Review: `Squeeze Box’

May 26

At The Marsh in San Francisco through June 29

 

Ann Randolph wrote and stars in Squeeze Box at The Marsh. The solo show is about her loss and rediscovery of faith.

Superb solo show squeezes out laughs, drama
«««1/2 Extraordinary characters

 

There are certain people who, when they recommend a show, I snap to attention and see the show. One of those people is Anne Bancroft, the late great actress who will never stop delighting me with her talent. Bancroft had this to say about Ann Randolph’s solo show Squeeze Box: “When I first saw [Squeeze Box], I was deeply moved. Ann Randolph’s amazing work, both as a writer and fellow performer, touched my heart and my mind so profoundly that I felt it belonged on the New York stage.”

Bancroft and her husband, Mel Brooks, became producers of Randolph’s show and gave it a successful off-Broadway run in 2004. Since then, Randolph has been doing Squeeze Box around the world while she has continued to develop new work. That’s what brings her to The Marsh in San Francisco. Randolph does her show two nights a week, works on new characters and new monologues and conducts workshops in developing solo shows.

Lucky us.

There’s something so incredibly theatrical about a one-person show. We have two excellent examples in the Bay Area right now – Randolph’s show and Nilaja Sun’s No Child… at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (now extended through June 11) – in which women, on a mostly bare stage, become a cast of characters that we willingly and enthusiastically see beyond the shape and size of the amazing actress creating them.

Randolph’s autobiographical story is really one of faith. When we first meet the likeable, slightly goofy Ann, she’s working a minimum-wage job at a shelter for mentally ill homeless women in Santa Monica. The job is wearing on her, and she’s beginning to feel like no matter how hard she works or how much she cares, she is not really helping the women. Her life, she concludes, has ceased to progress. She has failed to move forward and, as a result, has lost the faith that once made her want to become a saint and provide “encouragement, hope and love to those most easily forgotten.”

One of the ways Ann hopes to get some life back into her life is through a personal ad on Match.com. She’s hoping to find a rugged man with a love for Brahms. The rugged look, it seems, really turns her on. “Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to homeless men,” she says.

The man she finds is Harold, a musician and weekend hiker who speaks (and feels) in a monotone. But when Ann finds out what instrument Harold plays, it’s very nearly a deal breaker. He plays the accordion, the squeeze box and the soundtrack to many a beery oompah-pah Saturday night.

Nothing in Randolph’s tale is quite what you expect. There’s a whole lot of frank sex talk (especially from Brandy, the paranoid schizophrenic crack-head whore who lives in the shelter), and Ann’s downward spiral is quite dramatic (though the 75-minute show has loads of humor). The characters come and go, with some making more of an impression than others. The hippie-ish Shoshanna is there to represent liberal hypocrisy, while Julie, the shelter counselor just arrived from Christ the King Salvation Center, is a Bible thumper in the worst possible sense and couldn’t be more insensitive to the world around her.

Though the character of Irene, a new resident at the shelter, only makes a brief appearance, she has tremendous impact. Randolph pulls her hair up into a crude bun, twists her malleable face into something akin to a pain mask and strums the guitar while Irene sings of her marital woe. It’s a funny song that turns incredibly poignant. Irene, like Ann, has lost her faith in a big way.

But unlike Irene, Ann is able to rediscover faith through Harold, and in particular, a concert performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Randolph brings the show full circle and allows her audience to taste what she experienced in that concert hall: the redemptive power of art.

As a bonus for San Francisco audiences, Randolph is doing excerpts of new work after performances of Squeeze Box. On the night I saw the show, she showed a short film called Disaster Relief that she directed and stars in. She read pieces of a monologue then costumed herself as a demented crack whore and let herself get full into the foul-mouthed, interesting character. From there she assumed the character of Carol Diddle, a landlady in Santa Monica who loathes the impoverished artists who live in her building and can’t pay their rent. Carol is a disturbing character – far more so than the crack whore. Scary.

Squeeze Box continues through June 29 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Shows are at 5 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15-$35 on a sliding scale. Call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org.

Visit Ann Randolph’s Web site here: www.annrandolph.com.

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