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

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Camelot: ☼ ☼ ☼

Arthur, the once and future King, seems firmly in charge of the Kingdom of Camelot, though if it were up to us we'd side with Lancelot. In this 2013 revival of Lerner and Loewe's 1960 "Camelot," which has become inextricably linked with the early days of the Kennedy administration, King Arthur (Johnny Moreno) is pictured as a dreamer who has come up with a really good idea (the round table) but afterwards has become imprisoned by his own ideology. His relative malaise makes it easy to understand how lovely Queen Guenevere (Monique Hafen) could become infatuated with the French knight and zealot Lancelot (Wilson Jermaine Heredia). You've got a king who talks versus a knight who fights. In the words of a don from a future generation (Michael Corleone): "It was the smart move."

The problem that Lerner and Loewe always had with "Camelot' is that it followed "My Fair Lady." Nobody writes a "My Fair Lady" twice in a row and neither did Lerner and Loewe. So a lot of the music, while pretty good, feels like an out-take from the earlier show. You see Henry Higgins in red velvet whenever Johnny Moreno sings those clever-to-a-fault Broadway lyrics. Like Nina Ball's ruined castle walls on stage, the songs feel a little ancient.

Welcome additions are two tunes that have been restored from the original stage production: "Fi on 
Goodness," sung by all those slovenly Knights who look like they are about to shout "What's in YOUR Wallet?" and "Then You May Take Me to the Fair," where Queen Guenevere is attempting to turn the local lords against the French usurper Lancelot. For us, the other standout is Lancelot's fabulous "C'est Moi," where he manages to tell the world of his incomparable greatness without feeling the least bit self-conscious. Heredia owns this song, as, in many ways, he owns the entire production.

Charles Dean is also excellent, both as Merlyn and King Pelinor. The show is terrific from the opening through most of Act One. After that, it begins to drag. The ending feels abrupt, though in character for a King who seems to prefer being just about anywhere else but in charge.

"Camelot," which was Lerner and Loewe's last stage collaboration and as such harkens back to the golden age of Broadway, is always a must for theater-lovers. We would like to see Johnny Moreno, who was so good in last year's SFP production of "My Fair Lady," a little more dialed in. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Monique Hafen and Charles Dean are perfect. It's a long summer run and everyone's sword will get a little sharper.

RATINGS:   ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Camelot" Three Stars. We get squabbling knights, political ineptitude, sword fights and betrayal: perfect summertime entertainment.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
(second floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
Through September 14