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“Noises Off” and Laughter On, at San Francisco Playhouse

“Noises Off” and Laughter On, at San Francisco Playhouse

Michael Frayn Tickles the Underbelly of Theater

by Victor Cordell

Give farce a chance.

Let’s start by accepting that farce is not everyone’s cup of tea.  That said, farce comes in different sizes and flavors.  Michael Frayn’s much honored “Noises Off” succeeds because its writing crackles; it employs all manner of comedy; and its setting and storyline being about the theater itself sits well with the theater-going audience.  Yet, for it to work requires precision of execution in blocking and movement and exceptional comedic acting.  Director Susi Damilano and her exemplary cast deliver the goods with a riotous production that exceeds any reasonable expectations.

Monique Hafen, Richard Louis James, Kimberly Richards, Greg Ayers, and Nanci Zoppi

As the curtain rises, we observe a rehearsal by an English theater company the night before the opening of a new play.  The play to be shown takes place in a fashionable home in contemporary England, and the comedy comes from the pratfalls of the characters in the play-within-a-play, and even more so from the wacky actors playing those characters.  The premise of the play-within-a-play is that the real estate agent commissioned to rent the home expects it to be vacant and takes a lady friend there for a tryst.  In time, they realize that not only is the housekeeper on the premises, but the absentee owners and a burglar also show up unexpectedly.  Mayhem ensues.

The cast hits the bulls-eye with each depiction, and the laughter cascades non-stop in the first act to a point that would be hard to sustain throughout the play.  Patrick Russell excels as the actor who plays the agent and must deal with the surprised owners. In his actor role, he is aphasic on the verge of incoherence, but time after time he repeats the same words again and again, and each time it’s as funny as the time before.  One struggles to explain how each blurting of “do you know what I mean?” gets laughs, but credit the actor.

Patrick Russell and Monique Hafen

As the tryst partner in the play-within-a-play, Monique Hafen sparkles.  Her character flounces about in a red bustier set that looks straight out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, extracting humor from her every vacuous, squeaky pronouncement.  And her endless posturing and flailing her long, slim arms about demonstrate a fine sense of physical comedy.

Other principals include Johnny Moreno as the director whose eye-rolling frustration with the ineptness of the actors and the proceedings never ends.  His characteristic dark sarcasm and condescension carry the desired bite, and his intelligence contrasts with the loopiness of the actors.

But the humor from the individual actors is only part of the fun.  The set acts as a principal character, as “Noises Off” is a slamming door comedy of the highest order.  S.F. Playhouse excels in set design, and six doors dot the interior wall of the house.  A great deal of humor derives from characters loudly passing through doors at all the wrong times and in all manner of disrepair.

Nanci Zoppi, Craig Marker, Kimberly Richards, and Patrick Russell

The second act highlights a great asset of the Playhouse—its revolving stage.  It rotates to reveal the back stage of the house interior, and this act is all about the actors making their entrances and exits and the maelstrom behind the scenes.  During the play, noises are off (i.e., no talking) backstage, so a great deal of pantomime substitutes for verbal comedy.  So much action and fumbling goes on at the same time, that the audience is challenged as to what part of the stage to be watching.

The remainder of the cast that makes the evening entertaining deserves acknowledgement.  Kimberly Richards is memorable as the forgetful and aptly named actress Dotty, who plays the craggy housekeeper.  Craig Marker and Nanci Zoppi are benumbed and befuddled as the couple who find the strange goings on at their house, along with a series of notices from the Income Tax Department.  Richard Louis James is the picture of an inebriated actor who plays the burglar and is never able to get his entrance right.  Finally, Greg Ayers and Monica Ho play the production staffers who are supposed to keep the production moving smoothly, but rather, they add to the confusion – including a hilarious sequence of contradictory announcements they make about the time until curtain.  They are both very effective at more subtle humor amidst the raucousness surrounding them.

Craig Marker, Nanci Zoppi, Johnny Moreno, Monique Hafen, Richard Louis James, Greg Ayers, Monica Ho, Kimberly Richards, and Patrick Russell

 

“Noises Off” by Michael Frayn, directed by Susi Damilano, by San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, through Saturday, May 13, 2017. Info: sfplayhouse.org

Cast: Kimberly Richards, Johnny Moreno, Patrick Russell, Monique Hafen, Monica Ho, Nanci Zoppi, Craig Marker, Greg Ayers, and Robert Louis James.

 

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

 

“Wheels on the Bus” Takes Kids on Adventure, at Bay Area Children’s Theatre

“Wheels on the Bus” Takes Kids on Adventure, at Bay Area Children’s Theatre

Toddlers Delighted, Engaged by One-of-a-Kind Bus Ride

by Rosa del Duca

With trepidation, I arrived at the Bay Area Children’s Theatre in Oakland for a 10 A.M. performance of “The Wheels on the Bus.” It was raining cats and dogs, my 16-month-old daughter was cutting a new tooth (or four), and she had fallen asleep on the ride to the theater, which meant she was clingy, suspicious, and poised to have a meltdown.  I hoped I would not have to walk out of the show with a wailing toddler. Forty-five minutes. That’s all we needed. I ran through my inventory of tricks in case I had to try to entertain her on the sly: Keys, check. Crackers, check. Hair tie, check. Board book, check.

But the moment music started playing inside what looked like a glowing tent, Itasca was interested and curious. We followed the small crowd of toddlers and parents inside the “theater,” where circles of carpet designated “seats,” should we wish to use them. Two men were inside, playing with wooden cars on the floor, making up dramatic sound effects. It was an invitation to play, spoken in the simple language of children. And many of the children did play, building trains with the cars, sliding them across the floor, or simply taking the toys back to show Mom or Dad.

In a few minutes, the “bus driver” announced the show was beginning, and the toy cars were whisked away. Enter our two main characters: Green Man and Orange Man (my names for them). They speed-shuffled around the stage, then froze, shuffled, then froze—composing their own soundtrack to the scene, heavy on drawn out “biiiiing” sounds.  Itasca, my daughter, was mesmerized, along with everyone else, regardless of age. The room sat silent, eyes glued to the actors as they worked through the confusing concept of finding a bus stop from an X marked on a map.

And then we were off on an adventure that flew by, thanks to scenes designed to engage children on a variety of levels, and that ended before anyone could get bored. We went to a carnival where we ate imaginary cotton candy and where Orange Man and Green Man constructed a miniature Ferris Wheel. We flew like airplanes. We made an enormous pizza and played a call-and-response clapping game with pots and pans. And of course, we rode the bus over bumps and around sharp turns.

The two main actors were phenomenal, acting with their faces, voices, bodies, and props, and rolling with the punches. The funniest moment in the performance came during a cooking scene, where Green Man and Orange Man made a creature who had an egg beater for legs, two wooden spoons for arms, and two pizza cutters for eyes. Green Man, who was operating the creature’s arms, accidentally dropped a spoon. Orange Man, who was operating the eyes, and voicing the creature, didn’t even hesitate. He made the creature yip and scream in shock—then gasp and splutter in relief as Green Man re-attached the arm. The room burst out in laughter, the parents laughing even harder than the children.

Despite the show’s title, the song “The Wheels on the Bus” appears only a couple of times. In fact, the Men sing a few verses toward the start, and then a version appears at the end, when the audience is invited to have a dance party.

Things move perhaps a little too quickly for some young audience members. “I don’t like this play,” a little girl mumbled as she plodded back to her seat after an early scene. Orange Man and Green Man had just built a road, and invited the kids to come up and build a city with foam blocks on either side of the road. After a few minutes of fun, it was time to clean up and get back on the bus.

However, this same girl was dismayed when the show ended.  “It’s over?” she asked Green Man, refusing to budge from her spot right in front of the actors as everyone else gathered their things.

Green Man shrugged his shoulders and frowned. “It makes me sad too.”

As for Itasca, she didn’t care for any of the interactive aspects of the show. There was no getting her to walk up to claim her ticket to the carnival, or help build that city, or put toppings on the pizza, but that was only because she was riveted by everything going on. I don’t think she blinked even once, for fear of missing something.

 

“The Wheels on the Bus” by Bay Area Children’s Theatre, or BACT, designed by Nina Meehan and Doyle Ott has productions in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Ramon. BACT‘s “Theater for the Very Young”–for kids from six months to four years–is a joint venture with Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. Info: bayareachildrenstheatre.org

“Beowulf” by the Bay Breaks New Ground, at WE Players, S.F.

“Beowulf” by the Bay Breaks New Ground, at WE Players, S.F.

WE Players Make America Geat Again

 by Buzz Goldberg

A saxophonist up on a hillside, nearly camouflaged by the surrounding foliage, sounds a clarion call. A woman gathers a massive length of rope with quiet intensity. A trio of performers hold aloft smoking, aromatic bowls of sage. These are some of the beautiful, poetic, and haunting images that present themselves in the early, outdoor scenes of We Players’ “Beowulf”—with dancers from inkBoat and the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

But first, audience members gather at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, where they’re free to enjoy the view and sea air from the back balcony. Then—100 strong on Opening Night—they’re led out to the park below and along a path with the bay on one side, and greenery on the other. Cast members and saxophonists can be spotted and heard here and there along the path.

In Fort Mason’s Aquatic Park, we are invited to scoop sand into a small boat in honor of the fallen lord. Then, we sit or kneel on along a cement wall, watching as the actor/dancers below us on the grass enact a funeral ritual by what could pass as tombs—metal doors set into the grassy bank. Ava Roy, WE Players’ Artistic Director, delivers a stirring monologue about the dark and troubling times of the lost king, Beowulf, the Chief of the Geat Clan—with obvious allusions to Trump’s America.

As a group, we climb a flight of stairs, go down a path, and indoors, to the lovely, historic Fort Mason Chapel, where we remain for the duration of the performance, another 90 minutes. Audience members enjoy a piece of bread and a bit of vegetable broth while the story unfolds. But there’s not much story in this production. Don’t come expecting a dramatization of the ancient Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the hero Beowulf slaying the monster Grendel.

Through long monologues, snatches of dialogue, movement, and saxophone music, WE Players and their collaborators make indirect references to the tale. The story of Beowulf and Grendel serves as a point of departure for a meditation, militant and mournful, on the times in which we live–“monsters and heroes, courage and cruelty, darkness and light.” The simple set, four wooden ramps that rise up to meet a small stage from four directions, forming a cross, serves well for dramatic—and occasionally athletic—entrances and exits. Good use is made of candlelight and strobe light in Allen Willner’s simple yet striking design.

WE Players present “Beowulf” as a dance theater spectacle, set to discordant, atonal saxophone music. At two and a half hours, it’s in need of cutting. Many audience members loved the show. Some, like myself, grew fidgety. If the goal is to wake people up to the darkness around them and the light within, more of the actual tale is needed. At the very least, provide viewers with a full cup of broth. Nonetheless, WE Players is to be commended for its creative and original use of historic and natural settings. No wonder Backstage.com and other publications have recognized them for creating groundbreaking immersive theater. Be on the lookout for their adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer,” in the summer.

“Beowulf” directed by Ava Roy and Shinichi Iova-Koga, by We Players, Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture, and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Landmark at Fort Mason’s Aquatic Park and Chapel, San Francisco, runs through Sunday, April 16, 2017. Info: weplayers.org

Cast: Ava Roy, Nathaniel Justiniano, Shinichi Iova-Koga, and Dana Iova-Koga

Rova Saxophone Quartet: Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, and Bruce Ackley, joined by Charlie Curke. Original Score by Charlie Curke and Rova Saxophone Quartet.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.

“You for Me for You” Crosses Forbidden Borders, at Crowded Fire, S.F.

“You for Me for You” Crosses Forbidden Borders, at Crowded Fire, S.F.

Mia Chung Tracks Strangers in Strange Lands

by Kim Waldron

In “You for Me for You,” Playwright Mia Chung and Director M. Graham Smith track two North Korean sisters who are separately fleeing Our Dear Leader Kim Jong-Un. Their journeys lack any logical itinerary, turn surreal, and sometimes pass too slowly. Nevertheless, the sisters encounter moments so full of truth and high comedy that it’s worth the trip that leads us to a most unexpected outcome.

Younger sister Junhee (a brash Grace Ng) questions the mad social order; while her older sister Minhee (a dignified Kathryn Han) obediently accepts all constraints, living in hope of better times. Their questioning versus obedient personalities prefigure even greater contrasts.  One sister is propelled into a nightmarish dream world with its own perverse rules, leaving reality behind. The other sister moves from a Third World life of patriotism and penury to a First World life of abundance and materialism, but leaving her sense of duty behind.

Jomar Tagatac, Kathryn Han, and Julian Green in “You for Me for You.” Photo: Pak Han

One sister wants out of North Korea. The other lives in hopes of re-connecting with the politically abducted members of her family. The would-be defector tells her sister: “We can miss them from anywhere. I want to miss them on a beach after a large meal.” She waits a beat: “I’m going … Do you want to miss me, too?”

The sisters frequently find themselves forced to maintain an impassive face to mask their true emotions in the presence of others, and sometimes in front of each other. Ng and Han do a champion job of eloquently expressing inner thoughts and feelings with their eyes, voices, and gestures. Their expressiveness is physical and sensitive—moving beyond language.

Kathryn Han and Jomar Tagatec in “You for Me for You” at Crowded Fire Theater. Photo: Pak Han

While one sister escapes across the dangerous border to China on her way west, the other falls down a well and crosses another border much harder to define. Whether the Well-world represents death and limbo, a comatose delusion, or an exaggerated version of North Korean life—life down the Well equals Hell. Agonizing scenes of Kafkaesque bureaucracy, dangerous black market deals, torture, and disappearances, all torment the Well-dwellers.

The other sister establishes herself in New York City. She encounters many white women, all named Liz and all played by the marvelously funny Elissa Beth Stebbins. The first Liz speaks in a fast slur of non-words, totally unintelligible to show that the new Korean immigrant cannot understand English. Time passes and the next Liz mixes in a few recognizable words as the immigrating sister understands more English.  And so on, until her final mastery of English. Each time Stebbins plays a Liz, no matter how disparate from the previous ones, she is completely believable. Chung’s concept and Stebbins’ performance are a joy.

Grace Ng and Elissa Beth Stebbins. Photo: Pak Han

In New York, the immigrating sister feels the absence of purpose in her new life of affluence. The dizzying consumerism confuses her. She has won her way to freedom, but now she needs a purpose. Lonely, she makes one friend, a patient and sweet boy (a gentlemanly Julian Green), a recent transplant to New York from Alabama. Ng and Green have good chemistry, and they are a pleasure to watch together. But even the Man from the South, for all his caring, cannot help fill her emptiness.

Grace Ng and Julian Green in New York City. Photo: Pak Han

The cast is rounded out by the multi-talented Jomar Tagatac, who plays over a dozen roles. He plays a pontificating North Korean doctor who has more rhetoric than medicine; an intense people smuggler who takes each sister across the border; and many nasty characters, male and female, in Minhee’s surreal Well-world.

Scenic Designer Maya Linke’s stark metal fence towering over the stage makes for a fittingly ominous North Korea and a surreal Well-world. Sound Designer James Ard has placed speakers all round to engulf us in their messages. The carefully created sinister atmospheres of the totalitarian state and the surreal dream world contrast effectively with New York’s First World commercialism.

For decades the famines, re-education camps, and dictator cult worship have lured pundits to predict the collapse of North Korea. And yet, it still stands. What keeps it going? Crowded Fire’s production gives us clues to this pernicious mystery. “You for Me for You” takes us to unexpected places and introduces surprising notions. That makes it worth a trip to Portrero Stage to pass through Mia Chung’s strange borders.

 

You for Me for You” by Mia Chung, directed by M. Graham Smith, by Crowded Fire Theater, at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco, through Saturday, April 1, 2017.  Infocrowdedfire.org

Cast:    Julian Green, Kathryn Han, Grace Ng, Elissa Beth Stebbins, and Jomar Tagatac.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.

Also check our Recent Shows.