Monday, April 12, 2010

"Vigil" a hilarious, touching romp

Who'd a thunk waiting for your auntie to kick the bucket could be so funny? The American Conservatory Theater production of Vigil, written and directed by Morris Panych, is a riot from start to almost finish, with a touching, teary ending.

Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli
star in
Vigil at American Conservatory
Theater in San Francisco. We were sitting
about this close. Photo by Kevin Berne.
My Sweetie, the official scorer, scored us front-row seats for the show at San Francisco's marvelous Geary Theater, so we ended up about five feet away from Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli, both of whom turned in marvelous performances in this gut-busting script.

Barricelli is Kemp, and Dukakis is Grace, his dying aunt who has summoned him to take care of her, though they've not seen each other in some 30 years. The dying takes a lot longer than expected. Over the course of a year Kemp gets to utter out loud all of the tactless, horrible things that people in these sorts of situations are thinking. "Let's not talk about anything depressing, alright?... Do you want to be cremated?" Grace, on the other hand, utters next to nothing; Dukakis has just one line -- "Merry Christmas" -- in the entire first act, but says more with body language, gestures, and facial expressions than a lot of guys who have played Hamlet. Grace has maybe a dozen lines in the whole show. It's hard to get a word in edgewise with Kemp's constant ranting about his horrible childhood and impatience that his aunt get with it and croak, already.

At one point Kemp builds a "suicide machine," a classic Rube Goldberg device that Grace can use if she wants to, that gives several good options for ending it all, including a bonk on the head with a cast-iron frying pan. You knew Kemp would be hoist with his own petard, but it's still a hoot when it happens. The other big punch line of the script perhaps should have been seen coming down Geary Street, but surprised us. We won't give it away!

Dukakis, of course, is well known. Barricelli perhaps not so much, though he's artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and spent eight seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We were fortunate to see him there in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac in 2006. That predates the Weisenheimer blog, but it was our favorite production of that season in Ashland. He's just amazing as Kemp, a total lout of a character with minimal social skills. What a virtuoso performance.

Grace's house is a jumbled, attic-like collection of junk and crazy, off-kilter windows and doors. The set and costumes were designed by Ken MacDonald, partner with writer/director Panych in life as well as in 50-plus shows.

Our one quibble is with the intermission. We know, theater companies need to bring a little revenue in with refreshments, but sometimes they sacrifice the art to get there. Vigil ran about two hours with an intermission. It could easily have been done in 90 or 100 minutes and kept its momentum going. We may have some posts devoted to intermissions in the coming weeks and months.

If you're in the Bay Area this show is a must-see! It runs through April 18.

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