Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Mother F**Ker With the Hat and
Old Wicked Songs

Also see Richard's reviews of Waiting for Godot and Se Llama Cristina

A Rollicking Production of The Mother F**Ker With the Hat

Gabriel Marin and Carl Lumbly
Stephen Adly Guirgis' boisterous comedy comes to San Francisco and plays the San Francisco Playhouse through March 18th. Bill English's driving force direction of a skilled cast delivers a jaw-dropping production with a flood of verbosity and conceptions worthy of a Mamet play.

Guirgis, who wrote such great inner-city plays as Jesus Caught the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, is a master of urban dialogue, such as the telephone conversation of Veronica, a coke-head, talking to her mother, who also has a serious drug problem and should be in rehab:

Ma? O.K, look, for the last time, in my opinion, you're still a good lookin' woman with a hug, lovin' heart and you're not hard to please—clearly—but you're dating a fuckin' big time loser with a head like an actual fuckin' fish! O.K., please, alls I'm gonna to say, Ma, when you see him tonight: Take a moment. Take a breath. Take a good look and just ax yourself in all honesty, "Do I wanna fuck him or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika?"

Given the complex rhythms, director Bill English achieves a smoothness of delivery from every single actor who subtly delivers Guirgis' lyrical if explicit poetry. Jackie, who has a code to live by, might remind one of Hamlet's "the readiness of all" speech.

The Mother F**ker with the Hat is a high-octane comedy drama about Veronica and Jackie, who are in their late twenties and living in a small apartment in the Times Square area. Dim-witted but earnest street punk Jackie is just out of prison after serving a 26-month sentence for dope dealing. He is also newly sober and has a special AA no-nonsense program sponsor, Ralph, who has been on the wagon for 12 years and has created an aggressively healthy lifestyle with his wife Victoria.

Jackie sees a strange hat in Veronica's apartment; he suspects his girlfriend is cheating and asks Ralph for help. Jackie does not know that Ralph has been balling Veronica for quite some time, and the hat really belongs to Ralph. To add on, Ralph's wife Victoria has the hots for Jackie. As Shakespeare once said, "Oh what a tangled web we weave." Jackie also seeks help from his body builder hairstylist cousin Julie, who offers different degrees of support and disapproval.

Jackie and Veronica are played by the astonishing Gabriel Marin and Isabella Ortega as two hopeful losers who want the kind of intimacy they have seen in the movies. Gabriel Marin brilliantly invests a dopey innocence and even has a prevailing sense of honor in this self-deceiving criminal. Isabella Ortega is fabulous as the sewer-mouth girlfriend. She shines as someone who has long ago subscribed to the distrustful "get yours" philosophy of the street.

Carl Lumbly gives a marvelous performance as Ralph. He skillfully negotiates with a fast-moving barrage of wisdom and self-serving justifications that sound wonderfully alive. Margo Hall is enticingly volatile as Victoria, Ralph's wife. Rudy Guerrero is outstanding as fastidious bodybuilder Julio, and offers different degrees of denigration as he successfully switches between a feminine and a "Van Damme" persona.

Bill English's direction is impeccable and his very detailed set of three sharply defined apartments on an expansive, two level set is as wonderful as any Broadway show set I have seen.

The Motherf**ker With the Hat plays through March 16th at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets and more information, call the San Francisco Playhouse box office at 415-677-9596 or visit

A Powerful Production of Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs

It has been a long time since audiences have seen Jon Marans' commanding drama Old Wicked Songs. It was produced by the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia before a New York production at the Promenade Theatre in 1996. There was also a production at the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End and in its venue city, Vienna's English theatre in Austria, just several years ago.

Old Wicked Songs takes place in the spring of 1986 as Kurt Waldheim, a former Nazi, is running for president of Austria. A young American piano prodigy, the tightly wound Stephen Hoffman (Patrick Russell), has come to Vienna to get his music mojo back. He is assigned first to vocal teacher Professor Joseph Mashkan, who gives him the "Dichterliebe" song cycle by Robert Schumann to learn. He is unhappy that he must spend a month or two with the teacher and sing the cycle rather than play the sequence on piano. For the next two hours the audience sees an inspirational journey of two very different men with music as their one common bond. Both have pasts that are bought out, and they find a way to break through those pasts.

Jon Marans' drama allows for a wide range of politics, including an allegory of Austria's struggles with its Nazi past plus an understanding of the role of inspiration and skillfulness in all of these things. We see Stephen Hoffman, who is a Jew, try to put some perceptive into this history, even after visiting nearby Dachau. We also learn of Professor Mashkan's past during the 1940-1946 period when Austria was part of Germany.

In the Center Rep production, Dan Hiatt gives a splendid natural performance with a perfect Austrian accent as Professor Mashkan. Patrick Russell is outstanding as the uptight American Stephan. He successfully transforms from a droll, wisecracking person to one with a deep affection for the Professor. Russell also has perfect vocal chops to sing Robert Schumann's lyrics. Both dominate the stage in this production, thanks to the sharp direction of Jessica Heidt.

Nina Ball has created an impressive and realistic set of the teacher's apartment, down to the little things on the bookshelves and table. It looks like a place where a professor of music would live. Lighting Designer Kurt Landisman's lights are perfect for the production. Musical Direction by Brando Adams brings out the clearest of Robert Schumann's "Dichterliebe."

Old Wicked Songs plays through March 2nd at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or visit Next up for Center Rep is Alfred Hitchcock's 39 Steps opening on March 29 and running through April 27th.

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

- Richard Connema

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