Sunday, March 10, 2013

"The Mountaintop" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Mmmm hmmm hmmm! After seeing the regional premiere of Katori Hall's brilliant "The Mountaintop," which runs at the Lucie Stern through April 7, we are asked not to divulge the secret which takes a lighthearted, humorous story and turns it into something you will not be able to stop talking about.

In that top photo you are looking at Martin Luther King (played by Adrian Roberts), standing at the door of Room 206 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the hotel's service employee Camae (Simone Missick), on her first night on the job, who has been sent up to bring Dr. King a cup of coffee.

Innocent enough. Dr. King wonders what has happened to his associate Ralph Abernathy, who has been sent to bring back a pack of cigarettes. Great sexual tension develops between Martin and Camae, enough that you are quite certain that this story will end up in one of those two motel beds.

Mmmm hmmm hmmm! Well, now.

Part of the tremendous power of this show revolves around us understanding what fate will befall Dr. King the next day, which means the author is free to dwell on historical backstories that we sometimes forget, such as the struggle between the violent and nonviolent wings of the civil rights movement, as well as the view that Dr. King had come to represent a more upper class of African American, while the down-home common man was far more ready to fight than talk.

When this show opened in New York, the leads were played by none other than Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett. But the show got lukewarm reviews. Seeing Roberts and Missick, you wonder how these two parts could possibly be played any better. Missick, especially, is a show stopper. The ending -- well, we've said all we are allowed to, except this: please do not miss "The Mountaintop."

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Mountaintop" Four Stars. The two-person ensemble wins two of them, Anthony J. Haney's perfect direction wins another (We are already Haney fans, going back to his direction of Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel"), and of course playwright Hall earns the fourth. When Dr. King says "...they hate so easily and we love too much..." we are both saddened and reminded of how far we've come and how high that mountaintop remains.

"The Mountain Top"
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through April 7

Photo credit: T. Martin and M. Kitaoka

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kurt Bodden's "Steve Seabrook: Better than You" ☼ ☼ ☼

Kurt Bodden is the real-live actor and writer who becomes the self-absorbed Steve Seabrook, self-help guru, for 70 minutes a night. "Better Than You" is the name of Seabrook's would-be franchise, which currently includes workshops, bottled water and golf tips. Bodden must be more familiar than he would want us to know with the actualization industry.

We see two Seabrooks, one with the lights on speaking to his audience: "You can have everything you've ever wanted with very little effort!" and one backstage during breaks, where we see his inner confusions. Christopher Meyer's light changes help us identify which mode Seabrook is in, though the real tipoff is Steve Seabrook's heaven-inspired smile.

We know that smile. It makes us cringe. But it also feels real.

This may be the gorilla in "Better Than You"'s room -- Kurt Bodden is really good, but Steve Seabrook's seminar is not particularly convincing. We never see why anyone would pay $1147 for a weekend with this vacant man -- he doesn't give anyone a thing. Perhaps this is the point -- that these classes are worthless -- but it feels as if Bodden is searching for something deeper. Perhaps this could be driven home better with some kind of interaction with a fictional workshop participant? We would pay to see Kurt Bodden, because he is a terrific physical comedian, but we'd demand our money back in an instant from Steve Seabrook.

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Our favorites are the paper boy and the dog story, and Seabrook's admonition to his class: "I have good news and bad news for you. People who are more successful than you are no better than you. That's the good news. The bad news is that people who are no better than you are more successful than you are."

He'll make you squirm, and that's good. Steve Seabrook right now is, down deep, a good guy. He probably could be a little less decent to start out, so we could watch him, along with his class, discover the "Little U in You."

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Steve Seabrook: Better than You" Three Stars. Kurt Bodden gives you a fun evening and you don't have to spend $1147 to get it.

Kurt Bodden's "Steve Seabrook: Better than You"

The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Friday and Saturday through March 30