Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Art. It's not hard to see why Yasmina Reza's play caused such a fuss when it appeared in Paris, London, New York, and just about everywhere else from the late 1990s onward. The tightly wound, bittersweet comedy in which three middle-aged friends, Yvan, Serge, and Marc, almost come to blows over a painting, is at one level about people's perceptions of art, and at another, the nature of human relationships. The Damien Hirstsize hype that surrounded the play a few years ago makes staging it today feel a bit like arriving at a costume ball just as the last guests are leaving, but SF Playhouse puts on a memorable afterparty. In many ways, Art is tailor-made for this company: Bill English, SF Playhouse's artistic director (who plays the role of Serge in the production), also happened to design some of the most stylish sets. The look for Art, which English created, is a study in clean angles and severe, understated elegance, like the interior of a Gucci store. The play is also a wonderful chamber piece, perfect for performance in SF Playhouse's intimate yet airy space, by a trio of compelling actors. Keith Burkland is adorably shabby as the henpecked Yvan; dressed in a conservative blue pinstriped suit, Louis Parnell (Marc) is suitably outspoken and cynical; and English comes off as suave and ever so slightly smarmy as Serge, the dermatologist who buys the painting that sets the whole thing off. Director Robin Stanton's painterly blocking adds the final touch to this sublimely composed canvas. Through July 30 at SF Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 6.

Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. In the middle of Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov recites a "poem in prose" of his own composition titled "The Grand Inquisitor." It is this strange story-within-a-story that Gary Graves has meticulously adapted for the stage in Central Works' deeply moving production Dostoevsky's The Grand Inquisitor. Set in Seville, Spain, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition, the play centers around the character of the Grand Inquisitor (Graves), a ruthless old man hellbent on maintaining control with the rack and the wheel. But when a stranger turns up who is reportedly able to perform miracles, the Inquisitor is forced to ask himself penetrating questions. Combining whiffs of church incense, intense lighting, an evocative set featuring a ponderous crucifix at its center, and a haunting soundscape of sacred choral music, the production works a mystical charm on all the senses. Though the pace sometimes feels slow, Graves brings sensitivity to the character of the Inquisitor, and David Skillman shows off multidexterous talents in a variety of roles. The hallowed surroundings of the Berkeley City Club no doubt will give the experience extra intensity. Through July 31 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $9-25; call (510) 558-1381 or visit www.centralworks.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 15.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Edward Albee's 2002 play -- currently receiving its West Coast premiere at ACT -- revolves around a 50-year-old Pritzker Prizewinning architect by the name of Martin who fucks goats. Well, one goat, to be precise. To get the most out of Albee's arresting play, you have to see past the goat. This is quite a challenge in a play riddled with exclamations like "Goatfucker!" and "You're fucking a goat!" and enough livestock references to cause a pileup on Noah's Ark. But like Beckett and Pinter before him, Albee has always used comedy as a vessel for tragedy, and the clues to The Goat's Aristotelian core are ingrained right there in the text. In a production directed by Richard E.T. White, ACT ably balances the wild, Dionysian comic energy of Albee's play with its violently disturbing debt to classical tragedy. Although Kent Dorsey's scenic design tries a little too hard to draw out the ancient Grecian theme, the passion and precision of the performances (especially by Don R. McManus as Martin and Pamela Reed as Stevie) draw us in. Through July 17 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $15-68; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.

Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte. The Bette Davis vehicle Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte was widely panned when it appeared on movie screens in 1964. But it's funny how time can transform even the trashiest of movies into a cult classic. The film tells the story of Charlotte Hollis (Davis), an aging Southern belle, who asks her cousin and only living relative, Miriam Deering (Olivia de Havilland), to come to town to help her prevent the family home from being torn down to make way for a new bridge. Continuously haunted by the events of a fateful night in 1927 when her lover, John Mayhew, was gruesomely and mysteriously decapitated, Charlotte is victimized by her lurid memories, the local community, and her cousin Miriam. Initially produced in 1994 at the Victoria Theatre and currently in revival at the Lorraine Hansberry, Hush Up, Sweet Charlotte, Matthew Martin's stage adaptation of the film, not only celebrates the movie as a pageant of glorious camp, but also gives it a gorgeous makeover by sending it up through the flamboyant theatrics of two divine drag artists. Martin (Davis/Charlotte) and Varla Jean Merman (de Havilland/Miriam) are very different kinds of drag queens. When you put two performers of such remarkably contrasting qualities onstage, the gulf separating them from each other, from the film star personas they play, and from the basic characters in the plot becomes extravagantly exaggerated. Laughter is the only way to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, laughter is hard to sustain over more than two hours of what essentially boils down to relentless B-movie spoof. By the time you read this review, Merman will have left the show for a summer gig in Provincetown, to be replaced by Arturo Galster. Galster has some big shoes to fill, in both the literal and figurative sense. It will be interesting to see what he makes of Miriam Deering. Through Aug. 31 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $27-32; call 474-8800 or visit www.makeitsoproductions.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 29.

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