Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Arsonists, Being Earnest and The Happy Ones

A Chilling Production of The Arsonists

Dan Hiatt and Michael Ray Wisely
Photo by David Allen
Aurora Theatre is currently presenting an excellent production of Max Frisch's surreal drama The Arsonists, subtitled a A Moral Play Without a Moral. This is the version translated by Alistair Beaton that played in London several years ago, with some of the words "Americanized."

The Arsonists is a chilling metaphor about the dangers of a philosophy in denial. It's about totalitarian societies in which the innocent stand by as anarchy grows out of control. Had the central character Gottlieb Biedermann (Dan Hiatt) taken action rather than appeasing the bullies it might have made a difference.

The opening scene is like a scene from the Truffaut film version of Fahrenheit 451 crossed with the Keystone Cops. A Greek chorus of firemen introduce the audience to a country that is terrified by arsonists (Kevin Clark, Tristan Cunningham, Michael Uy Kelly) but, as the firefighters proclaim, protected by their attentiveness. We are introduced to Biedermann (a German translation of Bourgeois), a high-strung businessman who has made his fortune from hair restorer, and his wife Babette (Gwen Loeb).

Former wrestler Schmitz (Michael Ray Wisely) comes to his house and announces that he is homeless and needs a place to stay. Biedermann and his wife, together with their resentful maid Anna (Dina Percia), make the most of a bad job and give the homeless man some food and an attic corner, set on top of the main set. In no time, Schmitz ships in a dozen barrels of petrol and his friend Eisenbing (Tim Kniffin), an out of work waiter still in uniform, joins him. The audience obviously sees these two are arsonists, but the host prefers to see the good in them and accepts their stories rather than raise an alarm to the rest of world. He even protects them from a policeman who sniffs trouble.

Max Frisch's original play suggested Germany in the 1930s when the Germans accepted the Nazi party rise to power, or how the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia in 1938 without firing a shot. Many respectable citizens in Germany turned their backs to the rise of a threat to society.

The ensemble provides stellar work throughout the 85-minute allegory. Michael Ray Wisely gives a commanding performance as Schmitz while Tim Kniffin is excellent in the role of Eisenbing. He has a prefect acid blend of courtesy and danger.

Dan Hiatt gives a polished performance as Biedermann, the definitive everyman. Gwen Loeb is engaging as Babette, the suspicious wife, while Dina Percia is perfect as the maid Anna. Director Mark Jackson adroitly mines the jocularity and eccentricity in the piece. Nina Ball has devised an excellent two-tier set of a dining room and attic with large gasoline barrels slowly coming down onto the audience toward the end of the performance. Lighting designer Stephanie Buchner and sound designer Matt Stines add to the fighting aspects of this drama.

The Arsonists runs through May 12th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 510-843-4822 or visit The Aurora Theatre closes its 21st season with Neil LaBute's This Is How It Goes opening on June 14th and running through July 21st.

A Jolly Good Production of Being Earnest

Hayden Tee and Mindy Lym
Photo by Tracy Martin
I have always been a big fan of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest and I would venture to say it is one of my most favorite Victorian comedies. I have seen this classic in both the United Kingdom and in this country in its true setting of 1895. This marks the first time that I have seen this jewel set in groovy 1960s London. It certainly has that Carnaby Street look and is a "cheeky" musical. The cast looks like fashion plates of Carnaby Street, thanks to costumer Fumiko Bielefeldt.

Paul Gordon (co-wrote Jane Eyre), along with Jay Gruska, has written a show reminiscent of a '60s musical. It has a certain Burt Bacharach beat to the melodies, and others sound like Beatles songs. The lyrics by Gordon are smart, with delightful gems such as the agreeable ode to Earnest, "Age of Ideals," and the kicky "Brothers" delivered with cynical flamboyance by Euan Morton who plays Algernon and Hayden Tee who portrays Jack. Paul Gordon's book contains a lot of Wilde's witticisms.

Purists of the original classic will be scandalized, but don't let that stop you from seeing this effervescence musical, which is filled with the verve and buoyancy of 1965 London. The iconic grande dame Lady Bracknell is played with a great flair by Maureen McVerry (Xanadu at Center Rep), and she puts her special stamp on this character when she says "You were born in a handbag" and "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness."

Euan Morton (Tony Award nominated for Taboo) and Hayden Tee (Pittsburgh Public Theatre Camelot and 1776) are splendid, and each has a vibrant voice, especially in the upbeat "Brothers." They catch that wonderful style of acting that was popular during the Victorian times. Mindy Lym (Paul Gordon's Emma at TheatreWorks) and Riley Krull (Sugar at 42nd Street Moon) as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Carew are captivating in their Mondrian dress and mod outfits. Diana Torres Koss (TheatreWorks A Civil War and Jane Eyre) gives a splendid performance as the prissy governess Miss Prism while Brian Herndon (many roles at TheatreWorks, including Emma) is terrific in several roles, including the sophistic Reverend Chasuble.

Robert Kelley's staging is first rate and you see his rapid pacing of the actors along with projected images in the withdrawing frames and appropriately furnished sets by Joe Ragey. William Liberatore's orchestra gives sprightly accompaniment to the singers.

Being Earnest plays through April 28th at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-463-1960 or visit Coming up next is Coleman Domingo Wild with Happy opening in Mountain View in June 5th and running through June 30th.

An Engrossing Production of "The Happy Ones"

Liam Craig
Photo by Jennifer Reiley
Julie Marie Myatt's absorbing The Happy Ones opens with Walter (Liam Craig), a very happy camper with a lovely wife (not seen), and the sounds of his kids playing outside his beautiful home in Orange County, California, in the 1970s. He tells his best friend Gary (Gabriel Marin), "Beautiful women./ Beautiful children./ Great neighbors./Fantastic job./ Gorgeous weather." As Candide would say, "this is the best of all possible worlds." You begin to think that this is a sitcom from the '60s. Alas, no.

Walter's middle class American dream has come true: owning his own appliance store. He gets a phone call while working in his store and is told that his wife and two children have been killed in an automobile accident. A Vietnamese refugee now living in California has caused the wreck. What follows in Julie Marie Myatt's remarkably sweet play is an exquisitely nuanced portrait of emotional healing, compassion and the important of friendship.

The Happy Ones, now playing at the Magic Theatre, is an intense two-hour drama with superior acting on the parts of four excellent Bay Area actors, splendidly directed by Jonathan Moscone. The actors handle this tragicomedy with great control, which makes the play more heartrending. The two focal characters are in the hands of actors well-equipped to illuminate the script's multiple dimensions.

Boa (Jomar Tagatac), the Vietnamese immigrant, comes to the store to apologize for the accident. Needless to say, Walter is not about to accept the apology since this man has destroyed his life. However, Boa wants to make restitution, not with money but in other ways, such as cleaning his house and making life as pleasant for him as possible. At first Boa appears like a ghost in Walter's now silent house. He makes soup for him and cooks Vietnamese food and finally Walter relents and starts to make a friendship with the Asian man, even playing checkers with him every night. We find out that Boa also has a dark history of losing his wife and children (think Miss Saigon).

Deftly staged by Jonathan Moscone, The Happy Ones works hard to sweeten this story of loss. There are moments of humor, thanks to Walter's best friend Gary, a Unitarian minister who loves to party and to serve up platitudes. He probably is the worst minister in the history of religion. Gary has a girlfriend named Mary-Ellen (Marcia Pizzo) who is a divorcee who loves to cook up tuna casseroles and make a mean Bloody Mary.

Liam Craig (The Internationalist at Vineyard Theatre, Two Noble Kinsman at Pubic Theatre) exudes a nice-guy susceptibility that earns our sympathy, and he successfully deepens our awareness of the character by making Walter's self-doubts and emotional confusion mind-bogglingly affecting.

Jomar Tagatac (Jesus in India at the Magic and Rights of Passage at New Conservatory Theatre) gives a wonderful performance as Boa. Gabriel Marin (SFBATCC nominee for The Understudy and recently The Motherf**ker with the Hat at San Francisco Playhouse) is perfect in the role of the alcoholic minister. Marcia Pizzo (Wilder Times, Eccentricities of a Nightingale at the Aurora Theatre) gives an impeccable performance as the overly attentive girlfriend Mary-Ellen.

A special nod to Christine Crook for the period costumes, Stephen Strawbridge for lights, and Cliff Caruthers for a sound design that includes both Asian and American music. Erik Flatmo's set is a beautifully detailed upscale living room. Jonathan Moscone allows the inconspicuous power of this gentle yet spellbinding play to shine.

The Happy Ones runs through April 21 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-441-8822. Their next production will be Sam Shepard's Buried Child opening on September 11th.

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

- Richard Connema

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