Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Hairspray and Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

A Bloody Good Production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore

Gregory Wallace, Stephen Barker Turner and Warren David Keith
American Conservatory Theatre is concluding its season with John Ford's explosive 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, a Jacobean/Carolinian dramatic play that is most lurid. Regional companies in this country and the United Kingdom continuously present plays by William Shakespeare, Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith but few companies offer Ford's 17th century plays.  In fact, the only other production I have seen by this harsh playwright was Duchess of Malfi at the National in London.

Carrie Perloff lucratively stirs up the elaborate sensationalism and deep ethics of this tragedy.  All of the performances are outstanding in this two-hour and 40-minute bloody tragedy.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore is about the incestuous love of Gionvanni (Michael Hayden) for his sister Annabella (Rene Augesen) in emphatically Catholic Parma. When she becomes pregnant by him, she is labeled a whore by her husband Soranzo (Michael Earle Fajardo), whom she has married in order to keep up appearances and under pressure from the Catholic Church. These three are locked in a personal hell of no exit, and a carnivorous battle escalates to a bloody end. (In the 17th century when the play was produced there were no secular laws against incest; it was punished only in ecclesiastical courts.) The complete production has an effect that is hypnotically sensual.

This play has plot twists, soap opera scenes, sword fights and stabbings. There is even a little comedy relief by Gregory Wallace playing the nitwit self-centered Bergetto vying for the hand of Annabella. He rides a lime green scooter when appearing on stage (that has to be poetic license on the part of Carrie Perloff.)

All of the cast are able to address their roles with emotional integrity and conviction. The two lovers are excellent and you have sympathy for their illicit romance. There is some hot sex going on between the sheets which makes it convincing for illegitimate love.

Carey Perloff has assembled a fine large cast. Anthony Fusco gives a convincing, clearly two-faced performance as Soranzo's revengeful servant Vasquez.  Michael Earle Fajardo perfectly portrays the vicious cuckolded nobleman Soranzo. Warren David Keith gives in intriguing performance as Donado, citizen of Parma.  Sharon Lockwood is a delight as tutor to Annabella.

James Carpenter, who looks like a rabbi, gives a first rate performance as Richardetto, a supposed physician. Susan Gibney is superb as the the sluttish Hippolita, wife of Richardetto.  She lights up the stage when she appears as the vindictive wife. Gregory Wallace is a real hoot as the flamboyant, egotistical nephew of Donado. Jack Willis with his brilliant voice is outstanding as a Cardinal, nuncio to the Pope. When the Cardinal decrees that all valuables should be removed from the corpses and put to the Pope's proper use, you hear a genuine cackle coming from Jack Willis. Stephen Anthony Jones's performance stands out as the sepulchral Friar from Bologna who tries to fend off the disaster that is coming.

Jud Williford, Robert Sicular, Stephen Baker Turner, Kelsey Venter, Rod Gnapp, Kevin Rolston and Amanda Sykes all are effective with their roles.

Set Designer Walt Spangler has outdone himself by creating an industrial-baroque cathedral set with high, massive, lighted organ pipes on the right side of the stage. Seated above this is composer/cellist/vocalist Madigan Shive with an electrifying voice singing oscillations of her own composition.  Lighting by Robert Wierzel is spectacular with the organ pipes turning a blood red when a killing is happening. Costumes by Candice Donnelly are authentic 17th century colorful outfits.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore plays through July 6th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.   For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit   A.C.T. opens its next season with the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard Rock 'n' Roll opening in September.

Photo: Kevin Berne  

An Audience Friendly Production of Hairspray

The NETworks non-Equity tour of Hairspray has been traveling the country and finally landed at the Orpheum Theatre, running through June 22nd.

The cast has been cut down from the Equity tour starring Bruce Vilanch that played here several years ago. The sets are scaled down and are now simple flats. The fast-paced production now directed by Matt Lenz is more of an ensemble piece.  Earlier productions starring Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch as Edna Turnblad and Marissa Janet Winokur and Keala Settle as Tracy centered on these two characters.  The current cast is now evenly important.  Choreography by Danny James Austin based on Jerry Mitchell's dances is vigorous and full of life.

The unrelenting, effervescent pop rock score by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman still gets the feet a tapping and hips moving to "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now," "Welcome to the '60s," Big, Blonde & Beautiful" and "You Can't Stop the Beat." The dancers are exhilarating, driving the audience into feverish ovations.

Hairspray takes a little while to get moving but once it finds its way, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan's book gets into the grove. Jerry O'Boyle plays the drag role of Tracy's mom, Edna, differently from Harvey Feinstein and Bruce Vilanch.  He plays the role almost straight; he does not have the flamboyance of Harvey and Bruce.  However, he has a pleasant voice, especially in the big vaudeville-type duet number "Timeless to Me" with good vocal chops by Dan Ferretti as Edna's zany husband Wilbur.

Amy Toporek (Tracy, alternating with Brooklynn Pulver)  does more shaking than dancing, but she certainly can belt out a tune like "Good Morning Baltimore" and "I Can Hear the Bells."  Donnell James Foreman is fantastic as Seaweed J. Stubbs in both the vocal and dancing parts. Sharon Malane is a standout as Penny Pingleton, Tracy's airhead best friend.

San Jose native Marsena Eunice Bowers gives a terrific performance as Inez. Her powerful voice and dance moves are marvelous.  Angela Birchett as Motormouth has a commanding voice in "I Know Where I've Been."  Jacqueline Grabois as Velma Von Tussle and Katie Donohue as her daughter Amber are effective as the "villains" of the musical. Taylor Fey plays the role of Link Larkin with zeal and attractiveness. Director Matt Lenz keeps the musical moving rapidly with only a few dull moments in the first several scenes.

Hairspray played through June 22nd at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. San Francisco.  Also presented by Best of Broadway are are Tuna Does Vegas, at the Curran through June 28, A Chorus Line at the Curran beginning July 8 and running through July 27 and The Drowsy Chaperone opening July 22nd and running through August 17 at the Orpheum. 

A Wild and Wonderful Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage

Chris Kuckenbaker and Jessica Jelliffe
Shotgun Players collaborating with Banana Bag and Bodice, a bi-coastal (New York/San Francisco) ensemble theatre company, recently presented Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage on the Ashby Stage. This is a rowdy musical about blemished heroes, compassionate monsters and puffed-up professors who collide in one of the most perverse stories with literary history.   The musical is part homage and part parody with a superb cast of musicians, singers and actors in a fast-paced, one-hour and fifty minutes that rocks the audience.

Beowulf opens with three scholarly academics (Cameron Galloway, Jessica Jelliffe and Christopher Kuckenbaker) who tell the audience about the great Nordic hero Beowulf.  They sit at a long table with three mikes overhead. They say to the audience, "We would like to invite you to our lecture of Beowulf," and talk in an erudite manner as if we are students in college. Behind them is a seven-piece orchestra of brass, bass, drums, sax and keyboard ready to rock. Dave Mally's music is gripping and you get a combination of early Kurt Weill and Weimar cabaret plus a little klezmer music. There are echoes of country and blues plus music of the rock group Queen. This is a fantastic score that should satisfy any current music fan.

Suddenly the "Herorot" band strikes up a 1920s German thumping beat that is infectious. The three academics start to repeat themselves, saying "Who Is Beowulf" and lines like "for those of you who didn't know, Beowulf was a Swede." Christopher Kuckenbaker suddenly disappears and jumps on the stage as Grendel the monster.   He is an injudicious youngster whose accent fluctuates from a punk kid to a silly bumpkin. Dave Malloy appears, howling about the tattered proud King Hrothgar who soldiers have been dying to see fill the monster's stomach.

The "Herorot" band backs up the singers with jazzy-feel melodies and Jason Craig's lyrics on most of the songs ("Welcome to our Mead Hall Herorot/Pull up a broken chair, pull up a broken chair/Our heads and hearts are broken too/Splattered in Disrepair" repeated several times.) There is a lot of repeating of the lyrics as the band keeps repeating "horses and swords" or "yours or mine"; Grendel's mother even uses the "f" word quite a lot in a song when confronted by Beowulf.

Each of the staid and studious lecturers takes a turn on the stage playing their part. Jessica Jelliffe is outstanding as Grendel's mother. She is perfect for the part.  Cameron Galloway, with her mousy grandma persona, is fantastic singing an original Beowulf poem about a dragon, sung in Old English. It's an amazing performance.

Jason Craig is tremendous as the gloomy, self-centered Beowulf, roaring his feats of battle against Grendel and his mother.  His battles are brilliantly staged with Anna Ishida and Shaye Troha in tattered medieval costumes, exuberant in their dance moves.

Rod Hipskind has directed a wonderful, zany version of this Nordic classic that can be enjoyed by audiences who are into rock opera as well as those who are not.  The music is one of the most inventive scores I have heard in a long time.

Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage played at the Shotgun Theatre through June 22nd.  The show is moving to New York in April, playing at the Henry Street Settlement House theatre.  Hopefully, it will catch on and move to an Off-Broadway location.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli

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

- Richard Connema

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