Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Master Builder. Psychological and expressionistic readings of Hilde Wangel, the strange young woman who pitches up in the middle of the first act of Henrik Ibsen's 1892 drama about a middle-aged architect's ill-fated attempt to stem the onrush of time, abound. For some directors and critics, Hilde is a siren; for others, she's a troll. But a masterful new production by the Aurora Theatre Company leads me to believe that she may be something else entirely: a projection of an old man's most lurid fantasies. Lauren Grace is no Lolita (she looks at least 22), yet she portrays Hilde (or Hilda, in Paul Walsh's elegant translation) as if viewed through the eyes of a Humbert Humbert. When the character first bounces onstage in a jaunty little Scandinavian mountain outfit, sparkling like a lucky penny, she resembles a pensioner's wet dream. She's as wholesome as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I half expected her to break into song. Director Barbara Oliver's production is well balanced and sensitively acted -- an eloquent exploration of weighty Ibsenite themes such as the opposition of will and luck and the tension between youth and age. Yet it's still difficult to make sense of this slippery character. Through March 12 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 22.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters -- an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie -- through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Miss-Matches.com: Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story -- unabridged!" That's how actor/writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show Miss-Matches.com. This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through March 25 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Marines' Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $38-70; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24, 2005.

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