

"Friendship," "The Java Entertainment" and "The Cold Shoulder" start us off by presenting the townspeople going about their daily routines.  We love Mrs. Postmaster Sykes (Nancy Shelby), the town's society lady, Miss Amanda Toplady (Amy Kassow), who is trying her best to go with the flow, and you can't help but relish Joel Mullenix's voice as Timothy Toplady. The entire cast keeps us laughing and moving forward towards Act Two, when "Nobody Sick, Nobody Poor" and "Covers for Seven" create one of the most heartwarming Thanksgiving stories we have seen in years. This show could become a Thanksgiving staple, in much the same way we look forward to Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" each year.

Special kudos to Jeri Lynn Cohen as Calliope Marsh, Ms. Gale's true voice of reason, and, as always, for the precise choreography of the Word for Word team. We never get enough of this company.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "In Friendship" by Zona Gale Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The story, cast and direction deserve one star each and the Bangle is for those wonderful firemen, who manage to disassemble a fire station that doesn't even exist. Great stuff.

Word for Word's "In Friendship" by Zona Gale
Z Space Theater
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED through September 13

"After the Revolution" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A fascinating and multi-layered drama, Amy Herzog's "After the Revolution" is at it's heart a relationship story about a young woman and her family. The Josephs are a multigenerational clan involved with revolutionary politics, stemming from their late patriarch Joe, continuing through his son Ben and now Ben's daughter Emma. Rolf Saxon and Jessica Bates play Ben and Emma. We hear about all the special circumstances surrounding the Joseph family history (red-baiting, McCarthy trials, blacklisting) but above all we are drawn to the personal stories of Ben and Emma, she a modern woman torn by the realization that old Joe Joseph wasn't the saint he has been made out to be, and he, both son and dad, trying to keep his family and his ideology in balance.

Victor Talmadge turns in a perfectly measured performance as Leo, Ben's older brother, as do Pamela Gaye Walker, as Ben's partner Mel, and Sara Mitchell as Jess, Emma's sister. The cast is completed by Morty (Peter Kybart), a voice of old-school reason, Vera (Ellen Ratner), a grandmother who seems somewhat too young for her role, and Adrian Anchondo as Miguel, Emma's boyfriend.

Along the way we get barbs at the uninvolved younger generation as well as a few choice comments about how the radical older lefties view modern issues such as homosexuality and minorities -- one view for the world, perhaps a different view for their own family.

When was the last time you heard people singing along to the pre-curtain music? This is what you get with a Berkeley audience and a Pete Seeger soundtrack.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Before the Revolution" Four Stars. We love being graced with both plot and first-class acting. Joy Carlin is the perfect director for this story and Amy Herzog deserves praise for a script schooled in history as well as heart.

"After The Revolution"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through October 6

Thursday, July 25, 2013

"The Loudest Man on Earth" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

This is a difficult review to write, because Catherine Rush's "The Loudest Man on Earth" is not about words, but about emotion. And communication. You won't see or hear anything else this season remotely like it.

Performed in a combination of sign language and mime, plus spoken language from the three speaking cast members and the strained sounds of the fourth, who is deaf, this brilliant show makes you work hard just to follow. But half an hour or so through the evening you realize you are getting it. And from that moment on the payoff is tremendous.

Adrian Blue plays Jordan White, a successful theater director despite his deafness. He falls for Haylee (Julie Fitzpatrick), who has been sent to interview him. He's a New York Jew, she's a Connecticut brahmin, he is deaf while she knows a little sign language, but despite their differences they move in with each other. Their means of communicating not only intrigues but involves us, as we guess to decipher what Jordan is trying to say.

Fitzpatrick is nothing short of brilliant, as she moves back and forth from speaking to signing, from being Jordan's lover to his protector, from trying in vain to get him to trust her more deeply to having to face her own insecurities about their relationship.

After each emotional situation, Jordan comes to the side of the stage and mimes writing a letter, into which he is obviously pouring his heart. We guess what he is saying -- but really have no idea what he is going on about -- until we do.

Cassidy Brown (Men) and Mia Tagano (Women) play half a dozen characters each, switching costumes and characters on the fly. Their job is to show us the daily embarrassments and difficulties a deaf person must endure in his daily life. We particularly loved Brown and Tagano's depictions of Jordan's parents, who Jordan despises, but we find almost touchingly tragic.

"The Loudest Man on Earth" was a crowd favorite at last year's TheatreWorks New Works Festival and appears here with the same cast. Catherine Rush is Adrian Blue's real-life wife, so she knows what she is writing about. By the show's end we are ready for more. How often do we get to say that?

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Loudest Man on Earth" Four Stars. Writing, acting, directing and staging are first rate. We think this show is going to be around a long time.

"The Loudest Man on Earth"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 4

Photo credits: T. Martin and M. Kitaoka

Monday, July 22, 2013

Don Reed: "Can You Dig It?" ☼ ☼ ☼

In his new show, "Can You Dig It?" Don Reed takes us back to East Oakland where he grew up. In his earlier show "East Fourteenth Street," we met his Mom, his Dad, his brother, sister, two stepbrothers and his father's crazy friends (including the amazing Trout Mouth). Now, we get to meet them again, but in an earlier time period, when his mom and dad were still married and living together. Since this makes "Can You Dig It" a prequel, Reed must make sure people who are not familiar with him are laughing right along with his fans who already know these characters well. He pulls it off. The characters he has created and Reed's ability for physical comedy are funny enough that we are quite happy to say hello to them all again.

But "Can You Dig it?" has a little more angst to it. We feel the pain of his father watching Martin Luther King's assassination on TV (great choice of Sam Cooke music here). We see that his Dad was a pretty decent pimp, but also understand why his mom had to get away. It's easy to see why his mom took up with his Jehovah's Witnesses stepdad. We already know how that turned out for little Donnie because going door-to-door and not celebrating Christmas was a central theme in "East Fourteenth Street."

The stutter and nervous tics that Donnie had as a child are eclipsed only by those of his friend Waddell, who also jumps up and down before he talks. We love Waddell and Donnie together. They could have their own sit-com, with Double Dutch Tony as their enforcer and Trout Mouth as cultural attaché.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Can You Dig It?" Three Stars. It is a very funny show. But we would rate it higher if he gave us a little more. Don Reed can do amazing things with his face but he creates bits that leave us hanging.  What happened in the talent contest? Who won? What did he say to his dad when MLK died? When he and his mom got close toward the end of her life, what did they talk about?  Why did they go shopping so much? The hysterical bit when he and his younger brother are shacked up in a motel with two girls -- how did that end? And when he talks, as a postscript, about what happened in real life to these characters, so many appear to be dead. These were young people. How did that happen?

Which is to say we really love Don Reed's shows. He makes us laugh while he is setting us up for something deeper. When he wants to go there we'll be happy to come along too.

PARKING ALERT: They have steeply raised the price of the nearby New Mission Bartlett Garage. It is no longer an inexpensive option. 

Don Reed: "Can You Dig It?
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
$15-$35 sliding scale
Saturday and Sunday through August 25