What can great theatre, the very best theatre, do to an audience? That answer tends to change depending on the show. We can leave the theatre crying our eyes out, reeling from having our perspectives of the world totally shifted, or nursing our aching stomachs from laughing so hard for so long. But perhaps my own favorite kinds of theatre are the plays that seek to frighten an audience out of their wits. Really effective horror plays like The Pillowman or Bug can make it difficult to sleep at night, but the kind of horror that works even better is designed to scare an audience in a cosmological sense. The 21st century has brought with it a smattering of plays that seek to do this and do so very well, namely plays like The Humans, Hand to God, or Marjorie Prime—each one terrifying; each one a masterpiece. Perhaps rising above all others in this respect is Annie Baker’s staggering masterwork John, her 2015 follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick, which is currently being produced in San Francisco through April 23rd by the American Conservatory Theatre.
Needles and Opium is less of a genuine play than a piece of performance art. Consisting of a series of vignettes about the lives of Robert LePage, the French-Canadian director of the show, French writer/director/visual artist Jean Cocteau, and legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, the work is presented on a giant three dimensional cube that rotates and is suspended above the audience, lit by extremely elaborate projections while the actors either move balletically around the set or are suspended on wires. There are genuine theatrical scenes, however, so I do not feel inappropriate reviewing in in this space, which is designed for the review of theatre.
It’s rare that a play comes along that is as intensely personal as The Baltimore Waltz. Seeing Paula Vogel’s 1992 play is like getting a private window into the author’s soul laid bare. Such autobiographical works can be devastatingly rewarding when done correctly, but also have a tendency to fall apart at the seams if the author lets their emotions get in the way of their dramaturgical instincts. Thankfully, while the edges of The Baltimore Waltz are slightly frayed, the play still amasses to a highly moving evening of theatre. Paula Vogel will get her long overdue Broadway debut later this month with Indecent, but west coast theatergoers are also given a great opportunity to celebrate the always innovative playwright at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, which is producing a top-notch revival of the play in celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary.
It’s great fun to be a contrarian. While I hope that every show I get to see ends up being a masterpiece, there’s a sense of satisfaction that I love to have when I see a show that everyone else praises to high heaven and I get to set the record straight on how good the show actually is. Such is the case with Hamilton, in which my much more reserved thoughts will doubtless be ignored by the thousands of people willing to drop thousands of dollars on the show, but I will still enjoy telling people who haven’t seen it yet that “it’s fine, but really, not worth the hype”.
San Francisco Bay Area theatre companies, ever ambitious, have an unusual penchant for developing new work to go hand-in-hand with their productions of newer plays and classic revivals. This lends a level of excitement to companies in the area, making them feel that they are pushing the boundary instead of just holding down the fort. Occasionally, this can produce great work, like Barry Eitel’s unmistakably San Franciscan The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. But the challenges of world premieres in the stead of producing the greatest shows of the last five years in New York can have its downfall. When companies get their pick of the litter from New York shows, they have a much higher chance of choosing great material, but a new piece is always a shot in the dark.
Farce is quickly becoming the most under-appreciated form of theatre. Though most modern audiences are generally familiar with the format, specifically its penchant for slamming doors while terrified characters duck in and out of the stage at a rapid pace, its immense difficulty in staging tends to intimidate most theatre companies, and thus simpler comedic fare is favored—I have not had the pleasure of getting to see a production of a proper farce since I first started reviewing shows two years ago. That’s reason enough to celebrate the San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of Noises Off, a genuine high-speed farce in which every single one of the show’s ten doors gets slammed with metronomic regularity for the entirety of the performance.
Fiasco’s production of Into the Woods has no business performing in the Golden Gate Theatre’s 2,297-seat auditorium. This production, which is presented in the Paul Sills’ Story Theatre-inspired style of such shows as Peter and the Starcatcher or The Old Man and the Old Moon features a cast of 10, who all play their own instruments, an extra pianist, and not so much of a set as a ladder and a collection of found-object props in order to create the extremely elaborate environments of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 meta-musical. The staging is cluttered and very messy, but also brimming with creativity and imagination and works so well (and is so proportionally inexpensive to produce) that I’d be surprised if this style weren’t to become standard for future Into the Woods performances. It is also fundamentally small theatre, and deserves to be seen in a performance space small enough where the ramshackle quality can be appreciated rather than looking like the producers aren’t willing to spend the money to create a proper Into the Woods. That being said, you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of this Into the Woods just because it fundamentally feels too small for the space its presented in.
It is generally considered that the best American playwrights of the twentieth century were Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams. However, of these three authors, only a few select works are revived with any regularity. For a long time, almost all Arthur Miller revivals were of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, with most of his other work falling by the wayside. However, two recent Broadway revivals of A View From the Bridge, in 2010 and 2015 respectively, have made the 1955 play once again eminently popular. If you missed those two revivals, fear not, for the Pear Theatre in Mountain View is presenting A View From the Bridge in a first-class production. This reviewer remains mostly unconvinced of the merits of the play itself, but Miller fans should run, don’t walk, to see this View before it closes on April 2nd.
For 20 minutes, Silence! The Musical is the funniest musical ever written. The delirious and relentless parody of the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs coasts by on its plethora of references to indelible Academy Award-winning feature along with gently poking fun at Jodie Foster and company, conjuring up a fair share of belly laughs, including a moment featuring the most disgusting and screamingly funny usage of silly string imaginable, before completely running out of gas. After that, the evening commits the worst crime imaginable for comedy: failing to make the audience laugh. Continue reading “Review: “Silence! The Musical” at Ray of Light Theatre”
San Franciscan theatergoers have a unique opportunity right now: Lucas Hnath, a major up-and-coming playwright whose first play premiered in just 2012 and will make his Broadway debut this spring, has not one but two productions of his plays running right now, both playing until March 11th. The Christians at the San Francisco Playhouse, which I reviewed here, is an absolutely first-rate night of theatre, both in play and production, and if Isaac’s Eye, which is currently running at the Custom Made Theatre Co. (just a block away), isn’t quite as good, one should not be discouraged in the slightest from going to see it, both as a highly interesting and entertaining night of theatre and as a perfect way to gain an introduction to a playwright who, this reviewer truly believes, will eventually be considered one of the most important voices of his generation. Continue reading “Review: “Isaac’s Eye” at The Custom Made Theatre Co.”