Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Shipwreck, Reasons to Be Pretty and The Whipping Man

Also see Richard's reviews of Patti LuPone at the Rrrazz Room and Nellie McKay at the Venetian

An Engaging Production of Tom Stoppard's Shipwreck

Last year, Shotgun Players stepped up to the plate and presented a splendid production of Part 1 - Voyage of Tom Stoppard's historical drama Coast of Utopia. This season the company is presenting an impressive production of Part 2 - Shipwreck. There will be six performances of Voyage on Saturday matinees with Shipwreck to follow in the evenings.

Shipwreck takes off from Voyage with the crowded opening scene of young Russian radicals during the summer of 1846 arguing political philosophy in the gardens of Sokolovo estates just outside Moscow. They are "superfluous" men whose education, upbringing and talents make them a threat, not an asset, to their country. They look forward to a future of idleness. The intelligent group cannot travel and they have no need to work; they even argue about coffee. The audience hears the downhearted reflections of Ivan Turgenev (Richard Reinholdt) and the tormented monologues of Alexander Herzen (Patrick Kelley Jones). The production then carries the audience through the Paris student revolutions of 1840 and aftermath. Intermingled with the spectacles the audience also gets a chance to see their private lives, and their marriage and infidelity problems.

Staged with energy and fluidity, with more than 20 actors under the robust direction of Patrick Dooley, Shipwreck is as visually spectacular as Voyage, thanks to Nina Ball's free flowing set of white drapes covering the intimate stage. This is certainly the most theatrical evening of the season thus far. There are many unforgettable scenes, such as the Place de la Concorde before, during and after the 1848 revolutions. Many of the speeches are eloquent and the playwright enlivens some scenes with his playful wit. There are many quarrels among Herzen and his philosophical comrades that sometimes devolve into comic disagreements.

Patrick Kelly Jones gives a brilliant performance as Alexander Herzen, the play's central figure. His speech at the end of the production is powerful. Caitlyn Louchard is marvelous as Herzen's romantic and emotionally needy wife Natalie. Richard Reinholdt gives a charismatic presentation of the seemingly detached artist and writer Ivan Turgenev, who wrote the pre-Chekov classic play A Month in the Country. Joseph Salazar does a compelling portrayal of the son Michael who has just returned from France with talk of revolution. This quartet is responsible for extraordinarily harmonic creations that manage to remain separate and individual even as they blend into a whole.

Nick Medina once again is convincing as the critic Vissarion Belinsky who asserts he could write better in an expensive dressing grown he's spotted in a Paris shop. He retains the no-nonsense intelligence and youthful zeal of the role. Daniel Petzold stands out as famous rebel poet German poet George Herwegh, Herzen's friend and eventual rival. Christy Crowley shines with sensuality as the realistic Maria Ogarev in the second act while Monica Cappuccini is perfect as Madam Haag in a small but showy role.

Dan Saski gives a very good performance as the egocentric young Karl Marx while Ben Landmesser is compelling as Aksakov. Danielle O'Hare gives a magnetic performance as Emma the wife of love-icon poet George Herwegh.

Joe Lucas, John Mercer, Sam Misner, Nesbyth Rieman, Alex Shafer, Leanna Sharp, Sam Tillis, Kenny Toll and Don Wood are all first rate and give life and vivacity to a script that could easily get mired in sociopolitical mud. Five-year-old Sebastian Mora (alternating with Nathan Weltzien) as Kolya and 12-year-old Jonah Rottenberg (alternating with Kachi Gauthier) as Sasha are appealing in the production. This is a journey no lover of serious theatre should miss.

The Coast of Utopia: Part 2 Shipwreck will be playing through May 5th with Part 1 - Voyage, which will have performances on Saturday matinees at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. Berkeley. The Shotgun Players will perform Part 3 - Salvage next year. For tickets call 510-841-6500 or visit

A Dazzling Production of Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty

Patrick Russell, Jennifer Stuckert, Craig Marker
and Lauren English

Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty, a biting commentary on friendship and romance, is currently playing at San Francisco Playhouse. This two hour comic-drama is a piercing interpretation of sexual arrogances and body-images issues. The intense piece includes secrets and lies and moments of truth, all played by a carefully balancing cast, and thanks to Susi Damilano's astute direction. The playwright, who wrote The Shape of Things, Fat Pig and In the Company of Men has written another provocative play. He, like Harold Pinter, understands language as power, especially among the unlettered.

The plot of Reasons to Be Pretty doesn't hinge on some thingamajig such as a shocking reverse. The dialogue is wonderfully natural, especially between Greg and his buddy, the womanizing Matt. Sometimes it sounds a little like the work of David Mamet. The production has one of the most persuasive stage fight scenes in recent memory, thanks to fight director Dave Maier. This is the playwright's most effective work to date.

Reasons to Be Pretty centers on the obsequious performance of Craig Marker as Greg, a bookish warehouse worker in a dead-end job who is enmeshed in a major confrontation with his girlfriend Stephanie, played excitingly by Lauren English, amid allegations that he made withering remarks about her physical appearance to one of his co-workers. She delivers the most penetrating, expletive-driven argument in the blistering LaBute's tenet.

Greg, who is really a man-child and something of a loser, tries to get Steph back and uneasily discusses his problems with two fellow employees: his best friend, the macho manipulative Kent played splendidly by Patrick Russell, and a sexy security guard named Carly, played sensually by Jennifer Stuckert. However, Greg sees what the vile Kent is doing behind Carly's back with another factory hottie. There is a complete melt down between Greg and Kent at the company softball game in the second act that is fearsome. Greg struggles to finally grow up and succeed, to some extent. However, the playwright has not figured out how to end this play, which may make some of his fans unhappy. There is a sequel to Reasons to Be Pretty, Reasons to Be Happy, opening next month in New York.

Craig Marker is outstanding as Greg. He comes across as an interesting manual on how to make a bad situation worse. His charm holds the audience so they can identify with Greg even though he feels duty-bound to substantiate lies of his truly shameful buddy Kent.

Lauren English gives a dynamic performance as Steph, especially when she reads from her notes on what is wrong with boyfriend Greg to an unseen group in a food mall. It is a vigorous tour de force of acting in this 7-minute solo. She also has a terrific scene with Craig Marker outside an Italian restaurant in the second act when both of their characters profess to be moving on.

Patrick Russell gives a consummate performance as a womanizing Machiavellian sexist pig. He embodies an upbeat persuasion of a bully with a savage short fuse, the perfect LaBute heavy. Jennifer Stuckert blossoms naturally in the role of Carly who is scared that all she has to offer are her sexy looks.

Bill English has smartly detailed a revolving night-shift workplace plus a bedroom set and the outside of an Italian restaurant. Susi Damilano's direction is sharp and finely tuned in pacing and sensitive clarity. Lighting by Michael Oesch and costumes by Tatjana Genser are a great asset to the production.

Reasons to Be Pretty runs through May 11 at the San Francisco Playhouse. 450 Post Street (2nd floor of Kensington Park Hotel between Powell and Mason) For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit Coming up next is Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party opening on May 21st and running through July 6th. The will be followed by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's Camelot opening on July 16 and running through September 14th.

A Brilliant Production of The Whipping Man

Tobie Windham, L. Peter Callender and Nicholas Pelczar
Photo by Kevin Berne
Marin Theatre Company is currently presenting an electrifying production of Kimberly Senior's The Whipping Man in a co-production with the Virginia Stage Company. This is an evocative, emotional and remarkably powerful play with three superb actors playing master and slaves no longer bonded.

The Whipping Man takes place in 1865 just after the Civil War has ended, in the half-destroyed home in the ransacked capital of the Confederacy, Richmond. What is most remarkable are the personalities of the three participants, all Jewish, two recently free slaves and an injured Confederate soldier whose family home has been destroyed by Confederate bombings. Simon (L. Peter Callender) and John (Tobie Windham) learned to worship in the faith of their owners. The three men are currently living in this ruined mansion very unpleasantly. All of the characters grew up in a familiarity with the family that had a particularly byzantine relationship with the blight of slavery. The slaves were provided an unusually ample education since they can read proficiently. However, there were mutilating visits to "the whipping man" for disciplinary actions.

At the start of the play, Caleb (Nichols Pelczar), the family scion and now a Confederate officer, has crawled home with a leg filled with the poison of gangrene. The leg must be amputated and Caleb does not want to go to the hospital for reasons that are explained in the second act. There is no recourse but for the two slaves to amputate the leg. John, the younger and wilder ex-slave, spends his time looting the vacant neighborhood houses for things including wine and booze. Simon the older ex-slave has stayed behind to await the return of his wife and daughter along with Caleb's father, their former master. The audience sees the convoluted undercurrents driving these characters.

Simon, who is the most religious of the trio, is determined to celebrate Passover with a Seder. Hardtack will substitute for matzo and celery for bitter herbs. He has just heard that "Father Abraham" (Abraham Lincoln) has been assassinated, which saddens him. Caleb has lost his faith due to fighting in various battles for the Confederates, and John who grew with Caleb and played together as children never really took their companionship seriously, since he had several visits to "the whipping man."

L. Peter Callender, Tobie Windham and Nicholas Pelczar give outstanding performances. Nicholas Pelczar, who is rendered immobile for much of the play, acts a great deal by moving his body as Caleb tries to assess the incentives of a pair of men he has shared his life with and who now are the ones in power.

L. Peter Callender gives a commanding performance as the paternalistic Simon. He avoids the trap of noble schmaltziness centering on the man's persistent struggles to reconcile divine dignity with willpower that things will for him no longer be the same.

Tobie Windham gives an exhilarating performance as the fuming, flailing John. He shows superb coiled energy with the years of resentment that come to the surface in the second act. However, even at the end of the play, he successfully portrays a person who is subject to uncertainly and affability.

Jason Minadakis beautifully helms this two-hour drama. Kat Conley has devised a wonderful detailed set of the ruined front home of a mansion with superb lighting by Ben Wilhelm and sounds by Will McCandless.

The Whipping Man plays at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley through April 28. For tickets please call 415-388-5208 or visit Their next production will be Martin McDonagh's Beauty Queen of Leenane opening on May 23rd and running through June 16th.

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

- Richard Connema