Sunday, June 23, 2013

"So You Can Hear Me" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Daughter of a jazz musician father and dancer mother, Safiya Martinez inherited a lot of music and motion. A native New Yorker, she grew up on the Lower East Side and then moved to the Bronx. Somehow, with no experience or training, she ended up teaching Special Ed at a Bronx high school where even the cab drivers were afraid to go. Her fantastic solo show "So You Can Hear Me" introduces us to nine of her students, all of whom speak in a Latino Bronxese filled with humor, sadness and a lot of life.

We loved all her characters, some little more than sketches and some more lengthy. Perhaps no pastiche is as memorable as her mother dancing with pleasure around her apartment, after she has just cut off her own bandages after breast cancer surgery. Let's not forget the vibrators in the East River, nor every word out of the mouth of her down-but-not-out student José.

In a town filled with some of the best solo performers in the world, young Safiya Martinez does something we have never seen before. Most solo performers come out of character, smile and let you know they're back to their narration. But Martinez draws it out -- she might take several seconds to remove that hoodie, staring intently at the audience all the while. It is unnerving at first, but very effective as the evening draws on.

She's going to be a star. This is a fabulous show you should not miss.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "So You Can hear Me" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Her writing, performance and craft earn one star each. As her show matures and we come to know a little more about her own life, her characters will acquire even more richness. We give the BANGLE for how good Safiya Martinez is already. We can't wait to see more.

"So You Can Hear Me"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Thursday, Friday and Saturday through July 20
$10-$20 sliding scale

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"This it How it Goes" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

This is how this review goes: we can't tell you anything about the plot. Neil LaBute's 2005 "This is How it Goes," currently running at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, is vintage LaBute: relentlessly angry and fiercely clever. On its face, the show is about conscious and unconscious racism, but deceit is at its core. The superb cast of three (Gabe Marin [Man], Carrie Paff  [Woman] and Aldo Billingsley [Cody] makes us fidget in our chairs. Three thirty-somethings living in an un-named midwestern town, they think they have a handle on things. But they don't. And neither do we, until the very end.

Marin is the clueless narrator. Warning: not so clueless. Paff is the wronged wife. Warning: you don't know the half of it. Billingsley is aggressively terrifying. Warning: The guy always gets what he wants.

There are plenty of inside theater jokes -- the children, for example, who are never seen. Marin breaks through the fourth wall to tell the audience how difficult it is to work with children, what with tutors and the union and all, so we're not going to actually see them during the performance. His narrations take place in dim light (cleverly realized by lighting designer Kurt Landisman), then the lights come back up and Marin flashes immediately back to character and the action proceeds.

We don't want to give away the many turns in the plot, but we can say this: there is a string of racial slurs that may feel gratuitous and out of place. Later, when you think about what has really happened, and how Gabe Marin's Man really feels about Aldo Billnglsey's Cody, the language becomes understandable, if not very nice.

But racism isn't nice, nor is getting what you want at any cost. It's a great show, but you'll be glad you can walk out onto Addison Street and buy a Street Sheet.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "This is How it Goes" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE first: Playwright LaBute has the guts to write plays that talk about big issues. We are grateful both for that and for a script that keeps us involved and surprised. All three actors are excellent, though we could use a little more of Man's backstory. Who is this guy? I mean, honestly? Cody and Woman, we get.

"This it How it Goes"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through July 21

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Black Watch" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It is said that when good Scots go to Heaven they hear only accordion music: bagpiping is for the other place. The ACT/National Theater of Scotland's co-production of "Black Watch,"  which is in the midst of a brilliant and successful run at the San Francisco Armory, is an unforgettable night of innovative theater which is so good you can endure the bagpiping that fills the room for a long time before the show begins. You don't have to plug the piper. The show will start soon, and when it does you will be enthralled.

This is spectacle as much as drama. It is ostensibly a history of the fabled Black Watch, a unit of the Scottish armed forces since 1739, with an emphasis on its problematic service in Iraq during the American invasion of Fallujah. These men consider themselves heirs to the tradition of Scottish highland warriors (think Mel Gibson in "Braveheart"). Their speech is misogynistic and potty-mouthed, but we see the fear under their bravado. Nothing in their training has prepared them for suicide bombers. The nobility of hand-to-hand combat is from another age.

In an all-male ensemble cast a few roles stand out: Stuart Martin as Cammy is the one who seems to be thinking things through a little more clearly; Richard Rankin is tough but understands his men; and Stephen McCole is the commanding officer who also plays the legendary Lord Elgin.

The production team is superb. This is a show that has played around the world and learned the craft of putting on a production of this magnitude. Lights, music (these soldiers drill and also sing and dance a little bit), set and costumes all contribute to the excitement. 

Do not expect personal growth. Little is learned by these men. Most discouraging is that the same is true for the governments who have sent them into combat. Scots, Americans and English soldiers are hostage to election year politics. Thrust into the most hostile of theaters of war, the fabled Black Watch can do little but try to survive.

RATINGS:  ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater blog Awards Division awards "Black Watch" Four Stars. It is exciting as well as novel. But writing about this show misses the point. You must see it. Do so quickly before it ships out for its next deployment.

"Black Watch"
San Francisco Armory
1800 Mission Street, San Francisco
(between 14th and 15th Streets)
Through June 16 ONLY

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Wild With Happy" ☼ ☼ ☼

Coleman Domingo's "Wild with Happy" is a farce. A gay farce. A gay, black farce. At its best it makes you laugh out loud and appreciate the strange situation into which each character has wedged himself. In the one female role, Sharon Washington (in a double assignment as Adelaide/Aunt Glo) is so good you are not the least bit surprised that she was nominated for an Outstanding Lead Actress Lucille Lortel Award when the show premiered Off-Broadway in 2012. When you leave the theater you are still talking about her.

There is not a lot of meat on these bones, though. Jokes, yes. Insightful comments on the funerary industry, on the morés of black people, of gay people, of church and its reluctance to accept gay people, yes indeed. There is a lot more here too, including alienation and a modern world's reliance on detached communication. But for us the problem is Gil.

As the lead character, Gil (played by Domingo) could help us a lot more than he does. Perhaps his ultra-cool New York sheen says a lot to his target audience, but it doesn't give the rest of us much to go on. It takes until the very end of the show until we get a very small hint of what has been haunting him vis á vis his mother, but Domingo the writer and Domingo the actor take a long time to get us there. The rest of the time Gil mostly kvetches.

"Wild With Happy" is for laughs. The gags are a mile-a-minute, most of them from the deliriously loony mouth of Aunt Glo. "Cremation?" she asks Gil. "We don't do that! Maybe if they're burned or mutilated or too fat to fit in the coffin. But that's it!" You just keep talking, Aunt Glo.

So what are Duane Boutté (Mo) and Richard Prioleau (Terry) doing there anyway? Adoring Gil, mostly. Aunt Glo doesn't go for that. That's why we love her.

We also love Erik Flatmo's set, especially the way he pictures the car chase during the road trip South. The Cinderella room -- well, it just may be the Happiest Place on Earth.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Wild With Happy" Three Stars. Go to have your funny bone tickled by Sharon Washington. 

"Wild With Happy" 
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through June 30

 Photo Credit: Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka