Our critics weigh in on local theater

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.

Killer Joe. Marin Theatre Company's sold-out production of playwright Tracy Letts' Killer Joe has moved to the Magic Theatre, and reactions couldn't be stronger. It's essentially a hillbilly noir set in a Texas trailer park, in which members of the white-trash Smith family (giving new meaning to skid-marked tighty-whities and greasy wife-beater tank tops) hire a contract killer with "eyes that hurt" (a sinister Cully Fredricksen) to kill the dim-witted dad Ansel's ex-wife in order to cash in on a $50,000 insurance policy. But Lee Sankowich's directorial pacing is erratic, and the performers use vastly different styles. The hilarious Howard Swain (as Ansel) appears to have fallen out of a Cheech & Chong movie, while Stacy Ross (as Ansel's new wife, Sharla) is superb in her adulterous realism. The first act ends in a beguiling, slow seduction between the killer and the virginal underage daughter (Anna Bullard); after intermission the show cranks the violence up so high that it rivals the most gleefully disturbing moments of a Tarantino flick. But the excruciating and titillating difference is that this is live theater, not the relative safety of celluloid. Killer Joe's visceral punch to the privates may explain the two outraged audience walkouts on the night I attended as well as the mini-standing ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through July 23 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $30-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.killerjoesf.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 21.

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 30 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.

San Francisco Improv Festival. Most people shudder when they hear the words "improv comedy" — it's about as popular as a steak in Berkeley. Shaun Landry, the producer of the 2006 San Francisco Improv Festival, obviously doesn't care; she's determined to pull this series of shows off anyway. Last weekend ImprovBoston brought us !Ay Diego!, featuring Will Lurea and Zabeth Russell. The performers started off as Hispanic characters Juanita and Diego, then morphed into everything from a psychiatrist who prescribes a "pirate disguise" as a cure for shyness to a professional sock man who tells his customer, "Ma'am, I like you ... and I like your feet." In a few spots their rhythm was slightly off, but Lurea and Russell have an easy chemistry and a seemingly endless supply of funny material. Next on the bill was True Fiction Magazine, a group of five actors who construct noir comedy shows around titles called out by audience members. The rapport between these performers and the subtle keyboardist who accompanied them was impressive as they crafted a story out of the title "My Ass." This year the festival features improvisational talent from all over America: Keep your eyes peeled for Dad's Garage out of Atlanta; N.Y.C.'s I Eat Pandas, an acclaimed trio that improvises entire musicals; and L.A.'s The Group, under the guidance of veteran director David Razowsky. These acts give us the experience of watching the creation of something that's never happened before and will never happen again. Through July 29 at the Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (between Webster and Buchanan), S.F. Tickets are $10-20; call 863-1076 or visit www.sfimprovfestival.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 21.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

Also Playing

1906: A Journey Through the Mystical City Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero).

2 Pianos, 4 Hands San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at South Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), 321-2900

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

Battle-of-the-Bay Theatresports Tournament Bayfront Theater, Fort Mason, Bldg. B (Marina & Buchanan), 474-8935.

Baum for Peace The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

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

Beautiful Home for the Incurable Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Boccanegra Idomeneo Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth St. & Mission, 247-6500.

The Chainsaw Massacres CELLspace, 2050 Bryant (at 18th St.), 648-7562.

Death and the Maiden The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.

The Fabulous Adventures of Captain Queer New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Farewell to the Tooth Fairy Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.

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

Happy End Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

Heidi Chronicles Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Hunter Gatherers The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.

Lady Day In Love The Fellowship Church, 2041 Larkin (at Broadway), 776-4910.

The Law Project The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

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

Love, Janis Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900.

Love Letters Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), 392-4400.

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

Monday Night Make Em Ups San Francisco Comedy College, 414 Mason, #705 (at Geary), 921-2051.

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

Mort Sahl's America Empire Plush Room, York Hotel, 940 Sutter (at Hyde), 885-2800.

Oh My Goddess The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Papa Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

Pomp and Circumstance Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

San Francisco Improv Festival Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), 863-1076.

Seussical USF Presentation Theater, 2350 Turk (at Masonic), 422-2434.

Sperm Warfare Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Summer Performance Festival Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.

Vagina Dentata Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

Vanities Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro (at Mercy), Mountain View, 650-903-6000.

We Are Not These Hands The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

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