Review: West coast premiere of ‘Blackademics’ by Idris Goodwin presented by Crowded Fire Theater (****)

April 17, 2015 Leave a comment

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Michele Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in the west coast premire of "Blackademics" at Crowded Fire Theatre. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Michele Leavy, Lauren Spencer, and Safiya Fredericks in the west coast premire of “Blackademics” at Crowded Fire Theatre. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Striving Scholars Seek Middle Class Cuisine

In “Blackademics,” Idris Goodwin offers up both more and less than what’s on the menu for dinner. The award-winning playwright serves up a meal that makes us feel what it is like to be a black woman college professor in contemporary America, using one woman’s celebration of her tenure at an exclusive restaurant. Goodwin also shows us what it feels like to be an exploited worker and teacher, even at the college level. As a new UC Berkeley study shows, up to 25% of adjunct college professors may be forced to rely on federal welfare programs for their basic needs. They are paid that meagerly. Enter Ann and Rachelle.

Ann (Safiya Fredericks) and her girlfriend Rachelle (Lauren Spencer) show us what it’s like to compete with each other for jobs, accolades, wit, smarts, and even degrees of blackness. The play is forcefully and musically acted; it is well-staged and directed by Mina Morita, the new artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater; and it bubbles over with fun and fire with lots of laughter at the ridiculous and real situation, and at ourselves. The two brilliant black academics rant and roll with self-conscious and self-promoting hip-hop lists of popular culture icons and elegant literary references, from Marvin Gaye to Toni Morrison. At some point, the play gets a bit bogged down by its own learning and the insistent food metaphor, but shocking and bizarre plot turns redeem “Blackademics” for an audience eager to understand white America’s hunger to consume blackness.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 3.49.40 PMWhile the two old friends, Ann and Rachelle, do love each other, in fact they parry and thrust, probing each other’s weaknesses. Separated and alienated, they have promised to get together for years and now here they are at a special occasion celebration in a café at the edge of town. They don’t yet know why.

Dressed according to their roles in life, Ann in up to date, wildly colorful gear and Rachelle in no-nonsense denim and vest, the two women eagerly enter into the metaphor of food as reward for a job well done. They both teach black culture and modern aesthetics but at two different kinds of schools. Ann teaches at a small private liberal arts college and she has just received tenure. Rachelle teaches at the local state university and she is beleaguered by demands to teach everything under the sun. Under the watchful eye of Georgia (Michele Aprina Leavy), the older white waitress who comes and goes like an attentive overseer, the two young black teachers play the old academic game of pseudo-polite and pretentious ‘gotcha.” They draw the funniest and wittiest attacks out of each other, while waiting for their sustenance.

Fredericks tears up the stage, brilliantly, giving us a full dose of a sardonic, sly, and successful African-American scholar who can play the tenure game superbly. This gal knows her stuff, she’s got the juice, and she manages to really show off the goods from the high-minded to the down and dirty.

Rachelle lives a more modest and subdued life: she writes poetry, which she recites for black students in elementary classrooms. She has her street cred, her hip-hop, and her Zora Neale Hurston well in hand — she is the more thoughtful worker. She has stayed close to her base community, reciting her simple but elegant poem about Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black History Month, for the kids.

In a surprising and absurdist plot twist, their fate could lie in the symbolic meal they are being served by the zealous Georgia who comes and goes with cold, middle class authority. Georgia seems to be consuming their blackness, as we are doing in the audience. She won’t even give them a table, chair, or fork without a struggle, mimicking the withholding behavior of the white ruling class. The celebratory dinner turns into a battle royale. The two blackademics slowly figure out that they have been pitted one against the other. What is really on the menu at this out of the way elite café which seems to have no exit?

You would be well advised to be a fly on the wall of this Café Select, and smell the whiff of blood.

“Blackademics” plays at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco, through May 2, 2015.

For further information, click here.

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“Blackacademics” by Idris Goodwin, west coast premiere presented by Crowded Fire Theater. Director: Mina Morita. Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Lisa Marie Rollins. Scenic Design: Mikiko Uesugi. Lighting Design: Stephanie Buchner. Sound Design: Hannah Birch Carl. Costume Design: Maggie Yule.

Ann: Safiya Fredericks. Georgia: Michele Aprina Leavy. Rachelle: Lauren Spencer.

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Review: ‘Death of a Salesman’ at San Jose Stage Company (***)

April 16, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger

Rating: ***
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Happy, Randall King as Willy, and Danny Jones as Biff in San Jose Stage Company's production of "Dearth of a Salesman". Photo credit: San Jose Stage Company.

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Happy, Randall King as Willy, and Danny Jones as Biff in San Jose Stage Company’s production of “Dearth of a Salesman”. Photo credit: San Jose Stage Company.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The Classics get revived because they are…. well… because they ARE classics. Very few critics would fail to agree that Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” is one of the most significant and masterful plays of the 20th century. Often revived, its popularity never seems to flag. Willy Loman is the ultimate anti-hero, a lovable loser, a man who adores his sons, his wife, his country, his vision and nevertheless gets it all tragically wrong. At his funeral (this is a tragedy and the hero must die), his friend says of Willy, “a salesman’s got to dream.” But it is Willy’s tragedy to have the wrong dreams. He stakes everything on being well-liked, a good guy, forsaking all other values. He is the original shallow bro and he and his family pay a terrible price for Willy’s lack of insight.

Miller’s play is widely recognized as a devastating condemnation of the American dream and capitalist values, but because of its deeply human emotional heart it is much more than a political piece. The Loman family — Willy and Linda, their sons Biff and Happy, and Willy’s ghostly brother Ben — are as real to us as any literary characters can be. Their confused love for one another is recognizably human in every culture and every generation. It is no accident that a Chinese production of “Death of a Salesman,” the flagship play about life under capitalism, was a huge success in communist Bejing with audiences reporting that Miller truly understood the Chinese people. Well, Miller truly understood humanity.

All of this means that any revival of “Death of a Salesman” carries a lot of weight on its shoulders. The problem, as with any classic, must be to make the old material fresh and new for the audience. At a minimum, the story must be told convincingly as if it has never been told before, or the production will fail. San Jose Stage Company’s production, capably directed by Kenneth Kelleher, certainly does not fail. It is straightforward and expert, intelligently and carefully realized. There are no surprising revelations here, but Miller’s play is delivered respectfully and capably, and, most importantly, movingly. The essence of tragedy is catharsis. The audience must identify with the hero and genuinely grieve his death with real tears. It would take a heart of stone not to cry for this Willy Loman and his tragic family.

Among its strengths is a carefully considered set design by Giulio Cesare Perrone, which utilizes projections to create the stifling effect of the apartment buildings surrounding the Loman home, as well as incorporating advertisements and motivational texts that reflect Willy’s shallow and barren philosophy of life. Among the actors, the two sons are particularly successful in creating a complex relationship. As Happy, Jeffrey Brian Adams brings unexpected depth to the character of a low life womanizer of a junior executive. Adams has been seen  in the Bay Area performing in musicals, notably as one of the Prince Charmings in SF Playhouse’s 2014 production of “Into The Woods.” As Happy, he reveals that he has fine dramatic chops to match his musical comedy skills. As Biff, Danny Jones is equally impressive,  capturing Biff’s combination of physical grace and emotional and ethical clumsiness. The two actors are impressive in playing the boys both as teenagers and as adults approaching middle age.

As their father, Willy Loman, Randall King (San Jose Stage Company’s Artistic Director) is entirely capable, most impressive in his final revelatory scene when he believes, at last, that he has found the way forward through his personal quagmire. Lucinda Hitchcock Cone brings gentle dignity and love to the role of Willy’s wife Linda, and certainly moves us with her delivery of the famous funeral speech.

The rest of the cast and the design team contribute capably to this overall fine and satisfying production.

“Death of a Salesman” plays at San Jose Stage Company through April 26, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller, produced by San Jose Stage Company. Director: Kenneth Kelleher. Set Design: Giulio Cesare Perrone. Costume Design: Tanya Finkelstein. Light Design: Maurice Vercoutere. Sound Design/Composer: Cliff Caruthers.

Willy Loman: Randall King. Linda: Lucinda Hitchcock Cone. Happy: Jeffrey Brian Adams. Biff: Danny Jones. Bernard: Joey Pisacane. The Woman: Adrienne Herro. Charley: Michael Bellino. Uncle Ben: Kevin Blackton. Howard Wagner: Will Springhorn, Jr. Jenny: Courtney Hatcher. Stanley: Brandon Leland. Miss Forsythe: Ashley Garlick. Letta: Courtney Hatcher. 

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Review: ‘King Lear’, a puppet theatre adaptation by The Independent Eye (*****)

April 14, 2015 1 comment

by Charles Kruger

Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller as King Lear and Fool. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller as King Lear and Fool. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

Husband and wife team Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller have been making art together for many decades. From prestigious academic theatre departments to Milwaukee’s influential Theatre X to their own company, “The Independent Eye,” Conrad and Elizabeth have forged an extraordinary career, presenting 3000+ performances throughout the United States, Canada, and as far away as Israel. They have created over 20 original plays, one of which was selected for the O’Neil Playwright’s Conference and another of which was a Humana Festival award winner. Their resumes include collaborations with an astounding number of theatre companies and university theatre departments nationwide. On their website, they proudly list as one of their core accomplishments that they “believe we’ve provided a model to some younger artists in the possibility of a fully lived life in art.” Indeed.

So why haven’t you heard of them? Quite simply, the commercial theatre in America is not a hospitable home for artists of this originality and caliber. Unwilling to compromise, they have made do, at times enduring such daunting challenges as touring 200 performances in a year while raising two children in a Dodge van. (The adult children are doing very well, today, thank you very much.)

I had heard of their puppet production of “The Tempest” presented a few years ago in collaboration with the Sonoma County Repertory, and been impressed. While assisting photographer Bob Fischer on a project featuring portraits of writers, I had even visited their magical back yard studio behind their home in Sebastopol, and seen the dazzling array of puppets which they had created.

So when I heard that these two master artists were at work on a two-person puppet production of King Lear, I was excited. And when I learned it would be produced at The Emerald Tablet, one of San Francisco’s most exciting art salons, I was beside myself. That’s a lot of anticipation, but the production does not disappoint!

Quite frankly, I have never seen anything like it. Within the confines of a puppet stage, too cramped even to stand up, these two create a sweeping, theatrically satisfying version of King Lear that can hold its own with the work of any Shakespeare Festival in the United States.

Conrad Bishop as Lear creates a roomful of courtiers using finger puppets.

Conrad Bishop as Lear creates a roomful of courtiers using finger puppets. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

It takes only a few moments to adjust to the size of the stage. It is the magical effect of the puppets to open up our imaginations — once we accept the puppets as people, everything else follows easily. And accept them as people we do, because they are beautifully designed and Bishop and Fuller are expert puppeteers. The illusion of a fully peopled stage is uncanny. When Lear begins his opening speech, an entire court of characters responds. How is that possible? While speaking as Lear, Bishop’s hands are up to amazing mischief — on each finger is a puppet. When Lear makes the surprising announcement of his retirement, Bishop flings his hands open and we see ten courtiers rear back in astonishment.

With the support of Fuller’s wonderful vocal score, we experience the royal court, the castles of Reagan and Goneril, the open heath, the cliffs of Dover, and more.

Fuller’s Fool, in full clown makeup, is haunting, with a rasping voice and a bone deep sorrow hiding just under the surface wit. Her Cordelia speaks with a grace and lightness that is an enchanting contrast to the rough tones of the Fool. And when she’s not speaking either part, she’s visibly stage managing, passing puppets back and forth, and singing and humming almost continuously, creating every sound effect including a very convincing storm.

Bishop delivers a full throated, resonant Lear, achieving the necessary size in the famous storm scene and managing all the emotional stops, from winsomeness to rage, from command to senility, from selfishness to generosity, from egoism to grace. It is a fully accomplished Shakespearean rendition.

The bastard Edmund soliloquizes. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

The bastard Edmund soliloquizes. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

At this point in the review, I feel I should identify all the other actors in supporting roles. I almost have to pinch  myself to believe that the entire troupe — Goneril and Reagan, Kent and Edgar and Edmund, the French King, even the occasional servant, are all created by Bishop who never stops talking, switching seamlessly from character to character. I just don’t have the words to describe this, other than to say, it’s fucking wonderful.

The entire evening is an object lesson in what wonders theatrical art can accomplish. I will never forget it. You won’t either.

Go, my friends.

I have one bone to pick. It was at times difficult to see the stage. I’d like to urge the producers to consider seating some people in front on the floor, perhaps on pillows. It would fit the puppet theatre ambience, and greatly improve the sight lines, as would encouraging standing room in the back. These easy-to-implement adjustments would be very much appreciated by audience members.

“King Lear” plays at The Emerald Tablet in North Beach through April 26. For further information, click here.

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“King Lear”, a puppet performance presented by The Independent Eye. Performed by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller. Music: Elizabeth Fuller. Costume Construction: Fay Mallory. Rehearsal Stage Manager: Liora Jacob. Photography: S. N. Jacobson & Robert Fischer. 

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Review: ‘The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard’ by Custom Made Theatre Company (****)

April 7, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger

Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

(froml to r) Kai Morrison, Eden Neuendorf, Darek Burkowski, Alan Coyne, Jef Valnetine, and Catherine Leudtke in Custom Made's "The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard". Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

(froml to r) Kai Morrison, Eden Neuendorf, Darek Burkowski, Alan Coyne, Jef Valentine, and Catherine Leudtke in Custom Made’s “The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard”. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Custom Made Theatre’s production of “The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard” is credited as written by Plautus and adapted and directed by Evren Odcikin, from a translation by Deena Berg. In this case, many cooks do not spoil the broth. On the contrary, the author, translator, adaptor, director and cast have thrown in every comic chestnut but the proverbial kitchen sink, resulting in a torrential outpouring of audience laughter as the company runs the gamut of comedy in classic commedia del’arte style. Yes, of course I know that this play hails from ancient Rome, not Renaissance Italy, but don’t quibble. Plautus is the fount from which springs commedia, Shakespearean comedy, and even the modern sitcom.

Director Evren Odcikin displays a rare expertise in making the tried and true look new. He encourages his actors to pose and mug like wrestling stars while ensuring that the complicated plot is sufficiently clear, the actors don’t stumble, the timing is precise, and the audience relaxed enough to laugh with abandon.

Under his able hand, the cast members, too, are completely relaxed and appear to be having the time of their lives.

Kai Morrison as Major Blowhard blows hard indeed, prancing and preening and careening about like a hairy and egotistical ping pong ball. His blind certainty that he is universally admired, desired and adored is laughable, and Morrison makes sure we laugh. As the servant (and helpful master-of-ceremonies) Dexter, Alan Coyne displays the flexibility of Gumby (have I just dated myself too much?) while trying to out-mug Jim Carey, and damn near succeeding. Is this a man or a collection of bendable pipe cleaners? Matt Gunnison as a second servant, Haplus, clowns skillfully while maintaining a comical stone face that would do Buster Keaton proud. Derek Burkowski as Nautikles, Convivia’s fashion-challenged goofy love interest, captures the character’s clumsy appeal with sly humor.

As Convivia, Eden Neuendorf skewers the archetype of the ingénue with precision, and offers some of the show’s best physical comedy, squeezing herself through secret passageways to play her own twin so as to keep the major in the dark about Nautikles.

Does this make sense so far?

While the entire cast makes an excellent ensemble, I have saved the best for last. Catherine (Cat) Luedtke plays the prostitute Climax in a manner outrageously funny as her name. Posing like an ancient Amazon dominatrix resurrected to appear on Saturday Night Live, she delivers her lines in a dry, wry, contemporary tone of irony that make them twice as funny as the words suggest. Last, anything but least, is Jef Valentine as the Pantalone character, Hospitalides. Valentine is a commedia expert, among the finest performers in this style I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. Good comedians play over the top to the point of exhaustion, and that is wonderful to behold, but the very best comedians seem to be holding something back, so that the laughter is prolonged and not too soon exhausted. They keep us dangling on a joke longer than it seems possible. Valentine is that kind of comic performer.

Jef Valentine as Hospitalides gets dominated by Catherine Leudtke as Climax. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Jef Valentine as Hospitalides gets dominated by Catherine Leudtke as Climax. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

Director Odcikin also designed the colorful and serviceable set, and the costume designs of Keiko Shimosato Carreiro deserve an award.

All in all, you’ll have a ball. Hasten to the Gough Street Playhouse, and laugh till your sides split.

“The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through April 26. For further information, click here.

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“The Braggart Soldier or Major Blowhard” by Plautus, translated by Deena Berg and adapted by Evren Odcikin for Custom Made Theatre Company. Director: Evren Odcikin. Costumes: Keiko Shimosato Carreiro. Lighting: William Campbell. Set: Evren Odcikin. Sound Design: Liz Ryder.

Dexter: Alan Coyne. Major Topple d’Acropolis: Kai Morrison. Haplus: Matt Gunnison. Hospitalides: Jef Valentine. Convivia: Eden Neuendorf. Nautikles: Darek Burkowski. Climax: Catherine Luedtke.

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Review: ‘Antigonick’ at Shotgun Players (***1/2)

April 1, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger

Rating: ***1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 11.27.01 PM

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Antigonick” is not Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Not exactly. Even though the language and the story, with a few variations, are translated from the original, the play is credited to writer Anne Carson, perhaps because it is essentially more a commentary on Antigone than simply a telling of the familiar story. For those who need a refresher course, the plot outline is uncomplicated. King Kreon’s two stepsons fought on opposite sides in a recent war, killing one another. Seeking peace and stability, Kreon declares that one of the brothers was a hero, but the other a traitor. Under penalty of death, nobody is to bury the body of the traitor, but Antigone, his sister, defies the edict. Kreon feels obligated to enforce his death sentence, even though his son is Antigone’s betrothed.

Which is more important: a decent burial for the shamed brother, in accorance with religious law, or the reliability of civil law through the honoring of the King’s decree? It is a matter of political practicality versus religious idealism. Such conflicts and confusion about the proper role of government and the nature of moral compromise are timeless.

Carson’s approach to this material presupposes audience familiarity with its basic outlines as she tears it apart with such tactics as portions chanted in unison, often repeated with slight variations or rearranged in sequence. Actors sometimes step out of the action of the play to comment upon it, sometimes touching upon the play’s place in theatrical history. The original material has been cut up and rearranged, making it fresh, bringing the issues to the forefront of our experience in a visceral way. In this telling, the clarity of the story is secondary to its emotional sweep. The language and the movement and the thought are allowed to sweep over the audience like an ocean wave. The experience is one of being overwhelmed and carried by a flood of emotion and intellectual stimulation, but it is not about story telling. In Greek tragedies, the climax typically involves a “sparagmos” or tearing apart of the protagonist, as when Oedipus tears out his own eyes. In Carson’s piece, it is the play itself that is torn apart.

This all makes for unusual, exceptional and quite challenging theatre.

The most striking feature of this generally striking production is the incorporation of a dancer, Nick, a spectral figure in white, who comments upon and demonstrates the action of the play through the medium of a continuous interpretive dance. This central role is strikingly realized by the very capable and eloquent Parker Murphy. His dance, which is non stop for the full seventy five minutes of the production, displays emotional and physical virtuosity that is quite magical.

Parker Murphy, dancing, as Nick. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

Parker Murphy, dancing, as Nick. Photo Credit: Pak Han.

The rest of the ensemble perform as one, physically, vocally, emotionally. It’s impressive.

The deceptively simple set, customes and lighting by, respectively, Nina Ball, Christine Crook and Stephanie Buchner do their job beautifully and unobtrusively.

This highly stylized, challenging, virtuosic piece of ensemble theatre and dance is hard to describe but easy to assess: it is quite excellent. Highly recommended.

“Antigonick” plays at The Ashby Stage through April 19. For further information click here.

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“Antigonick” by Anne Carson, presented by Shotgun Players. Directors: Mark  Jackson and Hope Mohr. Set: Nina Ball. Light: Stephanie Buchner. Costumes: Christine Crook. Sound: Theodore J. H. Hulsker. Vocal Music: Beth Wilmurt. Dance Captain: Kevin Clarke. Assistant Dance Captain: Parker Murphy. Music Captain: Parker Murphy.

Kreon: Kevin Clarke. Ismene/Eurydike: Monique Jenkinson. Antigone/Tiresias: Rami Margron. Nick: Parker Murphy. Chrous: David Sinaiko. Hamon/Guard/Messenger: Kenny Toll.

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Review: “Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner at San Francisco Playhouse (****1/2)

March 24, 2015 Leave a comment

by Charles Kruger
Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

sfb

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Nobody in America who has taken a course on the history of theatre, or subscribed to a theatrical season with any artistic pretensions, has failed to encounter Anton Chekhov. Probably (along with Ibsen) the most influential playwright of the 20th century, his work informs every important play that has come after. Along with Shakespeare, learning to perform Chekhov is at the core of almost every professional training program for actors. In short, Chekhov is Serious. Fucking. Art. You’d better believe it.

And, as with the Bard of Avon, this encumbering weight of artistic significance can be, to say the last, stultifying. Playwrights such as these need sometimes to be rescued from their own reputations. In that regard, playwright Aaron Posner performs the work of a super hero in resuscitating Chekhov’s “The Seagull” as “Stupid Fucking Bird.” Hooray!

Chekhov’s themes are well known. He writes of the longing for love and meaning. His characters ache for one another, and ache for art. He was “emo” decades before the term had been coined — and in Russian! If I seem to be dismissive of the master, let me remind you that the good playwright always insisted that his works were comedies, in spite of the seriousness with which they are so often played.

With “Stupid Fucking Bird” Posner has taken the master at his word. This is certainly a comedy, and a mighty funny one, too. And yet, the Chekhovian themes of longing, as well as the original plot, have not been compromised. Posner manages to deliver the essence of “The Seagull” while simultaneously dismembering it with relish. (To say he has merely “deconstructed” the original seems rather too tame. Feathers fly.)

Mash is desperately in unrequited love with Con. Dev is desperately in unrequited love with Mash. Con adores Nina who is smitten with Trig who is the boy toy of Con’s mother Emma. Sorn (Emma’s avuncular older brother) would like everybody to just get along. And they all care — deeply — about art.

Emma is an accomplished actress and her young lover is a famous writer of short stories, reputedly a genius. Her son Con has gathered the group to see his first play (he calls it a “performance” — a sort of anti-play) with which he hopes to win his mother’s artistic respect. This is an unlikely prospect since Con’s work makes fun of and dismantles exactly the sort of play in which Emma has been successful. Feelings get hurt. It’s all riotously funny. And yet, Posner’s script (and Susi Damilano’s subtle and careful direction) do not short change the depth of human longing these characters feel. We laugh, but we identify, and in the end, we are surprisingly moved.

El Beh as Mash and Johnny Moreno as Trig in SF Playhouse's production of "Stupid Fucking Bird" by Aaron Posner. Photo Credit: SF Playhouse.

El Beh as Mash and Johnny Moreno as Trig in SF Playhouse’s production of “Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner. Photo Credit: SF Playhouse.

Everything in this play works well, beginning with Bill English’s subtly humorous set which is well complimented by the other design elements of costume and lighting, music and props. El Beh is a hoot as the gothically clad Mash, singing absurdly depressing songs while accompanying herself on the ukelele. As Nina, the young actress adored by Con, Martha Brigham is deliciously innocent, managing to be silly and entrancing at the same time. As the older, somewhat jaded actress Emma, Carrie Paff is both monstrous and seductive. Joseph Estlack as the love stricken Dev is a comically hapless, lovable Teddy Bear. As Emma’s older brother Sorn, Charles Shaw Robinson plays straight man to this cast of oddballs, and does it well.

The defining performances of this production, however, are Adam Magill’s Con and Johnny Moreno’s Trig. As Con, the suffering young artist desperate to win approval from the very people he condemns, Magill conveys all the confusion and earnestness of youthful creative ambition. His direct interaction with the audience is a highlight of the production, but I won’t spoil that with any more details here. Johnny Moreno is perfectly cast as Trig, the charming, brilliant, dastardly, handsome, heartless, monstrous punk of a genius writer who toys with the emotions and dreams of everybody else because, quite simply, he can. Moreno takes this character and runs with it like the devil, delivering some of his best work to date (at least work that has been seen by this reviewer).

“Stupid Fucking Bird” has a lot to say about the state of our theatre, about Chekhov, about life, about art — and says it with laughter. Guaranteed. This is really good fun, and serious, too. You’ll see.

“Stupid Fucking Bird” plays at the San Francisco Playhouse through May 2, 2015. For further information click here.

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“Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner, sort of adapted from “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov. Director: Susi Damilano. Set: Bill English. Sound: Steve Schoenbeck. Lighting: Mark Hueske. Composer: James Sugg. Costumes: Abra Berman. Props: Jacquelyn Scott. 

Mash: El Beh. Nina: Martha Brigham. Dev: Joseph Estlack. Con: Adam Magill. Trig: Johnny Moreno. Emma: Carrie Paff. Sorn: Charles Shaw Robinson.

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Review: ‘Jewels of Paris: A Revolutionary New Musical Review” from Thrillpeddlers (**1/2)

March 24, 2015 1 comment

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: **1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Jewels of Paris,” the latest over-the-top crossdressing genderfuck bare-ass musical extravaganza by Scrumbly Koldewyn and Russell Blackwood shoots for the stars. Thrillpeddlers’ collection of musical and comic sketches invokes the down and dirty days of 1900s Paris. But the true origin of these sexy sketches would be the Cockettes’ 60s satirical theatrics and the Theatre of the Ridiculous, torch-bearers for the Summer of Love in San Francisco. If you are nostalgic for raunchy 60s glam-rock and tunes sung by the likes of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso, bearded ladies, bare breasts, and lots of bare flesh of the he-, the she-, and the trans- varieties, this is your show.

All the San Francisco glitterati, including a drag queen done up as Dame Edna Everage, who sat in front of us, went wild over the show. But when it comes to musicals of most sorts, I confess to being a “dud.” I enjoyed the clever skits and kitschy references, and wondered if this was celebration or satire. Are we making fun of ourselves? Is San Francisco really the “Paris of the West,” as this multi-faceted revue asserts? Or, are we living on our reputation, waiting for some new history to happen? I sure can see that gay and straight visitors will plug into our reigning myths and the pot, politics, and patchouli-laced scent of the past. Can we live up to it, or just live it up, still? Dame Edna may be on her Final Grand Tour, how about us? These are important questions that the Thrillpeddlers do not bother to address. But the audience and the lively and enthusiastic singers certainly have fun.

Things get going in turn-of-the-century Paris with “Gert’s Postcard,” a witty song, delivered craftily by Hayley Nystrom, in her clear soprano. Gertrude Stein writes to Alice B. Toklas back home in S.F., telling her to get to Paris quickly to partake in the sexual shenanigans of 1900. The whole ensemble follows her “Postcard” with a rousing song called “Everyone’s a Genius in Paree Today,” presenting the musicians, painters, and writers of Paris: Erik Satie, Leonid Massine, Josephine Baker, Stein, and Picasso, who are all happily breaking the old rules. Not much attention is paid to the details of each of these fascinating lives; their famous outrages appear only as mere sketches.  Satie, Massine, and Picasso collaborate on a sensual ballet.

The show rather forgets about its Parisian theme after the intermission, and embarks on other issues, including Roman myths, speaking butts, and “Quasihomo & Lesmerelda.” We wander off into dungeons and DeSade, and a torchsinger who insists amusingly, “I Am You.”

Anything goes in this show — and there’s something for everyone — a cascade of lovely lips, a flurry of  luscious butts, gay sex, straight sex, trans-dressing, transgressing holes, hot bodies, big boobs, and fabulous costumes. You want it, they’ve got it, and these handsome and lovely performers show it all with gusto.

It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s beads and feathers and strutting breasts and booties and butts, all over the place. For those who have enjoyed the satirical musical reviews of the Cockettes and the Thrillpeddlers over the decades, this show is made for you.

“Jewels of Paris: A Revolutionary New Musical Revue” plays at The Hypnodrome through May 2nd, 2015. For further information, click here.

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“Jewels of Paris: A Revolutionary New Musical Revue” presented by Thrillpeddlers. 

Original Music & Lyrics: Scrumbly Koldewyn. Additional Lyrics: Rob Keefe, Martin Worman, Alex Kinney.  Sketches: Rob Keefe, Alex Kinney, Scrumbly Koldewyn & Andy Wegner. Director: Russell Blackwood. Musical Direction: Scrumbly Koldewyn. Choreography: Noah Haydon. Scene Designer: James Blackwood. Costume Design: Tina Sogliuzzo & Birdie-Bob Watt. Lighting: Nicholas Torre. 

Performers: Lisa McHenry, Christine Kim, Kim Larsen, Roxanne Redmeat, Bruna Palmeiro, Hayley Nystrom, Dee Nathaniel, Andrew Darling, Steven Satyricon, Michael Soldier, Andy Wegner, J Iness, Birdie-Bob Watt, Noah Haydon, Jack Crow, Scrumbly Koldewyn (accompanist), Russell Blackwood.

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