Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Native Son" ☼ ☼ ☼

Nambi E.  Kelley's adaptation of Richard Wright's classic "Native Son" looks great. Director Seret Scott keeps the characters zipping in and out of Giulio Cesare Perrone's porous set. The story revolves around Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) and Bigger never stops moving. He leaps up staircases, dives through windows, jumps from one door to another, plays around with his girl and moves back and forth chronologically, while at the same time committing a few heinous crimes. There is no time for reflection.

Which is a shame. We re-read Native Son after we saw the show. In the book, we see Bigger for what he is, a frightened, angry black man unable to understand let alone deal with his demons. The issues he faces resonate deeply with us. But in the play we get little understanding, only angst and emotion. At the end, Bigger stares out at us as the police are closing in. He is confused. So are we. Lights out.

We love William Hartfield as the Black Rat, the dark side of Bigger's nature. Dressed in a dark fedora pulled down so we cannot see his expression, the Black Rat is Bigger's voice of survival.

  Rosie Hallett and Adam Magill are excellent as the well-meaning but preposterously dense young white couple. Patrick Kelly Jones plays detective Britten, whose viciously racist language makes us hear all too clearly the demented world of Richard Wright's Chicago in the late 1930s.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Native Son" Three Stars, principally because we all need to hear more Richard Wright. Enjoy the action on stage, then go home and read the book.

"Native Son"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through Feb 12

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"The Christians" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The dilemma with Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" is that the doctrinal dispute, that threatens to tear apart the evangelical megachurch headed by Pastor Paul, seems almost medieval. Those monks who argued about how may angels can dance on the point of a pin are not all that far removed from the congregants considering the question posed here: is there a Hell of fire and brimstone, or is it just metaphorical? Aren't we all expected to live a good life either way?

The game changer is Hitler. Does Hitler get to go to Heaven? Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) says, "Of course he does. All who accept Jesus are forgiven." Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner) says, "Not so fast. If Hitler gets in, then none of what we preach makes any sense."

If you come from a religious tradition quite different than this evangelical one, it is hard to believe that someone in the church hierarchy would not just order these two to patch things up, work it out, we've got a major league business going here and let's not ruffle any more feathers. Capisce?

But no. The true bottom line of "The Christians" is that the congregation loves the idea of Hell. They wouldn't come to church at all if they weren't worried about frying in Devil Oil for eternity. No amount of scholarship or progressive thinking will change that. Pastor Paul's sincere question is destroying his church as well as his marriage to Wife (Stephanie Prentice). Moral: Keep your mouth closed and the Good Book can stay open.

We love the full choir, seated on risers or standing to sing. We wish there were more music and somewhat less doctrinal squabble.

 Anthony Fusco is believable as a doubter (especially at the beginning when his progressive sermon is actually cheered by the theater audience), and Lance Gardner's personal monologue towards the end makes us feel sympathetic to his plight. Stephanie Prentice can really sing. How we wish we could hear more of her. And Millie Brooks is terrific  as a member of the choir who must make the choice between the Devil she knows and the uncertain future she is being offered.

Warren David Keith is perfect as Elder Jay, who is the mouthpiece of the Board of Directors. In the end, when money talks, everyone must listen. Finally, we speak about the One True Religion.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Christians" THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE. One star each for acting, Bill English's Direction and Set, and the way Lucas Hnath makes us feel for the internal anguish of characters who stand on the rock of this megachurch because it is all they've got in the world.

A BANGLE OF PRAISE for the choir from the First Universalist Unitarian Society of San Francisco. Bill English often calls San Francisco Playhouse an "empathy gym." It would also make a grand church. Perhaps there is no difference.

"The Christians"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
(Second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel)
Through March 11

 (There are NO bad seats in this theater)

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Crimes of the Heart" ☼ ☼ ☼

Three sisters from Hazelhurst, Mississippi, have returned to the family home. The year is 1974 and Ol' Grandad is in the hospital again. It is Lenny's 30th birthday. Played by Therese Plaehn, Lenny is the eldest sister into whose hands the care of Ol' Grandad has fallen. She has summoned the other two home, ostensibly to deal with a new problem the family has on its hands: Babe (Lizzie O'Hara), the youngest, has shot her husband.

All three women have their issues, but only Babe (above, middle) has seemingly done anything about it. Meg (Sarah Moser) has a singer career that has stalled, Lenny is mooning over a man she was too afraid to pursue and Babe figures she will just kill herself. But she's not much good at that either.

The Southern-to-the-hilt cliches come hard and fast with the entrance of Chick Boyle, played by the wonderful Laura Jane Bailey. She is the mother nobody wants, especially since in this family the real mama came to an untimely end, along with the family cat.

We love the ensemble. All four women, plus a sincere Joshua Marx, who plays Barnette Lloyd, Babe's attorney who hopes for more, as well as Timothy Redmond in a smaller role as Doc Porter, are excellent. There really isn't much story except the personal one between the sisters, so the cast has to be top notch. And it is.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Crimes of the Heart" Three Stars, primarily because this is our first review of the New Year, and it doesn't seem right to enthuse about anything right now. This was Beth Henley's very first play (written in 1979) and it won a Pulitzer Prize plus she went on to win an Oscar for the screenplay for the film version starring Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton. Nice start, we'd say.

Don't expect anything you haven't seen before. You might feel right at home, if you are from that part of the country, or, like us, you may laugh in all the right places, feel happy when you walk out of the theater, and that's about it.

"Crimes of the Heart"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Feb. 5