Thursday, September 29, 2016

"The Trump Card" at Shotgun Players

Photo of Mike Daisey from
I suppose it was inevitable, really. Monologist Mike Daisey has performed monologues about some of the greatest megalomaniacs in history (his series "Great Men of Genius" played at Berkeley Rep several years ago). And he's also been pilloried for stretching the truth (as story tellers are wont to do). So as he notes in "The Trump Card," it's kind of a miracle that he hasn't already done a monologue about Donald Trump.

But here he was, Tuesday night, at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, at the confluence of a bunch of events. The Shotgun Players are in the middle of a run of Christopher Chen's play "Caught," which was inspired at least in part by the kerfuffle with Daisey on NPR when his piece about Steve Jobs and Apple was adapted for "This American Life." And apparently Mr. Trump is running for president. And Daisey is doing a tour of his Trump monologue, so it's only fitting that he'd sweep into town for two quick shows.


I should note that I blogged several times about Daisey and the fuss with NPR back when it happened in early 2012. I think the most interesting piece is this one, because it both discusses the outcome of the show and links to several other commentaries. I won't go into detail here, since I've already written about it.

But Trump and Daisey is kind of an irresistible combination. Big, loud, guys from New York who don't just march to their own drummers, they are their own drummers.

I first became aware of Mike Daisey and his work when he came to Berkeley with his monologue (which was also published in book form), "21 Dog Years," about working in customer service for during the dot-com boom. We've since seen a number of his other pieces, including the controversial one about Apple. I like the fact that Daisey is always entertaining and thought-provoking, and because he has a very theatrical take on the ancient art of story telling.

The Art of the Story

Indeed, rereading my pieces from several years ago about the NPR controversy, what strikes me is that my favorite parts dealt with the role of story telling in general. Stories are the basis of culture, but also the basis of communication. We perhaps like to think we communicate with facts and ideas, but it is in fact stories that tie those together and enable human minds to absorb them.

Which (finally) brings me back to "The Trump Card." Daisey makes clear from the get-go that he is a story teller, a monologist, and a theater person, so he is, by his own admission, a professional liar. Now maybe that's just a clever disclaimer to ward off the hounds at NPR, but it also establishes his bona fides, because if it takes one to know one, he certainly recognized the professional liar and performer in Donald Trump.

He walks us through the history of the Trump family, most of which is probably familiar to anyone who has been paying attention for the last year or two. We get the stories of Trump's father, Fred, the slum lord and racist who was known for never paying people what they were owed. It becomes quite clear that the fruit didn't fall far from the tree. But always, Trump is telling his story, his version of "reality."

The Game

Among my favorite bits in the monologue is the description of Daisey hosting a big party, serving (fake) Trump Steaks to his friends while they play "Trump: The Game," which is, he says, like Monopoly for dogs. It sounds like a mind-numbingly awful game, but it also speaks volumes about the eponymous brand.

The Characters

In addition to the Trumps, of course, we also get to hear about Trump's longtime lawyer and advisor, Roy Cohn. That's pretty chilling stuff, but again, not so new.

I thought my favorite insight was when Daisey mentioned that as a monologist, he has spent much of his career developing and honing the character he plays on stage every night, "Mike Daisey." Because he says that's just what Trump has spent basically his entire career doing, too, at least since his businesses all pretty much tanked in the 1990s. It's all one long "reality" show, where Donald Trump plays the role of "Donald Trump."

And this might be the most useful insight: the fact that, no matter how much we think we know about Donald Trump, we really only know "Donald Trump." How much that distinction matters is left as an exercise for the reader, but Daisey makes it clear from the outset that we are all in deep trouble. And he also makes clear that even if "Donald Trump" is vanquished (or at least, defeated at the polls), we will eventually encounter someone who plays the role even better, and there the real trouble sets in.

The Script

I should note that if you can't get to see Daisey do the monologue, you can at least read it. You can download the whole thing here. In fact, you can read it out loud, if you like: It's open sourced. You, too, can play the role of "Mike Daisey" if you like. He has also released the script for "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" the same way.

If you're interested, a lot of his work is also recorded and available as a podcast, "All Stories are Fiction". It's all explained on his website.

The Evaluation

Obviously, this is a very timely work, which is why Daisey is on a whirlwind tour between now and the election. And it's clearly a work he cares a lot about. At over two hours, it's a bit long, and somewhat repetitive. It strikes me that this might be the first show I've seen since Daisey split with his wife, who used to direct and co-create a lot of his work. That might account for some of the difference. It's good, but not really his best work.

I'll drop a link here to a review of some earlier workshop performances of the piece in Washington, DC, last summer. It probably gives a better flavor of the actual content of the show.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"King Charles III" at ACT

ACT is the biggest fish in the Bay Area Theater pond, and since it's their 50th season, they've pulled out a lot of stops to make it a smash. One of the big "gets" for them this year was landing the rights to produce Mike Bartlett's play "King Charles III". I've been quite interested to see this play every since I first heard about it, but I didn't get the chance to see it either in London or New York.

So here it is in San Francisco. And it's an impressive piece: an elaborate (though not too complex) set, terrific lighting, a notable song to start things off. And good acting on the whole.

The Writing

I won't go into elaborate detail here, because much has already been written about this play in the local press. It's an impressive work, written in a style that is both reminiscent of Shakespeare and still quite modern. To call it a huge undertaking is perhaps an understatement: not only does it address issues of contemporary importance, but it does so using characters who are relatively well known. A contemporary audience will be more sensitive to the accurate portrayal of the current royal family than they might be to some nuance of a long-dead predecessor.

The play begins with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, meaning Prince Charles becomes King Charles. Nothing special there, until Charles unexpectedly starts to display some backbone and insists on asserting some royal perquisites long dismissed as ceremonial formalities. The resulting conflict ignites the long-simmering issue of the role of monarchy in a democratic society.

Indeed, this subject matter, rather than the writing style, is where this piece is most Shakespearean. Shakespeare's "history plays" show in dramatic form, how monarchy and succession and the machinations behind them shape the fate of nations and individuals. Although set in the historical past, the plays touch on issues relevant to Shakespeare's own time, allowing discussion of issues of immediate and personal significance with the supposed detachment of history.

The Conflict

The conflict in "King Charles" comes clearly to the fore: Charles objects to a bill passed by Parliament that regulates the press as regards privacy. Even though the press has not treated Charles and his family kindly or fairly, he feels that upholding the tradition of a free press is more important than protecting his own family's privacy. But ironically, in order to uphold that tradition, he has to break with another, that of ceremonially approving all bills passed by Parliament.

This puts the king squarely in conflict with Parliament (and particularly the Prime Minister). Should Parliament allow what is essentially a veto by the king, or should they go for what Americans might term "the nuclear option" and do away with the royal stamp of approval?

The Production

All of this comes with an overlay of Charles adjusting to the notion of assuming the throne. It's clear that on some level, though he has been preparing to be king all his life, he rather expected his mother to live (and rule) "forever," so his role was always more theoretical than real to him.

Really, it's here that I have my biggest issue with this production. Director David Muse has chosen to portray Charles as dithering and almost comically ineffectual, yet stubbornly set on this one issue to the point of alienating essentially the entire country. And here we come into conflict with both the text of the play (I don't think it really supports this interpretation) and with the popular perception of the real Prince Charles. One could easily portray Charles as being put off his game a bit by the death of his mother and all the changes that entails in his life without making him goofy.

That said, Robert Joy's portrayal of Charles is otherwise quite good, and his surrounding cast is quite strong. Ian Merrill Peakes as the Prime Minister is especially strong, along with Christopher McLinden and Allison Jean White as William and Kate.

The Subplot

There is a subplot running through the show that manages to highlight some excellent performances. Unfortunately, it's never really resolved in a meaningful way. Prince Harry doesn't want to be a prince anymore. He'd rather run around with a commoner, Jessica (played wonderfully by Michelle Beck). That part's not really news to anyone, really just the degree of his desire. Unfortunately, in the production I saw, Harry Smith as Prince Harry didn't seem particularly engaged in the role. His was probably the least convincing of the portrayals in the play. Indeed, most of the interactions between Harry and Jessica happen offstage, so we never really get to see why this relationship is so compelling.

This is a case where I feel like Bartlett has bitten off more than his play can chew. He relies on the audience knowing Harry's reputation as a playboy, but gives no reason why this one particular girl is the one who makes him want to toss it all. If we're going to go all "Prince Hal" with this, then we need a Falstaff and the rest of the crew. We need a reason for Harry to make a life choice, other than he was dissolute until he met Jess.

Ultimately, I felt like this needs to be more than one play. We need more backstory on several of the characters, and more development of some of the key characters (like Harry) in the story. Camilla is almost a non-entity, and that seems wrong. And it occurs to me that Prince Andrew (Charles's brother) really ought to be around at some point. Basically, so much has had to be trimmed to fit the whole story into one play, it feels like parts are just missing.

The Conclusion (mine)

I like the play. If this critique seems overly critical, it's probably because there is so much good there that it makes me want to correct the relatively small number of weak points. I admire the playwright for undertaking such a task, and for producing such an effective piece of theater. Similarly, the ACT production is so good on so many levels that I just want to smooth out a few bumpy bits.

All in all, it's nice to see a literate and ambitious take on a question as important as the roles of monarchy and democracy (and a free press and personal privacy) in modern society. How do we refashion our historical institutions to match the needs of a modern society? How much should the individual holder of a given office affect the boundaries of that office? All kinds of good questions, and it's great to see them being addressed at all. The fact that it's overall done well is an extra blessing.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

"Dear Master" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora photo by David Allen
I hadn't realized it until this week, but I guess there is a genre of plays that derive from the correspondence of writers. A few years back I thought Berkeley Rep did a really nice job with Sarah Ruhl's "Dear Elizabeth," which came from the ongoing correspondence between poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Lowell. Just this week I saw a reference to a reading that ACT will be doing in a couple of weeks of Jerome Kilty's "Dear Liar," based on correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell.

And to complete the "Dear X" theme, tonight we saw Aurora's revival of "Dear Master" by Dorothy Bryant. Leading off Aurora's 25th anniversary season, they've gone back to the very first production of their first season, by a local writer. So now I know that correspondence plays are a thing. Go figure.

The Play

The difficulty of these plays, of course, is that the characters are interacting, but at a distance. Director Joy Carlin has staged the play such that each character, inhabiting their respective studios, faces  the other when writing or reading at their desk, and they often step away from the desk, usually toward the other, so you do get a sense that the dialogue happens in something like real time, though in fact days (at least) must pass between the writing and the reading.

It's nicely handled, with the first few exchanges taking place with a character actually writing on paper, and the other reading a page at the same time. Once we have that idea established, they drop that conceit and move and speak a bit more naturally.

So what we have in "Dear Master" is correspondence between two French writers of the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert (Michael Ray Wisely) and George Sand (Kimberly King), and as you might expect, much of the discussion is about writing and writers, but topics range broadly over love and family life, politics and revolution, and all sorts of matters large and small. Given that I had only cursory knowledge of either writer coming in, they managed to portray both (and especially Sand) as deep, complex, and fascinating.

The Production

The intimate setting of Aurora's stage provides an ideal setting for such an intimate play, so although the characters are "conversing" at a distance, the audience is right there, often closer to the speaker than the other character is. That's generally great, though it must be extra frustrating for the actors when someone in the front row nods off, as happened more than once tonight, sad to say.

The pacing is well done, however, and the 90-minute (no intermission) play holds interest throughout. The staging itself is necessarily pretty simple: each writer has a desk and chair in a period-appropriate style. Each also has a small living space with a sofa or chaise longue that provides another place to settle, though unfortunately with backs turned to the audience. The desks, at the corners, do a better job of maintaining sight lines.

I thought a particularly nice touch was the use of characters leaving the stage at times, representing points when they had to disengage from the discussion because of other events in their lives. With the remaining character sending repeated inquiries as to why no response is forthcoming, it gives a good feel for the difficulty of maintaining a long correspondence, and also reminds the audience that despite the theatrical presentation, this discussion really did take place over long distance and time.


I enjoyed the production. I thought it was a good insight into both the lives of two rather isolated intellectuals in mid-19th century France, as well as illustrating the importance of correspondence in developing and maintaining a lively life of the mind.

I have to say, it also really made me want to see a play about Ivan Turgenev, who is frequently mentioned as a mutual friend of both writers, providing a nice bridge to other works, notably Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia," in which Turgenev is sort of a vagabond friend to all the intelligentsia. It seems as if a play that actually centered on him could be a lot of fun, as nearly every other European intellectual of the time would pass through.

All in all, it's a good play and worth seeing. The acting is quite good, and the production is fine. Not spectacular, but a comfortable and thought-provoking evening.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Reading: "Cherokee" at Shotgun Players

The fourth of six plays in Shotgun's Champagne Reading Series was this week, Lisa D'Amour's play "Cherokee". I'd been looking forward to this one for a while, because I had read the script a couple of years ago, and I understood that it had been produced, workshopped, and changed since then.

[And of course, the obligatory disclaimer: I am a production sponsor for the reading series as well as a board member at Shotgun.]

The Play

One reason I thought this would work well as a reading is that it's not complex in its setting. Most of it takes place in a campground in North Carolina, so atmosphere is probably more important than set design per se. And it's a small cast, so you don't need distractions.

So, two married city couples go camping. They anticipate that getting away will help them find some new paths. One character explicitly spells out what she hopes everyone will get from the experience. Needless to say, what they get is not what they expected.

Along the way, one of the campers goes missing, and a local part-Cherokee who works at the nearby casino shows up and facilitates their inner journeys. Much introspection ensues, and at some point or other, each character finds (or reveals) some part of them that perhaps they were not even aware of.

One of the fun aspects of the play is the way it injects aspects of theater into the play itself, not only with an actual play taking place inside the play, but also with some theatrical and improvisational exercises worked into the plot. There is good use of a "Yes, and..." exercise.

The Reading

I always have enormous respect for these staged reading teams. Over a very short period, with little chance to reflect or rehearse, they put together a very credible interpretation of a play. And this one is rather longer than a lot of the plays in the series, clocking in well over two hours, plus an intermission. But it didn't seem long.

For whatever reason, this show had a bit less polish than some of the others in the series. Might be the greater length, or cast members having less free time to work on the script. But it definitely worked. I can see where a fully-realized production might bring out some nuances that one can only anticipate from the reading. Some of the interpersonal interactions could be very revealing, but there certainly wasn't time to develop that kind of depth.

All the actors were good. I thought Sam Jackson as Traci and Algiin Ford as Mike definitely seemed the most comfortable in their roles. Rebecca Castelli as Janine was a special treat, as she has taught several youth classes that my daughter was in, and I hadn't realized she was going to be acting in this production. It was neat for us to see her working in a whole different context.

Ultimately, while everyone in the play gets to explore and discover new aspects of their identities, they will ultimately take their own paths. For some the "Yes, and..." is "Yes, and I will keep doing this," and for others it's "Yes, and I'm going home." I liked that.

The Season

During the talk-back session after the reading, there were quite a few good takes on the play and the material. There was a fair amount of allusion to Shotgun's production of "Caught," which is currently running. The Reading Series directors deliberately choose plays that work with similar or complementary themes and subjects to the corresponding main-stage productions.

And for the first time, I think I saw the thread that ties the whole season, main stage and readings, together. All the plays deal with discovering and experimenting with identities and roles, both internal and societal, and how one can change those or choose not to. And of course, lots of exploration of how those identities and roles are presented (or hidden).

It's been a good season of these explorations, with more to come, and of course, all the main stage productions will soon be back, running in repertory, so there will be lots of chances to compare and contrast and look for new themes.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Reading: "The Island" at TheatreFIRST

I'm not going to go into great detail about the reading I went to tonight. It was a benefit fundraiser for TheatreFIRST, kind of kicking off their new regime. But it is worth talking about the reading, too.

The Reading

This was a staged reading of Athol Fugard's 1973 anti-apartheid play, "The Island," with Carl Lumbly and Danny Glover recreating the roles they played in a full production of the play in 1977, this time under the direction of Delroy Lindo. The reading itself was fairly unspectacular, a very simple staging, and the actors with scripts in hand. But the power of the play came through to the packed house, and the star power on stage helped to pack the house in the first place.

Without going into too much detail, the play chronicles a slice of the lives of two black political prisoners in South Africa under the apartheid regime, and among the things they do is work on a two-man version of the trial of Antigone for a kind of prisoner talent show. For much of the play, this seems ridiculous, and the humor is used to good effect, but when it comes to actually performing it, the true subversive nature of the play comes through. The message of the disconnect between the legal and the just, the law of man and the law of god, resonates with these victims of apartheid.

So that was really cool, and the talk-back session afterward with the two actors (plus local actor Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, who read the stage directions during the reading) and the director was fascinating and wide-ranging over topics of art, politics, and social justice.

But all of this is really about promoting...

The Company

New Artistic Director Jon Tracy made no bones about this being a shameless ploy to attract money for the new direction of the TheatreFIRST company, but he made it well worthwhile by using the reading to provide an example of what TheatreFIRST is going to be about.

You can read all the details and mission statements and such at the TheatreFIRST website, but suffice it to say here that TheatreFIRST's new direction involves including a diverse body of artists at all points: artists, company, staff, board, etc., and creating new works written, directed, and performed by those artists and others locally. They aim to tell stories that don't normally get told, using artists that might not otherwise get heard and seen.

It's a very ambitious undertaking, and my description probably doesn't do it justice. But for all the talk of diversity and inclusion in theater (or mostly, about the lack thereof), this company intends to put their money where their mouth is.

I'm kind of excited to see what will come of this endeavor. They have grand ideas, and a lot of support from within the theater community. The proof will be in how they are accepted by the theater consumers, and how well they are able to expand that audience to include more people who, like many theater makers, are currently unrepresented or simply not present in any meaningful numbers.

Stay tuned. It's always exciting to see what happens when big ideas get a real try-out.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"August: Osage County" at Marin Theatre Company

Marin Theatre Company photo by Kevin Berne
I have been looking forward to this production ever since Marin Theatre Company announced its season. "August: Osage County" by Tracy Letts is a terrific play, and one my family and I enjoyed very much when it was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2011. It's always tough to live up to a comparison like that, but I think I've got an open mind on the subject.

Quick summary of my reaction: I think they did a terrific job. It's a really strong start to their season, and a solid production all around. The show looks great--wonderful design work. And the cast does a good job. I have a few issues with some of the directorial choices, but overall, I quite liked the show.

Quick Roundup

"August: Osage County" was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003, and has been a very popular play ever since. It's a story about a dysfunctional family headed by an alcoholic and a pill-popper, so you know it's going to be a wild ride. Will Marchetti as Beverly gets the play off to a very strong start with his opening scene, filling us in on the dynamics of his marriage with frequent references to his favorite poets. Beverly is a poet himself, as we shall see later in the play.

As we gradually meet the family, Beverly's wife, Violet, and her sister, Mattie Fae (really well played by Anne Darragh) and her husband, Charlie, then the Weston Girls (the three daughters of Beverly and Violet) and their men, we come to see the dysfunction that is the center of the play. And there is plenty of that to go around. Between substance abuse, emotional distance and neediness, and a good helping of small-town life, pretty much everyone has something demonstrably wrong with them, and the interactions take off.

Setting the Stage

Before I comment on the play, I need to enlarge on my earlier comment about the design work. I really like the way they've set this play. All the action takes place in the Weston family house, and I was interested to see how Marin would create this setting in their fairly intimate theater. The answer is that the entire stage is a house: you see the framing of the whole thing, which is quite brilliant. The centerpiece of the house is a huge, slanted table, where everyone will eventually sit for a big dinner. Given that the theater isn't very high, nor the seats raked steeply, the designers have cleverly made the whole table visible by making it the steep slope, and seating the actors accordingly. It's a wonderful way to make the whole family visible to the audience.

And I should add that when you enter the theater, you smell the wood, which helps the house to dominate the environment. In many ways the house is a big character in the play.

Similarly, because the stage is static and without a curtain, lighting is critical, and the lighting design and execution are really good. Characters kind of appear out of the dark as needed, and background characters often appear as silhouettes against various shaded back lights. It's an intricate and well done system that creates the ambiance nicely.

A Few Nits to Pick

I do have a few issues with the production. I remember the play as being funnier. I'm not clear whether it was a conscious choice by the director or perhaps just a really unresponsive audience this afternoon, but I wasn't getting a lot of the humor that is in the text. Admittedly, the family situation is bleak, but the humor (ranging from some just mildly ironic lines to some outright surreal stuff) really helps to both relieve the otherwise unrelenting awfulness of many of the events and characters, and perhaps more importantly, it humanizes and rounds the characters. I gather the movie version of this show (which I did not see) was almost entirely humorless. This production has some, but definitely not as much as I remember. Even when the audience laughs, you get the feeling the characters either can't or won't, and it seems a bit wrong.

The other bit that struck me as a bit off is a little harder to put my finger on. Ultimately, I think most of the characters just seem a bit too well. For all the years of emotional and substance abuse, everyone seems outwardly pretty OK, and that feels wrong, especially when it comes to Violet. She sort of bounces inexplicably between a pill-induced stupor and perfect lucidity. I'm OK with the character having those extremes, but Sherman Fracher's portrayal of Violet mostly seems too vigorous, and her daughters, for all their issues, seem a bit too healthy throughout.

Go See It

Even with those little caveats, it's a strong production of a good piece of writing, and well worth seeing. It's an excellent example of good stagecraft, and there are some very good performances.

Friday, September 9, 2016

"Caught" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Pak Han
I've been pondering what to write about "Caught" by Christopher Chen ever since last week, when I saw the first preview, knowing that I should probably wait until the show had officially opened before really digging in. But there is also a distinct reluctance to write about it at all because...

Spoiler Alert

It's not clear to me that you can say anything meaningful about this play without giving away important information that will at some level, spoil some of the fun and value of the play. So, let me start out with a recommendation that if you are interested at all, just stop reading and go see it, then join the discussion afterward, because you will be thinking about things and want to talk about them.

In fairness, I will say that I refused to talk to anyone in my family about the substance of the play, except to provide some very cursory information about the broad subject matter, and they have now thanked me for that.

So, you're forewarned. Read on at your own risk.

The Play

I suppose it is fair to say this is a play about truth, or at least about what one perceives or believes to be true, and why. And it's also about art and artists and authority figures. And it's about questions.

And if you think that's vague, you ain't seen nothing yet! The show starts in an art gallery, or at least, an art exhibit, with a program and curation and all that. And a talk by the Chinese artist.

And as the artist talks, he gradually undercuts just about everything you think you know about art and artists and China. Get used to that: pretty much everything you think you understand in the play is going to get some kind of rug pulled out from under it.

Chen's writing is clever and precise, wandering into interesting corners just long enough for you to realize they aren't corners at all. At some level, no one you see is really what they seem to be. That sounds much easier to pull off than it is, but the cast does a terrific job of it (and this has improved greatly over the last week, so I'm glad I waited to write about it).

The Production

Turning the Ashby Stage into an art gallery is no mean feat, especially when it will also have to serve as office space and some other settings later in the show. And I can only imagine the machinations that will be involved when the show joins in the rest of Shotgun's repertory season later in the year! Suffice it to say that director Susannah Martin and the designers have done a terrific job of taking the space they have and turning it into the space they need. It's rather disorienting to those expecting to just come in and sit down, but that's a big part of the show, and those who know Shotgun know they should expect the unexpected by now.

I'm not going to say much more, other than to say the actors do some really good work with very difficult material. Maintaining the trust of an audience that is continually having its basis for trust eliminated is tough, but it works here.

All I will add is, stay to the end. I mean, until you're sure it's the end. It's worth it.

The Cocktail

I don't think I've previously mentioned the cocktails at the Ashby Stage concession window. For every show, they concoct a specialty drink, and for "Caught," it's called "The Trick." It's a little feat of alchemy that is worth trying for the novelty, at least--you will be surprised.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"City of Angels" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli 
Back in the saddle for a mid-week Date Night, which obviously means a trip to the theater. I was a little surprised that the house wasn't a bit more full, but it is Wednesday. I am pretty fond of SF Playhouse, and have signed up to subscribe for the upcoming season. "City of Angels" is the final show of the previous season, and runs for about two more weeks. I've had sort of mixed reactions to previous musicals at SF Playhouse. On one hand, I applaud them for working in musicals every season. On another, I find the results to be somewhat mixed.

The Play

It's a musical. I don't expect great literature, but the more I think about it, the less the story line holds up. It's got some very appealing elements: a kind of pulpy detective novel being turned into a "B" grade film noir piece. There is conflict between the writer ("Stine") and the director/producer ("Buddy") who wants to rewrite things. There is some very appealing interplay between Stine and his main character ("Stone"), particularly in the song pictured above, where they take turns telling each other that "you're nothing without me." That's the catchy tune that you're humming on the way out.

The rest of the music is pretty good, kind of jazzy, pre-rock 'n' roll, late 1940s-early 50s stuff. The harmonies are kind of a mixed bag. Stine and Stone blend really well in their duets. Some of the quartets, including the overture just aren't quite there, although the individual voices are pretty good.

Unfortunately, though some of the characters (the three mentioned above, plus "Alaura" and "Oolie"/"Donna") are pretty well developed, others (particularly "Gabby") are just not, and it leaves one wondering why we actually care about some of the action late in the show. If Stine and Gabby don't really have much chemistry, it's difficult to figure out why they might be getting back together.

The Production

Acting-wise, things were fine. As noted, there were a couple of characters who just didn't pop for me, and in a musical you really need to get a feel for them, because there isn't really going to be enough dialog to develop minor characters very well. The sets and costumes were good, as were the projections that gave the show it's noir feel. On the other hand, there were some lighting issues (or maybe Stine just didn't find his spot), and I have ongoing issues with SF Playhouse's insistence on using its turntable for set changes to excess (and noisily). I found a lot of the scene changes quite distracting, especially when there was still action and/or music going on.

Gotta mention a couple of very good scenes where Stine is writing/rewriting the action being portrayed in the film, and it's both cleverly imagined and very tightly choreographed and performed. Just excellently conceived and done. But that level of execution calls into question some of the weaker choreography in, for example, the overture.

Ending Rants

This to me is probably the biggest problem with some of the shows I've seen at SF Playhouse: the execution of the stagecraft tends to lag behind the designs and the performances, which is unfortunate. It detracts from otherwise effective productions, including this one. The actors and designers deserve better. And it's a nice theater with good facilities, and they've obviously got good ideas and the ability to land good scripts and performers. But the other stuff counts, too.

And finally, I just have to say it: they need to tone down the "empathy gym" thing. Artistic Director Bill English gave the welcome speech tonight, and it sounded pretty worn, and almost word-for-word what's written over the door and on the tote bag behind the bar, etc. We get it. Try a little spontaneity.

On the whole, it was a fun evening, but a bit on the light and fluffy end of things.