By Josh Edelson
By Chris Hall
By Jonathan Curiel
By Jonathan Curiel
By Sherilyn Connelly
By Mollie McWilliams
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Browner
Home videos from New Orleans and stage patter charted her growth from awkward man-child in a cheap wig to paragon of feminine manners. A low point: rinsing out her panties in the Times Square McDonald's. It was these confessional moments, her vulnerability exposed, that gave a poignant twinge to the camp. Her historical videos revealed that those elements of elegance were only mastered after diligent rehearsal. Every bump, grind, and sparkle was the product of lots of practice, from donning fake eyelashes to the stunt of squirting spray cheese down her throat during an aria about the tasty varieties of brie and Swiss. The final number was a snappy and scatological ditty about why she continues to tuck away her gender-defining member instead of going for the final cut. Ghastly appendage aside, everything about Varla Jean Merman oozed ladylike charm.
-- Julie Chase
Mrs. Armstrong. By Keith Phillips. Directed by Chris Phillips and Paul D'Addario. Starring Felicia Faulkner, John Robb, Bruce Mackey, Nicole Stanton, Ryan O'Donnell, and Matt Martinez. At the Actors Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), through Sept. 6. Call 296-9179.
An early scene in Mrs. Armstrong, a new play by Keith Phillips premiering now at the Actors Theater, has Mrs. Armstrong and a local kid named Teddy building a face out of a garden rock. The rock's wrinkles apparently look like the visage of a neighborhood Greek lady, so they dress up the rock with a mop head, lipstick, and sunglasses, call it "Hestia" after the Greek goddess of the hearth, and leave it as a tablecloth weight on the Armstrong family picnic table, where it stays until Michael Armstrong blows it apart with a shotgun.
That much of the play is strong and involving. The rivalry between Michael and his father, Parnell, for a young woman named Toscha, who's enthralled by the older man's reputation as a painter, follows a classical arc right up to the drunken shotgun climax. It's a memory play, told in flashback by an elderly Michael, looking back on this story after the eventual death of his father. Parnell drinks too much, picks fights with guests, and hasn't seen his son in too long. He drops in unexpectedly to join his estranged family and a New Yorker-ish crowd of family friends for a weekend at their Hampton beach house in the summer of 1959. Michael is a preppy 17-year-old, in love with the precocious Toscha, a Bard College coed-to-be with porcelain skin. Most of the play is witty and funny and well-acted, but instead of ending gracefully it levels off after the shotgun blast into a long wasteland of heavy dialogue and wrap-up speechifying by the narrator, a flat, functional ending that seriously taxes the audience.
John Robb plays Parnell. He wears a pale linen suit and a fedora, looking civilized and natty when he first shows up at the house; but the anger and spite boiling under his skin are ferocious, and Robb can be truly frightening when he gets mad onstage. Matt Martinez plays Michael with an awkwardness that doesn't quite work (most of the time he seems awkward, not his character), but his tantrums are good. Mrs. Armstrong is played by Felicia Faulkner, who can be natural and affecting but also overurgent. Nicole Stanton is excellent as Toscha as long as Toscha is Michael's sharp-tongued girlfriend, but when she has to be an art-struck romantic with dreams of being a "beatnik queen," as Parnell puts it, by sleeping with a famous painter, Stanton's conviction strains. Teddy, the neighborhood kid, is played solidly by Ryan O'Donnell, and Bruce Mackey does a suave and engaging job as the narrator, enunciating some of the playwright's finest language in a mellow, nimble voice.
This should be a really fine play, but the author's heavy hand unbalances the strong scenes and the comedy. A stream of references to ancient Greece makes it seem like Keith Phillips doesn't quite believe Long Island is a decent place for drama. The characters keep working Oedipus into their conversations, and if another character on opening night had mentioned that poor king's name I think I would have shot somebody.
-- Michael Scott Moore
White Light/White Heat
Bake Sale. By Ed Gaible. Directed by Ken Watt. Starring John Flanagan, Nina Gold, Andrew Hurteau, Sommer Ulrickson, and Alexis Lezin. Presented by Fifth Floor at Somar, 934 Brannan (at Eighth Street), through Aug. 16. Call 552-5290.
A shirtless David Koresh figure in red snakeskin pants delivers a ranting gospel into a microphone. Flanking him, two henchmen strike angular poses while a triad of women in white-trash fashion crawl in slow motion toward him. From a distance a man in black spies on the scene with binoculars. Two video screens flash tawdry scenes from Andy Warhol's Trash while the Velvet Underground coat the air with their furry blanket of sound. When Koresh turns, the women scurry to the back of the stage where they again begin their slithery journey toward the guru. And the movement loop begins once more: the longing, the crawling, the preaching, the posturing, the spying.
Bake Sale, director Ken Watt's latest foray into ancient text and pop culture, offers what academics reverently call "difficult theater." With no message, no story, and no sense-soothing style, watching the piece feels like experiencing a small train wreck: violent, ephemeral, impossible to absorb, yet irrevocably true.
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