Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Straight White Men: ? ☼ ?

You may love Young Jean Lee's new "Straight White Men." You may find it speaks to issues you find crucial and contemporary. You may laugh out loud, as many in our Opening Night audience did, at things that others in the same audience found sad and depressing. It may be that if you are of an age closer to the dad in this story, as younger audience members hoot and holler, you will turn and ask your seat-mate: "What am I missing? Why are they laughing?"

Not that the slapstick is not funny. Sometimes it is. But this is not Father Knows Best. Everything has an edge. Lee writes that her story is actually about gender -- the entire production team is composed of female and/or gender-nonconforming people, for example. The father and three sons we see on stage, horsing around in both playful and destructive ways, are in this view caught up in gender normative roles. Eldest brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) has given up on the expectations everyone has for the smartest and most-highly educated son. He has returned to care for his recently-widowed father. The other two brothers, successful in their own careers, see Matt's assumed role as caregiver to be demeaning and beneath him.

Dad (James Carpenter) does too, though he is trying hard to pretend otherwise.

Jake (Seann Gallagher) and Drew (Christian Haines), the middle and younger brothers, take turns trying to categorize Matt. Jake wants Matt's reticence to compete in the world to be a political statement, while Drew hammers on Matt to see a therapist.

This sounds pretty much like a family with no women in it. There is another angle, however, which involves Person In Charge 1 (J Jha) and Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans). I don't want to take away any surprise, so let me simply say the guy in the dress APPEARS to be calling to Matt and the woman doing all the cleanup APPEARS also to be calling him.

More, we will not say. Anyway, the audience would probably not find it funny.

RATINGS: ? ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Department of Confusion awards "Straight White Men" ? Stars. We just don't know how to feel about this show. Did we miss something obvious? The youngsters in the audience seemed to think so. Others, like this reviewer, found ourselves scratching our gray beards and wondering what is so funny about these sad people?

"Straight White Men"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 8

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"A Lesson From Aloes" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A brilliant play never ages. What a delight it is to revisit Athol Fugard's "A Lesson From Aloes." We find ourselves as involved in the lives of Piet, Gladys and Steve as we were when we first saw the show back in the 1990s. Performed in Johannesburg before opening on Broadway in 1981, the show takes us back to 1963 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Arpartheid is fourteen years old at this point and firmly in control of the racial inequalities it has officially visited upon the country. 

Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Wendy van den Heuvel) are preparing a dinner for an old friend in the anti-Apartheid resistance. There is tension between the couple, which we realize stems from Glady's recent release from an institution. Of course, the issues are deeper than that -- the government has taken her there on suspicion of agitating against them. And the bitter reason for that becomes even clearer later.

Steve (Adrian Roberts) arrives, a bit tipsy. He has announced that he is taking his family and emigrating to England because there is no more future in South Africa for non-whites. This was true enough in 1963 but Apartheid had more than thirty years left and the situation got so much worse in later years.

There are several lovely sequences when Steve and Piet remember the old days and the good times they had together.

The truth slowly emerges. Fugard shows us his all his skill as a dramatist, giving us but a taste as the plot thickens, and couching it in the voices of his characters so we can see how intolerable life has become in their beloved country.

This is a beautiful story and a brilliant rendition. By all means, rush down to Z-Space before June 29.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Lesson From Aloes" Four Stars. Story, above all, and then acting, set and Timothy Near's direction earn One Star each. All three actors will reach out and grab you. Their world is different than ours, but Athol Fugard makes sure we feel every beat of their hearts.

"A Message From Aloes"
Z Space Theater
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through June 29

Finks ☼ ☼ ☼

By the end of Joe Gilford's "Finks," you have learned more about America in the 1950s than you wanted to know. The wave of Anti-Communist hysteria that swept over the country in the wake of Russia's awakening and emergence as a world power is difficult for us to imagine now. But the underlying message is that fear will always make America react in the most reactionary ways.

Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) is a struggling comic who falls for Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino). Natalie is the prototypical Jewish activist of the day, filled with slogans and songs glorifying The Collective. Mickey just wants to work, but becoming involved with Natalie means also being present at meetings of show-business people with left-wing sympathies.

This is what America was like. Being in the room where it happened could get you thrown in jail and blacklisted from your job.

 We love seeing Gabriel Marin again, as doomed actor Fred Lang, plus an excellent set piece as a really tall Lou Costello. Leo Ash Evans plays Bobby, Natalie's professional and bisexual partner. His dance sequences with Natalie, and again at the powerful ending, are highlights of the show.

We also enjoyed Michael Barrett Austin, playing several roles including Elia Kazan (seen below), as well as the imposing Robert Sicular whose severe Committee Chairman look scared us silly despite remembering we were watching a show.

Act One starts too slowly for us, as we become accustomed to the staging, but in Act Two Director Giovanna Sardelli brings us home powerfully.

"Finks" is Joe Gilford's tribute to his parents, blacklisted actor and producers Jack and Madeline Gilford. We become drawn into the personal dilemmas faced by anyone ever accused of a trumped-up charge in a country where insanity has taken over.  In the end, deciding to be a fink or not depends on you. Sometimes, all you can do is dance as names are named.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Finks" Three Stars. The show is one that needed to be written. The excellent dramatic sequences, terrific cast and inventive staging outweigh the stylized comic routines which just make us uncomfortable. A little knowledge of Yiddishkeit --- well, it couldn't hurt.

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through July 1, 2018