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Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theatre

"100 Years of Political Theatre, Series A." Eastenders' fifth annual One-Act Festival has a political theme this year. The troupe offers a century's worth of dissident playwriting, from early Soviet Russia through South Africa to the present-day United States. But the first thing to point out about The Bedbug -- a satire by Vladimir Mayakovsky that kicks things off in "Series A" (there are three "series," or nights, to choose from) -- is that it's not a one-act: It has an intermission. As a satire of communist Russia it's also not very funny. A true-believing Soviet bureaucrat in 1929 falls into a deep freeze and wakes up 50 years later, in a 1979 imagined by Mayakovsky to be sterile and almost robotic, where functionaries vote after being plugged in. Compared to these hollow men, the bureaucrat, Prisypkin, resembles Dean Martin after a bender. He wears a rumpled tuxedo -- loose bow tie, untucked shirt, infested with a still-living bedbug -- and likes to drink and smoke. The 1979 Russians put him in a zoo as a specimen of "bourgeois man." The concept is funny, but director Susan Evans should have cut the script radically for a one-act festival. Her cast overplays, diluting all the humor in a mess of forced vehemence and exaggerated gestures, and a lot of the satire is dated. The play exhausts the audience for The Informer, a one-act by Bertolt Brecht from his longer Fear and Misery in the Third Reich. Two German parents, with a portrait of Hitler on the wall, worry that their son has reported them to the Hitler Youth for expressing "reckless" opinions. The acting here is better; Jeff Thompson and Suzan A. Kendall don't have to force their lines, and director Charles E. Polly captures the Germans' ennui. But after Mayakovsky we're not in the mood. "Series A" runs through Sept. 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call (510) 568-4118 or visit www.eastenders.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 8.

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. Director Robert Wilson's "pop opera" deals with a German clerk who makes a pact with a diabolical Black Rider for seven magic bullets. The first six go anywhere the shooter aims; the seventh belongs to the devil. On his wedding day our hero gleefully aims at a bird in a tree, to prove himself as a marksman, but the devil redirects bullet No. 7 into the heart of the bride. On this bare frame Wilson hangs a German expressionist dream that comes alive in the score by Tom Waits more than in the dialogue by William S. Burroughs (who contributed his own dark legend of a wayward bullet). Marianne Faithfull, as the Black Rider, has a mannish, lyrical, whiskey-coarse voice that serves beautifully on songs like "Just the Right Bullets" and "The Last Rose of Summer." Hearing her sing those might be worth the price of admission alone, but other cast members, especially Matt McGrath, do well with the important ballads. Wilson's best shows are spacious dreams, and The Black Rider creates a dark German forest where your imagination can stand up, walk around, and find itself pleasantly lost. Through Oct. 10 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-80; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 8.

Circumnavigator. Dan Hoyle circled the globe on a grant two years ago from the Chicago-based Circumnavigators Club, using its money to develop a piece of "journalistic theater" about globalism. If you've never heard of journalistic theater, don't worry: Hoyle may be its only living practitioner. In Circumnavigatorhe hops from Vietnam to India to Kenya to South Africa to Argentina, talking earnestly to everyone about labor issues. "In India, story is -- big country, small economy," says an editor of India Today. "Sex industry, mon. Mad cash," says a teenager in Kenya. "I'm from Durban, and I fucking rip waves," says a dangerously drunk pro surfer in South Africa, who's proud of his sponsorship by an American company. Many of these miniportraits are entertaining and vivid; Hoyle is a talented mimic. But as a writer he still has a weak sense of climaxes and shapely scenes. His story wanders; his set-pieces peter out. Apparently aware that he goes on too much about globalism, he says he's arrived in Kenya "to quit thinking about American companies and foreign investment." For most of us that wouldn't be hard. But the problem is not that Hoyle thinks too much about what is, after all, the topic of his show; the problem is that he never makes a discernible point. He circles his topic the way he circles the planet -- without quite arriving anywhere. Through Sept. 25 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (between 21st and 22nd streets), S.F. Tickets are $10-14; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Aug. 11.

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.

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