Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Taking Over, Third and The Cocktail Hour and Dead Mother or Shirley Not All in Vain

An Energetic Danny Hoch in Taking Over

Danny Hoch
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the electrifying Danny Hoch in a fast-paced one-hour and 40-minute show called Taking Over. This world premiere production is the artist's first solo show in ten years. In Taking Over, two-time Obie winner Danny Hoch takes on nine roles, disappearing into each real-life character. His timing is flawless.

Danny is a one-man tour de force skillfully depicting a Brooklyn neighborhood in transition with humorous and empathetic results. The actor enters the theatre to the sound of a salsa beat. He is Robert, a loathsome Polish-Puerto Rican who is intoxicated and trying to take over a community street celebration. His accent is a lot like that of John Leguizamo. He rages against the new neighborhood, even though he was a racist during the days of old district. His fuming cry of protest about the Williamsburg neighborhood's gentrification is exhilarating. The angry young man sees his neighborhood, once a melting pot of ethnic persons, now being crushed as yuppies move into the area in renovated apartment buildings with views of Manhattan. ("We had asked for schools but they give us muffins.") Where there were families living side by side, the buildings are being renovated by greedy developers and sold at outrageous prices to artists and wealthy persons mostly from out of state.

Danny quickly changes into a smooth-talking French real estate agent selling the apartments at very high condo prices. His schtick is the wonderful view of Manhattan and "how the resident can show their guests where the twin towers were before 9/11." His French accent is perfect. Immediately following, he portrays Marion, an older, laidback African-American social worker sitting on her stoop talking about the amazing change of a neighborhood full of crack heads to the "new resident tourist." She says Williamsburg is no longer distinctive since it is more like the South Bronx, now called "SoBro." Marion is touching talking about all of the trendy cafes in the area that are unaffordable to such low middle income persons like her.

Next is the tragic figure of Kiko, an ex-con who learned how to cut carpet in prison. However, he can't get a job in the outside world and begs to for work from a production assistant working on an independent film in the area. Kiko's accent is a mixture of Rocky Balboa and Robert de Nero in Taxi Driver. At one point, he becomes angry at the assistant and displays a frightening figure on the stage. The actor takes an immediate swing into the character of Stuart, a very rich, rapacious developer practicing yoga poses while giving an interview to a Berkeley newspaper. The character is an extremely self-centered individual who considers himself a humanitarian.

The artist's portrayal of a Dominican taxi dispatcher is hilarious. He talks to his cab drivers in Spanish, ridiculing the Puerto Rican and Mexican cab drivers. In the background there are super-titles in English flashed on the wall. However, this bit goes on a mite too long and one gets tired of all of the insults being said against the drivers. He next turns female, inhabiting a delicate street vendor from Michigan named Kaitlin. She is a delightful character and most certainly the direct opposite of Robert. Danny also plays a radical African-American street rapper named Launch Missiles Critical. His speech, full of four letter words, is about how he and his clan are out to change society by violent means. The rapper tells the audience that the clan is moving to Canada where they allow legal gay marriages ("some of my 'brothers' are gay"), free health plans and cheaper rent. At the end of the program Danny is his own self, telling the audience that he has been traveling all over the United States telling New York stories since he can't make a living in New York.

Director Tony Taccone has staged the show with a versatile brick wall set with doors to apartments on each side and a garage door in the center that opens up to a studio apartment. The set and costume design are by Annie Smart. There are video projections by Alexander V. Nichols that capture each scene while beguiling urban music by Asa Taccone gives a metropolitan feel to the production. The whole look has an intense feeling.

Danny Hoch's Taking Over plays through February 24th at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Trust Stage, 2025 Addison Street at Shattuck in Downtown Berkeley. For tickets, call 510-647-2949 or toll free at 888-4-BRT-Tix or visit Their next production will be Wishful Drinking, written and performed by Carrie Fisher. It opens on February 8th At the Roda Theatre.

Photo: Kevin Berne

A Flawless Cast in Wendy Wasserstein's Third

Elizabeth Norment and Craig Marker
TheatreWorks is presenting Wendy Wasserstein's final play, Third, through February 10th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. This is the late distinguished playwright's best and wisest play in years. It had its premiere at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in the fall of 2005 with mixed reviews. Ms. Wasserstein, who was ill at the time, was able to focus on presenting an illuminating drama. Unfortunately, she died four months before the opening.

Third is a thematically rich, expressively satisfying play and a philosophical finale to Wendy Wasserstein's luminous career. The dialogue in this two-act play is brilliant, intelligent and emotionally revealing. Kirsten Brandt has assembled a perfect cast to extract enriching depths of humor, perception and poignancy in this story of a woman whose self-worth is questioned as she enters the third part of her life.

Third takes place in a prominent East Coast liberal arts college in late 2002 when the Bush administration launches an invasion of Iraq. The college is known for its radical thought and progressive activism. Laurie (Elizabeth Norment), a stridently feminist English professor, is a pioneer in feminist dogma. In her opening scene, she addresses her students (in this case the audience): "I want you to speak up, don't be afraid to contradict me or challenge the norms of the dominant culture." She talks about Shakespeare's King Lear and firmly believes that Goneril and Regan were right, that King Lear was "old, foolish and narcissistic" and Cordelia was a "masochistic simp." She is also angry about the invasion of Iraq and the "dangerously regressive climate."

Laurie's body is changing and she is experiencing hot flashes. Her father (Gerald Hiken) is on the way out with Alzheimer's, her best friend Nancy (Amy Resnick) is fighting breast cancer, and daughter Emily (Emilie Miller) is dropping out of Swarthmore to live with a bank teller who is a college dropout.

The title refers to the nickname of Woodson Bull III (Craig Marker), a student in Laurie's English class. He is a preppy who went to the exclusive boarding school Groton. His father and grandfather had attended the college when it was for men only. He is on the college wrestling team, and he might even be - horrors! - a Republican. Laurie calls him "a walking red state." The jock is surrounded by students who are very liberal and some are coming out of the closet. He is considered a "retro heterosexual." His socioeconomic profiling is becoming an obsession with her.

Laurie asks her students to submit an analysis of King Lear. Third turns in a paper that appears to be the work of an advanced scholar. She thinks that Third could not have written this complicated piece, worthy of being a published thesis on King Lear. Third vehemently denies that he copied any work, but Professor Laurie accuses him of plagiarism and puts the matter before the college's Committee of Academic Standards. The committee, including Laurie's best friend Nancy, finds him innocent. As a result, Laurie loses her best friend.

Third's journey is a shattering of his innocence and momentary lapses into anger, resentment and cynicism before he finally leaves the college to go to Ohio State where he will blend more with the students.

Elizabeth Norment (New York Dead City, world premiere of The Clean House at Yale Repertory Theatre) is compelling as Professor Laurie. She gives the character warmth and a sharp intelligence that makes her susceptibility, aggravation and eventual awe-inspiring self-realization all the more heartrending. She gives a stunning demonstration of a breakdown while discussing Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice when becoming distracted by a date she had years ago with her husband.

Craig Marker (Theophilus North, Brooklyn Boy, Dolly West's Kitchen, Shakespeare in Hollywood) gives an outstanding performance as Woodson Bull III. In his most exceptional scene, he confronts his close-minded, liberal fellow students during an open-microphone session in the school dinning hall (this is the playwright throwing rocks at know-it-all liberals). Marker wisely avoids making the character overly arrogant or macho. There is a very illuminating scene when Third is working at a local pub and he meets Emily, played by Emilie Miller (former member of The Road Theatre Company in Los Angeles where she was nominated for two Ovation awards), who does not tell him she is Professor Laurie's daughter. It's an engaging performance. Ms. Miller plays Emily as a smart and likeable character.

Amy Resnick (Brooklyn Boy, Pride's Crossing, Orson's Shadow, 3 Seconds in the Key) gives a first rate performance. However, her character is not fleshed out by the playwright and she only appears in a few scenes. She makes the most of the scenes of a person fighting cancer.

Gerald Hiken (Shakespeare in Hollywood) shines movingly as Laurie's father, who is deteriorating into Alzheimer's. His scene in the second act is wonderfully poignant when the man does not recognize his own daughter. The scene ends with a touching dance between father and daughter.

J.B. Wilson's set is somewhat overpowering, with large panelled walls that slide back and forth and up and down to reveal an outside scene with branches of colorful leaves which change with each season until we see stark branches in the dead of winter. Lighting by David Lee Cuthbert is a great asset to the changing of seasons. Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers uses some fascinating music for his between-scene score. Director Kristen Brandt has brought smart timing to Wendy Wasserstein's clever dialogue.

Third plays through February 10th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street at Mercy, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit Their next production will be Kathleen Clark's Southern Comforts at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto, opening on March 8th

Photo: David Allen

A Wild and Wacky Production of Dead Mother or Shirley Not All in Vain

Louis Parnell, Gabe Marin, Deb Fink and Liam Vincent
Just hearing the title of David Greenspan's wild and woolly Dead Mother or Shirley Not All in Vain, you know you are not going to witness a tragedy or a heavy drama. This is the most unrestrained farce that has ever graced the stage of the Traveling Jewish Theatre. Tom Kelly has assembled some of the best actors of farce for this two-hour thirty-minute madcap comedy with rapid-fire dialogue. Words just fly out of the actors' mouths in a way that even Tom Stoppard could not match. The dynamics of the performers certainly provide a great asset to the radical restructure of the farce.

Playwright David Greenspan presented this parody at the New York Public Theatre in January of 1991. It was not performed again until Tom Kelly and the Traveling Jewish Theatre decided to present it. Director Tom Kelly had wanted to produce and direct this play for fifteen years and he was waiting for the right team of collaborators to co-produce the fast-paced farce. He has found the right actors in this production.

Dead Mother does have a plot line. Shirley (not seen in the play) has died, leaving two sons, Harold (Liam Vincent) and Daniel (Gabriel Marin), and husband Melvin (Louis Parnell). Daniel want his brother to impersonate the mother since he has promised his fiancée Maxine (Deb Fink) that she will meet the her (apparently they can't marry until she sees the mother). Harold assumes the character of the dead mother, resulting in a gender-bending farce that tackles questions of identity, religion, sex, politics and ethnicity. He even manages to fool the husband as a "ghost" of the wife on earth for just 24 hours. What happens during the two-hour romp is a bad marriage, bad acting (however, in this case it is hilarious), a Greek drama that would make Euripides blush, and a take-off on Don Juan In Hell with four men sitting on stools.

The Greek mythology scene is just too much. Each character wears a costume left over from Medea and the males display little phallic items on the fronts of their togas. Randy Paris, played by Gabriel Marin, has a phallic symbol that probably will be talked about by members of the audience after the play ends. Deb Fink takes on Hera and Athena and is a real hoot.

The second act opens with four men sitting on stools with a lectern in front of them, reading a chamber play in which Alice B. Toklas, played by Liam Vincent, attacks the doubtful theories of M. Scott Peck and William Shockley. They lecture on the resemblance and dissimilarity of the history of the Jews and the history of gays. We even hear words from the New Testament and a woman in a sperm whale costume comes out to spout words that mean absolutely nothing.

The cast of this comedy is superb. Liam Vincent (Marin Shakespeare Festival, California Shakespeare Festival) is brilliant in both comic and poignant performances as Harold. He wonderfully plays both Harold and Shirley, especially in a spoken battle with himself in the first act. It's a tour de force of dramatic acting as each side of his persona confronts the other. His Shirley side keeps calling him "a disgraceful faggot." Wearing a string of pearls on a basic black male outfit and occasionally stuffing his mouth with pastries, he disappears into the mother's personality with an insane fervor. He has the right inflection of a Jewish mother. His confrontation as the "ghost" of Shirley with her husband, played exceedingly well by Louis Parnell, is an incredible scene of fine acting by both actors.

Deb Fink (ensemble member of Central Works Company) gives an outstanding performance as Maxine. She gives a wonderful prologue to the comedy by coming stage forward to address the audience about an astoundingly elaborate invitation to see the show. She complains about being a subscription member of the theatre and feels left out since the company is producing too many plays about gay people. She is "happy" that this play contains a heterosexual person. Her soliloquy about everything that happens to her is fantastic. It is a rambling of rapid paced words that means absolutely nothing. At the end, one of the characters says, "I don't follow," and most of the audience does not follow.

Corey Fisher (associate artistic director of the company), as an old man in a wheelchair who barely speaks, gives an outstanding soliloquy as the characters leave the stage. For seven minutes he spellbindingly talks about oral hygiene, flossing of the teeth, oxygen, micro-organisms and even the end of the world. He does a great middle-European Jewish accent.

Dena Martinez (Gibraltar at San Jose Stage) as Harold's wife Sylvia is splendid doing a comic-erotic dream monologue at the beginning of the play. She also gives the epilogue at the end. Unfortunately, the director has put her to the rear of the large stage to tie things up, and it is hard to hear her words that far back from the audience.

Louis Parnell (Death of a Salesman, Man of La Mancha) gives a sterling performance as Melvin the husband of Shirley. He is exceptional in his confrontation with the "ghost" of Shirley in the second act.

Dead Mother or Shirley Not All in Vain plays through February 17th at the Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 800-838-3006 on visit for more information.

Photo: Ken Friedman

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

- Richard Connema

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