Sunday, October 30, 2016

"The Rocky Horror Show" at Ray of Light Theatre

OK, let's start with this: I'm not a huge fan of Rocky Horror. I've seen the movie twice. Once in high school, a midnight show at the UC Theater when it was still a wonderful repertory cinema. Once with some friends in a suburban Maryland mall. It was fun both times, but not so much fun that I wanted to do it regularly. I realize that for many of my friends, regular attendance was a big part of their lives.

But I had never seen the stage show. In fact, I didn't even realize that there was a stage show, on which the movie was based, until a friend mentioned at some point that she had been in a production of it while in college.

Now, fast-forward to 2016, and my daughter's teen musical theater class through Berkeley Rep School of Theatre is doing scene study from "The Rocky Horror Show." She's seen the movie. She's learning the songs. And now I suddenly realize that three different local theaters are putting on productions of the stage show, right around Halloween. And we were kind of looking for something to do after seeing the matinee of "The Hard Problem" at ACT on Saturday afternoon, so what makes more sense that "Rocky Horror" in the Mission?

The Play

Seriously? I'm not going to summarize, even a little bit. If you don't know the show already, I don't think I could possibly make sense of it. It's less of a show than a cultural phenomenon. On one hand, I don't think the shock value the show had when it came out 40 years ago carries over. The whole fluid, pan-sexual, cross-dressing, gender-bending thing is pretty mainstream, at least in the Bay Area. Indeed, the real challenge is kind of the same one faced when producing any familiar, (dare I say) classic play: everyone knows it, they have expectations. You have to meet those expectations on some level, and yet you also have to do something fresh or it gets tired. You end up with Yet Another Christmas Carol or something.

This Production

I gather this play is something of an annual event for Ray of Light Theatre, a company of which I was not aware until now. Of course, if you need drag performers, San Francisco is an excellent place to look. And indeed, from the top of the bill down, you find experienced drag performers. The lead role, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, is played by D'Arcy Drollinger, who is not only an experienced drag performer, but also the proprietor of  a cabaret nightclub, Oasis. Many of the other performers are regulars there. So not only is this not your average community theater putting on a show, but they do it every year, so there is experience and continuity.

Anyway, I didn't know any of this. I came in with my expectations pretty low. The venue is the Victoria Theatre, which appears to be a converted movie theater, but it's a pretty nice house with a good sized stage, though the proscenium arch is a bit intrusive to those sitting on the side and up front, as we were. On the other hand, we had an excellent view of the sign-language interpreters, who were hilarious. The visible props (and the scenery, once the curtain opened) were a little cheesy, but then, this is Rocky Horror: just go with it.

And then the show started. From the opening moment, I was stunned by the quality of the performance. Melinda Camparo as the Usherette sings the opening number ("Science Fiction Double Feature") extremely well. And when Magenta (Andrea Dennison-Laufter) and Columbia (Alexandra Feifers) join her, it's clear that this is not your average musical ensemble. They're expressive and making contact with the audience, singing and dancing strongly.

And frankly, that's the story of the show: there really are no weak spots in the cast. They all sing and dance well. They act their parts well, even when they are background "phantoms." The choreography is pretty intricate, but well executed. So color me surprised: I enjoyed the show, and eventually decided the initial impression of cheesiness was intentional, true to the 1950s B-movie sci-fi origins of the plot. It worked.

Bottom Line

It was terrific. I didn't expect much, and I was blown away by the quality of the show. Good acting, singing, dancing, choreography, costumes. And perhaps best of all, the focus is on the show. Sure, there are some bits where the audience gets a little involved, particularly when the narrator (Steven Hess) is working. But it's nothing like the movie with a whole side show and incessant interruption from the crowd. It might have been different at the later (11 pm) show, but at our 7 pm show, there were a few clever lines and a little bit of interjection from the audience, but mostly we could enjoy the show, do the Time Warp, and just enjoy.

So I guess I have to re-evaluate my position on "Rocky Horror" in general. I would say this stage show was much more fun than either of the times I saw the movie, and from the description, more fun than my family members had at a recent midnight viewing in Albany.

One last note that I appreciated: the cast is quite diverse, gender-balanced, etc. But what I really appreciated is that not everyone was a tall, skinny dancer. There were all sorts of body types represented in the cast, and I thought that was really refreshing.

The show runs through November 5th this year. Check it out! You could do much worse than an evening with dinner in the Mission and seeing this show.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

"The Hard Problem" at ACT

[I wanted to include a production photo, but at this date, ACT has none on their website. Go figure. Too bad: It's a nice looking production.]

Let's get this out of the way right up front: Tom Stoppard is probably my favorite playwright. Full stop. My wife and I are known to go to fairly extraordinary lengths to see his plays, including trips to London and New York City. And it was our love of Stoppard that got us involved with the Shotgun Players when they undertook to produce his trilogy, "The Coast of Utopia."

Stoppard's most recent play, "The Hard Problem," was in fact the reason for our trip to London last year, although I have to admit it ended up not being the highlight of the trip. This play is not, despite the press quote on the ACT website, "Stoppard at his best." It has many of the things I love and admire in a Stoppard play, including deep ideas, playful debate, clever word play, and a respect for both sides in an argument. His plays will make you think, about important matters, while laughing at the wit and humor. His best plays will also leave you with a memorable character or scene or line (or many, of course). But truthfully, that's not this play.

This Play

The eponymous "hard problem" in this play is consciousness: how does the physical mechanism of the brain produce the conscious phenomenon of the mind? Hilary is an undergraduate in Psychology, interested in the concept of altruism and where it comes from. Her tutor, "Spike," poo-poos such notions, claiming that everything can be explained by science and especially evolutionary biology, with arguments that draw heavily from works such as Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" and its ilk.

Hilary goes on to apply for a job at a neuroscience research lab funded by a hedge-fund billionaire. Here we get to see Hilary's humanistic research in contrast with both the "hard science" research at the rest of the lab, in addition to some potential conflicts of interest with the hedge fund company, which wants research as a means toward making more money (and needless to say, altruism has no place there). Egoism versus altruism is the theme throughout.

Ultimately, things come to a head when Hilary and her assistant, Bo, come up with some unexpectedly exciting research results that might save their department.

This Production

First impression: I quite like the set design. They manage to make the stage into a deceptively large, modern building, but by sliding in smaller rooms and projecting different backgrounds, they create smaller, more intimate spaces. This breaks down a little in one of the late, climactic scenes, but there are other problems there, too. Scenery and lights are just very good, and the music and sound is fine.

The acting is mostly pretty good. Vandit Bhatt as Amal the fast-talking quant is quite good, except at times he gets a bit hard to understand, which is too bad. And Anthony Fusco's Leo seems just a little too low-key most of the time to be the leader of a renegade department in a high-powered research institute. The dynamics between Stacy Ross as Ursula and Safiya Fredericks as Julia are quite enjoyable.

The kind of inexplicable casting choice is MFA student Narea Kang as Bo. Without giving too much away, let's just say that Bo's relationship with Hilary is extremely important to the meaning of the end of the play, and when the big reveal comes in the  aforementioned climactic scene, it comes completely out of the blue: we haven't seen any of the relationship between the two that would explain the scene. It's not in the script per se, but in the acting between the lines. It was done brilliantly in London, and here it's just not there at all. So either the actor can't handle the nuance of the role, or (unlikely) the director has made a conscious choice not to include it.

In any case, the emotional impact of the end of the play is severely dampened by that particular choice. There's supposed to be this emotional payoff after all the intellectual banter earlier, and it's just not there, which is unfortunate.

Bottom Line

It's not the best Stoppard play there is, but even so, it's a far more interesting play than you're likely to see most anywhere else. And by and large, this is an excellent production, but there are some real weaknesses that seem to be self-inflicted by ACT. So it's a tribute to the material that the play is as impactful as it is. But it could be much more.

"Chess" at Custom Made Theatre Company

Custom Made Theatre Co. photo by Jay Yamada
The 1980s were a different time, in many ways. And I didn't go to a lot of theater in the 80s, largely because I was either in college and working or just out of college, working, and cash-strapped. So when some of my theater friends got very excited about a local production of "Chess," I didn't really have any points of reference for it.

The key element of the play is a world chess championship, pitting an American master against a Soviet master. Obviously, this derives from the famous 1972 match between American Bobby Fischer and Russion Boris Spassky that caught world attention. The tension of a Cold War era match between the US and USSR through the proxy of a chess competition is a plausible setting for a play. But a musical?

In its day, "Chess" was fairly revolutionary, starting with a musical concept album with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame. The show was then staged in London, where it had a very successful, three-year run. A subsequent mounting on Broadway, considerably reimagined, was a tremendous flop, closing after two months. Where the London production was almost operatic, with almost no spoken words beyond the songs, the New York version added a lot of dialogue, rearranged the music, and was apparently nearly incomprehensible.

This Production

Fast-forward about 25-30 years, and the Custom Made Theatre Company decides to try their hand at a revival. The scale will necessarily be much smaller than the early productions, but Rice's introduction to the libretto give producers permission to cut, rearrange, and generally try out what works. So Artistic Director Brian Katz decided to try to make a production that is closer to the original concept album, and on a scale that fits his small theater.

Small disclaimer here: I apparently had a senior moment, and misremembered the starting time for the play. As a result, I got there late, and missed the start. The staff kindly seated us during the third scene. I admit it took me a bit to get into the flow of the play after that, but I think my comments are still relevant.

Actual world championship matches stretch out over months, but the play wisely chooses to minimize the actual playing of chess onstage. The show is much more about the machinations of the players, countries, and chess officials than it is about the match itself. And of course you have to have a love triangle, because this is after all musical theater.

The Play I Saw

I give Custom Made full credit for even attempting this. I have a warm place in my heart for small theaters that undertake ambitious works. And there was definitely a group in the audience that was wildly enthusiastic for this production, either because of a nostalgic fondness for the original production(s), such as the couple to my left who kept talking about that throughout the performance, or perhaps some attachment to either the show or the company, as evidenced by the hooting crowd to my right. All told, the show was well received.

I have to say I wasn't quite as taken up with things as they were. Maybe that's because I came in a little late. Maybe it's because I wasn't already familiar with the material. Maybe it's because the first thing I saw was a fairly complex number with lots of moving, singing people that didn't quite come off. It got better as it went on, but my initial impression was not great.

Anyway, full marks to the company for even attempting this show. And some of the players (notably Leah Shesky as Florence, Heather Orth as Svetlana, and Chris Uzelac as Anatoly) really have the voices to handle the music. Unfortunately, the music is quite complex and often requires a considerable range that most of the singers didn't possess, so a lot of the singers were straining to hit notes well beyond their range, which takes away a lot of the power and appeal of the songs.

Also, the stage is very small (especially with a portion of it taken up by the band), so there is not much room for the 14-member cast to move around. Thus, the choreography is necessarily constrained and simplified. But still, that was probably the weakest part of the production overall.

Finally, the size of the house constrains the singers considerably. They were making an effort to keep their voices balanced and not overpower each other or the audience. This had two noticeable effects: One, singers pinching off their voices. Ms. Shesky, in particular spent a lot of the show singing through her nose, which is unfortunate, because she has a lovely voice, and when she let it loose (notably in "You and I" late in the show), it comes through quite nicely. Similarly, I found that members of the ensemble would be singing and then their voices would just tail off or disappear. It was quite odd sounding. Two, during several numbers, there are a lot of singers doing different parts simultaneously. Since they aren't amplified and mixed, it's up to the director and the singers to make sure we in the audience hear the important bits, and mostly what I got was a muddle.

Finally, the lighting was pretty ineffective. I couldn't tell if the lights were just inadequate, or if the players were missing their marks, but there were a lot of instances where key players were poorly lit, back-lit, and whatnot. This made it really hard, even from fairly close up, to see facial expressions and smaller interactions.

Bottom Line

I'm sure that those who know and love the play were delighted to see it again, in any form. And there are elements of the play that really appealed. The second act was definitely better than the first. I'm glad I got to see it, and disappointed (in myself) that I didn't get to see all of it, as I think that would have improved my impression of the overall show.

But I give full credit to Custom Made for undertaking such a difficult and complex show. It clearly has an audience, and the loved it.

Unfortunately, I don't think the substance of the show stands up nearly as well as the music. Outside the setting of the Cold War, the intrigues of US vs. USSR and who is-or-isn't a spy and such really don't hold up as plot devices. So it's kind of a weird little slice of a very different time: interesting and sometimes enjoyable, but ultimately not that fulfilling.

I'm glad my friends who are fans got to see the show at last, and I'm glad Custom Made undertook the project, in spite of its flaws and limitations.

Friday, October 28, 2016

"Nogales" at Magic Theatre

Timing is everything. In humor. In theater. And Magic Theatre had great timing with their turn in the rolling world premiere of Richard Montoya's "Nogales." I don't get to the Magic very often, so I often miss out on their good stuff. I'd been hearing about this one, and since I like Montoya's work, I made a point of getting to one of the shows at the start of the closing weekend.

And as coincidences go, seeing this right after seeing "Into the Beautiful North" the previous week at Central Works was excellent. One of my thoughts while seeing the earlier show was that I would kind of like to see it handled with just a little more sharpness and polish, which I've come to expect from Montoya and his sometime collaborator Sean San Jose (who directed "Nogales" as well as appearing in it). So I kind of got my wish, in that this is their take on some of the same kinds of issues.

The Play

Nogales is a border town in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Being on the border opposite Arizona, it is a frequent point of departure for immigrants trying to sneak over/under/through the border fence and across the Sonoran desert into the US. A key event, referenced throughout the play, is the shooting of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez in Nogales, by a US Border Patrol agent on the other side of the fence. Fifteen times. Indeed, Rodriguez is a silent presence throughout the play.

The other major character in the play is Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, crusader against illegal immigration, currently being prosecuted in federal court for repeatedly violating court orders designed to stop his office's ongoing racial profiling.

The early part of the play is largely Arpaio (played brilliantly by Montoya) introducing himself, his office, and his work. Based on actual interviews with Arpaio, it's disarmingly funny, but disturbing all the same. Watching him dance around interview questions and dodge difficult questions is like watching a master at work: He's slippery and evasive, but so engaging that you almost feel bad for hating what he's saying.

So a lot of that part of the play is really about understanding Sheriff Joe and how he can hang on to his position for so long, despite clearly standing in opposition to federal law and court orders.

The rest of the play is less sharp, less focused. We meet various characters in and around Nogales and the Sonoran desert. One thing that becomes clear is that the border, the division between the countries, is not nearly as well defined as the wall would have you believe. And yet, there it is, turning a shooting into an international incident.

The Production

The literal center of the production is a room that serves mostly as Sheriff Joe's office, but surrounded by a diorama that is meant to be Nogales in miniature, backed by video screens that show scenes from Nogales and the desert. Unfortunately, the structure of the Magic, with four large pillars holding up the ceiling around the stage, blocks a lot of the sight lines, particularly from the side seats where we sat. So much of the video was either invisible or largely occluded. It didn't help that one of the projection screens (the one easiest for us to see) went mostly dark in the middle of the play. Ah, technology!

So I think (and indeed, know, from talking to friends who were sitting in front of the stage instead of to the side) being able to take in the video along with the acting would have been more powerful. The play is largely a collaboration between Montoya, San Jose, and video designer/photographer Joan Osato. I don't feel like I can really evaluate how much Osato's work contributed to the impact of the show.

The acting ensemble does a reasonable job, but the star of the show is definitely Montoya as the aw-shucks, have a beer, kindly but weird uncle Joe. They have clearly adapted the text to include digs from current events ("bad hombres," "nasty women," etc.), and of course the "build the wall" theme. So it's a terrific look at how the wall and the border and the whole southwestern desert shapes the dialogue not just locally, but nationwide.


I thought the play was worth seeing, if only to catch Montoya and San Jose working together. I love their work, and Montoya in particular shines in this role. Things go a little off the rails late, as Montoya narrates a kind of "Heart of Darkness"/"Apocalypse Now" gonzo travelogue through the desert, but the overall impact is still good. As a play, it's probably not quite as good as another Montoya/San Jose collaboration I saw a couple of years ago ("The River" at Campo Santo), but it's still worth seeing.

But I need to remember to buy tickets earlier so I can sit in a better part of the theater next time.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Into the Beautiful North" at Central Works

Central Works photo by J. Norrena
It's always interesting to see what Central Works offers. It's an ambitious undertaking, producing four world-premiere plays per year, and having to commit to those plays before they really exist. So you never know quite what you're going to get.

"Into the Beautiful North" is a bit different from the usual fare, in that it's not a local playwright or company member creating the script, but rather a local production of a "rolling world premiere" through the National New Play Network.

The Play

The core of the play is kind of a riff on the movies "The Seven Samurai" and "The Magnificent Seven." The small Mexican town of Tres Camarones is being besieged by "narcos," corrupt police officers selling drugs and generally terrorizing the citizenry. Nayeli, a plucky teenager, decides to steal off to the U.S. to recruit seven magnificent men to come back to Tres Camarones and save the town. She takes with her her best friend, Vampi, and her employer, Tacho, who runs the only Internet cafe in town, El Mano Caido.

The structure of the play is pretty familiar, with characters narrating among fairly quick scene changes. If you've seen some of the story plays by the likes of Campo Santo or Culture Clash, it will seem similar.

Nayeli, played by Samanta Yunuen Cubias, and Tacho (Rudy Guerrero) maintain their characters throughout, with the other six players in the ensemble playing about 40 other roles. For the most part it works well, though some of the scene changes are a bit clunky.

The Production

Realizing that this is a world premiere, a work in progress, and still relatively early in the current run (the play runs through November 13), one expects a few hiccups. There are some hesitations and fumbled lines, and a number of the (quite frequent) scene changes are distractingly slow. Some of the latter is due to the constraints of the little theater space in the Berkeley City Club. The plays I've seen there that work the best are those where either there are few scene changes at all, or where the play works with little or no scenery.

Somewhat surprisingly, the second act of the play comes out much smoother than the first. I'm not sure whether the ensemble just hit their stride after intermission or whether they have just honed the latter part of the play more completely. In any case, in the first half I was concerned that a lot of the dialog came out rather stilted, and some of the characters just didn't gel. But the show was better in virtually all aspects in the second half, which gives me hope that they will eventually get rid of some of the other wrinkles.

The writing is clever, with some quite witty dialogue, featuring fun puns and topical references. Clearly, the presence of "nasty women" and "bad hombres" was added just this week, as those references come directly from a presidential campaign debate just a few days before. In context, they work fine. Not all of the jokes flow quite as organically, but some bits work really well. The scenes with Rudy Guerrero and Ben Ortega in a bar in Tijuana and crossing the border are very funny and very well done. And Caleb Cabrera's "Atomiko" is consistently good.


I think the script has a lot of promise, and there are good bits to be found throughout. I was a bit disappointed with the cohesion of the cast, particularly in the first act. Some of the acting just felt rather amateurish, and not up to the standard I expect from Central Works. But it got much better in the second act, so I can hope that some of the bumps can be attributed to changes being made to the script and staging as the play is developed.

Overall, I thought it was a fun evening and certainly worth seeing. I really like what Central Works does, and fully expect that not every play they do will live up to expectations. But more power to them for promoting new works and opening doors to actors who might not have the resume to land a role this large in one of the bigger theaters in the area.

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Pak Han
Edward Albee is dead. Long live Edward Albee. Or at least, his plays. I haven't seen that many of them (yet), but the ones I have seen are (at the risk of a little redundancy) bitingly incisive. He had a knack for digging into the dark recesses of modern life and then exposing them, with some unkind twists thrown in. He could be cruelly humorous, laying bare the hypocrisies and little white lies that are so necessary to daily life.

This Play

This is the fifth of the five plays in Shotgun's season. For once, I'm reviewing one of their plays close to the opening, when you still have plenty of time to see it ("Woolf" runs through November 13, and then will join the other four plays from the season in repertory through January. So you have lots of chances to see it. And (spoiler!) you should.

The four characters in the play are two married couples: one middle-aged, the other younger. In each case the husband is a professor at the small New England college in town. After a faculty party, the couples meet up to continue the evening at the older couple's home. There is much drinking and games of various kinds are played. They are not fun games. It's more like extreme, do-it-yourself couples' therapy, while drunk.

It's long (3 hours; 2 intermissions), but so engaging it doesn't feel that long. It's intense, but often quite funny. It's dark, and not happy, but not tragic, either. Moral and emotional ambiguity and ambivalence abound. The themes are very adult, even if some of the behavior is quite childish. This is definitely a play for grown-ups.

The Performances

As with all the Shotgun plays this season, the staging is simple: a single room in the home of George and Martha. There is no furniture, just a bar. The actors sit either on the floor or on the edge of the stage, giving the audience a real feeling of being right on top of or inside the action (which is not a comfortable place to be!). The costumes and music give a good sense of the period (early 1960s), and indeed the soundtrack contributes to the sense of being trapped that permeates much of the play.

As the senior couple, George and Martha, David Sinaiko and Beth Wilmurt are wonderfully nasty to one another, sniping and snarking from the moment they enter. Nick and Honey, the younger couple, are quite nicely played by Josh Schell and Megan Trout. Megan in particular brings both comedy and real depth to Honey, who is probably the least intrinsically interesting of the characters as written. All of the actors manage to pull off the descent into drunkenness pretty effectively, though I think Martha could be a little more convincing at it.

But all of the characters come vividly to life: You know all of these people, somewhere, somehow. You've met them or worked with them. Or if you're very unlucky, you live with them. The little digs at the start of the evening are all too easy and familiar, and as the night wears on and the booze flows, the inhibitions and the facades fall away, unmasking some real, deep issues in all of the characters and their relationships. It's not a bad idea to freshen your drink at each intermission.


The play works really well for me on at least two levels. One, it's obviously a masterpiece of writing, and the minimalist staging doesn't put anything in the way of that. The terrific acting brings out the subtlety that underlies the plain language. This is a production that is only going to get better as it goes on and the actors get more comfortable in their characters and in the story. I look forward to seeing it again in a few weeks to see how it has matured.

Two, it is a wonderful follow-on to a couple of the earlier plays in the season, particularly "The Village Bike," which deals (in very different ways) with the relationships of married couples and how they deal with expectations, roles, and disappointments, and "Caught" which is largely about truth and honesty and how you define them, hide them, and find them. I think it will be very interesting to see how these plays work off each other as they move through the repertory season to come.

There's going to be a lot to think and talk about for the next few months at the Ashby Stage. Pull up a drink and let's have at it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"The Brothers Size" at Theatre Rhinoceros

Theatre Rhinoceros photo by Steven Ho
Let me start out by saying that I really like this play. It's the middle portion of a trilogy called the Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney. [Apparently the writer prefers the term "triptych" instead of "trilogy." Whatever.] About six years ago, three local theaters (Marin Theatre Company, The Magic Theater, and ACT) coordinated a presentation of all three plays. The production of "The Brothers Size" at the Magic was just brilliant--very sparse and clean. So when I saw that it was playing again locally, I just had to go see it.

The Play

It's way too complicated to explain how the whole trilogy works. Luckily, each part stands alone quite well. This one concerns the eponymous brothers, Ogun and Oshoosi Size, along with Elegba, a friend Oshoosi met in prison. Now out of prison, Oshoosi is living with Ogun and working in his auto shop. It's a fairly simple play about adjusting to life "outside," being brothers, friends who might or might not be good for one, and much more.

Infused with bits of African Yoruba culture and mythos, the play takes some kind of mystical twists, and the characters, all named after Yoruba Orisha, or deities. Knowing a little about each of the deities adds a lot to the understanding of the characters in the plays, though it's not strictly necessary. The layers of complexity in the writing are impressive, though.

The Production

The set is pretty simple (not as stark at the one at the Magic, but simple), standing in for both Ogun's home and the auto shop, a car, and so on. A few simple tools and buckets and tires, along with a bench, a doorway, and a circle of chain on the floor fill in the rest.

 The incorporation of chanting, singing, and stomping is a mixed bag. Sometimes it's quite brilliant (as in the scene illustrated above, where two buckets serve as both instruments and props in an elaborate dance), but other parts seem forced and rather awkward (including, unfortunately, the opening dance). When integrated into the flow of the show, however, they really add to the mystical elements.

For the most part the cast of three have a fairly easy chemistry; particularly Oshoosi (Gabriel Christian)  and Elegba (Julian Green). LaKeidrick S. Wimberly as Ogun seems a bit less comfortable in his role. Though he's often focused and engaged, his gaze tends to wander off the other characters at inexplicable times, taking the viewer with him out of the moment. This gets better later in the show, however. There were several points where various characters had some issues with enunciating and diction, but not enough to cause me to lose the flow of the play, just a few words here and there.

The other kind of annoying element to me is the decision by director Darryl V. Jones to have the characters speak the stage directions. It's quite unnecessary, and takes away from the flow of the scenes. It's not necessary for a character to announce that he is leaving for work, when both the dialogue and the actions make that entirely clear. Perhaps a somewhat smoother cast could have pulled this off more effectively, but it seemed just weird for these very convincingly blue-collar guys to suddenly break character and speak with the playwright's voice in that way.


It was an enjoyable evening. The Eureka Theatre isn't very large, and it wasn't nearly full on a Wednesday night. Although the play isn't brilliantly performed, it's quite competent, and the material is well worth seeing and hearing. As long as you don't go in expecting a lot of polish, you'll appreciate the authentic blue collar production.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" at SHN

Here is something a bit out of the usual path for me. The family has a subscription to the SHN series of touring musicals (mostly), and lately I've been sending other family members in my stead. I was sort of curious about this show, since I really knew nothing about it, so we caught the afternoon matinee today.

The Show

Fundamentally, we are seeing a sort of rock concert performance by the fictitious group, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig is the transgender lead singer, and the Angry Inch is the backup band. Musically, they're pretty good. I've seen this all categorized as "glam rock," which I guess covers it. It's a sort of moderately-hard rock with some punkish influences and lots of bright, flashing lights and a lead singer who wears large, outrageous wigs.

Some of the early songs are pretty good, notably "The Origin of Love" and "Sugar Daddy," but mostly it's a lot of show without too much substance.

The Reaction

Discussing the show afterward, neither my wife nor I felt like it had "grabbed" us. We both like rock musicals pretty well. We both love Stew's shows, particularly "Passing Strange," and she really liked "American Idiot." So it's not the genre per se that bothered us. Truthfully, from early on it kind of reminded me more of the Berkeley Rep show a couple of seasons back, "An Audience with Meow Meow." The conceit being that there is a rather egotistical performing star who kind of breaks the show in the middle and tells something of their life story, with more music. "Hedwig" reminded me of that a lot, although in Meow Meow's case, it was sort of up in the air whether we were watching a drag show, at least for a while.

The other parallel I would draw is with the excellent show "Boy" we saw in New York earlier this year. That also dealt with a transgender main character and a botched sex-change operation, but without the histrionics of trying to turn the character into some kind of rock star.

But back to the point: I didn't find Hedwig's story particularly interesting, or realistic, or more broadly applicable. The transgender story in "Boy" is much more interesting, both in terms of the motivations of the people involved and the reactions to the sex change. Hedwig just starts with a fairly bizarre premise and runs in weird directions with it. And adds a lot of music.

The Conclusion

Ultimately we concluded that the show isn't really much of a show in that sense. It seems mostly to be a highlight vehicle for the lead performer. In today's case, that meant Darren Criss, who achieved his fame on the TV series "Glee," so it was pretty clear that a lot of people had come to see him. Similarly, in its Broadway run, the role was generally filled by actors already well known for other work. So I suspect it's popularity is largely a matter of showcasing actors that have an audience.

So, it's a chance to go see Darren Criss, if that appeals to you. It's not the sort of musical that will have you leave the theater tapping your toes and humming tunes, feeling like you had a fun time. Kind of diverting, but you'd probably be better off watching reruns of "Glee."

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Othello" at CalShakes

CalShakes photo by Alessandra Mello
Oh, my.

I am deeply conflicted about this production. The acting is top-notch. The staging is wonderfully minimal, which should enable the focus to be on the words and the characters. Unfortunately, director Eric Ting apparently doesn't trust us to understand the play, so he interrupts it, frequently, to have actors drop out of character and explain what's happening.

I'm not going to spend any time explaining Othello here. I had never read or seen the play, but I knew more than enough to understand how well it pertains to modern-day life. It's a great choice of plays right now. Race relations, xenophobia, domestic violence, Islamophobia, truth and trust issues--it's all there. Bring it on!

The Good

The acting ensemble is terrific. Particularly outstanding are James Carpenter as Iago, Aldo Billingslea in the title role, and Julie Eccles as Emilia. Liz Sklar is also very good as Desdemona, and Matthew Baldiga as Rodrigo manages to steal a few scenes. For the most part, they all gave consistent, nuanced, and (dare I say) dramatic performances. This is exactly what you want from Othello, an immersion into a world of high emotions and intricate plots.

The staging is quite brilliant. There are ten chairs placed in a rough square in the middle of the 3/4-thrust stage with no other set pieces. For the most part, actors "enter" and "exit" by standing up or sitting down, and it works wonderfully, with the action flowing seamlessly between scenes. The actors are all in plain, modern dress, with only an occasional scarf, hood, or hat to distinguish changes. It's all designed to not distract from the play itself, the words, the interactions, the ruminations of the characters. And in that sense, it works brilliantly.

I particularly liked the way characters were able to address characters who were not in the scene by looking at or walking around the seated, "absent" characters. There is a wonderful fullness to the performance when all the characters can be present or not, as needed. There is a little inconsistency with whether the actors stay in character when seated, but for the most part, it works great.

The Bad

I wish I could just leave it there, with a terrific cast on a simple stage that facilitates their work, bringing a brilliant piece of literature to life. Or perhaps I should say, I wish the director had left it there.

Apparently director Ting doesn't think his audience will understand how a powerful black man being manipulated and brought down by the connivance of his white subordinate applies to current affairs. Or that xenophobic fear and resentment of a Moor needs to be illustrated with the explanation that "Moor" means "Muslim" projected over the stage during intermission, and just in case that isn't clear, he adds some sound clips of Donald Trump denouncing Islamic extremism. Similarly, he seems to think we won't find a man strangling his wife in their bed horrific enough, so he provides narration of a description of the biological effects of strangulation on the body. There's more: I'll spare you.

Ultimately, Ting shows he doesn't respect his audience, his actors, or his script. I kept expecting subtitles to start flashing "AUTHOR'S MESSAGE" or something.

But no, that won't do. Let's interrupt the final, climactic scene to have a 10-minute audience talk-back session, and then finish the play, sucking virtually all of the intensity out of it.

The Talk-Back

I generally like talk-back sessions. The give and take between audience and cast/crew can be really enlightening and add to the understanding of the play, the production, and the context. But that's not what this was. This was a solicitation of audience feedback, slightly guided by questions from the stage (asked by the recently-deceased Desdemona). And a number of people said interesting and moving things. Mostly it gave an opportunity for sanctimony from the stage, and substantive questions were usually bounced back with "what did you think?" and such.

But that session could have been done after the play, and thus avoided deflating the ending. In a setting that seemed designed to let the play be the thing, the director seemed set on making sure we knew that the production was all-important, and that there were some really key points we needed to get.

It appeared to work for a number of people, but ultimately the machinations detracted from what seemed like it should have been the best play I saw in a long time, and instead turned it into a mediocrity. Instead of coming home enraptured by the performance, I find myself pissed off by the director spoiling his actors' work.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Seared" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo by Jessica Palopoli
Food and fighting: what could be more fun? Set in the kitchen of a small restaurant in Brooklyn, "Seared" is the world premiere of a commissioned work by accomplished writer Theresa Rebeck. Add to this that Rebeck has worked quite a bit with both director Margaret Perry and lead actor Brian Dykstra, and you have the ingredients for a satisfying play.

I saw the opening night performance last night, and although there is promising material with solid performances, the result is ultimately not very satisfying.

The Play

Harry (played terrifically by Dykstra) is the chef of this little upstart restaurant, while his partner, Mike, and waiter Rodney wait tables and apparently do everything else. The restaurant is struggling, but seemingly out of the blue they get a great review of one of Harry's dishes in New York Magazine, and suddenly they are on the map. Great, right?

Maybe not. Harry refuses to cook the dish anymore, and Mike is not pleased. They argue. A lot. At length. Repeatedly. Now, seemingly out of the blue appears a consultant, and suddenly we have new equipment, more tables (and permits to use them), and more. And all for free! Naturally, this becomes grounds for more arguments.

The Production

There is a lot to like here. Dykstra is outstanding as Harry, in part (we learn from the program) because the part was actually written for him, and he is also an accomplished cook. And Rebeck writes some pretty good dialogue, some of it quite witty. Larry Powell as Rodney is a good, sympathetic character with a range of expression and emotion that presents well in the small theater. Consultant Emily does a creditable job of instigating and mediating a lot of the conflict. Rod Gnapp's Mike is probably the least developed character, and we get pretty much one emotional note from him (angry), modulated only by volume.

It's a nicely designed set for the kitchen, though somehow it never seems to reflect the changes in busy-ness that an overtasked kitchen should. They make a point early of hanging order tickets, but Harry never seems to look at them, and again, they don't reflect the amount of business going on. Lights and sound are used to good effect.

So we seem to have all the necessary ingredients for a winning production: good actors and good design. Unfortunately, the script isn't ready for prime time, and the direction doesn't manage to elicit much from what there is.

The Weakness

For about twenty or thirty minutes, I felt like the play was building into something promising. We had believable characters and some conflicts arising. And then the argued. And moved on. And argued. And moved on. And added new conflicts. And moved on.

Rebeck sets up some reasonably interesting scenarios, but never resolves them. That's disappointing, because I'd like to see these characters grow a bit and make some point about life or food or business or partnership or loyalty or something. The set-ups are all there, but we never get anywhere with them. It's really frustrating to see these seemingly clever, articulate characters just stuck and unable to deal with the curves thrown at them.

On another level, since the conflicts aren't getting resolved, I try just looking at them deeper, figuring maybe there is something there I'm supposed to get. Unfortunately, most of the situations just don't make much sense under close scrutiny. So I'm just not sure what it is I'm supposed to get out of this.

Bottom Line

I feel disappointed. There seems to be a lot of potential in this play, but it mostly remains unrealized. So if you go, you can appreciate some good stagecraft and some fine acting performances. Just don't expect to get much insight.