Monday, May 30, 2016

"Maggie's Riff"

Maggie’s Riff
Jon Lipsky

Paul Rodriguez as Jack Kerouac
In wrinkled, open trench coat and smoking like a fiend, he wanders up to the 1950s-era mike in a fog-filled room and starts to ramble a story in his Northeastern way of forming his words.  Some of what he says in the beginning is a bit cryptic (“Been doing a bit of babble since I had this flip”), but then he suddenly gets energized by some spark in his alcohol-wracked mind to tell a story about his teenage self rather than reading as planned from his famous travelogue, On the Road.  The coat comes off, another cigarette is lit, his erect nipples pop through the ribbed t-shirt, and he starts a five-part confession about his first love, Maggie. 

Thus begins a time-travel, dream-like exploration of famed author and Beat generation hero, Jack Kerouac, as related in Jon Lipsky’s jazz-infused play, Maggie’s Riff, now in a powerfully gripping production by Faultline Theater, staged at San Francisco’s PianoFight.  The play begins in some small nightclub of the early 1960s where Kerouac supposedly has been invited to do a reading of the book universally hailed as the era’s counterculture-defining tome.  Instead, he redirects the evening into an exploration of a past relationship that has continued as such a strong thread in his life that it appears difficult for him to separate what is real (i.e., a girlfriend back in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts named Mary Carney) and what is fiction (i.e., a recent book he has published with strong autobiographical elements about one Jack Dulouz falling for one Maggie Cassidy).  The play rips in, out, and between scenes of the author’s whisky-infused storytelling on this early 60s stage; his concurrent, desperate attempts to overcome a writer’s block in a Big Sur shack to begin his next novel; and fond, foggy memories from his senior year in Lowell, Massachusetts.  In the shadowed background, a sax and its player moans, scats, roars, be-bops, and riffs to tie the scenes together, to underline the storyline, and to help point Jack along the way on his memory journey.

JD Scalzo as Mouse, Paul Rodrigues as Jack & Nicole Odell as Maggie
With an uncanny resemblance to early, 1940s photographs of the real Jack Kerouac, dark-browed, solid-cheeked Paul Rodrigues dives into the role of the writer and performer with inspired insight, intensity, and ingenuity.  As the sixteen-year-old Jack, he brings both attractive bashful, ‘aw shucks’ boyishness as well as brass, bold, and ballsy flamboyance.  Rarely have I seen a more fiercely athletic performance as he runs in-place with spinning, sweat-inducing steps as the star of a track meet or as he throws his body to the ground or against a wall in teenage tumble and angst.  When palling around with his best bud, Mouse, he is a jumping jack of energy and crazy moves and a constant flow of wisecracks, friendly punches, and big bear hugs with his bro.  When trying to woo the older, seventeen-year-old Maggie, he is awkward and shy yet persistent and persuasive as he maneuvers toward that first kiss (something she actually makes happen to his total surprise and delight). 

But as the older Jack who is reminiscing in a hazy dream that even he does not seem to quite know if it ever happened or not, Paul Rodrigues is particularly stunning in his portrayal.  With head always cocked to one side and eyes that strain to see something in the past that can help him maneuver his present, the early 1960s Jack is clearly haunted by something his younger self and Mouse intone together: “Your only love is your first love, and your death is your last.”  That first love clearly is still with Jack, and getting beyond its haunting effects twenty years later is the nut he has to crack to get the silent typewriter clicking again.

Nicole Odell is Maggie, the hometown idol that Jack worships and makes into a goddess that she herself does not especially aspire to be.  Maggie is a flirty local gal who loves her Grammie, from whom she has learned how to kiss with passion and to whom she tells all her secrets.  She is clearly drawn to this boy younger than she with his cocky confidence mixed with cute clowning.  Ms. Odell brings subtle sexiness to Maggie that has a rich sense of rawness to it without ever seeming in any way slutty.  There is also a wonderful vulnerability that she exudes and she protects, especially as Jack eventually goes off to New York for college and begins his journey to stardom apart from Lowell, where she remains.  She is dreamy throughout Jack’s telling, fading in and out of the story, living out his own efforts to discern how real she was in life versus on his printed page.

Jack (Paul Rodrigues) & Mouse (JD Scalzo)
Zig to his Zag, Mouse is Jack’s loyal sidekick, constant fellow jokester, and biggest fan and supporter.  JD Scalzo is so much fun to watch as he careens all over the stage in constant swirls and swaggers, dips and ducks of his lean, ever-moving body.  Out of his mouth flows a river of rapid torrents of friendly and taunting, boy-to-boy banter.  His face is full of smile one moment and a feigned look of shock and surprise the next, all part of his ongoing teenage act of spontaneity.  Together with Jack, the two are a dance of exploding testosterones and sometimes a dance of two guys who clearly a are trying to discern what is this other magnetic, arousing attraction between them beyond just being best bros.

Jack Listens to Dr. Sax (Rich Lesnik)
While we never see more than just his shadow, Rick Lesnick as Dr. Sax is a pervasive, important part of Jack’s story.  His tender and trumpeting saxophone as well as his gravelly singing, chanting, and echoing voice provide color and context to the stories playing out on the other side of the screen. 

Cole Ferraiuolo directs with a feverish pace the ever-shifting timelines, locations, and moods of this story of part realism, part fantasy; and he does so in a manner always in his well-staged control.  The dream effects of a memory affected by years of alcohol are enhanced by the use of scenes of shadow designs by Alisa Javits and by acutely planned and executed lighting by Maxx Karzunski.  Brook Jennings leads us back and forth from the ‘40s and ‘60s and from blue-collar Lowell to uptown New York with her choice of period costumes.  Adam Lipsky’s music plays a major role in setting the scene and telling the story through 1940s bebop and 1950s/60s jazz.  Along with Brittany White’s well-chosen props and Evan Wardell’s sound design, this production team has stepped in to support in a big time manner the small, intimate stage of this PianoFight setting.

If there is some slippage in the story from time to time as fast dialogue, shifting scenes, and foggy boundaries between Jack’s story and Jack’s reality make it a bit difficult to follow what just happened, the faultline (pun intended) is ever-so slight and soon forgotten.  Overall, Faultline Theater has assembled is a stellar cast and production team to fill almost too quickly the extremely enjoyable, ninety minutes of Jon Lipsky’s Maggie’s Riff.

Rating: 4 E

Maggie’s Riff continues through June 11, 2016, produced by Faultline Theater at PianoFight, 144 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photos by Clive Walker

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