Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Shakespeare in Love" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

The cast is perfect. The writing is sublime. The actors sing and play their own instruments. The boy gets the girl, kind of, though it's a moot point since the action took place more than five hundred years ago. Bottom line: Marin Theater Company's production of "Shakespeare in Love" is as good as theater gets. Barring a December surprise, this is the best show we've seen all year.

Adam Magill is a star. As young Will Shakespeare, during an age when females are not allowed on a theater stage, he is finding it impossible to find male actors capable of conveying the passion he writes into his characters. Enter Viola de Lesseps (Megan Trout), a beautiful young woman disguised as a man so she might also become an actor, and bingo! We now have more passion than the authorities can deal with. Magill and Trout make us believe they mean it when they kiss, something as rare on the Bay Area theater stage as an unlimited arts budget. 

The entire cast shines. L. Peter Callender, Stacy Ross, Kenny Toll, Mark Anderson Phillips, Robert Sicular and Thomas Gorrebeeck have the greater roles, but there are two show-stoppers in the supporting cast as well: Sango Tajima as the irrepressible young boy who can't quite get anyone to recognize him ( the "Anybodys" character from West Side Story) (Tajima also plays violin in the band); and the audience's favorite Molly (Spot the dog). The Queen does prefer a story with a dog, you see. On Opening Night, Molly, a cross between a standard poodle and a cocker spaniel) kept staring at the audience and wagging her tail as they Oooohed and Ahhhed. What a ham.

This is a collaboration of geniuses. First Shakespeare, then Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's screenplay for the movie, and now Lee Hall's adaptation of the film for the stage. We know that with a cast of fourteen, each playing multiple roles, there are in fact hundreds of sticky spots. But everything feels seamless. Credit must be given to Jasson Minadakis for Direction, as well as to Scenic Designer Kat Conley, Costume Designer Katherine Nowacki and Music Director Jennifer Reason.

Quickly, away ye to the Buy Now key. Go fast, while tickets remain. Like us, you will want to go again.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

We are waiting for the white smoke to come out of the Awards Division Office at San Francisco Theater Blog, because there are rumors of...wait...wait, yes!

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has awarded "Shakespeare in Love" FIVE STARS! This is the first Five Star Review in more than four years: one star each for story, acting, directing, set and dog. How do you feel about that, Sango Tajima?

 "Shakespeare in Love"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through Dec. 17

Monday, November 20, 2017

"The Royale" ☼ ☼

Marco Ramirez knows boxing, so he realized that actors on stage pretending to be boxers will never feel authentic. So in his "The Royale," making its Bay Area Premiere at the Aurora in Berkeley, he decided to negate the lack of realism my stylizing the pugilism. The main character, Jay (Calvin M. Thompson), as well as Jay's first opponent, Fish (Satchel André), and also his final opponent ( spoiler alert - we cannot tell you who this is) all stand at a distance from one another across the stage and kind of -- dance. To supposedly throw punches they slam their feet down and grunt, and when they have been hit by those punches their facial expressions become pained, or if they have been knocked out, one lies on the stage and one exults.

If you have never seen a boxing match before, or if you ore one of the many who despise boxing for its animalistic overtone, this stylization may work for you. For us -- not so much. The actors have to also stay in time with a complicated rhythmical motif. There is just too much going on to feel real.

Ramirez's story, which parallels the real-life story of Jack Johnson, the great American fighter from the beginning of the 20th century, is more about racism and classism than it is about boxing, and the issues resonate to this day. But the ending -- the final fight -- well, we won't say anything more about it except that the whole show points to the payoff -- the epic struggle between the two great fighters of the day -- and what we get is symbolism. You can't get around it -- you accept this theatrical conceit, or you don't. Many do -- the show has been extended. We don't.

Satchel André is a particularly effective Fish, the primitive man from Mississippi with power in his fists but lacking an appropriate fear of the world around him. Tim Kniffin plays Jay's white manager who cannot help himself from uttering racist dogma.

Atim Udoffia plays Jay's sister, but her insistence on beating her brother down for social ills, about which he can do nothing, grates on this audience member. We want Jay to tell her to just go home. Instead -- well, you'll see.


The San Francisco Theater Blog is unable to get behind this production of "The Royale." We are giving it Two Stars, one for Donald E. Lacy Jr.'s fine performance as Wynton, the wise and world-weary trainer who tries to keep Jay centered, and one for the idea of trying dancing and finger snapping instead of boxing. It is an admirable attempt, but one that, for us, tires quickly, unable to make it through to the final round.

Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Eva Triology ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

 The thought of seeing a Three Act play on a Friday night was daunting to our hardiest reviewers. So we sent the one person who would be certain to complain about everything: Me.

Then what happens? I love this show. Act One, with but one character, is powerful and intimate; Act Two reveals a cast of characters who give us place and advance the story; and Act Three finishes the action and introduces a little pathos along with a lot of heart. Barbara Hammond's World Premiere is already brilliant. We wonder if she will choose to change one word.

Julia McNeal plays Eva, from younger to older woman. She takes us from not-so-devoted Dublin County daughter in Act One, carrying for her mother who is afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, to the island of Corsica in Act Three, where as a runaway she becomes the fill-in Mom for young Tom (Caleb Cabrera), an American trekker who has gotten separated from his latest Ultra-marathon. (Act Two hints at what may have brought her here.)

We loved McNeal in "Fred's Diner," where she was subdued and put-upon; here she is the somewhat reluctant mistress of her own fate. She gives Eva so much life we find ourselves wishing for Acts Four, Five and Six.

Loretta Greco stages the show brilliantly, especially in Act Two when she keeps the actors in character as the plot spells itself out. What could have become a TV-cop-show investigation instead turns into a fascinating theater piece. Lisa Anne Porter stands out as as Teresa, as do Rod Gnapp as Eamon and the perfectly snake-ish Justin Gillman as Father O'Leary.

It's an Irish show. So it is not surprising that the interior theme appears to be: "Did God Invent Suffering?" Father O'Leary thinks so.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Eva Triology" Four Stars, one each for writing, acting, directing and staging. We are thrilled to see that the company is continuing to turn out intriguing new pieces.

"The Eva Trilogy"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D
San Francisco
Through Nov. 12