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Our critics weigh in on local theater

First Day of School. In Billy Aronson's raucous comedy — making its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse — well-to-do parents attend to their six-year-old children's prospects with a ferocity arising from barely repressed sexual frustration. We've seen this before, but Aronson adds an ingenious twist: His soccer moms and dads end up planning an annual swingers' party that feels less like a gangbang than a slightly off-kilter PTA function. Unfortunately, as with too many farces, the setup is more involving than the chaos that follows; the carefully modulated tone of the first act can't be sustained throughout the sexual shenanigans of the second and third. Still, the playwright offers a few dazzling speeches for his characters along the way, and all of the actors in director Chris Smith's sharp production relish the intense cleverness of the play's smartest passages. It's too bad that Aronson felt the need to include a blandly comforting ending — at its best, First Day of School is pretty devilish stuff, and it deserves a conclusion with more ironic punch. None of this is to say that you shouldn't see it. An ambitious new comedy is always worth checking out, even if its rewards don't quite negate its shortcomings. Through Nov. 7 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. $40; 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chris Jensen) Reviewed Oct. 14.

Goldfish. Last year, when Loretta Greco was hired as artistic director for the Magic Theatre, she said she wanted to bring back some of the Sam Shepardesque energy to its productions. With playwright John Kolvenbach's Goldfish, she (serving here as director too) does just that. At the play's emotional center is the dysfunctional relationship between a father and son. Rod Gnapp brings a powerful and emotional depth as a man crippled by gambling addiction and irresponsibility. While he pushes his son (Andrew Pastides) off to college, not wanting him to follow in his own tragic footsteps, he also can't seem to take care of himself. This emotional dilemma soon threatens a beautiful love affair between the son and Lucy (Anna Bullard), a girl he meets at school. Lucy's upper-crust and drunken mother is incisively funny and played brilliantly by Patricia Hodges. Kolvenbach writes hilarious dialogue and sculpts scenes that deliver a punch to the heart. The theme of children trying to transcend the failures of colorfully depressed parents is Shepard territory, but Kolvenbach avoids the temptation to teeter into over-the-top lunacy and beautifully rides the dangerous edge in-between. Through Nov. 8 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D (Marina and Buchanan) S.F. $15-$45; 441-8822 ext. 109 or www.magictheatre.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 28.

Shocktoberfest!! 2009: Torture Garden. If you see only one show at the Hypnodrome this fall, see Pearls over Shanghai. Thrillpeddlers' deliriously camped-out tribute to San Francisco's very own Cockettes delivers more madcap invention in two hours than most theater companies manage in an entire season. It's surprising, then, that Shocktoberfest!! 2009: Torture Garden — currently showing in repertory alongside Pearls — is so much less successful, despite featuring almost the same cast. The show follows a formula that should be familiar to Thrillpeddlers fans: two short Grand Guignol–style plays, each offering up a little kick of the lascivious and the macabre. In this case, however, even the significant bloodletting can't make up for the relative tedium of the material. We get too much wooden dialogue and not nearly enough gut-churning moments of, say, ritual disembowelment or forced amputation. That said, the show does feature some strong work from the Thrillpeddlers ensemble, particularly Adeola Role as a femme fatale who seems to have embraced political assassination as some kind of fetish. But Torture Garden isn't the real story here: that would be Pearls over Shanghai, recently extended until Jan. 1. To miss it would be to miss a show that's outrageously San Francisco — and outrageously good. Through Nov. 20 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Brannan), S.F. $25-$69; 377-4202 or www.thrillpeddlers.com. (C.J.) Reviewed Oct. 28.

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Under the Gypsy Moon. Storylines don't really matter in a Teatro ZinZanni production; they just provide a loose framework for the circuslike acts everyone comes to see while they enjoy a fancy five-course meal. In the group's latest three-hour show, the Spiegeltent is invaded by thieving gypsies (so much for political correctness), who, in addition to being skilled swindlers, are also (surprise) skilled blues singers, jugglers, and acrobats. As one would expect, the trapeze work is impressive, especially the comic rope-play by Sabine Maier and Joachim Mohr, who manage to fall over themselves without falling down. The evening's most satisfying moments, however, happen on the ground. A juggling number set to Prince's "Kiss" is simple but delightful, and Mat Plendl dazzled the audience with his mastery of the hula hoop. Unfortunately, too many of the cabaret's comedy bits are lame. Punny punchlines delivered by a Henny Youngman-like character played by Geoff Hoyle (the original Zazu in the Broadway production of The Lion King) are especially groan-inducing. Those cheesy moments leave a bad taste in your mouth, as does some of the food, which is passable but not stellar. While Under the Gypsy Moon does deliver some magical moments, unless you've got a lot of disposable cash, it's an evening perhaps best left to the tourists to enjoy. Through Jan. 17 at the Spiegeltent, Pier 29 (at Battery), S.F. $117-$195; 438-2668 or www.zinzanni.org. (Will Harper) Reviewed Sept. 30.

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