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