Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theater

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 roles 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. 17 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.

Cyrano de Bergerac. Composed at a time when writers like Ibsen and Chekhov were penning naturalistic works simmering with constipated emotions, Edmond Rostand's 1897 play is steeped in good old-fashioned Romanticism. It ardently champions -- in alexandrine couplets no less -- the power of language to express the passions of the human soul. Set during the reign of Louis XIII at the time of the Thirty Years' War against the Spanish, the story focuses on the idealistic, chaste love of Cyrano for the gorgeous Roxane, whom he is obliged to woo on behalf of a handsome but woefully inarticulate younger man. Over the course of five swashbuckling acts, Cyrano single-handedly vanquishes 100 foes, risks life and limb to deliver billets-doux to his ladylove across enemy lines, and counters rude comments about his nose with rhetorical derring-do. Just like Cyrano throws himself at the business of living, taking risks with flair, so the Shotgun Players' lively yet minimalist production conjures marching armies and raging passions out of little more than bodies in space and thin air. Through Sept. 11 at John Hinkel Park, Southampton (between San Diego and Somerset), Berkeley. Tickets are free (post-show donations kindly accepted); call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 17.

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.

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. 18, Part One has a return engagement Sept. 10-18, 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.

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