Category Archives: Comedy

Shakespeare in the Park: Merry Wives

The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering.  This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods.  For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem.  There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer.   After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story.  Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle.  He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both.  Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves.  Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne.  She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man.  But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.  

Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Ford in Merry Wives

Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble.  Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff.  His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier.  There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives.  Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator.  Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears.   Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.

Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls.  Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy.  Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds.  The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt  include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.

The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment.  While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced.  A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed.  The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.  

The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness.  It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation.  In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park.  Performances have been extended through September 20.  Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.

The Song of the Summer – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is colliding with fame rather than experiencing a gentle brush with it.  Similar to Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines,” Robbie’s catchy “Bad Decision” (written in our world by Max Vernon and Helen Park) is a hit that is being met with charges of plagiarism and backlash for what some perceive as “rapey” lyrics.  Unlike Thicke, who brashly defended himself (and was ultimately fined millions of dollars and served with divorce papers), Robbie internalizes every boo from the audience.  In deep need of a mental break, he has ditched his upbeat manager, Joe (Reggie D. White), and taken a multi-motivated cab ride to his hometown of Pottsville.  His return engagement begins with his devoted music teacher, Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh), who shares headlines from the nearly 12 years since he moved to the west coast.  He is her success story and she serves as a surprisingly insightful mother figure.  She also has an adopted daughter, Tina (Monica Ho), who was once Robbie’s best friend with ambitious dreams of her own.  But Joe has visions of sold-out tours and five album deals and won’t leave his star act alone with his memories for long.

Lauren Yee’s The Song of the Summer —a romantic comedy with music — is certainly lighter than her breakthrough Cambodian Rock Band and might better fit this moment when audience members are trepidatiously returning to theaters.  Robbie and Tina have the lively chemistry of many odd couples. Robbie’s meandering decision-making is sheathed in luck while Tina’s more directed path has taken many unplanned hairpin turns.  Kahn in particular is a believably awkward and loving teen in flashbacks.  But though the playwright reveals the roots of Robbie’s self criticism and esteem issues, she only gives us the briefest whiff of his potential to climb out of the pit and blossom.  It’s a frustratingly thin resolution to Robbie’s genuine problems and our mostly enjoyable 90 minutes with him.

Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh*) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn*) © Jessica Palopoli

Director Bill English employs his usual skill in developing all of the relationships.  Quieter connections are never overshadowed with comedic business.  His scenic design is equally artful in bringing small-town warmth and eccentricity to the visuals.  Mrs. C’s worn, skirted furniture fits her as well as her housecoat by costume designer Stephanie Dittbern.  And one can practically smell the beer and cigarettes in the tacky karaoke bar.  Projections by Teddy Hulsker slowly snap into place, filling out the setting.  The exception is a distracting and seemingly unnecessary hobo bag that constrains Tina’s movement in the critical final scenes.  

San Francisco Playhouse is thoughtfully offering this work On Demand as well as a live performance.  However, after serving up several beautifully filmed productions, this is delivered as a back-of-the-house live stream.  Whatever benefit is gained from the sense of immediacy is greatly offset by jerky camera work and flawed audio that loses many of Ms. Ho’s more intimate lines.   

The Song of the Summer is a good natured if slight diversion.  In-person performances at 450 Post Street in San Francisco have reduced audience capacity and safety protocols in place. The on-demand video stream will be available throughout the run which ends on August 14, 2021.  Tickets for either version begin at $15 and can be purchased at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-song-of-summer/.

Judgment Day – Streaming on Demand

From the opening phone call (an old narrative device cleverly employed), you know what drives ambitious lawyer Sammy Campo in Rob Ulin’s hilarious modern comedy, Judgment Day.  Samuel is greedy beyond compare, defies the law he practices, and reframes every narrative to make himself look like a hero.  He is also about to die.  On the way to his hellish unrest, he is confronted by his former Sunday school teacher.  Now an angel, she gleefully delivers the bad news of damnation to this once naughty boy turned worse adult.  Recognizing that she has badly bent the rules by approaching him before he’s quite breathed his last, the silver tongued devil talks his way into a second chance at life in order to rack up the points he needs to be sent to heaven instead.  

Returned to earth, Sammy sets out to do good without actually BEING good.  It’s a warped journey gleefully interpreted by Jason Alexander, an unsurpassable master of the rant.  To fulfill his plan, he enlists the help of a Catholic Priest portrayed with doubt and discomfort-tinged charm by Santino Fontana.  Casting Director Patricia McCorkle deserves her own standing ovation for filling the entire ensemble with such remarkable foils for Alexander.  All bring out the best in Ulin’s well constructed banter under the practiced direction of TV vet Matthew Penn.  These also include Justina Machado as Sammy’s wife Tracy, by turns vulnerable and fury-driven, and great find Julian Emile Lerner as his edgy mini-me son, Casper.  The always assured Loretta Devine leverages her knowing stare and purring voice as assistant Della and Patti LuPone is clearly having a blast as the long dead Sister Margaret. In smaller supporting roles, Michael McKean (Monsignor), Josh Johnston (Doctor), Bianca LaVerne Jones (Principal), Michael Mastro (Jackson) and Elizabeth Stanley (Chandra) make the most of their interactions while the indispensable Carol Mansell almost steals the show as Edna, the slightly slow widow who becomes one of Sammy’s clients.

The script is a brilliant choice for web-based entertainment.  Ulin — writer/producer for Ramy, Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne among other brainy comedic hits — has a remarkable way with language and wordplay.  This allows Penn to avoid the common pitfalls of Zoom from effects to false movement.  Scene-setting black and white drawings dissolve to the actors in front of solid white backgrounds.  Characters’ spacial relationships are established with the use of the stunningly well-timed handoffs of props.  Original music by Jordan Plotner supports the naughty tone of the work.

The pandemic has brought forth many a profound production exploring the freshly exposed rips in our social fabric.  While Judgment Day may make you contemplate what constitutes goodness, it’s most valuable contribution to this moment is undoubtably to make you laugh.  A lot.  (Thank god?)   This encore presentation in support of Barrington Stages is available to stream on Stellar (https://www.stellartickets.com/o/barrington-stage/events/judgment-day.) from July 26-August 1.  Runtime is a breezy 83 minutes. Tickets are only $11.99.  Advance purchase using the code “EARLY” and receive a $4 discount.