Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. Edward Bernays (1891-1995) and Harry Smith (1923-1991) inhabited separate worlds. Bernays made a name for himself as the father of public relations. Smith's greatest contribution to 20th-century life was his record collection: Culled from the itinerant artist and collector's vast treasure trove of 1920s and '30s American folk songs, The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) played a major role in the folk music revival and cultural shift of the 1950s and '60s, influencing the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. The two men probably never met. Yet in Gary Aylesworth's beguiling new play, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, Smith's and Bernays' lives and ideas intersect and reverberate across the decades to convey something about the insidious nature of spin. Smith and Bernays never address each other directly in this plotless riff on their careers. Instead, Aylesworth — proving himself as fascinating an actor as he is a playwright — conveys the wild contrasts between the two characters with a bipolar panache that makes us feel like we're listening to a musical conversation, if not a verbal one. As a smooth-talking disc jockey (Peter Newton) plays interviews with the two men and tracks from the Anthology, the two performers treat us to passionate renditions of 15 of the Anthology's songs. But there are sinister forces at work behind the playful facade: Spin underpins all our activities, whether we're more influenced by those who make their living spinning ideas or vinyl. Through Aug. 27 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (between 17th and Mariposa), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 831-1943 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 16.

The Trip to Bountiful. It's been 30 years since veteran Method actor-turned-acclaimed acting coach Jean Shelton has performed on stage. So Horton Foote's 1953 drama, telling the story of an elderly woman's homecoming, in many ways heralds a homecoming for the actor. Shelton demonstrates a prodigious range as Carrie Watts, a determined old lady who flees the confines of a rundown Houston apartment for Bountiful, the tiny rural town in which she grew up. Perched on a dilapidated couch in her nightgown in the opening scene, she makes for a seemingly tranquil insomniac. But there's pain behind the character's banter with her overprotective son, Ludie (Christian Phillips), about not being able to sleep because of the full moon. Shelton's performance is also very physical: Whether collapsing on the floor or skipping girlishly offstage, Shelton reveals a vivacity that belies her age, 78. Despite the actor's connection with her role, and sensitive performances from the supporting cast, Foote's text feels as musty as a geriatric's undergarments. Although the themes of loss and familial tension are as prescient as ever, the writing features little resonant language and few memorable characters to transcend its era — which has the unfortunate effect of turning Shelton's comeback into a throwback. Through Sept. 9 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $20-30; call 345-1288 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 9.

The Typographer's Dream. At the beginning of Encore Theatre Company's production of Adam Bock's play, we are introduced to three characters: a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, who proceed, with varying degrees of stiffness and eloquence, to enthuse about their jobs. Reportedly inspired in part by the 2 1/2 years Bock spent working at a graphic and Web design firm, this beautiful and strange comedy riffs on the relationship between people and their careers. Director Anne Kauffman and actors Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley gleefully demonstrate how the three characters match their chosen jobs, occasionally making them resemble — through the unselfconscious eagerness with which they talk about their work — the wacky types that people the films of Christopher Guest. A whole branch of ham-psychology exists around the business of matching "personality types" with appropriate careers. But Bock does more than demonstrate the influence of personality upon career choice; he also shows the reverse: how our career choices influence us. Through Sept. 3 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 16, 2005.

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

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

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

Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.

Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

Faulty Intelligence Marsh Berkeley, 2118 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 826-5750.

From Ballads to Blues:The Songs of Harold Arlen New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

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

GodFellas Golden Gate Park, Peacock Meadow, JFK Drive (between McLaren Lodge & Conservatory of Flowers).

House of Lucky La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, 510-234-6046.

"How We First Met" The Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Pacific), 217-8400.

Improv Revolution Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Kiss of the Spider Woman New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Laura Dennis Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 820-3320.

Livin' on Love Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), 392-4400.

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

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