Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Betrayal. Harold Pinter's simple drama of adultery, told backward for the simplest of reasons, shows a love triangle from its last bitter drink in a bar to its first forbidden kiss. A literary agent named Jerry carries on for seven years with his best friend's wife, Emma. The friend, Robert, runs a publishing house in London. Charles Shaw Robinson plays a composed, wounded Robert, who knows about the affair and observes his wife and pal misbehaving with a blend of detachment and pain. The show is brief and brutal, less than 90 minutes long, and you watch the scenes in reverse with some of Robert's fascination, like a witness to a train wreck. Through Aug. 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $34-36; call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 7.

The Fantasticks. The longest-running play in American history is also musical theater's cheesiest self-parody, a sweet, dumb story about two fathers who pretend a Montague-and-Capulet-style feud as an excuse to keep their kids, Luisa and Matt, apart. The hope, of course, is to throw them together, since children never do as they're told. When Matt and Luisa fall in love, the fathers arrange a "rape" by the mysterious Spaniard El Gallo, with help from a pair of feckless old actors. Matt is then supposed to rescue Luisa from the Spaniard and become a hero to her as well as to her dad, thus ending the feud. Not everything goes as planned, and the rest of the musical deals in schmaltzy terms with love's dark underbelly. The Fantasticks premiered in Greenwich Village in 1960 and played there until early 2002. The S.F. Playhouse, for some reason, is reviving it. Bill English plays El Gallo in a mustache and black Spanish suit; Louis Parnell plays one of the fathers, Hucklebee; Katy Stephan plays the spoiled but charming Luisa; Mark Farrell plays the nebbishy Matt. Parnell and Farrell are both solid professionals, putting in an honest night's work, but English and Stephan tend to be self-conscious actors. The difference is that Stephan can sing. Her voice soars and melts with emotion, especially in the duets, while English makes up for his limited range with a sort of prancing silliness. Joe Bellan and Graham Cowley manage real comedy as the geriatric actors, but director Dianna Shuster has no clear comic vision for the rest of the scenes, and The Fantasticks, overall, gives off an unfresh odor, like something that's spent too much time under stage lights. Through Aug. 21 at the S.F. Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

The Good Body. Eve Ensler's new Broadway-bound monologue is a 90-odd-minute routine about self-consciousness, fat, and body image. A lot of it plays like stand-up comedy. Other bits play like The Vagina Monologues, using the same interview techniques: Ensler portrays women from around the world talking about their plump, aging, or embarrassingly sexual bodies. Parts of it are very funny. But Ensler also misses a thoughtful through-line for all her sharp-edged portraits: From a "radical-feminist" examination of body obsessions you expect some radical insight, an epiphany or a blaze of self-awareness that will allow women everywhere to quit being "slaves to vanity," as George Sand put it once in a different context. But no. The show ends in a sentimental prayer for "self-acceptance" that sounds like a magazine cliché. Through Aug. 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $15-68; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants' Ingonyama," by Lebo M, and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Nov. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.

Master Class. One reason people use the word "diva" too often nowadays is that the notion of great women being defined by great performances has made great fodder for modern dramatists. Not far beneath Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., the pinnacle of diva dramaturgy, is Terrence McNally's Tony Awardwinning 1996 play Master Class. The subject here, in a command performance by Rita Moreno, is the aching soul of superstar Maria Callas. But the show is also a valentine to the opera, beautiful bitch that she is. McNally knows how to orchestrate for human instruments. His play is agreeably operatic, and director Moisés Kaufman planes the lines of its shapely form with affection. Based on classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early '70s, the action is an imparting of her earned wisdom. She's that dazzling -- the brutal teacher we've all had or wanted. Among the three students, strong singers all, Sherry Boone's Sharon is the real crowd-pleaser; the arc of her creative process is the most impressive and the most human. Mark Wedland's design and David Lander's lighting make good use of a deep, high-ceilinged stage to reveal a few stirring glimpses of grandeur. And Moreno, firmly rooted and lifting her face to gather the light, makes a big room feel small. "The real world.' Brutal expression, brutal place," she declares as Callas, edifying performers everywhere. Through July 25 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.

Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage, but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through July 24 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2.

Orpheus Descending. One of Tennessee Williams' great but problematic tragedies is a Southern Gothic featuring a wandering blues musician, Valentine Xavier. Val wears a snakeskin coat and carries a guitar inscribed by singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith. He wants to abandon his old life of juke joints and cheap women, so he accepts a straight job at the Torrance Mercantile Store in an unnamed small town, where his sheer physical beauty upsets the sheriff, the local biddies, and the sick tyrant Jabe Torrance. It also entices Mrs. Torrance, and her and Val's halting love affair makes a fine, slow-moving melodrama. Brando played Val in a movie version, The Fugitive Kind, which also moved at a sluggish pace. Jean Shelton's revival at the Actors Theatre, unfortunately, solves none of the pacing problems. In spite of a well-cast group and a vivid set by Scott Agar Jaicks, there's no urgency to the show. Alex Garcia has the right blank, smoldering intensity as Val; Nadia Tarzi has the right olive skin and vague accent for Lady Torrance, who's fervid and Italian; Niki Yapo is appropriately rebellious and frail as Carol, who remembers Val from his previous life. But they all seem to talk past each other. Only Padma Moyer and Delinda Dane, as two of the local biddies, and John Krause, as Jabe, manage to infect the performance with life of their own. Otherwise the actors seem to wait for a passion that never quite arrives. Through Aug. 28 at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-25; call 296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

Sacrament! Yes, Dave Eggers has written a play, too. Get over it. Even better: See it, and come out saying, "Oh yeah, I like Eggers." In collaboration with Campo Santo and director Kent Nicholson, the writer seems reinvigorated by the immediacy of theater. The tone is familiar: equal parts goofiness and gravitas, with results greater than the sum of their parts. The aesthetic is familiar as well: a handsome production, clean, controlled, and elegant in a pared-down way. And, of course, the material is familiar (from Eggers' novel You Shall Know Our Velocity!): Two young men, bearing a financial windfall and a friend's death, travel the world on impulse, grieving and giving away money. Should be easy enough. But, as Will (Sean San José) observes, "It's always so fucking complicated!" Identity, both civic and personal, is a creative act: It demands the effort of self-reflection, of converting memory into inspiration, yet the actors here pull it off. Danny Wolohan, as Hand, makes great, simple choices and is impossible not to like. He and San José have fine support from Tina Marie Murray and Michael Torres. If the cast's headlong charges into the text sometimes seem memorized beyond the prospect of discovery (and read like a phobia of stillness), it might be considered a thematic preoccupation. To discover mystery is an artist's privilege and his task, and Eggers won't let that opportunity be squandered. The show beseeches you to stay open above all; it'll leave you feeling at once wrung-out and ravenous. Through Aug. 8 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th streets), S.F. Tickets are $9-15; call 626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.

Also Playing

Becca and Heidi: Local playwright Sharon Eberhardt's new one-woman play about split personality and morality, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Aug. 7, $15-$20, 454-7788 (information). Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Dark Matter: The latest drama from Dooley author Harry C. Cronin concerns fallout from the indiscretions of a Catholic priest, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 8; $15-$20. Jon Sims Center for the Arts, 1519 Mission (at 11th St.), 554-0402.

Eclipsed: Patricia Burke Brogan's groundbreaking play about Ireland's Magdalene laundries and the women who were imprisoned there for so-called promiscuous behavior, 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, through Saturday, July 24, 3 p.m. Sunday, July 25; $15-$20. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

I Need, I Want, I Tilt: The Tilted Frame company improvises an original play live each night incorporating digital video and the Internet, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through July 31, $12-$15. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Murder: Second Wind Productions presents Hanoch Levin's drama about Israeli-Palestinian violence, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through Aug. 15, $10-$16. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Shakespeare's R & J: The Red Jacket company presents a realistic, modern ensemble production of Shakespeare's tragic romance, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 22, through Saturday, July 24, 2 p.m. Sunday, July 25; $10. Bannam Place Theater, 50A Bannam Pl. (at Grant), 831-8067.

Water Tales: Inge Wessels and her crew of wisecracking puppets offer insights into San Francisco's maritime history; Water Tales, 1 and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 15, free. Hyde Street Pier, Hyde (at Jefferson), 556-3002.

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