Capsule Reviews

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Salome. Featuring a scene in which a woman kisses a severed head, a soothsayer ranting oaths from the bottom of septic tank, and bad poetry, Oscar Wilde's 1892 play has all the makings of a comedy. Yet it isn't meant to be all that funny — at least not in the typical Wildean sense of the word. Set in the court of King Herod, the work retells the famous Biblical story about the martyrdom of John the Baptist at the hands of the princess Salome, who demands the prophet's head on a silver platter in exchange for performing a seductive dance for the king. The problem with performing Salome today is that it's hard to know whether to play it straight or do it Dame EdnaÐstyle. Director Mark Jackson attempts both. At the center of the production is Ron Campbell's show-stealing performance as Herod. Swaggering tipsily about in a crimson velvet smoking jacket, the actor seems to be channeling another famous Herod — Josh Mostel's in the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet as big as Campbell's performance is, it's also subtle: A marked vacuousness behind his bravura and his ecstatic statements of happiness clues us in to the character's weak, desperate nature. Though full of ingenious ideas and fine physical performances, Jackson's Salome leaves us wondering if the director really knows what he thinks of Wilde's weird play. Through Oct. 1 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $38; call (510) 843-4822 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 6.

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 (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

The Trip to Bountiful. It's been 30 years since veteran Method actorÐturnedÐacclaimed 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. 16 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. 16 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.

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