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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The moldering schoolhouse tradition of spelling bees has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season to the forthcoming feature film Akeelah and the Bee. That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other won two Tonys and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Spelling Bee does have its faults. Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous"; attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like a reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident — feel forced; and many of the laughs come cheap. Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways (including inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance), Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40-66; call 771-6900 or visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

The Devil on All Sides. The idea that war can touch entire nations as well as individuals far beyond the time and geography of any specific conflict enshrouds French playwright Fabrice Melquiot's 2003 drama. Currently receiving its U.S. premiere in a translation by FoolsFURY's Ben Yalom, Melquiot's depiction of the ravages of the Bosnian War as seen through the eyes of a Serbian military exile presents a view of conflict that is as personal as it is universal. In this dense and disturbing play, an unwilling Serbian draftee flees to France. Living on the fringes of society, unable to blend in with his new surroundings yet unwilling to return home for fear of being court-martialed and shot, Lorko Ljevic (played by the slender and ephemeral Rod Hipskind) exists on a spectral plane, somewhere between solitude and community, heaven and hell. The familial drama (peopled by sharply drawn characters scratching out an existence on the edge of reason) grounds Devilin time and place. At the same time, Melquiot's affinity for the surreal and expressionistic — realized with equal amounts of control and exuberance by the excellent cast, Dan Stratton's dilapidated bomb site of a set, and Chris Studley's fiercely woven hot scarlet and cold blue lights — enables the play to resonate at a level common to all humanity. Through June 11 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida, (between 17th St. and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $12-30; call 626-0453 or visit www.foolsfury.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed May 24.

How We First Met. Past performances of How We First Met — in which the love life of a couple from the audience is used as a source for improvised songs and sketches — have involved a pair who met online in a Dungeons and DragonsÐstyle chat room and a man who proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of a show. Not every pair invited up to the Purple Onion's diminutive stage will have as thrilling a story to tell, but that shouldn't matter. The production's cast of improvisers reacts quickly to the information they learn about the guests' romance. Creating snappy, relatively tuneful songs and funny skits out of such banalities as Marie Callender's chicken pot pie and the family cat, the performers prove that it is indeed possible to create comic theater out of life's pathetic details. Yet despite the warm atmosphere and all-round goodwill, the performance is hit-and-miss. Inspired moments come and go, and the overuse of the same few ideas becomes predictable. Jill Bourque (who conceived the show in 2001 as a one-off Valentine's Day special) maintains a crisp rhythm by interweaving questions to the guest couple with improvised material and more rehearsed sections involving costumed characters such as an Italian waiter and a beatnik poet. But despite her attentive direction, the costumed sections feel stagey. Still, judging by the demographic variety in the audience, How We First Met speaks to a wide population. Plus, it's quite fun. In an open-ended run at the Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Jackson), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 348-6280 or visit www.howwefirstmet.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 19.

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.

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