Friday, May 26, 2017

"The Events" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Jessica Palopoli
I saw this show a week ago, but haven't written about it yet. I suppose simple procrastination would suffice as a reason, but since I knew I was going to see the show again tonight, I suspected I would have more to write about following the second viewing. And I do.

The Events is a difficult play. Not only does it deal with disturbing material (the aftermath of a mass shooting event and post-traumatic stress), but it does so in challenging ways. There are only two actors on the stage, really. One is Claire, the survivor of the aforementioned event, and the other, referred to as "The Boy," is everyone else. That everyone else is a constantly shifting range of people, from Claire's lover to her therapist to the shooter to his father to a politician.... You get the idea. And that role switches in an instant, sometimes back and forth in rapid succession. So it could be a bit hard to follow.

But Scottish playwright David Greig handles the task with great skill and some excellent language.

And did I mention there is a choir? The script calls for a community choir on the stage. And more than that, a different choir for every performance. Because Claire is a priest and a choir director, so she needs a choir to direct. And also, she was directing the choir when the event took place. So at every performance, there is a new choir. They've learned some music in advance, plus they get to rehearse for a couple of hours before the show and then they're on. It turns out to be a remarkably effective tactic, but I'm ahead of myself. And there is also a musical director and accompanist who has a few lines, too. But really, it's two actors and a choir.

The Play

The script is quite nonlinear. We jump from the boy's rambling writings online to Claire welcoming him into the choir's rehearsal space to all kinds of snippets of Claire trying to come to grips with having survived, wanting to understand and figure a way to make her world work again. So while this in some ways resembles a stream of consciousness, it's really more of a jumbled mind, racing and bouncing from one thought to a memory to a rationalization to some intervening shock  and so on. None of it quite resolves itself, which can feel unsettling and unsatisfying, but that's all part of the message.

The Production

Obviously, the two actors carry an immense amount of weight in this play. Julia McNeal plays Claire with deep emotion, as we see her swing from her comfortable, settled pastor in an established emotional partnership to a stressed, confused, disturbed survivor struggling to hold onto the threads of her previous life while trying to make any kind of sense out of the trauma she's been through. It's not, and can't be, a smooth journey, and McNeal navigates Claire with care and expression through some very difficult scenes.

On the other hand, The Boy, played by Caleb Cabrera, has to cover an even vaster array of behavior and emotions. In addition to several different facets and phases of the shooter's life, from disturbed, confused teen to Viking Tribal Warrior training himself to be a berserker to the reflective narrator of his own Events to the confused, rather withdrawn and self-serving prisoner. And interspersed with that, scenes where he must also be the unemotional therapist, the struggling lover/partner, the shooter's father, and several other characters, something like fifteen in all. The physical and verbal challenges of the role are tremendous, and Cabrera is clearly growing into them as the show develops.

I should throw in a word about director Susannah Martin, who has to guide the actors through this minefield, because there are all kinds of traps they could fall into. It would be pretty easy to overplay the emotions of the characters, or try to portray them as clear-cut cases of Good or Bad, Black or White, even though the script doesn't call for it. And they quite successfully avoid that pitfall. Also, it would certainly be possible to lose the audience in the maze of character and scene changes. But in both performances I have seen, that has been handled deftly. And finally, it would certainly be possible to be thrown off by the ever-changing array of choirs on the stage. They vary in size and composition and stage presence, so the actors have to be ready to adjust, and they do.

In short, there is nothing easy about this production, and all involved have clearly seen some of the traps and have avoided making any easy or trite choices.

Seeing Double

Here is where I get to talk about seeing the play a second time, and why that's a terrific benefit in this particular case. I guess it helps that I just wrote about my experience seeing Hamilton for a second time, so it's on my mind that there are all kinds of benefits to seeing a show more than once. But the real item that prompted me to want to see the show twice before writing was that before I saw the show last week, several of my friends and family had seen the opening night performance the week before that. And it happens that was the same performance that the Chronicle's reviewer saw and reviewed.

That's interesting to me, because my reaction after seeing the show the first time was quite different from that in the review, particularly about Cabrera's performance. But then talking with my friends, they had many of the same criticisms of the opening night performance, that clarity was lacking, etc. So I was particularly keen to see what would come from my second viewing. Would it validate what I'd seen before, or perhaps tend toward what my friends had seen earlier? I'm happy to say that the performance tonight was, if anything, tighter and better than the one before. McNeal and Cabrera appear to have grown into their roles and gotten over whatever opening-night jitters marred that performance.

Also, I wanted to see how a difference choir affects the overall production. Last week, I saw the San Francisco University High School Chorus, and this week the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers. There is definitely a difference. Both choirs are terrific singers, but there is certainly a contrast between a group of high school students and a genuine (and older) community choir. And that cuts in a couple of different ways. One's reaction to seeing a gunman walk into a room full of teens is different from the same in a room full of older adults. In some ways, Shotgun set us up for this kind of different-every-night experience with last season's "roulette" casting of Hamlet. The Shotgun audience now knows that you can see the same play with a variation in casting and context that can change whole elements of the interpretation.

Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that my initial reaction on seeing the show the first time was that the Chronicle reviewer just didn't get it, or had an axe to grind or something. Now, between triangulating with others who saw the same performance reviewed and seeing it two times myself, I conclude that at least some of the criticisms that I didn't share were probably valid, though I differ on some substantive points that I'll touch on below. What it really brings home to me is that a) theater reviews based on a single viewing must necessarily be somewhat limited in their applicability, and b) reviewers that come early in the run of a show (as they generally must) are likely to encounter more production problems and acting issues than will exist later in the run. So I will try to take that into account when I read them.

The Bottom Line

The Events is a powerful play. And it's interesting because it doesn't hit you over the head most of the time. One of the Chronicle's criticisms was that this doesn't allow full impact:
Those scenes shift constantly, from one to another and then back again, at times within a single line. That seems to be in effort to focus on the way things feel, on the way characters wield devastating power over one another, instead of on the way things are, whose ambiguity is clearly part of the point of “The Events.” This is a world in which it’s impossible to state the facts definitively. Yet almost always scenes end before any stakes get a chance to mount, before you get a chance to flesh out any of Claire’s interlocutors.
 Here I think the reviewer missed the boat. As the structure of the play makes clear, the play is happening inside Claire's head. It is Claire, the survivor with PTSD, who cannot follow a scene to its conclusion or flesh anything out, precisely because of her trauma. That's the greatest strength of the writing, in fact. As a viewer, you can't get the emotional satisfaction of a complete scene (or sometimes even a complete sentence) because Claire can't.

Yes, the larger message is how we as a society, as human beings, comprehend and deal with the enormity of seemingly senseless, tragic events. But you wouldn't have much of a play if the Author's Message was spelled out in great flashing lights over the stage and beaten home by the characters. Greig's art here is to present us with a very difficult puzzle, and not provide the solutions. It provokes thought and discussion, which is one of the reasons Shotgun holds discussions after every performance. It is the very subtlety and ambiguity of the situation that makes this a topic worth thinking about.

I highly recommend this play. It runs through June 4, with a difference choir every night. It will give you a lot to think about.

Monday, May 22, 2017

"Hamilton" at SHN

SHN tour photo by Joan Marcus
It's hard to know what to say about a show that is this well known already. Hamilton is quite the event, that rare stage show that becomes a true pop-culture phenomenon. As luck would have it, we managed to see it on Broadway early last year, when it was merely difficult, but not impossible, to get tickets at face value.

So what I can offer here is two things: 1) my impressions on seeing the show a second time, and 2) a little bit of contrast between the New York original cast production and the current touring show in San Francisco.

The Hamilton Phenomenon

Back in 2015, we purchased a theater trip package to New York City at the Shotgun Players fundraising auction. When they asked what shows we wanted to see, we said "Well, of course, Hamilton!" without really knowing much about it beyond some vague notions that it was a huge hit and very, very different from the usual Broadway fare. And then by luck, the day they called for tickets, some had just come available, so we got them, in the very last row of the orchestra, where our view of the upper parts of the set was slightly occluded by the edge of the balcony.

And we literally knew almost nothing about the show, beyond it being a sort of rap/hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton and the founding of the United States. We made a point of not reading reviews or listening to the soundtrack. We just knew there was a buzz around the show, so we should try to see it.

As a result, I was entirely prepared to be disappointed, assuming that nothing could live up to the kind of hype we'd been hearing about the show. But I have to say that well before the intermission it was clear that this was not just a ground-breaking show, but something of a "black swan" event: rare, unpredictable, and important.

There are all kinds of ways it didn't meet my expectations. I don't generally care for rap, and I was concerned that I would have difficulty both understanding and appreciating the music. But I got virtually every word, and more than that, I understood why certain characters expressed themselves that way. The contrast of the rapping revolutionaries and the more traditionally Broadway melodic singers was stark and extremely effective.

We bought a copy of the original cast recording and listened to it a lot. So did our daughter, who had not seen the show. She shared it with her friends on their weekly commute to choral rehearsal, and soon they were all singing it together, in harmony, switching parts. It was amazing to see how quickly and how totally they accepted and absorbed the show.

Come Again?

Fast forward a year or so, and the first touring casts are announced, with one coming first to San Francisco. Now we have the difficult choice, knowing that tickets are going to be rare and pricey: Do we see it again? And do we take our daughter (and her grandmother, who has been driving the group of girls to chorus all this time, listening to the soundtrack)? The second question was actually easy: the girls clearly needed to see this show they had absorbed so much of through their ears. Of course we wanted to see it again, but it was hard to justify the kinds of prices the tickets would command on the secondary market.

As luck would have it, as subscribers we were able to get a couple of extra tickets, and friends got extras for us off their subscription as well, so all of us were able to go see the San Francisco production, though not all at the same time.

So, what's it like seeing it a second time? Interesting, to say the least. For one thing, we couldn't come into it unprepared like the first time. In addition to the previous viewing, there were countless repetitions of the soundtrack, reading of books and reviews and analyses, as well as discussions with friends who had seen either the New York or San Francisco productions. So we had definite expectations this time. And of course, nothing about the show can really be a surprise anymore, though in truth, I had forgotten some of the nuances. And then there were differences. The obvious one being the cast, as we had seen the original cast before Lin-Manuel Miranda and most of the others departed.

On the whole, I'd say the show holds up very well to a second viewing. It isn't (and can't be) as intense and gripping the second time, but the story still holds my interest, and the performances are also very strong. And in some ways, knowing what is going to come, one can watch and anticipate, seeing hints and foreshadows that are not apparent on first viewing. Indeed, if anything I appreciate the complexity of the show more now, as the first viewing is pretty overwhelming, and the second allows for some analysis and focus away from the center of the current action.

Early on I found myself kind of singing along with several numbers, but ultimately I found that instead of drawing me into the show, it was actually causing me to put a little distance between myself and the cast. So I just stopped and let myself get drawn in, and found that more satisfying.

Better? Worse? Different.

There are some very obvious differences in the San Francisco and Broadway productions. Even though I was sitting much closer to the stage (and off to the side), the stage and set felt considerably smaller than the one on Broadway. I don't know whether that's just an illusion, but the whole thing felt a little compressed. On the other hand, I could see it (especially the parts with actors on the catwalk/balcony above) much better and more clearly than I had in New York. So visually I felt like it was a better experience for me, and I could see the detail of the dancing and movement.

It goes without saying that the original Broadway cast was outstanding. Not only did many of the actors have amazing resumes to start with, the sheer volume of awards and nominations speaks volumes. That said, I think it's pretty clear that Michael Luwoye as Alexander Hamilton is a better singer than Lin-Manuel Miranda, though Miranda's Hamilton has a depth of pathos that probably just comes from having spent so many years dredging the role out of the history. And Joshua Henry as Aaron Burr probably can't touch Leslie Odom Jr as a pure singer, but he's very strong and totally holds his own. I thought Jordan Donica as Lafayette/Jefferson played the roles a bit too much for goofs, where Daveed Diggs on Broadway managed to be fun with a certain amount of gravitas. And there was definitely a choice to play King George III a bit less straight on the tour. It all works, but it's definitely different.

Bottom Line

I knew I was going to like it. I was a little worried that I might not like it quite as much the second time, and I think it's fair to say that was true. But just as the Broadway production exceeded my (consciously lowered) expectations, the San Francisco touring company managed to exceed my (tempered by experience) expectations as well. If nothing else, it reinforces my impression of the quality of the material. A really good show can survive and even thrive absent its original stars, where some shows just never quite live up to the bar set by the first actors.

But Hamilton is for real. The style of the show may not hold up over decades (only time will tell), but the show itself will hold up for a good long time, and will no doubt change some of the ways people think about musical theater. I certainly have some notions about what is possible and what is desirable on the musical stage that are different from what I thought before seeing the show either time. And that, to me, is the measure of a great show.

Needless to say, if you haven't seen it, you should. It runs in San Francisco well into August, I believe, before moving on to Los Angeles. Check it out!

Monday, May 8, 2017

"Temple" at Aurora Theatre Company

Aurora Theatre Company photo by David Allen
This one takes us back a few years, to 2011, though many of its themes should feel quite contemporary. Aurora is presenting the U.S. premiere of Steve Waters's play, Temple, which depicts St. Paul's Cathedral in the City of London under siege by Occupy London. Though the Occupy movement has largely left the popular consciousness, frequent, ongoing protests and conflicts between the wealthy "1%" and the masses are all too current.

So when I read the one-sentence summary, this seemed like a super timely choice for Aurora to make. As it turns out, the play isn't really what I expected, dealing less with the overall conflict of established institutions and privilege versus the teeming throng, and more with the role of The Church (of England) in the modern world. Not that that isn't an interesting and important topic, but not nearly as pertinent in Berkeley, circa 2017.

The Play

The entire play takes place inside a meeting room at the Chapter House across from St. Paul's, where the Chapter (a group of clergy) that administers the cathedral have been discussing how to deal with being Occupied. Occupy London, having been ousted from the nearby London Stock Exchange building, they shifted to nearby St. Paul's, leading the Chapter to close the cathedral for the first time ever.

The play begins the morning after the Chapter has, after long, late debate, voted to reopen, and The Dean (played by Paul Whitworth), who is the head of the Chapter and therefore, head of the cathedral, is trying to figure out how to do that. We soon meet his new personal assistant (Sylvia Burboeck), replacing one who has left due to stress and overwork, as well as the Canon Chancellor (Mike Ryan), one of the other clergy. The Dean, the Canon Chancellor, and the Bishop of London (J. Michael Flynn), who we meet later, are all based on real people and real events from 2011, though the dialogue is fictional.

Ultimately, the play becomes a struggle between the conservative and indecisive Dean and the younger, more worldly and liberal, Canon Chancellor. We see it in small details such as their choices of books, and in the fact that the Dean barely manages his old flip-phone, while the Canon Chancellor shows him videos on his smart phone of Occupy protests being violently expelled around the world. The Bishop serves to exert a bit of pressure from above in the church, while a lawyer from the City (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and The Virger (Sharon Lockwood) add pressure from without and within the cathedral itself, respectively.

Something's got to give, and for a while, it feels like it might be The Dean.

The Production

I was pretty eager to see what I thought was a show about the relationship of protesters and protestees. But we have no protesters beyond the sounds outside, just church people in the Chapter House. I'm rather ill-equipped to evaluate a lengthy discussion over internal church politics and policy, so I have to just look at it as I would any other play. So at the outset I guess I could have used a bit more exposition about the events leading up to the present conflict. Bits of it come through in the dialogue, but understanding some of the basics could have helped me along earlier.

And then, well, they do pontificate. I suppose that's authentic, but really, a lot of the dialogue could have been trimmed a bit without losing much. And the scene between the City Lawyer and the Dean is much too long. Directory Tom Ross has paced it such that it doesn't take as long as it might--the lawyer speaks at a rapid, lawyerly clip, and I understand that ratchets up the pressure on the Dean--but really, we didn't need all of that. We got the point long before, and with much less verbiage.

And I really don't understand or believe the character of the Personal Assistant. When she arrives in the morning the Dean is clearly unimpressed and rather dismissive of her, yet in just a few short hours she becomes kind of his confidant and conscience. Obviously she has more depth than we assume at the outset, but there's really no clear development of the character, she's got a different role. I realize that she stands for a good chunk of modernity pressing in on the Dean, but really, that could have been done more artfully.

I should say that the acting is, for the most part, quite good. The three clergymen are quite good and believable. Lockwood is fine, though I find her talent somewhat wasted on the Virger character. And the set is nice enough, though not terribly imaginative, and the sound is a bit off at times.

Bottom Line

Overall I thought the play and production were OK, but unspectacular. Others in our group liked it better than I did. I'm supposed to feel besieged, but we never actually see or feel that, just hear a bit, and with the characters coming and going rather freely, it doesn't seem like they are actually all that constrained. I realize it's the cathedral that's surrounded by the Occupiers, but there really isn't much to indicate that.

Also, it's never really that clear what threat Occupy presents to the cathedral. I mean, it made it through The Blitz, so I don't quite get what they fear from a bunch of camping protesters. Obviously the characters feel the need to protect the sanctity of the structure and resume their worship and rituals. OK, but they don't explain to me why that is at odds with people camping outside.

And at some point The Dean dismisses a protest sign asking "What Would Jesus Do?" But it's pretty clear from my reading that Jesus would have opened the doors and invited the protesters in, but that's not on the agenda here. So perhaps this is the part I find lacking: I don't understand the reasoning behind the Dean's decision making. I understand where he ends up (and I won't tell you where that is), but the reasoning behind it is quite lacking, at least from the audience's side.

Maybe I just need to be steeped in the Church of England to understand the relationship among the clergy, the masses, and the cathedral. But I don't, and the play doesn't really help me with that. I know more about church politics now, but I don't think that's what I was meant to get from this play. Your mileage may vary.

So, ultimately there's some pretty good acting that seems kind of wasted on a play that doesn't really resonate. Maybe when Occupy was still a thing around here, it might have felt more timely. But what I see today is a group of people trying to preserve at least the trappings of their everyday lives while the world is trying to change around them, and although I seem them resisting it, I don't see the result of the struggle. Or is that the message?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

"The Mushroom Cure" at The Marsh SF

As with many shows at The Marsh, Adam Strauss's The Mushroom Cure isn't a play per se, but a one-person monologue in a theatrical setting. It is very much a piece of theater art, however. It is also a very intimate portrayal of a real story of the frustrations of trying to both live with a treat mental illness, told in the first person.

We caught the last preview performance this weekend. The show officially opens this week.

The Show

The name of the show derives from an incident where Strauss discovers online an article describing clinical studies in which psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in "magic mushrooms," showed remarkable effectiveness in treating and even curing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a condition Strauss himself has. So he took it upon himself to try to obtain and use mushrooms to treat himself.

Stepping back a bit, Strauss is a stand-up comedian based in New York City, so he is quite familiar with standing in front of an audience and discussing intimate subjects. Probably the most interesting portions of the show to me were the bits where he externally verbalizes the internal dialogue that someone with OCD has with himself trying to make a decision. It's quite brilliantly done, and provides a degree of insight not usually available to those outside.

The narrative thread of the show pretty much begins with the discovery that there is a "mushroom cure" out there, and proceeds though myriad paths toward trying to acquire mushrooms, starting with a call to his pot dealer, discussions with his therapist, and the meeting of a new girlfriend who seems remarkably well-tuned to his plight. Along the way we get insights into how OCD and its treatments came into Strauss's life, how it impacts so many facets of it, and how he deals with it prior to the discovery of mushrooms. There are detours through cactus, therapy in the park, and choosing the perfect beach house in Martha's Vineyard for a mushroom "trip." Along with those come commentaries on Burning Man, New Jersey, and Times Square, among many others.

Throughout, the well-honed comedy wit and timing come through, but so does a quite sincere desire to share a real story about real suffering. As with many difficult stories in life, there are humorous aspects if you're willing to look at it the right way, and Strauss uses that humor to help keep us with him through a truly twisted path.

Marshifying the Show

The Mushroom Cure originally appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then made its way back to New York with Strauss where it eventually raun very successfully off-Broadway. The Marsh represents the West Coast premiere of the show, and the level of polish really shows. Strauss has a degree of comfort and fluidity in his presentation that was so clearly lacking in the last show I saw at the Marsh (Tom Ammiano's solo show, Mincing Words). Needless to say, this is a much better, more satisfying show than that.

I should add that it's not strictly speaking just a monologue. I mean, Strauss is the only performer, but he's definitely set the narrative in a dramatic form. There are scenes and scene changes. Sometimes he represents multiple characters, and so on. He really demonstrates some versatility in the performance.

Perhaps best of all, Strauss doesn't try to tie it all up in a neat package. He neither proclaims himself miraculously cured nor condemns himself to a life of unremitting torment. This isn't Hollywood; there isn't a neat ending. It's real life, and what we see is what we get. Strauss is obviously a very functional human at this point who freely admits that he has ongoing challenges from his OCD, but also shows and explains many of the ways he has gotten better.

Reality Impacting

For those who know someone (or several someones) with OCD and related conditions, the show is really helpful, providing a view into the inner workings of the process that would normally be completely opaque. There are times when the person with OCD looks completely immobile and rather withdrawn, but inside the mind is whirling between and among choices and decisions. The frustration is palpable, but it's amazingly insightful stuff.

And at the risk of a small "spoiler," I'll just say that whatever else comes out of  the pursuit of The Mushroom Cure, it's abundantly clear that there is no miracle here. Whatever else happens, there is still a lot of ongoing work for the person with OCD. Getting the process and the treatment out into the open is helpful both for those with OCD and for those who know them,  work with them, and live with them.

It's a powerful show, and well worth the time to see it. The official opening night is May 10, and the scheduled run is through June 3. It's well worth a run out to the Mission to see it.

"Battlefield" at ACT

ACT photo
Right on the heels of seeing Needles and Opium and its spectacular staging just a couple of weeks ago, we returned to the Geary Theatre yesterday afternoon for a very different sort of show, Battlefield. Adapted from a portion of the famous poem "The Mahabharata," the play covers the aftermath of a devastating bloodbath. As the photo above suggests, the staging is quite sparse, basically a bare stage with a few sticks and boxes and a few cloth drapes. "Minimal" kind of understates how simple the staging is.

The Play

Coming as it does out of the middle of an extremely long story, the play leaves one to find and tie together some of the threads that are missing. We know we join the story after a mutual massacre: both armies have been slaughtered, almost to a man. The descriptions are quite poetic, delivered with a stoicism that seems to indicate shock. The "victorious" leader is to be crowned king of the defeated side, currently ruled by his uncle. [This is one of the points where we realize there is much, much more to this story, but we have to just go with it.] He decides he won't take the job, but the uncle insists, and sends him off to talk to his father, the victor's grandfather.

There ensues a lot of storytelling, focused on duty and destiny. There is a sort of reconciliation, but then the uncle and his wife head off into the woods. There is a lot of magical, mystical stuff going on out there. Some other stuff happens.

The Production

So this all goes on for about an hour and a quarter. The acting is pretty good, but always muted and unemotional. Obviously the situation is loaded with emotion, but the actors barely express any of it, either physically or verbally. This is all intentional. Director and co-adapter Peter Brook is apparently known for this style, so it's very innovative. Unfortunately, I don't find it very effective. Perhaps if I knew the story coming in, I would find some importance in the way the material is presented. But coming in cold, it just leaves me cold. I understand stripping away the artifice of scenery and props. But removing the human emotions makes no sense to me. Understated is one thing; unstated quite another.

It doesn't help that the play ultimately doesn't go anywhere. [Spoiler, I guess...] At the end, when the characters are supposed to find out The Meaning Of It All, we get a (very nice) drum solo by Toshi Tsuchitori, and then...nothing. The lights come up. Eventually people clap. We're done.

Bottom Line

Ho hum. The very sparing style of the production comes across not as a humble attempt to let the humanity come through in the absence of artifice, despite the stated intentions of the director, as noted in an interview in the program. Really, the emperor has no play, despite the praise heaped on him and it by his fawning fans. It just seems pretentious and, dare I say, lazy.

There are some nice elements in the staging, but ultimately, it's a pretty empty shell. Asking me to fill it in for myself begs the question of why I paid for a ticket to this play instead of reading the poem for myself.

OK, enough. I thought this was a pretty wasted effort. If the director can't be bothered to have a point of view and express it, I can't be bothered to go see his work.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Noises Off" at SF Playhouse

SF Playhouse photo

I've been thinking it's time for a really fun play. Perhaps even a silly play. Just something to take my mind off life, work, and reality. Luckily, SF Playhouse came along with their production of Michael Frayn's Noises Off just in time.

There is really not much of substance to this show. There is no great social message or moral instruction here. But it is a very tightly-written, classic English farce that plays out wonderfully on the SF Playhouse stage. I'm sad that because of scheduling difficulties we saw it so late in its run. There are only about another week and a half in the run of this show, and it's well worth seeing.

The Play

My first exposure to Michael Frayn's work was seeing Copenhagen in London back in 1999. I recall hearing the description of the play and thinking that it was something I would really like, though I wasn't sure it would appeal to a broader audience. As it turned out, it was one of the sharpest plays I've ever seen, both keen writing and amazing acting, and it went on to win all sorts of awards both in London and eventually on Broadway.

Noises Off is not that kind of play.

It is a play about a play. The three acts are set at the last rehearsal before the show opens, another performance a month later, and then at the end of the tour. The play inside the play (called "Nothing On") is a very silly little farce itself, but each of the actors in it has something demonstrably wrong (the aging alcoholic actor, the clueless bimbo, the actor who has to question the reason for everything, etc.). As things play out, we also learn a lot about the personal histories, current problems, and interpersonal relationships of the cast and crew, all of which greatly complicate the rehearsal. By the curtain of Act I, we head off to intermission knowing that this won't end well, but with really no idea how far off the rails and in what direction it's going to go.

Needless to say, things don't improve much when we see the show in production a month later. But a lot of the fun comes from the fact that we're now seeing the same play, but from behind the scenery instead of in front. It's hilarious to see what the cast has to go through to get back onstage as things are unraveling backstage. And finally in the final act, it's really just a question of whether they'll get through it at all, with much hilarity.

It's all here: slapstick humor, mistaken identities, characters entering one door just as others depart through another. Classic farce.

The Production

I should say right up front: Finally, a great use of the turntable on the Playhouse stage. As I have often noted here, they seem to look for almost any reason to use it, often unnecessarily, and sometimes it detracts from their shows. But this play, where you need to see the action both in front of and behind the scenery, is perfect for a rotating set. And that said, it means the set design and props and such are all really important to the show, and they are quite well done. Indeed, if there is one thing this show requires, it's precision and consistency, and cast and crew pull that off nearly all the time. Scenic Designer George Maxwell, Properties Designer Jacquelyn Scott, and Costume Designer Abra Berman all did great work, and must have had a really good time doing it.

The cast is a good mix of some of the Playhouse regulars, other local actors, and some faces I wasn't familiar with. There was definitely a freshness to their interaction. I was particularly impressed with several of the portrayals. Monique Hafen did a remarkably consistent job as the not-very-clever Brooke, which cannot be easy. Patrick Russell as Garry was also quite good, and some of his physical stunts were just impressive. Craig Marker definitely played against type as a rather dense but stalwart actor.

The real key to the success of the play is timing, and most of the time, most of the actors had it down. There were a couple who didn't always quite keep the action moving at the breakneck clip it requires, but on the whole it worked brilliantly. Kudos to director Susi Damilano for keeping things lively.

I could nitpick a point or two, but really, the show worked. It kept us laughing throughout, and that's really all one can ask of a farce.

Bottom Line

I totally recommend this show as a good time. It runs through May 13, and is well worth seeing. I really wish I could find time to take my daughter, who loves this sort of show.

Probably my only critique is of the play itself, in that by the third act, the final dissolution of show and cast is almost an anticlimax. I'm not sure how it could be written or performed differently to avoid that, but at the end of the second act (the backstage view, mid-tour), the devolution of the show is really very satisfying, and seeing it all fly apart at the end is almost a little disappointing.

But not very--all in all, we left amused, satisfied, and in a good humor for the dinner that followed. And that's a good evening at the theater.

Check it out!