Sunday, May 15, 2022

MONUMENT, OR FOUR SISTERS (THE SLOTH PLAY) ★★★★




Springtime, 2022. In our measured emergence from  the Pandemic, we find ourselves searching for nuance instead of pat answers, and at the same time we need to understand the great, existential issues facing slothkind. Humankind. Whatever.

Author Sam Chanse has given us a remarkable story, a journey through time, space, relationships, maybe the end of the world, maybe not.


We meet four sisters. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart plays Amy, the scientist who studies corals. Corals are bleaching and dying. Amy's sister Mac (Sango Tajima) has moved in with Amy "temporarily," as she recovers from an issue with an ex-boss.


Meanwhile, sister Constance (Rinabeth Apostol), a writer and producer of an animated TV series for children, is fighting with her all-white-all-male co-writers to be less patronizing to women and minorities. The show's cartoon characters are all male sloths, except for one female Superhero sloth. We'll get to her in a minute. 


The fourth sister, Lena is only spoken about, never seen. Her absence and silence is upsetting to the other three.

But we do see Lena as Magdalena, the Superhero Sloth, in a red skirt and motorbike, when the ensemble of four act out episodes of Constance's show, to our great delight, both on stage and in a deliciously cool video backdrop. 


We can't tell you how you're going to feel when the curtain comes down. The corals are dying, the earth is overheating and all relationships end up badly. Men suck, but they perform a function. So do algae in sloth poop. 

On the other hand, the earth can renew itself, sloths know how to attract the proper microbes and sisters, in the end, will always be sisters. 

For me, the message is hopeful.  But I've been in my house for two years.

----


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Monument (or Four Sisters (The Sloth Play)" FOUR STARS.  This is a high rating for a show no one should miss. Very special shout-outs to Video Designer Sarah Phykitt and Costume Designer Michelle Mullholland. This show and these actors will stick with you.


"Monument, or Four Sisters (The Sloth Play)"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D.
Through May 29, 2022
$20-$70

 

Friday, May 13, 2022

THE PAPER DREAMS OF HARRY CHIN ★★★ BANGLE

 

"I think you are something else, Harry Chin," says his ghost wife, Laura. Harry is more than she can ever grasp. Because of the American Chinese Exclusion Act, the young Leong Cheung Yu has become Harry Chin, a Paper Son, one who has purchased a new identity and history in order to deceive American customs agents into allowing him into the United States. He can never acknowledge the families he has left behind, neither his real parents nor the lives of his Chinese wife and daughter. This was, and is, the origin of countless Chinese in America today, who are the descendants of true Paper Sons. 


Poor Harry (Jomar Tagatac). All he loves to do is cook. But his past ghosts keep appearing. Sometimes they throw a shoe into his wok, to the consternation of his boss (Michael Torres). Sometimes they remind him of Poet (Will Dao), his shipmate on the voyage over, who was unable to successfully memorize his fake identification and never made it past the internment, most likely on Angel Island. As Poet says, "Time flies when you're in a windowless box."



Author Jessica Huang throws out zingers, as well as giving us a window into immigration history that many have forgotten and some still choose to ignore today.

Act One gives us a surreal summary of Harry's past life, interspersed with the present, and Act Two becomes his chance for redemption. The ending is strong, as Laura (a ghostly Carrie Paff) says, "Lucky me." 

Harry answers: "Lucky me too." 

Special mention for the excellent set design by Christopher Fitzer. The two hour run time (one intermission) flies by seamlessly. 

-----

★★★ BANGLE


 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin" THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE. 

The show and entire cast deserve the Three Stars and the Bangle is for the fabulous monologue at the beginning of Act Two by Michael Torres. When he says, Look at me! I was José. Now I'm John!," we can easily grasp what awaits our so-likeable Harry Chin.



"The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin"

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St. San Francisco

(2d Floor of Kensington Hotel)

Through June 18, 2022 

$30-$50

Monday, April 25, 2022

THE INCREMENTALIST ★★





The acting in Cleavon Smith's "The Incrementalist" is first-rate. Each of the four characters has an important role to play and all are central to the show's theme. Sam Jackson as firebrand Raz, Anna Marie Sharpe as Raz's girlfriend Miriam, Cathleen Riddley as Nina, the college administrator and Michale J. Asberry as Thomas, a successful author chosen by Nina to try and quell student unrest, gets a moment to shine. The ensemble work between Jackson and Sharpe is especially fun to watch. Judging by audience reaction at the World Premiere on April 21 at the Aurora, the show may have a successful future.



Be prepared, however: the Aurora's audience sits in a U. The dialogue between the two younger women is difficult to understand, especially if you are seated, as we were, on one of the two sides. We heard a lot of muffled uptempo exchanges as we stared at the actors' backs. Often, an inaudible line (for us) brought forth laughter from the audience, or even "Uh huh! That's right!" We advise getting seats in the middle of the U. 

There are problems. The show is long, short on action and overly talky, especially in Act Two where the author attempts to tie together loose ends, but instead just confuses everything that came before. We will not give away any plot points here, but...really? Nina is...who? Raz...what?




The overarching issue, of the constant struggle between moving forward incrementally ("Incrementalism") and tossing out the present to start over ("Revolution"), has not changed since the first politicians crawled out from the prehistoric muck. Those who have will always resist the urgings of those who don't. And everyone has a price.  Author Smith seems to be telling us that Incrementalism is fine as long as the payoff is large enough. 



★★

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Incrementalist" TWO STARS. We understand that a World Premiere means just that -- the show is brand new. Change will come, incrementally to be sure. The show's premise is strong. Now, let's breathe some more life into the motivations of the characters. 



The Incrementalist
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Through May 15, 2022
$44-$53

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Water By The Spoonful

 Addiction is not an uplifting topic, but Quiara Alegría Hudes's "Water by the Spoonful" shows us how people can choose to cope with a difficult situation. An Addicts Hotline, hosted by Haikumom, an ex-Junkie whose real name is Odessa Ortiz (Lisa Ramirez), keeps hope alive for fellow long-distance addicts Orangutan (Sango Tajima), Chutes&Ladders (Dorian Lockett) and Fountainhead (Ben Euphrat). The idea is to call in whenever you feel the need to use your drug of choice, and instead talk with the others about it until your craving goes away. As Chutes&Ladders tells Orangutan, "A sober day for you is a sober day for me."



At the same time, Haikumom's son Elliot Ortiz and cousin Yazmin Ortiz (Xander DeAngeles and Lara Maria) are having trouble raising enough money to buy flowers for the funeral of an elderly cousin, whose relationship to the others takes awhile to clear up. Elliot is a Vietnam vet haunted by an Arab ghost (Salim Razawi) and Yazmin is the one responsible for keeping things together.


Elliot is hard to figure. He is both angry and haunted, qualities the author assumes we will accept since he is an ex-Marine who fought in combat. We wish Elliot would give us something besides anger. His scene in Act Two with his mother's computer is just too evil. It's hard to pull for this man. 


Chutes&Ladders 's way of coping with his addiction is to take no chances. He works as an IRS functionary and will have nothing to do with Orangutan's need to have him fly to Japan to meet her in the flesh. "Stay in the Box," he says, so there can be no unpleasant surprises. His and Orangutan's relationship feels honest and is the emotional center of the show.



We are totally on board until intermission. Act 2 runs long, however, as the director and author attempt to tie up loose ends and the acting gets a little frenetic. 

We really like Ben Euphrat.



RATINGS: Two Stars with a Bangle of Praise

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Water by the Spoonful" Two Stars with a Bangle of Praise (See sidebar for explanation of ratings.) The performance we saw started very strong but by the end lacked emotional impact, probably due to its length.


"Water By the Spoonful"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco
2d floor of Kensington Hotel
Through April 23
$30-$100








Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Dan Hoyle: Talk to Your People



I love my couch, but it's really nice to be back live in a real theater. Excitement is in the air. We have seen quite a few Dan Hoyle shows over the years and the thought of experiencing his newest, "Talk to Your People," has filled us with anticipation. We feel no pain, even in the Marsh's unintentional bucket seats. The theater tapes a piece of paper to the red seatbacks with the names of the people displayed who will be filling them. I see lots of fellow reviewers' names, plus a whole lot of Hoyles. Dan's a brilliant performer and he's also a local guy. We're back. 




The Dan Hoyle formula is to tell a story through various characters. This time, however, as he explains in a jaw-dropping opening rap, his subject is not Nigerians, nor women, nor minorities, nor random folks he has interviewed in his earlier shows, but, instead, the people we are told are "his people": White people from Oakland.

But there are potholes in this road. For a white performer, talking about white people is not a simple subject, even when you are playing to an Opening Night audience at the Marsh, which is, at best, light beige. People may misconstrue what you are saying. Reviewers might too,

One of these potholes is that you can't talk about white people without talking about Black people and/or Asians and/or Latinos. All but one of Hoyle's characters are white, and that one is an Argentinian techie who is also white except that he gets to check the LATINO box. And if you are going to make a big deal out of these people being "your people," it would be better to choose people with more interesting stories to tell. 


It is hard to differentiate one character from the other, which is probably the crux of our niggling. We have seen Dan Hoyle pour himself into his characters to the point that they have become real to us. He is a gifted physical comedian. This time, however, he doesn't seem to be trying all that hard. There is no center to the show, except for one young white man interviewing other young white men, seemingly at random.

We loved the concept of "Strategic Self-Sacrifice," in the bit about a young man trying to figure out how to support his brain-dead boss on a Zoom call. We also loved Hoyle's comparison of the '90s, when we thought we were all the same down deep, to now, when even thinking this thought would get us shouted down as elitists on Twitter.

Hoyle uses home movies as a backdrop during character and clothing changes, as well as interesting musical interludes. The music works. The home movies mostly involve shots of his daughter, who is charming, but we are not sure what she has to do with the concepts of privilege and cancel culture.

Perhaps times have changed since Covid. But maybe they haven't -- it is still about story, characters, performance, growth. For us, "Talk to Your People" is not primo Dan Hoyle...at least, not yet.




                                                RATINGS: TWO STARS

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Dan Hoyle: Talk To Your People" TWO STARS. It is a new show and will obviously be refined during the run. It will be good to see if Hoyle chooses to add characters or perhaps give a more cohesive connection to those he portrays. 

                    "Dan Hoyle: Talk To Your People"
                                        The Marsh
                    1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
                                    Through April 16
                                          $25-$35