Thursday, March 5, 2020

"Don't Eat the Mangos" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A beautifully written and deeply felt drama, Ricardo Pérez González's "Don't Eat the Mangos" carries a deep secret in the title, but we don't find out about it until the end. The show is so perfectly realized, with actors, set, lights and music working as one well-oiled unit, it is hard to believe we have just seen the World Premiere.

Three daughters and their mother are nursing dying Dad in their small home outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The daughters, late 30s into their 40s, argue about whose chingada turn it is to change the chingada bedpan. The stage directions get it right: "The three sisters greet each other as sisters do, that is to say a blend of familiar affection and loathing."

Ismelda, the oldest, has remained home to care for her parents while Yinoelle and Wicha have left to form their own families. Yetta Gottesman gives Ismelda some strong Eldest-Child Syndrome, which is to say she tries to call all the shots. But she is suffering from a terrible past, of which no one else is aware. Middle daughter Yinoelle (Elena Estér) is the buffer between Ismelda and Wicha (Marilet Martínez) whose incapacity to tell a lie eventually uncovers the secret of the mangos. All three sisters are beautifully realized, as is Wilma Bonet's strong but fading Mami. (Did we mention Mami is dying of cancer?)

Papi is played by veteran actor Julian Lòpez Morillas, whose broken-English laments are punctuated by a bronchial cough that we could feel from Row C.

So Papi is near death, Mami is dying and what is going to happen next? Observe Mami's body language below.

The set by Tanya Orellana allows action to flow between the dining table and the room where Papi's hospital bed has been placed. Chris Lundahl's lights give us hurricane flashes as well as subtle auras of discovery. If we could find fault with David Mendizábal's direction, we would, but we can't. Everything works in this show.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Don't Eat the Mangos" Four Stars. It is excellent the way it is and can only get better. One caveat is that a significant part of the banter between the four women is in Puerto Rican Spanish. We got most of it, but it probably would be better to sit in the center section where you can see their lips move. Section C seats find action at the end blocked by the actors. There! I KNEW I could find something to complain about.

Sit in the middle. Go see this show.

"Don't Eat the Mangos"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Mar. 22

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

"On The Periphery" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The Periphery Road separates two sections of an unnamed city (probably Istanbul) in an unnamed country (probably Turkey), separated by the city's garbage dump. Only the desperately poor live on one side of Periphery Road, in the Genies and Angels neighborhood, where cardboard shacks spring up overnight and from time to time there are spontaneous methane explosions within the garbage, which serve as entertainment for Genies and Angels children.

On the other side is the city: whose people are called Insiders by the occupants of Genies and Angels, for whom a trip across the garbage into the city is as likely as escaping to the EU.

Ayla Yarkut plays Sultane, the TV host of a program called "Sultane of the Periphery." The show is tremendously popular within the Genies and Angels neighborhood. Sultane grants wishes. Her attitude is that of a big city TV huckster, except she delivers. If you are chosen to be on her show, your wish will be granted.

Yarkut is a perfect Sultane. We find ourselves believing her, even though our mistrust glands are stimulated every time she begins her spiel for her sponsor, Miracle Pots and Pans.

Meanwhile, a forbidden friendship has developed between the Roma (gypsy) Kibele (Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt) and the villager Dilsha (Sofia Ahmad). The reason this friendship has been forbidden is the Roma are held in even less repute than the other dwellers on the garbage dump. Dilsha and her husband Bilo (Lijesh Kirishnan) have felt blessed to have left their home villages and become city people, even if their home is in impoverished Genies and Angels. They feel fortunate to have jobs in the factory whose toxicity is causing children to be born without navels, but even so their prejudice against the Roma, who have the same problems as they, is unchangeable.

We love Krishnan as Bilo, whose trusting nature allows us to understand what small pleasures mean in the lives of these villagers. At the same time, we are shown how even those at the bottom can find a way to despise those who they consider to be even lower.

Leila Rosa plays Tamar and Zaya Kolia is Azad, the young couple who have a deep bond with all the other characters in the play. They represent hope. We are on their side, but they're not out of the woods yet.

We love this story by Sedef Ecer (translation by Evren Odcikin). Congratulations to both Golden Thread Productions and Crowded Fire Theater Company for sharing in this lovely and spellbinding show.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "On the Periphery" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Writing, ensemble and costuming by Maggie Whitaker earn one Star each, with the Bangle of Praise for a rare look at the way people around the world cope with their situations. In the end, all our children want to live a life of their own. But they can never escape their roots.

"On the Periphery"
Potrero Stage
18th and Carolina, Potrero Hill, San Francisco
Through April 4, 2020
$15 - $50

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

"Retablos" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

There is so much to love about Word For Word's production of Octavio Solis's "Retablos." Each retablo is a picture out of time, a memory of a specific event in Solis's early life in El Paso, Texas, pulled from his 2018 memoir "Stories From A Life Lived Along the Border."

We see the entire ensemble playing multiple roles, old, young, male, female, Mexicano, Chicano or Gringo, border jumper or Vietnam-vet border guard. We see the marvelous Maria Candelaria as Consuelo the maid who comes down from the hills of Northern Mexico to stay with Solis's family for many years.

Gendell Hernandez dances at the Quince...

..and Regina Morones gives us a mysterious La Llorona.

There are so many memorable moments. The actors weave in and out of Nina Ball's set as each retablo, each piece, gives us another taste of the El Paso of Octavio Solis's boyhood, when life was never easy but a lot freer than it is now.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Retablos" Cuatro Estrellas. Four Stars. Writing, the excellent ensemble of actors (Edie Flores, Maria Candelaria, Carla Gallardo, Gendell Hernandez, Ryan Tasker, Regina Morones, Brady Morales-Woolery and Gabriel Montoya), direction by Sheila Balter and Jim Cave and set by Nina Ball all earn one star each. The show is long but we could have used even more. When was the last time we said that?

Z Space Below
470 Florida St., San Francisco
Through March 15

Monday, February 17, 2020

"The Children" ☼ ☼ ☼

Hazel (Julie Eccles) and Robin (James Carpenter) are retired husband-and-wife nuclear scientists who seem to be living a mundane, normal life in a seaside town somewhere not far from the nuclear reactor in which they spent their working lives. We come to understand there has been some kind of Fukushima-style disaster in the recent past and the town and environs have been dangerously exposed to radiation. 

Enter Rose (Anne Darragh), a fellow former worker at the plant who shows up at Hazel and Robin's cottage unannounced after a thirty year absence. She has a proposal to make to Hazel and Robin, involving an attempt to settle the guilt all three feel at how the work they did led to such terrible consequences for so many innocent people.

There is a great deal going on under the radar. Hazel distrusts Rose for good reason, which of course involves Robin.

It takes awhile for Rose to get to the purpose of her visit, but eventually we understand that story cuts deeper than a simple love-triangle. Author Lucy Kirkwood has put her finger on an issue that plagues us in modern America: who is responsible for the social and ecological disasters our generation has visited upon the next? What shall we choose to do about it?

The three actors are all Bay Area favorites. Carpenter and Eccles are especially effective, and their characters are more nuanced. Still, we would have liked to see director Barbara Damashek shake Rose's proposal out of her sooner. Far less time is devoted to the urgent ethical issues posed here than to the less important discovery of the relationships of each character to each other, Love is not all you need. Courage is even more crucial.

RATINGS  ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Children" Three Stars. We loved the acting, story and costumes by Cassandra Carpenter. Though Lucy Kirkwood's title is "The Children," her story is more about the problems faced by us adults in a confusing and guilt-ridden world.

"The Children"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Through March 1

Sunday, February 16, 2020

"F*ck Tinder" UNRATED

David Rodwin is an accomplished comic with a dry, polished delivery. He has been performing his one-man show "F*ck Tinder" for several years and is filling up venues with his targeted cohort: younger people who have experienced On-Line Dating. There are several bits about the usual subjects, such as people lying about their ages on their profiles, and a somewhat wistful "Old Tinder"/ "New Tinder" comparison that amounts to Old Tinders wanting only sex and New Tinders wanting something more.

But Rodwin is having none of that. He is out to break records -- the amount of times he can have sex in one day (eight),  the amount of different women he can have sex with in one week (seven), the pleasure he can take in masturbating while watching South Park when he has a few hours free between sexual encounters. The man is not lacking in stamina.

Surprise, surprise, it isn't leading anywhere. We find ourselves enjoying the jokes but unable to rid ourselves of the vision of a late 40's man behaving like a teenager on sex sites and then being surprised when his relationships all turn out empty.

Admission of Age: We are not the Tinder Generation. We could have been the parents, at least, of practically everyone in the room. This is a world that sounds like bungie-jumping into cherry jello to us. There are few circumstances in this world where people our age don't wish we could be a generation younger. Rodwin's world feels like one of them.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has chosen not to rate "F*ck Tinder." The showroom was filled and there were lots of people who found this show both humorous and resonant. We felt more like the older man who warned Rodwin to treasure the time he has with the people he loves. The author listened, and then took acid and went to an orgy. I mean, really.

"F*ck Tinder"
The Shelton Theatre
533 Sutter Streeet, San Francisco
Through Feb 29 (Fridays and Saturdays)

"Born in East Berlin" ☼ ☼ ☼

When Bruce Springsteen played for more than a quarter million East Berliners in 1988, the concert broke down social and political barriers that could never be reconstituted. It lives on as a milestone in German history and The Berlin Wall came down for good the following year.

Rogelio Martinez's "Born in East Berlin," having its World Premiere in SF Playhouse's Sandbox Series, attempts to recreate the highs and lows of the period, using this real-life concert as his centerpiece. The story's metaphor is the Wall: each East Berliner has two sides, the public side they show and the other side they all dream about: freedom.

Our story is told through the voice of Katja ( Isabel Langen),  a nineteen-year old Berliner who sees no future for herself in East Berlin. Then, she hears about the upcoming Springsteen concert and eventually is pulled onto stage to dance with the Boss. The symbolism is impossible to miss: rock and roll as the savior of the human spirit.

Gerhard (Griffin O'Connor) is Katja's boyfriend with whom she is sharing dreams; likewise,
Anne (Ash Malloy), Springsteen's advance-woman, has believed in Hans (Patrick Andrew Jones) and Erich (Christopher Reber) is interested in Alix (Wera von Wulfen). It all sounds rather sit-com until we realize just about everyone, including Katja's sister Lotte (Lauren Hart) is a secret agent for the Stazi secret police.

We like the premise and we love the music. Anyone who hears "Born in the USA" or "I'm on Fire" realizes how incendiary these tunes have always been. Bruce Springsteen is an icon for the world.

Right now, the play feels long. For us, less talk and more music is the ticket. Perhaps licensing is an issue; if not, whenever we hear a Springsteen song we are lifted into the action of the story. When the music stops, the story tends to spin in a predictable circle.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Born in East Berlin" Three Stars. It is fun to see now but, in our opinion, will hit home with more power when the music is allowed to show what the characters are trying to say.

"Born in East Berlin"
San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series
The Children's Creativity Museum
221 4th Street, San Francisco
Next to the Carousel
Through Feb. 29

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Tiny, Beautiful Things" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Cheryl Strayed wrote "Tiny, Beautiful Things." She was sitting at the end of our row on Opening Night at San Francisco Playhouse. After the curtain came down, the cast walked out for well-deserved and enthusiastic bows and then, as the applause was dying down, someone yelled: "Thank YOU, Cheryl Strayed!" The author stood up and received a second thunderous round of applause. The show is that good.

OK, OK, so I'm the person who yelled. 

"Tiny, Beautiful Things," for this reviewer, is about two not-so-tiny things: loneliness, and forgiveness. The words come from letters for help sent to "Dear Sugar," an anonymous internet advice column that Strayed ran for several years, followed by her powerful, heartfelt responses. These columns were then adapted into a play by Nia Vardalos and opened at the Public Theater in New York in 2016.

Susi Damilano is Sugar. She is brilliant. This is a difficult role because Strayed's words are thick and emotional. The monologues are lengthy and filled with both wisdom and humor, angst and delight. Sugar is catering to lonely and broken people but it is she who has fought herself out of those emotional caverns where they live now. Damilano uses her face, her arms, her body and most of all her eyes to show us, the audience, the care and tough love she is willing to give to her readers, who are hanging on very single word as if their lives depend on her.

Kina Kantor, Jomar Tagatac and Mark Anderson Phillips play many different parts, each one a new supplicant writing to "Dear Sugar." The three are all physical actors, imbuing their queries with motion as well as emotion. Phillips stalks the stage and screams in pain, Tagatac hides inside his hoodie and Kantor is both accusing and breathless with every word. 

And those words. What a writer. Nia Vardalos's adaptation and Bill English's direction bring the words to life. Each character is given room to breathe, in that way allowing themselves to be set on the road towards healing.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Tiny, Beautiful Things" FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We can't say enough for this show. The set is gorgeous, the acting approaches perfection and, towering above it all, we experience the power and glory of a writer at the top of her game.

The Bangle has to be for Susi Damilano's Sugar, which, incidentally, she performs in socks. But I must also mention the "Numbers" set piece, in which Mark Anderson Phillips managed to smash my heart so that Sugar's answer could somehow put me back together again. 

"Tiny, Beautiful Things"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through March 7

Friday, January 31, 2020

"More Guns!" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The run is so short there is barely time to hurry down to Z Space Below, but if you can you will really enjoy Philip Labes and Michael O'Konis's "More Guns!" -- a musical about the N.R.A. One piano accompaniment is all you get, with very funny songs, excellent choreography and a four-person ensemble, all of whom can sing, dance and do shtick. Playing regularly in L.A, at Second City, the show is slick and smooth, as well as already well-known. Opening Night was packed with a crowd whose average age made certain reviewers feel all OK-Boomer.

Kudos to the writers and cast. Caroline Thrasher, Philip Labes, Marnina Schon and Andrew Pifko: we love you all. Come back up here again soon. We will have completed your universal background checks.

Readers: I am typing really fast so you can get your shoes on faster.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "More Guns!" FOUR STARS.  Why are you reading this? Times a-wasting. Just go.

"More  Guns!"
Z Space Below
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through FEB 1 ONLY

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"How to Transcend a Happy Marriage" ☼ ☼ ☼

We can quote one-liners all night from Sarah Ruhl's "How to Transcend a Happy Marriage." Especially through the end of Act One, Ruhl has us on the edge of our seats, as the sexual tension builds and we can see what is about to happen on New Year's Eve. We wish the magical realism of Act Two could match the lighting-fast action of Act One.

Pip (played by Fenner) is a free-thinking temp worker in Jane (Hillary Hesse)'s office. Pip has announced that she is polyamorous, but not only that: she slaughters her own food. She uses every part of the animal: she even repurposes the asshole.

For reasons impossible to fathom, Jane and her husband Michael (Malcolm Rodgers), and their friends George (Karen Offereins) and Paul (Matt Weimer) decide to invite Pip and her two lovers for a New Year's Eve Party. Clearly, there will be no need to purchase fireworks.

It's all very funny for awhile, if discomfiting. The two couples are as unsure of themselves as Pip, David and Freddie are oblivious. Fenner gives Pip an almost-comic-book allure, Nick Trengove as David puts a capital P in Pretentious, while Louel Senores as Freddie seems pleasant enough, if barely awake. 

"What do you do?" Michael asks Freddie.

"I try to do nothing," Freddie says.

For unexplained reasons, everyone seems infatuated with Pip, whose every slither says she would be happy to mate with the first available doorknob. Jane is attracted to Pip, Paul is attracted to Jane, George is attracted to Michael and David and Freddie are into equal opportunity. Soon, the inevitable orgy begins...except that's when Jane and Michael's teenage daughter comes home early.


"Oh, Hello Dear."

What now? Act One Ends.

That's kind of it. Act Two turns into birds and myth. A domestic pet gets killed (but not eaten).  Pip turns out to be a fraud. Michael sings a sappy song. The repurposed asshole turns out to be David. 

For us, Act Two wastes some terrific acting, especially by Karen Offereins and Hillary Hesse. The show looks really good on stage and the ensemble cast is excellent. Act One seems ready to fly but, for us, Act Two lays a bit of an egg.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division still grants "How to Transcend a Happy Marriage" THREE STARS because of the very entertaining First Act. This places it above the Mendoza line (see sidebar for explanation of ratings). Audiences seem to be loving the show and Custom Made has been able to extend the run. Perhaps they can tweak Act Two. We hope so.

"How to Transcend a Happy Marriage"
Custom Made Theatre
533 Sutter St., San Francisco
EXTENDED through Feb 16

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Mimi's Suitcase ☼ ☼ ☼

Ana Bayat speaks many languages. In her one-woman show "Mimi's Suitcase," she gives us Farsi, Spanish, French, American and Cockney English, depending on where her peripatetic story has taken her. For us, Ms. Bayat has a winning stage presence that bodes well for a career to follow. If "Mimi's Suitcase" still has moments where it feels like a work-in-progress, there are other moments that make us smile in recognition.

Imagine a world led and policed by bearded, religious fanatics who tell you how to dress, how to behave, where to go and with whom. Then imagine being a young teenage girl who has grown up in the freedom of modern-day Barcelona, then has to deal with life in Iran when she is taken back to her native country by a self-centered and oblivious father.

This is a theme we see over and over in stories about modern Iran: A father who cannot see how restrictive life is for the women in his family. We never understand how any man would bring a wife or a daughter back into that country.

We learn how teenage girls in Tehran figured out ways around the restrictions on their lives. We loved Farhad, the Clandestine Video Guy, who managed to smuggle Western videos into Mimi's apartment. We also enjoyed how the hated headscarf could be tweaked to actually display a bit of independence. And don't forget the well-dressed Persian psychic whose roof had been blown off during the Iraq-Iran war.

But these are bits. We want more. Ms Bayat has not decided whether Mimi's story is a comedy or a drama. With the help of overhead projections we are made aware of recent Persian history, but none of it is personal. With one person on stage, we want more facts. What happens at the ending, for example? Simply lying down on a blackened stage tells us little.

We understand Ms. Bayat and so many others of her generation suffered greatly from politics, from religion and from war. But how did it affect her? She shows us disdain for her homeland, which appears to be well-deserved, but we never learn anything except the most superficial things about her, about her father, her family, her career.

Ana Bayat is a very solid actor. As a writer, she has the chance to dig deeper into that suitcase and take us with her, which is where we want to go.


The San Francisco Theater Blog grants "Mimi's Suitcase" Three Stars. The show is well worth seeing. Ana Bayat has a true gift for languages -- now let us hear her real story, not just the one that currently works better on a small stage.

"Mimi's Suitcase"
The Theater of Yugen
2840 Mariposa Street, San Francisco
Four Nights ONLY, through January 25.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Noura ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Heather Raffo's "Noura" is a drama whose story cuts straight to the heart. Noura is an Iraqi refugee woman living in New York with her husband Tareq and small boy Yazen. She is slowly losing her mind over this unanswerable question: “How do I hold on and let go at the same time?”

This is the ultimate issue for any refugee. How do you keep what is truly irreplaceable from your old life while still trying desperately to fit in to a brand new one? And what if you left because that old world had become impossibly toxic and dangerous for you and your family?

Noura and her family are Christians who have emigrated from Mosul. After eight years, they have finally received their American passports: they are now Tim, Nora and Alex. They have a Play Station. They are Americans.

But then Noura's distant relative, Maryam, an unmarried young woman who is six months pregnant, shows up in the apartment. Her unwed pregnancy unleashes old-world indignation from Noura and the rest of her family. Even as this young woman explains that everyone she ever knew in Mosul has been murdered by ISIS, including her parents and the rest of her family, that they have even slit the throats of the nuns in the convent where Maryam had taken refuge, even as she tells Noura of all these horrors that have made her cling to her unborn baby as the only thing she has left to love and fight for, the attitudes of the Iraqi men in the New York apartment will never change. She is pregnant with no husband. She must be a slut.

Denmo Ibrahim plays Noura. Like everyone else, she has a secret. Maryam (Maya Nazzal) is involved. Both Tareq (Mattico David) and their oldest friend from home Rafa'a (Abraham Makany) are perplexed about what to do. Plus, they are holding onto secrets as well. 

The show is full of surprises observed by Noura. When Maryam does not want tea, Noura asks, "Who can talk without tea?" She tells Maryam about the beauty of snow: "For once, no one notices you." There is a breathtaking scene where Noura layers a traditional head covering on her son. She does it slowly, with patience and grace. Not a pin drops in the audience during this entire scene.

What must we hold on to? What must we give up? This is a question for us all.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The ending could be pared down some, but this is a show for everyone to see. The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Noura" Four Stars. We loved it. It will make you look at the world a little differently.

Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED through Feb. 9