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Our critics weigh in on local theater

The Comedy of Errors. Free Shakespeare in the park. It's such a heart-warming proposition, a fine idea whose public value endures; with this production, SF Shakes has been at it for 25 years. But there will be no resting on laurels for director Kenneth Kelleher, who grabs ahold of the Bard's classic gag show and charges it up with brisk, circusy folly. Thus does the tale of a man, his servant, their long-lost twins, and a whole city's confusion become a controlled bedlam of squeaking men and shrieking women, all working hard to have themselves a hell of a time. With faces painted and bodies vividly attired, they juggle knives and torches and pentameter and pop-culture riffs, generally enforcing a zero-tolerance policy with regard to stillness. They say it's crowd-pleasing, and it is, but that's also just another way of saying it's obsequious: Any production designed as if it were a mobile hanging over a child's crib has to make you wonder how much its designers really trust the audience, let alone the text. What isn't in doubt is the unanimous conviction of the cast (Daveed Diggs' soul-powered, ad-lib–loving Duke Solinus is a gladdening standout). See it for their sakes, and for the sake of keeping this cherished tradition alive. Weekends through Sept. 20 at the Presidio's Main Post Parade Ground Lawn, 34 Graham (at Keyes), S.F. Free; 558-0888 or www.sfshakes.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed Sept. 9.

The Prince. You might wonder how Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince could possibly be adapted for the stage. Central Works shows that it can be done, though the results might still leave you wondering why. Set in 16th-century Florence, the play (written and directed by Gary Graves) revolves around a conversation between Machiavelli (Richard Frederick) and his former student, Lorenzo de' Medici II (Michael Navarra). Machiavelli has returned from a long exile, and presents a little treatise — what we now know as The Prince — in an attempt to curry favor with the young nobleman. The ensuing discussion, in which the old cynic butts heads with the young idealist, is a smart exploration of politics and ethics, but less successful as drama. That's partly because the script, intelligent as it is, renders these two men as mouthpieces more than as characters; audiences may be stimulated by what they see, but they're unlikely to get too emotionally involved. As an experiment in processing Machiavelli's work through the filter of historical fiction, the play is a moderately successful 70-minute diversion for political-science buffs. Just don't expect to encounter characters who are lifelike enough to follow you home. Through Sept. 19 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. $14-$25; 510-558-1381 or www.centralworks.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Sept. 9.

Too Big to Fail. Theatrically speaking, Too Big to Fail is as solid as anything you'll see in the Bay Area this summer. The newest production from the Tony Award–winning SF Mime Troupe — now in its 50th season — features a disciplined and spirited ensemble serving up snappy dialogue and snappier musical numbers. Politically, however, the show is a bit more of a muddle. It's a wide-ranging satire on the downfall of America's financial system, though its writers (Michael Gene Sullivan and Ellen Callas) might have done well to spend less time with The Marx-Engels Reader and more time with The Economist. Theirs is an especially naive take on the current financial mess, even by the standards of left-wing agitprop. In a recent performance in a public park in Berkeley, the obviously sympathetic crowd became visibly uncomfortable by the time the Mime Troupe suggested, without apparent irony, that everyone forgo their debts in a "payment strike." The starry-eyed anticapitalism of Too Big to Fail is the kind of activism that creates resistance even among sympathizers: No matter how liberal you think you are, don't be surprised if you leave the play with the powerful urge to go shopping. Through Sept. 27 in locations throughout the Bay Area. Free; 285-1717 or www.sfmt.org. (C.J.) Reviewed Aug. 12.

BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage. Sundays, 7 p.m., $5-$8, www.improv.org. Bayfront Theater, 16 Marina (at Laguna), 474-6776, www.improv.org/shows/bayfront.htm.

Beach Blanket Babylon: A North Beach perennial featuring crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance. Now with Rod Blagojevich! Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, Saturdays, 6:30 & 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 5 p.m., $25-$80, www.beachblanketbabylon.com. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m., $15-$20, www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100, www.sheltontheater.com.

Bohemian Cowboy: Raymond King Shurtz' play about his father's disappearance. Fridays, Saturdays. Continues through Sept. 19. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 820-1656, www.cafearts.com.

Brief Encounter: Emma Rice adapts the work of Noël Coward in this theater/film/music extravaganza. Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through Oct. 4. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228, www.act-sfbay.org.

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