Sunday, November 29, 2015

Word for Word's Holiday High Jinks: ☼ ☼ ☼

"Dancing Dan's Christmas," the first of three Christmas-themed stories presented in Word for Word's 2015 "Holiday High Jinks," is so entertaining that the other two stories coming afterwards have trouble keeping up. Though Joseph Mitchell's "The Cave Dwellers" has some fine moments and terrific acting, the ending is inconclusive. E.B. White's "Christmas and Relative Pronouns," comparing the usage of the word "which" versus the word "that" -- let's just call it "droll." The W4W ensemble, as always, is excellent in all three pieces.

We want to talk about Dancing Dan. Dan, as played by Rotimi Agbabiaka, is a guy without a care in the world, except his life is in danger due to his attraction to the glamorous show-girl Muriel O'Neill, played by Lisa Hori-Garcia. Muriel's other suitor happens to be the dangerous mobster Heinie Schmitz, played by Paul Finocchiaro, who is about to take his revenge upon Dancing Dan as well as Good-Time Charlie Bernstein (Soren Oliver), in whose prohibition-era speakeasy most of the action takes place. Jackson Davis is wonderful as our unnamed Speakeasy Regular, who manages to narrate this heart-warming story while simultaneously getting hammered on Hot Tom and Jerry. Stephanie Hunt plays Gammer O'Neill, whose last moments on earth become filled with treasure.

The three stories are all depression-era vignettes written in the 1930s for The New Yorker. All three are fun, but don't get there late -- the first story, "Dancing Dan's Christmas" is just like Hot Tom and Jerry -- booze, egg whites and cream, kind of like a hot egg-nog -- it will knock you over.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Holiday Awards Division awards W4W's "Holiday High Jinks" Three Stars. Word for Word makes its living choosing dialogue-rich short stories and acting them out on stage, and these three continue the tradition. "Dancing Dan" and "The Cave Dwellers," in particular,  show us the patched and faded face of Christmas during the 1930s in hard-times America, viewed through the cutting lens of New York City. Clearly, we all need to read more Damon Runyon.

"Word for Word's "Holiday High Jinks"
Z Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through December 24

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Stage Kiss" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We've seen Gabriel Marin and Carrie Paff in many, many shows over the years. Until tonight, as they kissed on stage, we never knew that they had once been…wait, that's not true? Are you telling me that actors can kiss like that on stage without, you know, without…

The answer is yes. And no. And maybe. Sarah Ruhl's "Stage Kiss" takes us backstage as we watch a show being rehearsed where the lead actors must kiss whether they like it or not. It's a terrific concept for a show and we walk out of the theatre glad to have our honey on our arm.

Mark Anderson Phillips is wonderful, as always, as the director of the show in which She (Paff) and He (Marin) have been cast, without realizing that She and He once had a white-hot but unfinished relationship. Phillips turns out to be less a director than a voyeur, realizing that these two characters have a chemistry that could perhaps salvage the execrable 1930s play he is directing.

Let's not forget Michael Gene Sullivan as She's real-life husband and Millie DeBenedet as He's midwestern and current girl friend. DeBenedet's Iowa vision of God is a highlight of Act Two.

Allen Darby is very funny as the stand-in actor and Taylor Iman Jones is perfectly hostile as daughter Angela.

True, the ending could be tighter and possibly shorter, but it's Sarah Ruhl. You take the good with the bad so you can get to memorable lines like "How can good actors have sex with bad actors?" and "Marriage is like tattoos. They're forever." It's a nice long run and perfect for the holidays. Take your sweetie.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Stage Kiss" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The stars are for writing, acting and for Susi Damilano's direction -- after all, the actors have to act like they are rehearsing and rehearse like they're acting. The show manages to move forward smoothly from one wrenching discovery to the next. 

The BANGLE is for all the kissing. We like kissing, even if the actors are acting. He and She fooled us all.

"Stage Kiss"
San Francisco Playhouse
500 Post Street, 2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through Jan 9, 2016
$20 and up

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Monster-Builder" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

What a romp is Amy Freed's "The Monster-Builder." Danny Scheie's brilliant Gregor, the mad architect whose modernist visions include constructing a hospital for Alzheimer's patients made out of a series of mazes, is both an award-worthy performance and a send-up of every minimalist piece of art you have ever hated. It feels SO good to laugh at Gregor.

(I can't wait to go back to the de Young to laugh derisively at the white wall surrounded by a frame. I know I'm not alone now.)

The cast is perfect. Sierra Jolene plays Tamsin, Gregor's superbly limber current wife, a natural comedienne who is able to pull off a wonderful set piece where Gregor uses her body to create a new artistic vision. "Careful, Buddy, I'm not in college anymore" is perhaps the best line in the show. You'll see.

Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck play Rita and Dieter, the young architects attempting to stay true to their artistic vision in the face of money and power, and Rod Gnapp and Nancy Carlin are perfect as Andy and Pamela ("call me Pam"), the moneyed patrons you can't help falling in love with despite their housing tract called Rancho Tuscany. An equal partner is Tom Buderwitz's eye-popping set which is a masterpiece of minimalist and functional art at the same time. Art Manke directs, as he did when the show first opened in Portland in 2014.

We love The Monster-Builder. Intelligent, funny and teeth-clenching at the same time, a mix we don't get often enough. Happy to hear it has been extended.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards a next-to-maximum amount of stars to the minimalist "The Monster-Builder."  Special mention to the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. We would love to see the show again, if only to see Sierra Jolene's, uh, fluidity.

We ran into Rod Gnapp and Tomas Gorrebeeck on the subway going home. We congratulated them on their terrific performances and they seemed genuinely surprised and grateful to hear compliments, the way actors always react when they are offstage. It has always amazed me that an actor can take me on such a wonderful ride, seemingly rolling down the same roller coaster himself, then morph back into just another guy taking the subway ten minutes after the curtain falls. It's one of theatre's delightful mysteries. Just sayin.'

"The Monster-Builder"
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through December 20