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Capsule Reviews

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 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.

Hunter Gatherers. When Richard and Pam, a middle-class, urban married couple in their mid-30s, prepare for a dinner party with their friends Tom and Wendy by slaughtering livestock on the living room carpet, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled from under its feet. What begins as an elegant soiree — featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment — gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. The rules that govern modern-day living soon cease to apply, as playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive. Much of the animal force and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate the tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's riotous comedy shows that the distance between 21st-century city slickers and Paleolithic cave-dwellers might not be so great after all. Through Aug. 20 at Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 5.

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 miniÐstanding ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through Aug. 20 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.

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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