Theatre Is Alive And Well In San Francisco

San Francisco Reviews by Willard Manus

There are beaucoup reasons why San Francisco has been named #1 city for 16 consecutive years by the readers of Conde Nast's Traveler Magazine. San Francisco is still as beautiful as ever, the vast mass transit system with its cablecars, trolleys, busses and subways works smoothly, there are oodles of fine hotels and motels, endless places to nosh and sip while listening to blues and jazz. The city has also added to its existing list of major tourist attractions (deYoung Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Fisherman's Wharf, etc.) by refurbishing the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It's now the only place in the world with an aquarium, a planetarium and a natural history museum all under one roof--a long roof covered with over a million plants.

San Francisco can also be proud of its thriving theatre scene. A total of twenty-six productions were running when I made a recent visit to the city; they ranged from Broadway-type musicals (Grease, Wicked) to off-the-wall experiments (Act a Lady, a "cross-dressing comedy"). The plays I attended all turned out to be winners;

not only that, I had the good fortune to stay in the Kensington Park Hotel (450 Post St.), which sat smack dab in the middle of the main theatre/shopping district (right off Union Square).

The hotel itself had a fascinating history. Built in 1923 as a lodge for the S.F. Elks Club, it had a gym, swimming pool, meeting rooms and an auditorium which was turned into a theatre in 1984 when the Personality Hotel chain took over most of the building (the Elks still occupy the first five floors). Playing in the second-floor Post Theatre was BURN THE FLOOR.

The two-hour show is aptly titled. Sixteen ballroom dancers, split between men and women, make fire with their feet as they interpret in virtuousic, redhot fashion such dances as the foxtrot, Lindy hop, samba, salsa, Quickstep, Paso Doble and tango. Each of the dancers is a worldclass performer, having won more than a hundred dance titles between them. Decked out in an array of dazzling costumes, backed up by taped orchestral music, two live percussionists and two vocalists, the dancers take turns on stage, sometimes dancing in twos and fours, other times as a company. Just about every emotion is conveyed by these extraordinary performers--sex, love, romance, anger, joy, all flavored with dollops of Latin spice. The action is swift, nonstop and thrilling, which explains why the show has been playing to packed houses for most of this year.

The American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary St., was offering the world premiere of WAR MUSIC, a play adapted and directed by Lillian Groag, who has taken Christopher Logue's contemporary translation of The Iliad and turned it into a theatrical work of epic proportions. The focus is the Trojan War, the clash at Troy between the Greeks and Anatolians, who were led, respectively, by Achilles and his archrival, Agamemmnon. Their bloody, brutal battle over Helen (the most beautiful woman in the world) also had its roots in gold, territory and power. It laid waste to the city of Troy, widowed thousands of women, spilled the blood of thousands of young men.

WAR MUSIC encapsulates the huge canvas of The Iliad and, with the help of its highly-skilled cast (thirteen actors in modern dress playing multiple roles), manages to make an important and moving anti-war statement.

THE STORY, at the SF Playhouse (588 Sutter St.), was the West Coast premiere of Tracey Scott Wilson's complex but engrossing drama about a young African-American newspaper reporter battling behind-the-scenes racism, chauvinism and politics on a bigcity daily. The battle heats up when she writes a story about a young (Black) gang member who claims to have killed a white schoolteacher, only to have the mentally unstable girl change her tune. The reporter refuses to let go of the story though, not only because she still thinks it's credible but because it's her ticket to ride.

A gifted nine-person cast (led by Ryan Nicole Peters) and snappy direction by Margo Hall combined to make THE STORY resonate far longer than its 1 1/2hr running time.