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San Francisco by Richard Connema

In the Next Room, Landscape of the Body
and Burn the Floor


In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)

Next Room
Stacy Ross, Maria Dizzia and Paul Niebanck
Clair Booth Luce's The Women and the television series "Sex in the City" are about the romantic interludes of the female sex, so why not a sexual side of the female gender.  That is what playwright Sarah Ruhl has accomplished in her play In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) now in a world premiere production at Berkeley Repertory's state of the art Roda Theatre.

In the Next Room is an electrifying play for the ladies but the men will like it just a well.  The vibrator does play a central part, not only for the female cast but to a male artist as well. The two-hour 30-minute piece takes place in 19th century America, time when some middle-aged women didn't enjoy sex with their husbands.  They developed a range of "female problems" that were classified as "hysteria."  Around the latter part of the 19th century the electric vibrator was invented. As Dr. Givings says in the play, "Thank God for Edison inventing electricity."

Sarah Ruhl's stimulating comedy of protocol, matrimony and, yes, masturbation has everything a woman could ask for, including organisms, breastfeeding and lesbianism. In the Next Room starts out like a drama of Victorian manners that one would see on "Masterpiece Theatre" with staid dialogue between the characters. However, it soon turns into a romp of sexual escapades that are fun to watch.

Paul Niebanck (New York credits include ... and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, The American Clock) is wonderful as Dr. Givings who administers vibrator treatments to his patients.  In a sober voice he says, "I will tell you an amusing story" then goes into one of his many long lectures on the wonders of electricity.  He is the model of clinical aloofness when applying his special method of calming the patients.

Stacy Ross (An Ideal Husband, Triumph of Love) as his assistant is perfect and also has a marvelous professional demeanor when using the electric apparatus. She gives a winning performance as Annie. Hannah Cabell (New York credits Gentleman Caller, A Man For All Seasons) is a delight as the vivacious wife Mrs. Givings. She gives a gleeful performance as a chatterbox and even improvises silly lyrics in a song. Maria Dizzia (Eurydice) is hysterical as Sabrina Daldry, especially when she is getting that special electrical treatment. John Leonard Thompson (Angels in America, The Graduate) gives a blustery performance as Mr. Daldry.

Melle Powers (New York credits Fabulation, Miss Witherspoon) is compelling as the African-American woman hired to be wet nurse to Mrs. Givings' child. Joaquin Torres (New York credits Beauty of the Father) gives a lusty performance as the artist Leo Irving who also is getting treatments by the doctor. ("Hysteria is very rare in a man, but then again, he's an artist," Dr. Givings explains).

Annie Smart's provides a brilliant, detailed two-room set. The action unfolds side by side in the two period-perfect rooms, one housing the drawing room and the other where the treatments are performed. Costumes by David Zinn are excellent Victorian outfits right down to the corsets.  Les Walters' direction is beautifully rendered and he keeps the action moving between the Victorian sitting room and the operating theater.

In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) plays through March 15th at Berkeley Repertory Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley.  For tickets call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-4-BRT-Tix or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. Their next production will be Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky and adapted by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus.  It opens on the Thrust Stage on February 27 and runs through March 29.

Photo: kevinberne.com


A Bizarre Production of John Guare's Landscape of the Body with a cast of excellent actors

Landscape of the Body
Andrew Hurteau and
Susi Damilano

Trust John Guare to come up with a play more bizarre than real life. The playwright wrote this two-act part-comedy, part-mystery, part-musical and part-urban fantasy between 1976 and 1977 when New York City was in complete chaos.  At the time the homosexual community was being terrorized by persons unknown who were murdering gays and dumping their bodies in garbage bags in the Hudson River. And "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz the .44 Killer intimidated the city.

In Landscape of the Body, John Guare incorporated all of the elements of a city under siege with garbage strikes, open prostitution, strip clubs and drugs.  The comedy-drama has over the top characters and likely will divide audiences between converts and those wondering what to make of this multi-faceted play. It is a thinking person's play that will stay in your mind when you leave the theatre. New York Times critic Mel Gussow said it best, calling it "a cross between metaphysical mystery and an absurdist musical."

Betty (Susi Damilano), a childlike woman from Bangor, Maine, and her 14-year-old son Bert (Alexander Szotak) come to New York's West Village to to bring her lost sister Rosalie (Rana Kangas-Kent) home to their mother. Rosalie has become a part time stripper and porn star and is very happy with her life. Unfortunately, she is senselessly killed by a cyclist more interested in the damage done to his bike than the person lying on the ground.

Betty and Bert, for some inexplicable reason, move into her apartment, her porno career and her job at a sordid firm specializing in bogus "honeymoon holidays" run by a frenzied Cuban named Raulito (Gabe Marin). Raulito dresses in a three-piece business suit and a '40s style ruby-red evening gown that Rita Hayworth might have worn in the film Gilda ("I bought this frock from a used clothing shop for $14.00 and it makes me feel rich, successful, out of the jungle"). In the meantime, the cute Bert becomes a gay hustler along with his friends who like to kill homosexuals.

Betty runs off with a Southern Gentleman (Gabriel Marin) leaving her son to fend on his own.  Bert is murdered and his decapitated head is thrown into the Hudson.  Betty becomes the prime suspect, and police detective Holahan (Andrew Hurteau) is out to prove that the mother killed the son. Throughout this strange production the dead sister Rosalie croons from a piano bar high in the heavens as a musical counterpoint to the happenings on stage.

Landscape of the Body moves back and forth in space and time. John Guare has zeroed in on society's tendency to confuse fantasy and reality.  The death rate in this comedy drama is unusually high—even for this playwright. It did get a mixed critical response when it played at the Public Theatre in New York.

Landscape of the Body has enough ideas floating around to last a playwright's life. Many of these ideas are never fully developed.  Basically this is the story of Betty, whom director Bill English compares to "a modern Job," yet she remains strong and does not give up hope—even at the very end of the this innovative comedy drama with music. Betty says, "My life is a triumph of all the things I don't know."

Bill English has assembled a first-rate cast for this weird comic murder mystery. He deftly keeps things moving along at a fast pace.   There is wonderful wordplay between Betty and Holahan in the opening scene on a ferry boat bound for Nantucket. It reminded me of an early Mamet play with Holahan dressed in a trenchcoat wearing a fake nose and mustache as he tries to get Betty engaged in small talk.

Susi Damilano (SFBATCC award winner for Bug) gives a fabulous performance as Betty. She is perfectly cast as the childlike mother who has had everything thrown at her yet she is strong enough to survive.  Rena Kangas-Kent (Cabaret) is top notch as the chanteuse/narrator Rosalie. She has great vocal chops.

Gabriel Marin (Bug, The Devil's Disciple) is a hoot in the roles of the flamboyant Raulito and Betty's potential Prince Charming, Durwood Peach. He successfully makes the stretch from a gaudy scam artist with a flux Al Pacino Cuban accent from Scarface to a character straight out of a Tennessee Williams play complete with Southern accent.

Andrew Hurteau (The Seafarer, Nixon's Nixon) once again proves to be one of the Bay Area's best character actors.  He gives an excellent performance as Holahan. Alex Szotak, a 14-year-old actor new to the stage gives a good performance as Bert while Otto Pippenger is effective as the older boy Donny.  Haley Reicher and Julia Belanoff, both teenagers, are efficient playing adolescent parts. Anthony Miller makes the most of his brief scenes as the Dope King and Bank Teller.

Landscape of the Body cannot be easily classified and it is not your run of the mill kitchen sink play.  However, the SF Playhouse had the chutzpah to bring this early John Guare play to San Francisco. It runs through March 7th at SF Playhouse,  533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.  Next at the Playhouse will be Tracy Scott Wilson's The Story, a co-production of The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre opening on March 21st.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton


A Red Hot Production of Burn The Floor

Burn the Floor
The international dance sensation that has thrilled audiences in more then 30 countries has finally come to San Francisco.  Burn the Floor will be playing at the Post Street Theatre through March 15th.  If you are looking for an energetic and electrifying dance production, this is it.

Sixteen award-winning tornado dancers ranging from 18 to 30 from fourteen countries rock the house with some of the most sexy and sultry dances you are likely to see anywhere in the world.  This show will change your idea of ballroom dancing forever. Not only are they gorgeous to look at but they propel the audience into delirious ovations. Yes, they burn the floor.

Every form of dancing is here to enjoy, from the staid waltz to the fox-trot, tango, lindy hop, samba, jitterbug, rumba and salsa—all backed by two skillful percussionists, vocalists Kieron Kulik and Jessica Lingotti, and a canned score that could not be better when it comes to ballroom dancing.  The conventional pivots, voltas, swirls and sways of ballroom dancing have been pulled apart and stitched together by the sexy, saucy young troupe. There are over 600 costumes, 61 hats and headdresses and 100 pair of shows worn in each performance.

Burn the Floor opens with the graceful dancing of Damian Whitewood and Peta Murgatroyd to a lovely waltz melody, then morphs into the sensual "Ballroom Beat" of the two percussionists and the whole cast giving a heart-pounding display of dance pyrotechnics.

Burn the Floor has something for everyone, from the wild and high energy dances of the 21st century for the young people to the wonderful fast-paced dances of the 20th century for us older folks. "Night in White Satin" is transcendent with the dancers looking like something out of a lovely dream.

Highlights in the first act are the company dancing jitterbug style to "Sing, Sing, Sing" and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Local dancer Giselle Peacock is a real "hip cat" as she jives to this rhythm. Henry Byalikov, Kevin Clifton, Jeremy Garner, Patrick Helm, Tristan MacManus and Robin Windsor burn the floor with their full of life dancing. Sherone Armel, Sharna Burgess, Clare Clifton, Sarah Hives, Melanie Hooper, Carmelo Pizzino and Sarah Soriano are equal partners cutting the rug to the infectious music.

Burn the Floor's second act has a sensual Latin look with five couples fighting it out in a bullfight-inspired dance.  There is an exciting salsa dance by Sasha Farber and Melanie Hooper to "Sing Sing Sing Salsa" and a very scorching dance to "Tainted Love" as Sharna Burgess drags Robin Windsor by the tie.  Damien Whitewood and Peta Murgatroyd are appealing when dancing flamenco style to "Matador."  The female dancers are gorgeous with svelte backs bending back when they are dancing to the Latin melodies.

The full cast gets down and dirty for the exhilarating finale of "After All," "Proud Mary" and "Turn the Beat Around."  You will never see so many shaking male butts or lovely, graceful ladies again.   You just might have to take a B13 pill after you leave the theatre or maybe a Valium to calm yourself down.

Burn the Floor plays through March 15th only at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-771-6900 or online at Ticketmaster.com.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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