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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Wednesday, Jul 23 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.

An Ideal Husband. Combining West Wing-like plot machinations with a caustic wit reminiscent of The Daily Show, Oscar Wilde's caustic 1895 social comedy begs constant comparisons to the current political climate. Telling the story of a politically ambitious woman's plan to bring down an up-and-coming statesman by exposing a dirty secret from his past, the play satirizes the sordid deals that line the bottom of many a politician's pockets. For all the dramatist's wry insights into the less-than-pristine realities that partner statesmen's outward displays of morality, the comedy doesn't fit into the election-year-play mold easily. Perhaps its most troubling aspect is its sexual politics. As in most of Wilde's plays, all the charisma prizes go to female characters. Cal Shakes enables Wilde's women to glow particularly brightly by pitting luminous actors Julie Eccles and Stacy Ross against each other in the roles of Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. Yet Wilde adopts a perplexingly reactionary stance toward their political engagement. Mrs. Cheveley's political career revolves around extortion; Lady Chiltern's efforts at political mobilization are swiftly brushed aside. The play's preoccupation with art further serves to undermine the work's confusing politics. Despite being beautifully adorned in Meg Neville's flamboyant costumes and offset by the warm pastel contours of Annie Smart's Boucher-inspired painted backdrop in director Jonathan Moscone's staging, most characters fall short of the artistic ideal. As Cal Shakes' engaging if ultimately discombobulating production proves, this brilliantly unsettling and puzzling play makes for a less than ideal political vehicle. Through July 27 at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway, Orinda. Tickets are $32-$62; call 510-548-9666 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 16.

Killing My Lobster: Springs Forward, Falls Back San Francisco's flagship comedy troupe is back with a new show, new actors, and a different performance space. This edition's theme is "time," and the sketches bounce boldly among different historical periods and characters, including turkey-hunting Pilgrims, '60s acid trippers, mushroom-gathering cave people, Romans in togas. The first act struggles for laughs, but with the help of KML veterans Leslie Waggoner, Sarah Mitchell, and Todd Brotze, the show finds its hilarity in the second half. Mitchell and Brotze channel the absurdity of SNL's famous Christopher Walken "Colonial Angus" scene in their Civil War tribute, and the entire cast kills in a 1950s-set sketch where the June Cleaveresque women fight for their rights to be "well serviced" (there are numerous references to cunnilingus throughout the night). Unfortunately, the cavernous stage at the Dance Mission Theater has horrible acoustics and swallows up the rapid-fire dialogue, and the musical numbers are completely lost while actors try to compete with the four-piece band. KML has been better in the past, and I miss the troupe's old ODC theater, but these guys still deliver the laughs. Through July 27 at Dance Mission, 3316 24th St. (at Mission), S.F. $15-20; call 558-7721 or visit (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed July 16.

Oh My Godmother! This is a fun-loving and high-spirited take on the well-worn Cinderella story. There are still the fairy godmother and the evil stepmother and stepsisters, and Prince, who's convinced he'll never find someone to make him happy, until he sets his sights on Cinderella and instantly falls in love. Only this time, Cinderella is a sweet young man named Albert. Director and creator Ron Lytle has more twists in store, including a delicious setup that turns the narrow-minded outrage of discovering someone is gay directly on its head. The 140-minute musical loses some of its steam in the second half, mainly because all the surprises have already been dished and we know how things will wrap up. But an all-around boisterous cast, with standout performances from John Erreca as Prince's mother and Tomas Theriot as Prince's übergay sidekick, means that no matter what your particular sexual bent, if clever musicals are your thing, this one will definitely get you smiling and clapping along. Through July 26 at Zeum Theatre, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), S.F. Tickets are $25-$35; call 346-7805 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed July 2.

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 Reviewed July 9.


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