Monday, May 16, 2016

Red Velvet: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There are many things to like about San Francisco Playhouse's production of Lolita Chakrabarati's "Red Velvet."  Ms. Chakrabarati has created a fictionalized recounting about the real-life appearances in Europe of Ira Aldridge, a black American actor, the first non-white actor to play Shakespearean leads on a European stage. The story, from the 1830s, is true. For hundreds of years, even Othello was played by a white actor in blackface.

Carl Lumbly plays Aldridge and Susi Damilano plays Ellen, the centerpieces of this drama. They exude a sexual energy that can lead only to downfall, Aldridge unable to curb his fierceness as an actor and Ellen making little effort to curb her attraction to him.

 Elena Wright plays three roles, including Aldridge's wife Margaret, Tim Kniffin is an excellent Charles Kean, Richard Lewis James gets to display his Henry Higgins English and Patrick Russell his Maurice Chevalier. Devin O'brien plays Henry and Britney Frazier has a small but important roll as the theater's Jamaican maid and voice of caution to Ira.

Language is key here. Aldridge has assumed the upper-crust English he knows he must use to succeed, but when he is angry his true vernacular bubbles to the surface. We need to keep reminding ourselves this is 1833. Britain's economy depends on American cotton produced by black slaves, and the English attitude about cheap labor sounds terrifyingly similar to our own concerning immigration.

The set is eye-popping. Gary English has designed a masterful Victorian drawing room which blends well with Abra Berman's costumes.

If this show has a fault it is that it feels somewhat awkward, in that the author has chosen to impose a twenty-first century sensibility upon nineteenth century characters. Then again, one of the show's strengths is pointing out to us how little some things have changed.


 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Red Velvet" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Right now Act II feels a bit forced. I would wait a week or two until the actors settle into their material.

 "Red Velvet" is ultimately about betrayal, as is so much Shakespeare. The Bangle of Praise is for reminding us of that miraculous connection between great actors and powerful drama.

"Red Velvet"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 25

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Empty Nesters: UNRATED

 It's a familiar problem to those of us whose children have grown up and left the house. It's really quiet around here, isn't it Hon? Garret Jon Groenweld's "The Empty Nesters" takes us through the angst, as Mom and Dad attempt to figure out what's going to happen next.

Greg (John Walker) and Frances (Pamela Gaye Walker) have dropped off their daughter at her new college in Arizona. They've driven on to tour the Grand Canyon, but can't stop thinking about her not being home any more. Frances doesn't understand why her daughter hasn't phoned her yet, seeing as the two are used to talking several times a day on the phone. Greg, meanwhile, hasn't stopped complaining about the price of parking, the curios in the gift shop, the length of the ticket line and everything except his sadness.

The two begin to take it out on each other. Frances drops a bomb and Greg reacts. Clearly, both parents are bereft. It is a feeling we have all had.

But it doesn't really feel like a play yet, it's more like a chat room conversation. Nothing much happens, there are no surprises and the ending is anti-climactic, so the audience isn't sure the show is over.

Frances: "I don't think I can face her empty room."

Greg: "What are we going to do instead?"

That's about it. The Walkers are trained actors, hit their marks and deliver their lines. But there is little mystery here. Something needs to happen. They're in Arizona. Maybe a UFO?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has decided not to rate this show. It's better than Two Stars, because there are nice moments. But not quite enough yet to merit a Three Star recommendation.

"The Empty Nesters"
Z-Space Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
through June 11

Thursday, May 12, 2016

runboyrun: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

If you are willing to work, Mfoniso Udofia's 'runboyrun' will reward you with a nuanced story and extraordinary acting. The show is performed in Nigerian English with no attempts to temper either the thick accents or the magical realism. It took us half the ninety minute show to acclimate to the language, but once we did we were transported into another dimension.

Part of a proposed nine-play saga of a Nigerian family's survival during the Nigerian Civil War and ultimate immigration to America, runboyrun features Adrian Roberts as Disciple Ufot, a man haunted by the memory of his sister's death, Omoze Idenhenre as Abasiama Ufot, Disciple's long-suffering wife and Katherine Renee Turner as Sister. Turner played the younger Abasiama in "Sojourners," the prequel to runboyrun,

Also in the cast is Rotimi Agbabiaka as the shellshocked Boy, Rafael Jordan as the blinded Ben Gun and Nancy Moricette as Mother. We don't want to give you too much information because figuring out the mysterious plot is one of the evening's pleasures.

We loved the set by Erik Flatmo, which brought us a frosty main floor and an overheated basement in the family home in Massachusetts, plus room for the frightening chaos back in Southern Nigeria. This is not an easy show to watch but it is an effort well worth making.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "runboyrun" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We like to work for our dinner, to see a story not mired in the obvious. Udofia's writing, Sean San Jose's direction and the entire ensemble of actors earn one star each. The BANGLE is for the Magic, and the courage it takes to present a show as complex as this one. Ms. Udofia is a marvel.

The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through May 15

Thursday, May 5, 2016

"The Heir Apparent: ☼ ☼ ☼

Early Eighteenth Century French farce updated for relevance for modern audiences, "The Heir Apparent" is witty and enjoyable. Playwright-Adapter David Ives and a terrific cast keep us chuckling as the plot thickens and those who are about to die never quite do.

Written originally (in 1708) by Jean-Francois Regnard and told entirely in rhyming couplets, we have a familiar story: the rich old aristocrat Geronte (Julian Lopez-Morillas) appears to be on his last legs, so the race is on to see who can score his estate. Nephew Eraste (Kenny Toll) has the closest claim and he hopes his girl friend's mother Argante (Elizabeth Carter) can help secure his financial fortunes. The old man has other ideas, including marrying Argante's daughter Isabelle (Khalia Davis), who just happens to be Eraste's beloved.

As we all know, francs are the root of all evil.

It all comes down to what Scruple, the very short lawyer, says. Played on his knees by Lawrence Radecker, Scruple's scruples (or lack thereof) will determine who gets the cash, that is, if the old man ever dies. 

Performing an entire show in bawdy rhyme showcases the skill of the ensemble. We loved many of the rhymes, but rhyming "feminist" with "enemas" is probably our favorite.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Heir Apparent" Three Stars. French rhyming farce, admirable in execution, the show has moments that rise above slapstick into true humor with a bite. Katie Rubin and Patrick Kelly Jones bring humor to their roles as Servant Schleps. We loved Callie Floor's costumes, especially the maroon outfit Geronte sports as his demise proves to have been postponed.

"The Heir Apparent"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through May 22