Boleros for the Disenchanted, Dead Man's Cell Phone and Three on a Party
This drama is an homage to Rivera's Puerto Rican parents who came to the United States in search of the "good life" in America. The play opens in a rural town in Puerto Rico in 1953. Flora (Lela Loren), a virgin, is engaged to macho man Manuelo (Dion Mucciacito), who has had several affairs with young women in the village. Flora's mother Donna Milla (Rachel Ticotin) does not care for the self-admitted self-important man ("I like him as Christ liked his cross"). During the proposal scene Manuelo confesses his indiscretions to Flora, who is horrified. The slickster explains that it is just the nature of men to separate sex from love. Flora's father Don Fermin (Robert Beltran), who hates everything about the mainland United States, is furious with Manuelo and wants to "cut his balls off."
Flora breaks off the engagement and retreats to the village of her modern-thinking cousin Petra where she meets the courteous soldier Eusebio (Drew Cortese). He entices her and then her parents. The father is over the moon with the engagement until he is told the couple will move to the morally impoverished mainland. He curses their union.
The second act takes place 38 years later in 1992 in a home in Daleville, Alabama, where Flora (now played by Rachel Ticotin) tends to her bedridden, legless husband Eusebio (Robert Beltran). They squabble since they know each other's imperfections and charms. However, there is still love between the two. Flora counsels a vigorous Oskar (Dion Mucciacito) and Monica (Michele Vazquez) who have known each other for about a month, warning them of the pitfalls of marriage. Flora and Eusebio have health worker Eve (Lela Loren) come in to tend to the bedridden husband. Eusebio foresees his imminent death and demands last rites from a perceptive priest (Drew Cortese) which leads to a devastating confession.
There are many long poetic scenes, such as the boasting of Manuelo on his proposal of marriage to Flora ("I will love only you forever. I've been unfaithful"); Don Fermin's diatribe on the moral corruption of the mainland; and a long, stilted passage by the priest on marriage. The first act runs a mite too long and is almost like a poetic Spanish novella. Act two is better constructed, with more realistic language, especially between Flora and Eusebio.
Smart and sensitively helmed by Carey Perloff, the cast convincingly inhabits a world where wit, tenderness, verse and charm co-exist. The cast shows both change and connection in playing double roles. Robert Beltran ("Star Trek Voyager," HBO's Big Love) is splendid playing the dual roles of Don Fermin and the older Eusebio. Rachel Ticotin (King and I and Macbeth in New York) portrays both Dona Milla and the older Flora. She is wonderful and self-possessed, sharp-tongued, funny and burdened in both characters. The two actors easily convey the layered involvedness of love as the couple in the second act.
Lela Loren ("CSI" and other television) is charismatic as the young Flora in the first act. She imbues the character with a strong will when it comes to love and marriage. Her portrayal of heath worker Eve in the second act is well done. Drew Cortese (As You Like it, 1001, Honor and the River in New York) is a delight as the young Eusebio who has wonderful self-confidence as the soldier who finally weds Flora and the priest who gives his ideas of married life in the second act.
Dion Mucciacito (recent Julliard graduate) gives a robust performance as the smooth-talking cad Manuelo and as the modern newlywed Oskar, a loveable person who loves his intended Monica, played lovingly by Michele Vazquez (The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar in New York). She also plays the sexy Petra sensually in the first act.
Ralph Funicello has devised a brilliant set for the first act that rates applause from the audience. He has small square Puerto Rico village homes hanging like a cluster of perched bird houses that light up inside. The stage is dwarfed by a huge moon in the background. Costumes by Sandra Woodall are authentic to the period while lighting by Nancy Schertler is exceptional, especially the lighting coming from the small houses.
Boleros for the Disenchanted ran through May 31 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. A.C.T. closes out the season with Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo opening on June 10 and running through July 5th. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or go to www.act-sf.org.
Photo: Kevin Berne
SF Playhouse, under the skilled direction of Susi Damilano, is presenting a damn good production of Sarah Ruhl's quirky comedy Dead Man's Cell Phone. This farce is an idiosyncratic work so strange that it captivates the audience. One can say that Sarah Ruhl's rules in this fascinating production.
Dead Man's Cell Phone opens with mousy Jean (Amy Resnick), who works in a Holocaust museum, sitting in a restaurant eating a bowl of lobster bisque. At another table is Gordon (Bill English). His cell phone starts to ring. It continues to ring, but the man doesn't answer it. Jean goes over to Gordon, who is apparently dead. Now, a normal person would call 911 immediately but not our Jean. For some unknown reason, she answers the phone, posing as Gordon's colleague. What happens from there is a modern-day Alice in Wonderland story.
Jean starts a journey to see Gordon's eccentric, overbearing mother Mrs. Gottlieb (Joan Mankin), the she meets Gordon's bookish younger brother Dwight (Jackson Davis) and the dead man's widow Hermia (Rachel Klyce) at a wild and crazy dinner party at the mother's home. Along the way she meets Carlotta (Florentina Mocanu), who turns out to be Gordon's mistress. She even meets Gordon in what Sarah Ruhl describes as hella waiting room where Gordon, a bombastic self-centered man, wears his only suit, hoping for someone to love him and escort him to the after-world. This entrance to hell is a place where everyone has to do their own laundry.
Jean gets sucked into Gordon's dangerous profession, and a Hitchcockian encounter at the Johannesburg South Africa airport becomes hilariously funny. There is romance in this eccentric comedy between the unassuming Dwight and Jean. There is a touching moment between them in Dwight's bookstore where the couple depict two kind people at odds with world but drawn together like magnets. They bond over their love of stationary ("I think heaven must be like an embossed invitation").
An engaging cast under Susi Damilano's accomplished direction maintains compassion and awareness, even as the plot seems scattered. Amy Resnick (The Model Apartment at Traveling Jewish Theatre and Mae West's Sex at the Aurora Theatre ) gives an appealing performance as plain-Jane Jean.
Joan Mankin (Uncle Vanya, An Ideal Husband at Cal Shakes) is a hoot as the monstrous and overbearing mother of Gordon. Bill English (Artistic Director of the company) is terrific as the repugnant deceased Gordon. His dissertation at the beginning of the second act shows a cynical wickedness that is certainly fascinating. Jackson Davis (many roles in Bay Area theatre including Ben Franklin in Paris at 42nd Street Moon) gives a rich performance as the meek, unpretentious brother Dwight.
Rachel Klyce (Camino Real, After the Fall) as Gordon's chilly widow is first rate, especially in the bar scene where heavy drinking reveals a profoundly warm center. Florentina Mocanu (many films in Bucharest) is sensual as Gordon's mistress Carlotta.
Kurt Landisman's sharply defined lighting and Bill English's set with rotating walls give texture to the comedy. Cliff Caruthers' electronic score is perfect for this production. Dead Man's Cell Phone is a brilliant journey of irrationality.
Dead Man's Cell Phone runs through June 13 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco . For tickets call 415-677-9596 or go to www.sfplayhouse.org. Their next production will be One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest opening June 20th.
Four excellent actors, JoAnne Winter, Sheila Balter, Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker, play various roles in the three intriguing plays. Directors Delia MacDougall and John Fisher make each play a provocative adventure into gay life.
Gertrude Stein's Miss Furr and Miss Skeene is a challenging 20-minute piece directed sharply by Delia MacDougall. The story was originally published in Geography and Plays in 1911 in Paris and later reprinted in Vanity Fair magazine in 1923 where the word "gay" took the underground meaning of a homosexual lifestyle. The story is based on real-life Midwestern characters Ethel Mars and Hunt Squires who came to Paris in 1911 to take painting and begin a lesbian relationship. Stein uses repetitions and permutations to tell the story of the two women falling in love, living together and finally separating. The phrase "regularly gay" is intensively used in Stein's short story.
JoAnne Winter and Sheila Balter are excellent as the two women and Brendan Godfrey and Ryan Tasker give good support in this fast-paced presentation. Eric DeLoria gives melodic back-up on the piano during some of the short scenes. One could call this piece an appetizer for the evening's entertainment.
Tennessee Williams' Two on a Party is the main course in this evening of queer stories. It runs 70 minutes and is skillfully directed by John Fisher. The drama, using the music of the 1930s in the background, is about two persons meeting in a bar. Billy (Ryan Tasker) is an effeminate gay man who meets Cora, a straight floozy barfly who flourishes on one night stands. Both decide to hook up, with Billy cruising mostly straight men (gays call this "trade") while Cora looks for one night sex with men.
Two on a Party was published in 1954 and the two have a "party" (meaning free living and having fun without any reason of what you are doing) traveling south to Baton Rouge. Billy says at the end of the drama that the party is like "a fast moving train and you can't get off." The couple even tries to have sex with each other after being together two months, but as Billy says, "a friend can't be a lover," and the sex Billy has with Clara is "not enjoyable." Even when Billy is cruising and gets beat up occasionally by trade, he says "Lady Luck shows the bitchiness of her nature."
Ryan Tasker gives an absorbing performance sporting a Tennessee Williams accent while JoAnne Winter is beguiling as Cora. Brandon Godfrey wonderfully plays most of the hunky trade, including a rough motorcyclist.
Armistead Maupin's Suddenly Home is the dessert of the evening as a frivolous slice of life in San Francisco. It takes place at the end of the 20th century when liberation for gays has been achieved but AIDS threatens the gay community. Tess (Sheila Balter) has flown into San Francisco on her way to Hawaii to meet her fiance. She is having a life crisis about the upcoming wedding and she seeks advice from her brother Will (Brendan Godfrey) and his lover Jamie (Ryan Tasker), who is HIV-positive. They have much to teach her about commitment and matrimony.
Sheila Balter shines in the role of Tess, and Brandon Godfrey gives a commendable performance as her brother. Ryan Tasker is top notch as the HIV-positive lover. JoAnne Winter plays various San Francisco characters in the humorous 20-minute piece directed by John Fisher. His staging is balmy and humorous.
Three on a Party has been extended through June 21 at Theatre Rhinoceros Main Stage at 2926 16 th Street off Van Ness, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-861-5079 on line at www.TheRhino.org.
Photo: Kent Taylor