Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

In Gabriel's Kitchen, Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue and Chinese New Year Spectacular

A Bland Production of In Gabriel's Kitchen

Ana Bayat (back), Alex Kirschner and Juan Carlos De La Rosa
Canadian playwright Salvatore Antonio's In Gabriel's Kitchen is having its first United States premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through February 17th. The show had it world premiere at Bad Time Theatre in Toronto on March 7th, 2006 and it received mixed reviews. Mr. Antonio translated the play into Italian and premiered the two-hour drama at the Teatro Della Limonaia in Florence, Italy last year.

Watching this long, overly melodramatic play, I have a feeling it would be better in Italian.  In fact, the whole production could be an Italian opera without the singing. Once again, we have a play that involves the coming out of gay teenagers; there is nothing new that has not been said before, and this playwright has not been able to reinvent the genre.   Many of these "coming out" plays presented by the New Conservatory Theatre Center have been excellent; however, this one seems to be just utter blandness.

I don't fault the five actors who do what they can to make some of the long, humdrum speeches come alive. The playwright is attempting to make a reinvention of the drama by speech that borders on Greek tragedy. However, Salvatore Antonio is no Euripides. A lot of time is spent just spinning wheels when trying to make the point that the parents just don't like the young boy coming out of the closet. In fact, the play smacks of something we would see in a 1950s play or film where the gay man has a tragic ending.

Eighteen-year-old Gabriel (Juan Carlos de la Rosa) is the dutiful religious son of Sicilian mother Concetta (Ana Bayat) and overly conservative father Paolo (Harry Breaux). The strong Catholic mother sees her good-looking son as a gift from God. She even believes that a truck ran over her son when he was 11 and he survived thanks to God's good graces (actually, he was playing near a moving truck and the vehicle never hit him). Gabriel has a straight brother Marco (Brian Patterson) who is always being yelled at by the father. Clearly, he is not the darling of the family.

Gabriel meets Irish teenager Matt (Alex Kirschner) and it's love at first sight. Matt has had a couple of sexual encounters with a girl but never with a boy.  One day, in Gabriel's unfinished kitchen, the boys have sex for the first time.  Act one ends with the two nude boys starting to make love.

The second act really needs a lot of work. It opens with the two boys still naked, offering drippy dialogue that sounds like something from a '50s Warner Brothers film. If only there were a Max Steiner score in the background, we would have the scene from Now, Voyager. This act is a mask of confusion, with a scene thrown in to represent the happier times of the close knit family talking about someone making two million dollars on tourist trade in Hawaii.  There are long-winded dialectic scenes of soliloquies that need trimming or even cutting out. There are violent confrontations once the family finds out their fair-haired boy is gay.

Juan Carlos De La Rosa (a recent graduate from San Francisco State University with degrees in Theatre and Dance) is appealing as the young Gabriel. However, his last speech dressed in his underwear becomes very tiresome. He looks like Christ on the cross, which is I am sure what the playwright wanted him to look like.

Alex Kirschner (Wilde Boys, Defiance) once again proves to be a good natural actor.  He is convincing with his laid-back style playing the Irish boy, Matt. The scene where the two young nude boys, arms affectionately wrapped together as they talk about setting up a place together, is nicely accomplished. It's just the dialogue does not ring true in today's more liberal world, especially in Canada where the drama takes place.

Brian Patterson (Take Me Out) gives a strong performance as Marco. He acts like a macho Italian construction worker. His soliloquy of finding the Gabriel's body is very good, but it could be toned down somewhat.

Ana Bayat (What's Wrong with Angry?, Mambo Italiano) plays the role of the overwrought Catholic mother like an over-the-top Anna Magnani. Why is she always on top of an over-extended kitchen table? Obviously, it is some sort of symbol that is intended by the playwright which is beyond me.  She does wail a lot, just like some of the women in a Greek tragedy.

Harry Breaux (first time at the NCTC) is efficient as the overbearing Italian papa. His tirade again Gabriel goes way over the top.

Darcy Villere has designed an interesting set of an unfinished basement.  There is a frame with sheet rock hanging out. It is supposed to be an incomplete rec room where the good, old-fashioned Italians will install a second kitchen. In the center is an oversized wooden kitchen table which is sometimes used as a bizarre center stage.  Director Christopher Jenkins does what he can to make the drama interesting, by having the two young lads initially play their roles on a second tier of the stage as if they are outside the house.

In Gabriel's Kitchen plays through February 17 at the Decker Theatre in the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness, San Francisco.  I Am My Own Wife with Andrew Nance in the solo role is currently running in the Walker Theatre.

Photo: Lois Tema

Varla Jean Merman Returns to San Francisco

Varla Jean Merman, who claims to be the love child of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, returns to the Empire Plush Room with her new show Varla Jean Merman Loves a Foreign Tongue. The show premiered in Provincetown last summer to the immediate delight of the gay colony.

The deranged drag performer is the creation of Jeffrey Roberson, who has written this fast-paced, hilarious show with Jacques Lamarre. The show opens with a recording of Doris Day singing "Que Sera, Sera" and the voice of Jeffrey urging everyone in the audience to harmonize.  (The opening night with a standing-room-only crowd of males sang their guts out.) Following the community sing along, Varla suddenly comes out wearing an outlandish, flaming red outfit singing a Spanish salsa song like Charo.  Looking like Carmen Miranda, she is off to a blazing start. Most of the time Varla's speech is like the late Madeline Kahn.

Varla looks at her adoring fans and says, "I'm closing the Empire Plush Room down just like I closed down Rosies [in the Castro district] years ago." She talks about her foreign trips, saying, "I've performed in eleven different countries. I did my show in three of them." She talks about going to Puerto Vallarta in Mexico where there are no Mexicans. The artist does many changes of bizarre clothing in this fast-paced production. Some of the scenes are separated by some loony films of Varla as Nellie Frittata making an omelet that talks back or doing an Angelina Jolie bit by giving a home to an African boy played by a cute African American boy. She is more like Mommie Dearest to the child, who gets even with her in the end. One film that could have been eliminated is called "My Baby Got a Secret for Me" or "The Bomb," showing a Middle Eastern man secretly carrying a bomb along with a group of middle easterners coming to her house for a clandestine meeting.

The mad drag queen is more entertaining doing the live scenes in various wacky costumes. The parody of Andrea Bocelli played by Mark Cortale with Varla playing Sarah Brightman dressed in a flowing white grown singing "Time to Say Goodbye" is hilarious. Varla's take on Josephine Baker in a skirt made of very long bananas singing a Folies Bergere number is side splitting (what she does with one banana is "X" rated). 

Varla talks about her travels in Europe where the American tourist is hated because of the war in Iraq. She says you should say "I'm a Canadian" and then bursts out singing "Oh Canada," wearing a short pair of pants with a maple leaf in the rear. As her encore, Varla does a song to the tune of "Talk to the Animals" with the lyrics changed to "If I could talk to my genitals ..." ("and have lunch with my testicles") that brings down the house.

Varla Jean Merman played the Empire Plush Room through February 4th. For tickets call 415- This was the last main act of the historic Empire Plush in the Hotel York, Sutter St, San Francisco.

Photo: Austin Young

Chinese New Year Spectacular is Truly Spectacular.

The NewTang Television, an independent, non-profit Chinese-language TV broadcast company, recently presented Chinese New Year Spectacular at the Orpheum Theatre for only four days. This state of the art show contains captivating dancers, traditional costumes and mini-dance drama with narratives about Chinese legends and historical characters and events. The impressive production covers 5000 years of Chinese history and tradition in two hours with one intermission.

The production is a vision of loveliness, from the very first moment as the audience sees stylized dancers scurrying about the stage dressed as angels that look as if they are floating over a smoke-filled stage.  There are projected scenes of Chinese landscapes that change; in many scenes, they look almost three-dimensional. Throughout the whole production is a delightful Chinese narrator named Kelly Wen and her American male counterpart Jared Madsen who is bilingual; they introduce each scene depicting Chinese history and legend.

Chinese classical dancers are trained in technical elements such as jumps, turns, tumbling and challenging acrobatic techniques. They have both form and spirit, using the mind and the body, unifying internal and external.

There are many highly structured scenes which include Chinese legends like "Lady of the Moon" with lovely dancers and amazing animated scenes on a large scrim in back of the stage. A charming scene, "The Ladies of the Manchu Court," utilizes tiny steps in raised shoes that the Manchu women wore at the court.  The diverse program also has the robust "Mongolian Bowl Dance" with bowls of "cheese" ever so carefully balanced on the dancers' heads. They look like the Chinese Rockettes in their dance movements. Another Mongolian dance scene is "Chopstick Zest" in which vigorous male dancers perform astounding airborne barrel turns and cartwheels to lively music from the thirty-five member orchestra.  "Water Sleeves" is a charming number with dancers costumed with long blue sleeves flowing, looking like water nymphs.

"Descent of the Celestial Kings" is spectacular with male dancers exchanging greetings with immortal beings on a scrim that looks almost real. Winged horses suddenly appear on the projection and they look as if they will fly across the stage. The first act ends with "Drummers of the Tang Court" which has an overabundance of drums that rock the house.

Chinese New Year Spectacular also makes a political statement in two excellent dramatic scenes on behalf of the Falun Gong or Falun Dafa which is a system of mind and body cultivation that was introduced to the public in China in 1992.  The movement has been banned by the Communist Chinese government and the Chinese government has denounced this production.

One scene shows male dancers in black outfits with the Communist hammer and sickle on their backs, rounding up three women who are practicing Falun Gong, and beating them mercilessly. The other scene is beautifully accomplished with young male and female dancers with graceful arms and Russian classical toe steps challenging the same Communist dancers and this time winning over their oppressors.

Interspersed with the elaborate dance scenes are tenor Hong Ming, baritone Qu Yue and Pi-ju Huang, a soprano with an astonishing range.

Chinese New Year Spectacular has 65 wonderful dancers, acrobats and singers. The are accompanied by a 35-piece orchestra under the direction of Rutang Chen playing a mixture of classical and Chinese music composers Junyi Tan, Xuan Tong and Yu Deng. The melodies run from delicate to dynamic. The costumes are brilliantly colored authentic dress that delights the eye (the costumer is not listed in the program or in the press release).  The projections by Peijong Hsieh and Ying Han are amazingly three dimensional.  In one scene we see Chinese castles and forts on fire that are very lifelike and in another, many Buddha type gods do wonderful hand movements.  They are the best projections I have seen in a very long time. 

Tang Dynasty will be presenting a holiday show in a bid to become more direct competition for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. They have expanded to play 15 performances at Radio City in early February 2008.

Chinese New Year Spectacular played from January 23rd thru 26th at the Orpheum Theatre.

Photo courtesy of NewTang Dynasty TV

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

- Richard Connema

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