Thursday, March 31, 2016

"The Unfortunates" ☼ (generous)


Producers think reviewers are heartless. We are not. But we know we're in for a long evening of musical theater when:

(1) Someone's cellphone goes off in the middle of the tender ballad and the cellphone is the best song in the show.

(2) The story is incomprehensible. It has a lot to do with death. And the plague. And more death.

(3) The lyrics -- oh my. They are apparently written by a collective, according to the program notes. Here are two favorites that we managed to write down.

(a) "scrimmage," "finish" and "limit."

(b) "paper tiger" and "ready, aim, fire."

Most of the show sounds like this, by the way.

(4) They miss no opportunity to be trite. "Your fists are a prison you can't escape from." This from a woman with no arms to a man who is wearing Bluto-sized rubber fists and talking to ghosts.

5) The music. Either rap to rap music or sing old-timey songs to old-timey music. You cannot rap to old-timey music. Everybody cannot be Hamilton.

RATINGS ☼(generous)

We are pleased for the performers, who are putting their hearts into their work.  Same for the live band, a wonderful touch in our modern cost-cutting environment. Our problem is not with them but with whoever made the decision to feature this show. At best, it's Unfortunate.

That said: One Star for the three superior performers: Christopher Livingston as the short, big voiced lead and Jon Beavers as the tall, clowning lead. We also liked Ramiz Monsef as the Doctor. Ian Merrigan as Big Joe was an imposing stage presence but was given an impossible role - a cartoon figure who is supposed to be the romantic lead. Taylor Iman Jones as Rae is a fine actor, we have seen her excellent work in other shows. But even she could not save "The Unfortunates" from heading down, down, down to the infirmary.

"The Unfortunates"
A.C.T. Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through April 10

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"The How and The Why" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Zelda, a evolutionary biologist in her fifties, is meeting Rachel, a twenty-eight year old scientist in the same field, for the first time. Rachel (Martha Brigham) is nervous and fidgety, clearly upset about something besides science, while Zelda (Nancy Carlin) is attempting to keep things on an even keel, despite issues of her own. It's not working. There are many layers at play here, not just the how and the why.

"How" and "Why" refer to the two underpinnings of science -- to find out how something works and then why it works that way. The how is easy. The why is where it gets interesting.

Sarah Treem's script was inspired by "Woman," a book by New York Times science writer Natalie Angier, and the character of Rachel is modeled after the real-life biologist Margie Profet, whose 1990s theories on menstruation, morning sickness and menopause led her to be ridiculed mercilessly by the mostly-male science community. 

Brigham's Rachel and Carlin's Zelda are entertaining to watch interact, and their discussions on science are the best parts of the show. There are holes in the script, however, especially when Zelda seems to have the answer at her fingertips whenever Rachel is stumped. The ending seems forced and probably unnecessary.

Joy Carlin's direction has us on the edge of our seats, even though we are looking at two acts of two women doing nothing but talk. What they talk about, and the world they both inhabit, keep us locked in to the end.


She San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The How and the Why" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. This could be a Four Star play if Sarah Treem does what Rachel needs to do: tighten things up and get rid of the question marks. It's a terrific show which will get better.

"The How and the Why"
Aurora Theatre, in the Dashow Wing
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 22

"On Clover Road" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

In the first place, San Francisco Playhouse's new venue for their Sandbox Series, the Rueff Theatre, upstairs in the Strand on Market Street, is a spectacular success. It has a Times Square feel, helped along we suppose by the funkiness of the street below. Steven Dietz's "On Clover Road," directed by Susi Damilano in its World Premiere, fills the space and brings the audience practically inside Dietz's dismal and deceptive motel room.

The story is wild and the ensemble of actors is very good, but we have to single out Sally Dana for her role as Kate. We would suggest you see this show as soon as you can because this is a mentally draining role as well as a physically demanding one. We're not sure how she will do two shows on Saturday.

Kate's daughter Jessica disappeared when she was thirteen and was found years later to have entered a cult commune ruled by The Prophet (Adam Elder), a charismatic father figure. Kate has been contacted by Stine (Michael Storm) and asked for money in return for Stine attempting to win Jessica back to her mother.

Well, yeah, sort of. The tale just gets weirder and weirder. Who is Jessica? Is it...her?

Or, is it...her?

Nancy Kimball (two photos above) and Rachel Goldberg (above)  play two young girls whose roles in the cult, and in the motel room, become murkier and murkier. And when Stine disappears and locks Kate behind, our uneasiness steps up to another level

Storm is terrifically menacing as Stine, but we do have one problem: why the bathroom at the end? Why did they not just do what they were going to do out in the open?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is currently hiding under its seat. From this safe haven they award "On Clover Road" Four Stars. This is a high award for a first time show, but the book needs one star, the actors need one, direction needs one and Sally Dana has to have one for herself. Add 'em up. Four Stars for a strong performance.

"On Clover Road"
The Rueff Theatre
Top Floor, The Strand Theatre
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through April 16

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"Tokyo Fish Story" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Be hungry, you're going to want sushi.

Idaho-raised Kimber Lee takes us on a journey to tradition-bound Japan, where sushi master Koji (Francis Jue) is reluctant to lower his exacting standards, as he works with his son and heir Takashi (James Seol). Koji is certain things can only be done the way they've always been done. But times are changing around him and the crowds have begun to favor Koji's competition across the street, where they offer appetizers, a sushi boat and dessert.

Takashi is caught in the middle. Meanwhile, Linden Tailor plays Nobu, Takashi's assistant, whose hip-hop language represents the new world within the old.

Likewise, Nicole Javier's Ama brings a female into the shop, something that would never have been allowed in the old days, for a woman's hands were said to be too cold to make perfect sushi.

We love Koji's monologues, especially the opening one where he speaks to the tuna in the fishmonger's shop. They are no longer so numerous, nor of the superior quality Koji desires. Later, as he is aging, he speaks to the river: "My old friend. We flow backwards these days. Where have all the fish gone?"


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Tokyo Fish Story" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The ensemble of actors earns one, Kirsten Brandt's direction another and Wilson Chin's spectacular staging another. The Bangle is for the graceful ballet with the blue cloths. This show looks as good as it tastes.

"Tokyo Fish Story"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto 
Through April 3

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Colossal" ☼ ☼ ☼

Andrew Hinderaker's "Colossal" attempts to break down barriers. The idea that a gay love story could take place between football players is not as outlandish as it once might have been. Conflating modern dance and football grace is perhaps a larger leap but not impossible to believe. But thinking that one football player, during a game, would hurl himself recklessly through the air simply to protect the man he loves from getting hurt is a bigger stretch.

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) is in a wheelchair now. It takes half the show to realize that Young Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) is really Pre-Injury Mike. Part of the reason is that Young Mike can be overbearing, probably compensating for being gay by acting extra-tough.

Meanwhile, Mike is in love with Marcus (Cameron Matthews). But Marcus has further football ambitions and is afraid to let his relationship with Mike become public. And after the injury he is nowhere to be found.

Matthews and the rest of the cast have well-developed upper bodies. Duly noted. They take their shirts off a lot.

Robert Parsons, one of our favorite local actors, plays Damon, Mike's Dad. The basic twist here is that Damon is said to be a world-class dancer. This Billy Elliot-in-reverse story cries out for development, but we get none. As a result, the ending, while touching from an acting standpoint, seems forced and incomplete.

Mike's physical rehabilitation specialist, Jerry (played by Wiley Naman Strasser) has a more detailed relationship with Mike. Jerry and Mike share the show's more intimate moments.

For us, the idea of "Colossal" is fascinating. But it is disjointed. So far, as a play, the main characters really need beefing up.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Colossal" Three Stars. The production itself is eye-catching, especially the "pre-game show" and musical cues. There is plenty of flash, but we want to know more. We feel like we only got to halftime.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Second Floor, Kensington Park Hotel
Through April 30

Friday, March 18, 2016

Word for Word: "Night Vision" and "Silence" ☼ ☼ ☼

As always, Word for Word has chosen to perform two complicated but delightful short stories. Emma Donoghue's "Night Vision" and Colm Tóibín's "Silence" bring us delightful characters, a beginning, an ending and much to talk about in between.

We can't applaud the two women leads enough. Rosie Hallett in the opening piece, Donoghue's "Night Vision," manages to place herself into the heart and soul of a blind nine-year-old from the 1820s, and with a perfect Irish accent! It is quite remarkable that we follow so intently as we watch her personal drama unfold in a world of twelve children in a one room house. Hallett also plays a minor role as Lady Anne Blunt in Tóibín's "Silence," which comes on after intermission. In this show, Stephanie Hunt is magnificent as Lady Gregory, whose indiscretion is made even harder for her because nobody knows about it yet.

 The ensemble makes every word count. Standouts are Richard Farrell as the Scottish minister in the first piece and Rudy Guerrero as Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Lady Gregory's love toy. Guerrero also has a humorous role as a Spanish dinner guest.

It was an excellent decision to see this performance on St. Patrick's Day. Not that we needed to taste all four complementary quaffs of Irish Whiskey after the show, but we felt lifted by an Irish brotherhood which became more pronounced after each taste. With or without whiskey, do go and see Donoghue's and Tóibín's stories with Word for Word.

Ratings: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Three Stars to Word for Word's "Night Vision" and "Silence." There are no bad seats in the house -- buy the less expensive. This ensemble never fails to leave us exhilarated with the power of both live theater and the spoken word.

Word for Word's "Night Vision" and "Silence"  
Z-Below Theater
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through April 3