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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Wednesday, Jul 30 2008

American Joe Despite being given life by the same DNA donors and being raised in the same household, siblings often grow into people who bear little resemblance to each other. Liza Raynal explores this tension using the War on Terror as a backdrop in American Joe, her autobiographical solo show at the Marsh directed by David Ford. While she and her younger brother, Joe, grew up in a liberal Bay Area home where organic salad was served, they take radically different paths in adulthood. She becomes a schoolteacher; he drops out of high school and enlists in the military to fight for a cause his pacifist sister doesn't understand. There are some funny moments (such as when "Bad to the Bone" blares from the loudspeakers during Joe's graduation from basic training) and a few touching ones (some people in the audience looked as if they were wiping away tears at the show's end). But overall Raynal delivers an uneven product that loses our interest at times. The grownup Joe, as she portrays him, comes across as a two-dimensional oaf, almost a caricature of what an Army grunt talks like. Still, the piece does get across a poignant message: Often we love our family for the same reason some of us decide to serve our country — out of a sense of duty. Through Aug. 15 at the Marsh, 1074 Valencia (at 22nd St.), S.F. $15-$35 on Thursdays; $22-$35 on Fridays and Saturdays. Call 800-838-3006 or visit (Will Harper) Reviewed July 16.

The Listener. Set far in Earth's future in the last remaining human outpost (the majority of the world's population left centuries ago for the Moon, now imaginatively renamed "Nearth"), Liz Duffy Adams' latest world premiere tells an overwrought story of our planet's fate. At the start of the play the inhabitants of Junk City, a trash-strewn metropolis piled high with the detritus of a long-fled civilization, go about their day-to-day business. When enterprising "Finders" (the city's worker bees) Smak and Jelly capture a lone researcher from Nearth by the name of John, the fortunes of Junk City change overnight. John's plan to "save" the abandoned souls marooned on his ancestors' planet by bringing them "home" to Nearth goes awry. But a burgeoning friendship with the city's lonely "Listener" (a Dr.-Spock-meets-the-Dalai-Lama figure who spends her days cooped up in a hermit's cell patiently trying to make contact with life forms beyond the city walls) sets John and his captors on an unlikely course. Adams' previous collaborations with Crowded Fire (The Train Play and One Big Lie) have been among the most compelling Crowded Fire offerings in recent years. But overburdened as it is with preachy critiques of everything from celebrity culture to the war in Iraq, this clunky dystopian dramedy tries too hard to be deep and meaningful and ends up bordering on self-parody. Through Aug. 3 at A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at 17th St.), S.F., and Aug. 15-31 at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at Martin Luther King Jr.), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-$25; call 433-1235 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 23.

The Lorca Summer Festival: Blood Wedding. Plays by Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca can be tricky to produce. They juxtapose stylized prose with poetic verse, and are wide open for creative physical interpretation. Pangs Theater is offering three of his tragedies for its summer festival, and the first, Blood Wedding, struggles to balance these elements. First staged in 1933, Lorca's most famous play details two volatile lovers who marry others but can't ignore their original primal attractions. Ultimately, this leads to bloody tragedy. Lorca thickens the drama with the politics of marriage, land inheritance, and murder. Director Wolfgang Thompson has paced this stylized production very lethargically. Overly long scene changes and actors who speak in measured and emotionless cadences sap the tension (and even elicit laughter) in Lorca's script. The end of act one feels like the season finale of a Spanish telenovela. The lush costumes are fabulous and some scenes resonate, such as the initial awkward meeting of the in-laws, but this production hasn't properly meshed its style with the material. Through Aug. 2 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), S.F. Tickets are $12-$25; call 800-838-3006 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed July 23.

Point Break Live! Keanu Reeves' legacy looms large over this most excellent theatrical spoof of Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 film about a Los Angeles cop who goes under cover to infiltrate a gang of adrenaline-junkie surfing bank robbers. Never mind that the shoestring budget puts hiring Reeves, who starred in the film as FBI agent Johnny Utah, beyond the reach of the show's producers, New Rock Theater. While the plucky theatergoer selected at the start of each performance by audience applause to fill in for Reeves may not necessarily possess the star's cheekbones or surfer's physique, he (or she) will very likely manage to turn in at least as convincing a performance. Like Bigelow's movie, the stage adaptation hyperventilates. Familiarity with the film isn't mandatory, but it certainly helps us keep up with the hectic pace. The actors are so amped that they hardly ever stand still, and have a tendency to garble their lines in the drive to recreate action movie dynamics onstage. Yet it's impossible not to get swept up in the show's glorious chaos. Kevin Vasconcellos' animation sequence projected on a theater wall illustrates a wild car chase; an explosion at a gas station bursts before our eyes in a cataclysmic live fire-breathing display; and when the idiotic surfer bums suddenly don masks and morph into a gang of dangerous, bank-robbing criminals, the intensity of their assault takes us completely by surprise. Open run on Sundays at Fat City, 314 11th St. (at Folsom) S.F. Tickets are $25; call 866-811-4111 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed July 9.

Red State. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's latest politically charged musical comedy tackles its worthy subject — citizens must hold government responsible for how their tax dollars are spent — with its usual cheeky pluck. Yet overall the show fails to deliver either a rousing call to arms or a satisfying theatrical tale. On the theatrical front, this 90-minute show takes more than 30 minutes to get off the ground. We spend a lot of time simply hanging out with the hardscrabble folk of Bluebird, Kansas, learning about each one of them in painstaking detail before we get to the meat of the plot: It's Election Day 2008, the rest of the country has voted itself into a dead heat, and only Bluebird's votes can break the tie. Very few people in this country need to be told what hangs in the balance based on what Bluebird does, and yet the story quickly becomes not about the power of the vote but the power of not voting at all. Huh? This device may make some sense for the plot, but it doesn't pass muster as a strong political message to carry us into November and beyond. Through Sept. 28 at parks and public sites across the Bay Area. Free; call 285-1717 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed July 9.

Tartuffe. The 17th-century comedy Tartuffe — probably the best-known of Molière's plays — was a controversial sensation in its day, and it retains much of its power to mock both the amorally pious and those who fall for them. The title character (Vernon D. Medearis) is a religious hypocrite who fleeces rich man Orgon (Abbie Rhone) despite the wise protestations of Orgon's family. Unfortunately, this African-American Shakespeare Company production gives audience members almost no chance to discover the play's subtle pleasures for themselves. First off, director Sherri Young tosses out Molière's original rhymed couplets and opts instead for a fast-and-loose prose translation by Charles Edward Pogue. That might have resulted in a fresh and lively show, but Young stages the action too broadly and lets the actors get away with far too much mugging. Combine that with an unusually high volume of line flubs on opening night, and you have a show that values obvious pratfalls at the expense of language. The production might have taken a few more cues from the playwright: As a satirist who enjoyed controversy, Molière himself would have been first to say that you really can be too eager to please. Through Aug.3 at Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton (at Webster), S.F. Tickets are $15-$25; visit (Chris Jensen) Reviewed July 23.

Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium. Charles Busch's loving 1984 spoof of a similarly titled 19th-century melodrama by Victorien Sardou tells the story of a cross-dressed drag queen who fucks and finagles her way across 6th-century Greece until a Gypsy potion wreaks havoc on her plans. As a product of the "ridiculous theater" movement, a mid-20th-century offshoot of Dadaism, Surrealism, and the theaters of Cruelty and the Absurd, Theodora certainly wears silliness on its sleeve. Sardou wrote his version for the great stage actor Sarah Bernhardt. Busch, in turn, penned his adaptation to slake his own Bernhardt obsession. In homage to Bernhardt's passion for trouser roles and high drama, Busch's play features overblown characters in far-out situations. Director Russell Blackwood's somewhat slipshod pacing and rhythm prevents some of the scenes from achieving their full impact. But the heavily made-up actors in Thrillpeddlers' scrappy production attack their roles with such aplomb that the dementedness of Busch's narrative shines through the greasepaint anyway. Through Aug. 16 at the Hypnodrome, 575 10th St. (at Bryant), S.F. Tickets are $25-$34.50; call 377-4202 or visit Reviewed July 2.


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