Saturday, April 12, 2014

"Wittenberg" ☼ ☼ ☼

History tells us that Martin Luther was a professor at the University of Wittenberg in 1517, the year of his famous posting of 95 theses on the door of the Catholic Church, thus beginning the Protestant Reformation. Shakespeare tells us that Hamlet was a college student at Wittenberg before he went home to Denmark to become King after the death of his father. And George Faustus, a character from Phillip Marlowe based on a man who sold his soul to the devil, is reputed to have been a doctor in Wittenberg.

So why not write a play on the assumption that Faustus, Hamlet and Luther were all at the University of Wittenberg at the same time? David Davalos has done just that, with a 2008 comedy that now has its Bay Area Premiere at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Luther is the professor, Hamlet is the college student and Faustus is the counter-culture guru and drug dealer for them both.

It's intriguing. Jeremy Kahn, in particular, does a magnificent turn as the young Hamlet, discovering that coffee and pot do wonders for his tennis game. Dan Hiatt is a fine Luther, constrained in his professor's role but longing to rebel against papal indulgences. 

The problem is that both Hamlet and Luther are drawn from the time period in which they lived, while  Dr. George Faustus is played by Michael Stevenson as a kind of horny new-age wisecracker from the 1960s. His shelves are stocked with medicines and exotic herbs from around the globe, ready to convince Hamlet and Luther to turn on, tune in and drop out -- that is, to follow their own good judgement rather than listen to the dictates of the church. 

It's a fascinating proposition. Faustus sounds like Ken Kesey, daring Luther and Hamlet to get on the bus. But they hadn't invented buses yet in 1517. And if you don't buy the Faustus interacting with his two sixteenth century counterparts, as we could not, you may have trouble with the entire show.

Example: should Dr. Faustus REALLY have a side-gig as a lute player in the Bunghole Tavern? Should Michael Stevenson really sing songs that sound like 1995 light rock? 

It's a shame because "Wittenberg" has many wonderful moments, notably whenever Hamlet is on stage. The simulated sex scene between Faustus and Helen, his true love (Elizabeth Carter) is very funny. There are many insider references to Hamlet, the play, that audiences in the know will enjoy. 
We love it when Helen turns out to be simultaneously sleeping with Faustus as well as the Pope. Who will she choose? "Once you've laid on Holy Sheets, it's hard to go back to sheets with holes."

Now, that's funny.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Wittenberg" Three Stars. Jeremy Kahn is so good you can happily enjoy this show looking only at him. The minimal staging is excellent. But we hope the good owners of the Bunghole replace Dr. Faustus and find someone who might have lived in 1517.

The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through May 11

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"The Hound of the Baskervilles" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Not counting anyone who founded a major religion, Sherlock Holmes has to be the most popular fictional character in literary history. If we are to judge by the amount of times the quintessentially British detective has been brought back to life, in literature, stage, film and television, Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson have never really gone away. Interestingly enough, author Arthur Conan Doyle got so tired of them that he threw them off a waterfall to their deaths in 1893. But the outcry from his fans and editors was so insistent  that he brought them back in 1901 with his classic "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

We get the zany adaptation by Steven Canny and John Nicholson, in which three actors play at least half a dozen characters each, sometimes playing more than one at the same time.You want lighthearted clowning and brilliant staging? You've got it. In fact, as good as Ron Campbell as Holmes, Michael Gene Sullivan as Watson and Darren Bridgett as Baskerville, et al, are -- it is the production's madcap character switching and precision choreography that are the most memorable.

The story doesn't really hang together, but we don't care, do we? Campbell is such a good Holmes and an equally entertaining Lady Stapleton, Sullivan's Dr. Watson is wonderfully pathetic and, although we know we shouldn't laugh at the poor man running around without his pants, Bridgett does not allow us that option.

Look for nothing but fun. The world's greatest detective can still make us laugh.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Hound of the Baskervilles' Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  The acting, staging and Robert Kelley's directing earn one star each, while the BANGLE is for the brilliant beginning to Act Two, where the three actors re-perform Act One in its entirety in about two minutes. The whole show is a delight, but Act Two's opening leaves us with our mouths wide open. Careful. Somebody might stick a meerschaum calabash in there.

"The Hound of the Baskervilles"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 4

Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Every Five Minutes" **UNRATED **

Loretta Greco has been making good choice after good choice as Artistic Director of the Magic Theatre. Since it must have been her decision to mount the World Premiere of Linda McLean's "Every Five Minutes," and then signed herself on as Director, the only thing we can say is ... why?

McLean's last Magic Theatre production was the fabulous "Any Given Day," so we reviewers must admit up front that we had high expectations, especially with a stellar cast including Rod Gnapp, Mia Tagano, Sean San José, Carrie Paff, Patrick Alparone, Maggie Mason and Jomar Tagatac. all seasoned veterans of the San Francisco acting family. Shawna Michelle James makes her Magic debut as Molly and fits in beautifully.

But -- ya know -- a play needs a plot. Instead, "Every Five Minutes" has psychedelic tricks and explosions on a screen. We want to care about our characters, especially the leads, but we are given no reason, no backstory and very little emotion, except for Rod Gnapp's Mo, who has constant flashbacks. We're talking constant. Not every five minutes, every three seconds. The others sit around wondering what to do. So do we.

As for the story, Mo has apparently been kidnapped by...somebody...and held prisoner...somewhere... for seventeen years...for some reason...while his family and friends have worked for his release. He's home now, messed up of course, after torture by...clowns. Their names are Bozo and Harpo.

Seriously. And equally seriously, this drama has very little drama. Rod Gnapp has played the tortured soul in so many roles for so many years that it is becoming hard to watch. That Mo has some form of PTSD is clear. Also clear is McLean has written a nightmare role for any actor -- Gnapp is stripped naked on stage twice, undressed, soaked by hoses and dressed again, once by his clown torturers and once by -- Jesus imagery ALERT --  workers in what might be a mental institution, who do the equivalent of cutting him down from his cross and dressing him in clean linen.

Meanwhile, his wife Sara (Tagano) is doing her best to deal with both her husband and their clueless friends Ben (San José) and Rachel (Paff), whose relationship is so trivial it is another form of torture for Mo.

It's a World Premiere. Things will improve. 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Department is flummoxed. While it is rather liberating to realize that even the most creative folks in the business can slip up from time time, it is our opinion that this show must have been rushed to the stage too soon. We in the audience must have someone we care about, some ray of hope and, hopefully, a second emotion besides Mo screaming. Molly's entrance is probably where the author intends to inject happiness. More of this, please.

"Every Five Minutes"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Building D, San Francisco
Through April 20