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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fighting for the Soul of the Republic, in the S.F. Mime Troupe's Schooled

Posted By on Thu, Aug 11, 2016 at 6:40 PM

(l-r) Velina Brown (Lavina Jones), (sitting l-r) Rotimi Agbabiaka (Thomas Jones) in Schooled. - MIKE@MIKEMELNYK.COM
  • Mike@mikemelnyk.com
  • (l-r) Velina Brown (Lavina Jones), (sitting l-r) Rotimi Agbabiaka (Thomas Jones) in Schooled.

Move over, Common Core. Babbittry is the dogma at the former Eleanor Roosevelt Academy once it becomes the Learning Academy of Virtual Achievement (or LAVA) in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's production of Schooled. With encomiums to "make American schools great ... again," it's immediately clear who this burst of social commentary has aimed its arrows at.

And when a frustrated veteran educator, fed up with slick technological improvements, despairs of what is to become of good-old-fashioned civics — "There is no app for citizenship!" — as a professional woman of color who's the mother of a struggling student gets caught between her hard-nosed ambition and the idealism still burning within her, the play becomes more than an indictment of no-nothingism. Like John Barth's 1996 novel Giles, Goat-Boy, a metafictional farce that's essentially one long pun on universe/university, Michael Gene Sullivan and Eugenie Chan's script about the transformation of Eleanor Roosevelt into LAVA (and later the Babbit Academy) echoes the dire implications of the world around it.

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

City of Angels: Film Noir Musical Comedy at SF Playhouse

Posted By on Thu, Aug 4, 2016 at 11:30 AM

Stone (Brandon Dahlquist) exclaims to Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) that he would be nothing without him. - JESSICA PALOPOLI
  • Jessica Palopoli
  • Stone (Brandon Dahlquist) exclaims to Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) that he would be nothing without him.
A quartet starts the show by scatting in harmony. Nonsense “ba da da das” spill out of their mouths in unison. What starts as an ode to the Manhattan Transfer crescendos into a vocal evocation of a film noir symphonic prologue. We’re about to enter L.A. county circa 1948. Our companions are a few femme fatales and the strong, square jawline of a private detective named Stone. And a screenwriter named Stine.

It turns out that Stine, not Stone, is the author of this story, or, more accurately, this screenplay. Stone is Stine’s invention: he’s working for a Hollywood producer, finishing the screenplay in real time as the play unfolds in front of us. The musical employs all the dead tropes from an exhausted genre only to transform them into jazz-inflected scenes of ever-increasing farce. City of Angels is every film noir you’ve ever seen but infused with high-octane shots of cheekiness and song.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

All the Human Animals at The West Edge Festival 2016

Posted By on Tue, Aug 2, 2016 at 9:00 AM

The set of The Cunning Little Vixen. - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • The set of The Cunning Little Vixen.

Opera is all emotion and no logic. The opening weekend of The West Edge Festival was an excellent reminder of that fact. Over the course of two weeks, West Edge Opera is staging three operas in an abandoned train station in West Oakland. This is the Festival’s second year at the 16th Street Station. Closed for the past 22 years, the 1912 building is a monument to a lost era.

As the lights dim before the performances, the space is primed to transport the imagination. Most of the audience sits on folding chairs in the middle of the hall. One long row of wooden pews serves as a comfortable back row. But like that scene in The Rolling Stones’ video “Waiting on a Friend,” some people sat on the sidelines, upon cool cement steps leading up to closed off and darkened corridors that are no longer in use.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

The Struggles of Homeless Women Vets, in Low Hanging Fruit

Posted By on Fri, Jul 22, 2016 at 2:00 PM

Homeless vets Cory (Heather Gordon), Yolanda (Cat Brooks) and Maya (Livia Demarchi) are living out the worst years of their lives in Low Hanging Fruit. - COURTESY OF 3 GIRLS THEATRE
  • Courtesy of 3 Girls Theatre
  • Homeless vets Cory (Heather Gordon), Yolanda (Cat Brooks) and Maya (Livia Demarchi) are living out the worst years of their lives in Low Hanging Fruit.

A chopper hovers over Cory's encampment, in one of Low Hanging Fruit's most moving moments. The army vet who was awarded a Purple Heart following two tours of Iraq, a sliced throat and a suicide bombing that killed 19 of her fellow soldiers points her middle finger up at the sky and yells "Motherfuckers!' before ducking to the ground in utter terror. She rocks back and forth till the noise above subsides.

Cory is no longer on enemy soil and her foe is no longer an opposing army. Today she is living with three other traumatized vets of the War on Terror — aspiring poet Maya (Livia Demarchi), embittered knitter and alcoholic Alice (Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel) and crack-addicted prostitute Yolanda (expertly played by standout actress Cat Brooks) — in a little tent city on Los Angeles' notorious Skid Row. Her opponents are poverty, pimps, drug addiction and PTSD. In other words, sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Grand Concourse is Paved with Good Intentions

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar - PAK HAN
  • Pak Han
  • Cathleen Riddley as Shelley, Caleb Cabrera as Oscar
How do you solve a problem like Emma? She’s self-centered, callow, and dishonest. When she volunteers at a church soup kitchen that Shelley runs, we feel, perhaps, there’s hope for her yet. Two hours later, Grand Concourse has taken great pains to prove us wrong. Whatever youthful folly mars her common sense at the beginning of the play repeatedly reaffirms its place in her consciousness until the bitter end. In fact, every character on stage expresses the desire to do good and then proceeds to behave badly.

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Drink Your (Expired?) Juice at Stale Magnolias

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2016 at 4:30 PM

Jef Valentine, Marilynn Fowler and - Robert Molossi - JAMES JORDAN
  • James Jordan
  • Jef Valentine, Marilynn Fowler andRobert Molossi

One of the more quotable films of the late '80s, Steel Magnolias has a cast that feels like a once-per-century cosmic alignment: Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Darryl Hannah, and doomed diabetic daughter Julia Roberts (along with Tom Skerritt, Dylan McDermott, Sam Shepard, and an armadillo-shaped red velvet cake with grayish icing that doesn't survive).

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Anachronisms and Mysterious Strangers in The Rules, at the Sandbox Series

Posted By on Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Old friends Mehr (Amy Lizardo), Julia (Karen Offereins) and Ana (Sarah Moser) catch up. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Old friends Mehr (Amy Lizardo), Julia (Karen Offereins) and Ana (Sarah Moser) catch up.
Dipika Guha’s play The Rules unearths a buried tome only to respond to it with a psychologically incoherent corrective. Over two million people bought a copy of The Rules, one of a series of New Age books that Americans went feverish over in the 1990s. This particular leaflet of self-help blather prescribed behavior for romantically challenged women. For reasons that continue to baffle, readers swallowed gems like these: “16. Don't Tell Him What to Do” and “20. Be Honest but Mysterious.” (This must have been the genesis behind shows like The Bachelor.) The authors’ thesis statement suggests that marriage is a magical state of nirvana that must be attained by any means necessary. Otherwise, the fate of the damned awaits you: spinsterhood.

The television series Sex and the City, which aired from 1998 to 2004, captured a similar sentiment in the zeitgeist. At the start of every episode, Carrie Bradshaw, the show’s protagonist, asked some variation on the theme, “What do men want from women?” and “Do women want to provide it?” But by the time the show arrived at its ending, the characters had evolved beyond questions like that, slamming their Manolo Blahnik heels through the spines of books like The Rules. Those old roles were not only out of place but positively antediluvian when Girls, that show’s spiritual heir, began its run in 2012.

Now in 2016, The Rules only manages to feel like a curiosity, something dusty brought down from an untended attic. The set is the most intriguing aspect of the staging here. Rows of women’s clothing — blouses, skirts, sweaters, dresses — hang from the rafters. With beams of fluorescent lights flickering on and off, all the empty garments suggest a host of ghostly bodies, a sisterhood of silent witnesses. The Laura Ashley collection is represented in a range of the palest pastels. This open-faced closet contains the solid material for a workable metaphor: how women present themselves to the world, what they conceal and what they show, the private self conflicted with her public twin. 
Valmont (Johnny Moreno) and Ana (Sarah Moser) dance. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Valmont (Johnny Moreno) and Ana (Sarah Moser) dance.

These scattershot ideas, like many others presented in The Rules, are promising at first but remain undeveloped. The plot follows three college friends who encounter and are seduced by the same man, Valmont. In case you’re unsure if he’ll turn out to be a cad or not, the playwright underlines his moral center by naming him after the villain from Dangerous Liaisons. If he had a more innocuous name like Fred, the audience could still have detected his dishonorable intentions the second he opened his mouth.

And when Johnny Moreno as Valmont does begin to speak, the director lets him down. Moreno shapes his vocal performance the way that Van Heflin did, as if he’s performing in a 1950s melodrama, giving a hard sell to phrases that are empty of emotion or meaning. There isn’t a character attached to this unctuous voice. Valmont’s breathy tones indicate a fatuousness, yes, but an impassioned desirability? No. But this lack of characterization, the main fault of the play, lies within the script itself.

The women refer to Valmont as a “mysterious stranger” who fits each of their individual fantasies of the ideal man. In The Witches of Eastwick, whose blueprint of seduction and betrayal The Rules follows, not only do we believe in the bonds of their female friendship but we also understand why they’re tempted by the same man. Neither is the case in this play. The exchanges between this imaginary man and Ana, Julia and Mehr aren’t believable. The bigger problem, though, is that neither are the conversations between these old college friends.
Julia (Karen Offereins), Ana (Sarah Moser), and Mehr (Amy Lizardo) share their excitement over Ana’s second date. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Julia (Karen Offereins), Ana (Sarah Moser), and Mehr (Amy Lizardo) share their excitement over Ana’s second date.
There’s nothing easy, casual or intimate about the way they talk with each other. Sharing a bottle of wine over stilted anecdotes does not qualify as shorthand for friendship. Ana, a teacher, is misconceived; she’s meant to be childish, a barely grown up girl. Sarah Moser conveys Ana’s abstracted petulance and self-absorption with a feigned gaiety and giggle. She says more than once of Valmont, “He gets me.” But so little of her character is revealed that it’s unclear what exactly he’s getting. Since he too appears to be a phantasm, the playwright has constructed a hall of mirrors wherein reflections of reflections are speaking to figures made of glass but never meeting face to face.

Each successive scene ends in an abrupt concussion subtracting narrative sense from the whole. Mehr once had an abusive relationship and she can’t finish things. Why? Julia repeats a phrase about her happy marriage and her reasonable divorce. What exactly preceded her ex-husband’s affair? The Rules is heavy on telling and a featherweight when it comes to showing. The monologues are just that: singular speeches that don’t relate or connect to one another. The playwright may have comprehensible motivations and backstories in the mind but none of them stand up and walk onto the stage.

The play doesn’t offer a rhetorical counterpoint to the original book. This story about the initial rush and sad decline of romance only makes two things clear: Mr. Right is a construct of the imagination and Prince Charming exists in a fairy tale. But it neglects something experiential: when you live with someone every day, year after year, the fantasy and the real slowly merge over time. Two people in love make up the rules of their lives together. They either add new pages to it or burn the damn thing to ash. But nobody else, not even best-selling authors, writes it for them.  

The Rules, through July 16, at San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series, The Creativity Theater, 221 Fourth St., 415-677-9596.


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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Studying Latino History with John Leguizamo

Posted By on Thu, Jun 30, 2016 at 12:30 PM

John Leguizamo in rehearsal for Latin History for Morons. Photographed at New 42nd Street Studios. - PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS/BERKELEY REPERTORY THEATRE
  • Photo: Joan Marcus/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
  • John Leguizamo in rehearsal for Latin History for Morons. Photographed at New 42nd Street Studios.
When actor, writer, and comedian John Leguizamo started doing research on the history of Latinos in the United States — inspired by wanting to be able to answer questions his then eighth grade son might ask — one surprising thing he learned about was the number of Latino soldiers.

“We were involved in every war this country ever had — that really bugged me out,” he said. “And the numbers — 20,000 in the Civil War, and then 4,000 in World War I, but 500,000 in World War II, 170,000 in Vietnam. And in no World War II movie do you see a Latin person.”

Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Queens, also learned that 32 percent of Latinos drop out of school. He thinks a lot of that has to do with the textbooks.

“When I was growing up, there was not one Latin hero in history, literature in philosophy,” he said. “We get no credit, and I think it’s a bit of a purposeful dis-inclusion.”

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Boys to Men in Master Harold at the Aurora

Posted By on Wed, Jun 29, 2016 at 8:00 AM

Hally (r. Andrew Humann) chats with Willie (l. Adrian Roberts) after school while Sam (c. L. Peter Callender) prepares his lunch in Aurora Theatre Company’s Master Harold…and the boys - DAVID ALLEN
  • David Allen
  • Hally (r. Andrew Humann) chats with Willie (l. Adrian Roberts) after school while Sam (c. L. Peter Callender) prepares his lunch in Aurora Theatre Company’s Master Harold…and the boys
Enacted in 1950, The Population Registration Act in South Africa classified its citizens by their race. It was the legislative foundation on which apartheid — the policy of racial segregation — was officially built. It’s not a coincidence that Athol Fugard set his play “Master Harold"...and the boys in the same year. First produced in 1982, apartheid was still twelve years away from being repealed. Those politics of racism that separated blacks from whites inform the relationships between the play’s three characters. The atmosphere in the room is slowly poisoned by them.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

L. Peter Callender Stars in Classic South African Play at the Aurora

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 2:00 PM

Adrian Roberts and L. Peter Callender in a scene from "Master Harold" - L.PWE
  • L.Pwe
  • Adrian Roberts and L. Peter Callender in a scene from "Master Harold"
There aren’t a lot of famous people who actor and director L. Peter Callender would like to meet. Actress Halle Berry is on that list, along with President Barack Obama and ballet dancer Misty Copeland. And then there’s South African playwright Athol Fugard. Callender, who is starring in Fugard’s "Master Harold” . . . and the Boys at the Aurora Theatre, says he first encountered Fugard’s work when he was a student at Juilliard, and performed in “Boesman and Lena.” Since then, he’s been in six of the Fugard’s plays. Callender calls the playwright a genius and says “Master Harold”, set in 1950 South Africa under apartheid and based on an event in Fugard’s life when he was young illustrates that genius.

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