Friday, March 15, 2019

"Actually" ☼ ☼ ☼

This is one of those nights in the theatre where the show is very good and the two-person cast is not only excellent but moves with skill along a tiny stage upstairs at the Aurora. If there is a problem, it is that the subject matter is so distressful and one of the characters so cruel, that we left the theatre feeling less exhilarated than we would have liked.

Don't forget racism. The issue of white privilege rears its ugly head and it's not wearing a hat. If the real world doesn't depress you enough, this one will dig you deeper.

Michael A. Curry plays Tom, a freshman at Princeton whose response to a brand new social milieu is to have sex with as many willing young freshman women as possible. We understand him, we see his backstory and we feel for the spot he is in as a good-looking African-American young man in an overwhelmingly white and wealthy university.

Amber, on the other hand, played by Ella Dershowitz, is deliberately over-the-top as an entitled young woman, with an intellect that has gotten her into an Ivy League school but seemingly without a shred of understanding for others, nor any sense of responsibility for her actions. Director Tracy Ward gives Dershowitz an annoying set of body habits and a voice to match. We arrive at a sexual-misconduct charge whose outcome is preordained. It will change the lives of only one of these kids.

For us, with all the interesting dialogue and steps back and forth through time, from the day Tom and Amber meet through their university "hearing," we wish we could feel a little more for Amber. If we liked her a little more we could have a little more empathy for them both. As it is, poor Tom, man. Nothing ever changes.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS to "Actually." It is a fascinating show that requires us to think about a nuanced issue guaranteed to make us uncomfortable. This is what theater is supposed to do, isn't it?

Harry's Theatre Upstairs
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 5, 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019

"American Hero" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Bess Wohl's "American Hero" gives us belly laughs as well as a kick in the pants about what Corporate America does to the minimum wage people it employs and then discards. We love each actor in the four-person ensemble and Allie Moss's direction feels flawless.

The setting is a sandwich shop in a mall. We see three employees being tutored by their boss on how to make the sandwiches the Brand envisions. Paul Stout is Ted, the MBA who has been downsized into this sandwich shop. He still feels if he works hard enough he can rise again into management. Earth to Ted: find a different mall.

Devon DeGroot is exhausted. She works two fast-food shifts at different shops in the mall, one after the other. She seems dim at first, but she's just sleep-derived. Laura Espino's wisecracking Jamie gives us laugh after laugh, though as the show goes on we see she is as desperate as the others to stay employed. David Boyll is Bob, the boss, who clearly knows nothing except what he is reading in the employee manual. Dark times are ahead for everyone.

We love them all. After Bob has disappeared for a week, and they stop receiving any new deliveries of food, and calls to the Regional Office are not returned, it becomes obvious to the three workers that they have been abandoned. But they have pride in what they do and they really need their salaries. So they plot to keep the shop open. The whole idea is so preposterous it isn't preposterous at all, and we are pulling hard for them all the way.

We laughed along with Wohl's terrific dialogue, but afterwards, when we read about the real-life incident that sparked this show, which involved a suicide of the overwrought manager of a Quiznos sandwich shop in Southern California, Wohl's story took a deeper, more insidious turn for us. We wonder if she couldn't somehow involve this more serious story into Bob's disappearance? Any laughs there? Maybe not.

Well crafted and performed, we once again leave a Custom Made Theater show feeling happy. Nobody died. Well, maybe Bob. Unsure.


The San Francisco Theater Blog loved Bess Wohl's "American Hero," though it made us very hungry. We suggest Prime Rib Combos for each audience member. Short of that, we still award Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise to this tasty Custom Made show. Writing, performing and direction earn one Star each and the BANGLE is for the way the cast slapped out those sandwiches in twenty seconds. And don't forget the show's last line. Please don't answer that phone.

"American Hero"
Custom Made Theatre
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through April 6
$30 (Dynamic Pricing)

Marie and Rosetta ☼ ☼ ☼

I wanted to love this show. I really, really did. The first fifteen minutes, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the veteran performer, and Sister Marie Knight, the ingenue, are getting to know each other as they rehearse their music, are magic. Sister Rosetta sings "This Train" and then Sister Marie sings "Were You There?" and the walls are ready to implode with joy. When they sing "Didn't it Rain?" together, I found it almost impossible to remain in my seat. I needed to jump out into the aisles and dance like I was testifying in the church where this music was born.

Michelle E. Jordan as the middle-aged Sister Rosetta and Marissa Rudd as twenty-three year old Sister Marie have a vocal chemistry that gives us shivers, especially when they sing together, and even more so when Marie's piano is added to Rosetta's guitar.

Problem Number One is that neither Marie nor Rosetta are actually playing their instruments. The piano is played by William Liberatore and the guitar by Schuyler McFadden, off stage. The two actors pretend to be playing, but it is just pretend (there is one place where Jordan does appear to be actually playing a guitar solo. Hard to tell.) The difference between actual performance and pretend performance is hard to overcome.

Problem Two is the story. We would expect that the glorious beginning, when the two women create an act they can perform at their various gigs, would continue into letting us see those gigs, including the social and racial politics they talk about encountering. Their music would grow into something even stronger, and we would feel more for these two women, ahead of their time, trying to burst into a world not at all ready for them.

And of course, the unmentioned Problem Number Three: Everyone knows by now that Marie and Rosetta were lovers. Why author George Brant chose to ignore it is a mystery. This knowledge hangs over the closeness we see on stage between the two women. Its absence reinforces the sense of pretend that the show can never quite overcome.

Such a shame. Such beautiful voices. Such an important story -- we are talking about nothing less than the birth of rock and roll here, as it grew out of the church, that fought back to keep its great singers from singing music that it considered blasphemous. Racism, sexism, even performerism -- the segment that details white people throwing pennies at the black performers as an act of derision is a stunner. More of this, please. More singing together. And less pretending.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Rock/Gospel Division awards "Marie and Rosetta" Three Stars. At the outset I told my partner we had a "Five Star Show" happening here. Perhaps it will become so as the run continues. It is still worth coming to see, if only for the first fifteen minutes and the potential of so much more. 

"Marie and Rosetta"
Lucie SternTheater
1305 Middlefield Road
Through March 31

Friday, March 8, 2019

"The Who and the What" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It's the modern American dilemma. Dad is a Pakistani immigrant and his emotions are still wrapped up in the old country. His two daughters are Hyphenated-Americans with an emphasis on "Americans." They are still tied to their family, but not to the immutable religious customs of Dad's conservative homeland.

We love this show. Author Ayad Akhtar makes us feel for three of the four characters. Alfredo Huereca's Afzal shows fatherly devotion mixed with religion that rejects modern discussion; his eldest daughter Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim) is far too Harvard-educated to go for the typical assumptions people read into the Koran; and younger daughter Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) has her own problems with her offstage, un-seen Pakistani boyfriend. She cannot marry until her older sister does and therefore she must remain a quote-unquote virgin, while also satisfying boyfriend. Afzal wishes to please everyone but cannot thunder his way out of the upcoming storm.

We have trouble with Zarina's love interest, Eli (Patrick Alarpone), because he shows no physical attraction to Zarina, nor she with him. As a white convert to Islam, he is naturally suspicious to his new Atlanta Muslim community while at the same time he is subconsciously a hero to them, due to his white skin. He speaks angrily of the community's disdain of black Muslims, but only in one side comment. We could use more of this. Eli's character feels undeveloped and emotionally barren.

Don't read Zarina's book, Afzal. It won't help. Oops. Too late.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Who and the What" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Acting, Staging and Hana S. Sharif's Direction earn one Star each. The Bangle is for the way Akhtar puts religious issues onto the table without talking down to anyone. The show is refreshing and educational at the same time. We get to think while being locked into a well-crafted plot.

'The Who and the What"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through March 24
(Small theater. Cheap seats fine.)

"Violet" ☼ ☼

There are strong moments in Jeanine Tesori and Brian Cawley's ”Violet.” The cast works hard and there are spots where it succeeds admirably. The gospel feel of some of Tesori’s music brings excitement to the theater and there are several excellent performances.

However, for a show written in 1997 about a bus ride taken across the South in 1962, “Violet” needs you to channel your Inner Broadway. Only there can one find such happy, diverse and inclusive characters who are able to sing and dance while celebrating a love story that defies the imagination. If you are able to put yourself into this rarified space of suspended disbelief, you will enjoy the ride.

The standout for us in this cast is 12-year old Miranda Long, who plays young Vi. She has a stage presence that matches her character and a lively, piercing voice, remarkable for someone this young.

We found the rest of the cast doing their best to inject soul into forgettable songs. Juliana Lustenader plays Violet as a lost woman with diminished intelligence. She is dealing with a physical impediment that the audience cannot see, and she gets herself into relationships with two servicemen, John-David Randle as Flick and Jack O'Reilly as Monty, neither of which makes the slightest bit of sense.

Clay David's Preacher is either evil or sympathetic, we're not sure which. Either one would do. Most of the excitement of this show is generated from side characters, such as Tanika Baptiste, April Deutschle and Elizabeth Jones, who sing as if they mean it.

If you like gospel-ish music, which we do, you can tap your toes and pretend. That's not such a bad thing.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Violet" Two Stars. This is below the Mendoza Line (See sidebar at right for explanation of ratings). For us, unless the music is over-the-top spectacular, a plot must have at least one foot in reality. The cast of "Violet" does the best it can with an old bus that could use a significant tune-up.

The Alcazar Theatre
650 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through March 17