ASR Theater ~~ Latin Flair Brings the Heat as Transcendence Theatre Co. Returns with “Let’s Dance”

By Cari Lynn Pace

An ASR Pick!

Summers at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen have been parched and dusty ever since Transcendence Theatre Company abandoned their outdoor stage for two years due to the pandemic.

TTC’s award-winning assemblage of talented singers and dancers from Broadway and LA shows have finally burst back onto the stage for their summer season opener “Let’s Dance.” They’ve returned with smiles, boundless energy, and rhythm from top to toe.

When the orchestra sounds the opening note, and the bright lights go up onstage, prepare to be blown away!

Transcendence has presented productions under the stars at Jack London State Park for ten summer seasons. Their successful “Best Night Ever!” formula has traditionally been a potpourri of popular song-and-dance numbers from hit musicals. “Let’s Dance” is their first summer offering for 2022, to be followed by two later productions: “Hooray for Hollywood” in late July and early August, and “The Gala” in September.

“Let’s Dance” displays the influence of guest director and choreographer Luis Salgado, whose Puerto Rican roots give the entire production a Latin flair. Salgado enthuses “I wanted to showcase the cultural heritage of dance to include salsa, Peruvian tap, and drum solos. We blended these with contemporary moves. It was a challenge rehearsing new movement styles outdoors in the heat of the sun, waiting for it to cool off a little. But we did it! I love this community and its spirit, its soul!”

L to R: Catherine Wreford, Anna Aliau I. Guerra, CorBen Williams, Sophie Lee Morris, Kyle Kemph Photo Credit: Rob Martel

Salgado brings out the best from TTC’s troupe of skilled dancers. Their exhaustive efforts—strenuous, athletic, and precise—give a rousing start to the opening number in “Primer Acto” (Act I.) Twenty singers and dancers, including many new faces among beloved Transcendence regulars, keep the energy charged up.

Segundo Acto (Act II) starts with a Peruvian drum solo improvisation by guest artist Luis Antonio Vilchez Vargas in baggy white pants and a big smile. The audience claps as instructed, to amusing pantomime. The feel-good atmosphere rises as does the moon above the stone ruins of the park.

“Let’s Dance” is mostly dance, yet plenty of singing numbers also shine. Spanish speakers may enjoy “Dos Oruguitas” while all can follow the many musical medleys packed with Broadway hits. The production is splendidly accompanied by the 10-piece Transcendence Band conducted by Matt Smart.

Jack London State Historic Park starts admitting picnickers to TTC performances as early as 5 p.m. Patrons bring hampers, food trucks ply their wares, premium wine and beer vendors offer tastes and sell glasses and bottles—to be enjoyed outside the amphitheater, as no alcohol may be brought in.

CorBen Williams & Brianna-Marie Bell Photo Credit: Ray Mabry

Live music encourages the fun and friendly banter in the dry open field, amusingly mislabeled the “great lawn.” Outdoor seating, all assigned, begins in the stone ruins as the sun drops low beyond the mountains. New this season are chairs with padded seats and backs, a welcome addition to the winery ruins.

Just before the show starts at 7:30, take time to breathe deeply of the clear air in the summer night. As the nearby vineyards glow in the setting sun, get out a jacket and lap blanket, and enjoy the quiet beauty of this Valley of the Moon. When the orchestra sounds the opening note, and the bright lights go up onstage, prepare to be blown away!

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionLet's Dance
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byLuis Salgado
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru July 3rd, 2022
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd. Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414. Toll free,
Tickets$25 -$49-$165 VIP
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ 6th Street’s “9 to 5” a Feel-Good Feast

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

An inept small-scale rebellion leads to major improvements in a corporate office in “9 to 5, the Musical” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through June 26.

Based on the proto-feminist comedy film from 1980 starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman, “9 to 5, the Musical” expands on the original with more music and lyrics by irrepressible singer/songwriter Parton, who introduces and closes the stage show via video clips. Between these bookends lie two hours of hilarity and silliness, tremendous song and dance, and plenty of barbed commentary about gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and managerial incompetence—problems as rampant today as they were forty-two years ago.

“9 to 5, the Musical’ is a feel-good reminder of what’s possible…

Fans of the film—and those who’ve never seen it—will find much to enjoy about this high-energy musical comedy. In fact, with its larger repertoire of musical numbers and its huge cast of talented performers, they may find that they enjoy this Carl Jordan-helmed production more.

Mark Bradbury as Franklin Hart

Mark Bradbury appears as Franklin Hart, a slimeball boss whose idea of humor is “How does a woman lose 95% of her intelligence? She gets divorced.” Hart’s a character easy to hate, but one so goofy that he actually evokes some sympathy. He’s clueless, and clueless about being so. He clearly doesn’t know that his 1950s attitudes and behaviors are no longer acceptable. He also doesn’t understand the threat lurking in his female underlings—ditzy Doralee Rhodes (Anne Warren Clark), workplace-hardened Violet Newstead (Daniela Innocenti-Beem), and new recruit Judy Bernly (Julianne Bradbury), whose office skills are so limited that she doesn’t know how to feed paper into a typewriter. Hart’s only trusted ally at work is his assistant Roz (Jenny Boynton), who almost foils the plot against him.

The cast at work at 6th Street

It’s a great comedic setup—one that plays out beautifully across the big stage in the G.K. Hardt Theatre. With impeccable comic timing and strong vocal abilities, Innocenti-Beem and Clark are perfectly cast and riveting to watch. Julianne Bradbury does a solid job as the less-assertive Judy, as does Noah Sternhill as junior accountant Joe, the rebels’ co-conspirator. Strong cameos include Cindy Brillhart-True as Franklin’s wife Missy Hart, and theater veteran Norman Hall as chief investor Russel Tinsworthy. It’s a well-chosen cast.

Suprise!

But “9 to 5” isn’t simply a great performance. Parton’s music is consistently upbeat and enlivening, as is choreographer Devin Parker Sullivan’s work, which alludes to an earlier era with a nod to the present. Monochrome slowly evolving to multicolor, the set by Eric Broadwater and costumes by Tracy Hinman also propel the story.

But the unspoken star of the show is Chris Schloempf, whose big bright projections fill the back of the stage. At intermission, theater director Marty Pistone, who worked with Schloempf on last year’s marvelous “Galatea,” commented “Chris’s work simply gets better and better. The guy is astounding.”

That’s the kind of upbeat feeling this show engenders, driving home its point with pervasive humor instead of angry admonitions. Franklin Hart gets his comeuppance—and with it, a promotion—while our conspirators create a workplace friendly to all, the kind of environment where most of us would be glad to spend our days. “9 to 5, the Musical’ is a feel-good reminder of what’s possible, even if by accident.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production9-to-5 The Musical
Written byPatricia Resnick / Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough June 26, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$32 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Undead Cat Provokes Hilarity in MSW’s “Wink”

By Sue Morgan

Despite having read a synopsis of Jen Silverman’s “Wink” before attending the opening night performance at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, I was utterly unprepared for the existential poignancy and laugh-out-loud dark absurdist farce that awaited me.

The titular character, a cat named Wink, has gone missing. Wink’s human, Sophie (masterfully played by Ilana Niernberger, among the North Bay’s most versatile actors) is distraught but can’t prompt any concern from husband Gregor (John Browning). He’s long resented the affection Sophie expressed toward the animal, while maintaining a physical and emotional distance between herself and Gregor.

…a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion…

The simple set by David Lear—predominately a loveseat and wingback chair—alternates as a therapist’s office and the protagonists’ living room. Early in the story, Sofie destroys the room in a moment of grief, rage and roiling impotence. The mess remains throughout ensuing scenes, allowing the audience to perceive an appropriate façade and inviting us into the magical realism pervading this astonishingly original, brilliantly executed story.

Sam Coughlin may well have been a cat in a previous life, proved by his seamless embodiment of Wink. During his first appearance, the undead feline, driven by hunger, has risen from the grave. Coughlin, in flesh-toned briefs, moves about the set with grace, unbridled confidence and nearly-naked sexuality. He leaps effortlessly from floor to sofa back to window, sometimes draping himself languorously over furniture or an open lap, or rubbing seductively against a piece of furniture or the nearest human body part.

Michael Fontaine (L) as therapist Dr. Franz. Ilana Niernberger (R).

John Browning is utterly convincing as repressed, gaslighting husband and probable cat killer Gregor. While posturing as dismissive and unconcerned, Browning’s Gregor briefly allows us to glimpse an underlying thoughtfulness and vulnerability that allow us a few moments of compassion for his otherwise reprehensible character. The best villains always have redeeming qualities. The ensemble is rounded out by an adroit Michael Fontaine as therapist Dr. Franz, who sees both Sophie and Gregor professionally, but individually, reminding them that depression and dissatisfaction are synonymous with the human condition and that the proper course of action is to accept and steadfastly maintain both conditions.

Playwright Jen Silverman’s use of sophisticated language adds to the humor as Sophie attempts to explain the wrecked living room to Gregor. She invents a terrorist named Roland who, she says, came into their home, tore it up and pushed her menacingly (and, judging by her reenactment of the imaginary scene, quite seductively) against a wall. When Gregor asks how Sophie knows the assailant’s name and occupation, she explains that he told her “In a letter” which he communicated via “semaphore” from the roof of a nearby home.

John Browning (L) as Gregor.

Absurdities pile one on the other as the play progresses. Bent on revenge against Gregor, Wink moves in with Dr. Franz. The two begin sharing nightcaps and flirtations. While at first frightened and somewhat repelled by Wink, Dr. Franz is soon smitten with the cat and begins to let go of his dictum that life is nothing but responsibility and drudgery.

In a playfully sexual scene, Wink encourages Franz to loosen up by showing him how to walk and stand like a cat, placing his paws on Franz’ hips, reminding him that he has hips and shoulders. In one of the most poignant scenes, Wink announces that he’s leaving because he refuses to allow himself to be “skinned twice.” Franz implores Wink to tell him, before he leaves, if he has any feelings at all for him. Wink responds by rubbing himself lovingly against Franz, clearly moved by the gesture.

Ilana Niernberger at work in “Wink” at MSW.

 

As Dr. Franz begins to open up, Gregor is being swept down a maelstrom of rage and self-directed violence while, simultaneously, Sophie sheds her own persona, trading khakis and sneakers for black leather and combat boots, as she transforms herself into Roland in his over-the-top destructiveness and freedom from the constraints of civilized society. All three characters have taken unpredictable vectors thanks to Wink, who’s still out there somewhere, perhaps wreaking vengeance on another cat-hating egotist.

We might assume that one cat couldn’t have the power to upend the lives of three people, but that misgiving is put to rest in this 75-minute one-act directed by James Pelican. “Wink” sails along without a hitch toward a marvelously ambiguous conclusion—a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region.

Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

ProductionWink
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

 

 

 

ASR Theater ~~ Ibsen Classic Gets a Striking Sequel: “A Doll’s House Part 2”

By Cari Lynn Pace

An ASR Pick!

A stately 1879-era living room, complete with divan and chandelier, sets the stage for this four-person drama at the intimate 99-seat Novato Theatre Company: “A Doll’s House Part 2” written by Lucas Hnath as a continuation of Henrik Ibsen’s original. It’s a winner.

Hnath has created this sequel adroitly using four original characters. It is not necessary to have seen Ibsen’s original play to follow the plot of “Part 2.” This story, like the original, vacillates between uplifting and troubling in its examination of gender and society’s rules.

The die is cast when Torvald tells Nora “There’s the door. I know you know how to use it.”

This story, like the original, vacillates between uplifting and troubling in its examination of gender and society’s rules.

Director Gillian Eichenberger has pulled astounding performances from her well-experienced acting ensemble, lending depth and validity to their roles.

Nora, a determined and now successful woman of substance, returns after 15 years to her former home. She had walked out on her husband and young children in a quest to find a life that had purpose and passion. When award-winning Alison Peltz takes the stage as Nora, she imbues her with near-manic confidence, sure in her conviction of emotional decisions made so long ago.

Peltz and Hall at work. Photos by NTC.

As Nora initially shares her past with aging Anne Marie, the nanny beautifully portrayed by veteran Shirley Nilsen Hall, the question explodes: Why has Nora returned?

Nora’s husband Torvald unexpectedly shows up, and the biting recriminations begin. Torvald’s anger at Nora’s past behavior bubbles to the surface in a solidly convincing performance by Mark Clark. Nora wants something and displays herself to be self-centered and manipulating. Torvald says no.

Can Nora’s daughter Emmy, now grown, help convince Torvald to give Nora what she wants? The role is convincingly enacted by young Jannely Calmell, who stands up to Nora’s sly suggestions.

How will this remarkably written drama end? The die is cast when Torvald tells Nora “There’s the door. I know you know how to use it.”

Covid checks and masks required as of this writing.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionA Doll’s House Part 2
Written byLucas Hnath
Directed byGillian Eichenberger
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough June 12th, 2022
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(415) 883-4498
Tickets$15 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES

 

ASR Theater ~~ Literary Revelation: MTC’s “The Sound Inside”

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

The lives of two talented writers intersect in unimaginable ways in Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside” at Marin Theatre Company through June 19.

The SF Bay Area’s multiple award-winning Denmo Ibrahim stars as Bella, a middle-aged professor of creative writing at Yale University. New York-based actor Tyler Miclean appears opposite her as Christopher, a belligerent but talented freshman in one of her classes. In a lengthy self-deprecating prelude, Bella relates her history as a writer and lover of literature, her relationship status (single) and a diagnosis of a potentially terminal medical condition. She’s published only one novel in her career, but is sanguine and accepting of her entire situation, including the fact that at 53, she still lives in faculty housing.

Denmo Ibrahim as Bella in MTC’s “The Sound Inside.” Photo by Kevin Berne

Into her comfortable but under-achieving life marches Christopher, a rebel to the core. He comes to her office repeatedly without seeking permission, rants impressively and knowledgeably about all things literary, refuses to use email, and even pounds out his own work on a manual typewriter—“a Corona, recently restored,” he brags. He basically intrudes into her life through sheer intellectual force, an intrusion that mystifies, annoys, and beguiles her. He’s clearly her psychic equal, perhaps the first she’s ever encountered.

Brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly performed…

Their uneven friendship grows as they parry and thrust with every sort of literary reference—biographical tidbits about legendary writers, arguments about interpretations of plots and characters. Whatever erotic tension exists between them is subsumed in a mutual intellectual frenzy. She can’t resist nurturing their friendship even when it might be seen as inappropriate. Partly guiding and partly following, she’s compelled to stay with it wherever it may go, without any lingering sense of guilt. A truly free woman.

Tyler Miclean as Christopher and Denmo Ibrahim as Bella at work. Photo by Kevin Berne

Early on he tells her that he grew up in Vermont in a house filled with books, where his reclusive mother lives. Bella jokingly asks if his mother might be Joyce Carol Oates, the prolific novelist and career academic famous for writing in longhand, as did Kurt Vonnegut, another writer who gets more than passing mention in Rapp’s fascinating, tightly-woven tale.

Christopher proves to be Bella’s biggest fan when he not only quotes verbatim from her novel, but presents a copy as his proudest possession, a book she was certain had long gone out of print.

Smitten with her troubled and troubling angel, she helps him with his manuscript, a first-person account of horrific events that may or may not be fiction. Bella’s interpretations of her own events may or may not be fiction, too, as in a hilarious regret-free retelling of a one-night stand she initiated with a contractor in a New Haven bar.

Together, Bella and Christopher are like two strangers bobbing about in a rowboat on an unfamiliar and turbulent sea. But what a sea it is! It would be unfair to performers and audience alike to reveal where their little boat ultimately goes, but it’s a journey recommended with the utmost sincerity.

Denmo Ibrahim as Bella. Photo by Kevin Berne

Generously directed by Jasson Minidakis on a simple set by Edward E. Haynes, Jr., with gorgeous immersive projections by Mike Post, Ibrahim and Miclean take us on a fantastical exploration of little-examined territory. Their characters are far deeper than the self-absorbed literary types that we might expect on first meeting.

In some ways, “The Sound Inside” is a simple portrait of two people clinging to each other from sheer need, but in much larger ways it’s a sweeping celebration of the life-affirming potential that lies in every seemingly insignificant—even annoying—encounter.

Brilliantly written, brilliantly directed, and brilliantly performed, “The Sound Inside” is a paean to human connectedness—a stunning, lovely piece of magical realism. Marin Theatre Company could not have chosen a more poignant tale to close its 2021-22 season.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Sound Inside
Written byAdam Rapp
Directed byJasson Minidakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru June 19th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Bright Star” Shines at Napa’s Lucky Penny

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

On rare occasions, a local production exceeds a national touring show by a wide margin. Such is the case with “Bright Star” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Community Arts Center through June 12.

The national touring production of the Tony-nominated musical, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, debuted some years ago in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater—a well-performed but underwhelming theatrical event. By contrast, Lucky Penny’s is a sustained joyful celebration undertaken on a small stage by the most enthusiastic and talented ensemble we have seen in the North Bay in a long time.

It’s a case of everything being so right—casting, performance, set, costumes, music—that it’s hard to imagine how any of it could be improved….

Based on real events, “Bright Star” is a redemption story set in North Carolina in the 1920s and 1940s, and tells the tale of literary editor Alice Murphy (Taylor Bartolucci) and aspiring writer Billy Cane (Tommy Lassiter), a young soldier who’s just come home from World War II. Lucky Penny Artistic Director Bartolucci is astounding in encompassing both the young Alice and her more mature counterpart; Lassiter is equally compelling as the sweet-natured Billy, a fledgling writer who refuses to be told “no.”

Among many standouts in the cast are Sean O’Brien as Billy’s backwoods father, Daddy Cane; Kirstin Pieschke as Billy’s potential girlfriend Margo; Ian Elliot as Jimmy Ray Dobbs; and Lucky Penny Managing Director Barry Martin as the despicable, manipulative Mayor of Zebulon, NC, Josiah Dobbs—the sort of character that audiences love to hate. Jenny Veilleux is excellent as Lucy Grant, as is Dennis O’Brien as Stanford, Mayor Dobbs’ attorney and advisor.

All of the eighteen-member cast are great performers and superb singers, backed by a five-piece band led by Craig Burdette (including Peter Domenici on banjo). Burdette’s crew propels the Lucky Penny ensemble through almost two-dozen rousing heartfelt tunes, performed with some of the most athletic and authentic choreography imaginable, created by Jacqui Muratori and Alex Gomez.

Directed by Martin, the show moves along quickly through two beautifully-paced acts thanks to minimal set changes. There are enough set pieces to establish each scene, but nothing more. Martin said post-show that in rehearsals, he and Bartolucci kept deleting set pieces until they reached the bare minimum.

The gambit works perfectly, as does every other risk that Lucky Penny took in putting on this gorgeous production. It’s a case of everything being so right—casting, performance, set, costumes, music—that it’s hard to imagine how any of it could be improved.

This “Bright Star” is truly stellar—and a welcome rejuvenation in an era of soul-crushing news. We need all the uplift we can get. Lucky Penny delivers.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionBright Star
Written bySteve Martin and Edie Brckell
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru June 12th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$37-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

ASR Theater ~~ Mountain Play Returns With Charming “Hello, Dolly”

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

In its century-long history, the Mountain Play been cancelled only twice. Its return this past Sunday May 22 was a welcome return to normal, more or less. One of the great pieces of musical Americana, “Hello, Dolly” (directed by Jay Manley) opened to a less-than-capacity crowd at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheater in Mt. Tamalpais State Park—a crowd that made up with enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers.

The warm but not sweltering weather was just about perfect for the audience, although probably a bit much for the performers, who nonetheless gave their all in a compelling and totally enjoyable production of the Michael Stewart/Jerry Herman classic about Dolly Gallagher Levi, matchmaker and all-purpose huckster with a heart of gold. With superb comic timing and a soaring voice, Dyan McBride shines in the lead role. As Dolly’s marriage target Horace Vandergelder, Mt. Play veteran Randy Nazarian is McBride’s equal in stage presence and chutzpah, if not in vocal talent.

…”first-rate ensemble dancing and the musicianship of a fifteen-member orchestra…”

Primary and secondary characters are all fully engaged and expert at “going big”—including Chachi Delgado and Zachary Frangos as Vandergelder’s loyal undercompensated employees Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, respectively. Jen Brooks is delightful as Irene Malloy, as is Jill Jacobs as Ermengarde.

Mountain Play
5238 – L to R: Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi (Dyan McBride), Barnaby Tucker (Zachary Frangos), Minnie Fay (Julia Ludwig ). Photo by: Robin Jackson.

Jesse Lumb turns in a great performance as Ermengarde’s boyfriend Ambrose Kemper, but the real standout in the cast’s second rank is Gary Stanford, Jr., whose comedic take on maitre d’ Rudolph Reisenweber is an absolute scream. Stanford pulls out all the stops in spoofing a pompous German, a highlight of the show’s second act.

Ensemble cast dancing. Photo by: Robin Jackson.

The real standouts in this production are first-rate ensemble dancing (choreography by Zoe Swenson-Graham / Lucas Michael Chandler, dance captain) and the musicianship of a fifteen-member orchestra under the direction of David Moschler.

Andrea Bechert’s set was incomplete on opening day, reportedly because of high winds and a labor shortage in the week before opening, but whatever was missing from the set didn’t hinder the show’s total charm.

Hello Dolly

“Hello, Dolly” marks a welcome return to some semblance of normalcy. Showgoers should be aware that once they begin the uphill trek from Mill Valley, signage is nearly non-existent, and the entrance to the park is much farther than they might imagine. Best to be prepared rather than to get lost along the way—cell phone reception isn’t great up there.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production"Hello, Dolly"
Written byMichael Stewart – Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanyThe Mountain Play Association
Production DatesThrough June 19th, 2022
Production AddressCushing Memorial Amphitheatre, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Mill Valley
Websitemountainplay.org
Telephone415-383-1100
Tickets$25 - $185
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ A North Bay Spectacle: “Matilda – The Musical”

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

A precocious girl struggles valiantly against ignorant parents and a cruel headmistress in “Matilda – The Musical” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, through May 22.

One of the most popular children’s stories since the 1988 publication of Roald Dahl’s novel, the stage adaptation “Matilda – The Musical” (written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin) launched to great acclaim in 2010 and enjoyed long runs in London, New York, and throughout the world, garnering many prestigious awards.

In the past five years, the play has been available to regional theater companies eager to produce their own. North Bay theatergoers are lucky in several respects. Against who-knows-how-many competitors, Spreckels landed the rights to put on the show in the most spacious and well-funded physical theater in Sonoma County, also home to a huge talent pool. The show is an absolute spectacular, expertly helmed by Spreckels Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller.

The cast at work: Rudopho, Wormwoods, & Matilda.

As per Dahl’s original, Matilda is a hyper-bright five-year-old who loves books, reading, science, math, and every variety of imaginative intellectual pursuit. She’s also blessed with telekinesis—she can move objects with her mind—an ability that proves useful late in the story. Her parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Garet Waterhouse and Shannon Rider, respectfully) are self-righteous dolts with no appreciation for the life of the mind.

Altogether, “Matilda – The Musical” is a fantastic show for adults and kids….

Her parents refuse to acknowledge Matilda’s uniqueness. In fact, they dismiss her special talents as if they somehow bring shame on the family. Mr. Wormwood, a disreputable used-car salesman, is especially proud of his disdain for reading and brags that everything he knows he learned from watching television. Mrs. Wormwood is much more interested in dance lessons with Rudolpho (Damion Matthews) than she is in her husband or daughter. Waterhouse and Rider throw themselves into these repugnantly juicy roles with a delicious degree of abandonment.

Matilda also contends with her school’s mean-as-hell headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Tim Setzer), whose pervasive dislike of children is often expressed by sending them to “the Chokey”—a small-scale torture chamber—for minor infractions. The versatile Setzer perfectly fits a character described by its creator as “a former world champion hammer thrower” who’s not above throwing misbehaving children across the schoolyard. (Onstage villains who get booed during curtain calls know they’ve done their jobs well.)

But Matilda has adult champions too—local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Gina Alvarado) and teacher Miss Honey (Madison Scarbrough), who makes Matilda’s welfare her personal quest. Alvarado and Scarbrough are both deservedly frequent performers on North Bay stages. Both sing beautifully in group scenes; Scarbrough shines in her solos. Jamin Jollo and Bridget Codoni are tremendous in a running subplot of one of Matilda’s own stories—scenes from “The Escapologist and the Acrobat.”

Matilda and Trunchbull at work.

The cast is huge—almost thirty performers, most of them youngsters—and to list them all would turn a review into something resembling a phone book. Suffice it to say that all are good and some are excellent.

Also excellent are the towering set pieces—huge oversize bookcases as seen from a small child’s perspective. The use of giant letter blocks as props is brilliant—props put to especially effective use in “Revolting Children,” one of the final musical pieces as the closing act winds down. Michella Moerbeek’s choreography is dynamic and delightful, but not too complex for young dancers. Lead by Lucas Sherman, a ten-piece band “in the pit” provides gorgeous accompaniment, but on opening night sometimes dulled singers’ vocal details. We have been told that sound imbalances are being addressed for future performances.

Altogether, “Matilda – The Musical” is a fantastic show for adults and kids, of whom there were a couple hundred in attendance on opening night. Finding a five-year-old who can act, sing, and dance at Broadway level is just about impossible, so the lead has always been multi-cast with adolescents to reduce the strain on them and give them time to study. Spreckels has two young talents alternating as Matilda—Gigi Bruce Low and Anja Kao Nielsen. Low appeared in the May 6 opener and put in a marvelous performance. Theater insiders report that Nielsen is Low’s equal. For ticket buyers, any production should be a worthy one.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionMatilda - The Musical
Written byDennis Kelly – Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 22, 2022
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ “The Government Inspector” – Comedy Imitates Life in this Russian Town

By Cari Lynn Pace

Those who are appalled at the travesties between Russia and Ukraine which dominate our headlines may enjoy a respite with this Ross Valley Players comedy, at the Barn at the Ross Art and Garden Center through June 5.

This farce lampooning government officials was written by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian playwright who exiled himself after this play was presented to the Tzar in 1836. Gogol was subjected to intense official disdain after he parodied government unscrupulousness.

Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity….

Although the location is not specific, the play takes place in a Russian town filled with corrupt officials and workers who continually (and successfully) defraud the system. Their deceits are profitable and mutually accepted among themselves, resulting in uninhabitable hospitals, sub-standard schools, courtroom graft, fake employment, and the like. One is reminded of the phrase repeatedly heard from a Russian friend: “We pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay us.”

Steve Price as The Mayor; Benjamin Vasquez as Dobchinsky;
Raysheina de Leon-Ruhs as Bobchinsky. Photo Robin Jackson.

The trouble begins when the Mayor belatedly discovers that a “Government Inspector” has arrived unannounced from St. Petersburg and is residing undercover. Those in charge fear that the inspector will report their misdeeds to the Tsar, with distressing consequences. The Mayor and his minions go into hyperdrive concocting schemes to cover up the extent of the town’s corruption. Steve Price is hilarious playing the blustering and panicked Mayor, a role he pushes over the top with present pandemonium. He’s in charge of the mayhem, and it is truly madness.

Hlestekov, an indolent and lowly clerk from St. Peterburg happens to be passing through the town and has lost his funds gambling. He’s holed up in the inn awaiting funds from his family when the town mistakes him for the dreaded inspector. Suddenly, a stream of rubles get thrust into his hands, labelled “welcome gifts.” Michel B. Harris plays this role perfectly, from an initially confused clerk to the role of a now-corrupt official commanding further bribes from the guilty.

It’s not only rubles that get this clerk’s attention. He takes the opportunity of this sudden power to seduce the Mayor’s daughter Marya (Hunter Candrian-Velez), all the while deflecting passionate advances from the Mayor’s lustful wife Anna (hilarious Pamela Ciochetti.)

Wood Lockhart. Photo Robin Jackson.

Harris revels in his new identity, upstaged only by the snide comments of his servant, enacted by veteran Wood Lockhart in an elf’s garb. Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity.

The large cast of fourteen, directed by Lisa Morse, jumps into their madcap roles with full tilt energy. Some frantic bits bring to mind the antics of the Three Stooges, other moments are clearly inspired by Groucho Marx. One might expect the cast to emulate Russian accents, although most do not. “The Government Inspector” misadventure could easily be transported to any corrupt city these days, which makes Gogol’s plot from the early 1800’s a timeless possibility.

“The Government Inspector” is an ambitious production and an audience pleaser with the RVP crowd. Costume and wig changes are supported by an offstage production team more numerable than the cast. “The Government Inspector” is a wild ride and a frivolous breath of fresh air in these sober times.

Note: Ross Valley Players requires proof of vaccination in keeping with public health protocols. Actors, stage crew and volunteers are fully vaccinated. To attend performances, attendees must show proof of being fully vaccinated and masks always must be worn. There are no food and drink concessions open as of this writing. Parking is free at the lot at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Government Inspector
Written byNikolai Gogol
Directed byLisa Morse
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThursdays through Sundays until June 5, 2022
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$15-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

ASR Theater ~~ “Fun Home” is a Solid Bet at the Gateway Theater

By Barry Willis

An ASR Pick!

Despite at least one very dark plot element and an abrupt tragic ending, 42nd Street Moon’s musical “Fun Home” fills its 95 minutes with uplifting and delightful song-and-dance. At the Gateway Theatre on Jackson Street in the city’s financial district, the show closes its three-week run this Sunday, May 8.

A lesbian coming-of-age story derived from cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, the show features the adult Alison (Rinobeth Apostol) in her studio, overseeing her past unfolding before her as she scribbles and scrawls—a theatrical replay of her creation of the novel. Scenic designer Mark Mendelson cleverly places her in a sort of god-like position where she can observe all that’s transpired to make her what she is. Apostol is a confident and compelling actor, onstage throughout the show, sometimes fully engaged with her castmates and sometimes merely a somewhat detached observer.

Central to the story is Alison’s sexual awakening, and her relationship with her father Bruce (Jason Vesely), an English teacher, home renovator, and funeral home director—quite an imposing set of skills—and a closeted gay man given to frequent flings that distress his wife Helen (Jennifer Boesing).

Grown Alison watches as her younger self, “Small Alison” (McKenna Rose) cavorts with her brothers John and Christian (Keenan Moran and Royal Mickens, respectively), and is especially attentive to “Medium Alison” (Teresa Attridge), the college-age version of herself who wonders about lesbianism before finally giving it a go with classmate Joan (Sophia Alawi).

The cast, stagecraft, lighting and sound are all very good….

New for this reviewer, Attridge is an astounding performer whose rendition of “Changing My Major” celebrates Alison’s embrace of her sexuality and her deep love affair with Joan. It’s the high point of the first act and quite possibly the high point of the entire production—a simply off-the-chart performance, among many that almost reach that level. Musical theater veteran Dave Dubrusky leads a small ensemble that perfectly backs the show’s many great songs, reinforced by Natalie Greene’s high-energy au courant choreography.

The cast, stagecraft, lighting and sound are all very good—a rare production with no glitches to grumble about. Directed by Tracy Ward, “Fun Home” is a solid bet for those seeking entertainment with a plausible modern through-line.

42nd Street Moon’s publicity hypes it as “a Bay Area regional premiere” but the show has played at least twice in the Bay Area, first at the Curran in January 2017 then again in October 2018 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. It’s a popular show. This one runs 95 minutes, no intermission. Expect a couple of other local productions within the coming year.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionFun Home
Written byLisa Kron
Directed byTracy Ward
Producing Company42nd Street Moon
Production DatesThru May 8th
Production AddressThe Gateway Theatre

176 Jackson Street San Francisco, CA
Website42ndstmoon.org/
Telephone(415) 255-8207
Tickets$45 – $79
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

ASR Theater ~~ SAL’s “Grossingers” a Nostalgic Romp

 By Barry Willis

The Catskills mountain region in upstate New York made substantial contributions to American culture throughout most of the 20th century. Many legendary comedians and musicians worked “Borsht Belt” resorts such as the one brought to life by Sonoma Arts Live with its new production of the Stephen Cole musical “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s.” Cole is the show’s librettist/lyricist; the music is by Claibe Richardson with additional lyrics by Ronny Graham.

Dani Innocenti-Beem (r) wowing her scene partner!

Dani Innocenti-Beem solidly anchors the show as the entrepreneurial singer/comedienne Jennie Grossinger, who almost single-handedly converted what had been a rundown farmhouse into one of the most recognized and desirable vacation destinations in the eastern U.S. In a short silver-gray wig, she commands the stage whether singing, dancing, or riffing on the circumstances around her.

Larry Williams, the show’s co-director with Jaime Love, is also formidable as Sheldon Seltzer, the resort’s announcer/master of ceremonies/fallback comedian. He’s heavy on Henny Youngman-style wisecracks such as “Take my wife. She runs after the garbage truck shouting ‘Am I late for the trash?’ The driver shouts back, ‘No, jump in.’”

…a delightful morsel of musical theater….

Innocenti-Beem and Williams are both gifted and confident comedic performers. Their appearance together on the same stage guarantees a good time for the audience—whether the comedy is intentional or not, as happened on opening night with a balky curtain. The pair covered so well that most folks in the nearly sold-out house believed the curtain glitch was built into the script. It wasn’t, but perhaps Stephen Cole should consider making it so. The perfectly-timed incident certainly seemed like something that might have happened infrequently at Grossinger’s, and it provoked plenty of laughter.

The substantially-constructed first act is a decade-by-decade revisiting of the history of Grossinger’s, from its 1904 origins through the 1960s. Musical director Sherrill Peterson and her band provide excellent backing for the all-singing/all-dancing Grossinger clan: Dan Schwager as patriarch “Papa,” David Shirk as Jennie’s mate Harry, and HarriettePearl Fugit and Tommy Lassiter as Grossinger offspring Elaine and Paul, respectively.

HarriettePearl Fugit (r) at Sonoma Arts Live.

With its compelling and perfectly paced scene-by-scene through-line, the show’s opening act induces strong anticipation in the audience, who come back from intermission expecting a big payoff. The second act doesn’t fulfill this expectation. It feels under-developed, as if some story elements were left dangling or cut without consideration for how this might affect the entire production.

The result is that the show seems to end abruptly, frustratingly so for the audience, as our very entertaining history tour of Grossinger’s doesn’t reach into the 21st century. Act One has a strong dramatic arc sorely missing in the second one. Maybe that will be corrected in the sequel: “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s, Part Two,” but even incomplete, SAL’s show is a delightful morsel of musical theater.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionSaturday Night at Grossinger’s
Written byStephen Cole
Directed byJaime Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesMay 8, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center 276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ Darkness Rules in “One Flea Spare” at Main Stage West | Your Reporters, Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sometimes joked about his “vector analysis” approach to understanding stories, in particular the trajectories of primary characters.

For example, Cinderella’s personal vector moves like a rollercoaster through peaks of hope and valleys of despair, ultimately ending on a high note. Her arrow repeatedly goes across the “zero axis” between darkness and light. Many other stories take place entirely in the dark, without ever entering the light. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is one, in which a young man named Gregor Samsa, despised and reviled by his entire family, wakes up one morning to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant cockroach.  The murderous rampage that is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” similarly takes place entirely in the dark. There’s nothing uplifting in the script, and no possibility of a happy outcome. The fact that the whole affair is miserably depressing hasn’t hampered the play’s enduring popularity. Nor has it impaired “Sweeney Todd,” a show that’s performed with inexplicable regularity.

 “One Flea Spare” is a deep probe into the dark side of human existence….

Naomi Wallace’s “One Flea Spare” is in this tradition.  A depiction of four people forced to quarantine in an upscale London home during the Bubonic Plague of the 17th century, it begins morosely and gets darker from there. Director David Lear and his excellent group of performers at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West don’t try to gussy up Wallace’s dim view of humanity but bore into the historical and emotional darkness like coal miners eager for work. Allusions to the COVID pandemic weren’t intended by the playwright, but are more than appropriate today.

The setup is simple: people are dying in droves and the city has commissioned some enforcers to keep those still symptom-free indoors at home until officials deem it safe for them to come out. Kevin Bordi plays one such enforcer, a good-natured oaf called Kabe, who visits the Snelgrave home to nail closed the shutters so that no one can escape.

Matthew Cadigan, left, rehearses with director David Lear for “One Flea Spare” at Main Stage West. (Photo by Main Stage West)

He converses amicably with the homeowners—superbly played by North Bay theater veterans John Craven and Elly Lichenstein—who are harboring two fugitives, a sailor named Bunce (Matthew Cadigan) and a young servant woman named Morse (Miranda Jean Williams), who have taken unapproved refuge in the Snelgrave home.

The four spend the next 28 days together in the dank house (set design also by Lear) getting to know more than they ever wanted to learn about each other, confessing things that might best be kept unspoken, and violating all kinds of social norms. Familiarity leads to contempt, as the old adage has it, and contempt leads to malicious violence, details of which won’t be shared here.

“One Flea Spare” is a deep probe into the dark side of human existence, offset somewhat by moments when the characters connect and seem to share some humanity with one another, usually in the context of revealing past hurts and painful secrets, such as Mrs. Snelgrave’s sad story about a fire that killed her horses and left her scarred and in a lonely marriage. Morse and Bunce have their own unhappy tales, but there’s palpable erotic tension and longing between Bunce and Mrs. Snelgrave.

Such scenes add dimension to the overwhelming darkness. Some viewers may feel compassion for all but the house’s master, and may enjoy a strange sense of delight when the others band together to strip him of his power.

It’s a beautiful bit of symbolism. All three had suffered greatly under men such as Snelgrave—the sailor’s forced military service destroyed his personal life, the servant girl literally lived under the control of her masters, and the wealthy lady of the house spent her life trapped in a dead and hostile marriage. The bizarre quarantine situation throws these three unlikely people together and enables them to challenge the power structure that has ruled their lives. Their joy, of course, is terribly short lived.

“One Flea Spare” is not a fairytale, but there is a bit of light peeking through the darkness. The production doesn’t feel like a month in quarantine, but theatrical magic does its work to convey an overriding sense of fear and claustrophobia, stretched out long enough to give the audience a taste of house arrest and an appreciation for the freedom of simply walking outside into the open air.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

ASR Theater ~~ Cinnabar’s Delightful “Three Tall Women” | Your Reporter, Barry Willis

Anyone who’s dealt with elderly-parent issues will find much to enjoy in “Three Tall Women” at Cinnabar Theater through April 24.

Laura Jorgensen astounds in Edward Albee’s oddly-constructed two-act play. In the first act, she appears as a resident of an upscale retirement complex, nicely rendered by set designer Brian Watson. She’s engaged in what’s almost a monologue with a caretaker played by Amanda Vitiello, and a law firm representative played by Tiffani Lisieux, who’s there to prompt her to pay attention to mail and messages.

None of the characters have names but are instead designated simply A, B, and C, respectively, by playwright Edward Albee. Best known for skewering American upper-middle-class intelligencia (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance” among his many creations), Albee continued the tradition with 1994’s “Three Tall Women,” minus the blackout drinking common to his earlier works.

Director Michael Fontaine has gotten an excellent performance from this three-woman cast; in other hands, the script might have proven too difficult…

Albee reportedly said that he derived most of his characters’ dialog from listening to his parents’ cocktail parties. It’s as authentic as it can be in this show. Jorgensen riffs continually and brilliantly, confusing past and present, bouncing back and forth between lucidity and incoherence, hilarity and despair. It’s a stunning act of theatrical mastery. She manages her heavy line load adroitly, with only a bit of help from Vitiello and Lisieux.

If there are glitches in her recital, they’ll be obvious only to those who know the script word-for-word—Albee included plenty of intentional glitches in her speech, as might be expected from a ninety-something woman talking to a captive audience. As delivered, it’s all quite realistic old-person stream-of-consciousness. Vitiello and Liseux basically function to get her back on track when she goes off the rails, which is often, and often hilarious.

All three reappear in the second act, as the same woman (“A”) at differing ages—92, 52, 26—in a postmortem discussion of her life as they hover over her bed, as insightful in its own way as the long meandering riff that occupies the first act.

Left to right – Amanda Vitiello (B), Tiffani Lisieux (C), Laura Jorgensen (A)

Director Michael Fontaine has gotten an excellent performance from this three-woman cast; in other hands, the script might have proven too difficult. Lisieux was a welcome newcomer for this reviewer, one eager to see what she does next. Vitiello demonstrated a delightful flexibility—playing essentially two characters, neither of them resembling each other or the ditzy Long Island neighbor that she played in “Cry It Out.” And Jorgensen may be the North Bay equivalent of a national treasure. The veteran actress (“House of Yes,” “Ripcord,” many more) is amazing and wonderful in “Three Tall Women.” Her performance alone puts it over the top.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThree Tall Women
Written byEdward Albee
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 24th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

ASR Theater ~~ Thought Provoking — Lucky Penny’s “The How and the Why” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

Two research biologists have an unexpected encounter in the run-up to a scientific conference in “The How and the Why,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through April 24.

Lucky Penny Associate Artist Karen Pinamaki stars as Zelda, a career evolutionary biologist involved in hosting the annual meeting of the National Organization of Research Biologists (NORB). A late applicant named Rachel (Heather Kellogg Baumann) comes to Zelda’s office to plead for a speaking slot at the conference, to defend her hypothesis that human females menstruate as form of protection against sperm cells, which she characterizes as “antigens.”

Her hypothesis has gotten plenty of pushback from the biology establishment, especially from men. She begs Zelda for a speaking slot, despite having reservations about some of her own conclusions and many misgivings about drawing the ire of conference attendees, some of whom have already bashed her for what they perceive as outlandish assumptions.

Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play….

Rachel enjoys some sympathy from Zelda, whose own hypothesis met a similar reception nearly thirty years earlier—in Zelda’s case, the “grandmother hypothesis” speculating that women’s longer lifespans compared to men serve an evolutionary purpose: they are needed to help younger women with child-rearing duties.

The two biologists argue their convictions passionately, but the story isn’t really about science, despite the seeming plausibility of both concepts, and despite the realistically-depicted rampant nitpicking, back-stabbing, petty bickering, and professional jealously that infect the scientific community.

Their real issue is that Rachel is Zelda’s biological daughter, given up for adoption when she was only six days old. She’s now 28, the same age Zelda was when she got pregnant. The moment when she enters Zelda’s office is the first time they’ve met as adults. They are both professional scientists, the epitome of rationality, and they try their best to remain above emotional outbursts, but the emotion comes through despite their efforts to contain it—resentment, betrayal, guilt, feelings of abandonment and diminished self-worth, the whole panoply of negativity that can affect both those given away by their birth parents and those who gave them away.

Karen Pinamaki and HeatherKellogg Baumann at work.

Pinamaki and Baumann tread this emotional minefield with great care and a growing sense of carelessness, which becomes more pronounced as their mutual familiarity improves. Written by TV writer Sarah Treem (“House of Cards” among many other credits) and directed by Dana Nelson Isaacs, it’s an impressive pas de deux performed mostly in Zelda’s office (set design by Taylor Bartolucci and Barry Martin) and later in a Boston dive bar.

The two performers are very well balanced and amazingly dynamic with material that here and there may veer too far in the technical direction for some viewers. But strip out the scientific stuff, expertly woven into Treem’s story, and you have a universal tale of long-estranged mother and daughter reuniting in adulthood and trying to make a go of it from there.

An old adage about science is that it’s very good about explaining how events occur, but not so good about why. This fundamental observation applies not only to hard-core objective reality but also to a whole range of human behaviors. “The How and the Why” is a fascinating examination of two people trying to make sense of something that may not ever be fully understood either by them or by professional therapists. Lucky Penny deserves praise for producing such a thought-provoking play.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe How and the Why
Written bySarah Treem
Directed byDana Nelson Isaacs
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 24
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater ~~ 6th Street’s Stunning “Hank Williams – Lost Highway” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

The North Bay has been blessed recently with a spate of jukebox musicals, none better than “Hank Williams – Lost Highway” which opened at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse April 1 and has been EXTENDED to May 1st!

Authored by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, and expertly directed by Michael Butler, the show is a big production in every sense of the word—a cast of ten superb performers on the wide stage of the G.K. Hardt theater, with a spectacular set by Butler, Zach Bowlen, and Kristina Dorman, who painted the wonderful giant picture postcard that serves as backdrop.

Steven Lasiter stars as Williams, the doomed country star whose short career put an indelible stamp on American culture. Born with spina bifida, Williams was plagued by pain his entire life, something he tried to ameliorate with prodigious amounts of alcohol and prescription drugs—substances that proved his undoing as a performer and that ultimately ended his life. He died in the back seat of his Cadillac en route to a gig in Ohio—the official medical report cited “heart failure” while noting an alarming level of painkillers and alcohol in his blood. He was only 29 years old.

…an uplifting, life-affirming experience…

The show opens with a somber radio announcement of Williams’ passing, then flashes back to his adolescence in Alabama, where he was mentored by a bluesman named Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, played by real bluesman Levi Lloyd. Payne coached him on guitar, taught him melody and chord progression, and the fundamentals of songwriting, which Williams did entirely by ear. Despite creating dozens of hit songs that became American standards, he never learned to read or write music.

He said often that Payne was his only teacher. Butler emphasizes Payne’s importance by keeping him onstage throughout the show, sometimes in the shadows and sometimes in the spotlight to perform at key moments in the story. His presence also reinforces the fact that black music is both foundation and backbone of 20th-century pop music. Williams blended the blues form with traditional country instrumentation in a way that hooked millions of music fans—heartfelt melodies and simple lyrics evoking universal human desires and problems.

Photography by: Eric Chazankin

His band—the Drifting Cowboys—consists of excellent musicians who have stepped out of their comfort zones to double as actors. Michael Capella appears as Shag, the pedal steel player; guitarist Derek Brooker is Jimmy “Burrhead;” Michael Price is Hoss, the bass player; and Paul Shelansky is Leon, performing on mandolin, fiddle, and slide whistle. They rock the joint through dozens of Williams’ greatest songs, aided by tremendous sound design from Ben Roots.

Peter T. Downey does a fine job as “Pap” Rose, the recording engineer who became Williams’ manager. Jennifer Barnaba is solid as Audrey Williams, and Ellen Rawley is delightful as the unnamed waitress who runs off with Williams. Stage veteran Jill Wagoner is perfectly cast as Mama Lilly, Williams’ mother and his band’s sometimes manager and driver. She absolutely nails every nuance of a hard-working tough-as-nails Depression-era Southern woman.

Photography by: Eric Chazankin

The show encompasses every aspect of Williams’ short life, from country-music boy wonder to Grand Ole Opry superstar to rejected drunk to venerated saint. It’s beautifully paced, even if Butler did confess post-show that he hoped it would move along faster.

“Hank Williams – Lost Highway” is a stunning, essential piece of Americana. Despite the tragedy at its core, it proves to be an uplifting, life-affirming experience. 6th Street deserves accolades not merely for producing it, but for producing it so well.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionHank Williams: Lost Highway
Written byRandal Myler and Mark Harelik
Directed byMichael Butler
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesEXTENDED -- through May 1st, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ “Dear San Francisco” — Riotous Fun Opens at Club Fugazi | Your Reporter Cari Lynn Pace

Fans of Cirque du Soleil will be delighted to learn that “the circus has come to town.”

Seven performers and friends left the Montreal Cirque Du Soleil productions to form a troupe of high-flying acrobats calling themselves “The Seven Fingers”. They moved to San Francisco and now thrill audiences at the historic Club Fugazi on Green Street, a block of which was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard in honor of the beloved show that ran for a record 45 years until 2019.

The history of Club Fugazi, as introduced by Executive Director David Dower, is astonishing. Built in 1914, it has hosted an historic parade of entertainment, from jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, beat poets of the 50’s like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and even the Grateful Dead. Then came the irrepressible Beach Blanket Babylon, the longest running show in history with 45 years of outrageous songs, satire, and headdresses.

When the Queen of England requested a BBB viewing, a special box was built for her on the second floor rear of the theatre. Although she never attended, her son Prince Charles and Camilla did in her stead. “The Queen’s Box” is available for private parties and has its own elevator, anteroom and WC, otherwise known as a bathroom.

‘“Dear San Francisco” pays homage to the city’s history through video clips and acrobatics both onstage and in the audience.”

“Dear San Francisco” pays homage to the city’s history through video clips and acrobatics both onstage and in the audience. It’s a circus sans elephants or lions, with plenty of high hoop jumping and flying aerials to make you hold your breath. The performers don’t have glittery costumes, but they shine at their astounding feats. They’ll run into the audience to play catch over your head or unicycle on the counter in front of your drinks. They show off, and clearly love what they do.

Co-creators Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider are true circus brats. At age 4, Gypsy’s parents founded the Pickle Family Circus, which Shana joined as a trapeze artist for 20 years. Together they have assembled a fine troupe of jugglers, aerialists, cyclists, and musicians to astound the audience. It’s 90 nonstop minutes of over-the-top energy. The audience can’t stop applauding.

“Dear San Francisco” offers a limited selection of beer, wine, and nibbles. Guests are seated at comfortable backed swivel chairs of varying heights to allow for full viewing. The acoustics are difficult, but non-essential for the surrounding action of this show. Some seats are located onstage, behind and close to the performers. The kids seem to love the action there, almost as much as the adults.

There is no printed program, so you must bring a smart phone to scan the QR code. Who wants to read anyway, when there is so much going on around you? It’s a circus after all!

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionDear San Francisco
Written byShana Carroll and Gypsy Snider
Directed byShana Carroll and Gypsy Snider
Producing CompanyClub Fugazi Experiences
Production DatesWednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM through Summer, 2022
Production Address678 Green Street, San Francisco CA 94133
WebsiteClubFugaziSF.com
Telephone
Tickets$35– $79
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An ASR Pick! “Almost, Maine” Sublimely Sweet at Spreckels – by Nicole Singley

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” –Roald Dahl 

Allie Nordby and Skylar Evans (Photo by Jeff Thomas)

Spreckels has something sublimely sweet in store for those in need of a little magic. On a snowy night in the remote outskirts of eastern Maine, nine couples confront questions about love, loss, hope, and healing under the spell of the northern lights. Gracing the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through April 10th, “Almost, Maine” is equal parts funny and moving, and a heartwarming night at the theater well spent.

John Cariani’s clever script features nine vignettes that play out across eleven short scenes, each brimming with witty wordplay and plentiful humor, a hearty sprinkling of magical – and sometimes absurdly literal – realism, and characters who are endearingly forthright and sincere. Cariani gives viewers a sampling of love stories in various stages of growth and decline, including missed connections, new beginnings, unexpected reunions, and sweet misunderstandings. While most of the endings are happy or hopeful, there are plenty of poignant moments, too, offering audiences a beautifully balanced exploration of human relationships and folly.

Director Anderson Templeton leans into the play’s comic absurdity just enough to earn laughs in all the right places without devaluing the more tender and genuine moments. He gets strong performances from a capable ensemble of six, who together take on the roles of nineteen different characters throughout the show, moving smoothly between parts and pairings. It is a testament to their talent that it’s not a struggle to adjust to the same faces reappearing in each new capacity. Instead, it imbues the show with a sense of intimacy and familiarity that feels becoming of the tiny, would-be town of Almost, Maine.

. . . refreshingly honest, tremendously funny, and full of love and wisdom, with a little bit of magic awaiting those who are willing to find it.”

Serena Elize Flores and Brandon Wilson (Photo by Jeff Thomas)

Serena Elize Flores and Brandon Wilson shine together as distraught Glory and earnest repairman, East, whose chance encounter under the aurora offers hope that a broken heart can possibly be fixed. John Browning and Molly Larsen-Shine are at once hilarious and charming as Lendall and Gayle, a couple on the verge of breaking up when a surprising revelation changes everything. Allie Nordby delivers a haunting performance in a touching scene with Skylar Evans, in which a woman named Hope comes home to find out if the man she once loved still holds out hope for her return. These are only a few of the most memorable scenes, but all are well-executed and highly enjoyable.

Combined with Chris Schloemp’s stunning astral projections, Andrew Patton’s simple, snow-covered set creates a lovely backdrop, and is complemented by Donnie Frank’s humble, cold-weather costumery. Elizabeth Bazzano assists with a whimsical array of props, including big red bags purportedly full of love, an ironing board that doubles as an accidental weapon, and a shoe that drops mysteriously from the ceiling with impeccable timing. Thanks to resident designers Eddy Hansen and Jessica Johnson, lighting and sound work together seamlessly to set the scene, transitioning the small stage from romantic star-lit night to local watering hole with ease.

There isn’t much more I can divulge without risk of ruining some of the delicious surprises that await first-time viewers, but suffice it to say that from start to finish, this production is an absolute delight. This reviewer laughed and cried in equal measure. “Almost, Maine” is the kind of world I want to live in – refreshingly honest, tremendously funny, and full of love and wisdom, with a little bit of magic awaiting those who are willing to find it. If you’ve been waiting to get back to the theater, this show is the perfect opportunity. Don’t let it pass you by.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionAlmost, Maine
Written byJohn Cariani
Directed byAnderson Templeton
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 10th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR Theater Review | “Rent” Pays It Back with Spirit and Energy; MMT Performs at NTC | Your Reporter Cari Lynn Pace

In 1996 Jonathan Larson debuted “Rent,” his musical about rebellious and irresponsible youth leading a lifestyle of hedonism and drug use in the rough streets of NYC. Their dismal lives are pointless and the ending isn’t pretty, but they sing and dance about it anyway. The musical won both Pulitzer and Tony awards and spotlighted the AIDS epidemic of that time.

Although this synopsis of “Rent” sounds cheerless, this show’s over-the-top energy and talent provide much to cheer about. The production by Marin Musical Theatre Company, in collaboration with the Novato Theatre Company, is really spirited. It took MMTC many years attempting to gain the rights to perform the show. It was worth the wait.

“It took MMTC many years attempting to gain the rights to perform the show. It was worth the wait.”

Accompanied by four onstage musicians, eighteen actors explode with powerful voices, tight choreography, and stunning staging. The dancing is particularly energetic, using table tops and platforms between high scaffolding. NTC’s small 99-seat theatre is an intimate venue which allows the audience to feel up close and personal with the performers. “I’ve seen this show on Broadway and it wasn’t nearly as exciting as this one,” one audience member noted.

Director Jenny Boynton confided, “We’ve been rehearsing only six weeks, but this cast really gelled together right from the start and amazed me with their talent. It made my job a lot easier.”

Local theatre fans will be delighted to see many new faces onstage. An NTC board member commented, “This is the next generation of actors to keep performance tradition alive. They’re young, and they’re our future stars.”

Vocal standouts abound, including Nelson Brown in perfect harmony with Jake Gale. Gary Stanford Jr.’s voice fills the theatre to the rafters. Stephen Kanaski twirls across the stage and croons to great applause. Trixie Aballa beautifully belts out her songs while dancing, topped only by Shayla Lawler’s sensual solo in Act II. Kudos to choreographer Katie Wickes for such spirited dances—from Anna Vorperian’s tango to the explosive rock-out of the entire company.

“Rent” is a remarkable tour de force, a tight production far beyond one’s expectations. With the adult themes of the show, consider the appropriate age to bring youngsters. Tickets are selling briskly, so take possession of this show before the lease runs out April 10th.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionRENT
Written byJonathan Larson
Directed byJenny Boynton
Producing CompanyMarin Musical Theatre Co. in collab. w/ Novato Theater Co.
Production DatesThrough April 10th
Production AddressNTC, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
Websitewww.MarinMusicals.org
Telephone
Tickets$18-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES

ASR Theater Review | “The Packrat Gene” Stashes Memories Amidst Stuff; RVP Offers New Production | Your Reporter Cari Lynn Pace

It’s a common dilemma as years go by. Who can get rid of the pile-up of possessions, especially those linked to precious memories? “The Packrat Gene” explores this timeless agony with a true-to-heart script by the Bay Area’s Margy Kahn at the Ross Valley Players.

This new play was selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee (RAW) for its original, provocative, and exciting aspects, an addition to RVP’s regular subscriber season. The familiar theme resonates with audiences young and old.

Marcia van Broek as Esther; Julie Ann Sarabia as Rachel. Phots by Robina Jackson.

In New Jersey, three generations of grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter gather with a goal to clear out grandma’s apartment. Their conversations are acerbic and amusing as the women cajole, collide, concede, and console one another.

Marsha van Broek is marvelous as widowed grandma Esther with the accent of a holocaust escapee from Paris. She’s just fine where she is, thank you, surrounded by her books, broken bowls, 30-year-old pay stubs and Edith Piaf records.

Maya Rath as Leigh. Photos by Robina Jackson

Maya Rath masters her role as the practical and frustrated daughter Leigh, flying cross country to take control of the situation. Concerned about her mother’s age and mental state, Leigh tries to convince her to consider a retirement community. She’s on a deadline to return back to work in LA. Her obstinate mother dismisses Leigh with harshness dredged up from the past, while the dutiful daughter patiently reminds her to live in the present.

Spunky granddaughter Rachel, superbly played by Julie Ann Sarabia, flies in to give affection and allegiance to her grandmother and a snippy attitude to her mother. It seems Leigh can’t do anything right by these two. Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.

“Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.”

Director Michael R. Cohen notes “This play succeeds because of the casting. I am fortunate to have three superb actors who worked well together and made my job easy.”

“The Packrat Gene” is an addition to RVP’s season of regular subscriber shows. It’s a new and fully staged production selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee, running only through April 3rd. Pack this performance into your plans and make a move to see it.

 

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Packrat Gene
Written byMargy Kahn
Directed byMichael R. Cohen
Producing CompanyRoss Alternative Works Committee via RVP
Production DatesThursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2 PM through April 3rd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick. | Big Hug: Lucky Penny’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

Through March 13, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions has a feel-good treat in store for everyone repulsed by war ravaging Ukraine. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is Roger Bean’s hit jukebox musical featuring 38 pop songs of the 1950s and ‘60s, performed by the cutest—and goofiest—foursome that ever hopped on stage.

The scene is the 1958 Springfield High School prom, where we meet Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy (Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Vida Mae Fernandez, Jenny Veilleux, and Kirstin Pieschke, respectively)—a vocal quartet in the poofiest skirts imaginable, on a kitschy set by Brian Watson, who also did the recent “Amy and the Orphans” at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater. Each of the four performers is a standout in her own way. Together they are delightful!

The The Marvelous Wonderettes at work. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act One covers many of the best-known songs of the mid-to-late 1950s. Backed by a three-piece band, the girls have a bit of a rough start with The Chordettes’ deathless 1954 pop classic “Mr. Sandman.” Their timing and choreography are off just enough to provoke laughs but not cringes, and they gradually refine their act, dutifully plowing through many other anthems of teenage angst.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape…

Comical petty jealousies infect both their performance and their between-songs interactions but never to the point where we’re afraid the group might break up. The Wonderettes are catty but loyal: all-for-one and one-for-all despite plenty of sniping. Writer Roger Bean uses the show’s playlist as a framework on which to hang the story of the Wonderettes’ drama with each other—both onstage and off.

The Wonderettes go mod. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act Two finds the group reunited ten years later, this time in 60’s Mod attire (costumes by Barbara McFadden) and with an updated song list (music direction by Ellen Patterson). Several months pregnant, Suzy is wobbly but manages to be a real trooper even if she has to perform barefoot.

We learn a whole lot about what’s been going on with the girls during their decade after high school, none of it alarming and most of it amusing, such as flirting with “Ritchie,” the technician in the lighting booth. Stage manager Jeff Bristow is the good-natured recipient of such attentions. The girls’ relationships with the men in their lives can be a bit confusing, but don’t let the confusion interfere with your enjoyment of the show. It’s huge fun whether or not you can quote chapter and verse about the back story later.

Directed and choreographed by Scottie Woodard, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape from the larger world’s insanity.

As Jeff Bristow put it, the show is “a big hug”—exactly what we need now!

 

 

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Marvelous Wonderettes
Written byRoger Bean
Directed byScottie Woodard
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru March 13th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An ASR Pick. | “Harry Potter” Comes Roaring Back to the Curran | Your reporter: Barry Willis

A two-year hiatus hasn’t diminished “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater February 24, after a two-week delay due to COVID—after a two-year delay due to COVID.

If anything, the production is more polished and more spectacular than during its aborted run late in December 2019. The new show combines the original’s separate Part One and Part Two in one mind-blowing three-hours-plus production.

Harry Potter (John Skelley) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The February 24 opening night included a huge rowdy street party before the show with a presentation by San Francisco Mayor London Breed. There is clearly a pent-up desire for live theater among performers and audience alike. Nowhere was this clearer than this show’s opener, from the street party to the entire production. The new production is slated to run through August 31, and is certain to satisfy Potterites of every variety, who may have to horde their shekels to get tickets, ranging from $69 to $229. Discounts are available.

It’s the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see…

“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is pretty much a theatrical miracle. Prior to COVID, the large-capacity Curran (nearly 1,700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for massive renovations, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to create a realistic refugee camp for “The Jungle.” Then it was redecorated again, with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo, only to be abruptly closed by the pandemic.

From the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

The new production is incredible, even for those not steeped in Potter lore. It packs in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory.

(L-R) Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Professor McGonagall (Shannon Cochran), and Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.

Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Performers are all first-rate, from the primary characters all the way down to the chorus. There appear to be approximately thirty members in the cast, plus many dozens of specialists in the technical crew.

It’s one whale of a group effort, an amazingly well-polished production on an enormous scale. The imposing set by Christine Jones is amazing both in its audacity and its versatility, subject to instant change despite its size.

Pictured (L–R): Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu), Rose Granger-Weasley (Folami Williams), James Potter Jr. (William Bednar-Carter), Harry Potter (John Skelley), Ginny Potter (Angela Reed), and Albus Potter (Benjamin Papac) from the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. — Photo credit: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany (director of the show) has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Geoffrey Wade) and his offspring. Pivotal roles of Ginny Potter, Hermione Grainger, and Rose Grainger-Weasley are adroitly covered by Angela Reed, Lily Mojekwu, and Folami Williams, respectively. Mojekwu and Williams are especially convincing as mother and daughter.

It’s a wild adventure, but may be too much for very young children. There were no frightened cries from the audience on opening night, even though some of the malevolent spirits haunting the Curran are (youngster) pants-wetting scary.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill, as well as some fascinating background information that will appeal to hardcore fans.

As we stated when “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” first landed in San Francisco, even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers, it’s a religious experience. For everyone else, it’s simply the most spectacular and well-produced show that many of us will ever see.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru August 31st
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$69-$229
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick | “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Sizzles at 6th Street Playhouse | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse transforms their 99-seat Monroe Stage into Cleo’s Bar, a down-and-out dive in Panama City, Florida—a Gulf Coast town at the eastern end of the state’s panhandle, an area southerners refer to with disparaging affection as “the redneck Riviera.”

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born. Directed by Carl Jordan, it’s a totally charming, well-acted and danced production. It blends the story of friendship and support with more than a few bawdy and ribald scenes. Leave the kids at home.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

Cleo’s Bar manager Eddie (Peter Downey) introduces an earnest but untalented Casey (Alexander Howard) to an underwhelming cluster of patrons. Casey is a down-on-his-luck wannabe Elvis impersonator who makes less money in tips than his gas bill to drive to work each night.

After the show, Casey arrives home to find his hardworking wife Jo (Jamella Cross) distraught as their rent check has bounced again. These two have a strong bond, now sorely tested by their desperate finances. When Casey shows Jo a sequined Elvis suit he purchased to enhance his act, Jo erupts in dismay and reveals she is pregnant. Casey promises he will do better for their future together. It’s a great setup.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born.”

The next night at Cleo’s Bar, two female impersonators arrive and size up their backstage digs. Miss Tracy Mills (an astounding performance by Joseph Abrego) is optimistic and determined to make their new gig work. She reminds her inebriated co-star Anorexia Nervosa (a hilarious turn by Tyler Bertolone) that this is their last chance; they’ve run out of options.

Casey knows nothing of this change of plans and prepares to drive to work as usual. In a remarkable double role, Bertolone appears as Casey and Jo’s butch neighbor and landlord. Friendly but determined, he lumbers over to collect the back rent or evict them. It seems Casey and Jo aren’t the only ones who’ve run out of options.

Casey arrives at work and is dismissed as entertainment by the manager. Elvis has left the building, and a new duo of divas is waiting to show off their assets. When Nervosa passes out drunk for the first show, Tracy plops an Edith Piaf wig on to a very reluctant Casey and shoves him onstage to lip sync. A star is born, sort of.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

The drag show money lures Casey to do it again, so Tracy coaches and grooms him for more female impersonator roles. She creates a “Georgia McBride” stage name as Casey starts to enjoy himself. Cleo’s Bar becomes the hottest and hippest joint in town.

When Anorexia sobers up enough to re-join the cast, the team’s sexy shiny costume changes and clever choreography propel the bar’s fame over the top. The first row of seats in this ¾ round theatre gets the action up close, and these outrageous gals really work the crowd.

Tracy’s generous guidance and stage smarts bring months of success to Cleo’s. But there’s a problem: Casey is uncomfortable in his new onstage “skin” and has not told his pregnant wife he has dropped performing as Elvis in favor of “Georgia McBride.” When she finds out, their reckoning is both painful and eventually productive. Love and community support conquer all.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

“Georgia McBride” delivers nonstop entertainment, filling this stage to the brim with pizzazz. Act II has the choreography talents of Devin Parker Sullivan and Jacob Gutierrez-Montoya. Add dazzlingly quick costume changes designed by Amaris Blagborne to the wig and make-up skills of Rosanne Johnson, and the audience goes wild.

 

Director Carl Jordan noted that “Georgia McBride” was ready to roll when the Omicron surge hit, and he had to replace three cast members who were no longer available. Fortunately, Jordan has the stunning talents of Joseph Abrego, a top drag queen across LA. Jordan also recruited Peter Downey to step into the role of the bar manager with a mere ten days’ rehearsal. You’d never know it, as Downey seamlessly fits into this talented crew as part of “The Legend of Georgia McBride.”

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Legend of Georgia McBride
Written byMatthew Lopez
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 20th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick. | “Master Class” Sonoma Arts Live Hits the High Notes | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace

Emily Evans and Libby Oberlin at work. Photo courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

 

Sonoma’s Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall transforms into a classroom for opera legend Maria Callas, where she instructs aspiring opera stars. A creation based on actual events, Terrence McNally’s story stars Libby Oberlin as Madame Callas. Under the direction of veteran Carl Jordan, Oberlin becomes a tour-de-force in this poignant look back at the Diva’s life.

The audience is welcomed as if we are all students by a commanding Madame Callas. She sharply addresses us “There will be no applause, we are here to work!” We meekly obey. She is at once mercurial, charming and aloof.

Libby Oberlin at work. Photos courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

Reduced to teaching master classes at Julliard in 1971-72, Madame Callas shares recorded snatches of her past triumphs and once-incredible voice. Although she does not sing, she reminisces about past triumphs and loves. And losses. Callas was the world’s American-born Greek goddess whose voice, like her pedestal, crumbled away far too soon.

Madame Callas as channeled by the talented Oberlin is a firestorm onstage. She mocks her pianist (John Partridge) for his clothing choices. She barks orders to stagehand Dan Monez. When her first student, a soprano beautifully played by Emily Evans, appears in a short dress, the Diva is not amused.

“Helpful” criticism overflows to the audience, some of whom are berated for their obvious lack of style. Evans does a fine turn as the terrorized young singer who does her best to comply with Madame Callas’ instructions. When the soprano finally does get to sing, the audience erupts in a burst of encouraging – and supportive – applause.

“When the soprano finally does get to sing, the audience erupts in a burst of encouraging – and supportive – applause.”

The Diva’s next “victim” (as she calls them) is another soprano, played by regal redhead Morgan Harrington. Although dressed resplendently, Madame cuttingly dismisses her to re-do her stage entrance. She does not reappear; Madame Callas suspects this student is gone for good.

An attractive tenor is next (Robert Dornaus) and his confidence and style impress the Diva. When his fine tenor voice fills the auditorium, Madame shifts her criticism. This class is not as much about his voice; she zeros in to correct his pronunciation and his presentation of the role.

Robert Dornaus as the tenor whose confidence and style impress the Diva. Photo courtesy Sonoma Arts Live.

The dismissed soprano (Harrington) reappears, Madame insists she fully master the emotion of what she sings. This is the reputation and legacy of Maria Callas as she performed at all the greatest opera houses around the world.

Throughout “Master Class,” Callas draws from the well of emotional pains of her upbringing and dramatic life onstage and off. Her end-of career reminiscences interrupt the lessons, with clips of her past projected behind her. The saddest line Madame Callas speaks is in Act II, when she admits to the re-appearing soprano “I would never tell anyone not to applaud. Sometimes applause is the only thing we have to live on.”

COVID Update: Sonoma Arts Live has a policy of COVID protections. They require evidence of vaccination or similar safety precautions and masks are worn throughout the performance. See the website for full information.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionMaster Class
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesFebruary 27, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

Theater | Pure Joy: Cinnabar’s “Amy and the Orphans” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

 

On rare occasions, an obscure play with an unknown star rocks the theater world.

At Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through February 20, Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Amy and the Orphans” is exactly that kind of production. In it, a couple of adult siblings named Maggie and Jacob (Mary DeLorenzo and Michael Fontaine, respectively) return to New York for their father’s funeral. They also have a half-baked plan to get their sister Amy (Julie Yeager) to move out of the state-supported home where she has lived for many years and to come reside with one of them.

It’s not clear why Maggie and Jacob wish to do this—they’ve had little contact with Amy for a long time, and no experience caring for her. Perhaps a lingering sense of guilt propels them, and while bickering with each other, they press their case with both Amy and Kathy (Jannely Calmell), her caretaker. The results are heartrending and comical.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years…

A Down’s Syndrome person, Amy has a strong attachment to where she lives, a residence full of her friends. She’s a movie fanatic, watching them constantly on her iPad, and has a job working in a movie theater—a perfect occupation, in that she has memorized every classic line from every iconic film reaching back decades.

Left to right_ Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy. Photography by Victoria Von Thal

It’s a very fulfilling life for her. She doesn’t want to disrupt any of it, but her sister and brother insist that they know what’s best. Blessed with an innocent passion for fairness, Amy argues with impeccable logic about why she should remain where she is, and when rationality fails to convince them, she resorts to small-scale guerrilla tactics, coming close to risking her life in her fight for autonomy.

With a great sense of comic timing and tremendous confidence, Julie Yeager astounds in the lead role. Her wise replies come off with an improvisational immediacy that one might expect from a theatrical veteran of many years. So do her many movie-quoting bits, all done with perfect timing and the original characters’ diction. She’s a wonder to behold, provoking a spontaneous standing ovation from a nearly full house on opening weekend.

DeLorenzo and Fontaine are very good as middle-aged siblings whose differences have never been resolved. Calmell, a young veteran of many North Bay productions, is excellent as Kathy. Gina Alvarado and Justin P. Lopez are enjoyable diversions in a couple of flashback scenes of Sarah and Bobby, the parents of Maggie, Jacob, and Amy.

L-to-R_ Michael Fontaine as Jacob, Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy, Janelly Calmell as Kathy. Photo by V. Von Thal

Director Nathan Cummings has gotten a world-class performance from his cast of six, but most especially from Yeager, an absolute joy. Cinnabar’s whimsical set (by Brian Watson) and goofy props only add to the fun and satisfaction.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years. Continually engaging, uplifting, and at moments downright hilarious, it’s a show that will instill hope and bring you to your feet in celebration.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionAmy and the Orphans
Written byLindsey Ferrentino
Directed byNathan Cummings
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 20th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick. | “Hair” an Exuberant Experience. Classic Rock Musical Shines with Energy | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace

 

6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa took a brilliant risk in staging the rock musical “Hair.” From the moment one enters the theatre, one is surrounded by the exuberance of the hippie “Tribe” of actors cavorting onstage to drums. It’s clear this joyful “be-in” will be a performance like no other.

When “Hair” opened on Broadway 50 years ago, it broke every rule in the theatrical book. How did it become such a timeless musical? And how does it still capture audiences?

It has no real story line, plenty of four-letter words, a batch of rock ‘n’ roll songs strung together, and an in-your-face confrontation of the issues of race, the Vietnam War draft, sex, drugs, pollution, and clothing. It’s a brash bold and ballsy exploration of issues, many which still confront us today.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Whatever the magic formula, Director Aja Gianola-Norris brings this production of “Hair” over the top with a talented cast in fine frenzy, feathers, and fringe. Rachel Wynne’s choreography is vigorous and uninhibited, the onstage band under Lucas Sherman’s direction is spot on (although a bit loud for some of the solos), and the actors abound with strong voices.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Their physical performances are so impressive it would be no surprise if they lost weight after each performance.

“Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed…

Act I begins with a celebration of the extraordinary 1962 alignment of seven heavenly bodies (planets and the moon) in the constellation Aquarius. Time-tested favorites open with “Age of Aquarius” belted out by Serena Elize Flores. It’s followed by a dozen more, including “Hair,” “Hare Krishna,” and “Easy to Be Hard,” a solo soulfully sung by Gillian Eichenberger. The Tribe’s conflicts about the Vietnam War come to a head as some burn their draft cards. Others burn bras. Claude (an extremely acrobatic Jamin Jollo) and Berger (hilarious Ezra Hernandez) must decide their future paths in “Where Do I Go?”

Act II consists mainly of the Tribes LSD trip. It’s a free-flowing dream sequence, a circus with bizarre bits and beads. Famous characters come and go. The Tribe freely partners up, uncouples, and mixes again against the backdrop of “Good Morning Starshine.”

When the finale “Let the Sunshine In” is sung, audience hands wave in a reflection of peace, love, and difficult choices. “Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed.

 

*** Covid restrictions at the 6th Street Playhouse require proof of vaccination and masks to be worn throughout the production. Some material may not be suitable for people under 16 years of age. Please see website for further advisories about this performance.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionHair
Written byGerome Ragni and James Rado
Directed byAja Gianola-Norris
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 6th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick. | Exquisite Theater: MSW’s “The Glass Menagerie” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

Main Stage West has rebounded from the confounding “Late, A Cowboy Song” with an exceptional production of the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie.” Expertly directed by Elizabeth Craven, it may be the only production ever done featuring real-life mother-and-daughter as their fictional counterparts.

Williams’ “memory play” takes place in St. Louis, in the late 1930s. A three-member family struggles to survive in the wake of a long-ago departure by an unnamed father and husband, whose portrait and influence loom over everything in the household.

Sheri Lee Miller, Theatre Manager at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, stars as family matriarch Amanda Wingfield, a manipulative and delusional faded Southern belle who smothers her adult children with a seemingly endless recital of recollections and demands. Miller’s daughter Ivy Rose Miller, MSW’s Managing Artistic Director, is understatedly amazing as Amanda’s weepy wallflower daughter Laura. MSW’s Producing Artistic Director Keith Baker turns in a solid performance as Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, a would-be poet and adventurer who also serves as the show’s narrator. Newcomer (for this reviewer, at least) Damion Lee Matthews does a more-than-convincing job as Jim, Tom’s associate from the shoe warehouse where they both work.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen…

The four-member cast is beautifully balanced. MSW’s compact stage is the perfect venue for the Wingfield family’s shabby St. Louis apartment—set design by David Lear and Elizabeth Craven. Missy Weaver’s moody lighting contributes to the Wingfields’ unhappy ambience, and carefully-curated selections of ‘30s-era music help put the story in its proper historical perspective—sound designer not credited in the playbill.

Glass Menagerie – Keith Baker and Damion Lee Matthews

This “Menagerie” is a stunning example of superb ensemble work that sails along at just the right pace, neither too briskly nor too slowly. Matthews exhibits palpable sensitivity as his Jim gets to know Laura, and Ivy Rose plumbs the depths of Laura’s rudderless existence. Baker confidently anchors the whole production, serving as a morose counterbalance to Sheri Lee Miller’s flamboyant and hysterical Amanda.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen—an exquisite piece of theatrical art that should be on every theatergoer’s must-see list.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 5th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

An ASR Pick. | “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily”: Ross Valley Players Blends Fantasy with Reality | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace

 

A Sherlock Holmes fan, I was a bit hesitant when Ross Valley Players presented “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily.” Would it hold up to the reputation so solidly laid by the clever detective’s reputation? Would there be mental challenges to determine how Holmes knew a visitor’s occupation, history, or personal habits just by scientific observation?

No worries here. Playwright Katie Forgette has written enough clever observations for Holmes to satisfy classic fans. Veteran Director Phoebe Moyer has expertly cast a full complement of victims, villains, and simpletons to play several famous touchstone characters. The lead character could not be better cast than David L. Yen, a Bay Area favorite and an incredible personification of the famed detective. His voice and his cultivated manner channel savvy Sherlock, pipe and all.

“Playwright Katie Forgette has written enough clever observations for Holmes to satisfy classic fans.”

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” opens with a quick side glimpse of a robbery. The real plot starts in Holmes’ study, handsomely designed by Tom O’Brien, where Holmes and the affable Dr. Watson, solidly enacted by Alex Ross, receive an odd visitor.

Sherlock Holmes is in residence at RVP! — Photo by Robin Jackson

At first the proposed crime adventure appears straightforward: Holmes’ client, now revealed, seeks to avoid blackmail by recovering a cache of stolen love letters. The client is famous actress Lillie Langtree (beautifully played by Ellen Brooks) who’s had an affair with her royal lover, Britain’s Crown Prince “Bertie” Edward. Lillie’s own moniker “The Jersey Lily” stems from her birth on Jersey Island in the UK.

“As details of the crime are discussed, there are twists and turns uncovered. The plot thickens, and the game’s afoot!”

Lillie’s friend and devotee, Oscar Wilde, tags along, languidly played by Isaak Heath. He adds comic relief to the repartee between Holmes, Lillie, and Dr. Watson. As details of the crime are discussed, there are twists and turns uncovered. The plot thickens, and “the game’s afoot!”

The stage setting changes to Lillie’s sitting room, a charming transformation done by two stage hands dressed as proper maids, an example of Michael A. Berg’s cleverness as costume designer.

Holmes and Langtry at RVP — Photo by Robin Jackson

Act II takes place in a warehouse where the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Michel B. Harris) outlines his plans to mastermind another theft from Lillie. It’s this act that gives Tamar Cohn a chance to shine as Lillie’s supposed maidservant. Cohn’s acting chops are superb. Professor Moriarty’s hired thug (Joseph Alvarado) also turns in a terrific performance as a fumbling dumbbell. Alvarado doubles up his roles in a cameo as the regal emissary to the Queen, a convincing switch of characters.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” runs 2 hours and 20 minutes. The second act could be tightened up, as several of the scenes were prolonged. The playwright delivers an ending, actually several endings, which seem less than believable, but then it’s a fictional work after all.

The show delivers pure escape entertainment, mingling fictional with actual people of history. It’s an enjoyable night out, especially filled with surprises and a real sword fight.

Covid Protocols: In keeping with public health protocols, Ross Valley Players note that all actors, stage crew, and volunteers are fully vaccinated. Audience attendees are required to show ID and proof of full vaccinations at the door. Masks must be worn at all times inside the theatre.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionSherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
Written byKatie Forgette
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru February 20th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An ASR Pick. | “The Band’s Visit” a Revelation at the Golden Gate Theatre | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

A mistaken destination leads to a night of small-scale magic for some Egyptian musicians and their accidental Israeli hosts in “The Band’s Visit,” at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through February 6.

It also leads to a night of big-time magic for theatergoers willing to brave the pandemic. Like every other socially responsible venue, the Golden Gate is adamant about checking vax status for all attendees and requiring masks during the show’s no-intermission 105 minutes.

This production is a risk worth taking: a simple story about ordinary people that rises far above the ordinary through a seamless blend of great writing, great music, great acting, and great stagecraft—among the many reasons why the show ran seemingly forever on Broadway and garnered 10 Tony awards.

You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

The time is 1996, forty-eight years after the Arab-Israeli War, a conflict not forgotten by either side. The setup is the arrival in a small Israeli desert town of the eight-member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra. Resplendent in pale blue uniforms, they’ve come to the wrong town due to misunderstanding its name—Bet Hatikva, not Petah Tikva, where they’re scheduled to perform at the Arab Cultural Center. There’s no bus to take them to their proper destination until the next day, and there’s no hotel in Bet Hatikva either, so they must rely on friendly locals for the night. In the process, potential adversaries get to know each other and discover that the same problems bedevil everyone regardless of religion or nationality.

Janet Dacal (left) and Sasson Gabay in “The Band’s Visit,” which tours to BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre.

Apart from the original mistake that launches the story, writer Itamar Moses doesn’t mine the obvious comedic ore of language barrier. Instead the Egyptians speak Arabic with each other, the Israeli speak Hebrew, and the two rely on heavily-accented and sometimes clumsy English as their lingua franca—all of it perfectly understandable to an American audience.

Set designer Scott Pask and lighting designer Tyler Micoleeau do their utmost to convey life in a dead-end town—both the heat and the hopelessness. (Cue the song “Welcome to Nowhere.”) The designers’ work, like the overall production itself, has rough-around-the-edges qualities that reinforce an abiding sense of realism. We may never visit the Negev Desert, but we certainly get a lingering taste.

The production’s realism is leavened with intervals of sheer magic—the band itself has moments of rehearsal that have the audience clamoring for more, and some of the songs are genius. Café owner Dina (Janet Dacal) befriends bandleader Twefiq (Sasson Gabay)—derisively called “the General” by a couple of Bet Hatikva locals—and sitting at a small table, she confesses how much she loved watching Egyptian movies on TV when she was young, a prelude to “Omar Sharif,” one of the show’s breakout hits. Twefiq in turn confesses his everlasting sorrow at losing his son and wife. Sweetness counterbalanced with regret tinged with hope—“The Band’s Visit” may have some of the most complex emotional undercurrents of any contemporary musical.

Janet Dacal and Sasson Gabay 2 — Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Broadway SF

But it has moments of levity, too—Joe Joseph is outstanding as the seductive trumpeter Haled, who knows everything about his hero Chet Baker, right down to playing his riffs and singing in his voice. Joshua Grosso has the pitiable role of “Telephone Guy,” a Bet Hatikva resident who stands vigil all night at a pay phone hoping his former girlfriend will call. The Israelis and Egyptians discover commonality in their love of many kinds of music—Arabic, Klezmer, American jazz, while the seductive lure of the oud, cello, and clarinet continually remind us of the band’s reason for being.

Morning comes as it inevitably must, and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra must say farewell to new friends. That we don’t get to enjoy their full concert is the show’s only disappointment. You’ll leave the theater overjoyed for having been there but longing for more.

Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

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ProductionThe Band’s Visit
Written byItamar Moses Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by David Cromer Choreographed by Patrick McCollum
Producing CompanyBroadway SF
Production DatesThrough February 6, 2022
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
Websitewww.broadwaysf.com
Telephone(888) 749-1799
Tickets$56 - $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Choreography5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

Happy New Year from Aisle Seat Review! | From Team ASR

As the new year dawns, Aisle Seat Review thanks all of our loyal readers—and all of the many theater companies that invite us to their productions month after month despite the fact that we don’t always praise their work.

Our intention is always to deliver honest appraisals with a goal of improving the theatrical experience for everyone involved—performers, technical crews, and audiences alike.

Like the year before it, 2021 was a rough period for the theater community, but we have emerged from months of lockdown stronger and more energetic than ever. ASR looks forward to a healthier, happier season with expanded coverage, including an enticing potential rollout of new regional editions.

If it’s theatrically significant, you’ll see it here–and we’ll see you at the show!

Happy New Year!

Editorial Team ASR:

  • Kris Neely, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
  • Barry Willis, ASR NorCal Executive Editor
  • Nicole Singley, ASR NorCal Senior Contributing Writer/Editor
  • Cari Lynn Pace, ASR NorCal Contributing Writer 
  • Victor Cordell, ASR NorCal Contributing Writer/Editor
  • Team ASR (technical review staff)

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An ASR Pick! Center Rep Delivers a Sumptuous “Christmas Carol” — by Barry Willis

Kerri Shawn and Michael Ray Wisely (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

The holiday spirit can’t get any brighter or more uplifting than the one inhabiting Center Repertory Company’s “A Christmas Carol,” at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through December 23.

A sumptuous large-scale production on one of the biggest stages in the Bay Area, this almost-a-musical update to the Charles Dickens classic is Broadway-quality, with a huge and hugely talented cast of approximately thirty actors/singers/dancers, and with spectacular scenic effects in what is arguably one of the premier physical theaters in Northern California. Center Rep is deeply endowed.

Why almost-a-musical? Productions of this enduring story always feature traditional Christmas carols—in fact, they’re among the many holiday irritants that provoke the wrath of miserable old miser Ebenezer Scrooge—but in this one, director Scott Denison and music director Michael Patrick Wiles have chosen to include a vocal quartet whose harmonies serve to underscore the drama, not to comment on it as in a Greek tragedy, but to deepen the emotional impact of key scenes. 

Jeff Draper as Marley

It’s a wonderfully effective gambit, as wonderful in its own way as is the towering set by Kelly James Tighe that serves as Scrooge’s office and home, as London streets, and as the netherworld from which emerge the ghost of Scrooge’s partner Jacob Marley (Jeff Draper), and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (Kerri Shawn, Jerry Lee, and Scott Maraj, respectively). Shawn and Lee are especially delightful—Shawn with gorgeous voice and glittering gown, flitting about as she leads Scrooge through a return to his youth, Lee with boisterous good humor and infectious dynamics as he shows the cranky old bachelor how his relatives and employees celebrate the holiday. Maraj is silently malevolent as the giant specter of Christmas Future—“wardrobe engineering” by Thomas Judd.

The Cratchit family is portrayed with great sensitivity—Michael Patrick Wiles as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s loyal and long-suffering clerk; Addison Au as his wife Belinda; William Foon as Tiny Tim; and a passel of sisters and brothers too numerous to name. Michael Barrett Austin does a convincing turn as Fred, Scrooge’s well-meaning nephew.

. . . as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see . . . “

Michael Patrick Wiles and William Foon (Photo courtesy of Center Rep)

As in other productions, Scrooge’s viewing of the Fezziwigs’ annual party is a highlight of the first act, with wild dancing (choreography by Jennifer Perry) and frenetic comic acting by Michael McCarty and Jeanine Perasso as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. It’s a beautifully portrayed pivotal moment in which Scrooge (Michael Ray Wisely, brilliant) begins to comprehend all that he’s lost in his single-minded pursuit of profits, but it takes much more than that to provoke an epiphany that converts him from despised capitalist oppressor to beatific benefactor. Visions of his own demise, the plundering of his possessions, dismissive sentiments among those who knew him, and ultimately, the loss of Tiny Tim, all combine to overwhelm him to change. 

All these plot points are stunningly conveyed in a production that’s both heartfelt traditional drama and techno-spectacular. 

Opening night was marred by a couple of minor glitches—voices inaudible during the opening scene (quickly corrected), and onstage voices competing with the unseen narrator. The populous streets of London aren’t as bustling as they might be, and some of the spectacle may be too much for very young children, of whom there were many on opening night, but no hysterical crying was heard from the audience in the capacious Hoffman Theatre.

Apart from these quibbles, this is as near-perfect a production of “A Christmas Carol” as you may ever hope to see. With a ground-floor art gallery open before the show, and a delectable assortment of restaurants nearby, the Lesher Center for the Arts is a tremendous destination, reachable by BART or an easy jaunt on Highway 24. However you get there, you’ll be glad you did.

Aisle Seat Review NorCal Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionA Christmas Carol
Written byCharles Dickens, adapted by Cynthia Caywood and Richard L. James
Directed & Choreographed byDirected by Scott Denison; Choreographed by Jennifer Perry
Producing CompanyCenter Repertory Company
Production DatesThrough December 23rd, 2021
Production AddressLesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek CA 94596
Websitecenterrep.org
Telephone(925) 943-7469
Tickets$33-$50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR Pick! Transcendence’s Broadway Holiday Spectacular Offers an Evening of Magic at Belos Cavalos — by Nicole Singley

L to R: Edward Juvier, David R. Gordon, Maria Bilbao, Arielle Crosby, and Lori Haley Fox (Photo by Rob Martel)

It’s that time of the year again, and Transcendence Theatre Company has cooked up something special sure to put you in the spirit. Their Broadway Holiday Spectacular is back, and this season, it’s better than ever. Featuring a talented troupe of artists from all over the country – including many familiar faces, and some exciting new additions to the Transcendence family, too – it’s a high-energy night full of festive, foot-tapping fun for folks of all ages. Be sure to catch it while you can, before the show’s two-week run ends on December 12th.

Returning audiences will recognize all the traditional elements of a night spent with Transcendence – fresh and funny renditions of favorite tunes and classic carols, a live band and dazzling choreography, and of course, a pre-show party complete with food and wine from local vendors. But this year, the fun has moved under the big tent at Belos Cavalos, a charming equestrian estate tucked away in the hills of Kenwood, where guests will enjoy the chance to mingle with horses and goats during intermission, and gather around tables in lieu of standard theater seating.

On the program are a number of fan-favorites from previous years, including a clever play on Madonna’s “Vogue” paying homage to Rudolph of reindeer fame, and a silly song about making fruitcake set to the tune of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” performed capably by Transcendence newcomer Edward Juvier. There are some fun surprises, too, including two four-legged guest-stars, and a creative take on “12 Days of Christmas” inviting audience members to help with the countdown.

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many.”

Top row: Bebe Browning, Marissa Barragán, Edward Juvier, Kyle Kemph; Bottom row: Luther Brooks IV, Preston Truman Boyd, Drew Elhamalawy (Photo by Rob Martel)

Lori Haley Fox is quirky and endearing as Mrs. Claus, who serves as our narrator throughout the evening, and Preston Truman Boyd is our flannel-clad Santa, loosely framing the musical acts within an uplifting story about family, friendship, and love. Behind them onstage, the live band really rocks, and bassist Lynn Keller even joins performer David Morgan for a cute number about Chanukah, together lamenting the limited greeting card options available at the local drugstore.

There are, of course, some slower heartfelt pieces in the mix, including a haunting rendition of “O Holy Night” performed by Kyle Kemph, whose voice is so clear and bright it gave me chills, and Arielle Crosby, whose talent alone is worth the price of admission. The pair team up again for an equally moving performance of beloved Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet “When You Believe.” Maria Bilbao nearly steals the show with a spine-tingling version of “Please Come Home for Christmas.” She makes it sound effortless, and the high notes brought actual tears to my eyes.

Top row: Bebe Browning, Drew Elhamalawy; Bottom row: Maria Bilbao, David R. Gordon, Kristin Piro; Front: Arielle Crosby (Photo by Rob Martel)

The entire cast is immensely talented, so much so that it almost feels unfair to single anyone out. But I’d be remiss not to also mention Transcendence newcomer Luther Brooks IV, who charms with his sparkling smile and evident dance skills. Be sure to keep an eye on him during some of the big ensemble numbers. Choreographers Matthew Steffens and Marissa Barragán have worked some magic on stage, making the show as fun to watch as it is to hear and sing along to. (Did I mention there are tiny goats in diapers?)

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many. And if you’re a repeat visitor, you’ll be happy you didn’t miss out on this one. Plan to get there early and meet the horses, take selfies with goats, and wine and dine with friends before the show. Bring layers, too – the heated tent felt a bit chilly as the night cooled down. Even so, you’re sure to leave feeling full of warmth and holiday cheer.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionBroadway Holiday Spectacular 2021
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byMatthew Steffens
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressBelos Cavalos
687 Campagna Lane
Kenwood, CA 95452
Websitebestnightever.org
or
ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$149
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Choreography4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater Review — “A Napa Valley Christmas Carol” It’s the Most Wine-derful Show of the Year — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions.

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a winter holiday evergreen, one that appears onstage and onscreen everywhere in the English-speaking world this time of year.

There have been innumerable spinoffs and interpretations of the classic tale. Now in its inaugural run, “A Napa Valley Christmas Carol” is a rare musical leveraging Dickens’ basic plot, updated to the present with delightfully quirky characters, and many memorable pop tunes, playing now at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa, through December 19.

Writer/director Barry Martin and composer Rob Broadhurst are the creative team behind this fast-moving show, a brash and funny take on Dickens’s enduring tale of misery, remorse, and redemption, set in the wine country with contemporary dialog and local references.

Setup: Late on Christmas Eve in the Yuge Winery’s sparse boardroom, three employees struggle to create names for a dozen new labels. Casting by Lucky Penny’s Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci is spot-on: the dynamic Dennis O’Brien as Buddy Wise, the worldly-wise Daniela Innocenti Beem as Sally Angell, and the surprisingly subtle Matt Davis as Joe Patchett. The three are Yuge Winery’s marketing team, brainstorming daft ideas before settling on the implausible label “Llama for Your Mama.” The absurd but catchy name launches the first of Broadhurst’s many fantastically goofy songs—“Llama for Your Mama/Drink it in pajamas/Serve it to Obama/Maybe add a comma.”

“It’s a brash and funny take on Dickens’s classic tale, set in the wine country with contemporary dialog and local references.”

Tired and punchy with more labels to design, they’re ready to quit for the night when the boss shows up. What a treat to see Tim Setzer enter as the cranky Alexander Yuge, the winery’s co-founder and owner. He sings and sneers about the Christmas spirit as “Sentimental Schlock” then orders his employees to discard gifts from clients he dismisses as “idiots” begging for his business. He has little patience for inept employees, pandering associates, or frivolous holidays. Like the character that inspired him, he has little patience for anything other than profits.

“Dakota Dwyer plays their little son Frankie, so adorable he unintentionally upstages every scene.”

Joe Patchett happens to be Yuge’s loyal undercompensated nephew. At the Patchett home, the Christmas spirit is in full swing, on a bright and colorful set by Brian Watson. Joe’s wife Mary, played by Kirstin Pieschke with a spirit of resignation belied by a lovely soprano voice, is depressed about their son’s unknown and worsening ailment, and the lack of money to care for him. Eight-year-old Dakota Dwyer plays their little son Frankie, so adorable he unintentionally upstages every scene.

Photos courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions.

While Mom dutifully sets out snacks, Sally and Buddy arrive to join the celebration. Teenage daughter Goldie (perfectly cast Cecilia Brenner) joins the group in conversation and song. Brenner gets a real chance to shine in Act II, when she appears as the Ghost of Christmas Future in full Goth regalia—a superb directorial choice with its symbolism of youth vs. advancing age.

In his office, Yuge goes on a bender with a bottle of scotch. His ex-wife and former business partner Vivian (beautifully portrayed by Karen Pinomaki) visits to admonish him that it’s not too late to change his miserly manner. She admits she has cancer, but Yuge thinks it’s a ploy for more alimony. She insists she just wants him to change for his own good. Yuge chases her away.

His phone announces three unscheduled appointments before morning, closely tracking Dickens’ original story. Lights and fog whirl around as a righteous 1990s grunge rocker, in requisite torn flannel shirt, appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past (Dennis O’Brien). Yuge is deeply skeptical as Vivian reappears in a scene from their happy past. He argues that there was no love from her, only a quest for power and wealth..

The fog swirls again, revealing the Ghost of Christmas Present in the form of svelte wise-cracking Daniela Innocenti-Beem. Beem’s performance is hilarious, a true highlight of Act II. In a show-stopping song, she urges Yuge and the others to “Live it up!” She admonishes him to remember that “Each day is a gift—that’s why it’s called the present.” Her parting shot delivered over-the-shoulder: “Every choice has a consequence”—advice that Yuge ignores.

Photo courtesy Luck Penny Productions.

The Ghost of Christmas Future (Cecilia Brenner) arrives, and shows Yuge a vision of Joe’s family a few years hence, mourning the loss of their little son, again tracking Dickens’ original. She reminds him that it’s his grandnephew who has gone. A gravestone mysteriously appears, bringing Yuge to his knees when he realizes that once he is dead, there will be no legacy by which he might be remembered. It’s his life-changing epiphany, an entirely predictable but dramatically essential moment that propels the story toward its uplifting conclusion.

Setzer is incredibly dynamic and convincing as the sour miser turned benefactor—for family, employees, and community alike. His castmates equal him in their total commitment to bringing this wonderful production to life. Ignore any “bah humbug” bias about yet another “Christmas Carol.” Even the most jaded theater sophisticates will be delighted with this new show.

Note: Seats in this small theater surround the stage on three sides. Audience must prove vaccination and wear masks during the show. Wine available.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionA Napa Valley Christmas Carol
Written byBarry Martin, Music and Lyrics by Rob Broadhurst
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru December 19th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25
$37 (Senior)
$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR PICKS! Sonoma Arts Live Delivers a Twin-Serving Holiday Treat — by Barry Willis

 

This time of year, theater companies can be counted on to offer up plenty of predictable Christmas classics.

Sonoma Arts Live has taken a contrarian tact with two similarly-themed shows directed by Michael Ross: “Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes.” Performed on alternating dates, they’re both delightful tributes to the ubiquitous four-member vocal troupes of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The first, developed by Stuart Ross from the original “Forever Plaid” by James Raitt, features a male quartet that suffered an abrupt departure in an auto accident but who have been reincarnated for the holidays.

Photo by James Carr

Named for their trademark plaid jackets, the four crooners may enjoy an extension of their reincarnation if they perform well enough—quite a motivation, one that propels them through two high-energy hours of comedic antics, impressive dancing, and tremendous vocalizing. Trevor Hoffman, Andrew Smith, Scottie Woodard, and Brian Watson appear respectively as Jinx, Frankie, Sparky, and Smudge.

…Best bet: See both productions back-to-back.

The second show features a girl group in matching swirly skirts performing at the 1968 Harper’s Hardware holiday bash in Springfield, Ohio. Created by Roger Bean, “Winter Wonderettes” is a more tightly focused production compared to the somewhat improvisational feel of “Forever Plaid.”

Photo by James Carr

Julianne Bradbury, Sarah Lundstrom, Maeve Smith, and Jenny Veilleux are all convincing and very funny in the roles of Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Suzy, and Missy, respectively, all of them with lovely voices and great comic timing. Both casts are very well balanced—as actors, dancers, and singers—backed by a solid band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson.

Scottie Woodard served as choreographer for both shows—“Plaid Tidings” being the more reckless of the two, in keeping with the male tradition of risk-taking for its own sake. “Wonderettes,” by contrast, offers a more demure presentation but one that’s more satisfying musically.

Both shows make the most of a simple set on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall. While “Wonderettes” is more structurally complete and better rehearsed, “Plaid Tidings” has an untamed quality that makes it equally compelling.

Best bet: See both productions back-to-back. An ideal performance would feature both groups onstage together. That’s not likely to happen, but we can dream, can’t we?

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production“Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes”
Written byStuart Ross/James Raitt and Roger Bean
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production Datesthru December 19th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Theater Review: “Late” a Baffling Production at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

 

Main Stage West has an enviable record of expertly-selected and beautifully-performed productions. In recent memory are astounding, gorgeously-rendered shows such as “The House of Yes,” “Lungs,” “Blackbird,” “After Miss Julie,” and “Heathen Valley,” all of them given glowing reviews here.

Against this impressive background, there’s little to explain the oddity that is “Late, A Cowboy Song,” in the cozy theater on Sebastopol’s Main Street through December 18. Reputedly one of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s early efforts, “Late” features three North Bay talents, under the direction of Missy Weaver, trying to make something significant from what’s not much more than a collection of semi-related sketches from Ruhl’s notebook.

…there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing.

A description lifted from the MSW site: Mary, always late and always married, meets a lady cowboy outside the city limits of Pittsburgh who teaches her how to ride a horse. Mary’s husband, Crick, buys a painting with the last of their savings. Mary and Crick have a baby, but they can’t decide on the baby’s name, or the baby’s gender. A story of one woman’s education and her search to find true love outside the box.

More: Crick (Jeff Coté) is an unemployed stay-at-home husband who cooks for Mary (Sharia Pierce)—even though she seldom comes home for dinner on time—flirts and bickers with her, and finally caves into her demands that he get a job. Their relationship is pointless, their finances are thin, and their living conditions are rough. Mary finds solace with a friend named Red (Nancy Prebilich), a self-styled guitar-playing, horse-riding “lady cowboy.” Having a baby only compounds the problems in her marriage, and Mary ultimately rides off into the western Pennsylvania sunset with Red. The end.

I am not giving too much away by revealing this. Not a single problem In the Crick-and-Mary household gets solved and there’s not enough in Mary’s pleasant encounters with Red to justify abandoning her marriage, but that’s the tale as delivered. Somewhere I saw a promotional blurb hyping the show as “a comedy” but there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing. Mostly it’s a lot of bickering, confusion, and alienation punctuated by a few tender moments until it all comes to a merciful halt.

 

The dramatic arc of “Late” is shallow at best, and Mary has the only discernible character arc. Sarah Ruhl can be a tremendously engaging playwright who favors throwing in bits of magical realism—see for example, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” that played recently to full houses at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre. “Late” attempts magical realism too—set designer David Lear’s horse being the best example.

Coté, Pierce, and Preblich try mightily with what they’ve been given, but saturation irony simply isn’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a play that will sustain an audience through ninety non-stop minutes. Ruhl has penned many compelling plays. Regrettably, “Late, A Cowboy Song” isn’t one of them.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

An ASR Pick! “The Wickhams” Delights with Warmth and Wit at Spreckels — by Nicole Singley

Leonhart and Lichirie working at Spreckles.

Those in search of some heartwarming fare this holiday season will find it at Spreckels, where “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is scheduled to grace the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through December 12th. Second in a three-part series, “The Wickhams” is a sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, though theatergoers need not have seen part one – nor have read the original novel – to understand and enjoy the show. Acclaimed duo Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have penned a delightful and clever continuation to one of the literary world’s most famous love stories, brimming with enough wisdom, wit, and charm to have been written by Austen herself.

…I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

As those who attended may fondly recall, Spreckels staged a memorably top-notch production of part one in the series, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” in November of 2019. “Miss Bennet” takes place on the ground floor of the Darcys’ estate, where the newlyweds are hosting the entire Bennet clan for Christmas festivities. In part two, however, we venture downstairs to see what’s happening in the servants’ quarters while the family gathering unfolds above. Amid the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, the late-night arrival of an uninvited guest threatens to throw the household into chaos. Cue the comedic mishaps, delicious drama, and sweet romance in this uplifting tale of family and love, forgiveness and redemption.

Sheila Lichirie delivers a stellar performance as head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who is equal parts sharp-tongued censure and quick-witted wisdom, with just enough warmth peeking through the cracks in her all-business exterior. Sam Coughlin is equally exceptional as notorious scoundrel George Wickham, whose drunken stumbling and slick overtures to the new maid would be enough to make one’s skin crawl if he weren’t so hilarious and strangely charming. Coughlin has mastered the appropriate body language and facial expressions to really sell his character.

Cohan and Coughlin at work in “The Wickhams”

Though Lichirie and Coughlin are the standouts, their companions are excellent, too. Kimberley Cohan makes a wonderfully lively and sympathetic Lydia Wickham, whose naivety is more endearing than annoying. Dale Leonhart’s Cassie, the ambitious new housemaid, is deliciously sassy, spirited, whip-smart, and self-assured. Silas Vaughn is eager and earnest as love-struck footman Brian, and delivers an enjoyably energetic performance. Allie Nordby – who was phenomenal as eldest Bennet sister, Jane, in the 2019 production – brings an irresistible sweetness and sincerity to her character that makes her impossible not to love, though lacking in some of the headstrong passion and playfulness I secretly crave in an Elizabeth Darcy. Perhaps what’s missing is convincing chemistry with her beau.

Coughlin, Nordby, and Guo work at scene of “The Wickhams” at Spreckle’s Performing Arts Center.

Byron Guo’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is appropriately stately and reserved, but perhaps just a touch too stiff, with his arms often glued to his sides. He does some effective things with his intonation and facial expressions, but his scenes with Nordby feel somewhat forced, and I kept hoping to see him loosen up a bit. Mr. Darcy isn’t supposed to be overly effusive or unrestrained, of course, but part of his charm is the way he softens in Elizabeth’s presence. Guo is more convincing as a charitable host and consummate gentleman than a newlywed man in love, though a few more performances may help him ease into the role. Despite these minor criticisms, it’s clear this is a very talented ensemble, and the show is entirely diverting.

Director Emily Cornelius has paced the production beautifully. Laughs land where they should, there are no lulls in the action, and the sweeter, softer moments don’t feel rushed. The impact is greatly enhanced by Elizabeth Bazzano’s handsome set, tempting us to gather around the kitchen table to help with holiday preparations, or cozy up by the glowing fire. The build quality and attention to detail are impressive, with doors that open to a realistic looking room and hallway, and an abundance of props that make the space feel like a real home. Costume designer Donnie Frank deserves recognition, too, for aptly chosen attire and some seriously stunning pieces. (Where can I find Lydia’s fabulous evening dress and nightgown?)

Whether you’re an Austen fan or just a fan of good theater, be sure to catch “The Wickhams.” With a hearty dose of warmth and wit that’s sure to leave you in a brighter mood, I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

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Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

ProductionThe Wickhams
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed byEmily Cornelius
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR Theater Review: “Father/Daughter” a Muddle at Aurora Theatre — by Barry Willis

Two talented actors do their best to breathe life into the world premier of Kait Kerrigan’s “Father/Daughter,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre, through Sunday December 12.

Recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, “Father/Daughter” opens with a divorced chemistry teacher named Baldwin (William Thomas Hodgson) meeting a young woman named Risa (Sam Jackson) in a pickup bar. It’s a tentative and prickly introduction for both, one that doesn’t seem to have much potential, especially for Risa, but a relationship emerges. Nearly two hours later, we are 20 years into the future, with Baldwin having a heart-to-heart discussion about marriage with his adult daughter Miranda, also played by Jackson.

Between these two bookends is a lengthy meandering slog through thorny modern family relationships. Hodgson also plays the part of Louis, who is either Baldwin’s father or Risa’s father. It’s not clear which—a confusion amplified by Kerrigan’s clumsy attempt at blending characters and shifting time.

The…well-performed dance break, about twenty minutes in, is a welcome relief….

Many plays employ actors in multiple roles, but for this to work their characters must be clearly differentiated—not the case in “Father/Daughter.” Risa and Miranda look and sound identical, as do Baldwin and Louis. Plus there are scant dramatic shifts to indicate which characters Hodgson and Jackson are playing. This may be intentional on the part of the playwright, to show how human behavior doesn’t really change from one generation to the next, or it may be the fault of director M. Graham Smith in not encouraging more differentiation from his cast.

The net effect on the audience is something like bobbing about in a rudderless boat: we don’t know where we are other than knowing we’re going nowhere.

Sam Jackson and William Thomas Hodgson in Kait Kerrigan’s Father/Daughter, directed by M. Graham Smith. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There’s no serious goal for either Risa or Baldwin, other than trying to make some sort of sense of their lives individually and together. There’s nothing illuminating about any of their interactions, but somehow they muddle through, which seems to be the only point of the tale. The production comes off like a condensed version of years of family counseling—lots and lots of talk, not much action, and ongoing personal and interpersonal problems that will never be resolved. The dramatically pointless but well-performed dance break, about twenty minutes in, is a welcome relief from interminable self-absorbed conversation.

Kerrigan’s script is a moribund low-stakes/low-amplitude  exercise in art for art’s sake. We can see what she’s trying and failing to achieve, but she could do it better by revising the script, perhaps under the tutelage of Mark St. Germain, whose “Dancing Lessons” is a master class in two-actor romances.

Photo by Kevin Berne.

“Father/Daughter” has implied potential but even actors at the expert level of Hodgson and Jackson can’t make it fly. Kate Boyd’s elegant set offsets the dramatic boredom to some extent, as does Cliff Caruthers’ evocative sound design. Takeaway: potential ticket buyers should be wary of obscure new plays with no intermission. There’s a reason why they’re presented that way.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionFather/Daughter
Written byKate Kerrigan
Directed byM. Graham Smith
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Dec 12th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$20 – $78
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance4/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

An ASR Theater Review: The Show Must Go On! Especially When It’s in “Camelot” — by Cari Lynn Pace

When a show plans to open in NYC, it is often given a test run in an off-off-Broadway location. The production and cast can be tweaked and polished to shine when they hit the bright lights on opening night.

The Barn at the Ross Art and Garden Center inadvertently served as an off-off-location on November 12th when it opened “Camelot” for only one night in what was calendared as a 5 ½ week run.

Days before opening, one of the leads was suddenly unable to perform.

The Mountain Play in partnership with the Ross Valley Players made a bold last-minute decision to present Phillip Harris in the lead role of King Arthur. Mr. Harris is the Musical Director of this production, and has multiple acting chops in addition to his vast musical talents. He stepped in to perform the lead role with superb ability and a fine voice, yet he had scant time to learn all the acting lines.

Come to the most congenial spot called “Camelot” and be charmed….

With a sold-out house for opening night, the show did indeed go on, admirably. Kudos to not only Mr. Harris, but to all the actors in the cast who maneuvered their way around the stage to make certain the legendary story had flow and timing, despite a new member joining them. What a triumph!

Krista Joy Serpa and Phillip Harris at work. Photo credit: Robin Jackson.

This production is set for a small stage and cast, making it remarkably avant-garde and creative.

“Camelot” is typically presented with lavish costumes and pageantry, a backdrop to the classic songs of Lerner and Loewe. This production is set for a small stage and cast, making it remarkably avant-garde and creative. Director Zoe Swenson-Graham uses simplified settings to provoke the audience’s imagination. Actors perform dual roles, costumes are minimal, and props are simple and multi-use. The cast uses long sticks as pounding drums, a wedding chapel, and a burning at the stake. The various transformations on stage provoke admiring laughter from the audience.

Anna Vorperian & Rachel Menendez & Krista Joy Serpa & David Schiller in CAMELOT. Photo credit: Robin Jackson.

Lerner and Lowe gave us clever lyrics and memorable melodies in this legend of Arthur and his knights of the round table. The beloved songs from the musical are all here and performed with excellent voices by Krista Joy Serpa (Guenevere), Izaak Heath (Lancelot), and Harris (Arthur). Harris sings the opening “I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?” (“He’s wishing he were in Scotland, fishing tonight.”) Serpa’s lovely soprano voice fills the stage with her pleas to “St. Genevieve.” They meet, and Arthur sings an unusual sales song to convince Guenevere to stay and discover the pleasures of “Camelot.”

It works. Enter Lancelot, with his humble bravado – and good looks, and skills, and youth. His brash ego (“C’est Moi”) rankles Guenevere. When she sings “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” to her knights, the amusing lyrics show her resolve to rid herself of Lancelot. It doesn’t work out. They fall in love, and Lancelot sings her the romantic “If Ever I Would Leave You.” It’s game over for her.

A surprisingly powerful Matt Skinner was a huge hit sneering as Mordred in Act II. He cajoles the knights (David Schiller, Anna Vorperian, and Rachel Menendez) into shouting out the song “Fie on Goodness, Fie!” with great gusto. In a reversal of traditional casting in Shakespeare’s era, females (except for Guenevere) play male roles in this production, allowing Alexandra Fry to be young Arthur who pulls the sword out of the stone.

On stage with Matt Skinner. Photo credit: Robin Jackson.

At various points the pre-recorded music track was slightly out of sync with the actors. This has to be an opening night twerk. Note that the 99-seat theatre is comfortable yet not acoustic, so sit close to the front if you are hard of hearing as the music can overwhelm the clever lyrics.

Considering the last-minute alterations, this opening night should shine brightly when the schedule resumes November 26th. It’s regrettable that due to conflicts with Mr. Harris’s professional calendar, RVP must cancel eleven performances.

As of this writing, there are only ten performances still available. Come to the most congenial spot called “Camelot” and be charmed.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionCamelot
Written byLerner & Lowe
Directed byZoe Swenson-Graham
Producing CompanyMountain Play Association and Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThru December 19th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR PICK! Theatre Review: Left Edge Transcends with Comedic Magic — by Barry Willis

A hashish-infused New Year’s Eve party yields unintended consequences in Sarah Ruhl’s “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” at Left Edge Theatre through November 21.

A Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award nominee, the prolific Ruhl mines the comical friction between middle-class morality and libertine lifestyles when two married New Jersey couples decide to invite a “polyamorous” young woman and her two male lovers to their annual fete. Act One is a lengthy bit of exposition in which we get familiar with the two couples—Jane and Michael (Angela Squire and Anthony Martinez, respectively) and Georgie and Paul (Gina Alvarado and Corey Jackson, respectively), sitting around drinking and bemoaning their highly-educated but not entirely satisfying existence.

Paul is an architect who’s grown bored doing “bathroom remodels” and has moved instead toward writing and lecturing about architecture. Michael is an unsuccessful musician who’s found subsistence writing jingles. Jane works in a law office where she’s become intrigued with Pip (Abbey Lee), an intern whose unconventional lifestyle has prompted her to suggest including Pip and her lovers as party guests—a slightly naughty shared joke that ultimately forces the four friends to confront their  conceptual limitations about love, eroticism, and commitment.

Director Sandra Ish has worked up a gorgeous presentation of this piece…

Self-confrontation is most pronounced in Georgie, who befriends Pip to the point of going hunting with her, a bumbling attempt at making spiritual connections to the natural world that ultimately lands them in jail. Georgie’s personal dramatic arc is the strong thread in this tightly-woven but loose-around-the-edges story—in fact, late in the play she steps out of the story and addresses the audience directly, a somewhat jarring departure from what might otherwise be expected given what has transpired beforehand. There’s also a pivotal subplot involving Jenna (Jewel Ramos), the mostly-absent teenage daughter of Jane and Michael, and god-daughter of Georgie, who seems to have a better relationship with her than do her own parents.

Jenna’s surprise return home is the laugh-out-loud high point of this prescient comedy/drama, a plot device as delightful in its small way as is Pip’s extended improvisational dance interpretation of the old country song “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” The uninhibited Abbey Lee is fantastically exaggerated in the part, a diametrical opposite from the emotionless android she played recently in “Galatea” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center.

Anderson Templeton is Freddie, the soft-spoken, sensitive-to-the-point-of-annoyance member of Pip’s coven; Nathaniel Mercier is the more intellectually aggressive David, a mathematician given to lecturing about Pythagoras and theories of the triangle—in his words, the strongest form in nature. His fascination with numbers resonates with architect Paul and musician Michael, but his riff on the strength of the three-cornered form is clearly meant as a challenge to the two married couples and perhaps to the audience. Cue David Crosby’s song “Triad.”

Director Sandra Ish has worked up a gorgeous presentation of this piece, in which can be seen roots as deep as Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Ang Lee’s film “The Ice Storm.” Argo Thompson’s set works seamlessly as Jane and Michael’s home, a forest where Georgie and Pip go hunting, and the jail where they ponder their fate. Patrick Nims contributes substantially with gorgeously immersive three-channel video projections, as does April George with lovely lighting design.

The show’s female cast members—in particular, Lee, Squire, and Alvarado—are very strong in this production, but it’s well performed by the entire cast. No weak links! There’s a lingering sense that playwright Ruhl may not have wrapped up every loose thread in this well-paced tale—perfectly appropriate in that very little in real life ever has clearly defined starts and stops. Takeaway: in matters of love, live in the moment and consider all possibilities.

Whether you are single, married, polyamorous, or undefined, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage” is funny, engaging, and provocative for all the right reasons.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionHow to Transcend a Happy Marriage
Written bySarah Ruhl
Directed bySandra Ish
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesThrough November 21, 2021
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone707-546-3600
Tickets$22-$44
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Theater Review — Ambitious “Great Khan” Fills the Stage at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

“The Great Kahn” cast at work.

A brave high school student learns life lessons from one of history’s most famous conquerors in “The Great Khan” at San Francisco Playhouse, through November 13.

Leon Jones stars as Jayden, a student whose bravery in defending a classmate from a gang attack has caused his mother to move them to a new home and enroll him in a new school to save him from harassment and possible retaliation. Laudable precautions on her part don’t prevent nightly visits from “Ant,” the girl he saved, who climbs through his bedroom window each night to give him trouble about his gallant deed. Ant (Jamella Cross) seems genuinely confused as to whether she should be thankful or resentful, as if the rescue somehow demeaned her independence. Jayden, in turn, is genuinely confused about what she’s doing in his room.

Two people thrown together by accident: it’s a potent setup for Michael Gene Sullivan’s ambitious and mostly successful meditation on teenage identity. Jayden’s a smart kid but is a worry for his hard-working single mom Crystal, played with some emotional detachment by Velina Brown. He has tough time connecting to school, especially a history class about the European Middle Ages, a field of study that he dismisses as being mostly about “dead white people.” Then his well-meaning but mostly clueless teacher Mr. Adams (Adam KuveNiemann) suggests that he research Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongolian conqueror whose empire encompassed most of Asia and a large part of Europe. Mr. Adams ups the ante by assigning Jayden a project partner, a nerdy girl named Gao-Ming (Kina Kantor) whose encyclopedic knowledge almost compensates for her social awkwardness.

…a good solid effort…

As Gao-Ming and Jayden study, he develops a near-obsession about the conqueror whose given name was Temujin (Brian Rivera). In a delightful bit of magical realism, Temujin begins to appear in his room, telling Jayden all about his life, from growing up and selecting a bride, to ultimately creating one of the biggest empires the world has ever known.

Temujin (Brian Rivera*) gets acquainted with Jayden (Leon Jones) in ‘The Great Khan’ by Michael Gene Sullivan at SF Playhouse.

It’s a life-changing event for Jayden, and for the audience too—Rivera simply commands the stage as the legendary Khan, striding about in full Mongol warrior gear (costumes by Kathleen Qiu), singing lustily in Mongolian, and telling Jayden how he succeeded: by offering the conquered the opportunity to join his horde, and by instructing his soldiers to leave some of their enemies alive that “they might tell the tale”—an early exercise in what we now call “brand building.”

Relaxed and confident, Rivera clearly relishes the role. His performance is so mesmerizing that it has the unfortunate effect of putting his castmates in his shadow—probably not director Darryl V. Jones’ intention, but perhaps an inevitability when an actor is so perfectly suited for his part.

Sullivan’s script, while very good, could use a bit of editing. The early part suffers from too much exposition—Ant makes multiple appearances in Jayden’s room, in an effort to resolve her own feelings about the incident which launched the story, but she might be able to do so in three visits instead of five.

The scriptwriter’s “rule of three”—applied to setups for jokes as well as dramatic buildups—has proven accurate over centuries. And Gao-Ming seems under-utilized, mostly as comic relief. She, Crystal, and Mr. Adams have the shallowest character arcs in the play, while Jayden and Ant have the largest. Temujin doesn’t need a character arc—his presence alone is sufficient to drive the drama.

Ant (Jamella Cross*) confides in Jayden (Leon Jones) in ‘The Great Khan’ by Michael Gene Sullivan .

 

“The Great Khan” is the first big-cast post-pandemic production put on by SF Playhouse. It’s a good solid effort that showgoers will find both rewarding and provocative. A streaming version is available for those still reluctant to venture into indoor gatherings.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionThe Great Kahn
Written byMichael Gene Sullivan
Directed byDarryl V. Jones
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru November 13th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

ASR Theater Review: Erma Bombeck Alive and Well in “At Wit’s End” — by Barry Willis

North Bay stage veteran Jill Wagoner brings legendary humorist Erma Bombeck to life in “At Wit’s End,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny through October 31.

One of America’s most prolific and celebrated writers, Bombeck practiced her craft persistently from an early age with a series of poorly-paying small-scale gigs until she finally broke through in 1964 with Ohio newspaper the Kettering-Oakwood Times, which paid her three dollars for each weekly column. A year later she began writing twice-weekly columns for the Dayton Journal Herald. Shortly after starting with that publication, Newsday Newspaper Syndicate put her in 36 major U.S. newspapers—a stunning achievement for a new talent. By the 1980s her work was appearing regularly in 900 American and Canadian newspapers, totaling millions of readers.

She also appeared frequently as a radio and television personality and at her peak was earning as much as a million dollars annually. Despite hitting the financial jackpot, she continued in her tried-and-proven format of homespun humor from a suburban housewife’s perspective. In this, she was very much part of lineage of self-deprecating American humorists going back to Will Rogers, a lineage that includes masters of minor domestic absurdity such as Jean Shepherd and Garrison Keillor. (Terry Ryan’s “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” is very much in this tradition.)

…a delightful and fascinating piece of Americana…

Bombeck’s rise from working-class origins to media superstar was a quintessential American story, but she alienated some of her more conservative fans with her support of 1978’s still-languishing Equal Rights Amendment. All of this is conveyed casually and conversationally by Wagoner on a simple set by Brian Watson that serves as various parts of a Midwestern home. As easily as a neighbor chatting over coffee, she tells Bombeck’s first-person story (script by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel) without gloating about her ultimate success.

Jill Wagoner at work as Erma Bombeck

In a loose-fitting period-perfect dress (costumes by Barbara McFadden) Wagoner moves easily about the set, encompassing Bombeck’s career arc with a deferential, off-handed delivery that’s plausible and pleasant without an excess of irony.

The performance is well-paced—neither too slow nor too hurried—and at approximately 70 minutes, is the perfect length for both audience and performer. “At Wit’s End”—the name of Bombeck’s long-running column, a best-of compilation, and this show—is a delightful and fascinating piece of Americana.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionErma Bombeck: At Wit's End
Written byAllison Engel and Margaret Engel
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough October 31 (no performance Oct. 28-29)
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$28-$39
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

An ASR PICK! Theater Review: Gorgeous, Pitch-perfect “Dancing Lessons” at Cinnabar — by Barry Willis

An autistic scientist and an injured dancer find solace and hope in Cinnabar Theater’s “Dancing Lessons,” through October 31.

Jessica Headington stars as Senga, a dancer who has suffered a devastating and potentially career-ending knee injury. Trevor Hoffmann is Ever, her pesky upstairs neighbor who badgers her to give him dancing lessons so that he can fulfill his function as emcee of an upcoming awards gala. Their initial meetings couldn’t be more contentious or less promising – she’s in an enormous amount of pain and anxiety, and he has little emotional empathy and limited social skill.

Cast of “Dancing Lessons” at work.

Mutual impairment, distrust, and animosity at the start: a fantastically potent setup that scriptwriter Mark St. Germain spins into one of the loveliest romantic comedies ever conceived. A career writer for television and film, St. Germain has an unerring eye and ear for what works in telling a story. His script is absolutely pitch-perfect: every word uttered by the actors and every action they make propel this tale of an unlikely but totally plausible relationship. His characters’ conversations are sometimes terse but never artificially truncated, and sound perfectly natural as Senga and Ever grow more familiar with each other. “Dancing Lessons” is a theatrical rarity in that it contains neither fluff nor filler.

…“Dancing Lessons” is the kind of show that makes a critic’s life rewarding…

The ebb-and-flow of this production is a master class in onstage storytelling, with rhythm and musicality like a minor-key symphony. Director John Browning has coaxed a stunning performance from his cast of two superbly talented actors, aided by Wayne Hovey’s elegant set that serves as Senga’s apartment, Ever’s office and classroom, and an auditorium where Ever speaks to the National Autism Coalition. Hovey also served as lighting designer; his work adds much to the show’s evolving mood.

“Dancing Lessons” -Trevor Hoffmann and Jessica Headington.

Not enough praise can be showered on Headington and Hoffmann, both of them fully invested in their characters and both of them totally comfortable with and trusting of each other. It’s an amazing balancing act in that the dynamic differences between Senga and Ever ultimately blend together so well in a heartwarming pas de deux—both literal and metaphorical.

“Dancing Lessons” is the kind of show that makes a critic’s life rewarding. With just a pinch of magical realism, it’s certainly the most satisfying romantic comedy this reviewer has ever seen—just absolutely right from beginning to end, and more than worthy of multiple viewings, a wish this writer intends to fulfill.

Headington & Hoffmann at work in “Dancing Lessons”

Kudos to Cinnabar for bringing this wonderful production to life in the wake of the marvelous “Cry It Out.” The Petaluma company has a perfect track record so far as theater companies emerge from

COVID-induced hibernation. Proof of vaccination is required of attendees, as is the wearing of masks during performances. For those still unwilling to venture out, “Dancing Lessons” will be available online October 29-31.

 

 

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production"Dancing Lessons"
Written byMark St. Germain
Directed byJohn Browning
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough October 31st
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

ASR Theater Review: “Topdog/Underdog” Uneven but Compelling at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

Sibling rivalry and resentment take a horrific turn in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, through October 30.

Directed by North Bay theater veteran (and cookie magnate) Bronwen Shears, Keene Hudson and D’Artagnan Riviera star as brothers Lincoln and Booth, respectively, residing in a shabby room with a communal bathroom down the hall. A reformed street hustler, Lincoln has taken a job in a local arcade, acting the part of his namesake president in a game in which players take potshots at him. Booth is doing his best to master the art of Three Card Monte so that he might improve his personal cash flow by preying on gullible “marks”—a pursuit Lincoln has already renounced, to the point where he’s reluctant to coach Booth on the finer points of the game.

…The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there…

The two brothers vacillate between reminiscing about their mostly dysfunctional childhoods and arguing with each other. The more animated and aggressive of the two, Lincoln is frequently unkind to Booth, who has long chafed in his older brother’s shadow. There’s also palpable love between the two, but much disagreement about their shared past as well as the future. Their interactions—all taking place in one room—are an emotional rollercoaster skillfully crafted by playwright, director and the two actors.

Keene Hudson at work in Topdog/Underdog.

Hudson and Riviera play off each other well—Hudson’s character the more dynamic of the two. Riviera plays Booth as brooding and introspective, without a hint of the malevolence that ultimately brings down the curtain. He has a solid grasp of his character and his character’s motivation, but stumbled with some lines late on opening weekend, a shortcoming certain to be corrected as the production moves into its second, third, and fourth weeks.

The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there. Parks’ theme, of course, is one of the oldest, going back to ancient mythologies—the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, for example. Other inspirations may include the viciously backstabbing sisters in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” or the contentious brothers Austin and Lee in Sam Shepard’s “True West.” There are certainly striking parallels between that play and this one. It’s not a jolly ride, but it’s one that will open your eyes and perhaps prompt discussion. “Topdog/Underdog” is a compelling examination of a permanently recurring and tragic human condition.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionTopdog/Underdog
Written bySuzan-Lori Parks
Directed byBronwen Shears
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

An ASR Theater Review — Raven Players’ “Fully Committed” Overlong But Still Funny — by Barry Willis

A day in the life of a harried scheduling manager makes for some uproarious comedy in “Fully Committed,” at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in downtown Healdsburg, through October 17.

The telephone equivalent of a slamming-door farce, the production requires its lone onstage talent to dash from one telephone to the next—three internal lines at opposite ends of the wide stage, and two or three on his desk. Plus his personal cell phone. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially when they ring in rapid succession or in unison.

…a delightful show…

Troy Thomas Evans plays the roles of everyone working in a trendy New York restaurant—chef, maitre d’, front-of-house staff, and an absent co-worker, plus his own father, and dozens of pesky would-be patrons who refuse to take “I’m sorry—we’re fully committed” as an answer when they try to make reservations. Evans is energetic and convincing as Sam, a hopeful young actor trying to land a gig at Lincoln Center, and to arrange time off to spend the Christmas holiday with his family.

Troy Thomas Evans at work as Sam – photo by Ray Mabry

He conveys all of this effectively; some of his characters (Bunny VanDerveer, Bryce from Gwyneth Paltrow’s office, the dreaded Ned Finley) are outrageous while others are merely amusing. His performance is hampered by the need to scramble from one side of the stage to the other, because director Tika Moon insisted on using the entirety of the wide stage as the restaurant’s basement office, a space that in the real world would be almost unbearably cramped, the way other productions’ set designs usually have it.

Net result: this “Fully Committed” runs more than two hours —no intermission— vs. a typical production’s 90 minutes. It’s still a delightful show earning Evans a big thumbs-up as a comedic performer. Plus it’s great that live theater has returned to downtown Healdsburg, which was bustling on opening night. The October 16 production will also be livestreamed.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionFully Committed
Production DatesThrough October 17th, 2021
Production AddressRaven Theater Healdsburg

115 North Street Healdsburg, CA 95448
Websitehttp://www.RavenPlayers.org
Telephone707-433-6335
Tickets$10-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Pick! The Laughs are On in “Noises Off” at Spreckels by Nicole Singley

If you’re in need of a good, hearty laugh (and who isn’t, these days?) Spreckels Theatre Company has you covered. Don’t miss their top-notch production of “Noises Off,” running now through October 24th on the big stage in Rohnert Park.

In Michael Frayn’s classic, door-slamming farce within a farce, a traveling theater company descends into utter chaos while attempting to stage a play called “Nothing On.” It’s a pants-dropping, riotous affair replete with perfectly timed entrances and exits, tangled phone cords, plates of sardines that vanish and reappear without explanation, and a seemingly endless series of mishaps and misunderstandings that fuel the frenzy. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that the chaos onstage can’t hold a candle to what’s unfolding among the actors behind the scenes.

This is the kind of show that requires impeccable comedic timing and painstaking coordination, and Spreckels doesn’t disappoint. Veteran director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly paced and carefully choreographed production with evident precision; her talented ensemble proves up to the challenge. Those familiar with “Noises Off” will be pleased to find this old favorite has been handled with care. Only the location has been changed, and though it’s a change that feels unnecessary, it in no way detracts from the overall effect.

“Noises Off” at work. Kevin Bordi, Eileen Morris, & Zane Walters.

MacKenzie Cahill is a hoot as ditzy Brooke, lovably oblivious and always losing her contacts, and Zane Walters shines as leading man Garry LeJeune, swinging axes and stumbling down stairs in his jealous rage. John Craven is delightful as Selsdon, the hard-of-hearing actor who’s a little too fond of the bottle and keeps missing his cues. And who couldn’t love Eileen Morris as Dotty Otley, even if she’ll never remember where she left those damned sardines? Kevin Bordi, Matthew Cadigan, Taylor Diffenderfer, Maureen O’Neill, and Brandon Wilson round out the bunch, and there isn’t a weak link among them.

…Those familiar with “Noises Off” will be pleased to find this old favorite has been handled with care…

The stagecraft is excellent, too, thanks to resident designer Eddy Hansen’s elaborate, two-story set piece that rotates to reveal the goings-on backstage. Scenic artist and prop master Elizabeth Bazzano has her hands full with this one. From interchangeable bags and boxes, bottles of booze and bouquets of flowers, and countless sardines, to questionably repurposed sheets and a very prickly cactus, Bazzano has covered all the bases.

“Noises Off” — full cast, set by Eddy Hansen

With three acts and two intermissions – the first of which was slated at 15 minutes but felt much shorter, and the second of which was billed at 5 but stretched on for closer to 15, it’s a long night out at the theater. But the third act is even funnier than the second, and you won’t be looking at your watch. Even the program will give you a chuckle – be sure to flip it over, where you’ll find a second program for “Nothing On,” complete with hilarious cast bios.

“Noises Off” is the perfect remedy for anyone in need of some lighthearted fun or a happy distraction, and this production is an absolute delight. Be sure to catch it while you can.

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Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

ProductionNoises Off
Written byMichael Frayn
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough October 24th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

An ASR Pick! “Sunset Boulevard” a Stunner at Sonoma Arts Live — by Barry Willis

Sunset Boulevard ensemble at work!

Sonoma Arts Live has emerged from eighteen months of hibernation with a stunning production of “Sunset Boulevard.” The first large-scale musical to appear on a Sonoma County stage since the long pandemic shutdown, the show runs on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center through October 10.

North Bay musical theater favorite Dani Innocenti-Beem shines in the role of Norma Desmond, a reclusive and delusional former film star who’s befriended, seduced, and rejected by down-on-his-luck scriptwriter Joe Gillis (Michael Scott Wells) in this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adaptation of the classic Billy Wilder film, perhaps the ultimate depiction of a Hollywood love affair gone sour.

…stage veteran Norman Hall has a nice cameo as legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille…

Backed by a solid five-piece band, Innocenti-Beem and Wells sing their hearts out. Seasoned show-goers may not initially recognize Wells, his signature shaved head hidden by a stylish wig, while Innocenti-Beem is considerably slimmer than in her last stage appearance in “Sweeney Todd” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. Wells convincingly nails his character’s hopes, cynicism, and failures while Innocenti-Beem moves heaven and earth with her emotive high-volume vocals. Also a skilled comedienne, she gives the audience a full examination of Norma’s delusions, exaggerated just enough to let us know how far off the rails she’s gone. It’s a terrific performance.

Dani Innocenti-Beem

Secondary characters are excellent too, especially Tim Setzer as Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s loyal-to-a-fault butler. Setzer is in fine voice, giving Max a properly guttural Teutonic baritone both speaking and singing, amazing in that Setzer’s natural speaking voice is softer and higher. Maeve Smith is superb as Betty Schaefer, Gillis’ young collaborator and potential lover once he tires of Norma. Stage veteran Norman Hall has a nice cameo as legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille. The large ensemble—sixteen in all—are very good in multiple roles. The music isn’t memorable, lacking Lloyd Webber’s characteristic melodic hooks—think “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Jesus Christ, Superstar”—but it works to propel the story.

Michael Scott Wells and Maeve Smith work a scene.

Critical quibbles: an overly-long bit of exposition mirroring the film’s early scenes, and a sometimes rickety set, but the show itself is exemplary, with just-right pacing, a welcome surprise in light of how long it was on hold. Director Carl Jordan has pulled a fantastically compelling production from a diverse cast.

“Sunset Boulevard” is a delight—and an entertainment bargain.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production'Sunset Boulevard'
Written byMusic by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black

Story based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays thru Oct.10th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An ASR Theater PICK! Cinnabar’s “Cry It Out” — Hilarious, Lovely, Elegant — by Barry Willis

Two young mothers with newborns form a friendship that soon encompasses distinctions in class, education, income, and aspirations in “Cry It Out” at Cinnabar Theatre through September 26.

Elegantly conceived by playwright Molly Smith Metzger, the production centers around two Long Island neighbors, Jessie (Ilana Niernberger) and Lina (Amanda Vitiello), both on maternity leave with babies at home, a similarity that enables a quickly-formed deep bond. They share afternoon coffee, tidbits on baby care—the show’s title is derived from a popular theory that babies put to bed should be allowed to cry until they go back to sleep—and many personal misgivings and misadventures, some of them laugh-out-loud funny.

“Cry It Out” – Ilana Niernberger and Amanda Vitiello at work.

A working-class girl with attitude as strong as her New Jersey accent, Lina is a comic riot as she describes her travails not only with her baby but with her underachieving husband and his alcoholic mother, who serves as nanny when Lina goes out. Jessie is the more contained of the two—contemplative and methodical, an attorney considering leaving her profession to be a stay-at-home mom. Both women have problems with their husbands, whom we never meet.

…director Molly Noble extracts delicious performances from four exquisitely talented but hugely differing actors…

Into their midst comes a nerdy neighbor, Mitchell (Andrew Patton), awkwardly inquiring if his wife, also a recent mom, might join them. Once they get over the creepiness of the fact that he’s been watching them, they agree to welcome Adrienne (Kellie Donnelly), a haughty disdainful designer with little interest in raising children or socializing with others who are. Mitchell’s well-intentioned intervention is a desperate nudge in the wrong direction, fireworks to follow.

It’s a fantastically potent setup, with increasingly satisfying payoffs as the story progresses. The quick-moving one-act segues seamlessly from comedy to drama as director Molly Noble extracts delicious performances from four exquisitely talented but hugely differing actors. Their differences as performers and the differences between their characters expand the dynamic possibilities of this show far beyond what an audience might expect when first viewing the simple set of a suburban backyard patio.

“Cry It Out” – L-R Amanda Vitiello, Ilana Niernberger, Kellie Donnelly

“Cry It Out” is a master class in elegant modest-budget theater. North Bay residents are privileged to have such sterling performances so close to home. As with most Bay Area theater companies, Cinnabar requires proof of vaccination at the door, and the wearing of masks during the performance. Attendees also get a sticker that says “Welcome Back!” to which we can only reply “Welcome Back, Cinnabar!” Those who can’t get to the theater may also view a streaming production.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production"Cry It Out"
Written byMolly Smith Metzger
Directed byMolly Noble
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 26th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Theater Review: “Ripcord” Comedy Lands at RVP. Two Roommates Survive Living Together; or Do They?  –  by Cari Lynn Pace

Pamela Hollings as Marilyn; Tori Truss as Abby; Peter Warden as Derek

Ross Valley Players has reopened their stage at the Barn with their first live production since the start of the pandemic, and it’s a delightful welcome indeed.

“Ripcord” is a female odd couple pairing with a sharper edge. David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy showcases the talents of Tori Truss (Abby) and Pamela Hollings (Marilyn) as two seniors who share a room in a retirement community. The yin and yang between these two characters is a delight to watch, with snide facial gestures of Truss pitted against fluttery friendliness of Hollings.

Director Chloe Bronzan notes “The pandemic forced many into quarantine with a roommate we would have preferred to spend less time with…we are left pondering our basic need for human interaction.”

“The yin and yang between these two characters is a delight to watch.”

The main characters’ interaction in “Ripcord” is hilarious. Cranky Abby wants the room to herself, and does her darndest to get cheerful Marilyn to request a room transfer. Marilyn is undaunted, and considers Abby’s nastiness a challenge to win over. Besides, Marilyn loves the view and light from the room they share. She’s not about to move.

Peter Warden as Derek; Rebekah Kouy-Ghadosh as Colleen;
Pamela Hollings as Marilyn

The women make a bet to settle their differences to decide who moves out. Enthusiastic and positive-thinking Marilyn believes she can find a way to make the stony and stoic Abby fearful. Abby is confident she’ll find something to make the effervescent Marilyn angry.

Abby and Marilyn try practical jokes – funny at first – which elevate to vicious one-upmanship. “Ripcord” reveals their schemes through amusing scene changes, including a haunted house and a sky-diving snatch, lending the parachute’s release to the play’s name. What on earth, or in the air, will these gals do next?

RVP Newcomer Bau Tran (Scotty) brings the perfect dash of spice and sensibility to the mix as the retirement home’s staff member struggling mightily to bring reasonableness to the women’s battle. He loses this one, but it’s an amusing effort.

Nate Currier as Clown

A batch of sometimes silly supporting bits by Peter Warden, Rebekah Kouy-Ghadosh, and Nate Currier pepper the plot. Michael A. Berg adds the costumes to lend an over-the-top chaos to the madcap schemes.

Act II is more emotional, and less chaotic, as a hidden past helps put Abby’s negativity into perspective. This sideways subplot, with Currier in a serious role as Abby’s son, brings “Ripcord’s” free-falling comedy to an abrupt landing. But the bet’s still on between Abby and Marilyn.

The play’s resolution is likewise less than comedic, yet apparently satisfying to the opening night audience. Many commented “That was fun!” as they departed.

Rebekah Ghadosh as Colleen; Pamela Hollings as Marilyn;
Nate Currier as Lewis; Tori Truss as Abby; Peter Warden as Derek

RVP is determined to make a safe place for their theatre’s reopening. Covid vaccinations are required for entry, and they sell only half of the theatre’s capacity so patrons can be seated far from one another. Sadly this spacing makes it more awkward to laugh aloud at a comedy.

When you go, enjoy Tom O’Brien’s colorful stage set of the senior’s apartment and the lobby which has been redone in red carpet grandeur. Allow time to marvel at the decades of framed show posters celebrating RVP’s 90 years of productions, many of which were hand-painted.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

Production"Ripcord"
Written byDavid Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byChloe Bronzan
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThursdays through Sundays until October 10th, 2021
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456.9555
Tickets$25-$30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft5/5
ASR PICK?-------

An ASR Theater Review: “Broadway Under the Stars” Season Closer “The Gala” Shines as Transcendence Theatre Celebrates 10 Yrs of Sparkle – by Cari Lynn Pace

The Gala cast — Photo credit Rob Martel

If you’re looking for a “field of dreams”, Transcendence Theatre Company brings it to Sonoma’s Jack London Historic State Park. Stars from stage and screen blend their talents amongst the classic stone ruins of the winery to perform hits from best-loved musicals for one more weekend this September. The audience was delighted to be able to return to this showcase under the sky of singers, dancers, and knock-your-socks-off musicians.

Where did this astounding talent come from? Many of these performers are taking a break from starring in a Broadway musical or touring company. They may have tasted the Sonoma lifestyle and given up their world tours to teach the joys of theatre year-round to youth in the Bay Area. Transcendence Theatre Company performers may be far from the neon lights, but their dedication to community keeps them close to their adoring public.

The Gala cast performs “Friend Like Me” — Photo credit Rob Martel

The professionals who are part of this non-profit company love being here; the company helps arrange local housing and sightseeing. No wonder they make each show the “Best Night Ever!” as Artistic Director Amy Miller enthusiastically exhorts. The audience heartily agrees.

“Transcendence Theatre Company performers may be far from the neon lights, but their dedication to community keeps them close to their adoring public.”

“The Gala” is the closing production of 2021’s summer season of “Broadway Under the Stars.” The performances start at sunset, but some show-goers make a day of it, tasting wines at local Sonoma estates. Others arrive early at Jack London Park, spreading out their picnics on tables set on the great dry lawn. Hikers explore, romantics relax, and food trucks arrive with an assortment of delicious choices. Nightly wine and beer sponsors set up counters to offer their vintages by the glass, while local pre-show musicians turn the crowd into a festive party.

Kyle Kemph performs “Waving Through the Window” — Photo credit Brennan Chin

By the time folks start filing into the winery ruins to find their assigned seats for the 7:30 show, they’ve made friends and shared laughter, and probably some food and wine as well.

“The Gala” begins with the full company in blazing white performing “The Spark of Creation” against the setting sun. This stunning opener is quickly followed by ten more song-and-dance hits from musicals, including Hamilton, Funny Girl, West Side Story, On Your Feet, In the Heights, Next to Normal, and more.

Act II begins with another full company number “Brand New Day,” but on this Saturday evening no microphones were working. The song came to a halt as Executive Director Brad Surosky took the stage to announce a restart once the sound was fixed. The audience and cast took it all in good humor. The entertainment soon buzzed back into action with selections from The Wiz, Aladdin, Dear Evan Hansen, Movin’ Out, Man of La Mancha, A New World, and more.

L to R – Emilio Ramos, Rosharra Francis, and Meggie Cansler Ness.
Photo credit Rob Martel.

Many performers danced through the audience; one sang “Lost in the Wilderness” spotlighted high up on the winery wall. Transcendence has a reputation for winners, and “The Gala” delivered boundless energy as usual. What a way to close out the summer! Let’s hope they can capture a generous matching grant to continue their award-winning shows and community work.

“The Gala” will fill the night with music on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings September 17, 18 and 19th. Shows are presented at Jack London State Historic Park at 2400 London Ranch Road Glen Ellen, CA. Pre-show picnics begin at 5:00 pm; show starts at 7:30 pm.

L to R – Anna Guerra, Michael Sylvester, Rosharra Francis, and Drew Fountain. Photo credit Rob Martel.

Tickets range from $49 reserved seating to $129 for VIP (which includes wine, close-in seats and priority parking.) Dress in layers for the cooler evenings. Masks are currently highly recommended. Performances tend to fill quickly.

Heads up: Transcendence’s annual “Broadway Holiday Spectacular” is planned for December 3rd-12th outdoors at Belos Cavalos in Kenwood. Cast and details will be announced at a later date.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

Production"The Gala"
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byLuis Salgado
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesFriday through Sunday September 17-19, 2021
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd. Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414. Toll free,
Tickets$49-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR Theater Review: “Galatea” – Brilliant, Heartwarming Sci-Fi at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

A mysterious survivor of a deep-space disaster is brought out of stasis more than nine decades later in the prolific David Templeton’s “Galatea,” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park through September 19.

Aboard a space station orbiting the earth, two researchers—Dr. Mailer and Dr. Hughes (Sindu Singh and Chris Schloemp, respectively)—delve into the origins of “71” (Abbey Lee) an apparently authentic member of the maintenance crew of the starship Galatea, which suffered an unexplained total destruction. Prior to the discovery of humanoid 71, and fellow crew member 29 (David L. Yen), shards of the wreckage were all that had been found, none of them substantial enough to support a working hypothesis of what might have happened.

Abbey Lee in Spreckels Theatre Company’s “Galatea.”

71’s uniform, stilted robotic speech, and lack of familiarity with basic human social interactions all support her contention that she had been a crew member aboard the Galatea. Psychotherapist Dr. Mailer hopes to reintegrate 71 into society, by coaching her through fundamentals such as greetings, conversations, gestures, and reactions to humor.

…Into the mix steps her colleague Dr. Hughes, a geeky, gregarious researcher with a bottomless collection of corny jokes…

An “EPS” (Energy Processing Synthetic) series humanoid, 71 undertakes the tutorials with a beguiling mix of robotic reluctance and enthusiasm. Versatile, uninhibited, and perfectly in control, Abbey Lee is amazing as the subject slowly transforming under Dr. Mailer’s gentle persistent guidance. Many of 71’s early attempts to mimic human behavior are both laugh-out-loud funny and almost tearfully poignant. The gambit of a humanoid attempting to become more human is clearly derived from the emotionless android character Data of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in turn derived from the character of Pinocchio, the wooden marionette who wants to become a real boy, from the 19th-century Italian children’s story.

Sindu Singh, Abbey Lee & David L Yen at work.

Singh is outstanding as the psychotherapist Dr. Mailer—patient, methodical, and loving but pushy when necessary, with a few personal quirks (“Okey dokey, pokey”) that make her utterly charming. Into the mix steps her colleague Dr. Hughes, a geeky, gregarious researcher with a bottomless collection of corny jokes. As always, Chris Schloemp is relaxed, confident, and completely convincing as his character probes for more information about the Galatea. He consults with Dr. Mailer about 71’s progress, in the process sometimes interfering as much as he’s helping.

The denouement launches in the second act with the appearance of 29 (David L.Yen), another recently discovered Galatea veteran and revived EPS unit. Still visibly damaged and uncommunicative, 29 perks up, within his limits, at questioning about 71 and ultimately reveals all—or as much as he can remember and convey—about what went wrong with the ship and how he and 71 survived. Normally a dynamic actor, Yen here displays a previously unseen aspect of his astounding ability, portraying 29 as deeply as possible while retaining the character’s essential uni-dimensionality.

It would be hard to imagine a better cast for this lovely, heartwarming production, one that Templeton described after the opening performance as “turning the usual sci-fi trope on its head”—i.e, no marauding monsters (“Alien,” “Jurassic Park”), nefarious corporate overlords (“Blade Runner”) or armies of rebellious androids (“I, Robot”).

David L Yen and Abbey Lee in Galatea

Beautifully helmed by director Marty Pistone (assisted by Andy Templeton), the show itself emerged September 3 from 18 months of COVID-induced stasis, with Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano’s elegant set still intact—you’ve never seen a lovelier Palladian window—since the postponement of “Galatea” in early 2020, a time that now seems long ago. Chris Schloemp’s gorgeous, sometimes ephemeral projections add just the right touch for what is to date the best production to appear in the North Bay as the theater world slowly emerges from the pandemic.

“Galatea” is a rarity—a brilliant script brilliantly executed. Potential ticket buyers couldn’t ask for more.

ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Production"Galatea"
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byMarty Pistone, assisted by Andy Templeton
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 19. 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An ASR Theater Review — A Zoom with a View: Patty from HR Gives Corporate Training a Thumping – by Barry Willis

‘Patty from HR: Mo Patty Mo Problems,’ the sequel to writer/performer Michael Phillis’s “Patty from HR Would Like a Word” is coming to Oasis Jan. 30-Feb 1.

Corporate training sessions and their inevitable Power Point presentations are among the most dreaded rituals of modern life. Drag performer Michael Phillis must have endured dozens of them to come up with Patty from HR: A Zoom with a View, at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through September 11.

Written, directed, and performed by Phillis, A Zoom with a View skewers the idiocy of technological culture—including, thank you very much, the irksome speech patterns of millennials. In a quick-moving one-act, Phillis’s self-deprecating Human Resources manager Patty covers everything from the early days of Netscape and dial-up modems to the present day of full-time social media as she stumbles through an inept introduction to Zoom video meetings, the bane and the salvation of many home-bound office workers during the Covid crisis.

It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace…

Her tattered Dress Barn business suit and frazzled 80s hairstyle serving as visual testament to decades spent toiling in the corporate trenches, Patty dances around the idea of Zoom, and Power Point too, and the longer she goes on, the clearer it becomes how little she actually knows about either. Imagine Dana Carvey’s “church lady” jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and perhaps just a tidbit of stage fright. Patty’s a corporate train wreck and you simply can’t look away.

When she stumbles (often) she gets plenty of coaching from an unseen tech assistant, whose annoyed comments act as punctuation for Patty’s non-stop blather, directed scattershot at herself, her audience, and her corporate overlords. It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace that earned plenty of laughs and sustained applause on opening night.

 

Main Stage West co-artistic director Keith Baker enjoys a cameo as “Kevin,” an underling who supplies her with props. Patty is never quite sure about names, a running gag throughout the show, and of course, a detriment for any human resource professional. That’s one of many repeated themes tightly woven into the fabric of this expertly conceived and executed production, its three-week run an injustice to its comedic brilliance.

A Zoom with a View runs Thursday-Friday-Saturday at 8 pm through September 11, with a 5 pm matinee Sunday September 5.

ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionPatty from HR: A Zoom with a View
Written byMichael Phillis
Directed byMichael Phillis
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept 11th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An ASR Theater Review: “Love, Loss, and What I Wore”; 6th Street’s Season Opener Reminisces About Outfits & More – By Cari Lynn Pace

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” cast at work.

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” is a promising first post-pandemic live offering by Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse in its studio theater. Five seasoned actors take turns retelling an emotional assemblage of snippets, each chronicling her memorable outfits. Not all the event memories are happy, yet all make up the fabric of life.

Written by Nora Ephron, the American essayist and humorist who penned such comedies as “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail,” and more, the show’s pedigree promises to be heartfelt. The late author’s sister Delia Ephron is co-author, doubling down on the anticipated warmth.

“Five seasoned actors take turns retelling an assemblage of emotional snippets, each chronicling her memorable outfit.”

Sadly, the show is hampered by continuing Covid restrictions, and the actors wear clear plastic masks throughout their soliloquies. This impediment no doubt curtails their abilities to get into character. It also hampers their diction, causing them to over-project their volume and lose the finer emotional points. They’re close, but still far away.

The stage is spartan, backed by two projection screens, and naked except for a few bits of feminine accessories and a dressed sewing dummy.

Dressed all in black, five actors read their scripts from music stands in front of them. Only occasionally does an actor come forward, sans script. Most of the monologues have a projected sketch of the outfit illustrating the actor’s subject story. There’s even a music snippet of Madonna when the actors recall their outfits worn in homage to the fashion icon. And who can forget Nancy Sinatra’s boots?

“It’s a humorous essay about the female bond to clothes, boots, and purses. What’s not to like?”

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” has heartfelt talk but no action; internal humor laced with poignant moments. The stories move slowly, linked only by blackouts between scenes. The timelines of the individual characters—spanning an era from the 1950s to the 2000s—stand alone without connection or plot. Some scenes garnered applause; others drew sparks of laughter.

“Love, Loss, and What I Wore” — 6th Street’s Season Opener

Anyone who has ever lamented “I have nothing to wear” may relate to this humorous essay about the female bond to clothes, boots, and purses. “What’s not to like?” asked one patron.

The Saturday night performance in this 99-seat theatre was sold out. After the first act of 1 ¼ hours, and intermission, there were at least 40 empty seats. Director Libby Oberlin might take note and make some edits.

“Audiences must prove Covid vaccination or negative test results before entering.”

6th Street Theatre takes their Covid restrictions seriously. Audiences must prove vaccination or negative test results before entering the lobby. Several without proof were denied entrance. All attendees must wear masks over nose and mouth throughout the production and in the lobby; roving ushers remind patrons to cover up or leave the premises.

Playing Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 and Sunday matinees at 2:00 (one Saturday matinee August 21) at the Monroe Stage (the smaller theatre) through August 29th at 52 West Sixth Street, Santa Rosa, CA. Free parking in their lot.

For tickets go to www.6thstreetplayhouse.com or email boxoffice@6thstreetplayhouse.com or call 707-523-4185.

Seating note: On this hot evening, some overhead equipment hummed and buzzed intermittently, a distraction for those seated in the top rows.

ProductionLove, Loss, and What I Wore
Written byNora and Delia Ephron
Directed byLibby Oberlin
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough August 29th, 2021
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: “Twelfth Night” Does Not Wait for Christmas; Curtain Theatre Brings Shakespeare Back to Old Mill Park – By Cari Lynn Pace

Shakespeare named this play after the 12th night of Christmas holiday celebrations in 1601. Four-plus centuries later, Mill Valley’s Curtain Theatre opens “Twelfth Night,” celebrating their 21st year of award-winning shows. It’s outdoors, the actors are 100% vaccinated, the park offers social distancing, and performances are free to all.

That’s worth celebrating!

Much like the Bard’s open air venue at London’s Globe Theatre, the Curtain Theatre performs in an historic and open amphitheater in downtown Mill Valley. The ancient redwoods in the grove sway over a hundred feet high, and the acoustics on stage are interrupted only by a bird’s caw or the drone of a passing plane. Volunteers set up and diligently sanitize nearly 70 plastic chairs, leaving ample empty space in front of the stage. Many patrons bring their own chairs, kids, and (quiet) dogs. Blankets are spread out on the gentle slope behind the library, with abundant picnicking.

This “Twelfth Night” transports the audience to the late 1800’s Canadian Maritimes, beginning with live music from four musicians in period garb. Music Director Don Clark and Hal Hughes collaborated to create original songs inspired by this Celtic period. The air fills with sounds of a fiddle, flute, concertina and guitar above the laughter of children and the chatter of adults.

Promptly at 2 p.m., the show begins. The Curtain Theatre has no curtain, so Choreographer and Production Coordinator Steve Beecroft happily welcomes all from the stage, encouraging masks for all who cannot maintain social distancing in the great outdoors. Beecroft’s talent is not limited to behind the scenes: he soon does an amusing turn as the foolish and foppish Sir Andrew.

As to the characters, it takes a while to catch on to all the characters and their relationships. “Twelfth Night” is a typical Shakespeare comedy of gender-switched identities, oddly-placed affection, and swordfights.

Fans of Shakespeare will delight in the familiar opening “If music be the food of love, play on!” spoken by Duke Orsino, a handsome Nelson Brown. He’s lonely in his kingdom, and pines for his counterpart Countess Olivia played by lovely Faryn Thomure. The pair should be bonded, a perfect match, but that’s not going to happen.

“…a typical Shakespeare comedy of gender-switched identities and oddly-placed affection. And swordfights.”

Good jobs must have been hard to find in 1890. Duke Orsino hires a new servant, Viola. She’s female but poses as male to get the position. Played by a polished and perfect Isabelle Grimm, Viola falls for her boss, the Duke. But he wants the Countess, and the Countess wants Viola, the servant who presents as male. This is the definition of a love triangle, and it’s timeless fun.

There’s a side story to “Twelfth Night”, one of many diversions. Viola is unaware that her twin brother Sebastian (Nic Moore) has survived a shipwreck and is not dead. He likewise thinks his sister perished in the storm. When he appears, late in Act II, the Countess again pursues him, thinking he is the same servant Viola, a young man. Sebastian is confused but flattered and accepts the marriage proposal from the attractive Countess. Apparently twins are interchangeable, regardless of gender. [Editor’s note: This comedic gambit probably won’t fly in the current cultural climate. – BW]

This leaves Viola free to disclose that she is really a young lady of noble birth, and would happily marry the Duke. He accepts and all turns out just hunky-dory. Did I mention this is a comedy?

Director Michele Delattre manages to keep the story lines entertaining, despite the large cast of characters who bounce in and out using antiquated language. Several standout spots add up to make “Twelfth Night” a worthwhile afternoon:

Faryn Thomure sings “Thorns Among the Roses” with her maidservants (energetic Lindsey Abbott and Clara Desmond) in a lovely trio of harmony. Abbott is amusing with her spot-on characterizations as a scheming lady’s maid.

Local veteran Grey Wolf came out of retirement to add mirth to his outlandish role as Malvolio, he of the yellow socks and garters.

Kim Bromley, a veteran director and actor, commanded the stage as Countess Olivia’s housekeeper. Perfect casting!

And what is Shakespeare without a swordfight? Steve Beecroft expertly choreographs not one but two rapier clashes in Act II. Bloody wounds show up later, but nothing to faint about.

Feste, the Fool, enacted by a wickedly talented Heather Cherry, carries the plot and the humor throughout. She wryly observes “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” So it is with “Twelfth Night.”

The show plays at 2 PM through September 6th on Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday. Admission is FREE.

For more information to www.curtaintheatre.org. Open seating, picnics welcome, cookies, snacks and coffee available for purchase, and chairs are provided on a first-come basis, or bring your own. Dress in layers as the redwood grove in southern Marin can be much cooler than expected with the fog.

Donations are accepted with gratitude.

ProductionTwelfth Night
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed byMichele Delattre
Producing CompanyCurtain Theatre
Production DatesThrough Sept. 6th
Production AddressOld Mill Park Amphitheater.

375 Throckmorton Avenue (behind the library), Mill Valley
Websitewww.curtaintheatre.org
Telephone
TicketsFree!
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yea!

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: “Road Trip!” Jump Starts ‘Broadway Under the Stars’ with Transcendence Theatre Co. — by Cari Lynn Pace

“Road Trip” working — photo by Ray Mabry

Want to take a cross-country road trip, without the car or the outrageous price of gas? Freedom to travel may still be restricted, but Transcendence Theatre Company’s (TTC) new show offers a fast-moving ride. As the sun sets over the vineyards and the band strikes up “This is My Country” a cast of ten extraordinarily talented singers, dancers, and several musicians fills the stage to spotlight cities and locations from California to New York, and lots in between.

“Road Trip!” performers are escapees from Broadway, off-Broadway, international stages, and national tours who accepted the invitation to share their talents with TTC in Sonoma. Their amazing voices and stage antics in over two dozen production numbers cleverly brought out the fun in our country’s diversity.

“Road Trip” making magic. — photo by Ray Mabry

Award-winning TTC is celebrating their tenth year of presenting “Broadway Under the Stars.” After a shut-out year due to Covid, this show explodes with energy. TTC limited the audience to 60% of capacity, but applause was 100%, echoing over the stone ruins of the Jack London State Historic Park.

“Travel may still be restricted, but Transcendence Theatre Company’s opening show delivers a fast-moving ride.”

The incoming crowd was welcomed by cast members, including TTC newcomer Billy Cohen. When asked what he would perform in the show, he admitted “I’m singing ‘Gaston’ (from “Beauty and the Beast”) even though I’m not quite his body type.” What Cohen modestly didn’t mention was his “Rocky Mountain High” guitar solo performed way atop the stone walls.

“Wow, it’s so great to see they’re back” gushed one patron, and the performers matched that enthusiasm. TTC newcomer Belinda Allyn, from New Jersey, said “We’re nervous and yet thrilled to be back on stage.”

TTC’s familiar cast member Meggie Cansler Ness added “I told my parents not to expect to see much of me when our rehearsals began. It’s so much work but it feels terrific to get going again.”

Veteran TTC star Colin Campbell McAdoo was also back, adding his hilarious stage presence and musical talent while driving onstage in a chair, complete with a California license plate.

“Performers are stars who escaped Broadway, off-Broadway, international stages, and national tours to accept TTC’s invitation to Sonoma.”

Circulating everywhere were TTC Executive Director Brad Surosky and Artistic Director Amy Miller. These founding members of the non-profit were beaming – behind their face masks – to see the joy and smiles of the audience on this beautiful evening. Kudos go to Musical Director Susan Draus as “Road Trip” was her concept, so brilliantly appropriate for our difficult times.

“Road Trip” singing — photo by Ray Mabry

“Road Trip!” is an evening of picnic and food truck festivities, beginning at 5 p.m. Folks bring food and snag a hay bale or table in the lawn area for pre-show entertainment. There’s plenty of wine and beer available for purchase, including premium varietals from sponsors Benziger and Viansa Wineries. At sunset, the audience is seated in the ancient winery grounds for the 7:30 show. Dress in layers as nights in Sonoma can get cool.

Tickets are $49 to $129 VIP. VIP tickets include two glasses of premium wine, a special socializing area, and priority seats. Performances are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings until August 29th at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. For more details, drive your fingers straight to www.TTCSonoma.org.

“Road Trip” in action — photo by Ray Mabry

You won’t go wrong! Come feel the breeze in your face while this superb outdoor showcase of song and dance takes you from coast to coast.

Extra Special Tip: If you’re heading up early to “Road Trip!” you may enjoy a pit stop at Eric Ross Winery for a dose of Americana, classy wines, and striking photographs. It’s on the left at 14300 Arnold Drive.

Production"Road Trip"
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byJessica Lee Coffman
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 29th, 2021
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd. Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitebestnightever.org
or
ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
StagecraftN/A
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: Live at the Drive-In as Transcendence Returns with “My Hero” — by Nicole Singley

The sun presses down into the mountains, casting its colors across the ancient oaks and sprawling vineyards, as cars pull into the dirt lot at Sonoma County’s scenic B.R. Cohn Winery. Outside their cars, new arrivals are unloading blankets and picnic baskets, sitting down at bistro tables and lining up to order wine and cookies. At the lot’s edge sits an unassuming small black stage, and beside it a gigantic projection screen, staring out across the growing lines of cars. It’s as beautiful an evening as any in Sonoma Valley, but the magic has only just begun.

L to R: Meggie Cansler Ness, Arielle Crosby, Catherine Wreford, and Amanda Lopez.

 

In their first live production since pre-pandemic times, Transcendence Theatre Company kicks off their 10th anniversary season with “My Hero,” offering theatergoers a unique experience at their socially-distanced drive-in performances in Glen Ellen through June 20th.

In keeping with Transcendence tradition, the show is a musical mash-up of beloved Broadway tunes and other favorite chart-toppers cleverly compiled and choreographed around a common theme – this time, a tribute to our frontline healthcare workers and everyday heroes. Featuring recognizable songs traversing countless genres and decades, it’s a show that will appeal to every member of the family, with plenty of opportunities to sing along.

…a rewarding experience you won’t want to miss.

Under the capable guidance of veteran director/choreographer Matthew Rossoff – and accompanied by live music under the direction of Matt Smart – a cast of only seven fills the stage with enough energy and enthusiasm for twenty. Among them are a few familiar faces, including Transcendence veterans Meggie Cansler Ness, Colin Campbell McAdoo, Arielle Crosby, and Catherine Wreford. But there are newcomers, too, and they don’t disappoint. Amanda Lopez, Kevin Schuering, and Bernard Dotson add some refreshing new voices to TTC’s already impressive pool of talent, and boast some serious pipes, to boot.

“Arielle Crosby steals the show.” Photo by Brian Janks.

It’s a spectacular group, not a weak link in the bunch, but Arielle Crosby steals the show. (If her take on Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” doesn’t make you want to dance, I’d wager nothing will.) Other memorable numbers include a funny parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” with clever lyrics celebrating all things quarantine from Zoom to Tiger King, a powerful performance of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” by Lopez, and a cute golden oldies medley featuring The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” The show also includes some really moving pre-recorded interviews with frontline workers and other local voices, thoughtfully interspersed with the cast’s rendition of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.”

Despite the distraction of some lighting issues – often par for the course with outdoor shows – the technical aspects of the production are fairly impressive. The oversized projection screen, combined with large speakers spaced throughout the parking lot, make it easy to hear and see all that’s happening on stage, even at a distance.

L to R: Bernard Dotson, Amanda Lopez, Kevin Schuering, Catherine Wreford, Colin Campbell McAdoo, and Arielle Crosby

Though lacking in some of the flash and polish typical of most Transcendence productions, it’s clear a lot of hard work, heart, and creativity have been poured into “My Hero,” and the result is a rewarding experience you won’t want to miss. With only three performances left and tickets starting at $54 per car, parking spots are sure to go quickly.

***

ProductionMy Hero
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byMatthew Rossoff
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru June 20th, 2021
Production AddressB.R. Cohn Winery, 15000 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$54-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

 

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An ASR Theater Review – “Hold These Truths” a Warm Welcome Back to Theater – by Barry Willis

Jomar Tagatac at SF Playhouse.

Racism is an eternal condition of the human species. Xenophobia, tribalism, call it what you will, it continues to plague us today despite our self-congratulatory image as a modern, rational society.

In “Hold These Truths,” at San Francisco Playhouse through July 3, playwright Jeanne Sakata makes the universal personal with a tale of one Japanese-American’s effort to deal with an unjust sentence leveled against him for ignoring a curfew applied only to him and his fellow “Nisei,” (second-generation Japanese immigrants), all of them US citizens by virtue of having been born in this country. In Gordon Hirabayashi’s story, we also get a history lesson about how detention camps to house them were set up in western US states, the result of widespread fear following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was (and still is) considered one of the most socially conscious presidents of the 20th century, but his signing of Executive Order 9066 that established the camps was one of his most reprehensible acts, one that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld its legality in a split decision. The order was clearly motivated by racism, but Italian-Americans and German-Americans, two of the largest immigrant groups in the US, were also herded into camps and deprived of their fundamental rights.

Director Jeffrey Lo has coaxed a lovely recital from Tagatac…

In a ninety-minute-plus solo performance, Jomar Tagatac embodies both the young and mature Hirabayashi, encompassing his journey from college student to college professor, and celebrating his ultimate success in getting his conviction overturned, the result of an accidental discovery of his legal records by an academic colleague.

A veteran of many productions at SF Playhouse, Tagatac also acts the parts of members of Hirabayashi’s family, his friends, officials, police officers, judges, and many other characters in quick seamless character shifts, under a modestly-scaled but beautiful projected montage (design by Teddy Hulsker) of slowly varying flag motifs, old photographs, and historical documents, including the US Constitution, whose slogan “we hold these truths to be self-evident . . . that all men are created equal” remains an article of faith held by Hirabayashi throughout his life, despite many reasons to doubt it.

Tagatac expertly distinguishes all his characters from each other, and especially from the primary one, sometimes simply by changing his jacket or moving from one spot to another on the mostly-bare stage (set by Christopher Fitzer).

While “Hold These Truths” is a cautionary tale about how the law can be subverted, it’s not a horror story of oppression and violence, especially not in the context of the horrors that consumed much of the “civilized” world in the 1940s. Some of it is actually funny—having negotiated a 90-day sentence for his curfew violation, Hirabayashi has to report to a road crew in Arizona, and gets there by hitchhiking from Seattle, apparently without any trouble. When he arrives, the local sheriff doesn’t know what to do with him other than to suggest that he go to a movie in town, to a theater equipped with air conditioning. In addition, he succeeds in winning conscientious objector status thanks to having joined the Quakers.

 

 

 

Director Jeffrey Lo has coaxed a lovely recital from Tagatac, who breezed through the press opener without a glitch. SF Playhouse was extremely cautious with this soft opener—all attendees had to present proof of vaccination, have their temperatures checked, agree to an affidavit stating their good health, and mop their hands with sanitizer before being admitted to the theater upstairs, where they were seated far apart but still asked to wear masks.

 

As of today (June 15) it’s unclear whether that policy will continue with the statewide lifting of pandemic precautions. In any case, “Hold These Truths” is a lovely performance and a welcome return to live, in-person theater. For those still reluctant to venture out, the show will also be available as an online streaming production.

 

 

 

ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionSaturday Night at Grossinger’s
Written byStephen Cole
Directed byJaime Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesMay 8, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center 276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

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An ASR Review: Left Edge Theater Serves Up Sweet “Slow Food” — by Barry Willis

A late Sunday dinner at a Greek restaurant in Palm Springs becomes a comedic ordeal for a pair of vacationing middle-aged New Yorkers in Wendy Macleod’s “Slow Food” at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa.

The show closed this past Sunday, June 13, after only a two-week run. Ordinarily, Aisle Seat Review wouldn’t cover such a limited engagement. But Left Edge deserves enormous credit for anticipating the June 15 statewide lifting of pandemic-related restrictions—and more for putting on such a lovely comedy, sorely needed after sixteen months of shutdown.

“Slow Food” featured Left Edge artistic director Argo Thompson in a rare acting appearance as Man, the male half of the vacationing couple, with Denise Elia-Yen as “Woman,” Man’s wife. David L. Yen stole the show as the curmudgeonly and uncooperative waiter, Stephen—“with an ffffffffff . . .,” he reminds his guests repeatedly.

“Slow Food” cast at work on stage.

The setup is simple: Man and Woman enter a restaurant near closing time, and rather than consuming the food and drink they desperately seek, they instead receive a load of guff from an opinionated server. The production plays out as an extended comedy sketch—small dramatic and character arcs counterbalanced by plenty of tension and shifting loyalties among the three performers, all stage veterans with decades of experience. Comfort in their roles was palpable for the limited-capacity audience, in what was clearly a testing-the-waters effort to emerge from the cocoon of COVID.

“Slow Food.” It’s that good…

Macleod is a brilliant playwright—her outrageous funny, and unforgettably disturbing “The House of Yes” enjoyed a fantastic production at Main Stage West in December 2018. “Slow Food” doesn’t rise to such a pinnacle but is hilarious without the need for deep psychological nuance and unsavory revelations. Imagine a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched from six minutes to ninety, and you’ve got a pretty solid grasp of what “Slow Food” is all about—a lightweight, feel-good comedy without malevolent repercussions or imagery that might haunt you after the fact.

Left Edge Theatre’s published schedule for the coming year includes a slot for an undetermined production “To Be Announced.” Consider this a vote for reprising “Slow Food.” It’s that good, and with a few more performances could be even better.

 

ASR: Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionSlow Food
Written byWendy Macleod
Directed byDenise Elia-Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 13, 2021
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
TicketsShow has closed.
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?---

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An ASR Interview: Transcendence Theatre Company Honors Front-line Health Workers with “My Hero” — By Cari Lynn Pace

Photo by Brian Janks. 3 – L to R: Director Matthew Rossoff, Meggie Cansler Ness, Colin Campbell McAdoo, Bernard Dotson, and Musical Director, Matt Smart.

Remember hot summer nights at the local drive-in movie?

Brad Surosky, Executive Director of Transcendence Theatre Company, was just a kid in the back seat when he went to the drive-in movies with his family. Last December, he revived his fond memories of the drive-in by screening a movie taken of TTC’s 2019 holiday show. It was such fun that he thought he could pump it up with a live performance, and a live band, onstage.

TTC’s Artistic Director Amy Miller, Brad’s wife, caught drive-in fever too. She says, “After stumbling through such a difficult 2020, what a fabulous way to celebrate the start of Transcendence Theatre Company’s 10th anniversary season! We can thank the workers and volunteers who helped keep us safe, and our singers, dancers, and musicians will be thrilled to finally shine live on stage.”

I asked Amy what the Transcendence performers have been doing since their theatres on Broadway and LA have been shuttered. These singers and dancers spend their entire lives studying, auditioning, rehearsing, and performing hard-earned roles in neon-lit theatres. Prior to the pandemic, they would have been invited to California to wow audiences at Jack London State Historic Park for the 2020 summer season. That all fell apart.

Photo by Brian Janks.

“With theatres closed, they’ve mostly moved back in with their families in their hometowns,” Amy admits. “Many of our friends are teaching Zoom classes in acting, singing, dance, fitness, or exercise. Some do private coaching, including with children. A few of our friends started online businesses to help other actors with networking, budgeting, and of course maintaining their mental health. Most now have other jobs, in real estate and the wine industry, and one has even been selling cars. He’s sold over 100 cars already!”

This drive-in show will be TTC’s first live performance since the pandemic…

Brad notes, “This drive-in show will be TTC’s first live performance since the pandemic. We have seven talents singing and dancing out front plus five support staff backstage, technical, and front of house. Twenty of us make this show happen, including the band. It’s a perfect warm-up for the big production shows we’ve set for later this summer in Glen Ellen.”

“My Hero,” the theme of this performance, pays tribute to front line health care workers and volunteers, including many from Kaiser, Sutter, Providence and Sonoma Valley Hospitals. Amy notes, “It’s an uplifting night to celebrate and give thanks to those who have helped us come through this together.”

“My Hero” includes Broadway hits and popular favorites performed on a raised stage, with a 40’ screen simulcast for viewing from the entire field. Performers have wireless mikes, broadcast to be heard through each car’s radio. The audience can relax in their cars, or sit outside on chairs.

There will be additional speakers throughout the fairgrounds in Petaluma and the B. R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma. Picnics are welcome and food trucks will be set up. Gates open at 6:30. Dress in layers as the show starts at 8:30 and runs nonstop until 10 PM due to sound ordinances.

Since Transcendence Theatre Company is a non-profit, operation supporting educational outreach and Jack London State Historic Park, I asked Brad what was planned for the profits from these shows. “Profits? There likely won’t be any!” he laughed. “This is Transcendence’s investment back into the community. We’ve donated tickets to frontline healthcare workers in thanks for their dedication to our survival.”

“My Hero” tickets are at www.bestnightever.org or call the box office at 877-424-1414 for weekend shows from June 4th through June 20th. Each car entry is $49 ($129 for VIP) for a car full. No need to hide in the trunk! All COVID-19 protocols will be followed as required by Sonoma County Health Department.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

 

An Aisle Seat Movie Review-Meets-Artist Profile! Ms. Rosamund Pike — Versatile Actor Strikes Again by Cari Lynn Pace

Rosamund Pike, 40, has to be one of the busiest actors appearing in movies, streaming, and otherwise. The British actor has the ability to be completely absorbed in her roles, yet is eminently recognizable despite the variety of her appearance and characters.

Like a young Meryl Streep, Pike is 100% present in whatever role she tackles. She’s nabbed many screen awards recognizing her formidable talent.

You may remember Pike as the cool blonde double agent seducing James Bond, 007, in “Die Another Day” (2002). From there, Pike morphed into a proper and restrained British sister in “Pride and Prejudice” (2005). Pike then continued to show her versatility as a scheming spouse in “Gone Girl” (2014) earning her an Academy Award nomination.

Pike also co-starring with the iconic Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher” (2013). Speaking of working with  Cruise, she told Vanity Fair magazine, “It’s not only exciting to meet the person that you’ve watched since you were a child but then to work with him. I know he’s a great actor, but there’s a difference between being a great actor and being a great actor to work with, and he’s both.” She is delighted with the results. “The chemistry is buzzing. It’s brain matching brain. You want to go on the ride with them, because it’s sexy.”

Ready to strike any reference as “just another pretty face”, Pike transformed herself into down-and-dirty Syrian war correspondent Marie Colvin in “A Private War” (2018). When I met Pike at the premiere of that film at the Mill Valley Film Festival, she was dressed in a lacy white dress and looked perfectly lovely. When I told her I didn’t recognize her, she laughed “For this role, I had to wear false teeth, an eye patch, darken my skin tone, and learn to speak American.”

Pike played another famous figure in “Radioactive” (2019) a biographical film portraying Madame Marie Curie. The lush production, filmed in Hungary, recreates 1893 Paris when Curie was a proud and determined Polish scientist pushing her way into French male-dominated laboratories.

Her mercurial character endeared her to no one, yet attracted the admiration of notable scientist Pierre Curie. He offered her his lab space to continue her experiments, and romance soon bubbled out of their chemical beakers. They soon married.

Together they discovered the elements radium and polonium, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. Curie was the first woman to receive such an honor. After her husband’s death, Marie Curie persisted with her work and in 1911 received a second Nobel Prize for Chemistry. No one has ever received two such awards.

…one of the busiest actors appearing in movies, streaming and otherwise…

If you prefer historical biopics to flow chronologically, change the channel on “Radioactive.” Director Marjane Satrapi repeatedly jumps from then to now and back again. The film moves from various medical advances of radiation to its war-bound applications. One minute we are swept from a tender love scene…to atomic testing in Nevada, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the meltdown at Chernobyl.

The personal flashbacks about Madame Curie can also get a bit confusing, but this may be as much a casting issue as anything else. As cast, the two men in her life look very similar. Without a time reference, it’s difficult to sort out husband Pierre (Sam Riley) and married scientist Paul (Aneurin Barnard).

Despite the jumbling, this beautifully filmed period piece applauds what a woman with a brilliant mind and a laser-focused determination accomplished, particularly when partnered with a supportive and equally talented spouse.

 

In her latest film, Pike traded her period high-necked and floor-length dresses for stilettos and smartly tailored suits in “I Care A Lot” (2021). It’s a chilling portrayal of an administrator who convinces the courts that elderly patients need her guardianship. Pike takes control, swiftly liquidating the assets of her wards to pay off the nursing home staff and judges and pocket the rest.

Pike’s disarming manner and razor-sharp haircut can throw caution into any senior citizen watching her scheme in action. All goes smoothly until she takes charge of a woman (perfectly cast Diane Weist) who turns out to be the mother of a powerful underworld figure. The mayhem begins, and it’s a fight to the finish with many plot twists-and-turns.

“I Care A Lot” won Pike a Golden Globe award — which Pike amusingly said she buried in her garden along with her other trophies.

Fans of Rosamund Pike will find “Radioactive” on Amazon Prime, “I Care A Lot” on Netflix and her many other films on multiple streaming services.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review. OTP Tries Drive-in Theater With Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station – by Vic Cordell

It’s been virtually a year since the pandemic darkened the live performance stage. All theatergoers lament the absence of our favorite intellectual stimulation and fear that many theatrical organizations may lack the wherewithal to rebound from financial catastrophe.

Many companies now offer electronic alternatives – from the filming of previous stage performances to original productions using Zoom technology. Although electronic media don’t offer the same urgency and reward as live performances, these endeavors do provide a way for companies to reach their audience and for audiences to support companies.

Enter drive-in theater productions which, unlike viewing at home, offer the advantage of bringing theater lovers together at the venue to recreate some sense of community and allow some possibility of live elements. So it goes with Oakland Theater Project’s (OTP – formerly Ubuntu) entire 2021 season. In keeping with OTP’s origins as a peripatetic, site-specific theater company, its season opener Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station takes place away from its current home base. Even more poignant, the visuals are cast upon the outside walls of the titular station in Oakland.

This presentation of Binding Ties is the 30th anniversary of the documentary created by the esteemed Bay Area theatrical lighting designer, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, with Michael Copeland Sydnor. It focuses on the African-American, and to a small extent, on the Asian and Mexican immigrant minority’s experience working in service capacities on long-distance trains in the first half of the 20th century.

The stately Beaux-Arts-styled 16th Street Station plays a major character in the stories that unfold. The station itself was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was subsequently condemned, and former rail lines have been rerouted to other stations. Nonetheless, attempts to revive and repurpose this beautiful grande dame continue to this day.

…The concept and message of Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station appeal and deserve our patronage…

In addition to contextual narration, recorded interviews comprise the substance of Binding Ties The subjects are Oakland-based, Southern Pacific Railroad workers, primarily sleeping car porters, who recount vignettes of their lives and work. This worthy look into history reveals maltreatment of minorities in this country, even those with relatively esteemed employment.  Despite their dignified hard work, their tales reveal many layers of indignity directed toward them. The pay was poor. Treatment by passengers and supervisors was often demeaning. Unfounded claims that black employees were stealing from passengers and the company were common. And even though female employees served as stewardesses, they were classified and referred to as maids.

The viewer also catches glimpses into the sometimes very luxurious aspects of train travel that also serve to emphasize the social and economic gulf between the passengers and those who served them. Although the interesting storytelling yields a kaleidoscopic view of working on the trains, there is no dramatic arc or trend line leading to a dénouement.

One bright spot reported in the documentary was the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, which protected and advanced its members. This noteworthy accomplishment in the labor and civil rights movements was the first-ever union founded and led by African-Americans to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor.

As a result of inconsistent audio quality in the soundtrack (delivered by FM through car radios), some speakers sound loud and clear, but others are faint or scratchy, suggesting the need for audio engineering. Sound designer Kevin Myrick has incorporated musical numbers, beginning with the appropriate “Hear That Train Whistle Blow,” that add life and dimensionality to the piece.

The visual component of the work is represented by a slide show of relevant black and white period photos projected on two screens. The parking spot assigned this reviewer was extremely oblique to the screens so that most text and smaller image details in the nearer screen could not be deciphered, and nothing could be discerned on the far screen.

In order to add a live element to the production, a “Conductor” played by William Oliver III introduces and closes the show.  From my vantage point, I heard him clearly but caught only a glimpse of him. The concept makes sense, but more content and spark for the role would be welcomed.

The concept and message of Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station appeal and deserve our patronage. However, the dramatic elements could be strengthened as could the technical side of delivering performance with this technique. Nonetheless, credit is due Oakland Theater Project for taking on important topics and providing some intellectual stimulation for its supporters.

Oakland Theater Project’s Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station

Created by Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson with Michael Copeland Sydnor

Performances in the parking lot of Oakland’s 16th Street Train Station

Through February 28, 2021

Tickets: Per car price, $25 for one person, $30 for two, with some pay-what-you-can.  No sales at the door.

Ticket info: https://oaklandtheaterproject.org/

Reviewer ratings

  • Overall: 3 of 5 stars
  • Performance: 3 of 5
  • Script: 4 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 3 of 5

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

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An Aisle Seat Review! San Francisco Opera’s Drive-in “Tosca” – by Vic Cordell

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s stage at the War Memorial Opera House has remained dark for nearly a year.

Happily, the company keeps touch with its patrons by initiating informative programs and delivering streaming performances of previous productions online.  It has now embarked on events to rouse its community out of their chairs and sofas.  Last weekend, SF Opera offered four screenings in the drive-in movie format at Fort Mason.  The filming was the company’s 2009 fine production of Puccini’s brilliant “Tosca.”  A review of the film of a 12-year-old stage production that has completed its drive-in run may seem fatuous.  However, it could be of interest to those who might consider viewing a future streaming of the production or buying an electronic copy.

Although not without its detractors, who consider it melodramatic and musically harsh, audience and most music critics’ love of “Tosca” have not wavered since overcoming its hostile debut in 1900.  In contrast with the lyrical beauty of the other two of Puccini’s top three operas, “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca’s” music and drama are bombastic and conflictual almost throughout.  But this opera is also exceptionally artful in many dimensions and includes several masterful arias and love duets.

As specified by the score, the SF Opera’s Marco Armiliato-conducted orchestra roars and often punctuates with the deliciously ominous and powerful Scarpia leitmotif.  As one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, the title character demands a soprano with the dramatic vocal power of a Wagnerian, who is able to caress poignant Pucciniesque melody.  Oh, and she must possess a full palette of acting colors with an array of emotions.  Two male leads must also be of top-caliber.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.

Since aficionados value seeing multiple productions of the same opera, the notion of a plot spoiler doesn’t really exist in this realm.  So here’s a synopsis of the central plot.  In 1800, painter Cavaradossi is a partisan sympathizer opposed to Napoleon’s domination of Rome.   When caught harboring a political enemy of the state, he is tortured by the police.  The scheming chief of police, Scarpia, courts sexual favors from Tosca with the promise of freeing her lover, Cavaradossi.  All goes awry.  All three die – violently, of course.

Adrienne Pieczonka plays Tosca, and she possesses the vocal and dramatic chops required.  She retains pitch control while singing at full power for extended periods, especially during the high tension train wreck of Act 2, full of intrigue, interrogation, intimidation, betrayal, torture, and more.  But amidst this melee comes Tosca’s beautiful signature aria “Vissi d’Arte” (I lived for art).   It emerges after a significant pause which renders an almost dreamlike quality as Tosca seems to imagine herself removed to another place.  Pieczonka delivers the aria with confident assertiveness, but the style of a plaintive lament might better fit her ethereal escape.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Antagonist Scarpia is deftly performed and solidly sung by Lado Antoneli, though his “Te Deum” would have benefited from a stronger lower register.  The artist’s patrician gray wig and unthreatening visage belie his character’s nihilistic sadism.  Though falsely pious, polite, and proper when necessary, Scarpia’s singing “I savor violent conquest more than surrender” reveals his inner rage.  Antoneli mines these contradictions well as he punishes Cavaradossi and manipulates Tosca into a compromising position.

Spinto tenor Carlo Ventre is Cavaradossi.  Blessed with a warm vibrato, he sings in a manner associated with some Italian singers which is the opera corollary to country music twang.  Some listeners may not care for this style which is most evident in his beautiful Act 1 number “Recondita Armonia” (Concealed harmony).  But in his Act 3 lament, “E Lucevan Le Stelle” (And the stars were shining), the whine is less discernable, and he excels in this famed aria as he reflects on love and contemplates his imminent execution.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.  This is true of “Tosca,” led by Dale Travis as the nervous sacristan.  Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi marshals top-ranked creative designers.  The opera plays on a world-class set designed by Thierry Bosquet.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Of course, this is a filming of a stage performance, not a movie, and some shortfalls should be expected.  A great fear in filming a staged opera is that it will seem static, like a video archival record.  In this case, multiple cameras are used, but they shoot from fixed positions — meaning they can zoom and pan, but not dolly.  Editing cuts are sharp, so while there is reasonable variety in camerawork, the outcome is somewhat jerky and stilted.  In addition, lighting and sound production are designed for the live audience, not for filming, so some deficiencies exist.  That said, this is a fine production with a great cast performing one of the great operas in history.  It is a worthwhile watch.

“Tosca” composed by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was produced by San Francisco Opera in 2009 and played on-screen outdoors at Fort Mason on February 12-14, 2021. SF Opera has also announced newly-coined “live at the drive-in”—including productions of “Barber of Seville” and a concert of the Adler Fellows.

Reviewer ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

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ASR’s Stuff Worth Seeing! Music Therapy Revives Dementia Patients in Rossato-Bennet’s Compelling Documentary – by Barry Willis

ASR’s “Stuff Worth Seeing” brings you news and reviews of exciting programming our critics and writers believe is worthy of your time and attention. Check them out! Thanks! — Editor

Some years ago, a friend and his sister decided that they would care for their elderly mother at home rather than handing her over to professional care. They fed her and bathed her and made sure that she consumed dozens of prescription medications several times per day, a self-imposed task that they originally imagined would last at most a year or two, given that their mother was well into her 80s and suffering from multiple ailments.

Instead, their home health-care regimen stretched into several years. Despite her general weakness, their mother proved an amazingly durable physical specimen, but mentally she was almost completely gone. She had come to the US as an immigrant at the age of eight and spoke English her entire life. Near the end, she lost all her English and spoke only rudimentary Greek. She no longer recognized her son and daughter.

Dementia is a widespread and growing problem. There are more than five million dementia patients in the United States. Approximately twice that number work full-time caring for them, to a large extent dispensing sedatives and other drugs that make them more manageable. There is a much more effective treatment available for those with dementia and other forms of mental impairment, treatment with very low cost and no negative side effects, compellingly demonstrated in a documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennet.

Alive Inside opens with an informal interview with a 90-year-old resident of a nursing home. She speaks in cogent sentences, but when asked about her life, can’t remember much. Then she dons a pair of headphones and hears a recording of Louis Armstrong playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The recording triggers a rush of memories and she pours forth all kinds of information about her life, from childhood on, information that was hidden from her prior to hearing the music. It’s one of the film’s many examples of the therapeutic value of music for people suffering from dementia.

The Director of ALIVE INSIDE

Winner of multiple awards at several international film festivals, Rossato-Bennet’s 2014 documentary follows social worker Dan Cohen through three years of introducing the benefits of music to people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other devastating forms of mental deterioration. Equipped with headphones, iPods, and a laptop computer from which he can program each player for each patient, Cohen visits nursing homes and works apparent miracles through the simple act of sharing music.

…she not only has a positive emotional breakthrough but begins to regain her vocabulary…

Many of the patients he visits are in vegetative or near-vegetative states and haven’t responded to other forms of therapy, yet they all respond to music—in particular, music that was very meaningful for them in their youth. The reason, according to neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, among many other titles) is that “music is not just a physiological stimulus . . . it engages the whole brain—memories, and emotions—in a way that no other stimulus can. “ Sacks goes on to explain that music connects to parts of the brain that are the last to be affected by dementia. It can awaken dormant parts of the brain that can’t be reached otherwise.

We are treated to an irrefutable example of this healing power late in the film when we meet a woman named Mary Lou Thompson, in late middle age and apparently good physical health but whose mind has begun to disintegrate. She’s lost words for common objects such as “fork” and “spoon” and can’t remember which button does what in her building’s elevator. Cohen fits her with headphones and an iPod loaded with music from her youth—Beatles and Beach Boys—and in an astounding transformation, she not only has a positive emotional breakthrough but begins to regain her vocabulary. Her personal music system and soundtrack are foundational to her new level of independence.

The film strongly implies that for music therapy to be effective, it must be music that is deeply significant for listeners. Advocates of classical/jazz/New Age/you-name-it music will be disappointed to learn that their favorite genres don’t have innate healing potential, nor do once-weekly concerts by well-meaning visiting musicians. The music played has to be deeply meaningful for each listener. For Henry, a ten-year nursing home resident who spends most of his time dozing, it’s Cab Calloway that wakes him up. A paranoid schizophrenic named Denise is emotionally out of control, but comes to center hearing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” In another scene, she discards her walker and dances to salsa music. She hadn’t been without her walker in her two years at the institution, according to Rossato-Bennet.

Unlike drugs intended to keep elderly patients sedated, there doesn’t appear to be a downside to music therapy. Yet it’s near impossible to get it approved for widespread use, according to gerontologist Bill Thomas, MD, who states “The amount spent on drugs dwarfs what we could be spending on music therapy for every nursing home patient in America.” Thomas encounters no obstacles writing prescriptions costing $1000/month but has no way to get a $40 personal music system approved. Drugs make patients more manageable for nursing home workers, but, Thomas says, “We haven’t done anything, medically speaking, to touch the heart and soul of the patient.”

My own father lasted well into his 80s without paying any particular attention to diet, exercise, or other health concerns. Other than being a cranky old guy, he wasn’t mentally impaired. What sustained him throughout his life was his abiding love of music—especially Swing Era and Dixieland jazz, the music of his youth. He remained deeply involved with his music library right to the end, without relying on massive amounts of prescription drugs. Music carried him along. As the old saying goes, it added life to his years and quite probably, years to his life. Alive Inside makes a strong case that the same outcome might be possible for millions of elders.

 

 Alive Inside

A documentary by Michael Rossato-Bennet

Date of production: 2014

Runtime 78 minutes

Available on Netflix

 

Reviewer’s Score

Overall: 4 of 5 stars

Script: 4 of 5

Production value: 3.5 of 5

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

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ASR’s Armchair Seat Video Review: Stunning Performances Highlight the Story of Selena on Netflix — By Cari Lynn Pace

Michael Lavine / Netflix

When Netflix made a movie about the life of Selena Quintanilla, the Grammy award-winning Mexican-American singer who died over 25 years ago, they broke it up into a series.

And stretched it out.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has released only nine episodes of Selena: The Series, each about 40 minutes long. The series showcases how the family worked together, without much complaint, performing their way amidst financial devastation and hole-in-the-wall venues. The goal of the filmmakers was to capitalize on the brilliant singing talents of the youngest daughter, Selena, who was only nine when she first performed.

Through sheer will and creative maneuvering, the family struggled to the top of the music charts.

Serena, played as an adult by Christian Serratos, was the family’s talent front and center, bolstered by the songwriting skills of her brother AB (enacted by Gabriel Chavarria.) Their musical father Abraham Quintanilla II (Ricardo Chavira) is portrayed as the controlling force behind the success of this iconic singer.

Describing their dad as driven…is akin to calling the Pope semi-religious…

Selena found no early success singing in English, and had to learn Spanish in order to capture the “Queen of Tejana Music” moniker. It is curious that this second-generation American family born in Texas had deep Mexican roots yet no one spoke Spanish.

Her desire to record in English remains an unfulfilled dream she rekindles at the end of Series 1. Future episodes of Selena becoming a crossover artist have been filmed but not yet released by Netflix.

Actors Madison Taylor Baez as the child Serena has a knock-your-socks-off voice with a most endearing face. Christian Serratos portrays the luminous grown-up star. She lip-syncs Serena’s stage performances, to the delight of fans who appreciate the dubbed yet authentic voice.

Not to be overlooked is Noemi Gonzalez, who doesn’t sing but delivers an earthy and earnest performance as Serena’s sister. With the exception of Twilight’s Serratos, supporting characters are all believably and solidly portrayed by lesser-known Latinx actors. Kudos on the acting and directing.

“Many episodes can be hard to believe, as teenagers actually listen to their all-wise dad and do as they are told.”

Serena Series 1 has a multitude of the songs that made Serena famous. It also has filler, undoubtedly to make this a two-series program. Serena and her sister do a lot of fabric shopping, creating outfits with an abundance of rhinestones and glitter. Episodes flash back and forward, with the viewer expected to fill in the blanks of the storyline.

Many episodes can be hard to believe, as teenagers actually listen to their all-wise dad — and do as they are told! No one seems even slightly jealous of the family’s entire focus on Selena. Is this really how it was?

Seidy Lopez as Marcella Quintanilla and Ricardo Chavira as Abraham Quintanilla in a scene from “Selena the Series” / Netflix

The Quintanilla family reportedly worked with Netflix and the producers to protect Serena’s legacy. It’s their story; they decide how to tell it.

If you can’t get enough Selena with these first nine episodes, check out the 1997 biopic Selena starring Jennifer Lopez. Netflix has not yet announced a release date of the continuing episodes in this series, although confirming they have been filmed.

Netflix touts Selena: The Series as their #1 in current popularity, but it’s not clear how the votes are collected. Regardless, it’s an enjoyable recounting of one family’s sacrifices made for fame, with bright sparkles and bedazzling rhinestones aplenty.

Nice change of pace. Worth watching.

………………………………………..

“Selena: The Series” Part 1

  • Streaming on: Netflix. Available also on iPhone, and Android
  • Availability: Now for some episodes. More to be released.
  • Directed by: Hiromi Kamata and Katina Medina Mora
  • Created/Produced by: Moises Zamora

Starring:

  • Christian Serratos
  • Madison Taylor Baez
  • Ricardo Chavira
  • Seidy Lopez
  • Gabriel Chavarria
  • Noemi Gonzalez
  • Jesse Posey

Run Time: Each of 9 episodes is approximately 40 minutes

………………………………………..

Ratings:

  • Overall: 3 of 5 stars
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 3 of 5
  • TOTAL = 10/15

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ASR’s Armchair Seat Film Review: Solid Direction, Astounding Performances Anchor “Hillbilly Elegy” – Reviewed by Barry Willis

Glenn Close and Amy Adams – photo by Lacey Terrell – Netflix

Director Ron Howard has delivered a Thanksgiving gift to America’s most-forgotten and most-maligned people—poor whites—with his solid cinematic treatment of Hillbilly Elegy, based on the best-selling memoir by J.D. Vance. The film enjoyed its Netflix debut on November 24.

While Howard and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor have taken some liberties with Vance’s material—and of necessity, left out his observations and speculations about what ails the heartland—the book’s essential survival story remains intact: a poor kid with roots deep in the Kentucky hill country manages to overcome the soul-deadening effects of continually moving from place to place with his drug-abusing mother, and a childhood without a father or father figure—unless you count his mother’s nonstop parade of drunks, addicts, abusers, whackos, and losers.

The kid—J.D. Vance, played as an adult by Gabriel Basso, and as an adolescent by Owen Asztalos, both of them excellent—survives mostly by his wits, inspired by his mean-as-hell no-nonsense chain-smoking grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close), the counterbalance to his mother’s reliably erratic behavior. Unlike in similar stories, there are no kind-hearted coaches or teachers to intervene and help him along. Mamaw, in fact, seems to be his only guide, an unsteady one at best.

Haley Bennet, Gabriel Basso, and Amy Adams – photo by Lacey Terrell – Netflix

By sheer determination, young J.D. manages to overcome his family’s collective madness and the unhappy cycle of alcoholism/drug addiction/crime/jail that seems to be the fate of many of his high school classmates. He joins the Marines straight out of high school, does a stint in Iraq, completes four years of work at Ohio State University in only two, and wins admission to Yale Law School. It’s a story that would have critics leaping for new superlatives were it about a poor kid from a different background—one from a clearly oppressed minority, for example, whose against-all-odds triumphs are standard fare in film and television.

The fact that Hillbilly Elegy is about poor white people rather than poor people of color has apparently given some critics permission to be unfairly dismissive of this film. Poor white people are the last ethnic group that can be attacked with impunity, whose plight can be ignored without paroxysms of guilt. In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton sealed her fate with her characterization of such people as “a basket of deplorables.” Trump won the election the moment those words came out of her mouth. There’s nothing working-class people hate more than condescension from Ivy League elitists.

Those who disparage this film are doing so largely from Ms. Clinton’s perspective, a perspective shared by a trolling lawyer at J.D.’s first interview for a summer law internship: “rednecks,” he says without irony, categorizing an entire family and subculture.

J.D. Vance became a Yale lawyer without forgetting where he came from. Many commentators apparently have little experience of life in the rural South or in the towns of the Rust Belt, whose populations in the 1950s swelled with Southern immigrants who went north seeking opportunity.

…Poor white people are the last ethnic group that can be attacked with impunity, whose plight can be ignored without paroxysms of guilt…

The decline of such towns caused by sending industrial production offshore, compounded by the opioid crisis, is a theme examined in depth in Vance’s book, but merely implied in Howard’s film—actually all the better, as the film remains tightly focused on the personal story. In many ways, Hillbilly Elegy is a great companion piece to 2017’s The Glass Castle, with Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, and Naomi Watts.|

For those who understand its premise and background, Hillbilly Elegy is a compelling triumph-of-the-underdog story, shot mostly in Georgia, with only a few exterior scenes actually shot in Middletown, Ohio, an appropriately-named generic town built in the shadow of an ARMCO steel plant. Taylor’s screenplay honors Vance’s book without mirroring it, and Howard’s direction is solid if a bit heavy on flashbacks and parallel flashbacks.

Haley Bennet, Glenn Close and Owen Asztalos – photo by Lacey Terrell – Netflix

Haley Bennett is understatedly consistent as J.D.’s long-suffering sister Lindsay. Amy Adams is a totally believable wonder as his way-out-of-control mother Bev. Veteran actress Glenn Close disappears so far into her character that she’s initially unrecognizable. Her astounding performance alone recommends this production—one that, like the book that inspired it, is good, not great, but nonetheless important.

 

“Hillbilly Elegy”

  • Streaming now on Netflix
  • Directed by Ron Howard.
  • Screenplay by Vanessa Taylor, based on the book by J.D. Vance
  • Starring: Gabriel Basso, Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Haley Bennett, Owen Asztalos, Bo Hopkins
  • Run Time: 1 hr 56 min

………………………………………..

Ratings:

  • Overall: 3.5 of 5 stars
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 4 of 5
  • Cinematography: 3.5 of 5
  • Score: 15/20

 

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis was born in Ashland, Kentucky, his family’s ancestral home in the coal-mining region near West Virginia. His maternal grandfather was a coal miner and worked at an ARMCO steel plant across the river in Ohio. Barry grew up mostly in small towns in Indiana and Ohio and spent fourteen years as a so-called adult in the Deep South. He is president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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ASR’s Not So Random Question Time with Musical Theater Force-of-Nature Dani Innocenti-Beem

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Ms. Innocenti-Beem

Among the North Bay’s most prominent and prolific theater artists is Dani Innocenti-Beem, a phenomenal singer and delightful comic actress known for her ability to melt hearts, rattle walls, and provoke uncontrollable laughter with her improvisations. Recipient of innumerable nominations and winner of multiple awards—SFBATCC, TBA, MTJA, and Artys included—Innocenti-Beem in normal times is booked eighteen months out and often performs in one show while rehearsing the next one. The entire North Bay theater community looks forward to a return to normal so that we can enjoy her onstage again.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DIB: I was ten years old. My mom and dad took me and my brother Marco to the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael where they had a show called Kids in Vaudeville, a showcase featuring kids 8-18 doing skits, songs, dances etc.

There was a young girl, I’ll never forget her name, Hathaway Pogue, who came out on the stage in her blue Gunne Sax dress, sat on a stool, and sang “Rainbow Connection.” In Act Two she came out in a brown Gunne Sax and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I tugged on my mom’s arm and said, “I want to do that.” She signed me up for classes the next day.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in for a paying audience?

DIB: It was The Miracle Worker at the Belrose. I played a little blind girl. I remember getting my first note from Margie Belrose. It was a compliment and such a high. I very rarely do plays. Funnily enough, I did this play twice. In a high school production, I played Annie Sullivan.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

DIB: In my adult life, probably 15.

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

DIB: Am I successful? Certainly not in terms of money. In the North Bay, you don’t do this for the money. I have a 9-5 to pay the bills. I never thought about being successful. It’s just become who I am—it’s what brings me joy, what makes me me.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

DIB: Musical theater, of course! Give me a big broad musical comedy any day!

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in theater?

DIB: Three people have really had a true impact on my journey. My father Ugo—I get my voice from him. He was in the boys’ choir in Italy growing up. He and my mother insisted on classical training, which gave me the voice I have today.

Second is my singing partner and friend Julie Ekoue-Totu. I am never more myself than when I am on stage singing with her.

The third is Carl Jordan, who was the first director to have faith in me and pushed me out of my comfort zone of comedy when he cast me as Shelby in The Spitfire Grille.

ASR: With the ongoing pandemic, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

DIB: In all honesty, it has been a struggle. My joy is gone. Postponed, or canceled. My other family, gone. That intimacy that only those in the theater understand, gone. Those moments that give you life on a daily basis, be it in rehearsal, or memorizing a line, or hitting that note right in the pocket, gone. I would have closed three shows since Covid started. I am struggling.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

DIB: I would like to say I have an optimistic outlook but some days are harder than others. I have hope that one of these days we’ll get back to what we had, more or less. How many theaters survive will depend on just how long that takes.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

DIB: I spent most of my life being in shows rather than attending them, and those were 99.9% musicals. It is just in these last few years that I have been able to attend more theater and have started to broaden my knowledge.

So, from what little I have seen, my favorite dramas tend more toward the classics, such as Streetcar and Death of A Salesman, although I did very much enjoy the 6th Street Playhouse productions Faceless and The Revolutionists.

Comedies must really make me laugh out loud for me to truly enjoy them. A little chuckle won’t cut it. The Mystery of Irma Vep, Noises Off, and one that teetered between them both, Drumming with Annubis.

Musicals? Oh boy! The list is long for different reasons, from performing in them, to the score only, to being an audience member. Lumping them in the same list, a few would be: Gypsy, Into The Woods, Sunset Boulevard, Sweeney Todd, Hello Dolly!, Little Shop of Horrors, Evita, Man of La Mancha, Urinetown, Mame, Falsettos. I could keep going but this Q&A has to have an end sometime!

ASR: Name some all-time favorites that you have worked in.

DIB: Man of La Mancha—to be able to tell such a wonderful story, with a cast that was brilliantly talented, was tops for me for sure. Hands on a Hardbody—It felt like an honor to bring these real people to life. It spoke to our hearts as a cast.

Great American Trailer Park Musical—We had lightning in a bottle with that show. Everything clicked and it was the most fun I have ever had on a stage. Merman’s Apprentice—stepping into the shoes of Ethel Merman. Need I say more? Nunsense, in 1996—my castmates Julie Ekoue-Totu, Kayla Gold, Diana Bergala, and Gail Gongall, truly became my sisters and lifelong friends. I would not be who am I am in the theater without that show and those women.

…Great American Trailer Park Musical—We had lightning in a bottle with that show…

ASR: What are some of your least favorite productions? Care to share titles of those you would never do or never do again?

DIB: Expiring Minds Want to Know, a horrible little musical. Annie. I love the role of Miss Hannigan and loved my cast when I did it, but the show itself is not a favorite.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

DIB: Triumph of Love is such a gem. The Drowsy Chaperone is another one that is just pure fun and so rarely done.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DIB:  Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes, you shadows have offended, too many times!

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DIB: I would love to do props and set dressing. Creating the world the actors are playing in. Bringing a vision to life and making sure it keeps with the time period, aesthetic, etc. That would super fun and creative.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DIB: I sing the show through in my car on the way to the theater. Warm up the voice in the shower of course. But other than that, I just try to relax and remember my lines. I like to get into the theater at least two hours before showtime. Just to be there and settle in. After the show, I enjoy a milkshake at Shari’s or Chinese food at Yet Wah or just hanging out in the lobby with the cast and some friends enjoying each other.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

DIB: Hmmm…

1. Be on time.

2. Be humble.

3. Be a team player.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

DIB: Julie Ekoue-Totu, my singing sister. I have known her since 1989. She’s been my performing partner and my giggle gal all this time. She taught me how to take chances vocally and helped me tremendously in developing my style. She’s one of the most honest people I know. I trust her more than anyone else on that stage. She has had my back in so many ways over these years and I am forever grateful and will love her and sing her praises until my last note!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DIB: I was in the audience at Lucky Penny’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when three women got up and walked across the stage—actually through the scene, explaining to the audience why they were leaving (one of them wasn’t feeling well).

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DIB: Of course I do. I have to pay the bills and I am extremely lucky to have mine during this horrible time. I am an escrow officer.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

DIB: No, not really. I appreciate art and enjoy listening to music but I am not a follower per se. When I am not performing I enjoy being with my family and my fur babies.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

DIB: Ahhh, here:

1. No cigarettes or cilantro.

2. Kindness is key.

3. Popular vote wins.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

DIB: A home enema kit.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

DIB: If All the World’s a Stage, I Want My Own Damn Dressing Room, a show about the lives and times of a regional theater group of course!

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

DIB: Beaten up someone who was being cruel to animals.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

DIB: Soundtrack? That is tough. I have certain artists or songs from my childhood that will always be on repeat in my heart. Those tunes you go to when you need a lift. Does that count? Narrowing them down to three? Hmmm?

Luciano Pavarotti singing anything. He was my background music as a child.

Helen Reddy—“Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)”—As a kid, I never knew what it meant but it made me smile (especially the horns) and I would sing it at the top of my lungs.

John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” It just isn’t Christmas without it.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

DIB: I love boots. Nice comfortable boots. Combat, Ugg, Booties, Go-Go, Cowboy, Dress, Rain, All the boots!

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

DIB: I love turtles. I would like to see a turtle the size of a horse! Prehistoric and beautiful. I could ride it!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

DIB: When I was younger, I liked to climb everything—trees, towers, you name it. The only thing I could climb right now is the walls.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DIB: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”—The Outsiders

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Seafus Smith — Singer/Musician/Sound Designer/Music Director/Scenic Designer (That’s All..?)

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Seafus Smith

Seafus Chatmon-Smith is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, music director, sound designer, and scenic designer. He is a recipient of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle “Excellence in Theatre” award for his 2019 scenic design of Admissions for Los Altos Stage Company.

A California native who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Central Valley, his career in entertainment spans from onstage to behind-the-scenes. In the mid-to-late 2000s, he played in various bands before going on to front his own band, Vasco Skys, formed by him and drummer Richard Messenger III. In 2010 he joined the band Dallas, (now known as Bryan Dallas) as keyboardist and background vocalist. After playing FM 107.7’s Bone Bash X concert, he decided to take a break from the music stage.

Seafus’ first work in theatre was as a student, in Las Positas College’s 2006 production of Macbeth, as a sound designer. He began working in entertainment staging and lighting in 2012, which ultimately led him back into the theatre, first as a sound engineer/designer, then into music directing and scenic design.

After sound designing Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas in 2016, he began music directing with James and the Giant Peach JR, 2017, Junie B Jones JR, 2018. Dragon Theatre’s 2018 production of Equivocation would bring him to his first scenic design. His next design was Lohman Theatre’s 2018 production of She Kills Monsters, followed by Los Positas College’s 2019 production of Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Odd Stupid Tales.

Seafus is currently designing the Steel Magnolias set for Los Altos Stage Company, originally slated for the spring season of 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been pushed to the spring of 2021.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SS: Though I have worn many different hats in theatre, and still do, my introduction into the inner workings of the theatre was in college where I took acting and technical theatre classes. I fell in love with the process.

ASR: What was the first play you worked in for a paying audience?

SS: The first show I did was a production of My Son Pinocchio, as a sound engineer.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SS: I’ve been involved with five different theatre companies—from children’s theatre to high school, to college and community theatre. I’ve been working in theatre in various capacities since 2013.

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

SS: Truthfully I don’t know what I’m doing, other than trying to do my best. Not sure what kind of success I’ve achieved just yet, but having received an award from SFBATCC, I have hope that I’m headed in the right direction.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

SS: I’ve worked for companies that have a specific focus, but I myself strived to work on any and all projects that tell great stories. Hopefully inspiring new dreamers like myself, to create new worlds we’ve yet to experience.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

SS: It’s two people really: Michael Rinaldi and the late Jeremy Hamm, educators that have done amazing things in their lives to enrich the lives of others as well as my own.

ASR: With the pandemic, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

SS: As an independent artist, this time has and continues to be difficult for me, as I’m sure it has for our entire community both on the small and large scale. Right now it’s hard as shows have been postponed with the uncertainty that they will ever go up, though I remain positive and hopeful that in time things will get better.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for the coming seasons? How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

SS: Well to the first question.. . All of my shows that were in progress that aren’t canceled, have been postponed until the 2021 spring season. And to the second.. . I’m hopeful that in the future things will pick back up, though I know it’s going to take some time.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SS: AB5 was passed just before the COVID-19 crisis, so I have yet to really experience its impact, though I’m sure it will bring about many changes to the contractual agreement side of things. I’m sure we will work out a way for art to continue as it should.

…I’m also a sucker for amusement parks…

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

SS: From the first time I heard the original cast recording, my favorite musical of all time is Phantom of the Opera. From the score and story to the dancing and technical theatrical gymnastics, to me it is all that you could ask for.

My favorite comedy is Noises Off. As someone who has spent so much time backstage as both a performer and crew member, I can give first-hand accounts of the hilarity that inevitably comes from behind the curtain. As for dramas… Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail is one of my absolute faves, though I really like most all of his shows.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SS: Romeo and Juliet would be the most over-performed and yes, it could be put in the vault.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

SS: It would have to be sets. One of my favorite things to do is to imagine the world in which the story takes place and bring what’s in my mind to life. It can be a powerful thing giving a visible voice to a story. Look at Hollywood!

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

SS: Given the current climate this may be an unpopular opinion but . . . Tom Hanks. The talent he poses in emoting is something striking, both on the surface as well as in the depths of the characters he chooses to portray.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

SS: As a performer, I try to practice my craft as much as possible, then I do a full body and vocal warmup. All dependent on what part I’m playing of course. And to relax after. . . I love a good gathering with friends. I don’t really sleep much, maybe go to a movie or chill on the couch with a nice bottle of wine.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

SS: Really it takes more than this, but if you don’t have these three things, you won’t be able to get very far with me. So…

1. Focus

2. An understanding of conscious learning.

3. Flexibility.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

SS: The relationship between myself and the story, as well as everyone involved. My belief is, if you have a great story and a wonderful team, then anything is truly possible.

ASR: What’s the most excruciating screw-up you see onstage?

SS: When someone has cast an actor that can’t sing in a musical. Nobody wants to hear a cat being tortured for two hours, and we all know it happens.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SS: Due to COVID-19, I am currently out of work. Normally when not working on a specific show I work for an entertainment lighting and staging company, as well as in various personal music endeavors.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SS: As a singer-songwriter and record producer I’m usually making music when not working. However, now with so much more time on my hands, I’m learning the craft of screenplays. I’m also a sucker for amusement parks, beaches, and hiking.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

SS: Music-making would be number one on the list. I love to dance and have been a choreographer for multiple projects. Cinema is one of my all-time great loves, I would love to direct and be in a film one day. In my late teens, I was a magician. From painting to building, sculpting, and most things in between. I have either done it, do it, or enjoy watching it being done.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SS: I’d say…

1. No making noise before 10 a.m.

2. Bring your own bottle of sauterne.

3. No acts of hate or violence!

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

SS: A circumcision.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

SS: Been caught sneaking into a concert.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

SS: 1. Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” because I love the choreography in that video and love to dance to it.

2. Prince’s “Partyman,” because as a kid I wanted to be Batman, and still do!

3. “Stuck,” a song I wrote about how I feel during this COVID-19 pandemic.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SS: Sunglasses are a must at all times. As long as I have a pair we’re ok.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

SS: I have a healthy respect for human life so the only thing for me in this category would be rock climbing! You have to take risks in life to move forward. I believe you take risks whether you choose to or not. Daring to live is risky, and sitting on the sidelines is to risk never having lived at all.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SS: “It’s working, it’s working”—Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars.

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: One-on-One With North Bay’s Multi-talented Anthony Martinez

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Anthony Martinez is an actor and musician based in Santa Rosa. He most recently appeared in David Templeton’s critically acclaimed Drumming With Anubis, a production that won a 2019 “Ensemble” award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Film credits: Donovan Reid, The Last Hit, Quick, Ghettoblaster, The Animal, Cheaper by the Dozen, Bottle Shock. Television: Love Kills (Investigation Discovery), World’s Astonishing Stories (Nippon TV), World’s Crime Mysteries (Nippon TV), 13 Reasons Why, numerous commercials and industrials for clients such as Polaroid, Apple, Save Energy, Food Network, AARP, and many more. Theater: Left Edge Theater (Zombietown- TBA nomination, This Random World, Drumming with Anubis, Sweat), Spreckels Theater Company (Guys & Dolls, Forever Plaid, 1776– TBA/SFBATCC nomination), 6th Street Playhouse (La Cage Aux Folles, Kiss Me Kate), Lucky Penny Productions (Funny Girl), Novato Theater Company (Next to Normal, Into the Woods– TBA and SFBATCC nominations), Cinnabar Theater (Forever Plaid, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha), 42nd Street Moon (Girl Crazy, On a Clear Day, Dear World).

In addition to his stage and film work, Anthony is a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who performs with his own band “The Core,” tours nationally as keyboardist for Cash & King, a Tribute to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and Petty Rocks, a Tribute to Tom Petty, and is the founder and tenor vocalist with “Comfort & Joy,” the Bay Area’s premiere a cappella holiday vocal quartet.

Anthony Martinez

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AM: I was actually a musician before becoming an actor. As a kid, I took piano and guitar lessons and played in rock bands. I never did theater as a kid. Right after high school, I got into a car accident and, while I was recuperating, most of what was on TV in the middle of the day were soap operas. I remember watching them thinking “I can do that.”

My sister had a co-worker who was a part-time commercial actor in the Bay Area, and said “OK, prove it.”

Through her co-worker, I got hooked up with SF on-camera training classes and casting agents. From there, I got my first agent and first acting jobs (a national commercial and a small part in a movie in LA) without ever having set foot onstage. I then met a theater artist from LA with a theater company and fell in love with live theater.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

AM: That would be Holy Ghosts by Romulus Linney. Good play. I wish more companies would produce it. I have never seen another production other than the one I was in. I think the reason it’s seldom produced is because it calls for live snake handling!

It’s about a religious snake-handling congregation in the south and, yes, for my first play I had to take up live snakes onstage every night. What an introduction to live theater!

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

AM: Wow. Let’s see… I think 17 different theater companies in the Bay Area.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

AM: That’s a great question. I have to say Marvin Klebe, the founder of Cinnabar Theater. He not only gave me my first professional job, the moment I met him he was so kind, so knowlegable, so supportive… he really inspired me be the best I could be.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

AM: For drama, I love Angels in America, The Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and A Steady Rain. Comedies I love are Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, and Vanya, Sasha, Masha and Spike. Musicals… Next to Normal, Falsettos, and everything and anything by Sondheim.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

AM: I’m currently an Associate Artist at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, so I’d have to say Drumming with Anubis, Hand to God, and A Steady Rain.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

AM: The Music Man.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

AM: A musical called Triumph of Love. It had a very short life on Broadway in the 90s, but it is so wonderful. My old theater company in Marin did it and it was so charming. The audience loved it. I am always astounded that more companies don’t do it.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

AM: I would say Titus Andronicus, but I am a horror movie fan, so I’m biased!

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

AM: A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, for sure.

The dog took center stage and… followed its natural instincts… …

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

AM: Sound design. I am a musician so I really vibe with the impact sound and music can have in evoking mood.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

AM: Wow. That is so, so hard. I personally know so many astounding actors, but I will pick someone I know only from their work. I am a big fan of Craig Marker. He is always amazing.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

AM: For musicals, I do vocal exercises and light physical warmup. For plays, I do a physical warmup and go over my lines! After a performance, I like to unwind with an adult beverage, but if I have a performance the next day, never tequila. It shreds my voice.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

AM: Hmmmm…

1. Be on time.

2. Be off book ASAP.

3. Always be helpful and cooperative to everyone involved in the production, even if you’ve had a bad day.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

AM: I have to say the one with my sister, Vicki. She is a stage manager at Left Edge Theatre and it’s nice to be able to work together and share that common interest.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

AM: It wasn’t technically a screw-up, but during a production of Camelot I was in, the dog playing Pellinore’s dog proceeded to completely steal a scene doing… something dogs do. The dog took center stage and… followed its natural instincts, looking right out at the audience. The audience was roaring with laughter and the stunned cast onstage was just frozen. I wasn’t onstage at the time (thank God), just watching from the wings, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

AM: Probably when I split my pants completely onstage during a performance… in a theater in the round! No wings to dash off into!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

AM: I was in the audience of a local musical when a drunk person climbed onstage, waving at the audience and then at her friend in the cast on stage (who was mortified), and trying to conduct the orchestra. It seemed like she was up there for an eternity and I kept wondering “When is someone gonna do something?” Finally, an ASM came out and got her offstage. So awkward.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

AM: I worked as an administrator at a community college for many years. Now I am lucky enough to be able to work for myself as a consultant and teacher.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

AM: I am an avid martial artist and instructor, as well as a musician. I also sing, play keyboards and guitar, and work as a sideman for many local and touring artists.

ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater? Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture?

AM: I do lots of music (live and recording) and on-camera work (industrial films, commercials, and movies). I also practice martial arts. Does that count?

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

AM: Ahh…

1. No talking in the audience during a performance.

2. No nuts in brownies or cookies.

3. Kindness to all animals.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

AM: A colonoscopy.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

AM: I’m still working on that. ;)

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

AM: Protesting or used martial arts in self-defense (maybe at the same time).

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

AM: I have many, many pairs of shoes.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

AM: A French Bulldog.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

AM: Nope. I am not a daredevil. I have had enough life-threatening excitement in my life already and lived to tell the tales—those are stories for another time—so I now crave calmness. But I do love rollercoasters!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

AM: “Just because they could, they never stopped to think if they should.”- Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Good life advice.

-30-

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Feeling the Beat with Transcendence Theatre Company’s Music Director Daniel Weidlein

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award for Transcendence Theatre Company’s 2019 production of A Chorus Line, Daniel Weidlein is a music producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music director based in Los Angeles.

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Daniel has enjoyed a diverse career spanning many parts of the entertainment industry, from acting in Academy Award-winner Whiplash, to performing and music directing on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off, to writing and producing Billboard charting music for artists like Blake McGrath, Stan Taylor, and Miss Peppermint. He owns and operates BioSoul Music, a boutique recording studio in LA. In addition to his work as music director and orchestrator for Sonoma County-based Transcendence Theater Company, Daniel has been integral in the development of new musicals such as The Mollyhouse by Richard Hanson and Divya Maus, and Bottleshock by James Sasser and Charles Burwell.

***

Daniel Weidlein. Photo by Taryn Dudley.

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DW: From a very young age I acted in musicals, and always loved film musicals in particular, so it’s in my bones. But as I grew older, I felt the call to avenues of performing music.

Professionally, I have worked as a music producer, arranger, music director, instrumentalist, and singer. In almost every single one of those capacities I eventually was brought to the intersection point of the Venn diagram of music and theater.

A major turning point in that regard was the work I did with Morgan Karr in the pop music realm, but ultimately it led me to the work I do in the Bay Area with Transcendence Theatre Company.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

DW: The Grifters—a musical theatre adaptation of the book-turned-film with book and lyrics by Joe Giuffre, with music (and musical direction) by yours truly in 2013.  Imagine—a theatrical concert of original music from various shows with Transcendence Theatre Company in 2015.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

DW: Ahh…Transcendence Theatre Company (Sonoma County), Fogg Theatre Company (San Francisco), NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts (New York City).

ASR: When was your present company formed?

DW: TTC set down roots in Sonoma in 2011 and has been growing ever since!

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

DW: Bringing the Broadway experience to the Sonoma Valley!

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

DW: My fiancé! Divya Maus is an incredible composer and lyricist (wrote The Mollyhouse with Richard Hanson and is in development on a new show, Elijah, that she has written herself).

I serve as the music director, orchestrator, and general editor for her shows. Being able to build her vision from the ground up has helped me grow faster in this business than any “gig.”

 

….Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

 

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

DW: Transcendence has been putting on a wonderful online season of shows comprised of highlights from the past ten summers of shows in Jack London State park. There’s one more online show this coming weekend, Sep. 11-13, to commemorate their annual Gala fundraiser!

ASR: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

DW: Phew…where to begin? Let’s just hope we can all be back in person in the theater next year…

ASR: How do you envision the future the theater community overall?

DW: I truly believe that theater is going to come back stronger than ever. Nothing replaces an in-person theatrical experience, and the kindling that’s keeping the drive and passion of idle performers all across this country is going to ignite into a brilliant blaze once those hearts and voices and feet are unleashed on the stage again.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

DW: West Side Story is a no-brainer. I love Parade. I love Angels in America (I so wish I could have seen the recent revival). I love Hadestown!

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

DW: Transcendence has only done one full musical so far (the rest are handcrafted reviews and concerts from the Broadway lineage)—A Chorus Line—but it was a blast! Chicago was slated for 2020…

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

DW: Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

DW: I love Rent, but it’s become that song that’s been played one too many times. I think it may actually age really well if we just hit pause.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

DW: I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s music, and yet I will bashfully admit that I’ve only seen Kiss Me Kate. The rest of my experience of his music is through the jazz world.

But I think this is the perfect answer to your question…because his musicals don’t get staged enough!

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

DW: Seems hard to call any of them underrated…but I’d say Much Ado About Nothing. The tragedies get the credit they deserve, and have deep themes that still very much resonate today, but I think what stands out about Much Ado is that it feels so current, and so modern.

Not just thematically, but in the actual writing. Update the language and the writing and humor feel like they’re part of the canon of indie comedic film writing that I love so much.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DW: Hamlet. It’s great…I often feel like I just want to read it though. If you’re going to put it on, please give me a fresh reason to do so!

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DW: Light and projections. I’m fascinated with how much you can influence the audience experience with lighting.

I remember seeing Fun Home and being so captivated by how powerful the lighting and projections were. Super simple, yet so powerful.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DW: I can’t say her name enough—Lexy Fridell. One of the most brilliant comedic actresses I’ve ever seen in any context, and you Bay Area folks have her all to yourself now in Sonoma after her return from stints in LA and NY.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DW: It’s all about building adrenaline so it doesn’t slam into you when the performance starts. So I like to have a little coffee, move my body around a lot, and do a few mental run-throughs of exciting moments of the show.

Afterward, I eat. A lot. All that adrenaline burns calories!

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

DW:  Great question.

1. It’s all about relationships. Great work is meaningless if you don’t do it in conjunction with all the other people and moving parts that make a show possible.

2. Learn what makes your work unique, and do everything to exploit and celebrate it, rather than try to adapt it to the “norm.”

3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Make bold choices—make interesting choices—and let the work and/or the people around you (but not the critics!) inform whether those choices are working or need to be altered.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

DW: There are so many valuable friendships that I have developed through theater. I think the beauty of the theater world is the work requires you to go deep on a personal level with the material—and you’re spending exorbitant amounts of time with one another—so inevitably you end up going deep with your peers during the process.

Compared to most other spheres of my life, I’ve definitely developed more deeply consistent relationships in theater than in any other.

I’ll highlight one great friendship with Tony Gonzalez, a frequent director and choreographer at Transcendence. Tony and I were both new to the creative team in 2016 and were tasked with co-designing and leading the high octane dance show of that year.

The entire process was a masterclass in “yes, and” from the creation side and still to this day is one of my favorite shows I’ve ever put on a stage. With that foundation, Tony has become someone I can share any thought, any concern, any emotion with freely, and he’s always the most supportive and caring friend anyone could ask for!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DW: I’ve seen audience members try to get hand-on with actors coming through the aisles on numerous occasions…please don’t

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DW: I do not! I write and produce music (mostly for other artists…so it’s KINDA a day job…) all day every day when I’m not music directing or playing saxophone and piano.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DW: Hiking, cooking, basketball, my dog Puri Bhaji.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

DW: “John Boy” by Brad Mehldau — it feels like the perfect expression of the curiosity I was talking about earlier.

“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean — this is the song that can freeze me in my tracks anywhere at anytime. It explores life in a raw, painful way that is so relatable. And Frank’s voice is the ultimate vehicle for expressing that quest.

“Fire in the Sky” by Daniel Weidlein — thought it would be fun to include one of my own. This is the title track off of one of my jazz albums and is really accurate example of how I sometimes can articulate my thoughts and emotions better musically than verbally.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

DW: I’m a big jewelry fan in general. Earrings, rings, necklaces. I love making them all work within my wardrobe.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

DW: An ant. Sounds scary, but it’s insane how much they can carry at their current size. Just imagine…

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, sky diving?

DW: I’ve done a bit of rock climbing. I’m not great with heights, so I feel like I need to conquer that at some point and go sky diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DW: “I’m curious what makes you so curious,” from Django Unchained. I’m notoriously curious, and one of the things that captivates me most is what drives other people!

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: ASR Meets Husband-and-Wife Stage Talents Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Among the Bay Area’s few married couples who are equally immersed in theater, Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow frequently appear together onstage. Both are Associate Artists with Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions, but their art frequently takes them to other venues. They also work together away from the theater, and have a toddler—the very definition of togetherness.

Michael Scott Wells: Born in Southern California and raised in the Bay Area, Michael has been a part of the theater community for the past fifteen years as an actor, director, fight choreographer, sound designer, casting associate, and musician.

He has appeared on stage recently for CCCT (Bright Star), Sonoma Arts Live (Gypsy, Always Patsy Cline, Hello Dolly). Performances with Lucky Penny Productions, where he is an Associate Artist, include I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (TBA Award – Featured Actor), Clue: the Musical, Hands on a Hardbody, Annie, The Tasting Room, and Forever Plaid.

Outside of the Bay Area, he was fortunate enough to be a part of the first national tour as Big Anthony in Strega Nona the Musical!, and worked for that production as Associate Technical Director.

 

Danielle DeBow: Danielle grew up on the stage and studied Theatre and Dance at UC Davis. Dancer turned film actress, turned musical theatre enthusiast, she fell in love with the immediacy and fellowship of the theatre.

She was most recently seen as Alice in Bright Star at CCCT and Rebecca in The Tasting Room at Lucky Penny. You may have seen her at Sonoma Arts Live as Irene Malloy in Hello Dolly, Patsy Cline in Always, Patsy Cline (TBA and Marquee Theatre Award), and Louise in Gypsy.

Danielle is proud to be an Associate Artist at Lucky Penny, her home away from home. When she’s not on stage, you’ll likely find her outdoors chasing her one-year-old and fur babies or finding new ways to turn 90s pops song into folk with her hubby.

Michael Scott Wells
Danielle DeBow

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MW: I’ve always loved to tell stories. My family can regale you with the multitude of puppet shows and make-believe plays I made them sit through as a child. I participated in a number of church plays as well. Then I took a hiatus to focus on sports. All the sports. In high school, a friend asked if I could help stage manage a show he was working on. The bug re-bit me and I never looked back.

DD: I spent much of my childhood on stage dancing. In fourth grade I moved to a new elementary school that focused on learning through musical performance and that is where I fell in love with the art and immediacy of theatre.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MW: Miss Saigon in 2005 at Diablo Light Opera Company

DD: The Nutcracker, 1992, Bolshoi West

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MW: I don’t think I can say just one person or company. Every member of the theater community I’ve had the opportunity to work with has helped shape my life in ways I can truly never thank them enough for.

DD: Many amazing, talented, and compassionate teachers, directors, and crew members have impacted me in ways I’ll be eternally grateful, but I must thank my parents for believing in me and encouraging me to do what I love. They instilled confidence in me that allowed me to pursue opportunities and take risks leading me to where I am today.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

DD: The shutdown has been a great challenge. The theatre is where we go to escape, to fill back up when the world drains us. While we miss our theatre family more than words could ever properly describe, we’ve been able to fill at least some of the void jamming in our living room with our one-year-old.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community?

MW: The arts by nature are innovative and revolutionary, so I have no doubt that while this current situation is extremely disheartening for the community, we will all come out of this stronger, more passionate, and more in-tune with who we are as artists and performers.

This time away from the stage, and more importantly, my theatre family has reaffirmed my true love for it. It’s not something that can be created over a zoom call—it’s the tangible aspects I’m craving: the energy exuding from the audience, the jitters in your stomach pre-show, the rush of joy as the overture starts, the sweaty hugs post-show, and the unforgettable conversations in the wings with cast and crew. I know we will get back to it, and I’m proud of the community and companies that are finding ways to bring opportunities for us to share our craft and stories in new ways while we’re restricted from gathering during the pandemic.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

DD : While many shows stand out for me, the three shows that top my list are Godspell, Always Patsy Cline, and Bright Star.

MW: Godspell, Big River, and Evil Dead, the Musical.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DD: Costumes, without a doubt. I’m in constant awe of the men and women who pour their hearts and souls into the costumes we wear on stage. They’re tasked with near-impossible requests and somehow end up making us look beautiful (or hideous depending on the requirements), period-appropriate, and tailored, all while ensuring our frocks can handle our quick changing, jumping, falling, dancing, and sweating through them.

MW: That’s a tough choice. It’s a toss-up between lighting and sound for me. There’s something about creating the atmosphere of a moment to make not only the audience but the storytellers feel that moment deep in their gut. That’s what excites me.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DD: Dyan McBride is one of my favorite people to watch on stage. Not to mention, one of the most supportive, humble, and passionate actors to work beside. She’s reliable, devoted, and brings out the best in those around her. Her attention to detail, poise, and comedic timing are impeccable. I aspire to captivate an audience as she can.

MW: It’s been a while since I’ve seen in him in anything, but Joel Roster is truly one of the finest actors I have ever witnessed on stage. I could watch him read the phone book. He is never anything but 100% genuine in everything that he does. I have never laughed harder or felt so deeply than when Joel tells a story.

……. asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DD: My warm-up varies drastically by the show, but once I get a routine, it must not be broken (kidding/not kidding). I always do a few push-ups right before I hit the stage to shake the jitters and get my blood going. Sometimes my opening costume makes this a challenge, but I’ve yet to find one that’s thwarted me. My last two performances were unique in that my pre-show routine also included breastfeeding my newborn backstage. The two companies I had the privilege to work with made it possible for me to continue to pursue my dreams and share the experience with my baby. I will be eternally grateful to Lucky Penny and CCCT for those unforgettable and cherished memories.

MW: Most people will say you’ll catch me cracking jokes right up to the curtain. This is part ploy to hide my nerves and part enjoying the heck out of my job and the people I’m with. I am always nervous before any show, no matter if it’s opening night or closing night. I try to take a moment or two to stretch and get my mind centered. But when it comes down to it, frivolity is truly the best medicine for preparing myself to go on a nightly journey. After a show—that really depends on the show, but it all generally ends with a late-night snack and binging something on Netflix.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

DD: The cast and crew of Cowgirls at Lucky Penny will forever mean the world to me. The relationships I built during that show continue to enrich my personal and stage life. The theatre became our home. Michael proposed to me there, Barry married us on stage and in real life, and Taylor, Dani, Staci, Dyan, and Heather are some of the most important confidants in my life.

MW: There are many individuals I truly cherish in the theater universe. And while I may not see some of them as often as I’d like right now, the cast/crew of Godspell from a 2014 production will always be in my heart. You’ll never see a group who sweated more, loved harder and supported one another through every trial and tribulation. I can never thank that group of humans enough for the joy and love they brought into my life.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MW: During a production of Into the Woods, Little Red missed her entrance for a scene with Jack. In this production, they used a live chicken for Jack to carry around in this scene. This turned into a hilarious 3-4 minute improvised scene between the actor playing Jack and this live chicken. When Little Red finally showed up, out of breath having clearly run from the dressing room, the audience gave Jack a rousing round of applause for his show-stopping improvisation skills.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DD: Performing in the wine country comes with its perks, and one of them is often a well-oiled audience. This can make for some wonderful laughs and energetic claps, as well as wine glasses shattering in front of you while singing a tender ballad, or a drunken audience member turning on the house lights while bickering with her partner across the theatre. Yes, that all happened during a single performance.

MW: It’s safe to assume that when you perform in the heart of wine country, most audience members will typically, and hopefully in a responsible fashion, enjoy an adult beverage before coming to the theater. But in some cases, “responsible” can be taken many ways. In one example, it wasn’t just one person but a party bus that decided to over-serve themselves before a show. This resulted in several hilarious moments of call and response, clumsily attempting to leave the theater in the middle of a heartbreaking ballad, and topping off the evening with asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DD/MW: We work as the sales and marketing team for a digital workspace consultancy in Davis, CA.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MW: I’ve been a musician since I was old enough to hold an instrument. The guitar is my main muse but I can play just about anything if you give me twenty minutes to figure it out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

DD:  Hmmm….OK…

    1. Chew with your mouth closed.
    2. Be nice.
    3. Chew with your mouth closed. (Yes, I repeated #1; Misophonia made me do it.)

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

DD: Attacked someone for chewing too loudly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MW: I am a total thrill-seeker. Who wants to go skydiving?

ASR: Favorite quotes from movies or stage plays?

DD: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

MW: “May the force be with you.” – Star Wars

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Getting Down Low on the Low Down with Clay David

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Hailing from the Creole/Cajun bayous of Louisiana, Clay David has enjoyed a wide-ranging professional career in theatre arts. Spanning London, Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theatre, national tours and educational theatre, his work has embraced advocacy, acting, directing, and design. His achievements in the theater have been recognized with five San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards. David has also earned an AMCO Kennedy Center National Award, the Victor Borge Legacy Award, a TITAN Award for Theatre Excellence (Theatre Bay Area), the Dean Goodman Choice Award for Best Director in San Francisco Bay, the Lee Hartgrave Fame Best Play Award, and the Bravo Award for Outstanding Innovation and Excellence in Arts.

Notable directing highlights: L’ours et la Lune, and Birth of the Son (Off-Broadway, Blue Heron, NYC), Wives as They Were/Maids as They Are (London Theatre Royal, St. Edmunds, Regency Rep), Romeo et Julieta, (Campamento Lomas Pinar, Cuernavaca, Mexico), York 24: The Capmaker’s Play, (Poculi Ludique Societas, Toronto), Trojan Women and Phedre, (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT), Learned Ladies, and School for Scandal (Connecticut Repertory Theatre.)

His joy of collaboration is a true passion, directing premiere productions of Ernest Gaines, Luis Alfaro, Gloria Stingily, Savion Glover, Jared Choclat, Chuck Prophet, Felice Picano, Michael Golamco, and Kathyrn McCarty.

On stage, he has performed the title roles in Hamlet, Amadeus, and The Dresser (Connecticut Repertory Theatre), The Elephant Man and Uncle Vanya (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT). Regional Shakespeare roles include: Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (Marin Shakespeare), and Troilus in Troilus and Cressida (Riverside Shakespeare, NY). In musical theatre, he has performed Georges in La Cage aux Folles, Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Preacher in Violet (Bay Area Musicals), Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tobias in Sweeney Todd (Connecticut Repertory Company).

(Editor’s note: His A Cajun Midsummer Night’s Dream at Novato Theater Company was unique, brilliant, amazing, and delightful.)

In educational theater, Clay David has served as professor and lecturer of theater at Loyola Marymount University, The University of Connecticut, Diablo Valley College, and was Chairman of Drama at Contra Costa College.

Clay David

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

CD: I sang in church. In the Southern Gothic Cajun South, High Mass was about as close as you could get to the papacy. I was on the debate team in ninth grade and won a few national titles in dramatic interpretation and poetry reading. I was cast as Cornelius Hackle in Hello Dolly in tenth grade. That opened the door and connected the dots.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

CD: Performance: Sparger in Kennedy’s Children, Robert Patrick; directing: Welcome to Andromeda, Ronald Melville Whyte

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

CD: I feel like I have been doing this since the earth cooled, so well over a 150.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

CD: My brother was severely disabled, and I always carry his spirit with me. I always say hello to him in the wings. I know he is an angel looking over me.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

CD: The Dutchman, Amiri Baraka; The Dresser, Ronald Harwood; The Blacks, Jean Genet; The Maids, Jean Genet; America Hurrah, Jean-Claude van Itallie; The Visit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams; Woysek, Georg Büchner.

ASR: Musicals?

CD: Sweeney Todd, Blood Brothers, Jerry Springer the Opera, Cabaret. Kinky Boots.

ASR: Comedies?

CD: The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco; Tartuffe, Moliere; The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde; Private Lives, Noël Coward.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

CD: Hamilton.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

CD: The works of Enrico Cavacchioli, Rosso di San Secondo, Luigi Pirandello, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco. Theatre of the Grotesque and Theatre of the Absurd speak to our times, as we navigate the national discord, the bafflement, and bewilderment of the truth of our times.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

CD: His plays have dimensions that are not explored or are diluted. Many times these works will be misdirected, or will politely just dance around the ideas of Hamlet asking his mother about the semen-stained sheets, or Ophelia singing pornographic songs when she is mad (who taught her the tunes?) or Richard ll’s historical and factual accuracy of his homosexuality.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

CD: Hamlet. I wish more companies would produce Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

CD: I was a theatre professor for 20 years and loved teaching design. I adore making properties. But most importantly, I love working with the actors who use each prop I design, ensuring that it is perfect for them and helps the character that they are creating.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

CD: I drink a Red Bull, rock catatonically in my chair and suck on a cough drop.

ASR: How do you relax after?

CD: A large bowl of cereal and milk.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

CD: Always think outside the box. Always take risks. The audience is the most important element of theatre.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

CD: In that sacred moment when we come together on production we are all soulmates and family. I will always be present for my fellow actors and technicians on stage and backstage, a faithful steward. Whether it is cleaning the dressing rooms, fanning sweating dancers running offstage, picking up costumes after quick changes, or mending shoes in between scene changes, I feel that we are a family, a community with a mighty purpose, and I am there to serve.

…Theatre of the Absurd speaks to our times…

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

CD: Yes. Corporate. Director, Senior Resource Group.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

CD: Maintaining serenity during these troubling times.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

CD: I am a designer and work closely with hospice and COVID patients, creating art that speaks to their needs and the needs of their families.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

CD: Our island is built on the doctrine of egalitarianism. Believe in reciprocity. Your mood should not dictate your manners.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

CD: Title: Sugarcane Burning. It would be about my disabled brother, raised by a fragile mother and a queer little brother in the mystic land of the bayou, Cajun South Louisiana.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

CD: Been there and done that, darling. They’d think, “Hey, y’all, what is it this time?”

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

CD: “J’ai Passé Devant Ta Porte,” the Cajun song we sang as children. “I Believe,” because I love and resonate with a good hymn. “Beautiful Dreamer,” because I played it on the organ and sang it for my mother and brother when times were hard.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

CD: Cufflinks.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

CD: “ Most people’s lives, what are they but trails of debris—each day more debris, more debris . . . long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up but death.”—Suddenly Last Summer

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

An Aisle Seat Review ART! Review: Take A Look at These Books! – by Cari Lynn Pace

For over 25 years, Marin’s Museum of Contemporary Art has been the nexus for exhibitions, artist workspace, and art classes for adults and more than 1,000 children. Prominently located at 500 Palm Drive in the Hamilton area of Novato, Marin MOCA encourages its 160 artist members to participate in 15 annual contemporary art exhibitions.

Marin MOCA main gallery.

This August, MOCA again presents its whimsical and thought-provoking exhibition: the 11th Annual Altered Book Exhibition and Silent Auction.

“What is an altered book?” you ask.

“Good question!” answers Nancy Rehkopf, MarinMOCA’s Executive Director. “It is a form of contemporary art, in a category called the book arts. It is a fast-growing category of great interest in the Bay Area.”

…“The pieces are innovative, clever, and fun…”

There are two kinds of altered books in this year’s display of 130 objects:

The first is an “altered book” which incorporates a component of an actual book: a book spine, a cover, inside pages, illustrations, words, and so on. The artist then combines one or more of these with paint, sculpture, metalwork, etc., to create a unique original artwork. These pieces become anything: clothing, mobiles, set pieces, wall candy, even furniture.

The second category is an “artist book,” where the artist does everything to create the artwork as a book: the artist might write the words, or do the illustrations, or create the paper, or even bind the book. These pieces are typically more personal, more reflective, and always supremely creative.

“A Fisherman’s Tale”
by Jay O’Neil

The art pieces are judged for awards by two local jurors: Donna Seager, owner of the Seager Grey Gallery in Mill Valley, and Mary Austin, co-founder of the San Francisco Center for the Book.

Seager notes, “The quality of the work has grown tremendously over the eleven years that MOCA has been presenting this competitive exhibition.” Austin adds, “The pieces are innovative, clever, and fun. There were cultural tones reflecting everything from the pandemic to whimsy and escapism.”

These expert jurors raved over the quality of the works, and gave awards as follows:

      • First Place: “Kintsugi Stitches” by Lisa Rodondi
      • Second Place: “Ocean of Tears” by Paulette Traverso
      • Third Place: “The Divide States of America” by Monica Lee

Honorable mentions: “A Fisherman’s Tale” by Jay O’Neil, “Kindling Spirit” by Jeff Downing, “Inner Thoughts 2020” by Regina Bode, “Upon Reflection” by Laura DeAnna, “A Bird in the Hand” by Gale Kiniry, “Flyaways and Dedications” by Deborah Sullivan, and “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer” by Linda Mueller.

Also, the jurors gave a Special Recognition Award to “Cindy’s Life” by Cindy Johnson, and the Glue Award went to “Stories of Place” by Julia Arndt.

The artists have donated most of MOCA’s 130 art objects toward this huge fundraising event. The works will be sold on August 21st when an online auction takes place at 7:00 PM. Go to www.marinmoca.org and click on “Get ready to bid” to open an account to bid at bidsquare.com. All pieces are displayed on the site, with details about size, media, and the artist.

“Ode to Orpheus”
by Esther Seigel

MOCA hopes to raise $50,000 from the Altered Book Exhibition to support its programs. They have a head start with a $10,000 challenge grant from Donald O. and Ronald R. Collins Fund — a loyal supporter for many years — and presenting sponsor Carson Wealth, a nationwide wealth investment management firm located in San Rafael.

Due to the museum’s closure to the general public, folks are welcome to see these pieces in person through August 29th by requesting a time and day they wish to visit at www.MarinMoca.org.

Believe me: it is a pleasure to linger over these amusing works of art without a crowd standing in the way.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review ART! Review: Thinking “Outside the Box” is What These Artists Do — by Cari Lynn Pace

Give a child a hammer, and the child will find his or her expression in everything needs pounding.

Give an artist a plain wooden box, and the artist will find expression through its painting, deconstruction, carving, etching, repositioning, reconstruction, or through attachments.

The results turn out as wild, wacky, stunningly beautiful, inspiring, or just plain whimsical wall or display artworks.

Which begs the question, “Was that even a box, to begin with?”

“Love in the Time of Corona Virus” by Barry Willis

Check out what started as 150 identical shoe-size wood boxes at Gallery Route One in Pt. Reyes Station. Bay Area artists and local community members seized upon their vivid imaginations to create three-dimensional eye candy for the 21st Annual Box Show. This fundraiser (all the pieces are up for auction) has become a highly competitive Bay Area tradition and is on view now through September 12th.

…every year, the submissions increase in variety and technical skill…

Naturally, due to the pandemic, visitors must make an appointment to ensure social distancing, and everyone must wear a mask. Here is the good news: admission is free. Viewing times,  color photos of all entries, and docent comments are available at www.galleryrouteone.org.

“Japanese House”
by Dan Williams.

 

This sheer size of this show makes for an exhausting — yet undeniably entertaining — exhibit. To this reviewer, it seems like every year, the submissions increase in variety and technical skill, with many bursting forth in scope and content from a “shadow box” presentation. However, look in another direction, and other pieces are re-creations or re-imaginings of the box itself.

“Homage to Kelp”
by Jaine Kopp

Artists worked for two months to make a statement, tell a story, or both. If the artwork presents viewers with a challenge to spot the original pine box, find clues in the artist’s comments and color photos at https://secure.qgiv.com/event/theboxshow2020/.

Homebase for the Box Show is at Gallery Route One, a non-profit arts organization — and regional landmark since 1983 — adjacent to the entry for Marin County’s Point Reyes National Seashore in Point Reyes Station.

“Pine Box in Altered State”
by Will Thoms

Sales from the Box Show fund a variety of worthy outreach programs addressing art education, environmental, immigration, and social justice issues. Bidding for art pieces in the 2020 Box Show starts at $30 and culminates in the final live auction in the gallery’s parking lot (if allowed by regulations) on Saturday, September 12th, from 3 to 5 PM.

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ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: A Talk-Talk with the Versatile, Vivacious Maureen McVerry

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Maureen McVerry

Few performers have backgrounds as deep as Maureen McVerry’s. In 1993 she created Verry McVerry, her ever-evolving cabaret show, one she has performed for 25 years. In San Francisco, she has performed at Oasis, Feinstein’s, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Herbst Theatre, the Plush Room, the Venetian Room, the Gateway Theatre, and the Alcazar. Verry McVerry has also been performed at 88s in NYC and the Gardenia Room in LA and at other venues nationally. The show earned a 2012 SFBATCC nomination for Best Solo Show.

As a stage actress, McVerry has celebrated 39 years in theatre, like the legendary Jack Benny. At ACT she played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (SFBATCC award), Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (SFBATCC award), the Gypsy in Scapin, Carrie in House of Mirth, Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol and Sister Gabriella in The Pope and the Witch.

At ACT she also played Mrs. Schlemiel in Schlemiel the First and went on with the show to the ART in Cambridge and the Geffen Playhouse in LA. McVerry was featured as Kay in the SF Shakespeare Festival production of Oh Kay! (SFBATCC award) and in two long-running SF shows, Noises Off (SFBATCC and Dramalogue awards) and Curse of the Werewolf (SFBATCC award). At Marin Theatre Company she has appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Going to Love Tomorrow (SFBATCC award), Born Yesterday (SFBATCC award), Room Service, and Me and My Girl.

McVerry has appeared in four different productions of Noises Off and would gladly do that show once or twice weekly to stay in shape. At 42nd St Moon she has appeared in several shows: Pardon My English (SFBATCC award), High Spirits, Wildcat, Very Warm for May, and Student Gypsy. She directed the successful 2011 revival of Oh Kay! and appeared at TheatreWorks as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Sylvia in Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods.

She played Clara in Sex at the Aurora Theatre, and at Center Rep performed in the hit musicals Bingo and Xanadu – her first Shelly nomination as Calliope. In 2014 at SF Playhouse, she reprised her role as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, which she plays 24/7 (her son’s name is Jack).

In October of 2014 Maureen’s husband of 32 years, Rick Alber (Dr. Rom on KGO radio) died unexpectedly from an unsuccessful heart operation. After a break, she slowly went back to work.

She did her new solo show Love Will Kick Your Ass at Oasis and at Feinstein’s. She made her drag king debut as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company Live at Oasis. She returned to Center Rep and played Georgette in It Shoulda Been You (Shelly nomination) and to 42nd St Moon, where she played Pauline in No No Nanette. At TheatreWorks she played Marge in The Bridges of Madison County, and at SF Playhouse played the Old Lady in Sunday in the Park With George.

In 2018 she played Linda Porter in the one-woman show, Love Linda at Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma. She is the winner of seven SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards and two Dramalogue Awards. McVerry’s film credits include Nine Months, The Dead Pool, Big Business, True Believer, Howard the Duck, The Ox and the Eye, and Crackers. On TV: Full House and Divorce Court.

For the last 10 summers, McVerry has hosted the “very” successful Maureen McVerry’s Musical Theatre Camp for children and teens. The camp’s motto is “Where children learn to play on and off the stage.”

Since 2001, she has directed 27 student theatre productions at public schools on the Peninsula. Since Rick’s passing, she directs one middle school musical a year at North Star Academy in Redwood City.

__________________

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MM: Halfway through my junior year of college, I was a little lost, so I dropped out and lived in Europe and the San Juan Islands and had a lot of fun. Not finishing what I had started bugged me though so in 1980 I returned to Cal to graduate (I recommend taking a few gap years to anyone else who might be lost).

Since I had completed almost all of my requirements, I knew I could really explore what the school offered. Amazingly, my father suggested that I “try drama” (What parent suggests that??). I enrolled in Drama 10, my first acting class, and was completely swept away. For the final five quarters at Cal, I appeared in several shows and completed my degree in history.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MM: The summer before I graduated from Cal, in 1980, I was in The Three Penny Opera at the Goodman Building on Geary with the incredible Jayne Dornacker as Jenny Diver. It ran for the whole summer! I even got paid a small stipend and was in heaven. In the ensemble, I played a beggar and a whore. My mother was thrilled. A few years later I played Polly Peachum at the Eureka Theatre with the late fabulous Sigrid Wurschmidt as Jenny Diver.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

MM: Too many to count, but maybe 50+? In one show in the 80s, I performed in the parking garage of the Oakland Museum. Maureen McVerry, LLC—still going strong since 19-*cough cough.*

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

MM: That’s hilarious since I always tell people that by choosing theatre over film as my favorite pursuit, I took a “vow of poverty.”

However, I joined Equity and SAG back in the 80s and due to my longevity in the business, I can count on a pension from both of my unions. Fight for the union!

I should add that I married someone who was not in the business, which gave me the opportunity to have two children and own a house—really tough for a theatre actor.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

MM: Happily, I have worked in films (feature and industrial), commercials, bad TV (Divorce Court), a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (Full House), big expensive shows with fabulous costumes and tiny little shows where you wear your own clothes, weird experimental theatre, comedies, dramas, musicals and most recently, a “clown opera.”

Every few years I also put together a solo cabaret show and that is always a blast. Being in the same room as the audience is without a doubt my favorite way to work.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MM: My late husband Rick Alber, (who never appeared on stage) had the greatest impact on my life as an actor. In 1982 I met him and he was my opening night date for 32 wonderful years. Rick loved theatre and during the rehearsal and performance process, he was my special advisor and gave me tons of tips to polish my performances.

After he died in 2014, one of my biggest fears was actually that my performances would fall apart without his second set of eyes to notice things and ask questions. However, 32 years of his advice was deeply rooted so even without his presence, I’ve managed to get the job done.

Luckily I have also worked with directors who create great work.

ASR: With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MM: I’m heartbroken. Before COVID, my 2020 was really filled with upcoming work. Pajama Game at 42nd St Moon was canceled almost immediately as it was set to go into rehearsal in late March. Following Pajama Game, I was supposed to have three weeks off and then start rehearsals at SF Playhouse for Follies by Stephen Sondheim, scheduled to run all summer.

Last fall and winter I thought that my summer 2020 would be filled with an exhausting eight-shows-a-week schedule. Hopefully, next spring 42nd St Moon will mount Pajama Game (I’m cast as Mabel) and if I’m lucky, SF Playhouse will mount Follies in 2021. In that show, I am cast as Phyllis. Fingers crossed.

…the audience almost vomited with laughter.

ASR: So the crisis has really affected your planning for the coming seasons?

MM: What coming seasons? The theatre world is devastated as the floor just fell out. Everyone is just trying to figure out what is next. And not only what, but when? As a singer, I am especially crushed. It was devastating to read that singing with other people is the worst possible activity to pursue. Wow. My favorite thing to do is the last thing I should be doing— that hurts.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

MM: Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball for that question. My vision for everything is filled with hope because I believe hope is contagious. I hope and pray that someone smarter than me can create a vaccine soon and we can return to a world that is different, but hopefully closer to what we had than what we have now. During “normal” times, I am not really sure if anyone noticed their activities. We just called it “life.”

More than anything I miss sitting in the dark and laughing like a hyena and/or crying like a baby, surrounded by strangers having a similar experience. Who’da thunk that would be taken away? Back before this—especially with that guy in the White House—we were worried about a missile from North Korea or Russia invading some country but instead what we got was far worse. 150,000 Americans have died. That fact makes me weep.

Financial problems are already wreaking havoc on theatre companies everywhere and I worry that some won’t make it to the new post-COVID world. Trying to save money as people readjust, shows will probably be scaled back. Elaborate sets and costumes will be gone.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected you?

MM: Luckily, as a member of an acting union, I am always paid.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

MM: Favorite dramas: Oslo, Uncle Vanya, Angels in America, great productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams. Center Rep did The Diary of Anne Frank last season and it was brilliant. I saw the filmed version of The Lehman Trilogy—amazing. Sunday in the Park with George makes me cry all the time. I have so many good plays filling my brain now I have to stop listing shows.

Comedies: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Noises Off is my favorite comedy from the 20th century. So far, in four different productions, I have played two of the three roles I am eligible for. Hopefully, another production is in my future.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

MM: Anything by Dario Fo.

ASR: Which rare gem would you like to see revived?

MM: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

MM: It would have to be costumes. Twenty-some years ago I was recruited to re-mount the middle school musical at my children’s elementary school.

Twenty-two shows later I’m still at it and am still amazed at the joy I experience at costume time. As the director, I have to teach children and parents about how to create a show. I tell my parent volunteers that a costume should do half of the work for the actor. As soon as an actor enters the stage, the audience should have a good idea of who that character is.

Coming up with the perfect costume is so rewarding. Plus, if you do costumes, once the show opens, you can sit out front and watch.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

MM: Dan Hiatt.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

MM: In a musical, I love it when the music director runs a group warm-up. I never miss one. It gives the actors a chance to connect in their street clothes and also share some air together.

Being super superstitious, I have a personal pre-show ritual that I never miss as well.

Afterward, I go home to walk my beloved dogs. Being in a show can be quite exhausting so afterward, I try to take care of myself. To handle the stress of tech weeks and openings which made my eyeballs twitch, I started meditating again (I hadn’t for 25+ years), and ba-bam! my twitch went away.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

MM: For the last twenty years I have taught my hundreds of student actors the three rules my college director Louise Mason taught me:

1. Be on time, ready to work at the start of rehearsal—not running in the door with a cup of coffee, but ready to work.

2. Do not talk when the director is talking.

3. When the director gives you a note, write it down, review the note before the next rehearsal. And never, I repeat, never make a director give you the same note twice.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MM: Three people in my life fit this category:

In 2005 I was in my first production of Into the Woods at TheatreWorks as Jack’s Mother. The actor playing the Baker was Jackson Davis. During rehearsals, we discovered that we were born on the exact same day (but luckily for me, he’s two hours older). In 2010, we commuted from the Peninsula to SF Playhouse together to do a groovy musical, Coraline. That’s when we truly bonded.

2. The “Arbiter of Taste and Fashion,” my friend Lawrence Helman, is a man about town, publicist, writer, and the most opinionated person I know. Also smart and funny with a razor-sharp memory. If you need to get the word out, call Lawrence.

3. In 1990 I met a director named Rick Simas. He found songs for me, directed my solo shows, and has made think and laugh for 30 years. Way back, after getting a Ph.D. at Cal, he left the Bay Area and taught at SD State for years but hopefully he will move back here soon. Great ideas, plus an encyclopedic memory on shows, songs, and theatre. He directed my solo shows in 2017 and 2019. They were quite entertaining thanks to Rick.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MM: There were a million screw-ups in runs of Noises Off but one of the best involved me and Dan Hiatt. His character was tugging a phone cord—the bit was the cord would come back without the mouthpiece. One night the cord returned like normal but zinged all over the stage and ended up caught in my hair. So I was actually attached to the phone offstage.

The audience almost vomited with laughter. I could have lost an eye but it was hilarious.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

MM: Once an actor missed an entrance in Noises Off and we stopped the show for the amount of time it took another cast member to run offstage and through the dressing rooms to get the actor off the pot and then into her costume to finally make her entrance and move on with the story.

Luckily I didn’t have to attempt bad improv since my character was “meditating.” Shockingly, my friends at the show didn’t notice the four-minute pause in act two!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

MM: After a matinee of Two Gentlemen of Verona at San Jose Rep, the cast went back out for a post-show discussion. While asking a question, an audience member said the title of the “Scottish Play” out loud. We all reacted with horror since it is supposed to bring such bad luck upon the theatre.

That night during the evening show, an enormous sandbag fell thirty feet to the stage with a huge boom.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MM: My career as a children’s theatre director could be considered my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MM: Politics, baseball, reading, gardening, tap dancing, boogie boarding, and making the world more fabulous.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from the theater?

MM: I belong to all the museums and try to see as much as possible. For a time I painted portraits of dogs and landscapes but my passion pooped out. Guess I just need to get my paints out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

MM: Say yes. Be kind. No whining.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

MM: Another Trump?

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

MM: Soup, a show set in a soup kitchen: the banter and dynamics of the volunteers with an opportunity to share the stories of guests so people learn more about the daily life of people experiencing homelessness. Comedy plus drama—a dramedy!

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

MM: Before this gosh darn pandemic I was looking forward to flying to DC and getting arrested with Jane Fonda and others to protest the lack of attention paid to climate change. It would be an honor to wear handcuffs for that. Wish me luck. In March, my son was evacuated from Lesotho after serving in the Peace Corps. He’s been with me but soon he plans to return to DC to live and work. Therefore soon I have another excuse to go to DC besides getting arrested.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

MM: First I’d say, “If I Loved You,” from Carousel. Makes me cry

Then, “All Kinds Of Time, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s a perfect story song. Our family sang it at Rick’s memorial in 2014.

Finally, “Danny Boy.” It also makes me cry. And more importantly, it reminds me of my childhood and how much my parents loved that song.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MM: Scarves.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

MM: Terrifying thought to have anything that big around. Yikes! A cockapoo the size of a horse? I don’t want anything that big— not even horses!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MM: I go river rafting once a summer and that fulfills my need for thrills.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MM: “Never give up. Never surrender.” —Galaxy Quest

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Write This Down — You Will Pay Big Money One Day to See a Play Directed by M. Graham Smith

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

M. Graham Smith is a San Francisco-based Director, Educator, and Producer. He is an O’Neill/NNPN National Directing Fellow, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival FAIR Fellow, and a proud Resident Artist at SF’s Crowded Fire.

He grew up outside of New York City and has been based in San Francisco for the last fourteen years. He’s directed in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Portland Oregon, Washington DC, and venues in San Francisco.

Graham directed the West Coast Premiere of JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA in SF and TRUFFALDINO SAYS NO at Shotgun Players, winning Best Director for the Bay Area Critics Circle.  

Recent credits include the World Premiere of Obie winner Christopher Chen’s HOME INVASION in SF, DEAL WITH THE DRAGON at ACT’s Costume Shop & Edinburgh Fringe & NCTC, Mia Chung’s YOU FOR ME FOR YOU at Crowded Fire, and James Ijames’ WHITE at Shotgun.

His two upcoming projects include the world premiere of BONE ON BONE at NJ Rep, and the first workshop production of HOMOSEXUAL CONDUCT at Occidental College in LA, a play he co-created with playwright Sarah Kozinn about the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision.

He spent five years as Producer of Aurora Theater’s new play development program and festival The Global Age Project. He teaches at A.C.T.’s actor-training programs, Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and at Barcelona’s premiere Meisner Technique program in Spain.

You can visit him online at www.MGrahamSmith.com

M Graham Smith

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

GS: In general I believe that theater is a space where weirdness and every variety of behavior should be allowed without judgment. I hate the weirdness of audience members shushing other audience members for laughing and responding to the play.

That feels like a very weird behavior to me. After all, we came to the space to meet the play with our whole selves.

ASR: Which person has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

GS: There have been a lot of folks who’ve helped me developed my professional career, almost all of them my peers, like the extraordinary Mina Morita at Crowded Fire, who is a trusted advisor. Like Marissa Wolf, now the AD at Portland Center Stage. The Actor/Creator Kevin Rolston whom I’ve spent several years developing work with.

It’s funny that I have been unsuccessful for most of my career in finding a mentor.

Tommy Kail, the director of Hamilton, whom I went to college with, jokes with me about this phenomenon: “Are you my mentor, are you my mentor?” – Perhaps because I’m inherently not a joiner, I’ve never enjoyed that kind of relationship. 

To indicate that I was too “cool”… I wore sunglasses. It was a revelation...

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance of a play?

GS:  I happened to be on stage at the time, and an actor was supposed to enter the scene through the door of the set, but the door was stuck, so the actor had to open a window and enter the scene that way, which was bizarre and hilarious.

It was an early lesson for me about playing the moment!

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what are three things you would tell them are essential to know?

GS: Let me think…

      1. The best ideas don’t have to be yours; encourage a space where everyone feels excited to contribute.
      2. Art is about experimentation, so do things you don’t know what the outcome will be.
      3. Don’t attempt something that doesn’t scare you a little bit. Otherwise, you’re not stretching yourself.

ASR: What would be the worst “Buy One,  Get One Free” sale of all time?

 GS: A suicide kit.

ASR:  You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?

GS: Hmmm…. ok here goes…

      1. No shoes!
      2. Good food ONLY!
      3. Happy hour is at 5 pm every day of the year!

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

GS: A great meal with good friends.

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

GS: I really like shows about food.

And dogs.

So maybe something about food and dogs.

But not dogfood.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?

GS: Somewhere between civil disobedience and jaywalking. I’m a snooze.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

GS:  It’s hard to narrow it down to one person. I think we are blessed in the Bay Area with a strong community that really looks out for each other.

I can always call Dawn Monique Williams to have a long serious talk about a play we’ve just seen. Or Chris Herold about educational pedagogy. Or Lisa Marie Rollins who has always been there for me in ways big and small. Ely Sonny Orquiza has been such an incredible co-pilot with me on some of my favorite projects.

We have a strong community here that I’m so grateful to call home.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

GS:  The People Have The Power sung by Patti Smith. Because we do. Sam Cooke, the entire album of Night Beat because it’s just the best music ever made. The Book of Love by the Magnetic Fields – we played it at our wedding. 

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

GS:  I love a really good pair of shoes.

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into the deep freeze for 20 years?

GS:  To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe more than 20 years.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, name an actor on a Bay Area stage who you think is doing amazing work?

GS: Jomar Tagatac. Every one of his performances is a revelation. He’s a shapeshifter with a dedication to being present and making the moment live.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

GS:  I love Winter’s Tale. The first half is like Othello, the second half is like As You Like It. It’s a story of cruelty and healing, and the problems you need to solve in directing it are very exciting to think about.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

GS:  Light. I love telling stories with light. The transformation that you can create with that department is so rich. I spent a long time when I was younger doing light design and light board op. I love the technical attention to detail.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

GS:  A snail!

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

GS:  Bungee all the way!

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

GS: At Church, we did this church musical called It’s Cool in the Furnace about King Nebuchadnezzar attempting to murder political enemies in a furnace. You know, really great children’s musical theater material.

I played Daniel, who performs some sort of miracle. To indicate that I was too “cool” for the furnace, I wore sunglasses.

It was a revelation.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

GS: Two lines. Same movie…

Actor 1: “Inconceivable!”

Actor 2: “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Princess Bride

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Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

ASR Not So Random Question Time — Going Downtown Dramaturgy with Cal Shakes’ Amazing Phillipa Kelly

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

When describing the role of a dramaturg, Dr. Philippa Kelly says this: “Whatever can make a production deeper and richer and more ambiguous and interpretively challenging – that is the goal of my activities as a dramaturg.”

Since encountering Shakespeare at age fourteen, she’s become the first woman in history to prepare a public edition of King Lear and has published eleven books, including three on King Lear, one of the most recent being The King and I, which is a meditation on dispossession through the twin lenses of King Lear and Australian culture. In April 2020, with Amrita Ramanan as Associate Editor, Kelly published Diversity, Inclusion, and Representation in Contemporary Dramaturgy: Case Studies from the Field (Routledge).

She’s also educated students and audiences about Shakespeare in schools, prisons, and at the California Shakespeare Theater. As an Australian-American she has a unique perspective on how identity, social justice, and dramaturgy can be woven together throughout the creative process of theatre-making.

Philippa Kelly

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

PK: I came to America as a Fulbright Scholar at UC Berkeley. Then I came back as a Rockefeller Scholar some years later. So I had trained to be, and was practicing as, a scholar/teacher.

Discovering dramaturgy made it all make sense – I would never go back to academe full-time. Dramaturgy makes knowledge live. Being Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater has been the greatest professional joy of my life.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

PK: Quite a lot: Cal Shakes, of course; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; the Play On festival; the Aurora; Word for Word; the Berkeley Repertory Theater; A UC production of Midsummer, and another UC production, totally student-led, in which the theme was “Glitter Macbeth” in honor of the director’s fascination with Mariah Carey. The student playing Macbeth was an athlete who had never acted before, and I taught him to walk like a soldier by putting sandbags on his feet.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

PK: The California Shakespeare Theater of course has Shakespeare as its core, with Shakespeare’s incredible capacity to lay bare, and make us stare into the heart of human paradox. But under Jon Moscone’s vision, we began doing two Shakespeares and two other classics (Shaw, Wilde, Chekhov) per season; and under the leadership of Eric Ting, the company has moved more into New Classics – with the idea that while Shakespeare is a touchstone, the two (Shakespeare and the creation of New Works) can feed each other.

I’d say there is not a single artist I’ve met from whom I didn’t learn something, even if I didn’t see it at the time.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

PK: The greatest influence in my professional life has really been Professor Stephen Greenblatt. Way before I became a dramaturg, it was his work that taught me to think dramaturgically – how we live, with all of our paradox, in this human world. Another great influence has been Curt Tofteland of Shakespeare Behind Bars – the way in which Curt brings the words of Shakespeare to reach places for which there has been so much hurt but may have been little language.

And one of my dearest inspirations is set designer Annie Smart. She has the eye of a designer and the mind of a dramaturg. When I prepare my actor packets (I write a fresh, 20-page actor packet for every show), I send them to Annie, and she grades the draft from A+ to B-!!! I’ve also been inspired by Eric Ting (we have already adapted four plays together into one – that takes some trust!) and Joel Sass, an amazingly original director, who is so thorough that there is almost nothing for me to do!

There are so many artists who have inspired me – actress/director Joy Carlin (her famous comment: “Don’t worry darling – it’s only theater”), playwright Marcus Gardley, director Ian Belknap, musician/performer/writer Rinde Eckert, writer/actress Ellen McLaughlan, dramaturg Lue Douthit (she says “Theater is a journey from emotion to emotion.”).

I’d say there is not a single artist I’ve met from whom I didn’t learn something, even if I didn’t see it at the time. And theater historian Liz Schafer – we have known and worked together on and off for 20 years. If you are looking for a fascinating book of interviews with women directing Shakespeare, look for her 1997 book, MsDirecting Shakespeare.

I think my dearest, deepest, most combative artistic relationship is with my husband Paul Dresher. He is a composer, presenter, and producer. Sometimes in response to his critiques I want to throw him down the toilet – but I know that when I cool down I’ll be so grateful for the light he shines into my work with his brilliant mind.

ASR: Have the coronavirus crisis and ongoing social upheaval affected your company and your work?

PK: The virus has decimated theaters everywhere. Cal Shakes has been doing a huge amount of work with Black Lives Matter and anti-racist activism. As for myself, every week I record a 12-minute video in a series we call “Run the Canon.” (https://calshakes.org/cal-shakes-online/run-the-canon/)

By the end of the year, we will have recorded videos for every play in Shakespeare’s canon. And this coming Tuesday (July 28th) I’m interviewing supreme Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, The Swerve, and Tyrant. This will be followed by a ten-week course on five Shakespeare plays, which I’ll run every week. (https://calshakes.org/learn/shakespeare-in-depth-with-philippa-kelly/)

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

PK: Whenever I sit down with a box of tissues to watch The Sound of Music, my husband Paul says, “Oh, OK. I’ll sit upstairs and start filling out the divorce papers.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most under-rated play? Why?

PK: I think The Comedy of Errors. I was about to work on it with the wonderful director Jessica Holt for Cal Shakes this season when Covid struck. It’s under-rated because people often see it as just a light comedy, but it is also a deep meditation on the mysteries of identity. Who are we? There’s so little time to find out. When we look at, or listen to, another person, we very often see what is inside our own heads rather than what is there in front of us. Look at how people saw Hilary Clinton – or didn’t see her. And so we got stuck with the orange nightmare. Misrecognition, mis-seeing, misunderstanding—these are key to the lightness and darkness of The Comedy of Errors.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

PK: Midsummer – I’ve dramaturged it four times.

ASR: Who do you think is the most amazing Bay Area actor?

PK: Honestly there are so many. I revere them. But if I had to name one who did something I’ve never seen before, it would be Patty Gallagher. We had had Marcia Mason cast as Winnie in our 2009 production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Marcia left after ten days, Patty came in, and she played the most beautiful Winnie I could ever imagine. She had only ten days to prepare, and that role comprises almost the whole play, and it is full of non-sequiturs. Still today when I think of Patty’s Winnie, tears come to my eyes. I love that play so much. Her performance was pitch-perfect.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

PK: Hmm. Quite a question…

1: Ask “Why are we performing this play, at this time, for this audience, in this place?” You need to feel the pulse of the present moment and be incredibly specific in that feeling.

2: Be prepared to draw from a deep well of knowledge, but do not expect to share, or volunteer, the whole of that well unless you want the director to hit you over the head with a chair. [Editor’s Note: Oh, sooo very true! — KN]

3: Don’t feel that you have to know everything – you can look it up. It’s the thirst for knowledge that makes a great dramaturg.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen onstage in a live performance?

PK: I saw a Romeo and Juliet at OSF where Romeo sent the knife flying and poor Juliet had to stab herself without it.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

PK: I am a writer and an educator. I run a community Shakespeare group; I run a theater appreciation group (you can contact me about either class –they run in separate terms all year long – on philippakellydresher@gmail.com); and I am proud to be Chair and Professor of English at the California Jazz Conservatory under the directorship of Susan Muscarella.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

PK: I love to swim, read, walk my chihuahuas, and to sit in the Australian morning sun with my family or friends, drinking “flat whites.”

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

PK: I follow music, of course – The Paul Dresher Ensemble! John Adams.

I love photographer Richard Misrach’s work.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

PK: A colonoscopy prep kit.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

PK: An amoeba.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

PK: My beloved brother died rock climbing, so I’m not too much into risky sports. But I do love looking at the works of friends of mine who are photographers (Richard Misrach, Debbie O’Grady), painters (Naomie Kremer), authors (Richard Zimler), musicians (Paul Dresher, John Adams) and being awed in the presence of this fact: that when artists make their work, the act is as risk-taking as that of any explorer who has forged ahead even though they might fall off the edge of the world.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

PK: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” – NOT!!! Love means being ABLE to say you’re sorry!

-30-

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Could He Get Even Busier? Actor/Director Extraordinaire Aldo Billingslea

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Aldo Billingslea is the Father William J. Rewak S. J., Professor of Theatre Arts at Santa Clara University. A member of Actors Equity Association and the Screen Actors Guild, Billingslea has appeared in numerous theatrical productions in the Bay Area and across the country.

With Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company he gave an astounding powerful performance in Dry Powder, a production that won near-unanimous critical acclaim.

Billingslea resides in Santa Clara with Renee Billingslea, his visual-artist wife who also teaches at Santa Clara University, and Trinity, their daughter, who is captain of the Santa Clara Bronco rowing team.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AB: I thought it would help me get kissed by women. I was in 7th grade.

I did not get my first stage kiss until I was a sophomore in college. And then it was on the cheek.

ASR: How many theaters have you been involved with?

AB: Not including the theaters where I have acted, I’m currently on the board of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Marin Theatre Company. I’m an associate producer and ambassador for PlayGround. I’ve served on the board of Renegade Theatre and Playground and on the advisory board for Gritty City Youth Repertory Theatre. I have participated in the Artistic Director searches for Marin Theatre Company, the Aurora Theatre, and TheatreWorks. I’m over-involved.

ASR: What was your first paying theatrical gig?

AB: It was the Jones and Schmidt musical Celebration! I played Potemkin. It was summer of 1984 in a converted barn theater in the hill country of Texas, at a place called Mo Ranch.

ASR: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

AB: There are a ton of people who contributed to the development of my professional career! Apart from my wife Renee, one of the most significant would be my college professor Dr. Barbara Means Fraser. She directed me a few times in college, encouraged me to audition for graduate school, and after I graduated with those degrees, encouraged me to go to Ashland. She then helped me work my way to Santa Clara University where I’ve been teaching for the last 22 years.

……theatrical Zoom work is new and creative!

ASR: How has the coronavirus shutdown affected you?

AB: I may actually be busier since the shutdown. Not commuting to theaters means the opportunity to work with more of them. Our Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project was created in collaboration with PlayGround, the Lorraine Hansberry, and Planet Earth Arts, and forty other Bay Area theatres, plus twenty more theatres across the country to read Vincent Terrell Durham’s Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid.

It was thrilling and led us to launch the Black Theater fundraiser, an initiative to fund black theaters around the country. They are hurting partly because of COVID-19 and because black theater isn’t properly funded. 

COVID-19 canceled several gigs for me, the most painful of which was Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will at TheatreWorks, which would’ve allowed me to appear in the last play directed by Robert Kelley as artistic director and be on the stage again with Jim Carpenter, Jennifer Le Blanc, Francis Jue, Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Jackson Davis and a host of other fabulous actors.

Jennifer Le Blanc and I were supposed to do another Othello at Pacific Repertory Theatre—we had done it at Marin Shakespeare in 2004—so after 16 years later I should be better. Jennifer and I were also supposed to do Death and the Maiden together, also at Pacific Rep. However, had I been engaged in those productions, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the great collaboration for Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid, or participated in the black theater fund. So the Lord does work in mysterious ways!

ASR: What’s the worst aspect of the shutdown for you?

AB: Losing the immediacy of being in a theater, and relating to human beings without the separation of a screen. It is invaluable and sorely missed! However, this theatrical Zoom work is new and creative. It’s going to send us into a new realm and a new burst of exploration as people try to find ways to harvest the potential.

ASR: What are some of your favorite plays?

AB: Othello and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Give me August Wilson and William Shakespeare and I’d be good for a while. Also, I love Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey and Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will and I am so very very taken by Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid that I’m directing it at Santa Clara University this fall!

ASR: A favorite quote?

AB: “I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, and its power to heal.” – August Wilson

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: The Stunningly Talented, The Stunningly Beautiful Amy Miller of Transcendence Theatre Co!

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

We caught up with Amy Miller, Artistic Director of the Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) with headquarters in Sonoma. TTC is a close-knit extended family of dozens of song-and-dance stars invited from around the U.S.

Every summer (except this year) these stage and screen talents perform outdoor among the stone ruins of Jack London State Historic Park. When the nights cool down in autumn, TTC moves inside to North Bay stages performing energetic scenes from Broadway musicals.

USA Today readers discovered TTC years ago when TTC was voted #2 in the “Best Outdoor Concert Venues.”

 

Amy Miller

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AM: I started dancing at age five and never stopped. As a tot, I looked up to the older dancers. When they shifted to the theatre in high school, it inspired me to join the theatre as well.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

AM: I was The Jester in Once Upon A Mattress at McAuley High in Cincinnati, Ohio.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

AM: Oh wow! At least 10 regional theatres as well as Broadway and national tours, not counting television and film.

…Our team works hard and believes “The obstacle is the way.”

ASR: When was your present company formed?

AM: In 2009 six of us gathered in Punta Banda, Mexico for a unique and incredible theatrical experiment. Brad Surosky, Stephan Stubbins, Randi Kaye, Robert Petrarca, Leah Sprecher, and I joined with other performers to assess challenges facing the health and wellness of the theatre community. “Project Knowledge” researched a holistic approach.

Later we learned California was planning to close Jack London State Historic Park in budget-cutting. We put on a fundraiser there in 2011 which began the Transcendence model of outdoor shows under the stars. We hoped to do one performance of our favorite Broadway numbers and sell fifty tickets to our friends. Imagine our surprise when we filled the place! Our first season of multiple summer shows began the next year. Since then we’ve raised over $515,000 to keep the park open and deliver arts education to schools.

ASR: Did you anticipate that TTC would become as successful as it has?

AM: Absolutely, I always knew this would serve the world and be very important.

ASR: Does TTC have a special focus?

AM: Transcendence has a focus on musical theatre, inspiring songs, and powerful dance. Our intention is to uplift and empower our audiences to live the best life ever. We hope that when you enjoy a Transcendence performance, you’ll be inspired to spread love and joy well after leaving the theatre. Transcendence has a mission to share the arts as a service to everyone.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

AM: Planning for the future is always one step at a time. At this moment we are dedicated to our staff, artists, and community more than ever. Our team works hard and believes “The obstacle is the way.”

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

AM: In addition to our well-loved summer season outdoors, we’re building a network online to share education and performances with the world. We continue to develop new works and encourage artists to grow and excel.

ASR: Assembly Bill 5 presently requires most workers be paid California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. How has AB5 affected your theater company?

AM: We are complying with AB5 and have turned all of our people into employees. It definitely has added more to our expenses which is difficult during this unprecedented time.

ASR: Life in the theater: What are some of your favorite shows?

AM: A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Rodgers and Hammerstein Classics, and Chicago, of course. I love musicals!

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into the deep freeze for 20 years?

AM: The Secret Garden.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

AM: Tick, Tick, Boom.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

AM: Stage Management. Stage managers are absolute heroes. What an incredible task they have each day and night!

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

AM: I meditate, stretch, breathe, and I have a secret ritual with all the ladies in the dressing room which empowers us to give our best every night!

After a performance, like many artists, I relax by spending time with friends and family.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

AM:

1. Take care of yourself and your health and wellness.

2. Have a clear vision.

3. Be a strong leader with kind and compassionate communication.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

AM: Lily Tomlin forgot her monologue in her one-woman show on Broadway, The Search for Signs of The Intelligent Life in the Universe. She told everyone she had to leave the stage and returned after a drink of water.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

AM: At The Barn Theatre in Michigan, I was dancing the tango in Evita with my lifelong friend and Transcendence Artistic Associate, Tony Gonzalez. We were to do a major lift at the climax of the number and he dropped me! We ran offstage both mortified! No grudges held here, as Tony choreographs and directs for TTC today.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

AM: An audience member once ran backstage during the show. It happened during the musical number “The Time Warp” which made it even weirder!

ASR: Life outside the theater: Do you have a “day job?” What are your interests outside of theater?

AM: Transcendence is my day job, and I am beyond grateful to enjoy it as much as I do. My interests are definitely family and friends, my son and husband. I also like photography, as well as watching the sky at sunrise and sunset.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

AM: The Broadway Artist Wine Chat, a weekly Q & A with all artists in the industry sharing stories and life connections with each other and the audience. Think James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio but at a winery!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking?

AM: I have been surfing and I even stood up one time!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

AM: “A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head if no one gets to see it, it’s as good as dead, it has to come to life…” from Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park with George.

-30-

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Terrifically Talented, Totally Mind-Blowing David Templeton

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

David Templeton is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright best known locally for his work with the Petaluma Argus-Courier, and for 16 years as a writer and theater critic for the North Bay Bohemian. He also contributes to Strings magazine and others.

As a playwright, he’s won awards for his solo show Wretch Like Me, which has had runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland. His other plays include Pinky, Polar Bears, Drumming with Anubis, and Mary Shelley’s Body – the latter adapted from David’s novella of the same name, published in the 2016 anthology Eternal Frankenstein.

His supernatural short story, Questions and Answers, appears in the recent anthology Tales From a Talking Board. His next play is the science-fiction mystery Galatea, which will make its world premiere in 2021 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

David Templeton

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DT: In second grade, in Southern California, I wrote a short play called Grumpy, which was Snow White and the 7 Dwarves told from the perspective of the crankiest dwarf.

I asked my teacher if I could stage it, and we made some attempts at making that happen, but I have no memory of actually performing it, beyond my working hard to learn my lines for weeks. It’s weird because I don’t think I’d previously seen a theater production of any kind beyond my Episcopal church’s annual nativity pageant, in which I appeared as the one-and-only black sheep in the flock of white-costumed kindergarten sheep.

But for some reason, I had that idea for a play, and from Grumpy on, I knew I wanted a life in the theater. I did tons of plays in school, wrote and staged plays and puppet shows at the local library, and then started my own company in high school. It was originally a puppet theater, but we eventually added live action plays, which of course, I wrote and directed.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

DT: That’s a hard one. A lot of those early plays I wrote and directed were done on a pass-the-hat basis but were enough to pay my bills for a year or so after I graduated from high school. If you mean, what was the first play I appeared in for a company that was not: A. a school, B. my own company or C. a troupe performing at the Renaissance Faire (where I did do some performing while operating game booths in the early 1980s), I suppose it would have to be Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) for Santa Rosa Players.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

DT: Another hard one. By the time I did that show with the Santa Rosa Players, I’d long ago moved to Northern California, started working for newspapers on the swing shift, and started a family.

During all that time, I pretty much thought I’d given up on my earlier theatrical ambitions. Instead, I wrote poems and short stories, the occasional bad screenplay, and of course the journalistic writing I was doing more and more of.

In fact, I got the part in Complete Works of William Shakespeare “because” of journalism. I was writing for the North Bay Bohemian (not yet doing theater criticism), and I was assigned a story on local community theater. The idea my editor and I came up with was for me to go to an audition “undercover” as someone auditioning, and then write about all the wacky folks spending their evenings doing local shows.

To my surprise, I was offered one of the three roles, at which point I had to admit that I had not actually been auditioning, but was writing a newspaper story.

As I remember it, the director Carl Hamilton said, “Write what you want, we want you in this show.” I got a scathing review from the Press Democrat but was suddenly being offered parts again.

After a few shows with the Players, I segued back into writing my own plays, beginning with my one-man-show Wretch Like Me, which I wrote with the intention of performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I ended up performing it nearly a hundred times including runs all over the North Bay. I went on to write several more plays as you’ve already noted — thank you.

On occasion, over the years, I’ve continued to be occasionally cast in other shows, including playing Judas in Godspell and the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (both with Santa Rosa Players), The Large and Terrible Frog in A Year With Frog and Toad (6th Street Playhouse), Rick Masters in Circus Acts (Actors’ Basement), Bill Sikes in Oliver (Lucky Penny Productions) and Commander Harbison in South Pacific (Spreckels Theatre Company).

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

DT: This one’s easy. Though I would arguably never have stepped back into writing plays were it not for Dan Zastrow and Julia Lander, two friends who “strongly” encouraged me to stop “talking” about writing my one-man show and actually write and perform the thing – and went on to produce the first several productions of it (originally directed by David Yen) – it’s been Sheri Lee Miller who has had the largest impact on me professionally – as a playwright, certainly.

She encouraged me to write my follow-up, Pinky, which she directed in its world premiere and also in its encore production. Since then, she’s been a stalwart friend, a constant supporter, champion, and exemplar of generosity, an artistically vibrant source of inspiration, a tireless feedback giver and promoter, and a frequent and ever-valuable collaborator. Every minute spent on a stage with Sheri is a directorial master class. She’s the best.

…I’ve seen two or three bad productions of ‘Macbeth’ for every good one.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. What are you doing till then?

DT: I’ve been mostly reading other people’s works, memorizing huge chunks of text just to keep my memorization skills intact. Having Galatea be canceled less than a week before its opening was hard because it was really looking good. It’s a script I’m incredibly proud of, and not getting to share it with the world was hard, but since Spreckels is still planning on producing the play once it is possible to do so, I’ve got that to look forward to.

That said, it kind of took the wind out of my sails, so I haven’t had much desire to write anything new just yet. But in the meanwhile, I’ve learned that a theater school in New York will be doing a Zoom-based production of my play Drumming with Anubis in July, and there’s talk of a production, either live or streaming, of my one-person-show Polar Bears this winter in Idaho.

And I “do” have some ideas for new plays (I’m suddenly having crazy new ideas all the time), and I imagine I will get the bug to start writing one of them sometime fairly soon.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

DT: Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson (I’ve seen three productions, and would love to see more). Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel because the story, the language and the poetry of the plotting are breathtaking. The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robinson, who collected stories from a real refugee camp in France, and spun them into an interactive, immersive experience that entirely rearranged the way I think about theater.

ASR: Musicals?

DT: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, not normally performed “as” a stage production (usually as an orchestra piece with choruses), but I saw it done as a theatrical piece once, and I’ve never gotten over it. Come From Away, because it’s so uplifting and delightful and deeply moving. Fiddler on the Roof, because every song is gorgeous and memorable and because it’s about surviving prejudice and bigotry and hate.

ASR: Comedies?

DT: On the Razzle, by Tom Stoppard, The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde and Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley. These are plays that are weird, funny, and deeply insightful, and are consistently effective, every time I see them or reread them.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays?

DT: I really dislike Bye Bye Birdie, a play that – despite introducing a rare instance of interracial love in which no one ends up dead at the end – is so of its time that it just doesn’t work anymore. In fact, it’s kind of embarrassing.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

DT:  Bye Bye Birdie, obviously. Can we make it 30 years?

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

DT: Got to be Cymbeline.

ASR: Why?

DT: People just don’t seem to understand it, but to me, it’s actually a flat-out blast of a play, with a little of everything in it. It’s got a great female central character (Cymbeline, the king, is barely a presence in it; this show is “all” about Imogen), some fantastic plotting, huge twists and turns and really dark comedy, a fantastically icky villain (several of them actually), an evil stepmother, a headless body, and a fantastic battle with huge emotional impact for everyone involved. I’d love to direct it sometime. I have ideas.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DT: As opposed to “most performed?” Those would obviously be A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, but they are solidly entertaining plays and good introductions to the Shakespeare canon.

I’d say the most “over-performed” is Macbeth, because it’s actually really hard to pull off, and yet people can’t resist it because it’s spooky and fun and bloody and theater producers think it’s a good one for Halloween. But I’ve seen two or three bad productions of Macbeth for every good one.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

DT: Props. I love making props. It’s like arts-and-crafts but with a bit of costuming and magic involved. When I was in Oliver! I ended up taking the broom-handle I was given as Bill Sikes’ murder stick, and I beat it up and stained it and turned it into a really scary-looking billy club. I still have it, actually.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DT: Well, I’ve already talked about Sheri Lee Miller as a director, but I do believe it’s a shame she hasn’t been on stage since she played Mary Shelley in Mary Shelley’s Body, a role I really hope she picks up again sometime in the near future.

She’s been awesome in everything I’ve see her in, but beyond that, I’d say that, Bay Area-wide, my other favorites include Margo Hall (exacting and meticulous performer, with a blinding presence and one of the most dazzling stage smiles of all time) and James Carpenter (a chameleon in every way, best death scene I’ve ever witnessed, and not a bad smile himself).

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

DT: It depends. There was a time I went through a list of about 20 stretches and vocal things, made a ceremony of transforming into my costume/character, but after Edinburgh, when I literally had ten minutes or less to get into costume and get ready for places, I learned to do all of that in a few intense minutes.

That said, when I’m doing a normal non-fringe solo show, where I’ll be reciting 75 minutes of text but have plenty of time in the theater beforehand, it really takes the fear-factor down if I run every word of the show, with blocking (sped up, or course), an hour or two before the house opens.

ASR: How do you relax after?

DT: I really enjoy talking with people in the lobby after a show. It’s a nice transition back to the world.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

DT: Well, as a playwright mentor, I’d hope anyone I instructed or coached would take away that

1. Failure, while awful to experience, is as important a teacher as is success, and maybe more so, if you are up to staying in the discomfort space long enough to hear the lessons failure has to teach.

2. To get a good idea for a play, or a solution to a problem encountered in writing that play, you generally have to generate hundreds of less good ideas, so we should never fall too much in love with our first thoughts. Use the brainstorming to get a lot of material and then choose the one you think is the juiciest.

3. Listen to actors. You don’t have to take every suggestion they throw at you, but you should definitely avoid “never” listening to them. After several weeks of stepping into a character, they often get to know that person at least as well as you do, and sometimes more so.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

DT: I once watched a production of Camelot, in which a sword escaped one of the knights of the round table, flew across the stage toward the audience, launched into the air and finally landed in the one unoccupied seat in the front row. It was, under the circumstances, hilarious, precisely because it was very nearly … not.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

DT: I don’t know how weird this is, but during one performance of my play Pinky, in which I performed along with Liz Jahren, there was a climactic kiss scene, in which my character takes an excruciating amount of time “getting” that Pinky wants him to kiss her.

At one point, a woman in the back row suddenly yelled, “Just KISS HER … FOOL!” It was hard completing the kiss while both Liz and I were trying not to laugh, and even harder when Pinky, having been kissed by my character, thinking about whether she liked it or not, suddenly grabs him and kisses him back, really energetically.

At that point, another person in the audience, probably loosened up by the first patron’s exclamation, shouted, quite loudly, “Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!!!”

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DT: Fortunately, yes. Currently, I’m the Community Editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier newspaper in Petaluma.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DT: Movies have always been a major enthusiasm for me. A perfect day is one where I see at least three movies in actual theaters, which of course, hasn’t happened in a while. I’ve also recently learned to tie balloon animals. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I especially like making balloon dogs. They are classic.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

DT: Honestly, I’ve often thought it would be cool to turn my Wretch Like Me play into a television series. Set in the ‘70s, in the beach communities and suburbs of LA, with a nerdy puppet-loving kid who gets ”adopted” by the Jesus Club at his school, and goes to wacky extremes trying to fit in. I see it as being like That 70s Show, but with a slightly cult vibe. And darker. And possibly funnier.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

DT: “Amazing Grace,” because it was once very important to me on numerous levels, and because I learned how to sing it forwards and backward (literally backward). Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Street,” because I once danced to it in a mayonnaise factory during a moment of profound emotional release and freedom.

And the theme song to Rockford Files, which I long ago recognized as an excellent song to which my coffin might one day be carried away from the funeral service, an idea my family is well aware of and which I continue to stick to, at least for the moment.

ASR: Rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

DT: If randomly given the opportunity to go into space, specifically to the moon, I would go in a heartbeat. I’ve been dreaming of going to the moon since before I was dreaming of writing plays.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DT: Currently, I’d say one quote I’ve been thinking about a lot happens to be from my own play, Galatea, which I look forward to sharing with the world soon, or soon enough: “Humans. Not a bad species really … just badly programmed.”

–30–

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Master Actor, Teacher, and Musician Mister Marvin Greene

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Marvin Greene

Marvin Greene is an amazing human being: actor, musician, teacher, voice over artist, New York cab driver  —   even a coal miner.

Legend has it he arrived in San Francisco in the cast of a road show of Biloxi Blues starring Woody Harrelson, and that he (Mr. Greene) loved the Bay Area so much … he put down roots and stayed here.

Marvin has been teaching acting, directing, and improvising around the Bay Area.  Just the briefest glance at his resume shows some illustrious names, including: A.C.T, San Jose Repertory Theater, Marin Shakespeare Company, Marina Theatre Company, Aurora Theater, and a host of others. He has taught acting at A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, the Academy of Art University and Voice One in San Francisco, among others. He has performed in regional theater, voice-over, television and film, and appeared in the feature film Fruitvale.

Marvin came to the theatre by way of his and other people’s music, starting his career playing guitar and cello in the pit orchestra for musicals. This is also a man who proffers damn good advice for people going into an audition, “Remember the word “show” in show business. Be charming!”

In addition to his “night job” as an actor/musician, Marvin has worked with the firm “Stand & Deliver Group” since 2012,  at organizations like Black Rock, Deloitte, and Cisco, focusing on helping individuals and teams find relevance in their messages; communicate honestly and without pretense; elevate their confidence; learn to read others; and communicate with brevity.

A graduate of Brown University in English literature, Marvin received his M.F.A. in Theater from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

As busy as ever, Aisle Seat Review’s publisher Kris Neely managed to lasso Mr. Green long enough to get some answers to some of our favorite Not So Random Questions!

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MG: First real play I performed in was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played Lysander.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

MG: Have a heart attack and die instantly. The weird part is that right before we went on I said to the leading lady, “you look so hot you’re going to give some old man a heart attack.”

She did. But I suppose it was almost okay in the end. His wife told us that he loved the Theater and if he had chosen a way to go that would be it.

ASR:  Which person has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MG: James Barnhill. My first acting teacher at Brown University. He was one of the few professors I ever met who seemed to enjoy his job. He made me fall in love with acting.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance of a play?

MG: That was at the Longwharf Theater in 1984. I and another Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) had something like four or five lines each.

Before one show he said: “Watch me out there.” He went out and started ad-libbing the play.

His desire to be a star was so huge that he wrote himself a part and recited it for the audience. One of the actors improved him off the stage. Needless to say he never worked in that town again.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what are three things you would tell them are essential to know?

Know who you are.

Know who you are.

Know who you are.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

MG: Ex-Lax.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?

MG: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest… is commentary.

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

MG: I play the guitar. Music is great because it’s a language beyond words. Doesn’t mess with the text.

…Shoes. I’m really fascinated by how they change you…

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

MG: Okay I’m really winging it here. It’s called PICK ME.

A guy is on-line dating and meets a girl who he’s so attracted that he can’t give up on her. After the first date she rejects him. So he keeps re-inventing himself through costume and behavior. She keeps rejecting him and picking the new version of him.

Eventually the end up together.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MG: I have many. They generally form when the problems in the play are the problems in our lives and we’re all working out our lives together as we work out the play together.

That creates a bond that is like family.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

MG: Dark Was the Night by Blind Willie Johnson. Ry Cooder called it the “single most transcendent piece of American music.” It’s haunting, beautiful and deep beyond words.

Stardust by Louis Armstrong Louis has freedom and restraint in his playing at the same time. Total imagination and playfulness. Soul beyond description.

Something is New by Santana. It reminds me of being 16 with the world ahead of me. His playing is lyrical and the band is great.

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

MG: Shoes. I’m really fascinated by how they change you

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

MG: Well, anything topical, really. Cultures, like people, need breathing and healing time before their reflections become art.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

MG: Costumes hands down. The pressure work is before the performance. Once the show is up you’re mostly planning for a new show, doing minor repairs on costumes and you’re way backstage where you can do or say what you want. Besides very few people can really do what you do so nobody gets in the way too much.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

MG: A squirrel. Can you imagine how far they could leap?

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

MG: Shark diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MG: It’s from The Godfather. They’ve just murdered this guy in a car.

One of the assassins says: “Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli.” (There was a pastry on the seat of the car.)

Legend has it that the actor made up the line on set.

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Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

 

The Editor’s Desk: Catching Up on Who We Are

It’s important in the life of an arts website to check in from time-to-time about what makes the website (and its staff) tick. Basic principles. And so this particular post.

Let’s face it, most people do not read the “About” (or equivalent) page on most websites. So, I’m going to post the content of ours here.  It’s worth a read if I do say so myself. We started with these basic ideas 5 years ago and have held to them pretty well to this day.

[start]

Aisle Seat Review (ASR) is created by people devoted to theater, opera, ballet, music performance, movies, writing, and the arts in all its forms.

While our primary focus is on the production of art in the greater San Francisco Bay area, our reviewers have been known to cross California and even go beyond.

If it’s well done — we’d like to see it, read it, or experience it.

Editorially, we hope to add our voices and experience to those helping to keep the arts vigorously alive and growing. We will tell you what we really think, not what we know the venue’s or person’s management would like us to say. If it’s bad, we’ll tell you how and why. If it’s good, we’ll tell you how and why.

We’ll strive to make our reviews interesting, original, well written, and well-edited. We may drop a page or two from the AP Manual of Style or Chicago Manual of Style, but know our hearts are in the right place (as in, at the beck-and-call of our editors…)

If you have an event, a book, a play, music, or a show you’d like us to cover, a comment, suggestion, or even a complaint please don’t hesitate to let us know at editors@aisleseatreview.com.

We’ll read every email and reply as necessary ASAP.

 

In the hard-fought trenches of contemporary art, being able to post a review in this manner conveys valuable information and opinion to our readers,..

Review Bylines

Our reviews have two types of bylines — an individual byline (i.e. “by Michael Brown”) and a team byline (i.e. “by Team ASR”.)

The TEAM ASR approach allows contributors to this site to remain anonymous when posting a review.

In the hard-fought trenches of contemporary art, being able to post a review in this manner conveys valuable information and opinion to our readers, while retaining/maintaining professional relationships.

While Team ASR contributors may do so anonymously, please understand that they take personal responsibility for creating their reviews and that all reviews are subject to editorial review without exception.

Now, here is where the rubber meets the road:

    • All content on Aisle Seat Review is subject to editorial review prior to publication.
    • All content accepted for publication on ASR is subject to editorial review, editing for space, approval of and by the Editorial staff.
    • Final approval or rejection of any and all content, language, “message”, or imagery (of any kind and in any form) is always reserved by and for ASR founder Mr. Neely.

Editorial Questions 

Q: Can submitted content be flat-out rejected by Aisle Seat Review?

A: In a word, yes. It is mainly a reflection of the majority vote from the editorial board who are the governing body that makes up this site. And, as before, final approval or rejection of any and all content, pictures, and language is always reserved by and for ASR founder Kris Neely.

Q: Are all the editors on Aisle Seat Review paid for their work? 

A: With the exception of Mr. Neely ASR’s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher who does not take any compensation, yes indeed, everyone else on this site is paid, monthly. We’re inordinately proud of that fact, too.

Lots of folks write about the arts and lots of people have people writing for their arts-oriented website. But goddamn few have the resolve and the commitment to pay their people. Our editors aren’t going to retire on what they make here, but that’s finally not the point. Respect for the craft of writing is.

Review Forms

Our reviews also come in a few basic forms, including:

  • An “Aisle Seat THEATER Review”
    • These focus primarily on the overall theatrical presentation with less emphasis on the underlying text.
  • An “Aisle Seat DRAMA Review”
    • These focus primarily on the playwright and his/her/their work and message(s).
  • An “Aisle Seat PLAY or SCRIPT Review”
    • These focus primarily on the words on the page of plays and scripts.
  • An “Aisle Seat TECHNICAL Review”
    • These focus primarily on the technical aspects of the performance, such as direction, lights, set design, costumes, make-up and wig design, sound design, stage management, and so on.
  • An “Aisle Seat PERFORMANCE (Music, Opera, Ballet, etc.) Review”
    • These are (non-theater) genre-specific event performance reviews.
  • “Thoughts from the Playwright’s Desk “
    • Without playwrights, the theater would be pretty dull. This column presents a forum for a playwright to voice his or her thoughts. If you’re a playwright and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • “A Few Words from The Management “
    • Performance Arts management and editorial staff often have thankless jobs. That said, the work these dedicated professionals do gives them a unique perspective on our world. We should hear more from them! So, if you’re in Performance Arts management or editorial and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • ” Lesson Notes: Performance Arts Teachers Speak Out”
    • Almost all of us started our performance journey in a classroom of one stripe or another. Often, performance teachers and/or teaching artists are cited as some of the most influential contributors of successful performing professionals. So, if you’re a teaching artist or teach in a more traditional school, college, or university setting (or are a retired teacher!) and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • An “Aisle Seat GEAR Profile”
    • These entries focus primarily on the hardware, software, and equipment used in the performing arts.

[end]

Thanks for reading this far. Much appreciated. Suggestions? ideas? Complaints? Drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.

I appreciate your time and attention. Hang in there and stay healthy!

Sincerely,

Kris Neely

Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Aisle Seat Review

Kris Neely

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ASR’s Not So Random Question Time with Legendary Gentleman Squire George Maguire

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

George Maguire

 

Among a handful of Bay Area theater people with astoundingly deep credentials, George Maguire has enjoyed a 52-year professional career spanning Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, the National company of Nicholas Nickelby and more than thirty feature films.

He was Artistic Director of Solano College Theater for eighteen years, directing fifty main stage plays and musicals and helming the school’s renown Actor Training Program.

A couple of years ago, Maguire joined the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle as an adjunct member and voraciously continues to see and critique as many theater and film productions as possible.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

GM: I began in high school, first in Wilmington, Delaware in the chorus of both Brigadoon and Carousel where I had my first line: “Hey Nettie, ya burnin’ the lemonade?” Then we moved to Pittsburgh PA and it all ramped up quickly.

In one month, I played Freddy Eynesford Hill in My Fair Lady, graduated, went to prom, and got my AEA card at seventeen in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s Top Banana with Phil Silvers, Mr. President with Vivian Blaine and the rest of the originals, Tovarich with Ginger Rogers, South Pacific with Georgio Tozzi and Elizabeth Allen (I met Richard Rogers when he came to see her in that show and then cast her in Do I Hear a Waltz?), and My Fair Lady in the ensemble. Quite a feat for a seventeen-year-old who couldn’t read a lick of music and knew only one audition song — yep, one — “On the Street Where You Live.

The choreographer of our high-school My Fair Lady was a major pro who worked with John Kenley and suggested that I and two others should audition for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. We all got in! I did the next five seasons, going from second tenor to baritone-bass. I returned twice to Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera—in 1979 as Asst. Director and actor, and in 1981 as Max in The Sound of Music opposite John Shuck and Maureen McGovern.

ASR: What was the first play you directed for a paying audience?

GM: The first play as a director was Matchmaker at my old high school where I returned for four years as a teacher.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

GM: Hundreds. Literally.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

GM: I formed Solano College Theater (SCT) in 1990 with Managing Director Dave Leonard. I retired from it seven years ago.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

GM: I took the advice of one of my great mentors when I founded SCT —  Hire people who do what they do better than you can and then do what you do superbly. I hired actors and teachers like Nancy and Joy Carlin, Ken Sonkin, Bob Parsons, Julian Lopez Morillos, Carla Spindt, L. Peter Callender, and Sacramento’s Christine and Luther Hanson. Jon Tracy was a student then along with Johnny Moreno.

I brought in friends like Tom Hanks to do a major fundraiser. Writer José Rivera and Dave Leonard produced José ‘s first big hit House of Ramon Iglesia ( I had its initial readings at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City.) I brought in guest lecturers like Meryl Shaw from ACT. It was a magical time.

I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

GM: I’d have to say Vincent Dowling who was Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. (He also mentored both Rivera and Hanks.) His testament to enormous insight is that all of us are still dear friends since 1978.

Then I would say Olympia Dukakis in the brief semester I had with her at NYU. She was brutally tough and honest and I had no clue until years later how influential she was. Whatever moments of truth I have had both on film and on stage, I owe to her.

ASR: What are some of your favorite plays? Musicals?

GM: Plays: Cherry Orchard, The Visit, Richard II, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, All My Sons, Angels in America. Musicals: Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Cabaret (I’ve directed all three versions), and, well, so many more.

Faves that I produced and directed at Solano College Theater: Equus, The Elephant Man, Distracted, Eurydice, among others. They are my children.

ASR: And your least favorites?

GM: Least fave? Long ago I recognized I had no real interest in directing Shakespeare and indeed have directed only Calarco’s Romeo and Juliet for New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC.)

Let others do it! I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”

I have done conceptual work: Sweeney Todd I set in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for example; and Equus, in the ruins of the Parthenon, but direct Shakespeare? Not me. Although to be completely open, I have done maybe twenty-some Shakespeare roles as an actor.

I’m often challenged as a director by musicals that flopped. Seussical I resurrected and completely re-thought. I had a blast!!

ASR: Can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

GM: Has to be Jim Carpenter. So honest and real and kind!

ASR: Which theater friendships mean the most to you?

GM: Our friendships are vital but they do not always continue post-production. Those from the Great Lakes era have lasted more than forty years, with two Oscars for one, and an Oscar nomination for the other.

What is true about this is that for all of us the person we met way back when is the treasure we love and success is measured by compassion, not by a resumé.

ASR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be your apprentice and learn all that you know?

GM: Hmm. Tricky. OK, here goes…

1. Be true to yourself, and enter the workspace always with an idea.

2. Always breathe before you answer a question.

3. Research! Research! Research!

ASR: What are your interests outside the theater?

GM: I am a major museum freak. I love them, having studied art when I spent a year in Germany at nineteen. Also, opera and symphony. In Germany, I heard Schwartzkopf sing Der Rosenkavalier, for example. I am not a big contemporary music person, probably due to my hearing impairment.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” deal?

GM: A ticket to Dude, the Musical! I was there on opening night. Oy!

ASR: If you could create a 30-minute TV series what would it be?

GM: It would definitely be about Great Lakes days in a format like Schitz Creek.

ASR: Care to mention a favorite song?

GM: Having had health issues all my life — hearing impairment, Meniere’s Syndrome, etc, I resonate to “Being Alive.”

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

GM: I would never parachute, climb a mountain, etc. Fuck, I’m 73! Walking on stage while having a vertigo attack is risk enough for me.

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

 

ASR’s Not-So-Random Questions for Theater People: The Very Real, The Very Talented, The Very Amazing, The Very Cool Jeffrey Lo

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Jeffrey Lo is a Filipino-American playwright and director based in the Bay Area. He is the recipient of the 2014 Leigh Weimers Emerging Arist award, the 2012 Emerging Artist Laureate by Arts Council Silicon Valley and Theatre Bay Area Director’s TITAN Award.

Selected directing credits include The Language Archive and The Santaland Diaries at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Vietgone at Capital Stage, A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Eurydice at Palo Alto Players (TBA Awards finalist for Best Direction), Peter and the Starcatcher and Noises Off at Hillbarn Theatre, The Grapes of Wrath, The Crucible and Yellow Face at Los Altos Stage Company and Uncle Vanya at the Pear Theatre (BATCC award for Best Production).

As a playwright, his plays have been produced and workshopped at The BindleStiff Studio, City Lights Theatre Company and Custom Made Theatre Company. His play Writing Fragments Home was a finalist for the Bay Area Playwright’s Conference and a semi-finalist for the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference.

Jeffrey has also worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, San Jose Repertory, Aurora Theater, and is a company member of Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and SF Playground.

In addition to his work in theatre he works as an educator and advocate for issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and has served as a grant panelist for the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Silicon Valley Creates and Theatre Bay Area. He is the Casting Director at the Tony Award Winning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, a graduate of the Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute, and a proud alumnus of the UC Irvine Drama Department.

Amidst all that activity he sat down with ASR’s Publisher Kris Neely for a chat.

Jeffrey Lo

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

JL – In high school I acted in this production of a play called Addict which was a series of pseudo-monologues about what could happen if one falls into drug abuse. First play I directed for a paying artist was later that year. It was a play I wrote and directed called “With Love, Jaysson.”

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

JL– I wouldn’t say this is the weirdest but it sticks out in my mind. I was house managing a production of Theresa Rebeck’s play Bad Dates at the Dragon Theatre and they were having a “ladies night” special where every audience member received free champagne or wine at the beginning of the performance.

There was a bachelorette party that showed up and this very excited bride to be came up to me asking how much to buy a bottle for her bridesmaids. I let her know that because of the ladies night special they all got champagne for free. She told me it was a special night and she wanted to buy a bottle for her ladies. I repeated that it was all free. After going in circles for a bit, I just made up a price and handed the group a bottle of champagne.

ASR: Which person has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

JL – I think we all stand on the shoulders of giants so it’s hard to pick one. I’ll go with Julia Cho because through her work and our limited interactions she has reminded me how an artist can lead with heart, kindness and immense talent.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance of a play?

JL – When I was an apprentice at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I worked on their production of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive and towards the end of the play, a letter is supposed to fall magically from the sky and the character of Emma is supposed to exclaim, “A letter!’

On our final preview, the letter fell from the sky alright … but immediately slipped through one of the scenic tracks and fell beneath the stage.

The actress stared at the empty spot where the letter should have been and had no choice but to go on with exclaiming, “A letter!”

The whole audience erupted with laughter because they saw the letter slip under the stage. Little did we know, there was a crew member beneath the stage and after Emma said her line, we slowly saw the letter rise up from the crevice which got even more laughter and more applause from the audience. It was a magical moment and our playwright asked, “could it happen that way every night?”

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what are three things you would tell them are essential to know?

JL – Let me break this down a bit for you:

For playwrights – remember that your first draft is not your final draft. Your first draft isn’t even the second draft. No one has to read the first draft. Don’t edit yourself before you have to. Don’t get in your own way of finishing your draft. Finish the first draft and take it from there.

For directors – the lighting designer will know more about lighting design that you. The actor will know more about acting than you. Your job as director is not to know more than everyone else in the room. Your job as director is to know enough to be able to identify when your talented collaborators have better ideas than you.

For humans – ask yourself how you can help people. I know it’s impossible to spend every second and every choice of your life towards helping people, but if you make it a practice in your life to take the time to think it through whenever you can – I think it will lead you towards a good path.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

JL – Buy one gun get one free. We don’t need guns.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?

JL – Hmmm….OK, here goes…

1 – Be kind.

2 – Be chill.

3 – Have fun.

(In order of importance and in order of which rule overtakes the others.)

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

JL – If it’s an opening night, I tend to spend my mornings of openings drinking coffee, listening to music and writing thank you cards.

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

JL – Some sort of variety show with amazing under-represented and under-appreciated artists doing what they do best. I’d call it HIRE THESE PEOPLE.

…The actress stared at the empty spot where the letter should have been and had no choice but to go on with exclaiming, “A letter!”

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?

JL – I think they’d assume I was wrongfully arrested.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

JL – Easily Leslie Martinson. To be fair, she started as a theater-related friendship, evolved into a mentor-ship and evolved further into just full everyday friendship. When I was right out of undergrad, Leslie and I had an informational interview of sorts over a coffee and she hired me to be her assistant director for her production of Superior Donuts at TheatreWorks.

She’s given me so many opportunities, provided advice at every turn and was really the first person to see me as an artist and essentially say, “You are someone special. You can do this.”

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

JLJust My Imagination by The Temptations for the way they are able to perfectly encapsulate and blur the lines of happiness and melancholy in such a smooth and beautiful tune.

Dahil Sa lyo – it’s the quintessential Filipino love song. If you know, you know. I recommend the cover by Bay Area singing quintet Pinay. There’s also an excellent version that Nat King Cole sang live at his concert in the Philippines.

Kendrick Lamar – Alright. It’s a song of protest. A song of celebration. A song of anger. A song of hope. It’s pretty perfect.

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

JL – The right tie can do a lot for your day.

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

JL – Easy, Miss Saigon.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

JL – I think the history plays are almost all underrated. My favorite is Henry V.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

JL – Assuming I knew how to do it well, lighting. I’m always astounded by the ways lights can enhance, shift and inform everything that we do in theatre.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

JL – I’d prefer to scale down animals to the size of a baby corgi. A horse the size of a baby corgi? Adorable. But if I HAD to scale an animal up. Probably a sea turtle.

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

JL – None. I’m good feeling safe on land.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

 JL – “We’re all freaks, depending on the backdrop.” – Passing Strange

Publisher’s Note: ASR Publisher Kris Neely wants it firmly on the record that he first predicted we’d all one day pay Big Money to see Mr. Lo’s directorial finesse on Broadway. So let’s keep the record straight on that one, because it’s going to happen. — KN

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Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

ASR’s Not-So-Random Questions for Theater People: Marvelous Musical Theater Maven Rita Abrams

Rita Abrams

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

A native of Cleveland, Ohio — she was a high school classmate of KQED’s Michael Krasny — Rita Abrams launched her career in 1970 when her novelty song “Mill Valley” stormed its way up the charts.

At a time of great social and political upheaval—not unlike today—the song was a breath of fresh air among nonstop sermons about war, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction. With its success, Abrams went from being a local grade-school teacher to instant fame, guest-starring on “Hollywood Squares” and dating prominent entertainers.

50 years later she is still going strong, continuing to pen some of the cleverest tunes ever created.

Recipient of two Emmy’s and multiple SFBATCC nominations and awards, Abrams is perhaps best known for her long-running Marin County spoof For Whom the Bridge Tolls (a collaboration with Stan Sinberg) and many musicals, including Pride and Prejudice, scheduled for May 2021 at Ross Valley Players. Among friends, she’s known as the quickest wit in the west.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RA: I wrote poems and songs all my life, starting with family musical sagas.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

RA: My first paid performance was singing “Bell Bottom trousers, coat a navy blue” when I was three. The neighbors paid me ten cents apiece. As an adult, I made a musical out of a quirky little love triangle play written by a TV comedy writer friend which ran in a little SF theatre.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

RA: My stage musicals have been produced by fifteen theatre companies. I’ve also composed for various children’s media and educational companies . . . maybe twenty-five companies altogether.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

RA: My mother, who introduced me to the work of all the great musical theatre composers and lyricists, and many lesser known ones as well. The Cleveland public schools took us regularly to great theatre and concerts, and my parents took me to New York to see Broadway shows.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

RA: Intimidating question but I’ll try: Raisin in the Sun, Private Lives, Our Town, Fences, Bad Jews . . . and then there’s Shakespeare and too many more to mention.

ASR: Musicals? Comedies?

RA: All of Rogers & Hammerstein, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, The Fantasticks, And the World Goes Round (Kander & Ebb Revue), Hamilton, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers, The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RA: George Maguire.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

RA: Regarding songwriting:

1. Write lyrics you can easily speak, as in conversation.

2. Build as the song progresses—Save the biggest, funniest, or most moving for last, and don’t be too repetitive or derivative. Keep introducing new ideas or twists.

3. With comedy songs—never give away the punchline, especially in the title, and when possible, end with a surprise.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

RA: Very tough question, as I love so many of the actors and musicians (and even a few collaborators) I’ve worked with. But when I asked a great bass player friend—Jack Prendergast—if he knew any conductor/synthesizer players for Just My TYPE, a 2018 Ross Valley Players musical, he surprised me by saying he could do the job. He worked so hard on all aspects of the music that he won my heart. We’re still together, and still working together on music.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

RA: The wacky satirical musical revue about Marin County, For Whom the Bridge Tolls, that I co-created and produced with Stan Sinberg, from 1994 to 2005, was filled with unscripted goofs and gaffes. One night during the sketch, The Overpasses of Marin County (a parody of The Bridges of Madison County), Frank Brown, as photographer for “Dangerous Exits Magazine,” while passionately embracing Sharon Boucher as “Francesca,” caught her long black wig in his belt buckle, where it hung amid gales of laughter from the audience. For two actors who knew how to ham it up, this was their moment. The hilarity went on and on.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

RA: When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row, she, a tough one, dismissed it as no big deal—but I was mortified, fearing the audience would think that was how I wrote the song!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

RA: I was playing piano for a show at San Francisco’s Improv Comedy Club, when in the middle of a scene, a disheveled figure ambled up to the stage and started riffing. A rumble arose from the audience, turning to a roar as they realized who it was—Robin Williams!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RA: Not one day job, but revolving freelance gigs—like B.C. (Before Covid) writing scripts for Gregangelo’s Velocity Entertainment shows, and I’m a longtime writer of greeting cards, which is fortunately pandemic-proof.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RA: All forms of entertainment: Scrabble, Zoom Fictionary, watching the horror unfolding on MSNBC, and now trying to plan some kind of virtual commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of our Miss Abrams & the Strawberry Point School Third Grade Class “Mill Valley” record release. And keeping in touch with family, like my daughter in LA.

When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture?

RA: Truthfully, while I’m interested in everything, I’m usually focused on my original music and theatre creations.

ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

RA: Just the artifice of pretending not to age.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

RA: 1. Enforced Social Distancing between Democrats and Republicans. 2. Twenty minutes of daily laugh therapy before rising. 3. No fitbits.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

RA: Canned tripe, or dinner with the current president. Not necessarily in that order.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

RA: “Where Have I Been All My Life?” features real senior citizens confessing their one big regret, and then, through the magic of technology, being able to reverse and redo it, for all the world to see.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

RA: Been mistaken for someone more interesting.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RA: Sequined mask.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

RA: A butterfly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RA: Just reading the names gives me heart palpitations.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RA:

1. From Just My TYPE (book by Charlotte Jacobs & Michael Sally): “I can change him AFTER we get married.”

2. From For Whom the Bridge Tolls: “Between my mani-pedi, my Shiatsu massage, my Bickram Yoga, and my Zumba class…I have NO time for ME!!”

ASR: Theatrical event you are most looking forward to?

RA: The Ross Valley Players production of Josie Brown’s and my Pride and Prejudice Musical from May 13th to June 13th, 2021. Phoebe Moyer will direct the great lineup of talent already we’ve already cast.

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time! The Very Model of a Modern Major Talent — Ron Severdia

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Ron Severdia

Actor, magician, and tech entrepreneur Ron Severdia may be the most diverse theatrical talent in the North Bay. His solo performance of A Christmas Carol is a must-see. Last year he won critical acclaim for his performance in Every Brilliant Thing at Left Edge Theatre. He found time in his busy schedule to chat with ASR.

ASR: Your background?

RS: I was born and raised (mostly) in Marin County. I started as a magician when I was around seven and got into theatre shortly after. I’ve been performing on stage and in film ever since.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RS: I started doing magic when I was young and I was a voracious reader. I read everything about Houdini I could get my hands on. Houdini told a story of where he got his name—a magician he admired named Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who famously said “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” This fascinated my young mind and began my jump into the world of acting.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

RS: My first acting gig was a film, not a play. My fifth grade teacher was teaching about the Revolutionary War and working with our class to product a film. The story was an old man and his wife who’d lived through the war telling their grandchildren about it through flashbacks. I was the old man with old makeup and all. There was a big night where the whole school, including parents and teachers, came to watch the film. This was my big debut, but I was sick that day and my parents wouldn’t let me go. To this day, I’ve never seen that film, but when I went back to school I heard how “amazing” my performance was.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

RS: Dozens. In the Bay Area, London, Prague, and various other places.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RS: I started the Modern Shakespeare Company (https://www.modernshakespeare.com) maybe 20 years ago, but it’s just my thing and there’s only been one so-called performance.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

RS: Um, no.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

RS: Making Shakespeare and the classics accessible. I really took an interest in director Buzz Goodbody. I was intrigued by her approach at the RSC. She took over their costume shed (“The Other Place”) and made it into a successful experimental theatre.

The seminal Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench premiered there and so did Ben Kingsley’s Hamlet, during which she committed suicide at the age of 28—a metaphor of Haley’s Comet.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

RS: No one single person, rather a variety of really smart people—many of whom were teachers during my time at ACT (Rod Gnapp, Ken Ruta, Larry Hecht) or RADA (Andrew). I always hope to learn something from the directors I work with and my fellow actors.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

RS: I’ve done some musicals in the past (the last one was Cabaret at CenterRep a few years back), but I’m kinda done with those.

Some of the dramas I like and would like to do someday are Cyrano, Of Mice & Men (Lenny, of course), and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein.

As for comedies, I really enjoyed Hangmen (McDonough’s brilliant black comedy), The Play That Goes Wrong, or Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests—all of which I’d love to do.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

RS: My last show at Left Edge Theatre was a solo show called Every Brilliant Thing, which tells the story of a young boy as he grows up trying to cope with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts. It’s funny, sad, and presents a difficult subject in a really moving way.

I performed as Miles in Left Edge Theatre’s world premiere of Sideways in 2017, which had an awesome cast and collaborated with author Rex Pickett. It was great to share this story that has had an indelible impact on the wine industry.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

RS: Neil Simon. I’ve felt this way for many years, which actually led to me taking a role in the world premiere of Dale Wasserman’s play Premiere. It’s the story of a playwright so successful he gets bored with writing one Broadway hit after another so he decides to write a play in verse and pass it off as a long lost play by William Shakespeare. When Dale’s widow flew out to see the play, she told me how Dale and Neil Simon were great friends and, ironically, the character I was playing (the playwright) was really based on Neil Simon.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

RS: Oooooh. There’s a long list. Let’s start with Our Town and the entire Andrew Lloyd Webber canon.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

RS: Definitely The Norman Conquests or even a solid production of Deathtrap (which is really rare).

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

RS: Hands down, King John. It’s a great play that can be done with a small cast in a small theatre. The text can veer off course a little, but nothing a director/dramaturg couldn’t sort out. There are some great verbal exchanges in there.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

RS: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s easy to do, especially for kids and newbies to Shakespeare.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

RS: Probably sound design. Maybe set design. To me, both are a little more conceptual and appeal to me more than the other aspects.

I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up…

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RS: Very hard. Jarion Monroe, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Stacy Ross. There are so many talented people in the Bay Area.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

RS: First, the typical vocal and physical warm-ups to get things going. Then I have show-specific warm-ups depending on the show. It might be songs that evoke for me the spirit of the play or it might be speeding through the lines of a particularly challenging part. Followed by an espresso.

After the show, it’s all about trying to wind down. That takes me longer when I have smaller parts in the show. For larger parts, winding down is easier due to the vocal/physical demand.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

RS:

1. Work constantly on your instrument, mentally and physically.

2. Study the classics. Mine them for gems. They’re classics for a reason.

3. Become self-aware by learning the connection between how you think you’re perceived and how you actually are.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RS: Yes, I’m the head of product design for a Silicon Valley technology company.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RS: I created a few theatre related apps that I work on outside of theatre:

Shakespeare Pro: An app containing the complete works, glossary, search and a variety of other features to help students, teachers, actors, directors and other theatre professionals. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/shakespeare-pro/id341392367

Soliloquy Pro: An app to manage your monologues and help you memorize them. Search from over a thousand classic pieces and share them with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/soliloquy-pro/id1029313343

Scriptigo Pro: An app to manage file/theatre scripts, take notes, and share with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/scriptigo-pro/id1444743519

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RS: A simple black cotton t-shirt.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

RS: I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up that big! Good premise for a horror flick though.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RS: Meh. I’ve done some of those things, but I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” by any stretch.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RS: Movie: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones (gets more and more relevant as I get older)

Stage Play: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” —Charles Condomine (Blithe Spirit)

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Actor, Director, Teacher and Did We Mention He Works Insanely Hard? It’s Michael Ray Wisely.

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Michael Ray Wisely

Michael Ray Wisely is one busy guy: actor, director, teacher, and more. He has long been one of the Bay Area theater scene’s most prolific members. Most recently he played the despicable manipulator Iago in African American Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, and was a core member of the SF Playhouse production of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, a stunningly apocalyptic dark comedy that went from San Francisco to an extended run in New York. MRW kindly took time from his hectic schedule to chat with Aisle Seat Review.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MRW: Mrs. Stuart’s 6th grade class and, later, I literally knocked on a door!

My first experience was playing Huck Finn in an adaptation of Tom Sawyer. My 6th grade teacher, (Nancy Stuart, now deceased) told me that I had potential, but, growing up poor, the idea of being a theatre artist was as remote as being an Apollo astronaut. After high school I went to college for broadcast journalism, had a summer internship working as an on-air DJ at a radio station, but couldn’t afford to return to school fall semester. With few prospects, I joined the Air Force with the idea of eventually getting a degree in electronics engineering.

Here’s where “the door” opened. I was exploring the neighborhood near McChord Air Force Base one day and saw the Lakewood Playhouse. I knocked on the door to get some information and just as I was leaving, the AD asked me if I could read for a part that evening because some-one had just quit. I said yes, and two years later, I chose to go to a conservatory training program rather than re-signing with the Air Force. I started my professional career the month after college and never looked back.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

MRW: Amateur: Tom Sawyer, in the 6th grade. Directing: A touring theatre company Children’s Theatre Workshop. As an AEA actor: San Jose Stage Company.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

MRW: 25 to 50. I really don’t know.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MRW: It’s a village. I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work. So many actors and directors that I have worked with have left their mark and I still meet new teachers, sometimes in the youngest members of a company who remind me what open-eyed awe and reverence look like.

As to the stalwarts, I would probably have to say my wife Wendy (a director/actor/professor herself) , the late, great Sydney Walker (a mentor, and in the original acting company of Bill Ball at ACT), casting director Annie Stuart (Playground), who was a big champion of my work, and the many AD’s/directors who have hired me over the years. So many people are a part of who I am as an actor/director. It’s humbling to think about. I could list 100 + and still wouldn’t be giving someone their due.

I think that’s one of the great lessons in this business. The next person you meet, the next move you make, could change your career, your acting, your life, your world, forever. Understanding that is the key to a sustained career in anything I think. I believe in the power of the arts to change the world in the same way. I try to pass it on by being a mentor any time I am fortunate enough to be given the chance.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MRW: It changes week to week. Some weeks, I’ve been really productive. I’ve done online readings with other actors working on dream projects. I’ve made some short films and put together some online film auditions.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to organize, plan, file and take care of the minutia of life so I can be more focused when we get back to some kind of normal. Some days are better than others, but I cannot complain as I have a great life, generous talented friends, a roof, food, and my wife and daughter. I live in gratitude even more than usual.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

MRW: Tough one … As an actor/director, my planning is dependent on the theaters I collaborate with. I usually know what I’m doing for six months to a year in advance, and I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen now. Both of the shows I had have been postponed. One has been moved to next summer and the other’s fate is in the hands of the gods.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community over-all?

MRW: I think in the short term our community is already deeply affected by the economic situation. We may lose several companies and the ones that survive will be in difficulty for quite some time. I’ve always believed in the theatre as a survivor and no doubt it will. Some great art is going to come out of this, but we’re all going to be changed. It is my hope that our communities will rally in support of artists and companies, that theatre companies will have more appreciation for their local artists, and that we will all understand how fortunate we are to make art on a deeper level than before.

One thing is for sure: when people feel safe to be in the dark with strangers again, it will be electric, life affirming, and I’m looking forward to the pathos of those moments.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

MRW: I’m often so in love with what I’ve just done or what I’m about to do that it’s a difficult question. Playing Robert in Pinter’s Betrayal was a favorite, as was Iago in Othello. I’ve played some of Shakespeare’s greatest clowns as well as the Scottish King. I love challenging language and that has drawn me to playwrights like G.B. Shaw, Pinter, O’Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Wilde, Williams, and more recent playwrights like Mamet, Rebecca Gilman, Tracy Letts, and Theresa Rebeck.

A favorite is Ideation, by Aaron Loeb, a local playwright and friend. I worked on the play with Aaron and the rest of the company, put together by SF Playhouse, and ended up going with it for an off-Broadway run with the original cast intact. It’s hard to top that kind of experience. Aaron’s language is specific, smart, fast, and a thrill for the audience and the actor.

We’ve got some insanely gifted writers here in the Bay Area: Jonathon Spector, Lauren Yee, Michael Gene Sullivan, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson (ok, she’s not a native but we claim her) to name a few. As a matter of fact, local playwright Anthony Clarvoe wrote an incredible drama called The Living that I performed in at San Jose Stage Company in the mid-90s. Written as an AIDS parable, it was about the bubonic plague in 1666. It’s a beautiful play and I’ve been revisiting it during this pandemic. So many things it chronicles are happening right now—the fear, the misinformation, the avarice, the stupidity. That’s what good art does—it stays relevant because it speaks universal truths in inventive ways. That’s why art and artists are important.

Favorite Musicals: Sweeney Todd was the first musical that really made me sit up and take notice. I’m a sucker for classics like Guys and Dolls. Of the ones I’ve been in, On the 20th Century is a favorite, and I loved playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast and the Sheriff in Whorehouse. I rarely do musicals, but really enjoy them when I’m given the opportunity.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

MRW: I’ve got several. Some I’d like to see put away forever, but, I won’t say because I wouldn’t want to denigrate any artist’s work just because I don’t like it or don’t find it interesting. The act of theatre is brave in any of its many disciplines and it should be celebrated. With that, I will say that there are things I’ve despised, mocked and laughed at that I’m sure have been important to or changed the lives of others.

I’ve got an example for that I’ll share over a cocktail sometime.

I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

MRW: Big, giant plays with large casts, fire and water and spectacle. More Shaw and Chekhov and sweeping dramas 3+ hours long. When I go to the National Theatre in London sometimes and see these epic straight plays with a cast of 25 and more, it is thrilling and heartbreaking to me because American audiences will rarely ever get that experience with the exception of musicals.

Societies are known by the art they create. Look at how we revere art of the past. The support of the arts by our government should be an order of national pride, not a wedge used by career politicians to hold on to power and separate the people that art is serving. It’s a travesty and should be seen as a national shame, but, alas, there’s plenty more of that to go around.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

MRW: I think Love’s Labours Lost. It is such a simple love story on the surface and yet it is filled with characters whose very human actions expose love and its many sides with a sophistication not seen in later plays. It’s singular and original in that it doesn’t seem to be taken from other plays and stories of the time. It also has an ending that’s surprisingly melancholy, as love is postponed.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

MRW: Sound and projections/video. I love creating with sound and am a photographer and filmmaker. Sound can move people subconsciously and I am a sucker for those who are brilliant with it. As an actor, it can raise the stakes of a scene or the reality of a play in every way.

One story that I remember is sitting in the audience of Superior Donuts at Theatre Works several seasons back and when the “furnace” came on in the donut shop, it had a visceral bass WHOOMP to it that I could feel in the middle of the theatre. We were inside that donut shop. It was wonderfully surprising and I thanked Bay Area sound designer Jeff Mokus for bringing me the reality of what an old oil furnace feels/sounds like when it starts up.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

MRW: Many could fit that description, but I’d like to hold up a couple of up-and-coming artists you may not be familiar with: Patrick Kelly Jones and Tristan Cunningham. They knock me out. Both of them have great skill and are inventive and make surprising choices.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

MRW: My warm-ups are all about ritual. I have a routine vocally a few hours before a show then physically in the space and then I get very particular, even superstitious, about the order and timing up to curtain. I’ve heard professional athletes talk about this as well. It changes a little from show to show, but it’s always been that way for me. I’m not alone in pre-curtain idiosyncrasies. We’re a ritualistic tribe.

After a show, you can be so wound up and tired at the same time that you have to have some kind of cool down. Sometimes it’s drinks with friends, but I try to keep that in check for obvious reasons. No matter how I chose to do it, it always takes a few hours.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

MRW: These three…

1) Show up! (on time, prepared, ready to throw down. That’s the entry fee for a career.)

2) Integrity! Professional and personal (Do your work in the service of others and the project and know why you do it. If it’s only about you, you’re not going to make it.)

3) TCB! (taking care of the business of your career, treating people well, caring, following up. How you go about your business is as important as everything else you do.)

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MRW: I have a few people that I can talk to in any way about anything! That’s important as an artist. You need to have a few people in your life, a posse even, who you can let it hang out with. Who you can be ridiculous with, risk with, and be wrong with. People who know your heart and your artist and will not judge you by your worst day and will hold up your best days as the true measure of who you are. Greatness can come out of those relationships.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

MRW: A couple made out and fondled each other in the front row of a 250-seat house.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MRW: Film/television and radio acting. I had my own show in the early days of DIY television. I have freelanced directing corporate films and live shows. I’ve coached people on public speaking and have taught acting and been a guest lecturer at several colleges. Acting and directing in the theatre have been my focus for over thirty years now. I’ve been a fortunate man.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MRW: Travel, sailing, film making, photography, building, weightlifting, tennis, motorcycles, cooking, surfing and I’ve dabbled in hang gliding, and autocross racing.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

MRW: I do when I can. If you’re lucky enough to be working show to show (and that is what you need to do if you want to make a living) it can be difficult. When I’m not working, I’m at the theatre. I love seeing new talent and having my colleagues surprise me. As far as the other arts, I love photography and making films. I’m often in pursuit of one or the other and a lot of it just for me and my friends.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

MRW: Root canal or colonoscopy.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

MRW: Got into a fist-fight defending someone who needed help.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MRW: I’ve done most of the ones listed and have also been hang-gliding. But shark diving? Absolutely not. Two ways I’d rather not die—one is as a predator’s dinner and the other is in a plane full of screaming people. Now, I do surf and fly, so I guess it’s up to fate. I’d really like a long life and, other than dying surrounded by loved ones, I think it would be great to die on stage or at rehearsal, maybe in an actual death scene.

Coda: I also don’t want to die stepping out into the street and being hit by a bus because you’d have to be thinking to yourself: “Ohhhh, F#*k, this is such a stupid way to die.”

ASR: If you had to play one role you’ve already done for a year, what would it be?

MRW: I’ve played both Bluntchli and Petkoff in Arms and the Man and Petkoff is one of those perfect comic characters. The world of the play acts on him instead of the other way around. He’s lovable, bombastic, and has some of the greatest comic bits where everyone knows what’s happening but him. It’s great fun and there’s great possibility for rolling laughs. He also carries no real weight, so it’s all the fun with very little responsibility. I love carrying a play, and getting the girl sometimes, but, it’s also nice to just be the guy who gets the laughs.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MRW: I get a new favorite every play. Like most actors, I also often find lines that are problematic from first rehearsal to the final curtain. That’s the joy and the curse of being in the theatre. There are a thousand that I wish I could say again in front of an audience. Recently, I remember taking joy in a line of Iago’s: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” after which the audience would often burst out in laughter. When it first happened, it surprised me.

They were laughing at the horrible way I had just manipulated Cassio. There were others that jeered and hissed. It’s magic and you and the audience both know it and feel it. As I finished the speech, they unwittingly became accomplices in the undoing of Othello and the eventual murder of Desdemona. That’s the power of words and language. It should never be underestimated

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ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: On the Curtain Line with Spreckels Theatre Company Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

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Sheri Lee Miller

Sheri Lee Miller has enjoyed a lifelong career as a professional stage director, actor and theater administrator, working with some of the leading theaters on the West Coast, including Seattle Rep, A Contemporary Theater, Tacoma Actors Guild, Gaslamp Quarter Theater, and Seattle Children’s Theater. Locally, she has been privileged to direct and act at Cinnabar Theater, Sonoma County Rep, 6th Street Playhouse, Actors Theater, Spreckels Theatre Company, and Main Stage West, where she is a founding member.

She holds a B.A. in Theater Arts from San Diego State University, with a double emphasis on acting and directing.

She has appeared in dozens of television commercials, voice-overs, industrial films and print ads, and is a member of Actors Equity and AFTRA. Sheri is Artistic Director at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, a position she’s held since July 2017. The center’s Codding Theater, with more than 500 seats, is Sonoma County’s largest. The center also operates the adjacent Condiotti Theater, a smaller venue. It is not unusual for two productions to be running simultaneously.

Sheri strongly believes that exposure to the arts in general and theater in particular leads to a more thoughtful, balanced and empathetic society. “I truly believe that art and artistry must be nurtured at home, at school and in the community if we as a society are to achieve the highest levels of empathy and humanity.”

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

SLM: We are probably most known for our big musicals in the Codding Theater, which are pretty fantastic, I must say. But we also do excellent smaller shows in our Condiotti studio space. We are committed to supporting new works, especially by local playwrights if possible. We are trying to keep one slot open for a new play each season, but we won’t put up just anything because it is new. It has to be a great script. We also have a very strong youth program, the Spreckels Education Program. Those young actors are very committed and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop. They do great work!

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

SLM: Probably my instructor at Santa Rosa JC, Joan Lee LaSalle (Woehler). She was my friend and mentor. Powerful, kind and brilliant. I think of her often and hope she is proud.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

SLM: We are working on an enormous restructuring of our various storage areas and a box office remodel. We are moving tens of thousands of costume items and will photograph and catalog them for ease of use and rental. We’ve also finished our props storage rooms. Sadly, our wonderful part-timers are currently laid off. So this i