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 Hirst-size 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 Sept. 3 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.

Crowns. In TheatreWorks' jubilant production of Regina Taylor's musical play, a Brooklyn teenager sent to live with her grandmother in South Carolina following the death of her brother learns that a hat isn't just something you wear on your head; it's an entire mode of self-expression. You can flirt in a hat, pray in a hat, but one thing you must never, ever do is touch or ask to borrow someone else's hat. Channeling the Lord and good fashion sense through high-energy gospel and blues numbers, Grandmother Shaw and her cronies -- five churchgoing queens with crowns -- sing about the profound and not-so-profound role hats play in their lives. Decorated with more colorful headgear than the Macy's and Nordstrom millinery departments combined, the brightly bedecked cast and stage resemble a tropical coral reef. Though lighthearted and bombastically performed, Crowns is not an entirely frivolous affair. The shadow of death and the struggle for civil rights provide a sobering backdrop to all the feisty hattitude. Through Sept. 18 at the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), Second Floor, S.F. Tickets are $35-60; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 10.

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 Carré-style 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.

Los Big Names. From Heather Gold's I Look Like an Egg, But I Identify as a Cookie to Colman Domingo's A Boy and His Soul, the San Francisco theater scene has been awash of late with quirky and well-conceived solo shows by gay artists. Marga Gomez, however, takes the genre to dizzy new heights in Los Big Names, a one-woman production about growing up gay in a Latino showbiz household. From the moment she steps onstage impersonating her vaudeville-comedian father in a tailcoat, boxer shorts, frilly dress shirt, and stick-on mustache to the moment she departs, slinking off into the wings in her showgirl mother's heels and hat, Gomez displays an aptitude for caricature and social satire as virtuosic as a Tito Puente vibraphone break. Whether reminiscing about Queen Latifah's death scene in the Hollywood megaflop Sphere or reliving the time her parents asked her to choose between them, Gomez never lapses into sentimentality. Thanks to David Schweizer's rhythmic direction, Alexander Nichols' evocative lights and set, and intelligent use of sound by Mark O'Brien, Los Big Names is a bold confessional with deep-rooted family spirit. Through Aug. 21 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $20-38; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 10.

Nicholas Nickleby. California Shakespeare Theater's Nicholas Nickleby, adapted from Charles Dickens' 1838 novel by British playwright David Edgar, manages to wrestle the audience's attention away from rustling picnics and the rising moon through ingeniously theatrical staging and an alacrity of pace that makes you almost forget you've been sitting on a cold seat for more than three hours. Dickens' novel -- which follows the seesaw fortunes of the 19-year-old Nicholas Nickleby and his sister, Kate, in the wake of the death of their kindly but bankrupt father -- was initially adapted by Edgar for a 1980 London production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Cal Shakes' two-part production, with its 24 actors and 6-1/2-hour running time (both parts together), is a "miniature" version of the original, which employed 48 actors and ran close to nine hours. Edgar himself pared down his RSC text for Cal Shakes. Nickleby owes much of its magic to the combined creativity of directors Jonathan Moscone and Sean Daniels. Edgar's adaptation, which swings back and forth between different locations, is fluidly rendered through seamless physical and emotional changes. The ensemble scenes are lively and magnetic, but the general high pitch of the performances, in which every sentence is delivered as if it were the punch line to an extremely funny and original joke, backfires in a number of ways, such as undermining some of Dickens' most juicy scenes and characters -- the few that are supposed to be over the top. Part Two continues through Sept. 11 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd. (just off Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $10-55; call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 27.

Sore Throats. The daytime-soap-esque plot of British playwright Howard Brenton's 1979 drama Sore Throats gives little of the play's raw expressive power away. Revolving around the aftermath of an ugly divorce between a 45-year-old policeman, Jack, and his 39-year-old ex-wife, Judy, Sore Throats proffers a deeply nihilistic perspective on the nature of marital relationships. The theater has become accustomed to explicit acts of sex and violence in the 26 years since Brenton wrote Sore Throats. That the play still resonates thousands of miles away from the suburban London in which it is set, and after more than a quarter of a century in time, is testimony both to the power of the writing and to Last Planet's compact yet emphatic staging. Brenton's play has its physically vicious moments: For example, when Jack (Matt Leshinskie) first strikes Judy (Heidi Wolff) in the mouth, even familiarity with the play does not ready you for the clipped brutality of the act. But the true source of conflict and shock in Sore Throats isn't in these physical acts of violence -- it's in the startling pictures evoked by the characters' words. Furthermore, what director John Wilkins and his cast brilliantly understand is that for all the brutality of its language, Sore Throats has an ardently redemptive core. The characters might behave in the most childish of ways (indeed all three of them seem to be going through a latent anal phase with their frequent references to each other's sexual organs), but the actors manage to convey a subtle beauty in Judy, Jack, and Sally (Miranda Calderon) that on occasions transcends the mess of these characters' lives. Through Aug. 21 at Last Planet Theatre, 351 Turk (between Hyde and Leavenworth), S.F. Tickets are $15-18 (Thursdays are two-for-one); call 440-3505 or visit www.lastplanettheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 10.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? did for the American theater in 1962 what Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey did for its British equivalent just four years previously. Products of the postwar fracture of traditional family values and gender roles, both plays sent shock waves across their respective cultural landscapes and changed the face of theater forever. But while these days Delaney's play is considered a period piece and rarely performed, Actors Theatre's production (along with, of course, the recent highly lauded Broadway revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner) proves Virginia Woolf to be as fresh today as it was when Albee wrote it. The caustically funny and darkly depraved drama takes place over the course of a booze-soaked night at the university-campus home of middle-aged history professor George (Christian Phillips) and his wife, Martha (Julia McNeal), as they play cat and mouse with each other and their newbie guests, the twentysomething biology professor Nick (Daniel Hart Donoghue) and his wife, Honey (Tara Donoghue). The claustrophobic atmosphere of Biz Duncan's living room set enhances the intensity of the couples' relentless "fun and games." Combining incisive, rhythmic direction by Keith Phillips and Kenneth Vandenberg with crisp performances by all four cast members (Tara Donoghue is especially pathetic and hilarious as the "thin-hipped" Honey), Actors Theatre's Virginia Woolf expertly mines the complex nature of marital relationships. Through Sept. 3 at the Actors Theatre, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 22.

Also Playing

Are We Almost There? Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.

Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

"Blood Bucket Ballyhoo" The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), 248-1900.

Comedy Improv at Your Disposal Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 510-595-5597.

Dangerous New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Dead Certain The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.

Do You Want to Buy My Brain? Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

Executive Order 9066 The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Line in the Sand Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Love, Chaos & Dinner Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Many Names of Compassion Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin (at McAllister), 581-3500.

Menopause the Musical Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero), 433-3939.

Monday Night Improv Jam Climate Theater, 285 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 364-1411.

Monday Night Marsh The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Speak to Me Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900.

Wicked Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

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