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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Pianist of Willesden Lane: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"The Pianist of Willesden Lane" has everything: glorious music, terrible Nazis, a well-meaning heroine, an interesting historical setting and, towering above all this, Bach. Beethoven, Debussy, Scriabin and Grieg.

But there is one niggle. Solo performer and co-writer Mona Golabek is brilliant while she is sitting at the piano, but somewhat less so when not. Her monologues are mannered. Golabek plays piano with a fire that, if transferred to her storytelling, would boost her show to another level.

Regardless, "Willesden Lane" is a joy, because we get long sections of spectacular pianism. We would recommend the show to anyone who wants to grab a feeling of what this musical canon has provided for so many generations of people. Yes, you will cry. Yes, you will leave the theater humming the beginning to Ode to Joy. Yes, you will feel lifted, as have audiences around the world, where the show has played to sellout crowds and standing ovations. Yes, they are making a movie.

And yes, says the San Francisco Theater Blog's resident curmudgeon, me. It could still be much more.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Pianist of Willesden Lane" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Mona Golabek's musicianship earns three stars all by herself. She earns a BANGLE for the way she played Claire de Lune with such grace while never stopping her narration. And we loved the segment where she plays along to an old film clip of Dame Myra Hess. Very touching stuff.

Sometimes, a show feels smaller than its venue. "Willesden Lane" makes us long for a small cabaret and a performer not forced to walk up and down artificial stage constructs in order to fill up space. Every moment away from the piano for Mona Golabek is a moment wasted.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA
EXTENDED through Feb. 16