Thursday, January 29, 2015

"Indian Ink"

Indian Ink
Tom Stoppard

When there is a deep, emotional bond created between the artist and the spectator, third century Hindu sages termed that bridge rasa.  A..C.T.’s Indian Ink not only explores in a beautiful, moving symphony of words and scenes what it takes to create a state of rasa; but as directed by Carey Perloff and acted by a superior cast, Indian Ink produces rasa between its large, diverse cast and its audience.  The Hindu poet Bharata describes eight different types of rasa.  This Stoppard revival, set in a remote part of India in both the late 1920s and in the 1990s, brings to full fruition several of these eight as two connected, time-separated tales are intertwined and juxtaposed.  Bursts of hasya (comic) occur as English meets Indian cultures and stereotypes in both time periods.  Explosions of raudra (furious) erupt as the Indian caste system plays out and as Indian anger with English domination (present and past) peeks its head among the otherwise docile, native people.  And in particular, shringara (erotic) rasa paints the stage in its traditionally paired shades of blue and black as an English female poet and a male Indian artist move closer and closer from a developing friendship to a forbidden night of love.

This is a well-cast play from the most minor to the key players.  Brenda Meaney is the visiting English poet who deliciously plays a saucy, smart, sexy poet who rejects early 20th Century boundaries on women and worries little about and even relishes misperceptions about her reputation.  The friendship she gingerly and tenderly develops with a young, Indian artist (Nirad Das played by Firdous Bamji) is a masterful dance we watch between the two skilled actors as they test and honor sensitivities, as they approach intimacies and then back off when the closeness is premature, and as they reveal to each other aspects of themselves that probably few, if any, others have ever seen. 

 Mr. Bamji’s portrayal of Mr. Das is stunning and brings a character to stage like none I have ever seen.  He is at times so shy with frequent downcast eyes and tilted head, is at other times very coy and playful with a scarf that is used to hide his face or smother a laugh or a tear, and is often daring in the audacity of what he wants to do and say to this intriguing English woman.  Modern characters in the parallel story are equally powerful.  In particular, Eleanor Swan, as the modern sister Roberta Maxwell of the play’s early twentieth-century poet, is wonderfully adept with her one-liners that catch her information-seeking visitors off-guard.  Her visitors are the handsome and sensitive son of our earlier artist (Nazrul played by Vandit Bhatt) and a somewhat silly, naïve, yet likeable history professor (Anthony Fusco as Eldon Pike) obsessed with the rather obscure, early century poet, Flora Crewe.  Both come to Ms. Meaney to discover (and reveal) ‘truths’ about the poet and her loves.

Full of Stoppard details and historical references, the play is awash with history, with humor, with true and false discoveries, and with relationships that develop cautiously, genuinely, and steadfastly.  At three hours, there is not a moment the play lags; and the story is one we want to know in full and that we come to care about.  What we do learn is that our historical ‘facts’ and ‘experts’ may not be everything we and they make themselves out to be; and that the ‘truth’ of our own and our loved ones’ pasts may be just as well a part of their mystique and mystery.

Rating: 5 E’s

Monday, January 26, 2015

"X's and O's (A Football Love Story)"

X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)
KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein

For the past year or so, newspaper headlines, op-ed columns, and in-depth articles in magazines have been full of the mounting woes of America’s favorite sport, football.  We have all read of the early-induced Alzheimer’s, the dangers of repeated concussions, the wife abuses, the drugs, etc.  Along comes now a world-premiere, staged docu-drama that frankly only echoes what most of its audience have already been reading.  Based on many interviews with former players, coaches, young players, wives of players, medical researchers, and just everyday ‘fanatics’ of the sport, “X’s and O’s” recapitulates in a well-directed, high-production-value manner information that people in this well-read, socially aware audience probably already knew walking into the auditorium. 

The actors, including the former 49-er defensive star Dwight Hicks, to a person play their multiple parts extremely well.  The TV sports studio set with its many video screens is sharp and attractive.  The pace never slows under Tony Taccone’s watchful and expert directive eye.  Humor is deftly used at critical points to contrast with the heartfelt glimpses of suffering we hear from players and their loved ones about the mounting health issues and even deaths attributed to a former, football career.

But in the end, this 80-minute production feels way too long.  The messages are clear almost immediately, again because we largely already know them.  What is missing are stories that draw us in to care about people that we have time to get to know.  The popcorn-like appearance of so many different talking heads informs but does not engage the audience.  What I wanted was to delve more into the lives of a handful of people affected by football norms and methods of play.  What were their choices along the way?  How did these events decades ago play out in that time period as well as now?  What were they like when not on the football field?  Why should I care beyond how I already feel from reading the same stories in the San Francisco Chronicle or Time Magazine?

As a high school assembly program, X’s and O’s might be a worthwhile endeavor.  As a main-stage premiere in a community of well-ready, socially aware folks, I think it does not reach its potential of moving us deeper into the story and really engaging us at a meaningul, emotional level.

Rating:  2 E’s

Friday, January 23, 2015

"The Libation Bearers"

The Libation Bearers

While The Libation Bearers is one of the earliest full dramas ever performed (458 BCE, as part of the trilogy The Oresteia), its center theme of violence begetting violence as a vicious, unending circle still unfortunately resounds and describes what we see all too often two and half centuries later.  This is the second part of a trilogy in which the banished son Orestes returns to seek revenge for his father’s brutal murder.  What makes that decision even more difficult is that his mother and her lover are his intended targets as he comes home to atone their horrible act that climaxes the first play of the trilogy.   Much of the play is the plotting of the new murders along with much mourning and seeking the gods' help and blessings. 

This scaled-back, rather bare-bones production highlights comparisons to our world by setting the play in an urban, somewhat seedy lot with chain fence and large, colorful graffiti on the walls of surrounding apartments.  Modern music blasts from afar throughout much of the play from unseen sources; the music adds appropriately to the tension and the urgency without being over-bearing.  The scenes and characters are told in an action comic book manner.  What would normally be in larger productions live actors are sometimes just huge, graffiti heads on the near-by walls with larger-than life voices coming from off stage.  Much of the wordy 'action’ takes place in front of a shrine that modern audiences immediately recognize:  fading flower and teddy-bears now placed in the chain fence around a make-shift cross.

The extremely slimmed-down, mostly young cast of four is uneven but overall gets the job done.  The truly outstanding performance is by afro-haired Tasi Alabastro as Orestes.  He embodies the energy, movements, and voice of a comic book character, and yet he does so without losing a genuine sense of realism and authentic anguish of the choices he faces.  He is matched by a solid, though sometimes too overdone performance of Helena Clarkson, who as part of the 2-person chorus takes on a street- dwelling, hobbling ‘earth mother' and who both comforts and agitates-to-action Orestes.  The other chorus member, Andrew Chung, over-acts and over-shouts too often his ‘gangsta’ persona; better direction could have corrected the flaws of what is on the verge of being a really good interpretation.  The real mismatch of the foursome is Jessica Bettencourt as Electra.   As Orestes’s sister, she is either too meek and subdued or too manic and wild to be truly believable.

All in all, for a small community stage, this production is a worthy undertaking; and the performance of Mr. Alabastro in particular is very satisfying.

Rating:  3 E’s

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"2 Pianos, 4 Hands"

2 Pianos, 4 Hands
Ted Dykstra & Richard Greenblatt

Entering the theatre and seeing the two, ‘stretch’ Steinways fill the wide Mountain View stage, I wondered if I were the last person in the Bay Area finally to see this much-produced Canadian play since it had already appeared on several other, Bay Area stages (e.g., ACT, San Jose Rep, Center Rep) as well as over 150 cities on 5 continents since its debut in 1996.  As the two virtuosos (played ably by Darren Dunstan and Christopher Tocco) made their way in a funny, circuitous journey to play their first duet, I realized that my and TheatreWork’s wait had been well-worth it.

Is this a concert?  Is this a comedy?  They answer to both is a resounding ‘yes.’  The play list of classics (and later on, American songbook favorites) is extensive and well half of the 2+-hour production is a symphony of amazing piano music, especially astounding since these are both stage actors who also just happen to be very accomplished musicians.  But the real strength of this production is in the telling of two stories of young boys and then teenagers as they slug through and then dive with determined devotion through years of practice and competition.  Both actors become very believable 7- through 17-year-olds.  Their resistances, sneaky behaviors and yelled “I AM practicing, Dad” are all too believable and familiar to every parent in the audience who has prodded reluctant kids to “Go practice” and to “Not waste my hard-earned money.”

The actors rarely, however, stay in their young ages for long.  Time and again they quickly switch back and forth to become dads, music teachers (of both sexes and several nationalities), a drunk bar patron, and other delicious characters.  These reversals happen as one piano-playing ‘child’ halts a sonata to become an adult over-seeing the practice of the other now-‘child,’ with the music often hardly halting between the two players and two pianos.  Often, it feels as if we are watching a tennis match as our audience heads bounce from one side to the other to catch all the action at the two piano benches.

Where this play falls short, in my opinion, is in the climax and the dénouement.  The climax is perhaps more realistic of what occurs in life than we as the adoring audience at first want to see; and the result of the climax for each of our protagonists is a bit depressing in where they land in their lives.  We are left with a rather abrupt shock and then shown a scene where beer and Bach are supposed to make it all OK.  Frankly, I wanted a bit more after all this investment in the lives of these two, talented guys than a quite long piano duet at the end.

But I do like the message I received from the play.  As a singer who realized early on that six years of voice lessons were not going to land me in Carnegie Hall, I learned to enjoy singing for singing’s sake and am today in an outstanding chorus of 300 -- content never to seek a solo spot, yet still practicing 8 or more hours a week.  This play reassures me that life-long pursuit of a passion (be it piano, singing, tennis, Scrabble, or whatever) is in itself the reward – not necessarily just the acclaim of parents, teachers, or audience.

Rating:  4 E's

Monday, January 19, 2015

"Our Town"

Our Town
Thornton Wilder

Performed every day somewhere in the world, Our Town to me is the quintessential American play, is the play I have seen performed the most times in my life, and is the play that still moves me to tears each time I see it.  I try not to miss a chance to see it performed, especially when done so by a group as consistently excellent and daring as Berkeley’s Shotgun Players.

From the moment our female Stage Manager (played masterfully by Madeline H.D. Brown) lights her pipe in the aisle and begins to introduce Grover’s Corners, it is evident that we will hear a story worth being retold yet again.  She orchestrates this tale with a pace that honors the time we need to reflect as an audience about ‘our towns.’  The use of silence is strikingly powerful by her and by many of the actors in this production, allowing us to pause amongst our own memories spawned– of past productions we have seen and of past scenes we have lived in our own lives.  The silences also allow the actors to communicate better than in just words their deep emotions, humor, and insights through slight twitches, head nods, eye movements, a hand or foot jerk, or just be being statuesquely still.

Like many productions of Our Town, this production’s audience becomes part of the townspeople, in this case facing each other in pews as if part of the local church congregation.  We are even invited and encouraged to join in the weekly choir rehearsal.  Part of the power and emotion of the play becomes seeing each other’s reactions, like my watching a man several times kissing his wheel-chaired companion at moments when it was clear he was moved to mirror expressions of love and tenderness portrayed on the bare stage between us.

This company is to a person well cast and is superbly directed (by Susannah Martin).  Christopher White’s drunken choirmaster is the best Simon I have yet seen, and Josh Schell’s George Gibbs captures so well the key life moments of this pivotal part that I found my own heart aching for him and for all who have lived through similar moments of regret, love found, and love lost.

I cannot imagine a time in our future when Our Town of the early 20th Century will not feel contemporaneous to the lives and emotions of its audience.  Certainly, this production has no problem translating into the 21st Century.

Rating:  5 E’s

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Late: A Cowboy Song"

Late: A Cowboy Song
Sarah Ruhl
Custom Made Theatre

One of our currently most prolific and recently most-produced-in-the-Bay-Area playwrights, Sarah Ruhl, returns to a local stage in a production of an early play that foreshadows the themes, the aura, and women of her later, now-well-known/loved works (e.g., In the Next Room, Eurydice, Clean House, Dead Man's Cell Phone).  Like Late's domestic couple Crick and Mary, there is a naiveté and immaturity in this early creation of Ruhl that causes me at times to shake my head with 'huh?'  The play meanders and transitions awkwardly at times as a then-younger playwright explores how to set the stage for later important transitions.  The two main characters often are more like children than a married couple having their first child, and their reactions to each other are often awkward, over-done, and even silly.  Their immaturity is difficult to comprehend or believe at times, but there is also a beauty in their simple ways of looking at themselves and the world that at first draws in the audience to want to know more.  However, the more we learn, the more we begin to squirm, impatient for the play and the characters to 'move on' and 'grow up.'

For one of them, there does emerge out of this complacent life  an exploration of what it means to find one's own path to true love and self-fulfillment.  Mary, played quite admirably by a young, still-developing actress Maria Leigh, is seemingly stuck and almost smothered with her lover, then husband Crick in a claustrophobic apartment and world, but she begins to break out in many dimensions as she meets a female cowboy, Red, on a supposed ranch outside of Pittsburgh.  This ballad-singing muse gently leads Mary into a world of discovery, and Mary's boundaries are stretched in mysterious and wonderful ways.  In what will become typical of Ruhl, boundaries of time, gender, social mores, and even logic are stretched and twisted but all in a pace so not to overly shock either the audience or the main character.  Contrasts of personal journeys are often seen in Ruhl; and here we see Brian Martin as Crick retreating further into his set patterns and contented, cocooned life of traditions (like re-watching time and again It's a Wonderful Life) while at the same time his wife ventures into new adventures and discoveries of Chinese food, riding a horse (wooden, in this case), and just enjoying and being in the big sky world outside that small apartment with her new friend.

I admire Custom Made for time and again taking on plays and musicals that are 'too big' for such a small, under-funded company.  Their productions like this one are certainly not perfect; and the low budget the Company must work within affects quality of cast, set, and general production value .  But, somehow the Company does pull off an evening well worth attendance; and I always walk away saying I will come back again for more.

Rating: 3 E's

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Love, Sex, and the IRS"

Love, Sex, and the IRS
Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore
Tribe Productions at the Bindlestiff Studio

A 70s sitcom-like comedy, Love, Sex, and the IRS tries so hard to be the great comedy that it is not.  Everything but the kitchen sink is employed for wished-for laughs: mistaken identities, cross-dressing, slapstick falls and slaps, slippage off the 4th-floor onto an unsuspecting victim below, would-be and not-to-be drunks, puns, unexpected guests arriving exactly at the wrong/right moment, and of course -- the IRS auditor who is suspicious, sweet, sex-deprived, and a sot all at the same time.  Even with all these antics, the laughs from the audience were only occasional and usually tepid.  This imported cast from LA performs often at half the speed required to make these kinds of shenanigans really work.  What is needed are Lucy-like skills to pull off these silly lines and situations.  Unfortunately, those are missing.  What particularly makes this production problematic is the director's choice to stage the play as a live screening of a TV sitcom in the 70s.  The scenario and 'applause' sign feel very forced; and the breaks for powdering noses and listening to somewhat garbled commercials zaps whatever energy the audience and cast have been building together in the previous scenes.  Why this production won two "LA Scenie" awards is a mystery.  Don't look for this production to win many plaudits in SF.

Rating: 2 E's

"Lift Up Your Skirt"

Lift Up Your Skirt
Kathy Najimy
Feinstein's at the Nikko

This one-woman created and performed 'play' is a delight and a heart-warmer.  Kathy Najimy tells not the story of her life but, as she says, 'stories of my life.'  These stories are funny, intriguing, and usually with a message.  They sometimes linger a bit too long in the telling; but the laughter they engender in the process more than makes up for any circuity of route.  Najimy realizes that her audience is 95% (or so it seemed) gay and lesbian, and she delivers to that audience with targeted humor and pointed messages of support and love.  Particularly meaningful is a story inspired by her aunt who has a gay son.  Najimy becomes the elderly lady who recounts to her unseen friend Carol of two weddings she recently attended: one 'lawful' of her niece who is marrying 'in the driveway' for the third time with all the relatives attending and one 'outlawed' of her favorite nephew 'marrying' his partner of nine years with no relatives other than she there.  The story is funny, sad, too true, and very powerful in her telling.

Supposedly set to go to New York for an off-Broadway production, Lift Up Your Skirt is well-worth the effort to see.

Rating: 4 E's

"Shit & Champagne"

Shit & Champagne
D'Arcy Drollinger

Opening the new Oasis nightclub, the revival of Shit & Champagne brings the excitement and energy that should launch this venue into a long life of fun and frolic.  Drollinger's farce of the low-budget, 70s 'exploitation' films for the most part hits its mark at every turn.  With super-hero-like drag queens; bumbling Keystone-like bad guys; 'women' who overpower the men around them to rule the day; slapstick performed flawlessly; hilarious slow-motion action scenes; blood, guts, gore and yes, shit abounding, this show has it all.  This is a show where nothing is sacred and no minute goes by without drawing huge audience guffaws; but it is also one where heart does emerge, where friendship is sacred, and where every audience member leaves with a smile.  Maybe this is not great theatre, but it sure is fun and an only-in-San Francisco must.

Rating: 4 E's

"Promises, Promises"

Promises, Promises
Music by Burt Bacharach; Lyrics by Hal David; Book by Neil Simon
SF Playhouse

Catching this show near the end of its 8+-week run and having seen the excellent, recent Broadway revival (2010-11) with Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth (among others), I was both excited and skeptical as the show began.  This 1968 musical about a ambitious insurance junior executive who rises up the ladder by allowing his married superiors to bring their 'dates' to his apartment, all the while desperate to fall in love himself, is quite dated in many ways (the somewhat sexist plot and portrayal of women, Bacharach's elevator-like music, the mini-skirted chorus of oo-ers and ah-ers who magically appear  every time a song begins).  The 2010 Broadway revival somehow soared above the silliness and blandness of the ho-hum book and score through its outstanding cast, the superior set, and the fast-paced direction (as well as the addition of a couple of Bacharach gems not in the original).  As much as I usually admire SF Playhouse's ability to bring Broadway 'tried-and-true' musicals to their smaller stage and to add elements of their own invention that result in a new and often better interpretation, I did not think this time the translation occurred in this particular production (now closed).

 Jeffrey Brian Adams as the aspiring Chuck Baxter brought a naiveté and clumsiness that really worked most of the time as well as an ability to pull off his vocals with panache.  Corinne Proctor as Marge pretty much stole the show with her featured appearance as the drunk pick-up by a despondent Chuck.  Everyone else was 'ok' but no one was a 'wow.'  The chorus sometimes became, in this production, annoying and distractive.  Their background support music took too much of center stage and too often drew attention away from the main action -- partly because the three cast did not really look and move like a 'unit.'   Compared to the Broadway production, the smaller numbers on stage for the minor parts (secretaries, executives, chorus, etc.) made the stage seem empty at times and wanting more.  The energy level ebbed and flowed.  The orchestra blasted at times (especially the trumpet) instead of blended.  The movement of the many different scenes was largely done by hand and seemed to slow things down a bit too much (although the projections used to show different sets, movement of the elevator between floors, and street scenes were excellent).

In the end, this was a good, solid production but just was not the great one that I have come to expect of SF Playhouse.

Rating: 3 E's