Sunday, February 3, 2013

"The Motherf#@ker with the Hat" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG! BANG!

Stephen Adly Guirgis's "The Motherf#@ker with the Hat" is not only brilliant, it is motherf#@king hysterical. From Victoria and Jackie's first embrace, through 95 minutes of verbal and emotional mayhem, all the way down to Victoria's last heartrending sigh as she sits alone on her bed listening to Lionel Richie, we are catapulted into the world of five desperate people whose lives, amazingly, end up mattering a great deal to us.

How good is the cast of five? The audience cheered at the end of every single scene, that's how good.

Victoria is played by Isabelle Ortega, channeling Rosie Perez but only on the surface. With all her bravado, she's worried about her life. Her boyfriend, Jackie, is played by Gabriel Marin in a performance that seams together the best parts of all his past roles as a big, loveable doofus who cannot ever get out of his own way. It's a dream role for this marvelous actor, but then you meet Ralph, Jackie's AA sponsor, played by Carl Lumbly. Ralph might actually BE the owner of that motherf#@king hat, we're not sayin' so one way or the other, but, regardless, he surely is one righteously bad drug counselor.

Then there is Ralph's totally fed-up wife (Margo Hall ), no shrinking violet herself, and let's not even THINK about overlooking cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero) who delivers the play's most memorable line as he links over to Fat Tessio in the Godfather ("...leave the gun. Take the empanada.")

There are so many lessons to be learned from this show. One, if you want to be a writer and you're going over the top, don't test the waters with your playwright's toe, motherf#@king jump in.

Two, if you want to be a great director, follow Bill English's advice: cast these five actors.

Three, if you want a successful show, start with a memorable #@ing title. 

From the audience's point of view, there's only one lesson here; do not miss this fabulous show.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division would have no problem whatsoever awarding "The Motherf#@ker with the Hat" its highest rating of Five Stars. But you can't have Five Stars along with BANGLES OF PRAISE. That would be like Santa Claus acquiring the Easter Bunny. It doesn't make sense.

So we are awarding Four Stars with Two BANGLES. This is very high praise and does not even include the miracle of finding a parking spot right on Powell Street only a few hundred feet from the theater.

The first ☼ is for the principals Ortega, Marin and Lumbly, with a second ☼ for Hall and Guerrero who do what supporting characters are not supposed to do: steal the show every chance they get. A third  is for English's set design and precision lighting by Jordan Puckett, and a fourth ☼ for Guirgis's superb plot and dialogue.

As for BANGLES OF PRAISE, the first is for Ralph's commentary about friendship: "...anyone you meet before age 25? That's a friend. Anyone after that? That's an associate." How sadly true this is.

The second BANGLE is for Jackie's description about being in love with Victoria. We won't spoil it here, but it involves Jackie's genitals and Godzilla.


"The Motherf#@ker with the Hat"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St. (Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
San Francisco
Through March 16

Friday, February 1, 2013

"Our Practical Heaven" ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

In this Aurora Theater World Premiere of Anthony Clarvoe's "Our Practical Heaven," six women meet at the family getaway spot, a house on a beach somewhere on the East Coast. It is located where rising seas will before too long bury the property under water. This is the metaphor for the relationships between all six women, as tides shift, moons rise and relationships ebb and flow.

Our matriarch is Vera (Joy Carlin), who is clearly the family's guiding light. Her counterpart is the youngest member present, grand-daughter Leez (Adrienne Walters). Just finishing high school, Leez bonds with Vera as they are the two without best friends. Sasha (Anne Darragh) and Willa (Julia Brothers) are long time friends and "honorary sisters," as are Magz (Lauren Spencer) and Suze (Blythe Foster). Magz is Willa's daughter, Suze is Sasha's daughter from a first marriage and Leez is Sasha's daughter from the marriage that is breaking up now.

It's a World Premiere, after all, so Act One is still a little long. Though written by a man (who originally included several male characters but they have all been eliminated in this final version), "Heaven" may be what we call, with some trepidation, a "woman's show." Act One sets up all the shifting alliances and betrayals and on-again off-again turf squabbles between the six women. There is a lot of talk which doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but in Act Two the payoff arrives, in the form of Willa's attempts to save the property in the form of a refuge, which has several intended and unintended consequences. In the end, it is time for the older generation to hand the ball to the younger.

One interesting touch to the play is that the three young women are constantly texting each other, and the texts appear on screens surrounding the stage. The older women communicate with long, convoluted heart-rendering monologues and the younger women with "Where r u?" and "R u up?"

For us, the wonderful Joy Carlin may be a bit miscast here -- she is supposed to be weak and distraught, but it is not easy to even write "weak" and "Joy Carlin" in the same sentence.

Everybody has issues. Magz has pain issues. Suze has recognition issues. Daughters have issues with moms, moms with daughters. There are some sexual identity issues hinted at, as well as the larger themes of birdwatching and global warming, but these are minor. Clarvoe is talking about growing older and wiser, being faced with the unavoidable loss of your piece of paradise, and then sitting back on the sofa and letting the oceans rise.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards division awards "Our Practical Heaven" Three Stars with a Question Mark. One star is for the actors, particularly Julia Brothers, Anne Darragh and Adrienne Walters, though all six women have strong roles. A second star is for the concept -- the passing of time as evidenced by rising seas and lowering expectations. The third is because as this show gathers itself we believe there will be less talk and a little more walk. Each character must find her own self, instead of being simply part of an ensemble. This is particularly true for Suze and Magz, who are on different paths that we want to know more about.

The question mark is only for the title. What does "Our Practical Heaven" mean, anyway? We're sure Clarvoe can fish up something without the word "practical."

"Our Practical Heaven"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through March 3

"Se Llama Cristina" ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

Octavio Solis's "Se Llama Cristina" is a fascinating piece of playwriting without chronology. The audience is left to guess if what is happening on the stage is real, or a dream, or a fantasy, or happened already or will happen in the future. It is one of those pieces that critics love, because it has a lot of funny lines and is unlike other shows, but it is also gimmicky, and confusing -- not the kind of thing audiences usually take to quickly.

Sarah Nina Hayon and Sean San José wake out of a fog, in a cheap motel room with garbage strewn all over the floor. They seem to have been on a bender -- the bottle of Johnny Walker White Label and the needle still protruding from his arm are the clues. Also, they have no idea where they are -- they can't even remember their own names. Eventually we discover she is Vera and he is Miguel.

Rod Gnapp appears after awhile -- playing Abel, who might be Vera's husband, or her father, or even the suitor of her child, but the child might be her child or it might be her. We are big Rod Gnapp fans. He must work more than any other actor in the Bay Area, but this character with the menacing drawl is one he has done so many times it has become hard not see the actor instead of the character.

Karina Gutiérrez enters for a few minutes at the end of the show and brings some understanding to this hard-to-follow script. That she is not even listed as being in the show, because, one assumes, they have decided that we, the audience, shouldn't know whether she is real or not, is symbolic of the show-for-insiders approach author Solis and director Loretta Greco have taken with "Se Llama Cristina." 

As always, Solis has written some great lines. We loved the discussion about poetry, and the linking of undocumented aliens with poetry's undocumented words. San Franciscans will appreciate the short summary of Daly City. 

He gives us a lot to think about. But so much is unexplained, and we really aren't sure these locos make us care all that much. Is the chicken bone symbolic? Or is it just a piece of chicken? And nobody saw the baby under the chicken? 

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Se Llama Cristina" Three Stars with a Question Mark.  The ? is for that chicken bone, part of the unexplained symbolism that diminishes the show's impact for us. On the other hand, we liked Sean San José and Sarah Nina Hayon, and Dave Maier, who did the fabulous fight choreography in "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity" -- our favorite recent Rod Gnapp show -- is on hand here too. And the Santo and Johnny guitar at the end is great. Nice musical choice by sound designer Sara Huddleston.

We have seen most of Octavio Solis's shows and have enjoyed them all. We always end up rooting for his flawed characters. Perhaps, as the show moves forward, Vera and Miguel will make us care a little more.

"Se Llama Cristina"
Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Through February 17