Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mini Review: San Francisco Mime Troupe's "Too Big To Fail"

Like many on my facebook page, I used to think that the San Francisco Mime Troupe was... well, mimes, and thus didn't go see many of their performances. After all, if I wanted to get my mime fix, there was always The Mime on twitter. So let me clear up this issue once and for all: the SF Mime Troupe is not silent theatre, it is comedic, political, musical theatre, pushing the boundaries and giving clear instructions on what us liberals should really be doing, especially with Too Big To Fail.

Their latest show is the story of the credit rise and fall in our country, with a healthy dose of "I told you so at the end" all wrapped up beautifully in the blanket of an African fable. Looking around at the Mill Valley, I wondered what they, if anything, were going to do after seeing this eye opening show, and realized that the show was a success - it worked on me; I see things in much less of a consumer perspective in the day that I've had the show to stew. They did what they set out to do. Let's just hope that someone with a little more money is affected as well.

Other cool stuff:
Acting was fantastic!
Band was amazing!
Set was really cool.
Bring a blanket.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Theatre: Twentieth Century at Theatreworks

In many ways, I'm a bad theatregoer. As a performer myself (currently not performing if anyone wants to change that), I have a sometimes extreme eye when it comes to theatre, and hand in hand with that thought, I know that most theatre isn't made for actors. In fact, nearly all isn't made for actors, and I'm fine with that; there's a certain amount of appeasement that goes with the field - it's just part of the game.

That being said, the critical eye goes in my favor when... oh, say, critiquing a show. But yet, I strive to come in objectively, not see myself in any of the roles (easier said than done, but so far, amazingly successful), and try to look at the show as an average audience member. This attitude was fully in place when going to the opening night of TheatreWorks' new show, Twentieth Century. Theatreworks! The "Nationally-Acclaimed theatre of Silicon Valley!" Should be amazing; this is one of the truly awesome professional theatres in the Bay Area! And the play is interesting too - based on a movie of the same name, Twentieth Century is set on a train and its artistic inhabitants longing to find in some cases, success, and in others, love. Wow, and it's got a Looney Tune's screwball comedy farce quality, count me in for this night to remember!


Yes, one might think that. One might also want to sit around, watching snails drive their little trails along one's glass window; a fun image, but boring, unimaginative, and mirthless in practice. Not to be an affront to snails, but Twentieth Century, with all its out of town actors and Silicon Valley backing, was one of the worst pieces of theatre this year. But hey, it's still early.

Too harsh? Possibly. Perhaps the better saying is that the direction was simply uninspired. The casting was mismatched, and at times downright wrong. The sets were... well they were quite nice, actually. Costumes too. What director Robert Kelly unsuccessfully attempted in this piece was half way between farce and reality, and with one foot on either side of the fence, the comedy (and humanity) never once came to the front.

It wasn't entirely the direction, however. The leads, Dan Hiatt and Rebecca Dines, playing producer Oscar Jaffe and actress Lily Garland had the romantic chemistry of lobsters, and combined with frenetic acting choices, came across as sloppy throughout the whole show. This piece has some honest moments, too! These two artists were once in love, but sometimes even a great script can't save an awful performance.

The rest of the cast isn't immune to hammy acting, over the top line readings, and framing sentences' cadence to sound like jokes, even if they aren't funny. Some of the performances were full fleshed characters: the zealot Matthew Clark is played charmingly by Gerry Hiken, and the Conductor (Edward Sarafian) brings a bit of polished comedy, but those scenes are few and far between. The rest of the cast is as forgettable as their entrances.

Save your money and the drive, queue up Netflix for the film, and watch Twentieth Century at home; TheatreWorks doesn't deliver.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

More Reviews

I haven't been keeping this up as well as I should, but for now, I'll just direct you to, in the theatre section.

I'll probably write a review of the fairfax and pirate festivals this weekend, but until I know that I can, I don't want to put my other reviews up here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Little Shop - I Lost the Program... so Abbreviated

It’s the timeless legend: Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Girl is with other boy. Other boy is mean. Boy is jealous. Boy meets plant. Boy enters into a Faustian pact with plant in order to secure financial and romantic success. There’s also a Jewish shop owner and a Greek chorus of three thrown in there. And puppets! Did I mention puppets? What could possibly go wrong?

Given the Nature of the Beast that is Little Shop of Horrors, there is a certain amount of forgiveness that one gives towards a production. After all, one of the main characters is a giant plant that needs to move and sing and be a force of nature on stage, something that germinates both awe and fear in the viewer. To top it all off, the music’s complex, the story’s difficult, and the characters, if miscast, can easily fall into stock two-dimensional comedy.

6th Street Playhouse’s production falters in a few of these points. While they create a believable world where plants can come to life and talk to nerdy flower shop boys, they lose steam when it comes to fleshing out the world in its entirety, leaving some characters undeveloped, some songs awkwardly done, and clumsy movement done by almost all of the human actors.

Indeed, it seems as if most of the rehearsal process was focused on the puppetry of the plant. A smart move; without a believable plant, there really is no show. (Then again, without the rest of the show rehearsed, there really is no show.) The plant, to put it simply, was amazing. Expertly sung and performed in plant suits, the experience was immediately absorbing and amazing – there was no question that a plant could move, (“Does this look inanimate to you, punk?!”) could threaten, and could sing like a mean green mother. When the plant started moving, all eyes turned.

Unfortunately, the rest of the show falls a little short. While the set design and costumes certainly take us into the world visually, and the onstage band adds an amazing energy, most of the time the characters fall flat of what they truly can be. Of course, there is some camp that is required when it comes to Little Shop; after all, it’s parodying B horror movies. However, that doesn’t mean the characters need to be that way the entire time. What makes show so endearing is that these people stay very truly grounded in their world, but can have hopes and dreams and human emotions. What the actors did, however, was mostly fumble with odd movements and choreography and songs (with some exceptions). The buzzword for the evening that I’m looking for here is “awkward.”

Again, this was simply a case of a great concept with not a great practical application. The show had the possibility of being truly amazing, but did not quite reach the top with the acting, direction, and choreography.

Monday, December 24, 2007

These Are My Friends

The biggest fear in seeing Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd was the translation; film is an entirely different beast than theatre. There were newsflashes of songs and scenes being slashed from the show. ("They're cutting the 'Ballad of Sweeney Todd' from Sweeney Todd?!") Okay, Sondheim approved all the cast. Okay, he also approved the cuts of the chorus. And all his music is still present as the underscore. As long as 'Epiphany' is still there in full. It is? Oh good. One must be dubious when it comes to screen versions of theatre, especially with Burton at the helm; he has a habit, to say it mildly, of making interesting choices.

Preface being said, with eyes wide open, what was witnessed was a masterpiece of a film. Burton has truly visualized a "hole in the world like a great black pit" that is Sondheim and Sweeney's London. From the moment one enters this dog eat dog (or man eat man) world, we see clouds constantly blotting out the sun, dark waters churning below the waves, and rats in the streets; we know that this art has been taken care of with loving hands. Albeit those clutching straight razors.

For those with knowledge with the musical, the immediate familiarity of the score comes straight to the front. The chorus of voices is missed, to be sure, but the whole of the music is there, not only underscoring but becomes its own entity, the sprialing, haunting orchestrations drive the audience down the same madness of the rest of the characters in the film.

Purists argue that these movie stars' voices are not up to chops for Sondheim's tough melodies. After all, he is well known for making songs that no one can sing. However, while the songs are the force behind the story, the characters are at the heart; when terrific actors are found, everything else follows behind. This is exactly the case with Sweeney. Translating a huge melodrama into a film seems to reverse the polarity of the characters; instead of music hall broad strokes and comedy, everything is drawn inward - the singing reflects that. Johnny Depp's Sweeney has a harsh edge to his voice, and Helena Bonham Carter is fragile in tone; it doesn't seem like they could fill up a theatre. But that isn't what the film is, we see who these people are, and the music reflects that. Who needs broad strokes and big voices when the audience is there, in the shop, with blood splattered on their nice white shirts?

Sondheim, when originally making this musical, came from the standpoint of "Less is More," which is the style of the revival cast currently on tour. In a way, the film truly succeeds. Of course, London is fully realized from costumes to bakehouses, but the way the audience becomes intimately knowledgable with these people is brilliant in its simplicity. Not to gush, but Depp's portrayal of Sweeney is magnificent and heartbreaking. We see him go from a simple barber (brief, but poinant) to the driven man of rage as dark as the city he returns to. All of his performances are captivating, but none so much as this brooding, epic antihero. His voice is harsh, but it is always touched with such utter sadness and despiration. He is matched by the practicality of Carter's Lovett. It seems that her despiration warrants even more sympathy, but then one realizes that she is purly evil for greed; no reparations for past crimes, simply for want of more money. But she isn't the usual comic relief that usually comes with characterizations, Carter is a surprise treat and is simply amazing in creating a deep and brooding baker, with the same drive as Sweeney. It must be said, however, that she does bring the house down (with the help of amazing filming) during "By The Sea", the one truly comic number.

The cast is further fleshed out with the extremely wise casting of Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, the other antagonist of the film. He, like the rest of the cast, sings as someone who hasn't held a tune in 20 years, but does it with such conviction and power that it never matters; the notes are all there, but what is more important is the clarity of his character. His performance is matched in intensity but opposite in theme by Sasha Baron Cohen, playing the braggart, Adolfo Pirelli. Largely comic relief, Mr. Cohen brings a quiet practicality to his actions when he is behind closed doors that is surprisingly powerful. Perhaps the true standout of the supporting roles is Ed Sanders as Tobias Ragg. Playing the assistant to Pirelli, and then to Lovett and Todd after his master is called away, he is a ferocious and powerful presence wrapped in a very small young person. His performance of "Not While I'm Around" with Carter is one of the best scenes in musical history.

While Jamie Campbell Bower and Jane Wisener play Anthony Hope and Johanna Turpin/Todd well, their lovers' relationship is severely neutered with the cutting of the script and songs. What is once a brightness and comedic light in this world is now simply awkward; the audience simply does not care for these people who have had so little screen presence. The parts are played incredibly adeptly and with fierce conviction, but it seems like Tim Burton has missed this opportunity. Along the same vein, Timothy Spall is highly miscast as Beadle Bamford. He, like everyone else, is a wonderful actor, but it seems as if he took a cue from Wormtail from Harry Potter and Nathaniel from Enchanted: ugly and coarse rather than slick and corrupted, as the Beadle is traditionally played.

The missed opportunites give a tiny sour note to what is otherwise a magnificent production. Sweeney Todd has always been a force of nature, and it is an extreme pleasure to see something this amazing translated so well.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Do I Like Fish?

It’s here, it is, it is! The ‘rednecks are dumb’ play to end all ‘rednecks are dumb’ plays. San Jose Stage Company is the next in an ever-growing line to produce A Tuna Christmas, the incredibly popular sequel to Greater Tuna (also incredibly popular). One meets and re-meets, through the course of the evening, the various residents of Tuna County, Texas, as they are preparing for holiday contest and plays. With only a smattering of plot more than the first one (There’s a contest this time! And a Christmas Phantom! And is Stanley Bumiller actually getting out of Tuna?!), and roughly the same stale jokes, the true entertainment comes from the two actors playing 22 characters, complete with full costume changes; without two strong actors, the play will fall short of its goal of entertainment.

To call Kevin Blackton and Tim Hendrixson only strong actors is too little praise. These powerhouse performers blast through the wordy scenes and awkward lines with grace and gusto. Every character they have developed is fully formed and realized, adding much needed humanity to the broad humor of the show. Characters fill out the town well; the stand outs seem to be the ones that add a smidge of grace to the show; Mr. Blackton’s Bertha Bumiller, the matriarch of a local family, gives some very poignant speeches about love and past Christmases. Mr. Hendrixson’s Petey Fisk, reporting for the Tuna Humane Society is ever effervescent in his want for a good home for pets. It is obvious to the observer that the two actors are having fun at working hard in making a worn down script into something much more entertaining.

Additional praise must be given to the two dressers, Kat Hepner and Samantha Howell. Aside from a hiccup nearing the end of the show, the changes were done smoothly. The rest of the technical crew helped the show well, from the adorable costumes by Eileen Barnes to the Christmas Phantom scene changes as different trees appear and disappear throughout the show.

A Tuna Christmas is a lot like holiday candy, you shouldn’t really indulge, but you just want to have another piece.

- A Tuna Christmas plays through December 23 at the San Jose Stage Company,