Sunday, May 28, 2017

"The Roommate" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

"There's a great liberty in being bad."

That's the lasting quote from Jen Silverman's "The Roommate." It supposedly refers to one's first poem, but neither of the two women on stage is a poet. They just like being bad.

We love this show. "The Roommate" requires two major-league actresses to pull it off and they've got 'em. Susi Damilano plays Sharon, the Iowa housewife whose naivete surprises and intrigues Robyn (Julia Brothers), the Bronx hustler who has come to share Sharon's Iowa City apartment. We don't know why Robyn has come to the Midwest, but from the start it is clear she has way too many secrets.

We can't say enough for Damilano. She infuses Sharon with innocence and humor, as we watch her become more and more attracted to Robyn's dark side. Robyn, meanwhile, understands the price you pay when you give in to your baser instincts. She walks the line. On one hand, she truly loves being a thief. She glows when she ultimately begins to describe her scams to Robyn. On the other hand, she has come to care for Sharon and doesn't want to be the agent of her descent. Both Damilano and Brothers are perfect. They make us wish this were a pilot of a new cable show, so we could look forward to the next thirteen weeks.

Theodore J.H. Hulsker's sound is another plus. Not at all what you'd expect, we get both vocal and instrumental pastiches that blend well with Sharon's emotions. Nicely done.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Both ranking members of the San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division went ga-ga over this show. A FOUR STAR rating is the result. Damilano and Brothers earn one star each, plus one star for Becca Wolff's flawless direction and Silverman's story filled with growth and surprises. Special mention for the scene with the gun.

"The Roommate"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d Floor of the Kensington Park Hotel
Through July 1

Thursday, May 25, 2017


The old Studio 54 dance club is now the Studio 54 Theatre. The stage is small and the nine-piece cast of Lynn Nottage's "Sweat" use every inch. We feel the angst of once-thriving Reading, PA, as its factories get ready to pack up and move to Mexico, leaving behind the workers who once felt protected by their good union jobs and at the same time proud to be turning out an excellent product on the line.

Almost all of these same union workers, however, are white. They have been oblivious to their black and Latino brothers and sisters denied access to the union and therefore to steady employment. When the company brass decides to close the factory, all these submerged grievances explode to the surface.

The story's heart is borne by three women friends. Johanna Day plays Tracey, who has spent thirty-two years on the line. She goes up for a promotion along with her friend Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), the first black woman to ever have earned her union card. There was never racial animosity between these two women who have grown up together, but now, when Cynthia gets the promotion, Tracey's disappointment is masked by her belief Cynthia was chosen only because of her skin color. The third friend is Jessie (Alison Wright), who we see in various flashbacks as she descends from hard worker into addiction.

James Colby is excellent as Stan, the bartender in the tavern where most of the action takes place. He and his father, as well as his grandfather, once worked in the same factory. We loved Khris Davis as Chris, Cynthia's son, who along with his friend Jason (Will Pullen), Jessie's son, can no longer see any future for themselves in Reading.

Carlo Albán has the unfortunate role as Oscar, the Colombian-American, also born and raised in Reading. Blacks and whites can agree on one thing: even if he's a home-boy, there is nothing lower than a Spanish-speaking scab. Tough luck, Oscar.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Big Apple Division grants "Sweat" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The story, the ensemble of actors and director (Kate Whoriskey) earn one star each as the various personal and political threads tie themselves together at the end. The BANGLE is for how Lynn Nottage makes us tune into the longing every character feels for the America they either once experienced or dreamed about -- when people had good jobs and the respect that went along with hard work. As President Orange has said: these problems are complicated.

Studio 54
254 West 54th Street, New York City
Through June 18

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Word 4 Word: "Smut" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Alan Bennett, author of The Madness of King George, Prick Up Your Ears and The History Boys, among others, is a literary icon in his native England. His 2011 two-story collection "Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)" has now been adapted for the Word 4 Word stage by Amy Kossow. It is a smashing success, one of the finest and funniest Word 4 Words we have seen.

Nancy Shelby plays Mrs Donaldson, on the surface a middle-aged widow with little joy in her life. She takes a job at a local medical school as an actor-out of various medical maladies, in order to teach medical students how to react during real-life diagnoses. Her boss, Søren Oliver as Mr. Ballantine, is magnificent in his frustration with his students' lack of humanity as well as his growing attraction to Mrs. Donaldson.

Enter the boarders: Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico as two young medical students, whose proposition to Mrs. Donaldson seems preposterous at first: they will allow her to observe them making love in lieu of paying the weekly rent. We then watch Mrs. Donaldson warm to the subject matter before her, which leads to a lovely ending.

Robert Parsons is excellent, as always, as another of Mr. Ballantine's stable of actors. Likewise Delia MacDougall as the dowdy daughter as well as Mrs. Donaldson's friend with whom she can share her intimate secret. But the show is about Mrs. Donaldson. We learn and we grow and then the unexpected takes us new places.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Smut" Four Stars. It's that good. The entire ensemble of actors, the story, the adaptation and direction earn one Star each. There is nothing not to love here -- "Smut" delivers. (It usually does.)

"Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)"
Z Space Below
450 Florida St., San Francisco
Through June 11

"The Mushroom Cure" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Either Adam Strauss knows a lot about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or he is an amazing actor. From the beginning of the 90-minute solo performance, where we find him paralyzed with indecision over whether to purchase an IPod or an IRiver, to his adventure with cyborgs and penises in the ambulance towards the end, we are convinced that we are watching one extremely talented comedian as well as someone we definitely don't want to date our daughter.

Zany or Certifiable, you can't take your eyes off him. The story centers around his attempts to find a supply of psilocybin, which is illegal in New York, but he has heard is a possible cure for the OCD that has plagued him as long as he can remember. Along the way we hear a touching story about his relationship with his girl friend Grace, as well as any number of vignettes from the world of people desperately seeking drugs. Strauss is addicted to trying to get better, if only these attempts didn't include using substances that make him worse. Until...well, we'll let you hear that for yourself.

"The Mushroom Cure," he is quick to remind us, is cheaper than Hamilton. And you can learn things too -- like, for example, if you call 911 on yourself you can obtain a transcript of that conversation for only $8.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Those Were the Days and Thank God They Are Over Division awards "The Mushroom Cure" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Adam Strauss is brilliant. The BANGLE is for his unforgettable riff on The Lexicon of Lonely Dinners.

"The Mushroom Cure"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Through June 3
(Wed. and Fri. at 8pm
Sat. at 8:30pm)
$20-$35 Sliding Scale

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Guards at the Taj" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

We loved this show. We really loved it. Rajiv Joseph's "Guards at the Taj" is painfully funny, and you laugh when you know you shouldn't, which makes it better. It is dark and preposterous, so I guess we must be too.

One Act, 80 minutes. The show harkens back to the legend of Shah Jahan, the Seventeenth Century Moghul ruler of India, who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to the memory of his deceased wife. It was to be the most beautiful building in the world, reflecting the light of the moon on the saddened and parched Earth.

The legend continues that after the building's completion, the Shah ordered that all 20,000 workers, including the architect, would have their hands cut off so they could never again try to replicate an edifice of such beauty.

Twenty-First Century meme: the Evil Egomaniacal Emperor. At least Shah Jahan left us the Taj Mahal, not a basket of tacky hotels.

The story is told through the eyes of the two guards, standing next to each other, who have been stationed in front of the in-construction palace for sixteen years, while it was being built. They have the lowest-status, worst jobs in the Moghul Guard world, and they know they won't even be allowed to turn around to see the Taj when it is completed, which is scheduled for that very morning when the sun comes up. The penalty would be death.

They also know that somebody is going to have to chop off all those hands, and, being at the bottom of the ladder, it is probably going to be them.

So here we have the ancient, past, present and future dilemma of man: Our ruler might be horrible, but our life right now is pretty soft. Should we blow the whistle? To whom? Or should we spend an entire night at the chopping block brandishing a sword and a cauterizing iron, and then the next day on our knees mopping up the blood?

Jason Kapoor (right, above) and Rushi Kota are wonderful, each in his own way. Kapoor, as Humayun, has pull, because his father is high up in the power structure. He is inclined to keep his nose down and pretend not to notice any irregularities.

40,000 hands to cut off, not easy to ignore.

Kota, as Babur, the perennially late and far more questioning partner, is outraged at the horror of the situation he and his friend Humayun find themselves facing. He knows their action will condemn 20,000 hand-less men to a life of begging, and that every one of those men will know who cut their hands off. He wants to stand on principle. The penalty, of course, is being pulled apart by an elephant.

There is also an apple dangling over their heads, which is a possible promotion to Moghul Guard heaven: guarding the emperor at the royal Harem.

"Oooh, naked women everywhere," Babur fantasizes.

"Remember, YOU CAN'T LOOK," Humayun reminds him.

We loved Kapoor and Kota equally. This is Humayun's story to tell, but the friendship between the two guards permeates everything. Shall we say it again? We love these two. They need a weekly show.

Also, Annie Smart's set, Mike Post's lights and Fumiko Beilefeldt's costumes are perfect. Make that bloody perfect.

Caveat: several people we spoke with after the show, including a few of our fellow reviewers, did not appreciate "Guards." It was far too dark for them. My wife was on their side. What does this say about your singular reviewer?

It says I know when something works. Please run to Marin to catch Kapoor and Kota doing this show while you can. Have dinner before the show. Afterwards, maybe not a good idea.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Bloody Indian Fable Department of the Plain Old Awards Division awards "Guards at the Taj" FOUR STARS with an EXCLAMATION POINT! The Exclamation Point is for Babur's matter-of-fact observation: "Swearing an oath not to talk? CONTRADICTION!"

"Guards at the Taj"
Marin Thjeater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through May 21, 2017

Monday, May 1, 2017

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Rachel Corrie was a young and idealistic college senior from Olympia, Washington who was volunteering with an International Organization in Rafah, a Palestinian border town in the Gaza Strip. There, in 2003, she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes. She was twenty-three years old.

Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner have built a production from Corrie's e-mails, her journals and stories told to them by her parents. Written in 2005, at first this is a difficult show to watch, because there is only one actor: Charlotte Hemmings. It feels like an extended monologue, and the beginning is peppered with rather clichéd and precious musings -- the vaguely idealistic ramblings of a young woman in her bedroom.

But then everything changes. Hemmings puts on a scarf and the action shifts to Palestine, at which point the emails, the action and the flow of the story become spellbinding. We cannot overstate how involving this one-act-one-actor production becomes.

Charlotte Hemmings has been playing Rachel since 2010, when direction was taken over by Jonathan Kane. She seems born to the part. Hemmings says she has learned the lines by writing them all out longhand, until she feels Rachel Corrie inside her.  She is a joy to watch, particularly as the show moves to its inevitable conclusion.

An interesting sidelight is that after Rachel's death, her sister took it upon herself to transcribe every journal entry and every-mail that Rachel had made, from the time she was eight years old. This selfless undertaking seems to mirror the Corrie family. And it makes for great theater.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "My Name is Rachel Corrie" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The whole idea of building a solo performance around this historical event earns one star, plus direction and acting earn one star each. The BANGLE is for the stunning way Rachel Corrie summed up the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, with all the world pretending to look in the other direction: "I am questioning my fundamental belief in human nature."

This was in the last e-mail she sent to her mother.

Please do not listen to anyone who tries to cloak Rachel Corrie's experience with ideology. This is a human story. Don't miss it.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie"
The Magic Theater
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through May 14