An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Cirque du Soleil’s Amazing “Volta” at AT&T Park – by Barry Willis

Calling a Cirque du Soleil production “a spectacle” is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon “a big ravine.” Reviewers’ standard superlatives—“tremendous,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” etc—fall far short of describing the scope of talents and risks taken in a typical Cirque show.

“Volta” is the 19th Cirque production to visit San Francisco. At AT&T Park through February 3, the show follows company protocol in avoiding the use and exploitation of animals, but once it gets underway no one in the audience will care that there’s nary a lion or tiger in sight. The dramatic setup is a loosely-organized talent competition—the “Mr. Wow Show”—that somewhat spoofs TV programs such as “America’s Got Talent.”

The talent-show thread gets inexplicably lost somewhere before intermission. No problem: the assorted acts that make up “Volta” are so amazing that there’s no need for dramatic structure. World-class acrobats, tumblers, trampolinists, BMX cyclists, ballet dancers, and more rollout onto the large stage in succession so rapid that at times several acts overlap one another.

“Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve…

It’s been noted that Cirque du Soleil is where former college gymnasts go to extend their careers. Their abilities and confidence pay homage to long years of training. It’s easy to understand how someone becomes an expert on the unicycle or the trampoline, but there is one act in “Volta” that provokes bafflement: Where does one learn to be a hair suspension aerialist? In “Mirage,” Brazil’s Danila Bim does a riveting aerial dance far above the stage floor, suspended only by her hair, pulled up into a tight braid connected to a cable in the apex of the big top. Her act isn’t the most dynamic—the trampolinists, tumblers, and stunt cyclists have the edge there—but it’s certainly the most beautiful and the most exotic. A perfect blend of intention, strength, and serenity, “Mirage” is ideally positioned as the high point of Act 2.

Traditional circus arts aren’t ignored in “Volta”—there is plenty of clowning, although never a small car unpacking two dozen unseen passengers. The audience also gets to see a scary performance on the “Swiss rings”—a swinging version of the still rings in men’s gymnastics. Also called the “flying rings,” the apparatus was once part of Olympic competition and now has very few adherents outside the circus. Keep an eye on the catwalk from which the rings are suspended. It sways quite a bit when the performers swing out over the edge of the stage.

There are many close calls in “Volta,” particularly in the closing segment with what seems like a dozen bike riders performing tricks simultaneously. The danger is part of the thrill for the audience—and presumably, part of the appeal for the performers—but given its seemingly high potential for disaster, Cirque du Soleil has a low injury rate. “Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve even if for no higher purpose than sheer exhilaration and the satisfaction of knowing that they can do things that few others can equal.

“Volta” runs through February 3 in San Francisco, then moves to San Jose through March 24. It’s an astounding production. With two shows per day on many dates, there is certainly one that will fit in your busy winter holiday schedule. Don’t miss it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionVolta
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesThru Feb. 3rd, 2019
Production AddressAT&T Park
24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta
Telephone
Tickets$54.00 and up
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “You Mean to Do Me Harm” at San Francisco Playhouse – by Barry Willis

A seemingly innocuous statement made at a celebratory dinner party has unexpected ramifications in Christopher Chen’s “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” at San Francisco Playhouse through Nov. 3.

So does just about everything spoken or thought by the four characters in this baffling one-act workshopped last year as part of the Playhouse’s “Sandbox” series. Now given a full production in the company’s main theater, the piece opens strongly with two interracial couples meeting to celebrate an impending new job for Ben (Cassidy Brown), whose Chinese-American wife Samantha (Charisse Loriaux) was promoted over him at social-good non-profit. His new boss will be a Chinese-American named Daniel (Jomar Tagatac), whose spouse, Lindsay (Katie Rubin) is a corporate lawyer who briefly dated Ben in college.

A comment about a camping trip they took some ten years earlier opens a Pandora’s Box of florid and sometimes paranoid fantasies that impinge on every aspect of professional and interpersonal relationships. Racism—private/personal and historical/institutional—is a strong theme.

… The piece opens strongly …

Played out on an austere but imposing set by Angrette McClosky, the urbane banter of the four exposes character flaws and motivations that threaten the stability of their relationships. The job offer for Ben is inexplicably withdrawn. This launches a series of sketches that examine in detail both the outer and inner realities of all four characters.

Harm-Charisse Loriaux and Cassidy Brown as Samantha and Ben – Photo by Ken Levin

These sketches tend to be vicious—especially a shouting match between Ben and Lindsay—but there is one of the two women with a confessional/conspiratorial tone approaching friendship.

The sketch structure is both too little and too much for this 90-minute show: two little in that there are insufficient dramatic/character arcs and too much in the sense that each sketch could be expanded. It’s as if Chen has opened up his notebook and thrown everything onstage that these four characters could do with each other, without considering the ultimate trajectory of the play. The setup is compelling but dramatic development lacking: plenty of conflict, no resolution.

“You Mean to Do Me Harm” begins and ends abruptly and looks very much like an early-stage Netflix series in which each sketch could be developed into a full episode. Director Bill English and his expert cast try mightily to breathe life into it, but as an evening’s entertainment, it’s an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling bit of theater.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theatre Review: Marvelous “Hedwig” by Ray of Light – by Barry WIllis

John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be the greatest rock musical ever conceived. No matter how you rank them, it’s certainly among the top five. Ray of Light has launched a really engaging production of this fantastic comedic redemption story about an East German rocker whose botched gender-reassignment surgery prompts personal and professional crises.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission district through October 6, the production features Coleton Schmitto in the lead role, with Maya Michal Sherer as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s aide-de-camp, fellow performer, and sometimes lover. Hedwig’s band, the Angry Inch—its name derived from what was left by Hedwig’s incompetent surgeon—includes Steven Bolinger on keyboard and guitar, Lysol Tony-Romeo on bass, Diogo Zavadzki on guitar, and David Walker on drums. The group is very well balanced and just loose enough to give this show a semi-inebriated improvisational feel.

…this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky…

Peet Cocke’s rough set perfectly complements the shabby old Victoria, giving it the air of both dive bar and low-budget arena. Schmitto dominates the stage throughout the non-stop ninety-minute show, spouting a litany of ironic one-liners and managing all of his character’s dance moves and gymnastics without being visibly hindered by stiletto heeled boots. Sherer scrambles to sing and draw projected transparencies at the same time. It’s quite a juggling act.

“Hedwig” with Coleton Schmitto.

The pair sing with power and conviction, although the sound on opening night was so unbalanced that during opening scenes, the bass and drums overwhelmed the vocals. This technical glitch was corrected later in the show and presumably won’t be an issue for the duration of its run. Stephen Trask’s music, of course, runs the gamut from incendiary punk (“Angry Inch”) to pop humor (“Sugar Daddy”) to deeply personal (“Wig in a Box”) to hauntingly sentimental (“The Origin of Love,” “Wicked Little Town”)—all of it beautifully performed.

Not an ultra-polished Broadway production, this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky, refined enough for musical theater elitists but grungy enough that cultists will come back for repeat performances. Hardcore fans will regret missing it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHedwig and The Angry Inch
Written byMusic: Stephen Trask.
Lyrics: Stephen Trask.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed bySailor Galaviz
Producing CompanyRay of Light Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th.
Production AddressVictoria Theatre
2961 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.rayof lighttheatre.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theater Review: Promising but Uneven “Demos Kratos Theatro” – by Barry WIllis

Political humor takes both expected and unexpected turns in Utopia Theatre Project’s “Demos Kratos Theatro,” at San Francisco’s PianoFight bar and theater, through October 6.

Its title Greek for “People Power Theater,” this collection of short plays and comedic sketches includes plenty of predictable anti-Trump/anti-Republican polemics. Musician Lauren Mayer appears repeatedly with songs whose lyrics are sometimes clever and sometimes entirely too obvious, such as “voter fraud is a fraud.”

There’s one piece, “Daughters of Ocean,” by Carol S. Lashof, that’s either too obscure or not quite fully developed, but two others are excellent, especially “The Polling Place,” Kenneth Heaton’s two-actor sketch about a voter trying her earnest best to participate in democracy in the face of increasingly impossible requirements. Directed by Mary Ann Rogers, veteran professional actor Richard Farrell is superb as a no-nonsense worker enforcing the rules at a polling station. Alicia Stamps is his match as a would-be voter baffled by the obstacle course she must overcome simply to cast a ballot.

Amelia Adams … a trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition … engages the audience fully and never falters.

Another great sketch is Cleavon Smith’s “On the Precipice.” Directed by Melanie Bandera-Hess, the piece features three stoners (Lorenzo Angelo Gonzales, Howard Johnson Jr., and Tesia Bell) who appear ready to do their citizens’ duty until their motivation gets derailed by too much weed. The show’s only piece with a personal responsibility theme, “On the Precipice” is a humorous cautionary tale that should be taken to heart by a wide swath of the politically disenchanted.

The Demos Kratos Theatro cast.

The high point of “Demos Kratos Theatro” is Amelia Adams’s recurring appearances as campaigning politician Sal Monella—a sleazeball self-promoter from New Jersey by way of Chicago. A trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, Adams engages the audience fully and never falters even at moments when it’s clear she’s improvising. Her hilarious act alone is worth the trip to Taylor Street.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionDêmos Krátos Theátro: Plays By and For the People
Written byVarious
Directed byVarious
Producing CompanyUtopia Theatre Project
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th on selected dates.
Production AddressPianoFight
144 Taylor St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttp://www.utopiatheatreproject.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$12.50 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!---

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Sunday in the Park with George” is a Winner at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse puts on a classic musical that runs from late June or early July into September. A hugely successful business model, the strategy takes advantage of tourist traffic in the city’s downtown Union Square area.

The current offering, James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” has been so successful that the Playhouse has had to add performances to accommodate demand.  Now halfway through its run, the show is popular for good reasons—among them, superb performances and stunning stagecraft.

…a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting…

In many ways award-winning director Bill English’s magnum opus, “Sunday in the Park” has amazing sets (also by English) and immersive projections by Theodore J.H. Hulsker that bring the paintings of George Seurat to life, as well as the island in the Seine immortalized in his most famous creation.

The first act’s story focuses on Seurat (John Bambery) and his obsession with 18th century discoveries in optics—in particular, the fact that two closely-spaced unlike colors seen at a distance appear to the eye as a third color. Red and blue appear as lavender, for example.

George (John Bambery) at work on his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

His pointillist technique was enormously time-consuming, leaving little margin for the proper treatment of his lover/model/muse Dot (Nanci Zoppi, who steals the show).  Zoppi also appears in the second act as Marie, Dot’s daughter, and Bambery is Seurat’s American grandson, also named George, and also an artist. There is some disagreement between Marie and this new George about his exact lineage, and about the direction of his art. The second act spoofs the 1970s art world, but the first act seems to take the artist’s struggle quite seriously.

There are no weak links in the large cast—they range from good to exemplary—but standouts include Maureen McVerry as the Old Lady in Act 1 and as modern art maven Blair Daniels in Act 2, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Louis.

George (John Bambery) shares a moment with the Old Lady (Maureen McVerry.) Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

The creative team is similarly of high caliber, particularly choreographer Kimberly Richards, costumer Abra Berman, and lighting designer Michael Oesch.

The cast of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ take their positions in Georges Seurat’s famous painting. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

“Sunday in the Park” is an absolute spectacle. Sondheim’s music may give some visitors pause—it rarely rises to the level of recognizable melody, and unfortunately, the composer may have exhausted his considerable lyrical abilities in collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story.”

From the same era that gave us “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” this show tends toward the atonal and repetitive, but it’s nonetheless a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting.

 

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

An ASR Theater Review! Delightful “Soft Power” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Cultural appropriation gets turned upside down in David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power,” through July 8 at San Francisco’s Curran.

China is clearly on its way toward being the dominant economic force in the 21st century. Its cultural influence isn’t yet on par with its industrial and financial power, but there seems little doubt that its ascendency is inevitable. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the fantastically entertaining “Soft Power” imagines a near future when Chinese film, TV, and theater borrow heavily and indiscriminately from standard tropes of 20th-century American popular culture. The title is code for a nation’s global cultural influence.

Hwang opens the piece with a meeting between himself (played by Francis Hue), a successful screenwriter, and Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), an executive with “Dragon Media” sent to Hollywood to recruit talent for productions for the Chinese domestic market. Xing’s comprehension of English is excellent but he needs help with idioms and cultural details. His slight Chinese accent gradually disappears as the story moves forward in time, an indication that he’s become fully assimilated.

Alyse Alan Louis (center), working in ‘Soft Power’ at the Curran. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A classic Hollywood trope involves his much younger starlet girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis, a fantastically talented singer who also does a superb impression of Hillary Clinton in one of the core story’s many tangents.)

The ambitious but somewhat out-of-control script covers everything from America’s love affair with firearms to the venomous 2016 presidential election and its aftermath to typical American/European stereotypes of Asians in such beloved shows as “The King and I” and similar huge-scale theatrical productions.

Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is especially delicious, riffing on classics like “Billy the Kid” and “Oklahoma.” Watching nearly two dozen mostly Asian performers hamming it up in blonde wigs and mid-South accents is a scream.

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

The script leaps forward to a televised discussion among Chinese cultural intellectuals about the “invention of new theatrical forms” combining speech, song, and dance. Stagecraft is superb, immersive, and at times almost overwhelming.

This is a hilarious must-see production for anyone interested in the future, in the abysmal state of American politics or in an alternate take on the stupidly contentious issue of cultural appropriation. Should Anglo women be driven out of business for making and selling tacos and burritos? Is it fair that white college girls get harassed by their Hispanic sisters for wearing hoop earrings? These questions aren’t hypothetical; both have happened recently.

A visit to McDonald’s, a fine eatery, in ‘Soft Power.’
Photo by Craig Schwartz

The bottom line is that humans copy everything they like—food, fashion, music, art, language, technology. “Soft Power” is a wildly entertaining celebration of this eternal truth. It’s a genius production whose short three-week run does it an unintentional  disservice.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

ProductionSoft Power
Written byDavid Henry Hwang
Directed byLeigh Silverman
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 8th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$39 – $175
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5

 

An ASR Theater Review! Amazing, Wonderful “Walk on the Moon” at ACT – by Barry Willis

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

1969 was a pivotal year in the United States. The Vietnam War was approaching its peak, as was opposition to it at home. The civil rights and women’s movements grew more intense by the week. In late July, the first astronaut walked on the moon, and shortly thereafter a half-million music fans showed up at a farm near Woodstock, NY, for what would be the defining cultural moment of the decade.

All of this figures into “A Walk on the Moon,” at ACT through July 1. It’s a beguiling tale of a Jewish housewife’s late-in-life coming of age through an accidental encounter with a hippie peddler. Katie Brayben stars as Pearl Kantrowitz, a young mother from Flatbush, whose family traditionally spends a few idyllic summer weeks at a resort in the Catskills with friends and neighbors, all of whom, save Pearl’s rebellious adolescent daughter Alison (Brigid O’Brien), are still very much in the 1950s.

Marty and Pearl – Jonah Platt and Katie Brayben in “A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

Pearl’s TV-repairman husband Marty (Jonah Platt) can’t stay with them as much as he would prefer because business is booming at the repair shop where he works , in anticipation of the moon landing. Pearl spends idle moments hanging out with Walker (Zak Resnick), a local free spirit who sells blouses out of his camper van. Their friendship blossoms and culminates in a psychedelic adventure during the music festival, mirroring a less-intense affair that Alison has with a charming guitar-playing boy named Ross (Nick Sacks).

The story covers a short period in social history but a huge episode in Pearl’s life. She was, as she describes it, almost a child bride—one who went from high school to motherhood with no developmental period in between. Walker, and the ideas he shares with her, are Pearl’s forbidden fruit, and like Eve in Genesis Chapter 3, her eyes are opened.

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

The verdant setting of the “bungalow colony” feels almost like Eden as realized by scenic designer Donyale Werle, and Tal Yarden’s astoundingly immersive projections go a long way toward encompassing the heady events of the late 1960s. Stagecraft at ACT is almost always beyond reproach, but this production is among the company’s most spectacular. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

“A Walk on the Moon’ is a flawless, must-see production.

Developed by Pamela Gray from the 1990s movie of the same name, “A Walk on the Moon” beautifully evokes a period whose effects still resonate almost fifty years later. The music by Paul Scott Goodman, with additional lyrics by Gray, gets the ‘60s feel just right while sounding totally contemporary. The entire cast is superb but Brayben takes her performance completely over the moon (sorry) with all-consuming dramatic conviction, fantastic dancing, and stunning vocals. It’s one of the most complete and fully engaged performances you’re likely to see this year.

“A Walk on the Moon” is a flawless, must-see production. Its only drawback is that it isn’t running all summer.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

 

“A Walk on the Moon” by Pamela Gray; Music by Paul Scott Goodman; Directed by Sheryl Kaller

Through July 1: Tuesday– Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m.

American Conservatory Theater  Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA

Tickets: $15 – $110

Info: 415-749-2228, act-sf.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

An ASR Theater Review! Adventurous “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theatre – by Nicole Singley

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theater

It’s a normal night of gambling and drunken debauchery on the Las Vegas strip until a catastrophic event half a world away sends shockwaves rippling through the crowded streets of Nevada’s most infamous and alluring destination.

Jonathan Spector’s elaborately-woven satire – at Custom Made Theatre through July 7th – crashes the party and bears witness to the aftermath in a series of revealing vignettes. Making its world premiere at this intimate San Francisco venue, “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is co-produced by Custom Made Theatre Co. and Spector’s own Berkeley-based company, Just Theater.

From magicians, prostitutes, gamblers, and bachelorette parties to costume-clad street performers and obnoxious, selfie-snapping tourists, this 90-minute, nonstop show darts back and forth between characters and storylines offering glimpses into the lives of recognizable Las Vegas fixtures. We watch their night unfold in the wake of devastating news, following along as they struggle to process and react to an unexpected buzz-kill of epic proportions. Can the party continue amid the chaos and confusion, or will doom and gloom prevail?

Jessica Lea Risco delivers a strong and nuanced performance as hired escort Simone, holed up uncomfortably in a hotel room with nervous would-be customer Alan (Gabriel Montoya) when the bad news hits.

Gabriel Montoya and Jessica Lea Risco at Custom Made.

Lauren Andrei Garcia shines as ditzy drama-queen Sue, determined to salvage her bachelorette festivities by any means possible. Tim Garcia nails an impressive, lightning-paced monologue riddled with more casino-friendly terminology than a copy of Gambling for Dummies. He is excellent as frenetic 17-year-old Sheldon, keeping his broke father Walter (David Sinaiko) afloat with handouts from his winnings.

Mick Mize is equally capable in dual roles as disenchanted stage magician Jordan and an inebriated, skirt-chasing tourist (“The Bro”) evoking blurry memories of frat-house parties past. Millie Brooks provides comic relief as Sue’s beleaguered best friend Marla, along for the wild ride whether she likes it or not.

Millie Brooks and Mick Mize at Custom Made.

Director Lauren English succeeds beautifully in bringing the humor and humanity of Spector’s script to life. A less talented group of actors may have made it difficult to see the same faces assuming so many roles, but the cast switches gears seamlessly and convincingly, making it surprisingly easy to forget that the drunken playboy hitting on our hapless bride-to-be was a magician only moments earlier. Noteworthy sound design by Jaren Feeley adds much to the overall production quality, with the well-timed entrances of voices swelling in the background and cellphone sound effects so realistic that members of the audience were seen reaching to check their own devices.

It’s an entertaining, fast-moving, emotional roller coaster of a production, shifting effectively between episodes eliciting side-splitting laughter, serious reflection, shock, and horror, all punctuated by an uneasy sense of sadness and despair that looms over even some of the most awkward and laugh-out-loud moments in this multi-dimensional comedy.

Spector has crafted his characters with empathy and depth, exploiting their flaws when it suits his purpose, but not at the expense of making them both relatable and compelling. “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is a thought-provoking journey into the heart of Sin City and humankind at large, underlining the fragility of the ever-fleeting here and now.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

 

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” by Jonathan Spector

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through July 7, 2018

Tickets: $35—$42

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

ASR Theater Review! Incisive, Hilarious “Entomologist’s Love Story” at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

“Neoteny” is a scientific term for the persistence of immature characteristics in mature organisms: adult dogs with the look and behavior of puppies, for example. By extension, it could be applied to a large swath of the thirty-something population, many of whom seem to have reached their limit of social development in middle school.

It’s also a strong sub-theme in “An Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse through June 23. Expertly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Melissa Ross’s tight, insightful script examines the relationship of Betty and Jeff (Lori Prince and Lucas Verbrugghe), two doctoral candidates who work together in the entomology department of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

Briefly lovers during their undergrad days, the two now enjoy a playful relationship like teenage brother and sister. Their nerdy banter is the source of much of Ross’s comedy—much of it true-to-life proof that “thirty is the new thirteen.” Betty is an expert on the mating behaviors of insects—the play is bracketed by her lectures on the subject—but is obsessed with the mating behaviors of humans, an activity with which she has had much experience but no longterm success. She clings to Jeff, who clearly wants to move on, but doesn’t know how.

Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll, right) shows an insect specimen to Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe).

Then one day he meets Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), a young woman geekier by far than he and Betty combined, and soon he knows she’s the girl for him. How to break away from Betty is his challenge, and dealing with that is hers. Then life throws her a curve ball in the form of an intellectual janitor named Andy (Will Springhorn, Jr.), who’s attended her lectures and has read “War and Peace” in its entirety.

It’s a spare, beautifully structured plot without a hint of fluff. Every line and every action propel the story toward its lovely uplifting conclusion, all of it conveyed on a spectacular set—both interior and exterior of the museum—by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted and adventurous set designers. This show’s scientific setting and dissection of the personal lives of realistic scientists make it an excellent follow-up to “The Effect,” with its theme of love and research. And love-among-the-nerds makes it a superb companion piece to “Tinderella,” running through May 26 at Custom Made Theatre, in SF Playhouse’s former home on Sutter Street. Hilarious and hopeful, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” is a sweet antidote for what ails us.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

Tickets: $30-$100 Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Loose Cannon — ACT’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars” – by Barry Willis

A great old joke has it that “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” The same might be said about Civil War epic “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” directed by Liz Diamond, at American Conservatory Theater through May 20.

The committee in question is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, an artist so deeply in love with her own voice that she can’t figure out what material fits and what needs to be jettisoned. She includes it all, like William Faulkner delivering to his editor his magnum opus in a wheelbarrow.

Unlike Faulkner, Parks didn’t have a ruthless editor to shape her material into something compelling. She instead offers a sprawling amalgam of history and personal quest that attempts to be both drama and comedy but ultimately succeeds as neither. The story at its core is quite simple: a slave named Hero (James Udom, superb) elects to serve as valet to his “boss master,” a Confederate colonel (Dan Hiatt) who has answered the call of duty and is headed to the war. Hero wonders if he should go or not, to the point of almost cutting off his own foot to render himself unfit, a fate that has already befallen his friend Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez). He’s also reluctant to say goodbye to his love Penny (Eboni Flowers) and other members of his community, but the lure of adventure, the intoxication of wearing a uniform, and the promise of freedom at the end of his servitude overwhelm his better judgment and off he goes. There are mentions of Hero’s dog Odyssey, who has run off, but we never see him.

James Udom

“Father Comes Home” follows a traditional three-act structure, with enough characters and plot devices to fill a two-season PBS series. In the first act, we meet Hero and other members of his community, their shabby housing represented by the rusty façade of a corrugated metal shack. (Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez.) This introduction, itself introduced by a mellifluous guitar-playing musician (Martin Luther McCoy, excellent), consumes the better part of an hour and segues directly into Act II, which finds Hero, the Colonel, and a wounded-and-captured Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) camped out in a forest within earshot of battle but safely away from it, the damage of war and the forest where they’re hiding represented by huge upended I-beams, more 1945 Berlin than 1865 Appomattox.

The Colonel preens, drinks, and rants, and during lulls in encroaching cannon fire, the three of them engage in a free-wheeling discussion of personal and social freedom, identity, status, value, ownership, man, god, law, and destiny. This act is exceptionally well done by three skilled actors and were it fully fleshed out might prove to be a satisfying resolution to the questions raised in Act I. Or not—the playwright might have her characters ask these questions and leave them for the audience to ponder.

Act III opens with the rusty shack superimposed on the remnants of war, with three runaway slaves cowering on its porch. Over the hill comes what appears to be a crazy homeless person in a wooly bathrobe, flitting about, flipping his hair and gushing about the fates of Hero and the Colonel. A new character introduced in the last act—Parks clearly disregards the laws of drama here—and one who had many in the opening night audience mumbling “WTF?” This crazy homeless person proves to be Odyssey, Hero’s missing dog, who has followed his master, at a distance, to the war and back and has come home to tell the tale. He’s comic relief, like the gravedigger in “Hamlet.”

Greg Wallace

A talking dog. We are now solidly in Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit territory.

Odyssey (ACT veteran Gregory Wallace) spins an elaborate tale, provoking many laughs, and informs the community that Hero isn’t dead as they believed, but in fact survived and is coming home. And Hero does just that, arriving with gifts for Homer and Penny, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that he has copied by hand but never reads aloud. Their reunion is warm and reassuring until Hero lashes out wildly with his knife, slashing at the runaways, his friend Homer, and everyone near him. There is neither justification nor explanation for this outburst. Then he calms down to tell Penny that he has a wife on the way, and it isn’t her. The end, more or less.

Its stagecraft is very good, but “Father Comes Home” is lengthy (three hours), ponderous, and baffling. Parks has worked historical facts into fantasies that never fully take flight. Hero’s journey is an arduous one, especially for the audience, some of whom left at intermission. That may have made for a more fulfilling evening at the theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“Father Comes Home from the Wars” by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

Tickets: $15 – $110 Info: www.act-sf.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Outrageously Great Fun; “Head Over Heels” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

 

San Francisco’s Curran Theater is the last stop before Broadway for “Head Over Heels,” the delightful new musical featuring the songs of 1980s girl group the Go-Go’s.

Reputedly the most successful female pop group of all time, the Go-Go’s helped define the decade with a long run of infectious tunes, given new life in this stupendously quirky production. The opening scene is a fantastically well-done ensemble performance of “We Got the Beat” under a proscenium arch emblazoned with the faux-Latin slogan “Habemus Percussivo.”

Developed by Jeff Whitty from “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, adapted by James Magurder, and directed by Michael Mayer, “Head Over Heels” is a pseudo-Shakespearean romantic comedy about a royal family seeking to prevent a prophecy of doom. This involves a troublesome journey to Bohemia, foreboding appearances by a transgendered oracle, mistaken identities, gender-fluid coupling, class-defying hookups, a self-doubting monarch, and some of the most spectacularly whimsical sets ever conceived—all of it propelled by the Go-Go’s great thumping pop-rock, done live by an ace all-female band above and behind the stage. Spencer Liff’s choreography is superb right from the opening drum whack.

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

The story concerns Basilius, the King of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier) and his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachael York) who are seeking a proper marriage partner for their eldest daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan). Pamela’s little journey of self-discovery includes the realization that she isn’t all that interested in men, but her sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) is—especially Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a handsome shepherd boy with an exaggeratedly Shakespearean manner of speech. His speech is so ornate that at moments the other characters—no elocutionary slouches themselves—interrupt him and demand that he “speak English.”

Class distinctions prevent any immediate linkup between Musidorus and Philoclea. Disguising himself as “Cleophila,” an Amazon warrior woman in Roman armor and a fluffy blonde wig, he joins the travelling party and is soon the object of affection for the king himself. The Queen has a wandering eye, too. Central to the plot is the budding love affair between the marvelously comical Pamela and her maidservant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), who also happens to be the daughter of the king’s goofy viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins). Anchoring the production, Jones is wonderfully confident in her role, and a tremendous singer, as proven during Mopsa’s contemplative visit to the island of Lesbos, where she gives the song “Vacation” a whole new meaning.

Kushier does likewise with “Lust to Love,” reinterpreted late in the saga as a revenge song during a sword fight between the king and Musidorus. No worries! Everyone lives—and loves—happily ever after.

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

Arianne Phillips’s costumes, Kevin Adams’s lighting, Andrew Lazarow’s projections, Kai Harada’s sound, and Julian Crouch’s set design all make huge contributions to the wild success that is “Head Over Heels.” The primary actors are superb, as are the ensemble, all of them veterans of multiple big-time musicals. The result is a stunning powerhouse performance that brought the opening night crowd to its feet in sustained appreciation—a crowd, it must be mentioned, younger and more boisterous than typically fills San Francisco’s big theaters, and one that lingered for the after-party in the lobby, enjoying the music of the B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, and many other contemporaries of the Go-Go’s.

“Head Over Heels” is simply an outrageously over-the-top good time. It may be the most fun you will ever have in a theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

What: “Head Over Heels,” the Go-Go’s Musical.

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

Where: The Curran Theater, 455 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! SF Playhouse’s Haunting “The Effect” – by Barry Willis

In “The Effect,”  at San Francisco Playhouse through April 28, a clinical drug trial goes off the rails when two test subjects fall in love, and two supervising psychiatrists revisit an old affair.

The story plays out over a few weeks in a lab belonging to the fictional Rauschen pharmaceutical company. Two young trial volunteers, Connie Hall and Tristan Frey (Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack, respectively) have signed up to test an experimental antidepressant, ostensibly because they need the money, although that is never made explicit.

Lead researcher Dr. Toby Sealey (Robert Parsons) has great hopes for the potential of this new drug to raise levels of dopamine, a substance naturally present in the brain, but depleted in depressed people. His one-time lover Dr. Lorna James (Susi Damilano) is directly in charge of administering incrementally increasing doses to her subjects and monitoring their behavior. She tries vainly to intervene when Connie and Tristan get involved with each other, because love’s pleasure also raises dopamine levels, potentially masking the effect of the drug. She also tries vainly to suppress lingering feelings for Dr. Sealey, a man she dismisses as “the most notorious fuck-around on the conference circuit.”

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s fascinating script examines the nature of love and mental illness, calls into question scientific objectivity, and makes a deserving target of pharmaceuticals with marginal benefits and many deadly side effects. Dr. James does likewise – she remarks to Dr. Sealey that “the history of medicine is the history of placebos” and later predicts that “one day we will look back on all this chemical-imbalance stuff like the four humors.” Their relationship does not blossom anew. It’s implied that Dr. Sealey may enjoy a big payout if the trial’s results are positive.

Set designer Nina Ball is at her best here, evoking the vaguely pleasant but impersonal nature of corporate environments, with superb help from projections designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker, whose video graphics are chillingly effective.

Director Bill English gets a powerful performance from his cast of four. The show’s dark trajectory is interrupted here and there by moments of near-comedy, but the light at the end of its tunnel doesn’t shine on Dr. James. “The Effect” is a well-done theatrical rarity that entertains, informs, and provokes in equal measure.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble

Through April 28

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post Street, San Francisco

Tickets: $25 – $100

Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

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