Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Seminar and Smuin Ballet's XXcentric

A Firm and Furiously Droll Production of Theresa Rebeck's Seminar

Charles Shaw Robinson with James Wagner, Patrick Russell, Lauren English and Natalie Mitchell
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Four hopeful young fiction writers meet in a luxurious Manhattan apartment. They have signed up for a writing seminar with a famously acidic teacher named Leonard. The students have just started to write professionally and their snarling, narcissistic, expensive tutor will knock them down a peg or two. Thus opens Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, currently in a sharp production at the San Francisco Playhouse. The playwright is a master of damning social detail and this 90-minute drama shows it. She uncovers the characters' lack of confidence and bad literary habits.

Kate (Lauren English) is hosting the seminar and she does not have to worry about rent on this luxurious nine-room rent-controlled apartment in the upper 50s. She has been mollycoddled at Bennington and believes she is a budding Jane Austen. However, Leonard (Charles Shaw Robinson) will burst her balloon.

Douglas (Patrick Russell) is well connected but limited in writing talent. However, he has had some success in selling stories. He is a relentless name dropper and uses such words as "interiority" and "exteriority" in his droll opening monologue. Leonard skewers his work. He says the stories have no heart and calls him a whore. The professor says he would be just fine writing stories in Hollywood.

Leonard becomes intrigued by the wild exhibitionism of Izzy (Natalie Mitchell), a sensual young woman. Martin (James Wagner) is the poorest of the lot; the seminar is expensive for him, and now his rent is in arrears. He is struggling within himself and is so divided by moral issues that he refuses to share his writing with anyone. He finally moves into the apartment with Kate.

Leonard, the teacher of this seminar, is an enigma. He is a globe-trotting magazine journalist who was once a famous novelist traveling to places like Somalia and Rwanda. He now gets by teaching private classes at $5,000 per person.

Charles Shaw Robinson gives an outstanding performance as the chilled and well-educated Leonard. The faultlessly chiseled sentences he speaks are wonderful. Lauren English is impressive as Kate, the would-be Jane Austen. She shows great depth in her performance, especially when Kate discusses the writing of James Kerouac with the group. James Wagner as Martin nails the angry rebel who comes from nowhere and knows no one. Patrick Russell, playing Douglas, is perfect with the character's abhorrent literary self-importance. Natalie Mitchell makes the most of the underwritten role of Izzy by delivering crisp one-liners.

Amy Glazer keeps the action moving at a brisk clip, highlighting the playwright's comedy. Bill English has devised a handsome set of an upscale living room and, later, Leonard's apartment.

Seminar plays through June 14, 2014, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit Coming up next is Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods opening on June 24th and running through September 6th.

The Smuin Ballet Presents a Night of Exciting Dancing

Shannon Hurlburt
Photo by Keith Sutter
The internationally renowned dance company Smuin Ballet is presenting its exciting Spring Dance Series under the title of XXcentric, and it certainly is very eccentric, especially the first of the three ballets. The is the world premiere of Tutto Eccetto il Lavandino, or in English, "everything but the kitchen sink," which certainly describes this highly bizarre dance choreographed by Val Caniparoli to the music of Antonio Vivaldi.

The company goes through some of the most energy driven moves I have ever seen on the stage. The 16-member cast uses all sorts of florid hand gestures, dropping into sprint preparations as they jet across the stage. Some of the movements reminded me of the Katherine Graham ballet moves. This piece is fast moving and effervescent.

The second ballet of the evening is also a world premiere, choreographed by Amy Seiwert and simplify called But Now I Must Rest. This sensual ballet is hauntingly danced to the music of Cesaria Evora, a singer from Cape Verde who was known as the "Barefoot Diva" and always performed without shoes as a show of solidarity with the poor women of the world. Susan Roemer and Joshua Reynolds have special beauty and charm dancing to the diva's voice.

The third and final ballet is to the music of George and Ira Gershwin. The ballet titled Dancin' with Gershwin opens with a film showing the Gershwin musicals of the 1920s and '30s with a soundtrack of the sublime melodies of George Gershwin. This is quickly followed by Erin Yarbrough and Weston Krukow skillfully waltzing to a recording of Michael Feinstein singing "They Can't Take That Away from Me," then Nicole Haskins dances excitingly to "'S Wonderful".

Erica Felsch, looking like Marilyn Monroe with a corps of men dancers with a large white fan of feathers, is a dazzling delight dancing to Marilyn Monroe singing "Do It Again." The venerable Shannon Hurlbert does a breathtaking combination of tap and ballet to the "Rhythm" medley recorded by the Canadian Brass. Susan Roemer and Erica Felsch are perfect dancing to Lee Wiley's recording of "I've Got a Crush on You" quickly followed by Jane Rehm poignantly dancing to "Summertime."

Three couples—Erica Chipp and Christian Squires, Susan Roemer and Weston Krukow and Terez Dean and Ben Needham-Wood—have great precision in their dancing to Sting's recording of "Nice Work If You Can Get It." Jo-Ann Sundermeier and Eduardo Permuy are sensual dancing to the Carmen McRae recording of "The Man I Love." The whole company brings down the house in the final number, dancing exultingly to the Gershwin brothers' "Shall we Dance?" from the cast recording of Crazy for You.

XXCentric Spring Dance Series plays at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco through May 11. For tickets call 415-912-1899. The ballet company moves to Walnut Creek to the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive for two performances May 16 and 17th. For tickets call 925-943-7469. Then they go to Mountain View to perform May 21-25 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street. For tickets call 650-903-6000. Finally, they travel to Carmel for a two night performance June 6 and 7th at Sunset Center, San Carlos Street. For tickets call 831-620-2048.

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

- Richard Connema

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