Quick Theatre Catch-up: ‘Birthday Party’ at ACT, ‘Beautiful Oops!’ by BACT, and ‘A Fatal Step’ at The Marsh

“So, I’m back up in the game (hustling sound)/
Running things to keep my swing (whole night long)/
Letting all the people know/
That I’m back to run the show”

– Mark Morrison, “Return of the Mack”, Return of the Mack

On the off chance that someone stumbles upon this here website today (because what I lack in regular readers, I make up for SEO skillfulness) and wonders why there’s such a gap between my last review and this bunch of reviews: quite simply, I been sick. Real sick. Nothing life-threatening, but nasty cold sent me into bed-ridden shivers.

As such, I’ve been tardy on writing up some of the shows I’ve seen – which is really bad when you consider that I went to the opening night for several of them. But when you’re too ill to even type things down, your focus tends to be one recovery rather than, well, everything else.

So, here are some quick thoughts on shows I saw just before I got sick. Can you guess which is the one where I lost my expensive umbrella and had to deal with some of the worst customer service imaginable? (SPOILER: It was the ACT. Their Lost-and-Found “service” is inexcusably bad.)


So many Velma Dinkley jokes to make…

Say what you will about Carey Perloff’s ACT tenure (and I have – in fact, some folks will never let me forget it), her shows will usually get people talking. Not necessarily for positive reasons, but people will talk.

Fortunately, this one is likely to be for good reasons. Taking one of Pinter’s more frustrating works (which is saying something, I know) and putting on in modern day is a bold step. I still don’t like this particular play any more than I did before, but Perloff pulls off a well-acted and competently-staged production here. She makes fine use of Nina Ball’s “cut open” house set, and the cast all play their characters on just the right irritating notes.

Though none of the play’s infamous unanswered questions go answered here, the production shows a comfort with the material and a set design that takes the fly on the wall cliché and runs with it.

GRADE:                B-

The Birthday Party is scheduled to run until the 4th of February at the ACT’s Geary Theatre.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours, including one 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.


I’ve written many times before that the average layman has a great many misconceptions about the artistic process. The only thing more frustrating than how they hold on to those misconceptions is the fact that said misconceptions were created – and continue to be propagated – by artists themselves. One such misconception is the “first time, perfect” cliché: the idea that a great artist doesn’t need to go through multiple drafts of a work; rather the first attempt will yield something so perfect that it will last the ages.

Barney Saltzberg doesn’t believe that at all. His book Beautiful Oops! is the basis of the latest Bay Area Children’s Theatre production, which encourages both its characters and we the audience to embrace the beauty of making mistakes. It’s anthropomorphic animal cast – a bunny, a pig, an elephant, a penguin, and an alligator – have gathered in the theatre today to put on a play… only they don’t have a script. Or a set. Or anything one needs to put on a play. But rather than call it a day, they’re going to put on a show using nothing more than what they’ve got on hand.

As adapted by playwright/composer Austin Zumbro, the play has a lot of heart going for it. When Penguin tries to make a gift for her mother, but it doesn’t come out the way she wants it, it lingers in a biting way all-too-familiar to anyone who’s ever put their heart into something that was less than a masterpiece. Similarly, the ecstatic high points hold one’s attention without overstaying their welcome (don’t be surprised if your kids spend the rest of the day singing about a pig in a car).

Despite the fact that the characters don’t have a proper set, the production does. As designed by Simon Trumble, the set proves surprisingly adaptable to the destruction its characters cause it. It seems like a child’s idea of an adult’s artistic loft. A few lowered projection screens give animated interviews with kids who talk about making art. Joan Howard’s props include a collection of materials put in the hands of the audience. Upon entering, we’re given crayons, a blank white sticker, a mini electric candle, and even the outside of the program. I couldn’t begin to tell you how these items fit into the story here.

It’s usually easy to know what a child likes, but it’s harder to figure out what they love to do. Too many of us have witnessed would-be artistic talents squandered by parents who just want to make a quick buck off their offspring. Beautiful Oops! is a story about keeping the power in the hand of the artist (though not in an Ayn Randian way) and treating mistakes as just a starting point for the next stage of your work. It’s the sort of lesson I wish I’d learned at a young age.

GRADE:                A

Beautiful Oops! Is scheduled to run until the 4th of March at various venues around the Bay Area.
The show runs roughly one hour with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

Jill Vice - A Fatal Step - poster

“A foot”? Oh! Now I get it!

Given the varying quality of shows I see at The Marsh – whether SF or Berkeley – it’s tempting to say that seeing one their shows is akin to rolling the dice. In fact, it’s more akin to playing Russian Roulette: you’re either thanking your lucky stars or taking a split-second to ponder the moments of your life you’ll never get back again. And I have seen some real shit. Thankfully, this show falls on the opposite end of that spectrum.

Jill Vice actually seems tailor-made to embody a Noir-era femme fatale. Though small of stature, the curvy, fair-skinned brunette seems as if she’d been created from monochromatic film stock. The form-fitting primary-red dress she dons throughout the show makes her seem like an illustration Patrick Nagel would have created if he loved the 1940s. As a performer, the movement coach has fun embodying the stock character cast she’s created. Though most of the male characters have similar voices, she does well mimicking the broad shoulders and wide-legged stance you’d expect from a Robert Mitchum-type. She’s much better with both the voices and physicalities of the female characters. The range from the vampy Sarah to the mousey Hope to the old-world European septuagenarian mother of Sarah’s live-in boyfriend.

And then there’s the script. Though it loses some steam during the latter-half of the middle, Vice has a great deal of fun awkwardly injecting contemporary vernacular and technology into the anachronistic setting of mid-century San Francisco. I don’t care how well-versed one is in film noir as a genre, suddenly hearing someone say “YOLO” will make you chuckle. And the fact that she uses such a rigid genre to explore the way society pits women against one another is the play’s most inspired turn.

Though not all the characterisations hit and the story takes a lull, Vice’s noir comedy about millennials is an entertaining exercise in intentional anachronism. With hilarious back wall projections and a great use of the score from Vertigo, it’s a show made for San Francisco, which has proudly earned the right to call itself “Noir City”.

GRADE:                B+

A Fatal Step is scheduled to run until the 3rd of March at the San Francisco theatre of The Marsh.
The show runs roughly 60-70 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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