Monday, January 26, 2015

"Tree" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Growing up white in a small Louisiana town, author Julie Hébert did not suffer from the explicit racism that tormented some of her friends. Though race is the backdrop to Hébert's "Tree," the story is about far more than that. This is a testament to the power of love and family, a love so strong that it defies the stereotyped expectations of those who have come after.

Cathleen Riddley plays Mrs. Jessalyn Price, the aging mother who most of the time spews senile craziness, while Carl Lumbly is her son and caretaker Leo, a chef with aspirations to open his own restaurant. Mrs. Price and Leo live in a house in Chicago, strewn with packing boxes, where Leo's daughter JJ (Tristan Cunningham) takes care of Mrs. Price while Leo is at work.

 The Price's world is turned sideways by the appearance of Didi Marcantel (Susi Damilano), whose father has died recently, leading her to the suspicion that Leo is her half-brother from her father's long-ago liaison with Mrs. Price, an unspoken story which carries conflicting connotations for Didi and the Prices.

Or so it seems. Since Didi is white and the Prices are black, many assumptions have already been made. But are they accurate?  The truth can be determined only by discovering which of the elderly Mrs. Price's loony ramblings may turn out not be crazy at all.

The show drags a bit in the middle. We're not sure why they keep letting Didi into the house. The nude scene is...weird.

But these are quibbles. We have to let go when we see "Tree," because the story is about discovery, and taking chances, and being willing to investigate our fears, to open our old boxes, in order to move forward and find new meaning in life. It's a journey we all need to take.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is happy to award Julie Hébert's "Tree" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE, one star each for acting, directing and story, and a BANGLE for Nina Ball's explosive set. All those boxes on the stage are the real metaphor for this story and we relish our slow discovery as the show surges towards the finale.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through March 7, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" ☼ ☼ BANG

It's a great idea for a show, which is why Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra's "2 Pianos 4 Hands" has won every possible honor in the authors' native Canada and has been performed all over the world for close to twenty years. It is the story of the triumphs and struggles of two piano prodigies from the same Montreal neighborhood, stretching from their early childhood well into adulthood.

Richard (Christopher Tocco) and Ted (Darren Dunstan) are both terrific pianists but classical music has absorbed them. Neither has friends, nor outside interests. They live in a world of constant competition and impossible expectations, from their parents, their teachers and from themselves.

We wish we cared more. This could be such a deep story; instead Tocco and Dunstan play strictly for laughs. The opening, especially, feels like Victor Borge on the Ed Sullivan Show. But the gags have little heart behind them; worse than that we are showed the two pianists' struggles but none of their pleasure. Perhaps this is the story the authors wish to tell -- the misery of the endless grind.

While Greenblatt and Dykstra may have been piano masters as well as excellent actors, neither Tocco nor Dunstan excite us when they play. The show, which is basically about two classical musicians who who are never quite good enough to be stars in their world, would pack a lot more emotion with two fabulous pianists than two good comedians.

The finale is exactly what we expect: Piano Man.

Each actor plays multiple roles and we enjoyed these bit parts quite a bit, such as Dunstan's rendering of the poor man at the Kiwanis Club who had to listen to four hundred pairs of children playing the same 4-hand recital piece. Likewise, Tocco's music school professor who rejects Ted's audition made our skin crawl.  The authors took every opportunity to exorcise a lot of their early demons.

But in the end, though this is an interesting story it breaks little new ground. We wish the characters showed more depth and that the music itself could help us see more than two actors who can also play piano.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "2 Pianos 4 Hands" TWO STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE. Though this leaves the show below the Julie Andrews Line (see right side bar for explanation of ratings), it does deserve a BANGLE OF PRAISE for Richard's excellent summary of the classical musician's dilemma: "I feel guilty when I don't practice, and inadequate when I do."

"2 Pianos 4 Hands"
Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through February 15

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Josh Kornbluth: Haiku Tunnel: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There aren't a lot of performers who can walk out onto stage and without explanation launch immediately into a 25-year-old piece. Josh Kornbluth's "Haiku Tunnel," first performed at the Marsh in 1990, is a period piece replete with references to outmoded computer programs and dictation machines, yet we follow along gratefully as Kornbluth explains to us exactly why his dream job is turning into a nightmare. No matter how crazy it all is, we can't help but cheer for Josh and hope he manages to score a few more points with the beautiful lawyer with her tax problem.

The Marsh is re-running several of its hit shows from the nineties as part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration. "Haiku Tunnel," which followed "Red Diaper Baby" and led onward to several Kornbluth classics including "Ben Franklin Unplugged" and co-writing "Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan" for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, keeps the jokes coming by giving us characters as alive today as twenty five years ago. We particularly loved his co-worker Clifford's bar story ("Jack, you owe me an apology"), his canine-rich description of the young lawyers yapping around the office searching for billable hours, and of course Bob Shelby's mantra at the end.

How many times has Josh Kornbluth performed this show? They even made a movie out of it. But it still feels as fresh as a (Mike) Daisy. What a delight.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Haiku Tunnel" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. There isn't a lot to the story, and we don't really grow or learn anything about the character, but the journey is a rich one. The BANGLE is for his priceless reminder of what it was like to format columns on Word Perfect. We love this show.

(Incidentally, the last show that earned a SFTB ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG rating was another wonderful comedy, "Recipe," written by Michael Gene Sullivan, a collaborator of Kornbluth's, and Josh Kornbluth was sitting right across the aisle at that one. Obviously, the man knows fine humor.)

Josh Kornbluth: "Haiku Tunnel"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco 
Thu-Sat through February 7 
$20-$35 sliding scale