Arts & Events

Reviews: The Residents' Randy Rose at the Marsh; 'The Internationalist': Just Theater at Ashby Stage

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday November 09, 2011 - 12:08:00 PM

—An old bum in a trench coat and hat, a spray of white hair under the brim, steers his walker—smiley-face helium balloon floating above—through the audience towards the stage at The Marsh, Berkeley ... With the grudging help of a deadpan pianist, the arriviste starts to talk, then sing, croon, put on a show—a kind of manic geriatric cabaret, but not the type you see indoors, at least not on a stage; maybe in the mirror of a furnished room ... 

It's Randy Rose, lead singer for The Residents, the SF band shrouded in mystery over the past few decades, performing in clubs, museums, auditoriums where the audience can't see their faces. The Residents are presenting this show Randy wrote and performs, 'Sam's Enchanted Evening, A Dark & Dreamy Song Cycle'—a kind of homage to or impersonation of his old friend Sam, who's seen much better days, as well as worse—and tells us about them—as he in turn impersonates, does homage to the music he grew up, went to college and to war on, from Bo Diddley through Sinatra to the Rolling Stones, with plenty of everything else in between thrown in, blues to pop, lounge, protofunk, and back to rock. 

Jim Cave has directed Randy with contrapuntal sensitivity, bringing a completeness to Sam's meandering story of his life and transient loves—his one true love perhaps his Pontiac—as he grows up privileged and white in the South, hangs out listening to the blues and R&B, flunks out and takes it on the chin, sent to Vietnam. At first something of a lark, Southeast Asia goes black with his tale of once again being singled out, becoming a kind of Ishmael ... 

Meanwhile, he grimaces, gesticulates, exhorts the impassive pianist, prances stiffly, croons, shouts, spits out the songs that have traveled with him in a closet stadium show, sans band but nobly followed on the ivories by Residents faithful Joshua Raoul Brody, who gets to comp creatively to Sam's gruff delivery of the tunes. 

A little Grand Guignol before it's over, in true Residents fashion, as Sam hits the road—and the bottle—again. 

Thursdays & Fridays at 8, Saturday at 8:30 through November 26. 2120 Allston Way (near Shattuck). Thursdays, $15-$20; Fridays-Saturdays: $20-$35 (sliding scales). Reserved seating: $50. (415) 826-5750; 

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—Jet-lagged, sans travel guide and phrase book, business emissary Lowell gravitates towards a sign with his name on it, held up by a statuesque beauty in the airport—and right away finds himself doing a little dance of contrition, in Anne Washburn's 'The Internationalist,' staged by Just Theater, in its West Coast premiere at Ashby Stage. With Pay What You Can at the door, it's the best deal in town by a little company that consistently puts good work onstage. 

"Would you like a cigarette?" —"I don't smoke." —You could hold it ... " 

Rebounding off what he's told in English by the locals—"Yes, they have some English," his lovely contact tells him in perfect English ("more perfect than yours, maybe") ... "They're just not happy about it."—he finds himself gawking uncomfortably as they switch gears and race on in their own tongue. Throughout the play, Lowell—and the audience—will never be quite sure where he is, what he's hearing—or what's expected of him. And the emotional center he raggedly pursues seems just as elusive. 

His well-appointed contact turns out to be an office girl; the politics of the workplace are opaque—or obtuse. Neither business nor sightseeing nor fraternizing with the locals—or going native—seems to wash out that funny taste ... 

Romance in any sense of the word is provisional and nuanced, oddly self-conscious, in this unnamed land. Lowell's told of a scenic spot: "The Nazis loved this bar. It a great view ... and every now and then, the bartender would poison a Nazi!" 

Awkward and witty, the dialogue—in two tongues, much of it rattled off by the fluent cast (in seemingly a Central European blend—maybe more of coffee or tobacco than words)—and gestures, either oddly reserved or absurd, are made quite stageworthy by the excellent cast—Nick Sholley as Lowell; Alexandra Creighton as Sara, his first contact; Michael-Barrett Austin, Loren Bloom, Kalli Johnson and Harold Pierce as the arcane office staff, as well as various street people and ethnic "types"—all directed with finesse by Jonathan Spector. 

Spector also directed Washburn's 'I Have Loved Strangers' at the City Club a few years ago, a splendid production which featured some of the same company members onstage. 'The Internationalist' is not quite so absorbing; entertaining enough, but not as fleshed out, not as much of a play. Though amusing, the first half indulges in a variation of the English Speaker Abroad kind of humor, common enough in movies and on television the past couple of decades or so. The dialogue carries the show so far with its cockeyed wit, its signature. 

The play takes a markedly theatrical turn in the second half, with Lowell engaging in a frustrated, mean-spirited soliloquy, about cultures that win and lose, in the mirror while shaving—and hears Sara's fleeting voice begging the question ... After wandering sight-seeing (""The things they did to saints. The saints must have been really really annoying"), wading through chance meetings with locals, there's an encounter and odd conversation with a colleague in maybe the same scenic bar Sara told Lowell about, something as ambiguous—or more so—as a good scene in a spy movie, strange and droll, all under the fixed grin of the mustachioed bartender. 

The lingering almost-connection between Sara and Lowell's also ambiguous ... "You said, the other night at dinner that it would be a gift for me to speak to you truthfully," he reminds her. "I wanted you to be truthful then, at that moment," she replies, "but it wasn't a carte blanche." 

Swinging back and forth between moods, like the jetlag Lowell suffers from—and maybe a form of vertigo from an exasperated ego—'The Internationalist' offers one moment, seductively, a hint of romance, of escape—and the next, insouciantly, glibness and incomprehension, international business-as-unusual. 

Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (across from Ashby BART). Thursdays-Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5. Pay What You Can at the door; advance sales: sliding scale, $15-$30. 306-1184;