Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Blackbird, First Person Shooter and
Torch Song Trilogy

Jessi Campbell and Steven Culp
American Conservatory Theatre is currently presenting the controversial drama Blackbird by British playwright David Harrower. If you found an appeal in Nabokov's likewise self-justificatory Lolita, you will love Blackbird. The 90-minute drama is a haughty, academic exercise involving Ray, a middle-aged man, and 20-something Una discussing their past sexual relationship.  The drama evokes shocking sympathy by revealing the relationship of these two characters to be about diametrically opposed compulsive love.

Blackbird premiered in London, running two hours with a melodramatic ending.  It won the Olivier Award for best new play in 2006. It has been cut to 80 minutes for the San Francisco Bay Area audiences.  It's hard to keep from feeling, especially in the opening fifteen minutes, that you are watching a David Mamet play. The two characters use pared down and fractured speech patterns. There is barely a complete sentence at the beginning of the drama. It is a provocative play full of tension. Even the little things are interesting, such as Ray's insistence that the door remain ajar throughout the whole confrontation, since he needs an escape route.

The basic plot is that Una has finally tracked Ray down, years after the then 41-year-old man impregnated her when she was 12. Una was very much in love with the middle-aged man. It was "rape with consent," some would say.  Ray was sent to prison and under a new name has created a new life with a slightly older woman.  Una was also something of a prisoner since the affair was highly publicized and her mother refused to move from the neighborhood where the neighbors called Una a whore.

Steven Culp (Angels in America and Rex Van De Kamp on television's Desperate Housewives) and Jessi Campbell (New York Inky and Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen) manage to sustain their roles and keep the audience interested throughout the play. Culp plays the role with an excellent jumpy defensiveness. You can see Ray is psychically scarred by his prison time. Jessi Campbell gives a wonderful performance as a person who has been deeply hurt from the sexual experience.  She wants closure from the man who took advantage of her teenage crush.

Portia Juliette (alternating with Hannah Rose Kornfield) has a small but pivotal role at the end of the performance that will get the audience thinking.

Robert Brill's realistic set is a lunchroom in a warehouse where Ray works; there are vending machines and the set is littered with food wrappers about the tables and floor.  The background is an elongated frosted glass window behind which we see figures moving and sometimes lurking to listen to the conversation.  The florescent lighting by Russell H. Champa makes the room bright as a hospital operating room.

Blackbirdruns through May 27th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets 415-749-2228 or online at  A.C.T.'s final production of the current season will be Moliere's The Imaginary Invalid opening on June 7th and running through July 8th.

Photo: Erik Tomasson

First Person Shooter

Adrian Roberts and Craig Marker
SF Playhouse is currently presenting the world premiere of Aaron Loeb's First Person Shooter. This is an in-your-face production of one of the most intense dramas I have experienced in recent months. Director Jon Tracy has assembled a group of passionate young actors to grace the interesting staging of this theatre. The play asks the question of whether or not violence begets violence.

First Person Shooter is a timely drama that takes us inside JetPack Games, a start-up video game company which produces the most violent games on the market.  The drama tracks a fictional school shooting that gets blamed on the developer of the games.  The shooters had played their games many times. CEO Kerry Davis (Craig Marker) has to decide how to react to this when he just wants to be left alone to develop games. The father of one the children killed, Daniel Jamison (Adrian Roberts), is pushed into a controversy by Lee (Sung Min Park), an attorney representing the victims' families. Both Kerry and Daniel are led to believe that the other is his mortal enemy.

Playwright Aaron Loeb attempts to show that the media is usually callous when reporting on something like the recent shootings at Virginia Tech.  They try to give a quick and easy sound bite as to who is the blame. As public relations man Tommy (Chad Deverman) says, the shooting could be caused by violent movies, rap music or even the commonplace "bullying" that goes on in today's schools. The drama is not meant to be sensational. It does not glamorize or even dramatize school shootings, but is instead the aftermath we have all felt after violent acts are committed.

There are many twists and turns in this two-hour drama.  The on-edge piece will stay in your mind for days.

The entire cast gives superb performances.  Craig Marker (many regional productions including Marriage of Figaro, Brooklyn Boy, Iphigenia at Aulis) gives one of the greatest performances of his young career. He is stupendous as boy-genius Kerry, a rash, undeveloped and appealingly good-natured designer. Chad Deverman (The Sisters Rosensweig, Woyzeck) is dynamic as the shifty marketing pro Tommy. As Kerry says, "Well, gee, Tommy, that's because you're about as appealing as taking a sandblaster to my tit."  That is my take on his character also.

Sun Min Park (Miss Saigon, A Midsummer Night's Dream) gives an appealing performance in several roles, including the jumpy chief artist of the video game company. Adrian Roberts (Off-Broadway Playboy of the West Indies and two seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) gives an outstanding performance as Daniel, grieving for his dead son.

Kate Del Castillo (Putting It Together, The Marriage of Figaro) is effervescent as the quick-witted managing director Tamar. Susi Damilano (2006 SFBATCC Best Actress Award) is compelling as the distressed stepmother of one of the shooting victims.

Melpomene Katakalos' set design is striking, with a video game by Nick Brut and Kevin Wright being projected on two sides of the triangular set.  Other projections by Rob Mouck and Ken Capelli are in line with the intriguing production. Jon Tracy is directing a razor-sharp, intelligent and vigorous production.

First Person Shooter runs through June 9th at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  For tickets please call 415-677-9596 or go to  Their next production is Mitch Leigh, Joe Darion and Dale Wasserman's Man of La Mancha featuring Bill English and Louis Parnell. It opens on June 30th.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton

Torch Song Trilogy

Theatre Q, a relatively new theatre in the Bay Area, is currently presenting Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy at the intimate Knights Three theatre space in the Dean Lesher Regional Theatre Center in Walnut Creek.

Director Dale Albright is helming a very good production with a group of talented young actors.  The original four-hour piece has been trimmed to a little over three hours. It has been a long time since I have seen this Tony Award winning play. The first time was at the Little Theatre with Harvey Fierstein playing Arnold and Matthew Broderick playing Alan. Later I saw the play in London with Antony Sher taking over the role of drag queen Arnold.

Torch Song Trilogy was one of the first Broadway shows with a major gay theme in its plot. It has been hailed as a classic comedy in gay theatre and is still produced by many regional companies.  Seth Rudetsky played the role of drag queen Arnold last year for the Gallery Players in Brooklyn.

The comedy-drama centers on the trials and tribulations of drag queen Arnold (Tomas Theriot). His life is presented in three acts, running from 1975 through 1981.  One can say it takes a lot of guts and a good sense of humor to be in the shoes of this interesting character. The female impersonator struggles to find love with bisexual school teacher Ed (Caleb Hoffert) throughout the whole play. Ed does not know if he is more homosexual than heterosexual and keeps re-entering the life of Arnold.

Arnold finds true love with Alan (Matthew Lowe), a young model, and it looks like they will live happily ever after. However, Arnold's life is not going to be a bed of roses since Alan is killed by a group of teenage gay bashers.  The last act titled "Widows and Children First" brings Arnold face-to-face with parenthood with an adopted son David (Vincent Palo).   The only thing that terrifies Arnold is the approaching visit from his strong-minded Jewish mother (Anne Hallinan).

Tomas Theriot is outstanding as Arnold. The opening scene when he is putting on make-up as a female entertainer is a wonderful bit of solo acting. As the play progresses, we watch Arnold, even with his wise cracks, grow into a strong human being.  Caleb Hoffert's Ed is a sturdy presence trying to determine if he is straight or gay.

Kelly Ground portrays the singer Lady Blues.  She has a pitch perfect voice and gives a poignant reading of "My Funny Valentine" at the end of the production.  Matthew Lowe gives a self-assured performance with a touch of narcissism as the model Alan, while Vincent Palo brings naturalness and impulsiveness to the role of the street-wise adopted son. Amanda Mitchell gives a topnotch performance as the wife of Ed in the second act. Anne Hallinan is perfect as Arnold's mother. The confrontation between mother and son is a tour de force of excellent acting.

Dale Albright has given Torch Song Trilogy an excellent fast-paced production which gains intimacy in the small space of the theatre. Ron 'Gasparinetti's set design is just right, especially the two large bed sets in the second act that serve as a sexual playground for the quartet.

Torch Song Trilogy plays through May 19th at the Dean Lesher Center for Performing Arts, 1600 Civic Street, Walnut Creek.  For tickets online go to

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

- Richard Connema