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.

"100 Years of Political Theatre, Series B." Eastenders' rotating festival of one-acts revives political theater from (mostly) the 20th century. "Series B," which alternates with "Series A" and "Series C," consists of '70s-era plays by Athol Fugard and Vaclav Havel. Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is a searing but overlong piece about a white South African woman and her black lover, who get arrested midcoitus by government goons with flashlights and dogs. I love Fugard, but this play doesn't hold up in a time and place where cross-racial sex is legal. Too much of the script relies on the context of apartheid for its power; in spite of strong performances from Reg Clay and Craig Souza, the speeches are in dire need of editing. Audience, by Havel, is better. It's one of his famous "Vanek" plays, about a Havel alter ego, who in this case has lost his official (communist) position as a playwright. He has to work in a brewery, and the cranky lager-lout who calls himself Vanek's boss isn't sure what to say to an underling with such elegant and beautiful actress friends. So he resorts to offering a) advice, b) loud commonplaces, c) a lot of beer, and d) loutish tips on playwriting. Souza is a fine, blank-faced Vanek and John Hutchinson is hilariously deadpan as the unstable Brewmaster. Robert A. Zick Jr. has directed the piece with a clean sense of absurdist timing. All the one-acts feel long for the festival format, but I should mention that "Series C," which we can't review because of timing, includes an up-to-date monologue by Naomi Wallace -- narrated by an Iraqi who fought in the first Gulf War. "Series B" runs through Sept. 25 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. 15.

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.

Dog Act. "Rozetta Stone's Travelling Vaudeville with Dog Act, currently under contract to the King of China" reads the sign on Rozetta's gypsy wagon, which folds out to become a stage but most of the time looks like an old junk cart hung with eccentric puppets, stamped-tin plates, porcelain figurines, and a burnt rubber Teletubby. Liz Duffy Adams' new play envisions a Mad Max-style future in which roving tribes battle for control of what used to be Texas and New England, and regular people are forced to survive as (fairly bad) vaudevillians. The language is thick with wannabe-Joycean puns and tinges of hip hop slang. ("The sea," says Rozetta. "It the big wet. ... It smell like a come-on meeting a want-to." Or, waxing faux-nostalgic for China, which she's never seen, "Who-all has not heard of that wonderacity?") In spite of a powerful effort by Beth Donohue as Rozetta, as well as C. Dianne Manning as a mysterious stranger who recognizes Dog Act from a more civilized time, the characters never rise above their forced eccentricities. Dog Act is all style and no drama, full of miraculous toys like a three-string guitar made from a crutch or a resonant xylophone made of Styrofoam and wrenches -- still a plaything more than a play. Through Oct. 10 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King), Berkeley. Tickets are $20; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Sept. 15.

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.

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 Oct. 30 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.

Also Playing

Barred From Life: Based on interviews with exonerated ex-cons, the work combines dance, video, excerpts from interviewees, and music to explore the horror of wrongful conviction. Thu., Sept. 23, 8 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 26, 7 p.m., $7-30. USF Presentation Theater, 2350 Turk (at Masonic), 422-2434.

Bone Man of Benares: The world premiere of the one-man autobiographical play presents a travelogue of the globe-trotting travels of Terry Tarnoff. Starting Sept. 23, Sundays, 5 p.m.; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m. Continues through Oct. 30, $15-20. The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 587-4465.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Actors Theatre of San Francisco's production of the Tennessee Williams classic. Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Continues through Oct. 23, $10-40. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Couch: Celik Kayalar wrote and directs this comedy about the strange problems faced by patients and long-suffering mental health professionals. Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m. Continues through Sept. 25, $10-20. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

A Couple of Blaguards: Based on Frank and Malachy McCourt's book of the same name, the play is a comedy about an Irish family. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Continues through Oct. 17, $30-50. Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

Joe Egg: A comedy about a couple coping with a severely disabled child. Starting Sept. 23, Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Continues through Oct. 17, $40-55. Mills College Theater, Lisser Hall, 5000 MacArthur (between Seminary and High exits), Oakland.

The Persians: A revamp of Greek playwright Aeschylus' tales of the ancient Persian Wars. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. & 7 p.m. Continues through Oct. 10, $28-45. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org.

Sex & Mayhem: Donald Currie's whirlwind, autobiographical ride through 50 years of queer culture in San Francisco. Sundays, 2 p.m.; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m. Continues through Oct. 10, $15-25. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org.

Single Spies: The purportedly true story of the Cambridge Spy Ring, the first modern scandal to rock the British royal family. Starting Sept. 23, Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. & 7 p.m. Continues through Oct. 17, $23-35. Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079, www.therhino.org.

This House: Pathlight Productions presents the second installment of a trilogy based on the life of J.C. Daniels, a black man who transformed himself from a hoodlum to a pastor. Sept. 24-25, 8 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 26, 3 p.m., $10-18. Bayview Opera House, 4705 Third St. (at Newcome), 864-3547.

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