Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Comments
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The moldering schoolhouse tradition of spelling bees has inspired a cultural deluge of late, from Myla Goldberg's 2001 novel Bee Season to the feature film Akeelah and the Bee. That the bee has buzzed its way onto the Broadway stage is further proof of the craze. William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical comedy about a group of teenage misfits pitting their linguistic wits against each other won two Tonys and broke several box office records during its Broadway run. Tandem productions are playing in San Francisco and Chicago, with a touring show scheduled for the fall. Within the first 15 minutes of Putnam County's competition — set in a school gym complete with ropes, a basketball hoop, and stadium-style seating — we pretty much know everything we need to know about the contestants: They're freaks. Spelling Bee does have its faults. Most of the songs are about as memorable as the spelling (and meaning) of "macrencephalous"; attempts to inject a whiff of topicality — like a reference to Dick Cheney's shooting incident — feel forced; and many of the laughs come cheap. Yet in riotously sending up the spelling bee phenomenon in a variety of ways (including inviting four audience members onstage to be contestants at every performance), Spelling Bee makes an important point: Despite the high stakes, it's just a game. Through Sept. 3 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $40-66; call 771-6900 or visit www.spellingbeethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed March 29.

Baum for Peace. It's obvious that Terry Baum is an engaged citizen and a fierce advocate for her community. What's not so obvious is why her 2004 run for Congress as a Green Party candidate was worth turning into a musical performance piece. Feeling frustrated with the "dumb damn Dems" after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Baum found solace in Ralph Nader's party of choice, and valiantly attempted to give voice to those she considered underrepresented. Her journey from outraged citizen to inspired politician at times has real resonance — on the night I attended you could practically see the audience searching for a voting booth when Baum pleaded for a move toward proactive political action. However, this well-meaning comedic show too often falls prey to an over-reliance on Baum's abundant charisma and on an overly indulgent crowd. The aging baby boomers and easygoing, like-minded lefties smiled through the sloppy musical accompaniment, trite lyrics, and story that's pinned to an undramatic plot point involving voting-card etiquette. The audience members seemed to be applauding having their own views reflected back at them. Angels in America, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun — truly great political plays such as these strive to make decisive, effective theatrical statements in the face of opposition. They never rest on the presumption of a friendly crowd with low standards. Baum for Peace is a call for political commitment that needs to commit itself to the theater. Through Aug. 26 at the Marsh Theater, 1062 Valencia (at 21st St.), S.F. Tickets are $15-22, call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 12.

Godfellas. The Rev. De Love, the sinful soul preacher in San Francisco Mime Troupe's new religious doctrineÐthemed show, is heaven-bent on spreading the word of God to every corner of the land. Behind the scenes at a "Rock the Lord Crusade" concert "to reclaim California for God and honor 9/11," Love (Michael Gene Sullivan) and his dastardly gang of spiritual desperados concoct a plan to rid the country once and for all of the tiresome separation of church and state. The religious right might be an easy target for the Mime Troupe, but far from blandly reflecting the atheistic, left-wing mindset of its core audience, the team behind Godfellas manages, for a change, to make us think. The wisecracking text and pithy musical numbers (co-written by Sullivan with Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan, and Christian Cagigal, who also acts) crackle with irreverence in the hands of the multifaceted ensemble cast. Meanwhile, moments of cartoonlike surrealism, such as the sudden appearance through a trapdoor of 18th-century intellectual Thomas Paine and his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, add a wacky dimension to the religious nuts' maniacal proselytizing. Showing spiritually skeptical liberals to be as misguided as religious zealots, the troupe delivers its message about dogma without being dogmatic. Through Oct. 1 at various locations throughout Northern California. Tickets are free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 19.

The Heidi Chronicles. This bittersweet comedy is considered a modern classic for good reason — it's smart, heartfelt, and has deep human resonance. It's Wendy Wasserstein's masterpiece, and one of the few great American plays to emerge from the 1980s (it won the Pulitzer). The Heidi Chronicles follows art historian Heidi Holland through four decades of personal upheaval. Her journey provides an interesting counterpoint to the social and political spirit of the times, whether the revolutionary fervor of the '60s or the confused capitalist compromise of the '80s. Wasserstein, who died on Jan. 30 at age 55, found in Heidi a clear-eyed tour guide through recent history as well as a witty and pleasurable protagonist. The piece takes place in the New York that anyone who's ever loved Woody Allen's movies imagines, in which everyone has the sharp wit and intellect that makes for good company and killer dialogue. Director Brian Katz hones in on the distinctly East Coast rhythms of Wasserstein's language and makes the words dance. The cast is a mixed bag, but even when the technique falters the enthusiasm is obvious. Leah S. Abrams brings an appealing Everywoman charisma to Heidi, David Fierro knocks his Scoop Rosenbaum out of the park, and Fred Pitts has a lovely, moving turn as Heidi's best friend. It's a distinct joy to watch an excellent script performed with passion. Through Aug. 12 at the Custom Stage at Off-Market, 965 Mission (between Fifth and Sixth sts.), S.F. Tickets are $15-25; call 896-6477 or visit www.custommade.org. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed July 19.

How We First Met. Past performances of How We First Met — in which the love life of a couple from the audience is used as a source for improvised songs and sketches — have involved a pair who met online in a Dungeons and DragonsÐstyle chat room and a man who proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of a show. Not every pair invited up to the Purple Onion's diminutive stage will have as thrilling a story to tell, but that shouldn't matter. The production's cast of improvisers reacts quickly to the information they learn about the guests' romance. Creating snappy, relatively tuneful songs and funny skits out of such banalities as Marie Callender's chicken pot pie and the family cat, the performers prove that it is indeed possible to create comic theater out of life's pathetic details. Yet despite the warm atmosphere and all-round goodwill, the performance is hit-and-miss. Inspired moments come and go, and the overuse of the same few ideas becomes predictable. Jill Bourque (who conceived the show in 2001 as a one-off Valentine's Day special) maintains a crisp rhythm by interweaving questions to the guest couple with improvised material and more rehearsed sections involving costumed characters such as an Italian waiter and a beatnik poet. But despite her attentive direction, the costumed sections feel stagey. Still, judging by the demographic variety in the audience, How We First Met speaks to a wide population. Plus, it's quite fun. In an open-ended run at the Purple Onion, 140 Columbus (at Jackson), S.F. Tickets are $25; call 348-6280 or visit www.howwefirstmet.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed April 19.

Hunter Gatherers. When Richard and Pam, a middle-class, urban married couple in their mid-30s, prepare for a dinner party with their friends Tom and Wendy by slaughtering livestock on the living room carpet, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled from under its feet. What begins as an elegant soiree — featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment — gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. The rules that govern modern-day living soon cease to apply, as playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive. Much of the animal force and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate the tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's riotous comedy shows that the distance between 21st-century city slickers and Paleolithic cave-dwellers might not be so great after all. Through Aug. 20 at Thick House, 1695 18th St. (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 5.

Killer Joe. Marin Theatre Company's sold-out production of playwright Tracy Letts' Killer Joe has moved to the Magic Theatre, and reactions couldn't be stronger. It's essentially a hillbilly noir set in a Texas trailer park, in which members of the white-trash Smith family (giving new meaning to skid-marked tighty-whities and greasy wife-beater tank tops) hire a contract killer with "eyes that hurt" (a sinister Cully Fredricksen) to kill the dim-witted dad Ansel's ex-wife in order to cash in on a $50,000 insurance policy. But Lee Sankowich's directorial pacing is erratic, and the performers use vastly different styles. The hilarious Howard Swain (as Ansel) appears to have fallen out of a Cheech & Chong movie, while Stacy Ross (as Ansel's new wife, Sharla) is superb in her adulterous realism. The first act ends in a beguiling, slow seduction between the killer and the virginal underage daughter (Anna Bullard); after intermission the show cranks the violence up so high that it rivals the most gleefully disturbing moments of a Tarantino flick. But the excruciating and titillating difference is that this is live theater, not the relative safety of celluloid. Killer Joe's visceral punch to the privates may explain the two outraged audience walkouts on the night I attended as well as the miniÐstanding ovation, marking what I'd call a successful night at the theater. Through Aug. 20 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $30-45; call 441-8822 or visit www.killerjoesf.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed June 21.

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters — an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie — through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Miss-Matches.com: Sex, Lies and Instant Messaging! "I'm barfing out the story — unabridged!" That's how actor and writer Leslie Beam explains it in her one-woman show Miss-Matches.com. This self-declared "queen of cyberland" takes us on a 66-minute journey through a small sampling of more than 300 badly matched Internet dates after the breakup of her 13-year marriage (he was obsessed with football and bong rips; she was consumed with computer-sex chat rooms). Beam gets props for hanging out her dirty laundry: Onstage she brandishes her favorite sex toys (including a 3-foot-long Black & Decker vibrator), shows us dungeon floggings, makes fun of gimp-armed lovers, complains about fat people, and confesses to multiple dates with a convict tattooed with the words "white pride." Any sympathy she generates sours when she lightheartedly reveals her prejudice, recounting her ghastly treatment of an innocent date solely because he was black. She doesn't delve into her discrimination or give it any particular reason or depth; she simply tries for a laugh. Later she turns down another black cybersuitor, responding that she hasn't yet "exhausted the entire pool of eligible white men." In trying to illuminate the human and humorous side of Internet dating, Beam delivers a one-dimensional portrayal of herself and caricatures of her dates, seeming intent on proving that the Web is filled with a disproportionate number of weirdos and psychos. Through Sept. 30 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 820-1454 or visit www.miss-matches.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed March 1.

ORBIT (Notes From the Edge of Forever). Combining live and recorded music, choreography, spoken text, video projections, televised images, and an interactive set, Erika Shuch Performance Project's latest, and very beautiful, movement theater piece is all about humanity's frenzied and largely frustrated attempts to forge connections with worlds beyond our own. References to scientific principles — from the mnemonic used by astronomers to remember the arrangement of stars according to particular spectral characteristics to the RGB color model — are batted about on stage like the pixilated ball in a game of Pong. But like this early computer game, most of the show's scientific content is goofily low-tech. As references to Ridley Scott's 1979 movie, Alien, and Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) suggest, the world of science-fiction fantasy is a more powerful means for forging links with the cosmos than empirical science. Just as two lovers, portrayed by Danny Wolohan and Erika Chong Shuch (who also choreographs and directs), orbit around each other, rarely able to bond, the production reveals humanity's frenzied and largely frustrated attempts to forge connections with those we love most. Through Aug. 5 at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (between 15th and 16th sts.), S.F. Tickets are $9-20; call 626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed July 26.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

The Typographer's Dream. At the beginning of Encore Theatre Company's production of Adam Bock's play, we are introduced to three characters: a typographer, a geographer, and a stenographer, who proceed, with varying degrees of stiffness and eloquence, to enthuse about their jobs. Reportedly inspired in part by the 2 1/2 years Bock spent working at a graphic and Web design firm, this beautiful and strange comedy riffs on the relationship between people and their careers. Director Anne Kauffman and actors Aimée Guillot, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley gleefully demonstrate how the three characters match their chosen jobs, occasionally making them resemble — through the unselfconscious eagerness with which they talk about their work — the wacky types that people the films of Christopher Guest. A whole branch of ham-psychology exists around the business of matching "personality types" with appropriate careers. But Bock does more than demonstrate the influence of personality upon career choice; he also shows the reverse: how our career choices influence us. Through Sept. 3 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-30; call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 16, 2005.


Insignificant Others New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Lady Day in Love The Fellowship Church, 2041 Larkin (at Broadway), 776-4910.

Light in the Piazza Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

Li'l Abner Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

Love, Janis Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (at Mason), 771-6900.

The Mary Magdalene Story Shotwell Studios, 3252A 19th St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.

Otherwise The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.

Ragnarok: The Doom of the Gods John Hinkel Park, Southampton (between San Diego and Somerset), Berkeley, 510-655-0813.

Rent Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), 512-7770.

See That My Grave Is Kept Clean Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Seussical Randall Museum Theater, 199 Museum (at Roosevelt), 554-9600.

Talk Is Cheap ... Dreams Are Priceless Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.

Trip to Bountiful Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Union of Socialist San Francisco Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

"Viva Variety" Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton (at Webster), for more information call 863-0741.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Slideshows

  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"