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 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 Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. Suzan-Lori Parks' cataclysmic play is often discussed in academic circles, but rarely seen on stage. Besides defying traditional notions of plot, character and structure, the work calls for a sizeable cast of 11 actors, all of them black, and a facility on the part of the entire team to make sense of lines like "do in dip diddly did-did." Deathis not for the risk-averse, and in attempting the feat, the Cutting Ball Theater shouts its motto, "Risk Is This," more loudly than ever before. Shuttling backward and forward through thousands of years of history, the drama is loosely composed around a central theme: the ongoing extermination, through horrific means (lynching, the electric chair, drowning, etc.), of one "Black Man With Watermelon," and his cyclical rebirth in the arms of the nurturing and earth-motherly "Black Woman With Fried Drumstick." One of the greatest strengths of Melrose's rhythmic production lies in the actors' ability to toss Parks' demanding, syncopated cadences around among them like a beach ball. Like a Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo or Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit," the production emits an irrepressible energy that can't be quashed. This life force is where the "meaning" of The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire Worldlies, and you don't need a Ph.D. in dramatic literature to feel it. Through June 24 at Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (at Eddy), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 419-3584 or visit www.cuttingball.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed June 14.

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 Dragons[en]style 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.

Like a Dog on Linoleum. Solo performances often teeter on the uncomfortable edge between tiresome personal confessional and manic multiple personality disorder, but Leslie Jordan transcends the genre by bringing a performance to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre that is hysterical, poignant, and, dare I say, endlessly entertaining. If David Sedaris and Tennessee Williams sat down to write a play, it would be Jordan's life as he fashions it. Linoleum presents the veteran character actor and Will & Gracestar seamlessly weaving tales from his childhood in Tennessee, where he twirled his baton on the front lawn ("I was the gayest man I knew"); his lifelong love affairs with bad boys and narcotics ("I'm so grateful to drugs and alcohol — I wouldn't have made it through adolescence without them"); and on into his long career in Hollywood ("I arrived with 200 bucks sewn in my underpants"). The storytelling is effortless, especially as Jordan slips in and out of the characters of various Southern eccentrics. "We don't put crazy people away in the South," he says. "We put them on the porch so everyone can enjoy them." Even as Jordan gets more introspective toward the end, touching on addiction and friends lost to AIDS, he never loses the joyous playfulness of telling a wonderful yarn. Through July 2 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $35-50; call 474-8800 or visit www.lorrainehansberrytheatre.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 14.

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