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