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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 happens to have designed 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 a wonderful chamber piece, too, 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.

Doing Good. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's Doing Good takes its inspiration from John Perkins' controversial memoir Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The book describes Perkins' years helping the U.S. government and multinational corporations coerce foreign leaders into serving U.S. foreign policy. The troupe's riff on Perkins' real-life John le Carréstyle thriller follows the lives of a young, white, middle-class American couple, James and Molly, and their complicity in the homeland's less-than-benign interests in nations as widespread as Ecuador, Iran, Indonesia, and Panama. To avoid military service in Vietnam in 1968, James marries Molly and the pair move to the remote village of Pobre, Ecuador, on Peace Corps business. Very soon, the couple's innocuous attempts at "doing good" through building schoolhouses and educating local women about childbirth are overtaken by the arrival of a major U.S. corporation, whose aim it is to bring Ecuador "out of the Dark Ages" by building infrastructure with loans calculated to cripple the local economy. Despite some snappy one-liners and the bombastic live musical accompaniment, there's unfortunately little of aesthetic merit in Doing Good to mitigate the terrifying obviousness of its bludgeoning message. Through Oct. 2 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.

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 Golden Hammer. By day Mark McGoldrick is a public defender. By night he's a raconteur. In The Golden Hammer, the storyteller/lawyer uses anecdotes from his life to explore the slippery nature of the U.S. justice system. McGoldrick's flowing narrative catapults the audience backward and forward through time. The evocative reconstruction of his days as a teenager in a small Southwestern town, working as a sketchy car mechanic's assistant, brings new meaning to the term "body shop." Juxtaposed with the ethical dilemmas of defending a man against accusations of child rape in his current professional role, McGoldrick's past casts a harsh, unsettling light on his present. Despite his sitting in one position throughout -- McGoldrick is wheelchair-bound owing to a spinal injury in his youth -- the performer's conversational delivery style generally maintains our interest. Still, the show feels a bit lifeless and meandering; McGoldrick swings his hammer around, but doesn't deliver much of a blow. Through July 31 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 13.

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