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.

***

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 is a lot of work for only three of us—Eddy Hansen, Gail Shelton and myself—to accomplish. And we are having a ball with it! I love this kind of work. Sooooo satisfying. And it’s great to be doing something physical.

…One night, I managed to enter at the wrong time and effectively cut an entire scene…

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

SLM: Well, it’s pretty impossible to plan. We do know we intend to go ahead with Matilda and Galatea in the coming season, as they were cancelled this year. Galatea was only a week from opening, and as for Matilda…those actors had been cast many months ago. And we already have the set, costumes, props ,etc. for it. We will also be doing Once Upon a Mattress, Jr. for the Education Program. We are not certain when those shows will actually go up.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

SLM: Theater has been around for thousands of years. There is a reason for that. People crave community and storytelling. Experiencing a story, through a live performance, with other audience members, satisfies something very primal in our souls. I think it will come back strong, but may need to ramp up gradually as we make our way through this crisis. As long as there is a space, a performer, and someone to observe the performance…theater is happening and it is alive and well.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

SLM: This is a terribly difficult question! Hamlet, of course. And King Lear. Arcadia. Angels in America. The two greatest comedies in my mind are Noises Off and You Can’t Take it With You. Musicals? I love them all.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

SLM: Gee, aren’t they all pretty highly rated? I have only read Coriolanus, never seen it. But at first read, it read to me as a dark comedy. I’d love to see a production. It seems especially appropriate right now. I would like to produce it, but I suspect the audiences would be slim.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SLM: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I do love it, and will probably produce it at some point.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

SLM: Oh, I really love doing tech! I think I would choose props. Very crafty, little sewing (I’ve sewn enough for a lifetime), and doesn’t require a lot of space. Yeah…props are fun.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

SLM: 1: Push through fear. Let it energize you rather than block you. And let your inner mantra be: “The universe loves artists.” 2: Learn to listen, both onstage and off, in your theater work and your “civilian” life. Quiet and focused observation and active listening help develop an understanding of the people and world around us and is imperative to the work we do. 3: Respect and understand every artist’s contribution to the work. If you truly respect everyone, you will be on time, arrive ready to work, care for your costumes, set and props, know your lines solidly, let others speak, work with your director and care about the playwright’s intentions.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up you’ve seen onstage?

SLM: Well, my most excruciating screw-up was during Eat the Runt at Actors Theater. It was a very difficult play where we all learned all the parts and each night the audience would cast us. So you never knew which role you were going to play when you entered the theater that night. One night, I managed to enter at the wrong time and effectively cut an entire scene. I didn’t even realize it until I got off stage and Joe Winkler pointed out what I had done, thus cutting his role in half. I had never messed up an entrance before or since, and I still feel terrible about it. Sorry again, Joe!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

SLM: When I was 25 and performing Madge in Picnic in Seattle, when it was time for Madge and Hal to run off to the “do it” bushes, a young woman stood up and yelled, “Go for it!”

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?

SLM: 1: The planet is our source of life and must be regarded as the Supreme Ruler. 2: We are all equal and deserve equal opportunity, protection and sustenance. 3: Be nice.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

SLM: The Real Housewives of Sonoma County. Everyone just smokes pot while discussing wine, trendy food and their kids.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

SLM: A potato bug.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SLM: “What’s done cannot be undone.” Lady Macbeth.

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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 Questions Time: All the World’s a Stage for Bob & Lesley Currier of Marin Shakes

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.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

Lesley: My grandmother was a professional actress and my mother a drama teacher. Even with that heritage, I’m the only one of my siblings who went into theatre. In first grade, I was Gretel in a school production of Hansel and Gretel.

Bob: I started in second grade, as the Narrator of Little Toot. In high school, I did a lot of sports, but rediscovered the allure of theatre when at UC Irvine. I was studying Political Science, but the theatre building was always lit up at night and that’s where all the cute girls were. So it was back into theatre for me! My first role there was in Oh What A Lovely War. I went on to the get the first MFA in Directing that UCI ever granted.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

Lesley: I was cast as a Lady in Waiting to Queen Gertrude in a professional production of Hamlet while an undergraduate at Princeton University. Harry Hamlin starred as the prince. I invited him for a meal at one of Princeton’s famous Dining Clubs, and in return he took me out for a really good dinner at a local restaurant. That was a rare treat in college. Bill Ball, Harry’s mentor at the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), saw the production and thrilled me by telling me he understood the whole tragedy of the play through my reaction to Gertrude’s death.

Bob: I was paid to direct The Little Prince in 1972 at the Woodstock Opera House. It was the artistic home of a young Orson Welles.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

Lesley: I joined ACT one summer during college where I fell in love with the Bay Area. After college, I stumbled upon the Ukiah Players Theatre, where I met Bob. He took me to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which I’d never heard of. I auditioned there and was cast as a Fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Back at UFI, while working towards my MFA in theatre, I appeared in Hard Times at South Coast Repertory Theatre. It was a very long show which we performed 8 times a week, made more intense because I was nursing my first-born son.

Bob: I’ve co-founded four theatre companies, three of which are still going: Encounter With the Theatre at the Woodstock Opera House (now defunct), the Ukiah Players Theatre, Marin Shakespeare Company, and Baja Shakespeare. I’ve also directed and/or acted at Berkeley Rep, Seattle Shakespeare, Cinnabar, Spreckles, Ross Valley Players, and a few more.

ASR: Marin Shakespeare Company is your present company. What’s the history on that?

Bob and Lesley: In 1989 we got a call out of the blue asking if we would like to come to Marin to revive Shakespeare at Forest Meadows. The Forest Meadows Amphitheater was purpose built for the original Marin Shakespeare Festival in 1967, after it moved from its original home at the Marin Art and Garden Center, where it had begun five years earlier. The Festival’s last year at this Dominican location was 1972, due to a fire and some other questionable activities by art-loving hippies running around in the forest.

ASR: Did you anticipate Marin Shakespeare Company would become as successful as it has?

Bob and Lesley: Back in 1989, we hoped we’d be able to build a theatre company that would last for generations. We never dreamed that 30 years later we’d be pioneering Shakespeare in Prisons, or working with formerly incarcerated actors, or building an indoor Center for Performing Arts, Education, and Social Justice.

…Tequila.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus?

Bob and Lesley: Obviously, our focus is Shakespeare. But we’ve produced lots of other shows that are in some sense “classical” or appropriate for outdoor summer theatre. Since 2003, we’ve grown to become the largest provider of Shakespeare in Prison programs in the world. We’ve created an online video archive of over 50 performances in prisons, despite the massive logistics to do so. We can share these inspiring videos without violating any Actors Equity rules which do restrict our main stage performance videos.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown? What does the future look like?

Bob and Lesley: Sadly, we just announced that we are postponing our 2020 season to 2021. We don’t think it will be truly safe for actors or audience members to share theatre this summer.

During the shutdown, we stay busy, very busy, with many projects. Earlier this year we began renovations of the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, which were delayed due to Sheltering in Place. We’ll use the summer of 2020 to complete the renovations before welcoming audiences into a beautifully face-lifted venue next year.

We provide on-line MSC Education Programs and summer camps, and Alternative Programming for each of the prisons where we work. We’re continuing our plans for the Center for Performing Arts, Education, and Social Justice at 514 Fourth Street in San Rafael. We’re working to provide income opportunities for artists, and our staff is completing a number of “house-cleaning” and back-office tasks to make us stronger than ever when we’re able to return to full capacity.

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. How has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

Bob and Lesley: Several years ago, we started transitioning independent contractors to employee status. With AB5, we plan to make the last group of former independent contractors – non-Equity actors – employees for the first time. We estimate that this will incur an increase to our budget of approximately $60,000. We know it’s the right thing to do.

ASR: Which rare theatre gem plays would you like to see revived?

Bob and Lesley: The three parts of Henry VI. But we know we wouldn’t sell many tickets!

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

Bob and Lesley:  King John – if you saw our production, you’d realize how much great comedy there is in it, in addition to superb characters and great themes.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

Bob and Lesley: Sets – (we’ve) always loved building things together.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

Bob and Lesley: Scott Coopwood just keeps getting better and better. We were honored to give him his first Bay Area acting contracts.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

Bob and Lesley: Tequila.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

Bob and Lesley: Honesty and integrity. Passion for the work. Persistence and Diligence – be ready to put in a lot of hours!

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up you’ve seen on stage?

Bob and Lesley: The actor who showed up covered in poison oak and still had to put on his make-up and do his part. We always tell the actors to stay out of the poison oak!

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

Bob and Lesley: A female audience member flashed an actor once during one of those “audience participation” moments when the actors ask an audience member to respond – it stimulated audience hooting and hollering for several minutes. It was a lot of fun.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?” What are your interests outside of theater?

Lesley: I work about 80 hours a week for Marin Shakespeare Company. My “day job” is being a mom and grandmother. My hobbies include tile mosaic and free-form dance.

Bob: I’ve done a lot of building and guest directing for other theatres over the years. I love to build things around the house, travel, and be Bopo to my two adorable granddaughters who live in San Rafael.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

Bob and Lesley: “Jeers” with a bunch of characters hanging out in a theatre bar.

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?

Lesley: I’m a coward, but I do spend a lot of time in prisons, and I hang-glided once and didn’t throw up.

Bob: I enjoy snorkeling and driving my ancient Alpha-Romeo, and I just hiked for two weeks in Japan with my youngest son.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

Bob: Some Like It Hot — “Well nobody’s perfect.”

Lesley: Hamlet — “The rest is silence.”

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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 Not-So-Random Questions Time: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley

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.

***

Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is founder and Artistic Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, one of the oldest and most esteemed theater companies in the Bay Area. Both Kelley and his company have been honored multiple times by Theatre Bay Area (TBA) and the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Kelley kindly took time to respond to ASR’s not-so-random and not-too-serious questionnaire…

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RK: At age 8 I walked past our local children’s theatre and saw a sign that read “Auditions.” In I went, and got cast! My talent: being loud.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

RK: Goldilocks and the Three Bears—a fourteen-year-old played my mother and told the cautionary tale to me as it was acted out onstage. I may have had a few lines, but I can’t remember them at the moment. Maybe “Yes, Mama.”

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

RK: Less than ten: TheatreWorks, Cal Shakes, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, St. Louis Rep, and a few smaller companies.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RK: 1970. I’m the founder.

ASR: Did you anticipate it would become as successful as it has?

RK: No. Our long-range plan was to produce a second production. Then a third. We’re at 450 shows today.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

RK: Plays and musicals, world premieres (70 to date), recent on- and off-Broadway, re-imagined classics.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

RK: Stephen Sondheim.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

RK: We’ve cancelled three shows (of an eight show season), and restructured the 2020-21 season to seven shows, beginning in October, with most of the smaller shows going first. We’ve moved our 19th New Works Festival six months, from August to January.

We’ve begun an active program offering streams of previously produced shows, and interviews with staff and artists from around the country. Soon to come: readings of new works in development. So far, we’ve been able to keep our full-time employees.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

RK: We’ve moved our World Premiere drama Nan and the Lower Body from March to July, where it will become the first show of our 2021-22 season. For this coming December, we’ve added an inspiring and funny hope-in-the-face-of-despair holiday production of It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

RK: For everyone: very tight budgets, smaller shows, fewer actors and designers from out of the area, expanded online presence, ultimately smaller staffs. I think we are all worried that some companies may not make it through this intact, as was the case in the recession of 2008.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts world 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?

RK: We have been paying at least minimum wage to everyone for some time. We believe we are in compliance with all aspects of AB5.

(most over-performed)…Titus Andronicus. Even one production is too many.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

RK: Dramas: M Butterfly, The Elephant Man, Arcadia, and Romeo and Juliet. Musicals: Ragtime, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Once on This Island, Pacific Overtures. Comedies: The 39 Steps, As You Like It, and Once in a Lifetime.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

RK: Emma, Daddy Long Legs, and Pride and Prejudice.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

RK: Titus Andronicus. Even one production is too many.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

RK: Props. I love finding the perfect period piece that defines an era—and I wish I knew how to make a period newspaper.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RK: Francis Jue. He’s from here, now in New York, but frequently returns here.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

RK: I pace.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

RK: Patience, preparation, laughter, listening. Was that more than three? Did I mention patience?

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

RK: I met Ev Shiro, my life partner of 38 years, at TheatreWorks and have loved her ever since. We’re also friends.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

RK: We had a frequently confused actor forget to wear his pants for an entrance in Gypsy.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

RK: Do you have an hour?

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do in a theater?

RK: A very young boy attending our holiday musical Oliver! re-set in Victorian London in December, very loudly: “Mommy, why’s it snowing inside?

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RK: Collecting beach glass, mushroom hunting.

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?

RK: Patience, laughter, listening.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

RK: Titus Andronicus.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

RK: Forgot to stage a scene.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life?

RK: “The Water is Wide” by James Taylor; “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell; “Fields of Gold” by Eva Cassidy.

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?

RK: Reading the paper the day after opening.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RK: “Children will listen.”

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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 Questions Time: The Theatre Maestro with a Great Sense of Humor — Tom Ross!

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.

***

Tom Ross

Tom Ross inaugurated Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company with Barbara Oliver in 1992 and served 12 years as Managing Director. In 2004, he became Artistic Director, holding that position 15 years. He stepped down last August.

Tom oversaw both Aurora’s move into the Addison Street space and the expansion into the Dashow Wing. He created the new play initiatives, “The Global Age Project” and “Originate+Generate” as well as the second performance space, Harry’s Upstage.

He directed 30 productions for the company.

Additionally, Tom wrote and directed the long running A Karen Carpenter Christmas, and for 8 years was a producer of SF’s Solo Mio Festival.

Before moving to the Bay Area, Tom worked 8 years at NYC’s Public Theater as Executive Assistant to Joseph Papp and then as co-director of Play and Musical Development.

Getting any time on Mr. Ross’ calendar is a tough ask, so we at ASR were grateful for his time, his humor, and his candor. Ladies and Gents… Mr. Tom Ross…

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

TR: A married couple stopped a performance of Neil LaBute’s “This is How It Goes”, shouting at the actors and audience that this is not a play that should be presented in Berkeley.

It is a purposely provocative play that uses the N-word and is about a smiling secret racist character. The play was going to be over within three minutes. The couple walked across the stage and told the actors that they didn’t have to debase themselves this way. The audience thought it was a part of the play.

Luckily, the incident was written about in the Chronicle and the play became a must-see. The Chronicle called it one of the 10 best plays of the year. Still I’d never seen anything like the reaction it caused. I was the director and in the house.

ASR: Which person has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

TR: Unquestionably, the great producer Joseph Papp who I worked for at the Public Theatre in NY for 8 years. First as his Executive Assistant and then as Co-Director of Play and Musical Development.

He told me that I should be a director.

He supported me in producing my first show and in writing my first show at the Public Theatre. I told him he gave me a spine and he liked that.

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?

TR: Well… I’ve worn a significant number of theatrical hats. In general, I’d say understand the business as well as the art.

Only get involved in projects you truly believe in.

And it’s a collaborate art. Treat your collaborators with respect.

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

TR: Thai food and a glass of pinot grigio.

…I told him he gave me a spine and he liked that.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?

TR: Lied about my age.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

TR: That is a (tough) question to answer (specifically.) I am a part of an incredible community here in the Bay Area. I know they have my back – as do so many theater friends from the NYC days.

I keep wanting to jump off Facebook, but would miss keeping up with them. I respect and love my friends.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

TR: Wow! I am a music person. I have hundreds of CDs here in my place. I listen to music all of the time – even at Aurora Theatre I’d be constantly DJ’ing in the office.

The other day, during this shelter in place, I was listening to “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkel – “Tom, get your plane ride on time…” – and it really touched me deeply.

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

TR: The beautiful Hawaiian shirts I have bought in Hawaii over the years.

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

TR: I don’t know about 20 years, but the programming of Broadway producers seems extremely repetitive.

A few years ago, I was in Times Square looking at all of the marquees and billboards and I thought I was in a time machine. Hello 70’s and 80’s!

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

TR: Although I think that “King Lear” is the greatest play ever written, I don’t do Shakespeare.

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?

TR: I’d be a Light Designer. Like Sound, it’s so ephemeral and can be devastatingly effective.

I like the subliminal. Lights and sound for me.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

TR: I’d be terrified of scaling up any animal! If my cat was that big, we couldn’t share the bed and she’d be extremely annoyed. I’d be sleeping on the floor!

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

TR: Skydiving.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

TR: “Indecent Materials” by Larry Kramer. I’d brought it to the Public Theatre who produced it and then did it here in SF with my producing partner Jayne Wenger when I first moved here.

It featured my first leading lady (and still dear friend) Anne Darragh as Jesse Helms.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

TR: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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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 Questions Time: Actors Gregory Crane and Amber Collins Crane — Two for the Footlights

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.

***

Gregory Crane
Amber Collins Crane

In the past several years, Gregory Crane and his wife Amber Collins Crane have appeared individually and together in many North Bay productions, including “Deathtrap” with Ross Valley Players, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Novato Theater Company. The two were the best Blanche and Stanley that many critics had ever seen. Gregory was tremendous as the dance master in “A Chorus Line” and Amber gave an astounding lead performance in RVP’s “Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders,” for which she won an “outstanding actress” nomination from the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Gregory studied at NYU/Tisch and is the author of a solo play about the life of Tennessee Williams titled “Love, 10.” Favorite performances include “A Streetcar Named Desire” (SFBATCC nomination), “A Chorus Line” (SFBATCC nomination), “Two Gentleman of Verona” (South Coast Rep), “The Glass Menagerie” (RVP), “Deathtrap” (RVP), “Private Lives” (RVP), and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Hangar Theatre).

Amber worked in theatre, television and film in NYC, LA, and in regional theatres including Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Berkshire Theatre Festival before making Marin her home. In addition to Moll Flanders in “Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders,” favorite Bay Area roles include Blanche in “Streetcar Named Desire,” Becca in “Rabbit Hole,” May in “Fool for Love”, and Birdie in “Little Foxes.”

ASR: How did you get started in theatre?

GC: My older brother is an actor so I started young in musical summer camps in LA.

ACC: My first role was playing baby Jesus in the church nativity play when I was four months old. Pure nepotism. My Mom and Dad were Mary and Joseph. Those other babies didn’t have a chance! I will forever be searching for the chance to play a character bigger than the divine prophet and son of God. Blanche in “Streetcar” came close.

…1. Be kind to everyone 2. Know your lines 3. Maintain proper dental hygiene.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

GC: When I was 19, I was in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Hangar Theatre in NY. That was my first professional production. It was a transformative experience being onstage for two hours and telling such an important story for me personally.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

GC: The company we are currently working with is called Zoom Theatre. In March, when shelter-in-place began, Patrick Nims decided to produce and direct plays for a web audience. Zoom Theatre debuted in early April with two early David Mamet one-acts. Next week, Amber and I open the play “Lungs” by Duncan Macmillan, a beautiful play about a couple starting a family as the world is starting to fall apart. We’re hoping it will really resonate in today’s world.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theatre?

ACC: I would have to say my college theatre professor, David Dvorscak. He saw me as an artist before I saw myself that way, and helped me understand what a profound strength vulnerability can be on and off the stage. He also pushed my very perfectionistic self to take risks in my work. He would say that theatre is a wonderful place to fail—as long as you fail big and with all your heart.

GC: I had a great mentor in high school, Ted Walch, and another in college at NYU, Michael Krass, who believed in me, encouraged me, and treated me like an equal. They are still my friends and confidantes today.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theatre community overall?

ACC: We hear it over and over right now: “these are uncertain times.” But I am certain that the theatre community will recover. Theatre artists are the most stubborn, resourceful people I know. They can make magic with a $50 budget and a handful of paperclips. When the apocalypse has come and it is all just miles of dust and rubble, I can guarantee that if you listen hard enough, you will hear a stage manager somewhere shouting “Places!,” and a troupe of actors responding, “Thank you, Places!”

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

GC: “Zoo Story,” “Hair,” “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hip-hop Shakespeare play written by good friends from NYU. It was an off-Broadway hit in the early 2000s and paved the way for “Hamilton.”

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

GC: Before: vocal gymnastics, body loosening, breath work, gratitude practice. After: beer.

ACC: My “warm up” includes manically throwing together dinner for the kids, singing loudly in the car on the way to the theatre, some stretching and movement on the stage, and a prayer in the wings. I wind down with red wine and a racy period drama. I like my sexy with corsets and without penicillin!

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

GC: 1. Be kind to everyone 2. Know your lines 3. Maintain proper dental hygiene.

ASR: If you had to spend a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

GC: Projections. It’s the only one I’d be any good at. I have a love for photography, Photoshop and animation, so I think that would be fun. The projections in RVP’s recent production of “Silent Sky” were really beautiful.

ACC: I would have to say set decorating and props. I am forever creating little installations in my own home with loved objects and books, things I have collected from nature, art work from my children. It would great fun to layer a production with meaning and depth by thoughtfully choosing each prop a character touches, uses, and loves.

ASR: What theatre-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

ACC: This question makes me emotional! I am so deeply grateful for the friendships that I have established in the bay area theatre community. Attending an opening night often feels like what the best family reunion ever should feel like. I love it! But I have to say that my friendship with Gregory is the theatre-related friendship that means the most to me. And not just because he is sitting right here! Having the chance to work on stage with him is part of what has helped move our relationship from husband-and-wife/partners in the business of running a family to a true and evolving friendship. I am able to see him through new eyes when we are performing together and that is such a gift when you have known each other as long as we have!

GC: My wife. Hands down. I love being on stage with her, and even more than that, I love talking about plays with her and getting her insight into my work.

ASR: What the weirdest thing you have seen a guest do at the theater?

ACC: When I was working the front of house for a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in SF an audience member started hurling loud, expletive filled insults at Big Daddy, letting him know very passionately about what she felt about his parenting skills and his value system. I had to escort/drag her out into the lobby where we proceeded to have a full therapy session about her own family history. The theatre served its purpose as a place of catharsis that night for sure!

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

GC: It wasn’t really a screw-up, but I saw John Leguizamo’s “Freak” in NY. Some guy was being loud and belligerent in the audience behind us. John yelled at him to shut the *bleep* up, then just said to all of us: “This is why I love live theatre, man.” That was exhilarating.

ASR: Do you have a day job?

GC: I am a project manager in Apple’s marketing department

ACC: I am a psychologist by day. I find my role as an actor and my role as a therapist to be very complementary. I think that the best theatre and the best therapy demonstrate that relationships can heal and they honor the darkest moments in our lives, in our stories, as opportunities for the most beautiful transformation.

ASR: What are your interests outside the theatre?

GC: DJ’ing, stand-up paddleboarding, cooking, biking, my kids.

ACC: My children. They are endlessly fascinating to me. Bizarre little magical creatures. I am so lucky to have a front row seat to their adventures.

ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

GC: I DJ and take photos. I love the opportunity to create a good time for people and get them to dance. I’ve been throwing Zoom dance parties during quarantine and it has been a great release for me and for my guests.

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?

GC: I race stand-up paddleboards. I did a nine-mile race around Angel Island and the water was so choppy I had to do most of the race kneeling. I’m always thinking when I’m out there how easily a shark could pop up out of nowhere and take a bite out of me. But it’s a great sport, especially in the Bay Area.

ACC: Answering questions for publication seems risky to me. I tend to keep a low profile! But beyond that, I am risky in love. I fall in love a hundred times a day with people, coffee drinks, a particular squirrel outside my window, the smell of the jasmine growing on my fence. My heart gets broken a lot. And, just like the adrenaline rush of rock climbing, each time I can’t wait for the next time!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or play?

ACC: I love a good quote so my favorite changes daily, but one that resonates now is from “Marisol” by José Rivera. “What a time to be alive, huh? On one hand, we’re nothing. We’re dirt. On the other hand, we’re the reason the universe was made.”

GC: “Get busy living, or get busy dying” – from “The Shawshank Redemption.”

 

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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: Publicist Extraordinaire Kim Taylor

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.

***

Kim Taylor

For many years, Kim Taylor was the most prolific and hardest-working publicist in Bay Area theater. The former newspaper scribe went out on her own in 1999 and was soon representing companies all over the North Bay—including the Mountain Play, Marin Shakespeare Company, Novato Theater Company, Ross Valley Players, Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 6th Street Playhouse, Hoochi-Doo Productions, Porchlight Theatre Company, and Transcendence Theatre Company, many of them with productions opening simultaneously—a sometimes grueling schedule that she managed almost alone.

A lifelong theater enthusiast, Taylor is renowned for her professionalism and attention to detail. Her pre-show feasts and meet-and-greet affairs were among reviewers’ most enjoyable events. She retired from public relations work this past December, capping an unsurpassed twenty-year career. We miss you, Kim!

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

KT: In grammar school and participating in summer recreation theater programs.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

KT: In high school I played Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

KT: As a publicist, I have represented more than twenty companies including college, university and community, semi-professional and professional theater companies. During my career I represented over 450 theater productions.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

KT: After working more than twelve years in the newsroom of the Marin Independent Journal, I launched a career as a freelance publicist in 1999. I retired in December 2019.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it did?

KT: Most of my career I had to juggle several clients including musical groups, theater companies and entertainment events. I ended my career working exclusively as publicist for Transcendence Theatre Company.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc.?

KT: As a publicist I represented every genre including Shakespeare, Broadway musicals, opera, American classics, comedy, new works and experimental theater.

ASR: Who had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

KT: Harvey Susser and James Dunn, College of Marin Drama Department.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

KT: Drama: “Dodsworth.” Broadway musical: “Guys and Dolls,” “Cabaret,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita.” Comedy: “An Ideal Husband,” “The 39 Steps” and “Bullshot Crummond.”

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

KT: My favorite client productions include the Spreckels Theatre Company 2013 production of “Mel Brooks New Musical Young Frankenstein,” the Porchlight Theatre Company 2008 outdoor production of “Under Milk Wood,” and the 6th Street Playhouse 2011 production of “Cabaret.”

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

KT: “Death of a Salesman” – I find it too depressing.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

KT: I would love to see “Dodsworth” revived with the story re-set in the 21st Century.

…”When did Ma get a cat?”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

KT: “King John.” I enjoy the play’s wickedly witty comedy.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

KT: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

KT: Costumes. I have always been interested in styles of period and historic garments.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

KT: Actress Mary Gannon Graham. Also actor Tim Kniffin.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

KT: As a publicist, I could relax only after reviews were published.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

KT: Plan well in advance and meet your deadlines. Check and double-check press release details to avoid errors. Always thank the media for coverage.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

KT: Dan Taylor, editor/reporter for Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat. We have newsroom experience in common and both of us enjoy and appreciate theater and performing arts.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

KT: In 2004, a wayward tabby got lost in the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre and made an unexpected appearance during a performance of the company’s production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” stealing the scene from three actors as it delighted a packed audience.

Set in the Yonkers apartment of the stern Grandma Kurnitz, actors Bruce Vieira (as Uncle Louie Kurnitz), David Abrams and Kyle Lemle (as his nephews, Jay and Arty Kurnitz) were half way through a significant scene when the cat made its cameo appearance striding across the living room set.

The audiences’ uproarious reaction startled the cat to exit stage left. After a comic beat, veteran actor Vieira restored order with a brilliant improvisation.

“When did Ma get a cat?” asked Vieira of his fellow actors, before he continued the scene. Vieira’s quick wit was hilarious and restored order allowing the scene to continue.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

KT: I’ve seen several productions of the musical “Annie” where Sandy the dog would not cooperate.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

KT: At a studio theater performance of “The 39 Steps” an audience member commented loudly throughout Act I about the quick changes.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

KT: My grandson, old movies, vintage music, family genealogy and photography.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

KT: My husband and I enjoyed vintage dancing for many years. The bands we followed played popular music of the 1920s and 1930s. We learned vintage dances, dressed in period clothing, and attended dance events presented in spectacular venues, including the Avalon Ballroom on Catalina Island.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

KT: “For Immediate Release” – Endless dramatic and comedic material and an array of characters (actors, producers, directors, reviewers, etc.) would fuel this episodic series following the adventures of a freelance publicist representing theater companies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

KT: “Don’t Say Goodbye,” 1932 – featuring vocals by Al Bowlly with Ray Noble and his New Mayfair Orchestra. The song is from “Wild Violets,” a musical comedy operetta written by Robert Stolz. I love the clever arrangement by Ray Noble. “Pick Yourself Up,” 1936 – music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” 1936 – music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

KT: Jewelry.

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?

KT: I have no interest in “true” risk taking, but I took a lot of risks in my work as a publicist.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

KT: “Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.” ~ Sam Dodsworth, from the “Dodsworth” book, play and film.

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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: Can’t Stop Those Dancing Feet — Marilyn Izdebski

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.

***

Marilyn Izdebski

Marilyn Izdebski is a Bay Area dancing dynamo. A Los Angeles native who graduated from UCLA in 1970 with a degree in theatre arts, she has fulfilled her life’s passion with over six decades of dancing, choreography, singing, acting, backstage tech, and directing front and center. She inspires and educates, having founded a dance theatre school in 1978 which brought over 230 children’s and adult productions to the stage. Marilyn claims to have retired in 2018, but today she heads up the volunteer boards of Novato Theatre Company and The Playhouse in San Anselmo.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MI: When I was three years old, my mother took me to see the film The Red Shoes. I begged her for dance lessons. From then on, I studied ballet, jazz, tap and every other kind of dance. Ice skating too.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of high school. A friend asked me to go to two auditions with her. She got a part in one show, and I got the other show. I was cast as a dancer in Guys and Dolls at the Bluth Brothers Theatre in LA. Pretty heady stuff for a fourteen-year-old. After a few rehearsals I knew dance was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went on to earn my theatre arts degree from UCLA and my teaching credential, and then taught for many years.

I had a tumultuous youth, and became orphaned at age sixteen. During my three years with that first theatre company, my joy of dancing helped form a dream to create a company where young people (like me) would have a real place to shine, a place to belong.

ASR: And you realized your dream?

MI: Yes, twelve years later I started Marin Studio of Theatre and Dance in Corte Madera with a partner. She wanted to move on after seven years, so I changed the name and continued as Marilyn Izdebski Productions. We produced musicals, dance recitals and had classes in dance and theatre.

ASR: What was the first play you directed for a paying audience?

MI: The Lottery, at a Junior High where I taught.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

MI: Lots: Ross Valley Players, Marin Theatre Company, the Mountain Play Association, Rhythms Performing Arts, Stapleton School of the Performing Arts, Mayflower Chorus, and Katia & Company. Currently I throw all my energies into the Novato Theater Company.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

MI: The Novato Theater Company originated in 1909 as a community theatre. It’s grown and survived multiple challenges and moves, including being booted out of their home mid-production when their Novato Community House stage was suddenly declared an earthquake risk.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

MI: I first starting attending NTC shows way back in 1980, following its growth since then. NTC has always had an abundance of talented directors, actors, and designers in addition to superbly dedicated volunteers.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, or the like?

MI: NTC’s major focus is on their audiences and what they would enjoy seeing. We want to expand their theatre experience. Our play selection committee and board combine classic plays, new works and musicals.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

MI: I had a wonderful mentor at UCLA, John Cauble, who taught me all the basics of theatre and gave me opportunities at a young age for which I will be forever grateful. David Issac, my partner who left us way too soon, helped me have the confidence to achieve what I wanted and to always “take the high road.”

Hal Prince’s book Contradictions influenced me greatly as a young director. His book motivated me to be deeply involved in all aspects of a production. When I prep for a show, I always think of the elements of the set, lights, costumes, props, etc. to keep everything in my mind as I create a show.

ASR: With the coronavirus pandemic, it’s likely going to be many months until theater companies get back to regular productions. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

MI: During this difficult time, we are keeping ourselves open to this “new normal.” All of our meetings are online and our upcoming fundraiser will be a virtual online experience.

Our play selection committee and board combine classic plays, new works and musicals…

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

MI: Making decisions is almost impossible. We have the season we selected before the pandemic hit, but are not sure when the season can even start.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company?

MI: All we can do is one day at a time. Or even one month at a time is good. We cannot produce a show until the quarantine is over and people feel safe going to the theatre. I am very concerned for the theatre community everywhere. Society has looked to theatre for 2,500 years to provide insight and joy. Now, more than ever, we need these gifts.

ASR: Assembly Bill 5, the new state regulation, requires theater performers and technical talents to be treated as employees. Has it affected your theater company’s plans?

MI: AB5 has absolutely affected NTC. We are an all-volunteer theatre company that also gives small stipends to our designers and support staff. We’re a non-profit; we survive on a very limited budget. If we have to put independent contractors on payroll, will suffer a large blow to our financial status. We hope that non-profit theatre companies become exempt from AB5. For the moment, we are waiting to see what happens in the State Legislature and hoping for the best.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas? Musicals? Comedies?

MI: Les Miserables is my favorite musical. The level of artistry in the show takes my breath away. I have so many comedies that I love but I think my favorite comedy is one I saw in New York that had all of the insane things that have happened in my life in theatre in one show—The Play That Goes Wrong. There are also many dramas that have affected me in my life, especially those of Tennessee Williams.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

MI: I have seen so many shows at NTC since 1980 that it is hard to choose. In recent years, truly exceptional shows were Into The Woods, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Chicago. Notable additions are Urinetown  and August Osage County.

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

MI: There is a little musical called Archie and Mehitabel that I fell in love with in college and always hoped someone would produce it, so I could see it!

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

MI: I would definitely do lights. Lighting is like painting and can create the exact mood or feeling needed on stage.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

MI: Be a sponge. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Think outside of the box.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

MI: The very best friends I have were made in my theatre and dance world. These friendships are so close because of the intensity and intimacy of the process making a show. You lay yourself bare to others while creating and it takes a lot of trust during this time. A cast ends up feeling like a true family by the end of a run.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

MI: In West Side Story the gun wouldn’t go off, so the actor punched the intended victim.  Another amusing episode was during a big production number with multiple dancers, actors and singers on a turntable…it abruptly stopped working. Everyone went on with the show and moved around themselves. A few minutes later, the turntable suddenly started turning again. The lead singer stopped mid-song to exclaim “Look, it’s working!” Great audience applause!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?

MI: I just “retired” almost two years ago from my studio and production company. Now I work ten hours a day on NTC and help out at other theatre companies. Until the pandemic hit, I was directing, choreographing and doing the lighting for many groups. Guess I like to work on theatre whether it’s a “day job” or not!

ASR: What do you do in your “off time?”

MI: I avidly watch sports – all kinds – at the end of a high-energy day. After decades of dancing, there are too many things wrong with my body to participate in sports, but I love to watch football, basketball, baseball, tennis. I always use the sports analogy in teaching or directing theatre. I say “Give your body up to this. Our team goal is not winning, it is to put on a great show!”

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, painting/sculpture? Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

MI: I love all the arts! My mom and several great teachers opened me up to ballet, opera, painting and film. I often bring what I have seen or heard into my approach to a show.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MI: Earrings!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MI: From Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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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: Irrepressible Singer/Actor Phillip Percy Williams

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.

***

Phillip Percy Williams

An eleven year veteran of San Francisco’s legendary Beach Blanket Babylon, Phillip Percy Williams grew up singing in the church in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. His theatrical background includes performing Broadway shows with Carnival Cruise Lines and performing a solo tribute to Nat King Cole with an eleven-piece orchestra. He is a 2015 recipient of a “Principal Actor in a Musical” award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Williams has performed in dozens of roles with many Bay Area troupes, including Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions, Berkeley Playhouse, Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre, Ross Valley Players, Marin OnStage, Curtain Theatre, Marin Shakespeare Company, and Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. He has also performed with the Long Beach Civic Light Opera and at many fundraiser events for charitable non-profit organizations. His contemporary jazz/R&B trio the Phillip Percy Pack can be seen at various venues throughout the Bay Area.

Website: www.phillippercywilliams.com

ASR: Your background?

PPW: A true southerner: African American with traces of Europe.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

PPW: I was a cabaret performer in Los Angeles. A director saw me perform, introduced himself, and offered me a role in his production of “Working.” I played the newspaper boy. That was my first play.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

PPW: Approximately fifteen.

ASR: Did you anticipate that you would become as successful as you have?

PPW: No, I did not. I was never really formally trained and I kind of fell into it by happenstance. I have been so blessed to have been given the opportunities to perform and grateful to learn of my true passion—performing.

ASR: What are some of your favorite musicals?

PPW: “Big River,” “ Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Scarlett Pimpernel,” “City of Angels,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “The Fantastiks,” “Kinky Boots,” and “La Cage Aux Folles,” to name a few.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work — sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes — which would it be and why?

PPW: Sound. Sound is one of those technical aspects that most theatres, clubs, and restaurants don’t understand. It’s essential to a successful production and show. And the funny thing is, all it takes is fine tuning (sometimes literally) or adding elements that if implemented would make the experience more memorable for audiences, performers and musicians.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

PPW: Vocally, I sing old school gospel. Physically, it’s light stretches, pushups and situps. Mentally, prayer.

ASR: How do you relax after?

PPW: A “lil dirty” Stoli vodka martini—two olives, an onion, and shaken. I’m an old school Stoli guy.

Sound is one of those technical aspects that most theatres, clubs, and restaurants don’t understand…

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

PPW: My #1 interest is my husband Mike. I like to garden and cook. I’m getting back into piano, and love love love to sing, especially old school gospel (Mighty Clouds of Joy, Andre Crouch) and jazz standards (Gershwin, Porter, Berlin and Mercer). My favorite influences are Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, and Chet Baker.

ASR: Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

PPW: Yes, I have a Jazz/R&B group called the Phillip Percy Pack. I am also lead vocalist in two other bands.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

PPW: Any clothing made of polyester—sweaters, socks, pants, etc.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

PPW: “You Don’t Sound Black,” about a Marin County interracial gay couple, Allen and Percy, and their experiences with people in the Bay Area. Allen is midwestern white and Percy is southern black.

Pilot: Allen and Percy are at a black-tie gala where one of them is being recognized for his amazing contributions to the community. Allen introduces Percy to board member Robert and his wife Lilly.

Allen: “Robert, this is my partner Percy.”

Robert: “Nice to meet you, Percy. So what kind of business do you run?”

Lilly (whispering to husband). “No . . . they are partners . . .”

Robert: “Oh, okay.” (sincerely spoken) “Lee, we are so lucky to have you and really value and appreciate your commitment.” (followed by firm handshake)

Lilly (to Percy): “Good for you guys . . . you’re attractive and speak so well . . . good for you.”

And scene . . .

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

PPW: Cuff links. I have a substantial collection.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie, stage play, song or book?

PPW: “I was never in the chorus,” from “Mame.”

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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: The Inimitable Jaime Love of Sonoma Arts Live

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.

***

Jaime Love

Jaime Love is Executive Artistic Director of Sonoma Arts Live (SAL), based in the town of Sonoma. SAL performs primarily on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center. Love has been involved in theater and radio for over 35 years as an actor, producer, singer, director, writer and voice-over artist in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. She is a founding member of the Sonoma Theater Alliance and Sonoma Arts Live, and for six years was Co-Artistic Director and Producer of the Nicholson Ranch Players’ musical revues and Christmas shows at Nicholson Winery.

A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Love left the big city and worked in summer theatre in Montana (“Damn Yankees”), did post-production film work in L.A., and then fell in love with voice-over work and headed east again to attend Connecticut School of Broadcasting. She then went on to Boston, where she worked as the Arts & Entertainment Director and Promotions Director at WMJX and WMEX, focused on producing voice-overs for “Today’s Executive Women” and “That’s Entertainment.” Radio brought Jaime and her husband Rick back to the west, this time to San Francisco and ultimately to Sonoma, where he owns Creative Audience Research. Jaime and Rick have lived in Sonoma for twenty years.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

JL: The minute I saw my first movie, “Mary Poppins.” I’ll never forget the theater, or Julie Andrews’ face filling up the screen. It was like a magic wand tapped me on my head and said “You’ve found your people.” I was the classic put-on-a-show-in-the-backyard kind of kid.

Regarding theater here in Sonoma, I had spent two years in San Francisco from 1993-95 and had loved the thriving scene there. I did a play with Jean Shelton at the Marsh, did an original play at this tiny awesome theater in North Beach called Bannam Place Theater. When we moved to Sonoma for Rick’s job there was just nada happening. Then I wandered into the Sonoma Community Center and discovered a wonderful woman who was starting Theater at the Center. From 1995-2001 we had a thriving community theater. In 2001 under a new administration they decided to use the theater as a rental, and that’s where it stood until 2010 when Todd Evans and I approached the Community Center about renting to us.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

JL: My first real role was freshman year in high school: “This Property Is Condemned.” First time I was paid was at Park Royale Night Club in New York. I sang a half hour set and was given a tiny stipend and a cut of the door, so of course I asked all my fellow American Academy of Dramatic Arts pals to come! I remember my “hits” were “Because the Night,” and “Your Nobody Called Today,” a popular country-western thing. First show I directed was a music revue I co-wrote called “Wine, Women and Song – Love Unleashed” at Nicholson Ranch winery. I went on to write and produce shows there for about five years.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

JL: 2015. Before then we were a theater cooperative, Sonoma Theater Alliance, for five years.

ASR: Did you anticipate that SAL would become as successful as it has?

JL: I’m really thrilled and encouraged by the response from the community and the critics. Once we honed in on our demographic and what they wanted, things really came together, and I feel we have found our sweet spot. We have a mature well-educated audience and I try to envision them, what they’ve been through in their lives, and choose plays that speak to them nostalgically or emotionally. I am in their age group and I rely a lot on thinking about my generation’s collective experience and how a play may or may not fit in.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater. There is a place for everything, and I love edgy theater and new works but that’s just not us—not to say we do “fluff”—maybe “tried and true” is a better way of looking at it. Sonoma is so small that I truly do know most of our 250 season ticket subscribers and we talk constantly about what brings them through our doors. We do a few new works as staged readings each year, and I’ve been proud and pleased with the response from our patrons.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

JL: I’ve got at least three different scenarios ready to go. It’s been so sad to have to move shows like chess pieces, strategizing and trying to stay one step ahead without having a crystal ball. We were set with a full season ready to announce April 11 with a now cancelled reception. And as so many of us in the North Bay share the same talent pool it will create even more stress. You can’t just move a show three months ahead and not run into conflicts. My hope is to take the three remaining shows in our season and add them to the new one.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

JL: My guess is it will come back slowly. I’ve been rethinking the big cast/big shows for the short term. If audiences are not allowed to gather in large groups—necessary for us to be financially stable—I’ll need to produce shows that will at least cover expenses for actors, crews and rent. And we are going to have to deal with the very real fear of “gathering” and what that will mean for our actors and our audience. If I think about it too much I go down the rabbit hole.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

JL: “My Fair Lady,” “Always, Patsy Cline,” and “Becky’s New Car.”

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work — sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes — which would it be and why?

JL: Definitely props and set decoration. I’ve been a thrift shop and antique hunter since I was about eight years old! A week does not go by when I do not pop into all the great thrift stores in Sonoma. I’m an “Antiques Road Show” junkie! When I was little I would go “antiquing” with my mom and her best friend. I learned so much from them.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

JL: Well, Dani Innocenti-Beem of course! She has that star power. You can feel the energy when she walks on stage. She truly helped put Sonoma Arts Live on the map. Also Chris Ginesi. I’ve known him since he was about twelve—we did “Our Town” together. He’s truly exciting to watch on the stage. It’s been wonderful to watch him develop his craft over the years.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

JL: I was playing Rita Boyle in “Prelude to a Kiss” in upstate New York. Cell phones had only just come out—this was before it was added to curtain speeches to turn them off—I’m in the middle of this intimate scene, and not wearing much, and this guy’s phone goes off. He answers as if he’s at home in this very normal voice: “I can’t talk now. I’m watching a play.” Then a few seconds of silence. “Yeah, it’s OK…” meaning “Yeah, the play’s OK.” It was very hard to stay in character after that!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

JL: I am so blessed and lucky and honored to say for the first time in my life, theater is my paying full time job. We have an amazing Board and a fundraising team

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

JL: Writing, being with my kids, exercising, enjoying new restaurants and hiking with my amazing husband. After 31 years together, I still really like him—and I am writing this after three weeks of seeing basically only him!)

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

JL: For about ten years I wrote wrote wrote, and had a few things published.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

JL: “Whine Country”—I was a wine country tour guide for six years, creating private trips: lots of bridesmaids, rich rich people, anniversaries. The company I worked for had a division of drivers who picked up people at different hotels for group tours … I have always wanted to do a series based on the TV show “Taxi,” where each episode starts with all of us at the station, picking up our vehicles, and then each individual episode would follow a different charter driver and guests. There are so many stories I could tell!

ASR: What three songs are included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

JL: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma,” “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “When You See a Chance,” by Steve Winwood.

My first musical was Oklahoma in ninth grade and I had a huge crush on the guy who played Curly and I can still get butterflies in my stomach picturing him walking out on our stage singing the first few notes.

“Walking on Sunshine”—I lived in Helena, Montana for a few years after NYC, and I had this fun little moped that I would ride to the Grand Street Theater, listening to my Sony Walkman and playing that song full blast riding up and down hills!!

“When You See a Chance”—I first heard it by going through my roomie’s records and throwing it on the turntable. When that song came on it just leapt out at me, I never forgot that moment when lyrics grabbed me like that. It was my grab-a-hairbrush-as-a-microphone-and-stand-on-the-bed song!

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?

JL: Absolutely not.

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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: Leading Light of the San Francisco Stage, Susi Damilano

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.

***

Susi Damilano

Actor/director/producer Susi Damilano is Producing Director of the San Francisco Playhouse, co-founded with husband Bill English, the company’s Artistic Director. In its seventeen years SF Playhouse has grown from relatively obscurity to one of the city’s preeminent theater companies. Damilano is a five-time recipient of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC) ‘Excellence in Theatre Award for Principal Actress in a Play’ for Playhouse productions “Abigail’s Party,” “Harper Regan,” “Bug,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “Reckless.”

She has also performed in many other leading roles, in addition to directing Playhouse productions of “Groundhog Day the Musical,” “Cabaret,” “Mary Poppins,” “Noises Off,” “She Loves Me,” “Stage Kiss,” “Company,” “Stupid Fucking Bird,” “Into the Woods,” “A Behanding in Spokane,” “Den of Thieves,” “Wirehead” (SFBATCC nomination).

Damilano also directed the West Coast premieres of “Honey Brown Eyes” (SFBATCC nomination), “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Coronado,” “The Mystery Plays,” and “Roulette,” and the world premieres of “On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz, “From Red to Black” by Rhett Rossi, and “Seven Days” by Daniel Heath. As will attest anyone who’s been to one of the Playhouse’s legendary opening nights, she is also a world-class caterer.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SD: When I was 27 I visited a friend in London. She told me that while she was at work during the day, to go to Leicester Square and get a half price ticket to anything. I did, and saw my first professional play, “Les Miserables.” I was hooked. The next day I saw “42nd Street.” Wow! That began my love for theater—the magic of seeing someone jump off a bridge to their suicide, and ‘knowing’ he must have landed on the floor, and believing he landed in water. Beautiful.

Our focus is on how plays impact the audience…

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

SD: The first play I performed was called “Coming Attractions” at City Lights Theater. I got to play tons of different parts, sang and danced and had so much fun. Wendy Wisely took a chance on me and because of her, I was accepted into the Bay Area acting world.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SD: As I was learning my craft I took jobs anywhere around the Bay: City Lights, Town Hall, CenterRep, Actors Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Bus Barn.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SD: We had our first show in 2003.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

SD: We dreamed of what we could be and decided from the first moment to work as if we were on par with Steppenwolf or Royal Court or Donmar or Almeida … all theaters we admired, and the ones in London that we loved to visit.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

SD: Our focus is on how plays impact the audience, not on any particular topic, niche or type. The goal is to bring people together, to touch and be touched. To share an experience and create compassion.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

SD: My husband, Bill English, who is a walking library of dramatic works and knowledge. I learned to direct by sitting next to him for years and observing. My acting work was most influenced by Jean Shelton and Richard Seyd, and my courage has most been influenced by our patrons, who keep coming back and who are in the lobby crying or laughing afterward, confirming that what we are doing makes a difference.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

SD: We have the most incredible staff and board and patrons. The shutdown happened the week we were supposed to start previews for “Real Women Have Curves.” Everyone took the news so bravely. Actors lost the opportunity to share a beautiful story, our staff went to work calling ticket holders; ticket holders became donors and supporters. We’ve had to furlough many of our dear staff and are grateful that California unemployment will provide that extra $600 to them. On the other hand, we continued with announcing our season. We did a virtual announcement that has received more views and positive feedback than any event in the past.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

SD: When we announced the season we did not include dates or actual order of the shows. That certainty is simply not available to us right now.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

SD: My vision (hope) is that we will come out of this ‘big pause’ stronger than ever. Our love and need for the arts have been solidified through its absence. The theatre has always been a place where people gather. Spacing, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer will be likely be the norm in the short term.

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 underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SD: It hasn’t impacted our plans other than inducing confusion as to how an artist or designer could be an employee.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SD: I left my ‘day job’ to run the Playhouse in our 12th season. Besides acting and directing, managing the Playhouse is my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SD: I love spending time with friends and family, and of course, my dog Emi.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

SD: I love the arts, and have dabbled with drawing, and film — wish I was a trained dancer and pianist … maybe soon, if we keep staying home.

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?

SD: The words “no” and “but” are forbidden and to be replaced with “yes,” “and.” Honor the environment and keep it beautiful and strong. Be kind.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

SD: If I wanted to buy one, wouldn’t getting two be great?

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

SD: Been framed.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

SD: My soundtrack is more like the ocean waves, or breeze through the trees.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SD: Bracelets.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

SD: None. Too big for my house.

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?

SD: When I was younger, for sure. Not anymore.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SD: It’s from “The Sound of Music” — “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must’ve done something good.”

-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.

 

 

An ASR 1-On-1 Interview: Man About Town, Director Patrick Nims of Zoom Theatre

 

Patrick Nims.

Two actors sit down together at a table in a modest apartment, with old photographs lining the walls. For the next forty-five minutes, they’ll be an estranged father and daughter reunited after decades apart. The only catch? The actors are in different states and have never even met in person. The apartment behind them is a green screen. And the audience members are watching from the safety of their living rooms.

“The show must go on!” or so the adage goes. But what does that mean in a world that’s living six feet apart, gloved and masked, attending school, and work through laptop screens?

Desperate times call for creative workarounds, and “Zoom Theatre” offers an inspired solution to the unprecedented challenge of producing live theater in the era of “social distancing.” Utilizing Zoom’s popular web conferencing software, stage director Patrick Nims gives theatergoers the chance to attend exclusive, live performances of plays staged explicitly for online viewing, all from the comfort of home.

Nims is an award-winning stage director whose work has appeared all over the Bay Area. He also co-founded and served as Artistic Director for Marin Summer Theater, and is currently a resident director at Portland’s Stumptown Stages. Zoom Theatre is his latest brainchild.

Its first production – David Mamet’s two short plays, “Reunion” and “Dark Pony,” brought to life beautifully by actors David L. Yen of Sonoma County and Voni Kengla of Portland, OR – aired for only three performances on April 9, 10, and 11. But two more shows are already in the works, the next of which is slated for early May.

ASR’s Nicole Singley asked Nims for a behind-the-screens look at his self-declared “experiment in theatre…

***

Voni Kengla and David L. Yen at work in Zoom Theatre’s first production

ASR: In your own words, what is Zoom Theatre, and what is your vision for it?

PN: Zoom Theatre is an experiment. It is an attempt to see if web conferencing software is up to the demands of live performance, with live feedback from the audience. Like in the early days of television, we know that the technology is in an imperfect state, but for me it is an intriguing and promising notion. So far it has proven successful at delivering a “theatre-like” experience, with a few gotcha’s and a steep learning curve.

ASR: How are plays rehearsed and performed for this medium? What special equipment does your team rely on?

PN: The plays are rehearsed entirely over Zoom. We have a Zoom Rehearsal Room that the actors join from their home. Each actor started with a laptop with a webcam as we did table work and then set the staging. The actors had to look in their own homes for props. As we got closer to performance each actor received an external microphone and HD webcam, a green screen kit and a ring light. While not up to sound stage quality, these items improve the quality of the image and sound greatly.

ASR: What are some of the biggest or most unusual challenges – technological or other – that your team has had to overcome in this process?

PN: There has been nothing yet that caused us to reconsider moving forward. Luckily all of our company has had fast enough and reliable enough internet to make it work. Getting matching props was fun (when the “same” item is used on both screens). Because of the 500ms delay in Zoom, it took a bit to work out the timing when they are supposed to say the same thing at the same time. Handing the live audience sound is the last big issue. We’re slowly figuring out how to dial that in so that the actors can hear the audience, without the audience being too loud. Overall we all had fun working on the project. Saddest thing so far was not being able to give the cast and stage manager Georgia Ortiz a hug after opening night.

ASR: How did you select David Mamet’s “Reunion” and “Dark Pony?”

PN: I knew the plays from my college days and when I looked at my list of possible two-person shows, it jumped to the top as being suitable for Zoom. They are actors’ plays. There are no special stage effects, machinery or blocking required. The actors don’t need to touch, and each only requires a single location. It was a perfect fit.

…we all had fun working on the project.

ASR: What was it like to direct through a screen, and to stage intimate scenes between two actors who’ve never met face-to-face?

PN: It was a great experience for me. When they were working scenes, I would turn off my video (so they could concentrate on each other) and then bring mine back on after to give notes. Within a day or two, it was just normal. Voni and David are real pros and they made it look and sound real from day one.

ASR: What other shows can we look forward to seeing from Zoom Theatre in the coming months?

PN: Next up will be “Lungs” by Duncan Macmillan in early May. It is a beautiful play about love, relationships and our responsibility to the planet. The show will star Amber and Gregory Crane who are two wonderful Marin County actors that are sheltering in place together, so in this case, they will be physically together and I will be directing remotely for a remote audience. After that is “Actually” by Anna Ziegler, May 21 through 24. It is also a two person play that with lyricism and wit, investigates gender and race politics, our crippling desire to fit in, and the three sides to every story.

ASR: Do you think online theater will endure once the pandemic has passed?

PN: Beyond the pandemic, I think Zoom Theatre will remain viable as a way of inexpensively producing small plays with work-from-home actors in unlimited locations. The technology and performance will have to improve before I’d try a musical over Zoom, but I imagine it is only a matter of time.

To learn more about Zoom Theatre and register to see upcoming shows, visit ZoomTheatre.com, or find and follow the Zoom Theatre page on Facebook.

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: Actor, Director, & Fight Coach Extraordinaire, Steve Beecroft

Aisle Seat Review begins 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.

***

Steve Beecroft

Steve Beecroft is an actor, dancer, choreographer, director, and producer as well as a pillar of the Curtain Theater in Mill Valley CA. Besides his vocal talent, Beecroft is noted for his extraordinary skill as an athletic fight choreographer. If you’ve ever seen him jumping, leaping, and swinging a sword onstage, be sure to duck.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SB: It was really by accident. I have always been a singer, and still do concerts for fund-raising today, but I’d never planned to act. In my senior year of high school, I somehow got roped in to play the lead in the musical “The Boyfriend”. I was hooked and never turned back. It was a real switch from athletics for me. I remember that my football coach would avert his eyes when he saw me in the school corridors after that.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

SB: I have never counted them all, but between Canada, England and the USA, quite a few.

… We had a blast mixing Shakespeare, Star Trek and rock ‘n roll!

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SB: The Curtain Theatre was formed twenty years ago to bring Shakespeare to the outdoor stage in Old Mill Park in Mill Valley. I joined the company 10 years ago. We are blessed to have two of the original founders still in the company. Michele Delattre is Artistic Director and will direct this summer’s show “Twelfth Night”, while also playing in the band. Don Clark has been our music director throughout all the years the company has been in existence. They are both brilliant!

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

SB: It was already pretty special with its free performances in our outdoor setting. We have grown the company further over the years and are proud of the awards and loyal audiences we continue to gather.

ASR: What’s Curtain Theatre’s focus?

SB: The Curtain Theatre is primarily a Shakespeare company, adjusted to be fun and family-friendly. Many kids come and sit at the foot of the stage. We’re delighted to see they’re totally into it, which makes it super for us. We keep the plays light with topical music and authentic costumes. We might introduce props that were not available in the Bard’s era, like the chain saw we used in “The Taming of the Shrew.” That got everyone’s attention!

We switch out of Shakespeare too, performing other classic plays such as Moliere’s “The Miser” in 2017. Back in 2013, we went completely off the Bard’s rails when I joined with Carl Jordan and Gary Gonser to put on “Return to the Forbidden Planet.” It was such a hit at Tam High that we staged it the following year at Novato Theatre. We had a blast mixing Shakespeare, Star Trek and rock ‘n roll! It was outrageous and won a batch of SFBATCC awards.

ASR: On a somber note, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen due to COVID-19. How is your company coping?

SB: Our 2020 summer show has been cast and the artistic team are hard at work planning music, choreography, sets, costumes, etc. We start rehearsals after the July 4th weekend and we are hoping to have the go ahead then.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

SB: Given social distancing rules, we obviously cannot meet for character work and design sessions, so we use ZOOM a lot.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company?

SB: The Curtain Theatre has been an integral part of the cultural life of Mill Valley and Marin for a long time. Shakespeare aficionados and neophytes alike love to come to see our plays. Families come to be entertained with their children getting their first impression of the Bard at our shows. They keep coming back. So will we.

It is worth remembering that Shakespeare and his company often saw the theatres closed by the plague. But creativity continued, plays were written and rehearsed, and when the air cleared, new plays surged into the light to entertain a people much in need of it. We at the Curtain Theatre hope to do the same in these troubled times. We think it vital that we carry on, whatever the difficulties.

ASR: Has Assembly Bill 5, requiring theatre folks to be employees, affected your company’s plans?

SB: If the law were to be enforced, it would kill almost all amateur theatre companies including us.

ASR: Life in the theater: What are some personal favorites?

SB: For dramas: “Equivocation”, “Cyrano de Bergerac”, and “Shakespeare in Love.”

Musicals I like include “Les Miserables”, “West Side Story”, “Return to the Forbidden Planet”, “Mamma Mia”, and “Guys & Dolls.”

My favorite comedies include “Noises Off”, “Lend me a Tenor”, and “Much Ado About Nothing”.

ASR: What are three all-time favorites from The Curtain Theatre?

SB: Tough choice. Top of the list is “Return to the Forbidden Planet” of course, plus “Henry IV” part one, and “The Taming of the Shrew.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

SB: “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” It has great comedy and some excellent poetry and prose. It has a problem at the end but I think that can be worked around effectively. I hope to direct the play in the future.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SB: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”…though it is still great fun!!

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work—sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes—which would it be and why?

SB: I am afraid I am hopelessly untalented when it comes to tech areas. I could probably manage props.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

SB: Lots of stretching and singing beforehand, and a beer with my cast mates and the Curtain team afterward.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

SB:  Hmmm… I guess,

1. Only do plays and roles that you are passionate about.

2. Seek to work with the most creative people you can.

3. Have fun!!

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

SB: When playing Curly in “Oklahoma”, I was supposed to shoot Jud, but the gun cap didn’t go off. I spent about 3 minutes ad-libbing and having lots of fun with the audience.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

SB: I tore my hamstring doing a split-leap on stage. Not fun.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

SB: When I was rehearsing for a John Denver concert, an elderly lady came in to listen and watch. When I finished one particular song, she proceeded to remind me that I had gotten one word wrong and that I really shouldn’t do that again.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SB: I work for a multi-national investment bank.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SB: Hiking, the gym, singing both choral and in concerts, traveling, kayaking, and environmental economics.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SB: This one…

“How will it work?” 

“I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”

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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: Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions

Aisle Seat Review begins 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.

***

Eleven years old and going strong, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is a standout North Bay theater company founded by Managing Director Barry Martin and Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci (pictured below.) The company’s co-founders are great friends and lifelong theater veterans. Both perform multiple roles in every aspect of Lucky Penny’s operations. Recent productions include an exemplary “Cabaret,” plus “Bingo the Musical,” “9 to 5 the Musical,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Five Course Love.”  

Website: www.luckypennynapa.com

Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions.
Photo credit: Lucky Penny.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

Barry M.: I think I was in theatre from the day I was born.

Taylor: I was four years old when I got my first taste of the theatre. My mom enrolled me in a local community theatre production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” where I flew around on the stage as Woodstock. I was immediately hooked.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

Barry M.: I played Perchik in “Fiddler on the Roof” as a sophomore in high school. The first paying gig for me was doing summer stock after my junior year of college.

Taylor: “Charlie Brown” was followed by my first of many productions of “Annie.”  I started off as Molly then throughout the years played every single female role you could play—Annie, all of the Orphans, Star to Be, Hannigan, Lily, Boylan Sisters—all of them,  except Grace.

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

Barry M.: Board member for two, co-founder of one.

Taylor: Oh gosh, way too many to count.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

Taylor: Barry and I founded Lucky Penny Productions in the spring of 2009.

ASR: Did you anticipate that it would become as successful as it has?

Barry M.: I expected we would be successful but didn’t expect to become as large as we have become, nor did I expect to have a physical location.

Taylor: I think from the very beginning we were dreamers, always envisioning grand things, but at the same time we were always busy working for the current show or for the future, so there wasn’t a lot of time to focus on future success, just the success of the project at hand.

It seems to me that every now and then at the end of the day, we would sit back and look at where the company was and go “Wow, that’s pretty darn cool. We are so grateful. OK, now let’s get back to work!”

ASR: Does your company have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc.?

Barry M.: Special focus is on giving people a memorable experience but we do not have a niche.

Taylor: I wouldn’t say we have a focus as much as we feel we have a responsibility to our local community, the Napa Valley, to expose them to all genres of theatre. Being one of the only theatre companies in Napa County, we select a season that reflects a little bit of everything to attract and satisfy the needs of all of our community members.  This includes musicals, non-musicals, classics and modern pieces.

… Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

Barry M.: If I am any better at it than I was in the olden days, it’s due to Taylor’s example. She has made me want to be a better actor and director.

Taylor: I would say our patrons and volunteers. If it wasn’t for their support and belief in us, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And for all of them, we are incredibly grateful.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the coronavirus shutdown?

Barry M.: Conserving cash, and making plans for strategic online activities.

Taylor: We are taking it day by day. We had to make the tough decision to postpone “Sweeney Todd,” the show we were about to open, and we have cancelled our April/May production of “The Quality of Life” and our June production of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

Barry M.: No overall change to the approach but we expect to be leaner for at least a season.

Taylor: In all honesty, it hasn’t yet. I feel like we are in a bit of a holding pattern right now until we receive more information—which I assume we will be getting within the next few weeks. Once we know how much longer we will be practicing social distancing and bans on events, we can look into any necessary changes to our upcoming season.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

Barry M.: We will be back with no substantial change in how we do things. In the larger view, the world will always need theatre. The forms it takes may continue to change.

Taylor: Like Barry said—we will be back at it as soon as we can!

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 underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

Barry M.: AB5 was taking up a lot of my brain until two weeks ago. At some point I will have to focus on it again and resume efforts to get amendments carving out small non-profit theatres like ours. There is no path I can see that has us in compliance with the bill as currently enacted.

ASR: Name three all-time favorites that your company has produced.

Barry M.: “Funny Girl,” “Hands on a Hardbody,” “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Taylor: Oh man…there are so many we have produced that I have been proud of for so many reasons…but if I had to pick three, I’d say:

“Funny Girl” because it was our first large scale musical, a lifelong dream of mine, and the show that really exposed us to a larger audience base.

“Hands on a Hardbody,” because it was such an incredibly beautiful and heart-filled show, and one that brought together different parts of our community to help put together (Soscol Auto Body, Wine Country Crossfit to name a few).

And “Clue: The Musical” because it was a show that was unknown, one that we were able to fully create from scratch, with a team of some of my best friends, and it brought so much joy to our audiences.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce — or never produce again?

Barry M.: “Grease” is terribly written even though the songs are good. “Urinetown” annoys me.

Taylor: I have to agree with Barry—I have never enjoyed the humor of “Urinetown,” even though lots of people have asked us to produce it. I’m also not a fan of (*gasp*) “In the Heights” or “Cats.” No big shocker there.

ASR: Which play would you most like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

Barry M.:  “The Iceman Cometh.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

Barry M.: I think there are only three or four worth doing and all the rest suck except as academic exercises. So for me none are underrated.

Taylor: “Titus Andronicus.” Maybe this comes to mind because we were just preparing to do “Sweeney Todd” at Lucky Penny.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

Barry M.: “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” both a yawn.

Taylor: “Midsummer.”

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work — sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes — which would it be and why?

Barry M.: Well, I have done several whole seasons building sets, so there’s that. Other than sets I like doing sound.

Taylor: Props. Definitely props.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

Barry M.: I hate warm-ups of all kinds and have no routine. Just tell me “places” and I’m ready to go. After a show I need at least 90 minutes and a minimum of two drinks to wind down. Not iced tea, either.

Taylor: Depends on the show. Like Barry, I’m not a huge warm-up person. If it’s a musical I will vocalize and make sure I’m warmed up in that capacity, but with non-musicals I don’t have a set regime. I do like to get to the theatre extra early and take my time getting ready. Plus, there is nothing like an empty theatre. It’s such a soothing place for me.

After a show I tend to have too much adrenaline to just go straight home, so I will typically grab a drink and hang out with cast members. If it’s a matinee I may jet home to see my kiddos before bedtime.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what  things would you tell them are essential?

Barry M.: Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.

Taylor: Be kind—the theatre world may seem big, but it ultimately is pretty darn small, and people will remember their experience with you. Be collaborative—your production and company will be so much better off utilizing the talent and ideas of your artists to the fullest. Be willing to step into any shoes—this means working front of house, making props, being on stage, working backstage, sweeping the floor. Not only does it familiarize you with every job that needs to be done so you know what you are asking of others, but you are the example. Be a great example.

ASR: What theater-related friendship means the most to you? Why?

Barry M.: When you build a theatre from the ground up together and keep it going ten years it’s a good friendship, so my friendship with Taylor Bartolucci means the most to me.

Taylor: My relationship with Barry. It’s not every day you have the chance to dream and work alongside your best friend. We complement each other very well in terms of how we make decisions, how we feel in certain situations and how we like to work.

ASR: What is the funniest screw-up you’ve seen on stage in a live performance?

Barry M.:  In college, the climactic sword fight on opening night between MacBeth and MacDuff started with MacBeth somehow getting his cape tangled in his crown and the audience laughed. Perfect climax to a truly cursed production of “The Scottish Play.”

Taylor: One that happened recently was a production where a very dramatic scene had two people fighting over a baby. When the person who wanted the baby grabbed it, the head popped off and bounced on the floor, while the other person had to keep crying and pretend that the head was still attached. It was truly a great exercise in acting as one of them grabbed it as quickly as possible and both actors kept going like nothing had happened.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

Taylor: Years ago I was at a show at ACT in San Francisco. One of the actors forgot his line. He stopped, said he was going to rewind and start over. I vaguely remember it was the beginning of a monologue. He started again and got stuck, and started again.  This happened four times! The audience got pissed and started booing.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

Barry M.: Exiting through our greenroom trying to find the bathroom, startling some actors… or throwing up into their popcorn (yeah) during a scene… or cutting across the stage to leave in the middle of a scene.

Taylor: Oh my goodness. In our theatre—a 97-seat black box—the audience is VERY up close and personal, so we have seen it all! From people in the audience talking back to cast members on stage mid-show, having panic attacks, sleeping—you name it.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

Barry M.: Two or three of them.

Taylor: I work for my family winery, Madonna Estate during the day. And we are currently having a special—20% off all wines!  Use the code 20OFF and LOCALS at checkout and I will deliver to your doorstep!

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

Barry M.:  All the news all the time, soccer, wine

Taylor: Family, friends, working out, country music, cooking.

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture? Do you pursue any other arts apart from theater?

Barry M.: I enjoy quality films but don’t care for most of the popular ones. I’m a big fan of classic films—Capra, Ford, Welles, etc.

Taylor: There are lots of things I would love to explore—playing musical instruments, creating visual art (painting, wall art, etc) but with a two-year-old, a one-year-old, the theatre and the winery, I am sadly short on time these days.

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?

Taylor:  Hmmm. OK:

1) Everyone clean up after themselves

2) It’s 5’o clock somewhere at all times

3) You don’t have to sleep but you need to stay in bed during naptime…

Oh wait, these are just my current stay at home rules with my kids. Sigh…

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” sale of all time?

Barry M.: A timeshare.

ASR: You have the opportunity to create a 30-minute TV series. What’s it called and what’s the premise?

Taylor: Barry already created one! It’s called “Good Talks with Taylor.” Sometimes the content is amusing, sometimes he thrusts the camera into my face when I’m annoyed, Other times I may or may not have had a drink or two. It’s always brought us some good laughs.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, your friends and family might assume you had done what?

Barry M.: DUI, most likely. Mass murder would be most satisfying.

Taylor: I better not be arrested! Being married to a cop… should have some benefits!

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

Taylor: Not sure it’s something I like more than others, but I’ll take a good, useful pair of sunglasses on a sunny day.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

Barry M.: Novel coronavirus. I’d mount up and ride it out of town.

Taylor:  Hmmm…can’t say there is anything I’d like to see blown up to a size that could attack me. Call me a wimp!

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?

Barry M.: Nothing involving falling to my death or drowning interests me, for some reason. The risks I have taken in my life were not artificially imposed, they were real-life risks about financial security, family ties, and living the life I wanted to live.

Taylor: No, nothing that could physically harm me has ever been of interest. Give me a good juicy scene where I can cry and scream and be raw and real in front of strangers but ask me to jump out of a plane?!  NO WAY!

ASR: Favorite quote?

Taylor:  One of my all-time favorite quotes is actually from the song “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies—it’s compromise that moves us along. My heart is full and my doors always open, you can come anytime you want.”

-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: Award Winning Director and Choreographer Carl Jordan

Carl Jordan

This week, Aisle Seat Review begins 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.

***

Our first guest is North Bay director and choreographer Carl Jordan, a theater veteran with three decades of experience. Jordan’s “Clybourne Park,” “By the Water,” and “Death of a Salesman” are among his more recent standout productions.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

CJ: I was a member of a dance company and started doing choreography there. This led to choreographing musical theater and opera, which led to directing musicals.

ASR: What was the first play you performed in or directed for a paying audience?

CJ: First choreography was a college production of “Babes in Arms.” First solo direction was “Little Shop of Horrors.”

ASR: How many theater companies have you been involved with?

CJ: Lots.

ASR: Who has had the largest impact on your professional development in the theater?

CJ: My first mentor was my college teacher John Weldon. He taught me to be have fun with what you are doing. His teaching is still a big inspiration. I’ve learned from every actor I have worked with—they all taught me something. Some, how not to do things. Working with actors, every moment is a lesson in the art. I watch and learn from other directors. I love watching the work of Sheri Lee Miller, now with Spreckels.

ASR: How is your company coping with the coronavirus shutdown?

CJ: I just had a production cancelled, hopefully rescheduled for next season.  It’s difficult to plan when we do not know how long this will last. When will it be safe? Right now we all have to be flexible with a plan B and plans C, D etc.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

CJ: It will be changed—how, we do not know. In the short term, generally after a crisis, audiences want escapism: happy musicals. Audiences might be affected financially and therefore be reluctant to part with their dollars. At some point, it will mostly return but art reflects our yearnings and our souls and will change.

ASR: Has Assembly Bill 5 affected your theater company’s plans?

CJ: I don’t know yet.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

CJ: “Clybourne Park,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Jungle,” “Angels in America.”

ASR: Musicals?

CJ: “Fun Home,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “A Little Night Music,” “The Spitfire Grill.”

ASR: Comedies?

CJ: “Noises Off,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “The 39 Steps.”

ASR: Three all-time favorites that your company has produced?

CJ: “Return to the Forbidden Planet, the Musical,” “Becky’s New Car,” “Taming of the Shrew.”

ASR: Which rare gems would you like to see revived?

CJ: Some of the silly old Rogers and Hart musicals.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

CJ: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but I still love it

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing technical work — sets, lights, projections, sound, props, costumes — which would it be and why?

CJ: Lighting design. The art reminds me of creation and joy. Sublime and stark, it adds to and magnifies the story.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

CJ: L.Peter Calender

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

CJ: I do something fun or joyous—frequently I write cards to the cast.

ASR: How do you relax after?

CJ: Libations with friends. And sleep.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

CJ: Read and read and read the script. Then listen to the actors.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

CJ: Talking drunkenly to the actors onstage.

ASR: Do you have a day job?

CJ: I’m a licensed general contractor.

ASR: Other artistic interests?

I love the world of dance. I have degrees in dance—I started as a ballet dancer, but mostly choreographed jazz ballets. I love teaching and coaching. I’ve learned and played several instruments, and studied architecture and building design. I frequently attend museums and art shows. I go to garage sales and flea markets looking for quirky items that might be good props or set pieces. I love puppets and puppet shows, and hiking, especially on the coast. I read constantly—mostly scripts, but I love science fiction. It’s my favorite movie idiom.

ASR: Parting comment?

Theater manifests the heart and soul of our lives!

-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.

 

 

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review – What’s “Love” Got to Do with It? — by Cari Lynn Pace

Marin Theater Company presents the world premiere of Kate Cortesi’s riveting drama “Love” with a keen eye on the #MeToo movement. The play is no feminist rant; rather it is a balanced unfolding of a relationship that flashes back in time to romance, power, and inappropriateness.

It’s the present, and Penelope, launched on her own successful career, is contacted by a former co-worker friend who has charged their former boss with crossing the sexual harassment line. It’s been 15 years since Penelope has thought about her love affair and the sexual awakening she shared with her married boss, who remains her friend. Penelope is launched into soul-searching about the roles defining victim and perpetrator. It’s her moral dilemma whether to support the charges, to speak out and add her voice to the others.

This two-hour production will give rise to many conversations…

Clea Alsip does a fine job as the ingenue Penelope and R. Ward Duffy is strong and confident as her boss Otis. The stage is spare; their conversation fills the empty space with tension. They are fencing with one another, parrying and thrusting as the audience perches, watching for the next move.

“Love” is extraordinary for its abundance of nuance and moral confusion. Is any workplace attraction allowable? Is it all black and white, okay and not okay, cut and run? The playwright herself notes, “Inappropriateness could feel wonderful and then turn unsettling, and wrong.”

The sterling cast directed by Mike Donahue includes Penelope’s husband Jaime, played by Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, with Rebecca Schweitzer as the co-worker friend Vanessa. Robert Sicular and Mari Vial-Golden each double up their supporting roles with such skill they seem to be additional characters onstage.

What will Penelope decide to do with her options to testify? Will her stalwart faith in the absolute truth trump her past youthful pleasures? If there was love, was it consensual, and will justice outdo it?

This two-hour production will give rise to many conversations. Audiences may or may not agree with Penelope’s decision, but they will understand the strength behind her reasoning.

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

 

ProductionLove
Written byKate Cortesi
Directed byMike Donahu
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Mar 29th [SUSPENDED]
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25– $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! Fragile Personalities Make RVP’s “Glass Menagerie” a Powerful Production — by Cari Lynn Pace

In “The Glass Menagerie” Tennessee Williams takes a family’s disparate characters and pumps them up with tight language and shoulder-cringing situations. Although it’s a poignant glimpse into familial tension, Ross Valley Players presents this solid drama with several touches of levity.

It works splendidly. Director David Abrams notes “Williams has the humor in his script, you just have to bring it out.”  Abrams pulled extraordinary performances from familiar talents in this production.

Veteran actor Tamar Cohn is astounding as mother Amanda Wingfield, an aging and abandoned Southern belle. Cohn is simply perfect in her role. She’s a steam-roller of drive and determination, yet drifting to her flowery and flirtatious past at the slightest provocation. Cohn pulls up so many spot-on personality changes one senses her character is schizophrenic. This is Cohn at her professional best. She’s a joy to behold.

What a breath of fresh air…

Greg Crane portrays her son Tom, a warehouse worker with no tangible prospects. Tom bottles his frustration, indeed rage, at his cage within the Wingfield family. He desperately longs for escape. He enters and exits the stage from side and rear doors, restless with frustrated energy and ready to shatter. The only tether to his family is the concern he has for his older sister Laura, a slightly disabled and extremely introverted character enacted by Carolyn Arnold. The emotional string connecting sister and brother is a delicate glass filament, as only Williams can write.

When his mother badgers him about finding a suitor for sister Laura, Tom relents and brings home a dinner guest, his co-worker Jim (Jesse Lumb). Mother transforms herself into a flittering and flirtatious belle, all her hopes pinned on this prospective “gentleman caller” for her daughter. Lumb masterfully enlivens this role as the genial and friendly potential suitor, capturing the stage with his outsize confidence. What a breath of fresh air for the stale and stagnant Wingfield family!

The conflict and synergy between Laura’s fragility and Jim’s positivity provide rays of hope that lift this timeless classic far above a simple family drama. “The Glass Menagerie” is one shows you’ll not want to miss.

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 Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byDavid Abrams
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru April 5th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.MountainPlay.org
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$17-$29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! An Extended Run for “Daddy Long Legs” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Director Michael Ross persuaded Sonoma Arts Live to shoehorn this charming musical in between their regular season productions. Lucky for them that he did. This show at the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, scheduled to run until March 8, 2020, has just been extended to March 15, with a few Thursday night performances added as well. There must be a reason!

“Daddy Long Legs” is the story of Jerusha Abbott (enacted by the lovely songbird Madison Genovese), a young orphan woman given an extraordinary gift of college tuition by an anonymous benefactor, Jervis Pendleton. She glimpses the tall donor (a solid role by Mischa Stephens) from a distance as he departs, casting a long shadow she tags to give the show’s name.

Photos courtesy of Sonoma Arts Live

Her only duty to this silent sponsor is to write a monthly letter chronicling her progress. It’s a one-way communication, lending Jerusha to provide both the required information and a healthy dose of imagination and curiosity in her letters.

Count on the plot lines of … Cinderella love stories for (a) satisfying ending…

As the years pass, “Daddy Long Legs” becomes more enthralled with Jerusha’s engaging letters. He concocts a plan to drop into her life to see for himself the shy young lady who spins such enthralling stories. Although he keeps his true identify hidden from Jerusha, Daddy Long Legs is inadvertently captured in her web of words.

Photos courtesy of Sonoma Arts Live

The plot is engaging and the voices seamlessly matched between Genovese and Stephens. The split-level stage designed by Koitney Carson cleverly does double duty as the benefactor’s study and the hand-me-down feel of the orphanage and college dorm.

When a potential suitor emerges in Jerusha’s life, Mr. Pendleton finds himself struggling whether to reveal his identity and his attraction to her. Count on the plot lines of countless Cinderella love stories for an expected and satisfying ending to “Daddy Long Legs.”

The three-piece band of piano, cello, and guitar is located in front of the stage, on the seating level with the audience. The music’s volume made it very difficult to hear the lyrics or fully enjoy the beautifully matched voices of Genovese and Stephens.

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

 

ProductionDaddy Long Legs
Written byMusic and Lyrics by Paul Gordon

Book by John Caird
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until March 15th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “The Tempest” Tosses Together Storm and Shakespeare by Cari Lynn Pace

Ellen Brooks as Prospera in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at College of Marin

Fans of Shakespeare will delight in this multi-faceted production at the College of Marin’s James Dunn Theatre. This rarely produced play, a long one at 2 ½ hours, is marvelously delivered with costumes, magnificent stagecraft, and top-caliber acting by a mix of professionals and student actors.

The plot, so to speak, is pure Shakespeare; a mix of characters who pop in and out and are difficult to keep straight. Not to worry…there’s a story synopsis in the program. It’s still unclear just who is who, but they’re all together on this really crowded deserted island. Count on multiple royals, a cave creature, a magical mother, a blithe white spirit, and numerous nymphs with seductive songs. Once the ear grows accustomed to the Shakespearean patois, it’s all entertainment indeed.

Shakespeare… would be proud!

The stage is an outstanding oceanside storm, complete with churning waves, rain, and the sound of pounding surf designed by award-winning Ronald Krempetz. The spectacular transformation is credited to a generous contribution from Warren Lefort for a back-screen projector and LED lighting. What a magnificent addition to boost the caliber of COM’s future shows!

The drama students under the Direction of Lisa Morse are fortunate to be on stage with two local professionals. Audiences delight to watch petite Ellen Brooks masterfully command her outsize role as Prospera, with her magical staff and perfect gestures. She is matched in talent and vocal inflections by Steve Price, a much-awarded performer who completely immerses himself in every role he takes on.

Shout-outs also go to Benjamin Vasquez as Caliban the cave monster, and Daniel DeGabriele as Ariel, Prospera’s slave spirit. These two have impressive movements and solid characterizations, not to mention their unique costumes designed by Pamela Johnson.

A lovely surprise of the production is the harmonious singing of “Blessings” by the nymphs in Act II. Billie Cox is the talent behind setting music to Shakespeare’s “Dance of the Harvesters” in addition to handling the rain, surf, and other sounds for the show.

The ensemble of students and professionals acting and singing is spot-on in this show. There are moments when the cast does a stop-action pose, and it pops the eyeballs. Clearly these students have worked very hard to learn the skills they need to put on such fine performance. Shakespeare… would be proud!

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 Tempest
Written byWIlliam Shakespeare
Directed byLisa Morse
Producing CompanyCollege of Marin
Production DatesFridays through Sundays until March 15, 2020
Production AddressJames Dunn Theatre,
Performing Arts Building
835 College Ave, Kentfield CA
Websitehttp://pa.marin.edu/blog/tempest
Telephone(415) 457-8811
Tickets$15 – $25
https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4317842
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! “Urinetown, the Musical” a Cautionary Diversion at Spreckels — by Barry Willis

Paying to pee is a way of life for the poor and downtrodden in the fictional neighborhood of Urinetown. Managed with mendacity by water-and-waste management firm Urine Good Company, “amenities” dot the urban landscape, with admission fees so high that residents scramble all day to get enough money to relieve themselves—a high-pressure situation that foments rebellion if not resolution.

At Spreckels Performing Arts Center through March 1, “Urinetown, the Musical” celebrates many of the conceits of traditional musical theater while skewering others. The familiar plot elements—oppressive overlords, rebellious poor, star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, a desperate kidnapping—have all been exploited by playwrights for centuries.

What makes this darkly-themed show unusual is its coupling of these reliable plot elements with upbeat Broadway song-and-dance productions, and its self-conscious stance as a piece of “metatheater” that announces itself and its intentions directly to the audience through UGC’s chief enforcer Officer Lockstock (David L. Yen), whose main connection to the Urinetown residents is through the likable character of Little Sally (Denise Elia-Yen).

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production…

Theater fans of long experience will note similarities in theme, plot, characters and music with many other productions. “Urinetown” is in solid traditional territory there.

Tim Setzer shines as UGC’s evil chief executive Caldwell B. Cladwell, the “toilet tycoon,” as described by ASR critic Nicole Singley. His toady-laden office includes Senator Fipp (Michael Arbitter), a legislator doing his patriotic best to win congressional approval for a system-wide increase in toilet admission fees. Recently graduated from the world’s most expensive university, Cladwell’s beautiful daughter Hope (Julianne Thompson Bretan) is about to join her father’s management team but is taken hostage by restroom-deprived rebels. In the process, she develops sympathy for their cause—mirroring the real-world fate of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in a 1974 kidnapping staged by would-be revolutionaries—and falls in love with their charismatic leader Bobby Strong (Joshua Bailey).

“Urinetown” cast shows class dance moves

The stark set by Eddy Hansen and Eliabeth Bazzano is the perfect venue for this musical misadventure, enhanced by projections from Chris Schloemp.

Lucas Sherman’s small orchestra is dazzling. Performances range from good to superb, with especially good efforts by Bailey and Bretan, Yen, Setzer, and Karen Pinomaki as Josephine Strong, Bobby’s devoted mother. ScharyPearl Fugitt is a standout as Urinetown rebel Soupy Sue, and as Cladwell’s secretary. Her dancing is especially enjoyable. A large and exemplary cast fills out the remaining roles.

“Urinetown” has an impressive cast!

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production—not perfect, but huge fun with a depressing message at its core: sugar-coated theatrical medicine. Yes, resources are shrinking and the population is growing. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but we can all delight in the irony as we head for the abyss.

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.

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Five Course Love” Serves Up Tasty Trysts — by Cari Lynn Pace

Here’s the satisfying recipe for “Five Course Love” as served up at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa: Combine three actors and five restaurant scenes. Mix in a generous batch of costume changes. Blend well with three musicians, adding headgear as desired. Toss in two dozen amusing songs using quick lyrics by Gregg Coffin. Stir well with direction by award-wining performer Heather Buck. Cook for two hours on a warm stage until tender. Serve immediately with lots of laughs. Enjoy!

Cast at work in “Five Course Love” at Lucky Penny!

This clever and witty musical debuted off-Broadway in 2005. With no signature songs or ground-breaking drama, “Five Course Love” has stayed in the wings, depending on smaller theatres to bring this frothy bit of fluff to center stage. The costumed characters haven’t changed, nor has their search for connectedness and the holy grail of love.

Delicious!

Five singing sketches feature three actors connected by diverse yet spare cafe locations. These showcase the formidable vocals and acting chops of Sarah Lundstrom, F. James Raasch, and Brian Watson. They switch roles swiftly and seamlessly, from cowboy to nerd to bandit to dominatrix to gangster, sometimes at breakneck speed. Their tried-and-true stereotypes bring laughs and smirks of empathy from the audience.

Kudos to Lucky Penny for using mikes, enabling actors to change accents and move fluidly to Staci Arriaga’s choreography on the small stage. The intimacy of this theatre-in-the-round adds to the fun.

“Five Course Love” is not a filling intellectual meal, by any stretch. It’s familiarity and frivolity, more of a pie-in-your-face kind of show, without the pie. The characters are alternately charming, raunchy, ridiculous, and quite predictable. It’s the clever lyrics that add so much spice to this meal.

The play’s final scene is the most satisfying, where the last tidbit of love is dished out. Delicious!

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

 

ProductionFive Course Love
Written byGregg Coffin
Directed byHeather Buck
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! Lovely, Bold “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

Cast and Crew of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at SF Playhouse. Director Bill English is up-center-left in jacket.

An online advice columnist discovers that she is a wellspring of wisdom and empathy in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse, through March 7.

Before each performance, Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English delivers a curtain speech in which he reiterates that his company envisions their theater as an “empathy gym” where performers and audience alike get to flex their emotional muscles. The speech couldn’t be more appropriate than it is for “Tiny Beautiful Things” developed by Nia Vardalos from the autobiographical book by Cheryl Strayed.

English directs Susi Damilano as “Sugar,” the initially reluctant advice columnist, and Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor, and Jomar Tagatac as Sugar’s various correspondents, who seek guidance on everything from the intricacies of love to matters of life and death. Sugar’s no Ph.D. psychologist but simply a woman of vast personal experience—far more vast than she first understands—who digs deep to deliver heartfelt consolation and hope to her readers, often delivered with gentle humor.

Kina Kantor, Susi Damilano, Jomar Tagatac, and Mark Anderson Phillips make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together.

Damilano is confident and sly as Sugar, who goes repeatedly to her refrigerator for refills of white wine and emotional conviction. At first, amused by her work, she soon discovers that she’s dealing with serious issues, and rises to the challenge.

… a well-deserved standing ovation.

The play’s dramatic structure is a recitation of letters, each beginning with “Dear Sugar,” spoken and acted with palpable gravitas by Damilano’s three supporting actors. Part literary fugue and part call-and-response, the recitation continues in a rolling rhythm throughout the play’s 85 minutes, reaching a crescendo when Sugar incites her readers to find love in their hearts for everything that life throws at them.

Letter Writer #3 (Jomar Tagatac) takes in Sugar’s (Susi Damilano) words of wisdom in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

It’s a beautiful moment, on a dreamscape of suspended metal poles (set design by Jacquelyn Scott) evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Michael Oesch. Unfortunately, its impact is diminished by an extended continuation of letters and responses, as if Vardalos couldn’t decide what to keep and what to cut. It’s a not-so-unusual theatrical circumstance of less-could-be-more with more careful editing.

Even so, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a rare undertaking and within its limits, a sparkling gem. Author Cheryl Stayed was in the audience on opening night, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. The world could do well with more empathetic advisors like her and fewer snarky commentators.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionTiny Beautiful Things
Written byAdapted by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed.

Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos.
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 7th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Cinnabar’s “Ripcord” is an Uproarious Good Time — by Barry Willis

Two widows battle for control of a room in a residential retirement center in “Ripcord” at Cinnabar Theater through February 16.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley star as combative roommates Abby and Marilyn, respectively, in David Lindsay-Abaire’s elegantly conceived comedy. Author of “Good People,” “Rabbit Hole,” and many other excellent plays, Lindsay-Abaire is at the top of his game in this “Odd Couple”-inspired story of a cranky loner (Abby) and her attempt to drive out her ceaselessly upbeat roomie.

With momentum like a speeding truck, the script’s inherently compelling pacing is made more so under the brilliant direction of James Pelican, who gets his talented six-member cast to hit every beat at precisely the right moment. It’s one hilarious ride, with moments of melancholy as texture and spice.

…what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season!

Jorgensen and Brickley are perfectly cast, supported by Kyle Stoner as Scotty, the long-suffering orderly who brings them their meals and medications and tries his best to keep the two from each other’s throats. Sarah McKeregan and Chad Yarish are superb—and superbly funny—as Marilyn’s daughter Colleen and son-in-law Derek, among other roles, while the versatile John Browning appears as each woman’s adult son, a bit of casting that may induce confusion in some viewers. Even so, the cast of “Ripcord” is among the most evenly-balanced to appear onstage so far this year.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley – Photo courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Scenic designer Joseph Elwick’s quick-change sets help propel the story, which includes a sky-diving adventure—hence, the title—that’s part of Abby and Marilyn’s continually-escalating series of challenges to each other. Will they go down fighting or learn to live not-so-happily ever after? Closing weekend will reveal all to those quick enough and lucky enough to score tickets for what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season.

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

 

ProductionRipcord
Written byDavid Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 16th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” a Short Snooze at ACT – by Barry Willis

Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

A dying man lectures the audience on the wonders of life in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at the American Conservatory Theater, through February 16.

Former TV star Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “Veep”) and veteran actress Kathryn Smith-McGlynn bring nuance and conviction to a muddled script directed by Anne Kauffman, its title not a reference to “woke culture” but apparently an admonition to be alert and conscious and rejoice in all that life has to offer including its inherent contradictions and dead-ends.

The piece opens with Hale’s character Guy lying half-clad on the stage and proceeds to having him engage in an addled monologue in his pajamas while sitting in a wheelchair. Some of his ramblings are absurd observations, a few are poignant remembrances, but most are simply non sequiturs strung end-to-end, all accompanied by old home movies and odd bits of eye candy projected on a huge screen behind him, ostensibly controlled by a small remote with which he continually fumbles. The jumble of letters and misspelled words in the projections  is a recurring gambit, perhaps symbolic of the loss of cognition suffered by those nearing the end of their tenure on earth—or perhaps not so symbolic, and simply  comedic distractions inserted by the playwright to punch up the entertainment value.

This piece has potential…but need(s) much more development to justify putting on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

Such confusion is rampant throughout the 80 minutes of “Wakey, Wakey,” a piece of so-called “metatheater” that attempts to confound many of the traditions of live theater. Eno is a trendy playwright whose “The Realistic Joneses” has been performed by many companies and has been generally well-received. His “Middletown” is a pointless exercise in attempting to update Thorton Wilder’s classic “Our Town.”  “Wakey, Wakey” continues the pointlessness, right up to and including the moment when Guy expires, launching a deluge of bright balloons and celebratory music.

Eno may have drawn inspiration from Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who, while dying of pancreatic cancer, delivered motivational talks about achieving childhood dreams. The script’s amateur construction aside, Hale does a marvelous job holding the attention of the audience and conveying his character’s constantly mutating state of energy and awareness.

Kathryn Smith-McGlynn as Lisa (left) and Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

Smith-McGlynn is tremendously confident and sensitive as hospice nurse Lisa, who comes in late to check on him. She also appears as a community college substitute teacher in the opening sketch “The Substitution,” in which Eno conflates a cultural history lesson with driver’s education. This short piece has potential, as does “Wakey, Wakey,” but both of them need much more development to justify putting them on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

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

 

ProductionWakey, Wakey
Written byWIll Eno
Directed byAnne Kauffman
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Feb 16th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $110
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

An Aisle Seat Review: “Our Town” Falls Flat at NTC – by Nicole Singley

With its modest set and simple, unassuming premise, “Our Town” aims to celebrate the magic of the mundane, contemplating the ordinary, everyday moments we too often take for granted. Revolutionary when it debuted in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has since become an enduring staple of American theater. Under Michael Barr’s direction, this three-act classic takes the stage at Novato Theater Company through February 16th.

We open with a welcome from the Stage Manager (Christine Macomber), who introduces us to the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners, and continues to serve as our guide and sometimes-narrator throughout. We meet the town doctor and the milkman, watch as families gather ‘round their kitchen tables, and eavesdrop on schoolkids discussing their homework. Wilder’s script spans over a decade of love, loss, and run-of-the-mill moments in the lives of the townspeople. At the center of it all are George and Emily (Bryan Munar and Nicole Thordsen), the all-American boy and girl next door, who we encounter first as childhood friends, again as awkward teenagers stumbling into the early stages of love, and later as bride and groom, hurdling into adulthood ‘til death do they part.

Beautifully written and subtly profound in its frank depiction of normal people living unremarkable lives, its power lies not in what happens – as very little, in fact, actually does – but in the authenticity of its characters and the relatability of their life experiences. “Our Town” could be any town, anywhere at any time, the residents as familiar as our own friends and neighbors. It’s perhaps the realization of our shared humanity, and the quiet beauty and impermanence of each little moment, that beckons us to appreciate the here-and-now before it slips through our fingers.

. . . an ever-haunting tribute to the small, extraordinary moments that comprise an ordinary life.”

This show has the potential to be powerful and poignant – possibly transcendent – in the hands of the right cast and director. NTC’s production, however, comes up lacking in sincerity, bordering on tedious and boring. Much of the acting is stiff and unnatural, the lines flat and devoid of real emotion, and where nuance and depth of feeling are needed, there is little to be found. Without believable characters and relationships, their interactions become trivial and uncompelling.

Munar and Thordsen (Photo Credit: Fred Deneau)

Arguably the most damaging weak link in this production, the love story between George and Emily is utterly unconvincing. Munar’s George is sweet but overly shy and nervous, possessing little charm and none of the archetypal trappings of a school class president and star baseball player. There is no palpable chemistry between him and Thordsen, and none of the flirtatious tension or playfulness that often accompanies a budding young romance. Their love is at the heart of “Our Town,” and it needs to feel genuine in order to effectively hold our interest, arouse our compassion, and convey the full weight and meaning of Wilder’s message. Instead, it just feels flat and forced.

Janice Deneau and Mary Weinberg have done well with costume choices. Sparse scenic design is at the playwright’s instruction, and it’s reasonably well executed here by local designer and builder Michael Walraven. The production suffers, however, from the nearly constant, distracting boom and echo of heavy footsteps clomping across the hollow stage, often making it terribly difficult to hear and follow the actors’ lines.

On the whole, the ensemble puts forth a good effort. Macomber makes an excellent narrator, and Jennifer Reimer is convincing as wife and mother, Mrs. Gibbs. What’s missing is the sense that some key players are fully at home in their roles. Perhaps a few more performances will help them find their groove. There is great potential here to ramp up the emotional impact. “Our Town” remains deeply relevant despite its age, and an ever-haunting tribute to the small, extraordinary moments that comprise an ordinary life.

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.

 

ProductionOur Town
Written byThornton Wilder
Directed byMichael Barr
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough February 16th
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
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Review: Past and Present Collide in MTC’s “Noura” – by Barry Willis

David and Ibrahim (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

An Iraqi immigrant family finds a Christmas holiday gathering and promise of a bright future sullied by the momentum of the past in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” at Marin Theatre Company through February 9. 

Escapees from the destroyed city of Mosul, the family of three—Noura, her husband Tareq, and their young son Yazen—share a spacious New York City apartment, one decorated with an oversized Christmas tree but little else. Their space (set design by Adam Rigg) has the disheveled, semi-organized look of a temporary refugee camp, a reflection of Noura’s sense of disconnectedness despite the fact that her family has been in the US eight years, and has gained American citizenship and Anglicized names so that they might be better assimilated. Easier said than achieved, as this fascinating if uneven production proves over the course of its approximately ninety minutes.

The Christmas season is especially difficult for Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), who longs for the life she knew in her home city—family, friends, neighbors of multiple ethnicities and religions— an extended community that was destroyed in the wake of the US invasion. Tareq (Mattico David) is an emergency room physician who seems pretty much Americanized until confronted by the arrival of a holiday visitor, Maryam (Maya Nazzal), a fellow refugee they’ve been sponsoring who shares complicated ties to their past lives in Mosul. Her impending arrival is a source of anxiety for Noura as she makes preparations. A physics student in California, young Maryam hopes to land a job as a weapons designer with the US Department of Defense.  

Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity . . .”

Maryam’s aspirations don’t seem to have any effect on Noura and Tareq, nor on their doctor friend Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), also an exile from Mosul, but the fact that she is unmarried and pregnant—both by choice—throws Tareq into a tailspin. An independent young woman with no apparent need for a man is a situation he simply can’t cope with: thousands of years of macho Arab culture upended by one modern independent feminist, resounding proof that they’ve left the old world behind. The emotional repercussions from this and other conflicts resonate off the stage and into the audience as the four adults and one boy (Valentino Herrera) struggle to make the holiday a pleasant one. 

The Cast of MTC’s “Noura” (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

All four adult actors are excellent. Ibrahim and David in particular are able to mine emotional nuances that actors with lesser skills might not manage. Some of their dramatic expertise must certainly be the work of director Kate Bergstrom, but there are holes in the story that detract from its intended effect. Why, for example, do these Iraqi-Americans not raise even one word of dismay over Maryam’s stated career agenda, when their entire country was demolished by high-tech weaponry and the medieval mentality behind it? Tareq must make a decent income from his emergency room work, but they still can’t afford some basic furniture? Then there are Noura’s recurring smoke-filled reveries of the life she once knew, with no counterbalancing embrace of the future’s potential. 

Noura lives in limbo between then and now, unable to let go and unwilling to move on. It’s a heartbreaking situation, the immigrant’s plight, one not understood by Americans intent on “reaching closure” as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity, repeated several times with minor variations in the extended final scene. Playwright Raffo might better have chosen one powerful statement and let the curtain fall, rather than hammer the audience with what they’ve already learned is Noura’s unhappy truth. Not that the story needs to be tied up in a tidy little bundle of happy-ever-afterness, but a clear ending would enhance the play’s impact.

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

 

ProductionNoura
Written byHeather Raffo
Directed byKate Bergstrom
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough February 9th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Quirky, Wonderful “Heisenberg” at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Rider and Craven (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

A seemingly chance encounter between a mature London butcher and a younger woman prompts  unpredictable developments in Simon Stephens’s “Heisenberg,” at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through February 2.

Directed by Carla Spindt, the two-actor, six-scene piece takes its name from German physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose famous “uncertainty principle” means, in its largest sense, that we can’t really be sure about what we think we know. It opens with Alex (John Craven) sitting calmly on a park bench when quite unbidden, Georgie (Shannon Rider) approaches and kisses him on the neck—the first time they’ve met. She introduces herself and gushes almost uncontrollably while he looks on befuddled—clearly this is a “red flag” moment but he plays along, listening attentively and politely without offering encouragement. 

It’s an extremely odd first encounter. In the second one, having done some minor detective work via Google, she’s tracked him down at his butcher shop, and comes on even stronger, this time with a completely different tale about who she is and why she’s interested in him. Amused and flattered by the unexpected attention, he’s again receptive but does not encourage. Craven maintains his character’s distance throughout, a mix of caution and curiosity, while the energetic Rider pours out ever-more-fanciful tales that culminate in a confession that she hasn’t seen her adult son in years and needs to go to America to find him.

. . . a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.”

Craven and Rider (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

As the two become friendlier, her various veils of hyperactive identity fall away but it’s still never clear to Alex or the audience (or possibly to Georgie herself) which part of her is real and which is not—a maddening and very funny scenario. Having accepted that Georgie is off-kilter but probably harmless, Alex makes his peace with the situation’s unpredictability and goes along for what proves to be a lovely ride. It’s a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.

Both of them veteran performers, Craven and Rider are fully committed to this delightfully ambiguous yet somehow totally believable piece of magical realism—Craven the embodiment of fascinated reticence, Rider a whirlwind of imaginative insistence. The drama and the comedy are equally enhanced by sound designer Joe Winkler’s lovely tango music and Chris Schloemp’s marvelous projections on an elegant set by Argo Thompson.  

Is the May/December relationship between Georgie and Alex believable? Is the ambiguity of their story plausible? Yes. No. Maybe. In a universe of infinite outcomes, everything is possible—perhaps even perfect. That’s the beguiling beauty of “Heisenberg.”

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

 

ProductionHeisenberg
Written bySimon Stephens
Directed byCarla Spindt
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 2nd
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Review: “Buddy” A Rocking Good Time at 6th Street – by Barry Willis

Kyle Jurrasic as Buddy Holly (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

1950s musical icon Buddy Holly had a short but prolific career. With 12 top 100 hits within three years, his sweet lyrics and catchy rhythms proved to have enduring influence on many artists that followed, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Now in an extended run through February 16 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story” follows his meteoric rise from the country music scene in Lubbock, Texas, to New York City and elsewhere—including his final performance in Clearlake, Iowa before a plane crash that took his life and those of fellow performers Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Holly was only 22 and might have gone on to a long illustrious career, but the catalog he left behind is still a source of inspiration and joy.

The show is a “jukebox musical”—one that conveys the biographical facts interspersed with Holly’s many hits. Bay Area newcomer Kyle Jurrasic is excellent as Holly, capturing his signature look, song styling, and guitar playing. That’s to be expected of an actor who’s played the role multiple times. Director D.J. Salisbury also has extensive experience with the show, having directed and/or choreographed seven previous productions.

The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully…”

The large cast is generally tremendous, especially Seth Dahlgren as the Big Bopper, Marc Assad as Valens, and Charlie Whitaker as Maria Elena Santiago, Holly’s wife. Husband-and-wife team John and Jennifer Bannister are superb in multiple roles, while music-and-dance numbers are handled adroitly by triple-threat Trevor Hoffman with Selena Elize Flores and Jennifer Barnaba. Nick Ambrosio is comically delightful as Jerry Allison, Holly’s drummer.

Opening night was marred by a few technical glitches—what the heck was a battery-powered transmitter doing attached to a 1950s guitar?—but that didn’t seem to bother the sold-out crowd clearly assembled to revel in the music, delivered with gusto and authenticity over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours. The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully, but as has been true for several recent 6th Street productions, the set is minimal—in this case little more than three pairs of flats decorated with neo-50s graphics, that serve as everything from office walls to elevator doors. Production values are otherwise fairly high—costumes, lighting, and sound. The skimpy set is all that holds this show back from a higher rating, but it may not be a concern for the many Buddy Holly fans likely to buy tickets.

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

 

ProductionBuddy—The Buddy Holly Story
Written byAlan Janes
Directed byD. J. Salisbury
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough February 16th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco 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.

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Transcendence Broadway Holiday Spectacular 2019 by Cari Lynn Pace

Transcendence got the “Spectacular” name right – this show is an amazing celebration. The cadre of 19 good-looking expats from Broadway and LA blockbuster musicals rocked the Sonoma stage and travels to the Napa stage with this annual show. They mix it up with dancing (from ballet to tap), singing (from touching solos to majestic choruses) and 100% joyful energy.

Done in two acts, Transcendence talents perform holiday favorites along with signature pieces from eight classic musicals in the first half. Songs include all faiths, with “O Holy Night” and “Sabbath Prayer” beautifully juxtaposed on a two-level set.

Photo by Mimi Carroll.

Act II flashes back to carols and seasonal songs over the ages, punched up by high-energy creative choreography by Tony Gonzalez, who also directs. The talented 10-piece band under Susan Draus’s baton had a blast strutting their stuff, with a few musicians sharing the limelight with the dancers.

All ages rushed to their feet for a standing ovation…

The show provokes lots of laughter. There’s an amusing role reversal when Micki Weiner and Colin Campbell McAdoo sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” More hilarity when five handsome guys scruff about, singing “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ for Christmas.”

Tony Gonzalez, a veteran Transcendence member, deserves a shout out for the impressive flow of the show, so well varied in pace and volume. Ten cast members rocked the house with “Light Sings”, building up a tremendous crescendo of voices to thunderous applause. Just when you think it can’t get any more dynamic, the spotlight hits David R. Gordon with his guitar on center stage. He practically whispers his poignant solo “Let There be Peace on Earth” as the audience holds their breath. Not a pin was dropped.

Photo by Ray Martel.

All ages rushed to their feet for a standing ovation as the finale ended and the performers took their bows. Transcendence Broadway Holiday Spectacular is a power-packed show, exuberant entertainment at its festive best.

 

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

 

ProductionBroadway Holiday Spectacular 2019
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byTony Gonzalez
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesDecember 14-15, 2019
Production AddressLincoln Theater
100 California Drive
Yountville, CA 94599
Websitehttps://transcendencetheatre.org/
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$39-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Christmas Story – The Musical by Cari Lynn Pace

This is the heart-warming story of Ralphie, the 9-year old boy who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and fantasizes how to convince his parents and Santa to grant his wish.This stage play adds musical pieces to enhance the nostalgic and classic comedy, without losing the original’s momentum or warmth.

Larry Williams directs, or more accurately corrals, nearly a dozen kids and a handful of adults from many Bay Area theatres to present this show. It’s an amazing undertaking that overflows the small Sonoma Arts Live stage with youthful energy and authenticity. It’s a good thing Williams is a veteran actor and director. He knows how to get the best performances out of a large cast of 21 diverse ages who act, sing, and dance.

Worth the effort for this holiday treat!

Ralphie, acted and sung by Tuolumne Bunter, is a standout. This 10-year old’s gestures and facial expressions are far beyond his years. The program notes he cut off 18 inches of his hair to play the part…quite the sacrifice!

Where did these youngsters get their talent? Little brother Randy, played by Joseph Atchley, is so tiny he hides beneath the kitchen sink, to the great amusement of the audience. There’s a bully (perfectly cast in Ty Schoeningh) and his sidekick (Mario Alioto) who terrorize the other kids from their class. Every costumed youth stays solidly in character to deliver authenticity, and pure enjoyment for the audience.

Their teacher Miss Shields (Scharypearl Fugitt) gives an over-the-top performance as a lovesick spinster, including a tap dance with young Mario Alioto. She has the audience chuckling as she sings “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” the phrase adults use to thwart Ralphie’s wish.

Ralphie has an adult alter ego who narrates the youngster’s ever-hopeful story in flashback. George Bereschik does an admirable job in his task providing the glue to hold the scenes together. The cast’s adults, including Morgan Harrington and Rick Love (as Mom and “The Old Man”) had their work cut out for them lest they be upstaged by the many talented wunderkinds.

“A Christmas Story” is suitable for all ages, and particularly youngsters who may not be familiar with live theatre. You may have to hustle to get tickets as the show is a winner and the theatre is small. Worth the effort for this holiday treat!

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 Christmas Story – The Musical
Written byJoseph Robinette, based on Jean Shepard’s book
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until December 22, 2019
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Harry Potter” a Mind-Blower at the Curran by Barry Willis

Unlimited budgets can yield miracles. Especially in theater. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” at the Curran through July 12, is one of those miracles.

And yes, the July 12 closing date is correct—a six-month run! The large-capacity Curran (nearly 1700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for a massive renovation, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to build out the realistic refugee camp for last spring’s fantastic production of “The Jungle.” It’s been redecorated again—this time with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo.

The unlimited budget is apparent both the moment you step into the theater and the moment the curtain rises for Part One, which manages to pack 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. Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Those are a few highlights.

…It’s a wild adventure.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany 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 (Andrew Long) and his offspring. It’s a wild adventure. The fanciful, quick-moving, and action-packed tale consumes nearly two-and-a-half hours and will keep you riveted to your seat the entire time. It’s a mind-blowing, all-consuming production populated by four or five dozen ace performers.

Among the amazing factoids around this show are stories of the two young actors who so magnificently embody Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is reputedly Papac’s first professional stage acting gig, and Steiger’s prior experience includes a Shakespeare festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They nonetheless meet the world-class challenge of what must be an exhausting, demanding production, including Saturday and Sunday performances that include both Part One and Part Two, where the two boys and their Hogwarts associates meet Voldemort’s daughter for a final showdown.

Should your time or budget restrict you to seeing only Part One or Part Two, note that Part One is the more compelling of the two, and more spectacle-intensive. Real Potterites, of course, will want to see both, but casual visitors will likely enjoy the first one more. Part Two’s extensive exposition and lengthy dialog will be better suited for those who’ve read all the books and seen all the films.

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. Even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers—they are legion—it’s a religious experience.

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.

 

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 DatesJuly 12th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$59 – $289
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Theater PICK! “Sound of Music” Climbs Every Mountain (almost) at SSU by Barry Willis

One of the most beloved musicals of all time is enjoying a sumptuous revival at Sonoma State University’s capacious Evert B. Person Theatre through December 8.

With its own theater facilities still under renovation, the Santa Rosa Junior College Theater Arts department has teamed up with its counterpart at Sonoma State University to put on a hugely ambitious and mostly successful production of “The Sound of Music,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the Austrian von Trapp family and their escape from Nazi oppression shortly after the Germans annexed their country. It’s also, of course, the story of Maria Rainer (Arianna LaMark), the perpetually upbeat would-be nun who becomes governess to the seven von Trapp children, and ultimately, the wife of their widowed father, Captain von Trapp (Michael Coury Murdock).

… …a wonderfully engaging performance… …

The show is rampant with tunes that won instant popularity and continue to be favorites today: “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “How Can Love Survive?,” and “Climb Every Mountain,” all of them performed brilliantly by a huge cast on a huge stage, backed by a superb ten-piece orchestra led by music director Janis Dunsun Wilson. Everything about this show is enormous, from the steeply-raked large-capacity Person Theatre to the fantastically oversized stage set and towering backdrop on which is projected an image of the Matterhorn as it looks at various times of day and night—set and projection design by Peter Crompton.

Director Laura Downing-Lee has coaxed a wonderfully engaging performance from her cast of nearly three dozen performers, all of whom deliver without a bobble. Vocal performances are tremendous—LaMark and Murdock excel here—and the acting is almost as good, with the best performances given by Heather Buck as Elsa Schrader and Crystal McDougall as Mother Abbess. LaMark wins hearts with “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” and several other songs, while Murdock prompts tears with his treatment of “Edelweiss” in the penultimate scene. Madigan Love is excellent as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp brood, although her handling of the guitar makes it appear as if she’s just discovered the instrument.

There are a couple of unfortunate glitches that detract from the pervasive magic, especially the fact that the backdrop isn’t stretched tight enough to avoid billowing. When it does, the Matterhorn appears to be breathing. A bit of a letdown comes at the end, when the von Trapps decide to strike out on foot through the mountains to Switzerland. Downing-Lee wisely has them tackle the steep stairs out of the theater—in the dark, as must have happened in real life—but a bit of subdued lighting on them as they climb would heighten the drama. The same is true when they reach the top and look back at their home. Instead of simply standing there in the dark then leaving through an “Exit” door, they might linger for a moment behind a bit of set indicating that they’ve reached Switzerland and freedom.

But those are small suggestions intended only to take this already tremendous production one notch higher. Even without them, it’s guaranteed to please. “The Sound of Music” is among the greatest feel-good shows of all time; SRJC’s affordable tickets make this version an absolute bargain.

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.

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Written byBook by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing CompanySanta Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Deptment in conjunction with Sonoma State University
Production DatesThrough December 8th
Production AddressEvert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University

1801 E. Cotati Ave.

Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitetheatrearts.santarosa.edu
Telephone707-527-4307
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Theatre Review: “The Seafarer” a Rough Voyage at Main Stage West by Barry Willis

The stereotypical Irish affinity for alcohol, self-delusion, and self-defeat gets fully exercised in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” at Main Stage West through December 21.

It’s Christmas eve, 2007, in a shabby residence (set design by director David Lear) in a small coastal town north of Dublin. Four buddies have gathered for a night of blarney, heavy drinking, and card games, with a fifth guest named Mr. Lockhart (Keith Baker) who may or may not be the devil incarnate. The four friends—Nicky, Richard, Ivan, and Sharky (Anthony Abate, John Craven, Kevin Bordi, and Edward McCloud, respectively)—spend the entire first act getting hammered and regaling each other with long-winded and elaborate tales about very little. It’s a long setup.

…a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors.

In the second act, they get down to business with a poker game in which they bluff not only about the cards they hold but about their generally miserable existences—bluffing exacerbated by their sharing a treasured bottle of high-octane liquor, as the financial and psychological stakes rise.

The stakes reach a fever pitch during a lull in the game—with the other three out of the room, Mr. Lockhart torments Sharky with a hideously frightening description of eternal damnation. Then they reunite around the table for a few final rounds of cards, in which their true characters are revealed to be as empty as their pockets. None of them are likable—Nicky, for example, admits that he has only thirty-five euros to last until January, and that he ought to be at home with his wife and kids, but he can’t resist gambling more than he has on one last desperate hand. Ivan likewise wrestles with how he’s going to explain his absence from home. Richard, Sharky’s brother and literally a blind drunk, takes great delight in tormenting his friends, as he has throughout the evening.

Altogether, it’s an unpleasant story about unlikeable losers, not one that would normally earn a recommendation, but it’s a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors. All are 100% committed to their characters and 100% committed to telling McPherson’s tale as well as it can be told. In that sense, “The Seafarer” is an exemplary production—a master class for aspiring actors, but not the sort of production that ordinary theatergoers will gush about to friends. If you’re seeking something to brighten your day or a tune to whistle on the way home, this isn’t it.

Is it possible to beat the devil at his own game? Is it possible to beat the devil that resides in every man’s heart? McPherson, a reformed alcoholic himself, implies that it is, perhaps even accidentally. Brave theatergoers with a tolerance for the dark side of humanity may wish to find out for themselves.

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.

 

ProductionSeafarer
Written byConor McPherson
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 21st
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Explosive Laughs in “Escanaba” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Escanaba in da Moonlight” (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Alien encounters, porcupine piss, and a troop of whiskey-swilling women armed with hunting rifles. These are either the makings of a really strange nightmare or a recipe for comic gold. Left Edge Theatre proves the latter with their outrageously funny production of Jeff Daniels’s “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” playing in Santa Rosa through December 15th.

It’s the eve of deer-hunting season in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the Soady clan has gathered in the family cabin to continue an annual tradition steeped in generations of folklore and a whole lot of booze. But this year, things are different. For daughter Ruby (Paige Picard), the stakes have never been higher. She’s the only Soady who has yet to bag a buck, and if she can’t pull it off this season, she’ll break an embarrassing family record.

Willing to try anything and determined to succeed, Ruby’s packed some questionable dinner fare in place of the usual “pasties.” It would be wrong to give too much away, but suffice it to say that things only get weirder and wilder. It’s a strange ride full of fun surprises, hell-raising hilarity, and one especially memorable scene that nearly brought the opening-weekend audience to tears.

This one’s guaranteed to leave you smiling . . .”

Director Argo Thompson puts a refreshing spin on this originally male-dominated show with an all-female ensemble, and thanks to excellent casting, it works beautifully. Strong chemistry between the Soady gals and pitch-perfect delivery make the whole thing absurdly enjoyable.

Parrott-Thomas and Picard (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Sandra Ish is the ideal fit for tough-as-nails matriarch, Alberta, whose no-nonsense narration helps us find our footing in a land where the locals speak their own language and march to a very different drum. Chandler Parrott-Thomas is a riot as hotshot hunter Remy, whose superstition runs so deep she’s been sporting the same sweat-soaked lucky shirt each year since childhood. She and Picard evoke a comfortable familiarity that makes them believable as sisters, striking the right balance between cutthroat rivalry and abiding love.

Kalember as “The Jimmer” (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The antics ramp up when “The Jimmer” (Kimberly Kalember) joins the party. She hasn’t been quite right, we’re told, since the alien abduction, and has since developed a bizarre speech impediment that makes for heaps of laughter and confusion. Kalember is ridiculously funny and a ton of fun to watch.

Thompson has a gift for designing immersive sets with thoughtful details on the intimate stage at Left Edge, and this one’s no exception. (Kat Motley helps out with a host of peculiar props.) The rustic plank walls and flannel sheets will make you want to pack a suitcase and cozy up at your own cabin in the woods this winter. Ish completes the picture with befitting costume choices that add to the amusement. April George shows off her lighting skills with forest backdrops and paranormal visitations, even bending time with a cleverly-placed stop motion strobe effect.

Whether you’re hungry for something new and unusual or just in need of a good, lighthearted laugh to ward off the holiday blues, “Escanaba” is the perfect tonic. This one’s guaranteed to leave you smiling all the way home.

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.

 

ProductionEscanaba in da Moonlight
Written byJeff Daniels
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review PICK! Astounding “Mother of the Maid” at Marin Theatre Company by Barry Willis

Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher) and her daughter, Joan Arc (Rosie Hallett)
Photo: Kevin Berne

A mother’s love has seldom been as brilliantly or movingly depicted as it is in Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid,” at Marin Theatre Company through December 15.

Directed by Jasson Minadakis, it’s a story of a mother’s devotion to one of history’s most famous and most controversial figures. Joan of Arc had a short life: she was only 17 when she led the French army against the English during the last gasp of the Hundred Years War, and was only 19 when she was burned at the stake as a heretic. Her parents endured it all—Joan’s recurring visions, irrepressible spirit, indomitable purpose, and tragic end. Her father Jacques (played by the always rock-solid Scott Coopwood) witnessed her execution and suffered psychosomatic blindness a result, and is said to have died of grief shortly thereafter.

While it’s Joan’s trajectory that propels the piece, it’s really the story of her mother Isabelle (the astounding Sherman Fracher) whose devotion is so strong that she not only bathes and comforts her daughter on the morning of her execution but in the decades after, pursues clearing her name, taking her case all the way to the Pope in Rome. Joan of Arc was ultimately exonerated of heresy and declared a saint, in large part due to Isabelle’s persistence.

Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) sees Joan (Rosie Hallett) for the first time in months.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

The Church permeated every aspect of life in the Middle Ages in Europe—business, finance, government, military, and private family affairs. It was an age of superstition and savagery—despite the Biblical commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” with Church approval, governments small and large squandered economic and human resources on one pointless war after another—a tradition that continued right into the modern era. Illiterate sheepherders, the Arc family had seen their friends and neighbors, the Lebecs, hacked to death by the English.

…as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

From early adolescence, Joan (Rosie Hallett) had visions of visitations from St. Catherine that instilled in her a deep conviction that her purpose was to lead France to liberty—a belief shared by local clergyman Father Gilbert (Robert Sicular), who pleads her case with church officials. Father Gilbert is a kind-hearted go-between, and Isabelle respects him. Jacques is more a hardened realist but knows better than to argue points of theology or to question authority. Joan’s brother Pierre (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) is a teenager enamored with playing soldier—he couldn’t be prouder of his armor and his sword, and is Joan’s companion in battle, which we do not see enacted onstage.

Joan (Rosie Hallett) dictates a letter while her parents, Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) and Jacques Arc (Scott Coopwood), observe.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

Except for the opening scene—in the Arc home, implied by a structure of rough open timbers—all of the action takes place on a dauntingly beautiful set by Sean Fanning, a collection of floating Gothic arches that serves as Church, palace, and prison, made ethereal or oppressive by Chris Lundahl’s exquisite lighting. Marin Theatre Company regular Liz Sklar does a fine turn as a lady of the court, who befriends Joan (and subsequently, Isabelle) and wins her favor with the Dauphin, future King Charles VII of France. Isabelle’s visit to court involved walking three hundred miles over rough terrain, a journey she undertook multiple times. Fancher conveys Isabelle’s exhaustion and inexhaustible devotion as if they are simply what any mother would endure for her daughter.

Anderson’s use of modern dialect is an act of genius. The Arc family speaks in a sort of hybrid Irish/Minnesota accent, while the clergy and ‘noble folk’ speak more formally. The dialog might have been delivered in a sort of pseudo-Shakespearean with French accents, but putting it in modern language makes the whole story more immediate, more real, and more applicable to our own time. 600 years after Joan of Arc, superstition and savagery are still the rule.

“Mother of the Maid” is a heartbreaking piece of theater. A mother’s devotion to her children is one of the fundamental forces of human existence. MTC deserves high praise for bringing it to the forefront of our consciousness. It’s simply brilliant—as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

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.

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
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!

An Aisle Seat Review! “Champions of Magic” an Astounding Show at the Golden Gate by Barry Willis

For the next few days, Bay Area theater fans have a rare opportunity to see the UK-based international touring show “Champions of Magic,” with twice-per-day performances through Dec. 1 at San Francisco’s downtown Golden Gate Theatre.

Five world-class illusionists and one aerialist/contortionist prove that classic theatrical magic is alive and well, with acts that include a mind-reader, a sleight-of-hand performer, an escape artist, and illusionists Strange & Young, who make people including themselves disappear and reappear instantly in ways that absolutely baffle and confound the audience.

Champions … is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families.

Aided by willing audience members, some little children, the sleight-of-hand artist gets an amazing amount of mileage from a Five of Clubs pulled from her deck, cut-and-torn paper, and various ordinary objects including rubber bands. Audience volunteers also propel the mind-reader, who on opening night correctly guessed names and relationships of random people pulled onstage. He also identified one woman as a Navy veteran and former presidential guard, without any apparent prior knowledge. How this is possible will keep you wondering long after the show is over.

The escape artist revives some of Houdini’s best tricks, including getting out of a straitjacket while submerged in a tank of water locked from the outside, a performance guaranteed to induce anxiety in anyone with a hint of claustrophobia. Strange & Young offer plenty of comedic patter as they leap about with a dynamic, quick-moving illusionist spectacle worthy of Las Vegas.

“Champions of Magic,” in fact, is the nearest thing to Las Vegas currently running in San Francisco, save the Cirque de Soleil production of “Amaluna” that runs into January. “Champions” is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families. The show’s run is short and if opening night is a good indicator, tickets may be in short supply. If dazzling spectacles appeal to you, do not miss this show.

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.

 

“Champions of Magic” International Touring Show

  • Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
  • Two shows daily through Dec. 1
  • Tickets: $59.99 to $169.99
  • Info: broadwaysf.com

Ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Marvelous “Miss Bennet” a Must-See at Spreckels – by Nicole Singley

Niernberger and Cadigan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Austen lovers will rejoice at this dazzling continuation of beloved classic Pride and Prejudice, picking up two years after the novel leaves off and making its Sonoma County premiere at Spreckels through December 15th. Penned with finesse by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” rings true to the canonical author’s style and characters, full of everything an Austenesque story should be – strong, outspoken women who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, an abundant wealth of razor-sharp wit, and a heartwarming love story for the ages.

L-R: Pugh, Park, Nordby, and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The show opens on an elegant drawing room in Mr. Darcy’s sprawling estate, in which he (Matt Cadigan) and Elizabeth (Ilana Niernberger) are preparing for her family to descend for the holidays. Thanks to Niernberger’s spirited demeanor and playful charm, matched with Cadigan’s stately ease, the Darcys are credibly reincarnated as though no time has passed at all. If anything, it’s clear two years of marriage have only served to strengthen and solidify their affection. The two are soon joined by Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Jane (Allie Nordby), and Mr. Bingley (Evan Held), who are expecting their first child and seem happier than ever.

All of this would be enough to make any Pride and Prejudice fan ecstatic, but Gunderson and Melcon have another treat in store. This is Mary Bennet’s turn in the spotlight, after all – the dry-humored, pedantic, and oft-overlooked middle sister, presumed doomed to a life of spinsterhood by her preference for books and pianoforte over the company of other people. Mary (Karina Pugh) has grown since we last saw her, and so too her fear that she may never leave her parents’ home. Must she sit forever on the sidelines, watching each of her sisters find the kind of love she’ll never know? Or could this Christmas bring an unexpected gift?

Pugh makes a brilliant first appearance at Spreckels with her captivating frankness and candor, earning laughs with her deadpan quips and well-timed delivery. Her scenes at the piano are equally hilarious, requiring no words to convey what her character is feeling. (She gets some help behind the scenes from pianist Nancy Hayashibara.)

Diffenderfer and Park (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Also excellent are Ella Park as Lydia Wickham, bubbling over with flirtatious energy as she cavorts about the stage, attempting shamelessly to conceal the unhappiness of her marriage, and Taylor Diffenderfer as the spine-chilling, frigid Anne de Bourgh, channeling her deceased mother’s pretentious disdain and willful intimidation tactics. Her very entrance is like a dark cloud rolling over the stage. She’s transfixing. Even though they act in small part as the story’s villains, they too are given room to grow and hope for a happier ending. Because, after all – as “Miss Bennet” suggests – don’t we all deserve a chance at love?

. . . a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater.”

Walters and Pugh (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The playwrights have succeeded in crafting characters who are believable extensions of their predecessors, allowing their stories to develop in a way that feels natural and at home with Austen’s legacy. The addition of Darcy’s socially-awkward cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Zane Walters), is a welcome surprise. He fits right in as the perfect complement to Mary’s hyper-studious and antisocial tendencies. Walters is simply outstanding – his Arthur is genuine and endearing, and despite his clumsy stumbling, a character you’ll want to root for.

Elizabeth Bazzano’s set is tasteful and inviting, begging us to cozy up beside the fireplace, help decorate a much-discussed spruce tree, or gaze out the beautiful window at snow falling on a frosted landscape. Pamela Johnson has chosen costumes that feel in keeping with the characters’ personalities. (A minor wardrobe malfunction was noticeable but easily forgotten amid the fun.)

Director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly-paced production with an evident flair for comedic timing. The unceasingly clever dialogue is well served by all members of this first-rate ensemble, and adeptly paired with physical comedy and priceless facial expressions throughout. Rarely has a show made me laugh so often and wholeheartedly.

While previous knowledge of Pride and Prejudice will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the show, it’s completely unnecessary. Even those new to Austen will find much to love in this easy-to-navigate and utterly uplifting story. Stellar writing, effective direction, and an exceptional cast combine to make “Miss Bennet” a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater. Sincerely sweet and unforgettably good, it’s a true delight from start to finish, and over in a flash. You may even wish to catch it twice before it’s gone.

 

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.

 

ProductionMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Review Theater Review: Big Sprawling “Oliver!” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Sold to the Undertaker – photo by Eric Chazankin

London in Charles Dickens’s time must have been close to hell on earth, choked with pollution, poverty, homelessness, and crime. “Oliver Twist,” the author’s second novel, depicts all this quite vividly. So does “Oliver!” the 1960 musical adaptation by Lionel Bart, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through December 15.

The show’s requirement of many children in the cast prompts theater companies to present it in the hope of generating substantial ticket sales—all those kids have parents, relatives, and friends who must attend. But despite its huge popularity, it’s not a feel-good extravaganza like “Annie.” It’s a grim portrait of a poor orphan boy (Cecilia Brenner and Gus Jordan, in alternating performances) doing his best to survive in unbelievably adverse circumstance.

This includes falling in with a group of scuzzy adolescent hoodlums led by an old hustler named Fagin (David Yen), who fences their stolen goods in exchange for providing them a bit of safety and mentorship, aided by his youthful apprentice The Artful Dodger (Mario Herrera). These small-time criminals are in turn under the thumb of a really serious criminal named Bill Sykes (the imposing Zachary Hasbany), a malevolent force who doesn’t hesitate to kill people who displease him or get in his way.

…the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing…

Survival is the primary plot, but there are some compelling secondary plots too, including love affairs among the adults—especially between the doomed, pathetically mistreated Nancy (Brittany Law) and the dastardly Sikes. There’s also a meandering subplot about the hunt for Oliver’s family of origin that’s resolved near the end, as is Fagin’s reconsideration of his disreputable career.

Cecilia Brenner as Oliver-Mario Herrera as Dodger-photo by Eric Chazankin

6th Street’s show has a huge cast—it’s in many ways an all-star gathering of North Bay theatrical talent, who make substantial contributions to its success under director Patrick Nims. The set by Sam Transleau is equally huge, occupying the entirety of the big stage in the G.K. Hardt theater, save the space backstage where Ginger Beavers leads an excellent seven-piece band.

There’s some inexplicable gender-bending in the adult casting, but most of the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing (choreography by Joseph Favalora).

Oliver’s personal triumph is uplifting, and Fagin’s repentance satisfying, but the real appeal of the show—and perhaps, the reason for its enduring popularity—is the number of great songs in it. Many of them broke out as pop and jazz standards—especially Nancy’s heartbreaking showcase number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” The music alone recommends this show, while the rest of it works with admirable effort in every direction to sustain that level.

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

 

ProductionOliver!
Written byLionel Bart
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

An Aisle Seat Theater PICK! “She Loves Me” is a Charming Musical Romance at RVP — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ross Valley Players has collaborated with the Mountain Play Association to present a light-hearted nostalgic musical filled with fine performances.

“She Loves Me” debuted in 1964. It’s based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo, which inspired classic films as 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail in 1998. An homage to Cyrano de Bergerac that takes place in a 1930’s Budapest perfume shop—Maraczek’s Parfumerie—the musical won multiple Tony awards for its 1993 and 2016 Broadway revivals.

The Ross Valley Players and the Mountain Play Association are two of the oldest theatre companies in Marin. Why is the Mountain Play collaborating with RVP for this special performance, not a part of the regular RVP season? “We want to become more of a year-round musical company and lend our support to others. We’ve been behind the scenes of the Ross Valley Players since one of their plays in 1935 (“The World We Live In”) was subsequently presented as our Mountain Play for that year,” explained Eileen Grady, Executive Director and Artistic Producer of the Mountain Play.

This charming and cheerful musical … is a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

“She Loves Me” enjoys an unusually lengthy run: five performances per week almost to Christmas Day. A familiar name to Mountain Play devotees is veteran choreographer/actor Nicole Helfer, who has shifted her admirable skills to direct this production. Multi-talented Jake Gale, who just completed a run as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Marin Musical Theatre Company’s “Rocky Horror Show,” serves as vocal director and also supervises the show’s music.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

A large cast of thirteen does a fine job acting, singing, and dancing in period costumes designed by Michael A. Berg. Petite Marah Sotelo is a standout as the store clerk Amalia, both in spot-on acting, gestures and a pleasing soprano voice. Max Kligman is well-matched as Georg, her “Dear Friend” mystery suitor, despite their amusing height difference.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Another surprising talent (and this show contains many) is Anthony Maglio, who does a fine lothario shop clerk, then later becomes an aggressive waiter plagued by a clumsy busboy (Alex Munoz). Act I’s highlight has to be the hilarious café scene “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Store clerks are played and sung convincingly by Patrick Barr and young Alex Cook. Lovely Chelsey Ristaino balances out the staff and gets to steal a few scenes as she finds amusing library romance in Act II.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ron Dritz and Michael Walraven (also the show’s set designer) provide supporting characters. They’re joined by the song-and-dance moves of Dana Cherry, Katie Rose, MacKenzie Cahill, and a tantalizing tango by Sophie de Morelos and that clumsy busboy Alex Munoz.

This charming and cheerful musical is a bit long (2 ½ hours) with a first act of 90 minutes, but it’s a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

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

 

ProductionShe Loves Me
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byNicole Helfer
Producing CompanyMountain Play Association and Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThru December 22nd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.MountainPlay.org
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Bluff” Choice Bits to Chew on in This Slice of Life – by Cari Lynn Pace

Cameron Stuckey is Gene and Anya Cherniss is Doubling Actress in “Bluff.” Photos by: Marc Bussin

Jeffrey Sweet’s newest play is billed as a dark comedy, although it’s more drama than humor. This 90-minute peek at a couple’s relationship breaks theatre’s “fourth wall” repeatedly, interacting with the audience in San Rafael’s Belrose Theatre. This is the perfect cabaret-style venue for this show. Actors access the stage from the wings as well as the back of the house, using the center aisle to surprise the audience.

Bluff begins with two actors on the minimalist set speaking their lines with a recitation of the script’s directions. Just when you’re getting the hang of their unconventional interaction, this artifice is dropped. Someone on the street is being attacked. Neal grabs his baseball bat to the rescue. The victim is patched up. It’s NYC, so the unnamed dude (Alvin Josephs) departs without a “by your leave.”

Emily (Isabelle Grimm) and Neal (Will Livingston) are left to get acquainted, the millennials who helped defend the victim. Emily notes “It’s a good thing you’re not a tennis player, as a racquet wouldn’t make as good a weapon as your bat.”

This 90-minute peek at a couple’s relationship breaks theatre’s “fourth wall” repeatedly…

They couple up and discuss living together. The dialog is ordinary but intriguing to eavesdrop. This is a good thing as the plot isn’t much. Emily has an apartment, and Neal wisely observes “If I move in, it will be “your” place, not “our” place.”

Despite reservations, Emily and Neal cohabitate her apartment. More conversations. Emily phones her hospitalized mother (Tamara Chandler) on the West Coast who laughingly brushes off her daughter’s concerns about drinking and health.

(L to R) Cameron Stuckey is Gene, Isabelle Grimm is Emily, Will Livingston is Neal in “Bluff”.
Photos by: Marc Bussin

Emily’s stepdad Gene arrives in town for a convention, and the tension between these two is immediate and unexplained. Gene (Cam Stuckey) seems affable enough, although it’s difficult to catch all his dialog. He’s a salesman and makes the effort to be sociable to Emily and her boyfriend, but Emily won’t move off her aggressive attitude. The guys bond.

A truth-telling moment occurs when Gene admits he’s been philandering. Emily realizes that Gene has been the only stabilizing force in her alcoholic mother’s life. Self-centered Emily isn’t the least bit grateful. She weighs her dismal options if she snitches on Gene. We never really see a likable side to Emily or learn what’s behind her unrelenting bitchiness.

Emily boots out her boyfriend.

Gene goes home.

Neal shrugs.

And the play ends.

In spite of the unfinished feeling to Bluff, making it seem more like a sketch, there are some clever nuggets. The playwright demonstrates his skill with improv to make the lack of props amusing. Gene asks for a real glass in the bar scene, and the waiter crankily responds, “You’ve been using pretend phones, why can’t you use a pretend cocktail?”

The comedic high point of Bluff is the unnamed part played by Anya Cherniss. She appears briefly in the opening scene and reappears much later as a sultry temptress engaging Gene at a bar. When her lines indicate she should exit the stage, she instead begins ranting to the audience about her character’s qualities. She takes center stage to whine that she should have more lines to speak, as she is a very capable actor. Director Joey Hoeber steps up to command that she leave. Breaking that “fourth wall” brings the biggest laugh of the show.

Despite the shortage of character development or motivation, theatre is meant to be entertaining. Bluff certainly fits that description.

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

 

ProductionBluff
Written byJeffrey Sweet
Directed byJoey Hoeber & Dianne Harrison
Producing CompanyJolee Productions
Production DatesFridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM through November 16th
Production AddressBelrose Theatre
1415 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitebrownpapertickets.com/event/4345503
Telephone
Tickets$25/advance, $27 at door
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Sharp-Edged Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, NTC Collaborates w/Theatre-at-Large by Cari Lynn Pace

Alison Peltz as Mrs. Lovett, Bruce Vieira as Sweeney Todd and Fernando Siu as Tobias Ragg
Photo Credit: Kristen Schutz

This fiendishly fine performance would make Stephen Sondheim smile with sadistic glee. It’s dark and diabolical, with singing, acting, costumes, and a two-level set as sharp as the shaving razor wielded by Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Directors Kim Bromley and Bruce Vieira (masterfully commanding the title role) are skilled veterans at their craft.  They handle the darkly humorous story of a vengeful barber with restraint, using a large cadre of actors and an even larger oven. Ragged actors move in from all sections of the theatre to sweep the audience into the malevolent background story.

It’s hard times in desperate 19th century London, and many morals have been suspended. A migrant sailor (handsome Cordell Wesselink) rescues a mysterious castaway who calls himself Sweeney Todd.  Bruce Vieira seems chillingly suited for this title role, giving it an imposing figure and dour countenance.

Todd is a talented barber who captures the admiration of the street scene by challenging the local barber and mountebank (mustachioed Dominic Quin-Harken) to a shave-off.  His young assistant Tobias (irrepressible Fernando Siu) is flexible when his master becomes not only the loser, but oddly lost to sight as well.

Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd… It’s deliciously devilish…

Todd sets up shop, and gains the attention of Mrs. Lovett (charming Alison Peltz), the widowed pie-maker, despite his character’s taciturn demeanor. Peltz is the award-winning actor who connives her way into making meat stuffing for her pies from the victims of Todd’s short-tempered vengeance. This unholy alliance brings delicious accolades and business prosperity while Todd bides his time for revenge on the Judge (snidely done by Charles Evans) and the Beedle (a fine role voiced by Mauricio Suarez).

The Judge and Beedle had sent Todd to a prison colony to pave the way for the seduction of Todd’s wife. Unfortunately, she took poison rather than succumb to their lecherous plans.

Todd has escaped and returns to find that his grown daughter (lovely soprano Julianne Bretan) is the ward of the very Judge who lusted after Todd’s wife. The libidinous Judge is now focused on pursuing the daughter. It’s all one can do to resist hissing at these bad boys.

As a child, some may recall the gruesome song “Dunderbeck’s Machine.” We laughed at the invention of his sausage meat machine, and the outcome, when we boisterously sang the lyrics. Let it be noted that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has added social elements that make it inappropriate for children.

Cordell Wesselink as Anthony and Julianne Bretan as Johanna
Photo Credit: Mark Clark

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street won multiple Tony awards, including best musical. There are a couple of recognizable songs including “(Nothing’s Going to Harm You) Not While I’m Around” and “Pretty Women.” The production possesses sufficient twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience entertained. Sondheim’s songs and lyrics are a real challenge, yet all are impressively handled by the cast who had countless rehearsals to do such an outstanding job.

NTC’s recipe for success is Hugh Wheeler’s book, mixed with Marilyn Izdebski’s choreography, and folding in the meaty music directed by Judy Weisen to bake up this tasty treat.  Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s deliciously devilish.

Playing now through November 17th at the Novato Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 PM.  Shows suspended by the North Bay Kincaid fires will transfer to Thursdays, Nov. 7 & 14 at 7:30pm.

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

 

ProductionSweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Written byStephen Sondheim
Directed byKim Bromley & Bruce Vieira
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Nov. 17th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(855) 682-8491
Tickets$24 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “The Rocky Horror Show”: Music Matched with Debauchery by Cari Lynn Pace

If you’re looking for a wild and sex-crazed show filled with energy and imaginative characters, go see “The Rocky Horror Show” produced by the Marin Musical Theatre Company.

It’s become a cult tradition to shout key lines at the actors at this outrageous show, based on the 1975 musical horror film. The MMTC program helpfully provides an audience participation script, as well as an etiquette guide with behavior rules, to keep rowdies from ruining the fun for everyone.

This is not a performance for children. Expect a young crowd of Millennials and a raunchy Act II to remind you this isn’t your grandma’s evening at the theatre. And don’t bring Grandpa, especially if he has a heart condition.

It’s eye-popping interaction as audience members show up in costumes and slutty face paint. Lucky ones are selected for the pre-show games, where they might join the cast to sacrifice virgins, imitate animal orgasms, or compete for top honors. Everyone practices the “Time Warp” steps to come later.

Cast members are dressed, or rather undressed, in racy attire. They coach the audience to holler out “Asshole” when Brad (perfectly cast Lorenzo Alviso) appears. Janet (played by Jenny Boynton, who also directed this show) has the shouted moniker “Slut”. The crowd hoots loudly and the partying begins.

Those who have never been to a live performance of “The Rocky Horror Show” might take a while to warm up to the idea of sexual perversion as humor, but that’s the nature of this show. A glass of wine or beer helps!

Those who have never been to a live performance of “The Rocky Horror Show” might take a while to warm up…

As the story of this bizarre journey begins, it follows straight-laced Brad and Janet whose car breaks down near a strange mansion opened by an even stranger ghoul, Riff Raff. Nelson Brown outdoes himself in this smarmy and lecherous role. He’s keen to have elbow sex with Magenta, acted and sung by the powerhouse Dani Innocenti Beem. These two get everyone charged up when they do the “Time Warp” again.

Already bursting with sensual anticipation, the audience explodes when Dr. Frank-N-Furter enters. Jack Gale is the ballsy and brassy “Sweet Transvestite from Transylvania.” He casts his spell in a corset and lustful smile…a trouper with great singing chops.

Out comes Rocky, the golden boy enacted by brawny and beautiful Michael Lamb. Females swoon at sight of him, but the males do, too. What obscene scene will come next?

Amidst this chaotic depravity, Daniel Savio directs five talented musicians who underscore Katie Wickes’ choreography. Several set-ups, like the ensemble performing as Brad and Janet’s car, are quite clever.

“The Rocky Horror Show” does not allow children under 13, as MMTC rates it a “strong R.” Indulge in this riotous and ribald experience through Halloween, October 31st.

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 Rocky Horror Show!
Written byRichard O’Brien
Directed byJenny Boynton
Producing CompanyMarin Musical Theater Company
Production DatesThursday (Halloween) at 6:00 and 9:00 PM,

Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM,

Sundays at 5 PM through October 3
Production AddressThe Playhouse in San Anselmo

27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo CA
Websitewww.marinmusicals.org
Telephone---
Tickets$27 – $50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK!: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — Cari Lynn Pace Reviews a Musical That Gets Away with Murder!

Michael Ross directs this hilarious and campy musical at Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s Codding Theatre. The plot is immediately intriguing: impoverished Monty (well-cast in Andrew Smith) discovers he has an aristocratic birthright, making him ninth in line to inherit both title and fortune.

How did that happen? Turns out Monty’s noble-born mum had been rudely disinherited, and kept mum about it. His lady-friend Sibella (Madison Genovese) ignores poor Monty as she prefers a more financially secure suitor. Can Monty move up the inheritance list quickly enough to win her hand? Can he bump eight dismissive and nasty relatives off the queue?

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter…

And what relatives they are! Tim Setzer, a talented veteran actor, clearly has a ball playing every one of the noble-born inheritors…including a female. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch him change personalities and voices as he doffs another costume.

 

“A Gentleman’s Guide” won four Tonys when it hit Broadway in 2014, including Best Musical. Gilbert and Sullivan might have been proud of the operetta-style music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak (with additional book and lyrics by Robert L. Freeman.) Several songs have a patter-singing character to cleverly move the plot along.

Act II has a particularly engaging number “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” While Monty hides his lover Sabella behind one door, his marriage-manic cousin Phoebe (lovely soprano Maeve Smith) embraces him behind the other. The trio has the comic chops and strong vocals which brought a cheer from the audience.

In further homage to G&S, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has several surprises and an amusing twist at the end. The musical is appropriate for all ages, despite the rather macabre story line. No blood, thank you, except for the blue kind.

The set is a stage on the stage, opulently designed by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen. Codding Theatre takes it a step further, maximizing their rear-projection screen to depict scene changes. Ice skaters cruise back and forth. Bees swarm. Tourists take tours of the mansion. Underneath it all is the 12-piece orchestra conducted by Jim Coleman.

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter.

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

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN ASR THEATER REVIEW: “Sovereignty” a History Lesson Well Served at MTC – by Barry Willis

The signing of the Treaty of New Echota (L-R: Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa). Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The displacement of conquered people is pretty much the history of the human race. So is the disregard of treaties by conquerors. Most historical retellings vary only in the degree of dishonesty and savagery depicted of conquerors toward the conquered—a degree that depends largely on which side the tale comes from. History is told by the victors, as the old adage has it.

At Marin Theatre Company through October 20, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Sovereignty” examines in detail the legal and illegal wranglings of 1832 that resulted in the forced migration of the Cherokee people from Georgia to Oklahoma (the infamous “trail of tears”). White settlers supported by President Andrew Jackson were making incursions into the Cherokee Nation, in violation of a treaty that gave the Cherokee jurisdiction over their land and all that took place on it. In Worchester v. Georgia the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall upheld native sovereignty, a decision defied by Jackson and his loyal US Congress. (Any resemblances between Jackson’s erratic antics and those of the current occupant of the White House are purely intentional.)

Sarah Bird Northrup (Ella Dershowitz) and John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa) make plans for their future. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

As told by Nagle, Cherokee legal scholars John Ridge (Robert J. Mesa) and Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) worked within the court system to assert the rights of their people, but were considered traitors by more militant Cherokee leaders, such as John Ross (Jake Waid), who favored armed conflict as the only way to insure their survival—or in Ridge’s view, their total destruction. Mutual distrust  between their descendants continues into the present, when a brilliant lawyer named Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) seeks a position with the office of Cherokee Attorney General Jim Ross. As a member of a rival clan, Polson conceals her family identity until well after she’s landed the job.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate…

The issue of clan identity and inherited guilt is a running theme throughout the play. It’s a common story—people in many cultures are often deemed responsible for the actions of their ancestors—but Nagle doesn’t delve into its illogic. And she acknowledges with barely a nod that the Cherokee were slave owners. Instead she focuses on the outrageously illegal actions of Jackson and his ilk, and on more recent events, such as the 1978 Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which largely voided the benefits of Worchester v. Georgia, including eliminating the rights of native people to prosecute criminal acts by non-natives. In her notes in the playbill, Nagle mentions that attacks against natives by non-natives have risen horrendously since then—especially attacks against native women. Oliphant, in her view, was vindication of Jackson 140 years later.

Polson, her lead character, is a seeker of justice, in particular, one seeking enforcement of the Obama administration’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that will restore some protection to native women—an argument she makes forcefully to the US Supreme Court in the play’s closing scene. Elizabeth Frances is at the height of her theatrical powers here. It’s a tremendous bit of theater with a resounding message, strongly directed by MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis.

Flora Ridge (Ella Dershowitz) and Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) reconnect in the family graveyard. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate in this piece, written by a native American and featuring several native actors. The past and present intersect almost seamlessly and sometimes confusingly, the two periods often distinguished only by the position of a long table on stage or by the costumes worn by actors.

The blending of the past and present is a dramatic structure to reinforce the concept of how much the present resembles the past. This sort of blending is also applied to the character of Ben O’Connor (Craig Marker, who also plays Andrew Jackson) a white detective who, early in the first act, leaps to the defense of Polson’s brother Watie (Kholan Studi) when he’s accosted by a drunken redneck (Scott Coopwood, superb in several roles). Ben is incensed by the redneck’s blatant racism, and exhibits admirable bravery in dealing with him. Shortly thereafter he charmingly asks Sarah Polson to marry him, and she agrees, but as soon as he’s downed a couple of drinks he becomes an insufferably small-minded racist jackass himself.

It’s a convenient plot device but doesn’t ring true, and provokes related questions such as why a whip-smart lawyer like Sarah Polson can’t perceive that her fiancée isn’t trustworthy. Such limitations in the script prevent “Sovereignty” from earning unlimited praise. Nonetheless, it’s a very good effort by a talented cast, presented as compellingly as possible—a history lesson well served.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
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!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Merman’s Apprentice” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Sutherland and Innocenti-Beem light up the stage in “Merman’s Apprentice” (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

A young girl with stars in her eyes goes on the trip of a lifetime, and takes the audience with her, in “Merman’s Apprentice,” at Sonoma Arts Live through October 13.

It’s New York, 1970. Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) is enjoying the zenith of her long career when into her life comes Muriel Plakenstein (Emma Sutherland), a 12-year-old runaway whose big dream is to be a Broadway star like Merman, her idol. Muriel happens to know everything about Ethel Merman, including every song she ever sang and obscure details of shows that ran decades earlier. An obsessive who will find fulfillment only in absorbing everything-Mermanesque, Muriel gets her wish, and in doing so fills a huge gap in Merman’s life. 

The cast of Merman’s Apprentice (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

The adult woman and the runaway form an almost-instant bond, reinforced early in the first act by the joyfully infectious song “Chums,” one that sets the emotional tone for the entire production. Innocenti-Beem is amazing as mentor/fairy godmother to a goofy talented girl with single-minded devotion toward becoming the next Ethel, as is 17-year-old Sutherland in conveying the innocence, enthusiasm, and vulnerability of adolescence. Playing younger is difficult for all performers, and Sutherland does it perfectly. As the story progresses, Muriel meets legendary musical theater impresario David Merrick (Patrick Barr), enjoys performances at the St. James Theatre, and dinners-and-drinkfests at Sardi’s. She also becomes Merman’s permanent house guest. Stars in her eyes, indeed.

Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, . . . a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages.”

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole was a close friend of the real Ethel Merman in her later years and captures her signature snappy repartee perfectly. Innocenti-Beem, a huge-voiced stalwart of North Bay musical theater, has often been compared to Merman, including her penchant for improvisational off-color humor. When Cole met Innocenti-Beem for the weeks-long refinement process that rendered this show, he declared her “more Ethel than Ethel was,” echoing what local critics have been saying for years. She soars in “Listen to the Trumpet Call” late in the first act. One of Innocenti-Beem’s “Apprentice” costumes is the spectacular red dress she wore in a recent production of “Hello, Dolly,” a Merman signature role. 

Cole’s musical collaborator David Evans has cooked up a couple dozen tunes that evoke the glory days of big brash Broadway musicals. “Apprentice” is set in 1970 but it references an earlier, more innocent age—there’s no hint of the Vietnam War or the growing protest movement, nor of the era’s incendiary black radicalism. It’s as if 1955 were forever trapped in amber, but the music is tremendous, delivered by an ace seven-piece band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson. The songs all clearly reference blockbuster show tunes from the 1930s into the ‘60s. The finale seems to quote “Comedy Tonight,” the lead song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” 

Holsworth and O’Brien as Mom and Pop (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

Directors Larry Williams and Jaime Weisen Love have done something magical in bringing a production of this scale to the Rotary Stage. The large ensemble does an admirable job with Lissa Ferreira’s choreography on an impressive set by Gary Gonser, now recovering from a recent medical emergency. (Get healthy, Gary!) Sean O’Brien and Julia Holsworth are outstanding among the ensemble in their roles of Pop and Mom, respectively. Holsworth’s flat-footed shuffle is especially funny. The only real quibble with this world premiere is that the first act may be a bit overlong and the second act too short. It’s as if the second act needs one more song to balance the production. Cole and Evans can certainly supply this before the show goes to Broadway, as seems inevitable.

“Merman’s Apprentice” is a huge unabashed exercise in nostalgia. Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, it’s a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages. The show and its stars are destined for much broader horizons, so catch it while you can.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionMerman's Apprentice
Written byBook and Lyrics by Stephen Cole; Music by David Evans
Directed byJaime Weiser Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough October 13th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW: SF Playhouse Missteps with “Dance Nation” – by Nicole Singley

Time flies when you’re having fun. And it slows to a crawl when you aren’t. “Dance Nation” at San Francisco Playhouse succeeds in proving that an hour and fifty-two minutes can feel like an eternity. It fails at just about everything else it ostensibly sets out to accomplish. With no intermission and thus no chance for a polite escape, this production feels more like an avant-garde experiment in torture than an illuminating night at the theater.

The premise is straightforward enough. An Ohio dance troupe comprised of preteen girls – played by adult women of various ages, at the playwright’s instruction – is vying for a spot at Nationals in Tampa Bay. The competition is fierce, and things get really strange and gory. But there isn’t much more to the story, if it could even be called that. Instead it merely serves as a backdrop for a series of disjointed, drawn-out monologues, ranging from flat and painfully boring to overly-intense and agitating, like a bad slam poetry throwdown at the local café where angry feminists commune to rail against the patriarchy and destigmatize the female body. It plays like a misguided grab at women’s empowerment wrapped up in a hollow coming-of-age story about resilience and self-discovery. But none of it rings true.

Clare Barron has packed a lot into her characters, but little that’s terribly realistic or relatable. We bear witness to one girl’s narcissistic meltdown, reaching fever pitch as she shouts at the audience “I’m going to make you my bitch, you motherfucking cunt-munching piece of shit prick. I am your god. I am your second coming.” In another scene, a girl who’s just gotten her period smears menstrual blood across her face like war paint. In yet another, a familiar childhood pact takes a warped turn when the girls wipe armpit sweat on each other’s upper lips and kiss (what ever happened to the good old pinky promise?). We watch grown women depicting thirteen-year-old girls strip naked together without a hint of modesty or embarrassment. (Does this match your childhood locker room experience? It certainly doesn’t mine.) And yet despite their comfortable bond, the show opens awkwardly on the troupe abandoning an injured teammate on the dance floor. It all feels gratuitous, ill-fitting and off-key.

Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not.”

The cast of “Dance Nation” at work at San Francisco Playhouse (Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli)

The coup de grâce is the show’s conclusion (dare I call it that), which features the entire cast chanting “I wish my soul were as perfect as my pussy!” – louder with each repetition – so many times that I could hear it echoing inside my head the whole drive home. Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not. None of it serves any discernible purpose but to shock and repulse the audience, for shock’s sake alone. Despite being the work of a young female playwright, “Dance Nation” is so deeply out of touch with its subject matter that it fails to be emotionally accessible in any meaningful way. It tries really hard to be controversial and edgy – in keeping with much of contemporary art – but only managed to leave me feeling tired, bored and angry. It certainly didn’t resonate with my experience of puberty and early womanhood, adolescent rivalries and friendships, the inherent camaraderie in competitive sports, or just about anything else it reaches for.

Without more believable and fully-formed characters or a compelling and cohesive narrative arc, it’s hard to feel all that connected to or interested in anything that’s happening on stage. The dancing isn’t very good, either. It’s just a lot of forced, unnatural dialogue broken up by obnoxious monologues and little to no plot, with some pointless nudity and a lot of fake blood thrown into the mix. The actors commit a commendable amount of energy to their roles, but it’s not enough to make us care about what happens to their characters. The set doesn’t help much, either. It’s clunky and underwhelming, offering little to look at but a shelf full of trophies and large pillars that often block the audience’s view.

In light of this experience, it’s difficult to fathom why this play has received such high praise from other critics. (It won the Relentless Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and was even a Pulitzer Prize finalist.) Is Becca Wolff’s direction at fault? Did SF Playhouse simply miss the mark with this one? Given their excellent track record, it’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but without any basis for comparison, it’s impossible to know exactly what to think. All I can say with certainty is that from start to finish, I didn’t find a single minute of this show enjoyable. Seldom have I felt so anxious for something to be over. SF Playhouse calls itself an “empathy gym,” but the only thing “Dance Nation” exercised was this reviewer’s patience.

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.

 

ProductionDance Nation
Written byClare Barron
Directed byBecca Wolff
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough November 9th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Dated but Relevant “Top Girls” Opens ACT Season – by Barry Willis

Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Marlene (Michelle Beck), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” hasn’t been performed in the Bay Area in a long time. It’s been revived as the season opener at American Conservatory Theater, directed by Tamilla Woodard and running through October 13.

About a hard-charging female executive angling to move up the management ladder, the 37-year- old play has lost none of its relevance in the intervening decades, as is made dismayingly clear in several essays-with-statistics in “Words on Plays,” the fascinating booklet that accompanies the show’s playbill. Women still lag behind men in compensation and positions of authority. There’s nothing revelatory in that, but the piece has nonetheless acquired a bit of tarnish over the years.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast…

At its core, “Top Girls” is a simple tale of a British career woman named Marlene (Michelle Beck), running from the limited opportunities of her working-class origins and pouring all her considerable energy into the pursuit of corporate power. Set in the early 1980s—the play debuted in ’82—it depicts Marlene maneuvering for an executive position even if it means displacing a male colleague who’s the sole support for his family of four. A Thatcherite, Marlene believes in meritocracy – the idea that the cream of society rises to the top – and dismisses the entitlement mentality of leftists and union workers.

Nell (Summer Brown) and Win (Rosie Hallett) arrive to work at the Top Girls Employment Agency in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

As a manager in a busy employment agency, Marlene doesn’t gladly suffer fools. Her interviews with job-seekers are brusque, bordering on insulting, and she doesn’t hesitate to dominate her office-mates. They are not friends. But suffer she does, as we learn in the second act—from the slights she has showered on her family and the personal sacrifices she’s made seeking power in a man’s world. She doesn’t really have a life outside work.

The opening scene could be interpreted as evidence of Marlene’s suffering, and by extension, the suffering of all ambitious women. It’s a comically nightmarish dinner party featuring notable women fictional and historical: 19th-century adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal); Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), an 11th-century exile from the Japanese Imperial Court; the legendary Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), thought to have reigned during the Middle Ages in the guise of a man; and Dull Gret (Summer Brown), a fearsome warrior immortalized by Brueghel. All bucked the patriarchy; the scene offers each an opportunity to tell her story. Each recitation adds fuel to Marlene’s furious purpose. It also allows all of them to riff simultaneously in multiple accents, an effect that’s literally a fugue of howling madwomen.

We get that they’re angry, even centuries after the fact, but from the audience’s point of view the scene is too long, consuming most of the first act. Here and there in the cacophony we understand a phrase or two, but for the most part, it’s as comprehensible as a long night of Dada poetry.

An esteemed British playwright, Churchill is no respecter of traditional temporal narrative or dramatic structure. The dinner scene—an exercise in art for art’s sake—is followed by an introduction to the employment service where Marlene works, and that, by a scene of two girls at play in a backyard—Kit (Lily D. Harris) and Angie (Gabriella Momah). The first act closes leaving viewers wondering how all this ties together.

 Michelle Beck and Monique Hafen at work at ACT.

The second act is both rebuttal to and redemption for the excesses of the first. In a scene of gut-wrenching earnestness, Marlene has a heart-to-heart with her sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) in her kitchen, where we learn the roots of Marlene’s driving ambition and the nature of her relationship to her worshipful, enthusiastic, but dim-witted niece Angie. The final scene takes place a year before the preceding one, but makes solid dramatic sense.

The play’s difficulties and pretensions are offset by superb acting by a cast of eight women, all save Beck and Momah in dual roles. Performances range from good to exemplary, including Hallett as Win and Brown as Nell, two different but dynamically balanced office workers whose arch banter spices their otherwise tedious workdays. Harris is youngest-appearing of the cast—she looks to be in her late teens—and mid-way through the second act she does a fantastically funny turn as a job-seeker named Shona pretending to be much older.

Shona bluffs with enormous chutzpah and an increasingly absurd litany of business buzzwords during her interview with Nell. She doesn’t know much and the more she talks the more it shows, an expertly rendered comedic sketch that provoked spontaneous applause on opening night.

Aided by Barbara Samuels’s elegant lighting, set designer Nina Ball achieves something remarkable with “Top Girls”—an austere set evoking the coldness of the business world, and another one quite warm and cozy as Joyce’s home. The emergence of Joyce’s residence from far back to stage front is a marvelous effect.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast, but the standout for this reviewer is Gabriella Momah as the lovable, sweet-natured but intellectually limited Shona. She’s an absolute delight, a bright ray of sunshine in this darkly-tinted story.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionTop Girls
Written byCaryl Churchil
Directed byTamilla Woodard
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Oct 13th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 834-3200
Tickets$25 – $102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An AISLE SEAT REVIEW! “Gypsy” a mixed bag at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In “Gypsy,” the ultimate stage mother from hell comes roaring to life four times per week through October 20 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Broadway veteran Kathy Fitzgerald stars as Mama Rose, a thrice-divorced mother with two daughters, struggling to make a go of it on the waning Vaudeville circuit. With a gaggle of boy dancers, they manage to survive with an incredibly hokey act—so hokey, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that people actually paid good money to see it.

Carmen Mitchell works as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Rose is both the embodiment of never-say-die positive thinking and parental oppression, browbeating daughters June (Melody Payne) and Louise (Carmen Mitchell, excellent) into submission and forcing them to perform beyond their capacity — a syndrome that ultimately leads to June running off to find her own life with her new husband. Theater agent Herbie (Roger Michelson) tries desperately to become Mama Rose’s final husband, to no avail.

Near the end of the Vaudeville period, an inevitability denied to the last by her mother, Louise transforms from caterpillar to butterfly—and ultimately, into pop culture superstar Gypsy Rose Lee—after a life-changing experience with strippers in a Kansas City burlesque house. Her emergence into stardom is the bright light at the end of the story’s dark tunnel, one camouflaged by some of the most upbeat music ever composed.

There are … substantial talents in this show…

A collaboration by theater legends Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this more-or-less true story of perseverance and survival could make the most curmudgeonly cynic leave the theater whistling a happy tune. The show is jam-packed with gems from the American songbook, among them “Small World,” “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and of course the deathless “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

On leave from a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Fitzgerald is a big draw—opening weekend was nearly sold-out. She’s an impassioned actor and a good singer with an odd habit of getting into a Sumo wrestler’s half-squat stance to launch big efforts. There are other substantial talents in this show as well, in particular the trio who appear as strippers—Elaine Jennings, Lillian Myers, and Tracy Hinman, all of whom tackle multiple roles. Zach Frangos is confident and appealing as Tulsa, and his dancing is superb. The early scenes feature a gaggle of cute kids, always a reliable strategy for selling tickets.

Gypsy cast at work in finale at 6th Street.

Opening weekend, the band under Paul Smith’s direction hit a dismaying number of sour notes, something that can only be interpreted as intentional in keeping with the low-rent venues where Mama Rose & Company are performing. A tall fellow, Smith tends to stand as he leads the band, and his bobbing head is a real distraction from the upper seats. Joseph Favolora’s choreography is compelling, and Pamela Johnson’s costumes are stunning. There doesn’t appear to have been much left in the production budget for sets, and Jason Jamerson did his best with what he had, resulting in the bare basics. This was the same issue that undermined 6th Street’s production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

This “Gypsy” is certainly enjoyable—how can anyone not love the music?—but, neither over-the-top nor over-the-moon, it’s far from a sumptuous production of this classic.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byArthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed byJared Sakren
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Oct 20th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $46
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “Body Awareness” a Hit at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Body Awareness Week becomes a long hard slog for a psychology professor at a small Vermont college, in Annie Baker’s brilliant, sweet comedy at Main Stage West through September 22.

Lydia Revelos stars as Phyllis, the professor with ultra-orthodox feminist convictions, who first organized the event as “Eating Disorders Week” but expanded it to include dance performances by troupes from across the globe, and seminars on personal and social perceptions about the human body—in particular, the female body. This emphasis includes an exhibition of photos of nude women of all ages, done by a straight male photographer.

The photos, their subjects, and most of all the photographer’s gender, enrage her and cause upheaval with her lesbian partner Joyce (Nancy Prebilich), a high school teacher whose almost-adult son Jared is “on the Asperger’s spectrum” as it’s trendy to say. Jared (Elijah Pinkham) is a self-described “auto didact” obsessed with word origins—he aspires to be a lexicographer—and sex with girls, which he has never experienced. His awkward social skills exasperate his mother and her partner, get him fired from his minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, and nearly land him in jail when he does something incredibly inappropriate with a girl he’s just met.

Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont…

Domestic disruption grows exponentially with the appearance of photographer Frank (Zachary Tendick), a surprise guest in their home for the week. Phyllis can’t stand him nor what he does as an artist—the “male gaze” being the equivalent of an assault, in her view—nor can she understand why women flock to him to be immortalized in photos. She has rigid ideas about how women should present themselves. Joyce, on the other hand, finds him charming, likes his art, and welcomes him as a mentor to Jared.

Pinkham, Revelos, Prebilich, and Tendick at work for MSW.

The four characters form a tight pulsating web that in just under two hours examines self-concept, identity, commitment, family, and personal and artistic freedom. Playwright Baker—known for skewering Vermont’s politically correct culture—treats all of this with a fine blend of disdain, humor, and sympathy.

Prebilich and Revelos at work in “Body Awareness”

Directors John Shillington and Janine Sternlieb get marvelous performances from all four performers. Revelos and Prebilich are exceptional in exploring the breadth of their characters’ emotional lives, while Pinkham does a wonderful job in a role that more-or-less repeats one he did in last year’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Tendick, in his first appearance on stage, anchors the whole affair with a surprising amount of gravitas.

With her set design and costumes, Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont. She also happens to have directed the astounding “Eureka Day,” running concurrently with “Body Awareness.”

The two shows’ related themes make them an ideal pair for back-to-back viewing. If there were such a thing as a perfectly-matched theatrical double feature they’d be it. Both provide plenty of laughs and plenty to ponder once the laughter fades.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionBody Awareness
Written byAnnie Baker
Directed byJohn Shillington and Janine Sternlieb
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Ross Valley Players Catch Tremendous Show in The Mousetrap – by Cari Lynn Pace

Evan Held as Giles Ralston at RVP.

This whodunit? play is so well-loved that Ross Valley Players sold out their opening night and had to bring in extra chairs. For good reason. This character-driven and exciting play keeps the audience guessing – and delightfully entertained.

Agatha Christie, that prolific mystery author, stipulated that film and television rights to The Mousetrap could not be sold until the London production closed. The Mousetrap opened 67 years ago and set the record for the longest-running stage play anywhere.

Director Adrian Elfenbaum skillfully controls the action and pacing of this true murder mystery, with a cast of actors who go over-the-top in their roles and accents.

The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

Welcome to an English bed-and-breakfast manor as the new and inexperienced owners, charmingly enacted by Heather Buck and Evan Held, anxiously await their very first guests. As they plump the pillows, the wireless (Brit for radio) is reporting a recent murder in London.

Tori Truss as Mrs. Boyle; Maria Mikheyenko as Miss Casewell at Ross Valley Players.

The fun begins with the arrival of an outrageously enthusiastic guest played by Andre Amarotico. He’s followed shortly by a prune-faced spinster, beautifully acted by Tori Truss who captures every disdainfully arched eyebrow imaginable. She’s annoyingly critical and a good balance for Steve Price, the proper Major and helpful gentleman. Maria Mikheyenko poses as the next arrival, an odd and clever young woman with indeterminate plans for the future.

The final guest is one without a reservation, claiming his car was stuck in the snow. Robert Molossi arrives with no luggage and a heavy accent, immediately arousing suspicions by all.

The wireless chirps an update on the recent murder, and a local detective sergeant (Steven Samp) arrives to alert and interview the guests. The connections between the guests, the manor house owners, and the London murder develop in scene after scene. Suddenly, the lights are out and one of the guests is dead. A piercing scream (kudos to Heather Buck), cut telephone lines, and the chase … begins. But whodunit?

Heather Buck as Molly Ralston; Evan Held as Giles Ralston at work in ‘The Mousetrap’

No spoilers will come from this reviewer! The play has been a favorite not only for its puzzling mystery of the real killer, but for the fun to switch finger-pointing as more clues are revealed. The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

After the final curtain, a cast member announces “Now that we have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime. Please preserve the tradition to keep the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” It’s a worthy custom that will allow future audiences and generations to be caught up in The Mousetrap.

 

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

 

 

ProductionThe Mousetrap
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru October 13th.
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456. 9555
Tickets$17 - $29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW! Novato Theater Company Exposes Tragedies and Turmoil in “The Humans” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photo by Fred Deneau

“The Humans” is a slice-of-life peek into a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It starts with discord and never lets up. Fine performances by six Novato Theater Company actors rivet sharp-edged characters as they parry and thrust at one another.

Stephen Karam wrote his drama of three generations hiding secrets and resentments in a basement apartment (a great set by Michael Walraven). Add alcohol, irritating neighbors and faulty light bulbs to put this dinner on edge. Anyone want them as relatives?

Director Patrick Nims pulled fine performances from the actors to create cohesion from their criticisms. Brigid (Olivia Brown) is the youngest in this confrontational family. She starts out angry and stays that way, even when her helpful boyfriend (Ron Chapman) tries to be supportive. He doesn’t escape a grilling, of course.

“It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”…

Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Alicia Kraft) has serious health and relationship turmoil, which she wisely keeps close to her vest. For sport, the sisters gang up to mock their mother (Laura J. Davies), reducing her to tears. Their father (David Francis Perry) gets shredded by both wife and daughters. It’s not pretty to watch, unless you’re fond of schadenfreude.

Marilyn Hughes, playing the frail and wheelchair-bound Momo, is particularly convincing. Her character doesn’t do or say much to provoke anyone, so her family mostly ignores her. Hughes notes offstage “It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”

“The Humans” runs for 90 minutes, with no intermission, and contains adult themes and language.

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

 

ProductionThe Humans
Written byStephen Karam
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Sept. 29th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone
Tickets$21 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughter Proves Contagious in “Eureka Day” – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Eureka Day” (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When an outbreak of the mumps sends shockwaves through an avant-garde Berkeley charter school, parents with opposing views on vaccination struggle to uphold the school’s core principles of inclusion and government by consensus. The stakes are high and the tensions higher in this first-rate production of Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” an award-winning comedy that first took audiences by storm last year at Berkeley’s own Aurora Theatre Company.

Eureka Day is exactly the kind of ultra-progressive school one would expect to find in Berkeley. Diversity is celebrated, alternative lifestyles and gender-neutral pronouns are embraced, and board meetings conclude with an inspirational reading set to the chime of Tibetan tingsha cymbals. It’s so Berkeley, in fact, that we open on the school’s Executive Committee deliberating whether “transracial adoptee” should be added to the list of ethnic identities on student registration forms. With unanimity required to pass any resolution, this proves only the first of many drawn-out discussions.

Rendered impotent by their quest for consensus, the group’s leaders are paralyzed by political correctness, so worried about saying the wrong thing they often struggle to say anything at all. It’s at once hysterical and exasperating to watch these perfectly-crafted, superbly-acted, and all-too-recognizable modern archetypes turn every molehill on the meeting agenda into a long-winded tightrope walk between mountains. It would play like a brilliant piece of satire if it weren’t so true to life. In either case, it’s wildly funny.

L-R: Yamamoto, Sinckler, Coté, and McKereghan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

And then the bombshell drops. A case of the mumps has been confirmed, and perhaps unsurprisingly at a school of this sort, a large percentage of the students are unvaccinated. A quarantine is issued and school policies are called into question. When the committee hosts what begins as a cordial “Community Activated Conversation” with school parents via Facebook Live, it’s only a matter of time until the adults begin to act like children, the forum rapidly devolving into utter mayhem as a storm of angry rants, barbed remarks and uproarious emojis are projected on the set’s back wall above the huddled actors.

. . . a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious . . .”

Though vaccination serves as the catalyst here, larger questions loom about how we move forward when agreement becomes impossible, how we manage to separate fact and fiction in our modern world, whether all perspectives are equally valid or deserving of respect, and where the limits of social responsibility exist when weighing community impact against individual risk and personal beliefs. While Spector’s own stance is fairly conspicuous, his script does justice to conflicting viewpoints. There are good intentions, after all, on both sides of the fence – and playground bullies, for that matter, too.

Jeff Coté as Don (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Jeff Coté is excellent as hyper-considerate headmaster Don with his noncommittal list making and new-agey Rumi quotations. Equally superb is Sarah McKereghan as longtime board member and grown-up flower child Suzanne, who proclaims to prize inclusion and respect for all perspectives – until she finds her own perspective challenged. So convinced of her own thoughtfulness and moral superiority, Suzanne fails to recognize the hypocrisy of her assumptions and offensive remarks. McKereghan brings nuance and depth to a challenging role, harnessing the frantic energy of a well-meaning mother in denial.

Val Sinckler as Carina (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The group is rounded out by wavering mother Meiko (Eiko Yamamoto), stay-at-home father and original Google employee Eli (Rick Eldredge), who holds progressive views on marital monogamy and catches up on his yoga practice during meetings, and newcomer Carina (Val Sinckler), a sharp-witted black lesbian and the mother of a boy with special needs, who we quickly glean has been invited to join the committee in the interest of promoting diversity. All are outstanding in complex roles, though Sinckler shines brightest as the anchor and voice of enduring reason. The interactions between Sinckler and McKereghan are especially compelling, bringing humanity to both sides of a contentious and deeply divisive debate.

Hats off to director Elizabeth Craven for thoughtful staging and pitch-perfect pacing, allowing tension to build and all the laughs to land while leaving space for somber moments and heavier dialogue. Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen have designed a beautiful and believable set complete with shelves full of library books, child-sized tables and chairs, and posters that resonate with the school’s core values. Well-paired songs elicit laughter between scenes thanks to Jessica Johnson’s clever sound design.

It’s a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious, with a side-splitting first act that builds into a frenzy and then unfolds into an unexpectedly moving and empathetic second chapter. Guaranteed to keep your wheels turning long after the actors make their exit, “Eureka Day” will leave you questioning whether consensus is worthwhile or even possible in the digital age of relentless misinformation and incompatible opinions. Be sure to catch it (the show, that is) at Spreckels Performing Arts Center through September 22nd.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is 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.

 

 

ProductionEureka Day
Written byJonathan Spector
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 22nd
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Big Silly Fun in Cinnabar’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – by Barry Willis

Photo by Vero Kherian.

Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget comedy/horror flick “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a classic of the genre. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a staple of late-night TV, inspiring an adaptation as a stage musical by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken.

It’s been in continual production somewhere since it debuted in 1982, for good reasons. The story is cheesy, the characters are as broadly drawn as possible, and the music is absolutely infectious—think “Rocky Horror Show” meets “Grease.” Cinnabar’s current production of “Little Shop” is a tremendously high-energy treatment of this All-American classic, directed by Nathan Cummings and choreographed by Bridget Codoni, running through September 22.

The little shop is Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a failing retail business in a decrepit part of the city. Proprietor Mr. Mushnik (played with palpable fatigue and despair by Michael Van Why) prays for a miracle to keep his doors open. His hoped-for miracle appears when needed most— in the form of a carnivorous plant developed by Mushnik’s nerdy assistant Seymour Krelborn (Equity actor Michael McGurk).

Since its intro in 1982, American audiences can’t get enough schlocky story telling entertainment…

The presence of the plant in the shop generates astounding public interest for reasons that no one questions. Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Sidney Raey-Gonzales), a sweetly reticent girl in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Keith Baker, superb in multiple roles).

 

Seymour discovers by accident that the plant thrives on human flesh and blood — and that it speaks, demanding to be fed. Each feeding causes huge spurts in the plant’s aggressiveness and size—it goes from a “strange and interesting” thing in a small pot in the shop’s window to an enormous all-consuming monster that can devour a human in one gulp.

Mushnik’s business enjoys phenomenal growth in direct proportion to the plant’s, from selling a handful of posies each day to supplying all the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade. Seymour undergoes a similar transition, from perpetually unnoticed back-room nobody to pop star, winning Audrey in the process. Her botanical namesake has solved multiple problems, but as in all monster lore — indeed, as in much of human life — the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Audrey II (voiced by Michelle Pagano, puppetry by Zane Walters — both excellent) becomes a massive problem. Solving it becomes Seymour’s new challenge.

Micheal McGurk as Seymour. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The show’s patently ridiculous dramatic arc is further exaggerated by plenty of upbeat pop music, beautifully sung by Raey-Gonzales, McGurk, Baker, and the “doo-wop girls”: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Selena Elize Flores, Aja Gianola-Norris, and Olivia Newbold, respectively). The trio’s harmonies are marvelous; the three are equally entertaining whether dolled up as an early ’60s girl group or in grunge mode as street urchins, and they nail the choreography. “Somewhere That’s Green,” a sweet invocation of idealized 1950s’ suburban living, is delivered with shimmering conviction by Raey-Gonzales. It’s the emotional high point of the first act.

The Doo-Wop Girls and Dr Scrivello. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Baker clearly relishes going over the top as the hyper-caffeinated, charming-but-evil Dr. Scrivello. The ultra-kinetic McGurk is absolutely in his element as Seymour. Raey-Gonzales is commanding as Audrey, with a Brooklyn accent that never falters, even when she’s singing.

Peter Q. Parish has conjured a facile set serving as florist shop and city street, needing only a few brief changes from scene to scene. Their brevity helps propel this quick-moving musical—less than two hours including a fifteen-minute intermission. Hilarious and enthralling from beginning to end, this “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertainment bargain certain to sell out fast. It’s simply big silly fun, fabulously well done.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written byWritten by Howard Ashman, from the screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed byDirected by Nathan Cummings.

Assisted by Cecelia Hamilton.
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN ASR PREVIEW! Think the Marin Symphony is for Stuffed Shirts? Think again! – by Cari Lynn Pace

Each fall, the Marin Symphony showcases light classical music to entice and delight in a program often referred to as a “Pops Concert.”

This latest show promises to blow the roof off the stodgy Marin Center Veterans Memorial Auditorium as they perform the eye-popping “Cirque de la Symphonie” in concert with half-a-dozen Cirque du Soleil-style performers. Aerial flyers, gymnasts, and strongmen take the stage in front of (and high above) the orchestra of black-suited classical musicians. The moment conductor Stuart Chafetz whisks his baton, an amazing fusion of sights and sounds fills the concert hall.

…Leave the starched shirts at home.

Look up above as powerful and lithe bodies dance and fly in sparkling bodysuits and glowing silk streamers. The orchestra ripples their bows across violins, violas, and cellos as gold-painted strongmen balance in muscle-rippling symmetry. Flutes flutter, drums pound out the beat, and the Marin Symphony seems inspired by the fluid movement of these international performers. Or is it the other way around?

The musical program includes favorites from Dvorak’s “Carnival,” Bizet’s “Les Toreadors,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” and other familiar classics.

With so many pieces, the musicians have to keep their eyes on their sheet music, and on the conductor. They can only steal glances at the Cirque de la Symphonie’s troupe of awe-inspiring acrobats, founded ten years ago by Alexander Streltzov. We’re fortunate that Marin is one stop on their nationwide pops tour. “I’m thrilled to be part of the Marin Symphony’s family as its first Principal Pops conductor,” Chafetz enthused. It’s a stunning start!

Performances are September 14 and 15 with tickets priced $25-$85 (Youth tickets $20). For more information go to: https://marinsymphony.org/fall-pops-cirque/ or call the Marin Center Box Office at 415-473-6800.

ASR Reviewer 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 THEATER REVIEW! Merry Wives of Windsor Gain the Upper Hand – by Cari Lynn Pace

Summer and Shakespeare go together like fudge sauce on ice cream. To put the cherry on top, make it an outdoor presentation reminiscent of the London Globe Theatre’s open-air venue. The Curtain Theatre, performing in the Old Mill Park Amphitheatre in downtown Mill Valley, does exactly that. Now in their 20th year, this award-winning troupe presents Merry Wives of Windsor among towering redwoods through Sunday, September 8th.

The Curtain Theatre experience envelopes their audience in the late 1500’s. Absent the plastic chairs and jet streams visible overhead, the scene in this majestic redwood grove transforms time. A quartet of musicians in period garb quietly plays original songs written by Music Director Don Clark and Hal Hughes. The air fills with sounds of a fiddle, tin whistle, concertina, and other quaint instruments. Children scamper about the soft ground while adults pour their libations and chat. Costumed and bewigged actors, (authentically designed by Kathy Kingman-Solum and Hope Carrillo) beckon patrons to available seats.

…Grey Wolf is ridiculously perfect as Falstaff, charming and powerful and capable of stealing any scene on the stage…

The Curtain Theatre has no curtain, so Producer/Choreographer (and duo-role actor) Steve Beecroft grandly welcomes all from the front of the stage. Merry Wives of Windsor’s multi-layered plot focuses on a young maiden, Mistress Anne Page (lovely Lilly Jackson), who has attracted the eye of several suitors. Each suitor has his personal champion, including Anne’s parents who advocate differing preferences for their daughter’s match. As with much of Shakespeare’s plays, it takes a while to catch on to all the characters and their relationships.

Gray Wolf and friends at work for Curtain Theatre

Enter lustful Sir John Falstaff, who boasts of his intentions to seduce not merely one, but two of his acquaintances’ wives, one of whom is Anne’s mother. Grey Wolf is ridiculously perfect as Falstaff, charming and powerful and capable of stealing any scene on the stage. When the wives get wind of his plans, they team up to plot their amusing revenge. Heather Cherry and Marianne Shine make a formidable duo, outmaneuvering Falstaff and even exacting better behavior from their clueless husbands.

Director Kim Bromley notes “The central theme of this play is power, who wields it, who wants it, and who gets it.” Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is lengthy and uneven in spots, yet ultimately allows women to gain the upper hand in a period of time when such was certainly not the norm.

The City of Mill Valley was recently under pressure from several nearby neighbors to curtail The Curtain Theatre and other public noise-producing events in Old Mill Park, site of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival and the Dipsea Race. Happily, Steve Beecroft reports that performances have been adjusted to mollify neighbors yet continue with these free weekend performances. To that end, all may shout “Huzzah!” Not too loudly, please.

Playing at 2 PM through September 8th on Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday. Admission is FREE. For more information surf the web over to: www.curtaintheatre.org.

Open seating, picnics welcome, cookies and coffee available for purchase, and chairs are provided on a first-come basis, or bring your own. Dress in layers as this redwood grove is always much cooler than the street level.

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

 

ProductionMerry Wives of Windsor
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed byKim Bromley
Producing CompanyCurtain Theatre
Production DatesThrough Sept. 8th
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?----

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “Cabaret” a Bawdy Cautionary Tale at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

The Kit Kat dancers at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse revives a classic musical and runs it all season long. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy leveraging Union Square tourist traffic, one that gives company principals a breather to prepare for an intense fall/winter schedule. The company’s current offering is a splendid take on Kander and Ebbs’s “Cabaret,” through September 14.

It’s one of several iterations of “Cabaret” to pop up recently in the Bay Area, thanks to the Trump presidency and its supporters. SFP’s bawdy effort is both wonderfully entertaining and horrifically startling—a cautionary tale about the rise of pure evil among seemingly nice friendly people, such as Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), the charming German businessman who befriends American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) on a train ride into Berlin.

Cate Heyman as Sally Bowles works SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Ludwig introduces Bradshaw to Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick), proprietress of a rooming house where he soon takes up residence, and to the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of the show’s title. There he meets many denizens of Berlin’s cultural underworld, including the fetching Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a flighty British singer with whom he’s soon head over heels and sharing a room, both to his regret.

…if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

Many of the songs in this show made it into the pop repertoire, thanks to the commercial success of the 1972 movie: “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time,” “Cabaret,” “Money,” and “Married,” a lovely duet performed by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), the fruit seller to whom Schneider gets engaged, both of them in late middle age. It’s a lilting note of hope in a show that’s ultimately and intentionally a very bitter pill buried in a thick coating of sugar. Herr Schultz is in deep denial about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Schneider knows better, and so does Bradshaw.

Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell as Schneider and Schultz. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

But the sugar is sweet and seductive. The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies is convincingly portrayed by John Paul Gonzalez, whose high-energy genderbending is the motive force behind most of the show’s many song-and-dance numbers (choreography by Nicole Helfer), performed by a tremendous ensemble, with music from an ace band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky.

Susi Damilano’s dynamic stage direction is first-rate, as is Jacquelyn Scott’s set design, but what sets this “Cabaret” apart from other very good productions is Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles. A theater student at Carnegie Mellon University (as is Atticus Shaindlin), Heyman brings a depth to her character that other performers have missed. Sally Bowles is usually portrayed as an annoying self-centered airhead, and Heyman encompasses that, but her Sally has an implied backstory that makes her much more substantial than most. Heyman is the best Sally Bowles this reviewer has ever seen.

Also superb is Abby Haug as Fraulien Kost, a resident at Fraulien Schneider’s who earns her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Haug and Heyman will prove justification for many ticket buyers. “Cabaret” at SF Playhouse runs a couple more weeks—if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byWritten by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander and Fred Eb
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept. 14th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! — “Those Dancin’ Feet” Kicks It Up a Notch — by Cari Lynn Pace

PHOTO: Those Dancin’ Feet_61 – L to R Alex Hartman and Colin Bradbury (dancers) and Kayley Anne Collins and Neil Starkenberg (vocals).
Photo by Ray Mabry / © R. Mabry Photography 2019

Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) has presented productions “under the stars” at Sonoma’s Jack London State Historic Park for eight summer seasons. This award-winning troupe has grown from the dream of its three founders to encompass over 50 singers and dancers taking a break from their Broadway and LA shows.

Their successful “Broadway Under the Stars” formula has traditionally been a potpourri of popular song-and-dance numbers. This year TTC experiments by adding a casual plot line to “Those Dancin’ Feet” to link the dance numbers. It works, splendidly. The show runs through August 25.

The experience at “Broadway Under the Stars” is top notch…

It starts with three couples who move with agile beauty through stages of courtship and commitment. Their ‘alter egos’ sing of passion, longing, joy, sadness, and despair. The program cleverly sprinkles a mix of 29 songs —some from decades past, some today’s Grammy winners — and everything flows and moves in a seamless and splendid reflection of love and life.

The experience at “Broadway Under the Stars” is top notch, with the production enhanced by the Transcendence Band conducted by Matt Smart.

PHOTO: Those Dancin’ Feet_262 – L to R Dee Tomasetta, Croix Dilenno and Cara Salemo.
Photo by Ray Mabry / © R. Mabry Photography 2019

There are so many intricate dance numbers that Director/Choreographer Roy Lightner is joined by choreographers Sara Brians and Chip Abbott. They showcase 20 athletic and fluid dancers, and the result is over the top.

TTC evenings, traditionally touted as the “Best night ever!” start as early as 5 p.m. at Jack London State Historic Park. Patrons bring picnics to enjoy at the umbrella-equipped tables, food trucks ply their wares, premium wine and beer vendors offer tastes, and live music encourages the fun and friendly camaraderie in the open field —  known amusingly as “The Great Lawn.”

Outdoor seating (assigned) begins in the stone ruins as the sun drops low beyond the mountains. Just before the show starts at 7:30, put away your sun hat, grab a jacket and lap blanket, and revel in the quiet beauty of the Valley of the Moon. When the lights come up on the dancers onstage, prepare to be blown away!

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

 

ProductionThose Dancin' Feet
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byRoy Lightner
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen (Sonoma)
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! MSC’s “Spamalot” a Masterful Madcap Musical – by Cari Lynn Pace

In its 30 years, Marin Shakespeare Company has never presented a full-scale musical. Until now.

The second production in Marin Shakespeare Company’s summer trio of shows, “Spamalot” is the musical comedy written by Eric Idle and “lovingly ripped off” from the zany motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Take Idle’s wit, add John DuPrez’s music, mix in seven musicians, and toss in juicy bits from the madcap screenplay. Sprinkle in new sight gags and you have a riotous musical comedy.

Replete with several outstanding comic performances, “Spamalot” loosely spoofs “Camelot,” the King Arthur legend of Medieval England. Jarion Monroe stars as the would-be “King of the Britons,” who traipses about the countryside with his loyal talking horse Patsy (Bryan Munar), trying to convince hapless peasants to join him in a quest to find the Holy Grail and thereby somehow unite the country.

… a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter.

The familiarity of several characters fades quickly as the plot takes their character arcs in unpredictable directions. Nonsensical scenes and characters are amusingly disjointed, including one particularly assertive Black Knight (spoiler alert!). The show is full of clever sight gags, hysterical physical comedy, and tons of goofy banter—the Lady of the Lake (Susan Zelinsky), who gives Arthur his mandate and his magic sword Excalibur—is described by one doubtful peasant as “a watery tart.” One hesitates to laugh too long for fear of missing what comes next.

Phillip Percy Williams as Sir Robin with Chorus at Marin Shakes

Michael Berg’s colorful costumes are over the top—reportedly totaling 700 pieces if you count each sock and shoe. Choreography by Rick Wallace is the kinetic equivalent, especially some of the large-scale production numbers. You can’t beat a bevy of chorus girls swinging maces for sheer entertainment. The excellent band led by Mountain Play veteran Paul Smith propels the whole affair from just in front of center stage.

Joseph Patrick O’Malley, a languid and fluid actor who first steals his scene with “I’m Not Dead Yet,” pops up in multiple ridiculous guises. The gorgeous Zelinsky sings with power and prominence in Act I, then disappears only to show up in Act II wearing a Norma Desmond-like caftan and turban, wailing “Whatever Happened to My Part?” while “The Song that Goes Like This” will be all too familiar to audience members who’ve seen their share of modern musicals. The finale tune “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” has the audience whistling along while the chorus line kicks up its boots. Truly a marvelous madcap romp.

Award-winning Marin Shakespeare Company is run by two tireless founders, Robert Currier and Lesley Schisgall Currier, who present an annual trio of outdoor productions at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, on the Dominican College campus in San Rafael. One of the three is classic Shakespeare, one is “Shakespeare light” with alternative settings and language, and the third is a production far removed from the Bard’s influence, such as “Spamalot.” All are professionally and energetically presented by a mix of Equity actors and solid local talent, with interns in minor roles.

Director Robert Currier has a long history of updating Shakespearean comedies with unexpected adornments to plot, character, and setting. With “Spamalot,” he started with an outrageous script, and through superb choices in casting and direction has come up with a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter. Don’t sit too close to the stage if you want to catch every line.

MSC has established a fine legacy among theatre-lovers from both sides of the curtain. Open seating (wooden benches with backs) can be made more comfortable by renting cushions at the gate. Nights can get cold when the fog rolls in, so dress in layers. Picnics are welcome.

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

 

ProductionMonty Python’s Spamalot
Written byBook & Lyrics by Eric Idle.
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Directed byDirected by Robert Currier
Producing CompanyMarin Shakespeare Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressForest Meadows Amphitheater (outdoors),
Dominican University of California 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitewww.marinshakespeare.org
Telephone(415) 499-4488
Tickets$10 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! – “My Fair Lady” Isn’t Fair, It’s Loverly! Oversize Production is a Hit on Their Undersize Stage – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “My Fair Lady” at work. Photos courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

In a bold move, Sonoma Arts Live removed 12 seats from the floor of their narrow theatre to make space for a London street scene. As the house lights go down, a certain cockney flower girl mingles with other back-alley workers awaiting the evening swells in tuxes and top hats. Scruffy Eliza Doolittle crosses paths with Professor Henry Higgins, and thus begins the delightful story of “My Fair Lady”. This energetic and rousing adaptation of the famed movie and stage musical by Lerner and Loewe is playing on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center through July 28th.

Michael Ross directs an incredibly outsize production in this small and intimate theater. If you sit in the front row, you’d best pull in your legs as the high-stepping dancers rush by. The seven-piece orchestra, directed by F. James Raasch, is completely hidden behind the raised stage, opulently decorated as a two-story English drawing room with gramophone and fireplace.

Impish Sarah Wintermeyer reveals her golden singing voice and sweet face to create an irresistible Eliza. What talent!

When Eliza, a yowling flower girl, comes to call seeking language lessons, the game is on. Larry Williams brings forth arrogant Professor Higgins with a much better voice than Rex Harrison ever didn’t have. He and Colonel Pickering, a well-cast Chad Yarish, make a wager that the dirty, lowly street urchin could be transformed to pass as a real lady in six months if she only learned to speak as one.

And the flower girl? Impish Sarah Wintermeyer reveals her golden singing voice and a sweet face to create an irresistible Eliza. What talent! Before our eyes, she transforms from a sooty guttersnipe into an elegant lady, dressed for the ball. Cinderella could take lessons from her.

Speaking of dressing, Barbara McFadden’s costumes are a real treat, from garbage men and serving maids to elegant grey Ascot tuxes and outsize flowered hats. Simply marvelous!

Alfred P. Doolittle (Tim Setzer) sings “Get Me to the Church on Time” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photos courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Several of the 12 actors fill multiple roles, and all sing and move in a smooth-flowing ensemble. A big favorite is Tim Setzer, who seems born for his hilarious role as Alfred P. Doolittle. His knockout songs “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” bring the house down. Ryan Hook shows a fine tenor voice when he croons “On the Street Where You Live” at Eliza’s doorway.

Executive Artistic Producer Jaime Love notes “We are thrilled to close our 2019 season with this timeless and iconic classic.” The entire family will enjoy this oversize production on this undersize stage.

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

 

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Stacy Ross Shines in “Year of Magical Thinking” – by Barry Willis

Stacy Ross at work at the Aurora Theatre. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Co

Anyone who’s read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” might wonder how anyone could turn the book into a play. The answer is that only the author could do it, or at least, do it right. Prolific essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion accomplishes the seemingly impossible in her one-woman/one-act play at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 28.

On a stage and backdrop of what appear to be huge Travertine slabs (set by Kent Dorsey) Stacy Ross shines as she relates Didion’s horrific, heartbreaking tale of suddenly losing her husband and collaborator, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their adopted daughter was in a coma. Among the very best actors in the Bay Area, Ross fully inhabits the story without attempting to be Didion—an astute decision by her and director Nancy Carlin. Ross and Didion are as physically unlike as possible.

…brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life…

No one is ever prepared for a sudden loss, of course, and the shock of it is the running theme throughout the production’s ninety well-paced minutes. Ross opens with a recitation lifted almost verbatim from the book’s first chapter—about how Dunne collapsed as the author was preparing dinner, the arrival of paramedics, a panicky trip to the emergency room, and the inevitable aftermath. Even in shock and overwhelmed by sorrow, Didion can’t help injecting self-deprecating humor and ironic observation—she stands in line with insurance card in hand, because it seems the proper thing to do, and in the ER, she’s introduced to her husband’s momentary physician, whom she can’t resist describing as “a pre-teen in a white lab coat.”

The social circumstances of death get full vetting, brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life in Malibu and New York. But it’s the interior monolog that’s most compelling—an examination of pretending to go about the daily business of life while knowingly indulging in self-deception and compulsive rituals in the secret hope that all that’s happened can somehow be altered—the “magical thinking” of the title.

This solo production is an understated masterful performance that seamlessly blends lecture, confession, and conversation. In her book and play, Didion eloquently managed to encompass all of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—stages that apply not only to the terminally ill but to their survivors. Stacy Ross is brilliant in conveying a narrative whose subject will inevitably touch all of us.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! One Singular Sensation: “A Chorus Line” – by Cari Lynn Pace

“A Chorus Line” cast (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

Every summer through September, friends flock to one of four different “Broadway Under the Stars” shows: mix-and-mingle evenings full of fresh air, picnics, fine wines, stunning scenery, and professional singers and dancers. These extraordinary escapees from the bright lights of Broadway and LA have a single goal: to give patrons their “best night ever!” And they do!

Eight years ago a small circle of NYC and LA performers took the summer off and held a song-and-dance fundraiser in the open stone ruins of Jack London State Historic Park. Their first “Broadway Under the Stars” was so well attended it raised enough money to keep the park open.

Each year the three original members, Amy Miller, Brad Surosky, and Stephan Stubbins, recruit more high-energy performers and friends to join them. Today, with over 55 stellar performers, Transcendence is a family of talented dancers and singers who love performing on the beautiful open-air stage in Sonoma’s wine country. They’ve raised nearly $500,000 from ticket sales to keep the park open and are proud to bring performances and classes to local schools.

Transcendence delivers a knockout show at Jack London State Park.”

The first show in their summer lineup under the stars is the award-winning “A Chorus Line.” It couldn’t be a more appropriate choice for Transcendence. Based on actual interviews, the story is about a group of dancers anxiously trying out for limited spots in a Broadway show. Every one of the performers on stage no doubt went through countless such auditions. Now here they are, under the setting sun and rising moon, dancing and singing to win a part they’ve already joyously earned. This is life imitating life. It can’t get more real than this!

Kristin Piro and Matthew Rossoff (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

About the Transcendence summer experience: Cast members exuberantly welcome Bay Area patrons who come early to the park for a pre-show dinner picnic under umbrellas. Local musicians entertain on a small stage while food trucks line the meadow. Beer and wine vendors offer tastes and glasses of their finest.

At 7:30, just before sunset, patrons gather up their picnic items (and extra jackets) to head for seats in the stone ruins. The orchestra’s pounding beat brings forth a stream of high-stepping performers who belt out songs with sleek moves and smiles against the background of Sonoma Mountain. Broadway never had such a stage setting!

Catch the stars in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon in one of four upcoming summer shows:

“A Chorus Line” runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through June 30th.

“Fantastical Family Night” for the youngest friends begins July 19th for one weekend through July 20th.

“Those Dancin’ Feet” features world-class dancing full of passion, energy, and excitement, backed by a full orchestra. This program runs August 9th through 25th.

The finale of the summer shows is “Gala Celebration” to complete Transcendence’s magic of music and community, for one weekend only September 6th, 7th and 8th.

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

 

ProductionA Chorus Line
Written byBook by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante; Music by Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed byAmy Miller
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Drumming With Anubis” Wildly Entertaining at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

In the galaxy of theater, the convergence of brilliant concept and brilliant execution occurs all too rarely. When it does, it’s a thing of beauty and wonder and a cause for celebration, like a solar eclipse or a blue moon.

At Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through June 30, David Templeton’s “Drumming With Anubis” is all this and more. A poignant, hilarious exercise in magical realism, it finds a group of middle-aged geeks camped out on the edge of the desert, there for a weekend of male empowerment, macho drumming, personal confessions, and recollections about the glory days of head-banging heavy metal rock. Founded by a recently departed drummer named Joshua Tree, the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society has gathered in part to lay Josh’s ashes to rest, and to welcome a new member to its fold—a mysterious and reticent fellow they call simply “New Bitch” (Mark Bradbury).

The similarity to the new recruit’s nickname and the name of the Eqyptian god of death and mummification is no coincidence, of course, and the connection becomes increasingly clear as the story moves on—something it does with panache and superb pacing under the direction of David L. Yen, who somehow managed to balance rehearsals and performances of the excellent “Faceless” at 6th Street Playhouse with rehearsals of “Drumming.”

. . . the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.”

Pallaziol, Sholley, Martinez, and Schloemp (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Yen may have gone without sleep for weeks while doing this, but the results are exemplary—a very funny production delicately seasoned with moments of profound personal truth. Chris Schloemp stars as the group’s leader, a kilt-wearing electrical contractor named “Chick” who as a not-quite-successful drummer has lived a large part of his life in Josh’s shadow. Anthony Martinez is his sidekick “Bull,” a gruff-voiced barbeque entrepreneur given to dressing like a Harley rider, but a man with deep insecurities about his masculinity. Then there’s “Stingray” (Richard Pallaziol), a twice-divorced alcoholic struggling to hang onto his third wife and his job as a manager of multiple sporting goods stores. Keeper of the group’s rules is Neil (Equity actor Nick Sholley), a “professor of pop culture” with failing knees, who has never recovered from the loss of his lover Alex. Altogether, they are an incredibly talented and superbly-balanced group of performers.

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The campers poke fun at their own and each other’s foibles, punctuating each heartfelt revelation or silly joke (revealing any would be unfair to playwright and patrons) with drum riffs and chants of “Balls deep!” while mourning the loss of their founder. Into their midst comes Nicky Tree (the feisty Ivy Rose Miller), Josh’s young widow, seeking not only her husband’s pilfered ashes but some substantial psychological restitution from the ragtag assemblage. How she gets it and what they get in return—both as individuals and as a group—is the driving force of the play’s second act, amplified by a continually-more-assertive Anubis. It’s a powerhouse combination of tremendous writing, acting, and direction, all of it on a delightfully plausible set by Argo Thompson, with gorgeous background projections by Schloemp.

Prolific journalist, critic, playwright, and North Bay national treasure, Templeton with this project has ventured out of the autobiographical mode that characterizes most of his prior work. It’s a fantastically successful effort carried out by a troupe of artists who truly understand and embrace his vision. You’ll howl with laughter but moments later may find yourself wiping tears away—an emotional rollercoaster that’s both thrilling ride and rock-solid reward. “Drumming With Anubis” may be the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionDrumming With Anubis
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Raasch is superb as the villainous but totally likeable true believer. Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too hooked on minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Faceless” Brings Feisty Focus to Courtroom Drama – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “Faceless” (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Live theatre can bring laughter or tears. You may leave feeling warm and fuzzy or puzzling over moral questions.

You’ll be immersed in all these vibrancies with “Faceless,” playing through June 2nd in the Studio Theatre at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. This intimate theatre-in-the-round is the perfect cocoon for a courtroom clash. The audience is the jury, and the intense characters are ours to judge.

Susie (a hijab-wearing Isabella Sakkren) is a teen swept into the web of an internet ISIS “friend” and wooed into believing that she can be part of a new “family.” Arrested as she attempted to flee to Syria, she is now jailed and facing trial.

Susie’s dad, a hard-working single father (perfectly cast in Edward McCloud), still grieves the tragic loss of his wife. Was he so bound in his grief that he neglected to see his daughter becoming sullen and marginalized? Dad agonizes between consoling Susie and berating her for her empty extremism. He “mortgages the farm” to hire a top-notch defense attorney for his hostile daughter – a perfect role for Mike Pavone.

You may not want this 90-minute play to end.”

As for the prosecution, the lead attorney’s strategy (in spot-on acting by award-winning David L. Yen) is delightfully devilish. He theorizes that a female Muslim attorney on his staff would be the perfect choice for this touchy trial. He summons Claire (the lovely and spirited Ilana Niernberger) who wears her hijab with devotion, not faux faith.

David L. Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The dialog between these two attorneys is like watching rams clash. They slice through untouchable issues of religion, race, privilege, and predatory behavior with knife-sharpened repartee in an astonishing feat of writing by playwright Selina Fillinger. You may not want this 90-minute play to end. When it does, you alone will make the judgment call.

Director Craig A. Miller, former Artistic Director of the 6th Street Playhouse, worked two years to gain the rights to present “Faceless.” He has exercised impressive skill in staging the characters, enabling the audience to feel included in the courtroom drama.

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

 

ProductionFaceless
Written bySelina Fillinger
Directed byCraig A. Miller
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 2nd
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Cinderella” Delights at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

An ancient fairy tale gets a modern reworking in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through May 26. Classicists will be relieved to learn that the story’s essential elements are still intact: a poor abused girl who dreams of a better life, her domineering stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a magical fairy godmother, a smitten prince, and the promise of miraculous transformations.

Cinderella’s hope of exchanging her rags for the gowns of a princess is an expression of a persistent human dream, very much like the popular urge to buy lottery tickets week after week despite astronomical odds against winning.

In Cinderella’s case, she actually succeeds—she finds Mr. Right, he finds her, and after much travail they live happily ever after. It’s a timeless story—the basis of almost every piece of “chick lit” ever written. The plain yellow pumpkin still becomes a golden carriage, but Douglas Carter Beane’s version adds a new character and subplot in an attempt to make the story more contemporary: a radical firebrand named Jean-Michel (Michael Coury Murdock), who seeks social justice and economic opportunity for everyone. Instead of having his head lopped off instantly, as would happen in most real threats to ruling class hegemony, he succeeds not only in winning the hand of a mean stepsister (converting her to a decent person in the process) but in getting the prince to agree to sweeping changes to his kingdom. Cinderella wins the man and life of her dreams and her entire society gets to go along for the ride. Participation trophies for all!

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Director Sheri Lee Miller’s huge cast does a great job conveying the story—one with a 7:00 p.m. evening curtain time in anticipation that hordes of kids will fill the large theater. Brittany Law is marvelous as “Ella” the household maid renamed “Cinderella” by Madame (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) for the dirty work she tirelessly performs. Shawna Eiermann and ScharyPearl Fugitt are excellent as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte, respectively, bringing more nuance to their characters than expected or required. Innocenti-Beem’s Madame takes delight in tormenting poor Cinderella, but has moments of surprising gentility and humor. Musical theater veteran Innocenti-Beem is likely the best singer in the cast but her role limits her to only a few lines of music. Her physical comedy and sense of timing are impeccable.

. . . excellent . . . superb family fare . . .”

Zachary Hasbany is superb as “Prince Topher”—the character’s name another nod to contemporaneity—with a good singing voice and fine sense of movement. The prince—a big guy himself—swings a giant sword in slaying a giant dragon (offstage) but the horse he rides is comically undersized. It’s one of few glitches in the otherwise excellent production. The worst is the huge suspension of disbelief required of the audience when Cinderella goes barefaced to the masked ball where the prince falls for her. Later when scouring the realm for her, he can’t recognize her until her foot fits the shoe she didn’t lose but intentionally gave to him. These twists on the original story aren’t improvements.

Larry Williams is gleefully evil as the conniving Sebastian, the prince’s minister, a sort of fairytale Rasputin, and Sean O’Brien matches him as Lord Pinkleton, another royal court sycophant. A gifted singer, O’Brien has a couple of breakout moments in the show’s many musical numbers. A high point is “Impossible” late in the first act, in which the ragged Marie (Mary Gannon Graham) is transformed into a fairy godmother who in turn transforms mice into liveried footmen, a pumpkin into a carriage, and Cinderella into a potential princess. Graham beautifully channels Billie Burke (Glinda the Good from “The Wizard of Oz”) in this bit, a duet of “Impossible” with Law, and the transformation is one of the show’s great illusions. Many times nominated for critical awards, choreographer Michella Snider is at her best. Group and individual dances and movements are delightful and take full advantage of the theater’s big stage and clear sight lines.

Set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen is gorgeous and facile, enabling quick set changes that keep the show moving briskly. Chris Schloemp’s huge colorful projections are stunning. Pamela Johnson’s and Chelsa Lindam’s costumes are gorgeous. Music director Paul Smith’s orchestra—in the pit, stage front—sounds tremendous. What’s not to like? All things considered, this “Cinderella” is excellent. Appropriate for all audiences, of course, it’s superb family fare that won’t require parents to do a lot of explaining when they get home—except for the fact that the “golden carriage” isn’t yellow. For that, you can simply say “It’s white gold.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCinderella
Written byBook and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed bySheri Lee Miller; Music Directed by Paul Smith
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$18 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Breathtaking “Lungs” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Timely subject matter, timeless relationship dynamics, and dazzling performances combine to make “Lungs” the latest triumph in a series of impressive productions to grace the intimate stage at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West this season.

A world increasingly impacted by climate change and overpopulation seeds new worries and doubts for a young couple on the fence about having children. The unnamed pair (Sharia Pierce and Jared N. Wright, both phenomenal) struggle with guilt about their contribution to the carbon footprint and fear of an uncertain future for their offspring. Where does their responsibility to the planet – and each other – end? Though their decision and the aftermath serve as the story’s crux, it’s the ebb and flow of their relationship that really hits home. Global warming is just an ominous backdrop.

. . . a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real.”

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pierce’s performance is a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real. Wright feeds off of her intensity with equal authenticity, delivering nuanced and heartfelt reactions. The mounting tension, crushing heartbreak, and abiding affection between them is powerful and palpable. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally exhausting experience, rife with elements that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a tumultuous relationship or pondered what it means to be a parent.

David Lear directs with perfect pacing and thoughtful staging on a minimalistic set, with no props, a simple backdrop, and only some introductory audio for context, keeping the focus entirely on Pierce and Wright. Given the caliber of their acting, this works in the production’s favor.

“Lungs” is a beautiful journey full of philosophical quandaries, anxiety and indecision, human error, love, and loss. It’s hard to imagine Duncan Macmillan’s insightful script in better hands than those of this exceptionally talented cast.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is 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.

 

 

ProductionLungs
Written byDuncan Macmillan
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Solid, Mostly Rewarding Effort in 6th Street’s “Mockingbird”– by Barry Willis

Jourdan Olivier-Verdé as Tom Robinson (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A disabled black man accused of attempting to rape a white girl is defended by small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” through May 19 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.

It’s the midst of a long hot summer in 1935, and Finch’s pursuit of justice puts himself and his family at risk—something he accepts despite inevitable personal and social consequences. Directed by Marty Pistone, Christopher Sergal’s 1990 stage adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel is conveyed as a closely-related collection of reminiscences by Atticus’s adult daughter Jean Louise Finch (Ellen Rawley).

Since its debut in 1960, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has never gone out of print, and for decades has been required reading in many high schools in the US. Based on incidents that took place in her hometown and elsewhere in the South not only in the 1930’s, but much later, it depicts circumstances unique to the time and place but also regrettably universal. The evidence against the accused man, Tom Robinson (Jourdan Olivier-Verdé) is flimsy at best, but Finch’s unassailable logic and conviction are insufficient to overcome the racist hysteria infecting the townspeople of Maycomb.

Robinson’s fate is disturbing—one that Atticus Finch (Jeff Coté) can see coming but is powerless to prevent. His dismay is shared by the town’s sheriff, Heck Tate (Tom Glynn), with whom he is amicable, even friendly. Finch is a disheveled moralist, whose rumpled suit and fatigued demeanor belie his intelligence and commitment to justice. Tate, on the other hand, is a pragmatist whose sense of justice has been leavened by the necessities of keeping a town running smoothly. His pragmatism is shared by Judge Taylor (Alan Kaplan), the cigar-chomping realist presiding over the Robinson trial. An odd bit of set design has the judge sitting behind a comically small bench, almost a cartoon parody. Surely set designer Alayna Klein could find something more imposing and appropriate.

Jeff Coté as Atticus Finch (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A secondary plot involves Finch’s children—a boy, Jem (Mario Giani Herrera), his younger sister “Scout” (Cecilia Brenner, confident and spunky), and their friend Dill (the exuberant Liev Bruce-Low)—and their fascination with a scary reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley (Conor Woods, also this production’s technical diretor), and their desire to understand the events taking place around them. They never see Boo outside, but he communicates with the children by leaving mysterious gifts in the hollow of a tree. Late in the story, the fearsome creature lurking in a dark house emerges as an avenging angel.

. . . a gospel choir . . . opens and closes the show . . .”

The whole affair takes place on the front porch and in the yard of the Finch house, transformed with a few props into the Maycomb court house, and at the homes of nearby neighbors—all of it beautifully realized by Klein. In an unusually creative twist, the town’s black residents are also a gospel choir. Their glorious music opens and closes the show, and is used as transition between key scenes. Nicholas Augusta, who plays Reverend Sykes, mentioned after the opening performance that “Hold On” is a venerable spiritual, but that other songs were composed for the show by music director Branise McKenzie, aided by her singers. The addition of these singers to this classic production is a wonderful touch. Lighting by April George contributes greatly to the overall feel of the show.

Ensemble Choir (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pistone’s cast is generally very good, with standout performances by Val Sinkler as Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper; Caitlin Strom-Martin as supposed victim Mayella Ewell; and Mike Pavone as the insufferably ignorant redneck drunk Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father. Ella Jones is also excellent as Tom Robinson’s young daughter. Inexplicably, the show’s only Equity actor, Jeff Coté, seems less than fully committed to the lead role.

The language and attitudes in this production are authentic and haven’t been sanitized for the sake of political correctness. Without explicit polemics, “To Kill a Mockingbird” elucidates the eternal conflict between human rationality and ignorance. The production at 6th Street is a good reminder of how important it is to continue promoting knowledge of that conflict.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byBook by Harper Lee
Adapted by Christopher Sergal
Directed byMarty Pistone
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
G.K. Hardt Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Jazz” Dissects Life to Imitate Music at MTC – by Cari Pace

Clockwise, left to right: Troy, Tenille, Sullivan, Wright, Hall, Mayes, Lacy (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

The dictionary defines “jazz” as American music developed from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.

It’s an accurate parallel to Nambi Kelley’s latest play “Jazz,” just opened at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. All the jazz components are here, dissected on stage. Based on the book by Toni Morrison and directed by Awoye Timpo, this production propels story lines, characters, and time frames from 1920s Virginia cotton fields to NYC’s Harlem. It’s not a musical and there are no instruments onstage, although Marcus Shelby’s music adds to the texture of the performance.

“Jazz” opens with a young girl’s funeral, then aggressively explodes into a polyphonic ensemble of an emotional wife and a cuckolded husband, surrounded by busybodies. A colorful talking and singing parrot joins the cacophony in an over-the-top role by multi-talented Paige Mayes.

Just let it waft over and enjoy.”

With jazz music, a bluesy baseline melody can be ephemeral, quickly punctuated then disappearing. It typically returns later, played by another instrument or in a different key. The well-worn story lines in “Jazz” follow this lead.

Wright, Mayes, Sullivan (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

Post-funeral, a flashback begins with the blues. It’s a mother’s suicide, and a young girl (C. Kelly Wright) is sent off to work the cotton fields. Boy (Michael Gene Sullivan) meets girl, they enjoy some happy married years, then husband meets younger girl (Dezi Soley), younger girl tempts then taunts husband, husband rages out of control, wife rages at girl’s funeral. And we’re back where we started, almost.

A reappearing melody or theme is a familiar and welcoming ploy in every genre of music, yet difficult to manage on the stage. Threads of several story lines in “Jazz” repeat stage right, then left, with minor changes in pitch and timbre. These flashbacks can be confusing; it’s best not to fret. Just let it waft over and enjoy.

The actors put a lot of energy into their roles, although without mikes many quick spoken lines are lost. Local favorite Margo Hall plays multiple roles with skillful versatility while Lisa Lacy, Dane Troy and Tiffany Tenille complete the talented cast. They dance ragtime, sing snippets of spiritual songs, and make the most of the “devil music” in “Jazz.”

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

 

ProductionJazz
Written byAdapted by Nambi E. Kelley
Based on the book by Toni Morrison
Music by Marcus Shelby
Directed byDirected by Awoye Timpo
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Praise for Hershey Felder’s “A Paris Love Story” – by Victor Cordell

Hershey Felder occupies a unique and enviable position in the world of live entertainment. He has created a series of solo theatrical performances that draw on his powerful strengths of master story telling and piano playing. And if the subjects of the shows aren’t all personal heroes, which they probably are, each is a brilliant star in the constellation of great music composers. He has written and performed music biographies for the stage of Gershwin, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and more at some of the finest performance venues in the country, often breaking box office records.

He now takes on the life and works of Claude Debussy in a world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The great turn of the century composer is credited as the originator of the classical music genre of impressionism, though he didn’t care for the term. But his compositional style led to the designation because of its parallel with impressionist painting with its shimmering, ethereal quality like the dizzying, elusive mix of colors on canvas representing tangible items.

As with his previous successes, Felder weaves together a composer’s music with biographical highlights, but the structure of his newest work differs. He avows that Debussy actually is his favorite composer. At the age of 19, Felder visited Paris and haunted the places and followed the footsteps where Debussy trod, including a pilgrimage two hours on foot each way to visit the composer’s apartment. Because of this special connection with Debussy, Felder’s theatrical conceit is to insinuate his own story in with that of the composer. The device works well both because Felder himself has a following and because of his personal passion for the composer and the city. The one jolting aspect of the new production is that in Felder’s catalog of titles written for the stage, Debussy’s name does not appear except in the likely ignored third line of the title.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

The performance takes place on a darkened stage, with a few props emblematic of Paris. Animated chalk figures festoon a black backdrop to further depict the architecture and the ambiance of the city. Hershey Felder plays with brio at the black Steinway grand and regales, often with great humor. Interspersing his own growth and his travelogue with the compositions and many loves of Debussy, he details many vignettes, including attempted suicides by two of his love interests.

Despite his esteem as a respected composer, Debussy works are perhaps not as broadly popular as Felder’s other honorees. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer are well known, and opera aficionados will know the important opera Pelléas and Mélisande, though it is seldom performed or excerpted onto recordings. But the musical extracts that Felder plays charm and scintillate, including those less likely to have been heard by audience members before. The jaunty piano solo for children, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is a fine example that also reflects the composer’s iterative relationship with African-American musical forms.

…clever and enticing… engenders anticipation…”

Felder does note the critical role that Debussy’s innovativeness played in directing classical music away from the weightiness of Wagnerian romanticism. Debussy felt that music should reflect the delightful way people feel when they engage with nature. Influenced by a Javanese gamelan performance he witnessed in 1889, he adopted the whole note scale, which facilitates the dreamy sound that is associated with impressionism. With this change, he not only disrupted the direction of classical music but also developed the musical vocabulary that led to improvisational jazz as best realized by the great pianist Art Tatum.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

Of course, Debussy’s signature piece which makes him a household name and exemplifies his dream-like musical style is Claire de lune. Felder’s treatment of this piece is clever and enticing. He opens the performance with the story of how he learned the piece, his mother’s favorite, at age six. By playing only a brief but familiar phrase from it, he engenders anticipation for the work throughout the performance. It comes as the finale, and it is played with such grace and delicacy that it quieted the venue and had the audience on the edge of its seats – a worthy finish to a fine confection.

This review must close on a tragic note. As I write on April 15, 2019, one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces and cultural assets for all of civilization, Paris’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame, is engulfed in flame. This is a great loss to humanity. Indeed, this landmark is significant to A Paris Love Story, as the author speaks warmly of Notre Dame and of the magic of point zero, the designated spot in front of the cathedral that represents the symbolic center of Paris. The spot will remain, but can any of the cathedral be saved or reclaimed for posterity?

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.

 

 

ProductionA Paris Love Story
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byTrevor Hay
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough May 5th
Production AddressMountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(650) 463-1960
Tickets$35 – $113
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 AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Good and Evil Entwined in “Heathen Valley” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Bordi and Craven (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Missionary zeal improves life in an isolated mountain community, with unanticipated personal and social consequences in Romulus Linney’s “Heathen Valley,” directed by Elizabeth and John Craven, at Main Stage West in Sebastopol through April 14.

Set in North Carolina in the 1840s, the story’s central character is an illiterate church janitor named Starns (Kevin Bordi, brilliant), recently released from prison after serving ten years on a manslaughter charge. He wants to make something better of his life and begins a program of late-in-life education as an acolyte to the kindly Bishop Ames (John Craven). Adamant about saving souls, the Bishop enlists his help in an expedition into a hidden valley in the mountains, an area so remote it’s called “the land that God forgot.”

…conveyed with stunning conviction…”

Ames, Starns, and an orphan boy named Billy (Jereme Anglin, also the show’s narrator) embark on a trek that lands them in a community so inbred that marriage between siblings is considered normal, and so economically backward that scratching a few potatoes from the ground is considered a good harvest—fertile territory for Christian reformers. Ames installs Starns as his pastor in the valley. The former illiterate rises to his new responsibility, and having become fond of St. Augustine, preaches a gospel of kindness and understanding. He also helps his flock with practical matters such as improving their agricultural yields and teaching them that it’s best not to mate with close relatives.

Starns’s role in lifting up a blighted community is his personal salvation, one that he assumes with great dignity and purpose. The valley’s people—represented by Juba (mollie boice, perfectly cast), a wise old mountain midwife; Harlan (Elijah Pinkham), an ignorant, volatile hick; and Cora (Miranda Jane Williams), his not-quite-so-ignorant mate—prosper under his tutelage. Starns grows proud of what they achieve together even as his exhausting work takes a toll on his health. This story is conveyed with stunning conviction on a simple set that serves as church, village, and field, with backdrops that evoke the Great Smoky Mountains.

The cast of “Heathen Valley” at Main Stage West (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

While over several years Starns has led his flock out of the muck, the visiting Bishop has taken a more orthodox turn. He comes back to the valley not at all pleased with its simple abundance, happiness, and social order. His only concerns are piety and pious behavior. He’s become a religious conservative, insisting that valley residents wear cassocks (black robes such as worn by Greek Orthodox priests) and stop being so happy. They rebel, permitting only their children to wear dour outfits that make them look “like a bunch of damned crows.” Ames’s defeat cuts him to the core; John Craven portrays that defeat as a personal crucifixion.

The characters in “Heathen Valley” have complex intersecting arcs, and all are portrayed exquisitely, accompanied by mountain music almost too perfect (sound design by Doug Faxon). Linney’s deeply nuanced piece could not have had a better presentation than what’s currently running at Main Stage West. The playwright grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and was notoriously dismissive of hillbilly stereotypes, but here he brings them each to life: incest, ignorance, witchcraft, and all. He was also deeply aware of the inherent wisdom in primitive people. Even the moronic Harlan recognizes that religious conversion is simply an exercise in swapping one superstition for another. No amount of preaching will ever convince him that virgins can have babies.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHeathen Valley
Written byRomulus Linney
Directed byElizabeth and John Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughs Served Well-Done in “Barbecue Apocalypse” – by Nicole Singley

Headington and Coughlin (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Do you have what it takes to survive the end of days? Three couples put their skills to the test in Matt Lyle’s tremendously funny “Barbecue Apocalypse,” playing at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center through April 20th.

Thirty-somethings Deb (Jessica Headington) and husband Mike (Sam Coughlin) are frantically preparing to host their closest frenemies for a backyard cookout. Bemoaning their half-mowed lawn, mismatched patio furniture and dorm room-esque house decor, Deb fears they can’t possibly impress well-to-do “yupsters” Lulu (Lyndsey Sivalingam) and husband Ash (Trevor Hoffmann), or sleazy penthouse-dwelling Win (J.T. Harper) and his younger girlfriend Glory (Katie Kelley). Mike’s crowning achievement, after all, is the humble deck they’re standing on, and neither he nor Deb can keep a simple garden plant alive.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Coughlin, Harper, Sivalingam, Hoffmann (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When a calamitous event interrupts their awkward party, the group must find their niche in a post-apocalyptic world where once-considered strengths may now be vulnerabilities, and talents formerly perceived as useless could be advantageous. This brave new world offers Mike and Deb a chance to shine, while alpha-male Win shrivels from over-confident womanizer into sobbing, bathrobe-clad mess. Dynamics shift but the grill goes on, until an uninvited guest (Matt T. Witthaus) threatens to end the festivities once and for all.

Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp…”

Headington is a riot as neurotic housewife turned spear-wielding survivalist. She makes the jarring transition with remarkable ease, hauling in act two’s blood-spattered dinner – “raccoon, the other red meat!” – with an air of self-possession entirely in contrast to her anxious, pre-apocalyptic stumbling over cocktail umbrellas and fashion accessories. It’s equally satisfying to watch Coughlin’s understated Mike transform from insecure would-be writer to confident grill-master and gardener extraordinaire.

Sivalingam is superb as lovably pretentious Lulu, whose flippant remarks flow faster than the mango margaritas she’s a little too fond of. Hoffmann’s Ash is the painfully familiar portrait of a modern-day screen junkie, forced to settle for library books in a now Google-less world. The apocalypse, as luck would have it, is a boon to their marriage, bringing Lulu back down to earth and pulling Ash away from YouTube. It’s fun to watch their newfound spark ignite.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Kelley, Harper, Sivalingam (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Harper’s Win feels a bit overdone, dripping in stereotypical frat-boy machismo. It’s a hat that doesn’t quite fit, although it serves its comedic purpose all the same. Kelley is endearing in the role of a perky wannabe Rockette, even though she spends much of her time onstage aggressively swapping spit with Harper. Witthaus delivers a truly chilling cameo appearance.

An able cast excels under Larry Williams’s direction, assisted by Marcy Frank’s pitch-perfect costumes and Elizabeth Bazzano’s thoughtful backyard set. Jessica Johnson brings finicky lawn mowers, angry raccoons and propane grills to life with well-timed sound effects.

Marinated in millennial-centric humor, “Barbecue Apocalypse” makes lighthearted fun out of some fairly dark subject matter. Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp – or you just might live long enough to regret it.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is 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.

 

ProductionBarbecue Apocalypse
Written byMatt Lyle
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 20th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$16-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “A Perfect Ganesh” Imperfectly Rendered at Cinnabar – by Barry Willis

Two upper-middle-class middle-aged women find that a journey through India turns their contentious relationship into something deeper and more rewarding in “A Perfect Ganesh,” directed by Michael Fontaine at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through April 14.

Terence McNally’s AIDS-era story has huge potential to be both heart-rending and heart-warming, a potential that’s sadly under-exploited in this flat, lugubrious production. The two women, Margaret Civil (Laura Jorgensen), and Katharine Brynne (Elly Lichenstein), alter their usual holiday plans for an adventure in India, an undertaking that prompts anxiety in both of them, heightened by an opening-scene mishap with their airline tickets that threatens to make them miserable. Watching over them is Ganesha (Heren Patel), god of luck and opportunity, the travelers’ unseen companion. He appears at each critical moment in the story, guiding and helping but never intruding. The title refers to Katharine’s incessant search for a keepsake figurine, one of many behaviors that annoy Margaret.

Civil is cranky and demanding; Brynne forgetful, eagerly curious. They know each from their social circle in an uppercrust part of Connecticut, not really close when first introduced to us, but reasonably comfortable with each other. Their constant bickering belies their friendship, whose evolution is the play’s dramatic arc. It’s an arc that goes far—the two become close after several revelations of private tragedies and sharings of personal truth—but not very high. The dramatic peaks and valleys that might have given this story emotional texture have mostly been leveled and filled. Both actresses are veterans of long experience, so this squashing of emotional dynamics can only be interpreted as a directorial decision.

…as arduous as a train ride through India.”

Heren Patel is competent as the elephant-headed god, with an amiable, sometimes comedic delivery. His movements are elegant and fluid but his elephant headpiece interferes with the clarity of his speech. It’s not clear if some of his funny bits are intentional, such as Ganesha’s appearance to the travelers in the form of a Japanese tourist with an almost Italian accent.

The show’s saving grace is John Browning, who confidently plays all the male characters referred to by Margaret and Katharine—suitor, husband, son, and more. He also appears as many incidental characters—ticket agent, porter, guide—completely changing character with only slight changes in costume.

The music by Christopher and Marni Ris is compelling, but the stagecraft is slow and noisy as large pieces get shoved about and huge curtains pulled back and forth. The playbill lists running time at two and a quarter hours, but on opening weekend it was closer to three, or seemed like it. Like any foreign journey, “A Perfect Ganesh” offers experiences and insights available no other way, but getting to them is likely to feel as arduous as a train ride through India.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionA Perfect Ganesh
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$28 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2.5/5
Performance3/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Great Acting Can’t Overcome Script in “The Revolutionists” – by Barry Willis

The French Revolution was a bloody mess. That’s putting it in the mildest possible terms. The country’s 18th century bankruptcy and crushing poverty led to an uprising that in turn became the Reign of Terror in which many thousands of real and imaginary enemies of the new state were imprisoned and killed. A civil war was a strong possibility.

At the same time, surrounding countries fearing that anti-royalty sentiment would spread, and seeing many opportunities in a weakened France, sought to conquer the bourgeoning democracy. This set the stage for the rise of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most egomaniacal and brutal dictators.

Almost 17,000 people were executed during the peak year of the Reign of Terror, from summer 1793 to summer 1794—an average of 45 per day, a sustained orgy of head-chopping. Many executions took place in Paris; the guillotine was a popular form of entertainment. All this to establish a new form of government and economy based on the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood)—high ideals riddled with hypocrisy, as playwright Lauren Gunderson makes clear in “The Revolutionists,” in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse through April 7.

Flores and Revelos (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Gunderson places one fictional and three historical figures into her theatrical caldron then applies heat to see what will happen, with mixed results. The primary figure is writer and political activist Olympe de Gourges (Equity actress Tara Howley Hudson), a champion of the rights of women and minorities and an outspoken critic of the Reign of Terror who went to the guillotine on November 3, 1793. Two strong secondary characters are Marie Antoinette (Lydia Revelos, fantastic), whose lavish spending was widely believed to be the cause of France’s massive financial problems, and Charlotte Corday (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), who assassinated revolutionary firebrand Jean-Paul Marat and was beheaded four days later. The fourth figure is Marianne Angelle (Serena Elize Flores), a fictional character who advocates for the rights of women and oppressed minorities. “How about liberté, égalité, sororité?” she asks.

…compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but… doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties.” 

Both stagecraft and acting are first-rate under the direction of Lennie Dean, especially by Hudson and Revelos, but this adventure into “metatheater” is seriously overwrought, the kind of play that might be more at home as a graduate effort by an art school drama club. The characters interact with each other—only experts in French history could state whether any of them actually met—and with their audience, smothered with abstruse intellectualisms as only the French can spin them, and arcane (for Americans, anyway) historical references. Ultimately, we learn that the whole convoluted affair is something bubbling in Olympe de Gourges’s soon-to-be-detached head, as she struggles to do something with enduring impact in her last few days—a dramatic structure very much like the film “Jacob’s Ladder,” where the final reveal is that the foregoing story has taken place in a dying soldier’s mind.

“The Revolutionists” is compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but the excellence of the performance doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties. It’s a prickly but rewarding show for those with theatrical fortitude and better-than-average understanding of both history and its presentation as entertainment. The Thursday April 4 performance features a talkback after the show, recommended.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Revolutionists
Written byLauren Gunderson
Directed byLennie Dean
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Bingo, the Musical” Offers Great Silly Fun – by Barry Willis

Through April 7, the intimate stage at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is transformed into a VFW bingo hall where three women brave the elements to vie for power, glory—and maybe a handful of petty cash—in a raucous production of “Bingo, the Winning Musical.”

The friends, Vern, Honey and Patsy, dead-serious Bingo fanatics all, converge to compete on the fifteenth anniversary of Vern’s split with her former friend Bernice (Jennifer Brookman), an event so traumatic that the two have never reconciled. It’s an injustice that Bernice’s daughter Alison (Pilar Gonzalez) is determined to make right.

Lundstrom, Innocenti Beem, and Rider (Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

Outlandish challenges—“I’m a professional bingo player!” shouts Vern (the irrepressible Daniela Innocenti Beem)—an attempted seduction of the game’s number caller Sam (Tim Setzer) by the flirtatious Honey (Shannon Rider), and the invocation of spirits, talismans, and good-luck charms by the addled Patsy (Sarah Lundstrom) are only part of the fun, all watched over by Minnie (Karen Pinomaki), a mischievous sprite who manages the hall, an authentic recreation of such places found in almost every town in America. Lucky Penny’s set includes a real numbers board, a rotating hopper to randomize the balls, and bingo cards for each member of the audience, encouraged to play along at least three times in the course of the show. Napa just happens to be home base for a major distributor of bingo equipment. Who knew?

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

Add to this some spectacular singing in ensemble numbers such as “Girls Night Out,” “Anyone Can Play Bingo,” “I  Still Believe in You,” “Under My Wing,” and “Ratched’s Lament.” Solo numbers are also superb (music direction by Craig Burdette), including “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Alison), “Patsy’s Flashback,” “Swell” (Vern), and “Gentleman Caller” (Honey). Where else can you see a “straightjacket ballet” (choreography by Staci Arriaga and Taylor Bartolucci) in which bingo gals go all out like a bunch of lunatics recently released from the asylum? Does bingo make its players crazy or are they a little bit that way from the start?

Infectiously energetic, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” doesn’t offer profound messages or cosmic revelations, but—perhaps more appealing—it does ultimately set aside the petty resentments that infect us all in favor of enduring friendship among charmingly ordinary people. Tickets are money well spent on a couple hours of great silly lightweight fun with the added benefit of a potential sweep of “blackout” or “crazy snakes.” You can’t win if you don’t play.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionBingo, the Winning Musical
Written byMichael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg
Directed byTaylor Bartolucci; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “The Nether” Enthralls at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

Imagine a virtual world in which you are free to live out your darkest fantasies without repercussion – a perfectly rendered, immersive escape from reality, wherein you can look, speak, and act as you please, your identity securely concealed.

But what makes something real? If a virtual experience has the power to make us think and feel, is it truly artificial? Are our choices ever free from consequence?

By turns philosophical and eerily prophetic, “The Nether” – making its Sonoma County premiere at Left Edge Theatre through March 24th –invites us into such a world, raising these and many other timely questions about morality and culpability in the digital era. But before “logging in,” users be warned: unsettling subject matter is in no short supply here.

Schloemp and Rosa (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We open on a bleak interrogation room at an unspecified time in the future. Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) sits across from a man in old-fashioned clothing with a guarded demeanor. What was once the internet has evolved into the Nether – an immense network of online realms in which students attend virtual schools, employees telecommute to virtual offices, and people like Mr. Sims (Chris Schloemp) log in to indulge their innermost desires.

Sims – or “Papa,” as his avatar is known – is the proprietor of a realm dubbed the Hideaway, an elaborately designed Victorian home conjuring up a hypnotic nostalgia for simpler times past with its ornate furniture and poplar-lined vistas. Visitors can enjoy a stiff drink, dance along to old records on the gramophone, or molest and dismember prepubescent girls.

Morris is determined to shut the Hideaway down and hold Sims accountable for his gruesome crimes – crimes committed, that is, by and against avatars in the Nether. But has anyone really been hurt? Morris presses Hideaway participant Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen) for incriminating details, her own composure slowly crumbling in the process.

Wright and Spring (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We cut between the interrogation room and scenes inside the Hideaway, where we meet Iris (the stellar Lana Spring) – Papa’s favorite little girl – and Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence for Morris’s investigation. Mr. Woodnut has honorable intentions, but soon discovers the lines between personal and professional – as well as virtual and actual – are hard to draw inside this realm. He is bewitched by the Hideaway and all it has to offer, becoming himself a reluctant participant in Papa’s twisted world.

…haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant…”

It is evident Director Argo Thompson has chosen his cast with care. Schloemp brings grace and finesse to a difficult role, making Sims remarkably sympathetic given his deviant inclinations. Wright is compelling as the well-meaning detective, grappling with unexpected temptation and fearful self-reflection. Yen delivers a surprisingly heart-rending performance as the reticent and wounded Mr. Doyle. Spring’s Iris is ethereal and deeply felt, adding much to the story’s emotional impact. (It’s important to note that Spring is an adult, and that the worst of what happens is not depicted on-stage.)

Rosa is arguably the only weak link. She doesn’t seem at home in her role, and the opening scenes are a bit awkward because of this. Her behavior may be intentional, however, given what we learn later in the show.

Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Thompson’s set anchors the interrogation room at its center, flanked on both sides by rooms within the Hideaway, keeping us tethered to reality as we experience the virtual world. His crew has chosen fitting furniture and props for the Hideaway, and the interrogation room feels adequately cold and futuristic. Schloemp’s projections are an effective enhancement, transforming the interrogation room’s table into an interactive portal to the Nether.

Joe Winkler has set the show to an appropriately ominous soundtrack, from floor-shaking electronic overtures to the crackle and pop of old-timey tunes on Papa’s Victrola. There’s a moment of eerie dissonance near the show’s end when the soundtracks from both worlds collide, as the real and virtual begin to meld.

Act one is weighed down by philosophical quandary and is slow to build momentum. When the pieces begin to fall together, however, the pace accelerates into a second act rich with chilling developments and surprising revelations, and an ending that begs as many questions as it answers.

Though not for the faint-hearted, “The Nether” is a haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant ride well worth taking if you can stomach the subject matter. Playwright Jennifer Haley pulls us out of our comfort zone and thrusts us into this dark exploration of a not-so-far-off future that could very well become our own.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, the Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionThe Nether
Written byJennifer Haley
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Rollicking “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In recent years the jukebox musical has become a staple of American theater, in which a collection of great songs gets tied together with a plausible narrative and dramatic arc. “Million Dollar Quartet” fits snugly into this tradition, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street playhouse through March 24.

A fictionalized account of a real event—an evening in early December, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley converged and performed at Sun Studios in Memphis—the show is a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll. An amalgam of African-American blues and gospel and white Southern folk music, rock emerged in the postwar period, giving voice to a new generation and shocking the cultural establishment both in the United States and Europe. Its pervasive effects continue to this day.

…a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll… do not miss this show.”

Directed by Bay Area theater veteran Michael Ray Wisely, who has performed in and directed other productions of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the 6th Street show features two performers from the national touring production—Daniel Durston as Elvis and Steve Lasiter as Johnny Cash. Sonoma County actor/musician Jake Turner is superb as Carl Perkins, as is his guitar playing, and music director Nick Kenrick is astounding as the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis.

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Samantha Arden does a lovely turn as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, while Benjamin Stowe anchors the whole affair as Sam Phillips, the producer/recording engineer widely acknowledged as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And let’s not forget drummer Nick Ambrosino and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo, who provide infectious drive to the music of the four ersatz superstars. Conor Woods’s adaptation of the original set design is substantial, compelling, and versatile.

The song list includes a couple dozen classics from the early 1950s, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’,“ all of them stunningly rendered. This reviewer saw the national touring production, and 6th Street’s is just as good. If you’re a fan of that era, do not miss this show. Even if you’re only mildly fond of early rock, it’s still a really fun way to spend an evening.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMillion Dollar Quartet
Written byColin Escott & Floyd Mutrux
Directed byMichael Ray Wisely; Music Directed by Nick Kenrick
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$40 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! Foothill’s “Bullets over Broadway” Hits its Mark – by Victor Cordell

At the core of his comic genius, Woody Allen creates fictional lead characters who share his neuroses. He then places them in situations rich with local color based on his own experience and observation.

With Bullets over Broadway, he wrote a highly successful screenplay for a movie that received considerable award recognition. In transitioning the story to the stage and adding music, it was honored with six Tony nominations, but its box office outcome was modest at best. Perhaps its failure to earn a long run is because it entertains but doesn’t wow.

Rejection and crises of confidence plague authors, and in this instance, the Woody Allen proxy is a young playwright, David Shayne, whose break to get financing for his first Broadway-destined play comes with a catch. Borrowing a theme that Allen and many others have used before, the finance depends on giving a role in the play to the girlfriend of the money man.

Oh, and in this case, the money man happens to be a gangster. Needless to say, the girlfriend is as talentless as she is witless, and with a whiny-screechy voice that is the reincarnation of Jean Hagen in the movie Singin’ in the Rain. To make matters worse, rehearsals reveal great inadequacies in David’s manuscript. But an unlikely source will put the project on the right path and dramatically alter the future of David and his collaborators.

Allen resisted the theatrical conversion of this property but having a taste for pop standards, was finally convinced by the suggestion that the musical score be comprised of songs from the period of the action. This strategy works in giving the music an authenticity and a pleasant familiarity with tunes like “Let’s Misbehave,” “Up a Lazy River,” and “There’ll be Some Changes Made.” Many updated lyrics enliven the old chestnuts, fit the plot line, and are quite funny.

…Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers … gusto and … humor … for a fun evening…

At the same time, its period characteristics may be what prevents Bullets from unqualified success, especially with younger audiences. In addition to its ‘20s music, the plotline intersection of Broadway and gangsters evokes Damon Runyon’s stories that were used as the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls and may seem dated.

However, Bullets contains a bevy of stereotyped characters that provide charm – from the fading diva to the actor whose food urges undermine his career – and stock situations like the playwright resisting script changes to maintain his integrity and the younger man being seduced by the lure of an older woman.

Overall, Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers enough gusto and extracts enough humor from the material for a fun evening. Not to say that it meets professional standards, but as a community theater offering, it satisfies. Most performers have peaks and valleys in both singing and acting, but each has high points that are quite worthy. Singing voices tend to have strong sweet spots that diminish outside that narrow range. And while the situational humor is uneven, the many one-line zingers uniformly hit the target.

Early on, Adam Cotungno as David seems caught between channeling Woody Allen and establishing his own role interpretation. By Act 2, both his acting and vocalizations exude confidence, and when he frantically delivers “The Panic is On,” he nails it. His nemesis is Olive, played convincingly by Jocelyn Pinkett, who inhabits the lower-class floozy with flair. Carla Befera hits her stride as the prideful and self-indulgent older actress, Helen, with a fine rendition of the appropriate “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Finally, Nick Mandracchia masters the role of Cheech, the man in the shadows.

Milissa Carey directs commendably considering the resource requirements of the production. Bullets contains a huge number of scene changes. Andrew Breithaupt’s basic set is complemented by a revolving platform and a cache of movable props to give simple scenic suggestion, while Lily McLeod’s lighting effectively evokes mood shifts. Dance elements are demanding, and Claire Alexander’s choreography generally works, but execution is often out of kilter. Sharon Peng deserves a nod for the scope of costumery required for the production.

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.

 

 

ProductionBullets Over Broadway
Written byWoody Allen
Directed byMilissa Carey
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production Address12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Websitehttps://foothill.edu/theatre/bullets.html
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$15 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Hello, Dolly!” An Eye-popping Extravaganza at the Golden Gate Theatre – by Barry Willis

A multiple Tony winner and perennial favorite since its 1964 debut, “Hello, Dolly!” was for decades a star vehicle for recently departed Carol Channing, the performer most associated with the lead role of yenta and all-around advice giver Dolly Gallagher Levi.

The legendary Betty Buckley handles the lead with aplomb in the sumptuous national touring show, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through mid-March. In other productions, Dolly has been inhabited by Bette Midler and other top talents. Ms. Buckley manages to make the character her own without referencing any of the other stars that have taken it on, a major achievement in its own right.

…an absolute extravaganza… nearly everything about this show is incredibly good.”

Backed by what appears to be an unlimited budget, the show is one of the biggest spectacles to land in San Francisco in several years. The capacious Golden Gate is its ideal venue. The show is an absolute extravaganza, from stunning backdrops, costumes, and sets to the supreme talents of a huge cast, including Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy merchant and target of Dolly’s matrimonial intentions. Among the secondary cast, Nic Rouleau is a standout as the lovelorn Cornelius Hackl, one of Vandergelden’s underpaid and underappreciated employees.

Partial ensemble (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

As townspeople, waiters, and other characters, approximately 30 performers do everything from simple walk-on bits to astoundingly athletic dance numbers—all of it appearing nearly effortless, and the show moves along with grace, precision, and enormous energy. There are no weak links in this production—in fact, the only weak link, and it’s a stretch to say this, may be Ms. Buckley herself, because nearly everything about this show is incredibly good. If she’s the weak link, it’s a strong, supple one.

“Hello, Dolly!” is a lightweight musical set around the turn of the 19th century, with some great songs in mid-20th century style—not merely the title song, but others including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By.” Adhering to a time-honored plot device of the matrimonially-minded seeking partners with money, the show has been unfairly criticized for lacking relevance to modern audiences—sold-out performances at the thousand-seat Golden Gate to the contrary. If you have a hankering for a classic Broadway musical the way it was intended to be seen, this is the show for you.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHello, Dolly!
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJerry Zaks
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.shnsf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Stunning “After Miss Julie” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Trouble brews as a flighty heiress cavorts with her head servant in “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s adaptation of the August Strindberg classic, at Main Stage West through March 3.

Reset in an English country manor at the close of World War II, with the Labor Party about to win the national election and disrupt traditional social structures, the play features Jennifer Coté as Christine, a loyal scullery maid; Sam Coughlin as John, her fiancé and the manor’s head servant; and Ilana Niernberger as Miss Julie, the heiress who can’t resist defying class restrictions by seducing him. All the action plays out in the manor’s cramped downstairs kitchen, while a wild celebration swirls about outside.

Jointly directed by Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, who also did the set design, this brilliantly staged and performed piece is the antidote to the poison that is Strindberg’s much-praised “Creditors,” extended to March 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Both plays were written in 1888, and both are about the power dynamic inherent in sexual triangles—strong superficial resemblances, but “After Miss Julie” actually has uplifting moments and an ambiguous ending that proves to be far more nuanced and far more satisfying than the abrupt finality of “Creditors.”

…a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux… that will keep you on edge right to the end…”

Coughlin and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Coté is excellent in her role as the determined, hard-working Christine, while Coughlin and Niernberger are astounding in their portrayal of a pair of hopelessly attracted lovers deep in the throes of an intractable dominant/submissive relationship. Julie relishes lording it over John, issuing orders that as her lover and employee he must obey. She then immediately demands that he issue orders to her in return and he complies, despite knowing how wrong it all is. With class distinctions amplified by differences in dialect, it’s a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux—quite literally, with white-hot choreography by Dana Seghesio—that will keep you on edge right to the end, and will give you plenty to ponder for days after.

Sound designer Matthew Eben Jones has selected some wonderful music from the WWII era that perfectly establishes the play’s time frame, and Missy Weaver’s moody subdued lighting works marvelously to reinforce every scene. Running time is about 90 minutes. Opening night featured a short intermission; it wasn’t clear if MSW would keep it or not for the duration of the show. In either case it’s a fantastically good production, among the best in a series of superb productions by Sebastopol’s quirky troupe. In its few short years, Main Stage West has become one of the North Bay’s leading theatre companies. “After Miss Julie” proves why.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionAfter Miss Julie
Written byPatrick Marber
Directed byElizabeth Craven and David Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 3rd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Unpleasant “Creditors” at Aurora Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Nothing kills one’s ardor more quickly than hearing this from a partner: “We have to talk.”

That pretty much sums up this reviewer’s take on August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through February 24. Written in 1888, the then-scandalous play examines the relationships of two men, Adolph and Gustav (Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Jonathan Rhys Williams, respectively) and one woman, Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Adolph is a self-doubting artist with unspecified neurological problems that manifest in spastic mannerisms and ambulatory difficulties. Gustav is a new friend talking him through an artistic identity crisis—should he pursue painting or sculpture?—while  fanning the flames of doubt in him about his wife Tekla, who as we discover later, is Gustav’s ex-wife.

The initial exchange between the two men goes on for maybe twenty minutes—it feels like hours of manipulative psychobabble—until at some point Tekla appears, an independent, free-spirited novelist who has published a book with a central character based on Gustav. She’s been gone a week, approximately as long as Gustav has known Adolph, and has come back to flirt with her own husband while her ex lurks unseen to hear everything they say. There is nothing about the two men that is at all appealing—Adolph is a cringing neurotic and Gustav, a master schemer. It’s hard to imagine what attracts Tekla to either of them. It isn’t money, despite the play’s title.

…the actors are excellent playing despicable characters…”

Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Rebecca Dines

Tekla is the prototype of a new kind of woman emerging in Western culture at the time—assertive, confident, uninhibited. She can entertain the concept of loving more than one person while the two men cannot. (Strindberg must have thought his character was unique; he accused Henrik Ibsen of plagiarism in making Hedda Gabler a similar type. Certainly Tekla and Hedda cannot have been the only free-spirited women in fin de siècle Scandinavia.) Tekla flirts and spars with Adolph until he leaves in a huff, whereupon Gustav enters and attempts a seduction. Tekla almost takes the bait then thinks better of it, and to cut to the chase, Adolph comes back in and dies of an epileptic seizure. That’s a wrap.

In the week since it opened, “Creditors” has been gushed about by a score of critics, many of whom, it must be assumed, are classicists. And while it’s always unfair to judge the art of the past through the lens of the present, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s so gush-worthy. The story is horrible, but directed by Barbara Damashek, the actors are excellent playing despicable characters—two men suffering from terminal cases of emotional hemorrhoids, and a woman who can’t be trusted. It’s ninety minutes of late 19th century European navel-gazing, a repellent talkathon in which almost nothing happens other than the malicious destruction of the weakest character.

The fact that something is old doesn’t make it valuable or worth reviving. As David Foster Wallace put it in another context, this play is “a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionCreditors
Written byAugust Strindberg
Directed byBarbara Damashek
Producing CompanyAurora Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough February 24th
Production AddressAurora Theatre Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone(510) 843-4822
Tickets$49
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! A Solid “Streetcar Named Desire” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is among the most popular recurring productions in regional theater, with a couple of bucket-list roles for ambitious actors: the loutish Stanley Kowalski and his wilting-flower sister-in-law Blanche DuBois. The current revival of this favorite play runs in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 17.

Directed by Phoebe Moyer, Ariel Zuckerman and Juliet Noonan do justice to these difficult parts, aided by superb supporting performances from Melissa Claire as Blanche’s pregnant sister Stella, and Edward McCloud as Mitch, Stanley’s bowling-and-poker pal who falls under Blanche’s spell. With a consistently bland mid-south accent and palpable emotional tenderness, Claire is rock-solid as the long-suffering sister, moving from joy at being reunited with Blanche to despair at having to get her removed from the cramped flat she shares with Stanley. McCloud also has a complicated path to traverse as Stanley’s army buddy who asserts himself enough to pursue Blanche, only to have his hopes dashed by plausible tales about her scandalous behavior back in Laurel, Mississippi.

…compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.”

Zuckerman and Noonan (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Zuckerman apparently relishes his part as the savage Stanley, and in many scenes seems to be channeling Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Stanley in the film version has forever affected those who followed. Zuckerman even looks like the young Brando, and some of his postures are eerily like the film actor’s. He’s also in great athletic shape, much more impressive than Brando in his youth.

Juliet Noonan has the unenviable task of carrying the bulk of the drama—like Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Blanche DuBois is among the most demanding roles in 20th century American theater, perhaps the female equivalent of Hamlet, and Noonan gets it about ninety percent right. Her physical gestures are evocative, and her timing excellent, but she falls in and out of her Mississippi plantation accent. With moments of true pathos, she beautifully conveys Blanche’s self-delusion and persistent manipulation of those around her.

Matt Farrell and Laura Downing-Lee are very good as Steve and Eunice, who live upstairs from Stella and Stanley and provide Stella with comfort when Stanley rages. A full-size spiral staircase leads to their unseen apartment, an amazing bit of set design in 6th Street’s compact studio theater. While not the best production this reviewer has seen, this “Streetcar” generates plenty of compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionA Streetcar Named Desire
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Sex with Strangers” Turns Up the Heat at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

How do you define success, and what would you sacrifice to achieve it? Would you be willing to take advantage of others? To trade in your dignity, your privacy, or even your identity? Would you dare to risk a shot at love?

Pondering the price of fame in the digital era, “Sex with Strangers” is the smart, seductive modern romance by Emmy Award-winning House of Cards writer Laura Eason, playing now through February 17th at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre.

Olivia (Sandra Ish) has faded into obscurity following the long-ago release of her modestly successful novel. Badly bruised by mixed reviews and fearing public scrutiny, she continues to write but shares her work with no one. Now in her late thirties, Olivia has settled for a teaching job and relegated writing to a hobby.

Ethan (Dean Linnard) is an up-and-coming writer who, at only 28, has already made a splash on the New York Times Best Seller list and amassed a sizeable following online. Having leveraged his controversial blog about casual sex into two books and an impending movie deal, Ethan’s fame and fortune are on an upward trajectory. Even so, he is restless to escape his reputation as philandering lothario and rebrand himself as a serious author.

Linnard and Ish (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

When a snowstorm leaves these strangers stranded and alone at a remote bed-and-breakfast, sparks fly as flirtatious tension escalates into a passionate affair. But we soon learn their chance encounter wasn’t chance at all, and when Ethan offers to help relaunch Olivia’s career, there is ample room to doubt his motives. Olivia, we learn, has ambitions of her own, and we are left to question who is using whom. Or could this be a genuine connection?

…a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments…”

Anticipation is half the fun, and the opening scenes are butterfly-inducing as heat and momentum build between Olivia and Ethan. Their banter appears unrehearsed – the pair’s interactions feel alluringly natural, raw, and resultantly real. Eason’s dialogue is sharp and delightfully fast-paced, and these two pros deliver it with ease.

Linnard’s Ethan is irresistibly charming. His coarse manners and frank confidence are at once repulsive and magnetic. There’s a sweet sincerity in his affection for Olivia that helps sustain our hope in the honesty of his intentions, despite the reasons we are given to suspect he can’t be trusted. Ish is equally excellent as voluptuous Olivia, bringing a compelling blend of vulnerability, sass, and surprising strength to the role.

Ish and Linnard (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The unlikelihood of their pairing makes their romance all the more interesting to watch unfold. What might have been a modest age difference in decades past is now a significant gap made ever broader by the rapid technological advancements we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ethan’s Wi-Fi dependent world is ruled by an ever-ringing cell phone, overflowing email inbox, and constant public exposure. Olivia’s world – at least when we first meet her – is significantly more quiet. She’s still a fan, after all, of things like privacy and hard copy books.

A subtle power shift occurs as Olivia’s star begins to rise and Ethan’s fades, culminating in a simple, striking moment when the scene is interrupted by a ringing phone. We expect to see Ethan reach into his pocket. But this time, much to our surprise, the call is for Olivia. (Kudos to Sound Designer Joe Winkler for this and other well-timed effects.)

Eason’s ending is powerful and poignant, leaving the door open for us to reflect on what we hope will happen after the curtain falls. We are at once indulged but also wanting more.

Under Diane Bailey’s direction, Linnard and Ish hit it out of the park. Light Designer April George creates a convincing blizzard outside the opening scene’s window, and Argo Thompson’s set provides an attractive and believable backdrop, converting cleanly from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an urban apartment.

“Sex with Strangers” is a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of food for serious thought. Leave the kids at home, check your inhibitions at the door, and strap in for a night of fun you won’t regret the morning after.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, the Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionSex with Strangers
Written byLaura Eason
Directed byDiane Bailey
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
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 Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid” – by Victor Cordell

For anyone who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, the period leading to death can be painful and profound. If one can carry out normal activities under the sentence of death, the person often makes a conscious decision whether to live as routinely as possible; whether to surround one’s self with what is most cherished; or whether to splurge on very special and perhaps extravagant experiences.

In any case, philosophical reflection is inevitable. But what if one knows that life will end for all of humanity at a prescribed time? Say, an asteroid large enough to obliterate life hurtles inexorably toward earth.

In Jeffrey Lo’s new comic farce, Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid, a prophet of doom named Alfred Winters had accurately predicted “The Vanishing” in which half of humanity recently disappeared at once without a trace. Now Winters has assured those who have survived that the world will end at midnight on the day that the action of the play takes place. By the way, for those like me who have trouble deciphering the title, you probably don’t know that “OK Cupid” is an online dating site. Now it should make sense.

The narrative centers on two couples and several other characters whose lives intersect. Each couple has just met on the fateful day through OK Cupid, which should suggest that the characters are not exactly Homecoming King and Queen material. These young adults, as couples and with others, go through relationship rituals and the memes of daily life – from hypnotically gazing into cell phones to confronting the condescending barista at the coffee shop over a $20 cuppa.

…in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Although some aspects of the play are universal, many themes and characters will speak more effectively to a younger audience. Millennials (and stoners?) may find the comedy-club and sketch-type humor funny throughout, but much of it seems strained, even though the actors animate the dialogue as well as can be expected. Humor in the script needs to be fine-tuned, and strands need to be tightened, as some of the segments never connect well with the overall arc. In fact, the funniest segment, a Scotsman, played by Flip Hofman, who reveals his OK Cupid self-summary and six things he can’t live without, fails to integrate at all.

Tasi Alabastro as the hyperkinetic Ben and Michelle Skinner as the depressive Caitlyn bring energy to the lead roles and are effective overall, while Keith Larson seems at risk of blowing out his carotid artery from his frenzied depiction of Winters. At the other extreme, Michael Weiland seems totally natural as the relaxed Bong, and in a small bit, Tyler Pardini nails it as the low affect open-mic, poetry emcee.

The staging suits the vignette-driven nature of the story. Open staircases, platforms, and catwalks comprise Paulo Deleal’s set, with the occasional addition of cafe tables and chairs. Director Michael Champlin aptly isolates scenes on the stage, and actors who are not performing can comfortably hang out in other locations (and fiddle on their cell phones!). Megan Souther’s lighting complements the overall effect. Generally, low lighting is supported by spots and mobile area highlights. Cell phones are particularly effective for facial illumination.

The driving motives of the play are strong. Although the situations are intimate and farcical, existential matters are broached. What is the point of life and why do things remain important to us once we know the end is imminent? Yet, in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid by Jeffrey Lo is produced by Pear Theatre and plays at its stage at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View, CA through February 17, 2019.

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.

 

 

 

ProductionSpending the End of the World on OK Cupid
Written byJeffrey Lo
Directed byMichael Champlin
Producing CompanyPear Theater
Production DatesThru Feb. 17th
Production AddressPear Theater
1110 La Avenida St.
Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94043
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone650.254.1148
Tickets$28-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall
Performance
Script
Stagecraft
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

 

An AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! August Wilson Brought to Life in “How I Learned What I Learned” – by Barry Willis

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and national treasure August Wilson was taken from us too soon, in 2005 at 60 years of age. A self-taught high school dropout who authored dozens of plays—among them, “Fences,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Jitney,” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”—the prolific Wilson accumulated many honors and awards. What he might have achieved had he lived longer is the stuff of speculation, but what he accomplished is astounding, the real meaning of “a lasting legacy.”

‘How I Learned What I Learned’ is a couple of the most rewarding hours you’re likely to have in a theater this year…

Through February 3, Marin Theatre Company is presenting Wilson’s autobiographical one-man play “How I Learned What I Learned” starring veteran actor Steven Anthony Jones, directed with great sensitivity by Margo Hall.

Steven Anthony Jones as August Wilson.

Anchored in Wilson’s upbringing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the performance is a seamless blend of reminiscence, historical fact, observation, and sermon, much of it a mix of personal anecdotes that range from exceedingly tender—a grade-school epiphany when he kisses the girl of his dreams—to absolutely horrific. He was a close-up witness of a murder provoked by an insult.

Jones’s monologue covers an astounding amount of time and material—from Wilson’s childhood in Pittsburgh to his adult years in St. Paul and Seattle—all of it conveyed with insightful wit and the intimate, avuncular wisdom of a wily old preacher.

Steven Anthony Jones working at MTC.

A cooperative production with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Ubuntu Theater Project—the show moves sequentially to those two venues when it leaves MTC—“How I Learned What I Learned” is a couple of the most rewarding hours you’re likely to have in a theater this year.

 

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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

 

Production“How I Learned What I Learned”
Written byBy August Wilson
Directed byDirected by Margo Hall
Producing CompanyMarin Theater Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd.
Production AddressMarin Theater Co.
397 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone415.388.5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Poignant, Poetic “Swallow” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

At Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through January 27th, “Swallow” is a lyrical and haunting reflection on how we put our pieces back together and rebuild – our wounds, our relationships, our sense of purpose and of self – through the healing conduit of shared suffering and human connection.

Rebecca (Michelle Maxson) is alone and angry. Her husband has fallen in love with another woman. She takes the pain out on herself and fears her scars may never heal. Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor Anna (Dana Scott Seghesio) hasn’t left her apartment in months and is tearing it apart piece by piece, living on ice cubes and canned beans in total isolation. When the two begin to talk through Anna’s closed door, their fragile, faceless friendship evolves into an unusual but much-needed lifeline.

Sam (Skyler Cooper) is in the process of becoming the man he feels himself to be, enduring the humiliation of a job at which he is still called Samantha and struggling to gain confidence and acceptance in his new identity. Recognizing his own loneliness in Rebecca when he discovers her sitting by herself at a coffee shop, Sam takes a chance and starts a conversation.

Cast members Cooper, Maxson, and Seghesio at work.

Although she is initially wary, Rebecca begins to let her walls down as she reopens herself to the possibility of finding new love and understanding. But how will she react if Sam comes clean about his past? What unfolds is both dark and uplifting, at moments comical and others crushing.

The chemistry between Sam and Rebecca is real and their relationship utterly compelling. Cooper and Maxson are immensely talented and profoundly well-cast. It is hard to look away from them, even when their interactions pause and the spotlight shifts to Anna in her apartment. In those dark, unmoving moments, the expressions on their faces speak volumes.

…shattered mirrors, broken hearts, fractured bones, and splintered identities…

Scott Seghesio does an admirable job in a difficult role, making Anna about as interesting as she can be given the lack of development her backstory is offered by playwright Stef Smith. It is hard to care as much as we might like to about a cripplingly neurotic person we learn little about beyond her strange obsession with destruction and strained relationship with a brother who pays her rent. The result is that her scenes begin to feel like unwelcome interruptions to the story we’re more emotionally invested in. Anna’s overwrought metaphorical ramblings about an injured bird become at times torturous as we wait to see more of Rebecca and Sam.

With John Craven’s assistance, David Lear has crafted a lean, effective set which succeeds in creating the illusion of a coffee shop, an apartment building, and a city sidewalk without undergoing any major changes. Missy Weaver’s light design helps create a sense of separation between rooms and scenes. The sound effects of shattering glass and hammers pounding are well-timed and appropriately jarring thanks to Matthew E. Jones’s design.

Despite its imperfections, “Swallow” is inarguably moving, and Smith’s compassion for human suffering is evident. She reminds us that we are capable of creating beautiful things from our broken pieces and that no matter how personal or private our battles, we are never really alone in our pain. Main Stage West has handled her material with care, and the result is well worth watching.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, the Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weaver
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough January 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! “Moon Over Buffalo” Shines at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

An erratic sword-swinging scene that opens “Moon Over Buffalo” only hints at the wildness to come in Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 3.

A master of the American door-slamming farce, Ludwig’s output includes theater-world classics such as “Crazy for You” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” Filling out the triumvirate is “Moon Over Buffalo,” about an acting family doing repertory performances of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in Buffalo, NY in 1953.

Patriarch George Hay (Dodds Delzell) is a theater careerist who’s very dismissive of the film industry, despite a phone call from legendary director Frank Capra, saying he’s considering George and his wife Charlotte (Madeleine Ashe) as replacements for Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson in a production of “Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” It’s possibly a dream come true for Charlotte, who longs for a life more glamorous than that of iterant actors.

‘Moon Over Buffalo’ has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy…

Helter-skelter antics by their associates, confusion about which play they are performing, and the lure of a career breakthrough, compounded by George’s appetite for prodigious amounts of alcohol make for some riotous comedy. George drinks until he can barely stand—in some instances, he can’t—and mixes and muddles his roles in the two very unlike shows while Charlotte and their daughter Rosalind (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) try to cover for him. Add to this a hearing-impaired grandmother (Shirley Nilsen Hall), a hyperactive TV weatherman (Erik Weiss), a lovesick attorney (Joe Winkler), a company manager desperately trying to keep the Hays on track (Robert Nelson), and a young actress impregnated by George (Victoria Saitz).

L-R: Dodds Delzell, Robert Nelson, Chandler Parrott-Thomas, Shirley Nilsen Hall, Madeleine Ashe in “Moon Over Buffalo”

All of this comes to a frothy head in the second act, on a substantial set by Jason Jamerson—it has to be with all the wrestling, drunken gymnastics, and door-slamming—under the guiding hand of director Carl Jordan.

Despite the sword-swinging, there’s a surfeit of exposition in the first act that makes the whole affair a bit slow to gain altitude, and some anachronisms in the dialog and props, but the second-act payoff is worth the wait. Delzell is perfectly cast as the out-of-control Hay—at one point he perfectly casts himself into the orchestra pit—and Parrott-Thomas is brilliant as the long-suffering daughter who does everything and more to save her family’s careers and the show they’re putting on.

“Moon Over Buffalo” has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy, and is riddled with theater-insider references (there are hints in the playbill). Astute audience members may recognize entire scenes that have been lifted into television sitcoms, movies, and other plays. The multiple second-chance ending is icing on a cake of simply great silly fun.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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

 

ProductionMoon Over Buffalo
Written byKen Ludwig
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Feb 3rd
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$20 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

 

AISLE SEAT REVIEW’S THEATRE FAVORITES 2018 — by Barry Willis and Nicole Singley

In 2018, Aisle Seat Review critics attended more than 100 productions, most very good and many, excellent. Rather than compile a “Best of” list—always a subjective evaluation open to rancorous discussion—we thought it might be more fun to share some favorites, in no particular order:

“Always, Patsy Cline” Sonoma Arts Live, Sonoma. Danielle DeBow brought the legendary country singer to life—and more—in this wonderful “jukebox musical” about Cline and her friend Louise Seger, emphatically played by Karen Pinomaki. Excellent male backup singers and onstage band sealed the deal for this Michael Ross production, which could have played all summer to packed houses.

“Always Patsy Cline” cast at Sonoma Arts Live.

 

“Oslo” Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. Director Jasson Minidakis got amazing performances from a large cast in this West Coast premiere of J.T. Rogers’s Tony Award-winning drama, a fictionalized account of backstage negotiations conducted by unauthorized Norwegian diplomats that resulted in the 1993 peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“An “Entomologist’s Love Story,” San Francisco Playhouse. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, this funny and sweetly seductive tale of love and rejection between a couple of graduate researchers took several unexpected but delightful detours on its way to providing insight into the mating behaviors of young adult humans. The award-worthy set was among many created by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted designers.

“Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse.

 

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park. This North Bay all-star production about an autistic kid searching for his mother was special in many respects, including set design and ensemble work. As Christopher, Elijah Pinkham was tremendous in his first big-venue outing, directed by Elizabeth Craven.

“Head over Heels,” Curran, San Francisco. Perhaps the most fun show of the year—and the most unjustifiably maligned—this pseudo-Shakespearean spoof featured incredible performances, amazing set design/stagecraft, and the best-ever treatment of the music of ‘80s pop group The Go-Go’s.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” Ray of Light Theatre, San Francisco. The best rock musical ever conceived was given a spectacular treatment in the Mission District’s crusty old Victoria Theatre. Coleton Schmitto slayed as the transgendered rock star, matched in gravitas if not in flamboyance by Maya Michal Sherer as Hedwig’s lover/assistant Yitzhak.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Ray of Light Theatre, San Francisco.

 

“By the Water,” Spreckels Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park. This heart-rending tale of a family and neighborhood trying to cope with the aftermath of a natural disaster had special meaning for North Bay residents following last year’s devastating fires. Mike Pavone and Mary Gannon Graham were superb as husband and wife trying to find their way home, in a sensitive production helmed by Carl Jordan.

“The House of Yes,” Main Stage West, Sebastopol. Director and set designer Elizabeth Craven pulled some dark magic from her bag of tricks in this stunning presentation of Wendy MacLeod’s horrifically funny portrait of an incredibly dysfunctional upper-crust family. Sharia Pierce was astounding as the Pascal family’s whacked-out “Jackie O” while Laura Jorgensen induced chills as her hard-drinking mother.

“The House of Yes” at Main Stage West.

 

“Death of a Salesman,” Novato Theatre Company, Novato. Arthur Miller’s classic depiction of a salesman put out to pasture could not have been more heartbreaking or more beautiful than as directed by Carl Jordan. Joe Winkler was perfectly cast as down-on-his-luck Willy Loman, as was Richard Kerrigan in the role of Charlie, Willy’s neighbor and best friend.

“Dry Powder,” Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley. Aldo Billingsly starred as a hard-charging buyout artist in this incisive dark comedy about the often impenetrable world of private equity. Emily Jeanne Brown was rock-solid as the unfeeling, number-crunching junior partner Emily. Directed with aplomb by Jennifer King.

“Detroit ’67,” Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley. Dominique Morisseau’s fictional but totally plausible tale of ordinary people struggling to get ahead during Detroit’s riots and fires of 1967 was beautifully conveyed in this five-actor tour-de-force directed by Darryl V. Jones, with standout performances by Halili Knox and Rafael Jordan as sister and brother Chelle and Lank.

“Detroit ’67” at Aurora Theater Co.

 

“A Walk on the Moon,” ACT, San Francisco. Performances and stagecraft were—pardon us, please—over the moon in this spectacular presentation of a simple story about a young wife’s coming-of-age during the summer when astronauts first landed on the moon.

 

“Hand to God,” Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa. Laughter flowed and doll heads rolled in this no-holds-barred dark comedy about a shy young Christian boy with a hand puppet, “Tyrone,” possessed by the devil. (Set in Texas. Where else?) A series of increasingly outrageous events culminated in the hostile takeover of a church basement, topped off by an absurdly funny and obscene act of puppetry that will haunt us for years to come. Dean Linnard’s impressive turn as Jason-slash-Tyrone and set design by Argo Thompson made for some devilish good fun.

“The Realistic Joneses,” Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa. Two couples shared an ordinary last name and an extraordinary fate in Will Eno’s poignant and darkly hilarious exploration of human connection, coping mechanisms, marriage and mortality. Melissa Claire, Chris Ginesi, Paige Picard, and Chris Schloemp brought remarkable talent and palpable chemistry to the stage, making an already interesting story unforgettable.

“Disgraced,” Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa. Issues of cultural appropriation, religion, racial tension, and infidelity came to an explosive head at a dinner party-gone-wrong in Ayad Akhtar’s incisive Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Left Edge’s top-notch casting, set design and technical work were—forgive us—anything but disgraceful.

“Tinderella,” Custom Made Theatre, San Francisco. A world premiere, this clever, inventive musical put an inspired spin on an age-old classic, thrusting beloved Disney princess Cinderella into the harsh realities of 21st-century online dating. Replete with hilarious song lyrics and cultural references, the script offers surprisingly heartfelt reflections on fostering love and friendship in a modern-day landscape of social media and smartphone apps. This wildly entertaining show attracted a remarkably young audience with a story acutely relevant to millennials and Bay Area living, poking plenty of fun at our ongoing reliance on all things digital, and helped along by some seriously good singing and outrageously funny choreography.

“Blackbird,” Main Stage West, Sebastopol. An inescapable past came back to haunt an industrial production manager in David Harrower’s “Blackbird.” Sharia Pierce astounded as Una, a young woman who hunts down her former and much older lover Ray (John Shillington). David Lear’s direction and set design were beyond perfect in this chilling piece about irresistible but doomed attraction.

“Marjorie Prime,” at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. Humanoid artificial intelligence got a new twist as therapeutic tools in Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize contender. Set in the near future, the provocative one-act was superbly delivered by four supremely talented actors—particularly Joy Carlin as the faltering widow—directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, on a simple modernistic set by Kimie Nishikawa.

“Marjorie Prime” at Marin Theatre Company.

 

 

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the Marquee Theatre Journalists Association and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of ATCA and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Templeton’s Sweet “Polar Bears” a Must-see Christmas Show – by Barry Willis

This time of year, we are inundated with multiple choices of winter holiday-theme productions. There are at least several presentations of “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” not to mention marathon broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story”—all worthy, heartwarming ways to enrich the season.

Add to this list David Templeton’s “Polar Bears,” one man’s tale about how far he was willing to go to extend his children’s belief in Santa Claus in the wake of their mother’s death. Performed by veteran actor Chris Schloemp, this “true story about a very big lie” is a lovely mix of tragedy, comedy, and detached self-deprecating observation that will keep you enthralled throughout its approximately 90 minutes.

Prolific journalist, critic, and playwright Templeton is a North Bay treasure, with several productions to his credit in addition to his annual “Twisted Christmas,” a grab-bag of performances and stories that played recently to a nearly full house at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Templeton’s style is similar to Jean Shepherd, the great chronicler of Americana whose 1966 book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” included the basis of “A Christmas Story.”

…’Polar Bears’… will keep you enthralled…

Templeton directs Schloemp on a set of stored Christmas paraphernalia, much of it cleverly doing double- or triple-duty to illustrate the piece. Easing your children out of treasured fantasies can be an ordeal for any parent. As told by Templeton and Schloemp, it’s also a sweet expression of love.

“Polar Bears” completes its run at the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael December 15, and will be reprised in a one-night-only performance at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, Sunday December 23, at 7:00 p.m.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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

ProductionPolar Bears
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid Templeton
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesSunday, December 23, 2018 7:00 p.m.
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone707-546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Dear Evan Hansen” a Millennial Spectacle at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Multiple Tony Award winner “Dear Evan Hansen” has finally landed in San Francisco, after a legal tussle between the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays and her former partners The Nederlander Organization. Much-anticipated, the show lives up to its reputation, with excellent performances and stunning stagecraft that make this first Millennial musical an immersive experience.

At its core a simple story about a withdrawn, socially inept high-school boy (Ben Levi Ross, most performances) whose gift for writing has good and bad repercussions, the show is also about family relations—the lead character lives with his single mom Heidi (Jerssica Phillips), who works tirelessly to improve herself and the life of her son, while having little time to interact with him.

It’s also about the intensity of life lived via social media as experienced by young people. Covering the entire stage for much of the show’s two-and-a-half hours, Peter Nigrini’s astounding projections go a long way toward conveying just how intense, immediate, and all-consuming such life can be. The music—also award-winning—is brash, loud, and louder, with only a couple of tender moments. Most of the songs in the first act are shouted more than sung.

Evan Hansen’s distraught classmate Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) mentions feeling suicidal and ultimately kills himself. Evan’s fictitious email exchanges with Connor gain notoriety and even provide some comfort for Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) and sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), who falls for Evan, if only briefly.

Phoebe Koyabe does a fine job as Alana Beck, one of Evan’s classmates and a self-appointed busybody who both encourages his subterfuge and later exposes it. Jared Goldsmith appears as Jared Kleinman, an obnoxious classmate and possibly Evan’s only friend.

…the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ quite a justifiable ticket purchase…

The show’s production values are exceptional, but in style it bears a striking resemblance to “Next to Normal,” possibly the worst musical ever conceived. The resemblance is no accident; both shows were helmed by Micheal Greif. Stripped of its glitz, the story would make ideal material for a Hallmark or Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

There are two moments that could use a rewrite: one is the scene where Larry, in surrogate father mode, shows Evan how to break in a baseball glove, something that in a film would be conveyed with a couple of soft-focus shots, but here it demands an entire song (“To Break in a Glove”). The other false moment comes when Larry and Cynthia attempt to befriend Evan’s mother, offering to fund his college education with money they have saved for Connor’s. Instead of being appreciative, Heidi gets incensed and insists that he’ll go to community college until she can afford to send him someplace better.

It’s mostly an exercise in psychological torture for poor Evan, but his misguided efforts—aided by Alana and Zoe—have an unpredictable and somewhat upbeat payoff, even if it isn’t happy-ever-after. “Dear Evan Hansen” is an emotionally exhausting production—not necessarily for the audience, but certainly for the performers, with nine shows per week. Their commitment to the show and the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make “Dear Evan Hansen” quite a justifiable ticket purchase.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Annie” a Winner at 6th Street Playhouse by Barry Willis

An unexpected benefactor saves a spunky orphan girl from a life of drudgery in the classic musical “Annie,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, through December 22.

Based on the Depression-era comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” this Michael Fontaine-helmed production features two separate casts of adolescent girls (at least, they appear to be adolescents) and an adult cast of North Bay theater veterans—Larry Williams as Daddy Warbucks, Daniela Innocenti-Beem as orphanage matron Miss Hannnigan, Jeff Coté as schemer Rooster Hannigan, Lydia Revelos as Rooster’s companion Lily St. Regis, Steve Thorpe as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Trevor Hoffman as radio announcer Burt Healy, Morgan Harrington as Grace, assistant to Daddy Warbucks, and Dwayne Stincelli as Drake, head of the Warbucks household.

“Annie” will always be a relevant show…

On a versatile set by Jeff Thomson—with quick changes, it serves variously as orphanage, city streets, the Warbucks mansion, the White House, and a radio station studio—the show features many great and widely beloved songs, including “Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” “Easy Street,” and “I Don’t Need Anything but You.” Who have hearts so cold that they can’t be moved by a dozen scruffy orphan girls scrubbing the floor and singing away? Or a red-haired kid—Alina Kingwill Peterson on opening night—giving her big voice to a great anthem of hope? Let’s not forget Sandy, her fluffy pooch, who can’t seem to find her marks but prompts gushes from the audience.

Larry Williams brings believable gravitas to the role of Daddy Warbucks, including decent song-and-dance skills. Morgan Harrington is appealing as Warbucks’s assistant, with a soaring soprano voice that dominates every ensemble piece she’s in. Jeff Coté and Lydia Revelos are amusing as a pair of bottom-rung hustlers, and do some marvelous ensemble work with Dani Innocenti-Beem, especially in the crowd-pleasing “Easy Street.” Innocenti-Beem is clearly the audience favorite as the tippling harridan who can’t stand the kids she supervises. Her offhand comedic bits add spice to a deliciously convincing portrayal of the mean bitch you love to hate.

Dale Camden—a talented actor seen not enough recently on North Bay stages—has a hilarious breakout moment of song and dance as a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet. And Trevor Hoffman is delightful as butter-voiced radio personality Burt Healy.

There are many obvious parallels between our own time and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although unemployment today is at an all-time low, we are still plagued with homelessness—homeless encampments were called “Hoovervilles” in the ‘30s, in honor of the president who ushered in the Depression—and disparity between rich and poor is as severe as ever.

“Annie” will always be a relevant show, and with its upbeat message, always a popular salve for our social malaise.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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

 

ProductionMoon Over Buffalo
Written byKen Ludwig
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Feb 3rd
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$20 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

*** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! *** “The House of Yes” Sheer Genius at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Received wisdom has it that a plagiarist copies from one; a genius imitates many. By that standard, playwright Wendy Macleod’s genius rating must be off the chart. In her incisive and savagely funny “The House of Yes,” at Main Stage West in Sebatopol through December 16, are echoes of Chekov, Ibsen, Beckett, and Albee, yet the play is wholly original. A depiction of perhaps the ultimate dysfunctional family, it’s one of the most amazing carnival rides ever undertaken though the dark side of familial relations.

In upper-crust McLean, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, DC) all appears normal in the Pascal home, near the Kennedy residence. Presided over by a bejeweled and perpetually plastered matriarch (Laura Jorgensen), the indolent Pascals have little to do other than drink and snipe at each other. We meet younger son Anthony (Elijah Pinkham), an Ivy League dropout with a lackadaisical Jimmy Stewart demeanor, and his older sister “Jackie-O” (Sharia Pierce), so called because of her obsession with the former First Lady, in particular the former First Lady on the day of her husband’s assassination.

Everything about this production is perfection…

Jackie-O’s personal problems—irrational outbursts, mania, depression, and a pharmacy’s worth of prescription drugs—are the primary focus for Anthony and his mother. Hyperactive with no internal filter, Jackie-O can and will say almost anything, much of it stupendously funny.

It’s a long-running family soap opera, but a minor symptom of a much deeper malaise, as we learn when her twin brother Marty (Sam Coughlin) comes home with his fiancée Lesly (Ilana Nierberger), a sweet and seemingly well-balanced girl from Pennsylvania. She soon realizes that she’s in over her head—way over her head—as Jackie-O reveals that she and Marty have enjoyed a special relationship since they were “in the womb,” one that has continued unabated right into adulthood and that nothing will ever break. Lesly also caves into an inept seduction by Anthony, an act she immediately regrets.

As all this unfolds, we learn that the unseen and presumably departed Mr. Pascal contributed only his fortune to the family, and that his wife was so busy bed-hopping that she isn’t sure who fathered her children.

That’s merely a plot outline. What happens in developing it is so wildly unpredictable and outrageously funny that revealing more would do a disservice to potential ticket buyers.

Everything about this production is perfection: Elizabeth Craven’s stunning set design—stark black-and-white hyper-modern art—and Missy Weaver’s moody lighting,  are a perfect complement to Macleod’s deeply disturbing comedy—one accurately described by MSW’s John Craven as “funny until it isn’t funny anymore.” Performances range from subdued to over-the-top, but always appropriate and perfectly timed.

“The House of Yes” is easily one of the best productions in the North Bay this year, the sort of rabbit hole that theatergoers venture into all too rarely. It’s exhilarating, shocking, hilarious, and deadly—a ten-star show on a five-star scale. Simply brilliant.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weave
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Jan 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone707.823.0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Cirque du Soleil’s Amazing “Volta” at AT&T Park – by Barry Willis

Calling a Cirque du Soleil production “a spectacle” is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon “a big ravine.” Reviewers’ standard superlatives—“tremendous,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” etc—fall far short of describing the scope of talents and risks taken in a typical Cirque show.

“Volta” is the 19th Cirque production to visit San Francisco. At AT&T Park through February 3, the show follows company protocol in avoiding the use and exploitation of animals, but once it gets underway no one in the audience will care that there’s nary a lion or tiger in sight. The dramatic setup is a loosely-organized talent competition—the “Mr. Wow Show”—that somewhat spoofs TV programs such as “America’s Got Talent.”

The talent-show thread gets inexplicably lost somewhere before intermission. No problem: the assorted acts that make up “Volta” are so amazing that there’s no need for dramatic structure. World-class acrobats, tumblers, trampolinists, BMX cyclists, ballet dancers, and more rollout onto the large stage in succession so rapid that at times several acts overlap one another.

“Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve…

It’s been noted that Cirque du Soleil is where former college gymnasts go to extend their careers. Their abilities and confidence pay homage to long years of training. It’s easy to understand how someone becomes an expert on the unicycle or the trampoline, but there is one act in “Volta” that provokes bafflement: Where does one learn to be a hair suspension aerialist? In “Mirage,” Brazil’s Danila Bim does a riveting aerial dance far above the stage floor, suspended only by her hair, pulled up into a tight braid connected to a cable in the apex of the big top. Her act isn’t the most dynamic—the trampolinists, tumblers, and stunt cyclists have the edge there—but it’s certainly the most beautiful and the most exotic. A perfect blend of intention, strength, and serenity, “Mirage” is ideally positioned as the high point of Act 2.

Traditional circus arts aren’t ignored in “Volta”—there is plenty of clowning, although never a small car unpacking two dozen unseen passengers. The audience also gets to see a scary performance on the “Swiss rings”—a swinging version of the still rings in men’s gymnastics. Also called the “flying rings,” the apparatus was once part of Olympic competition and now has very few adherents outside the circus. Keep an eye on the catwalk from which the rings are suspended. It sways quite a bit when the performers swing out over the edge of the stage.

There are many close calls in “Volta,” particularly in the closing segment with what seems like a dozen bike riders performing tricks simultaneously. The danger is part of the thrill for the audience—and presumably, part of the appeal for the performers—but given its seemingly high potential for disaster, Cirque du Soleil has a low injury rate. “Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve even if for no higher purpose than sheer exhilaration and the satisfaction of knowing that they can do things that few others can equal.

“Volta” runs through February 3 in San Francisco, then moves to San Jose through March 24. It’s an astounding production. With two shows per day on many dates, there is certainly one that will fit in your busy winter holiday schedule. Don’t miss it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor 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.

 

ProductionVolta
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesThru Feb. 3rd, 2019
Production AddressAT&T Park
24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta
Telephone
Tickets$54.00 and up
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?

*** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK *** High-Energy “Crazy for You” at San Francisco’s Alcazar by Barry Willis

Bay Area Musicals has opened its fourth season with a tremendously energetic production of “Crazy for You” at the beautiful Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco, through December 16.

On a stunningly versatile set by Kuo-Hao Lo, the Ken Ludwig/Mike Ockrent reworking of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney song-and-dance film “Girl Crazy” features music by George and Ira Gershwin, including many tunes that long ago entered the Great American Songbook as pop and jazz standards: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Naughty Baby,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It”—all backed by a superb seven-piece backstage band.

It’s all good fun in this quick-paced two-hour musical, with ensemble work that borders on astounding.

The setup is a classic boy-meets-girl scenario in which Bobby, the boy, (Conor DeVoe) avoids his wealthy but overbearing fiancé Irene (Morgan Peters) by leaving New York on his mother’s orders to take over a defunct theater in a small Nevada town. There he meets Polly (Danielle Altizio), the toughest gal in the West, and the daughter of the theater’s owner. Subverting his mother’s wishes, they hatch a plan to revive the theater, leveraging the hitherto untapped talents of the local layabouts as well as a bevy of dancing girls from the Zangler Follies, who miraculously descend on the town in time to put on a spectacular show. The storyline includes more happenstance love affairs than a Shakespearean comedy, at least one protracted bit of mistaken identity, and a happy-ever-after ending.

The cast of “Crazy for You” at work, Alcazar Theater, San Francisco.

It’s all good fun in this quick-paced two-hour musical, with ensemble work that borders on astounding. There’s some fine comic acting and plenty of great dancing, especially an abundance of tap (choreography by Matthew McCoy and Danielle Cheiken, who include much of Susan Stroman’s Broadway original). The performers’ singing isn’t quite up to their high level of dancing, but with the backing of a great band it’s adequate to keep the show rolling along while doing justice to the Gershwins’ marvelous music.

The renovated structure housing the Alcazar is a star in its own right, with an ornate exterior that belies the austerity of a simple white interior festooned with modern and contemporary art. It’s as if the theater resides inside an upscale gallery. Art fans and those with an eye for interior design will be as smitten with the Alcazar as ticketholders will be with “Crazy for You.” It’s a real crowd pleaser.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionCrazy for You
Written byMusic and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed byMatthew McCoy
Producing CompanyBay Area Musicals
Production DatesThru December 16th
Production AddressAlcazar Theatre
650 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.bamsf.org
Telephone415-340-2207
Tickets$35-$65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** Hellaciously Funny “Hand to God” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

It could be argued that few things in life are more worth having than a hearty laugh. If you’re partial to this school of thought, then “Hand to God,” playing now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through November 11th, could easily be the most rewarding thing you do this weekend.

Jason (Dean Linnard) is a nice young Christian boy who obeys his mother and the Bible. But everything goes to Hell – perhaps literally – when his hand puppet, “Tyrone,” takes on a startling personality of his own. Tyrone is the polar opposite of his meek and socially awkward puppeteer: loud and obnoxious, wildly vulgar, and jaw-droppingly crude.

What Jason’s mother Margery (Melissa Claire) at first mistakes as a harmless, albeit bizarre, vaudevillian routine soon proves to be something more sinister. Could her son’s unsettling puppet be possessed by the devil?

Linnard and puppet at work in “Hand to God”

Linnard’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. His uncanny ability to switch so convincingly between two diametrically opposed characters at lightning speed – all while effectively maneuvering his right-hand companion – makes it a little too easy to forget Tyrone is really just a puppet.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers…”

The caliber of Linnard’s performance would easily make him the standout if he weren’t on stage with such a talented group of actors. There is not a weak link in the bunch; their chemistry is excellent and their timing impeccable. The sheer absurdity of the subject matter is made only more hilarious by the intensity and physicality with which they bring it all to life.

Kraines and Claire at work at Left Edge Theatre

Claire is hysterical as Margery, an unraveling widow struggling to distract herself by teaching puppetry to unenthusiastic children in the local church’s basement. Carl Kraines is superb as Pastor Greg, earning as much pity as laughter for his awkward advances toward Margery.

Neil Thollander is a perfect fit for secretly sensitive, bad-boy Timmy, and Chandler Parrott-Thomas adds a touch of much-needed normalcy as Jessica. She surprises us in the end, however, with a heroic act of puppetry guaranteed to make audience members blush.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers craving something unconventional. Rife with clever dialogue and R-rated humor, the script explores some darker themes without compromising the explosive laughs, turning even the most shocking moments into serious fun. From puppet sex to pedophilia, playwright Robert Askins dares go where others won’t, and the result is thought-provoking comic gold.

Argo Thompson’s ingenious set transitions with ease from classroom to playground and from bedroom to office. His stage is a living entity all its own, much like the puppet it falls prey to in a memorably elaborate set change featuring decapitated Barbie dolls and bloody handprints. The scene plays like a childhood game of “Spot the Differences in These Two Pictures.” Be sure to take in all the thoughtful touches. If the devil is really in the details, Thompson, too, may be possessed.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is 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.

 

 

ProductionHand to God
Written byRobert Askins
Directed byChris Ginesi
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough November 11th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “The Addams Family – A New Musical” Dazzles at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

Charles Addams’s “altogether spooky” Addams Family has been deeply ingrained in American culture since the debut of the 1960s television sitcom—so deeply ingrained and so successful that it spawned an imitator TV series (“The Munsters”), at least two movies, and at least one musical. A tremendous version of this last venture runs through October 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

In the musical, the family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Pugsley, and their butler Lurch—are all as we recall them, but daughter Wednesday (Emma LeFever) has become a cranky self-directed teenager. Worse, she has fallen for a straight, normal boy, much to the dismay and disapproval of her family. This classic setup-with-a-twist is rife with conflict, exploited to the max in every scene, song, and dance.

“Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

Director Carl Jordan gets wonderful performances from the large cast, especially from Peter T. Downey as irrepressible patriarch Gomez, and from Serena Elize Flores as his slinky seductive wife Mortica. The frenetic Erik Weiss is his over-the-top best as Uncle Fester, also serving as the show’s narrator.

Serena Flores and Peter Downey as Mortica and Gomez – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Mario Herrera is a total surprise as Pugsley, Wednesday’s withdrawn younger brother. Herrera stuns when he steps out of the shadows for his big solo song. Cooper Bennet gives a very natural and sympathetic interpretation of the character of Lucas Beineke, Wednesday’s boyfriend. Larry Williams and Morgan Harrington are equally good as his parents Mal and Alice, with a couple of breakout moments of musical comedy.

Emma LeFever at work as Wednesday – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Elizabeth Bazzano’s and Eddy Hansen’s gorgeously ornate set occupies the entirety of the big stage, matched in its aspirations by Pamela J. Johnson’s costumes and Michella Snider’s choreography. In the cast are also a dozen or so “ancestors” (as they are called in the program)—a chorus of extras who embody spirits and other unworldly creatures associated with the Addams. They’re all very effective and mostly delightful to watch.

Lucas Sherman’s superb eleven-piece orchestra drives the show, most of it conveyed by beautifully delivered song.

The core conflict — Will Gomez and Mortica accept Wednesday’s love for a boy from the wrong side of the graveyard? — carries the first act aloft. It’s like watching a magnificent hot-air balloon rise to a great height—imagine the penultimate scene in “The Wizard of Oz”—while the second act is like watching that same balloon settle slowly back to earth, a rise-and-fall written into the script. Even if the ultimate settling doesn’t make you leave the theater with a song in your heart, in total “Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Addams Family – A New Musical
Written byWritten by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice

Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThru Oct. 28th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center

5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone707-588-3400
Tickets$18-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “You Mean to Do Me Harm” at San Francisco Playhouse – by Barry Willis

A seemingly innocuous statement made at a celebratory dinner party has unexpected ramifications in Christopher Chen’s “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” at San Francisco Playhouse through Nov. 3.

So does just about everything spoken or thought by the four characters in this baffling one-act workshopped last year as part of the Playhouse’s “Sandbox” series. Now given a full production in the company’s main theater, the piece opens strongly with two interracial couples meeting to celebrate an impending new job for Ben (Cassidy Brown), whose Chinese-American wife Samantha (Charisse Loriaux) was promoted over him at social-good non-profit. His new boss will be a Chinese-American named Daniel (Jomar Tagatac), whose spouse, Lindsay (Katie Rubin) is a corporate lawyer who briefly dated Ben in college.

A comment about a camping trip they took some ten years earlier opens a Pandora’s Box of florid and sometimes paranoid fantasies that impinge on every aspect of professional and interpersonal relationships. Racism—private/personal and historical/institutional—is a strong theme.

… The piece opens strongly …

Played out on an austere but imposing set by Angrette McClosky, the urbane banter of the four exposes character flaws and motivations that threaten the stability of their relationships. The job offer for Ben is inexplicably withdrawn. This launches a series of sketches that examine in detail both the outer and inner realities of all four characters.

Harm-Charisse Loriaux and Cassidy Brown as Samantha and Ben – Photo by Ken Levin

These sketches tend to be vicious—especially a shouting match between Ben and Lindsay—but there is one of the two women with a confessional/conspiratorial tone approaching friendship.

The sketch structure is both too little and too much for this 90-minute show: two little in that there are insufficient dramatic/character arcs and too much in the sense that each sketch could be expanded. It’s as if Chen has opened up his notebook and thrown everything onstage that these four characters could do with each other, without considering the ultimate trajectory of the play. The setup is compelling but dramatic development lacking: plenty of conflict, no resolution.

“You Mean to Do Me Harm” begins and ends abruptly and looks very much like an early-stage Netflix series in which each sketch could be developed into a full episode. Director Bill English and his expert cast try mightily to breathe life into it, but as an evening’s entertainment, it’s an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling bit of theater.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! — Delightful “Hello, Dolly” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Michael Stewart’s and Jerry Herman’s classic American musical “Hello, Dolly” is enjoying a delightful revival at Sonoma Arts Live in the town of Sonoma, through October 21.

Starring Dani Innocenti-Beem as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the widowed yenta suprema of New York City and environs, the show is a feel-good piece of Americana. In some ways “Dolly” is the companion piece to Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”—the two are set in the same era and share the sort of gentle humor that pokes fun at characters and circumstances without subjecting them to vicious ridicule.

Dani Innocenti-Beem at work as Dolly.

Dolly is the story’s fairy godmother character—she propels all the action with constant well-intended intervention in the affairs of others, but doesn’t have much of a character arc of her own. The lead role gives Innocenti-Beem many of the show’s best songs—including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By”—and most of its funny lines, at least a few of them ad-libs on the part of the irrepressibly funny actress-singer.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes…

The charming Tim Setzer shines in the role of Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy merchant in need of a wife. Dolly’s persuasive powers convince him that his quest will be fulfilled in New York, and when he goes into the city from Yonkers his two inept clerks Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Scott Wells and Lorenzo Alviso, respectively) follow him. In the city, the penniless fools pretend to be rich in the hope of meeting girls.

Much comic confusion ensues but thanks to Dolly they get their wish—a hat shop owner named Irene Molloy (Danielle DeBow) and her assistant Minnie (ScharyPearl Fugitt). So does Vandergelder, who ultimately lands not the widowed heiress he had anticipated, but the matchmaker herself.

The cast of “Hello Dolly” at work.

With a huge nineteen-member cast, the show is both romantic comedy with multiple couplings and a comedic free-for-all with plenty of big production numbers that may not do much to propel the plot but offer plenty of entertainment value. Late in the show, real-life husband-and-wife Wells and DeBow perform a sweet duet made more meaningful by their obvious love for each other. It’s a moment that will prompt tears from even the most cynical viewers.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes by Janis Snyder. Opening night was marred by technical glitches with the sound. We’ve been assured by multiple sources that these problems have been solved, and that the results are exemplary. Why this wasn’t done during technical rehearsals is a mystery, but it’s good to know that for the remainder of its run this show will be delivered at the high level it deserves.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “Oslo” a Tour-de-force at Marin Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Marin Theatre Company has extended through October 28 its stunning production of “Oslo,” directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis.

A west coast premiere of J.T. Rogers’s Tony Award winner, MTC’s production is an all-star effort revealing the backstory of 1993’s Oslo Accords that offered hope of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. In a heartbreaking coda, “Oslo” also brings that portentous development into the present, with a recitation of what became of those involved in the discussions, and of many tragic events that followed, scuttling the promise of the agreement.

It’s a consistently riveting drama despite its nearly three-hour length. Imagine a PBS historical mini-series compressed into one evening. The core story centers on Norwegian husband-and-wife team Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul (Mark Anderson Phillips and Erica Sullivan, both excellent), who work behind the scenes to get Israelis and Palestinians to begin talking. Rod-Larsen is an advocate of “gradualism,” getting representatives of the two sides to recognize their common humanity through personal small talk that later leads to serious negotiation.

Everything about this show is top-rung: script, performance, pacing, set, sound, lighting..

In the historically accurate retelling, Mona Juul is actually a member of the Norwegian foreign service, but Rod-Larsen has no official standing, and what they do has only the most reluctant approval from her top boss, Johan Jorgen Holst (Charles Shaw Robinson), all of it kept secret, especially from meddling Americans. The larger story is the tentative and contentious discussions, first between Palestine Liberation Organization officials Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas) and Hassan Asfour (Ashkon Devaran) and two Israeli economics professors, who have no official status.

PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas, left) speaks with Israeli Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul) while Norwegian mediators Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan) look on.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company

This segues into negotiations with real Israeli heavyweights, lawyer Joel Singer (Peter James Myers) and Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul), negotiations that range from friendly and familial to near-fistfights. Throughout it all, Rod-Larsen works to keep them all on track, exercising an incredible amount of self-control and diplomatic skill, an astounding job of acting by Phillips.

Erica Sullivan steps out of character at many points in the story to address the audience directly, describing what has happened between scenes or at locations unseen by the audience. She has rock-solid temperament throughout, both in and out of character.

Norwegian mediators Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan, left) and husband Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) speak with Israel and the PLO.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company

Veteran actress Marcia Pizzo appears in several roles, including as a member of the Norwegian diplomatic corps and as the sweetly beguiling Toril Grandpal, whose waffles seduce everyone at the negotiating table.

Sean Fanning’s deceptively simple set is perfect as the several locations in which the story plays out—a hotel in Oslo, offices in Tel Aviv and Tunis—with an unexpected reveal as a light snow storm through which Qurie and Savir stroll in a moment approaching friendship. Everything about this show is top-rung: script, performance, pacing, set, sound, lighting. Best of all is that it gives the audience plenty of substance to mull over in the days following a performance. “Oslo” is a show that should be on every serious theatergoer’s must-see list for the month of October.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

Production“How I Learned What I Learned”
Written byBy August Wilson
Directed byDirected by Margo Hall
Producing CompanyMarin Theater Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd.
Production AddressMarin Theater Co.
397 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone415.388.5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Sweet, Evocative “Detroit ‘67” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company has yet another winner on its hands with playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67,” extended through October 7.

A sad, sweet, and thought-provoking story set in Detroit during the riots and fires that engulfed that city in 1967, the Darryl V. Jones-directed play centers on sister and brother Chelle and Lank (Halili Knox and Rafael Jordan, respectively), who share a home left to them by hard-working parents.

As a way of earning extra money, they host dance parties in their basement, beautifully realized by scenic designer Richard Olmstead. The entire affair plays out in this basement, but the turmoil outside is almost constantly apparent. Much to Chelle’s annoyance, Lank has bigger plans than neighborhood parties. He wants to buy a bar in partnership with his friend Sly (Myers Clark), a desire thwarted at every turn by missed opportunities, bureaucratic obstacles, and brutal police. Chelle’s friend Bunny (Akilah A. Walker) spends plenty of time hanging out in the basement, dancing, flirting, and offering acerbic commentary on everything that transpires.

This perfectly-paced show is an exemplar of superb ensemble work…

Into the mix comes Caroline (Emily Radosevich), a white girl found wandering in the streets by Lank and Sly. She’s suffered a beating, and they let her recover in the basement, but her presence during incendiary racial circumstances raises the danger for all of them. Over the course of a few days, Chelle and Lank work to resolve their differences, Lank and Sly almost succeed with their business plan, and Caroline more-or-less recovers. The beautiful and flirtatious Bunny doesn’t contribute much to the advancement of the plot, but instead serves as an audience point-of-view character who anchors every scene she’s in.

From left, Halili Knox, Myers Clark, Emily Radosevich, Rafael Jordan and Akilah A.Walker at work in “Detroit ’67”

“Detroit ‘67” has been unfairly criticized for lacking original plot elements. To that, one might counter that there are precious few original plots—in fact, some script gurus insist that there are only a handful. Certainly, there’s plenty of familiarity in sibling disagreement and in two guys trying to start a business under adverse circumstances.

While the script could use a judicious edit, it’s totally believable, and gorgeously presented. This perfectly-paced show is an exemplar of superb ensemble work, plus some astounding sound design by Cliff Caruthers. There are moments of heartbreaking beauty—in particular, the closing scene where Chelle dances to a favorite Motown hit as the lights slowly fade. Live drama doesn’t get any more evocative than that.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theatre Review: Marvelous “Hedwig” by Ray of Light – by Barry WIllis

John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be the greatest rock musical ever conceived. No matter how you rank them, it’s certainly among the top five. Ray of Light has launched a really engaging production of this fantastic comedic redemption story about an East German rocker whose botched gender-reassignment surgery prompts personal and professional crises.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission district through October 6, the production features Coleton Schmitto in the lead role, with Maya Michal Sherer as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s aide-de-camp, fellow performer, and sometimes lover. Hedwig’s band, the Angry Inch—its name derived from what was left by Hedwig’s incompetent surgeon—includes Steven Bolinger on keyboard and guitar, Lysol Tony-Romeo on bass, Diogo Zavadzki on guitar, and David Walker on drums. The group is very well balanced and just loose enough to give this show a semi-inebriated improvisational feel.

…this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky…

Peet Cocke’s rough set perfectly complements the shabby old Victoria, giving it the air of both dive bar and low-budget arena. Schmitto dominates the stage throughout the non-stop ninety-minute show, spouting a litany of ironic one-liners and managing all of his character’s dance moves and gymnastics without being visibly hindered by stiletto heeled boots. Sherer scrambles to sing and draw projected transparencies at the same time. It’s quite a juggling act.

“Hedwig” with Coleton Schmitto.

The pair sing with power and conviction, although the sound on opening night was so unbalanced that during opening scenes, the bass and drums overwhelmed the vocals. This technical glitch was corrected later in the show and presumably won’t be an issue for the duration of its run. Stephen Trask’s music, of course, runs the gamut from incendiary punk (“Angry Inch”) to pop humor (“Sugar Daddy”) to deeply personal (“Wig in a Box”) to hauntingly sentimental (“The Origin of Love,” “Wicked Little Town”)—all of it beautifully performed.

Not an ultra-polished Broadway production, this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky, refined enough for musical theater elitists but grungy enough that cultists will come back for repeat performances. Hardcore fans will regret missing it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHedwig and The Angry Inch
Written byMusic: Stephen Trask.
Lyrics: Stephen Trask.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed bySailor Galaviz
Producing CompanyRay of Light Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th.
Production AddressVictoria Theatre
2961 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.rayof lighttheatre.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theater Review: Promising but Uneven “Demos Kratos Theatro” – by Barry WIllis

Political humor takes both expected and unexpected turns in Utopia Theatre Project’s “Demos Kratos Theatro,” at San Francisco’s PianoFight bar and theater, through October 6.

Its title Greek for “People Power Theater,” this collection of short plays and comedic sketches includes plenty of predictable anti-Trump/anti-Republican polemics. Musician Lauren Mayer appears repeatedly with songs whose lyrics are sometimes clever and sometimes entirely too obvious, such as “voter fraud is a fraud.”

There’s one piece, “Daughters of Ocean,” by Carol S. Lashof, that’s either too obscure or not quite fully developed, but two others are excellent, especially “The Polling Place,” Kenneth Heaton’s two-actor sketch ab